HIS POETRY AND HIS THEOLOGY
It is a serious question whether this essay would ever have been written if I had not awhile ago seen Robert Browning—not in the flesh, but in the Watts' collection. I do not refer to the collection of Isaac Watts, valuable as that collection is, but to that of George Frederick Watts, who puts his poetry upon canvas instead of coining it into song. Many critics regard this particular Watts as the best modern reviver of the color and the ideality of the Venetian masters.
A considerable number of his pictures were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was "Love and Death "—a rosy boy, with appealing look, vainly striving to press back from the threshold a veiled and sombre form that trampled under his feet the flowers falling from Love's fingers. There was "Love and Life"—a noble, masculine figure helping a fainting maiden along a rocky, precipitous path—the lesson being this, that life cannot get on without love. There was "Time, Death, and Judgment "—Time, an immortal youth, Death, a solemn, dusky shape, both wading through a deep stream, while Judgment, with flaming sword, followed close behind.
These three were all of them great pictures—great
because they bodied forth ideal truth and gave it power over the heart. But the portraits of the collection were more impressive still. The realistic method was never more rigidly applied. Each subject was treated in its own way. The artist had seized the central feature of each personality and had set it forth so vividly and powerfully that the living man stood revealed before you in lineaments never to be forgotten.
There was Lord Lawrence, a swarthy face against a lurid background, as if just emerging from the smoke and flame and blood of the Indian mutiny. There was Sir Frederick Leighton, president of the Royal Academy, all elegance and jollity, as if he cared not a fig whether his special school of painting kept or not. There was John Stuart Mill, cold and intellectual, as if meditating whether in some distant star like Sirius two and two might not possibly make five. There was John Lothrop Motley, the very pink of a literary aristocrat. There was Cardinal Manning, all scarlet and lace, all dignity and devotion, but with an ascetic air that seemed to say he had not had a good meal of victuals since he entered the Roman church. There was Thomas Carlyle, biting through his under lip for very groutiness. There was Swinburne, a pert little counter-jumper, with red hair flying all abroad as if he had just received a shock of electricity. There was Alfred Tennyson, with melancholy and self-consciousness only slightly relieved by the remembrance of his elevation to the House of Lords.
And there, finally, was Robert Browning, healthy, robust, sagacious, subtle; seemingly a large-minded cotton manufacturer, rather than a retail vender of '' Red
cotton Night-caps"; with good humor, knowledge of affairs, insight into character, determination to express what he saw; but, as for "the soul of melody," "singing as the bird sings," or anything sensuous, sentimental, or purely artistic, why, it was simply not there. Philosopher, critic of life, man of the world? Yes. But, poet? Well, if so, not one of the common sort. Not Tennyson's
The poet in a golden clime was born,
The free winds told him what they knew,
is the verse to describe him. Yet, when I saw the portrait, I felt that I had new light thrown upon all that Browning ever wrote. The man interpreted his work. I recognized a new species of the genus "poet"—one who has made a sort of poetry so entirely his own that we shall have to pull down our barns and build greater, or else construct an annex to our old scheme of classification, in order to make room for him and take him in.
That Robert Browning is a great writer, the story of his life sufficiently demonstrates. Born in 1812, he was graduated at the London University before reaching the age of twenty. He then spent some years south of the Alps, rummaging about in the libraries of old monasteries and inspecting the pictures of old cathedrals, till Walter Savage Landor could truly say that Browning never strikes a false note when he treats of Italy. "Pauline" was his first printed poem; "Paracelsus," published in 1836, his first tragedy. His "Strafford" was represented upon the stage and failed, though Macready took the principal r61e in 1837. He married Elizabeth Barrett in 1846, and Mrs. Browning died in 1861.
During all these and the following years Browning has been a prolific writer. As many as ten thick volumes attest his industry. Yet he has never caught the popular ear—he has never tried to catch it. His productions have had to make their way against storms of criticism, but they have been read by a continually increasing number of thoughtful people. Whatever the student of literature may think of Browning, he must take account of the fact that never before was there a writer of verse for the study of whose writings during his lifetime clubs were formed in every large city of both hemispheres—the proceedings of some of these clubs being regularly published, like the transactions of learned societies.
Here is at least a literary phenomenon. There are two possible explanations: Either Robert Browning is a plausible pretender, or he is a great poet. Is Robert Browning a great poet? Well, "that depends." We must know what poetry is and what Robert Browning is. I shall treat my reader therefore to a definition of poetry which, however defective in other respects it may be, will at least have the merit of being brand-new. I shall then weigh Robert Browning in these balances and see whether he is found wanting.
Poetry is an imaginative reproduction of the universe in its ideal relations and the expression of these relations in rhythmical literary form. The meaning of this definition will more fully appear if we say concretely that the poet is, first, a creator; secondly, an idealizer; and, THE CREATIVE ELEMENT IN POETRY 379 everywhere, on the Alps or on the Rhine, in Greece or Spain or Italy, he sees only himself. Manfred and the Giaour, Childe Harold and Don Juan, are all Byron, under different names and various disguises. Not so with Shakespeare. The greatness of the master appears in nothing so much as in this, that in Shakespeare you see everybody and everything but Shakespeare himself. So Browning hides his own personality. Only twice that I remember in all his writings does he speak in his own name—first, in that magnificent tribute to his living wife, " One Word More "; and, secondly, at the close of his introduction to "The Ring and the Book," in which he almost apotheosizes his wife now dead. Browning deals with the non-ego, not with the ego, in the sense of self.
thirdly, a literary artist. Take the first of these. There
is a creative element in all true poetry. The poet is
etymologically a "maker," not in the sense in which
God is the maker of all, but in the secondary sense that
he shapes into new forms the material made ready to
his hand. Browning has himself furnished us with a
noble description of this office of the imagination:
I find first
Writ down for very A, B, C, of fact:
"In the beginning God made heaven and earth," . . .
Man—as befits the made, the inferior thing— . . .
Repeats God's process, in man's due degree,
Attaining man's proportionate result;
Creates? No, but resuscitates perhaps.
For such man's feat is, in the due degree.
Mimic creation, galvanism for life,
But still a glory portioned in the scale.
— The Ring and the Book, I: 706, 741.
Still farther on, in the same work from which we have quoted, the author compares this manipulation of facts by the imagination to the adding of alloy when the gold is made into a ring.
We must remember, however, that this creative function is to be clearly distinguished from that power of the mind which merely recalls the past. The reproductive faculty is not simply the representative faculty. Imagination is not memory. Every woman can write one novel; she remembers one story—her own—and she can tell that. But "the vision and the faculty divine" that can evolve a hundred stories, all true to life and throbbing with emotion, how rare a thing is this! Byron shows the narrowness of his creative powers, when
I have called poetry the imaginative reproduction of the universe. But I have not meant to limit the word "universe" to its technical theological meaning. I have meant it to include all, even God himself. Only by giving to the term this infinite sweep of significance do we gain the proper conception of the dignity of poetry. It is nothing less than the reproduction to the imagination of all being, all beauty, all truth, in short of all things, visible or invisible. The high praises of God are its noblest province, but all the world of finite things is its province also. To reproduce all this to the imagination would require an infinite mind, and the result would be the poetry of the ages, the poetry of eternity.
If this is the meaning of the word "universe," then it is certain that no mortal poet can compass it. Hence the poet must make his choice; he must divide, in order IMAGINATION REPRODUCES THE UNIVERSE 381
to conquer. It is not to his discredit that he takes a limited field, provided within those limits he "holds the mirror up to nature" and shows us the essential truth of things. In order to judge Browning justly then, we must ask what range he has assigned himself, and whether within that range he shows himself possessed of a great creative imagination.
The most obvious thing to be said about Browning's genius is that he is the poet, not of nature, but of man. Wordsworth was the poet of nature. To him the world was sacred, because symbolic and interfused with a divine element. The "light of setting suns," and "the billows rolling evermore"—these kindled his poetic imagination.
The'meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light—
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
Now all this affords the utmost contrast to Browning's poetry. I doubt whether sentiments like these can be found in all the dozen solid volumes that bear his name. Browning and Wordsworth both deal with common things; but Wordsworth treats of nature, Browning of life. The latter could adopt Pope's line, "The proper study of mankind is man." And in the introduction to "Sordello," where our author has most clearly indicated the direction of his literary ambition, he says in plain prose: "My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul."
Again, Browning is the poet, not of events, but of thoughts. He cares not so much for the result as for the process—he describes, not so much incidents, as people's impressions of them. Some might perhaps think that in the "Bringing of the Good News from Ghent to Aix " we had at least one exception to this rule; but even here the interest lies not so much in the ride as in the rider; not so much in the redoubtable steed as in the fiery determination that spurred him on; not so much in the deliverance itself as in the thoughts of the deliverer. Rarely, if ever, has this writer's verse any tinge of the objective, much less of the epic.
