Part 5 out of 6
In other words the site is so magnificent that to-day expensive
hotels are built there, and people come from all over the world to
enjoy the view. In fact it is just this situation which Browning
admires in the poem _De Gustibus_.
What I love best in all the world
Is a castle, precipice-encurled,
In a gash of the wind-grieved Apennine.
But our man does not know what he _ought_ to say; he says simply
what he really thinks. The views of a sincere Philistine on natural
scenery, works of art, pieces of music, are interesting because they
are sincere. The conventional admiration may or may not be genuine.
This man says the city is much cooler in summer than the country:
that spring visits the city earlier: that what we call the
monotonous row of houses in a city street is far more beautiful than
the irregularity of the country. It appeals to his sense of beauty.
Houses in four straight lines, not a single front awry.
But his real rapture over the city is because city life is
interesting. There is something going on every moment of the blessed
day. It is a perpetual theatre, admission free. This is undoubtedly
the real reason why the poor prefer crowded, squalid city tenements
to the space, fresh air and hygienic advantages of the country. Many
well-meaning folk wonder why men with their families remain in city
slums, when they could easily secure work on farms, where there
would be abundance of fresh air, wholesome food, and cool nights for
sleep. Our Italian gives the correct answer. People can not stand
dullness and loneliness: they crave excitement, and this is supplied
day and night by the city street. Indeed in some cases, where by the
Fresh Air Fund, children are taken for a vacation to the country,
they become homesick for the slums.
* * * * *
UP AT A VILLA--DOWN IN THE CITY
(AS DISTINGUISHED BY AN ITALIAN PERSON OF QUALITY)
Had I but plenty of money, money enough and to spare,
The house for me, no doubt, were a house in the city-square;
Ah, such a life, such a life, as one leads at the window there!
Something to see, by Bacchus, something to hear, at least!
There, the whole day long, one's life is a perfect feast;
While up at a villa one lives, I maintain it, no more than a beast.
Well now, look at our villa! stuck like the horn of a bull
Just on a mountain-edge as bare as the creature's skull,
Save a mere shag of a bush with hardly a leaf to pull!
--I scratch my own, sometimes, to see if the hair's turned wool.
But the city, oh the city--the square with the houses! Why?
They are stone-faced, white as a curd, there's something to take
Houses in four straight lines, not a single front awry;
You watch who crosses and gossips, who saunters, who hurries by;
Green blinds, as a matter of course, to draw when the sun gets high;
And the shops with fanciful signs which are painted properly.
What of a villa? Though winter be over in March by rights,
'Tis May perhaps ere the snow shall have withered well off the
You've the brown ploughed land before, where the oxen steam and
And the hills over-smoked behind by the faint grey olive-trees.
Is it better in May, I ask you? You've summer all at once;
In a day he leaps complete with a few strong April suns.
'Mid the sharp short emerald wheat, scarce risen three fingers well,
The wild tulip, at end of its tube, blows out its great red bell
Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the children to pick and
Is it ever hot in the square? There's a fountain to spout and
In the shade it sings and springs; in the shine such foam-bows
On the horses with curling fish-tails, that prance and paddle and
Round the lady atop in her conch--fifty gazers do not abash,
Though all that she wears is some weeds round her waist in a sort
All the year long at the villa, nothing to see though you linger,
Except yon cypress that points like death's lean lifted forefinger.
Some think fireflies pretty, when they mix i' the corn and mingle,
Or thrid the stinking hemp till the stalks of it seem a-tingle.
Late August or early September, the stunning cicida is shrill,
And the bees keep their tiresome whine round the resinous
firs on the hill.
Enough of the seasons,--I spare you the months of the fever
Ere you open your eyes in the city, the blessed church-bells
No sooner the bells leave off than the diligence rattles in:
You get the pick of the news, and it costs you never a pin.
By-and-by there's the travelling doctor gives pills, lets blood,
Or the Pulcinello-trumpet breaks up the market beneath.
At the post-office such a scene-picture--the new play, piping
And a notice how, only this morning, three liberal thieves
Above it, behold the Archbishop's most fatherly of rebukes,
And beneath, with his crown and his lion, some little new law
of the Duke's!
Or a sonnet with flowery marge, to the Reverend Don So-and-so
Who is Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarca, Saint Jerome and Cicero,
"And moreover," (the sonnet goes rhyming,) "the skirts of
Saint Paul has reached,
Having preached us those six Lent-lectures more unctuous
than ever he preached,"
Noon strikes,--here sweeps the procession!
our Lady borne smiling and smart With a pink gauze gown all
and seven swords stuck in her heart!
_Bang-whang-whang_ goes the drum, _tootle-te-tootle_ the fife;
No keeping one's haunches still: it's the greatest pleasure in life.
But bless you, it's dear--it's dear! fowls, wine, at double the
They have clapped a new tax upon salt, and what oil pays passing
It's a horror to think of. And so, the villa for me, not the city!
Beggars can scarcely be choosers: but still--ah, the pity, the pity!
Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks with cowls and
And the penitents dressed in white shirts, a-holding the yellow
One, he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with
And the Duke's guard brings up the rear, for the better prevention
_Bang-whang-whang_ goes the drum, _tootle-te-tootle_ the fife.
Oh, a day in the city-square, there is no such pleasure in life!
No poem of Browning's has given more trouble to his whole-souled
admirers than _The Statue and the Bust_: and yet, if this is taken
as a paradox, its meaning is abundantly clear.
The square spoken of in the poem is the Piazza Annunziata in Florence:
in the midst of the square stands the equestrian statue of the Duke:
and if one follows the direction of the bronze eyes of the man, it
will appear that they rest steadfastly on the right hand window in
the upper storey of the palace. This is the farthest window facing
the East. There is no bust there; but it is in this window that the
lady sat and regarded the daily passage of the Duke.
The reason why this poem has troubled the minds of many good people
is because it seems (on a very superficial view) to sympathise with
unlawful love; even in certain circumstances to recommend the pursuit
of it to fruition. Let us see what the facts are. Before the Duke
saw the bride, he was, as Browning says, empty and fine like a
swordless sheath. This is a good description of many young men. They
are like an empty sheath. The sheath may be beautiful, it may be
exquisitely and appropriately enchased; but a sheath is no good
without a sword. So, many young men are attractive and accomplished,
their minds are cultivated by books and travel, but they have no
driving purpose in life, no energy directed to one aim, no end; and
therefore all their attractiveness is without positive value. They
are empty like a handsome sheath minus the sword.
The moment the Duke saw the lady a great purpose filled his life: he
became temporarily a resolute, ambitious man, with capacity for
usefulness. No moral scruple kept the lovers apart; and they
determined to fly. This purpose was frustrated by procrastination,
trivial hindrances, irresolution, till it was forever too late. Now
the statue and the bust gaze at each other in eternal ironical
mockery, for these lovers in life might as well have been made of
bronze and stone; they never really lived.
Contrary to his usual custom--it is only very seldom as in this poem
and in _Bishop Blougram's Apology_, and in both cases because he
knew he would otherwise be misunderstood--Browning added a personal
postscript. Where are these lovers now? How do they spend their time
in the spiritual world? I do not know where they are, says Browning,
but I know very well where they are _not_: they are not with God. No,
replies the reader, because they wanted to commit adultery. Ah, says
Browning, they are not exiled from God because they wanted to commit
adultery: they are exiled because they did not actually do it. This
is the paradox.
Browning takes a crime to test character; for a crime can test
character as well as a virtue. We must draw a clear distinction here
between society and the individual. It is a good thing for society
that people are restrained from crime by what are really bad
motives--fear, presence of police, irresolution, love of ease,
selfishness: furthermore, society and the law do not consider men's
motives, but only their actual deeds. A white-souled girl and a
blackhearted villain with no criminal record are exactly equal in
the eyes of the law, both perfectly innocent.
But from the point of view of the individual, or as a Christian
would say, in the sight of God, it is the heart that makes all the
difference between virtue and depravity. In the case of our lovers
delay was best for society, but bad for them: the purposed crime was
a test of their characters, and they added the sin of cowardice to
the sin of adultery, which they had already committed in their hearts.
Suppose four men agree to hold up a train. When the light of the
locomotive appears, three lose their courage: the fourth stops the
train, and single-handed takes the money from the express-car and
from the passengers, killing the conductor and the express-messenger.
After the train has been sent on its way, the three timid ones
divide up with the man who actually committed the crimes. Who is the
most virtuous among the four? Which has the best chance to be with
God? Manifestly the brave one, although he is a robber and a murderer.
From the point of view of the people who owned the money, from the
point of view of the families of the dead men, it would have been
better if all four of the would-be robbers had been cowards: but for
that criminal's individual soul, he was better than his mates,
because the crime tested his character and found him sound: he did
not add the sin of cowardice to the sins of robbery and murder.
Browning changes the figure. If you choose to play a game--no one is
obliged to play, but if you do choose to play--then play with all
your energy, whether the stakes are money or worthless counters. Now
our lovers chose to play. The stake they played for was not the true
coin of marriage, but the false counter of adultery. Still, the game
was a real test of their characters, and it proved them lacking in
every true quality that makes men and women noble and useful.
