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[Illustration: ROBERT BROWNING]
ROBERT BROWNING: HOW TO KNOW HIM
By WILLIAM LYON PHELPS, M.A., PH.D. Lampton Professor of English
Literature at Yale
TO JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY WITH SINCERE AFFECTION AND RESPECT
In this volume I have attempted to give an account of Browning's
life and an estimation of his character: to set forth, with
sufficient illustration from his poems, his theory of poetry, his
aim and method: to make clear some of the leading ideas in his work:
to show his fondness for paradox: to exhibit the nature and basis of
his optimism. I have given in complete form over fifty of his poems,
each one preceded by my interpretation of its meaning and
W. L. P.
[Illistration: Seven Gables, Lake Huron]
I THE MAN
II BROWNING'S THEORY OF POETRY
IV DRAMATIC LYRICS
V DRAMATIC MONOLOGUES
VI POEMS OF PARADOX
VII BROWNING'S OPTIMISM
LIST OF POEMS
ANDREA DEL SARTO
BISHOP ORDERS HIS TOMB, THE
CALIBAN UPON SETEBOS
"CHILDE ROLAND TO THE DARK TOWER CAME"
EPILOGUE TO ASOLANDO
EPILOGUE TO FEFINE AT THE FAIR
EPISTLE (AN) CONTAINING THE STRANGE MEDICAL EXPERIENCE OF KARSHISH
EYES CALM BESIDE THEE
GRAMMARIAN'S FUNERAL, A
HOME-THOUGHTS, FROM ABROAD
HOME-THOUGHTS, FROM THE SEA
HOW IT STRIKES A CONTEMPORARY
"HOW THEY BROUGHT THE GOOD NEWS FROM GHENT TO AIX"
JAMES LEE'S WIFE (two stanzas from)
JOHANNES AGRICOLA IN MEDITATION
LAST RIDE TOGETHER, THE
LOST LEADER, THE
LOST MISTRESS, THE
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
MEETING AT NIGHT
MY LAST DUCHESS
NEVER THE TIME AND THE PLACE
ONE WAY OF LOVE
ONE WORD MORE
OVER THE SEA OUR GALLEYS WENT
PARTING AT MORNING
PROLOGUE TO ASOLANDO
PROLOGUE TO JOCOSERIA
PROLOGUE TO LA SAISIAZ
PROLOGUE TO PACCHIAROTTO
PROLOGUE TO THE TWO POETS OF CROISIC
RABBI BEN EZRA
SOLILOQUY OF THE SPANISH CLOISTER
SONG FROM A BLOT IN THE 'SCUTCHEON
SONGS FROM PARACELSUS
SONGS FROM PIPPA PASSES
STATUE (THE) AND THE BUST
UP AT A VILLA--DOWN IN THE CITY
If we enter this world from some other state of existence, it seems
certain that in the obscure pre-natal country, the power of free
choice--so stormily debated by philosophers and theologians
here--does not exist. Millions of earth's infants are handicapped at
the start by having parents who lack health, money, brains, and
character; and in many cases the environment is no better than the
ancestry. "God plants us where we grow," said Pompilia, and we can
not save the rose by placing it on the tree-top. Robert Browning,
who was perhaps the happiest man in the nineteenth century, was
particularly fortunate in his advent. Of the entire population of
the planet in the year of grace 1812, he could hardly have selected
a better father and mother than were chosen for him; and the place
of his birth was just what it should have been, the biggest town on
earth. All his life long he was emphatically a city man, dwelling in
London, Florence, Paris, and Venice, never remaining long in rural
Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Southampton Street, Camberwell,
London, a suburb on the southern side of the river. One hundred years
later, as I traversed the length of this street, it looked squalid
in the rain, and is indeed sufficiently unlovely. But in 1812 it was
a good residential locality, and not far away were fresh woods and
pastures.... The good health of Browning's father may be inferred
from the fact that he lived to be eighty-four, "without a day's
illness;" he was a practical, successful business man, an official
in the Bank of England. His love of literature and the arts is
proved by the fact that he practised them constantly for the pure
joy of the working; he wrote reams and reams of verse, without
publishing a line. He had extraordinary facility in composition,
being able to write poetry even faster than his son. Rossetti said
that he had "a real genius for drawing." He owned a large and
valuable library, filled with curiosities of literature. Robert was
brought up among books, even in earliest youth turning over many a
quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. His latest biographers
have shown the powerful and permanent effects on his poetry of this
Browning's father--while not a rich man--had sufficient income to
give his son every possible advantage in physical and intellectual
training, and to enable him to live without earning a cent; after
Robert grew up, he was absolutely free to devote his entire time and
energy to writing poetry, which, even to the day of his death, did
not yield a livelihood. The young poet was free from care, free from
responsibility, and able from childhood to old age to bring out the
best that was in him. A curious and exact parallel is found in the
case of the great pessimist, Schopenhauer, who never ceased to be
grateful to his father for making his whole life-work possible. In
his later years, Browning wrote: "It would have been quite
unpardonable in any case not to have done my best. My dear father
put me in a condition most favourable for the best work I was
capable of. When I think of the many authors who had to fight their
way through all sorts of difficulties I have no reason to be proud
of my achievements."
Browning's mother, whom he loved with passionate adoration, was a
healthy and sensible woman; better than all these gifts, she was
deeply religious, with sincere and unaffected piety. She was a
Dissenter, a Congregationalist, and brought up Robert in the nurture
and admonition of the Lord, herself a noble example of her teachings.
This evangelical training had an incalculably strong influence on
the spirit of Browning's poetry. She loved music ardently, and when
Robert was a boy, used to play the piano to him in the twilight. He
always said that he got his devotion to music from her.
In these days, when there is such a strong reaction everywhere
against the elective system in education, it is interesting to
remember that Browning's education was simply the elective system
pushed to its last possibility. It is perhaps safe to say that no
learned man in modern times ever had so little of school and college.
His education depended absolutely and exclusively on his inclinations;
he was encouraged to study anything he wished. His father granted
him perfect liberty, never sent him to any "institution of learning,"
and allowed him to do exactly as he chose, simply providing
competent private instruction in whatever subject the youth
expressed any interest. Thus he learned Greek, Latin, the modern
languages, music (harmony and counterpoint, as well as piano and
organ), chemistry (a private laboratory was fitted up in the house),
history and art. Now every one knows that; so far as definite
acquisition of knowledge is concerned, our schools and colleges-at
least in America--leave much to be desired; our boys and girls study
the classics for years without being able to read a page at sight;
and the modern languages show a similarly meagre harvest. If one
wishes positive and practical results one must employ a private tutor,
or work alone in secret. The great advantages of our schools and
colleges--except in so far as they inspire intellectual
curiosity--are not primarily of a scholarly nature; their strength
lies in other directions. The result of Browning's education was
that at the age of twenty he knew more than most college graduates
ever know; and his knowledge was at his full command. His favorite
reading on the train, for example, was a Greek play; one of the
reasons why his poetry sometimes seems so pedantic is simply because
he never realised how ignorant most of us really are. I suppose he
did not believe that men could pass years in school and university
training and know so little. Yet the truth is, that most boys,
brought up as Browning was, would be utterly unfitted for the active
duties and struggles of life, and indeed for the amenities of social
intercourse. With ninety-nine out of a hundred, such an education,
so far as it made for either happiness or efficiency, would be a
failure. But Browning was the hundredth man. He was profoundly
learned without pedantry and without conceit; and he was primarily a
His physical training was not neglected. The boy had expert private
instruction in fencing, boxing, and riding. He was at ease on the
back of a spirited horse. He was particularly fond of dancing, which
later aroused the wonder of Elizabeth Barrett, who found it
difficult to imagine the author of _Paracelsus_ dancing the polka.
In 1833 appeared Browning's first poem, _Pauline_, which had been
completed before he was twenty-one years old. His aunt, Mrs.
Silverthorne, gave him one hundred and fifty dollars, which paid the
expenses of publication. Not a single copy was sold, and the unbound
sheets came home to roost. The commercial worth of _Pauline_ was
exactly zero; today it is said that only five copies exist. One was
sold recently for two thousand four hundred dollars.
In 1834 Browning visited Russia, going by steamer to Rotterdam, and
then driving fifteen hundred miles with horses. Although he was in
Russia about three months, and at the most sensitive time of life,
the country made surprisingly little impression upon him, or at
least upon his poetry. The dramatic idyl, _Ivan Ivanovitch_, is
practically the only literary result of this journey. It was the
south, and not the north, that was to be the inspiration of Browning.
He published his second poem, _Paracelsus_, in 1835. Although this
attracted no general attention, and had no sale, it was
enthusiastically reviewed by John Forster, who declared that its
author was a man of genius. The most fortunate result of its
appearance was that it brought Browning within the pale of literary
society, and gave him the friendship of some of the leading men in
London. The great actor Macready was charmed with the poem, and
young Browning haunted Macready's dressing-room at the theatre for
years; but their friendship ceased in 1843 when _A Blot in the
'Scutcheon_ was acted. Browning wrote four plays for Macready, two
of which were accepted.
Although Browning late in life remarked in a casual conversation
that he had visited Italy in 1834, he must have been mistaken, for
it is impossible to find any record of such a journey. To the best
of our knowledge, he first saw the land of his inspiration in 1838,
sailing from London on April 13th, passing through the Straits of
Gibraltar on the twenty-ninth, and reaching Trieste on May 30th. On
the first of June he entered Venice. It was on a walking-trip that
he first saw the village of Asolo, about thirty miles to the
northeast of Venice. Little did he then realise how closely his name
would be forever associated with this tiny town. The scenes of
_Pippa Passes_ he located there: the last summer of his life, in
1889, was spent in Asolo, his last volume he named in memory of the
village; and on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, the
street where he lived and wrote in 1889 was formally named Via
Roberto Browning. His son, Robert Barrett Browning, lived to see
this event, and died at Asolo on July 8, 1912.
