'An obiter dictum, in the language of the law, is a gratuitous opinion, an individual impertinence, which, whether it be wise or foolish, right or wrong, bindeth none—not even the lips that utter it.'
_PREFACE TO THE AMERICAN EDITION.
This seems a very little book to introduce to so large a continent. No such enterprise would ever have suggested itself to the home-keeping mind of the Author, who, none the less, when this edition was proposed to him by Messrs. Scribner on terms honorable to them and grateful to him, found the notion of being read in America most fragrant and delightful.
London, February 13, 1885._
* * * * *
CARLYLE ON THE ALLEGED OBSCURITY OF MR. BROWNING'S POETRY TRUTH-HUNTING ACTORS A ROGUE'S MEMOIRS THE VIA MEDIA FALSTAFF
The accomplishments of our race have of late become so varied, that it is often no easy task to assign him whom we would judge to his proper station among men; and yet, until this has been done, the guns of our criticism cannot be accurately levelled, and as a consequence the greater part of our fire must remain futile. He, for example, who would essay to take account of Mr. Gladstone, must read much else besides Hansard; he must brush up his Homer, and set himself to acquire some theology. The place of Greece in the providential order of the world, and of laymen in the Church of England, must be considered, together with a host of other subjects of much apparent irrelevance to a statesman's life. So too in the case of his distinguished rival, whose death eclipsed the gaiety of politics and banished epigram from Parliament: keen must be the critical faculty which can nicely discern where the novelist ended and the statesman began in Benjamin Disraeli.
Happily, no such difficulty is now before us. Thomas Carlyle was a writer of books, and he was nothing else. Beneath this judgment he would have winced, but have remained silent, for the facts are so.
Little men sometimes, though not perhaps so often as is taken for granted, complain of their destiny, and think they have been hardly treated, in that they have been allowed to remain so undeniably small; but great men, with hardly an exception, nauseate their greatness, for not being of the particular sort they most fancy. The poet Gray was passionately fond, so his biographers tell us, of military history; but he took no Quebec. General Wolfe took Quebec, and whilst he was taking it, recorded the fact that he would sooner have written Gray's 'Elegy'; and so Carlyle—who panted for action, who hated eloquence, whose heroes were Cromwell and Wellington, Arkwright and the 'rugged Brindley,' who beheld with pride and no ignoble envy the bridge at Auldgarth his mason-father had helped to build half a century before, and then exclaimed, 'A noble craft, that of a mason; a good building will last longer than most books—than one book in a million'; who despised men of letters, and abhorred the 'reading public'; whose gospel was Silence and Action—spent his life in talking and writing; and his legacy to the world is thirty-four volumes octavo.
There is a familiar melancholy in this; but the critic has no need to grow sentimental. We must have men of thought as well as men of action: poets as much as generals; authors no less than artizans; libraries at least as much as militia; and therefore we may accept and proceed critically to examine Carlyle's thirty-four volumes, remaining somewhat indifferent to the fact that had he had the fashioning of his own destiny, we should have had at his hands blows instead of books.
Taking him, then, as he was—a man of letters—perhaps the best type of such since Dr. Johnson died in Fleet Street, what are we to say of his thirty-four volumes?
In them are to be found criticism, biography, history, politics, poetry, and religion. I mention this variety because of a foolish notion, at one time often found suitably lodged in heads otherwise empty, that Carlyle was a passionate old man, dominated by two or three extravagant ideas, to which he was for ever giving utterance in language of equal extravagance. The thirty-four volumes octavo render this opinion untenable by those who can read. Carlyle cannot be killed by an epigram, nor can the many influences that moulded him be referred to any single source. The rich banquet his genius has spread for us is of many courses. The fire and fury of the Latter-Day Pamphlets may be disregarded by the peaceful soul, and the preference given to the 'Past' of 'Past and Present,' which, with its intense and sympathetic mediaevalism, might have been written by a Tractarian. The 'Life of Sterling' is the favourite book of many who would sooner pick oakum than read 'Frederick the Great' all through; whilst the mere student of belles lettres may attach importance to the essays on Johnson, Burns, and Scott, on Voltaire and Diderot, on Goethe and Novalis, and yet remain blankly indifferent to 'Sartor Resartus' and 'The French Revolution.'
But true as this is, it is none the less true that, excepting possibly the 'Life of Schiller,' Carlyle wrote nothing not clearly recognisable as his. All his books are his very own—bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. They are not stolen goods, nor elegant exhibitions of recently and hastily acquired wares.
This being so, it may be as well if, before proceeding any further, I attempt, with a scrupulous regard to brevity, to state what I take to be the invariable indications of Mr. Carlyle's literary handiwork—the tokens of his presence—'Thomas Carlyle, his mark.'
First of all, it may be stated, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is one of those who would sooner be wrong with Plato than right with Aristotle; in one word, he is a mystic. What he says of Novalis may with equal truth be said of himself: 'He belongs to that class of persons who do not recognise the syllogistic method as the chief organ for investigating truth, or feel themselves bound at all times to stop short where its light fails them. Many of his opinions he would despair of proving in the most patient court of law, and would remain well content that they should be disbelieved there.' In philosophy we shall not be very far wrong if we rank Carlyle as a follower of Bishop Berkeley; for an idealist he undoubtedly was. 'Matter,' says he, 'exists only spiritually, and to represent some idea, and body it forth. Heaven and Earth are but the time-vesture of the Eternal. The Universe is but one vast symbol of God; nay, if thou wilt have it, what is man himself but a symbol of God? Is not all that he does symbolical, a revelation to sense of the mystic God-given force that is in him?—a gospel of Freedom, which he, the "Messias of Nature," preaches as he can by act and word.' 'Yes, Friends,' he elsewhere observes, 'not our logical mensurative faculty, but our imaginative one, is King over us, I might say Priest and Prophet, to lead us heavenward, or magician and wizard to lead us hellward. The understanding is indeed thy window—too clear thou canst not make it; but phantasy is thy eye, with its colour-giving retina, healthy or diseased.' It would be easy to multiply instances of this, the most obvious and interesting trait of Mr. Carlyle's writing; but I must bring my remarks upon it to a close by reminding you of his two favourite quotations, which have both significance. One from Shakespeare's Tempest:
'We are such stuff As dreams are made of, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep;'
the other, the exclamation of the Earth-spirit, in Goethe's Faust:
''Tis thus at the roaring loom of Time I ply, And weave for God the garment thou seest Him by.'
But this is but one side of Carlyle. There is another as strongly marked, which is his second note; and that is what he somewhere calls 'his stubborn realism.' The combination of the two is as charming as it is rare. No one at all acquainted with his writings can fail to remember his almost excessive love of detail; his lively taste for facts, simply as facts. Imaginary joys and sorrows may extort from him nothing but grunts and snorts; but let him only worry out for himself, from that great dust-heap called 'history,' some undoubted fact of human and tender interest, and, however small it may be, relating possibly to some one hardly known, and playing but a small part in the events he is recording, and he will wax amazingly sentimental, and perhaps shed as many real tears as Sterne or Dickens do sham ones over their figments. This realism of Carlyle's gives a great charm to his histories and biographies. The amount he tells you is something astonishing—no platitudes, no rigmarole, no common-form, articles which are the staple of most biography, but, instead of them, all the facts and features of the case—pedigree, birth, father and mother, brothers and sisters, education, physiognomy, personal habits, dress, mode of speech; nothing escapes him. It was a characteristic criticism of his, on one of Miss Martineau's American books, that the story of the way Daniel Webster used to stand before the fire with his hands in his pockets was worth all the politics, philosophy, political economy, and sociology to be found in other portions of the good lady's writings. Carlyle's eye was indeed a terrible organ: he saw everything. Emerson, writing to him, says: 'I think you see as pictures every street, church, Parliament-house, barracks, baker's shop, mutton-stall, forge, wharf, and ship, and whatever stands, creeps, rolls, or swims thereabout, and make all your own.' He crosses over, one rough day, to Dublin; and he jots down in his diary the personal appearance of some unhappy creatures he never saw before or expected to see again; how men laughed, cried, swore, were all of huge interest to Carlyle. Give him a fact, he loaded you with thanks; propound a theory, you were rewarded with the most vivid abuse.
