A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)
by Mrs. Sutherland Orr
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"No pause i' the leading and the light!" The Ring and the Book, vol. ix. p. 226.


First Published May 1885. Second Edition, 1886. Third Edition, 1887. Fourth Edition, 1889. Fifth Edition, 1890. Sixth Edition, 1892. Reprinted 1895, 1899, 1902, 1907, 1910, 1913, 1919, 1923.



This book was written at the request of some of the members of the Browning Society, and was originally intended to be a primer. It bears the marks of this intention in its general scheme, and in the almost abrupt brevity which the desired limits of space seemed to impose on its earlier part. But I felt from the first that the spirit of Mr. Browning's work could neither be compressed within the limits, nor adapted to the uses, of a primer, as generally understood; and the book has naturally shaped itself into a kind of descriptive Index, based partly on the historical order and partly or the natural classification of the various poems. No other plan suggested itself, at the time, for bringing the whole series of these poems at once under the reader's eye: since a description which throughout followed the historical order would have involved both lengthiness and repetition; while, as I have tried to show, there exists no scheme of natural classification into which the whole series could have been forced. I realize, only now that it is too late, that the arrangement is clumsy and confusing: or at least has become so by the manner in which I have carried it out; and that even if it justify itself to the mind of my readers, it can never be helpful or attractive to their eye, which had the first right to be considered. That I should have failed in a first attempt, however earnest, to meet the difficulties of such a task, is so natural as to be almost beyond regret, where my credit only is concerned; but I shall be very sorry if this result of my inexperience detracts from any usefulness which the Handbook might otherwise possess as a guide to Mr. Browning's works. I note also, and with real vexation, some blunders of a more mechanical kind, which I might have been expected to avoid.

I have been indebted for valuable advice to Mr. Furnivall; and for fruitful suggestion to Mr. Nettleship, whose proposed scheme of classification I have in some degree followed.


March 2nd, 1885.


In preparing the Handbook for its second edition, my first endeavour has been to correct, as far as possible, the faults which I acknowledged in my Preface to the first. But even before the time for doing so had arrived, I had convinced myself that where construction or arrangement was concerned, these faults could not be corrected: that I, at least, could discover no more artistic method of compressing into a small space, and to any practical purpose, an even relatively just view of Mr. Browning's work. The altered page-headings will, where they occur, soften away the harshness of the classification, while they remove a distinct anomaly: the discussion of such a poem as "Pauline" under its own title, such a one as "Aristophanes' Apology," under that of a group; but even this slight improvement rather detracts from than increases what little symmetry my scheme possessed. The other changes which, on my own account, I have been able to make, include the re-writing of some passages in which the needful condensation had unnecessarily mutilated the author's sense; the completing of quotation references which through an unforeseen accident had been printed off in an unfinished state; and the addition of a few bibliographical facts. By Mr. Browning's desire, I have corrected two mistakes: the misreading, on my part, of an historical allusion in "The Statue and the Bust," and of a poetical sentiment expressed in "Pictor Ignotus"—and, by the insertion of a word or sentence in the notice of each, expanded or emphasized the meaning of several of the minor poems. I should have stated in my first Preface, had not the fact appeared to me self-evident, that I owe to Mr. Browning's kindness all the additional matter which my own reading could not supply: such as the index to the Greek names in "Aristophanes' Apology," and the Persian in "Ferishtah's Fancies;" the notes to "Transcendentalism," and "Pietro of Abano;" and that he has allowed me to study in the original documents the story of "The Ring and the Book." The two signed notes by which he has enriched the present edition have grown out of recent circumstances.


January 11th, 1886.


The present edition of the Handbook includes a summary of Mr. Browning's "Parleyings," which from the contents of this volume, as well as from its recent appearance, finds its natural place in a Supplement.

I have added an Index to the six volumes of the "Works," which has been desired for greater facility of reference.

Various corrections and improvements of the nature indicated in the Preface to my second edition have been also made in the book.


June 25th, 1887.


The deeply painful circumstances in which the Handbook re-appears have compelled me to defer the fulfilment of Mr. Browning's wish, that its quotation references should be adapted to the use of readers of his new edition. They also leave it the poorer by some interesting notes which he more than once promised me for my next reprint; I had never the heart to say to him: "Is it not safer to give them now?"

The correction, p. 149, of the note referring to p. 184 of "Aristophanes' Apology," was lately made by Mr. Browning in the Handbook, pending the time when he could repeat it in his own work. The cancelled footnote on my 353rd page means that he did remove the contradiction of which I spoke.

An open discussion on "Numpholeptos," which took place some months ago, made me aware that my little abstract was less helpful even than its brevity allowed, because I had emphasized the imagery of the poem where it most obscured—or least distinctly illustrated—its idea; and I re-wrote a few sentences which I now offer in their amended form. A phrase or two in "One Word More" has been altered for the sake of more literal accuracy. No other correction worth specifying has been made in the book.


January 7th, 1890.


The changes made in the present edition have been almost entirely bibliographical. Their chief object was that indicated in an earlier preface, of bringing the Handbook into correspondence with the latest issue of Mr. Browning's works. I felt reluctant when making them, to entirely sacrifice the convenience of those students of Browning who from necessity, or, as in my own case, from affection, still cling to the earlier editions; and would gladly have retained the old references while inserting the new. All however that seemed practical in this direction was to combine the index of 1868 with that of 1889 in so far as they run parallel with each other.

A long felt want has been supplied by the addition to the Handbook of a Bibliography of Mr. Browning's works, based on that of Dr. Furnivall, and thoroughly revised by Mr. Dykes Campbell. The bibliographical details scattered throughout the work have also been made more complete.

The time and trouble required for the altered quotation references have been reduced to a minimum by the thoughtful kindness of my friend Miss Fanny Carey of Trent Leigh, Nottingham; who voluntarily, many months ago, prepared for me a list of the new page numbers, leaving them only to be transcribed when the time came. I have also to thank Mr. G. M. Smith for a copy of his general Index to the works.


Dec. 1st, 1891.










"Pauline." "Paracelsus." "Sordello" 17



"Strafford." "Pippa Passes." "King Victor and King Charles." "The Return of the Druses." "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon." "Colombe's Birthday." "A Soul's Tragedy." "Luria." "In a Balcony" (A Fragment) 53


TRANSCRIPTS FROM THE GREEK, with "Artemis Prologizes" 118



"Aristophanes' Apology," with "Balaustion's Adventure." "Fifine at the Fair." "Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society." "Bishop Blougram's Apology." "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium'" 121


"Christmas-Eve and Easter-day." "La Saiziaz." "Cleon." "An Epistle containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician." "Caliban upon Setebos; or, Natural Theology in the Island" 178


"A Death in the Desert." "Rabbi Ben Ezra." "Deaf and Dumb: a group by Woolner." "The Statue and the Bust" 198


"Old Pictures in Florence." "Respectability." "Popularity." "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha." "A Light Woman." "Transcendentalism." "How it Strikes a Contemporary." "Dis aliter Visum; or, Le Byron de nos Jours." "At the 'Mermaid.'" "House." "Shop." "Pisgah-Sights" I. "Pisgah-Sights," II. "Bifurcation." "Epilogue" "Pacchiarotto and other Poems" 207


LYRICAL LOVE POEMS. "One Word More. To E. B. B." "Prospice." "Numpholeptos." "Prologue" (to "Pacchiarotto and other Poems."). "Natural Magic." "Magical Nature." Introductory Poem to "The Two Poets of Croisic." Concluding Poem to "The Two Poets of Croisic" (a Tale). DRAMATIC LOVE POEMS. "Cristina." "Evelyn Hope." "Love among the Ruins." "A Lovers' Quarrel." "By the Fireside." "Any Wife to any Husband." "Two in the Campagna." "Love in a Life." "Life in a Love." "The Lost Mistress." "A Woman's Last Word." "A Serenade at the Villa." "One Way of Love." "Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli." "In Three Days." "In a Gondola." "Porphyria's Lover." "James Lee's Wife." "The Worst of it." "Too Late." 219



"Saul." "Epilogue to Dramatis Personae." "Fears and Scruples." "Fra Lippo Lippi." "Abt Vogler." "Pictor Ignotus." "The Bishop orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church." "A Toccata of Galuppi's." "The Guardian-Angel: a picture at Fano." "Eurydice to Orpheus: a picture by Leighton." "A Face." "Andrea del Sarto." "The Laboratory." "My Last Duchess." "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." "The Confessional." "A Forgiveness." 237


"Red Cotton Night-Cap Country; or, Turf and Towers." "Cenciaja." "The Two Poets of Croisic." "The Inn Album." "The Heretic's Tragedy: a Middle-Age Interlude" 254


"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." "The Flight of the Duchess" 271


"Holy-Cross Day." "Pacchiarotto, and how he Worked in Distemper." "Filippo Baldinucci on the Privilege of Burial." "Up at a Villa—Down in the City." "Another Way of Love." "Garden Fancies—II. Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis" 277


"De Gustibus—." "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad." "The Englishman in Italy" 285



