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Robert Browning: How To Know Him by William Lyon Phelps

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Loves whoso places flesh-meat on his nose,
But, had he eyes, would want no help, but hate
Or love, just as it liked him: He hath eyes.
Also it pleaseth Setebos to work,
Use all His hands, and exercise much craft,
By no means for the love of what is worked.
'Tasteth, himself, no finer good i' the world
When all goes right, in this safe summer-time,
And he wants little, hungers, aches not much,
Than trying what to do with wit and strength.
'Falls to make something: 'piled yon pile of turfs,
And squared and stuck there squares of soft white chalk,
And, with a fish-tooth, scratched a moon on each,
And set up endwise certain spikes of tree,
And crowned the whole with a sloth's skull a-top,
Found dead i' the woods, too hard for one to kill.
No use at all i' the work, for work's sole sake;
'Shall some day knock it down again: so He.
'Saith He is terrible: watch His feats in proof!
One hurricane will spoil six good months' hope.
He hath a spite against me, that I know,
Just as He favours Prosper, who knows why?
So it is, all the same, as well I find.
'Wove wattles half the winter, fenced them firm
With stone and stake to stop she-tortoises
Crawling to lay their eggs here: well, one wave,
Feeling the foot of Him upon its neck,
Gaped as a snake does, lolled out its large tongue,
And licked the whole labour flat: so much for spite.
'Saw a ball flame down late (yonder it lies)
Where, half an hour before, I slept i' the shade:
Often they scatter sparkles: there is force!
'Dug up a newt He may have envied once
And turned to stone, shut up inside a stone.
Please Him and hinder this?--What Prosper does?
Aha, if He would tell me how! Not He!
There is the sport: discover how or die!
All need not die, for of the things o' the isle
Some flee afar, some dive, some run up trees;
Those at His mercy,--why, they please Him most
When ... when ... well, never try the same way twice!
Repeat what act has pleased, He may grow wroth.
You must not know His ways, and play Him off,
Sure of the issue. 'Doth the like himself:
'Spareth a squirrel that it nothing fears
But steals the nut from underneath my thumb,
And when I threat, bites stoutly in defence:
'Spareth an urchin that contrariwise,
Curls up into a ball, pretending death
For fright at my approach: the two ways please.
But what would move my choler more than this,
That either creature counted on its life
To-morrow and next day and all days to come,
Saying, forsooth, in the inmost of its heart,
"Because he did so yesterday with me,
And otherwise with such another brute,
So must he do henceforth and always."--Ay?
Would teach the reasoning couple what "must" means!
'Doth as he likes, or wherefore Lord? So He.

'Conceiveth all things will continue thus,
And we shall have to live in fear of Him
So long as He lives, keeps His strength: no change,
If He have done His best, make no new world
To please Him more, so leave off watching this,--
If He surprise not even the Quiet's self
Some strange day,--or, suppose, grow into it
As grubs grow butterflies: else, here are we,
And there is He, and nowhere help at all.

'Believeth with the life, the pain shall stop.
His dam held different, that after death
He both plagued enemies and feasted friends:
Idly! He doth His worst in this our life,
Giving just respite lest we die through pain,
Saving last pain for worst,--with which, an end.
Meanwhile, the best way to escape His ire
Is, not to seem too happy. 'Sees, himself,
Yonder two flies, with purple films and pink,
Bask on the pompion-bell above: kills both.
'Sees two black painful beetles roll their ball
On head and tail as if to save their lives:
Moves them the stick away they strive to clear.

Even so, 'would have Him misconceive, suppose
This Caliban strives hard and ails no less,
And always, above all else, envies Him;
Wherefore he mainly dances on dark nights,
Moans in the sun, gets under holes to laugh,
And never speaks his mind save housed as now:
Outside, 'groans, curses. If He caught me here,
O'erheard this speech, and asked "What chucklest at?"
'Would, to appease Him, cut a finger off,
Or of my three kid yearlings burn the best,
Or let the toothsome apples rot on tree,
Or push my tame beast for the ore to taste:
While myself lit a fire, and made a song
And sung it, "_What I hate, be consecrate
To celebrate Thee and Thy state, no mate
For Thee; what see for envy in poor me_"?
Hoping the while, since evils sometimes mend,
Warts rub away and sores are cured with slime,
That some strange day, will either the Quiet catch
And conquer Setebos, or likelier He
Decrepit may doze, doze, as good as die.

* * * * *

[What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!
Crickets stop hissing; not a bird--or, yes,
There scuds His raven that has told Him all!
It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
And fast invading fires begin! White blaze--
A tree's head snaps--and there, there, there, there, there,
His thunder follows! Fool to gibe at Him!
Lo! 'Lieth flat and loveth Setebos!
'Maketh his teeth meet through his upper lip,
Will let those quails fly, will not eat this month
One little mess of whelks, so he may 'scape!]

In the great poem _Rabbi Ben Ezra_, a quite different reason from
that of Caliban's is suggested for the drawbacks and sufferings of
life. They are a part of the divine machinery employed by infinite
wisdom to further human development, to make us ultimately fit to
see His face. There can be no true progress without obstacles: no
enjoyment without its opposite: no vacation without duties: no virtue
without sin.

