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Ch. 1: Browning in Early Life


On the subject of Browning's work innumerable things have been said
and remain to be said; of his life, considered as a narrative of
facts, there is little or nothing to say. It was a lucid and public
and yet quiet life, which culminated in one great dramatic test of
character, and then fell back again into this union of quietude and
publicity. And yet, in spite of this, it is a great deal more
difficult to speak finally about his life than about his work. His
work has the mystery which belongs to the complex; his life the much
greater mystery which belongs to the simple. He was clever enough to
understand his own poetry; and if he understood it, we can understand
it. But he was also entirely unconscious and impulsive, and he was
never clever enough to understand his own character; consequently we
may be excused if that part of him which was hidden from him is partly
hidden from us. The subtle man is always immeasurably easier to
understand than the natural man; for the subtle man keeps a diary of
his moods, he practises the art of self-analysis and self-revelation,
and can tell us how he came to feel this or to say that. But a man
like Browning knows no more about the state of his emotions than about
the state of his pulse; they are things greater than he, things
growing at will, like forces of Nature. There is an old anecdote,
probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to
Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and
received the following reply: "When that poem was written, two people
knew what it meant--God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows
what it means." This story gives, in all probability, an entirely
false impression of Browning's attitude towards his work. He was a
keen artist, a keen scholar, he could put his finger on anything, and
he had a memory like the British Museum Library. But the story does,
in all probability, give a tolerably accurate picture of Browning's
attitude towards his own emotions and his psychological type. If a man
had asked him what some particular allusion to a Persian hero meant he
could in all probability have quoted half the epic; if a man had asked
him which third cousin of Charlemagne was alluded to in _Sordello_, he
could have given an account of the man and an account of his father
and his grandfather. But if a man had asked him what he thought of
himself, or what were his emotions an hour before his wedding, he
would have replied with perfect sincerity that God alone knew.

This mystery of the unconscious man, far deeper than any mystery of
the conscious one, existing as it does in all men, existed peculiarly
in Browning, because he was a very ordinary and spontaneous man. The
same thing exists to some extent in all history and all affairs.
Anything that is deliberate, twisted, created as a trap and a
mystery, must be discovered at last; everything that is done naturally
remains mysterious. It may be difficult to discover the principles of
the Rosicrucians, but it is much easier to discover the principles of
the Rosicrucians than the principles of the United States: nor has any
secret society kept its aims so quiet as humanity. The way to be
inexplicable is to be chaotic, and on the surface this was the quality
of Browning's life; there is the same difference between judging of
his poetry and judging of his life, that there is between making a map
of a labyrinth and making a map of a mist. The discussion of what some
particular allusion in _Sordello_ means has gone on so far, and may go
on still, but it has it in its nature to end. The life of Robert
Browning, who combines the greatest brain with the most simple
temperament known in our annals, would go on for ever if we did not
decide to summarise it in a very brief and simple narrative.

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell on May 7th 1812. His father and
grandfather had been clerks in the Bank of England, and his whole
family would appear to have belonged to the solid and educated middle
class--the class which is interested in letters, but not ambitious in
them, the class to which poetry is a luxury, but not a necessity.

This actual quality and character of the Browning family shows some
tendency to be obscured by matters more remote. It is the custom of
all biographers to seek for the earliest traces of a family in distant
ages and even in distant lands; and Browning, as it happens, has given
them opportunities which tend to lead away the mind from the main
matter in hand. There is a tradition, for example, that men of his
name were prominent in the feudal ages; it is based upon little beyond
a coincidence of surnames and the fact that Browning used a seal with
a coat-of-arms. Thousands of middle-class men use such a seal, merely
because it is a curiosity or a legacy, without knowing or caring
anything about the condition of their ancestors in the Middle Ages.
Then, again, there is a theory that he was of Jewish blood; a view
which is perfectly conceivable, and which Browning would have been the
last to have thought derogatory, but for which, as a matter of fact,
there is exceedingly little evidence. The chief reason assigned by his
contemporaries for the belief was the fact that he was, without doubt,
specially and profoundly interested in Jewish matters. This
suggestion, worthless in any case, would, if anything, tell the other
way. For while an Englishman may be enthusiastic about England, or
indignant against England, it never occurred to any living Englishman
to be interested in England. Browning was, like every other
intelligent Aryan, interested in the Jews; but if he was related to
every people in which he was interested, he must have been of
extraordinarily mixed extraction. Thirdly, there is the yet more
sensational theory that there was in Robert Browning a strain of the
negro. The supporters of this hypothesis seem to have little in
reality to say, except that Browning's grandmother was certainly a
Creole. It is said in support of the view that Browning was singularly
dark in early life, and was often mistaken for an Italian. There does
not, however, seem to be anything particular to be deduced from this,
except that if he looked like an Italian, he must have looked
exceedingly unlike a negro.

There is nothing valid against any of these three theories, just as
there is nothing valid in their favour; they may, any or all of them,
be true, but they are still irrelevant. They are something that is in
history or biography a great deal worse than being false--they are
misleading. We do not want to know about a man like Browning, whether
he had a right to a shield used in the Wars of the Roses, or whether
the tenth grandfather of his Creole grandmother had been white or
black: we want to know something about his family, which is quite a
different thing. We wish to have about Browning not so much the kind
of information which would satisfy Clarencieux King-at-Arms, but the
sort of information which would satisfy us, if we were advertising for
a very confidential secretary, or a very private tutor. We should not
be concerned as to whether the tutor were descended from an Irish
king, but we should still be really concerned about his extraction,
about what manner of people his had been for the last two or three
generations. This is the most practical duty of biography, and this is
also the most difficult. It is a great deal easier to hunt a family
from tombstone to tombstone back to the time of Henry II. than to
catch and realise and put upon paper that most nameless and elusive of
all things--social tone.