Even now Browning knew that some readers would not understand him:
so he added the last two lines, which ought to make his lesson clear.
You virtuous people (I see by your expression you disapprove and are
ready to quarrel with me) how strive you? _De te, fabula_! My whole
story concerns you. You say that the lovers should have remained
virtuous: you say that virtue should be the great aim of life. Very
well, do _you_ act as if you believed what you say? Is virtue the
greatest thing in _your_ life? Do you strive to the uttermost toward
that goal? Do you really prefer virtue to your own ease, comfort and
I find Browning's poem both clear and morally stimulating. My one
objection would be that he puts rather too much value on mere energy.
I do not believe that the greatest thing in life is striving,
struggle, and force: there are deep, quiet souls who accomplish much
in this world without being especially strenuous. But in the sphere
of virtue Browning was essentially a fighting man.
THE STATUE AND THE BUST
There's a palace in Florence, the world knows well,
And a statue watches it from the square,
And this story of both do our townsmen tell.
Ages ago, a lady there,
At the farthest window facing the East
Asked, "Who rides by with the royal air?"
The bridesmaids' prattle around her ceased;
She leaned forth, one on either hand;
They saw how the blush of the bride increased--
They felt by its beats her heart expand--
As one at each ear and both in a breath
Whispered, "The Great-Duke Ferdinand."
The selfsame instant, underneath,
The Duke rode past in his idle way,
Empty and fine like a swordless sheath.
Gay he rode, with a friend as gay,
Till he threw his head back--"Who is she?"
--"A bride the Riccardi brings home to-day."
Hair in heaps lay heavily
Over a pale brow spirit-pure--
Carved like the heart of the coal-black tree,
Crisped like a war-steed's encolure--
And vainly sought to dissemble her eyes
Of the blackest black our eyes endure,
And lo, a blade for a knight's emprise
Filled the fine empty sheath of a man,--
The Duke grew straightway brave and wise.
He looked at her, as a lover can;
She looked at him, as one who awakes:
The past was a sleep, and her life began.
Now, love so ordered for both their sakes,
A feast was held that selfsame night
In the pile which the mighty shadow makes.
(For Via Larga is three-parts light,
But the palace overshadows one,
Because of a crime, which may God requite!
To Florence and God the wrong was done,
Through the first republic's murder there
By Cosimo and his cursed son.)
The Duke (with the statue's face in the square)
Turned in the midst of his multitude
At the bright approach of the bridal pair.
Face to face the lovers stood
A single minute and no more,
While the bridegroom bent as a man subdued--
Bowed till his bonnet brushed the floor--
For the Duke on the lady a kiss conferred,
As the courtly custom was of yore.
In a minute can lovers exchange a word?
If a word did pass, which I do not think,
Only one out of a thousand heard.
That was the bridegroom. At day's brink
He and his bride were alone at last
In a bed chamber by a taper's blink.
Calmly he said that her lot was cast,
That the door she had passed was shut on her
Till the final catafalk repassed.
The world meanwhile, its noise and stir,
Through a certain window facing the East
She could watch like a convent's chronicler.
Since passing the door might lead to a feast,
And a feast might lead to so much beside,
He, of many evils, chose the least.
"Freely I choose too," said the bride--
"Your window and its world suffice,"
Replied the tongue, while the heart replied--
"If I spend the night with that devil twice,
May his window serve as my loop of hell
Whence a damned soul looks on paradise!"
"I fly to the Duke who loves me well,
Sit by his side and laugh at sorrow
Ere I count another ave-bell."
"'Tis only the coat of a page to borrow,
And tie my hair in a horse-boy's trim.
And I save my soul--but not to-morrow"--
(She checked herself and her eye grew dim)
"My father tarries to bless my state:
I must keep it one day more for him."
"Is one day more so long to wait?
Moreover the Duke rides past, I know;
We shall see each other, sure as fate."
She turned on her side and slept. Just so!
So we resolve on a thing and sleep:
So did the lady, ages ago.
That night the Duke said, "Dear or cheap
As the cost of this cup of bliss may prove
To body or soul, I will drain it deep."
And on the morrow, bold with love,
He beckoned the bridegroom (close on call,
As his duty bade, by the Duke's alcove)
And smiled "Twas a very funeral,
Your lady will think, this feast of ours,--
A shame to efface, whate'er befall!"
"What if we break from the Arno bowers,
And try if Petraja, cool and green,
Cure last night's fault with this morning's flowers?"
The bridegroom, not a thought to be seen
On his steady brow and quiet mouth,
Said, "Too much favor for me so mean!"
"But, alas! my lady leaves the South;
Each wind that comes from the Apennine
Is a menace to her tender youth:"
"Nor a way exists, the wise opine,
If she quits her palace twice this year,
To avert the flower of life's decline."
Quoth the Duke, "A sage and a kindly fear.
Moreover Petraja is cold this spring:
Be our feast to-night as usual here!"
And then to himself--"Which night shall bring
Thy bride to her lover's embraces, fool--
Or I am the fool, and thou art the king!"
"Yet my passion must wait a night, nor cool--
For to-night the Envoy arrives from France
Whose heart I unlock with thyself, my tool."
"I need thee still and might miss perchance
To-day is not wholly lost, beside,
With its hope of my lady's countenance:"
"For I ride--what should I do but ride?
And passing her palace, if I list,
May glance at its window--well betide!"
So said, so done: nor the lady missed
One ray that broke from the ardent brow,
Nor a curl of the lips where the spirit kissed.
Be sure that each renewed the vow,
No morrow's sun should arise and set
And leave them then as it left them now.
But next day passed, and next day yet,
With still fresh cause to wait one day more
Ere each leaped over the parapet.
And still, as love's brief morning wore,
With a gentle start, half smile, half sigh,
They found love not as it seemed before.
They thought it would work infallibly,
But not in despite of heaven and earth:
The rose would blow when the storm passed by.
Meantime they could profit in winter's dearth
By store of fruits that supplant the rose:
The world and its ways have a certain worth:
And to press a point while these oppose
Were simple policy; better wait:
We lose no friends and we gain no foes.
Meantime, worse fates than a lover's fate,
Who daily may ride and pass and look
Where his lady watches behind the grate!
And she--she watched the square like a book
Holding one picture and only one,
Which daily to find she undertook:
When the picture was reached the book was done,
And she turned from the picture at night to scheme
Of tearing it out for herself next sun.
So weeks grew months, years; gleam by gleam
The glory dropped from their youth and love,
And both perceived they had dreamed a dream;
Which hovered as dreams do, still above:
But who can take a dream for a truth?
Oh, hide our eyes from the next remove!
One day as the lady saw her youth
Depart, and the silver thread that streaked
Her hair, and, worn by the serpent's tooth,
The brow so puckered, the chin so peaked,
And wondered who the woman was,
Hollow-eyed and haggard-cheeked,
Fronting her silent in the glass--
"Summon here," she suddenly said,
"Before the rest of my old self pass,"
"Him, the Carver, a hand to aid,
Who fashions the clay no love will change,
And fixes a beauty never to fade."
"Let Robbia's craft so apt and strange
Arrest the remains of young and fair,
And rivet them while the seasons range."
"Make me a face on the window there,
Waiting as ever, mute the while,
My love to pass below in the square!"
"And let me think that it may beguile
Dreary days which the dead must spend
Down in their darkness under the aisle,"
"To say, 'What matters it at the end?
I did no more while my heart was warm
Than does that image, my pale-faced friend.'"
"Where is the use of the lip's red charm,
The heaven of hair, the pride of the brow,
And the blood that blues the inside arm--"
"Unless we turn, as the soul knows how,
The earthly gift to an end divine?
A lady of clay is as good, I trow."
But long ere Robbia's cornice, fine,
With flowers and fruits which leaves enlace,
Was set where now is the empty shrine--
(And, leaning out of a bright blue space,
As a ghost might lean from a chink of sky,
The passionate pale lady's face--
Eying ever, with earnest eye
And quick-turned neck at its breathless stretch,
Some one who ever is passing by--)
The Duke had sighed like the simplest wretch
In Florence, "Youth--my dream escapes!
Will its record stay?" And he bade them fetch
Some subtle moulder of brazen shapes--
"Can the soul, the will, die out of a man
Ere his body find the grave that gapes?"
"John of Douay shall effect my plan,
Set me on horseback here aloft,
Alive, as the crafty sculptor can,"
"In the very square I have crossed so oft:
That men may admire, when future suns
Shall touch the eyes to a purpose soft,"
"While the mouth and the brow stay brave in bronze--
Admire and say, 'When he was alive
How he would take his pleasure once!'"
"And it shall go hard but I contrive
To listen the while, and laugh in my tomb
At idleness which aspires to strive."
* * * * *
So! While these wait the trump of doom,
How do their spirits pass, I wonder,
Nights and days in the narrow room?
Still, I suppose, they sit and ponder
What a gift life was, ages ago,
Six steps out of the chapel yonder.
