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  • “Between Politics and Deer-Stalking”:Browning’s Periodical Poetry
  • Linda K. Hughes (bio)

Robert Browning’s best-known comment about publishing poetry in periodicals registers his contempt for it. Contemplating how to present the completed Ring and the Book to Victorian audiences, he consulted William Allingham: “And now! can you advise me? I’m puzzled about how to publish it. I want people not to turn to the end, but to read through in proper order. Magazine, you’ll say: but no, I don’t like the notion of being sandwiched between Politics and Deer-Stalking, say.” Given Browning’s prodigious memory and ambivalence toward Allingham’s twelve-part Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland (“‘Not so poetical as some of your things—but O so clever’”), this may have been a direct hit at the Anglo-Irish poet. When the second of twelve monthly installments of Allingham’s narrative poem in pentameter couplets appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in December 1862, it was “sandwiched between” a politically tinged article on “The Present Position of the Church of England” and “Autumn Days” by John Skelton, a personal essay on the joys that the season offered up to the angler and sportsman. Browning’s remarks to Allingham on politics and deer-stalking were prefaced by the revelation that “‘I began [The Ring and the Book] in rhymed couplets, like Laurence Bloomfield, but thought by and by I might as well have my fling, and so turned to blank verse.’”1 Highly conscious of the serial periodical publication of Allingham’s long poem, Browning raises a similar possibility for The Ring and the Book only to quash it.2 Most commentators have followed suit ever since. William DeVane notes Browning’s “prejudice against publication in periodicals,” and to account for some of Browning’s poems in Hood’s Magazine Mrs. Sutherland Orr comments, “The fact deserves remembering in connection with his subsequent unbroken rule never to write for magazines.”3 Numerous handbooks and bibliographies nonetheless document that twenty-seven of Browning’s poems first appeared in periodicals, at least one in every decade of Browning’s poetic career (see appendix). To be sure, he published far fewer periodical poems than Tennyson, but hardly so few as to make his resort to the [End Page 161] medium exceptional.4 In what follows I consider what kind of audience and context he both encountered and envisioned when he published in periodicals and explore the impact of his involvement on his imaginative work. Though the personal and cultural circumstances framing each periodical poem shifted, his periodical poems prior to marriage are more often linked to politics or the news cycle, those after more likely to register his union with Elizabeth Barrett either through participation in her networks or her own practices as a writer of periodical poetry. In Browning’s final periodical poem the two strands converge: he fiercely pays tribute to his late wife while deliberately exploiting the periodical’s enmeshment in the news cycle to attack Edward FitzGerald.

Most characteristically, Browning conceptualized periodical publication as an expression of friendship networks within a gift economy. Browning’s reasons for doing so are complex, a matter I return to at this essay’s conclusion. Conceptualizing periodical poems as gifts is likewise complex. Though Browning never objected to negotiating copyrights for his books, he could have looked to Byron, who gave away the copyrights of Childe Harold and The Corsair, as a precedent for giving away individual poems. In at least one instance, as we shall see, Browning’s gift of a poem to a periodical was an act of outright philanthropy on behalf of a disadvantaged group. The sociological model of the gift advanced by David Cheal consorts with Browning’s contributions both to the Monthly Repository and Hood’s Magazine early in his career. Noting the inherent “tension between market relationships and personal relationships … distinctive … in capitalist societies,” Cheal conceptualizes a modern gift economy as serving “to construct certain kinds of voluntary relationships.” Gifts are always redundant, in the sense that they are never required, and “the donor [has] the exclusive right to freely dispose of some object.”5 According to this model, Browning’s giving...


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pp. 161-182
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