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of the King, including Enid, Vivien, Elaine, and Guinevere (1859); Enoch Arden (1864); four more of the Idylls, The Coming of Arthur, Holy Grail, Pelleas and Ettare, and The Passing of Arthur (1869); the drama Queen Mary (1875); the drama Harold (1877); the two-act tragedy The Cup (1881); the drama The Promise of May (1882); Becket and Tiresias and Other Poems (1885); Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (1886); Demeter and Other Poems (1889); The Foresters, a romantic play (1892). He was during the year of his death engaged upon poetic work which was published posthumously, The Death of Enone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems.
“I had no idea that there was a perfectly sensible poet in the world, entirely free from vanity, jealousy, or any other littleness, and thinking no more of himself than if he were an ordinary man," wrote Benjamin Jowett, after meeting Browning, and Jowett's testimony to the sanity and the sociability of Browning is borne out by many other of his contemporaries. Browning was said to be the most captivating conversationalist in Europe; “But,” said Mr. Freeman, "if a man can talk to be understood, why can't he write to be understood?” Freeman goes on to say that he found Browning much like other men, whereas he “had thought that his Comitatus, the Browning Society, would follow him everywhere to explain what he said.” Few poets present such a puzzling personality as Browning. Simple, genial, social, virile, and happy, as a man, even in his lifetime he had the doubtful compliment of a society formed for the sole purpose of studying and interpreting his poetry. As Dr. Johnson would, according to Goldsmith, have made little fishes talk like whales, so Browning, when he took pen in hand, seemed to lose the power of simple, direct expression. Yet, through the undoubted difficulties of his verse, the greatness of the poet has won a wider and wider circle of readers with the passing of the years.
Robert Browning was born at Camberwell, a suburb of London, May 7, 1812. His father, Robert Browning, was for fifty years a clerk in the consols dividend room of the Bank of England. By frugality he accumulated a moderate fortune with which he indulged a rare taste in literature and art, having a library of more than six thousand volumes and a modest collection of prints. The poet's mother, Sarah Anne Wiedemann, was the daughter of William Wiedemann, a shipowner of a German family which had originally come from Hamburg and settled in Dundee, Scotland. Carlyle once spoke of her as “the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman,” and Browning himself wrote, “She was a divine woman.”
As a youth Browning was left unusual freedom to follow his own inclinations. After receiving the rudiments of an education in a Peckham school near by until he was fourteen years old, he had no further regular school training. For a few years he had a tutor in French, and at the age of eighteen he attended some lectures in Greek at London University, but his acquisitive mind found plenty of occupation in his father's well-chosen library and plenty of occupation in scribbling verses to be carefully scrutinized and criticized by his father. He was a restless, nervous, vigorous, somewhat self-willed youth, but not at all inclined to disabuse the liberty allowed him at home. “It would have been quite unpardonable in my case,” he wrote in after years, “not to have done my best. My dear father put me in a condition most favourable for the best work I was capable of. When I think of the many authors who have had to fight their way through all sorts of difficulties, I have no reason to be proud of my achievement. My father secured for me all the ease and comfort which a literary man needs to do good work."
The only signs of precocity shown by Browning in his youth were his love for reading and his love for poetry, especially for writing poetry. In his reading he was especially fond of Quarles's Emblems, Walpole's Letters, the Letters of Junius, the works of the great Elizabethans, and Voltaire. Of modern poets, Byron, Shelley, and Keats were his favorites at first. At the age of twelve he gathered a number of his short poems into a volume called the Incondita, but was unable to find a publisher. His own first published poem was Pauline, issued anonymously in 1833 when he was twenty one years old. This poem showed markedly the influence of Shelley. In later years Browning regretted the publication of Pauline, tried to destroy all copies of it, and only consented to its republication in his collected poems when he realized that otherwise pirated editions would appear.
