Part 3 out of 4
--it is quite equally true that this outrageous gallop of rhymes
ending with a frantic astronomical image would lose in energy and
spirit if it were written in a conventional and classical style, and
"What must I deem then that thou dreamest to find
Disjected bones adrift upon the stair
Thou sweepest clean, or that thou deemest that I
Pouch in my wallet the vice-regal sun?"
Is it not obvious that this statelier version might be excellent
poetry of its kind, and yet would be bad exactly in so far as it was
good; that it would lose all the swing, the rush, the energy of the
preposterous and grotesque original? In fact, we may see how
unmanageable is this classical treatment of the essentially absurd in
Tennyson himself. The humorous passages in _The Princess_, though
often really humorous in themselves, always appear forced and feeble
because they have to be restrained by a certain metrical dignity, and
the mere idea of such restraint is incompatible with humour. If
Browning had written the passage which opens _The Princess_,
descriptive of the "larking" of the villagers in the magnate's park,
he would have spared us nothing; he would not have spared us the
shrill uneducated voices and the unburied bottles of ginger beer. He
would have crammed the poem with uncouth similes; he would have
changed the metre a hundred times; he would have broken into doggerel
and into rhapsody; but he would have left, when all is said and done,
as he leaves in that paltry fragment of the grumbling organist, the
impression of a certain eternal human energy. Energy and joy, the
father and the mother of the grotesque, would have ruled the poem. We
should have felt of that rowdy gathering little but the sensation of
which Mr. Henley writes--
"Praise the generous gods for giving,
In this world of sin and strife,
With some little time for living,
Unto each the joy of life,"
the thought that every wise man has when looking at a Bank Holiday
crowd at Margate.
To ask why Browning enjoyed this perverse and fantastic style most
would be to go very deep into his spirit indeed, probably a great
deal deeper than it is possible to go. But it is worth while to
suggest tentatively the general function of the grotesque in art
generally and in his art in particular. There is one very curious idea
into which we have been hypnotised by the more eloquent poets, and
that is that nature in the sense of what is ordinarily called the
country is a thing entirely stately and beautiful as those terms are
commonly understood. The whole world of the fantastic, all things
top-heavy, lop-sided, and nonsensical are conceived as the work of
man, gargoyles, German jugs, Chinese pots, political caricatures,
burlesque epics, the pictures of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley and the puns of
Robert Browning. But in truth a part, and a very large part, of the
sanity and power of nature lies in the fact that out of her comes all
this instinct of caricature. Nature may present itself to the poet too
often as consisting of stars and lilies; but these are not poets who
live in the country; they are men who go to the country for
inspiration and could no more live in the country than they could go
to bed in Westminster Abbey. Men who live in the heart of nature,
farmers and peasants, know that nature means cows and pigs, and
creatures more humorous than can be found in a whole sketch-book of
Callot. And the element of the grotesque in art, like the element of
the grotesque in nature, means, in the main, energy, the energy which
takes its own forms and goes its own way. Browning's verse, in so far
as it is grotesque, is not complex or artificial; it is natural and in
the legitimate tradition of nature. The verse sprawls like the trees,
dances like the dust; it is ragged like the thunder-cloud, it is
top-heavy like the toadstool. Energy which disregards the standard of
classical art is in nature as it is in Browning. The same sense of the
uproarious force in things which makes Browning dwell on the oddity of
a fungus or a jellyfish makes him dwell on the oddity of a
philosophical idea. Here, for example, we have a random instance from
"The Englishman in Italy" of the way in which Browning, when he was
most Browning, regarded physical nature.
"And pitch down his basket before us,
All trembling alive
With pink and grey jellies, your sea-fruit;
You touch the strange lumps,
And mouths gape there, eyes open, all manner
Of horns and of humps,
Which only the fisher looks grave at."
Nature might mean flowers to Wordsworth and grass to Walt Whitman, but
to Browning it really meant such things as these, the monstrosities
and living mysteries of the sea. And just as these strange things
meant to Browning energy in the physical world, so strange thoughts
and strange images meant to him energy in the mental world. When, in
one of his later poems, the professional mystic is seeking in a
supreme moment of sincerity to explain that small things may be filled
with God as well as great, he uses the very same kind of image, the
image of a shapeless sea-beast, to embody that noble conception.
"The Name comes close behind a stomach-cyst,
The simplest of creations, just a sac
That's mouth, heart, legs, and belly at once, yet lives
And feels, and could do neither, we conclude,
If simplified still further one degree."
These bulbous, indescribable sea-goblins are the first thing on which
the eye of the poet lights in looking on a landscape, and the last in
the significance of which he trusts in demonstrating the mercy of the
There is another and but slightly different use of the grotesque, but
which is definitely valuable in Browning's poetry, and indeed in all
poetry. To present a matter in a grotesque manner does certainly tend
to touch the nerve of surprise and thus to draw attention to the
intrinsically miraculous character of the object itself. It is
difficult to give examples of the proper use of grotesqueness without
becoming too grotesque. But we should all agree that if St. Paul's
Cathedral were suddenly presented to us upside down we should, for the
moment, be more surprised at it, and look at it more than we have done
all the centuries during which it has rested on its foundations. Now
it is the supreme function of the philosopher of the grotesque to make
the world stand on its head that people may look at it. If we say "a
man is a man" we awaken no sense of the fantastic, however much we
ought to, but if we say, in the language of the old satirist, "that
man is a two-legged bird, without feathers," the phrase does, for a
moment, make us look at man from the outside and gives us a thrill in
his presence. When the author of the Book of Job insists upon the
huge, half-witted, apparently unmeaning magnificence and might of
Behemoth, the hippopotamus, he is appealing precisely to this sense of
wonder provoked by the grotesque. "Canst thou play with him as with a
bird, canst thou bind him for thy maidens?" he says in an admirable
passage. The notion of the hippopotamus as a household pet is
curiously in the spirit of the humour of Browning.
But when it is clearly understood that Browning's love of the
fantastic in style was a perfectly serious artistic love, when we
understand that he enjoyed working in that style, as a Chinese potter
might enjoy making dragons, or a mediaeval mason making devils, there
yet remains something definite which must be laid to his account as a
fault. He certainly had a capacity for becoming perfectly childish in
his indulgence in ingenuities that have nothing to do with poetry at
all, such as puns, and rhymes, and grammatical structures that only
just fit into each other like a Chinese puzzle. Probably it was only
one of the marks of his singular vitality, curiosity, and interest in
details. He was certainly one of those somewhat rare men who are
fierily ambitious both in large things and in small. He prided himself
on having written _The Ring and the Book_, and he also prided himself
on knowing good wine when he tasted it. He prided himself on
re-establishing optimism on a new foundation, and it is to be
presumed, though it is somewhat difficult to imagine, that he prided
himself on such rhymes as the following in _Pacchiarotto_:--
"The wolf, fox, bear, and monkey,
By piping advice in one key--
That his pipe should play a prelude
To something heaven-tinged not hell-hued,
Something not harsh but docile,
Man-liquid, not man-fossil."
This writing, considered as writing, can only be regarded as a kind of
joke, and most probably Browning considered it so himself. It has
nothing at all to do with that powerful and symbolic use of the
grotesque which may be found in such admirable passages as this from
"Holy Cross Day":--
"Give your first groan--compunction's at work;
And soft! from a Jew you mount to a Turk.
Lo, Micah--the self-same beard on chin
He was four times already converted in!"
This is the serious use of the grotesque. Through it passion and
philosophy are as well expressed as through any other medium. But the
rhyming frenzy of Browning has no particular relation even to the
poems in which it occurs. It is not a dance to any measure; it can
only be called the horse-play of literature. It may be noted, for
example, as a rather curious fact, that the ingenious rhymes are
generally only mathematical triumphs, not triumphs of any kind of
assonance. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," a poem written for children,
and bound in general to be lucid and readable, ends with a rhyme which
it is physically impossible for any one to say:--
"And, whether they pipe us free, from rats or from mice,
If we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise!"
This queer trait in Browning, his inability to keep a kind of demented
ingenuity even out of poems in which it was quite inappropriate, is a
thing which must be recognised, and recognised all the more because as
a whole he was a very perfect artist, and a particularly perfect
artist in the use of the grotesque. But everywhere when we go a little
below the surface in Browning we find that there was something in him
perverse and unusual despite all his working normality and
simplicity. His mind was perfectly wholesome, but it was not made
exactly like the ordinary mind. It was like a piece of strong wood
with a knot in it.
The quality of what, can only be called buffoonery which is under
discussion is indeed one of the many things in which Browning was more
of an Elizabethan than a Victorian. He was like the Elizabethans in
their belief in the normal man, in their gorgeous and over-loaded
language, above all in their feeling for learning as an enjoyment and
almost a frivolity. But there was nothing in which he was so
thoroughly Elizabethan, and even Shakespearian, as in this fact, that
when he felt inclined to write a page of quite uninteresting nonsense,
he immediately did so. Many great writers have contrived to be
tedious, and apparently aimless, while expounding some thought which
they believed to be grave and profitable; but this frivolous stupidity
had not been found in any great writer since the time of Rabelais and
the time of the Elizabethans. In many of the comic scenes of
Shakespeare we have precisely this elephantine ingenuity, this hunting
of a pun to death through three pages. In the Elizabethan dramatists
and in Browning it is no doubt to a certain extent the mark of a real
hilarity. People must be very happy to be so easily amused.
In the case of what is called Browning's obscurity, the question is
somewhat more difficult to handle. Many people have supposed Browning
to be profound because he was obscure, and many other people, hardly
less mistaken, have supposed him to be obscure because he was
profound. He was frequently profound, he was occasionally obscure, but
as a matter of fact the two have little or nothing to do with each
other. Browning's dark and elliptical mode of speech, like his love of
the grotesque, was simply a characteristic of his, a trick of is
temperament, and had little or nothing to do with whether what he was
expressing was profound or superficial. Suppose, for example, that a
person well read in English poetry but unacquainted with Browning's
style were earnestly invited to consider the following verse:--
"Hobbs hints blue--straight he turtle eats.
