- Robert Browning - Behind the Mask [Biography]
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Robert Browning

"What I aspired to be and was not, comforts me. "

During the years of his marriage, Robert Browning was sometimes referred to as "Mrs. Browning's husband", for his wife was more famous than he. Only in middle age did he win wide acclaim. To many of his contemporaries his poetry seemed crude, for he was one of the first to use the diction of ordinary speech. His work was condemned as difficult and obscure, probably because he assumed that the reading public shared his enormous erudition, acquired from private tutoring and intensive reading in his father's excellent library. Yet these qualities, along with the psychological insights he displayed, particularly in his dramatic monologues, are what makes him seem almost modern to readers today.

Browning was the son of a well-to-do banker, and at the age of 22 made the "grand tour" of Europe, spending much time in Russia and Italy. His first important work, the dramatic poem Paracelsus (1835) is based on the life of a 15th-century magician and alchemist; in it he showed both the interest in the Renaissance and in men and their motives that became dominant strains in his work. Other volumes followed but gained little attention.

His romantic love affair with the poet Elizabeth Barrett has been celebrated in story and drama. After their marriage in 1846, the Brownings moved to Italy, where they spent 15 years of idyllic happiness. After his wife's death in 1861, Browning returned to England with their son. He continued to publish major works of poetry, and his reputation steadily rose. His greatest single work, the novel-length The Ring and the Book, appeared in 1868. He spent the last years of his life in Venice and died there. He is buried in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey, not far from the tomb of Tennyson.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

2 March 2002

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