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Robert Browning: How To Know Him by William Lyon Phelps

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Which would be all, have, see, know, taste, feel, all--
This is myself; and I should thus have been
Though gifted lower than the meanest soul.

I like to think that Rossetti was thrilled with this picture of
Andromeda:

Andromeda!
And she is with me: years roll, I shall change,
But change can touch her not--so beautiful
With her fixed eyes, earnest and still, and hair
Lifted and spread by the salt-sweeping breeze,
And one red beam, all the storm leaves in heaven,
Resting upon her eyes and hair, such hair,
As she awaits the snake on the wet beach
By the dark rock and the white wave just breaking
At her feet; quite naked and alone; a thing
I doubt not, nor fear for, secure some god
To save will come in thunder from the stars.

It is rather singular, in view of the great vogue of the sonnet in
the nineteenth century, that neither Tennyson nor Browning should
have succeeded in this form. The two men wrote very few
sonnets--Browning fewer than Tennyson--and neither ever wrote a
great one. Longfellow, so inferior in most respects to his two great
English contemporaries, was an incomparably superior sonnetteer.
Tennyson's sonnets are all mediocre: Browning did not publish a
single sonnet in the final complete edition of his works. He did
however print a very few on special occasions, and when he was
twenty-two years old, between the composition of _Pauline_ and
_Paracelsus_, there appeared in the _Monthly Repository_ a sonnet
beginning

Eyes calm beside thee (Lady, could'st thou know!)

which is the best example from his pen that has been preserved.
Although he did not think much of it in later years, it has been
frequently reprinted, and is worth keeping; both for the ardor of
its passion, and because it is extraordinary that he should have
begun so very early in his career a form of verse that he
practically abandoned. This sonnet may have been addressed to a
purely imaginary ideal; but it is possible that the young man had in
mind Eliza Flower, for whom he certainly had a boyish love, and who
was probably the original of Pauline. She and her sister, Sarah
Flower, the author of _Nearer, My God, to Thee_, were both older
than Browning, and both his intimate friends during the period of
his adolescence.

SONNET

1834

Eyes calm beside thee (Lady, could'st thou know!)
May turn away thick with fast-gathering tears:
I glance not where all gaze: thrilling and low
Their passionate praises reach thee--my cheek wears
Alone no wonder when thou passest by;
Thy tremulous lids bent and suffused reply
To the irrepressible homage which doth glow
On every lip but mine: if in thine ears
Their accents linger--and thou dost recall
Me as I stood, still, guarded, very pale,
Beside each votarist whose lighted brow
Wore worship like an aureole, "O'er them all
My beauty," thou wilt murmur, "did prevail
Save that one only:"--Lady, could'st thou know!

It is perhaps characteristic of Browning that this early sonnet
should be so irregular in its rime-scheme.

The songs in _Paracelsus_ (1835) prove that Browning was a genuine
lyrical poet: the best of them, _Over the Sea Our Galleys Went_, is
more properly a dramatic monologue: but the song in the second act,
by Aprile (who I think stands for Keats) is a pure lyric, and so are
the two stanzas sung by Paracelsus in the fourth act. There are
lines here which suggest something of the drowsy music of Tennyson's
_Lotos-Eaters_, published in 1832:

.... 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.

SONGS FROM PARACELSUS

1835

(Aprile sings)

I hear a voice, perchance I heard
Long ago, but all too low,
So that scarce a care it stirred
If the voice were real or no:
I heard it in my youth when first
The waters of my life outburst:
But, now their stream ebbs faint, I hear
That voice, still low, but fatal-clear--
As if all poets, God ever meant
Should save the world, and therefore lent
Great gifts to, but who, proud, refused
To do his work, or lightly used
Those gifts, or failed through weak endeavour,
So, mourn cast off by him for ever,--
As if these leaned in airy ring
To take me; this the song they sing.

"Lost, lost! yet come,
With our wan troop make thy home.
Come, come! for we
Will not breathe, so much as breathe
Reproach to thee,
Knowing what thou sink'st beneath.
So sank we in those old years,
We who bid thee, come! thou last
Who, living yet, hast life o'erpast.
And altogether we, thy peers,
Will pardon crave for thee, the last
Whose trial is done, whose lot is cast
With those who watch but work no more,
Who gaze on life but live no more.
Yet we trusted thou shouldst speak
The message which our lips, too weak,
Refused to utter,--shouldst redeem
Our fault: such trust, and all a dream!
Yet we chose thee a birthplace
Where the richness ran to flowers:
Couldst not sing one song for grace?
Not make one blossom man's and ours?
Must one more recreant to his race
Die with unexerted powers,
And join us, leaving as he found
The world, he was to loosen, bound?
Anguish! ever and for ever;
Still beginning, ending never.
Yet, lost and last one, come!
How couldst understand, alas,
What our pale ghosts strove to say,
As their shades did glance and pass
Before thee night and day?
Thou wast blind as we were dumb:
Once more, therefore, come, O come!
How should we clothe, how arm the spirit
Shall next thy post of life inherit--
How guard him from thy speedy ruin?
Tell us of thy sad undoing
Here, where we sit, ever pursuing
Our weary task, ever renewing
Sharp sorrow, far from God who gave
Our powers, and man they could not save!"

(Paracelsus sings)
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.

(Song by Festus)

Thus the Mayne glideth
Where my Love abideth.
Sleep's no softer: it proceeds
On through lawns, on through meads,
On and on, whate'er befall,
Meandering and musical,
Though the niggard pasturage
Bears not on its shaven ledge
Aught but weeds and waving grasses
To view the river as it passes,
Save here and there a scanty patch
Of primroses too faint to catch
A weary bee.
And scarce it pushes
Its gentle way through strangling rushes
Where the glossy kingfisher
Flutters when noon-heats are near,
Glad the shelving banks to shun,
Red and steaming in the sun,
Where the shrew-mouse with pale throat
Burrows, and the speckled stoat;
Where the quick sandpipers flit
In and out the marl and grit
That seems to breed them, brown as they:
Nought disturbs its quiet way,
Save some lazy stork that springs,
Trailing it with legs and wings,
Whom the shy fox from the hill
Rouses, creep he ne'er so still.

The songs in _Pippa Passes_ (1841) are ail exquisite works of art.
The one on the King had been printed in the _Monthly Repository_ in
1835; the others appeared for the first time in the published drama.
All of them are vitally connected with the action of the plot,
differing in this respect from the Elizabethan custom of simple
interpolation. The song sung in the early morning by the girl in her
chamber

All service ranks the same with God

contains the philosophy of the play--human lives are inextricably
intertwined, and all are dependent on the will of God. No individual
can separate himself either from other men and women, or can sever
the connection between himself and his Father in Heaven. The first
stanza repeats the teaching of Milton in the sonnet on his blindness:
the second is more definitely connected with Pippa's professional
work.

Untwine me from the mass
Of deeds which make up life,

refers to her daily duty as a girl in the silk-mill, for she
naturally thinks of the complexity of life as a tangled skein.

All service ranks the same with God:
If now, as formerly he trod
Paradise, his presence fills
Our earth, each only as God wills
Can work--God's puppets, best and worst,
Are we; there is no last nor first.

Say not "a small event!" Why "small"?
Costs it more pain that 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!

OTHER SONGS FROM PIPPA PASSES

1841

You'll love me yet!--and I can tarry
Your love's protracted growing:
June reared that bunch of flowers you carry,
From seeds of April's sowing.

