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Introduction to Robert Browning by Hiram Corson

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sense of the word, the healthiest of all living poets;
and in general constitution the most Shakespearian.

What he makes Shakespeare say, in the Monologue entitled
`At the Mermaid', he could say, with perhaps greater truth,
in his own person, than Shakespeare could have said it: --

"Have you found your life distasteful?
My life did and does smack sweet.
Was your youth of pleasure wasteful?
Mine I save and hold complete.
Do your joys with age diminish?
When mine fail me, I'll complain.
Must in death your daylight finish?
My sun sets to rise again.

I find earth not gray but rosy,
Heaven not grim but fair of hue.
Do I stoop? I pluck a posy.
Do I stand and stare? All's blue."

It is the spirit expressed in these lines which has made his poetry
so entirely CONSTRUCTIVE. With the destructive spirit
he has no affinities. The poetry of despair and poets with the dumps
he cannot away with.

Perhaps the most comprehensive passage in Browning's poetry,
expressive of his ideal of a complete man under the conditions
of earth-life, is found in `Colombe's Birthday', Act IV.
Valence says of Prince Berthold: --

"He gathers earth's WHOLE GOOD into his arms, standing, as man, now,
stately, strong and wise -- marching to fortune, not surprised by her:
one great aim, like a guiding star above -- which tasks strength,
wisdom, stateliness, to lift his manhood to the height
that takes the prize; a prize not near -- lest overlooking earth,
he rashly spring to seize it -- nor remote, so that
he rests upon his path content: but day by day, while shimmering
grows shine, and the faint circlet prophesies the orb,
he sees so much as, just evolving these, the stateliness, the wisdom,
and the strength to due completion, will suffice this life,
and lead him at his grandest to the grave."

Browning fully recognizes, to use an expression in his
`Fra Lippo Lippi', fully recognizes "the value and significance
of flesh." A healthy and well-toned spiritual life is with him
the furthest removed from asceticism. To the passage from
his `Rabbi Ben Ezra' already quoted, "all good things are ours,
nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul",
should be added what David sings to Saul, in the poem entitled `Saul'.
Was the full physical life ever more beautifully sung?

"Oh! our manhood's prime vigour! no spirit feels waste,
Not a muscle is stopped in its playing, nor sinew unbraced.
Oh, the wild joys of living! the leaping from rock up to rock,
The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver shock
Of the plunge in a pool's living water, the hunt of the bear,
And the sultriness showing the lion is couched in his lair.
And the meal, the rich dates yellowed over with gold dust divine,
And the locust-flesh steeped in the pitcher, the full draught of wine,
And the sleep in the dried river-channel where bulrushes tell
That the water was wont to go warbling so softly and well.
How good is man's life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy!"

Though this is said in the person of the beautiful shepherd-boy,
David, whoever has lived any time with Browning, through his poetry,
must be assured that it is also an expression of the poet's
own experience of the glory of flesh. He has himself been
an expression of the fullest physical life: and now,
in his five and seventieth year, since the 7th of last May,
he preserves both mind and body in a magnificent vigor.
If his soul had been lodged in a sickly, rickety body,
he could hardly have written these lines from `Saul'. Nor could he
have written `Caliban upon Setebos', especially the opening lines:
"Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best, flat on his belly
in the pit's much mire, with elbows wide, fists clenched
to prop his chin. And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
and feels about his spine small eft-things course, run in and out
each arm, and make him laugh: and while above his head
a pompion-plant, coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard, and now a flower drops
with a bee inside, and now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch, --
he looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross and recross
till they weave a spider-web (meshes of fire, some great fish breaks
at times), and talks to his own self, howe'er he please,
touching that other, whom his dam called God."

There's a grand passage in `Balaustion's Adventure:
including a transcript from Euripides', descriptive of Herakles
as he returns, after his conflict with Death, leading back Alkestis,
which shows the poet's sympathy with the physical. The passage is
more valuable as revealing that sympathy, from the fact that
it's one of his additions to Euripides: --

"there stood the strength,
Happy as always; something grave, perhaps;
The great vein-cordage on the fret-worked brow,
Black-swollen, beaded yet with battle-drops
The yellow hair o' the hero! -- his big frame
A-quiver with each muscle sinking back
Into the sleepy smooth it leaped from late.
Under the great guard of one arm, there leant
A shrouded something, live and woman-like,
Propped by the heart-beats 'neath the lion-coat.
When he had finished his survey, it seemed,
The heavings of the heart began subside,
The helping breath returned, and last the smile
Shone out, all Herakles was back again,
As the words followed the saluting hand."

It is not so much the glory of flesh which Euripides represents
in Herakles, as the indulgence of appetite, at a time, too,
when that indulgence is made to appear the more culpable and gross.

This idea of "the value and significance of flesh", it is important
to note, along with the predominant spiritual bearing
of Browning's poetry. It articulates everywhere the spiritual,
so to speak -- makes it healthy and robust, and protects it
against volatility and from running into mysticism.

2. The Idea of Personality as embodied in Browning's Poetry.

A cardinal idea in Browning's poetry is the regeneration of men
through a personality who brings fresh stuff for them to mould,
interpret, and prove right, -- new feeling fresh from God --
whose life re-teaches them what life should be, what faith is,
loyalty and simpleness, all once revealed, but taught them
so long since that they have but mere tradition of the fact, --
truth copied falteringly from copies faint, the early traits
all dropped away. (`Luria'.) The intellect plays a secondary part.
Its place is behind the instinctive, spiritual antennae
which conduct along their trembling lines, fresh stuff
for the intellect to stamp and keep -- fresh instinct for it
to translate into law.

"A people is but the attempt of many to rise to the completer life
of one." (`A Soul's Tragedy'.)

Only the man who supplies new feeling fresh from God,
quickens and regenerates the race, and sets it on the King's highway
from which it has wandered into by-ways -- not the man
of mere intellect, of unkindled soul, that supplies only
stark-naked thought. Through the former, "God stooping shows
sufficient of His light for those i' the dark to rise by."
(`R. and B., Pompilia'.) In him men discern "the dawn of
the next nature, the new man whose will they venture in the place
of theirs, and whom they trust to find them out new ways
to the new heights which yet he only sees." (`Luria'.)
It is by reaching towards, and doing fealty to, the greater spirit
which attracts and absorbs their own, that, "trace by trace
old memories reappear, old truth returns, their slow thought
does its work, and all's re-known." (`Luria'.)

"Some existence like a pact
And protest against Chaos, . . .

. . . The fullest effluence of the finest mind,
All in degree, no way diverse in kind
From minds above it, minds which, more or less
Lofty or low, move seeking to impress
Themselves on somewhat; but one mind has climbed
Step after step, by just ascent sublimed.
Thought is the soul of act, and, stage by stage,
Is soul from body still to disengage,
As tending to a freedom which rejects
Such help, and incorporeally affects
The world, producing deeds but not by deeds,
Swaying, in others, frames itself exceeds,
Assigning them the simpler tasks it used
To patiently perform till Song produced
Acts, by thoughts only, for the mind: divest
Mind of e'en Thought, and, lo, God's unexpressed
Will dawns above us!" (`Sordello'.)

A dangerous tendency of civilization is that towards crystallization --
towards hardened, inflexible conventionalisms which "refuse the soul
its way".

Such crystallization, such conventionalisms, yield only to
the dissolving power of the spiritual warmth of life-full personalities.

The quickening, regenerating power of personality is everywhere
exhibited in Browning's poetry. It is emphasized in `Luria',
and in the Monologues of the Canon Caponsacchi and Pompilia,
in the `Ring and the Book'; it shines out, or glints forth,
in `Colombe's Birthday', in `Saul', in `Sordello', and in all
the Love poems. I would say, en passant, that Love
is always treated by Browning as a SPIRITUAL claim;
while DUTY may be only a worldly one. SEE especially the poem
entitled `Bifurcation'. In `Balaustion's Adventure:
including a transcipt from Euripides', the regenerating power
of personality may be said to be the leavening idea, which the poet
has introduced into the Greek play. It is entirely absent
in the original. It baptizes, so to speak, the Greek play,
and converts it into a Christian poem. It is the "new truth"
of the poet's `Christmas Eve'.

After the mourning friends have spoken their words of consolation
to the bereaved husband, the last word being, "Dead, thy wife --
living, the love she left", Admetos "turned on the comfort,
with no tears, this time. HE WAS BEGINNING TO BE LIKE HIS WIFE.
I told you of that pressure to the point, word slow pursuing word
in monotone, Alkestis spoke with; so Admetos, now, solemnly bore
the burden of the truth. And as the voice of him grew,
gathered strength, and groaned on, and persisted to the end,
we felt how deep had been descent in grief, and WITH WHAT CHANGE
HE CAME UP NOW TO LIGHT, and left behind such littleness as tears."

And when Alkestis was brought back by Herakles, "the hero
twitched the veil off: and there stood, with such fixed eyes
and such slow smile, Alkestis' silent self! It was the crowning grace
of that great heart to keep back joy: procrastinate the truth
until the wife, who had made proof and found the husband wanting,
might essay once more, hear, see, and feel him RENOVATED now --
ABLE TO DO, NOW, ALL HERSELF HAD DONE, RISEN TO THE HEIGHT OF HER:
so, hand in hand, the two might go together, live and die."
(Compare with this the restoration of Hermione to her husband,
in `The Winter's Tale', Act V.)

A good intellect has been characterized as the chorus of Divinity.
Substitute for "good intellect", an exulted magnetic personality,
and the thought is deepened. An exalted magnetic personality
is the chorus of Divinity, which, in the great Drama of Humanity,
guides and interprets the feelings and sympathies of other souls
and thus adjusts their attitudes towards the Divine.
It is not the highest function of such a personality to TEACH,
but rather to INFORM, in the earlier and deeper sense of the word.
Whatever mere doctrine he may promulgate, is of inferior importance
to the spontaneous action of his concrete life, in which the True,
the Beautiful, and the Good, breathe and live. What is born
in the brain dies there, it may be; at best, it does not,
and cannot of itself, lead up to the full concrete life.
It is only through the spontaneou and unconscious fealty
which an inferior does to a superior soul (a fealty resulting
from the responsiveness of spirit to spirit), that the former
is slowly and silently transformed into a more or less
approximate image of the latter. The stronger personality
leads the weaker on by paths which the weaker knows not,
upward he leads him, though his steps be slow and vacillating.
Humility, in the Christian sense, means this fealty to the higher.
It doesn't mean self-abasement, self-depreciation, as it has been
understood to mean, by both the Romish and the Protestant Church.
Pride, in the Christian sense, is the closing of the doors of the soul
to a great magnetic guest.

