Robert Browning


Robert Browning, one of the most talented poets of the Victorian period, is famous especially for

his dramatic monologues. Often these long poems deal with such issues as love, death, and faith. Much of

his work is directly reflective of his life and of those issues that were of direct concern to him. One conflict

seen throughout Browning's poetry is one of spirituality. His poetry forms a spiritual timeline; it reveals his

spiritual influences and opinions. It formed his own Bible of beliefs which he possessed. Because

Browning's views on spirituality changed, his poetry also gives insight on the internal conflicts within his

life. The paper will explore Robert Browning's spiritual journey as is reflective in his poetry.

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell, near London, England on May 7, 1812. He was raised

by his father, also Robert Browning, and by his deeply religious mother, Sarah Anna Weideman-Browning.

His often indulgent parents gave him the freedom to explore new literary and philosophical ideas of the time

period, yet he was also instructed to believe the unexplained mysteries of the Christian faith(Miller, 1953).

His mother, who had strong ties to the congregational church, took great time to instruct Robert in his

religious studies. With this open atmosphere, however, Browning exhibited signs of disinterest in religion

during his early childhood. The town preacher, in fact , found it necessary to publicly scold "for

restlessness and inattention Master Robert Browning"(as cited in,Miller, 1953, p.9). Robert Browning's

tendency toward skepticism was recorded early on.

Robert Browning's first deviation from his faith was at the age of fifteen or sixteen. His primary

influences were the Flower family and the writing of P.B Shelley. Browning often traveled to the Flower's

house to discuss music, poetry, and aethism (Irvine & Honan, 1974). Eliza Flower , with whom Browning

was infatuated was an influence in Browning's aethism. She was one of the primary influences that turned

Browning away from the Christianity of his mother. His other influence, the writing of Shelley, a known

aethist, taught Browning to be an independent free thinker. After reading Shelley's book, Queen Mab ,

Browning became an aethist and a vegetarian(DeVane & Smalley, 1984). He rejected his mother's world to

gain a sense of liberty and independence(Irvine & Honan, 1974). This faith change at such an early age

seemed to lead to a continual spiritual inconsistency throughout his life. Browning had trouble accepting

any faith or religion he chose to follow and often questioned his judgment in faith related decisions. Robert

Browning considered Shelley to be moral because he was "true, simple hearted and brave"(cited in Payne,

1967, p.198). He found him to also be a man of religious mind because Shelley was "everywhere taking for

granted some of the capital dogmas of Christianity, while most vehemently denying their historical

basement" (cited in Payne, 1967, p.199). Browning clearly possessed a great respect for Shelley which

followed him through much of his early poetry. Browning's life was "fundamentally affected"(Miller, 1953,

p.9) by the Shelley's writing. During his adolescence, Browning may have recognized Shelley's, "fearless

spiritual independence"(Miller, 1953, p.9). He noticed a "principal of conduct whereby to measure in the

years to come not only the sum of his own poetic achievement but the very nature of human integrity

itself"(Miller, 1953, p.9). Although there is no available poetry written before his first published work,

Pauline, his early aethism is still reflected in his early poetry.

Robert Browning eloped to Italy with Elizabeth Barret. Upon meeting his extremely religious

wife and with her persuasion, Browning began to realize that Shelley's poetry had led him to a life of self-

absorption. Yet, "Robert took a skeptical attitude on the spiritual rappings, spurred on perhaps by his wife's

immediate will to believe"(Markus,1995, p.219). Eventually, though, Robert Browning made the decision

to return to his Christian faith, perhaps due to his respect for his deeply religious mother or to the

persuasion by his spiritually inclined wife.

It is said that Elizabeth, Browning's wife, believed that "spiritualism offered an alternative to

melancholy: an assurance reinforcing faith"(Miller, 1953, p.192). Browning, however was often skeptical of

his wife's spiritualism. Despite this, Pauline reveals a return to God, but also displays an undying reverence

to Shelley.

Pauline, Robert Browning's first published work, was published in 1832. Pauline was

undisputedly representative of Browning's reacceptance of Christianity.