I plant a heartful now: some seed
At least is sure to strike,
And yield--what you'll not pluck indeed,
Not love, but, may be, like.

You'll look at least on love's remains,
A grave's one violet:
Your look?--that pays a thousand pains.
What's death? You'll love me yet!

Overhead the tree-tops meet,
Flowers and grass spring 'neath one's feet;
There was nought above me, nought below,
My childhood had not learned to know:
For, what are the voices of birds
--Ay, and of beasts,--but words, our words,
Only so much more sweet?
The knowledge of that with my life begun.
But I had so near made out the sun,
And counted your stars, the seven and one,
Like the fingers of my hand:
Nay, I could all but understand
Wherefore through heaven the white moon ranges;
And just when out of her soft fifty changes
No unfamiliar face might overlook me--
Suddenly God took me.

The most famous song in the play, which simply sings itself, is:

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!

The last line is unfortunately very often misquoted

All's well with the world!

a remark never made either by Pippa or by Browning. In Browning's
philosophy all may be right with the world, and yet far from well.
Perhaps it is too prosaically minute to point out in so beautiful a
poem, a scientific error, but at seven o'clock on the first of
January in Asolo the sun is still below the horizon.

MERTOUN'S SONG FROM A BLOT IN THE 'SCUTCHEON

1843

There's a woman like a dew-drop, she's so purer than the purest;
And her noble heart's the noblest, yes, and her sure faith's the
surest:
And her eyes are dark and humid, like the depth on depth of lustre
Hid i' the harebell, while her tresses, sunnier than the
wild-grape cluster,
Gush in golden-tinted plenty down her neck's rose-misted marble:
Then her voice's music ... call it the well's bubbling, the bird's
warble!
And this woman says, "My days were sunless and my nights were
moonless,
Parched the pleasant April herbage, and the lark's heart's
outbreak tuneless,
If you loved me not!" And I who--(ah, for words of flame!) adore
her,
Who am mad to lay my spirit prostrate palpably before her--
I may enter at her portal soon, as now her lattice takes me,
And by noontide as by midnight make her mine, as hers she makes me!

The two lyrics, _Home-Thoughts, from the Sea_ and _Home-Thoughts,
from Abroad_, were written during Browning's first Italian journey in
1838; and it seems strange that he did not print them among the
_Dramatic Lyrics_ of 1842 but reserved them for the _Dramatic
Romances_ of 1845; especially as he subsequently transferred them to
the _Lyrics_. They are both notable on account of the strong feeling
for England which they express. No great English poet has said so
little of England as Browning, though his own feelings were always
keenly patriotic. Even in _Pauline_, a poem without a country, there
occur the two lines

... and I cherish most
My love of England--how her name, a word
Of hers in a strange tongue makes my heart beat!

The allusion to the English thrush has given immortality to
_Home-Thoughts, from Abroad_. Many had observed that the thrush
sings a lilt, and immediately repeats it: but Browning was the first
to give a pretty reason for it. The thrush seems to say, "You think
that beautiful melody is an accident? Well, I will show you it is no
fluke, I will sing it correctly right over again." Browning was not
in Italy in April--perhaps he wrote the first stanza on the voyage,
as he wrote _Home-Thoughts, from the Sea_, and added the second
stanza about May and June after he had reached the country of his
quest.

HOME-THOUGHTS, FROM THE SEA

1845

Nobly, nobly Cape Saint Vincent to the North-west died away;
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay;
Bluish 'mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay;
In the dimmest North-east distance dawned Gibraltar grand and gray;
"Here and here did England help me: how can I help England?"--say,
Whoso turns as I, this evening, turn to God to praise and pray,
While Jove's planet rises yonder, silent over Africa.

HOME-THOUGHTS, FROM ABROAD

1845

I

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England--now!

II

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops--at the bent spray's edge--
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew.
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
--Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

The collection of poems called _James Lee's Wife_, published in the
_Dramatis Personae_ (1864), seems to me illustrative of Browning's
worst faults; it is obscure, harsh, and dull. But it contains one
fine lyric descriptive of an autumn morning, a morning, by the way,
much commoner in America during autumn than anywhere in Europe. The
second stanza is nobly ethical in its doctrine of love--that we
should not love only those persons whom we can respect, for true
love seeks no profit. It must be totally free from the prospect of
gain. A beautiful face inspired another lyric in this volume, and
Browning drew upon his memories of Correggio to give the perfect
tone to the poem.

FROM JAMES LEE'S WIFE

1864

I

Oh, good gigantic smile o' the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i' the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.

II

That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
Such is life's trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!

A FACE

1864

If one could have that little head of hers
Painted upon a background of pale gold,
Such as the Tuscan's early art prefers!
No shade encroaching on the matchless mould
Of those two lips, which should be opening soft
In the pure profile; not as when she laughs,
For that spoils all: but rather as if aloft
Yon hyacinth, she loves so, leaned its staff's
Burthen of honey-coloured buds to kiss
And capture 'twixt the lips apart for this.
Then her lithe neck, three fingers might surround,
How it should waver on the pale gold ground
Up to the fruit-shaped, perfect chin it lifts!
I know, Correggio loves to mass, in rifts
Of heaven, his angel faces, orb on orb
Breaking its outline, burning shades absorb:
But these are only massed there, I should think,
Waiting to see some wonder momently
Grow out, stand full, fade slow against the sky
(That's the pale ground you'd see this sweet face by),
All heaven, meanwhile, condensed into one eye
Which fears to lose the wonder, should it wink.

One of the most original and powerful of Browning's lyrical pieces
comes just where we should least expect it, at the end of that dark,
dreary, and all but impenetrable wilderness of verse, _Fifine at the
Fair_. It serves as an _Epilogue_, but it would be difficult and
unprofitable to attempt to discover its connection with the poem to
which is appended. Its metre is unique in Browning, and stirs the
heart with inexpressible force. In music it most closely resembles
the swift thrilling roll of a snare drum, and can be read aloud in
exact accord with that instrument. Browning calls it _The Householder_,
and of course it represents in his own life the anticipated moment
when the soul leaves its house to unite with its mate. Out of the
catastrophe of death appears a radiant vision which really seems too
good to be true.

"What, and is it really you again?" quoth I:
"I again, what else did you expect?" quoth She.

The man is weary of his old patched up body, now no longer needed:
weary of the noisy nuisances of life, and the tiresome and futile
gabble of humanity: resentful, now that his spirit has actually
survived death, when he remembers the scientific books he had read
which almost struck despair in him. He petulantly says,

"If you knew but how I dwelt down here!" quoth I:
"And was I so better off up there?" quoth She.

He is for immediate departure, leaving his empty carcass where it
lies; but she reminds him of the necessity for decent burial. Much
is to be done before they can begin to enjoy together their new and
freer existence. There is the body to be buried; the obituary
notices to be written for the papers: the parson and undertaker to be
summoned: the formalities of the funeral: the selection of a proper
tombstone, with care for the name and accurate carving of the date
of death thereupon: and finally a bit of verse in the way of final
flourish. So these two spirits look on with impatience at the
funeral exercises, at the weeping friends left behind, and not until
the coffin is under ground, are they at liberty to depart from
terrestial scenes. If we do survive the death of the body, with what
curious sensations must we regard the solemn ceremonies of its
interment!

