Part 2 out of 5
Who blabs so oft the follies of this world:
And I am death's familiar, as you know.
I helped a man to die, some few weeks since,
Warped even from his go-cart to one end --
The living on princes' smiles, reflected from
A mighty herd of favourites. No mean trick
He left untried, and truly well-nigh wormed
All traces of God's finger out of him:
Then died, grown old. And just an hour before,
Having lain long with blank and soulless eyes,
He sat up suddenly, and with natural voice
Said that in spite of thick air and closed doors
God told him it was June; and he knew well
Without such telling, harebells grew in June;
And all that kings could ever give or take
Would not be precious as those blooms to him."
Technically, I doubt if Browning ever produced any finer long poem,
except "Pippa Passes", which is a lyrical drama, and neither exactly a `play'
nor exactly a `poem' in the conventional usage of the terms.
Artistically, "Paracelsus" is disproportionate, and has faults,
obtrusive enough to any sensitive ear: but in the main
it has a beauty without harshness, a swiftness of thought and speech
without tumultuous pressure of ideas or stammering. It has not,
in like degree, the intense human insight of, say, "The Inn Album",
but it has that charm of sequent excellence too rarely to be found in
many of Browning's later writings. It glides onward like a steadfast stream,
the thought moving with the current it animates and controls,
and throbbing eagerly beneath. When we read certain portions of "Paracelsus",
and the lovely lyrics interspersed in it, it is difficult
not to think of the poet as sometimes, in later life,
stooping like the mariner in Roscoe's beautiful sonnet,
striving to reclaim "some loved lost echo from the fleeting strand."
But it is the fleeting shore of exquisite art, not of the far-reaching
shadowy capes and promontories of "the poetic land".
Of the four interlusive lyrics the freer music is in the unique chant,
"Over the sea our galleys went": a song full of melody and blithe lilt.
It is marvellously pictorial, and yet has a freedom that places it among
the most delightful of spontaneous lyrics: --
"We shouted, every man of us,
And steered right into the harbour thus,
With pomp and paean glorious."
It is, however, too long for present quotation, and as an example
of Browning's early lyrics I select rather the rich and delicate
second of these "Paracelsus" songs, one wherein the influence of Keats
is so marked, and yet where all is the poet's own: --
"Heap cassia, sandal-buds and stripes
Of labdanum, and aloe-balls,
Smeared with dull nard an Indian wipes
From out her hair: such balsam falls
Down sea-side mountain pedestals,
From tree-tops where tired winds are fain,
Spent with the vast and howling main,
To treasure half their island-gain.
"And strew faint sweetness from some old
Egyptian's fine worm-eaten shroud
Which breaks to dust when once unrolled;
Or shredded perfume, like a cloud
From closet long to quiet vowed,
With mothed and dropping arras hung,
Mouldering her lute and books among,
As when a queen, long dead, was young."
With this music in our ears we can well forgive some of
the prosaic commonplaces which deface "Paracelsus" -- some of those lapses
from rhythmic energy to which the poet became less and less sensitive,
till he could be so deaf to the vanishing "echo of the fleeting strand"
as to sink to the level of doggerel such as that which closes
the poem called "Popularity".
"Paracelsus" is not a great, but it is a memorable poem:
a notable achievement, indeed, for an author of Browning's years.
Well may we exclaim with Festus, when we regard the poet
in all the greatness of his maturity --
Well warranted our faith in this full noon!"
The `Athenaeum' dismissed "Paracelsus" with a half contemptuous line or two.
On the other hand, the `Examiner' acknowledged it to be
a work of unequivocal power, and predicted for its author a brilliant career.
The same critic who wrote this review contributed an article
of about twenty pages upon "Paracelsus" to the `New Monthly Magazine',
under the heading, "Evidences of a New Dramatic Poetry".
This article is ably written, and remarkable for its sympathetic insight.
"Mr. Browning," the critic writes, "is a man of genius, he has in himself
all the elements of a great poet, philosophical as well as dramatic."
The author of this enthusiastic and important critique was John Forster.
When the `Examiner' review appeared the two young men had not met:
but the encounter, which was to be the seed of so fine a flower of friendship,
occurred before the publication of the `New Monthly' article. Before this,
however, Browning had already made one of the most momentous acquaintanceships
of his life.
His good friend and early critic, Mr. Fox, asked him to his house
one evening in November, a few months after the publication of "Paracelsus".
The chief guest of the occasion was Macready, then at the height
of his great reputation. Mr. Fox had paved the way for the young poet,
but the moment he entered he carried with him his best recommendation.
Every one who met Browning in those early years of his buoyant manhood
seems to have been struck by his comeliness and simple grace of manner.
Macready stated that he looked more like a poet than any man he had ever met.
As a young man he appears to have had a certain ivory delicacy of colouring,
what an old friend perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly described to me
as an almost flower-like beauty, which passed ere long
into a less girlish and more robust complexion. He appeared
taller than he was, for he was not above medium height,
partly because of his rare grace of movement, and partly from
a characteristic high poise of the head when listening intently
to music or conversation. Even then he had that expressive wave o' the hand,
which in later years was as full of various meanings
as the `Ecco' of an Italian. A swift alertness pervaded him,
noticeable as much in the rapid change of expression,
in the deepening and illuming colours of his singularly expressive eyes,
and in his sensitive mouth, with the upper lip ever so swift
to curve or droop in response to the most fluctuant emotion,
as in his greyhound-like apprehension, which so often grasped the subject
in its entirety before its propounder himself realised its significance.
A lady, who remembers Browning at that time, has told me that his hair --
then of a brown so dark as to appear black -- was so beautiful
in its heavy sculpturesque waves as to attract frequent notice.
Another, and more subtle, personal charm was his voice,
then with a rare flute-like tone, clear, sweet, and resonant.
Afterwards, though always with precise clarity, it became
merely strong and hearty, a little too loud sometimes,
and not infrequently as that of one simulating keen immediate interest
while the attention was almost wholly detached.
Macready, in his Journal,* about a week later than the date
of his first meeting with the poet, wrote -- "Read `Paracelsus',
a work of great daring, starred with poetry of thought, feeling, and diction,
but occasionally obscure: the writer can scarcely fail
to be a leading spirit of his time." The tragedian's house,
whither he went at week-ends and on holidays, was at Elstree,
a short distance to the northward of Hampstead: and there
he invited Browning, among other friends, to come on the last day of December
and spend New Year's Day (1836).** When alluding, in after years,
to this visit, Browning always spoke of it as one of the red-letter days
of his life. It was here he first met Forster, with whom he at once formed
what proved to be an enduring friendship; and on this occasion, also,
that he was urged by his host to write a poetic play.
* For many interesting particulars concerning Macready and Browning,
and the production of "Strafford", etc., see the `Reminiscences', vol. 1.
** It was for Macready's eldest boy, William Charles, that Browning wrote
one of the most widely popular of his poems, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin".
It is said to have been an impromptu performance, and to have been
so little valued by the author that he hesitated about its inclusion
in "Bells and Pomegranates". It was inserted at the last moment,
in the third number, which was short of "copy". Some one (anonymous,
but whom I take to be Mr. Nettleship) has publicly alluded
to his possession of a rival poem (entitled, simply, "Hamelin")
by Robert Browning the elder, and of a letter which he had sent to a friend
along with the verses, in which he writes: "Before I knew
that Robert had begun the story of the `Rats' I had contemplated a tale
on the same subject, and proceeded with it as far as you see,
but, on hearing that Robert had a similar one on hand, I desisted."
This must have been in 1842, for it was in that year
that the third part of `Bells and Pomegranates' was published.
In 1843, however, he finished it. Browning's "Pied Piper"
has been translated into French, Russian, Italian, and German.
The latter (or one German) version is in prose. It was made in 1880,
for a special purpose, and occupied the whole of one number
of the local paper of Hameln, which is a quaint townlet in Hanover.
Browning promised to consider the suggestion. Six weeks later,
in company with Forster, with whom he had become intimate,
he called upon Macready, to discuss the plot of a tragedy
which he had pondered. He told the tragedian how deeply he had been impressed
by his performance of "Othello", and how this had deflected his intention
from a modern and European to an Oriental and ancient theme.
"Browning said that I had BIT him by my performance of `Othello',
and I told him I hoped I should make the blood come." The "blood" had come
in the guise of a drama-motive based on the crucial period in the career
of Narses, the eunuch-general of Justinian. Macready liked the suggestion,
though he demurred to one or two points in the outline:
and before Browning left he eagerly pressed him to "go on with `Narses'."
But whether Browning mistrusted his own interest in the theme,
or was dubious as to the success with which Macready
would realise his conception, or as to the reception a play of such nature
would win from an auditory no longer reverent of high dramatic ideals,
he gave up the idea. Some three months later (May 26th) he enjoyed
another eventful evening. It was the night of the first performance
of Talfourd's "Ion", and he was among the personal friends of Macready
who were invited to the supper at Talfourd's rooms.
After the fall of the curtain, Browning, Forster, and other friends
sought the tragedian and congratulated him upon the success
both of the play and of his impersonation of the chief character.
They then adjourned to the house of the author of "Ion".
To his surprise and gratification Browning found himself placed
next but one to his host, and immediately opposite Macready,
who sat between two gentlemen, one calm as a summer evening,
and the other with a tempestuous youth dominating his sixty years,
whom the young poet at once recognised as Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor.
Every one was in good spirits: the host perhaps most of all,
who was celebrating his birthday as well as the success of "Ion".
Possibly Macready was the only person who felt at all bored --
unless it was Landor -- for Wordsworth was not, at such a function,
an entertaining conversationalist. There is much significance
in the succinct entry in Macready's journal concerning the Lake-poet --
"Wordsworth, who pinned me." . . . When Talfourd rose
to propose the toast of "The Poets of England" every one probably expected
that Wordsworth would be named to respond. But with a kindly grace the host,
after flattering remarks upon the two great men then honouring him
by sitting at his table, coupled his toast with the name
of the youngest of the poets of England -- "Mr. Robert Browning,
the author of `Paracelsus'." It was a very proud moment for Browning,
singled out among that brilliant company: and it is pleasant to know,
on the authority of Miss Mitford, who was present, that "he performed his task
with grace and modesty," looking, the amiable lady adds,
even younger than he was. Perhaps, however, he was prouder still
when Wordsworth leaned across the table, and with stately affability said,
"I am proud to drink your health, Mr. Browning:" when Landor,
also, with a superbly indifferent and yet kindly smile,
also raised his glass to his lips in courteous greeting.
Of Wordsworth Browning saw not a little in the ensuing few years,
for on the rare visits the elderly poet paid to London,
Talfourd never failed to ask the author of "Paracelsus",
for whom he had a sincere admiration, to meet the great man.
It was not in the nature of things that the two poets could become friends,
but though the younger was sometimes annoyed by the elder's pooh-poohing
his republican sympathies, and contemptuously waiving aside as a mere nobody
no less an individual than Shelley, he never failed of respect
and even reverence. With what tenderness and dignity he has commemorated
the great poet's falling away from his early ideals, may be seen
in "The Lost Leader", one of the most popular of Browning's short poems,
and likely to remain so. For several reasons, however,
it is best as well as right that Wordsworth should not be more
than merely nominally identified with the Lost Leader.
Browning was always imperative upon this point.
Towards Landor, on the other hand, he entertained a sentiment
of genuine affection, coupled with a profound sympathy and admiration:
a sentiment duly reciprocated. The care of the younger for the elder,
in the old age of the latter, is one of the most beautiful incidents
in a beautiful life.
But the evening was not to pass without another memorable incident,
one to which we owe "Strafford", and probably "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon".