Nobbs prints blue--claret crowns his cup.
Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats--
Both gorge. Who fished the murex up?
What porridge had John Keats?"
The individual so confronted would say without hesitation that it must
indeed be an abstruse and indescribable thought which could only be
conveyed by remarks so completely disconnected. But the point of the
matter is that the thought contained in this amazing verse is not
abstruse or philosophical at all, but is a perfectly ordinary and
straightforward comment, which any one might have made upon an obvious
fact of life. The whole verse of course begins to explain itself, if
we know the meaning of the word "murex," which is the name of a
sea-shell, out of which was made the celebrated blue dye of Tyre. The
poet takes this blue dye as a simile for a new fashion in literature,
and points out that Hobbs, Nobbs, etc., obtain fame and comfort by
merely using the dye from the shell; and adds the perfectly natural
"... Who fished the murex up?
What porridge had John Keats?"
So that the verse is not subtle, and was not meant to be subtle, but
is a perfectly casual piece of sentiment at the end of a light poem.
Browning is not obscure because he has such deep things to say, any
more than he is grotesque because he has such new things to say. He is
both of these things primarily, because he likes to express himself in
a particular manner. The manner is as natural to him as a man's
physical voice, and it is abrupt, sketchy, allusive, and full of gaps.
Here comes in the fundamental difference between Browning and such a
writer as George Meredith, with whom the Philistine satirist would so
often in the matter of complexity class him. The works of George
Meredith are, as it were, obscure even when we know what they mean.
They deal with nameless emotions, fugitive sensations, subconscious
certainties and uncertainties, and it really requires a somewhat
curious and unfamiliar mode of speech to indicate the presence of
these. But the great part of Browning's actual sentiments, and almost
all the finest and most literary of them, are perfectly plain and
popular and eternal sentiments. Meredith is really a singer producing
strange notes and cadences difficult to follow because of the delicate
rhythm of the song he sings. Browning is simply a great demagogue,
with an impediment in his speech. Or rather, to speak more strictly,
Browning is a man whose excitement for the glory of the obvious is so
great that his speech becomes disjointed and precipitate: he becomes
eccentric through his advocacy of the ordinary, and goes mad for the
love of sanity.
If Browning and George Meredith were each describing the same act,
they might both be obscure, but their obscurities would be entirely
different. Suppose, for instance, they were describing even so prosaic
and material an act as a man being knocked downstairs by another man
to whom he had given the lie, Meredith's description would refer to
something which an ordinary observer would not see, or at least could
not describe. It might be a sudden sense of anarchy in the brain of
the assaulter, or a stupefaction and stunned serenity in that of the
object of the assault. He might write, "Wainwood's 'Men vary in
veracity,' brought the baronet's arm up. He felt the doors of his
brain burst, and Wainwood a swift rushing of himself through air
accompanied with a clarity as of the annihilated." Meredith, in other
words, would speak queerly because he was describing queer mental
experiences. But Browning might simply be describing the material
incident of the man being knocked downstairs, and his description
"What then? 'You lie' and doormat below stairs
Takes bump from back."
This is not subtlety, but merely a kind of insane swiftness. Browning
is not like Meredith, anxious to pause and examine the sensations of
the combatants, nor does he become obscure through this anxiety. He is
only so anxious to get his man to the bottom of the stairs quickly
that he leaves out about half the story.
Many who could understand that ruggedness might be an artistic
quality, would decisively, and in most cases rightly, deny that
obscurity could under any conceivable circumstances be an artistic
quality. But here again Browning's work requires a somewhat more
cautious and sympathetic analysis. There is a certain kind of
fascination, a strictly artistic fascination, which arises from a
matter being hinted at in such a way as to leave a certain tormenting
uncertainty even at the end. It is well sometimes to half understand a
poem in the same manner that we half understand the world. One of the
deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will
suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping
meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered
something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a
prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain
poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed
the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but
in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.
But in truth it is very difficult to keep pace with all the strange
and unclassified artistic merits of Browning. He was always trying
experiments; sometimes he failed, producing clumsy and irritating
metres, top-heavy and over-concentrated thought. Far more often he
triumphed, producing a crowd of boldly designed poems, every one of
which taken separately might have founded an artistic school. But
whether successful or unsuccessful, he never ceased from his fierce
hunt after poetic novelty. He never became a conservative. The last
book he published in his life-time, _Parleyings with Certain People of
Importance in their Day_, was a new poem, and more revolutionary than
_Paracelsus_. This is the true light in which to regard Browning as an
artist. He had determined to leave no spot of the cosmos unadorned by
his poetry which he could find it possible to adorn. An admirable
example can be found in that splendid poem "Childe Roland to the Dark
Tower came." It is the hint of an entirely new and curious type of
poetry, the poetry of the shabby and hungry aspect of the earth
itself. Daring poets who wished to escape from conventional gardens
and orchards had long been in the habit of celebrating the poetry of
rugged and gloomy landscapes, but Browning is not content with this.
He insists upon celebrating the poetry of mean landscapes. That sense
of scrubbiness in nature, as of a man unshaved, had never been
conveyed with this enthusiasm and primeval gusto before.
"If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents."
This is a perfect realisation of that eerie sentiment which comes upon
us, not so often among mountains and water-falls, as it does on some
half-starved common at twilight, or in walking down some grey mean
street. It is the song of the beauty of refuse; and Browning was the
first to sing it. Oddly enough it has been one of the poems about
which most of those pedantic and trivial questions have been asked,
which are asked invariably by those who treat Browning as a science
instead of a poet, "What does the poem of 'Childe Roland' mean?" The
only genuine answer to this is, "What does anything mean?" Does the
earth mean nothing? Do grey skies and wastes covered with thistles
mean nothing? Does an old horse turned out to graze mean nothing? If
it does, there is but one further truth to be added--that everything
_THE RING AND THE BOOK_
When we have once realised the great conception of the plan of _The
Ring and the Book_, the studying of a single matter from nine
different stand-points, it becomes exceedingly interesting to notice
what these stand-points are; what figures Browning has selected as
voicing the essential and distinct versions of the case. One of the
ablest and most sympathetic of all the critics of Browning, Mr.
Augustine Birrell, has said in one place that the speeches of the two
advocates in _The Ring and the Book_ will scarcely be very interesting
to the ordinary reader. However that may be, there can be little doubt
that a great number of the readers of Browning think them beside the
mark and adventitious. But it is exceedingly dangerous to say that
anything in Browning is irrelevant or unnecessary. We are apt to go on
thinking so until some mere trifle puts the matter in a new light, and
the detail that seemed meaningless springs up as almost the central
pillar of the structure. In the successive monologues of his poem,
Browning is endeavouring to depict the various strange ways in which a
fact gets itself presented to the world. In every question there are
partisans who bring cogent and convincing arguments for the right
side; there are also partisans who bring cogent and convincing
arguments for the wrong side. But over and above these, there does
exist in every great controversy a class of more or less official
partisans who are continually engaged in defending each cause by
entirely inappropriate arguments. They do not know the real good that
can be said for the good cause, nor the real good that can be said for
the bad one. They are represented by the animated, learned, eloquent,
ingenious, and entirely futile and impertinent arguments of Juris
Doctor Bottinius and Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis. These two men
brilliantly misrepresent, not merely each other's cause, but their own
cause. The introduction of them is one of the finest and most artistic
strokes in _The Ring and the Book_.
We can see the matter best by taking an imaginary parallel. Suppose
that a poet of the type of Browning lived some centuries hence and
found in some _cause celebre_ of our day, such as the Parnell
Commission, an opportunity for a work similar in its design to _The
Ring and the Book_. The first monologue, which would be called
"Half-London," would be the arguments of an ordinary educated and
sensible Unionist who believed that there really was evidence that the
Nationalist movement in Ireland was rooted in crime and public panic.
The "Otherhalf-London" would be the utterance of an ordinary educated
and sensible Home Ruler, who thought that in the main Nationalism was
one distinct symptom, and crime another, of the same poisonous and
stagnant problem. The "Tertium Quid" would be some detached
intellectual, committed neither to Nationalism nor to Unionism,
possibly Mr. Bernard Shaw, who would make a very entertaining Browning
monologue. Then of course would come the speeches of the great actors
in the drama, the icy anger of Parnell, the shuffling apologies of
Pigott. But we should feel that the record was incomplete without
another touch which in practice has so much to do with the confusion
of such a question. Bottinius and Hyacinthus de Archangelis, the two
cynical professional pleaders, with their transparent assumptions and
incredible theories of the case, would be represented by two party
journalists; one of whom was ready to base his case either on the fact
that Parnell was a Socialist or an Anarchist, or an Atheist or a Roman
Catholic; and the other of whom was ready to base his case on the
theory that Lord Salisbury hated Parnell or was in league with him, or
had never heard of him, or anything else that was remote from the
world of reality. These are the kind of little touches for which we
must always be on the look-out in Browning. Even if a digression, or a
simile, or a whole scene in a play, seems to have no point or value,
let us wait a little and give it a chance. He very seldom wrote
anything that did not mean a great deal.
