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Ch. 8: The Philosophy of Browning

The great fault of most of the appreciation of Browning lies in the
fact that it conceives the moral and artistic value of his work to lie
in what is called "the message of Browning," or "the teaching of
Browning," or, in other words, in the mere opinions of Browning. Now
Browning had opinions, just as he had a dress-suit or a vote for
Parliament. He did not hesitate to express these opinions any more
than he would have hesitated to fire off a gun, or open an umbrella,
if he had possessed those articles, and realised their value. For
example, he had, as his students and eulogists have constantly stated,
certain definite opinions about the spiritual function of love, or the
intellectual basis of Christianity. Those opinions were very striking
and very solid, as everything was which came out of Browning's mind.
His two great theories of the universe may be expressed in two
comparatively parallel phrases. The first was what may be called the
hope which lies in the imperfection of man. The characteristic poem of
"Old Pictures in Florence" expresses very quaintly and beautifully the
idea that some hope may always be based on deficiency itself; in other
words, that in so far as man is a one-legged or a one-eyed creature,
there is something about his appearance which indicates that he
should have another leg and another eye. The poem suggests admirably
that such a sense of incompleteness may easily be a great advance upon
a sense of completeness, that the part may easily and obviously be
greater than the whole. And from this Browning draws, as he is fully
justified in drawing, a definite hope for immortality and the larger
scale of life. For nothing is more certain than that though this world
is the only world that we have known, or of which we could even dream,
the fact does remain that we have named it "a strange world." In other
words, we have certainly felt that this world did not explain itself,
that something in its complete and patent picture has been omitted.
And Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness
implies completeness, life implies immortality. This then was the
first of the doctrines or opinions of Browning: the hope that lies in
the imperfection of man. The second of the great Browning doctrines
requires some audacity to express. It can only be properly stated as
the hope that lies in the imperfection of God. That is to say, that
Browning held that sorrow and self-denial, if they were the burdens of
man, were also his privileges. He held that these stubborn sorrows and
obscure valours might, to use a yet more strange expression, have
provoked the envy of the Almighty. If man has self-sacrifice and God
has none, then man has in the Universe a secret and blasphemous
superiority. And this tremendous story of a Divine jealousy Browning
reads into the story of the Crucifixion. If the Creator had not been
crucified He would not have been as great as thousands of wretched
fanatics among His own creatures. It is needless to insist upon this
point; any one who wishes to read it splendidly expressed need only be
referred to "Saul." But these are emphatically the two main doctrines
or opinions of Browning which I have ventured to characterise roughly
as the hope in the imperfection of man, and more boldly as the hope in
the imperfection of God. They are great thoughts, thoughts written by
a great man, and they raise noble and beautiful doubts on behalf of
faith which the human spirit will never answer or exhaust. But about
them in connection with Browning there nevertheless remains something
to be added.

Browning was, as most of his upholders and all his opponents say, an
optimist. His theory, that man's sense of his own imperfection implies
a design of perfection, is a very good argument for optimism. His
theory that man's knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies
God's knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice is another very good
argument for optimism. But any one will make the deepest and blackest
and most incurable mistake about Browning who imagines that his
optimism was founded on any arguments for optimism. Because he had a
strong intellect, because he had a strong power of conviction, he
conceived and developed and asserted these doctrines of the
incompleteness of Man and the sacrifice of Omnipotence. But these
doctrines were the symptoms of his optimism, they were not its origin.
It is surely obvious that no one can be argued into optimism since no
one can be argued into happiness. Browning's optimism was not founded
on opinions which were the work of Browning, but on life which was
the work of God. One of Browning's most celebrated biographers has
said that something of Browning's theology must be put down to his
possession of a good digestion. The remark was, of course, like all
remarks touching the tragic subject of digestion, intended to be funny
and to convey some kind of doubt or diminution touching the value of
Browning's faith. But if we examine the matter with somewhat greater
care we shall see that it is indeed a thorough compliment to that
faith. Nobody, strictly speaking, is happier on account of his
digestion. He is happy because he is so constituted as to forget all
about it. Nobody really is convulsed with delight at the thought of
the ingenious machinery which he possesses inside him; the thing which
delights him is simply the full possession of his own human body. I
cannot in the least understand why a good digestion--that is, a good
body--should not be held to be as mystic a benefit as a sunset or the
first flower of spring. But there is about digestion this peculiarity
throwing a great light on human pessimism, that it is one of the many
things which we never speak of as existing until they go wrong. We
should think it ridiculous to speak of a man as suffering from his
boots if we meant that he had really no boots. But we do speak of a
man suffering from digestion when we mean that he suffers from a lack
of digestion. In the same way we speak of a man suffering from nerves
when we mean that his nerves are more inefficient than any one else's
nerves. If any one wishes to see how grossly language can degenerate,
he need only compare the old optimistic use of the word nervous,
which we employ in speaking of a nervous grip, with the new
pessimistic use of the word, which we employ in speaking of a nervous
manner. And as digestion is a good thing which sometimes goes wrong,
as nerves are good things which sometimes go wrong, so existence
itself in the eyes of Browning and all the great optimists is a good
thing which sometimes goes wrong. He held himself as free to draw his
inspiration from the gift of good health as from the gift of learning
or the gift of fellowship. But he held that such gifts were in life
innumerable and varied, and that every man, or at least almost every
man, possessed some window looking out on this essential excellence of

