Robert Browning
Robert Browning; drawing by David Levine

In the last twenty-five years the cloak of legend—the cloak of the Red Cross Knight—has been twitched from the shoulders of Robert Browning. His romance no longer hides him; rather, it deepens the complexity of his double character; and his tortuous achievement as a dramatic or novelistic poet becomes more forceful in our eyes. His two new biographers—Park Honan has completed the biographical study cut short by William Irvine’s death—are polished writers and they concede a great deal to Betty Miller’s arguments of the 1950s, when, looking again at the famous elopement from Wimpole Street, she saw the Perseus-Andromeda situation was reversible: Andromeda also rescued Perseus.*

There is nothing like the sickroom for building up the will and strengthening the mind, and Perseus was not quite the dominant figure the victim of Mr. Barrett hankered after. In fact two invalids—and even two victims of the colonial slave trade—had found each other; or two histrionics, one successful at that time and the other not. (No modern biographer has accepted Miss Mitford’s tough, spinsterly view that Browning was a long-haired, effeminate, climbing dandy who, living unscrupulously off his parents into his late thirties, was out to float on Miss Barrett’s fame and money. Down-to-earth women like Miss Mitford are rarely good judges.) If we are going in for malice we prefer Miss Barrett’s rival suitor who offered the typical gem of English suburban snobbery when he called Browning the “New Cross Knight,” thus pushing the Browning family out of genteel Camberwell to within close sight of the Surrey Docks.

It is very extraordinary that the elder Barrett and the elder Browning had the closest connection with the slave plantations, the former owing his personal fortune to them, the latter, in a clerkly manner, being sent out to St. Kitts as a young man. The gentle bookworm came back quickly, shattered by the horrors he had seen. A bit of an artist, he would be caught doodling horrifying human heads in black and red ink, working off memories too awful to speak of. A meek, poorish clerk in the Bank of England, he was a childish bibliophile, a mild Voltairean, ruled by a sweet but sternly religious wife. She was of modest Scottish and German stock and—as surely as Mrs. Ruskin—she knew she had given birth to a genius and was determined not to let his soul out of her command; in time, invalidism became one of her weapons.

One mustn’t put it like this, for the boy adored her; he flourished like an ambitious mushroom in his happy prison. Only one part was mushroom; the other was restless, noisy, and demanding. The mother’s boy was handsome and delicate; for thirty-odd years he slept in the room next to his mother’s and the door was always left open in case he or she should call. Elizabeth Barrett’s door opened on her father’s. Together Robert Browning and his mother had headaches and backaches and wondered at the felicity of it.

The boy refused to go to school or university after the age of fourteen, was tutored but read his way through six thousand learned books, listened to music, and got up erudite charades. Father and son re-enacted things like the siege of Troy, drawing on the furniture for battlements. The Browning cottage (Irvine writes) was a thick interior epidermis of epics, tragedies, biographies, tales, miscellanies, so that the family lived in a kind of intestine. No wonder the boy grew up to spend a lifetime turning dictionaries and encyclopedias in French and Italian into poetry: the privacies of London suburbia have traditionally been rich in sedentary fancy. In the Brownings there seems to have been a delight in congesting the intellect and the emotions.

At twenty, the young Browning proudly refused to clerk or go into the law and decided to live by writing epics of introspection, and the parents—living on £257 a year—submitted and supported him. They even raked up money to send him to Italy and Russia. He dressed with elegance and never left the house without white gloves: they were a lifelong obsession. Why? Unclean, unclean? Here we must be cautious. The one violent disturbance in his life was his contact with the atheism of Shelley. Christian respectability had long replaced the ideas of the French Revolution and Mrs. Browning drove him to recant and the guilt attached to this surrender lasted his life. Surely this has nothing to do with gloves, but Irvine takes the plunge:

…Robert’s zealous regard for gloves—old or new—astonished even his contemporaries. The need to conceal his hands seems to have been one feature of that larger, more intricate need to resort to camouflage in his writing, to conceal the unresolved conflicts in his own personality from the world’s eye, and to live almost comfortably and respectably with his mother’s religion and Shelley’s poetry. Even the most autobiographical passages in darkest Sordello suggest that he could not bear to examine his own deepest loyalties too closely or directly.

But one remembers Balzac’s passion for gloves. One surely does not argue that the English took to carrying umbrellas because they were seeking psychological shelter. Surely the glove was no more than an intimate token of elegance and sentiment in European life, an item of dandyish fastidiousness also. A naval officer was so taken by the young Browning on the voyage from London to Venice that he kept a pair of his gloves as a remembrance. At most Browning was displaying the histrionic vanity that Jung associates with introverts. The boisterous Browning was a deeply introverted and happy prisoner of his childhood, perhaps all his life. If his conflicts were insoluble, they were the source of his actor-like gift for dressing up and vicariously living in others.


The most enlightening passages in the present biography are the critical ones which go into this and into the obscurities of Browning’s writing. On the Wimpole Street romance, the authors follow the story sensibly; but the courtship is really much better read in the recent Elvan Kintner edition of the letters, which bring out the important and deeply Browningesque point that the two parties are really four—their epistolary and real selves—who seem to be trying to get into a future story by Henry James. The irony was that Elizabeth Barrett sought an autocrat and Browning obstinately wanted to be ruled: he for the goddess in her, not she for the god in him. In their letters, both are cleverer—one guesses—than in life.

