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Robert Browning by G. K. Chesterton

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But while Browning was thus standing alone in his view of the matter,
while Edward Barrett had to all appearance on his side a phalanx of
all the sanities and respectabilities, there came suddenly a new
development, destined to bring matters to a crisis indeed, and to
weigh at least three souls in the balance. Upon further examination of
Miss Barrett's condition, the physicians had declared that it was
absolutely necessary that she should be taken to Italy. This may,
without any exaggeration, be called the turning-point and the last
great earthly opportunity of Barrett's character. He had not
originally been an evil man, only a man who, being stoical in
practical things, permitted himself, to his great detriment, a
self-indulgence in moral things. He had grown to regard his pious and
dying daughter as part of the furniture of the house and of the
universe. And as long as the great mass of authorities were on his
side, his illusion was quite pardonable. His crisis came when the
authorities changed their front, and with one accord asked his
permission to send his daughter abroad. It was his crisis, and he
refused.

He had, if we may judge from what we know of him, his own peculiar and
somewhat detestable way of refusing. Once when his daughter had asked
a perfectly simple favour in a matter of expediency, permission, that
is, to keep her favourite brother with her during an illness, her
singular parent remarked that "she might keep him if she liked, but
that he had looked for greater self-sacrifice." These were the weapons
with which he ruled his people. For the worst tyrant is not the man
who rules by fear; the worst tyrant is he who rules by love and plays
on it as on a harp. Barrett was one of the oppressors who have
discovered the last secret of oppression, that which is told in the
fine verse of Swinburne:--

"The racks of the earth and the rods
Are weak as the foam on the sands;
The heart is the prey for the gods,
Who crucify hearts, not hands."

He, with his terrible appeal to the vibrating consciences of women,
was, with regard to one of them, very near to the end of his reign.
When Browning heard that the Italian journey was forbidden, he
proposed definitely that they should marry and go on the journey
together.

Many other persons had taken cognisance of the fact, and were active
in the matter. Kenyon, the gentlest and most universally complimentary
of mortals, had marched into the house and given Arabella Barrett,
the sister of the sick woman, his opinion of her father's conduct
with a degree of fire and frankness which must have been perfectly
amazing in a man of his almost antiquated social delicacy. Mrs.
Jameson, an old and generous friend of the family, had immediately
stepped in and offered to take Elizabeth to Italy herself, thus
removing all questions of expense or arrangement. She would appear to
have stood to her guns in the matter with splendid persistence and
magnanimity. She called day after day seeking for a change of mind,
and delayed her own journey to the continent more than once. At
length, when it became evident that the extraction of Mr. Barrett's
consent was hopeless, she reluctantly began her own tour in Europe
alone. She went to Paris, and had not been there many days, when she
received a formal call from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning, who had been married for some days. Her astonishment is
rather a picturesque thing to think about.

The manner in which this sensational elopement, which was, of course,
the talk of the whole literary world, had been effected, is narrated,
as every one knows, in the Browning Letters. Browning had decided that
an immediate marriage was the only solution; and having put his hand
to the plough, did not decline even when it became obviously necessary
that it should be a secret marriage. To a man of his somewhat stormily
candid and casual disposition this necessity of secrecy was really
exasperating; but every one with any imagination or chivalry will
rejoice that he accepted the evil conditions. He had always had the
courage to tell the truth; and now it was demanded of him to have the
greater courage to tell a lie, and he told it with perfect
cheerfulness and lucidity. In thus disappearing surreptitiously with
an invalid woman he was doing something against which there were
undoubtedly a hundred things to be said, only it happened that the
most cogent and important thing of all was to be said for it.

It is very amusing, and very significant in the matter of Browning's
character, to read the accounts which he writes to Elizabeth Barrett
of his attitude towards the approaching _coup de theatre_. In one
place he says, suggestively enough, that he does not in the least
trouble about the disapproval of her father; the man whom he fears as
a frustrating influence is Kenyon. Mr. Barrett could only walk into
the room and fly into a passion; and this Browning could have received
with perfect equanimity. "But," he says, "if Kenyon knows of the
matter, I shall have the kindest and friendliest of explanations (with
his arm on my shoulder) of how I am ruining your social position,
destroying your health, etc., etc." This touch is very suggestive of
the power of the old worldling, who could manoeuvre with young people
as well as Major Pendennis. Kenyon had indeed long been perfectly
aware of the way in which things were going; and the method he adopted
in order to comment on it is rather entertaining. In a conversation
with Elizabeth Barrett, he asked carelessly whether there was anything
between her sister and a certain Captain Cooke. On receiving a
surprised reply in the negative, he remarked apologetically that he
had been misled into the idea by the gentleman calling so often at the
house. Elizabeth Barrett knew perfectly well what he meant; but the
logical allusiveness of the attack reminds one of a fragment of some
Meredithian comedy.

The manner in which Browning bore himself in this acute and
necessarily dubious position is, perhaps, more thoroughly to his
credit than anything else in his career. He never came out so well in
all his long years of sincerity and publicity as he does in this one
act of deception. Having made up his mind to that act, he is not
ashamed to name it; neither, on the other hand, does he rant about it,
and talk about Philistine prejudices and higher laws and brides in the
sight of God, after the manner of the cockney decadent. He was
breaking a social law, but he was not declaring a crusade against
social laws. We all feel, whatever may be our opinions on the matter,
that the great danger of this kind of social opportunism, this pitting
of a private necessity against a public custom, is that men are
somewhat too weak and self-deceptive to be trusted with such a power
of giving dispensations to themselves. We feel that men without
meaning to do so might easily begin by breaking a social by-law and
end by being thoroughly anti-social. One of the best and most striking
things to notice about Robert Browning is the fact that he did this
thing considering it as an exception, and that he contrived to leave
it really exceptional. It did not in the least degree break the
rounded clearness of his loyalty to social custom. It did not in the
least degree weaken the sanctity of the general rule. At a supreme
crisis of his life he did an unconventional thing, and he lived and
died conventional. It would be hard to say whether he appears the more
thoroughly sane in having performed the act, or in not having allowed
it to affect him.

Elizabeth Barrett gradually gave way under the obstinate and almost
monotonous assertion of Browning that this elopement was the only
possible course of action. Before she finally agreed, however, she did
something, which in its curious and impulsive symbolism, belongs
almost to a more primitive age. The sullen system of medical seclusion
to which she had long been subjected has already been described. The
most urgent and hygienic changes were opposed by many on the ground
that it was not safe for her to leave her sofa and her sombre room. On
the day on which it was necessary for her finally to accept or reject
Browning's proposal, she called her sister to her, and to the
amazement and mystification of that lady asked for a carriage. In this
she drove into Regent's Park, alighted, walked on to the grass, and
stood leaning against a tree for some moments, looking round her at
the leaves and the sky. She then entered the cab again, drove home,
and agreed to the elopement. This was possibly the best poem that she
ever produced.

Browning arranged the eccentric adventure with a great deal of
prudence and knowledge of human nature. Early one morning in September
1846 Miss Barrett walked quietly out of her father's house, became
Mrs. Robert Browning in a church in Marylebone, and returned home
again as if nothing had happened. In this arrangement Browning showed
some of that real insight into the human spirit which ought to make a
poet the most practical of all men. The incident was, in the nature of
things, almost overpoweringly exciting to his wife, in spite of the
truly miraculous courage with which she supported it; and he desired,
therefore, to call in the aid of the mysteriously tranquillising
effect of familiar scenes and faces. One trifling incident is worth
mentioning which is almost unfathomably characteristic of Browning. It
has already been remarked in these pages that he was pre-eminently one
of those men whose expanding opinions never alter by a hairsbreadth
the actual ground-plan of their moral sense. Browning would have felt
the same things right and the same things wrong, whatever views he had
held. During the brief and most trying period between his actual
marriage and his actual elopement, it is most significant that he
would not call at the house in Wimpole Street, because he would have
been obliged to ask if Miss Barrett was disengaged. He was acting a
lie; he was deceiving a father; he was putting a sick woman to a
terrible risk; and these things he did not disguise from himself for a
moment, but he could not bring himself to say two words to a
maidservant. Here there may be partly the feeling of the literary man
for the sacredness of the uttered word, but there is far more of a
certain rooted traditional morality which it is impossible either to
describe or to justify. Browning's respectability was an older and
more primeval thing than the oldest and most primeval passions of
other men. If we wish to understand him, we must always remember that
in dealing with any of his actions we have not to ask whether the
action contains the highest morality, but whether we should have felt
inclined to do it ourselves.

At length the equivocal and exhausting interregnum was over. Mrs.
Browning went for the second time almost on tiptoe out of her father's
house, accompanied only by her maid and her dog, which was only just
successfully prevented from barking. Before the end of the day in all
probability Barrett had discovered that his dying daughter had fled
with Browning to Italy.

They never saw him again, and hardly more than a faint echo came to
them of the domestic earthquake which they left behind them. They do
not appear to have had many hopes, or to have made many attempts at a
reconciliation. Elizabeth Barrett had discovered at last that her
father was in truth not a man to be treated with; hardly, perhaps,
even a man to be blamed. She knew to all intents and purposes that she
had grown up in the house of a madman.

CHAPTER IV

BROWNING IN ITALY

The married pair went to Pisa in 1846, and moved soon afterwards to
Florence. Of the life of the Brownings in Italy there is much perhaps
to be said in the way of description and analysis, little to be said
in the way of actual narrative. Each of them had passed through the
one incident of existence. Just as Elizabeth Barrett's life had before
her marriage been uneventfully sombre, now it was uneventfully happy.
A succession of splendid landscapes, a succession of brilliant
friends, a succession of high and ardent intellectual interests, they
experienced; but their life was of the kind that if it were told at
all, would need to be told in a hundred volumes of gorgeous
intellectual gossip. How Browning and his wife rode far into the
country, eating strawberries and drinking milk out of the basins of
the peasants; how they fell in with the strangest and most picturesque
figures of Italian society; how they climbed mountains and read books
and modelled in clay and played on musical instruments; how Browning
was made a kind of arbiter between two improvising Italian bards; how
he had to escape from a festivity when the sound of Garibaldi's hymn
brought the knocking of the Austrian police; these are the things of
which his life is full, trifling and picturesque things, a series of
interludes, a beautiful and happy story, beginning and ending nowhere.
The only incidents, perhaps, were the birth of their son and the death
of Browning's mother in 1849.

It is well known that Browning loved Italy; that it was his adopted
country; that he said in one of the finest of his lyrics that the name
of it would be found written on his heart. But the particular
character of this love of Browning for Italy needs to be understood.
There are thousands of educated Europeans who love Italy, who live in
it, who visit it annually, who come across a continent to see it, who
hunt out its darkest picture and its most mouldering carving; but they
are all united in this, that they regard Italy as a dead place. It is
a branch of their universal museum, a department of dry bones. There
are rich and cultivated persons, particularly Americans, who seem to
think that they keep Italy, as they might keep an aviary or a
hothouse, into which they might walk whenever they wanted a whiff of
beauty. Browning did not feel at all in this manner; he was
intrinsically incapable of offering such an insult to the soul of a
nation. If he could not have loved Italy as a nation, he would not
have consented to love it as an old curiosity shop. In everything on
earth, from the Middle Ages to the amoeba, who is discussed at such
length in "Mr. Sludge the Medium," he is interested in the life in
things. He was interested in the life in Italian art and in the life
in Italian politics.

