Robert Browning
by C. H. Herford
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A generation has passed since the day when, in your study at Brackenbed Grange, your reading of "Ben Ezra," the tones of which still vibrate in my memory, first introduced me to the poetry of Robert Browning. He was then just entering upon his wider fame. You had for years been one not merely of the few who recognised him, but of those, yet fewer, who proclaimed him. The standpoint of the following pages is not, I think, very remote from your own; conversations with you have, in any case, done something to define it. You see, then, that your share of responsibility for them is, on all counts, considerable, and you must not refuse to allow me to associate them with a name which the old Rabbi's great heartening cry: "Strive, and hold cheap the strain, Learn, nor account the pang, Dare, never grudge the throe," summons spontaneously to many other lips than mine. To some it is brought yet closer by his calm retrospect through sorrow.

ei de theion ho nous pros ton anthropon, kai ho kata touton bios theios pros ton anthropinon bion—ARIST., Eth. N. x. 8.

"Ne creator ne creatura mai," Comincio ei, "figliuol, fu senza amore." —DANTE, Purg. xvii. 91.


Browning is confessedly a difficult poet, and his difficulty is by no means all of the kind which opposes unmistakable impediments to the reader's path. Some of it is of the more insidious kind, which may co-exist with a delightful persuasion that the way is absolutely clear, and Browning's "obscurity" an invention of the invertebrate. The problems presented by his writing are merely tough, and will always yield to intelligent and patient scrutiny. But the problems presented by his mind are elusive, and it would be hard to resist the cogency of his interpreters, if it were not for their number. The rapid succession of acute and notable studies of Browning put forth during the last three or four years makes it even more apparent than it was before that the last word on Browning has not yet been said, even in that very qualified sense in which the last word about any poet, or any poetry, can ever be said at all. The present volume, in any case, does not aspire to say it. But it is not perhaps necessary to apologise for adding, under these conditions, another to the list. From most of the recent studies I have learned something; but this book has its roots in a somewhat earlier time, and may perhaps be described as an attempt to work out, in the detail of Browning's life and poetry, from a more definitely literary standpoint and without Hegelian prepossessions, a view of his genius not unlike that set forth with so much eloquence and penetration, in his well-known volume, by Professor Henry Jones. The narrative of Browning's life, in the earlier chapters, makes no pretence to biographical completeness. An immense mass of detail and anecdote bearing upon him is now available and within easy reach. I have attempted to sift out from this picturesque loose drift the really salient and relevant material. Much domestic incident, over which the brush would fain linger, will be missed; on the other hand, the great central epoch of Browning's poetic life, from 1846 to 1869, has been treated, deliberately, on what may appear an inordinately generous scale. Some amount of overlapping and repetition, it may be added, in the analytical chapters the plan of the book rendered it impossible wholly to avoid.

I am indebted to a friend, who wishes to be nameless, for reading the proofs, with results extremely beneficial to the book.









III. MATURING METHODS. DRAMAS AND DRAMATIC LYRICS 37 Introduction. I. Dramas. From Strafford to Pippa Passes 42 II. From the Blot in the 'Scutcheon to Luria 51 III. The early Dramatic Lyrics and Romances 65

IV. WEDDED LIFE IN ITALY. MEN AND WOMEN 74 I. January 1845 to September 1846 74 II. Society and Friendships 84 III. Politics 88 IV. Poems of Nature 91 V. Poems of Art 96 VI. Poems of Religion 110 VII. Poems of Love 132







IX. THE POET 237 I. Divergent psychical tendencies of Browning—"romantic" temperament, "realist" senses—blending of their donnees in his imaginative activity—shifting complexion of "finite" and "infinite" 237 II. His "realism." Plasticity, acuteness, and veracity of intellect and senses 239 III. But his realism qualified by energetic individual preference along certain well-defined lines 245 IV. Joy in Light and Colour 246 V. Joy in Form. Love of abruptness, of intricacy; clefts and spikes 250 VI. Joy in Power. Violence in imagery and description; in sounds; in words. Grotesqueness. Intensity. Catastrophic action. The pregnant moment 257 VII. Joy in Soul. 1. Limited in Browning on the side of simple human nature; of the family; of the civic community; of myth and symbol 266 VIII. Joy in Soul. 2. Supported by Joy in Light and Colour; in Form; in Power. 3. Extended to (a) sub-human Nature, (b) the inanimate products of Art; Relation of Browning's poetry to his interpretation of life 272

X. THE INTERPRETER OF LIFE 287 I. Approximation of God, Man, Nature in the thought of the early nineteenth century; how far reflected in the thought of Browning 287

II. Antagonistic elements of Browning's intellect; resulting fluctuations of his thought. Two conceptions of Reality. Ambiguous treatment of "Matter"; of Time 290

III. Conflicting tendencies in his conception of God 295

IV. Conflicting tendencies in his treatment of Knowledge 297

V. Proximate solution of these antagonisms in the conception of Love 300

VI. Final estimate of Browning's relation to the progressive and conservative movements of his age 304







The Boy sprang up ... and ran, Stung by the splendour of a sudden thought. —A Death in the Desert.

Dass ich erkenne, was die Welt Im Innersten zusammenhaelt. —Faust.

Judged by his cosmopolitan sympathies and his encyclopaedic knowledge, by the scenery and the persons among whom his poetry habitually moves, Browning was one of the least insular of English poets. But he was also, of them all, one of the most obviously and unmistakably English. Tennyson, the poetic mouthpiece of a rather specific and exclusive Anglo-Saxondom, belonged by his Vergilian instincts of style to that main current of European poetry which finds response and recognition among cultivated persons of all nationalities; and he enjoyed a European distinction not attained by any other English poet since Byron. Browning, on the contrary, with his long and brilliant gallery of European creations, Browning, who claimed Italy as his "university," remains, as a poet, all but unknown even in Italy, and all but non-existent for the rest of the civilised world beyond the Channel. His cosmopolitan sympathies worked through the medium of a singularly individual intellect; and the detaching and isolating effect which pronounced individuality of thinking usually produces, even in a genial temperament, was heightened in his case by a robust indifference to conventions of all kinds, and not least to those which make genius easily intelligible to the plain man.

What is known of Browning's descent makes these contrasts in some degree intelligible. An old strain of Wessex squires or yeomen, dimly discernible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, issued, about the middle of the eighteenth, in the first distinct personality among the poet's forebears, his grandfather, who also bore the name Robert. He was a robust, hard-headed, energetic, pushing man of business and the world, who made his way from a clerkship to an important and responsible post in the Bank of England, and settled accounts with religion and with literature in a right English way, by reading the Bible and 'Tom Jones' through every year, and very little else. More problematical and elusive is the figure of his first wife, Margaret Tittle, with whom, to judge from the character of her eldest son, literary and artistic sensibility first mingled in the hard practical Browning stock. In this second Robert Browning, indeed, the somewhat brutal and grasping egotism of the father gave place to a cultured humanity of almost feminine tenderness and charm. All his life long he was passionately devoted to literature, to art, to children. He collected rare books and prints with avidity, but was no less generous in giving them away. Indifferent to money, he hated to see a scrap of paper wasted. He had a neat touch in epigrams, and a boyish delight in grotesque rhymes. But there was no lack of grit in this accomplished, fresh-minded, and lovable man. He had the tough fibre of his race; only it was the wrongs of others that called out its tenacity, not his own. While holding an appointment on his mother's West Indian estate, he braved the fierce resentment of the whole colony by teaching a negro-boy to read; and finally incurred disinheritance rather than draw a livelihood from slave-labour. This Shelleyan act involved for him the resignation of his intellectual and artistic ambitions; and with the docility characteristic of him, where only his own interests were concerned, he forthwith entered the fairly well-paid but unexciting service of the Bank.

In 1811 he married, and on May 7 of the following year his eldest son, Robert, was born. His wife was the daughter of a German shipowner, William Wiedemann, who had settled and married at Dundee. Wiedemann is said to have been an accomplished draughtsman and musician, and his daughter, without herself sharing these gifts, probably passed them on to her son. Whether she also communicated from her Scottish and German ancestry the "metaphysical" proclivities currently ascribed to him, is a hypothesis absolutely in the air.[1] What is clear is that she was herself intellectually simple and of few ideas, but rich in the temperament, at once nervous and spiritual, which when present in the mother so often becomes genius in the son. "She was a divine woman," such was her son's brief sufficing tribute. Physically he seems to have closely resembled her,[2] and they were bound together by a peculiarly passionate love from first to last.

