- Clyde de L. Ryals
Robert Browning (1812–1889)
Browning, Robert (1812–1889), poet, was born on 7 May 1812 in Camberwell, London, the first of the two children of Robert Browning (1782–1866) and his wife, Sarah Anna, née Wiedemann (1772–1849).
Ancestry, childhood, and adolescence
Robert Browning's grandfather, also called Robert Browning (1749–1833), was of Dorset yeoman stock, and moved to London at the age of twenty. He eventually rose to a prominent position in the Bank of England, and married Margaret Tittle (1754–1789) who came from a family of some wealth emanating from the West Indies. The couple had a son, Robert, the father of the poet. After the death of his first wife, Browning's grandfather married a younger woman, with whom he had nine children. There was soon conflict between his first son and his new wife, and Browning's father was sent to the West Indies to work on a sugar plantation. Revolted by the slavery there, he soon returned to England and found employment as a clerk in the Bank of England, where he remained until 1852.
In 1811 Browning's father married Sarah Anna Wiedemann. She was ten years his senior, and came from a middle-class family originally from Dundee, which had settled in Camberwell, where the pair took a cottage. It was there that Robert Browning was born, and his birth was followed by that of his sister, Sarianna Browning (1814–1903).
By all testimony Robert Browning was a precocious child who insisted on showing off. He learned to read at an early age and from his largely self-taught cultivated parents he gained a love of music and classical literature. He seems to have attended a local dame school at the age of five but, owing to his superior knowledge, was sent home to avoid embarrassing the older boys. At seven he began at the Misses Readys' weekly boarding-school in nearby Peckham, where he was both lonely and bored; and then at about ten he moved to the tutelage of the Misses Readys' brother, the Revd Thomas Martin Ready, master of Peckham School, where again he believed that he was taught nothing. It was at home during weekends that his real education took place. His father helped him with Latin declensions by turning them into rhymes, encouraging him in Greek literature, and teaching him to draw and appreciate pictures at the nearby Dulwich Picture Gallery. His mother instructed him in the names of flowers, taught him to play the piano (at which she was quite talented), and encouraged him in the love of music. At home the four Brownings proved an extraordinarily close-knit family. Robert Browning left Peckham School at fourteen, and for the next two years, from 1826 to 1828, was tutored at home, primarily with the aim of making him a gentleman. It was, however, mostly from his eclectic reading in his father's library that Browning gained the wide-ranging erudition later manifested in his poetry.
As for verse, Browning had begun making rhymes as soon as he could talk. Although he was familiar with Shakespeare from earliest childhood, some of his earliest lines were in imitation of Macpherson's Ossian, whence he moved on to the English Romantics. His earliest poems, however, he destroyed. His parents were impressed by a collection of verse of somewhat later date and modestly entitled 'Incondita', and they unsuccessfully looked for a publisher. Only two poems, dating from his fourteenth year, survive: 'The Dance of Death', modelled on a poem of republican sympathies by Coleridge, and 'The First-Born of Egypt', demonstrating the influence of Byron, whose rebellious attitudes and dandiacal attitudes the young Browning found worthy of imitation in life as well as in verse.
After the imitative pieces of 'Incondita' Browning seems to have ceased writing poetry for five or six years, music becoming his chief means for finding expression, although he continued to regard the poet's calling as pre-eminent. Byron's influence on him began to wane at this time, and was replaced by that of Shelley, whom Browning found far less egotistic and cynical. Late in 1826 or in 1827 Browning's maternal cousin James Silverthorne gave him a copy of Shelley's Miscellaneous Poems (1826), in which he found set forth his own dreams and aspirations with a startlingly fresh beauty. Wanting to have more of the poet's work, he persuaded his pious mother to purchase for him the works of an evangelizing atheist. Reading them voraciously, Browning soon became an atheist and a vegetarian, and for the next few years 'Shelley was his God' (Domett, 141).
Fired with Shelley's beliefs and Byron's dandyism, the young Browning acted in such ways as to distress his parents, whom he felt did not appreciate him. Seeking to widen his acquaintance, he began calling regularly on the artistic, older Flower sisters. Eliza, a talented musician, may have given Robert music lessons, and, idolizing her, he composed a stream of verses and letters to her. Sarah was a poet also interested in the theatre. Together they probably exerted the greatest influence on Browning's adolescence, serving as models of artistic activity and providing him with a sentimental education. The young man, however, also had an influence on them, especially on Sarah, who wrote in November 1827 to her spiritual confessor that Robert had unsettled her religious beliefs.
To help in finding a publisher for Browning's 'Incondita', Eliza showed the poems to William Johnson Fox, a famed Unitarian minister and journalist of compelling personality. Liking them, but recognizing their derivative nature, Fox praised them in person to the young poet but advised against their publication, probably because of their extensive debt to Byron, and it may have been through Fox that the young poet disavowed Byron's great influence over himself and destroyed all copies of 'Incondita'. In any case, Browning acknowledged Fox as his 'literary father' (Orr, Life, 43).
Following his two years of tutoring at home, Browning entered the newly founded University of London. His father had earlier subscribed £100 towards its foundation and this allowed him, as one of the ‘proprietors’, the right to free tuition for his nominee. In April 1828 the elder Browning applied for admission for his son, who was accepted. Robert, settled into a rooming-house in or near Bedford Square, began his classes in German, Greek, and Latin in late October. He was disappointed from the beginning, finding student life drab and the lectures for the most part perfunctory. He soon withdrew from his student lodging and went home to live while continuing his classes. At the end of the academic year he withdrew from the university.
The question then arose as to how the boy of seventeen was to make a living. His father had hoped that by attending the university he might qualify for the bar, but Browning expressed contempt for the legal profession. His father then suggested the medical profession, but although he visited Guy's Hospital, Browning's interest in medicine was merely that of the detached observer. What he undertook then was study with no goal in view, following an unsystematic course of reading in his father's library. As he was later to say, '[B]y the indulgence of my father and mother, I was allowed to live my own life and choose my own course in it' (Orr, Life, 378).
The years from 1829 to 1833 are the least-known period in Browning's life. What is known is that he continued his self-education. He read widely in European culture in his father's library, the diverse subject matter that he hoped to master proving unending. The result was that Browning became, with the possible exception of Milton, the most learned of the great English poets. But more important than his gain of general knowledge during this period was his discovery of a philosophy far different from that of Shelley, which he had hitherto followed so devotedly.
What Browning perceived was that there is no stable centre of selfhood accessible to the thinking subject. The subject, he learned, is accessible only obliquely, not in the continuity of its self-consciousness but in the discontinuity of its shifting forms. And following this perception, he saw that truth and meaning are not fixed but, instead, are always becoming. Further, he saw that the questions posed determine to no small degree the answers reached, and that the angle of view limits visions of the whole. This apprehension caused Browning to conclude that not enough questions or enough points of view can ever be asked to gain a complete, encompassing overview of any matter. At best, one gains approximations of the truth which are always subject to better formulations. Absolute truth, then, is never present in the phenomenal world, although informing it. It was with such newly gained belief that he recoiled from Shelley's mythopoeic, visionary expressions about a world that can be redeemed by poets who are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
Early published poetry
Yet it was not easy to break with Shelley. Browning's first act of exorcism occurred in Pauline; a Fragment of a Confession, composed late in 1832 and published anonymously by the firm of Saunders and Otley in March 1833, with the subsidy of £30 offered by a maternal aunt. In a kind of poetic autobiography, the speaker looks back over his past life in which he had deserted Pauline (who may have been inspired by Eliza Flower) and had foregone his inherited religious faith under the influence of the Sun-treader (Shelley). At the end, expressing a willingness to submit to the world of limitations and not seek hereafter for a world in which he will know all, he embraces God, Pauline, and the Sun-treader. Yet in the final verse paragraph it becomes clear that the poet's betrayal of Shelley the Sun-treader is a greater source of remorse than his forswearing of his traditional religious faith. Reviews of Pauline were mixed, W. J. Fox praising it and others despising it as unintelligible.
