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Robert Browning: How To Know Him by William Lyon Phelps

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represents facts as they are; it is not simply that the man wants to
go out and live among other men, it is a natural law that he must,
as truly a natural law as gravitation.

And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

Just as the sun must take his prescribed course through the sky, so
must I run my circle of duties in the world of men. It is not a
moral call of duty; it is the importunate pull of necessity.

There is still the possibility of another interpretation of the last
line, though I think the one just given is correct, "I need the
world of men; it is a natural law." Now it is just possible that we
could interpret "need" in another sense, with an inversion;
"the world of men needs me, and I must go to do my share." This
would make the man perhaps nobler, but surely not so natural; indeed
it would sound like a priggish excuse to leave his mistress. I have
never quite surrendered to the cavalier's words

I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.

Are we sure it is honor, and not himself, he loves more?

It is impossible to improve on the Cowboy's comment on these lines
in Mr. Wister's _Virginian_; after Molly has read them aloud to the
convalescing male, he remarks softly, "That is very, very true."
Molly does not see why the Virginian admires these verses so much
more than the others. "I could scarcely explain," says he, "but that
man does know something." Molly wants to know if the lovers had
quarrelled. "Oh, no! he will come back after he has played some more
of the game." "The game?" "Life, ma'am. Whatever he was adoin' in
the world of men. That's a bed-rock piece, ma'am."

The Virginian is much happier in his literary criticism of this
lyric than he is of the _Good News_ or of the _Incident of the
French Camp_; in the latter instance, he misses the point altogether.
The boy was not a poseur. The boy was so happy to think he had
actually given his life for his master that he smilingly corrected
Napoleon's cry "You're wounded!" It is as though one should
congratulate an athletic contestant, and say "My felicitations! you
won the second prize!" "No, indeed: I won the First."

_Night and Morning_ suggests so many thoughts that we could
continue our comments indefinitely; but time suffices for only one
more. The nature picture of the dawn is absolutely perfect.

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea.

He does not say that finally the cape became visible, but that the
sea suddenly came round the cape. Any one who has stood on the
ocean-shore before dawn, and gazed along the indented coast in the
grey light, has observed the precise effect mentioned in these words.
At first one sees only the blur of land where the cape is, and
nothing beyond it; suddenly the light increases, and the sea
actually appears to come around the point.



The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!


Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

It is interesting to remember that Browning, of all poets most
intellectual, should be so predominantly the poet of Love. This
passion is the motive power of his verse, as he believed it to be
the motive power of the universe. He exhibits the love of men and
women in all its manifestations, from baseness and folly to the
noblest heights of self-renunciation. It is natural that the most
masculine and the most vigorous and the most intellectual of all our
poets should devote his powers mainly to the representation of love.
For love is the essence of force, and does not spring from
effeminate weakness or febrile delicacy. Any painter can cover a huge
canvas, but, as has been observed, only the strong hand can do the
fine and tender work. To discuss at length the love-poems of
Browning would take us far beyond the limits of this volume; but
certain of the dramatic lyrics may be selected to illustrate salient
characteristics. As various poets in making portraits emphasise what
is to them the most expressive features, the eyes or the lips, so
Browning, the poet of the mind, loves best of all in his women and
men, the Brow.

In _Evelyn Hope_,

And the sweet white brow is all of her.

In _The Last Ride Together_,

My mistress bent that brow of hers.

In _By the Fireside_,

Reading by firelight, that great brow
And the spirit-small hand propping it.

In _The Statue and the Bust_,

Hair in heaps lay heavily
Over a pale brow spirit-pure.

In _Count Gismond_,

They, too, so beauteous! Each a queen
By virtue of her brow and breast.

And the wonderful description of Pompilia by Caponsacchi:

Her brow had not the right line, leaned too much,
Painters would say; they like the straight-up Greek:
This seemed bent somewhat with an invisible crown
Of martyr and saint, not such as art approves.

In _Eurydice_,

But give them me, the mouth, the eyes, the brow!

In _Count Gismond_,

Our elder boy has got the clear
Great brow.

In _The Statue and the Bust_,

On his steady brow and quiet mouth.

His ideally beautiful women generally have yellow hair. The lady
_In a Gondola_ had coiled hair, "a round smooth cord of gold." In
_Evelyn Hope_, the "hair's young gold:" in _Love Among the Ruins_,
"eager eyes and yellow hair:" in _A Toccata_,

Dear dead women, with such hair, too--what's become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms?

And we must not forget his poem, _Gold Hair_. His descriptions of
women's faces are never conventional, rosy cheeks and bright eyes,
but always definite and specific. In _Time's Revenges_, the
unfortunate lover is maddened by the vision of the girl's face:

So is my spirit, as flesh with sin,
Filled full, eaten out and in
With the face of her, the eyes of her,
The lips, the little chin, the stir
Of shadow round her mouth.

Browning's rejected lovers are such splendid fellows that one
wonders at their ill luck. Tennyson's typical lovers, as seen in
_Locksley Hall_, _Lady Clara Vere de Vere_, and the first part of
_Maud_, behave in a manner that quite justifies the woman. They
whine, they rave, and they seem most of all to be astonished at the
woman's lack of judgment in not recognising their merits. Instead of
a noble sorrow, they exhibit peevishness; they seem to say,
"You'll be sorry some day." Browning's rejected lovers never think
of themselves and their own defeat; they think only of the woman,
who is now more adorable than ever. It never occurs to them that the
woman is lacking in intelligence because of her refusal; nor that
the man she prefers is a lowbrowed scoundrel. They are chivalrous;
they do their best to win. When they lose, they would rather have
been rejected by this woman than accepted by any other; and they are
always ready to congratulate the man more fortunate than they. They
are in fact simply irresistible, and one can not help believing in
their ultimate success. In _The Lost Mistress_, which Swinburne said
was worth a thousand _Lost Leaders_, the lover has just been rejected,
and instead of thinking of his own misery, he endeavours to make the
awkward situation easier for the girl by small-talk about the
sparrows and the leaf-buds. She has urged that their friendship
continue; that this episode need not put an end to their meetings,
and that he can come to see her as often as he likes, only there
must be no nonsense; he must promise to be sensible, and treat her
only as a friend. Instead of rejecting this suggestion with scorn, he
accepts, and agrees to do his best.

Tomorrow we meet the same then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are we ...
Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may,
Or so very little longer!

