Robert Browning

Robert Browning

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell,[1] a suburb of London, England, on May 7, 1812, the first son of Robert and Sarah Anna Wiedemann Browning. His father was a man of both fine intellect and character, who worked as a well-paid clerk for the Bank of England. Robert's father amassed a library of around 6,000 books, many of them obscure and arcane. Thus, Robert was raised in a household of significant literary resources. His mother, with whom he was ardently bonded, was a devout Nonconformist. He had a younger sister, also gifted, who became the companion in her brother's later years. As a family unit they lived simply, and his father encouraged Robert's interest in literature and the Arts.

In childhood, he was distinguished by love of poetry and natural history. By twelve, he had written a book of poetry, which he 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 by a tutor.

Browning was a rapid learner and by the age of fourteen was fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin as well as his native English. He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. Following the precedent of Shelley, Browning became an atheist and practised vegetarianism, both of which he later shed. At age sixteen, he attended University College, London, but left after his first year. His mother?s staunch evangelical faith circumscribed the pursuit of his reading at either Oxford or Cambridge, then both only available to members of the Church of England. Through his mother he inherited musical talent and he composed arrangements of various songs.

[edit] Middle life
In 1845, Browning met Elizabeth Barrett, who lived in her father's house in Wimpole Street. Gradually a significant romance developed between them, leading to their secret marriage in 1846. (The marriage was initially secret because Elizabeth's father disapproved of marriage for any of his children.) From the time of their marriage, the Brownings lived in Italy, first in Pisa, and then, within a year, finding an apartment in Florence which they called 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 learnt hugely from the art and atmosphere of Italy. He would, in later life, say that 'Italy was my university'. Browning's poetry was known to the cognescenti from fairly early on in his life, but he remained relatively obscure as a poet till his middle age. (In the middle of the century, Tennyson was much better known.) In Florence he worked on the poems that eventually comprised his two-volume Men and Women, for which he is now well known; in 1855, however, when these were published, they made little impact. It was only after his wife's death, in 1861, when he returned to England and became part of the London literary scene, 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, and finally achieved really significant recognition. Based on a convoluted murder-case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve volumes, essentially comprising ten lengthy dramatic poems narrated by the various characters in the story showing their individual take on events as they transpire, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself. Extraordinarily long even by Browning's own standards (over twenty thousand lines), The Ring and the Book was the poet's most ambitious project and has been hailed as a tour de force of dramatic poetry. Published separately in four volumes from November 1868 through to February 1869, the poem was a huge success both commercially and critically, and finally brought Browning the renown he had sought and deserved for nearly thirty years of work.

1882 Caricature from PunchIn the remaining twenty-one years of his life, as well as travelling extensively and frequenting London literary society again, Browning managed to publish no less than fifteen new volumes. None of these later works gained the popularity of The Ring and the Book, and they are largely unread today. However, Browning's later work has been undergoing a major critical re-evaluation in recent years, and much of it remains of interest for its poetic quality and psychological insight. After a series of long poems published in the early 1870s, of which Fifine at the Fair and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country were the best-received, Browning again turned to shorter poems. The volume Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper included a spiteful attack against Browning's critics, especially the later Poet Laureate Alfred Austin.

According to some reports Browning became romantically involved with Lady Ashburton in the 1870s, but did not re-marry. In 1878, he returned to Italy for the first time in the seventeen years since Elizabeth's death, and returned there on several occasions.

The Browning Society was formed for the appreciation of his works in 1881.

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. Once more, the Victorian public was baffled by this, and Browning returned to the short, concise lyric for his last volume, Asolando (1889).

He died at his son's home Ca' Rezzonico in Venice on 12 December 1889, the same day Asolando was published, and was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey; his grave now lies immediately adjacent to that of Alfred Tennyson.

[edit] Browning's poetic style
Browning?s fame today rests mainly on his dramatic monologues, in which the words not only convey setting and action but also reveal the speaker?s character. Unlike a soliloquy, the meaning in a Browning dramatic monologue is not what the speaker directly reveals but what he inadvertently "gives away" about himself in the process of rationalizing past actions, or "special-pleading" his case to a silent auditor in the poem. Rather than thinking out loud, the character composes a self-defense which the reader, as "juror," is challenged to see through. Browning chooses some of the most debased, extreme and even criminally psychotic characters, no doubt for the challenge of building a sympathetic case for a character who doesn't deserve one and to cause the reader to squirm at the temptation to acquit a character who may be a homicidal psychopath. One of his more sensational monologues is "Porphyria?s Lover." The opening lines provide a sinister setting for the macabre events that follow. It is plain that the speaker is insane, as he strangles his lover with her own hair to try and preserve for ever the moment of perfect love she has shown him.

