1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Browning, Robert
BROWNING, ROBERT (1812–1889), English poet, was born at Camberwell, London, on the 7th of May 1812. He was the son of Robert Browning (1781–1866), who for fifty years was employed in the Bank of England. Earlier Brownings had been settled in Wiltshire and Dorsetshire, and there is no ground for the statement that the family was partly of Jewish origin. The poet’s mother was a daughter of William Wiedemann, a German who had settled in Dundee and married a Scottish wife. His parents had one other child, a daughter, Sarianna, born in 1814. They lived quietly in Camberwell. The elder Browning had a sufficient income and was indifferent to money-making. He had strong literary and artistic tastes. He was an ardent book collector, and so good a draughtsman that paternal authority alone had prevented him from adopting an artistic career. He had, like his son, a singular faculty for versifying, and helped the boy's early lessons by twisting the Latin grammar into grotesque rhymes. He lived, as his father had done, to be 84, with unbroken health. The younger Robert inherited, along with other characteristics, much of his father's vigour of constitution. From the mother, who had delicate health, he probably derived his excessive nervous irritability; and from her, too, came his passion for music. The family was united by the strongest mutual affection, and the parents erred, if anything, on the side of indulgence. Browning was sent to a school in the neighbourhood, but left it when fourteen, and had little other teaching. He had a French tutor for the next two years, and in his eighteenth year he attended some Greek lectures at the London University. At school he never won a prize, though it was more difficult to avoid than to win prizes. He was more conspicuous for the love of birds and beasts, which he always retained, than for any interest in his lessons. He rather despised his companions and made few friends. A precocious poetical capacity, however, showed itself in extra-scholastic ways. He made his schoolfellows act plays, partly written by himself. He had composed verses before he could write, and when twelve years old completed a volume of poems called Incondita. His parents tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher; but his verses were admired by Sarah Flower, afterwards Mrs Adams, a well-known hymn-writer of the day, and by W.J. Fox, both of whom became valuable friends. A copy made by Miss Flower was in existence in 1871, but afterwards destroyed by the author. Browning had the run of his father's library, and acquired a very unusual amount of miscellaneous reading. Quarles' Emblems was an especial favourite; and besides the Elizabethan dramatists and standard English books, he had read all the works of Voltaire. Byron was his first master in poetry, but about the age of fourteen he fell in accidentally with Shelley and Keats. For Shelley in particular he conceived an enthusiastic admiration which lasted for many years, though it was qualified in his later life.
The more aggressive side of Browning's character was as yet the most prominent; and a self-willed lad, conscious of a growing ability, found himself cramped in Camberwell circles. He rejected the ordinary careers. He declined the offer of a clerkship in the Bank of England; and his father, who had found the occupation uncongenial, not only approved the refusal but cordially accepted the son's decision to take poetry for his profession. For good or evil, Browning had been left very much to his own guidance, and if his intellectual training suffered in some directions, the liberty permitted the development of his marked originality. The parental yoke, however, was too light to provoke rebellion. Browning's mental growth led to no violent breach with the creeds of his childhood. His parents became Dissenters in middle life, but often attended Anglican services; and Browning, though he abandoned the dogmas, continued to sympathize with the spirit of their creed. He never took a keen interest in the politics of the day, but cordially accepted the general position of contemporary Liberalism. His worship of Shelley did not mean an acceptance of his master's hostile attitude towards Christianity, still less did he revolt against the moral discipline under which he had been educated. He frequented literary and artistic circles, and was passionately fond of the theatre; but he was entirely free from a coarse Bohemianism, and never went to bed, we are told, without kissing his mother. He lived with his parents until his marriage. His mother lived till 1849, and his father till 1866, and his affectionate relations to both remained unaltered. Browning's first published poem, Pauline, appeared anonymously in 1833. He always regarded it as crude, and destroyed all the copies of this edition that came within his reach. It was only to avoid unauthorized reprints that he consented with reluctance to republishing it in the collected works of 1868. The indication of genius was recognized by W.J. Fox, who hailed it in the Monthly Repository as marking the advent of a true poet. Pauline contains an enthusiastic invocation of Shelley, whose influence upon its style and conception is strongly marked. It is the only one of Browning's works which can be regarded as imitative. In the winter of 1833 he went to St Petersburg on a visit to the Russian consul-general, Mr Benckhausen. There he wrote the earliest of his dramatic lyrics, "Porphyria's Lover" and "Johannes Agricola." In the spring of 1834 he visited Italy for the first time, going to Venice and Asolo.