It is sometimes curious to notice how a critic, possessing no little
cultivation and fertility, will, in speaking of a work of art, let
fall almost accidentally some apparently trivial comment, which
reveals to us with an instantaneous and complete mental illumination
the fact that he does not, so far as that work of art is concerned, in
the smallest degree understand what he is talking about. He may have
intended to correct merely some minute detail of the work he is
studying, but that single movement is enough to blow him and all his
diplomas into the air. These are the sensations with which the true
Browningite will regard the criticism made by so many of Browning's
critics and biographers about _The Ring and the Book_. That criticism
was embodied by one of them in the words "the theme looked at
dispassionately is unworthy of the monument in which it is entombed
for eternity." Now this remark shows at once that the critic does not
know what _The Ring and the Book_ means. We feel about it as we should
feel about a man who said that the plot of _Tristram Shandy_ was not
well constructed, or that the women in Rossetti's pictures did not
look useful and industrious. A man who has missed the fact that
_Tristram Shandy is_ a game of digressions, that the whole book is a
kind of practical joke to cheat the reader out of a story, simply has
not read _Tristram Shandy_ at all. The man who objects to the Rossetti
pictures because they depict a sad and sensuous day-dream, objects to
their existing at all. And any one who objects to Browning writing his
huge epic round a trumpery and sordid police-case has in reality
missed the whole length and breadth of the poet's meaning. The essence
of _The Ring and the Book_ is that it is the great epic of the
nineteenth century, because it is the great epic of the enormous
importance of small things. The supreme difference that divides _The
Ring and the Book_ from all the great poems of similar length and
largeness of design is precisely the fact that all these are about
affairs commonly called important, and _The Ring and the Book_ is
about an affair commonly called contemptible. Homer says, "I will show
you the relations between man and heaven as exhibited in a great
legend of love and war, which shall contain the mightiest of all
mortal warriors, and the most beautiful of all mortal women." The
author of the Book of Job says, "I will show you the relations between
man and heaven by a tale of primeval sorrows and the voice of God out
of a whirlwind." Virgil says, "I will show you the relations of man to
heaven by the tale of the origin of the greatest people and the
founding of the most wonderful city in the world." Dante says, "I will
show you the relations of man to heaven by uncovering the very
machinery of the spiritual universe, and letting you hear, as I have
heard, the roaring of the mills of God." Milton says, "I will show you
the relations of man to heaven by telling you of the very beginning of
all things, and the first shaping of the thing that is evil in the
first twilight of time." Browning says, "I will show you the relations
of man to heaven by telling you a story out of a dirty Italian book of
criminal trials from which I select one of the meanest and most
completely forgotten." Until we have realised this fundamental idea in
_The Ring and the Book_ all criticism is misleading.
In this Browning is, of course, the supreme embodiment of his time.
The characteristic of the modern movements _par excellence_ is the
apotheosis of the insignificant. Whether it be the school of poetry
which sees more in one cowslip or clover-top than in forests and
waterfalls, or the school of fiction which finds something
indescribably significant in the pattern of a hearth-rug, or the tint
of a man's tweed coat, the tendency is the same. Maeterlinck stricken
still and wondering by a deal door half open, or the light shining out
of a window at night; Zola filling note-books with the medical
significance of the twitching of a man's toes, or the loss of his
appetite; Whitman counting the grass and the heart-shaped leaves of
the lilac; Mr. George Gissing lingering fondly over the third-class
ticket and the dilapidated umbrella; George Meredith seeing a soul's
tragedy in a phrase at the dinner-table; Mr. Bernard Shaw filling
three pages with stage directions to describe a parlour; all these
men, different in every other particular, are alike in this, that they
have ceased to believe certain things to be important and the rest to
be unimportant. Significance is to them a wild thing that may leap
upon them from any hiding-place. They have all become terribly
impressed with and a little bit alarmed at the mysterious powers of
small things. Their difference from the old epic poets is the whole
difference between an age that fought with dragons and an age that
fights with microbes.
This tide of the importance of small things is flowing so steadily
around us upon every side to-day, that we do not sufficiently realise
that if there was one man in English literary history who might with
justice be called its fountain and origin, that man was Robert
Browning. When Browning arose, literature was entirely in the hands of
the Tennysonian poet. The Tennysonian poet does indeed mention
trivialities, but he mentions them when he wishes to speak trivially;
Browning mentions trivialities when he wishes to speak sensationally.
Now this sense of the terrible importance of detail was a sense which
may be said to have possessed Browning in the emphatic manner of a
demoniac possession. Sane as he was, this one feeling might have
driven him to a condition not far from madness. Any room that he was
sitting in glared at him with innumerable eyes and mouths gaping with
a story. There was sometimes no background and no middle distance in
his mind. A human face and the pattern on the wall behind it came
forward with equally aggressive clearness. It may be repeated, that if
ever he who had the strongest head in the world had gone mad, it would
have been through this turbulent democracy of things. If he looked at
a porcelain vase or an old hat, a cabbage, or a puppy at play, each
began to be bewitched with the spell of a kind of fairyland of
philosophers: the vase, like the jar in the _Arabian Nights_, to send
up a smoke of thoughts and shapes; the hat to produce souls, as a
conjuror's hat produces rabbits; the cabbage to swell and overshadow
the earth, like the Tree of Knowledge; and the puppy to go off at a
scamper along the road to the end of the world. Any one who has read
Browning's longer poems knows how constantly a simile or figure of
speech is selected, not among the large, well-recognised figures
common in poetry, but from some dusty corner of experience, and how
often it is characterised by smallness and a certain quaint exactitude
which could not have been found in any more usual example. Thus, for
instance, _Prince Hohenstiel--Schwangau_ explains the psychological
meaning of all his restless and unscrupulous activities by comparing
them to the impulse which has just led him, even in the act of
talking, to draw a black line on the blotting-paper exactly, so as to
connect two separate blots that were already there. This queer example
is selected as the best possible instance of a certain fundamental
restlessness and desire to add a touch to things in the spirit of
man. I have no doubt whatever that Browning thought of the idea after
doing the thing himself, and sat in a philosophical trance staring at
a piece of inked blotting-paper, conscious that at that moment, and in
that insignificant act, some immemorial monster of the mind, nameless
from the beginning of the world, had risen to the surface of the
It is therefore the very essence of Browning's genius, and the very
essence of _The Ring and the Book_, that it should be the enormous
multiplication of a small theme. It is the extreme of idle criticism
to complain that the story is a current and sordid story, for the
whole object of the poem is to show what infinities of spiritual good
and evil a current and sordid story may contain. When once this is
realised, it explains at one stroke the innumerable facts about the
work. It explains, for example, Browning's detailed and picturesque
account of the glorious dust-bin of odds and ends for sale, out of
which he picked the printed record of the trial, and his insistence on
its cheapness, its dustiness, its yellow leaves, and its crabbed
Latin. The more soiled and dark and insignificant he can make the text
appear, the better for his ample and gigantic sermon. It explains
again the strictness with which Browning adhered to the facts of the
forgotten intrigue. He was playing the game of seeing how much was
really involved in one paltry fragment of fact. To have introduced
large quantities of fiction would not have been sportsmanlike. _The
Ring and the Book_ therefore, to re-capitulate the view arrived at so
far, is the typical epic of our age, because it expresses the richness
of life by taking as a text a poor story. It pays to existence the
highest of all possible compliments--the great compliment which
monarchy paid to mankind--the compliment of selecting from it almost
But this is only the first half of the claim of _The Ring and the
Book_ to be the typical epic of modern times. The second half of that
claim, the second respect in which the work is representative of all
modern development, requires somewhat more careful statement. _The
Ring and the Book_ is of course, essentially speaking, a detective
story. Its difference from the ordinary detective story is that it
seeks to establish, not the centre of criminal guilt, but the centre
of spiritual guilt. But it has exactly the same kind of exciting
quality that a detective story has, and a very excellent quality it
is. But the element which is important, and which now requires
pointing out, is the method by which that centre of spiritual guilt
and the corresponding centre of spiritual rectitude is discovered. In
order to make clear the peculiar character of this method, it is
necessary to begin rather nearer the beginning, and to go back some
little way in literary history.
I do not know whether anybody, including the editor himself, has ever
noticed a peculiar coincidence which may be found in the arrangement
of the lyrics in Sir Francis Palgrave's _Golden Treasury_. However
that may be, two poems, each of them extremely well known, are placed
side by side, and their juxtaposition represents one vast revolution
in the poetical manner of looking at things. The first is Goldsmith's
almost too well known
"When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy?
What art can wash her guilt away?"
Immediately afterwards comes, with a sudden and thrilling change of
note, the voice of Burns:--
"Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu' of care?
Thou'll break my heart, thou bonny bird,
That sings upon the bough,
Thou minds me of the happy days
When my fause Love was true."
A man might read those two poems a great many times without happening
to realise that they are two poems on exactly the same subject--the
subject of a trusting woman deserted by a man. And the whole
difference--the difference struck by the very first note of the voice
of any one who reads them--is this fundamental difference, that
Goldsmith's words are spoken about a certain situation, and Burns's
words are spoken in that situation.
In the transition from one of these lyrics to the other, we have a
vital change in the conception of the functions of the poet; a change
of which Burns was in many ways the beginning, of which Browning, in a
manner that we shall see presently, was the culmination.
Goldsmith writes fully and accurately in the tradition of the old
historic idea of what a poet was. The poet, the _vates_, was the
supreme and absolute critic of human existence, the chorus in the
human drama; he was, to employ two words, which when analysed are the
same word, either a spectator or a seer. He took a situation, such as
the situation of a woman deserted by a man before-mentioned, and he
gave, as Goldsmith gives, his own personal and definite decision upon
it, entirely based upon general principles, and entirely from the
outside. Then, as in the case of _The Golden Treasury_, he has no
sooner given judgment than there comes a bitter and confounding cry
out of the very heart of the situation itself, which tells us things
which would have been quite left out of account by the poet of the
general rule. No one, for example, but a person who knew something of
the inside of agony would have introduced that touch of the rage of
the mourner against the chattering frivolity of nature, "Thou'll break
my heart, thou bonny bird." We find and could find no such touch in
Goldsmith. We have to arrive at the conclusion therefore, that the
_vates_ or poet in his absolute capacity is defied and overthrown by
this new method of what may be called the songs of experience.