[Footnote 1: A similar but more groundless suggestion, that the author of Holy-cross Day and Rabbi ben Ezra probably had Jewish blood in his veins, can only be described as an impertinence—not to Browning but to the Jewish race. As if to feel the spiritual genius of Hebraism and to be moved by the pathos of Hebraic fate were an eccentricity only to be accounted for by the bias of kin! It is significant that his demonstrable share of German blood left him rather conspicuously impervious to the literary—and more especially to the "metaphysical"—products of the German mind.]

[Footnote 2: Browning himself reports the exclamation of the family doctor when trying to diagnose an attack of his: "Why, has anybody to search far for a cause of whatever nervous disorder you may suffer from, when there sits your mother—whom you so absolutely resemble!" (Letters to E.B.B., ii. 456.)]

The home in Camberwell into which the boy Robert was born reflected the serene, harmonious, self-contented character of his parents. Friends rarely disturbed the even tenor of its ways, and the storms of politics seem to have intruded as faintly into this suburban seclusion as the roar of London. Books, business, and religion provided a framework of decorous routine within which these kindly and beautiful souls moved with entire content. Well-to-do Camberwell perhaps contained few homes so pure and refined; but it must have held many in which the life-blood of political and social interests throbbed more vigorously, and where thought and conversation were in closer touch with the intellectual life of the capital and the larger movements of the time. Nothing in Browning's boyhood tended to open his imagination to the sense of citizenship and nationality which the imperial pageants and ceremonies of Frankfurt so early kindled in the child Goethe. But within the limits imposed by this quiet home young Robert soon began to display a vigour and enterprise which tried all its resources. "He clamoured for occupation from the moment he could speak," and "something to do" meant above all some living thing to be caught for him to play with. The gift of an animal was found a valuable aid to negotiations with the young despot; when medicine was to be taken, he would name "a speckled frog" as the price of his compliance, and presently his mother would be seen hovering hither and thither among the strawberry-beds. A quaint menagerie was gradually assembled: owls and monkeys, magpies and hedgehogs, an eagle and snakes. Boy-collectors are often cruel; but Robert showed from the first an anxious tenderness and an eager care for life: we hear of a hurt cat brought home to be nursed, of ladybirds picked up in the depths of winter and preserved with wondering delight at their survival. Even in stories the death of animals moved him to bitter tears. He was equally quick at books, and soon outdistanced his companions at the elementary schools which he attended up to his fourteenth year. Near at hand, too, was the Dulwich Gallery,—"a green half-hour's walk across the fields,"—a beloved haunt of his childhood, to which he never ceased to be grateful.[3] But his father's overflowing library and portfolios played the chief part in his early development. He read voraciously, and apparently without restraint or control. The letters of Junius and of Horace Walpole were familiar to him "in boyhood," we are assured with provoking indefiniteness by Mrs Orr; as well as "all the works of Voltaire." Most to his mind, however, was the rich sinewy English and athletic fancy of the seventeenth-century Fantastic Quarles; a preference which foreshadowed his later delight in the great master of the Fantastic school, and of all who care for close-knit intellect in poetry, John Donne.

[Footnote 3: To E.B.B., March 3, 1846.]

Curiously enough, it was some fragments of the grandiose but shadowy Ossian which first stirred the imitative impulse in this poet of trenchant and clear-cut form. "The first composition I ever was guilty of," he wrote to Elizabeth Barrett (Aug. 25, 1846), "was something in imitation of Ossian, whom I had not read, but conceived through two or three scraps in other books." And long afterwards Ossian was "the first book I ever bought in my life" (ib.) These "imitations" were apparently in verse, and in rhyme; and Browning's bent and faculty for both was very early pronounced. "I never can recollect not writing rhymes; ... but I knew they were nonsense even then." And a well-known anecdote of his infancy describes his exhibition of a lively sense of metre in verses which he recited with emphatic accompaniments upon the edge of the dining-room table before he was tall enough to look over it. The crowding thoughts of his maturity had not yet supervened to prevent the abundant music that he "had in him" from "getting out." It is not surprising that a boy of these proclivities was captivated by the stormy swing and sweep of Byron; nor that he should have caught also something of his "splendour of language," and even, a little later, a reflection, respectable and suburban enough, of his rebellious Titanism. The less so, that in Robert's eleventh or twelfth year Byron, the head of the Satanic school, had become the heroic champion of Greek liberation, and was probably spoken of with honour in the home of the large-hearted banker who had in his day suffered so much for the sake of the unemancipated slave. In later years Browning was accustomed to deliver himself of breezy sarcasms at the expense of the "flat-fish" who declaimed so eloquently about the "deep and dark blue ocean." But it is easy to see that this genial chaff covered a real admiration,—the tribute of one abounding nature to another, which even years and the philosophic mind did not seriously abate. "I always retained my first feeling for Byron in many respects," he wrote in a significant letter to Miss Barrett in 1846. " ... I would at any time have gone to Finchley to see a curl of his hair or one of his gloves, I am sure,—while Heaven knows that I could not get up enthusiasm enough to cross the room if at the other end of it all Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were condensed into the little china bottle yonder."[4] It was thus no mere freak of juvenile taste that took shape in these early Byronic poems. He entitled them, with the lofty modesty of boyish authorship, Incondita, and his parents sought to publish them. No publisher could be found; but they won the attention of a notable critic, W.J. Fox, who feared too much splendour and too little thought in the young poet, but kept his eye on him nevertheless.

[Footnote 4: To E.B.B., Aug. 22, 1846.]

Two years later the boy of fourteen caught the accents of another poetic voice, destined to touch the sources of music and passion in him with far more intimate power. His casual discovery, on a bookstall, of "Mr Shelley's Atheistical poem" seems to have for the first time made known to him even the name of the poet who had died in Italy four years before. Something of Shelley's story seems to have been known to his parents. It gives us a measure of the indulgent sympathy and religious tolerance which prevailed in this Evangelical home, that the parents should have unhesitatingly supplied the boy of fourteen, at some cost of time and trouble, with all the accessible writings of the "atheistical" poet, and with those of his presumably like-minded friend Keats as well. He fell instantly under the spell of both. Whatever he may have known before of ancient or modern literature, the full splendour of romantic poetry here broke upon him for the first time. Immature as he was, he already responded instinctively to the call of the spirits most intimately akin to his own. Byron's stormy power thrilled and delighted him; but it was too poor in spiritual elements, too negative, self-centred, and destructive to stir the deeper sources of Browning's poetry. In Keats and in Shelley he found poetic energies not less glowing and intense, bent upon making palpable to eye and ear visions of beauty which, with less of superficial realism, were fed by far more exquisite and penetrating senses, and attached by more and subtler filaments to the truth of things. Beyond question this was the decisive literary experience of Browning's early years. Probably it had a chief part in making the poet's career his fixed ideal, and ultimately, with his father's willing consent, his definite choice. What we know of his inner and outer life during the important years which turned the boy into the man is slight and baffling enough. The fiery spirit of poetry can rarely have worked out its way with so little disturbance to the frame. Minute scrutiny has disclosed traits of unrest and revolt; he professed "atheism" and practised vegetarianism, betrayed at times the aggressive arrogance of an able youth, and gave his devoted and tender parents moments of very superfluous concern. For with all his immensely vivacious play of brain, there was something in his mental and moral nature from first to last stubbornly inelastic and unimpressible, that made him equally secure against expansion and collapse. The same simple tenacity of nature which kept his buoyantly adventurous intellect permanently within the tether of a few primary convictions, kept him, in the region of practice and morality, within the bounds of a rather nice and fastidious decorum. Malign influences effected no lodgment in a nature so fundamentally sound; they might cloud and trouble imagination for a while, but their scope hardly extended further, and as they were literary in origin, so they were mainly literary in expression. In the meantime he was laying, in an unsystematic but not ineffective way, the foundations of his many-sided culture and accomplishment. We hear much of private tutors, of instruction in French, in music, in riding, fencing, boxing, dancing; of casual attendance also at the Greek classes in University College. In all these matters he seems to have won more or less definite accomplishment, and from most of them his versatile literary talent took, at one time or another, an effective toll. The athletic musician, who composed his own songs and gloried in a gallop, was to make verse simulate, as hardly any artificer had made it before, the labyrinthine meanderings of the fugue and the rhythmic swing of hoofs.

