English Literature Of The 19th Century:
Other Irish Story Writers
Thomas Adolphus Trollope
Poetry Of The Early Victorian Period
Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Browning was in almost everything in direct contrast with his great contemporary, Tennyson. From his first utterance the latter was recognized as a sweet singer, long before he was found to be an interpreter of the human heart. The former, if listened to at all, was regarded as a speaker of dark sayings, an unintelligible discourser. But after he had unexpectedly burst into snatches of melody, attention was given to his enigmatic torrents of words, and he was discovered to be a profound analyst of souls and motives. Then the wide-spread interest of this age in the study of character caused him to be esteemed a prophet, and led to the formation of societies to observe his wonderful experiments. In the end, as Tennyson was quoted with affection, Browning was worshiped with awe. Yet he never lost his self-poise, but cheerfully kept his place in society and watched with continual interest the doings of his fellow-men.
Robert Browning was born in London in May, 1812. He belonged to the middle class, was the son of a Dissenter, and was educated privately. His first book, "Pauline" (1833), was an immature attempt to describe a philosophic life; it had, like some later poems, dramatic qualities without dramatic form. After a year's travel on the Continent he published "Paracelsus" (1835), in which the hero seeks infinite wisdom, but comes to see that knowledge without love is vain. The tragedy of "Strafford" (1837) was written for the stage, and had some success in spite of the complicated involved style which characterized all his early work. In "Sordello" (1840) he filled up the meager outline of a story suggested by Dante, and made the Italian troubadour overcome the temptation of lending himself to a faction that he might accomplish great good for mankind. In all of these works there was a certain egotism, the heroes being indeed but shadowy projections of the author's soul. But people refused to take the trouble to under-stand them. The series of "Bells and Pomegranates" (1846) opened with the beautiful lyrical drama of "Pippa Passes," and contained lyrics which won general praise. A friendly allusion to them by Miss Elizabeth Barrett in one of her poems led to the acquaintance of the two poets, which ripened into love and marriage. They went to Italy and resided chiefly in the Casa Guidi Palace in Florence fifteen happy years, until his wife's death in 1861. In that time Browning published "Christmas Eve and Easter Day" (1850) and "Men and Women" (1855), dedicated to his wife as "the Moon of Poets." In 1869 he boldly challenged the world with his long, complicated medieval Italian story of "The Ring and the Book" in four volumes, containing 20,000 lines. The kernel is that a middle-aged husband, jealous of his child wife, so tormented her with ill treatment that she fled under care of a young priest, who afterwards is brought to trial before the Pope. The case is told over and over again by the various participants, good and bad, from their several points of view, their own souls and motives being revealed in the telling. Strange as is the form of this poem, its power must be acknowledged.
Later Browning found pleasure in skillful translations from the Greek tragedians "Alcestis," "Agamemnon," and afterwards from the great comic poet in "Aristophanes' Apology." But he was not merely a scholar; he was a favorite in London society. There he found subjects of his own time in "Mr. Sludge the Medium," "Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau," and "Bishop Blougram's Apology." These are apologetic poems, tending to prove that a man's character is determined not by what he thinks but by what he does. Other works continued to flow from his pen, mostly in his peculiar blank verse, sometimes narrative, sometimes dramatic monologue. His last work, "Asolando" (1889), named from Asolo, a favorite village near Venice, is thought to be one of his best, as it contains some fine lyrics. Just after it was published he died, on December 12, 1889, at his only son's residence in Venice.
Browning deliberately set at naught the rules and usages of English speech; he used strange words, odd phrases, bad rhymes ; he seemed to be in so great a hurry to deliver his message that he could not pause to select the proper terms. Many personages in his poems used the same broken style. In his early works he expressed through characters partly drawn from history, rather the tumult of his own soul, but as years brought the philosophic mind he became a realist and studied the characters of others as seen in life or gleaned from reading records. All readers are constrained to admit his power of turning souls inside out, and to feel the humor and pathos of these revelations. While he took most delight in delineating character, he described external nature with freedom and force, painting it in grand outlines, with felicity of color. Considerable part of his work was dramatic, and besides the one already mentioned, "The Blot on the 'Scutcheon" and "Colombe's Birthday," Were presented on the stage. He was indeed a master of dramatic character, though perhaps not of construction. But for the general public his power lies in his shorter pieces, in the spirited and beautiful lyrics; even into these he sometimes thrust his queer expressions and fantastic phrases. Perhaps "The Last Ride Together" is the most perfect, but others are more widely known.