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Famous English Poet: Robert Browning

by Hamilton Wright Mabie

So Pippa sings in “Pippa Passes.” And that was the philosophy of the great poet who wrote the lines. Robert Browning was an optimist. He believed that the world would come out all right in the end, that good would win.

Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, at Camberwell, near London. His father, who worked in the Bank of England, was also named Robert Browning. The Brownings were of sturdy stock; but the poet’s mother was delicate. At the age of twelve he had written a volume of poems called “Incondita”; but his parents could find no one who would publish it.

Browning’s early education was rather scant; but he made up for this by a great deal of miscellaneous reading in his father’s library. He had a chance to become a clerk in the Bank of England; but he refused it, and decided to write poetry for a living. Strange to say, his parents encouraged him in this. He published his first poem, “Pauline,” in 1833. Then followed “Paracelsus” in 1835, and “Sordello” in 1840.

Browning was by this time becoming well known, and his poetry was admired. He had always liked the theater, and now he began to write drama. In May, 1837, his first play, “Strafford,” was produced in Covent Garden. He followed this with several others, none of which had great financial success.

In 1844 Elizabeth Barrett, a poetess whose genius was then being recognized, published a volume of poems containing “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” with a striking phrase about Browning’s poems. This pleased the poet greatly, and he was encouraged by her cousin, John Kenyon, to write to her. Finally she permitted him to visit her, and they fell in love with each other. Elizabeth Barrett was six years older than Browning, and was a chronic nervous invalid; but in September, 1846, was secretly married to him in spite of the opposition of her father, who objected on principle to the marriage of his children. Theirs was one of the greatest love stories in all history. They were both poets of the highest genius, and they loved each other devotedly. When his wife died at Florence, Italy, on June 30, 1861, Browning was crushed by the blow.

But he bore it like the great man that he was. He decided to return to England to superintend the education of his son, Robert Wiedeman Browning. There he resumed his writing, and published many poems, including “The Ring and the Book,” which is regarded by some as his masterpiece. It is an immense poem in twelve books, in which the story of a murder is told many times over by the various characters concerned. It is a unique and powerful poem.

In his later years Browning returned to Italy; but he never revisited Florence after his wife’s death there. He continued writing almost to the very end of his long life. He composed very slowly, considering twenty-five or thirty lines a good day’s work.

The real greatness of the poet was appreciated toward the end of his life, and many honors were showered upon him. In 1889 he went to Venice with his son. Here he caught a heavy cold, and this, combined with the poor state of his health, was too much for the old poet. He died on December 12, 1889, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on December 31.

Book: Shattered Sighs