In February 1834 Browning took his first trip abroad: to St Petersburg at the invitation of the Russian consul-general to accompany him there. Browning was so fascinated by court life on this occasion that for a brief period he considered a diplomatic career. On his return to London he met in summer 1834 a young Frenchman, Count Amédée de Ripert-Monclar (1807–1871), an aristocrat who loved art and literature and was in close touch with the cultural life of France. They became close friends, and their friendship lasted until the 1840s, when they seem to have drifted apart. Monclar was an important influence on Browning in many ways, and he even seems to have influenced Browning's poetic development, in that he was to suggest Paracelsus as the subject for an extended piece of verse (Orr, Life, 72).
Browning began this poem early in October 1834, and completed it in mid-March 1835. His father bore the expense of publication, and Paracelsus was published anonymously on 15 August 1835. Although its format is that of a play—it was divided into five scenes and contained four characters—the author claims in the preface that it is not a drama nor a dramatic poem, but that each scene presents Paracelsus at a critical moment of his inner life in which he is brought by an articulation of his 'mood' to new insights. In effect, the five scenes are five monologues, in the first of which Paracelsus begins as a Shelleyan visionary whose role is to encounter the divine and reveal the results to mankind. At the close he comprehends how his pursuit was misconceived, for he learns that the noumenal, even if partially touched by means of language, cannot be communicated to others through the phenomenal, which is language. The reviews of the poem were largely favourable, although the work did not gain the author a great deal of money. For a number of years thereafter the title-pages of Browning's new works bore the legend 'By the Author of Paracelsus'.
In the mid-1830s Browning was introduced to a number of literary figures through the agency of W. J. Fox. Although some of them (like Thomas Carlyle) found his dandyism in dress and manner off-putting, they soon discerned beneath the foppish surface a serious though ironic personality. In May 1836 Browning attended a supper at which he was toasted by Francis Talfourd, the host, Walter Savage Landor, and Wordsworth. Of most immediate importance, however, was the fact that William Charles Macready, the actor and producer of plays, asked the young poet to write a play for him.
Browning's Strafford was produced at Covent Garden on 1 May 1837, after some conflict with Macready and John Forster over its nature as a play. In the end, it ran for only five performances. It was not well received—apparently because, as the author said in the preface to the published play, his aim was 'Action in Character rather than Character in Action'. Following his disappointment with the reception of Strafford, Browning visited Paris and in spring 1838 made a three-month tour of Europe. For the previous four or five years he had been working on a long poem devoted to the Italian troubadour Sordello, but he was so taken with Italy that he was unable to finish the poem among the scenes described in it. Sordello was not published until March 1840, again at the expense of his father.
Browning's conception of the poem had changed several times and his intractable materials could not be fused into a harmonious union. But to the poet this was no drawback, for, in his opinion, conventional formal unity and logical coherence were attributes merely of poetry of the past. His aim was to be one of the
setters-forth of unexampled themes,Makers of quite new men.
Sordello, 1.26–7This is why his speaker bids Shelley depart early on so that his poem, finally of approximately 5800 lines of rhymed couplets, can get down to business. Speaking in his own voice, the poet admits to a new kind of narrative presentation and to a new kind of genre (which mixed many genres). One of the chief characteristics of the poem that gives it its distinctive voice is parabasis: that is, the presence of digressions in which the author addresses the audience on personal or topical matters. After devoting six books often relating in a roundabout way to Sordello, in the end the narrator suggests that the real subject was not Sordello but rather the poet himself and his efforts to write the poem. Carefully ordered but appearing unstructured, purportedly historical but in fact deeply personal, generically indeterminate and stylistically complex, Sordello is unique in literary history.
Bells and Pomegranates
Browning believed that Sordello would make his reputation, but for the next two decades it had the opposite effect, as its critical reception was almost universally condemnatory. The poem 'became notorious for its obscurity', partly because Browning unreasonably assumed that his readers would be familiar with the thirteenth-century Italian history that was key to its narrative structure. Even Elizabeth Barrett, who was soon publicly to praise the young poet's work, had difficulty with Sordello, and the confusion prevailed well into the modern era, with only Ezra Pound finding the poem 'a model of lucidity', and consequently being 'probably the only person who has ever seriously claimed to have understood Sordello' (Poems, 1.1040). Certainly in his own time, the work damaged the young poet's standing, and his publisher, Edward Moxon, attempted to redeem Browning's reputation (as well as his own), with the suggestion that his next poetry be printed in a series of inexpensive paper-bound pamphlets, the cost to be borne by Browning's ever supportive father. Browning agreed and chose the general title Bells and Pomegranates hoping by this title to 'indicate an endeavour towards something like an alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought; which looks too ambitious, thus expressed, so the symbol was preferred' (ibid., 1.1069). The eight pamphlets were to contain seven plays and two collections of poems and were published between April 1841 and April 1846.
Pippa Passes (April 1841), the first number, contests Romantic notions of poetry as lyric effusion, a view summed up and advocated by J. S. Mill in two essays in 1833 in which he maintained that the greatest poetry is by nature soliloquy, not heard but overheard. In Pippa Passes, Browning presents a heroine whose key mode of utterance is lyric poetry overheard by others. The innocence and religiosity of Pippa's song which is inadvertently overheard by the various characters is crucial. As she sings famously at the beginning of the poem:
God's in his heaven—All's right with the world!
But all is emphatically not right in the world of Pippa Passes, and the overheard lyric acts as a commentary on the auditors' situations, and acts on the characters to great effect, causing significant changes in their viewpoints and actions. In working out the implications of this mode of poetic utterance Browning showed that the poet has a dialogic relationship with the audience and a responsibility from which he or she cannot escape. In effect, in the four scenes Browning shows how poetry is theatre, or performance, before an interactive audience.
The next pamphlet and four more of them were plays, which Browning designed for stage production. The only one produced, by Macready against his better judgement, was A Blot in the 'Scutcheon. Presented in February 1843, it was withdrawn after three performances, at which point Browning's break with Macready was complete and so, effectively, were his hopes for the stage. The plays offer little plot and almost no action, their interest (as in Strafford) centring on action in character rather than character in action. The root conception of Browning's plays lies in the conflict between love and duty, or love and power, which is for the most part worked out within a political situation. However interesting to Browning, this was far from being the primary focus that theatregoers expected.
Pamphlets three and seven—Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845)—contain some of Browning's best-known poems, such as 'My Last Duchess', 'Porphyria's Lover', and 'The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St Praxed's Church'. These are dramatic monologues (called by the poet dramatic lyrics or dramatic romances), which take the form of narratives told in the first person by a carefully characterized narrator who, so distanced, is understood to be distinct from the poet. Browning's achievement in grounding these narrators in their historical milieu was memorably praised in Modern Painters by Ruskin, who commented that in 'The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St Praxed's Church', Browning had put 'nearly all that I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of the Stones of Venice into as many lines' (Poems, 1.1093). The narrator in one of Browning's dramatic monologues usually speaks to an auditor within the poem, and inadvertently reveals his true nature to the reader through his words. The monologues internalize plot and deal with an interior conflict of which the speaker is frequently not consciously aware. As Browning said in the preface to Dramatic Lyrics, the poems in this genre are 'for the most part Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine'. In other words, the utterance by the fictitious speaker is lyric to the degree that it is expressive of self, and dramatic to the degree that it is suggestive of conflicting motives and tendencies. The dramatic monologue became the chief genre that Browning employed and experimented with for the remainder of his career, and in large part because of his skilful manipulation of its peculiar characteristics, it became one of the dominant genres employed by poets over the following century. Recognizing his young friend's amazing achievement, Walter Savage Landor published a poem in November 1845 attesting to Browning's majority, as having become a name to be listed, along with those of Chaucer and Shakespeare, among the greatest English writers.
Marriage and early life in Italy
Another poet, whom Browning had recently come to know, was equally enthusiastic. Elizabeth Barrett [see Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861)], among the most famous poets of the day, had praised Browning's poetry in a journal article in 1842 and in one of her poems published in 1844. Browning was full of gratitude, and posted a letter to her on 10 January 1845 telling her that 'I love your verse with all my heart … and I love you too' (Brownings' Correspondence, 10.17). She replied the next day thanking him for his letter and proclaiming herself 'a devout admirer & student' of his works (ibid., 10.19). Thereafter they began to exchange letters every few days.