Browning beautifully expresses the transmission of personality
in his `Saul'. But according to Browning's idea, personality cannot
strictly be said to be transmitted. Personality rather
evokes its LIKE from other souls, which are "all in degree,
no way diverse in kind." (`Sordello'.)

David has reached an advanced stage in his symbolic song to Saul.
He thinks now what next he shall urge "to sustain him where song
had restored him? -- Song filled to the verge his cup with the wine
of this life, pressing all that it yields of mere fruitage,
the strength and the beauty: beyond, on what fields glean a vintage
more potent and perfect to brighten the eye and bring blood to the lip,
and commend them the cup they put by?" So once more
the string of the harp makes response to his spirit, and he sings: --

"In our flesh grows the branch of this life, in our soul it bears fruit.
Thou hast marked the slow rise of the tree, -- how its stem
trembled first
Till it passed the kid's lip, the stag's antler; then safely outburst
The fan-branches all round; and thou mindest when these, too, in turn
Broke a-bloom and the palm-tree seemed perfect; yet more was to learn,
E'en the good that comes in with the palm-fruit. Our dates
shall we slight,
When their juice brings a cure for all sorrow? or care for the plight
Of the palm's self whose slow growth produced them? Not so!
stem and branch
Shall decay, nor be known in their place, while the palm-wine
shall staunch
Every wound of man's spirit in winter. I pour thee such wine.
Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for! the spirit be thine!
By the spirit, when age shall o'ercome thee, thou still shalt enjoy
More indeed, than at first when, inconscious, the life of a boy.
Crush that life, and behold its wine running! each deed thou hast done
Dies, revives, goes to work in the world; until e'en as the sun
Looking down on the earth, though clouds spoil him,
though tempests efface,
Can find nothing his own deed produced not, must everywhere trace
The results of his past summer-prime, -- SO, EACH RAY OF THY WILL,
EVERY FLASH OF THY PASSION AND PROWESS, LONG OVER, SHALL THRILL
THY WHOLE PEOPLE, THE COUNTLESS, WITH ARDOUR, TILL THEY TOO GIVE FORTH
A LIKE CHEER TO THEIR SONS: WHO IN TURN, FILL THE SOUTH AND THE NORTH
WITH THE RADIANCE THY DEED WAS THE GERM OF."

In the concluding lines is set forth what might be characterized as
the apostolic succession of a great personality -- the succession
of those "who in turn fill the South and the North with the radiance
his deed was the germ of."

What follows in David's song gives expression to the other mode
of transmitting a great personality -- that is, through records
that "give unborn generations their due and their part in his being",
and also to what those records owe their effectiveness, and are saved
from becoming a dead letter.

"Is Saul dead? In the depth of the vale make his tomb -- bid arise
A grey mountain of marble heaped four-square, till, built to the skies,
Let it mark where the great First King slumbers: whose fame
would ye know?
Up above see the rock's naked face, where the record shall go
In great characters cut by the scribe, -- Such was Saul, so he did;
With the sages directing the work, by the populace chid, --
For not half, they'll affirm, is comprised there! Which fault to amend,
In the grove with his kind grows the cedar, whereon they shall spend
(See, in tablets 'tis level before them) their praise, and record
With the gold of the graver, Saul's story, -- the statesman's great word
Side by side with the poet's sweet comment. The river's a-wave
With smooth paper-reeds grazing each other when prophet-winds rave:
So the pen gives unborn generations their due and their part
In thy being! Then, first of the mighty, thank God that thou art!"

What is said in this passage is applicable to the record we have
of Christ's life upon earth. Christianity has only to
a very limited extent been perpetuated through the letter of
the New Testament. It has been perpetuated chiefly through
transmissions of personalities, through apostolic succession,
in a general sense, and through embodiments of his spirit
in art and literature -- "the stateman's great word",
"the poet's sweet comment". Were it not for this transmission
of the quickening power of personality, the New Testament would be
to a great extent a dead letter. It owes its significance to
the quickened spirit which is brought to the reading of it.
The personality of Christ could not be, through a plastic sympathy,
moulded out of the New Testament records, without the aid
of intermediate personalities.

The Messianic idea was not peculiar to the Jewish race --
the idea of a Person gathering up within himself, in an effective
fulness and harmony, the restorative elements of humanity, which have
lost their power through dispersion and consequent obscuration.
There have been Messiahs of various orders and ranks in every age, --
great personalities that have realized to a greater or less extent
(though there has been but one, the God-Man, who fully realized),
the spiritual potentialities in man, that have stood upon
the sharpest heights as beacons to their fellows. In the individual
the species has, as it were, been gathered up, epitomized,
and intensified, and he has thus been a prophecy, and to some extent
a fulfilment of human destiny.

"A poet must be earth's ESSENTIAL king", as Sordello asserts,
and he is that by virtue of his exerting or shedding the influence of
his essential personality. "If caring not to exert the proper essence
of his royalty, he, the poet, trifle malapert with accidents instead --
good things assigned as heralds of a better thing behind" -- he is
"deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory is taken from him".
Of himself, Sordello says: "The power he took most pride to test,
whereby all forms of life had been professed at pleasure,
forms already on the earth, was but a means of power beyond,
whose birth should, in its novelty, be kingship's proof. Now,
whether he came near or kept aloof the several forms he longed
to imitate, not there the kingship lay, he sees too late. Those forms,
unalterable first as last, proved him her copier, not the protoplast
of nature: what could come of being free by action to exhibit
tree for tree, bird, beast, for beast and bird, or prove earth bore
one veritable man or woman more? Means to an end such proofs are:
what the end?"

The answer given involves the great Browning idea of
the quickening power of personality: "Let essence, whatsoe'er it be,
extend -- never contract!"

By "essence" we must understand that which "constitutes man's self,
is what Is", as the dying John, in `A Death in the Desert',
expresses it -- that which backs the active powers and
the conscious intellect, "subsisting whether they assist or no".

"Let essence, whatsoe'er it be, extend -- never contract!"
Sordello says. "Already you include the multitude"; that is,
you gather up in yourself, in an effective fulness and harmony,
what lies scattered and ineffective in the multitude;
"then let the mulitude include yourself"; that is, be substantiated,
essenced with yourself; "and the result were new: themselves before,
the multitude turn YOU" (become yourself). "This were to live
and move and have, in them, your being, and secure a diadem
you should transmit (because no cycle yearns beyond itself,
but on itself returns) when the full sphere in wane,
the world o'erlaid long since with you, shall have in turn obeyed
some orb still prouder, some displayer, still more potent than
the last, of human will, and some new king depose the old."

This is a most important passage to get hold of in studying Browning.
It may be said to gather up Browning's philosophy of life in a nutshell.

There's a passage to the same effect in `Balaustion's Adventure',
in regard to the transmission of the poet's essence. The enthusiastic
Rhodian girl, Balaustion, after she has told the play of Euripides,
years after her adventure, to her four friends, Petale,
Phullis, Charope, and Chrusion, says: --

"I think I see how. . . you, I, or any one, might mould a new Admetos,
new Alkestis. Ah, that brave bounty of poets, the one royal race
that ever was, or will be, in this world! They give no gift that
bounds itself, and ends i' the giving and the taking:
theirs so breeds i' the heart and soul of the taker, so transmutes
the man who only was a man before, that he grows god-like in his turn,
can give -- he also: share the poet's privilege, bring forth new good,
new beauty from the old. As though the cup that gave the wine,
gave too the god's prolific giver of the grape, that vine,
was wont to find out, fawn around his footstep, springing still
to bless the dearth, at bidding of a Mainad."

3. Art as an Intermediate Agency of Personality.

If Browning's idea of the quickening, the regeneration,
the rectification of personality, through a higher personality,
be fully comprehended, his idea of the great function of Art,
as an intermediate agency of personality, will become plain.
To emphasize the latter idea may be said to be the ultimate purpose
of his masterpiece, `The Ring and the Book'.

The complexity of the circumstances involved in the Roman murder case,
adapts it admirably to the poet's purpose -- namely, to exhibit
the swervings of human judgment in spite of itself, and the conditions
upon which the rectification of that judgment depends.

This must be taken, however, as only the articulation,
the framework, of the great poem. It is richer in materials,
of the most varied character, than any other long poem in existence.
To notice one feature of the numberless features of the poem,
which might be noticed, Browning's deep and subtle insight
into the genius of the Romish Church is shown in it more fully
than in any other of his poems, -- though special phases of that genius
are distinctly exhibited in numerous poems: a remarkable one being
`The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church'.
It is questionable whether any work of any kind has ever exhibited
that genius more fully and distinctly than `The Ring and the Book'
exhibits it. The reader breathes throughout the ecclesiastical
atmosphere of the Eternal City.

To return from this digression, the several monologues
of which the poem consists, with the exception of those
of the Canon Caponsacchi, Pompilia, and the Pope, are each curious
and subtle and varied exponents of the workings, without the guidance
of instinct at the heart, of the prepossessed, prejudiced intellect,
and of the sources of its swerving into error. What is said
of the "feel after the vanished truth" in the monologue entitled
`Half Rome' -- the speaker being a jealous husband -- will serve
to characterize, in a general way, "the feel after truth"
exhibited in the other monologues: "honest enough, as the way is:
all the same, harboring in the CENTRE OF ITS SENSE a hidden germ
of failure, shy but sure, should neutralize that honesty and leave
that feel for truth at fault, as the way is too. Some prepossession,
such as starts amiss, by but a hair's-breadth at the shoulder-blade,
the arm o' the feeler, dip he ne'er so brave; and so leads waveringly,
lets fall wide o' the mark his finger meant to find, and fix truth
at the bottom, that deceptive speck."

The poet could hardly have employed a more effective metaphor
in which to embody the idea of mental swerving. The several monologues
all going over the same ground, are artistically justified
in their exhibiting, each of them, a quite distinct form
of this swerving. For the ultimate purpose of the poet,
it needed to be strongly emphasized. The student of the poem
is amazed, long before he gets over all these monologues,
at the Protean capabilities of the poet's own intellect.
It takes all conceivable attitudes toward the case, and each seems
to be a perfectly easy one.

