AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF BROWNING
New Edition Revised and Enlarged
First Edition, 1906. Reprinted, 1916 London, Paris and Toronto J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. 10-13 Bedford Street, W.C. 1916
" ... Browning, a great poet, a very great poet indeed, as the world will have to agree with us in thinking."—LANDOR.
NOVELIST AND POET
THIS LITTLE BOOK ON AN ILLUSTRIOUS CONTEMPORARY
IS WITH DEEP RESPECT AND ADMIRATION
This Introduction to the Study of Browning, which is now reprinted in a new form, revised throughout, and with everything relating to facts carefully brought up to date, has been for many years out of print. I wrote it as an act of homage to the poet whom I had worshipped from my boyhood; I meant it to be, in almost his own words, used of Shelley, some approach to "the signal service it was the dream of my boyhood to render to his fame and memory."
It was sufficiently rewarded by three things: first, by the generous praise of Walter Pater, in the Guardian, which led to the beginning of my friendship with him; then, by a single sentence from George Meredith, "You have done knightly service to a brave leader"; lastly, by a letter from Browning himself, in which he said: "How can I manage even to thank—much more praise—what, in its generosity of appreciation, makes the poorest recognition 'come too near the praising of myself'?"
I repeat these things now, because they seem to justify me in dragging back into sight a book written when I was very young, and, as I am only too conscious, lacking in many of the qualities which I have since acquired or developed. But, on going over it, I have found, for the most part, what seems to me a sound foundation, though little enough may be built on that foundation. I have revised many sentences, and a few opinions; but, while conscious that I should approach the whole subject now in a different way, I have found surprisingly few occasions for any fundamental or serious change of view. I am conscious how much I owed, at that time, to the most helpful and judicious friend whom I could possibly have had at my elbow, Dykes Campbell. There are few pages of my manuscript which he did not read and criticise, and not a page of my proofs which he did not labour over as if it had been his own. He forced me to learn accuracy, he cut out my worst extravagances, he kept me sternly to my task. It was in writing this book under his encouragement and correction that I began to learn the first elements of literary criticism.
This new edition, then, of my book is new and yet the same. I have altered everything that seemed to require altering, and I have made the style a little more equable; but I have not, I hope, broken anywhere into a new key, or added any sort of decoration not in keeping with the original plainness of the stuff. When Pater said: "His book is, according to his intention, before all things a useful one," he expressed my wish in the matter; and also when he said: "His aim is to point his readers to the best, the indisputable, rather than to the dubious portions of his author's work." In the letter from which I have quoted, Browning said: "It does indeed strike me as wonderful that you should have given such patient attention to all those poems, and (if I dare say further) so thoroughly entered into—at any rate—the spirit in which they were written and the purpose they hoped to serve." If Browning really thought that, my purpose, certainly, had been accomplished.
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION
I have ever held that the rod with which popular fancy invests criticism is properly the rod of divination: a hazel-switch for the discovery of buried treasure, not a birch-twig for the castigation of offenders. It has therefore been my aim in the following pages to direct attention to the best, not to forage for the worst—the small faults which acquire prominence only by isolation—of the poet with whose writings I am concerned. I wish also to give information, more or less detailed, about each of Mr. Browning's works; information sufficient to the purpose I have in view, which is to induce those who have hitherto deprived themselves of a stimulating pleasure to deprive themselves of it no longer. Further, my aim is in no sense controversial. In a book whose sole purpose is to serve as an introduction to the study of a single one of our contemporary poets, I have consciously and carefully refrained from instituting comparisons—which I deprecate as, to say the least, unnecessary—between the poet in question and any of the other eminent poets in whose time we have the honour of living.
I have to thank Mr. Browning for permission to reprint the interesting and now almost inaccessible prefaces to some of his earlier works, which will be found in Appendix II. I have also to thank Dr. Furnivall for permission to make use of his Browning Bibliography, and for other kind help. I wish to acknowledge my obligation to Mrs. Orr's Handbook to Robert Browning's Works, and to some of the Browning Society's papers, for helpful information and welcome light. Finally, I would tender my especial and grateful thanks to Mr. J. Dykes Campbell, who has given me much kindly assistance.
Sept. 15, 1886.
PAGE GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS 1
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE POEMS 33
I. A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ROBERT BROWNING 241
II. REPRINT OF DISCARDED PREFACES TO THE FIRST EDITIONS OF SOME OF BROWNING'S WORKS 255
INDEX TO POEMS 261
BORN MAY 7, 1812.
DIED DECEMBER 12, 1889.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF BROWNING
The first and perhaps the final impression we receive from the work of Robert Browning is that of a great nature, an immense personality. The poet in him is made up of many men. He is dramatist, humorist, lyrist, painter, musician, philosopher and scholar, each in full measure, and he includes and dominates them all. In richness of nature, in scope and penetration of mind and vision, in energy of passion and emotion, he is probably second among English poets to Shakespeare alone. In art, in the power or the patience of working his native ore, he is surpassed by many; but few have ever held so rich a mine in fee. So large, indeed, appear to be his natural endowments, that we cannot feel as if the whole vast extent of his work has come near to exhausting them.
As it is, he has written more than any other English poet with the exception of Shakespeare, and he comes very near the gigantic total of Shakespeare. Mass of work is of course in itself worth nothing without due quality; but there is no surer test nor any more fortunate concomitant of greatness than the union of the two. The highest genius is splendidly spendthrift; it is only the second order that needs to be niggardly. Browning's works are not a mere collection of poems, they are a literature. And his literature is the richest of modern times. If "the best poetry is that which reproduces the most of life," his place is among the great poets of the world. In the vast extent of his work he has dealt with or touched on nearly every phase and feature of humanity, and his scope is bounded only by the soul's limits and the last reaches of life. But of all "Poetical Works," small or great, his is the most consistent in its unity. The manner has varied not a little, the comparative worth of individual poems is widely different, but from the first word to the last the attitude is the same, the outlook on life the same, the conception of God and man, of the world and nature, always the same. This unity, though it may be deduced from, or at least accommodated to, a system of philosophical thought, is much more the outcome of a natural and inevitable bent. No great poet ever constructed his poems upon a theory, but a theory may often be very legitimately discovered in them. Browning, in his essay on Shelley, divides all poets into two classes, subjective and objective, the Seer and the Maker. His own genius includes a large measure of them both; for it is equally strong on the dramatic and the metaphysical side. There are for him but two realities; and but two subjects, Life and Thought. On these are expended all his imagination and all his intellect, more consistently and in a higher degree than can be said of any English poet since the age of Elizabeth. Life and thought, the dramatic and the metaphysical, are not considered apart, but woven into one seamless tissue; and in regard to both he has one point of view and one manner of treatment. It is this that causes the unity which subsists throughout his work; and it is this, too, which distinguishes him among poets, and makes that originality by virtue of which he has been described as the most striking figure in our poetic literature.
Most poets endeavour to sink the individual in the universal; it is Browning's special distinction that when he is most universal he is most individual. As a thinker he conceives of humanity not as an aggregate, but as a collection of units. Most thinkers write and speak of man; Browning of men. With man as a species, with man as a society, he does not concern himself, but with individual man and man. Every man is for him an epitome of the universe, a centre of creation. Life exists for each as completely and separately as if he were the only inhabitant of our planet. In the religious sense this is the familiar Christian view; but Browning, while accepting, does not confine himself to, the religious sense. He conceives of each man as placed on the earth with a purpose of probation. Life is given him as a test of his quality; he is exposed to the chances and changes of existence, to the opposition and entanglement of circumstances, to evil, to doubt, to the influence of his fellow-men, and to the conflicting powers of his own soul; and he succeeds or fails, toward God, or as regards his real end and aim, according as he is true or false to his better nature, his conception of right. He is not to be judged by the vulgar standards of worldly success or unsuccess; not even by his actions, good or bad as they may seem to us, for action can never fully translate the thought or motive which lay at its root; success or unsuccess, the prime and final fact in life, lies between his soul and God. The poet, in Browning's view of him, is God's witness, and must see and speak for God. He must therefore conceive of each individual separately and distinctively, and he must see how each soul conceives of itself.
It is here that Browning parts company most decisively with all other poets who concern themselves exclusively with life, dramatic poets, as we call them; so that it seems almost necessary to invent some new term to define precisely his special attitude. And hence it is that in his drama thought plays comparatively so large, and action comparatively so small, a part; hence, that action is valued only in so far as it reveals thought or motive, not for its own sake, as the crown and flower of these.
"To the motive, the endeavour, the heart's self His quick sense looks: he crowns and calls aright The soul o' the purpose, ere 'tis shaped as act, Takes flesh i' the world, and clothes itself a king."
For his endeavour is not to set men in action for the pleasure of seeing them move; but to see and show, in their action and inaction alike, the real impulses of their being: to see how each soul conceives of itself.
This individuality of presentment is carried out equally in the domain of life and of thought; as each man lives, so he thinks and perceives, so he apprehends God and truth, for himself only. It is evident that this special standpoint will give not only a unity but an originality to the work of which it may be called the root; equally evident that it will demand a special method and a special instrument.
The dramatic poet, in the ordinary sense, in the sense in which we apply it to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, aims at showing, by means of action, the development of character as it manifests itself to the world in deeds. His study is character, but it is character in action, considered only in connection with a particular grouping of events, and only so far as it produces or operates upon these. The processes are concealed from us, we see the result. In the very highest realisations of this dramatic power, and always in intention, we are presented with a perfect picture, in which every actor lives, and every word is audible; perfect, complete in itself, without explanation, without comment; a dogma incarnate, which we must accept as it is given us, and explain and illustrate for ourselves. If we wish to know what this character or that thought or felt in his very soul, we may perhaps have data from which to construct a more or less probable hypothesis; but that is all. We are told nothing, we care to know nothing of what is going on in the thought; of the infinitely subtle meshes of motive or emotion which will perhaps find no direct outcome in speech, no direct manifestation in action, but by which the soul's life in reality subsists. This is not the intention: it is a spectacle of life we are beholding; and life is action.
But is there no other sense in which a poet may be dramatic, besides this sense of the acting drama? no new form possible, which
"Peradventure may outgrow, The simulation of the painted scene, Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume, And take for a nobler stage the soul itself, In shifting fancies and celestial lights, With all its grand orchestral silences, To keep the pauses of the rhythmic sounds."
This new form of drama is the drama as we see it in Browning, a drama of the interior, a tragedy or comedy of the soul. Instead of a grouping of characters which shall act on one another to produce a certain result in action, we have a grouping of events useful or important only as they influence the character or the mind. This is very clearly explained in the original Advertisement to Paracelsus, where Browning tells us that his poem is an attempt
"to reverse the method usually adopted by writers whose aim it is to set forth any phenomenon of the mind or the passions, by the operation of persons and events; and that, instead of having recourse to an external machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis I desire to produce, I have ventured to display somewhat minutely the mood itself in its rise and progress, and have suffered the agency by which it is influenced and determined, to be generally discernible in its effects alone, and subordinate throughout, if not altogether excluded."
In this way, by making the soul the centre of action, he is enabled (thinking himself into it, as all dramatists must do) to bring out its characteristics, to reveal its very nature. Suppose him to be attracted by some particular soul or by some particular act. The problem occupies him: the more abstruse and entangled the more attractive to him it is; he winds his way into the heart of it, or, we might better say, he picks to pieces the machinery. Presently he begins to reconstruct, before our eyes, the whole series of events, the whole substance of the soul, but, so to speak, turned inside out. We watch the workings of the mental machinery as it is slowly disclosed before us; we note the specialties of construction, its individual character, the interaction of parts, every secret of it. We thus come to see that, considered from the proper point of view, everything is clear, regular and explicable in however entangled an action, however obscure a soul; we see that what is external is perfectly natural when we can view its evolution from what is internal. It must not be supposed that Browning explains this to us in the manner of an anatomical lecturer; he makes every character explain itself by its own speech, and very often by speech that is or seems false and sophistical, so only that it is personal and individual, and explains, perhaps by exposing, its speaker.
This, then, is Browning's consistent mental attitude, and his special method. But he has also a special instrument, the monologue. The drama of action demands a concurrence of several distinct personalities, influencing one another rapidly by word or deed, so as to bring about the catastrophe; hence the propriety of the dialogue. But the introspective drama, in which the design is to represent and reveal the individual, requires a concentration of interest, a focussing of light on one point, to the exclusion or subordination of surroundings; hence the propriety of the monologue, in which a single speaker or thinker can consciously or unconsciously exhibit his own soul. This form of monologue, learnt perhaps from Landor, who used it with little psychological intention, appears in almost the earliest of Browning's poems, and he has developed it more skilfully and employed it more consistently than any other writer. Even in works like Sordello and Red Cotton Night-cap Country, which are thrown into the narrative form, many of the finest and most characteristic parts are in monologue; and The Inn Album is a series of slightly-linked dialogues which are only monologues in disguise. Nearly all the lyrics, romances, idyls, nearly all the miscellaneous poems, long and short, are monologues. And even in the dramas, as will be seen later, there is visible a growing tendency toward the monologue with its mental and individual, in place of the dialogue with its active and outer interest.
Browning's aim, then, being to see how each soul conceives of itself, and to exhibit its essential qualities, yet without complication of incident, it is his frequent practice to reveal the soul to itself by the application of a sudden test, which shall condense the long trial of years into a single moment, and so "flash the truth out by one blow." To this practice we owe his most vivid and notable work. "The poetry of Robert Browning," says Pater, "is pre-eminently the poetry of situations." He selects a character, no matter how uninteresting in itself, and places it in some situation where its vital essence may become apparent, in some crisis of conflict or opportunity. The choice of good or evil is open to it, and in perhaps a single moment its fate will be decided. When a soul plays dice with the devil there is only a second in which to win or lose; but the second may be worth an eternity. These moments of intense significance, these tremendous spiritual crises, are struck out in Browning's poetry with a clearness and sharpness of outline that no other poet has achieved. "To realise such a situation, to define in a chill and empty atmosphere the focus where rays, in themselves pale and impotent, unite and begin to burn, the artist has to employ the most cunning detail, to complicate and refine upon thought and passion a thousand fold.... Yet, in spite of this intricacy, the poem has the clear ring of a central motive; we receive from it the impression of one imaginative tone, of a single creative act."
It is as a result of this purpose, in consonance with this practice, that we get in Browning's works so large a number of distinct human types, and so great a variety of surroundings in which they are placed. Only in Shakespeare can we find anything like the same variety of distinct human characters, vital creations endowed with thoughtful life; and not even, perhaps, in Shakespeare, such novelty and variety of milieu. There is scarcely a salient epoch in the history of the modern world which he has not touched, always with the same vital and instinctive sympathy based on profound and accurate knowledge. Passing by the legendary and remote ages and civilisations of East and West, he has painted the first dawn of the modern spirit in the Athens of Socrates and Euripides, revealed the whole temper and tendency of the twilight age between Paganism and Christianity, and recorded the last utterance of the last apostle of the now-conquering creed; he has distilled the very essence of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the very essence of the modern world. The men and women who live and move in that new world of his creation are as varied as life itself; they are kings and beggars, saints and lovers, great captains, poets, painters, musicians, priests and popes, Jews, gipsies and dervishes, street-girls, princesses, dancers with the wicked witchery of the daughter of Herodias, wives with the devotion of the wife of Brutus, joyous girls and malevolent greybeards, statesmen, cavaliers, soldiers of humanity, tyrants and bigots, ancient sages and modern spiritualists, heretics, scholars, scoundrels, devotees, rabbis, persons of quality and men of low estate, men and women as multiform as nature or society has made them. He has found and studied humanity, not only in English towns and villages, in the glare of gaslight and under the open sky, but on the Roman Campagna, in Venetian gondolas, in Florentine streets, on the Boulevards of Paris and in the Prado of Madrid, in the snow-bound forests of Russia, beneath the palms of Persia and upon Egyptian sands, on the coasts of Normandy and the salt plains of Brittany, among Druses and Arabs and Syrians, in brand-new Boston and amidst the ruins of Thebes. But this infinite variety has little in it of mere historic or social curiosity. I do not think Browning has ever set himself the task of recording the legend of the ages, though to some extent he has done it. The instinct of the poet seizes on a type of character, the eye of the painter perceives the shades and shapes of line and colour and form required to give it picturesque prominence, and the learning of the scholar then sets up a fragment of the broken past, or re-fashions a portion of the living present, as an appropriate and harmonious scene or background. The statue is never dwarfed by the pedestal.
The characteristic of which I have been speaking (the persistent care for the individual and personal, as distinguished from the universal and general) while it is the secret of his finest achievements, and rightly his special charm, is of all things the most alien to the ordinary conceptions of poetry, and the usual preferences for it. The popularity of rare and delicate poetry, which condescends to no cheap bids for it, poetry like Tennyson's, for instance, is largely due to the very quality which Browning's finest characteristic excludes from his. Compare, altogether apart from the worth and workmanship, one of Tennyson's with one of Browning's best lyrics. The perfection of the former consists in the exquisite way in which it expresses feelings common to all. The perfection of the latter consists in the intensity of its expression of a single moment of passion or emotion, one peculiar to a single personality, and to that personality only at a single moment. To appreciate it we must enter keenly and instantaneously into the imaginary character at its imagined crisis; and, even when this is easiest to do, it is evident that there must be more difficulty in doing it (for it requires a certain exertion) than in merely letting the mind lie at rest, accepting and absorbing. And the difficulty is increased when we remember another of Browning's characteristics, closely allied to this, and, indeed, resulting from it: his preference for the unusual and complex rather than the simple and ordinary. People prefer to read about characters which they can understand at first sight, with which they can easily sympathise. A dramatist, who insists on presenting them with complex and exceptional characters, studies of the good in evil and the evil in good, representations of states of mind which are not habitual to them, or which they find it difficult to realise in certain lights, can never obtain so quick or so hearty a recognition as one who deals with great actions, large and clear characters, familiar motives. When the head has to be exercised before the heart, there is chilling of sympathy.
Allied to Browning's originality in temper, topic, treatment and form, is his originality in style; an originality which is again due, in large measure, to the same prevailing cause. His style is vital, his verse moves to the throbbing of an inner organism, not to the pulsations of a machine. He prefers, as indeed all true poets do, but more exclusively than any other poet, sense to sound, thought to expression. In his desire of condensation he employs as few words as are consistent with the right expression of his thought; he rejects superfluous adjectives, and all stop-gap words. He refuses to use words for words' sake: he declines to interrupt conversation with a display of fireworks: and as a result it will be found that his finest effects of versification correspond with his highest achievements in imagination and passion. As a dramatic poet he is obliged to modulate and moderate, sometimes almost to vulgarise, his style and diction for the proper expression of some particular character, in whose mouth exquisite turns of phrase and delicate felicities of rhythm would be inappropriate. He will not let himself go in the way of easy floridity, as writers may whose themes are more "ideal." And where many writers would attempt merely to simplify and sweeten verse, he endeavours to give it fuller expressiveness, to give it strength and newness. It follows that Browning's verse is not so uniformly melodious as that of many other poets. Where it seems to him necessary to sacrifice one of the two, sense or sound, he has never hesitated which to sacrifice. But while he has certainly failed in some of his works, or in some passages of them, to preserve the due balance, while he has at times undoubtedly sacrificed sound too liberally to the claims of sense, the extent of this sacrifice is very much less than is generally supposed. The notion, only too general, expressed by such a phrase as "his habitual rudeness of versification" (used by no unfavourable Edinburgh reviewer in 1869) is one of the most singularly erroneous perversions of popular prejudice that have ever called for correction at the hands of serious criticism.
Browning is far indeed from paying no attention, or little, to metre and versification. Except in some of his later blank verse, and in a few other cases, his very errors are just as often the result of hazardous experiments as of carelessness and inattention. In one very important matter, that of rhyme, he is perhaps the greatest master in our language; in single and double, in simple and grotesque alike, his rhymes are as accurate as they are ingenious. His lyrical poems contain more structural varieties of form than those of any preceding English poet, not excepting Shelley. His blank verse at its best is more vital in quality than that of any modern poet. And both in rhymed and in blank verse he has written passages which for almost every technical quality are hardly to be surpassed in the language.
That Browning's style should have changed in the course of years is only natural, and its development has been in the natural (if not always in the best) direction. "The later manner of a painter or poet," says F.W.H. Myers in his essay on Virgil, "generally differs from his earlier manner in much the same way. We observe in him a certain impatience of the rules which have guided him to excellence, a certain desire to use his materials more freely, to obtain bolder and newer effects." These tendencies and others of the kind are specially manifest in Browning, as they must be in a writer of strongly marked originality; for originality always strengthens with use, and often hardens to eccentricity, as we may observe in the somewhat parallel case of Carlyle. We find as a consequence that a great deal of his later poetry is much less attractive and much less artistically perfect than his earlier work, while just those failings to which his principles of poetic art rendered him liable become more and more frequent and prominent. But, good or bad, it has grown with his growth, and we can conceive him saying, with Aurora Leigh,
"So life, in deepening with me, deepened all The course I took, the work I did. Indeed The academic law convinced of sin; The critics cried out on the falling off, Regretting the first manner. But I felt My heart's life throbbing in my verse to show It lived, it also—certes incomplete, Disordered with all Adam in the blood, But even its very tumours, warts and wens, Still organised by and implying life."
It has been, as a rule, strangely overlooked, though it is a matter of the first moment, that Browning's poems are in the most precise sense works of art, and this in a very high degree, positive and relative, if we understand by a "work of art" a poem which attains its end and fulfils its purpose completely, and which has a worthy end and plain purpose to attain.
Surely this is of far more vital importance than the mere melodiousness of single lines, or a metre of unvarying sweetness bearing gently along in its placid course (as a stream the leaf or twig fallen into it from above) some tiny thought or finikin fragment of emotion. Matthew Arnold, who was both poet and critic, has told us with emphasis of "the necessity of accurate construction, and the subordinate character of expression." His next words, though bearing a slightly different signification, may very legitimately be applied to Browning. Arnold tells us "how unspeakably superior is the effect of the one moral impression left by a great action treated as a whole, to the effect produced by the most striking single thought or by the happiest image." For "a great action," read "an adequate subject," and the words define and defend Browning's principle and practice exactly. There is no characteristic of his work more evident, none more admirable or more rare, than the unity, the compactness and completeness, the skill and care in construction and definiteness in impression, of each poem. I do not know any contemporary of whom this may more truly be said. The assertion will be startling, no doubt, to those who are accustomed to think of Browning (as people once thought of Shakespeare) as a poet of great gifts but little skill; as a giant, but a clumsy giant; as what the French call a nature, an almost unconscious force, expending itself at random, without rule or measure. But take, for example, the series of Men and Women, as originally published, read poem after poem (there are fifty to choose from) and scrutinise each separately; see what was the writer's intention, and observe how far he has fulfilled it, how far he has succeeded in conveying to your mind a distinct and sharply-cut impression. You will find that whatever be the subject, whatever the style, whether in your eyes the former be mistaken, the latter perverse, the poem itself, within its recognised limits, is designed, constructed and finished with the finest skill of the draughtsman or the architect. You will find that the impression you have received from the whole is single and vivid, and, while you may not perceive it, it will generally be the case that certain details at which your fastidiousness cries out, certain uncouthnesses, as you fancy, are perfectly appropriate and in their place, and have contributed to the perfection of the ensemble.
A word may here be said in reference to the charge of "obscurity," which, from the time when Browning's earliest poem was disposed of by a complacent critic in the single phrase, "A piece of pure bewilderment," has been hurled at each succeeding poem with re-iterate vigour of virulence. The charge of "pure bewilderment" is about as reasonable as the charge of "habitual rudeness of versification." It is a fashion. People abuse their "Browning" as they abuse their "Bradshaw," though all that is wanting, in either case, is a little patience and a little common sense. Browning might say, as his wife said in an early preface, "I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of the poet;" as indeed he has himself said, to much the same effect, in a letter printed many years ago: "I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man." But he has not made anything like such a demand on the reader's faculties as people, not readers, seem to suppose. Sordello is difficult, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau is difficult, so, perhaps, in parts, is Fifine at the Fair; so, too, on account of its unfamiliar allusions, is Aristophanes' Apology; and a few smaller poems, here and there, remotely argumentative or specially complex in psychology, are difficult. But really these are about all to which such a term as "unintelligible," so freely and recklessly flung about, could with the faintest show of reason be applied by any reasonable being. In the 21,116 lines which form Browning's longest work and masterpiece, the "psychological epic" of The Ring and the Book, I am inclined to think it possible that a careful scrutiny might reveal 116 which an ordinary reader would require to read twice. Anything more clear than the work as a whole it would be difficult to find. It is much easier to follow than Paradise Lost; the Agamemnon is rather less easy to follow than A Blot in the 'Scutcheon.
That there is some excuse for the accusation, no one would or could deny. But it is only the excuse of a misconception. Browning is a thinker of extraordinary depth and subtlety; his themes are seldom superficial, often very remote, and his thought is, moreover, as swift as it is subtle. To a dull reader there is little difference between cloudy and fiery thought; the one is as much too bright for him as the other is too dense. Of all thinkers in poetry, Browning is the most swift and fiery. "If there is any great quality," says Mr. Swinburne, in those noble pages in which he has so generously and triumphantly vindicated his brother-poet from this very charge of obscurity—
"If there is any great quality more perceptible than another in Mr. Browning's intellect, it is his decisive and incisive faculty of thought, his sureness and intensity of perception, his rapid and trenchant resolution of aim. To charge him with obscurity is about as accurate as to call Lynceus purblind, or complain of the sluggish action of the telegraphic wire. He is something too much the reverse of obscure; he is too brilliant and subtle for the ready reader of a ready writer to follow with any certainty the track of an intelligence which moves with such incessant rapidity, or even to realise with what spider-like swiftness and sagacity his building spirit leaps and lightens to and fro and backward and forward, as it lives along the animated line of its labour, springs from thread to thread, and darts from centre to circumference of the glittering and quivering web of living thought, woven from the inexhaustible stores of his perception, and kindled from the inexhaustible fire of his imagination. He never thinks but at full speed; and the rate of his thought is to that of another man's as the speed of a railway to that of a waggon, or the speed of a telegraph to that of a railway."