Elizabeth Barrett fended off Browning's requests to visit her for some time, as she feared his reaction on seeing an ageing invalid some six years his senior confined to a sofa. But he persisted, and she finally allowed him to come to 50 Wimpole Street on 20 May 1845. He fell in love with her almost at first sight, as he told her in his letters. For her part, she could not believe that someone could love a seemingly incurable invalid and was also terrified that her tyrannical father, who had forbidden his children to marry, would learn about her admirer. But after many letters and visits, she was ready to declare her love for him in forthright terms in November 1845, although she told none of her friends or family. When, however, her father became suspicious of Robert's visits, she came to recognize her father as a despotic egoist and agreed to discuss the possibility of marriage.
One obstacle to marriage was money. Browning was completely dependent financially on his parents, but Elizabeth had inherited a fortune that yielded about £350 annually. Browning would not hear of taking any money from her and for a time considered several careers that he might take up. At last the money question was settled when he agreed that they would live on her income in Italy, where they proposed to go in part because of southern benefits for her health. He was adamant, however, that she must write a will bequeathing her property to her brothers and sisters.
The couple were married in St Marylebone Church on 12 September 1846 in the presence of two witnesses, Browning's cousin James Silverthorne and Elizabeth's maid, Wilson. Elizabeth returned home alone, with Robert not visiting her for the next few days. On 19 September the pair, joined by Wilson and Elizabeth's dog, Flush, fled to Paris, where they rested for several days; thence to Avignon and Marseilles; thence by ship to Leghorn; and finally by train to Pisa, where they arrived on 14 October.
In Pisa the Brownings found an apartment and settled in for winter 1846–7. Elizabeth's health immediately improved, but in March she suffered a miscarriage, which caused them both much grief. In mid-April they set out on a tour of northern Italy, and although they had intended to return to Pisa, they were so smitten by Florence that they decided to move there. They found an unfurnished apartment in Casa Guidi, opposite the Pitti Palace and a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio, and for the next thirteen years this was their home. They were so happy with their active life in Florence that for the next two years Browning devoted little time to writing. Their main interest during 1848–9 was the revolutionary fervour being manifested all over the continent. They had both espoused the Italian nationalist cause while in England, and now in Italy they became enthusiastic partisans of Italian liberty. They remained united in espousing the cause even after it began to fail in spring 1849. This is more than can be said for their views on Louis Napoleon's later coup d'état—Elizabeth saw it as an unfortunate necessity, but Browning detested the action. Admirably suited though they were in so many other ways, their differences on this particular political issue continued for the rest of their married life.
Amid all the military activity Elizabeth was pregnant, and gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning (soon called Pen), on 9 March 1849. Browning was delighted, yet his joy was diminished a few days later by letters from his sister announcing their mother's illness and then her death. To escape from his continuing sadness, the Brownings went to Bagni di Lucca. Yet Browning's despondency persisted, aggravated by his having nothing to do. Elizabeth showed him for the first time her Sonnets from the Portuguese, to be published in 1850, poems that she had written to him during their courtship. He was greatly appreciative, yet ashamed that he himself had written almost nothing. He had, however, published in two volumes with his new publishers, Chapman and Hall (Moxon being judged too slow), the first collection of his works, excluding the unfavourably received Pauline, Strafford, and Sordello.
Late in 1849 Browning began a new work, which he published as Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day the following spring. 'Christmas-Eve' is the dramatic narrative of a speaker in London on Christmas eve 1849 who enters a dissenting chapel to escape the rain. Therein he falls asleep and envisions several kinds of religious observance on that date, ending up with the belief that what he had regarded as absolute religious truth was truth only to him and that other modes of worship, other than his own dissenting one, have their own validity. While 'Christmas-Eve' is a monologue, 'Easter-Day' is the first of Browning's ‘parleyings’, a dialogue in which the poet divides himself up into two voices to express, through relation of a visionary experience in the past that may or may not be valid, how belief in the supremacy of the infinite resides in the perception of the infinite through the finite. The volume was respectfully but not widely reviewed, and after 200 copies had been sold within a fortnight of publication, the rest were remaindered, and were still being sold in the 1860s. On the other hand, Elizabeth, who was proposed by several journals to succeed Wordsworth as poet laureate on his death on 23 April 1850, had a new edition of her Poems in two volumes published in the autumn that received many reviews and enjoyed good sales.
Travels outside Italy, 1851–1852
In July 1850 Elizabeth suffered her fourth miscarriage, in the course of which she lost a large amount of blood. At her doctor's suggestion the Brownings rented a villa above Siena until November. By 1850 they had established an interesting circle of friends among the foreigners in Italy, mainly Englishmen and Americans. Yet by 1851, for all the liveliness of Florence, there remained the attraction of England and the friends and relatives whom they had not seen in almost five years. And so they returned for a visit, landing in London on 22 July 1851. They rented a house on Devonshire Street, within walking distance of the Barretts' home. Elizabeth and the baby called on her sisters and brothers when their father was out, while Browning spent long hours with his father and sister at New Cross, another suburb south of the Thames where the Brownings had lived since 1840. They also saw many old friends, and called on the Carlyles. John Kenyon, Elizabeth's relation who had supplemented her income by the gift of £100 annually after Pen was born, visited them frequently during their stay. Because of the Great Exhibition everything about London seemed lively, and they hated leaving.
But late in September, accompanied by Carlyle, the Brownings travelled to Paris, where they found lodgings on the Champs Elysées. They met a number of French literary figures, including George Sand, by whom Browning was appalled. More importantly, they met Joseph Milsand, a native of Dijon who had recently published a perceptive and laudatory article on Browning's poetry. Browning soon came to rely on Milsand's judgement, eventually even sending him proof sheets of his work for final revision before publication.
While in Paris, Browning was commissioned by Edward Moxon to write a preface to some letters by Shelley that he had purchased and proposed to publish. The 'Essay on Shelley', as it has come to be known, is Browning's major critical document. He had published another piece anonymously, on Thomas Chatterton, in 1842 in John Forster's Foreign Quarterly Review, but the essay on Shelley is far more important. In it Browning contrasts the 'objective' and 'subjective' poets. The objective poet is the 'fashioner', with the work so fashioned 'substantive, projected from himself and distinct'. The subjective poet, by contrast, is the 'seer', with the work produced an 'effluence' that 'cannot be easily considered in abstraction from his personality' (Browning, Essay on Shelley, in Poems, 1.1001–2). Browning demonstrates that in cyclically alternating periods one or the other type of poet is dominant, and places Shelley firmly in the 'subjective' camp. The essay in part attempts to deal with the overwhelming legacy of the Romantics, and to articulate a useful role for the nineteenth-century poet. In support of this, Browning accords the objective poet at least equal status to the subjective by naming Shakespeare as its chief example. Ultimately, however, he maintains that there is no reason why the two modes of poetic faculty might not be combined into 'the whole poet' who fully displays the objective and subjective modes. Evidently, this was the kind of poet that Browning conceived himself to be. The collection of letters was published early in 1852, but the letters were soon discovered to be spurious and the book was suppressed.
The Brownings spent summer 1852 in London. Robert went there first because of a breach of promise and defamation of character suit that had been brought against his father by a widow to whom he had offered and then withdrawn a proposal of marriage. She won the suit, the court's judgment awarding her £800 in damages. Browning found his father and sister in deep depression, and to help them escape paying the damages he accompanied them to Paris in mid-July and saw them settled in an apartment. Later in July he and Elizabeth went to London, where they again saw old friends, met new ones, and cemented their friendship with the Tennysons, whom they had met in Paris the previous summer. They departed for Paris in October and by mid-November 1852 were home in Florence.
Life in Italy, 1853–1855, and Men and Women (1855)
Winter 1852–3 passed pleasantly. In summer 1853 the Brownings were again in Bagni di Lucca, where they re-encountered William Wetmore Story, an American sculptor, and his family, whom they had first met in 1848. The Storys, who by and large alternated between Rome and Florence, were highly cultivated and interesting people and were among the closest friends the Brownings made in Italy. In October, after many mutual visits in Bagni, both families returned to Florence and the next month went on to Rome, where the Storys arranged lodgings for the Brownings, and introduced then to interesting foreign circles. But Rome proved expensive, and tragically the Storys' son died. Their daughter also fell ill, and Pen was struck by the same disease; by late spring the Brownings gave up on Rome.