It will be said immediately, and must as promptly be admitted, that we
could find a biographical significance in any of these theories if we
looked for it. But it is, indeed, the sin and snare of biographers
that they tend to see significance in everything; characteristic
carelessness if their hero drops his pipe, and characteristic
carefulness if he picks it up again. It is true, assuredly, that all
the three races above named could be connected with Browning's
personality. If we believed, for instance, that he really came of a
race of mediæval barons, we should say at once that from them he got
his pre-eminent spirit of battle: we should be right, for every line
in his stubborn soul and his erect body did really express the
fighter; he was always contending, whether it was with a German theory
about the Gnostics, or with a stranger who elbowed his wife in a
crowd. Again, if we had decided that he was a Jew, we should point out
how absorbed he was in the terrible simplicity of monotheism: we
should be right, for he was so absorbed. Or again, in the case even of
the negro fancy; it would not be difficult for us to suggest a love of
colour, a certain mental gaudiness, a pleasure

"When reds and blues were indeed red and blue,"

as he says in _The Ring and the Book_. We should be right; for there
really was in Browning a tropical violence of taste, an artistic
scheme compounded as it were, of orchids and cockatoos, which, amid
our cold English poets, seems scarcely European. All this is extremely
fascinating; and it may be true. But, as has above been suggested,
here comes in the great temptation of this kind of work, the noble
temptation to see too much in everything. The biographer can easily
see a personal significance in these three hypothetical nationalities.
But is there in the world a biographer who could lay his hand upon his
heart and say that he would not have seen as much significance in any
three other nationalities? If Browning's ancestors had been Frenchmen,
should we not have said that it was from them doubtless that he
inherited that logical agility which marks him among English poets?
If his grandfather had been a Swede, should we not have said that the
old sea-roving blood broke out in bold speculation and insatiable
travel? If his great-aunt had been a Red Indian, should we not have
said that only in the Ojibways and the Blackfeet do we find the
Browning fantasticality combined with the Browning stoicism? This
over-readiness to seize hints is an inevitable part of that secret
hero-worship which is the heart of biography. The lover of great men
sees signs of them long before they begin to appear on the earth, and,
like some old mythological chronicler, claims as their heralds the
storms and the falling stars.

A certain indulgence must therefore be extended to the present writer
if he declines to follow that admirable veteran of Browning study, Dr.
Furnivall, into the prodigious investigations which he has been
conducting into the condition of the Browning family since the
beginning of the world. For his last discovery, the descent of
Browning from a footman in the service of a country magnate, there
seems to be suggestive, though not decisive evidence. But Browning's
descent from barons, or Jews, or lackeys, or black men, is not the
main point touching his family. If the Brownings were of mixed origin,
they were so much the more like the great majority of English
middle-class people. It is curious that the romance of race should be
spoken of as if it were a thing peculiarly aristocratic; that
admiration for rank, or interest in family, should mean only interest
in one not very interesting type of rank and family. The truth is that
aristocrats exhibit less of the romance of pedigree than any other
people in the world. For since it is their principle to marry only
within their own class and mode of life, there is no opportunity in
their case for any of the more interesting studies in heredity; they
exhibit almost the unbroken uniformity of the lower animals. It is in
the middle classes that we find the poetry of genealogy; it is the
suburban grocer standing at his shop door whom some wild dash of
Eastern or Celtic blood may drive suddenly to a whole holiday or a
crime. Let us admit then, that it is true that these legends of the
Browning family have every abstract possibility. But it is a far more
cogent and apposite truth that if a man had knocked at the door of
every house in the street where Browning was born, he would have found
similar legends in all of them. There is hardly a family in Camberwell
that has not a story or two about foreign marriages a few generations
back; and in all this the Brownings are simply a typical Camberwell
family. The real truth about Browning and men like him can scarcely be
better expressed than in the words of that very wise and witty story,
Kingsley's _Water Babies_, in which the pedigree of the Professor is
treated in a manner which is an excellent example of the wild common
sense of the book. "His mother was a Dutch woman, and therefore she
was born at Curaçoa (of course, you have read your geography and
therefore know why), and his father was a Pole, and therefore he was
brought up at Petropaulowski (of course, you have learnt your modern
politics, and therefore know why), but for all that he was as thorough
an Englishman as ever coveted his neighbour's goods."

It may be well therefore to abandon the task of obtaining a clear
account of Brownings family, and endeavour to obtain, what is much
more important, a clear account of his home. For the great central
and solid fact, which these heraldic speculations tend inevitably to
veil and confuse, is that Browning was a thoroughly typical Englishman
of the middle class. He may have had alien blood, and that alien
blood, by the paradox we have observed, may have made him more
characteristically a native. A phase, a fancy, a metaphor may or may
not have been born of eastern or southern elements, but he was,
without any question at all, an Englishman of the middle class.
Neither all his liberality nor all his learning ever made him anything
but an Englishman of the middle class. He expanded his intellectual
tolerance until it included the anarchism of _Fifine at the Fair_ and
the blasphemous theology of Caliban; but he remained himself an
Englishman of the middle class. He pictured all the passions of the
earth since the Fall, from the devouring amorousness of _Time's
Revenges_ to the despotic fantasy of _Instans Tyrannus_; but he
remained himself an Englishman of the middle class. The moment that he
came in contact with anything that was slovenly, anything that was
lawless, in actual life, something rose up in him, older than any
opinions, the blood of generations of good men. He met George Sand and
her poetical circle and hated it, with all the hatred of an old city
merchant for the irresponsible life. He met the Spiritualists and
hated them, with all the hatred of the middle class for borderlands
and equivocal positions and playing with fire. His intellect went upon
bewildering voyages, but his soul walked in a straight road. He piled
up the fantastic towers of his imagination until they eclipsed the
planets; but the plan of the foundation on which he built was always
the plan of an honest English house in Camberwell. He abandoned, with
a ceaseless intellectual ambition, every one of the convictions of his
class; but he carried its prejudices into eternity.