These monologues all lead up to the great moral of the poem, which is
explicitly set forth at the end, namely, "that our human speech
is naught, our human testimony false, our fame and human estimation,
words and wind. Why take the artistic way to prove so much? Because,
it is the glory and good of Art, that Art remains the one way possible
of speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least. How look a brother
in the face and say, Thy right is wrong, eyes hast thou yet art blind,
thine ears are stuffed and stopped, despite their length: and, oh,
the foolishness thou countest faith! Say this as silvery
as tongue can troll -- the anger of the man may be endured,
the shrug, the disappointed eyes of him are not so bad to bear --
but here's the plague, that all this trouble comes of telling truth,
which truth, by when it reaches him, looks false, seems to be
just the thing it would supplant, nor recognizable by whom it left:
while falsehood would have done the work of truth. But Art, --
wherein man nowise speaks to men, only to mankind, -- Art may tell
a truth obliquely, DO THE THING SHALL BREED THE THOUGHT", that is,
bring what is IMPLICIT within the soul, into the right attitude
to become EXPLICIT -- bring about a silent adjustment
through sympathy induced by the concrete; in other words,
prepare the way for the perception of the truth --
"do the thing shall breed the thought, nor wrong the thought
missing the mediate word"; meaning, that Art, so to speak,
is the word made flesh, -- IS the truth, and, as Art,
has nothing directly to do with the explicit. "So may you paint
your picture, twice show truth, beyond mere imagery on the wall, --
so, note by note, bring music from your mind, deeper than ever
the Andante dived, -- so write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
suffice the eye and save the soul beside."

And what is the inference the poet would have us draw
from this passage? It is, that the life and efficacy of Art
depends on the personality of the artist, which "has informed,
transpierced, thridded, and so thrown fast the facts else free,
as right through ring and ring runs the djereed and binds the loose,
one bar without a break." And it is really this fusion of
the artist's soul, which kindles, quickens, INFORMS those who
contemplate, respond to, reproduce sympathetically within themselves
the greater spirit which attracts and absorbs their own.
The work of Art is apocalyptic of the artist's own personality.
It CANNOT be impersonal. As is the temper of his spirit, so is,
MUST be, the temper of his Art product.* It is hard to believe,
almost impossible to believe, that `Titus Andronicus' could have been
written by Shakespeare, the external testimony to the authorship,
notwithstanding. Even if he had written it as a burlesque
of such a play as Marlow's `Jew of Malta', he could not have avoided
some revelation of that sense of moral proportion which is omnipresent
in his Plays. But I can find no Shakespeare in `Titus Andronicus'.
Are we not certain what manner of man Shakespeare was from his Works
(notwithstanding that critics are ever asserting their impersonality)
-- far more certain than if his biography had been written
by one who knew him all his life, and sustained to him
the most intimate relations? We know Shakespeare -- or he CAN
be known, if the requisite conditions are met, better, perhaps,
than any other great author that ever lived -- know,
in the deepest sense of the word, in a sense other than that in which
we know Dr. Johnson, through Boswell's Biography. The moral proportion
which is so signal a characteristic of his Plays could not have been
imparted to them by the conscious intellect. It was SHED from
his spiritual constitution.

--
* "And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion,
that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter
in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem."
-- Milton's `Apology for Sinectymnuus'.
--

By "speaking truth" in Art's way, Browning means, inducing a right
ATTITUDE toward, a full and free SYMPATHY with, the True,
which is a far more important and effective way of speaking truth
than delivering truth `in re'. A work of Art, worthy of the name,
need not be true to fact, but must be true in its spiritual attitude,
and being thus true, it will tend to induce a corresponding attitude
in those who do fealty to it. It will have the influence,
though in an inferior degree, it may be, of a magnetic personality.
Personality is the ultimate source of spiritual quickening
and adjustment. Literature and all forms of Art are but
the intermediate agencies of personalities. The artist cannot be
separated from his art. As is the artist so MUST be his art.
The `aura', so to speak, of a great work of Art, must come from
the artist's own personality. The spiritual worth of Shakespeare's
`Winter's Tale' is not at all impaired by the fact that Bohemia is made
a maritime country, that Whitsun pastorals and Christian burial,
and numerous other features of Shakespeare's own age, are introduced
into pagan times, that Queen Hermione speaks of herself as a daughter
of the Emperor of Russia, that her statue is represented as executed by
Julio Romano, an Italian painter of the 16th century, that a puritan
sings psalms to hornpipes, and, to crown all, that messengers are sent
to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Delphi, which is represented as
an island! All this jumble, this gallimaufry, I say,
does not impair the spiritual worth of the play. As an Art-product,
it invites a rectified attitude toward the True and the Sweet.

If we look at the letter of the trial scene in `The Merchant of Venice',
it borders on the absurd; but if we look at its spirit,
we see the Shakespearian attitude of soul which makes for righteousness,
for the righteousness which is inherent in the moral constitution
of the universe.

The inmost, secretest life of Shakespeare's Plays came from
the personality, the inmost, secretest life, of the man Shakespeare.
We might, with the most alert sagacity, note and tabulate and aggregate
his myriad phenomenal merits as a dramatic writer, but we might still
be very far from that something back of them all, or rather that
IMMANENT something, that mystery of personality, that microcosmos,
that "inmost centre, where truth abides in fulness", as Browning makes
Paracelsus characterize it, "constituting man's self, is what Is",
as he makes the dying John characterize it, in `A Death in the Desert',
that "innermost of the inmost, most interior of the interne",
as Mrs. Browning characterizes it, "the hidden Soul",
as Dallas characterizes it, which is projected into, and constitutes
the soul of, the Plays, and which is reached through an unconscious
and mystic sympathy on the part of him who habitually communes with
and does fealty to them. That personality, that living force,
co-operated spontaneously and unconsciously with the conscious powers,
in the creative process; and when we enter into a sympathetic communion
with the concrete result of that creative process, our own
mysterious personalities, being essentially identical with,
though less quickened than, Shakespeare's, respond, though it may be
but feebly, to his. This response is the highest result of the study
of Shakespeare's works.

It is a significant fact that Shakespearian critics and editors,
for nearly two centuries, have been a `genus irritabile',
to which genus Shakespeare himself certainly did not belong.
The explanation may partly be, that they have been too much occupied
with the LETTER, and have fretted their nerves in angry dispute
about readings and interpretations; as theologians have done
in their study of the sacred records, instead of endeavoring to reach,
through the letter, the personality of which the letter is but
a manifestation more or less imperfect. To KNOW a personality is,
of course, a spiritual knowledge -- the result of sympathy,
that is, spiritual responsiveness. Intellectually it is
but little more important to know one rather than another personality.
The highest worth of all great works of genius is due to the fact
that they are apocalyptic of great personalities.

Art says, as the Divine Person said, whose personality
and the personalities fashioned after it, have transformed and moulded
the ages, "Follow me!" Deep was the meaning wrapt up in this command:
it was, Do as I do, live as I live, not from an intellectual perception
of the principles involved in my life, but through a full sympathy,
through the awakening, vitalizing, actuating power of
the incarnate Word.

Art also says, as did the voice from the wilderness,
inadequately translated, "REPENT ye, for the kingdom of heaven
is at hand". (Metanoei^te h'/ggike ga\r h` Basilei/a tw^n ou'ranw^n.)
Rather, be transformed, or, as De Quincey puts it, "Wheel into
a new centre your spiritual system; GEOCENTRIC has that system been
up to this hour -- that is, having earth and the earthly
for its starting-point; henceforward make it HELIOCENTRIC (that is,
with the sun, or the heavenly, for its principle of motion)."

The poetry of Browning everywhere says this, and says it
more emphatically than that of any other poet in our literature.
It says everywhere, that not through knowledge, not through
a sharpened intellect, but through repentance, in the deeper sense
to which I have just alluded, through conversion, through wheeling into
a new centre its spiritual system, the soul attains to saving truth.
Salvation with him means that revelation of the soul to itself,
that awakening, quickening, actuating, attitude-adjusting, of the soul,
which sets it gravitating toward the Divine.

Browning's idea of Conversion is, perhaps, most distinctly expressed
in a passage in the Monologue of the Canon Caponsacchi,
in `The Ring and the Book', wherein he sets forth the circumstances
under which his soul was wheeled into a new centre, after a life
of dalliance and elegant folly, and made aware of "the marvellous dower
of the life it was gifted and filled with". He has been telling
the judges, before whom he has been summoned, the story of the letters
forged by Guido to entrap him and Pompilia, and of his having seen
"right through the thing that tried to pass for truth and solid,
not an empty lie". The conclusion and the resolve he comes to,
are expressed in the soliloquy which he repeats to the judges,
as having uttered at the time: "So, he not only forged
the words for her but words for me, made letters he called mine:
what I sent, he retained, gave these in place, all by
the mistress messenger! As I recognized her, at potency of truth,
so she, by the crystalline soul, knew me, never mistook the signs.
Enough of this -- let the wraith go to nothingness again,
here is the orb, have only thought for her!" What follows admits us
to the very HEART of Browning's poetry -- admits us to the great Idea
which is almost, in these days, strange to say, peculiarly his --
which no other poet, certainly, of this intellectual, analytic,
scientific age, with its "patent, truth-extracting processes",
has brought out with the same degree of distinctness -- the great Idea
which may be variously characterized as that of soul-kindling,
soul-quickening, adjustment of soul-attitude, regeneration, conversion,
through PERSONALITY -- a kindling, quickening, adjustment,
regeneration, conversion in which THOUGHT is not even a coefficient.
As expressed in Sordello, "Divest mind of e'en thought, and lo,
God's unexpressed will dawns above us!" "Thought?" the Canon goes on
to say, "Thought? nay, Sirs, what shall follow was not thought:
I have thought sometimes, and thought long and hard.
I have stood before, gone round a serious thing, tasked my whole mind
to touch it and clasp it close, . . . God and man, and what duty
I owe both, -- I dare say I have confronted these in thought:
but no such faculty helped here. I put forth no thought, -- powerless,
all that night I paced the city: it was the first Spring.
By the INVASION I LAY PASSIVE TO, in rushed new things,
the old were rapt away; alike abolished -- the imprisonment of
the outside air, the inside weight o' the world that pulled me down.
Death meant, to spurn the ground, soar to the sky, -- die well
and you do that. The very immolation made the bliss;
death was the heart of life, and all the harm my folly had crouched
to avoid, now proved a veil hiding all gain my wisdom strove to grasp.
. . . Into another state, under new rule I knew myself was passing
swift and sure; whereof the initiatory pang approached,
felicitous annoy, as bitter-sweet as when the virgin band,
the victors chaste, feel at the end the earthy garments drop,
and rise with something of a rosy shame into immortal nakedness:
so I lay, and let come the proper throe would thrill into the ecstasy
and out-throb pain. I' the gray of the dawn it was I found myself
facing the pillared front o' the Pieve -- mine, my church:
it seemed to say for the first time, `But am not I the Bride,
the mystic love o' the Lamb, who took thy plighted troth, my priest,
to fold thy warm heart on my heart of stone and freeze thee
nor unfasten any more? This is a fleshly woman, -- let the free
bestow their life blood, thou art pulseless now!' . . . Now,
when I found out first that life and death are means to an end,
that passion uses both, indisputably mistress of the man whose form
of worship is self-sacrifice -- now, from the stone lungs sighed
the scrannel voice, `Leave that live passion, come be dead with me!'
As if, i' the fabled garden, I had gone on great adventure,
plucked in ignorance hedge-fruit, and feasted to satiety,
laughing at such high fame for hips and haws, and scorned
the achievement: then come all at once o' the prize o' the place,
the thing of perfect gold, the apple's self: and, scarce my eye
on that, was 'ware as well of the sevenfold dragon's watch. Sirs,
I obeyed. Obedience was too strange, -- this new thing that had been
STRUCK INTO ME BY THE LOOK OF THE LADY, to dare disobey
the first authoritative word. 'Twas God's. I had been
LIFTED TO THE LEVEL OF HER, could take such sounds into my sense.
I said, `We two are cognizant o' the Master now; it is she bids me
bow the head: how true, I am a priest! I see the function here;
I thought the other way self-sacrifice: this is the true,
seals up the perfect sum. I pay it, sit down, silently obey.'"