Moreover, while a writer who deals with easy themes has no excuse if he is not pellucid at a glance, one who employs his intellect and imagination on high and hard questions has a right to demand a corresponding closeness of attention, and a right to say, with Bishop Butler, in answer to a similar complaint: "It must be acknowledged that some of the following discourses are very abstruse and difficult; or, if you please, obscure; but I must take leave to add that those alone are judges whether or no, and how far this is a fault, who are judges whether or no, and how far it might have been avoided—those only who will be at the trouble to understand what is here said, and to see how far the things here insisted upon, and not other things, might have been put in a plainer manner."
There is another popular misconception to which also a word in passing may as well be devoted. This is the idea that Browning's personality is apt to get confused with his characters', that his men and women are not separate creations, projected from his brain into an independent existence, but mere masks or puppets through whose mouths he speaks. This fallacy arises from the fact that not a few of his imaginary persons express themselves in a somewhat similar fashion; or, as people too rashly say, "talk like Browning." The explanation of this apparent paradox, so far as it exists, is not far to seek. All art is a compromise, and all dramatic speech is in fact impossible. No persons in real life would talk as Shakespeare or any other great dramatist makes them talk. Nor do the characters of Shakespeare talk like those of any other great dramatist, except in so far as later playwrights have consciously imitated Shakespeare. Every dramatic writer has his own style, and in this style, subject to modification, all his characters speak. Just as a soul, born out of eternity into time, takes on itself the impress of earth and the manners of human life, so a dramatic creation, pure essence in the shaping imagination of the poet, takes on itself, in its passage into life, something of the impress of its abode. "The poet, in short, endows his creations with his own attributes; he enables them to utter their feelings as if they themselves were poets, thus giving a true voice even to that intensity of passion which in real life often hinders expression." If this fact is recognised (that dramatic speech is not real speech, but poetical speech, and poetical speech infused with the individual style of each individual dramatist, modulated, indeed, but true to one keynote) then it must be granted that Browning has as much right to his own style as other dramatists have to theirs, and as little right as they to be accused on that account of putting his personality into his work. But as Browning's style is very pronounced and original, it is more easily recognisable than that of most dramatists (so far, no doubt, a defect) and for this reason it has come to seem relatively more prominent than it really is. This consideration, and not any confusion of identity, is the cause of whatever similarity of speech exists between Browning and his characters, or between individual characters. The similarity is only skin-deep. Take a convenient instance, The Ring and the Book. I have often seen it stated that the nine tellings of the story are all told in the same style, that all the speakers, Guido and Pompilia, the Pope and Tertium Quid alike, speak like Browning. I cannot see it. On the contrary, I have been astonished, in reading and re-reading the poem, at the variety, the difference, the wonderful individuality in each speaker's way of telling the same story; at the profound art with which the rhythm, the metaphors, the very details of language, no less than the broad distinctions of character and the subtle indications of bias, are adapted and converted into harmony. A certain general style, a certain general manner of expression, are common to all, as is also the case in, let us say, The Tempest. But what distinction, what variation of tone, what delicacy and expressiveness of modulation! As a simple matter of fact, few writers have ever had a greater flexibility of style than Browning.
I am doubtful whether full justice has been done to one section of Browning's dramatic work, his portraits of women. The presence of woman is not perhaps relatively so prominent in his work as it is in the work of some other poets; woman is to him neither an exclusive preoccupation, nor a continual unrest; but as faithful and vital representations, I do not hesitate to put his portraits of women quite on a level with his portraits of men, and far beyond those of any other English poet of the last three centuries. In some of them, notably in Pompilia, there is a something which always seems to me almost incredible in a man: an instinct that one would have thought only a woman could have for women. And his women, good or bad, are always real women, and they are represented without bias. Browning is one of the very few men (Mr. Meredith, whose women are, perhaps, the consummate flower of his work, is his only other English contemporary) who can paint women without idealisation or degradation, not from the man's side, but from their own; as living equals, not as goddesses or as toys. His women live, act, and suffer, even think; not assertively, mannishly (for the loveliest of them have a very delicate charm of girlishness) but with natural volition, on equal rights with men. Any one who has thought at all on the matter will acknowledge that this is the highest praise that could be given to a poet, and the rarest. Browning's women are not perhaps as various as his men; but from Ottima to Pompilia (from the "great white queen, magnificent in sin," to the "lily of a maiden, white with intact leaf") what a range and gradation of character! These are the two extremes; between them, as earth lies between heaven and hell, are stationed all the others, from the faint and delicate dawn in Pauline, Michal and Palma, through Pippa and Mildred and Colombe and Constance and the Queen, to Balaustion and Elvire, Fifine and Clara and the heroine of the Inn Album, and the lurid close in Cristina. I have named only a few, and how many there are to name! Someone has written a book on Shakespeare's Women: whoever writes a book on Browning's Women will have a task only less delightful, a subject only less rich, than that.
When Browning was a boy, it is recorded that he debated within himself whether he should not become a painter or a musician as well as a poet. Finally, though not, I believe, for a good many years, he decided in the negative. But the latent qualities of painter and musician have developed themselves in his poetry, and much of his finest and very much of his most original verse is that which speaks the language of painter and musician as it had never before been spoken. No English poet before him has ever excelled his utterances on music, none has so much as rivalled his utterances on art. Abt Vogler is the richest, deepest, fullest poem on music in the language. It is not the theories of the poet, but the instincts of the musician, that it speaks. Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha is unparalleled for ingenuity of technical interpretation; A Toccata of Galuppi's is as rare a rendering as can anywhere be found of the impressions and sensations caused by a musical piece; but Abt Vogler is a very glimpse into the heaven where music is born. In his poems on the arts of painting and sculpture (not in themselves more perfect in sympathy, though larger in number, than those on music) he is simply the first to write of these arts as an artist might, if an artist could express his soul in words or rhythm. It has always been a fashion among poets to write about music, though scarcely anyone but Shakespeare and Milton has done so to much purpose; it is now, owing to the influence of Rossetti (whose magic, however, was all his own, and whose mantle went down into the grave with him) a fashion to write about pictures. But indiscriminate sonneteering about pictures is one thing: Browning's attitude and insight into the plastic arts quite another. Poems like Andrea del Sarto, Fra Lippo Lippi, Pictor Ignotus, have a revealing quality which is unique; tragedies or comedies of art, in a more personal and dramatic way than the musical poems, they are like these in touching the springs of art itself. They may be compared with Abt Vogler. Poems of the order of The Guardian Angel are more comparable with A Toccata of Galuppi's, the rendering of the impressions and sensations caused by a particular picture. Old Pictures in Florence is not unsimilar to Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha, critical, technical, lovingly learned, sympathetically quizzical. But Browning's artistic instinct and knowledge are manifested not only in special poems of this sort, but everywhere throughout his works. He writes of painters because he has a kinship with them. "Their pictures are windows through which he sees into their souls."
It is only natural that a poet with the instincts of a painter should be capable of superb landscape-painting in verse; and we find in Browning this power. It is further evident that such a poet, a man who has chosen poetry instead of painting, must consider the latter art subordinate to the former, and it is only natural that we should find Browning subordinating the pictorial to the poetic capacity, and this more carefully than most other poets. His best landscapes are as brief as they are brilliant. They are like sabre-strokes, swift, sudden, flashing the light from their sweep, and striking straight to the heart. And they are never pushed into prominence for an effect of idle beauty, nor strewn about in the way of thoughtful or passionate utterance, like roses in a runner's path. They are subordinated always to the human interest; blended, fused with it, so that a landscape in a poem of Browning's is literally a part of the emotion. All poetry which describes in detail, however magnificent, palls on us when persisted in. "The art of the pen (we write on darkness) is to rouse the inward vision, instead of labouring with a Drop-scene brush, as if it were to the eye; because our flying minds cannot contain a protracted description. That is why the poets who spring imagination with a word or a phrase paint lasting pictures. The Shakespearian, the Dantesque, are in a line, two at most." It is to this, the finest essence of landscape-painting, that most of Browning's landscapes belong. Yet he can be as explicit as any one when he sees fit. Look at the poem of The Englishman in Italy. The whole piece is one long description, minute, careful and elaborated. Perhaps it is worth observing that the description is addressed to a child.
In the exercise of his power of placing a character or incident in a sympathetic setting, Browning shows himself, as I have pointed out, singularly skilful. He never avails himself of the dramatic poet's licence of vagueness as to surroundings: he sees them himself with instant and intense clearness, and stamps them as clearly on our brain. The picture calls up the mood. Here is the opening of one of his very earliest poems, Porphyria's Lover:—
"The rain set early in to-night, The sullen wind was soon awake, It tore the elm-tops down for spite, And did its worst to vex the lake, I listened with heart fit to break. When glided in Porphyria."