It is then of Browning as a member of the middle class, that we can
speak with the greatest historical certainty; and it is his immediate
forebears who present the real interest to us. His father, Robert
Browning, was a man of great delicacy of taste, and to all appearance
of an almost exaggerated delicacy of conscience. Every glimpse we have
of him suggests that earnest and almost worried kindliness which is
the mark of those to whom selfishness, even justifiable selfishness,
is really a thing difficult or impossible. In early life Robert
Browning senior was placed by his father (who was apparently a father
of a somewhat primitive, not to say barbaric, type) in an important
commercial position in the West Indies. He threw up the position
however, because it involved him in some recognition of slavery.
Whereupon his unique parent, in a transport of rage, not only
disinherited him and flung him out of doors, but by a superb stroke of
humour, which stands alone in the records of parental ingenuity, sent
him in a bill for the cost of his education. About the same time that
he was suffering for his moral sensibility he was also disturbed about
religious matters, and he completed his severance from his father by
joining a dissenting sect. He was, in short, a very typical example of
the serious middle-class man of the Wilberforce period, a man to whom
duty was all in all, and who would revolutionise an empire or a
continent for the satisfaction of a single moral scruple. Thus, while
he was Puritan at the core, not the ruthless Puritan of the
seventeenth, but the humanitarian Puritan of the eighteenth century,
he had upon the surface all the tastes and graces of a man of culture.
Numerous accomplishments of the lighter kind, such as drawing and
painting in water colours, he possessed; and his feeling for many
kinds of literature was fastidious and exact. But the whole was
absolutely redolent of the polite severity of the eighteenth century.
He lamented his son's early admiration for Byron, and never ceased
adjuring him to model himself upon Pope.

He was, in short, one of the old-fashioned humanitarians of the
eighteenth century, a class which we may or may not have conquered in
moral theory, but which we most certainly have not conquered in moral
practice. Robert Browning senior destroyed all his fortunes in order
to protest against black slavery; white slavery may be, as later
economists tell us, a thing infinitely worse, but not many men destroy
their fortunes in order to protest against it. The ideals of the men
of that period appear to us very unattractive; to them duty was a kind
of chilly sentiment. But when we think what they did with those cold
ideals, we can scarcely feel so superior. They uprooted the enormous
Upas of slavery, the tree that was literally as old as the race of
man. They altered the whole face of Europe with their deductive
fancies. We have ideals that are really better, ideals of passion, of
mysticism, of a sense of the youth and adventurousness of the earth;
but it will be well for us if we achieve as much by our frenzy as they
did by their delicacies. It scarcely seems as if we were as robust in
our very robustness as they were robust in their sensibility.

Robert Browning's mother was the daughter of William Wiedermann, a
German merchant settled in Dundee, and married to a Scotch wife. One
of the poet's principal biographers has suggested that from this union
of the German and Scotch, Browning got his metaphysical tendency; it
is possible; but here again we must beware of the great biographical
danger of making mountains out of molehills. What Browning's mother
unquestionably did give to him, was in the way of training--a very
strong religious habit, and a great belief in manners. Thomas Carlyle
called her "the type of a Scottish gentlewoman," and the phrase has a
very real significance to those who realise the peculiar condition of
Scotland, one of the very few European countries where large sections
of the aristocracy are Puritans; thus a Scottish gentlewoman combines
two descriptions of dignity at the same time. Little more is known of
this lady except the fact that after her death Browning could not bear
to look at places where she had walked.

Browning's education in the formal sense reduces itself to a minimum.
In very early boyhood he attended a species of dame-school, which,
according to some of his biographers, he had apparently to leave
because he was too clever to be tolerable. However this may be, he
undoubtedly went afterwards to a school kept by Mr. Ready, at which
again he was marked chiefly by precocity. But the boy's education did
not in truth take place at any systematic seat of education; it took
place in his own home, where one of the quaintest and most learned and
most absurdly indulgent of fathers poured out in an endless stream
fantastic recitals from the Greek epics and mediæval chronicles. If we
test the matter by the test of actual schools and universities,
Browning will appear to be almost the least educated man in English
literary history. But if we test it by the amount actually learned, we
shall think that he was perhaps the most educated man that ever lived;
that he was in fact, if anything, overeducated. In a spirited poem he
has himself described how, when he was a small child, his father used
to pile up chairs in the drawing-room and call them the city of Troy.
Browning came out of the home crammed with all kinds of
knowledge--knowledge about the Greek poets, knowledge about the
Provençal Troubadours, knowledge about the Jewish Rabbis of the Middle
Ages. But along with all this knowledge he carried one definite and
important piece of ignorance, an ignorance of the degree to which such
knowledge was exceptional. He was no spoilt and self-conscious child,
taught to regard himself as clever. In the atmosphere in which he
lived learning was a pleasure, and a natural pleasure, like sport or
wine. He had in it the pleasure of some old scholar of the Renascence,
when grammar itself was as fresh as the flowers of spring. He had no
reason to suppose that every one did not join in so admirable a game.
His sagacious destiny, while giving him knowledge of everything else,
left him in ignorance of the ignorance of the world.

