Part 4 out of 6
That in the mortar--you call it a gum?
Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!
And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,
Sure to taste sweetly,--is that poison too?
Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures,
What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures!
To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,
A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!
Soon, at the King's, a mere lozenge to give,
And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live!
But to light a pastile, and Elise, with her head
And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead!
Quick--is it finished? The colour's too grim!
Why not soft like the phial's, enticing and dim?
Let it brighten her drink, let her turn it and stir,
And try it and taste, ere she fix and prefer!
What a drop! She's not little, no minion like me!
That's why she ensnared him: this never will free
The soul from those masculine eyes,--say, "no!"
To that pulse's magnificent come-and-go.
For only last night, as they whispered, I brought
My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought
Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall
Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all!
Not that I bid you spare her the pain;
Let death be felt and the proof remain:
Brand, burn up, bite into its grace--
He is sure to remember her dying face!
Is it done? Take my mask off! Nay, be not morose;
It kills her, and this prevents seeing it close:
The delicate droplet, my whole fortune's fee!
If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me?
Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,
You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!
But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings
Ere I know it--next moment I dance at the King's!
_Fra Lippo Lippi_ and _Andrea del Sarto_ are both great art poems,
and both in striking contrast. The former is dynamic, the latter
static. The tumultuous vivacity of the gamin who became a painter
contrasts finely with the great technician, a fellow almost damned
in a fair wife. Fra Lippo Lippi was a street mucker, like Gavroche;
he unconsciously learned to paint portraits by the absolute necessity
of studying human faces on the street. Nothing sharpens observation
like this. He had to be able to tell at a glance whether the man he
accosted would give him food or a kick. When they took him to the
cloister, he obtained a quite new idea about religion. He naturally
judged that, as he judged everything else in life, from the
practical point of view. Heretofore, like many small boys, he had
rather despised religion, and thought the monks were fools.
"Don't you believe it," he cries: "there is a lot in religion. You
get free clothes, free shelter, three meals a day, and you don't
have to work! Why, it's the easiest thing I know." The monks
discovered his talent with pencil and brush, and they made him
decorate the chapel. When the work was done, he called them in. To
their amazement and horror, the saints and angels, instead of being
ideal faces, were the living portraits of the familiar figures about
the cloister. "Why, there's the iceman! there's the laundress!" He
rebelled when they told him this was wicked: he said it was all a
part of God's world, that the business of the artist was to
interpret life; he wished they would let him enter the pulpit, take
the Prior's place, and preach a sermon that would make them all sit
The philosophy of aesthetics has never been more truly or more
succinctly stated than in these lines:
Or say there's beauty with no soul at all--
(I never saw it--put the case the same--)
If you get simple beauty and nought else,
You get about the best thing God invents:
That's somewhat: and you'll find the soul you have missed,
Within yourself, when you return him thanks.
Contemplation of beautiful objects in nature, art, and literature,
which perhaps at first sight have no significance, gradually awakens
in our own hearts a dawning sense of what Beauty may mean; and thus
enlarges and develops our minds, and makes them susceptible to the
wonder and glory of life. The relation of art to life--art being the
teacher that makes us understand life--is perfectly well understood
by Fra Lippo Lippi.
For, don't you mark? we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see.
If one stands to-day in the Ancient and Modern Gallery in Florence,
and contemplates Fra Lippo Lippi's masterpiece, _The Coronation of
the Virgin_, and reads the lines about it in this poem, one will get
a new idea of the picture. It is a representation of the painter's
whole nature, half genius, half mucker--the painting is a glory of
form and color, and then in the corner the artist had the assurance
to place himself in his monk's dress among the saints and angels,
where he looks as much out of place as a Bowery Boy in a Fifth
Avenue drawing-room. Not content with putting himself in the picture,
he stuck a Latin tag on himself, which means, "This fellow did the
Browning loves Fra Lippo Lippi, in spite of the man's impudence and
debauchery; because the painter loved life, had a tremendous zest
for it, and was not ashamed of his enthusiasm. The words he speaks
came from the poet's own heart:
The world and life's too big to pass for a dream....
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
The change from _Fra Lippo Lippi_ to _Andrea del Sarto_ is the
change from a blustering March day to a mild autumn twilight. The
original picture in Florence which inspired the poem represents
Andrea and his wife sitting together, while she is holding the
letter from King Francis. This is a poem of acquiescence, as the
other is a poem of protest, and never was language more fittingly
adapted to the mood in each instance. One can usually recognise
Andrea's pictures clear across the gallery rooms; he has enveloped
them all in a silver-grey gossamer mist, and in some extraordinary
manner Browning has contrived to clothe his poem in the same
diaphanous garment. It is a poem of twilight, of calm, of failure in
success. Andrea's pictures are superior technically to those of his
great contemporaries--Rafael, Michel Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci--but
their imperfect works have a celestial glory, the glory of aspiration,
absent from his perfect productions. His work indeed is,
Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null,
Dead perfection, no more.
It is natural, that he, whose paintings show perfection of form
without spirit, should have married a woman of physical beauty
devoid of soul. She has ruined him, but she could not have ruined him
had he been a different man. He understands her, however, in the
quiet light of his own failure. He tells her she must not treat him
so badly that he can not paint at all; and adds the necessary
explanation that his ceasing to paint would stop her supplies of cash.
For although it is incomprehensible to her, people are willing to
give large sums of money for her ridiculous husband's ridiculous
daubs. His mind, sensitive to beauty, is drunk with his wife's
loveliness of face and form; and like all confirmed drunkards, he
can not conquer himself now, though otherwise he knows it means
death and damnation. He has a complete knowledge of the whole range
of his powers, and of his limitations. He can not help feeling pride
in his marvellous technique, that he can do what other men dream of
doing; but he knows that without aspiration the soul is dead.
Poor Andrea! History has treated him harshly. He is known throughout
all time as "the tailor's son," and Browning has given him in this
immortal poem a condemnation that much of his work does not really
deserve. For there is inspiration in many of Andrea's Madonnas.
Browning, with his fixed idea of the glory of the imperfect, the
divine evidence of perpetual development, could not forgive Andrea
for being called the "faultless painter." Thus Browning has made of
him a horrible example, has used him merely as the text for a sermon.
There was just enough truth to give Browning his opportunity. The
superiority of Rafael over Andrea lies precisely in the aspiration
of the former's work. Schopenhauer says the whole Christian religion
is in the face of Rafael's _Saint Cecilia_, "an entire and certain
gospel." Andrea's virgins have more of the beauty of this world:
Rafael's have the beauty of holiness.
ANDREA DEL SARTO
(CALLED "THE FAULTLESS PAINTER")
But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:
Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.
You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?
I'll work then for your friend's friend, never fear,
Treat his own subject after his own way,
Fix his own time, accept too his own price,
And shut the money into this small hand
When next it takes mine. Will it? tenderly?
Oh, I'll content him,--but to-morrow, Love!
I often am much wearier than you think,
This evening more than usual, and it seems
As if--forgive now--should you let me sit
Here by the window with your hand in mine
And look a half-hour forth on Fiesole,
Both of one mind, as married people use,
Quietly, quietly the evening through,
I might get up to-morrow to my work
Cheerful and fresh as ever. Let us try.
To-morrow, how you shall be glad for this!
Your soft hand is a woman of itself,
And mine the man's bared breast she curls inside.
Don't count the time lost, neither; you must serve
For each of the five pictures we require:
It saves a model. So! keep looking so--
My serpentining beauty, rounds on rounds!
--How could you ever prick those perfect ears,
Even to put the pearl there! oh, so sweet--
My face, my moon, my everybody's moon,
Which everybody looks on and calls his,
And, I suppose, is looked on by in turn,
While she looks--no one's: very dear, no less.
You smile? why, there's my picture ready made,
There's what we painters call our harmony!
A common greyness silvers everything,--
All in a twilight, you and I alike
--You, at the point of your first pride in me
(That's gone you know),--but I, at every point;
My youth, my hope, my art, being all toned down
To yonder sober pleasant Fiesole.
There's the bell clinking from the chapel-top;
That length of convent-wall across the way
Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside;
The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease,
And autumn grows, autumn in everything.