Of all these varied aims and aspirations, of all in short that was going on under the surface of this brilliant and versatile Robert Browning of twenty, we have a chaotic reflection in the famous fragment Pauline. The quite peculiar animosity with which its author in later life regarded this single "crab" of his youthful tree of knowledge only adds to its interest. He probably resented the frank expression of passion, nowhere else approached in his works. Yet passion only agitates the surface of Pauline. Whether Pauline herself stand for an actual woman—Miss Flower or another—or for the nascent spell of womanhood—she plays, for one who is ostensibly the heroine of the poem, a discouragingly minor part. No wonder she felt tempted to advise the burning of so unflattering a record. Instead of the lyric language of love, she has to receive the confessions of a subtle psychologist, who must unlock the tumultuous story of his soul "before he can sing." And these confessions are of a kind rare even amongst self-revelations of genius. Pauline's lover is a dreamer, but a dreamer of an uncommon species. He is preoccupied with the processes of his mind, but his mind ranges wildly over the universe and chafes at the limitations it is forced to recognise. Mill, a master, not to say a pedant, of introspection, recognised with amazement the "intense self-consciousness" of this poet, and self-consciousness is the keynote which persists through all its changing harmonies. It is the self-consciousness of a soul compelled by quick and eager senses and vivid intelligence to recognise a host of outer realities not itself, which it constantly strives to bring into relation with itself, as constantly baffled and thrown back by the obstinate objectivity of that outer world. A pure dreamer would have "contentedly lived in a nut-shell and imagined himself king of infinite space"; a purely scientific intelligence would have applied himself to the patient mastery of facts; in the hero of Pauline the despotic senses and intellect of science and the imperious imagination of the poet appear to coexist and to contend, and he tosses to and fro in a fever of fitful efforts, continually frustrated, to find complete spiritual response and expressiveness in the intractable maze of being. There had indeed been an earlier time when the visions of old poets had wholly sufficed him; and the verses in which he recalls them have almost the pellucid charm of Homer,—

"Never morn broke clear as those On the dim clustered isles in the blue sea, The deep groves, and white temples, and wet caves."

But growing intellect demanded something more. Shelley, the "Sun-treader," weaving soul and sense into a radiant vesture "from his poet's station between both," did much to sustain him; Plato's more explicit and systematic idealism gave him for a while a stronger assurance. But disillusion broke in: "Suddenly, without heart-wreck I awoke; I said, 'twas beautiful, yet but a dream, and so adieu to it!" Then the passionate restlessness of his nature stings him forth afresh. He steeps himself in the concrete vitality of things, lives in imagination through "all life where it is most alive," immerses himself in all that is most beautiful and intense in Nature, so fulfilling, it might seem, his passionate craving to "be all, have, see, know, taste, feel all,"—yet only to feel that satisfaction is not here:

"My soul saddens when it looks beyond: I cannot be immortal, taste all joy;"

only the sickness of satiety. But when all joy was tasted, what then? If there was any "crowning" state, it could only be, thought Browning, one in which the soul looked up to the unattainable infinity of God.

Such seem to be the outlines of the mental history which passes before us, brilliant and incoherent as a dream, in Pauline. The material, vast and many-sided as it is, is not fully mastered; but there is nothing merely imitative; it is everywhere Browning, and no mere disciple of Shelley or another, who is palpably at work. The influence of Shelley seems, indeed, to have been already outgrown when Pauline was written; Browning gloried in him and in his increasing fame, but he felt that his own aims and destiny were different. Rossetti, a few years later, took Pauline to be the work of an unconscious pre-Raphaelite; and there is enough of subtle simplicity, of curious minuteness, in the details to justify the error. In the meantime many outward circumstances conspired to promote the "advance" which every line of it foretold. His old mentor of the Incondita days, W.J. Fox, in some sort a Browningite before Browning, reviewed Pauline in The Monthly Repository (April 1833) with generous but discerning praise. This was the beginning of a warm friendship between the two, which ended only with Fox's death. It was founded upon hearty admiration on both sides, and no man living was better qualified to scatter the morbid films that clung about the expanding genius of young Browning than this robust and masculine critic and preacher. A few months later came an event of which we know very little, but which at least did much to detach him from the limited horizons of Camberwell. At the invitation of M. Benckhausen, Russian consul-general, Browning accompanied him, in the winter of 1833-34, on a special mission to St Petersburg. The journey left few apparent traces on his work. But he remembered the rush of the sledge through the forest when, half a century later, he told the thrilling tale of Ivan Ivanovitch. And even the modest intimacy with affairs of State obtainable in the office of a consul-general seems to have led his thoughts seriously to diplomacy as a career. One understands that to the future dissector of a Hohenstiel-Schwangau and a Blougram the career might present attractions. It marks the seriousness of his ambition that he actually applied for a post in the Persian Embassy. This fancy of Ferishtah, like a similar one of ten years later, was not gratified, but the bent which was thus thwarted in practical life disported itself freely in poetry, and the marks of the diplomatist in posse are pretty clearly legible in the subtle political webs which make up so much of the plots of Strafford, King Victor, and Sordello.

But much sharper rebuffs than this would have failed to disturb the immense buoyancy of Browning's temperament. He was twenty-three, and in the first flush of conscious power. His exuberant animal spirits flowed out in whimsical talk; he wrote letters of the gayest undergraduate insouciance to Fox, and articles full of extravagant jesting for The Trifler, an amateur journal which received the lucubrations of his little circle. He enjoyed life like a boy, and shared its diversions like a man about town. These superficial vivacities were the slighter play of a self-consciousness which in its deeper recesses was steadily gathering power, richness, and assurance. His keen social instincts saved him from most of the infirmities of budding genius; but the poems he contributed to Fox's journal during the following two years (1834-36) show a significant predilection for imagining the extravagances and fanaticisms of lonely self-centred minds. Joannes Agricola, sublime on the dizzy pinnacle of his theological arrogance, looking up through the gorgeous roof of heaven and assured that nothing can stay his course to his destined abode, God's breast; Porphyria's lover, the more uncanny fanatic who murders with a smile; the young man who in his pride of power sees in the failures and mistakes of other men examples providentially intended for his guidance,—it was such subjects as these that touched Browning's fancy in those ardent and sanguine years. He probably entered with keener relish into these extravagances than his maturer wisdom approved. It is significant, at any rate, that when Agricola and Porphyria's Lover were republished in The Bells and Pomegranates of 1842, a new title, Madhouse Cells, gave warning that their insanity was not to be attributed to the poet. The verses "Still ailing wind," he qualified in a yet more explicit fashion twenty years later, for they are the young man's poem which James Lee's wife reads "under the cliff," and subjects to her austere and disillusioned criticism. But they mark the drift of Browning of the mid-'Thirties, so far as they go, clearly enough. Fortunately, however, we are not dependent upon these slight clues. For during the winter months of 1834-35 he was occupied in portraying a far more imposing embodiment of the young man's pride of power, a Joannes Agricola of equally superb confidence and far more magnificent ideals. In April 1835 Browning was able to announce to his good friend Fox the completion of Paracelsus.

He owed the suggestion to another new acquaintance, whose intimacy, like that of the Russian consul-general, marks the fascination exercised by young Browning upon men of antecedents, race, and social standing widely different from his own. Count Amedee de Ripert Monclar was a French royalist and refugee; he was also an enthusiastic student of history. Possibly he recognised an affinity between the vaguely outlined dreams of Pauline's lover and those of the historic Paracelsus; and he may well have thought that the task of grappling with definite historic material would steady the young poet's hand. We could applaud the acuteness of the suggestion with more confidence had not the Count had an unlucky afterthought, which he regarded as fatal, to the effect that the story of Paracelsus, however otherwise adapted to the creator of Pauline's lover, was entirely destitute of a Pauline. There was no opening for love. But Pauline, with all her warm erotic charms and her sparkling French prose, was the most unsubstantial and perishable thing in the poem which bore her name: she and the spirit which begot her had vanished like a noisome smoke, and Browning threw himself with undiminished ardour upon the task of interpreting a career in which the sole sources of romance and of tragedy appeared to be the passion for knowledge and the arrogance of discovery.