Of his boyish days scarcely any important trace remains, except a kind
of diary which contains under one date the laconic statement, "Married
two wives this morning." The insane ingenuity of the biographer would
be quite capable of seeing in this a most suggestive foreshadowing of
the sexual dualism which is so ably defended in _Fifine at the Fair_.
A great part of his childhood was passed in the society of his only
sister Sariana; and it is a curious and touching fact that with her
also he passed his last days. From his earliest babyhood he seems to
have lived in a more or less stimulating mental atmosphere; but as he
emerged into youth he came under great poetic influences, which made
his father's classical poetic tradition look for the time insipid.
Browning began to live in the life of his own age.

As a young man he attended classes at University College; beyond this
there is little evidence that he was much in touch with intellectual
circles outside that of his own family. But the forces that were
moving the literary world had long passed beyond the merely literary
area. About the time of Browning's boyhood a very subtle and profound
change was beginning in the intellectual atmosphere of such homes as
that of the Brownings. In studying the careers of great men we tend
constantly to forget that their youth was generally passed and their
characters practically formed in a period long previous to their
appearance in history. We think of Milton, the Restoration Puritan,
and forget that he grew up in the living shadow of Shakespeare and the
full summer of the Elizabethan drama. We realise Garibaldi as a sudden
and almost miraculous figure rising about fifty years ago to create
the new Kingdom of Italy, and we forget that he must have formed his
first ideas of liberty while hearing at his father's dinner-table that
Napoleon was the master of Europe. Similarly, we think of Browning as
the great Victorian poet, who lived long enough to have opinions on
Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule Bill, and forget that as a young man he
passed a bookstall and saw a volume ticketed "Mr. Shelley's Atheistic
Poem," and had to search even in his own really cultivated circle for
some one who could tell him who Mr. Shelley was. Browning was, in
short, born in the afterglow of the great Revolution.

The French Revolution was at root a thoroughly optimistic thing. It
may seem strange to attribute optimism to anything so destructive;
but, in truth, this particular kind of optimism is inevitably, and by
its nature, destructive. The great dominant idea of the whole of that
period, the period before, during, and long after the Revolution, is
the idea that man would by his nature live in an Eden of dignity,
liberty and love, and that artificial and decrepit systems are keeping
him out of that Eden. No one can do the least justice to the great
Jacobins who does not realise that to them breaking the civilisation
of ages was like breaking the cords of a treasure-chest. And just as
for more than a century great men had dreamed of this beautiful
emancipation, so the dream began in the time of Keats and Shelley to
creep down among the dullest professions and the most prosaic classes
of society. A spirit of revolt was growing among the young of the
middle classes, which had nothing at all in common with the complete
and pessimistic revolt against all things in heaven or earth, which
has been fashionable among the young in more recent times. The
Shelleyan enthusiast was altogether on the side of existence; he
thought that every cloud and clump of grass shared his strict
republican orthodoxy. He represented, in short, a revolt of the normal
against the abnormal; he found himself, so to speak, in the heart of a
wholly topsy-turvy and blasphemous state of things, in which God was
rebelling against Satan. There began to arise about this time a race
of young men like Keats, members of a not highly cultivated middle
class, and even of classes lower, who felt in a hundred ways this
obscure alliance with eternal things against temporal and practical
ones, and who lived on its imaginative delight. They were a kind of
furtive universalist; they had discovered the whole cosmos, and they
kept the whole cosmos a secret. They climbed up dark stairs to meagre
garrets, and shut themselves in with the gods. Numbers of the great
men, who afterwards illuminated the Victorian era, were at this time
living in mean streets in magnificent daydreams. Ruskin was solemnly
visiting his solemn suburban aunts; Dickens was going to and fro in a
blacking factory; Carlyle, slightly older, was still lingering on a
poor farm in Dumfriesshire; Keats had not long become the assistant of
the country surgeon when Browning was a boy in Camberwell. On all
sides there was the first beginning of the æsthetic stir in the middle
classes which expressed itself in the combination of so many poetic
lives with so many prosaic livelihoods. It was the age of inspired
office-boys.

Browning grew up, then, with the growing fame of Shelley and Keats, in
the atmosphere of literary youth, fierce and beautiful, among new
poets who believed in a new world. It is important to remember this,
because the real Browning was a quite different person from the grim
moralist and metaphysician who is seen through the spectacles of
Browning Societies and University Extension Lecturers. Browning was
first and foremost a poet, a man made to enjoy all things visible and
invisible, a priest of the higher passions. The misunderstanding that
has supposed him to be other than poetical, because his form was often
fanciful and abrupt, is really different from the misunderstanding
which attaches to most other poets. The opponents of Victor Hugo
called him a mere windbag; the opponents of Shakespeare called him a
buffoon. But the admirers of Hugo and Shakespeare at least knew
better. Now the admirers and opponents of Browning alike make him out
to be a pedant rather than a poet. The only difference between the
Browningite and the anti-Browningite, is that the second says he was
not a poet but a mere philosopher, and the first says he was a
philosopher and not a mere poet. The admirer disparages poetry in
order to exalt Browning; the opponent exalts poetry in order to
disparage Browning; and all the time Browning himself exalted poetry
above all earthly things, served it with single-hearted intensity, and
stands among the few poets who hardly wrote a line of anything else.

