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Robert Browning by Edward Dowden

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Edited by Dugald Macfadyen, M.A.

Robert Browning

[Illustration: _Robert Browning, from a portrait in oil, for which he
sat to R.W. Curtis at Venice 1880._]



LITT.D., D.C.L., LL.D.



If I, too, should try and speak at times,
Leading your love to where my love, perchance,
Climbed earlier, found a nest before you knew,
Why, bear with the poor climber, for love's sake.

--_Balaustion's Adventure_.

Editor's Preface

"In the case of those whom the public has learned to honour and admire,
there is a _biography of the mind_--the phrase is Mr Gladstone's--that
is a matter of deep interest." In a life of Robert Browning it is
especially true that the biography we want is of this nature, for its
events are to be classed rather among achievements of the human spirit
than as objective incidents, and its interest depends only in a
secondary sense on circumstance or movement in the public eye. The
special function of the present book in the growing library of Browning
literature is to give such a biography of Browning's mind, associating
his poems with their date and origin, as may throw some light on his
inward development. Browning has become to many, in a measure which he
could hardly have conceived possible himself, one of the authoritative
interpreters of the spiritual factors in human life. His tonic optimism
dissipates the grey atmosphere of materialism, which has obscured the
sunclad heights of life as effectually as a fog. To see life through
Browning's eyes is to see it shot through and through with spiritual
issues, with a background of eternal destiny; and to come appreciably
nearer than the general consciousness of our time to seeing it steadily
and seeing it whole. Those who prize his influence know how to value
everything which throws light on the path by which he reached his
resolute and confident outlook.

It is almost possible to count on the fingers of one hand the few men
who could successfully write a book of this character and scope. The
Editor believes that, in the present case, one of the very few has been
found who had the qualifications required. Much of the apparent
obscurity of Browning is due to his habit of climbing up a precipice of
thought, and then kicking away the ladder by which he climbed. Dr Dowden
has with singular success readjusted the steps, so that readers may
follow the poet's climb. Those who are not daunted by the Paracelsus and
Sordello chapter, where the subject requires some close and patient
attention, will find vigorous narrative and pellucid exposition
interwoven in such a way as to keep them in intimate and constantly
closer touch with the "biography of Browning's mind."



An attempt is made in this volume to tell the story of Browning's life,
including, as part of it, a notice of his books, which may be regarded
as the chief of "his acts and all that he did." I have tried to keep my
reader in constant contact with Browning's mind and art, and thus a
sense of the growth and development of his genius ought to form itself
before the close.

The materials accessible for a biography, apart from Browning's
published writings, are not copious. He destroyed many letters; many, no
doubt, are in private hands. For some parts of his life I have been able
to add little to what Mrs Orr tells. But since her biography of Browning
was published a good deal of interesting matter has appeared. The
publication of "The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning" has enabled me to construct a short, close-knit narrative of
the incidents that led up to Browning's marriage. From that date until
the death of Mrs Browning her "Letters," edited by Mr Kenyon, has been
my chief source. My method has not been that of quotation, but the
substance of many letters is fused, as far as was possible, into a
brief, continuous story. Two privately issued volumes of Browning's
letters, edited by Mr T.J. Wise, and Mr Wise's "Browning Bibliography"
have been of service to me. Mr Gosse's "Robert Browning, Personalia,"
Mrs Ritchie's "Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning," the "Life of Tennyson" by
his son, Mr Henry James's volumes on W.W. Story, letters of Dante
Rossetti, the diary of Mr W.M. Rossetti, with other writings of his,
memoirs, reminiscences or autobiographies of Lady Martin, F.T. Palgrave,
Jowett, Sir James Paget, Gavan Duffy, Robert Buchanan, Rudolf Lehmann,
W.J. Stillman, T.A. Trollope, Miss F.P. Cobbe, Miss Swanwick, and others
have been consulted. And several interesting articles in periodicals, in
particular Mrs Arthur Bronson's articles "Browning in Venice" and
"Browning in Asolo," have contributed to my narrative. For some
information about Browning's father and mother, and his connection with
York Street Independent Chapel, I am indebted to Mr F. Herbert Stead,
Warden of "The Robert Browning Settlement," Walworth. I thank Messrs
Smith, Elder and Co., as representing Mr R. Barrett Browning, for
permission to make such quotations as I have ventured to make from
copyright letters. I thank the general Editor of this series, the Rev.
D. Macfadyen, for kind and valuable suggestions.

My study of Browning's poems is chronological. I recognise the
disadvantages of this method, but I also perceive certain advantages.
Many years ago in "Studies in Literature" I attempted a general view of
Browning's work, and wrote, as long ago as 1867, a careful study of
_Sordello_. What I now write may suffer as well as gain from a
familiarity of so many years with his writings. But to make them visible
objects to me I have tried to put his poems outside myself, and approach
them with a fresh mind. Whether I have failed or partly succeeded I am
unable to determine.

The analysis of _La Saisiaz_ appeared--substantially--in the little
Magazine of the Home Reading Union, and one or two other short passages
are recovered from uncollected articles of mine. I have incorporated in
my criticism a short passage from one of my wife's articles on Browning
in _The Dark Blue Magazine_, making such modifications as suited my
purpose, and she has contributed a passage to the pages which close this

I had the privilege of some personal acquaintance with Browning, and
have several cordial letters of his addressed to my wife and to myself.
These I have not thought it right to use.





Ancestry--Parents--Boyhood--Influence of Shelley--Pauline



Visit to Russia--Paracelsus--His failures and attainments--Sordello, a
companion poem--Its obscurity--Imaginative qualities--The history of a



New acquaintances--Hatcham--Macready--Strafford--Venice--Bells and
Promegranates--A Blot on the 'Scutcheon--Characters of
passion--Characters of intellect


THE MAKER OF PLAYS--_(continued)_

Women of the dramas--Dramatic style--Pippa Passes--Dramatic Lyrics and
Romances--Poems of Love and of Art



First letters to Miss Barrett--Meeting--Progress in



Correspondence of R.B. and E.B.B.--Journey to
Italy--Pisa--Florence--Vallombrosa--Italian politics--Casa
Guidi-Friends--Son born--Death of Browning's mother--Wanderings.



Publication--Movements of Religious
Thought--Dissent--Catholicism--Criticism--Difficulties of Christian
life--Imaginative power of the poems--In Venice--Paris--England--Paris
again--Coup d'etat


FROM 1851 TO 1855

Essay on Shelley--New acquaintances--Milsand--George Sand--London--Casa
Guidi--Spiritualism--Mr Sludge the Medium--Baths of
Lucca--Rome--London--Tennyson's Maud



Rossetti's admiration--Beauty before teaching--The poet behind his
poems--Isolated poems--Groups--Poems of love--Poems of Art--Poems of



Paris--Kenyon's death--Legacies--Death of Mr Barrett--Winter in
Florence--Havre--Rome--Louis Napoleon--Landor--Siena--Poems before
Congress--Rome again--Modelling in Clay--Casa Guidi--Death of Mrs



Desolation--Return to London--Pornic--Social life--Dramatis
Personae--Poems of music--Poems of hope and aspiration--A Death in the
Desert--Epilogue--Caliban upon Setebos--Poems of Love



Holiday excursions--Sainte Marie--Miss Barrett dies--Balliol College and
Jowett--Origin of the Ring and the Book--Its Plan--The Persons--Count
Guido--Pompilia--Caponsacchi--The Pope--Falsehood subserving truth



Saint-Aubin--Milsand--Miss Thackeray--Herve Riel--Miss
Egerton-Smith--Summer wanderings--Balaustion's Adventure--Aristophanes'
Apology--The Agamemnon



Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau--Fifine at the Fair--Red Cotton Night-Cap
Country--The Inn Album--Pachiarotto and other Poems



La Saisiaz--Immortality--Two Poets of Croisic--Browning in
society--Daily habits--Browning as a talker--Italy--Asolo--Mountain
retreats--Mrs Bronson--Venice



Popularity--Browning Society--Public honours--Dramatic Idyls--Spirit of
acquiescence--Jocoseria--Ferishtah's Fancies



Parleyings--Asolando--Mrs Bronson--At Asolo--Venice--Death--Place in
nineteenth-century poetry

List of Illustrations

ROBERT BROWNING, _from a portrait in oil, for which he sat to R.W.
Curtis at Venice, 1880, reproduced by kind permission of D.S. Curtis,
Esq. (photogravure)_

D. Noyes_

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, _from a drawing in chalk by Field Talfourd
in the National Portrait Gallery_

ROBERT BROWNING, _from an engraving by J.G. Armytage_


PORTRAIT OF FILIPPO LIPPI, BY HIMSELF, _a detail from the fresco in the
Cathedral at Prato, from a photograph by Alinari_

ANDREA DEL SARTO, _from a print after the portrait by himself in the
Uffizi Gallery, Florence_

_from a photograph by Alinari_

THE PALAZZO GIUSTINIANI, VENICE, _from a drawing by Miss N. Erichsen_

SPECIMEN OF BROWNING'S HANDWRITING, _from a letter to D.S. Curtis, Esq._

ROBERT BROWNING, _from a photograph (photogravure)_

THE PALAZZO REZZONICO, VENICE, _from a drawing by Miss Katherine

Chapter I

Childhood and Youth

The ancestry of Robert Browning has been traced[1] to an earlier Robert
who lived in the service of Sir John Bankes of Corfe Castle, and died in
1746. His eldest son, Thomas, "was granted a lease for three lives of
the little inn, in the little hamlet of East Woodyates and parish of
Pentridge, nine miles south-west of Salisbury on the road to Exeter."
Robert, born in 1749, the son of this Thomas, and grandfather of the
poet, became a clerk in the Bank of England, and rose to be principal in
the Bank Stock Office. At the age of twenty-nine he married Margaret
Tittle, a lady born in the West Indies and possessed of West Indian
property. He is described by Mrs Orr as an able, energetic, and worldly
man. He lived until his grandson was twenty-one years old. His first
wife was the mother of another Robert, the poet's father, born in 1781.
When the boy had reached the age of seven he lost his mother, and five
years later his father married again. This younger Robert when a youth
desired to become an artist, but such a career was denied to him. He
longed for a University education, and, through the influence of his
stepmother, this also was refused. They shipped the young man to St
Kitts, purposing that he should oversee the West Indian estate. There,
as Browning on the authority of his mother told Miss Barrett, "he
conceived such a hatred to the slave-system ... that he relinquished
every prospect, supported himself while there in some other capacity,
and came back, while yet a boy, to his father's profound astonishment
and rage."[2] At the age of twenty-two he obtained a clerkship in the
Bank of England, an employment which, his son says, he always detested.
Eight years later he married Sarah Anna, daughter of William Wiedemann,
a Dundee shipowner, who was the son of a German merchant of Hamburg. The
young man's father, on hearing that his son was a suitor to Miss
Wiedemann, had waited benevolently on her uncle "to assure him that his
niece would be thrown away on a man so evidently born to be hanged."[3]
In 1811 the new-married pair settled in Camberwell, and there in a house
in Southampton Street Robert Browning--an only son--was born on May 7,
1812. Two years later (Jan. 7, 1814) his sister, Sarah Anna--an only
daughter--known in later years as Sarianna, a form adopted by her
father, was born. She survived her brother, dying in Venice on the
morning of April 22, 1903.[4]

Robert Browning's father and mother were persons who for their own sakes
deserve to be remembered. His father, while efficient in his work in the
Bank, was a wide and exact reader of literature, classical as well as
modern. We are told by Mrs Orr of his practice of soothing his little
boy to sleep "by humming to him an ode of Anacreon," and by Dr Moncure
Conway that he was versed in mediaeval legend, and seemed to have known
Paracelsus, Faustus, and even Talmudic personages with an intimate
familiarity. He wrote verses in excellent couplets of the eighteenth
century manner, and strung together fantastic rhymes as a mode of aiding
his boy in tasks which tried the memory. He was a dexterous draughtsman,
and of his amateur handiwork in portraiture and caricature--sometimes
produced, as it were, instinctively, with a result that was
unforeseen--much remains to prove his keen eye and his skill with the
pencil. Besides the curious books which he eagerly collected, he also
gathered together many prints--those of Hogarth especially, and in early
states. He had a singular interest, such as may also be seen in the
author of _The Ring and the Book_, in investigating and elucidating
complex criminal cases.[5] He was a lover of athletic sports and never
knew ill-health. For the accumulation of riches he had no talent and no
desire, but he had a simple wealth of affection which he bestowed
generously on his children and his friends. "My father," wrote Browning,
"is tender-hearted to a fault.... To all women and children he is
chivalrous." "He had," writes Mr W.J. Stillman, who knew Browning's
father in Paris in his elder years, "the perpetual juvenility of a
blessed child. If to live in the world as if not of it indicates a
saintly nature, then Robert Browning the elder was a saint; a serene,
untroubled soul, conscious of no moral or theological problem to disturb
his serenity, and as gentle as a gentle woman; a man in whom, it seemed
to me, no moral conflict could ever have arisen to cloud his frank
acceptance of life, as he found it come to him.... His unworldliness had
not a flaw."[6] To Dante Rossetti he appeared, as an old man, "lovable
beyond description," with that "submissive yet highly cheerful
simplicity of character which often ... appears in the family of a great
man, who uses at last what the others have kept for him." He is,
Rossetti continues, "a complete oddity--with a real genius for
drawing--but caring for nothing in the least except Dutch boors,--fancy,
the father of Browning!--and as innocent as a child." Browning himself
declared that he had not one artistic taste in common with his
father--"in pictures, he goes 'souls away' to Brauwer, Ostade, Teniers
... he would turn from the Sistine Altar-piece to these--in music he
desiderates a tune 'that has a story connected with it.'" Yet Browning
inherited much from his father, and was ready to acknowledge his gains.
In _Development_, one of the poems of his last volume, he recalls his
father's sportive way of teaching him at five years old, with the aid of
piled-up chairs and tables--the cat for Helen, and Towzer and Tray as
the Atreidai,--the story of the siege of Troy, and, later, his urging
the boy to read the tale "properly told" in the translation of Homer by
his favourite poet, Pope. He lived almost to the close of his
eighty-fifth year, and if he was at times bewildered by his son's
poetry, he came nearer to it in intelligent sympathy as he grew older,
and he had for long the satisfaction of enjoying his son's fame.

The attachment of Robert Browning to his mother--"the true type of a
Scottish gentlewoman," said Carlyle--was deep and intimate. For him she
was, in his own phrase, "a divine woman"; her death in 1849 was to
Browning almost an overwhelming blow. She was of a nature finely and
delicately strung. Her nervous temperament seems to have been
transmitted--robust as he was in many ways--to her son. The love of
music, which her Scottish-German father possessed in a high degree,
leaping over a generation, reappeared in Robert Browning. His capacity
for intimate friendships with animals--spider and toad and lizard--was
surely an inheritance from his mother. Mr Stillman received from
Browning's sister an account of her mother's unusual power over both
wild creatures and household pets. "She could lure the butterflies in
the garden to her," which reminds us of Browning's whistling for lizards
at Asolo. A fierce bull-dog intractable to all others, to her was docile
and obedient. In her domestic ways she was gentle yet energetic. Her
piety was deep and pure. Her husband had been in his earlier years a
member of the Anglican communion; she was brought up in the Scottish
kirk. Before her marriage she became a member of the Independent
congregation, meeting for worship at York Street, Lock's Fields,
Walworth, where now stands the Robert Browning Hall. Her husband
attached himself to the same congregation; both were teachers in the
Sunday School. Mrs Browning kept, until within a few years of her death,
a missionary box for contributions to the London Missionary Society.
The conditions of membership implied the acceptance of "those views of
doctrinal truth which for the sake of distinction are called
Calvinistic." Thus over the poet's childhood and youth a religious
influence presided; it was not sacerdotal, nor was it ascetic; the boy
was in those early days, as he himself declared, "passionately
religious." Their excellent pastor was an entirely "unimaginative
preacher of the Georgian era," who held fast by the approved method of
"three heads and a conclusion." Browning's indifference to the
ministrations of Mr Clayton was not concealed, and on one occasion he
received a rebuke in the presence of the congregation. Yet the spirit of
religion which surrounded and penetrated him was to remain with him,
under all its modifications, to the end. "His face," wrote the Rev.
Edward White, "is vividly present to my memory through the sixty years
that have intervened. It was the most wonderful face in the whole
congregation--pale, somewhat mysterious, and shaded with black, flowing
hair, but a face whose expression you remember through a life-time.
Scarcely less memorable were the countenances of his father, mother and

Robert Browning, writes Mrs Orr, "was a handsome, vigorous, fearless
child, and soon developed an unresting activity and a fiery temper." His
energy of mind made him a swift learner. After the elementary lessons in
reading had been achieved, he was prepared for the neighbouring school
of the Rev. Thomas Ready by Mr Ready's sisters. Having entered this
school as a day-boarder, he remained under Mr Ready's care until the
year 1826. To facile companionship with his school-fellows Browning was
not prone, but he found among them one or two abiding friends. As for
the rest, though he was no winner of school prizes, he seems to have
acquired a certain intellectual mastery over his comrades; some of them
were formed into a dramatic _troupe_ for the performance of his boyish
plays. Perhaps the better part of his education was that of his hours at
home. He read widely in his father's excellent library. The favourite
books of his earliest years, Croxall's _Fables_ and Quarles's _Emblems_,
were succeeded by others which made a substantial contribution to his
mind. A list given by Mrs Orr includes Walpole's _Letters_, Junius,
Voltaire, and Mandeville's _Fable of the Bees_. The first book he ever
bought with his own money was Macpherson's _Ossian_, and the first
composition he committed to paper, written years before his purchase of
the volume, was an imitation of Ossian, "whom," says Browning, "I had
not read, but conceived, through two or three scraps in other books."
His early feeling for art was nourished by visits to the Dulwich
Gallery, to which he obtained an entrance when far under the age
permitted by the rules; there he would sit for an hour before some
chosen picture, and in later years he could recall the "wonderful
Rembrandt of Jacob's vision," the Giorgione music-lesson, the
"triumphant Murillo pictures," "such a Watteau," and "all the

Among modern poets Byron at first with him held the chief place. Boyish
verses, written under the Byronic influence, were gathered into a group
when the writer was but twelve years old; a title--_Incondita_--was
found, and Browning's parents had serious intentions of publishing the
manuscript. Happily the manuscript, declined by publishers, was in the
end destroyed, and editors have been saved from the necessity of
printing or reprinting these crudities of a great poet's childhood.
Their only merit, he assured Mr Gosse, lay in "their mellifluous
smoothness." It was an event of capital importance in the history of
Browning's mind when--probably in his thirteenth year--he lighted, in
exploring a book-stall, upon a copy of one of the pirated editions of
Shelley's _Queen Mab_ and other poems. Through the zeal of his good
mother on the boy's behalf the authorised editions were at a later time
obtained; and she added to her gift the works, as far as they were then
in print, of Keats.[9] If ever there was a period of _Sturm und Drang_
in Browning's life, it was during the years in which he caught from
Shelley the spirit of the higher revolt. A new faith and unfaith came to
him, radiant with colour, luminous with the brightness of dawn, and
uttered with a new, keen, penetrating melody. The outward conduct of his
life was obedient in all essentials to the good laws of use and wont. He
pursued his various studies--literature, languages, music--with energy.
He was diligent--during a brief attendance--in Professor Long's Greek
class at University College--"a bright, handsome youth," as a
classfellow has described him, "with long black hair falling over his
shoulders." He sang, he danced, he rode, he boxed, he fenced. But below
all these activities a restless inward current ran. For a time he
became, as Mrs Orr has put it, "a professing atheist and a practising
vegetarian;" and together with the growing-pains of intellectual
independence there was present a certain aggressive egoism. He loved his
home, yet he chafed against some of its social limitations. Of
friendships outside his home we read of that with Alfred Domett, the
'Waring' of his poems, afterwards the poet and the statesman of New
Zealand; with Joseph Arnould, afterwards the Indian judge; and with his
cousin James Silverthorne, the 'Charles' of Browning's pathetic poem
_May and Death_. We hear also of a tender boyish sentiment, settling
into friendship, for Miss Eliza Flower, his senior by nine years, for
whose musical compositions he had an ardent admiration: "I put it apart
from all other English music I know," he wrote as late as 1845, "and
fully believe in it as _the_ music we all waited for." With her sister
Sarah, two years younger than Eliza, best known by her married name
Sarah Flower Adams and remembered by her hymn, written in 1840, "Nearer
my God to Thee," he discussed as a boy his religious difficulties, and
in proposing his own doubts drew forth her latent scepticism as to the
orthodox beliefs. "It was in answering Robert Browning;" she wrote,
"that my mind refused to bring forward argument, turned recreant, and
sided with the enemy." Something of this period of Browning's _Sturm und
Drang_ can be divined through the ideas and imagery of _Pauline._[10]

The finer influence of Shelley upon the genius of Browning in his youth
proceeded from something quite other than those doctrinaire
abstractions--the formulas of revolution--which Shelley had caught up
from Godwin and certain French thinkers of the eighteenth century.
Browning's spirit from first to last was one which was constantly
reaching upward through the attainments of earth to something that lay
beyond them. A climbing spirit, such as his, seemed to perceive in
Shelley a spirit that not only climbed but soared. He could in those
early days have addressed to Shelley words written later, and suggested,
one cannot but believe, by his feeling for his wife:

You must be just before, in fine,
See and make me see, for your part,
New depths of the Divine!

Shelley opened up for his young and enthusiastic follower new vistas
leading towards the infinite, towards the unattainable Best. Browning's
only piece of prose criticism--apart from scattered comments in his
letters--is the essay introductory to that volume of letters erroneously
ascribed to Shelley, which was published when Browning was but little
under forty years old. It expresses his mature feelings and convictions;
and these doubtless contain within them as their germ the experience of
his youth.[11] Shelley appears to him as a poet gifted with a fuller
perception of nature and man than that of the average mind, and striving
to embody the thing he perceives "not so much with reference to the many
below, as to the One above him, the supreme Intelligence which
apprehends all things in their absolute truth--an ultimate view ever
aspired to, if but partially attained, by the poet's own soul." If
Shelley was deficient in some subordinate powers which support and
reinforce the purely poetic gifts, he possessed the highest faculty and
in this he lived and had his being. "His spirit invariably saw and spoke
from the last height to which it had attained." What was "his noblest
and predominating characteristic" as a poet? Browning attempts to give
it definition: it was "his simultaneous perception of Power and Love in
the absolute, and of Beauty and Good in the concrete, while he throws,
from his poet's station between both, swifter, subtler, and more
numerous films for the connexion of each with each, than have been
thrown by any modern artificer of whom I have knowledge." In other words
it was Shelley's special function to fling an aerial bridge from
reality, as we commonly understand that word, to the higher reality
which we name the ideal; to set up an aerial ladder--not less solid
because it is aerial--upon the earth, whose top reached to heaven. Such
was Browning's conception of Shelley, and it pays little regard either
to atheistic theory or vegetarian practice.