Eh? the whole seems to fall into a shape
As if I saw alike my work and self
And all that I was born to be and do,
A twilight-piece. Love, we are in God's hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!
I feel he laid the fetter: let it lie!
This chamber for example--turn your head--
All that's behind us! You don't understand
Nor care to understand about my art,
But you can hear at least when people speak:
And that cartoon, the second from the door
--It is the thing, Love! so such things should be--
Behold Madonna!--I am bold to say.
I can do with my pencil what I know,
What I see, what at bottom of my heart
I wish for, if I ever wish so deep--
Do easily, too--when I say, perfectly,
I do not boast, perhaps: yourself are judge,
Who listened to the Legate's talk last week,
And just as much they used to say in France.
At any rate 'tis easy, all of it!
No sketches first, no studies, that's long past:
I do what many dream of, all their lives,
--Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive--you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,--
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)--so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate'er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world.
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
The sudden blood of these men! at a word--
Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too.
I, painting from myself and to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men's blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello's outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
I know both what I want and what might gain,
And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
"Had I been two, another and myself,
Our head would have o'erlooked the world!" No doubt.
Yonder's a work now, of that famous youth
The Urbinate who died five years ago.
('Tis copied, George Vasari sent it me.)
Well, I can fancy how he did it all,
Pouring his soul, with kings and popes to see,
Reaching, that heaven might so replenish him,
Above and through his art--for it gives way;
That arm is wrongly put--and there again--
A fault to pardon in the drawing's lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
He means right--that, a child may understand.
Still, what an arm! and I could alter it:
But all the play, the insight and the stretch--
Out of me, out of me! And wherefore out?
Had you enjoined them on me, given me soul,
We might have risen to Rafael, I and you!
Nay, Love, you did give all I asked, I think--
More than I merit, yes, by many times.
But had you--oh, with the same perfect brow,
And perfect eyes, and more than perfect mouth,
And the low voice my soul hears, as a bird
The fowler's pipe, and follows to the snare--
Had you, with these the same, but brought a mind!
Some women do so. Had the mouth there urged
"God and the glory! never care for gain,
The present by the future, what is that?
Live for fame, side by side with Agnolo!
Rafael is waiting: up to God, all three!"
I might have done it for you. So it seems:
Perhaps not. All is as God over-rules.
Beside, incentives come from the soul's self;
The rest avail not. Why do I need you?
What wife had Rafael, or has Agnolo?
In this world, who can do a thing, will not;
And who would do it, cannot, I perceive:
Yet the will's somewhat--somewhat, too, the power--
And thus we half-men struggle. At the end,
God, I conclude, compensates, punishes.
'Tis safer for me, if the award be strict,
That I am something underrated here,
Poor this long while, despised, to speak the truth.
I dared not, do you know, leave home all day,
For fear of chancing on the Paris lords.
The best is when they pass and look aside;
But they speak sometimes; I must bear it all.
Well may they speak! That Francis, that first time,
And that long festal year at Fontainebleau!
I surely then could sometimes leave the ground,
Put on the glory, Rafael's daily wear,
In that humane great monarch's golden look,--
One finger in his beard or twisted curl
Over his mouth's good mark that made the smile,
One arm about my shoulder, round my neck,
The jingle of his gold chain in my ear,
I painting proudly with his breath on me,
All his court round him, seeing with his eyes,
Such frank French eyes, and such a fire of souls
Profuse, my hand kept plying by those hearts,--
And, best of all, this, this, this face beyond,
This in the background, waiting on my work,
To crown the issue with a last reward!
A good time, was it not, my kingly days?
And had you not grown restless ... but I know--
"Tis done and past; 'twas right, my instinct said;
Too live the life grew, golden and not grey,
And I'm the weak-eyed bat no sun should tempt
Out of the grange whose four walls make his world.
How could it end in any other way?
You called me, and I came home to your heart.
The triumph was--to reach and stay there; since
I reached it ere the triumph, what is lost?
Let my hands frame your face in your hair's gold,
You beautiful Lucrezia that are mine!
Rafael did this, Andrea painted that;
The Roman's is the better when you pray,
But still the other's Virgin was his wife--"
Men will excuse me. I am glad to judge
Both pictures in your presence; clearer grows
My better fortune, I resolve to think.
For, do you know, Lucrezia, as God lives,
Said one day Agnolo, his very self,
To Rafael ... I have known it all these years ...
(When the young man was flaming out his thoughts
Upon a palace-wall for Rome to see,
Too lifted up in heart because of it)
"Friend, there's a certain sorry little scrub
Goes up and down our Florence, none cares how,
Who, were he set to plan and execute
As you are, pricked on by your popes and kings,
Would bring the sweat into that brow of yours!"
To Rafael's!--And indeed the arm is wrong.
I hardly dare ... yet, only you to see,
Give the chalk here--quick, thus the line should go!
Ay, but the soul! he's Rafael! rub it out!
Still, all I care for, if he spoke the truth,
(What he? why, who but Michel Agnolo?
Do you forget already words like those?)
If really there was such a chance, so lost,--
Is, whether you're--not grateful--but more pleased.
Well, let me think so. And you smile indeed!
This hour has been an hour! Another smile?
If you would sit thus by me every night
I should work better, do you comprehend?
I mean that I should earn more, give you more.
See, it is settled dusk now; there's a star;
Morello's gone, the watch-lights show the wall,
The cue-owls speak the name we call them by.
Come from the window, love,--come in, at last,
Inside the melancholy little house
We built to be so gay with. God is just.
King Francis may forgive me: oft at nights
When I look up from painting, eyes tired out,
The walls become illumined, brick from brick
Distinct, instead of mortar, fierce bright gold,
That gold of his I did cement them with!
Let us but love each other. Must you go?
That Cousin here again? he waits outside?
Must see you--you, and not with me? Those loans?
More gaming debts to pay? you smiled for that?
Well, let smiles buy me! have you more to spend?
While hand and eye and something of a heart
Are left me, work's my ware, and what's it worth?
I'll pay my fancy. Only let me sit
The grey remainder of the evening out,
Idle, you call it, and muse perfectly
How I could paint, were I but back in France,
One picture, just one more--the Virgin's face,
Not yours this time! I want you at my side
To hear them--that is, Michel Agnolo--
Judge all I do and tell you of its worth.
Will you? To-morrow, satisfy your friend.
I take the subjects for his corridor,
Finish the portrait out of hand--there, there,
And throw him in another thing or two
If he demurs; the whole should prove enough
To pay for this same Cousin's freak. Beside,
What's better and what's all I care about,
Get you the thirteen scudi for the ruff!
Love, does that please, you? Ah, but what does he,
The Cousin! what does he to please you more?
I am grown peaceful as old age to-night.
I regret little, I would change still less.
Since there my past life lies, why alter it?
The very wrong to Francis!--it is true
I took his coin, was tempted and complied,
And built this house and sinned, and all is said.
My father and my mother died of want.
Well, had I riches of my own? you see
How one gets rich! Let each one bear his lot.
They were born poor, lived poor, and poor they died:
And I have laboured somewhat in my time
And not been paid profusely. Some good son
Paint my two hundred pictures--let him try!
No doubt, there's something strikes a balance. Yes,
You loved me quite enough, it seems to-night.
This must suffice me here. What would one have?
In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance--
Four great walls in the New Jerusalem,
Meted on each side by the angel's reed,
For Leonard, Rafael, Agnolo and me
To cover--the three first without a wife,
While I have mine! So--still they overcome
Because there's still Lucrezia,--as I choose.
Again the Cousin's whistle! Go, my Love.
_Karshish_ and _Cleon_ are studies of the early days of
Christianity. Each man writes a letter--one to a professor, one to a
king--which reveals both his own nature and the steady advance of
the kingdom of God. The contrast between the scientist and the man
of letters is not favorable to the latter. Karshish is an ideal
scientist, with a naturally skeptical mind, yet wide open, willing
to learn from any and every source, thankful for every new fact;
Cleon is an intellectual snob. His mind is closed by its own culture,
and he regards it as absurd that any man in humble circumstances can
teach him anything. Learning, which has made the scientist modest,
has made Cleon arrogant. Such is the difference between the ideal
man of science, and the typical man of culture.