By early June 1854 the Brownings were back in Florence, where, settled into a more orderly routine, both set diligently to work. Robert had a certain stock of poems on hand to which he intended to add. Elizabeth continued to suffer from chest pains, however, and Browning was often in attendance on her as a result. In spite of this, he had managed to compose some 8000 lines of verse by June 1855. Rumours of cholera in a nearby neighbourhood meant that they left Florence soon after their return.
On 24 June the Brownings took an apartment in Paris in the same building where Robert's father and sister lived. On 12 July they were back in London, settled into an apartment not far from Wimpole Street. In Paris they had made possible the marriage of the maid, Wilson, who was pregnant, to their manservant, Ferdinando Romagnoli; and while in London they sent Wilson north to her family for her confinement, leaving Ferdinando responsible for household chores and (warily) for Pen. They again visited many friends and relatives. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, long an admirer, drew Browning's portrait, and hosted a soirée during which Browning and Tennyson each read one of their poems to the guests. Browning and Elizabeth also attended a séance held by the famous American spiritualist Daniel Dunglas Hume, at which she was thrilled and he disgusted, and not reluctant to show his feelings.
Browning took the manuscript of his fifty poems to Chapman and Hall soon after he arrived, and it was decided that it should be published in two volumes. In September he added another poem, 'One Word More', and before the end of the month he was reading proofs. In October he and Elizabeth retired to Paris to await publication on 10 November.
The title of Men and Women probably derived from the twenty-sixth poem in Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), which states:
I lived with visions for my companyInstead of men and women, years ago.
The subject matter of the volume centres on love, art, and religion, and contains some of Browning's best-known poems, such as 'Fra Lippo Lippi', 'Andrea del Sarto', 'An Epistle … of Karshish', 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came', and 'Cleon'. It contains quite a few important dramatic monologues in Browning's best style, and he maintains that throughout he has gathered men and women 'Live or dead or fashioned by my fancy' so as to:
Enter each and all, and use their service,Speak from each mouth.
One Word More, ll. 130–32There are several instances, however, where he departs from the securities of the dramatized narrator, such as in the coda to 'The Statue and the Bust', and in the monologue 'Old Pictures in Florence', where the speaker's voice and situation are hardly to be differentiated from the poet's. And yet Browning concludes with 'One Word More', in which, while he purports to 'speak this once in person' (l. 137), he speaks ironically, as in this final poem of Men and Women his aim is essentially the same as in the preceding fifty poems: to question the familiar by placing it within a new artistic network of relationships. Browning concludes with a refusal to articulate meaning, saying that he sees novel sights
undreamed of,Where I hush and bless myself with silence.
Although Men and Women has become arguably the most highly regarded of all Browning's works, it was not well received at the time of its publication. Both the Brownings had believed that it would prove popular, but as they read the reviews, many charging obscurity and unable to understand that the poet was working in unconventional modes, they were bitterly disappointed. Critical opinion continued to depress Browning for the rest of his life in Italy. As Elizabeth wrote to his sister in 1861, 'his treatment in England affects him' for 'nobody there, except a small knot of pre-Raffaellite men, pretend to do him justice. Mr. Forster has done the best,—in the press …—and for the rest, you should see Chapman's returns [from sales]!' (Orr, Life, 233–4). By spring 1856 the Brownings had left Paris and had gone to London, where Elizabeth submitted her verse novel Aurora Leigh to her publisher, while Browning devoted himself to her work.
Last years in Italy
The Brownings left for Florence in mid-November 1856, and later in the month Aurora Leigh was published, immediately attaining critical and popular success. As Browning, more than Elizabeth, basked in the praise and the couple were considering how royalties from its sales would lighten their financial situation, they learned that John Kenyon had died and had left them £11,000, which meant that they would never again have to worry about money.
Winter 1856–7 was uneventful, but April 1857 saw the death of Elizabeth's father, which caused her great grief. The Brownings went to Bagni di Lucca late in July and returned to Florence at the end of the summer. Early in summer 1858 they went to France, stopping in Dijon to visit Milsand, and in Paris to find Browning's father and sister in good health. After two months in Normandy they returned to Florence for six weeks and then in November travelled to Rome, in search of warmer weather for Elizabeth. Excited by the war declared on Piedmont by Austria and by France's declaration of war on Austria, the Brownings returned in May 1859 to Florence to find French troops encamped. When in June Napoleon III made peace with Austria, Elizabeth, who had been almost delirious over the exploits of the French emperor and the Piedmontese king, suffered a physical collapse, all her hopes for a united Italy erased.
For a change of scene the Brownings travelled to Siena, where they were joined by the Storys and the octogenarian W. S. Landor. Landor's characteristic irascibility had been exacerbated by old age and mental decline, and he had become estranged from his family as a result. Through the agency of John Forster, Browning agreed to act as guardian for Landor, and to administer the £200 annuity granted to the old man. They settled Landor into the house of Elizabeth's former maid, who had left their service after the birth of her second child and was living with her husband in Florence. The Brownings then returned to Rome for winter 1859–60, for the sake of Elizabeth's health, but it had continued to worsen, and she was becoming increasingly dependent on morphine, which she had been taking for years. The Storys feared that she would not survive the winter.
In June 1860 the Brownings were briefly back in Florence, and then spent the summer in Siena, with the Storys having a villa close by. In Rome again for the next winter, they learned that one of Elizabeth's sisters had died, and Elizabeth never entirely recovered from the shock. Browning wrote no poetry at this point; all his time was spent in nursing Elizabeth and in overseeing Pen's education. They returned to Florence late in spring 1861. There Elizabeth caught a cold in June, which inflamed her lungs. As she grew worse Robert sat by her day and night, and in the early morning of 29 June 1861 she died in his arms.
Elizabeth's funeral took place on 1 July, and was attended by fewer people than the Storys expected, although they also found Browning in better control of himself than they had anticipated. Out of respect, the shops in the neighbourhood were closed, and a crowd followed the coffin to burial in the protestant cemetery. After the funeral Browning immediately made plans to reorder his life. He had Pen's long curls cut and the boy's dress, which Browning had always contended with Elizabeth was too elaborate, was simplified. As he wrote to correspondents, he wanted his future life to resemble his past fifteen years of exile as little as possible. He packed belongings at Casa Guidi during the day, and he and Pen spent the night at the home of Isa Blagden, the Brownings' devoted friend for most of their years in Florence. Browning and his son left Florence on 1 August, accompanied by Isa Blagden. She left Paris after a few days while Browning and Pen stayed on with his father and Sarianna in Paris and Brittany until October, when they went on to London. Browning never again returned to Florence.
In London Browning and Pen took temporary lodging before settling into the rented house at 19 Warwick Crescent that was their home for the next twenty-five years. Browning found a suitable tutor for Pen and met Elizabeth's sole surviving sister, Arabella, and old friends like Carlyle and Forster; otherwise he occupied himself mainly in solitary walks. But he was too sociable not to seek company, so by spring 1862 he took to dining out. He was elected to the Athenaeum Club in February, and in March was offered the editorship of the Cornhill Magazine on the retirement of Thackeray. He refused it, but was gratified by the offer, which he took as a sign of increasing appreciation of his work. Before turning to his own work, he guided Elizabeth's Last Poems (1862) through the press and prepared a group of her essays for publication in 1863. He then began preparation for a collected edition of all his poems (save for Pauline). Published in three volumes in 1863, the poems of 1842, 1845, and 1855 were broken up and regrouped, and Sordello was radically revised and enlarged by 181 lines. The edition was dedicated to Forster, with Sordello inscribed to Milsand. A volume of Selections (1863) was put together by Forster and B. W. Procter (Barry Cornwall), an old friend to whom number 6 of Bells and Pomegranates had been dedicated. Both the collected edition and the selections sold so well and were so respectfully reviewed that a new volume of Browning's completed poetry was not published until the following year.
Life in the mid-1860s and The Ring and the Book
The monologues of Dramatis Personae (1864) are more deeply concerned with matters of contemporary importance than Browning's earlier work in the genre. Spiritualism, biological evolution, higher criticism of the Bible, current social conditions, modern love—these are but some of the topics dealt with in these poems. By and large, the verse demonstrates a working-out, in generally new and more complex ways, of the poet's long held ideas. Among them are 'James Lee's Wife', 'Mr Sludge', 'The Medium', 'A Death in the Desert', 'Caliban upon Setebos', and 'Abt Vogler'. Dramatis Personae was such a critical and popular success that a second edition was soon called for. Within the space of a year Browning's reputation had dramatically changed.