Browning's optimism then, since we must continue to use this somewhat
inadequate word, was a result of experience--experience which is for
some mysterious reason generally understood in the sense of sad or
disillusioning experience. An old gentleman rebuking a little boy for
eating apples in a tree is in the common conception the type of
experience. If he really wished to be a type of experience he would
climb up the tree himself and proceed to experience the apples.
Browning's faith was founded upon joyful experience, not in the sense
that he selected his joyful experiences and ignored his painful ones,
but in the sense that his joyful experiences selected themselves and
stood out in his memory by virtue of their own extraordinary intensity
of colour. He did not use experience in that mean and pompous sense in
which it is used by the worldling advanced in years. He rather used it
in that healthier and more joyful sense in which it is used at
revivalist meetings. In the Salvation Army a man's experiences mean
his experiences of the mercy of God, and to Browning the meaning was
much the same. But the revivalists' confessions deal mostly with
experiences of prayer and praise; Browning's dealt pre-eminently with
what may be called his own subject, the experiences of love.

And this quality of Browning's optimism, the quality of detail, is
also a very typical quality. Browning's optimism is of that ultimate
and unshakeable order that is founded upon the absolute sight, and
sound, and smell, and handling of things. If a man had gone up to
Browning and asked him with all the solemnity of the eccentric, "Do
you think life is worth living?" it is interesting to conjecture what
his answer might have been. If he had been for the moment under the
influence of the orthodox rationalistic deism of the theologian he
would have said, "Existence is justified by its manifest design, its
manifest adaptation of means to ends," or, in other words, "Existence
is justified by its completeness." If, on the other hand, he had been
influenced by his own serious intellectual theories he would have
said, "Existence is justified by its air of growth and doubtfulness,"
or, in other words, "Existence is justified by its incompleteness."

But if he had not been influenced in his answer either by the accepted
opinions, or by his own opinions, but had simply answered the question
"Is life worth living?" with the real, vital answer that awaited it in
his own soul, he would have said as likely as not, "Crimson toadstools
in Hampshire." Some plain, glowing picture of this sort left on his
mind would be his real verdict on what the universe had meant to him.
To his traditions hope was traced to order, to his speculations hope
was traced to disorder. But to Browning himself hope was traced to
something like red toadstools. His mysticism was not of that idle and
wordy type which believes that a flower is symbolical of life; it was
rather of that deep and eternal type which believes that life, a mere
abstraction, is symbolical of a flower. With him the great concrete
experiences which God made always come first; his own deductions and
speculations about them always second. And in this point we find the
real peculiar inspiration of his very original poems.

