STOPFORD A. BROOKE
AUTHOR OF "TENNYSON: HIS ART AND RELATION TO MODERN LIFE"
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ISBISTER AND COMPANY LIMITED
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Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & Co. London & Edinburgh
First Edition, September 1902 Reprinted, October 1902 Reprinted, January 1903
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I. BROWNING AND TENNYSON
II. THE TREATMENT OF NATURE
III. THE TREATMENT OF NATURE
IV. BROWNING'S THEORY OF HUMAN LIFE—PAULINE AND PARACELSUS
V. THE POET OF ART
VII. BROWNING AND SORDELLO
VIII. THE DRAMAS
IX. POEMS OF THE PASSION OF LOVE
X. THE PASSIONS OTHER THAN LOVE
XI. IMAGINATIVE REPRESENTATIONS
XII. IMAGINATIVE REPRESENTATIONS—RENAISSANCE
XIII. WOMANHOOD IN BROWNING
XIV. WOMANHOOD IN BROWNING—(THE DRAMATIC LYRICS AND POMPILIA)
XVI. THE RING AND THE BOOK
XVII. LATER POEMS
XVIII. THE LAST POEMS
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The publishers are indebted to Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co. on behalf of the owner of the copyright for their permission to make extracts from copyright poems for use in this volume
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BROWNING AND TENNYSON
Parnassus, Apollo's mount, has two peaks, and on these, for sixty years, from 1830 to 1890, two poets sat, till their right to these lofty peaks became unchallenged. Beneath them, during these years, on the lower knolls of the mount of song, many new poets sang; with diverse instruments, on various subjects, and in manifold ways. They had their listeners; the Muses were also their visitants; but none of them ventured seriously to dispute the royal summits where Browning and Tennyson sat, and smiled at one another across the vale between.
Both began together; and the impulses which came to them from the new and excited world which opened its fountains in and about 1832 continued to impel them till the close of their lives. While the poetic world altered around them, while two generations of poets made new schools of poetry, they remained, for the most part, unaffected by these schools. There is nothing of Arnold and Clough, of Swinburne, Rossetti or Morris, or of any of the others, in Browning or Tennyson. There is nothing even of Mrs. Browning in Browning. What changes took place in them were wrought, first, by the natural growth of their own character; secondly, by the natural development of their art-power; and thirdly, by the slow decaying of that power. They were, in comparison with the rest, curiously uninfluenced by the changes of the world around them. The main themes, with which they began, they retained to the end. Their methods, their instruments, their way of feeling into the world of man and of nature, their relation to the doctrines of God and of Man, did not, though on all these matters they held diverse views, alter with the alteration of the world. But this is more true of Browning than of Tennyson. The political and social events of those years touched Tennyson, as we see from Maud and the Princess, but his way of looking at them was not the way of a contemporary. It might have been predicted from his previous career and work. Then the new movements of Science and Criticism which disturbed Clough and Arnold so deeply, also troubled Tennyson, but not half so seriously. He staggered for a time under the attack on his old conceptions, but he never yielded to it. He was angry with himself for every doubt that beset him, and angry with the Science and Criticism which disturbed the ancient ideas he was determined not to change. Finally, he rested where he had been when he wrote In Memoriam, nay more, where he had been when he began to write.
There were no such intervals in Browning's thought. One could scarcely say from his poetry, except in a very few places, that he was aware of the social changes of his time, or of the scientific and critical movement which, while he lived, so profoundly modified both theology and religion. Asolando, in 1890, strikes the same chords, but more feebly, which Paracelsus struck in 1835.
But though, in this lofty apartness and self-unity, Browning and Tennyson may fairly be said to be at one, in themselves and in their song they were different. There could scarcely be two characters, two musics, two minds, two methods in art, two imaginations, more distinct and contrasted than those which lodged in these men—and the object of this introduction is to bring out this contrast, with the purpose of placing in a clearer light some of the peculiar elements in the poetry of Browning, and in his position as a poet.
1. Their public fate was singularly different. In 1842 Tennyson, with his two volumes of Collected Poems, made his position. The Princess, in 1847, increased his reputation. In 1850, In Memoriam raised him, it was said, above all the poets of his time, and the book was appreciated, read and loved by the greater part of the English-speaking world. The success and popular fame which now followed were well deserved and wisely borne. They have endured and will endure. A host of imitators, who caught his music and his manner, filled the groves and ledges which led up to the peak on which he lived. His side of Parnassus was thronged.
It was quite otherwise with his brother-poet. Only a few clear-eyed persons cared to read Paracelsus, which appeared in 1835. Strafford, Browning's first drama, had a little more vogue; it was acted for a while. When Sordello, that strange child of genius, was born in 1840, those who tried to read its first pages declared they were incomprehensible. It seems that critics in those days had either less intelligence than we have, or were more impatient and less attentive, for not only Sordello but even In Memoriam was said to be exceedingly obscure.
Then, from 1841 to 1846, Browning published at intervals a series of varied poems and dramas, under the title of Bells and Pomegranates. These, one might imagine, would have grasped the heart of any public which had a care for poetry. Among them were such diverse poems as Pippa Passes; A Blot in the 'Scutcheon; Saul; The Pied Piper of Hamelin; My Last Duchess; Waring. I only mention a few (all different in note, subject and manner from one another), in order to mark the variety and range of imaginative power displayed in this wonderful set of little books. The Bells of poetry's music, hung side by side with the golden Pomegranates of thought, made the fringe of the robe of this high priest of song. Rarely have imagination and intellect, ideal faith and the sense which handles daily life, passion and quietude, the impulse and self-mastery of an artist, the joy of nature and the fates of men, grave tragedy and noble grotesque, been mingled together more fully—bells for the pleasure and fruit for the food of man.
Yet, on the whole, they fell dead on the public. A few, however, loved them, and all the poems were collected in 1849. In Memoriam and this Collected Edition of Browning issued almost together; but with how different a fate and fame we see most plainly in the fact that Browning can scarcely be said to have had any imitators. The groves and ledges of his side of Apollo's mountain were empty, save for a few enchanted listeners, who said: "This is our music, and here we build our tent."
As the years went on, these readers increased in number, but even when the volumes entitled Men and Women were published in 1855, and the Dramatis Personae in 1864, his followers were but a little company. For all this neglect Browning cared as a bird cares who sings for the love of singing, and who never muses in himself whether the wood is full or not of listeners. Being always a true artist, he could not stop versing and playing; and not one grain of villain envy touched his happy heart when he looked across the valley to Tennyson. He loved his mistress Art, and his love made him always joyful in creating.
At last his time came, but it was not till nearly twenty years after the Collected Poems of 1849 that The Ring and the Book astonished the reading public so much by its intellectual tour de force that it was felt to be unwise to ignore Browning any longer. His past work was now discovered, read and praised. It was not great success or worldwide fame that he attained, but it was pleasant to him, and those who already loved his poems rejoiced with him. Before he died he was widely read, never so much as Tennyson, but far more than he had ever expected. It had become clear to all the world that he sat on a rival height with Tennyson, above the rest of his fellow-poets.
Their public fate, then, was very different. Tennyson had fifty years of recognition, Browning barely ten. And to us who now know Browning this seems a strange thing. Had he been one of the smaller men, a modern specialist like Arnold or Rossetti, we could better understand it. But Browning's work was not limited to any particular or temporary phase of human nature. He set himself to represent, as far as he could, all types of human nature; and, more audacious still, types taken from many diverse ages, nations and climates. He told us of times and folk as far apart as Caliban and Cleon, as Karshish and Waring, as Balaustion and Fifine, as St. John and Bishop Blougram. The range and the contrasts of his subjects are equally great. And he did this work with a searching analysis, a humorous keenness, a joyous boldness, and an opulent imagination at once penetrative and passionate. When, then, we realise this as we realise it now, we are the more astonished that appreciation of him lingered so long. Why did it not come at first, and why did it come in the end?
