This Day In Literary History
On May 7th, 1812, the legendary English poet Robert Browning was born in Camberwell, London, England. His liberal, intellectual family had a passion for literature; his father, a clerk for the Bank of England, had amassed a collection of around 6,000 books, most of them rare.
Browning wrote his first poetry collection at the age of twelve. Unable find a publisher, he destroyed the manuscript. He attended private schools and quickly developed a fierce hatred of institutionalized education. He was then educated at home by tutors.
An outstanding student, he became fluent in French, Greek, Italian, and Latin by the age of fourteen. At sixteen, he enrolled at University College, London, but left after his first year. In 1845, Browning met the famous English poet Elizabeth Barrett.
Also a literary critic, Elizabeth was one of the very few critics who had given Browning's first poetry collection, Dramatic Lyrics (1842), a good review. A glowing review, in fact. So he wrote to thank her, and they began corresponding frequently.
Six years his senior, Elizabeth's health problems (chronic lung disease) had left her a semi-invalid. She lived in her father's house on Wimpole Street. She finally agreed to let Browning visit her in person, and it was love at first sight for both of them.
The following year, the couple secretly eloped. They fled to Italy, living first in Pisa, then in Florence. They had to elope because Elizabeth's father had forbidden all of his children from marrying under penalty of disinheritance.
Unlike his liberal, intellectual daughter, Edward Barrett, an ignorant, racist conservative, believed that he was most likely the illegitimate son of his plantation owner father and a black slave, and feared that his children, who were white, could produce black offspring.
Three years later, Elizabeth gave birth to her only child, Robert Barrett Browning Jr., known by his childhood nickname, Pen. Robert Browning Sr. loved Italy and was fascinated by its art and literature.
While living in Florence, he worked on the poems that would appear in his first major poetry collection, the two-volume Men and Women (1855). The collection would include classic poems such as Love Among the Ruins and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came would inspire American horror master Stephen King to write his classic Dark Tower series of dark fantasy novels featuring the iconic knight errant Roland of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger.
Around this time, while Robert Browning's name was known by the cognoscenti, (he had written plays in verse and dramatic monologues) he remained an obscure poet until 1861, when he returned to England following the death of his wife.
He became part of the London literati and his reputation took off. By 1868, after five years of work, he completed and published The Ring and the Book, an epic blank verse poem comprised of twelve "books." It was based on a real crime that took place in Rome in 1698.
The story, which is narrated by various characters, tells of an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, who is convicted of murdering his wife and her parents. The Count supposedly committed the murders as an act of revenge for his wife's infidelity.
His wife Pompilia was having an affair with a young priest, Father Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Despite the Count's protests of innocence, he is found guilty and sentenced to death. He appeals to Pope Innocent XII to overturn the conviction, but the pontiff denies his request.
Steeped deep in philosophy, psychology, and spiritual insight, The Ring and the Book was rightfully considered a work of genius - a masterpiece of dramatic verse. Browning's best selling work during his lifetime, a huge critical and commercial success, it brought him the renown he'd sought for 40 years.
Browning spent his last years traveling extensively. He continued to write, publishing a series of long poems, then returning to collections of shorter verse. His last major work, Parleyings with Certain People of Importance In Their Day, was published in 1887.
In it, the poet speaks in his own voice as he engages in a series of dialogues with long forgotten figures from the worlds of art, literature, and philosophy. Regarded as a masterpiece today, Parleyings baffled Browning's Victorian readers.
For his last published work, Asolando, Robert Browning returned to traditional form and wrote another collection of short poems. The book was published on the day he died, December 12th, 1889. He was 77 years old.
Quote of the Day
"Ignorance is not innocence, but sin." - Robert Browning
Today's video features a reading of Robert Browning's classic poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. Enjoy!