Only they see not God, I know,
Nor all that chivalry of his,
The soldier-saints who, row on row,
Burn upward each to his point of bliss--
Since, the end of life being manifest,
He had burned his way through the world to this.
I hear you reproach, "But delay was best,
For their end was a crime."--Oh, a crime will do
As well, I reply, to serve for a test,
As a virtue golden through and through,
Sufficient to vindicate itself
And prove its worth at a moment's view!
Must a game be played for the sake of pelf?
Where a button goes, 'twere an epigram
To offer the stamp of the very Guelph.
The true has no value beyond the sham:
As well the counter as coin, I submit,
When your table's a hat, and your prize, a dram.
Stake your counter as boldly every whit,
Venture as warily, use the same skill,
Do your best, whether winning or losing it,
If you choose to play!--is my principle.
Let a man contend to the uttermost
For his life's set prize, be it what it will!
The counter our lovers staked was lost
As surely as if it were lawful coin:
And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost
Is--the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin,
Though the end in sight was a vice, I say.
You of the virtue (we issue join)
How strive you? _De te, fabula_!
The two volumes of _Dramatic Idyls_ are full of paradoxes, for
Browning became fonder and fonder of the paradox as he descended
into the vale of years. The Russian poem _Ivan Ivanovitch_ justly
condemns mothers who prefer their own safety to that of their
children. When a stranger gives up his life for another, as happens
frequently in crises of fire and shipwreck, we applaud: but when a
mother sacrifices her life for that of her child, she does the
natural and expected thing. The woman in this poem was a monster of
wickedness and did not deserve to live. She started with three
children and arrived with none. Now there are some things in life
for which no apology and no explanation suffice. What do we care
about her story? Who cares to hear her defence? What difference does
it make whether she actively threw out the children or allowed the
wolves to take them? She arrives safe and sound without them and
there is no mistaking the fact that she rejoices in her own salvation.
She does not rejoice long, however, for Ivan, who is Browning's
ideal of resolution, neatly removes her head. Practically and
literally Ivan is a murderer: but paradoxically he is God's servant,
for the woman is not fit to live, and he eliminates her.
From the practical point of view there is a difficulty ahead. The
husband is due; when he hears that the children are lost, he will
suffer horribly, and will enquire anxiously as to the fate of his
wife. When he learns that she arrived in good condition and that
then Ivan knocked her head off, he may not fully appreciate the
ethical beauty of Ivan's deed. But this detail does not affect the
moral significance of the story. Yet I can not help thinking that a
man with such strong convictions as Ivan ought not to carry an axe.
Ivan, however, is still needed in Russia. Two or three years ago,
immediately after a wedding ceremony, the bride and groom, with the
whole wedding party, set out in sledges for the next town. The
wolves attacked them and ate every member of the party except the
four in the first sledge--husband, wife, and two men. As the wolves
drew near, these two heroes advised the husband to throw out the
bride, for if he did so, the three left might be saved, as their
haven was almost in sight. Naturally the bridegroom declined. Then
the two men threw out both bride and groom, and just managed to reach
the town in safety, the sole survivors of the whole party. I wish
that Ivan had been there to give them the proper welcome.
The poem _Clive_ is a psychological analysis of courage and fear,
two of the most interesting of human sensations. Clive seems to have
been an instrument in the hands of Destiny. When an obscure young man,
he twice tried to commit suicide, and both times the pistol missed
fire. A born gambler, he judged that he was reserved for something
great. He was: he conquered India. Then, after his life-work was
fully accomplished, his third attempt at suicide was successful.
After describing the dramatic incident at card-play, which he gave
to the old buck as the only time in his life when he felt afraid,
his companion remarked that it was enough to scare anybody to face a
loaded pistol. But here comes the paradox. Clive was intensely angry
because his friend failed to see the point. "Why, I wasn't afraid he
would shoot, I was afraid he wouldn't." Suppose the general had said
contemptuously that young Clive was not worth the powder and ball it
would take to kill him--suppose he had sent him away wholly safe and
wholly disgraced. Then Clive would have instantly killed himself.
Either the general was not clever enough to play this trump, or the
clear unwinking eyes of his victim convicted him of sin.
Clive was one of those exceedingly rare individuals who have never
known the sensation of physical fear. But I do not think he was
really so brave as those men, who, cursed with an imagination that
fills their minds with terror, nevertheless advance toward danger.
For your real hero is one who does not allow the desires of his body
to control his mind. The body, always eager for safety, comfort, and
pleasure, cries out against peril: but the mind, up in the
conning-tower of the brain, drives the protesting and shivering body
forward. Napoleon, who was a good judge of courage, called Ney the
bravest of the brave: and I admired Ney more intensely when I
learned that in battle he was in his heart always afraid.
The courage of soldiers in the mass seems sublime, but it is the
commonest thing on earth: all nations show it: it is probably an
inexplicable compound of discipline, pride, shame, and rage: but
individuals differ from one another as sharply in courage as they do
in mental ability. In sheer physical courage dive has never been
surpassed, and Browning, who loved the manly virtues, saw in this
corrupt and cruel man a great hero.
The poem _Muleykeh_, which is one of the oldest of Oriental stories,
is really an analysis of love. The mare was dearer to her owner than
life itself: yet he intentionally surrendered her to his rival
rather than have her disgraced. His friends called him an idiot and
a fool: but he replied, "You never have loved my Pearl." And indeed,
from his point of view, they did not know the meaning of love. What
is love? Simply the desire for possession, or the desire that the
beloved object should be incomparably pure and unsullied by defeat
and disgrace? The man who owned Muleykeh really loved her, since her
honor was more precious to him than his own happiness.
The short poem _Which_? published on the last day of Browning's life,
is a splendid paradox. In the Middle Ages, when house-parties
assembled, an immense amount of time was taken up by the telling of
stories and by the subsequent discussions thereupon. The stock
subject was Love, and the ideal lover was a favorite point of debate.
In this instance, the three court ladies argue, and to complete the
paradox, a Priest is chosen for referee. Perhaps he was thought to
be out of it altogether, and thus ready to judge with an
The Duchess declares that her lover must be a man she can respect: a
man of religion and patriotism. He must love his God, and his country;
then comes his wife, who holds the third place in his affections.
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.
The Marquise insists that her lover must be a man who has done
something. He must not only be a man inspired by religious and
patriotic motives, but must have actually suffered in her service.
He has received wounds in combat, he is pointed out everywhere as
the man who has accomplished great deeds. I can not love him unless
I can be proud of his record.
The Comtesse says that her ideal lover must love her first: he must
love her more than he loves God, more than he loves his country,
more than he loves his life--yes, more than he loves his own honor.
He must be willing, if necessary, not only to sacrifice his health
and life in her behalf, indeed, any true knight would do that: he
must be willing to sacrifice his good name, be false to his religion
and a traitor to his country. What do I care whether he be a coward,
a craven, a scoundrel, a hissing and a byword, so long as he loves
me most of all?
This is a difficult position for the Abbe, the man of God: but he
does not flinch. His decision is that the third lover is the one of
whom Almighty God would approve.
One thing is certain: the third man really loved his Lady. We do not
know whether the other two loved or not. When a man talks a great
deal about his honor, his self-respect, it is just possible that he
loves himself more than he loves any one else. But the man who would
go through hell to win a woman really loves that woman. Browning
abhors selfishness. He detests a man who is kept from a certain
course of action by thoughts of its possible results to his
reputation. Ibsen has given us the standard example of what the
first and second lover in this poem might sink to in a real moral
crisis. In _A Doll's House_, the husband curses his wife because she
has committed forgery, and his good name will suffer. She replied
that she committed the crime to save his life--her motive was Love:
and she had hoped that when the truth came out the miracle would
happen: her husband would step forward and take the blame all on
himself. "What fools you women are," said he, angrily: "you know
nothing of business. I would work my fingers to the bone for you: I
would give up my life for you: but you can't expect a man to
sacrifice his _honor_ for a woman." Her retort is one of the
greatest in literature. "Millions of women have done it."
So, the three Court-ladies began
Their trial of who judged best
In esteeming the love of a man:
Who preferred with most reason was thereby confessed
Boy-Cupid's exemplary catcher and cager;
An Abbe crossed legs to decide on the wager.
First the Duchesse: "Mine for me--
Who were it but God's for Him,
And the King's for--who but he?
Both faithful and loyal, one grace more shall brim
His cup with perfection: a lady's true lover,
He holds--save his God and his king--none above her."
"I require"--outspoke the Marquise--
"Pure thoughts, ay, but also fine deeds:
Play the paladin must he, to please
My whim, and--to prove my knight's service exceeds
Your saint's and your loyalist's praying and kneeling--
Show wounds, each wide mouth to my mercy appealing."
Then the Comtesse: "My choice be a wretch,
Mere losel in body and soul,
Thrice accurst! What care I, so he stretch
Arms to me his sole saviour, love's ultimate goal,
Out of earth and men's noise--names of 'infidel,' 'traitor,'
Cast up at him? Crown me, crown's adjudicator!"
And the Abbe uncrossed his legs,
Took snuff, a reflective pinch,
Broke silence: "The question begs
Much pondering ere I pronounce. Shall I flinch?
