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THE TEMPLE BIOGRAPHIES

Edited by Dugald Macfadyen, M.A.

Robert Browning



ROBERT BROWNING

BY EDWARD DOWDEN

LITT.D., D.C.L., LL.D.

PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE UNIVERSITY OF DUBLIN

1904



If I, too, should try and speak at times, Leading your love to where my love, perchance, Climbed earlier, found a nest before you knew, Why, bear with the poor climber, for love's sake.

Balaustion's Adventure.



Editor's Preface

"In the case of those whom the public has learned to honour and admire, there is a biography of the mind—the phrase is Mr Gladstone's—that is a matter of deep interest." In a life of Robert Browning it is especially true that the biography we want is of this nature, for its events are to be classed rather among achievements of the human spirit than as objective incidents, and its interest depends only in a secondary sense on circumstance or movement in the public eye. The special function of the present book in the growing library of Browning literature is to give such a biography of Browning's mind, associating his poems with their date and origin, as may throw some light on his inward development. Browning has become to many, in a measure which he could hardly have conceived possible himself, one of the authoritative interpreters of the spiritual factors in human life. His tonic optimism dissipates the grey atmosphere of materialism, which has obscured the sunclad heights of life as effectually as a fog. To see life through Browning's eyes is to see it shot through and through with spiritual issues, with a background of eternal destiny; and to come appreciably nearer than the general consciousness of our time to seeing it steadily and seeing it whole. Those who prize his influence know how to value everything which throws light on the path by which he reached his resolute and confident outlook.

It is almost possible to count on the fingers of one hand the few men who could successfully write a book of this character and scope. The Editor believes that, in the present case, one of the very few has been found who had the qualifications required. Much of the apparent obscurity of Browning is due to his habit of climbing up a precipice of thought, and then kicking away the ladder by which he climbed. Dr Dowden has with singular success readjusted the steps, so that readers may follow the poet's climb. Those who are not daunted by the Paracelsus and Sordello chapter, where the subject requires some close and patient attention, will find vigorous narrative and pellucid exposition interwoven in such a way as to keep them in intimate and constantly closer touch with the "biography of Browning's mind."

D.M.



Preface

An attempt is made in this volume to tell the story of Browning's life, including, as part of it, a notice of his books, which may be regarded as the chief of "his acts and all that he did." I have tried to keep my reader in constant contact with Browning's mind and art, and thus a sense of the growth and development of his genius ought to form itself before the close.

The materials accessible for a biography, apart from Browning's published writings, are not copious. He destroyed many letters; many, no doubt, are in private hands. For some parts of his life I have been able to add little to what Mrs Orr tells. But since her biography of Browning was published a good deal of interesting matter has appeared. The publication of "The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning" has enabled me to construct a short, close-knit narrative of the incidents that led up to Browning's marriage. From that date until the death of Mrs Browning her "Letters," edited by Mr Kenyon, has been my chief source. My method has not been that of quotation, but the substance of many letters is fused, as far as was possible, into a brief, continuous story. Two privately issued volumes of Browning's letters, edited by Mr T.J. Wise, and Mr Wise's "Browning Bibliography" have been of service to me. Mr Gosse's "Robert Browning, Personalia," Mrs Ritchie's "Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning," the "Life of Tennyson" by his son, Mr Henry James's volumes on W.W. Story, letters of Dante Rossetti, the diary of Mr W.M. Rossetti, with other writings of his, memoirs, reminiscences or autobiographies of Lady Martin, F.T. Palgrave, Jowett, Sir James Paget, Gavan Duffy, Robert Buchanan, Rudolf Lehmann, W.J. Stillman, T.A. Trollope, Miss F.P. Cobbe, Miss Swanwick, and others have been consulted. And several interesting articles in periodicals, in particular Mrs Arthur Bronson's articles "Browning in Venice" and "Browning in Asolo," have contributed to my narrative. For some information about Browning's father and mother, and his connection with York Street Independent Chapel, I am indebted to Mr F. Herbert Stead, Warden of "The Robert Browning Settlement," Walworth. I thank Messrs Smith, Elder and Co., as representing Mr R. Barrett Browning, for permission to make such quotations as I have ventured to make from copyright letters. I thank the general Editor of this series, the Rev. D. Macfadyen, for kind and valuable suggestions.

My study of Browning's poems is chronological. I recognise the disadvantages of this method, but I also perceive certain advantages. Many years ago in "Studies in Literature" I attempted a general view of Browning's work, and wrote, as long ago as 1867, a careful study of Sordello. What I now write may suffer as well as gain from a familiarity of so many years with his writings. But to make them visible objects to me I have tried to put his poems outside myself, and approach them with a fresh mind. Whether I have failed or partly succeeded I am unable to determine.

The analysis of La Saisiaz appeared—substantially—in the little Magazine of the Home Reading Union, and one or two other short passages are recovered from uncollected articles of mine. I have incorporated in my criticism a short passage from one of my wife's articles on Browning in The Dark Blue Magazine, making such modifications as suited my purpose, and she has contributed a passage to the pages which close this volume.

I had the privilege of some personal acquaintance with Browning, and have several cordial letters of his addressed to my wife and to myself. These I have not thought it right to use.

E.D.



Contents

CHAPTER I

CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH

Ancestry—Parents—Boyhood—Influence of Shelley—Pauline

CHAPTER II

PARACELSUS AND SORDELLO

Visit to Russia—Paracelsus—His failures and attainments—Sordello, a companion poem—Its obscurity—Imaginative qualities—The history of a soul

CHAPTER III

THE MAKER OF PLAYS

New acquaintances—Hatcham—Macready—Strafford—Venice—Bells and Promegranates—A Blot on the 'Scutcheon—Characters of passion—Characters of intellect

CHAPTER IV

THE MAKER OF PLAYS—(continued)

Women of the dramas—Dramatic style—Pippa Passes—Dramatic Lyrics and Romances—Poems of Love and of Art

CHAPTER V

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

First letters to Miss Barrett—Meeting—Progress in friendship—Obstacles—Marriage

CHAPTER VI

EARLY YEARS IN ITALY

Correspondence of R.B. and E.B.B.—Journey to Italy—Pisa—Florence—Vallombrosa—Italian politics—Casa Guidi-Friends—Son born—Death of Browning's mother—Wanderings.

CHAPTER VII

CHRISTMAS EVE AND EASTER DAY

Publication—Movements of Religious Thought—Dissent—Catholicism—Criticism—Difficulties of Christian life—Imaginative power of the poems—In Venice—Paris—England—Paris again—Coup d'etat

CHAPTER VIII

FROM 1851 TO 1855

Essay on Shelley—New acquaintances—Milsand—George Sand—London—Casa Guidi—Spiritualism—Mr Sludge the Medium—Baths of Lucca—Rome—London—Tennyson's Maud

CHAPTER IX

MEN AND WOMEN

Rossetti's admiration—Beauty before teaching—The poet behind his poems—Isolated poems—Groups—Poems of love—Poems of Art—Poems of Religion

CHAPTER X

CLOSE OF MRS BROWNING'S LIFE

Paris—Kenyon's death—Legacies—Death of Mr Barrett—Winter in Florence—Havre—Rome—Louis Napoleon—Landor—Siena—Poems before Congress—Rome again—Modelling in Clay—Casa Guidi—Death of Mrs Browning

CHAPTER XI

LONDON: DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Desolation—Return to London—Pornic—Social life—Dramatis Personae—Poems of music—Poems of hope and aspiration—A Death in the Desert—Epilogue—Caliban upon Setebos—Poems of Love

CHAPTER XII

THE RING AND THE BOOK

Holiday excursions—Sainte Marie—Miss Barrett dies—Balliol College and Jowett—Origin of the Ring and the Book—Its Plan—The Persons—Count Guido—Pompilia—Caponsacchi—The Pope—Falsehood subserving truth

CHAPTER XIII

POEMS ON CLASSICAL SUBJECTS

Saint-Aubin—Milsand—Miss Thackeray—Herve Riel—Miss Egerton-Smith—Summer wanderings—Balaustion's Adventure—Aristophanes' Apology—The Agamemnon

CHAPTER XIV

PROBLEM AND NARRATIVE POEMS

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau—Fifine at the Fair—Red Cotton Night-Cap Country—The Inn Album—Pachiarotto and other Poems

CHAPTER XV

SOLITUDE AND SOCIETY

La Saisiaz—Immortality—Two Poets of Croisic—Browning in society—Daily habits—Browning as a talker—Italy—Asolo—Mountain retreats—Mrs Bronson—Venice

CHAPTER XVI

POET AND TEACHER IN OLD AGE

Popularity—Browning Society—Public honours—Dramatic Idyls—Spirit of acquiescence—Jocoseria—Ferishtah's Fancies

CHAPTER XVII

CLOSING WORKS AND DAYS

Parleyings—Asolando—Mrs Bronson—At Asolo—Venice—Death—Place in nineteenth-century poetry



List of Illustrations

ROBERT BROWNING, from a portrait in oil, for which he sat to R.W. Curtis at Venice, 1880, reproduced by kind permission of D.S. Curtis, Esq. (photogravure)

MAIN STREET OF ASOLO, SHOWING BROWNING'S HOUSE, from a drawing by Miss D. Noyes

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, from a drawing in chalk by Field Talfourd in the National Portrait Gallery

ROBERT BROWNING, from an engraving by J.G. Armytage

THE VIA BOCCA DI LEONE, ROME, IN WHICH THE BROWNINGS STAYED, a photograph

PORTRAIT OF FILIPPO LIPPI, BY HIMSELF, a detail from the fresco in the Cathedral at Prato, from a photograph by Alinari

ANDREA DEL SARTO, from a print after the portrait by himself in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

PIAZZA DI SAN LORENZO, FLORENCE, WHERE "THE BOOK" WAS FOUND BY BROWNING, from a photograph by Alinari

THE PALAZZO GIUSTINIANI, VENICE, from a drawing by Miss N. Erichsen

SPECIMEN OF BROWNING'S HANDWRITING, from a letter to D.S. Curtis, Esq.

