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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Robert Browning

Robert Browning (1812- 1889) was born on May 7, 1812 at Southampton Way, Camberwell, London, England.

Wikipedia Commons
                        

Robert's father Robert Browning, a man of fine intellect and character, was a well-off clerk for the Bank of England, earning about £150 per year. Browning's father had been sent to the West Indies to work on a sugar plantation. Revolted by the slavery there, he returned to England and became an abolitionist.

Robert's mother, Sarah Anna Wiedemann, was a devout non conformist Scot. The daughter of a German shipowner who had settled in Dundee, she was a talented musician,to whom Robert was very close.

Robert was bought up with his younger sister Sarianna in Camberwell. Sarianna, also gifted, became her brother's companion in his later years.

Robert was an extremely bright child and voracious reader and his father encouraged his interest in literature and the arts. By the age of twelve, Browning had written a book of poetry which he later destroyed when no publisher could be found. His childhood hero was the poet, Shelley.

After being at one or two private schools, and showing an insuperable dislike to school life, Robert was educated at home by a tutor via the resources of his father's extensive library. He was a rapid learner and by the age of fourteen he was fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin.

Robert became a vegetarian aged 14 like his hero Shelley, which he gave up later.

When he was a teenager, Browning shocked his evangelical mother when he declared himself like his hero Shelley, an atheist. In later life he looked back on this as a passing phase and he became a knowledgeable Bible reader but always denied any Christian faith.

Robert's father was a literary collector, and he amassed a library of around 6,000 books, many of them rare. As a result, he was raised in a household of significant literary resources.

At the age of sixteen, Robert studied Greek at University College London but dropped out after his first year to pursue his own reading at his own pace. His mother’s staunch evangelical faith prevented his studying at either Oxford University or Cambridge University, both then open only to members of the Church of England. However, in later years he was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.

Robert inherited substantial musical ability through his mother, and composed arrangements of various songs.  In 1830 Robert met the actor William Macready and tried several times to write verse drama for the stage - not very successfully. His most successful play was the 1837 Strafford.

Robert refused a formal career and ignored his parents' remonstrations, dedicating himself to poetry. His earliest poem was Pauline (1833) . The piece, which disappeared without notice, would embarrass him for the rest of his life.

 Some of Robert's early work was very heavy going. When members of the London Poetic Society asked Browning for an interpretation of a particularly obscure passage, he read it, twice shrugged his soldiers and said "When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant, but now God alone knows."

Robert stayed at home until the age of 34, financially dependent on his family until his marriage. His father sponsored the publication of his son's poems

Browning travelled widely, joining a British diplomatic mission to St Petersburg, Russia in 1834, later journeying to Italy 1838 and 1844.

In 1846 Robert secretly married the invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in St Marylebone church after correspondence in praise of her poetry led to their meeting and courtship. He called Elizabeth "A soul offire in a shell of pearl."

Six years his elder and an invalid, Elizabeth could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Robert Browning really loved her as much as he professed to. Browning imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Italy in September 1846, which became her home almost continuously until her death.

When the Brownings eloped from Wimpole Street, Robert was unable to work out the train and ferry timetables for their journey to Le Havre on their way to Italy. Elizabeth had to return to Wimpole Street for several days to take charge of organising the details of their elopement herself.

After he eloped to Italy with Elizabeth, they lived at Casa Guidi, Florence, which is now a home available to be rented.

As Elizabeth had some money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship together was harmonious. The Brownings were well respected in Italy, and even famous.

Elizabeth grew stronger and in 1849, at the age of 43, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. He became an artist and critic, got married but had no legitimate children, so there are apparently no direct descendants of the two famous poets.

After the death of Elizabeth in 1861 Robert spent the "season" in London and rest of time in the country or abroad. Between 1861 and 1887, his London address was 19 Warwick Crescent in Little Venice, Maida Vale. It is thought it was Browning who coined the name 'Little Venice.'

After Elizabeth's death, Robert had many flirtatious relationships. He was fond of writing tender, nonsensical verses to his many lady friends.

In 1869 he proposed marriage to Lady Ashburton only to be rejected. This proposal, an example of his propensity towards social climbing, embarrassed Browning in society and shamed him over his infidelity over his dead wife.

Robert's wife was the better known poet during their lifetime, but he gradually acquired a considerable and enthusiastic public fan base. Published separately in four volumes from November 1868 through to February 1869, The Ring and the Book 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. This long blank-verse poem is considered by many to be Browning's greatest work. Based on a convoluted murder case from 1690s Rome, it tells the story of the murder in long dramatic monologues from 12 points of view.

When challenged to find rhymes for orange, Browning came up with "From the Ganges to the Blorenge comes the Rajah once a month. Sometimes chewing on an orange. Sometimes reading from his Grunth. " (Blorenge is a small mountain in Wales. Grunth is a Sikh Holy Book.)

Browning died of bronchitis on December 12, 1889 at his son's apartment in the Ca' Rezzonico, Venice. He was brought back to London for burial in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey; his grave now lies immediately adjacent to that of Alfred Tennyson.

Browning after death.

By the time of his death he was ranked as the leading poet of his era along with Tennyson.

At a dinner party on April 7, 1889, at the home of Browning's friend the artist Rudolf Lehmann, an Edison cylinder phonograph recording was made of Browning reciting part of How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix (and forgetting the words). When the recording was played on December 12, 1890 on the anniversary of his death, at a gathering of his admirers, it was said to be the first time anyone's voice "had been heard from beyond the grave."


John Lennon & Yoko Ono were inspired by the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. They often joked they were the reincarnated spirits of "Bob and Liz". Two tracks, "Let Me Count The Ways" and "Grow Old with Me" on the Milk and Honey album were inspired by the poetry of Bob and Liz.

Clifford T Ward's "Home Thoughts From Abroad" is a tribute to Robert Browning. "You know, Home Thoughts From Abroad is such a beautiful poem And I know how Robert Browning must have felt. 'Cause I'm feeling the same way about you."

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