EPILOGUE TO FIFINE

1872

THE HOUSEHOLDER

I

Savage I was sitting in my house, late, lone:
Dreary, weary with the long day's work:
Head of me, heart of me, stupid as a stone:
Tongue-tied now, now blaspheming like a Turk;
When, in a moment, just a knock, call, cry,
Half a pang and all a rapture, there again were we!--
"What, and is it really you again?" quoth I:
"I again, what else did you expect?" quoth She.

II

"Never mind, hie away from this old house--
Every crumbling brick embrowned with sin and shame!
Quick, in its corners ere certain shapes arouse!
Let them--every devil of the night--lay claim,
Make and mend, or rap and rend, for me! Good-bye!
God be their guard from disturbance at their glee,
Till, crash, comes down the carcass in a heap!" quoth I:
"Nay, but there's a decency required!" quoth She.

III

"Ah, but if you knew how time has dragged, days, nights!
All the neighbour-talk with man and maid--such men!
All the fuss and trouble of street-sounds, window-sights;
All the worry of flapping door and echoing roof; and then,
All the fancies ... Who were they had leave, dared try
Darker arts that almost struck despair in me?
If you knew but how I dwelt down here!" quoth I:
"And was I so better off up there?" quoth She,

IV

"Help and get it over! _Re-united to his wife_
(How draw up the paper lets the parish-people know?)
_Lies M., or N., departed from this life,
Day the this or that, month and year the so and so_.
What i' the way of final flourish? Prose, verse? Try!
_Affliction sore long time he bore_, or, what is it to be?
_Till God did please to grant him ease_. Do end!" quoth I:
"I end with--Love is all and Death is nought!" quoth She.

The same thought--the dramatic contrast between the free spirit and
its prison-house--is the basis of the two lyrics that serve as
prologues to _Pacchiarotto_ and to _La Saisiaz_. As Dryden's
prefaces are far better than his plays, so Browning's _Prologues_ to
_Pacchiarotto_, to _La Saisiaz_, to _The Two Poets of Croisic_, to
_Jocoseria_ are decidedly superior in poetic art and beauty to the
volumes they introduce. Indeed the prologue to _The Two Poets of
Croisic_ is one of the most beautiful and perfect lyrics in the
English language.

PROLOGUE

1878

I

Such a starved bank of moss
Till that May-morn,
Blue ran the flash across:
Violets were born!

II

Sky--what a scowl of cloud
Till, near and far,
Ray on ray split the shroud.
Splendid, a star!

III

World--how it walled about
Life with disgrace
Till God's own smile came out:
That was thy face!

PROLOGUE TO _PACCHIAROTTO_

1876

I

O the old wall here! How I could pass
Life in a long Midsummer day,
My feet confined to a plot of grass,
My eyes from a wall not once away!

II

And lush and lithe do the creepers clothe
Yon wall I watch, with a wealth of green:
Its bald red bricks draped, nothing loth,
In lappets of tangle they laugh between.

III

Now, what is it makes pulsate the robe?
Why tremble the sprays? What life o'erbrims
The body,--the house, no eye can probe,--
Divined as, beneath a robe, the limbs?

IV

And there again! But my heart may guess
Who tripped behind; and she sang perhaps:
So, the old wall throbbed, and its life's excess
Died out and away in the leafy wraps.

V

Wall upon wall are between us: life
And song should away from heart to heart.
I--prison-bird, with a ruddy strife
At breast, and a lip whence storm-notes start--

VI

Hold on, hope hard in the subtle thing
That's spirit: though cloistered fast, soar free;
Account as wood, brick, stone, this ring
Of the rueful neighbours, and--forth to thee!

PROLOGUE TO _LA SAISIAZ_

1878

I

Good, to forgive;
Best, to forget!
Living, we fret;
Dying, we live.
Fretless and free,
Soul, clap thy pinion!
Earth have dominion,
Body, o'er thee!

II

Wander at will,
Day after day,--
Wander away,
Wandering still--
Soul that canst soar!
Body may slumber:
Body shall cumber
Soul-flight no more.

III

Waft of soul's wing!
What lies above?
Sunshine and Love,
Skyblue and Spring!
Body hides--where?
Ferns of all feather,
Mosses and heather,
Yours be the care!

PROLOGUE TO _JOCOSERIA_

1883

Wanting is--what?
Summer redundant,
Blueness abundant,
--Where is the blot?
Beamy the world, yet a blank all the same,
--Framework which waits for a picture to frame:
What of the leafage, what of the flower?
Roses embowering with nought they embower!
Come then, complete incompletion, O comer,
Pant through the blueness, perfect the summer!
Breathe but one breath
Rose-beauty above.
And all that was death
Grows life, grows love,
Grows love!

NEVER THE TIME AND THE PLACE

1883

Never the time and the place
And the loved one all together!
This path--how soft to pace!
This May--what magic weather!
Where is the loved one's face?
In a dream that loved one's face meets mine,
But the house is narrow, the place is bleak
Where, outside, rain and wind combine
With a furtive ear, if I strive to speak,
With a hostile eye at my flushing cheek,
With a malice that marks each word, each sign!
O enemy sly and serpentine,
Uncoil thee from the waking man!
Do I hold the Past
Thus firm and fast
Yet doubt if the Future hold I can?
This path so soft to pace shall lead
Thro' the magic of May to herself indeed!
Or narrow if needs the house must he,
Outside are the storms and strangers: we--
Oh, close, safe, warm sleep I and she,
--I and she!

IV

DRAMATIC LYRICS

Browning's poetic career extended from 1833 to 1889, nearly sixty
years of fairly continuous composition. We may make a threefold
division: first, the thirteen years before his marriage in 1846;
second, the fifteen years of married life, closing in 1861; third,
the remaining twenty-eight years. During the first period he
published twelve works; during the second, two; during the third,
eighteen. The fact that so little was published during the years
when his wife was alive may be accounted for by the fact that the
condition of her health required his constant care, and that after
the total failure of _Men and Women_ (1855) to attract any
popular attention, Browning for some time spent most of his
energy in clay-modelling, giving up poetry altogether. Not long
before the death of Mrs. Browning, he was busy writing _Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, although he did not publish it until the
right moment, which came in 1871. After the appearance of _Dramatis
Personae_ (1864), and _The Ring and the Book_ (1868-9), Browning's
fame spread like a prairie fire; and it was quite natural that his
immense reputation was a sharp spur to composition. One is more
ready to speak when one is sure of an audience. Capricious destiny,
however, willed that the books which sold the fastest after
publication, were, with few exceptions, the least interesting and
valuable of all the poet's performances. Perhaps he did not take so
much care now that his fame was assured; perhaps the fires in his
own mind were dying; perhaps the loss of his wife robbed him of
necessary inspiration, as it certainly robbed him of the best critic
he ever had, and the only one to whom he paid any serious attention.
When we remember that some of the _Dramatic Romances_, _Luria_,
_A Soul's Tragedy_, _Christmas-Eve_, _Men and Women_, and some of
the _Dramatis Personae_ were read by her in manuscript, and that
_The Ring and the Book_ was written in the shadow of her influence,
we begin to realise how much she helped him. Their love-letters
during the months that preceded their marriage indicate the
excellence of her judgment, her profound and sympathetic
understanding of his genius and his willingness to listen to her
advice. He did not intend to publish _A Soul's Tragedy_ at all,
though it is one of his most subtle and interesting dramas, and only
did so at her request; part of the manuscript of _Christmas-Eve_ is
in her handwriting,

It is worth remembering too that in later years Browning hated to
write poetry, and nothing but a sense of duty kept him during the
long mornings at his desk. He felt the responsibility of genius
without its inspiration.