Although now a celebrity, regularly dining at the great houses and meeting foreign and domestic dignitaries, Browning never neglected his son. What he wanted more than anything was the admission of Pen to Balliol College, Oxford, where Benjamin Jowett, the regius professor of Greek, was a tutor. Browning greatly admired Jowett for his liberal views on theology, and hoped that Pen would come under his influence. Browning, therefore, diligently oversaw his son's education—but it became increasingly evident that Pen's academic qualifications were not high. Jowett helped the boy in every way he could and Pen took almost a year of academic preparation at Oxford, but he failed the matriculation examination in 1868 and returned home to his disappointed father. During Pen's scholarly preparations, however, Browning was awarded an Oxford master of arts degree by convocation in June 1867, and this was followed by his election to an honorary fellowship at Balliol.
While overseeing Pen's studies Browning made regular visits to Paris to see his father and sister. In June 1866 his father died in Browning's presence, and soon Sarianna came to live at 19 Warwick Crescent. She became the companion, confidante, and housekeeper of her brother for the rest of his life. In June 1868 Arabella Barrett, Elizabeth's surviving sister who had been so concerned with Robert and Pen when they came to live in London, died in Browning's arms.
As partial relief from the sadness caused by deaths of loved ones, Browning turned more and more to writing a long poem. In June 1860 he had purchased in Florence what he later called 'the Old Yellow Book', containing pamphlets, legal documents, and manuscript letters concerning a 1698 murder trial in Rome. The accused was Count Guido Franchesini, an impoverished nobleman from Arezzo, who was ultimately found guilty of multiple murders, including that of his wife, Pompilia, whom he had believed guilty of adultery with a young priest. He had also killed Pompilia's parents. Browning was intrigued by the case, mainly because, as the Latin lettering on the volume related, the trial 'disputed whether and when a Husband may kill his Adulterous Wife without incurring the ordinary penalty'. Reading through the matter, written in Latin and Italian, Browning began to ask himself whether the wife was adulterous and, if so, why. He made enquiries about the case in Rome and Arezzo, and in 1862 Isa Blagden obtained a supplementary manuscript account for him. He began writing about the case in autumn 1864 and, working on it for three hours every morning, completed the poem's 21,000 lines, divided into twelve books, in spring 1868.
Browning chose a new publisher for his poem: Smith, Elder & Co., whose senior partner, George Murray Smith, the poet had known since 1843. Initially contemplating serial publication in magazines, the poet and his new publisher finally decided on the appearance of the poem in four volumes. Named The Ring and the Book, perhaps because this suggested the poet's own initials, the volumes were published in monthly instalments in the last two months of 1868 and the first two of 1869.
In the first book, Browning, barely disguised as the narrator, offers three versions of the murder case and instructs his audience to choose the true account. In the following ten books Browning presents the accounts and interpretations of various figures, including 'Half-Rome'; 'The Other Half-Rome'; Count Guido; the priest accused of adultery; and Pompilia herself, whose account is ostensibly related on her deathbed. Even the pope is given a book of the poem in which to state his views on the murder. In book 12 the narrator again offers several versions of the story, and the audience for whom this piece of Roman history has been resuscitated is presented not with the poet's claim of truth, but with a kind of documental drama from which they must decide for themselves. At the end of this work, Browning asks the reader to take away:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,Our human testimony false, our fameAnd human estimation words and wind.Why take the artistic way to prove so much?Because, it is the glory and good of Art,That Art remains the one way possibleOf speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least.
The Ring and the Book, xii.834–40In Browning's view, a right interpretation of the case, like that of the Bible, is almost provisional: an approximation for the time being. But, ultimately, this does not devalue the attempt to seek out that truth.
The 'British public, ye who like me not' (i.405, 1371) were wooed and won, as Browning's wish that it 'may like me yet, / (Marry and amen!)' (xii.831) was finally fulfilled. Sales were high, and reviews were adulatory, The Athenaeum of 20 March 1869 calling The Ring and the Book 'the opus magnum of our generation … the most precious and profound spiritual treasure that England has produced since the days of Shakspeare'. Even the queen was impressed by the poet's new reputation, inviting him to an audience in March along with Carlyle and two other eminent men. About the same time Browning also received and declined an invitation to become lord rector of St Andrews University. But the pleasure in public acclaim was lessened when he seems to have learned of his son's sexual activities in Brittany the previous summer. And at about this time he became seriously ill and for several months remained housebound.
The Lady Ashburton episode
During summer 1869, with Browning unable to enjoy his usual holiday in Brittany, he, Sarianna, and Pen joined the Storys in Scotland, where he had never been before. Plagued by the bad weather and uncomfortable lodgings, they received an invitation to the ‘lodge’ at Loch Luichart to visit Louisa, the widowed Lady Ashburton, whom Browning had known since before her marriage to the wealthy second Baron Ashburton. Although he had earlier refused such an invitation, Browning, along with the others, felt compelled by her insistence to accept the invitation. Some days after they arrived, Lady Ashburton apparently suggested that since both he and she were widowed and struggling to bring up a child, their marriage might be felicitous. Browning was politely evasive, and seems to have defused the situation, for when he and his party left, everyone was cheerful.
Browning and the Storys went on to visit their friends George and Rosalind Howard (later earl and countess of Carlisle) at their castle in Cumberland. There the Storys' 25-year-old unmarried daughter, Edith (Edy or Edie), confided to her hostess that Lady Ashburton had declared her love for the poet, that Browning had asked Edie's advice, and that she had advised him that it was not right to marry a woman simply for her position and his son's sake. Edie further reported that a letter had come from Lady Ashburton wishing to settle the matter and that Browning had replied saying no. Edie also claimed that Browning was in love with her and was forcing his attentions on her, but Rosalind Howard did not believe her on this point, and assumed that the passion she ascribed to the poet was probably Edie's own for him.
Browning returned to London in September and for the next seven or eight months was often away from Warwick Crescent, visiting the country houses of the great and famous, and visiting Pen at Christ Church, Oxford, where he had arranged for his admission, believing it to be easier than Balliol. In June 1870 Pen failed his examinations and was forced to leave Christ Church. Browning became disconsolate and angry with his son not only for his academic failures but also for his spendthrift nature and idleness.
In summer 1871 Browning and Pen set off for another holiday in Scotland. Pen had visited Lady Ashburton and her daughter earlier in the year at their home in the south, and perhaps because of this, they again visited Loch Luichart. Lady Ashburton raised the issue of marriage once more, and Browning told her that his heart lay buried in Florence and any attractiveness of marriage lay in its advantage to Pen. Browning left the next day, realizing that her vanity was wounded. She nevertheless wrote to him in derogatory language, he reported to a friend, and she also told others that he had ill-treated her. Thereafter he met her only on large social occasions and viewed her as contemptible and unworthy of conversation.
Long poems of the 1870s
In spring 1871 Browning began composing a poem published in August of the same year: Balaustion's Adventure: Including a Transcript from Euripides. The greater part of the poem is the young Balaustion's account of the performance of the first extant drama by Euripides, the Alcestis of 438 bc. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had admired Euripides, and the motto of the poem comes from her Wine of Cyprus (1844). The poem is a modern adaptation, rather than a strict translation, forming what Browning called a 'transcript'—scenes are shortened and deleted, the Chorus's role is reduced, and the descriptions and actions of the main characters are altered. The general movement of the play differs from that of the original, with Balaustion's interpretation shoring up her main concern of salvation through love and art. Her account interweaves her commentary on the characters with Euripides dramatic colloquies, so that Admetus learns the meaning of love and loss, while Heracles is Christianized into a god-man devoted to relieving the sufferings of others. What Balaustion in effect presents is a ‘higher criticism’ of the play that looks beyond the actual text in an attempt to grasp Euripides essential meaning. Some critics feel that the poem has autobiographical elements, with the portraits of Alcestis and Admetus 'affected by points of resemblance to Mrs Browning and the poet himself' (Poems, 1.1170). Admetus, for instance, is insistent that he will not remarry, and this emphasis may well have derived from Browning's recent experience with Lady Ashburton. In the epilogue Balaustion is revealed as the mask of the poet, who, quoting from his late wife and still smarting from earlier critical neglect, nevertheless asserts his self-confidence by asking in the final line 'Why crown whom Zeus has crowned in soul before?' It was well received at the time, with the 2500 copies of the first edition quickly selling out.