"I will do my best to please you, but remember I'm made of flesh and

In _One Way of Love_, the same kind of man appears. Pauline likes
flowers, music, and fine speeches. He is just a mere man, who has
never noticed a flower in his life, who is totally indifferent to
music, and never could talk with eloquence. But if Pauline likes
these things, he must endeavor to impress her, if not with his skill,
at all events with his devotion. He sends her a beautiful bouquet;
she does not even notice it. For months he tries to learn the
instrument, until finally he can play "his tune." She does not even
listen; he throws the lute away, for he cares nothing for music
except for her sake. At last comes the supreme moment when he makes
his declaration, on which the whole happiness of his life depends.

This hour my utmost art I prove
And speak my passion-heaven or hell?

Many lovers, on being rejected, would simply repeat the last word
just quoted. This fine sportsmanlike hero remarks,

She will not give me heaven? 'Tis well
Lose who may--I still can say,
Those who win heaven, blest are they!

"I can not reproach myself, for I did my best, and lost: still less
can I reproach her; all I can say is, the man who gets her is lucky."

Finally, the same kind of character appears in one of the greatest
love-poems in all literature, _The Last Ride Together_. The
situation just before the opening lines is an exact parallel to that
of _The Lost Mistress_. Every day this young pair have been riding
together. The man has fallen in love, and has mistaken the girl's
camaraderie for a deeper feeling. He has just discovered his error,
and without minimising the force of the blow that has wrecked his
life's happiness, this is what he says:

Then, dearest, since 'tis so,
Since now at length my fate I know,
Since nothing all my love avails,
Since all, my life seemed meant for, fails,
Since this was written and needs must be--
My whole heart rises up to
(curse, oh, no!)
rises up to bless
Your name in pride and thankfulness!
Take back the hope you gave,--I claim
Only a memory of the same,
--And this beside, if you will not blame,
Your leave for one more last ride with me.

What does the rejected lover mean by such brave words as "pride" and
"thankfulness"? He means that it is a great honor to be rejected by
such a woman, as Mr. Birrell says it is better to be knocked down by
Doctor Johnson than to be picked up by Mr. Froude. He is thankful,
too, to have known such a wonderful woman; and to show that he can
control himself, and make the situation easier for her, he requests
that to-day for the last time they ride just as usual--indeed they
had met for that purpose, are properly accoutred, and were about to
start, when he astonished her with his sudden and no longer
controllable declaration. Right! We shall ride together. I am not
yet banished from the sight of her. Perhaps the world will end

In the course of this poem, Browning develops one of his favorite
ideas, that Life is always greater than Art. A famous poet may sit
at his desk, and write of love in a way to thrill the hearts of his
readers; but we should place him lower than rustic sweethearts
meeting in the moonlight, because they are having in reality
something which exists for the poet only in dreams. The same is true
of sculpture and all pictorial art; men will turn from the greatest
masterpiece of the chisel or the brush to look at a living woman.

And you, great sculptor,--so, you gave
A score of years to Art, her slave,
And that's your Venus, whence we turn
To yonder girl that fords the burn!

I was once seated in the square room in the gallery at Dresden that
holds the most famous picture in the world, Rafael's Sistine Madonna.
A number of tourists were in the place, and we were all gazing
steadfastly at the immortal Virgin, when a pretty, fresh-colored
young American girl entered the room. Every man's head twisted away
from the masterpiece of art, and every man's eyes stared at the
commonplace stranger, because she was alive! I was much amused, and
could not help thinking of Browning's lines.

This doctrine, that Life is greater than Art, is repeated by
Browning in _Cleon_, and it forms the whole content of Ibsen's last
drama, _When We Dead Awaken_.

The lover's reasoning at the close of Browning's poem, that
rejection may be better for him because now he has an unrealised
ideal, and that the race itself is better than the victor's garland,
reminds us of Lessing's noble saying, that if God gave him the
choice between the knowledge of all truth and the search for it, he
would humbly take the latter.

One must lead some life beyond,
Have a bliss to die with, _dim_-descried.



All's over, then; does truth sound bitter
As one at first believes?
Hark, 'tis the sparrows' good-night twitter
About your cottage eaves!

And the leaf-buds on the vine are woolly,
I noticed that, to-day;
One day more bursts them open fully
--You know the red turns gray.

To-morrow we meet the same then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are we,--well, friends the merest
Keep much that I resign:

For each glance of the eye so bright and black
Though I keep with heart's endeavour,--
Your voice, when you wish the snowdrops back,
Though it stay in my soul forever!--

Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may,
Or so very little longer!



All June I bound the rose in sheaves.
Now, rose by rose, I strip the leaves
And strew them where Pauline may pass.
She will not turn aside? Alas!
Let them lie. Suppose they die?
The chance was they might take her eye,


How many a month I strove to suit
These stubborn fingers to the lute!
To-day I venture all I know.
She will not hear my music? So!
Break the string; fold music's wing:
Suppose Pauline had bade me sing!


My whole life long I learned to love.
This hour my utmost art I prove
And speak my passion--heaven or hell?
She will not give me heaven? 'Tis well!
Lose who may--I still can say,
Those who win heaven, blest are they!




I said--Then, dearest, since 'tis so,
Since now at length my fate I know,
Since nothing all my love avails,
Since all, my life seemed meant for, fails,
Since this was written and needs must be--
My whole heart rises up to bless
Your name in pride and thankfulness!
Take back the hope you gave,--I claim
Only a memory of the same,
--And this beside, if you will not blame,
Your leave for one more last ride with me.


My mistress bent that brow of hers;
Those deep dark eyes where pride demurs
When pity would be softening through,
Fixed me a breathing-while or two
With life or death in the balance: right!
The blood replenished me again;
My last thought was at least not vain:
I and my mistress, side by side
Shall be together, breathe and ride,
So, one day more am I deified.
Who knows but the world may end to-night?


Hush! if you saw some western cloud
All billowy-bosomed, over-bowed
By many benedictions--sun's
And moon's and evening-star's at once--
And so, you, looking and loving best,
Conscious grew, your passion drew
Cloud, sunset, moonrise, star-shine too,
Down on you, near and yet more near,
Till flesh must fade for heaven was here!--
Thus leant she and lingered--joy and fear!
Thus lay she a moment on my breast.


Then we began to ride. My soul
Smoothed itself out, a long-cramped scroll
Freshening and fluttering in the wind.
Past hopes already lay behind.
What need to strive with a life awry?
Had I said that, had I done this,
So might I gain, so might I miss.
Might she have loved me? just as well
She might have hated, who can tell!
Where had I been now if the worst befell?
And here we are riding, she and I.


