Robert Browning was born in 1812, at Camberwell, England. His father was a clerk highly placed in the house of Rothschild, and there are still living those who remember the excitement of the elder man and of his friends in New Court, when the time came for the son's first play to be produced at Covent Garden. He was a Dissenter, and for this reason his son's education did not proceed on the ordinary English lines. The training which Robert Browning received was more individual, and his reading was wider and less accurate, than would have been the case had he gone to Eton or Winchester. Thus, though to the end he read Greek with the deepest interest, he never could be called a Greek scholar. His poetic turn declared itself rather early, and in 1835 he had a poem, "Pauline," ready for the press. But publication costs money, and his business-like father did not see any chance of returns from poetry. A kind aunt, however, came to the rescue, and presented the young poet with the cost of printing the little book, £30. It was published at the price of a few shillings, and of course did not sell; but the author had the curious satisfaction of seeing a copy of this original edition bring twenty-five guineas under the hammer a few years ago. "Pauline" was not reprinted till the issue of the six-volume edition of Mr. Browning's works, in 1869. It was followed by the more ambitious "Paracelsus," a striking attempt to fill a mediæval outline with a compact body of modern thought; but in spite of the lovely lyric, "Over the sea our galleys went," and in spite of other beauties, the public did not heed the book, and it had no success except with a very small circle. It must be remembered that those days were days of poetic exhaustion. Shelley, Byron, and Scott were dead; the year before, Coleridge had followed them to the grave; Wordsworth was old, and his muse no longer spoke with her accents of an earlier day. Amid a mass of "keepsake" literature, affectations, and mediocrity, the still, small voice of the "Poems by Two Brothers" was heard by few, and that of "Paracelsus" was heard by fewer still.
Two years later the young poet came forward with the historical play of "Strafford," which was produced at Covent Garden with Macready in the title-part. It was not exactly a failure, but though the play itself and Macready's acting attracted the admiration of the critics, it was at once seen that the drama contained too much psychology and too little movement for a popular success. Mr. Browning, however, did not, for a long time to come, cease to be a "writer of plays," though it was not till eleven years after that another drama of his, "A Blot on the Scutcheon," was performed on the stage. The interval, however, was full of poetic activity. The energetic search of the members of the Browning Society, and especially of its founder, Mr. Furnivall, has succeeded in putting on record the place of first publication of several scattered poems of about this date. Four of them, including "Porphyria," and "Johannes Agricola," appeared in the Monthly Repository, edited by W. J. Fox, the Unitarian minister who was afterward so well known for his eloquent speeches against the Corn Laws. In 1840 came a small volume, bound, after the fashion of the time, in gray paper boards, and called "Sordello," after the Provencal poet mentioned in the "Purgatory" of Dante. The book appeared without preface or dedication, but in the collected edition of 1863 it bears a note addressed by Mr. Browning to his friend Monsieur Milsand, of Dijon, which contains the characteristic expressions, "I wrote it twenty-five years ago for only a few.... My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul; little else is worth study. I, at least, always thought so." "Sordello" in its original form is very rare and valuable now, as all the early editions of Mr. Browning's poetry have become; but on its first appearance nobody cared for it—it was regarded as nothing but a hopeless puzzle by a bewildered and defeated public. Even now, when Mr. Browning has long since formed his own public, "Sordello" is probably less read than any other work of his; it is too obscure and confused both in plot and in thought. But all the same, there are many interesting things in "Sordello," and among them, especially at this moment, are the references to the place which, for fifty yours, has fascinated the poet. Only the other day he wrote "Asolando,"' and half a century ago we find him writing:
"Lo, on a healthy, brown, and nameless hill
By sparkling Asolo, in mist and chill,
Morning just up, higher and higher runs
A child, bare-foot and rosy."