The love which to one and one only has reference
Seems terribly like what perhaps gains God's preference."
Among all modern thinkers and writers, Browning is the foremost
optimist. He has left not the slightest doubt on this point; his
belief is stated over and over again, running like a vein of gold
through all his poems from _Pauline_ to _Asolando_. The shattered
man in _Pauline_ cries at the very last,
I believe in God and Truth and Love.
This staunch affirmation, "I believe!" is the common chord in
Browning's music. His optimism is in striking contrast to the
attitude of his contemporaries, for the general tone of nineteenth
century literature is pessimistic. Amidst the wails and lamentations
of the poets, the clear, triumphant voice of Browning is refreshing
even to those who are not convinced.
Browning suffered for his optimism. It is generally thought that the
optimist must be shallow and superficial; whilst pessimism is
associated with profound and sincere thinking. Browning felt this
criticism, and replied to it with a scriptural insult in his poem
_At the Mermaid_. I cannot possibly be a great poet, he said
sneeringly, because I have never said I longed for death; I have
enjoyed life and loved it, and have never assumed a peevish attitude.
In another poem he declared that pessimists were liars, because they
really loved life while pretending it was all suffering.
It is only fair to Browning to remember that his optimism has a
philosophical basis, and is the logical result of a firmly-held view
of the universe. Many unthinking persons declare that Browning, with
his jaunty good spirits, gets on their nerves; he dodges or leaps
over the real obstacles in life, and thinks he has solved
difficulties when he has only forgotten them. They miss in Browning
the note of sorrow, of internal struggle, of despair; and insist
that he has never accurately portrayed the real bitterness of the
heart's sufferings. These critics have never read attentively
Browning's first poem.
The poem _Pauline_ shows that Browning had his _Sturm und Drang_, in
common with all thoughtful young men. Keats' immortal preface to
_Endymion_ would be equally applicable to this youthful work.
"The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of
a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the
soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life
uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted: thence proceeds mawkishness,
and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must
necessarily taste in going over the following pages." The
astonishing thing is, that Browning emerged from the slough of
despond at just the time when most young men are entering it. He not
only climbed out, but set his face resolutely toward the Celestial
The poem _Pauline_ shows that young Browning passed through
skepticism, atheism, pessimism, cynicism, and that particularly dark
state when the mind reacts on itself; when enthusiasms, high hopes,
and true faith seem childish; when wit and mockery take the place of
zeal, this diabolical substitution seeming for the moment to be an
intellectual advance. But although he suffered from all these
diseases of the soul, he quickly became convalescent and _Paracelsus_
proves that his cure was complete.
Browning's optimism is not based on any discount of the sufferings
of life, nor any attempt to overlook such gross realities as sin and
pain. No pessimist has realised these facts more keenly than he. The
Pope, who is the poet's mouthpiece, calls the world a dread
machinery of sin and sorrow. The world is full of sin and sorrow,
but it is machinery--and machinery is meant to make something; in
this instance the product is human character, which can not be made
without obstacles, struggles, and torment. In _Reverie_, Browning
goes even farther than this in his description of terrestrial
Head praises, but heart refrains
From loving's acknowledgment
Whole losses outweigh half-gains:
Earth's good is with evil blent:
Good struggles but evil reigns.
Such an appraisal of life can hardly be called a blind and jaunty
Browning declares repeatedly that the world shows clearly two
attributes of God: immense force and immense intelligence. We can
not worship God, however, merely because He is strong and wise; He
must be better than we are to win our respect and homage. The third
necessary attribute, Love, is not at all clear in the spectacle
furnished by science and history. Where then shall we seek it? His
answer is, in the revelation of God's love through Jesus Christ.
What lacks then of perfection fit for God
But just the instance which this tale supplies
Of love without a limit?
Browning's philosophy therefore is purely Christian. The love of God
revealed in the Incarnation and in our own ethical natures--our
imperfect souls containing here and now the possibilities of
infinite development--makes Browning believe that this is God's
world and we are God's children. He conceives of our life as an
eternal one, our existence here being merely probation. No one has
ever believed more rationally and more steadfastly in the future
life than our poet; and his optimism is based solidly on this faith.
The man who believes in the future life, he seems to say, may enjoy
whole-heartedly and enthusiastically the positive pleasures of this
world, and may endure with a firm mind its evils and its terrible
sufferings. Take Christianity out of Browning, and his whole
philosophy, with its cheerful outlook, falls to the ground. Of all
true English poets, he is the most definitely Christian, the most
sure of his ground. He wrote out his own evangelical creed in
_Christmas-Eve_ and _Easter Day_; but even if we did not have
these definite assurances, poems like _A Death in the Desert_ and
_Gold Hair_ would be sufficient.
Sequels are usually failures: the sequel to _Saul_ is a notable
exception to the rule. The first part of the poem, including the
first nine stanzas, was published among the _Dramatic Romances_ in
1845: in 1855, among the _Men and Women_, appeared the whole work,
containing ten additional stanzas. This sequel is fully up to the
standard of the original in artistic beauty, and contains a quite
new climax, of even greater intensity. The ninth stanza closes with
the cry "King Saul!"--he represents the last word of physical manhood,
the finest specimen on earth of the athlete. The eighteenth stanza
closes with the cry "See the Christ stand!"--He represents the climax
of all human history, the appearance on earth of God in man. The
first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from
heaven. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also
bear the image of the heavenly.
No modern Pagan has ever sung the joy of life with more gusto than
Browning trolls it out in the ninth stanza. The glorious play of the
muscles, the rapture of the chase, the delight of the plunge into
cold water, the delicious taste of food and wine, the unique
sweetness of deep sleep. No shame attaches to earthly delights: let
us rejoice in our health and strength, in exercise, recreation,
eating and sleeping. Saul was a cowboy before he was a King; and
young David in his music takes the great monarch back to the happy
carefree days on the pasture, before the responsibilities of the
crown had given him melancholia. The effect of music on patients
suffering from nervous depression is as well known now as it was in
Saul's day; Shakespeare knew something about it. His physicians are
sometimes admirable; the great nervous specialist called in on Lady
Macbeth's case is a model of wisdom and discretion: the specialist
that Queen Cordelia summoned to prescribe for her father, after
giving him trional, or something of that nature, was careful to have
his return to consciousness accompanied by suitable music. Such
terrible fits of melancholy as afflicted Saul were called in the Old
Testament the visitations of an evil spirit; and there is no better
diagnosis today. The Russian novelist Turgenev suffered exactly in
the manner in which Browning describes Saul's sickness of heart: for
several days he would remain in an absolute lethargy, like the
king-serpent in his winter sleep. And, as in the case of Saul, music
helped him more than medicine.
When David had carried the music to its fullest extent, the spirit
of prophecy came upon him, as in the Messianic Psalms, and in the
eighteenth stanza, he joyfully infers from the combination of man's
love and man's weakness, that God's love is equal to God's power.
Man's will is powerless to change the world of atoms: from God's
will stream the stars. Yet if man's will were equal in power to his
benevolence, how quickly would I, David, restore Saul to happiness!
The fact that I love my King with such intensity, whilst I am
powerless to change his condition, makes me believe in the coming of
Him who shall have my wish to help humanity with the accompanying
power. Man is contemptible in his strength, but divine in his ideals.
'Tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would do!
The last stanza of the poem has been thought by some critics to be a
mistake, worse than superfluous. For my part, I am very glad that
Browning added it. Up to this point, we have had exhibited the
effect of the music on Saul: now we see the effect on the man who
produced it, David. While it is of course impossible even to imagine
how a genius must feel immediately after releasing some immortal work
that has swollen his heart, we can not help making conjectures. If
we are so affected by _hearing_ the Ninth Symphony, what must have
been the sensations of Beethoven at its birth? When Haendel wrote the
Hallelujah Chorus, he declared that he saw the heavens opened, and
the Son of God sitting in glory, and I think he spoke the truth.
After Thackeray had written a certain passage in _Vanity Fair_, he
rushed wildly about the room, shouting "That's Genius!"
Now no man in the history of literature has been more reticent than
Browning in describing his emotions after virtue had passed out of
him. He never talked about his poetry if he could help it; and the
hundreds of people who met him casually met a fluent and pleasant
conversationalist, who gave not the slightest sign of ever having
been on the heights. We know, for example, that on the third day of
January, 1852, Browning wrote in his Paris lodgings to the
accompaniment of street omnibuses the wonderful poem _Childe Roland_:
what a marvellous day that must have been in his spiritual life! In
what a frenzy of poetic passion must have passed the hours when he
saw those astounding visions, and heard the blast of the horn in the
horrible sunset! He must have been inspired by the very demon of
poetry. And yet, so far as we know, he never told any one about that
day, nor left any written record either of that or any other of the
great moments in his life. In _The Ring and the Book_, he tells us
of the passion, mystery and wonder that filled his soul on the night
of the day when he had found the old yellow volume: but he has said
nothing of his sensations when he wrote the speech of Pompilia.
