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Ch. 2: Early Works


In 1840 _Sordello_ was published. Its reception by the great majority
of readers, including some of the ablest men of the time, was a
reception of a kind probably unknown in the rest of literary history,
a reception that was neither praise nor blame. It was perhaps best
expressed by Carlyle, who wrote to say that his wife had read
_Sordello_ with great interest, and wished to know whether Sordello
was a man, or a city, or a book. Better known, of course, is the story
of Tennyson, who said that the first line of the poem--

"Who will, may hear Sordello's story told,"

and the last line--

"Who would, has heard Sordello's story told,"

were the only two lines in the poem that he understood, and they were
lies.

Perhaps the best story, however, of all the cycle of Sordello legends
is that which is related of Douglas Jerrold. He was recovering from an
illness; and having obtained permission for the first time to read a
little during the day, he picked up a book from a pile beside the bed
and began _Sordello_. No sooner had he done so than he turned deadly
pale, put down the book, and said, "My God! I'm an idiot. My health
is restored, but my mind's gone. I can't understand two consecutive
lines of an English poem." He then summoned his family and silently
gave the book into their hands, asking for their opinion on the poem;
and as the shadow of perplexity gradually passed over their faces, he
heaved a sigh of relief and went to sleep. These stories, whether
accurate or no, do undoubtedly represent the very peculiar reception
accorded to _Sordello_, a reception which, as I have said, bears no
resemblance whatever to anything in the way of eulogy or condemnation
that had ever been accorded to a work of art before. There had been
authors whom it was fashionable to boast of admiring and authors whom
it was fashionable to boast of despising; but with _Sordello_ enters
into literary history the Browning of popular badinage, the author
whom it is fashionable to boast of not understanding.

Putting aside for the moment the literary qualities which are to be
found in the poem, when it becomes intelligible, there is one question
very relevant to the fame and character of Browning which is raised by
_Sordello_ when it is considered, as most people consider it, as
hopelessly unintelligible. It really throws some light upon the reason
of Browning's obscurity. The ordinary theory of Browning's obscurity
is to the effect that it was a piece of intellectual vanity indulged
in more and more insolently as his years and fame increased. There are
at least two very decisive objections to this popular explanation. In
the first place, it must emphatically be said for Browning that in all
the numerous records and impressions of him throughout his long and
very public life, there is not one iota of evidence that he was a man
who was intellectually vain. The evidence is entirely the other way.
He was vain of many things, of his physical health, for example, and
even more of the physical health which he contrived to bestow for a
certain period upon his wife. From the records of his early dandyism,
his flowing hair and his lemon-coloured gloves, it is probable enough
that he was vain of his good looks. He was vain of his masculinity,
his knowledge of the world, and he was, I fancy, decidedly vain of his
prejudices, even, it might be said, vain of being vain of them. But
everything is against the idea that he was much in the habit of
thinking of himself in his intellectual aspect. In the matter of
conversation, for example, some people who liked him found him genial,
talkative, anecdotal, with a certain strengthening and sanative
quality in his mere bodily presence. Some people who did not like him
found him a mere frivolous chatterer, afflicted with bad manners. One
lady, who knew him well, said that, though he only met you in a crowd
and made some commonplace remark, you went for the rest of the day
with your head up. Another lady who did not know him, and therefore
disliked him, asked after a dinner party, "Who was that too-exuberant
financier?" These are the diversities of feeling about him. But they
all agree in one point--that he did not talk cleverly, or try to talk
cleverly, as that proceeding is understood in literary circles. He
talked positively, he talked a great deal, but he never attempted to
give that neat and æsthetic character to his speech which is almost
invariable in the case of the man who is vain of his mental
superiority. When he did impress people with mental gymnastics, it was
mostly in the form of pouring out, with passionate enthusiasm, whole
epics written by other people, which is the last thing that the
literary egotist would be likely to waste his time over. We have
therefore to start with an enormous psychological improbability that
Browning made his poems complicated from mere pride in his powers and
contempt of his readers.

