POETRY AND ROBERT BROWNlNG.*
It is a serious question whether this article 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
*A Lecture delivered at Wellesley College, May, 1886; printed in the Examiner, December, 1887.
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," but Emerson's "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 Uersity 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 Mr. 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 life-time 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 new balances, and see whether he is found wanting.
Poetry is the imaginative reproduction of the uerse, 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, 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 Li 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."
Still further on in the same work from which we have quoted ( The Ring and the Book, 1: 706-741), the author compares this manipulation of fact 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 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 thin 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. There is indeed a couplet in the opening Hues of The Inn Album, which reads:
"That bard's a Browning! he neglects the form:
. But ah, the sense, ye gods, the weighty sense 1"
But even here Browning is not speaking in the first person,— in fact, it is not Browning who is speaking at all, but rather one of Browning's dramatis persona, though it is of Browning that he speaks. It still remains true that Browning deals with the non-ego, not with the ego in the sense of self. ( I have called poetry the imaginative reproduction of the uerse. But I have not meant to limit the word "uerse" 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 proi>er 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 be the meaning of the word "uerse," then it is certain that no mortal poet can compass it. Hence the poet must make his choice ; he must divide, in order 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 himsalf, and whether within that rauge he shows himself possessed of a great creative imagination.
The most obvious thing to be said about Browning's genins 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 "lightof setting suns,"and "the billows rolling evermore" — these kindled his poetic imagination.
"To me the meanest flower that blows ean give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."
The meadow, grove, and stream.
The earth, and every com moo sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled 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 seta 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 villanous 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 hate%; 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 detecter and 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, man; his aspect of that segment of the uerse, namely, thought; and, finally, his method of treatment, the dramatic; we ask once more, Is Browning a great creative genins? I think no one who has attentively and sympathetically read such poenis as Karshish, Andrea del Sarto, The Flight of the Duchess, Dis Aliter Visum, The Statue and the Bust, By the Fireside, Master Ilugues, 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.
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 muagre 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 Ringand the Book. First, we have the bare facts narrated —1,400 lines. Secondly, we have the story as one-half of Rome tells it, said one part taking the part of the husband —1,500 lines. Thirdly, what the other half of Rome said, taking the side of the wife —1,700 lines. Fourthly, Tertium Quid — what the few, the elite, the cultured, the Cardinals said —1,600 lines. Fifthly, what Count Guido himself said — 2,000 lines. Sixthly, what the brave young priest said, who fled with the Count's wife — 2,100 lines. Seventhly, what the young wife herself said, during the short hours between the attack and her death —1,800 lines. Eighthly, what the counsel for the defence said at the trial —1,800 lines. Ninthly, what the counsel for the prosecution said at that same trial — 1,600 lines. Tenthly, what the Pope said, to whom the case was referred for final decision — 2,100 lines. Eleventhly, what Count Guido said in prison before he was beheaded — 2,400 lines. Twelfthly, what the world said when all was over — 900 lines.
A most audacious and weary 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 personm, 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 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 eompass 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 of the horse-pond 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 self-sacrifice; or the grand old Pope, rounding out a just life, and preparing to go before God's judgmentbar, 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 genins, 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 genins. 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 uerse. 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 actual society and manners,— he would photograph modern life.
I find the same moral indifferentism in George Eliot,— I can even trace the stream back to Goethe. George Eliot's description of Dinah, the Methodist preacher, would almost convince you that the author knew the blessedness of such a Christian experience and was writing of it out of her own heart. But soon she lapses from that high strain, and a critical word suggests to us that all this has been described only as a peculiar side or aspect of human life; her interest in it is purely artistic and aesthetic, not the warmth of real sympathy. So too in Wilhelm Meister — that "menagerie of tame creatures "— does Goethe, after taking his youthful charge through the sensualisms of the green-room and the strolling theatre, introduce tum, as a necessary part of his education, to an example of exalted piety. The "Confessions of a Beautiful Soul," interjected into this immoral book, are simply proof that Goethe had no real belief in moral distinctions, and regarded evil as a necessary condition and accompaniment of the development of good.
Now, in contrast to all this tendency in our modern literature, I stand for the thesjs that poetry is not a mere representation of life. Pre-Raphaelite 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 Sydney 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 uerse. 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 uerse 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 uersal 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 uerse in its ideal relations, then nothing human, nothing divine, cau 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 of 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.'"
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 ever-recurring 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 centre 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 trinmph over Jove. In Pippa Passes, the innocent peasant-girl trips in simple gladness from scene to scene, singing as she goes:
"(lod'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 terrors and retributions of man's own moral nature.
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 Mr. Browning would adopt his phrase. Our author's writing is so full of this divine element that many a reader would fain call him a religions 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 Mr. Browning's own declaration of faith in an immanent Deity:
"That one face, far from vanish, rather grows.
Or decomposes hut to recompose,
Itecome my uerse 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'sLaw, 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'a 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 poefs irresistible tendency to the expression of religious ideas. In these slight poems I find the following subjects successively treated: 1. 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 uo answer to your prayers. 5. The purpose of suffering is purification. 6. The punishment of sin is 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 aud 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. The title of the poem should be "David," rather than "Saul," for the interest centres, not in Saul's hearing, but in David's song. The shepherd-boy has been brought from the sheep-fold 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 medinm 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 uo 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 healthy 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 interests, 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 healthful ness, 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 genins was jocular, but when disposed he could be very serious." So we may say that it is the nature of Browning's genins 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 Ub 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 to see the curse removed," 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 largemindedness 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 Teunysonian 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 mere freedom in speech. 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 greatgreat-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 Aliter 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 healthy 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; ay, much of the condensation and energy of recent English poetry, as compared with the long-winded wearisomeness of Wordsworth, is to be attributed to the healthful influence of Robert Browning.
Browning is greatest as a creative genins; less great as an idealizer; least great as a literary artist. We have said that poetry is an imaginative reproduction of the uerse 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, 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 remembered 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 Bo 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; clews are presented which, being tracked out, seem to lead nowhither; in fact, a labyrinth seems to be the only comparison that fits the poem. Sage 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 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. Yon press your way inward, questioning others as you can, until 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 centre 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: Ton 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 yon have your own hard-earned conception of it, that it is your poem as well as Mr. 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 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 <:annot understand the best poetry without being something of a poet; even as he cannot appreciate Mount Blanc without looking at it from some neighboring height. The best poetry of Shakespeare, or even of Tennyson, is not mastered except by repeated readings; 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 bag 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. 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 Fanciex 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 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 meaut 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 heat. 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: 225 sq. >
"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 —solidity
Fluid result,—what's arable lies forced,
Statute,— the residue escapes in fume,
Yet hangs aloft a cloud, as palpable
To the finer sense as word the legist welds.
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 Civsar's envy; therefore twice
I fought with beasts, and thrice I raw
My children suffer by his law.
At length my own release I earned:
I was some time in being burned,
Hut at the last a hand came through
The flame above my heud and drew
My soul to Christ, whom now I see.
Sergius, a brother, wrote for mo
This testimony on the wall;
For me — I have forgot it all."
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 English-speaking 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, Mrs. 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 Lilians" 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 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, hut 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 the centre, 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, asI 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 uerse, 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 Mr. Browning. His material at times seems too much for him. The metal is not hot enough to run freely into poetic moulds; 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 come, in thick succession, sage-leaf, 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, Mr. 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 "Browning-cult" as a mere temporary craze, "exspectat, dum defluit amnis." 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 nil admirari 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 so widely learned, no poet has so pondered the great problems of existence, no poet has uttered so much of 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 uerse; 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 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 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.