Robert Browning: How To Know Him by William Lyon Phelps

Produced by C. Aldarondo, T. Vergon, R. Prince and the Distributed Proofreaders ROBERT BROWNING: HOW TO KNOW HIM By WILLIAM LYON PHELPS, M.A., PH.D. Lampton Professor of English Literature at Yale WITH PORTRAIT TO JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY WITH SINCERE AFFECTION AND RESPECT PREFACE In this volume I have attempted to give an account of Browning’s
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Produced by C. Aldarondo, T. Vergon, R. Prince and the Distributed Proofreaders

[Illustration: ROBERT BROWNING]


By WILLIAM LYON PHELPS, M.A., PH.D. Lampton Professor of English Literature at Yale




In this volume I have attempted to give an account of Browning’s life and an estimation of his character: to set forth, with sufficient illustration from his poems, his theory of poetry, his aim and method: to make clear some of the leading ideas in his work: to show his fondness for paradox: to exhibit the nature and basis of his optimism. I have given in complete form over fifty of his poems, each one preceded by my interpretation of its meaning and significance.

W. L. P.

[Illistration: Seven Gables, Lake Huron]




































JAMES LEE’S WIFE (two stanzas from)







































If we enter this world from some other state of existence, it seems certain that in the obscure pre-natal country, the power of free choice–so stormily debated by philosophers and theologians here–does not exist. Millions of earth’s infants are handicapped at the start by having parents who lack health, money, brains, and character; and in many cases the environment is no better than the ancestry. “God plants us where we grow,” said Pompilia, and we can not save the rose by placing it on the tree-top. Robert Browning, who was perhaps the happiest man in the nineteenth century, was particularly fortunate in his advent. Of the entire population of the planet in the year of grace 1812, he could hardly have selected a better father and mother than were chosen for him; and the place of his birth was just what it should have been, the biggest town on earth. All his life long he was emphatically a city man, dwelling in London, Florence, Paris, and Venice, never remaining long in rural surroundings.

Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Southampton Street, Camberwell, London, a suburb on the southern side of the river. One hundred years later, as I traversed the length of this street, it looked squalid in the rain, and is indeed sufficiently unlovely. But in 1812 it was a good residential locality, and not far away were fresh woods and pastures…. The good health of Browning’s father may be inferred from the fact that he lived to be eighty-four, “without a day’s illness;” he was a practical, successful business man, an official in the Bank of England. His love of literature and the arts is proved by the fact that he practised them constantly for the pure joy of the working; he wrote reams and reams of verse, without publishing a line. He had extraordinary facility in composition, being able to write poetry even faster than his son. Rossetti said that he had “a real genius for drawing.” He owned a large and valuable library, filled with curiosities of literature. Robert was brought up among books, even in earliest youth turning over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. His latest biographers have shown the powerful and permanent effects on his poetry of this early reading.

Browning’s father–while not a rich man–had sufficient income to give his son every possible advantage in physical and intellectual training, and to enable him to live without earning a cent; after Robert grew up, he was absolutely free to devote his entire time and energy to writing poetry, which, even to the day of his death, did not yield a livelihood. The young poet was free from care, free from responsibility, and able from childhood to old age to bring out the best that was in him. A curious and exact parallel is found in the case of the great pessimist, Schopenhauer, who never ceased to be grateful to his father for making his whole life-work possible. In his later years, Browning wrote: “It would have been quite unpardonable in any case not to have done my best. My dear father put me in a condition most favourable for the best work I was capable of. When I think of the many authors who had to fight their way through all sorts of difficulties I have no reason to be proud of my achievements.”

Browning’s mother, whom he loved with passionate adoration, was a healthy and sensible woman; better than all these gifts, she was deeply religious, with sincere and unaffected piety. She was a Dissenter, a Congregationalist, and brought up Robert in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, herself a noble example of her teachings. This evangelical training had an incalculably strong influence on the spirit of Browning’s poetry. She loved music ardently, and when Robert was a boy, used to play the piano to him in the twilight. He always said that he got his devotion to music from her.

In these days, when there is such a strong reaction everywhere against the elective system in education, it is interesting to remember that Browning’s education was simply the elective system pushed to its last possibility. It is perhaps safe to say that no learned man in modern times ever had so little of school and college. His education depended absolutely and exclusively on his inclinations; he was encouraged to study anything he wished. His father granted him perfect liberty, never sent him to any “institution of learning,” and allowed him to do exactly as he chose, simply providing competent private instruction in whatever subject the youth expressed any interest. Thus he learned Greek, Latin, the modern languages, music (harmony and counterpoint, as well as piano and organ), chemistry (a private laboratory was fitted up in the house), history and art. Now every one knows that; so far as definite acquisition of knowledge is concerned, our schools and colleges-at least in America–leave much to be desired; our boys and girls study the classics for years without being able to read a page at sight; and the modern languages show a similarly meagre harvest. If one wishes positive and practical results one must employ a private tutor, or work alone in secret. The great advantages of our schools and colleges–except in so far as they inspire intellectual curiosity–are not primarily of a scholarly nature; their strength lies in other directions. The result of Browning’s education was that at the age of twenty he knew more than most college graduates ever know; and his knowledge was at his full command. His favorite reading on the train, for example, was a Greek play; one of the reasons why his poetry sometimes seems so pedantic is simply because he never realised how ignorant most of us really are. I suppose he did not believe that men could pass years in school and university training and know so little. Yet the truth is, that most boys, brought up as Browning was, would be utterly unfitted for the active duties and struggles of life, and indeed for the amenities of social intercourse. With ninety-nine out of a hundred, such an education, so far as it made for either happiness or efficiency, would be a failure. But Browning was the hundredth man. He was profoundly learned without pedantry and without conceit; and he was primarily a social being,

His physical training was not neglected. The boy had expert private instruction in fencing, boxing, and riding. He was at ease on the back of a spirited horse. He was particularly fond of dancing, which later aroused the wonder of Elizabeth Barrett, who found it difficult to imagine the author of _Paracelsus_ dancing the polka.

In 1833 appeared Browning’s first poem, _Pauline_, which had been completed before he was twenty-one years old. His aunt, Mrs. Silverthorne, gave him one hundred and fifty dollars, which paid the expenses of publication. Not a single copy was sold, and the unbound sheets came home to roost. The commercial worth of _Pauline_ was exactly zero; today it is said that only five copies exist. One was sold recently for two thousand four hundred dollars.

In 1834 Browning visited Russia, going by steamer to Rotterdam, and then driving fifteen hundred miles with horses. Although he was in Russia about three months, and at the most sensitive time of life, the country made surprisingly little impression upon him, or at least upon his poetry. The dramatic idyl, _Ivan Ivanovitch_, is practically the only literary result of this journey. It was the south, and not the north, that was to be the inspiration of Browning.

He published his second poem, _Paracelsus_, in 1835. Although this attracted no general attention, and had no sale, it was enthusiastically reviewed by John Forster, who declared that its author was a man of genius. The most fortunate result of its appearance was that it brought Browning within the pale of literary society, and gave him the friendship of some of the leading men in London. The great actor Macready was charmed with the poem, and young Browning haunted Macready’s dressing-room at the theatre for years; but their friendship ceased in 1843 when _A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon_ was acted. Browning wrote four plays for Macready, two of which were accepted.

Although Browning late in life remarked in a casual conversation that he had visited Italy in 1834, he must have been mistaken, for it is impossible to find any record of such a journey. To the best of our knowledge, he first saw the land of his inspiration in 1838, sailing from London on April 13th, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on the twenty-ninth, and reaching Trieste on May 30th. On the first of June he entered Venice. It was on a walking-trip that he first saw the village of Asolo, about thirty miles to the northeast of Venice. Little did he then realise how closely his name would be forever associated with this tiny town. The scenes of _Pippa Passes_ he located there: the last summer of his life, in 1889, was spent in Asolo, his last volume he named in memory of the village; and on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, the street where he lived and wrote in 1889 was formally named Via Roberto Browning. His son, Robert Barrett Browning, lived to see this event, and died at Asolo on July 8, 1912.

The long and obscure poem _Sordello_ was published in 1840; and then for thirty years Browning produced poetry of the highest order: poetry that shows scarcely any obscurity, and that in lyric and dramatic power has given its author a fixed place among the greatest names in English literature.

The story of the marriage and married life of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning is one of the greatest love stories in the world’s history; their love-letters reveal a drama of noble passion that excels in beauty and intensity the universally popular examples of Heloise and Abelard, Aucassin and Nicolette, Paul and Virginia. There was a mysterious bond between them long before the personal acquaintance: each admired the other’s poetry. Miss Barrett had a picture of Browning in her sickroom, and declared that the adverse criticism constantly directed against his verse hurt her like a lash across her own back. In a new volume of poems, she made a complimentary reference to his work, and in January, 1845, he wrote her a letter properly beginning with the two words, “I love.” It was her verses that he loved, and said so. In May he saw her and illustrated his own doctrine by falling in love with her at first sight. She was in her fortieth year, and an invalid; but if any one is surprised at the passion she aroused in the handsome young poet, six years her junior, one has only to read her letters. She was a charming woman, feminine from her soul to her finger-tips, the incarnation of _das Ewigweibliche_. Her intimate friends were mostly what were then known as strong-minded women–I suppose to-day they would seem like timid, shy violets. She was modest, gentle, winsome, irresistible: profoundly learned, with the eager heart of a child.