The first answer to that question is a general one. During the years between 1860 and 1890, and especially during the latter half of these years, science and criticism were predominant. Their determination to penetrate to the roots of things made a change in the general direction of thought and feeling on the main subjects of life. Analysis became dearer to men than synthesis, reasoning than imagination. Doubtful questions were submitted to intellectual decision alone. The Understanding, to its great surprise, was employed on the investigation of the emotions, and even the artists were drawn in this direction. They, too, began to dissect the human heart. Poets and writers of fiction, students of human nature, were keenly interested, not so much in our thoughts and feelings as in exposing how and why we thought or felt in this or that fashion. In such analysis they seemed to touch the primal sources of life. They desired to dig about the tree of humanity and to describe all the windings of its roots and fibres—not much caring whether they withered the tree for a time—rather than to describe and sing its outward beauty, its varied foliage, and its ruddy fruit. And this liking to investigate the hidden inwardness of motives—which many persons, weary of self-contemplation, wisely prefer to keep hidden—ran through the practice of all the arts. They became, on the whole, less emotional, more intellectual. The close marriage between passion and thought, without whose cohabitation no work of genius is born in the arts, was dissolved; and the intellect of the artist often worked by itself, and his emotion by itself. Some of the parthenogenetic children of these divorced powers were curious products, freaks, even monsters of literature, in which the dry, cynical, or vivisecting temper had full play, or the naked, lustful, or cruel exposure of the emotions in ugly, unnatural, or morbid forms was glorified. They made an impudent claim to the name of Art, but they were nothing better than disagreeable Science. But this was an extreme deviation of the tendency. The main line it took was not so detestable. It was towards the ruthless analysis of life, and of the soul of man; a part, in fact, of the general scientific movement. The outward forms of things charmed writers less than the motives which led to their making. The description of the tangled emotions and thoughts of the inner life, before any action took place, was more pleasurable to the writer, and easier, than any description of their final result in act. This was borne to a wearisome extreme in fiction, and in these last days a comfortable reaction from it has arisen. In poetry it did not last so long. Morris carried us out of it. But long before it began, long before its entrance into the arts, Browning, who on another side of his genius delighted in the representation of action, anticipated in poetry, and from the beginning of his career, twenty, even thirty years before it became pronounced in literature, this tendency to the intellectual analysis of human nature. When he began it, no one cared for it; and Paracelsus, Sordello and the soul-dissecting poems in Bells and Pomegranates fell on an unheeding world. But Browning did not heed the unheeding of the world. He had the courage of his aims in art, and while he frequently shaped in his verse the vigorous movement of life, even to its moments of fierce activity, he went on quietly, amid the silence of the world, to paint also the slowly interwoven and complex pattern of the inner life of men. And then, when the tendency of which I speak had collared the interest of society, society, with great and ludicrous amazement, found him out. "Here is a man," it said, "who has been doing in poetry for the last thirty years the very thing of which we are so fond, and who is doing it with delightful and varied subtlety. We will read him now." So Browning, anticipating by thirty years the drift of the world, was not read at first; but, afterwards, the world having reached him, he became a favoured poet.
However, fond as he was of metaphysical analysis, he did not fall into the extremes into which other writers carried it, Paracelsus is, indeed, entirely concerned with the inner history of a soul, but Sordello combines with a similar history a tale of political and warlike action in which men and women, like Salinguerra and Palma, who live in outward work rather than in inward thought, are described; while in poems like Pippa Passes and some of the Dramas, emotion and thought, intimately interwoven, are seen blazing, as it were, into a lightning of swift deeds. Nor are other poems wanting, in which, not long analysis, but short passion, fiery outbursts of thought, taking immediate form, are represented with astonishing intensity.
2. This second remarkable power of his touches the transition which has begun to carry us, in the last few years, from the subjective to the objective in art. The time came, and quite lately, when art, weary of intellectual and minute investigation, turned to realise, not the long inward life of a soul with all its motives laid bare, but sudden moments of human passion, swift and unoutlined impressions on the senses, the moody aspects of things, flared-out concentrations of critical hours of thought and feeling which years perhaps of action and emotion had brought to the point of eruption. Impressionism was born in painting, poetry, sculpture and music.
It was curious that, when we sought for a master who had done this in the art of poetry, we found that Browning—who had in long poems done the very opposite of impressionism—had also, in a number of short poems, anticipated impressionist art by nearly forty years. Porphyria's Lover, many a scene in Sordello, My Last Duchess, The Laboratory, Home Thoughts from Abroad, are only a few out of many. It is pleasant to think of the ultimate appearance of Waring, flashed out for a moment on the sea, only to disappear. In method, swiftness and colour, but done in verse, it is an impressionist picture, as vivid in transient scenery as in colour. He did the same sort of work in poems of nature, of human life, of moments of passion, of states of the soul. That is another reason why he was not read at first, and why he is read now. He was impressionist long before Impressionism arrived. When it arrived he was found out. And he stood alone, for Tennyson is never impressionist, and never could have been. Neither was Swinburne nor Arnold, Morris nor Rossetti.
3. Again, in the leisured upper ranges of thought and emotion, and in the extraordinary complexity of human life which arose, first, out of the more intimate admixture of all classes in our society; and secondly, out of the wider and more varied world-life which increased means of travel and knowledge afforded to men, Tennyson's smooth, melodious, simple development of art-subjects did not represent the clashing complexity of human life, whether inward in the passions, the intellect or the soul, or in the active movement of the world. And the other poets were equally incapable of representing this complexity of which the world became clearly conscious. Arnold tried to express its beginnings, and failed, because he tried to explain instead of representing them. He wrote about them; he did not write them down. Nor did he really belong to this novel, quick, variegated, involved world which was so pleased with its own excitement and entanglement. He was the child of a world which was then passing away, out of which life was fading, which was tired like Obermann, and sought peace in reflective solitudes. Sometimes he felt, as in The New Age, the pleasure of the coming life of the world, but he was too weary to share in it, and he claimed quiet. But chiefly he saw the disturbance, the unregulated life; and, unable to realise that it was the trouble and wildness of youth, he mistook it for the trouble of decay. He painted it as such. But it was really young, and out of it broke all kinds of experiments in social, religious, philosophical and political thought, such as we have seen and read of for the last thirty years. Art joined in the experiments of this youthful time. It opened a new fountain and sent forth from it another stream, to echo this attempting, clanging and complicated society; and this stream did not flow like a full river, making large or sweet melody, but like a mountain torrent thick with rocks, the thunderous whirlpools of whose surface were white with foam. Changing and sensational scenery haunted its lower banks where it became dangerously navigable. Strange boats, filled with outlandish figures, who played on unknown instruments, and sang of deeds and passions remote from common life, sailed by on its stormy waters. Few were the concords, many the discords, and some of the discords were never resolved. But in one case at least—in the case of Browning's poetry, and in very many cases in the art of music—out of the discords emerged at last a full melody of steady thought and controlled emotion as (to recapture my original metaphor) the rude, interrupted music of the mountain stream reaches full and concordant harmony when it flows in peace through the meadows of the valley.
These complex and intercleaving conditions of thought and passion into which society had grown Browning represented from almost the beginning of his work. When society became conscious of them—there it found him. And, amazed, it said, "Here is a man who forty years ago lived in the midst of our present life and wrote about it." They saw the wild, loud complexity of their world expressed in his verse; and yet were dimly conscious, to their consolation, that he was aware of a central peace where the noise was quieted and the tangle unravelled.