ROBERT BROWNING, from a photograph (photogravure)

THE PALAZZO REZZONICO, VENICE, from a drawing by Miss Katherine Kimball



Chapter I

Childhood and Youth

The ancestry of Robert Browning has been traced[1] to an earlier Robert who lived in the service of Sir John Bankes of Corfe Castle, and died in 1746. His eldest son, Thomas, "was granted a lease for three lives of the little inn, in the little hamlet of East Woodyates and parish of Pentridge, nine miles south-west of Salisbury on the road to Exeter." Robert, born in 1749, the son of this Thomas, and grandfather of the poet, became a clerk in the Bank of England, and rose to be principal in the Bank Stock Office. At the age of twenty-nine he married Margaret Tittle, a lady born in the West Indies and possessed of West Indian property. He is described by Mrs Orr as an able, energetic, and worldly man. He lived until his grandson was twenty-one years old. His first wife was the mother of another Robert, the poet's father, born in 1781. When the boy had reached the age of seven he lost his mother, and five years later his father married again. This younger Robert when a youth desired to become an artist, but such a career was denied to him. He longed for a University education, and, through the influence of his stepmother, this also was refused. They shipped the young man to St Kitts, purposing that he should oversee the West Indian estate. There, as Browning on the authority of his mother told Miss Barrett, "he conceived such a hatred to the slave-system ... that he relinquished every prospect, supported himself while there in some other capacity, and came back, while yet a boy, to his father's profound astonishment and rage."[2] At the age of twenty-two he obtained a clerkship in the Bank of England, an employment which, his son says, he always detested. Eight years later he married Sarah Anna, daughter of William Wiedemann, a Dundee shipowner, who was the son of a German merchant of Hamburg. The young man's father, on hearing that his son was a suitor to Miss Wiedemann, had waited benevolently on her uncle "to assure him that his niece would be thrown away on a man so evidently born to be hanged."[3] In 1811 the new-married pair settled in Camberwell, and there in a house in Southampton Street Robert Browning—an only son—was born on May 7, 1812. Two years later (Jan. 7, 1814) his sister, Sarah Anna—an only daughter—known in later years as Sarianna, a form adopted by her father, was born. She survived her brother, dying in Venice on the morning of April 22, 1903.[4]

Robert Browning's father and mother were persons who for their own sakes deserve to be remembered. His father, while efficient in his work in the Bank, was a wide and exact reader of literature, classical as well as modern. We are told by Mrs Orr of his practice of soothing his little boy to sleep "by humming to him an ode of Anacreon," and by Dr Moncure Conway that he was versed in mediaeval legend, and seemed to have known Paracelsus, Faustus, and even Talmudic personages with an intimate familiarity. He wrote verses in excellent couplets of the eighteenth century manner, and strung together fantastic rhymes as a mode of aiding his boy in tasks which tried the memory. He was a dexterous draughtsman, and of his amateur handiwork in portraiture and caricature—sometimes produced, as it were, instinctively, with a result that was unforeseen—much remains to prove his keen eye and his skill with the pencil. Besides the curious books which he eagerly collected, he also gathered together many prints—those of Hogarth especially, and in early states. He had a singular interest, such as may also be seen in the author of The Ring and the Book, in investigating and elucidating complex criminal cases.[5] He was a lover of athletic sports and never knew ill-health. For the accumulation of riches he had no talent and no desire, but he had a simple wealth of affection which he bestowed generously on his children and his friends. "My father," wrote Browning, "is tender-hearted to a fault.... To all women and children he is chivalrous." "He had," writes Mr W.J. Stillman, who knew Browning's father in Paris in his elder years, "the perpetual juvenility of a blessed child. If to live in the world as if not of it indicates a saintly nature, then Robert Browning the elder was a saint; a serene, untroubled soul, conscious of no moral or theological problem to disturb his serenity, and as gentle as a gentle woman; a man in whom, it seemed to me, no moral conflict could ever have arisen to cloud his frank acceptance of life, as he found it come to him.... His unworldliness had not a flaw."[6] To Dante Rossetti he appeared, as an old man, "lovable beyond description," with that "submissive yet highly cheerful simplicity of character which often ... appears in the family of a great man, who uses at last what the others have kept for him." He is, Rossetti continues, "a complete oddity—with a real genius for drawing—but caring for nothing in the least except Dutch boors,—fancy, the father of Browning!—and as innocent as a child." Browning himself declared that he had not one artistic taste in common with his father—"in pictures, he goes 'souls away' to Brauwer, Ostade, Teniers ... he would turn from the Sistine Altar-piece to these—in music he desiderates a tune 'that has a story connected with it.'" Yet Browning inherited much from his father, and was ready to acknowledge his gains. In Development, one of the poems of his last volume, he recalls his father's sportive way of teaching him at five years old, with the aid of piled-up chairs and tables—the cat for Helen, and Towzer and Tray as the Atreidai,—the story of the siege of Troy, and, later, his urging the boy to read the tale "properly told" in the translation of Homer by his favourite poet, Pope. He lived almost to the close of his eighty-fifth year, and if he was at times bewildered by his son's poetry, he came nearer to it in intelligent sympathy as he grew older, and he had for long the satisfaction of enjoying his son's fame.

The attachment of Robert Browning to his mother—"the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman," said Carlyle—was deep and intimate. For him she was, in his own phrase, "a divine woman"; her death in 1849 was to Browning almost an overwhelming blow. She was of a nature finely and delicately strung. Her nervous temperament seems to have been transmitted—robust as he was in many ways—to her son. The love of music, which her Scottish-German father possessed in a high degree, leaping over a generation, reappeared in Robert Browning. His capacity for intimate friendships with animals—spider and toad and lizard—was surely an inheritance from his mother. Mr Stillman received from Browning's sister an account of her mother's unusual power over both wild creatures and household pets. "She could lure the butterflies in the garden to her," which reminds us of Browning's whistling for lizards at Asolo. A fierce bull-dog intractable to all others, to her was docile and obedient. In her domestic ways she was gentle yet energetic. Her piety was deep and pure. Her husband had been in his earlier years a member of the Anglican communion; she was brought up in the Scottish kirk. Before her marriage she became a member of the Independent congregation, meeting for worship at York Street, Lock's Fields, Walworth, where now stands the Robert Browning Hall. Her husband attached himself to the same congregation; both were teachers in the Sunday School. Mrs Browning kept, until within a few years of her death, a missionary box for contributions to the London Missionary Society. The conditions of membership implied the acceptance of "those views of doctrinal truth which for the sake of distinction are called Calvinistic." Thus over the poet's childhood and youth a religious influence presided; it was not sacerdotal, nor was it ascetic; the boy was in those early days, as he himself declared, "passionately religious." Their excellent pastor was an entirely "unimaginative preacher of the Georgian era," who held fast by the approved method of "three heads and a conclusion." Browning's indifference to the ministrations of Mr Clayton was not concealed, and on one occasion he received a rebuke in the presence of the congregation. Yet the spirit of religion which surrounded and penetrated him was to remain with him, under all its modifications, to the end. "His face," wrote the Rev. Edward White, "is vividly present to my memory through the sixty years that have intervened. It was the most wonderful face in the whole congregation—pale, somewhat mysterious, and shaded with black, flowing hair, but a face whose expression you remember through a life-time. Scarcely less memorable were the countenances of his father, mother and sister."[7]

Robert Browning, writes Mrs Orr, "was a handsome, vigorous, fearless child, and soon developed an unresting activity and a fiery temper." His energy of mind made him a swift learner. After the elementary lessons in reading had been achieved, he was prepared for the neighbouring school of the Rev. Thomas Ready by Mr Ready's sisters. Having entered this school as a day-boarder, he remained under Mr Ready's care until the year 1826. To facile companionship with his school-fellows Browning was not prone, but he found among them one or two abiding friends. As for the rest, though he was no winner of school prizes, he seems to have acquired a certain intellectual mastery over his comrades; some of them were formed into a dramatic troupe for the performance of his boyish plays. Perhaps the better part of his education was that of his hours at home. He read widely in his father's excellent library. The favourite books of his earliest years, Croxall's Fables and Quarles's Emblems, were succeeded by others which made a substantial contribution to his mind. A list given by Mrs Orr includes Walpole's Letters, Junius, Voltaire, and Mandeville's Fable of the Bees. The first book he ever bought with his own money was Macpherson's Ossian, and the first composition he committed to paper, written years before his purchase of the volume, was an imitation of Ossian, "whom," says Browning, "I had not read, but conceived, through two or three scraps in other books." His early feeling for art was nourished by visits to the Dulwich Gallery, to which he obtained an entrance when far under the age permitted by the rules; there he would sit for an hour before some chosen picture, and in later years he could recall the "wonderful Rembrandt of Jacob's vision," the Giorgione music-lesson, the "triumphant Murillo pictures," "such a Watteau," and "all the Poussins."[8]

