What unifies this study, and defines its position in contemporary critical debates, is its focus on context. We are both old enough to remember New Criticism, and to have participated in the critical discussions which have followed its decline since the 1960s. We are both conscious of the recent emergence of feminist, rhetorical and New Historical schools of criticism after the negative formalisms of the 1970s and 1980s. And we welcome their rehabilitation of context as a legitimate and urgent subject. A writer is someone who writes at a particular time, in a particular place, and under specific cultural conditions. Whether the work which emerges from these conditions can be understood outside them as an absolute aesthetic result is a matter for debate, but the debate must be an informed one. This book, therefore, engages with the many contexts — biographical, historical, intellectual — from which Browning's work emerged, and attempts to show how such contexts help to shape his characteristic forms and subjects.
Chapters 1 and 2 describe the nature of Browning's poetry. Chapter 1 reconstructs his process of composition, how the poetry came into being; chapter 2 describes Browning's characteristic forms and language. Chapters 3 and 4 are concerned with the immediate biographical frameworks within which Browning functioned. Chapter 3 details his family and early friendships, chapter 4 the role of love and marriage in both his life and his poetry. Chapters 5 and 6 move out to the wider contexts of politics (chapter 5) and philosophy (chapter 6). At no point, however, do we divorce these contexts from the poetry itself. While describing Browning's process of composition, chapter 1 illustrates Browning's acknowledgement (whether angry, ironic, or tolerant) that composition must be a process, conducted in a series of stages during which its originating impulse may be occluded rather than realised. In chapter 2 the context is the great Romantic debate over the nature and function of poetic language, which shapes . . .