Young Karshish was the best student in his department at the
university; he has won a travelling fellowship, and writes letters
home to Professor Abib, the Dean of the Graduate School. This is the
twenty-second letter, and although we have not seen the others, we
may easily conjecture their style and contents. They resemble
Darwin's method of composition describing his tour around the
world--one fact is noted accurately and then another. This
particular letter is entrusted to a messenger who had the pink-eye;
the young doctor easily cured him, and the man having no money,
begged to give some service. He winks his eyes gladly in the strong
sunlight which had hurt him so cruelly until the doctor came to his
relief. Very well! he shall run with an epistle.
Karshish has met Lazarus: and it is significant of Browning's method
that it is not the resurrection from the grave which interests him,
nor what happened to Lazarus in the tomb; it is the profound
spiritual change in the man. Lazarus does not act like a faker; he
is not sensational, does not care whether you believe his story or
not, is a thoroughly quiet, intelligent, sensible man. Only his
conduct has ceased to be swayed by any selfish interest, and there
is some tremendous force working in his life that puzzles the
physician. It is amusing how the latter tries to shake off his
obsession, how he tries to persuade himself that Lazarus had a
prolonged epileptic fit, or that he is now mad; how he tries to
interest himself once more in the fauna and flora of the country.
Impossible! the story of Lazarus dominates him.
His letter is naturally full of apologies for writing to the great
Abib on such a theme. He is afraid Abib will be disgusted with him,
will call him home, as a disgrace to the university he represents.
What! my favorite student, carefully trained in science, to swallow
the story of the first madman or swindler he meets? A man raised
from the dead? Such cases are diurnal. What would a modern professor
think if one of his travelling fellows wrote home from South America
that he had met a man raised from the dead, and was really impressed
by his story? His fellowship would be instantly taken away from him.
He anticipates Abib's suggestions. If you think there is really
anything interesting in the yarn, why don't you seek out the
magician who brought him back to life? Oh, naturally, I thought of
that the first thing. But I discovered that the doctor who wrought
the cure of Lazarus is dead, lost his life in some obscure tumult.
It is with the utmost difficulty that Karshish finally brings
himself to write what will seem much worse even than the acceptance
of the story of Lazarus. But something impels him to out with it.
Lazarus says--God forgive me for uttering such nonsensical
blasphemy--that the doctor who cured him was no doctor at all--was ...
was ... was Almighty God Himself! He says God appeared on the earth
in human form, that Lazarus knew Him personally, spoke with Him, ate
meals with Him--and then suddenly in a revulsion of feeling at his
daring to write such trash to Abib, he tries to force his mind back
to report on scientific observations.
He thinks indeed he has ended his letter; when the stupendous idea
of Jesus Christ rushes over his mind like a flood, and he adds a
postscript. Would it not be wonderful, Professor, if Lazarus were
right? If the Supreme Force we recognise were really a God of Love,
who died to save us? The madman saith He said so: it is strange, ...
it is strange ...
And so we leave Karshish in a muse: but surely he is not far from
the Kingdom of God.
As this poem indicates the manner in which Christianity in the early
days spread from man to man, while many are amazed and many doubt,
so _Cleon_ gives us the picture of the Gospel as carried over the
world by Paul, Cleon in his own distinguished person sums up the
last word of Greek culture, in its intellectual prowess, its serene
beauty, its many-sided charm, and its total inability to save the
world. Cleon is an absolute pessimist. He is sincere; such cant as
the "choir invisible" means nothing to him, for death will turn his
splendid mind into a pinch of dust. Death is far more horrible to
poets and artists than to the ignorant, he assures the king, who had
thought just the opposite: is it not dreadful to think that after my
death people will be singing the songs that I have written, while
all that remains of me is in a little urn? He does not deceive
himself with phrases. Death is the end of us, and therefore
self-consciousness is a mistake. The animals without it are happier
and better than we. How terrible it is to think that a man like me
who has developed steadily throughout my whole life should now face
the blank wall of annihilation just when my mind is at its best,
when my senses are most keen to profit by the richness and wonder of
life! The thought that individual development is thus meaningless is
so repugnant not merely to his heart's desire but to his mental
sense of the fitness of things, that it has sometimes seemed as if
there must be a future life where the soul can pursue its natural
course ahead. But he dismisses this thought as impossible; for if
there were a future life, I should be the first to know of it. It
would certainly have been revealed to a splendid mind like mine. It
is the mountain peak that catches the first flush of the dawn, not
the valley: it is the topmost branch of the great tree that gets the
first whisper of the coming breeze. It is a pity that Cleon had not
heard the Gospel. I thank thee, O Father, that Thou hast hidden these
things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.
Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight. It was not
through men like Cleon that the Gospel made its first advance.
His postscript, like that of Karshish, is interesting, though
strikingly different. The king had enclosed a letter to Paul, but as
he did not know Paul's address, he wondered if Cleon would not be
kind enough to see that the evangelist obtained the letter. Cleon
was decidedly vexed. I neither know nor care where Paul may be. You
don't suppose for a moment that Paul knows anything I don't know?
You don't suppose anything Paul could say would have any weight for
men like me? Oh, I have heard of him; I was taking a constitutional
one day, and I saw a little group of persons listening to an orator.
I touched a man on the shoulder, and I said, What is that idiot
talking about? And he replied that the man said that a person named
Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, and could save all those who
believed on Him from death. What crazy nonsense people swallow! So
Cleon smiled in his wisdom and went on his way. But through the lines
of his speech we feel the rising tide of Christianity, where
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
CONTAINING THE STRANGE MEDICAL EXPERIENCE OF KARSHISH, THE ARAB
Karshish, the picker-up of learning's crumbs,
The not-incurious in God's handiwork
(This man's-flesh he hath admirably made,
Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,
To coop up and keep down on earth a space
That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)
--To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,
Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast;
Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks
Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,
Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip
Back and rejoin its source before the term,--
And aptest in contrivance (under God)
To baffle it by deftly stopping such:--
The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home
Sends greeting (health and knowledge, fame with peace)
Three samples of true snake-stone--rarer still,
One of the other sort, the melon-shaped,
(But fitter, pounded fine, for charms than drugs)
And writeth now the twenty-second time.
My journeyings were brought to Jericho:
Thus I resume. Who studious in our art
Shall count a little labour unrepaid?
I have shed sweat enough, left flesh and bone
On many a flinty furlong of this land.
Also, the country-side is all on fire
With rumours of a marching hitherward:
Some say Vespasian cometh, some, his son.
A black lynx snarled and pricked a tufted ear;
Lust of my blood inflamed his yellow balls:
I cried and threw my staff and he was gone.
Twice have the robbers stripped and beaten me,
And once a town declared me for a spy;
But at the end, I reach Jerusalem,
Since this poor covert where I pass the night,
This Bethany, lies scarce the distance thence
A man with plague-sores at the third degree
Runs till he drops down dead. Thou laughest here!
'Sooth, it elates me, thus reposed and safe,
To void the stuffing of my travel-scrip
And share with thee whatever Jewry yields.
A viscid choler is observable
In tertians, I was nearly bold to say;
And falling-sickness hath a happier cure
Than our school wots of: there's a spider here
Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs,
Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-gray back;
Take five and drop them,.. but who knows his mind,
The Syrian runagate I trust this to?
His service payeth me a sublimate
Blown up his nose to help the ailing eye.
Best wait: I reach Jerusalem at morn,
There set in order my experiences,
Gather what most deserves, and give thee all--
Or I might add, Judaa's gum-tragacanth
Scales off in purer flakes, shines clearer-grained,
Cracks 'twixt the pestle and the porphyry,
In fine exceeds our produce. Scalp-disease
Confounds me, crossing so with leprosy--
Thou hadst admired one sort I gained at Zoar--
But zeal outruns discretion. Here I end.
Yet stay: my Syrian blinketh gratefully,
Protesteth his devotion is my price--
Suppose I write what harms not, though he steal?
I half resolve to tell thee, yet I blush,
What set me off a-writing first of all.
An itch I had, a sting to write, a tang!
For, be it this town's barrenness--or else
The Man had something in the look of him--
His case has struck me far more than 'tis worth.