A time came when Robert Browning must make choice of a future career.
His interests in life were manifold, but in some form or another art
was the predominant interest. His father remembered his own early
inclinations, and how they had been thwarted; he recognised the rare
gifts of his son, and he resolved that he should not be immured in the
office of a bank. Should he plead at the bar? Should he paint? Should he
be a maker of music, as he at one time desired, and for music he always
possessed an exceptional talent? When his father spoke to him, Robert
Browning knew that his sister was not dependent on any effort of his to
provide the means of living. "He appealed," writes Mr Gosse, "to his
father, whether it would not be better for him to see life in the best
sense, and cultivate the powers of his mind, than to shackle himself in
the very outset of his career by a laborious training, foreign to that
aim. ... So great was the confidence of the father in the genius of his
son that the former at once acquiesced in the proposal." It was decided
that he should take to what an old woman of the lake district, speaking
of "Mr Wudsworth," described as "the poetry business." The believing
father was even prepared to invest some capital in the concern. At his
expense _Paracelsus, Sordello_, and _Bells and Pomegranates_ were

A poet may make his entrance into literature with small or large
inventions, by carving cherry-stones or carving a colossus. Browning,
the creator of men and women, the fashioner of minds, would be a
sculptor of figures more than life-size rather than an exquisite
jeweller; the attempt at a Perseus of this Cellini was to precede his
brooches and buttons. He planned, Mr Gosse tells us, "a series of
monodramatic epics, narratives of the life of typical souls." In a
modification of this vast scheme _Paracelsus_, which includes more
speakers than one, and _Sordello_, which is not dramatic in form, find
their places. They were preceded by _Pauline_, in the strictest sense a
monodrama, a poem not less large in conception than either of the
others, though this "fragment of a confession" is wrought out on a more
contracted scale.

_Pauline_, published without the writer's name--his aunt Silverthorne
bearing the cost of publication--was issued from the press in January
1833.[12] Browning had not yet completed his twenty-first year. When
including it among his poetical works in 1867, he declared that he did
so with extreme repugnance and solely with a view to anticipate
unauthorised republication of what was no more than a "crude preliminary
sketch," entirely lacking in good draughtsmanship and right handling.
For the edition of twenty years later, 1888, he revised and corrected
_Pauline_ without re-handling it to any considerable extent. In truth
_Pauline_ is a poem from which Browning ought not to have desired to
detach his mature self. Rarely does a poem by a writer so young deserve
better to be read for its own sake. It is an interesting document in the
history of its author's mind. It gives promises and pledges which were
redeemed in full. It shows what dropped away from the poet and what,
being an essential part of his equipment, was retained. It exhibits his
artistic method in the process of formation. It sets forth certain
leading thoughts which are dominant in his later work. The first
considerable production of a great writer must always claim attention
from the student of his mind and art.

The poem is a study in what Browning in his _Fifine_ terms "mental
analysis"; it attempts to shadow forth, through the fluctuating moods of
the dying man, a series of spiritual states. The psychology is sometimes
crude; subtle, but clumsily subtle; it is, however, essentially the
writer's own. To construe clearly the states of mind which are
adumbrated rather than depicted is difficult, for Browning had not yet
learnt to manifest his generalised conceptions through concrete details,
to plunge his abstractions in reality. The speaker in the poem tells us
that he "rudely shaped his life to his immediate wants"; this is
intelligible, yet only vaguely intelligible, for we do not know what
were these wants, and we do not see any rude shaping of his life. We are
told of "deeds for which remorse were vain"; what were these deeds? did
he, like Bunyan, play cat on Sunday, or join the ringers of the church
bells? "Instance, instance," we cry impatiently. And so the story
remains half a shadow. The poem is dramatic, yet, like so much of
Browning's work, it is not pure drama coming from profound sympathy with
a spirit other than the writer's own; it is only hybrid drama, in which
the _dramatis persona_ thinks and moves and acts under the necessity of
expounding certain ideas of the poet. Browning's puppets are indeed too
often in his earlier poems moved by intellectual wires; the hands are
the hands of Luria or Djabal, but the voice is the showman's voice. A
certain intemperance in the pursuit of poetic beauty, strange and lovely
imagery which obscures rather than interprets, may be regarded as in
_Pauline_ the fault or the glory of youth; a young heir arrived at his
inheritance will scatter gold pieces. The verse has caught something of
its affluent flow, its wavelike career, wave advancing upon wave, from

'Tis he, I ken the manner of his gait;
He rises on the toe; that spirit of his
In aspiration lifts him from the earth.

The aspiration in Browning's later verse is a complex of many forces;
here it is a simple poetic enthusiasm.

By virtue of its central theme _Pauline_ is closely related to the poems
which at no great distance followed--_Paracelsus_ and _Sordello_. Each
is a study of the flaws which bring genius to all but ruin, a study of
the erroneous conduct of life by men of extraordinary powers. In each
poem the chief personage aspires and fails, yet rises--for Browning was
not of the temper to accept ultimate failures, and postulated a heaven
to warrant his optimistic creed--rises at the close from failure to a
spiritual recovery, which may be regarded as attainment, but an
attainment, as far as earth and its uses are concerned, marred and
piteous; he recovers in the end his true direction, but recovers it only
for service in worlds other than ours which he may hereafter traverse.
He has been seduced or conquered by alien forces and through some inward
flaw; he has been faithless to his highest faculties; he has not
fulfilled his seeming destiny; yet before death and the darkness of
death arrive, light has come; he perceives the wanderings of the way,
and in one supreme hour or in one shining moment he gives indefeasible
pledges of the loyalty which he has forfeited. Shelley in _Alastor_, the
influence of which on Browning in writing _Pauline_ is evident, had
rebuked the idealist within himself, who would live in lofty
abstractions to the loss of human sympathy and human love. Browning in
_Pauline_ also recognises this danger, but he indicates others--the risk
of the lower faculties of the mind encroaching upon and even displacing
the higher, the risk of the spirit of aggrandisement, even in the world
of the imagination, obtaining the mastery over the spirit of surrender
to that which is higher than self. It is quite right and needful to
speak of the "lesson" of Browning's poem, and the lesson of _Pauline_ is
designed to inculcate first loyalty to a man's highest power, and
secondly a worshipping loyalty and service to that which transcends
himself, named by the speaker in _Pauline_ by the old and simple name of

Was it the problem of his own life--that concerning the conduct of high,
intellectual and spiritual powers--which Browning transferred to his
art, creating personages other than himself to be exponents of his
theme? We cannot tell; but the problem in varied forms persists from
poem to poem. The poet imagined as twenty years of age, who makes his
fragment of a confession in _Pauline_, is more than a poet; he is rather
of the Sordello type than of the type represented in Eglamor and
Aprile.[13] Through his imagination he would comprehend and possess all
forms of life, of beauty, of joy in nature and in humanity; but he must
also feel himself at the centre of these, the lord and master of his own
perceptions and creations; and yet, at the same time, this man is made
for the worship and service of a power higher than self. How is such a
nature as this to attain its true ends? What are its special dangers? If
he content himself with the exercise of the subordinate faculties,
intellectual dexterity, wit, social charm and mastery, he is lost; if he
should place himself at the summit, and cease to worship and to love, he
is lost. He cannot alter his own nature; he cannot ever renounce his
intense consciousness of self, nor even the claim of self to a certain
supremacy as the centre of its own sympathies and imaginings. So much is
inevitable, and is right. But if he be true to his calling as poet, he
will task his noblest faculty, will live in it, and none the less look
upward, in love, in humility, in the spirit of loyal service, in the
spirit of glad aspiration, to that Power which leans above him and has
set him his earthly task.

Such reduced to a colourless and abstract statement is the theme dealt
with in _Pauline_. The young poet, who, through a fading autumn evening,
lies upon his death-bed, has been faithless to his high calling, and yet
never wholly faithless. As the pallid light declines, he studies his own
soul, he reviews his past, he traces his wanderings from the way, and
all has become clear. He has failed for the uses of earth; but he
recognises in himself capacities and desires for which no adequate scope
could ever have been found in this life; and restored to the spirit of
love, of trust, by such love, such trust as he can give Pauline, he
cannot deny the witnessing audible within his own heart to a future life
which may redeem the balance of his temporal loss. The thought which
plays so large a part in Browning's later poetry is already present and
potent here.

Two incidents in the history of a soul--studied by the speaker under the
wavering lights of his hectic malady and fluctuating moods of
passion--are dealt with in a singularly interesting and original way. He
describes, with strange and beautiful imagery, the cynical, bitter
pleasure--few of us do not know it--which the intellectual faculties
sometimes derive from mocking and drawing down to their own level the
spiritual powers, the intuitive powers, which are higher than they,
higher, yet less capable of justification or verification by the common
tests of sense and understanding. The witchcraft of the brain degrades
the god in us:

And then I was a young witch whose blue eyes,
As she stood naked by the river springs,
Drew down a god: I watched his radiant form
Growing less radiant, and it gladdened me.

What he presents with such intensity of imaginative power Browning must
have known--even if it were but for moments--by experience. And again,
there is impressive truth and originality in the description of the
state of the poet's mind which succeeded the wreck of his early faith
and early hopes inspired by the voice of Shelley--the revolutionary
faith in liberty, equality and human perfectibility. Wordsworth in _The
Prelude_--unpublished when Browning wrote _Pauline_--which is also the
history of a poet's mind, has described his own experience of the loss
of all these shining hopes and lofty abstractions, and the temper of
mind which he describes is one of moral chaos and spiritual despair. The
poet of _Pauline_ turns from political and social abstractions to real
life, and the touch of reality awakens him as if from a splendid dream;
but his mood is not so sane as that of despair. He falls back, with a
certain joy, upon the exercise of his inferior powers; he wakes suddenly
and "without heart-wreck ":

First went my hopes of perfecting mankind,
Next--faith in them, and then in freedom's self
And virtue's self, then my own motives, ends,
And aims and loves, and human love went last.
I felt this no decay, because new powers
Rose as old feelings left--wit, mockery,
Light-heartedness; for I had oft been sad,
Mistrusting my resolves, but now I cast
Hope joyously away; I laughed and said
"No more of this!"

It is difficult to believe that Browning is wholly dramatic here; we
seem to discover something of that period of _Sturm und Drang_, when his
mood grew restless and aggressive. The homage paid to Shelley, whose
higher influence Browning already perceived to be in large measure
independent of his creed of revolution, has in it certainly something of
the spirit of autobiography. In this enthusiastic admiration for Shelley
there is nothing to regret, except the unhappy extravagance of the name
"Suntreader," which he invented as a title for the poet of _Alastor_ and
_Prometheus Unbound._

The attention of Mr W.J. Fox, a Unitarian minister of note, had been
directed to Browning's early unpublished verse by Miss Flower. In the
_Monthly Repository_ (April 1833) which he then edited, Mr Fox wrote of
_Pauline_ with admiration, and Browning was duly grateful for this
earliest public recognition of his genius as a poet. In the _Athenaeum_
Allen Cunningham made an effort to be appreciative and sympathetic. John
Stuart Mill desired to be the reviewer of _Pauline_ in _Taifs Magazine_;
there, however, the poem had been already dismissed with one
contemptuous phrase. It found few readers, but the admiration of one of
these, who discovered _Pauline_ many years later, was a sufficient
compensation for the general indifference or neglect. "When Mr Browning
was living in Florence, he received a letter from a young painter whose
name was quite unknown to him, asking him whether he were the author of
a poem called _Pauline_, which was somewhat in his manner, and which the
writer had so greatly admired that he had transcribed the whole of it in
the British Museum reading-room. The letter was signed D.G. Rossetti,
and thus began Mr Browning's acquaintance with this eminent man."[14]


[Footnote 1: By Dr Furnivall; see _The Academy_, April 12, 1902.]

[Footnote 2: "Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.," ii. 477.]

[Footnote 3: Letter of R.B. to E.B.B.]

[Footnote 4: Dr Moncure Conway states that Browning told him that the
original name of the family was De Buri. According to Mrs Orr, Browning
"neither claimed nor disclaimed the more remote genealogical past which
had presented itself as a certainty to some older members of his

[Footnote 5: Quoted by Mr Sharp in his "Life of Browning," p. 21, _n_.,
from Mrs Fraser Cockran.]

[Footnote 6: "Autobiography of a Journalist," i. 277.]

[Footnote 7: For my quotations and much of the above information I am
indebted to Mr F. Herbert Stead, Warden of the Robert Browning
Settlement, Walworth. In Robert Browning Hall are preserved the
baptismal registers of Robert (June 14th, 1812), and Sarah Anna
Browning, with other documents from which I have quoted.]

[Footnote 8: _Letters of R.B. and E.B.B_., i. 528, 529; and (for
Ossian), ii. 469.]

[Footnote 9: Browning in a letter to Mr Wise says that this happened
"some time before 1830 (or even earlier). The books," he says, "were
obtained in the _regular way_, from Hunt and Clarke." Mr Gosse in
_Personalia_ gives a different account, pp. 23, 24.]

[Footnote 10: The quotations from letters above are taken from J.C.
Hadden's article "Some Friends of Browning" in _Macmillan's Magazine_,
Jan. 1898.]

[Footnote 11: Later in life Browning came to think unfavourably of
Shelley as a man and to esteem him less highly as a poet. He wrote in
December 1885 to Dr Furnivall: "For myself I painfully contrast my
notions of Shelley the _man_ and Shelley, well, even the _poet_, with
what they were sixty years ago." He declined Dr Furnivall's invitation
to him to accept the presidency of "The Shelley Society."]

[Footnote 12: Even the publishers--Saunders and Otley--did not know the
author's name.--"Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.," i. 403.]

[Footnote 13: "V.A. xx," following the quotation from Cornelius Agrippa
means "Vixi annos xx," _i.e._ "the imaginary subject of the poem was of
that age."--Browning to Mr T.J. Wise.]

[Footnote 14: Edmund Gosse: "Robert Browning Personalia," pp. 31, 32. Mr
W. M. Rossetti in "D.G. Rossetti, his Family Letters," i. 115, gives the
summer of 1850 as the date of his brother's letter; and says, no doubt
correctly, that Browning was in Venice at the time. Mr Sharp prints a
letter of Browning's on his early acquaintance with Rossetti, and on the
incident recorded above. I may here note that "Richmond," appended, with
a date, to _Pauline_, was a fancy or a blind; Browning never resided at

Chapter II

Paracelsus and Sordello

There is little of incident in Browning's life to be recorded for the
period between the publication of _Pauline_ and the publication of
_Paracelsus_. During the winter of 1833-1834 he spent three months in
Russia, "nominally," says Mrs Orr, "in the character of secretary" to
the Russian consul-general, Mr Benckhausen. Memories of the endless
pine-forests through which he was driven on the way to St Petersburg may
have contributed long afterwards to descriptive passages of _Ivan

In 1842 or 1843 he wrote a drama in five acts to which was given the
name "Only a Player-girl"; the manuscript lay for long in his portfolio
and never saw the light. "It was Russian," he tells Miss Barrett, "and
about a fair on the Neva, and booths and droshkies and fish-pies and so
forth, with the Palaces in the background."[15] Late in life, at Venice,
Browning became acquainted with an old Russian, Prince Gagarin, with
whom he competed successfully for an hour in recalling folk-songs and
national airs of Russia caught up during the visit of 1833-34. "His
memory," said Gagarin, "is better than my own, on which I have hitherto
piqued myself not a little."[16] Perhaps it was his wanderings abroad
that made Browning at this time desire further wanderings. He thought of
a diplomatic career, and felt some regret when he failed to obtain an
appointment for which he had applied in connection with a mission to

In the winter of 1834 Browning was at work on _Paracelsus_, which, after
disappointments with other houses, was accepted, on terms that secured
the publisher from risk, by Effingham Wilson, and appeared before
midsummer of the following year. The subject had been suggested by Count
Amedee de Ripert-Monclar, a young French royalist, engaged in secret
service on behalf of the dethroned Bourbons. To him the poem is
dedicated. For a befitting treatment of the story of Paracelsus special
studies were necessary, and Browning entered into these with zeal,
taking in his poem--as he himself believed--only trifling liberties with
the matter of history. In solitary midnight walks he meditated his theme
and its development. "There was, in particular," Mr Sharp tells us, "a
wood near Dulwich, whither he was wont to go." Mr Sharp adds that at
this time Browning composed much in the open air, and that "the glow of
distant London" at night, with the thought of its multitudinous human
life, was an inspiring influence. The sea which spoke to Browning with
most expressive utterances was always the sea of humanity.

In its combination of thought with passion, and not less in its
expression of a certain premature worldly wisdom, _Paracelsus_ is an
extraordinary output of mind made by a writer who, when his work was
accomplished, had not completed his twenty-third year. The poem is the
history of a great spirit, who has sought lofty and unattainable ends,
who has fallen upon the way and is bruised and broken, but who rises at
the close above his ruined self, and wrings out of defeat a pledge of
ultimate victory. In a preface to the first edition, a preface
afterwards omitted, Browning claims originality, or at least novelty,
for his artistic method; "instead of having recourse to an external
machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis I desire to
produce, I have ventured to display somewhat minutely the mood itself in
its rise and progress, and have suffered the agency by which it is
influenced and determined, to be generally discernible in its effects
alone, and subordinate throughout, if not altogether excluded." The
poem, though dramatic, is not a drama, and canons which are applicable
to a piece intended for stage-representation would here--Browning
pleads--be rather a hindrance than a help. Perhaps Browning regarded the
action which can be exhibited on the stage as something external to the
soul, and imagined that the naked spirit can be viewed more intimately
than the spirit clothed in deed and in circumstance. If this was so, his
conceptions were somewhat crude; with the true dramatic poet action is
the hieroglyph of the soul, and many a secret may be revealed in this
language, amassing as it does large meanings into one luminous symbol,
which cannot be set forth in an elaborate intellectual analysis. We
think to probe the depths, and perhaps never get far below the surface.
But the flash and outbreak of a fiery spirit, amid a tangle of
circumstance, springs to the surface from the very centre, and reveals
its inmost energies.

Paracelsus, as presented in the poem, is a man of pre-eminent genius,
passionate intellect, and inordinate intellectual ambition. If it is
meant that he should be the type of the modern man of science, Browning
has missed his mark, for Paracelsus is in fact almost as much the poet
as the man of science; but it is true that the cautious habits of the
inductive student of nature were rare among the enthusiastic speculators
of Renaissance days, and the Italian successor of Paracelsus--Giordano
Bruno--was in reality, in large measure, what Browning has here
conceived and exhibited. Paracelsus is a great revolutionary spirit in
an epoch of intellectual revolution; it is as much his task to destroy
as to build up; he has broken with the past, and gazes with wild-eyed
hopes into the future, expecting the era of intellectual liberty to dawn
suddenly with the year One, and seeing in himself the protagonist of
revolution. Such men as Paracelsus, whether their sphere be in the
political, the religious, or the intellectual world, are men of faith; a
task has been laid on each of them; a summons, a divine mandate, has
been heard. But is the summons authentic? is the mandate indeed divine?
In the quiet garden at Wuerzburg, while the autumn sun sinks behind St
Saviour's spire, Festus--the faithful Horatio to this Hamlet of
science--puts his questions and raises his doubts first as to the end
and aim of Paracelsus, his aspiration towards absolute knowledge, and
secondly, as to the means proposed for its attainment--means which
reject the service of all predecessors in the paths of knowledge; which
depart so widely from the methods of his contemporaries; which seek for
truth through strange and casual revelations; which leave so much to
chance. Very nobly has Browning represented the overmastering force of
that faith which genius has in itself, and which indeed is needed to
sustain it in the struggle with an incredulous or indifferent world. The
end itself is justified by the mandate of God; and as for the means,
truth is not to be found only or chiefly by gathering up stray fragments
from without; truth lies buried within the soul, as jewels in the mine,
and the chances and changes and shocks of life are required to open a
passage for the shining forth of this inner light. Festus is overpowered
less by reason than by the passion of faith in his younger and greater
fellow-student; and the gentle Michal is won from her prophetic fears
half by her affectionate loyalty to the man, half by the glow and
inspiration of one who seems to be a surer prophet than her mistrusting
self. And in truth the summons to Paracelsus is authentic; he is to be a
torch-bearer in the race. His errors are his own, errors of the egoism
of genius in an age of intellectual revolution; he casts away the past,
and that is not wise, that is not legitimate; he anticipates for himself
the full attainment of knowledge, which belongs not to him but to
humanity during revolving centuries; and although he sets before himself
the service of man as the outcome of all his labours--and this is
well--at the same time he detaches himself from his fellow-men, regards
them from a regal height, would decline even their tribute of gratitude,
and would be the lofty benefactor rather than the loving helpmate of
his brethren. Is it meant then that Paracelsus ought to have contented
himself with being like his teacher Trithemius and the common masters of
the schools? No, for these rested with an easy self-satisfaction in
their poor attainments, and he is called upon to press forward, and
advance from strength to strength, through attainment or through failure
to renewed and unending endeavour. His dissatisfaction, his failure is a
better thing than their success and content in that success. But why
should he hope in his own person to forestall the slow advance of
humanity, and why should the service of the brain be alienated from the
service of the heart?

There are many ways in which Browning could have brought Paracelsus to a
discovery of his error. He might have learnt from his own experience the
aridity of a life which is barren of love. Some moment of supreme pity
might have come to him, in which he, the possessor of knowledge, might
have longed to offer consolation to some suffering fellow, and have
found the helplessness of knowledge to console. Browning's imagination
as a romantic poet craved a romantic incident and a romantic
_mise-en-scene_. In the house of the Greek conjuror at Constantinople,
Paracelsus, now worn by his nine years' wanderings, with all their
stress and strain, his hair already streaked with grey, his spirit
somewhat embittered by the small success attending a vast effort, his
moral nature already somewhat deteriorated and touched with the cynicism
of experience and partial failure, shall encounter the strange figure of
Aprile, the living wraith of a poet who has also failed, who "would love
infinitely and be loved," and who in gazing upon the end has neglected
all the means of attainment; and from him, or rather by a reflex ray
from this Aprile, his own error shall be flashed on the consciousness of
the foiled seeker for knowledge. The invention of Browning is certainly
not lacking in the quality of strangeness in beauty; yet some readers
will perhaps share the feeling that it strains, without convincing, the
imagination. As we read the first speeches addressed by the moon-struck
poet to the wandering student of science, and read the moon-struck
replies, notwithstanding the singular beauty of certain dramatic and
lyrical passages, we are inclined to ask--Is this, indeed, a conjuror's
house at Constantinople, or one of Browning's "mad-house cells?" and
from what delusions are the harmless, and the apparently dangerous,
lunatic suffering? The lover here is typified in the artist; but the
artist may be as haughtily isolated from true human love as the man of
science, and the fellowship with his kind which Paracelsus needs can be
poorly learnt from such a distracted creature as Aprile. It is indeed
Aprile's example and the fate which has overtaken him rather than his
wild words which startle Paracelsus into a recognition of his own error.
But the knowledge that he has left love out of his scheme of life is no
guarantee that he will ever acquire the fervour and the infinite
patience of love. The whole scene, with its extravagant poetic beauties
and high-pitched rhetoric, leaves a painful impression of unreality, not
in the shallower but in the deepest sense of that word.

For a poet to depict a poet in poetry is a hazardous experiment; in
regarding one's own trade a sense of humour and a little wholesome
cynicism are not amiss. These could find no place in Browning's
presentation of Aprile, but it is certain that Browning himself was a
much more complex person than the dying lover of love who became the
instructor of Paracelsus. When the scene shifts from Constantinople to
Basil, and the illustrious Professor holds converse with Festus by the
blazing logs deep into the night, and at length morning arises "clouded,
wintry, desolate and cold," we listen with unflagging attention and
entire imaginative conviction; and, when silence ensues, a wonder comes
upon us as to where a young man of three-and-twenty acquired this
knowledge of the various bitter tastes of life which belong to maturer
experience, and how he had mastered such precocious worldly wisdom.

The wondrous Paracelsus, life's dispenser,
Fate's commissary, idol of the schools
And courts,

chews upon his worldly success and extracts its acrid juices. This is
not the romantic melancholy of youth, which dreams of infinite things,
but the pain of manhood, which feels the limitations of life, which can
laugh at the mockery of attainment, which is sensible of the shame that
dwells at the heart of glory, yet which already has begun to hanker
after the mean delights of the world, and cannot dispense with the sorry
pleasures of self-degradation. The kind, calm Pastor of Einsiedeln sees
at first only the splendour that hangs around the name of his early
comrade, the hero of his hopes. And Paracelsus for a while would forbear
with tender ruth to shatter his friend's illusion, would veil, if that
were possible, the canker which has eaten into his own heart. But in the
tumult of old glad memories and present griefs, it ceases to be
possible; from amid the crew of foolish praisers he must find one friend
having the fidelity of genuine insight; he must confess his failure, and
once for all correct the prophecy of Michal that success would come and
with it wretchedness--

I have not been successful, and yet am
Most miserable; 'tis said at last.

A certain manly protectiveness towards Festus and Michal, with their
happy Aennchen and Aureole in the quiet home at Einsiedeln, remains to
Paracelsus; there is in it now more than a touch of "the devotion to
something afar from the sphere of our sorrow."

When, driven from Basil as a quack amid the hootings of the crowd,
Paracelsus once again "aspires"; but it is from a lower level, with
energy less certain, and with a more turbid passion. Upon such soiled
and draggled wings can he ever soar again? His strength is the strength
of fever; his gaiety is wild and bitter; he urges his brain with
artificial stimulants. And he, whose need was love, has learnt hatred
and scorn. In his earlier quest for truth he had parted with youth and
joy; he had grown grey-haired and lean-handed before the time. Now, in
his new scheme of life, he will not sever truth from enjoyment; he will
snatch at the meanest delights; before death comes, something at least
shall thus be gained. And yet he has almost lost the capacity for
pleasures apart from those of a wolfish hunger for knowledge; and he
despises his baser aims and his extravagant speeches. Could life only
be begun anew with temperate hopes and sane aspirings! But he has given
his pledges and will abide by them; he must submit to be hunted by the
gods to the end. Before he parts from Festus at the Alsatian inn, a
softer mood overtakes him. Blinded by his own passion, Paracelsus has
had no sense to divine the sorrow of his friend, and Festus has had no
heart to obtrude such a sorrow as this. Only at the last moment, and in
all gentleness, it must be told--Michal is dead. In Browning's earliest
poem Pauline is no more than a name and a shadow. The creator of Ottima
and Colombe, of Balaustion and Pompilia had much to tell of womanhood.
Michal occupies, as is right, but a small space in the history of
Paracelsus, yet her presence in the poem and her silent withdrawal have
a poignant influence. We see her as maiden and hear of her as mother,
her face still wearing that quiet and peculiar light

Like the dim circlet floating round a pearl.

And now, as the strong men of Shakespeare's play spoke of the dead
Portia in the tent, Paracelsus and Festus talk of the pastor of
Einsiedeln's gentle wife. Festus speaks in assured hope, Paracelsus in
daring surmise, of a life beyond the grave, and finally with a bitter
return upon himself from his sense of her tranquillity in death:

And Michal sleeps among the roots and dews,
While I am moved at Basil, and full of schemes
For Nuremberg, and hoping and despairing,
As though it mattered how the farce plays out,
So it be quickly played!

It is the last cry of his distempered egoism before the closing scene.

In the dim and narrow cell of the Hospital of St Sebastian, where he
lies dying, Paracelsus at last "attains"--attains something higher than
a Professor's chair at Basil, attains a rapture, not to be expressed, in
the joy which draws him onward, and a lucid comprehension of the past
that lies behind. All night the faithful Festus has watched beside the
bed; the mind of the dying man is working as the sea works after a
tempest, and strange wrecks of memory float past in troubled visions. In
the dawning light the clouds roll away, a great calm comes upon his
spirit, and he recognises his friend. It is laid upon him, before he
departs, to declare the meaning of his life. This life of his had been
no farce or failure; in his degree he has served mankind, and what _is_
the service of man but the true praise of God? He perceives now the
errors of the way; he had been dazzled by knowledge and the power
conferred by knowledge; he had not understood God's plan of gradual
evolution through the ages; he had laboured for his race in pride rather
than in love; he had been maddened by the intellectual infirmities, the
moral imperfections of men, whereas he ought to have recognised even in
these the capacities of a creature in progress to a higher development.
Now, at length, he can follow in thought the great circle of God's
creative energy, ever welling forth from Him in vast undulations, ever
tending to return to Him again, which return Godwards is already
foretold in the nature of man by august anticipations, by strange gleams
of splendour, by cares and fears not bounded by this our earth.

Were _Paracelsus_ a poem of late instead of early origin in Browning's
poetical career, we should probably have received no such open prophecy
as this. The scholar of the Renaissance, half-genius, half-charlatan,
would have casuistically defended or apologised for his errors, and
through the wreathing mists of sophistry would have shot forth ever and
anon some ray of truth.

We receive from _Paracelsus_ an impression of the affluence of youth.
There is no husbanding of resources, and perhaps too little reserve of
power. Where the poet most abandons himself to his ardour of thought and
imagination he achieves his highest work. The stress and tension of his
enthusiasm are perhaps too continuous, too seldom relieved by spaces of
repose. It is all too much of a Mazeppa ride; there are times when we
pray for a good quarter of an hour of comfortable dulness, or at least
of wholesome bovine placidity. The laws of such a poem are wholly
determined from within. The only question we have a right to ask is
this--Has the poet adequately dealt with his subject, adequately
expressed his idea? The division of the whole into five parts may seem
to have some correspondency with the five acts of a tragedy; but here
the stage is one of the mind, and the acts are free to contract or to
expand themselves as the gale of thought or passion rises or subsides.
If a spiritual anemometer were invented it would be found that the wind
which drives through the poem maintains often and for long an
astonishing pace. The strangely beautiful lyric passages interspersed
through the speeches are really of a slower movement than the dramatic
body of the poem; they are, by comparison, resting-places. The perfumed
closet of the song of Paracelsus in Part IV. is "vowed to quiet" (did
Browning ever compose another romanza as lulling as this?), and the
Maine glides so gently in the lyric of Festus (Part V.) that its
murmuring serves to bring back sanity to the distracted spirit of the
dying Aureole. There are youthful excesses in _Paracelsus_; some vague,
rhetorical grandeurs; some self-conscious sublimities which ought to
have been oblivious of self; some errors of over-emphasis; some
extravagances of imagery and of expression. The wonderful passage which
describes "spring-wind, as a dancing psaltress," passing over the earth,
is marred by the presence of "young volcanoes"

Staring together with their eyes on flame,"

which young volcanoes were surely the offspring of the "young
earthquake" of Byron. But these are, as the French phrase has it,
defects of the poem's qualities. A few pieces of base metal are flung
abroad unawares together with the lavish gold.

A companion poem to _Paracelsus_--so described by Browning to Leigh
Hunt--was conceived by the poet soon after the appearance of the volume
of 1835. When _Strafford_ was published two years later, we learn from a
preface, afterwards omitted, that he had been engaged on _Sordello_.
Browning desired to complete his studies for this poem of Italy among
the scenes which it describes. The manuscript was with him in Italy
during his visit of 1838; but the work was not to be hastily completed.
_Sordello_ was published in 1840, five years after _Paracelsus_. In the
chronological order of Browning's poems, by virtue of the date of
origin, it lies close to the earlier companion piece; in the logical
order it is the completion of a group of poems--_Pauline, Paracelsus,
Sordello_--which treat of the perplexities, the trials, the failures,
the ultimate recovery of men endowed with extraordinary powers; it is
one more study of the conduct of genius amid the dangers and temptations
of life. Here we may rightly disregard the order of publication, and
postpone the record of external incidents in Browning's poetical
development, in order to place _Sordello_ in its true position, side by
side with _Paracelsus_.

How the subject of _Sordello_ was suggested to Browning we do not know;
the study of Dante may have led him to a re-creation of the story of
Dante's predecessor; after having occupied in imagination the old towns
of Germany and Switzerland--Wuerzburg and Basil, Colmar and Salzburg--he
may have longed for the warmth and colour of Italy; after the
Renaissance with its revolutionary speculations, he may have wished to
trace his way back to the Middle Age, when men lived and moved under the
shadow of one or the other of two dominant powers, apparently fixed in
everlasting rivalry--the Emperor and the Pope.

"The historical decoration," wrote Browning, in the dedicatory letter of
1863, to his friend Milsand, "was purposely of no more importance than a
background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the
development of a soul: little else is worth study." Undoubtedly the
history of a soul is central in the poem; but the drawings of Italian
landscape, so sure in outline, so vivid in colour; the views of old
Italian city life, rich in the tumult of townsfolk, military chieftains,
men-at-arms; the pictures of sombre interiors, and southern gardens,
the hillside castle amid its vines, the court of love with its
contending minstrels, the midnight camp lit by its fires; and, added to
these, the Titianesque portraits of portly magnifico and gold-haired
maiden, and thought-worn statist make up an environment which has no
inconsiderable poetic value of its own, feeding, as it does, the inner
eye with various forms and dyes, and leaving the "spirit in sense" more
wealthy. With a theme so remote from the common consciousness of his own
day, Browning conceived that there would be an advantage in being his
own commentator and interpreter, and hence he chose the narrative in
preference to the dramatic form; thus, he supposed he could act the
showman and stand aside at times, to expound his own intentions.
Unhappily, in endeavouring to strengthen and concentrate his style, he
lost that sense of the reader's distance from himself which an artist
can never without risk forget; in abbreviating his speech his utterance
thickened; he created new difficulties by a legerdemain in the
construction of sentences; he assumed in his public an alertness of
intelligence equal to his own. When it needs a leaping-pole to pass from
subject to verb across the chasm of a parenthesis, when a reader swings
himself dubiously from relative to some one of three possible
antecedents, when he springs at a meaning through the fissure of an
undeveloped exclamatory phrase, and when these efforts are demanded
again and again, some muscular fatigue naturally ensues. Yet it is true
that when once the right connections in these perplexing sentences have
been established, the sense is flashed upon the mind with singular
vividness; then the difficulty has ceased to exist. And thus, in two
successive stages of study, the same reader may justly censure
_Sordello_ for its obscurity of style, and justly applaud it for a
remarkable lucidity in swiftness. Intelligent, however, as Browning was,
it implied a curious lack of intelligence to suppose that a poem of many
thousand lines written I in shorthand would speedily find decipherers.
If we may trust the words of Westland Marston, recorded by Mr W.M.
Rossetti in _The Preraphaelite Brotherhood Journal_ (26 February 1850),
Browning imagined that his shorthand was Roman type of unusual
clearness: "Marston says that Browning, before publishing _Sordello_,
sent it to him to read, saying that this time I the public should not
accuse him at any rate of being unintelligible." What follows in the
_Journal_ is of interest, but can hardly be taken as true to the letter:
"Browning's system of composition is to write down on a slate, in prose,
what he wants to say, and then turn it into verse, striving after the
greatest amount of condensation possible; thus, if an exclamation will
suggest his meaning, he substitutes this for a whole sentence." In
climbing an antique tower we may obtain striking flashes of prospect
through the slits and eyelet-holes which dimly illuminate the winding
stair, but to combine these into an intelligible landscape is not always
easy. Browning's errors of style are in part attributable to his unhappy
application of a passage in a letter of Caroline Fox which a friend had
shown him. She stated that her acquaintance John Sterling had been
repelled by the "verbosity" of _Paracelsus_: "Doth Mr Browning know,"
she asked, "that Wordsworth will devote a fortnight or more to the
discovery of a single word that is the one fit for his sonnet?"[17]
Browning was determined to avoid "verbosity"; but the method which seems
to have occurred to him was that of omitting many needful though
seemingly insignificant words, and jamming together the words that gleam
and sparkle; with the result that the mind is at once dazzled and