"The Lost Leader." "Nationality in Drinks." "Garden Fancies—I. The Flower's Name." "Earth's Immortalities." "Home-Thoughts, from the Sea." "My Star." "Misconceptions." "A Pretty Woman." "Women and Roses." "Before." "After." "Memorabilia." "The Last Ride Together." "A Grammarian's Funeral." "Johannes Agricola in Meditation." "Confessions." "May and Death." "Youth and Art." "A Likeness." "Appearances." "St. Martin's Summer." Prologue to "La Saisiaz." "Cavalier Tunes." "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix." "Song." "Incident of the French Camp." "Count Gismond." "The Boy and the Angel." "The Glove." "The Twins." "The Pied Piper of Hamelin; a Child's Story." "Gold Hair: a Story of Pornic." "Herve Riel." "Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr." "Meeting at night." "Parting at Morning." "The Patriot: an Old Story." "Instans Tyrannus." "Mesmerism." "Time's Revenges." "The Italian in England." "Protus." "Apparent Failure." "Waring" 289



DRAMATIC IDYLS, I. SERIES: "Martin Relph." "Pheidippides." "Halbert and Hob." "Ivan Ivanovitch." "Tray." "Ned Bratts." DRAMATIC IDYLS, II. SERIES. "Prologue." "Echetlos." "Clive." "Muleykeh." "Pietro of Abano." "Doctor ——." "Pan and Luna." "Epilogue." "Jocoseria." "Wanting is—what?" "Donald." "Solomon and Balkis." "Cristina and Monaldeschi." "Mary Wollstonecraft and Fuseli." "Adam, Lilith, and Eve." "Ixion." "Jochanan Hakkadosh." "Never the Time and the Place." "Pambo" 308


Ferishtah's Fancies 331

Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their day: To wit: Bernard de Mandeville, Daniel Bartoli, Christopher Smart, George Bubb Dodington, Francis Furini, Gerard de Lairesse, and Charles Avison. Introduced by a Dialogue between Apollo and the Fates: concluded by Another between John Fust and his Friends. 339

NOTE 363








If we were called upon to describe Mr. Browning's poetic genius in one phrase, we should say it consisted of an almost unlimited power of imagination exerted upon real things; but we should have to explain that with Mr. Browning the real includes everything which a human being can think or feel, and that he is realistic only in the sense of being never visionary; he never deals with those vague and incoherent fancies, so attractive to some minds, which we speak of as coming only from the poet's brain. He imagines vividly because he observes keenly and also feels strongly; and this vividness of his nature puts him in equal sympathy with the real and the ideal—with the seen and the unseen. The one is as living to him as the other.

His treatment of visible and of invisible realities constitutes him respectively a dramatic and a metaphysical poet; but, as the two kinds of reality are inseparable in human life, so are the corresponding qualities inseparable in Mr. Browning's work. The dramatic activity of his genius always includes the metaphysical. His genius always shows itself as dramatic and metaphysical at the same time.

Mr. Browning's genius is dramatic because it always expresses itself in the forms of real life, in the supposed experiences of men and women. These men and women are usually in a state of mental disturbance or conflict; indeed, they think much more than they act. But their thinking tends habitually to a practical result; and it keeps up our sense of their reality by clothing itself always in the most practical and picturesque language which thought can assume. It has been urged that he does not sink himself in his characters as a completely dramatic writer should; and this argument must stand for what it is worth. His personality may in some degree be constructed from his works: it is, I think, generally admitted, that that of Shakespeare cannot; and in so far as this is the test of a complete dramatist, Mr. Browning fails of being one. He does not sink himself in his men and women, for his sympathy with them is too active to admit of it. He not only describes their different modes of being, but defends them from their own point of view; and it is natural that he should often select for this treatment characters with which he is already disposed to sympathize. But his women are no less living and no less distinctive than his men; and he sinks his individuality at all times enough to interest us in the characters which are not akin to his own as much as in those which are. Even if it were otherwise, if his men and women were all variations of himself, as imagined under differences of sex, of age, of training, or of condition, he would still be dramatic in this essential quality, the only one which bears on our contention: that everything which, as a poet, he thinks or feels, comes from him in a dramatic, that is to say, a completely living form.

It is in this way also that his dramatic genius includes the metaphysical. The abstract, no less than the practical questions which shape themselves in his mind, are put before us in the thoughts and words, in the character and conduct of his men and women. This does not mean that human experience solves for him all the questions which it can be made to state, or that everything he believes can be verified by it: for in that case his mode of thought would be scientific, and not metaphysical; it simply means, that so much of abstract truth as cannot be given in a picture of human life, lies outside his philosophy of it. He accepts this residue as the ultimate mystery of what must be called Divine Thought. Thought or spirit is with him the ultimate fact of existence; the one thing about which it is vain to theorize, and which we can never get behind. His gospel would begin, "In the beginning was the Thought;" and since he can only conceive this as self-conscious, his "Alpha and Omega" is a Divine intelligence from which all the ideas of the human intellect are derived, and which stamps them as true. These religious conceptions are the meeting-ground of the dramatic and the metaphysical activity of his poetic genius. The two are blended in the vision of a Supreme Being not to be invested with human emotions, but only to be reached through them.

To show that Mr. Browning is a metaphysical poet, is to show that he is not a metaphysical thinker, though he is a thinker whose thought is metaphysical so far as principle goes. A metaphysical thinker is always in some way or other thinking about thought; and this is precisely what Mr. Browning has no occasion to do, because he takes its assumptions upon trust. He is a constant analyst of secondary motives and judgments. No modern freethinker could make a larger allowance for what is incidental, personal, and even material in them: we shall see that all his practical philosophy is bound up with this fact. But he has never questioned the origin of our primary or innate ideas, for he has, as I have said, never questioned their truth. It is essential to bear in mind that Mr. Browning is a metaphysical poet, and not a metaphysical thinker, to do justice to the depth and originality of his creative power; for his imagination includes everything which at a given moment a human being can think or feel, and often finds itself, therefore, at some point to which other minds have reasoned their way. The coincidence occurs most often with German lines of thought, and it has therefore been concluded that he has studied the works in which they are laid down, or has otherwise moved in the same track; the fact being that he has no bond of union with German philosophers, but the natural tendencies of his own mind. It may be easily ascertained that he did not read their language until late in life; and if what I have said of his mental habits is true, it is equally certain that their methods have been more foreign to him still. He resembles Hegel, Fichte, or Schelling, as the case may be, by the purely creative impulse which has met their thought, and which, if he had lived earlier, might have forestalled it. Mr. Browning's position is that of a fixed centre of thought and feeling. Fifty years ago he was in advance of his age. He stood firm and has allowed the current to overtake him, or even leave him behind. If I may be allowed a comparison: other mental existences suggest the idea of a river, flowing onwards, amidst varying scenes, and in a widening bed, to lose itself in the sea. Mr. Browning's genius appears the sea itself, with its immensity and its limits, its restlessness and its repose, the constant self-balancing of its ebb and flow.

As both dramatic and metaphysical poet, Mr. Browning is inspired by one central doctrine: that while thought is absolute in itself, it is relative or personal to the mind which thinks it; so that no one man can attain the whole truth of any abstract subject, and no other can convict him of having failed to do so. And he also believes that since intellectual truth is so largely for each of us a matter of personal impression, no language is special enough to convey it. The arguments which he carries on through the mouths of his men and women often represent even moral truth as something too subtle, too complex, and too changing, to be definitely expressed; and if we did not see that he reverences what is good as much as he excuses what is bad, we might imagine that even on this ground he considered no fixed knowledge to be attainable. These opinions are, however, closely bound up with his religious beliefs, and in great measure explained by them. He is convinced that uncertainty is essential to the spiritual life; and his works are saturated by the idea that where uncertainty ceases, stagnation must begin; that our light must be wavering, and our progress tentative, as well as our hopes chequered, and our happiness even devoid of any sense of finality, if the creative intention is not to frustrate itself; we may not see the path of progress and salvation clearly marked out before us. On the other hand, he believes that the circumstances of life are as much adapted to the guidance of each separate soul as if each were the single object of creative care; and that therefore while the individual knows nothing of the Divine scheme, he is everything in it.

This faith in personality is naturally abstruse on the metaphysical side, but it is always picturesque on the dramatic; for it issues in that love of the unusual which is so striking to every reader of Mr. Browning's works; and we might characterize these in a few words, by saying that they reflect at once the extent of his general sympathies, and his antagonism to everything which is general. But the "unusual" which attracts him is not the morbid or the monstrous, for these mean defective life. It is every healthy escape from the conventional and the commonplace, which are also defective life; and this is why we find in his men and women those vivid, various, and subtly compounded motives and feelings, which make our contact with them a slight, but continuous electric shock.

And since the belief in personality is the belief in human life in its fullest and truest form, it includes the belief in love and self-sacrifice. It may, indeed, be said that while Mr. Browning's judgments are leavened by the one idea, they are steadily coloured by the other; this again being so evident to his serious renders that I need only indicate it here. But the love of love does more than colour his views of life; it is an essential element in his theology; and it converts what would otherwise be a pure Theism into a mystical Christianity which again is limited by his rejection of all dogmatic religious truth. I have already alluded to his belief that, though the Deity is not to be invested with human emotions, He can only be reached through them. Love, according to him, is the necessary channel; since a colourless Omnipotence is outside the conception as outside the sympathies of man. Christ is a message of Divine love, indispensable and therefore true; but He is, as such, a spiritual mystery far more than a definable or dogmatic fact. A definite revelation uttered for all men and for all time is denied by the first principles of Mr. Browning's religious belief. What Christianity means for him, and what it does not, we shall also see in his works.

