Browning's early career began promisingly, but was not a success. The long poem Pauline brought him to the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and was followed by Paracelsus, which was praised by William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens, but in 1840 the difficult Sordello, which was seen as wilfully obscure, brought his poetry into disrepute. His reputation took more than a decade to recover, during which time he moved away from the Shelleyan forms of his early period and developed a more personal style.
In 1846 Browning married the older poet Elizabeth Barrett, who at the time was considerably better known than himself. So started one of history's most famous literary marriages. They went to live in Italy, a country he called "my university", and which features frequently in his work. By the time of her death in 1861, he had published the crucial collection Men and Women. The collection Dramatis Personae and the book-length epic poem The Ring and the Book followed, and made him a leading British poet. He continued to write prolifically, but his reputation today rests largely on the poetry he wrote in this middle period.
When Browning died in 1889, he was regarded as a sage and philosopher-poet who through his writing had made contributions to Victorian social and political discourse – as in the poem Caliban upon Setebos, which some critics have seen as a comment on the theory of evolution, which had recently been put forward by Darwin and others. Unusually for a poet, societies for the study of his work were founded while he was still alive. Such Browning Societies remained common in Britain and the United States until the early 20th century.
Browning's admirers have tended to temper their praise with reservations about the length and difficulty of his most ambitious poems, particularly The Ring and the Book. Nevertheless, they have included such eminent writers as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov. Among living writers, Stephen King's The Dark Tower series and A. S. Byatt's Possession refer directly to Browning's work.
Robert Browning was born in Walworth in the parish of Camberwell, Surrey, which now forms part of the Borough of Southwark in south London. He was baptized on 14 June 1812, at Lock's Fields Independent Chapel, York Street, Walworth, the only son of Sarah Anna (née Wiedemann) and Robert Browning. His father was a well-paid clerk for the Bank of England, earning about £150 per year. Browning's paternal grandfather was a slave owner in Saint Kitts, West Indies, but Browning's father was an abolitionist. Browning's father had been sent to the West Indies to work on a sugar plantation, but, due to a slave revolt there, had returned to England. Browning's mother was the daughter of a German shipowner who had settled in Dundee in Scotland, and his Scottish wife. Browning had one sister, Sarianna. Browning's paternal grandmother, Margaret Tittle, who had inherited a plantation in St Kitts, was rumored (within the family) to have a mixed race ancestry, including some Jamaican blood, but author Julia Markus suggests St Kitts rather than Jamaican. The evidence, however, is inconclusive. Robert's father, a literary collector, amassed a library of around 6,000 books, many of them rare. As such, Robert was raised in a household of significant literary resources. His mother, to whom he was very close, was a devout nonconformist and a talented musician. His younger sister, Sarianna, also gifted, became her brother's companion in his later years, after the death of his wife in 1861. His father encouraged his children's interest in literature and the arts.
By twelve, Browning had written a book of poetry which he later destroyed when no publisher could be found. After being at one or two private schools, and showing an insuperable dislike of school life, he was educated at home by a tutor via the resources of his father's extensive library. By the age of fourteen he was fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin. He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. Following the precedent of Shelley, Browning became an atheist and vegetarian. At the age of sixteen, he studied Greek at University College London but left after his first year. His parents' staunch evangelical faith prevented his studying at either Oxford or Cambridge University, both then open only to members of the Church of England. He had inherited substantial musical ability through his mother, and composed arrangements of various songs. He refused a formal career and ignored his parents' remonstrations, dedicating himself to poetry. He stayed at home until the age of 34, financially dependent on his family until his marriage. His father sponsored the publication of his son's poems.