So, pardon if--(lest presently I lose
In the great press of novelty at hand
The care and pains this somehow stole from me)
I bid thee take the thing while fresh in mind,
Almost in sight--for, wilt thou have the truth?
The very man is gone from me but now,
Whose ailment is the subject of discourse.
Thus then, and let thy better wit help all!
Tis but a case of mania--subinduced
By epilepsy, at the turning-point
Of trance prolonged unduly some three days:
When, by the exhibition of some drug
Or spell, exorcization, stroke of art,
Unknown to me and which 'twere well to know,
The evil thing out-breaking all at once
Left the man whole and sound of body indeed,--
But, flinging (so to speak) life's gates too wide,
Making a clear house of it too suddenly,
The first conceit that entered might inscribe
Whatever it was minded on the wall
So plainly at that vantage, as it were,
(First come, first served) that nothing subsequent
Attaineth to erase those fancy-scrawls
The just-returned and new-established soul
Hath gotten now so thoroughly by heart
That henceforth she will read or these or none.
And first--the man's own firm conviction rests
That he was dead (in fact they buried him)
--That he was dead and then restored to life
By a Nazarene physician of his tribe:
--'Sayeth, the same bade "Rise," and he did rise.
"Such cases are diurnal," thou wilt cry.
Not so this figment!--not, that such a fume,
Instead of giving way to time and health,
Should eat itself into the life of life,
As saffron tingeth flesh, blood, bones and all!
For see, how he takes up the after-life.
The man--it is one Lazarus a Jew,
Sanguine, proportioned, fifty years of age,
The body's habit wholly laudable,
As much, indeed, beyond the common health
As he were made and put aside to show.
Think, could we penetrate by any drug
And bathe the wearied soul and worried flesh,
And bring it clear and fair, by three days' sleep!
Whence has the man the balm that brightens all?
This grown man eyes the world now like a child.
Some elders of his tribe, I should premise,
Led in their friend, obedient as a sheep,
To bear my inquisition. While they spoke,
Now sharply, now with sorrow,--told the case,--
He listened not except I spoke to him,
But folded his two hands and let them talk,
Watching the flies that buzzed: and yet no fool.
And that's a sample how his years must go.
Look, if a beggar, in fixed middle-life,
Should find a treasure,--can he use the same
With straitened habits and with tastes starved small,
And take at once to his impoverished brain
The sudden element that changes things,
That sets the undreamed-of rapture at his hand
And puts the cheap old joy in the scorned dust?
Is he not such an one as moves to mirth--
Warily parsimonious, when no need,
Wasteful as drunkenness at undue times?
All prudent counsel as to what befits
The golden mean, is lost on such an one:
The man's fantastic will is the man's law.
So here--we call the treasure knowledge, say,
Increased beyond the fleshly faculty--
Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
Earth forced on a soul's use while seeing heaven:
The man is witless of the size, the sum,
The value in proportion of all things,
Or whether it be little or be much.
Discourse to him of prodigious armaments
Assembled to besiege his city now,
And of the passing of a mule with gourds--
'Tis one! Then take it on the other side,
Speak of some trifling fact,--he will gaze rapt
With stupour at its very littleness,
(Far as I see) as if in that indeed
He caught prodigious import, whole results;
And so will turn to us the bystanders
In ever the same stupour (note this point)
That we too see not with his opened eyes.
Wonder and doubt come wrongly into play,
Preposterously, at cross purposes.
Should his child sicken unto death,--why, look
For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness,
Or pretermission of the daily craft!
While a word, gesture, glance from that same child
At play or in the school or laid asleep
Will startle him to an agony of fear,
Exasperation, just as like. Demand
The reason why--"'tis but a word," object--
"A gesture"--he regards thee as our lord
Who lived there in the pyramid alone,
Looked at us (dost thou mind?) when, being young,
We both would unadvisedly recite
Some charm's beginning, from that book of his,
Able to bid the sun throb wide and burst
All into stars, as suns grown old are wont.
Thou and the child have each a veil alike
Thrown o'er your heads, from under which ye both
Stretch your blind hands and trifle with a match
Over a mine of Greek fire, did ye know I
He holds on firmly to some thread of life--
(It is the life to lead perforcedly)
Which runs across some vast distracting orb
Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet--
The spiritual life around the earthly life:
The law of that is known to him as this,
His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
So is the man perplext with impulses
Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
Proclaiming what is right and wrong across,
And not along, this black thread through the blaze--
"It should be" balked by "here it cannot be."
And oft the man's soul springs into his face
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage that bade him "Rise" and he did rise.
Something, a word, a tick o' the blood within
Admonishes: then back he sinks at once
To ashes, who was very fire before,
In sedulous recurrence to his trade
Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
And studiously the humbler for that pride,
Professedly the faultier that he knows
God's secret, while he holds the thread of life.
Indeed the especial marking of the man
Is prone submission to the heavenly will--
Seeing it, what it is, and why it is.
'Sayeth, he will wait patient to the last
For that same death which must restore his being
To equilibrium, body loosening soul
Divorced even now by premature full growth:
He will live, nay, it pleaseth him to live
So long as God please, and just how God please.
He even seeketh not to please God more
(Which meaneth, otherwise) than as God please.
Hence, I perceive not he affects to preach
The doctrine of his sect whate'er it be,
Make proselytes as madmen thirst to do:
How can he give his neighbour the real ground,
His own conviction? Ardent as he is--
Call his great truth a lie, why, still the old
"Be it as God please" reassureth him.
I probed the sore as thy disciple should:
"How, beast," said I, "this stolid carelessness
Sufficeth thee, when Rome is on her march
To stamp out like a little spark thy town,
Thy tribe, thy crazy tale and thee at once?"
He merely looked with his large eyes on me.
The man is apathetic, you deduce?
Contrariwise, he loves both old and young,
Able and weak, affects the very brutes
And birds--how say I? flowers of the field--
As a wise workman recognises tools
In a master's workshop, loving what they make.
Thus is the man as harmless as a lamb:
Only impatient, let him do his best,
At ignorance and carelessness and sin--
An indignation which is promptly curbed:
As when in certain travel I have feigned
To be an ignoramus in our art
According to some preconceived design,
And happed to hear the land's practitioners,
Steeped in conceit sublimed by ignorance,
Prattle fantastically on disease,
Its cause and cure-and I must hold my peace!
Thou wilt object--Why have I not ere this
Sought out the sage himself, the Nazarene
Who wrought this cure, inquiring at the source,
Conferring with the frankness that befits?
Alas! it grieveth me, the learned leech
Perished in a tumult many years ago,
Accused--our learning's fate--of wizardry,
Rebellion, to the setting up a rule
And creed prodigious as described to me.
His death, which happened when the earthquake fell
(Prefiguring, as soon appeared, the loss
To occult learning in our lord the sage
Who lived there in the pyramid alone)
Was wrought by the mad people--that's their wont!
On vain recourse, as I conjecture it,
To his tried virtue, for miraculous help--
How could he stop the earthquake? That's their way!
The other imputations must be lies:
But take one, though I loathe to give it thee,
In mere respect for any good man's fame.
(And after all, our patient Lazarus
Is stark mad; should we count on what he says?
Perhaps not: though in writing to a leech
'Tis well to keep back nothing of a case.)
This man so cured regards the curer, then,
As--God forgive me! who but God himself,
Creator and sustainer of the world,
That came and dwelt in flesh on it awhile!
--'Sayeth that such an one was born and lived,
Taught, healed the sick, broke bread at his own house,
Then died, with Lazarus by, for aught I know,
And yet was ... what I said nor choose repeat,
And must have so avouched himself, in fact,
In hearing of this very Lazarus
Who saith--but why all this of what he saith?
Why write of trivial matters, things of price
Calling at every moment for remark?
I noticed on the margin of a pool
Blue-flowering borage, the Aleppo sort,
Aboundeth, very nitrous. It is strange!
Thy pardon for this long and tedious case,
Which, now that I review it, needs must seem
Unduly dwelt on, prolixly set forth!
Nor I myself discern in what is writ
Good cause for the peculiar interest
And awe indeed this man has touched me with.
