BROWNING AS A PHILOSOPHICAL AND RELIGIOUS TEACHER
Professor of Philosophy in the University of Glasgow
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO MY DEAR FRIENDS
MISS HARRIET MACARTHUR AND MISS JANE MACARTHUR.
The purpose of this book is to deal with Browning, not simply as a poet, but rather as the exponent of a system of ideas on moral and religious subjects, which may fairly be called a philosophy. I am conscious that it is a wrong to a poet to neglect, or even to subordinate, the artistic aspect of his work. At least, it would be a wrong, if our final judgment on his poetry were to be determined on such a method. But there is a place for everything; and, even in the case of a great poet, there is sometimes an advantage in attempting to estimate the value of what he has said, apart from the form in which he has said it. And of all modern poets, Browning is the one who most obviously invites and justifies such a method of treatment. For, in the first place, he is clearly one of that class of poets who are also prophets. He was never merely "the idle singer of an empty day," but one for whom poetic enthusiasm was intimately bound up with religious faith, and who spoke "in numbers," not merely "because the numbers came," but because they were for him the necessary vehicle of an inspiring thought. If it is the business of philosophy to analyze and interpret all the great intellectual forces that mould the thought of an age, it cannot neglect the works of one who has exercised, and is exercising so powerful an influence on the moral and religious life of the present generation.
In the second place, as will be seen in the sequel, Browning has himself led the way towards such a philosophical interpretation of his work. For, even in his earlier poems, he not seldom crossed the line that divides the poet from the philosopher, and all but broke through the strict limits of art in the effort to express—and we might even say to preach—his own idealistic faith. In his later works he did this almost without any disguise, raising philosophical problems, and discussing all the pros and cons of their solution, with no little subtlety and dialectical skill. In some of these poems we might even seem to be receiving a philosophical lesson, in place of a poetic inspiration, if it were not for those powerful imaginative utterances, those winged words, which Browning has always in reserve, to close the ranks of his argument. If the question is stated in a prosaic form, the final answer, as in the ancient oracle, is in the poetic language of the gods.
From this point of view I have endeavoured to give a connected account of Browning's ideas, especially of his ideas on religion and morality, and to estimate their value. In order to do so, it was necessary to discuss the philosophical validity of the principles on which his doctrine is more or less consciously based. The more immediately philosophical chapters are the second, seventh, and ninth; but they will not be found unintelligible by those who have reflected on the difficulties of the moral and religious life, even although they may be unacquainted with the methods and language of the schools.
I have received much valuable help in preparing this work for the press from my colleague, Professor G.B. Mathews, and still more from Professor Edward Caird. I owe them both a deep debt of gratitude.
CHAPTER I. INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER II. ON THE NEED OF A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE
CHAPTER III. BROWNING'S PLACE IN ENGLISH POETRY
CHAPTER IV. BROWNING'S OPTIMISM
CHAPTER V. OPTIMISM AND ETHICS: THEIR CONTRADICTION
CHAPTER VI. BROWNING'S TREATMENT OF THE PRINCIPLE OF LOVE
CHAPTER VII. BROWNING'S IDEALISM, AND ITS PHILOSOPHICAL JUSTIFICATION
CHAPTER VIII. BROWNING'S SOLUTION OF THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
CHAPTER IX. A CRITICISM OF BROWNING'S VIEW OF THE FAILURE OF KNOWLEDGE
CHAPTER X. THE HEART AND THE HEAD.—LOVE AND REASON
CHAPTER XI. CONCLUSION
"Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und gruen des Lebens goldner Baum." (Faust.)
There is a saying of Hegel's, frequently quoted, that "a great man condemns the world to the task of explaining him." The condemnation is a double one, and it generally falls heaviest on the great man himself, who has to submit to explanation; and, probably, the last refinement of this species of cruelty is to expound a poet. I therefore begin with an apology in both senses of the term. I acknowledge that no commentator on art has a right to be heard, if he is not aware of the subordinate and temporary nature of his office. At the very best he is only a guide to the beautiful object, and he must fall back in silence so soon as he has led his company into its presence. He may perhaps suggest "the line of vision," or fix the point of view, from which we can best hope to do justice to the artist's work, by appropriating his intention and comprehending his idea; but if he seeks to serve the ends of art, he will not attempt to do anything more.
In order to do even this successfully, it is essential that every judgment passed should be exclusively ruled by the principles which govern art. "Fine art is not real art till it is free"; that is, till its value is recognized as lying wholly within itself. And it is not, unfortunately, altogether unnecessary to insist that, so far from enhancing the value of an artist's work, we only degrade it into mere means, subordinate it to uses alien, and therefore antagonistic to its perfection, if we try to show that it gives pleasure, or refinement, or moral culture. There is no doubt that great poetry has all these uses, but the reader can enjoy them only on condition of forgetting them; for they are effects that follow the sense of its beauty. Art, morality, religion, is each supreme in its own sphere; the beautiful is not more beautiful because it is also moral, nor is a painting great because its subject is religious. It is true that their spheres overlap, and art is never at its best except when it is a beautiful representation of the good; nevertheless the points of view of the artist and of the ethical teacher are quite different, and consequently also the elements within which they work and the truth they reveal.
In attempting, therefore, to discover Robert Browning's philosophy of life, I do not pretend that my treatment of him is adequate. Browning is, first of all, a poet; it is only as a poet that he can be finally judged; and the greatness of a poet is to be measured by the extent to which his writings are a revelation of what is beautiful.
I undertake a different and a humbler task, conscious of its limitations, and aware that I can hardly avoid doing some violence to the artist. What I shall seek in the poet's writings is not beauty, but truth; and although truth is beautiful, and beauty is truth, still the poetic and philosophic interpretation of life are not to be confused. Philosophy must separate the matter from the form. Its synthesis comes through analysis, and analysis is destructive of beauty, as it is of all life. Art, therefore, resists the violence of the critical methods of philosophy, and the feud between them, of which Plato speaks, will last through all time. The beauty of form and the music of speech which criticism destroys, and to which philosophy is, at the best, indifferent, are essential to poetry. When we leave them out of account we miss the ultimate secret of poetry, for they cling to the meaning and penetrate it with their charm. Thought and its expression are inseparable in poetry, as they never are in philosophy; hence, in the former, the loss of the expression is the loss of truth. The pure idea that dwells in a poem is suffused in the poetic utterance, as sunshine breaks into beauty in the mist, as life beats and blushes in the flesh, or as an impassioned thought breathes in a thinker's face.
But, although art and philosophy are supreme, each in its own realm, and neither can be subordinated to the uses of the other, they may help each other. They are independent, but not rival powers of the world of mind. Not only is the interchange of truth possible between them; but each may show and give to the other all its treasures, and be none the poorer itself. "It is in works of art that some nations have deposited the profoundest intuitions and ideas of their hearts." Job and Isaiah, AEschylus and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Goethe, were first of all poets. Mankind is indebted to them in the first place for revealing beauty; but it also owes to them much insight into the facts and principles of the moral world. It would be an unutterable loss to the ethical thinker and the philosopher, if this region were closed against them, so that they could no longer seek in the poets the inspiration and light that lead to goodness and truth. In our own day, almost above all others, we need the poets for these ethical and religious purposes. For the utterances of the dogmatic teacher of religion have been divested of much of their ancient authority; and the moral philosopher is often regarded either as a vendor of commonplaces or as the votary of a discredited science, whose primary principles are matter of doubt and debate. There are not a few educated Englishmen who find in the poets, and in the poets alone, the expression of their deepest convictions concerning the profoundest interests of life. They read the poets for fresh inspiration, partly, no doubt, because the passion and rapture of poetry lull criticism and soothe the questioning spirit into acquiescence.
But there are further reasons; for the poets of England are greater than its moral philosophers; and it is of the nature of the poetic art that, while eschewing system, it presents the strife between right and wrong in concrete character, and therefore with a fulness and truth impossible to the abstract thought of science.
"A poet never dreams: We prose folk do: we miss the proper duct For thoughts on things unseen."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, lxxxviii.]
It is true that philosophy endeavours to correct this fragmentariness by starting from the unity of the whole. But it can never quite get rid of an element of abstraction and reach down to the concrete individual.
The making of character is so complex a process that the poetic representation of it, with its subtle suggestiveness, is always more complete and realistic than any possible philosophic analysis. Science can deal only with aspects and abstractions, and its method becomes more and more inadequate as its matter grows more concrete, unless it proceeds from the unity in which all the aspects are held together. In the case of life, and still more so in that of human conduct, the whole must precede the part, and the moral science must, therefore, more than any other, partake of the nature of poetry; for it must start from living spirit, go from the heart outwards, in order to detect the meaning of the actions of man.
On this account, poetry is peculiarly helpful to the ethical investigator, because it always treats the particular thing as a microcosm. It is the great corrective of the onesidedness of science with its harsh method of analysis and distinction. It is a witness to the unity of man and the world. Every object which art touches into beauty, becomes in the very act a whole. The thing that is beautiful is always complete, the embodiment of something absolutely valuable, the product and the source of love; and the beloved object is all the world for the lover—beyond all praise, because it is above all comparison.
"Then why not witness, calmly gazing, If earth holds aught—speak truth—above her? Above this tress, and this, I touch But cannot praise, I love so much!"[A]
[Footnote A: Song (Dramatic Lyrics).]
This characteristic of the work of art brings with it an important practical consequence, because being complete, it appeals to the whole man.
"Poetry," it has been well said, is "the idealized and monumental utterance of the deepest feelings." And poetic feelings, it must not be forgotten, are deepest; that is, they are the afterglow of the fullest activity of a complete soul, and not shallow titillations, or surface pleasures, such as the palate knows. Led by poetry, the intellect so sees truth that it glows with it, and the will is stirred to deeds of heroism. For there is hardly any fact so mean, but that when intensified by emotion, it grows poetic; as there is hardly any man so unimaginative, but that when struck with a great sorrow, or moved by a great passion, he is endowed for a moment with the poet's speech. A poetic fact, one may almost say, is just any fact at its best. Art, it is true, looks at its object through a medium, but it always seems its inmost meaning. In Lear, Othello, Hamlet, in Falstaff and Touchstone, there is a revelation of the inner truth of human life beyond the power of moral science to bestow. We do well to seek philosophy in the poets, for though they teach only by hints and parables, they nevertheless reflect the concrete truth of life, as it is half revealed and half concealed in facts. On the other hand, the reflective process of philosophy may help poetry; for, as we shall show, there is a near kinship between them. Even the critical analyst, while severing element from element, may help art and serve the poet's ends, provided he does not in his analysis of parts forget the whole. His function, though humble and merely preliminary to full poetic enjoyment, is not unimportant. To appreciate the grandeur of the unity of the work of art, there must be knowledge of the parts combined. It is quite true that the guide in the gallery is prone to be too talkative, and there are many who can afford to turn the commentator out of doors, especially if he moralizes. But, after all, man is not pure sensibility, any more than he is pure reason. And the aesthete will not lose if he occasionally allows those whom he may think less sensitive than himself to the charm of rhythmic phrase, to direct sober attention to the principles which lie embedded in all great poetry. At the worst, to seek for truth in poetry is a protest against the constant tendency to read it for the sake of the emotions which it stirs, the tendency to make it a refined amusement and nothing more. That is a deeper wrong to art than any which the theoretical moralist can inflict. Of the two, it is better to read poetry for ethical doctrines than for fine sensations; for poetry purifies the passions only when it lifts the reader into the sphere of truths that are universal.
The task of interpreting a poet may be undertaken in different ways. One of these, with which we have been made familiar by critics of Shakespeare and of Browning himself, is to analyze each poem by itself and regard it as the artistic embodiment of some central idea; the other is to attempt, without dealing separately with each poem, to reach the poet's own point of view, and to reveal the sovereign truths which rule his mind. It is this latter way that I shall try to follow.
Such dominant or even despotic thoughts it is possible to discover in all our great poets, except perhaps Shakespeare, whose universality baffles every classifier. As a rule, the English poets have been caught up, and inspired, by the exceeding grandeur of some single idea, in whose service they spend themselves with that prodigal thrift which finds life in giving it. Such an idea gives them a fresh way of looking at the world, so that the world grows young again with their new interpretation. In the highest instances, poets may become makers of epochs; they reform as well as reveal; for ideas are never dead things, "but grow in the hand that grasps them." In them lies the energy of a nation's life, and we comprehend that life only when we make clear to ourselves the thoughts which inspire it. It is thus true, in the deepest sense, that those who make the songs of a people make its history. In all true poets there are hints for a larger philosophy of life. But, in order to discover it, we must know the truths which dominate them, and break into music in their poems.
Whether it is always possible, and whether it is at any time fair to a poet to define the idea which inspires him, I shall not inquire at present. No doubt, the interpretation of a poet from first principles carries us beyond the limits of art; and by insisting on the unity of his work, more may be attributed to him, or demanded from him, than he properly owns. To make such a demand is to require that poetry should be philosophy as well, which, owing to its method of intuition, it can never be. Nevertheless, among English poets there is no one who lends himself so easily, or so justly, to this way of treatment as Browning. Much of his poetry trembles on the verge of the abyss which is supposed to separate art from philosophy; and, as I shall try to show, there was in the poet a growing tendency to turn the power of dialectic on the pre-suppositions of his art. Yet, even Browning puts great difficulties in the way of a critic, who seeks to draw a philosophy of life from his poems. It is not by any means an easy task to lift the truths he utters under the stress of poetic emotion into the region of placid contemplation, or to connect them into a system, by means of the principle from which he makes his departure.
The first of these difficulties arises from the extent and variety of his work. He was prodigal of poetic ideas, and wrote for fifty years on nature, art, and man, like a magnificent spendthrift of spiritual treasures. So great a store of knowledge lay at his hand, so real and informed with sympathy, that we can scarcely find any great literature which he has not ransacked, any phase of life which is not represented in his poems. All kinds of men and women, in every station in life, and at every stage of evil and goodness, crowd his pages. There are few forms of human character he has not studied, and each individual he has so caught at the supreme moment of his life, and in the hardest stress of circumstance, that the inmost working of his nature is revealed. The wealth is bewildering, and it is hard to follow the central thought, "the imperial chord, which steadily underlies the accidental mists of music springing thence."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair.]
A second and still graver difficulty lies in the fact that his poetry, as he repeatedly insisted, is "always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine."[B] In his earlier works, especially, Browning is creative rather than reflective, a Maker rather than a Seer; and his creations stand aloof from him, working out their fate in an outer world. We often lose the poet in the imaginative characters, into whom he penetrates with his keen artistic intuition, and within whom he lies as a necessity revealing itself in their actions and words. It is not easy anywhere to separate the elements, so that we can say with certainty, "Here I catch the poet, there lies his material." The identification of the work and worker is too intimate, and the realization of the imaginary personage is too complete.
[Footnote B: Pref. to Pauline, 1888.]
In regard to the dramatic interpretation of his poetry, Browning has manifested a peculiar sensitiveness. In his Preface to Pauline and in several of his poems—notably The Mermaid, the House, and the Shop—he explicitly cuts himself free from his work. He knew that direct self-revealment on the part of the poet violates the spirit of the drama. "With this same key Shakespeare unlocked his heart," said Wordsworth; "Did Shakespeare?" characteristically answers Browning, "If so, the less Shakespeare he!" And of himself he asks:
"Which of you did I enable Once to slip inside my breast, There to catalogue and label What I like least, what love best, Hope and fear, believe and doubt of, Seek and shun, respect—deride? Who has right to make a rout of Rarities he found inside?"[A]
[Footnote A: At the Mermaid.]
He repudiates all kinship with Byron and his subjective ways, and refuses to be made king by the hands which anointed him. "He will not give his woes an airing, and has no plague that claims respect." Both as man and poet, in virtue of the native, sunny, outer-air healthiness of his character, every kind of subjectivity is repulsive to him. He hands to his readers "his work, his scroll, theirs to take or leave: his soul he proffers not." For him "shop was shop only"; and though he dealt in gems, and throws
"You choice of jewels, every one, Good, better, best, star, moon, and sun,"[A]
[Footnote A: Shop.]
he still lived elsewhere, and had "stray thoughts and fancies fugitive" not meant for the open market. The poems in which Browning has spoken without the disguise of another character are very few. There are hardly more than two or three of much importance which can be considered as directly reflecting his own ideas, namely, Christmas Eve and Easter Day, La Saisiaz, and One Word More—unless, spite of the poet's warning, we add Pauline.
But, although the dramatic element in Browning's poetry renders it difficult to construct his character from his works, while this is comparatively easy in the case of Wordsworth or Byron; and although it throws a shade of uncertainty on every conclusion we might draw as to any specific doctrine held by him, still Browning lives in a certain atmosphere, and looks at his characters through a medium, whose subtle influence makes all his work indisputably his. The light he throws on his men and women is not the unobtrusive light of day, which reveals objects, but not itself. Though a true dramatist, he is not objective like Shakespeare and Scott, whose characters seem never to have had an author. The reader feels, rather, that Browning himself attends him through all the sights and wonders of the world of man; he never escapes the sense of the presence of the poet's powerful personality, or of the great convictions on which he has based his life. Browning has, at bottom, only one way of looking at the world, and one way of treating his objects; one point of view, and one artistic method. Nay, further, he has one supreme interest, which he pursues everywhere with a constancy shown by hardly any other poet; and, in consequence, his works have a unity and a certain originality, which make them in many ways a unique contribution to English literature.
This characteristic, which no critic has missed, and which generally goes by the name of "the metaphysical element" in his poetry, makes it the more imperative to form a clear view of his ruling conceptions. No poet, least of all a dramatic poet, goes about seeking concrete vehicles for ready-made ideas, or attempts to dress a philosophy in metaphors; and Browning, as an artist, is interested first of all in the object which he renders beautiful for its own sole sake, and not in any abstract idea it illustrates. Still, it is true in a peculiar sense in his case, that the eye of the poet brings with it what it sees. He is, as a rule, conscious of no theory, and does not construct a poem for its explication; he rather strikes his ideas out of his material, as the sculptor reveals the breathing life in the stone. Nevertheless, it may be shown that a theory rules him from behind, and that profound convictions arise in the heart and rush along the blood at the moment of creation, using his soul as an instrument of expression to his age and people.
Of no English poet, except Shakespeare, can we say with approximate truth that he is the poet of all times. The subjective breath of their own epoch dims the mirror which they hold up to nature. Missing by their limitation the highest universality, they can only be understood in their setting. It adds but little to our knowledge of Shakespeare's work to regard him as the great Elizabethan; there is nothing temporary in his dramas, except petty incidents and external trappings—so truly did he dwell amidst the elements constituting man in every age and clime. But this cannot be said of any other poet, not even of Chaucer or Spenser, far less of Milton, or Pope or Wordsworth. In their case, the artistic form and the material, the idea and its expression, the beauty and the truth, are to some extent separable. We can distinguish in Milton between the Puritanic theology which is perishable, and the art whose beauty can never pass away. The former fixes his kinship with his own age, gives him a definite place in the evolution of English life; the latter is independent of time, a thing which has supreme worth in itself.
Nor can it be doubted that the same holds good of Browning. He also is ruled by the ideas of his own age. It may not be altogether possible for us, "who are partners of his motion and mixed up with his career," to allow for the influence of these ideas, and to distinguish between that which is evanescent and that which is permanent in his work; still I must try to do so; for it is the condition of comprehending him, and of appropriating the truth and beauty he came to reveal. And if his nearness to ourselves makes this more difficult, it also makes it more imperative. For there is no doubt that, with Carlyle, he is the interpreter of our time, reflecting its confused strength and chaotic wealth. He is the high priest of our age, standing at the altar for us, and giving utterance to our needs and aspirations, our fears and faith. By understanding him, we shall, to some degree, understand ourselves and the power which is silently moulding us to its purposes.
It is because I thus regard Browning as not merely a poet but a prophet, that I think I am entitled to seek in him, as in Isaiah or Aeschylus, a solution, or a help to the solution, of the problems that press upon us when we reflect upon man, his place in the world and his destiny. He has given us indirectly, and as a poet gives, a philosophy of life; he has interpreted the world anew in the light of a dominant idea; and it will be no little gain if we can make clear to ourselves those constitutive principles on which his view of the world rests.
ON THE NEED OF A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE.
"Art,—which I may style the love of loving, rage Of knowing, seeing, feeling the absolute truth of things For truth's sake, whole and sole, not any good, truth brings The knower, seer, feeler, beside,—instinctive Art Must fumble for the whole, once fixing on a part However poor, surpass the fragment, and aspire To reconstruct thereby the ultimate entire."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, xliv.]
No English poet has spoken more impressively than Browning on the weightier matters of morality and religion, or sought with more earnestness to meet the difficulties which arise when we try to penetrate to their ultimate principles. His way of poetry is, I think, fundamentally different from that of any other of our great writers. He often seems to be roused into speech, rather by the intensity of his spiritual convictions than by the subtle incitements of poetic sensibility. His convictions caught fire, and truth became beauty for him; not beauty, truth, as with Keats or Shelley. He is swayed by ideas, rather than by sublime moods. Beneath the endless variety of his poems, there are permanent principles, or "colligating conceptions," as science calls them; and although these are expressed by the way of emotion, they are held by him with all the resources of his reason.
His work, though intuitive and perceptive as to form, "gaining God by first leap" as all true art must do, leaves the impression, when regarded as a whole, of an articulated system. It is a view of man's life and destiny that can be maintained, not only during the impassioned moods of poetry, but in the very presence of criticism and doubt. His faith, like Pompilia's, is held fast "despite the plucking fiend." He has given to us something more than intuitive glimpses into, the mysteries of man's character. Throughout his life he held up the steady light of an optimistic conception of the world, and by its means injected new vigour into English ethical thought. In his case, therefore, it is not an immaterial question, but one almost forced upon us, whether we are to take his ethical doctrine and inspiring optimism as valid truths, or to regard them merely as subjective opinions held by a religious poet. Are they creations of a powerful imagination, and nothing more? Do they give to the hopes and aspirations that rise so irrepressibly in the heart of man anything better than an appearance of validity, which will prove illusory the moment the cold light of critical inquiry is turned upon them?
It is to this unity of his work that I would attribute, in the main, the impressiveness of his deliverances on morality and religion. And this unity justifies us, I think, in applying to Browning's view of life methods of criticism that would be out of place with any other English poet. It is one of his unique characteristics, as already hinted, that he has endeavoured to give us a complete and reasoned view of the ethical nature of man, and of his relation to the world—has sought, in fact, to establish a philosophy of life. In his case, not without injustice, it is true, but with less injustice than in the case of any other poet, we may disregard, for our purposes, the artistic method of his thought, and lay stress on its content only. He has a right to a place amongst philosophers, as Plato has to a place amongst poets. There is such deliberate earnestness and systematic consistency in his teaching, that Hegel can scarcely be said to have maintained that "The Rational is the Real" with greater intellectual tenacity, than Browning held to his view of life. He sought, in fact, to establish an Idealism; and that Idealism, like Kant's and Fichte's, has its last basis in the moral consciousness.
But, even if it be considered that it is not altogether just to apply these critical tests to the poet's teaching, and to make him pay the penalty for assuming a place amongst philosophers, it is certain that what he says of man's spiritual life cannot be rightly valued, till it is regarded in the light of his guiding principles. We shall miss much of what is best in him, even as a poet, if, for instance, we regard his treatment of love merely as the expression of elevated passion, or his optimism as based upon mere hope. Love was to him rather an indwelling element in the world, present, like power, in everything.
"From the first, Power was—I knew. Life has made clear to me That, strive but for closer view, Love were as plain to see."[A]
[Footnote: A Reverie—Asolando.]
Love yielded to him, as Reason did to Hegel, a fundamental exposition of the nature of things. Or, to express the same thing in another way, it was a deliberate hypothesis, which he sought to apply to facts and to test by their means, almost in the same manner as that in which natural science applies and tests its principles.
That Browning's ethical and religious ideas were for him something different from, and perhaps more than, mere poetic sentiments, will, I believe, be scarcely denied. That he held a deliberate theory, and held it with greater and greater difficulty as he became older, and as his dialectical tendencies grew and threatened to wreck his artistic freedom, is evident to any one who regards his work as a whole. But it will not be admitted so readily that anything other than harm can issue from an attempt to deal with him as if he were a philosopher. Even if it be allowed that he held and expressed a definite theory, will it retain any value if we take it out of the region of poetry and impassioned religious faith, into the frigid zone of philosophical inquiry? Could any one maintain, apart from the intoxication of religious and poetic sentiment, that the essence of existence is love? As long as we remain within the realm of imagination, it may be argued, we may find in our poet's great sayings both solacement and strength, both rest and an impulse towards higher moral endeavour; but if we seek to treat them as theories of facts, and turn upon them the light of the understanding, will they not inevitably prove to be hallucinations? Poetry, we think, has its own proper place and function. It is an invaluable anodyne to the cark and care of reflective thought; an opiate which, by steeping the critical intellect in slumber, sets the soul free to rise on the wings of religious faith. But reason breaks the spell; and the world of poetry, and religion—a world which to them is always beautiful and good with God's presence—becomes a system of inexorable laws, dead, mechanical, explicable in strict truth, as an equipoise of constantly changing forms of energy.
There is, at the present time, a widespread belief that we had better keep poetry and religion beyond the reach of critical investigation, if we set any store by them. Faith and reason are thought to be finally divorced. It is an article of the common creed that every attempt which the world has made to bring them together has resulted in denial, or at the best in doubt, regarding all supersensuous facts. The one condition of leading a full life, of maintaining a living relation between ourselves and both the spiritual and material elements of our existence, is to make our lives an alternating rhythm of the head and heart, to distinguish with absolute clearness between the realm of reason and that of faith.
Now, such an assumption would be fatal to any attempt like the present, to find truth in poetry; and I must, therefore, try to meet it before entering upon a statement and criticism of Browning's view of life. I cannot admit that the difficulties of placing the facts of man's spiritual life on a rational basis are so great as to justify the assertion that there is no such basis, or that it is not discoverable by man. Surely, it is unreasonable to make intellectual death the condition of spiritual life. If such a condition were imposed on man, it must inevitably defeat its own purpose; for man cannot possibly continue to live a divided life, and persist in believing that for which his reason knows no defence. We must, in the long run, either rationalize our faith in morality and religion, or abandon them as illusions. And we should at least hesitate to deny that reason—in spite of its apparent failure in the past to justify our faith in the principles of spiritual life—may yet, as it becomes aware of its own nature and the might which dwells in it, find beauty and goodness, nay, God himself, in the world. We should at least hesitate to condemn man to choose between irreflective ignorance and irreligion, or to lock the intellect and the highest emotions of our nature and principles of our life, in a mortal struggle. Poetry and religion may, after all, be truer then prose, and have something to tell the world that science, which is often ignorant of its own limits, cannot teach.
The failure of philosophy in the past, even if it were as complete as is believed by persons ignorant of its history, is no argument against its success in the future. Such persons have never known that the world of thought like that of action makes a stepping stone of its dead self. He who presumes to decide what passes the power of man's thought, or to prescribe absolute limits to human knowledge, is rash, to say the least; and he has neither caught the most important of the lessons of modern science, nor been lifted to the level of its inspiration. For science has done one thing greater than to unlock the secrets of nature. It has revealed something of the might of reason, and given new grounds for the faith, which in all ages has inspired the effort to know,—the faith that the world is an intelligible structure, meant to be penetrated by the thought of man. Can it be that nature is an "open secret," but that man, and he alone, must remain an enigma? Or does he not rather bear within himself the key to every problem which he solves, and is it not his thought which penetrates the secrets of nature? The success of science, in reducing to law the most varied and apparently unconnected facts, should dispel any suspicion which attaches to the attempt to gather these laws under still wider ones, and to interpret the world in the light of the highest principles. And this is precisely what poetry and religion and philosophy do, each in its own way. They carry the work of the sciences into wider regions, and that, as I shall try to show, by methods which, in spite of many external differences, are fundamentally at one with those which the sciences employ.
There is only one way of giving the quietus to the metaphysics of poets and philosophers, and of showing the futility of a philosophy of life, or of any scientific explanation of religion and morals. It is to show that there is some radical absurdity in the very attempt. Till this is done, the human mind will not give up problems of weighty import, however hard it may be to solve them. The world refused to believe Socrates when he pronounced a science of nature impossible, and centuries of failure did not break man's courage. Science, it is true, has given up some problems as insoluble; it will not now try to construct a perpetually moving machine, or to square the circle. But it has given them up, not because they are difficult, but because they are unreasonable tasks. The problems have a surd or irrational element in them; and to solve them would be to bring reason into collision with itself.
Now, whatever may be the difficulties of establishing a theory of life, or a philosophy, it has never been shown to be an unreasonable task to attempt it. One might, on the contrary, expect, prima facie, that in a world progressively proved to be intelligible to man, man himself would be no exception. It is impossible that the "light in him should be darkness," or that the thought which reveals the order of the world should be itself chaotic.
The need for philosophy is just the ultimate form of the need for knowledge; and the truths which philosophy brings to light are implied in every rational explanation of things. The only choice we can have is between a conscious metaphysics and an unconscious one, between hypotheses which we have examined and whose limitations we know, and hypotheses which rule us from behind, as pure prejudices do. It is because of this that the empiric is so dogmatic, and the ignorant man so certain of the truth of his opinion. They do not know their postulates, nor are they aware that there is no interpretation of an object which does not finally point to a theory of being. We understand no joint or ligament, except in relation to the whole organism, and no fact, or event, except by finding a place for it in the context of our experience. The history of the pebble can be given, only in the light of the story of the earth, as it is told by the whole of geology. We must begin very far back, and bring our widest principles to bear upon the particular thing, if we wish really to know what it is. It is a law that explains, and laws are always universal. All our knowledge, even the most broken and inconsistent, streams from some fundamental conception, in virtue of which all the variety of objects constitute one world, one orderly kosmos, even to the meanest mind. It is true that the central thought, be it rich or poor, must, like the sun's light, be broken against particular facts. But there is no need of forgetting the real source of knowledge, or of deeming that its progress is a synthesis without law, or an addition of fact to fact without any guiding principles.
Now, it is the characteristic of poetry and philosophy that they keep alive our consciousness of these primary, uniting principles. They always dwell in the presence of the idea which makes their object one. To them the world is always, and necessarily, a harmonious whole, as it is also to the religious spirit. It is because of this that the universe is a thing of beauty for the poet, a revelation of God's goodness to the devout soul, and a manifestation of absolute reason to the philosopher. Art, religion, and philosophy fail or flourish together. The age of prose and scepticism appears when the sense of the presence of the whole in the particular facts of the world and of life has been dulled. And there is a necessity in this; for if the conception of the world as a whole is held to be impossible, if philosophy is a futility, then poetry will be a vain sentiment and religion a delusion.
Nor will the failure of thought, when once demonstrated in these upper regions, be confined to them. On the contrary, it will spread downwards to science and ordinary knowledge, as mountain mists blot out the valleys. For every synthesis of fact to fact, every attempt to know, however humble and limited, is inspired by a secret faith in the unity of the world. Each of the sciences works within its own region, and colligates its details in the light of its own hypothesis; and all the sciences taken together presuppose the presence in the world of a principle that binds it into an orderly totality. Scientific explorers know that they are all working towards the same centre. And, ever and anon, as the isolated thinker presses home his own hypothesis, he finds his thought beating on the limits of his science, and suggesting some wider hypothesis. The walls that separate the sciences are wearing thin, and at times light penetrates from one to the other. So that to their votaries, at least, the faith is progressively justified, that there is a meeting point for the sciences, a central truth in which the dispersed rays will again be gathered together. In fact, all the sciences are working together under the guidance of a principle common to them all, although it may not be consciously known and no attempt is made to define it. In science, as in philosophy and art and religion, there is a principle of unity, which, though latent, is really prior to all explanation of particular matters of fact.
In truth, man has only one way of knowing. There is no fundamental difference between scientific and philosophic procedure. We always light up facts by means of general laws. The fall of the stone was a perfect enigma, a universally unintelligible bit of experience, till the majestic imagination of Newton conceived the idea of universal gravitation. Wherever mind successfully invades the realm of chaos, poetry, the sense of the whole, comes first. There is the intuitive flash, the penetrative glimpse, got no one knows exactly whence—though we do know that it comes neither from the dead facts nor from the vacant region of a priori thought, but somehow from the interaction of both these elements of knowledge. After the intuitive flash comes the slow labour of proof, the application of the principle to details. And that application transforms both the principle and the details, so that the former is enriched with content and the latter are made intelligible—a veritable conquest and valid possession for mankind. And in this labour of proof, science and philosophy alike take their share.
Philosophy may be said to come midway between poetry and science, and to partake of the nature of both. On the one side it deals, like poetry, with ideals of knowledge, and announces truths which it does not completely verify; on the other, it leaves to science the task of articulating its principles in facts, though it begins the articulation itself. It reveals subsidiary principles, and is, at the same time, a witness for the unity of the categories of science. We may say, if we wish, that its principles are mere hypotheses. But so are the ideas which underlie the most practical of the sciences; so is every forecast of genius by virtue of which knowledge is extended; so is every principle of knowledge not completely worked out. To say that philosophy is hypothetical implies no charge, other than that which can be levelled, in the same sense, against the most solid body of scientific knowledge in the world. The fruitful question in each case alike is, how far, if at all, does the hypothesis enable us to understand particular facts.