This intense love for, and faculty of perceiving, what one may call the 'concrete picturesque,' accounts for his many hard sayings about fiction and poetry. He could not understand people being at the trouble of inventing characters and situations when history was full of men and women; when streets were crowded and continents were being peopled under their very noses. Emerson's sphynx-like utterances irritated him at times, as they well might; his orations and the like. 'I long,' he says, 'to see some concrete thing, some Event— Man's Life, American Forest, or piece of Creation which this Emerson loves and wonders at, well Emersonised, depicted by Emerson— filled with the life of Emerson, and cast forth from him then to live by itself.' [*] But Carlyle forgot the sluggishness of the ordinary imagination, and, for the moment, the stupendous dulness of the ordinary historian. It cannot be matter for surprise that people prefer Smollett's 'Humphrey Clinker' to his 'History of England.'
[* Footnote: One need scarcely add, nothing of the sort ever proceeded from Emerson. How should it? Where was it to come from? When, to employ language of Mr. Arnold's own, 'any poor child of nature' overhears the author of 'Essays in Criticism' telling two worlds that Emerson's 'Essays' are the most valuable prose contributions to the literature of the century, his soul is indeed filled 'with an unutterable sense of lamentation and mourning and woe.' Mr. Arnold's silence was once felt to be provoking. Wordsworth's lines kept occurring to one's mind—
'Poor Matthew, all his frolics o'er, Is silent as a standing pool.'
But it was better so.]
The third and last mark to which I call attention is his humour. Nowhere, surely, in the whole field of English literature, Shakespeare excepted, do you come upon a more abundant vein of humour than Carlyle's, though I admit that the quality of the ore is not of the finest. His every production is bathed in humour. This must never be, though it often has been, forgotten. He is not to be taken literally. He is always a humourist, not unfrequently a writer of burlesque, and occasionally a buffoon.
Although the spectacle of Mr. Swinburne taking Mr. Carlyle to task, as he recently did, for indelicacy, has an oddity all its own, so far as I am concerned I cannot but concur with this critic in thinking that Carlyle has laid himself open, particularly in his 'Frederick the Great,' to the charge one usually associates with the great and terrible name of Dean Swift; but it is the Dean with a difference, and the difference is all in Carlyle's favour. The former deliberately pelts you with dirt, as did in old days gentlemen electors their parliamentary candidates; the latter only occasionally splashes you, as does a public vehicle pursuing on a wet day its uproarious course.
These, then, I take to be Carlyle's three principal marks or notes: mysticism in thought, realism in description, and humour in both.
To proceed now to his actual literary work.
First, then, I would record the fact that he was a great critic, and this at a time when our literary criticism was a scandal. He more than any other has purged our vision and widened our horizons in this great matter. He taught us there was no sort of finality, but only nonsense, in that kind of criticism which was content with laying down some foreign masterpiece with the observation that it was not suited for the English taste. He was, if not the first, almost the first critic, who pursued in his criticism the historical method, and sought to make us understand what we were required to judge. It has been said that Carlyle's criticisms are not final, and that he has not said the last word about Voltaire, Diderot, Richter, and Goethe. I can well believe it. But reserving 'last words' for the use of the last man (to whom they would appear to belong), it is surely something to have said the first sensible words uttered in English on these important subjects. We ought not to forget the early days of the Foreign and Quarterly Review. We have critics now, quieter, more reposeful souls, taking their ease on Zion, who have entered upon a world ready to welcome them, whose keen rapiers may cut velvet better than did the two-handed broadsword of Carlyle, and whose later date may enable them to discern what their forerunner failed to perceive; but when the critics of this century come to be criticized by the critics of the next, an honourable, if not the highest place will be awarded to Carlyle.
Turn we now to the historian and biographer. History and biography much resemble one another in the pages of Carlyle, and occupy more than half his thirty-four volumes; nor is this to be wondered at, since they afford him fullest scope for his three strong points—his love of the wonderful; his love of telling a story, as the children say, 'from the very beginning;' and his humour. His view of history is sufficiently lofty. History, says he, is the true epic poem, a universal divine scripture whose plenary inspiration no one out of Bedlam shall bring into question. Nor is he quite at one with the ordinary historian as to the true historical method. 'The time seems coming when he who sees no world but that of courts and camps, and writes only how soldiers were drilled and shot, and how this ministerial conjurer out-conjured that other, and then guided, or at least held, something which he called the rudder of Government, but which was rather the spigot of Taxation, wherewith in place of steering he could tax, will pass for a more or less instructive Gazetteer, but will no longer be called an Historian.'
Nor does the philosophical method of writing history please him any better:
'Truly if History is Philosophy teaching by examples, the writer fitted to compose history is hitherto an unknown man. Better were it that mere earthly historians should lower such pretensions, more suitable for omniscience than for human science, and aiming only at some picture of the things acted, which picture itself will be a poor approximation, leave the inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged secret—or at most, in reverent faith, pause over the mysterious vestiges of Him whose path is in the great deep of Time, whom History indeed reveals, but only all History and in Eternity will clearly reveal.'
This same transcendental way of looking at things is very noticeable in the following view of Biography: 'For, as the highest gospel was a Biography, so is the life of every good man still an indubitable gospel, and preaches to the eye and heart and whole man, so that devils even must believe and tremble, these gladdest tidings. Man is heaven-born—not the thrall of circumstances, of necessity, but the victorious subduer thereof.' These, then, being his views, what are we to say of his works? His three principal historical works are, as everyone knows, 'Cromwell,' 'The French Revolution,' and 'Frederick the Great,' though there is a very considerable amount of other historical writing scattered up and down his works. But what are we to say of these three? Is he, by virtue of them, entitled to the rank and influence of a great historian? What have we a right to demand of an historian? First, surely, stern veracity, which implies not merely knowledge but honesty. An historian stands in a fiduciary position towards his readers, and if he withholds from them important facts likely to influence their judgment, he is guilty of fraud, and, when justice is done in this world, will be condemned to refund all moneys he has made by his false professions, with compound interest. This sort of fraud is unknown to the law, but to nobody else. 'Let me know the facts!' may well be the agonized cry of the student who finds himself floating down what Arnold has called 'the vast Mississippi of falsehood, History.' Secondly comes a catholic temper and way of looking at things. The historian should be a gentleman and possess a moral breadth of temperament. There should be no bitter protesting spirit about him. He should remember the world he has taken upon himself to write about is a large place, and that nobody set him up over us. Thirdly, he must be a born story-teller. If he is not this, he has mistaken his vocation. He may be a great philosopher, a useful editor, a profound scholar, and anything else his friends like to call him, except a great historian. How does Carlyle meet these requirements? His veracity, that is, his laborious accuracy, is admitted by the only persons competent to form an opinion, namely, independent investigators who have followed in his track; but what may be called the internal evidence of the case also supplies a strong proof of it. Carlyle was, as everyone knows, a hero-worshipper. It is part of his mysticism. With him man, as well as God, is a spirit, either of good or evil, and as such should be either worshipped or reviled. He is never himself till he has discovered or invented a hero; and, when he has got him, he tosses and dandles him as a mother her babe. This is a terrible temptation to put in the way of an historian, and few there be who are found able to resist it. How easy to keep back an ugly fact, sure to be a stumbling-block in the way of weak brethren! Carlyle is above suspicion in this respect. He knows no reticence. Nothing restrains him; not even the so-called proprieties of history. He may, after his boisterous fashion, pour scorn upon you for looking grave, as you read in his vivid pages of the reckless manner in which too many of his heroes drove coaches-and-six through the Ten Commandments. As likely as not he will call you a blockhead, and tell you to close your wide mouth and cease shrieking. But, dear me! hard words break no bones, and it is an amazing comfort to know the facts. Is he writing of Cromwell?—down goes everything—letters, speeches, as they were written, as they were delivered. Few great men are edited after this fashion. Were they to be so—Luther, for example—many eyes would be opened very wide. Nor does Carlyle fail in comment. If the Protector makes a somewhat distant allusion to the Barbadoes, Carlyle is at your elbow to tell you it means his selling people to work as slaves in the West Indies. As for Mirabeau, 'our wild Gabriel Honore,' well! we are told all about him; nor is Frederick let off a single absurdity or atrocity. But when we have admitted the veracity, what are we to say of the catholic temper, the breadth of temperament, the wide Shakespearian tolerance? Carlyle ought to have them all. By nature he was tolerant enough; so true a humourist could never be a bigot. When his war-paint is not on, a child might lead him. His judgments are gracious, chivalrous, tinged with a kindly melancholy and divine pity. But this mood is never for long. Some gadfly stings him: he seizes his tomahawk and is off on the trail. It must sorrowfully be admitted that a long life of opposition and indigestion, of fierce warfare with cooks and Philistines, spoilt his temper, never of the best, and made him too often contemptuous, savage, unjust. His language then becomes unreasonable, unbearable, bad. Literature takes care of herself. You disobey her rules: well and good, she shuts her door in your face; you plead your genius: she replies, 'Your temper,' and bolts it. Carlyle has deliberately destroyed, by his own wilfulness, the value of a great deal he has written. It can never become classical. Alas! that this should be true of too many eminent Englishmen of our time. Language such as was, at one time, almost habitual with Mr. Ruskin, is a national humiliation, giving point to the Frenchman's sneer as to our distinguishing literary characteristic being 'la brutalite.' In Carlyle's case much must be allowed for his rhetoric and humour. In slang phrase, he always 'piles it on.' Does a bookseller misdirect a parcel, he exclaims, 'My malison on all Blockheadisms and Torpid Infidelities of which this world is full.' Still, all allowances made, it is a thousand pities; and one's thoughts turn away from this stormy old man and take refuge in the quiet haven of the Oratory at Birmingham, with his great Protagonist, who, throughout an equally long life spent in painful controversy, and wielding weapons as terrible as Carlyle's own, has rarely forgotten to be urbane, and whose every sentence is a 'thing of beauty.' It must, then, be owned that too many of Carlyle's literary achievements 'lack a gracious somewhat.' By force of his genius he 'smites the rock and spreads the water;' but then, like Moses, 'he desecrates, belike, the deed in doing.'
