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.