For Browning not only represented this discordant, varied hurly-burly of life, but also, out of all the discords which he described, and which, when he chose, even his rhythms and word-arrangements realised in sound, he drew a concordant melody at last, and gave to a world, troubled with itself, the hope of a great concent into which all the discords ran, and where they were resolved. And this hope for the individual and the race was one of the deepest elements in Browning's religion. It was also the hope of Tennyson, but Tennyson was often uncertain of it, and bewailed the uncertainty. Browning was certain of his hope, and for the most part resolved his discords. Even when he did not resolve them, he firmly believed that they would be resolved. This, his essential difference from the other poets of the last fifty years, marks not only his apartness from the self-ignorance of English society, and the self-sceptical scepticism which arises from that self-ignorance, but also how steadily assured was the foundation of his spiritual life. In the midst of the shifting storms of doubt and trouble, of mockery, contradiction, and assertion on religious matters, he stood unremoved. Whatever men may think of his faith and his certainties, they reveal the strength of his character, the enduring courage of his soul, and the inspiring joyousness that, born of his strength, characterised him to the last poem he wrote. While the other poets were tossing on the sea of unresolved Question, he rested, musing and creating, on a green island whose rocks were rooted on the ocean-bed, and wondered, with the smiling tolerance of his life-long charity, how his fellows were of so little faith, and why the sceptics made so much noise. He would have reversed the Psalmist's cry. He would have said, "Thou art not cast down, O my soul; thou art not disquieted within me. Thou hast hoped in God, who is the light of thy countenance, and thy God."
At first the world, enamoured of its own complex discords, and pleased, like boys in the street, with the alarms it made, only cared for that part of Browning which represented the tangle and the clash, and ignored his final melody. But of late it has begun, tired of the restless clatter of intellectual atoms, to desire to hear, if possible, the majestic harmonies in which the discords are resolved. And at this point many at present and many more in the future will find their poetic and religious satisfaction in Browning. At the very end, then, of the nineteenth century, in a movement which had only just begun, men said to themselves, "Browning felt beforehand what we are beginning to hope for, and wrote of it fifty, even sixty years ago. No one cared then for him, but we care now."
Again, though he thus anticipated the movements of the world, he did not, like the other poets, change his view about Nature, Man and God. He conceived that view when he was young, and he did not alter it. Hence, he did not follow or reflect from year to year the opinions of his time on these great matters. When Paracelsus was published in 1835 Browning had fully thought out, and in that poem fully expressed, his theory of God's relation to man, and of man's relation to the universe around him, to his fellow men, and to the world beyond. It was a theory which was original, if any theory can be so called. At least, its form, as he expressed it, was clearly original. Roughly sketched in Pauline, fully rounded in Paracelsus, it held and satisfied his mind till the day of his death. But Tennyson had no clear theory about Man or Nature or God when he began, nor was he afterwards, save perhaps when he wrote the last stanzas of In Memoriam, a fully satisfied citizen of the city that has foundations. He believed in that city, but he could not always live in it. He grew into this or that opinion about the relations of God and man, and then grew out of it. He held now this, now that view of nature, and of man in contact with nature. There was always battle in his soul; although he won his brittle in the end, he had sixty years of war. Browning was at peace, firm-fixed. It is true the inward struggle of Tennyson enabled him to image from year to year his own time better than Browning did. It is true this struggle enabled him to have great variety in his art-work when it was engaged with the emotions which belong to doubt and faith; but it also made him unable to give to his readers that sense of things which cannot be shaken, of faith in God and in humanity wholly independent, in its depths, of storms on the surface of this mortal life, which was one of Browning's noblest legacies to that wavering, faithless, pessimistic, analysis-tormented world through which we have fought our way, and out of which we are emerging.
4. The danger in art, or for an artist, of so settled a theory is that in expression it tends to monotony; and sometimes, when we find almost every poem of Browning's running up into his theory, we arrive at the borders of the Land of Weary-men. But he seems to have been aware of this danger, and to have conquered it. He meets it by the immense variety of the subjects he chooses, and of the scenery in which he places them. I do not think he ever repeats any one of his examples, though he always repeats his theory. And the pleasant result is that we can either ignore the theory if we like, or rejoice over its universal application, or, beyond it altogether, be charmed and excited by the fresh examples alone. And they are likely to charm, at least by variety, for they are taken from all ages of history; from as many diverse phases of human act, character and passion as there are poems which concern them; from many periods of the arts; from most of the countries of Europe, from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, (rarely from England,) with their specialised types of race and of landscape; and from almost every class of educated modern society. Moreover, he had a guard within his own nature against the danger of this monotony. It was the youthful freshness with which, even in advanced age, he followed his rapid impulses to art-creation. No one was a greater child than he in the quickness with which he received a sudden call to poetry from passing events or scenes, and in the eagerness with which he seized them as subjects. He took the big subjects now and then which the world expects to be taken, and treated them with elaborate thought and steadfast feeling, but he was more often like the girl in his half-dramatic poem, whom the transient occurrences and sights of the day touched into song. He picked up his subjects as a man culls flowers in a mountain walk, moved by an ever-recurring joy and fancy in them—a book on a stall, a bust in an Italian garden, a face seen at the opera, the market chatter of a Tuscan town, a story told by the roadside in Brittany, a picture in some Accademia—so that, though the ground-thought might incur the danger of dulness through repetition, the joy of the artist so filled the illustration, and his freshness of invention was so delighted with itself, that even to the reader the theory seemed like a new star.
In this way he kept the use of having an unwavering basis of thought which gave unity to his sixty years of work, and yet avoided the peril of monotony. An immense diversity animated his unity, filled it with gaiety and brightness, and secured impulsiveness of fancy. This also differentiates him from Tennyson, who often wanted freshness; who very rarely wrote on a sudden impulse, but after long and careful thought; to whose seriousness we cannot always climb with pleasure; who played so little with the world. These defects in Tennyson had the excellences which belong to them in art, just as these excellences in Browning had, in art, their own defects. We should be grateful for the excellences, and not trouble ourselves about the defects. However, neither the excellences nor the defects concern us in the present discussion. It is the contrast between the two men on which we dwell.
5. The next point of contrast, which will further illustrate why Browning was not read of old but is now read, has to do with historical criticism. There arose, some time ago, as part of the scientific and critical movement of the last forty years, a desire to know and record accurately the early life of peoples, pastoral, agricultural and in towns, and the beginning of their arts and knowledges; and not only their origins, but the whole history of their development. A close, critical investigation was made of the origins of each people; accurate knowledge, derived from contemporary documents, of their life, laws, customs and language was attained; the facts of their history were separated from their mythical and legendary elements; the dress, the looks of men, the climate of the time, the physical aspects of their country—all the skeleton of things was fitted together, bone to bone. And for a good while this merely critical school held the field. It did admirable and necessary work.
But when it was done, art claimed its place in this work. The desire sprang up among historians to conceive all this history in the imagination, to shape vividly its scenery, to animate and individualise its men and women, to paint the life of the human soul in it, to clothe it in flesh and blood, to make its feet move and its eyes flash—but to do all these things within the limits of the accurate knowledge which historical criticism had defined. "Let us saturate ourselves," said the historians, "with clear knowledge of the needful facts, and then, without violation of our knowledge, imagine the human life, the landscape, the thinking and feeling of a primaeval man, of his early religion, of his passions; of Athens when the Persian came, of Rome when the Republic was passing into the Empire, of a Provincial in Spain or Britain, of a German town in the woods by the river. Let us see in imagination as well as in knowledge an English settlement on the Welsh border, an Italian mediaeval town when its art was being born, a Jewish village when Christ wandered into its streets, a musician or a painter's life at a time when Greek art was decaying, or when a new impulse like the Renaissance or the French Revolution came upon the world." When that effort of the historians had established itself, and we have seen it from blossoming to fruitage, people began to wonder that no poet had ever tried to do this kind of work. It seemed eminently fitted for a poet's hand, full of subjects alluring to the penetrative imagination. It needed, of course, some scholarship, for it demanded accuracy in its grasp of the main ideas of the time to be represented; but that being given, immense opportunities remained for pictures of human life, full of colour, thought and passions; for subtle and brilliant representations of the eternal desires and thinkings of human nature as they were governed by the special circumstances of the time in which the poem was placed; and for the concentration into a single poem, gathered round one person, of the ideas whose new arrival formed a crisis in the history of art.