One of the very few critics who seem to have got near to the actual
secret of Browning's optimism is Mr. Santayana in his most interesting
book _Interpretations of Poetry and Religion_. He, in contradistinction
to the vast mass of Browning's admirers, had discovered what was the
real root virtue of Browning's poetry; and the curious thing is, that
having discovered that root virtue, he thinks it is a vice. He
describes the poetry of Browning most truly as the poetry of
barbarism, by which he means the poetry which utters the primeval and
indivisible emotions. "For the barbarian is the man who regards his
passions as their own excuse for being, who does not domesticate them
either by understanding their cause, or by conceiving their ideal
goal." Whether this be or be not a good definition of the barbarian,
it is an excellent and perfect definition of the poet. It might,
perhaps, be suggested that barbarians, as a matter of fact, are
generally highly traditional and respectable persons who would not put
a feather wrong in their head-gear, and who generally have very few
feelings and think very little about those they have. It is when we
have grown to a greater and more civilised stature that we begin to
realise and put to ourselves intellectually the great feelings that
sleep in the depths of us. Thus it is that the literature of our day
has steadily advanced towards a passionate simplicity, and we become
more primeval as the world grows older, until Whitman writes huge and
chaotic psalms to express the sensations of a schoolboy out fishing,
and Maeterlinck embodies in symbolic dramas the feelings of a child in
the dark.

Thus, Mr. Santayana is, perhaps, the most valuable of all the Browning
critics. He has gone out of his way to endeavour to realise what it is
that repels him in Browning, and he has discovered the fault which
none of Browning's opponents have discovered. And in this he has
discovered the merit which none of Browning's admirers have
discovered. Whether the quality be a good or a bad quality, Mr.
Santayana is perfectly right. The whole of Browning's poetry does rest
upon primitive feeling; and the only comment to be added is that so
does the whole of every one else's poetry. Poetry deals entirely with
those great eternal and mainly forgotten wishes which are the ultimate
despots of existence. Poetry presents things as they are to our
emotions, not as they are to any theory, however plausible, or any
argument, however conclusive. If love is in truth a glorious vision,
poetry will say that it is a glorious vision, and no philosophers will
persuade poetry to say that it is the exaggeration of the instinct of
sex. If bereavement is a bitter and continually aching thing, poetry
will say that it is so, and no philosophers will persuade poetry to
say that it is an evolutionary stage of great biological value. And
here comes in the whole value and object of poetry, that it is
perpetually challenging all systems with the test of a terrible
sincerity. The practical value of poetry is that it is realistic upon
a point upon which nothing else can be realistic, the point of the
actual desires of man. Ethics is the science of actions, but poetry is
the science of motives. Some actions are ugly, and therefore some
parts of ethics are ugly. But all motives are beautiful, or present
themselves for the moment as beautiful, and therefore all poetry is
beautiful. If poetry deals with the basest matter, with the shedding
of blood for gold, it ought to suggest the gold as well as the blood.
Only poetry can realise motives, because motives are all pictures of
happiness. And the supreme and most practical value of poetry is this,
that in poetry, as in music, a note is struck which expresses beyond
the power of rational statement a condition of mind, and all actions
arise from a condition of mind. Prose can only use a large and clumsy
notation; it can only say that a man is miserable, or that a man is
happy; it is forced to ignore that there are a million diverse kinds
of misery and a million diverse kinds of happiness. Poetry alone, with
the first throb of its metre, can tell us whether the depression is
the kind of depression that drives a man to suicide, or the kind of
depression that drives him to the Tivoli. Poetry can tell us whether
the happiness is the happiness that sends a man to a restaurant, or
the much richer and fuller happiness that sends him to church.

Now the supreme value of Browning as an optimist lies in this that we
have been examining, that beyond all his conclusions, and deeper than
all his arguments, he was passionately interested in and in love with
existence. If the heavens had fallen, and all the waters of the earth
run with blood, he would still have been interested in existence, if
possible a little more so. He is a great poet of human joy for
precisely the reason of which Mr. Santayana complains: that his
happiness is primal, and beyond the reach of philosophy. He is
something far more convincing, far more comforting, far more
religiously significant than an optimist: he is a happy man.

This happiness he finds, as every man must find happiness, in his own
way. He does not find the great part of his joy in those matters in
which most poets find felicity. He finds much of it in those matters
in which most poets find ugliness and vulgarity. He is to a
considerable extent the poet of towns. "Do you care for nature much?"
a friend of his asked him. "Yes, a great deal," he said, "but for
human beings a great deal more." Nature, with its splendid and
soothing sanity, has the power of convincing most poets of the
essential worthiness of things. There are few poets who, if they
escaped from the rowdiest waggonette of trippers, could not be quieted
again and exalted by dropping into a small wayside field. The
speciality of Browning is rather that he would have been quieted and
exalted by the waggonette.

To Browning, probably the beginning and end of all optimism was to be
found in the faces in the street. To him they were all the masks of a
deity, the heads of a hundred-headed Indian god of nature. Each one of
them looked towards some quarter of the heavens, not looked upon by
any other eyes. Each one of them wore some expression, some blend of
eternal joy and eternal sorrow, not to be found in any other
countenance. The sense of the absolute sanctity of human difference
was the deepest of all his senses. He was hungrily interested in all
human things, but it would have been quite impossible to have said of
him that he loved humanity. He did not love humanity but men. His
sense of the difference between one man and another would have made
the thought of melting them into a lump called humanity simply
loathsome and prosaic. It would have been to him like playing four
hundred beautiful airs at once. The mixture would not combine all, it
would lose all. Browning believed that to every man that ever lived
upon this earth had been given a definite and peculiar confidence of
God. Each one of us was engaged on secret service; each one of us had
a peculiar message; each one of us was the founder of a religion. Of
that religion our thoughts, our faces, our bodies, our hats, our
boots, our tastes, our virtues, and even our vices, were more or less
fragmentary and inadequate expressions.

In the delightful memoirs of that very remarkable man Sir Charles
Gavan Duffy, there is an extremely significant and interesting
anecdote about Browning, the point of which appears to have attracted
very little attention. Duffy was dining with Browning and John
Forster, and happened to make some chance allusion to his own
adherence to the Roman Catholic faith, when Forster remarked, half
jestingly, that he did not suppose that Browning would like him any
the better for that. Browning would seem to have opened his eyes with
some astonishment. He immediately asked why Forster should suppose
him hostile to the Roman Church. Forster and Duffy replied almost
simultaneously, by referring to "Bishop Blougram's Apology," which had
just appeared, and asking whether the portrait of the sophistical and
self-indulgent priest had not been intended for a satire on Cardinal
Wiseman. "Certainly," replied Browning cheerfully, "I intended it for
Cardinal Wiseman, but I don't consider it a satire, there is nothing
hostile about it." This is the real truth which lies at the heart of
what may be called the great sophistical monologues which Browning
wrote in later years. They are not satires or attacks upon their
subjects, they are not even harsh and unfeeling exposures of them.
They are defences; they say or are intended to say the best that can
be said for the persons with whom they deal. But very few people in
this world would care to listen to the real defence of their own
characters. The real defence, the defence which belongs to the Day of
Judgment, would make such damaging admissions, would clear away so
many artificial virtues, would tell such tragedies of weakness and
failure, that a man would sooner be misunderstood and censured by the
world than exposed to that awful and merciless eulogy. One of the most
practically difficult matters which arise from the code of manners and
the conventions of life, is that we cannot properly justify a human
being, because that justification would involve the admission of
things which may not conventionally be admitted. We might explain and
make human and respectable, for example, the conduct of some old
fighting politician, who, for the good of his party and his country,
acceded to measures of which he disapproved; but we cannot, because we
are not allowed to admit that he ever acceded to measures of which he
disapproved. We might touch the life of many dissolute public men with
pathos, and a kind of defeated courage, by telling the truth about the
history of their sins. But we should throw the world into an uproar if
we hinted that they had any. Thus the decencies of civilisation do not
merely make it impossible to revile a man, they make it impossible to
praise him.

Browning, in such poems as "Bishop Blougram's Apology," breaks this
first mask of goodness in order to break the second mask of evil, and
gets to the real goodness at last; he dethrones a saint in order to
humanise a scoundrel. This is one typical side of the real optimism of
Browning. And there is indeed little danger that such optimism will
become weak and sentimental and popular, the refuge of every idler,
the excuse of every ne'er-do-well. There is little danger that men
will desire to excuse their souls before God by presenting themselves
before men as such snobs as Bishop Blougram, or such dastards as
Sludge the Medium. There is no pessimism, however stern, that is so
stern as this optimism, it is as merciless as the mercy of God.

It is true that in this, as in almost everything else connected with
Browning's character, the matter cannot be altogether exhausted by
such a generalisation as the above. Browning's was a simple character,
and therefore very difficult to understand, since it was impulsive,
unconscious, and kept no reckoning of its moods. Probably in a great
many cases, the original impulse which led Browning to plan a
soliloquy was a kind of anger mixed with curiosity; possibly the first
charcoal sketch of Blougram was a caricature of a priest. Browning,
as we have said, had prejudices, and had a capacity for anger, and two
of his angriest prejudices were against a certain kind of worldly
clericalism, and against almost every kind of spiritualism. But as he
worked upon the portraits at least, a new spirit began to possess him,
and he enjoyed every spirited and just defence the men could make of
themselves, like triumphant blows in a battle, and towards the end
would come the full revelation, and Browning would stand up in the
man's skin and testify to the man's ideals. However this may be, it is
worth while to notice one very curious error that has arisen in
connection with one of the most famous of these monologues.

When Robert Browning was engaged in that somewhat obscure quarrel with
the spiritualist Home, it is generally and correctly stated that he
gained a great number of the impressions which he afterwards embodied
in "Mr. Sludge the Medium." The statement so often made, particularly
in the spiritualist accounts of the matter, that Browning himself is
the original of the interlocutor and exposer of Sludge, is of course
merely an example of that reckless reading from which no one has
suffered more than Browning despite his students and societies. The
man to whom Sludge addresses his confession is a Mr. Hiram H.
Horsfall, an American, a patron of spiritualists, and, as it is more
than once suggested, something of a fool. Nor is there the smallest
reason to suppose that Sludge considered as an individual bears any
particular resemblance to Home considered as an individual. But
without doubt "Mr. Sludge the Medium" is a general statement of the
view of spiritualism at which Browning had arrived from his
acquaintance with Home and Home's circle. And about that view of
spiritualism there is something rather peculiar to notice. The poem,
appearing as it did at the time when the intellectual public had just
become conscious of the existence of spiritualism, attracted a great
deal of attention, and aroused a great deal of controversy. The
spiritualists called down thunder upon the head of the poet, whom they
depicted as a vulgar and ribald lampooner who had not only committed
the profanity of sneering at the mysteries of a higher state of life,
but the more unpardonable profanity of sneering at the convictions of
his own wife. The sceptics, on the other hand, hailed the poem with
delight as a blasting exposure of spiritualism, and congratulated the
poet on making himself the champion of the sane and scientific view of
magic. Which of these two parties was right about the question of
attacking the reality of spiritualism it is neither easy nor necessary
to discuss. For the simple truth, which neither of the two parties and
none of the students of Browning seem to have noticed, is that "Mr.
Sludge the Medium" is not an attack upon spiritualism. It would be a
great deal nearer the truth, though not entirely the truth, to call it
a justification of spiritualism. The whole essence of Browning's
method is involved in this matter, and the whole essence of Browning's
method is so vitally misunderstood that to say that "Mr. Sludge the
Medium" is something like a defence of spiritualism will bear on the
face of it the appearance of the most empty and perverse of paradoxes.
But so, when we have comprehended Browning's spirit, the fact will be
found to be.

The general idea is that Browning must have intended "Sludge" for an
attack on spiritual phenomena, because the medium in that poem is made
a vulgar and contemptible mountebank, because his cheats are quite
openly confessed, and he himself put into every ignominious situation,
detected, exposed, throttled, horsewhipped, and forgiven. To regard
this deduction as sound is to misunderstand Browning at the very start
of every poem that he ever wrote. There is nothing that the man loved
more, nothing that deserves more emphatically to be called a
speciality of Browning, than the utterance of large and noble truths
by the lips of mean and grotesque human beings. In his poetry praise
and wisdom were perfected not only out of the mouths of babes and
sucklings, but out of the mouths of swindlers and snobs. Now what, as
a matter of fact, is the outline and development of the poem of
"Sludge"? The climax of the poem, considered as a work of art, is so
fine that it is quite extraordinary that any one should have missed
the point of it, since it is the whole point of the monologue. Sludge
the Medium has been caught out in a piece of unquestionable trickery,
a piece of trickery for which there is no conceivable explanation or
palliation which will leave his moral character intact. He is
therefore seized with a sudden resolution, partly angry, partly
frightened, and partly humorous, to become absolutely frank, and to
tell the whole truth about himself for the first time not only to his
dupe, but to himself. He excuses himself for the earlier stages of the
trickster's life by a survey of the border-land between truth and
fiction, not by any means a piece of sophistry or cynicism, but a
perfectly fair statement of an ethical difficulty which does exist.
There are some people who think that it must be immoral to admit that
there are any doubtful cases of morality, as if a man should refrain
from discussing the precise boundary at the upper end of the Isthmus
of Panama, for fear the inquiry should shake his belief in the
existence of North America. People of this kind quite consistently
think Sludge to be merely a scoundrel talking nonsense. It may be
remembered that they thought the same thing of Newman. It is actually
supposed, apparently in the current use of words, that casuistry is
the name of a crime; it does not appear to occur to people that
casuistry is a science, and about as much a crime as botany. This
tendency to casuistry in Browning's monologues has done much towards
establishing for him that reputation for pure intellectualism which
has done him so much harm. But casuistry in this sense is not a cold
and analytical thing, but a very warm and sympathetic thing. To know
what combination of excuse might justify a man in manslaughter or
bigamy, is not to have a callous indifference to virtue; it is rather
to have so ardent an admiration for virtue as to seek it in the
remotest desert and the darkest incognito.

