Despite this reputation, much of the great advances and revolutions in poetic thinking that would sweep the world beginning in the twentieth century had their genesis in the Victorian era, and one of the greatest poets of this age was Browning.
Browning was influenced strongly by Percy Bysshe Shelley , and in particular Shelley's lengthier dramatic poems such as Prometheus Unbound , which inspired him to the dramatic poetry which would ultimately cement his own reputation. Browning was an accomplished lyric poet, but he would be famous and, for a time, notorious for his insistence on vast forms. Although he was severely underrated by his immediate successors in the twentieth century, Browning's impact on the evolution of poetic narrative is significant.
His narrative poetry and his influence on the tone and style of modern poetry impacts deeply the epics of T. Eliot and William Carlos Williams as well as the Confessional School of the latter twentieth century. Although it had largely fallen out of favor in the mid-nineteenth century, Browning was one of the key pioneers in revitalizing dramatic poetry. His father was a man of fine intellect and equally fine character, who worked as a well-paid clerk in the Bank of England and so managed to amass a library of around six thousand books—many of them highly obscure and arcane.
His mother, to whom he was ardently attached, was a devout nonconformist, the daughter of a German ship owner who had settled in Dundee, and was alike intellectually and morally worthy of his affection. The only other member of the family was a younger sister, also highly gifted, who was the sympathetic companion of his later years. They lived simply, but his father encouraged Robert's interest in literature and the arts.
In his childhood he was distinguished by his love of poetry and natural history.
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At 12 he had written a book of poetry which he destroyed when he could not find a publisher. After attending one or two private schools, and showing an insuperable dislike to school life, he was educated by a tutor. He was a rapid learner and by the age of fourteen was fluent in French, Greek, Italian, and Latin as well as his native English.
He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In imitation of the latter, he briefly became an atheist and a vegetarian, but in later life he looked back on this as a passing phase. At age sixteen he attended University College in London , but dropped out after his first year.
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In May , Browning's Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession was published anonymously by Saunders and Otley, in many ways a vanity publication financed by his family, and this marked the beginning of his career as a poet. A lengthy confessional poem, it was intended by its young author to be merely one of a series of works produced by various fictitious versions of himself the poet, the composer, etc.
He was much embarrassed by Pauline in later life, contributing a somewhat contrite preface to the edition of his Collected Poems asking for his readers' indulgence when reading what in his eyes was practically a piece of juvenilia , before undertaking extensive revisions to the poem in time for the edition, with the remark "twenty years' endurance of an eyesore seems long enough.
In Browning wrote the lengthy dramatic poem Paracelsus , essentially a series of monologues spoken by the Swiss doctor and alchemist Paracelsus and his colleagues. Published under Browning's own name, in an edition financed by his father, the poem was a small commercial and critical success and gained the notice of Thomas Carlyle , William Wordsworth , and other men of letters, giving him a reputation as a poet of distinguished promise.
Around this time the young poet was very much in demand in literary circles for his ready wit and flamboyant sense of style, and he embarked upon two ill-considered ventures: a series of plays for the theater, all of which were dismally unsuccessful and none of which are much remembered today, and Sordello , a very lengthy poem in blank verse on the subject of an obscure feud in medieval northern Italy. Full of obscure references and verbose language, the poem became something of a target for critics' anti-Browning sentiments, and the young poet was made an object of derision and shunned by many of the literati.
The effect on Browning's career was catastrophic, and he would not recover his good public standing—and the good sales that accompanied it—until the publication of The Ring and the Book nearly thirty years later. Throughout the early s he continued to publish volumes of plays and shorter poems, under the general series title Bells and Pomegranates.
Although the plays, with the exception of Pippa Passes —in many ways more of a dramatic poem than an actual play—are almost entirely forgotten, the volumes of poetry Dramatic Lyrics , first published in , and 's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics are often considered to be among the poet's best work, containing many of his most well-known poems. Though much admired now, the volumes were largely ignored at the time in the wake of the Sordello debacle. In early Browning began corresponding with Elizabeth Barrett Browning , a poet in her own right, and the two conducted a secret courtship away from the eyes of her domineering father before marrying in secret in —a union of ideal happiness—by eloping to Italy.
Their son, the painter and critic Robert Wiedemann Browning, known to the family as "Pen," was born in Florence in The Brownings continued to write and publish poetry from their Italian home throughout the s, with Elizabeth far overshadowing Robert in both critical and commercial reception. Robert Browning's first published work since marriage was the lengthy religious piece Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day , published in He was clever enough to understand his own poetry; and if he understood it, we can understand it.
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But he was also entirely unconscious and impulsive, and he was never clever enough to understand his own character; consequently we may be excused if that part of him which was hidden from him is partly hidden from us. The subtle man is always immeasurably easier to understand than the natural man; for the subtle man keeps a diary of his moods, he practises the art of self-analysis and self-revelation, and can tell us how he came to feel this.
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning | Poetry Foundation
If the problem persists, please try again in a little while. Robert Browning By G. No cover image. Read FREE! Excerpt On the subject of Browning's work innumerable things have been said and remain to be said; of his life, considered as a narrative of facts, there is little or nothing to say. Life and Letters of Robert Browning - Vol.