About Robert Browning
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Robert Browning (7 May 1812 – 12 December 1889) was an English poet and playwright whose mastery of dramatic verse, especially dramatic monologues, made him one of the foremost Victorian poets.
Browning was born in Camberwell, a suburb of London, England, the first son of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning. His father was a well-paid clerk for the Bank of England, earning about £150 per year. Browning’s paternal grandfather was a wealthy slave owner in St Kitts, West Indies, but Browning’s father was an abolitionist. Browning's father had been sent to the West Indies to work on a sugar plantation. Revolted by the slavery there, he returned to England. Browning’s mother was a musician. He had one sister, Sarianna. It is rumoured that Browning's grandmother, Margaret Tittle, was a Jamaican-born mulatto who had inherited a plantation in St Kitts. Robert's father amassed a library of around 6,000 books, many of them rare. Thus, Robert was raised in a household of significant literary resources. His mother, to whom he was very close, was a devout nonconformist as well as a talented musician. His younger sister, Sarianna, also gifted, became her brother's companion in his later years. His father encouraged his interest in literature and the arts.
By twelve, Browning 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 good student, and by the age of fourteen he was fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin. 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 gave up later. At the age of sixteen, he attended University College London but left after his first year. His mother’s staunch evangelical faith prevented his studying at either Oxford University or Cambridge University, both then open only to members of the Church of England. He had substantial musical ability and composed arrangements of various songs.
In 1845, Browning met Elizabeth Barrett, who lived as a semi-invalid in her father's house in Wimpole Street. Gradually a significant romance developed between them, leading to their elopement on 12 September 1846. The marriage was initially secret because Elizabeth's father disapproved of marriage for any of his children. From the time of their marriage, the Brownings lived in Italy, first in Pisa, and then, within a year, finding an apartment in Florence at Casa Guidi (now a museum to their memory). Their only child, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, nicknamed "Penini" or "Pen", was born in 1849. In these years Browning was fascinated by and learned hugely from the art and atmosphere of Italy. He would, in later life, say that 'Italy was my university'. Browning also bought a home in Asolo, in the Veneto outside Venice, and in a cruel irony he died on the day that the Town Council approved the purchase. His wife died in 1861.
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 ten lengthy dramatic poems narrated by the various characters in the story, showing their individual perspectives on events, 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 praised 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.