Monday, 7 May 2012

Bicentenary of a Liberal poet

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Browning.  When I was young, he was best-known for the "Pied Piper of Hamelin", which probably every English schoolchild (and probably those of most other English-speaking nations) was exposed to at some time. Later, his "Men and Women" was one of the set books for the A-levels I sat. (It would be interesting to know whether he still forms part of every child's education.) I came to see a more rounded picture of a serious-minded poet, with his dramatic monologues, but who saw himself as part of the Romantic movement, while also experimenting with verse-forms and indulging in outrageous rhymes ("Hugues" and "fugues" come to mind). He also had a gift for the memorable phrase: "Oh, to be in England" and "When the kissing had to stop" are his. There are almost four pages of Browning quotations in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. If he had a blind spot, it was his contempt for technology which after all had largely provided the wealth of the Victorian age and of many of the leading Liberals.

He did write a verse justification of his being a Liberal. The sentiments are admirable, but it is not great poetry. It seems to me that when he was being high-minded, he descended to mere grandiloquence.  Browning's best poems were written when he was relaxed, or personal.

My favourite is "Love among the ruins", which must have been inspired by a classical Italian ruined citadel, but which could equally suit an ancient Welsh hill-fort. The final stanza is timeless.


Just over one hundred years later, his only son, "Pen" Browning, died in the July of 1912. Although Pen didn't need to earn a living, he became an accomplished painter - perhaps too accomplished. One recalls his father's poem, "Andrea del Sarto" inspired by the artist senza errori"Vespers" , "The Delivery to the Secular Arm" and the ubiquitous "Before a Mirror" show a virtually photographic ability, at a time when such faithful reproduction of subjects was going out of fashion.

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