Among modern poets Byron at first with him held the chief place. Boyish verses, written under the Byronic influence, were gathered into a group when the writer was but twelve years old; a title—Incondita—was found, and Browning's parents had serious intentions of publishing the manuscript. Happily the manuscript, declined by publishers, was in the end destroyed, and editors have been saved from the necessity of printing or reprinting these crudities of a great poet's childhood. Their only merit, he assured Mr Gosse, lay in "their mellifluous smoothness." It was an event of capital importance in the history of Browning's mind when—probably in his thirteenth year—he lighted, in exploring a book-stall, upon a copy of one of the pirated editions of Shelley's Queen Mab and other poems. Through the zeal of his good mother on the boy's behalf the authorised editions were at a later time obtained; and she added to her gift the works, as far as they were then in print, of Keats.[9] If ever there was a period of Sturm und Drang in Browning's life, it was during the years in which he caught from Shelley the spirit of the higher revolt. A new faith and unfaith came to him, radiant with colour, luminous with the brightness of dawn, and uttered with a new, keen, penetrating melody. The outward conduct of his life was obedient in all essentials to the good laws of use and wont. He pursued his various studies—literature, languages, music—with energy. He was diligent—during a brief attendance—in Professor Long's Greek class at University College—"a bright, handsome youth," as a classfellow has described him, "with long black hair falling over his shoulders." He sang, he danced, he rode, he boxed, he fenced. But below all these activities a restless inward current ran. For a time he became, as Mrs Orr has put it, "a professing atheist and a practising vegetarian;" and together with the growing-pains of intellectual independence there was present a certain aggressive egoism. He loved his home, yet he chafed against some of its social limitations. Of friendships outside his home we read of that with Alfred Domett, the 'Waring' of his poems, afterwards the poet and the statesman of New Zealand; with Joseph Arnould, afterwards the Indian judge; and with his cousin James Silverthorne, the 'Charles' of Browning's pathetic poem May and Death. We hear also of a tender boyish sentiment, settling into friendship, for Miss Eliza Flower, his senior by nine years, for whose musical compositions he had an ardent admiration: "I put it apart from all other English music I know," he wrote as late as 1845, "and fully believe in it as the music we all waited for." With her sister Sarah, two years younger than Eliza, best known by her married name Sarah Flower Adams and remembered by her hymn, written in 1840, "Nearer my God to Thee," he discussed as a boy his religious difficulties, and in proposing his own doubts drew forth her latent scepticism as to the orthodox beliefs. "It was in answering Robert Browning;" she wrote, "that my mind refused to bring forward argument, turned recreant, and sided with the enemy." Something of this period of Browning's Sturm und Drang can be divined through the ideas and imagery of Pauline.[10]

The finer influence of Shelley upon the genius of Browning in his youth proceeded from something quite other than those doctrinaire abstractions—the formulas of revolution—which Shelley had caught up from Godwin and certain French thinkers of the eighteenth century. Browning's spirit from first to last was one which was constantly reaching upward through the attainments of earth to something that lay beyond them. A climbing spirit, such as his, seemed to perceive in Shelley a spirit that not only climbed but soared. He could in those early days have addressed to Shelley words written later, and suggested, one cannot but believe, by his feeling for his wife:

You must be just before, in fine, See and make me see, for your part, New depths of the Divine!

Shelley opened up for his young and enthusiastic follower new vistas leading towards the infinite, towards the unattainable Best. Browning's only piece of prose criticism—apart from scattered comments in his letters—is the essay introductory to that volume of letters erroneously ascribed to Shelley, which was published when Browning was but little under forty years old. It expresses his mature feelings and convictions; and these doubtless contain within them as their germ the experience of his youth.[11] Shelley appears to him as a poet gifted with a fuller perception of nature and man than that of the average mind, and striving to embody the thing he perceives "not so much with reference to the many below, as to the One above him, the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute truth—an ultimate view ever aspired to, if but partially attained, by the poet's own soul." If Shelley was deficient in some subordinate powers which support and reinforce the purely poetic gifts, he possessed the highest faculty and in this he lived and had his being. "His spirit invariably saw and spoke from the last height to which it had attained." What was "his noblest and predominating characteristic" as a poet? Browning attempts to give it definition: it was "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 connexion of each with each, than have been thrown by any modern artificer of whom I have knowledge." In other words it was Shelley's special function to fling an aerial bridge from reality, as we commonly understand that word, to the higher reality which we name the ideal; to set up an aerial ladder—not less solid because it is aerial—upon the earth, whose top reached to heaven. Such was Browning's conception of Shelley, and it pays little regard either to atheistic theory or vegetarian practice.

A time came when Robert Browning must make choice of a future career. His interests in life were manifold, but in some form or another art was the predominant interest. His father remembered his own early inclinations, and how they had been thwarted; he recognised the rare gifts of his son, and he resolved that he should not be immured in the office of a bank. Should he plead at the bar? Should he paint? Should he be a maker of music, as he at one time desired, and for music he always possessed an exceptional talent? When his father spoke to him, Robert Browning knew that his sister was not dependent on any effort of his to provide the means of living. "He appealed," writes Mr Gosse, "to his father, whether it would not be better for him to see life in the best sense, and cultivate the powers of his mind, than to shackle himself in the very outset of his career by a laborious training, foreign to that aim. ... So great was the confidence of the father in the genius of his son that the former at once acquiesced in the proposal." It was decided that he should take to what an old woman of the lake district, speaking of "Mr Wudsworth," described as "the poetry business." The believing father was even prepared to invest some capital in the concern. At his expense Paracelsus, Sordello, and Bells and Pomegranates were published.

A poet may make his entrance into literature with small or large inventions, by carving cherry-stones or carving a colossus. Browning, the creator of men and women, the fashioner of minds, would be a sculptor of figures more than life-size rather than an exquisite jeweller; the attempt at a Perseus of this Cellini was to precede his brooches and buttons. He planned, Mr Gosse tells us, "a series of monodramatic epics, narratives of the life of typical souls." In a modification of this vast scheme Paracelsus, which includes more speakers than one, and Sordello, which is not dramatic in form, find their places. They were preceded by Pauline, in the strictest sense a monodrama, a poem not less large in conception than either of the others, though this "fragment of a confession" is wrought out on a more contracted scale.

Pauline, published without the writer's name—his aunt Silverthorne bearing the cost of publication—was issued from the press in January 1833.[12] Browning had not yet completed his twenty-first year. When including it among his poetical works in 1867, he declared that he did so with extreme repugnance and solely with a view to anticipate unauthorised republication of what was no more than a "crude preliminary sketch," entirely lacking in good draughtsmanship and right handling. For the edition of twenty years later, 1888, he revised and corrected Pauline without re-handling it to any considerable extent. In truth Pauline is a poem from which Browning ought not to have desired to detach his mature self. Rarely does a poem by a writer so young deserve better to be read for its own sake. It is an interesting document in the history of its author's mind. It gives promises and pledges which were redeemed in full. It shows what dropped away from the poet and what, being an essential part of his equipment, was retained. It exhibits his artistic method in the process of formation. It sets forth certain leading thoughts which are dominant in his later work. The first considerable production of a great writer must always claim attention from the student of his mind and art.

The poem is a study in what Browning in his Fifine terms "mental analysis"; it attempts to shadow forth, through the fluctuating moods of the dying man, a series of spiritual states. The psychology is sometimes crude; subtle, but clumsily subtle; it is, however, essentially the writer's own. To construe clearly the states of mind which are adumbrated rather than depicted is difficult, for Browning had not yet learnt to manifest his generalised conceptions through concrete details, to plunge his abstractions in reality. The speaker in the poem tells us that he "rudely shaped his life to his immediate wants"; this is intelligible, yet only vaguely intelligible, for we do not know what were these wants, and we do not see any rude shaping of his life. We are told of "deeds for which remorse were vain"; what were these deeds? did he, like Bunyan, play cat on Sunday, or join the ringers of the church bells? "Instance, instance," we cry impatiently. And so the story remains half a shadow. The poem is dramatic, yet, like so much of Browning's work, it is not pure drama coming from profound sympathy with a spirit other than the writer's own; it is only hybrid drama, in which the dramatis persona thinks and moves and acts under the necessity of expounding certain ideas of the poet. Browning's puppets are indeed too often in his earlier poems moved by intellectual wires; the hands are the hands of Luria or Djabal, but the voice is the showman's voice. A certain intemperance in the pursuit of poetic beauty, strange and lovely imagery which obscures rather than interprets, may be regarded as in Pauline the fault or the glory of youth; a young heir arrived at his inheritance will scatter gold pieces. The verse has caught something of its affluent flow, its wavelike career, wave advancing upon wave, from Shelley:

'Tis he, I ken the manner of his gait; He rises on the toe; that spirit of his In aspiration lifts him from the earth.

The aspiration in Browning's later verse is a complex of many forces; here it is a simple poetic enthusiasm.

By virtue of its central theme Pauline is closely related to the poems which at no great distance followed—Paracelsus and Sordello. Each is a study of the flaws which bring genius to all but ruin, a study of the erroneous conduct of life by men of extraordinary powers. In each poem the chief personage aspires and fails, yet rises—for Browning was not of the temper to accept ultimate failures, and postulated a heaven to warrant his optimistic creed—rises at the close from failure to a spiritual recovery, which may be regarded as attainment, but an attainment, as far as earth and its uses are concerned, marred and piteous; he recovers in the end his true direction, but recovers it only for service in worlds other than ours which he may hereafter traverse. He has been seduced or conquered by alien forces and through some inward flaw; he has been faithless to his highest faculties; he has not fulfilled his seeming destiny; yet before death and the darkness of death arrive, light has come; he perceives the wanderings of the way, and in one supreme hour or in one shining moment he gives indefeasible pledges of the loyalty which he has forfeited. Shelley in Alastor, the influence of which on Browning in writing Pauline is evident, had rebuked the idealist within himself, who would live in lofty abstractions to the loss of human sympathy and human love. Browning in Pauline also recognises this danger, but he indicates others—the risk of the lower faculties of the mind encroaching upon and even displacing the higher, the risk of the spirit of aggrandisement, even in the world of the imagination, obtaining the mastery over the spirit of surrender to that which is higher than self. It is quite right and needful to speak of the "lesson" of Browning's poem, and the lesson of Pauline is designed to inculcate first loyalty to a man's highest power, and secondly a worshipping loyalty and service to that which transcends himself, named by the speaker in Pauline by the old and simple name of God.

Was it the problem of his own life—that concerning the conduct of high, intellectual and spiritual powers—which Browning transferred to his art, creating personages other than himself to be exponents of his theme? We cannot tell; but the problem in varied forms persists from poem to poem. The poet imagined as twenty years of age, who makes his fragment of a confession in Pauline, is more than a poet; he is rather of the Sordello type than of the type represented in Eglamor and Aprile.[13] Through his imagination he would comprehend and possess all forms of life, of beauty, of joy in nature and in humanity; but he must also feel himself at the centre of these, the lord and master of his own perceptions and creations; and yet, at the same time, this man is made for the worship and service of a power higher than self. How is such a nature as this to attain its true ends? What are its special dangers? If he content himself with the exercise of the subordinate faculties, intellectual dexterity, wit, social charm and mastery, he is lost; if he should place himself at the summit, and cease to worship and to love, he is lost. He cannot alter his own nature; he cannot ever renounce his intense consciousness of self, nor even the claim of self to a certain supremacy as the centre of its own sympathies and imaginings. So much is inevitable, and is right. But if he be true to his calling as poet, he will task his noblest faculty, will live in it, and none the less look upward, in love, in humility, in the spirit of loyal service, in the spirit of glad aspiration, to that Power which leans above him and has set him his earthly task.