The long and obscure poem _Sordello_ was published in 1840; and then
for thirty years Browning produced poetry of the highest order:
poetry that shows scarcely any obscurity, and that in lyric and
dramatic power has given its author a fixed place among the greatest
names in English literature.
The story of the marriage and married life of Elizabeth Barrett and
Robert Browning is one of the greatest love stories in the world's
history; their love-letters reveal a drama of noble passion that
excels in beauty and intensity the universally popular examples of
Heloise and Abelard, Aucassin and Nicolette, Paul and Virginia.
There was a mysterious bond between them long before the personal
acquaintance: each admired the other's poetry. Miss Barrett had a
picture of Browning in her sickroom, and declared that the adverse
criticism constantly directed against his verse hurt her like a lash
across her own back. In a new volume of poems, she made a
complimentary reference to his work, and in January, 1845, he wrote
her a letter properly beginning with the two words, "I love." It was
her verses that he loved, and said so. In May he saw her and
illustrated his own doctrine by falling in love with her at first
sight. She was in her fortieth year, and an invalid; but if any one
is surprised at the passion she aroused in the handsome young poet,
six years her junior, one has only to read her letters. She was a
charming woman, feminine from her soul to her finger-tips, the
incarnation of _das Ewigweibliche_. Her intimate friends were mostly
what were then known as strong-minded women--I suppose to-day they
would seem like timid, shy violets. She was modest, gentle, winsome,
irresistible: profoundly learned, with the eager heart of a child.
Wimpole Street in London, "the long, unlovely street," as Tennyson
calls it, is holy ground to the lover of literature: for at Number
67 lived Arthur Henry Hallam, and diagonally opposite, at Number 50,
lived Elizabeth Barrett. This street--utterly commonplace in
appearance--is forever associated with the names of our two great
Victorian poets: and the association with Tennyson is Death: with
Not only was Elizabeth believed to be a hopeless invalid, but her
father had forbidden any of his children to marry. He was a
religious man, whose motto in his own household was apparently
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me." He had the particular
kind of piety that is most offensive to ordinary humanity. He gave
his children, for whom he had a stern and savage passion, everything
except what they wanted. He had an insane jealousy of any possible
lover, and there is no doubt that he would have preferred to attend
the funeral of any one of his children rather than a marriage. But
Browning's triumphant love knew no obstacles, and he persuaded
Elizabeth Barrett to run away with him. They were married in
September, 1846, and shortly after left for Italy. Her father refused
to see either of them in subsequent years, and returned his
daughter's letters unopened. Is there any cause in nature for these
Browning's faith wrought a miracle. Instead of dying on the journey
to Italy, Mrs. Browning got well, and the two lived together in
unclouded happiness for fifteen years, until 1861, when she died in
his arms. Not a scrap of writing passed between them from the day of
her marriage to the day of her death: for they were never separated.
She said that all a woman needed to be perfectly happy was three
things--Life, Love, Italy--and she had all three.
The relations between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning had all
the wonder and beauty of a mediaeval romance, with the notable
addition of being historically true. The familiar story of a damosel
imprisoned in a gloomy dungeon, guarded by a cruel dragon--and then,
when all her hope had vanished, rescued by the sudden appearance of
the brilliant knight, who carried her away from her dull prison to a
land of sunshine and happiness--this became the literal experience
of Elizabeth Barrett. Her love for her husband was the passionate
love of a woman for a man, glorified by adoration for the champion
who had miraculously transformed her life from the depths of despair
to the topmost heights of joy. He came, "pouring heaven into this
shut house of life." She expressed the daily surprise of her
happiness in her Sonnets, which one day she put shyly into his hands:
I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery while I strove, ...
"Guess now who holds thee?"--"Death!" I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang ... "Not Death, but Love."
My own Beloved, who hast lifted me
From this drear flat of earth where I was thrown,
And in betwixt the languid ringlets, blown
A life-breath, till the forehead hopefully
Shines out again, as all the angels see,
Before thy saving kiss! My own, my own,
Who camest to me when the world was gone,
And I who looked for only God, found _thee_!
I find thee: I am safe, and strong, and glad.
As one who stands in dewless asphodel
Looks backward on the tedious time he had
In the upper life ... so I, with bosom-swell,
Make witness here between the good and bad,
That Love, as strong as Death, retrieves as well.
Browning replied to this wonderful tribute by appending to the fifty
poems published in 1855 his _One Word More_. He wrote this in a
metre different from any he had ever used, for he meant the poem to
be unique in his works, a personal expression of his love. He
remarked that Rafael wrote sonnets, that Dante painted a picture,
each man going outside the sphere of his genius to please the woman
he loved, to give her something entirely apart from his gifts to the
world. He wished that he could do something other than poetry for his
wife, and in the next life he believed that it would be possible.
But here God had given him only one gift--verse: he must therefore
present her with a specimen of the only art he could command; but it
should be utterly unlike all his other poems, for they were dramatic;
here just once, and for one woman only, he would step out from
behind the scenes, and address her directly in his own person.
Of course Browning could have modelled a statue, or written a piece
of music for Elizabeth, for in both of these arts he had attained
moderate proficiency: but he wished not only to make a gift just for
her, but to give it to her in public, with the whole world regarding;
therefore it must be of his best.
He calls her his _moon_ of poets. He reminds her how a few days ago,
they had seen the crescent moon in Florence, how they had seen it
nightly waxing until it lamped the facade of San Miniato, while the
nightingales, in ecstasy among the cypress trees, gave full-throated
applause. Then they had travelled together to London, and now saw
the same dispirited moon, saving up her silver parsimoniously, sink
in gibbous meanness behind the chimney-tops.
The notable thing about the moon is that whereas the earth, during
one revolution about the sun, turns on its own axis three hundred
and sixty-five times, the shy moon takes exactly the same length of
time to turn around as she takes to circle once around the earth.
For this reason, earth's inhabitants have never seen but one side of
the moon, and never will. Elizabeth Browning is _his_ moon, because
she shows the other side to him alone. The radiant splendor of her
poetry fills the whole earth with light; but to her husband she
shows the other side, the loving, domestic woman, the unspeakably
precious and intimate associate of his daily life. The world thinks
it knows her; but it has seen only one side; it knows nothing of the
marvellous depth and purity of her real nature.
ONE WORD MORE
TO E.B.B. 1855
There they are, my fifty men and women
Naming me the fifty poems finished!
Take them, Love, the book and me together:
Where the heart lies, let the brain lie also.
Rafael made a century of sonnets,
Made and wrote them in a certain volume
Dinted with the silver-pointed pencil
Else he only used to draw Madonnas:
These, the world might view--but one, the volume.
Who that one, you ask? Your heart instructs you.
Did she live and love it all her life-time?
Did she drop, his lady of the sonnets,
Die, and let it drop beside her pillow
Where it lay in place of Rafael's glory,
Rafael's cheek so duteous and so loving--
Cheek, the world was wont to hail a painter's,
Rafael's cheek, her love had turned a poet's?
You and I would rather read that volume,
(Taken to his beating bosom by it)
Lean and list the bosom-beats of Rafael,
Would we not? than wonder at Madonnas--
Her, San Sisto names, and Her, Foligno,
Her, that visits Florence in a vision,
Her, that's left with lilies in the Louvre--
Seen by us and all the world in circle.
You and I will never read that volume.
Guido Reni, like his own eye's apple
Guarded long the treasure-book and loved it
Guido Reni dying, all Bologna
Cried, and the world cried too, "Ours, the treasure!"
Suddenly, as rare things will, it vanished.
Dante once prepared to paint an angel:
Whom to please? You whisper "Beatrice."
While he mused and traced it and retraced it,
(Peradventure with a pen corroded
Still by drops of that hot ink he dipped for,
When, his left-hand i' the hair o' the wicked,
Back he held the brow and pricked its stigma,
Bit into the live man's flesh for parchment,
Loosed him, laughed to see the writing rankle,
Let the wretch go festering through Florence)--
Dante, who loved well because he hated,
Hated wickedness that hinders loving,
Dante standing, studying his angel,--
In there broke the folk of his Inferno.
Says he--"Certain people of importance"
(Such he gave his daily dreadful line to)
"Entered and would seize, forsooth, the poet."
Says the poet-"Then I stopped my painting."
You and I would rather see that angel,
Painted by the tenderness of Dante,
Would we not?--than read a fresh Inferno.
You and I will never see that picture.
While he mused on love and Beatrice,
While he softened o'er his outlined angel,
In they broke, those "people of importance":
We and Bice bear the loss for ever.
What of Rafael's sonnets, Dante's picture?
This: no artist lives and loves, that longs not
Once, and only once, and for one only,
(Ah, the prize!) to find his love a language
Fit and fair and simple and sufficient--
Using nature that's an art to others,
Not, this one time, art that's turned his nature.
Ay, of all the artists living, loving,
None but would forego his proper dowry,--
Does he paint? he fain would write a poem,--
Does he write? he fain would paint a picture,
Put to proof art alien to the artist's,
Once, and only once, and for one only,
So to be the man and leave the artist,
Gain the man's joy, miss the artist's sorrow.
Wherefore? Heaven's gift takes earth's abatement!
He who smites the rock and spreads the water,
Bidding drink and live a crowd beneath him,
Even he, the minute makes immortal,
Proves, perchance, but mortal in the minute,
Desecrates, belike, the deed in doing.