Browning's personality was fully revealed in his next considerable poems, Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840). With Pauline, however, they form a group. In an essay (prefixed to the spurious Shelley letters of 1851), Browning describes Shelley's poetry "as a sublime fragmentary essay towards a presentment of the correspondency of the universe to Deity." The phrase describes his own view of the true functions of a poet, and Browning, having accepted the vocation, was meditating the qualifications which should fit him for his task. The hero of Pauline is in a morbid state of mind which endangers his fidelity to his duty. Paracelsus and Sordello are studies in the psychology of genius, illustrating its besetting temptations. Paracelsus fails from intellectual pride, not balanced by love of his kind, and from excessive ambition, which leads him to seek success by unworthy means. Sordello is a poet distracted between the demands of a dreamy imagination and the desire to utter the thoughts of mankind. He finally gives up poetry for practical politics, and gets into perplexities only to be solved by his death. Pauline might in some indefinite degree reflect Browning's own feelings, but in the later poems he adopts his characteristic method of speaking in a quasi-dramatic mood. They are, as he gave notice, "poems, not dramas." The interest is not in the external events, but in the "development of a soul"; but they are observations of other men's souls, not direct revelations of his own. Paracelsus was based upon a study of the original narrative, and Sordello was a historical though a very indefinite person. The background of history is intentionally vague in both cases. There is one remarkable difference between them. The Paracelsus, though full of noble passages, is certainly diffuse. Browning heard that John Sterling had complained of its "verbosity," and tried to remedy this failing by the surgical expedient of cutting out the usual connecting words. Relative pronouns henceforth become scarce in his poetry, and the grammatical construction often a matter of conjecture. Words are forcibly jammed together instead of being articulately combined. To the ordinary reader many passages in his later work are both crabbed and obscure, but the "obscurity" never afterwards reached the pitch of Sordello. It is due to the vagueness with which the story is rather hinted than told, as well as to the subtlety and intricacy of the psychological expositions. The subtlety and vigour of the thought are indeed surprising, and may justify the frequent comparisons to Shakespeare; and it abounds in descriptive passages of genuine poetry.
Still, Browning seems to have been misled by a fallacy. It was quite legitimate to subordinate the external incidents to the psychological development in which he was really interested, but to secure the subordination by making the incidents barely intelligible was not a logical consequence. We should not understand Hamlet's psychological peculiarities the better if we had to infer his family troubles from indirect hints. Browning gave more time to Sordello than to any other work, and perhaps had become so familiar with the story which he professed to tell that he failed to make allowance for his readers' difficulties. In any case it was not surprising that the ordinary reader should be puzzled and repelled, and the general recognition of his genius long delayed, by his reputation for obscurity.It might, however, be expected that he would make a more successful appeal to the public by purely dramatic work, in which he would have to limit his psychological speculation and to place his characters in plain situations. Paracelsus and Sordello show so great a power of reading character and appreciating subtler springs of conduct that its author clearly had one, at least, of the essential qualifications of a dramatist.
