About Robert Browning
Robert Browning was born in South London in 1812. He was largely self-educated, utilising his father’s extensive library of over six thousand volumes. A voracious reader, Browning would later draw on his wide and sometimes arcane learning in his poetry, and by the age of fourteen he had learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian. He attended the University of London but left in discontent to pursue his own programme of reading. His first book of poetry, Paracelsus (1835), was comparatively well-received and Browning began to meet and make friends with influential writers and artists of the day, including the actor William Macready who encouraged Browning to write for the stage. Whilst his plays were never very successful this experience revealed Browning’s great talent for the dramatic monologue in which mode many of his most enduring poems, such as ‘My Last Duchess’ were written. However, this early success wasn’t to last, his second volume, Sordello (1840), attracting such hostile reviews for its alleged obscurity it took twenty years for Browning’s reputation to recover. During this period he met, married and eloped with the poet Elizabeth Barrett and they lived happily in Italy until her death in 1861. This was a period of intense creativity for them both – she produced her famous Sonnets to the Portuguese and Browning published Men and Women which included some of his best poetry.
The very qualities which sometimes led his poetry to be misjudged in his own time – his use of irony, his preference for oblique criticism rather than overt moralising, his extensive learning and his use of conversational rhythms – are the ones which secured his reputation in the twentieth century. He is one of the few Victorian poets who remained relevant to the modernists.
The recording of ‘How They Brought The Good News from Aix to Ghent’, made in 1889 and therefore the oldest in the Archive, preserves a unique occasion, a dinner party given by Browning’s friend the artist Rudolf Lehmann. Colonel Gouraud had brought with him a phonograph and each of the guests was invited to speak into it. Initially reluctant, Browning eventually relents and can be heard reciting from his poem. Unfortunately, he forgets the words after a few lines, tries again and then gives up, but can be heard expressing his astonishment at this ‘wonderful invention’.
The poem Browning had such trouble remembering was one of his most popular at the time, a much more traditional exercise in verse form and narrative than some of his other pieces, undertaken according to Browning to see if he could evoke the rhythm of galloping horses. This he certainly does as the full version of the poem makes clear, with its dominant anapaestic rhythm and vivid imagery of the horses’ physical strain. Although the title and narrative suggest a real historical incident, no evidence for one has been found – so we never know what the ‘good news’ might be, a nicely unconventional twist that is characteristic of Browning’s work as a whole.
We have added to this remarkable fragment in Browning’s own voice a small selection of other works, read by the poet Anthony Thwaite. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is Browning’s first dramatic monologue, written in a voice of insane obsession and describing with eerie calmness the killing of a lover. ‘My Last Duchess’, published in 1842, is based on a true story: in 1558 the Duke of Ferrara, at the age of twenty-five, married the fourteen-year-old Lucrezia, but abandoned her two years before she died at the age of seventeen. Browning turns this bleak tale into a masterpiece of irony, allowing the story to emerge in hints (‘I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death’ Browning later said, and then added ‘or he might have shut her up in a convent’).
‘The Laboratory’ also gains its inspiration from history, as the narrator tells her story to the apothecary who is preparing the poison she will use to kill her rival. ‘Love in a Life’, though not a story of murder, describes in terms of nightmarish panic the loss of a loved one. It is almost a relief to turn to ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ written while he was living happily in Italy with Elizabeth.
After Elizabeth’s death in 1861, Browning returned to live in London where the critical tide began to turn in his favour. The publication of his long narrative poem, The Ring and the Book, finally brought him popular success. Browning died in 1889 and is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Made in 1889, the recording of 'How They Brought The Good News from Aix to Ghent' is the oldest in the Archive. Other recordings commissioned by the Poetry Archive, shared here with kind permission of the readers.