Browning’s most important poetic message regards the new conditions of urban living. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the once-rural British population had become centered in large cities, thanks to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. With so many people living in such close quarters, poverty, violence, and sex became part of everyday life. People felt fewer restrictions on their behavior, no longer facing the fear of non-acceptance that they had faced in smaller communities; people could act in total anonymity, without any monitoring by acquaintances or small-town busybodies. However, while the absence of family and community ties meant new-found personal independence, it also meant the loss of a social safety net. Thus for many city-dwellers, a sense of freedom mixed with a sense of insecurity. The mid-nineteenth century also saw the rapid growth of newspapers, which functioned not as the current-events journals of today but as scandal sheets, filled with stories of violence and carnality. Hurrying pedestrians, bustling shops, and brand-new goods filled the streets, and individuals had to take in millions of separate perceptions a minute. The resulting overstimulation led, according to many theorists, to a sort of numbness. Many writers now felt that in order to provoke an emotional reaction they had to compete with the turmoils and excitements of everyday life, had to shock their audience in ever more novel and sensational ways. Thus violence became a sort of aesthetic choice for many writers, among them Robert Browning. In many of his poems, violence, along with sex, becomes the symbol of the modern urban-dwelling condition. Many of Browning’s more disturbing poems, including “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” reflect this notion.
This apparent moral decay of Victorian society, coupled with an ebbing of interest in religion, led to a morally conservative backlash. So-called Victorian prudery arose as an attempt to rein in something that was seen as out- of-control, an attempt to bring things back to the way they once were. Thus everything came under moral scrutiny, even art and literature. Many of Browning’s poems, which often feature painters and other artists, try to work out the proper relationship between art and morality: Should art have a moral message? Can art be immoral? Are aesthetics and ethics inherently contradictory aims? These are all questions with which Browning’s poetry struggles. The new findings of science, most notably evolution, posed further challenges to traditional religious ideas, suggesting that empiricism—the careful recording of observable details—could serve as a more relevant basis for human endeavor, whether intellectual or artistic.
In exploring these issues of art and modernity, Browning uses the dramatic monologue. A dramatic monologue, to paraphrase M.H. Abrams, is a poem with a speaker who is clearly separate from the poet, who speaks to an implied audience that, while silent, remains clearly present in the scene. (This implied audience distinguishes the dramatic monologue from the soliloquy—a form also used by Browning—in which the speaker does not address any specific listener, rather musing aloud to him or herself). The purpose of the monologue (and the soliloquy) is not so much to make a statement about its declared subject matter, but to develop the character of the speaker. For Browning, the genre provides a sort of play-space and an alternative persona with which he can explore sometimes controversial ideas. He often further distances himself by employing historical characters, particularly from the Italian Renaissance. During the Renaissance in Italy art assumed a new humanism and began to separate from religion; concentrations of social power reached an extreme. Thus this temporal setting gives Browning a good analogue for exploring issues of art and morality and for looking at the ways in which social power could be used (and misused: the Victorian period saw many moral pundits assume positions of social importance). Additionally, the monologue form allows Browning to explore forms of consciousness and self-representation. This aspect of the monologue underwent further development in the hands of some of Browning’s successors, among them Alfred Tennyson and T.S. Eliot.
Browning devotes much attention not only to creating a strong sense of character, but also to developing a high level of historic specificity and general detail. These concerns reflected Victorian society’s new emphasis on empiricism, and pointed the way towards the kind of intellectual verse that was to be written by the poets of high Modernism, like Eliot and Ezra Pound. In its scholarly detail and its connection to the past Browning’s work also implicitly considers the relationship of modern poets to a greater literary tradition. At least two of Browning’s finest dramatic monologues take their inspiration from moments in Shakespeare’s plays, and other poems consider the matter of one’s posterity and potential immortality as an artist. Because society had been changing so rapidly, Browning and his contemporaries could not be certain that the works of canonical artists like Shakespeare and Michelangelo would continue to have relevance in the emerging new world. Thus these writers worried over their own legacy as well. However, Browning’s poetry has lasted—perhaps precisely because of its very topical nature: its active engagement with the debates of its times, and the intelligent strategies with which it handles such era-specific material.