Now Browning, as he appears in _The Ring and the Book_, represents the
attempt to discover, not the truth in the sense that Goldsmith states
it, but the larger truth which is made up of all the emotional
experiences, such as that rendered by Burns. Browning, like Goldsmith,
seeks ultimately to be just and impartial, but he does it by
endeavouring to feel acutely every kind of partiality. Goldsmith
stands apart from all the passions of the case, and Browning includes
them all. If Browning were endeavouring to do strict justice in a case
like that of the deserted lady by the banks of Doon, he would not
touch or modify in the smallest particular the song as Burns sang it,
but he would write other songs, perhaps equally pathetic. A lyric or a
soliloquy would convince us suddenly by the mere pulse of its
language, that there was some pathos in the other actors in the drama;
some pathos, for example, in a weak man, conscious that in a
passionate ignorance of life he had thrown away his power of love,
lacking the moral courage to throw his prospects after it. We should
be reminded again that there was some pathos in the position, let us
say, of the seducer's mother, who had built all her hopes upon
developments which a mesalliance would overthrow, or in the position
of some rival lover, stricken to the ground with the tragedy in which
he had not even the miserable comfort of a _locus standi_. All these
characters in the story, Browning would realise from their own
emotional point of view before he gave judgment. The poet in his
ancient office held a kind of terrestrial day of judgment, and gave
men halters and haloes; Browning gives men neither halter nor halo, he
gives them voices. This is indeed the most bountiful of all the
functions of the poet, that he gives men words, for which men from the
beginning of the world have starved more than for bread.
Here then we have the second great respect in which _The Ring and the
Book_ is the great epic of the age. It is the great epic of the age,
because it is the expression of the belief, it might almost be said,
of the discovery, that no man ever lived upon this earth without
possessing a point of view. No one ever lived who had not a little
more to say for himself than any formal system of justice was likely
to say for him. It is scarcely necessary to point out how entirely the
application of this principle would revolutionise the old heroic
epic, in which the poet decided absolutely the moral relations and
moral value of the characters. Suppose, for example, that Homer had
written the _Odyssey_ on the principle of _The Ring and the Book_, how
disturbing, how weird an experience it would be to read the story from
the point of view of Antinous! Without contradicting a single material
fact, without telling a single deliberate lie, the narrative would so
change the whole world around us, that we should scarcely know we were
dealing with the same place and people. The calm face of Penelope
would, it may be, begin to grow meaner before our eyes, like a face
changing in a dream. She would begin to appear as a fickle and selfish
woman, passing falsely as a widow, and playing a double game between
the attentions of foolish but honourable young men, and the fitful
appearances of a wandering and good-for-nothing sailor-husband; a man
prepared to act that most well-worn of melodramatic roles, the
conjugal bully and blackmailer, the man who uses marital rights as an
instrument for the worse kind of wrongs. Or, again, if we had the
story of the fall of King Arthur told from the stand-point of Mordred,
it would only be a matter of a word or two; in a turn, in the
twinkling of an eye, we should find ourselves sympathising with the
efforts of an earnest young man to frustrate the profligacies of
high-placed paladins like Lancelot and Tristram, and ultimately
discovering, with deep regret but unshaken moral courage, that there
was no way to frustrate them, except by overthrowing the cold and
priggish and incapable egotist who ruled the country, and the whole
artificial and bombastic schemes which bred these moral evils. It
might be that in spite of this new view of the case, it would
ultimately appear that Ulysses was really right and Arthur was really
right, just as Browning makes it ultimately appear that Pompilia was
really right. But any one can see the enormous difference in scope and
difficulty between the old epic which told the whole story from one
man's point of view, and the new epic which cannot come to its
conclusion, until it has digested and assimilated views as paradoxical
and disturbing as our imaginary defence of Antinous and apologia of
One of the most important steps ever taken in the history of the world
is this step, with all its various aspects, literary, political, and
social, which is represented by _The Ring and the Book_. It is the
step of deciding, in the face of many serious dangers and
disadvantages, to let everybody talk. The poet of the old epic is the
poet who had learnt to speak; Browning in the new epic is the poet who
has learnt to listen. This listening to truth and error, to heretics,
to fools, to intellectual bullies, to desperate partisans, to mere
chatterers, to systematic poisoners of the mind, is the hardest lesson
that humanity has ever been set to learn. _The Ring and the Book_ is
the embodiment of this terrible magnanimity and patience. It is the
epic of free speech.
Free speech is an idea which has at present all the unpopularity of a
truism; so that we tend to forget that it was not so very long ago
that it had the more practical unpopularity which attaches to a new
truth. Ingratitude is surely the chief of the intellectual sins of
man. He takes his political benefits for granted, just as he takes
the skies and the seasons for granted. He considers the calm of a city
street a thing as inevitable as the calm of a forest clearing, whereas
it is only kept in peace by a sustained stretch and effort similar to
that which keeps up a battle or a fencing match. Just as we forget
where we stand in relation to natural phenomena, so we forget it in
relation to social phenomena. We forget that the earth is a star, and
we forget that free speech is a paradox.
It is not by any means self-evident upon the face of it that an
institution like the liberty of speech is right or just. It is not
natural or obvious to let a man utter follies and abominations which
you believe to be bad for mankind any more than it is natural or
obvious to let a man dig up a part of the public road, or infect half
a town with typhoid fever. The theory of free speech, that truth is so
much larger and stranger and more many-sided than we know of, that it
is very much better at all costs to hear every one's account of it, is
a theory which has been justified upon the whole by experiment, but
which remains a very daring and even a very surprising theory. It is
really one of the great discoveries of the modern time; but, once
admitted, it is a principle that does not merely affect politics, but
philosophy, ethics, and finally poetry.
Browning was upon the whole the first poet to apply the principle to
poetry. He perceived that if we wish to tell the truth about a human
drama, we must not tell it merely like a melodrama, in which the
villain is villainous and the comic man is comic. He saw that the
truth had not been told until he had seen in the villain the pure and
disinterested gentleman that most villains firmly believe themselves
to be, or until he had taken the comic man as seriously as it is the
custom of comic men to take themselves. And in this Browning is beyond
all question the founder of the most modern school of poetry.
Everything that was profound, everything, indeed, that was tolerable
in the aesthetes of 1880, and the decadent of 1890, has its ultimate
source in Browning's great conception that every one's point of view
is interesting, even if it be a jaundiced or a blood-shot point of
view. He is at one with the decadents, in holding that it is
emphatically profitable, that it is emphatically creditable, to know
something of the grounds of the happiness of a thoroughly bad man.
Since his time we have indeed been somewhat over-satisfied with the
moods of the burglar, and the pensive lyrics of the receiver of stolen
goods. But Browning, united with the decadents on this point, of the
value of every human testimony, is divided from them sharply and by a
chasm in another equally important point. He held that it is necessary
to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of
it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. He held that
justice was a mystery, but not, like the decadents, that justice was a
delusion. He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in
a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent
doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the
nature of things wrong.
Browning's conception of the Universe can hardly be better expressed
than in the old and pregnant fable about the five blind men who went
to visit an elephant. One of them seized its trunk, and asserted that
an elephant was a kind of serpent; another embraced its leg, and was
ready to die for the belief that an elephant was a kind of tree. In
the same way to the man who leaned against its side it was a wall; to
the man who had hold of its tail a rope, and to the man who ran upon
its tusk a particularly unpleasant kind of spear. This, as I have
said, is the whole theology and philosophy of Browning. But he differs
from the psychological decadents and impressionists in this important
point, that he thinks that although the blind men found out very
little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was there
all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because an
elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning firmly
believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious shape
indeed. No blind poet could even imagine an elephant without
experience, and no man, however great and wise, could dream of God and
not die. But there is a vital distinction between the mystical view of
Browning, that the blind men are misled because there is so much for
them to learn, and the purely impressionist and agnostic view of the
modern poet, that the blind men were misled because there was nothing
for them to learn. To the impressionist artist of our time we are not
blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent.
We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and
serpents without reason and without result.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF BROWNING
The great fault of most of the appreciation of Browning lies in the
fact that it conceives the moral and artistic value of his work to lie
in what is called "the message of Browning," or "the teaching of
Browning," or, in other words, in the mere opinions of Browning. Now
Browning had opinions, just as he had a dress-suit or a vote for
Parliament. He did not hesitate to express these opinions any more
than he would have hesitated to fire off a gun, or open an umbrella,
if he had possessed those articles, and realised their value. For
example, he had, as his students and eulogists have constantly stated,
certain definite opinions about the spiritual function of love, or the
intellectual basis of Christianity. Those opinions were very striking
and very solid, as everything was which came out of Browning's mind.
His two great theories of the universe may be expressed in two
comparatively parallel phrases. The first was what may be called the
hope which lies in the imperfection of man. The characteristic poem of
"Old Pictures in Florence" expresses very quaintly and beautifully the
idea that some hope may always be based on deficiency itself; in other
words, that in so far as man is a one-legged or a one-eyed creature,
there is something about his appearance which indicates that he
should have another leg and another eye. The poem suggests admirably
that such a sense of incompleteness may easily be a great advance upon
a sense of completeness, that the part may easily and obviously be
greater than the whole. And from this Browning draws, as he is fully
justified in drawing, a definite hope for immortality and the larger
scale of life. For nothing is more certain than that though this world
is the only world that we have known, or of which we could even dream,
the fact does remain that we have named it "a strange world." In other
words, we have certainly felt that this world did not explain itself,
that something in its complete and patent picture has been omitted.
And Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness
implies completeness, life implies immortality. This then was the
first of the doctrines or opinions of Browning: the hope that lies in
the imperfection of man. The second of the great Browning doctrines
requires some audacity to express. It can only be properly stated as
the hope that lies in the imperfection of God. That is to say, that
Browning held that sorrow and self-denial, if they were the burdens of
man, were also his privileges. He held that these stubborn sorrows and
obscure valours might, to use a yet more strange expression, have
provoked the envy of the Almighty. If man has self-sacrifice and God
has none, then man has in the Universe a secret and blasphemous
superiority. And this tremendous story of a Divine jealousy Browning
reads into the story of the Crucifixion. If the Creator had not been
crucified He would not have been as great as thousands of wretched
fanatics among His own creatures. It is needless to insist upon this
point; any one who wishes to read it splendidly expressed need only be
referred to "Saul." But these are emphatically the two main doctrines
or opinions of Browning which I have ventured to characterise roughly
as the hope in the imperfection of man, and more boldly as the hope in
the imperfection of God. They are great thoughts, thoughts written by
a great man, and they raise noble and beautiful doubts on behalf of
faith which the human spirit will never answer or exhaust. But about
them in connection with Browning there nevertheless remains something
to be added.
