Robert Browning Biography


Robert Browning was born in 1812, the son of a banker. Though he had settled for a career in business, Robert Sr. was a man of considerable sensitivity and artistic talent who enthusiastically supported his son’s ambitions to be a poet. The younger Browning displayed a talent for writing at an early age. Though his work was recognized by such Victorian men of letters as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, popular success eluded him in his early career. In his twenties, he traveled to Italy for the first time, discovering a history and landscape that became the major influences on his life as a writer. He is credited with the creation of a new form in poetry, the “dramatic monologue.” These lyrics speak in the voice of a narrator whose conflicts and character are revealed as the poems unfold.

In early 1845, Browning began a correspondence with the well-known poet Elizabeth Barrett, after her cousin, John Kenyon, sent him one of her poems that contained an admiring reference to his work.  An invitation ensued to visit at her father’s house in Wimpole Street. The ailing  Elizabeth—she probably suffered from tuberculosis-- was six years his senior, yet their friendship blossomed into a passionate romance, detailed in an 18-month daily correspondence that has taken its place among the most renowned love letters in our language.   Elizabeth’s father, Edward Moulton Barrett, was a classic Victorian petty tyrant. He refused to let any of his eleven grown sons and daughters even consider marriage. The courtship had to be carried out under his nose without arousing his suspicions, as he certainly would have forbidden Browning to enter the house had he suspected the growing affection between the two poets.

Eventually, encouraged by an improvement in Elizabeth’s health, they decided to elope, and were married secretly in the parish church near the Barretts’ house. After a few days, they finally escaped to the Continent and traveled to Italy, where they lived for fifteen years, most of the time in Florence, as part of an expatriate English community. Elizabeth’s health continued to improve due to the milder weather, and after three years she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Browning, whom they called “Peni” or “Pen.”  Eventually, after a series of miscarriages, she weakened and succumbed to her chronic illness in June of 1861.

Emotionally devastated, Browning fled Italy and returned to England, where he spent most of the remaining three decades of his life. He became, along with Tennyson, one of the most respected late-Victorian poets. In 1881, a group of admirers led by F. J. Furnivall formed the Browning Society to promote interest in his works. Browning died in 1889 while visiting his son in Venice; his body was returned to England and interred in Westminster Abbey. There was talk of bringing Elizabeth’s remains back to be reunited with his, but Pen made the decision to leave her buried in Florence.