Browning, Victorian Poetics and the Romantic Legacy: Challenging the Personal Voice

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Browning, Victorian Poetics and the Romantic Legacy: Challenging the Personal Voice. By Britta Martens. Ashgate, 300pp, Pounds 55.00 and Pounds 66.00. ISBN 9781409423034 and 23041 (e-book). Published 15 August 2011

Robert Browning remains an important standard against which other dramatic poets are measured. We recognise Browning primarily for the dramatic monologue, a poetic form that lends itself well to exercises in memory and oral delivery. I have a colleague who performs as the voice of Browning's Spanish cloister monk and another, now retired, who was a formidable Duke of Ferrara. Browning is often thought to have retreated into dramatic poetry in response to criticism of his introspective Romanticism in his early work, particularly the confessional poem Pauline. However, in one of the few book-length studies of Browning published in the past two decades, Britta Martens challenges this assumption and demonstrates that Browning worked from the outset to formulate his poetics in increasingly sophisticated poetry that reflects the tension between a younger, Romantic Browning and the mature poet who attempts to reject his Romanticist impulses but never completely succeeds in doing so.

This book comes at a time when academics have been working on recovering 19th-century poets who more or less disappeared during the 20th century - women poets, homosexual and lesbian poets, poets of the fin de siecle and poets attached to late-century movements such as aestheticism. The irony of our relegation of poets such as Browning to the margins in our quest to reverse the limitations of T.S. Eliot's exclusionary "canon" underscores the degree to which academics and casual aficionados of Browning alike will welcome this examination of Browning's perspective on poetry, on the subtle distinction between the poet-author and the poet-speaker, and on the development of modern poetics.

Admittedly, this is primarily an academic book by virtue of its nuanced focus on Browning's lesser-known, "more taxing" poems and by virtue of its meticulous documentation of the critical context and climate in which Martens writes. She offers close reading of some lyrics with which a generalist reader might be familiar, but she is most interested in the poetry that was not popular in Browning's time and that has traditionally been omitted from academic studies and from classroom experiences. …