There is, however, another very practical objection to the ordinary
theory that Browning's obscurity was a part of the intoxication of
fame and intellectual consideration. We constantly hear the statement
that Browning's intellectual complexity increased with his later
poems, but the statement is simply not true. _Sordello_, to the
indescribable density of which he never afterwards even approached,
was begun before _Strafford_, and was therefore the third of his
works, and even if we adopt his own habit of ignoring _Pauline_, the
second. He wrote the greater part of it when he was twenty-four. It
was in his youth, at the time when a man is thinking of love and
publicity, of sunshine and singing birds, that he gave birth to this
horror of great darkness; and the more we study the matter with any
knowledge of the nature of youth, the more we shall come to the
conclusion that Browning's obscurity had altogether the opposite
origin to that which is usually assigned to it. He was not
unintelligible because he was proud, but unintelligible because he was
humble. He was not unintelligible because his thoughts were vague, but
because to him they were obvious.

A man who is intellectually vain does not make himself
incomprehensible, because he is so enormously impressed with the
difference between his readers' intelligence and his own that he
talks down to them with elaborate repetition and lucidity. What poet
was ever vainer than Byron? What poet was ever so magnificently lucid?
But a young man of genius who has a genuine humility in his heart does
not elaborately explain his discoveries, because he does not think
that they are discoveries. He thinks that the whole street is humming
with his ideas, and that the postman and the tailor are poets like
himself. Browning's impenetrable poetry was the natural expression of
this beautiful optimism. _Sordello_ was the most glorious compliment
that has ever been paid to the average man.

In the same manner, of course, outward obscurity is in a young author
a mark of inward clarity. A man who is vague in his ideas does not
speak obscurely, because his own dazed and drifting condition leads
him to clutch at phrases like ropes and use the formulæ that every one
understands. No one ever found Miss Marie Corelli obscure, because she
believes only in words. But if a young man really has ideas of his
own, he must be obscure at first, because he lives in a world of his
own in which there are symbols and correspondences and categories
unknown to the rest of the world. Let us take an imaginary example.
Suppose that a young poet had developed by himself a peculiar idea
that all forms of excitement, including religious excitement, were a
kind of evil intoxication, he might say to himself continually that
churches were in reality taverns, and this idea would become so fixed
in his mind that he would forget that no such association existed in
the minds of others. And suppose that in pursuance of this general
idea, which is a perfectly clear and intellectual idea, though a very
silly one, he were to say that he believed in Puritanism without its
theology, and were to repeat this idea also to himself until it became
instinctive and familiar, such a man might take up a pen, and under
the impression that he was saying something figurative indeed, but
quite clear and suggestive, write some such sentence as this, "You
will not get the godless Puritan into your white taverns," and no one
in the length and breadth of the country could form the remotest
notion of what he could mean. So it would have been in any example,
for instance, of a man who made some philosophical discovery and did
not realise how far the world was from it. If it had been possible for
a poet in the sixteenth century to hit upon and learn to regard as
obvious the evolutionary theory of Darwin, he might have written down
some such line as "the radiant offspring of the ape," and the maddest
volumes of mediæval natural history would have been ransacked for the
meaning of the allusion. The more fixed and solid and sensible the
idea appeared to him, the more dark and fantastic it would have
appeared to the world. Most of us indeed, if we ever say anything
valuable, say it when we are giving expression to that part of us
which has become as familiar and invisible as the pattern on our wall
paper. It is only when an idea has become a matter of course to the
thinker that it becomes startling to the world.