Our third requirement was, it may be remembered, the gift of the storyteller. Here one is on firm ground. Where is the equal of the man who has told us the story of 'The Diamond Necklace'?
It is the vogue, nowadays, to sneer at picturesque writing. Professor Seeley, for reasons of his own, appears to think that whilst politics, and, I presume religion, may be made as interesting as you please, history should be as dull as possible. This, surely, is a jaundiced view. If there is one thing it is legitimate to make more interesting than another, it is the varied record of man's life upon earth. So long as we have human hearts and await human destinies, so long as we are alive to the pathos, the dignity, the comedy of human life, so long shall we continue to rank above the philosopher, higher than the politician, the great artist, be he called dramatist or historian, who makes us conscious of the divine movement of events, and of our fathers who were before us. Of course we assume accuracy and labor in our animated historian; though, for that matter, other things being equal, I prefer a lively liar to a dull one.
Carlyle is sometimes as irresistible as 'The Campbells are Coming,' or 'Auld Lang Syne.' He has described some men and some events once and for all, and so takes his place with Thucydides, Tacitus and Gibbon. Pedants may try hard to forget this, and may in their laboured nothings seek to ignore the author of 'Cromwell' and 'The French Revolution'; but as well might the pedestrian in Cumberland or Inverness seek to ignore Helvellyn or Ben Nevis. Carlyle is there, and will remain there, when the pedant of today has been superseded by the pedant of to-morrow.
Remembering all this, we are apt to forget his faults, his eccentricities, and vagaries, his buffooneries, his too-outrageous cynicisms and his too-intrusive egotisms, and to ask ourselves—if it be not this man, who is it then to be? Macaulay, answer some; and Macaulay's claims are not of the sort to go unrecognised in a world which loves clearness of expression and of view only too well. Macaulay's position never admitted of doubt. We know what to expect, and we always get it. It is like the old days of W. G. Grace's cricket. We went to see the leviathan slog for six, and we saw it. We expected him to do it, and he did it. So with Macaulay—the good Whig, as he takes up the History, settles himself down in his chair, and knows it is going to be a bad time for the Tories. Macaulay's style— his much-praised style—is ineffectual for the purpose of telling the truth about anything. It is splendid, but splendide mendax, and in Macaulay's case the style was the man. He had enormous knowledge, and a noble spirit; his knowledge enriched his style and his spirit consecrated it to the service of Liberty. We do well to be proud of Macaulay; but we must add that, great as was his knowledge, great also was his ignorance, which was none the less ignorance because it was wilful; noble as was his spirit, the range of subject over which it energized was painfully restricted. He looked out upon the world, but, behold, only the Whigs were good. Luther and Loyola, Cromwell and Claverhouse, Carlyle and Newman—they moved him not; their enthusiasms were delusions, and their politics demonstrable errors. Whereas, of Lord Somers and Charles first Earl Grey it is impossible to speak without emotion. But the world does not belong to the Whigs; and a great historian must be capable of sympathizing both with delusions and demonstrable errors. Mr. Gladstone has commented with force upon what he calls Macaulay's invincible ignorance, and further says that to certain aspects of a case (particularly those aspects most pleasing to Mr. Gladstone) Macaulay's mind was hermetically sealed. It is difficult to resist these conclusions; and it would appear no rash inference from them, that a man in a state of invincible ignorance and with a mind hermetically sealed, whatever else he may be—orator, advocate, statesman, journalist, man of letters—can never be a great historian. But, indeed, when one remembers Macaulay's limited range of ideas: the commonplaceness of his morality, and of his descriptions; his absence of humour, and of pathos—for though Miss Martineau says she found one pathetic passage in the History, I have often searched for it in vain; and then turns to Carlyle—to his almost bewildering affluence of thought, fancy, feeling, humour, pathos—his biting pen, his scorching criticism, his world-wide sympathy (save in certain moods) with everything but the smug commonplace—to prefer Macaulay to him, is like giving the preference to Birket Foster over Salvator Rosa. But if it is not Macaulay, who is it to be? Mr. Hepworth Dixon or Mr. Froude? Of Bishop Stubbs and Professor Freeman it behoves every ignoramus to speak with respect. Horny-handed sons of toil, they are worthy of their wage. Carlyle has somewhere struck a distinction between the historical artist and the historical artizan. The bishop and the professor are historical artizans; artists they are not—and the great historian is a great artist.
England boasts two such artists. Edward Gibbon and Thomas Carlyle. The elder historian may be compared to one of the great Alpine roadways— sublime in its conception, heroic in its execution, superb in its magnificent uniformity of good workmanship. The younger resembles one of his native streams, pent in at times between huge rocks, and tormented into foam, and then effecting its escape down some precipice, and spreading into cool expanses below; but however varied may be its fortunes—however startling its changes—always in motion, always in harmony with the scene around. Is it gloomy? It is with the gloom of the thunder-cloud. Is it bright? It is with the radiance of the sun.
It is with some consternation that I approach the subject of Carlyle's politics. One handles them as does an inspector of police a parcel reported to contain dynamite. The Latter-Day Pamphlets might not unfitly be labelled 'Dangerous Explosives.'
In this matter of politics there were two Carlyles; and, as generally happens in such cases, his last state was worse than his first. Up to 1843, he not unfairly might be called a Liberal—of uncertain vote it may be—a man difficult to work with, and impatient of discipline, but still aglow with generous heat; full of large-hearted sympathy with the poor and oppressed, and of intense hatred of the cruel and shallow sophistries that then passed for maxims, almost for axioms, of government. In the year 1819, when the yeomanry round Glasgow was called out to keep down some dreadful monsters called 'Radicals,' Carlyle describes how he met an advocate of his acquaintance hurrying along, musket in hand, to his drill on the Links. 'You should have the like of this,' said he, cheerily patting his gun. 'Yes, was the reply, 'but I haven't yet quite settled on which side.' And when he did make his choice, on the whole he chose rightly. The author of that noble pamphlet 'Chartism,' published in 1840, was at least once a Liberal. Let me quote a passage that has stirred to effort many a generous heart now cold in death: 'Who would suppose that Education were a thing which had to be advocated on the ground of local expediency, or indeed on any ground? As if it stood not on the basis of an everlasting duty, as a prime necessity of man! It is a thing that should need no advocating; much as it does actually need. To impart the gift of thinking to those who cannot think, and yet who could in that case think: this, one would imagine, was the first function a government had to set about discharging. Were it not a cruel thing to see, in any province of an empire, the inhabitants living all mutilated in their limbs, each strong man with his right arm lamed? How much crueller to find the strong soul with its eyes still sealed— its eyes extinct, so that it sees not! Light has come into the world; but to this poor peasant it has come in vain. For six thousand years the sons of Adam, in sleepless effort, have been devising, doing, discovering; in mysterious, infinite, indissoluble communion, warring, a little band of brothers, against the black empire of necessity and night; they have accomplished such a conquest and conquests; and to this man it is all as if it had not been. The four-and-twenty letters of the alphabet are still runic enigmas to him. He passes by on the other side; and that great spiritual kingdom, the toil-won conquest of his own brothers, all that his brothers have conquered, is a thing not extant for him. An invisible empire; he knows it not—suspects it not. And is not this his withal; the conquest of his own brothers, the lawfully acquired possession of all men? Baleful enchantment lies over him, from generation to generation; he knows not that such an empire is his—that such an empire is his at all.... Heavier wrong is not done under the sun. It lasts from year to year, from century to century; the blinded sire slaves himself out, and leaves a blinded son; and men, made in the image of God, continue as two-legged beasts of labour: and in the largest empire of the world it is a debate whether a small fraction of the revenue of one day shall, after thirteen centuries, be laid out on it, or not laid out on it. Have we governors? Have we teachers? Have we had a Church these thirteen hundred years? What is an overseer of souls, an archoverseer, archiepiscopus? Is he something? If so, let him lay his hand on his heart and say what thing!'