Before Sordello appeared Browning had tried his hand in this direction. He was encouraged by outward circumstances as well as by his natural bent. He was making friends and gaining some real appreciative admirers. John Forster had been greatly impressed by Paracelsus. Browning's love of the theatre had led to an introduction to Macready in the winter of 1835-1836; and Macready, who had been also impressed by Paracelsus, asked him for a play. Browning consented and wrote Strafford, which was produced at Covent Garden in May 1837, Macready taking the principal part. Later dramas were King Victor and King Charles, published in 1842; The Return of the Druses and A Blot on the 'Scutcheon (both in 1843), Colombe's Birthday (1844), Luria and A Soul's Tragedy (both in 1846), and the fragmentary In a Balcony (1853). Strafford succeeded fairly, though the defection of Vandenhoff, who took the part of Pym, stopped its run after the fifth performance. The Blot on the 'Scutcheon, produced by Macready as manager of Drury Lane on the 11th of February 1843, led to an unfortunate quarrel. Browning thought that Macready had felt unworthy jealousy of another actor, and had gratified his spite by an inadequate presentation of the play. He remonstrated indignantly and the friendship was broken off for years. Browning was disgusted by his experience of the annoyances of practical play-writing, though he was not altogether discouraged. The play had apparently such a moderate success as was possible under the conditions, and a similar modest result was attained by Colombe's Birthday, produced at Covent Garden on the 25th of April 1853. Browning, like other eminent writers of the day, failed to achieve the feat of attracting the British public by dramas of high literary aims, and soon gave up the attempt. It has been said by competent critics that some of the plays could be fitted for the stage by judicious adaptation. The Blot on the 'Scutcheon has a very clear and forcibly treated situation; and all the plays abound in passages of high poetic power. Like the poems, they deal with situations involving a moral probation of the characters, and often suggesting the ethical problems which always interested him. The speeches tend to become elaborate analyses of motive by the persons concerned, and try the patience of an average audience. For whatever reason, Browning, though he had given sufficient proofs of genius, had not found in these works the most appropriate mode of utterance.
The dramas, after Strafford, formed the greatest part of a series of pamphlets called Bells and Pomegranates, eight of which were issued from 1841 to 1846. The name, he explained, was intended to indicate an "alternation of poetry and thought." The first number contained the fanciful and characteristic Pippa Passes. The seventh, significantly named Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, contained some of his most striking shorter poems. In 1844 he contributed six poems, among which were "The Flight of the Duchess" and "The Bishop orders his Tomb at St Praxed's Church," to Hood's Magazine, in order to help Hood, then in his last illness. These poems take the special form in which Browning is unrivalled. He wrote very few lyrical poems of the ordinary kind purporting to give a direct expression of his own personal emotions. But, in the lyric which gives the essential sentiment of some impressive dramatic situation, he has rarely been approached. There is scarcely one of the poems published at this time which can be read without fixing itself at once in the memory as a forcible and pungent presentation of a characteristic mood. Their vigour and originality failed to overcome at once the presumption against the author of Sordello. Yet Browning was already known to and appreciated by such literary celebrities of the day as Talfourd, Leigh Hunt, Procter, Monckton Milnes, Carlyle and Landor. His fame began to spread among sympathetic readers. The Bells and Pomegranates attracted the rising school of "pre-Raphaelites," especially D.G. Rossetti, who guessed the authorship of the anonymous Pauline and made a transcript from the copy in the British Museum. But his audience was still select.
Another recognition of his genius was of incomparably more personal importance and vitally affected his history. In 1844 Miss Barrett (see Browning, Elizabeth Barrett) published a volume of poems containing "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," with a striking phrase about Browning's poems. He was naturally gratified, and her special friend and cousin, John Kenyon, encouraged him to write to her. She admitted him to a personal interview after a little diffidence, and a hearty appreciation of literary genius on both sides was speedily ripened into genuine and most devoted love. Miss Barrett was six years older than Browning and a confirmed invalid with shaken nerves. She was tenderly attached to an autocratic father who objected on principle to the marriage of his children. The correspondence of the lovers (published in 1899) shows not only their mutual devotion, but the chivalrous delicacy with which Browning behaved in a most trying situation. Miss Barrett was gradually encouraged to disobey the utterly unreasonable despotism. They made a clandestine marriage on the 12th of September 1846. The state of Miss Barrett's health suggested misgivings which made Browning's parents as well as his bride's disapprove of the match. She, however, appears to have become stronger for some time, though always fragile and incapable of much active exertion. She had already been recommended to pass a winter in Italy. Browning had made three previous tours there, and his impressions had been turned to account in Sordello and Pippa Passes, in The Englishman in Italy and Home Thoughts from Abroad. For the next fifteen years the Brownings lived mainly in Italy, making their