Fail I alone, in words and deeds?
Why, all men strive and who succeeds?
We rode; it seemed my spirit flew,
Saw other regions, cities new.
As the world rushed by on either side.
I thought,--All labour, yet no less
Bear up beneath their unsuccess.
Look at the end of work, contrast
The petty done, the undone vast,
This present of theirs with the hopeful past!
I hoped she would love me; here we ride.


What hand and brain went ever paired?
What heart alike conceived and dared?
What act proved all its thought had been?
What will but felt the fleshly screen?
We ride and I see her bosom heave.
There's many a crown for who can reach.
Ten lines, a statesman's life in each!
The flag stuck on a heap of bones,
A soldier's doing! what atones?
They scratch his name on the Abbey-stones.
My riding is better, by their leave.


What does it all mean, poet? Well,
Your brains beat into rhythm, you tell
What we felt only; you expressed
You hold things beautiful the best,
And pace them in rhyme so, side by side.
'Tis something, nay 'tis much: but then,
Have you yourself what's best for men?
Are you--poor, sick, old ere your time--
Nearer one whit your own sublime
Than we who never have turned a rhyme?
Sing, riding's a joy! For me, I ride.


And you, great sculptor--so, you gave
A score of years to Art, her slave,
And that's your Venus, whence we turn
To yonder girl that fords the burn!
You acquiesce, and shall I repine?
What, man of music, you grown grey
With notes and nothing else to say,
Is this your sole praise from a friend,
"Greatly his opera's strains intend,
Put in music we know how fashions end!"
I gave my youth; but we ride, in fine.


Who knows what's fit for us? Had fate
Proposed bliss here should sublimate
My being--had I signed the bond--
Still one must lead some life beyond,
Have a bliss to die with, dim-descried.
This foot once planted on the goal,
This glory-garland round my soul,
Could I descry such? Try and test!
I sink back shuddering from the quest.
Earth being so good, would heaven seem best?
Now, heaven and she are beyond this ride.


And yet--she has not spoke so long!
What if heaven be that, fair and strong
At life's best, with our eyes upturned
Whither life's flower is first discerned,
We, fixed so, ever should so abide?
What if we still ride on, we two
With life for ever old yet new,
Changed not in kind but in degree,
The instant made eternity,--
And heaven just prove that I and she
Ride, ride together, for ever ride?

Browning's lovers, as has been illustrated, are usually chivalrous,
whether their passions have or have not the sanction of law. The
poem _In a Gondola_, which has been more often translated into
foreign languages than perhaps any other of Browning's works, gives
us a picture of a night in Venice. The fluent rhythms of the verse
indicate the lazy glide of the gondola through the dark waters of the
canal. The lovers speak, sing, and muse; and their conversation is
full of the little language characteristic of those who are in
complete possession of each other, soul and body. They delight in
passionate reminiscences: they love to recall their first chance

Ah, the autumn day
I, passing, saw you overhead!

The wind blew out the curtains of her apartment, and her pet parrot
escaped, giving the man his opportunity. They rehearse over again
the advancing stages of their drama. She asks him to kiss her like a
moth, then like a bee--in the attempt to recapture the first shy
sweetness of their dawning passion. They play little love-games. He
pretends he is a Jew, carrying her away from her family to a tribal
feast; then that they twain are spirits of stars, meeting in the
thin air aloft. The intensity of their bliss is sharpened by the
black cloud of danger in which they move: for if the Three, husband,
father, and brother of the lady become aware of this secret liaison,
there can be only one end to it--a tragedy of blood. The lighted
taper held in the window by the trusted maid shows that they are
"safe," and for the last time they play again their little comedy of
formality. She pretends to be the formal _grande dame_, the lady
with the colder breast than snow: he is the bashful gallant, who
hardly dares touch the tips of her fingers. In this laughing moment,
the dagger of the husband is driven deep into his back. Like all of
Browning's lovers, he gives, even on the edge of the eternal darkness,
no thought to himself, but only to her. Gathering his dying energies,
he speaks in a loud tone, so that the conspirators, invisible in the
Venetian night, may hear him:

Care not for the cowards! Care
Only to put aside thy beauteous hair
My blood will hurt!

And in the last agony, he comforts her with the thought that all this,
the joy of love and the separation by murder, have been ordained.

In _Love Among the Ruins_, with which _Men and Women_ originally
opened, and which some believe to be Browning's masterpiece, Love is
given its place as the supreme fact in human history. This is a
scene in the Roman Campagna at twilight, and the picture in the
first stanza reminds us of Gray's _Elegy_ in the perfection of its
quiet silver tone. With a skill nothing short of genius, Browning
has maintained in this poem a double parallel. Up to the fifth stanza,
the contrast is between the present peace of the vast solitary plain,
and its condition years ago when it was the centre of a city's
beating heart: from the fifth stanza to the close, the contrast is
between this same vanished civilisation and the eternal quality of
Love. I do not remember any other work in literature where a double
parallel is given with such perfect continuity and beauty; the first
half of each stanza is in exact antithesis to the last. The
parenthesis--_so they say_--is a delicate touch of dramatic irony.
No one would dream that this quiet plain was once the site of a
great city, for no proofs remain: we have to take the word of the
archaeologists for it. Some day a Japanese shepherd may pasture his
sheep on Manhattan Island.

After a poetic discourse on the text _Sic transit gloria mundi_--the
love motive is suddenly introduced in the fifth stanza; and now the
contrast changes, and becomes a comparison between the ephemeral
nature of civilisation and the permanent fact of Love. At the exact
spot where the grandstand formerly stood at the finish of the
horse-race, where the King, surrounded by courtiers, watched the
whirling chariots, now remains motionless, breathless, a
yellow-haired girl. The proud King's eyes looked over the stadium
and beheld the domes and pinnacles of his city, the last word of
civilisation; the girl's eager eyes look over the silent plain
searching for the coming of her lover. And Browning would have us
believe that this latter fact is far more important historically
than the former.

Suppose an American professor of archaeology is working on the grassy
expanse, collecting material for his new book; he looks up for a
moment and sees a pair of rustic lovers kissing in the twilight; he
smiles, and resumes what seems to him his important labor. Little
does he imagine that this love-scene is more significant than all
the broken bits of pottery he digs out of the ground; yet such is the
fact. For all he can do at his very best is to reconstruct a
vanished past, while the lovers are acting a scene that belongs to
eternity. Love is best.




Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro' the twilight, stray or stop
As they crop--
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country's very capital, its prince
Ages since
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
Peace or war.


Now,--the country does not even boast a tree
As you see,
To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills
From the hills
Intersect and give a name to, (else they run
Into one)
Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
Up like fires
O'er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
Bounding all,
Made of marble, men might march on nor be pressed,
Twelve abreast.


And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass
Never was!
Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o'erspreads
And embeds
Every vestige of the city, guessed alone,
Stock or stone--
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
Long ago;
Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame
Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold
Bought and sold.


Now,--the single little turret that remains
On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
While the patching houseleek's head of blossom winks
Through the chinks--
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
Sprang sublime,
And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced
As they raced,
And the monarch and his minions and his dames
Viewed the games.


And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
Smiles to leave
To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
In such peace,
And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
Melt away--
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
For the goal,
When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
Till I come.


But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades'
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,--and then,
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.


In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky,
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force--
Gold, of course.
Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth's returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

In the poem _Respectability_ Browning gives us a more vulgar, but
none the less vital aspect of love. This is no peaceful twilit
harmony; this scene is set on a windy, rainy night in noisy Paris,
on the left bank of the Seine, directly in front of the Institute of
France. Two reckless lovers--either old comrades or picked-up
acquaintances of this very night, it matters not which--come
tripping along gaily, arm in arm. The man chaffs at worldly
conventions, at the dullness of society, at the hypocrisy of
so-called respectable people, and congratulates himself and his fair
companion on the fun they are having. What fools they would have
been had they waited through a long, formal courtship for the
sanction of an expensive marriage! The world, he says, does not
forbid kisses, only it says, you must see the magistrate first. My
finger must not touch your soft lips until it is covered with the
glove of marriage. Bah! what do we care for the world's good word?
At this moment they reach the lighted windows of the Institute, and
like a pair of sparrows, they glance within at the highly proper but
terribly tedious company. What do they see? They see Guizot
compelled by political exigency to shake hands hypocritically with
his enemy Montalembert. But before them down a dim court shine three
lamps, an all-night dance resort. Come on! run for it! that's the
place for us! no dull formalities, no hypocrisies there! Something




Dear, had the world in its caprice
Deigned to proclaim "I know you both,
Have recognized your plighted troth,
Am sponsor for you: live in peace!"--
How many precious months and years
Of youth had passed, that speed so fast,
Before we found it out at last,
The world, and what it fears?


How much of priceless life were spent
With men that every virtue decks,
And women models of their sex,
Society's true ornament,--
Ere we dared wander, nights like this,
Thro' wind and rain, and watch the Seine,
And feel the Boulevart break again
To warmth and light and bliss?


I know! the world proscribes not love;
Allows my finger to caress
Your lips' contour and downiness,
Provided it supply a glove.
The world's good word!--the Institute!
Guizot receives Montalembert!
Eh? Down the court three lampions flare:
Put forward your best foot!

In the list of _Dramatis Personae_, Browning placed _Confessions_
shortly after _A Death in the Desert_, as if to show the enormous
contrast in two death-bed scenes. After a presentation of the last
noble, spiritual, inspired moments of the apostle John, we have
portrayed for us the dying delirium of an old sinner, whose thought
travels back to the sweetest moments of his life, his clandestine
meetings with the girl he loved. The solemn voice of the priest is
like the troublesome buzzing of a fly.

Do I view the world as a vale of tears?

Not much!

Like Matthew Arnold's _Wish_, the brother-doctor of the soul who is
called in

To canvass with official breath

is simply a nuisance in these last minutes of life. The row of
medicine bottles, all useless now for practical purposes, represents
to his fevered eyes the topography of the scene where the girl used
to come running to meet him. "I know, sir, it's improper,"--I ought
not to talk this way to a clergyman, my mind isn't right, I'm dying,
and this is all I can think of.

How sad and bad and mad it was--
But then, how it was sweet!



What is he buzzing in my ears?
"Now that I come to die,
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?"
Ah, reverend sir, not I!

What I viewed there once, what I view again
Where the physic bottles stand
On the table's edge,--is a suburb lane,
With a wall to my bedside hand.

That lane sloped, much as the bottles do,
From a house you could descry
O'er the garden-wall; is the curtain blue
Or green to a healthy eye?

To mine, it serves for the old June weather
Blue above lane and wall;
And that farthest bottle labelled "Ether"
Is the house o'ertopping all.

At a terrace, somewhere near the stopper,
There watched for me, one June,
A girl: I know, sir, it's improper,
My poor mind's out of tune.

Only, there was a way ... you crept
Close by the side, to dodge
Eyes in the house, two eyes except:
They styled their house "The Lodge."

What right had a lounger up their lane?
But, by creeping very close,
With the good wall's help,--their eyes might strain
And stretch themselves to Oes,

Yet never catch her and me together,
As she left the attic, there,
By the rim of the bottle labelled "Ether,"
And stole from stair to stair,

And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas,
We loved, sir--used to meet:
How sad and bad and mad it was--
But then, how it was sweet!

We may close our considerations of the dramatic lyrics with three
love-poems. Whenever in his later years Browning was asked to write
a selection with his autograph, he used to say playfully that the
only one of his poems that he could remember was _My Star_; hence
more copies of this exist in manuscript than any other of his
productions. It was of course a tribute to his wife; she shone upon
his life like a star of various colors; but the moment the world
attempted to pry into the secret of her genius, she shut off the
light altogether. Let the world regard Saturn, the most wonderful
star in the heavens. My star shines for me alone.

The first and best of the series of _Bad Dreams_ gives us again in
Browning's last volume his doctrine of love. Love is its own reward:
it may be sad not to have love returned, but the one unspeakable
tragedy is to lose the capacity for loving. In a terrible dream, the
face of the woman changes from its familiar tenderness to a glance
of stony indifference, and in response to his agonised enquiry, she
declares that her love for him is absolutely dead. Then comes a
twofold bliss: one was in the mere waking from such desolation, but
the other consisted in the fact that even if the dream were true,
his love for her knew no diminution. Thank God, I loved on the same!

The most audacious poem of Browning's old age is _Summum Bonum_.
Since the dawn of human speculative thought, philosophers have asked
this question, What is the highest good? It has been answered in
various ways. Omar Khayyam said it was Wine: John Stuart Mill said
it was the greatest happiness of the greatest number: the Westminster
Catechism said it was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Browning
says it is the kiss of one girl. This kiss is the concentrated
essence of all the glory, beauty, and sweetness of life. In order to
understand such a paradox, we must remember that in Browning's
philosophy, Love is the engine of the whole universe. I have no
doubt that Love meant to him more than it has ever meant to any
other poet or thinker; just as I am sure that the word Beauty
revealed to Keats a vision entirely beyond the range of even the
greatest seers. Love is the supreme fact; and every manifestation of
it on earth, from the Divine Incarnation down to a chance meeting of
lovers, is more important than any other event or idea. Now we have
seen that it is Browning's way invariably to represent an abstract
thought by a concrete illustration. Therefore in this great and
daring lyric we find the imaginary lover calling the kiss of the
woman he loves the highest good in life.



