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Robert Browning's pre-eminent status amongst Victorian poets has endured despite the recent broadening of the literary canon. He is the main practitioner of the period's most important poetic genre, the dramatic monologue, while his engagement with many aspects of nineteenth-century culture makes him a key figure in the wider field of Victorian studies.

This stimulating introduction to Browning criticism provides an overview of the major responses to the poet’s work over the last two hundred years. It offers an insightful guide to criticism from various theoretical perspectives, elucidating Browning’s participation in Victorian debates about aesthetics, history, politics, religion, gender and psychology.

Table of Contents

Changing Per spectives in Browning Criticism

Abstract
Alongside Alfred (Lord) Tennyson (1809–92), Robert Browning (1812–89) is the most famous and most frequently studied Victorian poet, valued for his acute psychological insights, engagement with key Victorian concerns and poetic innovation. However, unlike Tennyson, the son of an Anglican clergyman who took the conventional route of studying at Cambridge and later became Poet Laureate (1850–92), writing poetry which reflected the concerns and sensibilities of the nation, Browning is a strangely marginal figure. His poetry seems less immediately accessible than Tennyson’s – hence the arguable usefulness of a critical guide such as this. He spent much of his life abroad – a fact which is reflected in the themes of his poetry – and his background and interests were not exactly mainstream. This introductory chapter will provide a brief outline of his life and major works, followed by an overview of his changing critical fortunes and a summary of the chapters that follow. Life and Work Browning was born in 1812 in the South London suburb of Camberwell, the son of an imaginative and book-loving father who had been obliged to pursue a career as a clerk at the Bank of England but who made sure his son could have the kind of gentleman’s life he could not indulge in himself. The young Browning was educated privately, and the sometimes esoteric references and allusions in his poetry result in part from the independent reading he undertook in his father’s eclectic library.
Britta Martens

1. Romanticism: Browning and Shelley

Abstract
This chapter and the one that follows discuss criticism on Browning’s poetry in relation to the Romantic poetry which dominated the literary scene during his youth and fashioned literary taste well into his maturity. The chapter opens with a consideration of Browning’s own critical writings in which he seems to define his poetics in opposition to Romanticism and proposes a narrative about the historical development from one literary period to the next. Opposing critical views by Philip Drew and Thomas J. Collins are presented on whether Browning is, in his own terminology, an impersonal ‘objective’ poet or whether he strives for an ideal that incorporates elements of Romantic poetics. The chapter then examines Browning’s statements about the need to move beyond an imitation of literary predecessors and explores how critics have applied these to Browning’s early work, especially in relation to the hero of his youth, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Interpretations by John Maynard and William Clyde DeVane (1898–1965) of Browning’s first publication, Pauline (1833), as an autobiographical record of his early emulation of Shelley, are juxtaposed with a reading by Herbert F. Tucker, who sees the poem as already signalling Browning’s overcoming of Romanticism. This is followed by Michael G. Yetman’s analysis of Sordello (1840) as the text in which Browning frees himself of Shelley’s influence. The next section considers Harold Bloom’s scrutiny of Browning’s attitude towards Shelley to illustrate his famous ‘psychopoetic’ theory of the ‘anxiety of influence’. Logical starting points for the study of any author are their early reading, their first literary endeavours and the literary influences which they either adopt or reject.
Britta Martens

2. Romanticism: Debt and Defiance

Abstract
This chapter extends the survey of criticism about Browning’s complex relationship with Romanticism that is so crucial to understanding his work. Much of the criticism covered here situates itself, either explicitly or implicitly, in relation to Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence as discussed in Chapter 1, either by adopting aspects of it or by suggesting alternatives. The first section on Browning and Wordsworth contrasts a Bloomian reading by John Haydn Baker with one by Lawrence Kramer which locates the intertextual dialogue between two poems in the wider context of Victorian revisions of Romantic textual strategies. This is followed by an analysis of Browning’s poetry in terms of the paradigm of Romantic irony by Clyde de L. Ryals and Patricia Diane Rigg. Competing interpretations of Browning’s aesthetics as explained either through the literary-historical context of Romanticism or through the perspective of modern theory also characterise criticism on his ideal of the imperfect, as demonstrated by Catherine Maxwell’s reference to the Romantic sublime and Herbert Tucker’s deconstructive reading of the same concept. Closely combining historical and modern approaches, David E. Latané situates Browning in relation to Romantic elitist poetics but also draws on twentieth-century reader-response theory. The chapter closes with Britta Martens’ discussion of Browning’s dramatised confrontation with Romantic self-expression in the poems in his own voice. Browning and Wordsworth: More Anxiety? Shelley might have been a huge influence on Browning and other Victorian poets, but William Wordsworth, who became Poet Laureate in 1843, was certainly the most popular Romantic poet among the general public.
Britta Martens

3. The Dramatic Monologue: Form and the Reader

Abstract
Not only has Browning (together with Tennyson) been credited with inventing the dramatic monologue, the most important poetic genre of the Victorian period, his poems are also the main influence on the many dramatic monologues that were produced in the second half of the nineteenth century, and they are the prime texts on which definitions and analyses of this genre are based.1 After some formal definitions of the genre by Ina Beth Sessions, Michael Mason, Alan Sinfield and Philip Drew, this chapter considers the most influential, reader-centred definition of the genre by Robert Langbaum, which most later critics use as a point of reference. This is followed by critiques of Langbaum’s theory from three very different positions: E. Warwick Slinn’s reading of the dramatic monologue as a process of creating a fictional identity, Ralph Rader’s focus on the monologue’s poetic form and Cynthia Scheinberg’s feminist approach. Another two sections examine the dramatic monologue as a fictional act of communication. The first of these considers the importance of the audience both of the poem and in the poem in the work of John Maynard, Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, Dorothy Mermin and Lee Erickson. The second presents analyses of the genre in terms of speech act theory by Cornelia D. Pearsall and Slinn. Defining the Genre As A. Dwight Culler reminds us in his article about the genre, the term ‘dramatic monologue’ only began to be used over two decades after Browning and Tennyson had started to write dramatic monologues in the 1830s. Browning himself never used the term, although he did repeatedly label his poetry as ‘dramatic’, most famously in his ‘Advertisement’ to Dramatic Lyrics (1842), where he defines the collection as ‘“Dramatic pieces”;
Britta Martens

4. The Dramatic Monologue: Causes and Context

Abstract
Whereas the emphasis of the previous chapter was on the formal features of the dramatic monologue, on considerations of the genre as a communicative act and especially on Langbaum’s generalised reading experience, this chapter focuses on the dramatic monologue within its historical and literary contexts. After a brief overview of suggestions for the dramatic monologue’s generic predecessors, the second section of the chapter identifies those cultural and literary factors that led Browning and other Victorians to develop the genre. It covers Isobel Armstrong’s influential concept of the ‘Victorian double poem’, J. Hillis Miller’s interpretation of the genre as Browning’s response to the Victorian Crisis of Faith, Loy D. Martin’s Marxist reading and Britta Martens’ analysis of the genre in relation to social changes and other prose genres. The third section focuses on research which positions the genre more specifically with regard to the developing discipline of psychology. Ekbert Faas, Michael Mason, Ellen O’Brien and Barry L. Popowich read the dramatic monologues about extreme mental states as applying ideas from contemporary psychiatry. Finally, Gregory Tate analyses Browning’s portrayal of thought processes in relation to Victorian concepts of the human mind. Generic Predecessors Many critics have investigated the reasons why Browning and other poets of the period developed the dramatic monologue. One approach to the question is to identify its generic predecessors. The most rigorous example of this is Benjamin Willis Fuson’s Browning and His English Predecessors in the Dramatic Monolog [sic] (1948).
Britta Martens

5. Aesthetics: Realism and the Grotesque

Abstract
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.
Britta Martens

6. Love and Gender Relations

Abstract
The fact that Browning called what is now his most famous collection Men and Women (1855) is an indication of how central issues of gender are to his poetry. The role of women is indeed key to many of his best-known poems. Moreover, the genre of the dramatic monologue, which allows male poets to adopt the voices of female speakers, gives Browning ample opportunity to explore his perception, as it were, of the woman’s perspective. It is therefore not surprising that Browning’s work has received a level of attention from feminist critics that is often only accorded to female authors. This chapter presents the most important evaluations of his portrayal of both women and men, of gender relations and his concept of love. The first section examines the intertextual relations between Browning and the most influential (female) poet for him, his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A brief insight into biographical readings of his love poetry by Betty Miller, William Clyde DeVane and Daniel Karlin is followed by Corinne Davies’ discussion of specific poems by Robert as influenced by or echoing Elizabeth’s poetics. Contrasting with these interpretations is Nina Auerbach’s thesis that a patriarchal Browning tried to dominate Elizabeth through his poetry. Criticism by Karlin and Isobel Armstrong in the next section offers explanations for the frequent representation of unhappy love relationships in Browning’s poetry. The chapter then turns to the most contentious aspect of gender relations in Browning, the critical disagreement over whether his representations of suffering females make him a defender or a critic of patriarchy.
Britta Martens

7. Historical and Geographical Distancing

Abstract
Although Browning is considered a quintessentially Victorian author, many of his poems are set in earlier historical periods or foreign locations, especially Italy, where he spent most of the fifteen years of his marriage. This chapter presents criticism that assesses the implications of Browning’s choices to use historical and geographical distancing. The first section considers historical poems of a particular type: those about biblical characters which engage with a new school of biblical criticism, the so-called Higher Criticism. William O. Raymond’s assertion that Browning completely rejected the methods and findings of Higher Criticism is contrasted with Elinor Shaffer’s demonstration of how Browning accepted the Higher Critics’ contentions but still managed to maintain his belief. The second section focuses on discussions of Browning’s concept of historical poetry. Mary Ellis Gibson defines him as a contextual historian, whereas Morse Peckham and Hilary Fraser consider him as responding to developments in nineteenth-century historiography, relating his historical poetry to different theoretical schools. Like Fraser, Stefan Hawlin discusses the political and religious motives for Browning’s celebration of the Italian Renaissance. Hawlin’s essay links up with the chapter’s other section about Browning’s Italian poems, which give an insight not only into his view of the Italians but also into his conceptualisation of English national identity.
Britta Martens

Conclusion Browning at 200 and Beyond

Abstract
This Reader’s Guide has provided an overview of the main critical preoccupations in Browning studies up to and beyond his Bicentenary in 2012. Browning’s crucial historical position as an innovator responding to the overpowering Romantic tradition, his dominance in the genre of the dramatic monologue, his discussion of aesthetics, and his engagement with contemporary Victorian debates about issues such as gender, politics and national identity or developments in historiography and biblical scholarship have been highlighted as major areas of critical analysis.
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