It is almost superfluous to add that Mr. Browning's dramatic sympathies and metaphysical or religious ideas constitute him an optimist. He believes that no experience is wasted, and that all life is good in its way. We also see that his optimism takes the individual and not the race for its test and starting point; and that he places the tendency to good in a conscious creative power which is outside both, and which deals directly with each separate human soul. But neither must we forget that the creative purpose, as he conceives it, fulfils itself equally through good and evil; so that he does not shrink from the contemplation of evil or by any means always seek to extenuate it. He thinks of it philosophically as a condition of good, or again, as an excess or a distortion of what is good; but he can also think of it, in the natural sense, as a distinct mode of being which a bad man may prefer for its own sake, as a good man prefers its opposite, and may defend accordingly. He would gladly admit that the coarser forms of evil are passing away; and that it is the creative intention that they should do so. Evil remains for him nevertheless essential to the variety, and invested with the dignity of human life; and on no point does he detach himself so clearly from the humanitarian optimist who regards evil and its attendant sufferings as a mere disturbance to life. Even where suffering is not caused by evil doing, he is helped over it by his individual point of view; because this prevents his ever regarding it as distinct from the personal compensations which it so often brings into play. He cannot think of it in the mass; and here again his theism asserts itself, though in a less obvious manner.

So much of Mr. Browning's moral influence lies in the hopeful religious spirit which his works reveal, that it is important to understand how elastic this is, and what seeming contradictions it is competent to unite. The testimony of one poem might otherwise be set against that of another with confusing results.

Mr. Browning's paternal grandfather was an Englishman of a west country stock;[1] his paternal grandmother a Creole. The maternal grandfather was a German from Hamburg named Wiedemann, an accomplished draughtsman and musician.[2] The maternal grandmother was completely Scotch.

This pedigree throws a valuable light on the vigour and variety of Mr. Browning's genius; for it shows that on the ground of heredity they are, in great measure, accounted for. It contains almost the only facts of a biographical nature which can be fitly introduced into the present work.



Mr. Browning's choice of subject is determined by his belief that individual feeling and motive are the only true life: hence the only true material of dramatic art. He rejects no incident which admits of development on the side of feeling and motive. He accepts none which cannot be so developed. His range of subject covers, therefore, a great deal that is painful, but nothing that is simply repulsive: because the poetry of human life, that is of individual experience, is absent from nothing which he portrays.

His treatment of his subject is realistic in so far that it is always picturesque. It raises a distinct image of the person or action he intends to describe; but the image is, so to speak, always saturated with thought: and I shall later have occasion to notice the false impression of Mr. Browning's genius which this circumstance creates. Details, which with realists of a narrower kind would give only a physical impression of the scene described, serve in his case to build up its mental impression. They create a mental or emotional atmosphere which makes us vaguely feel the intention of the story as we travel through it, and flashes it upon us as we look back. In "Red Cotton Night-cap Country" (as we shall presently see) he dwells so significantly on the peacefulness of the neighbourhood in which the tragedy has occurred, that we feel in it the quiet which precedes the storm, and which in some measure invites it. In one of the Idyls, "Ivan Ivanovitch," he begins by describing the axe which will strike off the woman's head, and raising a vague idea of its fitness for any possible use. In another of them, "Martin Relph," the same process is carried on in an opposite manner. We see a mental agony before we know its substantial cause; and we only see the cause as reflected in it "Ned Bratts," again, conveys in its first lines the sensation of a tremendously hot day in which Nature seems to reel in a kind of riotous stupefaction; and the grotesque tragedy on which the idyl turns, becomes a matter of course. It would be easy to multiply examples.

Mr. Browning's verse is also subordinate to this intellectual theory of poetic art. It is uniformly inspired by the principle that sense should not be sacrificed to sound: and this principle constitutes his chief ground of divergence from other poets. It is a case of divergence—nothing more: since he is too deeply a musician to be indifferent to sound in verse, and since no other poet deserving the name would willingly sacrifice sense to it. But while all agree in admitting that sense and sound in poetry are the natural complement of each other, each will be practically more susceptible to one than to the other, and will unconsciously seek it at the expense of the other. With all his love for music, Mr. Browning is more susceptible to sense than to sound. He values though more than expression; matter, more than form; and, judging him from a strictly poetic point of view, he has lost his balance in this direction, as so many have lost it in the opposite one. He has never ignored beauty, but he has neglected it in the desire for significance. He has never meant to be rugged, but he has become so, in the exercise of strength. He has never intended to be obscure, but he has become so from the condensation of style which was the excess of significance and of strength. Habit grows on us by degrees till its slight invisible links form an iron chain, till it overweights its object, and even ends in crushing it out of sight; and Mr. Browning has illustrated this natural law. The self-enslavement was the more inevitable in his case that he was not only an earnest worker, but a solitary one. His genius[3] removed him from the first from that sphere of popular sympathy in which the tendency to excess would have been corrected; and the distance, like the mental habit which created it, was self-increasing.

It is thus that Mr. Browning explains the eccentricities of his style; and his friends know that beyond the point of explaining, he does not defend them. He has never blamed his public for accusing him of obscurity or ugliness He has only thought those wrong who taxed him with being wilfully ugly or obscure. He began early to defy public opinion because his best endeavours had failed to conciliate it; and he would never conciliate it at the expense of what he believed to be the true principles of his art. But his first and greatest failure from a popular point of view was the result of his willingness to accept any judgment, however unfavourable, which coincided with this belief.

"Paracelsus," had recently been published, and declared "unintelligible;" and Mr. Browning was pondering this fact and concluding that he had failed to be intelligible because he had been too concise, when an extract from a letter of Miss Caroline Fox was forwarded to him by the lady to whom it had been addressed. The writer stated that John Sterling had tried to read the poem and been repelled by its verbosity; and she ended with this question: "doth he know that Wordsworth will devote a fortnight or more to the discovery of the single word that is the one fit for his sonnet?"

Mr. Browning was not personally acquainted with either John Sterling or Caroline Fox, and what he knew of the former as a poet did not, to his mind, bear out this marked objection to wordiness. Still, he gave the joint criticism all the weight it deserved; and much more than it deserved in the case of Miss Fox, whom he imagined, from her self-confident manner, to be a woman of a certain age, instead of a girl some years younger than himself; and often, he tells us, during the period immediately following, he contented himself with two words where he would rather have used ten. The harsh and involved passages in "Sordello," which add so much to the remoteness of its thought, were the first consequence of this lesson. "Pauline" and "Paracelsus" had been deeply musical, and the music came back to their author's verse with the dramas, lyrics, and romances by which "Sordello" was followed. But the dread of being diffuse had doubly rooted itself in his mind, and was to bear fruit again as soon as the more historical or argumentative mood should prevail.

The determination never to sacrifice sense to sound is the secret of whatever repels us in Mr. Browning's verse, and also of whatever attracts. Wherever in it sense keeps company with sound, we have a music far deeper than can arise from mere sound, or even from a flow of real lyric emotion, which has its only counterpart in sound. It is in the idea, and of it. It is the brain picture beating itself into words.

The technical rules by which Mr. Browning works, carry out his principle to the fullest extent.

I. He uses the smallest number of words which his meaning allows; is particularly sparing in adjectives.

II. He uses the largest relative number of Saxon (therefore picturesque) words.[4]

III. He uses monosyllabic words wherever this is possible.

IV. He farther condenses his style by abbreviations and omissions, of which some are discarded, but all warranted by authority: "in," "on," and "of," for instance, become "i'," "o'," and "o'." Pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are, on the same principle, occasionally left out.

V. He treats consonants as the backbone of the language, and hence, as the essential feature in a rhyme; and never allows the repetition of a consonant in a rhyme to be modified by a change in the preceding vowel, or by the recurrence of the rhyming syllable in a different word—or the repetition of a consonant in blank verse to create a half-consonance resembling a rhyme: though other poets do not shrink from doing so.[5]

VI. He seldom dilutes his emphasis by double rhymes, reserving these—especially when made up of combined words, and producing a grotesque effect—for those cases in which the meaning is given with a modifying colour: a satirical, or self-satirical, intention on the writer's part. Strong instances of this occur in "The Flight of the Duchess," "Christmas Eve," and "Pacchiarotto."

VII. He always uses the measure most appropriate to his subject, whether it be the ten-syllabled blank verse which makes up "The Ring and the Book," the separate dramatic monologues, and nearly all the dramas, or the heroic rhymed verse which occurs in "Sordello" and "Fifine at the Fair;" or one of the lyrical measures, of which his slighter poems contain almost, if not quite, every known form.[6]

VIII. He takes no liberties with unusual measures; though he takes any admissible liberty with the usual measures, which will interrupt their monotony, and strengthen their effect.