Browning has given a little trouble to bibliographers by
redistributing the poems originally published in the three works,
_Dramatic Lyrics_ (1842), _Dramatic Romances and Lyrics_ (1845),
and _Men and Women_ (1855). The _Dramatic Lyrics_ at first contained
sixteen pieces; the _Dramatic Romances and Lyrics_ twenty-three; the
_Men and Women_ fifty-one. In the final arrangement the first of
these included fifty; the second, called simply _Dramatic Romances_,
twenty-five; whilst the last was reduced to thirteen. He also
changed the titles of many of the poems, revised the text somewhat,
classified two separate poems under one title, _Claret and Tokay_,
and _Here's to Nelson's Memory_, under the heading _Nationality in
Drinks_, and united the two sections of _Saul_ in one poem. It is
notable that he omitted not one, and indeed it is remarkable that
with the exception of _The Boy and the Angel_, _A Lover's Quarrel_,
_Mesmerism_, and _Another Way of Love_, every poem in the long
list has the indubitable touch of genius; and even these four are
not the worst of Browning's compositions.

It would have seemed to us perhaps more fitting if Browning had
grouped the contents of all three works under the one heading
_Men and Women_; for that would fairly represent the sole subject
of his efforts. Perhaps he felt that the title was too general, and
as a matter of fact, it would apply equally well to his complete
poetical works. I think, however, that he especially loved the
appellation _Dramatic Lyrics_, for he put over half of the poems
finally under that category. The word "dramatic" obsessed Browning.

What is a dramatic lyric? When Tennyson published in 1842 his
_Ulysses_, a Yankee farmer in America made in one sentence three
remarks about it: a statement and two prophecies. He said that
_Ulysses_ belonged to a high class of poetry, destined to be the
highest, and to be more cultivated in the next generation. Now
_Ulysses_ is both a dramatic lyric and a dramatic monologue, and
Tennyson never wrote anything better than this poem. As it became
increasingly evident that the nineteenth century was not going to
have a great literary dramatic movement on the stage, while at the
same time the interest in human nature had never been keener, the
poets began to turn their attention to the interpretation of
humanity by the representation of historical or imaginary
individuals speaking: and their speech was to reveal the secrets of
the human soul, in its tragedy and comedy, in its sublimity and
baseness, in its nobility and folly. Later in life Tennyson
cultivated sedulously the dramatic monologue; and Browning, the most
original force in literature that the century produced, after
abandoning his early attempts at success on the stage, devoted
practically the entire strength of his genius to this form of poetry.
Emerson was a wise man.

In reshuffling the short poems in the three works mentioned above,
it is not always easy to see the logic of the distribution and it
would be interesting if we could know the reasons that guided the
poet in the classification of particular poems. Thus it is perfectly
clear why _Incident of the French Camp_, _Count Gismond_, and
_In a Gondola_ were taken from the _Dramatic Lyrics_ and placed
among the _Dramatic Romances_; it is easy to see why _The Lost Leader_
and _Home-Thoughts, from Abroad_ were taken from the _Romances_ and
placed among the _Lyrics_; it is not quite so clear why _Rudel_ and
_Artemis Prologizes_ were taken from the _Lyrics_ and classed
among _Men and Women_, when nearly all the poems originally
published under the latter head were changed to _Lyrics_ and _
Romances_. In changing _How They Brought the Good News_ from the
_Dramatic Romances_, where it was originally published, to _
Dramatic Lyrics_, Browning probably felt that the lyrical sound of
the piece was more important than the story: but it really is a
dramatic romance. Furthermore, _My Last Duchess_ would seem to fall
more properly under the heading _Men and Women_; Browning, however,
took it from the _Dramatic Lyrics_ and placed it among the _Dramatic
Romances_. In most cases, however, the reason for the transfer of
individual poems is clear; and a study of the classification is of
positive assistance toward the understanding of the piece.

In the eight volumes published from 1841 to 1846, which Browning
called _Bells and Pomegranates_, meaning simply Sound and Sense,
Meat and Music, only two are collections of short poems and the
other six contain exclusively plays--seven in all, two being printed
together in the last volume. Browning intended the whole _Bells and
Pomegranates_ series to be devoted to the drama, as one may see by
the original preface to _Pippa Passes_: but that drama and the next
did not sell, and the publisher suggested that he include some short
poems. This explains why the third volume is filled with lyrics; and
in a note published with it, Browning half apologised for what might
seem a departure from his original plan, saying these two might
properly fall under the head of dramatic pieces; being, although
lyrical in expression, "always dramatic in principle, and so many
utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine."

He means then by a dramatic lyric a poem that is short, that is
musical, but that is absolutely not subjective--does not express or
betray the writer's own ideas nor even his mood, as is done in
Tennyson's ideal lyric, _Crossing the Bar_. A dramatic lyric is a
composition lyrical in form, and dramatic in subject-matter;
remembering all the time that by dramatic we do not necessarily mean
anything exciting but simply something objective, something entirely
apart from the poet's own feelings. On the stage this is
accomplished by the creation of separate characters who _in propria
persona_ express views that may or may not be in harmony with the
poet's own. Thus, Macbeth's speech, beginning

Out, out, brief candle!

is really a dramatic lyric; because it is lyrical in form, and it
expresses views on the value of life which could hardly have been
held by Shakespeare, though they seem eminently fitting from the
lips of a man who had tried to gain the whole world by losing his
soul, and had succeeded in losing both.

In view of Browning's love for this form of verse, it is interesting
to remember that the first two independent short poems that he ever
wrote and retained in his works are both genuine dramatic lyrics.
These are _Porphyria's Lover_ and _Johannes Agricola_, printed in
the _Monthly Repository_ in 1836, when Browning was twenty-four
years old. Thus early did he show both aptitude for this form and
excellence in it, for each of these pieces is a work of genius. They
were meant to be studies in abnormal psychology, for they were
printed together in the _Dramatic Lyrics_ under the caption _
Madhouse Cells_. Browning was very young then, and naturally thought
a man who believed in predestination and a man who killed the woman
he loved were both insane; but after a longer experience of life,
and seeing how many strange creatures walk the streets, he ceased to
call these two men, obsessed by religion and obsessed by love, mad.
If Porphyria's lover is mad, there is method in his madness. Her
superior social rank has stifled hitherto the instincts of the heart;
she has never given her lover any favors; but to-night, at the
dinner-dance, by one of those strange and inexplicable caprices that
make Woman the very Genius of the Unexpected, she has a vision. In
the midst of the lights and the laughter, she sees her lonely lover
sitting dejectedly in his cold and cheerless cottage, thinking of her.
She slips away from the gay company, trips through the pouring rain,
and enters the dark room like an angel of light. After kindling a
blazing fire in the grate, she kindles her lover's hope-dead heart;
she draws him to her and places his head on her naked shoulder.
Suddenly a thought comes to him; one can see the light of murder in
his eyes. At this moment she is sublime, fit for Heaven: for the
first time in her life, a noble impulse has triumphed over the
debasing conventions of society; if he lets her go, she will surely
fall from grace, and become a lost soul. He strangles her with her
yellow hair, risking damnation for her salvation. So the quick and
the dead sit together through the long night.