Just as the young poet, flushed with the triumphant pleasure of the evening,
was about to leave, Macready arrested him by a friendly grip of the arm.
In unmistakable earnestness he asked Browning to write him a play.
With a simplicity equal to the occasion, the poet contented himself
with replying, "Shall it be historical and English? What do you say
to a drama on Strafford?"
Macready was pleased with the idea, and hopeful that his friend would be
more successful with the English statesman than with the eunuch Narses.
A few months elapsed before the poet, who had set aside the long work
upon which he was engaged ("Sordello"), called upon Macready
with the manuscript of "Strafford". The latter hoped much from it.
In March the MS. was ready. About the end of the month
Macready took it to Covent Garden Theatre, and read it to Mr. Osbaldiston,
"who caught at it with avidity, and agreed to produce it without delay."
It was an eventful first of May -- an eventful twelvemonth, indeed,
for it was the initial year of the Victorian era, notable, too,
as that wherein the Electric Telegraph was established, and, in letters,
wherein a new dramatic literature had its origin. For "Strafford",
already significant of a novel movement, and destined, it seems to me,
to be still more significant in that great dramatic period towards which
we are fast converging, was not less important to the Drama in England,
as a new departure in method and radically indicative of a fresh standpoint,
than "Hernani" was in France. But in literary history
the day itself is doubly memorable, for in the forenoon
Carlyle gave the first of his lectures in London. The play was a success,
despite the shamefully inadequate acting of some of those entrusted with
important parts. There was once, perhaps there were more occasions than one,
where success poised like the soul of a Mohammedan on the invisible thread
leading to Paradise, but on either side of which lies perdition.
There was none to cry `Timbul' save Macready, except Miss Helen Faucit,
who gained a brilliant triumph as Lady Carlisle. The part of Charles I.
was enacted so execrably that damnation for all was again and again
within measurable distance. "The Younger Vane" ranted so that a hiss,
like an embodied scorn, vibrated on vagrant wings throughout the house.
There was not even any extraneous aid to a fortunate impression.
The house was in ill repair: the seats dusty, the "scenery" commonplace
and sometimes noticeably inappropriate, the costumes and accessories
almost sordid. But in the face of all this, a triumph was secured.
For a brief while Macready believed that the star of regeneration had arisen.
Unfortunately 'twas, in the words of a contemporary dramatic poet,
"a rising sorrow splendidly forlorn." The financial condition
of Covent Garden Theatre was so ruinous that not even the most successful play
could have restored its doomed fortunes.
After the fifth night one of the leading actors, having received
a better offer elsewhere, suddenly withdrew.
This was the last straw. A collapse forthwith occurred.
In the scramble for shares in the few remaining funds
every one gained something, except the author, who was to have received
12 Pounds for each performance for the first twenty-five nights,
and 10 Pounds each for ten nights further. This disaster
was a deep disappointment to Browning, and a by no means transitory one,
for three or four years later he wrote (Advt. of "Bells and Pomegranates"):
"Two or three years ago I wrote a play, about which the chief matter
I much care to recollect at present is, that a pitful of good-natured people
applauded it. Ever since, I have been desirous of doing something
in the same way that should better reward their attention."
But, except in so far as its abrupt declension from the stage hurt its author
in the eyes of the critics, and possibly in those of theatrical managers,
"Strafford" was certainly no failure. It has the elements
of a great acting play. Everything, even the language
(and here was a stumbling-block with most of the critics and criticasters),
was subordinated to dramatic exigencies: though the subordination
was in conformity with a novel shaping method. "Strafford" was not, however,
allowed to remain unknown to those who had been unable to visit
Covent Garden Theatre.* Browning's name had quite sufficient literary repute
to justify a publisher in risking the issue of a drama by him,
one, at any rate, that had the advantage of association with Macready's name.
The Longmans issued it, and the author had the pleasure of knowing
that his third poetic work was not produced at the expense of a relative,
but at that of the publishers. It had but an indifferent reception, however.
* "It is time to deny a statement that has been repeated ad nauseam
in every notice that professes to give an account of Mr. Browning's career.
Whatever is said or not said, it is always that his plays have `failed'
on the stage. In point of fact, the three plays which he has brought out
have all succeeded, and have owed it to fortuitous circumstances
that their tenure on the boards has been comparatively short."
-- E. W. Gosse, in article in `The Century Magazine'.
Most people who saw the performance of "Strafford" given in 1886,
under the auspices of the Browning Society, were surprised
as well as impressed: for few, apparently, had realised from perusal
the power of the play as made manifest when acted. The secret of this
is that the drama, when privily read, seems hard if not heavy in its diction,
and to be so inornate, though by no means correspondingly simple,
as to render any comparison between it and the dramatic work of Shakespeare
out of the question. But when acted, the artistry of the play is revealed.
Its intense naturalness is due in great part to the stern concision
of the lines, where no word is wasted, where every sentence is fraught
with the utmost it can convey. The outlines which disturbed us
by their vagueness become more clear: in a word, we all see in enactment
what only a few of us can discern in perusal. The play has its faults,
but scarcely those of language, where the diction is noble and rhythmic,
because it is, so to speak, the genuine rind of the fruit it envelops.
But there are dramatic faults -- primarily, in the extreme economy
of the author in the presentment of his `dramatis personae',
who are embodied abstractions -- monomaniacs of ideas,
as some one has said of Hugo's personages -- rather than men as we are,
with manifold complexities in endless friction or fusion. One cardinal fault
is the lack of humour, which to my mind is the paramount objection
to its popular acceptance. Another, is the misproportionate length
of some of the speeches. Once again, there is, as in the greater portion
of Browning's longer poems and dramas, a baneful equality of emphasis.
The conception of Charles I. is not only obviously weak, but strangely
prejudiced adversely for so keen an analyst of the soul as Browning.
For what a fellow-dramatist calls this "Sunset Shadow of a King",
no man or woman could abase every hope and energy. Shakespeare would never
have committed the crucial mistake of making Charles the despicable deformity
he is in Browning's drama. Strafford himself disappears too soon:
in the fourth act there is the vacuum abhorred of dramatic propriety.
When he again comes on the scene, the charm is partly broken.
But withal the play is one of remarkable vigour and beauty.
It seems to me that too much has been written against it
on the score of its metrical rudeness. The lines are beat out by a hammer,
but in the process they are wrought clear of all needless alloy.
To urge, as has been lately urged, that it lacks all human touch
and is a mere intellectual fanfaronade, and that there is not once
a line of poignant insight, is altogether uncritical. Readers of this mind
must have forgotten or be indifferent to those lines, for example,
where the wretched Charles stammeringly excuses himself to his loyal minister
for his death-warrant, crying out that it was wrung from him,
and begging Strafford not to curse him: or, again, that wonderfully
significant line, so full of a too tardy knowledge and of concentrated scorn,
where Strafford first begs the king to "be good to his children,"
and then, with a contempt that is almost sublime, implores, "Stay, sir,
do not promise, do not swear!" The whole of the second scene in the fifth act
is pure genius. The reader, or spectator, knows by this time
that all hope is over: that Strafford, though all unaware,
is betrayed and undone. It is a subtle dramatic ruse,
that of Browning's representing him sitting in his apartment in the Tower
with his young children, William and Anne, blithely singing.
Can one read and ever forget the lines giving the gay Italian rhyme,
with the boy's picturesquely childish prose-accompaniment?
Strafford is seated, weary and distraught: --
"`O bell' andare
Per barca in mare,
Verso la sera
William. The boat's in the broad moonlight all this while --
`Verso la sera
And the boat shoots from underneath the moon
Into the shadowy distance; only still
You hear the dipping oar --
`Verso la sera,'
And faint, and fainter, and then all's quite gone,
Music and light and all, like a lost star.
Anne. But you should sleep, father: you were to sleep.
Strafford. I do sleep, Anne; or if not -- you must know
There's such a thing as . . .
William. You're too tired to sleep.
Strafford. It will come by-and-by and all day long,
In that old quiet house I told you of:
We sleep safe there.
Anne. Why not in Ireland?
Too many dreams! --"
To me this children's-song and the fleeting and now plaintive echo of it,
as "Voices from Within" -- "Verso la sera, Di Primavera" --
in the terrible scene where Strafford learns his doom,
is only to be paralleled by the song of Mariana in "Measure for Measure",
wherein, likewise, is abduced in one thrilling poignant strain
the quintessential part of the tense life of the whole play.
So much has been written concerning the dramas of Robert Browning --
though indeed there is still room for a volume of careful criticism,
dealing solely with this theme -- that I have the less regret
in having so inadequately to pass in review works of such poetic magnitude
as those enumerated above.
But it would be impossible, in so small a book as this,
to examine them in detail without incurring a just charge of misproportion.
The greatness and the shortcomings of the dramas and dramatic poems
must be noted as succinctly as practicable; and I have dwelt more liberally
upon "Pauline", "Paracelsus", and "Strafford", partly because
(certainly without more than one exception, "Sordello")
these are the three least read of Browning's poems, partly because
they indicate the sweep and reach of his first orient eagle-flight
through new morning-skies, and mainly because in them
we already find Browning at his best and at his weakest,
because in them we hear not only the rush of his sunlit pinions,
but also the low earthward surge of dullard wings.
Browning is foreshadowed in his earliest writings, as perhaps
no other poet has been to like extent. In the "Venus and Adonis",
and the "Rape of Lucrece", we have but the dimmest foreview of the author
of "Hamlet", "Othello", and "Macbeth"; had Shakespeare died prematurely
none could have predicted, from the exquisite blossoms of his adolescence,
the immortal fruit of his maturity. But, in Browning's three earliest works,
we clearly discern him, as the sculptor of Melos previsioned his Venus
in the rough-hewn block.
Thenceforth, to change the imagery, he developed rapidly upon the same lines,
or doubled upon himself in intricate revolutions; but already
his line of life, his poetic parallel, was definitely established.
In the consideration of Browning's dramas it is needful to be sure
of one's vantage for judgment. The first step towards this assurance
is the ablation of the chronic Shakespearian comparison. Primarily,
the shaping spirit of the time wrought Shakespeare and Browning
to radically divergent methods of expression, but each to a method
in profound harmony with the dominant sentiment of the age in which he lived.
Above all others, the Elizabethan era was rich in romantic adventure,
of the mind as well as of the body, and above all others,
save that of the Renaissance in Italy, animated by a passionate curiosity.
So, too, supremely, the Victorian era has been prolific of novel and vast
Titanic struggles of the human spirit to reach those Gates of Truth
whose lowest steps are the scarce discernible stars and furthest suns we scan,
by piling Ossas of searching speculation upon Pelions of hardly-won
positive knowledge. The highest exemplar of the former is Shakespeare,
Browning the profoundest interpreter of the latter.
To achieve supremacy the one had to create a throbbing actuality,
a world of keenest living, of acts and intervolved situations and episodes:
the other to fashion a mentality so passionately alive
that its manifold phases should have all the reality
of concrete individualities. The one reveals individual life to us
by the play of circumstance, the interaction of events,
the correlative eduction of personal characteristics:
the other by his apprehension of that quintessential movement or mood or phase
wherein the soul is transitorily visible on its lonely pinnacle of light.
The elder poet reveals life to us by the sheer vividness of his own vision:
the younger, by a newer, a less picturesque but more scientific abduction,
compels the complex rayings of each soul-star to a singular simplicity,
as by the spectrum analysis. The one, again, fulfils his aim
by a broad synthesis based upon the vivid observance and selection
of vital details: the other by an extraordinary acute psychic analysis.
In a word, Shakespeare works as with the clay of human action:
Browning as with the clay of human thought.