While he smites, how can he but remember,
So he smote before, in such a peril,
When they stood and mocked--"Shall smiting help us?"
When they drank and sneered--"A stroke is easy!"
When they wiped their mouths and went their journey,
Throwing him for thanks--"But drought was pleasant."
Thus old memories mar the actual triumph;
Thus the doing savours of disrelish;
Thus achievement lacks a gracious somewhat;
O'er-importuned brows becloud the mandate,
Carelessness or consciousness--the gesture.
For he bears an ancient wrong about him,
Sees and knows again those phalanxed faces,
Hears, yet one time more, the 'customed prelude--
"How shouldst thou, of all men, smite, and save us?"
Guesses what is like to prove the sequel--
"Egypt's flesh-pots--nay, the drought was better."
Oh, the crowd must have emphatic warrant!
Theirs, the Sinai-forehead's cloven brilliance,
Right-arm's rod-sweep, tongue's imperial fiat.
Never dares the man put off the prophet.
Did he love one face from out the thousands,
(Were she Jethro's daughter, white and wifely,
Were she but the AEthiopian bondslave,)
He would envy yon dumb patient camel,
Keeping a reserve of scanty water
Meant to save his own life in the desert;
Ready in the desert to deliver
(Kneeling down to let his breast be opened)
Hoard and life together for his mistress.
I shall never, in the years remaining,
Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues,
Make you music that should all-express me;
So it seems: I stand on my attainment.
This of verse alone, one life allows me;
Verse and nothing else have I to give you.
Other heights in other lives, God willing:
All the gifts from all the heights, your own, Love!
Yet a semblance of resource avails us--
Shade so finely touched, love's sense must seize it.
Take these lines, look lovingly and nearly,
Lines I write the first time and the last time.
He who works in fresco, steals a hair-brush,
Curbs the liberal hand, subservient proudly,
Cramps his spirit, crowds its all in little,
Makes a strange art of an art familiar,
Fills his lady's missal-marge with flowerets.
He who blows thro' bronze, may breathe thro' silver,
Fitly serenade a slumbrous princess.
He who writes, may write for once as I do.
Love, you saw me gather men and women,
Live or dead or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service,
Speak from every mouth,--the speech, a poem.
Hardly shall I tell my joys and sorrows,
Hopes and fears, belief and disbelieving:
I am mine and yours--the rest be all men's,
Karshish, Cleon, Norbert and the fifty.
Let me speak this once in my true person,
Not as Lippo, Roland or Andrea,
Though the fruit of speech be just this sentence:
Pray you, look on these my men and women,
Take and keep my fifty poems finished;
Where my heart lies, let my brain lie also!
Poor the speech; be how I speak, for all things.
Not but that you know me! Lo, the moon's self!
Here in London, yonder late in Florence,
Still we find her face, the thrice-transfigured.
Curving on a sky imbrued with colour,
Drifted over Fiesole by twilight,
Came she, our new crescent of a hair's-breadth.
Full she flared it, lamping Samminiato,
Rounder 'twixt the cypresses and rounder,
Perfect till the nightingales applauded.
Now, a piece of her old self, impoverished,
Hard to greet, she traverses the houseroofs,
Hurries with unhandsome thrift of silver,
Goes dispiritedly, glad to finish.
What, there's nothing in the moon noteworthy?
Nay: for if that moon could love a mortal,
Use, to charm him (so to fit a fancy),
All her magic ('tis the old sweet mythos)
She would turn a new side to her mortal,
Side unseen of herdsman, huntsman, steersman--
Blank to Zoroaster on his terrace,
Blind to Galileo on his turret,
Dumb to Homer, dumb to Keats--him, even!
Think, the wonder of the moonstruck mortal--
When she turns round, comes again in heaven,
Opens out anew for worse or better!
Proves she like some portent of an iceberg
Swimming full upon the ship it founders,
Hungry with huge teeth of splintered crystals?
Proves she as the paved work of a sapphire
Seen by Moses when he climbed the mountain?
Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu
Climbed and saw the very God, the Highest,
Stand upon the paved work of a sapphire.
Like the bodied heaven in his clearness
Shone the stone, the sapphire of that paved work,
When they ate and drank and saw God also!
What were seen? None knows, none ever shall know.
Only this is sure--the sight were other,
Not the moon's same side, born late in Florence,
Dying now impoverished here in London.
God be thanked, the meanest of his creatures
Boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with,
One to show a woman when he loves her!
This I say of me, but think of you, Love!
This to you--yourself my moon of poets!
Ah, but that's the world's side, there's the wonder,
Thus they see you, praise you, think they know you!
There, in turn I stand with them and praise you--
Out of my own self, I dare to phrase it.
But the best is when I glide from out them,
Cross a step or two of dubious twilight,
Come out on the other side, the novel
Silent silver lights and darks undreamed of,
Where I hush and bless myself with silence.
Oh, their Rafael of the dear Madonnas,
Oh, their Dante of the dread Inferno,
Wrote one song--and in my brain I sing it,
Drew one angel--borne, see, on my bosom!
The Brownings travelled a good deal: they visited many places in
Italy, Venice, Ancona, Fano, Siena, and spent several winters in Rome.
The winter of 1851-52 was passed at Paris, where on the third of
January Browning wrote one of his most notable poems, _Childe Roland
to the Dark Tower Came_. One memorable evening at London in 1855
there were gathered together in an upper room Mr. and Mrs. Browning,
Mr. and Mrs. Tennyson, Dante and William Rossetti. Tennyson had just
published _Maud_ and Browning the two volumes called _Men and Women_.
Each poet was invited to read from his new work. Tennyson, with one
leg curled under him on the sofa, chanted _Maud_, the tears running
down his cheeks; and then Browning read in a conversational manner
his characteristic poem, _Fra Lippo Lippi_. Rossetti made a
pen-and-ink sketch of the Laureate while he was intoning. On one of
the journeys made by the Brownings from London to Paris they were
accompanied by Thomas Carlyle, who wrote a vivid and charming
account of the transit. The poet was the practical member of the
party: the "brave Browning" struggled with the baggage, and the
customs, and the train arrangements; while the Scot philosopher
smoked infinite tobacco.
The best account of the domestic life of the Brownings at Casa Guidi
in Florence was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and published in his
_Italian Note-Books_. On a June evening, Mr. and Mrs. Browning,
William Cullen Bryant, and Nathaniel Hawthorne ate strawberries and
talked spiritualism. Hawthorne and Browning stood on the little
balcony overlooking the street, and heard the priests chanting in
the church of San Felice, the chant heard only in June, which
Browning was to hear again on the night of the June day when he
found the old yellow book. Both chant and terrace were to be
immortalised in Browning's epic. Hawthorne said that Browning had an
elfin wife and an elf child. "I wonder whether he will ever grow up,
whether it is desirable that he should." Like all visitors at Casa
Guidi, the American was impressed by the extraordinary sweetness,
gentleness, and charity of Elizabeth Browning, and by the energy,
vivacity, and conversational powers of her husband. Hawthorne said
he seemed to be in all parts of the room at once.
Mr. Barrett Browning told me in 1904 that he remembered his mother,
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as clearly as though he had seen her
yesterday. He was eleven years old at the time of her death. He
would have it that her ill health had been greatly exaggerated. She
was an invalid, but did not give the impression of being one. She
was able to do many things, and had considerable power of endurance.
One day in Florence she walked from her home out through the Porta
Romana, clear up on the heights, and back to Casa Guidi. "That was
pretty good, wasn't it?" said he. She was of course the idol of the
household, and everything revolved about her. She was "intensely
loved" by all her friends. Her father was a "very peculiar man." The
son's account of her health differs radically from that written by
the mother of E. C. Stedman, who said that Mrs. Browning was kept
alive only by opium, which she had to take daily. This writer added,
however, that in spite of Mrs. Browning's wretched health, she had
never heard her speak ill of any one, though she talked with her
After the death of his wife, Browning never saw Florence again. He
lived in London, and after a few years was constantly seen in society,
Tennyson, who hated society, said that Browning would die in a dress
suit. His real fame did not begin until the year 1864, with the
publication of _Dramatis Personae_. During the first thirty years of
his career, from the publication of _Pauline_ in 1833 to the
appearance of _Dramatis Personae_, he received always tribute from
the few, and neglect, seasoned with ridicule, from the many. _Pauline,
Paracelsus, Pippa Passes, A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, Christmas-Eve,
Men and Women_--each of these volumes was greeted enthusiastically
by men and women whose own literary fame is permanent. But the world
knew him not. How utterly obscure he was may be seen by the fact
that so late as 1860, when the publisher's statement came in for
_Men and Women_, it appeared that during the preceding six months
not a single copy had been sold! The best was yet to be. _The
Dramatis Personae_ was the first of his books to go into a genuine
second edition. Then four years later came _The Ring and the Book_,
which a contemporary review pronounced to be the "most precious and
profound spiritual treasure which England has received since the
days of Shakespeare."
Fame, which had shunned him for thirty years, came to him in
extraordinary measure during the last part of his life: another
exact parallel between him and the great pessimist Schopenhauer. It
was naturally sweet, its sweetness lessened only by the thought that
his wife had not lived to see it. Each had always believed in the
superiority of the other: and the only cloud in Mrs. Browning's mind
was the (to her) incomprehensible neglect of her husband by the
public. At the time of the marriage, it was commonly said that a
young literary man had eloped with a great poetess: during their
married life, her books went invariably into many editions, while
his did not sell at all. And even to the last day of Browning's
earthly existence, her poems far outsold his, to his unspeakable
delight. "The demand for my poems is nothing like so large," he
wrote cheerfully, in correcting a contrary opinion that had been
printed. Even so late as 1885, I found this passage in an account of
Mrs. Browning's life, published that year, It appears that "she was
married in 1846 to Robert Browning, who was also a poet and dramatic
writer of some note, though his fame seems to have been almost
totally eclipsed by the superior endowments of his gifted wife." This
reminds us of the time when Mr. and Mrs. Schumann were presented to
a Scandinavian King: Mrs. Schumann played on the piano, and His
Majesty, turning graciously to the silent husband, enquired
"Are you also musical?"