This is why I am glad he added the last stanza to _Saul_. It
purports to be a picture of David's drunken rapture, when, after the
inspiration had flowed through his soul, he staggered home through
the night. About him were angels, powers, unuttered, unseen, alive,
aware. The whole earth was awakened, hell loosed with her crews; the
stars of night beat with emotion. David is Browning himself; and the
poet is trying to tell us, in the only way possible to a man like
Browning, how the floods of his own genius affected him. He gives a
somewhat similar picture in _Abt Vogler_. It is not in the least
surprising that he could not write or talk to his friends about such
marvellous experiences. Can a man who has looked on the face of God,
and dwelt in the heavenly places, talk about it to others?
Furthermore this nineteenth stanza of _Saul_ contains a picture of
the dawn that has never been surpassed in poetry. Only those who
have spent nights in the great woods can really understand it.
Said Abner, "At last thou art come! Ere I tell, ere thou speak,
Kiss my cheek, wish me well!" Then I wished it, and did kiss his
And he: "Since the King, O my friend, for thy countenance sent,
Neither drunken nor eaten have we; nor until from his tent
Thou return with the joyful assurance the King liveth yet,
Shall our lip with the honey be bright, with the water be wet
For out of the black mid-tent's silence, a space of three days,
Not a sound hath escaped to thy servants, of prayer nor of praise,
To betoken that Saul and the Spirit have ended their strife,
And that, faint in his triumph, the monarch sinks back upon life."
"Yet now my heart leaps, O beloved! God's child with his dew
On thy gracious gold hair, and those lilies still living and blue
Just broken to twine round thy harp-strings, as if no wild heat
Were now raging to torture the desert!"
Then I, as was meet,
Knelt down to the God of my fathers, and rose on my feet,
And ran o'er the sand burnt to powder. The tent was unlooped;
I pulled up the spear that obstructed, and under I stooped;
Hands and knees on the slippery grass-patch, all withered and gone,
That extends to the second enclosure, I groped my way on
Till I felt where the foldskirts fly open. Then once more I prayed,
And opened the foldskirts and entered, and was not afraid
But spoke, "Here is David, thy servant!" And no voice replied.
At the first I saw naught but the blackness: but soon I descried
A something more black than the blackness--the vast, the upright
Main prop which sustains the pavilion: and slow into sight
Grew a figure against it, gigantic and blackest of all.
Then a sunbeam, that burst through the tent-roof, showed Saul.
He stood as erect as that tent-prop, both arms stretched out wide
On the great cross-support in the centre, that goes to each side;
He relaxed not a muscle, but hung there as, caught in his pangs
And waiting his change, the king-serpent all heavily hangs,
Far away from his kind, in the pine, till deliverance come
With the spring-time,--so agonized Saul, drear and stark,
blind and dumb.
Then I tuned my harp,--took off the lilies we twine round
Lest they snap 'neath the stress of the noontide--those sunbeams
And I first played the tune all our sheep know, as, one after one,
So docile they come to the pen-door till folding be done.
They are white and untorn by the bushes, for lo, they have fed
Where the long grasses stifle the water within the stream's bed;
And now one after one seeks its lodging, as star follows star
Into eve and the blue far above us,--so blue and so far!
--Then the tune for which quails on the corn-land will each leave
To fly after the player; then, what makes the crickets elate
Till for boldness they fight one another; and then, what has weight
To set the quick jerboa a-musing outside his sand house--
There are none such as he for a wonder, half bird and half mouse!
God made all the creatures and gave them our love and our fear,
To give sign, we and they are his children, one family here.
Then I played the help-tune of our reapers, their wine-song, when
Grasps at hand, eye lights eye in good friendship, and great
And grow one in the sense of this world's life.--And then, the
When the dead man is praised on his journey--"Bear, bear him along,
With his few faults shut up like dead flowerets! Are balm seeds
To console us? The land has none left such as he on the bier.
Oh, would we might keep thee, my brother!"--And then, the glad
Of the marriage,--first go the young maidens, next, she whom we
As the beauty, the pride of our dwelling.--And then, the great
Wherein man runs to man to assist him and buttress an arch
Naught can break; who shall harm them, our friends? Then, the
As the Levites go up to the altar in glory enthroned.
But I stopped here: for here in the darkness Saul groaned.
And I paused, held my breath in such silence, and listened apart;
And the tent shook, for mighty Saul shuddered: and sparkles 'gan
From the jewels that woke in his turban, at once with a start,
All its lordly male-sapphires, and rubies courageous at heart.
So the head: but the body still moved not, still hung there erect.
And I bent once again to my playing, pursued it unchecked,
As I sang:--
"Oh, our manhood's prime vigour! No spirit feels waste,
Not a muscle is stopped in its playing nor sinew unbraced.
Oh, the wild joys of living! the leaping from rock up to rock,
The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver
Of the plunge in a pool's living water, the hunt of the bear,
And the sultriness showing the lion is couched in his lair.
And the meal, the rich dates yellowed over with gold dust divine,
And the locust-flesh steeped in the pitcher, the full draught of
And the sleep in the dried river-channel where bulrushes tell
That the water was wont to go warbling so softly and well.
How good is man's life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses forever in joy!
Hast thou loved the white locks of thy father, whose sword thou
When he trusted thee forth with the armies, for glorious reward?
Didst thou see the thin hands of thy mother, held up as men sung
The low song of the nearly-departed, and hear her faint tongue
Joining in while it could to the witness, 'Let one more attest,
I have lived, seen God's hand through a lifetime, and all was for
Then they sung through their tears in strong triumph, not much,
but the rest.
And thy brothers, the help and the contest, the working whence grew
Such result as, from seething grape-bundles, the spirit strained
And the friends of thy boyhood--that boyhood of wonder and hope,
Present promise and wealth of the future beyond the eye's scope,--
Till lo, thou art grown to a monarch; a people is thine;
And all gifts, which the world offers singly, on one head combine!
On one head, all the beauty and strength, love and rage (like the
That, a-work in the rock, helps its labour and lets the gold go)
High ambition and deeds which surpass it, fame crowning them,--all
Brought to blaze on the head of one creature--King Saul!"
And lo, with that leap of my spirit,--heart, hand, harp and voice,
Each lifting Saul's name out of sorrow, each bidding rejoice
Saul's fame in the light it was made for--as when, dare I say,
The Lord's army, in rapture of service, strains through its array,
And upsoareth the cherubim-chariot--"Saul!" cried I, and stopped,
And waited the thing that should follow. Then Saul, who hung
By the tent's cross-support in the centre, was struck by his name.
Have ye seen when Spring's arrowy summons goes right to the aim,
And some mountain, the last to withstand her, that held (he alone,
While the vale laughed in freedom and flowers) on a broad bust of
A year's snow bound about for a breastplate,--leaves grasp of the
Fold on fold all at once it crowds thunderously down to his feet,
And there fronts you, stark, black, but alive yet, your mountain
With his rents, the successive bequeathings of ages untold--
Yea, each harm got in fighting your battles, each furrow and scar
Of his head thrust 'twixt you and the tempest--all hail, there
--Now again to be softened with verdure, again hold the nest
Of the dove, tempt the goat and its young to the green on his crest
For their food in the ardours of summer. One long shudder thrilled
All the tent till the very air tingled, then sank and was stilled
At the King's self left standing before me, released and aware.
What was gone, what remained? All to traverse 'twixt hope and
Death was past, life not come: so he waited. Awhile his right hand
Held the brow, helped the eyes left too vacant forthwith to remand
To their place what new objects should enter: 'twas Saul as before.
I looked up and dared gaze at those eyes, nor was hurt any more
Than by slow pallid sunsets in autumn, we watch from the shore,
At their sad level gaze o'er the ocean--a sun's slow decline
Over hills which, resolved in stern silence, o'erlap and entwine
Base with base to knit strength more intensely; so, arm folded arm
O'er the chest whose slow heavings subsided.
What spell or what charm,
(For awhile there was trouble within me,) what next should I urge
To sustain him where song had restored him?--one filled to the
His cup with the wine of this life, pressing all that it yields
Of mere fruitage, the strength and the beauty; beyond, on what
Glean a vintage more potent and perfect to brighten the eye
And bring blood to the lip, and commend them the cup they put by?
He saith, "It is good;" still he drinks not: he lets me praise life,
Gives assent, yet would die for his own part.
Then fancies grew rife
Which had come long ago on the pasture, when round me the sheep
Fed in silence--above, the one eagle wheeled slow as in sleep;
And I lay in my hollow and mused on the world that might lie
'Neath his ken, though I saw but the strip 'twixt the hill and the
And I laughed--"Since my days are ordained to be passed with my
Let me people at least, with my fancies, the plains and the rocks,
Dream the life I am never to mix with, and image the show
Of mankind as they live in those fashions I hardly shall know!
Schemes of life, its best rules and right uses, the courage that
And the prudence that keeps what men strive for." And now these
Of vague thought came again; I grew surer; so, once more the string
Of my harp made response to my spirit, as thus--
"Yea, my King,"
I began--"thou dost well in rejecting mere comforts that spring
From the mere mortal life held in common by man and by brute:
In our flesh grows the branch of this life, in our soul it bears
Thou hast marked the slow rise of the tree,--how its stem trembled
Till it passed the kid's lip, the stag's antler; then safely
The fan-branches all round; and thou mindest when these too, in
Broke a-bloom and the palm-tree seemed perfect: yet more was to
E'en the good that comes in with the palm-fruit. Our dates shall
When their juice brings a cure for all sorrow? or care for the
Of the palm's self whose slow growth produced them? Not so! stem
Shall decay, nor be known in their place, while the palm-wine
Every wound of man's spirit in winter. I pour thee such wine.
Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for! the spirit be thine!
By the spirit, when age shall o'ercome thee, thou still shalt enjoy
More indeed, than at first when inconscious, the life of a boy.
Crush that life, and behold its wine running! Each deed thou hast
Dies, revives, goes to work in the world; until e'en as the sun
Looking down on the earth, though clouds spoil him, though
Can find nothing his own deed produced not, must everywhere trace
The results of his past summer-prime,--so, each ray of thy will,
Every flash of thy passion and prowess, long over, shall thrill
Thy whole people, the countless, with ardor, till they too give
A like cheer to their sons, who in turn, fill the South and the
With the radiance thy deed was the germ of. Carouse in the past!
But the license of age has its limit; thou diest at last:
As the lion when age dims his eyeball, the rose at her height,
So with man--so his power and his beauty forever take flight.
No! Again a long draught of my soul-wine! Look forth o'er the years!
Thou hast done now with eyes for the actual; begin with the seer's!
Is Saul dead? In the depth of the vale make his tomb--bid arise
A gray mountain of marble heaped four-square, till, built to the
Let it mark where the great First King slumbers: whose fame would
Up above see the rock's naked face, where the record shall go
In great characters cut by the scribe,--Such was Saul, so he did;
With the sages directing the work, by the populace chid,--
For not half, they'll affirm, is comprised there! Which fault to
In the grove with his kind grows the cedar, whereon they shall
(See, in tablets 'tis level before them) their praise, and record
With the gold of the graver, Saul's story,--the statesman's great
Side by side with the poet's sweet comment. The river's a-wave
With smooth paper-reeds grazing each other when prophet-winds rave:
So the pen gives unborn generations their due and their part
In thy being! Then, first of the mighty, thank God that thou art!"
And behold while I sang ... but O Thou who didst grant me that day,
And before it not seldom hast granted thy help to essay,
Carry on and complete an adventure,--my shield and my sword
In that act where my soul was thy servant, thy word was my word,--
Still be with me, who then at the summit of human endeavour
And scaling the highest, man's thought could, gazed hopeless as
On the new stretch of heaven above me--till, mighty to save,
Just one lift of thy hand cleared that distance--God's throne from
Let me tell out my tale to its ending--my voice to my heart
Which can scarce dare believe in what marvels last night I took
As this morning I gather the fragments, alone with my sheep,
And still fear lest the terrible glory evanish like sleep!
For I wake in the gray dewy covert, while Hebron upheaves
The dawn struggling with night on his shoulder, and Kidron
Slow the damage of yesterday's sunshine.
I say then,--my song
While I sang thus, assuring the monarch, and ever more strong
Made a proffer of good to console him--he slowly resumed
His old motions and habitudes kingly. The right hand re-plumed
His black locks to their wonted composure, adjusted the swathes
Of his turban, and see--the huge sweat that his countenance bathes,
He wipes off with the robe; and he girds now his loins as of yore,
And feels slow for the armlets of price, with the clasp set before.
He is Saul, ye remember in glory,--ere error had bent
The broad brow from the daily communion; and still, though much
Be the life and the bearing that front you, the same, God did
To receive what a man may waste, desecrate, never quite lose.
So sank he along by the tent-prop till, stayed by the pile
Of his armour and war-cloak and garments, he leaned there awhile,
And sat out my singing,--one arm round the tent-prop, to raise
His bent head, and the other hung slack--till I touched on the
I foresaw from all men in all time, to the man patient there;
And thus ended, the harp falling forward. Then first I was 'ware
That he sat, as I say, with my head just above his vast knees
Which were thrust out on each side around me, like oak roots which
To encircle a lamb when it slumbers. I looked up to know
If the best I could do had brought solace: he spoke not, but slow
Lifted up the hand slack at his side, till he laid it with care
Soft and grave, but in mild settled will, on my brow: through my
The large fingers were pushed, and he bent back my head, with kind
All my face back, intent to peruse it, as men do a flower.
Thus held he me there with his great eyes that scrutinized mine--
And oh, all my heart how it loved him! but where was the sign?
I yearned--"Could I help thee, my father, inventing a bliss,
I would add, to that life of the past, both the future and this;
I would give thee new life altogether, as good, ages hence,
As this moment,--had love but the warrant, love's heart to dispense!"
Then the truth came upon me. No harp more--no song more! outbroke--
"I have gone the whole round of creation: I saw and I spoke:
I, a work of God's hand for that purpose, received in my brain
And pronounced on the rest of his handwork--returned him again
His creation's approval or censure: I spoke as I saw:
I report, as a man may of God's work--all's love, yet all's law.
Now I lay down the judgeship he lent me. Each faculty tasked
To perceive him, has gained an abyss, where a dewdrop was asked.
Have I knowledge? confounded it shrivels at Wisdom laid bare.
Have I forethought? how purblind, how blank, to the Infinite Care!
Do I task any faculty highest, to image success?
I but open my eyes,--and perfection, no more and no less,
In the kind I imagined, full-fronts me, and God is seen God
In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod.
And thus looking within and around me, I ever renew
(With that stoop of the soul which in bending upraises it too)
The submission of man's nothing-perfect to God's all-complete,
As by each new obeisance in spirit, I climb to his feet.
Yet with all this abounding experience, this deity known,
I shall dare to discover some province, some gift of my own.
There's a faculty pleasant to exercise, hard to hoodwink,
I am fain to keep still in abeyance, (I laugh as I think)
Lest, insisting to claim and parade in it, wot ye, I worst
E'en the Giver in one gift--Behold, I could love if I durst!
But I sink the pretension as fearing a man may o'ertake
God's own speed in the one way of love: I abstain for love's sake.
--What, my soul? see thus far and no farther? when doors great and
Nine-and-ninety flew ope at our touch, should the hundredth appall?
In the least things have faith, yet distrust in the greatest of all?
Do I find love so full in my nature, God's ultimate gift,
That I doubt his own love can compete with it? Here, the parts
Here, the creature surpass the Creator,--the end, what Began?
Would I fain in my impotent yearning do all for this man,
And dare doubt he alone shall not help him, who yet alone can?
Would it ever have entered my mind, the bare will, much less power,
To bestow on this Saul what I sang of, the marvellous dower
Of the life he was gifted and filled with? to make such a soul,
Such a body, and then such an earth for insphering the whole?
And doth it not enter my mind (as my warm tears attest)
These good things being given, to go on, and give one more, the
Ay, to save and redeem and restore him, maintain at the height
This perfection,--succeed with life's day-spring, death's minute
Interpose at the difficult minute, snatch Saul the mistake,
Saul the failure, the ruin he seems now,--and bid him awake
From the dream, the probation, the prelude, to find himself set
Clear and safe in new light and new life,--a new harmony yet
To be run, and continued, and ended--who knows?--or endure!
The man taught enough by life's dream, of the rest to make sure;
By the pain-throb, triumphantly winning intensified bliss,
And the next world's reward and repose, by the struggles in this."
"I believe it! 'Tis thou, God, that givest, 'tis I who receive:
In the first is the last, in thy will is my power to believe.
All's one gift: thou canst grant it moreover, as prompt to my
As I breathe out this breath, as I open these arms to the air.
From thy will stream the worlds, life and nature, thy dread Sabaoth:
_I_ will?--the mere atoms despise me! Why am I not loth
To look that, even that in the face too? Why is it I dare
Think but lightly of such impuissance? What stops my despair?
This;--'tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would
See the King--I would help him but cannot, the wishes fall through.
Could I wrestle to raise him from sorrow, grow poor to enrich,
To fill up his life, starve my own out, I would--knowing which,
I know that my service is perfect. Oh, speak through me now!
Would I suffer for him that I love? So wouldst thou--so wilt thou!
So shall crown thee the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown--
And thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up nor down
One spot for the creature to stand in! It is by no breath,
Turn of eye, wave of hand, that salvation joins issue with death!
As thy Love is discovered almighty, almighty be proved
Thy power, that exists with and for it, of being Beloved!
He who did most, shall bear most; the strongest shall stand the
'Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me,
Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever: a Hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ
I know not too well how I found my way home in the night.
There were witnesses, cohorts about me, to left and to right,
Angels, powers, the unuttered, unseen, the alive, the aware:
I repressed, I got through them as hardly, as strugglingly there,
As a runner beset by the populace famished for news--
Life or death. The whole earth was awakened, hell loosed with her
And the stars of night beat with emotion, and tingled and shot
Out in fire the strong pain of pent knowledge: but I fainted not,
For the Hand still impelled me at once and supported, suppressed
All the tumult, and quenched it with quiet, and holy behest,
Till the rapture was shut in itself, and the earth sank to rest.