PORPHYRIA'S LOVER

1836

The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me--she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still;
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

What is the meaning of that last enigmatical line? Does it mean that
the expected bolt from the sky has not fallen, that God approves of
the murder? Or does it mean that the man is vaguely disappointed,
that he had hoped to hear a voice from Heaven, saying, "This is my
beloved son, in whom I am well pleased"? Or does it mean that the
Power above is wholly indifferent, "when the sky, which noticed all,
makes no disclosure"?

In _Johannes Agricola_, Browning wrote a lyric setting forth the
strange and yet largely accepted doctrine that Almighty God before
the foundations of the earth were laid, predestined a few of the
coming population to everlasting bliss and the vast majority to
eternal torture. This is by no means a meditation in a madhouse cell,
as Browning first believed; but might logically be the reflections
of a nineteenth century Presbyterian clergyman, seated in his
comfortable library. It is the ecstatic mystical joy of one who
realises, that through no merit of his own, he is numbered among the
elect. Sir Thomas Browne quaintly pictured to himself the surprise
of the noble, upright men of antiquity, when they wake up in hell
simply because they did not believe on One of whom they had never
heard; so Johannes speculates on the ironical fate of monks, ascetics,
women and children, whose lives were full of innocence and purity,
who nevertheless reach ultimately the lake of fire. Praise God for it!
for if I could understand Him, I could not praise Him. How much more
noble this predestinating God is than one who should reward virtue,
and thus make eternal bliss a matter of calculation and bargain!

JOHANNES AGRICOLA IN MEDITATION

1836

There's heaven above, and night by night
I look right through its gorgeous roof;
No suns and moons though e'er so bright
Avail to stop me; splendour-proof
I keep the broods of stars aloof:
For I intend to get to God,
For 'tis to God I speed so fast,
For in God's breast, my own abode,
Those shoals of dazzling glory passed,
I lay my spirit down at last.
I lie where I have always lain,
God smiles as he has always smiled;
Ere suns and moons could wax and wane,
Ere stars were thundergirt, or piled
The heavens, God thought on me his child;
Ordained a life for me, arrayed
Its circumstances every one
To the minutest; ay, God said
This head this hand should rest upon
Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.
And having thus created me,
Thus rooted me, he bade me grow,
Guiltless for ever, like a tree
That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know
The law by which it prospers so:
But sure that thought and word and deed
All go to swell his love for me,
Me, made because that love had need
Of something irreversibly
Pledged solely its content to be.
Yes, yes, a tree which must ascend,
No poison-gourd foredoomed to stoop!

I have God's warrant, could I blend
All hideous sins, as in a cup,
To drink the mingled venoms up;
Secure my nature will convert
The draught to blossoming gladness fast:
While sweet dews turn to the gourd's hurt,
And bloat, and while they bloat it, blast,
As from the first its lot was cast.
For as I lie, smiled on, full-fed
By unexhausted power to bless,
I gaze below on hell's fierce bed,
And those its waves of flame oppress,
Swarming in ghastly wretchedness;
Whose life on earth aspired to be
One altar-smoke, so pure!--to win
If not love like God's love for me,
At least to keep his anger in;
And all their striving turned to sin.
Priest, doctor, hermit, monk grown white
With prayer, the broken-hearted nun,
The martyr, the wan acolyte,
The incense-swinging child,--undone
Before God fashioned star or sun!
God, whom I praise; how could I praise,
If such as I might understand,
Make out and reckon on his ways,
And bargain for his love, and stand,
Paying a price, at his right hand?

The religious exaltation of the opening lines

There's heaven above, and night by night
I look right through its gorgeous roof; ...
For I intend to get to God,
For 'tis to God I speed so fast,
For in God's breast, my own abode,
Those shoals of dazzling glory, passed,
I lay my spirit down at last

reminds one infallibly of Tennyson's beautiful dramatic lyric,
_St. Agnes' Eve_:

Deep on the convent roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes,
May my soul follow soon!

It is interesting to remember that the former was published in 1836,
the latter in 1837, and each in a periodical.

Perhaps Browning attempted to show the dramatic quality of his
lyrics by finally placing at the very beginning the _Cavalier Tunes_
and _The Lost Leader_; for the former voice in eloquent language the
hatred of democratic ideas, and the latter, in language equally
strenuous, is a glorification of democracy. Imagine Browning himself
saying what he places in the mouth of his gallant cavaliers--
"Hampden to hell!" In the second, _The Lost Leader_, nothing was
farther from Browning's own feelings than a personal attack on
Wordsworth, whom he regarded with reverence; in searching for an
example of a really great character who had turned from the popular
to the aristocratic party, he happened to think of the change from
radicalism to conservatism exhibited by Wordsworth. Love for the
lost leader is still strong in the breasts of his quondam followers
who now must fight him; in Heaven he will not only be pardoned, he
will be first there as he was always first here. In the following
lines, the prepositions are interesting:

Shakespeare was _of_ us, Milton was _for_ us,
Burns, Shelley, were _with_ us.

Shakespeare was indeed of the common people, but so far as we can
conjecture, certainly not for them; Milton was not of them, but was
wholly for them, being indeed regarded as an anarchist; Burns was a
peasant, and Shelley a blue-blood, but both were with the popular
cause. Browning himself, as we happen to know from one of his
personal sonnets, was an intense Liberal in feeling.

CAVALIER TUNES

1842

I. MARCHING ALONG

I

Kentish Sir Byng stood for his King,
Bidding the crop-headed Parliament swing:
And, pressing a troop unable to stoop
And see the rogues flourish and honest folk droop,
Marched them along, fifty-score strong,
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song.

II

God for King Charles! Pym and such carles
To the Devil that prompts 'em their treasonous parles!
Cavaliers, up! Lips from the cup,
Hands from the pasty, nor bite take nor sup
Till you're--
CHORUS.--_Marching along, fifty-score strong_,
_Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song_.

III

Hampden to hell, and his obsequies' knell
Serve Hazelrig, Fiennes, and young Harry as well!
England, good cheer! Rupert is near!
Kentish and loyalists, keep we not here
CHORUS.--_Marching along, fifty-score strong_,
_Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song_?

IV

Then, God for King Charles! Pym and his snarls
To the Devil that pricks on such pestilent carles!
Hold by the right, you double your might;
So, onward to Nottingham, fresh for the fight,
CHORUS.--_March we along, fifty-score strong_,
_Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song_!

II. GIVE A ROUSE

I

King Charles, and who'll do him right now?
King Charles, and who's ripe for fight now?
Give a rouse: here's, in hell's despite now,
King Charles!

II

Who gave me the goods that went since?
Who raised me the house that sank once?
Who helped me to gold I spent since?
Who found me in wine you drank once?
CHORUS.--_King Charles, and who'll do him right now?
King Charles, and who's ripe for fight now?
Give a rouse: here's, in hell's despite now,
King Charles_!

III

To whom used my boy George quaff else,
By the old fool's side that begot him?
For whom did he cheer and laugh else,
While Noll's damned troopers shot him?
CHORUS.--_King Charles, and who'll do him right now?
King Charles, and who's ripe for fight now?
Give a rouse: here's, in hell's despite now,
King Charles_!

III. BOOT AND SADDLE

I

Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!
Rescue my castle before the hot day
Brightens to blue from its silvery grey,
CHORUS.--_Boot, saddle, to horse, and away_!

II

Ride past the suburbs, asleep as you'd say;
Many's the friend there, will listen and pray
"God's luck to gallants that strike up the lay--"
CHORUS.--"_Boot, saddle, to horse, and away_!"

III

Forty miles off, like a roebuck at bay,
Flouts Castle Brancepeth the Roundheads' array:
Who laughs, "Good fellows ere this, by my fay,"
CHORUS.--"_Boot, saddle, to horse, and away_!"

IV

Who? My wife Gertrude; that, honest and gay,
Laughs when you talk of surrendering, "Nay!
I've better counsellors; what counsel they?"
CHORUS.--"_Boot, saddle, to horse, and away_!"

THE LOST LEADER

1845

I

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat--
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags--were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,--they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
--He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

II

We shall march prospering,--not thro' his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,--not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,--while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils'-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life's night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part--the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him--strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!

The poem _Cristina_ (1842), while not very remarkable as poetry, is
notable because it contains thus early in Browning's career, four of
his most important doctrines. The more one studies Browning, the
more one is convinced that the poet's astonishing mental vigor is
shown not in the number and variety of his ideas, but rather in the
number and variety of illustrations of them. I can not at this
moment think of any poet, dramatist or novelist who has invented so
many plots as Browning. He seems to present to us a few leading
ideas in a vast series of incarnations. Over and over again the same
thoughts, the same doctrines are repeated; but the scenery, the
situations, and the characters are never alike. Here is where he
remains true to the theory set forth in _Transcendentalism_; the poet
should not produce thoughts but rather concrete images of them; or,
as he says in the closing lines of _The Ring and the Book_, Art must
do the thing that breeds the thought.

In _Cristina_, four of Browning's fundamental articles of faith are
expressed: the doctrine of the elective affinities; the doctrine of
success through failure; the doctrine that time is measured not by
the clock and the calendar, but by the intensity of spiritual
experiences; the doctrine that life on earth is a trial and a test,
the result of which will be seen in the higher and happier
development when the soul is freed from the limitations of time and
space.

The expression "elective affinities" as applied to human beings was
first brought into literature, I believe, by no less a person than
Goethe, who in his novel, published in 1809, which he called _
Elective Affinities (Wahlverwandschaften_), showed the tremendous
force which tends to draw together certain persons of opposite sexes.
The term was taken from chemistry, where an elective affinity means
the "force by which the atoms of bodies of dissimilar nature unite";
elective affinity is then simply a chemical force.

In Goethe's novel, Charlotte thus addresses the Captain: "Would you
tell me briefly what is meant here by Affinities?" The Captain
replied, "In all natural objects with which we are acquainted, we
observe immediately that they have a certain relation." Charlotte:
"Let me try and see whether I can understand where you are bringing
me. As everything has a reference to itself, so it must have some
relation to others." Edward interrupts: "And that will be different
according to the natural differences of the things themselves.
Sometimes they will meet like friends and old acquaintances; they
will come rapidly together, and unite without either having to alter
itself at all--as wine mixes with water." Charlotte: "One can almost
fancy that in these simple forms one sees people that one is
acquainted with." The Captain: "As soon as our chemical chest arrives,
we can show you a number of entertaining experiments, which will
give you a clearer idea than words, and names, and technical
expressions." Charlotte: "It appears to me that if you choose to
call these strange creatures of yours related, the relationship is
not so much a relationship of blood as of soul or of spirit." The
Captain: "We had better keep to the same instances of which we have
already been speaking. Thus, what we call limestone is a more or
less pure calcareous earth in combination with a delicate acid,
which is familiar to us in the form of a gas. Now, if we place a
piece of this stone in diluted sulphuric acid, this will take
possession of the lime, and appear with it in the form of gypsum,
the gaseous acid at the same time going off in vapour. Here is a
case of separation: a combination arises, and we believe ourselves
now justified in applying to it the words 'Elective Affinity;' it
really looks as if one relation had been deliberately chosen in
preference to another." Charlotte: "Forgive me, as I forgive the
natural philosopher. I can not see any choice in this; I see a
natural necessity rather, and scarcely that. Opportunity makes
relations as it makes thieves: and as long as the talk is only of
natural substances, the choice appears to be altogether in the hands
of the chemist who brings the creatures together. Once, however, let
them be brought together, and then God have mercy on them." The
scientific conversation is summed up by their all agreeing that the
chemical term "elective affinities" can properly be applied in
analogy to human beings.

An elective affinity as applied to men and women may result in
happiness or misery; or may be frustrated by a still superior
prudential or moral force. The law of elective affinity being a force,
it is naturally unaware of any human artificial obstacles, such as a
total difference in social rank, or the previous marriage of one or
both of the parties. If two independent individuals meet and are
drawn together by the law of elective affinities, they may marry and
live happily forever after; if another marriage has already taken
place, as in Goethe's story, the result may be tragedy. In _Cristina_,
the elective affinities assert their force between a queen and a
private individual; the result is, at least temporarily, unfortunate
for the simple reason that the lady, although drawn toward the man
by the workings of this mysterious force, is controlled even more
firmly by the bondage of social convention; she behaves in a
contrary manner to that shown by the stooping lady in Maurice
Hewlett's story. This force needs only one moment, one glance, to
assert its power:

She should never have looked at me
If she meant I should not love her!

Love in Browning is often love at first sight; no prolonged
acquaintance is necessary; not even a spoken word, or any physical
contact.

Doubt you whether
This she felt as, _looking at me_,
Mine and her souls rushed together?

In Tennyson's _Locksley Hall_ (published the same year), contact was
important:

And our spirits rushed together at the touching of the lips.

Browning's portrayal of love shows that it can be a wireless
telegraphy, that, in the instance of Cristina and her lover, exerted
its force across a crowded room; in _The Statue and the Bust_, it is
equally powerful across a public square in Florence. The glance, or
as Donne expresses it, the "twisted eye-beams," is an important
factor in Browning's poetry--sufficient to unite two souls
throughout all eternity, as it does in _Tristan und Isolde_. Browning
repeats his favorite doctrine of the elective affinities in _Evelyn
Hope_, _Count Gismond_, _In a Gondola_, _Dis Aliter Visum_, _Youth
and Art_, and other poems; and its noblest expression is perhaps in
that wonderful scene in the crowded theatre at Arezzo; whilst the
flippant audience are gazing at a silly musical comedy, the sad eyes
of Pompilia encounter the grave, serious regard of Caponsacchi, and
the two young hearts are united forever.

Another leading idea in Browning's philosophy is _Success in Failure_.
This paradox is indeed a corner-stone in the construction of his
thought. Every noble soul must fail in life, because every noble
soul has an ideal. We may be encouraged by temporary successes, but
we must be inspired by failure. Browning can forgive any daring
criminal; but he can not forgive the man who is selfishly satisfied
with his attainments and his position, and thus accepts compromises
with life. The soul that ceases to grow is utterly damned. The
damnation of contentment is shown with beauty and fervor in one of
Browning's earliest lyrics, _Over the Sea Our Galleys Went_. The
voyagers were weary of the long journey, they heeded not the voice
of the pilot Conscience, they accommodated their ideals to their
personal convenience. The reason why Browning could not forgive
Andrea was not because he was Andrea del Sarto, the son of a tailor;
it was because he was known as the Faultless Painter, because he
could actually realise his dreams. The text of that whole poem is
found in the line

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp.

In _Cristina_, the man's love is not rewarded here, he fails; but he
has aimed high, he has loved a queen. He will always love her--in
losing her he has found a guiding principle for his own life, which
will lead him ever up and on.

She has lost me, I have gained her;
Her soul's mine: and thus, grown perfect,
I shall pass my life's remainder.