Such reduced to a colourless and abstract statement is the theme dealt with in Pauline. The young poet, who, through a fading autumn evening, lies upon his death-bed, has been faithless to his high calling, and yet never wholly faithless. As the pallid light declines, he studies his own soul, he reviews his past, he traces his wanderings from the way, and all has become clear. He has failed for the uses of earth; but he recognises in himself capacities and desires for which no adequate scope could ever have been found in this life; and restored to the spirit of love, of trust, by such love, such trust as he can give Pauline, he cannot deny the witnessing audible within his own heart to a future life which may redeem the balance of his temporal loss. The thought which plays so large a part in Browning's later poetry is already present and potent here.

Two incidents in the history of a soul—studied by the speaker under the wavering lights of his hectic malady and fluctuating moods of passion—are dealt with in a singularly interesting and original way. He describes, with strange and beautiful imagery, the cynical, bitter pleasure—few of us do not know it—which the intellectual faculties sometimes derive from mocking and drawing down to their own level the spiritual powers, the intuitive powers, which are higher than they, higher, yet less capable of justification or verification by the common tests of sense and understanding. The witchcraft of the brain degrades the god in us:

And then I was a young witch whose blue eyes, As she stood naked by the river springs, Drew down a god: I watched his radiant form Growing less radiant, and it gladdened me.

What he presents with such intensity of imaginative power Browning must have known—even if it were but for moments—by experience. And again, there is impressive truth and originality in the description of the state of the poet's mind which succeeded the wreck of his early faith and early hopes inspired by the voice of Shelley—the revolutionary faith in liberty, equality and human perfectibility. Wordsworth in The Prelude—unpublished when Browning wrote Pauline—which is also the history of a poet's mind, has described his own experience of the loss of all these shining hopes and lofty abstractions, and the temper of mind which he describes is one of moral chaos and spiritual despair. The poet of Pauline turns from political and social abstractions to real life, and the touch of reality awakens him as if from a splendid dream; but his mood is not so sane as that of despair. He falls back, with a certain joy, upon the exercise of his inferior powers; he wakes suddenly and "without heart-wreck ":

First went my hopes of perfecting mankind, Next—faith in them, and then in freedom's self And virtue's self, then my own motives, ends, And aims and loves, and human love went last. I felt this no decay, because new powers Rose as old feelings left—wit, mockery, Light-heartedness; for I had oft been sad, Mistrusting my resolves, but now I cast Hope joyously away; I laughed and said "No more of this!"

It is difficult to believe that Browning is wholly dramatic here; we seem to discover something of that period of Sturm und Drang, when his mood grew restless and aggressive. The homage paid to Shelley, whose higher influence Browning already perceived to be in large measure independent of his creed of revolution, has in it certainly something of the spirit of autobiography. In this enthusiastic admiration for Shelley there is nothing to regret, except the unhappy extravagance of the name "Suntreader," which he invented as a title for the poet of Alastor and Prometheus Unbound.

The attention of Mr W.J. Fox, a Unitarian minister of note, had been directed to Browning's early unpublished verse by Miss Flower. In the Monthly Repository (April 1833) which he then edited, Mr Fox wrote of Pauline with admiration, and Browning was duly grateful for this earliest public recognition of his genius as a poet. In the Athenaeum Allen Cunningham made an effort to be appreciative and sympathetic. John Stuart Mill desired to be the reviewer of Pauline in Taifs Magazine; there, however, the poem had been already dismissed with one contemptuous phrase. It found few readers, but the admiration of one of these, who discovered Pauline many years later, was a sufficient compensation for the general indifference or neglect. "When Mr Browning was living in Florence, he received a letter from a young painter whose name was quite unknown to him, asking him whether he were the author of a poem called Pauline, which was somewhat in his manner, and which the writer had so greatly admired that he had transcribed the whole of it in the British Museum reading-room. The letter was signed D.G. Rossetti, and thus began Mr Browning's acquaintance with this eminent man."[14]

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 1: By Dr Furnivall; see The Academy, April 12, 1902.]

[Footnote 2: "Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.," ii. 477.]

[Footnote 3: Letter of R.B. to E.B.B.]

[Footnote 4: Dr Moncure Conway states that Browning told him that the original name of the family was De Buri. According to Mrs Orr, Browning "neither claimed nor disclaimed the more remote genealogical past which had presented itself as a certainty to some older members of his family."]

[Footnote 5: Quoted by Mr Sharp in his "Life of Browning," p. 21, n., from Mrs Fraser Cockran.]

[Footnote 6: "Autobiography of a Journalist," i. 277.]

[Footnote 7: For my quotations and much of the above information I am indebted to Mr F. Herbert Stead, Warden of the Robert Browning Settlement, Walworth. In Robert Browning Hall are preserved the baptismal registers of Robert (June 14th, 1812), and Sarah Anna Browning, with other documents from which I have quoted.]

[Footnote 8: Letters of R.B. and E.B.B., i. 528, 529; and (for Ossian), ii. 469.]

[Footnote 9: Browning in a letter to Mr Wise says that this happened "some time before 1830 (or even earlier). The books," he says, "were obtained in the regular way, from Hunt and Clarke." Mr Gosse in Personalia gives a different account, pp. 23, 24.]

[Footnote 10: The quotations from letters above are taken from J.C. Hadden's article "Some Friends of Browning" in Macmillan's Magazine, Jan. 1898.]

[Footnote 11: Later in life Browning came to think unfavourably of Shelley as a man and to esteem him less highly as a poet. He wrote in December 1885 to Dr Furnivall: "For myself I painfully contrast my notions of Shelley the man and Shelley, well, even the poet, with what they were sixty years ago." He declined Dr Furnivall's invitation to him to accept the presidency of "The Shelley Society."]

[Footnote 12: Even the publishers—Saunders and Otley—did not know the author's name.—"Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.," i. 403.]

[Footnote 13: "V.A. xx," following the quotation from Cornelius Agrippa means "Vixi annos xx," i.e. "the imaginary subject of the poem was of that age."—Browning to Mr T.J. Wise.]

[Footnote 14: Edmund Gosse: "Robert Browning Personalia," pp. 31, 32. Mr W. M. Rossetti in "D.G. Rossetti, his Family Letters," i. 115, gives the summer of 1850 as the date of his brother's letter; and says, no doubt correctly, that Browning was in Venice at the time. Mr Sharp prints a letter of Browning's on his early acquaintance with Rossetti, and on the incident recorded above. I may here note that "Richmond," appended, with a date, to Pauline, was a fancy or a blind; Browning never resided at Richmond.]



Chapter II

Paracelsus and Sordello

There is little of incident in Browning's life to be recorded for the period between the publication of Pauline and the publication of Paracelsus. During the winter of 1833-1834 he spent three months in Russia, "nominally," says Mrs Orr, "in the character of secretary" to the Russian consul-general, Mr Benckhausen. Memories of the endless pine-forests through which he was driven on the way to St Petersburg may have contributed long afterwards to descriptive passages of Ivan Ivanovitch.

In 1842 or 1843 he wrote a drama in five acts to which was given the name "Only a Player-girl"; the manuscript lay for long in his portfolio and never saw the light. "It was Russian," he tells Miss Barrett, "and about a fair on the Neva, and booths and droshkies and fish-pies and so forth, with the Palaces in the background."[15] Late in life, at Venice, Browning became acquainted with an old Russian, Prince Gagarin, with whom he competed successfully for an hour in recalling folk-songs and national airs of Russia caught up during the visit of 1833-34. "His memory," said Gagarin, "is better than my own, on which I have hitherto piqued myself not a little."[16] Perhaps it was his wanderings abroad that made Browning at this time desire further wanderings. He thought of a diplomatic career, and felt some regret when he failed to obtain an appointment for which he had applied in connection with a mission to Persia.

In the winter of 1834 Browning was at work on Paracelsus, which, after disappointments with other houses, was accepted, on terms that secured the publisher from risk, by Effingham Wilson, and appeared before midsummer of the following year. The subject had been suggested by Count Amedee de Ripert-Monclar, a young French royalist, engaged in secret service on behalf of the dethroned Bourbons. To him the poem is dedicated. For a befitting treatment of the story of Paracelsus special studies were necessary, and Browning entered into these with zeal, taking in his poem—as he himself believed—only trifling liberties with the matter of history. In solitary midnight walks he meditated his theme and its development. "There was, in particular," Mr Sharp tells us, "a wood near Dulwich, whither he was wont to go." Mr Sharp adds that at this time Browning composed much in the open air, and that "the glow of distant London" at night, with the thought of its multitudinous human life, was an inspiring influence. The sea which spoke to Browning with most expressive utterances was always the sea of humanity.

In its combination of thought with passion, and not less in its expression of a certain premature worldly wisdom, Paracelsus is an extraordinary output of mind made by a writer who, when his work was accomplished, had not completed his twenty-third year. The poem is the history of a great spirit, who has sought lofty and unattainable ends, who has fallen upon the way and is bruised and broken, but who rises at the close above his ruined self, and wrings out of defeat a pledge of ultimate victory. In a preface to the first edition, a preface afterwards omitted, Browning claims originality, or at least novelty, for his artistic method; "instead of having recourse to an external machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis I desire to produce, I have ventured to display somewhat minutely the mood itself in its rise and progress, and have suffered the agency by which it is influenced and determined, to be generally discernible in its effects alone, and subordinate throughout, if not altogether excluded." The poem, though dramatic, is not a drama, and canons which are applicable to a piece intended for stage-representation would here—Browning pleads—be rather a hindrance than a help. Perhaps Browning regarded the action which can be exhibited on the stage as something external to the soul, and imagined that the naked spirit can be viewed more intimately than the spirit clothed in deed and in circumstance. If this was so, his conceptions were somewhat crude; with the true dramatic poet action is the hieroglyph of the soul, and many a secret may be revealed in this language, amassing as it does large meanings into one luminous symbol, which cannot be set forth in an elaborate intellectual analysis. We think to probe the depths, and perhaps never get far below the surface. But the flash and outbreak of a fiery spirit, amid a tangle of circumstance, springs to the surface from the very centre, and reveals its inmost energies.