headquarters at Florence in the Casa Guidi. A couple of winters were passed in Rome. In the summer of 1849 they were at Siena, where Browning was helpful to Landor, then in his last domestic troubles. They also visited England and twice spent some months in Paris. Their only child, Robert Wiedemann Browning, was born at Florence in 1849. Browning's literary activity during his marriage seems to have been comparatively small; Christmas Eve and Easter Day appeared in 1850, while the two volumes called Men and Women (1855), containing some of his best work, showed that his power was still growing. His position involved some sacrifice and imposed limitations upon his energies. Mrs Browning's health required a secluded life; and Browning, it is said, never dined out during his marriage, though he enjoyed society and made many and very warm friendships. Among their Florence friends were Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Isa Blagden, Charles Lever and others. The only breach of complete sympathy with his wife was due to his contempt for "spiritualists" and "mediums," in whom she fully believed. His portrait of Daniel Dunglas Home as "Sludge the Medium" only appeared after her death. This domestic happiness, however, remained essentially unbroken until she died on 29th June 1861. The whole love-story had revealed the singular nobility of his character, and, though crushed for a time by the blow, he bore it manfully. Browning determined to return to England and superintend his boy's education at home. He took a house at 19 Warwick Crescent, Paddington, and became gradually acclimatized in London. He resumed his work and published the Dramatis Personae in 1864. The publication was well enough received to mark the growing recognition of his genius, which was confirmed by The Ring and the Book, published in four volumes in the winter of 1868-1869. In 1867 the university of Oxford gave him the degree of M.A. "by diploma," and Balliol College elected him as an honorary fellow. In 1868 he declined a virtual offer of the rectorship of St Andrews. He repeated the refusal on a later occasion (1884) from a dislike to the delivery of a public address. The rising generation was now beginning to buy his books; and he shared the homage of thoughtful readers with Tennyson, though in general popularity he could not approach his friendly rival. The Ring and the Book has been generally accepted as Browning's masterpiece. It was based on a copy of the procès verbal of Guido Franceschini's case discovered by him at Florence.
The audacity of the scheme is surprising. To tell the story of a hideous murder twelve times over, to versify the arguments of counsel and the gossip of quidnuncs, and to insist upon every detail with the minuteness of a law report, could have occurred to no one else. The poem is so far at the opposite pole from Sordello. Vagueness of environment is replaced by a photographic distinctness, though the psychological interest is dominant in both. Particular phrases may be crabbed, but nothing can be more distinct and vivid in thought and conception. If some of those "dramatic monologues" of which the book is formed fail to be poetry at all, some of them—that of Pompilia the victim, her champion Caponsacchi, and the pope who gives judgment—are in Browning's highest mood, and are as impressive from the ethical as from the poetical point of view. Pompilia was no doubt in some respects an idealized portrait of Mrs Browning. Other pieces may be accepted as a background of commonplace to throw the heroic into the stronger relief. The Ring and the Book is as powerful as its method is unique.
Browning became gentler and more urbane as he grew older. His growing fame made him welcome in all cultivated circles, and he accepted the homage of his admirers with dignity and simplicity. He exerted himself to be agreeable in private society, though his nervousness made him invariably decline ever to make public speeches. He was an admirable talker, and took pains to talk his best. A strong memory supplied him with abundant anecdotes; and though occasionally pugnacious, he allowed a fair share of the conversation to his companions. Superficial observers sometimes fancied that the poet was too much sunk in the man of the world; but the appearance was due to his characteristic reluctance to lay bare his deeper feelings. When due occasion offered, the underlying tenderness of his affections was abundantly manifest. No one could show more delicate sympathy. He made many warm personal friendships in his later years, especially with women, to whom he could most easily confide his feelings. In the early years of this period he paid visits to country houses, but afterwards preferred to retire farther from the London atmosphere into secluded regions. He passed some holidays in remote French villages, Pornic, Le Croisic and St Aubyn, which have left traces in his poetry. Gold Hair is a legend of Pornic, and Hervé Riel was written at Le Croisic. At St Aubyn he had the society of Joseph Milsand, who had shown his warm appreciation of Browning's poetry by an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes, which in 1852 had led to a personal friendship lasting till Milsand's death in 1886. Browning sent to him the proof-sheets of all his later works for revision. In 1877 Browning was at La Saisiaz on the Salève, near Geneva, where an old friend, Miss Egerton Smith, was staying. She died suddenly almost in his presence. She had constantly accompanied him to concerts during his London life. After her death he almost ceased to care for music. The shock of her loss produced the singular poem called La Saisiaz, in which he argues the problem of personal immortality with a rather indefinite conclusion. In later years Browning returned to Italy, and passed several autumns at Venice. He never visited Florence after his wife's death there.
