William Browne (1591-1643), English pastoral poet, was born at Tavistock, Devonshire, in 1591, of a branch of the family of Browne of Betchworth Castle, Surrey. He received his early education at the grammar school of his native town, and is said to have proceeded to Oxford about 1603. After a short residence at Clifford's Inn he entered the Inner Temple in 1611. His elegy on the death of Henry, prince of Wales, and the first book of Britannia's Pastorals appeared in 1613; the Shepherd's Pipe, which contained some eclogues by other poets, in 1614. The second book of the pastorals (1616) is dedicated to William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, whose seat at Wilton was Browne's home for some time. In 1624 he returned to Oxford as tutor to Robert Dormer, afterwards earl of Carnarvon, matriculating at Exeter College in April and receiving his M.A. degree in November of the same year. Nearly all Browne's poetic work dates from his early manhood, before his marriage in 1628 with Timothy, daughter of Sir Thomas Eversham of Horsham, Essex. In the fourth eclogue of George Wither's Shepherd's Hunting, written as early as 1613-1614, Philarete (Wither) asks Willy (Browne) why he is silent, and the reply is that some "my music do contemne." The times were unfavourable to his tranquil talent, and the second half of his life was spent in retirement.
He died some time before 1645, when letters of administration were granted to his widow, and he may have been the William Browne whose burial is recorded in the Tavistock registers under the date of the 27th of March 1643.
Browne was the pupil and friend of Michael Drayton, who associates "my Browne" in the "Epistle to Henry Reynolds" with the two Beaumonts as "my dear companions whom I freely chose, My bosom friends." But directly indebted as Browne is for the form of his poems, for the slight story and the rather wearisome allegory, to Spenser, Sidney, Drayton and especially to Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess, his poetry is no mere copy of any of these models. His Arcadia is localized in his native Devonshire. He was untiring in his praises of "Tavy's voiceful stream (to whom I owe more strains than from my pipe can ever flow)." He knew local history and traditions, and he celebrates the gallant sailors who "by their power made the Devonian shore Mock the proud Tagus." (Brit. Past. bk. ii., song 3). It is for his truthful, affectionate pictures of his country life and its surroundings that the stories of Marina and Celandine, Doridon and the rest are still read. A copy of Browne's pastorals with annotations in Milton's handwriting is preserved in the Huth library, and there are many points of likeness between Lycidas and the elegy on Philarete (Thomas Manwood) in the fourth eclogue of the Shepherd's Pipe. Keats was a student of Browne, and Herrick's fairy fantasies are thought to owe something to the third book of the pastorals.
The first two books of Britannia's Pastorals were re-issued in 1625. The third, though it had no doubt circulated in the author's lifetime, remained unknown until Beriah Botfield discovered a copy of it in the library of Salisbury cathedral, bound up with the 1613 and 1616 editions of the first and second books. This MS. was edited for the Percy Society by T.C. Croker in 1852. A collected edition of Browne's works was published in 1772 by John Davies. It is not known whether The Inner Temple Masque on the story of Ulysses and Circe, which was written for performance on the 13th of January 1615, was ever actually represented. A series of sonnets to Caelia, some epistles, elegies and epitaphs, with some other miscellaneous poems, complete the list of Browne's works. These have been collected from various sources, the most important being Lansdowne MS. 777 (British Museum), and they were printed for the first time by Sir S.E. Brydges in 1815. Excellent modern complete editions of Browne and Mr W.C. Hazlitt's (1868-1869) for the Roxburghe library, and a more compact one (1894) by Mr Gordon Goodwin, with an introduction by Mr A.H. Bullen, for the "Muse's Library." For an elaborate analysis of Browne's obligations to earlier pastoral writers see F.W. Moorman, "William Browne" (Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach- und Culturgeschichte der Germanischen Völker Strassburg, 1897). A translation of Marin le Roy de Gomberville's Polexandre, by William Browne (1647), may be a posthumous work of the poet's.