The last summer of Browning's life, the summer of 1889, was passed
at Asolo: in the autumn he moved into his beautiful house in Venice,
the Palazzo Rezzonico, which had the finest situation of all
Venetian residences, built at an angle in the Grand Canal. Although
seventy-seven years old, he was apparently as vigorous as ever: no
change had taken place in his appearance, manner or habits. One day
he caught a bad cold walking on the Lido in a bitter wind; and with
his usual vehement energy declined to take any proper care of his
throat. Instead of staying in, he set out for long tramps with
friends, constantly talking in the raw autumn air. In order to prove
to his son that nothing was the matter with him, he ran rapidly up
three flights of stairs, the son vainly trying to restrain him.
Nothing is more characteristic of the youthful folly of aged folk
than their impatient resentment of proffered hygienic advice. When
we are children, we reject with scorn the suggestions of our parents;
when we are old, we reject with equal scorn the advice of our
children. Man is apparently an animal more fit to give advice than
to take it. Browning's impulsive rashness proved fatal. Bronchitis
with heart trouble finally sent him to bed, though on the last
afternoon of his life he rose and walked about the room. During the
last few days he told many good stories and talked with his
accustomed eagerness. He died at ten o'clock in the evening of the
twelfth of December, 1889, A few moments before his death came a
cablegram from London announcing that his last volume of poems had
been published that day, and that the evening papers were speaking
in high terms of its contents. "That is very gratifying," said he.
Browning's life was healthy, comfortable, and happy. With the
exception of frequent headaches in his earlier years, he never knew
sickness or physical distress. His son said that he had never seen
him in bed in the daytime until the last illness. He had a truly
wonderful digestion; it was his firm belief that one should eat only
what one really enjoyed, desire being the infallible sign that the
food was healthful. "My father was a man of _bonne fourchette_" said
Barrett Browning to me; "he was not very fond of meat, but liked all
kinds of Italian dishes, especially with rich sauces. He always ate
freely of rich and delicate things. He could make a whole meal off
mayonnaise." It is pleasant to remember that Emerson, the other
great optimist of the century, used to eat pie for breakfast. Unlike
Carlyle and Tennyson, who smoked constantly, Browning never used
tobacco; he drank wine with his meals, but sparingly, and never more
than one kind of wine at a dinner. While physically robust, fond of
riding and walking, never using a cab or public conveyance if he
could help it, he was like most first-class literary men in caring
nothing whatever for competitive sports. He did not learn to swim
until late in life; his son taught him at Pornic, in Brittany. He
was venturesome for a man well on in years, swimming far out with
boyish delight, as he has himself described it in the _Prologue to
Fifine at the Fair_.
Browning's eyes were peculiar, one having a long focus, the other
very short. He had the unusual accomplishment (try it and prove) of
closing either eye without "squinching," and without any apparent
effort, though sometimes on the street in strong sunshine his face
would be a bit distorted. He did all his reading and writing with
one eye, closing the long one as he sat down at his desk. He never
wore glasses, and was proud of his microscopic eye. He often wrote
minutely, to show off his powers. When he left the house to go for a
walk, he shut the short eye and opened the long one, with which he
could see an immense distance. He never suffered with any pain in
his eyes except once, when a boy, he was trying to be a vegetarian
in imitation of his youthful idol, Shelley.
Contrary to the oft-repeated statement, Browning was not a really
fine pianist. As a very young man, he used to play several
instruments, and once he had been able to play all of Beethoven's
sonatas on the piano. In later life he became ambitious to improve
his skill with this instrument, and had much trouble, for his
fingers were clumsy and stiff. He therefore used to rise at six, and
practise finger-exercises for an hour!
He loved first-class music ardently, had a profound knowledge of it,
and was a good judge. If the performance was fine, he would express
his praise with the utmost enthusiasm; but bad work caused him acute
pain. Sometimes at a concert he would put his fingers in his ears,
his suffering being apparently uncontrollable.
The salient feature of his character was his boyish vivacity and
enthusiasm. If he looked out of the window and saw a friend coming
along the street to call, he would often rush out and embrace him.
In conversation he was extraordinarily eager and impulsive, with a
great flow of talk on an enormous range of subjects. If he liked
anything, he spoke of it in the heartiest manner, laughing aloud
with delight. He was very generous in his appreciation and praise of
other men's work, being beautifully free from that jealousy which is
one of the besetting sins of artists. He always tried to see what
was good. Occasionally he was enraged at reading a particularly
hostile criticism of himself, but on the whole he stood abuse
very well, and had abundant opportunity to exercise the gift of
patience. A great admirer of Tennyson's poetry and of Tennyson's
character--they were dear and intimate friends--he never liked the
stock comparison. "Tennyson and I are totally unlike," he used to say.
No letter from one rival to another was ever more beautiful than the
letter Browning wrote to Tennyson on the occasion of the Laureate's
"My DEAR TENNYSON--To-morrow is your birthday--indeed, a memorable
one. Let me say I associate myself with the universal pride of our
country in your glory, and in its hope that for many and many a year
we may have your very self among us--secure that your poetry will be
a wonder and delight to all those appointed to come after. And for
my own part, let me further say, I have loved you dearly. May God
bless you and yours.
"At no moment from first to last of my acquaintance with your works,
or friendship with yourself, have I had any other feeling, expressed
or kept silent, than this which an opportunity allows me to
utter--that I am and ever shall be, my dear Tennyson, admiringly and
What I have said of Browning's impulsiveness is borne out not only
by the universal testimony of those who knew him well, but
particularly by a letter of Mrs. Browning to Mrs. Jameson. The
manuscript of this letter was bought in London by an American, and
went down with the _Titanic_ in 1912. An extract from it appeared in
a bookseller's catalogue--"You must learn Robert--he is made of
moods--chequered like a chess-board; and the colour goes for too
much--till you learn to treat it as a game."
No man--little or great--was ever more free from pose. His appearance,
in clothes and in hair, was studiously normal. No one in his later
years would ever have guessed that he was a poet, either in seeing
him on the street, or in meeting him at dinner. He was interested in
multitudinous things, but never spoke of poetry--either in general
or in his own particular--if he could avoid doing so. The fact that
strangers who were presented to him and talked with him did not
guess that he was _the_ Mr. Browning, gave rise to numberless
Perhaps the best thing that can be said of his personal character is
the truthful statement that he stood in the finest manner two
searching tests of manhood--long neglect and sudden popularity, The
long years of oblivion, during which he was producing much of his
best work, made him neither angry nor sour, though he must have
suffered deeply. On the other hand, when his fame reached prodigious
proportions, he was neither conceited nor affected. He thoroughly
believed in himself, and in his work; and he cared more about it
than he did for its reception.
The crushing grief that came to him in the death of his wife he bore
with that Christian resignation of which we hear more often than
perhaps we see in experience. For Browning was a Christian, not only
in faith but in conduct; it was the mainspring of his art and of his
life. There are so many writers whose lives show so painful a
contrast with the ideal tone of their written work, that it is
refreshing and inspiring to be so certain of Browning; to know that
the author of the poems which thrill us was as great in character as
he was in genius.
BROWNING'S THEORY OF POETRY
With one exception, the economic law of supply and demand governs
the production of literature exactly as it determines the price of
wheat. For many years the Novel has been the chief channel of
literary expression, the dominant literary form: in the days of
Queen Elizabeth, the Drama was supreme. During the early part of the
eighteenth century, theological poetry enjoyed a great vogue; Pope's
_Essay on Man_ circulated with the rapidity of a modern detective
story. Consider the history of the English sonnet. This form of
verse was exceedingly popular in 1600, By 1660 it had vanished, and
remained obsolete for nearly a hundred years; about the middle of
the eighteenth century it was revived by Thomas Edwards and others;
in the nineteenth century it became fashionable, and still holds its
place, as one may see by opening current magazines. Why is it that
writers put their ideas on God, Nature, and Woman in the form of a
drama in 1600, and in the form of a novel in 1900? Why is it that an
inspired man should make poems of exactly fourteen lines in 1580 and
in 1880, and not do it in 1680? If we do not attempt an ultimate
metaphysical analysis, the answer is clear. The bookseller supplies
the public, the publisher supplies the bookseller, the author
supplies the publisher. A bookseller has in his window what the
people want, and the publisher furnishes material in response to the
same desire; just as a farmer plants in his fields some foodstuffs
for which there is a sharp demand. Authors are compelled to write
for the market, whether they like it or not, otherwise their work
can not appear in print. The reason why the modern novel, with all
its shortcomings, is the mirror of ideas on every conceivable topic
in religious, educational, economic, and sociological thought, is
because the vast majority of writers are at this moment compelled by
the market to put their reflections into the form of novels, just as
Marlowe and Chapman were forced to write plays. With one exception,
the law of supply and demand determines the metrical shape of the
poet's frenzy, and the prose mould of the philosopher's ideas.
The exception is so rare that it establishes the rule. The exception
is Genius--next to radium the scarcest article on earth. And even
Genius often follows the market--it takes the prevailing literary
fashion, and adapts itself to the form in vogue in a more excellent
way. Such genius--the Genius for Adaptation--never has to wait long
for recognition, simply because it supplies a keen popular demand.