The second line of the poem is startling in its direct contradiction
of the language and lamentation of conventional poetry. Regret for
lost youth and terror before old age are stock ideas in poetry, and
in human meditation; but here we are invited to look forward to old
age as the best time of life. Not to grow old gracefully, in
resignation, but to grow old eagerly, in triumph--this is the
Rabbi's suggestion. There is not the slightest doubt that he is right,
provided one lives a mental, rather than an animal existence. A
short time ago, Mr. Joseph H. Choate was addressing a large company
in New York: he said, "Unquestionably the best period of life is the
time between seventy and eighty years of age: and I advise you all
to hurry up and get there as soon as you can."

God loveth whom He chasteneth. Our doubts and fears, our sorrows and
pains, are spurs, stimulants to advance; rejoice that we have them,
for they are proofs that we are alive and moving!

In the seventh stanza comes an audacious but cheering thought. Many
thinkers regard the deepest sorrow of life as rising from the
disparity between our ideals and our achievement; Schiller, in his
poem, _Das Ideal und das Leben_, has expressed this cause of woe in
beautiful language. Browning says boldly,

What I aspired to be,
And was not, _comforts_ me:

This paradox, which comforts while it mocks, means, "My achievements
are ridiculously small in comparison with my hopes, my ambitions, my
dreams: thank God for all this! Thank God I was not content with low
aims, thank God I had my aspirations and have them still: they point
to future development."

In the twenty-third, twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth stanzas,
Browning suddenly returns to this idea: in the appraisement of the
human soul, efforts, which if unsuccessful, count for nothing in
worldly estimation, pay an enormous ultimate dividend, and must
therefore be rated high. The reason why the world counts only things
done and not things attempted, is because the world's standards are
too coarse: they are adapted only for gross and obvious results. You
can not weigh diamonds on hay scales: the indicator would show
precisely nothing. And yet one diamond, too fine for these huge
scales, might be of more value than thousands of tons of hay.

From the twenty-sixth stanza to the end, Browning takes up the
figure of the Potter, the Wheel, and the Clay. I think that he was
drawn to use this metaphor, not from Scripture, but as a protest
against the use of it in Fitzgerald's _Omar Khayyam_. Fitzgerald
published his translation in 1859; and although it attracted no
public attention, it is certainly possible that Browning saw it. He
would have enjoyed its melodious beauty, but the philosophy of the
poem would have been to him detestable and abhorrent. Much is made
there of the Potter, meaning blind destiny: and the moral is,
"Drink! the Past gone, seize To-day!" Browning explicitly rejects
and scorns this teaching: it is propounded by fools for the benefit
of other fools.

Fool! all that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What entered into thee,
_That_ was, is, and shall be:
Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.

In Browning's metaphor, the Potter is God: the Wheel is the whirling
course of life's experiences: the Clay is man. God holds us on the
wheel to turn us into the proper shape. Owing to our flaws, the
strain is sometimes too great, and some of us are warped and twisted
by this stern discipline: other characters, made of better material,
constantly grow more beautiful and more serviceable under the
treatment. Browning had suffered the greatest sorrow of his life
when he wrote this poem, and yet he had faith enough to say in the
thirty-first stanza, that _not even while the whirl was worst_, did
he, bound dizzily to the terrible wheel of life, once lose his belief
that he was in God's hands and that the deep cuttings were for his
ultimate benefit.

In the making of a cup, the Potter engraved around the base lovely
images of youth and pleasure, and near the rim skulls and signs of
death: but what is a cup for? It is meant for the Master's lips. The
nearer therefore we approach to death, the nearer we are to God's
presence, who is making us fit to slake His thirst. Finished at last,
we are done forever with life's wheel: we come to the banquet, the
festal board, lamp's flash and trumpet's peal, the glorious
appearance of the Master.

RABBI BEN EZRA

1864

I

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all nor be afraid!"

II

Not that, amassing flowers,
Youth sighed "Which rose make ours,
Which lily leave and then as best recall?"
Not that, admiring stars,
It yearned "Nor Jove, nor Mars;
Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!"

III

Not for such hopes and fears
Annulling youth's brief years,
Do I remonstrate: folly wide the mark!
Rather I prize the doubt
Low kinds exist without,
Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.

IV

Poor vaunt of life indeed,
Were man but formed to feed
On joy, to solely seek and find and feast:
Such feasting ended, then
As sure an end to men;
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?

V

Rejoice we are allied
To That which doth provide
And not partake, effect and not receive!
A spark disturbs our clod;
Nearer we hold of God
Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe.

VI

Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!

VII

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

VIII

What is he but a brute
Whose flesh has soul to suit,
Whose spirit works lest arms and legs want play?
To man, propose this test--
Thy body at its best,
How far can that project thy soul on its lone way?

IX

Yet gifts should prove their use:
I own the Past profuse
Of power each side, perfection every turn:
Eyes, ears took in their dole,
Brain treasured up the whole;
Should not the heart beat once "How good to live and learn?"

X

Not once beat "Praise be Thine!
I see the whole design,
I, who saw power, see now love perfect too:
Perfect I call Thy plan:
Thanks that I was a man!
Maker, remake, complete,--I trust what Thou shalt do!"

XI

For pleasant is this flesh;
Our soul, in its rose-mesh
Pulled ever to the earth, still yearns for rest;
Would we some prize might hold
To match those manifold
Possessions of the brute,--gain most, as we did best!

XII

Let us not always say
"Spite of this flesh to-day
I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole!"
As the bird wings and sings,
Let us cry "All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!"

XIII

Therefore I summon age
To grant youth's heritage,
Life's struggle having so far reached its term:
Thence shall I pass, approved
A man, for aye removed
From the developed brute; a god though in the germ.

XIV

And I shall thereupon
Take rest, ere I be gone
Once more on my adventure brave and new:
Fearless and unperplexed,
When I wage battle next,
What weapons to select, what armour to indue.

XV

Youth ended, I shall try
My gain or loss thereby;
Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
And I shall weigh the same,
Give life its praise or blame:
Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old.

XVI

For note, when evening shuts,
A certain moment cuts
The deed off, calls the glory from the grey:
A whisper from the west
Shoots--"Add this to the rest,
Take it and try its worth: here dies another day."

XVII

So, still within this life,
Though lifted o'er its strife,
Let me discern, compare, pronounce at last,
"This rage was right i' the main,
That acquiescence vain:
The Future I may face now I have proved the Past"

XVIII

For more is not reserved
To man, with soul just nerved
To act to-morrow what he learns to-day:
Here, work enough to watch
The Master work, and catch
Hints of the proper craft, tricks of the tool's true play.

XIX

As it was better, youth
Should strive, through acts uncouth,
Toward making, than repose on aught found made:
So, better, age, exempt
From strife, should know, than tempt
Further. Thou waitedest age: wait death nor be afraid!

XX

Enough now, if the Right
And Good and Infinite
Be named here, as thou callest thy hand thine own,
With knowledge absolute,
Subject to no dispute
From fools that crowded youth, nor let thee feel alone.

XXI

Be there, for once and all,
Severed great minds from small,
Announced to each his station in the Past!
Was I, the world arraigned,
Were they, my soul disdained,
Right? Let age speak the truth and give us peace at last!

XXII

Now, who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
Ten, who in ears and eyes
Match me: we all surmise,
They this thing, and I that: whom shall my soul believe?

XXIII

Not on the vulgar mass
Called "work," must sentence pass,
Things done, that took the eye and had the price;
O'er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice:

XXIV

But all, the world's coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb,
So passed in making up the main account;
All instincts immature,
All purposes unsure,
That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man's amount:

XXV

Thoughts hardly to be packed
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
All I could ever be,
All, men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.

XXVI

Ay, note that Potter's wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,--
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,
"Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!"

XXVII

Fool! All that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What entered into thee,
_That_ was, is, and shall be:
Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.

XXVIII

He fixed thee mid this dance
Of plastic circumstance,
This Present, thou, forsooth, wouldst fain arrest:
Machinery just meant
To give thy soul its bent,
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed.

XXIX

What though the earlier grooves
Which ran the laughing loves
Around thy base, no longer pause and press?
What though, about thy rim,
Scull-things in order grim
Grow out, in graver mood, obey the sterner stress?

XXX

Look not thou down but up!
To uses of a cup,
The festal board, lamp's flash and trumpet's peal,
The new wine's foaming flow,
The Master's lips a-glow!
Thou, heaven's consummate cup, what need'st thou with earth's wheel?

XXXI

But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I,--to the wheel of life
With shapes and colours rife,
Bound dizzily,--mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst:

XXXII

So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o' the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

Browning wrote four remarkable poems dealing with music: _A Toccata
of Galuppi's_, _Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha_, _Abt Vogler_, and
_Charles Avison_. In _Abt Vogler_ the miracle of extemporisation
has just been accomplished. The musician sits at the keys, tears
running down his face: tears of weakness, because of the storm of
divine inspiration that has passed through him: tears of sorrow,
because he never can recapture the fine, careless rapture of his
unpremeditated music: tears of joy, because he knows that on this
particular day he has been the channel chosen by the Infinite God.

If he had only been an architect, his dream would have remained in a
permanent form. The armies of workmen would have done his will, and
the world would have admired it for ages. If he had only been a poet
or a painter, his inspiration would have taken the form of fixed
type or enduring shape and color: but in the instance of music, the
armies of thoughts that have worked together in absolute harmony to
elevate the noble building of sound, which has risen like an
exhalation, have vanished together with the structure they animated.
It has gone like the wonderful beauty of some fantastic cloud.

His sorrow at this particular irreparable loss gives way to rapture
as he reflects on the source whence came the inspiration. He could
not possibly have _constructed_ such wonderful music: it was the God
welling up within him: for this past hour divine inspiration has
spoken through him. He has had one glimpse at the Celestial Radiance.
How can he now think that the same God who expanded his heart lacks
the power to fill it? The Source from whence this river came must be
inexhaustible, and it was vouchsafed to him to feel for a short time
its infinite richness. The broken arcs on earth are the earnest of
the perfect round in heaven.

Abt Vogler says that the philosophers may each make his guess at the
meaning of this earthly scheme of weal and woe: but the musicians,
the musicians who have felt in their own bosoms the presence of the
Divine Power and heard its marvellous voice,--why, the philosophers
may reason and welcome: 'tis we musicians know!

ABT VOGLER

(AFTER HE HAS BEEN EXTEMPORISING UPON THE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT
OF HIS INVENTION)

1864

I

Would that the structure brave, the manifold music I build,
Bidding my organ obey, calling its keys to their work,
Claiming each slave of the sound, at a touch, as when Solomon
willed
Armies of angels that soar, legions of demons that lurk,
Man, brute, reptile, fly,--alien of end and of aim,
Adverse, each from the other heaven-high, hell-deep removed,--
Should rush into sight at once as he named the ineffable Name,
And pile him a palace straight, to pleasure the princess he loved!

