Alongside Alfred (Lord) Tennyson (1809–92), Robert Browning (1812–89) is the most famous and most frequently studied Victorian poet, valued for his acute psychological insights, engagement with key Victorian concerns and poetic innovation. However, unlike Tennyson, the son of an Anglican clergyman who took the conventional route of studying at Cambridge and later became Poet Laureate (1850–92), writing poetry which reflected the concerns and sensibilities of the nation, Browning is a strangely marginal figure. His poetry seems less immediately accessible than Tennyson’s – hence the arguable usefulness of a critical guide such as this. He spent much of his life abroad – a fact which is reflected in the themes of his poetry – and his background and interests were not exactly mainstream. This introductory chapter will provide a brief outline of his life and major works, followed by an overview of his changing critical fortunes and a summary of the chapters that follow. Life and Work Browning was born in 1812 in the South London suburb of Camberwell, the son of an imaginative and book-loving father who had been obliged to pursue a career as a clerk at the Bank of England but who made sure his son could have the kind of gentleman’s life he could not indulge in himself. The young Browning was educated privately, and the sometimes esoteric references and allusions in his poetry result in part from the independent reading he undertook in his father’s eclectic library.
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