IX. He eschews many vulgarisms or inaccuracies which custom has sanctioned, both in prose and verse, such as, "thou wert;" "better than them all;" "he need not;" "he dare not." The universal "I had better;" "I had rather," is abhorrent to him.[7]

X. No prosaic turns or tricks of language are ever associated in his verse with a poetic mood.


The writer of a handbook to Mr. Browning's poetry must contend with exceptional difficulties, growing out of what I have tried to describe as the unity in variety of Mr. Browning's poetic life. This unity of course impresses itself on his works; and in order to give a systematic survey of them, we must treat as a collection of separate facts what is really a living whole; and seek to give the impression of that whole by a process of classification which cuts it up alive. Mr. Browning's work is, to all intents and purposes, one group; and though we may divide and subdivide it for purposes of illustration, the division will be always more or less artificial, and, unless explained away, more or less misleading. We cannot even divide it into periods, for if the first three poems represent the author's intellectual youth, the remainder are one long maturity; while even in these the poetic faculty shows itself full-grown. We cannot trace in it the evidence of successive manners like those of Raphael, or successive moods like those of Shakespeare; or, if we do, this is neutralized by the simple fact that Mr. Browning's productive career has been infinitely longer than was Raphael's, and considerably so than Shakespeare's; and that changes which meant the development of a genius in their case, mean the course of a life in his.

And this is the central fact of the case. Mr. Browning's work is himself. His poetic genius was in advance of his general growth, but it has been subject to no other law. "The Ring and the Book" was written at what may be considered the turning-point of a human life. It was in some degree a turning-point in the author's artistic career: for most of his emotional poems were published before, and most of the argumentative after it; and in this sense his work may be said to divide itself into two. But the division is useless for our purpose. The Browning of the second period is the Browning of the first, only in a more crystallized form. No true boundary line can be drawn even here.

My endeavour will, therefore, be to bring the sense of this real continuity into the divisions which I must impose on Mr. Browning's work; and thus also to infuse something of his life into the meagre statement of contents to which I am forced to reduce it. The few words of explanation by which I preface each group may assist this end. At the same time I shall resist all temptation to "bring out" what I have indicated as Mr. Browning's leading ideas by headings, capitals, italics, or any other artificial device whatever; as in so doing I should destroy his emphasis and hinder the right reading, besides effacing the usually dramatic character, of the individual poems. The impressions I have received from the collective work will, I trust, be confirmed by it.


[Footnote 1: I stated in my first edition that Mr. Browning was descended from the "Captain Micaiah Browning" who raised the siege of Derry in 1689 by springing the boom across Lough Foyle, and perished in the act (the incident being related in Macaulay's "History of England," vol. iv., pp. 244 and 245 of the edition of 1858). I am now told that there is no evidence of this lineal descent, though there are circumstances which point to some kind of relationship. Another probable ancestor is Captain —— Browning, who commanded the ship "Holy Ghost," which conveyed Henry V. to France before he fought the battle of Agincourt; and in return for whose services two waves, said to represent waves of the sea, were added to his coat of arms. The same arms were worn by Captain Micaiah Browning, and are so by the present family.]

[Footnote 2: Wiedemann is the second baptismal name of Mr. Browning's son; and, in his infantine mouth, it became (we do not exactly guess how), the "Penini," shortened into "Pen," which some ingenious interpreters have derived from the word "Apennine."]

[Footnote 3: And—we are bound to admit—the singular literary obtuseness of the England of fifty years ago.]

[Footnote 4: A distinguished American philologist, the late George P. Marsh, has declared that he exceeds all other modern English writers in his employment of them.]

[Footnote 5: In "In Memoriam" we have such rhymes as:—

{now {curse {mourn {good {light {report {low {horse {turn {blood {delight {port

In the blank verse of "The Princess," and of "Enoch Arden" such assonances as:—

{sun {lost {whom {wand {noon {burst {seem {hand.

{known {clipt {word {down {kept {wood, etc.

I take these instances from the works of so acknowledged a master of verse as Mr. Tennyson, rather than from those of a smaller poet who would be no authority on the subject, because they thus serve to show that the poetic ear may have different kinds as well as degrees of sensibility, and must, in every case, be accepted as, to some extent, a law to itself.]

[Footnote 6: "La Saisiaz," for instance, is written in the same measure as "Locksley Hall," fifteen syllables, divided by a pause, into groups of four trochees, and of three and a half—the last syllable forming the rhyme. It is admirably suited to the sustained and incisive manner in which the argument is carried on. "Ixion" in "Jocoseria," is in alternate hexameter and pentameter, which the author also employs here for the only time; it imitates the turning of the wheel on which Ixion is bound. "Pheidippides" is in a measure of Mr. Browning's own, composed of dactyls and spondees, each line ending with a half foot or pause. It gives the impression of firm, continuous, and rhythmic motion, and is generally fitted to convey the exalted sentiment and heroic character of the poem.

In his translation of the "Agamemnon," Mr. Browning has used the double ending continuously, so as to reproduce the extended measure of the Greek iambic trimeter.]

[Footnote 7: As objection has been taken to the opinions conveyed in this paragraph, and Mr. Browning's authority has been even, in a manner, invoked against them, I subjoin by his desire the accompanying note. The question of what is, or is not, a vicious locution is not essential to the purposes of the book; but it is essential that I should not be supposed to have misstated Mr. Browning's views on any point on which I could so easily ascertain them.

"I make use of 'wast' for the second person of the perfect-indicative, and 'wert' for the present-potential, simply to be understood; as I should hardly be if I substituted the latter for the former, and therewith ended my phrase. 'Where wert thou, brother, those three days, had He not raised thee?' means one thing, and 'Where wast thou when He did so?' means another. That there is precedent in plenty for this and many similar locutions ambiguous, or archaic, or vicious, I am well aware, and that, on their authority, I be wrong, the illustrious poet be right, and you, our critic, was and shall continue to be my instructor as to 'every thing that pretty bin.' As regards my objection to the slovenly 'I had' for 'I'd,' instead of the proper 'I would,' I shall not venture to supplement what Landor has magisterially spoken on the subject. An adverb adds to, and does not, by its omission, alter into nonsense the verb it qualifies. 'I would rather speak than be silent, better criticize than learn' are forms structurally regular: what meaning is in 'I had speak, had criticize'? Then, I am blamed for preferring the indicative to what I suppose may be the potential mood in the case of 'need' and 'dare'—just that unlucky couple: by all means go on and say 'He need help, he dare me to fight,' and so pair off with 'He need not beg, he dare not reply,' forms which may be expected to pullulate in this morning's newspaper.

"VENICE, Oct. 25, 1885."

"R. B." ]




These three poems are Mr. Browning's first, and they are also, as I have said, the one partial exception to the unity and continuousness of his work; they have, at least, one common characteristic which detaches them from the remainder of it. Each is in its different way the study of a human spirit, too ambitious to submit to the limits of human existence, and which learns humility in its unsuccessful conflict with them. This ambition is of its nature poetic, and seems so much in harmony with Mr. Browning's mind—young and untutored by experience as it then was, full of the consciousness of its own powers as it must have been—that it is difficult not to recognize in it a phase of his own intellectual life. But if it was so, it is one which he had already outgrown, or lived much more in fancy than in fact. His sympathy with the ambition of Paracelsus and Sordello is steadily counteracted by his judgment of it; and we are only justified in asserting what is beyond dispute: that these poems represent an introductory phase of the author's imagination, one which begins and ends in them. The mind of his men and women will be exercised on many things, but never again so much upon itself. The vivid sense of their personality will be less in their minds than in his own.

"PAULINE." (1832.)

This poem is, as its title declares, a fragment of a confession. The speaker is a man, probably still young; and Pauline, the name of the lady who receives the confession, and is supposed to edit it. It is not, however, "fragmentary" in the sense of revealing only a small part of the speaker's life, or of only recording isolated acts, from which the life may be built up. Its fragmentary character lies in this: that, while very explicit as a record of feeling and motive, it is entirely vague in respect to acts. It is an elaborate retrospect of successive mental states, big with the sense of corresponding misdeeds; and pointing among these to some glaring infidelities to Pauline, the man's constant love and friend; but on the whole conveying nothing beyond an impression of youthful excesses, and of an extreme and fantastic self-consciousness which has inspired these excesses, and which now magnifies and distorts them.

An ultra-consciousness of self is in fact the key-note of the whole mental situation. Pauline's lover has been a prey to the spiritual ambition so distinctly illustrated in these three first poems; and, unlike Paracelsus and Sordello, he has given it no outlet in unselfish aims. His life has not been wholly misspent; he is a poet and a student; he has had dreams of human good; he has reverenced great men: and never quite lost the faith in God, and the sense of nearness to Him; and he alleges some of these facts in deprecation of his too harsh verdict upon himself. But his ultimate object has been always the gratification of Self—the ministering to its pleasures and to its powers; and this egotism has become narrower and more consuming, till the thirst for even momentary enjoyment has banished the very belief in higher things. The belief returns, and we leave him at the close of his confession exhausted by the mental fever, but released from it—new-born to a better life; though how and why this has happened is again part of the mystery of the case. "Pauline" is the one of Mr. Browning's longer poems of which no intelligible abstract is possible: a circumstance the more striking that it is perfectly transparent, as well as truly poetical, so far as its language is concerned.

The defects and difficulties of "Pauline" are plainly admitted in an editor's note, written in French, and signed by this name; and which, proceeding as it does from the author himself, supplies a valuable comment on the work.

