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Chapter 2

II. The Idea of Personality and of Art as an intermediate agency
of Personality, as embodied in Browning's Poetry.


1. General Remarks.

"Subsists no law of Life outside of Life.
* * * * *
The Christ himself had been no Lawgiver,
Unless he had given the LIFE, too, with the law."

The importance of Robert Browning's poetry, as embodying
the profoundest thought, the subtlest and most complex sentiment, and,
above all, the most quickening spirituality of the age, has, as yet,
notwithstanding the great increase within the last few years
of devoted students, received but a niggardly recognition when compared
with that received by far inferior contemporary poets. There are,
however, many indications in the poetical criticism of the day
that upon it will ere long be pronounced the verdict which is its due.
And the founding of a society in England in 1881, "to gather together
some at least of the many admirers of Robert Browning, for the study
and discussion of his works, and the publication of papers on them,
and extracts from works illustrating them" has already contributed
much towards paying a long-standing debt.

Mr. Browning's earliest poems, `Pauline' (he calls it in the preface
to the reprint of it in 1868 "a boyish work", though it exhibits
the great basal thought of all his subsequent poetry),
was published in 1833, since which time he has produced
the largest body of poetry produced by any one poet
in English literature; and the range of thought and passion
which it exhibits is greater than that of any other poet,
without a single exception, since the days of Shakespeare.
And he is the most like Shakespeare in his deep interest
in human nature in all its varieties of good and evil.
Though endowed with a powerful, subtle, and restless intellect,
he has throughout his voluminous poetry made the strongest protest
that has been made in these days against mere intellect.
And his poetry has, therefore, a peculiar value in an age
like the present -- an age exhibiting "a condition of humanity
which has thrown itself wholly on its intellect and its genius
in physics, and has done marvels in material science and invention,
but at the expense of the interior divinity." It is the human heart,
that is, the intuitive, the non-discursive side of man, with its hopes
and its prophetic aspirations, as opposed to the analytic,
the discursive understanding, which is to him a subject
of the deepest and most scrutinizing interest. He knows that
its deepest depths are "deeper than did ever plummet sound";
but he also knows that it is in these depths that life's
greatest secrets must be sought. The philosophies excogitated
by the insulated intellect help nothing toward even a glimpse
of these secrets. In one of his later poems, that entitled `House',
he has intimated, and forcibly intimated, his sense of
the impossibility of penetrating to the Holy of Holies of this
wondrous human heart, though assured as he is that all our hopes
in regard to the soul's destiny are warmed and cherished
by what radiates thence. He quotes, in the last stanza of this poem,
from Wordsworth's sonnet on the Sonnet, "With this same key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart," and then adds, "DID Shakespeare?
If so, the less Shakespeare he!"

Mrs. Browning, in the Fifth Book of her `Aurora Leigh',
has given a full and very forcible expression to the feeling
which has caused the highest dramatic genius of the present day
to seek refuge in the poem and the novel. "I will write no plays;
because the drama, less sublime in this, makes lower appeals,
defends more menially, adopts the standard of the public taste
to chalk its height on, wears a dog-chain round its regal neck,
and learns to carry and fetch the fashions of the day,
to please the day; . . . 'Tis that, honoring to its worth the drama,
I would fear to keep it down to the level of the footlights. . . .
The growing drama has outgrown such toys of simulated stature, face,
and speech, it also, peradventure, may outgrow the simulation
of the painted scene, boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume;
and TAKE FOR A WORTHIER STAGE, THE SOUL ITSELF, ITS SHIFTING FANCIES
AND CELESTIAL LIGHTS, WITH ALL ITS GRAND ORCHESTRAL SILENCES
TO KEEP THE PAUSES OF THE RHYTHMIC SOUNDS."

Robert Browning's poetry is, in these days, the fullest realization
of what is expressed in the concluding lines of this passage:
he has taken for a worthier stage, the soul itself,
its shifting fancies and celestial lights, more than any other poet
of the age. And he has worked with a thought-and-passion capital
greater than the combined thought-and-passion capital of the richest
of his poetical contemporaries. And he has thought nobly of the soul,
and has treated it as, in its essence, above the fixed and law-bound
system of things which we call nature; in other words,
he has treated it as supernatural. "Mind," he makes the Pope say,
in `The Ring and the Book', -- and his poetry bears testimony to
its being his own conviction and doctrine, -- "Mind is not matter,
nor from matter, but above." With every student of Browning,
the recognition and acceptance of this must be his starting-point.
Even that which impelled the old dog, in his poem entitled `Tray'
(`Dramatic Lyrics', First Series), to rescue the beggar child
that fell into the river, and then to dive after the child's doll,
and bring it up, after a long stay under water, the poet evidently
distinguishes from matter, -- regards as "not matter nor from matter,
but above": --

"And so, amid the laughter gay,
Trotted my hero off, -- old Tray, --
Till somebody, prerogatived
With reason, reasoned: `Why he dived,
His brain would show us, I should say.

`John, go and catch -- or, if needs be,
Purchase that animal for me!
By vivisection, at expense
Of half-an-hour and eighteen pence,
How brain secretes dog's soul, we'll see!"

In his poem entitled `Halbert and Hob' (`Dramatic Lyrics',
First Series), quoting from Shakespeare's `King Lear',
"Is there a reason in nature for these hard hearts?" the poet adds,
"O Lear, That a reason OUT of nature must turn them soft, seems clear!"

Mind is, with Browning, SUPERNATURAL, but linked with,
and restrained, and even enslaved by, the natural. The soul,
in its education, that is, in its awakening, becomes more and more
independent of the natural, and, as a consequence, more responsive to
higher souls and to the Divine. ALL SPIRIT IS MUTUALLY ATTRACTIVE,
and the degree of attractiveness results from the degree of freedom
from the obstructions of the material, or the natural.
Loving the truth implies a greater or less degree of that freedom
of the spirit which brings it into SYMPATHY with the true.
"If ye abide in My word," says Christ (and we must understand by "word"
His own concrete life, the word made flesh, and living and breathing),
"if ye abide in My word" (that is, continue to live My life),
"then are ye truly My disciples; and ye shall know the truth,
and the truth shall make you free" (John viii. 32).

In regard to the soul's INHERENT possessions, its microcosmic
potentialities, Paracelsus is made to say (and this may be taken,
too, as the poet's own creed), "Truth is WITHIN ourselves;
it takes no rise from outward things, whate'er you may believe:
there is an inmost centre in us all, where truth abides in fulness;
and around, wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
this perfect, clear perception -- which is truth. A baffling
and perverting carnal mesh blinds it, and makes all error:
and, TO KNOW, rather consists in opening out a way whence
the imprisoned splendour may escape, than in effecting entry
for a light supposed to be without."

All possible thought is IMPLICIT in the mind, and waiting
for release -- waiting to become EXPLICIT. "Seek within yourself,"
says Goethe, "and you will find everything; and rejoice that, without,
there lies a Nature that says yea and amen to all you have discovered
in yourself." And Mrs. Browning, in the person of Aurora Leigh,
writes: "The cygnet finds the water; but the man is born
in ignorance of his element, and feels out blind at first,
disorganized by sin in the blood, -- his spirit-insight
dulled and crossed by his sensations. Presently we feel it
quicken in the dark sometimes; then mark, be reverent, be obedient, --
for those dumb motions of imperfect life are oracles
of vital Deity attesting the Hereafter. Let who says
`The soul's a clean white paper', rather say, a palimpsest,
a prophet's holograph defiled, erased, and covered by a monk's, --
the Apocalypse by a Longus! poring on which obscure text,
we may discern perhaps some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
some off-stroke of an alpha and omega expressing the old Scripture."

This "fair, fine trace of what was written once", it was the mission
of Christ, it is the mission of all great personalities,
of all the concrete creations of Genius, to bring out into
distinctness and vital glow. It is not, and cannot be, brought out, --
and this fact is emphasized in the poetry of Browning, --
it cannot be brought out, through what is born and resides in
the brain: it is brought out, either directly or indirectly,
by the attracting power of magnetic personalities, the ultimate,
absolute personality being the God-man, Christ, qea/nqrwpos.