For it is quite clear that, whatever criticisms Browning finally brought to bear upon Paracelsus, his attitude towards him, at no time hostile, was at the outset rather that of a literary champion, vindicating a man of original genius from the calumnies of ignorance and dulness. This view, then rather unusual, was a very natural one for him to take, Paracelsus being among the many keen interests of the elder Browning.[5] It is a strange mistake to suppose, with a recent very ingenious commentator, that Browning, eager to destroy the fallacy of intellectual pride, singled out Paracelsus as a crucial example of the futilities of intellect. On the contrary, he filled his annotations with documentary evidences which attest not only the commanding scientific genius of Paracelsus, but the real significance of his achievements, even for the modern world. In the intellectual hunger of Paracelsus, in that "insatiable avidity of penetrating the secrets of nature" which his follower Bitiskius (approvingly quoted by Browning) ascribed to him, he saw a fascinating realisation of his own vague and chaotic "restlessness." Here was a spirit made up in truth "of an intensest life," driven hither and thither by the hunger for intellectual mastery of the universe; and Browning, far from convicting him of intellectual futility, has made him actually divine the secret he sought, and, in one of the most splendid passages of modern poetry, declare with his dying lips a faith which is no less Browning's than his own.

[Footnote 5: His library, as I am informed by Prof. Hall Griffin, contained a copy of the works of Paracelsus, doubtless that used by his son.]

While he thus lavished his utmost power on portraying the soaring genius of Paracelsus, as he conceived it, he turned impatiently away from the husk of popular legend by which it was half obscured. He shrank from no attested fact, however damaging; but he brushed away the accretions of folklore, however picturesque. The attendant spirit who enabled Paracelsus to work his marvellous cures, and his no less renowned Sword, were for Browning contemptible futilities. Yet a different way of treating legend lay nearer to the spirit of contemporary poetry. Goethe had not long before evolved his Mephistopheles from the "attendant spirit" attached by that same sixteenth century to the Paracelsus of Protestantism, Faust; Tennyson was already meditating a scene full of the enchantment of the Arthurian sword Excalibur. Browning's peremptory rejection of such springs of poetry marks one of his limitations as a poet. Much of the finest poetry of Faust, as, in a lower degree, of the Idylls, is won by a subtle transformation of the rude stuff of popular imagination: for Browning, with rare exceptions, this rude stuff was dead matter, impervious to his poetic insight, and irresponsive to the magic of his touch. Winnowing the full ears, catching eagerly the solid and stimulating grain, he hardly heeded the golden gleam of the chaff as it flew by.

He did not, however, refrain from accentuating his view of the story by interweaving in it some gracious figures of his own. Festus, the honest, devoted, but somewhat purblind friend, who offers Paracelsus the criticism of sober common-sense, and is vindicated—at the bar of common-sense—by his great comrade's tragic end; Michal, an exquisitely tender outline of womanhood, even more devoted, and even less distinguished; and the "Italian poet" Aprile, a creature of genius, whose single overpowering thought avails to break down the stronghold of Paracelsus's else unassailable conviction. Aprile, who lives for love as Paracelsus for knowledge, is not to be identified with Shelley, but he has unmistakable Shelleyan traits, and the dreamy pageant of his imaginary creations might stand for a summary review of Shelley's work. Had Shelley lived, he might have come nearer than any one else to fulfilling the rounded and complete ideal of which Paracelsus and Aprile were dissevered halves: the greater part of his actual achievement belonged, Browning evidently thought, to the category of those dazzling but imperfectly objective visions which he ascribes to his Aprile. But Shelley—the poet of Alastor, the passionate "lover of Love," was yet the fittest embodiment of that other finer spiritual energy which Paracelsus in his Faustian passion for knowledge had ruthlessly put from him. Sixteen years later, Browning was to define in memorable words what he held to be the "noblest and predominating characteristic of Shelley"—viz., "his simultaneous perception of Power and Love in the Absolute and of Beauty and Good in the concrete, while he throws, from his poet's station between both, swifter, subtler, and more numerous films for the connection of each with each than have been thrown by any modern artificer of whom I have knowledge." This divining and glorifying power it is that Browning ascribes to Love; the lack of it is in his conception the tragic flaw which brings to the ground the superbly gifted genius of Paracelsus. This genuine and original tragic motive is not worked out with uniform power; his degeneration, his failures, are painted with the uncertain hand of one little acquainted with either. But all the splendour of a young imagination, charged with the passion for truth and for beauty, glows in the pictures of the great moments in Paracelsus's career,—the scene in the quiet Wuerzburg garden, where he conquers the doubts of Festus and Michal by the magnificent assurance of his faith in his divine calling; and that in the hospital cell at Salzburg, where his fading mind anticipates at the point of death the clearness of immortal vision as he lays bare the conquered secret of the world.

That Paracelsian secret of the world was for Browning doubtless the truth, though he never again expounded it so boldly. Paracelsus's reply to the anxious inquiry of Festus whether he is sure of God's forgiveness: "I have lived! We have to live alone to well set forth God's praise"—might stand as a text before the works of Browning. In all life he sees the promise and the potency of God,—in the teeming vitalities of the lower world, in the creative energies of man, in the rich conquests of his Art, in his myth-woven Nature. "God is glorified in Man, and to man's glory vowed I soul and limb." The historic Paracelsus failed most signally in his attempt to connect vast conceptions of Nature akin to this with the detail of his empiric discoveries. Browning, with his mind, as always, set upon things psychical, attributes to him a parallel incapacity to connect his far-reaching vision of humanity with the gross, malicious, or blockish specimens of the genus Man whom he encountered in the detail of practice. It was the problem which Browning himself was to face, and in his own view triumphantly to solve; and Paracelsus, rising into the clearness of his dying vision, becomes the mouthpiece of Browning's own criticism of his failure, the impassioned advocate of the Love which with him is less an elemental energy drawing things into harmonious fusion than a subtle weapon of the intellect, making it wise

"To trace love's faint beginnings in mankind, To know even hate is but a mask of love's, To see a good in evil and a hope In ill-success."

Paracelsus is a clear self-revelation, rich and inspired where it marks out the circle of sublime ideas within which the poet was through life to move, and by which he was, as a man and a thinker, if not altogether as a poet, to live; reticent where it approaches the complexities of the concrete which the poet was not yet sufficiently mature to handle, restrained where increased power was to breed a too generous self-indulgence, a too manifest aptitude for glorying and drinking deep. It is flushed with the peculiar mellow beauty which comes if at all to the early manhood of genius,—a beauty like that of Amiens or Lincoln in Gothic art, where the crudeness of youth is overworn, and the problems of full maturity, though foreshadowed and foreseen, have not yet begun to perplex or to disintegrate.



Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust, Die eine will sich von der andern trennen; Die eine haelt in derber Liebeslust Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen; Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.


Paracelsus, though only a series of quasi-dramatic scenes, suggested considerable undeveloped capacity for drama. From a career in which the most sensational event was a dismissal from a professorship, and the absorbing passion the thirst for knowledge, he had elicited a tragedy of the scientific intellect. But it was equally obvious that the writer's talent was not purely dramatic; and that his most splendid and original endowments required some other medium than drama for their full unfolding. The author of Paracelsus was primarily concerned with character, and with action as the mirror of character; agreeing in both points substantially with the author of Hamlet. But while Browning's energetic temperament habitually impelled him to represent character in action, his imaginative strength did not lie in the region of action at all, but in the region of thought; the kinds of expression of which he had boundless command were rather those which analyse character than those which exhibit it. The two impulses derived from temperament and from imagination thus drew him in somewhat diverse directions; and for some years the joy in the stir and stress and many-sided life of drama competed with the powerful bent of the portrayer of souls, until the two contending currents finally coalesced in the dramatic monologues of Men and Women. In 1835 the solution was not yet found, but the five years which followed were to carry Browning, not without crises of perplexity and hesitation, far on his way towards it. Paracelsus was no sooner completed than he entered upon his kindred but more esoteric portrayal of the soul-history of Sordello,—a study in which, with the dramatic form, almost all the dramatic excellences of its predecessors are put aside. But the poet was outgrowing the method; the work hung fire; and we find him, before he had gone far with the perplexed record of that "ineffectual angel," already "eager to freshen a jaded mind by diverting it to the healthy natures of a grand epoch."[6]

[Footnote 6: Preface to the first edition of Strafford (subsequently omitted).]