Perhaps the first and simplest example that can be given of this
matter is in Browning's interest in art. He was immeasurably
fascinated at all times by painting and sculpture, and his sojourn in
Italy gave him, of course, innumerable and perfect opportunities for
the study of painting and sculpture. But his interest in these studies
was not like that of the ordinary cultured visitor to the Italian
cities. Thousands of such visitors, for example, study those endless
lines of magnificent Pagan busts which are to be found in nearly all
the Italian galleries and museums, and admire them, and talk about
them, and note them in their catalogues, and describe them in their
diaries. But the way in which they affected Browning is described very
suggestively in a passage in the letters of his wife. She describes
herself as longing for her husband to write poems, beseeching him to
write poems, but finding all her petitions useless because her husband
was engaged all day in modelling busts in clay and breaking them as
fast as he made them. This is Browning's interest in art, the interest
in a living thing, the interest in a growing thing, the insatiable
interest in how things are done. Every one who knows his admirable
poems on painting--"Fra Lippo Lippi" and "Andrea del Sarto" and
"Pictor Ignotus"--will remember how fully they deal with
technicalities, how they are concerned with canvas, with oil, with a
mess of colours. Sometimes they are so technical as to be mysterious
to the casual reader. An extreme case may be found in that of a lady I
once knew who had merely read the title of "Pacchiarotto and how he
worked in distemper," and thought that Pacchiarotto was the name of a
dog, whom no attacks of canine disease could keep from the fulfilment
of his duty. These Browning poems do not merely deal with painting;
they smell of paint. They are the works of a man to whom art is not
what it is to so many of the non-professional lovers of art, a thing
accomplished, a valley of bones: to him it is a field of crops
continually growing in a busy and exciting silence. Browning was
interested, like some scientific man, in the obstetrics of art. There
is a large army of educated men who can talk art with artists; but
Browning could not merely talk art with artists--he could talk shop
with them. Personally he may not have known enough about painting to
be more than a fifth-rate painter, or enough about the organ to be
more than a sixth-rate organist. But there are, when all is said and
done, some things which a fifth-rate painter knows which a first-rate
art critic does not know; there are some things which a sixth-rate
organist knows which a first-rate judge of music does not know. And
these were the things that Browning knew.

He was, in other words, what is called an amateur. The word amateur
has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of
tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is
this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual
characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and
reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it
without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any
hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more
than any other man can love the rewards of it. Browning was in this
strict sense a strenuous amateur. He tried and practised in the course
of his life half a hundred things at which he can never have even for
a moment expected to succeed. The story of his life is full of absurd
little ingenuities, such as the discovery of a way of making pictures
by roasting brown paper over a candle. In precisely the same spirit
of fruitless vivacity, he made himself to a very considerable extent a
technical expert in painting, a technical expert in sculpture, a
technical expert in music. In his old age, he shows traces of being so
bizarre a thing as an abstract police detective, writing at length in
letters and diaries his views of certain criminal cases in an Italian
town. Indeed, his own _Ring and the Book_ is merely a sublime
detective story. He was in a hundred things this type of man; he was
precisely in the position, with a touch of greater technical success,
of the admirable figure in Stevenson's story who said, "I can play the
fiddle nearly well enough to earn a living in the orchestra of a penny
gaff, but not quite."

The love of Browning for Italian art, therefore, was anything but an
antiquarian fancy; it was the love of a living thing. We see the same
phenomenon in an even more important matter--the essence and
individuality of the country itself.

Italy to Browning and his wife was not by any means merely that
sculptured and ornate sepulchre that it is to so many of those
cultivated English men and women who live in Italy and enjoy and
admire and despise it. To them it was a living nation, the type and
centre of the religion and politics of a continent; the ancient and
flaming heart of Western history, the very Europe of Europe. And they
lived at the time of the most moving and gigantic of all dramas--the
making of a new nation, one of the things that makes men feel that
they are still in the morning of the earth. Before their eyes, with
every circumstance of energy and mystery, was passing the panorama of
the unification of Italy, with the bold and romantic militarism of
Garibaldi, the more bold and more romantic diplomacy of Cavour. They
lived in a time when affairs of State had almost the air of works of
art; and it is not strange that these two poets should have become
politicians in one of those great creative epochs when even the
politicians have to be poets.

Browning was on this question and on all the questions of continental
and English politics a very strong Liberal. This fact is not a mere
detail of purely biographical interest, like any view he might take of
the authorship of the "Eikon Basilike" or the authenticity of the
Tichborne claimant. Liberalism was so inevitably involved in the
poet's whole view of existence, that even a thoughtful and imaginative
Conservative would feel that Browning was bound to be a Liberal. His
mind was possessed, perhaps even to excess, by a belief in growth and
energy and in the ultimate utility of error. He held the great central
Liberal doctrine, a belief in a certain destiny of the human spirit
beyond, and perhaps even independent of, our own sincerest
convictions. The world was going right he felt, most probably in his
way, but certainly in its own way. The sonnet which he wrote in later
years, entitled "Why I am a Liberal," expresses admirably this
philosophical root of his politics. It asks in effect how he, who had
found truth in so many strange forms after so many strange wanderings,
can be expected to stifle with horror the eccentricities of others. A
Liberal may be defined approximately as a man who, if he could by
waving his hand in a dark room, stop the mouths of all the deceivers
of mankind for ever, would not wave his hand. Browning was a Liberal
in this sense.

And just as the great Liberal movement which followed the French
Revolution made this claim for the liberty and personality of human
beings, so it made it for the liberty and personality of nations. It
attached indeed to the independence of a nation something of the same
wholly transcendental sanctity which humanity has in all legal systems
attached to the life of a man. The grounds were indeed much the same;
no one could say absolutely that a live man was useless, and no one
could say absolutely that a variety of national life was useless or
must remain useless to the world. Men remembered how often barbarous
tribes or strange and alien Scriptures had been called in to revive
the blood of decaying empires and civilisations. And this sense of the
personality of a nation, as distinct from the personalities of all
other nations, did not involve in the case of these old Liberals
international bitterness; for it is too often forgotten that
friendship demands independence and equality fully as much as war. But
in them it led to great international partialities, to a great system,
as it were, of adopted countries which made so thorough a Scotchman as
Carlyle in love with Germany, and so thorough an Englishman as
Browning in love with Italy.

And while on the one side of the struggle was this great ideal of
energy and variety, on the other side was something which we now find
it difficult to realise or describe. We have seen in our own time a
great reaction in favour of monarchy, aristocracy, andecclesiasticism,
a reaction almost entirely noble in its instinct, and dwelling almost
entirely on the best periods and the best qualities of the old
_regime_. But the modern man, full of admiration for the great virtue
of chivalry which is at the heart of aristocracies, and the great
virtue of reverence which is at the heart of ceremonial religion, is
not in a position to form any idea of how profoundly unchivalrous, how
astonishingly irreverent, how utterly mean, and material, and devoid
of mystery or sentiment were the despotic systems of Europe which
survived, and for a time conquered, the Revolution. The case against
the Church in Italy in the time of Pio Nono was not the case which a
rationalist would urge against the Church of the time of St. Louis,
but diametrically the opposite case. Against the mediaeval Church it
might be said that she was too fantastic, too visionary, too dogmatic
about the destiny of man, too indifferent to all things but the
devotional side of the soul. Against the Church of Pio Nono the main
thing to be said was that it was simply and supremely cynical; that it
was not founded on the unworldly instinct for distorting life, but on
the worldly counsel to leave life as it is; that it was not the
inspirer of insane hopes, of reward and miracle, but the enemy, the
cool and sceptical enemy, of hope of any kind or description. The same
was true of the monarchical systems of Prussia and Austria and Russia
at this time. Their philosophy was not the philosophy of the cavaliers
who rode after Charles I. or Louis XIII. It was the philosophy of the
typical city uncle, advising every one, and especially the young, to
avoid enthusiasm, to avoid beauty, to regard life as a machine,
dependent only upon the two forces of comfort and fear. That was,
there can be little doubt, the real reason of the fascination of the
Napoleon legend--that while Napoleon was a despot like the rest, he
was a despot who went somewhere and did something, and defied the
pessimism of Europe, and erased the word "impossible." One does not
need to be a Bonapartist to rejoice at the way in which the armies of
the First Empire, shouting their songs and jesting with their
colonels, smote and broke into pieces the armies of Prussia and
Austria driven into battle with a cane.

Browning, as we have said, was in Italy at the time of the break-up of
one part of this frozen continent of the non-possumus, Austria's hold
in the north of Italy was part of that elaborate and comfortable and
wholly cowardly and unmeaning compromise, which the Holy Alliance had
established, and which it believed without doubt in its solid unbelief
would last until the Day of Judgment, though it is difficult to
imagine what the Holy Alliance thought would happen then. But almost
of a sudden affairs had begun to move strangely, and the despotic
princes and their chancellors discovered with a great deal of
astonishment that they were not living in the old age of the world,
but to all appearance in a very unmanageable period of its boyhood. In
an age of ugliness and routine, in a time when diplomatists and
philosophers alike tended to believe that they had a list of all human
types, there began to appear men who belonged to the morning of the
world, men whose movements have a national breadth and beauty, who act
symbols and become legends while they are alive. Garibaldi in his red
shirt rode in an open carriage along the front of a hostile fort
calling to the coachman to drive slower, and not a man dared fire a
shot at him. Mazzini poured out upon Europe a new mysticism of
humanity and liberty, and was willing, like some passionate Jesuit of
the sixteenth century, to become in its cause either a philosopher or
a criminal. Cavour arose with a diplomacy which was more thrilling and
picturesque than war itself. These men had nothing to do with an age
of the impossible. They have passed, their theories along with them,
as all things pass; but since then we have had no men of their type
precisely, at once large and real and romantic and successful. Gordon
was a possible exception. They were the last of the heroes.

When Browning was first living in Italy, a telegram which had been
sent to him was stopped on the frontier and suppressed on account of
his known sympathy with the Italian Liberals. It is almost impossible
for people living in a commonwealth like ours to understand how a
small thing like that will affect a man. It was not so much the
obvious fact that a great practical injury was really done to him;
that the telegram might have altered all his plans in matters of vital
moment. It was, over and above that, the sense of a hand laid on
something personal and essentially free. Tyranny like this is not the
worst tyranny, but it is the most intolerable. It interferes with men
not in the most serious matters, but precisely in those matters in
which they most resent interference. It may be illogical for men to
accept cheerfully unpardonable public scandals, benighted educational
systems, bad sanitation, bad lighting, a blundering and inefficient
system of life, and yet to resent the tearing up of a telegram or a
post-card; but the fact remains that the sensitiveness of men is a
strange and localised thing, and there is hardly a man in the world
who would not rather be ruled by despots chosen by lot and live in a
city like a mediaeval Ghetto, than be forbidden by a policeman to
smoke another cigarette, or sit up a quarter of an hour later; hardly
a man who would not feel inclined in such a case to raise a rebellion
for a caprice for which he did not really care a straw. Unmeaning and
muddle-headed tyranny in small things, that is the thing which, if
extended over many years, is harder to bear and hope through than the
massacres of September. And that was the nightmare of vexatious
triviality which was lying over all the cities of Italy that were
ruled by the bureaucratic despotisms of Europe. The history of the
time is full of spiteful and almost childish struggles--struggles
about the humming of a tune or the wearing of a colour, the arrest of
a journey, or the opening of a letter. And there can be little doubt
that Browning's temperament under these conditions was not of the kind
to become more indulgent, and there grew in him a hatred of the
Imperial and Ducal and Papal systems of Italy, which sometimes passed
the necessities of Liberalism, and sometimes even transgressed its
spirit. The life which he and his wife lived in Italy was
extraordinarily full and varied, when we consider the restrictions
under which one at least of them had always lain. They met and took
delight, notwithstanding their exile, in some of the most interesting
people of their time--Ruskin, Cardinal Manning, and Lord Lytton.
Browning, in a most characteristic way, enjoyed the society of all of
them, arguing with one, agreeing with another, sitting up all night by
the bedside of a third.

