Robert Browning, 1810s-80s

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 accomplished pianist.

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 prospects and 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 skeleton suits.

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.

Adult Life

Elizabeth and mairrage

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 lyrics.

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 boyish clothes.

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.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: September 11, 1998
Last updated: January 28, 2003