All that I know
Of a certain star
Is, it can throw
(Like the angled spar)
Now a dart of red,
Now a dart of blue;
Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too,
My star that dartles the red and the blue!
Then it stops like a bird; like a flower, hangs furled:
They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me if their star is a world?
Mine has opened its soul to me; therefore I love it.



Last night I saw you in my sleep:
And how your charm of face was changed!
I asked "Some love, some faith you keep?"
You answered "Faith gone, love estranged."

Whereat I woke--a twofold bliss:
Waking was one, but next there came
This other: "Though I felt, for this,
My heart break, I loved on the same."



All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee:
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea:
Breath and bloom, shade and shine,--wonder, wealth, and--how far
above them--
Truth, that's brighter than gem,
Trust, that's purer than pearl,--
Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe--all were for me
In the kiss of one girl.



Although Browning was not a failure as a dramatist--_A Blot in the
'Scutcheon_ and _In a Balcony_ are the greatest verse tragedies in
the language since the Elizabethans--he found the true channel for
his genius in the Dramatic Monologue. He takes a certain critical
moment in one person's life, and by permitting the individual to
speak, his character, the whole course of his existence, and
sometimes the spirit of an entire period in the world's history are
revealed in a brilliant searchlight. With very few exceptions, one
of which will be given in our selections, a dramatic monologue is
not a meditation nor a soliloquy; it is a series of remarks, usually
confessional, addressed either orally or in an epistolary form to
another person or to a group of listeners. These other figures,
though they do not speak, are necessary to the understanding of the
monologue; we often see them plainly, and see their faces change in
expression as the monologue advances. At the dinner table of Bishop
Blougram, the little man Gigadibs is conspicuously there; and
Lucrezia is so vividly before us in _Andrea del Sarto_, that a
clever actress has actually assumed this silent role on the stage,
and exhibited simply by her countenance the effect of Andrea's
monologue. This species of verse is perhaps the highest form of
poetic art, as it is the most difficult; for with no stage setting,
no descriptions, no breaks in the conversation, the depths of the
human heart are exposed.

One of the greatest dramatic monologues in all literature is _My
Last Duchess_, and it is astounding that so profound a life-drama
should have been conceived and faultlessly expressed by so young a
poet. The whole poem contains only fifty-six lines, but it could
easily be expanded into a three-volume novel. Indeed it exhibits
Browning's genius for condensation as impressively as _The Ring and
the Book_ proves his genius for expansion. The metre is interesting.
It is the heroic couplet, the same form exactly in which Pope wrote
his major productions. Yet the rime, which is as evident as the
recurring strokes of a tack-hammer in Pope, is scarcely heard at all
in _My Last Duchess_. Its effect is so muffled, go concealed, that I
venture to say that many who are quite familiar with the poem, could
not declare offhand whether it were written in rime or in blank verse.
This technical trick is accomplished by what the French call overflow,
the running on of the sense from one line to another, a device so
dear to the heart of Milton. Some one has well said that Dryden's
couplets are links in a chain, whilst Pope's are pearls on a string.
Pope enclosed nearly every couplet, so that they are quite separate,
which is one reason why he has given us such a vast number of
aphorisms. To see how totally different in effect the heroic couplet
is when it is closed and when it is open, one may compare almost any
selection from Pope with the opening lines of Keats's _Endymion_,
and then silently marvel that both poems are written in exactly the
same measure.


Peace to all such! but were there one whose fires
True genius kindles, and fair fame inspires;
Blest with each talent and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease:
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne,
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caused himself to rise.


A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth.

One has only to glance at the printed page of _My Last Duchess_, and
see how few of the lines end in punctuation points, to discover the
method employed when a poet wishes to write a very strict measure in
a very free manner.

I have sometimes thought that George Eliot took a hint from this
poem in the composition of _Daniel Deronda_, for the relations
between Grandcourt and Gwendolen are exactly the same as existed
between the Duke and his late wife; a more recent, though not so
great an example, may be found in Mrs. Burnett's novel, _The Shuttle_.
The poem is a study in cold, systematic torture of a warm human soul
by an icy-hearted tyrant.

Browning adopts one of his favorite methods of character-revelation
here. All that we know of the Duchess is the testimony given by her
worst enemy, her husband; and yet, in attempting to describe her, he
has succeeded in painting only his own narrow and hideous heart.
Slander is often greater in the recoil than in the discharge; when a
man attempts to give an unfavorable portrait of another, he usually
gives us an exact likeness of himself. Pope meant his picture of
Addison to be correct; but although he made the picture with
immortal art, it is no more like Addison than it resembles St.
Francis; it is, however, an absolutely faithful image of Pope himself.
This is one reason why slander is such an exceedingly dangerous
weapon to handle.

The Duke tells the envoy that his late Duchess was flirtatious,
plebeian in her enthusiasm, not sufficiently careful to please her
husband; but the evident truth is that he had a Satanic pride, that
he was yellow with jealousy, that he was methodically cruel. His
jealousy is shown by the fact that he would allow only a monk to
paint her: "I said 'Fra Pandolf' by design," and he required the
monk to do the whole task in one day. His pride is shown in the fact
that although her expansive nature displeased him, he would never
stoop to remonstrate with her. His cruelty is shown in the fact that
he coldly repressed her little enthusiasms, and finally murdered her.
I suppose she was really a frank, charming girl, who came from a
happy home, a bright and eager bride; she was one of those lovely
women whose kindness and responsiveness are as natural as the
sunlight. She loved to watch the sunset from the terrace; she loved
to pet the white mule; she was delighted when some one brought her a
gift of cherries. Then she was puzzled, bewildered, when she found
that all her expressions of delight in life received a cold,
disapproving glance of scorn from her husband; her lively talk at
dinner, her return from a ride, flushed and eager, met invariably
this icy stare of hatred. She smiled too much to please him.

Then all smiles stopped together.

