Magazine article The World and I

Celebrating Robert Browning

Magazine article The World and I

Celebrating Robert Browning

Article excerpt

While some celebrate Robert Browning's 200th birthday (May 7, 2012), most of the world is not aware of it. In stark contrast to the numerous celebrations going on in honor of Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday we also celebrate this year, very little is being done to honor the author of many plays, poems, and the "inventor" of the dramatic monologue. Britain has even issued a stamp and put out a new coin for "the Inimitable," as Dickens liked to call himself, but nothing has been done for Browning. For many good reasons we Americans ought to try to remedy this oversight.

Unlike Dickens, who led a very unstable early life, Robert Browning's early years were quite different. He was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell (a suburb of London), the first child of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning. His father, a clerk for the Bank of England, was interested in history, art, and music. His mother was an accomplished musician and deeply religious. Robert, educated at home, had access to his father's large library. Fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin at an early age, Browning became a devout follower of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. He spent part of a year at London University, but soon abandoned formal schooling and remained with his parents, financially dependent on them, until his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett in 1836.

Browning published a great deal in his lifetime, but he never has been as well known as Dickens, even in his own time. His first significant work was Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833). He then published Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840). Needless to say, not one of these was as successful as Dickens' novels. Browning himself had called Pauline an abortion, and Sordello became the butt of many jokes. Thomas Carlyle wrote that his wife Jane has read the poem through and had not been about to tell is if Sordello was a man and city or a book. Another reader was said to have commented, "I understood only two lines of the poem. The first, 'will tell the story of Sordello,' and the last' have told the story of Sordello.'" Dissatisfied with these efforts, Browning was to devote the next ten years to writing plays. While none of these efforts were a success, they were to provide him with the key to his most popular poetic genre: the dramatic monologue.

While Browning was influenced by the Romantic poets, he perfected a form that in many ways differed from the lyric poetry of Shelley, Keats, and Wordsworth. He is known today for his employment of the dramatic monologue, a literary genre that uses specific situations and poetic techniques. One dictionary of literary terms defines the dramatic monologue in this way: "a poem in which there is one imaginary speaker addressing an imaginary audience." Another handbook is more detailed in its description: "The dramatic poem consists of the thoughts or spoken statement (or both) of one or more characters other than the poet himself in a particular life situation. It is dramatic rather than narrative since the character is not 'written about' by the poet; rather, the poem consists of the character's own thoughts or spoken statements.... A poem recording his speech is called a dramatic monologue."

Browning wrote many dramatic monologues, many of which are still popular today, and his influence on our own American poets was significant. Among his best known dramatic monologues are "Porphyria's Lover," "My Last Duchess," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "The Laboratory," "The Lost Leader," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church," "Fra Lippo Lippi," and "Andrea del Sarto. …

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