Numerous and varied expressions of the idea of conversion set forth
in this passage, occur in Browning's poetry, evidencing his deep sense
of this great and indispensable condition of soul-life,
of being born anew (or from above, as it should be rendered
in the Gospel, a'/nwqen, that is, through the agency of
a higher personality), in order to see the kingdom of God --
evidencing his conviction that "the kingdom of God cometh not
with observation: for lo! the kingdom of God is within you."
In the poem entitled `Cristina', the speaker is made to say, --

"Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows! but not quite so sunk
that moments,
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us, when the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones, and apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way, to its triumph or undoing.

There are flashes struck from midnights, there are fire-flames
noon-days kindle,
Whereby piled-up honors perish, whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse, which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time that away the rest have trifled."

And again, when the Pope in `The Ring and the Book' has come
to the decision to sign the death-warrant of Guido and his accomplices,
he says: "For the main criminal I have no hope except in such
a SUDDENNESS OF FATE. I stood at Naples once, a night so dark
I could have scarce conjectured there was earth anywhere, sky or sea
or world at all: but the night's black was burst through by a blaze --
thunder struck blow on blow, earth groaned and bore,
through her whole length of mountain visible: there lay the city
thick and plain with spires, and, like a ghost disshrouded,
white the sea. SO MAY THE TRUTH BE FLASHED OUT BY ONE BLOW,
AND GUIDO SEE, ONE INSTANT, AND BE SAVED. Else I avert my face,
nor follow him into that sad obscure sequestered state
where God UNMAKES BUT TO REMAKE the soul he else made first in vain;
which must not be. Enough, for I may die this very night:
and how should I dare die, this man let live? Carry this forthwith
to the Governor!"

Browning is the most essentially Christian of living poets.
Though he rarely speaks `in propria persona' in his poetry,
any one who has gone over it all, can have no doubt as to his own
most vital beliefs. What the Beauty-loving Soul in Tennyson's
`Palace of Art' say of herself, cannot be suspected even,
of Browning: --

"I take possession of man's mind and deed.
I care not what the sects may brawl.
I sit as God holding no form of creed,
But contemplating all."

Religion with him is, indeed, the all-in-all; but not any
particular form of it as a finality. This is not a world
for finalities of any kind, as he constantly teaches us:
it is a world of broken arcs, not of perfect rounds.
Formulations of some kind he would, no doubt, admit there must be,
as in everything else; but with him all formulations and tabulations
of beliefs, especially such as "make square to a finite eye
the circle of infinity", *1* are, at the best, only PROVISIONAL,
and, at the worst, lead to spiritual standstill, spiritual torpor,
"a ghastly smooth life, dead at heart." *2* The essential nature
of Christianity is contrary to special prescription, do this or do that,
believe this or believe that. Christ gave no recipes.
Christianity is with Browning, and this he sets forth again and again,
a LIFE, quickened and motived and nourished by the Personality of Christ.
And all that he says of this Personality can be accepted
by every Christian, whatever theological view he may entertain of Christ.
Christ's teachings he regards but as INCIDENTS of that Personality,
and the records we have of his sayings and doings, but a fragment,
a somewhat distorted one, it may be, out of which we must,
by a mystic and plastic sympathy, {*} aided by the Christ spirit
which is immanent in the Christian world, mould the Personality,
and do fealty to it. The Christian must endeavor to be able to say,
with the dying John, in Browning's `Death in the Desert',
"To me that story, -- ay, that Life and Death of which I wrote `it was' --
to me, it is."

--
*1* `Christmas Eve'.
*2* `Easter Day'.
{*} `plastic' in the 1800's sense of `pliable', not `fake'. -- A.L.
--

The poem entitled `Christmas Eve' contains the fullest
and most explicit expression, in Browning, of his idea
of the personality of Christ, as being the all-in-all of Christianity.

"The truth in God's breast
Lies trace for trace upon ours impressed:
Though He is so bright and we so dim,
We are made in His image to witness Him:
And were no eye in us to tell,
Instructed by no inner sense,
The light of Heaven from the dark of Hell,
That light would want its evidence, --
Though Justice, Good, and Truth, were still
Divine, if, by some demon's will,
Hatred and wrong had been proclaimed
Law through the worlds, and Right misnamed,
No mere exposition of morality
Made or in part or in totality,
Should win you to give it worship, therefore:
And if no better proof you will care for,
-- Whom do you count the worst man upon earth?
Be sure, he knows, in his conscience, more
Of what Right is, than arrives at birth
In the best man's acts that we bow before:
And thence I conclude that the real God-function
Is to furnish a motive and injunction
For practising what we know already.
And such an injunction and such a motive
As the God in Christ, do you waive, and `heady,
High-minded', hang your tablet votive
Outside the fane on a finger-post?
Morality to the uttermost,
Supreme in Christ as we all confess,
Why need WE prove would avail no jot
To make Him God, if God he were not?
Where is the point where Himself lays stress?
Does the precept run `Believe in Good,
In Justice, Truth, now understood
For the first time'? -- or `Believe in ME,
Who lived and died, yet essentially
Am Lord of Life'?* Whoever can take
The same to his heart and for mere love's sake
Conceive of the love, -- that man obtains
A new truth; no conviction gains
Of an old one only, made intense
By a fresh appeal to his faded sense."

--
* "Subsists no law of life outside of life."
* * * * *
"The Christ himself had been no Lawgiver,
Unless he had given the LIFE, too, with the law."
Mrs. Browning's `Aurora Leigh'.
--

If all Christendom could take this remarkable poem of `Christmas Eve'
to its heart, its tolerance, its Catholic spirit, and, more than all,
the fealty it exhibits to the Personality who essentially is
Lord of Life, what a revolution it would undergo! and what a mass
of dogmatic and polemic theology would become utterly obsolete!
The most remarkable thing, perhaps, about the vast body
of Christian theology which has been developed during
the eighteen centuries which have elapsed since Christ
was in the flesh, is, that it is occupied so largely, it might almost
be said, exclusively, with what Christ and his disciples TAUGHT,
and with fierce discussions about the manifold meanings which have been
ingeniously extorted from the imperfect RECORD of what he taught.
British museum libraries of polemics have been written in defence
of what Christ himself would have been indifferent to,
and written with an animosity towards opponents which has been
crystallized in a phrase now applied in a general way
to any intense hate -- ODIUM THEOLOGICUM.

If the significance of Christ's mission, or a large part of it,
is to be estimated by his teachings, from those teachings
important deductions must be made, as many of them had been delivered
long before his time.

Browning has something to say on this point, in this same poem
of `Christmas Eve': --

"Truth's atmosphere may grow mephitic
When Papist struggles with Dissenter,
Impregnating its pristine clarity,
-- One, by his daily fare's vulgarity,
Its gust of broken meat and garlic;
-- One, by his soul's too-much presuming
To turn the frankincense's fuming
An vapors of the candle starlike
Into the cloud her wings she buoys on.
Each that thus sets the pure air seething,
May poison it for healthy breathing --
But the Critic leaves no air to poison;
Pumps out by a ruthless ingenuity
Atom by atom, and leaves you -- vacuity.
Thus much of Christ, does he reject?
And what retain? His intellect?
What is it I must reverence duly?
Poor intellect for worship, truly,
Which tells me simply what was told
(If mere morality, bereft
Of the God in Christ, be all that's left)
Elsewhere by voices manifold;
With this advantage, that the stater
Made nowise the important stumble
Of adding, he, the sage and humble,
Was also one with the Creator."

Browning's poetry is instinct with the essence of Christianity --
the LIFE of Christ. There is no other poetry, there is no writing
of any form, in this age, which so emphasizes the fact
(and it's the most consoling of all facts connected with
the Christian religion), that the Personality, Jesus Christ,
is the impregnable fortress of Christianity. Whatever assaults
and inroads may be made upon the original records by
Goettingen professors, upon the august fabric of the Church,
with its creeds and dogmas, and formularies, and paraphernalia,
this fortress will stand forever, and mankind will forever
seek and find refuge in it.

The poem entitled `Cleon' bears the intimation (there's nothing
directly expressed thereupon), that Christianity is something
distinct from, and beyond, whatever the highest civilization
of the world, the civilization of Greece, attained to before Christ.
Through him the world obtained "a new truth -- no conviction gained
of an old one merely, made intense by a fresh appeal
to the faded sense."