On the other hand, he lets us into the secrets of the heart. As he sets before us "Bishop Blougram's Apology" for holding great ecclesiastical preferments while all real faith in the doctrines he was* set to defend has gone out of him, we see "all the recesses and windings of an acute but mean and peddling little soul." As we hear the duke calmly describe his villainous treatment of "My Last Duchess," it is difficult to say which we most shudder at, the speaker's icy cruelty, or his unconsciousness of it. No poet has more clearly taught that "out of the heart are the issues of life," and that "as a man thinketh, so is he." No poet has more powerfully depicted the self-perpetuating sin of the thoughts, or has given more impressive illustrations of the necessity of "bringing every thought into captivity," if we would make the least pretense to virtue,.
Once more, Browning's poetry is not lyric, but dramatic. He does not himself describe men's thoughts, but he makes men describe their own. In one of his poems he rebukes a brother poet for " speaking naked
thoughts, instead of draping them in sights and sounds." In the "Spanish Cloister," the malicious, cursing monk involuntarily sets before us the character and life of the gentle and kindly brother whom he hates; so that, though the latter never utters a word for himself, the very cursing of his enemy becomes his justification and his monument. The little poem entitled "Confessions" contains a startling revelation of the heart. It is the last words of a dying man. He will have nothing to do with the clergyman who comes to give him spiritual consolation. He fastens his eyes on the medicine bottles upon the table, and his imagination turns even them into a picture of a darling sin of his youth, and gloats over the remembered transgression, even though the next moment is to usher him into the presence of God.
All this reminds me of a historical incident related by Mrs. Charles in her book, entitled "The Diary of Kitty Trevylyan." John Nelson, the Methodist preacher of England, was converted by means of a dream. He saw the great white throne set and the myriads gathered of earth and heaven. The Judge sat silent, but before him was an open book. Up to that book came one by one in long procession every soul of all mankind, and as each advanced he tore open his breast as a man would tear open the bosom of his shirt, and then compared his heart with the commandments written in the book. Not a word was said, nor did the Judge lift his finger, but each man, according as his heart agreed or disagreed with that perfect standard, went with joy to the company of the saved, or in despair to the company of the damned. Sin became its own detecterand judge and tormentor. So as we read Robert Browning we become aware that a process of self-revelation is going on. We seem to have naked souls before us. We look into the heart of man and into the day of judgment.
Now, granting to our author his peculiar and chosen department, namely, matt; his aspect of that segment of the universe, namely, thought; and, finally, his method of treatment, the dramatic; we ask once more: Is Browning a great creative genius? I think no one who has attentively and sympathetically read such poems as " Karshish," "Andrea del Sarto," "The Flight of the Duchess," "Dis Aliter Visum," "The Statue and the Bust," " By the Fireside," "Master Hugues," " Evelyn Hope," can refrain from answering in the affirmative.
But none of these, after all, give more than fragmentary evidences of his power. The greatest work of Robert Browning is unquestionably "The Ring and the Book." A sort of personality invests this acknowledgment of mine, and I make it partly by way of reparation; for, fifteen years ago, I began to read this production of the poet, but allowed myself to be daunted by the roughness and obscurity of its opening pages. I threw it down, determined to read no more. For ten years I kept my vow. Beginning then with something easier, I found to my surprise that Browning was comprehensible. A summer vacation devoted to "The Ring and the Book" converted me to a qualified admirer of the poet. Now, after further study of his writings, I regard this poem as the greatest work of creative imagination that has appeared since the time of Shakespeare.
STRUCTURE OF "THE RING AND THE BOOK" 385
I wish to justify this statement, which to many will seem so extraordinary. I can only do so by briefly describing " The Ring and the Book." It is founded upon the story of an old Italian murder. Count Guido, after having passed his youth in the service of the pope and having failed to secure the advancement that he sought, determines in disgust to retire to his dilapidated castle and his ancestral estate. He bethinks him, however, that an addition to his meagre income will be desirable, and he manages, with that end in view, to marry the reputed daughter of an aged and well-to-do couple of the middle class and to take her with him. Her parents follow her and, being ill-treated by him, leave his house in wrath. They then make known the fact that their reputed daughter is no daughter of theirs, but the offspring of a courtesan.
Count Guido, in revenge, pursues toward his wife a course of relentless cruelty. He would drive her from him, yet in such a way as to throw the blame on her. A young priest is filled with pity for this double victim of avarice and malice—so young, so pure, so miserable —and he helps her to escape and to make her way to her so-called father's house in Rome. Thither Count Guido pursues her, and on a certain Christmas eve bursts in with hired assassins and fatally stabs the father, the mother, and herself. The count is apprehended, tried, and executed.
It is this story upon which Browning has rung the changes in "The Ring and the Book." First, we have the bare facts narrated—fourteen hundred lines. Secondly, we have the story as one-half of Rome tells it,
said one-half taking the part of the husband—fifteen
hundred lines. Thirdly, what the other half of Rome said, taking the side of the wife—seventeen hundred lines. Fourthly, Tertium quid—what the few, the e"lite, the cultured, the cardinals, said—sixteen hundred lines. Fifthly, what Count Guido himself said—two thousand lines. Sixthly, what the brave priest said who fled with the count's wife—twenty-one hundred lines. Seventhly, what the young wife herself said during the short hours between the attack and her death—eighteen hundred lines. Eighthly, what the counsel for the defense said at the trial—eighteen hundred lines. Ninthly, what the counsel for the prosecution said at that same trial— sixteen hundred lines. Tenthly, what the pope said, to whom the case was referred for final decision—twentyone hundred lines. Eleventhly, what Count Guido said in prison before he was beheaded—twenty-four hundred lines. Twelfthly, what the world said when all was over —nine hundred lines.
A most audacious and wearisome specimen of literary trifling, the reader will be apt to say. Not so. Each new telling of the story adds new incident and sheds new light. The effect is stereoscopic—you see the facts from ever new points of view. Little by little the real truth is evolved from the chaos of testimony; little by little the real motives of the actors become manifest. As the process goes on you catch yourself speculating about each of the dramatis persona, as if he were a character in real life. The complexity of human motive, the wonderful interaction of character and circumstance, the vastness of the soul, all these begin to dawn upon you. Men are both better and worse than they know; only God can judge the heart. I know of no THE IDEAL ELEMENT IN POETRY 387
poem in all literature in which the greatness of human nature so looms up before you, or which so convinces you that a whole heaven or a whole hell may be wrapped up in the compass of a single soul.
And as for the separate figures, I know not where to find characters more original or more distinct than that of Guido, with a selfishness that makes sun, moon, and stars revolve about him, and when foiled turns to desperate malignity; or Pompilia, the white lily grown out the horsepond scum, unstained even in the midst of cruelty and misery; or Caponsacchi, the pleasure-loving soul turned to a hero by one resolve of daring and selfsacrifice; or the grand old pope, rounding out a just life and preparing to go before God's judgment bar by doing one last act of justice and judgment upon earth. There are those who think this poem great only in its length, and it cannot be denied that it gives the impression of inexhaustible fertility. But such critics can scarcely have read the poem through. The learning, the thought, the general conception—these are as remarkable as the length; and taking them all together, I am persuaded that the generations to come will regard "The Ring and the Book," in the mere matter of creative genius, as the greatest poetical work of this generation.
The strongest and most flattering thing that can be said about Robert Browning has been said already. We have found him to possess in an eminent degree the first and most important characteristic of the true poet, creative genius. But there is a second standard by which he must be tried. Is the idealizing element as highly developed in him? Poetry is the imaginative reproduction, not of the actual, but of the ideal universe. The great poet then must be able to idealize. His imagination, creative though it may be, must not find its affinities in the bad, the morally indifferent, or the merely actual. It must hold high converse with the true, the beautiful, and the good. The poet must be one of
The immortal few
Who to the enraptured soul and ear and eye
Teach beauty, virtue, truth, and love, and melody,
Let me make this plain by a few contrasts. Imagination is not enough to make a poet. I once had a classmate who had a vivid imagination—the trouble was that his imagination all ran to snakes. Of words descriptive of creeping and slimy things—centipedes, scorpions, and toads—he had a rare supply; and the imaginative power displayed in his occasional objurgations was something impressive. But I never called him a poet.
Somewhat similarly there is an imagination that runs by instinct to the morally bad, that seems to love the low and the vile for its own sake; or, if not this, is possessed with the notion—a notion born of a pantheistic philosophy—that everything that is has a sort of sacredness and value, and therefore is to be faithfully represented in literature. And so we have Zola's studies of morbid anatomy, and his minute depicting of the festering plague-spots of humanity. Of a somewhat better sort are the novels of Henry James—novels with no moral purpose; novels, in fact, that scout a moral purpose as foreign to true art. Mr. James seems to fancy that his business is simply to set before us studies of NOT A MERE REPRESENTATION OF LIFE 389
actual society and manners: he would photograph modern life.
Now in contrast to all this tendency in our modern literature I stand for the thesis that poetry is not a mere representation of life. Preraphaelite studies of nature are not worthy the name of poetry. Art is not photography, and photography is not art. The ideal element must be seized and exhibited, or we have no poetry. We want to see the good in low surroundings, and we want to see the evil only as a foil and contrast to the good. "Poetry," as Ruskin has well said, "presents to us noble grounds for the noble emotions." We seek in poetry for the essential truth and beauty that lie at the heart of things. Bluer skies than those of Italy, brighter wit than that of Sidney Smith, higher thought than that of Plato, these we seek and expect in poetry. We look to her to lift us from the dull realm of the actual into the "great air " of the ideal.