While in Scotland, Browning began to write a poem conceived of in rough draft in Rome in 1860. Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (December 1871) was based on the career of Napoleon III, who had been defeated (to Browning's delight) by the Germans the previous year, and had taken refuge in England. Although he had never shared his wife's enthusiasm for the emperor, Browning had on occasion seen some good in him. In the poem, a long monologue, he addresses the problem of why people with good intentions fail to pursue them, in the end showing that this person who claims to be a man of action is merely an indecisive homme sensuel. The poem sold well initially, 1400 copies in five days, but sales soon tailed off. Reviewers were also baffled by a work which asks the reader to be both sympathetic and judgemental of the monologuist, and although Browning himself thought it to be 'a sample of my very best work' (Poems, 1.1177) it is now among the least read of his poems.
Soon after its publication Browning began another poem dealing with the same issue: good intentions unfulfilled. Fifine at the Fair (1872) is composed of 2355 rhymed alexandrines, with a prologue and epilogue of 108 lines. Dealing with conjugal inconstancy, Fifine at the Fair may touch on Browning's qualms concerning disloyalty to his dead wife for even briefly considering Lady Ashburton's proposal of marriage, and on his father's disloyalty to his mother in proposing to marry another woman. The main part of the poem is an almost cinematic monologue of shifting perspectives in time and space, but its narrative hardly matters. What is significant is the internal action, structured on the Browning-esque interplay between the wish for constancy and law, on the one hand, and the desire for change and lawlessness, on the other.
Browning expected that most readers would find the poem difficult to understand—in April 1872 he said that the poem was 'the most metaphysical and boldest he had written since Sordello', and that he 'was very doubtful to its reception' (Poems, 2.975). Readers did indeed have difficulty with it. As the Westminster Review put it on 1 October 1872: 'for the ordinary reader it might just as well have been written in Sanscrit'. One of the saddest events resulting from its publication was the rupture of friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti that it caused. Browning had sent him a copy, and the poem enraged Rossetti for what he saw as its satire of him and his poetry. At stake specifically was Rossetti's poem Jenny, which had been roundly criticized by Robert Buchanan in The Fleshly School of Poetry (1871). It is likely that Browning had used the poem as a source, and Rossetti saw him as part of the conspiracy that he felt was being ranged against the pre-Raphaelites at this time. Their friendship never recovered.
Browning's next work was based on a story he had heard concerning the suicide of a man in Calvados and involving love, sex, religion, and social roles. As with 'the Old Yellow Book', the poet threw himself imaginatively into the situation, so fascinated that he asked for legal documents and collected accounts of people in the neighbourhood to try to come up with its truth. Published in May 1873, Red Cotton Night-Cap Country is a first-person narrative in four parts and 4247 lines of blank verse. Its internal auditor was Anne Thackeray, daughter of the novelist, who had been staying at Lion, about 5 miles from the scene of the suicide. As the poem states, she referred to the region as 'White Cotton Night-Cap Country', and Browning changed the 'white' to 'red' in part to point up the bloody nature of his tale. Anne Thackeray was not entirely happy with her association with the poem, particularly when hostile reviews of it appeared. Readers had problems with the sordid nature of the story, and with 'its grotesque blend of savage humour, whimsical humour and intense seriousness' (Poems, 2.986). It was generally disliked, but Browning seems to have borne up well to the criticism, and probably as a diversion he made another translation of Euripides, this time of Heracles.
Laying aside his translation, Browning turned to Aristophanes, who had denigrated Euripides. In the 1870s there was general hostility to Euripides, stimulated by German criticism claiming that the playwright had destroyed classical Greek poetry. Browning wanted to prove otherwise, and during his annual summer holiday in France during 1873 he was deeply involved in a study of Greek books, especially the works of Aristophanes. Over the next year he read widely about Greek dramatists, including arcane scholarship. In mid-August 1874 he began composing the material surrounding Heracles and completed it the following November. Aristophanes' Apology (1875), composed of 5705 lines, is the third longest of Browning's works. It acts as a kind of sequel to Balaustion's Adventure, and is formally complex. It progresses by statement and counterstatement, and is divided into three different modes—the apology of Aristophanes, Balaustion's admonishment of him, and a translation of Heracles—with a prologue and a conclusion. The poem is Browning's boldest experiment with the dramatic monologue, and it concludes that all individual points of view are in some way or other deficient, and that tensions of opposites should be recognized and accepted, a paradox joyfully expressed by Balaustion at the close of her monologue when she sings:
There are no gods, no gods!Glory to God—who saves Euripides.
When published on 15 April 1875, Aristophanes' Apology proved again a bewildering work to most of the reviewers. Copies of the first edition were still being sold after the poet's death.
Browning's next work is formally entirely different from anything he had previously published. It is like Sordello in being a dramatic poem in which the narrator sets the scene and ends the action. It is also like The Ring and the Book, in that the point of departure is a text; but here the text is not one interpreted by the narrator or the actors, but is a text written by the characters themselves and inscribed into an album. The Inn Album was published in autumn 1875. Although 1100 copies of the 2000-copy print run were sold within three weeks of publication, no second edition was called for. Reviews, including that by Henry James in The Nation (20 January 1876), were generally negative, although Swinburne praised the poem. Browning was irate with the criticisms, as they yet again featured the old charge of obscurity.
Poems of the later 1870s and 1880
Browning's next work, Pacchiarotto and how he Worked in Distemper (1876), embodies the poet's discontent with the reviewers and offers a stern warning to all who tried to delve into his private life. In the prologue the speaker lives in a 'house, no eye can probe'. In 'Of Pacchiarotto' the critics come to the house under the pretence of helping with housekeeping, but bring in filth and are told to stay away. Whether they like him or his house is to Pacchiarotto a matter of supreme indifference, as his only concern is to please the 'Landlord' to whom he pays rent for the 'freehold'. The nineteen poems of Pacchiarotto, unsurprisingly, were not cordially received, and Browning claimed that he had written them only to amuse himself at the expense of his critics. Over the previous six years he had written six highly experimental but largely unappreciated long poems totalling about 20,000 lines. He was at this time willing to relax, and published a volume that was largely a jeu d'esprit.
Browning went on to accept Carlyle's suggestion that he translate the Greek tragedians. He undertook the translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, who in the nineteenth century was generally regarded as an obscure writer, just as Browning himself had come to be. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus Transcribed by Robert Browning, more a transcription than a translation and reading like Greek English, was published in October 1877.
Browning's next poem was an elegy, La Saisiaz, in memory of Anne Egerton Smith, a close friend who had died in the Jura mountains when she was staying in a chalet there with Browning and Sarianna. As the speaker works his way through 'facts' and 'fancies' about the soul and an afterlife, he expresses belief in his own being, 'soul', and a power outside and independent of himself—'God'. That these 'facts' surpass his ability to prove them, in fact:
proves them such:Fact it is I know I know not something which is fact as much.
ll. 223–4The poem was published in May 1878 along with its sequel, The Two Poets of Croisic, in a volume taking its title from the names of the two individual poems. In The Two Poets of Croisic, the first poet is one who, after writing a poem prophesying an event that comes true, feels himself divinely inspired, gives up poetry, and retires to a secluded life. The other poet is one who becomes famous when his sister claims authorship of his worthless verse, but who loses fame when he reveals himself to be its writer. From these stories of the two poets, the speaker concludes that fame is dependent on externals, and cannot be a criterion for true value. In his estimation, the great poet is one who will 'Yoke Hatred, Crime, Remorse, / Despair: but ever 'mid the whirling fear' and 'tumult' will let 'break the poet's face / Radiant' (The Two Poets of Croisic, clix.1269–72). In other words, the great poet will be one like Robert Browning.
Late in summer 1878, still suffering from Anne Egerton Smith's death and upset over the sexual peccadillos of Pen, who had decided to undertake formal training as a painter, Browning, with Sarianna, spent a month in Switzerland before going on to Italy and delighting in Asolo and Venice. They both liked Venice, with its large English and American community, so much that they returned there in seven autumns over the next eleven years. While on this vacation, Browning wrote several poems that he joined with others to publish as Dramatic Idyls in April 1879. The title inevitably forced comparisons with Tennyson's 'idylls', and Browning defined what he meant by the term in this way in 1889:
a succinct little story complete in itself; not necessarily concerning pastoral matters, by any means, though from the prevalency of such topics in the idyls of Theocritus, such is the general notion. These of mine are called ‘Dramatic’ because the story is told by some actor in it, not the poet himself.Poems, 2.1067
The poems are in rhymed verse, and the metres approximate those of Greek idylls. '[B]esides the measure of formal unity in the volume, there is also some kind of thematic unity in the stress on conscience and remorse'. Browning was so pleased that the book was well received (for the first time since Balaustion's Adventure a second edition was called for), that he wrote another series of poems, and published them as Dramatic Idyls, Second Series (June 1880). The second series, however, was not as popular as the first, and a second edition was not required.
Growing fame, and poems of the early 1880s
By 1880 Browning had become recognized, along with Tennyson, as one of the greatest poets of the period. He was awarded an LLD degree by Cambridge in 1879, and in summer and autumn 1881 a group of his admirers founded the Browning Society. The poet was amazed and elated by this outpouring of support, and he was further delighted and surprised when Browning societies began to spread around the world—there were twenty-two of them within the next three years. In 1882 he was given an honorary DCL at Oxford. In America his reputation spread so that in Chicago, for example, some of his works were printed on railway timetables, and bookstores could not keep up with the demand for copies of his works. In addition, foreign visitors in London sought glimpses of him as well as autographs. Browning was delighted and, resting on his laurels for the next three years, published nothing. He and Sarianna continued to spend their summers abroad. During the rest of the year he became a strenuous diner-out and attender at all sorts of social functions, dressed so dapperly that he was, according to the weekly World of 7 December 1881, 'as far a dandy as a sensible man can be'.
Browning ended his period of printed silence with Jocoseria (March 1883). Containing ten poems in the mode of the dramatic idylls, all treating the theme of desire, the volume is largely undistinguished, 'Ixion' being the only poem now recognized as worthy of mention. At the time, however, Jocoseria was well received. A second edition was needed almost immediately, and a third edition was published in 1885. Browning himself was not very pleased with this collection, remarking that it had 'had the usual luck of the little-deserving' (Poems, 2.1084). He was increasingly aware that he was now proclaimed a sage by the Browning societies, and he felt that he must therefore address philosophical and religious issues in a higher way. He began trying to improve his German, and it may be that in Goethe's Westöstlicher Divan, a collection of poems with a Persian backdrop divided into twelve books, he found a suitable setting and persona for a religio-philosophical poem. Ferishtah's Fancies, published in November 1884, contains twelve 'fancies', analogies and parables of the great theological problems, plus a prologue and epilogue. Each of Ferishtah's theological speculations is followed by a love lyric, thereby indicating that the 'fancies' of the intellect are authenticated by the 'facts' of love. The poem 'is important as a fairly direct statement of the poet's mature religious beliefs … Browning did not pretend that Ferishtah was more than a transparent disguise for himself' (ibid., 2.1096). The poem sold well—two further editions were needed in 1885.
Last long poem
Browning apparently began his next poem when he was seventy-three. He worked on it for several years and wanted it to be the summation of his career, so he found the writing difficult. Aiming at a kind of intellectual autobiography told in a conversational style, he designed it to be of epic, encyclopaedic scope. Parleyings with Certain People in their Day (1887) was modelled both on Faust and The Divine Comedy, and consists of seven parts with prologue and coda. Each ‘parleying’ deals with the appearance of a ghost from the past and its stimulation of a current thought or attitude to be argued with. This means that there are three points of view to be considered: those of the speaker, the figure from the past, and a contemporary. Further, each parleying poses two basic questions: is life good or bad? and what makes it tolerable? Among the contemporaries treated are Carlyle, Lady Ashburton, Rossetti, William Morris, Swinburne, Disraeli, critics of Pen Browning's art, and contemporary poets (like Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, Morris, and possibly Shelley) who adopt Greek models and attempt to write in a Greek style. Both in its philosophical complexity and daring design, the Parleyings, dedicated to the memory of Joseph Milsand, who had died in September 1886, is the boldest work of Browning's later career. Ranging from classical Greece through the middle ages and the Enlightenment to the later nineteenth century, it deals with the evolution of man's art, thought, morals, and religion. Most reviewers found the Parleyings bewildering and seemed to share the reviewer's opinion in The Spectator of 5 February 1887 that 'Mr. Browning does not condescend more generously to the minds of his readers in age than he did in youth'. No second edition was called for.
In April 1887, owing to defects in the rented Warwick Crescent property, Browning bought a grander house at 29 De Vere Gardens, Kensington; he and Sarianna moved there in June. On 4 October Pen, who had become a somewhat popular artist because of his father's many busy efforts to promote him, married the heiress Fannie Coddington, an American by parentage but English in upbringing and a great admirer of Browning's poetry. Browning could now reduce the amount of money he had been giving Pen and, after a conversation with the bride-to-be, he told Pen that he could provide the couple with £300 annually.
Browning's main business during 1887 and 1888 was to prepare his collected works, issued in sixteen volumes monthly between April 1888 and July 1889. He and Sarianna spent three months in Venice in late summer and autumn 1888, where they followed the negotiations that Pen (with his wife's financial backing) was making to buy and refurbish the baroque Palazzo Rezzonico. Back at De Vere Gardens, Browning continued during winter 1888–9, as when in Venice, to correct proofs of his collected edition. In July he read in a recently published edition of the deceased Edward FitzGerald's letters a letter derogatory of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Greatly angered, Robert wrote a vituperative sonnet, which was published in The Athenaeum on 13 July. The poem caused an uproar, and Browning felt that he had humiliated both himself and his dead wife.
Although Browning's health had appeared good, during the winter both he and his acquaintances thought him lacking in his usual energy. The FitzGerald incident worsened matters, and he fell ill. But he revived sufficiently to attend some prominent social events, and by September he and Sarianna were on their way to Italy. They stopped first in Asolo, which stimulated in him a burst of creative energy, and the preparation of a new volume of poems incorporating verse written there. In mid-October he sent off the poems to his publisher and then he and Sarianna went on to Venice to stay with Pen and Fannie in the splendidly restored Palazzo Rezzonico. Late in October Robert became ill with what he thought was a cold, but which was diagnosed as bronchitis and a weakened heart. As he became worse, friends were notified of his critical condition, which soon became known to the press and aroused the world's curiosity.
On 12 December 1889, soon after hearing Pen read to him a telegram from his publisher that the book, published that day, had received highly favourable reviews and was almost sold out, Browning slipped in and out of consciousness and then, about ten o'clock that evening, he died. Pen had hoped to bury his father alongside his mother in Florence, but was told that the cemetery was closed. A message then came from the dean of Westminster offering burial in the abbey, and it was accepted. A preliminary funeral service was held in Venice in the great hall of the Palazzo Rezzonico, followed by a cortège of funeral gondolas down the Grand Canal out to the island of San Michele. Soon thereafter the body was returned to London by train. The splendid funeral in Westminster Abbey on 31 December 1889 ended with burial in Poets' Corner.
After the funeral, Pen and Fannie remained in London until spring 1890 to settle the poet's affairs. Browning's will, executed in 1864 in the presence of Tennyson and Francis Palgrave, was proved on 19 February 1890. The administration of his effects was granted to Pen, the residuary legatee, and the estate valued at £16,744. Sarianna, who became seriously ill soon after the funeral, stayed on at De Vere Gardens for another year and then went to Venice to live with Pen and Fannie, where Pen's old nurse, Wilson, and her husband also came. In April 1891 sixty-six cases of household effects were shipped to Venice. Pen had a memorial plaque to his father installed on the Palazzo Rezzonico and contributed to a window commemorating him in the English church in Venice.