Cleon, the poet, writes to Protos in his Tyranny (that is,
in the Greek sense, Sovereignty). Cleon must be understood
as representing the ripe, composite result, as an individual,
of what constituted the glory of Greece -- her poetry, sculpture,
architecture, painting, and music, and also her philosophy.
He acknowledges the gifts which the King has lavished upon him.
By these gifts we are to understand the munificent national patronage
accorded to the arts. "The master of thy galley still unlades
gift after gift; they block my court at last and pile themselves
along its portico royal with sunset, like a thought of thee."

By the slave women that are among the gifts sent to Cleon,
seems to be indicated the degradation of the spiritual by
its subjection to earthly ideals, as were the ideals of Greek art.
This is more particularly indicated by the one white she-slave,
the lyric woman, whom further on in his letter, Cleon promises
to the King he will make narrate (in lyric song we must suppose)
his fortunes, speak his great words, and describe his royal face.

He continues, that in such an act of love, -- the bestowal of
princely gifts upon him whose song gives life its joy, --
men shall remark the King's recognition of the use of life --
that his spirit is equal to more than merely to help on life in
straight ways, broad enough for vulgar souls, by ruling and the rest.
He ascribes to the King, in the building of his tower
(and by this must be understood the building up of his own selfhood),
a higher motive than work for mere work's sake, --
that higher motive being, the luring hope of some EVENTUAL REST
atop of it (the tower), whence, all the tumult of the building hushed,
the first of men may look out to the east. *

--
* Tennyson uses a similar figure in `The Two Voices'. The speaker,
who is meditating whether "to be or not to be", says: --

"Were this not well, to bide mine hour,
Though watching from a ruined tower
How grows the day of human power."

The ruined tower is his own dilapidated selfhood, whence he takes
his outlook upon the world.
--

By the eventual rest atop of the tower, is indicated the aim
of the Greek civilization, to reach a calm within the finite,
while the soul is constituted and destined to gravitate forever
towards the infinite -- to "force our straitened sphere. . .
display completely here the mastery another life should learn."
(`Sordello'.) The eventual rest in this world is not
the Christian ideal. Earth-life, whatever its reach,
and whatever its grasp, is to the Christian a broken arc,
not a perfect round.

Cleon goes on to recount his accomplishments in the arts,
and what he has done in philosophy, in reply to the first requirement
of Protos's letter, Protos, as it appears, having heard of,
and wonderingly enumerated, the great things Cleon has effected;
and he has written to know the truth of the report. Cleon replies,
that the epos on the King's hundred plates of gold is his,
and his the little chaunt so sure to rise from every fishing-bark when,
lights at prow, the seamen haul their nets; that the image of
the sun-god on the light-house men turn from the sun's self to see,
is his; that the Poecile, o'erstoried its whole length with painting,
is his, too; that he knows the true proportions of a man and woman,
not observed before; that he has written three books on the soul,
proving absurd all written hitherto, and putting us to ignorance again;
that in music he has combined the moods, inventing one; that, in brief,
all arts are his, and so known and recognized. At this he writes
the King to marvel not. We of these latter days, he says,
being more COMPOSITE, appear not so great as our forerunners who,
in their simple way, were greater in a certain single direction,
than we; but our composite way is greater. This life of men on earth,
this sequence of the soul's achievements here, he finds reason
to believe, was intended to be viewed eventually as a great whole,
the individual soul being only a factor toward the realization of
this great whole -- toward spelling out, so to speak, Zeus's idea
in the race. Those divine men of old, he goes on to say,
reached each at one point, the outside verge that rounds our faculty,
and where they reached, who could do more than reach?
I have not chaunted, he says, verse like Homer's, nor swept string
like Terpander, nor carved and painted men like Phidias and his friend;
I am not great as they are, point by point; but I have entered into
sympathy with these four, running these into one soul, who, separate,
ignored each other's arts. The wild flower was the larger --
I have dashed rose-blood upon its petals, pricked its cup's honey
with wine, and driven its seed to fruit, and show a better flower,
if not so large.

And now he comes to the important questions in the King's letter --
whether he, the poet, his soul thus in men's hearts, has not attained
the very crown and proper end of life -- whether, now life closeth up,
he faces death with success in his right hand, -- whether he
fears death less than he, the King, does himself, the fortunate of men,
who assigns the reason for thinking that he does, that he, the poet,
leaves much behind, his life stays in the poems men shall sing,
the pictures men shall study; while the King's life, complete and whole
now in its power and joy, dies altogether with his brain and arm,
as HE leaves not behind, as the poet does, works of art
embodying the essence of his life which, through those works,
will pass into the lives of men of all succeeding times.
Cleon replies that if in the morning of philosophy, the King,
with the light now in him, could have looked on all earth's tenantry,
from worm to bird, ere man appeared, and if Zeus had questioned him
whether he would improve on it, do more for visible creatures
than was done, he would have answered, "Ay, by making each
grow conscious in himself: all's perfect else, life's mechanics
can no further go, and all this joy in natural life is put,
like fire from off thy fingers into each, so exquisitely perfect
is the same. But 'tis pure fire -- and they mere matter are;
it has THEM, not they IT: and so I choose, for man,
that a third thing shall stand apart from both, a quality arise
within the soul, which, intro-active, made to supervise and feel
the force it has, may view itself and so be happy." But it is
this quality, Cleon continues, which makes man a failure.
This sense of sense, this spirit consciousness, grew the only life
worth calling life, the pleasure-house, watch-tower,
and treasure-fortress of the soul, which whole surrounding flats
of natural life seemed only fit to yield subsistence to;
a tower that crowns a country. But alas! the soul now climbs it
just to perish there, for thence we have discovered that
there's a world of capability for joy, spread round about us,
meant for us, inviting us; and still the soul craves all,
and still the flesh replies, "Take no jot more than ere you climbed
the tower to look abroad! Nay, so much less, as that fatigue
has brought deduction to it." After expatiating on this sad state
of man, he arrives at the same conclusion as the King in his letter:
"I agree in sum, O King, with thy profound discouragement,
who seest the wider but to sigh the more. Most progress
is most failure! thou sayest well."

And now he takes up the last point of the King's letter, that he,
the King, holds joy not impossible to one with artist-gifts,
who leaves behind living works. Looking over the sea, as he writes,
he says, "Yon rower with the moulded muscles there, lowering the sail,
is nearer it that I." He presents with clearness, and with
rigid logic, the DILEMMA of the growing soul; shows the vanity
of living in works left behind, and in the memory of posterity,
while he, the feeling, thinking, acting man, shall sleep in his urn.
The horror of the thought makes him dare imagine at times
some future state unlimited in capability for joy, as this is
in DESIRE for joy. But no! Zeus had not yet revealed such a state;
and alas! he must have done so were it possible!

He concludes, "Live long and happy, and in that thought die,
glad for what was! Farewell." And then, as a matter
of minor importance, he informs the King, in a postscript,
that he cannot tell his messenger aright where to deliver what he bears
to one called Paulus. Protos, it must be understood, having heard
of the fame of Paul, and being perplexed in the extreme,
has written the great apostle to know of his doctrine.
But Cleon writes that it is vain to suppose that a mere barbarian Jew,
one circumcised, hath access to a secret which is shut from them,
and that the King wrongs their philosophy in stooping to inquire
of such an one. "Oh, he finds adherents, who does not.
Certain slaves who touched on this same isle, preached him and Christ,
and, as he gathered from a bystander, their doctrines could be held
by no sane man."

There is a quiet beauty about this poem which must insinuate itself
into the feelings of every reader. In tone it resembles
the `Epistle of Karshish, the Arab Physician'. The verse
of both poems is very beautiful. No one can read these two poems,
and `Bishop Blougram's Apology', and `The Bishop orders his Tomb
at St. Praxed's Church', and not admit that Browning is a master
of blank verse in its most difficult form -- a form far more difficult
than that of the epic blank verse of Milton, or the Idyllic blank verse
of Tennyson, argumentative and freighted with thought, and,
at the same time, almost chatty, as it is, and bearing in its course
exquisitely poetical conceptions. The same may be said of much
of the verse of `The Ring and the Book', especially that
of the monologues of the Canon Caponsacchi, Pompilia, the Pope,
and Count Guido Franceschini. But this by the way.

'Cleon' belongs to a grand group of poems, in which Browning
shows himself to be, as I've said, the most essentially Christian
of living poets -- the poet who, more emphatically than any
of his contemporaries have done, has enforced the importance,
the indispensableness of a new birth, the being born from above
(a'/nwqen) as the condition not only of soul vitality and progress,
but also of intellectual rectitude. In this group of poems
are embodied the profoundest principles of education --
principles which it behoves the present generation of educators
to look well to. The acquisition of knowledge is a good thing,
the sharpening of the intellect is a good thing, the cultivation
of philosophy is a good thing; but there is something of
infinitely more importance than all these -- it is, the rectification,
the adjustment, through that mysterious operation we call sympathy,
of the unconscious personality, the hidden soul, which co-operates
with the active powers, with the conscious intellect, and,
as this unconscious personality is rectified or unrectified,
determines the active powers, the conscious intellect,
for righteousness or unrighteousness.

The attentive reader of Browning's poetry must soon discover
how remarkably homogeneous it is in spirit. There are many authors,
and great authors too, the reading of whose collected works
gives the impression of their having "tried their hand" at many things.
No such impression is derivable from the voluminous poetry of Browning.
Wide as is its range, one great and homogeneous spirit pervades
and animates it all, from the earliest to the latest.
No other living poet gives so decided an assurance of having
a BURDEN to deliver. An appropriate general title to his works
would be, `The Burden of Robert Browning to the 19th Century'.
His earliest poems show distinctly his ATTITUDE toward things.
We see in what direction the poet has set his face --
what his philosophy of life is, what soul-life means with him,
what regeneration means, what edification means in its deepest sense
of building up within us the spiritual temple. And if he had left
this world after writing no more than those poems of his youth,
`Pauline' and `Paracelsus', a very fair `ex-pede-Herculem' estimate
might have been made of the possibilities which he has since
so grandly realized.

III. Mr. Browning's "Obscurity".

It was long the FASHION -- and that fashion has not yet passed away
-- with skimming readers and perfunctory critics to charge Mr. Browning
with being "wilfully obscure, unconscientiously careless,
and perversely harsh."

