restricted access Robert Browning
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Robert Browning

As I have made my way through hundreds, many hundreds, of pages recently published on Robert Browning and, as often as not, on Elizabeth Barrett as well, I have been forced to wonder what it is about these two poets and their poetry that still attracts readers, scholars, publishers. I have tried to reconcile my noble pile of reading with the sobering statistics presented by Clint Machann in last year's review of Arnold studies in this journal, for Machann has documented a significant decline in scholarly writing on Victorian poetry (VP 41 [2003]: 376).

Last year Machann charted the number of entries in the MLA International Bibliography Database for six major Victorian poets during the past four decades—he tabulated the results for Arnold, Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, and Tennyson. His numbers showed a steady increase over the past forty years in the number of entries published on Christina Rossetti and Barrett Browning, and a precipitate decrease over the past thirty years in work published on Robert Browning. Browning's stock by this measure seems to have fallen farther faster than that of either Tennyson or Arnold. In part this more precipitous decline results from Browning having farther to fall, since between 1963 and 1983 his work received significantly more attention than that of the other poets Machann charted. It is clear, nonetheless, that scholars increasingly have directed their attention to other Victorian poets. Still more obviously, the dominant trend has been a decline in attention to Victorian poetry across the board.

To be more specific, the decade from 1973-1982 showed 653 entries for Robert Browning and 34 for Elizabeth Barrett; by 1993-2002 Robert [End Page 355] Browning was the principal subject of 244 works of criticism while Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the focus of 158 (it is unclear how a "double entry," say an article on the two together, might have been counted). Though entries on Barrett Browning have quadrupled, entries on the two poets taken together have fallen by half in the last thirty years.

Despite this trend, running against Victorian poetry generally, it is clear that Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning continue to exercise a significant fascination for critics. Certainly this year's rather prodigious output of scholarship and biography testifies to their continuing interest. Much of this interest springs, I believe, from two different, but related factors. First there is a resurgence, at least this year, of interest in Robert Browning and religion. Browning's vexed and vexing theology, as he wrestled both with the rise of historical criticism and the impact of spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century, seems to speak to contemporary concerns. Second, as Barrett Browning's poetry is once again taken seriously, both her own work and the mutual influence of the two poets have become increasingly important. For all their differences on spiritualism and other matters, Robert's and Elizabeth's mutual construction of their poetic careers continues to attract attention. As the relationship between the two poets is defined in terms not of victimization and rescue but of collaboration and work, the two can be read, and even idealized, as avatars of equality.

During the past year it is the poets' joint story that has drawn the most sustained critical interest. The most important recent contributions to this story are by Mary Sanders Pollock and Pamela Neville-Sington. Pollock's Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning could be called a study in biographical intertextuality, while Neville-Sington's biography, Robert Browning: A Life After Death, investigates not Browning's posthumous reputation but his semi-posthumous existence as the widower of the "poetess." This year too, Iain Finlayson has given us a traditional biography at some length, Browning: A Private Life, and Jochen Haug, paradoxically perhaps, tells us more about Browning's private life than Finlayson can, by focusing his monograph Passions without a Tongue on embodiment in Browning's poetry. Behind all of these readings, with the odd exception of Finlayson's, lurks the power of the poets' own "private" writing, from the letters the two exchanged during their courtship to Scott Lewis' recent two-volume edition of Barrett...