Apart from his two essays discussed in Chapter 1 and some prefaces to earlier works, Browning was reluctant to spell out his aesthetics. However, there are a number of poems that can be said to convey his views on poetry and art in general. This chapter presents criticism which attempts to explicate Browning’s aesthetics by drawing on his poetry. It opens with a consideration of Browning’s realism, which is perhaps the most striking and unpoetic feature of his work. Descriptions of his poetry as realism by Walter Bagehot and John Woolford are contrasted with E. Warwick Slinn’s more fundamental questioning of realist aesthetics. Browning’s realism is frequently described as a consequence of his interest in the grotesque, and this issue is covered in the next section. Browning’s grotesque is judged very differently – negatively by his early critics Bagehot and George Santayana, and much more sympathetically and analytically by the modern scholars Woolford and Isobel Armstrong. Another section focuses on Browning’s famous painter poems, which not only express conflicting views on pictorial art but are also read as veiled discussion of Browning’s poetics. Here, as in the previous section, we can see Browning participating in contemporary debates about aesthetics which also have important political and religious dimensions. These aspects are revealed by David DeLaura’s analysis, whereas Laurence Lerner tries to account for contradictions in the aesthetic statements in different painter poems. Finally, the chapter also gives insights into other ways of reading the painter poems, focusing on a psychoanalytical reading championed by Harold Bloom and refuted by Lerner and a Marxist reading by Loy D. Martin. Realism Oscar Wilde, in his characteristically witty style, once described Browning in terms with which many Victorian critics would have agreed.
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