The more careful of our scientific thinkers are well aware of the limits under which they work and of the hypothetical character of their results. "I take Euclidean space, and the existence of material particles and elemental energy for granted," says the physicist; "deny them, and I am helpless; grant them, and I shall establish quantitative relations between the different forms of this elemental energy, and make it tractable and tame to man's uses. All I teach depends upon my hypothesis. In it is the secret of all the power I wield. I do not pretend to say what this elemental energy is. I make no declaration regarding the actual nature of things; and all questions as to the ultimate origin or final destination of the world are beyond the scope of my inquiry. I am ruled by my hypothesis; I regard phenomena from my point of view; and my right to do so I substantiate by the practical and theoretical results which follow." The language of geology, chemistry, zoology, and even mathematics is the same. They all start from a hypothesis; they are all based on an imaginative conception, and in this sense their votaries are poets, who see the unity of being throb in the particular fact.
Now, so far as the particular sciences are concerned, I presume that no one will deny the supreme power of these colligating ideas. The sciences do not grow by a process of empiricism, which rambles tentatively and blindly from fact to fact, unguided of any hypothesis. But if they do not, if, on the contrary, each science is ruled by its own hypothesis, and uses that hypothesis to bind its facts together, then the question arises, are there no wider colligating principles amongst these hypotheses themselves? Are the sciences independent of each other, or is their independence only surface appearance? This is the question which philosophy asks, and the sciences themselves by their progress suggest a positive answer to it.
The knowledge of the world which the sciences are building is not a chaotic structure. By their apparently independent efforts, the outer kosmos is gradually reproduced in the mind of man, and the temple of truth is silently rising. We may not as yet be able to connect wing with wing, or to declare definitely the law of the whole. The logical order of the hypotheses of the various sciences, the true connection of these categories of constructive thought, may yet be uncertain. But, still, there is such an order and connection: the whole building has its plan, which becomes more and more intelligible as it approaches to its completion. Beneath all the differences, there are fundamental principles which give to human thought a definite unity of movement and direction. There are architectonic conceptions which are guiding, not only the different sciences, but all the modes of thought of an age. There are intellectual media, "working hypotheses," by means of which successive centuries observe all that they see; and these far-reaching constructive principles divide the history of mankind into distinct stages. In a word, there are dynasties of great ideas, such as the idea of development in our own day; and these successively ascend the throne of mind, and hold a sway over human thought which is well-nigh absolute.
Now, if this is so, is it certain that all knowledge of these ruling conceptions is impossible? In other words, is the attempt to construct a philosophy absurd? To say that it is, to deny the possibility of catching any glimpse of those regulative ideas, which determine the main tendencies of human thought, is to place the supreme directorate of the human intelligence in the hands of a necessity which, for us, is blind. For, an order that is hidden is equivalent to chance, so far as knowledge is concerned; and if we believe it to exist, we do so in the face of the fact that all we see, and all we can see, is the opposite of order, namely lawlessness. Human knowledge, on this view, would be subjected to law in its details and compartments, but to disorder as a whole. Thinking men would be organized into regiments; but the regiments would not constitute an army, nor would there be any unity of movement in the attack on the realm of ignorance.
But, such is not the conclusion to which the study of human history leads, especially when we observe its movements on a large scale. On the contrary, it is found that history falls into great epochs, each of which has its own peculiar characteristics. Ages, as well as nations and individuals, have features of their own, special and definite modes of thinking and acting. The movement of thought in each age has its own direction, which is determined by some characteristic and fundamental idea, that fulfils for it the part of a working hypothesis in a particular science. It is the prerogative of the greatest leaders of thought in an age to catch a glimpse of this ruling idea when it first makes its appearance; and it is their function, not only to discover it, but also to reveal it to others. And, in this way, they are at once the exponents of their time, and its prophets. They reveal that which is already a latent but active power—"a tendency"; but they reveal it to a generation which will see the truth for itself, only after the potency which lies in it has manifested itself in national institutions and habits of thought and action. After the prophets have left us, we believe what they have said; as long as they are with us, they are voices crying in the wilderness.
Now, these great ideas, these harmonies of the world of mind, first strike upon the ear of the poet. They seem to break into the consciousness of man by the way of emotion. They possess the seer; he is divinely mad, and he utters words whose meaning passes his own calmer comprehension. What we find in Goethe, we find also in a manner in Browning: an insight which is also foresight, a dim and partial consciousness of the truth about to be, sending its light before it, and anticipating all systematic reflection. It is an insight which appears to be independent of all method; but it is in nature, though not in sweep and expanse, akin to the intuitive leap by which the scientific explorer lights upon his new hypothesis. We can find no other law for it, than that sensitiveness to the beauty and truth hidden in facts, which much reflection on them generates for genius. For these great minds the "muddy vesture" is worn thin by thought, and they hear the immortal music.
The poet soon passes his glowing torch into the hands of the philosopher. After Aeschylus and Sophocles, come Plato and Aristotle. The intuitive flash grows into a fixed light, which rules the day. The great idea, when reflected upon, becomes a system. When the light of such an idea is steadily held on human affairs, it breaks into endless forms of beauty and truth. The content of the idea is gradually evolved; hypotheses spring out of it, which are accepted as principles, rule the mind of an age, and give it its work and its character. In this way, Hobbes and Locke laid down, or at least defined, the boundaries within which moved the thought of the eighteenth century; and no one acquainted with the poetic and philosophic thought of Germany, from Lessing to Goethe and from Kant to Hegel, can fail to find therein the source and spring of the constitutive principles of our own intellectual, social, political, and religious life. The virtues and the vices of the aristocracy of the world of mind penetrate downwards. The works of the poets and philosophers, so far from being filled with impracticable dreams, are repositories of great suggestions which the world adopts for its guidance. The poets and philosophers lay no railroads and invent no telephones; but they, nevertheless, bring about that attitude towards nature, man and God, and generate those moods of the general mind, from which issue, not only the scientific, but also the social, political and religious forces of the age.
It is mainly on this account that I cannot treat the supreme utterances of Browning lightly, or think it an idle task to try to connect them into a philosophy of life. In his optimism of love, in his supreme confidence in man's destiny and sense of the infinite height of the moral horizon of humanity, in his courageous faith in the good, and his profound conviction of the evanescence of evil, there lies a vital energy whose inspiring power we are yet destined to feel. Until a spirit kindred to his own arises, able to push the battle further into the same region, much of the practical task of the age that is coming will consist in living out in detail the ideas to which he has given expression.
I contend, then, not merely for a larger charity, but for a truer view of the facts of history than is evinced by those who set aside the poets and philosophers as mere dreamers, and conceive that the sciences alone occupy the region of valid thought in all its extent. There is a universal brotherhood of which all who think are members. Not only do they all contribute to man's victory over his environment and himself, but they contribute in a manner which is substantially the same. There are many points of superficial distinction between the processes of philosophy and science, and between both and the method of poetry; but the inner movement, if one may so express it, is identical in all. It is time to have done with the notion that philosophers occupy a transcendent region beyond experience, or spin spiritual cocoons by a priori methods, and with the view that scientific men are mere empirics, building their structures from below by an a posteriori way of thought, without the help of any ruling conceptions. All alike endeavour to interpret experience, but none of them get their principles from it.
"But, friends, Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise From outward things, whate'er you may believe."
There is room and need for the higher synthesis of philosophy and poetry, as well as for the more palpable and, at the same time, more narrow colligating conceptions of the systematic sciences. The quantitative relations between material objects, which are investigated by mathematics and physics, do not exhaust the realm of the knowable, so as to leave no place for the poet's, or the philosopher's view of the world. The scientific investigator who, like Mr. Tyndall, so far forgets the limitations of his province as to use his natural data as premises for religious or irreligious conclusions, is as illogical as the popular preacher, who attacks scientific conclusions because they are not consistent with his theological presuppositions. Looking only at their primary aspects, we cannot say that religious presuppositions and the scientific interpretation of facts are either consistent or inconsistent: they are simply different. Their harmony or discord can come only when the higher principles of philosophy have been fully developed, and when the departmental ideas of the various sciences are organized into a view of the world as a whole. And this is a task which has not as yet been accomplished. The forces from above and below have not met. When they do meet, they will assuredly find that they are friends, and not foes. For philosophy can articulate its supreme conception only by interaction with the sciences; and, on the other hand, the progress of science, and the effectiveness of its division of labour, are ultimately conditioned by its sensitiveness to the hints, given by poets and philosophers, of those wider principles in virtue of which the world is conceived as a unity. There are many, indeed, who cannot see the wood for the trees, as there are others who cannot see the trees for the wood. Carlyle cared nothing though science were able to turn a sunbeam on its axis; Ruskin sees little in the advance of invention except more slag-hills. And scientific men have not been slow to return with interest the scorn of the moralists. But a more comprehensive view of the movement of human knowledge will show that none labour in vain. For its movement is that of a thing which grows! and in growth there is always movement towards both unity and difference. Science, in pursuing truth into greater and greater detail, is constrained by its growing consciousness of the unlimited wealth of its material, to divide and isolate its interests more and more; and thus, at the same time, the need for the poets and philosophers is growing deeper, their task is becoming more difficult of achievement, and a greater triumph in so far as it is achieved. Both science and philosophy are working towards a more concrete view of the world as an articulated whole. If we cannot quite say with Browning that "poets never dream," we may yet admit with gratitude that their dreams are an inspiration.
"Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear. Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe: But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear; The rest may reason and welcome: 'tis we musicians know."[A]
[Footnote A: Abt Vogler.]
And side by side with the poetry that grasps the truth in immediate intuition, there is also the uniting activity of philosophy, which, catching up its hints, carries "back our scattered knowledge of the facts and laws of nature to the principle upon which they rest; and, on the other hand, develops that principle so as to fill all the details of knowledge with a significance which they cannot have in themselves, but only as seen sub specie aeternitatis."[B]
[Footnote B: The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time, by Professor Caird.]
So far we have spoken of the function of philosophy in the interpretation of the phenomena of the outer world. It bears witness to the unity of knowledge, and strives by the constructive criticism of the categories of science to render that unity explicit. Its function is, no doubt, valid and important, for it is evident that man cannot rest content with fragmentary knowledge. But still, it might be objected that it is premature at present to endeavour to formulate that unity. Physics, chemistry, biology, and the other sciences, while they necessarily presuppose the unity of knowledge, and attempt in their own way and in their own sphere to discover it, are making very satisfactory headway without raising any of the desperate questions of metaphysics as to its ultimate nature. For them it is not likely to matter for a long time to come whether Optimism or Pessimism, Materialism or Idealism, or none of them, be true. In any case the principles they establish are valid. Physical relations always remain true; "ginger will be hot i' the mouth, and there will be more cakes and ale." It is only when the sciences break down beneath the weight of knowledge and prove themselves inadequate, that it becomes necessary or advantageous to seek for more comprehensive principles. At present is it not better to persevere in the way of science, than to be seduced from it by the desire to solve ultimate problems, which, however reasonable and pressing, seem to be beyond our power to answer?
Such reasonings are not convincing; still, so far as natural science is concerned, they seem to indicate that there might be no great harm in ignoring, for a time, its dependence on the wider aspects of human thought. There is no department of nature so limited, but that it may more than satisfy the largest ambition of the individual for knowledge. But this attitude of indifference to ultimate questions is liable at any moment to be disturbed.
"Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch, A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death, A chorus-ending from Euripides,— And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears As old and new at once as nature's self, To rap and knock and enter in our soul, Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring, Round the ancient idol, on his base again,— The grand Perhaps! We look on helplessly. There the old misgivings, crooked questions are."[A]
[Footnote A: Bishop Blougram's Apology.]
Amongst the facts of our experience which cry most loudly for some kind of solution, are those of our own inner life. We are in pressing need of a "working hypothesis" wherewith to understand ourselves, as well as of a theory which will explain the revolution of the planets, or the structure of an oyster. And this self of ours intrudes everywhere. It is only by resolutely shutting our eyes, that we can forget the part it plays even in the outer world of natural science. So active is it in the constitution of things, so dependent is their nature on the nature of our knowing faculties, that scientific men themselves admit that their surest results are only hypothetical. Their truth depends on laws of thought which natural science does not investigate.
But quite apart from this doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, which is generally first acknowledged and then ignored, every man, the worst and the best alike, is constrained to take some practical attitude towards his fellows. Man is never alone with nature, and the connections with his fellows which sustain his intelligent life, are liable to bring him into trouble, if they are not to some degree understood.
"There's power in me," said Bishop Blougram, "and will to dominate Which I must exercise, they hurt me else."
The impulse to know is only a phase of the more general impulse to act and to be. The specialist's devotion to his science is his answer to a demand, springing from his practical need, that he realize himself through action. He does not construct his edifice of knowledge, as the bird is supposed to build its nest, without any consciousness of an end to be attained thereby. Even if, like Lessing, he values the pursuit of truth for its own sake, still what stings him into effort is the sense that in truth only can he find the means of satisfying and realizing himself. Beneath all man's activities, as their very spring and source, there lies some dim conception of an end to be attained. This is his moral consciousness, which no neglect will utterly suppress. All human effort, the effort to know like every other, conceals within it a reference to some good, conceived at the time as supreme and complete; and this, in turn, contains a theory both of man's self and of the universe on which he must impress his image. Every man must have his philosophy of life, simply because he must act; though, in many cases, that philosophy may be latent and unconscious, or, at least, not a definite object of reflection. The most elementary question directed at his moral consciousness will at once elicit the universal element. We cannot ask whether an action be right or wrong without awakening all the echoes of metaphysics. As there is no object on the earth's surface whose equilibrium is not fixed by its relation to the earth's centre, so the most elementary moral judgment, the simplest choice, the most irrational vagaries of a will calling itself free and revelling in its supposed lawlessness, are dominated by the conception of a universal good. Everything that a man does is an attempt to articulate his view of this good, with a particular content. Hence, man as a moral agent is always the centre of his own horizon, and stands right beneath the zenith. Little as he may be aware of it, his relation between himself and his supreme good is direct. And he orders his whole world from his point of view, just as he regards East and West as meeting at the spot on which he stands. Whether he will or not, he cannot but regard the universe of men and objects as the instrument of his purposes. He extracts all its interest and meaning from himself. His own shadow falls upon it all. If he is selfish, that is, if he interprets the self that is in him as vulturous, then the whole outer world and his fellow-men fall for him into the category of carrion, or not-carrion. If he knows himself as spirit, as the energy of love or reason, if the prime necessity he recognizes within himself is the necessity to be good, then the universe becomes for him an instrument wherewith moral character is evolved. In all cases alike, his life-work is an effort to rob the world of its alien character, and to translate it into terms of himself.
We are in the habit of fixing a chasm between a man's deeds and his metaphysical, moral, and religious creed; and even of thinking that he can get on "in a sufficiently prosperous manner," without any such creed. Can we not digest without a theory of peptics, or do justice without constructing an ideal state? The truest answer, though it is an answer easily misunderstood, is that we cannot. In the sphere of morality, at least, action, depends on knowledge: Socrates was right in saying that virtuous conduct ignorant of its end is accidental. Man's action, so far as it is good or evil, is shot through and through with his intelligence. And once we clearly distinguish between belief and profession, between the motives which really impel our actions and the psychological account of them with which we may deceive ourselves and others, we shall be obliged to confess that we always act our creed. A man's conduct, just because he is man, is generated by his view of himself and his world. He who cheats his neighbour believes in tortuosity, and, as Carlyle says, has the Supreme Quack for his God. No one ever acted without some dim, though perhaps foolish enough, half-belief that the world was at his back; whether he plots good or evil he always has God as an accomplice. And this is why character cannot be really bettered by any peddling process. Moralists and preachers are right in insisting on the need of a new life, that is, of a new principle, as the basis of any real improvement; and such a principle necessarily carries in it a new attitude towards men, and a new interpretation of the moral agent himself and of his world.
Thus, wherever we touch the practical life of man, we are at once referred to a metaphysic. His creed is the heart of his character, and it beats as a pulse in every action. Hence, when we deal with moral life, we must start from the centre. In our intellectual life, it is not obviously unreasonable to suppose that there is no need of endeavouring to reach upward to a constructive idea, which makes the universe one, but when we act, such self-deception is not possible. As a moral agent, and a moral agent man always is, he not only may, but must have his working hypothesis, and that hypothesis must be all-inclusive. As there are natural laws which connect man's physical movements with the whole system of nature, so there are spiritual relations which connect him with the whole spiritual universe; and spiritual relations are always direct.