What difference does it make whether he deliberately poisoned her,
or whether he simply broke her heart by the daily chill of silent
contempt? For her, at all events, death must have been a release.
She would have been happier with a drunken husband, with a brute who
kicked her, rather than with this supercilious cold-hearted patrician.
Toward the end of the poem, in his remarks about the dowry, we see
that the Duke is as avaricious as he is cruel; though he says with a
disagreeable smile, that the woman herself is his real object. The
touch to make this terrible man complete comes at the very end. The
Duke and the envoy prepare to descend the staircase; the latter bows,
to give precedence to the man with the nine hundred years' old name:
but the Duke, with a purr like a tiger, places his arm around the
shoulder of the visitor, and they take the first step. Just then the
master of the palace calls attention casually to a group of statuary.
It is Neptune taming a sea-horse. That's the way I break them in!

Throughout the whole monologue, the Duke speaks in a quiet, steady,
ironical tone; the line

The depth and passion of its earnest glance

is pronounced in intense irony, in ridicule of the conventional
remark made by previous visitors. Only once or twice do we see the
teeth of this monster flash, revealing his horrible heart. When he
speaks of the "officious fool" who brought the cherries, and when he
says "all smiles stopped together"; then the envoy looks at him with
a fearful question in his eyes, but the Duke's face immediately
resumes its mask of stone.




That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Fra Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:" such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace--all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,--good! but thanked
Somehow--I know not how--as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech--(which I have not)--to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark"--and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

To turn from _My Last Duchess_ to _Count Gismond_ is like coming out
of a damp cellar into God's own sunshine. Originally Browning called
these two poems _Italy_ and _France_; but he later fell madly in
love with Italy, and I suppose could not bear to have so
cold-blooded a tragedy represent the country graven on his heart.
The charm and brightness of _Count Gismond_ are properly connected
with one of the loveliest towns in the world, the old city of Aix in
Provence, a jewel on the hills rising from the Mediterranean Sea.

Gismond is Browning's hero. He is the resolute man who does not
hesitate, who makes himself instantly master of the situation, who
appears like Lohengrin in the moment of Elsa's sharp distress, a
messenger from Heaven.

Or, if virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.

When the lady was publicly accused by the scoundrel Gauthier, I
suppose many men said, "What a pity that so fair a woman should be
so foul!" Others said gravely, "This matter ought to be judicially
examined." Gismond was the only man who realised that a defenseless
orphan was insulted, and the words were hardly out of Gauthier's
mouth when he received "the fist's reply to the filth." The lovers
walked away from the "shouting multitude," the fickle, cowardly,
contemptible public, who did not dare to defend the lady in her need,
but had lungs enough for the victor, whoever he might be. It is
pleasant to notice the prayer of the lady for the dead Gauthier.
"I hope his soul is in heaven." This is no mere Christian forgiveness.
Gauthier had proved to be the means of her life-happiness. Had it
not been for his shameful accusation, she would never have met
Gismond. Out of her agony came her richest blessing.

All this happened years ago, but when her husband appears with the
children she tells him a white lie. "I have just been boasting to
Adela about the skill of my hunting hawk." She has been doing
nothing of the kind; but she can not talk about the great event of
her life before the children.





Christ God who savest man, save most
Of men Count Gismond who saved me!
Count Gauthier, when he chose his post,
Chose time and place and company
To suit it; when he struck at length
My honour, 'twas with all his strength.


And doubtlessly ere he could draw
All points to one, he must have schemed!
That miserable morning saw
Few half so happy as I seemed,
While being dressed in queen's array
To give our tourney prize away.


I thought they loved me, did me grace
To please themselves; 'twas all their deed;
God makes, or fair or foul, our face;
If showing mine so caused to bleed
My cousins' hearts, they should have dropped
A word, and straight the play had stopped.


They, too, so beauteous! Each a queen
By virtue of her brow and breast;
Not needing to be crowned, I mean,
As I do. E'en when I was dressed,
Had either of them spoke, instead
Of glancing sideways with still head!


But no: they let me laugh, and sing
My birthday song quite through, adjust
The last rose in my garland, fling
A last look on the mirror, trust
My arms to each an arm of theirs,
And so descend the castle-stairs--


And come out on the morning-troop
Of merry friends who kissed my cheek,
And called me queen, and made me stoop
Under the canopy--(a streak
That pierced it, of the outside sun,
Powdered with gold its gloom's soft dun)--


And they could let me take my state
And foolish throne amid applause
Of all come there to celebrate
My queen's-day--Oh I think the cause
Of much was, they forgot no crowd
Makes up for parents in their shroud!


However that be, all eyes were bent
Upon me, when my cousins cast
Theirs down; 'twas time I should present
The victor's crown, but ... there, 'twill last
No long time ... the old mist again
Blinds me as then it did. How vain!


See! Gismond's at the gate, in talk
With his two boys: I can proceed.
Well, at that moment, who should stalk
Forth boldly--to my face, indeed--
But Gauthier, and he thundered "Stay!"
And all stayed. "Bring no crowns, I say!"


"Bring torches! Wind the penance-sheet
About her! Let her shun the chaste,
Or lay herself before their feet!
Shall she whose body I embraced
A night long, queen it in the day?
For honour's sake no crowns, I say!"


I? What I answered? As I live,
I never fancied such a thing
As answer possible to give.
What says the body when they spring
Some monstrous torture-engine's whole
Strength on it? No more says the soul.


Till out strode Gismond; then I knew
That I was saved. I never met
His face before, but, at first view,
I felt quite sure that God had set
Himself to Satan; who would spend
A minute's mistrust on the end?


He strode to Gauthier, in his throat
Gave him the lie, then struck his mouth
With one back-handed blow that wrote
In blood men's verdict there. North, South,
East, West, I looked. The lie was dead,
And damned, and truth stood up instead.


This glads me most, that I enjoyed
The heart of the joy, with my content
In watching Gismond unalloyed
By any doubt of the event:
God took that on him--I was bid
Watch Gismond for my part: I did.


Did I not watch him while he let
His armourer just brace his greaves,
Rivet his hauberk, on the fret
The while! His foot ... my memory leaves
No least stamp out, nor how anon
He pulled his ringing gauntlets on.


And e'en before the trumpet's sound
Was finished, prone lay the false knight,
Prone as his lie, upon the ground:
Gismond flew at him, used no sleight
O' the sword, but open-breasted drove,
Cleaving till out the truth he clove.


Which done, he dragged him to my feet
And said "Here die, but end thy breath
In full confession, lest thou fleet
From my first, to God's second death!
Say, hast thou lied?" And, "I have lied
To God and her," he said, and died.


Then Gismond, kneeling to me, asked
--What safe my heart holds, though no word
Could I repeat now, if I tasked
My powers for ever, to a third
Dear even as you are. Pass the rest
Until I sank upon his breast.