As for the difference in value of the two methods it is useless to dogmatise.
The psychic portraiture produced by either is valuable
only so far as it is convincingly true.
The profoundest insight cannot reach deeper than its own possibilities
of depth. The physiognomy of the soul is never visible in its entirety,
barely ever even its profile. The utmost we can expect to reproduce,
perhaps even to perceive in the most quintessential moment,
is a partially faithful, partially deceptive silhouette.
As no human being has ever seen his or her own soul,
in all its rounded completeness of good and evil, of strength and weakness,
of what is temporal and perishable and what is germinal and essential,
how can we expect even the subtlest analyst to adequately depict
other souls than his own. It is Browning's high distinction
that he has this soul-depictive faculty -- restricted as even in his instance
it perforce is -- to an extent unsurpassed by any other poet,
ancient or modern. As a sympathetic critic has remarked,
"His stage is not the visible phenomenal England (or elsewhere) of history;
it is a point in the spiritual universe, where naked souls meet and wrestle,
as they play the great game of life, for counters, the true value of which
can only be realised in the bullion of a higher life than this."
No doubt there is "a certain crudeness in the manner in which
these naked souls are presented," not only in "Strafford" but elsewhere
in the plays. Browning markedly has the defects of his qualities.
As part of his method, it should be noted that his real trust
is upon monologue rather than upon dialogue. To one who works
from within outward -- in contradistinction to the Shakespearian method
of striving to win from outward forms "the passion and the life
whose fountains are within" -- the propriety of this dramatic means
can scarce be gainsaid. The swift complicated mental machinery
can thus be exhibited infinitely more coherently and comprehensibly
than by the most electric succinct dialogue. Again and again
Browning has nigh foundered in the morass of monologue, but, broadly speaking,
he transcends in this dramatic method.
At the same time, none must take it for granted that
the author of "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon", "Luria", "In a Balcony",
is not dramatic in even the most conventional sense. Above all, indeed
-- as Mr. Walter Pater has said -- his is the poetry of situations.
In each of the `dramatis personae', one of the leading characteristics
is loyalty to a dominant ideal. In Strafford's case
it is that of unswerving devotion to the King: in Mildred's and in Thorold's,
in "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon", it is that of subservience respectively
to conventional morality and family pride (Lord Tresham, it may be added,
is the most hopelessly monomaniacal of all Browning's "monomaniacs"):
in Valence's, in "Colombe's Birthday", to chivalric love:
in Charles, in "King Victor and King Charles", to kingly and filial duty:
in Anael's and Djabal's, in "The Return of the Druses",
respectively to religion and unscrupulous ambition modified by patriotism:
in Chiappino's, in "A Soul's Tragedy", to purely sordid ambition:
in Luria's, to noble steadfastness: and in Constance's, in "In a Balcony",
to self-denial. Of these plays, "The Return of the Druses" seems to me
the most picturesque, "Luria" the most noble and dignified,
and "In a Balcony" the most potentially a great dramatic success.
The last is in a sense a fragment, but, though the integer
of a great unaccomplished drama, is as complete in itself
as the Funeral March in Beethoven's `Eroica' Symphony.
"A Blot in the 'Scutcheon" has the radical fault characteristic of
writers of sensational fiction, a too promiscuous "clearing the ground"
by syncope and suicide. Another is the juvenility of Mildred: --
a serious infraction of dramatic law, where the mere tampering with history,
as in the circumstances of King Victor's death in the earlier play,
is at least excusable by high precedent. More disastrous, poetically,
is the ruinous banality of Mildred's anticlimax when,
after her brother reveals himself as her lover's murderer,
she, like the typical young `Miss Anglaise' of certain French novelists,
betrays her incapacity for true passion by exclaiming, in effect,
"What, you've murdered my lover! Well, tell me all. Pardon?
Oh, well, I pardon you: at least I THINK I do. Thorold, my dear brother,
how very wretched you must be!"
I am unaware if this anticlimax has been pointed out by any one,
but surely it is one of the most appalling lapses of genius
which could be indicated. Even the beautiful song in
the third scene of the first act, "There's a woman like a dew-drop,
she's so purer than the purest," is, in the circumstances,
nearly over the verge which divides the sublime from the ridiculous.
No wonder that, on the night the play was first acted,
Mertoun's song, as he clambered to his mistress's window,
caused a sceptical laugh to ripple lightly among the tolerant auditory.
It is with diffidence I take so radically distinct a standpoint from that
of Dickens, who declared he knew no love like that of Mildred and Mertoun,
no passion like it, no moulding of a splendid thing after its conception,
like it; who, further, at a later date, affirmed that he would rather have
written this play than any work of modern times: nor with less reluctance,
that I find myself at variance with Mr. Skelton, who speaks of the drama
as "one of the most perfectly conceived and perfectly executed tragedies
in the language." In the instance of Luria, that second Othello,
suicide has all the impressiveness of a plenary act of absolution:
the death of Anael seems as inevitable as the flash of lightning
after the concussion of thunder-clouds. But Thorold's suicide
is mere weakness, scarce a perverted courage; and Mildred's broken heart
was an ill not beyond the healing of a morally robust physician.
"Colombe's Birthday" has a certain remoteness of interest,
really due to the reader's more or less acute perception
of the radical divergence, for all Valence's greatness of mind and spirit,
between the fair young Duchess and her chosen lover:
a circumstance which must surely stand in the way of its popularity.
Though "A Soul's Tragedy" has the saving quality of humour,
it is of too grim a kind to be provocative of laughter.
In each of these plays* the lover of Browning will recall passage
after passage of superbly dramatic effect. But supreme in his remembrance
will be the wonderful scene in "The Return of the Druses", where the Prefect,
drawing a breath of relief, is almost simultaneously assassinated;
and that where Anael, with every nerve at tension in her fierce
religious resolve, with a poignant, life-surrendering cry,
hails Djabal as `Hakeem' -- as Divine -- and therewith falls dead at his feet.
Nor will he forget that where, in "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon",
Mildred, with a dry sob in her throat, stammeringly utters --
"I -- I -- was so young!
Besides I loved him, Thorold -- and I had
No mother; God forgot me: so I fell ----"
or that where, "at end of the disastrous day," Luria takes the phial of poison
from his breast, muttering --
"Strange! This is all I brought from my own land
To help me."
* "Strafford", 1837; "King Victor and King Charles", 1842;
"The Return of the Druses", and "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon", 1843;
"Colombe's Birthday", 1844; "Luria", and "A Soul's Tragedy", 1845.
Before passing on from these eight plays to Browning's most imperishable
because most nearly immaculate dramatic poem, "Pippa Passes",
and to "Sordello", that colossal derelict upon the ocean of poetry,
I should like -- out of an embarrassing quantity of alluring details --
to remind the reader of two secondary matters of interest, pertinent to
the present theme. One is that the song in "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon",
"There's a woman like a dew-drop", written several years before
the author's meeting with Elizabeth Barrett, is so closely
in the style of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship", and other ballads
by the sweet singer who afterwards became a partner in the loveliest marriage
of which we have record in literary history, that, even were there nothing
to substantiate the fact, it were fair to infer that Mertoun's song to Mildred
was the electric touch which compelled to its metric shape
one of Mrs. Browning's best-known poems.
The further interest lies in the lordly acknowledgment
of the dedication to him of "Luria", which Landor sent to Browning --
lines pregnant with the stateliest music of his old age: --
"Shakespeare is not our poet but the world's,
Therefore on him no speech! and brief for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale
No man has walked along our roads with step
So active, so enquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing: the breeze
Of Alpine heights thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song."
In my allusion to "Pippa Passes", towards the close of the preceding chapter,
as the most imperishable because the most nearly immaculate of Browning's
dramatic poems, I would not have it understood that its pre-eminence
is considered from the standpoint of technical achievement, of art, merely.
It seems to me, like all simple and beautiful things, profound enough
for the searching plummet of the most curious explorer of the depths of life.
It can be read, re-read, learned by heart, and the more it is known
the wider and more alluring are the avenues of imaginative thought
which it discloses. It has, more than any other long composition
by its author, that quality of symmetry, that `symmetria prisca'
recorded of Leonardo da Vinci in the Latin epitaph of Platino Piatto;
and, as might be expected, its mental basis, what Rossetti called
fundamental brain-work, is as luminous, depth within depth,
as the morning air. By its side, the more obviously "profound" poems,
Bishop Blougram and the rest, are mere skilled dialectics.
The art that is most profound and most touching must ever be the simplest.
Whenever Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, are at white heat
they require no exposition, but meditation only -- the meditation akin to
the sentiment of little children who listen, intent upon every syllable,
and passionately eager of soul, to hearthside tragedies.
The play of genius is like the movement of the sea. It has its solemn rhythm:
its joy, irradiate of the sun; its melancholy, in the patient moonlight:
its surge and turbulence under passing tempests: below all,
the deep oceanic music. There are, of course, many to whom
the sea is but a waste of water, at best useful as a highway
and as the nursery of the winds and rains. For them there is no hint
"of the incommunicable dream" in the curve of the rising wave,
no murmur of the oceanic undertone in the short leaping sounds,
invisible things that laugh and clap their hands for joy and are no more.
To them it is but a desert: obscure, imponderable, a weariness.
The "profundity" of Browning, so dear a claim in the eyes
of the poet's fanatical admirers, exists, in their sense,
only in his inferior work. There is more profound insight
in Blake's Song of Innocence, "Piping down the valleys wild,"
or in Wordsworth's line, "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,"
or in Keats' single verse, "There is a budding morrow in midnight,"
or in this quatrain on Poetry, by a young living poet --
"She comes like the husht beauty of the night,
But sees too deep for laughter;
Her touch is a vibration and a light
From worlds before and after ----"
there is more "profundity" in any of these than in libraries
of "Sludge the Medium" literature. Mere hard thinking
does not involve profundity, any more than neurotic excitation
involves spiritual ecstasy. `De profundis', indeed, must the poet come:
there must the deep rhythm of life have electrified his "volatile essence"
to a living rhythmic joy. In this deep sense, and this only,
the poet is born, not made. He may learn to fashion anew
that which he hath seen: the depth of his insight depends upon
the depth of his spiritual heritage. If wonder dwell not in his eyes and soul
there can be no "far ken" for him. Here it seems apt to point out
that Browning was the first writer of our day to indicate this transmutive,
this inspired and inspiring wonder-spirit, which is the deepest motor
in the evolution of our modern poetry. Characteristically,
he puts his utterance into the mouth of a dreamy German student,
the shadowy Schramm who is but metaphysics embodied,
metaphysics finding apt expression in tobacco-smoke: "Keep but ever looking,
whether with the body's eye or the mind's, and you will soon find something
to look on! Has a man done wondering at women? -- there follow men,
dead and alive, to wonder at. Has he done wondering at men? --
there's God to wonder at: and the faculty of wonder may be,
at the same time, old and tired enough with respect to its first object,
and yet young and fresh sufficiently, so far as concerns its novel one."
This wonder is akin to that `insanity' of the poet which is
but impassioned sanity. Plato sums the matter when he says,
"He who, having no touch of the Muse's madness in his soul,
comes to the door and thinks he will get into the temple by the help of Art --
he, I say, and his poetry, are not admitted."
In that same wood beyond Dulwich to which allusion has already been made,
the germinal motive of "Pippa Passes" flashed upon the poet.
No wonder this resort was for long one of his sacred places,
and that he lamented its disappearance as fervently
as Ruskin bewailed the encroachment of the ocean of bricks and mortar
upon the wooded privacies of Denmark Hill.
