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Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were two great writers of the 19th century. One cannot get a better understanding of one of these writers without looking at the works of the other. This is because the life and works of these two writers are connected. These two were united in what was regarded as an ideal marriage between two great writers in history. In this paper, we will make a detailed comparison of these great writers.
Born in 1812 Robert Browning has been said to have had a mixed ancestors. It is said that his great artistic instincts were inherited from his father, an artistic and cultured man who worked as a subordinate in the Bank of England. Before starting to write, Browning used to compose verses, which made him seem for sometime to be headed towards music rather than poetry.
He had an irregular early formal education, but he managed to get large information from his father’s library. Browning lived a healthy and active life. He was not allowed to attend the universities because his parents were regarded as dissenters. At the age of seventeen, his father reluctantly allowed him to pursue poetry as a profession.
He continued staying with his parents for another seventeen years, interacting normally with friends but did not give up with his writing. He gradually developed a reputation in some critics although, with little impression to the public. Many people who have read his poems agree that some of the best poems were written during this time, ‘My Last Duchess’.
He also wrote some great poetic dramas such as ‘Pippa Passes’. All his poems were great although they require serious attention from readers to be understood. It was in poetry that Brown met and married his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1846.
Their marriage only lasted for fifteen years because his wife died in 1861. After the death of his wife, Robert dedicated the rest of his life on accomplishing the wishes of Elizabeth. He died in 1889, and was buried in Westminster Abbey in England (Poets 1).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in 1806 to a country man who lived in London Herefordshire. She was born naturally healthy and intelligent. Her early life was filled with verse writing and out door activities. She had written her first epic poem at the age of 12. Elizabeth developed a complication in her lungs in her teenage, a problem that stayed with her all her life.
She also suffered a spinal injury at the age of fifteen. Despite the ailments, Elizabeth continued to teach herself at home where she learned Hebrew and Greek. She continued to write while staying with her tyrannical father. She wrote a collection called ‘Simply Poems’ in 1844. Most of her works were written to express her emotions about things which happened around her:
Financially secure due to an inheritance from an uncle, in 1840 Browning traveled to the fashionable seaside resort of Torquay in southern England to take a rest cure to improve her health. While there her beloved brother Bro’ who had accompanied her drowned in the Bay. Her grief and guilt is expressed in “De Profundis.” (Merriman 1)
In one of the poems in this collection she praised the work of Robert Browning. This led to the beginning of correspondences between them and eventually to marriage. The removal from her father’s home led to an improvement in her health.
And for fifteen years after their marriage, they stayed in various towns in Italy surviving on Elizabeth’s inheritance until they started earning from their poetry. They had a son in 1849 named Robert Wiedeman ‘Pen’. Elizabeth died in 1861 and was buried in Florence Italy (Merriman 1).
The attraction between these two great poets was due to their mutual scholarly interests. They were both self-educated and interested in modern and classical languages. Apart from English, both writers have used other languages in their works. Their work sounded alike even before they met. Robert stretched meter to its limits in his poems.
Similarly, Elizabeth stretched meter to its limit in her work although, hers is seen to lack the artistic luster of poetic literature. When these two writers met, they created an environment that cultivated the poetic impulses in them leading to a series of great works from them. They were prolific poets and also avid letter writers as shown by the edition of their correspondences that was published in 1926.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning had intense emotion and strong Christian idealism, these two combined with her wide reading made her very powerful. For instance she wrote ‘Poems before Congress’ to express her sympathy for the Italians struggle for unification. In her work for instance in Aurora Leigh males are shown to dominate over females.
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Aurora Leigh described plainly the kind of social injustice that Austrians were subjecting others to. This was clearly illustrated in her poem ‘The cry of the Children’. It is believed that her suffering and her unique moral and intellectual strength are factors that made her the heroin for the oppressed and the suffering (Tejvan 1).
Unlike Elizabeth, Robert based his emphasis on the individual, he also acknowledges individual devotion to serve others, but stresses that the result of these efforts should be aimed at improving an individual’s character but not to benefit the whole world.
According to him, the world is a place of probation and therefore, he does not expect humans to change it radically. He sees the world as a stepping stone for man on his way to heaven. Unlike Elizabeth, Robert has no interest in the social and political issues surrounding him. This contributed to him not being famous (Browning 1).
Elizabeth was passionate about love. This was seen in her romantic sonnets that she wrote to Robert such as ‘How do I love thee?’ and many others. She wrote highly romantic and sometimes mystical narratives. And it was actually love, that enabled her to regain her health for more years. Similarly, Robert had this extravagant romanticism. His poems show that he had passion and always insisted that emotion is supreme (Phela 1).
It is believed that Elizabeth’s secluded life and ill-health made her to be sentimental sometimes to the extent of being hysterical. She had the impulse and substance of great poetry, but the circumstances under which she lived and her temperament did not bring out her best.
Robert on the other hand was thorough and dramatic. His works show the reader a glimpse of the real life and the different human personalities. He sometime wrote a narration of a “fine exploit, for instance, in the poem ‘How they brought the good news’, and other times he wrote quite and reflective poems” (Browning 1).