Her body I have lost: some other man will possess that: but her soul
I gained in the moment when our eyes met, and my life has reached a
higher plane and now has a higher motive. In failure I reach real
success.

This doctrine, illustrated repeatedly in Browning's works, is stated
explicitly in _Rabbi Ben Ezra_:

For thence,--a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,--
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale.

The thought that life is not measured by length of days is brought
out clearly in _Cristina_. We constantly read in the paper
interviews with centenarians, who tell us how to prolong our lives
by having sufficient sleep, by eating moderately, by refraining from
worry. But, as a writer in a southern journal expressed it, Why do
these aged curiosities never tell us what use they have made of this
prolonged existence? Mark Twain said cheerfully, "Methuselah lived
nine hundred and sixty-nine years; but what of that? There was
nothing doing." No drama on the stage is a success unless it has
what we call a supreme moment; and the drama of our individual lives
can not be really interesting or important unless it has some
moments when we live intensely, when we live longer than some
persons live in years; moments that settle our purpose and destiny.

Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows!
But not quite so sunk that moments,
Sure, tho' seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones,
And apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way,
To its triumph or undoing.
There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,
Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle.

An American public man who one day fell in public esteem as far as
Lucifer, said that it had taken him fifty years to build up a great
reputation, and that he had lost it all in one forenoon. The dying
courtier in _Paracelsus_ had such a moment.

Finally, in _Cristina_, we find that ardent belief in a future life
that lifts its head so often and so resolutely in Browning's poetry,
and on which, as we shall see later, his optimism is founded. Science
tells us that the matter of which the universe is composed is
indestructible; Browning believes even more strongly in the
permanence of spirit. Aspiration, enthusiasm, love would not be
given to us to have their purposes broken off, not if this is a
rational and economic universe; the important thing is not to have
our hopes fulfilled here, the important thing is to keep hoping.
Such love as the man had for Cristina must eventually find its full
satisfaction so long as it remains the guiding principle of his life,
which will serve as a test of his tenacity.

Life will just hold out the proving
Both our powers, alone and blended:
And then, come next life quickly!
This world's use will have been ended.

Precisely the same situation and the same philosophical result of it
are illustrated in the exquisite lyric, _Evelyn Hope_. The lover is
frustrated not by social distinctions, but by death. The girl is
lost to him here, but the power of love is not quenched nor even
lessened by this disaster. The man's ardor will steadily increase
during the remaining years of his earthly existence; and then his
soul will start out confident on its quest.

God above
Is great to grant, as mighty to make,
And creates the love to reward the love:
I claim you still, for my own love's sake!
Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few:
Much is to learn, much to forget,
Ere the time be come for taking you.

This doctrine, that earthly existence is a mere test of the soul to
determine its fitness for entering upon an eternal and freer stage
of development, is frequently set forth in Browning. The apostle John
makes it quite clear in _A Death in the Desert_; and in _Abt Vogler_,
the inspired musician sings

And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence
For the fulness of the days? Have we withered or agonised?
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue
thence?
Why rushed the discords in but that harmony might be prized?

From the above discussion it should be plain that the short poem
_Cristina_ deserves patient and intense study, for it contains in
the form of a dramatic lyric, some of Browning's fundamental ideas.

CRISTINA

1842

I

She should never have looked at me
If she meant I should not love her!
There are plenty ... men, you call such,
I suppose ... she may discover
All her soul to, if she pleases,
And yet leave much as she found them:
But I'm not so, and she knew it
When she fixed me, glancing round them.

II

What? To fix me thus meant nothing?
But I can't tell (there's my weakness)
What her look said!--no vile cant, sure,
About "need to strew the bleakness
Of some lone shore with its pearl-seed,
That the sea feels"--no "strange yearning
That such souls have, most to lavish
Where there's chance of least returning."

III

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

IV

There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,
Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse,
Which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time
That away the rest have trifled.

V

Doubt you if, in some such moment,
As she fixed me, she felt clearly,
Ages past the soul existed,
Here an age 'tis resting merely,
And hence fleets again for ages,
While the true end, sole and single,
It stops here for is, this love-way,
With some other soul to mingle?

VI

Else it loses what it lived for,
And eternally must lose it;
Better ends may be in prospect,
Deeper blisses (if you choose it),
But this life's end and this love-bliss
Have been lost here. Doubt you whether
This she felt as, looking at me,
Mine and her souls rushed together?

VII

Oh, observe! Of course, next moment,
The world's honours, in derision,
Trampled out the light for ever:
Never fear but there's provision
Of the devil's to quench knowledge
Lest we walk the earth in rapture!
--Making those who catch God's secret
Just so much more prize their capture!

VIII

Such am I: the secret's mine now!
She has lost me, I have gained her;
Her soul's mine: and thus, grown perfect,
I shall pass my life's remainder.
Life will just hold out the proving
Both our powers, alone and blended:
And then, come the next life quickly!
This world's use will have been ended.

SONG FROM _PARACELSUS_

1835

Over the sea our galleys went,
With cleaving prows in order brave
To a speeding wind and a bounding wave,
A gallant armament:
Each bark built out of a forest-tree
Left leafy and rough as first it grew,
And nailed all over the gaping sides,
Within and without, with black bull-hides,
Seethed in fat and suppled in flame,
To bear the playful billows' game:
So, each good ship was rude to see,
Rude and bare to the outward view,
But each upbore a stately tent
Where cedar pales in scented row
Kept out the flakes of the dancing brine,
And an awning drooped the mast below,
In fold on fold of the purple fine,
That neither noontide nor starshine
Nor moonlight cold which maketh mad,
Might pierce the regal tenement.
When the sun dawned, oh, gay and glad
We set the sail and plied the oar;
But when the night-wind blew like breath,
For joy of one day's voyage more,
We sang together on the wide sea,
Like men at peace on a peaceful shore;
Each sail was loosed to the wind so free,
Each helm made sure by the twilight star,
And in a sleep as calm as death,
We, the voyagers from afar,
Lay stretched along, each weary crew
In a circle round its wondrous tent
Whence gleamed soft light and curled rich scent,
And with light and perfume, music too:
So the stars wheeled round, and the darkness past,
And at morn we started beside the mast,
And still each ship was sailing fast.

Now, one morn, land appeared--a speck
Dim trembling betwixt sea and sky:
"Avoid it," cried our pilot, "check
The shout, restrain the eager eye!"
But the heaving sea was black behind
For many a night and many a day,
And land, though but a rock, drew nigh;
So, we broke the cedar pales away,
Let the purple awning flap in the wind,
And a statue bright was on every deck!
We shouted, every man of us,
And steered right into the harbour thus,
With pomp and paean glorious.

A hundred shapes of lucid stone!
All day we built its shrine for each,
A shrine of rock for every one,
Nor paused till in the westering sun
We sat together on the beach
To sing because our task was done.
When lo! what shouts and merry songs!
What laughter all the distance stirs!
A loaded raft with happy throngs
Of gentle islanders!
"Our isles are just at hand," they cried,
"Like cloudlets faint in even sleeping:
Our temple-gates are opened wide,
Our olive-groves thick shade are keeping
For these majestic forms"--they cried.
Oh, then we awoke with sudden start
From our deep dream, and knew, too late,
How bare the rock, how desolate,
Which had received our precious freight:
Yet we called out--"Depart!
Our gifts, once given, must here abide.
Our work is done; we have no heart
To mar our work,"--we cried,

EVELYN HOPE

1855

I

Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead!
Sit and watch by her side an hour.
That is her book-shelf, this her bed;
She plucked that piece of geranium-flower,
Beginning to die too, in the glass;
Little has yet been changed, I think:
The shutters are shut, no light may pass
Save two long rays thro' the hinge's chink.