Wimpole Street in London, “the long, unlovely street,” as Tennyson calls it, is holy ground to the lover of literature: for at Number 67 lived Arthur Henry Hallam, and diagonally opposite, at Number 50, lived Elizabeth Barrett. This street–utterly commonplace in appearance–is forever associated with the names of our two great Victorian poets: and the association with Tennyson is Death: with Browning, Love.

Not only was Elizabeth believed to be a hopeless invalid, but her father had forbidden any of his children to marry. He was a religious man, whose motto in his own household was apparently “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” He had the particular kind of piety that is most offensive to ordinary humanity. He gave his children, for whom he had a stern and savage passion, everything except what they wanted. He had an insane jealousy of any possible lover, and there is no doubt that he would have preferred to attend the funeral of any one of his children rather than a marriage. But Browning’s triumphant love knew no obstacles, and he persuaded Elizabeth Barrett to run away with him. They were married in September, 1846, and shortly after left for Italy. Her father refused to see either of them in subsequent years, and returned his daughter’s letters unopened. Is there any cause in nature for these hard hearts?

Browning’s faith wrought a miracle. Instead of dying on the journey to Italy, Mrs. Browning got well, and the two lived together in unclouded happiness for fifteen years, until 1861, when she died in his arms. Not a scrap of writing passed between them from the day of her marriage to the day of her death: for they were never separated. She said that all a woman needed to be perfectly happy was three things–Life, Love, Italy–and she had all three.

The relations between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning had all the wonder and beauty of a mediaeval romance, with the notable addition of being historically true. The familiar story of a damosel imprisoned in a gloomy dungeon, guarded by a cruel dragon–and then, when all her hope had vanished, rescued by the sudden appearance of the brilliant knight, who carried her away from her dull prison to a land of sunshine and happiness–this became the literal experience of Elizabeth Barrett. Her love for her husband was the passionate love of a woman for a man, glorified by adoration for the champion who had miraculously transformed her life from the depths of despair to the topmost heights of joy. He came, “pouring heaven into this shut house of life.” She expressed the daily surprise of her happiness in her Sonnets, which one day she put shyly into his hands:

I thought once how Theocritus had sung Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years, Who each one in a gracious hand appears To bear a gift for mortals, old or young: And, as I mused it in his antique tongue, I saw, in gradual vision through my tears, The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years, Those of my own life, who by turns had flung A shadow across me. Straightway I was ‘ware, So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair; And a voice said in mastery while I strove, … “Guess now who holds thee?”–“Death!” I said. But, there, The silver answer rang … “Not Death, but Love.”

My own Beloved, who hast lifted me
From this drear flat of earth where I was thrown, And in betwixt the languid ringlets, blown A life-breath, till the forehead hopefully Shines out again, as all the angels see, Before thy saving kiss! My own, my own, Who camest to me when the world was gone, And I who looked for only God, found _thee_! I find thee: I am safe, and strong, and glad. As one who stands in dewless asphodel
Looks backward on the tedious time he had In the upper life … so I, with bosom-swell, Make witness here between the good and bad, That Love, as strong as Death, retrieves as well.

Browning replied to this wonderful tribute by appending to the fifty poems published in 1855 his _One Word More_. He wrote this in a metre different from any he had ever used, for he meant the poem to be unique in his works, a personal expression of his love. He remarked that Rafael wrote sonnets, that Dante painted a picture, each man going outside the sphere of his genius to please the woman he loved, to give her something entirely apart from his gifts to the world. He wished that he could do something other than poetry for his wife, and in the next life he believed that it would be possible. But here God had given him only one gift–verse: he must therefore present her with a specimen of the only art he could command; but it should be utterly unlike all his other poems, for they were dramatic; here just once, and for one woman only, he would step out from behind the scenes, and address her directly in his own person.

Of course Browning could have modelled a statue, or written a piece of music for Elizabeth, for in both of these arts he had attained moderate proficiency: but he wished not only to make a gift just for her, but to give it to her in public, with the whole world regarding; therefore it must be of his best.

He calls her his _moon_ of poets. He reminds her how a few days ago, they had seen the crescent moon in Florence, how they had seen it nightly waxing until it lamped the facade of San Miniato, while the nightingales, in ecstasy among the cypress trees, gave full-throated applause. Then they had travelled together to London, and now saw the same dispirited moon, saving up her silver parsimoniously, sink in gibbous meanness behind the chimney-tops.

The notable thing about the moon is that whereas the earth, during one revolution about the sun, turns on its own axis three hundred and sixty-five times, the shy moon takes exactly the same length of time to turn around as she takes to circle once around the earth. For this reason, earth’s inhabitants have never seen but one side of the moon, and never will. Elizabeth Browning is _his_ moon, because she shows the other side to him alone. The radiant splendor of her poetry fills the whole earth with light; but to her husband she shows the other side, the loving, domestic woman, the unspeakably precious and intimate associate of his daily life. The world thinks it knows her; but it has seen only one side; it knows nothing of the marvellous depth and purity of her real nature.


TO E.B.B. 1855


There they are, my fifty men and women Naming me the fifty poems finished!
Take them, Love, the book and me together: Where the heart lies, let the brain lie also.


Rafael made a century of sonnets,
Made and wrote them in a certain volume Dinted with the silver-pointed pencil
Else he only used to draw Madonnas: These, the world might view–but one, the volume. Who that one, you ask? Your heart instructs you. Did she live and love it all her life-time? Did she drop, his lady of the sonnets,
Die, and let it drop beside her pillow Where it lay in place of Rafael’s glory, Rafael’s cheek so duteous and so loving– Cheek, the world was wont to hail a painter’s, Rafael’s cheek, her love had turned a poet’s?


You and I would rather read that volume, (Taken to his beating bosom by it)
Lean and list the bosom-beats of Rafael, Would we not? than wonder at Madonnas– Her, San Sisto names, and Her, Foligno, Her, that visits Florence in a vision,
Her, that’s left with lilies in the Louvre– Seen by us and all the world in circle.


You and I will never read that volume. Guido Reni, like his own eye’s apple
Guarded long the treasure-book and loved it Guido Reni dying, all Bologna
Cried, and the world cried too, “Ours, the treasure!” Suddenly, as rare things will, it vanished.


Dante once prepared to paint an angel: Whom to please? You whisper “Beatrice.” While he mused and traced it and retraced it, (Peradventure with a pen corroded
Still by drops of that hot ink he dipped for, When, his left-hand i’ the hair o’ the wicked, Back he held the brow and pricked its stigma, Bit into the live man’s flesh for parchment, Loosed him, laughed to see the writing rankle, Let the wretch go festering through Florence)– Dante, who loved well because he hated, Hated wickedness that hinders loving,
Dante standing, studying his angel,– In there broke the folk of his Inferno. Says he–“Certain people of importance” (Such he gave his daily dreadful line to) “Entered and would seize, forsooth, the poet.” Says the poet-“Then I stopped my painting.”


You and I would rather see that angel, Painted by the tenderness of Dante,
Would we not?–than read a fresh Inferno.


You and I will never see that picture. While he mused on love and Beatrice,
While he softened o’er his outlined angel, In they broke, those “people of importance”: We and Bice bear the loss for ever.


What of Rafael’s sonnets, Dante’s picture? This: no artist lives and loves, that longs not Once, and only once, and for one only,
(Ah, the prize!) to find his love a language Fit and fair and simple and sufficient– Using nature that’s an art to others,
Not, this one time, art that’s turned his nature. Ay, of all the artists living, loving,
None but would forego his proper dowry,– Does he paint? he fain would write a poem,– Does he write? he fain would paint a picture, Put to proof art alien to the artist’s, Once, and only once, and for one only,
So to be the man and leave the artist, Gain the man’s joy, miss the artist’s sorrow.


Wherefore? Heaven’s gift takes earth’s abatement! He who smites the rock and spreads the water, Bidding drink and live a crowd beneath him, Even he, the minute makes immortal,
Proves, perchance, but mortal in the minute, Desecrates, belike, the deed in doing.
While he smites, how can he but remember, So he smote before, in such a peril,
When they stood and mocked–“Shall smiting help us?” When they drank and sneered–“A stroke is easy!” When they wiped their mouths and went their journey, Throwing him for thanks–“But drought was pleasant.” Thus old memories mar the actual triumph; Thus the doing savours of disrelish;
Thus achievement lacks a gracious somewhat; O’er-importuned brows becloud the mandate, Carelessness or consciousness–the gesture. For he bears an ancient wrong about him, Sees and knows again those phalanxed faces, Hears, yet one time more, the ‘customed prelude– “How shouldst thou, of all men, smite, and save us?” Guesses what is like to prove the sequel– “Egypt’s flesh-pots–nay, the drought was better.”


Oh, the crowd must have emphatic warrant! Theirs, the Sinai-forehead’s cloven brilliance, Right-arm’s rod-sweep, tongue’s imperial fiat. Never dares the man put off the prophet.