Browning's literary activity continued till almost the end of his life. He wrote constantly, though he composed more slowly. He considered twenty-five or thirty lines to be a good day's work. His later writings covered a very great variety of subjects, and were cast in many different forms. They show the old characteristics and often the old genius. Browning's marked peculiarity, the union of great speculative acuteness with intense poetical insight, involved difficulties which he did not always surmount. He does not seem to know whether he is writing poetry or when he is versifying logic; and when the speculative impulse gets the upper hand, his work suggests the doubt whether an imaginary dialogue in prose would not have been a more effective medium. He is analysing at length when he ought to be presenting a concrete type, while the necessities of verse complicate and obscure the reasoning. A curious example is the Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau (1871), an alias for Louis Napoleon. The attempt to show how a questionable hero apologizes to himself recalls the very powerful "Bishop Blougram," and "Sludge, the medium," of earlier works, but becomes prolix and obscure. Fifine at the Fair (1872) is another curious speculation containing a defence of versatility in lovemaking by an imaginary Don Juan. Its occasionally cynical tone rather scandalized admirers, who scarcely made due allowance for its dramatic character. Browning's profound appreciation of high moral qualities is, however, always one main source of his power. In later years he became especially interested in stories of real life, which show character passing through some sharp ordeal. The Red Cotton Nightcap Country (1873), describing a strange tragedy which had recently taken place in France, and especially The Inn Album (1875), founded on an event in modern English society, are powerful applications of the methods already exemplified in The Ring and the Book. The Dramatic Idyls (1879 and 1880) are a collection of direct narratives, with less analytical disquisition, which surprised his readers by their sustained vigour. In the last volumes, Jocoseria (1883), Ferishtah's Fancies (1884), Parleying with Certain People (1887) and Asolando (1889), the old power is still apparent but the hand is beginning to fail. They contain discussions of metaphysical problems, such as the origin of evil, which are interesting as indications of his creed, but can scarcely be regarded as successful either poetically or philosophically.Another group of poems showed Browning's interest in Greek literature. Balaustion's Adventure (1871) includes a "transcript from Euripides," a translation, that is, of part of the Alcestis. Aristophanes' Apology (1875) included another translation from the Heracles, and in 1877 he published a very literal translation of the Agamemnon. This, it seems, was meant to disprove the doctrine that Æschylus was a model of literary style. Browning shared his wife's admiration for Euripides, and takes a phrase from one of her poems as a motto for Balaustion's Adventure. In the Aristophanes' Apology this leads characteristically to a long exposition by Aristophanes of his unsatisfactory reasons for ridiculing Euripides. It recalls the apologies of "Blougram" and Louis Napoleon, and contains some interesting indications of his poetical theory. Browning was to many readers as much prophet as poet. His religious position is most explicitly, though still not very clearly, set forth in the Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850). Like many eminent contemporaries, he combined a disbelief in orthodox dogma with a profound conviction of the importance to the religious instincts of the symbols incorporated in accepted creeds. Saul (1845), A Death in the Desert (1864), and similar poems, show his strong sympathy with the spirit of the old belief, though his argumentative works have a more or less sceptical turn. It was scarcely possible, if desirable, to be original on such topics. His admirers hold that he shows an affinity to German metaphysicians, though he had never read their works nor made any express study of metaphysical questions. His distinctive tendency is to be found rather in the doctrine of life and conduct which both suggests and is illustrated by his psychological analyses. A very characteristic thought emphatically set forth in the Rabbi Ben Ezra (1864) and the Grammarian's Funeral (1855) is that a man's value is to be measured, not by the work done, but by the character which has been moulded. He delights in exhibiting the high moral instinct which dares to override ordinary convictions, or which is content with discharge of obscure duties, or superior to vulgar ambition and capable of self-sacrifice, because founded upon pure love and sympathy for human suffering. Browning's limitations are characteristic of the poetry of strong ethical preoccupations. His strong idiosyncrasy, his sympathy with the heroic and hatred of the base, was hardly to be combined with the Shakespearian capacity for sympathizing with the most varied types of character. Though he deals with a great variety of motive with singularly keen analysis, he takes almost exclusively the moral point of view. That point of view, however, has its importance, and his morality is often embodied in poetry of surpassing force. Browning's love of the grotesque, sometimes even of the horrible, creates many most graphic and indelible portraits. The absence of an exquisite sense for the right word is compensated by the singular power of striking the most brilliant flashes out of obviously wrong words, and forcing comic rhymes to express the deepest and most serious thoughts. Though he professed to care little for motive as apart from human interest, his incidental touches of description are unsurpassably vivid.
