xxxxxAlong with Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning is regarded as one of the finest Victorian poets, but it was not, in fact, until 1864 with his Dramatis Personae, and his masterpiece The Ring and the Book, four years later, that he gained national fame. Much of his earlier work was seen as obscure, centred around unfamiliar events, and written in a “rough” poetic style. And his attempt to develop the dramatic monologue in which characters speak their thoughts, providing thereby a psychological study of human nature, though perfected in his later compositions, took some time to be accepted. But alongside his dramatic poems went narrative tales and lines of great lyrical beauty, such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin of 1842, and his delightful Home Thoughts from Abroad of 1845. Other works of note included his Bells and Pomegranates and his collection of Dramatic Lyrics. And Browning is remembered too, of course, for his great love affair with Elizabeth Barrett whom he married against her father’s wishes in 1846 and eloped with to Italy. Few romance stories come much better or have a sadder ending.

ROBERT BROWNING 1812 - 1889  (G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc)


Browning: detail, by the Italian painter Michael Gordigiani (1835-1909), 1858 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Barrett: detail, drawing in chalk by the British artist Field Talfourd (1815-1874), 1859 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Pied Piper: by the English illustrator Kate Greenaway (1815-1874), 1859, engraved by the English artist Edmund Evans (1826-1905), 1888 – contained in Browning’s version of the poem. Horses: date and artist unknown. Barrett Browning: by the Italian painter Michal Gordigiani (1835-1909), 1858 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Leighton: self-portrait, 1880 – Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

xxxxxThe English romantic poet Robert Browning is especially remembered today on two counts: his delightful short poems - such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Home-thoughts from Abroad and Rabbi Ben Ezra - and his passionate love affair with Elizabeth Barrett, with whom he eloped in 1846. His works gained him a place alongside Alfred Tennyson amongst the great Victorian poets, but full recognition of his worth was slow in coming, hampered by his individual poetic style and choice of content. Much of his poetry was written in the form of dramatic monologues, and was centred around unfamiliar events in literature or minor characters in history. This provided a field day for the learned critic, but tended to lack popular appeal, despite some fine lyrics and noble lines. It was not until the mid-1860s, in fact, that his contribution to English literature came to be appreciated.


xxxxxBrowning was born in Camberwell, London, the son of a clerk at the Bank of England. He was privately educated up to the age of 14, and then, by his own endeavours, developed a deep appreciation of music, painting and, above all, literature (notably the works of Shelley). His early poems, such as Pauline in 1833, and Paracelsus two years later, received scant attention, and his first attempt at a play, Strafford, produced at Covent Garden in 1837, was not well attended, and not kindly reviewed. Then Sordello in 1840, a verse tale set in medieval Italy, was severely criticised for its obscurity, a charge which was to dog him during much of his career. However, the following year he began a series of eight pamphlets, Bells and Pomegranates, in which poems and plays in verse, such as Pippa Passes, My Last Duchess, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, The Bishop Orders His Tomb, and Dramatic Lyrics (which included The Pied Piper of Hamelin of 1842) served to bring his name to the fore, though not immediately so. And by now he had made the acquaintance of some of the most distinguished men of his day, including Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Dickens.

xxxxxIt was towards the end of this series, in 1845, that Browning met Elizabeth Barrett and they fell deeply in love. The following year they married in secret - against the wishes of her despotic, over-protective father - and a week later they eloped. Because of Elizabeth’s illness, suffered since a child and thought to be incurable, they went to Italy to avoid the English climate, and settled in a flat at Casa Guidi in Florence. Their only child, Robert, was born there in 1849. During his marriage he produced only two works of note: his Christmas Eve and Easter Day of 1850, a study of Christian belief, and his Men and Women of 1855. The latter, a collection of 51 poems, contained some of his finest work, including Memorabilia, Love Among the Ruins, A Toccata of Galuppi's, and studies of the two Renaissance artists, Fra Lippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto. In general, however, the themes were little known, and the reviews were not very favourable. Then in 1861 Elizabeth’s health began to fail, and in June of that year she died in Browning’s arms, a tragic end to a romantic love story. Later in the year he returned to England with his little son.

xxxxxIn London, Browning took some time to return to his writing, but when he did so in 1864, his Dramatis Personae, which included such works as Rabbi Ben Ezra, Mr Sludge and The Medium, proved surprisingly popular, went to two editions, and brought him his first taste of public recognition. And his next work, The Ring and the Book, produced in four volumes over 1868 and 1869, brought him the fame which had for so long eluded him. Centred around a close psychological study of a murder trial which took place in Rome at the end of the 17th century, this dramatic monologue, seen in turn through the eyes of the participating characters, was enthusiastically received. He became one of the leading literary figures of his day, took his holidays on the continent, and was accepted in London’s high society.

xxxxxIn the 1870s he wrote a number of collections of short poems, as well as long narratives and dramatic monologues. In these he explored and commented on classical literature, as in his Aristophanes' Apology of 1875, and considered a number of contemporary issues, like crime and its causes in his The Inn-Album of the same year. He spent much time in Italy after 1878, and it was then that he produced his two Dramatic Idylls, erudite works which, as in other writings of this late period, tended to baffle the reader by the depth and breadth of their thought.

xxxxxAs we have seen, Browning’s claim to fame began with his publication of Dramatis Personae in 1864, and was confirmed with his masterpiece The Ring and the Book, first produced in 1868. Although a number of his works were regarded as obscure, if not downright incomprehensible, his gradual development and mastery of the dramatic monologue - the literary equivalent of the soliloquy on the stage - perfected the means whereby a gallery of fictitious characters not only revealed their own personality in depth, but also the very make-up and workings of human nature in the round. And with this subtle, psychological insight went a poetic style which, although dubbed “irregular”, did attempt to capture the speech and mood of its narrator. However, not all his work was difficult to fathom, far from it. Indeed, for the general reader most of his best work is to be found in his short lyrics, noted for their simplicity, charm and noble sentiments.

xxxxxBrowning died in Venice in December 1889, and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. His last volume of poetry, Asolando, was published on the day of his death, and a verse from the epilogue to that work serves as a fitting tribute to its author, a man who was ever honest, helpful and hopeful.