In March 1833, "Pauline, a Fragment of a Confession" was published anonymously by Saunders and Otley at the expense of the author, Robert Browning, who received the money from his aunt, one Mrs Silverthorne. It is a long poem composed in homage to Shelley and somewhat in his style. Originally Browning considered Pauline as the first of a series written by different aspects of himself, but he soon abandoned this idea. The press noticed the publication. W. J. Fox writing in The Monthly Repository of April 1833 discerned merit in the work. Allan Cunningham praised it in the Athenaeum. However, it sold no copies. Some years later, probably in 1850, Dante Gabriel Rossetti came across it in the Reading Room of the British Museum and wrote to Browning, then in Florence to ask if he was the author. John Stuart Mill, however, wrote that the author suffered from an "intense and morbid self-consciousness". Later Browning was rather embarrassed by the work, and only included it in his collected poems of 1868 after making substantial changes and adding a preface in which he asked for indulgence for a boyish work.
In 1834 he accompanied the Chevalier George de Benkhausen, the Russian consul-general, on a brief visit to St Petersburg and began Paracelsus, which was published in 1835. The subject of the 16th century savant and alchemist was probably suggested to him by the Comte Amédée de Ripart-Monclar, to whom it was dedicated. The publication had some commercial and critical success, being noticed by Wordsworth, Dickens, Landor, J. S. Mill and the already famous Tennyson. It is a monodrama without action, dealing with the problems confronting an intellectual trying to find his role in society. It gained him access to the London literary world.
As a result of his new contacts he met Macready, who invited him to write a play. Strafford was performed five times. Browning then wrote two other plays, one of which was not performed, while the other failed, Browning having fallen out with Macready.
In 1838 he visited Italy, looking for background for Sordello, a long poem in heroic couplets, presented as the imaginary biography of the Mantuan bard spoken of by Dante in the Divine Comedy, canto 6 of Purgatory, set against a background of hate and conflict during the Guelph-Ghibelline wars. This was published in 1840 and met with widespread derision, gaining him the reputation of wanton carelessness and obscurity. Tennyson commented that he only understood the first and last lines and Carlyle wrote that his wife had read the poem through and could not tell whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book.
Browning's reputation began to make a partial recovery with the publication, 1841–1846, of Bells and Pomegranates, a series of eight pamphlets, originally intended just to include his plays. Fortunately his publisher, Moxon, persuaded him to include some "dramatic lyrics", some of which had already appeared in periodicals.
In 1845, Browning met the poet Elizabeth Barrett, six years his elder, who lived as a semi-invalid in her father's house in Wimpole Street, London. They began regularly corresponding and gradually a romance developed between them, leading to their marriage and journey to Italy (for Elizabeth's health) on 12 September 1846. The marriage was initially secret because Elizabeth's domineering father disapproved of marriage for any of his children. Mr. Barrett disinherited Elizabeth, as he did for each of his children who married: "The Mrs. Browning of popular imagination was a sweet, innocent young woman who suffered endless cruelties at the hands of a tyrannical papa but who nonetheless had the good fortune to fall in love with a dashing and handsome poet named Robert Browning." At her husband's insistence, the second edition of Elizabeth’s Poems included her love sonnets. The book increased her popularity and high critical regard, cementing her position as an eminent Victorian poet. Upon William Wordsworth's death in 1850, she was a serious contender to become Poet Laureate, the position eventually going to Tennyson.
From the time of their marriage and until Elizabeth's death, the Brownings lived in Italy, residing first in Pisa, and then, within a year, finding an apartment in Florence at Casa Guidi (now a museum to their memory). Their only child, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, nicknamed "Penini" or "Pen", was born in 1849. In these years Browning was fascinated by, and learned from, the art and atmosphere of Italy. He would, in later life, describe Italy as his university. As Elizabeth had inherited money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship together was happy. However, the literary assault on Browning's work did not let up and he was critically dismissed further, by patrician writers such as Charles Kingsley, for the desertion of England for foreign lands.
Browning believed spiritualism to be fraud, and proved one of Daniel Dunglas Home's most adamant critics. When Browning and his wife Elizabeth attended one of his séances on 23 July 1855, a spirit face materialized, which Home claimed was Browning's son who had died in infancy: Browning seized the "materialization" and discovered it to be Home's bare foot. To make the deception worse, Browning had never lost a son in infancy.