The appreciation of Browning's genius became general in his later years, and zeal was perhaps a little heightened by the complacency of disciples able to penetrate a supposed mist of obscurity. The Browning Society, founded in 1881 by Dr F.J. Furnivall and Miss E.H. Hickey, was a product of this appreciation, and helped to extend the study of the poems. Browning accepted the homage in a simple and friendly way, though he avoided any action which would make him responsible for the publications. He received various honours: LL.D. degree from Cambridge in 1879, the D.C.L. from Oxford in 1882, and LL.D. from Edinburgh in 1884. He became foreign correspondent to the Royal Academy in 1886. His son, who had settled at Venice, married in 1887, and Browning moved to De Vere Gardens. In the autumn of 1889 he went with his sister to visit his son, and stayed on the way at Asolo, which he had first seen in 1838, when it supplied the scenery of Pippa Passes. He was charmed with the place, and proposed to buy a piece of ground and to build upon it a house to be called "Pippa's Tower"—in memory of his early heroine. While his proposal was under consideration he went to his son at Venice. His health had been breaking for some time, and a cold, aggravated by weakness of the heart, brought on a fatal attack. He died on the 12th of December 1889. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 31st December. It was suggested that his wife's body should be removed from Florence to be placed beside him; but their son rightly decided that her grave should not be disturbed.
Browning's personal characteristics are so strongly stamped upon all his works that it is difficult to assign his place in contemporary thought. He is unique and outside of all schools. His style is so peculiar that he is the easiest of all poets to parody and the most dangerous to imitate. In spite of his early Shelley worship he is in certain respects more closely related to Wordsworth. Both of them started by accepting the poet's mission as quasi-prophetical or ethical. In other respects they are diametrically contrasted. Wordsworth expounded his philosophy by writing a poetical autobiography. Browning adheres to the dramatic method of which Wordsworth was utterly incapable. He often protested against the supposition that he put himself into his books. Yet there is no writer whose books seem to readers to be clearer revelations of himself. Nothing, in fact, is more characteristic of a man than his judgments of other men, and Browning's are keen and unequivocal. The revolutionary impulse had died out, and Browning has little to say either of the political questions which had moved Shelley and Byron, or of the social problems which have lately become more prominent. He represents the thought of a quieter epoch. He was little interested, too, in the historical or "romantic" aspect of life. He takes his subjects from a great variety of scenes and places—from ancient Greece, medieval Italy and modern France and England; but the interest for him is not in the picturesque surroundings, but in the human being who is to be found in all periods. Like Balzac, whom he always greatly admired, he is interested in the eternal tragedy and comedy of life. His problem is always to show what are the really noble elements which are eternally valuable in spite of failure to achieve tangible results. He gives, so far, another version of Wordsworth's doctrine of the cultivation of the "moral being." The psychological acuteness and the subtle analysis of character are, indeed, peculiar to himself. Like Carlyle, with whom he had certain points of affinity, he protests, though rather by implication than direct denunciation, against the utilitarian or materialistic view of life, and finds the divine element in the instincts which guide and animate every noble character. When he is really inspired by sympathy for such emotions he can make his most grotesque fancies and his most far-fetched analyses subservient to poetry of the highest order. It can hardly be denied that his intellectual ingenuity often tempts him to deviate from his true function, and that his observations are not to be excused because they result from an excess, instead of a deficiency, of intellectual acuteness. But the variety of his interests—aesthetic, philosophical and ethical—is astonishing, and his successes are poems which stand out as unique and unsurpassable in the literature of his time.