His Life. Browning was born at Camberwell, his father being connected with the Bank of England. The future poet was educated semi-privately, and from an early age he was free to follow his inclination towards studying the usual subjects. As a child he was precocious, and began to write poetry at the age of twelve. Of his predecessors, Shelley in particular, influenced his mind, which was unformed and turbulent at this time with a growing power within. After a brief course at London University, Browning for a short period travelled in Russia (1833); then he lived in London, where he became acquainted with some of the leaders of literary and theatrical worlds. In 1834 he paid his first visit to Italy, a country which was for him a fitful kind of home. In 1845 he visited Elizabeth Barrett, the poetess, whose works had strongly attracted him. A mutual liking ensured, and then, after a private marriage, a sort of elopement followed, to escape the anger of his wife’s stern parents. The remainder of Browning’s life was occupied with journeys between England and France and Italy, and with much poetical activity. His wife died at Florene in 1861, leaving a son. Browning thereupon left the city for good and returned to England, though in 1878 he went back once more to Italy. His works, after suffering much indifference, were now being appreciated, and in 1882 Oxford conferred upon him the degree of D.C.L. He died in Italy, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
His poems and plays His first work of any importance is Pauline (1833), an introspective poem, which shows very strongly the influence of Shelley, whom, at this period, Browning held in great reverence. Paracelsus (1835), the story of the hero’s unquenchable thirst for that breadth of knowledge which is beyond the grasp of one man, brings to the fore Browning’s predominant ideas—that a life without love must be a failure, and that God is working all things to an end beyond human divining. The style of the poem is diffuse, but the blank verse contains many passages of great beauty and is interspersed with one or two charming lyrics:
Thus the Mayne glideth
Where my love abideth
Sleep’s no softer: it proceeds
On through lawns, on through meads,
On and on, whete’er befall,
Meandering and musical,
Though the niggard pasturage
Bears not on its shaven ledge
Aught but weeds and waving grasses
To view the river as it passes,
Save here and there a scanty patch
Of primroses too faint to catch
A weary bee.
His next work was the play Strafford (1837), which was produced by the actor Macready, and which achieves real pathos toward the close. Sordello (1840), an attempt to decide the relationship between art and life, is Browning’s most obscure work. The story of the hero, a Mantuan troubadour, is cumbered with a mass of detailed historical allusion, and the style, in spite of occasional passage of descriptive beauty, is too compressed.
It is convenient next to deal with the entire group of eight volumes, which, published separately from 1841 onward, were collected in one volume as Bells and Pomegranates in 1846. in addition to two collections of lyrical and narrative poems, this series included six plays, Pippa Passes (1841), King Victor and King Charles (1842), The Return of the Druses (1843), A Blot on the ‘Scutcheon (1843), Colombe’s Birthday (1844), Luria; and A Soul’s Tragedy (1846). None of these is without its moments of drama, and they all show considerable spirit in their style. Pippa Passes, which was not intended for the stage, has an idyllic charm, and it contains fine songs. But Browning lacks the fundamental qualities of the dramatist. His amazingly subtle analysis of character and motive is not adequate for true drama because he cannot reveal character in action. His method is to take a character at a moment of crisis and, by allowing him to talk, to reveal not only his present thoughts and feeling but his past history. Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845) show this faculty being directed into the channel in which it was to achieve perfection—that of the dramatic monologue. In the latter volume appeared The Italian in England, The Bishop orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church and Pictor Tgnotus among many others. Dramatic lyrics consist mainly of lyrics such as Cavalier Tunes, and, most striking of all, these love lyrics which, though impersonal, were really the fruit of his happy marriage with Elizabeth Barrett. Of the love lyrics of this period Meeting at Night is typical:
The grey sea and the long black land:
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep
Now at the height of his powers, Browning produced some of his best work in Men and Women (1855), which, with the exception of the dedicatory One Word More, addressed to his wife, consists entirely of dramatic monologues. Here are to be found the famous Fra Lippo Lippi, An Epistle containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician, Andrea del Sarto, Cleon. Most of them are written in blank verse. The year 1864 saw the publication of his last really great volume, Dramatis Presume, again a collection of dramatic monologues. To illustrate their quality, mention need be made of only such works as Caliban upon Setebos, A Death in the Desert, Rabbi Ben Ezra, and Abt Vogler. In Style the poems have much of the rugged, elliptical quality which was on occasion the poet’s downfall, but here it is used with a skill and a power which show him at the very pinnacle of his achievement.
The Ring and the Book (1868-69) is the story of the murder of a young wife, Pompilia, by her worhless husband, in the year 1698, and the same story is told by nine different people, and continues for twelve books. The result is a monument of masterly discursiveness.