Save for a couple of brief visits abroad, Browning spent the years,
between his first appearance as a dramatic writer and his marriage,
in London and the neighbourhood. Occasionally he took long walks
into the country. One particular pleasure was to lie beside a hedge,
or deep in meadow-grasses, or under a tree, as circumstances
and the mood concurred, and there to give himself up so absolutely
to the life of the moment that even the shy birds would alight close by,
and sometimes venturesomely poise themselves on suspicious wings
for a brief space upon his recumbent body. I have heard him say that
his faculty of observation at that time would not have appeared despicable
to a Seminole or an Iroquois: he saw and watched everything,
the bird on the wing, the snail dragging its shell up the pendulous woodbine,
the bee adding to his golden treasure as he swung in the bells
of the campanula, the green fly darting hither and thither
like an animated seedling, the spider weaving her gossamer from twig to twig,
the woodpecker heedfully scrutinising the lichen on the gnarled oak-bole,
the passage of the wind through leaves or across grass,
the motions and shadows of the clouds, and so forth.
These were his golden holidays. Much of the rest of his time,
when not passed in his room in his father's house, where he wrote
his dramas and early poems, and studied for hours daily,
was spent in the Library of the British Museum, in an endless curiosity
into the more or less unbeaten tracks of literature. These London experiences
were varied by whole days spent at the National Gallery,
and in communion with kindred spirits. At one time he had rooms,
or rather a room, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Strand,
whither he could go when he wished to be in town continuously for a time,
or when he had any social or theatrical engagement.
Browning's life at this period was distraught by more than one
episode of the heart. It would be strange were it otherwise.
He had in no ordinary degree a rich and sensuous nature,
and his responsiveness was so quick that the barriers of prudence
were apt to be as shadowy to him as to the author of "The Witch of Atlas".
But he was the earnest student for the most part, and, above all, the poet.
His other pleasure, in his happy vagrant days, was to join company
with any tramps, gipsies, or other wayfarers, and in good fellowship
gain much knowledge of life that was useful at a later time.
Rustic entertainments, particularly peripatetic "Theatres Royal",
had a singular fascination for him, as for that matter had rustic oratory,
whether of the alehouse or the pulpit. At one period
he took the keenest interest in sectaries of all kinds:
and often he incurred a gentle reproof from his mother
because of his nomad propensities in search of "PASTORS new".
There was even a time when he seriously deliberated whether
he should not combine literature and religious ministry,
as Faraday combined evangelical fervour with scientific enthusiasm.
"'Twas a girl with eyes like two dreams of night" that saved him from himself,
and defrauded the Church Independent of a stalwart orator.
It was, as already stated, while he strolled through Dulwich Wood one day
that the thought occurred to him which was to find development and expression
in "Pippa Passes". "The image flashed upon him," writes his intimate friend,
Mrs. Sutherland Orr, "of some one walking thus alone through life;
one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage,
yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it;
and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo,
Felippa or Pippa."
It has always seemed to me a radical mistake to include "Pippa Passes"
among Browning's dramas. Not only is it absolutely unactable,
but essentially undramatic in the conventional sense. True dramatic writing
concerns itself fundamentally with the apt conjunction of events,
and the more nearly it approximates to the verity of life the more likely
is it to be of immediate appeal. There is a `vraie verite'
which only the poet, evolving from dramatic concepts rather than attempting
to concentrate these in a quick, moving verisimilitude, can attempt.
The passing hither and thither of Pippa, like a beneficent Fate,
a wandering chorus from a higher amid the discordant medley of a lower world,
changing the circumstances and even the natures of certain more or less
heedless listeners by the wild free lilt of her happy song of innocence,
is of this `vraie verite'. It is so obviously true, spiritually,
that it is unreal in the commonplace of ordinary life.
Its very effectiveness is too apt for the dramatist, who can ill afford
to tamper further with the indifferent banalities of actual existence.
The poet, unhampered by the exigencies of dramatic realism, can safely,
and artistically, achieve an equally exact, even a higher verisimilitude,
by means which are, or should be, beyond adoption by the dramatist proper.
But over and above any `nice discrimination', "Pippa Passes" is simply a poem,
a lyrical masque with interspersed dramatic episodes, and subsidiary
interludes in prose. The suggestion recently made that it should be acted
is a wholly errant one. The finest part of it is unrepresentable.
The rest would consist merely of a series of tableaux,
with conversational accompaniment.
The opening scene, "the large mean airy chamber," where Pippa,
the little silk-winder from the mills at Asolo, springs from bed,
on her New Year's Day `festa', and soliloquises as she dresses, is as true
as it is lovely when viewed through the rainbow glow of the poetic atmosphere:
but how could it succeed on the stage? It is not merely that the monologue
is too long: it is too inapt, in its poetic richness, for its purpose.
It is the poet, not Pippa, who evokes this sweet sunrise-music,
this strain of the "long blue solemn hours serenely flowing."
The dramatic poet may occupy himself with that deeper insight,
and the wider expression of it, which is properly altogether beyond
the scope of the playwright. In a word, he may irradiate his theme
with the light that never was on sea or land, nor will he thereby
sacrifice aught of essential truth: but his comrade must see to it
that he is content with the wide liberal air of the common day.
The poetic alchemist may turn a sword into pure gold:
the playwright will concern himself with the due usage of the weapon
as we know it, and attribute to it no transcendent value,
no miraculous properties. What is permissible to Blake,
painting Adam and Eve among embowering roses and lilies,
while the sun, moon, and stars simultaneously shine,
is impermissible to the portrait-painter or the landscapist,
who has to idealise actuality to the point only of artistic realism,
and not to transmute it at the outset from happily-perceived concrete facts
to a glorified abstract concept.
In this opening monologue the much-admired song, "All service ranks the same
with God," is no song at all, properly, but simply a beautiful short poem.
From the dramatist's point of view, could anything be more shaped for disaster
than the second of the two stanzas? --
"Say not `a small event'! Why `small'?
Costs it more pain than this, ye call
A `great event', should come to pass,
Than that? Untwine me from the mass
Of deeds which make up life, one deed
Power shall fall short in or exceed!"
The whole of this lovely prologue is the production of a dramatic poet,
not of a poet writing a drama. On the other hand, I cannot agree
with what I read somewhere recently -- that Sebald's song, at the opening of
the most superb dramatic writing in the whole range of Victorian literature,
is, in the circumstances, wholly inappropriate. It seems to me
entirely consistent with the character of Ottima's reckless lover.
He is akin to the gallant in one of Dumas' romances,
who lingered atop of the wall of the prison whence he was escaping
in order to whistle the concluding bar of a blithe chanson of freedom.
What is, dramatically, disastrous in the instance of Mertoun
singing "There's a woman like a dew-drop", when he ought to be
seeking Mildred's presence in profound stealth and silence, is, dramatically,
electrically startling in the mouth of Sebald, among the geraniums
of the shuttered shrub-house, where he has passed the night with Ottima,
while her murdered husband lies stark in the adjoining room.
It must, however, be borne in mind that this thrilling dramatic effect
is fully experienced only in retrospection, or when there is knowledge
of what is to follow.
A conclusive objection to the drama as an actable play is that
three of the four main episodes are fragmentary. We know nothing
of the fate of Luigi: we can but surmise the future of Jules and Phene:
we know not how or when Monsignor will see Pippa righted.
Ottima and Sebald reach a higher level in voluntary death
than they ever could have done in life.
It is quite unnecessary, here, to dwell upon this exquisite flower of genius
in detail. Every one who knows Browning at all knows "Pippa Passes".
Its lyrics have been unsurpassed, for birdlike spontaneity
and a rare high music, by any other Victorian poet: its poetic insight
is such as no other poet than the author of "The Ring and the Book"
and "The Inn Album" can equal. Its technique, moreover, is superb.
From the outset of the tremendous episode of Ottima and Sebald,
there is a note of tragic power which is almost overwhelming.
Who has not know what Jakob Boehme calls "the shudder of a divine excitement"
when Luca's murderer replies to his paramour,
It seems to me a night with a sun added."
How deep a note, again, is touched when Sebald exclaims,
in allusion to his murder of Luca, that he was so "wrought upon",
though here, it may be, there is an unconscious reminiscence
of the tenser and more culminative cry of Othello, "but being wrought,
perplext in the extreme." Still more profound a touch is that where Ottima,
daring her lover to the "one thing that must be done; you know what thing:
Come in and help to carry," says, with affected lightsomeness,
"This dusty pane might serve for looking-glass," and simultaneously exclaims,
as she throws them rejectingly from her nervous fingers, "Three, four --
four grey hairs!" then with an almost sublime coquetry of horror
turns abruptly to Sebald, saying with a voice striving vainly to be blithe --
"Is it so you said
A plait of hair should wave across my neck?
No -- this way."
Who has not been moved by the tragic grandeur of the verse, as well as
by the dramatic intensity of the episode of the lovers' "crowning night"?
"Ottima. The day of it too, Sebald!
When heaven's pillars seemed o'erbowed with heat,
Its black-blue canopy suffered descend
Close on us both, to weigh down each to each,
And smother up all life except our life.
So lay we till the storm came.
Sebald. How it came!
Ottima. Buried in woods we lay, you recollect;
Swift ran the searching tempest overhead;
And ever and anon some bright white shaft
Burned thro' the pine-tree roof, here burned and there,
As if God's messenger thro' the close wood screen
Plunged and replunged his weapon at a venture,
Feeling for guilty thee and me: then broke
The thunder like a whole sea overhead ----"
Surely there is nothing in all our literature more poignantly dramatic
than this first part of "Pippa Passes". The strains which Pippa sings
here and throughout are as pathetically fresh and free as a thrush's song
in the heart of a beleaguered city, and as with the same unconsidered magic.
There is something of the mavis-note, liquid falling tones,
caught up in a moment in joyous caprice, in
"Give her but a least excuse to love me!
When -- where ----"
No one of these songs, all acutely apt to the time and the occasion,
has a more overwhelming effect than that which interrupts Ottima and Sebald
at the perilous summit of their sin, beyond which lies utter darkness,
behind which is the narrow twilit backward way.
"Ottima. Bind it thrice about my brow;
Crown me your queen, your spirit's arbitress,
Magnificent in sin. Say that!
Sebald. I crown you
My great white queen, my spirit's arbitress,
Magnificent . . .
[From without is heard the voice of PIPPA singing --]
The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in his heaven --
All's right with the world!
Sebald. God's in his heaven! Do you hear that?
This sweet voice of Pippa reaches the guilty lovers,
reaches Luigi in his tower, hesitating between love and patriotic duty,
reaches Jules and Phene when all the happiness of their unborn years
trembles in the balance, reaches the Prince of the Church
just when his conscience is sore beset by a seductive temptation,
reaches one and all at a crucial moment in the life of each.
The ethical lesson of the whole poem is summed up in
"All service ranks the same with God --
With God, whose puppets, best and worst,
Are we: there is no last nor first,"
"God's in his heaven --
All's right with the world!"
"With God there is no lust of Godhood," says Rossetti in "Hand and Soul":
`Und so ist der blaue Himmel grosser als jedes Gewoelk darin,
und dauerhafter dazu,' meditates Jean Paul: "There can be nothing good,
as we know it, nor anything evil, as we know it, in the eye
of the Omnipresent and the Omniscient," utters the Oriental mystic.
It is interesting to know that many of the nature touches were indirectly
due to the poet's solitary rambles, by dawn, sundown, and "dewy eve",
in the wooded districts south of Dulwich, at Hatcham, and upon
Wimbledon Common, whither he was often wont to wander and to ramble for hours,
and where he composed one day the well-known lines upon Shelley,
with many another unrecorded impulse of song. Here, too, it was,
that Carlyle, riding for exercise, was stopped by `a beautiful youth',
who introduced himself as one of the philosopher's profoundest admirers.