The human soul is regarded in Browning's poetry as
a complexly organized, individualized divine force,
destined to gravitate towards the Infinite. How is this force,
with its numberless checks and counter-checks, its centripetal
and centrifugal tendencies, best determined in its necessarily
oblique way? How much earthly ballast must it carry,
to keep it sufficiently steady, and how little, that it may not be
weighed down with materialistic heaviness? How much certainty
must it have of its course, and how much uncertainty,
that it may shun the "torpor of assurance", *1* and not lose the vigor
which comes of a dubious and obstructed road, "which who stands upon
is apt to doubt if it's indeed a road." *2* "Pure faith indeed,"
says Bishop Blougram, to Gigadibs, the literary man, "you know not
what you ask! naked belief in God the Omnipotent, Omniscient,
Omnipresent, sears too much the sense of conscious creatures,
to be borne. It were the seeing him, no flesh shall dare.
Some think, Creation's meant to show him forth: I say, it's meant
to hide him all it can, and that's what all the blessed Evil's for.
Its use in time is to environ us, our breath, our drop of dew,
with shield enough against that sight till we can bear its stress.
Under a vertical sun, the exposed brain and lidless eye
and disimprisoned heart less certainly would wither up at once,
than mind, confronted with the truth of Him. But time and earth
case-harden us to live; the feeblest sense is trusted most:
the child feels God a moment, ichors o'er the place,
plays on and grows to be a man like us. With me, faith means
perpetual unbelief kept quiet like the snake 'neath Michael's foot,
who stands calm just because he feels it writhe." *3*

--
*1* `The Ring and the Book', The Pope, v. 1853.
*2* `Bishop Blougram's Apology', vv. 198, 199.
*3* `Bishop Blougram's Apology', vv. 650-671.
--

There is a remarkable passage to the same effect in `Paracelsus',
in which Paracelsus expatiates on the "just so much of doubt
as bade him plant a surer foot upon the sun-road."

And in `Easter Day': --

"You must mix some uncertainty
With faith, if you would have faith BE."

And the good Pope in `The Ring and the Book', alluding to the absence
of true Christian soldiership, which is revealed by Pompilia's case,
says: "Is it not this ignoble CONFIDENCE, cowardly hardihood,
that dulls and damps, makes the old heroism impossible?
Unless. . .what whispers me of times to come? What if it be
the mission of that age my death will usher into life,
to SHAKE THIS TORPOR OF ASSURANCE FROM OUR CREED,
reintroduce the DOUBT discarded, bring the formidable danger back
we drove long ago to the distance and the dark?"

True healthy doubt means, in Browning, that the spiritual nature
is sufficiently quickened not to submit to the conclusions of
the insulated intellect. It WILL reach out beyond them,
and assert itself, whatever be the resistance offered by the intellect.
Mere doubt, without any resistance from the intuitive,
non-discursive side of our nature, is the dry-rot of the soul.
The spiritual functions are "smothered in surmise". Faith is not
a matter of blind belief, of slavish assent and acceptance,
as many no-faith people seem to regard it. It is what
Wordsworth calls it, "a passionate intuition", and springs out of
quickened and refined sentiment, out of inborn instincts which are
as cultivable as are any other elements of our complex nature,
and which, too, may be blunted beyond a consciousness
of their possession. And when one in this latter state
denies the reality of faith, he is not unlike one born blind
denying the reality of sight.

A reiterated lesson in Browning's poetry, and one that results from
his spiritual theory, is, that the present life is a tabernacle-life,
and that it can be truly lived only as a tabernacle-life;
for only such a life is compatible with the ever-continued
aspiration and endeavor which is a condition of, and inseparable from,
spiritual vitality.

Domizia, in the tragedy of `Luria', is made to say: --

"How inexhaustibly the spirit grows!
One object, she seemed erewhile born to reach
With her whole energies and die content, --
So like a wall at the world's edge it stood,
With naught beyond to live for, -- is that reached? --
Already are new undream'd energies
Outgrowing under, and extending farther
To a new object; -- there's another world!"

The dying John in `A Death in the Desert', is made to say: --

"I say that man was made to grow, not stop;
That help he needed once, and needs no more,
Having grown up but an inch by, is withdrawn:
For he hath new needs, and new helps to these.
This imports solely, man should mount on each
New height in view; the help whereby he mounts,
The ladder-rung his foot has left, may fall,
Since all things suffer change save God the Truth.
Man apprehends him newly at each stage
Whereat earth's ladder drops, its service done;
And nothing shall prove twice what once was proved."

And again: --

"Man knows partly but conceives beside,
Creeps ever on from fancies to the fact,
And in this striving, this converting air
Into a solid he may grasp and use,
Finds progress, man's distinctive mark alone,
Not God's, and not the beasts': God is, they are,
Man partly is and wholly hopes to be.
Such progress could no more attend his soul
Were all it struggles after found at first
And guesses changed to knowledge absolute,
Than motion wait his body, were all else
Than it the solid earth on every side,
Where now through space he moves from rest to rest.
Man, therefore, thus conditioned, must expect
He could not, what he knows now, know at first;
What he considers that he knows to-day,
Come but to-morrow, he will find misknown;
Getting increase of knowledge, since he learns
Because he lives, which is to be a man,
Set to instruct himself by his past self:
First, like the brute, obliged by facts to learn,
Next, as man may, obliged by his own mind,
Bent, habit, nature, knowledge turned to law.
God's gift was that man should conceive of truth
And yearn to gain it, catching at mistake,
As midway help till he reach fact indeed.
The statuary ere he mould a shape
Boasts a like gift, the shape's idea, and next
The aspiration to produce the same;
So, taking clay, he calls his shape thereout,
Cries ever, `Now I have the thing I see':
Yet all the while goes changing what was wrought,
From falsehood like the truth, to truth itself.
How were it had he cried, `I see no face,
No breast, no feet i' the ineffectual clay'?
Rather commend him that he clapped his hands,
And laughed, `It is my shape and lives again!'
Enjoyed the falsehood touched it on to truth,
Until yourselves applaud the flesh indeed
In what is still flesh-imitating clay.
Right in you, right in him, such way be man's!
God only makes the live shape at a jet.
Will ye renounce this fact of creatureship?
The pattern on the Mount subsists no more,
Seemed awhile, then returned to nothingness,
But copies, Moses strove to make thereby
Serve still and are replaced as time requires:
By these make newest vessels, reach the type!
If ye demur, this judgment on your head,
Never to reach the ultimate, angels' law,
Indulging every instinct of the soul
There where law, life, joy, impulse are one thing."

Browning has given varied and beautiful expressions to these ideas
throughout his poetry.

The soul must rest in nothing this side of the infinite.
If it does rest in anything, however relatively noble
that thing may be, whether art, or literature, or science,
or theology, even, it declines in vitality -- it torpifies.
However great a conquest the combatant may achieve in any
of these arenas, "striding away from the huge gratitude,
his club shouldered, lion-fleece round loin and flank", he must be
"bound on the next new labour, height o'er height ever surmounting --
destiny's decree!" *

--
* `Aristophanes' Apology', p. 31, English ed.
--

"Rejoice that man is hurled
From change to change unceasingly,
His soul's wings never furled!" *

--
* `James Lee's Wife', sect. 6.
--

But this tabernacle-life, which should ever look ahead, has its claims
which must not be ignored, and its standards which must not be
too much above present conditions. Man must "fit to the finite
his infinity" (`Sordello'). Life may be over-spiritual
as well as over-worldly. "Let us cry, `All good things are ours,
nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!'" *
The figure the poet employs in `The Ring and the Book'
to illustrate the art process, may be as aptly applied to life itself --
the greatest of all arts. The life-artist must know how to secure
the proper degree of malleability in this mixture of flesh and soul.
He must mingle gold with gold's alloy, and duly tempering both effect
a manageable mass. There may be too little of alloy in earth-life
as well as too much -- too little to work the gold and fashion it,
not into a ring, but ring-ward. "On the earth the broken arcs;
in the heaven a perfect round" (`Abt Vogler'). "Oh, if we draw
a circle premature, heedless of far gain, greedy for quick returns
of profit, sure, bad is our bargain" (`A Grammarian's Funeral').

