Today is the birthday of Robert Browning. In his lifetime, he was more famous as the husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. By the time I was in undergraduate school, in the mid-80's, she was barely mentioned, and he was the important Victorian poet. By the time I was finishing grad school in 1992, there was an explosion of feminist scholarship exploring her work.
When I was younger, I might have spent countless hours arguing which poet was more important--and I could argue either side. As I get older, I'm more fascinated by the biographical elements.
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett eloped in 1846. What a thrilling story. She was older and more established. He wrote her a fan letter. They exchanged what seems today to be an extraordinary number of letters--although if you look at the writing habits of nineteenth century British people, authors and non-authors alike, it's clear that the nineteenth century may well prove to have been a golden age of letter writing, despite the high postal rates of the time. She was a semi-invalid. That fact did not deter him. He spirited her away, they married, and they moved to Italy, where they each wrote some of their most important works. She died in his arms.
For people who assure us that marriage, parenthood, or any human relationship ruins creativity, the story of the Brownings can provide comfort. Would Elizabeth Barrett Browning have written her impressive Aurora Leigh without that marriage? Would Robert Browning have done as much with the dramatic monologue without her encouragement? What would civilization look like without the line: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"?
When I taught Victorian poetry, it's interesting that students found the works of both writers, along with Christina Rossetti, the most accessible, the most appealing to twenty-first century readers. My students couldn't make sense of writers like Tennyson, who has enjoyed much more critical and scholarly acclaim. But they loved the work of Robert Browning, with his strange characters and their dramatic monologues.
So today, in honor of Robert Browning, write a dramatic monologue or two. An assignment that works well in my creative writing classes has also worked well for me, when I find myself feeling dried up and out of ideas.
Take a fairy tale or myth and write from the perspective of one of the characters. Or follow the narrative out 20 or 30 years: what happens after the happily ever after? What does Cinderella think as she holds her first grandchild?
I like the dramatic monologue because it gets my students out of themselves. Many students approach poetry writing with a tendency to make the poems too focused on their own lives and experiences. A fairy tale gives them a different soil in which to root their interests.
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