Perhaps the journey's end, the weariness
Had wrought upon me first. I met him thus:
I crossed a ridge of short sharp broken hills
Like an old lion's cheek teeth. Out there came
A moon made like a face with certain spots
Multiform, manifold, and menacing:
Then a wind rose behind me. So we met
In this old sleepy town at unaware,
The man and I. I send thee what is writ.
Regard it as a chance, a matter risked
To this ambiguous Syrian--he may lose,
Or steal, or give it thee with equal good.
Jerusalem's repose shall make amends
For time this letter wastes, thy time and mine;
Till when, once more thy pardon and farewell!
The very God I think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too--
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, "O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!"
The madman saith He said so: it is strange.
The poem _Childe Roland_ is unique among Browning's monologues. His
poetry usually is of the noonday and the market-place; but this
might have been written by Coleridge, or Maeterlinck, or Edgar Allan
Poe. It has indeed the "wizard twilight Coleridge knew." The
atmosphere is uncanny and ghoul-haunted: the scenery is a series of
sombre and horrible imaginings. No consistent allegory can be made
out of it, for which fact we should rejoice. It is a poem, not a
sermon; it is intended to stimulate the imagination, rather than
awaken the conscience. And as we accompany the knight on his lonely
and fearful journey, we feel thrills caused only by works of genius.
The poem is an example of the power of creative imagination. Out of
one line from an old ballad quoted by Shakespeare, Browning has
built up a marvellous succession of vivid pictures. The twilight
deepens as Childe Roland advances; one can feel the darkness coming
.... hands unseen
Were hanging the night around us fast.
Although the poem means nothing specifically except a triumphant
close to a heart-shaking experience, the close is so solemnly
splendid that it is difficult to repress a shout of physical
exultation. One lonely man, in the presence of all the Powers of the
Air, sends out an honest blast of defiance--the individual will
against the malignant forces of the whole universe.
What happened when he blew his horn? Did the awful mountains in the
blood-red sunset dissolve as the walls of Jericho fell to a similar
sound? Did the round, squat Tower vanish like a dream-phantom? Or
was the sound of the horn the last breath of the hero? If we believe
the former, then Childe Roland is telling his experience to a
listener; it is the song of the man "who came whither he went." If
the latter, which seems to me more dramatic, and more like Browning,
then the monologue is murmured by the solitary knight as he advances
on his darkening path.
Three entirely different interpretations may be made of the poem.
First, the Tower is the quest, and Success is found only in the
moment of Failure. Second, the Tower is the quest, and when found is
worth nothing: the hero has spent his life searching something that
in the end is seen to be only a round, squat, blind turret--for such
things do men throw away their lives! Third, the Tower is not the
quest at all--it is damnation, and when the knight turns _aside_
from the true road to seek the Tower, he is a lost soul steadily
slipping through increasing darkness to hell.
Whilst I do not believe this third interpretation, for it seems to
me contrary to the whole spirit of the piece, it is surprising that
if one reads through the poem with that idea and none other in mind,
how much support can be found for it. The hoary cripple is the devil,
meant to lead us into temptation; and the third stanza seems for the
moment to complete this thought.
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract, which, all agree
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed:
If all knew that the ominous tract contained the Dark Tower, why was
the knight outside of it, if the Tower were his quest? He turns aside,
acquiescingly: he has given up a life of noble aspiration, and now
hands over his despairing heart in surrender to the powers of
darkness. He goes on his way a beaten man, only hoping that the end
may not be long delayed.
Much in the letter of the poem may support this view; but the whole
spirit of it is opposed to such an interpretation, and the ringing
close does not sound like spiritual failure. Nor do I believe in the
second interpretation; for it is quite unlike Browning to write a
magnificent poem with a cynical conclusion.
No, I believe that once upon a time, Roland, Giles, Cuthbert, and
other knights in solemn assembly took an oath to go on the quest of
the Dark Tower: to find it or perish on the way. All but these three
have apparently kept their word; they have never returned, and when
Roland is on the last stages of his journey, he sees why; they have
died a horrible death. The quest is indeed an unspeakably perilous
thing: for all but Giles and Cuthbert are dead, and these two
suffered a fate worse than death--the awful fear inspired by
something hideous on the march changed these splendid specimens of
manhood into craven traitors. Roland remembers with cruel agony the
ruddy young face of Cuthbert, glowing under its yellow hair: was
there ever such a magnificent fellow? But the path to the Tower had
shaken his manhood, and disgraced him forever. How well Roland
remembers the morning when Giles took the oath to find the Tower!
That was ten years ago. The frank, manly young knight stepped forth,
and declared proudly that he dared do all that might become a man.
But he had some awful experience in the course of the quest that
changed him from the soul of honor to a whimpering coward. His own
companions spat upon him and cursed him.
Roland alone is left. And he has experienced so many disappointments
that now all hope of finding the Tower is dead in his breast. Just
one spark of manhood remains. He can not succeed, but God grant that
he may be fit to fail.
... just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now--should I be fit?
As he advances, the country becomes an abomination of desolation;
then appear evidences of struggle, the marks of monsters: then the
awful, boiling river, with the nerve-shattering shriek from its
depths as he thrust in his spear. On the other bank, fresh evidences
of fearful combats, followed farther along by the appearance of
engines of torture. Those of his companions who had survived the
beasts had there perished in this frightful manner. Nevertheless,
Roland advances, his eyes on the ground. Suddenly the wide wing of
some dreadful bird of the night brushed his cap, and he looked up--to
his overwhelming amazement, _he sees the Tower_! He sees it as the
sailor sees the rocks on a dark night, only when the ship is lost.
He sees it in a sudden glare of hell; the air is full of mocking
laughter, the scorn of fiends mingling with the sound of the names
of their victims, his peers and comrades, all lost! The ugly
misshapen mountains look like sinister giants, lying chin upon hand,
lazily awaiting his destruction. But this atom of humanity, in the
presence of all the material forces of this world and the
supernatural powers of darkness, places the horn to his lips, and
sends out on the evening air a shrill blast of utter defiance. He
that endureth to the end shall be saved. Not his possessions, not
his happiness, not his bodily frame--they all succumb: but _he_
shall be saved.
Thus we may take this wholly romantic poem as one more noble
illustration of Browning's favorite doctrine--Success in Failure.
"CHILDE ROLAND TO THE DARK TOWER CAME"
(See Edgar's song in _Lear_)
My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch 'gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.
For, what with thy whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out through years, my hope
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,--
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.
As when a sick man very near to death
Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
The tears, and takes the farewell of each friend,
And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, ("since all is o'er," he saith,
"And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;")
While some discuss if near the other graves
Be room enough for this, and when a day
Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
With care about the banners, scarves and staves:
And still the man hears all, and only craves
He may not shame such tender love and stay.
Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among "The Band"--to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower's search addressed
Their steps--that just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now--should I be fit?
So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,
That hateful cripple, out of his highway
Into the path he pointed. All the day
Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.
For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O'er the safe road, 'twas gone; gray plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound.
I might go on; naught else remained to do.
So, on I went. I think I never saw
Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers--as well expect a cedar grovel
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You'd think: a burr had been a treasure trove.
No! penury, inertness and grimace,
In some strange sort, were the land's portion. "See
Or shut your eyes," said Nature peevishly,
"It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
Tis the Last Judgment's fire must cure this place,
Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free."
If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to balk
All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood,
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!
Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.
I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards--the soldier's art:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights.
Not it! I fancied Cuthbert's reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he used. Alas, one night's disgrace!
Out went my heart's new fire and left it cold.
Giles then, the soul of honour--there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good--but the scene shifts--faugh! what hangman hands
Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!
Better this present than a past like that;
Back therefore to my darkening path again!
No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.
Will the night send a howlet or a bat?
I asked: when something on the dismal flat
Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.
A sudden little river crossed my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes.
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath
For the fiend's glowing hoof--to see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.
So petty yet so spiteful! All along,
Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;
Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate'er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.
Which, while I forded,--good saints, how I feared
To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek,
Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
--It may have been a water-rat I speared,
But, ugh! it sounded like a baby's shriek.
Glad was I when I reached the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage--
The fight must so have seemed in that fell cirque.