The open-eyed man of the world and of affairs in Browning was plainly clamouring for more expression than he had yet found. An invitation from the first actor of the day to write a tragedy for him was not likely, under these circumstances, to be declined; and during the whole winter of 1836-37 the story of Sordello remained untold, while its author plunged, with a security and relish which no one who knew only his poetry could have foretold, into the pragmatic politics and diplomatic intrigues of Strafford. The performance of the play on May 1, 1837 introduced further distractions. And Sordello had made little further progress, when, in the April of the following year, Browning embarked on a sudden but memorable trip to the South of Europe. It gave him his first glimpse of Italy and of the Mediterranean, and plenty of the rough homely intercourse with men which he loved. He travelled, in a fashion that suited his purse and his hardy nature, by a merchant vessel from London to the Adriatic. The food was uneatable, the horrors of dirt and discomfort portentous; but he bore them cheerfully for the sake of one advantage,—"the solitariness of the one passenger among all those rough new creatures, I like it much, and soon get deep into their friendship."[7] Grim tragedies of the high-seas, too, came within his ken.[8] Two or three moments of the voyage stand out for us with peculiar distinctness: the gorgeous sunset off Cadiz bay, when he watched the fading outlines of Gibraltar and Cape St Vincent,—ghostly mementos of England,—not as Arnold's weary Titan, but as a Herakles stretching a hand of help across the seas; the other sunset on the Mediterranean, when Etna loomed against the flaming sky;[9] and, between them, that glaring noontide on the African shore, when the "solitary passenger," weary of shipboard and sea sickness, longed for his good horse York in the stable at home, and scribbled his ballad of brave horses, How they brought the Good News, in a blank leaf of Bartoli's Simboli. The voyage ended at Trieste; and thence he passed to Venice, brooded among her ruined palaces over Sordello, and "English Eyebright" and all the destiny and task of the poet; and so turned homeward, through the mountains, gathering vivid glimpses as he went of "all my places and castles,"[10] and laying by a memory, soon to germinate, of "delicious Asolo," "palpably fire-clothed" in the glory of his young imagination.

[Footnote 7: R.B. to E.B.B., i. 505.]

[Footnote 8: Cf. the long letter to Miss Haworth, Orr, Life, p. 96.]

[Footnote 9: Cf. Sordello, bk. iii., end.]

[Footnote 10: Ib., p. 99.]

Thus when, in 1840, Sordello was at length complete, it bore the traces of many influences and many moods. It reflected the expanding ideals and the critical turning-points of four years of his life. In the earlier books the brilliant yet self-centred poet of Paracelsus is still paramount, and even the "oddish boy" who had shyly evolved Pauline is not entirely effaced. But in the later books we recognise without difficulty the man who has mixed with the larger world, has won some fame in letters, has immersed himself in the stirring atmosphere of a supreme national conflict, has seen Italy, and has, in the solitude and detachment from his milieu which foreign travel brings, girded up his loins anew for a larger and more exacting poetic task. The tangled political dissensions of the time are set before us with the baffling allusiveness of the expert. The Italian landscape is painted, not with richer imagination, for nothing in Browning exceeds some passages of the earlier books, but with more depth of colouring, more precision of contour and expression. And he has taken the "sad disheveled form," Humanity, for his bride, the mate of an art which will disdain no evil and turn away from nothing common, in the service of man. Doubtless the result was not all gain. The intermittent composition and the shifting points of view add an element of real ambiguity and indecision to faults of expression which mainly spring from the swiftness and discursiveness of a brilliant and athletic intellect. The alleged "obscurity" of the poem is in great part a real obscurity; the profiles are at times not merely intricate, but blurred. But he had written nothing yet, and he was to write little after, which surpasses the finest pages of Sordello in close-packed, if somewhat elusive, splendour; the soil, as he wrote of Italy, is full of loose fertility, and gives out intoxicating odours at every footfall. Moreover, he can now paint the clash and commotion of crowds, the turmoil of cities and armies, with superb force—a capacity of which there is hardly a trace in Paracelsus. Sordello himself stands out less clearly than Paracelsus from the canvas; but the sympathetic reader finally admits that this visionary being, who gleams ghostlike at the end of all the avenues and vistas of the poem, whom we are always looking at but never rightly see, is an even more fascinating figure.

He is however less historical, in spite of the abstruse historic background upon which he moves. Of the story of Paracelsus Browning merely reinterpreted the recorded facts; whereas he brushes aside the greater part of the Sordello story, as told confusedly and inconsistently by Italian and Provencal tradition. The whole later career of the Mantuan poet as an accomplished and not unsuccessful man of the world, as the friend of Raymond of Toulouse and Charles of Anjou, rewarded with ample estates by the latter for substantial services,—is either rejected as myth, or purposely ignored. To all appearance, the actual Sordello by no means lacked ability to "fit to the finite" such "infinity" as he possessed. And if he had the chance, as is obscurely hinted at the close, of becoming, like Dante, the "Apollo" of the Italian people, he hardly missed it "through disbelief that anything was to be done." But the outward shell of his career included some circumstances which, had they befallen a Dante, might have deeply moulded the history of Italy. His close relations with great Guelph and Ghibelline families would have offered extraordinary opportunities to a patriot of genius, which, for the purposes of patriotism, remained unused. Yet Dante, a patriot of genius if ever there was one, had given Sordello a position of extraordinary honour in the Purgatory, had allowed him to illuminate the darkness of Virgil, and to guide both the great poets towards the Gate. The contrast offered an undeniable problem. But Dante had himself hinted the solution by placing Sordello among those dilatory souls whose tardy repentance involved their sojourn in the Ante-purgatory. To a mind preoccupied, like Browning's, with the failures of aspiring souls, this hint naturally appealed. He imagined his Sordello, too, as a moral loiterer, who, with extraordinary gifts, failed by some inner enervating paralysis[11] to make his spiritual quality explicit; and who impressed contemporaries sufficiently to start a brilliant myth of what he did not do, but had to wait for recognition until he met the eye and lips of Dante. It is difficult not to suspect the influence of another great poet. Sordello has no nearer parallel in literature than Goethe's Tasso, a picture of the eternal antagonism between the poet and the world, for which Bordello's failure to "fit to the finite his infinity" might have served as an apt motto. Browning has nowhere to our knowledge mentioned Tasso; but he has left on record his admiration of the beautiful sister-drama Iphigenie.[12]

[Footnote 11: "Ah but to find A certain mood enervate such a mind," &c. —Works, i. 122.]

[Footnote 12: To E.B.B., July 7, 1846. He is "vexed" at Landor's disparagement of the play, and quotes with approval Landor's earlier declaration that "nothing so Hellenic had been written these two thousand years."]

The elaboration of this conception is, however, entirely Browning's own, and discloses at every point the individual quality of his mind. Like Faust, like the Poet in the Palace of Art, Sordello bears the stamp of an age in which the ideal of intellect, art, culture, and the ideal of humanity, of social service, have both become potent inspirations, often in apparent conflict, and continually demanding a solution of their differences. Faust breaks away from the narrow pedantries of the schools in order to heap upon his breast the weal and woe of mankind, and to draw all their life and thought into the compass of his mind. Tennyson's "glorious devil" (by a curious irony intended for no other than Faust's creator) sets up his lordly pleasure-house apart from the ways of men, until at last, confuted by experience, he renounces his folly. Sordello cannot claim the mature and classical brilliance of the one, nor the limpid melodious beauty of the other; but it approaches Faust itself in its subtle soundings of the mysteries of the intellectual life. It is a young poet's attempt to cope with the problem of the poet's task and the poet's function, the relation of art to life, and of life to art. Neither Goethe nor Tennyson thought more loftily of the possibilities of poetic art. And neither insisted more peremptorily—or rather assumed more unquestioningly—that it only fulfils these possibilities when the poet labours in the service of man. He is "earth's essential king," but his kingship rests upon his carrying out the kingliest of mottoes—"Ich dien." Browning all his life had a hearty contempt for the foppery of "Art for Art," and he never conveyed it with more incisive brilliance than in the sketch of Bordello's "opposite," the Troubadour Eglamor.

"How he loved that art! The calling marking him a man apart From men—one not to care, take counsel for Cold hearts, comfortless faces, ... since verse, the gift Was his, and men, the whole of them, must shift Without it."

To Eglamor his art is a mysterious ritual, of which he is the sacrosanct priest, and his happy rhyme the divine response vouchsafed to him in answer. Such beauty as he produces is no effluence from a soul mating itself, like Wordsworth's, "in love and holy passion with the universe," but a cunning application of the approved recipes for effective writing current in the literary guild;—

"He, no genius rare, Transfiguring in fire or wave or air At will, but a poor gnome that, cloistered up In some rock-chamber, with his agate-cup, His topaz-rod, his seed-pearl, in these few And their arrangement finds enough to do For his best art."[13]

[Footnote 13: Works, i. 131.]