It has frequently been stated that the only difference that ever
separated Mr. and Mrs. Browning was upon the question of spiritualism.
That statement must, of course, be modified and even contradicted if
it means that they never differed; that Mr. Browning never thought an
_Act of Parliament_ good when Mrs. Browning thought it bad; that Mr.
Browning never thought bread stale when Mrs. Browning thought it new.
Such unanimity is not only inconceivable, it is immoral; and as a
matter of fact, there is abundant evidence that their marriage
constituted something like that ideal marriage, an alliance between
two strong and independent forces. They differed, in truth, about a
great many things, for example, about Napoleon III. whom Mrs. Browning
regarded with an admiration which would have been somewhat beyond the
deserts of Sir Galahad, and whom Browning with his emphatic Liberal
principles could never pardon for the _Coup d'Etat_. If they differed
on spiritualism in a somewhat more serious way than this, the reason
must be sought in qualities which were deeper and more elemental in
both their characters than any mere matter of opinion. Mrs. Orr, in
her excellent _Life of Browning_, states that the difficulty arose
from Mrs. Browning's firm belief in psychical phenomena and Browning's
absolute refusal to believe even in their possibility. Another writer
who met them at this time says, "Browning cannot believe, and Mrs.
Browning cannot help believing." This theory, that Browning's aversion
to the spiritualist circle arose from an absolute denial of the
tenability of such a theory of life and death, has in fact often been
repeated. But it is exceedingly difficult to reconcile it with
Browning's character. He was the last man in the world to be
intellectually deaf to a hypothesis merely because it was odd. He had
friends whose opinions covered every description of madness from the
French legitimism of De Ripert-Monclar to the Republicanism of
Landor. Intellectually he may be said to have had a zest for heresies.
It is difficult to impute an attitude of mere impenetrable negation to
a man who had expressed with sympathy the religion of "Caliban" and
the morality of "Time's Revenges." It is true that at this time of the
first popular interest in spiritualism a feeling existed among many
people of a practical turn of mind, which can only be called a
superstition against believing in ghosts. But, intellectually
speaking, Browning would probably have been one of the most tolerant
and curious in regard to the new theories, whereas the popular version
of the matter makes him unusually intolerant and negligent even for
that time. The fact was in all probability that Browning's aversion to
the spiritualists had little or nothing to do with spiritualism. It
arose from quite a different side of his character--his uncompromising
dislike of what is called Bohemianism, of eccentric or slovenly
cliques, of those straggling camp followers of the arts who exhibit
dubious manners and dubious morals, of all abnormality and of all
irresponsibility. Any one, in fact, who wishes to see what it was that
Browning disliked need only do two things. First, he should read the
_Memoirs_ of David Home, the famous spiritualist medium with whom
Browning came in contact. These _Memoirs_ constitute a more thorough
and artistic self-revelation than any monologue that Browning ever
wrote. The ghosts, the raps, the flying hands, the phantom voices are
infinitely the most respectable and infinitely the most credible part
of the narrative. But the bragging, the sentimentalism, the moral and
intellectual foppery of the composition is everywhere, culminating
perhaps in the disgusting passage in which Home describes Mrs.
Browning as weeping over him and assuring him that all her husband's
actions in the matter have been adopted against her will. It is in
this kind of thing that we find the roots of the real anger of
Browning. He did not dislike spiritualism, but spiritualists. The
second point on which any one wishing to be just in the matter should
cast an eye, is the record of the visit which Mrs. Browning insisted
on making while on their honeymoon in Paris to the house of George
Sand. Browning felt, and to some extent expressed, exactly the same
aversion to his wife mixing with the circle of George Sand which he
afterwards felt at her mixing with the circle of Home. The society was
"of the ragged red, diluted with the low theatrical, men who worship
George Sand, _a genou bas_ between an oath and an ejection of saliva."
When we find that a man did not object to any number of Jacobites or
Atheists, but objected to the French Bohemian poets and to the early
occultist mediums as friends for his wife, we shall surely be fairly
right in concluding that he objected not to an opinion, but to a
social tone. The truth was that Browning had a great many admirably
Philistine feelings, and one of them was a great relish for his
responsibilities towards his wife. He enjoyed being a husband. This is
quite a distinct thing from enjoying being a lover, though it will
scarcely be found apart from it. But, like all good feelings, it has
its possible exaggerations, and one of them is this almost morbid
healthiness in the choice of friends for his wife.

David Home, the medium, came to Florence about 1857. Mrs. Browning
undoubtedly threw herself into psychical experiments with great ardour
at first, and Browning, equally undoubtedly, opposed, and at length
forbade, the enterprise. He did not do so however until he had
attended one _seance_ at least, at which a somewhat ridiculous event
occurred, which is described in Home's _Memoirs_ with a gravity even
more absurd than the incident. Towards the end of the proceedings a
wreath was placed in the centre of the table, and the lights being
lowered, it was caused to rise slowly into the air, and after hovering
for some time, to move towards Mrs. Browning, and at length to alight
upon her head. As the wreath was floating in her direction, her
husband was observed abruptly to cross the room and stand beside her.
One would think it was a sufficiently natural action on the part of a
man whose wife was the centre of a weird and disturbing experiment,
genuine or otherwise. But Mr. Home gravely asserts that it was
generally believed that Browning had crossed the room in the hope that
the wreath would alight on his head, and that from the hour of its
disobliging refusal to do so dated the whole of his goaded and
malignant aversion to spiritualism. The idea of the very conventional
and somewhat bored Robert Browning running about the room after a
wreath in the hope of putting his head into it, is one of the genuine
gleams of humour in this rather foolish affair. Browning could be
fairly violent, as we know, both in poetry and conversation; but it
would be almost too terrible to conjecture what he would have felt and
said if Mr. Home's wreath had alighted on his head.

Next day, according to Home's account, he called on the hostess of the
previous night in what the writer calls "a ridiculous state of
excitement," and told her apparently that she must excuse him if he
and his wife did not attend any more gatherings of the kind. What
actually occurred is not, of course, quite easy to ascertain, for the
account in Home's _Memoirs_ principally consists of noble speeches
made by the medium which would seem either to have reduced Browning to
a pulverised silence, or else to have failed to attract his attention.
But there can be no doubt that the general upshot of the affair was
that Browning put his foot down, and the experiments ceased. There can
be little doubt that he was justified in this; indeed, he was probably
even more justified if the experiments were genuine psychical
mysteries than if they were the _hocus-pocus_ of a charlatan. He knew
his wife better than posterity can be expected to do; but even
posterity can see that she was the type of woman so much adapted to
the purposes of men like Home as to exhibit almost invariably either a
great craving for such experiences or a great terror of them. Like
many geniuses, but not all, she lived naturally upon something like a
borderland; and it is impossible to say that if Browning had not
interposed when she was becoming hysterical she might not have ended
in an asylum.

The whole of this incident is very characteristic of Browning; but the
real characteristic note in it has, as above suggested, been to some
extent missed. When some seven years afterwards he produced "Mr.
Sludge the Medium," every one supposed that it was an attack upon
spiritualism and the possibility of its phenomena. As we shall see
when we come to that poem, this is a wholly mistaken interpretation of
it. But what is really curious is that most people have assumed that a
dislike of Home's investigations implies a theoretic disbelief in
spiritualism. It might, of course, imply a very firm and serious
belief in it. As a matter of fact it did not imply this in Browning,
but it may perfectly well have implied an agnosticism which admitted
the reasonableness of such things. Home was infinitely less dangerous
as a dexterous swindler than he was as a bad or foolish man in
possession of unknown or ill-comprehended powers. It is surely curious
to think that a man must object to exposing his wife to a few
conjuring tricks, but could not be afraid of exposing her to the loose
and nameless energies of the universe.

Browning's theoretic attitude in the matter was, therefore, in all
probability quite open and unbiassed. His was a peculiarly hospitable
intellect. If any one had told him of the spiritualist theory, or
theories a hundred times more insane, as things held by some sect of
Gnostics in Alexandria, or of heretical Talmudists at Antwerp, he
would have delighted in those theories, and would very likely have
adopted them. But Greek Gnostics and Antwerp Jews do not dance round a
man's wife and wave their hands in her face and send her into swoons
and trances about which nobody knows anything rational or scientific.
It was simply the stirring in Browning of certain primal masculine
feelings far beyond the reach of argument--things that lie so deep
that if they are hurt, though there may be no blame and no anger,
there is always pain. Browning did not like spiritualism to be
mentioned for many years.

Robert Browning was unquestionably a thoroughly conventional man.
There are many who think this element of conventionality altogether
regrettable and disgraceful; they have established, as it were, a
convention of the unconventional. But this hatred of the conventional
element in the personality of a poet is only possible to those who do
not remember the meaning of words. Convention means only a coming
together, an agreement; and as every poet must base his work upon an
emotional agreement among men, so every poet must base his work upon a
convention. Every art is, of course, based upon a convention, an
agreement between the speaker and the listener that certain objections
shall not be raised. The most realistic art in the world is open to
realistic objection. Against the most exact and everyday drama that
ever came out of Norway it is still possible for the realist to raise
the objection that the hero who starts a subject and drops it, who
runs out of a room and runs back again for his hat, is all the time
behaving in a most eccentric manner, considering that he is doing
these things in a room in which one of the four walls has been taken
clean away and been replaced by a line of footlights and a mob of
strangers. Against the most accurate black-and-white artist that human
imagination can conceive it is still to be admitted that he draws a
black line round a man's nose, and that that line is a lie. And in
precisely the same fashion a poet must, by the nature of things, be
conventional. Unless he is describing an emotion which others share
with him, his labours will be utterly in vain. If a poet really had an
original emotion; if, for example, a poet suddenly fell in love with
the buffers of a railway train, it would take him considerably more
time than his allotted three-score years and ten to communicate his
feelings.

Poetry deals with primal and conventional things--the hunger for
bread, the love of woman, the love of children, the desire for
immortal life. If men really had new sentiments, poetry could not deal
with them. If, let us say, a man did not feel a bitter craving to eat
bread; but did, by way of substitute, feel a fresh, original craving
to eat brass fenders or mahogany tables, poetry could not express him.
If a man, instead of falling in love with a woman, fell in love with a
fossil or a sea anemone, poetry could not express him. Poetry can only
express what is original in one sense--the sense in which we speak of
original sin. It is original, not in the paltry sense of being new,
but in the deeper sense of being old; it is original in the sense that
it deals with origins.

All artists, who have any experience of the arts, will agree so far,
that a poet is bound to be conventional with regard to matters of art.
Unfortunately, however, they are the very people who cannot, as a
general rule, see that a poet is also bound to be conventional in
matters of conduct. It is only the smaller poet who sees the poetry of
revolt, of isolation, of disagreement; the larger poet sees the poetry
of those great agreements which constitute the romantic achievement of
civilisation. Just as an agreement between the dramatist and the
audience is necessary to every play; just as an agreement between the
painter and the spectators is necessary to every picture, so an
agreement is necessary to produce the worship of any of the great
figures of morality--the hero, the saint, the average man, the
gentleman. Browning had, it must thoroughly be realised, a real
pleasure in these great agreements, these great conventions. He
delighted, with a true poetic delight, in being conventional. Being
by birth an Englishman, he took pleasure in being an Englishman; being
by rank a member of the middle class, he took a pride in its ancient
scruples and its everlasting boundaries. He was everything that he was
with a definite and conscious pleasure--a man, a Liberal, an
Englishman, an author, a gentleman, a lover, a married man.

This must always be remembered as a general characteristic of
Browning, this ardent and headlong conventionality. He exhibited it
pre-eminently in the affair of his elopement and marriage, during and
after the escape of himself and his wife to Italy. He seems to have
forgotten everything, except the splendid worry of being married. He
showed a thoroughly healthy consciousness that he was taking up a
responsibility which had its practical side. He came finally and
entirely out of his dreams. Since he had himself enough money to live
on, he had never thought of himself as doing anything but writing
poetry; poetry indeed was probably simmering and bubbling in his head
day and night. But when the problem of the elopement arose he threw
himself with an energy, of which it is pleasant to read, into every
kind of scheme for solidifying his position. He wrote to Monckton
Milnes, and would appear to have badgered him with applications for a
post in the British Museum. "I will work like a horse," he said, with
that boyish note, which, whenever in his unconsciousness he strikes
it, is more poetical than all his poems. All his language in this
matter is emphatic; he would be "glad and proud," he says, "to have
any minor post" his friend could obtain for him. He offered to read
for the Bar, and probably began doing so. But all this vigorous and
very creditable materialism was ruthlessly extinguished by Elizabeth
Barrett. She declined altogether even to entertain the idea of her
husband devoting himself to anything else at the expense of poetry.
Probably she was right and Browning wrong, but it was an error which
every man would desire to have made.