What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
No footprint leading to that horrid mews,
None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.
And more than that--a furlong on--why, there!
What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
Or brake, not wheel--that harrow fit to reel
Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet's too!, on earth left unaware,
Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with: (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood--
Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.
Now blotches rankling, coloured gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil's
Broke into moss or substances like boils;
Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.
And just as far as ever from the end!
Naught in the distance but the evening, naught
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend,
Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap--perchance the guide I sought.
For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
'Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
All round to mountains--with such name to grace
Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
How thus they had surprised me,--solve it, you!
How to get from them was no clearer case.
Yet half I seemed to recognize some trick
Of mischief happened to me, God knows when--
In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
Progress this way. When, in the very nick
Of giving up, one time more, came a click
As when a trap shuts--you're inside the den!
Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
While to the left, a tall scalped mountain ... Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight!
What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
Not see? because of night perhaps?--why, day
Came back again for that! before it left,
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay,
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,--
"Now stab and end the creature--to the heft!"
Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears,
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,--
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.
There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. "_Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came_."
POEMS OF PARADOX
The word paradox comes from two Greek words, meaning simply,
"beyond belief." As every one ought to know, a paradox is something
that read literally is absurd, but if taken in the spirit in which
it is uttered, may contain profound truth. Paradox is simply
over-emphasis: and is therefore a favorite method of teaching. By
the employment of paradox the teacher wishes to stress forcibly some
aspect of the truth which otherwise may not be seen at all. Fine
print needs a magnifying-glass; and the deep truth hidden in a
paradox can not perhaps become clear unless enlarged by powerful
emphasis. All teachers know the value of _italics_.
Socrates was very fond of paradox: the works of Ibsen, Nietzsche,
Shaw and Chesterton are full of paradoxes: Our Lord's utterances in
the New Testament are simply one paradox after another. No wonder
His disciples were often in a maze. It requires centuries for the
truth in some paradoxes to become manifest.
"This was some time a paradox, but now the time gives it
Browning loved a paradox with all his heart. The original nature of
his mind, his fondness for taking the other side, his over-subtlety,
all drove him toward the paradox. He would have made a wonderful
criminal lawyer. He loves to put some imaginary or historical
character on the stand, and permit him to speak freely in his own
defence; and he particularly loves to do this, when the person has
received universal condemnation. Browning seems to say, "I wonder if
the world is entirely right in this judgment: what would this
individual say if given an opportunity for apologetic oratory?"
Browning is the greatest master of special pleading in all literature.
Although he detested Count Guido, he makes him present his case in
the best possible light, so that for the moment he arouses our
The Glove story is one of the best-known anecdotes in history;
besides its French source, it has been told in German by Schiller,
in English by Leigh Hunt, and has received thousands of allusory
comments--but always from one point of view. The hooting and
laughter that followed the Lady as she left the court, have been
echoed in all lands. Browning pondered over this story, and took the
woman's part. This may be accounted for by two causes. He is the
most chivalrous poet that ever lived, and would naturally defend the
Lady. What De Lorge ought to have done when he brought the glove back
was to remind the Lady that she had another, and permit him the
honor of retrieving that. But Browning saw also in this incident a
true paradox--the Lady was right after all! Right in throwing the
glove, right in her forecast of the event.
Like a good lawyer, he first proves that the Knight's achievement
was slight. In the pit the Lion was not at that moment dangerous,
because he was desperately homesick. He was lost in thoughts of his
wild home, in imagination driving the flocks up the mountain, and
took not the slightest notice of the glove. Then a page had leaped
into the pit simply to recover his hat; and he had done that because
he could not afford to buy a new one. No one applauded him. Think of
the man who had originally caught the lion! He went out alone and
trapped a lion, simply that his rude boys might be amused at the
spectacle. In our degenerate days, we give our children a Teddy Bear.
But in those strenuous times, the father said to his boys, "Come out
into the back yard, and see the present I've got for you!" They came
eagerly, and found a live lion. That man and his children were a
hardy family. How they would have laughed at De Lorge's so-called
But the real truth of the matter is that De Lorge was a liar. The
Lady suspected it all the time, and was saddened to have her
judgment confirmed by the result. De Lorge had been boasting of his
love, and of his eagerness to prove it. He had begged the Lady to
test him--he would gladly die for her. Now it is important that a
woman should know before marriage rather than after whether a
lover's protestations are genuine or not--in short whether he is
sincere and reliable, or whether he is a liar. The reason why men
lie to women and not to men is because they know that a lie to a
woman can not be avenged, they can not be made to pay any penalty;
but when they lie to other men--in business affairs, for
example--the penalty is severe.
How could the Lady satisfy her mind? How could she know whether De
Lorge was sincere or not? There was no war, there was no tournament,
there was no quest. Suddenly one method presented itself. She tossed
her glove into the pit. He had to go--he could never have held up
his head otherwise. But when he returned, he dashed the glove in the
Lady's face, ostensibly to teach her that a brave man's life should
not be risked by a woman's vanity. This was even a better
gallery-play than the recovery of the glove, and succeeded splendidly.
But the Lady turned sadly away.
The blow a glove gives is but weak:
Does the mark yet discolour my cheek?
But when the heart suffers a blow,
Will the pain pass so soon, do you know?
What was the pain in her heart? Her wounded vanity, her anguish at
the Court's ostracism? Not in the least. It was her pain at finding
her opinion of De Lorge justified. He was then, just as she thought,
a liar; he never meant to be taken at his word. All his
protestations of love and service were mere phrases. His anger at
the first test of his boasting proves this. The pain in her heart is
the pain we all feel at reading of some cowardly or disloyal act;
one more man unfaithful, one more man selfish, one more who lowers
the level of human nature.
The paradox teaches us the very simple lesson that if we boast of
our prowess, we must not be angry when some one insists that we
(PETER RONSARD _loquitur_)
"Heigho!" yawned one day King Francis,
"Distance all value enhances!
When a man's busy, why, leisure
Strikes him as wonderful pleasure:
'Faith, and at leisure once is he?
Straightway he wants to be busy.
Here we've got peace; and aghast I'm
Caught thinking war the true pastime.
Is there a reason in metre?
Give us your speech, master Peter!"
I who, if mortal dare say so,
Ne'er am at loss with my Naso,
"Sire," I replied, "joys prove cloudlets:
Men are the merest Ixions"--
Here the King whistled aloud, "Let's
--Heigho--go look at our lions!"
Such are the sorrowful chances
If you talk fine to King Francis.
And so, to the courtyard proceeding,
Our company, Francis was leading,
Increased by new followers tenfold
Before he arrived at the penfold;
Lords, ladies, like clouds which bedizen
At sunset the western horizon.
And Sir De Lorge pressed 'mid the foremost
With the dame he professed to adore most.
Oh, what a face! One by fits eyed
Her, and the horrible pitside;
For the penfold surrounded a hollow
Which led where the eye scarce dared follow,
And shelved to the chamber secluded
Where Bluebeard, the great lion, brooded.
The King hailed his keeper, an Arab
As glossy and black as a scarab,
And bade him make sport and at once stir
Up and out of his den the old monster.
They opened a hole in the wire-work
Across it, and dropped there a firework,
And fled: one's heart's beating redoubled;
A pause, while the pit's mouth was troubled,
The blackness and silence so utter,
By the firework's slow sparkling and sputter;
Then earth in a sudden contortion
Gave out to our gaze her abortion.
Such a brute! Were I friend Clement Marot
(Whose experience of nature's but narrow,
And whose faculties move in no small mist
When he versifies David the Psalmist)
I should study that brute to describe you
_Illum Juda Leonem de Tribu._
One's whole blood grew curdling and creepy
To see the black mane, vast and heapy,
The tail in the air stiff and straining,
The wide eyes, nor waxing nor waning,
As over the barrier which bounded
His platform, and us who surrounded
The barrier, they reached and they rested
On space that might stand him in best stead:
For who knew, he thought, what the amazement,
The eruption of clatter and blaze meant,
And if, in this minute of wonder,
No outlet, 'mid lightning and thunder,
Lay broad, and, his shackles all shivered,
The lion at last was delivered?
Ay, that was the open sky o'erhead!