From these mysticisms and technicalities of Troubadour and all other poetic guilds Browning decisively detaches his poet. Sordello is not a votary of poetry; he does not "cultivate the Muse"; he does not even prostrate himself before the beauty and wonder of the visible universe. Poetry is the atmosphere in which he lives; and in the beauty without he recognises the "dream come true" of a soul which (like that of Pauline's lover) "existence" thus "cannot satiate, cannot surprise." "Laugh thou at envious fate," adorers cry to this inspired Platonist,

"Who, from earth's simplest combination ... Dost soar to heaven's complexest essence, rife With grandeurs, unaffronted to the last, Equal to being all."[14]

[Footnote 14: Works, i. 122.]

And, in truth, his power of imaginative apprehension has no bounds. From the naive self-reflection of his boyish dreams he passes on to visions which embrace a continually fuller measure of life, until he forestalls the sublime Dantesque conception of a poetry vast and deep as humanity, where every soul will stand forth revealed in its naked truth. But he cannot, like Dante, put his vast conceptions into the shackles of intelligible speech. His uncompromising "infinity" will not comply with finite conditions, and he remains an inefficient and inarticulate genius, a Hamlet of poetry.

In the second half of the poem the Hamlet of poetry becomes likewise a Hamlet of politics. He aspires to serve the people otherwise than by holding up to them the mirror of an all-revealing poetry. Though by birth associated with the aristocratic and imperial Ghibellines, his natural affinity is clearly with the Church, which in some sort stood for the people against the nobles, and for spirit against brute force. We see him, now, a frail, inspired Shelleyan[15] democrat, pleading the Guelph cause before the great Ghibelline soldier Salinguerra,—as he had once pitted the young might of native song against the accomplished Troubadour Eglamor. Salinguerra is the foil of the political, as Eglamor of the literary, Sordello, and the dramatic interest of the whole poem focusses in those two scenes. He had enough of the lonely inspiration of genius to vanquish the craftsman, but too little of its large humanity to cope with the astute man of the world. When Salinguerra, naturally declining his naive entreaty that he should put his Ghibelline sword at the service of the Guelph, offers Sordello, on his part, the command of the imperial forces in Italy if he will remain true to the Ghibelline cause, he makes this finite world more alluring than it had ever been before to the "infinite" Sordello. After a long struggle, he renounces the offer, and—dies, exhausted with the strain of choice.

[Footnote 15: There are other Shelleyan traits in Sordello—e.g., the young witch image (as in Pauline) at the opening of the second book.]

What was Browning's judgment upon Sordello? Does he regard him as an idealist of aims too lofty for success in this world, and whose "failure" implied his triumph in another, where his "broken arc" would become the "perfect round"? Assuredly not. That might indeed be his destiny, but Browning makes it perfectly clear that he failed, not because his ideal was incommensurate with the conditions in which he lived, but because he lacked the supreme gift by which the greatest of souls may find their function and create their sphere in the least promising milieu,—a controlling and guiding passion of love. With compassionate tenderness, as of a father to his wayward child, Browning in the closing pages of the poem lays his finger on the ailing place. "Ah, my Sordello, I this once befriend and speak for you." It was true enough, in the past, that Soul, as belonging to Eternity, must needs prove incomplete for Time. But is life to be therefore only a struggle to escape from the shackles of the body? Is freedom only won by death? No, rejoins the poet, and the reply comes from the heart of his poetry, though at issue with much of his explicit doctrine; a harmony of soul and body is possible here in which both fulfil their functions:

"Like yonder breadth of watery heaven, a bay, And that sky-space of water, ray for ray And star for star, one richness where they mixed,"

the Soul seeing its way in Time without being either dazzled by, or losing, its vision of Eternity, having the saving clue of Love. Dante, for whom Love was the pervading spirit of the universe, and the beginning and end of his inspiration, wrought his vision of eternal truth and his experience of the passing lives of men into such a harmony with unexampled power; and the comparison, implicit in every page of Sordello, is driven home with almost scornful bitterness on the last:—

"What he should have been, Could be, and was not—the one step too mean For him to take—we suffer at this day Because of: Ecelin had pushed away Its chance ere Dante could arrive and take That step Sordello spurned, for the world's sake. ... A sorry farce Such life is, after all!"

The publication of Sordello in 1840 closes the first phase of Browning's literary career. By the great majority of those who had hailed the splendid promise of Paracelsus, the author of Sordello was frankly given up. Surprisingly few thought it worth while to wrestle with the difficult book. It was the day of the gentle literary public which had a few years before recoiled from Sartor Resartus, and which found in the difficulty of a book the strongest presumption against it. A later generation, leavened by Carlyle, came near to regarding difficulty as a presumption in its favour, and this more strenuous and athletic attitude towards literature was among the favouring conditions which brought Browning at length into vogue.



Since Chaucer was alive and hale, No man hath walk'd along our roads with step So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue So varied in discourse. —LANDOR.

The memorable moment when Browning, standing on the ruined palace-step at Venice, had taken Humanity for his mate, opened an epoch in his poetic life to which the later books of Sordello form a splendid prelude. For the Browning of 1840 it was no longer a sufficient task to trace the epochs in the spiritual history of lonely idealists, to pursue the problem of existence in minds themselves preoccupied with its solution. "Soul" is still his fundamental preoccupation; but the continued play of an eager intellect and vivacious senses upon life has immensely multiplied the points of concrete experience which it vivifies and transfigures to his eyes. It is as if a painter trained in the school of Raphael or Lionardo had discovered that he could use the minute and fearless brush of the Flemings in the service of their ideals. He pursues soul in all its rich multiplicity, in the tortuosities and dark abysses of character; he forces crowds of sordid, grotesque, or commonplace facts to become its expressive speech; he watches its thought and passion projected into the tide of affairs, caught up in the clash and tangle of plot. In all these three ways the Dramas and Dramatic Lyrics and Romances, which were to be his poetic occupation during the Forties, detach themselves sharply from Paracelsus and the early books of Sordello. A poem like The Laboratory (1844), for instance, stands at almost the opposite pole of art to these. All that Browning neglected or veiled in Paracelsus he here thrusts into stern relief. The passion and crime there faintly discerned in the background of ideally beautiful figures are here his absorbing theme. The curious technicalities of the chemist's workshop, taken for granted in Paracelsus, are now painted with a realism reminiscent of Romeo's Apothecary and The Alchemist. And the outward drama of intrigue, completely effaced in Paracelsus by the inward drama of soul, sounds delusive scorn and laughter in the background, the more sinister because it is not seen. These lyrics and romances are "dramatic" not only in the sense that the speakers express, as Browning insisted, other minds and sentiments than his own, but in the more legitimate sense that they are plucked as it were out of the living organism of a drama, all the vital issues of which can be read in their self-revelation.

A poet whose lyrics were of this type might be expected to find in drama proper his free, full, and natural expression. This was not altogether the case with Browning, who, despite an unquenchable appetency for drama, did better work in his dramatic monologues than in his plays. The drama alone allowed full scope for the development of plot-interest. But it was less favourable to another yet more deeply rooted interest of his. Not only did action and outward event—the stuff of drama—interest Browning chiefly as "incidents in the development of soul," but they became congenial to his art only as projected upon some other mind, and tinged with its feeling and its thought. Half the value of a story for him lay in the colours it derived from the narrator's personality; and he told his own experience, as he uttered his own convictions, most easily and effectively through alien lips. For a like reason he loved to survey the slow continuities of actual events from the standpoint of a given moment, under the conditions of perspective and illusion which it imposed. Both these conditions were less well satisfied by drama, which directly "imitates action," than by the dramatic speech or monologue, which imitates action as focussed in a particular mind. And Browning's dramatic genius found its most natural and effective outlet in the wealth of implicit drama which he concentrated in these salient moments tense with memory and hope. The insuppressible alertness and enterprise of his own mind tells upon his portrayal of these intense moments. He sees passion not as a blinding fume, but as a flame, which enlarges the area, and quickens the acuteness, of vision; the background grows alive with moving shapes. To the stricken girl in Ye Banks and Braes memory is torture, and she thrusts convulsively from her, like dagger-points, the intolerable loveliness of the things that remind her of her love; whereas the victim of The Confessional pours forth from her frenzied lips every detail of her tragic story.

