Much of Browning’s finest writing was done during his thirties, years which comprise most of the poems in the volumes Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Lyrics AND ROMANCES, and Men and Women. The intentions and procedures of these three volumes are similar, so that most often one’s comments on the first two hold good for the third as well. In fact, Browning himself in a later collected edition reshuffled many of these poems, breaking down the divisions between individual books but preserving always the dominating premise that the poems should be, as he said, “though often Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” During his middle years we see Browning striving to write poems at once less sentimental and more objective than those of his early hero, Shelley: he develops his own form of the dramatic monologue in the attempt to overcome subjectivity and vagueness, and his success here is in the nature of an overcompensation. The poems in these volumes, “always Dramatic in principle,” are brilliant but somehow chilly.
Browning’s verse-play, PIPPA PASSES, published in 1841, immediately precedes Dramatic Lyrics and by its superb rendering of the spirit of Italy—a country which is for Browning always the dialectical counterpart of England, a kind of anti-England—the play foreshadows the skeptical attitude conveyed by the poems. In...
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