Did he love one face from out the thousands, (Were she Jethro’s daughter, white and wifely, Were she but the AEthiopian bondslave,) He would envy yon dumb patient camel,
Keeping a reserve of scanty water
Meant to save his own life in the desert; Ready in the desert to deliver
(Kneeling down to let his breast be opened) Hoard and life together for his mistress.


I shall never, in the years remaining, Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues, Make you music that should all-express me; So it seems: I stand on my attainment.
This of verse alone, one life allows me; Verse and nothing else have I to give you. Other heights in other lives, God willing: All the gifts from all the heights, your own, Love!


Yet a semblance of resource avails us– Shade so finely touched, love’s sense must seize it. Take these lines, look lovingly and nearly, Lines I write the first time and the last time. He who works in fresco, steals a hair-brush, Curbs the liberal hand, subservient proudly, Cramps his spirit, crowds its all in little, Makes a strange art of an art familiar, Fills his lady’s missal-marge with flowerets. He who blows thro’ bronze, may breathe thro’ silver, Fitly serenade a slumbrous princess.
He who writes, may write for once as I do.


Love, you saw me gather men and women, Live or dead or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service, Speak from every mouth,–the speech, a poem. Hardly shall I tell my joys and sorrows, Hopes and fears, belief and disbelieving: I am mine and yours–the rest be all men’s, Karshish, Cleon, Norbert and the fifty. Let me speak this once in my true person, Not as Lippo, Roland or Andrea,
Though the fruit of speech be just this sentence: Pray you, look on these my men and women, Take and keep my fifty poems finished;
Where my heart lies, let my brain lie also! Poor the speech; be how I speak, for all things.


Not but that you know me! Lo, the moon’s self! Here in London, yonder late in Florence, Still we find her face, the thrice-transfigured. Curving on a sky imbrued with colour,
Drifted over Fiesole by twilight,
Came she, our new crescent of a hair’s-breadth. Full she flared it, lamping Samminiato, Rounder ‘twixt the cypresses and rounder, Perfect till the nightingales applauded. Now, a piece of her old self, impoverished, Hard to greet, she traverses the houseroofs, Hurries with unhandsome thrift of silver, Goes dispiritedly, glad to finish.


What, there’s nothing in the moon noteworthy? Nay: for if that moon could love a mortal, Use, to charm him (so to fit a fancy),
All her magic (’tis the old sweet mythos) She would turn a new side to her mortal, Side unseen of herdsman, huntsman, steersman– Blank to Zoroaster on his terrace,
Blind to Galileo on his turret,
Dumb to Homer, dumb to Keats–him, even! Think, the wonder of the moonstruck mortal– When she turns round, comes again in heaven, Opens out anew for worse or better!
Proves she like some portent of an iceberg Swimming full upon the ship it founders, Hungry with huge teeth of splintered crystals? Proves she as the paved work of a sapphire Seen by Moses when he climbed the mountain? Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu
Climbed and saw the very God, the Highest, Stand upon the paved work of a sapphire. Like the bodied heaven in his clearness Shone the stone, the sapphire of that paved work, When they ate and drank and saw God also!


What were seen? None knows, none ever shall know. Only this is sure–the sight were other, Not the moon’s same side, born late in Florence, Dying now impoverished here in London.
God be thanked, the meanest of his creatures Boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with, One to show a woman when he loves her!


This I say of me, but think of you, Love! This to you–yourself my moon of poets! Ah, but that’s the world’s side, there’s the wonder, Thus they see you, praise you, think they know you! There, in turn I stand with them and praise you– Out of my own self, I dare to phrase it. But the best is when I glide from out them, Cross a step or two of dubious twilight, Come out on the other side, the novel
Silent silver lights and darks undreamed of, Where I hush and bless myself with silence.


Oh, their Rafael of the dear Madonnas, Oh, their Dante of the dread Inferno,
Wrote one song–and in my brain I sing it, Drew one angel–borne, see, on my bosom!

R. B.

The Brownings travelled a good deal: they visited many places in Italy, Venice, Ancona, Fano, Siena, and spent several winters in Rome. The winter of 1851-52 was passed at Paris, where on the third of January Browning wrote one of his most notable poems, _Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came_. One memorable evening at London in 1855 there were gathered together in an upper room Mr. and Mrs. Browning, Mr. and Mrs. Tennyson, Dante and William Rossetti. Tennyson had just published _Maud_ and Browning the two volumes called _Men and Women_. Each poet was invited to read from his new work. Tennyson, with one leg curled under him on the sofa, chanted _Maud_, the tears running down his cheeks; and then Browning read in a conversational manner his characteristic poem, _Fra Lippo Lippi_. Rossetti made a pen-and-ink sketch of the Laureate while he was intoning. On one of the journeys made by the Brownings from London to Paris they were accompanied by Thomas Carlyle, who wrote a vivid and charming account of the transit. The poet was the practical member of the party: the “brave Browning” struggled with the baggage, and the customs, and the train arrangements; while the Scot philosopher smoked infinite tobacco.

The best account of the domestic life of the Brownings at Casa Guidi in Florence was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and published in his _Italian Note-Books_. On a June evening, Mr. and Mrs. Browning, William Cullen Bryant, and Nathaniel Hawthorne ate strawberries and talked spiritualism. Hawthorne and Browning stood on the little balcony overlooking the street, and heard the priests chanting in the church of San Felice, the chant heard only in June, which Browning was to hear again on the night of the June day when he found the old yellow book. Both chant and terrace were to be immortalised in Browning’s epic. Hawthorne said that Browning had an elfin wife and an elf child. “I wonder whether he will ever grow up, whether it is desirable that he should.” Like all visitors at Casa Guidi, the American was impressed by the extraordinary sweetness, gentleness, and charity of Elizabeth Browning, and by the energy, vivacity, and conversational powers of her husband. Hawthorne said he seemed to be in all parts of the room at once.

Mr. Barrett Browning told me in 1904 that he remembered his mother, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as clearly as though he had seen her yesterday. He was eleven years old at the time of her death. He would have it that her ill health had been greatly exaggerated. She was an invalid, but did not give the impression of being one. She was able to do many things, and had considerable power of endurance. One day in Florence she walked from her home out through the Porta Romana, clear up on the heights, and back to Casa Guidi. “That was pretty good, wasn’t it?” said he. She was of course the idol of the household, and everything revolved about her. She was “intensely loved” by all her friends. Her father was a “very peculiar man.” The son’s account of her health differs radically from that written by the mother of E. C. Stedman, who said that Mrs. Browning was kept alive only by opium, which she had to take daily. This writer added, however, that in spite of Mrs. Browning’s wretched health, she had never heard her speak ill of any one, though she talked with her many times.

After the death of his wife, Browning never saw Florence again. He lived in London, and after a few years was constantly seen in society, Tennyson, who hated society, said that Browning would die in a dress suit. His real fame did not begin until the year 1864, with the publication of _Dramatis Personae_. During the first thirty years of his career, from the publication of _Pauline_ in 1833 to the appearance of _Dramatis Personae_, he received always tribute from the few, and neglect, seasoned with ridicule, from the many. _Pauline, Paracelsus, Pippa Passes, A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon, Christmas-Eve, Men and Women_–each of these volumes was greeted enthusiastically by men and women whose own literary fame is permanent. But the world knew him not. How utterly obscure he was may be seen by the fact that so late as 1860, when the publisher’s statement came in for _Men and Women_, it appeared that during the preceding six months not a single copy had been sold! The best was yet to be. _The Dramatis Personae_ was the first of his books to go into a genuine second edition. Then four years later came _The Ring and the Book_, which a contemporary review pronounced to be the “most precious and profound spiritual treasure which England has received since the days of Shakespeare.”

Fame, which had shunned him for thirty years, came to him in extraordinary measure during the last part of his life: another exact parallel between him and the great pessimist Schopenhauer. It was naturally sweet, its sweetness lessened only by the thought that his wife had not lived to see it. Each had always believed in the superiority of the other: and the only cloud in Mrs. Browning’s mind was the (to her) incomprehensible neglect of her husband by the public. At the time of the marriage, it was commonly said that a young literary man had eloped with a great poetess: during their married life, her books went invariably into many editions, while his did not sell at all. And even to the last day of Browning’s earthly existence, her poems far outsold his, to his unspeakable delight. “The demand for my poems is nothing like so large,” he wrote cheerfully, in correcting a contrary opinion that had been printed. Even so late as 1885, I found this passage in an account of Mrs. Browning’s life, published that year, It appears that “she was married in 1846 to Robert Browning, who was also a poet and dramatic writer of some note, though his fame seems to have been almost totally eclipsed by the superior endowments of his gifted wife.” This reminds us of the time when Mr. and Mrs. Schumann were presented to a Scandinavian King: Mrs. Schumann played on the piano, and His Majesty, turning graciously to the silent husband, enquired “Are you also musical?”