--
* `Rabbi Ben Ezra'.
--

`An Epistle containing the Strange Medical Experiences of Karshish,
the Arab Physician', is one of Browning's most remarkable
psychological studies. It may be said to polarize the idea,
so often presented in his poetry, that doubt is a condition
of the vitality of faith. In this poem, the poet has treated
a supposed case of a spiritual knowledge "increased beyond
the fleshly faculty -- heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
earth forced on a soul's use while seeing heaven", a spiritual state,
less desirable and far less favorable to the true fulfilment
of the purposes of earth-life, than that expressed
in the following lines from `Easter Day': --

"A world of spirit as of sense
Was plain to him, yet not TOO plain,
Which he could traverse, not remain
A GUEST IN: -- else were permanent
Heaven on earth, which its gleams were meant
To sting with hunger for full light", etc.

The Epistle is a subtle representation of a soul conceived with
absolute spiritual standards, while obliged to live in a world
where all standards are relative and determined by the circumstances
and limitations of its situation.

The spiritual life has been too distinctly revealed for
fulfilling aright the purposes of earth-life, purposes which the soul,
while in the flesh, must not ignore, since, in the words of
Rabbi Ben Ezra, "all good things are ours, nor soul helps flesh more,
now, than flesh helps soul." The poem may also be said
to represent what is, or should be, the true spirit
of the man of science. In spite of what Karshish writes,
apologetically, he betrays his real attitude throughout,
towards the wonderful spiritual problem involved.

It is, as many of Browning's Monologues are, a double picture --
one direct, the other reflected, and the reflected one is as distinct
as the direct. The composition also bears testimony to Browning's
own soul-healthfulness. Though the spiritual bearing of things
is the all-in-all, in his poetry, the robustness of his nature,
the fulness and splendid equilibrium of his life, protect him against
an inarticulate mysticism. Browning is, in the widest and deepest
sense of the word, the healthiest of all living poets;
and in general constitution the most Shakespearian.

What he makes Shakespeare say, in the Monologue entitled
`At the Mermaid', he could say, with perhaps greater truth,
in his own person, than Shakespeare could have said it: --

"Have you found your life distasteful?
My life did and does smack sweet.
Was your youth of pleasure wasteful?
Mine I save and hold complete.
Do your joys with age diminish?
When mine fail me, I'll complain.
Must in death your daylight finish?
My sun sets to rise again.

I find earth not gray but rosy,
Heaven not grim but fair of hue.
Do I stoop? I pluck a posy.
Do I stand and stare? All's blue."

It is the spirit expressed in these lines which has made his poetry
so entirely CONSTRUCTIVE. With the destructive spirit
he has no affinities. The poetry of despair and poets with the dumps
he cannot away with.

Perhaps the most comprehensive passage in Browning's poetry,
expressive of his ideal of a complete man under the conditions
of earth-life, is found in `Colombe's Birthday', Act IV.
Valence says of Prince Berthold: --

"He gathers earth's WHOLE GOOD into his arms, standing, as man, now,
stately, strong and wise -- marching to fortune, not surprised by her:
one great aim, like a guiding star above -- which tasks strength,
wisdom, stateliness, to lift his manhood to the height
that takes the prize; a prize not near -- lest overlooking earth,
he rashly spring to seize it -- nor remote, so that
he rests upon his path content: but day by day, while shimmering
grows shine, and the faint circlet prophesies the orb,
he sees so much as, just evolving these, the stateliness, the wisdom,
and the strength to due completion, will suffice this life,
and lead him at his grandest to the grave."

Browning fully recognizes, to use an expression in his
`Fra Lippo Lippi', fully recognizes "the value and significance
of flesh." A healthy and well-toned spiritual life is with him
the furthest removed from asceticism. To the passage from
his `Rabbi Ben Ezra' already quoted, "all good things are ours,
nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul",
should be added what David sings to Saul, in the poem entitled `Saul'.
Was the full physical life ever more beautifully sung?

"Oh! our manhood's prime vigour! no spirit feels waste,
Not a muscle is stopped in its playing, nor sinew unbraced.
Oh, the wild joys of living! the leaping from rock up to rock,
The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver shock
Of the plunge in a pool's living water, the hunt of the bear,
And the sultriness showing the lion is couched in his lair.
And the meal, the rich dates yellowed over with gold dust divine,
And the locust-flesh steeped in the pitcher, the full draught of wine,
And the sleep in the dried river-channel where bulrushes tell
That the water was wont to go warbling so softly and well.
How good is man's life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy!"

Though this is said in the person of the beautiful shepherd-boy,
David, whoever has lived any time with Browning, through his poetry,
must be assured that it is also an expression of the poet's
own experience of the glory of flesh. He has himself been
an expression of the fullest physical life: and now,
in his five and seventieth year, since the 7th of last May,
he preserves both mind and body in a magnificent vigor.
If his soul had been lodged in a sickly, rickety body,
he could hardly have written these lines from `Saul'. Nor could he
have written `Caliban upon Setebos', especially the opening lines:
"Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best, flat on his belly
in the pit's much mire, with elbows wide, fists clenched
to prop his chin. And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
and feels about his spine small eft-things course, run in and out
each arm, and make him laugh: and while above his head
a pompion-plant, coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard, and now a flower drops
with a bee inside, and now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch, --
he looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross and recross
till they weave a spider-web (meshes of fire, some great fish breaks
at times), and talks to his own self, howe'er he please,
touching that other, whom his dam called God."

There's a grand passage in `Balaustion's Adventure:
including a transcript from Euripides', descriptive of Herakles
as he returns, after his conflict with Death, leading back Alkestis,
which shows the poet's sympathy with the physical. The passage is
more valuable as revealing that sympathy, from the fact that
it's one of his additions to Euripides: --

"there stood the strength,
Happy as always; something grave, perhaps;
The great vein-cordage on the fret-worked brow,
Black-swollen, beaded yet with battle-drops
The yellow hair o' the hero! -- his big frame
A-quiver with each muscle sinking back
Into the sleepy smooth it leaped from late.
Under the great guard of one arm, there leant
A shrouded something, live and woman-like,
Propped by the heart-beats 'neath the lion-coat.
When he had finished his survey, it seemed,
The heavings of the heart began subside,
The helping breath returned, and last the smile
Shone out, all Herakles was back again,
As the words followed the saluting hand."

It is not so much the glory of flesh which Euripides represents
in Herakles, as the indulgence of appetite, at a time, too,
when that indulgence is made to appear the more culpable and gross.

This idea of "the value and significance of flesh", it is important
to note, along with the predominant spiritual bearing
of Browning's poetry. It articulates everywhere the spiritual,
so to speak -- makes it healthy and robust, and protects it
against volatility and from running into mysticism.


2. The Idea of Personality as embodied in Browning's Poetry.

A cardinal idea in Browning's poetry is the regeneration of men
through a personality who brings fresh stuff for them to mould,
interpret, and prove right, -- new feeling fresh from God --
whose life re-teaches them what life should be, what faith is,
loyalty and simpleness, all once revealed, but taught them
so long since that they have but mere tradition of the fact, --
truth copied falteringly from copies faint, the early traits
all dropped away. (`Luria'.) The intellect plays a secondary part.
Its place is behind the instinctive, spiritual antennae
which conduct along their trembling lines, fresh stuff
for the intellect to stamp and keep -- fresh instinct for it
to translate into law.

"A people is but the attempt of many to rise to the completer life
of one." (`A Soul's Tragedy'.)

Only the man who supplies new feeling fresh from God,
quickens and regenerates the race, and sets it on the King's highway
from which it has wandered into by-ways -- not the man
of mere intellect, of unkindled soul, that supplies only
stark-naked thought. Through the former, "God stooping shows
sufficient of His light for those i' the dark to rise by."
(`R. and B., Pompilia'.) In him men discern "the dawn of
the next nature, the new man whose will they venture in the place
of theirs, and whom they trust to find them out new ways
to the new heights which yet he only sees." (`Luria'.)
It is by reaching towards, and doing fealty to, the greater spirit
which attracts and absorbs their own, that, "trace by trace
old memories reappear, old truth returns, their slow thought
does its work, and all's re-known." (`Luria'.)

"Some existence like a pact
And protest against Chaos, . . .

. . . The fullest effluence of the finest mind,
All in degree, no way diverse in kind
From minds above it, minds which, more or less
Lofty or low, move seeking to impress
Themselves on somewhat; but one mind has climbed
Step after step, by just ascent sublimed.
Thought is the soul of act, and, stage by stage,
Is soul from body still to disengage,
As tending to a freedom which rejects
Such help, and incorporeally affects
The world, producing deeds but not by deeds,
Swaying, in others, frames itself exceeds,
Assigning them the simpler tasks it used
To patiently perform till Song produced
Acts, by thoughts only, for the mind: divest
Mind of e'en Thought, and, lo, God's unexpressed
Will dawns above us!" (`Sordello'.)

