Victorian Literature Robert Browning
Anna Barton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0010


Robert Browning was born in Camberwell in 1812, the first child of Sarah Anna Browning (née Wiedemann) and Robert Browning, who worked as a clerk for the Bank of England having been disinherited after refusing to enter into the family plantation business. Browning attended Thomas Ready’s school as a weekly boarder until he was twelve, when he left to continue his education at home, where he was given private tuition in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek and was able to make use of his father’s extensive library. At this time, heavily influenced by the work of the Romantics, particularly Shelley, he began to write poetry. Two years later, Browning enrolled at the University of London to take classes in Latin, Greek, and German, but he withdrew after six months and returned to home to follow his own course of reading. The 1830s saw the publication of his first poem, Pauline (1833) (which he subsequently withdrew) and the beginnings of his unsuccessful career as a playwright. He composed a number of dramas, of which only the Life of Strafford and A Blot on the ‘Scutcheon were produced for the stage. Paracelsus (1835), a verse drama that was not intended for production represents Browning’s first extended exploration of the relationship between poetry and drama, which he continued in his development of the dramatic monologue. His second poem, Sordello, was published in 1839 to a very poor reception. His reputation began to recover in the 1840s with the publication of a series of pamphlets called Bells and Pomegranates, which included some of the dramatic monologues for which he became most famous. In 1845 he began corresponding with Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett, who he married in secret in 1846, moving to Paris and then to Italy, where they eventually settled at Casa Guidi in Florence. In 1849 Elizabeth gave birth to their son, Robert Weidemann Barrett Browning (“Pen”). In the same year, Browning’s mother died and Browning himself suffered a severe breakdown. During the 1850s, Browning published Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850) and Men and Women (1855), but his reputation as a poet failed to gain ground until the early 1860s. In 1861 Elizabeth died in Italy and Robert returned to London. From this point his reputation started to improve. The publication of Poetical Works (1863) and Dramatis Personae (1864) and The Ring and the Book (1868–1869) received favourable reviews. Browning then began to be the focus of considerable academic and popular interest, both in Britain and America, which continued until his death in 1889. His later work included poems based on contemporary politics as well as a number of works of classical translation. Contemporary opinion of Browning remained mixed throughout his lifetime. His work was often accused of difficulty and obscurity, but his poetry is recognized as some of the most influential of the Victorian period.

General Overviews

During the late 20th century and early 21st century, Robert Browning’s work has attracted a wealth of criticism and the critical monographs and introductory works included here only provide a representative sample of the material available. Browning’s work has proved to be fertile ground for close and detailed readings from a variety of critical perspectives. Of these, Erickson 1984 and Hair 1999 are particularly concerned with Browning’s poetic development. Erickson focuses on Browning’s shifting politics; Ryals takes Browning’s understanding of the development of subjectivity as his theme; and Hair takes developments in 19th-century philosophy as the context of his discussion. These works, along with Gibson 1987, which also explores the relationship between poetry and philosophical enquiry, by no means introductory, often reflect the dense complexity of Browning’s work and are not recommended as the first port of call for undergraduate students; undergraduates are directed to the excellent selection of introductions and reading guides available. DeVane 1955 is the first such handbook, and still of value; but more up-to-date introductions are provided by Bristow 1991, Wood 2001, and Hawlin 2002. Bristow and Hawlin both offer entry points into Browning from a variety of critical and theoretical perspectives, whereas Wood 2001 focuses on contemporary contexts.

  • Bristow, Joseph. Robert Browning. London: Harvester, 1991.

    A lucid introduction aimed at advanced students. Offers a range of critical approaches to Browning, from deconstruction to feminist criticism.

  • DeVane, William Clyde. A Browning Handbook. New York: Appleton Century Croft, 1955.

    An early major scholarly guide that deals with each of Browning’s poems in chronological order, providing information about the history of the poem, Browning’s sources and an (out-of-date, but nevertheless valuable) overview of relevant critical and scholarly material.

  • Erickson, Lee. Robert Browning: His Poetry and His Audiences. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

    A study of Browning’s literary development that reflects on the shift away from the political poetry of his early career, arguing that Browning’s poetry performs for an audience that is increasingly conceived in private terms and focusing in particular on Browning’s poetic struggle with liberal politics.

  • Gibson, Mary Ellis. History and the Prism of Art: Browning’s Poetic Experiments. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987.

    Considers Browning’s employment of historical context and event in his poetry, focusing on the selected dramatic monologues Sordello and The Ring and the Book. Argues that, for Browning, history, like art, is set of materials through which philosophical enquiry can be carried out.

  • Hair, Donald S. Robert Browning’s Language. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

    The author of Tennyson’s Language (1991) offers a detailed account of Browning’s intellectual development in the context of the competing claims of empiricism and idealism. Hair provides tightly focused readings of Browning’s poetry from his very earliest to his very latest work, paying close attention to issues of language and representation.

  • Hawlin, Stefan. The Complete Critical Guide to Robert Browning. London: Routledge, 2002.

    A concise, student-friendly handbook that introduces a good range of Browning’s work. Part 1 focuses on “Life and Contexts”; Part 2 addresses a number of the major poems in turn; and Part 3 is a particularly helpful survey of Browning’s critical history that offers examples of a range of critical and theoretical approaches to a selection of work.

  • Karlin, Daniel. Browning’s Hatreds. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

    A series of accomplished intertextual readings that focus on Browning’s interest in the dark side of human emotion and the tension between love and hate that his poetry so often revisits. Chapters focus on a range of targets at which Browning directed his hatred, including individual figures such as Wordsworth and, more broadly, aspects of political injustice, deceit, and tyranny.

  • Wood, Sarah. Robert Browning: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    A valuable introduction for students and scholars of Robert Browning’s relationship to 19th-century intellectual and print contexts. The chapters are chronologically arranged, and each one considers the poetry in relation to a different Victorian thinker—Mill, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold—or print cultural concern.

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