Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 394-402
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Mary Ellis Gibson
Recent months have brought forth various studies of Robert Browning, ranging from pleasing and careful popularization; to examinations of language, tropes, and gender; to notes and reference works. Those texts aimed at the general reader vary widely in quality, while treatments aimed at a more scholarly audience occasionally caused me to wonder whether their authors were, indeed, reading the same poems.
To begin with the pleasing. Martin Garrett has once again provided a bio-critical study of the Brownings, to accompany his Interviews and Recollections and his A Browning Chronology (both from Macmillan, 2000, and reviewed here in that year). Garrett's Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning appears in the British Library Writers' Lives series (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). Garrett has essentially provided a lovely picture book with sensible and scrupulous text outlining the two writers' lives and work. The fine illustrations include reproduction of many manuscript and first [End Page 394] edition pages, the best-known portraits of both writers, portraits of their associates, and scenes from London and Italy. Garrett's rendition of the poets' lives is written in a lively style with carefully chosen passages from their letters and from their friends' writing and correspondence. His commentary on Robert Browning's poems emphasizes Men and Women, particularly the painters' monologues, "Bishop Blougram's Apology," and "Childe Roland." In this selection Garrett has anticipated the essays published this year, which testify, like Garrett's volume, to the persistent appeal of the dramatic monologues.
Aimed at scholarly rather than general readers, three of this year's most theoretically sophisticated treatments of Browning's poetry focus at least in part on the complex gendering of his work. Both E. Warwick Slinn and Catherine Maxwell wish to correct a tendency in cultural studies to subsume the literary in thematics or in discussions of material culture. Both Slinn and Maxwell enable us to attend to literary convention and language. As Slinn puts it, "I do not wish to deny the cultural and political significance of what texts may do as material commodities . . . but I analyze what poems are doing in terms of their internalized dynamic of verbal process, and how that doing connects to cultural contexts and ideological practices" (Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique: The Politics of Performative Language [Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2003], p. 2). Maxwell, too, argues for the dynamic of verbal process, particularly as represented by the handing down of tropes in poetic tradition. She argues, "The form of reading advocated by my study calls on a range of literary historical perspectives that can make particular cultural studies look narrowly historicist—mistaken in their notions of thoroughness where literary objects are concerned. In my analysis the issue of gender in poetry is important not as a virtue of enlightened contemporary consciousness...but because gender is understood as inextricably implicated in the way poetry represents itself" (The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness [Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 2001], p. 4). Though privileging language, neither critic loses sight of cultural dynamics.
Slinn discusses Barrett Browning, Clough, D.G. Rossetti, and Webster in addition to Robert Browning. I have not the space here to detail his notion of performativity, drawn from speech act theory and also from Judith Butler's work. As it is applied to "The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church" the notion of the performative allows Slinn to say a number of new things about this much-discussed poem. Slinn points to the highly performative dimension of dramatic monologues which both "reproduce verbal social behavior" and "foreground constitutive language through intensive poetic devices" (p. 28). He situates Browning's poem in the context of the aesthetic theories of Pugin, Ruskin, and the Camden Society [End Page 395] and argues that the poem critiques their aesthetic equation of sepulchral style with faith and moral conviction. Browning's bishop is considerably more complex than Ruskin recognized in his famous praise for the monologue, Slinn argues, for, unlike Ruskin, the bishop in ordering his tomb stands quite outside Protestant dualism...