There’s been a lot of noise about Dickens’ bicentenary this year, but it’s also Robert Browning’s (he was born on the 7th of May 1812), which for poets should be equally important. Victorian poetry’s reputation has never recovered from Modernism, and most people still think of interminable tum-te-tum poems about Empire and Guinevere. Actually though, I love the Victorians – from Christina Rossetti’s sinister ‘Goblin Market’ to ‘Dover Beach’; ‘The Lady of Shalott’ to ‘The Jabberwocky’; Hopkins’ aching Terrible Sonnets to Oscar Wilde – all those strange, overheated imaginations and the ways depression, absurdity, atheism, desire and a creepy infatuation with childhood strained against polite society.
Robert Browning is perhaps the most distinct and modern of them all. The dramatic monologue is a form I’m endlessly fascinated by, and he’s obviously the master – everyone knows ‘My Last Duchess.’ But you should also read his creepy childrens’ poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, with lines that have haunted children’s dreams for almost two centuries: ‘Rats! /They fought the dogs and killed the cats, / And bit the babies in the cradles, /And ate the cheeses out of the vats, /And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles, /Split open the kegs of salted sprats, / Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats.’
And my favourite poem of all is ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. Browning declared himself an atheist (and vegetarian) aged 13 after reading Shelley, and this is a godless text, a kind of proto-version of ‘The Waste Land’ where the knight’s quest through a foul, war-torn landscape is exposed as meaningless.
In one queasy stanza he crosses a river where he fears: ‘To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek / Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek / For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard! / —It may have been a water-rat I speared, / But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.’
For the anniversary, Wellesley College have put Browning’s love letters to his wife, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning online, and they are a lovely read – alert and intelligent and charming, letting you see their relationship develop and deepen:
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey. [Postmark: 10 January 1845] I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,-and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,-whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me…
Why not mark his birthday by reading them? He might get under your skin. Browning was definitely an influence in my latest collection Changeling, which a friend has suggested is a very Victorian book. If she means drawing on myth and folktale in dark, off-kilter ways, I’ll concede (and to be truthful, it even has poems about Empire and Guinevere).