Yet it is by carefully reading the far more sophisticated and cultivated rhetoric of the aristocratic and civilized Duke of "My Last Duchess," perhaps the most frequently cited example of the poet's dramatic monologue form, that the attentive reader discovers the most horrific example of a mind totally mad despite its eloquence in expressing itself. The duchess, we learn, was murdered not because of infidelity, not because of a lack of gratitude for her position, and not, finally, because of the simple pleasures she took in common everyday occurrences. She's reduced to an objet d'art in the Duke's collection of paintings and statues because the Duke equates his instructing her to behave like a duchess with "stooping," an action of which his megalomaniacal pride is incapable. In other monologues, such as "Fra Lippo Lippi," Browning takes an ostensibly unsavory or immoral character and challenges us to discover the goodness, or life-affirming qualities, that often put the speaker's contemporaneous judges to shame. In "The Ring and the Book" Browning writes a modern epic poem in which he justifies the ways of God to humanity through twelve extended blank verse monologues spoken by the principals in a trial about a murder case remarkably like that of the 20th-century-ending O. J. Simpson trial in America. These monologues greatly influenced many later poets, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the latter singling out in his Cantos Browning's convoluted psychological poem about a frustrated 13-century troubador, Sordello, as the poem he must work to distance himself from.

Ironically, Browning?s style, which seemed modern and experimental to Victorian readers, owes much to his love of the seventeenth century poems of John Donne with their abrupt openings, colloquial phrasing and irregular rhythms. But he remains too much the prophet-poet and descendant of Percy Shelley to settle for the conceits, puns, and verbal play of the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. His is a modern sensibility, all too aware of the arguments against the vulnerable position of one of his simple characters, who recites: "God's in His Heaven; All's right with the world." Browning essentially endorses such a position because he sees an immanent deity that, far from remaining in a transcendent heaven, is indivisible from temporal process, assuring that in the fullness of theological time there is ample cause for celebrating life. Browning's is assuredly at once the most incarnate and dynamic of deities, in Christianity and perhaps in any of the world's great religions.

[edit] Trivia
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The last two lines of the famous "Song" from Pippa Passes?"God's in his heaven, All's right with the world!"?are parodied in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World with the hypnopaedic slogan: - "Ford's in his flivver, all's right with the world!" Browning's lines are also used in the Japanese animations Neon Genesis Evangelion, RahXephon, Black Lagoon, and Darker than Black. In another Japanese animation, R.O.D. the T.V., the final line is a take off stating "The Paper's in her heaven, All's right in the world."

Robert Browning was the first person to ever have his voice heard after his death. On a recording[1] made by Thomas Edison in 1889, Browning reads "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" (including apologizing when he forgets the words). It was first played in Venice in 1890.

John Lennon's song "Grow old with me," which was inspired by Robert's poem Rabbi ben Ezra, appears on his album Milk and Honey.

Stephen King's Dark Tower series was inspired by Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

In the Get Carter remake, at the opening of the film, the quote "That's all we can expect of man, this side of the grave; his good is ... knowing he is bad" is shown on the screen.

Anthony Powell used Browning's work for the titles of two of his novels; What's Become of Waring 1939 inspired by "Waring" from Dramatic Romances and Lyrics and "The Soldier's Art" part of the "A Dance to the Music Of Time" sequence, named for a line from Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

[edit] Complete list of works
Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)
Paracelsus (1835)
Strafford (play) (1837)
Sordello (1840)
Bells and Pomegranates No. I: Pippa Passes (play) (1841)
Bells and Pomegranates No. II: King Victor and King Charles (play) (1842)
Bells and Pomegranates No. III: Dramatic Lyrics (1842)
"Porphyria's Lover"
"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)
"The Laboratory"
"How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix"
"The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church"
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"
"A Grammarian's Funeral"
"An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician"
Dramatis Personae (1864)
"Caliban upon Setebos"
"Rabbi Ben Ezra"
The Ring and the Book (1868-9)
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)
Jocoseria (1883)
Ferishtah's Fancies (1884)
Parleyings with Certain People of Importance In Their Day (1887)
Asolando (1889)

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