Of Browning as an idealizer I cannot say so much as I said when I spoke of him as a creator. And yet a striking feature of his poetry is its recognition of this higher element in human life. To him all men are in a true sense ideal beings. There is a germ of greatness in every soul, continents that no Columbus has ever yet discovered, thoughts and motives, feelings and decisions, that possess interest beyond that of the whole material universe. Browning would not have chosen for his subject the soul of man if he had not sympathized with the dictum of Sir William Hamilton, "In the universe there is nothing great but man; in man there is nothing great but mind."
Idealization, however, to be of any value, requires the possession of right standards of judgment. The poet therefore must be able to see things in large relations, discern the universal in the particular, catch glimpses of the absolute truth and beauty in its minor manifestations. The greatest poetry is impossible except to a great philosopher. I know what prejudices I am encountering here; still I believe that these prejudices originate in a mistaken and narrow view of what poetry is. If poetry is the imaginative reproduction of the universe in its ideal relations, then nothing human, nothing divine, can be foreign to the poet. He must know psychology and ethics and politics and law; he must know the physical sciences, and he must be a theologian as well. Of course I do not mean that he must be a master in details; but this is certain, that the great poets have possessed themselves pf the substance of the knowledge of their times. And this means that the great poet must be a man of broad mind, of deep sympathy, a great thinker, and a great man.
There are three things in particular which serve as standards in all idealization, and which the great poet must rightly apprehend. He must first of all have a right view of human nature. He must believe in freedom and immortality. No great poet was ever a fatalist. The poetry of mere fate denies man's consciousness, and fails to inspire. Emerson was better than his philosophy when he wrote:
So near is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When duty whispers low, "Thou must,"
The youth replies, "I can."
FAITH IN FREEDOM AND IMMORTALITY 3QI
How different from this is the writing of George Eliot, with her exaggeration of heredity. To her, life is but the working out of inborn tendencies. Man may struggle and he may pray, but his nature is too much for him at last. Those who have seen Elihu Vedder's illustrations of Omar Khayyam will remember the everrecurring swirl that images human life; the many threads that come, no man knows whence, that go, no. man knows whither; the gathering of these threads for a moment into the knot of human consciousness, and then the scattering of that consciousness forever. No wonder that at that center stands the wine cup. It is the old philosophy of the brute: "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."
Now I say that with such a conception as this there can be no proper idealization, and no poetry that will permanently touch the heart of man. Life is not worth writing poetry about, for it has lost its dignity. The true poet believes less in environment, and more in will; less in heredity, and more in freedom. Charles Kingsley has said that the spirit of the ancient tragedy was "man conquered by circumstance," while the spirit of the modern tragedy is "man conquering circumstance." But this is only partly true. Even the ancient tragedy had its Prometheus, with unconquerable will asserting his freedom in spite of the thunderbolts and the vultures.
And there is still more to be said. The thirst of conscience for reparation is the very essence of tragedy, whether ancient or modern. And this conscience witnesses to freedom in the past and to an immortality of retribution in the future. Poetry must take account of these facts in the nature of man, or it ceases to be poetry. Now we claim for Robert Browning that he recognizes them. In his pages we read of human freedom. "Ixion" is a poem worthy, for its spirit and its power, to be put side by side with the "Prometheus" of /Eschylus. In it the victim, bound to his iron wheel, can still triumph over Jove. In "Pippa Passes," the innocent peasant girl trips in simple gladness from scene to scene, singing as she goes:
God's in his heaven,
All's right with the world,
but her little song rouses conscience, makes vice seem hateful, reveals men to themselves. All unconsciously to herself her words strike right and left, "a savor of life unto life or of death unto death," and the result is two murders and three souls saved. I know of no poem since "Macbeth" that so portrays the agony of an awakened conscience. In this day of Hegelian revival, when moral evil and natural evil are confounded with each other, our literature needs to be invigorated by a fresh breeze from Dante, by Shakespeare's pictures of remorse, and by Robert Browning's illustrations of the voluntariness and the damnableness of sin.
If the poet must have proper views of human nature, it is yet more important that he should have proper views of the divine. He must recognize the fact that there is a God. A poet of whom it can be said that "God is not in all his thoughts," has missed the greatest thought of poetry, for "the greatest thought of the finite is the Infinite." So Jean Paul has said, and Browning would adopt his phrase. Our author's writing is so full FAITH IN PERSONALITY, RIGHTEOUSNESS, LOVE 393
of this divine element that many a reader would fain call him a religious philosopher, if not a religious poet. We maintain that the highest poetry is impossible without religion, not only because the thought of God is the most sublime and fruitful of thoughts, but because from this loftiest thought all our lower thoughts take their proper measure and color. He who has no sense of God can never look at finite things in their right proportions. He who does not see in God an infinite personality, righteousness, and love, can never interpret the world with its sorrow and its sin.
Browning believes in the personality and righteousness and love of God. He is at war indeed with the anthropomorphism which would degrade God to the level of human appetites and passions. His "Caliban on Setebos" is a most scathing and convincing arraignment of superstitious and slavish worship. "The Epilogue," in which David stands as the type of the religion that confines God to place, and Renan as the type of the skepticism that gazes sensuously into heaven until the last star of faith grows dim and disappears, ends with Browning's own declaration of faith in an immanent Deity:
That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows,
Or decomposes but to recompose,
Become my Universe that feels and knows.
But that this is not pantheism, we are assured by other poems like "Saul," in which, not content with an unmoral God, he declares that "All's law, yet all's love," and maintains that incarnation is the only true revelation. So Pompilia strikes the same note when she says:
I never realized God's birth before—
How he grew likest God in being born.
"Ferishtah's Fancies," thought by some to be only a collection of slight poems, seems to me to be one of the most significant examples of the poet's irresistible tendency to the expression of religious ideas. In these slight poems I find the following subjects successively treated: i. God works no unnecessary miracles. 2. Let us give thanks for actual blessings, though much that we desire may fail us. 3. Faith and love go together. 4. Pray on, though you see no answer to your prayers. 5. The purpose of suffering is purification. 6. The punishment of sin is the dwarfing of nature. 7. Asceticism fails of its own end. 8. Love must go before knowledge. 9. Life is worth the living. I think no one can read over this list without being convinced that here is a poet who believes in God as well as in the soul.
But there are also relations between man and God upon which the poet must have definite opinions, if he would idealize aright. I have already referred to "Saul," by way of evidence that Browning's God is a personal God, a God of love, a God self-revealed and brought down to our human comprehension in the incarnate Christ. I wish to speak of this same poem as embodying the true idea of inspiration, and so in general, of the communications of God to man. I speak of this poem the more readily because it is perhaps the most widely known and the most easily understood of Browning's longer productions—the fittest of all therefore for a beginner to master.
FAITH IN A REVELATION OF GOD TO MAN 395
The title of the poem should be " David," rather than "Saul," for the interest centers not in Saul's hearing but in David's song. The shepherd boy has been brought from the sheepfold to chase away with music the abnormal and insane depression of Saul's spirit. David sings of nature and her beauty, but Saul is not moved. He celebrates Saul's own heroic deeds, but there is no response. David rises in spirit as he sings; in love he takes to himself Saul's sorrow; and, as he does so, a Spirit greater than his own takes possession of the singer; through his own love for his monarch, he is lifted up to understand something of the great love of God; his human sympathy becomes the vehicle of prophecy; in God himself he sees the desire to reveal himself in human form to men; he looks into the far future and cries, " See the Christ stand!"
Is there any other poem than this that more fully and truly expresses the method of divine inspiration? Here is a using of human faculties and powers, of human heart and tongue, yet an elevation of all these to heights of understanding and expression which unaided humanity is powerless to reach. The supernatural uses the natural as its basis and starting-point, as its medium and vehicle; but it transcends the natural, opening to it the far reaches of prophetic vision, and attuning it to the melody of a heavenly song.
I might speak of "A Death in the Desert," an attempt to depict the last hours of St. John, and to illustrate how human nature, fainting and failing as it is, can hospitably receive and faithfully express the mind and will of the Spirit of God. But I find nowhere in Browning's writings any intimation that the gift of inspiration proper is to be confounded with the enlightenment of Christian men in general. He stops with the faith that "holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." And yet the obscure and the weak may be God's workmen still:
All service ranks the same with God—
With God, whose puppets best and worst
Are we: there is no last nor first
Alfred Tennyson has been called the religious poet of this century, apparently upon the ground of such poems as "The Two Voices," "The Vision of Sin," and " In Memoriam." I dislike to shock the sensibilities of Tennyson's admirers; but I wish to record my belief that there is far more of a healthful religious spirit in Browning than in Tennyson. In the latter, underneath the faith there is a generally hidden, but sometimes outcropping, skepticism; so that I should hesitate to say whether his poetry had been quoted the more by the prophets of faith or the prophets of unbelief. This cannot be said of Browning. I do not read fragments of his writings in sermons preached for the purpose of criticising or denouncing the old faith. I do find him referred to in reverent discussions of the law and the attributes of God.