Asolo appears again very soon afterward in the lovely opening of the play "Pippa Passes." This came first in the series which appeared in the years 1841-46, under the odd title of "Bells and Pomegranates." There were eight numbers of this publication—thin, yellow-covered pamphlets, printed in double columns of small type, by Mr. Moxon; surely us unattractive a way as a poet ever attempted of bringing his wares before the world. Doubtless it was done in order that the low price might appeal to a large audience, but we doubt whether the sale of "Bells and Pomegranates" was ever large. The series is exceedingly rare now, and the curious who prefer to read those noble poems in this unsightly form have to pay £10 or £12 for the privilege of possessing them. In this first series appeared all the author's plays except "Strafford," namely, "Pippa Passes," "King Victor and King Charles," "The Return of the Druses," "A Blot on the Scutcheon," "Colombe's Birthday," "Luria," and "A Soul's Tragedy." But, alternating with these, appealed many of the shorter poems which have long since passed into the common treasure-house of all who care for poetry throughout the English-speaking world. One of the numbers contains the set called "Dramatic Lyrics," including "In a Gondola," "Waring," and "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." Another number contained "Dramatic Romances and Lyrics," among which are to be found such favorite poems as "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," and "Saul." In this group of poems were also to be found the celebrated lines called "The Lost Leader." People at the time supposed that these indignant verses were aimed at the Tory backsliding of Wordsworth; and, indeed, though Mr. Browning in after-years denied their special applicability to the old Laureate, there can be no doubt that when he wrote them he had Wordsworth more or less in his mind.
In 1846 there happened to Mr. Browning something much more important than the publication of this or that poem; for it was then, on September 12th, in Marylebone parish church, that he was married to the poetess, Elizabeth Barrett. Their union was the direct result, in the first instance, of poetic and intellectual sympathy, and it was to the admiration which Miss Barrett, then an invalid, felt for the author of "Bells and Pomegranates," that they owed their first introduction. For the greater part of their married life Mr. and Mrs. Browning lived almost entirely in Italy, and especially at that house in Florence, close by the Porta Romana, which now bears a tablet with her name, and which gave its title to one of her best-known volumes of poetry. They had one child, born in 1849, Robert Barrett Browning, favorably known as a painter and a sculptor After just fifteen years' marriage, Mrs. Browning died, in 1861; the frail body almost literally burnt up by the fiery soul within. Of the closeness of their union Mr. Browning, of course, never spoke, except to his intimate friends; but that it was of a degree of happiness to which it is seldom given to poor humanity to attain was made evident to the world when he wrote the splendid invocation to his "Lyric Love" at the opening of "The Ring and the Book."
During the first years of married life, Mr. Browning wrote little, but he read widely and deeply, and in 1849 he published, in two reasonable-sized volumes, "Paracelsus" and "Bells and Pomegranates," under the title of "Poems, by Robert Browning." Next year followed his most definitely Christian poem, "Christmas Eve and Easter Day"—a small volume in which the mysteries of the Christian religion were handled in their relations with the modern world. Then, in 1852, followed a prose publication, which was, unfortunately, founded upon a mistake, and which was at once suppressed and not brought to light until the Browning Society reprinted it years afterward. This was the celebrated introductory essay to a volume purporting to consist of letters from Shelley. The letters were soon discovered to be fabrications, but Mr. Browning's essay was quite independent of their genuineness, being really a very interesting discussion on subjective and objective poetry, and of Shelley's writings as a type of the former. In 1855 came the two volumes called "Men and Women," and in their pages were to be found many of the poems best worth reading of all Mr. Browning's productions, and many of those that are best remembered at the present day.
It is only somewhat exasperating to the student, to find that in subsequent collected editions of his works, Mr. Browning has allowed his fondness for renaming and rearrangement to break up these volumes, and to distribute the greater part of their contents under other titles. In "Men and Women" the intensely dramatic quality of his genius found its best scope, for here are to be found such masterpieces as "Karshish," "The Arab Physician," "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Bishop Blougram," and "Cleon." It is amusing to note, if the authority of the bibliographers is to be trusted, that these volumes were reviewed, in the Roman Catholic paper called The Rambler, by no less a person than Cardinal Wiseman, who was extremely complimentary to "Bishop Blougram," and did not by any means despair of the writer's conversion. After "Men and Women" the poet was silent for a long time. His wife's health was failing, though at the time of the war in Lombardy her burning energy burst out in the "Poems before Congress," and though she watched the course of the struggle with never-ceasing excitement.
