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Robert Browning | Biography

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Early Life and Education

Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, England, to Robert Browning and Sarah Anna Browning. The elder Robert Browning worked as a bank clerk, and his wife was a professional pianist. Thanks to his mother, young Browning developed a strong appreciation for the arts.

The Browning family had a vast personal library of over 6,000 books, and this collection was the basis of young Robert's education. The library included books in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, as well as many works in French, Italian, and Spanish. Under his father's guidance, by age 14 Browning had learned Greek, Latin, and French. Over the next two years, tutors were hired to teach him music, drawing, and dancing.

Browning attended the University of London briefly in 1828. However, he only spent part of a year there before dropping out and returning home. His family supported his artistic aspirations and supported him financially until 1846.

Marriage

Elizabeth Barrett was already a renowned poet by the time she met Browning in 1845, and she remained far more successful than her husband during their marriage. Barrett taught herself Hebrew and Greek as a child, and by age 12 had written her first book of poetry. Her 1838 poetry collection, The Seraphim and Other Poems, was lauded by critics, who called her a poet of extraordinary skill. Her 1844 collection was even more highly regarded, receiving praise both in England and the United States. It also drew the attention of Browning.

The two met in May 1845, but the bulk of their romance was carried out via written correspondence. Elizabeth's father had told his children they were not allowed to marry, so the courtship between Elizabeth and Robert had to be conducted in secret—as was their marriage on September 12, 1846. After their marriage, the couple moved from London to Florence, Italy, where they resided from 1847–61. Their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, was born in Italy on March 9, 1849.

Browning was not particularly productive in this period. However, Elizabeth released several works, including her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), a collection of love sonnets, and Aurora Leigh (1856), which is a blank-verse novel-length poem. She died in 1861, and Browning and his son returned to England.

Writing Career

Browning's parents paid for the publication of his earliest works, Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840). They also supported him during his foray into playwriting. One of his plays, Strafford (1837), ran for five nights, but was largely unsuccessful.

Browning's productivity and success took place before and after the loss of his wife. Prior to meeting Elizabeth, he wrote Pippa Passes (1841), and two collections of shorter poems, Dramatic Lyrics (1842), and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845). "My Last Duchess" was included in Dramatic Lyrics, as were "Porphyria's Lover" and "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."

Although Browning's Men and Women (1855)—a collection of 51 poems—was not hugely successful at the time, it contains the majority of the works modern readers know best, including "Andrea del Sarto," "Fra Lippo Lippi," and "A Toccata of Galuppi's."

In 1864 Browning published Dramatis Personae. This was his first work to achieve success with the public. Like earlier collections, Dramatis Personae is a collection of dramatic monologues. Browning's success grew even further with his next project. Between the years 1868–69, he wrote The Ring and the Book, the story of a murder trial in 17th-century Italy. The book consisted of 12 dramatic monologues in which each significant character reveals what he or she knows of the crime. The project was extremely well received by the public and critics alike.

In the ensuing decade Browning continued to publish volumes of poetry. He had finally achieved success and earned his place as an important literary figure in society.

Death and Legacy

Browning died on December 12, 1889, at his son's home in Venice, Italy. He is buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.

Browning's legacy stems largely from his development of the dramatic monologue, which was a precursor to the birth of the field of psychology.

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