Robert Browning was the son of a well-to-do clerk in the Bank of England. He was educated by private tutors and from his own reading in his father's library and elsewhere. Browning's first publication was Pauline (1833). The work made no stir at all. The following year Browning went to St. Petersburg and from there to Italy. On his return to England in 1835 he published Paracelsus, a dramatic poem based on the life of the fifteenth-century magician and alchemist. Browning next attempted a play. Strafford was the first of the poet's dramatic failures; it ran only five nights at Covent Garden in 1836. An obscure and difficult poem, Sordello, appeared in 1840. It did a great deal toward giving Browning a reputation for being unintelligible and for limiting the circles of his readers. The most important event in Browning's life occurred in 1846, when he married Elizabeth Barrett. The marriage brought a new lightness and openness of voice to Browning's verse during the next 21 years, resulting in the great dramatic monologues of Men and Women in 1855 and the epic The Ring and the Book in 1867. It is not that these are the most beautiful poems of the Victorian Age, but they are the most perceptive; they reveal more clearly the men and women who speak the monologues, and the poet who conceived them, than any comparable works of the century. In the last two decades of his life Browning produced only a few great poems but much were grotesque and fantastic. He turned, too, to translations and transcriptions from the Greek tragedies; in spite of some powerful passages, these were not highly successful Robert Browning died in Italy in 1889. His body lies in Westminster Abbey.
Elizabeth Barrett was born in Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England, in 1806. Most of her childhood was spent on her father's estate, reading the classics and writing poetry. An injury to her spine when she was fifteen, the shock of her brother's death by drowning in 1840 and an ogre-like father made her life dark. But she read and wrote, and no little volume of verse ever produced a richer return than her Poems of 1844. Robert Browning read the poems, liked them, and came to her rescue like Prince Charming in the fairy story. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were married on September 12, 1846. Barrett Browning's enduring fame has rested on two works-Poems (1850), containing Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Aurora Leigh (1857). The former is a celebration of woman as man's other half and the latter is a celebration of woman's potential to stand on her own. During the Edwardian and later periods, it was Sonnets from the Portuguese that embodied Barrett Browning. Since the rise of feminism, it has been Aurora Leigh. More recently, a third side of Barrett Browning has been revealed: the incisive critical and political commentator, seen in her letters. Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence, Italy, in 1861.
Peter Washington has edited several Pocket Poets, including Love Poems, Friendship Poems, Love Letters, and The Roman Poets.