The remaining years of Browning’s long life saw the production of numerous further volumes of verse, few of which add greatly to his fame. Today they are read by none but his most confirmed admirers. Balaustion’s Adventure (1871), Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871), Fifne at the Fair (1872), Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873), The Inn Album (1875), La Saisiaz, The Two Poets of Croisic (1878), Jocoseria (1883), Ferishtah’s Fancies (1884), and Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day (1887), all suffer from the writer’s obsession with thought content, and the psychologizing of his characters at the expense of the poetry. In too many of them the style betrays a wilful exaggeration of the eccentricities which he had once turned to such great account, but always the reader is liable to stumble across passages which, in striking landscape or lovely lyric, show that the true poetic gift is not completely absent.
His long life’s work has a powerful close in Asolando (1889), which, along with much of the tired disillusion of the old man, has, in places, the firmness and enthusiasm of his prime. The last verses he ever wrote describe himself in the character he most loved to adopt:
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.
Features of his Work.
His Choice of Subject: Browning’s themes divide themselves broadly into three groups, philosophical or religious, love and lighter themes as in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. His philosophical poems, on which his reputation rested in his own day, all bear on his central beliefs that life must ever be a striving for something beyond our reach, and that it is “God’s task to make the heavenly period perfect the earthen.” The obvious optimism of the poet has been resented by more modern critics as a facile shirking of life’s complexities. His love poems are, perhaps, his greatest achievement. They have a calm authenticity of tone.
Always his first concern was with the human soul. He was particularly interested in abnormal people, and was able to project himself into their minds and to lay bare their feelings and motives. Yet his characters are not often completely objective, because so many of them are mouthpieces for his own philosophy.
He shows a fondness, too, for out-of-the-way historical settings and for foreign scenes, which, at his best, as in The Bishop orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed’s and Karshish, are recreated with a vivid accuracy. Along with this interest in the unusual goes an obvious relish for the grotesque and macabre, which is seen at its most striking in Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came:
Which, while I forded-good saints, how I feared
To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek.
His style. Browning’s style has been the subject of endless discussion, for it presents a fascinating problem. Attempts to elucidate his more obscure passages have sometimes led to a neglect of his very real poetic qualities. At his worst, his poems are a series of bewildering mental acrobatics, expressed in a willfully harsh rhythm and vocabulary. At his best he can achieve a noble dignity, and a verbal music as good as anything produced by that master of melody, Tennyson. Above all, his verse reflects the abundant vitality of his character. He is a master of a surprising variety of metrical forms and excels in the manipulation of rhythmic effects. In his greatest work, even the notorious rugged angularity of his phrasing and vocabulary is turned to account, and produces a beauty peculiarly its own. The following extracts will suffice to show, in the first instance, his rhythmic and melodic skill, in the second, the fine effect which can be achieved by the rugged style which only too often could deteriorate into mere eccentricity.
And one would bury his brow with a blind plunge down to hell,
Burrow awhile and build, broad on the roots of things,
Then up again swim into sight, having based me my palace well,
Founded it, fearless of flame, flat on the nether springs.
And another would mount and march, like the excellent minion he was,
Any, another and yet another, one crowd but with many a crest,
Raising my rampired walls of gold as transparent as glass,
Eager to do and die, yield each his place to the rest:
For higher still and higher (as a runner tips with fire, when a great illumination surprises a festal night—outlining round and round Rome’s done from space to spire)
Up, the pinnacled glory reached, and the pride of my soul was in sight.
Let us begin and carry up this corpse,
Leave we the common crofts, the vulgar thorpes,
Each in its tether
His Descriptive Power In this respect Browning differs widely from Tennyson, who slowly creates a lovely image by careful massing of detail. Browning cares less for the beauty of description for its own sake. In most of his work it is found only in flashes, where he paints the background of his story in a few dashing strokes, or crystallizes his meaning in an image whose beauty staggers us. He is fond of striking primary colours which startle by their very vividness, and as a painter of movement he has few equals. The passages which follow show two very different example of his descriptive skill:
You other, sleek-wet, black, Iithe as a leech:
You auk, one fire-eye in a ball of foam,
That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown
Cleon the poet, (from the sprinkled isles,
Lily on lily, that o’ eralce the sea,
And laugh their pride when the light wave lisps ‘Greece’)
His Reputation. Recognition was slow in coming, but, like Wordworth, he lived to see his name established high among his fellows. He wrote too freely, and often too carelessly and perversely, and much of his work will pass into oblivion. His fame now rests on those four volumes, published between 1842 and 1864, which contain his love lyrics and dramatic monologues. No more is needed to place him among the truly great.