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Browning’s bad timing

By Hannah Rosefield  

History has not treated the Victorian poets kindly. Writing during the age of the novel, and caught between the Romantics’ poetic riches and the modernists’ iconoclasm, Victorian poets were overlooked for much of the 20th century—or worse, condemned as staid, pompous or irrelevant. It is Robert Browning’s additional misfortune to have been born just three months after Charles Dickens (7th May 1812 to Dickens’s 7th February). Compared to the slew of documentaries, adaptations, books and exhibitions that marked Dickens’s bicentenary, the celebrations for Browning, which have been largely restricted to academic circles, are lacklustre. Nevertheless, the 200th anniversary of Browning’s birth deserves notice. Here’s why:

1. Services to the dramatic monologue

The dramatic monologue existed before the Victorian period, but it came of age with Robert Browning. A poetic form in which the speaker is a character distinct from the poet, and speaks aloud, usually to some silent audience, the dramatic monologue borrows elements from the theatre but, like the novel, is particularly suited to examining the relationship between character and context. In Browning’s hands, the form has the immediacy of speech, and the hundreds of historical and fictional characters who speak his monologues are mad, bad and peculiar enough to rival those invented by Dickens. “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” are now Browning’s best-known works, with the former often described as the perfect dramatic monologue. Though these two are brilliant as stand-alone poems, they gain from being read alongside his other monologues. Try “Andrea del Sarto,” “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Mr Sludge, ‘the Medium’” or “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church”; for a collection, choose the 1855 volume Men and Women.

2. He wrote The Ring and the Book

At over 21,000 lines, The Ring and the Book is twice the length of Paradise Lost and far more repetitive. In 12 books it tells many times over the story of a 17th century Italian murder, from the perspectives of nine characters involved in the case. It’s a dense and difficult read, and there’s little suspense to keep the reader hooked, since the facts are known almost from the outset. However, in its assertion that even in the most open-and-shut cases, the truth is far from straightforward, it demonstrates what Henry James described as Browning’s essential “modernness… the all-touching, all-trying spirit of his work, permeated with accumulations and playing with knowledge.”

3. His part in the Browning/Barrett courtship correspondence

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” wrote Browning to Elizabeth Barrett on 10th January 1845, thus beginning one of the great real life literary love stories. In the 20 months leading up to their elopement, Browning and Barrett met only a handful of times, conducting their courtship almost entirely through the 573 letters they exchanged during this period. The play of ideas and language in these letters transforms them from correspondence to collaboration—one which has as much to say about the nature of creativity as it does about love. One of the most exciting events of Browning’s bicentenary year has been the digitisation of the Browning/Barrett correspondence, which has made all of their letters available online in their original handwritten form.

4. He was muse as well as poet

Though the title was chosen to suggest a translation of foreign poems, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) is intensely personal, a lyrical rendering of the sentiments expressed in the courtship correspondence. Robert Browning is the addressee of almost all the sonnets in the sequence, of which No.43 (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways!”) is the most famous. The hesitations, questions and exclamations that run throughout Sonnets from the Portuguese distinguish it from more traditional sonnet sequences. It shares these features with Browning’s dramatic monologues, suggesting that he influenced the Sonnets in the capacity of poet as well as lover.

5. He was a fan of modern technology

Browning described his poems as “dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” For the most part, the “imaginary persons” in whose voices he spoke were figures from the past. There is therefore something especially delightful about this 1889 clip, in which Browning, by then in his late seventies, is thrilled by the power of modern technology to record him speaking in his own voice.

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