Robert Browning (1812-1889) is one of the best-known and best-regarded poets from Victorian Britain
Browning was born in Camberswell, England, the child of a family of well-to-do abolitionists. His father had a library of some 6,000 books that influenced Robert's literary development. At the age of 12, he wrote his first collection of poetry, which he later destroyed
. His parents were technically gentlefolk, who had inherited much land in slave plantations in the West Indies, but his father worked as a clerk rather than profit from slavery.
Browning followed his parents' noble example by living at home and staying completely dependent on them until he was thirty-four.
"Pauline, a fragment of a confession" was self-published (paid for by his aunt) in 1833. Paracelsus
, about the 16th century scientist
, was published in 1835, and was his first work to gain notice in the London literary scene.
In 1844 Robert Browning wrote a fan letter to Elizabeth Barrett, who at the time was a much better-known poet than he was. A mutual friend introduced them in 1845, and a romantic courtship followed, complete with forbidding father and clandestine elopement. Barrett's most famous work, Sonnets from the Portuguese
, and its very famous Sonnet 43 ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.") is about Robert Browning. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were married in 1846 and were together until her death in 1861. In the years after Elizabeth's death, Robert's reputation as a poet, once a distant second to hers, took off. Browning continued to be active as a writer right up until his death in 1889.
- "Porphyria's Lover" (1836)
- "How they Brought the Good News From Ghent To Aix" (1838)
- Pippa Passes (1841)
- "My Last Duchess" (1842)
- "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (1842)
- "The Laboratory"
- "The Lost Leader" (1845)
- "Love Among the Ruins" (1855)
- "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1855)
- "Rabbi ben Ezra" (1864)
- "Prospice" (1864)
- The Ring and the Book (1868-69)
- The Bard on Board: "Caliban upon Setebos" is written from the perspective of Caliban from The Tempest.
- Blithe Spirit: Pippa, whose sweet, innocent singing influences the decidedly less sweet and innocent people she passes.
- Bring News Back: "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix", in which we never learn "the news which alone could save Aix from her fate".
- Broken Pedestal: "The Lost Leader" is about Browning's disappointment in William Wordsworth in turning away from English literalism and taking a government job.
- Cradling Your Kill / Mummies at the Dinner Table: After the narrator of "Porphyria's Lover" strangles Porphyria, he sits up all night, snuggled up next to her corpse. I Love the Dead is not directly stated, but implied, when the narrator raptuously describes the beauty of Porphyria's dead body and mentions how "her cheek once more/Blush'd bright beneath my burning kiss"
- Darker and Edgier: Many of Browning's poems were about subjects that the Victorians didn't typically write poems about—sex, obsession, murder. "Porphyria's Lover" is about a deranged murderer, the speaker in "My Last Duchess" appears to have ordered the death of his wife, and the speaker of "The Laboratory" is trying to obtain poison to kill her romantic rival. This kind of thing was written about in Victorian novels by people like Charles Dickens, but you know, you expected novels to be sensational. You expected poetry to be literary and elevated.
- Death Glare: "The Laboratory"
For only last night, as they whispered, I brought
My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought
Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall
- Grief Song: "Prospice", written three years after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is all about how Browning welcomes death because it will reunite him with his lost love.
- Grow Old with Me: Trope Namer, from the opening lines of "Rabbi Ben Ezra". The lines are more melancholy when one remembers they were written after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be"
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Pippa of Pippa Passes, sunny and sweet, whose attitutde might be summed up best by the most famous lines of the poem:
- Innocent Swearing: A meta example, and one of the most famous in literature. Pippa Passes contains these rather unusual lines: "Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,/Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,/Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!". Many years later the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary asked Browning about this and he pointed them to his source material, a 1660 poem that included the lines "They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat." Browning took that to mean that a "twat" is part of a nun's habit, and so used it in the poem. In fact "twat" meant the same thing in 1660 as it did in 1842 and as it does in the 21st century, a vulgar Country Matters reference. Apparently no one told him, and Browning went to his grave not knowing about it.
- It's All About Me:
- The narrator of "My Last Duchess", an arrogant duke, is irritated that his wife, who is sweet and affectionate towards him, is just as sweet and friendly to everyone else. So he has her murdered.
- Then there's the narrator of "Porphyria's Lover", who judges Porphyria too be "Too weak,/ for all her heart's endeavour,/To set its struggling passion free/From pride...And give herself to me for ever." So he kills her.
- Makeup Is Evil: In "The Flight of the Duchess", the Duchess used damaging make-up that ruined her looks.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: This is what the speaker of "The Laboratory" is planning to do, as she tells the man who is fixing up a batch of poison.
- Narrative Poem: Many of Browning's works, including all of the examples listed above, were this.
- The Noun and the Noun: The Ring and the Book
- "Rashomon"-Style: The Ring and the Book, commonly regarded as one of Browning's most important works, is a novel-length (21,000 lines) story, consisting of 12 chapters with different narrators, giving different viewpoints on a famous Italian murder trial from 1698.
- Scare Quotes: Apparently they date at least as far back as 1864 and Browning's "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium'", about a con man fake medium that gets caught.
- Sole Survivor: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" lures all the rats of Hamelin into the river to drown, save one rat who goes back to "Rat-land" to tell the other rats what happened. Then when he lures the children away, one children who had a lame leg and thus was too slow to keep up is left behind.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: A single Wham Line (see below) reveals that the narrator of "Porphyria's Lover" is completely crazy. He probably isn't very trustworthy when he says "No pain felt she;/I am quite sure she felt no pain."
- Wham Line: "Porphyria's Lover" starts off as a standard Victorian romantic poem about a man waiting in a cold, "cheerless" cottage for his lover Porphyria to arrive. She comes in out of the driving rain, kindles a fire, and pledges her love for the narrator. Then we get this:
"...That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/Perfectly pure and good: I found/A thing to do,and all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around,/And strangled her..."