And you saw by the flash on his forehead,
By the hope in those eyes wide and steady,
He was leagues in the desert already,
Driving the flocks up the mountain,
Or catlike couched hard by the fountain
To waylay the date-gathering negress:
So guarded he entrance or egress.
"How he stands!" quoth the King: "we may well swear,
(No novice, we've won our spurs elsewhere
And so can afford the confession,)
We exercise wholesome discretion
In keeping aloof from his threshold;
Once hold you, those jaws want no fresh hold,
Their first would too pleasantly purloin
The visitor's brisket or sirloin:
But who's he would prove so fool-hardy?
Not the best man of Marignan, pardie!"
The sentence no sooner was uttered,
Than over the rails a glove fluttered,
Fell close to the lion, and rested:
The dame 'twas, who flung it and jested
With life so, De Lorge had been wooing
For months past; he sat there pursuing
His suit, weighing out with nonchalance
Fine speeches like gold from a balance.
Sound the trumpet, no true knight's a tarrier!
De Lorge made one leap at the barrier,
Walked straight to the glove,--while the lion
Ne'er moved, kept his far-reaching eye on
The palm-tree-edged desert-spring's sapphire,
And the musky oiled skin of the Kaffir,--
Picked it up, and as calmly retreated,
Leaped back where the lady was seated,
And full in the face of its owner
Flung the glove.
"Your heart's queen, you dethrone her?"
"So should I!"--cried the King--"'twas mere vanity,
Not love, set that task to humanity!"
Lords and ladies alike turned with loathing
From such a proved wolf in sheep's clothing.
Not so, I; for I caught an expression
In her brow's undisturbed self-possession
Amid the Court's scoffing and merriment,--
As if from no pleasing experiment
She rose, yet of pain not much heedful
So long as the process was needful,--
As if she had tried in a crucible,
To what "speeches like gold" were reducible,
And, finding the finest prove copper,
Felt the smoke in her face was but proper;
To know what she had _not_ to trust to,
Was worth all the ashes and dust too.
She went out 'mid hooting and laughter;
Clement Marot stayed; I followed after,
And asked, as a grace, what it all meant?
If she wished not the rash deed's recalment?
"For I"--so I spoke--"am a poet:
Human nature,--behoves that I know it!"
She told me, "Too long had I heard
Of the deed proved alone by the word:
For my love--what De Lorge would not dare!
With my scorn--what De Lorge could compare!
And the endless descriptions of death
He would brave when my lip formed a breath,
I must reckon as braved, or, of course,
Doubt his word--and moreover, perforce,
For such gifts as no lady could spurn,
Must offer my love in return.
When I looked on your lion, it brought
All the dangers at once to my thought,
Encountered by all sorts of men,
Before he was lodged in his den,--
From the poor slave whose club or bare hands
Dug the trap, set the snare on the sands,
With no King and no Court to applaud,
By no shame, should he shrink, overawed,
Yet to capture the creature made shift,
That his rude boys might laugh at the gift,
--To the page who last leaped o'er the fence
Of the pit, on no greater pretence
Than to get back the bonnet he dropped,
Lest his pay for a week should be stopped.
So, wiser I judged it to make
One trial what 'death for my sake'
Really meant, while the power was yet mine,
Than to wait until time should define
Such a phrase not so simply as I,
Who took it to mean just 'to die.'
The blow a glove gives is but weak:
Does the mark yet discolour my cheek?
But when the heart suffers a blow,
Will the pain pass so soon, do you know?"
I looked, as away she was sweeping,
And saw a youth eagerly keeping
As close as he dared to the doorway.
No doubt that a noble should more weigh
His life than befits a plebeian;
And yet, had our brute been Nemean--
(I judge by a certain calm fervour
The youth stepped with, forward to serve her)
--He'd have scarce thought you did him the worst turn
If you whispered "Friend, what you'd get, first earn!"
And when, shortly after, she carried
Her shame from the Court, and they married,
To that marriage some happiness, maugre
The voice of the Court, I dared augur.
For De Lorge, he made women with men vie,
Those in wonder and praise, these in envy;
And in short stood so plain a head taller
That he wooed and won ... how do you call her?
The beauty, that rose in the sequel
To the King's love, who loved her a week well.
And 'twas noticed he never would honour
De Lorge (who looked daggers upon her)
With the easy commission of stretching
His legs in the service, and fetching
His wife, from her chamber, those straying
Sad gloves she was always mislaying,
While the King took the closet to chat in,--
But of course this adventure came pat in.
And never the King told the story,
How bringing a glove brought such glory,
But the wife smiled--"His nerves are grown firmer:
Mine he brings now and utters no murmur."
_Venienti occurrite morbo!_
With which moral I drop my theorbo.
Browning wrote two poems on pedantry; the former, in _Garden Fancies_,
takes the conventional view. How can a man with any blood in him pore
over miserable books, when life is so sweet? The other, _A
Grammarian's Funeral_, is the apotheosis of the scholar. The paradox
here is that Browning has made a hero out of what seems at first
blush impossible material. It is easy to make a hero out of a noble
character; it is equally easy to make a hero out of a thorough
scoundrel, a train-robber, or a murderer. Milton made a splendid
hero out of the Devil, But a hero out of a nincompoop? A hero out of
a dull, sexless pedant?
But this is exactly what Browning has done, nay, he has made this
grammarian exactly the same kind of hero as a dashing cavalry
officer leading a forlorn hope.
Observe that Browning has purposely made his task as difficult as
possible. Had the scholar been a great discoverer in science, a
great master in philosophical thought, a great interpreter in
literature--then we might all take off our hats: but this hero was a
grammarian. He spent his life not on Greek drama or Greek philosophy,
but on Greek Grammar. He is dead: his pupils carry his body up the
mountain, as the native disciples of Stevenson carried their beloved
Tusitala to the summit of the island peak. These students are not
weeping; they sing and shout as they march, for they are carrying
their idol on their shoulders. His life and his death were
magnificent, an inspiration to all humanity. Hurrah! Hurrah!
The swinging movement of the young men is in exact accord with the
splendid advance of the thought. They tell us the history of their
Teacher from his youth to his last breath:
This is our master, famous calm and dead,
Borne on our shoulders.
It is a common error to suppose that missionaries, nuns, and
scholars follow their chosen callings because they are unfit for
anything else. The judgment of the wise world is not always correct.
It assumes that these strange folk never hear the call of the blood.
When John C. Calhoun was a student at Yale, his comrades, returning
at midnight from a wild time, found him at his books. "Why don't you
come out, John, and be a man? You'll never be young again."
"I regard my work as more important," said John quietly. Milton's
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?
shows that it was not the absence of temptation, but a tremendously
powerful will, that kept him at his desk. When a spineless milksop
becomes a missionary, when a gawk sticks to his books, when an ugly
woman becomes a nun, the world makes no objection; but when a
socially prominent man goes in for missions or scholarship, when a
lovely girl takes the veil, the wise world says, "Ah, what a pity!"
Browning's Grammarian did not take up scholarship as a last resort.
He could have done anything he liked.
He was a man born with thy face and throat,
He might have been an athlete, a social leader, a man of pleasure.
He chose Greek Grammar. In the pursuit of this prize, he squandered
his time and youth and health as recklessly as men squander these
treasures on wine and women. When a young man throws away his youth
and health in gambling, drink, and debauchery, the world expresses
no surprise; he is known as a "splendid fellow," and is often much
admired. But when a man spends all his gifts in scholarship,
scientific discovery, or altruistic aims, he is regarded as an
eccentric, lacking both blood and judgment.
I say that Browning has given his Grammarian not only courage and
heroism, but the reckless, dashing, magnificent bravery of a cavalry
leader. In the march for learning, this man lost his youth and health,
and acquired painful diseases. Finally he comes to the end. When an
officer in battle falls, and his friends bend over him to catch his
last breath, he does not say, "I commend my soul to God," or
"Give my love to my wife,"--he says, "_Did we win_?" and we applaud
this passion in the last agony. So our Grammarian, full of diseases,
paralysed from the waist down, the death rattle in his throat--what
does he say to the faithful watchers? What are his last words?
_He dictates Greek Grammar_.