I am inclined to commend the reading of Robert Browning to all preachers and theologians, as well as to all thoughtful Christian people. He is the most learned, stirring, impressive literary teacher of our time—but he is a religious philosopher as well. He has expressed himself upon a larger variety of problems than any modern poet. He who would serve men's highest in
IS HIS POETRY ALWAYS SERIOUS? 397
terests as secular or religious teacher, will find more of suggestion, more of illustration, more of stimulus, in Browning than in any modern writer. To quote again from Walter Savage Landor: "His is the surest foot, since Chaucer's, that has waked the echoes from the difficult places of poetry and of life."
I cannot leave this general subject of Browning's idealizing faculty without fairly considering two objections to my doctrine, one directed against the seriousness, and the other against the healthfulness of his poetry. I grant that there is at times an apparent levity. This may sometimes be merely a sign that he is consciously master of his theme—so fully master that he can play with it. The cat plays with the mouse she has caught—she does not care to play with the dog. But Browning himself has suggested a deeper and more constant reason than this. He has appropriated as motto for " Ferishtah's Fancies " what Collier in his edition of Shakespeare says of that great master: "His genius was jocular, but when disposed he could be very serious." So we may say that it is the nature of Browning's genius to be jocular.
Is jocularity incompatible with seriousness? "I am never merry when I hear sweet music," says Jessica in "The Merchant of Venice." Why did Jesus never jest? Would he have seemed to us possessed of a larger and truer humanity if the humorous element had appeared in him? It is common to say that our Lord's unique work of suffering and death involved unique and soul-crushing burdens—for him to laugh would have been as incongruous as for us to laugh at a funeral. We sing, "He wept that we might weep." Is it not equally true to say, "He wept- that we might smile "? Since " Believing, we rejoice 10 see the curse remove," may we not maintain that an unhindered development of all parts of our nature is first rendered possible by his death?
I think no one can doubt that there is a provision in our nature for wit and jollity. Great men with great cares have solaced themselves with jests. We do not think either Socrates or Abraham Lincoln the less serious because they were occasionally jocular. I will not venture to say that Browning is never guilty of seeming irreverence; but that this seeming irreverence has a really profane intent would be hard to prove. In general, I think it is rather the bubbling up of a deep effervescent spring. It is part of his idealizing faculty to see things in their humorous relations. His jocularity, though sometimes carried to an extreme, is part of the large-mindedness of the man.
And this opens the way to the discussion of the last objection. Is Robert Browning's poetry healthful in its influence? We must grant that there is a certain freedom about its treatment of man's physical instincts, which now and then may offend critics of the Tennysonian school. There is no asceticism in Browning. He does not attempt to do without the body, as Shelley did. But neither does he deify the body, as Swinburne does. Mens sana in corpore sano is his motto. He believes in food and drink—but in food and drink mainly as means, not as ends. If he ever speaks of sensuous things with something of Elizabethan frankness, we must remember that there is a mock modesty more akin to vice than is innocent freedom of speech. IS HIS POETRY ALWAYS HEALTHFUL? 399
I find in Browning true sentiment without a tinge of sentimentality.
John Stuart Mill once defined sentimentality as "a setting of the sympathetic aspect of things above their aesthetic aspect, or above the moral aspect of them— their right or wrong." This was the fault of the early novels, like Richardson's " Clarissa," which drew such oceans of tears from our great-great-grandmothers, but whose sickly and maudlin sentiment we only make merry over to-day. Now I think it a great tribute to the healthfulness of Robert Browning's poetry, and so to his power of true idealization, when I say that, as for this mawkish sentimentality, he will have none of it. Wordsworth would have come nearer to being one of the greatest poets if he had not lacked one of his senses— not one of the five senses, but that sixth, most important sense—the sense of the ludicrous. Browning's sense of the ludicrous stands him in good stead. He cannot be commonplace, he cannot be nonsensical, he cannot be affected, he cannot be sentimental. Our young people will get good from reading such poems as Dis AUtcr Visum, because Browning does not believe that true love is an unreasoning impulse, but rather regards it as subject to judgment and conscience.
Passion is not its own justification; the sympathies are under law to reason; feeling should have a basis in fact—these are truths which greatly need to be taught to our easy-going, pleasure-loving time; and no one has taught them so well as Browning. Out of his books there blows a healthful breeze, as from the woods and the hills, to brace up and reinvigorate a literature that was fast becoming finical and dilettante. And I think I am not mistaken in saying that much of the modern progress toward direct and sensible speech, both in the pulpit and in the press; much of the new simplicity and vigor which differences our talk from the bookish conversations of Walter Scott's novels; aye, much of the condensation and energy of recent English poetry, as compared with the long-winded wearisomeness of Wordsworth, is to be attributed to thehealthful influence of Robert Browning.
Browning is greatest as a creative genius; less great as an idealizer; least great as a literary artist. We have said that poetry is an imaginative reproduction of the universe in its ideal relations and an expression of these relations in rhythmical literary form. It is this standard of artistic form by which we have still to try our poet. Artistic form is of two sorts, or rather involves two elements: first, an element of construction; and secondly, an element of rhythmical and musical expression. In considering the constructive element, we must remember that true poetry, like true science, puts before us not merely facts, but facts in their relations. In a great poem we want, not the materials of poetry, but an organic structure; not bricks, but a house. It is a serious question whether that can be a great poem which compels the reader to do the poet's work. I do not attempt just here to decide the question; I only suggest it with the view of adducing an argument or two upon each side and then leaving the reader to judge for himself.
For all ordinary purposes and in all ordinary kinds of writing, the world has come to accept Herbert Spencer's principle of style,—a contribution to human knowledge, by the way, of more value and longer to be reTHE ARTISTIC ELEMENT IN POETRY 4OI
membered than all the rest of his philosophy,—I mean the principle of "economy of the reader's or hearer's attention." Given in the auditor, for example, a certain amount of intellectual and emotional energy, then the less of this energy expended in grappling with the mere form of an address, the more there will be left to seize upon the substance. Hence the wisdom of making the drapery as thin as possible, that the real form may be the better seen. Avoid all involution and remote allusion that will hinder the hearer from getting at the sense. Let the phrase of your essay be so simple that he who runs may read. So order your material that it unfolds most easily and naturally, each new sentence adding some point of interest, and all tending to a climax of thought and of expression.
This is the art of putting things. The French excel in it. Every great teacher is in this respect a literary artist. He knows how to organize his matter so as to produce the most rapid, comprehensive, and powerful impression. And this is the first thing pointed out in Milton's description of true poetry: "Simple, sensuous, passionate."
Now it is agreed by all that Browning is often obscure, and that this obscurity resides not alone in the single phrase or verse, but also in the whole arrangement of his material. The reader often begins, as I myself began, with unprepossessed and even favorable mind, only to find that unexplained allusions throng upon him; clues are presented which, being tracked out, seem to lead no-whither; in fact, a labyrinth seems to be the only comparison that fits the poem. Grave doubts suggest themselves either of the poet's sanity
or of our own. Or is he trifling with us? The average reader concludes at any rate that what it is not worth Mr. Browning's while to make intelligible, it is not worth his own while to read. The very multiplicity of questions that suggest themselves at every turn, and that make so lively the meetings of the Browning clubs, are an offense to the man who does not love to think much as he reads.
I know of no author, ancient or modern, the mention of whose name just now excites more violent dispute. Certain it is that Browning divides the world. There are two hostile camps. If he is not of all poets the best loved by his friends, he is surely the best hated by his foes. Indeed it is almost amusing to hear one who has been cheered, in beginning Sordello, by the author's assurance: "Who will, may hear Sordello's story told," and then has floundered through what he cannot but regard as a mediaeval literary morass—I say, it is amusing to hear such a one describe the indignation with which at the close of the poem he read the words: "Who would, has heard Sordello's story told."
It is only fair, however, to listen to Browning's defense. His method, he would say, is the true method, because it is the method of life. Suppose you go down the street to morrow morning, and as you go, perceive in the distance a great crowd stretching from curb to curb. There are excitement, and hurried ejaculations, and much rushing to and fro. You draw near and ask some person upon the periphery of the circle what it is all about. He gives you the curt and fragmentary answer, "Murder," and then turns from you. You press your way inward, questioning others as you can, until AN EXPLANATION OF HIS OBSCURITY 403
gradually there rises in your mind the structure of a story; hints which at first you could not understand begin to be interpreted; you modify first impressions by subsequent information; by the time you have reached the center of the crowd a whole tragedy of love, and jealousy, and crime, and death, has been enacted in your brain.
Compare this way of getting at the story with the other way of reading about it all in the evening paper of that same day. Which of these ways most rouses your thinking powers, most excites your interest and sympathy? Can any one doubt that it is the former? Now this is Browning's method. He thrusts us into the turmoil of life and compels us to construct the story for ourselves. He gives us facts, but only in a fragmentary way. What is said becomes fully intelligible only in the light of further knowledge. What is the result? Why this: you become a judicial personage, and weigh evidence, as the case unfolds before you. You become yourself a poet, a creator, and when you have done, you feel that the poem is a thing of life, that you have your own hard-earned conception of it, that it is your poem as well as Browning's.