One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,

Never doubted cloud would break,

Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,

Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,

Sleep to wake.

xxxxxIncidentally, in a letter of 1868 Browning counters the charge of being deliberately obscure. He wrote: “I never tried to puzzle people, as some critics supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game of dominoes. ……


xxxxx…… Amongst some of his memorable lines are “Roses, roses all the way.” (The Patriot), “Oh to be in England, Now that April’s here.” (Home Thoughts from Abroad), “God’s in his Heaven, All’s well with the World.” (Pippa Passes), and “Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be, The last of life for which the first was made.” (Rabbi ben Ezra). ……

xxxxx…… One of Browning’s most popular poems How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, begins with the famous lines: “I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he, I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three”. It is not based on any historical fact, but probably relates to one of the wars the Dutch waged against their Spanish oppressors during the 17th century.


Elizabeth Barrett


xxxxxElizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), who eloped with Robert Browning in 1846, was a poet in her on right, long before Browning gained fame. Indeed it was her Poems of 1844 which led to their friendship and secret marriage. An invalid from the age of 15, following a riding accident, her domineering father insisted that she lead a sheltered existence, and it was not until her married life in Italy, therefore, that she reached her full potential. To this period belongs her major work, the love poems entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese. Later works included Casa Guidi Windows, a collection of poems in which she gives support to the Italian independence movement, and her romantic blank verse melodrama Aurora Leigh, produced in 1856. Her poems are noted for their sincerity and beauty, and a number are concerned with highlighting social injustice. Her love affair with Robert Browning has been the theme of many novels, plays and films, including the 1930 play entitled The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

xxxxxElizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), who eloped with Robert Browning in 1846, was a poet in her own right. Indeed, it was her collection of Poems, published in 1844, which led to their friendship and secret marriage. Her compositions in the 1850s included Sonnets from the Portuguese, - the love poems by which she is best remembered - Casa Guidi Windows, and her poetic novel Aurora Leigh.

xxxxxShe was born into the Barrett family, then living at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, and attended a private school. It was at the age of l5, after the family had moved to Worcestershire, that she fell from her pony and injured her spine. It was quite a serious injury and made the worse by the attitude of her over-caring father, Edward, who treated her as an incurable invalid and insisted that she lead a sheltered life. In 1836, after a spell living in Sidmouth, Devon, the family moved to London and, in 1838, took up residence in Wimpole Street. Over the next two years she managed to spend some time in Torquay, Devon - to ease her condition - but returned in a deeply distressed state in 1840 after her brother was drowned at sea there.

xxxxxA learned and determined young woman who knew her own mind, Elizabeth Barratt had turned to writing at an early age. Her The Battle of Marathon, printed privately, appeared in 1820, and this was followed by a translation of Aeschylus’ drama Prometheus Bound in 1833, and The Seraphim and Other Poems five years later. These and her contributions to a number of periodicals made her known in the literary world, and the publication of her Poems in 1844 (which included The Cry of the Children) firmly established her reputation not only as a poet, but also as a woman deeply concerned about social injustice.

xxxxxHer friendship with Robert Browning came about in 1845 after he had written to her praising her collection of poems. “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” he wrote, ”and I love you too.” They were attracted to each other at their very first meeting, and their subsequent marriage and elopement freed her from her father’s domineering influence. Once living in Florence, Italy, her health improved considerably and with her husband’s encouragement she produced some of her finest work. In 1850 she published a much enlarged edition of her Poems. This included Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of love lyrics much admired for their musical lyrics and sincerity of feeling. The following year she completed Casa Guidi Windows, Casa Guidi being the place where they were living in Florence. These collections of poems spoke of her love for Italy and revealed her intense sympathy for the Italian independence movement, then on the march. Aurora Leigh, a romantic blank verse melodrama, was published in 1856. It found only moderate favour with the critics, but it proved a huge popular success. It also proved to be her last major work. She was taken ill in the summer of 1861, and died in her husband’s arms. They had been married for just fifteen years.

xxxxxIncidentally, during their life together Browning had yet to make his name as a poet, whilst his wife had already established an enviable reputation. Browning himself wrote in 1871: “The simple truth is that she was the poet, and I the clever person by comparison.” However, Elizabeth always believed that her husband would one day be regarded as a greater poet than herself, and so it proved to be. ……

xxxxx…… Not surprisingly, over the years the account of their romantic love story, fervently told in their letters to each other, has provided heaven-sent material for many a novel, play and film. One of the best portrayals was the play of 1930 entitled The Barretts of Wimpole Street, produced by the Dutch-English dramatist Rudolph Besier. ……

xxxxx…… Her Sonnets from the Portuguese of 1850, regarded by many as her finest work, had no connection with the country Portugal. Mrs Browning had a somewhat dark complexion and, as a term of endearment, Browning used to call her “my little Portuguese”. Hence the title of the collection! ……

xxxxx…… Shexwas buried in the English Cemetery in Florence and her tomb was designed by the English painter and sculptor Frederick Leighton (1830-1896), an artist known for his biblical, historical and classical subjects (illustrated). He studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and in the late 1850s lived and worked in Paris. There, amongst others, he met the painters Delacroix, Ingres and Corot. On his return to London in 1860 he became associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1878, and was knighted in that year. He was created a peer in 1896, the first artist to be so honoured, but he died the following day.