Nor was the man who in 1843 wrote as follows altogether at sea in politics:
'Of Time Bill, Factory Bill, and other such Bills, the present editor has no authority to speak. He knows not, it is for others than he to know, in what specific ways it may be feasible to interfere with legislation between the workers and the master-workers—knows only and sees that legislative interference, and interferences not a few, are indispensable. Nay, interference has begun; there are already factory inspectors. Perhaps there might be mine inspectors too. Might there not be furrow-field inspectors withal, to ascertain how, on 7s. 6d. a week, a human family does live? Again, are not sanitary regulations possible for a legislature? Baths, free air, a wholesome temperature, ceilings twenty feet high, might be ordained by Act of Parliament in all establishments licensed as mills. There are such mills already extant—honour to the builders of them. The legislature can say to others, "Go you and do likewise—better if you can."'
By no means a bad programme for 1843; and a good part of it has been carried out, but with next to no aid from Carlyle.
The Radical party has struggled on as best it might, without the author of 'Chartism' and 'The French Revolution'—
'They have marched prospering, not through his presence; Songs have inspired them, not from his lyre;'
and it is no party spirit that leads one to regret the change of mind which prevented the later public life of this great man, and now the memory of it, from being enriched with something better than a five-pound note for Governor Eyre.
But it could not be helped. What brought about the rupture was his losing faith in the ultimate destiny of man upon earth. No more terrible loss can be sustained. It is of both heart and hope. He fell back upon heated visions of heaven-sent heroes, devoting their early days for the most part to hoodwinking the people, and their latter ones, more heroically, to shooting them.
But it is foolish to quarrel with results, and we may learn something even from the later Carlyle. We lay down John Bright's Reform Speeches, and take up Carlyle and light upon a passage like this: 'Inexpressibly delirious seems to me the puddle of Parliament and public upon what it calls the Reform Measure, that is to say, the calling in of new supplies of blockheadism, gullibility, bribability, amenability to beer and balderdash, by way of amending the woes we have had from previous supplies of that bad article.' This view must be accounted for as well as Mr. Bright's. We shall do well to remember, with Carlyle, that the best of all Reform Bills is that which each citizen passes in his own breast, where it is pretty sure to meet with strenuous opposition. The reform of ourselves is no doubt an heroic measure never to be overlooked, and, in the face of accusations of gullibility, bribability, amenability to beer and balderdash, our poor humanity can only stand abashed, and feebly demur to the bad English in which the charges are conveyed. But we can't all lose hope. We remember Sir David Ramsay's reply to Lord Rea, once quoted by Carlyle himself. Then said his lordship: 'Well, God mend all.' 'Nay, by God, Donald, we must help Him to mend it!' It is idle to stand gaping at the heavens, waiting to feel the thong of some hero of questionable morals and robust conscience; and therefore, unless Reform Bills can be shown to have checked purity of election, to have increased the stupidity of electors, and generally to have promoted corruption—which notoriously they have not—we may allow Carlyle to make his exit 'swearing,' and regard their presence in the Statute Book, if not with rapture, at least, with equanimity.
But it must not be forgotten that the battle is still raging—the issue is still uncertain. Mr. Froude is still free to assert that the 'post-mortem' will prove Carlyle was right. His political sagacity no reader of 'Frederick' can deny; his insight into hidden causes and far-away effects was keen beyond precedent—nothing he ever said deserves contempt, though it may merit anger. If we would escape his conclusion, we must not altogether disregard his premises. Bankruptcy and death are the final heirs of imposture and make-believes. The old faiths and forms are worn too threadbare by a thousand disputations to bear the burden of the new democracy, which, if it is not merely to win the battle but to hold the country, must be ready with new faiths and forms of her own. They are within her reach if she but knew it; they lie to her hand: surely they will not escape her grasp! If they do not, then, in the glad day when worship is once more restored to man, he will with becoming generosity forget much that Carlyle has written, and remembering more, rank him amongst the prophets of humanity.
Carlyle's poetry can only be exhibited in long extracts, which would be here out of place, and might excite controversy as to the meaning of words, and draw down upon me the measureless malice of the metricists. There are, however, passages in 'Sartor Resartus' and the 'French Revolution' which have long appeared to me to be the sublimest poetry of the century; and it was therefore with great pleasure that I found Mr. Justice Stephen, in his book on 'Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,' introducing a quotation from the 8th chapter of the 3rd book of 'Sartor Resartus,' with the remark that 'it is perhaps the most memorable utterance of the greatest poet of the age.'
As for Carlyle's religion, it may be said he had none, inasmuch as he expounded no creed and put his name to no confession. This is the pedantry of the schools. He taught us religion, as cold water and fresh air teach us health, by rendering the conditions of disease well nigh impossible. For more than half a century, with superhuman energy, he struggled to establish the basis of all religions, 'reverence and godly fear.' 'Love not pleasure, love God; this is the everlasting Yea.'
One's remarks might here naturally come to an end, with a word or two of hearty praise of the brave course of life led by the man who awhile back stood the acknowledged head of English letters. But the present time is not the happiest for a panegyric on Carlyle. It would be in vain to deny that the brightness of his reputation underwent an eclipse, visible everywhere, by the publication of his 'Reminiscences.' They surprised most of us, pained not a few, and hugely delighted that ghastly crew, the wreckers of humanity, who are never so happy as when employed in pulling down great reputations to their own miserable levels. When these 'baleful creatures,' as Carlyle would have called them, have lit upon any passage indicative of conceit or jealousy or spite, they have fastened upon it and screamed over it, with a pleasure but ill-concealed and with a horror but ill-feigned. 'Behold,' they exclaim, 'your hero robbed of the nimbus his inflated style cast around him—this preacher and fault-finder reduced to his principal parts: and lo! the main ingredient is most unmistakably "bile!"'
The critic, however, has nought to do either with the sighs of the sorrowful, 'mourning when a hero falls,' or with the scorn of the malicious, rejoicing, as did Bunyan's Juryman, Mr. Live-loose, when Faithful was condemned to die: 'I could never endure him, for he would always be condemning my way.'
The critic's task is to consider the book itself, i. e., the nature of its contents, and how it came to be written at all.
When this has been done, there will not be found much demanding moral censure; whilst the reader will note with delight, applied to the trifling concerns of life, those extraordinary gifts of observation and apprehension which have so often charmed him in the pages of history and biography.
These peccant volumes contain but four sketches: one of his father, written in 1832; the other three, of Edward Irving, Lord Jeffrey, and Mrs. Carlyle, all written after the death of the last-named, in 1866.
The only fault that has been found with the first sketch is, that in it Carlyle hazards the assertion that Scotland does not now contain his father's like. It ought surely to be possible to dispute this opinion without exhibiting emotion. To think well of their forbears is one of the few weaknesses of Scotchmen. This sketch, as a whole, must be carried to Carlyle's credit, and is a permanent addition to literature. It is pious, after the high Roman fashion. It satisfies our finest sense of the fit and proper. Just exactly so should a literate son write of an illiterate peasant father. How immeasurable seems the distance between the man from whom proceeded the thirty-four volumes we have been writing about and the Calvinistic mason who didn't even know his Burns!—and yet here we find the whole distance spanned by filial love.
The sketch of Lord Jeffrey is inimitable. One was getting tired of Jeffrey, and prepared to give him the go-by, when Carlyle creates him afresh, and, for the first time, we see the bright little man bewitching us by what he is, disappointing us by what he is not. The spiteful remarks the sketch contains may be considered, along with those of the same nature to be found only too plentifully in the remaining two papers.