All this is best illustrated in the case of "The Ring and the Book." As those twenty-two thousand lines pass before your eyes, your first impulse is to give up the investigation—the case is too complicated, and life is short. But keep on, and the story gets a hold upon you; the characters become instinct with life; each new aspect of the case is like a new revelation; the whole poem becomes a mighty living structure, wheel within wheel, the fit type and representative of the life of humanity moved upon from above by angelic influences, and seized from beneath by the powers of hell. When you have read it you can call it "A ring without a posy, and that, mine." In this very sense of possession which Browning's poems awaken, I see the secret of the intense interest he excites in those who have the patience and the grace to read him. If we have to eat our own bread in the sweat of our brow, Browning would say that this is precisely what he has been aiming at; without exercise we should have no appetite, no enjoyment of our food, no profit from the eating of it.
I confess that this view of the case has much to say for itself. Certainly the best poetry is not that which yields its full meaning at the first cursory reading. If absolute intelligibility to a half-roused mind be the test of poetry, much of what we call the best is no poetry at all. No, a man cannot understand the best poetry without being something of a poet; even as he cannot appreciate Mont Blanc without looking at it from some neighboring height. The best poetry of Shakespeare or even of Tennyson is not mastered except by repeated reading; it takes years, and maturity indeed, before the full glory of some great passages dawns upon us.
Browning compels us to work for our intellectual living more perhaps than any other modern poet, but there is always the comfort of knowing that there is a real pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, and that there is a definite place where the rainbow ends. I do not think that Browning is obscure for the mere sake of obscurity; what obscurity there is is a part of his art, whether the principle upon which it rests is ill-judged or not. And, with practice, the obscure becomes plain. IS THE EXPLANATION SUFFICIENT? 405
In fact I find that the objection upon the score of obscurity is urged less and less, as the reader becomes more and more familiar with Browning's method. He expects it, he sees the object of it, he is stimulated by it, he ends by becoming a qualified admirer of it, just as he admires the twilight and the growing splendor of the stars.
Thus I have presented with all fairness the considerations pro and con, so far as respects the constructive element in Browning's poetry. I wish I could sum up and give the verdict squarely upon the side of the poet. This I fear I cannot do. I could do so if I did not recognize certain "unexplored remainders" in his writings, the meaning of which I have some doubt whether even Browning himself ever knew. In "Ferishtah's Fancies" there are certain lines printed in the original Hebrew; this looks to me mischievous, if not malicious. A noted Greek professor said that he could understand Browning's translation of the " Agamemnon," if he were only permitted to use the original as a "pony."
I have always thought it doubtful whether the Romans understood their own great poets at first reading. I have some sympathy with the man who declared that if the Latins had had to learn their own language, they would have had no time to conquer the world. But there is seldom what you may call willful and needless obscurity in the classic poets. Their condensed and nervous speech was meant to pack things in for preservation; and it is no wonder that the original package sometimes takes time to untie. So Browning means to pack his thought. Mrs. Orr tells us that it was a reproachful note of Miss Caroline Fox that determined him nevermore to use an unnecessary word. Would that he had added the determination perfectly to organize his material before he began to write.
While I see in Browning an untold wealth of resource, a mind most eager for expression, a power to recognize truth in its secret hiding-places, I see also an occasional lack of judgment as to what is valuable and what is merely curious, and a lack of constructive power to make the most of the matter that is chosen. He seems at times content with first drafts, willing to put down out of a teeming mind what first comes to hand, and ready to say, upon objection made, that if the reader cannot understand it, so much the worse for the reader. Here he is something less than a great literary artist, for true art is intelligible, and no unintelligible poem can ever become immortal.
I cannot leave this part of my subject without putting something of the poet's least intelligible verse side by side with something of his simplest and best. I know few passages more difficult as to form, yet more noble for depth and insight, than this one from "The Ring and the Book " :1
God breathes, not speaks, his verdicts, felt not heard—
Passed on successively to each court I call
Man's conscience, custom, manners, all that make
More and more effort to promulgate, mark
God's verdict in determinable words,
Till last come human jurists—solidify
Fluid results—what's fixable lies forged,
Statute—the residue escapes in fume,
Yet hangs aloft a cloud, as palpable
To the finer sense as word the legist welds.
1 "The Ring and the Book," I : 255 sq.
RHYTHMICAL AND MUSICAL EXPRESSION 4O7
Justinian's Pandects only make precise
What simply sparkled in men's eyes before,
Twitched in their brow or quivered on their lip,
Waited the speech they called, but would not come.
Yet this passage is obscure to many merely because the thought is profound. To such let us commend "The Martyr's Epitaph," in which Browning shows himself capable of a simplicity and grandeur unsurpassed in English poetry:
Sickly I was, and poor and mean,—
A slave; no misery could screen
The holders of the pearl of price
From Cassar's envy; therefore twice
I fought with beasts, and thrice I saw
My children suffer by his law.
At length my own release I earned;
I was some time in being burned,
But at the last a hand came through
The flame above my head, and drew
My soul to Christ, whom now I see.
Sergius, a brother, wrote for me
This testimony on the wall;
For me—I have forgot it alL
—Easter Day, 275-288.
The truest artistic form requires something more than the constructive element—it implies also the element of rhythmical and musical expression. The good and true must be married to the beautiful. This marriage certainly seems made in heaven, for nothing more surprises the poet than the leaping from his brain of thought and word together—wedded from their birth. In this matter of melodious expression the poets differ more than in almost anything else. We modern and Englishspeaking people owe, in this respect, a great debt to Shelley. I find in him a " linked sweetness long drawn out," that Milton himself was never master of, and that Swinburne has sought, but with weaker intellectual powers, to copy. It is a wonder that, with Browning's passionate admiration of Shelley, he has in his own writing so little of Shelley's distinguishing excellence. In this mastery of melodious expression, Elizabeth Barrett Browning is greatly the superior of her husband. Compare "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" with the "Flight of the Duchess "; compare "My Kate" with "The Lady of Tripoli," and you cannot help seeing that the wife puts into her verse a delicate sweetness and a tremulous emotion which the husband can never equal.
Indeed, for a reason already suggested when I spoke of defects of construction, Robert Browning aims not to be an emotional poet. And here let us do him justice, as we can only do by looking at the matter from his peculiar point of view. Browning found the literary world well-nigh enslaved to a poetry in which sense was sacrificed to sound, in which melody of phrase took the place of thought, in which mere sweetness covered a multitude of sins of vagueness and rhapsody and inanity. You could read such poetry when half asleep, and you were quite asleep when you were done. Browning thought such writing beneath the dignity of the poet. No "Airy, fairy Lillians" would he write. His poetry should carry no one to heaven on flowery beds of ease. Men's minds should be alert, if they read him at all. Hence his brusque air, his harsh turns, his scorn for the merely sensuous and quieting, his startling us from RHYTHMICAL AND MUSICAL EXPRESSION 4O9
dreams into sense. A little poem of his illustrates this:
Verse-making was least of my virtues: I viewed with despair Wealth that never yet was but might be—all that verse-making were
If the life would but lengthen to wish, let the mind be laid bare.
So I said "To do little is bad, to do nothing is worse" —
And made verse.
I-ove-making—how simple a matter! No depths to explore,
No heights in a life to ascend! No disheartening before,
No affrighting hereafter—love now will be love evermore.
So I felt "To keep silence were folly—all language above,"
I made love.
It reminds me of an out-of-door play of my early days which bore the name of "Snap the whip." A long line was formed of boys taking hold of hands, the biggest and strongest boy at one end of the line, the smallest and most unsuspecting at the other, many fine gradations between. The game was to swing the line around with the big boy for a center, and to swing it around with such momentum that the little boy at the small end should be thrown off like a comet from the solar system. It was fine fun for the big boy; for the little one it meant the general demoralization of his attire and the breaking of his head against the fence. Many a time, as I have read Robert Browning and have been hurled off into vacancy by one of his sudden turns, I have felt like the little boy in "Snap the whip." It is all very well for Mr. Browning, but how about the unsophisticated reader? Is it possible for him to escape a certain sense of injury?
Emotion, music, grace—these are not so native to Robert Browning as thought. The philosopher often overtops the poet. His harshness is not all to be pardoned upon the plea that it is a higher kind of art. Much of it is to be accounted for only upon the ground that "it is his nature to." Verse is not quite spontaneous with him. John Stuart Mill's conception of God is somewhat similar. The imperfections of the universe, he thinks, argue either lack of love or lack of power in the Supreme Intelligence; he prefers to doubt the power rather than to doubt the love. God does the best he can, but he has to work with very intractable material. And so Mill speaks of God as if he were some weak old man trudging up-hill with a mighty burden which he cannot easily manage, which, in fact, he is just able to carry—a shocking representation of him whom we know to be infinite in power as well as infinite in love. I have sometimes thought that the representation was an excellent one of merely earthly creators—and of none more so than of Browning. His material at times seems too much for him. The metal is not hot enough to run freely into poetic molds; the metal is of the best; but the power to shape it into perfect forms—the highest measure of this is lacking.