It was from the Dulwich wood that, one afternoon in March,
he saw a storm glorified by a double rainbow of extraordinary beauty;
a memorable vision, recorded in an utterance of Luigi to his mother:
here too that, in autumnal dusks, he saw many a crescent moon
with "notched and burning rim." He never forgot the bygone
"sunsets and great stars" he saw in those days of his fervid youth.
Browning remarked once that the romance of his life was in his own soul;
and on another occasion I heard him smilingly add, to some one's
vague assertion that in Italy only was there any romance left,
"Ah, well, I should like to include poor old Camberwell!"
Perhaps he was thinking of his lines in "Pippa Passes", of the days
when that masterpiece came ebullient from the fount of his genius --
"May's warm slow yellow moonlit summer nights --
Gone are they, but I have them in my soul!"
There is all the distinction between "Pippa Passes" and "Sordello"
that there is between the Venus of Milos and a gigantic Theban Sphinx.
The latter is, it is true, proportionate in its vastness;
but the symmetry of mere bulk is not the `symmetria prisca'
of ideal sculpture. I have already alluded to "Sordello"
as a derelict upon the ocean of poetry. This, indeed, it still seems to me,
notwithstanding the well-meaning suasion of certain admirers of the poem
who have hoped "I should do it justice," thereby meaning
that I should eulogise it as a masterpiece. It is a gigantic effort,
of a kind; so is the sustained throe of a wrestling Titan.
That the poem contains much which is beautiful is undeniable,
also that it is surcharged with winsome and profound thoughts
and a multitude of will-o'-the-wisp-like fancies which all shape
towards high thinking.
But it is monotonous as one of the enormous American inland seas
to a lover of the ocean, to whom the salt brine is as the breath of delight.
The fatal facility of the heroic couplet to lapse into diffuseness,
has, coupled with a warped anxiety for irreducible concision,
been Browning's ruin here.
There is one charge even yet too frequently made against "Sordello",
that of "obscurity". Its interest may be found remote,
its treatment verbose, its intricacies puzzling to those
unaccustomed to excursions from the familiar highways of old usage,
but its motive thought is not obscure. It is a moonlit plain
compared with the "silva oscura" of the "Divina Commedia".
Surely this question of Browning's obscurity was expelled
to the Limbo of Dead Stupidities when Mr. Swinburne,
in periods as resplendent as the whirling wheels of Phoebus Apollo's chariot,
wrote his famous incidental passage in his "Essay on Chapman".
Too probably, in the dim disintegrating future which will reduce
all our o'ertoppling extremes, "Sordello" will be as little read
as "The Faerie Queene", and, similarly, only for the gleam
of the quenchless lamps amid its long deserted alleys and stately avenues.
Sadly enough, for to poets it will always be an unforgotten land --
a continent with amaranth-haunted Vales of Tempe, where,
as Spenser says in one of the Aeclogues of "The Shepherd's Calendar",
they will there oftentimes "sitten as drouned in dreme."
It has, for those who are not repelled, a charm all its own.
I know of no other poem in the language which is at once
so wearisome and so seductive. How can one explain paradoxes?
There is a charm, or there is none: that is what it amounts to,
for each individual. `Tutti ga i so gusti, e mi go i mii' --
"everybody follows his taste, and I follow mine," as the Venetian saying,
quoted by Browning at the head of his Rawdon Brown sonnet, has it.
All that need be known concerning the framework of "Sordello",
and of the real Sordello himself, will be found in the various
Browning hand-books, in Mr. Nettleship's and other dissertations,
and, particularly, in Mrs. Dall's most circumspect and able historical essay.
It is sufficient here to say that while the Sordello and Palma of the poet
are traceable in the Cunizza and the strange comet-like Sordello
of the Italian and Provencal Chronicles (who has his secure immortality,
by Dante set forth in leonine guise -- `a guisa di leon quando si posa' --
in the "Purgatorio"), both these are the most shadowy of prototypes.
The Sordello of Browning is a typical poetic soul: the narrative
of the incidents in the development of this soul is adapted to
the historical setting furnished by the aforesaid Chronicles.
Sordello is a far more profound study than Aprile in "Paracelsus", in whom,
however, he is obviously foreshadowed. The radical flaw in his nature
is that indicated by Goethe of Heine, that "he had no heart."
The poem is the narrative of his transcendent aspirations,
and more or less futile accomplishment.
It would be vain to attempt here any adequate excerption
of lines of singular beauty. Readers familiar with the poem
will recall passage after passage -- among which there is probably none
more widely known than the grandiose sunset lines: --
"That autumn eve was stilled:
A last remains of sunset dimly burned
O'er the far forests, -- like a torch-flame turned
By the wind back upon its bearer's hand
In one long flare of crimson; as a brand,
The woods beneath lay black." . . .
What haunting lines there are, every here and there -- such as those of Palma,
with her golden hair like spilt sunbeams, or those on Elys, with her
"Few fine locks
Coloured like honey oozed from topmost rocks
Sun-blanched the livelong summer," . . .
"Day by day
New pollen on the lily-petal grows,
And still more labyrinthine buds the rose ----"
or, once more,
"A touch divine --
And the sealed eyeball owns the mystic rod;
Visibly through his garden walketh God ----"
But, though sorely tempted, I must not quote further, save only
the concluding lines of the unparalleled and impassioned address to Dante: --
"Dante, pacer of the shore
Where glutted hell disgorgeth filthiest gloom,
Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume,
Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope
Into a darkness quieted by hope;
Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God's eye
In gracious twilights where his chosen lie ----"
. . . . .
It is a fair land, for those who have lingered in its byways:
but, alas, a troubled tide of strange metres, of desperate rhythms,
of wild conjunctions, of panic-stricken collocations,
oftentimes overwhelms it. "Sordello" grew under the poet's fashioning till,
like the magic vapour of the Arabian wizard, it passed beyond his control,
It is not the truest admirers of what is good in it who will refuse
to smile at the miseries of conscientious but baffled readers.
Who can fail to sympathise with Douglas Jerrold when,
slowly convalescent from a serious illness, he found among
some new books sent him by a friend a copy of "Sordello".
Thomas Powell, writing in 1849, has chronicled the episode.
A few lines, he says, put Jerrold in a state of alarm.
Sentence after sentence brought no consecutive thought to his brain.
At last the idea occurred to him that in his illness his mental faculties
had been wrecked. The perspiration rolled from his forehead,
and smiting his head he sank back on the sofa, crying, "O God,
I AM an idiot!" A little later, adds Powell, when Jerrold's
wife and sister entered, he thrust "Sordello" into their hands,
demanding what they thought of it. He watched them intently while they read.
When at last Mrs. Jerrold remarked, "I don't understand what this man means;
it is gibberish," her delighted husband gave a sigh of relief and exclaimed,
"Thank God, I am NOT an idiot!"
Many friends of Browning will remember his recounting this incident
almost in these very words, and his enjoyment therein:
though he would never admit justification for such puzzlement.
But more illustrious personages than Douglas Jerrold were puzzled by the poem.
Lord Tennyson manfully tackled it, but he is reported to have admitted
in bitterness of spirit: "There were only two lines in it that I understood,
and they were both lies; they were the opening and closing lines,
`Who will may hear Sordello's story told,' and `Who would has heard
Sordello's story told!'" Carlyle was equally candid: "My wife," he writes,
"has read through `Sordello' without being able to make out
whether `Sordello' was a man, or a city, or a book."
In an article on this poem, in a French magazine, M. Odysse Barot
quotes a passage where the poet says "God gave man two faculties" --
and adds, "I wish while He was about it (`pendant qu'il etait en train')
God had supplied another -- viz., the power of understanding Mr. Browning."
And who does not remember the sad experience of generous and delightful
Gilead P. Beck, in "The Golden Butterfly": how, after "Fifine at the Fair",
frightful symptoms set in, till in despair he took up
"Red Cotton Nightcap Country", and fell for hours into a dull comatose misery.
"His eyes were bloodshot, his hair was pushed in disorder about his head,
his cheeks were flushed, his hands were trembling, the nerves in his face
were twitching. Then he arose, and solemnly cursed Robert Browning.
And then he took all his volumes, and, disposing them carefully
in the fireplace, set light to them. `I wish,' he said,
`that I could put the poet there too.'" One other anecdote of the kind
was often, with evident humorous appreciation, recounted by the poet.
On his introduction to the Chinese Ambassador, as a "brother-poet",
he asked that dignitary what kind of poetic expression
he particularly affected. The great man deliberated,
and then replied that his poetry might be defined as "enigmatic".
Browning at once admitted his fraternal kinship.
That he was himself aware of the shortcomings of "Sordello" as a work of art
is not disputable. In 1863, Mrs. Orr says, he considered the advisability
of "rewriting it in a more transparent manner, but concluded that the labour
would be disproportionate to the result, and contented himself
with summarising the contents of each `book' in a continuous heading,
which represents the main thread of the story."
The essential manliness of Browning is evident in the famous dedication
to the French critic Milsand, who was among his early admirers.
"My own faults of expression were many; but with care for a man or book such
would be surmounted, and without it what avails the faultlessness of either?
I blame nobody, least of all myself, who did my best then and since."
Whatever be the fate of "Sordello", one thing pertinent to it shall survive:
the memorable sentence in the dedicatory preface -- "My stress lay on
the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study."
The poem has disastrous faults, but is a magnificent failure.
"Vast as night," to borrow a simile from Victor Hugo, but, like night,
"Pippa Passes", "The Ring and the Book", "The Inn Album", these are Browning's
three great dramatic poems, as distinct from his poetic plays.
All are dramas in the exact sense, though the three I have named
are dramas for mental and not for positive presentation.
Each reader must embody for himself the images projected on his brain by
the electric quality of the poet's genius: within the ken of his imagination
he may perceive scenes not less moving, incidents not less thrilling,
complexities of motive and action not less intricately involved,
than upon the conventional stage.
The first is a drama of an idea, the second of the immediate and remote
consequences of a single act, the third of the tyranny of the passions.
I understand the general opinion among lovers and earnest students
of Browning's poetry to be that the highest peaks of his genius
tower from the vast tableland of "The Ring and the Book";
that thenceforth there was declension. But Browning is not to be measured
by common estimates. It is easy to indicate, in the instances of many poets,
just where the music reaches its sweetest, its noblest,
just where the extreme glow wanes, just where the first shadows
come leaping like greyhounds, or steal almost imperceptibly
from slow-closing horizons.
But with Browning, as with Shakespeare, as with Victor Hugo,
it is difficult for our vision to penetrate the glow
irradiating the supreme heights of accomplishment. Like Balzac,
like Shakespeare again, he has revealed to us a territory so vast,
that while we bow down before the sun westering athwart distant Andes,
the gold of sunrise is already flashing behind us, upon the shoulder of Atlas.
It is certain that "The Ring and the Book" is unique.
Even Goethe's masterpiece had its forerunners, as in Marlowe's "Faustus",
and its ambitious offspring, as in Bailey's "Festus".
But is it a work of art? Here is the only vital question
which at present concerns us.
It is altogether useless to urge, as so many admirers of Browning do,
that "The Ring and the Book" is as full of beauties as the sea is of waves.
Undeniably it is, having been written in the poet's maturity.
But, to keep to the simile, has this epical poem the unity of ocean?
