Browning, the most original of the major Victorian poets, was for long considered obscure rather than innovative. Not one copy of his first work, Pauline, was sold. At the time of his marriage his reputation was much narrower and much less secure than Elizabeth Barrett's. Even Men and Women, a volume in which later readers have discerned the height of Browning's power, hardly mattered to the general public. But he always had many admirers among other writers who felt the fire of his genius. Gradually, he gained a wider influence, and ultimately was revered (a little foolishly, it must be said) by a middle-class and pious readership who responded to his note of prophetic utterance and religious affirmation. There is much more to Browning, however, than this note. More than any other poet of the period, Browning turns his reader into a dialogic partner who comes to share his bracing sense of the mysteries and ironies that attend what Yeats would later call the dance of self and soul.
Browning's claim on us is threefold: he is a great philosophical poet, a great psychological poet, and a great explorer of language and poiesis. The union of his three kinds of power is most almost always evident in the major works of his middle years: Men and Women, Dramatis Personae, and The Ring and the Book. In these dazzling achievements, and in many of his other works, he created an art that is triumphantly reflective of a philosophic and moral vision at once so sublime and so subtle as almost to resist expression.
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