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Hi. It’s Robert Browning. Remember me?
Of course we do! It’s your birthday, right?
Has any other leading author been so regular an object of mockery? Even Henry James could not resist it, reporting after a reading by [Browning] that it was comforting that “if you don’t understand [his poems], he himself apparently understands them even less”. Max Beerbohm sent him up in a story and a cartoon, the first about a mutually uncomprehending encounter with Ibsen, the second showing him uncomfortable amid his worshippers, a prisoner of the Browningites.
Punch lampooned him as inescapably a Victorian gentleman, but living out a fantasy of being Italian. In Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of the dog that belonged to his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, his most memorable appearance involves being bitten by the protagonist. This tradition may partly explain why the bicentenary of Browning’s birth, which falls on 7 May, is being marked in so muted a fashion – even a ceremony honouring him at Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner is not taking place until December, as if fans are sulking at the extent to which his big year has been overshadowed by the Charles Dickens celebrations that began last autumn and are still continuing.
Your readers may be interested to know that the bicentenary of Browning’s birth was celebrated on 16 April at Kings Place, London, in a programme dedicated to “the Pied Piper of Hamelin”. And an evensong will be held at St Marylebone Parish Church on Sunday 13 May at 5pm, to commemorate the occasion and will include an address by Margaret Reynolds as well as the re-dedication of the altar before which Browning and Elizabeth Barrett were married in that church. Furthermore, Browning’s connections with Oxford will be examined during a presentation at Balliol College in September. And for the academic community, conferences have been scheduled on both sides of the Atlantic for later this year (28–30 June and 1–3 November). In fact, the UK conference will focus on a reassessment of the dramatic monologue, which poetic form Browning mastered if not invented. Details for these events can be found at www.browningsociety.org. Mr Dugdale is quite right that there is much about Browning’s life to celebrate. Hopefully he would agree that these events are a fitting tribute to a poetic career that continues to inspire many.