‘Within his work lies the mystery which belongs to the complex and within his life the much greater mystery which belongs to the simple.’ C.K. Chesterton, Browning's biographer. And Browning is indeed mysterious. The poet and the man are two different natures according to Shelley and this is certainly true in the case of Browning - this superficially benign man fascinated by characters on 'the dangerous edge of things /The honest thief, the tender murderer, /the superstitious atheist.' He was interested in their souls - 'little else' he said was 'worthy of study.' Browning understood the 'Corruption of Man's Heart.' This insight into a veritable gallery of characters, Porphyria's Lover, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Fra Lippo Lippi ('You understand me : I'm a beast, I know'), Karshish and, of course, the Duke of Ferrara, narrator of his sinister masterpiece 'My Last Duchess' lies at the heart of his genius. Oscar Wilde said of him 'Considered from a point of view of creator of character he ranks next to him who made Hamlet’. Praise indeed.
He was born in London in 1812, the same year as Dickens, into a harmonious and intellectual household - with a particular emphasis on literature. His father was an avid collector of first editions. In his teenage years Shelley became an obsession. At eighteen Browning made up his mind to become a poet and 'nothing else’. Difficult – there’s the small matter of earning a living. However he was determined and his remarkable family supported his dream. His first works alas Pauline (1832) and Paracelsus, a few years later, were not well received. Indeed they were mocked. Undaunted, he continued to write and in 1840 he published Sordello. It was savaged by the critics. He was almost thirty and he was, it seemed, finished. So, when two years later in 1842 he published Dramatic Lyrics – the collection includes many of his greatest poems - indeed many of the greatest poems in the language - it went largely unnoticed.
And then - he fell in love. He read Elizabeth Barrett's collection entitled Poems 1844 which she'd published to great acclaim and he wrote her one of the most surprising letters in literature. ‘I love your verses with all my heart’ and, half way through the second page: ‘and I love you too’. Astonishing. Their story is well known – secret meetings - 547 letters - finally an elopement, marriage and flight to Italy. It took considerable courage. His invalid wife defied her deeply controlling father who’d forbidden his children to marry - to take her chance (which included late motherhood) with the love of her life. ‘Love is best’ is the last line of his poem ‘Love Amongst the Ruins'. The love poems did not come into being as mysteriously as the dramatic lyrics. Elizabeth Barrett Browning -in her lifetime by far the more revered poet - died in 1861 and Robert Browning returned to England. Seven years later he published The Ring and the Book, a 21,000 line dramatic poem in 12 parts - based on an actual 17th century murder. This dramatic story, told in many voices, and it is a stunning achievement. It brought him fame - at last. When asked once did he object to all the adulation - he replied 'Object to it? I've waited forty years for it!' He is buried at Westminster Abbey an occasion of which Henry James wrote 'A good many oddities and a good many great writers have been entombed in the Abbey but none of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones have been so odd.'