The Difficulty of Remembering Robert Browning

The Difficulty of Remembering Robert Browning

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The Difficulty of Remembering Robert Browning

    It is no great revelation that people primarily either want to be remembered or

forgotten, they either want to be noticed or they want to disappear. And it's

this binary that celebrities seem to struggle with all the time; constantly

wanting to be in the spotlight and all the fame and glory that goes along with

it. But once their integrity is compromised, they run and hide and declare their

lives to be personal, out of view of the public eye. No one seems to contradict

this binary of fame / seclusion more than poet Robert Browning. Although he

wanted to be known and remembered, every conscious decision he made within his

career seems to have prevented this.


Born in 1812, Robert Browning led a shielded suburban life, in the south of

France (Damrosch, 1305). Both his parents were supportive and encouraging of his

interests especially when, at the age of 14, he expressed an interest in poetry

(Damrosch, 1305).  The poet that sparked Browning's interest in poetry was none

other than Percy Bysshe Shelley. P.B. Shelley's poetry affected Browning greatly

and even though Browning wasn't writing poetry yet at this time, Shelley was

influencing him in other ways (Damrosch, 1305). Percy Shelley was a poet widely

known for his radical ideas and beliefs; it was this recognition that most

attracted Browning. Robert Browning's path to being a poet was not direct. It

was because of Shelley that Browning found this path, but it would be years

before he would begin writing (Damrosch, 1305). Browning tried many other career

paths before publishing his first poem, among them art, music, law and business

(Damrosch, 1305). He published his first poem anonymously at the age of 21

(Damrosch, 1305). It was titled Pauline and was poorly received (Damrosch,

1305). Publishing his first poem anonymously goes against Browning's desire to

be well known. Over the next ten years, Browning published various plays and

poems that were as poorly received as his first poem (Damrosch, 1305). But it

was in 1842 that Browning would get much deserved recognition for his work

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Dramatic Lyrics. In Dramatic Lyrics, Browning, Browning developed his style of

dramatic monologues (Damrosch, 1305). Among these dramatic monologues was The

Pied Piper of Hamelin, well known among children (Douglas, 32). The dramatic

monologue is a form that also goes against Browning's quest for fame, as

Browning's ideas and beliefs get transferred onto those of the character in the

poem. One does not hear how Browning feels, but only the characters revealing

themselves in the poem. And then when commenting on this, an opportunity to

proclaim his genius, Browning humbly states that his poems are merely

"utterances of so many imaginary characters, not mine (Damrosch, 1306.)."


            Robert Browning would once again have a chance for popularity when

he began a love affair with poet Elizabeth Barrett. They eloped in 1846 and

moved to Italy to escape Barrett's controlling father (Douglas, 33). While

Browning loved Elizabeth very much, he was uncomfortable with being overshadowed

by her success and hardly produced any poetry during their relationship

(Damrosch, 1306). Despite Browning's lack of creative output, this period

includes some of his best work. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning died

unexpectedly in 1861, Robert Browning declared he would devote the remainder of

his life to her influence (Damrosch, 1307). He began in 1868 with the verse

novel The Ring and The Book (Damrosch, 1307). This finally gave Browning the

popularity he both deserved and craved. Now called one of the era's leading

poets, his popularity increased in the United States, with Browning Societies

sprouting up to discuss his work (Damrosch, 1306.). Included in his fan base was

author Mark Twain. In 1889, he died the same day his final book was to be

published, Asolando (Damrosch, 1307).


            While most of his poetry is in the form of dramatic monologue from

the wide array of characters in the mind of Robert Browning, rarely Browning's

own thoughts and experiences do make it to the page. One of these poems is

"Memorabilia". Perhaps most important in his life, was his deep admiration of

poet P. B. Shelley and that is nowhere more evident than in this poem. Robert

Browning's poem "Memorabilia" is not only a rare example of Browning's personal

life being represented in his poetry, but also an example of memorabilia itself.


            In Memorabilia, Browning recounts an encounter with a stranger who

had known P.B. Shelley.  Browning says in a footnote reprinted on page 1320 of

the Longman Anthology:


I was one day in the bookshop of Hodgson, the well-known London bookseller, when

a stranger came in, who, in the course of conversation with the bookseller spoke

of something that Shelley had once said to him. Suddenly, the stranger paused,

and burst into laughter as he observed me staring at him with blanched face;

and...I still vividly remember how strangely the presence of a man who had seen

and spoken with Shelley affected me. (Damrosch, 1320)



Browning's captivation with this man who knew Shelley is evident throughout the

poem. The poem begins with Browning asking the man a series of questions,

desperately wanting to get to the heart of the relationship this man had with

Percy Shelley. He comments on this situation in line 4: "How strange this seems

and new!"(Damrosch, 1320). In line 5, Browning begins to reveal his thoughts on

meeting a in the flesh-and-blood person who has met Shelley and there is

evidence that at one point Browning may have lost his composure: "My starting

moves your laughter" (8).


            Browning's poem "Memorabilia" is an ode to Shelley, because Shelley

is the inspiration for his life's work. But as implied by the title of this

poem, it is also an ode to being remembered, another one of Browning's



            To conclude, Robert Browning spent his life disappearing in an

attempt to be remembered. He published anonymously, produced dramatic

monologues, and married someone more famous than him. Even in his poem,

"Memorabilia" instead of remembering Browning, we are remembering P.B. Shelley.

Browning would later in his career get the recognition he deserved but he would

still have trouble being remembered. Throughout the course of writing this

paper, a number of times I forgot I was writing about Browning but instead

thought I was writing about Shelley.


Works Cited


Browning, Robert.  "Memorabilia" in The Longman Anthology British Literature

Volume 2 2nd Edition Damrosch, David (Ed.). New York: Longman, 2003.


Douglas, James. Robert Browning. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1903.


Dowden, Edward. Robert Browning. London: J.M. Dent and Co. 1904.

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