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This report is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.

The Shelf Life of Robert Browning (1812-2012) Tony Roberts
Such, British Public, ye who like me not,
(God love you!) - whom I yet have laboured for
- The Ring and the Book


Of all popular poets Browning was and is one of the least popular and, of great poets, the most controversial, condemned by his voluminous lesser work, his difficulty, his facility with blank verse, his clotted style, his facile optimism (Chesterton described Browning as 'the only optimistic philosopher except Whitman') and the overestimation of his peers, which led to the launch of the Browning Society in 1881, dedicated to a study of his 'teachings' in religion, philosophy and science. Even his personality has been called into question, for as a social being Browning could be loud and windy. That heroic diner-outer Henry James first met Browning in 1877 and found him 'chattering and self-complacent' and wrote of 'a kind of vulgarity'. Later, James was to posit the idea of two Brownings in his short story 'The Private Life' (1892): the sensitive artist and the conventional social hearty.

There is some truth in the above allegations. However, Browning was one of our major poets because his best verse - and there is enough of it - is vigorously accomplished and more relevant to our sensibilities even than it was to those of his own time. As a precursor of modernism, he bookends the late Victorian world with psychological realism, as surely as Sir Walter Scott bookended the early nineteenth century with his ...


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