A dangerous tendency of civilization is that towards crystallization --
towards hardened, inflexible conventionalisms which "refuse the soul
its way".

Such crystallization, such conventionalisms, yield only to
the dissolving power of the spiritual warmth of life-full personalities.

The quickening, regenerating power of personality is everywhere
exhibited in Browning's poetry. It is emphasized in `Luria',
and in the Monologues of the Canon Caponsacchi and Pompilia,
in the `Ring and the Book'; it shines out, or glints forth,
in `Colombe's Birthday', in `Saul', in `Sordello', and in all
the Love poems. I would say, en passant, that Love
is always treated by Browning as a SPIRITUAL claim;
while DUTY may be only a worldly one. SEE especially the poem
entitled `Bifurcation'. In `Balaustion's Adventure:
including a transcipt from Euripides', the regenerating power
of personality may be said to be the leavening idea, which the poet
has introduced into the Greek play. It is entirely absent
in the original. It baptizes, so to speak, the Greek play,
and converts it into a Christian poem. It is the "new truth"
of the poet's `Christmas Eve'.

After the mourning friends have spoken their words of consolation
to the bereaved husband, the last word being, "Dead, thy wife --
living, the love she left", Admetos "turned on the comfort,
with no tears, this time. HE WAS BEGINNING TO BE LIKE HIS WIFE.
I told you of that pressure to the point, word slow pursuing word
in monotone, Alkestis spoke with; so Admetos, now, solemnly bore
the burden of the truth. And as the voice of him grew,
gathered strength, and groaned on, and persisted to the end,
we felt how deep had been descent in grief, and WITH WHAT CHANGE
HE CAME UP NOW TO LIGHT, and left behind such littleness as tears."

And when Alkestis was brought back by Herakles, "the hero
twitched the veil off: and there stood, with such fixed eyes
and such slow smile, Alkestis' silent self! It was the crowning grace
of that great heart to keep back joy: procrastinate the truth
until the wife, who had made proof and found the husband wanting,
might essay once more, hear, see, and feel him RENOVATED now --
ABLE TO DO, NOW, ALL HERSELF HAD DONE, RISEN TO THE HEIGHT OF HER:
so, hand in hand, the two might go together, live and die."
(Compare with this the restoration of Hermione to her husband,
in `The Winter's Tale', Act V.)

A good intellect has been characterized as the chorus of Divinity.
Substitute for "good intellect", an exulted magnetic personality,
and the thought is deepened. An exalted magnetic personality
is the chorus of Divinity, which, in the great Drama of Humanity,
guides and interprets the feelings and sympathies of other souls
and thus adjusts their attitudes towards the Divine.
It is not the highest function of such a personality to TEACH,
but rather to INFORM, in the earlier and deeper sense of the word.
Whatever mere doctrine he may promulgate, is of inferior importance
to the spontaneous action of his concrete life, in which the True,
the Beautiful, and the Good, breathe and live. What is born
in the brain dies there, it may be; at best, it does not,
and cannot of itself, lead up to the full concrete life.
It is only through the spontaneou and unconscious fealty
which an inferior does to a superior soul (a fealty resulting
from the responsiveness of spirit to spirit), that the former
is slowly and silently transformed into a more or less
approximate image of the latter. The stronger personality
leads the weaker on by paths which the weaker knows not,
upward he leads him, though his steps be slow and vacillating.
Humility, in the Christian sense, means this fealty to the higher.
It doesn't mean self-abasement, self-depreciation, as it has been
understood to mean, by both the Romish and the Protestant Church.
Pride, in the Christian sense, is the closing of the doors of the soul
to a great magnetic guest.

Browning beautifully expresses the transmission of personality
in his `Saul'. But according to Browning's idea, personality cannot
strictly be said to be transmitted. Personality rather
evokes its LIKE from other souls, which are "all in degree,
no way diverse in kind." (`Sordello'.)

David has reached an advanced stage in his symbolic song to Saul.
He thinks now what next he shall urge "to sustain him where song
had restored him? -- Song filled to the verge his cup with the wine
of this life, pressing all that it yields of mere fruitage,
the strength and the beauty: beyond, on what fields glean a vintage
more potent and perfect to brighten the eye and bring blood to the lip,
and commend them the cup they put by?" So once more
the string of the harp makes response to his spirit, and he sings: --

"In our flesh grows the branch of this life, in our soul it bears fruit.
Thou hast marked the slow rise of the tree, -- how its stem
trembled first
Till it passed the kid's lip, the stag's antler; then safely outburst
The fan-branches all round; and thou mindest when these, too, in turn
Broke a-bloom and the palm-tree seemed perfect; yet more was to learn,
E'en the good that comes in with the palm-fruit. Our dates
shall we slight,
When their juice brings a cure for all sorrow? or care for the plight
Of the palm's self whose slow growth produced them? Not so!
stem and branch
Shall decay, nor be known in their place, while the palm-wine
shall staunch
Every wound of man's spirit in winter. I pour thee such wine.
Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for! the spirit be thine!
By the spirit, when age shall o'ercome thee, thou still shalt enjoy
More indeed, than at first when, inconscious, the life of a boy.
Crush that life, and behold its wine running! each deed thou hast done
Dies, revives, goes to work in the world; until e'en as the sun
Looking down on the earth, though clouds spoil him,
though tempests efface,
Can find nothing his own deed produced not, must everywhere trace
The results of his past summer-prime, -- SO, EACH RAY OF THY WILL,
EVERY FLASH OF THY PASSION AND PROWESS, LONG OVER, SHALL THRILL
THY WHOLE PEOPLE, THE COUNTLESS, WITH ARDOUR, TILL THEY TOO GIVE FORTH
A LIKE CHEER TO THEIR SONS: WHO IN TURN, FILL THE SOUTH AND THE NORTH
WITH THE RADIANCE THY DEED WAS THE GERM OF."

In the concluding lines is set forth what might be characterized as
the apostolic succession of a great personality -- the succession
of those "who in turn fill the South and the North with the radiance
his deed was the germ of."

What follows in David's song gives expression to the other mode
of transmitting a great personality -- that is, through records
that "give unborn generations their due and their part in his being",
and also to what those records owe their effectiveness, and are saved
from becoming a dead letter.

"Is Saul dead? In the depth of the vale make his tomb -- bid arise
A grey mountain of marble heaped four-square, till, built to the skies,
Let it mark where the great First King slumbers: whose fame
would ye know?
Up above see the rock's naked face, where the record shall go
In great characters cut by the scribe, -- Such was Saul, so he did;
With the sages directing the work, by the populace chid, --
For not half, they'll affirm, is comprised there! Which fault to amend,
In the grove with his kind grows the cedar, whereon they shall spend
(See, in tablets 'tis level before them) their praise, and record
With the gold of the graver, Saul's story, -- the statesman's great word
Side by side with the poet's sweet comment. The river's a-wave
With smooth paper-reeds grazing each other when prophet-winds rave:
So the pen gives unborn generations their due and their part
In thy being! Then, first of the mighty, thank God that thou art!"

What is said in this passage is applicable to the record we have
of Christ's life upon earth. Christianity has only to
a very limited extent been perpetuated through the letter of
the New Testament. It has been perpetuated chiefly through
transmissions of personalities, through apostolic succession,
in a general sense, and through embodiments of his spirit
in art and literature -- "the stateman's great word",
"the poet's sweet comment". Were it not for this transmission
of the quickening power of personality, the New Testament would be
to a great extent a dead letter. It owes its significance to
the quickened spirit which is brought to the reading of it.
The personality of Christ could not be, through a plastic sympathy,
moulded out of the New Testament records, without the aid
of intermediate personalities.

The Messianic idea was not peculiar to the Jewish race --
the idea of a Person gathering up within himself, in an effective
fulness and harmony, the restorative elements of humanity, which have
lost their power through dispersion and consequent obscuration.
There have been Messiahs of various orders and ranks in every age, --
great personalities that have realized to a greater or less extent
(though there has been but one, the God-Man, who fully realized),
the spiritual potentialities in man, that have stood upon
the sharpest heights as beacons to their fellows. In the individual
the species has, as it were, been gathered up, epitomized,
and intensified, and he has thus been a prophecy, and to some extent
a fulfilment of human destiny.

