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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The delightful new edition of Mrs. Browning's "Casa Guidi Windows" which
Mr. John Lane has just issued ought certainly to serve as an opportunity
for the serious criticism and inevitable admiration to which a great
poet is entitled. For Mrs. Browning was a great poet, and not, as is
idly and vulgarly supposed, only a great poetess. The word poetess is
bad English, and it conveys a particularly bad compliment. Nothing is
more remarkable about Mrs. Browning's work than the absence of that
trite and namby-pamby elegance which the last two centuries demanded
from lady writers. Wherever her verse is bad it is bad from some
extravagance of imagery, some violence of comparison, some kind of
debauch of cleverness. Her nonsense never arises from weakness, but from
a confusion of powers. If the phrase explain itself, she is far more a
great poet than she is a good one.

Mrs. Browning often appears more luscious and sentimental than many
other literary women, but this was because she was stronger. It requires
a certain amount of internal force to break down. A complete
self-humiliation requires enormous strength, more strength than most of
us possess. When she was writing the poetry of self-abandonment she
really abandoned herself with the valour and decision of an anchorite
abandoning the world. Such a couplet as:

"Our Euripides, the human,
With his dropping of warm tears,"

gives to most of us a sickly and nauseous sensation. Nothing can be well
conceived more ridiculous than Euripides going about dropping tears with
a loud splash, and Mrs. Browning coming after him with a thermometer.
But the one emphatic point about this idiotic couplet is that Mrs.
Hemans would never have written it. She would have written something
perfectly dignified, perfectly harmless, perfectly inconsiderable. Mrs.
Browning was in a great and serious difficulty. She really meant
something. She aimed at a vivid and curious image, and she missed it.
She had that catastrophic and public failure which is, as much as a
medal or a testimonial, the badge of the brave.

In spite of the tiresome half-truth that art is unmoral, the arts
require a certain considerable number of moral qualities, and more
especially all the arts require courage. The art of drawing, for
example, requires even a kind of physical courage. Anyone who has tried
to draw a straight line and failed knows that he fails chiefly in nerve,
as he might fail to jump off a cliff. And similarly all great literary
art involves the element of risk, and the greatest literary artists have
commonly been those who have run the greatest risk of talking nonsense.
Almost all great poets rant, from Shakespeare downwards. Mrs. Browning
was Elizabethan in her luxuriance and her audacity, and the gigantic
scale of her wit. We often feel with her as we feel with Shakespeare,
that she would have done better with half as much talent. The great
curse of the Elizabethans is upon her, that she cannot leave anything
alone, she cannot write a single line without a conceit:

"And the eyes of the peacock fans
Winked at the alien glory,"

she said of the Papal fans in the presence of the Italian tricolour:

"And a royal blood sends glances up her princely eye to trouble,
And the shadow of a monarch's crown is softened in her hair,"

is her description of a beautiful and aristocratic lady. The notion of
peacock feathers winking like so many London urchins is perhaps one of
her rather aggressive and outrageous figures of speech. The image of a
woman's hair as the softened shadow of a crown is a singularly vivid and
perfect one. But both have the same quality of intellectual fancy and
intellectual concentration. They are both instances of a sort of
ethereal epigram. This is the great and dominant characteristic of Mrs.
Browning, that she was significant alike in failure and success. Just as
every marriage in the world, good or bad, is a marriage, dramatic,
irrevocable, and big with coming events, so every one of her wild
weddings between alien ideas is an accomplished fact which produces a
certain effect on the imagination, which has for good or evil become
part and parcel of our mental vision forever. She gives the reader the
impression that she never declined a fancy, just as some gentlemen of
the eighteenth century never declined a duel. When she fell it was
always because she missed the foothold, never because she funked the
leap.

"Casa Guidi Windows" is, in one aspect, a poem very typical of its
author. Mrs. Browning may fairly be called the peculiar poet of
Liberalism, of that great movement of the first half of the nineteenth
century towards the emancipation of men from ancient institutions which
had gradually changed their nature, from the houses of refuge which had
turned into dungeons, and the mystic jewels which remained only as
fetters. It was not what we ordinarily understand by revolt. It had no
hatred in its heart for ancient and essentially human institutions. It
had that deeply conservative belief in the most ancient of institutions,
the average man, which goes by the name of democracy. It had none of
the spirit of modern Imperialism which is kicking a man because he is
down. But, on the other hand, it had none of the spirit of modern
Anarchism and scepticism which is kicking a man merely because he is up.
It was based fundamentally on a belief in the destiny of humanity,
whether that belief took an irreligious form, as in Swinburne, or a
religious form, as in Mrs. Browning. It had that rooted and natural
conviction that the Millennium was coming to-morrow which has been the
conviction of all iconoclasts and reformers, and for which some
rationalists have been absurd enough to blame the early Christians. But
they had none of that disposition to pin their whole faith to some
black-and-white scientific system which afterwards became the curse of
philosophical Radicalism. They were not like the sociologists who lay
down a final rectification of things, amounting to nothing except an end
of the world, a great deal more depressing than would be the case if it
were knocked to pieces by a comet. Their ideal, like the ideal of all
sensible people, was a chaotic and confused notion of goodness made up
of English primroses and Greek statues, birds singing in April, and
regiments being cut to pieces for a flag. They were neither Radicals nor
Socialists, but Liberals, and a Liberal is a noble and indispensable
lunatic who tries to make a cosmos of his own head.

Mrs. Browning and her husband were more liberal than most Liberals.
Theirs was the hospitality of the intellect and the hospitality of the
heart, which is the best definition of the term. They never fell into
the habit of the idle revolutionists of supposing that the past was bad
because the future was good, which amounted to asserting that because
humanity had never made anything but mistakes it was now quite certain
to be right. Browning possessed in a greater degree than any other man
the power of realising that all conventions were only victorious
revolutions. He could follow the mediŠval logicians in all their sowing
of the wind and reaping of the whirlwind with all that generous ardour
which is due to abstract ideas. He could study the ancients with the
young eyes of the Renaissance and read a Greek grammar like a book of
love lyrics. This immense and almost confounding Liberalism of Browning
doubtless had some effect upon his wife. In her vision of New Italy she
went back to the image of Ancient Italy like an honest and true
revolutionist; for does not the very word "revolution" mean a rolling
backward. All true revolutions are reversions to the natural and the
normal. A revolutionist who breaks with the past is a notion fit for an
idiot. For how could a man even wish for something which he had never
heard of? Mrs. Browning's inexhaustible sympathy with all the ancient
and essential passions of humanity was nowhere more in evidence than in
her conception of patriotism. For some dark reason, which it is
difficult indeed to fathom, belief in patriotism in our day is held to
mean principally a belief in every other nation abandoning its patriotic
feelings. In the case of no other passion does this weird contradiction
exist. Men whose lives are mainly based upon friendship sympathise with
the friendships of others. The interest of engaged couples in each other
is a proverb, and like many other proverbs sometimes a nuisance. In
patriotism alone it is considered correct just now to assume that the
sentiment does not exist in other people. It was not so with the great
Liberals of Mrs. Browning's time. The Brownings had, so to speak, a
disembodied talent for patriotism. They loved England and they loved
Italy; yet they were the very reverse of cosmopolitans. They loved the
two countries as countries, not as arbitrary divisions of the globe.
They had hold of the root and essence of patriotism. They knew how
certain flowers and birds and rivers pass into the mills of the brain
and come out as wars and discoveries, and how some triumphant adventure
or some staggering crime wrought in a remote continent may bear about it
the colour of an Italian city or the soul of a silent village of Surrey.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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