Browning was, as most of his upholders and all his opponents say, an
optimist. His theory, that man's sense of his own imperfection implies
a design of perfection, is a very good argument for optimism. His
theory that man's knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies
God's knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice is another very good
argument for optimism. But any one will make the deepest and blackest
and most incurable mistake about Browning who imagines that his
optimism was founded on any arguments for optimism. Because he had a
strong intellect, because he had a strong power of conviction, he
conceived and developed and asserted these doctrines of the
incompleteness of Man and the sacrifice of Omnipotence. But these
doctrines were the symptoms of his optimism, they were not its origin.
It is surely obvious that no one can be argued into optimism since no
one can be argued into happiness. Browning's optimism was not founded
on opinions which were the work of Browning, but on life which was
the work of God. One of Browning's most celebrated biographers has
said that something of Browning's theology must be put down to his
possession of a good digestion. The remark was, of course, like all
remarks touching the tragic subject of digestion, intended to be funny
and to convey some kind of doubt or diminution touching the value of
Browning's faith. But if we examine the matter with somewhat greater
care we shall see that it is indeed a thorough compliment to that
faith. Nobody, strictly speaking, is happier on account of his
digestion. He is happy because he is so constituted as to forget all
about it. Nobody really is convulsed with delight at the thought of
the ingenious machinery which he possesses inside him; the thing which
delights him is simply the full possession of his own human body. I
cannot in the least understand why a good digestion--that is, a good
body--should not be held to be as mystic a benefit as a sunset or the
first flower of spring. But there is about digestion this peculiarity
throwing a great light on human pessimism, that it is one of the many
things which we never speak of as existing until they go wrong. We
should think it ridiculous to speak of a man as suffering from his
boots if we meant that he had really no boots. But we do speak of a
man suffering from digestion when we mean that he suffers from a lack
of digestion. In the same way we speak of a man suffering from nerves
when we mean that his nerves are more inefficient than any one else's
nerves. If any one wishes to see how grossly language can degenerate,
he need only compare the old optimistic use of the word nervous,
which we employ in speaking of a nervous grip, with the new
pessimistic use of the word, which we employ in speaking of a nervous
manner. And as digestion is a good thing which sometimes goes wrong,
as nerves are good things which sometimes go wrong, so existence
itself in the eyes of Browning and all the great optimists is a good
thing which sometimes goes wrong. He held himself as free to draw his
inspiration from the gift of good health as from the gift of learning
or the gift of fellowship. But he held that such gifts were in life
innumerable and varied, and that every man, or at least almost every
man, possessed some window looking out on this essential excellence of
Browning's optimism then, since we must continue to use this somewhat
inadequate word, was a result of experience--experience which is for
some mysterious reason generally understood in the sense of sad or
disillusioning experience. An old gentleman rebuking a little boy for
eating apples in a tree is in the common conception the type of
experience. If he really wished to be a type of experience he would
climb up the tree himself and proceed to experience the apples.
Browning's faith was founded upon joyful experience, not in the sense
that he selected his joyful experiences and ignored his painful ones,
but in the sense that his joyful experiences selected themselves and
stood out in his memory by virtue of their own extraordinary intensity
of colour. He did not use experience in that mean and pompous sense in
which it is used by the worldling advanced in years. He rather used it
in that healthier and more joyful sense in which it is used at
revivalist meetings. In the Salvation Army a man's experiences mean
his experiences of the mercy of God, and to Browning the meaning was
much the same. But the revivalists' confessions deal mostly with
experiences of prayer and praise; Browning's dealt pre-eminently with
what may be called his own subject, the experiences of love.
And this quality of Browning's optimism, the quality of detail, is
also a very typical quality. Browning's optimism is of that ultimate
and unshakeable order that is founded upon the absolute sight, and
sound, and smell, and handling of things. If a man had gone up to
Browning and asked him with all the solemnity of the eccentric, "Do
you think life is worth living?" it is interesting to conjecture what
his answer might have been. If he had been for the moment under the
influence of the orthodox rationalistic deism of the theologian he
would have said, "Existence is justified by its manifest design, its
manifest adaptation of means to ends," or, in other words, "Existence
is justified by its completeness." If, on the other hand, he had been
influenced by his own serious intellectual theories he would have
said, "Existence is justified by its air of growth and doubtfulness,"
or, in other words, "Existence is justified by its incompleteness."
But if he had not been influenced in his answer either by the accepted
opinions, or by his own opinions, but had simply answered the question
"Is life worth living?" with the real, vital answer that awaited it in
his own soul, he would have said as likely as not, "Crimson toadstools
in Hampshire." Some plain, glowing picture of this sort left on his
mind would be his real verdict on what the universe had meant to him.
To his traditions hope was traced to order, to his speculations hope
was traced to disorder. But to Browning himself hope was traced to
something like red toadstools. His mysticism was not of that idle and
wordy type which believes that a flower is symbolical of life; it was
rather of that deep and eternal type which believes that life, a mere
abstraction, is symbolical of a flower. With him the great concrete
experiences which God made always come first; his own deductions and
speculations about them always second. And in this point we find the
real peculiar inspiration of his very original poems.
One of the very few critics who seem to have got near to the actual
secret of Browning's optimism is Mr. Santayana in his most interesting
book _Interpretations of Poetry and Religion_. He, in contradistinction
to the vast mass of Browning's admirers, had discovered what was the
real root virtue of Browning's poetry; and the curious thing is, that
having discovered that root virtue, he thinks it is a vice. He
describes the poetry of Browning most truly as the poetry of
barbarism, by which he means the poetry which utters the primeval and
indivisible emotions. "For the barbarian is the man who regards his
passions as their own excuse for being, who does not domesticate them
either by understanding their cause, or by conceiving their ideal
goal." Whether this be or be not a good definition of the barbarian,
it is an excellent and perfect definition of the poet. It might,
perhaps, be suggested that barbarians, as a matter of fact, are
generally highly traditional and respectable persons who would not put
a feather wrong in their head-gear, and who generally have very few
feelings and think very little about those they have. It is when we
have grown to a greater and more civilised stature that we begin to
realise and put to ourselves intellectually the great feelings that
sleep in the depths of us. Thus it is that the literature of our day
has steadily advanced towards a passionate simplicity, and we become
more primeval as the world grows older, until Whitman writes huge and
chaotic psalms to express the sensations of a schoolboy out fishing,
and Maeterlinck embodies in symbolic dramas the feelings of a child in
Thus, Mr. Santayana is, perhaps, the most valuable of all the Browning
critics. He has gone out of his way to endeavour to realise what it is
that repels him in Browning, and he has discovered the fault which
none of Browning's opponents have discovered. And in this he has
discovered the merit which none of Browning's admirers have
discovered. Whether the quality be a good or a bad quality, Mr.
Santayana is perfectly right. The whole of Browning's poetry does rest
upon primitive feeling; and the only comment to be added is that so
does the whole of every one else's poetry. Poetry deals entirely with
those great eternal and mainly forgotten wishes which are the ultimate
despots of existence. Poetry presents things as they are to our
emotions, not as they are to any theory, however plausible, or any
argument, however conclusive. If love is in truth a glorious vision,
poetry will say that it is a glorious vision, and no philosophers will
persuade poetry to say that it is the exaggeration of the instinct of
sex. If bereavement is a bitter and continually aching thing, poetry
will say that it is so, and no philosophers will persuade poetry to
say that it is an evolutionary stage of great biological value. And
here comes in the whole value and object of poetry, that it is
perpetually challenging all systems with the test of a terrible
sincerity. The practical value of poetry is that it is realistic upon
a point upon which nothing else can be realistic, the point of the
actual desires of man. Ethics is the science of actions, but poetry is
the science of motives. Some actions are ugly, and therefore some
parts of ethics are ugly. But all motives are beautiful, or present
themselves for the moment as beautiful, and therefore all poetry is
beautiful. If poetry deals with the basest matter, with the shedding
of blood for gold, it ought to suggest the gold as well as the blood.
Only poetry can realise motives, because motives are all pictures of
happiness. And the supreme and most practical value of poetry is this,
that in poetry, as in music, a note is struck which expresses beyond
the power of rational statement a condition of mind, and all actions
arise from a condition of mind. Prose can only use a large and clumsy
notation; it can only say that a man is miserable, or that a man is
happy; it is forced to ignore that there are a million diverse kinds
of misery and a million diverse kinds of happiness. Poetry alone, with
the first throb of its metre, can tell us whether the depression is
the kind of depression that drives a man to suicide, or the kind of
depression that drives him to the Tivoli. Poetry can tell us whether
the happiness is the happiness that sends a man to a restaurant, or
the much richer and fuller happiness that sends him to church.
Now the supreme value of Browning as an optimist lies in this that we
have been examining, that beyond all his conclusions, and deeper than
all his arguments, he was passionately interested in and in love with
existence. If the heavens had fallen, and all the waters of the earth
run with blood, he would still have been interested in existence, if
possible a little more so. He is a great poet of human joy for
precisely the reason of which Mr. Santayana complains: that his
happiness is primal, and beyond the reach of philosophy. He is
something far more convincing, far more comforting, far more
religiously significant than an optimist: he is a happy man.
This happiness he finds, as every man must find happiness, in his own
way. He does not find the great part of his joy in those matters in
which most poets find felicity. He finds much of it in those matters
in which most poets find ugliness and vulgarity. He is to a
considerable extent the poet of towns. "Do you care for nature much?"
a friend of his asked him. "Yes, a great deal," he said, "but for
human beings a great deal more." Nature, with its splendid and
soothing sanity, has the power of convincing most poets of the
essential worthiness of things. There are few poets who, if they
escaped from the rowdiest waggonette of trippers, could not be quieted
again and exalted by dropping into a small wayside field. The
speciality of Browning is rather that he would have been quieted and
exalted by the waggonette.
