Robert Browning has never been a poet for the casual or lazy reader. Among his contemporaries, even admirers lamented his obscurity, and the barbs of hostile reviewers were a frequent source of annoyance for the poet (one commented that Browning’s FIFINE might just as well have been written in Sanskrit as far as the ordinary reader was concerned.) The modern reader, equipped with more than a century of scholarly work of explication, finds Browning less intimidating. Yet tackling those dense dramatic monologues still demands hard labor; the reader must become a partner in the creative process, which is exactly what Browning intended, as Clyde de Ryals demonstrates in this excellent critical biography.
Browning has usually been regarded as an impersonal poet. It is often pointed out that after John Stuart Mill said that Browning’s early poem, PAULINE, showed a morbid state of self-worship, Browning resolved not to write such personal poetry again. Ryals shows that this in only partially true. He demonstrates that Browning’s poems are at once self-effacing and self-revealing, objective and subjective, and that this is part of an evolving performance (the theatrical metaphor is Browning’s) in which Browning is both presenter and presented. This approach neatly combines modern poststructural theory with more traditional approaches to literary criticism.
Ryals’ retelling of Browning’s life, from his early struggle for recognition to his later fame, is engaging and sympathetic. The well-known story of Browning’s courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, who was six years his senior and virtually an invalid when the met and then eloped, is as charming as ever.
In short, THE LIFE OF ROBERT BROWNING does what any good book about a poet should—it sends the reader back to the poems with new interest and insight.