So in The Laboratory, once more, all the strands of the implicit drama are seen like incandescent filaments in the glow of a single moment of fierce impassioned consciousness:—

"He is with her, and they know that I know Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear Empty church, to pray God in, for them!—I am here."

Both kinds—drama and dramatic lyric—continued to attract him, while neither altogether satisfied; and they engaged him concurrently throughout the decade.

In this power of seizing the salient moment of a complex situation and laying bare at a stroke all its issues, Browning's monologues have no nearer parallel than the Imaginary Conversations of Landor, which illuminate with so strange a splendour so many unrecorded scenes of the great drama of history. To Landor, according to his wife's testimony, Browning "always said that he owed more than to any contemporary"; to Landor he dedicated the last volume of the Bells and Pomegranates. Landor, on his part, hailed in Browning the "inquiring eye" and varied discourse of a second Chaucer. It is hardly rash to connect with his admiration for the elder artist Browning's predilection for these brief revealing glimpses into the past. Browning cared less for the actual personnel of history, and often imagined his speakers as well as their talk; but he imagined them with an equal instinct for seizing the expressive traits of nationalities and of times, and a similar, if more spontaneous and naive, anti-feudal temper. The French camp and the Spanish cloister, Gismond and My Last Duchess (originally called France and Italy), are penetrated with the spirit of peoples, ages, and institutions as seized by a historical student of brilliant imagination and pronounced antipathies.

But in one point Landor and Browning stood at opposite poles. Landor, far beyond any contemporary English example, had the classic sense and mastery of style; Browning's individuality of manner rested on a robust indifference to all the traditional conventions of poetic speech. The wave of realism which swept over English letters in the early 'Forties broke down many barriers of language; the new things that had to be said demanded new ways of saying them; homely, grotesque, or sordid life was rendered in sordid, grotesque, and homely terms. Pickwick in 1837 had established the immense vogue of Dickens, the Heroes in 1840 had assured the imposing prestige of Carlyle; and the example of both made for the freest and boldest use of language. Across the Channel the stupendous fabric of the Comedie Humaine was approaching completion, and Browning was one of Balzac's keenest English readers. Alone among the greater poets of the time Browning was in genius and temperament a true kinsman to these great romantic realists; his poetry, as it emerged in the rich dramatic harvest of the 'Forties, is the nearest counterpart and analogue of their prose.


Browning's first drama, as is well known, was the result of a direct application from Macready. Introduced in November 1835 by his "literary father" Fox, Browning immediately interested the actor. A reading of Paracelsus convinced him that Browning could write, if not a good play, yet one with an effective tragic role for himself. Strained relations with his company presently made him eager to procure this service. Browning, suddenly appealed to (in May 1836), promptly suggested Strafford. He was full of the subject, having recently assisted his friend Forster in compiling his life. The actor closed with the suggestion, and a year later (May 1, 1837) the play was performed at Covent Garden. The fine acting of Macready, and of Helen Faucit, who was now associated with him, procured the piece a moderate success. It went through five performances.

Browning's Strafford, like his Paracelsus, was a serious attempt to interpret a historic character; and historic experts like Gardiner have, as regards the central figure, emphatically indorsed his judgment. The other persons, and the action itself, he treated more freely, with evident regard to their value as secondary elements in the portrayal of Stafford; and it is easy to trace in the whole manner of his innovations the well-marked ply of his mind. The harsh and rugged fanaticisms, the splendid frivolities, of the seventeenth century, fade and lose substance in an atmosphere charged with idealism and self-consciousness. Generous self-devotion is not the universal note, but it is the prevailing key, that in which the writer most naturally thinks and most readily invents. Strafford's devotion to Charles and Pym's to his country were historical; but Browning accentuates Pym's heroism by making the man he sends to the scaffold his old friend; and devotion is the single trait of the beautiful but imaginary character of Lucy Carlisle. "Give me your notion of a thorough self-devotement, self-forgetting," he wrote a few years later to Miss Flower: the idea seems to have been already busy moulding his still embryonic invention of character. Something of the visionary exaltation of the dying Paracelsus thus hangs over the final scene in which Strafford goes to meet the fate which the one friend imposes on him and the other cannot turn aside. All the characters have something of the "deep self-consciousness" of the author of Pauline. Not that they are, any of them, drawn with very profound grasp of human nature or a many-sided apprehension of life. They are either absolutely simple, like Lady Carlisle, or built upon a rivalry or conflict of simple elements, like Strafford and Charles; but there is so much restless vivacity in their discourse, the broad surface of mood is so incessantly agitated by the play and cross-play of thought and feeling, that they seem more complex than they are.

Though played for only five nights, Strafford had won a success which might well have dazzled a young and untried aspirant, and which was sufficiently impressive to shrewd men of business like Messrs Longman to induce them to undertake its publication free of cost. It appeared in April, with an interesting preface, subsequently withdrawn, from which a significant sentence has already been quoted. The composition of Strafford had not only "freshened a jaded mind" but permanently quickened his zest for the drama of political crises. New projects for historical dramas chased and jostled one another through his busy brain, which seems to have always worked most prosperously in a highly charged atmosphere. I am going "to begin ... thinking a Tragedy," he wrote characteristically to Miss Haworth—"(an Historical one, so I shall want heaps of criticisms on Strafford), and I want to have another tragedy in prospect; I write best so provided."[16]

[Footnote 16: Orr, Life, p. 103.]

The "Historical Tragedies" here foreshadowed, King Victor and King Charles and The Return of the Druses, were eventually published as the Second and Fourth of the Bells and Pomegranates, in 1842-43. How little Browning cared for history except as a quarry for psychical problems, how little concern he had at bottom with the changing drama of national life, is clear from the directions in which he now sought his good. In Strafford as in Paracelsus, and even in Sordello, the subject had made some appeal to the interest in great epochs and famous men. Henceforth his attitude, as a dramatist, to history is a curious blend of the historical specialist who explores the recondite byways of history, and the romantic poet who abandons actuality altogether. He seeks his heroes in remote sequestered corners of the world,—Sardinia, Juliers, Lebanon; but actual historic research gradually yields ground to a free invention which, however, always simulates historic truth. King Victor and King Charles contains far less poetry than Paracelsus, but it was the fruit of historic studies no less severe. There was material for genuine tragedy in the story. The old king, who after fifty years of despotic rule shifts the crown to the head of his son with the intention of still pulling the wires behind the scenes, but, finding that Charles means to rule as well as reign, clutches angrily at his surrendered crown,—this King Victor has something in him of Lear, something of the dying Henry IV. But history provided more sober issues, and Browning's temperament habitually inclined him to stave off the violence of tragic passion which disturbs the subtle eddyings of thought and feeling. Charles is no Regan, hardly even an Albany, no weakling either, but a man of sensitive conscience, who shifts and gyrates responsively to the complex play of motive which Browning brings to bear upon him. Reluctantly he orders Victor's arrest, and when the old man, baffled and exasperated, is brought before him and imperiously demands the crown, he puts it upon his father's head. Neither character is drawn with the power of Strafford, but the play is largely built upon the same contrasts between personal devotion and political expediency, the untutored idealism of youth and the ruses or rigidity of age. This was a type of dramatic action which Browning imagined with peculiar power and insight, for it bodied forth a contrast between contending elements of his own nature. Towards this type all his drama tended to gravitate. In The Return of the Druses Browning's native bent can be more freely studied, for history has contributed only the general situation. His turn for curious and far-fetched incident is nowhere better illustrated than in this tangled intrigue carried on between Frankish Hospitallers, Venetians, and Druses of Lebanon in a lonely island of the Aegean where none of the three are at home. A political revolution—the revolt of the Druses against their Frankish lords—provides the outer momentum of the action; but the central interest is concentrated upon a "Soul's tragedy," in which the conflict of races goes on within the perplexed and paralysed bosom of a single man. Djabal, the Druse patriot brought up in Brittany, analyses his own character with the merciless self-consciousness of Browning himself:

"I with my Arab instinct—thwarted ever By my Frank policy, and with in turn My Frank brain thwarted by my Arab heart— While these remained in equipoise, I lived— Nothing; had either been predominant, As a Frank schemer or an Arab mystic I had been something."