There, in five lines, is the scene and the mood, and in the sixth line Porphyria may enter. Take a middle-period poem, A Serenade at the Villa, for an instance of more deliberate description, flashed by the same fiery art:—
"That was I, you heard last night When there rose no moon at all, Nor, to pierce the strained and tight Tent of heaven, a planet small: Life was dead and so was light.
Not a twinkle from the fly, Not a glimmer from the worm. When the crickets stopped their cry, When the owls forebore a term, You heard music; that was I.
Earth turned in her sleep with pain, Sultrily suspired for proof: In at heaven and out again, Lightning!—where it broke the roof, Bloodlike, some few drops of rain.
What they could my words expressed, O my love, my all, my one! Singing helped the verses best, And when singing's best was done, To my lute I left the rest.
So wore night; the East was gray, White the broad-faced hemlock flowers; There would be another day; Ere its first of heavy hours Found me, I had passed away."
This tells enough to be an entire poem. It is not a description of the night and the lover: we are made to see them. The lines I have italicised are of the school of Dante or of Rembrandt. Their vividness overwhelms. In the latest poems, as in Ivan Ivanovitch or Ned Bratts, we find the same swift sureness of touch. It is only natural that most of Browning's finest landscapes are Italian.
As a humorist in poetry, Browning takes rank with our greatest. His humour, like most of his qualities, is peculiar to himself, though no doubt Carlyle had something of it. It is of wide capacity, and ranges from the effervescence of pure fun and freak to that salt and briny laughter whose taste is bitterer than tears. Its full extent will be seen by comparing The Pied Piper of Hamelin with Confessions, or in the contrast of the two parts of Holy-Cross Day. We find the simplest form of humour, the jolly laughter of an unaffected nature, the effervescence of a sparkling and overflowing brain, in such poems as Up at a Villa—Down in the City, or Pacchiarotto, or Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis. Fra Lippo Lippi leans to this category, though it is infused with biting wit and stinging irony; for it is first and foremost the bubbling-up of a restless and irrepressibly comic nature, the born Bohemian compressed but not contained by the rough rope-girdle of the monk. He is Browning's finest figure of comedy. Ned Bratts is another admirable creation of true humour, tinged with the grotesque. In A Lovers' Quarrel and Dis aliter Visum, humour refines into passion. In Bishop Blougram it condenses into wit. The poem has a well-bred irony; in A Soul's Tragedy irony smiles and stings; in Mr. Sludge, the Medium, it stabs with a thirsty point. In Caliban upon Setebos we have the pure grotesque, an essentially noble variety of art, admitting of the utmost refinement of workmanship. The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister attains a new effect of grotesque: it is the comic tragedy of vituperative malevolence. Holy-Cross Day heightens the grotesque with pity, indignation and solemnity: The Heretic's Tragedy raises it to sublimity. Browning's satire is equally keen and kindly. It never condescends to raise laughter at infirmity, or at mere absurdities of manners; it respects human nature, but it convicts falsity by the revealing intensity of its illumination. Of cynicism, of the wit that preys upon carrion, there is less than nothing.
Of all poets Browning is the healthiest and manliest; he is one of the "substantial men" of whom Landor speaks. His genius is robust with vigorous blood, and his tone has the cheeriness of intellectual health. The most subtle of minds, his is the least sickly. The wind that blows in his pages is no hot and languorous breeze, laden with scents and sweets, but a fresh salt wind blowing in from the sea. His poetry is a tonic; it braces and invigorates. "Il fait vivre ses phrases:" his verse lives and throbs with life. He is incomparably plentiful of vital heat; "so thoroughly and delightfully alive." This is an effect of art, and a moral impression. It brings us into his own presence, and stirs us with an answering warmth of life in the breathing pages. The keynote of his philosophy is:—
"God's in his heaven, All's right with the world!"
He has such a hopefulness of belief in human nature that he shrinks from no man, however clothed and cloaked in evil, however miry with stumblings and fallings. I am a man, he might say with the noblest utterance of antiquity, and I deem nothing alien that is human. His investigations of evil are profoundly consistent with an indomitable optimism. Any one can say "All's right with the world," when he looks at the smiling face of things, at comfortable prosperity and a decent morality. But the test of optimism is its sight of evil. Browning has fathomed it, and he can still hope, for he sees the reflection of the sun in the depths of every foul puddle. This vivid hope and trust in man is bound up with a strong and strenuous faith in God. Browning's Christianity is wider than our creeds, and is all the more vitally Christian in that it never sinks into pietism. He is never didactic, but his faith is the root of his art, and transforms and transfigures it. Yet as a dramatic poet he is so impartial, and can express all creeds with so easy an interpretative accent, that it is possible to prove him (as Shakespeare has been proved) a believer in every thing and a disbeliever in anything.
Such, so far as I can realise my conception of him, is Robert Browning; and such the tenour of his work as a whole. It is time to pass from general considerations to particular ones; from characteristics of the writer to characteristics of the poems. In the pages to follow I shall endeavour to present a critical chronicle of Browning's works; not neglecting to give due information about each, but not confining myself to the mere giving of information. It is hoped that the quotations for which I may find room will practically illustrate and convincingly corroborate what I have to say about the poetry from which they are taken.
[Footnote 1: Luria, Act iii.]
[Footnote 2: Aurora Leigh, Book Fifth.]
[Footnote 3: Walter Pater, The Renaissance, p, 226.]
[Footnote 4: Aurora Leigh, Book Third.]
[Footnote 5: Preface to Poems, 1853.]
[Footnote 6: George Chapman: A Critical Essay, 1875.]
[Footnote 7: Works, 1847, Preface to Sermons, pp. viii.-ix., where will also be found some exceedingly sensible remarks, which I commend to those whom it concerns, on persons "who take it for granted that they are acquainted with everything; and that no subject, if treated in the manner it should be, can be treated in any manner but what is familiar and easy to them."]
[Footnote 8: "Realism in Dramatic Art," New Quarterly Magazine, Oct., 1879.]
[Footnote 9: Allowing at its highest valuation all that need be allowed on this score, we find only that Mr. Browning has the defects of his qualities; and from these who is exempted? By virtue of this style of his he has succeeded in rendering into words the inmost thoughts and finest shades of feeling of the "men and women fashioned by his fancy," and in such a task we can pardon even a fault, for such a result we can overlook even a blemish; as Lessing, in Laokoon, remarking on an error in Raphael's drapery, finely says, "Who will not rather praise him for having had the wisdom and the courage to commit a slight fault, for the sake of greater fulness of expression?"]
[Footnote 10: George Meredith, Diana of the Crossways.]
[Footnote 11: Italians, it is pleasant to remember, have warmly welcomed the poet who has known and loved Italy best. "Her town and country, her churches and her ruins, her sorrows and her hopes," said Prof. Nencioni, as long ago as 1867, "are constantly sung by him. How he loves the land that inspires him he has shown by his long residence among us, and by the thrilling, almost lover-like tone with which he speaks of our dear country. 'Open my heart and you will see, Graved inside of it Italy,' as he exclaims in De Gustibus."]
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE POEMS
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE POEMS
* * * * *
1. PAULINE: a Fragment of a Confession.
[Published anonymously in 1833; first reprinted (the text unaltered) in Poetical Works, 6 vols., Smith, Elder and Co., 1868 (Vol. I., pp. 1-41); revised text, Poetical Works, 1889, Vol. I., pp. 1-45.]
PAULINE was written at the age of twenty. Its prefatory motto from Cornelius Agrippa (dated "London, January, 1833. V.A.XX.") serves to convey a hint that the "confession" is dramatic, and at the same time lays claim to the indulgence due to the author's youth. These two points are stated plainly in the "exculpatory word" prefixed to the reprint in 1868. After mentioning the circumstances under which the revival of the poem was forced on him, Browning says:
"The thing was my earliest attempt at 'poetry always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine,' which I have since written according to a scheme less extravagant and scale less impracticable than were ventured upon in this crude preliminary sketch—a sketch that, on reviewal, appears not altogether wide of some hint of the characteristic features of that particular dramatis persona it would fain have reproduced: good draughtsmanship, however, and right handling were far beyond the artist at that time."
In a note to the collected edition of 1889, Browning adds:
"Twenty years' endurance of an eyesore seems more than sufficient; my faults remain duly recorded against me, and I claim permission to somewhat diminish these, so far as style is concerned, in the present and final edition."
A revised text follows, in which, while many "faults" are indeed "diminished," it is difficult not to feel at times as if the foot-notes had got into the text.