The whole of the boyhood and youth of Robert Browning has as much the
quality of pure poetry as the boyhood and youth of Shelley. We do not
find in it any trace of the analytical Browning who is believed in by
learned ladies and gentlemen. How indeed would such sympathisers feel
if informed that the first poems that Browning wrote in a volume
called _Incondita_ were noticed to contain the fault of "too much
splendour of language and too little wealth of thought"? They were
indeed Byronic in the extreme, and Browning in his earlier appearances
in society presents himself in quite a romantic manner. Macready, the
actor, wrote of him: "He looks and speaks more like a young poet than
any one I have ever seen." A picturesque tradition remains that Thomas
Carlyle, riding out upon one of his solitary gallops necessitated by
his physical sufferings, was stopped by one whom he described as a
strangely beautiful youth, who poured out to him without preface or
apology his admiration for the great philosopher's works. Browning at
this time seems to have left upon many people this impression of
physical charm. A friend who attended University College with him
says: "He was then a bright handsome youth with long black hair
falling over his shoulders." Every tale that remains of him in
connection with this period asserts and reasserts the completely
romantic spirit by which he was then possessed. He was fond, for
example, of following in the track of gipsy caravans, far across
country, and a song which he heard with the refrain, "Following the
Queen of the Gipsies oh!" rang in his ears long enough to express
itself in his soberer and later days in that splendid poem of the
spirit of escape and Bohemianism, _The Flight of the Duchess_. Such
other of these early glimpses of him as remain, depict him as striding
across Wimbledon Common with his hair blowing in the wind, reciting
aloud passages from Isaiah, or climbing up into the elms above Norwood
to look over London by night. It was when looking down from that
suburban eyrie over the whole confounding labyrinth of London that he
was filled with that great irresponsible benevolence which is the best
of the joys of youth, and conceived the idea of a perfectly
irresponsible benevolence in the first plan of _Pippa Passes_. At the
end of his father's garden was a laburnum "heavy with its weight of
gold," and in the tree two nightingales were in the habit of singing
against each other, a form of competition which, I imagine, has since
become less common in Camberwell. When Browning as a boy was
intoxicated with the poetry of Shelley and Keats, he hypnotised
himself into something approaching to a positive conviction that these
two birds were the spirits of the two great poets who had settled in a
Camberwell garden, in order to sing to the only young gentleman who
really adored and understood them. This last story is perhaps the most
typical of the tone common to all the rest; it would be difficult to
find a story which across the gulf of nearly eighty years awakens so
vividly a sense of the sumptuous folly of an intellectual boyhood.
With Browning, as with all true poets, passion came first and made
intellectual expression, the hunger for beauty making literature as
the hunger for bread made a plough. The life he lived in those early
days was no life of dull application; there was no poet whose youth
was so young. When he was full of years and fame, and delineating in
great epics the beauty and horror of the romance of southern Europe, a
young man, thinking to please him, said, "There is no romance now
except in Italy." "Well," said Browning, "I should make an exception
of Camberwell."

Such glimpses will serve to indicate the kind of essential issue that
there was in the nature of things between the generation of Browning
and the generation of his father. Browning was bound in the nature of
things to become at the outset Byronic, and Byronism was not, of
course, in reality so much a pessimism about civilised things as an
optimism about savage things. This great revolt on behalf of the
elemental which Keats and Shelley represented was bound first of all
to occur. Robert Browning junior had to be a part of it, and Robert
Browning senior had to go back to his water colours and the faultless
couplets of Pope with the full sense of the greatest pathos that the
world contains, the pathos of the man who has produced something that
he cannot understand.

The earliest works of Browning bear witness, without exception, to
this ardent and somewhat sentimental evolution. _Pauline_ appeared
anonymously in 1833. It exhibits the characteristic mark of a juvenile
poem, the general suggestion that the author is a thousand years old.
Browning calls it a fragment of a confession; and Mr. Johnson Fox, an
old friend of Browning's father, who reviewed it for _Tait's
Magazine_, said, with truth, that it would be difficult to find
anything more purely confessional. It is the typical confession of a
boy laying bare all the spiritual crimes of infidelity and moral
waste, in a state of genuine ignorance of the fact that every one else
has committed them. It is wholesome and natural for youth to go about
confessing that the grass is green, and whispering to a priest
hoarsely that it has found a sun in heaven. But the records of that
particular period of development, even when they are as ornate and
beautiful as _Pauline_, are not necessarily or invariably wholesome
reading. The chief interest of _Pauline_, with all its beauties, lies
in a certain almost humorous singularity, the fact that Browning, of
all people, should have signalised his entrance into the world of
letters with a poem which may fairly be called morbid. But this is a
morbidity so general and recurrent that it may be called in a
contradictory phrase a healthy morbidity; it is a kind of intellectual
measles. No one of any degree of maturity in reading _Pauline_ will be
quite so horrified at the sins of the young gentleman who tells the
story as he seems to be himself. It is the utterance of that bitter
and heartrending period of youth which comes before we realise the one
grand and logical basis of all optimism--the doctrine of original sin.
The boy at this stage being an ignorant and inhuman idealist, regards
all his faults as frightful secret malformations, and it is only later
that he becomes conscious of that large and beautiful and benignant
explanation that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and
desperately wicked. That Browning, whose judgment on his own work was
one of the best in the world, took this view of _Pauline_ in after
years is quite obvious. He displayed a very manly and unique capacity
of really laughing at his own work without being in the least ashamed
of it. "This," he said of _Pauline_, "is the only crab apple that
remains of the shapely tree of life in my fool's paradise." It would
be difficult to express the matter more perfectly. Although _Pauline_
was published anonymously, its authorship was known to a certain
circle, and Browning began to form friendships in the literary world.
He had already become acquainted with two of the best friends he was
ever destined to have, Alfred Domett, celebrated in "The Guardian
Angel" and "Waring," and his cousin Silverthorne, whose death is
spoken of in one of the most perfect lyrics in the English language,
Browning's "May and Death." These were men of his own age, and his
manner of speaking of them gives us many glimpses into that splendid
world of comradeship which. Plato and Walt Whitman knew, with its
endless days and its immortal nights. Browning had a third friend
destined to play an even greater part in his life, but who belonged to
an older generation and a statelier school of manners and
scholarship. Mr. Kenyon was a schoolfellow of Browning's father, and
occupied towards his son something of the position of an irresponsible
uncle. He was a rotund, rosy old gentleman, fond of comfort and the
courtesies of life, but fond of them more for others, though much for
himself. Elizabeth Barrett in after years wrote of "the brightness of
his carved speech," which would appear to suggest that he practised
that urbane and precise order of wit which was even then
old-fashioned. Yet, notwithstanding many talents of this kind, he was
not so much an able man as the natural friend and equal of able men.

