Robert Browning's Heart is
Broken by Jeff Provine
says: we're very pleased to present a new story from Jeff Provine's
excellent blog This
Day in Alternate History Please note that the opinions expressed in this
post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).
Robert Browning was in love in a girl named Elizabeth Barrett. They were
both poets and had been introduced to each other at an informal party,
beginning a relationship from there.
Elizabeth's father did not believe in marriage for his children, and she
had been kept at home as a semi-invalid already 40 years old. Despite
being six years her junior, Robert saw so much more in her and swore his
love. He courted her secretly for over a year, planning to elope with her
and escape to Italy like his hero Percy Shelley. As he proposed, Elizabeth
dreamily agreed, but the fear of her father finally made her turn Robert
away with the poem "It Cannot Be" explaining them as star-crossed lovers
that would never work.
"Elizabeth Barrett\'s father sounds like a sick
tyrant. Did he really not believe in marriage for his kids? That said,
without those two we\'d be out some poetry, and modern literature would
look rather different, but, other than that, not much change. Have you
ever read Robert\'s long poem \"Mr. Sludge, the \'Medium?\'\" He wrote it
because Elizabeth was entranced for a while by a famous \"medium\" and he
thought (correctly, of course) that the guy was a fraud." - reader's
commentBrowning, more brokenhearted than even his own poetic words
could tell, fled London to Italy alone. The Italian landscape revived his
thoughts of the Romantic Poets he had always adored, but now he felt
nothing except betrayal. Letters to Elizabeth showed him filled with rage,
unable to expend it in any useful manner besides writing and destroying
things that were beautiful, which he now found ultimately meaningless.
Most famously, his monologue "What I've Done" told of his burning of
Shelley's works in a bonfire that destroyed his rented Italian cottage.
Fleeing lenders in Italy, Browning came to Germany and continued to write
in what he dubbed "Grunge", a portmanteau of the terms "grubby" and
"dingy," since that was now all he could see in the world.
In 1848, weakened and distraught over her crushing of Robert's love,
Elizabeth died. The news, sent to him by her sister Henrietta, caused
another upheaval in Browning's writing. He turned away from utter
destruction and took aim at the social leaders who seemed "so polished
atop a hill of writhing pain" ("The Generals"). Many critics suspect that
Robert wanted to reawaken interest in Elizabeth's older works on social
responsibility, thus bringing her back to him as well as finding
redemption for turning as hateful as he did.
Browning's poetry gathered a small following, and, after the Crimean War
ended in 1856, many of the growing Nihilist movement became attached to
his rallying hatred rejecting authority and violent demand for change.
Browning accepted an invitation to Russia from a collection of Nihilists
who wanted to translate and set his poetry to violent music involving
drums and fiddles. He stayed in Russia for over a decade before traveling
to the United States to tour the destruction of the South in their Civil
War. In his wake, an American Grunge movement followed among the
disenfranchised young whites.
In 1873, he met with Mark Twain, who had invented a term "The Gilded Age",
which seemed to match Browning's contempt for the beautiful covering what
was so obviously wrong. The meeting did not go well. After a loud roar,
Browning stormed from the restaurant where he had met Twain, and the
American writer explained that he simply could not endorse the unbridled
rage. "Things just aren't that bad," Twain told a reporter from the New
York Times. Browning disagreed and continued to publish rancid poetry that
incited riots during Reconstruction.
Browning would die in 1875 from an overdose of opium and morphine, and his
movement would gradually return to the fringe of society. Anarchists of
the next generation would continue to quote his poetry and emulate him by
wearing trademark dingy plaid overcoats. With the invention of
phonographs, recordings of Grunge music would inspire later generations of
poets such as T.S. Eliot of "Wasteland" fame and Screamy Jazz lyricist and
"singer" Ezra Pound.
says in reality Elizabeth Barrett would agree to marry Robert Browning
despite her father's opposition. They eloped to Italy together, where
Elizabeth grew stronger. Their son Robert Weidemann Barrett Browning
(nicknamed "Pen") was born in 1849. She died in 1861, sorely depressed after
the death of her sister, while Robert would live until 1889, traveling and
writing prolifically in new Romantic form. Both poets would widely influence
the poets of the future such as Eliot, Pound, and Emily Dickinson.
To view guest historian's comments on this post please visit the
Today in Alternate History web site.
Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
Today in Alternate History, a Daily Updating Blog of Important Events In
History That Never Occurred Today. Follow us on
Facebook, Myspace and
Imagine what would be, if history had occurred a bit
differently. Who says it didn't, somewhere? These fictional news items
explore that possibility. Possibilities such as America becoming a Marxist
superpower, aliens influencing human history in the 18th century and Teddy
Roosevelt winning his 3rd term as president abound in this interesting