He had before this time definitely centered this ambitions upon a poetical career, declining to consider a business or professional training. Again we must pay tribute to the wisdom of his father who not only did not thwart his ambitions but encouraged them. The father's aid made travel and experience possible for the poet at a time when these were most essential for his mental and spiritual development. In the winter of 1833 he visited in St. Petersburg, and in the spring of 1834 he made his first trip to Italy, staying at Venice and Asolo. He was writing all the time during these months. Certain of his dramatic lyrics — notably Johannes Agricola and Porphyria's Lover appeared during 1834 in a magazine, and his first great dramatic poem, Paracelsus, in book form over his own name in 1835. Upon its appearance John Forster, in an article entitled "Evidences of a New Genius for Dramatic Poetry,” heralded Browning as worthy to rank with Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth: “He has entitled himself to a place among the acknowledged poets of the age,” but Paracelsus did not gain a wide popularity. We find in the poem the subtle analysis of character and motive and the passages of lyric beauty and power which distinguish the best of his later work, but his subject was too far removed from the familiar knowledge of his own time and the style was not calculated to attract the general reader. Its moderate success enlarged his acquaintance among a select circle of literary men, however, so that he met such men as Horne, Hunt, Carlyle, Forster, Macready, Talfourd, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Landor. And it is interesting to read in Harriet Martineau's Autobiography: “Mr. Macready put Paracelsus into my hand, when I was staying at his house; and I read a canto before going to bed. For the first time in my life, I passed a whole night without sleeping a wink.”
For one of these new friends, the famous actor and manager Macready, Browning undertook his next literary work, the play Strafford. This was produced in 1837 with fair success. Browning was encouraged to try his hand at the drama again, producing King Victor and King Charles (1842), The Return of the Druses and A Blot in the 'Scutheon (1843), Colombe's Birthday (1844). Luria and A Soul's Tragedy (1846). His writing of dramas ceased, however, after an unfortunate quarrel with Macready over the performance of A Blot in the 'Scutcheon in 1843, and after the merely moderate success of his plays. Truth to say, the stage was not the proper medium for Browning's genius. Although the plays have occasional clear and forcible situations and abound in passages of high poetic merit, the long and intricate analyses of morals and motives are too apt to weary the average audience.
After the publication of Paracelsus in 1835 and the favorable comment excited by his play Strafford, two years later, Browning was well on the way to literary eminence, but his friends and admirers were confounded by the publication in 1840 of his Sordello. The tales of its effect upon its contemporaries illustrate humorously the difficulties which remain until the present day. Tennyson remarked that he understood only the first and last lines, — "Who will, may hear Sordello's story told,” and “Who would, has heard Sordello's story told,” — and they were both lies. Harriet Martineau wrote: “The unbounded expectation I formed from that poem (Paracelsus] was sadly disappointed when Sordello came out. I was so wholly unable to understand it that I supposed myself ill.” Douglas Jerrold, convalescing from an illness, tried to read it; a few lines alarmed him; “sentence after sentence brought no constructive thought to his brain. ... The perspiration rolled from his forehead, and smiting his head, he sat down on his sofa, crying, 'O God, I am an idiot!"" The obscurity of Sordello is due largely to the ruthless excision of connectives and the consequent jamming together of the main words of the thought. The reader's attention is too severely tasked to fill the gaps which occur in the grammatical constructions page after page. The undoubted beauties of many passages are lost by the great difficulty of following consecutively the story of the poem. Browning in his poetry, we can say thankfully, never again approached the obscurity in Sordello.
His next poetical works appeared in a series of cheap pamphlets between 1841 and 1846. Moxon, the publisher, informed Browning that he was bringing out editions of the Elizabethan dramatists in a cheap form and that the same cheap type could be used for some of the poet's work if so desired. Browning gladly seized the opportunity, and during these five years eight sixpenny brochures in yellow paper covers appeared under the title Bells and Pomegranates, indicating (he said) “alternation of poetry and thought.” In addition to his dramas before mentioned, some of his most striking shorter poems appeared in the series, including Pippa Passes, a number of lyrics now grouped under Dramatic Lyrics and Dramatic Romances in editions of Browning (as Cavalier Tunes, Incident of the French Camp, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, The Laboratory, Cristina, The Flight of the Duchess, The Statue and the Bust, etc.). These poems represent the height of the peculiar type of poetry in which Browning stands unrivaled. Once read, they fix themselves in the mind as the most forcible expression of their respective moods. They are essentially dramatic in situation and are expressed with a strength and originality that should have drawn the eyes of all contemporaries to them. Perhaps the reason they did not succeed notably lay in the influence of Sordello, which still lay as a weight over Browning's early admirers.
