Answer: Robert Browning is naturally considered a Victorian poet, considering that he wrote during the time period of Victorian England. And yet Browning’s work is simultaneously a revolt against some of the most well-defined aspects of that time, and a reflection of its characteristics.
Victorian England, named after Queen Victoria who was crowned in 1837, is marked by several social qualities: repressed sexuality, strict morality, an expansion of English imperialism, a focus on human inventiveness, and nascent doubt over man’s place in the universe. With the world changing so quickly over the roughly 70 year-period, artists, scholars and scientists created and wrote from a place of unrest. Where perhaps most of them came down strong on one side of the period’s many questions, Browning embraced the uncertainty of his time as a facet of human nature and psychology, and his poetry reflects not strong opinions but rather our tendency to waver between opposing views.
Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Victorian England was its ‘prudish’ attitudes on sex. Operating under the belief that women were not to be consumed with sexual lust, laws and social strictures forced men and women into entirely separate spheres. The hope was that secure, happy families could be created and by default a moral society. Browning’s work takes great issue with such repression. Though he is by not means a libertine, he reflects in many poems the cost of such repression as an equally vicious reaction. Poems like “Porphyria’s Lover” or “Evelyn Hope” show the grotesque side of such assumptions. Further, the class element of this Victorian idea (that women should prepare a nice home for a man’s success) is shown to be equally vicious in poems like “My Last Duchess” and “The Laboratory.”
Browning’s most important poetic message regards the new conditions of urban living. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the once-rural British population had become centered in large cities, thanks to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. With so many people living in such close quarters, poverty, violence, and sex became part of everyday life. People felt fewer restrictions on their behavior, no longer facing the fear of non-acceptance that they had faced in smaller communities; people could act in total anonymity, without any monitoring by acquaintances or small-town busybodies. However, while the absence of family and community ties meant new-found personal independence, it also meant the loss of a social safety net.
Thus for many city-dwellers, a sense of freedom mixed with a sense of insecurity. The mid-nineteenth century also saw the rapid growth of newspapers, which functioned not as the current-events journals of today but as scandal sheets, filled with stories of violence and carnality. Hurrying pedestrians, bustling shops, and brand-new goods filled the streets, and individuals had to take in millions of separate perceptions a minute. The resulting over stimulation led, according to many theorists, to a sort of numbness. Many writers now felt that in order to provoke an emotional reaction they had to compete with the turmoil’s and excitements of everyday life had to shock their audience in ever more novel and sensational ways. Thus violence became a sort of aesthetic choice for many writers, among them Robert Browning. In many of his poems, violence, along with sex, becomes the symbol of the modern urban-dwelling condition. Many of Browning’s more disturbing poems, including “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” reflect this notion.
This apparent moral decay of Victorian society, coupled with an ebbing of interest in religion, led to a morally conservative backlash. So-called Victorian prudery arose as an attempt to rein in something that was seen as out- of-control, an attempt to bring things back to the way they once were. Thus everything came under moral scrutiny, even art and literature. Many of Browning’s poems, which often feature painters and other artists, try to work out the proper relationship between art and morality: Should art have a moral message? Can art be immoral? Are aesthetics and ethics inherently contradictory aims? These are all questions with which Browning’s poetry struggles. The new findings of science, most notably evolution, posed further challenges to traditional religious ideas, suggesting that empiricism—the careful recording of observable details—could serve as a more relevant basis for human endeavor, whether intellectual or artistic.
Though Browning was not explicitly a political poet, his work does reflect doubts in the supremacy of England as Victorianism saw it. Consider poems like “Caliban upon Setebos,” which proffer the thesis that we are all of us flawed creatures who know nothing of anyone save ourselves. The argument implicitly counters the Social Darwinist ideas that justified England’s extreme imperialism.
The Victorian period followed directly what is known as the “Romantic period,” during which poets explored the concepts of individuality as a key to transcendence. Browning, as a great admirer of the movement’s best writers – Shelley and Coleridge among them – certainly never went full-fledged into Romanticism, but did recognize the power of hope and beauty that comes from self-knowledge and self-exploration. As such, he did not entirely accept that these doubts led to pessimism, though he did empathize with such pessimism, as seen in “Caliban upon Setebos.”
All in all, Browning was a man of his time, both in the way he reflected the new Victorian learning and questioned some its assumptions on morality and behavior.