"I much fear that my poor friend will not be always perfectly understood in what remains to be read of this strange fragment, but it is less calculated than any other part to explain what of its nature can never be anything but dream and confusion. I do not know moreover whether in striving at a better connection of certain parts, one would not run the risk of detracting from the only merit to which so singular a production can pretend: that of giving a tolerably precise idea of the manner (genre) which it can merely indicate. This unpretending opening, this stir of passion, which first increases, and then gradually subsides, these transports of the soul, this sudden return upon himself, and above all, my friend's quite peculiar turn of mind, have made alterations almost impossible. The reasons which he elsewhere asserts, and others still more cogent have secured my indulgence for this paper, which otherwise I should have advised him to throw into the fire. I believe none the less in the great principle of all composition—in that principle of Shakespeare, of Raphael, and of Beethoven, according to which concentration of ideas is due much more to their conception than to their execution; I have every reason to fear that the first of these qualities is still foreign to my friend, and I much doubt whether redoubled labour would enable him to acquire the second. It would be best to burn this; but what can I do?"

* * * * *

We might infer from this, as from his subsequent introduction, that Mr. Browning disclaimed all that is extravagant in the poem, and laid it simply to the charge of the imaginary person it is intended to depict: but that he has also prefaced it with a curious Latin quotation which identifies that person with himself.[8]

"Pauline" did not take its place among the author's collected works till 1868, when the uniform edition of them appeared; and he then introduced it by a preface (to which I have just alluded) in which he declared his unwillingness to publish such a boyish production, and gave the reasons which induced him to do so. The poem is boyish, or at all events youthful, in point of conception; and we need not wonder that this intellectual crudeness should have outweighed its finished poetic beauties in its author's mind. It contains however one piece of mental portraiture which, with slight modifications, might have stood for Mr. Browning when he re-edited the work, as it clearly did when he wrote it. It begins thus (vol. i. page 14):

"I am made up of an intensest life,"

The tribute at page 14[9] to the saving power of imagination is also characteristic of his maturer mind, though expressed in an ambiguous manner. It is interesting to know that in the line (page 26),

"the king Treading the purple calmly to his death,"

he was thinking of Agamemnon: as this shows how early his love of classic literature began. The allusion to Plato, at pages 19, 20, and 21, largely confirms this impression. The feeling for music asserts itself also at page 18, though in a less spiritual form than it assumes in his later works. But the most striking piece of true biography which "Pauline" contains, is its evidence of the young writer's affectionate reverence for Shelley, whom he idealizes under the name of Sun-treader. An invocation to his memory occupies three pages, beginning with the ninth; it is renewed at the end of the poem, and there can be no doubt that the pathetic language in which it is couched came straight from the young poet's own heart. We even fancy that Shelley's influence is visible in the poem itself, which contains a profusion of natural imagery, and some touches of naturalistic emotion, not at all in keeping with Mr. Browning's picturesque, but habitually human genius. The influence, if it existed, passed away with his earliest youth; not so the admiration and sympathy which it implied; and this, considering the wide difference which separated the two minds, is an interesting fact.[10]

"PARACELSUS." (1835.)

"Paracelsus" is a summary of the life, as Mr. Browning conceives it, of this well-known physicist of the sixteenth century; and is divided into five scenes, or groups of scenes, each representing a critical moment in his experience, and reviewing in his own words the circumstances by which it has been prepared. The personages whom it includes are, besides the principal one, Festus and Michal, early friends of Paracelsus, and now man and wife; and the Italian poet Aprile. Michal appears only in the first scene; Aprile in the second or third; but Festus accompanies Paracelsus throughout the drama, in the constant character of judicious, if not profound, adviser, and of tender friend. His personality is sufficiently marked to claim the importance of a type; and as such he stands forth, as contrasted with both Paracelsus and Aprile, and yet a bond of union between them. It is more probable however that he was created for the mere dramatic purpose of giving shape to the confession of Paracelsus, and preserving it from monotony. The story is principally told in a dialogue between them.

The first scene is entitled "Paracelsus aspires;" and takes place at Wuerzburg between himself, Festus, and Michal, on the eve of his departure from their common home. Both friends begin by opposing his aspirations, and thus lead him to expound and defend them. The aim and spirit of these is the distinguishing feature of the poem. Paracelsus aspires to knowledge: such knowledge as will benefit his fellow-men. He will seek it in the properties of nature, and, as history tells us, he will succeed. But his aspirations pass over these isolated discoveries, which he has no idea of connecting into scientific truths: and tend ever towards some final revelation of the secret of life, to flash forth from his own brain when the flesh shall have been subdued, and the imprisoned light of intellect set free. And here Mr. Browning's metaphysical fancy is somewhat at issue with his facts. Paracelsus employed nature in the quest of the supernatural or magical; this is shown by the poem, though in it he begins by repudiating, with all other external aids, the help of the black art. He therefore relied on other kinds of knowledge than that which springs direct from the human mind. The inconsistency however disappears in Mr. Browning's conception of the case, and the metaphysical language which he imputes to Paracelsus in the earlier stages of his career, is not felt to be untrue.

Paracelsus not only aspires to know: he believes it his mission to acquire knowledge; and he believes also that it is only to be acquired through untried methods, through untaught men: most of all through solitary communion with nature, and at the sacrifice of all human joys. Festus regards this as a delusion, and combats it, in this first scene, with the arguments of common sense; overshooting the mark just enough to leave his friend the victory. Paracelsus has declared that he appreciates all he is renouncing, but that he has no choice. He knows that the way on which he is about to enter is "trackless;" but so is the bird's: God will guide him as He guides the bird. And Festus replies that the road to knowledge is not trackless. "Mighty marchers" have left their footprints upon it. Nature has not written her secrets in desert places, but in the souls of great men: the "Stagirite,"[11] and the sages who form a glory round him. He urges Paracelsus to learn what they can teach, and then take the torch of wisdom from the exhausted runner's hand, and let his fresh strength continue the race. He warns him against the personal ambition which alloys his unselfish thirst for knowledge; against the presumption which impels him to serve God (and man).

"... apart from such Appointed channel as he wills shall gather Imperfect tributes, for that sole obedience Valued perchance...." (vol. ii. p. 17.)

against the dangers of a course which cuts him adrift from human love. But Paracelsus has his answer ready. "The wisdom of the past has done nothing for mankind. Men have laboured and grown famous: and the evils of life are unabated: the earth still groans in the blind and endless struggle with them. Truth comes from within the human intellect. To KNOW is to have opened a way for its escape—not a way for its admission. It has often refused itself to a life of study. It has been born of loitering idleness. The force which inspires him proves his mission to be authentic. His own will could not create such promptings. He dares not set them aside."

The depth of his conviction carries the day, and the scene ends with these expressive words:—

"Par. ... Are there not, Festus, are there not, dear Michal. Two points in the adventure of the diver, One—when, a beggar, he prepares to plunge, One—when, a prince, he rises with his pearl? Festus, I plunge! Fest. We wait you when you rise!" (vol. ii. p. 38.)

The next two, or indeed three scenes are united under the title "Paracelsus attains;" but the attainment is not at first visible. We find him at Constantinople, in the house of the Greek conjuror, nine years after his departure from home. He has not discovered the magical secret which he came to seek; and his tone, as he reviews his position, is full of a bitter and almost despairing sense of failure. His desultory course has borne scanty and confused results. His powers have been at once overstrained and frittered away. He is beset by the dread of madness; and by the fear, scarcely less intolerable, of a moral shipwreck in which even the purity of his motives will disappear. His thoughts revert sadly to his youth, and its lost possibilities of love and joy. At this juncture the poet Aprile appears, and unconsciously reveals to him the secret of his unsuccess. He has sought knowledge at the sacrifice of love; in so doing he has violated a natural law and is suffering for it. Knowledge is inseparable from love in the scheme of life. Aprile too has sinned, but in the opposite manner; he has refused to know. He has loved blindly and immoderately, and retribution has overtaken him also: for he is dying. If the one existence has lacked sustaining warmth, the other has burned itself away. Aprile's "Love" is not however restricted to the personal sense of the word; it means the passion for beauty, the impulse to possess and to create it; everything which belongs to the life of art. He represents the aesthetic or emotional in life, as Paracelsus represents the intellectual. We see this in the sorrowful confession of Paracelsus:—

"I cannot feed on beauty for the sake Of beauty only, nor can drink in balm From lovely objects for their loveliness;" (vol. ii. p. 95.)

and, in the words already addressed to Aprile (page 65):—

"Are we not halves of one dissevered world,"

Aprile acknowledges his own mistake, in a passage which fully completes the moral of the story, and begins thus (page 59):—

"Knowing ourselves, our world, our task so great, Our time so brief,...."

Paracelsus never sees him again, and will speak of him on a subsequent occasion as a madman; but he evidently accepts him as a messenger of the truth; and the message sinks into his soul.

In what is called the third scene, five years more have elapsed; and Paracelsus is at Bale, again opening his heart to his old friend. He is professor at the University. His fame extends far beyond it. Outwardly he has "attained." But the sense of a wasted life, and above all, of moral deterioration, is stronger on him than ever, and the tone in which he expresses it is only calmer than in the previous soliloquy, because it is more hopeless. He has failed in his highest aims—and failed doubly: because he has learned to content himself with low ones. He believes that he is teaching useful, although fragmentary truths; that these may lead to more; that those who follow him may stand on his shoulders and be considered great. But the crowning TRUTH is as far from him as ever; and the mass of those who crowd his lecture-room do not even come for what they can learn, but for the vulgar pleasure of seeing old beliefs subverted, and old methods exposed. He is humiliated at having declined on to what seems to him a lower range of knowledge; still more by the kind of men with whom it has brought him into contact; and he sees himself sinking into a lower depth, in which such praise as they can give will repay him. His contempt for himself and them is making him reckless of consequences, and preparing the way for his disgrace.

