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Robert Browning

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English Literature

You've probably heard of Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the husband and wife literary duo who pushed the conventions of the Romantic writing scene. Have you heard of literary power couple Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, though? Their love compelled them to write hundreds of letters, flee the country, and immortalize one another in poetry. Read on to learn more about the male half of this literary couple, dramatic monologist extraordinaire Robert Browning.

Who was Robert Browning?

Browning was an important English poet during the Victorian period, known largely for mastering the dramatic monologue. He was born and raised in Camberwell, a middle-class suburb of London, in 1812. The only son to a bank clerk and a devoutly religious woman, Browning was deeply influenced by his mother's religious beliefs and his father's eccentric educational values.

The elder Browning had wanted a career in art for himself, but had to abandon his own dream due to financial hardships. Still, he amassed a personal library of over 6,000 volumes, which he used to educate his son on history and lore. The majority of Browning's education happened at home with his father, where he learned about various kinds of myths, legends, and unusual information that he later incorporated into his poems.

Dramatic Monologue: a type of poetry in which a single speaker addresses a silent listener; the observations and comments of the speaker on his/her own story give readers psychological insight into the character.

 Robert Browning one person talking StudySmarterOne person talking, pixabay.com

With his father's support, Browning was able to focus solely on poetry and never explored other career options. His wrote his first poem "Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession" in 1832 and published it anonymously the next year. His first poem was not received well by critics, due in large part to how emotional and personal it was: John Stuart Mill wrote that Browning was suffering from an “intense and morbid self-consciousness.”

Fearing that he would never be able to reach true success as a poet, Browning switched his style, becoming exclusively objective. He wrote verse drama for a while, but he was never particularly successful in theater. From 1841-1846, Browning published some of his most famous work in eight separate pamphlets, which he called Bells and Pomegranates. His family financed all of Bells and Pomegranates as well as almost everything else he published in his early career.

Robert Browning's marriage to Elizabeth Barrett

In 1845, Browning met Elizabeth Barrett, who was well known in literary circles for her own poetry, and fell in love with her. She was six years older than him and arguably more successful. Their love story began when Elizabeth Barrett praised Browning's work in her Poems collection, which she published in 1844. She put his poetry in league with William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, implying that he was one of the great poets of their time:

Or at times a modern volume, Wordsworth's solemn-thoughted idyl,
Howitt's ballad-verse, or Tennyson's enchanted reverie,—
Or from Browning some "Pomegranate," which, if cut deep down the middle,
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity.

In return, Browning wrote to thank her, saying,

I love your verses with all my heart … and I love you, too."

They met for the first time in the summer of 1845 and courted in secret for 20 months, during which they exchanged 575 letters.

Robert Browning stack of handwritten lettersStack of handwritten letters, pixabay.com

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was afflicted by a lung illness and spinal injury that started during her teenage years and affected her throughout her entire life. Because of her condition, her father was deeply jealous and protective of her. Fearing her father's wrath, the Brownings secretly married in September 1846 and moved to Italy a week later. Her father disowned her when he found out about the marriage, and she never saw him again.

The Brownings resided in Florence, Italy for most of their marriage, but they often moved due to financial challenges. Barrett Browning's health markedly improved in Italy, and the couple had a son in 1849. Browning educated their son at home, similarly to his own education. He did most of the household chores due to Barrett Browning's spinal injury, so he wrote little while they were married.

Each wrote love poems for the other: one of Barrett Browning's most famous works, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), was a collection of love poems that she wrote for Browning while their relationship was developing between 1845-6. For his part, Browning broke his vow of objectivity and wrote "One Word More" about his love for his wife, published in his Men and Women collection in 1855.

After Barrett Browning died in 1861, Browning returned to London with their son. He immediately set to work getting Barrett Browning's last collection of poetry, Last Poems (1862), ready for publication. In 1868-69, he went on to publish his greatest work, The Ring and the Book, which he based off of a late 17th-century murder trial in Rome. Browning continued writing until the end of his life; he died in 1889 after taking ill in Venice. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Works by Robert Browning

Although he dabbled in playwriting, Browning is best known for his poetry. Browning is considered to be the perfecter of the dramatic monologue, his influence spanning to poets such as W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. Browning's mastery of the dramatic monologue is most often discussed with his poems "My Last Duchess" (1842) and "Porphyria's Lover" (1836) but is also important to his longer works such as The Ring and the Book (1868-9), all of which are discussed below.