Such a genius was Shakespeare: such a genius was Pope: such a genius
was Scott: such a genius was Byron: such a genius was Tennyson. But
the true exception to the great economic law is seen in the Man of
Original Genius, who cares not at all for the fashion except perhaps
to destroy it. This man is outside the law of supply and demand,
because he supplies no demand, and there exists no demand for him.
He therefore has to create the demand as well as the supply. Such a
man in Music was Wagner: such a man in Drama was Ibsen: such a man
in Poetry was Browning.
These three men were fortunate in all reaching the age of seventy,
for had they died midway in their careers, even after accomplishing
much of their best work, they would have died in obscurity. They had
to wait long for recognition, because nobody was looking for them,
nobody wanted them. There was no demand for Wagner's music--but
there is now, and he made it. There was no demand for plays like
those of Ibsen; and there was not the slightest demand for poetry
like _Pauline_ and the _Dramatic Lyrics_. The reason why the public
does not immediately recognise the greatness of a work of original
genius, is because the public at first--if it notices the thing at
all--apprehends not its greatness, but its strangeness. It is so
unlike the thing the public is seeking, that it seems grotesque or
absurd--many indeed declare that it is exactly the opposite of what
it professes to be. Thus, many insisted that Ibsen's so-called
dramas were not really plays: they were merely conversations on
serious and unpleasant themes. In like manner, the critics said that
Wagner, whatever he composed, did not compose music; for instead of
making melodies, he made harsh and discordant sounds. For eighty
years, many men of learning and culture have been loudly proclaiming
that Browning, whatever he was, was not a poet; he was ingenious, he
was thoughtful, a philosopher, if you like, but surely no poet. When
_The Ring and the Book_ was published, a thoroughly respectable
British critic wrote, "Music does not exist for him any more than
for the deaf." On the other hand, the accomplished poet, musician,
and critic, Sidney Lanier, remarked:
"Have you seen Browning's _The Ring and the Book_? I am confident
that at the birth of this man, among all the good fairies who
showered him with magnificent endowments, one bad one--as in the old
tale--crept in by stealth and gave him a constitutional twist i' the
neck, whereby his windpipe became, and has ever since remained, a
marvellous tortuous passage. Out of this glottis-labyrinth his words
won't, and can't, come straight. A hitch and a sharp crook in every
sentence bring you up with a shock. But what a shock it is! Did you
ever see a picture of a lasso, in the act of being flung? In a
thousand coils and turns, inextricably crooked and involved and
whirled, yet, if you mark the noose at the end, you see that it is
directly in front of the bison's head, there, and is bound to catch
him! That is the way Robert Browning catches you. The first sixty or
seventy pages of _The Ring and the Book_ are altogether the most
doleful reading, in point either of idea or of music, in the English
language; and yet the monologue of Giuseppe Caponsacchi, that of
Pompilia Comparini, and the two of Guido Franceschini, are
unapproachable, in their kind, by any living or dead poet, _me judice_.
Here Browning's jerkiness comes in with inevitable effect. You get
lightning glimpses--and, as one naturally expects from lightning,
zigzag glimpses--into the intense night of the passion of these souls.
It is entirely wonderful and without precedent." 
One of the most admirable things about Browning's admirable career
as poet and man is that he wrote not to please the critics, as
Tennyson often did, not to please the crowd, as the vast horde of
ephemeral writers do, but to please himself. The critics and the
crowd professed that they could not understand him; but he had no
difficulty in understanding them. He knew exactly what they wanted,
and declined to supply it. Instead of giving them what he thought
they wanted, he gave them what he thought they needed. That
illustrates the difference between the literary caterer and the
literary master. Some poets, critics, dramatists, and novelists are
born to be followers of the public taste; they have their reward.
Only a few, and one at a time, are leaders. This is entirely as it
should be, for, with followers, the more the merrier; with leaders
it is quite otherwise.
In the case of a man of original genius, the first evidence of
approaching fame is seen in the dust raised by contempt, scorn,
ridicule, and various forms of angry resistance from those who will
ultimately be converts. People resist him as they resist the Gospel.
He comes unto his own, and his own receive him not. The so-called
reading public have the stupid cruelty of schoolboys, who will not
tolerate on the part of any newcomer the slightest divergence in
dress, manners, or conversation from the established standard.
Conformity is king; for schoolboys are the most conservative mass of
inertia that can be found anywhere on earth. And they are thorough
masters of ridicule--the most powerful weapon known to humanity. But
as in schoolboy circles the ostracising laughter is sometimes a sign
that a really original boy has made his appearance, so the
unthinking opposition of the conventional army of readers is
occasionally a proof that the new man has made a powerful impression
which can not be shaken off.
[Footnote 1: Life of Sidney Lanier, by Professor Edwin Mims.]
This is what Browning did with his "lasso" style. It was suitably
adapted to his purposes, and the public behaved somewhat like the
buffalo. They writhed, kicked, struggled, plunged, and the greater
the uproar, the more evident it was that they were caught. Shortly
before his death, Professor F.J. Child, a scholar of international
fame, told me angrily that Wagner was no musician at all; that he
was a colossal fraud; that the growing enthusiasm for him was mere
affectation, which would soon pass away. He spoke with extraordinary
passion. I wondered at his rage, but I understand it now. It was the
rage of a king against the incoming and inexorable tide.
Nothing is more singular to contemplate than the variations in form
of what the public calls melody, both in notation and in language.
What delights the ears of one generation distresses or wearies the
ears of another. Elizabethan audiences listened with rapture to long
harangues in bombastic blank verse: a modern audience can not endure
this. The senses of Queen Anne Englishmen were charmed by what they
called the melody of Pope's verse--by its even regularity and steady
flow. To us Pope's verse is full of wit and cerebration, but we find
the measure intolerably monotonous. Indeed, by a curious irony of
fate, Pope, who regarded himself as a supreme poet, has since
frequently been declared to be no poet at all. Keats wrote _Endymion_
in the heroic couplet--the very measure employed by Pope. But his
use of it was so different that this poem would have seemed utterly
lacking in melody to Augustan ears--Pope would have attempted to
"versify" it. And yet we enjoy it. It seems ridiculous to say that
the man who wrote _Der fliegende Hollaender and Tannhaeuser_ could not
write melody, and yet it was almost universally said. It seems
strange that critics should have declared that the man who wrote
_Love Among the Ruins_ could not write rhythmical verse, yet such
was once almost the general opinion. Still, the rebellious instinct
of the public that condemned Wagner in music and Browning in poetry
was founded on something genuine; for Wagner was unlike other
musicians, and Browning was unlike other poets.
_Fraser's Magazine_, for December, 1833, contained a review of
Browning's first poem, _Pauline_, which had been published that year.
The critic decided that the new poet was mad: "you being, beyond all
question, as mad as Cassandra, without any of the power to prophesy
like her, or to construct a connected sentence like anybody else. We
have already had a Monomaniac; and we designate you 'The Mad Poet of
the Batch;' as being mad not in one direction only, but in all. A
little lunacy, like a little knowledge, would be a dangerous thing."
Yet it was in this despised and rejected poem that a great, original
genius in English poetry was first revealed. It is impossible to
understand Browning or even to read him intelligently without firmly
fixing in the mind his theory of poetry, and comprehending fully his
ideal and his aim. All this he set forth clearly in _Pauline_, and
though he was only twenty years old when he wrote it, he never
wavered from his primary purpose as expressed in two lines of the
poem, two lines that should never be forgotten by those who really
wish to enjoy the study of Browning:
And then thou said'st a perfect bard was one
Who chronicled the stages of all life.
What is most remarkable about this definition of poetry is what it
omits. The average man regards poetry as being primarily concerned
with the creation of beauty. Not a word is said about beauty in
Browning's theory. The average man regards poetry as being
necessarily melodious, rhythmical, tuneful, above all, pleasing to
the senses; but Browning makes no allusion here to rime or rhythm,
nor to melody or music of any sort. To him the bard is a Reporter of
Life, an accurate Historian of the Soul, one who observes human
nature in its various manifestations, and gives a faithful record.
Sound, rhythm, beauty are important, because they are a part of life;
and they are to be found in Browning's works like wild flowers in a
field; but they are not in themselves the main things. The main
thing is human life in its totality. Exactly in proportion to the
poet's power of portraying life, is the poet great; if he correctly
describes a wide range of life, he is greater than if he has
succeeded only in a narrow stretch; and the Perfect Bard would be the
one who had chronicled the stages of all life. Shakespeare is the
supreme poet because he has approached nearer to this ideal than any
one else--he has actually chronicled most phases of humanity, and
has truthfully painted a wide variety of character. Browning
therefore says of him in _Christmas-Eve_--
As I declare our Poet, him
Whose insight makes all others dim:
A thousand poets pried at life,
And only one amid the strife
Rose to be Shakespeare.
Browning's poetry, as he elsewhere expresses it, was always dramatic
in principle, always an attempt to interpret human life. With that
large number of highly respectable and useful persons who do not
care whether they understand him or not, I have here no concern: but
to those who really wish to learn his secret, I insist that his main
intention must ever be kept in mind. Much of his so-called obscurity,
harshness, and uncouthness falls immediately into its proper place,
is indeed necessary. The proof of his true greatness not as a
philosopher, thinker, psychologist, but as a poet, lies in the
simple fact that when the subject-matter he handles is beautiful or
sublime, his style is usually adequate to the situation. Browning
had no difficulty in writing melodiously when he placed the posy in
O lyric Love, half angel and half bird
And all a wonder and a wild desire,
although just a moment before, when he was joking about his lack of
readers, he was anything but musical. _The Ring and the Book_ is
full of exquisite beauty, amazing felicity of expression, fluent
rhythm and melody; full also of crudities, jolts, harshness, pedantry,
wretched witticisms, and coarseness. Why these contrasts? Because it
is a study of human testimony. The lawyers in this work speak no
radiant or spiritual poetry; they talk like tiresome, conceited
pedants because they were tiresome, conceited pedants; Pompilia's
dying speech of adoring passion for Caponsacchi is sublime music,
because she was a spiritual woman in a glow of exaltation. Guido
speaks at first with calm, smiling irony, and later rages like a
wild beast caught in a spring-trap; in both cases the verse fits his
mood. If Pompilia's tribute to Caponsacchi had been expressed in
language as dull and flat as the pleas of the lawyers, then we
should be quite sure that Browning, whatever he was, was no poet.
