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Browning's Old Florentine Painters: Italian Art and Mid-Victorian Poetry

Kelvin Everest
Affiliation:
Liverpool University
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Summary

Browning's admirers have often, and rightly, celebrated the achievement of his dramatic monologues, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ and ‘Andrea del Sarto’, published in Men and Women in 1855. My interest in them here, however, is not primarily literary-critical, and I do not propose to offer sustained critical commentary on the poetry itself, although my discussion does move towards a closer attention to some detailed features of the poetry. I am mainly interested in some larger questions raised by Browning's interest in those particular painters, at that particular time in the middle of the nineteenth century. The questions are, briefly, to do with how we might seek to explain Browning's choice of those subjects: what sort of factors, that is to say, combine to make such choices possible? What is involved in the process of cultural translation by which one set of historically specific forms can provide the material for quite different and historically remote cultural conditions and thereby function as the vehicle of a new expression? Browning's monologues are subtle and powerful character studies, but I want to propose that they also offer broader meanings. These meanings are developed from new possibilities in the significance of Italian art, which are strikingly emergent in Victorian cultural commentary. I am interested to explain how Browning's painter poems can come to have more, and more unexpected, meanings than those to which the critical consensus has usually confined them. But the explanation does, admittedly, produce a curious and mixed effect, as contexts which must be understood to constitute necessary conditions for the existence of the poems themselves start to proliferate and ramify. What follows is simply an example of some intellectual and methodological difficulties which arise in the attempt to account for the chosen materials as well as the formal and intellectual properties of complex poems.

Of course, questions about the determining possibilities of aesthetic choice, understood in an historical way, quickly raise big issues. It can be easy to miss large-scale historical and political changes, such as the French Revolution or the revolutionary crises in 1848 in Western Europe even as they are happening.

Type
Chapter
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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 215 - 232
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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