After the séance, Browning wrote an angry letter to The Times, in which he said: "the whole display of hands, spirit utterances etc., was a cheat and imposture." In 1902 Browning's son Pen wrote: "Home was detected in a vulgar fraud." Elizabeth, however, was convinced that the phenomena she witnessed were genuine, and her discussions about Home with her husband were a constant source of disagreement.
In Florence, probably from early in 1853, Browning worked on the poems that eventually comprised his two-volume Men and Women, for which he is now well known, although in 1855, when they were published, they made relatively little impact.
In 1861 Elizabeth died in Florence. Among those whom he found consoling in that period was the novelist and poet Isa Blagden, with whom he and his wife had a voluminous correspondence. The following year Browning returned to London, taking Pen with him, who by then was 12 years old. They made their home in 17 Warwick Crescent, Maida Vale. It was only when he became part of the London literary scene—albeit while paying frequent visits to Italy (though never again to Florence)—that his reputation started to take off.
In 1868, after five years work, he completed and published the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book. Based on a convoluted murder-case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve books: essentially ten lengthy dramatic monologues narrated by various characters in the story, showing their individual perspectives on events, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself. Long even by Browning's standards (over twenty-thousand lines), The Ring and the Book was his most ambitious project and is arguably his greatest work; it has been called a tour de force of dramatic poetry. Published in four parts from November 1868 to February 1869, the poem was a success both commercially and critically, and finally brought Browning the renown he had sought for nearly forty years. The Robert Browning Society was formed in 1881 and his work was recognized as belonging within the British literary canon.
In the remaining years of his life Browning travelled extensively. After a series of long poems published in the early 1870s, of which Balaustion's Adventure and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country were the best-received, the volume Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper included an attack against Browning's critics, especially Alfred Austin, who was later to become Poet Laureate. According to some reports Browning became romantically involved with Louisa Caroline Stewart-Mackenzie, Lady Ashburton, but he refused her proposal of marriage, and did not remarry. In 1878, he revisited Italy for the first time in the seventeen years since Elizabeth's death, and returned there on several further occasions. In 1887, Browning produced the major work of his later years, Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day. It finally presented the poet speaking in his own voice, engaging in a series of dialogues with long-forgotten figures of literary, artistic, and philosophic history. The Victorian public was baffled by this, and Browning returned to the brief, concise lyric for his last volume, Asolando (1889), published on the day of his death.
Browning died at his son's home Ca' Rezzonico in Venice on 12 December 1889. He was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey; his grave now lies immediately adjacent to that of Alfred Tennyson.
During his life Browning was awarded many distinctions. He was made LL.D. of Edinburgh, a life Governor of London University, and had the offer of the Lord Rectorship of Glasgow. But he turned down anything that involved public speaking.
At a dinner party on 7 April 1889, at the home of Browning's friend the artist Rudolf Lehmann, an Edison cylinder phonograph recording was made on a white wax cylinder by Edison's British representative, George Gouraud. In the recording, which still exists, Browning recites part of How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix (and can be heard apologising when he forgets the words). When the recording was played in 1890 on the anniversary of his death, at a gathering of his admirers, it was said to be the first time anyone's voice "had been heard from beyond the grave".
Browning is now popularly known for such poems as Porphyria's Lover, My Last Duchess, How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and also for certain famous lines: "Grow old along with me!" (Rabbi Ben Ezra), "A man's reach should exceed his grasp" and "Less is more" (Andrea Del Sarto), "It was roses, roses all the way" (The Patriot), and "God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!" (Pippa Passes).
His critical reputation rests mainly on his dramatic monologues, in which the words not only convey setting and action but reveal the speaker's character. In a Browning monologue, unlike a soliloquy, the meaning is not what the speaker voluntarily reveals but what he inadvertently gives away, usually while rationalising past actions or special pleading his case to a silent auditor. These monologues have been influential, and today the best of them are often treated by teachers and lecturers as paradigm cases of the monologue form. Ian Jack, in his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Browning's poems 1833–1864, comments that Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot "all learned from Browning's exploration of the possibilities of dramatic poetry and of colloquial idiom".