It is worth while to dwell upon this preliminary point of the ground
of Browning's obscurity, because it involves an important issue about
him. Our whole view of Browning is bound to be absolutely different,
and I think absolutely false, if we start with the conception that he
was what the French call an intellectual. If we see Browning with the
eyes of his particular followers, we shall inevitably think this. For
his followers are pre-eminently intellectuals, and there never lived
upon the earth a great man who was so fundamentally different from his
followers. Indeed, he felt this heartily and even humorously himself.
"Wilkes was no Wilkite," he said, "and I am very far from being a
Browningite." We shall, as I say, utterly misunderstand Browning at
every step of his career if we suppose that he was the sort of man who
would be likely to take a pleasure in asserting the subtlety and
abstruseness of his message. He took pleasure beyond all question in
himself; in the strictest sense of the word he enjoyed himself. But
his conception of himself was never that of the intellectual. He
conceived himself rather as a sanguine and strenuous man, a great
fighter. "I was ever," as he says, "a fighter." His faults, a certain
occasional fierceness and grossness, were the faults that are counted
as virtues among navvies and sailors and most primitive men. His
virtues, boyishness and absolute fidelity, and a love of plain words
and things are the virtues which are counted as vices among the
æsthetic prigs who pay him the greatest honour. He had his more
objectionable side, like other men, but it had nothing to do with
literary egotism. He was not vain of being an extraordinary man. He
was only somewhat excessively vain of being an ordinary one.

The Browning then who published _Sordello_ we have to conceive, not as
a young pedant anxious to exaggerate his superiority to the public,
but as a hot-headed, strong-minded, inexperienced, and essentially
humble man, who had more ideas than he knew how to disentangle from
each other. If we compare, for example, the complexity of Browning
with the clarity of Matthew Arnold, we shall realise that the cause
lies in the fact that Matthew Arnold was an intellectual aristocrat,
and Browning an intellectual democrat. The particular peculiarities of
_Sordello_ illustrate the matter very significantly. A very great part
of the difficulty of _Sordello_, for instance, is in the fact that
before the reader even approaches to tackling the difficulties of
Browning's actual narrative, he is apparently expected to start with
an exhaustive knowledge of that most shadowy and bewildering of all
human epochs--the period of the Guelph and Ghibelline struggles in
mediæval Italy. Here, of course, Browning simply betrays that
impetuous humility which we have previously observed. His father was a
student of mediæval chronicles, he had himself imbibed that learning
in the same casual manner in which a boy learns to walk or to play
cricket. Consequently in a literary sense he rushed up to the first
person he met and began talking about Ecelo and Taurello Salinguerra
with about as much literary egotism as an English baby shows when it
talks English to an Italian organ grinder. Beyond this the poem of
_Sordello_, powerful as it is, does not present any very significant
advance in Browning's mental development on that already represented
by _Pauline_ and _Paracelsus_. _Pauline, Paracelsus_, and _Sordello_
stand together in the general fact that they are all, in the excellent
phrase used about the first by Mr. Johnson Fox, "confessional." All
three are analyses of the weakness which every artistic temperament
finds in itself. Browning is still writing about himself, a subject
of which he, like all good and brave men, was profoundly ignorant.
This kind of self-analysis is always misleading. For we do not see in
ourselves those dominant traits strong enough to force themselves out
in action which our neighbours see. We see only a welter of minute
mental experiences which include all the sins that were ever committed
by Nero or Sir Willoughby Patterne. When studying ourselves, we are
looking at a fresco with a magnifying glass. Consequently, these early
impressions which great men have given of themselves are nearly always
slanders upon themselves, for the strongest man is weak to his own
conscience, and Hamlet flourished to a certainty even inside Napoleon.
So it was with Browning, who when he was nearly eighty was destined to
write with the hilarity of a schoolboy, but who wrote in his boyhood
poems devoted to analysing the final break-up of intellect and soul.

_Sordello_, with all its load of learning, and almost more oppressive
load of beauty, has never had any very important influence even upon
Browningites, and with the rest of the world the name has passed into
a jest. The most truly memorable thing about it was Browning's saying
in answer to all gibes and misconceptions, a saying which expresses
better than anything else what genuine metal was in him, "I blame no
one, least of all myself, who did my best then and since." This is
indeed a model for all men of letters who do not wish to retain only
the letters and to lose the man.

