Their vigour and originality failed to overcome at once the presumption against the author of Sordello. Yet Browning was already known to and appreciated by such literary celebrities of the day as Talfourd, Leigh Hunt, Procter, Monckton Milnes, Carlyle and Landor. His fame began to spread among sympathetic readers. The Bells and Pomegranates attracted the rising school of "pre-Raphaelites," especially D.G. Rossetti, who guessed the authorship of the anonymous Pauline and made a transcript from the copy in the British Museum. But his audience was still select.
Another recognition of his genius was of incomparably more personal importance and vitally affected his history. In 1844 Miss Barrett (see Browning, Elizabeth Barrett) published a volume of poems containing "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," with a striking phrase about Browning's poems. He was naturally gratified, and her special friend and cousin, John Kenyon, encouraged him to write to her. She admitted him to a personal interview after a little diffidence, and a hearty appreciation of literary genius on both sides was speedily ripened into genuine and most devoted love. Miss Barrett was six years older than Browning and a confirmed invalid with shaken nerves. She was tenderly attached to an autocratic father who objected on principle to the marriage of his children. The correspondence of the lovers (published in 1899) shows not only their mutual devotion, but the chivalrous delicacy with which Browning behaved in a most trying situation. Miss Barrett was gradually encouraged to disobey the utterly unreasonable despotism. They made a clandestine marriage on the 12th of September 1846. The state of Miss Barrett's health suggested misgivings which made Browning's parents as well as his bride's disapprove of the match.
She, however, appears to have become stronger for some time, though always fragile and incapable of much active exertion. She had already been recommended to pass a winter in Italy. Browning had made three previous tours there, and his impressions had been turned to account in Sordello and Pippa Passes, in The Englishman in Italy and Home Thoughts from Abroad. For the next fifteen years the Brownings lived mainly in Italy, making their headquarters at Florence in the Casa Guidi. A couple of winters were passed in Rome. In the summer of 1849 they were at Siena, where Browning was helpful to Landor, then in his last domestic troubles. They also visited England and twice spent some months in Paris. Their only child, Robert Wiedemann Browning, was born at Florence in 1849. Browning's literary activity during his marriage seems to have been comparatively small; Christmas Eve and Easter Day appeared in 1850, while the two volumes called Men and Women (1855), containing some of his best work, showed that his power was still growing. His position involved some sacrifice and imposed limitations upon his energies. Mrs Browning's health required a secluded life; and Browning, it is said, never dined out during his marriage, though he enjoyed society and made many and very warm friendships.
Among their Florence friends were Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Isa Blagden, Charles Lever and others. The only breach of complete sympathy with his wife was due to his contempt for "spiritualists" and "mediums," in whom she fully believed. His portrait of Daniel Dunglas Home as "Sludge the Medium" only appeared after her death. This domestic happiness, however, remained essentially unbroken until she died on 29th June 1861. The whole love-story had revealed the singular nobility of his character, and, though crushed for a time by the blow, he bore it manfully. Browning determined to return to England and superintend his boy's education at home. He took a house at 19 Warwick Crescent, Paddington, and became gradually acclimatized in London. He resumed his work and published the Dramatis Personae in 1864. The publication was well enough received to mark the growing recognition of his genius, which was confirmed by The Ring and the Book, published in four volumes in the winter of 1868-1869. In 1867 the university of Oxford gave him the degree of M.A. "by diploma," and Balliol College elected him as an honorary fellow. In 1868 he declined a virtual offer of the rectorship of St Andrews. He repeated the refusal on a later occasion (1884) from a dislike to the delivery of a public address.
The rising generation was now beginning to buy his books; and he shared the homage of thoughtful readers with Tennyson, though in general popularity he could not approach his friendly rival. The Ring and the Book has been generally accepted as Browning's masterpiece. It was based on a copy of the procès verbal of Guido Franceschini's case discovered by him at Florence.
The audacity of the scheme is surprising. To tell the story of a hideous murder twelve times over, to versify the arguments of counsel and the gossip of quidnuncs, and to insist upon every detail with the minuteness of a law report, could have occurred to no one else. The poem is so far at the opposite pole from Sordello. Vagueness of environment is replaced by a photographic distinctness, though the psychological interest is dominant in both. Particular phrases may be crabbed, but nothing can be more distinct and vivid in thought and conception. If some of those "dramatic monologues" of which the book is formed fail to be poetry at all, some of them - that of Pompilia the victim, her champion Caponsacchi, and the pope who gives judgment - are in Browning's highest mood, and are as impressive from the ethical as from the poetical point of view. Pompilia was no doubt in some respects an idealized portrait of Mrs Browning. Other pieces may be accepted as a background of commonplace to throw the heroic into the stronger relief.
The Ring and the Book is as powerful as its method is unique.
Browning became gentler and more urbane as he grew older. His growing fame made him welcome in all cultivated circles, and he accepted the homage of his admirers with dignity and simplicity. He exerted himself to be agreeable in private society, though his nervousness made him invariably decline ever to make public speeches. He was an admirable talker, and took pains to talk his best. A strong memory supplied him with abundant anecdotes; and though occasionally pugnacious, he allowed a fair share of the conversation to his companions. Superficial observers sometimes fancied that the poet was too much sunk in the man of the world; but the appearance was due to his characteristic reluctance to lay bare his deeper feelings. When due occasion offered, the underlying tenderness of his affections was abundantly manifest. No one could show more delicate sympathy. He made many warm personal friendships in his later years, especially with women, to whom he could most easily confide his feelings. In the early years of this period he paid visits to country houses, but afterwards preferred to retire farther from the London atmosphere into secluded regions. He passed some holidays in remote French villages, Pornic, Le Croisic and St Aubyn, which have left traces in his poetry.