In Oscar Wilde's dialogue The Critic as Artist, Browning is given a famously ironical assessment: "He is the most Shakespearian creature since Shakespeare. If Shakespeare could sing with myriad lips, Browning could stammer through a thousand mouths. [...] Yes, Browning was great. And as what will he be remembered? As a poet? Ah, not as a poet! He will be remembered as a writer of fiction, as the most supreme writer of fiction, it may be, that we have ever had. His sense of dramatic situation was unrivalled, and, if he could not answer his own problems, he could at least put problems forth, and what more should an artist do? Considered from the point of view of a creator of character he ranks next to him who made Hamlet. Had he been articulate, he might have sat beside him. The only man who can touch the hem of his garment is George Meredith. Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning. He used poetry as a medium for writing in prose."
Probably the most adulatory judgment of Browning by a modern critic comes from Harold Bloom: "Browning is the most considerable poet in English since the major Romantics, surpassing his great contemporary rival Tennyson and the principal twentieth-century poets, including even Yeats, Hardy, and Wallace Stevens. But Browning is a very difficult poet, notoriously badly served by criticism, and ill-served also by his own accounts of what he was doing as a poet. [...] Yet when you read your way into his world, precisely his largest gift to you is his involuntary unfolding of one of the largest, most enigmatic, and most multipersoned literary and human selves you can hope to encounter."
His work has nevertheless had many detractors, and most of his voluminous output is not widely read. In a largely hostile essay Anthony Burgess wrote: "We all want to like Browning, but we find it very hard." Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Santayana were also critical. The latter expressed his views in the essay "The Poetry of Barbarism," which attacks Browning and Walt Whitman for what he regarded as their embrace of irrationality.
This section lists the plays and volumes of poetry Browning published in his lifetime. Some individually notable poems are also listed, under the volumes in which they were published. (His only notable prose work, with the exception of his letters, is his Essay on Shelley.)Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)
Strafford (play) (1837)
Bells and Pomegranates No. I: Pippa Passes (play) (1841)
The Year's at the Spring
Bells and Pomegranates No. II: King Victor and King Charles (play) (1842)
Bells and Pomegranates No. III: Dramatic Lyrics (1842)
Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
My Last Duchess
The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Johannes Agricola in Meditation
Bells and Pomegranates No. IV: The Return of the Druses (play) (1843)
Bells and Pomegranates No. V: A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (play) (1843)
Bells and Pomegranates No. VI: Colombe's Birthday (play) (1844)
Bells and Pomegranates No. VII: Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845)
How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church
The Lost Leader
Home Thoughts from Abroad
Meeting at Night
Bells and Pomegranates No. VIII: Luria and A Soul's Tragedy (plays) (1846)
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850)
Men and Women (1855)
Love Among the Ruins
A Toccata of Galuppi's
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
Fra Lippo Lippi
Andrea Del Sarto
The Last Ride Together
How It Strikes a Contemporary
The Statue and the Bust
A Grammarian's Funeral
An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician
Bishop Blougram’s Apology
Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha
By the Fire-side
Dramatis Personae (1864)
Caliban upon Setebos
Rabbi Ben Ezra
Mr. Sludge, "The Medium"
A Death in the Desert
The Ring and the Book (1868–69)
Balaustion's Adventure (1871)
Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871)
Fifine at the Fair (1872)
Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, or, Turf and Towers (1873)
Aristophanes' Apology (1875)
The Inn Album (1875)
Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper (1876)
The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1877)
La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic (1878)
Dramatic Idylls (1879)
Dramatic Idylls: Second Series (1880)
Pan and Luna
Ferishtah's Fancies (1884)
Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day (1887)
Bad Dreams III
Flute-Music, with an Accompaniment