In Italy they have a peculiar way of cooking and serving that pretty little bird, the ortolan. It is transfixed with a skewer, but upon the skewer are also put a piece of brown toast upon the one side, a sage-leaf upon the other. So came, in thick succession, sageleaf, ortolan, toast, sage-leaf, ortolan, toast, repeated as many times as need be. Browning likens his writing very justly to the combination of these three. The ortolan represents the poetry; the sage-leaf furnishes piquancy; the brown toast is nothing but sound sense.
I admire his candor—few poets are so frank. My only fear is that at times when ortolans were scarce and thin, Browning may have made up for their lack by putting two sage leaves in place of one, and by indefinitely increasing the size and thickness of the brown toast.
I would not indulge myself, however, nor would I advise my younger readers to indulge, in the calm superciliousness with which many intelligent people still treat Robert Browning. It is not wise to assume that so steadily growing a fame and so marked an influence upon current literature are without any just foundation. It is best to take account of the forces of our time; we cannot afford to be ignorant of them. The youth who postponed his crossing of the stream until the water should flow by had to wait for a long time. So, it seems to me, the man who regards what he calls "the Browningcult" as a merely temporary craze "exspectat, dum defluit antnis." Those who know most of Browning are rather inclined to say of him as Isocrates said of Heracleitus: "What I know of him is so excellent that I can draw conclusions from it concerning what I cannot understand."
And one can say all this without for a moment surrendering his powers of critical judgment. He only insists that wisdom does not exclude wonder, and that we live, as intellectual and spiritual beings, only by "admiration, hope, and love." The niladmirari spirit is the spirit of decrepitude and death, and faith in great men is next to faith in God. I would not have Robert Browning's defects of artistic form blind any of my readers to the broad humanity of the poet and his ideal pictures of the deep thoughts of man's heart. No poet of this century is more widely learned, no poet has more carefully pondered the great problems of existence, no poet has uttered more important truth.
There is, of course, a higher poetry than his, a poetry of wider range, of sweeter sound, of deeper spiritual significance. As civilization goes on, imagination will not fall into disuse, but will reach a higher development. To believe otherwise is to fancy that an inalienable prerogative of the human soul can be sloughed off as a mere excrescence, or can dwindle till it ceases to be. No, imagination belongs to man; and, as with advancing ages man's range of vision widens, imagination will only be furnished with larger and nobler materials, will only have deeper insight into the ideal relations of the universe, will only grow in power to express the truth. With larger truth will come deeper emotions, and with deeper emotions will come greater perfection of artistic form.
If there were only as much of us at all times as there is at some times, and if power of expression only answered always to the heart's desire, living would be a delight and earth would be heaven. I take the very sense of imperfection in all poetry of the past as an incentive to look forward. I not only anticipate no decline of poetry, but I confidently predict a day when, under the influence of a diviner Spirit than any earthly Muse, poetry shall be the chief handmaid of religion, the incarnate God shall be its chief subject, and the poet shall undertake "things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme." I look for a grander poetry here on earth— but I am not content with this; I want all God's sons and daughters to prophesy ; I trust we shall all be poets BROWNING AS THE POET OF OPTIMISM 413
in the New Jerusalem ; I long for the great future when the soul can fully express herself, when form shall answer to spirit, when language shall be the perfect vehicle of thought, and when all speech shall be song.
In the charming " Memoirs of Caroline Fox," we are told that Carlyle once entertained Emerson by taking him at midnight through the London slums. After he had shown his friend some more than common specimens of depravity, the sage of Chelsea blurted out in his cynical way: "Do you believe in a devil now?" But the calm American only replied: "I am more and more convinced of the greatness and goodness of the English people." It is an illustration of the tendencies to pessimism on the one hand, and to optimism on the other, that divide the world between them. In Germany, Schopenhauer looked at life through glasses dim with the smoke of the pit, while to Fichte a roseate mist suffused and glorified every dark and hateful thing. The pessimists, like the poor, we have always with us; but in literature it is only the optimists who have lasting power and attraction. The true poet must be a sort of prophet—a believer in the divine presence and purpose in all things, and therefore confident and forward-looking, like the prophets of Israel.
Robert Browning was the greatest optimist of the century, and his optimism constituted his chief message to our generation. In a pessimistic age, when the winds were laden with wailing, he preached a gospel of cheer and hope. He did this persistently and courageously, in spite of the fact that the age had its strong influence upon him. In his later days even he became involved in the toils of a pessimistic philosophy, and that to the great detriment of his poetry. Yet the optimistic faith and impulse of his early years remained to the last and asserted themselves in spite of speculative difficulties. The withes of the Philistines could not long bind this Samson, and, even when old and blind, he could summon up his strength and confound his enemies.
It was largely a matter of temperament. When Henry Ward Beecher was asked whether life was really worth living, he replied that it depended very much upon the liver. It was not wholly without reason that the ancients located the affections in that particular portion of the body. Pessimism and optimism are to a considerable extent matters of digestion. The dyspeptic takes dark views of the universe around him, while youth and health see all things bright and fair. Browning certainly began his career with a fine physical endowment, and though some of his later philosophical aberrations have been laid to the account of ill-health, I can testify that, so recently as 1887, when I saw him in his scarlet gown among the dons at the Oxford Commemoration, he seemed the picture of a sound mind in a sound body. The twinkle of humor in his eye and the air of sagacity and comfort in his whole manner indicated that there was no place in him for mawkish sentiment. There is a story that Swinburne, when he first met Browning, refused to take the chair that was offered him, and insisted upon sitting upon a hassock at the master's feet. The story goes on to relate that when Swinburne took his departure the master indulged
in what the lower classes of London call "language." Carlyle once said of Browning: "There's a great contrast between him and me. He seems very content with life, and takes much satisfaction in the world. It's a very strange and curious spectacle to behold a man in these days so confidently cheerful." If something of this cheer was due to native temperament, a part was attributable to the fact that he constantly mingled with men. In this respect we may contrast him with Tennyson. As compared with Browning, Tennyson was a recluse. Self-conscious and morbidly sensitive to whatever voices were rife around him, he came to be a praiser of the time that was past, and a somewhat morose critic of the present. One has only to read " Locksley Hall" and then to read " Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," to perceive that the tender grace of a day that was dead could never come back to Lord Tennyson. He who shuts himself out from his kind comes to distrust his kind. Browning believed in humanity, in large part because he was en rapport with humanity.
Yet we must go deeper than this. Every man is a product of his time. Larger influences than those of his own health and environment make him what he is. There are streams of tendency that come down from the past. The atmosphere of thought owes its temperature and quality to distant seas and to other lands. The Puritans had so exalted God as to leave no place for man, and there had been a natural reaction. Deism had come in, with its "absentee God, sitting idle ever since the first sabbath at the outside of the universe and seeing it go." Sensationalism had come in, with its derivation of our sublimest ideas from sense, and its consequent failure to see dignity in anything. But the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a change. Whatever else the German transcendental philosophers did do or did not do, they showed that there are elements in knowledge which are not furnished by the senses. Kant proved that there may be, Hegel proved that there must be, being to which our knowledge corresponds. In other words, we can get.at Reality. It was the rediscovery of God in his universe.
The wave of German thought swept over to England. Shelley, in his "Adonais," saw God in nature, though he could not pronounce the sacred name, and even called himself an atheist:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass
Stains the white radiance of eternity,
Until death tramples it to fragments.
And in this recognition of the divine principle in the world, more than in the matchless melody of his verse, I find the explanation of Browning's apotheosis of Shelley in his "Sordello." Wordsworth also saw God in nature—his insistence upon a personal intelligence and love in even the meanest flower that blows constitutes the chief merit and charm of his poetry.
But here Shelley and Wordsworth stopped. Shelley felt that he was at war with the world of mankind and the world of mankind at war with him. He would have pulled down the existing order of society, if only he could have done it. And Wordsworth, in spite of his theoretical recognition of God in all things, was at
home only when he got "far from the madding crowd." Men were lawless, and the divine in them was hard to recognize. I cannot better express my conception of Browning's place in literature than by saying that he begins where Shelley and Wordsworth leave off—begins by finding God in nature and ends by finding God in man. Listen to " Paracelsus ":
The center fire heaves underneath the earth,
And the earth changes like a human face;
The molten ore bursts up among the rocks,
Winds into the stone's heart, outbranches bright
In hidden mines, spots barren river-beds,
Crumbles into fine sand where sunbeams bask—
God joys therein. The wroth sea's waves are,edged
With foam, white as the bitten lip of hate,
When, in the solitary waste, strange groups
Of young volcanoes come up, cyclops-like,
Staring together with their eyes on flame—
God tastes a pleasure in their uncouth pride.
Then all is still ; earth is a wintry clod;
But spring-wind, like a dancing psaltress, passes
Over its breast to waken it; rare verdure
Buds tenderly upon rough banks, between
The withered tree-roots and the cracks of frost,
Like a smile striving with a wrinkled face.
Above, birds fly in merry flocks; the lark
Soars up and up, shivering for very joy;
Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing-gulls
Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe
Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek
Their loves in wood and plain—and God renews
His ancient rapture. Thus he dwells in all,
From life's minute beginnings, up at last
To man—the consummation of this scheme
Of being, the completion of this sphere of life. . ,
And man produced, all has its end thus far;
But in completed man begins anew
A tendency toward God.