One of the qualities again which make Browning most charming, is the
fact that he felt and expressed so simple and genuine a satisfaction
about his own achievements as a lover and husband, particularly in
relation to his triumph in the hygienic care of his wife. "If he is
vain of anything," writes Mrs. Browning, "it is of my restored
health." Later, she adds with admirable humour and suggestiveness,
"and I have to tell him that he really must not go telling everybody
how his wife walked here with him, or walked there with him, as if a
wife with two feet were a miracle in Nature." When a lady in Italy
said, on an occasion when Browning stayed behind with his wife on the
day of a picnic, that he was "the only man who behaved like a
Christian to his wife," Browning was elated to an almost infantile
degree. But there could scarcely be a better test of the essential
manliness and decency of a man than this test of his vanities.
Browning boasted of being domesticated; there are half a hundred men
everywhere who would be inclined to boast of not being domesticated.
Bad men are almost without exception conceited, but they are commonly
conceited of their defects.

One picturesque figure who plays a part in this portion of the
Brownings' life in Italy is Walter Savage Landor. Browning found him
living with some of his wife's relations, and engaged in a continuous
and furious quarrel with them, which was, indeed, not uncommonly the
condition of that remarkable man when living with other human beings.
He had the double arrogance which is only possible to that old and
stately but almost extinct blend--the aristocratic republican. Like an
old Roman senator, or like a gentleman of the Southern States of
America, he had the condescension of a gentleman to those below him,
combined with the jealous self-assertiveness of a Jacobin to those
above. The only person who appears to have been able to manage him and
bring out his more agreeable side was Browning. It is, by the way, one
of the many hints of a certain element in Browning which can only be
described by the elementary and old-fashioned word goodness, that he
always contrived to make himself acceptable and even lovable to men of
savage and capricious temperament, of detached and erratic genius, who
could get on with no one else. Carlyle, who could not get a bitter
taste off his tongue in talking of most of his contemporaries, was
fond of Browning. Landor, who could hardly conduct an ordinary
business interview without beginning to break the furniture, was fond
of Browning. These are things which speak more for a man than many
people will understand. It is easy enough to be agreeable to a circle
of admirers, especially feminine admirers, who have a peculiar talent
for discipleship and the absorption of ideas. But when a man is loved
by other men of his own intellectual stature and of a wholly different
type and order of eminence, we may be certain that there was something
genuine about him, and something far more important than anything
intellectual. Men do not like another man because he is a genius,
least of all when they happen to be geniuses themselves. This general
truth about Browning is like hearing of a woman who is the most famous
beauty in a city, and who is at the same time adored and confided in
by all the women who live there.

Browning came to the rescue of the fiery old gentleman, and helped by
Seymour Kirkup put him under very definite obligations by a course of
very generous conduct. He was fully repaid in his own mind for his
trouble by the mere presence and friendship of Landor, for whose
quaint and volcanic personality he had a vast admiration, compounded
of the pleasure of the artist in an oddity and of the man in a hero.
It is somewhat amusing and characteristic that Mrs. Browning did not
share this unlimited enjoyment of the company of Mr. Landor, and
expressed her feelings in her own humorous manner. She writes, "Dear,
darling Robert amuses me by talking of his gentleness and sweetness. A
most courteous and refined gentleman he is, of course, and very
affectionate to Robert (as he ought to be), but of self-restraint he
has not a grain, and of suspicion many grains. What do you really say
to dashing down a plate on the floor when you don't like what's on it?
Robert succeeded in soothing him, and the poor old lion is very quiet
on the whole, roaring softly to beguile the time in Latin alcaics
against his wife and Louis Napoleon."

One event alone could really end this endless life of the Italian
Arcadia. That event happened on June 29, 1861. Robert Browning's wife
died, stricken by the death of her sister, and almost as hard (it is a
characteristic touch) by the death of Cavour. She died alone in the
room with Browning, and of what passed then, though much has been
said, little should be. He, closing the door of that room behind him,
closed a door in himself, and none ever saw Browning upon earth again
but only a splendid surface.

CHAPTER V

BROWNING IN LATER LIFE

Browning's confidences, what there were of them, immediately after his
wife's death were given to several women-friends; all his life,
indeed, he was chiefly intimate with women. The two most intimate of
these were his own sister, who remained with him in all his later
years, and the sister of his wife, who seven years afterwards passed
away in his presence as Elizabeth had done. The other letters, which
number only one or two, referring in any personal manner to his
bereavement are addressed to Miss Haworth and Isa Blagden. He left
Florence and remained for a time with his father and sister near
Dinard. Then he returned to London and took up his residence in
Warwick Crescent. Naturally enough, the thing for which he now chiefly
lived was the education of his son, and it is characteristic of
Browning that he was not only a very indulgent father, but an
indulgent father of a very conventional type: he had rather the
chuckling pride of the city gentleman than the educational gravity of
the intellectual.

Browning was now famous, _Bells and Pomegranates, Men and Women,
Christmas Eve_, and _Dramatis Personae_ had successively glorified his
Italian period. But he was already brooding half-unconsciously on more
famous things. He has himself left on record a description of the
incident out of which grew the whole impulse and plan of his greatest
achievement. In a passage marked with all his peculiar sense of
material things, all that power of writing of stone or metal or the
fabric of drapery, so that we seem to be handling and smelling them,
he has described a stall for the selling of odds and ends of every
variety of utility and uselessness:--

"picture frames
White through the worn gilt, mirror-sconces chipped,
Bronze angel-heads once knobs attached to chests,
(Handled when ancient dames chose forth brocade)
Modern chalk drawings, studies from the nude,
Samples of stone, jet, breccia, porphyry
Polished and rough, sundry amazing busts
In baked earth, (broken, Providence be praised!)
A wreck of tapestry proudly-purposed web
When reds and blues were indeed red and blue,
Now offer'd as a mat to save bare feet
(Since carpets constitute a cruel cost).
* * * * *
Vulgarised Horace for the use of schools,
'The Life, Death, Miracles of Saint Somebody,
Saint Somebody Else, his Miracles, Death, and Life'--
With this, one glance at the lettered back of which,
And 'Stall,' cried I; a _lira_ made it mine."

This sketch embodies indeed the very poetry of _debris_, and comes
nearer than any other poem has done to expressing the pathos and
picturesqueness of a low-class pawnshop. "This," which Browning bought
for a lira out of this heap of rubbish, was, of course, the old Latin
record of the criminal case of Guido Franceschini, tried for the
murder of his wife Pompilia in the year 1698. And this again, it is
scarcely necessary to say, was the ground-plan and motive of _The Ring
and the Book_.

Browning had picked up the volume and partly planned the poem during
his wife's lifetime in Italy. But the more he studied it, the more the
dimensions of the theme appeared to widen and deepen; and he came at
last, there can be little doubt, to regard it definitely as his
_magnum opus_ to which he would devote many years to come. Then came
the great sorrow of his life, and he cast about him for something
sufficiently immense and arduous and complicated to keep his brain
going like some huge and automatic engine. "I mean to keep writing,"
he said, "whether I like it or not." And thus finally he took up the
scheme of the Franceschini story, and developed it on a scale with a
degree of elaboration, repetition, and management, and inexhaustible
scholarship which was never perhaps before given in the history of the
world to an affair of two or three characters. Of the larger literary
and spiritual significance of the work, particularly in reference to
its curious and original form of narration, I shall speak
subsequently. But there is one peculiarity about the story which has
more direct bearing on Browning's life, and it appears singular that
few, if any, of his critics have noticed it. This peculiarity is the
extraordinary resemblance between the moral problem involved in the
poem if understood in its essence, and the moral problem which
constituted the crisis and centre of Browning's own life. Nothing,
properly speaking, ever happened to Browning after his wife's death;
and his greatest work during that time was the telling, under alien
symbols and the veil of a wholly different story, the inner truth
about his own greatest trial and hesitation. He himself had in this
sense the same difficulty as Caponsacchi, the supreme difficulty of
having to trust himself to the reality of virtue not only without the
reward, but even without the name of virtue. He had, like Caponsacchi,
preferred what was unselfish and dubious to what was selfish and
honourable. He knew better than any man that there is little danger of
men who really know anything of that naked and homeless responsibility
seeking it too often or indulging it too much. The conscientiousness
of the law-abider is nothing in its terrors to the conscientiousness
of the conscientious law-breaker. Browning had once, for what he
seriously believed to be a greater good, done what he himself would
never have had the cant to deny, ought to be called deceit and
evasion. Such a thing ought never to come to a man twice. If he finds
that necessity twice, he may, I think, be looked at with the beginning
of a suspicion. To Browning it came once, and he devoted his greatest
poem to a suggestion of how such a necessity may come to any man who
is worthy to live.

As has already been suggested, any apparent danger that there may be
in this excusing of an exceptional act is counteracted by the perils
of the act, since it must always be remembered that this kind of act
has the immense difference from all legal acts--that it can only be
justified by success. If Browning had taken his wife to Paris, and she
had died in an hotel there, we can only conceive him saying, with the
bitter emphasis of one of his own lines, "How should I have borne me,
please?" Before and after this event his life was as tranquil and
casual a one as it would be easy to imagine; but there always remained
upon him something which was felt by all who knew him in after
years--the spirit of a man who had been ready when his time came, and
had walked in his own devotion and certainty in a position counted
indefensible and almost along the brink of murder. This great moral of
Browning, which may be called roughly the doctrine of the great hour,
enters, of course, into many poems besides _The Ring and the Book_,
and is indeed the mainspring of a great part of his poetry taken as a
whole. It is, of course, the central idea of that fine poem, "The
Statue and the Bust," which has given a great deal of distress to a
great many people because of its supposed invasion of recognised
morality. It deals, as every one knows, with a Duke Ferdinand and an
elopement which he planned with the bride of one of the Riccardi. The
lovers begin by deferring their flight for various more or less
comprehensible reasons of convenience; but the habit of shrinking from
the final step grows steadily upon them, and they never take it, but
die, as it were, waiting for each other. The objection that the act
thus avoided was a criminal one is very simply and quite clearly
answered by Browning himself. His case against the dilatory couple is
not in the least affected by the viciousness of their aim. His case is
that they exhibited no virtue. Crime was frustrated in them by
cowardice, which is probably the worse immorality of the two. The same
idea again may be found in that delightful lyric "Youth and Art,"
where a successful cantatrice reproaches a successful sculptor with
their failure to understand each other in their youth and poverty.

"Each life unfulfilled, you see;
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired,--been happy."

And this conception of the great hour, which breaks out everywhere in
Browning, it is almost impossible not to connect with his own internal
drama. It is really curious that this correspondence has not been
insisted on. Probably critics have been misled by the fact that
Browning in many places appears to boast that he is purely dramatic,
that he has never put himself into his work, a thing which no poet,
good or bad, who ever lived could possibly avoid doing.

The enormous scope and seriousness of _The Ring and the Book_ occupied
Browning for some five or six years, and the great epic appeared in
the winter of 1868. Just before it was published Smith and Elder
brought out a uniform edition of all Browning's works up to that time,
and the two incidents taken together may be considered to mark the
final and somewhat belated culmination of Browning's literary fame.
The years since his wife's death, that had been covered by the writing
of _The Ring and the Book_, had been years of an almost feverish
activity in that and many other ways. His travels had been restless
and continued, his industry immense, and for the first time he began
that mode of life which afterwards became so characteristic of
him--the life of what is called society. A man of a shallower and more
sentimental type would have professed to find the life of
dinner-tables and soirees vain and unsatisfying to a poet, and
especially to a poet in mourning. But if there is one thing more than
another which is stirring and honourable about Browning, it is the
entire absence in him of this cant of dissatisfaction. He had the one
great requirement of a poet--he was not difficult to please. The life
of society was superficial, but it is only very superficial people who
object to the superficial. To the man who sees the marvellousness of
all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its
interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as
its mysteries. The young man in evening dress, pulling on his gloves,
is quite as elemental a figure as any anchorite, quite as
incomprehensible, and indeed quite as alarming.