Over my head his arm he flung
Against the world; and scarce I felt
His sword (that dripped by me and swung)
A little shifted in its belt:
For he began to say the while
How South our home lay many a mile.


So 'mid the shouting multitude
We two walked forth to never more
Return. My cousins have pursued
Their life, untroubled as before
I vexed them. Gauthier's dwelling-place
God lighten! May his soul find grace I


Our elder boy has got the clear
Great brow; tho' when his brother's black
Full eye shows scorn, it ... Gismond here?
And have you brought my tercel back?
I just was telling Adela
How many birds it struck since May.

The _Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister_ differs from most of the
Dramatic Monologues in not being addressed to a listener; but the
difference is more apparent than real; for the other person is in
plain view all the time, and the Soliloquy would have no point were
it not for the peaceful activities of Friar Lawrence. This poem,
while it deals ostensibly with the lives of only two monks, gives us
a glimpse into the whole monastic system. When a number of men
retired into a monastery and shut out the world forever, certain
sins and ambitions were annihilated, while others were enormously
magnified. All outside interests vanished; but sin remained, for it
circulates in the human heart as naturally as blood in the body. The
cloister was simply a little world, with the nobleness and meanness
of human nature exceedingly conspicuous. When the men were once
enclosed in the cloister walls, they knew that they must live in
that circumscribed spot till the separation of death. Naturally
therefore political ambitions, affections, envies, jealousies, would
be writ large; human nature would display itself in a manner most
interesting to a student, if only he could live there in a detached
way. This is just what Browning tries to do; he tries to live
imaginatively with the monks, and to practise his profession as the
Chronicler of Life.

The only way to realise what the monastic life really meant would be
to imagine a small modern college situated in the country, and the
passage of a decree that not a single student should leave the
college grounds until his body was committed to the tomb. The
outside interests of the world would quickly grow dim and eventually
vanish; and everything would be concentrated within the community. I
suppose that the passions of friendship, hatred, and jealousy would
be prodigiously magnified. There must have been friendships among
the monks of the middle ages compared to which our boasted college
friendships are thin and pale; and there must have been frightful
hatreds and jealousies. In all communities there are certain persons
that get on the nerves of certain others; the only way to avoid this
acute suffering is to avoid meeting the person who causes it. But
imagine a cloister where dwells a. man you simply can not endure:
every word he says, every motion he makes, every single mannerism of
walk and speech is intolerable. Now you must live with this man
until one of you dies: you must sit opposite to him at meals, you
can not escape constant contact. Your only resource is profane
soliloquies: but if you have a sufficiently ugly disposition, you
can revenge yourself upon him in a thousand secret ways.

Friar Lawrence unconsciously and innocently fans the flames of
hatred in our speaker's heart, simply because he does not dream of
the effect he produces. Every time he talks at table about the
weather, the cork-crop, Latin names, and other trivialities, the man
sitting opposite to him would like to dash his plate in his face:
every time Friar Lawrence potters around among his roses, the other
looking down from his window, with a face distorted with hate, would
like to kill him with a glance. Poor Lawrence drives our soliloquist
mad with his deliberate table manners, with his deliberate method of
speech, with his care about his own goblet and spoon. And all the
time Lawrence believes that his enemy loves him!

From another point of view, this poem resembles _My Last Duchess_ in
that it is a revelation of the speaker's heart. We know nothing
about Friar Lawrence except what his deadly enemy tells us; but it
is quite clear that Lawrence is a dear old man, innocent as a child;
while the speaker, simply in giving his testimony against him,
reveals a heart jealous, malicious, lustful; he is like a thoroughly
bad boy at school, with a pornographic book carefully concealed.
Just at the moment when his rage and hatred reach a climax, the
vesper bell sounds; and the speaker, who is an intensely strict
formalist and ritualist, presents to us an amusing spectacle; for
out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.




Gr-r-r--there go, my heart's abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God's blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
Oh, that rose has prior claims--
Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
Hell dry you up with its flames!


At the meal we sit together:
_Salve tibi_! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
Sort of season, time of year:
_Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
Dare me hope oak-galls, I doubt:
What's the Latin name for "parsley_?"
What's the Greek name for Swine's Snout?


Whew! We'll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own shelf!
With a fire-new spoon we're furnished,
And a goblet for ourself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere 'tis fit to touch our chaps--
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)


_Saint_, forsooth! While brown Dolores
Squats outside the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling stories,
Steeping tresses in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
--Can't I see his dead eye glow,
Bright as 'twere a Barbary corsair's?
(That is, if he'd let it show!)


When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise, to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu's praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange-pulp--
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp.


Oh, those melons? If he's able
We're to have a feast! so nice!
One goes to the Abbot's table,
All of us get each a slice.
How go on your flowers? None double
Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
Strange!--And I, too, at such trouble,
Keep them close-nipped on the sly!


There's a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
One sure, if another fails:

If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven as sure can be,
Spin him round and send him flying
Off to hell, a Manichee?


Or, my scrofulous French novel
On grey paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial's gripe:
If I double down its pages
At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in't?


Or, there's Satan!--one might venture
Pledge one's soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he'd miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We're so proud of! _Hy, Zy, Him_ ...
'St, there's Vespers! _Plena gratia
Ave, Virgo_! Gr-r-r--you swine!

Everybody loves Browning's _Ghent to Aix_ poem. Even those who can
not abide the poet make an exception here; and your thorough-going
Browningite never outgrows this piece. It is the greatest horseback
poem in the literature of the world: compared to this, _Paul
Revere's Ride_ is the amble of a splayfooted nag. It sounds as
though it had been written in the saddle: but it was really composed
during a hot day on the deck of a vessel in the Mediterranean, and
written off on the flyleaf of a printed book that the poet held in
his hand. Poets are always most present with the distant, as Mrs.
Browning said; and Browning, while at sea, thought with irresistible
longing of his good horse eating his head off in the stable at home.
Everything about this poem is imaginary; there never had been any
such good news brought, and it is probable that no horse could cover
the distance in that time.

But the magnificent gallop of the verse: the change from moonset to
sunrise: the scenery rushing by: the splendid spirit of horse and man:
and the almost insane joy of the rider as he enters Aix--these are
more true than history itself. Browning is one of our greatest poets
of motion--whether it be the glide of a gondola, the swift running
of the Marathon professional Pheidippides, the steady advance of the
galleys over the sea in _Paracelsus_, the sharp staccato strokes of
the horse's hoofs through the Metidja, or the swinging stride of the
students as they carry the dead grammarian up the mountain. Not only
do the words themselves express the sound of movement; but the
thought, in all these great poems of motion, travels steadily and
naturally with the advance. It is interesting to compare a
madly-rushing poem like _Ghent to Aix_ with the absolute calm of
_Andrea del Sarto_. It gives one an appreciation of Browning's
purely technical skill.