Paracelsus, as presented in the poem, is a man of pre-eminent genius, passionate intellect, and inordinate intellectual ambition. If it is meant that he should be the type of the modern man of science, Browning has missed his mark, for Paracelsus is in fact almost as much the poet as the man of science; but it is true that the cautious habits of the inductive student of nature were rare among the enthusiastic speculators of Renaissance days, and the Italian successor of Paracelsus—Giordano Bruno—was in reality, in large measure, what Browning has here conceived and exhibited. Paracelsus is a great revolutionary spirit in an epoch of intellectual revolution; it is as much his task to destroy as to build up; he has broken with the past, and gazes with wild-eyed hopes into the future, expecting the era of intellectual liberty to dawn suddenly with the year One, and seeing in himself the protagonist of revolution. Such men as Paracelsus, whether their sphere be in the political, the religious, or the intellectual world, are men of faith; a task has been laid on each of them; a summons, a divine mandate, has been heard. But is the summons authentic? is the mandate indeed divine? In the quiet garden at Wuerzburg, while the autumn sun sinks behind St Saviour's spire, Festus—the faithful Horatio to this Hamlet of science—puts his questions and raises his doubts first as to the end and aim of Paracelsus, his aspiration towards absolute knowledge, and secondly, as to the means proposed for its attainment—means which reject the service of all predecessors in the paths of knowledge; which depart so widely from the methods of his contemporaries; which seek for truth through strange and casual revelations; which leave so much to chance. Very nobly has Browning represented the overmastering force of that faith which genius has in itself, and which indeed is needed to sustain it in the struggle with an incredulous or indifferent world. The end itself is justified by the mandate of God; and as for the means, truth is not to be found only or chiefly by gathering up stray fragments from without; truth lies buried within the soul, as jewels in the mine, and the chances and changes and shocks of life are required to open a passage for the shining forth of this inner light. Festus is overpowered less by reason than by the passion of faith in his younger and greater fellow-student; and the gentle Michal is won from her prophetic fears half by her affectionate loyalty to the man, half by the glow and inspiration of one who seems to be a surer prophet than her mistrusting self. And in truth the summons to Paracelsus is authentic; he is to be a torch-bearer in the race. His errors are his own, errors of the egoism of genius in an age of intellectual revolution; he casts away the past, and that is not wise, that is not legitimate; he anticipates for himself the full attainment of knowledge, which belongs not to him but to humanity during revolving centuries; and although he sets before himself the service of man as the outcome of all his labours—and this is well—at the same time he detaches himself from his fellow-men, regards them from a regal height, would decline even their tribute of gratitude, and would be the lofty benefactor rather than the loving helpmate of his brethren. Is it meant then that Paracelsus ought to have contented himself with being like his teacher Trithemius and the common masters of the schools? No, for these rested with an easy self-satisfaction in their poor attainments, and he is called upon to press forward, and advance from strength to strength, through attainment or through failure to renewed and unending endeavour. His dissatisfaction, his failure is a better thing than their success and content in that success. But why should he hope in his own person to forestall the slow advance of humanity, and why should the service of the brain be alienated from the service of the heart?

There are many ways in which Browning could have brought Paracelsus to a discovery of his error. He might have learnt from his own experience the aridity of a life which is barren of love. Some moment of supreme pity might have come to him, in which he, the possessor of knowledge, might have longed to offer consolation to some suffering fellow, and have found the helplessness of knowledge to console. Browning's imagination as a romantic poet craved a romantic incident and a romantic mise-en-scene. In the house of the Greek conjuror at Constantinople, Paracelsus, now worn by his nine years' wanderings, with all their stress and strain, his hair already streaked with grey, his spirit somewhat embittered by the small success attending a vast effort, his moral nature already somewhat deteriorated and touched with the cynicism of experience and partial failure, shall encounter the strange figure of Aprile, the living wraith of a poet who has also failed, who "would love infinitely and be loved," and who in gazing upon the end has neglected all the means of attainment; and from him, or rather by a reflex ray from this Aprile, his own error shall be flashed on the consciousness of the foiled seeker for knowledge. The invention of Browning is certainly not lacking in the quality of strangeness in beauty; yet some readers will perhaps share the feeling that it strains, without convincing, the imagination. As we read the first speeches addressed by the moon-struck poet to the wandering student of science, and read the moon-struck replies, notwithstanding the singular beauty of certain dramatic and lyrical passages, we are inclined to ask—Is this, indeed, a conjuror's house at Constantinople, or one of Browning's "mad-house cells?" and from what delusions are the harmless, and the apparently dangerous, lunatic suffering? The lover here is typified in the artist; but the artist may be as haughtily isolated from true human love as the man of science, and the fellowship with his kind which Paracelsus needs can be poorly learnt from such a distracted creature as Aprile. It is indeed Aprile's example and the fate which has overtaken him rather than his wild words which startle Paracelsus into a recognition of his own error. But the knowledge that he has left love out of his scheme of life is no guarantee that he will ever acquire the fervour and the infinite patience of love. The whole scene, with its extravagant poetic beauties and high-pitched rhetoric, leaves a painful impression of unreality, not in the shallower but in the deepest sense of that word.

For a poet to depict a poet in poetry is a hazardous experiment; in regarding one's own trade a sense of humour and a little wholesome cynicism are not amiss. These could find no place in Browning's presentation of Aprile, but it is certain that Browning himself was a much more complex person than the dying lover of love who became the instructor of Paracelsus. When the scene shifts from Constantinople to Basil, and the illustrious Professor holds converse with Festus by the blazing logs deep into the night, and at length morning arises "clouded, wintry, desolate and cold," we listen with unflagging attention and entire imaginative conviction; and, when silence ensues, a wonder comes upon us as to where a young man of three-and-twenty acquired this knowledge of the various bitter tastes of life which belong to maturer experience, and how he had mastered such precocious worldly wisdom. Paracelsus,

The wondrous Paracelsus, life's dispenser, Fate's commissary, idol of the schools And courts,

chews upon his worldly success and extracts its acrid juices. This is not the romantic melancholy of youth, which dreams of infinite things, but the pain of manhood, which feels the limitations of life, which can laugh at the mockery of attainment, which is sensible of the shame that dwells at the heart of glory, yet which already has begun to hanker after the mean delights of the world, and cannot dispense with the sorry pleasures of self-degradation. The kind, calm Pastor of Einsiedeln sees at first only the splendour that hangs around the name of his early comrade, the hero of his hopes. And Paracelsus for a while would forbear with tender ruth to shatter his friend's illusion, would veil, if that were possible, the canker which has eaten into his own heart. But in the tumult of old glad memories and present griefs, it ceases to be possible; from amid the crew of foolish praisers he must find one friend having the fidelity of genuine insight; he must confess his failure, and once for all correct the prophecy of Michal that success would come and with it wretchedness—

I have not been successful, and yet am Most miserable; 'tis said at last.

A certain manly protectiveness towards Festus and Michal, with their happy Aennchen and Aureole in the quiet home at Einsiedeln, remains to Paracelsus; there is in it now more than a touch of "the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow."

When, driven from Basil as a quack amid the hootings of the crowd, Paracelsus once again "aspires"; but it is from a lower level, with energy less certain, and with a more turbid passion. Upon such soiled and draggled wings can he ever soar again? His strength is the strength of fever; his gaiety is wild and bitter; he urges his brain with artificial stimulants. And he, whose need was love, has learnt hatred and scorn. In his earlier quest for truth he had parted with youth and joy; he had grown grey-haired and lean-handed before the time. Now, in his new scheme of life, he will not sever truth from enjoyment; he will snatch at the meanest delights; before death comes, something at least shall thus be gained. And yet he has almost lost the capacity for pleasures apart from those of a wolfish hunger for knowledge; and he despises his baser aims and his extravagant speeches. Could life only be begun anew with temperate hopes and sane aspirings! But he has given his pledges and will abide by them; he must submit to be hunted by the gods to the end. Before he parts from Festus at the Alsatian inn, a softer mood overtakes him. Blinded by his own passion, Paracelsus has had no sense to divine the sorrow of his friend, and Festus has had no heart to obtrude such a sorrow as this. Only at the last moment, and in all gentleness, it must be told—Michal is dead. In Browning's earliest poem Pauline is no more than a name and a shadow. The creator of Ottima and Colombe, of Balaustion and Pompilia had much to tell of womanhood. Michal occupies, as is right, but a small space in the history of Paracelsus, yet her presence in the poem and her silent withdrawal have a poignant influence. We see her as maiden and hear of her as mother, her face still wearing that quiet and peculiar light

Like the dim circlet floating round a pearl.

And now, as the strong men of Shakespeare's play spoke of the dead Portia in the tent, Paracelsus and Festus talk of the pastor of Einsiedeln's gentle wife. Festus speaks in assured hope, Paracelsus in daring surmise, of a life beyond the grave, and finally with a bitter return upon himself from his sense of her tranquillity in death:

And Michal sleeps among the roots and dews, While I am moved at Basil, and full of schemes For Nuremberg, and hoping and despairing, As though it mattered how the farce plays out, So it be quickly played!

It is the last cry of his distempered egoism before the closing scene.