To Browning, probably the beginning and end of all optimism was to be
found in the faces in the street. To him they were all the masks of a
deity, the heads of a hundred-headed Indian god of nature. Each one of
them looked towards some quarter of the heavens, not looked upon by
any other eyes. Each one of them wore some expression, some blend of
eternal joy and eternal sorrow, not to be found in any other
countenance. The sense of the absolute sanctity of human difference
was the deepest of all his senses. He was hungrily interested in all
human things, but it would have been quite impossible to have said of
him that he loved humanity. He did not love humanity but men. His
sense of the difference between one man and another would have made
the thought of melting them into a lump called humanity simply
loathsome and prosaic. It would have been to him like playing four
hundred beautiful airs at once. The mixture would not combine all, it
would lose all. Browning believed that to every man that ever lived
upon this earth had been given a definite and peculiar confidence of
God. Each one of us was engaged on secret service; each one of us had
a peculiar message; each one of us was the founder of a religion. Of
that religion our thoughts, our faces, our bodies, our hats, our
boots, our tastes, our virtues, and even our vices, were more or less
fragmentary and inadequate expressions.
In the delightful memoirs of that very remarkable man Sir Charles
Gavan Duffy, there is an extremely significant and interesting
anecdote about Browning, the point of which appears to have attracted
very little attention. Duffy was dining with Browning and John
Forster, and happened to make some chance allusion to his own
adherence to the Roman Catholic faith, when Forster remarked, half
jestingly, that he did not suppose that Browning would like him any
the better for that. Browning would seem to have opened his eyes with
some astonishment. He immediately asked why Forster should suppose
him hostile to the Roman Church. Forster and Duffy replied almost
simultaneously, by referring to "Bishop Blougram's Apology," which had
just appeared, and asking whether the portrait of the sophistical and
self-indulgent priest had not been intended for a satire on Cardinal
Wiseman. "Certainly," replied Browning cheerfully, "I intended it for
Cardinal Wiseman, but I don't consider it a satire, there is nothing
hostile about it." This is the real truth which lies at the heart of
what may be called the great sophistical monologues which Browning
wrote in later years. They are not satires or attacks upon their
subjects, they are not even harsh and unfeeling exposures of them.
They are defences; they say or are intended to say the best that can
be said for the persons with whom they deal. But very few people in
this world would care to listen to the real defence of their own
characters. The real defence, the defence which belongs to the Day of
Judgment, would make such damaging admissions, would clear away so
many artificial virtues, would tell such tragedies of weakness and
failure, that a man would sooner be misunderstood and censured by the
world than exposed to that awful and merciless eulogy. One of the most
practically difficult matters which arise from the code of manners and
the conventions of life, is that we cannot properly justify a human
being, because that justification would involve the admission of
things which may not conventionally be admitted. We might explain and
make human and respectable, for example, the conduct of some old
fighting politician, who, for the good of his party and his country,
acceded to measures of which he disapproved; but we cannot, because we
are not allowed to admit that he ever acceded to measures of which he
disapproved. We might touch the life of many dissolute public men with
pathos, and a kind of defeated courage, by telling the truth about the
history of their sins. But we should throw the world into an uproar if
we hinted that they had any. Thus the decencies of civilisation do not
merely make it impossible to revile a man, they make it impossible to
Browning, in such poems as "Bishop Blougram's Apology," breaks this
first mask of goodness in order to break the second mask of evil, and
gets to the real goodness at last; he dethrones a saint in order to
humanise a scoundrel. This is one typical side of the real optimism of
Browning. And there is indeed little danger that such optimism will
become weak and sentimental and popular, the refuge of every idler,
the excuse of every ne'er-do-well. There is little danger that men
will desire to excuse their souls before God by presenting themselves
before men as such snobs as Bishop Blougram, or such dastards as
Sludge the Medium. There is no pessimism, however stern, that is so
stern as this optimism, it is as merciless as the mercy of God.
It is true that in this, as in almost everything else connected with
Browning's character, the matter cannot be altogether exhausted by
such a generalisation as the above. Browning's was a simple character,
and therefore very difficult to understand, since it was impulsive,
unconscious, and kept no reckoning of its moods. Probably in a great
many cases, the original impulse which led Browning to plan a
soliloquy was a kind of anger mixed with curiosity; possibly the first
charcoal sketch of Blougram was a caricature of a priest. Browning,
as we have said, had prejudices, and had a capacity for anger, and two
of his angriest prejudices were against a certain kind of worldly
clericalism, and against almost every kind of spiritualism. But as he
worked upon the portraits at least, a new spirit began to possess him,
and he enjoyed every spirited and just defence the men could make of
themselves, like triumphant blows in a battle, and towards the end
would come the full revelation, and Browning would stand up in the
man's skin and testify to the man's ideals. However this may be, it is
worth while to notice one very curious error that has arisen in
connection with one of the most famous of these monologues.
When Robert Browning was engaged in that somewhat obscure quarrel with
the spiritualist Home, it is generally and correctly stated that he
gained a great number of the impressions which he afterwards embodied
in "Mr. Sludge the Medium." The statement so often made, particularly
in the spiritualist accounts of the matter, that Browning himself is
the original of the interlocutor and exposer of Sludge, is of course
merely an example of that reckless reading from which no one has
suffered more than Browning despite his students and societies. The
man to whom Sludge addresses his confession is a Mr. Hiram H.
Horsfall, an American, a patron of spiritualists, and, as it is more
than once suggested, something of a fool. Nor is there the smallest
reason to suppose that Sludge considered as an individual bears any
particular resemblance to Home considered as an individual. But
without doubt "Mr. Sludge the Medium" is a general statement of the
view of spiritualism at which Browning had arrived from his
acquaintance with Home and Home's circle. And about that view of
spiritualism there is something rather peculiar to notice. The poem,
appearing as it did at the time when the intellectual public had just
become conscious of the existence of spiritualism, attracted a great
deal of attention, and aroused a great deal of controversy. The
spiritualists called down thunder upon the head of the poet, whom they
depicted as a vulgar and ribald lampooner who had not only committed
the profanity of sneering at the mysteries of a higher state of life,
but the more unpardonable profanity of sneering at the convictions of
his own wife. The sceptics, on the other hand, hailed the poem with
delight as a blasting exposure of spiritualism, and congratulated the
poet on making himself the champion of the sane and scientific view of
magic. Which of these two parties was right about the question of
attacking the reality of spiritualism it is neither easy nor necessary
to discuss. For the simple truth, which neither of the two parties and
none of the students of Browning seem to have noticed, is that "Mr.
Sludge the Medium" is not an attack upon spiritualism. It would be a
great deal nearer the truth, though not entirely the truth, to call it
a justification of spiritualism. The whole essence of Browning's
method is involved in this matter, and the whole essence of Browning's
method is so vitally misunderstood that to say that "Mr. Sludge the
Medium" is something like a defence of spiritualism will bear on the
face of it the appearance of the most empty and perverse of paradoxes.
But so, when we have comprehended Browning's spirit, the fact will be
found to be.
The general idea is that Browning must have intended "Sludge" for an
attack on spiritual phenomena, because the medium in that poem is made
a vulgar and contemptible mountebank, because his cheats are quite
openly confessed, and he himself put into every ignominious situation,
detected, exposed, throttled, horsewhipped, and forgiven. To regard
this deduction as sound is to misunderstand Browning at the very start
of every poem that he ever wrote. There is nothing that the man loved
more, nothing that deserves more emphatically to be called a
speciality of Browning, than the utterance of large and noble truths
by the lips of mean and grotesque human beings. In his poetry praise
and wisdom were perfected not only out of the mouths of babes and
sucklings, but out of the mouths of swindlers and snobs. Now what, as
a matter of fact, is the outline and development of the poem of
"Sludge"? The climax of the poem, considered as a work of art, is so
fine that it is quite extraordinary that any one should have missed
the point of it, since it is the whole point of the monologue. Sludge
the Medium has been caught out in a piece of unquestionable trickery,
a piece of trickery for which there is no conceivable explanation or
palliation which will leave his moral character intact. He is
therefore seized with a sudden resolution, partly angry, partly
frightened, and partly humorous, to become absolutely frank, and to
tell the whole truth about himself for the first time not only to his
dupe, but to himself. He excuses himself for the earlier stages of the
trickster's life by a survey of the border-land between truth and
fiction, not by any means a piece of sophistry or cynicism, but a
perfectly fair statement of an ethical difficulty which does exist.
There are some people who think that it must be immoral to admit that
there are any doubtful cases of morality, as if a man should refrain
from discussing the precise boundary at the upper end of the Isthmus
of Panama, for fear the inquiry should shake his belief in the
existence of North America. People of this kind quite consistently
think Sludge to be merely a scoundrel talking nonsense. It may be
remembered that they thought the same thing of Newman. It is actually
supposed, apparently in the current use of words, that casuistry is
the name of a crime; it does not appear to occur to people that
casuistry is a science, and about as much a crime as botany. This
tendency to casuistry in Browning's monologues has done much towards
establishing for him that reputation for pure intellectualism which
has done him so much harm. But casuistry in this sense is not a cold
and analytical thing, but a very warm and sympathetic thing. To know
what combination of excuse might justify a man in manslaughter or
bigamy, is not to have a callous indifference to virtue; it is rather
to have so ardent an admiration for virtue as to seek it in the
remotest desert and the darkest incognito.
This is emphatically the case with the question of truth and falsehood
raised in "Sludge the Medium." To say that it is sometimes difficult
to tell at what point the romancer turns into the liar is not to state
a cynicism, but a perfectly honest piece of human observation. To
think that such a view involves the negation of honesty is like
thinking that red is green, because the two fade into each other in
the colours of the rainbow. It is really difficult to decide when we
come to the extreme edge of veracity, when and when not it is
permissible to create an illusion. A standing example, for instance,
is the case of the fairy-tales. We think a father entirely pure and
benevolent when he tells his children that a beanstalk grew up into
heaven, and a pumpkin turned into a coach. We should consider that he
lapsed from purity and benevolence if he told his children that in
walking home that evening he had seen a beanstalk grow half-way up the
church, or a pumpkin grow as large as a wheelbarrow. Again, few people
would object to that general privilege whereby it is permitted to a
person in narrating even a true anecdote to work up the climax by any
exaggerative touches which really tend to bring it out. The reason of
this is that the telling of the anecdote has become, like the telling
of the fairy-tale, almost a distinct artistic creation; to offer to
tell a story is in ordinary society like offering to recite or play
the violin. No one denies that a fixed and genuine moral rule could be
drawn up for these cases, but no one surely need be ashamed to admit
that such a rule is not entirely easy to draw up. And when a man like
Sludge traces much of his moral downfall to the indistinctness of the
boundary and the possibility of beginning with a natural extravagance
and ending with a gross abuse, it certainly is not possible to deny
his right to be heard.