II

Would it might tarry like his, the beautiful building of mine,
This which my keys in a crowd pressed and importuned to raise!
Ah, one and all, how they helped, would dispart now and now combine,
Zealous to hasten the work, heighten their master his praise!
And one would bury his brow with a blind plunge down to hell,
Burrow awhile and build, broad on the roots of things,
Then up again swim into sight, having based me my palace well,
Founded it, fearless of flame, flat on the nether springs.

III

And another would mount and march, like the excellent minion he was,
Ay, another and yet another, one crowd but with many a crest,
Raising my rampired walls of gold as transparent as glass,
Eager to do and die, yield each his place to the rest:
For higher still and higher (as a runner tips with fire,
When a great illumination surprises a festal night--
Outlined round and round Rome's dome from space to spire)
Up, the pinnacled glory reached, and the pride of my soul was in
sight.

IV

In sight? Not half! for it seemed, it was certain, to match man's
birth,
Nature in turn conceived, obeying an impulse as I;
And the emulous heaven yearned down, made effort to reach the earth,
As the earth had done her best, in my passion, to scale the sky:
Novel splendors burst forth, grew familiar and dwelt with mine,
Not a point nor peak but found and fixed its wandering star;
Meteor-moons, balls of blaze: and they did not pale nor pine,
For earth had attained to heaven, there was no more near nor far.

V

Nay more; for there wanted not who walked in the glare and glow,
Presences plain in the place; or, fresh from the Protoplast,
Furnished for ages to come, when a kindlier wind should blow,
Lured now to begin and live, in a house to their liking at last;
Or else the wonderful Dead who have passed through the body and
gone,
But were back once more to breathe in an old world worth their
new:
What never had been, was now; what was, as it shall be anon;
And what is,--shall I say, matched both? for I was made perfect
too.

VI

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse--still, effect proceeds from
cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:--

VII

But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can,
Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are!
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.
Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is naught:
It is everywhere in the world--loud, soft, and all is said:
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought:
And there! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head!

VIII

Well, it is gone at last, the palace of music I reared;
Gone! and the good tears start, the praises that come too slow;
For one is assured at first, one scarce can say that he feared,
That he even gave it a thought, the gone thing was to go.
Never to be again! But many more of the kind
As good, nay, better perchance: is this your comfort to me?
To me, who must be saved because I cling with my mind
To the same, same self, same love, same God: ay, what was, shall
be.

IX

Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name.
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is naught, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round.

X

All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by and by.

XI

And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence
For the fulness of the days? Have we withered or agonized?
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue
thence?
Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be prized?
Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear,
Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe:
But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
The rest may reason and welcome: 'tis we musicians know.

XII

Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:
I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.
Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,
Sliding by semitones till I sink to the minor,--yes,
And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,
The C Major of this life: so, now I will try to sleep.

In the autumn following his wife's death Browning wrote the poem
_Prospice_, which title means _Look Forward_! This is the most
original poem on death in English Literature. It shows that Browning
strictly and consistently followed the moral appended to _The Glove_
--_Venienti occurrite morbo_, run to meet approaching disaster!

Although the prayer-book expresses the wish that the Good Lord will
deliver us from battle, murder, and sudden death, that hope was
founded on the old superstition that it was more important how a man
died than how he lived. If a man who had lived a righteous, sober
and godly life died while playing cards or in innocent laughter,
with no opportunity for the ministrations of a priest, his chances
for the next world were thought to be slim. On the other hand, a
damnable scoundrel on the scaffold, with the clergyman's assurances
assented to, was supposed to be jerked into heaven. This view of
life and death was firmly held even by so sincere and profound a
thinker as Hamlet: which explains his anguish at the fate of his
father killed in his sleep, and his own refusal to slay the villain
Claudius at prayer.

It is probable that thousands of worshippers who now devoutly pray
to be delivered from sudden death, would really prefer that exit to
any other. The reason is clear enough: it is to avoid the pain of
slow dissolution, the sufferings of the death-bed, and the horrible
fear of the dark. Now Browning boldly asks that he may be spared
nothing of all these grim terrors. True to his conception of a poet,
as a man who should understand all human experiences, he hopes that
he may pass conscious and aware through the wonderful experience of
dying. Most sick folk become unconscious hours before death and slip
over the line in total coma: Browning wants to stay awake.

I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
And bade me creep past.

I want to taste it all, the physical suffering, the fear of the abyss:
I want to hear the raving of the fiend-voices, to be in the very
thick of the fight. He adds the splendid line,

For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.
Brave hearts turn defeat into victory.

Browning died twenty-eight years after he wrote this poem, and his
prayer was granted. He was conscious almost up to the last second,
and fully aware of the nearness of death. Even the manner of death,
as described in the first line of the poem, came to be his own
experience: for he died of bronchitis.

PROSPICE

1864

Fear death?--to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so--one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute's at end,
And the elements' rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!