In the dim and narrow cell of the Hospital of St Sebastian, where he lies dying, Paracelsus at last "attains"—attains something higher than a Professor's chair at Basil, attains a rapture, not to be expressed, in the joy which draws him onward, and a lucid comprehension of the past that lies behind. All night the faithful Festus has watched beside the bed; the mind of the dying man is working as the sea works after a tempest, and strange wrecks of memory float past in troubled visions. In the dawning light the clouds roll away, a great calm comes upon his spirit, and he recognises his friend. It is laid upon him, before he departs, to declare the meaning of his life. This life of his had been no farce or failure; in his degree he has served mankind, and what is the service of man but the true praise of God? He perceives now the errors of the way; he had been dazzled by knowledge and the power conferred by knowledge; he had not understood God's plan of gradual evolution through the ages; he had laboured for his race in pride rather than in love; he had been maddened by the intellectual infirmities, the moral imperfections of men, whereas he ought to have recognised even in these the capacities of a creature in progress to a higher development. Now, at length, he can follow in thought the great circle of God's creative energy, ever welling forth from Him in vast undulations, ever tending to return to Him again, which return Godwards is already foretold in the nature of man by august anticipations, by strange gleams of splendour, by cares and fears not bounded by this our earth.

Were Paracelsus a poem of late instead of early origin in Browning's poetical career, we should probably have received no such open prophecy as this. The scholar of the Renaissance, half-genius, half-charlatan, would have casuistically defended or apologised for his errors, and through the wreathing mists of sophistry would have shot forth ever and anon some ray of truth.

We receive from Paracelsus an impression of the affluence of youth. There is no husbanding of resources, and perhaps too little reserve of power. Where the poet most abandons himself to his ardour of thought and imagination he achieves his highest work. The stress and tension of his enthusiasm are perhaps too continuous, too seldom relieved by spaces of repose. It is all too much of a Mazeppa ride; there are times when we pray for a good quarter of an hour of comfortable dulness, or at least of wholesome bovine placidity. The laws of such a poem are wholly determined from within. The only question we have a right to ask is this—Has the poet adequately dealt with his subject, adequately expressed his idea? The division of the whole into five parts may seem to have some correspondency with the five acts of a tragedy; but here the stage is one of the mind, and the acts are free to contract or to expand themselves as the gale of thought or passion rises or subsides. If a spiritual anemometer were invented it would be found that the wind which drives through the poem maintains often and for long an astonishing pace. The strangely beautiful lyric passages interspersed through the speeches are really of a slower movement than the dramatic body of the poem; they are, by comparison, resting-places. The perfumed closet of the song of Paracelsus in Part IV. is "vowed to quiet" (did Browning ever compose another romanza as lulling as this?), and the Maine glides so gently in the lyric of Festus (Part V.) that its murmuring serves to bring back sanity to the distracted spirit of the dying Aureole. There are youthful excesses in Paracelsus; some vague, rhetorical grandeurs; some self-conscious sublimities which ought to have been oblivious of self; some errors of over-emphasis; some extravagances of imagery and of expression. The wonderful passage which describes "spring-wind, as a dancing psaltress," passing over the earth, is marred by the presence of "young volcanoes"

"cyclops-like Staring together with their eyes on flame,"

which young volcanoes were surely the offspring of the "young earthquake" of Byron. But these are, as the French phrase has it, defects of the poem's qualities. A few pieces of base metal are flung abroad unawares together with the lavish gold.

A companion poem to Paracelsus—so described by Browning to Leigh Hunt—was conceived by the poet soon after the appearance of the volume of 1835. When Strafford was published two years later, we learn from a preface, afterwards omitted, that he had been engaged on Sordello. Browning desired to complete his studies for this poem of Italy among the scenes which it describes. The manuscript was with him in Italy during his visit of 1838; but the work was not to be hastily completed. Sordello was published in 1840, five years after Paracelsus. In the chronological order of Browning's poems, by virtue of the date of origin, it lies close to the earlier companion piece; in the logical order it is the completion of a group of poems—Pauline, Paracelsus, Sordello—which treat of the perplexities, the trials, the failures, the ultimate recovery of men endowed with extraordinary powers; it is one more study of the conduct of genius amid the dangers and temptations of life. Here we may rightly disregard the order of publication, and postpone the record of external incidents in Browning's poetical development, in order to place Sordello in its true position, side by side with Paracelsus.

How the subject of Sordello was suggested to Browning we do not know; the study of Dante may have led him to a re-creation of the story of Dante's predecessor; after having occupied in imagination the old towns of Germany and Switzerland—Wuerzburg and Basil, Colmar and Salzburg—he may have longed for the warmth and colour of Italy; after the Renaissance with its revolutionary speculations, he may have wished to trace his way back to the Middle Age, when men lived and moved under the shadow of one or the other of two dominant powers, apparently fixed in everlasting rivalry—the Emperor and the Pope.

"The historical decoration," wrote Browning, in the dedicatory letter of 1863, to his friend Milsand, "was purposely of no more importance than a background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study." Undoubtedly the history of a soul is central in the poem; but the drawings of Italian landscape, so sure in outline, so vivid in colour; the views of old Italian city life, rich in the tumult of townsfolk, military chieftains, men-at-arms; the pictures of sombre interiors, and southern gardens, the hillside castle amid its vines, the court of love with its contending minstrels, the midnight camp lit by its fires; and, added to these, the Titianesque portraits of portly magnifico and gold-haired maiden, and thought-worn statist make up an environment which has no inconsiderable poetic value of its own, feeding, as it does, the inner eye with various forms and dyes, and leaving the "spirit in sense" more wealthy. With a theme so remote from the common consciousness of his own day, Browning conceived that there would be an advantage in being his own commentator and interpreter, and hence he chose the narrative in preference to the dramatic form; thus, he supposed he could act the showman and stand aside at times, to expound his own intentions. Unhappily, in endeavouring to strengthen and concentrate his style, he lost that sense of the reader's distance from himself which an artist can never without risk forget; in abbreviating his speech his utterance thickened; he created new difficulties by a legerdemain in the construction of sentences; he assumed in his public an alertness of intelligence equal to his own. When it needs a leaping-pole to pass from subject to verb across the chasm of a parenthesis, when a reader swings himself dubiously from relative to some one of three possible antecedents, when he springs at a meaning through the fissure of an undeveloped exclamatory phrase, and when these efforts are demanded again and again, some muscular fatigue naturally ensues. Yet it is true that when once the right connections in these perplexing sentences have been established, the sense is flashed upon the mind with singular vividness; then the difficulty has ceased to exist. And thus, in two successive stages of study, the same reader may justly censure Sordello for its obscurity of style, and justly applaud it for a remarkable lucidity in swiftness. Intelligent, however, as Browning was, it implied a curious lack of intelligence to suppose that a poem of many thousand lines written I in shorthand would speedily find decipherers. If we may trust the words of Westland Marston, recorded by Mr W.M. Rossetti in The Preraphaelite Brotherhood Journal (26 February 1850), Browning imagined that his shorthand was Roman type of unusual clearness: "Marston says that Browning, before publishing Sordello, sent it to him to read, saying that this time I the public should not accuse him at any rate of being unintelligible." What follows in the Journal is of interest, but can hardly be taken as true to the letter: "Browning's system of composition is to write down on a slate, in prose, what he wants to say, and then turn it into verse, striving after the greatest amount of condensation possible; thus, if an exclamation will suggest his meaning, he substitutes this for a whole sentence." In climbing an antique tower we may obtain striking flashes of prospect through the slits and eyelet-holes which dimly illuminate the winding stair, but to combine these into an intelligible landscape is not always easy. Browning's errors of style are in part attributable to his unhappy application of a passage in a letter of Caroline Fox which a friend had shown him. She stated that her acquaintance John Sterling had been repelled by the "verbosity" of Paracelsus: "Doth Mr Browning know," she asked, "that Wordsworth will devote a fortnight or more to the discovery of a single word that is the one fit for his sonnet?"[17] Browning was determined to avoid "verbosity"; but the method which seems to have occurred to him was that of omitting many needful though seemingly insignificant words, and jamming together the words that gleam and sparkle; with the result that the mind is at once dazzled and fatigued.

Sordello, the Italian singer of the thirteenth century, is conceived by Browning as of the type which he had already presented in the speaker of Pauline, only that here the poet is not infirm in will, and, though loved by Palma, he is hardly a lover. Like the speaker of Pauline he is preoccupied with an intense self-consciousness, the centre of his own imaginative creations, and claiming supremacy over these. He craves some means of impressing himself upon the world, some means of deploying the power that lies coiled within him, not through any gross passion for rule but in order that he may thus manifest himself to himself at the full. He is as far as possible removed from that type of the worshipping spirit exhibited in Aprile, and in the poet Eglamor, whom Sordello foils and subdues in the contest of song. The fame as a singer which comes suddenly to him draws Sordello out of his Goito solitude to the worldly society of Mantua, and his experiences of disillusion and half voluntary self-degradation are those which had been faintly shadowed forth in Pauline, and exhibited more fully—and yet with a difference—in the Basil experiences of Paracelsus. Like the poet of Pauline, after his immersion in worldliness, Sordello again seeks solitude, and recovers a portion of his higher self; but solitude cannot content one who is unable to obtain the self-manifestation which his nature demands without the aid of others who may furnish an external body for the forces that lie suppressed within him. Suddenly and unexpectedly the prospect of a political career opens before him. May it not be that he will thus obtain what he needs, and find in the people the instrument of his own thoughts, his passions, his aspirations, his imaginings, his will? May not the people become the body in which his spirit, with all its forces, shall incarnate itself? Coming into actual acquaintance with the people for the first time, the sight of their multiform miseries, their sorrows, even their baseness lays hold of Sordello; it seems as if it were they who were about to make him their instrument, the voice through which their inarticulate griefs should find expression; he is captured by those whom he thought to capture. By all his personal connections he is of the Imperial party—a Ghibellin; but, studying the position of affairs, he becomes convinced that the cause of the Pope is one with the cause of the people. At this moment vast possibilities of political power suddenly widen upon his view; Sordello, the minstrel, a poor archer's son, is discovered to be in truth the only son of the great Ghibellin chieftain, Salinguerra; he is loved by Palma, who, with her youth and beauty, brings him eminent station, authority, and a passion of devoted ambition on his behalf; his father flings upon Sordello's neck the baldric which constitutes him the Emperor's representative in Northern Italy. The heart and brain of Sordello become the field of conflict between fierce, contending forces. All that is egoistic in his nature cries out for a life of pride and power and joy. At best it is but little that he could ever do to serve the suffering multitude. And yet should he falter because he cannot gain for them the results of time? Is it not his part to take the single step in their service, though it can be no more than a step? In the excitement of this supreme hour of inward strife Sordello dies; but he dies a victor; like Paracelsus he also has "attained"; the Imperial baldric is found cast below the dead singer's feet.