Browning's circle of friends, however, widened about this time in all
directions. One friend in particular he made, the Comte de
Ripert-Monclar, a French Royalist with whom he prosecuted with renewed
energy his studies in the mediæval and Renaissance schools of
philosophy. It was the Count who suggested that Browning should write
a poetical play on the subject of Paracelsus. After reflection,
indeed, the Count retracted this advice on the ground that the history
of the great mystic gave no room for love. Undismayed by this terrible
deficiency, Browning caught up the idea with characteristic
enthusiasm, and in 1835 appeared the first of his works which he
himself regarded as representative--_Paracelsus_. The poem shows an
enormous advance in technical literary power; but in the history of
Browning's mind it is chiefly interesting as giving an example of a
peculiarity which clung to him during the whole of his literary life,
an intense love of the holes and corners of history. Fifty-two years
afterwards he wrote _Parleyings with certain Persons of Importance in
their Day_, the last poem published in his lifetime; and any reader
of that remarkable work will perceive that the common characteristic
of all these persons is not so much that they were of importance in
their day as that they are of no importance in ours. The same
eccentric fastidiousness worked in him as a young man when he wrote
_Paracelsus_ and _Sordello_. Nowhere in Browning's poetry can we find
any very exhaustive study of any of the great men who are the
favourites of the poet and moralist. He has written about philosophy
and ambition and music and morals, but he has written nothing about
Socrates or Cæsar or Napoleon, or Beethoven or Mozart, or Buddha or
Mahomet. When he wishes to describe a political ambition he selects
that entirely unknown individual, King Victor of Sardinia. When he
wishes to express the most perfect soul of music, he unearths some
extraordinary persons called Abt Vogler and Master Hugues of
Saxe-Gotha. When he wishes to express the largest and sublimest scheme
of morals and religion which his imagination can conceive, he does not
put it into the mouth of any of the great spiritual leaders of
mankind, but into the mouth of an obscure Jewish Rabbi of the name of
Ben Ezra. It is fully in accordance with this fascinating craze of his
that when he wishes to study the deification of the intellect and the
disinterested pursuit of the things of the mind, he does not select
any of the great philosophers from Plato to Darwin, whose
investigations are still of some importance in the eyes of the world.
He selects the figure of all figures most covered with modern satire
and pity, the _à priori_ scientist of the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance. His supreme type of the human intellect is neither the
academic nor the positivist, but the alchemist. It is difficult to
imagine a turn of mind constituting a more complete challenge to the
ordinary modern point of view. To the intellect of our time the wild
investigators of the school of Paracelsus seem to be the very crown
and flower of futility, they are collectors of straws and careful
misers of dust. But for all that Browning was right. Any critic who
understands the true spirit of mediæval science can see that he was
right; no critic can see how right he was unless he understands the
spirit of mediæval science as thoroughly as he did. In the character
of Paracelsus, Browning wished to paint the dangers and
disappointments which attend the man who believes merely in the
intellect. He wished to depict the fall of the logician; and with a
perfect and unerring instinct he selected a man who wrote and spoke in
the tradition of the Middle Ages, the most thoroughly and even
painfully logical period that the world has ever seen. If he had
chosen an ancient Greek philosopher, it would have been open to the
critic to have said that that philosopher relied to some extent upon
the most sunny and graceful social life that ever flourished. If he
had made him a modern sociological professor, it would have been
possible to object that his energies were not wholly concerned with
truth, but partly with the solid and material satisfaction of society.
But the man truly devoted to the things of the mind was the mediæval
magician. It is a remarkable fact that one civilisation does not
satisfy itself by calling another civilisation wicked--it calls it
uncivilised. We call the Chinese barbarians, and they call us
barbarians. The mediæval state, like China, was a foreign
civilisation, and this was its supreme characteristic, that it cared
for the things of the mind for their own sake. To complain of the
researches of its sages on the ground that they were not materially
fruitful, is to act as we should act in telling a gardener that his
roses were not as digestible as our cabbages. It is not only true that
the mediæval philosophers never discovered the steam-engine; it is
quite equally true that they never tried. The Eden of the Middle Ages
was really a garden, where each of God's flowers--truth and beauty and
reason--flourished for its own sake, and with its own name. The Eden
of modern progress is a kitchen garden.

It would have been hard, therefore, for Browning to have chosen a
better example for his study of intellectual egotism than Paracelsus.
Modern life accuses the mediæval tradition of crushing the intellect;
Browning, with a truer instinct, accuses that tradition of
over-glorifying it. There is, however, another and even more important
deduction to be made from the moral of _Paracelsus_. The usual
accusation against Browning is that he was consumed with logic; that
he thought all subjects to be the proper pabulum of intellectual
disquisition; that he gloried chiefly in his own power of plucking
knots to pieces and rending fallacies in two; and that to this method
he sacrificed deliberately, and with complete self-complacency, the
element of poetry and sentiment. To people who imagine Browning to
have been this frigid believer in the intellect there is only one
answer necessary or sufficient. It is the fact that he wrote a play
designed to destroy the whole of this intellectualist fallacy at the
age of twenty-three.