Anon at the dawn, all that trouble had withered from earth--
Not so much, but I saw it die out in the day's tender birth;
In the gathered intensity brought to the grey of the hills;
In the shuddering forests' held breath; in the sudden wind-thrills;
In the startled wild beasts that bore off, each with eye sidling
Though averted with wonder and dread; in the birds stiff and chill
That rose heavily, as I approached them, made stupid with awe:
E'en the serpent that slid away silent,--he felt the new law.
The same stared in the white humid faces upturned by the flowers;
The same worked in the heart of the cedar and moved the vine-bowers:
And the little brooks witnessing murmured, persistent and low,
With their obstinate, all but hushed voices--"E'en so, it is so!"
On a clear, warm day in March, 1912, I stood on the Piazza Michel
Angelo in Florence, with a copy of Browning in my hand, and gazed
with delight on the panorama of the fair city below. Then I read
aloud the first two stanzas of _Old Pictures in Florence_, and
realised for the thousandth time the definiteness of Browning's
poetry. This particular poem is a mixture of art and doggerel; but
even the latter is interesting to lovers of Florence.
Not a churlish saint, Lorenzo Monaco?
Did you ever stand in front of the picture by Lorenzo that Browning
had in mind, and observe the churlish saints? Most saints in Italian
pictures look either happy or complacent; because they have just
been elected to the society of heaven and are in for life. But for
some strange reason, Lorenzo's saints, although in the Presence, and
worshipping with music, look as if they were suffering from acute
indigestion. If one will wander about the galleries of Florence, and
take along Browning, one will find the poet more specifically
informing than Baedeker.
The philosophy of this poem is Browning's favorite philosophy of
development. He compares the perfection of Greek art with the
imperfection of the real human body. We know what a man ought to
look like; and if we have forgotten, we may behold a representation
by a Greek sculptor. Stand at the corner of a city street, and watch
the men pass; they are caricatures of the manly form. Yet ludicrously
ugly as they are, the intention is clear; we see even in these
degradations, what the figure of a man ought to be. In Greek art:
The Truth of Man, as by God first spoken,
Which the actual generations garble,
_Which the actual generations garble_--men as we see them are
clumsy and garbled versions of the original. But there is no value
in lamenting this; it is idle for men to gaze with regret and
longing at the Apollo Belvedere. It is much better to remember that
Perfection and Completion spell Death: only Imperfection has a future.
What if the souls in our ridiculously ugly bodies become greater and
grander than the marble men of Pheidias? Giotto's unfinished
Campanile is nobler than the perfect zero he drew for the Pope. In
our imperfect minds, housed in our over-fat, over-lean, and always
commonplace bodies, exists the principle of development, for whose
steady advance eternity is not too long. Statues belong to time: man
For some strange reason, no tourist ever goes to Fano. One reason
why I went there was simply because I had never met a person of any
nationality who had ever seen the town. Yet it is easily accessible,
very near Ancona, the scene of the _Grammarian's Funeral_, and the
place where Browning wrote _The Guardian Angel_. One day Mr. and
Mrs. Browning, walking about Fano, came to the church of San Agostino,
in no way a remarkable edifice, and there in the tiny chapel, over
the altar, they found Guercino's masterpiece. Its calm and serene
beauty struck an immortal poem out of Browning's heart; and thanks
to the poet, the picture is now one of the most familiar in the world.
But no copy comes near the ineffable charm of the original, as one
sees it in the dim light of the chapel.
The child on the tomb is looking past the angel's face into the
glory of heaven; but the poet, who wishes that he might take the
place of the little child, declares that he would gaze, not toward
heaven, but into the gracious face of the bird of God. If we could
only see life as the angel sees it, if we could only see the whole
course of history, we should then realise that:
All is beauty:
And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.
We can not see the forest for the trees: the last place to obtain an
idea of the range, grandeur, and beauty of a forest, is in it: one
should climb a high mountain and look over its vast extent. So we,
in life, "where men sit and hear each other groan," believe that the
world is some dreadful mistake, full of meaningless anguish. This is
because we are in the midst of it all: we can not see far: the
nearest objects, though infinitesimal in size, loom enormous, as
with the palm of your hand you can cut off the sun. But if we could
only see the end from the beginning, if we could get the angel's
view-point, the final result would be beauty. Browning is not
satisfied with Keats's doctrine:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
He shows us what happened to Aprile with this philosophy. Browning
adds the doctrine of love. The moment we realise that the universe
is conceived in terms of beauty, love fills our hearts: love for our
fellow-beings, who are making the journey through life with us; and
love for God, the author of it all, just as a child loves one who
gives it the gift of its heart's desire. That the supreme duty of
life is love is simply one more illustration of Browning's steadfast
adherence to the Gospel of Christ.
A PICTURE AT FANO
Dear and great Angel, wouldst thou only leave
That child, when thou hast done with him, for me!
Let me sit all the day here, that when eve
Shall find performed thy special ministry,
And time come for departure, thou, suspending
Thy flight, mayst see another child for tending,
Another still, to quiet and retrieve.
Then I shall feel thee step one step, no more,
From where thou standest now, to where I gaze,
--And suddenly my head is covered o'er
With those wings, white above the child who prays
Now on that tomb--and I shall feel thee guarding
Me, out of all the world; for me, discarding
Yon heaven thy home, that waits and opes its door.
I would not look up thither past thy head
Because the door opes, like that child, I know,
For I should have thy gracious face instead,
Thou bird of God! And wilt thou bend me low
Like him, and lay, like his, my hands together,
And lift them up to pray, and gently tether
Me, as thy lamb there, with thy garment's spread?
If this was ever granted, I would rest
My head beneath thine, while thy healing hands
Close-covered both my eyes beside thy breast,
Pressing the brain, which too much thought expands,
Back to its proper size again, and smoothing
Distortion down till every nerve had soothing,
And all lay quiet, happy and suppressed.
How soon all worldly wrong would be repaired!
I think how I should view the earth and skies
And sea, when once again my brow was bared
After thy healing, with such different eyes.
O world, as God has made it! All is beauty:
And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.
What further may be sought for or declared?
Guercino drew this angel I saw teach
(Alfred, dear friend!)--that little child to pray,
Holding the little hands up, each to each
Pressed gently,--with his own head turned away
Over the earth where so much lay before him
Of work to do, though heaven was opening o'er him,
And he was left at Fano by the beach.
We were at Fano, and three times we went
To sit and see him in his chapel there,
And drink his beauty to our soul's content
--My angel with me too: and since I care
For dear Guercino's fame (to which in power
And glory comes this picture for a dower,
Fraught with a pathos so magnificent)--
And since he did not work thus earnestly
At all times, and has else endured some wrong--
I took one thought his picture struck from me,
And spread it out, translating it to song.
My love is here. Where are you, dear old friend?
How rolls the Wairoa at your world's far end?
This is Ancona, yonder is the sea.
The three poems, _Caliban on Setebos, Rabbi Ben Ezra_, and _A Death
in the Desert_, should be read in that order; for there is a logical
order in the thought. The first is God as an amphibious brute would
imagine him: the second is noble Hebrew theism: the third is the
Christian God of Love. Whilst the second is the finest poem of the
three, the first is the most original. The word "upon" is ironical:
it is Caliban's treatise on theology. We read Caliban on God, as we
read Mill on Political Economy: for Caliban, like many a human
theologian, does not scruple to speak the last word on the nature of
the Supreme Being. The citation from the Psalms is a rebuke to gross
anthropomorphism: Caliban, like the Puritans, has simply made God in
his own image.
The difference between Shakespeare's and Browning's Caliban is
simply the difference between Shakespeare and Browning. Shakespeare
made the monster for decorative purposes, to satisfy his love of the
grotesque, as an architect placed gargoyles on a cathedral: the
grotesque is an organic part of romantic art. Browning is interested
not in Caliban's appearance, but in his processes of thought.
Suppose a monster, half fish, half beast, living with supreme
comfort in the slime, could think: what kind of God would he imagine
had created this world?
Caliban speaks in the third person (does Browning make a slip when
he changes occasionally to the first?) in order to have indicated
the low order of his intelligence; just as a little child says,
"Don't hurt her: she hasn't done anything wrong." He is lying in
liquid refuse, with little lizards deliciously tickling his spine
(such things are entirely a matter of taste, what would be odious to
us would be heaven to a sow) and having nothing to do for the moment,
like a man in absolute leisure, turns his thoughts to God. He
believes that God is neither good nor bad, but simply capricious.
What's the use of being God, if you can't do what you like? He
treats earth's creatures as a wanton boy treats his toys; they belong
to me; why shouldn't I break them if I choose? No one ought to
complain of misfortunes: you can not expect God is going to reward
the virtuous and punish the guilty. He has no standards whatever.