In these last lines the poet goes far beyond Shelley or Wordsworth. Browning sees God, not only in nature, but in the soul. He has been called the "subtlest asserter of the soul in song." In his main poems, indeed, he finds his subjects in the struggles, aspirations, triumphs, of the soul. He believes in spirit. In "The Ring and the Book," the Pope says: "Mind is not matter, nor from matter, but above"; and, in one of his most characteristic poems, he writes:
Quoth a young Sadducee, '' Reader of many rolls,
Is it so certain we have, as they tell us, souls?"
"Son, there is no reply" ; the rabbi bit his beard;
"Certain, a soul have I—we may have none," he sneered.
Thus Karshook, the Hiram's-hammer,
The Right-hand Temple-column,
Taught babes in grace their grammar,
And struck the simple solemn.
Yet Browning is a pronounced evolutionist. He finds it difficult to maintain an absolute difference between the organic and the inorganic, so long as every plant is turning the one into the other; and, so long as man by eating animal food is turning the brute into himself, he finds it difficult to assert an absolute difference between himself and the brute. The same principle which manifests itself in matter manifests itself in a higher form in spirit. Evolution is only the name of a process. It leaves the question of agency still unsolved. Both evolution and law are modes of action—the action of a
spiritual Being who reveals himself in both matter and mind.
The poet's idealism makes all this easier to him. "To know," he says in "Paracelsus,"
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendor may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without
Thus his evolutionism, instead of lowering man, elevates nature. Matter cannot explain spirit, for matter cannot be understood except as a manifestation of spirit, or else as an element in the spiritual world. As we look upon the ascending scale of being, shall we take as the principle of explanation the beginning or the end? Evidently the latter. "The oak explains the acorn, even more truly than the acorn explains the oak.'' We say, therefore, of the spiritual activities of man: "This is what the crude beginning in nature really was. Man, with his higher ideas, shows the meaning and content of all that led up to him." Here is genuine poetic insight. Let me illustrate it first by a quotation from "Hohensticl-Schwangau ":
For many a thrill of kinship I confess to
With the powers called Nature, animate, inanimate,
In parts or in the whole ; there's something there
Manlike, that somehow meets the man in me.
And then by several brief quotations from " Paracelsus " >
Man, once descried, imprints forever
His presence on all lifeless things.
A supplementary reflex of light
Illustrates all the inferior grades, explains
Each back-step in the circle.
Are henceforth voices, wailing or a shout,
A querulous mutter or a quick gay laugh,
Never a senseless gust, now man is born.
The herded pines commune and have deep thoughts,
A secret they assemble to discuss
When the sun drops behind their trunks.
The morn has enterprise, deep quiet droops
With evening, triumph takes the sunset hour,
Voluptuous transport ripens with the corn
Beneath the warm moon, like a happy face.
I knew, I felt (perception unexpressed,
Uncomprehended by our narrower thought,
But somehow known and felt in every shift
And change in the spirit—nay, in every pore
Of the body even)—what God is, what we are.
What life is—how God takes an infinite joy
In infinite ways—one everlasting bliss,
From whom all being emanates, all power
Comte declared that science would conduct God to the frontier of his universe, and politely bow him out, with thanks for his provisional services. But Browning holds rather with Lord Bacon, that while "a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism," "depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion. For, while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them and go no further; but, when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and Jinked together, it must needs fly to Providence and
Deity." Our poet never dispenses with God. Instead of seeing no design in the universe, he finds nothing but design. "Strange," says Frances Power Cobbe, "that when we once find out how a thing is done, we at once conclude that God has not done it!" Our intuitions are not valueless because we come from apelike progenitors. "Intuitions are God's tuitions," and man, the end and goal of the development, explains the significance and purpose of all the lower forms that prepared the way for him.
In the powers and faculties of man, the summit of creation, therefore, Browning finds the most conclusive evidence of God's existence. We must interpret nature by man and not man by nature. Nature is no "empty eye-socket," as Jean Paul expresses it, without life or intelligence, but shows everywhere a living face, to meet and respond to the face of man. We have heard in our day the mournful atheism of Fitzgerald's "Omar Khayyam ":
And that inverted bowl they call the sky,
Whereunder crawling cooped we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help—for It
As impotently moves as you or I.
Here the sweetness of the verse is like that of flowers upon a coffin. Contrast with this the glowing theism of Robert Browning:
I know that He is there, as I am here,
By the same proof, which seems no proof at all,
It so exceeds familiar forms of proof.
The truth in God's breast
Lies trace upon trace on ours impressed:
Though he is so bright, and we so dim,
We are made in his image to witness him.
God is behind all.
We find great things are made of little things,
And little things go lessening, till at last
Comes God behind them.
—Mr. Sludge, the Medium.
God is the perfect poet,
Who, in creation, acts out his own conceptions.
And so, while nature is a manifestation of God, it is in man that God most perfectly reveals himself. Every man has in him a divine element, and this presence of God in man gives an infinite value and dignity to the poorest and meanest human being. Browning, like John Milton before him, is a monist. He holds that there is but one substance or principle of being. All things are potentially spirit, or, in other words, the universe is a universe of spirits. Nature herself is instinct with life, and all things show a divine idea and plan:
This is the glory, that, in all conceived
Or felt or known, I recognize a Mind
—Not mine, but like mine—for the double joy
Making all things for me, and me for Him.
But he does not hesitate to include man, as well as nature, in this monistic view of the universe. Man too, in the deep basis of his being, is connected with God. Humanity is naturally rooted and grounded in him "from whom and through whom and to whom are all A MONIST, BUT NOT A PANTHEIST
things." In "The Ring and the Book," the Pope soliloquizes:
O thou,—as represented to me here
In such conception as my soul allows,—
Under thy measureless, my atom-width!
Man's mind, what is it but a convex-glass
Wherein are gathered all the scattered points
Picked out of the immensity of sky,
To reunite there, be our heaven for earth,
Our known Unknown, our God revealed to man?
Professor Jones of Wales has given the best exposition of Robert Browning's philosophy. He says that:
While Browning insists on this identity of the human spirit with God, and declares all the phenomena of the world to be manifestations of love, he does not forget that the identity is not absolute. Absolute identity would be pantheism, which leaves God lonely and loveless, and extinguishes man, as well as his morality. In his poem entitled '' Death in the Desert," we read:
"Man is not God, but hath God's end to serve;
A Master to obey, a Cause to take,
Somewhat to cast off, somewhat to become."
The unity of the divine and the human within the spiritual life of man is a real unity, just because man is free; the identity manifests itself through the difference; and the difference is possible through the unity. . . He would find God in man, and yet leave man free.
To this statement of Professor Jones I may add that Browning does not attempt to explain how unity of substance between God and man is consistent with freedom, sin, and guilt in the finite creature. Yet he believes in these last, as firmly as in the first. Observe the two elements of his doctrine in the following lines, first, from "Rabbi Ben Ezra ":
Rejoice we are allied
To that which doth provide
And not partake, effect and not receive;
A spark disturbs our clod:
Nearer we hold of God
Than of his tribes that take, I must believe.
Here we are declared to be one with the Source and Giver of life. But now, secondly, note the limitation of this unity. In "Christmas Eve" we hear the poet deriding
The important stumble
Of adding, he, the sage and humble,
Was also one with the Creator.
He tells us that it was God's plan to make man in his image:
To create man, and then leave him
Able, his own word saith, to grieve him;
But able to glorify him too,
As a mere machine could never do
That prayed or praised, all unaware
Of its fitness for aught but praise or prayer,
Made perfect as a thing of course.
God, whose pleasure brought
Man into being, stands away,
As it were, a hand-breadth off, to give
Room for the newly made to live,
And look at him from a place apart,
And use his gifts of brain and heart
Life's business being just the terrible choice.
— The Ring and the Book, Pope, 1238.
THE UNIFYING PRINCIPLE IS LOVE 425
We may interpret all this by saying that the poet is a monist, but an ethical monist, a believer that God and man are of one substance, but a hater of pantheism which denies God's transcendence and separate personality.
Sidney Lanier asserts that the last twenty centuries have spent their best power upon the development of personality, and that literature, education, government, and religion have all learned to recognize the individual as the unit of force. Of all poets, Robert Browning most clearly perceives that the greatness and power of God are revealed in the very freedom of human personality and the consequent diversity of human life. Man has a freedom which he may abuse, and the essential thing in life is the opportunity for probation, choice, the determination and manifestation of character. The poet seizes a typical man at the crisis of his history, when all the influences of ancestry and environment converge to a focus upon him, and when he speaks the one word or makes the one decision which reveals to all eternity what manner of man he chooses to be. At that moment, that instant one and infinite, he takes his snap-shot, photographs the man, depicts his innermost thought and character. But not because the single act or the single man is of supreme importance—rather, because in this particular man and this particular act we may see one aspect or manifestation of the infinite energy and the perfect character of God.
