I WELL REMEMBER the shock of excitement and the odd feeling of recognition I felt when I encountered Robert Browning half a century ago. When you are trying on different selves in adolescence, Browning is the perfect poet, and his impersonations - the rebellious, erotic, intellectually arrogant, paradoxical voices in Men and Women, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics and Dramatis Personae - haunted my imagination. Undaunted by the difficulties of vocabulary and subject matter, I was swept along by the rhythms and urgency of the verse and the persuasive ambiguities of the monologues. Much later I learned to appreciate the complexities of The Ring and the Book, Browning's novel in verse. The later poems, with a few exceptions, I have always found less appealing, and I am grateful to Iain Finlayson's biography for sendmg me back to Fifine at the Fair, Balaustion's Adventure and The Inn Album. I might even take a deep breath and plunge into the horrors of Red Cotton Night-Cap Country. No one, however, will persuade me to attempt Sordello.
I wonder who, outside academia, reads Browning now. There are a few, ofien unrepresentative, poems in all the anthologies, but who now knows that 'God's in His heaven - All's right with the world' is, in its context, bitter satire, not complacent optimism? Can biography win back the general reader