Now it follows from this, that, whenever we consider man as a moral agent, that is, as an agent who converts ideas into actual things, the need of a philosophy becomes evident. Instead of condemning ideal interpretations of the universe as useless dreams, the foolish products of an ambition of thought which refuses to respect the limits of the human intellect, we shall understand that philosophers and poets are really striving with greater clearness of vision, and in a more sustained manner, to perform the task which all men are obliged to perform in some way or other. Man subsists as a natural being only on condition of comprehending, to some degree, the conditions of his natural life, and the laws of his natural environment. From earliest youth upwards, he is learning that fire will burn and water drown, and that he can play with the elements with safety only within the sphere lit up by his intelligence. Nature will not pardon the blunders of ignorance, nor tamely submit to every hasty construction. And this truth is still more obvious in relation to man's moral life. Here, too, and in a pre-eminent degree, conduct waits on intelligence. Deep will only answer unto deep; and great characters only come with much meditation on the things that are highest. And, on the other hand, the misconstruction of life's meaning flings man back upon himself, and makes his action nugatory. Byronism was driven "howling home again," says the poet. The universe will not be interpreted in terms of sense, nor be treated as carrion, as Carlyle said. There is no rest in the "Everlasting No," because it is a wrong view of man and of the world. Or rather, the negative is not everlasting; and man is driven onwards by despair, through the "Centre of Indifference," till he finds a "Universal Yea"—a true view of his relation to the universe.
There is given to men the largest choice to do or to let alone, at every step in life. But there is one necessity which they cannot escape, because they carry it within them. They absolutely must try to make the world their home, find some kind of reconciling idea between themselves and the forces amidst which they move, have some kind of working hypothesis of life. Nor is it possible to admit that they will find rest till they discover a true hypothesis. If they do not seek it by reflection—if, in their ardour to penetrate into the secrets of nature, they forget themselves; if they allow the supreme facts of their moral life to remain in the confusion of tradition, and seek to compromise the demands of their spirit by sacrificing to the idols of their childhood's faith; if they fortify themselves in the indifference of agnosticism,—they must reap the harvest of their irreflection. Ignorance is not harmless in matters of character any more than in the concerns of our outer life. There are in national and in individual history seasons of despair, and that despair, when it is deepest, is ever found to be the shadow of moral failure—the result of going out into action with a false view of the purpose of human life, and a wrong conception of man's destiny. At such times, the people have not understood themselves or their environment, and, in consequence, they come into collision with their own welfare. There is no experiment so dangerous to an age or people, as that of relegating to the common ignorance of unreasoning faith the deep concerns of moral conduct; and there is no attitude more pitiable than that which leads it to turn a deaf ear and the lip of contempt towards those philosophers who carry the spirit of scientific inquiry into these higher regions, and endeavour to establish for mankind, by the irrefragable processes of reason, those principles on which rest all the great elements of man's destiny. We cannot act without a theory of life; and to whom shall we look for such a theory, except to those who, undaunted by the difficulties of the task, ask once more, and strive to answer, those problems which man cannot entirely escape, as long as he continues to think and act?
BROWNING'S PLACE IN ENGLISH POETRY.
"But there's a great contrast between him and me. He seems very content with life, and takes much satisfaction in the world. It's a very strange and curious spectacle to behold a man in these days so confidently cheerful." (Carlyle.)
It has been said of Carlyle, who may for many reasons be considered as our poet's twin figure, that he laid the foundations of his world of thought in Sartor Resartus, and never enlarged them. His Orientirung was over before he was forty years old—as is, indeed, the case with most men. After that period there was no fundamental change in his view of the world; nothing which can be called a new idea disturbed his outline sketch of the universe. He lived afterwards only to fill it in, showing with ever greater detail the relations of man to man in history, and emphasizing with greater grimness the war of good and evil in human action. There is evidence, it is true, that the formulae from which he more or less consciously set forth, ultimately proved too narrow for him, and we find him beating himself in vain against their limitations; still, on the whole, Carlyle speculated within the range and influence of principles adopted early in life, and never abandoned for higher or richer ideas, or substantially changed.
In these respects, there is considerable resemblance between Carlyle and Browning. Browning, indeed, fixed his point of view and chose his battleground still earlier; and he held it resolutely to his life's close. In his Pauline and in his Epilogue to Asolando we catch the triumphant tone of a single idea, which, during all the long interval, had never sunk into silence. Like
"The wise thrush, he sings each song twice over, Lest you should think he never could recapture The first fine careless rapture!"[A]
[Footnote A: Home Thoughts from Abroad.]
Moreover, these two poets, if I may be permitted to call Carlyle a poet, taught the same truth. They were both witnesses to the presence of God in the spirit of man, and looked at this life in the light of another and a higher; or rather, they penetrated through the husk of time and saw that eternity is even here, a tranquil element underlying the noisy antagonisms of man's earthly life. Both of them, like Plato's philosopher, made their home in the sunlight of ideal truth: they were not denizens of the cave taking the things of sense for those of thought, shadows for realities, echoes for the voices of men.
But, while Carlyle fought his way into this region, Browning found himself in it from the first; while Carlyle bought his freedom with a great sum, the poet "was free born." Carlyle saw the old world faith break up around him, and its fragments never ceased to embarrass his path. He was at the point of transition, present at the collision of the old and new, and in the midst of the confusion. He, more than any other English writer, was the instrument of the change from the Deism of the eighteenth century and the despair which followed it, into the larger faith of our own. But, for Browning, there was a new heaven and a new earth, and old things had passed away. This notable contrast between the two men, arising at once from their disposition and their moral environment, had far-reaching effects on their lives and their writings. But their affinity was deeper than the difference, for they are essentially heirs and exponents of the same movement in English thought.
The main characteristic of that movement is that it is both moral and religious, a devotion to God and the active service of man, a recognition at once of the rights of nature and of spirit. It does not, on the one hand, raise the individual as a natural being to the throne of the universe, and make all forces social, political, and spiritual stoop to his rights; nor does it, on the other hand, deny these rights, or make the individual a mere instrument of society. It at least attempts to reconcile the fundamental facts of human nature, without compromising any of them. It cannot be called either individualistic or socialistic; but it strives to be both at once, so that both man and society mean more to this age than they ever did before. The narrow formulae that cramped the thought of the period which preceded ours have been broken through. No one can pass from the hedonists and individualists to Carlyle and Browning without feeling that these two men are representatives of new forces in politics, in religion, and in literature,—forces which will undoubtedly effect momentous changes before they are caught again and fixed in creeds.
That a new epoch in English thought was veritably opened by them is indicated by the surprise and bewilderment they occasioned at their first appearance. Carlyle had Emerson to break his loneliness and Browning had Rossetti; but, to most other men at that day, Sartor and Pauline were all but unintelligible. The general English reader could make little of the strange figures that had broken into the realm of literature; and the value and significance of their work, as well as its originality, will be recognized better by ourselves if we take a hurried glance at the times which lay behind them. Its main worth will be found to lie in the fact that they strove to bring together again certain fundamental elements, on which the moral life of man must always rest, and which had fallen asunder in the ages which preceded their own.
The whole-hearted, instinctive life of the Elizabethan age was narrowed and deepened into the severe one-sidedness of Puritanism, which cast on the bright earth the sombre shadow of a life to come. England was given up for a time to a magnificent half-truth. It did not
"Wait The slow and sober uprise all around O' the building,"
"Ran up right to roof A sudden marvel, piece of perfectness."[A]
[Footnote A:Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
After Puritanism came Charles the Second and the rights of the flesh, which rights were gradually clarified, till they contradicted themselves in the benevolent self-seeking of altruistic hedonism. David Hume led the world out of the shadow of eternity, and showed that it was only an object of the five senses; or of six, if we add that of "hunger." The divine element was explained away, and the proper study of mankind was, not man, as that age thought, but man reduced to his beggarly elements—a being animated solely by the sensuous springs of pleasure and pain, which should properly, as Carlyle thought, go on all fours, and not lay claim to the dignity of being moral. All things were reduced to what they seemed, robbed of their suggestiveness, changed into definite, sharp-edged, mutually exclusive particulars. The world was an aggregate of isolated facts, or, at the best, a mechanism into which particulars were fitted by force; and society was a gathering of mere individuals, repelling each other by their needs and greed, with a ring of natural necessity to bind them together. It was a fit time for political economy to supplant ethics. There was nowhere an ideal which could lift man above his natural self, and teach him, by losing it, to find a higher life. And, as a necessary consequence, religion gave way to naturalism and poetry to prose.