When next Browning spoke, it was from a greater height and with a new
voice. His visit to Asolo, "his first love," as he said, "among
Italian cities," coincided with the stir and transformation in his
spirit and the breaking up of that splendid palace of mirrors in which
a man like Byron had lived and died. In 1841 _Pippa Passes_ appeared,
and with it the real Browning of the modern world. He had made the
discovery which Byron never made, but which almost every young man
does at last make--the thrilling discovery that he is not Robinson
Crusoe. _Pippa Passes_ is the greatest poem ever written, with the
exception of one or two by Walt Whitman, to express the sentiment of
the pure love of humanity. The phrase has unfortunately a false and
pedantic sound. The love of humanity is a thing supposed to be
professed only by vulgar and officious philanthropists, or by saints
of a superhuman detachment and universality. As a matter of fact, love
of humanity is the commonest and most natural of the feelings of a
fresh nature, and almost every one has felt it alight capriciously
upon him when looking at a crowded park or a room full of dancers. The
love of those whom we do not know is quite as eternal a sentiment as
the love of those whom we do know. In our friends the richness of life
is proved to us by what we have gained; in the faces in the street the
richness of life is proved to us by the hint of what we have lost. And
this feeling for strange faces and strange lives, when it is felt
keenly by a young man, almost always expresses itself in a desire
after a kind of vagabond beneficence, a desire to go through the world
scattering goodness like a capricious god. It is desired that mankind
should hunt in vain for its best friend as it would hunt for a
criminal; that he should be an anonymous Saviour, an unrecorded
Christ. Browning, like every one else, when awakened to the beauty
and variety of men, dreamed of this arrogant self-effacement. He has
written of himself that he had long thought vaguely of a being passing
through the world, obscure and unnameable, but moulding the destinies
of others to mightier and better issues. Then his almost faultless
artistic instinct came in and suggested that this being, whom he
dramatised as the work-girl, Pippa, should be even unconscious of
anything but her own happiness, and should sway men's lives with a
lonely mirth. It was a bold and moving conception to show us these
mature and tragic human groups all at the supreme moment eavesdropping
upon the solitude of a child. And it was an even more precise instinct
which made Browning make the errant benefactor a woman. A man's good
work is effected by doing what he does, a woman's by being what she
is.

There is one other point about _Pippa Passes_ which is worth a
moment's attention. The great difficulty with regard to the
understanding of Browning is the fact that, to all appearance,
scarcely any one can be induced to take him seriously as a literary
artist. His adversaries consider his literary vagaries a
disqualification for every position among poets; and his admirers
regard those vagaries with the affectionate indulgence of a circle of
maiden aunts towards a boy home for the holidays. Browning is supposed
to do as he likes with form, because he had such a profound scheme of
thought. But, as a matter of fact, though few of his followers will
take Browning's literary form seriously, he took his own literary form
very seriously. Now _Pippa Passes_ is, among other things, eminently
remarkable as a very original artistic form, a series of disconnected
but dramatic scenes which have only in common the appearance of one
figure. For this admirable literary departure Browning, amid all the
laudations of his "mind" and his "message," has scarcely ever had
credit. And just as we should, if we took Browning seriously as a
poet, see that he had made many noble literary forms, so we should
also see that he did make from time to time certain definite literary
mistakes. There is one of them, a glaring one, in _Pippa Passes_; and,
as far as I know, no critic has ever thought enough of Browning as an
artist to point it out. It is a gross falsification of the whole
beauty of _Pippa Passes_ to make the Monseigneur and his accomplice in
the last act discuss a plan touching the fate of Pippa herself. The
whole central and splendid idea of the drama is the fact that Pippa is
utterly remote from the grand folk whose lives she troubles and
transforms. To make her in the end turn out to be the niece of one of
them, is like a whiff from an Adelphi melodrama, an excellent thing in
its place, but destructive of the entire conception of Pippa. Having
done that, Browning might just as well have made Sebald turn out to be
her long lost brother, and Luigi a husband to whom she was secretly
married. Browning made this mistake when his own splendid artistic
power was only growing, and its merits and its faults in a tangle. But
its real literary merits and its real literary faults have alike
remained unrecognised under the influence of that unfortunate
intellectualism which idolises Browning as a metaphysician and
neglects him as a poet. But a better test was coming. Browning's
poetry, in the most strictly poetical sense, reached its flower in
_Dramatic Lyrics_, published in 1842. Here he showed himself a
picturesque and poignant artist in a wholly original manner. And the
two main characteristics of the work were the two characteristics most
commonly denied to Browning, both by his opponents and his followers,
passion and beauty; but beauty had enlarged her boundaries in new
modes of dramatic arrangement, and passion had found new voices in
fantastic and realistic verse. Those who suppose Browning to be a
wholly philosophic poet, number a great majority of his commentators.
But when we come to look at the actual facts, they are strangely and
almost unexpectedly otherwise.