A great many literary persons have expressed astonishment at, or even
disapproval of, this social frivolity of Browning's. Not one of these
literary people would have been shocked if Browning's interest in
humanity had led him into a gambling hell in the Wild West or a low
tavern in Paris; but it seems to be tacitly assumed that fashionable
people are not human at all. Humanitarians of a material and dogmatic
type, the philanthropists and the professional reformers go to look
for humanity in remote places and in huge statistics. Humanitarians of
a more vivid type, the Bohemian artists, go to look for humanity in
thieves' kitchens and the studios of the Quartier Latin. But
humanitarians of the highest type, the great poets and philosophers,
do not go to look for humanity at all. For them alone among all men
the nearest drawing-room is full of humanity, and even their own
families are human. Shakespeare ended his life by buying a house in
his own native town and talking to the townsmen. Browning was invited
to a great many conversaziones and private views, and did not pretend
that they bored him. In a letter belonging to this period of his life
he describes his first dinner at one of the Oxford colleges with an
unaffected delight and vanity, which reminds the reader of nothing so
much as the pride of the boy-captain of a public school if he were
invited to a similar function and received a few compliments. It may
be indeed that Browning had a kind of second youth in this
long-delayed social recognition, but at least he enjoyed his second
youth nearly as much as his first, and it is not every one who can do
that.

Of Browning's actual personality and presence in this later middle age
of his, memories are still sufficiently clear. He was a middle-sized,
well set up, erect man, with somewhat emphatic gestures, and, as
almost all testimonies mention, a curiously strident voice. The beard,
the removal of which his wife had resented with so quaint an
indignation, had grown again, but grown quite white, which, as she
said when it occurred, was a signal mark of the justice of the gods.
His hair was still fairly dark, and his whole appearance at this time
must have been very well represented by Mr. G.F. Watts's fine portrait
in the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait bears one of the many
testimonies which exist to Mr. Watts's grasp of the essential of
character, for it is the only one of the portraits of Browning in
which we get primarily the air of virility, even of animal virility,
tempered but not disguised, with a certain touch of the pallor of the
brain-worker. He looks here what he was--a very healthy man, too
scholarly to live a completely healthy life.

His manner in society, as has been more than once indicated, was that
of a man anxious, if anything, to avoid the air of intellectual
eminence. Lockhart said briefly, "I like Browning; he isn't at all
like a damned literary man." He was, according to some, upon occasion,
talkative and noisy to a fault; but there are two kinds of men who
monopolise conversation. The first kind are those who like the sound
of their own voice; the second are those who do not know what the
sound of their own voice is like. Browning was one of the latter
class. His volubility in speech had the same origin as his
voluminousness and obscurity in literature--a kind of headlong
humility. He cannot assuredly have been aware that he talked people
down or have wished to do so. For this would have been precisely a
violation of the ideal of the man of the world, the one ambition and
even weakness that he had. He wished to be a man of the world, and he
never in the full sense was one. He remained a little too much of a
boy, a little too much even of a Puritan, and a little too much of
what may be called a man of the universe, to be a man of the world.

One of his faults probably was the thing roughly called prejudice. On
the question, for example, of table-turning and psychic phenomena he
was in a certain degree fierce and irrational. He was not indeed, as
we shall see when we come to study "Sludge the Medium," exactly
prejudiced against spiritualism. But he was beyond all question
stubbornly prejudiced against spiritualists. Whether the medium Home
was or was not a scoundrel it is somewhat difficult in our day to
conjecture. But in so far as he claimed supernatural powers, he may
have been as honest a gentleman as ever lived. And even if we think
that the moral atmosphere of Home is that of a man of dubious
character, we can still feel that Browning might have achieved his
purpose without making it so obvious that he thought so. Some traces
again, though much fainter ones, may be found of something like a
subconscious hostility to the Roman Church, or at least a less full
comprehension of the grandeur of the Latin religious civilisation than
might have been expected of a man of Browning's great imaginative
tolerance. AEstheticism, Bohemianism, the irresponsibilities of the
artist, the untidy morals of Grub Street and the Latin Quarter, he
hated with a consuming hatred. He was himself exact in everything,
from his scholarship to his clothes; and even when he wore the loose
white garments of the lounger in Southern Europe, they were in their
own way as precise as a dress suit. This extra carefulness in all
things he defended against the cant of Bohemianism as the right
attitude for the poet. When some one excused coarseness or negligence
on the ground of genius, he said, "That is an error: Noblesse oblige."

Browning's prejudices, however, belonged altogether to that healthy
order which is characterised by a cheerful and satisfied ignorance. It
never does a man any very great harm to hate a thing that he knows
nothing about. It is the hating of a thing when we do know something
about it which corrodes the character. We all have a dark feeling of
resistance towards people we have never met, and a profound and manly
dislike of the authors we have never read. It does not harm a man to
be certain before opening the books that Whitman is an obscene ranter
or that Stevenson is a mere trifler with style. It is the man who can
think these things after he has read the books who must be in a fair
way to mental perdition. Prejudice, in fact, is not so much the great
intellectual sin as a thing which we may call, to coin a word,
"postjudice," not the bias before the fair trial, but the bias that
remains afterwards. With Browning's swift and emphatic nature the bias
was almost always formed before he had gone into the matter. But
almost all the men he really knew he admired, almost all the books he
had really read he enjoyed. He stands pre-eminent among those great
universalists who praised the ground they trod on and commended
existence like any other material, in its samples. He had no kinship
with those new and strange universalists of the type of Tolstoi who
praise existence to the exclusion of all the institutions they have
lived under, and all the ties they have known. He thought the world
good because he had found so many things that were good in
it--religion, the nation, the family, the social class. He did not,
like the new humanitarian, think the world good because he had found
so many things in it that were bad.

As has been previously suggested, there was something very queer and
dangerous that underlay all the good humour of Browning. If one of
these idle prejudices were broken by better knowledge, he was all the
better pleased. But if some of the prejudices that were really rooted
in him were trodden on, even by accident, such as his aversion to
loose artistic cliques, or his aversion to undignified publicity, his
rage was something wholly transfiguring and alarming, something far
removed from the shrill disapproval of Carlyle and Ruskin. It can only
be said that he became a savage, and not always a very agreeable or
presentable savage. The indecent fury which danced upon the bones of
Edward Fitzgerald was a thing which ought not to have astonished any
one who had known much of Browning's character or even of his work.
Some unfortunate persons on another occasion had obtained some of Mrs.
Browning's letters shortly after her death, and proposed to write a
_Life_ founded upon them. They ought to have understood that Browning
would probably disapprove; but if he talked to them about it, as he
did to others, and it is exceedingly probable that he did, they must
have thought he was mad. "What I suffer with the paws of these
black-guards in my bowels you can fancy," he says. Again he writes:
"Think of this beast working away, not deeming my feelings, or those
of her family, worthy of notice. It shall not be done if I can stop
the scamp's knavery along with his breath." Whether Browning actually
resorted to this extreme course is unknown; nothing is known except
that he wrote a letter to the ambitious biographer which reduced him
to silence, probably from stupefaction.

The same peculiarity ought, as I have said, to have been apparent to
any one who knew anything of Browning's literary work. A great number
of his poems are marked by a trait of which by its nature it is more
or less impossible to give examples. Suffice it to say that it is
truly extraordinary that poets like Swinburne (who seldom uses a gross
word) should have been spoken of as if they had introduced moral
license into Victorian poetry. What the Non-conformist conscience has
been doing to have passed Browning is something difficult to imagine.
But the peculiarity of this occasional coarseness in his work is
this--that it is always used to express a certain wholesome fury and
contempt for things sickly, or ungenerous, or unmanly. The poet seems
to feel that there are some things so contemptible that you can only
speak of them in pothouse words. It would be idle, and perhaps
undesirable, to give examples; but it may be noted that the same
brutal physical metaphor is used by his Caponsacchi about the people
who could imagine Pompilia impure and by his Shakespeare in "At the
Mermaid," about the claim of the Byronic poet to enter into the heart
of humanity. In both cases Browning feels, and perhaps in a manner
rightly, that the best thing we can do with a sentiment essentially
base is to strip off its affectations and state it basely, and that
the mud of Chaucer is a great deal better than the poison of Sterne.
Herein again Browning is close to the average man; and to do the
average man justice, there is a great deal more of this Browningesque
hatred of Byronism in the brutality of his conversation than many
people suppose.

Such, roughly and as far as we can discover, was the man who, in the
full summer and even the full autumn of his intellectual powers, began
to grow upon the consciousness of the English literary world about
this time. For the first time friendship grew between him and the
other great men of his time. Tennyson, for whom he then and always
felt the best and most personal kind of admiration, came into his
life, and along with him Gladstone and Francis Palgrave. There began
to crowd in upon him those honours whereby a man is to some extent
made a classic in his lifetime, so that he is honoured even if he is
unread. He was made a Fellow of Balliol in 1867, and the homage of the
great universities continued thenceforth unceasingly until his death,
despite many refusals on his part. He was unanimously elected Lord
Rector of Glasgow University in 1875. He declined, owing to his deep
and somewhat characteristic aversion to formal public speaking, and in
1877 he had to decline on similar grounds the similar offer from the
University of St. Andrews. He was much at the English universities,
was a friend of Dr. Jowett, and enjoyed the university life at the age
of sixty-three in a way that he probably would not have enjoyed it if
he had ever been to a university. The great universities would not let
him alone, to their great credit, and he became a D.C.L. of Cambridge
in 1879, and a D.C.L. of Oxford in 1882. When he received these
honours there were, of course, the traditional buffooneries of the
undergraduates, and one of them dropped a red cotton night-cap neatly
on his head as he passed under the gallery. Some indignant
intellectuals wrote to him to protest against this affront, but
Browning took the matter in the best and most characteristic way. "You
are far too hard," he wrote in answer, "on the very harmless
drolleries of the young men. Indeed, there used to be a regularly
appointed jester, 'Filius Terrae' he was called, whose business it was
to gibe and jeer at the honoured ones by way of reminder that all
human glories are merely gilded baubles and must not be fancied
metal." In this there are other and deeper things characteristic of
Browning besides his learning and humour. In discussing anything, he
must always fall back upon great speculative and eternal ideas. Even
in the tomfoolery of a horde of undergraduates he can only see a
symbol of the ancient office of ridicule in the scheme of morals. The
young men themselves were probably unaware that they were the
representatives of the "Filius Terrae."

But the years during which Browning was thus reaping some of his late
laurels began to be filled with incidents that reminded him how the
years were passing over him. On June 20, 1866, his father had died, a
man of whom it is impossible to think without a certain emotion, a man
who had lived quietly and persistently for others, to whom Browning
owed more than it is easy to guess, to whom we in all probability
mainly owe Browning. In 1868 one of his closest friends, Arabella
Barrett, the sister of his wife, died, as her sister had done, alone
with Browning. Browning was not a superstitious man; he somewhat
stormily prided himself on the contrary; but he notes at this time "a
dream which Arabella had of Her, in which she prophesied their meeting
in five years," that is, of course, the meeting of Elizabeth and
Arabella. His friend Milsand, to whom _Sordello_ was dedicated, died
in 1886. "I never knew," said Browning, "or ever shall know, his like
among men." But though both fame and a growing isolation indicated
that he was passing towards the evening of his days, though he bore
traces of the progress, in a milder attitude towards things, and a
greater preference for long exiles with those he loved, one thing
continued in him with unconquerable energy--there was no diminution in
the quantity, no abatement in the immense designs of his intellectual
output.