Dramatic monologues closely resemble a theatrical monologue. Only one character is speaking, the audience is implied though there is no direct dialogue, and readers are able to get a glimpse of the temperament, feelings, and character of the speaker.

Importantly, the writer takes on the persona of just one character to tell a story from that character's perspective. Browning is known for being able to create a psychological portrait of his characters with his dramatic monologues. Through their speech, readers get a deep dive into their psyche: what motivates them, how they feel about events in their lives, and why they do what they do.

"My Last Duchess" (1842) by Robert Browning

As he is securing his marriage to another woman, a duke tells the story of how his last duchess used to smile and blush at other men until he had her killed for disrespecting him and his status. The duke keeps a portrait of his late wife behind a curtain in his private art collection, which he shows off to guests when he wants to display her beauty and tell the story of her demise to show how powerful he is.

After telling the story of his 'last' duchess, the Duke discusses his future wife's dowry and how excited he is to be marrying the Count's daughter. Browning uses dramatic monologue to create a psychological portrait of a powerful man, who reacts violently (and psychotically) when he feels his control is being threatened.

The Ring and the Book (1868-9) by Robert Browning

The Ring and the Book is a verse novel, published in 12 books from 1868 to 1869. Each book was a dramatic monologue, featuring a different character in the story. The Ring and the Book is written in blank verse and spans more than 21,000 lines. Based on a 1698 Roman murder trial, it tells the story of a Count who is found guilty of murdering his young wife and her parents.

The Count's wife, Pompilia, is so unhappy in her marriage that she enlists the help of a priest to help her flee her marriage and return to her parents' house. Believing that she is having an affair, the Count arranges for her and her parents to be assassinated. The poem explores issues of social justice, religion, and the subjugation of women.

Verse Novel: a type of poetry in which a novel-length narrative is told through poetry instead of prose

Blank Verse: verse which has no set rhyme scheme, but does follow a strict rhythmic meter (typically iambic pentameter)

"Porphyria's Lover" (1836) by Robert Browning

This dramatic monologue is told from the point of view of Porphyria's lover, an unnamed speaker who lives with Porphyria in the countryside. After coming in from a storm and starting a fire, Porphyria gets physically affectionate with her lover, offering him her bare shoulder. The lover, who is living with Porphyria out of wedlock, realizes that she has overcome societal expectations to be with him and "worships" him. Worried that she might change her mind and wanting to capture the moment forever, the lover strangles Porphyria with her own hair and then touches and sits with her body all night.

Themes in Robert Browning's works

Death of Robert Browning

As you probably noticed from the selection above, Browning writes about death...a lot. He is often interested in how death dictates life decisions. He juxtaposes the beauty and happiness of life with the melancholy of inevitable death, as in "Porphyria's Lover" when the speaker wants to maintain the beauty of his life with Porphyria ironically through her death. In some cases, as depicted above in "My Last Duchess" and The Ring and the Book, death serves as a punishment and a means of exploiting one's power.

Interestingly, Browning's female characters often face death more often than their male counterparts. Is there meaning that can be drawn from this?

skull Robert Browning StudySmarterSkull, pixabay.com

Subjugation of Women in Robert Browning's work

The unequal sharing of the burden of death brings us to the theme of the subjugation of women. Both Browning and his wife wrote about the role of women and their place in society in their poetry. During his time, women had little opportunity to advance on their own and their entire social lives were dictated by either their husbands or fathers.

Browning showcases the subjugation of women as an extreme in his poetry: in each of his works above, women are murdered by men in an attempt to punish them and bring them back under control. In both "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover" the women were murdered by their men, not because their own actions were so horrid, but because their significant others were insecure in their own power.

Beauty and Art in Robert Browning's poetry

In various poems, Browning contemplates the nature of beauty in its relationship to power and art. In "My Last Duchess", we see a man who collects beautiful art as an expression of his power. When his wife threatens his domestic power, he kills the living version of her and turns her into an art piece that he can acquire and once again control. Beauty is itself a source of power to be controlled and acquired. Much of his inspiration came from the Renaissance period, in which art was revolutionized.