In spite however of his failure Paracelsus has done so much, that Festus is converted; and ready to justify both his early belief in his own mission, and the abnormal means by which he has chosen to carry it out. Their positions are reversed, and he combats his friend's self-abasement as he once combated his too great confidence in himself. He grieves over what seems to him the depression of an over-wrought mind, and what he will not regard as due to any deeper cause. But Paracelsus will take no comfort; and when, finally, he denounces the folly of intellectual pretensions, and ends with the pathetic words—in part the echo of Festus' own:—

"... No, no: Love, hope, fear, faith—these make humanity; These are its sign and note and character. And these I have lost!..." (vol. ii. p. 109.)

Festus has no answer to give. He parts from Paracelsus perplexed and saddened rather than convinced, but with a dawning consciousness of depths in life, to which his strong but simple soul has no key.

In the fourth scene these depths are more fully and more perplexingly revealed. Two years more have elapsed. Paracelsus has escaped from Bale, and is at Colmar, once more confessing himself to Festus, and once more said to "aspire." But his aspirations are less easy to understand than formerly, because their aim is less single. The sense of wasted life, Aprile's warnings, some natural rebound against the continued intellectual strain have determined him to strive for a fuller existence, and neglect no opportunity of usefulness or enjoyment. A serious and commendable change would seem to be denoted by the words, "I have tried each way singly: now for both!" (page 121); and again at page 126, where a new-born softness asserts itself. His language has, however, a vein of bitterness, sometimes even of cynicism, which belies the idea of any sustained impulse to good. He is worn in body, weary in mind, fitful and wayward in mood, and just in the condition in which men half impose on others, and half on themselves. He alludes to the habit of drinking as one which he has now contracted; and he is clearly entering on the period of his greatest excesses, perhaps also of his most strenuous exertions in the cause of knowledge. But his energy is reckless and irregular, and the spirit of the gambler rather than that of the student is in it. He works all night to forget himself by day, gathering up his diminished strength for, a lavish expenditure; and a new misgiving as to the wisdom of his "aspirations" pierces through the assertion that even sickness may lend an aid; since

"... mind is nothing but disease, And natural health is ignorance." (vol. ii. p. 122.)

We feel that henceforward his path will be all downhill.

In the fifth and closing scene, thirteen years later, Paracelsus "attains" again, and for the last time. He is dying. Festus watches by him in his hospital cell with a very touching tenderness; and as Paracelsus awakes from a period of lethargy to a delirious remembrance of his past life, he soothes and guides him to an inspired calm in which its true meaning is revealed to him. The half prophetic death-bed vision includes everything which experience had taught him; and a great deal which we cannot help thinking only a more modern experience could have taught. It disclaims all striving after absolute knowledge, and asserts the value of limitation in every energy of life. The passage in which he describes the faculties of man, and which begins

"Power—neither put forth blindly, nor controlled Calmly by perfect knowledge;" (vol. ii. p. 168.)

contains the natural lesson of the speaker's career, supposing him in a condition to receive it. But it also reflects Mr. Browning's constant ideal of a fruitful and progressive existence; and the very beautiful monologue of which it forms part is, so far as it goes, his actual confession of faith. The scientific idea of evolution is here distinctly foreshadowed: though it begins and ends, in Mr. Browning's mind, in the large Theism which was and is the basis of his religious belief.

The poem is followed by an historical appendix, which enables the reader to verify its facts, and judge Mr. Browning's interpretation of them.

"SORDELLO." (1840.)

"Sordello" is, like "Paracelsus," the imaginary reconstruction of a real life, in connection with contemporary facts; but its six "books" present a much more complicated structure. The historical part of "Paracelsus" is all contained in the one life. In "Sordello" it forms a large and moving background, which often disputes our attention with the central figure, and sometimes even absorbs it: projecting itself as it were in an artistic middle distance, in which fact and fancy are blended; while the mental world through which the hero moves, is in its way, as restless and as crowded as the material. It may save time and trouble to readers of the poem to know something of its historical foundation and poetic motive, before making any great effort to disentangle its various threads; but it will always be best to read it once without this key: since the story, involved as it is, has a sustained dramatic interest which is destroyed by anticipating its course.

The historical personages who take part in it directly and indirectly, are

Ghibellines. Guelphs.

ECCELINO DA ROMANO II., AZZO, LORD OF ESTE Surnamed the Monk: (father and son). married, first to Agnes Este; secondly to Adelaide, RICHARD, COUNT OF SAN a Tuscan. BONIFACIO (father and son). TAURELLO SALINGUERRA, a soldier, married, first to Retrude, of the family of the German Emperor Frederick the Second; and secondly, in advanced life, to Sofia, fifth daughter of Eccelino the Monk.

ADELAIDE, second wife of Eccelino da Romano.

PALMA (properly Cunizza), Eccelino's daughter by Agnes Este.

The poet SORDELLO.

Historical basis of the Story.

A Mantuan poet of the name of Sordello is mentioned by Dante in the "Purgatorio," where he is supposed to be recognized as a fellow-townsman by Virgil.

"Surse ver lui del luogo ove pria stava, Dicendo, O Mantovan, Io son Sordello Della tua terra: e l' un l' altro abbracciava."[12]

And also in his treatise "De vulgare Eloquentia," where he speaks of him as having created the Italian language. These facts are related by Sismondi in his "Italian Republics," vol. ii., page 202; and the writer refers us for more particulars to his work on the "Literature of Southern Europe." He seems, however, to exhaust the subject when he tells us that the nobility of Sordello's birth, and his intrigue or marriage with Cunizza are attested by contemporaries; that a "mysterious obscurity" shrouds his life; and that his violent death is obscurely indicated by Dante, whose mention of him is now his only title to immortality. According to one tradition he was the son of an archer named Elcorte. Another seems to point to him when it imputes a son to Salinguerra as the only offspring of his first marriage, and having died before himself. Mr. Browning accepts the latter hypothesis, whilst he employs both.

The birth of his Sordello, as probably of the real one, coincides with the close of the twelfth century; and with an active condition of the family feuds which were just merging in the conflict of Guelphs and Ghibellines. The "Biographie Universelle" says:

"The first encounter between the two parties took place at Vicenza towards 1194. Eccelino the Second, who allied himself with the republics of Verona and Padua, was exiled from Vicenza himself his whole family and his faction, by a Podesta, his enemy. Before submitting to this sentence, he undertook to defend himself by setting fire to the neighbouring houses; a great part of the town was burned during the conflict, in which Eccelino was beaten. These were the first scenes of confusion and massacre, which met the eyes of the son of the Lord of Romano, the ferocious Eccelino the Third, born 4th of April, 1194."

In Mr. Browning's version, Adelaide, wife of Eccelino II., is saved with her infant son—this Eccelino the Third—by the devotion of an archer, Elcorte, who perishes in the act. Retrude, wife of Salinguerra, and also present on this occasion, only lives to be conveyed to Adelaide's castle at Goito; but her new-born child survives; and Adelaide, dreading his future rivalry with her own, allows his father to think him dead, and brings him up, under the name of Sordello, as her page, declaring him to be Elcorte's son adopted out of gratitude. The "intrigue" between him and Palma (Cunizza) appears in due time as a poetical affinity, strongest on her side, and which determines her to see him restored to his rightful place. Palma's subsequent marriage with Richard, Count of San Bonifacio, serves to justify the idea of an engagement to him, ratified by her father before his retirement from the world, and which she and Salinguerra conspire to break, the one from love of Sordello, the other in the interests of her House. Eccelino's real assumption of the monastic habit after Adelaide's death is represented as in part caused by remorse—for Salinguerra is his old and faithful ally, and he has connived at the wrong done to him in the concealment of his son; and his return to the Guelph connexion from which his daughter has sprung, as a general disclaimer of his second wife's views.

The Lombard League also figures in the story, as the consequence of Salinguerra's and Palma's conspiracy against San Bonifacio; though it also appears as brought about by the historic course of events. Salinguerra, under cover of military reprisals, has entrapped the Count into Ferrara, and detained him there, at the moment when he was expected to meet his lady-love in his own city of Verona. Verona prepares to resent this outrage on its Prince, and with it, the other States which represent the Guelph cause; and when Palma—seizing her opportunity—summons Sordello thither in his character of her minstrel, and reveals to him her projects for him and for herself, their interview is woven into the historical picture of a great mediaeval city suddenly called to arms. What Sordello sees when he goes with Palma to Ferrara, belongs to the history of all mediaeval warfare; and his sudden and premature death revives the historical tradition though in a new form. The intermediate details of his minstrel's career are of course imaginary; but his struggle to increase the expressiveness of his mother tongue again records a fact.