II

Sixteen years old when she died!
Perhaps she had scarcely heard my name;
It was not her time to love; beside,
Her life had many a hope and aim,
Duties enough and little cares,
And now was quiet, now astir,
Till God's hand beckoned unawares,--
And the sweet white brow is all of her.

III

Is it too late then, Evelyn Hope?
What, your soul was pure and true,
The good stars met in your horoscope,
Made you of spirit, fire and dew--
And, just because I was thrice as old
And our paths in the world diverged so wide,
Each was nought to each, must I be told?
We were fellow mortals, nought beside?

IV

No, indeed! for God above
Is great to grant, as mighty to make,
And creates the love to reward the love:
I claim you still, for my own love's sake!
Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few:
Much is to learn, much to forget
Ere the time be come for taking you.

V

But the time will come,--at last it will,
When, Evelyn Hope, what meant (I shall say)
In the lower earth, in the years long still,
That body and soul so pure and gay?
Why your hair was amber, I shall divine,
And your mouth of your own geranium's red--
And what you would do with me, in fine,
In the new life come in the old one's stead.

VI

I have lived (I shall say) so much since then,
Given up myself so many times,
Gained me the gains of various men,
Ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes;
Yet one thing, one, in my soul's full scope,
Either I missed or itself missed me:
And I want and find you, Evelyn Hope!
What is the issue? let us see!

VII

I loved you, Evelyn, all the while.
My heart seemed full as it could hold?
There was place and to spare for the frank young smile,
And the red young mouth, and the hair's young gold.
So, hush,--I will give you this leaf to keep:
See, I shut it inside the sweet cold hand!
There, that is our secret: go to sleep!
You will wake, and remember, and understand.

The dramatic lyric in two parts called _Meeting at Night_ and
_Parting at Morning_ contains only sixteen lines and is a flawless
masterpiece. Of the four dimensions of mathematics, one only has
nothing to do with poetry. The length of a poem is of no importance
in estimating its value. I do not fully understand what is meant by
saying that a poem is too long or too short. It depends entirely on
the art with which the particular subject is treated. A short poem
of no value is too long; a long poem of genius is not too long.
Richardson's _Clarissa_ in eight volumes is not too long, as is
proved by the fact that the numerous attempts to abridge it are all
failures; whereas many short stories in our magazines are far too
long. Browning's _Night and Morning_ is not too short, because it
contains in sixteen lines everything necessary; _The Ring and the
Book_ is not too long, because the twenty thousand and odd lines are
all needed to make the study of testimony absolutely complete. But
whilst the mathematical dimension of length is not a factor in poetry,
the dimensions of breadth and depth are of vital importance, and the
mysterious fourth dimension is the quality that determines whether
or not a poem is a work of genius. Poems of the highest imagination
can not be measured at all except in the fourth dimension. The first
part of Browning's lyric is notable for its shortness, its breadth
and its depth; the second part possesses these qualities even more
notably, and also takes the reader's thoughts into a world entirely
outside the limits of time and space.

Browning has often been called a careless writer and although he
maintained that the accusation was untrue, the condition of some of
the manuscripts he sent to the press--notably _Mr. Sludge, the Medium_
--is proof positive that he did not work at each one of his poems at
his highest level of patient industry. He was however in general a
fastidious artist; much more so than is commonly supposed. He was one
of our greatest impromptu poets, like Shakespeare, writing hot from
the brain; he was not a polisher and reviser, like Chaucer and
Tennyson. But he studied with care the sound of his words. Many
years ago, Mrs. Le Moyne, who has done so much to increase the
number of intelligent Browning lovers in America, met the poet in
Europe, and told him she would like to recite to him one of his own
poems. "Go ahead, my dear." So she began to repeat in her beautiful
voice _Meeting at Night_; she spoke the third line

And the little startled waves that leap

"Stop!" said Browning, "that isn't right." She then learned from him
the sharp difference between "little startled waves" as she read it,
and "startled little waves" as he wrote it. He was trying to produce
the effect of a warm night on the beach with no wind, where the tiny
wavelets simply crumble in a brittle fashion on the sand. "Startled
little waves" produces this effect; "little startled waves" does not.

The impressionistic colors in this poem add much to its effect; the
grey sea, the black land, the yellow moon, the fiery ringlets, the
blue spurt of the match, the golden light of morning. The sounds and
smells are realistic; one hears the boat cut harshly into the slushy
sand; the sharp scratch of the match; one inhales the thick, heavy
odor radiating from the sea-scented beach that has absorbed all day
the hot rays of the sun.

It is probable that the rendezvous is not at dusk, as is commonly
supposed, but at midnight. Owen Wister, in his fine novel, _The
Virginian_, speaks of the lover's journey as taking place at dusk.
Now the half-moon could not scientifically be low at that early hour,
and although most poets care nothing at all for the moon except as a
decorative object, Browning was generally precise in such matters. An
American poet submitted to the _Century Magazine_ a poem that was
accepted, the last line of each stanza reading

And in the west the waning moon hangs low.

One of the editorial staff remembered that the waning moon does not
hang low in the west; he therefore changed the word to "weary,"
which made the poet angry. He insisted that he was a poet, not a man
of science, and vowed that he would place his moon exactly where he
chose. The editors replied, "You can have a waning moon in the west
in some magazines, perhaps, but you can not have it there in the
_Century_." So it was published "weary," as any one may see who
has sufficient time and patience.

Furthermore the contrast in this poem is not between evening and
morning, but between night and morning. The English commonly draw a
distinction between evening and night that we do not observe in
America. _Pippa Passes_ is divided into four sections, Morning, Noon,
Evening, Night. Furthermore the meeting is a clandestine one; not the
first one, for the man's soliloquy of his line of march shows how
often he has travelled this way before, and now his eager mind,
leaping far ahead of his feet, repeats to him each stage of the
journey. The cottage is shrouded in absolute darkness until the
lover's tap is heard; then comes the sound and the sight of the match,
and the sudden thrill of the mad embrace, when the wild heart-beats
are louder than the love-whispers.

The dramatic contrast in this poem is between the man's feelings at
night, and his mood in the morning. Both parts of the lyric,
therefore, come from the man's heart. It is absurd to suppose, as
many critics seem to think, that the second part is uttered by the
woman. Such a mistake could never have arisen if it had not been for
the word "him" in the penultimate line, which does not of course,
refer to the man, but to the sun. To have the woman repeat in her
heart these lines not only destroys the true philosophy of life set
forth in the lyric, but the last reflection,

And the need of a world of men for me

would seem to make her taste rather catholic for an ideal sweetheart.

The real meaning of the poem is simply this: The passionate
intensity of love can not be exaggerated; in the night's meeting all
other thoughts, duties, and pleasures are as though they were not;
but with the day comes the imperious call of life and even if the
woman could be content to live forever with her lover in the lonely
cottage, he could not; he loves her honestly with fervor and
sincerity, but he simply must go out into the world where men are,
and take his share of the excitement and the struggle; he would soon
be absolutely miserable if marooned from life, even with the woman
he loves. Those novels that represent a man as having no interest in
life but love are false to human nature. In this poem Browning

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