We must recur, however, to the question of the main development of the
Sludge self-analysis. He begins, as we have said, by urging a general
excuse by the fact that in the heat of social life, in the course of
telling tales in the intoxicating presence of sympathisers and
believers, he has slid into falsehood almost before he is aware of it.
So far as this goes, there is truth in his plea. Sludge might indeed
find himself unexpectedly justified if we had only an exact record of
how true were the tales told about Conservatives in an exclusive
circle of Radicals, or the stories told about Radicals in a circle of
indignant Conservatives. But after this general excuse, Sludge goes on
to a perfectly cheerful and unfeeling admission of fraud; this
principal feeling towards his victims is by his own confession a
certain unfathomable contempt for people who are so easily taken in.
He professes to know how to lay the foundations for every species of
personal acquaintanceship, and how to remedy the slight and trivial
slips of making Plato write Greek in naughts and crosses.
"As I fear, sir, he sometimes used to do
Before I found the useful book that knows."
It would be difficult to imagine any figure more indecently
confessional, more entirely devoid of not only any of the restraints
of conscience, but of any of the restraints even of a wholesome
personal conceit, than Sludge the Medium. He confesses not only fraud,
but things which are to the natural man more difficult to confess even
than fraud--effeminacy, futility, physical cowardice. And then, when
the last of his loathsome secrets has been told, when he has nothing
left either to gain or to conceal, then he rises up into a perfect
bankrupt sublimity and makes the great avowal which is the whole pivot
and meaning of the poem. He says in effect: "Now that my interest in
deceit is utterly gone, now that I have admitted, to my own final
infamy, the frauds that I have practised, now that I stand before you
in a patent and open villainy which has something of the
disinterestedness and independence of the innocent, now I tell you
with the full and impartial authority of a lost soul that I believe
that there is something in spiritualism. In the course of a thousand
conspiracies, by the labour of a thousand lies, I have discovered that
there is really something in this matter that neither I nor any other
man understands. I am a thief, an adventurer, a deceiver of mankind,
but I am not a disbeliever in spiritualism. I have seen too much for
that." This is the confession of faith of Mr. Sludge the Medium. It
would be difficult to imagine a confession of faith framed and
presented in a more impressive manner. Sludge is a witness to his
faith as the old martyrs were witnesses to their faith, but even more
impressively. They testified to their religion even after they had
lost their liberty, and their eyesight, and their right hands. Sludge
testifies to his religion even after he has lost his dignity and his
It may be repeated that it is truly extraordinary that any one should
have failed to notice that this avowal on behalf of spiritualism is
the pivot of the poem. The avowal itself is not only expressed
clearly, but prepared and delivered with admirable rhetorical force:--
"Now for it, then! Will you believe me, though?
You've heard what I confess: I don't unsay
A single word: I cheated when I could,
Rapped with my toe-joints, set sham hands at work,
Wrote down names weak in sympathetic ink.
Rubbed odic lights with ends of phosphor-match,
And all the rest; believe that: believe this,
By the same token, though it seem to set
The crooked straight again, unsay the said,
Stick up what I've knocked down; I can't help that,
It's truth! I somehow vomit truth to-day.
This trade of mine--I don't know, can't be sure
But there was something in it, tricks and all!"
It is strange to call a poem with so clear and fine a climax an attack
on spiritualism. To miss that climax is like missing the last sentence
in a good anecdote, or putting the last act of _Othello_ into the
middle of the play. Either the whole poem of "Sludge the Medium" means
nothing at all, and is only a lampoon upon a cad, of which the matter
is almost as contemptible as the subject, or it means this--that some
real experiences of the unseen lie even at the heart of hypocrisy, and
that even the spiritualist is at root spiritual.
One curious theory which is common to most Browning critics is that
Sludge must be intended for a pure and conscious impostor, because
after his confession, and on the personal withdrawal of Mr. Horsfall,
he bursts out into horrible curses against that gentleman and cynical
boasts of his future triumphs in a similar line of business. Surely
this is to have a very feeble notion either of nature or art. A man
driven absolutely into a corner might humiliate himself, and gain a
certain sensation almost of luxury in that humiliation, in pouring out
all his imprisoned thoughts and obscure victories. For let it never be
forgotten that a hypocrite is a very unhappy man; he is a man who has
devoted himself to a most delicate and arduous intellectual art in
which he may achieve masterpieces which he must keep secret, fight
thrilling battles, and win hair's-breadth victories for which he
cannot have a whisper of praise. A really accomplished impostor is the
most wretched of geniuses; he is a Napoleon on a desert island. A man
might surely, therefore, when he was certain that his credit was gone,
take a certain pleasure in revealing the tricks of his unique trade,
and gaining not indeed credit, but at least a kind of glory. And in
the course of this self-revelation he would come at last upon that
part of himself which exists in every man--that part which does
believe in, and value, and worship something. This he would fling in
his hearer's face with even greater pride, and take a delight in
giving a kind of testimony to his religion which no man had ever given
before--the testimony of a martyr who could not hope to be a saint.
But surely all this sudden tempest of candour in the man would not
mean that he would burst into tears and become an exemplary ratepayer,
like a villain in the worst parts of Dickens. The moment the danger
was withdrawn, the sense of having given himself away, of having
betrayed the secret of his infamous freemasonry, would add an
indescribable violence and foulness to his reaction of rage. A man in
such a case would do exactly as Sludge does. He would declare his own
shame, declare the truth of his creed, and then, when he realised what
he had done, say something like this:--
"R-r-r, you brute-beast and blackguard! Cowardly scamp!
I only wish I dared burn down the house
And spoil your sniggering!"
and so on, and so on.
He would react like this; it is one of the most artistic strokes in
Browning. But it does not prove that he was a hypocrite about
spiritualism, or that he was speaking more truthfully in the second
outburst than in the first. Whence came this extraordinary theory that
a man is always speaking most truly when he is speaking most coarsely?
The truth about oneself is a very difficult thing to express, and
coarse speaking will seldom do it.
When we have grasped this point about "Sludge the Medium," we have
grasped the key to the whole series of Browning's casuistical
monologues--_Bishop Blaugram's Apology, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau,
Fra Lippo Lippi, Fifine at the Fair, Aristophanes' Apology_, and
several of the monologues in _The Ring and the Book_. They are all,
without exception, dominated by this one conception of a certain
reality tangled almost inextricably with unrealities in a man's mind,
and the peculiar fascination which resides in the thought that the
greatest lies about a man, and the greatest truths about him, may be
found side by side in the same eloquent and sustained utterance.
"For Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke."
Or, to put the matter in another way, the general idea of these poems
is, that a man cannot help telling some truth even when he sets out to
tell lies. If a man comes to tell us that he has discovered perpetual
motion, or been swallowed by the sea-serpent, there will yet be some
point in the story where he will tell us about himself almost all that
we require to know.
If any one wishes to test the truth, or to see the best examples of
this general idea in Browning's monologues, he may be recommended to
notice one peculiarity of these poems which is rather striking. As a
whole, these apologies are written in a particularly burly and even
brutal English. Browning's love of what is called the ugly is nowhere
else so fully and extravagantly indulged. This, like a great many
other things for which Browning as an artist is blamed, is perfectly
appropriate to the theme. A vain, ill-mannered, and untrustworthy
egotist, defending his own sordid doings with his own cheap and
weather-beaten philosophy, is very likely to express himself best in a
language flexible and pungent, but indelicate and without dignity. But
the peculiarity of these loose and almost slangy soliloquies is that
every now and then in them there occur bursts of pure poetry which are
like a burst of birds singing. Browning does not hesitate to put some
of the most perfect lines that he or anyone else have ever written in
the English language into the mouths of such slaves as Sludge and
Guido Franceschini. Take, for the sake of example, "Bishop Blougram's
Apology." The poem is one of the most grotesque in the poet's works.
It is intentionally redolent of the solemn materialism and patrician
grossness of a grand dinner-party _a deux_. It has many touches of an
almost wild bathos, such as the young man who bears the impossible
name of Gigadibs. The Bishop, in pursuing his worldly argument for
conformity, points out with truth that a condition of doubt is a
condition that cuts both ways, and that if we cannot be sure of the
religious theory of life, neither can we be sure of the material
theory of life, and that in turn is capable of becoming an uncertainty
continually shaken by a tormenting suggestion. We cannot establish
ourselves on rationalism, and make it bear fruit to us. Faith itself
is capable of becoming the darkest and most revolutionary of doubts.
Then comes the passage:--
"Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
A chorus ending from Euripides,--
And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as Nature's self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again,--
The grand Perhaps!"
Nobler diction and a nobler meaning could not have been put into the
mouth of Pompilia, or Rabbi Ben Ezra. It is in reality put into the
mouth of a vulgar, fashionable priest, justifying his own cowardice
over the comfortable wine and the cigars.
Along with this tendency to poetry among Browning's knaves, must be
reckoned another characteristic, their uniform tendency to theism.