After careful consideration of the worst of these remarks, Mrs. Oliphant's explanation seems the true one; they are most of them sparkling bits of Mrs. Carlyle's conversation. She, happily for herself, had a lively wit, and, perhaps not so happily, a biting tongue, and was, as Carlyle tells us, accustomed to make him laugh, as they drove home together from London crushes, by far from genial observations on her fellow-creatures, little recking—how should she? —that what was so lightly uttered was being engraven on the tablets of the most marvellous of memories, and was destined long afterwards to be written down in grim earnest by a half-frenzied old man, and printed, in cold blood, by an English gentleman.
The horrible description of Mrs. Irving's personal appearance, and the other stories of the same connection, are recognised by Mrs. Oliphant as in substance Mrs. Carlyle's; whilst the malicious account of Mrs. Basil Montague's head-dress is attributed by Carlyle himself to his wife. Still, after dividing the total, there is a good helping for each, and blame would justly be Carlyle's due if we did not remember, as we are bound to do, that, interesting as these three sketches are, their interest is pathological, and ought never to have been given us. Mr. Froude should have read them in tears, and burnt them in fire. There is nothing surprising in the state of mind which produced them. They are easily accounted for by our sorrow-laden experience. It is a familiar feeling which prompts a man, suddenly bereft of one whom he alone really knew and loved, to turn in his fierce indignation upon the world, and deride its idols whom all are praising, and which yet to him seem ugly by the side of one of whom no one speaks. To be angry with such a sentence as 'scribbling Sands and Eliots, not fit to compare with my incomparable Jeannie,' is at once inhuman and ridiculous. This is the language of the heart, not of the head. It is no more criticism than is the trumpeting of a wounded elephant zoology.
Happy is the man who at such a time holds both peace and pen; but unhappiest of all is he who, having dipped his sorrow into ink, entrusts the manuscript to a romantic historian.
The two volumes of the 'Life,' and the three volumes of Mrs. Carlyle's 'Correspondence,' unfortunately did not pour oil upon the troubled waters. The partizanship they evoked was positively indecent. Mrs. Carlyle had her troubles and her sorrows, as have most women who live under the same roof with a man of creative genius; but of one thing we may be quite sure, that she would have been the first, to use her own expressive language, to require God 'particularly to damn' her impertinent sympathizers. As for Mr. Froude, he may yet discover his Nemesis in the spirit of an angry woman whose privacy he has invaded, and whose diary he has most wantonly published.
These dark clouds are ephemeral. They will roll away, and we shall once more gladly recognise the lineaments of an essentially lofty character, of one who, though a man of genius and of letters, neither outraged society nor stooped to it; was neither a rebel nor a slave; who in poverty scorned wealth; who never mistook popularity for fame; but from the first assumed, and throughout maintained, the proud attitude of one whose duty it was to teach and not to tickle mankind.
Brother-dunces, lend me your ears! not to crop, but that I may whisper into their furry depths: 'Do not quarrel with genius. We have none ourselves, and yet are so constituted that we cannot live without it.'
ON THE ALLEGED OBSCURITY OF MR. BROWNING'S POETRY.
'The sanity of true genius' was a happy phrase of Charles Lamb's. Our greatest poets were our sanest men. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth might have defied even a mad doctor to prove his worst.
To extol sanity ought to be unnecessary in an age which boasts its realism; but yet it may be doubted whether, if the author of the phrase just quoted were to be allowed once more to visit the world he loved so well and left so reluctantly, and could be induced to forswear his Elizabethans and devote himself to the literature of the day, he would find many books which his fine critical faculty would allow him to pronounce 'healthy,' as he once pronounced 'John Buncle' to be in the presence of a Scotchman, who could not for the life of him understand how a book could properly be said to enjoy either good or bad health.
But, however this may be, this much is certain, that lucidity is one of the chief characteristics of sanity. A sane man ought not to be unintelligible. Lucidity is good everywhere, for all time and in all things, in a letter, in a speech, in a book, in a poem. Lucidity is not simplicity. A lucid poem is not necessarily an easy one. A great poet may tax our brains, but he ought not to puzzle our wits. We may often have to ask in Humility, What does he mean? but not in despair, What can he mean?
Dreamy and inconclusive the poet sometimes, nay, often, cannot help being, for dreaminess and inconclusiveness are conditions of thought when dwelling on the very subjects that most demand poetical treatment.
Misty, therefore, the poet has our kind permission sometimes to be; but muddy, never! A great poet, like a great peak, must sometimes be allowed to have his head in the clouds, and to disappoint us of the wide prospect we had hoped to gain; but the clouds which envelop him must be attracted to, and not made by him.
In a sentence, though the poet may give expression to what Wordsworth has called 'the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world,' we, the much-enduring public who have to read his poems, are entitled to demand that the unintelligibility of which we are made to feel the weight, should be all of it the world's, and none of it merely the poet's.
We should not have ventured to introduce our subject with such very general and undeniable observations, had not experience taught us that the best way of introducing any subject is by a string of platitudes, delivered after an oracular fashion. They arouse attention, without exhausting it, and afford the pleasant sensation of thinking, without any of the trouble of thought. But, the subject once introduced, it becomes necessary to proceed with it.
In considering whether a poet is intelligible and lucid, we ought not to grope and grub about his work in search of obscurities and oddities, but should, in the first instance at all events, attempt to regard his whole scope and range; to form some estimate, if we can, of his general purport and effect, asking ourselves, for this purpose, such questions as these: How are we the better for him? Has he quickened any passion, lightened any burden, purified any taste? Does he play any real part in our lives? When we are in love, do we whisper him in our lady's ear? When we sorrow, does he ease our pain? Can he calm the strife of mental conflict? Has he had anything to say, which wasn't twaddle, on those subjects which, elude analysis as they may, and defy demonstration as they do, are yet alone of perennial interest—
'On man, on nature, and on human life,'
on the pathos of our situation, looking back on to the irrevocable and forward to the unknown? If a poet has said, or done, or been any of these things to an appreciable extent, to charge him with obscurity is both folly and ingratitude.
But the subject may be pursued further, and one may be called upon to investigate this charge with reference to particular books or poems. In Browning's case this fairly may be done; and then another crop of questions arises, such as: What is the book about, i. e., with what subject does it deal, and what method of dealing does it employ? Is it didactical, analytical, or purely narrative? Is it content to describe, or does it aspire to explain? In common fairness these questions must be asked and answered, before we heave our critical half-bricks at strange poets. One task is of necessity more difficult than another. Students of geometry, who have pushed their researches into that fascinating science so far as the fifth proposition of the first book, commonly called the Pons Asinorum (though now that so many ladies read Euclid, it ought, in common justice to them, to be at least sometimes called the Pons Asinarum), will agree that though it may be more difficult to prove that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal, and that if the equal sides be produced, the angles on the other side of the base shall be equal, than it was to describe an equilateral triangle on a given finite straight line; yet no one but an ass would say that the fifth proposition was one whit less intelligible than the first. When we consider Mr. Browning in his later writings, it will be useful to bear this distinction in mind.
Our first duty, then, is to consider Mr. Browning in his whole scope and range, or, in a word, generally. This is a task of such dimensions and difficulty as, in the language of joint-stock prospectuses, 'to transcend individual enterprise,' and consequently, as we all know, a company has been recently floated, or a society established, having Mr. Browning for its principal object. It has a president, two secretaries, male and female, and a treasurer. You pay a guinea, and you become a member. A suitable reduction is, I believe, made in the unlikely event of all the members of one family flocking to be enrolled. The existence of this society is a great relief, for it enables us to deal with our unwieldy theme in a light-hearted manner, and to refer those who have a passion for solid information and profound philosophy to the printed transactions of this learned society, which, lest we should forget all about it, we at once do.
When you are viewing a poet generally, as is our present plight, the first question is: When was he born? The second, When did he (to use a favourite phrase of the last century, now in disuse)—When did he commence author? The third, How long did he keep at it? The fourth, How much has he written? And the fifth may perhaps be best expressed in the words of Southey's little Peterkin:
'"What good came of it all at last?" Quoth little Peterkin.'
