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  • Robert Browning
  • Britta Martens (bio)

The past year has been a busy one in Browning scholarship, with new volumes in two of the ongoing editions of his poems, one volume of The Brownings' Correspondence, a biography, a short monograph, and a good number of articles and contributions to essay collections, which use critical paradigms ranging from the Gothic to cognitive psychology. It is heartening to see that, in addition to The Ring and the Book and the popular poems on love and music, Browning's neglected later works receive a significant amount of attention. With the waning of the critical fashion for the death of the author, analyses considering the impact of the poet's personality and experience on his work are also much in evidence.

The most substantial among the book-length publications is volume 3 of The Poems of Robert Browning in the Longman Annotated English Poets series, edited by John Woolford, Daniel Karlin, and Joseph Phelan (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007). As always in the Longman edition, which works from the first published version of a text rather than the last lifetime edition, the poems are presented in the order of their (assumed) composition. This editorial choice highlights the importance of the biographical context from which the poems emerged, and this biographical emphasis is also apparent in the period covered by the volume: it comprises all of the works written during the Brownings' marriage, that is, Christmas-Eve and Easter Day and Men and Women as well as the "Essay on Shelley."

As the last of the three multi-volume critical editions of Browning's work to reach these texts, the Longman edition can build on previous editorial work and draw on recently published letters. But this is not the only reason which gives it the edge over the very thorough Ohio and Oxford editions. It is also the most fully annotated of all critical editions. Aimed at a broader readership than the Ohio edition, where all notes appear at the end of the volume, the Longman edition presents its annotations alongside the poems. Lucid introductory notes cover historical and literary contexts, sources and influences, comment on formal features and often summarize important criticism on a poem. This kind of material helps the reader appreciate the religious context of a poem such as the relatively unread Christmas-Eve and Easter Day, making it easier to see how it prefigures Browning's later, better-known poems on religious subjects. Browning's research for the famous painter monologues and their position within the Victorian debate about medieval and Renaissance painting are also presented in great detail. Cross-references to letters, especially those by Elizabeth, repeatedly allow for more precise datings [End Page 328] of poems than have so far been proposed, as well as for fresh insights into a poem's inspiration. A major strength of the edition is its alertness to parallels with other works by Browning and other authors. Such notes allow the researcher to trace recurring ideas over the course of his career and to follow up the intertextual links that are vital to an understanding of a poet who takes such pains to situate himself in relation to the poetic tradition.

Alongside the well-known poems from Men and Women, the volume also contains a handful of, usually comical, occasional poems that were not published by Browning. These are of little aesthetic value, but give an insight into his moods and preoccupations. The notable exception to this rule is his translation of an Italian sonnet by Giovanni Zappi about Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, which provides another instance in addition to Sordello and "One Word More" of Browning's identification with Moses in order to portray himself as an unacknowledged prophet figure.

Alongside the Longman volume, it is interesting to read Volume 16 of The Brownings' Correspondence, edited by Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, and Edward Hagan (Winfield: Wedgestone Press, 2007), as the periods covered by both overlap. This volume of the Correspondence spans from September 1849 to January 1851. These seem to have been a fairly unproductive fifteen months for Browning, but they saw the publication of two volumes, the 1849 Poems and Christmas-Eve and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7190
Print ISSN
0042-5206
Pages
pp. 328-338
Launched on MUSE
2008-11-28
Open Access
No
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