"A poet must be earth's ESSENTIAL king", as Sordello asserts,
and he is that by virtue of his exerting or shedding the influence of
his essential personality. "If caring not to exert the proper essence
of his royalty, he, the poet, trifle malapert with accidents instead --
good things assigned as heralds of a better thing behind" -- he is
"deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory is taken from him".
Of himself, Sordello says: "The power he took most pride to test,
whereby all forms of life had been professed at pleasure,
forms already on the earth, was but a means of power beyond,
whose birth should, in its novelty, be kingship's proof. Now,
whether he came near or kept aloof the several forms he longed
to imitate, not there the kingship lay, he sees too late. Those forms,
unalterable first as last, proved him her copier, not the protoplast
of nature: what could come of being free by action to exhibit
tree for tree, bird, beast, for beast and bird, or prove earth bore
one veritable man or woman more? Means to an end such proofs are:
what the end?"

The answer given involves the great Browning idea of
the quickening power of personality: "Let essence, whatsoe'er it be,
extend -- never contract!"

By "essence" we must understand that which "constitutes man's self,
is what Is", as the dying John, in `A Death in the Desert',
expresses it -- that which backs the active powers and
the conscious intellect, "subsisting whether they assist or no".

"Let essence, whatsoe'er it be, extend -- never contract!"
Sordello says. "Already you include the multitude"; that is,
you gather up in yourself, in an effective fulness and harmony,
what lies scattered and ineffective in the multitude;
"then let the mulitude include yourself"; that is, be substantiated,
essenced with yourself; "and the result were new: themselves before,
the multitude turn YOU" (become yourself). "This were to live
and move and have, in them, your being, and secure a diadem
you should transmit (because no cycle yearns beyond itself,
but on itself returns) when the full sphere in wane,
the world o'erlaid long since with you, shall have in turn obeyed
some orb still prouder, some displayer, still more potent than
the last, of human will, and some new king depose the old."

This is a most important passage to get hold of in studying Browning.
It may be said to gather up Browning's philosophy of life in a nutshell.

There's a passage to the same effect in `Balaustion's Adventure',
in regard to the transmission of the poet's essence. The enthusiastic
Rhodian girl, Balaustion, after she has told the play of Euripides,
years after her adventure, to her four friends, Petale,
Phullis, Charope, and Chrusion, says: --

"I think I see how. . . you, I, or any one, might mould a new Admetos,
new Alkestis. Ah, that brave bounty of poets, the one royal race
that ever was, or will be, in this world! They give no gift that
bounds itself, and ends i' the giving and the taking:
theirs so breeds i' the heart and soul of the taker, so transmutes
the man who only was a man before, that he grows god-like in his turn,
can give -- he also: share the poet's privilege, bring forth new good,
new beauty from the old. As though the cup that gave the wine,
gave too the god's prolific giver of the grape, that vine,
was wont to find out, fawn around his footstep, springing still
to bless the dearth, at bidding of a Mainad."


3. Art as an Intermediate Agency of Personality.

If Browning's idea of the quickening, the regeneration,
the rectification of personality, through a higher personality,
be fully comprehended, his idea of the great function of Art,
as an intermediate agency of personality, will become plain.
To emphasize the latter idea may be said to be the ultimate purpose
of his masterpiece, `The Ring and the Book'.

The complexity of the circumstances involved in the Roman murder case,
adapts it admirably to the poet's purpose -- namely, to exhibit
the swervings of human judgment in spite of itself, and the conditions
upon which the rectification of that judgment depends.

This must be taken, however, as only the articulation,
the framework, of the great poem. It is richer in materials,
of the most varied character, than any other long poem in existence.
To notice one feature of the numberless features of the poem,
which might be noticed, Browning's deep and subtle insight
into the genius of the Romish Church is shown in it more fully
than in any other of his poems, -- though special phases of that genius
are distinctly exhibited in numerous poems: a remarkable one being
`The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church'.
It is questionable whether any work of any kind has ever exhibited
that genius more fully and distinctly than `The Ring and the Book'
exhibits it. The reader breathes throughout the ecclesiastical
atmosphere of the Eternal City.

To return from this digression, the several monologues
of which the poem consists, with the exception of those
of the Canon Caponsacchi, Pompilia, and the Pope, are each curious
and subtle and varied exponents of the workings, without the guidance
of instinct at the heart, of the prepossessed, prejudiced intellect,
and of the sources of its swerving into error. What is said
of the "feel after the vanished truth" in the monologue entitled
`Half Rome' -- the speaker being a jealous husband -- will serve
to characterize, in a general way, "the feel after truth"
exhibited in the other monologues: "honest enough, as the way is:
all the same, harboring in the CENTRE OF ITS SENSE a hidden germ
of failure, shy but sure, should neutralize that honesty and leave
that feel for truth at fault, as the way is too. Some prepossession,
such as starts amiss, by but a hair's-breadth at the shoulder-blade,
the arm o' the feeler, dip he ne'er so brave; and so leads waveringly,
lets fall wide o' the mark his finger meant to find, and fix truth
at the bottom, that deceptive speck."

The poet could hardly have employed a more effective metaphor
in which to embody the idea of mental swerving. The several monologues
all going over the same ground, are artistically justified
in their exhibiting, each of them, a quite distinct form
of this swerving. For the ultimate purpose of the poet,
it needed to be strongly emphasized. The student of the poem
is amazed, long before he gets over all these monologues,
at the Protean capabilities of the poet's own intellect.
It takes all conceivable attitudes toward the case, and each seems
to be a perfectly easy one.

These monologues all lead up to the great moral of the poem, which is
explicitly set forth at the end, namely, "that our human speech
is naught, our human testimony false, our fame and human estimation,
words and wind. Why take the artistic way to prove so much? Because,
it is the glory and good of Art, that Art remains the one way possible
of speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least. How look a brother
in the face and say, Thy right is wrong, eyes hast thou yet art blind,
thine ears are stuffed and stopped, despite their length: and, oh,
the foolishness thou countest faith! Say this as silvery
as tongue can troll -- the anger of the man may be endured,
the shrug, the disappointed eyes of him are not so bad to bear --
but here's the plague, that all this trouble comes of telling truth,
which truth, by when it reaches him, looks false, seems to be
just the thing it would supplant, nor recognizable by whom it left:
while falsehood would have done the work of truth. But Art, --
wherein man nowise speaks to men, only to mankind, -- Art may tell
a truth obliquely, DO THE THING SHALL BREED THE THOUGHT", that is,
bring what is IMPLICIT within the soul, into the right attitude
to become EXPLICIT -- bring about a silent adjustment
through sympathy induced by the concrete; in other words,
prepare the way for the perception of the truth --
"do the thing shall breed the thought, nor wrong the thought
missing the mediate word"; meaning, that Art, so to speak,
is the word made flesh, -- IS the truth, and, as Art,
has nothing directly to do with the explicit. "So may you paint
your picture, twice show truth, beyond mere imagery on the wall, --
so, note by note, bring music from your mind, deeper than ever
the Andante dived, -- so write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
suffice the eye and save the soul beside."

And what is the inference the poet would have us draw
from this passage? It is, that the life and efficacy of Art
depends on the personality of the artist, which "has informed,
transpierced, thridded, and so thrown fast the facts else free,
as right through ring and ring runs the djereed and binds the loose,
one bar without a break." And it is really this fusion of
the artist's soul, which kindles, quickens, INFORMS those who
contemplate, respond to, reproduce sympathetically within themselves
the greater spirit which attracts and absorbs their own.
The work of Art is apocalyptic of the artist's own personality.
It CANNOT be impersonal. As is the temper of his spirit, so is,
MUST be, the temper of his Art product.* It is hard to believe,
almost impossible to believe, that `Titus Andronicus' could have been
written by Shakespeare, the external testimony to the authorship,
notwithstanding. Even if he had written it as a burlesque
of such a play as Marlow's `Jew of Malta', he could not have avoided
some revelation of that sense of moral proportion which is omnipresent
in his Plays. But I can find no Shakespeare in `Titus Andronicus'.
Are we not certain what manner of man Shakespeare was from his Works
(notwithstanding that critics are ever asserting their impersonality)
-- far more certain than if his biography had been written
by one who knew him all his life, and sustained to him
the most intimate relations? We know Shakespeare -- or he CAN
be known, if the requisite conditions are met, better, perhaps,
than any other great author that ever lived -- know,
in the deepest sense of the word, in a sense other than that in which
we know Dr. Johnson, through Boswell's Biography. The moral proportion
which is so signal a characteristic of his Plays could not have been
imparted to them by the conscious intellect. It was SHED from
his spiritual constitution.