One can hardly repress a smile at Browning's thorough-going optimism,
when he reads the poem, _Apparent Failure_, and then glances back at
the title. _Apparent_ failure! Of all the defeated sons of earth,
the nameless suicides whose wretched bodies are taken to the public
morgue, ought surely, we should imagine, to be classed as absolute
failures. But Browning does not think so. It is possible, he says,
that the reason why these poor outcasts abandoned life, was because
their aspirations were so tremendously high that dull reality
overpowered their spirits. Goodness is better than badness: meekness
better than ferocity: calm sense than mad ravings. But, after all,
these poor fellows were God's creatures. His sun will eventually
pierce the darkest cloud earth can stretch. Somewhere, after many
ages in the next life, these men will develop into something better
under the sunshine of the smile of God.

APPARENT FAILURE

1864

"We shall soon lose a celebrated building."
_Paris Newspaper_.

I

No, for I'll save it! Seven years since,
I passed through Paris, stopped a day
To see the baptism of your Prince;
Saw, made my bow, and went my way:
Walking the heat and headache off,
I took the Seine-side, you surmise,
Thought of the Congress, Gortschakoff,
Cavour's appeal and Buol's replies,
So sauntered till--what met my eyes?

II

Only the Doric little Morgue!
The dead-house where you show your drowned:
Petrarch's Vaucluse makes proud the Sorgue,
Your Morgue has made the Seine renowned.
One pays one's debt in such a case;
I plucked up heart and entered,--stalked,
Keeping a tolerable face
Compared with some whose cheeks were chalked:
Let them! No Briton's to be baulked!

III

First came the silent gazers; next,
A screen of glass, we're thankful for;
Last, the sight's self, the sermon's text,
The three men who did most abhor
Their life in Paris yesterday,
So killed themselves: and now, enthroned
Each on his copper couch, they lay
Fronting me, waiting to be owned.
I thought, and think, their sin's atoned.

IV

Poor men, God made, and all for that!
The reverence struck me; o'er each head
Religiously was hung its hat,
Each coat dripped by the owner's bed,
Sacred from touch: each had his berth,
His bounds, his proper place of rest,
Who last night tenanted on earth
Some arch, where twelve such slept abreast,--
Unless the plain asphalte seemed best.

V

How did it happen, my poor boy?
You wanted to be Buonaparte
And have the Tuileries for toy,
And could not, so it broke your heart?
You, old one by his side, I judge,
Were, red as blood, a socialist,
A leveller! Does the Empire grudge
You've gained what no Republic missed?
Be quiet, and unclench your fist!

VI

And this--why, he was red in vain,
Or black,--poor fellow that is blue!
What fancy was it turned your brain?
Oh, women were the prize for you!
Money gets women, cards and dice
Get money, and ill-luck gets just
The copper couch and one clear nice
Cool squirt of water o'er your bust,
The right thing to extinguish lust!

VII

It's wiser being good than bad;
It's safer being meek than fierce:
It's fitter being sane than mad.
My own hope is, a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
That, after Last, returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched;
That what began best, can't end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.

The poem _Rephan_, the title of which was taken from the Book of Acts,
has the same pleasant teaching we find in the play by Ludwig Fulda,
called _Schlaraffenland_, published in 1899. In this drama, a boy,
ragged, cold, and chronically hungry, falls asleep in a miserable
room, and dreams that he is in a country of unalloyed delight.
Broiled chickens fly slowly by, easy to clutch and devour: expensive
wardrobes await his immediate pleasure, and every conceivable wish
is instantly and completely fulfilled. For a short time the boy is
in ecstasies of joy: then the absence of effort, of counterbalancing
privation, begins to make his heart dull: finally the paradise
becomes so intolerable that he wakes with a scream--wakes in a dark,
cold room, wakes in rags with his belly empty: and wakes in rapture
at finding the good old earth of struggle and toil around him.

Contentment is stagnation: development is happiness. The mystery of
life, its uncertainty, its joys paid for by effort, these make human
existence worth while.

Browning delights to prove that the popular longing for static
happiness would result in misery: that the sharp sides of life sting
us into the real joy of living. He loves to take popular proverbs,
which sum up the unconscious pessimism of humanity, and then show
how false they are to fact. For example, we hear every day the
expression, "No rose without a thorn," and we know very well what is
meant. In _The Ring and the Book_, Browning says:

So a thorn comes to the aid of and completes the rose.

REPHAN

1889

How I lived, ere my human life began
In this world of yours,--like you, made man,--
When my home was the Star of my God Rephan?

Come then around me, close about,
World-weary earth-born ones! Darkest doubt
Or deepest despondency keeps you out?

Nowise! Before a word I speak,
Let my circle embrace your worn, your weak,
Brow-furrowed old age, youth's hollow cheek--

Diseased in the body, sick in soul,
Pinched poverty, satiate wealth,--your whole
Array of despairs! Have I read the roll?

All here? Attend, perpend! O Star
Of my God Rephan, what wonders are
In thy brilliance fugitive, faint and far!

Far from me, native to thy realm,
Who shared its perfections which o'erwhelm
Mind to conceive. Let drift the helm,

Let drive the sail, dare unconfined
Embark for the vastitude, O Mind,
Of an absolute bliss! Leave earth behind!

Here, by extremes, at a mean you guess:
There, all's at most--not more, not less:
Nowhere deficiency nor excess.

No want--whatever should be, is now:
No growth--that's change, and change comes--how
To royalty born with crown on brow?

Nothing begins--so needs to end:
Where fell it short at first? Extend
Only the same, no change can mend!