Just as I, Caliban, sit here and watch a procession of crabs: I
might lazily make up my mind, in a kind of sporting interest, to
count them as they pass; to let twenty go in safety, and smash the
twenty-first, loving not, hating not, just choosing so. When I feel
like it, I help some creatures; if in another mood, I torment others;
that's the way God treats us, that's the way I would act if I were
As Caliban's theology has much of the human in it, so his practical
reasoning is decidedly human in its superstition. Granted that we
are in the hands of a childish and capricious God, who amuses himself
with torturing us, who laughs at our faces distorted with pain, what
is the thing we ought to do? How shall we best manage? Caliban's
advice is dear: don't let Him notice you: don't get prominent: above
all, never boast of your good fortune, for that will surely draw
God's attention, and He will put you where you belong. This
superstition, that God is against us, is deep-seated in human nature,
as the universal practice of "touching wood" sufficiently
demonstrates. If a man says, "I haven't had a cold this winter," his
friends will advise him to touch wood; and if he wakes up the next
morning snuffling, he will probably soliloquise, "What a fool I was!
Why couldn't I keep still? Why did I have to mention it? Now see
what I've got!"
Caliban disagreed with his mother Sycorax on one important point.
She believed in the future life. Caliban says such a belief is absurd.
There can be nothing worse than this life. Its good moments are
simply devices of God to strengthen us so that He can torture us
again, just as in the good old times the executioners gave the
sufferers they were tormenting some powerful stimulant, so that they
might return to consciousness and suffer; for nothing cheated the
spectators worse than to have the victim die during the early stages
of the torture. The object was to keep the wretch alive as long as
possible. Thus in this life we have moments of comparative ease and
rest, wherein we recuperate a little, just as the cat lets the mouse
recover strength enough to imagine he is going to get away.
Caliban is of course an absolute and convinced pessimist. A
malevolent giant is not so bad a God as an insane child. And
Browning means that pessimism is what we should naturally expect
from so rudimentary an intellect as Caliban's, which judges the
whole order of the universe from proximate and superficial evidences.
The close of the poem is a good commentary on some human ideas of
what kind of service is pleasing to God. Poor Caliban! he had saved
up some quails, meaning to have a delicious meal. But in his fear he
cries to God, I will let them fly, if you will only spare me this
time! I will not eat whelks for a month, I will eat no chocolates
during Lent, anything to please God!
CALIBAN UPON SETEBOS; OR, NATURAL THEOLOGY IN THE ISLAND
"Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself."
['Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire,
With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin.
And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
And feels about his spine small eft-things course,
Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh:
And while above his head a pompion-plant,
Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard,
And now a flower drops with a bee inside,
And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch,--
He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross
And recross till they weave a spider-web
(Meshes of fire, some great fish breaks at times)
And talks to his own self, howe'er he please,
Touching that other, whom his dam called God.
Because to talk about Him, vexes--ha,
Could He but know! and time to vex is now,
When talk is safer than in winter-time.
Moreover Prosper and Miranda sleep
In confidence he drudges at their task,
And it is good to cheat the pair, and gibe,
Letting the rank tongue blossom into speech.]
Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.
'Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,
But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;
Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:
Also this isle, what lives and grows thereon,
And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same.
'Thinketh, it came of being ill at ease:
He hated that He cannot change His cold,
Nor cure its ache. 'Hath spied an icy fish
That longed to 'scape the rock-stream where she lived,
And thaw herself within the lukewarm brine
O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid,
A crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave;
Only, she ever sickened, found repulse
At the other kind of water, not her life,
(Green-dense and dim-delicious, bred o' the sun)
Flounced back from bliss she was not born to breathe,
And in her old bounds buried her despair,
Hating and loving warmth alike: so He
Thinketh, He made thereat the sun, this isle,
Trees and the fowls here, beast and creeping thing.
Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech;
Yon auk, one fire-eye in a ball of foam,
That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown
He hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eye
By moonlight; and the pie with the long tongue
That pricks deep into oakwarts for a worm,
And says a plain word when she finds her prize,
But will not eat the ants; the ants themselves
That build a wall of seeds and settled stalks
About their hole--He made all these and more,
Made all we see, and us, in spite: how else?
He could not, Himself, make a second self
To be His mate; as well have made Himself:
He would not make what he mislikes or slights,
An eyesore to Him, or not worth His pains:
But did, in envy, listlessness or sport,
Make what Himself would fain, in a manner, be--
Weaker in most points, stronger in a few,
Worthy, and yet mere playthings all the while,
Things He admires and mocks too,--that is it.
Because, so brave, so better though they be,
It nothing skills if He begin to plague.
Look now, I melt a gourd-fruit into mash,
Add honeycomb and pods, I have perceived,
Which bite like finches when they bill and kiss,--
Then, when froth rises bladdery, drink up all,
Quick, quick, till maggots scamper through my brain;
Last, throw me on my back i' the seeded thyme,
And wanton, wishing I were born a bird.
Put case, unable to be what I wish,
I yet could make a live bird out of clay:
Would not I take clay, pinch my Caliban
Able to fly?--for, there, see, he hath wings,
And great comb like the hoopoe's to admire,
And there, a sting to do his foes offence,
There, and I will that he begin to live,
Fly to yon rock-top, nip me off the horns
Of grigs high up that make the merry din,
Saucy through their veined wings, and mind me not.
In which feat, if his leg snapped, brittle clay,
And he lay stupid-like,--why, I should laugh;
And if he, spying me, should fall to weep,
Beseech me to be good, repair his wrong,
Bid his poor leg smart less or grow again,--
Well, as the chance were, this might take or else
Not take my fancy: I might hear his cry,
And give the mankin three sound legs for one,
Or pluck the other off, leave him like an egg,
And lessoned he was mine and merely clay.
Were this no pleasure, lying in the thyme,
Drinking the mash, with brain become alive,
Making and marring clay at will? So He.
'Thinketh, such shows nor right nor wrong in Him,
Nor kind, nor cruel: He is strong and Lord.
'Am strong myself compared to yonder crabs
That march now from the mountain to the sea;
'Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first,
Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.
'Say, the first straggler that boasts purple spots
Shall join the file, one pincer twisted off;
'Say, this bruised fellow shall receive a worm,
And two worms he whose nippers end in red;
As it likes me each time, I do: so He.
Well then, 'supposeth He is good i' the main,
Placable if His mind and ways were guessed,
But rougher than His handiwork, be sure!
Oh, He hath made things worthier than Himself,
And envieth that, so helped, such things do more
Than He who made them! What consoles but this?
That they, unless through Him, do nought at all,
And must submit: what other use in things?
'Hath cut a pipe of pithless elder-joint
That, blown through, gives exact the scream o' the jay
When from her wing you twitch the feathers blue:
Sound this, and little birds that hate the jay
Flock within stone's throw, glad their foe is hurt:
Put case such pipe could prattle and boast forsooth
"I catch the birds, I am the crafty thing,
I make the cry my maker cannot make
With his great round mouth; he must blow through mine!"
Would not I smash it with my foot? So He.
But wherefore rough, why cold and ill at ease?
Aha, that is a question! Ask, for that,
What knows,--the something over Setebos
That made Him, or He, may be, found and fought,
Worsted, drove off and did to nothing, perchance.
There may be something quiet o'er His head,
Out of His reach, that feels nor joy nor grief,
Since both derive from weakness in some way.
I joy because the quails come; would not joy
Could I bring quails here when I have a mind:
This Quiet, all it hath a mind to, doth.
'Esteemeth stars the outposts of its couch,
But never spends much thought nor care that way.
It may look up, work up,--the worse for those
It works on! 'Careth but for Setebos
The many-handed as a cuttle-fish,
Who, making Himself feared through what He does,
Looks up, first, and perceives he cannot soar
To what is quiet and hath happy life;
Next looks down here, and out of very spite
Makes this a bauble-world to ape yon real,
These good things to match those as hips do grapes.
'Tis solace making baubles, ay, and sport.
Himself peeped late, eyed Prosper at his books
Careless and lofty, lord now of the isle:
Vexed, 'stitched a book of broad leaves, arrow-shaped,
Wrote thereon, he knows what, prodigious words;
Has peeled a wand and called it by a name;
Weareth at whiles for an enchanter's robe
The eyed skin of a supple oncelot;
And hath an ounce sleeker than youngling mole,
A four-legged serpent he makes cower and couch,
Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,
And saith she is Miranda and my wife:
'Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane
He bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge;
Also a sea-beast, lumpish, which he snared,
Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame,
And split its toe-webs, and now pens the drudge
In a hole o' the rock and calls him Caliban;
A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.
'Plays thus at being Prosper in a way,
Taketh his mirth with make-believes: so He.
His dam held that the Quiet made all things
Which Setebos vexed only: 'holds not so.
Who made them weak, meant weakness He might vex,
Had He meant other, while His hand was in,
Why not make horny eyes no thorn could prick,
Or plate my scalp with bone against the snow,
Or overscale my flesh 'neath joint and joint,
Like an orc's armour? Ay,--so spoil His sport!
He is the One now: only He doth all.
'Saith, He may like, perchance, what profits Him.
Ay, himself loves what does him good; but why?
'Gets good no otherwise. This blinded beast