Does it consist of separate seas, or is it really one, as the wastes
which wash from Arctic to Antarctic, through zones temperate and equatorial,
are yet one and indivisible? If it have not this unity it is still
a stupendous accomplishment, but it is not a work of art. And though art
is but the handmaiden of genius, what student of Comparative Literature
will deny that nothing has survived the ruining breath of Time --
not any intellectual greatness nor any spiritual beauty,
that is not clad in perfection, be it absolute or relative --
for relative perfection there is, despite the apparent paradox.
The mere bulk of "The Ring and the Book" is, in point of art, nothing.
One day, after the publication of this poem, Carlyle hailed the author
with enthusiastic praise in which lurked damning irony:
"What a wonderful fellow you are, Browning: you have written
a whole series of `books' about what could be summed up
in a newspaper paragraph!" Here, Carlyle was at once right and wrong.
The theme, looked at dispassionately, is unworthy of the monument
in which it is entombed for eternity. But the poet looked upon
the central incident as the inventive mechanician regards
the tiny pivot remote amid the intricate maze of his machinery.
Here, as elsewhere, Browning's real subject is too often confounded
with the accidents of the subject. His triumph is not that he has created
so huge a literary monument, but rather that, notwithstanding its bulk,
he has made it shapely and impressive. Stress has frequently been laid
on the greatness of the achievement in the writing of twelve long poems
in the exposition of one theme. Again, in point of art, what significance
has this? None. There is no reason why it should not have been
in nine or eleven parts; no reason why, having been demonstrated in twelve,
it should not have been expanded through fifteen or twenty.
Poetry ever looks askance at that gipsy-cousin of hers, "Tour-de-force".
Of the twelve parts -- occupying in all about twenty-one thousand lines --
the most notable as poetry are those which deal with the plea
of the implicated priest, Caponsacchi, with the meditation of the Pope,
and with the pathetic utterance of Pompilia. It is not a dramatic poem
in the sense that "Pippa Passes" is, for its ten Books
(the first and twelfth are respectively introductory and appendical)
are monologues. "The Ring and the Book", in a word,
consists, besides the two extraneous parts, of ten monodramas,
which are as ten huge facets to a poetic Koh-i-Noor.
The square little Italian volume, in its yellow parchment
and with its heavy type, which has now found a haven in Oxford,
was picked up by Browning for a `lira' (about eightpence),
on a second-hand bookstall in the Piazza San Lorenzo at Florence,
one June day, 1865. Therein is set forth, in full detail, all the particulars
of the murder of his wife Pompilia, for her supposed adultery,
by a certain Count Guido Franceschini; and of that noble's trial,
sentence, and doom. It is much the same subject matter
as underlies the dramas of Webster, Ford, and other Elizabethan poets,
but subtlety of insight rather than intensity of emotion and situation
distinguishes the Victorian dramatist from his predecessors.
The story fascinated Browning, who, having in this book and elsewhere mastered
all the details, conceived the idea of writing the history of the crime
in a series of monodramatic revelations on the part of the individuals
more or less directly concerned. The more he considered the plan
the more it shaped itself to a great accomplishment, and early in 1866
he began the most ambitious work of his life.
An enthusiastic admirer has spoken of the poem as "one of the most
extraordinary feats of which we have any record in literature."
But poetry is not mental gymnastics. All this insistence upon
"extraordinary feats" is to be deprecated: it presents the poet as Hercules,
not as Apollo: in a word, it is not criticism. The story is one
of vulgar fraud and crime, romantic to us only because the incidents
occurred in Italy, in the picturesque Rome and Arezzo of two centuries ago.
The old bourgeois couple, Pietro and Violante Comparini,
manage to wed their thirteen-year-old putative daughter
to a middle-aged noble of Arezzo. They expect the exquisite repute
of an aristocratic connection, and other tangible advantages.
He, impoverished as he is, looks for a splendid dowry.
No one thinks of the child-wife, Pompilia. She becomes the scapegoat,
when the gross selfishness of the contracting parties stands revealed.
Count Guido has a genius for domestic tyranny. Pompilia suffers.
When she is about to become a mother she determines to leave her husband,
whom she now dreads as well as dislikes. Since the child is to be
the inheritor of her parents' wealth, she will not leave it
to the tender mercies of Count Guido. A young priest, a canon of Arezzo,
Giuseppe Caponsacchi, helps her to escape. In due course she gives birth
to a son. She has scarce time to learn the full sweetness of her maternity
ere she is done to death like a trampled flower. Guido, who has held himself
thrall to an imperative patience, till his hold upon the child's dowry
should be secure, hires four assassins, and in the darkness of night
betakes himself to Rome. He and his accomplices enter the house
of Pietro Comparini and his wife, and, not content with slaying them,
also murders Pompilia. But they are discovered, and Guido
is caught red-handed. Pompilia's evidence alone is damnatory,
for she was not slain outright, and lingers long enough to tell her story.
Franceschini is not foiled yet, however. His plea is that he simply avenged
the wrong done to him by his wife's adulterous connection
with the priest Caponsacchi. But even in the Rome of that evil day
justice was not extinct. Guido's motive is proved to be false;
he himself is condemned to death. An appeal to the Pope is futile.
Finally, the wretched man pays the too merciful penalty of his villainy.
There is nothing grand, nothing noble here: at most only a tragic pathos
in the fate of the innocent child-wife Pompilia. It is clear, therefore,
that the greatness of "The Ring and the Book" must depend even less
upon its subject, its motive, than upon its being "an extraordinary feat"
in the gymnastics of verse.
In a sense, Browning's longest work is akin to that of his wife.
Both "The Ring and the Book" and "Aurora Leigh" are metrical novels.
The one is discursive in episodes and spiritual experiences:
the other in intricacies of evidence. But there the parallel ends.
If "The Ring and the Book" were deflowered of its blooms of poetry
and rendered into a prose narrative, it might interest a barrister
"getting up" a criminal case, but it would be much inferior to,
say, "The Moonstone"; its author would be insignificant beside
the ingenious M. Gaboriau. The extraordinariness of the feat
would then be but indifferently commented upon.
As neither its subject, nor its extraordinariness as a feat, nor its method,
will withstand a searching examination, we must endeavour to discern
if transcendent poetic merit be discoverable in the treatment.
To arrive at a just estimate it is needful to free the mind
not merely from preconceptions, but from that niggardliness of insight
which can perceive only the minor flaws and shortcomings almost inevitable
to any vast literary achievement, and be blind to the superb merits.
One must prepare oneself to listen to a new musician, with mind and body
alert to the novel harmonies, and oblivious of what other musicians
have done or refrained from doing.
"The Ring and the Book", as I have said, was not begun in the year
of its imagining.* It is necessary to anticipate the biographical narrative,
and state that the finding of the parchment-booklet happened
in the fourth year of the poet's widowerhood, for his happy married period
of less than fifteen years came to a close in 1861.
* The title is explained as follows: -- "The story of the Franceschini case,
as Mr. Browning relates it, forms a circle of evidence
to its one central truth; and this circle was constructed
in the manner in which the worker in Etruscan gold
prepares the ornamental circlet which will be worn as a ring.
The pure metal is too soft to bear hammer or file;
it must be mixed with alloy to gain the necessary power of resistance.
The ring once formed and embossed, the alloy is disengaged,
and a pure gold ornament remains. Mr. Browning's material
was also inadequate to his purpose, though from a different cause.
It was too HARD. It was `pure crude fact', secreted from the fluid being
of the men and women whose experience it had formed. In its existing state
it would have broken up under the artistic attempt to weld and round it.
He supplied an alloy, the alloy of fancy, or -- as he also calls it --
of one fact more: this fact being the echo of those past existences
awakened within his own. He breathed into the dead record
the breath of his own life; and when his ring of evidence had re-formed,
first in elastic then in solid strength, here delicately incised,
there broadly stamped with human thought and passion,
he could cast fancy aside, and bid his readers recognise
in what he set before them unadulterated human truth." -- Mrs. Orr.
On the afternoon of the day on which he made his purchase
he read the book from end to end. "A Spirit laughed and leapt
through every limb." The midsummer heats had caused thunder-clouds
to congregate above Vallombrosa and the whole valley of Arno:
and the air in Florence was painfully sultry. The poet stood by himself
on his terrace at Casa Guidi, and as he watched the fireflies
wandering from the enclosed gardens, and the sheet-lightnings
quivering through the heated atmosphere, his mind was busy
in refashioning the old tale of loveless marriage and crime.
I' the street, quick shown by openings of the sky
When flame fell silently from cloud to cloud,
Richer than that gold snow Jove rained on Rhodes,
The townsmen walked by twos and threes, and talked,
Drinking the blackness in default of air --
A busy human sense beneath my feet:
While in and out the terrace-plants, and round
One branch of tall datura, waxed and waned
The lamp-fly lured there, wanting the white flower."
Scene by scene was re-enacted, though of course only
in certain essential details. The final food for the imagination
was found in a pamphlet of which he came into possession of in London,
where several important matters were given which had no place
in the volume he had picked up in Florence.
Much, far the greater part, of the first "book" is -- interesting!
It is mere verse. As verse, even, it is often so involved,
so musicless occasionally, so banal now and again, so inartistic
in colour as well as in form, that one would, having apprehended
its explanatory interest, pass on without regret, were it not
for the noble close -- the passionate, out-welling lines to "the truest poet
I have ever known," the beautiful soul who had given her all to him,
whom, but four years before he wrote these words, he had laid to rest
among the cypresses and ilexes of the old Florentine garden of the dead.
"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,
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,
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,
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:
-- 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,
Some whiteness which, I judge, thy face makes proud,
Some wanness where, I think, thy foot may fall!"
. . . . .
Thereafter, for close upon five thousand words, the poem descends again
to the level of a versified tale. It is saved from ruin
by subtlety of intellect, striking dramatic verisimilitude,
an extraordinary vigour, and occasional lines of real poetry.
Retrospectively, apart from the interest, often strained to the utmost,
most readers, I fancy, will recall with lingering pleasure
only the opening of "The Other Half Rome", the description of Pompilia,
"with the patient brow and lamentable smile," with flower-like body,
in white hospital array -- a child with eyes of infinite pathos,
"whether a flower or weed, ruined: who did it shall account to Christ."
In these three introductory books we have the view of the matter
taken by those who side with Count Guido, of those who are all for Pompilia,
and of the "superior person", impartial because superciliously indifferent,
though sufficiently interested to "opine".
In the ensuing three books a much higher poetic level is reached.
In the first, Guido speaks; in the second, Caponsacchi; the third,
that lustrous opal set midway in the "Ring", is Pompilia's narrative.
Here the three protagonists live and move before our eyes.
The sixth book may be said to be the heart of the whole poem.
The extreme intellectual subtlety of Guido's plea stands quite unrivalled
in poetic literature. In comparing it, for its poetic beauty,
with other sections, the reader must bear in mind that
in a poem of a dramatic nature the dramatic proprieties must be dominant.
It would be obviously inappropriate to make Count Guido Franceschini
speak with the dignity of the Pope, with the exquisite pathos of Pompilia,
with the ardour, like suppressed molten lava, of Caponsacchi.
The self-defence of the latter is a superb piece of dramatic writing.
Once or twice the flaming volcano of his heart bursts upward uncontrollably,
as when he cries --
"No, sirs, I cannot have the lady dead!
That erect form, flashing brow, fulgurant eye,
That voice immortal (oh, that voice of hers!) --
That vision of the pale electric sword
Angels go armed with -- that was not the last
O' the lady. Come, I see through it, you find,
Know the manoeuvre! Also herself said
I had saved her: do you dare say she spoke false?
Let me see for myself if it be so!"