--
* "And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion,
that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter
in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem."
-- Milton's `Apology for Sinectymnuus'.
--

By "speaking truth" in Art's way, Browning means, inducing a right
ATTITUDE toward, a full and free SYMPATHY with, the True,
which is a far more important and effective way of speaking truth
than delivering truth `in re'. A work of Art, worthy of the name,
need not be true to fact, but must be true in its spiritual attitude,
and being thus true, it will tend to induce a corresponding attitude
in those who do fealty to it. It will have the influence,
though in an inferior degree, it may be, of a magnetic personality.
Personality is the ultimate source of spiritual quickening
and adjustment. Literature and all forms of Art are but
the intermediate agencies of personalities. The artist cannot be
separated from his art. As is the artist so MUST be his art.
The `aura', so to speak, of a great work of Art, must come from
the artist's own personality. The spiritual worth of Shakespeare's
`Winter's Tale' is not at all impaired by the fact that Bohemia is made
a maritime country, that Whitsun pastorals and Christian burial,
and numerous other features of Shakespeare's own age, are introduced
into pagan times, that Queen Hermione speaks of herself as a daughter
of the Emperor of Russia, that her statue is represented as executed by
Julio Romano, an Italian painter of the 16th century, that a puritan
sings psalms to hornpipes, and, to crown all, that messengers are sent
to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Delphi, which is represented as
an island! All this jumble, this gallimaufry, I say,
does not impair the spiritual worth of the play. As an Art-product,
it invites a rectified attitude toward the True and the Sweet.

If we look at the letter of the trial scene in `The Merchant of Venice',
it borders on the absurd; but if we look at its spirit,
we see the Shakespearian attitude of soul which makes for righteousness,
for the righteousness which is inherent in the moral constitution
of the universe.

The inmost, secretest life of Shakespeare's Plays came from
the personality, the inmost, secretest life, of the man Shakespeare.
We might, with the most alert sagacity, note and tabulate and aggregate
his myriad phenomenal merits as a dramatic writer, but we might still
be very far from that something back of them all, or rather that
IMMANENT something, that mystery of personality, that microcosmos,
that "inmost centre, where truth abides in fulness", as Browning makes
Paracelsus characterize it, "constituting man's self, is what Is",
as he makes the dying John characterize it, in `A Death in the Desert',
that "innermost of the inmost, most interior of the interne",
as Mrs. Browning characterizes it, "the hidden Soul",
as Dallas characterizes it, which is projected into, and constitutes
the soul of, the Plays, and which is reached through an unconscious
and mystic sympathy on the part of him who habitually communes with
and does fealty to them. That personality, that living force,
co-operated spontaneously and unconsciously with the conscious powers,
in the creative process; and when we enter into a sympathetic communion
with the concrete result of that creative process, our own
mysterious personalities, being essentially identical with,
though less quickened than, Shakespeare's, respond, though it may be
but feebly, to his. This response is the highest result of the study
of Shakespeare's works.

It is a significant fact that Shakespearian critics and editors,
for nearly two centuries, have been a `genus irritabile',
to which genus Shakespeare himself certainly did not belong.
The explanation may partly be, that they have been too much occupied
with the LETTER, and have fretted their nerves in angry dispute
about readings and interpretations; as theologians have done
in their study of the sacred records, instead of endeavoring to reach,
through the letter, the personality of which the letter is but
a manifestation more or less imperfect. To KNOW a personality is,
of course, a spiritual knowledge -- the result of sympathy,
that is, spiritual responsiveness. Intellectually it is
but little more important to know one rather than another personality.
The highest worth of all great works of genius is due to the fact
that they are apocalyptic of great personalities.

Art says, as the Divine Person said, whose personality
and the personalities fashioned after it, have transformed and moulded
the ages, "Follow me!" Deep was the meaning wrapt up in this command:
it was, Do as I do, live as I live, not from an intellectual perception
of the principles involved in my life, but through a full sympathy,
through the awakening, vitalizing, actuating power of
the incarnate Word.

Art also says, as did the voice from the wilderness,
inadequately translated, "REPENT ye, for the kingdom of heaven
is at hand". (Metanoei^te h'/ggike ga\r h` Basilei/a tw^n ou'ranw^n.)
Rather, be transformed, or, as De Quincey puts it, "Wheel into
a new centre your spiritual system; GEOCENTRIC has that system been
up to this hour -- that is, having earth and the earthly
for its starting-point; henceforward make it HELIOCENTRIC (that is,
with the sun, or the heavenly, for its principle of motion)."

The poetry of Browning everywhere says this, and says it
more emphatically than that of any other poet in our literature.
It says everywhere, that not through knowledge, not through
a sharpened intellect, but through repentance, in the deeper sense
to which I have just alluded, through conversion, through wheeling into
a new centre its spiritual system, the soul attains to saving truth.
Salvation with him means that revelation of the soul to itself,
that awakening, quickening, actuating, attitude-adjusting, of the soul,
which sets it gravitating toward the Divine.

Browning's idea of Conversion is, perhaps, most distinctly expressed
in a passage in the Monologue of the Canon Caponsacchi,
in `The Ring and the Book', wherein he sets forth the circumstances
under which his soul was wheeled into a new centre, after a life
of dalliance and elegant folly, and made aware of "the marvellous dower
of the life it was gifted and filled with". He has been telling
the judges, before whom he has been summoned, the story of the letters
forged by Guido to entrap him and Pompilia, and of his having seen
"right through the thing that tried to pass for truth and solid,
not an empty lie". The conclusion and the resolve he comes to,
are expressed in the soliloquy which he repeats to the judges,
as having uttered at the time: "So, he not only forged
the words for her but words for me, made letters he called mine:
what I sent, he retained, gave these in place, all by
the mistress messenger! As I recognized her, at potency of truth,
so she, by the crystalline soul, knew me, never mistook the signs.
Enough of this -- let the wraith go to nothingness again,
here is the orb, have only thought for her!" What follows admits us
to the very HEART of Browning's poetry -- admits us to the great Idea
which is almost, in these days, strange to say, peculiarly his --
which no other poet, certainly, of this intellectual, analytic,
scientific age, with its "patent, truth-extracting processes",
has brought out with the same degree of distinctness -- the great Idea
which may be variously characterized as that of soul-kindling,
soul-quickening, adjustment of soul-attitude, regeneration, conversion,
through PERSONALITY -- a kindling, quickening, adjustment,
regeneration, conversion in which THOUGHT is not even a coefficient.
As expressed in Sordello, "Divest mind of e'en thought, and lo,
God's unexpressed will dawns above us!" "Thought?" the Canon goes on
to say, "Thought? nay, Sirs, what shall follow was not thought:
I have thought sometimes, and thought long and hard.
I have stood before, gone round a serious thing, tasked my whole mind
to touch it and clasp it close, . . . God and man, and what duty
I owe both, -- I dare say I have confronted these in thought:
but no such faculty helped here. I put forth no thought, -- powerless,
all that night I paced the city: it was the first Spring.
By the INVASION I LAY PASSIVE TO, in rushed new things,
the old were rapt away; alike abolished -- the imprisonment of
the outside air, the inside weight o' the world that pulled me down.
Death meant, to spurn the ground, soar to the sky, -- die well
and you do that. The very immolation made the bliss;
death was the heart of life, and all the harm my folly had crouched
to avoid, now proved a veil hiding all gain my wisdom strove to grasp.
. . . Into another state, under new rule I knew myself was passing
swift and sure; whereof the initiatory pang approached,
felicitous annoy, as bitter-sweet as when the virgin band,
the victors chaste, feel at the end the earthy garments drop,
and rise with something of a rosy shame into immortal nakedness:
so I lay, and let come the proper throe would thrill into the ecstasy
and out-throb pain. I' the gray of the dawn it was I found myself
facing the pillared front o' the Pieve -- mine, my church:
it seemed to say for the first time, `But am not I the Bride,
the mystic love o' the Lamb, who took thy plighted troth, my priest,
to fold thy warm heart on my heart of stone and freeze thee
nor unfasten any more? This is a fleshly woman, -- let the free
bestow their life blood, thou art pulseless now!' . . . Now,
when I found out first that life and death are means to an end,
that passion uses both, indisputably mistress of the man whose form
of worship is self-sacrifice -- now, from the stone lungs sighed
the scrannel voice, `Leave that live passion, come be dead with me!'
As if, i' the fabled garden, I had gone on great adventure,
plucked in ignorance hedge-fruit, and feasted to satiety,
laughing at such high fame for hips and haws, and scorned
the achievement: then come all at once o' the prize o' the place,
the thing of perfect gold, the apple's self: and, scarce my eye
on that, was 'ware as well of the sevenfold dragon's watch. Sirs,
I obeyed. Obedience was too strange, -- this new thing that had been
STRUCK INTO ME BY THE LOOK OF THE LADY, to dare disobey
the first authoritative word. 'Twas God's. I had been
LIFTED TO THE LEVEL OF HER, could take such sounds into my sense.
I said, `We two are cognizant o' the Master now; it is she bids me
bow the head: how true, I am a priest! I see the function here;
I thought the other way self-sacrifice: this is the true,
seals up the perfect sum. I pay it, sit down, silently obey.'"