In 1861 the great grief of his life fell upon Mr. Browning, and he published nothing new till 1864, when there appeared the volume called "Dramatis Personæ." It is pretty safe, however, to declare that in this volume, with "The Ring and the Book," which was published in 1868, he reached his greatest height of performance. It is enough to recall to the memory of readers that "Dramatis Personæ" contains "James Lea's Wife," "Rabbi Ben Ezra," and "Prospice." Then, four years later, as we have said, appeared four volumes of that marvellous performance, "The Ring and the Book," a poetic and psychological grappling with the question suggested to the poet by the account of a Roman trial that took place a couple of centuries ago. Whether anyone else in any country has ever before ventured to publish a poem in four simultaneous volumes, we cannot say; but, in spite of its length and difficulty, "The Ring and the Book" was and is one of the most successful of the author's works. It has every right to be so, for nowhere does he exhibit in a manner so sustained, and yet so varied, his own extraordinary insight into characters and motives entirely dissimilar.
Since that remarkable work was given to the world, Mr. Browning has attempted nothing approaching it in magnitude, or in the demand it made upon the sustained exertion of high intellectual powers. But he left his admirers no room to complain of diminished fecundity or of decaying vigor. "Balaustion's Adventure," including a transcript from Euripides, appeared in 1871, to prove his undiminished insight and inexhaustible interest in spiritual analysis. It was followed by "Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society," a book suggested by the collapse of the French Empire, and recalling the scathing satire with which he lashed the impostures of spiritualism in "Sludge the Medium." In 1872 he published "Fifine at the Fair," to the delight of those who loved him, and, as usual, to the irritation of those who did not. "Red Cotton Nightcap Country" appeared in the following year; and, after an interval of two years, was followed by "Aristophanes' Apology." Again, after a similar interval, he gave us "The Agamemnon of Æschylus Transcribed." In 1879 came "Dramatic Idylls," with the stirring ballad of "Hervé Riel," which, as some think, roused the Laureate to emulative effort. "Jocoseria," published in 1883, reclaimed many of his earlier admirers, who had been estranged by what they regarded as the extravagance and whimsicality, not to speak of the obscurity and ruggedness, of so many of his later works. "Jocoseria," in fact, recalls "Men and Women" rather than the "Fifines," the "Hohenstiel-Schwangaus," and the "Red Cotton Nightcap Countries" of a later and less happily-inspired period. "Ferishtah's Fancies and Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day" was the rather cumbrous title of a still later volume; and last of all appeared "Asolando," a work which displays all the old qualities, the old fire, and the old audacity, apparently untouched by advancing years, or even by imminent death. He died the same month that it appeared, December, 1889.
It has been Mr. Browning's fate to divide the reading world into two hostile camps. There are no lukewarm friends on his side; and from those who have never acquired a taste for the strong wine of his muse, it is sometimes difficult to extort recognition of the vigor, the insight, the tenderness, and the variety of intellectual sympathy which characterize the man, even, if we make abstraction of the poet. An industrious and enthusiastic society devoted itself during his lifetime to the promotion of a taste for his writings, but even that singular tribute to the strength of his personality does not shut the mouth of the sceptic. Those who love the poets of prettinesses, of artificial measures, and dainty trifles have at the present day an almost embarrassing wealth of choice. But Mr. Browning in his own sphere had no rival and no imitator. No other so boldly faces the problems of life and death, no other like him braces the reader as with the breath of a breeze from the hills, and no other gives like him the assurance that we have to do with a man. His last public words are the fit description of his strenuous attitude through all his literary work:
"Strive and thrive!" cry "Speed—fight on, fare ever
There as here!"