Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Major Works: Dramatic Lyrics (1842), including "My Last Duchess," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "Porphyria's Lover," & "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"; Men and Women (1855), including "Fra Lippo Lippi" & "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"; Dramatis Personae (1864); and The Ring and the Book (1869).

Biographical Notes: Born to a bank clerk and a gentle, pious woman who loved music and flowers, Browning had an unusually happy childhood in a pleasant suburb of London; later he admitted he was a spoiled child whose every whim his parents indulged.  His formal education was sporadic, but he read extensively and eclectically in his father's 6000-volume library.  Browning wrote verse as early as age 5, and his parents attempted (unsuccessfully) to have a volume of his pre-teen poems published.  After a brief stint at the newly formed University of London, Browning turned to writing professionally.  His earliest published poetry was condemned as too personal--intensely, morbidly self-conscious, according to John Stuart Mill.  From shame and embarrassment, Browning published little poetry for a decade and worked instead at writing plays, a few of which were produced without notable success.  When he returned to poetry full-time, the experience he had gained in drama led Browning to greater success working in the mode of the dramatic monologue, and his 1842 and 1845 collections received moderate praise.  After his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, Browning moved to Europe, where he lived and traveled widely until her death in 1861.  He spent his remaining years in England.  While she was alive, Elizabeth was considered the "real" poet in the family, but by the 1870s Robert's popularity grew to the point that he eventually displaced Tennyson as England's leading poet.  In the 1880s Browning had a sort of cult following in numerous "Browning Societies" that sprang up all over England and America.

Zest for life
In person and in his art Browning had an extraordinary curiosity and a joy in energetic, intense experience of all manner of life.  He wrote to a friend once that he sometimes bit into flowers and leaves because he so wanted to get at their innermost essence—to "understand them quite."  This same desire for intensity of understanding he applied to people as well, and his poetry attempts to discover for the reader the unique core individuality of a great variety of human personalities.

The dramatic monologue
Browning's influence on 20th century poetry is probably far greater than any other Victorian poet's, chiefly in his establishing and making viable the dramatic monologue, one of the most dominant modern poetic modes.  The speaker of the dramatic monologue is a created character—that is, the speaker is clearly not the poet—and the speaker in the poem addresses a specific person or audience at a specific moment in time—thus the monologue is dramatic in the sense that it presents two characters in a dramatic situation, as though the poem's action were taking place on an imaginary stage.  The dramatic monologue is often delivered at a crucial moment in the life of the speaker.  Typically, the dramatic monologue offers the reader an important revelation about the speaker, and the point of the poem usually lies not so much in the subject the speaker describes as in what we learn about the speaker's character and personality.

"Action in character, not character in action"
Browning's work is closer to the art of the twentieth century fiction, as well.  Preceding and paralleling the innovation developed by novelist Henry James, Browning's poetry is less interested in showing characters in dramatic external action, and more interested in revealing significant action within the mind of the speaker.  Also like James, Browning felt a literary artist should not "slip truths" to the reader—going against the trend of the typical Victorian novelists and poets (Tennyson, e.g.), Browning did not believe in stating explicit didactic morals or messages in his work.  Rather, he presented his characters and situations as vividly as he could without entering his own comments into the work.  Browning offers his readers intensity of imagery of sight and sound so that the work comes to life in the mind of the reader—he thought the artist should describe things "as they really are" and leave it entirely up to the reader to realize any specific "truths" in the art itself.  Although he conversed very openly about himself with his friends and acquaintances, Browning preferred not to "explain" his poetry to anyone.  This leaving interpretation up to the audience is characteristic of nearly all art in the 20th century, a definite departure from the Victorian norm.

Hazlitt's "Gusto," Keats's "negative capability"
Also "un-Victorian" is the apparent amorality of Browning's poetry.  Not only does he not tell his reader's how to view his characters, he explores a wide range of personalities ranging to the bizarre and grotesque, from Renaissance artists and clerics to murderers and madmen.  With the same "gusto" that Hazlitt admired in Shakespeare, Browning enters into each of his characters completely and equally, without regard for their apparent morality or immorality.  Like Keats, Browning identifies himself so closely with each of his characters and their worlds that his own personality seems wholly "negated" or absent.  We learn almost nothing about Browning himself in his poetry, but with more typically modern psychological realism, we do see completely into the minds of his characters, individual, isolated, alienated, bizarre as they may be.

"Energy, striving, the quest "
The ardent fans in the Browning societies and many of the Victorians at large saw Browning as an eternal optimist, a "pillar of faith" free from the doubt that tormented so many of his contemporaries—this despite his professed belief in evolution.  Today we are less certain about Browning's personal faith.  Perhaps the one trend we can draw from his diverse studies of individual character is that Browning seemed to prize positive, active energy.  The greatest good in life, he seems to imply repeatedly, is the quest itself, almost regardless of what the object of that quest may be.  So long as we are striving actively towards some goal, it almost seems not to matter whether or not we achieve it: aspiration is more important than attainment, the journey is more important than the destination.

Reality is relative
For Browning, all points of view have their own logic and intrinsic merit; truth is not an objective absolute but a variable that shifts with shifts in perspective.