Dramatis Personae deals with two distinct though related themes: death or loss in love-relations, and religious doubt. Browning’s wife had died three years before the collection appeared, so his choice of the first of these topics is hardly a surprise. Death, whether of a woman (Gold Hair, Too Late, Euridice to Orpheus, Prospice), a man or men (May and Death, A Death in the Desert, Apparent Failure) is all-pervasive, and even poems which appear not involve it invoke its counterpart, the death-inlife to which existential failure consigns lovers who have failed to grasp their opportunity (Dis Aliter Visum, Youth and Art, A Likeness). Equally, it is unsurprising that Dramatis Personae should centre on religious doubt. Biblical criticism, widely interpreted as a deliberate attack on the foundations of the Christian faith, had concerned Browning at least since the publication, in 1846, of George Eliot’s translation of David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu. And Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus, published in 1863, evidently rekindled or heightened that interest. Browning expressed to Isa Blagden (DI 180) his objections to Renan’s thesis that ‘miracles were a cheat’ and that the St John of history was not the author of the books ascribed to him in the Biblical canon, objections which he then creatively utilised in Dramatis Personae with his exploration of the psychology of Mr Sludge ‘the Medium’, faker of miracles, and in his revival of a St John who claims authorship of the whole Johannine corpus in A Death in the Desert.
KeywordsClay Corn Manifold Foam Sludge
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