The last summer of Browning’s life, the summer of 1889, was passed at Asolo: in the autumn he moved into his beautiful house in Venice, the Palazzo Rezzonico, which had the finest situation of all Venetian residences, built at an angle in the Grand Canal. Although seventy-seven years old, he was apparently as vigorous as ever: no change had taken place in his appearance, manner or habits. One day he caught a bad cold walking on the Lido in a bitter wind; and with his usual vehement energy declined to take any proper care of his throat. Instead of staying in, he set out for long tramps with friends, constantly talking in the raw autumn air. In order to prove to his son that nothing was the matter with him, he ran rapidly up three flights of stairs, the son vainly trying to restrain him. Nothing is more characteristic of the youthful folly of aged folk than their impatient resentment of proffered hygienic advice. When we are children, we reject with scorn the suggestions of our parents; when we are old, we reject with equal scorn the advice of our children. Man is apparently an animal more fit to give advice than to take it. Browning’s impulsive rashness proved fatal. Bronchitis with heart trouble finally sent him to bed, though on the last afternoon of his life he rose and walked about the room. During the last few days he told many good stories and talked with his accustomed eagerness. He died at ten o’clock in the evening of the twelfth of December, 1889, A few moments before his death came a cablegram from London announcing that his last volume of poems had been published that day, and that the evening papers were speaking in high terms of its contents. “That is very gratifying,” said he.

Browning’s life was healthy, comfortable, and happy. With the exception of frequent headaches in his earlier years, he never knew sickness or physical distress. His son said that he had never seen him in bed in the daytime until the last illness. He had a truly wonderful digestion; it was his firm belief that one should eat only what one really enjoyed, desire being the infallible sign that the food was healthful. “My father was a man of _bonne fourchette_” said Barrett Browning to me; “he was not very fond of meat, but liked all kinds of Italian dishes, especially with rich sauces. He always ate freely of rich and delicate things. He could make a whole meal off mayonnaise.” It is pleasant to remember that Emerson, the other great optimist of the century, used to eat pie for breakfast. Unlike Carlyle and Tennyson, who smoked constantly, Browning never used tobacco; he drank wine with his meals, but sparingly, and never more than one kind of wine at a dinner. While physically robust, fond of riding and walking, never using a cab or public conveyance if he could help it, he was like most first-class literary men in caring nothing whatever for competitive sports. He did not learn to swim until late in life; his son taught him at Pornic, in Brittany. He was venturesome for a man well on in years, swimming far out with boyish delight, as he has himself described it in the _Prologue to Fifine at the Fair_.

Browning’s eyes were peculiar, one having a long focus, the other very short. He had the unusual accomplishment (try it and prove) of closing either eye without “squinching,” and without any apparent effort, though sometimes on the street in strong sunshine his face would be a bit distorted. He did all his reading and writing with one eye, closing the long one as he sat down at his desk. He never wore glasses, and was proud of his microscopic eye. He often wrote minutely, to show off his powers. When he left the house to go for a walk, he shut the short eye and opened the long one, with which he could see an immense distance. He never suffered with any pain in his eyes except once, when a boy, he was trying to be a vegetarian in imitation of his youthful idol, Shelley.

Contrary to the oft-repeated statement, Browning was not a really fine pianist. As a very young man, he used to play several instruments, and once he had been able to play all of Beethoven’s sonatas on the piano. In later life he became ambitious to improve his skill with this instrument, and had much trouble, for his fingers were clumsy and stiff. He therefore used to rise at six, and practise finger-exercises for an hour!

He loved first-class music ardently, had a profound knowledge of it, and was a good judge. If the performance was fine, he would express his praise with the utmost enthusiasm; but bad work caused him acute pain. Sometimes at a concert he would put his fingers in his ears, his suffering being apparently uncontrollable.

The salient feature of his character was his boyish vivacity and enthusiasm. If he looked out of the window and saw a friend coming along the street to call, he would often rush out and embrace him. In conversation he was extraordinarily eager and impulsive, with a great flow of talk on an enormous range of subjects. If he liked anything, he spoke of it in the heartiest manner, laughing aloud with delight. He was very generous in his appreciation and praise of other men’s work, being beautifully free from that jealousy which is one of the besetting sins of artists. He always tried to see what was good. Occasionally he was enraged at reading a particularly hostile criticism of himself, but on the whole he stood abuse very well, and had abundant opportunity to exercise the gift of patience. A great admirer of Tennyson’s poetry and of Tennyson’s character–they were dear and intimate friends–he never liked the stock comparison. “Tennyson and I are totally unlike,” he used to say. No letter from one rival to another was ever more beautiful than the letter Browning wrote to Tennyson on the occasion of the Laureate’s eightieth birthday:

“My DEAR TENNYSON–To-morrow is your birthday–indeed, a memorable one. Let me say I associate myself with the universal pride of our country in your glory, and in its hope that for many and many a year we may have your very self among us–secure that your poetry will be a wonder and delight to all those appointed to come after. And for my own part, let me further say, I have loved you dearly. May God bless you and yours.

“At no moment from first to last of my acquaintance with your works, or friendship with yourself, have I had any other feeling, expressed or kept silent, than this which an opportunity allows me to utter–that I am and ever shall be, my dear Tennyson, admiringly and affectionately yours,


What I have said of Browning’s impulsiveness is borne out not only by the universal testimony of those who knew him well, but particularly by a letter of Mrs. Browning to Mrs. Jameson. The manuscript of this letter was bought in London by an American, and went down with the _Titanic_ in 1912. An extract from it appeared in a bookseller’s catalogue–“You must learn Robert–he is made of moods–chequered like a chess-board; and the colour goes for too much–till you learn to treat it as a game.”

No man–little or great–was ever more free from pose. His appearance, in clothes and in hair, was studiously normal. No one in his later years would ever have guessed that he was a poet, either in seeing him on the street, or in meeting him at dinner. He was interested in multitudinous things, but never spoke of poetry–either in general or in his own particular–if he could avoid doing so. The fact that strangers who were presented to him and talked with him did not guess that he was _the_ Mr. Browning, gave rise to numberless humorous situations.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said of his personal character is the truthful statement that he stood in the finest manner two searching tests of manhood–long neglect and sudden popularity, The long years of oblivion, during which he was producing much of his best work, made him neither angry nor sour, though he must have suffered deeply. On the other hand, when his fame reached prodigious proportions, he was neither conceited nor affected. He thoroughly believed in himself, and in his work; and he cared more about it than he did for its reception.

The crushing grief that came to him in the death of his wife he bore with that Christian resignation of which we hear more often than perhaps we see in experience. For Browning was a Christian, not only in faith but in conduct; it was the mainspring of his art and of his life. There are so many writers whose lives show so painful a contrast with the ideal tone of their written work, that it is refreshing and inspiring to be so certain of Browning; to know that the author of the poems which thrill us was as great in character as he was in genius.



With one exception, the economic law of supply and demand governs the production of literature exactly as it determines the price of wheat. For many years the Novel has been the chief channel of literary expression, the dominant literary form: in the days of Queen Elizabeth, the Drama was supreme. During the early part of the eighteenth century, theological poetry enjoyed a great vogue; Pope’s _Essay on Man_ circulated with the rapidity of a modern detective story. Consider the history of the English sonnet. This form of verse was exceedingly popular in 1600, By 1660 it had vanished, and remained obsolete for nearly a hundred years; about the middle of the eighteenth century it was revived by Thomas Edwards and others; in the nineteenth century it became fashionable, and still holds its place, as one may see by opening current magazines. Why is it that writers put their ideas on God, Nature, and Woman in the form of a drama in 1600, and in the form of a novel in 1900? Why is it that an inspired man should make poems of exactly fourteen lines in 1580 and in 1880, and not do it in 1680? If we do not attempt an ultimate metaphysical analysis, the answer is clear. The bookseller supplies the public, the publisher supplies the bookseller, the author supplies the publisher. A bookseller has in his window what the people want, and the publisher furnishes material in response to the same desire; just as a farmer plants in his fields some foodstuffs for which there is a sharp demand. Authors are compelled to write for the market, whether they like it or not, otherwise their work can not appear in print. The reason why the modern novel, with all its shortcomings, is the mirror of ideas on every conceivable topic in religious, educational, economic, and sociological thought, is because the vast majority of writers are at this moment compelled by the market to put their reflections into the form of novels, just as Marlowe and Chapman were forced to write plays. With one exception, the law of supply and demand determines the metrical shape of the poet’s frenzy, and the prose mould of the philosopher’s ideas.

The exception is so rare that it establishes the rule. The exception is Genius–next to radium the scarcest article on earth. And even Genius often follows the market–it takes the prevailing literary fashion, and adapts itself to the form in vogue in a more excellent way. Such genius–the Genius for Adaptation–never has to wait long for recognition, simply because it supplies a keen popular demand. Such a genius was Shakespeare: such a genius was Pope: such a genius was Scott: such a genius was Byron: such a genius was Tennyson. But the true exception to the great economic law is seen in the Man of Original Genius, who cares not at all for the fashion except perhaps to destroy it. This man is outside the law of supply and demand, because he supplies no demand, and there exists no demand for him. He therefore has to create the demand as well as the supply. Such a man in Music was Wagner: such a man in Drama was Ibsen: such a man in Poetry was Browning.

