Making the Effort

Browning is one of the best-known Victorian poets, but is perhaps just as famous for his marriage to fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett. His most outstanding work, the four volume “The Ring and the Book” (1868/1869), is about a murder trial in Rome and comprises more than 20,000 lines of poetry.

His poetry is not easily accessible, but those who make the effort find his work unusual in many regards. He is a master of the dramatic monologue, where each character gives his own point of view in a monologue – it can be difficult to determine which of these represents the poet’s sympathies. Some of his poems also assume that the reader is familiar with the details of the events on which the poem is based – not easy even for Browning’s contemporaries, and much harder now. But in general Browning’s heroes are those who commit themselves to some ideal, even if they ultimately fail. Little of his work focuses on his own emotional life, perhaps due to early criticism he received from John Stuart Mill, who attacked the “morbid self-consciousness” of an early Browning poem.

The son of a clerk in the Bank of England in London, Browning received no formal education after the age of fourteen. His early career was devoted to writing for the theatre, for which he was not successful, perhaps because his poems were psychological in nature rather than action-oriented. Browning published a number of well-received poems in the 1840s, generally printed at his family’s expense.

In 1846 he secretly married the poet Elizabeth Barrett against her father’s wishes, beginning one of the most famous marriages in literary history. Interestingly, Browning was not very productive as a poet during his marriage, and his poetry never sold as well as his wife’s. To improve her poor health they lived in the more hospitable climate of Florence, Italy. She died in 1861 and he returned to London. In 1868 “The Ring and the Book”, was an immediate success and established Browning as an important literary figure. He continued prolific writing in his later years, including long poems on contemporary and classical themes as well as two books. After catching cold, he died in Venice on the day, December 12, 1889, his last poem, “Asolando: Fancies and Facts”, appeared in print.

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