Mr. Browning was born in 1812; he commenced author with the fragment called 'Pauline,' published in 1833. He is still writing, and his works, as they stand upon my shelves—for editions vary—number twenty-three volumes. Little Peterkin's question is not so easily answered; but, postponing it for a moment, the answers to the other four show that we have to deal with a poet, more than seventy years old, who has been writing for half a century, and who has filled twenty-three volumes. The Browning Society at all events has assets. The way I propose to deal with this literary mass is to divide it in two, taking the year 1864 as the line of cleavage. In that year the volume called 'Dramatis Personae' was published, and then nothing happened till the year 1868, when our poet presented the astonished English language with the four volumes and the 21,116 lines called 'The Ring and the Book,' a poem which it may be stated, for the benefit of that large, increasing, and highly interesting class of persons who prefer statistics to poetry, is longer than Pope's 'Homer's Iliad' by exactly 2,171 lines. We thus begin with 'Pauline' in 1833, and end with 'Dramatis Personae' in 1864. We then begin again with 'The Ring and the Book,' in 1868; but when or where we shall end cannot be stated. 'Sordello,' published in 1840, is better treated apart, and is therefore excepted from the first period, to which chronologically it belongs.
Looking then at the first period, we find in its front eight plays:
1. 'Strafford,' written in 1836, when its author was twenty-four years old, and put upon the boards of Covent Garden Theatre on the 1st of May, 1837, Macready playing Strafford, and Miss Helen Faucit Lady Carlisle. It was received with much enthusiasm; but the company was rebellious and the manager bankrupt; and after running five nights, the man who played Pym threw up his part, and the theatre was closed.
2. 'Pippa Passes.'
3. 'King Victor and King Charles.'
4. 'The Return of the Druses.'
5. 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon.'
This beautiful and pathetic play was put on the stage of Drury Lane on the 11th of February, 1843, with Phelps as Lord Tresham, Miss Helen Faucit as Mildred Tresham, and Mrs. Stirling, still known to us all, as Guendolen. It was a brilliant success. Mr. Browning was in the stage-box; and if it is any satisfaction for a poet to hear a crowded house cry 'Author, author!' that satisfaction has belonged to Mr. Browning. The play ran several nights; and was only stopped because one of Mr. Macready's bankruptcies happened just then to intervene. It was afterwards revived by Mr. Phelps, during his 'memorable management' of Sadlers' Wells.
6. 'Colombe's Birthday.' Miss Helen Faucit put this upon the stage in 1852, when it was reckoned a success.
8. 'A Soul's Tragedy.'
To call any of these plays unintelligible is ridiculous; and nobody who has ever read them ever did, and why people who have not read them should abuse them is hard to see. Were society put upon its oath, we should be surprised to find how many people in high places have not read 'All's Well that Ends Well,' or 'Timon of Athens;' but they don't go about saying these plays are unintelligible. Like wise folk, they pretend to have read them, and say nothing. In Browning's case they are spared the hypocrisy. No one need pretend to have read 'A Soul's Tragedy;' and it seems, therefore, inexcusable for anyone to assert that one of the plainest, most pointed, and piquant bits of writing in the language is unintelligible. But surely something more may be truthfully said of these plays than that they are comprehensible. First of all, they are plays, and not works—like the dropsical dramas of Sir Henry Taylor and Mr. Swinburne. Some of them have stood the ordeal of actual representation; and though it would be absurd to pretend that they met with that overwhelming measure of success our critical age has reserved for such dramatists as the late Lord Lytton, the author of 'Money,' the late Tom Taylor, the author of 'The Overland Route,' the late Mr. Robertson, the author of 'Caste,' Mr. H. Byron, the author of 'Our Boys,' Mr. Wills, the author of 'Charles I.,' Mr. Burnand, the author of 'The Colonel,' and Mr. Gilbert, the author of so much that is great and glorious in our national drama; at all events they proved themselves able to arrest and retain the attention of very ordinary audiences. But who can deny dignity and even grandeur to 'Luria,' or withhold the meed of a melodious tear from 'Mildred Tresham'? What action of what play is more happily conceived or better rendered than that of 'Pippa Passes'?—where innocence and its reverse, tender love and violent passion, are presented with emphasis, and yet blended into a dramatic unity and a poetic perfection, entitling the author to the very first place amongst those dramatists of the century who have laboured under the enormous disadvantage of being poets to start with.
Passing from the plays, we are next attracted by a number of splendid poems, on whose base the structure of Mr. Browning's fame perhaps rests most surely—his dramatic pieces—poems which give utterance to the thoughts and feelings of persons other than himself, or, as he puts it, when dedicating a number of them to his wife:
'Love, you saw me gather men and women, Live or dead, or fashioned by my fancy, Enter each and all, and use their service, Speak from every mouth the speech—a poem;'
or, again, in 'Sordello':
'By making speak, myself kept out of view, The very man, as he was wont to do.'
At a rough calculation, there must be at least sixty of these pieces. Let me run over the names of a very few of them. 'Saul,' a poem beloved by all true women; 'Caliban,' which the men, not unnaturally perhaps, often prefer. The 'Two Bishops'; the sixteenth century one ordering his tomb of jasper and basalt in St. Praxed's Church, and his nineteenth century successor rolling out his post-prandial Apologia. 'My Last Duchess,' the 'Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister,' 'Andrea del Sarto,' 'Fra Lippo Lippi,' 'Rabbi Ben Ezra,' 'Cleon,' 'A Death in the Desert,' 'The Italian in England,' and 'The Englishman in Italy.'
It is plain truth to say that no other English poet, living or dead, Shakespeare excepted, has so heaped up human interest for his readers as has Robert Browning.
Fancy stepping into a room and finding it full of Shakespeare's principal characters! What a babel of tongues! What a jostling of wits! How eagerly one's eye would go in search of Hamlet and Sir John Falstaff, but droop shudderingly at the thought of encountering the distraught gaze of Lady Macbeth! We should have no difficulty in recognising Beatrice in the central figure of that lively group of laughing courtiers; whilst did we seek Juliet, it would, of course, be by appointment on the balcony. To fancy yourself in such company is pleasant matter for a midsummer's night's dream. No poet has such a gallery as Shakespeare, but of our modern poets Browning comes nearest him.
Against these dramatic pieces the charge of unintelligibility fails as completely as it does against the plays. They are all perfectly intelligible; but—and here is the rub—they are not easy reading, like the estimable writings of the late Mrs. Hemans. They require the same honest attention as it is the fashion to give to a lecture of Professor Huxley's or a sermon of Canon Liddon's: and this is just what too many persons will not give to poetry. They
'Love to hear A soft pulsation in their easy ear; To turn the page, and let their senses drink A lay that shall not trouble them to think.'
It is no great wonder it should be so. After dinner, when disposed to sleep, but afraid of spoiling our night's rest, behold the witching hour reserved by the nineteenth century for the study of poetry! This treatment of the muse deserves to be held up to everlasting scorn and infamy in a passage of Miltonic strength and splendour. We, alas! must be content with the observation, that such an opinion of the true place of poetry in the life of a man excites, in the breasts of the rightminded, feelings akin to those which Charles Lamb ascribes to the immortal Sarah Battle, when a young gentleman of a literary turn, on taking a hand in her favourite game of whist, declared that he saw no harm in unbending the mind, now and then, after serious studies, in recreations of that kind. She could not bear, so Elia proceeds, 'to have her noble occupation, to which she wound up her faculties, considered in that light. It was her business, her duty—the thing she came into the world to do—and she did it: she unbent her mind, afterwards, over a book!' And so the lover of poetry and Browning, after winding-up his faculties over 'Comus' or 'Paracelsus,' over 'Julius Caesar' or 'Strafford,' may afterwards, if he is so minded, unbend himself over the 'Origin of Species,' or that still more fascinating record which tells us how little curly worms, only give them time enough, will cover with earth even the larger kind of stones.
Next to these dramatic pieces come what we may be content to call simply poems: some lyrical, some narrative. The latter are straightforward enough, and, as a rule, full of spirit and humour; but this is more than can always be said of the lyrical pieces. Now, for the first time, in dealing with this first period, excluding 'Sordello,' we strike difficulty. The Chinese puzzle comes in. We wonder whether it all turns on the punctuation. And the awkward thing for Mr. Browning's reputation is this, that these bewildering poems are, for the most part, very short. We say awkward, for it is not more certain that Sarah Gamp liked her beer drawn mild, than it is that your Englishman likes his poetry cut short; and so, accordingly, it often happens that some estimable paterfamilias takes up an odd volume of Browning his volatile son or moonstruck daughter has left lying about, pishes and pshaws! and then, with an air of much condescension and amazing candour, remarks that he will give the fellow another chance, and not condemn him unread. So saying, he opens the book, and carefully selects the very shortest poem he can find; and in a moment, without sign or signal, note or warning, the unhappy man is floundering up to his neck in lines like these, which are the third and final stanza of a poem called 'Another Way of Love':
'And after, for pastime, If June be refulgent With flowers in completeness, All petals, no prickles, Delicious as trickles Of wine poured at mass-time, And choose One indulgent To redness and sweetness; Or if with experience of man and of spider, She use my June lightning, the strong insect-ridder To stop the fresh spinning,—why June will consider.'