Men looked for this in Tennyson and did not find it. His Greek and mediaeval poems were modernised. Their imaginative work was uncritical. But when the historians and the critics of art and of religious movements happened at last to look into Browning, they discovered, to their delight and wonder, that he had been doing, with a curious knowledge, this kind of work for many years. He had anticipated the results of that movement of the imagination in historical work which did not exist when he began to write; he had worked that mine, and the discovery of this made another host of people readers of his poetry.
We need scarcely give examples of this. Sordello, in 1840 (long before the effort of which we speak began), was such a poem—the history of a specialised soul, with all its scenery and history vividly mediaeval. Think of the Spanish Cloister, The Laboratory, A Grammarian's Funeral, the Bishop orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, poems, each of which paints an historical period or a vivid piece of its life. Think of The Ring and the Book, with all the world of Rome painted to the life, and all the soul of the time!
The same kind of work was done for phases and periods of the arts from Greek times to the Renaissance, I may even say, from the Renaissance to the present day. Balaustion's Prologue concentrates the passage of dramatic poetry from Sophocles to Euripides. Aristophanes' Apology realises the wild licence in which art and freedom died in Athens—their greatness in their ruin—and the passionate sorrow of those who loved what had been so beautiful. Cleon takes us into a later time when men had ceased to be original, and life and art had become darkened by the pain of the soul. We pass on to two different periods of the Renaissance in Fra Lippo Lippi and in Andrea del Sarto, and are carried further through the centuries of art when we read Abt Vogler and A Toccata of Galuppi's. Each of these poems is a concentrated, accurate piece of art-history, with the addition to it of the human soul.
Periods and phases of religious history are equally realised. Caliban upon Setebos begins the record—that philosophic savage who makes his God out of himself. Then follows study after study, from A Death in the Desert to Bishop Blougram's Apology. Some carry us from early Christianity through the mediaeval faith; others lead us through the Paganism of the Renaissance and strange shows of Judaism to Browning's own conception of religion in the present day contrasted with those of the popular religion in Christmas-Day and Easter-Day.
Never, in poetry, was the desire of the historical critic for accuracy of fact and portraiture, combined with vivid presentation of life, so fully satisfied. No wonder Browning was not read of old; but it is no wonder, when the new History was made, when he was once found out, that he passed from a few to a multitude of readers.
6. Another contrast appears at the very beginning of their career. Tennyson, in his two earliest books in 1830 and 1833, though clearly original in some poems, had clinging round his singing robes some of the rags of the past. He wrote partly in the weak and sentimental strain of the poets between 1822 and 1832. Browning, on the contrary, sprang at once into an original poetic life of his own. Pauline was unfinished, irregular in form, harsh, abrupt, and overloaded, but it was also entirely fresh and distinct. The influence of Shelley echoes in it, but much more in admiration than in imitation of him. The matter, the spirit of the poem were his own, and the verse-movement was his own. Had Browning been an imitator, the first thing he would have imitated would have been the sweet and rippling movement of Shelley's melodies. But the form of his verse, such as it was, arose directly out of his own nature and was as original as his matter. Tennyson grew into originality, Browning leaped into it; born, not of other poets, but of his own will. He begat himself. It had been better for his art, so far as technical excellence is concerned, had he studied and imitated at first the previous masters. But he did not; and his dominant individuality, whole in itself and creating its own powers, separates him at the very beginning from Tennyson.
7. Tennyson became fully original, but he always admitted, and sometimes encouraged in himself, a certain vein of conventionality. He kept the opinions of the past in the matter of caste. He clung to certain political and social maxims, and could not see beyond them. He sometimes expressed them as if they were freshly discovered truths or direct emanations from the Deity of England. He belonged to a certain type of English society, and he rarely got out of it in his poetry. He inhabited a certain Park of morals, and he had no sympathy with any self-ethical life beyond its palings. What had been, what was proper and recognised, somewhat enslaved in Tennyson that distinctiveness and freedom of personality which is of so much importance in poetry, and which, had it had more liberty in Tennyson, would have made him a still greater poet than he was.
Browning, on the other hand—much more a person in society than Tennyson, much more a man of the world, and obeying in society its social conventions more than Tennyson—never allowed this to touch his poems. As the artist, he was quite free from the opinions, maxims, and class conventions of the past or the present. His poetry belongs to no special type of society, to no special nationality, to no separate creed or church, to no settled standard of social morality. What his own thought and emotion urged him to say, he said with an absolute carelessness of what the world would say. And in this freedom he preceded and prophesied the reaction of the last years of the nineteenth century against the tyranny of maxims and conventions in society, in morals, and in religion. That reaction has in many ways been carried beyond the proper limits of what is just and beautiful. But these excesses had to be, and the world is beginning to avoid them. What remains is the blessing of life set free, not altogether from the use of conventions, but from their tyranny and oppression, and lifted to a higher level, where the test of what is right and fitting in act, and just in thought, is not the opinion of society, but that Law of Love which gives us full liberty to develop our own nature and lead our own life in the way we think best independent of all conventions, provided we do not injure the life of others, or violate any of the great moral and spiritual truths by obedience to which the progress of mankind is promoted and secured. Into that high and free region of thought and action Browning brought us long ago. Tennyson did not, save at intervals when the poet over-rode the man. This differentiates the men. But it also tells us why Browning was not read fifty years ago, when social conventions were tyrannous and respectability a despot, and why he has been read for the last fifteen years and is read now.
8. There is another contrast between these poets. It is quite clear that Tennyson was a distinctively English poet and a patriotic poet; at times too much of a patriot to judge tolerantly, or to write fairly, about other countries. He had, at least, a touch of national contempts, even of national hatreds. His position towards France was much that of the British sailor of Nelson's time. His position towards Ireland was that of the bishop, who has been a schoolmaster, to the naughty curate who has a will of his own. His position towards Scotland was that of one who was aware that it had a geographical existence, and that a regiment in the English army which had a genius for fighting was drawn from its Highlands. He condescends to write a poem at Edinburgh, but then Edinburgh was of English origin and name. Even with that help he cannot be patient of the place. The poem is a recollection of an Italian journey, and he forgets in memories of the South—though surely Edinburgh might have awakened some romantic associations—
the clouded Forth, The gloom which saddens Heaven and Earth, The bitter East, the misty summer And gray metropolis of the North.
Edinburgh is English in origin, but Tennyson did not feel England beyond the Border. There the Celt intruded, and he looked askance upon the Celt. The Celtic spirit smiled, and took its vengeance on him in its own way. It imposed on him, as his chief subject, a Celtic tale and a Celtic hero; and though he did his best to de-celticise the story, the vengeance lasts, for the more he did this the more he injured his work. However, being always a noble artist, he made a good fight for his insularity, and the expression of it harmonised with the pride of England in herself, alike with that which is just and noble in it, and with that which is neither the one nor the other.
Then, too, his scenery (with some exceptions, and those invented) was of his own land, and chiefly of the places where he lived. It was quite excellent, but it was limited. But, within the limit of England, it was steeped in the love of England; and so sweet and full is this love, and so lovely are its results in song, that every Englishman has, for this reason if for no other, a deep and just affection for Tennyson. Nevertheless, in that point also his poetry was insular. A fault in the poet, not in the poetry. Perhaps, from this passionate concentration, the poetry was all the lovelier.
Again, when Tennyson took a great gest of war as his subject, he took it exclusively from the history of his own land. No one would know from his writings that high deeds of sacrifice in battle had been done by other nations. He knew of them, but he did not care to write about them. Nor can we trace in his work any care for national struggles or national life beyond this island—except in a few sonnets and short pieces concerning Poland and Montenegro—an isolation of interests which cannot be imputed to any other great poet of the first part of the nineteenth century, excepting Keats, who had no British or foreign interests. Keats had no country save the country of Beauty.