This, in brief, is the "history of a soul" which Browning has imagined in his Sordello. And the conclusion of the whole matter can be briefly stated: the primary need of such a nature as Sordello's—and we can hardly doubt that Browning would have assigned himself a place in the class to which the poet of his imagination belongs—is that of a Power above himself, which shall deliver him from egoism, and whose loyal service shall concentrate and direct his various faculties, and this a Power not unknown or remote, but one brought near and made manifest; or, in other words, it is the need of that which old religion has set forth as God in Christ. Sordello in his final decision in favour of true service to the people had, like Paracelsus, given his best praise to God, had given his highest pledge of loyalty to whatever is Divine in life. And therefore, though he has failed in all his high designs, his failure is in the end a success. He, like Paracelsus, had read that bitter sentence which declares that "collective man outstrips the individual":—

"God has conceded two sights to a man— One, of men's whole work, time's completed plan, The other, of the minute's work, man's first Step to the plan's completion."

And the poor minute's work assigned him by the divine law of justice and pity he accepts as his whole life's task. It is true that though he now clearly sees the end, he has not perhaps recognised the means. If Sordello contemplated political action as his mode of effecting that minute's work, he must soon have discovered, were his life prolonged, that not thus can a poet live in his highest faculty, or render his worthiest service. The poet—and speaking in his own person Browning makes confession of his faith—can adequately serve his mistress, "Suffering Humanity," only as a poet. Sordello failed to render into song the highest thoughts and aspirations of Italy; but Dante was to follow and was not to fail. The minstrel's last act—his renunciation of selfish power and pleasure, his devotion to what he held to be the cause of the people, the cause of humanity, was indeed his best piece of poetry; by virtue of that act Sordello was not a beaten man but a conqueror.

These prolonged studies—Paracelsus, Sordello, and, on a more contracted scale, Pauline—each a study in "the development of a soul," gain and lose through the immaturity of the writer. He had, as yet, brought only certain of his faculties into play, or, at least, he had not as yet connected with his art certain faculties which become essential characteristics of his later work. There is no humour in these early poems, or (since Naddo and the critic tribe of Sordello came to qualify the assertion) but little; there is no wise casuistry, in which falsehood is used as the vehicle of truth; the psychology, however involved it may seem, is really too simple; the central personages are too abstract—knowledge and love and volition do not exhaust the soul; action and thought are not here incorporated one with the other; a deed is not the interpreter of an idea; an idea is first exhibited by the poet and the deed is afterwards set forth as its consequence; the conclusions are too patently didactic or doctrinaire; we suspect that they have been motives determining the action; our scepticism as to the disinterested conduct of the story is aroused by its too plainly deduced moral. We catch the powers at play which ought to be invisible; we fiddle with the works of the clock till it ceases to strike. Yet if only a part of Browning's mind is alive in these early poems, the faculties brought into exercise are the less impeded by one another; the love of beauty is not tripped up by a delight in the grotesque. And there is a certain pleasure in attending to prophecy which has not learnt to hide itself in casuistry. The analysis of a state of mind, pursued in Sordello with an effort that is sometimes fatiguing and not always successful, is presently followed by a superb portrait—like that of Salinguerra—painted by the artist, not the analyst, and so admirable is it that in our infirmity we are tempted to believe that the process of flaying and dissection alters the person of a man or woman as Swift has said, considerably for the worse.

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 15: The supposition of Mr Sharp and Mr Gosse that Browning visited Italy after having seen St Petersburg is an error. His first visit to Italy was that of 1838. I may note here that in a letter to E.B.B. (vol. ii. 443) Browning refers to having been in Holland some ten years since; the date of his letter is August 18, 1846.]

[Footnote 16: Mrs Bronson; Browning in Venice. Cornhill Magazine, Feb. 1902. pp. 160, 161.]

[Footnote 17: Mrs Orr's "Handbook to Browning," pp. 10, 11.]



Chapter III

The Maker of Plays

The publication of Paracelsus did not gain for Browning a large audience, but it brought him friends and acquaintances who gave his life a delightful expansion in its social relations. John Forster, the critic, biographer and historian, then unknown to him, reviewed the poem in the Examiner with full recognition of its power and promise. Browning gratefully commemorated a lifelong friendship with Forster, nearly a score of years later, in the dedication of the 1863 edition of his poetical works. Mrs Orr recites the names of Carlyle, Talfourd, R. Hengist Horne, Leigh Hunt, Procter, Monckton Milnes, Dickens, Wordsworth, Landor, among those of distinguished persons who became known to Browning at this period.[18] His "simple and enthusiastic manner" is referred to by the actor Macready in his diary; "he looks and speaks more like a youthful poet than any man I ever saw." Browning's face was one of rare intelligence and full of changing expression. He was not tall, but in early years he was slight, was graceful in his movements, and held his head high. His dark brown hair hung in wavy masses upon his neck. His voice had in early manhood a quality, afterwards lost, which Mr Sharp describes as "flute-like, clear, sweet and resonant." Slim, dark, and very handsome are the words chosen by Mrs Bridell-Fox to characterise the youthful Browning as he reappeared to her memory; "And—may I hint it?"—she adds, "just a trifle of a dandy, addicted to lemon-coloured kid gloves and such things, quite 'the glass of fashion and the mould of form.' But full of ambition, eager for success, eager for fame, and, what is more, determined to conquer fame and to achieve success." Yet the correct and conventional Browning could also fire up for lawlessness—"frenetic to be free." He was hail-fellow well-met, we are told—but is this part of a Browning legend?—with tramps and gipsies, and he wandered gladly, whether through devout sympathy or curiosity of mood we know not, into Little Bethels and other tents of spiritual Ishmael.

From Camberwell Browning's father moved to a house at Hatcham, transporting thither his long rows of books, together with those many volumes which lay still unwritten in the "celle fantastyk" of his son. "There is a vast view from our greatest hill," wrote Browning; a vast view, though Wordsworth had scorned the Londoner's hill—"Hill? we call that, such as that, a rise." Here he read and wrote, enjoyed his rides on the good horse "York," and cultivated friendship with a toad in the pleasant garden, for he had a peculiar interest, as his poems show, in creatures that live a shy, mysterious life apart from that of man, and the claim of beauty, as commonly understood, was not needed to win his regard. Browning's eye was an instrument made for exact and minute records of natural phenomena. "I have heard him say," Mr Sharp writes, "that at that time"—speaking of his earlier years—"his faculty of observation would not have appeared despicable to a Seminole or an Iroquois." Such activity of the visual nerve differs widely from the wise passiveness or brooding power of the Wordsworthian mode of contemplation. Browning's life was never that of a recluse who finds in nature and communion with the anima mundi a counterpoise to the attractions of human society. Society fatigued him, yet he would not abandon its excitements. A mystic—though why it should be so is hard to say—does not ordinarily affect lemon-coloured kid gloves, as did the Browning of Mrs Bridell-Fox's recollection. The mysticism of Browning's temper of mind came not by withdrawal from the throng of positive facts, but by pushing through these to the light beyond them, or by the perception of some spear-like shaft of light piercing the denseness, which was serviceable as the sheathe or foil. And of course it was among men and women that he found suggestions for some of his most original studies.

An introduction to Macready which took place at Mr Fox's house towards the close of November 1835 was fruitful in consequences. A month later Browning was Macready's guest at Elstree, the actor's resting-place in the country. His fellow-traveller, then unknown to him, in the coach from London was John Forster; in Macready's drawing-room the poet and his critic first formed a personal acquaintance. Browning had for long been much interested in the stage, but only as a spectator. His imagination now turned towards dramatic authorship with a view to theatrical performance. A play on a subject from later Roman history, Narses, was thought of and was cast aside. The success of Talfourd's Ion, after the first performance of which (May 26, 1836) Browning supped in the author's rooms with Macready, Wordsworth, and Landor, probably raised high hopes of a like or a greater success for some future drama of his own. "Write a play, Browning," said Macready, as they left the house, "and keep me from going to America." "Shall it be historical or English?" Browning questioned, as the incident is related by Mrs Orr, "What do you say to a drama on Strafford?" The life of Stafford by his friend Forster, just published, which during an illness of the author had been revised in manuscript by Browning, probably determined the choice of a subject.

By August the poet had pledged himself to achieve this first dramatic adventure. The play was produced at Covent Garden on May 1st, 1837, by Macready, who himself took the part of Strafford. Helen Faucit, then a novice on the stage, gave an adequate rendering of the difficult part of Lady Carlisle. For the rest, the complexion of the piece, as Browning describes it, after one of the latest rehearsals, was "perfect gallows." Great historical personages were presented by actors who strutted or slouched, who whimpered or drawled. The financial distress at Covent Garden forbade any splendour or even dignity of scenery or of costumes.[19] The text was considerably altered—and not always judiciously—from that of the printed play, which had appeared before its production on the stage. Yet on the first night Strafford was not damned, and on the second it was warmly applauded.[20] After the fifth performance the wretched Pym refused to save his mother England even once more, and the play was withdrawn. Browning declared to his friends that never again, as long as he might live, would he write a play. Whining not being to his taste, he averted his eyes and set himself resolutely to work upon Sordello.