Let any one who believes in the arrogantly intellectual character of
Browning's poetry run through the actual repertoire of the _Dramatic
Lyrics_. The first item consists of those splendid war chants called
"Cavalier Tunes." I do not imagine that any one will maintain that
there is any very mysterious metaphysical aim in them. The second item
is the fine poem "The Lost Leader," a poem which expresses in
perfectly lucid and lyrical verse a perfectly normal and old-fashioned
indignation. It is the same, however far we carry the query. What
theory does the next poem, "How they brought the Good News from Ghent
to Aix," express, except the daring speculation that it is often
exciting to ride a good horse in Belgium? What theory does the poem
after that, "Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr," express, except that
it is also frequently exciting to ride a good horse in Africa? Then
comes "Nationality in Drinks," a mere technical oddity without a gleam
of philosophy; and after that those two entirely exquisite "Garden
Fancies," the first of which is devoted to the abstruse thesis that a
woman may be charming, and the second to the equally abstruse thesis
that a book may be a bore. Then comes "The Soliloquy of the Spanish
Cloister," from which the most ingenious "Browning student" cannot
extract anything except that people sometimes hate each other in
Spain; and then "The Laboratory," from which he could extract nothing
except that people sometimes hate each other in France. This is a
perfectly honest record of the poems as they stand. And the first
eleven poems read straight off are remarkable for these two obvious
characteristics--first, that they contain not even a suggestion of
anything that could be called philosophy; and second, that they
contain a considerable proportion of the best and most typical poems
that Browning ever wrote. It may be repeated that either he wrote
these lyrics because he had an artistic sense, or it is impossible to
hazard even the wildest guess as to why he wrote them.

It is permissible to say that the _Dramatic Lyrics_ represent the
arrival of the real Browning of literary history. It is true that he
had written already many admirable poems of a far more ambitious
plan--_Paracelsus_ with its splendid version of the faults of the
intellectual, _Pippa Passes_ with its beautiful deification of
unconscious influence. But youth is always ambitious and universal;
mature work exhibits more of individuality, more of the special type
and colour of work which a man is destined to do. Youth is universal,
but not individual. The genius who begins life with a very genuine and
sincere doubt whether he is meant to be an exquisite and idolised
violinist, or the most powerful and eloquent Prime Minister of modern
times, does at last end by making the discovery that there is, after
all, one thing, possibly a certain style of illustrating Nursery
Rhymes, which he can really do better than any one else. This was what
happened to Browning; like every one else, he had to discover first
the universe, and then humanity, and at last himself. With him, as
with all others, the great paradox and the great definition of life
was this, that the ambition narrows as the mind expands. In _Dramatic
Lyrics_ he discovered the one thing that he could really do better
than any one else--the dramatic lyric. The form is absolutely
original: he had discovered a new field of poetry, and in the centre
of that field he had found himself.

