Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 12, 1846 – Robert Browning's Heart is Broken

Robert Browning was in love in a girl named Elizabeth Barrett. They were both poets and had been introduced to each other at an informal party, beginning a relationship from there. Elizabeth's father did not believe in marriage for his children, and she had been kept at home as a semi-invalid already 40 years old. Despite being six years her junior, Robert saw so much more in her and swore his love. He courted her secretly for over a year, planning to elope with her and escape to Italy like his hero Percy Shelley. As he proposed, Elizabeth dreamily agreed, but the fear of her father finally made her turn Robert away with the poem “It Cannot Be” explaining them as star-crossed lovers that would never work.

Browning, more brokenhearted than even his own poetic words could tell, fled London to Italy alone. The Italian landscape revived his thoughts of the Romantic Poets he had always adored, but now he felt nothing except betrayal. Letters to Elizabeth showed him filled with rage, unable to expend it in any useful manner besides writing and destroying things that were beautiful, which he now found ultimately meaningless. Most famously, his monologue “What I've Done” told of his burning of Shelley's works in a bonfire that destroyed his rented Italian cottage. Fleeing lenders in Italy, Browning came to Germany and continued to write in what he dubbed “Grunge”, a portmanteau of the terms “grubby” and “dingy,” since that was now all he could see in the world.

In 1848, weakened and distraught over her crushing of Robert's love, Elizabeth died. The news, sent to him by her sister Henrietta, caused another upheaval in Browning's writing. He turned away from utter destruction and took aim at the social leaders who seemed “so polished atop a hill of writhing pain” (“The Generals”). Many critics suspect that Robert wanted to reawaken interest in Elizabeth's older works on social responsibility, thus bringing her back to him as well as finding redemption for turning as hateful as he did.

Browning's poetry gathered a small following, and, after the Crimean War ended in 1856, many of the growing Nihilist movement became attached to his rallying hatred rejecting authority and violent demand for change. Browning accepted an invitation to Russia from a collection of Nihilists who wanted to translate and set his poetry to violent music involving drums and fiddles. He stayed in Russia for over a decade before traveling to the United States to tour the destruction of the South in their Civil War. In his wake, an American Grunge movement followed among the disenfranchised young whites.

In 1873, he met with Mark Twain, who had invented a term “The Gilded Age”, which seemed to match Browning's contempt for the beautiful covering what was so obviously wrong. The meeting did not go well. After a loud roar, Browning stormed from the restaurant where he had met Twain, and the American writer explained that he simply could not endorse the unbridled rage. “Things just aren't that bad,” Twain told a reporter from the New York Times. Browning disagreed and continued to publish rancid poetry that incited riots during Reconstruction.

Browning would die in 1875 from an overdose of opium and morphine, and his movement would gradually return to the fringe of society. Anarchists of the next generation would continue to quote his poetry and emulate him by wearing trademark dingy plaid overcoats. With the invention of phonographs, recordings of Grunge music would inspire later generations of poets such as T.S. Eliot of “Wasteland” fame and Screamy Jazz lyricist and “singer” Ezra Pound.

In reality, Elizabeth Barrett would agree to marry Robert Browning despite her father's opposition. They eloped to Italy together, where Elizabeth grew stronger. Their son Robert Weidemann Barrett Browning (nicknamed “Pen”) was born in 1849. She died in 1861, sorely depressed after the death of her sister, while Robert would live until 1889, traveling and writing prolifically in new Romantic form. Both poets would widely influence the poets of the future such as Eliot, Pound, and Emily Dickinson.

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