No one has ever, so far as I know, criticised _Ghent to Aix_
adversely except Owen Wister's Virginian; and his strictures are
hypercritical. As Roland threw his head back fiercely to scatter the
spume-flakes, it would be easy enough for the rider to see the
eye-sockets and the bloodfull nostrils. Every one has noticed how a
horse will do the ear-shift, putting one ear forward and one back at
the same moment. Browning has an imaginative reason for it. One ear
is pushed forward to listen for danger ahead; the other bent back,
to catch his master's voice. Was there ever a greater study in
passionate cooperation between man and beast than this splendid poem?



I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
"Good speed!" cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
"Speed!" echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit

'Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Duffeld, 'twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with, "Yet there is time!"

At Aershot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray:

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye's black intelligence,--ever that glance
O'er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, "Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault's not in her,
We'll remember at Aix"--for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
'Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And "Gallop," gasped Joris, "for Aix is in sight!"

"How they'll greet us!"--and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets' rim.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is--friends flocking round
As I sat with his head 'twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

The monologue of the dying Bishop is as great a masterpiece as
_My Last Duchess_; it has not a superfluous word, and in only a
few lines gives us the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. Ruskin
said that Browning is "unerring in every sentence he writes about
the Middle Ages, always vital, right, and profound." He added,
"I know no other piece of modern English, prose or poetry, in which
there is so much told, as in these lines, of the Renaissance spirit."
Yet Browning had never seen Rome until a few months before this poem
was published. It is an example, not of careful study, but of the
inexplicable divination of genius. Browning permits a delirious old
Bishop to talk a few lines, and a whole period of history is written.

The church of Saint Prassede is in a dirty little alley in Rome,
hard by the great church of Saint Maria Maggiore. You push through
the group of filthy, importunate beggars, open a leather door, and
you drop from the twentieth to the sixteenth century. It is one of
the most ornate churches in Rome; the mosaic angels in the choir are
precisely as the poet describes them. The tomb of the imaginary
Gandolf may be identified with a Bishop's tomb on the south side of
the church, and the Latin inscription under it, while it does not
contain the form "elucescebat," is not pure Tully, but rather
belongs to the Latin of Ulpian's time. The recumbent figure is in
exact accord with the description by Browning.

Skeptics are essential to the welfare of the Church; it is only in
periods of sharp, skilful hostility that the Church becomes pure. In
the Middle Ages, when it ran riot with power, there were plenty of
churchmen as corrupt as our dying man. His love for a Greek
manuscript is as sensual as his love for his mistress; and having
lived a life of physical delight, it is natural that his last
thoughts should concern themselves with the abode of his body rather
than with the destination of his soul. Of course his mind is
wandering, or he would not speak with quite such shameless cynicism.
Browning has made him talk of Saint Praxed at _his_ sermon on the
mount, in order to prove the delirium. S. Praxed was a female saint.

The constant confusion of Greek mythology with the ritual of the
Christian church is a characteristic feature both of this poem and
of the period of history it represents.

Kipling is particularly fond of this work, and it will be remembered
what use he makes of it in _Stalky and Co_.


ROME, 15--


Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews--sons mine ... ah God, I know not! Well--
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
What's done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream.
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
"Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all.
Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace;
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:
--Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence
One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side,
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
And up into the aery dome where live
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk:
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,
And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest,
With those nine columns round me, two and two,
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands:
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse.
--Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!
Draw close: that conflagration of my church
--What then? So much was saved if aught were missed!
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood,
Drop water gently till the surface sink,
And if ye find ... Ah God, I know not, I! ...
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft,
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,
Some lump, ah God, of _lapis lazuli_,
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ...
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,
That brave Frascati villa with its bath,
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,
Like God the Father's globe on both his hands
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!
Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years:
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black--
'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off,
And Moses with the tables ... but I know
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope
To revel down my villas while I gasp
Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!
Nay, boys, ye love me--all of jasper, then!
Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve.
My bath must needs be left behind, alas!
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,
There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world--
And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?
--That's if ye carve my epitaph aright,
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line--
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!
And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work:
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,
About the life before I lived this life,
And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests,
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,
And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet,
--Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.
All _lapis_, all, sons! Else I give the Pope
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick,
They glitter like your mother's for my soul,
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,
To comfort me on my entablature
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask
"Do I live, am I dead?" There, leave me, there!
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude
To death--ye wish it--God, ye wish it! Stone--
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through--
And no more _lapis_ to delight the world!
Well go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs
--Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,
And leave me in my church, the church for peace,
That I may watch at leisure if he leers--
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she was!

Browning gives us a terrible study of jealousy in _The Laboratory_.
The chemist says nothing, but the contrast between the placid face
of the old scientist, intent only upon his work, and the wildly
passionate countenance of the little woman with him, is sufficiently
impressive. Those were the days when murder was a fine art. She
plans the public death of the woman she hates so that the lover will
never be able to forget the dying face. Radiant in queenly beauty,
with the smile of satisfaction that accompanies the inner assurance
of beauty and power--in a moment she will be convulsively rolling on
the floor, her swollen face purplish-black with the poison, her
mouth emitting foam like a mad dog. There is no doubt that the
little murderess intends to follow her rival to the tomb. She has
given the chemist her entire fortune as pay for the drop of poison;
he may kiss her, if he likes! All shame, all womanly reserve are gone:
what does anything matter now? It is a true study of jealousy,
because the little creature does not dream of attacking the _man_
who deserted her; all her hellish energy is directed against the
woman. Indeed the poison that she buys will not transform her rival
more completely than the dreadful poison of jealousy has already
transformed her from what she was to what she is.

The language and metre fit the thought. Tennyson passed a severe
judgment on the first line

Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly

saying that it lacked smoothness, that it was a very difficult
mouthful. But is this not intentional and absolutely right? The
woman is speaking slowly with compressed lips, her voice convulsed
with terrible hatred and the terrible resolution for revenge.





Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
May gaze thro' these faint smokes curling whitely,
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil's-smithy--
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?


He is with her, and they know that I know
Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow
While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
Empty church, to pray God in, for them!--I am here.


Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste,
Pound at thy powder,--I am not in haste!
Better sit thus, and observe thy strange things,
Than go where men wait me and dance at the King's.


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