The actual quality, the actual originality of the form is a little
difficult to describe. But its general characteristic is the fearless
and most dexterous use of grotesque things in order to express sublime
emotions. The best and most characteristic of the poems are
love-poems; they express almost to perfection the real wonderland of
youth, but they do not express it by the ideal imagery of most poets
of love. The imagery of these poems consists, if we may take a rapid
survey of Browning's love poetry, of suburban streets, straws,
garden-rakes, medicine bottles, pianos, window-blinds, burnt cork,
fashionable fur coats. But in this new method he thoroughly expressed
the true essential, the insatiable realism of passion. If any one
wished to prove that Browning was not, as he is said to be, the poet
of thought, but pre-eminently one of the poets of passion, we could
scarcely find a better evidence of this profoundly passionate element
than Browning's astonishing realism in love poetry. There is nothing
so fiercely realistic as sentiment and emotion. Thought and the
intellect are content to accept abstractions, summaries, and
generalisations; they are content that ten acres of ground should be
called for the sake of argument X, and ten widows' incomes called for
the sake of argument Y; they are content that a thousand awful and
mysterious disappearances from the visible universe should be summed
up as the mortality of a district, or that ten thousand intoxications
of the soul should bear the general name of the instinct of sex.
Rationalism can live upon air and signs and numbers. But sentiment
must have reality; emotion demands the real fields, the real widows'
homes, the real corpse, and the real woman. And therefore Browning's
love poetry is the finest love poetry in the world, because it does
not talk about raptures and ideals and gates of heaven, but about
window-panes and gloves and garden walls. It does not deal much with
abstractions; it is the truest of all love poetry, because it does not
speak much about love. It awakens in every man the memories of that
immortal instant when common and dead things had a meaning beyond the
power of any dictionary to utter, and a value beyond the power of any
millionaire to compute. He expresses the celestial time when a man
does not think about heaven, but about a parasol. And therefore he is,
first, the greatest of love poets, and, secondly, the only optimistic
philosopher except Whitman.

The general accusation against Browning in connection with his use of
the grotesque comes in very definitely here; for in using these homely
and practical images, these allusions, bordering on what many would
call the commonplace, he was indeed true to the actual and abiding
spirit of love. In that delightful poem "Youth and Art" we have the
singing girl saying to her old lover--

"No harm! It was not my fault
If you never turned your eye's tail up
As I shook upon E _in alt_,
Or ran the chromatic scale up."

This is a great deal more like the real chaff that passes between
those whose hearts are full of new hope or of old memory than half the
great poems of the world. Browning never forgets the little details
which to a man who has ever really lived may suddenly send an arrow
through the heart. Take, for example, such a matter as dress, as it is
treated in "A Lover's Quarrel."

"See, how she looks now, dressed
In a sledging cap and vest!
'Tis a huge fur cloak--
Like a reindeer's yoke
Falls the lappet along the breast:
Sleeves for her arms to rest,
Or to hang, as my Love likes best."

That would almost serve as an order to a dressmaker, and is therefore
poetry, or at least excellent poetry of this order. So great a power
have these dead things of taking hold on the living spirit, that I
question whether any one could read through the catalogue of a
miscellaneous auction sale without coming upon things which, if
realised for a moment, would be near to the elemental tears. And if
any of us or all of us are truly optimists, and believe as Browning
did, that existence has a value wholly inexpressible, we are most
truly compelled to that sentiment not by any argument or triumphant
justification of the cosmos, but by a few of these momentary and
immortal sights and sounds, a gesture, an old song, a portrait, a
piano, an old door.

In 1843 appeared that marvellous drama _The Return of the Druses_, a
work which contains more of Browning's typical qualities exhibited in
an exquisite literary shape, than can easily be counted. We have in
_The Return of the Druses_ his love of the corners of history, his
interest in the religious mind of the East, with its almost terrifying
sense of being in the hand of heaven, his love of colour and verbal
luxury, of gold and green and purple, which made some think he must be
an Oriental himself. But, above all, it presents the first rise of
that great psychological ambition which Browning was thenceforth to
pursue. In _Pauline_ and the poems that follow it, Browning has only
the comparatively easy task of giving an account of himself. In _Pippa
Passes_ he has the only less easy task of giving an account of
humanity. In _The Return of the Druses_ he has for the first time the
task which is so much harder than giving an account of humanity--the
task of giving an account of a human being. Djabal, the great Oriental
impostor, who is the central character of the play, is a peculiarly
subtle character, a compound of blasphemous and lying assumptions of
Godhead with genuine and stirring patriotic and personal feelings: he
is a blend, so to speak, of a base divinity and of a noble humanity.
He is supremely important in the history of Browning's mind, for he is
the first of that great series of the apologiæ of apparently evil men,
on which the poet was to pour out so much of his imaginative
wealth--Djabal, Fra Lippo, Bishop Blougram, Sludge, Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau, and the hero of _Fifine at the Fair_.