At all these points Browning differed from Tennyson. He never displayed a special patriotism. On the contrary, he is more Italian than English, and he is more quick to see and sympathise with the national characteristics of Spain or France or Germany, than he is with those of England. No insular feeling prevented him from being just to foreigners, or from having a keen pleasure in writing about them. Strafford is the only play he wrote on an English subject, and it is rather a study of a character which might find its place in any aristocracy than of an English character. Even Pym and Hampden fail to be truly English, and it would have been difficult for any one but Browning to take their eminent English elements out of them. Paracelsus and Sordello belong to Germany and Italy, and there are scarcely three poems in the whole of the seven numbers of the Bells and Pomegranates which even refer to England. Italy is there, and chiefly Italy. In De Gustibus he contrasts himself with his friend who loves England:
Your ghost will walk, you lover of trees, (If our loves remain) In an English lane By a cornfield-side a-flutter with poppies.
* * *
What I love best in all the world Is a castle, precipice-encurled, In a gash of the wind-grieved Apennine.
"Look for me, old fellow of mine, if I get out of the grave, in a seaside house in South Italy," and he describes the place and folk he loves, and ends:
Open my heart and you will see Graved inside of it, "Italy." Such lovers old are I and she: So it always was, so shall ever be!
It is a poem written out of his very heart.
And then, the scenery? It is not of our country at all. It is of many lands, but, above all, it is vividly Italian. There is no more minute and subtly-felt description of the scenery of a piece of village country between the mountains and the sea, with all its life, than in the poem called The Englishman in Italy. The very title is an outline of Browning's position in this matter. We find this English poet in France, in Syria, in Greece, in Spain, but not in England. We find Rome, Florence, Venice, Mantua, Verona, and forgotten towns among the Apennines painted with happy love in verse, but not an English town nor an English village. The flowers, the hills, the ways of the streams, the talk of the woods, the doings of the sea and the clouds in tempest and in peace, the aspects of the sky at noon, at sunrise and sunset, are all foreign, not English. The one little poem which is of English landscape is written by him in Italy (in a momentary weariness with his daily adoration), and under a green impulse. Delightful as it is, he would not have remained faithful to it for a day. Every one knows it, but that we may realise how quick he was to remember and to touch a corner of early Spring in England, on a soft and windy day—for all the blossoms are scattered—I quote it here. It is well to read his sole contribution (except in Pauline and a few scattered illustrations) to the scenery of his own country:
Oh, to be in England Now that April's there, And whoever wakes in England Sees, some morning, unaware, That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf Round the elm-tree hole are in tiny leaf, While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now!
And after April, when May follows, And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows! Hark! where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge Leans to the field and scatters on the clover Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge— That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, Lest you should think he never could recapture The first fine careless rapture! And though the fields look rough with hoary dew, All will be gay, when noontide wakes anew The buttercups, the little children's dower; —Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
So it runs; but it is only a momentary memory; and he knew, when he had done it, and to his great comfort, that he was far away from England. But when Tennyson writes of Italy—as, for instance, in Mariana in the South—how apart he is! How great is his joy when he gets back to England!
Then, again, when Browning was touched by the impulse to write about a great deed in war, he does not choose, like Tennyson, English subjects. The Cavalier Tunes have no importance as patriot songs. They are mere experiments. The poem, How They brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, has twice their vigour. His most intense war-incident is taken from the history of the French wars under Napoleon. The most ringing and swiftest poem of personal dash and daring—and at sea, as if he was tired of England's mistress-ship of the waves—a poem one may set side by side with the fight of The Revenge, is Herve Riel. It is a tale of a Breton sailor saving the French fleet from the English, with the sailor's mockery of England embedded in it; and Browning sent the hundred pounds he got for it to the French, after the siege of Paris.
It was not that he did not honour his country, but that, as an artist, he loved more the foreign lands; and that in his deepest life he belonged less to England than to the world of man. The great deeds of England did not prevent him from feeling, with as much keenness as Tennyson felt those of England, the great deeds of France and Italy. National self-sacrifice in critical hours, splendid courage in love and war, belonged, he thought, to all peoples. Perhaps he felt, with Tennyson's insularity dominating his ears, that it was as well to put the other side. I think he might have done a little more for England. There is only one poem, out of all his huge production, which recognises the great deeds of our Empire in war; and this did not come of a life-long feeling, such as he had for Italy, but from a sudden impulse which arose in him, as sailing by, he saw Trafalgar and Gibraltar, glorified and incarnadined by a battle-sunset:
Nobly, nobly Cape Saint Vincent to the North-west died away; Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay; Bluish 'mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay; In the dimmest North-east distance dawned Gibraltar grand and gray; "Here and here did England help me: how can I help England?"—say. Whoso turns as I, this evening, turn to God to praise and pray, While Jove's planet rises yonder, silent over Africa.
It is a little thing, and when it leaves the sunset it is poor. And there is twice the fervour of its sunset in the description of the sunrise at Asolo in Pippa Passes.
Again, there is scarcely a trace in his work of any vital interest in the changes of thought and feeling in England during the sixty years of his life, such as appear everywhere in Tennyson. No one would know from his poetry (at least until the very end of his life, when he wrote Francis Furini) that the science of life and its origins had been revolutionised in the midst of his career, or, save in A Death in the Desert, that the whole aspect of theology had been altered, or that the democratic movement had taken so many new forms. He showed to these English struggles neither attraction nor repulsion. They scarcely existed for him—transient elements of the world, merely national, not universal. Nor did the literature or art of his own country engage him half so much as the literature and art of Italy. He loved both. Few were better acquainted with English poetry, or reverenced it more; but he loved it, not because it was English, but of that world of imagination which has no special country. He cared also for English art, but he gave all his personal love to the art of Italy. Nor does he write, as Tennyson loved to do, of the daily life of the English farmer, squire, miller and sailor, and of English sweet-hearting, nor of the English park and brook and village-green and their indwellers, but of the work-girl at Asolo, and the Spanish monk in his garden, and the Arab riding through the desert, and of the Duchess and her servant flying through the mountains of Moldavia, and of the poor painters at Fano and Florence, and of the threadbare poet at Valladolid, and of the peasant-girl who fed the Tuscan outlaw, and of the poor grammarian who died somewhere in Germany (as I think Browning meant it), and of the Jews at Rome, and of the girl at Pornic with the gold hair and the peasant's hand, and of a hundred others, none of whom are English. All his common life, all his love-making, sorrow and joy among the poor, are outside this country, with perhaps two exceptions; and neither of these has the English note which sounds so soft and clear in Tennyson. This is curious enough, and it is probably one of the reasons why English people for a long time would have so little to do with him. All the same, he was himself woven of England even more than of Italy. The English elements in his character and work are more than the Italian. His intellect was English, and had the English faults as well as the English excellences. His optimism was English; his steadfast fighting quality, his unyielding energy, his directness, his desire to get to the root of things, were English. His religion was the excellent English compromise or rather balance of dogma, practice and spirituality which laymen make for their own life. His bold sense of personal freedom was English. His constancy to his theories, whether of faith or art, was English; his roughness of form was positively early Teutonic.
Then his wit, his esprit, his capacity for induing he skin and the soul of other persons at remote times of history; his amazing inventiveness and the ease of it, at which point he beats Tennyson out of the field; his play, so high fantastical, with his subjects, and the way in which the pleasure he took in this play overmastered his literary self-control; his fantastic games with metre and with rhyme, his want of reverence for the rules of his art; his general lawlessness, belong to one side, but to one side only, of the Celtic nature. But the ardour of the man, the pathos of his passion and the passion of his pathos, his impulse towards the infinite and the constant rush he made into its indefinite realms; the special set of his imagination towards the fulfillment of perfection in Love; his vision of Nature as in colour, rather than in light and shade; his love of beauty and the kind of beauty that he loved; his extraordinary delight in all kinds of art as the passionate shaping of part of the unapproachable Beauty—these were all old Italian.
