Robert Browning (1812 - 1889)

Life and Works

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell and was the first son of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning. His father, a son of a rich landowner in the West Indies, rejected slavery and decided to work as a clerk in a bank in London. He was an avid reader and a father interested in his children's education. In fact, most of Robert's education took place at home. An extremely intelligent student and reader, Robert learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian by the age of fourteen. He enrolled at the University of London in 1828, but he felt discontent and pursued his education on his own.

portrait of the poet

In the 1830s he got in touch with drama staging and realized that the dramatic monologue was a suitable literary form for his literary purposes. Given the obscurity of his poems or of his shorter lyrics he received both encouraging and adverse criticism.

Elizabeth Barret Browning

In 1845 he read Elizabeth Barrett's poems, and decided to meet her. She was under the control of a domineering father, but they married in September 1846 and a few days later eloped to Italy, where they lived until her death in 1861. Her death opened up a movement of public sympathy towards Robert, who no doubt influenced the positive critical reception of his Collected Poems (1862) and Dramatis Personae (1863). The Ring and the Book (1868-9) finally won him considerable popularity. He and Elizabeth led expatriate lives in Italy. Important as Browning is nowadays, he was not central to Victorian culture while he was alive. Exile encouraged the eccentricity of language that was already present in his early work.

Robert Browning is normally associated to Alfred Tennyson, two outstanding poets of the period. Although the late '60s were the peak of his career, his influence continued to grow. In 1881 the Browning Society was founded. He died in 1889. He is buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Browning's signature

Robert Browning is best known for his dramatic monologues, a group of poems in which a character in fiction explains his feelings, actions or motives to a silent audience. The poet's subject is the psychology of the character. He is also interested in the speaker's point of view. In the case of Browning's poems, the reader plays the role of the listener. The reader's point of view is also an integral part of the poem. He is a character as well as a speaker. The real listener seems to be the speaker's second self, and in some monologues, the second self is more important than the character himself. What distinguishes the dramatic monologue from the monologue is the highly rhetorical language, for it shows the speaker talking to a second self. Finally, we must take into account that Browning provides clues to the speakers' obsessions but we, as readers, must imagine ourselves in his situation. We can only speculate for we do not find proofs nor can we be certain of the reality presented in the poem. This uncertainty accords with Browning's about what happens in his poems.


  manuscript of The Ring and the Book

His dramatic monologues make new demands on the reader. These are extra-textual monologues and are signalled within the text by the figure of the listener. The figure and the tone which the speaker adopts to make his case are the most important characteristic of Browning's monologues. The presence of the listener determines the reader's reaction to the speaker. The speaker's effect upon his listener is Browning's device to suggest the interplay between the characters. We, as readers, must imagine the speaker by putting together bits of information. Sometimes we simply have to figure out what is happening. Each re-reading imposes the enactment of a new discovery which the listener experiences. The process of discovery is a process of engagement, then of detachment. The reader must become engaged in the game of imagination before we can have a detached, critical view of the whole work.

Browning did not exploit the possibilities of the dramatic monologue until he went to Italy. His early poems are a series of huge metaphysical, philosophical and historical constructions. It is "Porphyria's Lover" that marks his start as a great poet. The poem is the utterance of an obsession. Porphyria visits the speaker, emerging out of a stormy landscape. In the end Porphyria is strangled with her own hair. The poem is an analysis of insanity and sexual murder. The poem dramatizes subjective feelings and externalized objective experience simultaneously. The initial landscape is seized by human violence. The woman is seen in terms of property, and becomes a mere object for the lover, while the speaker is the love belonging to Porphyria and the love possessing her. The fantasy, which is subjective, reconstructs a social order that is distorted. In an aesthetic manner Browning creates a political base to a romanticism that is already exhausted.

Browning began his career as a Romantic poet with literary and aesthetic preoccupations similar to the early Romantics searching for a unifying idea. He wrote three poems before 1840. Two of them Pauline and Sordello compare favourably with the works of Shelley and Keats. From then onwards he moved away from Romanticism and from Romantic aesthetics. He critiqued Romanticism, particularly the idea of freedom, imagination, and the idea that feeling is a necessary energizing power. Gradually he parts from his early optimism and moves towards a radical scepticism. He tries to find new and more complex ways to express the psychological nuances of a mind. He tries to capture the order and meaning of a world that has become multitudinous. In the end he accepts that there is no fixed order or reality, and that imaginary worlds can founder at any moment.

In the poems he wrote after 1846, when he departed to Italy, Browning restricts and delimits the areas of experience explored in his poems. The metaphysical constructs of his early poems disappear. He writes on a smaller scale and adopts a much more eccentric style. Poems such as "Andrea Del Sarto" or "Fra Lippo Lippi" are his major works and the critique of contemporary culture. By restricting his material, Browning managed to concentrate and clarify his meaning. Pippa Passes is a transitional poem, Browning's last attempt to explore the problem of order and action on a large scale in terms of politics and teleology. Pippa is a poor factory girl who passes four different groups of people more privileged at moments of crucial decision. She manages to influence their decision by means of the lyrical song she sings. The 'formless' structure seems to be deliberate as it helps to reflect the open, varied and chaotic world. There is a central ambiguity in the poem. Later on, he evolved a form and language which search for a pattern and a meaning. Through these monologues he explored the human need to create an image of the world and of the self. The direct use of political and social issues disappear in favour of a more indirect and subtle treatment. There is a more intense interest in art and emotions. Browning became a psychological poet in the sense that he explored the processes of perception and introspection. He seems to realize the human need to create fictions in which cultural myths are embedded and distorted.

"Andrea Del Sarto", "Fra Lippo Lippi", or "Caliban Upon Setebos" are monologues in which Browning tries to discern a pattern in experience. The speakers see their lives as meaningful wholes. In "Fra Lippo Lippi", Browning's early concerns about the artist's audience reappear. The monologue allowed him to demonstrate the process of communication. The silent listener supervises the way experiences are articulated. "Fra Lippo Lippi" is an ambiguous defense of the aesthetic and emotional freedom of the artist. He is defending a celebratory view of art as a reanimating power. Art is democratic and is based on the portrayal of an actual world. But the tone of his celebration is quite different. The speaker cannot sustain his feeling and presents himself as a bohemian artist. Lippi loses confidence when he is confronted with his audience. He does not trust his audience's feelings and creates a defensive image of himself.

The Ring and the Book is his last great work. It is a collection of monologues that explore the nature of the act of interpretation. It is fiction analyzing fiction. Browning returns to huge scale poems and social institutions. Each monologue qualifies another, defines and redefines the nature of interpretation.

Contemporary reactions to his poetry were contradictory. For critics of the 1830s, 40s and 50s, Browning's poetry could not be understood; they could not make sense of it. They saw his poetry as the product of an uncontrolled and subversive mind. They reacted as if they were in front of something that was new and alien. They perceived the differences and not the similarities between his poetry and that of other Victorian poets. John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin reacted in the same way. They did not have reading strategies for Browning's dramatic monologues. They did not realize that the reader had to fill in the gaps, and that he had to make a supplementary effort while reading Browning' dramatic monologues.

Browning revived the dramatic monologue and passed it on to twentieth-century poets. The obsession with objectivity and the erasure of personal feelings made the dramatic monologue a suitable form for Modernist poetry. It allowed the poet speak about any topic without having to express his own feelings directly. In fact, the dramatic monologue could serve as a perfect means to transmit ideas and concepts in a detached and objective way.



Santiago Rodríguez Guerrero Strachan (Universidad de Valladolid)