Pauline is the confession of an unnamed poet to the woman whom he loves, and whose name is given in the title. It is a sort of spiritual autobiography; a record of sensations and ideas, rather than of deeds. "The scenery is in the chambers of thought; the agencies are powers and passions; the events are transitions from one state of spiritual existence to another." There is a vagueness of outline about the speaker which is due partly, no doubt, to the immaturity of the writer, partly also to the too exclusive portraiture of inactive mood. The difficulty is acknowledged in a curious "editor's" note, written in French, and signed "Pauline," in which Browning offered a sort of explanatory criticism of his own work. So far as we can grasp his personality, the speaker appears to us a highly-gifted and on the whole right-natured man, but possessed of a morbid self-consciousness and a limitless yet indecisive ambition. Endowed with a highly poetic nature, yet without, as it seems, adequate concentrative power; filled, at times, with a passionate yearning after God and good, yet morally unstable; he has spent much of his strength in ineffectual efforts, and he is conscious of lamentable failure and mistake in the course of his past life. Specially does he recognise and mourn his "self-idolatry," which has isolated him from others, and confined him within the close and vitiated circle of his own selfhood. Led by some better impulse, he now turns to Pauline, and to the memory of a great and dearly-loved poet, spoken of as "Sun-treader," finding in these, the memory and the love, a quietude and a redemption.
The poet of the poem is an imaginary character, but it is possible to trace in this character some real traits of its creator. The passage beginning "I am made up of an intensest life" is certainly a piece of admirable self-portraiture; allusions here and there have a personal significance. In this earliest poem we see the germ of almost all the qualities (humour excepted) which mark Browning's mature work. Intensity of religious belief, love of music, of painting, and of the Greek classics; insight into nature, a primary interest in and intense insight into the human soul, these are already manifest. No characteristic is more interesting in the light of long subsequent achievement than the familiarity with Greek literature, shown not merely by the references to Plato and to Agamemnon, but by what is perhaps the finest passage in the poem, the one ending:—
"Yet I say, never morn broke clear as those On the dim clustered isles in the blue sea, The deep groves and white temples and wet caves: And nothing ever will surprise me now— Who stood beside the naked Swift-footed, Who bound my forehead with Proserpine's hair."
The enthusiasm which breathes through whole pages of address to the "Sun-treader" gives no exaggerated picture of Browning's love and reverence for Shelley, whose Alastor might perhaps in some respects be compared with Pauline. The rhythm of Browning's poem has a certain echo in it of Shelley's earlier blank verse; and the lyrically emotional descriptions and the vivid and touching metaphors derived from nature frequently remind us of Shelley, and sometimes of Keats. On every page we meet with magical touches like this:—
"Thou wilt remember one warm morn when winter Crept aged from the earth, and spring's first breath Blew soft from the moist hills; the black-thorn boughs, So dark in the bare wood, when glistening In the sunshine were white with coming buds, Like the bright side of a sorrow, and the banks Had violets opening from sleep like eyes;"
with lines full of exquisite fancy, such as those on the woodland tarn:—
"The trees bend O'er it as wild men watch a sleeping girl;"
and in one place we have a marvellously graphic description, extending over three pages, perhaps the most elaborately painted landscape in Browning's work. It seems like wronging the poem to speak of its promise: it is, indeed, far from mature, but it has a superb precocity marking a certain stage of ripeness. It is lacking, certainly, as Browning himself declares, in "good draughtsmanship and right handling," but this defect of youth is richly compensated by the wealth of inspiration, the keen intellectual and ethical insight, and the numberless lines of haunting charm, which have nothing of youth in them but its vigorous freshness.
[Published in 1835; first acknowledged work (Poetical Works, 1889, Vol. II., pp. 1-186.) The original MS. is in the Forster Library at South Kensington.]
The poem is divided into five scenes, each a typical episode in the life of Paracelsus. It is in the form of dialogue between Paracelsus and others: Festus and his wife Michal in the first scene, Aprile, an Italian poet, in the second, and Festus only in the remainder. The poem is followed by an appendix, containing a few notes and a brief biography of Paracelsus, translated from the Biographie Universelle.
Paracelsus might be praised, and has justly been praised, for its serious and penetrating quality as an historical study of the great mystic and great man of science, who had realised, before most people, that "matter is the visible body of the invisible God," and who had been the Luther of medicine. But the historical element is less important than the philosophical; both are far less important than the purely poetical. The leading motive is not unlike that of Pauline and of Sordello: it is handled, however, far more ably than in the former, and much more clearly than in the latter. Paracelsus is a portrait of the seeker after knowledge, one whose ambition transcends all earthly limits, and exhausts itself in the thirst of the impossible. His career is traced from its noble outset at Wuerzburg to its miserable close in the hospital at Salzburg, through all its course of struggle, conquest and deterioration. His last effort, the superb dying speech, gives the moral of his mistake, and, in the light of the new intuition flashed on his soul by death, the true conception of the powers and limits of man.
The character and mental vicissitudes of Paracelsus are brought out, as has been stated, in dialogue with others. The three minor characters, though probably called into being as mere foils to the protagonist, have a distinct individuality of their own. Michal is Browning's first sketch of a woman. She is faint in outline and very quiet in presence, but though she scarcely speaks twenty lines, her face remains with us like a beautiful face seen once and never to be forgotten. There is something already, in her tentative delineation, of that "piercing and overpowering tenderness which glorifies the poet of Pompilia." Festus, Michal's husband, the friend and adviser of Paracelsus, is a man of simple nature and thoughtful mind, cautious yet not cold, clear-sighted rather than far-seeing, yet not without enthusiasm; perhaps a little narrow and commonplace, as the prudent are apt to be. He, like Michal, has no influence on the external action of the poem. Aprile, the Italian poet whom Paracelsus encounters in the second scene, is an integral part of the poem; for it is through him that a crisis is reached in the development of the seeker after knowledge. Unlike Festus and Michal, he is a type rather than a realisable human being, the type of the Artist pure and simple, the lover of beauty and of beauty alone, a soul immoderately possessed with the desire to love, as Paracelsus with the desire to know. He flickers, an expiring flame, across the pathway of the stronger spirit, one luminous moment and no more.
Paracelsus, though written in dialogue, is not intended to be a drama. This was clearly stated in the preface to the first edition, an important document, never afterwards reprinted. "Instead of having recourse," wrote Browning, "to an external machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis I desire to produce, I have ventured to display somewhat minutely the mood itself in its rise and progress, and have suffered the agency by which it is influenced to be generally discernible in its effects alone, and subordinate throughout, if not altogether excluded." The proportions of the work are epical rather than dramatic; but indeed it is difficult to class, so exuberant is the vitality which fills and overflows all limits. What is not a drama, though in dialogue, nor yet an epic, except in length, can scarcely be considered, any more than its successors, and perhaps imitators, Festus, Balder, or A Life Drama, properly artistic in form. But it is distinguished from this prolific progeny not only by a finer and firmer imagination, a truer poetic richness, but by a moderation, a concreteness, a grip, which are certainly all its own. In few of Browning's poems are there so many individual lines and single passages which we are so apt to pause on, to read again and again, for the mere enjoyment of their splendid sound and colour. And this for a reason. The large and lofty character of Paracelsus, the avoidance of much external detail, and the high tension at which thought and emotion are kept throughout, permit the poet to use his full resources of style and diction without producing an effect of unreality and extravagance. We meet on almost every page with lines like these:—
"Ask the gier-eagle why she stoops at once Into the vast and unexplored abyss, What full-grown power informs her from the first, Why she not marvels, strenuously beating The silent boundless regions of the sky."
Or again, lines like these, which have become the watch-word of a Gordon:—
"I go to prove my soul! I see my way as birds their trackless way. I shall arrive! what time, what circuit first, I ask not: but unless God send his hail Or blinding fireballs, sleet or stifling snow, In some time, his good time, I shall arrive: He guides me and the bird. In his good time!"
At times the brooding splendour bursts forth in a kind of vast ecstasy, and we have such magnificence as this:—
"The centre fire heaves underneath the earth, And the earth changes like a human face; The molten ore bursts up among the rocks, Winds into the stone's heart, outbranches bright In hidden mines, spots barren river-beds, Crumbles into fine sand where sunbeams bask— God joys therein. The wroth sea's waves are edged With foam, white as the bitten lip of hate, When, in the solitary waste, strange groups Of young volcanos come up, cyclops-like, Staring together with their eyes on flame— God tastes a pleasure in their uncouth pride. Then all is still; earth is a wintry clod: But spring-wind, like a dancing psaltress, passes Over its breast to waken it, rare verdure Buds tenderly upon rough banks, between The withered tree-roots and the cracks of frost, Like a smile striving with a wrinkled face; The grass grows bright, the boughs are swoln with blooms Like chrysalids impatient for the air, The shining dorrs are busy, beetles run Along the furrows, ants make their ado; Above, birds fly in merry flocks, the lark Soars up and up, shivering for very joy; Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing-gulls Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek Their loves in wood and plain—and God renews His ancient rapture."