In 1871 he produced _Balaustion's Adventure_, a work exhibiting not
only his genius in its highest condition of power, but something more
exacting even than genius to a man of his mature and changed life,
immense investigation, prodigious memory, the thorough assimilation
of the vast literature of a remote civilisation. _Balaustion's
Adventure_, which is, of course, the mere framework for an English
version of the Alcestis of Euripides, is an illustration of one of
Browning's finest traits, his immeasurable capacity for a classic
admiration. Those who knew him tell us that in conversation he never
revealed himself so impetuously or so brilliantly as when declaiming
the poetry of others; and _Balaustion's Adventure_ is a monument of
this fiery self-forgetfulness. It is penetrated with the passionate
desire to render Euripides worthily, and to that imitation are for the
time being devoted all the gigantic powers which went to make the
songs of Pippa and the last agony of Guido. Browning never put himself
into anything more powerfully or more successfully; yet it is only an
excellent translation. In the uncouth philosophy of Caliban, in the
tangled ethics of Sludge, in his wildest satire, in his most
feather-headed lyric, Browning was never more thoroughly Browning than
in this splendid and unselfish plagiarism. This revived excitement in
Greek matters; "his passionate love of the Greek language" continued
in him thenceforward till his death. He published more than one poem
on the drama of Hellas. _Aristophanes' Apology_ came out in 1875, and
_The Agamemnon of AEschylus_, another paraphrase, in 1877. All three
poems are marked by the same primary characteristic, the fact that the
writer has the literature of Athens literally at his fingers' ends. He
is intimate not only with their poetry and politics, but with their
frivolity and their slang; he knows not only Athenian wisdom, but
Athenian folly; not only the beauty of Greece, but even its vulgarity.
In fact, a page of _Aristophanes' Apology_ is like a page of
Aristophanes, dark with levity and as obscure as a schoolman's
treatise, with its load of jokes.

In 1871 also appeared _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau: Saviour of
Society_, one of the finest and most picturesque of all Browning's
apologetic monologues. The figure is, of course, intended for Napoleon
III., whose Empire had just fallen, bringing down his country with it.
The saying has been often quoted that Louis Napoleon deceived Europe
twice--once when he made it think he was a noodle, and once when he
made it think he was a statesman. It might be added that Europe was
never quite just to him, and was deceived a third time, when it took
him after his fall for an exploded mountebank and nonentity. Amid the
general chorus of contempt which was raised over his weak and
unscrupulous policy in later years, culminating in his great disaster,
there are few things finer than this attempt of Browning's to give the
man a platform and let him speak for himself. It is the apologia of a
political adventurer, and a political adventurer of a kind peculiarly
open to popular condemnation. Mankind has always been somewhat
inclined to forgive the adventurer who destroys or re-creates, but
there is nothing inspiring about the adventurer who merely preserves.
We have sympathy with the rebel who aims at reconstruction, but there
is something repugnant to the imagination in the rebel who rebels in
the name of compromise. Browning had to defend, or rather to
interpret, a man who kidnapped politicians in the night and deluged
the Montmartre with blood, not for an ideal, not for a reform, not
precisely even for a cause, but simply for the establishment of a
_regime_. He did these hideous things not so much that he might be
able to do better ones, but that he and every one else might be able
to do nothing for twenty years; and Browning's contention, and a very
plausible contention, is that the criminal believed that his crime
would establish order and compromise, or, in other words, that he
thought that nothing was the very best thing he and his people could
do. There is something peculiarly characteristic of Browning in thus
selecting not only a political villain, but what would appear the most
prosaic kind of villain. We scarcely ever find in Browning a defence
of those obvious and easily defended publicans and sinners whose
mingled virtues and vices are the stuff of romance and melodrama--the
generous rake, the kindly drunkard, the strong man too great for
parochial morals. He was in a yet more solitary sense the friend of
the outcast. He took in the sinners whom even sinners cast out. He
went with the hypocrite and had mercy on the Pharisee.

How little this desire of Browning's, to look for a moment at the
man's life with the man's eyes, was understood, may be gathered from
the criticisms on _Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, which, says Browning, "the
Editor of the _Edinburgh Review_ calls my eulogium on the Second
Empire, which it is not, any more than what another wiseacre affirms
it to be, a scandalous attack on the old constant friend of England.
It is just what I imagine the man might, if he pleased, say for
himself."

In 1873 appeared _Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country_, which, if it be not
absolutely one of the finest of Browning's poems, is certainly one of
the most magnificently Browningesque. The origin of the name of the
poem is probably well known. He was travelling along the Normandy
coast, and discovered what he called

"Meek, hitherto un-Murrayed bathing-places,
Best loved of sea-coast-nook-full Normandy!"

Miss Thackeray, who was of the party, delighted Browning beyond
measure by calling the sleepy old fishing district "White Cotton
Night-Cap Country." It was exactly the kind of elfish phrase to which
Browning had, it must always be remembered, a quite unconquerable
attraction. The notion of a town of sleep, where men and women walked
about in nightcaps, a nation of somnambulists, was the kind of thing
that Browning in his heart loved better than _Paradise Lost_. Some
time afterwards he read in a newspaper a very painful story of
profligacy and suicide which greatly occupied the French journals in
the year 1871, and which had taken place in the same district. It is
worth noting that Browning was one of those wise men who can perceive
the terrible and impressive poetry of the police-news, which is
commonly treated as vulgarity, which is dreadful and may be
undesirable, but is certainly not vulgar. From _The Ring and the Book_
to _Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country_ a great many of his works might be
called magnificent detective stories. The story is somewhat ugly, and
its power does not alter its ugliness, for power can only make
ugliness uglier. And in this poem there is little or nothing of the
revelation of that secret wealth of valour and patience in humanity
which makes real and redeems the revelation of its secret vileness in
_The Ring and the Book_. It almost looks at first sight as if Browning
had for a moment surrendered the whole of his impregnable
philosophical position and admitted the strange heresy that a human
story can be sordid. But this view of the poem is, of course, a
mistake. It was written in something which, for want of a more exact
word, we must call one of the bitter moods of Browning; but the
bitterness is entirely the product of a certain generous hostility
against the class of morbidities which he really detested, sometimes
more than they deserved. In this poem these principles of weakness and
evil are embodied to him as the sicklier kind of Romanism, and the
more sensual side of the French temperament. We must never forget what
a great deal of the Puritan there remained in Browning to the end.
This outburst of it is fierce and ironical, not in his best spirit. It
says in effect, "You call this a country of sleep, I call it a country
of death. You call it 'White Cotton Night-Cap Country'; I call it 'Red
Cotton Night-Cap Country.'"

Shortly before this, in 1872, he had published _Fifine at the Fair_,
which his principal biographer, and one of his most uncompromising
admirers, calls a piece of perplexing cynicism. Perplexing it may be
to some extent, for it was almost impossible to tell whether Browning
would or would not be perplexing even in a love-song or a post-card.
But cynicism is a word that cannot possibly be applied with any
propriety to anything that Browning ever wrote. Cynicism denotes that
condition of mind in which we hold that life is in its nature mean and
arid; that no soul contains genuine goodness, and no state of things
genuine reliability. _Fifine at the Fair_, like _Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, is one of Browning's apologetic
soliloquies--the soliloquy of an epicurean who seeks half-playfully
to justify upon moral grounds an infidelity into which he afterwards
actually falls. This casuist, like all Browning's casuists, is given
many noble outbursts and sincere moments, and therefore apparently the
poem is called cynical. It is difficult to understand what particular
connection there is between seeing good in nobody and seeing good even
in a sensual fool.

After _Fifine at the Fair_ appeared the _Inn Album_, in 1875, a purely
narrative work, chiefly interesting as exhibiting in yet another place
one of Browning's vital characteristics, a pleasure in retelling and
interpreting actual events of a sinister and criminal type; and after
the _Inn Album_ came what is perhaps the most preposterously
individual thing he ever wrote, _Of Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in
Distemper_, in 1876. It is impossible to call the work poetry, and it
is very difficult indeed to know what to call it. Its chief
characteristic is a kind of galloping energy, an energy that has
nothing intellectual or even intelligible about it, a purely animal
energy of words. Not only is it not beautiful, it is not even clever,
and yet it carries the reader away as he might be carried away by
romping children. It ends up with a voluble and largely unmeaning
malediction upon the poet's critics, a malediction so outrageously
good-humoured that it does not take the trouble even to make itself
clear to the objects of its wrath. One can compare the poem to nothing
in heaven or earth, except to the somewhat humorous, more or less
benevolent, and most incomprehensible catalogues of curses and oaths
which may be heard from an intoxicated navvy. This is the kind of
thing, and it goes on for pages:--

"Long after the last of your number
Has ceased my front-court to encumber
While, treading down rose and ranunculus,
You _Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle_-us!
Troop, all of you man or homunculus,
Quick march! for Xanthippe, my housemaid,
If once on your pates she a souse made
With what, pan or pot, bowl or _skoramis_,
First comes to her hand--things were more amiss!
I would not for worlds be your place in--
Recipient of slops from the basin!
You, Jack-in-the-Green, leaf-and-twiggishness
Won't save a dry thread on your priggishness!"

You can only call this, in the most literal sense of the word, the
brute-force of language.

In spite however of this monstrosity among poems, which gives its
title to the volume, it contains some of the most beautiful verses
that Browning ever wrote in that style of light philosophy in which he
was unequalled. Nothing ever gave so perfectly and artistically what
is too loosely talked about as a thrill, as the poem called "Fears and
Scruples," in which a man describes the mystifying conduct of an
absent friend, and reserves to the last line the climax--

"Hush, I pray you!
What if this friend happen to be--God."

It is the masterpiece of that excellent but much-abused literary
quality, Sensationalism.

The volume entitled _Pacchiarotto_, moreover, includes one or two of
the most spirited poems on the subject of the poet in relation to
publicity--"At the Mermaid," "House," and "Shop."

In spite of his increasing years, his books seemed if anything to
come thicker and faster. Two were published in 1878--_La Saisiaz_, his
great metaphysical poem on the conception of immortality, and that
delightfully foppish fragment of the _ancien regime_, _The Two Poets
of Croisic_. Those two poems would alone suffice to show that he had
not forgotten the hard science of theology or the harder science of
humour. Another collection followed in 1879, the first series of
_Dramatic Idylls_, which contain such masterpieces as "Pheidippides"
and "Ivan Ivanovitch." Upon its heels, in 1880, came the second series
of _Dramatic Idylls_, including "Muleykeh" and "Clive," possibly the
two best stories in poetry, told in the best manner of story-telling.
Then only did the marvellous fountain begin to slacken in quantity,
but never in quality. _Jocoseria_ did not appear till 1883. It
contains among other things a cast-back to his very earliest manner in
the lyric of "Never the Time and the Place," which we may call the
most light-hearted love-song that was ever written by a man over
seventy. In the next year appeared _Ferishtah's Fancies_, which
exhibit some of his shrewdest cosmic sagacity, expressed in some of
his quaintest and most characteristic images. Here perhaps more than
anywhere else we see that supreme peculiarity of Browning--his sense
of the symbolism of material trifles. Enormous problems, and yet more
enormous answers, about pain, prayer, destiny, liberty, and conscience
are suggested by cherries, by the sun, by a melon-seller, by an eagle
flying in the sky, by a man tilling a plot of ground. It is this
spirit of grotesque allegory which really characterises Browning among
all other poets. Other poets might possibly have hit upon the same
philosophical idea--some idea as deep, as delicate, and as spiritual.
But it may be safely asserted that no other poet, having thought of a
deep, delicate, and spiritual idea, would call it "A Bean Stripe; also
Apple Eating."

Three more years passed, and the last book which Browning published in
his lifetime was _Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in
their Day_, a book which consists of apostrophes, amicable, furious,
reverential, satirical, emotional to a number of people of whom the
vast majority even of cultivated people have never heard in their
lives--Daniel Bartoli, Francis Furini, Gerard de Lairesse, and Charles
Avison. This extraordinary knowledge of the fulness of history was a
thing which never ceased to characterise Browning even when he was
unfortunate in every other literary quality. Apart altogether from
every line he ever wrote, it may fairly be said that no mind so rich
as his ever carried its treasures to the grave. All these later poems
are vigorous, learned, and full-blooded. They are thoroughly
characteristic of their author. But nothing in them is quite so
characteristic of their author as this fact, that when he had
published all of them, and was already near to his last day, he turned
with the energy of a boy let out of school, and began, of all things
in the world, to re-write and improve "Pauline," the boyish poem that
he had written fifty-five years before. Here was a man covered with
glory and near to the doors of death, who was prepared to give himself
the elaborate trouble of reconstructing the mood, and rebuilding the
verses of a long juvenile poem which had been forgotten for fifty
years in the blaze of successive victories. It is such things as these
which give to Browning an interest of personality which is far beyond
the more interest of genius. It was of such things that Elizabeth
Barrett wrote in one of her best moments of insight--that his genius
was the least important thing about him.

