Anniversary: Happy bicentennial, Robert Browning!

MONDAY, MAY 7: Having just helped the world celebrate Charles Dickens’ bicentennial, we can’t ignore the 200th birhday of Dickens’ friend and compatriot, Robert Browning. (Care to look back to our Dickens’ coverage? In Part 1, we marked the anniversary. In Part 2, we published an overview of the best recent Dickens’ apps and books.)

Unfortunately, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Browning anniversary party anywhere, a fact that at least a few British commentators are bemoaning. So, why even note his birthday here?

Browning is most famous for marrying and freeing Elizabeth Barrett. Already a famous poet in his own right, Browning fell in love with the poet Elizabeth Barrett even though she was an invalid and was forbidden to marry by her overly controlling father. Their secretly conducted courtship and eventual marriage freed Elizabeth to publish some of her best work—and Robert published even more of her poetry after her death. Without Robert’s strong encouragement, it’s fair to say that Elizabeth wouldn’t have had her considerable influence on world literature.

Their love became a movie, several times over. Although none of the versions have been re-released for Browning’s bicentennial—surely a missed opportunity—there were two classic Hollywood versions and a BBC made-for-TV version in the 1980s. All were titled, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.”

Robert Browning popularized the Pied Piper. The 500-year-old fairy tale was retold by Goethe and the Grimm brothers, but it was Robert Browning and the dazzling illustrator Kate Greenaway who brought the tale into children’s bedrooms across Britain and around the English-speaking world.

Want Browning for free? Project Gutenberg has an online version of the Browning-Greenaway book. Gutenberg also offers other  Browning works that are free for e-readers. If you own a Kindle, Amazon’s Kindle store provides most of Browning’s work either free or at very low cost.
Warning: Browning’s friends had yet to encounter the complex world of 20th-Century poetry. In their era, they liked to joke about the complexity of his verse. Many claimed they couldn’t understand it.

Great lines from Robert Browning on his Centennial

In his prime, Browning was celebrated by other great writers for turning such phrases in his verse as: “The truth is within ourselves;” and “What Youth deemed crystal, Age finds out was dew;” and “God is the perfect poet, Who in his person acts his own creations.”

For all of his infamous complexity, he also rendered crystal clear images like this:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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