These three men were fortunate in all reaching the age of seventy, for had they died midway in their careers, even after accomplishing much of their best work, they would have died in obscurity. They had to wait long for recognition, because nobody was looking for them, nobody wanted them. There was no demand for Wagner’s music–but there is now, and he made it. There was no demand for plays like those of Ibsen; and there was not the slightest demand for poetry like _Pauline_ and the _Dramatic Lyrics_. The reason why the public does not immediately recognise the greatness of a work of original genius, is because the public at first–if it notices the thing at all–apprehends not its greatness, but its strangeness. It is so unlike the thing the public is seeking, that it seems grotesque or absurd–many indeed declare that it is exactly the opposite of what it professes to be. Thus, many insisted that Ibsen’s so-called dramas were not really plays: they were merely conversations on serious and unpleasant themes. In like manner, the critics said that Wagner, whatever he composed, did not compose music; for instead of making melodies, he made harsh and discordant sounds. For eighty years, many men of learning and culture have been loudly proclaiming that Browning, whatever he was, was not a poet; he was ingenious, he was thoughtful, a philosopher, if you like, but surely no poet. When _The Ring and the Book_ was published, a thoroughly respectable British critic wrote, “Music does not exist for him any more than for the deaf.” On the other hand, the accomplished poet, musician, and critic, Sidney Lanier, remarked:

“Have you seen Browning’s _The Ring and the Book_? I am confident that at the birth of this man, among all the good fairies who showered him with magnificent endowments, one bad one–as in the old tale–crept in by stealth and gave him a constitutional twist i’ the neck, whereby his windpipe became, and has ever since remained, a marvellous tortuous passage. Out of this glottis-labyrinth his words won’t, and can’t, come straight. A hitch and a sharp crook in every sentence bring you up with a shock. But what a shock it is! Did you ever see a picture of a lasso, in the act of being flung? In a thousand coils and turns, inextricably crooked and involved and whirled, yet, if you mark the noose at the end, you see that it is directly in front of the bison’s head, there, and is bound to catch him! That is the way Robert Browning catches you. The first sixty or seventy pages of _The Ring and the Book_ are altogether the most doleful reading, in point either of idea or of music, in the English language; and yet the monologue of Giuseppe Caponsacchi, that of Pompilia Comparini, and the two of Guido Franceschini, are unapproachable, in their kind, by any living or dead poet, _me judice_. Here Browning’s jerkiness comes in with inevitable effect. You get lightning glimpses–and, as one naturally expects from lightning, zigzag glimpses–into the intense night of the passion of these souls. It is entirely wonderful and without precedent.” [1]

One of the most admirable things about Browning’s admirable career as poet and man is that he wrote not to please the critics, as Tennyson often did, not to please the crowd, as the vast horde of ephemeral writers do, but to please himself. The critics and the crowd professed that they could not understand him; but he had no difficulty in understanding them. He knew exactly what they wanted, and declined to supply it. Instead of giving them what he thought they wanted, he gave them what he thought they needed. That illustrates the difference between the literary caterer and the literary master. Some poets, critics, dramatists, and novelists are born to be followers of the public taste; they have their reward. Only a few, and one at a time, are leaders. This is entirely as it should be, for, with followers, the more the merrier; with leaders it is quite otherwise.

In the case of a man of original genius, the first evidence of approaching fame is seen in the dust raised by contempt, scorn, ridicule, and various forms of angry resistance from those who will ultimately be converts. People resist him as they resist the Gospel. He comes unto his own, and his own receive him not. The so-called reading public have the stupid cruelty of schoolboys, who will not tolerate on the part of any newcomer the slightest divergence in dress, manners, or conversation from the established standard. Conformity is king; for schoolboys are the most conservative mass of inertia that can be found anywhere on earth. And they are thorough masters of ridicule–the most powerful weapon known to humanity. But as in schoolboy circles the ostracising laughter is sometimes a sign that a really original boy has made his appearance, so the unthinking opposition of the conventional army of readers is occasionally a proof that the new man has made a powerful impression which can not be shaken off.

[Footnote 1: Life of Sidney Lanier, by Professor Edwin Mims.]

This is what Browning did with his “lasso” style. It was suitably adapted to his purposes, and the public behaved somewhat like the buffalo. They writhed, kicked, struggled, plunged, and the greater the uproar, the more evident it was that they were caught. Shortly before his death, Professor F.J. Child, a scholar of international fame, told me angrily that Wagner was no musician at all; that he was a colossal fraud; that the growing enthusiasm for him was mere affectation, which would soon pass away. He spoke with extraordinary passion. I wondered at his rage, but I understand it now. It was the rage of a king against the incoming and inexorable tide.

Nothing is more singular to contemplate than the variations in form of what the public calls melody, both in notation and in language. What delights the ears of one generation distresses or wearies the ears of another. Elizabethan audiences listened with rapture to long harangues in bombastic blank verse: a modern audience can not endure this. The senses of Queen Anne Englishmen were charmed by what they called the melody of Pope’s verse–by its even regularity and steady flow. To us Pope’s verse is full of wit and cerebration, but we find the measure intolerably monotonous. Indeed, by a curious irony of fate, Pope, who regarded himself as a supreme poet, has since frequently been declared to be no poet at all. Keats wrote _Endymion_ in the heroic couplet–the very measure employed by Pope. But his use of it was so different that this poem would have seemed utterly lacking in melody to Augustan ears–Pope would have attempted to “versify” it. And yet we enjoy it. It seems ridiculous to say that the man who wrote _Der fliegende Hollaender and Tannhaeuser_ could not write melody, and yet it was almost universally said. It seems strange that critics should have declared that the man who wrote _Love Among the Ruins_ could not write rhythmical verse, yet such was once almost the general opinion. Still, the rebellious instinct of the public that condemned Wagner in music and Browning in poetry was founded on something genuine; for Wagner was unlike other musicians, and Browning was unlike other poets.

_Fraser’s Magazine_, for December, 1833, contained a review of Browning’s first poem, _Pauline_, which had been published that year. The critic decided that the new poet was mad: “you being, beyond all question, as mad as Cassandra, without any of the power to prophesy like her, or to construct a connected sentence like anybody else. We have already had a Monomaniac; and we designate you ‘The Mad Poet of the Batch;’ as being mad not in one direction only, but in all. A little lunacy, like a little knowledge, would be a dangerous thing.”

Yet it was in this despised and rejected poem that a great, original genius in English poetry was first revealed. It is impossible to understand Browning or even to read him intelligently without firmly fixing in the mind his theory of poetry, and comprehending fully his ideal and his aim. All this he set forth clearly in _Pauline_, and though he was only twenty years old when he wrote it, he never wavered from his primary purpose as expressed in two lines of the poem, two lines that should never be forgotten by those who really wish to enjoy the study of Browning:

And then thou said’st a perfect bard was one Who chronicled the stages of all life.

What is most remarkable about this definition of poetry is what it omits. The average man regards poetry as being primarily concerned with the creation of beauty. Not a word is said about beauty in Browning’s theory. The average man regards poetry as being necessarily melodious, rhythmical, tuneful, above all, pleasing to the senses; but Browning makes no allusion here to rime or rhythm, nor to melody or music of any sort. To him the bard is a Reporter of Life, an accurate Historian of the Soul, one who observes human nature in its various manifestations, and gives a faithful record. Sound, rhythm, beauty are important, because they are a part of life; and they are to be found in Browning’s works like wild flowers in a field; but they are not in themselves the main things. The main thing is human life in its totality. Exactly in proportion to the poet’s power of portraying life, is the poet great; if he correctly describes a wide range of life, he is greater than if he has succeeded only in a narrow stretch; and the Perfect Bard would be the one who had chronicled the stages of all life. Shakespeare is the supreme poet because he has approached nearer to this ideal than any one else–he has actually chronicled most phases of humanity, and has truthfully painted a wide variety of character. Browning therefore says of him in _Christmas-Eve_–

As I declare our Poet, him
Whose insight makes all others dim: A thousand poets pried at life,
And only one amid the strife
Rose to be Shakespeare.

Browning’s poetry, as he elsewhere expresses it, was always dramatic in principle, always an attempt to interpret human life. With that large number of highly respectable and useful persons who do not care whether they understand him or not, I have here no concern: but to those who really wish to learn his secret, I insist that his main intention must ever be kept in mind. Much of his so-called obscurity, harshness, and uncouthness falls immediately into its proper place, is indeed necessary. The proof of his true greatness not as a philosopher, thinker, psychologist, but as a poet, lies in the simple fact that when the subject-matter he handles is beautiful or sublime, his style is usually adequate to the situation. Browning had no difficulty in writing melodiously when he placed the posy in the Ring,

O lyric Love, half angel and half bird And all a wonder and a wild desire,

although just a moment before, when he was joking about his lack of readers, he was anything but musical. _The Ring and the Book_ is full of exquisite beauty, amazing felicity of expression, fluent rhythm and melody; full also of crudities, jolts, harshness, pedantry, wretched witticisms, and coarseness. Why these contrasts? Because it is a study of human testimony. The lawyers in this work speak no radiant or spiritual poetry; they talk like tiresome, conceited pedants because they were tiresome, conceited pedants; Pompilia’s dying speech of adoring passion for Caponsacchi is sublime music, because she was a spiritual woman in a glow of exaltation. Guido speaks at first with calm, smiling irony, and later rages like a wild beast caught in a spring-trap; in both cases the verse fits his mood. If Pompilia’s tribute to Caponsacchi had been expressed in language as dull and flat as the pleas of the lawyers, then we should be quite sure that Browning, whatever he was, was no poet. For it would indicate that he could not create the right diction for the right situation and character. Now, his picture of the triple light of sunset in _The Last Ride Together_ is almost intolerably beautiful, because such a scene fairly overwhelms the senses. I hear the common and unintelligent comment, “Ah, if he had only always written like that!” He would have done so, if he had been interested in only the beautiful aspects of this world. “How could the man who wrote such lovely music as that have also written such harsh stuff as _Mr. Sludge, the Medium_”? The answer is that in the former he was chronicling a stage of life that in its very essence was beauty: in the latter, something exactly the opposite. Life has its trivialities and its ugliness, as well as its sublime aspirations. In Browning’s poetry, whenever the thought rises, the style automatically rises with it,

Compare the diction of _Holy Cross Day_ with that in _Love Among the Ruins_. Cleon is an old Greek poet, and he speaks noble, serene verse: Bishop Blougram is a subtle dialectician, a formidable antagonist in a joint debate, and he has the appropriate manner and language. Would you have him talk like the lover in _Evelyn Hope_?

