Browning, Robert

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Browning, Robert

Robert Browning, 1812–89, English poet. His remarkably broad and sound education was primarily the work of his artistic and scholarly parents—in particular his father, a London bank clerk of independent means. Pauline, his first poem, was published anonymously in 1833. In 1834 he visited Italy, which eventually became his second homeland. He won some recognition with Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840). In 1837, urged by William Macready, the Shakespearean actor, Browning began writing for the stage. Although not especially successful, he wrote eight verse plays during the next nine years, two of which were produced—Strafford in 1837 and A Blot in the 'Scutcheon in 1843. The narrative poem Pippa Passes appeared in 1841; it and subsequent poems were later published collectively as Bells and Pomegranates (1846). Included were "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," both dramatic monologues; this form proved to be the ideal medium for Browning's poetic genius. Other notable poems of this kind are "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto," and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb." In 1846, after a romantic courtship, Browning secretly married the poet Elizabeth Barrett and took her to Italy, where they lived for 15 happy years. There he wrote Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850) and Men and Women (1855). In 1861, after the death of his wife, he returned to England, where he wrote Dramatis Personae (1864). This was followed by what is considered his masterpiece, the murder story The Ring and the Book (4 vol., 1868–69). Set in 17th-century Italy, the poem reveals, through a series of dramatic dialogues, how a single event—a murder—is perceived by different people. Browning gained recognition slowly, but after the publication of this work he was acclaimed a great poet. Societies were instituted for the study of his work in England and America. His later works include Dramatic Idyls (2 vol., 1879–80) and Asolando (1889). Browning's thought is persistently optimistic. He believed in commitment to life. His psychological portraits in verse, ironic and indirect in presentation, and his experiments in diction and rhythm have made him an important influence on 20th-century poetry. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

See variously published volumes of his letters; complete works, ed. by R. A. King (5 vol., 1967–82); biographies by M. Ward (2 vol., 1967–69), B. Miller (1952, repr. 1973), and W. Irvine and P. Honan (1974); studies by R. Langbaum (1963), P. Drew (1966 and 1970), R. E. Gridley (1972), T. Blackburn (1967, repr. 1973), and J. Woolford (1988).

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