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  • Robert Browning
  • Britta Martens

While no book-length studies on Browning have appeared during this review period, the year has seen a healthy number of articles which apply a variety of critical approaches to individual poems. They demonstrate how well the poet lends himself to many current critical paradigms, including queer and feminist interpretations, cognitive psychology, and readings informed by material culture and narratology.

I will begin with articles which focus on gender. In "Increasing Suspicion about Browning's Grammarian" (VP 44, no. 2 [Summer 2006]: 165-182), Arnd Bohm adds another name to the list of possible inspirations for "A Grammarian's Funeral": Brunetto Latini, whom Dante's Inferno places in the circle of sodomites, although there is no clear evidence that the scholar was a homosexual. Having explained that Brunetto may have been linked with sodomy through the suspicion of homosexual relationships between teachers and pupils and the medieval association of scholars interested in grammatical deviations with sexual deviance, Bohm reads Browning's poem as preoccupied with the grammarian's and the speaker's ambiguous gender identity. The evidence he proposes ranges from the arresting revelation that medieval scholars associated dactylic feet (which are prominent in Browning's poem) with the male genitalia and that the kinds of grammatical particles in which the grammarian is interested can be read as encoding homosexual tendencies, to a predictable reading of the speaker's use of the term "erect" and the rather unconvincing claim that the text is "blatantly reticent" (p. 171) about confirming the speaker's gender and therefore that his gender is ambiguous. By the same token, many other monologists whose gender is perfectly obvious but not explicitly stated would be confused about their sexuality. Although the grammarian's renunciation of his sexual identity certainly needs to be considered, the article did not leave me fully persuaded that the grammarian's "research was deeply rooted in his [homosexual] desires" (p. 178). The discussion of "the narrator's contempt for the city" (p. [End Page 287] 174) also left me slightly puzzled, as the grammarian is not carried away from the cities in the plain, as Bohm states, but from a pastoral setting in the plain toward a city on top of a mountain (see ll. 14, 41-42, 73-74), playing on the associations of urbanity with culture and of prophets with the mountaintop (albeit probably ironically).

In a similar vein, Ernest Fontana's "Gender and Sexual Anxiety in Browning's 'Waring' and 'The Guardian-Angel,'" in the same issue of Victorian Poetry (pp. 183-189), offers a queer interpretation of these two poems as encoding Browning's feelings about an unrealized homosocial relationship or same-sex intimacy with Alfred Domett before his friend left for New Zealand. As in Bohm's article, the reading of a virile Waring seen in a boat in the company of a boy as evidence that "Waring has come out and is revealed in a tableau of festive homosociality" (p. 186) seems to me to rely on an overinterpretation of detail. Fontana's analysis of "The Guardian-Angel" as negotiating the transition from Browning's companionship with Domett to that with Elizabeth is more convincing, although it is not necessary to understand this in terms of "same-sex amatory feelings" (p. 187).

As the bicentenary year of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's birth, 2006 saw, of course, a substantial amount of critical material on her, but reference to Robert in these publications has as usual been quite sparse. This reluctance to consider the Brownings in conjunction may arise from the fact that, as Corinne Davies puts it, critics "over the years have felt the mutual influence, but found the proving elusive" ("Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Pan Poems and Their After-Life in Robert Browning's 'Pan and Luna,'" [VP 44, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 562]). It may also be a result of the different critical positions from which the two poets tend to be approached. Judging from some recent publications—Mary Saunders Pollock's monograph of 2003 and Corinne Davies and Marjorie Stone's "'Singing Song for Song': The Brownings 'in the Poetic Relation,'" in Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson (eds.), Literary...


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