There are readers and readers. One class, constituting, perhaps,
not more than one-tenth of one per cent, or a thousandth part
of the whole number, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest";
the remaining ninety-nine and nine-tenths per cent,
through a habit of loose and indiscriminate reading, are unequal to
the sustained concentration of mind demanded by the higher poetry,
the language of which is characterized by a severe economy
of expression -- a closeness of texture, resulting from
the elliptical energy of highly impassioned thought.

Reading is, perhaps, more superficial at the present day
than it ever was before. There is an almost irresistible temptation
to reverse the "multum legendum esse non multa" of Quintilian,
overwhelmed as we are with books, magazines, and newspapers,
which no man can number, and of which thousands and tens of thousands
of minds endeavor to gobble up all they can; and yet, from want of
all digestive and assimilating power, they are pitiably famished
and deadened.

Sir John Lubbock has lately been interested in the preparation
of a list of the best hundred books, and to that end has solicited
the aid of a number of prominent scholars. Prof. Edward Dowden
remarks thereupon, in an article on `The Interpretation of Literature',
"It would have been more profitable for us had we been advised
how to read any one of the hundred; for what, indeed, does it matter
whether we read the best books or the worst, if we lack the power or
the instinct or the skill by which to reach the heart of any of them?
Books for most readers are, as Montaigne says, `a languid pleasure';
and so they must be, unless they become living powers, with a summons
or a challenge for our spirit, unless we embrace them or wrestle
with them."

To return from this digression to the charge against Browning
of obscurity. And, first, it should be said that Browning has
so much material, such a large thought and passion capital,
that we never find him making a little go a great way,
by means of EXPRESSION, or rather concealing the little by means of
rhetorical tinsel. We can never justly demand of him what the Queen
in `Hamlet' demands of Polonius, "more matter with less art".
His thought is wide-reaching and discursive, and the motions
of his mind rapid and leaping. The connecting links of his thought
have often to be supplied by an analytic reader whose mind
is not up to the required tension to spring over the chasm.
He shows great faith in his reader and "leaves the mere rude
explicit details", as if he thought,

"'tis but brother's speech
We need, speech where an accent's change gives each
The other's soul." *

--
* `Sordello'.
--

A truly original writer like Browning, original, I mean,
in his spiritual attitudes, is always more of less difficult
to the uninitiated, for the reason that he demands of his reader
new standpoints, new habits of thought and feeling; says, virtually,
to his reader, Metanoei^te; and until these new standpoints are taken,
these new habits of thought and feeling induced, the difficulty,
while appearing to the reader at the outset, to be altogether objective,
will really be, to a great extent, subjective, that is,
will be in himself.

Goethe, in his `Wahrheit und Dichtung', says: --

"Wer einem Autor Dunkelheit vorwerfen will, sollte erst sein eigenes
Innere besuchen, ob es denn da auch recht hell ist. In der Daemmerung
wird eine sehr deutliche Schrift unlesbar." *

--
* He who would charge an author with obscurity, should first look
into his own mind, to know whether it is quite clear there.
In the dusk a very distinct handwriting becomes illegible.
--

And George Henry Lewes, in his `Life of Goethe', well says: --

"A masterpiece excites no sudden enthusiasm; it must be studied much
and long, before it is fully comprehended; we must grow up to it,
for it will not descend to us. Its emphasis grows with familiarity.
We never become disenchanted; we grow more and more awe-struck
at its infinite wealth. We discover no trick, for there is none
to discover. Homer, Shakespeare, Raphael, Beethoven, Mozart,
never storm the judgment; but once fairly in possession,
they retain it with unceasing influence."

And Professor Dowden, in the article from which I have just quoted,
says: --

"Approaching a great writer in this spirit of courageous
and affectionate fraternity, we need all our forces and all our craft
for the friendly encounter. If we love ease and lethargy,
let us turn in good time and fly. The interpretation of literature,
like the interpretation of Nature, is no mere record of facts;
it is no catalogue of the items which make up a book --
such catalogues and analyses of contents encumber our histories
of literature with some of their dreariest pages. The interpretation
of literature exhibits no series of dead items, but rather the life
and power of one mind at play upon another mind duly qualified
to receive and manifest these. Hence, one who would interpret
the work of a master must summon up all his powers, and must be alive
at as many points as possible. He who approaches his author
as a whole, bearing upon life as a whole, is himself alive
at the greatest possible number of points, will be the best
and truest interpreter. For he will grasp what is central,
and at the same time will be sensitive to the value of all details,
which details he will perceive not isolated, but in connection with
one another, and with the central life to which they belong
and from which they proceed."

In his poem entitled `Pacchiarotto, and how he worked in distemper',
Mr. Browning turns upon his critics, whom he characterizes as
"the privileged fellows, in the drabs, blues, and yellows"
(alluding to the covers of the leading British Reviews),
and especially upon Alfred Austin, the author of that work
of wholesale condemnation, `The Poetry of the Period', and gives them
a sound and well-deserved drubbing. At the close of the onset
he says: --

"Was it `grammar' wherein you would `coach' me --
You, -- pacing in even that paddock
Of language allotted you ad hoc,
With a clog at your fetlocks, -- you -- scorners
Of me free from all its four corners?
Was it `clearness of words which convey thought?'
Ay, if words never needed enswathe aught
But ignorance, impudence, envy
And malice -- what word-swathe would then vie
With yours for a clearness crystalline?
But had you to put in one small line
Some thought big and bouncing -- as noddle
Of goose, born to cackle and waddle
And bite at man's heel as goose-wont is,
Never felt plague its puny os frontis --
You'd know, as you hissed, spat and sputtered,
Clear `quack-quack' is easily uttered!"

In a letter written to Mr. W. G. Kingsland, in 1868,
Mr. Browning says: --

"I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main
too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with;
but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics
have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer
such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar
or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole
I get my deserts, and something over -- not a crowd, but a few
I value more." *

--
* `Browning Society Papers', III., p. 344.
--

It was never truer of any author than it is true of Browning,
that `Le style c'est l'homme'; and Browning's style is an expression
of the panther-restlessness and panther-spring of his
impassioned intellect. The musing spirit of a Wordsworth
or a Tennyson he partakes not of.

Mr. Richard Holt Hutton's characterization of the poet's style,
as a "crowded note-book style", is not a particularly happy one.
In the passage, which he cites from Sordello, to illustrate
the "crowded note-book style", occurs the following parenthesis: --

"(To be by him themselves made act,
Not watch Sordello acting each of them.)"

"What the parenthesis means," he says, "I have not
the most distant notion. Mr. Browning might as well have said,
`to be by him her himself herself themselves made act', etc.,
for any vestige of meaning I attach to this curious mob
of pronouns and verbs. It is exactly like the short notes of a speech
intended to be interpreted afterwards by one who had heard
and understood it himself." *

--
* `Essays Theological and Literary'. Vol. II., 2d ed., rev. and enl.,
p. 175.
--

At first glance, this parenthesis is obscure; but the obscurity
is not due to its being "exactly like the short notes of a speech",
etc. It is due to what the "obscurity" of Mr. Browning's language,
as language, is, in nine cases out of ten, due, namely,
to the COLLOCATION of the words, not to an excessive economy
of words. He often exercises a liberty in the collocation of his words
which is beyond what an uninflected language like the English
admits of, without more or less obscurity. There are difficult
passages in Browning which, if translated into Latin, would present
no difficulty at all; for in Latin, the relations of words
are more independent of their collocation, being indicated by
their inflections.

The meaning of the parenthesis is, and, independently of the context,
a second glance takes it in (the wonder is, Mr. Hutton didn't
take it in), --

"To be themselves made by him [to] act,
Not each of them watch Sordello acting."

There are two or three characteristics of the poet's diction
which may be noticed here: --

1. The suppression of the relative, both nominative and accusative
or dative, is not uncommon; and, until the reader becomes familiar
with it, it often gives, especially if the suppression is that
of a subject relative, a momentary, but only a momentary,
check to the understanding of a passage.

The following examples are from `The Ring and the Book': --

"Checking the song of praise in me, had else
Swelled to the full for God's will done on earth."
I. The Ring and the Book, v. 591.

i.e., which had (would have) else swelled to the full, etc.

"This that I mixed with truth, motions of mine
That quickened, made the inertness malleolable
O' the gold was not mine," --
I. The Ring and the Book, v. 703.

"Harbouring in the centre of its sense
A hidden germ of failure, shy but sure,
Should neutralize that honesty and leave
That feel for truth at fault, as the way is too."
I. The Ring and the Book, v. 851.

"Elaborate display of pipe and wheel
Framed to unchoak, pump up and pour apace
Truth in a flowery foam shall wash the world."
I. The Ring and the Book, v. 1113.

"see in such
A star shall climb apace and culminate,"
III. The Other Half Rome, v. 846.

"Guido, by his folly, forced from them
The untoward avowal of the trick o' the birth,
Would otherwise be safe and secret now."
IV. Tertium Quid, v. 1599.

"so I
Lay, and let come the proper throe would thrill
Into the ecstasy and outthrob pain."
VI. Giuseppe Caponsacchi, v. 972.

"blind?
Ay, as a man would be inside the sun,
Delirious with the plentitude of light
Should interfuse him to the finger-ends" --
X. The Pope, 1564.

"You have the sunrise now, joins truth to truth."
X. The Pope, 1763.

"One makes fools look foolisher fifty-fold
By putting in their place the wise like you,
To take the full force of an argument
Would buffet their stolidity in vain."
XI. Guido, 858.

Here the infinitive "To take" might be understood, at first look,
as the subject of "Would buffet"; but it depends on "putting", etc.,
and the subject relative "that" is suppressed: "an argument [that]
would buffet their stolidity in vain."

"Will you hear truth can do no harm nor good?"
XI. Guido, 1915.

"I who, with outlet for escape to heaven,
Would tarry if such flight allowed my foe
To raise his head, relieved of that firm foot
Had pinned him to the fiery pavement else!"
XI. Guido, 2099.

i.e., "that firm foot [that] had (would have) pinned."

. . ."ponder, ere ye pass,
Each incident of this strange human play
Privily acted on a theatre,
Was deemed secure from every gaze but God's," --
XII. The Book and the Ring, v. 546.