_Paracelsus_ was in all likelihood Browning's introduction to the
literary world. It was many years, and even many decades, before he
had anything like a public appreciation, but a very great part of the
minority of those who were destined to appreciate him came over to his
standard upon the publication of _Paracelsus_. The celebrated John
Forster had taken up _Paracelsus_ "as a thing to slate," and had ended
its perusal with the wildest curiosity about the author and his works.
John Stuart Mill, never backward in generosity, had already interested
himself in Browning, and was finally converted by the same poem. Among
other early admirers were Landor, Leigh Hunt, Horne, Serjeant
Talfourd, and Monckton-Milnes. One man of even greater literary
stature seems to have come into Browning's life about this time, a man
for whom he never ceased to have the warmest affection and trust.
Browning was, indeed, one of the very few men of that period who got
on perfectly with Thomas Carlyle. It is precisely one of those little
things which speak volumes for the honesty and unfathomable good
humour of Browning, that Carlyle, who had a reckless contempt for most
other poets of his day, had something amounting to a real attachment
to him. He would run over to Paris for the mere privilege of dining
with him. Browning, on the other hand, with characteristic
impetuosity, passionately defended and justified Carlyle in all
companies. "I have just seen dear Carlyle," he writes on one occasion;
"catch me calling people dear in a hurry, except in a letter
beginning." He sided with Carlyle in the vexed question of the Carlyle
domestic relations, and his impression of Mrs. Carlyle was that she
was "a hard unlovable woman." As, however, it is on record that he
once, while excitedly explaining some point of mystical philosophy,
put down Mrs. Carlyle's hot kettle on the hearthrug, any frigidity
that he may have observed in her manner may possibly find a natural
explanation. His partisanship in the Carlyle affair, which was
characteristically headlong and human, may not throw much light on
that painful problem itself, but it throws a great deal of light on
the character of Browning, which was pugnaciously proud of its
friends, and had what may almost be called a lust of loyalty. Browning
was not capable of that most sagacious detachment which enabled
Tennyson to say that he could not agree that the Carlyles ought never
to have married, since if they had each married elsewhere there would
have been four miserable people instead of two.

Among the motley and brilliant crowd with which Browning had now begun
to mingle, there was no figure more eccentric and spontaneous than
that of Macready the actor. This extraordinary person, a man living
from hand to mouth in all things spiritual and pecuniary, a man
feeding upon flying emotions, conceived something like an attraction
towards Browning, spoke of him as the very ideal of a young poet, and
in a moment of peculiar excitement suggested to him the writing of a
great play. Browning was a man fundamentally indeed more steadfast and
prosaic, but on the surface fully as rapid and easily infected as
Macready. He immediately began to plan out a great historical play,
and selected for his subject "Strafford."

In Browning's treatment of the subject there is something more than a
trace of his Puritan and Liberal upbringing. It is one of the very
earliest of the really important works in English literature which
are based on the Parliamentarian reading of the incidents of the time
of Charles I. It is true that the finest element in the play is the
opposition between Strafford and Pym, an opposition so complete, so
lucid, so consistent, that it has, so to speak, something of the
friendly openness and agreement which belongs to an alliance. The two
men love each other and fight each other, and do the two things at the
same time completely. This is a great thing of which even to attempt
the description. It is easy to have the impartiality which can speak
judicially of both parties, but it is not so easy to have that larger
and higher impartiality which can speak passionately on behalf of both
parties. Nevertheless, it may be permissible to repeat that there is
in the play a definite trace of Browning's Puritan education and
Puritan historical outlook.

