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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Browning versions

Robert Browning by Steve Hunisett, under a Creative Commons licence

It’s shaping up to be a year of bicentenaries. We’ve already had two – Charles Dickens and Edward Lear – and now we have our third. Robert Browning was born on 7 May, 1812, and the centuries have not dimmed his position as one of the titans of Victorian poetry. The story of his life is well known, particularly his romance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That affair has been the subject of a play and film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and a Booker Prize-winning novel, A S Byatt’s Possession. Less well remembered is Robert and Elizabeth, a musical with music by Ron Grainer and book and lyrics by Ronald Millar. Below, a SPL staff member remembers going to see it:

Escape me?
Never –
Beloved!
While I am I, and you are you …

It is 1965, and these lines from Robert Browning’s poem ‘Life in a Love’ are thrilling my 15-year-old self. Forget swinging London, the Beatles and the Stones  – it is the musical show Robert and Elizabeth which has me in thrall. Keith Michell’s voice still echoes, and I positively am June Bronhill’s passionate Elizabeth Barrett, with her yard-wide skirts, about to be swept up in the great romance of her life. I suppose you don’t have to have a crush on Keith Michell to find your way to Browning’s poetry, but at the age of 15, it helped. There was a great deal of energy in the show, reflecting the spirit of the man and his life, and enough of Browning’s own words in the lyrics to make them memorable. Few women would not be wooed off their invalid’s couch by his love lines.

In her introduction to the Folio edition of Browning’s dramatic monologues, A. S. Byatt says:

He is, in my view, one of the three great English love poets (the other two are Donne and Robert Graves) because, like them, he shows a precise curiosity about the psychological dramas of love’s shifts, visions and failures, and also because, again like them, he sees women as complex human beings with their own minds and desires, and hopes for dialogue.

‘Hopes for dialogue’! That’s the telling phrase. How much must Elizabeth Barrett, in her confinement, have appreciated a good talk (and exchange of letters) with a man who was on her own wavelength, and when that dialogue became love – ah, but I’m back to the realms of soprano trilling.

On Browning’s bicentenary, perhaps it’s time to look at the real man and his poems again (but a revival of that musical would be fun!).

Category: Robert Browning