For it would indicate that he could not create the right diction for
the right situation and character. Now, his picture of the triple
light of sunset in _The Last Ride Together_ is almost intolerably
beautiful, because such a scene fairly overwhelms the senses. I hear
the common and unintelligent comment, "Ah, if he had only always
written like that!" He would have done so, if he had been interested
in only the beautiful aspects of this world. "How could the man who
wrote such lovely music as that have also written such harsh stuff
as _Mr. Sludge, the Medium_"? The answer is that in the former he
was chronicling a stage of life that in its very essence was beauty:
in the latter, something exactly the opposite. Life has its
trivialities and its ugliness, as well as its sublime aspirations.
In Browning's poetry, whenever the thought rises, the style
automatically rises with it,
Compare the diction of _Holy Cross Day_ with that in _Love Among the
Ruins_. Cleon is an old Greek poet, and he speaks noble, serene verse:
Bishop Blougram is a subtle dialectician, a formidable antagonist in
a joint debate, and he has the appropriate manner and language.
Would you have him talk like the lover in _Evelyn Hope_?
Browning was a great artist, and the grotesque is an organic part of
his structures. To find fault with the grotesque excrescences in
Browning's poetry is exactly like condemning a cathedral because it
has gargoyles. How could the architect that dreamed those wonderful
columns and arches have made those hideous gargoyles? Did he flatter
himself they were beautiful? When _Macbeth_ was translated into
German, the translator was aghast at the coarse language of the
drunken porter. How could the great Shakespeare, who had proved so
often his capacity as an artist, have made such an appalling blunder?
So the translator struck out the offensive words, and made the
porter sing a sweet hymn to the dawn.
The theory of poetry originally stated in _Pauline_ Browning not
only endeavored to exemplify in his work; he often distinctly
repeated it. In _The Glove_, all the courtiers, hide-bound by
conventional ideas, unite in derisive insults howled at the lady. She
goes out 'mid hooting and laughter. Only two men follow her: one,
because he loves her; the other, for purely professional reasons.
To-day, he would of course be a society reporter. "I beg your pardon,
Madam, but would you kindly grant me an interview? I represent the
_New York Flash_, and we shall be glad to present your side of this
story in our next Sunday issue." With equal professional zeal, Peter
Ronsard is keenly interested in discovering the motives that
underlay the lady's action. He simply must know, and in defense of
his importunity, he presents his credentials. He is a poet, and
therefore the strange scene that has just been enacted comes within
his special domain.
I followed after,
And asked, as a grace, what it all meant?
If she wished not the rash deed's recallment?
"For I"--so I spoke--"am a poet:
Human nature,--behoves that I know it!"
In _Transcendentalism_, a poem which is commonly misunderstood,
Browning informs us that the true poet must deal, not with abstract
thought, but with concrete things. A young poet informs an elder
colleague that he has just launched a huge philosophical poem,
called _Transcendentalism: a Poem in Twelve Books_. His wiser critic
tells him that he is on the wrong track altogether; what he has
written is prose, not poetry. Poetry is not a discussion of abstract
ideas, but the creation of individual things. Transcendentalism is
not a fit subject for poetry, because it deals with metaphysical
thought, instead of discussing men and women. To illustrate his point,
he makes a comparison between botany and roses. Which is the more
interesting, to read a heavy treatise on botany, or to behold roses?
A few pedants may like botany better, but ordinary humanity is quite
right in preferring flowers. Browning indicates that the poet should
not compose abstract treatises, but should create individual works
of art, like the stout Mage of Halberstadt,
John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about.
He with a "look you!" vents a brace of rhymes,
And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,
Over us, under, round us every side,
Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs
And musty volumes, Boehme's book and all,--
Buries us with a glory, young once more,
Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.
Many have failed to understand this poem, because they think that
Browning himself is constantly guilty of the sin specifically
condemned here. Browning has indeed often been called a thinker, a
philosopher: but a moment's serious reflection will prove that of all
English poetry outside of the drama, Browning's is the least
abstract and the most concrete. Poetry is not condemned because it
arouses thought, but only when it is abstract in method. Browning
often deals with profound ideas, but always by concrete illustrations.
For example, he discusses the doctrine of predestination by giving
us the individual figure of Johannes-Agricola in meditation: the
royalist point of view in the seventeenth century by cavaliers
singing three songs: the damnation of indecision by two Laodicaean
lovers in _The Statue and the Bust_. When Browning is interested in
any doctrine, idea, or system of thought, he creates a person to
Browning's theory of poetry is further reenforced by his poem
_How It Strikes a Contemporary_, which, in the final rearrangement
of his works, he placed directly after _Transcendentalism_, as though
to drive his doctrine home. Here is a picture of a real poet. Where
does he live, whence does he get his sources of inspiration, and how
does he pass his time? The poem answers these questions in a most
instructive manner, if only we keep in mind the original definition
given in _Pauline_. It is conventionally believed that the country
is more poetic than the city: that an ideal residence for a poet
would be in lonely, lovely, romantic scenery; and that in splendid
solitude and isolation he should clothe his thoughts in forms of
beauty. Now Browning's own life and methods of work were in exact
contrast to these popular ideas; because his theory of poetry
requires the poet to live in the very midst of human activities, and
to draw his inspiration not from a mountain or the stars, but from
all sorts and conditions of men. Thus, in the poem, _How It Strikes
a Contemporary_, the poet lives in a noisy city, spends his time
walking the streets, and instead of being lost in a trance, he is
intensely aware of everything that happens in the town. The poet is
an observer, not a dreamer. Indeed, the citizens think this old poet
is a royal spy, because he notices people and events with such sharp
attention. Browning would seem to say that the mistake is a quite
natural one; the poet ought to act like a spy, for, if he be a true
poet, he is a spy--a spy on human life. He takes upon himself the
mystery of things, as if he were God's spy.
He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane,
Scenting the world, looking it full in face....
He glanced o'er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor's string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognizance of men and things,
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note.
This is an exact description of the way Robert Browning walked the
streets of Florence. Only a few years after this poem was printed,
he was glancing o'er the books on stalls in the square of San Lorenzo,
and found the old yellow volume which he turned into an epic of
humanity. The true poet "scents" the world, smells it out, as a dog
locates game. A still stronger expression is used in _Christmas-Eve_,
where the poets "pried" at life, turned up its surface in order to
disclose all its hidden treasures of meaning.
"TRANSCENDENTALISM: A POEM IN TWELVE BOOKS"
Stop playing, poet! May a brother speak?
'Tis you speak, that's your error. Song's our art:
Whereas you please to speak these naked thoughts
Instead of draping them in sights and sounds.
--True thoughts, good thoughts, thoughts fit to treasure up!
But why such long prolusion and display,
Such turning and adjustment of the harp,
And taking it upon your breast, at length,
Only to speak dry words across its strings?
Stark-naked thought is in request enough:
Speak prose and hollo it till Europe hears!
The six-foot Swiss tube, braced about with bark,
Which helps the hunter's voice from Alp to Alp--
Exchange our harp for that,--who hinders you?
But here's your fault; grown men want thought, you think;
Thought's what they mean by verse, and seek in verse.
Boys seek for images and melody,
Men must have reason--so, you aim at men.
Quite otherwise! Objects throng our youth, 'tis true;
We see and hear and do not wonder much:
If you could tell us what they mean, indeed!
As German Boehme never cared for plants
Until it happed, a-walking in the fields,
He noticed all at once that plants could speak,
Nay, turned with loosened tongue to talk with him.
That day the daisy had an eye indeed--
Colloquized with the cowslip on such themes!
We find them extant yet in Jacob's prose.
But by the time youth slips a stage or two
While reading prose in that tough book he wrote
(Collating and emendating the same
And settling on the sense most to our mind),
We shut the clasps and find life's summer past.
Then, who helps more, pray, to repair our loss--
Another Boehme with a tougher book
And subtler meanings of what roses say,--
Or some stout Mage like him of Halberstadt,
John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about?
He with a "look you!" vents a brace of rhymes,
And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,
Over us, under, round us every side,
Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs
And musty volumes, Boehme's book and all,--
Buries us with a glory, young once more,
Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.
So come, the harp back to your heart again!
You are a poem, though your poem's naught.
The best of all you showed before, believe,
Was your own boy-face o'er the finer chords
Bent, following the cherub at the top
That points to God with his paired half-moon wings.
HOW IT STRIKES A CONTEMPORARY
I only knew one poet in my life:
And this, or something like it, was his way.
You saw go up and down Valladolid,
A man of mark, to know next time you saw.
His very serviceable suit of black
Was courtly once and conscientious still,
And many might have worn it, though none did:
The cloak, that somewhat shone and showed the threads,
Had purpose, and the ruff, significance.
He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane,
Scenting the world, looking it full in face,
An old dog, bald and blindish, at his heels.
They turned up, now, the alley by the church,
That leads nowhither; now, they breathed themselves
On the main promenade just at the wrong time:
You'd come upon his scrutinizing hat,
Making a peaked shade blacker than itself
Against the single window spared some house
Intact yet with its mouldered Moorish work,--
Or else surprise the ferrel of his stick
Trying the mortar's temper 'tween the chinks
Of some new shop a-building, French and fine.
