Robert Browning (1812-89) is generally known to most as the writer
of The Pied Piper. Others remember his love affair with Elizabeth
Barrett, imortalized as the the hero of the The Barretts of
Wimpole Street. Most people remember little more. However, he along
with Alfred Lord Tennyson is
considered to be England's greatest poets and is buried in Westminster
Abbey among the very greatest figures in British history. Who then was this
Robert Browning who at his death at age 77 had risen to the heights of
English literary society from his comparatively modest beginnings across
the Thames in the south London village of Camberwell?
Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell (a suburb of
London), the first child of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning.
Robert's mother was a fervent Evangelical and an
Robert's father had angered his own father and forgone a
fortune: the poet's grandfather had sent his son to oversee a West Indies
sugar plantation, but the young
man had found the institution of slavery so abhorrent that he gave up his
returned home, to become a clerk in the Bank of England. On this very
modest salary he
was able to marry, raise a family, and to acquire a library of 6,000
volumes. He was an
exceedingly well-read man who could recreate the seige of Troy with the
household chairs and tables for the benefit of his inquisitive son.
Robert was a very clever child and had the ambition to be a poet from
his earliest days. He did not have any formal education beyond the age
of 14 years. He was lagely self educated, mostly at home. He was an
extremely bright child and a
voracious reader (he read through all 50 volumes of the Biographie
Universelle and learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian by the time
he was 14 years old. I am not sure why he did not attend Public School
(private secondary school). It could have been the modest circumstances
of his parents or because the Public Schools of the day were cinsidered
rough institutions by many parents.
I have no information on what clothes Robert wore as a boy. Given the decade
of his boyhood, you would assume he wore dresses as a boy. No information
is available on when he was breeched. Presumably he then wore tunics and
He attended the University of London in 1828, the first year it opened,
but left in discontent to pursue his
own reading at his own pace. This somewhat idiosyncratic but extensive
education has led to
difficulties for his readers: he did not always realize how obscure
were his references and allusions.
His parents supported him in his efforts to pursue a career in poetry.
They assisted him until he was in his thirties. In the 1830's he met the
actor William Macready and tried several times to write verse
drama for the stage. At about the same time he began to discover that his
real talents lay in
taking a single character and allowing him to discover himself to us by
revealing more of
himself in his speeches than he suspects-the characteristics of the
dramatic monologue. The
reviews of Paracelsus (1835) had been mostly encouraging, but the
difficulty and obscurity
of his long poem Sordello (1840) turned the critics against him, and for
many years they
continued to complain of obscurity even in his shorter, more accessible
He saw Elizabeth Barrett's poems in 1845 and contrived to meet her.
Although Elizabeth was an
invalid and very much under the control of a domineering father, the
two married in September 1846.
A few days later eloped to Italy, where they
lived until her death in
1861. The years in Florence were among the happiest for both of them. Her
love for him was demonstrated in the Sonnets from the Portugese,
and to her he dedicated Men and Women, which contains his best poetry.
Their 15 year marriage was however spent mostly in Italy because the warm climate helped
his wife's lung condition.
Elizabeth and Robert had one child,
Pen. They had many disagreements on
how Pen should be raised. One of the issues was Pen's clothes and hair.
Elizabeth had very definite ideas and Robert questioned them. Robert took
considerable interest in Pen's upbringing. He had a good relationship with the boy,
but did not endulge him like Elizabeth did. After Pen
got older, Robert thought that he should be dressed in more boyish clothes
and told Elizabeth so.
Pen who had at first enjoyed the attention, also began asking for more boyish
clothes. Robert did not
intervene, however, and Elizabeth chose Pen's clothes until her untimely
death. It is likely that in the last year as Elizabeth's health was failing,
that neither Pen or Robert wanted to upset her even though it mean that
Pen continued to wear long curls, lace collars, pantalette-like pants,
white socks, and strap shoes.
After Elizabeth's death, Robert returned to London and never visited
Florence or Rome again. Pen was allowed to get his hair cut and wear more
Robert was remarkable not only for his creative
but also his social energy. Nearly all his life was spent in his native London where he was
well-known as an entertaining dinner party guest and social personality -- rather an unusual
role fo As an older man he enjoyed long autumn holidays in Venice, and it was on
one of these that he died in his son Pen's
magnificent palace on the Grand Canal.
One author sums up Browning's poetry as, "Robert Browning is the great poet of human complexity, the poet of success stories, which feel like failures, of failures more interesting than success, of doubt which is more religious than faith." [Wilson] Broning was always true to his poetic vocation but received little public appreciation until he published The Ring and the Book when he was in his 50s. This huge and highly original poem is beyond all but the most dedicated of modern readers. Nevertheless there are passages of great beauty and psychological insight: the final lines of the first book are a tribute to his, by then, dead wife: Oh Lyric Love, half angel and half bird....
Public sympathy for him after her death (she was a
much more popular poet during their lifetimes) surely helped the critical reception of his
Collected Poems (1862) and Dramatis Personae (1863). The Ring and the Book
(1868-9), based on an "old yellow book" which told of a Roman murder and trial, finally
won him considerable popularity. He and Tennyson were now mentioned together as the
foremost poets of the age. Although he lived and wrote actively for another twenty years, the late 1860s were the peak of his career.
Browning wrote more poetry than almost any other English poet, all
wonderfully intense and
original and of an uncompromisingly high standard. He never thought of
'retiring'; his last
poems were published on the day of his death.
Browing had several distinct creative periods:
Experimental period: The experimental phase (1833-45) is represented by selections from Pauline (1833), Paracelsus (1835), Sordello (1840), Dramatic Lyrics (1842), and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), as well as by the complete text of Pippa Passes.
Major phase: The major phase(1855-69) accounted for Men and Women (1855), Dramatis Personae (1864), and The Ring and the Book (1868-69), of which Books V, VI, and X are reprinted; and the later achievement (after 1870) by selections from Fifine at the Fair (1872), Aristophanes’ Apology (1875), Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper: With Other Poems (1876), Jocoseria (1883), Deleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day (1887), and Asolando: Fancies and Facts (1889). Browning’s Introductory Essay to the Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1852).
He was an encouraging voice amidst the anxiety and spiritual dismay
that followed the
scientific revelations of the 19th century. This is not to say he
was blandly optimistic as
he is sometimes portrayed. He wrote fully about the world's cruelty and
vice, and was quite
frank that he had himself had no divine revelation. In this way he is a
very modern figure.
Nevertheless he resolved to hope rather than doubt and this determined
hopefulness remains a comfort and inspiration for many.
Robert's influence continued to grow, however, and finally
lead to the founding of the Browning Society in 1881. He died in 1889, on
the same day that
his final volume of verse, Asolando, was published. He is buried in Poet's
Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography.
Wilson, A.N. The Victorians (Norton), 724p.
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Elizabeth Barrett Browning pages:
[Return to the Main Elizabeth Barrett Browning page]
[Childhood] [Poetry and Mairrage]  [Son] [Reflections]
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossary] [Satellite sites] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]