The blank verse of Paracelsus is varied by four lyrics, themselves various in style, and full of rare music: the spirit song of the unfaithful poets—
"The sad rhyme of the men who sadly clung To their first fault, and withered in their pride,"
the gentle song of the Mayne river, and that strange song of old spices which haunts the brain like a perfume:—
"Heap cassia, sandal-buds and stripes Of labdanum, and aloe-balls, Smeared with dull nard an Indian wipes From out her hair: such balsam falls Down sea-side mountain pedestals, From tree-tops where tired winds are fain, Spent with the vast and howling main, To treasure half their island gain.
And strew faint sweetness from some old Egyptian's fine worm-eaten shroud Which breaks to dust when once unrolled; Or shredded perfume, like a cloud From closet long to quiet vowed, With mothed and dropping arras hung, Mouldering her lute and books among, As when a queen, long dead was young."
[Footnote 12: See the whole Preface, Appendix II.]
3. STRAFFORD: an Historical Tragedy.
[Written toward the close of 1836; acted at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (Strafford, Mr. Macready; Countess of Carlisle, Miss Helen Faucit), May 1, 1837; by the Browning Society at the Strand Theatre, Dec. 21, 1886, and at Oxford by the O.U.D.S. in 1890; published in 1837 (Poetical Works, 1889, Vol. II., pp. 187-307).]
Strafford was written, at Macready's earnest request, in an interval of the composition of Sordello. Like all Browning's plays which were acted, it owed its partial failure to causes quite apart from its own merits or defects as a play. Browning may not have had the making of a good playwright; but at least no one ever gave him the chance of showing whether he was or not. The play is not without incident, especially in the third act. But its chief merit lies in the language and style of the dialogue. There is no aim at historical dignity or poetical elaboration; the aim is nature, quick with personal passion. Every word throbs with emotion; through these exclamatory, yet how delicate and subtle lines, we seem actually to see and hear the speakers, and with surprising vividness. The words supply their own accents, looks and gestures.
In his preface to the first edition (reprinted in Appendix II.) Browning states that he believes the historical portraits to be faithful. This is to a considerable extent confirmed by Professor Gardiner, who has given a careful consideration of the play in its historical aspects, in his Introduction to Miss Hickey's annotated edition (G. Bell & Sons, 1884). As a representation of history, he tells us, it is inaccurate; "the very roots of the situation are untrue to fact." But (as he allows) this departure from fact, in the conduct of the action, is intentional, and, of course, allowable: Browning was writing a drama, not a history. Of the portraits, the really vital part of the play as an interpretation of history, he writes:—
"For myself, I can only say that, every time I read the play, I feel more convinced that Mr. Browning has seized the real Strafford, the man of critical brain, of rapid decision, and tender heart, who strove for the good of his nation, without sympathy for the generation in which he lived. Charles, too, with his faults perhaps exaggerated, is, nevertheless, a real Charles.... There is a wonderful parallelism between the Lady Carlisle of the play and the less noble Lady Carlisle which history conjectures rather than describes.... On the other hand, Pym is the most unsatisfactory, from an historical point of view, of the leading personages."
Yet, if it is interesting, it is by no means of primary importance to know the historical basis and probable accuracy of Browning's play. The whole interest is centred in the character of Strafford; it is a personal interest, and attaches itself to the personal character or the hero. The leading motive is Strafford's devotion to his king, and the note of tragic discord arises from the ingratitude and faithlessness of Charles set over against the blind fidelity of his minister. The antagonism of law and despotism, of Pym and Strafford, is, perhaps, less clearly and forcibly brought out: though essential to the plot, it wears to our sight a somewhat secondary aspect. Strafford himself appears not so much a superb and unbending figure, a political power, as a man whose service of Charles is due wholly to an intense personal affection, and not at all to his national sympathies, which seem, indeed, rather on the opposite side. He loves the man, not the king, and his love is a freak of the affections. That it is against his better reason he recognises, but the recognition fails to influence his heart or his conduct. This is finely expressed in the following lines, spoken by Lady Carlisle:—
"Could you but know what 'tis to bear, my friend, One image stamped within you, turning blank The else imperial brilliance of your mind,— A weakness, but most precious,—like a flaw I' the diamond, which should shape forth some sweet face Yet to create, and meanwhile treasured there Lest nature lose her gracious thought for ever'"
Browning has rarely drawn a more pathetic figure. Every circumstance that could contribute to this effect is skilfully seized and emphasised: Charles's incredibly selfish weakness, the implacable sternness of Pym, the triste prattle of Strafford's children and their interrupted joyous song in the final scene, all serve to heighten our feeling of affectionate pity and regret. The imaginary former friendship between Pym and Strafford adds still more to the pathos of the delineation, and gives rise to some of the finest speeches, notably the last great colloquy between these two, which so effectively rounds and ends the play. The fatal figure of Pym is impressive and admirable throughout, and the portrait of the Countess of Carlisle, Browning's second portrait of a woman, is a noble and singularly original one. Her unrecognised and undeterred devotion to Strafford is finely and tenderly pathetic; it has the sorrowful dignity of faithful service, rewarded only in serving.
[Footnote 13: See Robert Browning: Personalia, by Edmund Gosse (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1890).]
[Published in 1840 (Poetical Works, 1889, Vol. I., pp. 47-289).]
Sordello is generally spoken of as being the most obscure and the least attractive of Browning's poems; it has even been called "the most illegible production of any time or country." Hard, very hard, it undoubtedly is; but undoubtedly it is far from unattractive to the serious student of poetry, who will find in it something of the fascination of an Alpine peak: not to be gained without an effort, treacherous and slippery, painfully dazzling to weak eyes, but for all that irresistibly fascinating. Sordello contains enough poetic material for a dozen considerable poems; indeed, its very fault lies in its plethora of ideas, the breathless crowd of hurrying thoughts and fancies, which fill and overflow it. That this is not properly to be called "obscurity" has been triumphantly shown by Mr. Swinburne in his essay on George Chapman. Some of his admirable statements I have already quoted, but we may bear to be told twice that Browning is too much the reverse of obscure, that he is only too brilliant and subtle, that he never thinks but at full speed. But besides this characteristic, which is common to all his work, there are one or two special reasons which have made this particular poem more difficult than others. The condensation of style which had marked Browning's previous work, and which has marked his later, was here (in consequence of an unfortunate and most unnecessary dread of verbosity, induced by a rash and foolish criticism) accentuated not infrequently into dislocation. The very unfamiliar historical events of the story are introduced, too, in a parenthetic and allusive way, not a little embarrassing to the reader.
But it is also evident that the difficulties of a gigantic conception were not completely conquered by the writer's genius, not then fully matured; that lack of entire mastery over the material has frequently caused the two interests of the poem, the psychological and the historical, to clash; the background to intrude on and confuse the middle distance, if not even the foreground itself. Every one of these faults is the outcome of a merit: altogether they betray a growing nature of extraordinary power, largeness and richness, not as yet to be bound or contained within any limits or in any bonds.
Sordello is a psychological epic. But to call it this only would be to do it somewhat less than justice. There is in the poem a union of breathless eagerness with brooding suspense, which has an almost unaccountable fascination for those who once come under its charm, and nowhere in Browning's work are there so many pictures, so vivid in aspect, so sharp in outline, so rich in colour. At their best they are sudden, a flash of revelation, as in this autumnal Goito:—
"'Twas the marsh Gone of a sudden. Mincio, in its place, Laughed, a broad water, in next morning's face, And, where the mists broke up immense and white I' the steady wind, burned like a spilth of light, Out of the crashing of a myriad stars."
Verona, by torchfire, seen from a window, is shown with the same quick flare out of darkness:—
"Then arose the two And leaned into Verona's air, dead-still. A balcony lay black beneath until Out, 'mid a gush of torchfire, grey-haired men Came on it and harangued the people: then Sea-like that people surging to and fro Shouted."
Only Carlyle, in the most vivid moments of his French Revolution, has struck such flashes out of darkness. And there are other splendours and rarities, not only in the evocation of actual scenes and things, but in mere similes, like this, in which the quality of imagination is of a curiously subtle and unusual kind:—
"As, shall I say, some Ethiop, past pursuit Of all enslavers, dips a shackled foot Burnt to the blood, into the drowsy black Enormous watercourse which guides him back To his own tribe again, where he is king: And laughs because he guesses, numbering The yellower poison-wattles on the pouch Of the first lizard wrested from its couch Under the slime (whose skin, the while, he strips To cure his nostril with, and festered lips, And eyeballs bloodshot through the desert-blast) That he has reached its boundary, at last May breathe;—thinks o'er enchantments of the South Sovereign to plague his enemies, their mouth, Eyes, nails, and hair; but, these enchantments tried In fancy, puts them soberly aside For truth, projects a cool return with friends, The likelihood of winning mere amends Ere long; thinks that, takes comfort silently, Then, from the river's brink, his wrongs and he, Hugging revenge close to their hearts, are soon Off-striding for the Mountains of the Moon."
