Above: The street name is a reminder of Rainbow Cottage where Browning was born.
Yes, you are reading that correctly – Robert Browning (7 May 1812 – 12 December 1889), the English poet and playwright, whose mastery of dramatic verse made him one of the foremost Victorian poets, grew up in the parish of Camberwell.
Robert Browning was born in Rainbow Cottage, Cottage Green, just off Southampton Way, in the parish of Camberwell, Surrey (which now forms part of the London Borough of Southwark). He was the only son of Sarah Anna and Robert Browning (Senior). Just a few weeks old, Robert was baptised on 14 June 1812, at Lock’s Fields Independent Chapel, York Street, Walworth, a short distance away.
Sadly Rainbow Cottage is long gone and Cottage Green, although it is the name of a bus stop, is not quite as green as it was when Browning was born.
Above: A stone plaque situated between two small shops in Southampton Way, a short distance from Browning’s birthplace. The picture shows a slide taken in the 1970s. Who placed it on the wall is not known and today it is very hard to read due to erosion.
Above: The London Borough of Southwark have placed another modern plaque on the building, a little higher up the wall.
Above: A general view of the north side of Southampton Way. It is just possible to see the stone plaque (at head-height on the left of the dry cleaners) as well as the blue one (above the same shop front).
A plaque on the wall of a shop at the corner of Coleman Road and Southampton Way marks the site of Hanover Cottage where Browning lived with his parents from 1824 until 1840, when he was 28 years old.
Robert’s father was a well-paid clerk for the Bank of England, earning about £150 per year which in today’s money would amount to a very good salary. The father was a literary collector who amassed a library of around 6,000 books, many of them rare. Browning was therefore raised in a household of significant literary resources. Browning’s mother, with whom he was very close, was a devout non-conformist and a talented musician.
Robert Browning had one younger sister, Sarianna. She was also gifted. After the death of Robert’s wife, in 1861, Sariana became her brother’s companion in his later years.
By the age of twelve, Browning had written a book of poetry which he later destroyed when no publisher could be found. After attending one or two private schools, including Milner’s Academy, in Peckham, he showed a great disliking for school life. He was then educated at home by a tutor, using the resources of his father’s extensive library. By the age of fourteen he was fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin. He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley.
At the age of sixteen Browning studied Greek at University College London but left after his first year. His parents’ staunch evangelical faith prevented his studying at either Oxford or Cambridge University – which only admitted students who were members of the Church of England.
Robert Browning’s early career began promisingly, but was not a success. The long poem ‘Pauline’ brought him to the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. That poem was followed by ‘Paracelsus’ which was praised by Wordsworth and Dickens. In 1840 the difficult poem ‘Sordello’, which was seen as wilfully obscure, brought his poetry into disrepute. His reputation took more than a decade to recover, during which time he moved away from the Shelleyan forms of his early period and developed a more personal style.
Browning refused a formal career and ignored his parent’s remonstrations, dedicating himself to poetry. He stayed at home until the age of 34, financially dependent on his family until his marriage. His father sponsored the publication of his son’s poems.
In 1845 Browning met the poet Elizabeth Barrett, six years his elder, who lived as a semi-invalid in her father’s house in Wimpole Street. They began to correspond regularly and gradually a romance developed between them, leading to their marriage and journey to Italy (for Elizabeth’s health) on 12 September 1846. They lived at first in Pisa and then in Florence. Their only child, also called Robert (nicknamed ‘Pen’), was born in 1849.
So started one of history’s most famous literary marriages. By the time of Elizabeth’s death, in 1861, Robert had published the crucial collection ‘Men and Women’. The collection ‘Dramatis Personae’ and the book-length epic poem ‘The Ring and the Book’ followed, and made him a leading British poet. He continued to write prolifically, but today it is largely the poetry he had written in this middle period on which his reputation rests.
When Browning died in 1889, he was regarded as a sage and philosopher-poet who, through his poetry, had made contributions to Victorian social and political discourse – as in the poem ‘Caliban upon Setebos’ which some critics have seen as a comment on (what was then) a recent theory of evolution.