Then I do not know whether Browning had any Jewish blood in his body by descent, but he certainly had Jewish elements in his intellect, spirit and character. His sense of an ever-victorious Righteousness at the centre of the universe, whom one might always trust and be untroubled, was Jewish, but he carried it forward with the New Testament and made the Righteousness identical with absolute Love. Yet, even in this, the Old Testament elements were more plainly seen than is usual among Christians. The appearance of Christ as all-conquering love in Easter-Day and the scenery which surrounds him are such as Ezekiel might have conceived and written. Then his intellectual subtlety, the metaphysical minuteness of his arguments, his fondness for parenthesis, the way in which he pursued the absolute while he loaded it with a host of relatives, and conceived the universal through a multitude of particulars, the love he had for remote and unexpected analogies, the craft with which his intellect persuaded him that he could insert into his poems thoughts, illustrations, legends, and twisted knots of reasoning which a fine artistic sense would have omitted, were all as Jewish as the Talmud. There was also a Jewish quality in his natural description, in the way he invented diverse phrases to express different aspects of the same phenomenon, a thing for which the Jews were famous; and in the way in which he peopled what he described with animal life of all kinds, another remarkable habit of the Jewish poets. Moreover, his pleasure in intense colour, in splashes and blots of scarlet and crimson and deep blue and glowing green; in precious stones for the sake of their colour—sapphire, ruby, emerald, chrysolite, pearl, onyx, chalcedony (he does not care for the diamond); in the flame of gold, in the crimson of blood, is Jewish. So also is his love of music, of music especially as bringing us nearest to what is ineffable in God, of music with human aspiration in its heart and sounding in its phrases. It was this Jewish element in Browning, in all its many forms, which caused him to feel with and to write so much about the Jews in his poetry. The two poems in which he most fully enshrines his view of human life, as it may be in the thought of God and as it ought to be conceived by us, are both in the mouth of Jews, of Rabbi Ben Ezra and Jochanan Hakkadosh. In Filippo Baldinucci the Jew has the best of the battle; his courtesy, intelligence and physical power are contrasted with the coarseness, feeble brains and body of the Christians. In Holy-Cross Day, the Jew, forced to listen to a Christian sermon, begins with coarse and angry mockery, but passes into solemn thought and dignified phrase. No English poet, save perhaps Shakespeare, whose exquisite sympathy could not leave even Shylock unpitied, has spoken of the Jew with compassion, knowledge and admiration, till Browning wrote of him. The Jew lay deep in Browning. He was a complex creature; and who would understand or rather feel him rightly, must be able to feel something of the nature of all these races in himself. But Tennyson was not complex. He was English and only English.
But to return from this digression. Browning does not stand alone among the poets in the apartness from his own land of which I have written. Byron is partly with him. Where Byron differs from him is, first, in this—that Byron had no poetic love for any special country as Browning had for Italy; and, secondly, that his country was, alas, himself, until at the end, sick of his self-patriotism, he gave himself to Greece. Keats, on the other hand, had no country except, as I have said, the country of Loveliness. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley were not exclusively English. Shelley belonged partly to Italy, but chiefly to that future of mankind in which separate nationalities and divided patriotisms are absorbed. Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their early days, were patriots of humanity; they actually for a time abjured their country. Even in his later days Wordsworth's sympathies reach far beyond England. But none of these were so distinctively English as Tennyson, and none of them were so outside of England as Browning. Interesting as it is, the completeness of this isolation from England was a misfortune, not a strength, in his poetry.
There is another thing to say in this connection. The expansion of the interests of the English poets beyond England was due in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and partly in Byron, to the great tidal-wave of feeling for man as man, which, rising long before the French Revolution, was lifted into twice its height and dashed on the shore of the world with overwhelming volume, by the earthquake in France of 1789. Special national sentiments were drowned in its waters. Patriotism was the duty of man, not to any one nation but to the whole of humanity, conceived of as the only nation.
In 1832 there was little left of that influence in England among the educated classes, and Tennyson's insular patriotism represented their feeling for many years, and partly represents it now. But the ideas of the Revolution were at the same time taking a wiser and more practical form among the English democracy than they even had at their first outburst in France, and this emerged, on one side of it, in the idea of internationalism. It grew among the propertied classes from the greater facilities of travel, from the wide extension of commercial, and especially of literary, intercommunication. Literature, even more than commerce, diminishes the oppositions and increases the amalgamation of nations. On her lofty plane nations breathe an air in which their quarrels die. The same idea grew up of itself among the working classes, not only in England, but in Germany, Italy, France, America. They began, and have continued, to lose their old belief in distinct and warring nationalities. To denationalise the nations into one nation only—the nation of mankind—is too vast an idea to grow quickly, but in all classes, and perhaps most in the working class, there are an increasing number of thinking men who say to the varied nations, "We are all one; our interests, duties, rights, nature and aims are one." And, for my part, I believe that in the full development of that conception the progress of mankind is most deeply concerned, and will be best secured.
Now, when all these classes in England, brought to much the same point by different paths, seek for a poetry which is international rather than national, and which recognises no special country as its own, they do not find it in Tennyson, but they do find Browning writing, and quite naturally, as if he belonged to other peoples as much as to his own, even more than to his own. And they also find that he had been doing this for many years before their own international interests had been awakened. That, then, differentiates him completely from Tennyson, and is another reason why he was not read in the past but is read in the present.
9. Again, with regard to politics and social questions, Tennyson made us know what his general politics were, and he has always pleased or displeased men by his political position. The British Constitution appears throughout his work seated like Zeus on Olympus, with all the world awaiting its nod. Then, also, social problems raise their storm-awakening heads in his poetry: the Woman's Question; War; Competition; the State of the Poor; Education; a State without Religion; the Marriage Question; where Freedom lies; and others. These are brought by Tennyson, though tentatively, into the palace of poetry and given rooms in it.
At both these points Browning differed from Tennyson. He was not the politician, not the sociologist, only the poet. No trace of the British Constitution is to be found in his poetry; no one could tell from it that he had any social views or politics at all. Sixty years in close contact with this country and its movements, and not a line about them!
He records the politics of the place and people of whom or of which he is for the moment writing, but he takes no side. We know what they thought at Rome or among the Druses of these matters, but we do not know what Browning thought. The art-representation, the Vorstellung of the thing, is all; the personal view of the poet is nothing. It is the same in social matters. What he says as a poet concerning the ideas which should rule the temper of the soul and human life in relation to our fellow men may be applied to our social questions, and usefully; but Browning is not on that plane. There are no poems directly applied to them. This means that he kept himself outside the realm of political and social discussions and in the realm of those high emotions and ideas out of which imagination in lonely creation draws her work to light. With steady purpose he refused to make his poetry the servant of the transient, of the changing elements of the world. He avoided the contemporary. For this high reserve we and the future of art will owe him gratitude.
On the contrast between the theology we find in Tennyson and Browning, and on the contrast between their ethical positions, it will be wiser not to speak in this introduction. These two contrasts would lead me too far afield, and they have little or nothing to do with poetry. Moreover, Browning's theology and ethics, as they are called, have been discussed at wearying length for the last ten years, and especially by persons who use his poetry to illustrate from it their own systems of theology, philosophy and ethics.
10. I will pass, therefore, to another contrast—the contrast between them as Artists.
A great number of persons who write about the poets think, when they have said the sort of things I have been saying, that they have said either enough, or the most important things. The things are, indeed, useful to say; they enable us to realise the poet and his character, and the elements of which his poetry is made. They place him in a clear relation to his time; they distinguish him from other poets, and, taken all together, they throw light upon his work. But they are not half enough, nor are they the most important. They leave out the essence of the whole matter; they leave out the poetry. They illuminate the surface of his poetry, but they do not penetrate into his interpretation, by means of his special art, and under the influence of high emotion, of the beautiful and sublime Matter of thought and feeling which arises out of Nature and Human Nature, the two great subjects of song; which Matter the poets represent in a form so noble and so lovely in itself that, when it is received into a heart prepared for it, it kindles in the receiver a love of beauty and sublimity similar to that which the poet felt before he formed, and while he formed, his poem. Such a receiver, reading the poem, makes the poem, with an individual difference, in himself. And this is the main thing; the eternal, not the temporary thing.