And, while much of the finest poetry is contained in picturesque passages such as these, we find verse of another order, thrilling as the trumpet's "golden cry," in the passionate invocation of Dante, enshrining the magnificently Dantesque characterization of the three divisions of the Divina Commedia.
"For he—for he, Gate-vein of this hearts' blood of Lombardy, (If I should falter now)—for he is thine! Sordello, thy forerunner, Florentine! A herald-star I know thou didst absorb Relentless into the consummate orb That scared it from its right to roll along A sempiternal path with dance and song Fulfilling its allotted period, Serenest of the progeny of God— Who yet resigns it not! His darling stoops With no quenched lights, desponds with no blank troops Of disenfranchised brilliances, for, blent Utterly with thee, its shy element Like thine upburneth prosperous and clear. Still, what if I approach the august sphere Named now with only one name, disentwine That under-current soft and argentine From its fierce mate in the majestic mass Leavened as the sea whose fire was mixt with glass In John's transcendent vision,—launch once more That lustre? Dante, pacer of the shore Where glutted hell disgorgeth filthiest gloom, Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume— Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope Into a darkness quieted by hope; Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God's eye In gracious twilights where his chosen lie, I would do this! If I should falter now!"
Browning has himself told us that his stress lay on the "incidents in the development of a soul." The portrait of Sordello is one of the most elaborate and complete which he has given us. It is painted with more accessory detail and on a larger canvas than any other single figure. Like Pauline and Paracelsus, with which it has points of affinity, the poem is a study of ambition and of egoism; of a soul "whose ambition," as it has been rightly said, "is in extravagant disproportion to its physical powers and means, and whose temptation is at every crisis to seek pleasure in the picture of willing and doing rather than in willing and doing itself." Sordello's youth is fed upon fancy: he imagines himself Apollo, this or that hero of the time; in dreams he is and does to the height of his aspirations. But from any actual doing he shrinks; at the approach or the call of action, his will refuses to act. We might sum up his character in a general sense by saying that his imagination overpowers every other faculty; an imagination intensely personal, a sort of intellectual egoism, which removes him equally from action and from sympathy. He looks on men as foils to himself, or as a background on which to shine. But the root of his failure is this, and it is one which could never be even apprehended by a vulgar egoism: he longs to grasp the whole of life at once, to realise his aims in their entirety, without complying with the necessary conditions. His mind perceives the infinite and essential so clearly that it scorns or spurns the mere accidents. But earth being earth, and life growth, and accidents an inevitable part of life, the rule remains that man, to attain, must climb step by step, and not expect to fly at once to the top of the ladder. Finding that he cannot do everything, Sordello sees no alternative but to do nothing. Consequently his state comes to be a virtual indolence or inactivity; though it is in reality that of the top, spinning so fast that its motion is imperceptible. Poet and man of action, for he contains more than the germ of both, confound and break down one another. He meets finally with a great temptation, conquers it, but dies of the effort. For the world his life has been a failure, for himself not absolutely so, since, before his eyes were closed, he was permitted to see the truth and to recognise it. But in all his aims, in all his ambitions, he has failed; and the world has gained nothing from them or from him but the warning of his example.
This Sordello of Browning seems to have little identity with the brief and splendid Sordello of Dante, the figure that fronts us in the superb sixth canto of the Purgatoria, "a guisa di leon quando si posa." The records of the real Sordello are scant, fragmentary and contradictory. No coherent outline of his personality remains, so that the character which Browning has made for him is a creation as absolute as if it had been wholly invented. The name indeed of Sordello, embalmed in Dante's verse, is still fresh to our ears after the "ravage of six long sad hundred years," and it is Dante, too, who in his De Vulgari Eloquentia, has further signalised him by honourable record. Sordello, he says, excelled in all kinds of composition, and by his experiments in the dialects of Cremona, Brescia and Verona, cities near Mantua, helped to form the Tuscan tongue. But besides the brief record of Dante, there are certain accounts of Sordello's life, very confused and conflicting, in the early Italian Chronicles and the Provencal lives of the Troubadours. Tiraboschi sifts these legends, leaving very little of them. According to him, Sordello was a Mantuan of noble family, born at Goito at the close of the twelfth century. He was a poet and warrior, though not, as some reports profess, captain-general or governor of Mantua. He eloped with Cunizza, the wife of Count Richard of St. Boniface; at some period of his life he went into Provence; and he died a violent death, about the middle of the thirteenth century. The works attributed to him are poems in Tuscan and Provencal, a didactic poem in Latin named Thesaurus Thesaurorum (now in the Ambrosiana in Milan), an essay in Provencal on "The Progress and Power of the Kings of Aragon in the Comte of Provence," a treatise on "The Defence of Walled Towns," and some historial translations from Latin into the vulgar tongue. Of all these works only the Thesaurus and some thirty-four poems in Provencal, sirventes and tensens, survive: some of the finest of them are satires.
The statement that Sordello was specially famed for his philosophical verses, though not confirmed by what remains of his poetry, is interesting and significant in connection with Browning's conception of his character. There is little however in the scanty tales we have of the historic Sordello to suggest the "feverish poet" of the poem. The fugitive personality of the half mythical fighting poet eludes the grasp, and Browning has rather given the name of Sordello to an imagined type of the poetic character than constructed a type of character to fit the name. Still less are the dubious attributes with which the bare facts of history or legend invest Cunizza (whom, none the less, Dante spoke with in heaven) recognisable in the exquisite and all-golden loveliness of Palma.
[Footnote 14: "Mr. Browning prepared himself for writing Sordello," says Mrs. Orr, "by studying all the chronicles of that period of Italian history which the British Museum contained; 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."—Handbook, p. 31.]
[Footnote 15: Of all these matters, and of all else that is known of Sordello, a good and sympathetic account will be found in Mr. Eugene Benson's little book on Sordello and Cunizza (Dent, 1903).]
5. PIPPA PASSES.
[Published in 1841 as No. I of Bells and Pomegranates (Poetical Works, 1889, Vol. III., pp. 1-79).]
Pippa Passes is Browning's most perfect work, and here, more perhaps than in anything he ever wrote, he wrote to please himself. As a whole, he has never written anything to equal it in artistic symmetry; while a single scene, that between Ottima and Sebald, reaches the highest level of tragic utterance which he has ever attained. The plan of the work, in which there are elements of the play and elements of the masque, is a wholly original one: a series of scenes, connected only by the passing through them of a single person, who is outside their action, and whose influence on that action is unconscious. "Mr Browning," says Mrs. Sutherland Orr in the Handbook, "was walking alone in a wood near Dulwich, when the image flashed upon him of some one walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it; and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo, Felippa or Pippa." It is this motive that makes unity in variety, linking together a sequence of otherwise independent scenes. The poem is the story of Pippa's New Year's Day holiday, her one holiday in the year. She resolves to fancy herself to be in turn the four happiest people in Asolo, and, to realise her fancy as much as she can, she spends her day in wandering about the town, passing, in the morning, the shrub-house up the hillside, where Ottima and her lover Sebald have met; at noon, the house of Jules, over Orcana; in the evening, the turret on the hill above Asolo, where are Luigi and his mother; and at night, the palace by the Duomo, now tenanted by Monsignor the Bishop. These, whom she imagines to be the happiest people in the town, have all, in reality, arrived at crises of tremendous and tragic importance to themselves, and, in one instance, to her. Each stands at the turning-point of a life: Ottima and Sebald, unrepentant, with a crime behind them; Jules and Phene, two souls brought strangely face to face by a fate which may prove their salvation or their perdition; Luigi, irresolute, with a purpose to be performed; Monsignor, undecided, before a great temptation. Pippa passes, singing, at the moment when these souls' tragedies seem tending to a fatal end, at the moment when the baser nature seems about to triumph over the better. Something in the song, "like any flash that cures the blind," strikes them with a sudden light; each decides, suddenly; each, according to the terms of his own nature, is saved. And Pippa passes, unconscious of the influence she has exerted, as they are but half-aware of the agency of what they take as an immediate word from God. Each of these four scenes is in dialogue, the first three in blank verse, the last in prose. Between each is an interlude, in prose or verse, representing the "talk by the way," of art-students, Austrian police, and poor girls, all bearing on some part of the action. Pippa's prologue and epilogue, like her songs, are in varied lyric verse. The blank verse throughout is the most vivid and dignified, the most coloured and yet restrained, that Browning ever wrote; and he never wrote anything better for singing than some of Pippa's songs.