I use your language: mine--no word
Of its wealth would help who spoke, who heard,
To a gleam of intelligence. None preferred,

None felt distaste when better and worse
Were uncontrastable: bless or curse
What--in that uniform universe?

Can your world's phrase, your sense of things
Forth-figure the Star of my God? No springs,
No winters throughout its space. Time brings

No hope, no fear: as to-day, shall be
To-morrow: advance or retreat need we
At our stand-still through eternity?

All happy: needs must we so have been,
Since who could be otherwise? All serene:
What dark was to banish, what light to screen?

Earth's rose is a bud that's checked or grows
As beams may encourage or blasts oppose:
Our lives leapt forth, each a full-orbed rose--

Each rose sole rose in a sphere that spread
Above and below and around--rose-red:
No fellowship, each for itself instead.

One better than I--would prove I lacked
Somewhat: one worse were a jarring fact
Disturbing my faultlessly exact.

How did it come to pass there lurked
Somehow a seed of change that worked
Obscure in my heart till perfection irked?--

Till out of its peace at length grew strife--
Hopes, fears, loves, hates,--obscurely rife,--
My life grown a-tremble to turn your life?

Was it Thou, above all lights that are,
Prime Potency, did Thy hand unbar
The prison-gate of Rephan my Star?

In me did such potency wake a pulse
Could trouble tranquillity that lulls
Not lashes inertion till throes convulse

Soul's quietude into discontent?
As when the completed rose bursts, rent
By ardors till forth from its orb are sent

New petals that mar--unmake the disc--
Spoil rondure: what in it ran brave risk,
Changed apathy's calm to strife, bright, brisk,

Pushed simple to compound, sprang and spread
Till, fresh-formed, facetted, floretted,
The flower that slept woke a star instead?

No mimic of Star Rephan! How long
I stagnated there where weak and strong,
The wise and the foolish, right and wrong,

Are merged alike in a neutral Best,
Can I tell? No more than at whose behest
The passion arose in my passive breast,

And I yearned for no sameness but difference
In thing and thing, that should shock my sense
With a want of worth in them all, and thence,

Startle me up, by an Infinite
Discovered above and below me-height
And depth alike to attract my flight,

Repel my descent: by hate taught love.
Oh, gain were indeed to see above
Supremacy ever--to move, remove,

Not reach--aspire yet never attain
To the object aimed at! Scarce in vain--
As each stage I left nor touched again.

To suffer, did pangs bring the loved one bliss,
Wring knowledge from ignorance,--just for this--
To add one drop to a love-abyss!

Enough: for you doubt, you hope, O men,
You fear, you agonize, die: what then?
Is an end to your life's work out of ken?

Have you no assurance that, earth at end,
Wrong will prove right? Who made shall mend
In the higher sphere to which yearnings tend?

Why should I speak? You divine the test.
When the trouble grew in my pregnant breast
A voice said "So wouldst thou strive, not rest?"

"Burn and not smoulder, win by worth,
Not rest content with a wealth that's dearth?
Thou art past Rephan, thy place be Earth!"

Browning was an optimist with his last breath. In the _Prologue_ to
_Asolando_, a conventional person is supposed to be addressing the
poet: he says, "Of course your old age must be sad, because you have
now lost all your youthful illusions. Once you looked on the earth
with rose-colored spectacles, but now you see the naked and
commonplace reality of the things you used to think so radiant."

Browning's answer is significant, and the figure he uses wonderfully
apt. Suppose you are going to travel in Europe: you go to the
optician, and you ask for a first-rate magnifying-glass, that you
may scan the ocean, and view the remote corners of cathedrals. Now
imagine him saying that he has for you something far better than that:
he has a lovely kaleidoscope: apply your eye to the orifice, turn a
little wheel, and you will behold all sorts of pretty colored
rosettes. You would be naturally indignant. "Do you take me for a
child to be amused with a rattle? I don't want pretty colors: I want
something that will bring the object, _exactly as it is_, as near to
my eyes as it can possibly be brought."

Indeed, when one buys a glass for a telescope, if one has sufficient
cash, one buys a glass made of crown and flint glass placed together,
which destroys color, which produces what is called an _achromatic_
lens. Now just as we judge of the value of a glass by its ability to
bring things as they are within the range of our vision, so, says
Browning, old age is much better than youth. In age our old eyes
become achromatic. The rosy illusions of youth vanish, thank God for
it! The colors which we imagined belonged to the object were in
reality in our imperfect eyes--as we grow older these pretty colors
disappear and we see what? We see life itself. Life is a greater and
grander thing than any fool's illusion about it. The world of nature
and man is infinitely more interesting and wonderful as it is than
in any mistaken view of it. Therefore old age is better than youth.

PROLOGUE

1889

The Poet's age is sad: for why?
In youth, the natural world could show
No common object but his eye
At once involved with alien glow--
His own soul's iris-bow.

"And now a flower is just a flower:
Man, bird, beast are but beast, bird, man--
Simply themselves, uncinct by dower
Of dyes which, when life's day began,
Round each in glory ran."

Friend, did you need an optic glass,
Which were your choice? A lens to drape
In ruby, emerald, chrysopras,
Each object--or reveal its shape
Clear outlined, past escape,

The naked very thing?--so clear
That, when you had the chance to gaze,
You found its inmost self appear
Through outer seeming-truth ablaze,
Not falsehood's fancy-haze?

