ROBERT BROWNING: A Life Within Life by Donald Thomas


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A sturdy, readable, but undistinguished biography-with-criticism--which attempts to present Browning as ""the poet of post-romantic modernism"" (with iffy results) and offers a neat yet ultimately superficial thesis about Browning's contrasting private/public personalities. The thesis: that Browning's loud exterior--the ""bonhomous philistinism""--was a shield and release for his private poet's world of ""simple nobility"" and intense psychological exploration. But, though he refers to Alfred Adler (who saw such a split as characteristic of ""the supremely ambitious""), Thomas merely invokes this premise whenever Browning's outward behavior is appalling; he neither illuminates Browning's particular drives nor relates this Adlerian view to the poetry itself. What remains, then, is a largely straightforward, largely admiring retelling of the familiar life story: the happy, sheltered, father-educated childhood, which led to ""the extraordinary consistency of Browning's beliefs throughout life"" (a ""true Puritanism""); the ambitious beginnings, early failures; the infatuation with the theater; his bouts of (perhaps psychosomatic) trigeminal neuralgia; the success of Pippa Passes; the courtship of invalid Elizabeth Barrett (morphine was ""her servant rather than her master""), followed by the marriage and move to Italy; friendships, from the literary to the social/eccentric (spiritualists); and, with Elizabeth's fatally failing health, the beginnings of Browning's aggressive socializing--flirtations, hobbies, country houses. (That Browning became a snob, however, is an ""untenable"" charge.) Thomas also discusses all of the important poetry, usually in reasonable, clear, unremarkable terms. Throughout, however, he tends to exaggerate Browning's ""modernity""--emphasizing his psychological realism, his literary confrontations with mental aberrations and blatant sexualities: Tennyson's eroticisms ""are a schoolroom study beside the adult analysis of character and conduct in Browning's poetry."" (Thomas is similarly over-generous, perhaps, to Elizabeth's poetry.) Still, even with its not-always-persuasive positive bias, this is a competent, one-volume treatment, free of much old-fashioned Browning-bio baggage--and a generally reliable alternative to the daunting standard source, Irvine & Honan's The Book, The Ring, and The Poet.

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 1982
Publisher: Viking