I have mentioned such accessible authorities as Sismondi and the "Biographie Universelle," because they are accessible: not from any idea that they give the measure of Mr. Browning's knowledge of his subject. He prepared himself for writing "Sordello" by studying all the chronicles of that period of Italian history which the British Museum supplied; and we may be sure that every event he alludes to as historical, is so in spirit, if not in the letter; while such details as come under the head of historical curiosities are absolutely true. He also supplemented his reading by a visit to the places in which the scenes of the story are laid.

Its Dramatic Idea.

The dramatic idea of "Sordello" is that of an imaginative nature, nourished by its own creations, and also consumed by them; and breaking down in consequence under the first strain of real conflict and passion. The mysterious Italian poet,—scarcely known but as a voice, a mere phantom among living men—was well fitted to illustrate such an idea; he might also perhaps have suggested it. But we know that it was already growing in Mr. Browning's mind; for Sordello had been foreshadowed in Aprile, though the two are as different as their common poetic quality allows. Aprile is consumed by a creative passion, which is always akin to love; Sordello by an imaginative fever which has no love in it; and in this respect he presents a stronger contrast to Aprile than Paracelsus himself. As a poet he may be said to contain both the artist and the thinker, and therefore to transcend both; and his craving is for neither love nor knowledge, as the foregoing poem represents them, but for that magnitude of poetic existence, which means all love and all knowledge, as all beauty and all power in itself. But he makes the same mistake as Aprile, or at least as Paracelsus, and makes it in a greater degree; for he rejects all the human conditions of the poetic life: and strives to live it, not in experience or in sympathy, but by a pure act of imagination, or as he calls it, of Will; and he wears himself out body and soul by a mental strain which proves as barren as it is continuous. The true joy of living comes home to him at last, and with it the first challenge to self-sacrifice. Duty prevails; but he dies in the conflict, or rather of it.

The intended lesson of the story is distinctly enforced in its last scene, but is patent almost from the first—that the mind must not disclaim the body, nor imagination divorce itself from reality: that the spiritual is bound up with the material in our earthly life. All Mr. Browning's practical philosophy is summed up in this truth, and much of his religion; for it points to the necessity of a human manifestation of the Divine Being; and though Sordello's story contains no explicit reference to Christian doctrine, an unmistakeable Christian sentiment pervades its close. That restless and ambitious spirit had missed its only possible anchorage: the ideal of an intellectual existence at once guided and set free by love.

Mr. Browning has indeed prefaced the poem by saying that in writing it he has laid his chief stress on the incidents in the development of a soul. It must be read with reference to this idea; and I should be bound to give precedence to it over the poetic inspiration of the story if Mr. Browning had practically done so. This is not, however, the case. Sordello's poetic individuality overshadows the moral, and for a time conceals it altogether. The close of his story is distinctly the emerging of a soul from the mists of poetic egotism by which it has been obscured; and Mr. Browning has meant us from the first to see it struggling through them. But in so doing he has judged Sordello's poetic life as a blind aspiration after the spiritual, while the egotism which he represents as the keynote of his poetic being was in fact the negation of it. The idea was just: that the greatest poet must have in him the making of the largest man. His Sordello is imperial among men for the one moment in which his song is in sympathy with human life; and Mr. Browning would have made it more consistently so, had he worked out his idea at a later time. But the poem was written at a period in which his artistic judgment was yet inferior to his poetic powers, and the need of ordering his vast material from the reader's, as well as the writer's, point of view—though he states it by implication at the end of the third book—had not thoroughly penetrated his mind.

I venture on this criticism, though it is no part of my task to criticize, because "Sordello" is the one of Mr. Browning's works which still remains to be read; and even a mistaken criticism may sometimes afford a clue. "Sordello" is not only harder to read than "Paracelsus," but harder than any other of Mr. Browning's works; its complications of structure being interwoven with difficulties of a deeper kind which again react upon them. Enough has been said to show that the conception of the character is very abstruse on the intellectual and poetic side; that it presents us with states of thought and feeling, remote from common experience, and which no language could make entirely clear; and unfortunately the style is sometimes in itself so obscure that we cannot judge whether it is the expression or the idea which we fail to grasp. The poem was written under the dread of diffuseness which had just then taken possession of Mr. Browning's mind, and we have sometimes to struggle through a group of sentences out of which he has so laboured to squeeze every unnecessary word, that their grammatical connection is broken up, and they present a compact mass of meaning which without previous knowledge it is almost impossible to construe. We are also puzzled by an abridged, interjectional, way of carrying on the historical part of the narrative; by the author's habit of alluding to imaginary or typical personages in the same tone as to real ones; and by misprints, including errors in punctuation, which will be easily corrected in a later edition, but which mar the present one.

It is only fair to add that he would deprecate the idea of any excessive labour as bestowed on this, to his mind, immature performance. It is for us, not for him, to do justice to it. With all its faults and obscurities, "Sordello" is a great work; full moreover of pregnant and beautiful passages which are not affected by them. When Mr. Browning re-edited "Sordello" in 1863, he considered the possibility of re-writing it in a more transparent manner; but he concluded that the labour would be disproportionate to the result, and contented himself with summarizing the contents of each "book" in a continuous heading, which represents the main thread of the story. It will be useful to read this carefully.


The story opens at Verona, at the moment of the formation of the Lombard League—a well-known union of Guelph cities against the Ghibellines in Northern Italy. Mr. Browning, addressing himself to an imaginary audience composed of living and dead, describes the city as it hastens to arms, and the chain of circumstances through which she has been called upon to do so; and draws a curious picture of two political ideals which he considers respectively those of Ghibelline and Guelph: the one symbolized by isolated heights, the other by a continuous level growth; those again suggesting the violent disruptions which create imperial power; these the peaceful organic processes of democratic life. The poet Shelley is desired to withdraw his "pure face" from among the spectators of this chequered scene; and Dante is invoked in the name of him whose fame preceded his, and has been absorbed by it. A secret chamber in Count Richard's palace shows Palma and Sordello in earnest conference with each other. Then the curtain falls; and we are carried back thirty years, and to Goito Castle.

Sordello is there: a refined and beautiful boy; framed for all spiritual delights. As his life is described, it has neither duties nor occupations; no concern with the outer world; no contact even with that of Adelaide, his supposed protectress. He is dreaming away his childhood in the silent gloom of the castle, or the sunny outdoor life of the hills and woods. He lives in imagination, blends the idea of his own being with everything he sees; and for years is happy in the bare fact of existence. But the germ of a fatal spiritual ambition is lurking within him; and as he grows into a youth, he hankers after something which he calls sympathy, but which is really applause. He therefore makes a human crowd for himself out of carved and tapestried figures, and the few names which penetrate into his solitude, and fancies himself always the greatest personage amongst them. He simulates all manner of heroic performances and of luxurious rest. He is Eccelino, the Emperor's vicar; he is the Emperor himself. He becomes more than this; for his fancy has soared upwards to the power which includes all empire in one—the spiritual power of song. Apollo is its representative. Sordello is he. He has had one glimpse of Palma; she becomes his Daphne; the dream life is at its height.

And now Sordello is a man. He begins to sicken for reality. Vanity and ambition are ripe in him. His egotisms are innocent, but they are absorbing. The soul is as yet dormant.[13]


The dream-life becomes a partial reality. Sordello's wanderings carry him one day to the walls of Mantua, outside which Palma is holding a "Court of Love." Eglamor sings. His song is incomplete. Sordello feels what is wanting; catches up the thread of the story; and sings it to its proper close.[14] His triumph is absolute. He is installed as Palma's minstrel in Eglamor's place. Eglamor accepts his defeat with touching gentleness, and lies down to die. This poet is meant to embody the limited art, which is an end in itself, and one with the artist's life. Sordello, on the other hand, represents the boundless aspirations which art may subserve, but which must always leave it behind. The parallel will be stated more distinctly later on.

Sordello's first wish is fulfilled. He has found a career which will reconcile his splendid dreams with his real obscurity, and set him, by right of imagination—the true Apolloship—apart from other men. But his true difficulties have yet to begin. It is not enough that he feels himself a transcendent personage. He must make others believe that he is so. Every act of imagination is with him an act of existence, or as Mr. Browning calls it of Will; but this self-asserting was much easier with the imaginary crowd than it can be with the real one. Sordello is soon at cross-purposes with his hearers: for when he sings of human passion, or human prowess, they never dream of identifying him with it; and when he sings of mere abstract modes of being, they do not understand.

The love of abstract conception is indeed the rock on which he splits. The feelings which are real to us are unreal to him, because they are accidental. What is real to him is the underlying consciousness which according to his view is permanent: the "intensest" self described in "Pauline"—the mind which is spoken of in the fifth "book" of "Sordello" (vol. i. page 236) as nearest to God when emptied of even thought; and his aim is to put forth all the qualities which this absolute existence can assume, and yet be reflected in other men's minds as independent of them. This lands him in struggles not only with his hearers but with himself—for he is unused to expressing what he feels; and with a language which at best could convey "whole perceptions" like his, in a very meagre form, or a fragmentary one. He still retains the love of real life and adventure which inspired his boyish dreams. There is nothing, as I have said, that he does not wish to be; and now, amidst commonplace human beings, his human desires often take a more simple and natural form. But the poet in him pushes the man aside, and bids him, at all events, wait. He does not know that he is failing through the hopeless disunion of the two. He silences his better humanity, and retains the worst; for he is more and more determined to succeed at whatever cost. Yet failure meets him on every side. He is too large for his public, but he is also too small for it. Every question raised even in talk carries him into the infinite. Every man of his audience has a practical answer ready before he has. Naddo plies him with common sense. "He is to speak to the human heart—he is not to be so philosophical—he is not to seem so clever." Shallow judges pull him to pieces. Shallow rivals strive to sing him down.[15] He loses his grasp of the ideal. He cannot clutch the real. His imagination dries up.

