It’s the birthday of Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning (books by this author), born in Camberwell, England, in 1812. His mother was an accomplished pianist, and his father was a fairly well-off bank clerk whose personal library contained 6,000 books. Robert was educated at home and was a voracious reader from an early age. He loved the Romantic poets, especially Shelley, and at 14 he became an atheist and a vegetarian, to be more like his hero. Browning entered the University of London when he was 16, but grew annoyed at the slow pace within the first year and dropped out, preferring to pursue his own studies. He picked up lots of random information, and his poetry was sometimes criticized for its obscure references.
His relationship with fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett is one of the most famous in English literature. They began a prolific correspondence — hundreds of letters during their 20-month courtship — which began when he sent her fan mail. They eventually eloped, against her father’s wishes, and moved to Italy. Browning’s poetry was largely overshadowed by his wife’s, at least during her lifetime. She was popular and successful, and a serious contender for the post of poet laureate in 1860, though that honor ultimately went to Tennyson. He generally received negative attention, if he received any attention at all. His long poem Paracelsus (1835) had been well-received, and gave him his entry into the London literary scene, but his follow-up, the experimental Sordello (1840), was ridiculed, and when he and Elizabeth moved to Italy, his critics beat him up for abandoning his homeland. Even his two-volume collection Men and Women — his most widely read work today — barely caused a ripple. He returned to London in 1861 after Elizabeth’s death, and in 1868 he published his first real critical and commercial success, The Ring and the Book.
Browning also wrote several plays, none of them successful. But writing for the stage taught him how to use the dramatic monologue to reveal character, and he adapted it to his poetry. It became a defining characteristic of his work, and his most important and lasting contribution to the art, inspiring the likes of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost.