Browning, Victorian Poetics and the Romantic Legacy: Challenging the Personal Voice

February 9, 2012

Robert Browning remains an important standard against which other dramatic poets are measured. We recognise Browning primarily for the dramatic monologue, a poetic form that lends itself well to exercises in memory and oral delivery. I have a colleague who performs as the voice of Browning's Spanish cloister monk and another, now retired, who was a formidable Duke of Ferrara. Browning is often thought to have retreated into dramatic poetry in response to criticism of his introspective Romanticism in his early work, particularly the confessional poem Pauline. However, in one of the few book-length studies of Browning published in the past two decades, Britta Martens challenges this assumption and demonstrates that Browning worked from the outset to formulate his poetics in increasingly sophisticated poetry that reflects the tension between a younger, Romantic Browning and the mature poet who attempts to reject his Romanticist impulses but never completely succeeds in doing so.

This book comes at a time when academics have been working on recovering 19th-century poets who more or less disappeared during the 20th century - women poets, homosexual and lesbian poets, poets of the fin de siècle and poets attached to late-century movements such as aestheticism. The irony of our relegation of poets such as Browning to the margins in our quest to reverse the limitations of T.S. Eliot's exclusionary "canon" underscores the degree to which academics and casual aficionados of Browning alike will welcome this examination of Browning's perspective on poetry, on the subtle distinction between the poet-author and the poet-speaker, and on the development of modern poetics.

Admittedly, this is primarily an academic book by virtue of its nuanced focus on Browning's lesser-known, "more taxing" poems and by virtue of its meticulous documentation of the critical context and climate in which Martens writes. She offers close reading of some lyrics with which a generalist reader might be familiar, but she is most interested in the poetry that was not popular in Browning's time and that has traditionally been omitted from academic studies and from classroom experiences. On the other hand, she discusses Browning's poetic dialogue with his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and she considers the poet-speaker in Books 1 and 12 of The Ring and the Book, poetry that will be familiar to many.

This study is unified under the rubric of poetic voice, focusing on work in which Browning speaks, suggests Martens, in propria persona, or in his own voice. The distinction between the poet-speaker and the poet-author is complex, but she argues that in his late poetry, such as the prologue to Asolando and the epilogue to Pacchiarotto, Browning cleverly picks up the threads of his early attempts to distance himself from his poetic speakers and incorporates his mature poetics into the later work itself. Furthermore, in significant ways, he anticipates the features of Modernist poetry in this metatextual discussion. This exploration of Browning opens the door to more extensive study of his work, particularly of future considerations of the implications of this perspective on Browning's voice for how we read his more popular dramatic monologues.

The strength of Martens' analysis lies in close readings of poetry rarely discussed, as well as in careful contextualising of lyric poetry in terms of Browning's struggle to maintain authorial integrity while writing for a paying public with demands of its own. Martens offers a lively and timely discussion of a tension in his poetry that previously has not been recognised, and she suggests an exciting revisionist consideration of the poet's struggle to reconcile his principled rejection of Romantic egotism with his tendency to adopt precisely this stance in his poetry.

Browning, Victorian Poetics and the Romantic Legacy: Challenging the Personal Voice

By Britta Martens. Ashgate, 300pp, £55.00 and £66.00. ISBN 9781409423034 and 23041 (e-book). Published 15 August 2011

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