Meanwhile Adelaide has died. Salinguerra, who had joined the Emperor at Naples, is brought back in hot haste by the news that Eccelino has retired to a monastery, has disclaimed the policy of his House; and is sealing his peace with the Guelph princes by the promised marriage of his sons Eccelino and Alberic with the sisters of Este; and of his daughter Palma with Count Richard of San Bonifacio himself. He is coming to Mantua. Sordello must greet him with his best art. But Sordello shrinks from the trial, and escapes back to Goito, whence Palma has just departed. What his Mantuan life has taught him is thus expressed (vol. i. page 130):—

"The Body, the Machine for Acting Will, Had been at the commencement proved unfit; That for Demonstrating, Reflecting it, Mankind—no fitter: was the Will Itself In fault?"

He is wiser than he was, but his objects remain the same. The sympathies—the moral sense—the soul—are still asleep.


Sordello buries himself once more in the contemplation of nature; but finds in it only a short-lived peace. The marshy country about Mantua is suddenly converted into water; and with the shock of this catastrophe comes also the feeling: Nature can do and undo; her opportunities are endless. With man

"...youth once gone is gone: Deeds let escape are never to be done." (vol. i. p. 135.)

He has dreamed of love, of revel, and of adventure; but he has let pass the time when such dreams could be realized; and worst of all, the sacrifice has been useless. He has sacrificed the man in him to the poet; and his poetic existence has been impoverished by the act. He has rejected experience that he might be his fullest self before living it; and only living, in other words, experience, could have made that self complete. His later years have been paving the way for this discovery; it bursts on him all at once. He has been under a long strain. The reaction at length has come. He yearns helplessly for the "blisses strong and soft" which he has known he was passing by, but of which the full meaning never reached him until now. He must live yet. The question is, "in what way." And this is unexpectedly answered. Palma sends for him to Verona: tells him of her step-mother's death—of strange secrets revealed to herself—of the secret influence Sordello has exercised over her life—of a great future awaiting his own, and connecting it with the Emperor's cause. She summons him to accompany her to Ferrara, and hear from Salinguerra's lips what that future is to be.

Sordello has entered on a new phase of existence. He feels that henceforward he is not to act men, but to make them act; this is how his being is to be fulfilled. It is a first step in the direction of unselfishness, but not yet into it. The soul is not yet awake.

At this point of his narrative Mr. Browning makes a halt, and carries us off to Venice, where he muses on the various questions involved in Sordello's story. The very act of digression leads back to the comparison between Eglamor and Sordello: between the artist who is one with his work, and him who is outside and beyond it—between the completeness of execution which comes of a limited ideal, and the true greatness of those performances which "can never be more than dreamed." And the case of the true poet is farther illustrated by that of the weather-bound sailor, who seems to have settled down for life with the fruits of his adventures, but waits only the faintest sign of a favourable wind to cut his moorings and be off.

Then comes a vision of humanity, also in harmony with the purpose of the poem. It takes the form of some frail and suffering woman, and is addressed by the author with a tenderness in which we recognize one of his constant ideals of love: the impulse not to worship or to enjoy, but to comfort and to protect. He next considers the problem of human sorrow and sin, and deprecates the absolute condemnation of the sinner, in language which anticipates that of "Fifine at the Fair." "Every life has its own law. The 'losel,' the moral outcast, keeps his own conceit of truth though through a maze of lies. Good labours to exist through evil, by means of the very ignorance which sets each man to tackle it for himself, believing that he alone can."[16] Mr. Browning rejects at least the show of knowledge which gives you a name for what you die of; and that deepening of ignorance which comes of the perpetual insisting that fountains of knowledge spring everywhere for those who choose to dispense it. "What science teaches is made useless by the shortness of human existence; it absorbs all our energy in building up a machine which we shall have no time to work. All direct truth comes to us from the poet: whether he be of the smaller kind who only see, or the greater, who can tell what they have seen, or the greatest who can make others see it." Corresponding instances follow.[17]

Mr. Browning is aware that one is a poet at his own risk; and that the poetic chaplet may also prove a sacrificial one. He will still wear it, however, because in his case it means the suffrage of a "patron friend"[18]

"Whose great verse blares unintermittent on Like your own trumpeter at Marathon,—" (vol. i. p. 169.)

He recalls his readers to the "business" of the poem:

"the fate of such As find our common nature—overmuch Despised because restricted and unfit To bear the burthen they impose on it— Cling when they would discard it; craving strength To leap from the allotted world, at length They do leap,—flounder on without a term, Each a god's germ, doomed to remain a germ In unexpanded infancy, unless...." (pp. 170, 171.)

admits that the story sounds dull; but suggests the possibility of its containing an agreeable surprise. An amusing anecdote to this effect concludes the chapter.[19]


We are now introduced to Taurello Salinguerra: a fine soldier-like figure; the type of elastic strength in both body and mind. We are told that he possesses the courage of the fighter, the astuteness of the politician, the knowledge and graces of the man of leisure. He has shown himself capable of controlling an Emperor, and of giving precedence to a woman. He is young at sixty, while the son who is half his age, is "lean, outworn and really old." And the crowning difference between him and Sordello is this: that while Sordello only draws out other men as a means of displaying himself, he only displays himself sufficiently to draw out other men. "His choicest instruments" have "surmised him shallow."

He is in his palace at Ferrara, musing over the past—that past which held the turning-point of his career; which began the feud between himself and the now Guelph princes, and which naturally merged him in the Ghibelline cause. He remembers how the fathers of the present Este and San Bonifacio combined to cheat him out of the Modenese heiress who was to be his bride—how he retired to Sicily, to return with a wife of the Emperor's own house—how his enemies surprised him at Vicenza. He sees his old comrade Eccelino, so passive now, so brave and vigorous then. He sees the town as they fire it together: the rush for the gates: the slashing, the hewing, the blood hissing and frying on the iron gloves. His spirit leaps in the returning frenzy of that struggle and flight. It sinks again as he thinks of Elcorte—Adelaide's escape—her rescued child; his own doom in the wife and child who were not rescued.

"And now! he has effaced himself in the interests of the Romano house. Its life has grafted itself on his own; and to what end? The Emperor is coming. His badge and seal, already in Salinguerra's hands, bestow the title of Imperial Prefect on whosoever assumes the headship of the Ghibellines in the north of Italy; and Eccelino, its proper chief, recoils; withdraws even his name from the cause. Who shall wear the badge? None so fitly as himself, who holds San Bonifacio captive—who has dislocated if not yet broken the Guelph right arm. Yet, is it worth his while? Shall he fret his remaining years? Shall he rob his old comrade's son?" He laughs the idea to scorn....

Sordello has come with Palma to Ferrara. He came to find the men who were to be the body to his spirit, the instrument to his will. But he came, expecting that these would be great. And now he discovers that very few are great; while behind and beneath, and among them, extends something which has never yet entered his field of thought: the mass of mankind. The more he looks the more it grows upon him: this people with the

"... mouths and eyes, Petty enjoyments and huge miseries,—" (vol. i. p. 181.)

and the more he feels that the few are great because the many are in them—because they are types and representatives of these. Hitherto he has striven to impose himself on mankind. He now awakes to the joy and duty of serving it. It is the magnified body which his spirit needs. And in the new-found knowledge, the new-found sympathy, his soul springs full-grown into life.

But another check is in store for him. He has taken for granted that the cause in which he is to be enlisted is the people's cause. The new soul in him can conceive nothing less. A first interview with Salinguerra dispels this dream, and dispels it in such a manner that he leaves the presence of his unknown father years older and wearier than when he entered it. He wanders through the city, mangled by civil war. The effects of Ghibelline vengeance meet him on every side. Is the Guelph more humane? He discusses the case with Palma. They weigh deeds with deeds. "Guelph and Ghibelline are alike unjust and cruel, alike inveterate enemies of their fellow-men." Who then represents the people's cause? A sudden answer comes. A bystander recognizing his minstrel's attire begs Sordello to sing, and suggests the Roman Tribune Crescentius as his theme. Rome rises before his mind—the mother of cities—the great constructive power which weaves the past into the future; which represents the continuity of human life. The reintegration of Rome must typify the triumph of mankind. But Rome is now the Church; she is one with the Guelph cause. The Guelph cause is therefore in some sense the true one. Sordello's new-found spiritual and his worldly interests thus range themselves on opposite sides.


The day draws to its close. Sordello has seen more of the suffering human beings whom he wishes to serve, and the ideal Rome has collapsed in his imagination like a mocking dream. Nothing can be effected at once. No deed can bridge over the lapse of time which divides the first stage of a great social structure from its completion. Each life may give its touch; it can give no more; through the endless generations. The vision of a regenerate humanity, "his last and loveliest," must depart like the rest. Then suddenly a voice,

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