A more important result of the publication of Bells and Pomegranates than its failure to win popular applause was the introduction it brought to Elizabeth Barrett. This great romantic crisis in Browning's life he met with the courage that he breathed through all his poems. Miss Barrett was an invalid, tenderly devoted to a narrow-minded father, who through the successive years of her illness had gradually come to resent even the idea of her return to health. The robust Browning, after a correspondence, met and loved Miss Barrett. The impossibility of gaining her father's consent to marriage was evident, and even Miss Barrett herself could not at first dream of such a consummation:“There is nothing to see in me, nothing to hear in me,” she wrote to Browning; “I am a weed fit for the ground and darkness.” The crisis came when, in the fall of 1846, Mr. Barrett refused to allow his daughter to go to Italy, the only course which, according to the physician, promised any improvement for her health. In the face of this attitude, much against his will Browning planned an elopement and a clandestine marriage, to which he gained Miss Barrett's consent. They were married secretly September 12, and a week later she stole away from the Barrett home, joined Browning, and went to Italy for the winter. Mr. Barrett never forgave his daughter, but in Italy she recovered a measure of health she had not thought possible. The married life of the couple was one of almost ideal happiness.
Browning's life henceforward is not marked by any outward incident of importance. For fifteen years he and his wife lived most of the time in Italy, making their home in the Casa Guidi in Florence, and living the quiet, secluded life necessary for the maintenance of Mrs. Browning's fragile health. June 29, 1861, she died there, and Browning was completely crushed by her loss. He never again returned to the city of Florence.
His poetical production during these years in Italy was comparatively small — Christmas Eve and Easter Day in 1850, and Men and Women, containing much of his best work, in 1855. After his wife's death he settled in London and resumed his writing, publishing Dramatis Personæ in 1864 and The Ring and the Book in the winter of 1868–69. The Ring and the Book is regarded as his masterpiece. In audacity of idea and skill of execution it marks the height of Browning's originality. Mrs. Orr narrates the source of the poem: “Mr. Browning was strolling one day through a square in Florence, the Piazza San Lorenzo, which is a standing market for old clothes, old furniture, and old curiosities of every kind, when a parchment-covered book attracted his eye, from amidst the artistic or nondescript rubbish of one of the stalls. It was a record of a murder which had taken place in Rome. ... The book proved, on examination, to contain the whole history of the case, as carried on in writing, after the fashion of those days; pleadings and counter-pleadings, the depositions of defendants and witnesses; manuscript letters announcing the execution of the murderer; and the ‘instrument of the Definitive Sentence' which established the perfect innocence of the murdered wife: those various documents having been collected and bound together by some person interested in the trial. ... Mr. Browning bought the whole for the value of eightpence, and it became the raw material of what appeared four years later as The Ring and the Book.” All the skill of the mental and moral analyst is exerted to dissect the motives, arguments, and gossip in the case, and the power and imagination of the poet are combined to give a vivid picture of the persons and the environment.
His increasing fame was recognized by the honors that fell to him thick and fast. In 1867, Oxford gave him its M.A. degree and Balliol elected him a fellow; in 1868 and 1884, he refused the proffered rectorship of St. Andrews; in 1879, Cambridge conferred upon him the LL.D.; in 1881, the Browning Society was founded by Dr. Furnivall; in 1882, Oxford honored him with the D.C.L. degree, and in 1884, Edinburgh with the LL.D.; and in 1886 he was appointed foreign correspondent for the Royal Academy. His circle of friends widened to include all the noted men of his time and he exerted himself to be socially agreeable.
Browning continued to write almost to the very end of his life, his work always original and forceful, although his later poems show only in patches the marvelous imaginative grasp and insight of his earlier. In the seventies he published a group of poems adapted from Greek originals, Balaustion's Adventure (1871), Aristophanes' Apology (1875), and The Agamemnon of Æschylus (1877). In 1879 he published the first series of the Dramatic Idylls, and a year later the second series; in 1884 he issued Ferishtah's Fancies; in 1887, Parleyings with Certain People of Importance.
Browning died at his son's house in Venice, December 12, 1889, from heart failure following a bronchial attack. He was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, December 31. A verse from the Epilogue to Asolando expresses better than can another's words the courage with which he had faced the stress of life.
One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Sleep to wake.
said, as he perused the lines: “It almost looks like bragging to say this, and as if I ought to cancel it; but it's the simple truth; and as it's truth, it shall stand.”