The conflict between policy and devotion is now transferred to the arena of a single breast, where its nature is somewhat too clearly understood and formulated. The "Frank schemer" conceives the plan of turning the Druse superstition to account by posing as an incarnation of their Founder. But the "Arab mystic" is too near sharing the belief to act his part with ease, and while he is still paltering the devoted Anael slays the Prefect. The play is thenceforth occupied, ostensibly, with the efforts of the Christian authorities to discover and punish the murderers. Its real subject is the subtle changes wrought in Djabal and Anael by their gradual transition from the relation of prophet and devotee to that of lovers. Her passion, even before he comes to share it, has begun to sap the security of his false pretensions: he longs, not at first to disavow them, but to make them true: he will be the prophetic helper of his people in very deed. To the outer world he maintains his claim with undiminished boldness and complete success; but the inner supports are gradually giving way, Arab mystic and Frank schemer lose their hold, and

"A third and better nature rises up, My mere man's nature."

Anael, a simpler character than any previous woman of the plays, thus has a more significant function. Lady Carlisle fumbles blindly with the dramatic issues without essentially affecting them; Polyxena furthers them with loyal counsel, but is not their main executant. Anael, in her fervid devotion, not only precipitates the catastrophe, but emancipates her lover from the thraldom of his lower nature. In her Browning for the first time in drama represented the purifying power of Love. The transformations of soul by soul were already beginning to occupy Browning's imagination. The poet of Cristina and Saul was already foreshadowed. But nothing as yet foreshadowed the kind of spiritual influence there portrayed—that which, instead of making its way through the impact of character upon character, passion upon passion, is communicated through an unconscious glance or a song. For one who believed as fixedly as Browning in the power of these moments to change the prevailing bias of character and conduct, such a conception was full of implicit drama. A chance inspiration led him to attempt to show how a lyric soul flinging its soul-seed unconsciously forth in song might become the involuntary deus ex machina in the tangle of passion and plot through which she moved, resolving its problems and averting its catastrophes.

The result was a poem which Elizabeth Barrett "could find it in her heart to envy" its author, which Browning himself (in 1845) liked better than anything else he had yet done.[17] It has won a not less secure place in the affections of all who care for Browning at all. It was while walking alone in a wood near Dulwich, we are told by Mrs Orr, that "the idea flashed upon him of some one walking thus through life; one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it; and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo."[18] The most important effect of this design was to call out Browning's considerable powers of rendering those gross, lurid, unspiritualised elements of the human drama upon which Pippa was to flash her transforming spell. His somewhat burly jocosity had expatiated freely in letters; but he had done nothing which, like the cynical chaff of his art students, suggests the not unskilful follower of Balzac and Dickens. And he had given no hint of the elemental tragic power shown in the great Ottima and Sebald scene, nor of the fierce and cruel sensuality, the magnificence in sin, of Ottima herself.

[Footnote 17: Letters of R. and E.B.B., i. 28.]

[Footnote 18: Orr, Handbook, p. 55.]

Pippa Passes, the most romantic in conception of all Browning's plays, thus first disclosed his genius for realism. Strafford, King Victor, The Druses are couched in the tempered ideality of blank verse; here we pass to and fro from the airiest lyric to the most massive and sinewy prose. It counted for something, too, that Italy, and above all the little hill-town in which the scene was laid, was a vivid personal memory, not a vague region of fancy like his Sardinia or Lebanon. Asolo, with its walls and turret, its bishop's palace and duomo, and girls sitting on the steps, its upland farms among the cherry orchards, its beetles sparkling along the dust, its "warm slow yellow moonlit nights" of May, and "glaring pomps" of June,—Asolo, with its legend of "Kate the queen" and her carolling page, lives as few other spots do for Browning's readers. Pippa herself, in her exquisite detachment from the sordid humanity amid which she moves, might have appeared too like a visionary presence, not of earth though on it, had she not been brought into touch, at so many points, with things that Browning had seen. Pippa Passes has, among Browning's dramas, the same kind of peculiar interest which belongs to the Tempest and to Faust among Shakespeare's and Goethe's. Faery and devilry were not Browning's affair; but, within the limits of his resolute humanism, Pippa Passes is an ideal construction, shadowing forth, under the semblance of a single definite bit of life, the controlling elements, as Browning imagined them, in all life. For Browning, too, the world teemed with Stephanos and Trinculos, Sebastians and Antonios; it was, none the less, a magical Isle, where strange catastrophes and unsuspected revolutions sprang suddenly into being at the unseen carol of Ariel as he passed. Browning's Ariel is the organ of a spiritual power which, unlike Prospero, seeks not merely to detect and avert crime, or merely to dismiss the would-be criminal, forgiven, to "live and deal with others better," but to renovate character; to release men from the bondage of their egoisms by those influences, slight as a flower-bell or a sunset touch, which renew us by setting all our aims and desires in a new proportion.


Browning's first four plays seemed to mark a growing neglect of the requirements and traditions of the stage. He might even appear to have renounced the stage altogether when in 1841 he arranged with Moxon to publish his writings in a cheap pamphlet form. The first number of Bells and Pomegranates contained the least theatrical of his dramas, Pippa Passes. "Two or three years ago" he declared in the preface (not reprinted), "I wrote a play, about which the chief matter I much care to recollect at present is that a Pit-full of good-natured people applauded it. Ever since I have been desirous of doing something in the same way that should better reward their attention. What follows I mean for the first of a series of Dramatical Pieces, to come out at intervals; and I amuse myself by fancying that the cheap mode in which they appear will for once help me to a sort of Pit-audience again."

But Browning's ambition for fame as a maker of plays was still keen, and nothing but a renewed invitation to write for the stage was needed to lure him back into tentative compliance with its ways. In the course of 1841 Macready intervened with a request for another play from the author of Strafford.[19] Thereupon Browning produced with great rapidity A Blot in the 'Scutcheon. After prolonged and somewhat sordid green-room vicissitudes, it was performed on Feb. 11, 1843. Macready, its first begetter, did his best to wreck it; the majority of the players refused to understand their parts; but through the fine acting of Helen Faucit (Mildred) and Phelps (Lord Tresham), it achieved a moderate but brief success.

[Footnote 19: The date is fixed by Browning's statement (Orr, p. 119).]

The choice of subject indicates, as has been said, a desire to make terms with stage tradition. But the ordinary theatre-goer, who went expecting to witness what the title appeared to promise, found himself, as the play proceeded, perplexed and out of his bearings. An English nobleman, with the deep-engrained family pride of his order, had suffered, or was to suffer, dishonour. But this seemingly commonplace motif was developed in a strange and unfamiliar ethical atmosphere—an atmosphere of moral ideas which seemed to embrace both those who upheld the feudal honour and those who "blotted" it; to hint at a purity deeper than sin. In a more sinister sense than Colombe's Birthday, this play might have been prefaced by the beautiful motto of its successor:—

"Ivy and violet, what do ye here With blossom and shoot in the warm spring weather Hiding the arms of Montecchi and Vere?"

The love of Mildred and Mertoun, which blots the Tresham 'scutcheon, is in origin as innocent as that which breaks into flower across the royal ambitions of Colombe; and their childlike purity of passion becomes, in spite of the wrong to which it has led them, the reconciling fact upon which at the close all animosities and resentments die away. The conception is genuinely tragic, for the doom which descends upon them all is a Nemesis which they have all contributed to provoke, but which none of them deserves; and which precisely the blended nobility and naivete of Mildred and Mertoun prevents from passing by them altogether. More mature or less sensitive lovers would have found an issue from the situation as easily as an ordinary Hamlet from his task of vengeance. But Mertoun and Mildred are at once too timid and too audacious, too tremulous in their consciousness of guilt, too hardy and reckless in their mutual devotion, to carry through so difficult a game. Mertoun falters and stammers in his suit to Tresham; Mildred stands mute at her brother's charge, incapable of evasion, only resolute not to betray. Yet these same two children in the arts of politic self-defence are found recklessly courting the peril of midnight meetings in Mildred's chamber with the aid of all the approved resources and ruses of romance—the disguise, the convenient tree, the signal set in the window, the lover's serenade. And when the lover, who dared all risks to his lady and to himself for a stolen interview with her night by night, finally encounters Tresham, he is instantly paralysed, and will not even lift a sword in his own defence. Upon this union of boundless daring for one another's sake and sensibility to the shame of having wronged the house and blotted the 'scutcheon Mertoun's fate hangs, and with his Mildred's, and with hers Tresham's.

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