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Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002) 303-311



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Guide to the Year's Work

Robert Browning

Mary Ellis Gibson


This year's writing on Robert Browning might take as its motto "accents uncertain." The two books and various articles I discuss here focus on the uncertainties of literary reputation, on the complexities of Browning's meter and language, and on the difficulties of literary inheritance. The articles show a renewed interest in language and meter among readers of Browning as well as a continuing interest in Browning's role as a precursor of modernism.

The two longer studies published this year are books in series. Stefan Hawlin's admirable Complete Critical Guide to Robert Browning appears in the Routledge Critical Guide Series (London, 2002). Sarah Wood's Robert Browning: A Literary Life appears in the Palgrave series of literary lives (New York, 2001). This coincidence further confirms that the market for monographs is increasingly shaped by the reluctance of university presses to take on single-author studies. Stefan Hawlin negotiates the somewhat procrustean form of the Routledge series with considerable ease. I could not but feel that Sarah Wood was fettered by the notion of the "literary life" in her negotiation of the relation between biographical and critical questions.

Hawlin's critical guide, following Routledge's formula, is divided into three sections, "Life and Contexts," "Work," and "Criticism." The goal of the series is to introduce the central issues driving recent criticism of major authors and at the same time to provide an introduction to the author's life and work for readers encountering an author for the first time. Hawlin meets these demands with considerable dexterity. The reader may feel it a bit repetitive to find criticism of Browning's major poems discussed in the "work" section and addressed again in the survey of "criticism." I would imagine, though, that the typical reader of Hawlin's book will use it as a tool—prowling from the index to appropriate sections and scanning the overview of criticism in part three. Though the format inevitably requires some "doubling back," all three sections contribute significantly to our understanding of Browning and his critics.

The series editors propose that each Routledge critical guide should present a variety of critical responses and invite readers to supply their own interpretations. Happily, Hawlin both furthers and complicates this strategy. He has developed his own approach to Browning and is perfectly willing to elaborate his own interpretations, taking clear positions on a variety of critical issues. His interpretations of Men and Women or The Ring and the Book define the territory staked out by Browning's other critics [End Page 303] while unabashedly putting forward a particular view. Indeed, I see affinities between Hawlin's approach to Browning and those of Daniel Karlin and Isobel Armstrong. Like Karlin, Hawlin is interested in Browning's loves and hatreds; like Armstrong, he provides a nuanced understanding of the connections between Browning's poetry and his politics. Hawlin makes the demands of the critical overview work for him, providing capacious but useful ways of viewing the major trends in Browning's long career.

Hawlin's reading of Men and Women is a case in point. He argues that in Men and Women, Browning's ironies are more subtle and more generous than in earlier monologues and that the volume as a whole reflects Browning's disillusionment with politics and engagement with more intimate matters of art and love. Hawlin characterizes Browning's volumes as a product of the "disillusioned aftermath of the 1848 revolutions," written in the "pessimism that a liberal like Browning naturally felt in the wake of those crucial eruptions and the conservative restorations that followed them" (p. 82). In this context of political disillusionment, Men and Women "explores a subjective, literary, inner world focused on the intimacies of love" (p. 81). These threads combine in Hawlin's exploration of "Fra Lippo Lippi," which he regards, with good reason, as the central poem of Browning's volumes. Hawlin reads "Lippi," for all its Protestant sensibilities, as Browning's attack on "bourgeois moralism" (pp. 86-87). Virtue...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7190
Print ISSN
0042-5206
Pages
pp. 303-311
Launched on MUSE
2002-10-01
Open Access
No
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