IN ONE OF HER best-known essays, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Virginia Woolf despairs of ever capturing character in fiction by the patient assembly of relevant fact, since she always remembers the mocking whisper of the elusive little woman who stands for personality and who taunts the novelist by saying, "My name is Brown. Catch me if you can."

In this respect the problem of the biographer is much like that of the novelist, perhaps even worse because he ought never to invent raw material to help flesh out the character. The difficulties are magnified when the subject has the nondescript appearance of Mrs. Brown. Or of Robert Browning (even his name inevitably recalls Mrs. Woolf's essay), who is surely the most mysterious of the Victorians, not because he hid anything but because it all seemed to be there on an unmystifying surface. The only trouble was that the surface didn't give any indication that it concealed a great and thoroughly revolutionary poet.

To Thomas Hardy, Browning's character with "the literary puzzle of the 19th century," and he was reduced to an agnostic grumble by wondering how "smug Christian optimism worthy of a dissenting grocer" could proceed from "a man who was so vast a seer and feeler when on neutral ground."

When Gladstone's daughter Mary met Browning at dinner, his hectoring violation of her private space made it seem impossible that he should be the author of some of her favorite poems. "He talks everybody down with his dreadful voice, and always places his person in such disagreeable proximity with yours and puffs and blows and spits in yr. face. I tried to think of Abt Vogler but it was of no use -- he couldn't ever have written it."

His physical appearance didn't help much either, since by the time he was famous, he could scarcely have looked less like a poet. Before his runaway marriage to Elizabeth Moulton Barrett, he had been generally accounted good-looking, and he had dressed fastidiously, sporting flashy lemon-yellow gloves. But in middle-age he put on too much weight, his nose thickened unattractively, and when he shaved off his beard in momentary dissatisfaction, it had turned an unbecoming white as it grew in again. Before long he resembled nothing so much as a sleek, well-fed, slightly overdressed Birmingham businessman: if not the grocer of whom Hardy spoke, perhaps a respectable wholesaler of tapioca. (Incidentally, the publishers help little here, since there is not a single illustration in the whole volume, putting a double burden on the biographer trying to familiarize us with Browning.) During most of his life he measured himself somewhat bitterly against his more successful contemporary, Tennyson, and he could never hope for either his rival's physical beauty as a young man or his flamboyantly poetical look of seedy, deteriorated grandeur when youth had gone.

In matters other than manners, religion, and looks, there were plenty of aspects of Browning that seemed inexplicably mundane. The great proponent of sexual vitality apparently remained virginal until his marriage at 34, and he certainly lived demurely at home in Camberwell, kissing his mother good-night before retiring to his own room. The hero of the most romantic elopement in English literary history seems to have been surprised, after Elizabeth's death, at being refused when he proposed a second marriage, candidly admitting that he was primarily interested in the lady's money and boasting that he could never love anyone but his first wife. It was hard, too, to know which more truly indicated his deepest feelings, the print of a naked Andromeda that hung over his desk, or the two skulls that were the only other decoration of his study, the reality beneath all that delicious flesh. In many ways he was the most learned English poet of the century, but his immense cultivation was less apparent in private than his delight in the grisly details of crime, particularly murder, and his unpleasant habit of telling spinster friends stories too salacious to be witty but insufficiently matter-of-fact to be earthy. It is not surprising that the aristocratic Edward FitzGerald, who thought his poems were "Cockney," referred to Browning as "Camberwell Bob."

Henry James, who could detect a pea of vulgarity hidden beneath theory of two Robert Brownings, one who lived in an interior world of superb poetry and one who "dinnered himself away" at fashionable tables in too obviously well-tailored evening clothes, content with the approval of acquaintances hardly worthy of the friendship of a writer of his genius. And who should have known better of such matters than James?

Confronted with this problem of confusing identity and recognizing that a man's public image may be as much a creation as any work of fiction, Donald Thomas asserts the plausible thesis that a poet's central unity, his innermost privacy, must be sought in his poetry. It is this Adlerian hypothesis, that Browning used his works to synthesize the disparate parts of his psyche, to which the awkward subtitle of his book refers.

Thomas treats the central themes of the poetry as direct manifestations of Browning's psyche, but he never makes the simplistic mistake of confusing the events of the poems with incidents in the poet's private life. He is an objective chronicler, who shows us his subject as he looked to those around him, filling in the day-to-day life in detail but not attempting to inhabit Browning's skin and make us look out from his eyes, as biographers like Betty Miller have done. Indeed, it comes as a shock when we are made party to Browning's paralyzing grief at his wife's death because we have been accustomed to observing him rather than sharing his emotions. The lean and unimpassioned prose in which Dr. Thomas tells his story is admirably suited to his courteous, questioning, and essentially detached viewpoint.

In an ideal world, it is the poetry that counts, of course. It is the source of our curiosity about Browning as a man, and this book constantly turns us back to the poems themselves. It is for that reason that it is so welcome. The parallels between the works and their creator's life are meant to send the reader off to a volume of the poems: sometimes the mere mention of a half-forgotten title is enough to do so. Thomas' critical discussion habitually investigates the poems in terms of action rather than language, and the moral concerns of the poetry are more often set forth in adeptly summarized plot than in considerations of recurrent linguistic patters.

But the reason that literary biography has always been so much more popular than literary criticism is that it attempts to bring heaven down to earth and to make the connection for us poor mortals between public art and private personality. In spite of gratitude for greater understanding of the poems, we may want more: it may still seem that Browning himself remains an enigma. I have a suspicion that our itch for many may result from the sparing use Dr. Thomas makes of the thousands of letters that are still extant to, from, or about Robert and Elizabeth Browing. The key to the poet's covert personality probably lies in the immediacy of those letters, rather than in a smooth summary of the events of his life or even in intelligent discussion of his poetry.

Browning's greatest achievement was his penetration to the hidden core of the characters he created, understanding them without making overt judgments on them, showing us more through their own speech than they realize they are revealing. For him the dramtic monologue was less a technical form than an habitual way of thinking. The means by which he revealed character was essentially linguistic as he played upon the ambivalent meaning of words and phrases, so that a monologue becomes almost an extended double entendre: the meaning that a character attaches to his own words is the index of his psyche. Repetitively Browning said that it was the uncovering of character that interested him, not action or plot. For example, in The Ring and the Book Guido's death is disposed of in a few words, but the analysis of his character that makes his execution a necessity takes some 4,500 lines of self-revelation. It may be that Browning's own method would be the best for "catching" Mrs. Brown or even Browning himself. Certainly, more of his own words from the letters would be welcome here.

In spite of the help of admirable books like this, we can probably never underestand Browning totally, a possibility that Thomas recognizes in quoting at the end of his biography James' judgment on the poet: "None of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones so odd."