Robert Browning (1812-1889), English poet, was born at Camberwell, London, on the 7th of May 1812. He was the son of Robert Browning (1781-1866), who for fifty years was employed in the Bank of England. Earlier Brownings had been settled in Wiltshire and Dorsetshire, and there is no ground for the statement that the family was partly of Jewish origin. The poet's mother was a daughter of William Wiedemann, a German who had settled in Dundee and married a Scottish wife. His parents had one other child, a daughter, Sarianna, born in 1814. They lived quietly in Camberwell. The elder Browning had a sufficient income and was indifferent to money-making. He had strong literary and artistic tastes. He was an ardent book collector, and so good a draughtsman that paternal authority alone had prevented him from adopting an artistic career. He had, like his son, a singular faculty for versifying, and helped the boy's early lessons by twisting the Latin grammar into grotesque rhymes. He lived, as his father had done, to be 84, with unbroken health. The younger Robert inherited, along with other characteristics, much of his father's vigour of constitution. From the mother, who had delicate health, he probably derived his excessive nervous irritability; and from her, too, came his passion for music.
The family was united by the strongest mutual affection, and the parents erred, if anything, on the side of indulgence. Browning was sent to a school in the neighbourhood, but left it when fourteen, and had little other teaching. He had a French tutor for the next two years, and in his eighteenth year he attended some Greek lectures at the London University. At school he never won a prize, though it was more difficult to avoid than to win prizes. He was more conspicuous for the love of birds and beasts, which he always retained, than for any interest in his lessons. He rather despised his companions and made few friends. A precocious poetical capacity, however, showed itself in extra-scholastic ways. He made his schoolfellows act plays, partly written by himself. He had composed verses before he could write, and when twelve years old completed a volume of poems called Incondita. His parents tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher; but his verses were admired by Sarah Flower, afterwards Mrs Adams, a well-known hymn-writer of the day, and by W.J. Fox, both of whom became valuable friends. A copy made by Miss Flower was in existence in 1871, but afterwards destroyed by the author. Browning had the run of his father's library, and acquired a very unusual amount of miscellaneous reading.
Quarles' Emblems was an especial favourite; and besides the Elizabethan dramatists and standard English books, he had read all the works of Voltaire. Byron was his first master in poetry, but about the age of fourteen he fell in accidentally with Shelley and Keats. For Shelley in particular he conceived an enthusiastic admiration which lasted for many years, though it was qualified in his later life.
The more aggressive side of Browning's character was as yet the most prominent; and a self-willed lad, conscious of a growing ability, found himself cramped in Camberwell circles. He rejected the ordinary careers. He declined the offer of a clerkship in the Bank of England; and his father, who had found the occupation uncongenial, not only approved the refusal but cordially accepted the son's decision to take poetry for his profession. For good or evil, Browning had been left very much to his own guidance, and if his intellectual training suffered in some directions, the liberty permitted the development of his marked originality. The parental yoke, however, was too light to provoke rebellion. Browning's mental growth led to no violent breach with the creeds of his childhood. His parents became Dissenters in middle life, but often attended Anglican services; and Browning, though he abandoned the dogmas, continued to sympathize with the spirit of their creed. He never took a keen interest in the politics of the day, but cordially accepted the general position of contemporary Liberalism. His worship of Shelley did not mean an acceptance of his master's hostile attitude towards Christianity, still less did he revolt against the moral discipline under which he had been educated.
He frequented literary and artistic circles, and was passionately fond of the theatre; but he was entirely free from a coarse Bohemianism, and never went to bed, we are told, without kissing his mother. He lived with his parents until his marriage. His mother lived till 1849, and his father till 1866, and his affectionate relations to both remained unaltered. Browning's first published poem, Pauline, appeared anonymously in 1833. He always regarded it as crude, and destroyed all the copies of this edition that came within his reach. It was only to avoid unauthorized reprints that he consented with reluctance to republishing it in the collected works of 1868. The indication of genius was recognized by W.J. Fox, who hailed it in the Monthly Repository as marking the advent of a true poet. Pauline contains an enthusiastic invocation of Shelley, whose influence upon its style and conception is strongly marked. It is the only one of Browning's works which can be regarded as imitative. In the winter of 1833 he went to St Petersburg on a visit to the Russian consul-general, Mr Benckhausen. There he wrote the earliest of his dramatic lyrics, "Porphyria's Lover" and "Johannes Agricola." In the spring of 1834 he visited Italy for the first time, going to Venice and Asolo.
Browning's personality was fully revealed in his next considerable poems, Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840). With Pauline, however, they form a group. In an essay (prefixed to the spurious Shelley letters of 1851), Browning describes Shelley's poetry "as a sublime fragmentary essay towards a presentment of the correspondency of the universe to Deity." The phrase describes his own view of the true functions of a poet, and Browning, having accepted the vocation, was meditating the qualifications which should fit him for his task. The hero of Pauline is in a morbid state of mind which endangers his fidelity to his duty. Paracelsus and Sordello are studies in the psychology of genius, illustrating its besetting temptations. Paracelsus fails from intellectual pride, not balanced by love of his kind, and from excessive ambition, which leads him to seek success by unworthy means. Sordello is a poet distracted between the demands of a dreamy imagination and the desire to utter the thoughts of mankind. He finally gives up poetry for practical politics, and gets into perplexities only to be solved by his death. Pauline might in some indefinite degree reflect Browning's own feelings, but in the later poems he adopts his characteristic method of speaking in a quasi-dramatic mood.