For _Strafford_ is, of course, an example of that most difficult of
all literary works--a political play. The thing has been achieved once
at least admirably in Shakespeare's _Julius Cæsar_, and something like
it, though from a more one-sided and romantic stand-point, has been
done excellently in _L'Aiglon_. But the difficulties of such a play
are obvious on the face of the matter. In a political play the
principal characters are not merely men. They are symbols,
arithmetical figures representing millions of other men outside. It
is, by dint of elaborate stage management, possible to bring a mob
upon the boards, but the largest mob ever known is nothing but a
floating atom of the people; and the people of which the politician
has to think does not consist of knots of rioters in the street, but
of some million absolutely distinct individuals, each sitting in his
own breakfast room reading his own morning paper. To give even the
faintest suggestion of the strength and size of the people in this
sense in the course of a dramatic performance is obviously impossible.
That is why it is so easy on the stage to concentrate all the pathos
and dignity upon such persons as Charles I. and Mary Queen of Scots,
the vampires of their people, because within the minute limits of a
stage there is room for their small virtues and no room for their
enormous crimes. It would be impossible to find a stronger example
than the case of _Strafford_. It is clear that no one could possibly
tell the whole truth about the life and death of Strafford,
politically considered, in a play. Strafford was one of the greatest
men ever born in England, and he attempted to found a great English
official despotism. That is to say, he attempted to found something
which is so different from what has actually come about that we can in
reality scarcely judge of it, any more than we can judge whether it
would be better to live in another planet, or pleasanter to have been
born a dog or an elephant. It would require enormous imagination to
reconstruct the political ideals of Strafford. Now Browning, as we all
know, got over the matter in his play, by practically denying that
Strafford had any political ideals at all. That is to say, while
crediting Strafford with all his real majesty of intellect and
character, he makes the whole of his political action dependent upon
his passionate personal attachment to the King. This is
unsatisfactory; it is in reality a dodging of the great difficulty of
the political play. That difficulty, in the case of any political
problem, is, as has been said, great. It would be very hard, for
example, to construct a play about Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule Bill. It
would be almost impossible to get expressed in a drama of some five
acts and some twenty characters anything so ancient and complicated as
that Irish problem, the roots of which lie in the darkness of the age
of Strongbow, and the branches of which spread out to the remotest
commonwealths of the East and West. But we should scarcely be
satisfied if a dramatist overcame the difficulty by ascribing Mr.
Gladstone's action in the Home Rule question to an overwhelming
personal affection for Mr. Healy. And in thus basing Strafford's
action upon personal and private reasons, Browning certainly does some
injustice to the political greatness, of Strafford. To attribute Mr.
Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule to an infatuation such as that
suggested above, would certainly have the air of implying that the
writer thought the Home Rule doctrine a peculiar or untenable one.
Similarly, Browning's choice of a motive for Strafford has very much
the air of an assumption that there was nothing to be said on public
grounds for Strafford's political ideal. Now this is certainly not the
case. The Puritans in the great struggles of the reign of Charles I.
may have possessed more valuable ideals than the Royalists, but it is
a very vulgar error to suppose that they were any more idealistic. In
Browning's play Pym is made almost the incarnation of public spirit,
and Strafford of private ties. But not only may an upholder of
despotism be public-spirited, but in the case of prominent upholders
of it like Strafford he generally is. Despotism indeed, and attempts
at despotism, like that of Strafford, are a kind of disease of public
spirit. They represent, as it were, the drunkenness of responsibility.
It is when men begin to grow desperate in their love for the people,
when they are overwhelmed with the difficulties and blunders of
humanity, that they fall back upon a wild desire to manage everything
themselves. Their faith in themselves is only a disillusionment with
mankind. They are in that most dreadful position, dreadful alike in
personal and public affairs--the position of the man who has lost
faith and not lost love. This belief that all would go right if we
could only get the strings into our own hands is a fallacy almost
without exception, but nobody can justly say that it is not
public-spirited. The sin and sorrow of despotism is not that it does
not love men, but that it loves them too much and trusts them too
little. Therefore from age to age in history arise these great
despotic dreamers, whether they be Royalists or Imperialists or even
Socialists, who have at root this idea, that the world would enter
into rest if it went their way and forswore altogether the right of
going its own way. When a man begins to think that the grass will not
grow at night unless he lies awake to watch it, he generally ends
either in an asylum or on the throne of an Emperor. Of these men
Strafford was one, and we cannot but feel that Browning somewhat
narrows the significance and tragedy of his place in history by making
him merely the champion of a personal idiosyncrasy against a great
public demand. Strafford was something greater than this; if indeed,
when we come to think of it, a man can be anything greater than the
friend of another man. But the whole question is interesting, because
Browning, although he never again attacked a political drama of such
palpable importance as _Strafford_, could never keep politics
altogether out of his dramatic work. _King Victor and King Charles_,
which followed it, is a political play, the study of a despotic
instinct much meaner than that of Strafford. _Colombe's Birthday_,
again, is political as well as romantic. Politics in its historic
aspect would seem to have had a great fascination for him, as indeed
it must have for all ardent intellects, since it is the one thing in
the world that is as intellectual as the _Encyclopædia Britannica_ and
as rapid as the Derby.

One of the favourite subjects among those who like to conduct long
controversies about Browning (and their name is legion) is the
question of whether Browning's plays, such as _Strafford_, were
successes upon the stage. As they are never agreed about what
constitutes a success on the stage, it is difficult to adjudge their
quarrels. But the general fact is very simple; such a play as
_Strafford_ was not a gigantic theatrical success, and nobody, it is
to be presumed, ever imagined that it would be. On the other hand, it
was certainly not a failure, but was enjoyed and applauded as are
hundreds of excellent plays which run only for a week or two, as many
excellent plays do, and as all plays ought to do. Above all, the
definite success which attended the representation of _Strafford_ from
the point of view of the more educated and appreciative was quite
enough to establish Browning in a certain definite literary position.
As a classical and established personality he did not come into his
kingdom for years and decades afterwards; not, indeed, until he was
near to entering upon the final rest. But as a detached and eccentric
personality, as a man who existed and who had arisen on the outskirts
of literature, the world began to be conscious of him at this time.

Of what he was personally at the period that he thus became personally
apparent, Mrs. Bridell Fox has left a very vivid little sketch. She
describes how Browning called at the house (he was acquainted with her
father), and finding that gentleman out, asked with a kind of abrupt
politeness if he might play on the piano. This touch is very
characteristic of the mingled aplomb and unconsciousness of Browning's
social manner. "He was then," she writes, "slim and dark, and very
handsome, and--may I hint it?--just a trifle of a dandy, addicted to
lemon-coloured kid gloves and such things, quite the glass of fashion
and the mould of form. But full of 'ambition,' eager for success,
eager for fame, and, what is more, determined to conquer fame and to
achieve success." That is as good a portrait as we can have of the
Browning of these days--quite self-satisfied, but not self-conscious
young man; one who had outgrown, but only just outgrown, the pure
romanticism of his boyhood, which made him run after gipsy caravans
and listen to nightingales in the wood; a man whose incandescent
vitality, now that it had abandoned gipsies and not yet immersed
itself in casuistical poems, devoted itself excitedly to trifles, such
as lemon-coloured kid gloves and fame. But a man still above all
things perfectly young and natural, professing that foppery which
follows the fashions, and not that sillier and more demoralising
foppery which defies them. Just as he walked in coolly and yet
impulsively into a private drawing-room and offered to play, so he
walked at this time into the huge and crowded salon of European
literature and offered to sing.

 

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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