These loose and mean characters speak of many things feverishly and
vaguely; of one thing they always speak with confidence and composure,
their relation to God. It may seem strange at first sight that those
who have outlived the indulgence, and not only of every law, but of
every reasonable anarchy, should still rely so simply upon the
indulgence of divine perfection. Thus Sludge is certain that his life
of lies and conjuring tricks has been conducted in a deep and subtle
obedience to the message really conveyed by the conditions created by
God. Thus Bishop Blougram is certain that his life of panic-stricken
and tottering compromise has been really justified as the only method
that could unite him with God. Thus Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau is
certain that every dodge in his thin string of political dodges has
been the true means of realising what he believes to be the will of
God. Every one of these meagre swindlers, while admitting a failure in
all things relative, claims an awful alliance with the Absolute. To
many it will at first sight appear a dangerous doctrine indeed. But,
in truth, it is a most solid and noble and salutary doctrine, far less
dangerous than its opposite. Every one on this earth should believe,
amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament
have some object on the earth. Every one on the earth should believe
that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be
given. Every one should, for the good of men and the saving of his own
soul, believe that it is possible, even if we are the enemies of the
human race, to be the friends of God. The evil wrought by this
mystical pride, great as it often is, is like a straw to the evil
wrought by a materialistic self-abandonment. The crimes of the devil
who thinks himself of immeasurable value are as nothing to the crimes
of the devil who thinks himself of no value. With Browning's knaves we
have always this eternal interest, that they are real somewhere, and
may at any moment begin to speak poetry. We are talking to a peevish
and garrulous sneak; we are watching the play of his paltry features,
his evasive eyes, and babbling lips. And suddenly the face begins to
change and harden, the eyes glare like the eyes of a mask, the whole
face of clay becomes a common mouthpiece, and the voice that comes
forth is the voice of God, uttering His everlasting soliloquy.
_Agamemnon of Aeschylus, The_, 120.
Alliance, The Holy, 89.
"Andrea del Sarto," 83.
_Aristophanes' Apology_, 120, 199.
Arnold, Matthew, 41, 55, 56.
Asolo (Italy), 42, 131.
"At the Mermaid," 117.
Austria, 88, 89.
"Bad Dreams," 138.
_Balaustion's Adventure_, 119-120.
Barrett, Arabella, 74, 119.
Barrett, Edward Moulton, 58 _seq._, 70, 73, 74, 76, 79.
Beardsley, Mr. Aubrey, 149.
_Bells and Pomegranates_, 105.
"Ben Ezra," 23, 201.
Birrell, Mr. Augustine, 160.
"Bishop Blougram," 51, 189.
_Bishop Blougram's Apology_, 188, 189, 199, 200.
_Blot on the 'Scutcheon, A_, 53.
Boyd, Mr., 62.
Browning, Robert: birth and family history, 3;
theories as to his descent, 4-8;
a typical Englishman of the middle class, 9;
his immediate ancestors, 10 _seq._;
boyhood and youth, 17;
first poems, _Incondita_, 17;
romantic spirit, 18;
publication of _Pauline_, 20;
friendship with literary men, 21;
introduction to literary world, 25;
his earliest admirers, 26;
friendship with Carlyle, 26;
_Pippa Passes_, 43;
_Dramatic Lyrics_, 45;
_The Return of the Druses_, 51;
_A Blot on the 'Scutcheon_, 53;
correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett, 62 _seq._;
their first meeting, 70;
marriage and elopement, 78, 79;
life in Italy, 81 _seq._;
love of Italy, 82, 85 _seq._;
sympathy with Italian Revolution, 90;
attitude towards spiritualism, 91 _seq._, 113, 190-199;
death of his wife, 103;
returns to England, 105;
_The Ring and the Book_, 110;
culmination of his literary fame, 110, 117;
life in society, 110;
elected Fellow of Balliol, 117;
honoured by the great Universities, 118;
_Balaustion's Adventure_, 119-120;
_Aristophanes' Apology_, 120;
_The Agamemnon of Aeschylus_, 120;
_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, 121;
_Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country_, 122;
_Fifine at the Fair_, 124;
_The Inn Album_, 125;
_Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper_, 125;
_La Saisiaz_, 127;
_The Two Poets of Croisic_, 127;
_Dramatic Idylls_, 127;
_Ferishtah's Fancies_, 127;
_Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day_, 128;
accepts post of Foreign Correspondent to the Royal Academy, 129;
goes to Llangollen with his sister, 130;
last journey to Italy, 130;
death at Venice, 132;
publication of _Asolando_, 132;
his conversation, 36;
vanity, 33, 36;
faults and virtues, 40, 55;
his interest in Art, 82 _seq._;
his varied accomplishments, 84-85;
personality and presence, 18, 33, 112 _seq._;
his prejudices, 113-116;
his occasional coarseness, 116;
politics, 86 _seq._;
Browning as a father, 105;
as dramatist, 52;
as a literary artist, 133 _seq._;
his use of the grotesque, 48, 140, 143, 148 _seq._;
his failures, 141;
artistic originality, 136, 143, 158;
keen sense of melody and rhythm, 145 _seq._;
ingenuity in rhyming, 152;
his buffoonery, 154;
obscurity, 154 _seq._;
his conception of the Universe, 175;
philosophy, 177 _seq._;
optimism, 179 _seq._;
his love poetry, 49;
his knaves, 51, 201-202;
the key to his casuistical monologues, 199.
_Browning, Life of_ (Mrs. Orr), 92.
Browning, Robert (father of the poet), 10, 119.
Browning, Mrs., _nee_ Wiedermann (mother), 11, 82.
Browning, Anna (sister), 14, 105.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (wife),
57 _seq._, 91-99, 101, 103, 116, 119,
Browning Society, 129.
Burns, Robert, 169-170.
Byron, 11, 38, 141, 143.
Byronism, 19, 117.
"Caliban," 9, 120.
"Caliban upon Setebos," 93, 135, 138.
Camberwell, 3, 8, 19.
Carlyle, Thomas, 12, 16, 17, 26, 55, 56, 87, 115.
Carlyle, Mrs., 26.
"Cavalier Tunes," 46.
Cavour, 86, 90, 103.
Charles I., 28, 29.
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came," 159.
_Christmas Eve_, 105.
Church in Italy, The, 88.
Clough, Arthur Hugh, 56.
_Colombe's Birthday_, 32.
Corelli, Miss Marie, 38.
Cromwell, Oliver, 73.
Darwin, 23, 39.
"Djabal," 51, 52.
Domett, Alfred, 21.
"Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis," 161.
_Dramatic Idylls_, 127.
_Dramatic Lyrics_, 45-50.
_Dramatis Personae_, 105.
Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan, 187, 188.
_Edinburgh Review_, 122.
"Englishman in Italy, The," 150.
"Fears and Scruples," 126, 138.
"Ferishtah's Fancies," 138.
_Fifine at the Fair_, 9, 13, 51, 124, 199.
Fitzgerald, Edward, 116, 131.
_Flight of the Duchess, The_, 18.
Florence, 81, 94.
Forster, John, 26.
Foster, John, 187, 188.
Fox, Mr. Johnson, 20.
Fox, Mrs. Bridell, 33.
"Fra Lippo,", 51.
_Fra Lippo Lippi_, 83, 199.
French Revolution, 87.
Furnivall, Dr., 7, 129.
"Garden Fancies," 46.
Garibaldi, 86, 89.
Gilbert, W.S., 144.
Gissing, Mr. George, 165.
_Golden Treasury_ (Palgrave), 168.
Goldsmith, 169, 170.
Gordon, General, 90.
"Guido Franceschini," 106, 120, 200.
Henley, Mr., 148.
"Heretic's Tragedy, The," 137.
Hickey, Miss E.H., 129.
"Holy Cross Day," 153.
Home, David (spiritualist), 93-97, 113, 190, 191.
Home, David, _Memoirs_ of, 93 _seq._
Houghton, Lord, 129.
"Householder, The," 138.
"How they brought the good News from Ghent to Aix," 46.
_Hudibras_ (Butler), 57.
Hugo, Victor, 17.
Hunt, Leigh, 26.
_Inn Album, The_, 125.
_Instans Tyrannus_, 9.
Italy, 85 _seq._
Italian Revolution, 88 _seq._
"Ivan Ivanovitch," 127.
Jameson, Mrs., 75.
Jerrold, Douglas, 34.
Jowett, Dr., 118.
_Julius Caesar_ (Shakespeare), 28.
"Juris Doctor Bottinius," 161.
Keats, 15, 16, 19, 137, 142.
Kenyon, Mr., 22, 58, 69-70, 74, 76.
_King Victor and King Charles_, 32.
Kipling, Rudyard, 142.
Kirkup, Seymour, 103.
"Laboratory, The," 47, 143.
Landor, 26, 56, 93, 101-103.
_La Saisiaz_, 127.
_Letters, The Browning_, 63.
"Lines to Edward Fitzgerald," 131.
"Lost Leader, The," 46.
"Lover's Quarrel, A," 50.
Lytton, Lord (novelist), 91.
Macready, 17, 27, 53.
Maeterlinck, 164, 184.
Manning, Cardinal, 91.
Mary Queen of Scots, 29.
"Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha," 147.
"May and Death." 21.
_Men and Women_, 105.
Meredith, George, 156, 165.
Mill, John Stuart, 26, 56.
Monckton-Milnes, 26, 100.
_Mr. Sludge the Medium_, 82, 96, 120, 190-199.
"My Star," 138.
"Nationality in Drinks," 46, 138.
Napoleon, 42, 89.
Napoleon III., 56, 92, 121.
"Never the Time and the Place," 127.
Newman, Cardinal, 193.
"Ode on the Intimations of Immortality" (Wordsworth), 136.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" (Keats), 137.
"Old Masters in Florence," 177.
"One Word More," 65.
Orr, Mrs., 72.
_Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper_, 125, 126, 152.
_Paracelsus_, 22, 25, 26, 41, 47, 158.
"Paracelsus," 24, 25.
Painting, Poems on, 83.
Palgrave, Francis, 117.
_Parleyings with certain Persons of Importance in their Day_, 22, 128, 158.
_Pauline_, 20, 21, 37, 41, 51.
Phelps (actor), 53.
"Pictor Ignotus," 83.
"Pied Piper of Hamelin, The," 153.
"Pippa," 45, 120.
_Pippa Passes_, 18, 45, 47, 51, 137.
Pius IX., Church under, 88.
Plato, 21, 23.
Poe, Edgar Allan, 144.
Poetry, Pessimistic school of, 130.
Pope, 11, 20, 57.
"Portrait, A," 138.
_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, 121-122.
_Princess, The_ (Tennyson), 148.
"Prometheus Unbound" (Shelley), 137.
Prussia, 88, 89.