He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster's brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o'er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor's string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognizance of men and things,
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note;
Yet stared at nobody,--you stared at him,
And found, less to your pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know you and expect as much.
So, next time that a neighbour's tongue was loosed,
It marked the shameful and notorious fact,
We had among us, not so much a spy,
As a recording chief-inquisitor,
The town's true master if the town but knew!
We merely kept a governor for form,
While this man walked about and took account
Of all thought, said and acted, then went home,
And wrote it fully to our Lord the King
Who has an itch to know things, he knows why,
And reads them in his bedroom of a night.
Oh, you might smile! there wanted not a touch,
A tang of ... well, it was not wholly ease
As back into your mind the man's look came.
Stricken in years a little,--such a brow
His eyes had to live under!--clear as flint
On either side the formidable nose
Curved, cut and coloured like an eagle's claw.
Had he to do with A.'s surprising fate?
When altogether old B. disappeared
And young C. got his mistress,--was't our friend,
His letter to the King, that did it all?
What paid the bloodless man for so much pains?
Our Lord the King has favourites manifold,
And shifts his ministry some once a month;
Our city gets new governors at whiles,--
But never word or sign, that I could hear,
Notified to this man about the streets
The King's approval of those letters conned
The last thing duly at the dead of night.
Did the man love his office? Frowned our Lord,
Exhorting when none heard--"Beseech me not!
Too far above my people,--beneath me!
I set the watch,--how should the people know?
Forget them, keep me all the more in mind!"
Was some such understanding 'twixt the two?
I found no truth in one report at least--
That if you tracked him to his home, down lanes
Beyond the Jewry, and as clean to pace,
You found he ate his supper in a room
Blazing with lights, four Titians on the wall,
And twenty naked girls to change his plate!
Poor man, he lived another kind of life
In that new stuccoed third house by the bridge,
Fresh-painted, rather smart than otherwise!
The whole street might o'erlook him as he sat,
Leg crossing leg, one foot on the dog's back,
Playing a decent cribbage with his maid
(Jacynth, you're sure her name was) o'er the cheese
And fruit, three red halves of starved winter-pears,
Or treat of radishes in April. Nine,
Ten, struck the church clock, straight to bed went he.
My father, like the man of sense he was,
Would point him out to me a dozen times;
"'St--'St," he'd whisper, "the Corregidor!"
I had been used to think that personage
Was one with lacquered breeches, lustrous belt,
And feathers like a forest in his hat,
Who blew a trumpet and proclaimed the news,
Announced the bull-fights, gave each church its turn,
And memorized the miracle in vogue!
He had a great observance from us boys;
We were in error; that was not the man.
I'd like now, yet had haply been afraid,
To have just looked, when this man came to die,
And seen who lined the clean gay garret-sides
And stood about the neat low truckle-bed,
With the heavenly manner of relieving guard.
Here had been, mark, the general-in-chief,
Thro' a whole campaign of the world's life and death,
Doing the King's work all the dim day long,
In his old coat and up to knees in mud,
Smoked like a herring, dining on a crust,--
And, now the day was won, relieved at once!
No further show or need for that old coat,
You are sure, for one thing! Bless us, all the while
How sprucely we are dressed out, you and I!
A second, and the angels alter that.
Well, I could never write a verse,--could you?
Let's to the Prado and make the most of time.
In common with all English poets--there is no exception--Browning
loved nature. But he loved human nature so much more that when he
contemplates natural objects he thinks of them _in terms of humanity_.
This is exactly contrary to the conventional method. Most poets and
novelists describe human faces in terms of outdoor nature: the
heroine has "stormy eyes," "rainy eyes," her face is swept by
"gusts of passion," and so on, _ad infinitum_. I do not say that
Browning's is the better way; I say it is his way, because he was
obsessed by humanity. To take instances only from his first poem:
Thou wilt remember one warm morn when winter
Crept aged from the earth, and spring's first breath
Blew soft from the moist hills; the blackthorn boughs,
So dark in the bare wood, when glistening
In the sunshine were white with coming buds,
Like the bright side of a sorrow, and the banks
Had violets opening from sleep like eyes.
Autumn has come like Spring returned to us
Won from her girlishness.
... the trees bend
O'er it as wild men watch a sleeping girl.
So, when Spring comes
With sunshine back again like an old smile.
I am to sing whilst ebbing day dies soft,
As a lean scholar dies worn o'er his book,
And in the heaven stars steal out one by one
As hunted men steal to their mountain watch.
Browning's love for the dramatic was so intense that he carried it
into every kind of poetry that he wrote. Various classes of his
works he called _Dramas, Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances,
Dramatic Idyls, Dramatis Personae_. In one of her prefaces,
Elizabeth Barrett had employed--for the first time in English
literature, I think--the term _Dramatic Lyric_. This naturally
appealed to Browning, and he gave the title in 1842 to his first
published collection of short poems. At first blush "dramatic lyric"
sounds like a contradiction in terms, like "non-mathematical algebra."
Drama is the most objective branch of poetry, and the lyric the most
subjective: but Browning was so intent upon the chronicling of all
stages of life that he carried the methods of the drama into the
lyric form, of which _Meeting at Night_ may serve as an excellent
example. Many of his short poems have the lyrical beauty of Shelley
and Heine; but they all represent the soul of some historical or
At the very end of _The Ring and the Book_, Browning declared that
human testimony was false, a statement that will be supported by any
lawyer or judge of much court experience. Human testimony being
worthless, there remains but one way for the poet to tell the truth
about humanity, and that is through his art. The poet should use his
skill not primarily with the idea of creating something beautiful,
but with the main purpose of expressing the actual truth concerning
human life and character. The highest art is the highest veracity,
and this conforms to Browning's theory of poetry. This was his ideal,
and by adhering to this he hoped to save his soul. Browning believed
that by living up to our best capacity we attained unto salvation.
The man who hid his talent in the earth was really a lost soul. Like
many truly great artists, Browning felt deeply the responsibility of
his splendid endowment. In one of his letters to Miss Barrett, he
said, "I must write poetry and save my soul." In the last lines of
_The Ring and the Book_ we find this thought repeated:
So, British public, who may like me yet,
(Marry and amen!) learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
Why take the artistic way to prove so much?
Because, it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to minds like mine at least....
But Art,--wherein man nowise speaks to men,
Only to mankind,--Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.
So may you paint your picture, twice show truth,
Beyond mere imagery on the wall,--
So, note by note, bring music from your mind,
Deeper than ever e'en Beethoven dived,--
So write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.
And save the soul!
From first to last Browning understood the prevailing criticism of
his poetry, directed against its so-called lack of musical rhythm.
He commented on it more than once. But he answered it always in the
same way, in _Pippa Passes_, in the last stanzas of _Pacchiarotto_,
and in the _Epilogue_ to the same volume. He insisted that what the
critics meant by melody was a childish jingle of rimes like Mother
Goose. Referring to _Sordello_, he makes the Second Student in
_Pippa Passes_ remark, "Instead of cramp couplets, each like a
knife in your entrails, he should write, says Bluphocks, both
classically and intelligibly.... One strip Cools your lip.... One
bottle Clears your throttle." In _Pacchiarotto_, he calls to critics:
And, what with your rattling and tinkling,
Who knows but you give me an inkling
How music sounds, thanks to the jangle
Of regular drum and triangle?
Whereby, tap-tap, chink-chink, 'tis proven
I break rule as bad as Beethoven.
"That chord now--a groan or a grunt is't?
Schumann's self was no worse contrapuntist.
No ear! or if ear, so tough-gristled--
He thought that he sung while he whistled!"
Browning felt that there was at times a certain virtue in mere
roughness: that there were ideas, which, if expressed in harsh phrase,
would make a deeper impression, and so be longer remembered. The
opening stanza of _The Twins_ was meant to emphasise this point:
Grand rough old Martin Luther
Bloomed fables--flowers on furze,
The better the uncouther:
Do roses stick like burrs?
Such a theory may help to explain the powerful line in _Rabbi Ben
Irks care the cropfull bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
Of course Browning's theory of poetry does not justify or explain
all the unmusical passages in his works. He felt, as every poet must,
the difficulty of articulation--the disparity between his ideas and
the verbal form he was able to give them. Browning had his trials in
composition, and he placed in the mouth of the Pope his own ardent
hope that in the next world there will be some means of communication
better than language:
Expect nor question nor reply
At what we figure as God's judgment bar!
None of this vile way by the barren words
Which, more than any deed, characterise
Man as made subject to a curse: no speech.
Over and over again, however, Browning declared that poetry should
not be all sweetness. Flowers growing naturally here and there in a
pasture are much more attractive than cut and gathered into a nosegay.
As Luther's long disquisitions are adorned with pretty fables, that
bloom like flowers on furze, so, in the _Epilogue to Pacchiarotto_,
Browning insisted that the wide fields of his verse are not without
And, friends, beyond dispute
I too have the cowslips dewy and dear.
Punctual as Springtide forth peep they:
But I ought to pluck and impound them, eh?
Not let them alone, but deftly shear
And shred and reduce to--what may suit
Children, beyond dispute?
