See variously published volumes of his letters; complete works, ed. by R. A. King (5 vol., 1967-82); biographies by M. Ward (2 vol., 1967-69), B. Miller (1952, repr. 1973), and W. Irvine and P. Honan (1974); studies by R. Langbaum (1963), P. Drew (1966 and 1970), R. E. Gridley (1972), T. Blackburn (1967, repr. 1973), and J. Woolford (1988).
(born May 7, 1812, London, Eng.—died Dec. 12, 1889, Venice, Italy) British poet. His early works include verse dramas, notably Pippa Passes (1841), and long poems, including Sordello (1840). In the years of his marriage (1846–61) to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, spent in Italy, he produced little other than Men and Women (1855), which contains dramatic lyrics such as “Love Among the Ruins” and the great monologues “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Bishop Blougram's Apology.” Dramatis Personae (1864), including “Rabbi Ben Ezra” and “Caliban upon Setebos,” finally won him popular recognition. The Ring and the Book (1868–69), a book-length poem, is based on a 1698 murder trial in Rome. Browning influenced many modern poets through his development of the dramatic monologue (with its emphasis on individual psychology) and through his success in writing about the variety of modern life in language his contemporaries found often difficult as well as original.
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Browning was born in Camberwell, a suburb of London, England, on 7 May 1812, the first son of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning. His father was a man of both fine intellect and character, who worked as a well-paid clerk for the Bank of England. Robert's father amassed a library of around 6,000 books, many of them obscure and arcane. Thus, Robert was raised in a household of significant literary resources. His mother, with whom he was ardently bonded, was a devout Nonconformist as well as extremely musically talented. He had a younger sister, also gifted, who became the companion in her brother's later years. As a family unit they lived simply, and his father encouraged his interest in literature and the Arts.
In childhood, he was distinguished by a love of poetry and natural history. By twelve, he had written a book of poetry which he later destroyed when no publisher could be found. After attending several private schools he began to be educated by a tutor, having demonstrated a strong dislike for institutionalized education.
Browning was a fast learner and by the age of fourteen was fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin as well as his native English. He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. Following the precedent of Shelley, Browning became an atheist and vegetarian, both of which he later shed. At age sixteen, he attended University College London, but left after his first year. His mother’s staunch evangelical faith circumscribed the pursuit of his studying at either Oxford University or Cambridge University, then both only open to members of the Church of England. He had substantial musical ability and he composed arrangements of various songs.
Browning's poetry was known to the cognoscenti from fairly early on in his life, but he remained relatively obscure as a poet till his middle age. (In the middle of the century, Tennyson was much better known.) In Florence he worked on the poems that eventually comprised his two-volume Men and Women, for which he is now well known; in 1855, however, when these were published, they made little impact. It was only after his wife's death, in 1861, when he returned to England and became part of the London literary scene, that his reputation started to take off. In 1868, after five years work, he completed and published the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book, and finally achieved really significant recognition. Based on a convoluted murder-case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve books, essentially comprising ten lengthy dramatic poems narrated by the various characters in the story showing their individual take on events as they transpire, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself. Extraordinarily long even by Browning's own standards (over twenty thousand lines), The Ring and the Book was the poet's most ambitious project and has been hailed as a tour de force of dramatic poetry. Published separately in four volumes from November 1868 through to February 1869, the poem was a huge success both commercially and critically, and finally brought Browning the renown he had sought and deserved for nearly forty years of work.
According to some reports Browning became romantically involved with Lady Ashburton, but did not re-marry. In 1878, he returned to Italy for the first time in the seventeen years since Elizabeth's death, and returned there on several occasions.
The Browning Society was formed for the appreciation of his works in 1881.
In 1887, Browning produced the major work of his later years, Parleyings with Certain People of Importance In Their Day. It finally presented the poet speaking in his own voice, engaging in a series of dialogues with long-forgotten figures of literary, artistic, and philosophic history. Once more, the Victorian public was baffled by this, and Browning returned to the short, concise lyric for his last volume, Asolando (1889).
He died at his son's home Ca' Rezzonico in Venice on 12 December 1889, the same day Asolando was published, and was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey; his grave now lies immediately adjacent to that of Alfred Tennyson.
Yet it is by carefully reading the far more sophisticated and cultivated rhetoric of the aristocratic and civilized Duke of "My Last Duchess," perhaps the most frequently cited example of the poet's dramatic monologue form, that the attentive reader discovers the most horrific example of a mind totally mad despite its eloquence in expressing itself. The duchess, we learn, was murdered not because of infidelity, not because of a lack of gratitude for her position, and not, finally, because of the simple pleasures she took in common everyday occurrences. She's reduced to an objet d'art in the Duke's collection of paintings and statues because the Duke equates his instructing her to behave like a duchess with "stooping," an action of which his megalomaniacal pride is incapable. In other monologues, such as "Fra Lippo Lippi," Browning takes an ostensibly unsavory or immoral character and challenges us to discover the goodness, or life-affirming qualities, that often put the speaker's contemporaneous judges to shame. In The Ring and the Book Browning writes an epic-length poem in which he justifies the ways of God to humanity through twelve extended blank verse monologues spoken by the principals in a trial about a murder. These monologues greatly influenced many later poets, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the latter singling out in his Cantos Browning's convoluted psychological poem about a frustrated 13-century troubadour, Sordello, as the poem he must work to distance himself from.
Ironically, Browning’s style, which seemed modern and experimental to Victorian readers, owes much to his love of the seventeenth century poems of John Donne with their abrupt openings, colloquial phrasing and irregular rhythms. But he remains too much the prophet-poet and descendant of Percy Shelley to settle for the conceits, puns, and verbal play of the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. His is a modern sensibility, all too aware of the arguments against the vulnerable position of one of his simple characters, who recites: "God's in His Heaven; All's right with the world." Browning endorses such a position because he sees an immanent deity that, far from remaining in a transcendent heaven, is indivisible from temporal process, assuring that in the fullness of theological time there is ample cause for celebrating life. Browning's is assuredly at once the most incarnate and dynamic of deities, in Christianity and perhaps in any of the world's great religions.
In the Get Carter remake, at the opening of the film, the quote "That's all we can expect of man, this side of the grave; his good is ... knowing he is bad" is shown on the screen.
The Songs From A Dazzling Drift album by folk musician Yo Zushi is named after a line from Browning's poem, Women and Roses.
Anthony Powell used Browning's work for the titles of two of his novels: What's Become of Waring (1939) inspired by Waring from Dramatic Lyrics and The Soldier's Art, part of the A Dance to the Music of Time sequence, named for a line from Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
In Season 4, Episode 5 of the X-Files: "The Field Where I Died"(1996), Mulder reads lines from "Paracelsus" at the beginning and end of the episode.
Browning is referenced in the Klaatu song Magentalane 46 seconds in to the song. "Now let me see well shouldn't I make a speech Or say something in Greek Perhaps recite a Browning poem, but why"
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