Browning was a great artist, and the grotesque is an organic part of his structures. To find fault with the grotesque excrescences in Browning’s poetry is exactly like condemning a cathedral because it has gargoyles. How could the architect that dreamed those wonderful columns and arches have made those hideous gargoyles? Did he flatter himself they were beautiful? When _Macbeth_ was translated into German, the translator was aghast at the coarse language of the drunken porter. How could the great Shakespeare, who had proved so often his capacity as an artist, have made such an appalling blunder? So the translator struck out the offensive words, and made the porter sing a sweet hymn to the dawn.

The theory of poetry originally stated in _Pauline_ Browning not only endeavored to exemplify in his work; he often distinctly repeated it. In _The Glove_, all the courtiers, hide-bound by conventional ideas, unite in derisive insults howled at the lady. She goes out ‘mid hooting and laughter. Only two men follow her: one, because he loves her; the other, for purely professional reasons. To-day, he would of course be a society reporter. “I beg your pardon, Madam, but would you kindly grant me an interview? I represent the _New York Flash_, and we shall be glad to present your side of this story in our next Sunday issue.” With equal professional zeal, Peter Ronsard is keenly interested in discovering the motives that underlay the lady’s action. He simply must know, and in defense of his importunity, he presents his credentials. He is a poet, and therefore the strange scene that has just been enacted comes within his special domain.

I followed after,
And asked, as a grace, what it all meant? If she wished not the rash deed’s recallment? “For I”–so I spoke–“am a poet:
Human nature,–behoves that I know it!”

In _Transcendentalism_, a poem which is commonly misunderstood, Browning informs us that the true poet must deal, not with abstract thought, but with concrete things. A young poet informs an elder colleague that he has just launched a huge philosophical poem, called _Transcendentalism: a Poem in Twelve Books_. His wiser critic tells him that he is on the wrong track altogether; what he has written is prose, not poetry. Poetry is not a discussion of abstract ideas, but the creation of individual things. Transcendentalism is not a fit subject for poetry, because it deals with metaphysical thought, instead of discussing men and women. To illustrate his point, he makes a comparison between botany and roses. Which is the more interesting, to read a heavy treatise on botany, or to behold roses? A few pedants may like botany better, but ordinary humanity is quite right in preferring flowers. Browning indicates that the poet should not compose abstract treatises, but should create individual works of art, like the stout Mage of Halberstadt,

John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about. He with a “look you!” vents a brace of rhymes, And in there breaks the sudden rose herself, Over us, under, round us every side,
Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs And musty volumes, Boehme’s book and all,– Buries us with a glory, young once more, Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.

Many have failed to understand this poem, because they think that Browning himself is constantly guilty of the sin specifically condemned here. Browning has indeed often been called a thinker, a philosopher: but a moment’s serious reflection will prove that of all English poetry outside of the drama, Browning’s is the least abstract and the most concrete. Poetry is not condemned because it arouses thought, but only when it is abstract in method. Browning often deals with profound ideas, but always by concrete illustrations. For example, he discusses the doctrine of predestination by giving us the individual figure of Johannes-Agricola in meditation: the royalist point of view in the seventeenth century by cavaliers singing three songs: the damnation of indecision by two Laodicaean lovers in _The Statue and the Bust_. When Browning is interested in any doctrine, idea, or system of thought, he creates a person to illustrate it.

Browning’s theory of poetry is further reenforced by his poem _How It Strikes a Contemporary_, which, in the final rearrangement of his works, he placed directly after _Transcendentalism_, as though to drive his doctrine home. Here is a picture of a real poet. Where does he live, whence does he get his sources of inspiration, and how does he pass his time? The poem answers these questions in a most instructive manner, if only we keep in mind the original definition given in _Pauline_. It is conventionally believed that the country is more poetic than the city: that an ideal residence for a poet would be in lonely, lovely, romantic scenery; and that in splendid solitude and isolation he should clothe his thoughts in forms of beauty. Now Browning’s own life and methods of work were in exact contrast to these popular ideas; because his theory of poetry requires the poet to live in the very midst of human activities, and to draw his inspiration not from a mountain or the stars, but from all sorts and conditions of men. Thus, in the poem, _How It Strikes a Contemporary_, the poet lives in a noisy city, spends his time walking the streets, and instead of being lost in a trance, he is intensely aware of everything that happens in the town. The poet is an observer, not a dreamer. Indeed, the citizens think this old poet is a royal spy, because he notices people and events with such sharp attention. Browning would seem to say that the mistake is a quite natural one; the poet ought to act like a spy, for, if he be a true poet, he is a spy–a spy on human life. He takes upon himself the mystery of things, as if he were God’s spy.

He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane, Scenting the world, looking it full in face…. He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye, And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string, And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall. He took such cognizance of men and things, If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note.

This is an exact description of the way Robert Browning walked the streets of Florence. Only a few years after this poem was printed, he was glancing o’er the books on stalls in the square of San Lorenzo, and found the old yellow volume which he turned into an epic of humanity. The true poet “scents” the world, smells it out, as a dog locates game. A still stronger expression is used in _Christmas-Eve_, where the poets “pried” at life, turned up its surface in order to disclose all its hidden treasures of meaning.



Stop playing, poet! May a brother speak? ‘Tis you speak, that’s your error. Song’s our art: Whereas you please to speak these naked thoughts Instead of draping them in sights and sounds. –True thoughts, good thoughts, thoughts fit to treasure up! But why such long prolusion and display, Such turning and adjustment of the harp, And taking it upon your breast, at length, Only to speak dry words across its strings? Stark-naked thought is in request enough: Speak prose and hollo it till Europe hears! The six-foot Swiss tube, braced about with bark, Which helps the hunter’s voice from Alp to Alp– Exchange our harp for that,–who hinders you?

But here’s your fault; grown men want thought, you think; Thought’s what they mean by verse, and seek in verse. Boys seek for images and melody,
Men must have reason–so, you aim at men. Quite otherwise! Objects throng our youth, ’tis true; We see and hear and do not wonder much: If you could tell us what they mean, indeed! As German Boehme never cared for plants Until it happed, a-walking in the fields, He noticed all at once that plants could speak, Nay, turned with loosened tongue to talk with him. That day the daisy had an eye indeed–
Colloquized with the cowslip on such themes! We find them extant yet in Jacob’s prose. But by the time youth slips a stage or two While reading prose in that tough book he wrote (Collating and emendating the same
And settling on the sense most to our mind), We shut the clasps and find life’s summer past. Then, who helps more, pray, to repair our loss– Another Boehme with a tougher book
And subtler meanings of what roses say,– Or some stout Mage like him of Halberstadt, John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about? He with a “look you!” vents a brace of rhymes, And in there breaks the sudden rose herself, Over us, under, round us every side,
Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs And musty volumes, Boehme’s book and all,– Buries us with a glory, young once more, Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.

So come, the harp back to your heart again! You are a poem, though your poem’s naught. The best of all you showed before, believe, Was your own boy-face o’er the finer chords Bent, following the cherub at the top
That points to God with his paired half-moon wings.



I only knew one poet in my life:
And this, or something like it, was his way.

You saw go up and down Valladolid,
A man of mark, to know next time you saw. His very serviceable suit of black
Was courtly once and conscientious still, And many might have worn it, though none did: The cloak, that somewhat shone and showed the threads, Had purpose, and the ruff, significance. He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane, Scenting the world, looking it full in face, An old dog, bald and blindish, at his heels. They turned up, now, the alley by the church, That leads nowhither; now, they breathed themselves On the main promenade just at the wrong time: You’d come upon his scrutinizing hat,
Making a peaked shade blacker than itself Against the single window spared some house Intact yet with its mouldered Moorish work,– Or else surprise the ferrel of his stick Trying the mortar’s temper ‘tween the chinks Of some new shop a-building, French and fine. He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade, The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys That volunteer to help him turn its winch. He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye, And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string, And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall. He took such cognizance of men and things, If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note; Yet stared at nobody,–you stared at him, And found, less to your pleasure than surprise, He seemed to know you and expect as much. So, next time that a neighbour’s tongue was loosed, It marked the shameful and notorious fact, We had among us, not so much a spy,
As a recording chief-inquisitor,
The town’s true master if the town but knew! We merely kept a governor for form,
While this man walked about and took account Of all thought, said and acted, then went home, And wrote it fully to our Lord the King Who has an itch to know things, he knows why, And reads them in his bedroom of a night. Oh, you might smile! there wanted not a touch, A tang of … well, it was not wholly ease As back into your mind the man’s look came. Stricken in years a little,–such a brow His eyes had to live under!–clear as flint On either side the formidable nose
Curved, cut and coloured like an eagle’s claw. Had he to do with A.’s surprising fate? When altogether old B. disappeared
And young C. got his mistress,–was’t our friend, His letter to the King, that did it all? What paid the bloodless man for so much pains? Our Lord the King has favourites manifold, And shifts his ministry some once a month; Our city gets new governors at whiles,– But never word or sign, that I could hear, Notified to this man about the streets
The King’s approval of those letters conned The last thing duly at the dead of night. Did the man love his office? Frowned our Lord, Exhorting when none heard–“Beseech me not! Too far above my people,–beneath me!
I set the watch,–how should the people know? Forget them, keep me all the more in mind!” Was some such understanding ‘twixt the two?

