Life (1812-1889)

Robert Browning was born 7 May 1812, first child and only son of Robert Browning and Sarah Wiedemann Browning. Robert was an impulsive, fearless little boy who was also rather a prodigy, writing poems and reading Homer at a very young age. He learned many languages and devoured his father's history books. He also liked to read books that were considered rather shocking and not quite suitable for children. Robert also had quite a habit of falling for older women, as his father had done. This first happened when Robert was barely in his teens and he apparently developed a crush on a woman named Eliza Flower, then in her early twenties.

At 16, Robert began attending the newly-formed London University, established for those Nonconformists like Robert who were barred from Oxford and Cambridge. Robert attended for only just over a year, though thanks to his reading, he was really quite an educated man. He also was quite arrogant at times. By the time he was 20, he was convinced that he would be a great poet, if not THE great poet. His family had enough money to support him in these poetical endeavours, a good thing as he got off to a very rocky start. His first published work, Pauline, was considered not very good, but promising; his second, Paracelsus, was well-received and Robert was always proud of it. He even wrote several stage plays (between 1836 and 1843) which were also well-received, though quite forgotten today. It was in 1840 that he really had some problems.

In March of that year, Robert published Sordello, a Poem in Six Books, at his father's expense. Sordello was an obscure Mantuan poet/warrior of the early 13th century, and though the poem has many beautifully descriptive passages, no one really understood it. To make matters even worse, three years earlier, a woman named Mrs. Busk had published her own poem on Sordello, done in a lilting, nearly doggerel sort of style. But these problems aside, Robert was beginning to really hit his poetical stride. Between 1841 and 1846, he published four books, mainly collections of his shorter poems that would become among his most famous works.

It was about this time that Robert's correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett began, when he wrote to thank her for a flattering mention of his work in one of her poems. Even in this very first letter, he told her that he loved her, which alarmed Elizabeth immensely. Still, he managed to meet her face to face in May of 1845 and marry her in September of that year. The happy couple went to Florence and were enchanted by it, finally settling in the famous Casa Guidi.

They lived like hermits, the normally gregarious Robert content to stay at home with the usually ill Elizabeth. On 9 March 1849, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning was born, though when Robert's mother Sarah died later that month, never knowing she had a grandson, Robert was devastated. It was Elizabeth and her poems that finally pulled him through.

In 1855, Robert's collection of short poems, Men and Women, was published, an excellent book that received good but not great reviews. But he was mostly neglecting his poetry in order to be with Elizabeth. Her death on 28 June 1861 was more a relief than a shock, as she had been fading badly for some time. Robert re-dedicated himself to his poetry and to his son.

By now, Robert was truly famous, finally one of THE great poets, as he had always wanted. He received two honorary degrees and was much admired, though generally from a distance, as many considered him to be rather ill-tempered. He actually proposed to another woman ten years after Elizabeth's death, one Lady Louisa Ashburton, but she turned him down. Robert really disliked her after that, even though he told everyone that the proposal was for Pen's sake.

Robert wrote a great deal right up to the end of his life, though he was plagued by colds and bronchitis; his last book, Asolando, was published the day of his death, 12 December 1889. Robert had always assumed he would be buried beside Elizabeth, but as that cemetery had been closed to further burials, he instead received a grand funeral at Westminster Abbey. (From Thomas, Donald. Robert Browning: A Life Within Life. New York: Viking Press, 1983.)

The Dramatic Monologue:

Browning’s poems "My Last Duchess," "The Bishop Order his Tomb," and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," among others, are termed dramatic monologues. There are important differences to be noted between the soliloquy, the dramatic lyric and dramatic monologue. (Where necessary, do some research to ascertain the differences.)