Than the poignant pathos and beauty of "Pompilia", there is nothing
more exquisite in our literature. It stands alone. Here at last
we have the poet who is the Lancelot to Shakespeare's Arthur.
It takes a supreme effort of genius to be as simple as a child.
How marvellously, after the almost sublime hypocrisy of the end of
Guido's defence, after the beautiful dignity of Caponsacchi's closing words,
culminating abruptly in the heart-wrung cry, "O great, just, good God!
miserable me!" -- how marvellously comes upon the reader
the delicate, tearful tenderness of the innocent child-wife --
"I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I lived one day more, three full weeks;
'Tis writ so in the church's register,
Lorenzo in Lucina, all my names
At length, so many names for one poor child,
-- Francesca Camilla Vittoria Angela
Pompilia Comparini -- laughable!"
Only two writers of our age have depicted women with that imaginative insight
which is at once more comprehensive and more illuminative than
women's own invision of themselves -- Robert Browning and George Meredith,
but not even the latter, most subtle and delicate of all analysts
of the tragi-comedy of human life, has surpassed "Pompilia".
The meeting and the swift uprising of love between Lucy and Richard,
in "The Ordeal of Richard Feveral", is, it is true, within the highest reach
of prose romance: but between even the loftiest height of prose romance
and the altitudes of poetry, there is an impassable gulf.
And as it is with simplicity so it is with tenderness.
Only the sternly strong can be supremely tender. And infinitely tender
is the poetry of "Pompilia" --
"Oh, how good God is that my babe was born,
-- Better than born, baptised and hid away
Before this happened, safe from being hurt!
That had been sin God could not well forgive:
HE WAS TOO YOUNG TO SMILE AND SAVE HIMSELF ----"
or the lines which tell how as a little girl she gave her roses
not to the spick and span Madonna of the Church, but to the poor,
dilapidated Virgin, "at our street-corner in a lonely niche,"
with the babe that had sat upon her knees broken off:
or that passage, with its exquisite naivete, where Pompilia relates
why she called her boy Gaetano, because she wished "no old name
for sorrow's sake," so chose the latest addition to the saints,
elected only twenty-five years before --
"So, carefuller, perhaps,
To guard a namesake than those old saints grow,
Tired out by this time, -- see my own five saints!"
or these --
"Thus, all my life,
I touch a fairy thing that fades and fades.
-- Even to my babe! I thought, when he was born,
Something began for once that would not end,
Nor change into a laugh at me, but stay
For evermore, eternally quite mine ----"
once more --
"One cannot judge
Of what has been the ill or well of life
The day that one is dying. . . .
Now it is over, and no danger more . . .
To me at least was never evening yet
But seemed far beautifuller than its day,
For past is past ----"
Lovely, again, are the lines in which she speaks of
the first "thrill of dawn's suffusion through her dark,"
the "light of the unborn face sent long before:" or those unique lines
of the starved soul's Spring (ll. 1512-27): or those,
of the birth of her little one --
"A whole long fortnight; in a life like mine
A fortnight filled with bliss is long and much.
All women are not mothers of a boy. . . .
I never realised God's birth before --
How he grew likest God in being born.
This time I felt like Mary, had my babe
Lying a little on my breast like hers."
When she has weariedly, yet with surpassing triumph,
sighed out her last words --
"God stooping shows sufficient of His light
For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise ----"
who does not realise that to life's end he shall not forget
that plaintive voice, so poignantly sweet, that ineffable dying smile,
those wistful eyes with so much less of earth than heaven?
But the two succeeding "books" are more tiresome and more unnecessary
than the most inferior of the three opening sections -- the first of the two,
indeed, is intolerably wearisome, a desolate boulder-strewn gorge
after the sweet air and sunlit summits of "Caponsacchi" and "Pompilia".
In the next "book" Innocent XII. is revealed. All this section
has a lofty serenity, unsurpassed in its kind. It must be read
from first to last for its full effect, but I may excerpt one passage,
the high-water mark of modern blank-verse: --
"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."
Finally comes that throbbing, terrible last "book" where the murderer
finds himself brought to bay and knows that all is lost.
Who can forget its unparalleled close, when the wolf-like Guido suddenly,
in his supreme agony, transcends his lost manhood in one despairing cry --
"Abate, -- Cardinal, -- Christ, -- Maria, -- God, . . .
Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"
Lastly, the Epilogue rounds off the tale. But is this Epilogue necessary?
Surely the close should have come with the words just quoted?
It will not be after a first perusal that the reader will be able to arrive
at a definite conviction. No individual or collective estimate of to-day
can be accepted as final. Those who come after us, perhaps not
the next generation, nor the next again, will see "The Ring and the Book"
free of all the manifold and complex considerations
which confuse our judgment. Meanwhile, each can only speak for himself.
To me it seems that "The Ring and the Book" is, regarded as an artistic whole,
the most magnificent failure in our literature. It enshrines poetry
which no other than our greatest could have written;
it has depths to which many of far inferior power have not descended.
Surely the poem must be judged by the balance of its success and failure?
It is in no presumptuous spirit, but out of my profound admiration
of this long-loved and often-read, this superb poem, that I, for one,
wish it comprised but the Prologue, the Plea of Guido,
"Caponsacchi", "Pompilia", "The Pope", and Guido's last Defence.
I cannot help thinking that this is the form in which it will be read
in the years to come. Thus circumscribed, it seems to me
to be rounded and complete, a great work of art void of the dross,
the mere debris which the true artist discards. But as it is,
in all its lordly poetic strength and flagging impulse, is it not, after all,
the true climacteric of Browning's genius?
"The Inn Album", a dramatic poem of extraordinary power,
has so much more markedly the defects of his qualities that I take it to be,
at the utmost, the poise of the first gradual refluence.
This analogy of the tidal ebb and flow may be observed with singular aptness
in Browning's life-work -- the tide that first moved shoreward
in the loveliness of "Pauline", and, with "long withdrawing roar,"
ebbed in slow, just perceptible lapse to the poet's penultimate volume.
As for "Asolando", I would rather regard it as the gathering of a new wave --
nay, again rather, as the deep sound of ocean which the outward surge
But for myself I do not accept "The Inn Album" as the first
hesitant swing of the tide. I seem to hear the resilient undertone
all through the long slow poise of "The Ring and the Book".
Where then is the full splendour and rush of the tide,
where its culminating reach and power?
I should say in "Men and Women"; and by "Men and Women"
I mean not merely the poems comprised in the collection so entitled,
but all in the "Dramatic Romances", "Lyrics", and the "Dramatis Personae",
all the short pieces of a certain intensity of note and quality of power,
to be found in the later volumes, from "Pacchiarotto" to "Asolando".
And this because, in the words of the poet himself when speaking of Shelley,
I prefer to look for the highest attainment, not simply the high --
and, seeing it, to hold by it. Yet I am not oblivious of the mass
of Browning's lofty achievement, "to be known enduringly among men," --
an achievement, even on its secondary level, so high, that around
its imperfect proportions, "the most elaborated productions of ordinary art
must arrange themselves as inferior illustrations."
How am I to convey concisely that which it would take a volume
to do adequately -- an idea of the richest efflorescence of Browning's genius
in these unfading blooms which we will agree to include in "Men and Women"?
How better -- certainly it would be impossible to be more succinct --
than by the enumeration of the contents of an imagined volume,
to be called, say "Transcripts from Life"?
It would be to some extent, but not rigidly, arranged chronologically.
It would begin with that masterpiece of poetic concision,
where a whole tragedy is burned in upon the brain in fifty-six lines,
"My Last Duchess". Then would follow "In a Gondola",
that haunting lyrical drama `in petto', where the lover is stabbed to death
as his heart is beating against that of his mistress; "Cristina",
with its keen introspection; those delightfully stirring pieces,
the "Cavalier Tunes", "Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr",
and "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"; "The Flower's Name";
"The Flight of the Duchess"; "The Tomb at St. Praxed's", the poem
which educed Ruskin's enthusiastic praise for its marvellous apprehension
of the spirit of the Middle Ages; "Pictor Ignotus", and "The Lost Leader".
But as there is not space for individual detail, and as many
of the more important are spoken of elsewhere in this volume,
I must take the reader's acquaintance with the poems for granted.
So, following those first mentioned, there would come
"Home Thoughts from Abroad"; "Home Thoughts from the Sea";
"The Confessional"; "The Heretic's Tragedy"; "Earth's Immortalities";
"Meeting at Night: Parting at Morning"; "Saul"; "Karshish";
"A Death in the Desert"; "Rabbi Ben Ezra"; "A Grammarian's Funeral";
"Love Among the Ruins"; Song, "Nay but you"; "A Lover's Quarrel";
"Evelyn Hope"; "A Woman's Last Word"; "Fra Lippo Lippi";
"By the Fireside"; "Any Wife to Any Husband"; "A Serenade at the Villa";
"My Star"; "A Pretty Woman"; "A Light Woman"; "Love in a Life";
"Life in a Love"; "The Last Ride Together"; "A Toccata of Galuppi's";
"Master Hugues of Saxe Gotha"; "Abt Vogler"; "Memorabilia";
"Andrea Del Sarto"; "Before"; "After"; "In Three Days"; "In a Year";
"Old Pictures in Florence"; "De Gustibus"; "Women and Roses";
"The Guardian Angel"; "Cleon"; "Two in the Campagna"; "One Way of Love";
"Another Way of Love"; "Misconceptions"; "May and Death"; "James Lee's Wife";
"Dis Aliter Visum"; "Too Late"; "Confessions"; "Prospice"; "Youth and Art";
"A Face"; "A Likeness"; "Apparent Failure". Epilogue to Part I. --
"O Lyric Voice", etc., from end of First Part of "The Ring and the Book".
Part II. -- "Herve Riel"; "Amphibian"; "Epilogue to Fifine";
"Pisgah Sights"; "Natural Magic"; "Magical Nature"; "Bifurcation";
"Numpholeptos"; "Appearances"; "St. Martin's Summer"; "A Forgiveness";
Epilogue to Pacchiarotto volume; Prologue to "La Saisiaz";
Prologue to "Two Poets of Croisic"; "Epilogue"; "Pheidippides";
"Halbert and Hob"; "Ivan Ivanovitch"; "Echetlos"; "Muleykeh";
"Pan and Luna"; "Touch him ne'er so lightly"; Prologue to "Jocoseria";
"Cristina and Monaldeschi"; "Mary Wollstonecraft and Fuseli"; "Ixion";
"Never the Time and the Place"; Song, "Round us the wild creatures";
Song, "Wish no word unspoken"; Song, "You groped your way"; Song, "Man I am";
Song, "Once I saw"; "Verse-making"; "Not with my Soul Love";
"Ask not one least word of praise"; "Why from the world";
"The Round of Day" (Pts. 9, 10, 11, 12 of Gerard de Lairesse);
Prologue to "Asolando"; "Rosny"; "Now"; "Poetics"; "Summum Bonum";
"A Pearl"; "Speculative"; "Inapprehensiveness"; "The Lady and the Painter";
"Beatrice Signorini"; "Imperante Augusto"; "Rephan"; "Reverie";
Epilogue to "Asolando" (in all, 122).
But having drawn up this imaginary anthology, possibly with
faults of commission and probably with worse errors of omission,
I should like to take the reader into my confidence concerning
a certain volume, originally compiled for my own pleasure, though not
without thought of one or two dear kinsmen of a scattered Brotherhood --
a volume half the size of the projected Transcripts, and rare as that star
in the tip of the moon's horn of which Coleridge speaks.
`Flower o' the Vine', so it is called, has for double-motto these two lines
from the Epilogue to the Pacchiarotto volume --
"Man's thoughts and loves and hates!