During all these later years, Browning's life had been a quiet and
regular one. He always spent the winter in Italy and the summer in
London, and carried his old love of precision to the extent of never
failing day after day throughout the year to leave the house at the
same time. He had by this time become far more of a public figure than
he had ever been previously, both in England and Italy. In 1881, Dr.
Furnivall and Miss E.H. Hickey founded the famous "Browning Society."
He became President of the new "Shakespeare Society" and of the
"Wordsworth Society." In 1886, on the death of Lord Houghton, he
accepted the post of Foreign Correspondent to the Royal Academy. When
he moved to De Vere Gardens in 1887, it began to be evident that he
was slowly breaking up. He still dined out constantly; he still
attended every reception and private view; he still corresponded
prodigiously, and even added to his correspondence; and there is
nothing more typical of him than that now, when he was almost already
a classic, he answered any compliment with the most delightful vanity
and embarrassment. In a letter to Mr. George Bainton, touching style,
he makes a remark which is an excellent criticism on his whole
literary career: "I myself found many forgotten fields which have
proved the richest of pastures." But despite his continued energy, his
health was gradually growing worse. He was a strong man in a muscular,
and ordinarily in a physical sense, but he was also in a certain sense
a nervous man, and may be said to have died of brain-excitement
prolonged through a lifetime. In these closing years he began to feel
more constantly the necessity for rest. He and his sister went to live
at a little hotel in Llangollen, and spent hours together talking and
drinking tea on the lawn. He himself writes in one of his quaint and
poetic phrases that he had come to love these long country retreats,
"another term of delightful weeks, each tipped with a sweet starry
Sunday at the little church." For the first time, and in the last two
or three years, he was really growing old. On one point he maintained
always a tranquil and unvarying decision. The pessimistic school of
poetry was growing up all round him; the decadents, with their belief
that art was only a counting of the autumn leaves, were approaching
more and more towards their tired triumph and their tasteless
popularity. But Browning would not for one instant take the scorn of
them out of his voice. "Death, death, it is this harping on death that
I despise so much. In fiction, in poetry, French as well as English,
and I am told in American also, in art and literature, the shadow of
death, call it what you will, despair, negation, indifference, is upon
us. But what fools who talk thus! Why, _amico mio_, you know as well
as I, that death is life, just as our daily momentarily dying body is
none the less alive, and ever recruiting new forces of existence.
Without death, which is our church-yardy crape-like word for change,
for growth, there could be no prolongation of that which we call life.
Never say of me that I am dead."

On August 13, 1888, he set out once more for Italy, the last of his
innumerable voyages. During his last Italian period he seems to have
fallen back on very ultimate simplicities, chiefly a mere staring at
nature. The family with whom he lived kept a fox cub, and Browning
would spend hours with it watching its grotesque ways; when it
escaped, he was characteristically enough delighted. The old man could
be seen continually in the lanes round Asolo, peering into hedges and
whistling for the lizards.

This serene and pastoral decline, surely the mildest of slopes into
death, was suddenly diversified by a flash of something lying far
below. Browning's eye fell upon a passage written by the distinguished
Edward Fitzgerald, who had been dead for many years, in which
Fitzgerald spoke in an uncomplimentary manner of Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. Browning immediately wrote the "Lines to Edward Fitzgerald,"
and set the whole literary world in an uproar. The lines were bitter
and excessive to have been written against any man, especially bitter
and excessive to have been written against a man who was not alive to
reply. And yet, when all is said, it is impossible not to feel a
certain dark and indescribable pleasure in this last burst of the old
barbaric energy. The mountain had been tilled and forested, and laid
out in gardens to the summit; but for one last night it had proved
itself once more a volcano, and had lit up all the plains with its
forgotten fire. And the blow, savage as it was, was dealt for that
great central sanctity--the story of a man's youth. All that the old
man would say in reply to every view of the question was, "I felt as
if she had died yesterday."

Towards December of 1889 he moved to Venice, where he fell ill. He
took very little food; it was indeed one of his peculiar small fads
that men should not take food when they are ill, a matter in which he
maintained that the animals were more sagacious. He asserted
vigorously that this somewhat singular regimen would pull him through,
talked about his plans, and appeared cheerful. Gradually, however, the
talking became more infrequent, the cheerfulness passed into a kind of
placidity; and without any particular crisis or sign of the end,
Robert Browning died on December 12, 1889. The body was taken on board
ship by the Venice Municipal Guard, and received by the Royal Italian
marines. He was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, the
choir singing his wife's poem, "He giveth His beloved sleep." On the
day that he died _Asolando_ was published.

CHAPTER VI

BROWNING AS A LITERARY ARTIST

Mr. William Sharp, in his _Life_ of Browning, quotes the remarks of
another critic to the following effect: "The poet's processes of
thought are scientific in their precision and analysis; the sudden
conclusion that he imposes upon them is transcendental and inept."

This is a very fair but a very curious example of the way in which
Browning is treated. For what is the state of affairs? A man publishes
a series of poems, vigorous, perplexing, and unique. The critics read
them, and they decide that he has failed as a poet, but that he is a
remarkable philosopher and logician. They then proceed to examine his
philosophy, and show with great triumph that it is unphilosophical,
and to examine his logic and show with great triumph that it is not
logical, but "transcendental and inept." In other words, Browning is
first denounced for being a logician and not a poet, and then
denounced for insisting on being a poet when they have decided that he
is to be a logician. It is just as if a man were to say first that a
garden was so neglected that it was only fit for a boys' playground,
and then complain of the unsuitability in a boys' playground of
rockeries and flower-beds.

As we find, after this manner, that Browning does not act
satisfactorily as that which we have decided that he shall be--a
logician--it might possibly be worth while to make another attempt to
see whether he may not, after all, be more valid than we thought as to
what he himself professed to be--a poet. And if we study this
seriously and sympathetically, we shall soon come to a conclusion. It
is a gross and complete slander upon Browning to say that his
processes of thought are scientific in their precision and analysis.
They are nothing of the sort; if they were, Browning could not be a
good poet. The critic speaks of the conclusions of a poem as
"transcendental and inept"; but the conclusions of a poem, if they are
not transcendental, must be inept. Do the people who call one of
Browning's poems scientific in its analysis realise the meaning of
what they say? One is tempted to think that they know a scientific
analysis when they see it as little as they know a good poem. The one
supreme difference between the scientific method and the artistic
method is, roughly speaking, simply this--that a scientific statement
means the same thing wherever and whenever it is uttered, and that an
artistic statement means something entirely different, according to
the relation in which it stands to its surroundings. The remark, let
us say, that the whale is a mammal, or the remark that sixteen ounces
go to a pound, is equally true, and means exactly the same thing,
whether we state it at the beginning of a conversation or at the end,
whether we print it in a dictionary or chalk it up on a wall. But if
we take some phrase commonly used in the art of literature--such a
sentence, for the sake of example, as "the dawn was breaking"--the
matter is quite different. If the sentence came at the beginning of a
short story, it might be a mere descriptive prelude. If it were the
last sentence in a short story, it might be poignant with some
peculiar irony or triumph. Can any one read Browning's great
monologues and not feel that they are built up like a good short
story, entirely on this principle of the value of language arising
from its arrangement. Take such an example as "Caliban upon Setebos,"
a wonderful poem designed to describe the way in which a primitive
nature may at once be afraid of its gods and yet familiar with them.
Caliban in describing his deity starts with a more or less natural and
obvious parallel between the deity and himself, carries out the
comparison with consistency and an almost revolting simplicity, and
ends in a kind of blasphemous extravaganza of anthropomorphism, basing
his conduct not merely on the greatness and wisdom, but also on the
manifest weaknesses and stupidities, of the Creator of all things.
Then suddenly a thunderstorm breaks over Caliban's island, and the
profane speculator falls flat upon his face--

"Lo! 'Lieth flat and loveth Setebos!
'Maketh his teeth meet through his upper lip,
Will let those quails fly, will not eat this month
One little mess of whelks, so he may 'scape!"

Surely it would be very difficult to persuade oneself that this
thunderstorm would have meant exactly the same thing if it had
occurred at the beginning of "Caliban upon Setebos." It does not mean
the same thing, but something very different; and the deduction from
this is the curious fact that Browning is an artist, and that
consequently his processes of thought are not "scientific in their
precision and analysis."

No criticism of Browning's poems can be vital, none in the face of the
poems themselves can be even intelligible, which is not based upon the
fact that he was successfully or otherwise a conscious and deliberate
artist. He may have failed as an artist, though I do not think so;
that is quite a different matter. But it is one thing to say that a
man through vanity or ignorance has built an ugly cathedral, and quite
another to say that he built it in a fit of absence of mind, and did
not know whether he was building a lighthouse or a first-class hotel.
Browning knew perfectly well what he was doing; and if the reader does
not like his art, at least the author did. The general sentiment
expressed in the statement that he did not care about form is simply
the most ridiculous criticism that could be conceived. It would be far
nearer the truth to say that he cared more for form than any other
English poet who ever lived. He was always weaving and modelling and
inventing new forms. Among all his two hundred to three hundred poems
it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that there are half as
many different metres as there are different poems.

The great English poets who are supposed to have cared more for form
than Browning did, cared less at least in this sense--that they were
content to use old forms so long as they were certain that they had
new ideas. Browning, on the other hand, no sooner had a new idea than
he tried to make a new form to express it. Wordsworth and Shelley were
really original poets; their attitude of thought and feeling marked
without doubt certain great changes in literature and philosophy.
Nevertheless, the "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality" is a
perfectly normal and traditional ode, and "Prometheus Unbound" is a
perfectly genuine and traditional Greek lyrical drama. But if we study
Browning honestly, nothing will strike us more than that he really
created a large number of quite novel and quite admirable artistic
forms. It is too often forgotten what and how excellent these were.
_The Ring and the Book_, for example, is an illuminating departure in
literary method--the method of telling the same story several times
and trusting to the variety of human character to turn it into several
different and equally interesting stories. _Pippa Passes_, to take
another example, is a new and most fruitful form, a series of detached
dramas connected only by the presence of one fugitive and isolated
figure. The invention of these things is not merely like the writing
of a good poem--it is something like the invention of the sonnet or
the Gothic arch. The poet who makes them does not merely create
himself--he creates other poets. It is so in a degree long past
enumeration with regard to Browning's smaller poems. Such a pious and
horrible lyric as "The Heretic's Tragedy," for instance, is absolutely
original, with its weird and almost blood-curdling echo verses,
mocking echoes indeed--

"And dipt of his wings in Paris square,
They bring him now to lie burned alive.

_[And wanteth there grace of lute or clavicithern,
ye shall say to confirm him who singeth_--

We bring John now to be burned alive."

A hundred instances might, of course, be given. Milton's "Sonnet on
his Blindness," or Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," are both thoroughly
original, but still we can point to other such sonnets and other such
odes. But can any one mention any poem of exactly the same structural
and literary type as "Fears and Scruples," as "The Householder," as
"House" or "Shop," as "Nationality in Drinks," as "Sibrandus
Schafnaburgensis," as "My Star," as "A Portrait," as any of
"Ferishtah's Fancies," as any of the "Bad Dreams."