As for Browning’s “semantic stutter” there have been many theories about the cause. Irregular education, no logical training, is one. The chaos created by voracious and random reading; the tumbling in of images from constant listening to music; a sort of congestion of ideas in a mind isolated within a peculiar family, a conceit of originality very common in narrow religious sects; the egotism of such an isolation—these explanations have been advanced. There is the obvious influence of Carlyle: more here than meets the eye, for Mrs. Browning was of Scottish and German stock and one suspects the sweet domestic lady could become flinty and ablaze with Biblical metaphor and even German grotesque if, say, the subject of Shelley and atheism came up.

But another explanation seems to me overruling: the imprisoned introvert was a violent man, acting out violent Calvinist fantasies in words; he was by nature, though not by gift, a man of the theater. His words, his inverted phrases, his telescopings, his grotesqueries are syntax as a stage caste: words are players. It is important that he spent many years writing tragedies and melodramas in verse in the hope that Macready would produce them. Of all the English poets of the nineteenth century Browning seemed the most likely to succeed on the stage; he was determined on it. But, his biographers say:

From first to last, Browning attempted to depict, as he said in the original preface to Strafford, “Action in Character, rather than Character in Action.”… As his venture grew desperate, he turned from history to romance and violence, but action continued—ever more glaringly—to be an ironic irrelevance to character…. He treated the theater as a gigantic laboratory…. Some lessons he could not learn. Browning was fascinated by motives, but seemed scarcely interested in how motives produced action or how one action must be linked logically and psychologically with another. He could depict character in isolation—even at a moment of crisis—but could not easily bring one character into dynamic relation with another.

In short his gifts were those of the novelist or the poet of monologue. There is a proliferation of brilliant detail, so that the small things and psychological dilemmas become more dramatic than the main drama. He adopts the point of view of characters unlike himself, and this putting on of another’s voice and life depends on a certain bouncing abruptness and on an acute sense of the mind’s sensations. There is a double take: the poet is both outside and inside the husband in these lines from The Ring and the Book:

Up he jumps
Back to mind come those scratchings at the grange,
Prints of the paw about the outhouse; rife
In his head at once again are word and wink,
Mum here and budget there, the smell of the fox,
The musk of the gallant. “Friends, there’s falseness here.”

Difficult rather than obscure, simply because deviousness and the “impossible” perversely attracted him, Browning is one of those who, except in direct dramatic song, is traveling underground with torches of imagery in a mind that is often too continuously vivid. The effect is of broken mosaic, thought and feeling turned into broken-up things and events:


Till sudden at the door a tap discreet
A visitor’s premonitory cough,
And poverty has reached him on her rounds.

The symbols “tap,” “cough,” and “door” are stronger than poverty because exact. A stuttering demagogue, said Chesterton. A crowd of arguments, theories, casuistries, images in physical shape rush together to the point of his pen at once. Our first impressionist? Irvine points out, what one easily forgets because of Browning’s originality, that he did not invent impressionism or the dramatic monologue. The most interesting suggestion is that what he does not owe to Carlyle, he owes to Burns. (Mrs. Browning the elder would have been pleased to hear this.)

The Ring and the Book—despite what Henry James called its “inordinate muchness”—is in advance of its time. It does look forward to twentieth-century impressionism, as the poetry “deprecates itself by prose expressions…and even by unmelodious strings of compound epithets.” Another source of difficulty is that life is embedded in a dense texture of historical reading. So much of Browning was refracted through the medium of other arts, particularly music and painting, as well as through antiquarian vestiges. Browning was tremendously a Victorian in that he was a collector; his ego also colonized history, particularly the medieval, with something of the Protestant mercantile aggression. Another excellent point is that (possibly like some ornate ham) Browning turns himself into myth. He wrote to a prim admirer:

We differ apparently in our conception of what gross wickedness can be effected by cultivated minds. I believe the grossest—all the more by way of reaction from the enforced habit of self-denial which is the condition of men’s receiving culture.

Mr. Honan suggests in the later chapters that The Ring and the Book nevertheless marks a decline—too much of the didactic, lack of self-confidence or faith, which lead him to blare too loudly on his trumpet.

The wall between Browning’s public and private self becomes thicker as time goes by. The commonsensical and sanguine man of the world becomes stronger. He was loud and seemed more like a prosperous grocer than a great poet. Presumptous, he was more than once inept in his relations with the adoring women who surrounded him after Elizabeth’s death. Grief had left him hardened. He felt no longer. He became, as these biographers note, a sort of Richard Feverel with a System in his attitude to his son; indeed there are close resemblances in life and language, and fundamental lack of invention, with Meredith, the novelist, another adept of idealism and the grotesque.

One can suspect that as a poet Browning was drawn to Elizabeth Barrett by her remarkable facility, by the lack of confusion in her feeling, even by the easy popular spontaneous throb of her colored verse. Invalidism had in fact matured her. One can also see that she must have been one more mother figure; in his later poems there are moments when he resents, now she is dead, that memory chains him; love and hate run close in an angered mind. Yet the chains were also a protection to a poet who seems always to have wished to mask his own life so that he could pour himself into the skins of others. In this he was undoubtedly a novelist—perhaps the earliest to move toward the twentieth century.

This Issue

May 2, 1974