It is easy to suggest difficulties here, and to maintain that our poet is formulating metaphysical and moral contradictions. How can ignorance and weakness manifest wisdom and power? Above all, how can falsehood and wickedness manifest the divine purity and truth? The complete answer to these questions Browning does not profess to give. He only suggests that there is an ultimate principle of unity, and tells us what it is, though without showing us in detail how the reconciliation is effected. Here we come to another characteristic and fundamental feature of his system of thought. The principle that unifies all is Love. All grades of being are in some way embodiments of the supreme good. The whole is in every part. Unus homo, nullus homo. The universe in like manner is an organism, and every part ministers to the whole, as the whole to every part. So the world may be called the return of the highest to itself, and the universe is homeward-bound. As all things are manifestations of spirit, so all things are manifestations of love.
Denn das Leben tst die Lube,
Und dcs Lebens Lebcngeist.
Love is for Browning the highest, richest conception man can form. Mere intellect is not perfection; here he differs from Hegel; love is perfection, for it includes intellect and all else. The poet was certainly a man of affectionate nature; if he had not been, it is doubtfu' whether such a solution of the problems of life would ever have dawned uj;.»n him. Fanny Kemble said he was the only man whom she had ever known that behaved like a Christian to his wife. As she was frail and secluded from the world, he never but once during his fifteen years of married life dined away from home. On every anniversary of his marriage, when he was in London, this robust Englishman, who did not ordinarily
deal in mere sentiment, went to the church where the ceremony had been performed, and kneeling down kissed the doorstep. In his last illness he called every night for the ring his wife had given him on her deathbed, and pressed it to his lips before he went to sleep. He regarded love as a direct emanation from the inmost nature of God, and the most essential article of his creed he summed up in the word in "Paracelsus ":
God, thou art love! I build my faith on that!
How could Browning believe the universe to be in every part a manifestation of love, when sin and wretchedness abound? The answer is that he saw the love of God so demonstrated in Jesus Christ that these seemingly opposing phenomena ceased to trouble him. I do not mean that he held to any of the orthodox formulas as to the person of our Lord. His faith was doubtless a very liberal one. But he did see in Christ the most effective revelation of God. With his conviction that personality was the highest form of being was united a belief that only personal influences can ever transform character. He declares that so powerful is a complete personality that its very touch gives life and courage and power. When he seeks stimulus for sustained effort, and inspiration for enduring virtue, he finds them in Jesus Christ.
The proof of all this from Browning's writings must be a cumulative one. Let me first quote from his letters. In writing to a lady in her last illness, he says: '' It is a great thing—the greatest—that a human being should have passed the probation of life, and sum up its experience in a witness to the power and love of God. ... I see ever more reason to hold by the same hope." And then he quotes the words of Charles Lamb, when "in a gay fancy with some friends as to how he and they would feel if the greatest of the dead were to appear suddenly in flesh and blood once more, on the final suggestion: 'And if Christ entered this room?' he changed his manner at once and stuttered out, as his manner was when moved: 'You see, if Shakespeare entered, we should all rise; if He appeared, we should all kneel!'" But why should Robert Browning join with Charles Lamb in the worship of Christ? I answer, first, because he regards Christ as God revealed, Deity active in nature and in history. The living God whom we see in nature is none other than Christ. Nature is not his body, in the sense that he is confitied to nature. Nature is his body, in the sense that in nature we see him who is above nature, and in whom at the same time all things consist.
Mrs. Orr, his biographer, says that Browning once spoke to her with relation to his own religious opinions, and concluded by reading to her the "Epilogue to Dramatis Personam" She continues:
It will be remembered that the beautiful and pathetic second part of the poem is a cry of spiritual bereavement, the cry of those victims of nineteenth century skepticism for whom incarnate Love has disappeared from the universe, carrying with it the belief in God. The third part attests the continued existence of God in Christ, as mystically present to the individual soul:
That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows,
Or decomposes but to recompose,
Become my Universe that feels and knows.
"That face," said Mr. Browning as he closed the book, "that face is the face of Christ: that is how I feel him."
BROWNING AN OPTIMIST 429
With one qualification the most orthodox believer may accept the view of the poet. Nature is an expression of the mind and will of Christ, as my face is an expression of my mind and will. Rhetorically I can identify nature with Christ, just as I can identify my face with myself. But then let us remember that behind and above my face is a personality of which the face is but the partial and temporary manifestation. And, in like manner, let us remember that nature is but the partial and temporary manifestation of the Christ who is not only in all things, but before all things, and above all things.
There is a second reason why Browning bows to Christ, and that is because he who is the life of nature and the moving power in history has taken human form and has shown by an infinite self-sacrifice that God is love. I quote from several poems:
From the first Power was, I knew;
Life has made clear to me
That, strive but for closer view,
Love were as plain to see.
—Reverie, in Asolando.
I never realized God's birth before,
How he grew likest God in being born.
Such ever was love's way—to rise, it stoops.
—Pompilia, in The Ring and the Book.
Gladness be with thee, Helper of the world!
I think this the authentic sign and seal
Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad
And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts,
Into a rage to suffer for mankind
And recommence at sorrow.
— Balaustiori s Adventure.
This man so cured regards the curer then
As—God forgive me—who but God himself,
Creator and Sustainer of the world,
That came and dwelt in flesh on it awhile.
The very God !—think, Abib ; dost thou think?
So the All-Great were the All-loving too!
So through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying: "O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power, nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with Myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee."
—Karshish, the Arabian Physician.
Would I suffer for him that I love? So wilt thou—so wilt thou!
So shall crown thee the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown,
And thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up or down
One spot for the creature to stand in! It is by no breath,
Turn of eye, wave of hand, that salvation joins issue with death!
As thy love is discovered Almighty, almighty be proved
Thy power, that exists with it and for it, of being beloved!
He who did most, shall bear most ; the strongest shall stand the
'Tis the weakness in strength that I cry for; my flesh that I seek
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee : a man like to me
Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever! A hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ
After all these citations I think it will not be doubted that the secret of Browning's persistent optimism lay in his recognition of Christ as God and Saviour. If the life that pulsates through all nature is the life of Christ, and if the hand that conducts the march of history is the hand that was nailed to the cross, then we may dismiss our fears and advance to the study of life's problems THE LATER BROWNING A PHILOSOPHER 43 I
with cheerful heart, believing with Pippa that, however great the intellectual difficulties may be,
God's in his heaven,
All's right with the world!
Or if any one still questions whether this is the real source of the poet's quietude as he faces the mysteries and seeming contradictions of existence, I make one quotation from "Death in the Desert ":
I say the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the world and out of it,
And hath so far advanced thee to be wise;
and another from "The Ring and the Book," where he speaks of
The divine instance of self-sacrifice
That never ends and aye begins for man.
So, never miss I footing in the maze;
No! I have light, nor fear the dark at alL
I wish that my account of Browning's philosophical and religious views might only end here. In general it is the earlier Browning that I have been describing. The earlier Browning is Browning the poet; the later Browning is Browning the would-be philosopher. While he sticks to intuition and to poetry, he satisfies us. In his earlier poems he sees with the imagination and the heart, and his poems rouse us, warm us, inspire us, like Luther's triumphant songs. He starts with insight and Scripture, and he is strong. He attempts to prove, and he becomes weak. He makes the mistake of attempting to put philosophy into poetry. He succeeds only in spoiling a good poet to make a poor philosopher. It it like the story of George Eliot over again—at first siinplicity and natural pathos, afterward over-elaboration and wearisome sententiousness.
Was the change due to the weakening of imagination and the strengthening of the merely logical intelligence which growing years brought with them? Or did success in grappling with problems stimulate ambition to demonstrate the truth he saw? Certain it is that insight brings logic after it. The poet gives the hint to the philosopher. After .^schylus and Sophocles come Plato and Aristotle. And sometimes a long historical succession is represented in the life of a single individual. I am disposed, however, to connect the change in Browning rather with a change of the utmost importance in his personal relations—I mean with Mrs. Browning's death, and with the loss of her insight and influence. The poet's wife had more of native poetic ardor than her husband had. So long as she lived, he valued his proper vocation and was content with "the vision and the faculty divine." But when she left him, the mystery of life and death, of sin and sorrow, oppressed him as never before. Her cultivation of his faith-instinct was now lacking. He began to speculate. He determined to interpret the world in terms of spirit. He staked all on his ability to prove that all things are illustrations of love.
But this was philosophy and not poetry. The effect upon his verse was not fortunate. In poetry it is not the first step but the last step that costs. That last step—of making the form perfect—he had always been averse to. His later work is full of rude vigor, but it is MORAL EVIL SOMEHOW A FORM OF GOOD 433
the vigor of a first draft—what he has written he has written, and he more and more disdains to alter or amend; if the reader is scandalized by the roughness or blindness of it, so much the worse for the reader. It is unfortunate that so many people get their first impressions of Browning from these later productions of his, in which involved and long-drawn reasoning is only occasionally relieved by a simile or aphorism that shows the sage and the seer. If this were the only Browning, we might well subscribe to the lines of George C. Bragdon, who describes him as:
Versed in all schools, athirst for the unseen.
He wrote in measures noble English prose,
Dropping rich gems of poesy between,
Where passion flamed through masterful repose.