After this age of prose came our own day. The new light first flushed the modern world in the writings of the philosopher-poets of Germany: Kant and Lessing, Fichte and Schiller, Goethe and Hegel. They brought about the Copernican change. For them this world of the five senses, of space and time and natural cause, instead of being the fixed centre around which all things revolved, was explicable only in its relation to a system which was spiritual; and man found his meaning in his connection with society, the life of which stretched endlessly far back into the past and forward into the future. Psychology gave way to metaphysics. The universal element in the thought of man was revealed. Instead of mechanism there was life. A new spirit of poetry and philosophy brought God back into the world, revealed his incarnation in the mind of man, and changed nature into a pellucid garment within which throbbed the love divine. The antagonism of hard alternatives was at an end; the universe was spirit-woven and every smallest object was "filled full of magical music, as they freight a star with light." There were no longer two worlds, but one; for "the other" world penetrated this, and was revealed in it: thought and sense, spirit and nature, were reconciled. These thinkers made room for man, as against the Puritans, and for God, as against their successors. Instead of the hopeless struggle of ascetic morality, which divides man against himself, they awakened him to that sense of his reconciliation with his ideal which religion gives: "Psyche drinks its stream and forgets her sorrows."
Now, this is just the soil where art blooms. For what is beauty but the harmony of thought and sense, a universal meaning caught and tamed in the particular? To the poet each little flower that blooms has endless worth, and is regarded as perfect and complete; for he sees that the spirit of the whole dwells in it. It whispers to him the mystery of the infinite; it is a pulse in which beats the universal heart. The true poet finds God everywhere; for the ideal is actual wherever beauty dwells. And there is the closest affinity between art and religion, as its history proves, from Job and Isaiah, Homer and Aeschylus, to our own poet; for both art and religion lift us, each in its own way, above one-sidedness and limitation, to the region of the universal. The one draws God to man, brings perfection here, and reaches its highest form in the joyous life of Greece, where the natural world was clothed with almost supernatural beauty; the other lifts man to God, and finds this life good because it reflects and suggests the greater life that is to be. Both poetry and religion are a reconciliation and a satisfaction; both lift man above the contradictions of limited existence, and place him in the region of peace—where,
"with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, He sees into the life of things."[A]
[Footnote A: Tintern Abbey.]
In this sense, it will be always true of the poet, as it is of the religious man, that
"the world, The beauty and the wonder and the power, The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades, Changes, surprises,"[A]
[Footnote A: Fra Lippo Lippi.]
lead him back to God, who made it all.
He is essentially a witness to the divine element in the world.
It is the rediscovery of this divine element, after its expulsion by the age of Deism and doubt, that has given to this century its poetic grandeur. Unless we regard Burke as the herald of the new era, we may say that England first felt the breath of the returning spirit in the poems of Shelley and Wordsworth.
"The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven's light for ever shines, earth's shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of eternity, Until death tramples it to fragments."[B]
[Footnote B: Adonais.]
"And I have felt," says Wordsworth,
"A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things."[C]
[Footnote C: Tintern Abbey.]
Such notes as these could not be struck by Pope, nor be understood by the age of prose. Still they are only the prelude of the fuller song of Browning. Whether he be a greater poet than these or not,—a question whose answer can benefit nothing, for each poet has his own worth, and reflects by his own facet the universal truth—his poetry contains in it larger elements, and the promise of a deeper harmony from the harsher discords of his more stubborn material. Even where their spheres touch, Browning held by the artistic truth in a different manner. To Shelley, perhaps the most intensely spiritual of all our poets,
"That light whose smile kindles the universe, That beauty in which all things work and move,"
was an impassioned sentiment, a glorious intoxication; to Browning it was a conviction, reasoned and willed, possessing the whole man, and held in the sober moments when the heart is silent. "The heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world" was lightened for Wordsworth, only when he was far from the haunts of men, and free from the "dreary intercourse of daily life"; but Browning weaved his song of hope right amidst the wail and woe of man's sin and wretchedness. For Wordsworth "sensations sweet, felt in the blood and felt along the heart, passed into his purer mind with tranquil restoration," and issued "in a serene and blessed mood"; but Browning's poetry is not merely the poetry of the emotions however sublimated. He starts with the hard repellent fact, crushes by sheer force of thought its stubborn rind, presses into it, and brings forth the truth at its heart. The greatness of Browning's poetry is in its perceptive grip: and in nothing is he more original than in the manner in which he takes up his task, and assumes his artistic function. In his postponement of feeling to thought we recognize a new poetic method, the significance of which we cannot estimate as yet. But, although we may fail to apprehend the meaning of the new method he employs, we cannot fail to perceive the fact, which is not less striking, that the region from which he quarries his material is new.
And yet he does not break away abruptly from his predecessors. His kinship with them, in that he recognizes the presence of God in nature, is everywhere evident. We quote one passage, scarcely to be surpassed by any of our poets, as indicative of his power of dealing with the supernaturalism of nature.
"The centre-fire heaves underneath the earth, And the earth changes like a human face; The molten ore burst 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 bitter 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.
* * * * *
"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. Thus He dwells in all, From life's minute beginnings, up at last To man—the consummation of this scheme Of being, the completion of this sphere of life."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
Such passages as these contain neither the rapt, reflective calm of Wordsworth's solemn tones, nor the ethereal intoxication of Shelley's spirit-music; but there is in them the same consciousness of the infinite meaning of natural facts. And beyond this, there is also, in the closing lines, a hint of a new region for art. Shelley and Wordsworth were the poets of Nature, as all truly say; Browning was the poet of the human soul. For Shelley, the beauty in which all things work and move was well-nigh "quenched by the eclipsing curse of the birth of man"; and Wordsworth lived beneath the habitual sway of fountains, meadows, hills and groves, while he kept grave watch o'er man's mortality, and saw the shades of the prison-house gather round him. From the life of man they garnered nought but mad indignation, or mellowed sadness. It was a foolish and furious strife with unknown powers fought in the dark, from which the poet kept aloof, for he could not see that God dwelt amidst the chaos. But Browning found "harmony in immortal souls, spite of the muddy vesture of decay." He found nature crowned in man, though man was mean and miserable. At the heart of the most wretched abortion of wickedness there was the mark of the loving touch of God. Shelley turned away from man; Wordsworth paid him rare visits, like those of a being from a strange world, made wise and sad with looking at him from afar; Browning dwelt with him. He was a comrade in the fight, and ever in the van of man's endeavour bidding him be of good cheer. He was a witness for God in the midmost dark, where meet in deathless struggle the elemental powers of right and wrong. For God is present for him, not only in the order and beauty of nature, but in the world of will and thought. Beneath the caprice and wilful lawlessness of individual action, he saw a beneficent purpose which cannot fail, but "has its way with man, not he with it."
Now this was a new world for poetry to enter into; a new depth to penetrate with hope; and Browning was the first of modern poets to
"Stoop Into the vast and unexplored abyss, Strenuously beating The silent boundless regions of the sky."
It is also a new world for religion and morality; and to understand it demands a deeper insight into the fundamental elements of human life.
To show this in a proximately adequate manner, we should be obliged, as already hinted, to connect the poet's work, not merely with that of his English predecessors, but with the deeper and more comprehensive movement of the thought of Germany since the time of Kant. It would be necessary to indicate how, by breaking a way through the narrow creeds and equally narrow scepticism of the previous age, the new spirit extended the horizon of man's active and contemplative life, and made him free of the universe, and the repository of the past conquests of his race. It proposed to man the great task of solving the problem of humanity, but it strengthened him with its past achievement, and inspired him with the conviction of its boundless progress. It is not that the significance of the individual or the meaning of his endeavour is lost. Under this new view, man has still to fight for his own hand, and it is still recognized that spirit is always burdened with its own fate and cannot share its responsibility. Morality does not give way to religion or pass into it, and there is a sense in which the individual is always alone in the sphere of duty.
But from this new point of view the individual is re-explained for us, and we begin to understand that he is the focus of a light which is universal, "one more incarnation of the mind of God." His moral task is no longer to seek his own in the old sense, but to elevate humanity; for it is only by taking this circuit that he can come to his own. Such a task as this is a sufficiently great one to occupy all time; but it is to humanity in him that the task belongs, and it will therefore be achieved. This is no new one-sidedness. It does not mean, to those who comprehend it, the supplanting of the individual thought by the collective thought, or the substitution of humanity for man. The universal is in the particular, the fact is the law. There is no collision between the whole and the part, for the whole lives in the part. As each individual plant has its own life and beauty and worth, although the universe has conspired to bring it into being; so also, and in a far higher degree, man has his own duty and his own dignity, although he is but the embodiment of forces, natural and spiritual, which have come from the endless past. Like a letter in a word, or a word in a sentence, he gets his meaning from his context; but the sentence is meaningless without him. "Rays from all round converge in him," and he has no power except that which has been lent to him; but all the same, nay, all the more, he must