He comes up gasping, and more than ever persuaded that Browning's poetry is a mass of inconglomerate nonsense, which nobody understands —least of all members of the Browning Society.
We need be at no pains to find a meaning for everything Mr. Browning has written. But when all is said and done—when these few freaks of a crowded brain are thrown overboard to the sharks of verbal criticism who feed on such things—Mr. Browning and his great poetical achievement remain behind to be dealt with and accounted for. We do not get rid of the Laureate by quoting:
'O darling room, my heart's delight, Dear room, the apple of my sight, With thy two couches soft and white There is no room so exquisite— No little room so warm and bright Wherein to read, wherein to write;'
or of Wordsworth by quoting:
'At this, my boy hung down his head: He blushed with shame, nor made reply, And five times to the child I said, "Why, Edward? tell me why?"'—
or of Keats by remembering that he once addressed a young lady as follows:
'O come, Georgiana! the rose is full blown, The riches of Flora are lavishly strown: The air is all softness and crystal the streams, The west is resplendently clothed in beams.'
The strength of a rope may be but the strength of its weakest part; but poets are to be judged in their happiest hours, and in their greatest works.
Taking, then, this first period of Mr. Browning's poetry as a whole, and asking ourselves if we are the richer for it, how can there be any doubt as to the reply? What points of human interest has he left untouched? With what phase of life, character, or study does he fail to sympathize? So far from being the rough-hewn block 'dull fools' have supposed him, he is the most dilettante of great poets. Do you dabble in art and perambulate picture-galleries? Browning must be your favourite poet: he is art's historian. Are you devoted to music? So is he: and alone of our poets has sought to fathom in verse the deep mysteries of sound. Do you find it impossible to keep off theology? Browning has more theology than most bishops—could puzzle Gamaliel and delight Aquinas. Are you in love? Read 'A Last Ride Together,' 'Youth and Art,' 'A Portrait,' 'Christine,' 'In a Gondola,' 'By the Fireside,' 'Love amongst the Ruins,' 'Time's Revenges,' 'The Worst of It,' and a host of others, being careful always to end with 'A Madhouse Cell'; and we are much mistaken if you do not put Browning at the very head and front of the interpreters of passion. The many moods of sorrow are reflected in his verse, whilst mirth, movement, and a rollicking humour abound everywhere.
I will venture upon but three quotations, for it is late in the day to be quoting Browning. The first shall be a well-known bit of blank verse about art from 'Fra Lippo Lippi':
'For, don't you mark, we're made so that we love First when we see them painted, things we have passed Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see: And so they are better painted—better to us, Which is the same thing. Art was given for that— God uses us to help each other so, Lending our minds out. Have you noticed now Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk, And, trust me, but you should though. How much more If I drew higher things with the same truth! That were to take the prior's pulpit-place— Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh! It makes me mad to see what men shall do, And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us, Nor blank: it means intensely, and means good. To find its meaning is my meat and drink.'
The second is some rhymed rhetoric from 'Holy Cross Day'—the testimony of the dying Jew in Rome:
'This world has been harsh and strange, Something is wrong: there needeth a change. But what or where? at the last or first? In one point only we sinned at worst.
'The Lord will have mercy on Jacob yet, And again in his border see Israel set. When Judah beholds Jerusalem, The stranger seed shall be joined to them: To Jacob's house shall the Gentiles cleave: So the prophet saith, and his sons believe.
'Ay, the children of the chosen race Shall carry and bring them to their place; In the land of the Lord shall lead the same, Bondsmen and handmaids. Who shall blame When the slaves enslave, the oppressed ones o'er The oppressor triumph for evermore?
'God spoke, and gave us the word to keep: Bade never fold the hands, nor sleep 'Mid a faithless world, at watch and ward, Till the Christ at the end relieve our guard. By His servant Moses the watch was set: Though near upon cockcrow, we keep it yet.
'Thou! if Thou wast He, who at mid-watch came, By the starlight naming a dubious Name; And if we were too heavy with sleep, too rash With fear—O Thou, if that martyr-gash Fell on Thee, coming to take Thine own, And we gave the Cross, when we owed the throne;
'Thou art the Judge. We are bruised thus. But, the Judgment over, join sides with us! Thine, too, is the cause! and not more Thine Than ours is the work of these dogs and swine, Whose life laughs through and spits at their creed, Who maintain Thee in word, and defy Thee in deed.
'We withstood Christ then? Be mindful how At least we withstand Barabbas now! Was our outrage sore? But the worst we spared, To have called these—Christians—had we dared! Let defiance to them pay mistrust of Thee, And Rome make amends for Calvary!
'By the torture, prolonged from age to age; By the infamy, Israel's heritage; By the Ghetto's plague, by the garb's disgrace, By the badge of shame, by the felon's place, By the branding-tool, the bloody whip, And the summons to Christian fellowship,
'We boast our proof, that at least the Jew Would wrest Christ's name from the devil's crew.'
The last quotation shall be from the veritable Browning—of one of those poetical audacities none ever dared but the Danton of modern poetry. Audacious in its familiar realism, in its total disregard of poetical environment, in its rugged abruptness: but supremely successful, and alive with emotion:
'What is he buzzing in my ears? Now that I come to die, Do I view the world as a vale of tears? Ah, reverend sir, not I.
'What I viewed there once, what I view again, Where the physic bottles stand On the table's edge, is a suburb lane, With a wall to my bedside hand.
'That lane sloped, much as the bottles do, From a house you could descry O'er the garden-wall. Is the curtain blue Or green to a healthy eye?
'To mine, it serves for the old June weather, Blue above lane and wall; And that farthest bottle, labelled "Ether," Is the house o'ertopping all.
'At a terrace somewhat near its stopper, There watched for me, one June, A girl—I know, sir, it's improper: My poor mind's out of tune.
'Only there was a way—you crept Close by the side, to dodge Eyes in the house—two eyes except. They styled their house "The Lodge."
'What right had a lounger up their lane? But by creeping very close, With the good wall's help their eyes might strain And stretch themselves to oes,
'Yet never catch her and me together, As she left the attic—there, By the rim of the bottle labelled "Ether"— And stole from stair to stair,
'And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas! We loved, sir; used to meet. How sad and bad and mad it was! But then, how it was sweet!'
The second period of Mr. Browning's poetry demands a different line of argument; for it is, in my judgment, folly to deny that he has of late years written a great deal which makes very difficult reading indeed. No doubt you may meet people who tell you that they read 'The Ring and the Book' for the first time without much mental effort; but you will do well not to believe them. These poems are difficult—they cannot help being so. What is 'The Ring and the Book'? A huge novel in 20,000 lines—told after the method not of Scott but of Balzac; it tears the hearts out of a dozen characters; it tells the same story from ten different points of view. It is loaded with detail of every kind and description: you are let off nothing. As with a schoolboy's life at a large school, if he is to enjoy it at all, he must fling himself into it, and care intensely about everything—so the reader of 'The Ring and the Book' must be interested in everybody and everything, down to the fact that the eldest daughter of the counsel for the prosecution of Guido is eight years old on the very day he is writing his speech, and that he is going to have fried liver and parsley for his supper.
If you are prepared for this, you will have your reward; for the style, though rugged and involved, is throughout, with the exception of the speeches of counsel, eloquent, and at times superb; and as for the matter, if your interest in human nature is keen, curious, almost professional—if nothing man, woman, or child has been, done, or suffered, or conceivably can be, do, or suffer, is without interest for you; if you are fond of analysis, and do not shrink from dissection—you will prize 'The Ring and the Book' as the surgeon prizes the last great contribution to comparative anatomy or pathology.
But this sort of work tells upon style. Browning has, I think, fared better than some writers. To me, at all events, the step from 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon' to 'The Ring and the Book' is not so marked as is the mauvais pas that lies between 'Amos Barton' and 'Daniel Deronda.' But difficulty is not obscurity. One task is more difficult than another. The angles at the base of the isosceles triangles are apt to get mixed, and to confuse us all—man and woman alike. 'Prince Hohenstiel' something or another is a very difficult poem, not only to pronounce but to read; but if a poet chooses as his subject Napoleon III.—in whom the cad, the coward, the idealist, and the sensualist were inextricably mixed—and purports to make him unbosom himself over a bottle of Gladstone claret in a tavern in Leicester Square, you cannot expect that the product should belong to the same class of poetry as Mr. Coventry Patmore's admirable 'Angel in the House.'