Almost all I have already discussed with regard to Tennyson and Browning belongs to the temporary; and the varying judgments which their public have formed of them, chiefly based on their appeal to the tendencies of the time, do not at all predict what the final judgment on these men as poets is likely to be. That will depend, not on feelings which belong to the temporary elements of the passing day, but on how far the eternal and unchanging elements of art appear in their work. The things which fitted the poetry of Tennyson to the years between 1840 and 1870 have already passed away; the things which, as I have explained, fitted the poetry of Browning to the tendencies of the years after 1870 will also disappear, and are already disappearing. Indeed, the excessive transiency of nearly all the interests of cultivated society during the last ten years is that in them which most deeply impresses any man who sits somewhat apart from them. And, at any rate, none of these merely contemporary elements, which often seem to men the most important, will count a hundred years hence in the estimate of the poetry either of Tennyson or Browning. They will be of historical interest, and no more. Matters in their poetry, now the subjects of warm discussion among their critics, will be laid aside as materials for judgment; and justly, for they are of quite impermanent value.
Whenever, then, we try to judge them as poets, we must do our best to discharge these temporary things, and consider their poetry as it will seem a hundred years hence to men who will think seriously and feel sensitively, even passionately, towards great and noble Matter of imaginative thought and emotion concerning human life and the natural world, and towards lovely creation of such matter into Form. Their judgment will be made apart from the natural prejudices that arise from contemporary movements. They will not be wiser in their judgment of their own poets than we are about ours, but they will be wiser in their judgment of our poets, because, though they will have their own prejudices, they will not have ours. Moreover, the long, growing, and incessantly corrected judgment of those best fitted to feel what is most beautiful in shaping and most enduring in thought and feeling penetrated and made infinite by imagination, will, by that time, have separated the permanent from the impermanent in the work of Browning and Tennyson.
That judgment will partly depend on the answers, slowly, as it were unconsciously, given by the world to two questions. First, how far does their poetry represent truly and passionately what is natural and most widely felt in loving human nature, whether terrible or joyful, simple or complex, tragic or humorous? Secondly, how far is the representation beautiful and noble in form, and true to the laws of their art. That poetry which is nearest to the most natural, the most universal elements of human life when they are suffused with love—in some at least of its various moods—and at the same time the most beautiful in form, is the best. It wins most affection from mankind, for it is about noble matters of thought which the greater number of men and women desire to contemplate, and about noble matters of passion which the greater number love and therefore enjoy. This poetry lasts from generation to generation, is independent of differences made by climate, by caste, by nationality, by religion, by politics, by knowledge, custom, tradition or morals. These universal, natural elements of human nature are, in all their infinite variety and striving, beloved by men, of undying interest in action, and of immortal pleasure in thought. The nearer a poet is to them, especially to what is lovable, and therefore beautiful in them, the greater and the more enduring is his work. It follows that this greater work will also be simple, that is, easy to feel with the heart though it may be difficult to grasp by the intelligence. Were it not simple in feeling, the general answer of mankind to the call of love, in all its forms, for sympathy would be unheard. And if it be simple in feeling, it does not much matter if the deep waters of its thought are difficult for the understanding to fathom.
It would be ridiculous to dogmatise on a matter which can only be fully answered a century hence, but this much is plain. Of these two poets, taking into consideration the whole of their work, Tennyson is the closest to human nature in its noble, common and loving forms, as Browning is the closest to what is complex, subtle and uncommon in human nature. The representation both of the simple and of the complex is a good thing, and both poets have their place and honour. But the representation of the complex is plainly the more limited in range of influence, and appeals to a special class of minds rather than to mankind at large. There are some, indeed, who think that the appeal to the few, to thinkers alone or high-wrought specialists in various forms of culture, marks out the greater poet. It is the tendency of literary castes to think that specialised work is the greatest. "This man," they say, "is our poet, not the mob's. He stands apart, and his apartness marks his greatness." These are amusing persons, who practically say, "We alone understand him, therefore he is great."
Yet a phrase like "apartness makes greatness," when justly applied to a poet, marks, not his superiority of rank, but his inferiority. It relegates him at once to a lower place. The greatest poets are loved by all, and understood by all who think and feel naturally. Homer was loved by Pericles and by the sausage-seller. Vergil was read with joy by Maecenas and Augustus, and by the vine-dressers of Mantua. Dante drew after him the greatest minds in Italy, and yet is sung to-day by the shepherds and peasants of the hill-villages of Tuscany. Shakespeare pleases the most selected spirits of the world and the galleries of the strolling theatres.
And though Tennyson and Browning are far below these mightier poets, yet when we apply to them this rule, drawn from what we know to be true of the greatest, Tennyson answers its demand more closely than Browning. The highest work which poetry can do is to glorify what is most natural and simple in the whole of loving human nature, and to show the excelling beauty, not so much of the stranger and wilder doings of the natural world, but of its everyday doings and their common changes. In doing these two things with simplicity, passion and beauty is the finest work of the arts, the eternal youth, the illimitable material of poetry, and it will endure while humanity endures in this world, and in that which is to come. Among all our cultivated love of the uncommon, the remote, the subtle, the involved, the metaphysical and the terrible—the representation of which things has its due place, even its necessity—it is well to think of that quiet truth, and to keep it as a first principle in the judgment of the arts. Indeed, the recovery of the natural, simple and universal ways of acting and feeling in men and women who love as the finest subjects of the arts has always regenerated them whenever, in pursuit of the unnatural, the complicated, the analytic, and the sensational, they have fallen into decay.
Browning did not like this view, being conscious that his poetry did not answer its demand. Not only in early but also in later poems, he pictured his critics stating it, and his picture is scornful enough. There is an entertaining sketch of Naddo, the Philistine critic, in the second book of Sordello; and the view I speak of is expressed by him among a huddle of criticisms—
"Would you have your songs endure? Build on the human heart!—why, to be sure Yours is one sort of heart.—But I mean theirs, Ours, every one's, the healthy heart one cares To build on! Central peace, mother of strength, That's father of...."
This is good fooling, and Naddo is an ass. Nevertheless, though Naddo makes nonsense of the truth, he was right in the main, and Browning as well as Sordello suffered when they forgot or ignored that truth. And, of course, Browning did not forget or ignore it in more than half his work. Even in Sordello he tells us how he gave himself up to recording with pity and love the doings of the universal soul. He strove to paint the whole. It was a bold ambition. Few have fulfilled it so well. None, since Shakespeare, have had a wider range. His portraiture of life was so much more varied than that of Tennyson, so much more extensive and detailed, that on this side he excels Tennyson; but such portraiture is not necessarily poetic, and when it is fond of the complex, it is always in danger of tending to prose. And Browning, picturing human life, deviated too much into the delineation of its more obscure and complex forms. It was in his nature to do and love this kind of work; and indeed it has to be done, if human life is to be painted fully. Only, it is not to be done too much, if one desires to be always the poet. For the representation of the complex and obscure is chiefly done by the analysing understanding, and its work and pleasure in it lures the poet away from art. He loses the poetic turn of the thing of which he writes, and what he produces is not better than rhythmical prose. Again and again Browning fell into that misfortune; and it is a strange problem how a man, who was in one part of his nature a great poet, could, under the sway of another, cease to be a poet. At this point his inferiority to Tennyson as a poet is plain. Tennyson scarcely ever wrote a line which was not unmistakably poetry, while Browning could write pages which were unmistakably not poetry.