How many a year, my Asolo,
Since--one step just from sea to land--
I found you, loved yet feared you so--
For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed! No--

No mastery of mine o'er these!
Terror with beauty, like the Bush
Burning but unconsumed. Bend knees,
Drop eyes to earthward! Language? Tush!
Silence 'tis awe decrees.

And now? The lambent flame is--where?
Lost from the naked world: earth, sky,
Hill, vale, tree, flower,--Italia's rare
O'er-running beauty crowds the eye--
But flame? The Bush is bare.

Hill, vale, tree, flower--they stand distinct,
Nature to know and name. What then?
A Voice spoke thence which straight unlinked
Fancy from fact: see, all's in ken:
Has once my eyelid winked?

No, for the purged ear apprehends
Earth's import, not the eye late dazed:
The Voice said "Call my works thy friends!
At Nature dost thou shrink amazed?
God is it who transcends."

It is an interesting and dramatic parallel in literary history that
Tennyson and Browning should each have published the last poem that
appeared in his life-time in the same month of the same year, and
that each farewell to the world should be so exactly characteristic
of the poetic genius and spiritual temperament of the writer. In
December, 1889, came from the press _Demeter and Other Poems_,
closing with _Crossing the Bar_--came also _Asolando_, closing with
the _Epilogue_. Tennyson's lyric is exquisite in its tints of sunset,
a serene close to a long and calmly beautiful day. It is the perfect
tone of dignified departure, with the admonition to refrain from
weeping, with the quiet assurance that all is well. Browning's
_Epilogue_ is full of excitement and strenuous rage: there is no
hint of acquiescence; it is a wild charge with drum and trumpet on
the hidden foe. Firm in the faith, full of plans for the future, he
looks not on the darkening night, but on to-morrow's sunrise.

He tells us not to pity him. He is angry at the thought that people
on the streets of London, when they hear of his death will say,
"Poor Browning! He's gone! How he loved life!" Rather he wishes that
just as in this life when a friend met him in the city with a face
lighted up by the pleasure of the sudden encounter, with a shout of
hearty welcome--so now, when your thoughts perhaps turn to me, let
it not be with sorrow or pity, but with eager recognition. I shall
be striving there as I strove here: greet me with a cheer!

EPILOGUE

1889

At the midnight in the silence of the sleep-time,
When you set your fancies free,
Will they pass to where--by death, fools think, imprisoned--
Low he lies who once so loved you, whom you loved so,
--Pity me?

Oh to love so, be so loved, yet so mistaken!
What had I on earth to do
With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly?
Like the aimless, helpless, hopeless, did I drivel
--Being--who?

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

No, at noonday in the bustle of man's work-time
Greet the unseen with a cheer!
Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
"Strive and thrive!" cry "Speed,--fight on, fare ever
There as here!"

INDEX

_Abt Vogler_.
Addison, J., disgust for the Alps.
_Andrea del Sarto_.
_Another Way of Love_.
_Apparent Failure_.
_Artemis Prologises_.
_Asolando, Prologue and Epilogue_.
Asolo: Browning's visits to, its place in his work;
last summer passed there.
Austin, Alfred, compared with F. Thompson.

_Bad Dreams_.
_Bells and Pomegranates_, meaning of title.
_Bishop Blougram's Apology_.
_Bishop Orders His Tomb, The_.
_Blot in the 'Scutcheon, A_.
_Boy and the Angel, The_.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett: engagement;
her sonnets;
described by her son;
her ill health;
invented name "Dramatic Lyric;"
her assistance in R. Browning's poems.
Browning, Robert: parentage and early life;
education;
visit to Russia;
play-writing;
first visit to Italy;
marriage;
travels in Italy and lives at Paris;
domestic life in Florence described by Hawthorne;
death;
personal habits;
peculiarities;
piano-playing;
enthusiasm;
friendship with Tennyson;
normality in appearance;
excellence in character;
his theory of poetry;
his sonnets;
his favorite feature the brow;
fondness for yellow hair;
his "rejected lovers,".
Browning, Robert Barrett: death at Asolo;
my conversation with.
Bryant, W. C., visits Browning.
Byron, Lord, lyrical power.
_By the Fireside_.

_Caliban on Setebos_.
Campion, T., his lyrical power compared with Donne's.

Carlyle, T.: travels to Paris with the Brownings;
his smoking.
_Cavalier Tunes_.
_Charles Avison_.
"_Childe Roland_."
Choate, J. H., his remark on old age.
_Christmas-Eve_.
_Cleon_.
_Clive_.
_Confessions_.
_Count Gismond_.
_Cristina_.

_Death in the Desert, A_.
_De Gustibus_.
_Dis Aliter Visum_.
Donne, J.: compared with Browning;
compared with Campion.
Dramatic Lyric, origin of name.
_Dramatic Lyrics_.
_Dramatic Romances_.
_Dramatis Persons_.

Eliot, George, _Daniel Deronda and My Last Duchess_.
Emerson, R. W.: pie and optimism;
his opinion of Tennyson's _Ulysses_.
_Epistle, An, Containing Strange Medical Experience of
Karshish_.
_Eurydice_.
_Evelyn Hope_.
"_Eyes Calm Beside Thee_".