Using this, he developed the style of monologues whereby he presented a character discussing his life or situation or even incident. He economized on space in most of his monologues. For instance, he only used sixty lines to bring out the message in the poem ‘My Last Duchess’ (Browning 1).
Robert Browning mostly used the dramatic monologue style that was known for Victorian poets. This form allowed him to engage with his readers by making them be the listeners. This is explicitly seen in his poems such as ‘My last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s lover’, where he brought out a feeling of intimacy by making the reader be the confidant to the crimes of the narrator.
In other poems such as ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’, Robert made his reader be a witness to the increasing instability of the narrator. He therefore, uses dramatic monologue to expose the vices of the narrator and also as a way through which they can repent their sins. He presented the poet as a teacher to the reader. His works are full of teaching about religion and life.
When all his works are put together, they sum up a statement of his philosophy of life. Unlike Elizabeth, he believed that life in the world is for the most part fine. He had confidence in the realities of the then situation. This is evidently articulated in poems ‘Abt Vogler’ and ‘Rabbi ben Ezra’ (Cameron and Lundy 5).
Elizabeth on the other hand was dramatic and lyrical in style. She employed rich and varied vocabulary in her work with rhythms that brought out varied poetic effects. She is driven by subjectivity and wrote by the call of her feelings which made her work appeal to emotion. Her work is driven by consequence; this made her work lack the literal art.
Most of her work emphasizes on self revelation, unlike Robert’s work which requires the reader to make judgments about the characters. Most of her work talks about thought and feeling and very little on events. She admitted to herself that:
Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself; and life has been a very serious thing. I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of the poet. I have done my work, so far, as work, as the completest expression of my personal being to which I could attain (Tejvan 1).
Robert’s work is not easy to be compared with other works because of the nicety of his thoughts and also the subject matter of most of his work is obscure. He is also fond of using remote and unusual characters. He disregarded the fact that he had an extra ordinary mental power and agility and also ignored the capacity of an ordinary person.
He therefore took most of what readers might be interested in reading for granted. A look at some of his works shows that he was hasty and seldom corrected his work. He was also careless in his sentence structure as seen mostly in his long poems. He was ludicrously odd in the choice and treatment of his subject. This is attributed to his desire to portray the world in its true colors and also to avoid conventionality (Browning 1).
Elizabeth’s style leans mostly towards the traditional feminine subjects. This saw her write beautiful poems on flowers, and sentimental poems reflecting on childhood. As already indicated, this style also saw her write about suffering mothers as illustrated in her poem “The mourning mother”. Her poems also reflected her strong Christian belief as in the poem “A Sabbath morning at sea” and “The dead pan” which talks about the silencing of the pagan gods (Phelan 1).
Contrastingly, Robert’s work tended to lean towards masculine characters. He had great power in the external detail, but it is the characters, the humans in his work, that he sees as important in life. He even admitted it to himself that the study of souls was the only thing he regarded as worthwhile. He portrayed an unprecedented number of characters most of whom are men.
This includes characters such as Cleon, Balaustion, Andrea del Sarto, and many others. All these characters bring out his personality and point of view with regard to life’s realities. As he aged he became more accommodative to many subjects.
His peculiarity, a combination of speculative acuteness and strange poetical insight gave him a lot of difficulties that he did not hold well. His work showed that he was not sure whether he was writing poetry or putting logic in verse.
He undertook lengthy analysis when in reality he should be giving a concrete poem. In most of his poems, he used too many necessities of verse which complicated and obscured the message or the reasoning behind the particular work. This is seen in his work “Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau” (Browning 1).
We have seen that Robert was a person who didn’t care much about the real life, but he became interested in real life stories later in life. His profound regard for high morals gave him his source of power. He had little interest if any in issues relating to romance and history.
What makes him unique is that he took his subjects from a wide field and places although, he was not interested in them, but in the humans who were to be found there. His intellectual ingenuity drove him on many occasions to step off the main course. This made him infamous despite his unique poems. Elizabeth on the other hand was a victim of her health and paternal tyranny.
These affected her works because we have just seen that she was sometimes sentimental, edgy and even hysterical. These denied her the self-discipline necessary for success. It is also written that most of her great poems apart from the Sonnets were written when she was married to Robert.
here is no doubt that he provided her with assistance because we also know that Robert put aside his writing after marrying and actively resumed writing after Elizabeth’s dying. Therefore, I think Robert was the better of the two.
His good qualities that sometimes made people to misjudge him can not be ignored. His use of irony and indirect criticism instead of overt moralizing of his messages, make him one of a kind. That is why his works will continue attracting many criticisms for many years to come.
Browning, Robert. Robert Browning. Mason. Web.
Cameron, Townley and Lundy, Chris. Robert Browning. Google Documents. Web.
Merriman, Derick. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Literature Network, 2010. Web.
Phelan, Joseph. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861). Arlindo Correia, 2010. Web.
Poets. Robert Browning. Academy of American Poets, 2011. Web.
Tejvan, Richard. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Poet Seers. Web.