Robert "The Obscure" Browning1 (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 books2. 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 Flower3, then in her early twenties.

At 16, Robert began attending the newly-formed London University, established for those Nonconformists4 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 century5, and though the poem has many beautifully descriptive passages, no one really understood it6. To make matters even worse, three years earlier, a woman named Mrs. Busk had published her own poem on Sordello7, 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 Guidi8.

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 Browning9 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. It may surprise you to learn (I know it surprised me) that 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 sake10.

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 cemetary had been closed to further burials, he instead received a grand funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Thomas, Donald. Robert Browning: A Life Within Life. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

  1. I don't mean he himself was obscure, of course, but rather that his poetry was. We'll find out a lot more about that in a moment.

  2. Robert loved history, the more obscure the better. This was fine, only he thought everyone else did, too, and that wasn't so good.

  3. Eliza's sister Sarah would later write the popular hymn Nearer My God to Thee. In case you can't place it, this is the last song the band plays in that movie about that big ship sinking.

  4. A catch-all term for anyone who wasn't Church of England. Robert and his family were Congregationalists, which are apparently even more Protestant than the Protestants.

  5. You may recall the earlier references to Robert's problems with obscurity....

  6. Thomas Carlyle, noted essayist and critic of the time, remarked that his wife had read all 253 pages (nearly 6,000 lines) and "was none the wiser as to whether Sordello was a man, a town, or a book." This gives you the general tone of the reviews the poem got.

  7. I know, I know. A freakier coincidence would be very difficult to find.

  8. You may not really consider this famous, but it is a good name to drop in a discussion of Victorian literature, especially since Elizabeth wrote a poem called "Casa Guidi Windows."

  9. Usually called "Penini" or "Pen," though no one knows why.

  10. Pen had gotten very difficult to handle, certainly, (he was something of a womanizer) but since he was already 22 years old by that time, I don't see that a second marriage would have been much help.

Selected Works:

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