Robert Browning (1812-1889) is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets in the English canon, on par with names like Chaucer, Wordsworth, and Byron. In 1846, at the age of thirty-four, Browning married Elizabeth Barrett, six years his senior. Elizabeth, also considered to be one of the finest poets England has ever produced, was at one point considered for Poet Laureate, a title that went eventually to Tennyson.
Browning is often criticized in reviews for his incredibly detailed and complex poetry. However this complexity allowed the poet to generate artistic discourse on a wide range of philosophical and theological issues. Like many Victorians of his time, Browning struggled to maintain the traditional Christian beliefs in light of the intellectual demands of the new ideas of his time. In Browning’s poetry, we see an intensely personal and complex outworking of these struggles through the medium of the dramatic monologue.
Robert Browning, aged about 56. Photograph by Frederick Jones, London, ca. 1868. This photograph was taken the same year that The Ring and the Book was published.
Robert Browning. Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. A poem. London: Chapman & Hall, 1850.
This edition of Browning’s Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day includes a jingle in manuscript on the back two pages written by William Allingham. A friend and admirer of Browning, Allingham had worked for twenty years in the customs office while trying to establish himself as a poet.
Ay, who can say? – or guess indeed
What all this is I make you read?
Or who shall ever guess indeed
Author, when other motives fail, is
By an Aurora Borealis
Converted. [Mem]: his fright a warning
To such as “won’t go home till morning.”
Allingham was a lover of nature’s beauty, so it is not surprising to see that the passage from the poem that attracted his attention deals with the vision of the rainbow the speaker has early on:
North and south and east lay ready
For a glorious Thing that, dauntless, deathless,
Sprang across them and stood steady.
'Twas a moon-rainbow, vast and perfect,
From heaven to heaven extending, perfect
As the mother-moon's self, full in face.
It rose, distinctly at the base
With its seven proper colours chorded . . . .
Robert Browning. Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. A Poem. London: Chapman & Hall, 1850.
Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, artist, painter, and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was one of the earliest and most ardent admirers of Browning’s work. His relationship with Browning, however, was suddenly severed after the publication of Fifine at the Fair, a poem by Browning that Rossetti believed to be a veiled attack on himself. Rossetti’s satirical verse, written in pencil on the back pages of this volume, seems to parody Browning’s proclivity to overload his poetry with classical references and make at times odd end-rhymes:
For thy nose, as for nose of Providence,
Who for thy sake dreamed not a gibe ill
At any verse in the Holy Bible;
Who said—Take Virgil & take Ovid hence
Off Hesiod—let old Melesigines
Creak down at once on his yellow ridgy knees …
And for the books, in this day [fashionable]
[Did?] Dickens, Tennyson, & Thackeray
(Wishing to swear curse but not for passion able)
George Uglow Pope. St. John in the Desert: An Introduction and Notes to Browning’s "A Death in the Desert." London: Henry Frowde, 1897.
George Uglow Pope was a missionary to South India in addition to being an ordained minister, a member of The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and a chaplain and fellow at Balliol College, Oxford. It was to this friend and devoted admirer that Browning gave the ‘square old yellow book’ on which The Ring and the Book is based.
The dedication page of this series of lectures on Browning reads “To Miss Browning” – most likely Robert’s sister Sarianna.
In the introduction, Pope says this of Browning,
It is always difficult to find one’s way into a piece of Browning. . . . This may [arise] from the fact that the poet found the idea of his pieces, for the most part, as it were accidentally, in the course of his multifarious – we might say universal – reading and research; and the student who has not been a companion of the master’s literary journeys is apt to be at the outset bewildered, and only able to gather gradually by hints and stray words the connexion and antecedents of the poet’s thought.
Robert Browning. The Ring and the Book. Four volumes. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1868-69.
This volume contains a laid in note indicating that the set was owned by Julia Wedgewood, English feminist novelist, biographer, historian and literary critic, great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, niece of Charles Darwin, and friend of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Julia Wedgwood was one of the first people to read Browning’s poem. She marked and remarked on many of the passages in the proof pages of the book, as noted in her letter to Browning, 15 November 1868.There are also a few marks in these volumes, a later gift from Browning to Wedgwood. It is unclear whether these marks were made by Julia Wedgwood.
Here lines 1045-46 are annotated by an unidentified hand with the date “November 26, 99.”
My flower, / My rose, I gather for the breast of God. . . .
Letter from Julia Wedgwood to Robert Browning. 15 November 1868.
In this letter, Julia Wedgwood criticizes Brownings’ “rugged lines,” questioning why “the love of good” cannot predominate over “the hatred and scorn of evil.”
I had marked some lines to suggest to you as sounding rugged to my ear, but you must have intended that effect I think. . . . Dear old friend, to whom I am no old friend, but glaringly modern, let me have one word in answer to this. If it seems to you hopeless & futile misapprehension, still resolve this diminished seventh which has spread itself all over the instrument, & you can satisfy with three fingers. You know how intensely I listen for all your utterances if you see nothing else in this letter take it as a clumsy expression of that. I shd like to know that life is not all arid to you.
Letter from Robert Browning to Julia Wedgwood. 19 November 1868.
Browning replies to Julia Wedgwood, arguing that he is attempting to portray the world as it is, with the potential and hope of redemption.
But remember, first that this is God’s world, as he made it for reasons of his own, and that to change its conditions is not to account for them—as you will presently find me try to do. I was struck with the enormous wickedness and weakness of the main composition of the piece, and with the incidental evolution of good thereby,—good to the priest, to the poor girl, to the old Pope, who judges anon, and—I would fain hope—to who reads and applies my reasoning to his own experience, which is not likely to fail him.
- Exhibition Text by Chris Dickinson