Sordello, the Italian singer of the thirteenth century, is conceived by
Browning as of the type which he had already presented in the speaker of
_Pauline_, only that here the poet is not infirm in will, and, though
loved by Palma, he is hardly a lover. Like the speaker of _Pauline_ he
is preoccupied with an intense self-consciousness, the centre of his own
imaginative creations, and claiming supremacy over these. He craves some
means of impressing himself upon the world, some means of deploying the
power that lies coiled within him, not through any gross passion for
rule but in order that he may thus manifest himself to himself at the
full. He is as far as possible removed from that type of the worshipping
spirit exhibited in Aprile, and in the poet Eglamor, whom Sordello foils
and subdues in the contest of song. The fame as a singer which comes
suddenly to him draws Sordello out of his Goito solitude to the worldly
society of Mantua, and his experiences of disillusion and half voluntary
self-degradation are those which had been faintly shadowed forth in
_Pauline_, and exhibited more fully--and yet with a difference--in the
Basil experiences of Paracelsus. Like the poet of _Pauline_, after his
immersion in worldliness, Sordello again seeks solitude, and recovers a
portion of his higher self; but solitude cannot content one who is
unable to obtain the self-manifestation which his nature demands
without the aid of others who may furnish an external body for the
forces that lie suppressed within him. Suddenly and unexpectedly the
prospect of a political career opens before him. May it not be that he
will thus obtain what he needs, and find in the people the instrument of
his own thoughts, his passions, his aspirations, his imaginings, his
will? May not the people become the body in which his spirit, with all
its forces, shall incarnate itself? Coming into actual acquaintance with
the people for the first time, the sight of their multiform miseries,
their sorrows, even their baseness lays hold of Sordello; it seems as if
it were they who were about to make _him_ their instrument, the voice
through which their inarticulate griefs should find expression; he is
captured by those whom he thought to capture. By all his personal
connections he is of the Imperial party--a Ghibellin; but, studying the
position of affairs, he becomes convinced that the cause of the Pope is
one with the cause of the people. At this moment vast possibilities of
political power suddenly widen upon his view; Sordello, the minstrel, a
poor archer's son, is discovered to be in truth the only son of the
great Ghibellin chieftain, Salinguerra; he is loved by Palma, who, with
her youth and beauty, brings him eminent station, authority, and a
passion of devoted ambition on his behalf; his father flings upon
Sordello's neck the baldric which constitutes him the Emperor's
representative in Northern Italy. The heart and brain of Sordello become
the field of conflict between fierce, contending forces. All that is
egoistic in his nature cries out for a life of pride and power and joy.
At best it is but little that he could ever do to serve the suffering
multitude. And yet should he falter because he cannot gain for them the
results of time? Is it not his part to take the single step in their
service, though it can be no more than a step? In the excitement of this
supreme hour of inward strife Sordello dies; but he dies a victor; like
Paracelsus he also has "attained"; the Imperial baldric is found cast
below the dead singer's feet.

This, in brief, is the "history of a soul" which Browning has imagined
in his _Sordello_. And the conclusion of the whole matter can be briefly
stated: the primary need of such a nature as Sordello's--and we can
hardly doubt that Browning would have assigned himself a place in the
class to which the poet of his imagination belongs--is that of a Power
above himself, which shall deliver him from egoism, and whose loyal
service shall concentrate and direct his various faculties, and this a
Power not unknown or remote, but one brought near and made manifest; or,
in other words, it is the need of that which old religion has set forth
as God in Christ. Sordello in his final decision in favour of true
service to the people had, like Paracelsus, given his best praise to
God, had given his highest pledge of loyalty to whatever is Divine in
life. And therefore, though he has failed in all his high designs, his
failure is in the end a success. He, like Paracelsus, had read that
bitter sentence which declares that "collective man outstrips the

"God has conceded two sights to a man--
One, of men's whole work, time's completed plan,
The other, of the minute's work, man's first
Step to the plan's completion."

And the poor minute's work assigned him by the divine law of justice
and pity he accepts as his whole life's task. It is true that though he
now clearly sees the end, he has not perhaps recognised the means. If
Sordello contemplated political action as his mode of effecting that
minute's work, he must soon have discovered, were his life prolonged,
that not thus can a poet live in his highest faculty, or render his
worthiest service. The poet--and speaking in his own person Browning
makes confession of his faith--can adequately serve his mistress,
"Suffering Humanity," only as a poet. Sordello failed to render into
song the highest thoughts and aspirations of Italy; but Dante was to
follow and was not to fail. The minstrel's last act--his renunciation of
selfish power and pleasure, his devotion to what he held to be the cause
of the people, the cause of humanity, was indeed his best piece of
poetry; by virtue of that act Sordello was not a beaten man but a

These prolonged studies--_Paracelsus, Sordello_, and, on a more
contracted scale, _Pauline_--each a study in "the development of a
soul," gain and lose through the immaturity of the writer. He had, as
yet, brought only certain of his faculties into play, or, at least, he
had not as yet connected with his art certain faculties which become
essential characteristics of his later work. There is no humour in these
early poems, or (since Naddo and the critic tribe of _Sordello_ came to
qualify the assertion) but little; there is no wise casuistry, in which
falsehood is used as the vehicle of truth; the psychology, however
involved it may seem, is really too simple; the central personages are
too abstract--knowledge and love and volition do not exhaust the soul;
action and thought are not here incorporated one with the other; a deed
is not the interpreter of an idea; an idea is first exhibited by the
poet and the deed is afterwards set forth as its consequence; the
conclusions are too patently didactic or doctrinaire; we suspect that
they have been motives determining the action; our scepticism as to the
disinterested conduct of the story is aroused by its too plainly deduced
moral. We catch the powers at play which ought to be invisible; we
fiddle with the works of the clock till it ceases to strike. Yet if only
a part of Browning's mind is alive in these early poems, the faculties
brought into exercise are the less impeded by one another; the love of
beauty is not tripped up by a delight in the grotesque. And there is a
certain pleasure in attending to prophecy which has not learnt to hide
itself in casuistry. The analysis of a state of mind, pursued in
_Sordello_ with an effort that is sometimes fatiguing and not always
successful, is presently followed by a superb portrait--like that of
Salinguerra--painted by the artist, not the analyst, and so admirable is
it that in our infirmity we are tempted to believe that the process of
flaying and dissection alters the person of a man or woman as Swift has
said, considerably for the worse.


[Footnote 15: The supposition of Mr Sharp and Mr Gosse that Browning
visited Italy after having seen St Petersburg is an error. His first
visit to Italy was that of 1838. I may note here that in a letter to
E.B.B. (vol. ii. 443) Browning refers to having been in Holland some ten
years since; the date of his letter is August 18, 1846.]

[Footnote 16: Mrs Bronson; Browning in Venice. _Cornhill Magazine_, Feb.
1902. pp. 160, 161.]

[Footnote 17: Mrs Orr's "Handbook to Browning," pp. 10, 11.]

Chapter III

The Maker of Plays

The publication of _Paracelsus_ did not gain for Browning a large
audience, but it brought him friends and acquaintances who gave his life
a delightful expansion in its social relations. John Forster, the
critic, biographer and historian, then unknown to him, reviewed the poem
in the _Examiner_ with full recognition of its power and promise.
Browning gratefully commemorated a lifelong friendship with Forster,
nearly a score of years later, in the dedication of the 1863 edition of
his poetical works. Mrs Orr recites the names of Carlyle, Talfourd, R.
Hengist Horne, Leigh Hunt, Procter, Monckton Milnes, Dickens,
Wordsworth, Landor, among those of distinguished persons who became
known to Browning at this period.[18] His "simple and enthusiastic
manner" is referred to by the actor Macready in his diary; "he looks and
speaks more like a youthful poet than any man I ever saw." Browning's
face was one of rare intelligence and full of changing expression. He
was not tall, but in early years he was slight, was graceful in his
movements, and held his head high. His dark brown hair hung in wavy
masses upon his neck. His voice had in early manhood a quality,
afterwards lost, which Mr Sharp describes as "flute-like, clear, sweet
and resonant." Slim, dark, and very handsome are the words chosen by Mrs
Bridell-Fox to characterise the youthful Browning as he reappeared to
her memory; "And--may I hint it?"--she adds, "just a trifle of a dandy,
addicted to lemon-coloured kid gloves and such things, quite 'the glass
of fashion and the mould of form.' But full of ambition, eager for
success, eager for fame, and, what is more, determined to conquer fame
and to achieve success." Yet the correct and conventional Browning could
also fire up for lawlessness--"frenetic to be free." He was hail-fellow
well-met, we are told--but is this part of a Browning legend?--with
tramps and gipsies, and he wandered gladly, whether through devout
sympathy or curiosity of mood we know not, into Little Bethels and other
tents of spiritual Ishmael.

From Camberwell Browning's father moved to a house at Hatcham,
transporting thither his long rows of books, together with those many
volumes which lay still unwritten in the "celle fantastyk" of his son.
"There is a vast view from our greatest hill," wrote Browning; a vast
view, though Wordsworth had scorned the Londoner's hill--"Hill? _we_
call that, such as that, a _rise_." Here he read and wrote, enjoyed his
rides on the good horse "York," and cultivated friendship with a toad in
the pleasant garden, for he had a peculiar interest, as his poems show,
in creatures that live a shy, mysterious life apart from that of man,
and the claim of beauty, as commonly understood, was not needed to win
his regard. Browning's eye was an instrument made for exact and minute
records of natural phenomena. "I have heard him say," Mr Sharp writes,
"that at that time"--speaking of his earlier years--"his faculty of
observation would not have appeared despicable to a Seminole or an
Iroquois." Such activity of the visual nerve differs widely from the
wise passiveness or brooding power of the Wordsworthian mode of
contemplation. Browning's life was never that of a recluse who finds in
nature and communion with the anima mundi a counterpoise to the
attractions of human society. Society fatigued him, yet he would not
abandon its excitements. A mystic--though why it should be so is hard to
say--does not ordinarily affect lemon-coloured kid gloves, as did the
Browning of Mrs Bridell-Fox's recollection. The mysticism of Browning's
temper of mind came not by withdrawal from the throng of positive facts,
but by pushing through these to the light beyond them, or by the
perception of some spear-like shaft of light piercing the denseness,
which was serviceable as the sheathe or foil. And of course it was among
men and women that he found suggestions for some of his most original

An introduction to Macready which took place at Mr Fox's house towards
the close of November 1835 was fruitful in consequences. A month later
Browning was Macready's guest at Elstree, the actor's resting-place in
the country. His fellow-traveller, then unknown to him, in the coach
from London was John Forster; in Macready's drawing-room the poet and
his critic first formed a personal acquaintance. Browning had for long
been much interested in the stage, but only as a spectator. His
imagination now turned towards dramatic authorship with a view to
theatrical performance. A play on a subject from later Roman history,
_Narses_, was thought of and was cast aside. The success of Talfourd's
_Ion_, after the first performance of which (May 26, 1836) Browning
supped in the author's rooms with Macready, Wordsworth, and Landor,
probably raised high hopes of a like or a greater success for some
future drama of his own. "Write a play, Browning," said Macready, as
they left the house, "and keep me from going to America." "Shall it be
historical or English?" Browning questioned, as the incident is related
by Mrs Orr, "What do you say to a drama on Strafford?" The life of
Stafford by his friend Forster, just published, which during an illness
of the author had been revised in manuscript by Browning, probably
determined the choice of a subject.

By August the poet had pledged himself to achieve this first dramatic
adventure. The play was produced at Covent Garden on May 1st, 1837, by
Macready, who himself took the part of Strafford. Helen Faucit, then a
novice on the stage, gave an adequate rendering of the difficult part of
Lady Carlisle. For the rest, the complexion of the piece, as Browning
describes it, after one of the latest rehearsals, was "perfect gallows."
Great historical personages were presented by actors who strutted or
slouched, who whimpered or drawled. The financial distress at Covent
Garden forbade any splendour or even dignity of scenery or of
costumes.[19] The text was considerably altered--and not always
judiciously--from that of the printed play, which had appeared before
its production on the stage. Yet on the first night _Strafford_ was not
damned, and on the second it was warmly applauded.[20] After the fifth
performance the wretched Pym refused to save his mother England even
once more, and the play was withdrawn. Browning declared to his friends
that never again, as long as he might live, would he write a play.
Whining not being to his taste, he averted his eyes and set himself
resolutely to work upon _Sordello_.

