Robert Browning (7th May, 1812 - 12th December, 1889) was an English poet and playwright.
He was born in Camberwell, Surrey, the only son of Robert and Sarah Wiedemann Browning. Although his father worked as a poorly paid bank clerk, his parents managed to amass a library of around 6000 books and thus the son was raised in a household with a good literary resource. His mother was a devout Nonconformist, and they lived simply, but his father encouraged Robert's interest in literature and the arts.
He was a rapid learner and by the age of 14 was fluent in French, Greek, Italian, and Latin as well as his native English. He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. In imitation of the latter, he became an atheist and a vegetarian, but in later life he looked back on this as a passing phase. At age 16 he attended University College, London but dropped out after his first year.
In March 1833, 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 the opening chapter of a much larger work, but Browning abandoned the larger project. He was much embarrassed by Pauline in later life, contributing a somewhat contrite preface to the 1868 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 1888 edition, with the remark "twenty years' endurance of an eyesore seems long enough".
In 1835, Browning published the lengthy dramatic poem Paracelsus, essentially a series of monologues spoken by the Swiss doctor and alchemist Paracelsus and his friends. Published under Browning's own name, in an edition financed by his father, the poem was a small commercial and critical success and marked his induction into London literary society. 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 theatre, 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 scapegoat 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 1840s 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 1842, and 1845'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 1845, Browning began corresponding with Elizabeth Barrett, a semi-invalid, and the two conducted a secret courtship away from the eyes of her domineering father before marrying in secret in 1846 and eloping to Italy. Their son, the painter and critic Robert Wiedemann Browning, known to the family as "Pen", was born in Florence in 1849. The Brownings continued to write and publish poetry from their Italian home throughout the 1850s, with Elizabeth far outshadowing 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 1850. Men and Women, a series of fifty dramatic poems recited by fifty different fictional and historical characters, with a fifty-first, "One Word More", featuring Browning himself as the narrator and dedicated to his wife, appeared in 1855. Men and Women - its title taken from a line in his wife's Sonnets from the Portuguese - is generally considered his most successful collection by modern critics, and many have singled it out as one of the finest books published in Victorian England, but the collection elicited little response when first published and sales remained poor.
Following Elizabeth's death in 1861, Browning and his son returned to London. When his first new work in nine years, Dramatis Personae, was published in 1864, Browning's reputation was undergoing a critical re-evaluation; a collected edition of his poetry published the previous year had sold reasonably well, as had a number of volumes of selected poems. Dramatis Personae was a collection of eighteen poems, many of which were somewhat darker in tone than those found in Men and Women, the central theme again being dramatic poems narrated by historical, literary and fictional characters. It was the first volume of Browning poetry to sell well enough to merit a second edition, though sales were still hardly spectacular.
In 1868, Browning finally completed and published the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book, which would finally make him rich, famous and successful, and which ensured his critical reputation among the first rank of English poets. Based on a convoluted murder case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve volumes, essentially comprising ten lengthy dramatic poems narrated by the various characters in the story showing their individual take on events as they transpire, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself. Extraordinarily long even by Browning's own standards (over twenty thousand lines), The Ring and the Book was the poet's most ambitious project and has been hailed as a tour de force of dramatic poetry. Published separately in four volumes from November 1868 through to February 1869, the poem was a huge success both commercially and critically, and finally brought Browning the renown he had sought and deserved for nearly thirty years of work.
With his fame and fortune secure, Browning again became the prolific writer he had been at the start of his career. In the remaining twenty years of his life, as well as travelling extensively and frequenting London literary society again, he managed to publish no less than fifteen new volumes, a great many of which are still very highly regarded today for their poetic quality and pyschological insight.
According to some reports he became romantically involved with Lady Ashburton in the 1870s, but did not re-marry. In 1878, he returned to Italy for the first time since Elizabeth's death, and returned there on several occasions. He died in Venice in December 1889, and was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey; his grave now lies immediately adjacent to that of Tennyson.
Complete list of works:
Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)
Strafford (play) (1837)
Bells and Pomegranates No. I: Pippa Passes (play) (1841)
Bells and Pomegranates No. II: King Victor and King Charles (play) (1842)
Bells and Pomegranates No. III: Dramatic Lyrics (1842)
"Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"
"My Last Duchess"
Bells and Pomegranates No. IV: The Return of the Druses (play) (1843)
Bells and Pomegranates No. V: A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (play) (1843)
Bells and Pomegranates No. VI: Colombe's Birthday (play) (1844)
Bells and Pomegranates No. VII: Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845)
"How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" (http://www.byui.edu/Ricks/employee/MESSERR/authors/browning/ghent/how_they_brought.htm)
"The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church"
Bells and Pomegranates No. VIII: Luria and A Soul's Tragedy (plays) (1846)
The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1849)
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850)
Men and Women (1855)
"A Toccata of Galuppi's"
"'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'"
"Fra Lippo Lippi"
"Andrea Del Sarto"
"A Grammarian's Funeral"
"An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician"
Dramatis Personae (1864)
"Caliban upon Setebos"
"Rabbi Ben Ezra"
The Ring and the Book (1868-9)
Balaustion's Adventure (1871)
Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871)
Fifine at the Fair (1872)
Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, or, Turf and Towers (1873)
Aristophanes' Apology (1875)
The Inn Album (1875)
Pachiarotto, And How He Worked in Distemper (1876)
The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1877)
La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic (1878)
Dramatic Idyls (1879)
Dramatic Idyls: Second Series (1880)
Ferishtah's Fancies (1884)
Parleyings with Certain People of Importance In Their Day (1887)
Asolando: Facts and Fancies (1889)