I found no truth in one report at least– That if you tracked him to his home, down lanes Beyond the Jewry, and as clean to pace, You found he ate his supper in a room
Blazing with lights, four Titians on the wall, And twenty naked girls to change his plate! Poor man, he lived another kind of life In that new stuccoed third house by the bridge, Fresh-painted, rather smart than otherwise! The whole street might o’erlook him as he sat, Leg crossing leg, one foot on the dog’s back, Playing a decent cribbage with his maid (Jacynth, you’re sure her name was) o’er the cheese And fruit, three red halves of starved winter-pears, Or treat of radishes in April. Nine,
Ten, struck the church clock, straight to bed went he.

My father, like the man of sense he was, Would point him out to me a dozen times; “‘St–‘St,” he’d whisper, “the Corregidor!” I had been used to think that personage Was one with lacquered breeches, lustrous belt, And feathers like a forest in his hat,
Who blew a trumpet and proclaimed the news, Announced the bull-fights, gave each church its turn, And memorized the miracle in vogue!
He had a great observance from us boys; We were in error; that was not the man.

I’d like now, yet had haply been afraid, To have just looked, when this man came to die, And seen who lined the clean gay garret-sides And stood about the neat low truckle-bed, With the heavenly manner of relieving guard. Here had been, mark, the general-in-chief, Thro’ a whole campaign of the world’s life and death, Doing the King’s work all the dim day long, In his old coat and up to knees in mud, Smoked like a herring, dining on a crust,– And, now the day was won, relieved at once! No further show or need for that old coat, You are sure, for one thing! Bless us, all the while How sprucely we are dressed out, you and I! A second, and the angels alter that.
Well, I could never write a verse,–could you? Let’s to the Prado and make the most of time.

In common with all English poets–there is no exception–Browning loved nature. But he loved human nature so much more that when he contemplates natural objects he thinks of them _in terms of humanity_. This is exactly contrary to the conventional method. Most poets and novelists describe human faces in terms of outdoor nature: the heroine has “stormy eyes,” “rainy eyes,” her face is swept by “gusts of passion,” and so on, _ad infinitum_. I do not say that Browning’s is the better way; I say it is his way, because he was obsessed by humanity. To take instances only from his first poem:

Thou wilt remember one warm morn when winter Crept aged from the earth, and spring’s first breath Blew soft from the moist hills; the blackthorn boughs, So dark in the bare wood, when glistening In the sunshine were white with coming buds, Like the bright side of a sorrow, and the banks Had violets opening from sleep like eyes.

Autumn has come like Spring returned to us Won from her girlishness.

… the trees bend
O’er it as wild men watch a sleeping girl.

So, when Spring comes
With sunshine back again like an old smile.

I am to sing whilst ebbing day dies soft, As a lean scholar dies worn o’er his book, And in the heaven stars steal out one by one As hunted men steal to their mountain watch.

Browning’s love for the dramatic was so intense that he carried it into every kind of poetry that he wrote. Various classes of his works he called _Dramas, Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances, Dramatic Idyls, Dramatis Personae_. In one of her prefaces, Elizabeth Barrett had employed–for the first time in English literature, I think–the term _Dramatic Lyric_. This naturally appealed to Browning, and he gave the title in 1842 to his first published collection of short poems. At first blush “dramatic lyric” sounds like a contradiction in terms, like “non-mathematical algebra.” Drama is the most objective branch of poetry, and the lyric the most subjective: but Browning was so intent upon the chronicling of all stages of life that he carried the methods of the drama into the lyric form, of which _Meeting at Night_ may serve as an excellent example. Many of his short poems have the lyrical beauty of Shelley and Heine; but they all represent the soul of some historical or imaginary person.

At the very end of _The Ring and the Book_, Browning declared that human testimony was false, a statement that will be supported by any lawyer or judge of much court experience. Human testimony being worthless, there remains but one way for the poet to tell the truth about humanity, and that is through his art. The poet should use his skill not primarily with the idea of creating something beautiful, but with the main purpose of expressing the actual truth concerning human life and character. The highest art is the highest veracity, and this conforms to Browning’s theory of poetry. This was his ideal, and by adhering to this he hoped to save his soul. Browning believed that by living up to our best capacity we attained unto salvation. The man who hid his talent in the earth was really a lost soul. Like many truly great artists, Browning felt deeply the responsibility of his splendid endowment. In one of his letters to Miss Barrett, he said, “I must write poetry and save my soul.” In the last lines of _The Ring and the Book_ we find this thought repeated:

So, British public, who may like me yet, (Marry and amen!) learn one lesson hence Of many which whatever lives should teach: This lesson, that our human speech is naught, Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind. Why take the artistic way to prove so much? Because, it is the glory and good of Art, That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to minds like mine at least…. But Art,–wherein man nowise speaks to men, Only to mankind,–Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought, Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word. So may you paint your picture, twice show truth, Beyond mere imagery on the wall,–
So, note by note, bring music from your mind, Deeper than ever e’en Beethoven dived,– So write a book shall mean beyond the facts, Suffice the eye and save the soul beside. And save the soul!

From first to last Browning understood the prevailing criticism of his poetry, directed against its so-called lack of musical rhythm. He commented on it more than once. But he answered it always in the same way, in _Pippa Passes_, in the last stanzas of _Pacchiarotto_, and in the _Epilogue_ to the same volume. He insisted that what the critics meant by melody was a childish jingle of rimes like Mother Goose. Referring to _Sordello_, he makes the Second Student in _Pippa Passes_ remark, “Instead of cramp couplets, each like a knife in your entrails, he should write, says Bluphocks, both classically and intelligibly…. One strip Cools your lip…. One bottle Clears your throttle.” In _Pacchiarotto_, he calls to critics:

And, what with your rattling and tinkling, Who knows but you give me an inkling
How music sounds, thanks to the jangle Of regular drum and triangle?
Whereby, tap-tap, chink-chink, ’tis proven I break rule as bad as Beethoven.
“That chord now–a groan or a grunt is’t? Schumann’s self was no worse contrapuntist. No ear! or if ear, so tough-gristled–
He thought that he sung while he whistled!”

Browning felt that there was at times a certain virtue in mere roughness: that there were ideas, which, if expressed in harsh phrase, would make a deeper impression, and so be longer remembered. The opening stanza of _The Twins_ was meant to emphasise this point:

Grand rough old Martin Luther
Bloomed fables–flowers on furze,
The better the uncouther:
Do roses stick like burrs?

Such a theory may help to explain the powerful line in _Rabbi Ben Ezra_:

Irks care the cropfull bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?

Of course Browning’s theory of poetry does not justify or explain all the unmusical passages in his works. He felt, as every poet must, the difficulty of articulation–the disparity between his ideas and the verbal form he was able to give them. Browning had his trials in composition, and he placed in the mouth of the Pope his own ardent hope that in the next world there will be some means of communication better than language:

Expect nor question nor reply
At what we figure as God’s judgment bar! None of this vile way by the barren words Which, more than any deed, characterise Man as made subject to a curse: no speech.

Over and over again, however, Browning declared that poetry should not be all sweetness. Flowers growing naturally here and there in a pasture are much more attractive than cut and gathered into a nosegay. As Luther’s long disquisitions are adorned with pretty fables, that bloom like flowers on furze, so, in the _Epilogue to Pacchiarotto_, Browning insisted that the wide fields of his verse are not without cowslips:

And, friends, beyond dispute
I too have the cowslips dewy and dear. Punctual as Springtide forth peep they: But I ought to pluck and impound them, eh? Not let them alone, but deftly shear
And shred and reduce to–what may suit Children, beyond dispute?