Earth is my vineyard, these grew there ----"
and these words, already quoted, from the Shelley Essay,
"I prefer to look for the highest attainment, not simply the high."
I. From "Pauline"*1* -- 1. "Sun-treader, life and light
be thine for ever!" 2. The Dawn of Beauty; 3. Andromeda; 4. Morning.
II. "Heap Cassia, Sandal-buds," etc. (song from "Paracelsus").
III. "Over the Sea our Galleys went" (song from "Paracelsus").
IV. The Joy of the World ("Paracelsus").*2* V. From "Sordello" --
1. Sunset;*3* 2. The Fugitive Ethiop;*4* 3. Dante.*5*
VI. Ottima and Sebald (Pt. 1, "Pippa Passes"). VII. Jules and Phene
(Pt. 2, "Pippa Passes"). VIII. My Last Duchess. IX. In a Gondola.
X. Home Thoughts from Abroad (1 and 2). XI. Meeting at Night:
Parting at Morning. XII. A Grammarian's Funeral.
XIII. Saul. XIV. Rabbi Ben Ezra. XV. Love among the Ruins.
XVI. Evelyn Hope. XVII. My Star. XVIII. A Toccata of Galuppi's.
XIX. Abt Vogler. XX. Memorabilia. XXI. Andrea del Sarto.
XXII. Two in the Campagna. XXIII. James Lee's Wife. XXIV. Prospice.
XXV. From "The Ring and the Book" -- 1. O Lyric Love (The Invocation:
26 lines); 2. Caponsacchi (ll. 2069 to 2103); 3. Pompilia (ll. 181 to 205);
4. Pompilia (ll. 1771 to 1845); 5. The Pope (ll. 2017 to 2228);
6. Count Guido (Book 11, ll. 2407 to 2427). XXVI. Prologue to "La Saisiaz".
XXVII. Prologue to "Two Poets of Croisic". XXVIII. Epilogue to
"Two Poets of Croisic". XXIX. Never the Time and Place.
XXX. "Round us the Wild Creatures," etc. (song from "Ferishtah's Fancies").
XXXI. "The Walk" (Pts. 9, 10, 11, 12, of "Gerard de Lairesse").
XXXII. "One word more" (To E. B. B.).*6*
*1* The first, from the line quoted, extends through 55 lines --
"To see thee for a moment as thou art." No. 2 consists of the 18 lines
beginning, "They came to me in my first dawn of life." No. 3,
the 11 lines of the Andromeda picture. No. 4, the 59 lines beginning,
"Night, and one single ridge of narrow path" (to "delight").
*2* No. IV. comprises the 29 lines beginning, "The centre fire
heaves underneath the earth," down to "ancient rapture."
*3* No. V. The 6 lines beginning, "That autumn ere has stilled."
*4* The 22 lines beginning, "As, shall I say, some Ethiop."
*5* The 29 lines beginning, "For he, -- for he."
*6* To these 32 selections there must now be added "Now", "Summum Bonum",
"Reverie", and the "Epilogue", from "Asolando".
It is here -- I will not say in `Flower o' the Vine', nor even venture
to restrictively affirm it of that larger and fuller compilation
we have agreed, for the moment, to call "Transcripts from Life" --
it is here, in the worthiest poems of Browning's most poetic period,
that, it seems to me, his highest greatness is to be sought.
In these "Men and Women" he is, in modern times, an unparalleled
dramatic poet. The influence he exercises through these,
and the incalculably cumulative influence which will leaven
many generations to come, is not to be looked for in individuals only,
but in the whole thought of the age, which he has moulded to new form,
animated anew, and to which he has imparted a fresh stimulus.
For this a deep debt is due to Robert Browning. But over and above
this shaping force, this manipulative power upon character and thought,
he has enriched our language, our literature, with a new wealth
of poetic diction, has added to it new symbols, has enabled us
to inhale a more liberal if an unfamiliar air, has, above all,
raised us to a fresh standpoint, a standpoint involving our construction
of a new definition.
Here, at least, we are on assured ground: here, at any rate,
we realise the scope and quality of his genius. But, let me hasten to add,
he, at his highest, not being of those who would make Imagination
the handmaid of the Understanding, has given us also a Dorado of pure poetry,
of priceless worth. Tried by the severest tests, not merely of substance,
but of form, not merely of the melody of high thinking, but of rare and potent
verbal music, the larger number of his "Men and Women" poems
are as treasurable acquisitions, in kind, to our literature,
as the shorter poems of Milton, of Shelley, of Keats, and of Tennyson.
But once again, and finally, let me repeat that his primary importance
-- not greatness, but importance -- is in having forced us to take up
a novel standpoint, involving our construction of a new definition.
There are, in literary history, few `scenes de la vie privee'
more affecting than that of the greatest of English poetesses,
in the maturity of her first poetic period, lying, like a fading flower,
for hours, for days continuously, in a darkened room in a London house.
So ill was Miss Elizabeth Barrett, early in the second half of the forties,
that few friends, herself even, could venture to hope
for a single one of those Springs which she previsioned so longingly.
To us, looking back at this period, in the light of what we know of a story
of singular beauty, there is an added pathos in the circumstance that,
as the singer of so many exquisite songs lay on her invalid's sofa,
dreaming of things which, as she thought, might never be,
all that was loveliest in her life was fast approaching --
though, like all joy, not without an equally unlooked-for sorrow.
"I lived with visions for my company, instead of men and women . . .
nor thought to know a sweeter music than they played to me."
This is not the occasion, and if it were, there would still be imperative need
for extreme concision, whereon to dwell upon the early life
of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The particulars of it are familiar
to all who love English literature: for there is, in truth,
not much to tell -- not much, at least, that can well be told.
It must suffice, here, that Miss Barrett was born on the 4th of March 1809,*
and so was the senior, by three years, of Robert Browning.
* Should be 1806. See note in Table of Contents. -- A. L., 1996.
By 1820, in remote Herefordshire, the not yet eleven-year-old poetess
had already "cried aloud on obsolete Muses from childish lips"
in various "nascent odes, epics, and didactics." At this time, she tells us,
the Greeks were her demi-gods, and she dreamt much of Agamemnon.
In the same year, in suburban Camberwell, a little boy was often wont
to listen eagerly to his father's narrative of the same hero, and to all
the moving tale of Troy. It is significant that these two children,
so far apart, both with the light of the future upon their brows,
grew up in familiarity with something of the antique beauty.
It was a lifelong joy to both, that "serene air of Greece".
Many an hour of gloom was charmed away by it for the poetess
who translated the "Prometheus Bound" of Aeschylus, and wrote "The Dead Pan":
many a happy day and memorable night were spent in that "beloved environment"
by the poet who wrote "Balaustion's Adventure" and translated the "Agamemnon".
The chief sorrow of her life, however, occurred in her thirty-first year.
She never quite recovered from the shock of her well-loved brother Edward's
tragic death, a mysterious disaster, for the foundering of the little yacht
`La Belle Sauvage' is almost as inexplicable as that of the `Ariel'
in the Spezzian waters beyond Lerici. Not only through the ensuing winter,
but often in the dreams of after years, "the sound of the waves
rang in my ears like the moans of one dying."
The removal of the Barrett household to Gloucester Place,
in Western London, was a great event. Here, invalid though she was,
she could see friends occasionally and get new books constantly.
Her name was well known and became widely familiar when
her "Cry of the Children" rang like a clarion throughout the country.
The poem was founded upon an official report by Richard Hengist Horne,
the friend whom some years previously she had won in correspondence,
and with whom she had become so intimate, though without
personal acquaintance, that she had agreed to write a drama
in collaboration with him, to be called "Psyche Apocalypte",
and to be modelled on "Greek instead of modern tragedy."
Horne -- a poet of genius, and a dramatist of remarkable power --
was one of the truest friends she ever had, and, so far as her literary life
is concerned, came next in influence only to her poet-husband.
Among the friends she saw much of in the early forties was a distant "cousin",
John Kenyon -- a jovial, genial, gracious, and altogether delightful man,
who acted the part of Providence to many troubled souls, and, in particular,
was "a fairy godfather" to Elizabeth Barrett and to "the other poet",
as he used to call Browning. It was to Mr. Kenyon -- "Kenyon,
with the face of a Benedictine monk, but the most jovial of good fellows,"
as a friend has recorded of him; "Kenyon the Magnificent",
as he was called by Browning -- that Miss Barrett owed her first introduction
to the poetry of her future husband.
Browning's poetry had for her an immediate appeal. With sure insight
she discerned the special quality of the poetic wealth
of the "Bells and Pomegranates", among which she then and always
cared most for the penultimate volume, the "Dramatic Romances and Lyrics".
Two years before she met the author she had written,
in "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" --
"Or from Browning some `Pomegranate' which, if cut deep down the middle,
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity."
A little earlier she had even, unwittingly on either side,
been a collaborateur with "the author of `Paracelsus'."
She gave Horne much aid in the preparation of his "New Spirit of the Age",
and he has himself told us "that the mottoes, which are singularly
happy and appropriate, were for the most part supplied
by Miss Barrett and Robert Browning, then unknown to each other."
One thing and another drew them nearer and nearer. Now it was a poem,
now a novel expression, now a rare sympathy.
An intermittent correspondence ensued, and both poets became anxious
to know each other. "We artists -- how well praise agrees with us,"
as Balzac says.
A few months later, in 1846, they came to know one another personally.
The story of their first meeting, which has received a wide acceptance,
is apocryphal. The meeting was brought about by Kenyon.
This common friend had been a schoolfellow of Browning's father,
and so it was natural that he took a more than ordinary interest
in the brilliant young poet, perhaps all the more so
that the reluctant tide of popularity which had promised to set in
with such unparalleled sweep and weight had since experienced a steady ebb.
And so the fates brought these two together. The younger was already
far the stronger, but he had an unbounded admiration for Miss Barrett.
To her, he was even then the chief living poet. She perceived
his ultimate greatness; as early as 1845 had "a full faith in him
as poet and prophet."
As Browning admitted to a friend, the love between them
was almost instantaneous, a thing of the eyes, mind, and heart --
each striving for supremacy, till all were gratified equally in a common joy.
They had one bond of sterling union: passion for the art
to which both had devoted their lives.
To those who love love for love's sake, who `se passionnent pour la passion,'
as Prosper Merimee says, there could scarce be a more sacred spot in London
than that fiftieth house in unattractive Wimpole Street,
where these two poets first met each other; and where, in the darkened room,
"Love quivered, an invisible flame." Elizabeth Barrett was indeed,
in her own words, "as sweet as Spring, as Ocean deep."
She, too, was always, as she wrote of Harriet Martineau,
in a hopeless anguish of body and serene triumph of spirit.
As George Sand says of one of her fictitious personages,
she was an "artist to the backbone; that is, one who feels life
with frightful intensity." To this too keen intensity of feeling
must be attributed something of that longing for repose,
that deep craving for rest from what is too exciting from within,
which made her affirm the exquisite appeal to her of such Biblical passages as
"The Lord of peace Himself give you peace," and "He giveth His Beloved Sleep,"
which, as she says in one of her numerous letters to Miss Mitford,
"strike upon the disquieted earth with such a FOREIGNNESS of heavenly music."
Nor was he whom she loved as a man, as well as revered as a poet,
unworthy of her. His was the robustest poetic intellect of the century;
his the serenest outlook; his, almost the sole unfaltering footsteps
along the perilous ways of speculative thought. A fair life,
irradiate with fairer ideals, conserved his native integrity
from that incongruity between practice and precept so commonly exemplified.
Comely in all respects, with his black-brown wavy hair, finely-cut features,