Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Robert Browning

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Robert Browning

Article excerpt

This year's output of Robert Browning scholarship has been healthy, with two volumes of letters, two contributions to the long-running critical editions of his work, a (nowadays rare) monograph by Suzanne Bailey, and a good crop of essays taking various approaches, among them several analyses which connect Browning with a variety of contemporary or later authors and a notable number of deconstructionist readings which make reference to him.

The most important publication of the year is Volume 15 of the Oxford edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010). It covers the Parleyings With Certain People of Importance in Their Day and Asolando, as well as some fugitives from the last six years of the poet's life--all but two previously published. The volume offers a comprehensive body of annotations and some notable new research on these two late collections. The Parleyings is edited by Stefan Hawlin, who presents it as "a Liberal-Protestant progressivist tract for the times, a trumpet call to an imperial Britain inflected ... with anticipations of the grandeur of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee" (p. 1). The prologue and epilogue in particular encode a promotion of theologically and politically progressive Protestantism that criticizes backwardness and Catholic superstition. In "Apollo and the Fates"--which he identifies as inspired by the custom of performing Ancient Greek plays in the original language at Cambridge University--Hawlin points out the typological representation of Apollo as a Christ figure. He also solves the mystery of the main source for "Fust and his Friends," John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Foxe presents Fust rather than Gutenberg as the inventor of printing and makes the connection between printing, the spread of Protestantism and civil liberty that is expounded in Browning's poem. The argument against Catholicism is also prominent in the parleying "With Daniel Bartoli," which promotes Browning's Liberal-Protestant concept of secular sainthood, that is sainthood defined by integrity of behavior rather than the miracles and asceticism of Bartoli's Catholic hagiography.

While the older Browning's strong interest in religious matters has long been recognized, his comments on contemporary politics have received much less attention. Hawlin sees the political context as crucial to the parleyings "With George Bubb Doddington" and "With Charles Avison." The former is of course used as cover for Browning's attack on Disraeli but also needs to be read as an expression of the poet's reservations about the widening of the franchise by the Third Reform Act of 1884. The poem is hence characterized by a Gladstonian desire to extend the franchise and a more conservative fear that the new voters might be too easily influenced by wily politicians. In the Introduction to the parleying with Avison, Hawlin offers some useful explanations of Browning's thoughts about changing tastes in musical style and his Whiggish equation of the politics of the Civil War with the liberal politics of the 1880s. Of particular interest is the reference towards the end of the poem to the Imperial Federal League. This body advocated a re-organization of Britain and its (predominantly white) colonies into a federated structure as a means of securing the future of the Empire and the dominance of British culture. Browning's enthusiasms for a kind of reformed imperialism which he reconciles with his progressive values reveal some interesting tensions in his politics. Although in terms of new discoveries Hawlin's edition has the edge over Susan Crowl and Roma King's Ohio edition of the poem (1998), the earlier edition is still essential reading because of its more generous annotations on some issues, such as the work and lives of some of the Parleyings' silent "interlocutors."

Michael Meredith's edition of Asolando is the first critical edition of this collection since Pettigrew and Collins' 1981 Yale/Penguin edition and represents an important advance on previous scholarship on these poems. …

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