_Face, A_.
Fano: seldom visited;
scene of picture of _Guardian Angel_.
_Fifine at the Fair_;
_Epilogue to_.
Forster, J., his praise of _Paracelsus_.
_Fra Lippo Lippi_.
Fulda, L., his play _Schlaraffenland_ compared with _Rephan_.

_Garden Fancies, Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis_.
_Glove, The_
Goethe, doctrine of elective affinities.
_Gold Hair_.
_Grammarian's Funeral, A_.
Gray, T., early appreciation of mountain scenery.
_Guardian Angel, The_,

Hallam, A. H., home in Wimpole Street.
Hawthorne, N., visits Browning in Florence.
_Holy Cross Day_.
_Home-Thoughts, from, Abroad_.
_Home-Thoughts, from the Sea_.
_How It Strikes a Contemporary_.
"_How They Brought the Good News_."

Ibsen, H.: an original genius;
_When We Dead Awaken_,
_A Doll's House_.
_In a Balcony_.
_In a Gondola_.
_Incident of the French Camp_.
_Ivan Ivanovitch_.

_James Lee's Wife_.
_Jocoseria, Prologue to_.
_Johannes Agricola in Meditation_.
Jonson, B., his remarks on Donne.

_Karshish (see Epistle, An_).
Keats, J.: prosody in _Endymion_;
_Bright Star_;
his conception of Beauty;
preface to _Endymion_;
his doctrine; of beauty.
Kipling, R., allusions to Browning in _Stalky and Co_.

_Laboratory, The_.
Landor, W. S., his poetic tribute to Browning.
Lanier, S., his criticism of _The Ring and the Book_.
_La Saisiag, Prologue_ to.
_Last Ride Together, The_.
LeMoyne, Sarah Gowell, her reading aloud _Meeting at Night_.
Lessing, G. E., his: remark about truth.
Longfellow, H. W.: a better sonneteer than either Tennyson
or Browning;
_Paul Revere's Ride_ compared with "_How They Brought," etc_.
_Lost Leader, The_.
_Lost Mistress, The_.
_Love Among the Ruins_.
_Lover's Quarrel, A_.
_Luria_.

_Macbeth_: German translation of;
pessimistic speech by.
Macready, W. C., relations with Browning.
Maeterlinck, M.: scene in _Monna Vanna_ taken from _Luria_;
his praise of Browning's poetry.

_Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha_
_Meeting at Night_
_Men and Women_
_Mesmerism_
Mill, J. S., his opinion of _Pauline_
_Muleykeh_
_My Last Duchess_
_My Star_

_Nationality in Drinks_

_Old Pictures in Florence_
Omar Khayyam, his figure of the Potter compared with Browning's,
_One Way of Love_
_One Word More_

_Pacchiarotto_:
_Epilogue_ to,
_Prologue_ to,
_Paracelsus_
_Parting at Morning (see Meeting at Night_)
_Pauline_
_Pippa Passes_
Pope: popularity of _Essay on Man_,
his prosody compared with that of Keats.
_Porphyria's Lover_
_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_
_Prospice_

_Rabbi Ben Ezra_
_Rephan_
_Respectability_
_Reverie_
_Ring and the Book, The_
Rossetti, D. G.: draws picture of Tennyson;
his opinion of _Pauline_.
Rossetti, W. M., meets the Brownings and the Tennysons.
_Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli_
Ruskin, J., his remark on _The Bishop Orders His Tomb_.

_Saul_
Schiller, F.: his poem _Der Handschuh_;
his poem _Das Ideal und das Leben_.
Schopenhauer, A.: father's financial help similar to Browning's;
his late-coming fame similar to Browning's,
his remark on Rafael's _St. Cecilia_.
Schumann, R. and Mrs., presentation to the Scandinavian king.
Shakespeare, W., Browning declares him to be the supreme poet.
Sharp, W., characterization of _Sordello_.
Shelley, P. B.: his vegetarianism imitated by Browning;
his lyrical power.
_Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis_ (see _Garden Fancies_).
_Sludge (Mr. ) the Medium_.
_Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister_.
_Soul's Tragedy, A_.
_Sordello_.
_Statue and the Bust, The_.
Stedman (mother of the poet, E.C.), her remarks on the health of
Mrs. Browning in Florence.
_Summum Bonum_.

Tennyson, A.: reading aloud from _Maud_;
Browning's letter to him;
a genius for adaptation;
wrote to please critics;
compared with Browning;
his lyrical power;
his lyrics compared with Browning's;
wrote no good sonnets;
_Lotos-Eaters_;
_Ulysses_;
_Crossing the Bar_;
_St. Agnes' Eve_ compared with _Johannes Agricola_;
_Locksley Hall_;
his "rejected lovers" compared with Browning's;
his criticism of _The Laboratory_;
_Crossing the Bar_ compared with _Epilogue to Asolando_.
Thackeray, _Vanity Fair_.
Thompson, F., his poetry compared with Austin's.
_Time's Revenges_.
_Toccata of Galuppi's_.
_Transcendentalism_.
_Twins, The_.
_Two Poets of Croisic_, the _Epilogue_ to.
_Up at a Villa--Down in the City_.
Wagner, R.: his originality;
his slow-coming fame;
his operas.
_Which_.
Wister, O., criticism of Browning's poetry in his novel _The
Virginian_.
Wordsworth, W.: served as model for _The Lost Leader_;
his sincere love of the country.

_Youth and Art_.

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