Now, there are many law-abiding and transparently honest persons who
prefer anthologies to "works," who love to read tiny volumes prettily
bound, called "Beauties of Ruskin," and who have substituted for the
out-of-fashion "Daily Food" books, painted bits of cardboard with
sweet sayings culled from popular idols of the day, with which they
embellish the walls of their offices and bedrooms, in the hope that
they may hoist themselves into a more hallowed frame of mind. This
is the class--always with us, though more prosperous than the
poor--who prefer a cut bouquet to the natural flowers in wood and
meadow, and for whose comfort and convenience Browning declined to
work. His poetry is too stiff for these readers, partly because they
start with a preconceived notion of the function of poetry. Instead
of being charmed, their first sensation is a shock. They honestly
believe that the attitude of the mind in apprehending poetry should
be passive, not active: is not the poet a public entertainer? Did we
not buy the book with the expectation of receiving immediate pleasure?
The anticipated delight of many persons when they open a volume of
poems is almost physical, as it is when they settle themselves to
hear certain kinds of music. They feel presumably as a comfortable
cat does when her fur is fittingly stroked. The torture that many
listeners suffered when they heard Wagner for the first time was not
imaginary, it was real; "Oh, if somebody would only play a tune!" Yet
Wagner converted thousands of these quondam sufferers, and conquered
them without making any compromises. He simply enlarged their
conception of what opera-music might mean. He gave them new sources
of happiness without robbing them of the old. For my part, although
I prefer Wagner's to all other operas, I keenly enjoy Mozart's
_Don Giovanni_, Charpentier's _Louise_, Gounod's _Faust_, Strauss's
_Salome_, Verdi's _Aida_, and I never miss an opportunity to hear
Gilbert and Sullivan. Almost all famous operas have something good
in them except the works of Meyerbeer.
We all have moods when the mind wishes to be lulled, soothed, charmed,
hypnotised with agreeable melody, and in English literature we
fortunately have many great poets who can perform this service.
That strain again! it had a dying fall.
Tennyson was a veritable magician, who charmed with his genius
hundreds and thousands of people. No arduous mental effort is
necessary for the enjoyment of his verse, which is one reason why he
is and will remain a popular poet. Browning can not be taken in just
that way, any more than a man completely exhausted with the day's
work can enjoy _Siegfried_ or _Hedda Gabler_. Active, constant
cerebration on the part of the listener or the reader is essential.
This excludes at once a considerable number to whom the effort of
real thinking is as strange as it is oppressive. Browning is a
stimulus, not a sedative; his poetry is like an electric current
which naturally fails to affect those who are non-conductors of
poetry. As one of my undergraduate students tersely expressed it,
"Tennyson soothes our senses: Browning stimulates our thoughts."
Poetry is in some ways like medicine. Tennyson quiets the nerves:
Browning is a tonic: some have found Thomson's _Seasons_ invaluable
for insomnia: the poetry of Swift is an excellent emetic.
I do not quite understand the intense anger of many critics and
readers over the eternal question of Browning's obscurity. They have
been harping on this theme for eighty years and show no more sign of
exhaustion than a dog barking in the night. Why do the heathen rage?
Why do they not let Browning alone, and read somebody they can
understand? Browning is still gravely rebuked by many critics for
having written _Sordello_. Over and over again we have been informed
that the publication of this poem shattered his reputation for
twenty-five years. Well, what of it? what difference does it make now?
He seems to have successfully survived it. This huge work, which
William Sharp called "that colossal derelict upon the ocean of poetry,"
is destined to have an immortality all its own. From one point of
view, we ought to be grateful for its publication. It has aroused
inextinguishable laughter among the blessed gods. It is not witty in
itself, but it is the cause of wit in many. Douglas Jerrold and
Carlyle commented delightfully on it; even Tennyson succeeded for
once in saying something funny. One critic called it a fine house in
which the architect had forgotten to put any stairs. Another called
it a huge boil in which all the impurities in Browning's system came
to an impressive head, after which the patient, pure from poison,
succeeded in writing the clear and beautiful _Pippa Passes_. Besides
innumerable parodies that have been forgotten, Browning's obscurity
was the impenetrable flint that struck two mental flashes that
belong to literature, Calverley's _Cock and the Bull_, and
Swinburne's _John Jones_, a brilliant exposition of the perversities
in that tedious poem, _James Lee's Wife_. Not long ago, a young man
sat by the lamplight, studying a thick volume with evident discomfort.
To the friend who asked what he was doing, he replied, "I'm studying
"Why, no, you idiot, that isn't Browning: you are reading the index
of first lines to the works of Wordsworth."
"By Jove! you're right! But it sounds just like Browning."
Browning's place in English literature is not with the great
verse-sculptors, not with the masters of imperishable beauty of form;
he does not belong to the glorious company where reign supreme Milton,
Keats, and Tennyson; his place is rather with the Interpreters of
Life, with the poets who use their art to express the shine and
shade of life's tragicomedy--to whom the base, the trivial, the
frivolous, the grotesque, the absurd seem worth reporting along with
the pure, the noble, and the sublime, since all these elements are
alike human. In this wide field of art, with the exception of
Shakespeare, who is the exception to everything, the first-born and
the last-born of all the great English poets know no equal in the
five centuries that rolled between them. The first person to say
this publicly was himself a poet and a devoted student of
Form--Walter Savage Landor. When he said it, people thought it was
mere hyperbole, the stressed language of compliment; but we know now
that Landor's words are as true as they are beautiful:
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 hath walk'd along our roads with step
So active, so enquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse.
Many critics who are now dead, and some that are yet alive, have
predicted the speedy death of Browning's reputation. This prediction
seems to afford a certain class of critics a calm and holy joy. Some
years ago, Mr. James Douglas, of London, solemnly announced the
approaching demise. Browning will die, said he, even as Donne is dead,
and for the same reason. But Donne is not quite dead.
I must survive a thing ere know it dead.
I think Donne will survive all our contemporary criticisms about him.
Ben Jonson said that Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved
hanging. But Donne, though he forgot to keep step with the procession
of poets, has survived many poets who tripped a regular measure. He
has survived even Pope's "versification" of his poems, one of the
most unconsciously humorous things in English literature. Accent
alone will not keep a man alive. Which poet of these latter days
stands the better chance to remain, Francis Thompson, whose
spiritual flame occasionally burned up accent, or Alfred Austin, who
studied to preserve accent through a long life? Accent is indeed
important; but raiment is of little value unless it clothes a living
body. Does Browning's best poetry smell of mortality? Nearly every
new novel I read in English has quotations from Browning without the
marks, sure evidence that the author has read him and assumes that
the readers of the novel have a like acquaintance. When Maeterlinck
wrote his famous play, _Monna Vanna_, he took one of the scenes
directly from Browning's _Luria_: he said that he had been inspired
by Browning: that Browning is one of the greatest poets that England
has ever produced: that to take a scene from him is a kind of public
homage, such as we pay to Homer, Aeschylus, and Shakespeare.
With the exception of Shakespeare, any other English poet could now
be spared more easily than Browning. For, owing to his aim in poetry,
and his success in attaining it, he gave us much vital truth and
beauty that we should seek elsewhere in vain; and, as he said in the
_Epilogue_ to _Pacchiarotio_, the strong, heady wine of his verse
may become sweet in process of time.
A pure lyric, as distinguished from other kinds of poetry, narrative,
descriptive, epic, dramatic, should have three characteristic
qualities, immediately evident on the first reading: it should be
short, it should be melodious, it should express only one mood. A
very long lyrical poem has never been written, and probably could
not be: a lyric without fluent melody is unthinkable: and a poem
representing a great variety of moods would more properly be classed
as descriptive or dramatic than lyrical. Examples of the perfect
lyric in nineteenth century English poetry are Shelley's _I Arise
From Dreams of Thee_; Keats's _Bright Star_; Byron's _She Walks in
Beauty_; Tennyson's _Break, Break, Break_. In each one of these
notable illustrations the poem is a brief song of passion,
representing the mood of the singer at that moment.
There are innumerable _lyrical_ passages in Browning's long poems,
and in his dramatic monologues; there are splendid outbursts of
melody. He could not be ranked among the greatest English poets if
he had not been one of our greatest singers. But we do not go to
Browning primarily for song. He is not one of our greatest lyrical
poets. It is certain, however, that he could have been had he chosen
to be. He wrote a sufficient number of pure lyrics to prove his
quality and capacity. But he was so much more deeply interested in
the study of the soul than in the mere expression of beauty--he was
so essentially, from _Pauline_ to _Asolando_--a dramatic poet, that
his great contribution to literature is seen in profound and subtle
interpretations of the human heart. It is fortunate that he made the
soul his specialty, because English literature is wonderfully rich
in song: there are many poets who can thrill us with music: but
there is only one Browning, and there is no group of writers in any
literature among which he can be classed.
Browning's dramatic lyrics differ from Tennyson's short poems as the
lyrics of Donne differed from those of Campion; but Browning
occasionally tried his hand at the composition of a pure lyric, as
if to say, "You see I can write like this when I choose." Therein
lies his real superiority to almost all other English poets: he
could do their work, but they could not do his. It is significant
that his first poem, _Pauline_, should have deeply impressed two men
of precisely opposite types of mind. These two were John Stuart Mill
and Dante Gabriel Rossetti--their very names illustrating
beautifully the difference in their mental tastes and powers. Carlyle
called Mill a "logic-chopping engine," because his intellectual
processes were so methodical, systematic, hard-headed: Rossetti was
a master of color and harmony. Yet Mill found in _Pauline_ the
workings of a powerful mind: and Rossetti's sensitive temperament
was charmed with the wonderful pictures and lovely melodies it
I like to think that Mill read, paused, re-read and meditated on
I am made up of an intensest life,
Of a most clear idea of consciousness
Of self, distinct from all its qualities,
From all affections, passions, feelings, powers;
And thus far it exists, if tracked, in all:
But linked, in me, to self-supremacy
Existing as a centre to all things,
Most potent to create and rule and call
Upon all things to minister to it;
And to a principle of restlessness