I do not mean, in saying all this, that Browning did not appeal to that which is deepest and universal in nature and human nature, but only that he did not appeal to it as much as Tennyson. Browning is often simple, lovely and universal. And when he speaks out of that emotional imagination wherein is the hiding of a poet's power, and which is the legitimate sovereign of his intellectual work, he will win and keep the delight and love of the centuries to come. By work of this type he will be finally judged and finally endure; and, even now, every one who loves great poetry knows what these master-poems are. As to the others, the merely subtle, analytic poems in which intellect, not imagination, is supreme, especially those into which he drifted in his later life when the ardour of his poetic youth glowed less warmly—they will always appeal to a certain class of persons who would like to persuade themselves that they like poetry but to whom its book is sealed; and who, in finding out what Browning means, imagine to their great surprise that they find out that they care for poetry. What they really care for is their own cleverness in discovering riddles, and they are as far away from poetry as Sirius is from the Sun.
There are, however, many true lovers of poetry who are enthusiastic about these poems. And parts of them deserve this enthusiasm, for they have been conceived and made in a wild borderland between analysis and imagination. They occupy a place apart, a backwater in the noble stream of English poetry, filled with strange plants; and the final judgment of Browning's rank as an artist will not depend on them but on the earlier poems, which, being more "simple, sensuous and passionate," are nearer to the common love and life of man. When, then, we apply this test, the difference of rank between him and Tennyson is not great, but it is plain. Yet comparison, on this point, is difficult. Both drew mankind. Tennyson is closer to that which is most universal in the human heart, Browning to the vast variety within it; and men in the future will find their poetic wants best satisfied by reading the work of both these poets. Let us say then that in this matter they are equal. Each has done a different part of that portraiture of human nature which is the chief work of a poet.
But this is not the only test we may apply to these men as poets. The second question which tries the endurance and greatness of poetic work is this: "How far is any poet's representation of what is true and loving in itself lovely?" Their stuff may be equally good. Is their form equally good? Is it as beautiful as an artist, whose first duty is to be true to beauty as the shape of love and truth, ought to make it? The judgment of the future will also be formed on that ground, and inevitably.
What we call form in poetry may be said to consist of, or to depend on, three things: (1) on a noble style; (2) on a harmonious composition, varied but at unity; (3) on a clear, sweet melody of lawful movement in verse. These are not everything in poetry, but they are the half of its whole. The other half is that the "matter"—that is, the deep substance of amalgamated Thought and Emotion—should be great, vital and fair. But both halves are necessary, and when the half which regards form is weak or unbeautiful, the judgment of the future drops the poems which are faulty in form out of memory, just as it drops out of its affections poems which are excellent in form, but of ignoble, unimpassioned, feeble or thoughtless matter. There was, for example, a whole set of poets towards the end of the Elizabethan period who were close and weighty thinkers, whose poetry is full of intellectual surprises and difficulties, who were capable of subtlety of expression and even of lovely turns and phantasies of feeling; whom students read to-day, but whom the poetical world does not read at all. And the reason is that their style, their melody, and their composition do not match in excellence their matter. Their stuff is good, their form is bad. The judgment of the future gives them no high rank. They do not answer well to the test of which I speak.
I do not mean to apply that analogy altogether, only partly, to Browning. He rises far above these poets in style, composition and melody, but he skirts their faults. And if we are asked to compare him to Tennyson, he is inferior to Tennyson at all these points of Form.
(1) His composition was rarely sufficiently careful. It was broken up, overcrowded; minor objects of thought or feeling are made too remarkable for the whole; there is far too little of poetical perspective; the variety of the poem does not always grow out of the subject itself, but out of the external play of Browning's mind upon things remotely connected with the subject; too many side-issues are introduced; everything he imagined is cast upon the canvas, too little is laid aside, so that the poems run to a length which weakens instead of strengthening the main impression. A number of the poems have, that is, the faults of a composer whose fancy runs away with him, who does not ride it as a master; and in whom therefore, for a time, imagination has gone to sleep. Moreover, only too often, they have those faults of composition which naturally belong to a poet when he writes as if intellect rather than passion were the ultimate umpire of the work of his art. Of course, there are many exceptions; and the study of those exceptions, as exceptions, would make an interesting essay. On the other hand, Tennyson's composition was for the most part excellent, and always careful.
(2) Then as to style. Browning had a style of his own, wholly devoid of imitation, perfectly individual, and this is one of the marks of a good artist. It was the outcome of his poetic character, and represented it. At this point his style is more interesting than Tennyson's. Tennyson's style was often too much worked, too consciously subjected to the rules of his art, too worn down to smoothness of texture. Moreover, the natural surprises of an unchartered individuality do not sufficiently appear in it (Tennyson repressed the fantastic), though the whole weight of his character does magnificently appear. But if Tennyson was too conscious of his style—a great misfortune especially in passionate song—Browning did not take any deliberate pains with his style, and that is a greater misfortune. His freedom ran into undue licence; and he seems to be over-conscious, even proud, of his fantastical way of writing. His individuality runs riot in his style. He paid little attention to the well-established rules of his art, in a revulsion, perhaps, from any imitation of the great models. He had not enough reverence for his art, and little for the public. He flung his diction at our heads and said: "This is myself; take it or leave it."
None of the greater artists of the world have ever done this. They have not cared for what the world said, but they have cared for their art. There are certain limits to individual capriciousness in style, long since laid down, as it were, by Beauty herself; which, transgressed, lessen, injure or lose beauty; and Browning continually transgressed those limits.
Again, clearness is one of the first elements in style, and on poetry attaining clearness, depends, in great measure, its enduringness in the future. So far as clearness carries him, Tennyson's poetry is sure to last. So far as Browning's obscurity goes, his poetry will not last like Tennyson's. It is all very well for his students to say that he is not obscure; he is. Nor is it by any exceptional depth of thought or by any specially profound analysis of the soul that Browning is obscure. It is by his style. By that he makes what is easy difficult. The reader does not get at what he means as he gets at what Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare mean. Dante and Shakespeare are often difficult through the depth and difficulty of their matter; they are not difficult, except Shakespeare when he was learning his art, by obscurity or carelessness of style. But Browning is difficult not by his thoughts, but by his expression of them. A poet has no right to be so indifferent, so careless of clearness in his art, I might almost say, so lazy. Browning is negligent to a fault, almost to impertinence. The great poets put the right words in the right places, and Tennyson is with them in that. Browning continually puts his words into the wrong places. He leaves out words necessary for the easy understanding of the passage, and for no reason except his fancy. He leaves his sentences half-finished and his meaning half-expressed. He begins a sentence, and having begun it, three or four thoughts connected with it slide into his mind, and instead of putting them aside or using them in another place, he jerks them into the middle of his sentence in a series of parentheses, and then inserts the end of the original sentence, or does not insert it at all. This is irritating except to folk who like discovery of the twisted rather than poetry; and it is quite needless. It is worse than needless, for it lowers the charm and the dignity of the poetry.
Yet, there is something to say on the other side. It is said, and with a certain justice, that "the style is the man. Strip his style away, and where is the man? Where is the real Browning if we get him to change a way of writing in which he naturally shaped his thought?" Well, no one would ask him to impose on himself a style which did not fit his nature. That would be fatal. When he has sometimes tried to do so, as in a few of the dramas, we scarcely recognise our poet, and we lose half of his intellectual and poetic charm. Just as Carlyle when he wrote away from his natural style, as in the life of Sterling and Schiller, is not the great writer he is elsewhere, so was it with Browning. Were we savage satirists, blinded by our savagery, we might then say both of Browning and Carlyle that half their power lay in their fantastic, rocky style. We should be quite wrong. Their style was the exact clothing of their thought. They wrote exactly as they thought; and when they put their thought into other clothing, when they doctored their style, they did not represent what they really thought. No sensible person then would have asked Browning to change his style, but would have asked him not to exaggerate it into its defects. It is plain he could have kept it within bounds. He has done so frequently. But as frequently he has allowed it to leap about as wildly as a young colt. He should have submitted it to the manege, and ridden it then where he pleased. A very little trouble on his part, a very little sacrifice of his unbridled fancifulness, would have spared us a great deal of unnecessary trouble, and made his poetry better and more enduring.