  • The characteristic features of the dramatic monologue:
    • a single person, who is patently not the poet and is not meant to be identified with the poet, utters the entire poem in a specific situation at a critical moment--the Duke is negotiating with an emissary for a second wife; the Bishop lies dying; Andrea once more attempts wistfully to believe his wife’s lies; one should not assume that the poet is to be identified with the persona (the speaking voice in the poem)
    • this person addresses and interacts with one or more other people but we know of the interlocutor’s presence only from clues in the discourse of the only speaker
    • The main principle controlling the poet’s choice and organisation of what the speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker’s temperament and character
  • The function of Browning’s dramatic monologues: these are inspired by the point of view expressed by Matthew Arnold in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" that literature and criticism should together seek to foster in a ‘disinterested’ way the ‘best that is known and thought.’ That is, they are designed accordingly to offer a social critique less of specific people than types of people and institutions in contemporary society as well as to satirise certain timeless foibles of human nature.
    • note Browning’s use of irony (when the ostensible meaning of an utterance is, given the context in which it is uttered, contradicted by its implicit meaning) in this regard: because of its indirectness, irony is a much more efficient tool of social critique
    • just as the assumption of a persona allows Browning to shelter behind a mask, so too does irony (coupled with humour) allow him to render his criticisms of historical and contemporary persons and institutions in a more palatable way
  • The fragmentation of perspective in lyric poetry:
    • lyric poetry is no longer assumed to be self-expressive or autobiographical as a result of which the reader can no longer be sure of the lyric as certain means of access to the creative consciousness seeking to express itself in the poem (Eliot after the turn of the century will come up with what he calls an ‘impersonal’ theory of poetic creation)
    • there is, thus, no longer any question of viewing Browning as the voice of his epoch as some might argue Milton was of an earlier era. As the Twentieth century approaches, poets become increasingly conscious of their own uncertainty about all things (this corresponds to the so-called ‘angst’ of the modern age) and try to express not a single vision of society or the point of view of one person but, rather, multiple perspectives (this corresponds to what some philosophers and critics terms the ‘fragmented’ [rather than unified] nature of modernity)
    • The influence of Browning’s use of the dramatic monologue on modern poets such as T.S. Eliot (e.g. in :The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")
  • Comparisons and contrasts between Coleridge’s so-called ‘Conversation’ poems and Browning’s Dramatic Monologue.
    • Coleridge invented the form which he called the "conversation poem" or "poems of friendship." He applied the term "conversation poem" only to "The Nightingale." Critics such as G. M. Harper have come to use it in a wider sense to refer to the poems that M. H. Abrams calls "the Greater Romantic lyric."
    • Where Browning’s dramatic monologues purport to be speeches spoken by an imaginary character (ostensibly not Browning himself) and are largely devoted to the revelation of character in a manner akin to the novel (this was, you might recall, the golden age of the novel), Coleridge’s conversation poems focus on expressing the thoughts, feelings, memories, observations, etc. of the persona (the ‘I’). The former lend themselves to social critique and satire, the latter to self-exploration and autobiography.

Coleridge - ‘Conversation’ poems

Browning - Dramatic Monologues

The identity of the speaker is unambivalent - Coleridge himself.

There is a single speaker who is not the poet himself.

Written in the style of intimate talk to an understanding auditor, and in most cases we know who the imagined addressee is. The feeling on the part of the reader is that of being spoken to directly by the poet/persona.

(Sometimes) a speaker addresses and interacts with one or more other people but we know of the auditors’ presence, words and actions only from clues in the words of the single speaker. The reader overhears, as it were, a conversation taking place between a speaker and a listener within the poem.

The cadence is a conversational one.

The cadence is also a conversational one.

A generous, loving spirit is often felt in these poems.

An ironic/satirical treatment is prevalent in these poems where the speaker damns himself by his very own words.

We know the precise biographical context because we are explicitly told or it can easily be inferred. The poems are usually about Coleridge in a particular state of mind, at a particular time.

The principle controlling the selection and organization of what the speaker says is the unintentional revelation of his temperament and character.

We have a precise specification of space and time. Coleridge carefully delineates the time of day, the atmosphere and his exact surroundings so that the setting is easily visualized. The setting stimulates the meditation that occurs and influences the direction the thought takes. Coleridge considered his poetic aim to involve "infusing the thoughts and passions of man into everything which is the object of his contemplation" and reconciling "what is nature with that which is exclusively human."

The poem occurs in a specific situation at a critical moment.

The movement of thought spirals or circles around a given theme or image, while recording some progress in insight or in the release of emotional pressure. Usually the solution is to come full circle, recycling the opening imagery with added significance or subtle variation.

Most frequently, a linear or progressive unfolding of character takes place.

Recommended Readings:

  • Bloom, Harold, et al., eds. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Robert Browning
  • Bristow, Joseph Robert Browning
  • Gibson, Mary Ellis, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Browning
  • King, Roma A. "Ecclesiastical Vision in Stone: ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb" (in Watson)
  • Karlin, David Browning’s Hatreds
  • Karlin, David, et al. Robert Browning
  • Langbaum, Robert The Poetry of Experience: the Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition
  • Langbaum, Robert "The Dramatic Monologue: Sympathy versus Judgment" (in Watson)
  • Miller, J. Hillis "From The Disappearance of God" (in Watson)
  • Shaw, David The Dialectical Temper: the Rhetorical Art of Robert Browning
  • Slinn, Warwick Browning and the Fictions of Identity
  • Watson, J. R., ed. Men and Women and Other Poems (Casebook Series)

This site was last updated: February 03, 2011

Please direct all queries


Philosophy's Other: Theory on the Web

↑ Grab this Headline Animator