"As ye become spectators of this scene --
* * * * *
-- A soul made weak by its pathetic want
Of just the first apprenticeship to sin,
Would thenceforth make the sinning soul secure
From all foes save itself, that's truliest foe," --
XII. The Book and the Ring, v. 559.

i.e., "sin, [that] would."

"Was he proud, -- a true scion of the stock
Which bore the blazon, shall make bright my page" --
XII. The Book and the Ring, v. 821.

2. The use of the infinitive without the prepositive "to",
is frequently extended beyond present usage, especially in `Sordello'
and `The Ring and the Book'. The following are examples: --

"Who fails, through deeds howe'er diverse, RE-TRACK
My purpose still, my task?"
Sordello, p. 168.

"failed Adelaide SEE then
Who was the natural chief, the man of men?"
Sordello, p. 175.

"but when
'Twas time expostulate, attempt withdraw
Taurello from his child," . . .
Sordello, p. 180.

Here are two infinitives, with the prepositive omitted,
"expostulate" and "attempt", both dependent on the noun "time",
and another, "withdraw", without the prepositive, dependent on
"attempt": "but when 'twas time [to] expostulate, [to] attempt
[to] withdraw", etc.

"For thus he ventured, to the verge,
Push a vain mummery." . . .
Sordello, p. 190.

i.e., for thus he ventured [to] push to the verge a vain mummery.

"as yet
He had inconsciously contrived FORGET
I' the whole, to dwell o' the points". . .
Sordello, p. 190.

"Grown bestial, dreaming how BECOME divine."
Sordello, p. 191.

"And the whole music it was framed AFFORD," --
Sordello, p. 203.

"Was such a lighting-up of faith, in life,
Only allowed initiate, set man's step
In the true way by help of the great glow?"
R. and B. X. The Pope, v. 1815.

i.e. only allowed [to] initiate, [to] set man's step, etc.

"If I might read instead of print my speech, --
Ay, and enliven speech with many a flower
Refuses obstinately blow in print."
R. and B. IX. Johannes-Baptista Bottinius, v. 4.

Here the subject relative of "refuses" is omitted, and the verb
followed by an infinitive without the prepositive:
"many a flower [that] refuses obstinately [to] blow in print."

3. Instead of the modern analytic form, the simple form
of the past subjunctive derived from the Anglo-Saxon inflectional form,
and identical with that of the past indicative, is frequently employed,
the context only showing that it is the subjunctive. (See Abbott's
`Shakespearian Grammar', 361 et seq.)

"Would we some prize might hold
To match those manifold
Possessions of the brute, -- gain most, as we did best!"
Rabbi Ben Ezra, St. xi.

i.e., as we should do best.

"Thus were abolished Spring and Autumn both,"
I. The Ring and the Book, 1358.

i.e., would be abolished.

"His peevishness had promptly put aside
Such honor and refused the proffered boon," . . .
II. Half Rome (R. and B.), 369.

i.e., would have promptly put aside.

"(What daily pittance pleased the plunderer dole.)"
X. The Pope (R. and B.), 561.

i.e., as the context shows, [it] might please the plunderer [to] dole.

"succession to the inheritance
Which bolder crime had lost you:"
IV. Tertium Quid (R. and B.), 1104.

i.e., would have lost you.

But the verbs "be" and "have" are chiefly so used, and not often
beyond what present usage allows. *

--
* Tennyson uses "saw" = `viderem', in the following passage: --

"But since I did not see the Holy Thing,
I sware a vow to follow it till I saw."
Sir Percivale in `The Holy Grail'.
--

4. The use of the dative, or indirect object, without "to" or "for".

Such datives are very frequent, and scarcely need illustration.
The poet has simply carried the use of them beyond the present
general usage of the language. But there's a noticeable one
in the Pope's Monologue, in `The Ring and the Book', vv. 1464-1466:
The Archbishop of Arezzo, to whom poor Pompilia has applied,
in her distress, for protection against her brutal husband,
thinks it politic not to take her part, but send her back to him
and enjoin obedience and submission. The Pope, in his Monologue,
represents the crafty Archbishop as saying, when Pompilia cries,
"Protect me from the wolf!"

"No, thy Guido is rough, heady, strong,
Dangerous to disquiet: let him bide!
He needs some bone to mumble, help amuse
The darkness of his den with: so, the fawn
Which limps up bleeding to my foot and lies,
-- Come to me daughter! -- thus I throw him back!"

i.e., thus I throw back [to] him the fawn which limps up bleeding
to my foot and lies. The parenthesis, "Come to me, daughter",
being interposed, and which is introduced as preparatory
to his purpose, adds to the difficulty of the construction.

There are, after all, but comparatively few instances
in Browning's poetry, where these features of his diction
can be fairly condemned. They often impart a crispness
to the expressions in which they occur.

The contriving spirit of the poet's language often results
in great complexity of construction. Complexity of construction
may be a fault, and it may not. It may be justified by the complexity
of the thought which it bears along. "Clear quack-quack
is easily uttered." But where an author's thought is nimble,
far-reaching, elliptical through its energy, and discursive,
the expression of it must be more or less complex or involved;
he will employ subordinate clauses, and parentheses, through which
to express the outstanding, restricting, and toning relations
of his thought, that is, if he is a master of perspective,
and ranks his grouped thoughts according to their relative importance.

The poet's apostrophe to his wife in the spirit-world, which closes
the long prologue to `The Ring and the Book' (vv. 1391-1416),
and in which he invokes her aid and benediction, in the work
he has undertaken, presents a greater complexity of construction
than is to be met with anywhere else in his works; and of this passage
it may be said, as it may be said of any other having
a complex construction, supposing this to be the only difficulty,
that it's hard rather than obscure, and demands close reading. But,
notwithstanding its complex structure and the freight of thought
conveyed, the passage has a remarkable LIGHTSOMENESS of movement,
and is a fine specimen of blank verse. The unobtrusive,
but distinctly felt, alliteration which runs through it,
contributes something toward this lightsomeness. The first two verses
have a Tennysonian ring: --

"O lyric Love, half-angel and half-bird
And all a wonder and a wild desire, --
Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun,
Took sanctuary within the holier blue,
5 And sang a kindred soul out to his face, --
Yet human at the red-ripe of the heart --
When the first summons from the darkling earth
Reached thee amid thy chambers, blanched their blue,
And bared them of the glory -- to drop down,
10 To toil for man, to suffer or to die, --
This is the same voice: can thy soul know change?
Hail then, and hearken from the realms of help!
Never may I commence my song, my due
To God who best taught song by gift of thee,
15 Except with bent head and beseeching hand --
That still, despite the distance and the dark,
What was, again may be; some interchange
Of grace, some splendour once thy very thought,
Some benediction anciently thy smile:
20 -- Never conclude, but raising hand and head
Thither where eyes, that cannot reach, yet yearn
For all hope, all sustainment, all reward,
Their utmost up and on, -- so blessing back
In those thy realms of help, that heaven thy home,
25 Some whiteness which, I judge, thy face makes proud,
Some wanness where, I think, thy foot may fall!" *

--
* In the last three verses of `The Ring and the Book'
the poet again addresses his "Lyric Love" to express the wish
that the Ring, which he has rounded out of the rough ore
of the Roman murder case, might but lie "in guardianship" outside hers,

"Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised)
Linking our England to his Italy."

The reference is to the inscription on Casa Guidi,
Via Maggiore, 9. Florence:

QUI SCRISSE E MORI
ELISABETTA BARRETT BROWNING
CHE IN CUORE DI DONNA CONCILIAVA
SCIENZA DI DOTTO E SPIRITO DI POETA
E FECE DEL SUO VERSO AUREO ANELLO
FRA ITALIA E INGHILTERRA
PONE QUESTO MEMORIA
FIRENZE GRATA
1861.
--

"his", v. 5, the sun's. "Yet human", v. 6: though `kindred'
to the sun, yet proved `human'. . .`when the first summons', etc.
"This is the same voice", v. 11, i.e., a voice of the same import
as was "the first summons" -- one invoking help. The nouns
"interchange", "splendour", "benediction", vv. 17, 18, 19,
are appositives of "what", v. 17. "Never conclude", v. 20,
to be construed with "commence", v. 13: "Never [may I] conclude".
"Their utmost up and on", v. 23, to be construed with "yearn", v. 21.
"so", v. 23, looks back to "raising hand and head", etc.
"Some whiteness" . . . v. 25, "Some wanness" . . . v. 26,
to be construed with "blessing back".

See an elaborate analysis of this Invocation, by Dr. F. J. Furnivall,
read at the forty-eighth meeting of the Browning Society, February 25,
1887, being No. 39 of the Society's Papers.

But, after all, the difficulties in Browning which result from
the construction of the language, be that what it may,
are not the main difficulties, as has been too generally supposed.
THE MAIN DIFFICULTIES ARE QUITE INDEPENDENT OF THE CONSTRUCTION
OF THE LANGUAGE.

Many readers, especially those who take an intellectual attitude
toward all things, in the heavens above and in the earth beneath,
suppose that they are prepared to understand almost anything
which is understandable if it is only PUT right. This is a most
egregious mistake, especially in respect to the subtle and complex
spiritual experiences which the more deeply subjective poetry embodies.
What De Quincey says in his paper on Kant,* of the comprehension of
the higher philosophical truths, can, with still better reason,
be said of the responsiveness to the higher spiritual truths:
"No complex or very important truth was ever yet transferred
in full development from one mind to another: truth of that character
is not a piece of furniture to be shifted; it is a seed which must be sown,
and pass through the several stages of growth. No doctrine of importance
can be transferred in a matured shape into any man's understanding
from without: it must arise by an act of genesis within
the understanding itself."

--
* `Letters to a Young Man'. Letter V.
--

And so it may be said in regard to the responsiveness to
the higher spiritual truths -- I don't say COMPREHENSION of
the higher spiritual truths (that word pertains rather to
an intellectual grasp), but RESPONSIVENESS to the higher
spiritual truths. Spiritual truths must be spiritually responded to;
they are not and cannot be intellectually comprehended. The condition
of such responsiveness it may require a long while to fulfil.
New attitudes of the soul, a meta/noia, may be demanded,
before such responsiveness is possible. And what some people
may regard in the higher poetry as obscure, by reason of the mode
of its presentation on the part of the poet, may be only relatively so
-- that is, the obscurity may be wholly due to the wrong attitudes,
or the no attitudes, of their own souls, and to the limitations of
their spiritual experiences. In that case "the patient must minister
to himself".