"I sail this morning for Venice," Browning wrote to a friend on Good
Friday, 1838. He voyaged as sole passenger on a merchantman, and soon
was on friendliest terms with the rough kindly captain. For the first
fortnight the sea was stormy and Browning suffered much; as they passed
through the Straits of Gibraltar, Captain Davidson aided him to reach
the deck, and a pulsing of home-pride--not home-sickness--gave their
origin to the patriotic lines beginning, "Nobly, nobly Cape Saint
Vincent to the north-west died away." Under the bulwark of the _Norham
Castle_, off the African coast, when the fancy of a gallop on his Uncle
Reuben's horse suddenly presented itself in pleasant contrast with the
tedium of the hours on shipboard, he wrote in pencil, on the flyleaf of
Bartoli's Simboli, that most spirited of poems which tell of the glory
of motion--_How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix_. The only
adventure of the voyage was the discovery of an Algerine pirate ship
floating keel uppermost; it righted suddenly under the stress of ropes
from the _Norham Castle_, and the ghastly and intolerable
dead--Algerines and Spaniards--could not scare the British sailors eager
for loot; at last the battered hulk was cast loose, and its blackness
was seen reeling slowly off "into the most gorgeous and lavish sunset in
the world." Having visited Venice, Vicenza and Padua--cities and
mountain solitudes, which gave their warmth and colour to his unfinished
poem--Browning returned home by way of Tyrol, the Rhine, Liege and
Antwerp. It was his first visit to Italy and was a time of enchantment.
Fifty years later he recalled the memories of these early days when his
delight had something insubstantial, magical in it, and the vision was
half perceived with the eye and half projected from within:--

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![21]

Of evenings soon after his return to London Mrs Bridell-Fox writes: "He
was full of enthusiasm for Venice, that Queen of Cities. He used to
illustrate his glowing descriptions of its beauties, the palaces, the
sunsets, the moonrises, by a most original kind of etching. Taking up a
bit of stray notepaper, he would hold it over a lighted candle, moving
the paper about gently till it was cloudily smoked over, and then
utilising the darker smears for clouds, shadows, water, or what not,
would etch with a dry pen the forms of lights on cloud and palace, on
bridge or gondola on the vague and dreamy surface he had produced." The
anticipations of genius had already produced a finer etching than any of
these, in those lines of marvellous swiftness and intensity in
_Paracelsus_, which describe Constantinople at the hour of sunset.


_From a drawing by_ Miss D. NOYES.]

The publication of _Sordello_ (1840) did not improve Browning's position
with the public. The poem was a challenge to the understanding of an
aspirant reader, and the challenge met with no response. An excuse for
not reading a poem of five or six thousand lines is grateful to so
infirm and shortlived a being as man. And, indeed, a prophet, if
prudent, may do well to postpone the privilege of being unintelligible
until he has secured a considerable number of disciples of both sexes.
The reception of _Sordello_ might have disheartened a poet of less
vigorous will than Browning; he merely marched breast forward, and let
_Sordello_ lie inert, until a new generation of readers had arisen. The
dramas, _King Victor and King Charles_ and _The Return of the Druses_
(at first named "Mansoor the Hierophant") now occupied his thoughts.
Short lyrical pieces were growing under his hand, and began to form a
considerable group. And one fortunate day as he strolled alone in the
Dulwich wood--his chosen resort of meditation--"the image flashed upon
him of one walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure
to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though
unconscious influence at every step of it."[22] In other words Pippa
had suddenly passed her poet in the wood.

A cheap mode of issuing his works now in manuscript was suggested to
Browning by the publisher Moxon. They might appear in successive
pamphlets, each of a single sheet printed in double-column, and the
series might be discontinued at any time if the public ceased to care
for it. The general title _Bells and Pomegranates_ was chosen; "beneath
upon the hem of the robe thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of
purple, and of scarlet, round about the hem thereof; and bells of gold
between them round about." Browning, as he explained to his readers in
the last number, meant to indicate by the title, "Something like an
alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense,
poetry with thought"--such having been, in fact, one of the most
familiar of the Rabbinical interpretations designed to expound the
symbolism of this priestly decoration prescribed in "Exodus." From 1841
to 1846 the numbers of _Bells and Pomegranates_ successively appeared;
with the eighth the series closed. The first number--_Pippa Passes_--was
sold for sixpence; when _King Victor and King Charles_ was published in
the following year (1842), the price was raised to one shilling. The
third and the seventh numbers were made up of short pieces--_Dramatic
Lyrics_ (1842), _Dramatic Romances and Lyrics_ (1845). _The Return of
the Druses_ and _A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_--Numbers 4 and 5--followed
each other in the same year 1843. _Colombe's Birthday_--the only number
which is known to survive in manuscript--came next in order (1844). The
last to appear was that which included _Luna_, Browning's favourite
among his dramas, and _A Soul's Tragedy_.[23] His sister, except in the
instance of _Colombe_, was Browning's amanuensis. On each title-page he
is named Robert Browning "Author of Paracelsus"--the "wholly
unintelligible" _Sordello_ being passed over. Talfourd, "Barry
Cornwall," and John Kenyon (the cousin of Elizabeth Barrett) were
honoured with dedications. In these pamphlets of Moxon, Browning's
wonderful apples of gold were certainly not presented to the public in
pictures or baskets of silver; yet the possessor of the eight parts in
their yellow paper wrappers may now be congratulated. Only one of the
numbers--_A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_--attained the distinction of a
second edition, and this probably because the drama as published was
helped to a comparative popularity by its representation on the stage.

This tragedy of young love and death was written hastily--in four or
five days--for Macready. Browning while at work on his play, as we learn
from a letter of Dante Rossetti to Allingham, was kept indoors by a
slight indisposition; his father on going to see him "was each day
received boisterously and cheerfully with the words: 'I have done
another act, father.'"[24] Forster read the tragedy aloud from the
manuscript for Dickens, who wrote of it with unmeasured enthusiasm in a
letter, known to Browning only when printed after the lapse of some
thirty years: "Browning's play has thrown me into a perfect passion of
sorrow.... I know no love like it, no passion like it, no moulding of a
splendid thing after its conception like it." Things had gone ill with
Macready at Drury Lane, and when the time for _A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_
drew near it is evident that he feared further losses and would gladly
have been released from his promise to produce the play; but Browning
failed to divine the true state of affairs. The tragedy was read to the
company by a grotesque, wooden-legged and red-nosed prompter, and it was
greeted with laughter. To make amends, Macready himself undertook to
read it aloud, but he declared himself unable, in the disturbed state of
his mind, to appear before the public: his part--that of Lord
Tresham--must be taken by Phelps. From certain rehearsals Phelps was
unavoidably absent through illness. Macready who read his lines on these
occasions, now was caught by the play, and saw possibilities in the part
of Tresham which fired his imagination. He chose, almost at the last
moment, to displace his younger and less distinguished colleague.
Browning, on the other hand, insisted that Phelps, having been assigned
the part, should retain it. To baffle Macready in his design of
presenting the play to the public in a mutilated form, Browning, aided
by his publisher, had the whole printed in four-and-twenty hours.[25] A
rupture of the long-standing friendship with Macready followed, nor did
author and actor meet again until after the great sorrow of Browning's
life. "Mr Macready too"--writes Mrs Orr--"had recently lost his wife,
and Mr Browning could only start forward, grasp the hand of his old
friend, and in a voice choked with emotion say, 'O Macready!'"

The tragedy was produced at Drury Lane on February nth, 1843, with
Phelps, who acted admirably as Tresham, and Helen Faucit as Mildred.
Although it had been ill rehearsed and not a shilling had been spent on
scenery or dresses, it was received with applause. To a call for the
author, Browning, seated in his box, declined to make any response.
Thus, not without some soreness of heart, closed his direct connection
with the theatre. He heard with pleasure when in Italy that _A Blot in
the 'Scutcheon_ was given by Phelps at Sadler's Wells Theatre in
November 1848, and with unquestionable success. A rendering of
_Colombe's Birthday_ was projected by Charles Kean in 1844, but the long
delays, which were inevitable, could not be endured by Browning, who
desired to print his play forthwith among the _Bells and Pomegranates_.
It was not until nine years later that this play, a veritable "All for
love, or the world well lost," was presented at the Haymarket, Helen
Faucit appearing as the Duchess. Soon after _Colombe's Birthday_ had
been published, Browning sailed once more, in the autumn of 1844, for
Italy.[26] As he journeyed northwards and homewards, from Naples (where
they were performing an opera named _Sordello_) and Rome he sought and
obtained at Leghorn an interview with Trelawny, the generous-hearted
friend of Shelley, by whose grave he had lately stood.[27]

Browning's work as a playwright, consisting of eight pieces, or nine if
we include the later _In a Balcony_, is sufficiently ample to enable us
to form a trustworthy estimate of his genius as seen in drama. Dramatic,
in the sense that he created and studied minds and hearts other than his
own, he pre-eminently was; if he desired to set forth or to vindicate
his most intimate ideas or impulses, he effected this indirectly, by
detaching them from his own personality and giving them a brain and a
heart other than his own in which to live and move and have their being.
There is a kind of dramatic art which we may term static, and another
kind which we may term dynamic. The former deals especially with
characters in position, the latter with characters in movement.[28]
Passion and thought may be exhibited and interpreted by dramatic genius
of either type; to represent passion and thought and action--action
incarnating and developing thought and passion--the dynamic power is
required. And by action we are to understand not merely a visible deed,
but also a word, a feeling, an idea which has in it a direct operative
force. The dramatic genius of Browning was in the main of the static
kind; it studies with extraordinary skill and subtlety character in
position; it attains only an imperfect or a laboured success with
character in movement. The _dramatis personae_ are ready at almost every
moment, except the culminating moments of passion, to fall away from
action into reflection and self-analysis. The play of mind upon mind he
recognises of course as a matter of profound interest and importance;
but he catches the energy which spirit transfers to spirit less in the
actual moment of transference than after it has arrived. Thought and
emotion with him do not circulate freely through a group of persons,
receiving some modification from each. He deals most successfully with
each individual as a single and separate entity; each maintains his own
attitude, and as he is touched by the common influence he proceeds to
scrutinise it. Mind in these plays threads its way dexterously in and
out of action; it is not itself sufficiently incorporated in action. The
progress of the drama is now retarded; and again, as if the author
perceived that the story had fallen behind or remained stationary, it is
accelerated by sudden jerks. A dialogue of retrospection is a common
device at the opening of popular plays, with a view to expound the
position of affairs to the audience; but a dramatic writer of genius
usually works forward through his dialogue to the end which he has set
before him. With Browning for the purpose of mental analysis a dialogue
of retrospection may be of higher value than one which leans and presses
towards the future. The invisible is for him more important than the
visible; and so in truth it may often be; but the highest dramatist will
not choose to separate the two. The invisible is best captured and is
most securely held in the visible.

As a writer of drama, Browning, who delights to study the noblest
attitudes of the soul, and to wring a proud sense of triumph out of
apparent failure, finds his proper field in tragedy rather than in
comedy. _Colombe's Birthday_ has a joyous ending, but the joy is very
grave and earnest, and the body of the play is made up of serious
pleadings and serious hopes and fears. There is no light-hearted mirth,
no real gaiety of temper anywhere in the dramas of Browning. Pippa's
gladness in her holiday from the task of silk-winding is touched with
pathos in the thought that what is so bright _is_ also so brief, and it
is encompassed, even within delightful Asolo, by the sins and sorrows of
the world. Bluphocks, with his sniggering wit and his jingles of rhyme
is a vagabond and a spy, who only covers the shame of his nakedness with
these rags of devil-may-care good spirits. The genial cynicism of
Ogniben is excellent of its kind, and pleases the palate like an olive
amid wines; but this man of universal intellectual sympathies is at
heart the satirist of moral illusions, the unmasker of self-deception,
who with long experience of human infirmities, has come to chuckle
gently over his own skill in dealing with them; and has he not--we may
ask--wound around his own spirit some of the incurable illusions of
worldly wisdom? No--this is not gaiety; if Browning smiles with his
Ogniben, his smile is a comment upon the weakness and the blindness of
the self-deceiver.