With this play, so far as any point can be fixed for the matter, he
enters for the first time on the most valuable of all his labours--the
defence of the indefensible. It may be noticed that Browning was not
in the least content with the fact that certain human frailties had
always lain more or less under an implied indulgence; that all human
sentiment had agreed that a profligate might be generous, or that a
drunkard might be high-minded. He was insatiable: he wished to go
further and show in a character like Djabal that an impostor might be
generous and that a liar might be high-minded. In all his life, it
must constantly be remembered, he tried always the most difficult
things. Just as he tried the queerest metres and attempted to manage
them, so he tried the queerest human souls and attempted to stand in
their place. Charity was his basic philosophy; but it was, as it were,
a fierce charity, a charity that went man-hunting. He was a kind of
cosmic detective who walked into the foulest of thieves' kitchens and
accused men publicly of virtue. The character of Djabal in _The Return
of the Druses_ is the first of this long series of forlorn hopes for
the relief of long surrendered castles of misconduct. As we shall see,
even realising the humanity of a noble impostor like Djabal did not
content his erratic hunger for goodness. He went further again, and
realised the humanity of a mean impostor like Sludge. But in all
things he retained this essential characteristic, that he was not
content with seeking sinners--he sought the sinners whom even sinners
cast out.

Browning's feeling of ambition in the matter of the drama continued to
grow at this time. It must be remembered that he had every natural
tendency to be theatrical, though he lacked the essential lucidity.
He was not, as a matter of fact, a particularly unsuccessful
dramatist; but in the world of abstract temperaments he was by nature
an unsuccessful dramatist. He was, that is to say, a man who loved
above all things plain and sensational words, open catastrophes, a
clear and ringing conclusion to everything. But it so happened,
unfortunately, that his own words were not plain; that his
catastrophes came with a crashing and sudden unintelligibleness which
left men in doubt whether the thing were a catastrophe or a great
stroke of good luck; that his conclusion, though it rang like a
trumpet to the four corners of heaven, was in its actual message quite
inaudible. We are bound to admit, on the authority of all his best
critics and admirers, that his plays were not failures, but we can all
feel that they should have been. He was, as it were, by nature a
neglected dramatist. He was one of those who achieve the reputation,
in the literal sense, of eccentricity by their frantic efforts to
reach the centre.

_A Blot on the 'Scutcheon_ followed _The Return of the Druses_. In
connection with the performance of this very fine play a quarrel arose
which would not be worth mentioning if it did not happen to illustrate
the curious energetic simplicity of Browning's character. Macready,
who was in desperately low financial circumstances at this time, tried
by every means conceivable to avoid playing the part; he dodged, he
shuffled, he tried every evasion that occurred to him, but it never
occurred to Browning to see what he meant. He pushed off the part upon
Phelps, and Browning was contented; he resumed it, and Browning was
only discontented on behalf of Phelps. The two had a quarrel; they
were both headstrong, passionate men, but the quarrel dealt entirely
with the unfortunate condition of Phelps. Browning beat down his own
hat over his eyes; Macready flung Browning's manuscript with a slap
upon the floor. But all the time it never occurred to the poet that
Macready's conduct was dictated by anything so crude and simple as a
desire for money. Browning was in fact by his principles and his
ideals a man of the world, but in his life far otherwise. That worldly
ease which is to most of us a temptation was to him an ideal. He was
as it were a citizen of the New Jerusalem who desired with perfect
sanity and simplicity to be a citizen of Mayfair. There was in him a
quality which can only be most delicately described; for it was a
virtue which bears a strange resemblance to one of the meanest of
vices. Those curious people who think the truth a thing that can be
said violently and with ease, might naturally call Browning a snob. He
was fond of society, of fashion and even of wealth: but there is no
snobbery in admiring these things or any things if we admire them for
the right reasons. He admired them as worldlings cannot admire them:
he was, as it were, the child who comes in with the dessert. He bore
the same relation to the snob that the righteous man bears to the
Pharisee: something frightfully close and similar and yet an
everlasting opposite.

 

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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