Numerous and varied expressions of the idea of conversion set forth
in this passage, occur in Browning's poetry, evidencing his deep sense
of this great and indispensable condition of soul-life,
of being born anew (or from above, as it should be rendered
in the Gospel, a'/nwqen, that is, through the agency of
a higher personality), in order to see the kingdom of God --
evidencing his conviction that "the kingdom of God cometh not
with observation: for lo! the kingdom of God is within you."
In the poem entitled `Cristina', the speaker is made to say, --

"Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows! but not quite so sunk
that moments,
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us, when the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones, and apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way, to its triumph or undoing.

There are flashes struck from midnights, there are fire-flames
noon-days kindle,
Whereby piled-up honors perish, whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse, which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time that away the rest have trifled."

And again, when the Pope in `The Ring and the Book' has come
to the decision to sign the death-warrant of Guido and his accomplices,
he says: "For the main criminal I have no hope except in such
a SUDDENNESS OF FATE. I stood at Naples once, a night so dark
I could have scarce conjectured there was earth anywhere, sky or sea
or world at all: but the night's black was burst through by a blaze --
thunder struck blow on blow, earth groaned and bore,
through her whole length of mountain visible: there lay the city
thick and plain with spires, and, like a ghost disshrouded,
white the sea. SO MAY THE TRUTH BE FLASHED OUT BY ONE BLOW,
AND GUIDO SEE, ONE INSTANT, AND BE SAVED. Else I avert my face,
nor follow him into that sad obscure sequestered state
where God UNMAKES BUT TO REMAKE the soul he else made first in vain;
which must not be. Enough, for I may die this very night:
and how should I dare die, this man let live? Carry this forthwith
to the Governor!"

Browning is the most essentially Christian of living poets.
Though he rarely speaks `in propria persona' in his poetry,
any one who has gone over it all, can have no doubt as to his own
most vital beliefs. What the Beauty-loving Soul in Tennyson's
`Palace of Art' say of herself, cannot be suspected even,
of Browning: --

"I take possession of man's mind and deed.
I care not what the sects may brawl.
I sit as God holding no form of creed,
But contemplating all."

Religion with him is, indeed, the all-in-all; but not any
particular form of it as a finality. This is not a world
for finalities of any kind, as he constantly teaches us:
it is a world of broken arcs, not of perfect rounds.
Formulations of some kind he would, no doubt, admit there must be,
as in everything else; but with him all formulations and tabulations
of beliefs, especially such as "make square to a finite eye
the circle of infinity", *1* are, at the best, only PROVISIONAL,
and, at the worst, lead to spiritual standstill, spiritual torpor,
"a ghastly smooth life, dead at heart." *2* The essential nature
of Christianity is contrary to special prescription, do this or do that,
believe this or believe that. Christ gave no recipes.
Christianity is with Browning, and this he sets forth again and again,
a LIFE, quickened and motived and nourished by the Personality of Christ.
And all that he says of this Personality can be accepted
by every Christian, whatever theological view he may entertain of Christ.
Christ's teachings he regards but as INCIDENTS of that Personality,
and the records we have of his sayings and doings, but a fragment,
a somewhat distorted one, it may be, out of which we must,
by a mystic and plastic sympathy, {*} aided by the Christ spirit
which is immanent in the Christian world, mould the Personality,
and do fealty to it. The Christian must endeavor to be able to say,
with the dying John, in Browning's `Death in the Desert',
"To me that story, -- ay, that Life and Death of which I wrote `it was' --
to me, it is."

--
*1* `Christmas Eve'.
*2* `Easter Day'.
{*} `plastic' in the 1800's sense of `pliable', not `fake'. -- A.L.
--

The poem entitled `Christmas Eve' contains the fullest
and most explicit expression, in Browning, of his idea
of the personality of Christ, as being the all-in-all of Christianity.

"The truth in God's breast
Lies trace for trace upon ours impressed:
Though He is so bright and we so dim,
We are made in His image to witness Him:
And were no eye in us to tell,
Instructed by no inner sense,
The light of Heaven from the dark of Hell,
That light would want its evidence, --
Though Justice, Good, and Truth, were still
Divine, if, by some demon's will,
Hatred and wrong had been proclaimed
Law through the worlds, and Right misnamed,
No mere exposition of morality
Made or in part or in totality,
Should win you to give it worship, therefore:
And if no better proof you will care for,
-- Whom do you count the worst man upon earth?
Be sure, he knows, in his conscience, more
Of what Right is, than arrives at birth
In the best man's acts that we bow before:
And thence I conclude that the real God-function
Is to furnish a motive and injunction
For practising what we know already.
And such an injunction and such a motive
As the God in Christ, do you waive, and `heady,
High-minded', hang your tablet votive
Outside the fane on a finger-post?
Morality to the uttermost,
Supreme in Christ as we all confess,
Why need WE prove would avail no jot
To make Him God, if God he were not?
Where is the point where Himself lays stress?
Does the precept run `Believe in Good,
In Justice, Truth, now understood
For the first time'? -- or `Believe in ME,
Who lived and died, yet essentially
Am Lord of Life'?* Whoever can take
The same to his heart and for mere love's sake
Conceive of the love, -- that man obtains
A new truth; no conviction gains
Of an old one only, made intense
By a fresh appeal to his faded sense."

--
* "Subsists no law of life outside of life."
* * * * *
"The Christ himself had been no Lawgiver,
Unless he had given the LIFE, too, with the law."
Mrs. Browning's `Aurora Leigh'.
--

If all Christendom could take this remarkable poem of `Christmas Eve'
to its heart, its tolerance, its Catholic spirit, and, more than all,
the fealty it exhibits to the Personality who essentially is
Lord of Life, what a revolution it would undergo! and what a mass
of dogmatic and polemic theology would become utterly obsolete!
The most remarkable thing, perhaps, about the vast body
of Christian theology which has been developed during
the eighteen centuries which have elapsed since Christ
was in the flesh, is, that it is occupied so largely, it might almost
be said, exclusively, with what Christ and his disciples TAUGHT,
and with fierce discussions about the manifold meanings which have been
ingeniously extorted from the imperfect RECORD of what he taught.
British museum libraries of polemics have been written in defence
of what Christ himself would have been indifferent to,
and written with an animosity towards opponents which has been
crystallized in a phrase now applied in a general way
to any intense hate -- ODIUM THEOLOGICUM.

If the significance of Christ's mission, or a large part of it,
is to be estimated by his teachings, from those teachings
important deductions must be made, as many of them had been delivered
long before his time.