The solitary student may be a paragon of courage, headstrong,
reckless, tenacious as a bulldog, with a resolution entirely beyond
the range of the children of this world.
* * * * *
Plague take all your pedants, say I!
He who wrote what I hold in my hand,
Centuries back was so good as to die,
Leaving this rubbish to cumber the land;
This, that was a book in its time,
Printed on paper and bound in leather,
Last month in the white of a matin-prime,
Just when the birds sang all together.
Into the garden I brought it to read,
And under the arbute and laurustine
Read it, so help me grace in my need,
From title-page to closing line.
Chapter on chapter did I count,
As a curious traveller counts Stonehenge;
Added up the mortal amount;
And then proceeded to my revenge.
Yonder's a plum-tree with a crevice
An owl would build in, were he but sage;
For a lap of moss, like a fine pont-levis
In a castle of the Middle Age,
Joins to a lip of gum, pure amber;
When he'd be private, there might he spend
Hours alone in his lady's chamber:
Into this crevice I dropped our friend.
Splash, went he, as under he ducked,
--At the bottom, I knew, rain-drippings stagnate;
Next, a handful of blossoms I plucked
To bury him with, my bookshelf's magnate;
Then I went in-doors, brought out a loaf,
Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis;
Lay on the grass and forgot the oaf
Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.
Now, this morning, betwixt the moss
And gum that locked our friend in limbo,
A spider had spun his web across,
And sat in the midst with arms akimbo:
So, I took pity, for learning's sake,
And, _de profundis, accentibus laetis,
Cantate_! quoth I, as I got a rake;
And up I fished his delectable treatise.
Here you have it, dry in the sun,
With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O'er the page so beautifully yellow:
Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
Here's one stuck in his chapter six!
How did he like it when the live creatures
Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
Came in, each one, for his right of trover?
--When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
As tiled in the top of his black wife's closet?
All that life and fun and romping,
All that frisking and twisting and coupling,
While slowly our poor friend's leaves were swamping
And clasps were cracking and covers suppling!
As if you had carried sour John Knox
To the play-house at Paris, Vienna or Munich,
Fastened him into a front-row box,
And danced off the ballet with trousers and tunic.
Come, old martyr! What, torment enough is it?
Back to my room shall you take your sweet self.
Good-bye, mother-beetle; husband-eft, _sufficit_!
See the snug niche I have made on my shelf!
A's book shall prop you up, B's shall cover you,
Here's C to be grave with, or D to be gay,
And with E on each side, and F right over you,
Dry-rot at ease till the Judgment-day!
* * * * *
A GRAMMARIAN'S FUNERAL
SHORTLY AFTER THE REVIVAL OF LEARNING IN EUROPE
Let us begin and carry up this corpse,
Leave we the common crofts, the vulgar thorpes
Each in its tether
Sleeping safe on the bosom of the plain,
Cared-for till cock-crow:
Look out if yonder be not day again
Rimming the rock-row!
That's the appropriate country; there, man's thought,
Self-gathered for an outbreak, as it ought,
Chafes in the censer.
Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop;
Seek we sepulture
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture!
Air the peaks soar, but one the rest excels;
Clouds overcome it;
No! yonder sparkle is the citadel's
Circling its summit.
Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
Wait ye the warning?
Our low life was the level's and the night's;
He's for the morning.
Step to a tune, square chests, erect each head,
'Ware the beholders!
This is our master, famous calm and dead,
Borne on our shoulders.
"Sleep, crop and herd! sleep, darkling thorpe and croft,
Safe from the weather!
He, whom we convoy to his grave aloft,
He was a man born with thy face and throat,
Long he lived nameless: how should spring take note
Winter would follow?
Till lo, the little touch, and youth was gone!
Cramped and diminished,"
Moaned he, "New measures, other feet anon!
My dance is finished?"
No, that's the world's way: (keep the mountain-side,
Make for the city!)
He knew the signal, and stepped on with pride
Over men's pity;
Left play for work, and grappled with the world
Bent on escaping:
"What's in the scroll," quoth he, "thou keepest furled?
Show me their shaping,"
Theirs who most studied man, the bard and sage,--
"Give!"--So, he gowned him,
Straight got by heart that book to its last page:
Learned, we found him.
Yea, but we found him bald too, eyes like lead,
"Time to taste life," another would have said,
"Up with the curtain!"
This man said rather, "Actual life comes next?
Patience a moment!
Grant I have mastered learning's crabbed text,
Still there's the comment.
Let me know all! Prate not of most or least,
painful or easy!
Even to the crumbs I'd fain eat up the feast,
Ay, nor feel queasy."
Oh, such a life as he resolved to live,
When he had learned it,
When he had gathered all books had to give!
Sooner, he spurned it.
Image the whole, then execute the parts--
Fancy the fabric
Quite, ere you build, ere steel strike fire from quartz,
Ere mortar dab brick!
(Here's the town-gate reached: there's the market-place
Gaping before us.)
Yea, this in him was the peculiar grace
(Hearten our chorus!)
That before living he'd learn how to live--
No end to learning:
Earn the means first--God surely will contrive
Use for our earning.
Others mistrust and say, "But time escapes:
Live now or never!"
He said, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!
Man has Forever."
Back to his book then: deeper drooped his head:
_Calculus_ racked him:
Leaden before, his eyes grew dross of lead:
_Tussis_ attacked him.
"Now, master, take a little rest!"--not he!
Step two abreast, the way winds narrowly!)
Not a whit troubled
Back to his studies, fresher than at first,
Fierce as a dragon
He (soul-hydroptic with a sacred thirst)
Sucked at the flagon.
Oh, if we draw a circle premature,
Heedless of far gain,
Greedy for quick returns of profit, sure
Bad is our bargain!
Was it not great? did not he throw on God,
(He loves the burthen)--
God's task to make the heavenly period
Perfect the earthen?
Did not he magnify the mind, show clear
Just what it all meant?
He would not discount life, as fools do here,
Paid by instalment
He ventured neck or nothing--heaven's success
Found, or earth's failure:
"Wilt thou trust death or not?" He answered "Yes:
Hence with life's pale lure!"
That low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it:
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to one,
His hundred's soon hit:
This high man, aiming at a million,
Misses an unit.
That, has the world here--should he need the next,
Let the world mind him!
This, throws himself on God, and unperplexed
Seeking shall find him.
So, with the throttling hands of death at strife,
Ground he at grammar;
Still, thro' the rattle, parts of speech were rife:
While he could stammer
He settled _Hoti's_ business--let it be!--
Properly based _Oun_--
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic _De_,
Dead from the waist down.
Well, here's the platform, here's the proper place:
Hail to your purlieus,
All ye highfliers of the feathered race,
Swallows and curlews!
Here's the top-peak; the multitude below
Live, for they can, there:
This man decided not to Live but Know--
Bury this man there?
Here--here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm,
Peace let the dew send!
Lofty designs must close in like effects:
Leave him--still loftier than the world suspects,
Living and dying.
In the amusing poem, _Up at a Villa--Down in the City_, Browning
compares the beauty of city and country life from an unusual point
of view. It is generally assumed that the country is more poetical
than the city; but it would be difficult to prove this, if we were
put to the test. Natural scenery is now much admired, and mountains
are in the height of fashion; every one is forced to express raptures,
whether one feels them or not. But this has not always been the case.
When Addison travelled to Italy, he regarded the Alps as disgusting;
they were a disagreeable and dangerous barrier, that must be crossed
before he could reach the object of his journey. He wrote home from
Italy that he was delighted at the sight of a plain--a remark that
would damn a modern pilgrim. The first man in English literature to
bring out the real beauty of mountains was Thomas Gray.
Very few people have a sincere and genuine love of the country--as
is proved by the way they flock to the cities. We love the country
for a change, for a rest, for its novelty: how many of us would be
willing to live there the year around? We know that Wordsworth loved
the country, for he chose to live among the lonely lakes when he
could have lived in London. But most intelligent persons live in
towns, and take to the country for change and recreation.
The speaker in Browning's poem is an absolutely honest Philistine,
who does not know that every word he says spells artistic damnation.
He is disgusted with the situation of his house:
.... stuck like the horn of a bull
Just on a mountain-edge as bare as the creature's skull.