This is emphatically the case with the question of truth and falsehood
raised in "Sludge the Medium." To say that it is sometimes difficult
to tell at what point the romancer turns into the liar is not to state
a cynicism, but a perfectly honest piece of human observation. To
think that such a view involves the negation of honesty is like
thinking that red is green, because the two fade into each other in
the colours of the rainbow. It is really difficult to decide when we
come to the extreme edge of veracity, when and when not it is
permissible to create an illusion. A standing example, for instance,
is the case of the fairy-tales. We think a father entirely pure and
benevolent when he tells his children that a beanstalk grew up into
heaven, and a pumpkin turned into a coach. We should consider that he
lapsed from purity and benevolence if he told his children that in
walking home that evening he had seen a beanstalk grow half-way up the
church, or a pumpkin grow as large as a wheelbarrow. Again, few people
would object to that general privilege whereby it is permitted to a
person in narrating even a true anecdote to work up the climax by any
exaggerative touches which really tend to bring it out. The reason of
this is that the telling of the anecdote has become, like the telling
of the fairy-tale, almost a distinct artistic creation; to offer to
tell a story is in ordinary society like offering to recite or play
the violin. No one denies that a fixed and genuine moral rule could be
drawn up for these cases, but no one surely need be ashamed to admit
that such a rule is not entirely easy to draw up. And when a man like
Sludge traces much of his moral downfall to the indistinctness of the
boundary and the possibility of beginning with a natural extravagance
and ending with a gross abuse, it certainly is not possible to deny
his right to be heard.

We must recur, however, to the question of the main development of the
Sludge self-analysis. He begins, as we have said, by urging a general
excuse by the fact that in the heat of social life, in the course of
telling tales in the intoxicating presence of sympathisers and
believers, he has slid into falsehood almost before he is aware of it.
So far as this goes, there is truth in his plea. Sludge might indeed
find himself unexpectedly justified if we had only an exact record of
how true were the tales told about Conservatives in an exclusive
circle of Radicals, or the stories told about Radicals in a circle of
indignant Conservatives. But after this general excuse, Sludge goes on
to a perfectly cheerful and unfeeling admission of fraud; this
principal feeling towards his victims is by his own confession a
certain unfathomable contempt for people who are so easily taken in.
He professes to know how to lay the foundations for every species of
personal acquaintanceship, and how to remedy the slight and trivial
slips of making Plato write Greek in naughts and crosses.


"As I fear, sir, he sometimes used to do Before I found the useful book that knows."

It would be difficult to imagine any figure more indecently confessional, more entirely devoid of not only any of the restraints of conscience, but of any of the restraints even of a wholesome personal conceit, than Sludge the Medium. He confesses not only fraud, but things which are to the natural man more difficult to confess even than fraud--effeminacy, futility, physical cowardice. And then, when the last of his loathsome secrets has been told, when he has nothing left either to gain or to conceal, then he rises up into a perfect bankrupt sublimity and makes the great avowal which is the whole pivot and meaning of the poem. He says in effect: "Now that my interest in deceit is utterly gone, now that I have admitted, to my own final infamy, the frauds that I have practised, now that I stand before you in a patent and open villainy which has something of the disinterestedness and independence of the innocent, now I tell you with the full and impartial authority of a lost soul that I believe that there is something in spiritualism. In the course of a thousand conspiracies, by the labour of a thousand lies, I have discovered that there is really something in this matter that neither I nor any other man understands. I am a thief, an adventurer, a deceiver of mankind, but I am not a disbeliever in spiritualism. I have seen too much for that." This is the confession of faith of Mr. Sludge the Medium. It would be difficult to imagine a confession of faith framed and presented in a more impressive manner. Sludge is a witness to his faith as the old martyrs were witnesses to their faith, but even more impressively. They testified to their religion even after they had lost their liberty, and their eyesight, and their right hands. Sludge testifies to his religion even after he has lost his dignity and his honour.