Robert Browning (1812-1889) - Key takeaways

  • Robert Browning was an important English poet in the Victorian age.
  • He is best known for dramatic monologues and psychological portraits.
  • He was educated largely at home on a variety of myths and arcane lore, which inspired many ideas for his poetry.
  • He married fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
  • His most well-known poems include 'My Last Duchess,' 'Porphyria's Lover,' and The Ring and the Book.
  • The themes of his works include death, the subjugation of women, and beauty and art.

Robert Browning

51

He was a Victorian poet, focused largely on dramatic monologues. 

May 7, 1812

"My Last Duchess"

The dramatic monologue, in which a poem is spoken by one character to a silent audience

Final Robert Browning Quiz

Question

Who was Robert Browning?

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Answer

Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright in the Victorian age. He is best known for dramatic verse. 

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Question

What kind of poetry did Robert Browning write?

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Answer

He is famous for dramatic monologue. In dramatic monologue there is one speaker in the poem. This speaker addresses a silent listener; the observations and comments of the speaker on his/her own story give readers psychological insight into the character.

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Question

What poems are Robert Browning famous for writing? 

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Answer

His most famous poem is 'My Last Duchess.' He also wrote The Book and the Ring and 'Porphyria's Lover.' Although he never considered himself a children's poet, Browning wrote the famous children's poem 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' for a friend's son. 

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Who was Robert Browning married to? 

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Answer

Robert Browning was married to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was a poet in her own right whenever they met. 

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What major complications did the Brownings face? 

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Answer

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father disapproved of Robert Browning and disowned his daughter when he found out she married him. The two had to marry secretly and move to Italy to avoid her father's wrath. Elizabeth Barrett Browning also suffered from lung issues and a spinal injury, making her very sick for most of her life. 

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Question

What was one of Browning's biggest criticisms early on in his career as a poet? 

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Answer

Critics like Henry Mill's criticized his first poem for being too personal an emotional. Browning decided to become an objective narrator and rarely included his personal thoughts in his poetry after that. 

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Question

How was Robert Browning educated?

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Answer

His father educated him at home. His father wanted a career in art, but couldn't due to financial troubles. He educated Robert Browning in classical art and mythology and supported his writing career both emotionally and financially. 

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What are the major themes throughout Browning's works?

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Answer

Browning writes a lot about death, the subjugation of women, and art and beauty. 

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Question

What is different about Browning's poem The Ring and the Book?

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Answer

This poem is a verse novel. It is the length of a novel, but written completely in verse. It spans over 20,000 lines and was broken down into 12 books, each one featuring a dramatic monologue from one of the story's characters.

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Question

Who wrote 'My Last Duchess'? 

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Answer

Robert Browning wrote 'My Last Duchess' in 1842. 

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Where was 'My Last Duchess' published? 

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It was published in Browning's Dramatic Lyrics collection. Dramatic Lyrics was the third volume of his Bells and Pomegranates series. It was originally entitled 'Italy.' 

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Who is the speaker in 'My Last Duchess'? 

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Answer

Based on the "Ferrara" epigraph at the top of the text, the speaker is the Duke of Ferrara. He is speaking to a silent listener, who is an emissary of a count. The count's daughter is marrying the Duke. 

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What is the setting for 'My Last Duchess'?

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The poem is set in the Duke of Ferrara's house. The Duke and his guest are looking at his private art collection. 

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What is noteworthy about the portrait in 'My Last Duchess'?


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It is lifesized. It looks as if the duchess is still alive and standing in the room. It is hidden behind a curtain that is only allowed to be moved by the Duke. 

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What did the duchess do wrong in 'My Last Duchess'?

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She smiled and blushed at men who gave her attention. The Duke thought this was wrong because she was ranking his favor at the same level as everyone else's favor. She was not respecting his status. 

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What happened to the duchess? 

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The Duke had her killed: 'I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together' (45-46).

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Why does the Duke think he is above everyone else socially? 

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He comes from a very old and prestigious family. He is very proud of his "900 year name" and the power that comes with it.  

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What happens at the end of the poem? 

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The Duke tells the listener to follow him downstairs, where the listener's master, the Count, is waiting to discuss marriage details between his daughter and the Duke. 

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What are major themes in the poem? 

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Major themes include power and corruption, control of others, gender inequality, and art and culture. 

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What poetic devices are used throughout the poem? 

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The poem uses end rhyme, enjambment, symbolism, alliteration, and consonance as poetic devices

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