Robert Browning and Mathew Arnold are important Victorian poets. Robert Browning may have started writing poetry before Mathew Arnold and Mathew Arnold may have been more of a critic than a poet; both poets’ works dominated the Victorian era. In the course of this unit, we shall then examine the lives of poets, the contents and forms of their works.
A Short Biography of Robert Browning
Robert Browning was born May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, England. His mother was an accomplished pianist and a devout evangelical Christian. His father, who worked as a bank clerk, was also an artist scholars, antiquarian, and collector of books and pictures. His rare book collection of more than 6,000 volumes included works in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish. Much of Browning’s education came from his well-read father. It is believed that he was already proficient at reading and writing by the age of five. A bright and anxious student, browning learned Latin, Greek, and French by the time he was fourteen.
From fourteen to sixteen he was educated at home, attended to by various tutors in music, drawing, dancing, and horsemanship. At the age of twelve he wrote a volume of Byronic verse entitled “Incondite”, which his parents attempted, unsuccessfully, to have published. In 1825, he got a collection of Shelley’s poetry from his cousin which he liked so much that he asked for more of Shelley’s works for his thirteenth the birthday, and declared himself a vegetarian and an atheist in emulation of the poet. In 1828, Browning enrolled at the University of London, but he soon left, anxious to read and learn at his own pace. The random nature of his education later surfaced in his writing, leading to criticism of his poems’ obscurities.
In 1833, Browning anonymously published his first major work, Pauline, and in 1840 he published Sordello, which was widely regarded as a failure. He also tried his hand at drama, but his plays, including Strafford, ran for five nights in 1837. The techniques he developed through his dramatic monologues, especially his use of diction, rhythm, and symbol, are regarded as his most important contribution to poetry, influencing such major poets of the twentieth century as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost.
After reading Elizabeth Barrett’s Poems (1844) and corresponding with her for a few months, Browning met her in 1845. They were married in 1846 against the wishes of Barrett’s father. The couple moved to Pisa and then Florence, where they continued to write. The Browning society was founded while he still lived, in 1881, and he was awarded honourary degree by Oxford University in 1882 and the University of Edinburgh in 1884. Robert Browning died on the same day that his final volume of verse, Asolando, was published, in 1889.
The Poetry and Style of Robert Browning
Of the works of Robert Browning, we need to consider one aspect. He attempted, notably in the volumes entitled Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Personae (1864), to use in his verse the rhythms of spoken language and to convey character by means of the dramatic monologue; but these rhythms are rarely convincing. The ‘speech’ is too often a jerky jumble of archaisms, distorted syntax and romantic clichés. Let see this in his well known poem, My Last Duchess. An Italian renaissance duke is showing the portrait of his late wife to the emissary who is arranging his next marriage.
That’s my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask me thus, Sir, ‘twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
‘Over my lady’s wrist too much’, or ‘Paint
‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint
‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that sport of joy. She had
A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere
Sir, ‘twas one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace – all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men – good! But thanked
Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred – years- old name
With anybody’s gift…
The poem has a roughness of surface which gives it at least the appearance of vigour. It is ingeniously arranged to make the reader work out for himself the implications of the story; the duke’s pride, his treatment of his wife as one of his possessions, his jealousy, his cruelty, her death of a broken heart and his proposing to add another unfortunate young woman to his collection are the issues in the poem.
Nevertheless, Browning has more in mind than simply creating a colourful character and placing him in a picturesque historical scene. Rather, the specific historical setting of the poem harbours much significance: the Italian Renaissance held a particular fascination for Browning and his contemporaries, for it represented the flowering of the aesthetic and the human alongside, or in some cases in the place of, the religious and the moral.
Thus the temporal setting allows Browning to again explore sex, violence, and aesthetics as all entangled, complicating and confusing each other: the lushness of the language belies the fact that the Duchess was punished for her natural sexuality. The Duke’s ravings suggest that most of the supposed transgressions took place only in his mind. Like some of Browning’s fellow Victorians, the Duke sees sin lurking in every corner. The reason the speaker here gives for killing the Duchess ostensibly differs from that given by the speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover” for murder Porphyria; however, both women are nevertheless victims of a male desire to inscribe and fix female sexuality.