While on the subject of "obscurity", I must notice a difficulty
which the reader at first experiences in his study of Browning's poetry
-- a difficulty resulting from the poet's favorite art-form,
the dramatic or psychologic monologue.* The largest portion
of his voluminous poetry is in this form. Some speaker is made
to reveal his character, and, sometimes, by reflection, or directly,
the character of some one else -- to set forth some subtle
and complex soul-mood, some supreme, all-determining movement or experience
of a life; or, it may be, to RATIOCINATE subtly on some curious question
of theology, morals, philosophy, or art. Now it is in strictly preserving
the monologue character that obscurity often results. A monologue
often begins with a startling abruptness, and the reader must
read along some distance before he gathers what the beginning means.
Take the monologue of Fra Lippo Lippi for example. The situation
is necessarily left more or less unexplained. The poet says nothing
`in propria persona', and no reply is made to the speaker
by the person or persons addressed. Sometimes a look, a gesture,
or a remark, must be supposed on the part of the one addressed,
which occasions a responsive remark. Sometimes the speaker IMPUTES
a question; and the reader is sometimes obliged to stop and consider
whether a question is imputed by the speaker to the one
he is addressing, or is a direct question of his own. This is often
the case throughout `The Ring and the Book'. But to the initiated,
these features of the monologue present little or no difficulty,
and they conduce to great compactness of composition --
a closeness of texture which the reader comes in time to enjoy,
and to prefer to a more loosely woven diction.

--
* The dramatic monologue differs from a soliloquy in this:
while there is but one speaker, the presence of a silent second person
is supposed, to whom the arguments of the speaker are addressed.
Perhaps such a situation may be termed a novelty of invention
in our Poet. It is obvious that the dramatic monologue gains over
the soliloquy in that it allows the artist greater room in which
to work out his conception of character. We cannot gaze long
at a solitary figure on a canvas, however powerfully treated,
without feeling some need of relief. In the same way a soliloquy
(comp. the great soliloquies of Shakespeare) cannot be protracted
to any great length without wearying the listener. The thoughts
of a man in self-communion are apt to run in a certain circle,
and to assume a monotony. The introduction of a second person
acting powerfully upon the speaker throughout, draws the latter forth
into a more complete and varied expression of his mind.
The silent person in the background, who may be all the time
master of the situation, supplies a powerful stimulus
to the imagination of the reader. -- Rev. Prof. E. Johnson's
"Paper on `Bishop Blougram's Apology'" (`Browning Soc. Papers',
Pt. III., p. 279).
--

The monologue entitled `My Last Duchess. Ferrara' is a good example
of the constitution of this art-form. It is one of the most perfect
in artistic treatment, and exhibits all the features I have just noticed.
Originally, this monologue and that now entitled `Count Gismond.
Aix in Provence', had the common title, `Italy and France',
the former being No. I. Italy; the latter, No. II. France. The poet,
no doubt, afterward thought that the Duke of the one monologue,
and the Count of the other, could not justly be presented
as representatives, respectively, of Italy and France.
In giving the monologues new titles, `My Last Duchess' and `Count Gismond',
he added to the one, `Ferrara', and to the other, `Aix in Provence',
thus locally restricting the order of character which
they severally represent.

In `My Last Duchess', the speaker is a soulless VIRTUOSO --
a natural product of a proud, arrogant, and exclusive aristocracy,
on the one hand, and on the other, of an old and effete city,
like Ferrara, where art, rather than ministering to soul-life
and true manliness of character, has become an end to itself --
is valued for its own sake.

The Duke is showing, with the weak pride of the mere virtuoso,
a portrait of his last Duchess, to some one who has been sent
to negotiate another marriage. We see that he is having
an entertainment or reception of some kind in his palace,
and that he has withdrawn from the company with the envoy
to the picture-gallery on an upper floor. He has pulled aside
the curtain from before the portrait, and in remarking on
the expression which the artist, Fra Pandolf,
has given to the face, he is made to reveal a fiendish jealousy
on his part, occasioned by the sweetness and joyousness of
his late Duchess, who, he thought, should show interest in nothing
but his own fossilized self. "She had," he says, "a heart --
how shall I say? -- too soon made glad, too easily impressed;
she liked whate'er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast, the dropping of
the daylight in the West, the bough of cherries some officious fool
broke in the orchard for her, the white mule she rode with
round the terrace -- all and each would draw from her alike
the approving speech, or blush, at least. She thanked men, -- good!
but thanked somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked my gift
of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody's gift."

Her fresh interest in things, and the sweet smile she had for all,
due to a generous soul-life, proved fatal to the lovely Duchess:
"Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, whene'er I passed her; but who passed
without much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
then all smiles stopped together."

He succeeded, and he seems to be proud of it, in shutting off
all her life-currents, pure, and fresh, and sparkling, as they were,
and we must suppose that she than sank slowly and uncomplainingly away.
What a deep pathos there is in "then all smiles stopped together"! *

--
* "I gave commands" certainly must not be understood to mean
commands for her death, as it is understood by the writer of the articles
in `The Saint Paul's Magazine' for December, 1870, and January, 1871.
{See Preface: Note to the Third Edition.}
--

The contemptible meanness and selfishness of jealousy
were never exhibited with greater power, than they are exhibited in
this short monologue -- a power largely due to the artistic treatment.
The jealousy of Leontes, in `The Winter's Tale', of Shakespeare,
is nobility itself, in comparison with the Duke's. How distinctly,
while indirectly, the sweet Duchess is, with a few masterly touches,
placed before us! The poet shows his artistic skill especially
in his indirect, reflected portraitures.

This short composition, comprising as it does but fifty-six lines,
is, of itself, sufficient to prove the poet a consummate artist.
Tennyson's TECHNIQUE is quite perfect, almost "faultily faultless",
indeed; but in no one of his compositions has he shown an equal degree
of art-power, in the highest sense of the word.

{`My Last Duchess'}

"That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said,
`Fra Pandolf' by design: for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say `Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much', or `Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat': such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -- all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, -- good! but thanked
Somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech -- (which I have not) -- to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, `Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark' -- and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
-- E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! *

--
* Claus of Innsbruck and also Fra Pandolf (v. 3) are imaginary artists.
--

The last ten verses illustrate well the poet's skilful management
of his difficult art-form. After the envoy has had his look
at the portrait, the Duke, thinking it time to return to his guests,
says "Will't please you rise? We'll meet the company below, then."
His next speech, which indicates what he has been talking about,
during the envoy's study of the picture, must be understood
as uttered while they are moving toward the stairway. The next,
"Nay, we'll go together down, sir", shows that they have reached
the head of the stairway, and that the envoy has politely motioned
the Duke to lead the way down. This is implied in the "Nay".
The last speech indicates that on the stairway is a window
which affords an outlook into the courtyard, where he calls
the attention of the envoy to a Neptune, taming a sea-horse,
cast in bronze for him by Claus of Innsbruck. The pride
of the virtuoso is also implied in the word, "though".

It should be noticed, also, that the Duke values his wife's picture
wholly as a picture, not as the "counterfeit presentment" and reminder
of a sweet and lovely woman, who might have blessed his life,
if he had been capable of being blessed. It is to him a picture
by a great artist, and he values it only as such. He says,
parenthetically, "since none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you,
but I." It's too precious a work of art to be entrusted to anybody else.

IV. Browning's Verse.

It seems to be admitted, even by many of the poet's
most devoted students, that his verse is, in its general character,
harsh and rugged. To judge it fairly, one must free his mind
of many merely conventional canons in regard to verse.
Pure music is absolute. The music of verse moves, or should move,
under the conditions of the thought which articulates it. It should
serve as a chorus to the thought, expressing a mystic sympathy
with it. Verse may be very musical, and yet more or less mechanical;
that is, it may CLOTHE thought and sentiment, but not be a part
of it, not EMBODY it. Unrippled verse, which many readers demand,
MUST be more or less mechanical. Such verse flows according to
its own sweet will, independently of the thought-articulation.
But the thought-articulation may be so flimsy that it's well enough
for the verse so to flow.

The careful student of Browning's language-shaping must discover --
the requisite susceptibility to vitality of form being supposed --
that his verse is remarkably organic: often, indeed, more organic,
even when it appears to be clumsy, than the "faultily faultless" verse
of Tennyson. The poet who has written `In a Gondola',
`By the Fireside', `Meeting at Night', `Parting at Morning',
`Gold Hair', `May and Death', `Love among the Ruins',
`Home Thoughts from Abroad', `Home Thoughts from the Sea',
the Incantation in `The Flight of the Duchess' (some of which are both
song and picture), and many, many more that might be named,
certainly has the very highest faculty of word and verse music,
of music, too, that is entirely new in English Poetry;
and it can be shown that he always exercises that faculty
WHENEVER THERE'S A REAL ARTISTIC OCCASION FOR IT, not otherwise.
Verse-music is never with him a mere literary indulgence.
The grotesquerie of rhythm and rhyme which some of his poems exhibit,
is as organic as any other feature of his language-shaping,
and shows the rarest command of language. He has been charged with
having "failed to reach continuous levels of musical phrasing".
It's a charge which every one who appreciates Browning's verse
in its higher forms (and its higher forms are not those which are
addressed especially to the physical ear) will be very ready to admit.
In the general tenor of his poetry, he is ABOVE the Singer, --
he is the Seer and Revealer, who sees great truths beyond the bounds
of the territory of general knowledge, instead of working over truths
within that territory; and no seer of modern times has had his eyes
more clearly purged with euphrasy and rue. Poetry is with him,
in the language of Mr. E. Paxton Hood (`Eclectic and Congregational Rev.',
Dec., 1868), "no jingle of words, or pretty amusement
for harpsichord or piano, but rather a divine trigonometry,
a process of celestial triangulation, a taking observations of
celestial places and spheres, an attempt to estimate our world,
its place, its life amidst the boundless immeasurable sweeps
of space and time; or if describing, then describing
the animating stories of the giants, how they fought and fell,
or conquered. . .a great all-inclusive strength of song,
which is as a battle march to warriors, or as the refreshment
of brooks and dates to the spent and toiling soldiers on their way,
is more than the pretty idyll, whose sweet and plaintive story
pleases the idle hour or idle ear."

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