Gold Hair is a legend of Pornic, and Hervé Riel was written at Le Croisic. At St Aubyn he had the society of Joseph Milsand, who had shown his warm appreciation of Browning's poetry by an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes, which in 1852 had led to a personal friendship lasting till Milsand's death in 1886. Browning sent to him the proof-sheets of all his later works for revision. In 1877 Browning was at La Saisiaz on the Salève, near Geneva, where an old friend, Miss Egerton Smith, was staying. She died suddenly almost in his presence. She had constantly accompanied him to concerts during his London life. After her death he almost ceased to care for music. The shock of her loss produced the singular poem called La Saisiaz, in which he argues the problem of personal immortality with a rather indefinite conclusion. In later years Browning returned to Italy, and passed several autumns at Venice. He never visited Florence after his wife's death there.
Browning's literary activity continued till almost the end of his life. He wrote constantly, though he composed more slowly. He considered twenty-five or thirty lines to be a good day's work. His later writings covered a very great variety of subjects, and were cast in many different forms. They show the old characteristics and often the old genius. Browning's marked peculiarity, the union of great speculative acuteness with intense poetical insight, involved difficulties which he did not always surmount. He does not seem to know whether he is writing poetry or when he is versifying logic; and when the speculative impulse gets the upper hand, his work suggests the doubt whether an imaginary dialogue in prose would not have been a more effective medium. He is analysing at length when he ought to be presenting a concrete type, while the necessities of verse complicate and obscure the reasoning. A curious example is the Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau (1871), an alias for Louis Napoleon. The attempt to show how a questionable hero apologizes to himself recalls the very powerful "Bishop Blougram," and "Sludge, the medium," of earlier works, but becomes prolix and obscure.
Fifine at the Fair (1872) is another curious speculation containing a defence of versatility in lovemaking by an imaginary Don Juan. Its occasionally cynical tone rather scandalized admirers, who scarcely made due allowance for its dramatic character. Browning's profound appreciation of high moral qualities is, however, always one main source of his power. In later years he became especially interested in stories of real life, which show character passing through some sharp ordeal. The Red Cotton Nightcap Country (1873), describing a strange tragedy which had recently taken place in France, and especially The Inn Album (1875), founded on an event in modern English society, are powerful applications of the methods already exemplified in The Ring and the Book. The Dramatic Idyls (1879 and 1880) are a collection of direct narratives, with less analytical disquisition, which surprised his readers by their sustained vigour. In the last volumes, Jocoseria (1883), Ferishtah's Fancies (1884), Parleying with Certain People (1887) and Asolando (1889), the old power is still apparent but the hand is beginning to fail.
They contain discussions of metaphysical problems, such as the origin of evil, which are interesting as indications of his creed, but can scarcely be regarded as successful either poetically or philosophically.
Another group of poems showed Browning's interest in Greek literature. Balaustion's Adventure (1871) includes a "transcript from Euripides," a translation, that is, of part of the Alcestis. Aristophanes' Apology (1875) included another translation from the Heracles, and in 1877 he published a very literal translation of the Agamemnon. This, it seems, was meant to disprove the doctrine that aeschylus was a model of literary style. Browning shared his wife's admiration for Euripides, and takes a phrase from one of her poems as a motto for Balaustion's Adventure. In the Aristophanes' Apology this leads characteristically to a long exposition by Aristophanes of his unsatisfactory reasons for ridiculing Euripides. It recalls the apologies of "Blougram" and Louis Napoleon, and contains some interesting indications of his poetical theory. Browning was to many readers as much prophet as poet. His religious position is most explicitly, though still not very clearly, set forth in the Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850). Like many eminent contemporaries, he combined a disbelief in orthodox dogma with a profound conviction of the importance to the religious instincts of the symbols incorporated in accepted creeds.
Saul (1845), A Death in the Desert (1864), and similar poems, show his strong sympathy with the spirit of the old belief, though his argumentative works have a more or less sceptical turn. It was scarcely possible, if desirable, to be original on such topics. His admirers hold that he shows an affinity to German metaphysicians, though he had never read their works nor made any express study of metaphysical questions. His distinctive tendency is to be found rather in the doctrine of life and conduct which both suggests and is illustrated by his psychological analyses. A very characteristic thought emphatically set forth in the Rabbi Ben Ezra (1864) and the Grammarian's Funeral (1855) is that a man's value is to be measured, not by the work done, but by the character which has been moulded. He delights in exhibiting the high moral instinct which dares to override ordinary convictions, or which is content with discharge of obscure duties, or superior to vulgar ambition and capable of self-sacrifice, because founded upon pure love and sympathy for human suffering. Browning's limitations are characteristic of the poetry of strong ethical preoccupations.
His strong idiosyncrasy, his sympathy with the heroic and hatred of the base, was hardly to be combined with the Shakespearian capacity for sympathizing with the most varied types of character. Though he deals with a great variety of motive with singularly keen analysis, he takes almost exclusively the moral point of view. That point of view, however, has its importance, and his morality is often embodied in poetry of surpassing force. Browning's love of the grotesque, sometimes even of the horrible, creates many most graphic and indelible portraits. The absence of an exquisite sense for the right word is compensated by the singular power of striking the most brilliant flashes out of obviously wrong words, and forcing comic rhymes to express the deepest and most serious thoughts. Though he professed to care little for motive as apart from human interest, his incidental touches of description are unsurpassably vivid.