Browning's tragedies are tragedies without villains. The world is here
the villain, which has baits and bribes and snares wherewith to entangle
its victims, to lure down their mounting aspirations, to dull their
vision for the things far-off and faint; perhaps also to make them
prosperous and portly gentlemen, easy-going, and amiably cynical,
tolerant of evil, and prudently distrustful of good. Yet truth is truth,
and fact is fact; worldly wisdom is genuine wisdom after its kind; we
shall be the better instructed if we listen to its sage experience, if
we listen, understand, and in all justice, censure. Ogniben can blandly
and skilfully conduct a Chiappino to his valley of humiliation--"let him
that standeth take heed lest he fall." But what would the wisdom of
Ogniben be worth in its pronouncements on a Luria or a Colombe? Perhaps
even in such a case not wholly valueless. The self-pleased, keen-sighted
Legate might after all have applauded a moral heroism or a high-hearted
gallantry which would ill accord with his own ingenious and versatile
spirit. Bishop Blougram--sleek, ecclesiastical opportunist--was not
insensible to the superior merits of "rough, grand, old Martin Luther."

In Browning's nature a singularly keen, exploring intelligence was
united with a rare moral and spiritual ardour, a passion for high
ideals. In creating his chief _dramatis persona_ he distributes among
them what he found within himself, and they fall into two principal
groups--characters in which the predominating power is intellect, and
characters in which the mastery lies with some lofty emotion. The
intellect dealing with things that are real and positive, those persons
in whom intelligence is supreme may too easily become the children of
this world; in their own sphere they are wiser than the children of
light; and they are skilled in a moral casuistry by which they justify
to themselves the darkening of the light that is in them. The passionate
natures have an intelligence of their own; they follow a gleam which is
visible to them if not to others; they discover, or rather they are
discovered by, some truth which flashes forth in one inspired
moment--the master-moment of a lifetime; they possess the sublime
certainty of love, loyalty, devotion; if they err through a heroic
folly and draw upon themselves ruin in things temporal, may there not be
some atom of divine wisdom at the heart of the folly, which is itself
indestructible, and which ensures for them a welfare out of time and
space? Prophet and casuist--Browning is both; and to each he will
endeavour to be just; but his heart must give a casting vote, and this
cannot be in favour of the casuist. Every self-transcending passion has
in it a divine promise and pledge; even the passion of the senses if it
has hidden within it one spark of self-annihilating love may be the
salvation of a soul. It is Ottima, lifted above her own superb
voluptuousness, who cries--"Not me--to him, O God, be merciful." The
region of untrammelled, unclouded passion, of spiritual intuition, and
of those great words from heaven, which pierce "even to the dividing
asunder of the joints and marrow," is, for Browning's imagination, the
East. The nations of the West--and, before all others, the Italian
race--are those of a subtly developed intelligence. The worldly art of a
Church-man, ingenuities of theology having aided in refining ingenuities
of worldliness, is perhaps the finest exemplar of unalloyed western
brain-craft. But Italy is also a land of passion; and therefore at once,
for its ardours of the heart--seen not in love alone but in carven
capital and on frescoed wall--and for its casuistries of intellect,
Browning looks to Italy for the material best fitted to his artistry.
Between that group of personages whom we may call his characters of
passion and that group made up of his characters of intelligence, lie
certain figures of peculiar interest, by birth and inheritance children
of the East, and by culture partakers, in a greater or a less degree,
of the characteristics of the West--a Djabal, with his Oriental heart
entangled by Prankish tricks of sophistry; a Luria, whose Moorish
passion is enthralled by the fascination of Florentine intellect, and
who can make a return upon himself with a half-painful western

Loyalties, devotions, to a person, to a cause, to an ideal, and the
sacrifice of individual advantages, worldly prosperity, temporal
successes to these--such, stated in a broad and general way, is the
theme of special interest to Browning in his dramas. These loyalties may
be well and wisely fixed, or they may contain a portion of error and
illusion. But in either case they furnish a test of manly and womanly
virtue. With a woman the test is often proposed by love--by love as set
over against ease, or high station, or the pride of power. Colombe of
Ravestein is offered on the one hand the restoration of her forfeited
Duchy, the prospective rank of Empress and partnership with a man, who,
if he cannot give love, is yet no ignoble wooer, a man of honour, of
intellect, and of high ambition; on the other hand pleads the advocate
of Cleves, a nameless provincial, past his days of youth, lean and
somewhat worn, and burdened with the griefs and wrongs of his townsfolk.
Mere largeness in a life is something, is much; but the quality of a
life is more. Valence has set the cause of his fellow-citizens above
himself; he has made the heart of the Duchess for the first time thrill
in sympathy with the life of her people; he has placed his loyalty to
her far above his own hopes of happiness; he has urged his rival's
claims with unfaltering fidelity. It is not with any backward glances
of regret, any half-doubts, prudent reserves, or condescending
qualifications that Colombe gives herself to the advocate of the poor.
She, in her youth and beauty, has been happy during her year of idlesse
as play-Duchess of Juliers; she is happier now as she abandons the court
and, sure in her grave choice, turns with a light and joyous laugh to
welcome the birthday gift of freedom and of love that has so
unexpectedly come to her. Having once made her election, Colombe can
throw away the world as gaily as in some girlish frolic she might toss
aside a rose.

The loyalty of men, their supreme devotion and their test may, as with
women, spring from the passion of love; but other tests than this are
often proposed to them. With King Charles of Sardinia it is duty to his
people that summons him, from those modest and tranquil ways of life of
which he dreamed, to the cares and toils of the crown. He has strength
to accept without faltering the burden that is laid upon him. And if he
falters at the last, and would resign to his father, who reclaims it,
the crown which God alone should have removed, shall we assert
confidently that Browning's dramatic instinct has erred? The pity of
it--that his great father, daring in battle, profound in policy, should
stand before him an outraged, helpless old man, craving with senile
greed a gift from his son--the pity of it revives an old weakness, an
old instinct of filial submission, in the heart of Charles. He has
tasked himself without sparing; he has gained the affections of his
subjects; he has conciliated a hostile Europe; is not this enough? Or
was it also in the bond that he should tread a miserable father into the
dust? The test again of Luigi, in the third part of _Pippa Passes_, is
that of one who sees all the oppression of his people, who is enamoured
of the antique ideal of liberty, and whose choice lies between a youth
of luxurious ease and the virtue of one heroic crime, to be followed by
the scaffold-steps, with youth cut short. To him that overcometh and
endureth unto the end will God give the morning-star:

The gift of the morning-star! Have I God's gift
Of the morning-star?

And Luigi will adventure forth--it may be in a kind of divine folly--as
a doomsman commissioned by God to free his Italy. The devotion of Luria
to Florence is partly of the imagination, and perhaps it is touched with
something of illusion. But the actual Florence, with her astute
politicians, her spies who spy upon spies, her incurable distrusts, her
sinister fears, her ingrained ingratitude, is clearly exposed to him
before the end. Shall he turn the army, which is as much his own as the
sword he wields, joined with the forces of Pisa, against the beautiful,
faithless city? Or will his passionate loyalty endure the test? Luria
withdraws from life, but not until he has made every provision for the
victory of Florence over her enemy; nor does he die a defeated man; his
moral greatness has subdued all envies and all distrusts; at the close
everyone is true to him:

The only fault's with time;
All men become good creatures: but so slow.[29]

Once again in Browning's earliest play, the test for the patriot Pym
lies in the choice between two loyalties--one to England and to
freedom, the other to his early friend and former comrade in politics.
His faith in Strafford dies hard; but it dies; he flings forward his
hopes for the grand traitor to England beyond the confines of this life,
and only the grieved unfaltering justiciary remains. Browning's Pym is a
figure neither historically true nor dramatically effective; he is
self-conscious and sentimental, a patriot armed in paste-board rhetoric.
But the writer, let us remember, was young; this was his first
theatrical essay, and he was somewhat showy of fine intentions. The
loyalty of Strafford to the King is too fatuous an instinct to gain our
complete sympathy. He rides gallantly into the quicksand, knowing it to
be such, and the quicksand, as certainly as the worm of Nilus, will do
its kind. And yet though this is the vain romance of loyalty, in it, as
Browning conceives, lies the test of Strafford. A self-renouncing
passion of any kind is not so common that we can afford to look on his
king-worship with scorn.

Over against these devotees of the ideal Browning sets his worldlings,
ranging from creatures as despicable as the courtiers of Duchess Colombe
to such men of power and inexhaustible resource as the Nuncio who
confronts Djabal with his Druses, or the Papal Legate whose easier and
half-humorous task is to dismiss to his private affairs at Lugo the
four-and-twentieth leader of revolt. To the same breed with the
courtiers of Colombe belong old Vane and Savile of the court of Charles.
To the same breed with the Nuncio and the Legate, belongs Monsignor, who
proves himself more than a match for his hireling, the scoundrel
Intendant. In a happy moment Monsignor is startled into indignant
wrath; he does not exclaim with the Edmund of Shakespeare's tragedy
"Some good I mean to do before I die;" but his "Gag the villain!" is a
substantial contribution to the justice of our world. Under the
ennobling influence of Charles and his Polyxena, the craft of D'Ormea is
uplifted to a level of real dignity; if he cannot quite attain the
position of a martyr for the truth, he becomes something better than one
who serves God at the devil's bidding. And Braccio, plotter and
betrayer, yet always with a certain fidelity towards his mother-city, is
won over to the side of simple truth and righteousness by the
overmastering power of Luria's magnanimity. So precious, after
all--Browning would say--is the mere capacity to recognise facts; if
only a little grain of virtue remains in the heart, this faculty of
vision may make some sudden discovery which shall prove to a worldling
that there exist facts, undeniable and of immense potency, hitherto
unknown to his philosophy of chicane. Browning's vote is given, as has
been said, and with no uncertain voice, for his devotees of the ideal;
but the men of fine worldly brain-craft have a fascination for him as
they have for his Eastern Luria. In Djabal, at once enthusiast and
impostor, Browning may seem, as often afterwards, to offer an apology
for the palterer with truth; but in the interests of truth itself, he
desires to study the strange phenomenon of the deceiver who would fain
half-deceive himself.


[Footnote 18: Dr Moncure Conway in "The Nation" vol. i. (an article
written on the occasion of Browning's death) says that he was told by
Carlyle of his first meeting with Browning--as Carlyle rode upon
Wimbledon Common a "beautiful youth," walking there alone, stopped him
and asked for his acquaintance. The incident has a somewhat legendary

[Footnote 19: Lady Martin (Helen Faucit), however, wrote in 1891 to Mrs
Ritchie: "The play was mounted in all matters with great care ... minute
attention to accuracy of costume prevailed.... The scenery was alike

[Footnote 20: On which occasion Browning--muffled up in a cloak--was
asked by a stranger in the pit whether he was not the author of "Romeo
and Juliet" and "Othello." "No, so far as I am aware," replied Browning.
Two burlesques of Shakespeare by a Mr Brown or Brownley were in course
of performance in London. _Letters of R.B. and E.B.B._, ii. 132.]

[Footnote 21: From the Prologue to _Asolando_, Browning's last volume.]

[Footnote 22: Mrs Orr, "Handbook to the Works of Robert Browning," p. 54
(1st ed.).]

[Footnote 23: _A Soul's Tragedy_ was written in 1843 or 1844, and
revised immediately before publication. See Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.,

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