It is the method that is difficult. Take the husband in 'The Ring and the Book.' Mr. Browning remorselessly hunts him down, tracks him to the last recesses of his mind, and there bids him stand and deliver. He describes love, not only broken but breaking; hate in its germ; doubt at its birth. These are difficult things to do either in poetry or prose, and people with easy, flowing Addisonian or Tennysonian styles cannot do them.
I seem to overhear a still, small voice asking, But are they worth doing? or at all events is it the province of art to do them? The question ought not to be asked. It is heretical, being contrary to the whole direction of the latter half of this century. The chains binding us to the rocks of realism are faster riveted every day; and the Perseus who is destined to cut them is, I expect, some mischievous little boy at a Board-school. But as the question has been asked, I will own that sometimes, even when deepest in works of this, the now orthodox school, I have been harassed by distressing doubts whether, after all, this enormous labour is not in vain; and, wearied by the effort, overloaded by the detail, bewildered by the argument, and sickened by the pitiless dissection of character and motive, have been tempted to cry aloud, quoting—or rather, in the agony of the moment, misquoting—Coleridge:
'Simplicity— Thou better name than all the family of Fame.'
But this ebullition of feeling is childish and even sinful. We must take our poets as we do our meals—as they are served up to us. Indeed, you may, if full of courage, give a cook notice, but not the time-spirit who makes our poets. We may be sure—to appropriate an idea of the late Sir James Stephen—that if Robert Browning had lived in the sixteenth century, he would not have written a poem like 'The Ring and the Book'; and if Edmund Spenser had lived in the nineteenth century he would not have written a poem like the 'Faerie Queen.'
It is therefore idle to arraign Mr. Browning's later method and style for possessing difficulties and intricacies which are inherent to it. The method, at all events, has an interest of its own, a strength of its own, a grandeur of its own. If you do not like it, you must leave it alone. You are fond, you say, of romantic poetry; well, then, take down your Spenser and qualify yourself to join 'the small transfigured band' of those who are able to take their Bible-oaths they have read their 'Faerie Queen' all through. The company, though small, is delightful, and you will have plenty to talk about without abusing Browning, who probably knows his Spenser better than you do. Realism will not for ever dominate the world of letters and art—the fashion of all things passeth away—but it has already earned a great place: it has written books, composed poems, painted pictures, all stamped with that 'greatness' which, despite fluctuations, nay, even reversals of taste and opinion, means immortality.
But against Mr. Browning's later poems it is sometimes alleged that their meaning is obscure because their grammar is bad. A cynic was once heard to observe with reference to that noble poem 'The Grammarian's Funeral,' that it was a pity the talented author had ever since allowed himself to remain under the delusion that he had not only buried the grammarian, but his grammar also. It is doubtless true that Mr. Browning has some provoking ways, and is something too much of a verbal acrobat. Also, as his witty parodist, the pet poet of six generations of Cambridge undergraduates, reminds us:
'He loves to dock the smaller parts of speech, As we curtail the already curtailed cur.'
It is perhaps permissible to weary a little of his i's and o's, but we believe we cannot be corrected when we say that Browning is a poet whose grammar will bear scholastic investigation better than that of most of Apollo's children.
A word about 'Sordello.' One half of 'Sordello,' and that, with Mr. Browning's usual ill-luck, the first half, is undoubtedly obscure. It is as difficult to read as 'Endymion' or the 'Revolt of Islam,' and for the same reason—the author's lack of experience in the art of composition. We have all heard of the young architect who forgot to put a staircase in his house, which contained fine rooms, but no way of getting into them. 'Sordello' is a poem without a staircase. The author, still in his twenties, essayed a high thing. For his subject—
'He singled out Sordello compassed murkily about With ravage of six long sad hundred years.'
He partially failed; and the British public, with its accustomed generosity, and in order, I suppose, to encourage the others, has never ceased girding at him, because forty-two years ago he published, at his own charges, a little book of two hundred and fifty pages, which even such of them as were then able to read could not understand.
Poetry should be vital—either stirring our blood by its divine movement, or snatching our breath by its divine perfection. To do both is supreme glory; to do either is enduring fame.
There is a great deal of beautiful poetical writing to be had nowadays from the booksellers. It is interesting reading, but as one reads one trembles. It smells of mortality. It would seem as if, at the very birth of most of our modern poems,
'The conscious Parcae threw Upon their roseate lips a Stygian hue.'
That their lives may be prolonged is my pious prayer. In these bad days, when it is thought more educationally useful to know the principle of the common pump than Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' one cannot afford to let any good poetry die.
But when we take down Browning, we cannot think of him and the 'wormy bed' together. He is so unmistakably and deliciously alive. Die, indeed! when one recalls the ideal characters he has invested with reality; how he has described love and joy, pain and sorrow, art and music; as poems like 'Childe Roland,' 'Abt Vogler,' 'Evelyn Hope,' 'The Worst of It,' 'Pictor Ignotus,' 'The Lost Leader,' 'Home Thoughts from Abroad,' 'Old Pictures in Florence,' 'Herve Riel,' 'A Householder,' 'Fears and Scruples,' come tumbling into one's memory, one over another—we are tempted to employ the language of hyperbole, and to answer the question 'Will Browning die?' by exclaiming, 'Yes; when Niagara stops.' In him indeed we can
'Discern Infinite passion and the pain Of finite hearts that yearn.'
But love of Mr. Browning's poetry is no exclusive cult.
Of Lord Tennyson it is needless to speak. Certainly amongst his Peers there is no such Poet.
Mr. Arnold may have a limited poetical range and a restricted style, but within that range and in that style, surely we must exclaim:
'Whence that completed form of all completeness? Whence came that high perfection of all sweetness?'
Rossetti's luscious lines seldom fail to cast a spell by which
'In sundry moods 'tis pastime to be bound.'
William Morris has a sunny slope of Parnassus all to himself, and Mr. Swinburne has written some verses over which the world will long love to linger.
Dull must he be of soul who can take up Cardinal Newman's 'Verses on Various Occasions,' or Miss Christina Rossetti's poems, and lay them down without recognising their diverse charms.
Let us be Catholics in this great matter, and burn our candles at many shrines. In the pleasant realms of poesy, no liveries are worn, no paths prescribed; you may wander where you will, stop where you like, and worship whom you love. Nothing is demanded of you, save this, that in all your wanderings and worships, you keep two objects steadily in view—two, and two only, truth and beauty.
It is common knowledge that the distinguishing characteristic of the day is the zeal displayed by us all in hunting after Truth. A really not inconsiderable portion of whatever time we are able to spare from making or losing money or reputation, is devoted to this sport, whilst both reading and conversation are largely impressed into the same service.
Nor are there wanting those who avow themselves anxious to see this, their favourite pursuit, raised to the dignity of a national institution. They would have Truth-hunting established and endowed.
Mr. Carlyle has somewhere described with great humour the 'dreadfully painful' manner in which Kepler made his celebrated calculations and discoveries; but our young men of talent fail to see the joke, and take no pleasure in such anecdotes. Truth, they feel, is not to be had from them on any such terms. And why should it be? Is it not notorious that all who are lucky enough to supply wants grow rapidly and enormously rich; and is not Truth a now recognised want in ten thousand homes—wherever, indeed, persons are to be found wealthy enough to pay Mr. Mudie a guinea and so far literate as to be able to read? What, save the modesty, is there surprising in the demand now made on behalf of some young people, whose means are incommensurate with their talents, that they should be allowed, as a reward for doling out monthly or quarterly portions of truth, to live in houses rent-free, have their meals for nothing, and a trifle of money besides? Would Bass consent to supply us with beer in return for board and lodging, we of course defraying the actual cost of his brewery, and allowing him some L300 a year for himself? Who, as he read about 'Sun-spots,' or 'Fresh Facts for Darwin,' or the 'True History of Modesty or Veracity,' showing how it came about that these high-sounding virtues are held in their present somewhat general esteem, would find it in his heart to grudge the admirable authors their freedom from petty cares?
But, whether Truth-hunting be ever established or not, no one can doubt that it is a most fashionable pastime, and one which is being pursued with great vigour.