The thing which ought to be said about Browning by those who do not
enjoy him is simply that they do not like his form; that they have
studied the form, and think it a bad form. If more people said things
of this sort, the world of criticism would gain almost unspeakably in
clarity and common honesty. Browning put himself before the world as a
good poet. Let those who think he failed call him a bad poet, and
there will be an end of the matter. There are many styles in art which
perfectly competent aesthetic judges cannot endure. For instance, it
would be perfectly legitimate for a strict lover of Gothic to say that
one of the monstrous rococo altar-pieces in the Belgian churches with
bulbous clouds and oaken sun-rays seven feet long, was, in his
opinion, ugly. But surely it would be perfectly ridiculous for any one
to say that it had no form. A man's actual feelings about it might be
better expressed by saying that it had too much. To say that Browning
was merely a thinker because you think "Caliban upon Setebos" ugly, is
precisely as absurd as it would be to call the author of the old
Belgian altarpiece a man devoted only to the abstractions of religion.
The truth about Browning is not that he was indifferent to technical
beauty, but that he invented a particular kind of technical beauty to
which any one else is free to be as indifferent as he chooses.

There is in this matter an extraordinary tendency to vague and
unmeaning criticism. The usual way of criticising an author,
particularly an author who has added something to the literary forms
of the world, is to complain that his work does not contain something
which is obviously the speciality of somebody else. The correct thing
to say about Maeterlinck is that some play of his in which, let us
say, a princess dies in a deserted tower by the sea, has a certain
beauty, but that we look in vain in it for that robust geniality, that
really boisterous will to live which may be found in _Martin
Chuzzlewit_. The right thing to say about _Cyrano de Bergerac_ is that
it may have a certain kind of wit and spirit, but that it really
throws no light on the duty of middle-aged married couples in Norway.
It cannot be too much insisted upon that at least three-quarters of
the blame and criticism commonly directed against artists and authors
falls under this general objection, and is essentially valueless.
Authors both great and small are, like everything else in existence,
upon the whole greatly under-rated. They are blamed for not doing, not
only what they have failed to do to reach their own ideal, but what
they have never tried to do to reach every other writer's ideal. If we
can show that Browning had a definite ideal of beauty and loyally
pursued it, it is not necessary to prove that he could have written
_In Memoriam_ if he had tried.

Browning has suffered far more injustice from his admirers than from
his opponents, for his admirers have for the most part got hold of the
matter, so to speak, by the wrong end. They believe that what is
ordinarily called the grotesque style of Browning was a kind of
necessity boldly adopted by a great genius in order to express novel
and profound ideas. But this is an entire mistake. What is called
ugliness was to Browning not in the least a necessary evil, but a
quite unnecessary luxury, which he enjoyed for its own sake. For
reasons that we shall see presently in discussing the philosophical
use of the grotesque, it did so happen that Browning's grotesque style
was very suitable for the expression of his peculiar moral and
metaphysical view. But the whole mass of poems will be misunderstood
if we do not realise first of all that he had a love of the grotesque
of the nature of art for art's sake. Here, for example, is a short
distinct poem merely descriptive of one of those elfish German jugs in
which it is to be presumed Tokay had been served to him. This is the
whole poem, and a very good poem too--

"Up jumped Tokay on our table,
Like a pigmy castle-warder,
Dwarfish to see, but stout and able,
Arms and accoutrements all in order;
And fierce he looked North, then, wheeling South
Blew with his bugle a challenge to Drouth,
Cocked his flap-hat with the tosspot-feather,
Twisted his thumb in his red moustache,
Jingled his huge brass spurs together,
Tightened his waist with its Buda sash,
And then, with an impudence nought could abash,
Shrugged his hump-shoulder, to tell the beholder,
For twenty such knaves he would laugh but the bolder:
And so, with his sword-hilt gallantly jutting,
And dexter-hand on his haunch abutting,
Went the little man, Sir Ausbruch, strutting!"

I suppose there are Browning students in existence who would think
that this poem contained something pregnant about the Temperance
question, or was a marvellously subtle analysis of the romantic
movement in Germany. But surely to most of us it is sufficiently
apparent that Browning was simply fashioning a ridiculous
knick-knack, exactly as if he were actually moulding one of these
preposterous German jugs. Now before studying the real character of
this Browningesque style, there is one general truth to be recognised
about Browning's work. It is this--that it is absolutely necessary to
remember that Browning had, like every other poet, his simple and
indisputable failures, and that it is one thing to speak of the
badness of his artistic failures, and quite another thing to speak of
the badness of his artistic aim. Browning's style may be a good style,
and yet exhibit many examples of a thoroughly bad use of it. On this
point there is indeed a singularly unfair system of judgment used by
the public towards the poets. It is very little realised that the vast
majority of great poets have written an enormous amount of very bad
poetry. The unfortunate Wordsworth is generally supposed to be almost
alone in this; but any one who thinks so can scarcely have read a
certain number of the minor poems of Byron and Shelley and Tennyson.

Now it is only just to Browning that his more uncouth effusions should
not be treated as masterpieces by which he must stand or fall, but
treated simply as his failures. It is really true that such a line as

"Irks fear the crop-full bird, frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?"

is a very ugly and a very bad line. But it is quite equally true that
Tennyson's

"And that good man, the clergyman, has told me words of peace,"

is a very ugly and a very bad line. But people do not say that this
proves that Tennyson was a mere crabbed controversialist and
metaphysician. They say that it is a bad example of Tennyson's form;
they do not say that it is a good example of Tennyson's indifference
to form. Upon the whole, Browning exhibits far fewer instances of this
failure in his own style than any other of the great poets, with the
exception of one or two like Spenser and Keats, who seem to have a
mysterious incapacity for writing bad poetry. But almost all original
poets, particularly poets who have invented an artistic style, are
subject to one most disastrous habit--the habit of writing imitations
of themselves. Every now and then in the works of the noblest
classical poets you will come upon passages which read like extracts
from an American book of parodies. Swinburne, for example, when he
wrote the couplet--

"From the lilies and languors of virtue
To the raptures and roses of vice,"

wrote what is nothing but a bad imitation of himself, an imitation
which seems indeed to have the wholly unjust and uncritical object of
proving that the Swinburnian melody is a mechanical scheme of initial
letters. Or again, Mr. Rudyard Kipling when he wrote the line--

"Or ride with the reckless seraphim on the rim of a red-maned star,"

was caricaturing himself in the harshest and least sympathetic spirit
of American humour. This tendency is, of course, the result of the
self-consciousness and theatricality of modern life in which each of
us is forced to conceive ourselves as part of a _dramatis personae_
and act perpetually in character. Browning sometimes yielded to this
temptation to be a great deal too like himself.

"Will I widen thee out till thou turnest
From Margaret Minnikin mou' by God's grace,
To Muckle-mouth Meg in good earnest."

This sort of thing is not to be defended in Browning any more than in
Swinburne. But, on the other hand, it is not to be attributed in
Swinburne to a momentary exaggeration, and in Browning to a vital
aesthetic deficiency. In the case of Swinburne, we all feel that the
question is not whether that particular preposterous couplet about
lilies and roses redounds to the credit of the Swinburnian style, but
whether it would be possible in any other style than the Swinburnian
to have written the Hymn to Proserpine. In the same way, the essential
issue about Browning as an artist is not whether he, in common with
Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, and Swinburne, sometimes wrote
bad poetry, but whether in any other style except Browning's you could
have achieved the precise artistic effect which is achieved by such
incomparable lyrics as "The Patriot" or "The Laboratory." The answer
must be in the negative, and in that answer lies the whole
justification of Browning as an artist.

The question now arises, therefore, what was his conception of his
functions as an artist? We have already agreed that his artistic
originality concerned itself chiefly with the serious use of the
grotesque. It becomes necessary, therefore, to ask what is the serious
use of the grotesque, and what relation does the grotesque bear to the
eternal and fundamental elements in life?

One of the most curious things to notice about popular aesthetic
criticism is the number of phrases it will be found to use which are
intended to express an aesthetic failure, and which express merely an
aesthetic variety. Thus, for instance, the traveller will often hear
the advice from local lovers of the picturesque, "The scenery round
such and such a place has no interest; it is quite flat." To disparage
scenery as quite flat is, of course, like disparaging a swan as quite
white, or an Italian sky as quite blue. Flatness is a sublime quality
in certain landscapes, just as rockiness is a sublime quality in
others. In the same way there are a great number of phrases commonly
used in order to disparage such writers as Browning which do not in
fact disparage, but merely describe them. One of the most
distinguished of Browning's biographers and critics says of him, for
example, "He has never meant to be rugged, but has become so in
striving after strength." To say that Browning never tried to be
rugged is to say that Edgar Allan Poe never tried to be gloomy, or
that Mr. W.S. Gilbert never tried to be extravagant. The whole issue
depends upon whether we realise the simple and essential fact that
ruggedness is a mode of art like gloominess or extravagance. Some
poems ought to be rugged, just as some poems ought to be smooth. When
we see a drift of stormy and fantastic clouds at sunset, we do not say
that the cloud is beautiful although it is ragged at the edges. When
we see a gnarled and sprawling oak, we do not say that it is fine
although it is twisted. When we see a mountain, we do not say that it
is impressive although it is rugged, nor do we say apologetically that
it never meant to be rugged, but became so in its striving after
strength. Now, to say that Browning's poems, artistically considered,
are fine although they are rugged, is quite as absurd as to say that a
rock, artistically considered, is fine although it is rugged.
Ruggedness being an essential quality in the universe, there is that
in man which responds to it as to the striking of any other chord of
the eternal harmonies. As the children of nature, we are akin not only
to the stars and flowers, but also to the toad-stools and the
monstrous tropical birds. And it is to be repeated as the essential of
the question that on this side of our nature we do emphatically love
the form of the toad-stools, and not merely some complicated botanical
and moral lessons which the philosopher may draw from them. For
example, just as there is such a thing as a poetical metre being
beautifully light or beautifully grave and haunting, so there is such
a thing as a poetical metre being beautifully rugged. In the old
ballads, for instance, every person of literary taste will be struck
by a certain attractiveness in the bold, varying, irregular verse--

"He is either himsell a devil frae hell,
Or else his mother a witch maun be;
I wadna have ridden that wan water
For a' the gowd in Christentie,"

is quite as pleasing to the ear in its own way as

"There's a bower of roses by Bendemeer stream,
And the nightingale sings in it all the night long,"

is in another way. Browning had an unrivalled ear for this particular
kind of staccato music. The absurd notion that he had no sense of
melody in verse is only possible to people who think that there is no
melody in verse which is not an imitation of Swinburne. To give a
satisfactory idea of Browning's rhythmic originality would be
impossible without quotations more copious than entertaining. But the
essential point has been suggested.

"They were purple of raiment and golden,
Filled full of thee, fiery with wine,
Thy lovers in haunts unbeholden,
In marvellous chambers of thine,"

is beautiful language, but not the only sort of beautiful language.
This, for instance, has also a tune in it--

"I--'next poet.' No, my hearties,
I nor am, nor fain would be!
Choose your chiefs and pick your parties,
Not one soul revolt to me!
* * * * *
Which of you did I enable
Once to slip inside my breast,
There to catalogue and label
What I like least, what love best,
Hope and fear, believe and doubt of,
Seek and shun, respect, deride,
Who has right to make a rout of
Rarities he found inside?"

This quick, gallantly stepping measure also has its own kind of music,
and the man who cannot feel it can never have enjoyed the sound of
soldiers marching by. This, then, roughly is the main fact to remember
about Browning's poetical method, or about any one's poetical
method--that the question is not whether that method is the best in
the world, but the question whether there are not certain things which
can only be conveyed by that method. It is perfectly true, for
instance, that a really lofty and lucid line of Tennyson, such as--

"Thou art the highest, and most human too"
and
"We needs must love the highest when we see it"

would really be made the worse for being translated into Browning. It
would probably become

"High's human; man loves best, best visible,"

and would lose its peculiar clarity and dignity and courtly plainness.
But it is quite equally true that any really characteristic fragment
of Browning, if it were only the tempestuous scolding of the organist
in "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha"--

"Hallo, you sacristan, show us a light there!
Down it dips, gone like a rocket.
What, you want, do you, to come unawares,
Sweeping the church up for first morning-prayers,
And find a poor devil has ended his cares
At the foot of your rotten-runged rat-riddled stairs?
Do I carry the moon in my pocket?"

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