Robert Browning was born in 1812, the son of fairly liberal parents who took an interest in his education and personal growth. He read voraciously as a youth, and began to write poetry while still quite young, influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose radicalism urged a rethinking of modern society. However, Browning’s earliest works garnered him some negative attention for their expression of strong sensations their morbid tone. Thus for a time he set poetry aside to work on plays, finding in their fictional world an apt space for experimentation and development as a creative mind. Most of the plays did not find success, however, and Browning turned back again to verse.
Browning’s first important poem was the lengthy Paracelsus, which appeared in 1835. Really a long dramatic monologue, the poem described the career of the sixteenth-century alchemist, and achieved popular success, establishing Browning as a familiar name with the reading public, if not yet as a great poet. In 1841 Browning put out Pippa Passes, a loosely structured set of poems that draw from the sensationalism of modern media. This was followed by 1842’s Dramatic Lyrics and 1845’s Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. Along with the 1855 volume Men and Women and the 1864 book Dramatis Personae, these two collections, although not wild successes, contain most of the poems today considered central to the Browning canon. But the poet achieved true literary stardom with the publication of his verse novel The Ring and the Book, a historical tragedy based on a group of documents Browning had found at an Italian bookseller’s. The work appeared in installments from 1868 to 1869, and Browning societies soon sprang up all over England, rocketing Browning into a fame he enjoyed until his death in 1889.
Just as Browning’s professional life centered around this crucial publication, so, too did his personal life center around a crucial relationship. Following the appearance of her celebrated first collection, Browning had begun corresponding with the poet Elizabeth Barrett, a semi-invalid who lived in the home of her extremely protective father. Not long after their first face-to- face meeting, the two poets married in secret and fled to Italy, where they lived until Elizabeth’s death in 1861. During this time critics considered Elizabeth much the finer poet, and scholars even proposed her as a candidate for poet laureate when William Wordsworth died (Alfred Tennyson received the honor instead). Although Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work still receives much scholarly attention, Robert Browning’s subtle, detail-oriented poems have proven attractive to modern critics, and he has now replaced his wife as the Browning of favor.
Browning lived and wrote during a time of major societal and intellectual upheaval, and his poems reflect this world. England was becoming increasingly urban, and newspapers daily assaulted the senses with splashy tales of crime and lust in the city. Many people began to lose faith in religion as various new scientific theories rocked society—most notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, articulated in his 1859The Origin of Species, and many questioned the old bases of morality. Just as religion and science were shifting in their roles, so, too, was art: artists and critics were moving toward what would become the “art for art’s sake” movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Browning responded to these cultural upheavals in the 1840s and ’50s with poems in which he explores the relationship of morality to art, and the conflict between aesthetics and didacticism. Mid- 19th-century Britain experienced economic turmoil as well: wealth and consumption were on the rise at the same time that poverty soared, and the need to reconcile these two facts finds an analogue in the struggle to decide between material beauty—often manifested in luxurious furnishings, decorations, ornament, and clothing—and morality—in the form of a concern for the poor. Browning explores all of these issues in his poetry, even though he sets many of them in the Renaissance or other distant historical periods; this is part of his way of achieving relevance while never becoming moralistic or overly strident. But Browning’s genius lay not so much in his choice of subject matter or setting, but in his craftsmanship: the fascination of his poetry owes to his strong portrayal of characters and his wealth of detail.