A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Browning, Robert

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Browning, Robert (1812-1889). -- Poet, only s. of Robert B., a man of fine intellect and equally fine character, who held a position in the Bank of England, was b. in Camberwell. His mother, to whom he was ardently attached, was the dau. of a German shipowner who had settled in Dundee, and was alike intellectually and morally worthy of his affection. The only other member of the family was a younger sister, also highly gifted, who was the sympathetic companion of his later years. In his childhood he was distinguished by his love of poetry and natural history. At 12 he had written a book of poetry which he destroyed when he could not find a publisher. After being at one or two private schools, and showing an insuperable dislike to school life, he was ed. by a tutor, and thereafter studied Greek at Univ. Coll., London. Through his mother he inherited some musical talent, and composed settings, for various songs. His first pub. was Pauline, which appeared anonymously in 1833, but attracted little attention. In 1834 he paid his first visit to Italy, in which so much of his future life was to be passed. The publication of Paracelsus in 1835, though the poem had no general popularity, gained the notice of Carlyle, Wordsworth, and other men of letters, and gave him a reputation as a poet of distinguished promise. Two years later his drama of Stratford was performed by his friend Macready and Helen Faucit, and in 1840 the most difficult and obscure of his works, Sordello, appeared; but, except with a select few, did little to increase his reputation. It was followed by Bells and Pomegranates (containing Pippa Passes) (1841), A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (drama) (1843), Luria and A Soul's Tragedy (1846). In this year he married Miss Elizabeth Barrett (q.v.), the poetess, a union of ideal happiness. Thereafter his home until his wife's death in 1861 was in Italy, chiefly at Florence. In 1850 he wrote Christmas Eve and Easter Day, and in 1855 appeared Men and Women. After the death of Mrs. Browning he returned to England, paying, however, frequent visits to Italy. Settling in London he published successively Dramatis Personæ (1864), The Ring and the Book (1868-69), his greatest work, Balaustion's Adventure, and Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau (1871), Fifine at the Fair (1872), Red Cotton Night-cap Country (1873), The Inn Album (1875), Pacchiarotto (1876), translation of Agamemnon (1879), La Saisiaz, etc. (1878), Dramatic Idylls (1879 and 1880), Asolando (1889) appeared on the day of his death. To the great majority of readers, probably, B. is best known by some of his short poems, such as, to name a few, "Rabbi Ben Ezra," "How they brought the good News to Aix," "Evelyn Hope," "The Pied Piper of Hammelin," "A Grammarian's Funeral," "A Death in the Desert." It was long before England recognised that in B. she had received one of the greatest of her poets, and the causes of this lie on the surface. His subjects were often recondite and lay beyond the ken and sympathy of the great bulk of readers; and owing, partly to the subtle links connecting the ideas and partly to his often extremely condensed and rugged expression, the treatment of them was not seldom difficult and obscure. Consequently for long he appealed to a somewhat narrow circle. As time went on, however, and work after work was added, the circle widened, and the marvellous depth and variety of thought and intensity of feeling told with increasing force. Societies began to be formed for the study of the poet's work. Critics became more and more appreciative, and he at last reaped the harvest of admiration and honour which was his due. Many distinctions came to him. He was made LL.D. of Edin., a life Governor of London Univ., and had the offer of the Lord Rectorship of Glasgow. He d. in the house of his son at Venice, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The keynote of his teaching is a wise and noble optimism. His poems were collected in 2 vols. in 1896. Some vols. of his correspondence with Mrs. B. were also pub.

Uniform ed. of Works (17 vols. 1888-90); Furnivall's Browning Bibliography (1883), Lives by Mrs. Sutherland Orr (1891); Gosse (1890); Dowden (1904), G.K. Chesterton (English Men of Letters), etc.; Poetry of Robert Browning by Stopford Brooke, 1902, etc.

SUMMARY. -- B. 1812, pub. Paracelsus 1835, Sordello 1840, Bells and Pomegranates 1841, m. to E.B.B. 1846, lives chiefly in Italy till her d., 1861, when he returned to England and continued to write until his d., pub. Dramatis Personæ, Ring and Book 1868-9, Asolando 1889, d. 1889.