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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 2. The influence upon him of Byron and Shelley

The Contribution made by school and college to the education of Browning was even less significant than it has been in the case of most great poets. His real masters, besides his father and his father’s library in general, were the poets, and especially Byron and Shelley. “The first composition I was ever guilty of,” he wrote to Elizabeth Barrett in 1846, “was something in imitation of Ossian.” But he never could “recollect not writing rhymes,” though he “knew they were nonsense even then.” “It is not surprising,” says Herford, “that a boy of these proclivities was captivated by the stormy swing and sweep of Byron,” and that, as the poet told Elizabeth Barrett, he “would have gone to Finchley to see a curl of his hair or one of his gloves”; whereas he “could not get up enthusiasm enough to cross the room if at the other end of it all Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey were condensed into the little China bottle yonder.” When he was twelve years of age, a collection under the title Incondita was made of his “Byronic poems,” and the father would have liked to publish it. No publisher was found willing, and the young author destroyed the manuscript. But the poems had been seen by Eliza Flower (sister of the authoress of the hymn Nearer, my God, to Thee), who made a copy of them and showed it to W. J. Fox, editor of The Monthly Repository. According to Browning’s statement to Gosse, the editor found in them “too great splendour of language and too little wealth of thought,” but, also, a “mellifluous smoothness”; and Fox did not forget the boy-poet.

Browning next passed under an influence which was still more inspiring and intimate. He chanced upon Shelley’s Queen Mab on a bookstall, and became, in consequence of assimilating it, “a professing atheist and a practising vegetarian.” With some difficulty, his mother secured for him others of “Mr. Shelley’s atheistical poems”; and, apparently, through Adonais, he was led to Keats. In the winter of 1829–30, he attended classes in Greek and Latin, and, for a very short time, in German, at University College, London; and, afterwards, Blundell’s lectures in medicine, at Guy’s hospital. Meantime, he carried on his studies in music, and sang, danced, boxed and rode.

This, if any, was his period of Sturm und Drang—during which, by the way, he lived on potatoes and bread! He chafed a little at the social limitations of the home he loved well, and he gave his devoted parents a little entirely needless anxiety: his temperament was buoyant, his soul like a ship crowded with sails, and he was a venturesome mariner. But his wanderings were of the imagination, and his “excesses” were literary both in origin and in outcome. In truth, all the time, he was living within the bounds, nay, drawing his strength and his inspiration from those convictions of the stable things of the world of spirit in the power of which he went forth, in later days, to challenge, in every form of joust and tournament and in many an adventure, the forces of doubt and falsehood and denial and crime. He had not to suffer in his later life from any treacherous aches of half-forgotten wounds to character, but faced life sound in every limb and (one is tempted to add) arrogantly healthy.