"I sail this morning for Venice," Browning wrote to a friend on Good Friday, 1838. He voyaged as sole passenger on a merchantman, and soon was on friendliest terms with the rough kindly captain. For the first fortnight the sea was stormy and Browning suffered much; as they passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, Captain Davidson aided him to reach the deck, and a pulsing of home-pride—not home-sickness—gave their origin to the patriotic lines beginning, "Nobly, nobly Cape Saint Vincent to the north-west died away." Under the bulwark of the Norham Castle, off the African coast, when the fancy of a gallop on his Uncle Reuben's horse suddenly presented itself in pleasant contrast with the tedium of the hours on shipboard, he wrote in pencil, on the flyleaf of Bartoli's Simboli, that most spirited of poems which tell of the glory of motion—How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix. The only adventure of the voyage was the discovery of an Algerine pirate ship floating keel uppermost; it righted suddenly under the stress of ropes from the Norham Castle, and the ghastly and intolerable dead—Algerines and Spaniards—could not scare the British sailors eager for loot; at last the battered hulk was cast loose, and its blackness was seen reeling slowly off "into the most gorgeous and lavish sunset in the world." Having visited Venice, Vicenza and Padua—cities and mountain solitudes, which gave their warmth and colour to his unfinished poem—Browning returned home by way of Tyrol, the Rhine, Liege and Antwerp. It was his first visit to Italy and was a time of enchantment. Fifty years later he recalled the memories of these early days when his delight had something insubstantial, magical in it, and the vision was half perceived with the eye and half projected from within:—

How many a year my Asolo, Since—one step just from sea to land— I found you, loved yet feared you so— For natural objects seemed to stand Palpably fire-clothed![21]

Of evenings soon after his return to London Mrs Bridell-Fox writes: "He was full of enthusiasm for Venice, that Queen of Cities. He used to illustrate his glowing descriptions of its beauties, the palaces, the sunsets, the moonrises, by a most original kind of etching. Taking up a bit of stray notepaper, he would hold it over a lighted candle, moving the paper about gently till it was cloudily smoked over, and then utilising the darker smears for clouds, shadows, water, or what not, would etch with a dry pen the forms of lights on cloud and palace, on bridge or gondola on the vague and dreamy surface he had produced." The anticipations of genius had already produced a finer etching than any of these, in those lines of marvellous swiftness and intensity in Paracelsus, which describe Constantinople at the hour of sunset.



The publication of Sordello (1840) did not improve Browning's position with the public. The poem was a challenge to the understanding of an aspirant reader, and the challenge met with no response. An excuse for not reading a poem of five or six thousand lines is grateful to so infirm and shortlived a being as man. And, indeed, a prophet, if prudent, may do well to postpone the privilege of being unintelligible until he has secured a considerable number of disciples of both sexes. The reception of Sordello might have disheartened a poet of less vigorous will than Browning; he merely marched breast forward, and let Sordello lie inert, until a new generation of readers had arisen. The dramas, King Victor and King Charles and The Return of the Druses (at first named "Mansoor the Hierophant") now occupied his thoughts. Short lyrical pieces were growing under his hand, and began to form a considerable group. And one fortunate day as he strolled alone in the Dulwich wood—his chosen resort of meditation—"the image flashed upon him of one walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it."[22] In other words Pippa had suddenly passed her poet in the wood.

A cheap mode of issuing his works now in manuscript was suggested to Browning by the publisher Moxon. They might appear in successive pamphlets, each of a single sheet printed in double-column, and the series might be discontinued at any time if the public ceased to care for it. The general title Bells and Pomegranates was chosen; "beneath upon the hem of the robe thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about the hem thereof; and bells of gold between them round about." Browning, as he explained to his readers in the last number, meant to indicate by the title, "Something like an alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought"—such having been, in fact, one of the most familiar of the Rabbinical interpretations designed to expound the symbolism of this priestly decoration prescribed in "Exodus." From 1841 to 1846 the numbers of Bells and Pomegranates successively appeared; with the eighth the series closed. The first number—Pippa Passes—was sold for sixpence; when King Victor and King Charles was published in the following year (1842), the price was raised to one shilling. The third and the seventh numbers were made up of short pieces—Dramatic Lyrics (1842), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845). The Return of the Druses and A Blot in the 'Scutcheon—Numbers 4 and 5—followed each other in the same year 1843. Colombe's Birthday—the only number which is known to survive in manuscript—came next in order (1844). The last to appear was that which included Luna, Browning's favourite among his dramas, and A Soul's Tragedy.[23] His sister, except in the instance of Colombe, was Browning's amanuensis. On each title-page he is named Robert Browning "Author of Paracelsus"—the "wholly unintelligible" Sordello being passed over. Talfourd, "Barry Cornwall," and John Kenyon (the cousin of Elizabeth Barrett) were honoured with dedications. In these pamphlets of Moxon, Browning's wonderful apples of gold were certainly not presented to the public in pictures or baskets of silver; yet the possessor of the eight parts in their yellow paper wrappers may now be congratulated. Only one of the numbers—A Blot in the 'Scutcheon—attained the distinction of a second edition, and this probably because the drama as published was helped to a comparative popularity by its representation on the stage.

This tragedy of young love and death was written hastily—in four or five days—for Macready. Browning while at work on his play, as we learn from a letter of Dante Rossetti to Allingham, was kept indoors by a slight indisposition; his father on going to see him "was each day received boisterously and cheerfully with the words: 'I have done another act, father.'"[24] Forster read the tragedy aloud from the manuscript for Dickens, who wrote of it with unmeasured enthusiasm in a letter, known to Browning only when printed after the lapse of some thirty years: "Browning's play has thrown me into a perfect passion of sorrow.... I know no love like it, no passion like it, no moulding of a splendid thing after its conception like it." Things had gone ill with Macready at Drury Lane, and when the time for A Blot in the 'Scutcheon drew near it is evident that he feared further losses and would gladly have been released from his promise to produce the play; but Browning failed to divine the true state of affairs. The tragedy was read to the company by a grotesque, wooden-legged and red-nosed prompter, and it was greeted with laughter. To make amends, Macready himself undertook to read it aloud, but he declared himself unable, in the disturbed state of his mind, to appear before the public: his part—that of Lord Tresham—must be taken by Phelps. From certain rehearsals Phelps was unavoidably absent through illness. Macready who read his lines on these occasions, now was caught by the play, and saw possibilities in the part of Tresham which fired his imagination. He chose, almost at the last moment, to displace his younger and less distinguished colleague. Browning, on the other hand, insisted that Phelps, having been assigned the part, should retain it. To baffle Macready in his design of presenting the play to the public in a mutilated form, Browning, aided by his publisher, had the whole printed in four-and-twenty hours.[25] A rupture of the long-standing friendship with Macready followed, nor did author and actor meet again until after the great sorrow of Browning's life. "Mr Macready too"—writes Mrs Orr—"had recently lost his wife, and Mr Browning could only start forward, grasp the hand of his old friend, and in a voice choked with emotion say, 'O Macready!'"

The tragedy was produced at Drury Lane on February nth, 1843, with Phelps, who acted admirably as Tresham, and Helen Faucit as Mildred. Although it had been ill rehearsed and not a shilling had been spent on scenery or dresses, it was received with applause. To a call for the author, Browning, seated in his box, declined to make any response. Thus, not without some soreness of heart, closed his direct connection with the theatre. He heard with pleasure when in Italy that A Blot in the 'Scutcheon was given by Phelps at Sadler's Wells Theatre in November 1848, and with unquestionable success. A rendering of Colombe's Birthday was projected by Charles Kean in 1844, but the long delays, which were inevitable, could not be endured by Browning, who desired to print his play forthwith among the Bells and Pomegranates. It was not until nine years later that this play, a veritable "All for love, or the world well lost," was presented at the Haymarket, Helen Faucit appearing as the Duchess. Soon after Colombe's Birthday had been published, Browning sailed once more, in the autumn of 1844, for Italy.[26] As he journeyed northwards and homewards, from Naples (where they were performing an opera named Sordello) and Rome he sought and obtained at Leghorn an interview with Trelawny, the generous-hearted friend of Shelley, by whose grave he had lately stood.[27]

Browning's work as a playwright, consisting of eight pieces, or nine if we include the later In a Balcony, is sufficiently ample to enable us to form a trustworthy estimate of his genius as seen in drama. Dramatic, in the sense that he created and studied minds and hearts other than his own, he pre-eminently was; if he desired to set forth or to vindicate his most intimate ideas or impulses, he effected this indirectly, by detaching them from his own personality and giving them a brain and a heart other than his own in which to live and move and have their being. There is a kind of dramatic art which we may term static, and another kind which we may term dynamic. The former deals especially with characters in position, the latter with characters in movement.[28] Passion and thought may be exhibited and interpreted by dramatic genius of either type; to represent passion and thought and action—action incarnating and developing thought and passion—the dynamic power is required. And by action we are to understand not merely a visible deed, but also a word, a feeling, an idea which has in it a direct operative force. The dramatic genius of Browning was in the main of the static kind; it studies with extraordinary skill and subtlety character in position; it attains only an imperfect or a laboured success with character in movement. The dramatis personae are ready at almost every moment, except the culminating moments of passion, to fall away from action into reflection and self-analysis. The play of mind upon mind he recognises of course as a matter of profound interest and importance; but he catches the energy which spirit transfers to spirit less in the actual moment of transference than after it has arrived. Thought and emotion with him do not circulate freely through a group of persons, receiving some modification from each. He deals most successfully with each individual as a single and separate entity; each maintains his own attitude, and as he is touched by the common influence he proceeds to scrutinise it. Mind in these plays threads its way dexterously in and out of action; it is not itself sufficiently incorporated in action. The progress of the drama is now retarded; and again, as if the author perceived that the story had fallen behind or remained stationary, it is accelerated by sudden jerks. A dialogue of retrospection is a common device at the opening of popular plays, with a view to expound the position of affairs to the audience; but a dramatic writer of genius usually works forward through his dialogue to the end which he has set before him. With Browning for the purpose of mental analysis a dialogue of retrospection may be of higher value than one which leans and presses towards the future. The invisible is for him more important than the visible; and so in truth it may often be; but the highest dramatist will not choose to separate the two. The invisible is best captured and is most securely held in the visible.

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