It may be repeated that it is truly extraordinary that any one should have failed to notice that this avowal on behalf of spiritualism is the pivot of the poem. The avowal itself is not only expressed clearly, but prepared and delivered with admirable rhetorical force:--

"Now for it, then! Will you believe me, though? You've heard what I confess: I don't unsay A single word: I cheated when I could, Rapped with my toe-joints, set sham hands at work, Wrote down names weak in sympathetic ink. Rubbed odic lights with ends of phosphor-match, And all the rest; believe that: believe this, By the same token, though it seem to set The crooked straight again, unsay the said, Stick up what I've knocked down; I can't help that, It's truth! I somehow vomit truth to-day. This trade of mine--I don't know, can't be sure But there was something in it, tricks and all!"

It is strange to call a poem with so clear and fine a climax an attack on spiritualism. To miss that climax is like missing the last sentence in a good anecdote, or putting the last act of _Othello_ into the middle of the play. Either the whole poem of "Sludge the Medium" means nothing at all, and is only a lampoon upon a cad, of which the matter is almost as contemptible as the subject, or it means this--that some real experiences of the unseen lie even at the heart of hypocrisy, and that even the spiritualist is at root spiritual.

One curious theory which is common to most Browning critics is that Sludge must be intended for a pure and conscious impostor, because after his confession, and on the personal withdrawal of Mr. Horsfall, he bursts out into horrible curses against that gentleman and cynical boasts of his future triumphs in a similar line of business. Surely this is to have a very feeble notion either of nature or art. A man driven absolutely into a corner might humiliate himself, and gain a certain sensation almost of luxury in that humiliation, in pouring out all his imprisoned thoughts and obscure victories. For let it never be forgotten that a hypocrite is a very unhappy man; he is a man who has devoted himself to a most delicate and arduous intellectual art in which he may achieve masterpieces which he must keep secret, fight thrilling battles, and win hair's-breadth victories for which he cannot have a whisper of praise. A really accomplished impostor is the most wretched of geniuses; he is a Napoleon on a desert island. A man might surely, therefore, when he was certain that his credit was gone, take a certain pleasure in revealing the tricks of his unique trade, and gaining not indeed credit, but at least a kind of glory. And in the course of this self-revelation he would come at last upon that part of himself which exists in every man--that part which does believe in, and value, and worship something. This he would fling in his hearer's face with even greater pride, and take a delight in giving a kind of testimony to his religion which no man had ever given before--the testimony of a martyr who could not hope to be a saint. But surely all this sudden tempest of candour in the man would not mean that he would burst into tears and become an exemplary ratepayer, like a villain in the worst parts of Dickens. The moment the danger was withdrawn, the sense of having given himself away, of having betrayed the secret of his infamous freemasonry, would add an indescribable violence and foulness to his reaction of rage. A man in such a case would do exactly as Sludge does. He would declare his own shame, declare the truth of his creed, and then, when he realised what he had done, say something like this:--

"R-r-r, you brute-beast and blackguard! Cowardly scamp! I only wish I dared burn down the house And spoil your sniggering!"

and so on, and so on.

He would react like this; it is one of the most artistic strokes in Browning. But it does not prove that he was a hypocrite about spiritualism, or that he was speaking more truthfully in the second outburst than in the first. Whence came this extraordinary theory that a man is always speaking most truly when he is speaking most coarsely? The truth about oneself is a very difficult thing to express, and coarse speaking will seldom do it.

When we have grasped this point about "Sludge the Medium," we have grasped the key to the whole series of Browning's casuistical monologues--_Bishop Blaugram's Apology, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Fra Lippo Lippi, Fifine at the Fair, Aristophanes' Apology_, and several of the monologues in _The Ring and the Book_. They are all, without exception, dominated by this one conception of a certain reality tangled almost inextricably with unrealities in a man's mind, and the peculiar fascination which resides in the thought that the greatest lies about a man, and the greatest truths about him, may be found side by side in the same eloquent and sustained utterance.

