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Browning, Robert

Browning a poem by Usha Kishore
His dramatic monologues eulogising homicidal
psychopaths, who strangle innocent young women
with their own blonde hair and then prize open their
still blue eyes; his tyrant aristocrats, who smother
their wives’ smiles with contract killers and flaunt
exquisite designer portraits of their angelic victims.
His sensual ascetics, who order elaborate tombs,
encrusted with lapis lazuli, sculptured with libidinous
Pan twitching some bewildered nymph’s garments;
his amorous monks, who paint Christ crowning the
, drink Chianti wine and chase after sportive
ladies in untimely hours, singing bawdy stornelli;
his Renaissance painters senza errori, unrequited in
love, lost and forlorn. Zooks! There’s the grey beginning!

His weird pipers who combat demon rats and
monstrous broods of vampyre bats and then take
off with unsuspecting children; his voyeuristic
women, who poison their love rivals with lozenges
in gold oozings and exquisite blue and carry pure
death in earrings and signet rings. His apologetic
oratory, his morbid preoccupation with criminals,
his sublime ridicule, his grotesque imagery, his
tour de force dialectics. What wonder and wild desire!
What success in failure! Iste perfecit opus!

His bells and pomegranates, his dramatic idylls,
his rings and books, his men and women,
his Victorian obsession with radical women’s
rights, his republican stance, his anti-Catholic
sentiment, his anti-war politics, his atheistic
vegetarian lassitude that dithered here and there,
his decapitated Italian vignettes, his dealings with
the Barretts of Wimpole Street, his escapades with
the incarnation of das Ewig weibliche cascading
in sonnets, his lyrical verse in equestrian motion –
How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix!

His soul’s tragedy, his grammarian’s funeral, his bishop’s
apology, his theistic paradoxes, his barbaric reflections
on barbaric gods and that insane Childe who embarks
on an empty adventure, that runs like a horror movie
to a hellish dark tower in some phantasmagoric,
barren, doomsday landscape filled with hoary cripples
serpent rivers, dragon birds, wretched horses from
the devil’s own stud and Last Judgement’s fire.
And yet God has not said a word! Prophet-poet!
God’s own transcendental spy!

His convoluted and obscure psychological rants of
some 13th century troubadour, that confound every
student and teacher of Literature; his questioning of
public faces, his black humour, his tongue in cheek
parlance, his non-conformist optimism, his sardonic
soliloquies on life, his exuberant panache, his extended
metaphors, his parleyings with people beyond the grave,
his determinedly persistent haunting of my English classes.
God’s certainly in his Heaven and all’s right with the world!

Senza errori – without errors (faultless). Andrea del Sarto – the faultless painter.
Iste perfecit opus – this one completed the work, quote from Fra Lippo Lippi
Stornelli – Italian street songs
das Ewig weibliche – ‘the eternal feminine’ – (originally from Goethe’s Faust). Here, the reference is to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

(Acknowledging the Robert Browning critiques of William Lyon Phelps and John Lucas)

My eponymous poem Browning is inspired by the poetic works of Robert Browning. It lists the poet’s works such as his Dramatic Monologues, Dramatic Lyrics and individual poems based on the Italian renaissance such as Andrea del Sarto (the faultless painter), Bishop orders his tomb at St. Praxed’s Church, Fra Lippo Lippi and The Laboratory. His interest in criminal psychology is highlighted by mentioning My Last Duchess and Porphyria’s Lover.

My poem critiques Browning’s poetry and reflects in a humorous but scholarly style, listing his techniques, black humour, sardonic quips, his love of paradox and his unconventional optimism. I have quoted from Fra Lippo Lippi, Pippa’s Passes and The Ring and the Book. I have also explored the writer’s philosophy and tenets, viz: his Anti-Catholic sentiment, Republican stance, his sympathies for women’s rights and unknown facts such as his onetime vegetarianism and atheism. I have also referred to some of the negative criticism that the poet has received. I have elaborated on his relationship with his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB), which is portrayed in the Rudolf Besier play (1930) and subsequent films in 1934 and 1957. In 1982, BBC produced a TV series, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. In my poem, I have called EBB, the eternal feminine (das Ewigweibliche) after the critic William Lyon Phelps and highlighted her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which proclaim her undying love and devotion for him.

I have alluded to poems through critiques, for instance, to Caliban on Setebos (“barbaric reflections on barbaric gods”) and to the theistic paradoxes in his anti-Catholic poems. My poem also muses on the poems Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came and Sordello, in a stereotypical manner, deliberately not mentioning the allegorical elements. It is to be noted that this has been done in a tongue in cheek manner and not in any way condemning the poems. I can assure you that this poem is written by a true Browning enthusiast.

Browning is the foremost of Victorian poets and an enigma; to understand him, one has to delve into his personal life, the Victorian era and the poet’s political and literary stance. Browning’ s poetry is not easily accessible, but once the content and the context is understood, the poems certainly provide food for thought for the discerning reader and elicit thought provoking responses from students. The Browning bug, once contracted dies hard and becomes a lifelong addiction. Browning’s works include:

Pauline• Paracelus• Sordello• Bells and Pomegranates• Men and Women• Dramatic Lyrics• Dramatis Personae• The Ring and the Book• Dramatic Idylls.

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Browning was born in Camberwell, South-East London,

Browning was three months younger than Charles Dickens and the eldest child of Sarah Wiedemann, of German-Scottish descent, and Robert Browning, a wealthy clerk with the Bank of England who was also a scholar and collector of books.