In time Pen and Fannie, who had no children, drifted apart, although they never divorced. Thereafter he and Sarianna more or less settled in Asolo, where Pen had purchased some property that his father had wished to buy, and thereon built Pippa's Tower in his father's honour. Sarianna lived with him until 1903. Pen himself, who had grown obese, sickly, and almost blind, died of a heart attack in 1912 and received a splendid funeral and burial in Asolo. Ten years later Fannie had his body moved to Florence. She died in 1935.
On six days in May 1913 Pen's effects—which included his parents' manuscripts, pictures, books, and furniture—were auctioned at Sothebys in London. There were 1417 lots, described in a 170-page catalogue. After Pen's enormous debts were paid, one-third of the residue of the sale went to Fannie and two-thirds to sixteen Barrett cousins.
By the time of his death Browning was one of the most famous people in the English-speaking world, although never as popular as Tennyson—the sales of his works being a fraction of the poet laureate's. Chiefly admired as a philosopher and thinker, Browning became less well regarded in the 1890s, when moral instruction as the end of art (something Browning had always denied) was regarded as deplorable. The last public meetings of the London Browning Society were held in the season of 1891–2, although meetings continued in members' homes for several years and other Browning societies continued in America. Several critical works over the next ten or so years attacked Browning's approach to serious thought, the most important being George Santayana's 'The poetry of barbarism' (1900). Nevertheless, there were centennial celebrations in 1912, producing a large number of books and two editions (the centenary and the pocket version of the Florentine) of the poet's works that were more or less standard for at least fifty years. But in the 1920s, when there was a reaction to almost everything Victorian, Browning's reputation suffered almost total collapse, kept alive by only a few poets (notably Hardy, Yeats, Pound, and Frost) and lovers of Victorian verse. In the 1950s scholarly interest in his work began to revive, and in the early twenty-first century Browning's centrality in the history of English poetry is largely taken for granted. There are Browning societies in both Britain and America; there is a Browning Institute in New York; there is the Browning apartment preserved at the Casa Guidi and open to the public; and there is the Browning shrine and great repository of his printed works and autographs, the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University in Texas. There are the journals Browning Society Notes, Browning Institute Studies (now renamed Victorian Literature and Culture), and Studies in Browning and His Circle. Numerous books and essays have appeared in increasing number since 1965, in addition to John Pettigrew's 1981 scholarly edition of his works.
- The Brownings' correspondence, ed. P. Kelley, R. Hudson, and S. Lewis, [14 vols.] (1984–)
- J. Maynard, Browning's youth (1977)
- W. Hall Griffin and H. C. Griffin, The life of Robert Browning, 3rd edn (1938)
- C. de L. Ryals, The life of Robert Browning (1993)
- W. Irvine and P. Honan, The book, the ring, and the poet (1974)
- W. C. DeVane, A Browning handbook, 2nd edn (1975)
- A. L. Orr, Life and letters of Robert Browning, new edn (1908)
- A. L. Orr, A handbook to the worlds of Robert Browning, 6th edn (1927)
- Robert Browning: the poems, ed. J. Pettigrew, 2 vols. (1981)
- The diary of Alfred Domett (1953)
- V. Surtees, The Ludovisi goddess: the life of Louisa Ashburton (1984)
- M. Ward, The tragi-comedy of Pen Browning (1849–1912) (1972)
- W. S. Peterson, Interrogating the oracle: a history of the Browning Society (1969)
- F. G. Kenyon, ed., Robert Browning and Alfred Domett (1906)
- Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: a broken friendship as revealed in their letters, ed. R. Curle (1937)
- Dearest Isa: Robert Browning's letters to Isabella Blagden, ed. E. C. McAleer (1951)
- New letters of Robert Browning, ed. W. C. DeVane and K. L. Knickerbocker (1951)
- G. R. Hudson, ed., Browning to his American friends: letters between the Brownings, the Storys, and James Russell Lowell (1965)
- The Brownings to the Tennysons: letters from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Alfred, Emily, and Hallam Tennyson, 1852–1889, ed. T. J. Collins (1971)
- Browning's trumpeter: the correspondence of Robert Browning and Frederick J. Furnivall, 1872–1889, ed. W. S. Peterson (1979)
- More than friend: the letters of Robert Browning to Katherine de Kay Bronson, ed. M. Meredith (1985)
- Balliol Oxf., corresp. and poems
- Baylor University, Waco, Texas, corresp. and papers
- BL, address book, Ashley 5718
- BL, biographical papers, Add. MSS 45558–45564
- Boston PL, letters, literary MSS, and papers
- L. Cong., papers
- Morgan L., literary MSS and papers
- NRA, corresp.
- Ransom HRC, corresp., literary MSS, and papers
- Yale U., Beinecke L., papers
- BL, corresp. with Lord and Lady Carnarvon, Add. MS 60865
- BL, letters to Alfred Domett, Add. MS 45876
- BL, corresp. with Michael Field, Add. MS 46866
- BL, letters to Edmund Gosse, Ashley B.238, B.252–253, etc.; 5739
- BL, letters to Norman MacColl, Ashley 276, A.2549
- FM Cam., misc. letters
- Herts. ALS, corresp. with Earl of Lytton
- Herts. ALS, letters to Lord Lytton
- Hunt. L., letters, documents, literary MSS
- JRL, corresp. with John Leicester Warren
- Lincoln Central Library, letters to Alfred Lord Tennyson
- Morgan L., letters to George Marlton Barrett
- Morgan L., letters to Frederic Chapman
- Morgan L., letters to William Angus Knight
- Somerville College, Oxford, letters to Amelia Edwards
- Syracuse University, New York, corresp. with Sir John Simeon
- TCD, letters to Mrs Lecky
- U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Sir Edmund Gosse
- University of Chicago Library, corresp. with Bryan Procter and Anne Procter
- University of Sheffield, letters to Maria Theresa Mundella and Anthony John Mundella
- Wellesley College, Massachusetts, letters to Elizabeth Browning and papers
- Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Sophy Landor
- A. Ripert-Monclar, drawing, 1837, Armstrong Browning Library, Waco, Texas
- H. Hosmer, bronze cast, 1853, NPG
- W. Fisher, oils, 1854, Wellesley College, Massachusetts
- W. Page, oils, 1854, Baylor University, Texas
- D. G. Rossetti, watercolour, 1855, FM Cam.
- D. G. Rossetti, watercolour drawing, 1855, FM Cam.
- T. Woolner, bronze medallion, 1856, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
- M. Gordigiani, oils, 1858, NPG
- R. Lehmann, crayon drawing, 1859, BM
- London Stereoscopic Co., carte-de-visite, 1860–69, NPG
- W. W. Story, bust, 1861, Keats and Shelley Memorial Museum, Rome
- J. M. Cameron, carte-de-visite, 1865, NPG
- S. Laurence, oils, 1866, Baylor University, Texas
- G. F. Watts, oils, 1866, Armstrong Browning Library, Waco, Texas
- G. F. Watts, oils, 1866, NPG
- W. W. Story, two drawings, 1869, Morgan L.
- photograph, 1869, Armstrong Browning Library, Waco, Texas
- J. M. Cameron, photograph, 1870, Hult. Arch.
- R. B. Browning, oils, 1874, St Andrews School, Tennessee
- R. Lehmann, oils, 1875, Baylor University, Texas; version, 1884, NPG
- W. Fisher, oils, 1877, Baylor University, Texas
- A. Legros, oils, 1879, V&A
- R. B. Browning, oils, 1882, Balliol Oxf.
- F. Moscheles, oils, 1884, Wesleyan University, Ohio
- R. B. Browning, bust, 1886, Browning Hall, Walworth, Connecticut
- R. B. Browning, oils, 1889, Baylor University, Texas
- G. D. Giles, drawing, 1889, Baylor University, Texas
- H. S. Montalba, bust, 1889, University of Oxford
- E. Myers, photographs, 1889, NPG
- R. Bryden, print, 1898, V&A
- Ape [C. Pellegrini], chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (20 Nov 1875)
- M. Beerbohm, cartoon, AM Oxf.
- E. Edwards, carte-de-visite, NPG
- G. D. Giles, drawing (Last life-picture, Venice, 14 November 1889), Armstrong Browning Library, Waco, Texas
- photograph (death bed portrait), Poetry Society, London
- photographic prints, NPG
Wealth at Death
£16,744 19s. 4d.: administration, 19 Feb 1890, CGPLA Eng. & Wales