Now, there are many law-abiding and transparently honest persons who prefer anthologies to “works,” who love to read tiny volumes prettily bound, called “Beauties of Ruskin,” and who have substituted for the out-of-fashion “Daily Food” books, painted bits of cardboard with sweet sayings culled from popular idols of the day, with which they embellish the walls of their offices and bedrooms, in the hope that they may hoist themselves into a more hallowed frame of mind. This is the class–always with us, though more prosperous than the poor–who prefer a cut bouquet to the natural flowers in wood and meadow, and for whose comfort and convenience Browning declined to work. His poetry is too stiff for these readers, partly because they start with a preconceived notion of the function of poetry. Instead of being charmed, their first sensation is a shock. They honestly believe that the attitude of the mind in apprehending poetry should be passive, not active: is not the poet a public entertainer? Did we not buy the book with the expectation of receiving immediate pleasure? The anticipated delight of many persons when they open a volume of poems is almost physical, as it is when they settle themselves to hear certain kinds of music. They feel presumably as a comfortable cat does when her fur is fittingly stroked. The torture that many listeners suffered when they heard Wagner for the first time was not imaginary, it was real; “Oh, if somebody would only play a tune!” Yet Wagner converted thousands of these quondam sufferers, and conquered them without making any compromises. He simply enlarged their conception of what opera-music might mean. He gave them new sources of happiness without robbing them of the old. For my part, although I prefer Wagner’s to all other operas, I keenly enjoy Mozart’s _Don Giovanni_, Charpentier’s _Louise_, Gounod’s _Faust_, Strauss’s _Salome_, Verdi’s _Aida_, and I never miss an opportunity to hear Gilbert and Sullivan. Almost all famous operas have something good in them except the works of Meyerbeer.

We all have moods when the mind wishes to be lulled, soothed, charmed, hypnotised with agreeable melody, and in English literature we fortunately have many great poets who can perform this service.

That strain again! it had a dying fall.

Tennyson was a veritable magician, who charmed with his genius hundreds and thousands of people. No arduous mental effort is necessary for the enjoyment of his verse, which is one reason why he is and will remain a popular poet. Browning can not be taken in just that way, any more than a man completely exhausted with the day’s work can enjoy _Siegfried_ or _Hedda Gabler_. Active, constant cerebration on the part of the listener or the reader is essential. This excludes at once a considerable number to whom the effort of real thinking is as strange as it is oppressive. Browning is a stimulus, not a sedative; his poetry is like an electric current which naturally fails to affect those who are non-conductors of poetry. As one of my undergraduate students tersely expressed it, “Tennyson soothes our senses: Browning stimulates our thoughts.” Poetry is in some ways like medicine. Tennyson quiets the nerves: Browning is a tonic: some have found Thomson’s _Seasons_ invaluable for insomnia: the poetry of Swift is an excellent emetic.

I do not quite understand the intense anger of many critics and readers over the eternal question of Browning’s obscurity. They have been harping on this theme for eighty years and show no more sign of exhaustion than a dog barking in the night. Why do the heathen rage? Why do they not let Browning alone, and read somebody they can understand? Browning is still gravely rebuked by many critics for having written _Sordello_. Over and over again we have been informed that the publication of this poem shattered his reputation for twenty-five years. Well, what of it? what difference does it make now? He seems to have successfully survived it. This huge work, which William Sharp called “that colossal derelict upon the ocean of poetry,” is destined to have an immortality all its own. From one point of view, we ought to be grateful for its publication. It has aroused inextinguishable laughter among the blessed gods. It is not witty in itself, but it is the cause of wit in many. Douglas Jerrold and Carlyle commented delightfully on it; even Tennyson succeeded for once in saying something funny. One critic called it a fine house in which the architect had forgotten to put any stairs. Another called it a huge boil in which all the impurities in Browning’s system came to an impressive head, after which the patient, pure from poison, succeeded in writing the clear and beautiful _Pippa Passes_. Besides innumerable parodies that have been forgotten, Browning’s obscurity was the impenetrable flint that struck two mental flashes that belong to literature, Calverley’s _Cock and the Bull_, and Swinburne’s _John Jones_, a brilliant exposition of the perversities in that tedious poem, _James Lee’s Wife_. Not long ago, a young man sat by the lamplight, studying a thick volume with evident discomfort. To the friend who asked what he was doing, he replied, “I’m studying Browning.”

“Why, no, you idiot, that isn’t Browning: you are reading the index of first lines to the works of Wordsworth.”

“By Jove! you’re right! But it sounds just like Browning.”

Browning’s place in English literature is not with the great verse-sculptors, not with the masters of imperishable beauty of form; he does not belong to the glorious company where reign supreme Milton, Keats, and Tennyson; his place is rather with the Interpreters of Life, with the poets who use their art to express the shine and shade of life’s tragicomedy–to whom the base, the trivial, the frivolous, the grotesque, the absurd seem worth reporting along with the pure, the noble, and the sublime, since all these elements are alike human. In this wide field of art, with the exception of Shakespeare, who is the exception to everything, the first-born and the last-born of all the great English poets know no equal in the five centuries that rolled between them. The first person to say this publicly was himself a poet and a devoted student of Form–Walter Savage Landor. When he said it, people thought it was mere hyperbole, the stressed language of compliment; but we know now that Landor’s words are as true as they are beautiful:

Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world’s, Therefore on him no speech! and brief for thee, Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale, No man hath walk’d along our roads with step So active, so enquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse.

Many critics who are now dead, and some that are yet alive, have predicted the speedy death of Browning’s reputation. This prediction seems to afford a certain class of critics a calm and holy joy. Some years ago, Mr. James Douglas, of London, solemnly announced the approaching demise. Browning will die, said he, even as Donne is dead, and for the same reason. But Donne is not quite dead.

I must survive a thing ere know it dead.

I think Donne will survive all our contemporary criticisms about him. Ben Jonson said that Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging. But Donne, though he forgot to keep step with the procession of poets, has survived many poets who tripped a regular measure. He has survived even Pope’s “versification” of his poems, one of the most unconsciously humorous things in English literature. Accent alone will not keep a man alive. Which poet of these latter days stands the better chance to remain, Francis Thompson, whose spiritual flame occasionally burned up accent, or Alfred Austin, who studied to preserve accent through a long life? Accent is indeed important; but raiment is of little value unless it clothes a living body. Does Browning’s best poetry smell of mortality? Nearly every new novel I read in English has quotations from Browning without the marks, sure evidence that the author has read him and assumes that the readers of the novel have a like acquaintance. When Maeterlinck wrote his famous play, _Monna Vanna_, he took one of the scenes directly from Browning’s _Luria_: he said that he had been inspired by Browning: that Browning is one of the greatest poets that England has ever produced: that to take a scene from him is a kind of public homage, such as we pay to Homer, Aeschylus, and Shakespeare.

With the exception of Shakespeare, any other English poet could now be spared more easily than Browning. For, owing to his aim in poetry, and his success in attaining it, he gave us much vital truth and beauty that we should seek elsewhere in vain; and, as he said in the _Epilogue_ to _Pacchiarotio_, the strong, heady wine of his verse may become sweet in process of time.



A pure lyric, as distinguished from other kinds of poetry, narrative, descriptive, epic, dramatic, should have three characteristic qualities, immediately evident on the first reading: it should be short, it should be melodious, it should express only one mood. A very long lyrical poem has never been written, and probably could not be: a lyric without fluent melody is unthinkable: and a poem representing a great variety of moods would more properly be classed as descriptive or dramatic than lyrical. Examples of the perfect lyric in nineteenth century English poetry are Shelley’s _I Arise From Dreams of Thee_; Keats’s _Bright Star_; Byron’s _She Walks in Beauty_; Tennyson’s _Break, Break, Break_. In each one of these notable illustrations the poem is a brief song of passion, representing the mood of the singer at that moment.

There are innumerable _lyrical_ passages in Browning’s long poems, and in his dramatic monologues; there are splendid outbursts of melody. He could not be ranked among the greatest English poets if he had not been one of our greatest singers. But we do not go to Browning primarily for song. He is not one of our greatest lyrical poets. It is certain, however, that he could have been had he chosen to be. He wrote a sufficient number of pure lyrics to prove his quality and capacity. But he was so much more deeply interested in the study of the soul than in the mere expression of beauty–he was so essentially, from _Pauline_ to _Asolando_–a dramatic poet, that his great contribution to literature is seen in profound and subtle interpretations of the human heart. It is fortunate that he made the soul his specialty, because English literature is wonderfully rich in song: there are many poets who can thrill us with music: but there is only one Browning, and there is no group of writers in any literature among which he can be classed.

Browning’s dramatic lyrics differ from Tennyson’s short poems as the lyrics of Donne differed from those of Campion; but Browning occasionally tried his hand at the composition of a pure lyric, as if to say, “You see I can write like this when I choose.” Therein lies his real superiority to almost all other English poets: he could do their work, but they could not do his. It is significant that his first poem, _Pauline_, should have deeply impressed two men of precisely opposite types of mind. These two were John Stuart Mill and Dante Gabriel Rossetti–their very names illustrating beautifully the difference in their mental tastes and powers. Carlyle called Mill a “logic-chopping engine,” because his intellectual processes were so methodical, systematic, hard-headed: Rossetti was a master of color and harmony. Yet Mill found in _Pauline_ the workings of a powerful mind: and Rossetti’s sensitive temperament was charmed with the wonderful pictures and lovely melodies it contained.

I like to think that Mill read, paused, re-read and meditated on this passage:

I am made up of an intensest life,
Of a most clear idea of consciousness Of self, distinct from all its qualities, From all affections, passions, feelings, powers; And thus far it exists, if tracked, in all: But linked, in me, to self-supremacy
Existing as a centre to all things, Most potent to create and rule and call Upon all things to minister to it;
And to a principle of restlessness