Browning's childhood

Browning was educated at home. He was an extremely bright child and had learned Italian, Greek, French and Latin by the age of fourteen. At 16, Browning attended the University of London in 1828, the first year it opened, but left in discontent to pursue his studies at his own pace. The Brownings had a large library, which would have been a great source of study for young Robert. Both his parents encouraged him to study and write; as early as the age of twelve Browning was writing poetry. In his literary pursuits, his parents would support him financially for many years. This somewhat idiosyncratic but extensive education has led to difficulties for his readers as his references and allusions were rather obscure.

Wrote a poetry book at 12

Browning destroyed it when no publisher could be found. This perhaps is Browning's first attempt at poetry, something that might that spurred him on in later years.

Pauline published

This had no critical impact. Pauline is an ambitious fragmentary poem, written when the poet was 21, the poem is about the narrator's inability to make a poetic commitment.

Paracelsus published

A series of poetical monologues between Swiss alchemist, physician, and occultist Paracelsus (1493–1541) and his friends, it is said to be a critical success for Browning as it was acclaimed by Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth. However, this critical acclaim is debated by various biographers and critics.

Published the play Strafford

Strafford was a tragedy. Well known thespian William Macready acted in its first five-night run. Macready was charmed by Browning's Paracelsus. It is said that the young Browning haunted Macready's dressing room at the theatre for years.

Publication of Sordello

'Howls of critical disapproval'. Sordello is a fictionalised version of Sordello da Goito, a thirteenth-century Lombard troubadour depicted in Canto VI of Dante’s Purgatorio. The long narrative poem was composed in a time span of seven years.

Read Sordello

1838 and 1844

First and second visit to Italy

Perhaps a poetic premonition of life abroad? Browning was fascinated by Italy and this was perhaps due to his adoration of Shelley. However, many critics feel that Browning saw his land of inspiration in Italy.

Relocated to Italy

Many of Browning's poems were based on Italian Renaissance, its glamour and squalor, its noble ideals and its decadence. He simultaneously admired and criticised the Italian Renaissance.

Met his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1845 and married her in 1846

Elizabeth was six years Robert's senior. Their mutual admiration for each other's poetry resulted in a love affair. They had to elope as Elizabeth's father was a tyrant and against the marriage. They left England for Pisa and later settled in Casa Guidi in Florence. Their marriage was one of the greatest love stories of history. Her affection for him cascades in The Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Read The Sonnets from the Portuguese


Browning admired Shelley and Wordsworth; Tennyson was a close associate

Victorian Poetry is ruled by the duo of Tennyson and Browning. Both Browning and Tennyson possibly saw the instability of their society, paralleling their personal lives. Browning's father had been disowned by his family and Elizabeth Barrett's father disowned her for marrying Browning. Likewise, Tennyson's father, a first son who had expected to inherit, had been replaced by a younger brother and had to take an unwanted job of a clergyman. He became an alcoholic and as a result his children became emotionally unstable. Thus, both authors had experienced the unhappiness that results from drastic changes in families and societies. Browning admired Shelley and Wordsworth among the Romantics. Browning later fell out with Wordsworth because of his desertion of the liberal cause and this is elaborated in the poem, 'The Lost Leader'. Browning was disillusioned when he felt that Wordsworth was moving towards Conservative politics and The Church of England.

Read 'The Lost Leader'


Birth of their son, Robert Wiedermann (Pen) Browning

Robert Pen Browning had reportedly said to the critic William Lyon Phelps that his father was very healthy during his lifetime and that he had never seen his father in bed during the daytime until his last illness.

Death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

After the death of his wife, Browning and his son settled in London.

Success after the publication of The Ring and the Book

Initially overshadowed by his wife's work, Browning only achieved success after the publication of The Ring and the Book between 1868 and 1869 in four volumes. Browning was not affected by the negative criticism he initially received. He was a born optimist; his optimism is a striking contrast to the nineteenth-century pessimism. He believed in success in failure! It is well known that Browning wrote for himself and not for others!

The most notable Browning Society was founded

There were Browning societies in the UK, Canada and the US as early as 1877. The most notable Browning society was founded in London by Frederick James Furnivall and Emily Hickey at the University College London. Although Browning's relationship with the society was ambivalent, he recognised the society's role in his success.

Browning's death

Browning died in Venice on 12th December 1889 and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 31st December 1889. The scenes of Pippa Passes were located in a village called Asolo, near Venice, where he spent the last summer of his life. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, one of the Asolo streets was formally named Via Roberto Browning.

Asolo street – Via Roberto Browning


The founding of the current Browning Society

The Browning Society was formed in 1969 to provide a focus for contemporary interest in Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Society publishes the Journal of Browning Studies and arranges an annual programme of lectures and visits in London and elsewhere. The aim of the Society is to widen the appreciation the poetry of the Brownings and other Victorian writers.

The Browning Society



Browning's psychological portraits and use of rhythm and diction are highly acclaimed. They have influenced many poets, including Ezra Pound, T S Eliot and Robert Frost.

Browning is part of many school and university syllabuses around the world

Victorian poetry is not mentioned without the name of Browning. Browning is part of the literature syllabuses of many Indian universities, from one of which the author discovered the poet. Considered the master of the Dramatic Monologue (DM), Browning was one of the first successful writers of this verse form that he experimented and developed. DM is time-tested and even today is a favourite verse form of many contemporary poets.

Modern criticism of Browning