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This review is taken from PN Review 30, Volume 9 Number 4, March - April 1983.

LIKE AN ACTOR Donald Thomas, Robert Browning: a Life within Life (Weidenefeld) £12.95

Browning in old age became a Great Man because society needs a few Great Men. The late nineteenth-century vogue for his writing was partly a moral and philosophical hunger, and the booming, energetic diner out, the non-stop anecdotist and successful man of the world, appeared to his higher-minded admirers as a shocking paradox. Both as a human being and as a poet he has been mysteriously out of focus ever since. Nothing is more characteristic of the last two hundred years than the shy beginnings and exploratory vine-tendrils of a young artist whose freshness and charm bring him social success, but whose success in the great world then so coarsens and toughens him that his early quality hardly survives; the rest is literature. Browning's case is not so simple. His late work on Aeschylus and Euripides is neither fall-out from Jowett's dinner-table nor the gesture of a lost talent looking for something to do. It was a most serious task, but ill-conceived because Browning was not fitted for the greatest tasks. Throughout his life he was somewhat suffocated by his own grandiose vision of his genius, and by jealousy of Tennyson.

Swinburne and D. G. Rossetti, of whose poetry Browning came in the end to take a properly pungent view ('florid impotence' and 'merely scented with poetry') saw in Browning in the 1860s an alternative to Tennyson, and that began the vogue. There is something in it, of course. Browning's verse has consumed a new subject matter, ...


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