"For Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke."

Or, to put the matter in another way, the general idea of these poems is, that a man cannot help telling some truth even when he sets out to tell lies. If a man comes to tell us that he has discovered perpetual motion, or been swallowed by the sea-serpent, there will yet be some point in the story where he will tell us about himself almost all that we require to know.

If any one wishes to test the truth, or to see the best examples of this general idea in Browning's monologues, he may be recommended to notice one peculiarity of these poems which is rather striking. As a whole, these apologies are written in a particularly burly and even brutal English. Browning's love of what is called the ugly is nowhere else so fully and extravagantly indulged. This, like a great many other things for which Browning as an artist is blamed, is perfectly appropriate to the theme. A vain, ill-mannered, and untrustworthy egotist, defending his own sordid doings with his own cheap and weather-beaten philosophy, is very likely to express himself best in a language flexible and pungent, but indelicate and without dignity. But the peculiarity of these loose and almost slangy soliloquies is that every now and then in them there occur bursts of pure poetry which are like a burst of birds singing. Browning does not hesitate to put some of the most perfect lines that he or anyone else have ever written in the English language into the mouths of such slaves as Sludge and Guido Franceschini. Take, for the sake of example, "Bishop Blougram's Apology." The poem is one of the most grotesque in the poet's works. It is intentionally redolent of the solemn materialism and patrician grossness of a grand dinner-party _à deux_. It has many touches of an almost wild bathos, such as the young man who bears the impossible name of Gigadibs. The Bishop, in pursuing his worldly argument for conformity, points out with truth that a condition of doubt is a condition that cuts both ways, and that if we cannot be sure of the religious theory of life, neither can we be sure of the material theory of life, and that in turn is capable of becoming an uncertainty continually shaken by a tormenting suggestion. We cannot establish ourselves on rationalism, and make it bear fruit to us. Faith itself is capable of becoming the darkest and most revolutionary of doubts. Then comes the passage:--

"Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch, A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death, A chorus ending from Euripides,-- And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears As old and new at once as Nature's self, To rap and knock and enter in our soul, Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring, Round the ancient idol, on his base again,-- The grand Perhaps!"

Nobler diction and a nobler meaning could not have been put into the mouth of Pompilia, or Rabbi Ben Ezra. It is in reality put into the mouth of a vulgar, fashionable priest, justifying his own cowardice over the comfortable wine and the cigars.

Along with this tendency to poetry among Browning's knaves, must be reckoned another characteristic, their uniform tendency to theism. These loose and mean characters speak of many things feverishly and vaguely; of one thing they always speak with confidence and composure, their relation to God. It may seem strange at first sight that those who have outlived the indulgence, and not only of every law, but of every reasonable anarchy, should still rely so simply upon the indulgence of divine perfection. Thus Sludge is certain that his life of lies and conjuring tricks has been conducted in a deep and subtle obedience to the message really conveyed by the conditions created by God. Thus Bishop Blougram is certain that his life of panic-stricken and tottering compromise has been really justified as the only method that could unite him with God. Thus Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau is certain that every dodge in his thin string of political dodges has been the true means of realising what he believes to be the will of God. Every one of these meagre swindlers, while admitting a failure in all things relative, claims an awful alliance with the Absolute. To many it will at first sight appear a dangerous doctrine indeed. But, in truth, it is a most solid and noble and salutary doctrine, far less dangerous than its opposite. Every one on this earth should believe, amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament have some object on the earth. Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. Every one should, for the good of men and the saving of his own soul, believe that it is possible, even if we are the enemies of the human race, to be the friends of God. The evil wrought by this mystical pride, great as it often is, is like a straw to the evil wrought by a materialistic self-abandonment. The crimes of the devil who thinks himself of immeasurable value are as nothing to the crimes of the devil who thinks himself of no value. With Browning's knaves we have always this eternal interest, that they are real somewhere, and may at any moment begin to speak poetry. We are talking to a peevish and garrulous sneak; we are watching the play of his paltry features, his evasive eyes, and babbling lips. And suddenly the face begins to change and harden, the eyes glare like the eyes of a mask, the whole face of clay becomes a common mouthpiece, and the voice that comes forth is the voice of God, uttering His everlasting soliloquy.



Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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