Browning has something to say on this point, in this same poem
of `Christmas Eve': --

"Truth's atmosphere may grow mephitic
When Papist struggles with Dissenter,
Impregnating its pristine clarity,
-- One, by his daily fare's vulgarity,
Its gust of broken meat and garlic;
-- One, by his soul's too-much presuming
To turn the frankincense's fuming
An vapors of the candle starlike
Into the cloud her wings she buoys on.
Each that thus sets the pure air seething,
May poison it for healthy breathing --
But the Critic leaves no air to poison;
Pumps out by a ruthless ingenuity
Atom by atom, and leaves you -- vacuity.
Thus much of Christ, does he reject?
And what retain? His intellect?
What is it I must reverence duly?
Poor intellect for worship, truly,
Which tells me simply what was told
(If mere morality, bereft
Of the God in Christ, be all that's left)
Elsewhere by voices manifold;
With this advantage, that the stater
Made nowise the important stumble
Of adding, he, the sage and humble,
Was also one with the Creator."

Browning's poetry is instinct with the essence of Christianity --
the LIFE of Christ. There is no other poetry, there is no writing
of any form, in this age, which so emphasizes the fact
(and it's the most consoling of all facts connected with
the Christian religion), that the Personality, Jesus Christ,
is the impregnable fortress of Christianity. Whatever assaults
and inroads may be made upon the original records by
Goettingen professors, upon the august fabric of the Church,
with its creeds and dogmas, and formularies, and paraphernalia,
this fortress will stand forever, and mankind will forever
seek and find refuge in it.

The poem entitled `Cleon' bears the intimation (there's nothing
directly expressed thereupon), that Christianity is something
distinct from, and beyond, whatever the highest civilization
of the world, the civilization of Greece, attained to before Christ.
Through him the world obtained "a new truth -- no conviction gained
of an old one merely, made intense by a fresh appeal
to the faded sense."

Cleon, the poet, writes to Protos in his Tyranny (that is,
in the Greek sense, Sovereignty). Cleon must be understood
as representing the ripe, composite result, as an individual,
of what constituted the glory of Greece -- her poetry, sculpture,
architecture, painting, and music, and also her philosophy.
He acknowledges the gifts which the King has lavished upon him.
By these gifts we are to understand the munificent national patronage
accorded to the arts. "The master of thy galley still unlades
gift after gift; they block my court at last and pile themselves
along its portico royal with sunset, like a thought of thee."

By the slave women that are among the gifts sent to Cleon,
seems to be indicated the degradation of the spiritual by
its subjection to earthly ideals, as were the ideals of Greek art.
This is more particularly indicated by the one white she-slave,
the lyric woman, whom further on in his letter, Cleon promises
to the King he will make narrate (in lyric song we must suppose)
his fortunes, speak his great words, and describe his royal face.

He continues, that in such an act of love, -- the bestowal of
princely gifts upon him whose song gives life its joy, --
men shall remark the King's recognition of the use of life --
that his spirit is equal to more than merely to help on life in
straight ways, broad enough for vulgar souls, by ruling and the rest.
He ascribes to the King, in the building of his tower
(and by this must be understood the building up of his own selfhood),
a higher motive than work for mere work's sake, --
that higher motive being, the luring hope of some EVENTUAL REST
atop of it (the tower), whence, all the tumult of the building hushed,
the first of men may look out to the east. *

--
* Tennyson uses a similar figure in `The Two Voices'. The speaker,
who is meditating whether "to be or not to be", says: --

"Were this not well, to bide mine hour,
Though watching from a ruined tower
How grows the day of human power."

The ruined tower is his own dilapidated selfhood, whence he takes
his outlook upon the world.
--

By the eventual rest atop of the tower, is indicated the aim
of the Greek civilization, to reach a calm within the finite,
while the soul is constituted and destined to gravitate forever
towards the infinite -- to "force our straitened sphere. . .
display completely here the mastery another life should learn."
(`Sordello'.) The eventual rest in this world is not
the Christian ideal. Earth-life, whatever its reach,
and whatever its grasp, is to the Christian a broken arc,
not a perfect round.

Cleon goes on to recount his accomplishments in the arts,
and what he has done in philosophy, in reply to the first requirement
of Protos's letter, Protos, as it appears, having heard of,
and wonderingly enumerated, the great things Cleon has effected;
and he has written to know the truth of the report. Cleon replies,
that the epos on the King's hundred plates of gold is his,
and his the little chaunt so sure to rise from every fishing-bark when,
lights at prow, the seamen haul their nets; that the image of
the sun-god on the light-house men turn from the sun's self to see,
is his; that the Poecile, o'erstoried its whole length with painting,
is his, too; that he knows the true proportions of a man and woman,
not observed before; that he has written three books on the soul,
proving absurd all written hitherto, and putting us to ignorance again;
that in music he has combined the moods, inventing one; that, in brief,
all arts are his, and so known and recognized. At this he writes
the King to marvel not. We of these latter days, he says,
being more COMPOSITE, appear not so great as our forerunners who,
in their simple way, were greater in a certain single direction,
than we; but our composite way is greater. This life of men on earth,
this sequence of the soul's achievements here, he finds reason
to believe, was intended to be viewed eventually as a great whole,
the individual soul being only a factor toward the realization of
this great whole -- toward spelling out, so to speak, Zeus's idea
in the race. Those divine men of old, he goes on to say,
reached each at one point, the outside verge that rounds our faculty,
and where they reached, who could do more than reach?
I have not chaunted, he says, verse like Homer's, nor swept string
like Terpander, nor carved and painted men like Phidias and his friend;
I am not great as they are, point by point; but I have entered into
sympathy with these four, running these into one soul, who, separate,
ignored each other's arts. The wild flower was the larger --
I have dashed rose-blood upon its petals, pricked its cup's honey
with wine, and driven its seed to fruit, and show a better flower,
if not so large.

And now he comes to the important questions in the King's letter --
whether he, the poet, his soul thus in men's hearts, has not attained
the very crown and proper end of life -- whether, now life closeth up,
he faces death with success in his right hand, -- whether he
fears death less than he, the King, does himself, the fortunate of men,
who assigns the reason for thinking that he does, that he, the poet,
leaves much behind, his life stays in the poems men shall sing,
the pictures men shall study; while the King's life, complete and whole
now in its power and joy, dies altogether with his brain and arm,
as HE leaves not behind, as the poet does, works of art
embodying the essence of his life which, through those works,
will pass into the lives of men of all succeeding times.
Cleon replies that if in the morning of philosophy, the King,
with the light now in him, could have looked on all earth's tenantry,
from worm to bird, ere man appeared, and if Zeus had questioned him
whether he would improve on it, do more for visible creatures
than was done, he would have answered, "Ay, by making each
grow conscious in himself: all's perfect else, life's mechanics
can no further go, and all this joy in natural life is put,
like fire from off thy fingers into each, so exquisitely perfect
is the same. But 'tis pure fire -- and they mere matter are;
it has THEM, not they IT: and so I choose, for man,
that a third thing shall stand apart from both, a quality arise
within the soul, which, intro-active, made to supervise and feel
the force it has, may view itself and so be happy." But it is
this quality, Cleon continues, which makes man a failure.
This sense of sense, this spirit consciousness, grew the only life
worth calling life, the pleasure-house, watch-tower,
and treasure-fortress of the soul, which whole surrounding flats
of natural life seemed only fit to yield subsistence to;
a tower that crowns a country. But alas! the soul now climbs it
just to perish there, for thence we have discovered that
there's a world of capability for joy, spread round about us,
meant for us, inviting us; and still the soul craves all,
and still the flesh replies, "Take no jot more than ere you climbed
the tower to look abroad! Nay, so much less, as that fatigue
has brought deduction to it." After expatiating on this sad state
of man, he arrives at the same conclusion as the King in his letter:
"I agree in sum, O King, with thy profound discouragement,
who seest the wider but to sigh the more. Most progress
is most failure! thou sayest well."

And now he takes up the last point of the King's letter, that he,
the King, holds joy not impossible to one with artist-gifts,
who leaves behind living works. Looking over the sea, as he writes,
he says, "Yon rower with the moulded muscles there, lowering the sail,
is nearer it that I." He presents with clearness, and with
rigid logic, the DILEMMA of the growing soul; shows the vanity
of living in works left behind, and in the memory of posterity,
while he, the feeling, thinking, acting man, shall sleep in his urn.
The horror of the thought makes him dare imagine at times
some future state unlimited in capability for joy, as this is
in DESIRE for joy. But no! Zeus had not yet revealed such a state;
and alas! he must have done so were it possible!

He concludes, "Live long and happy, and in that thought die,
glad for what was! Farewell." And then, as a matter
of minor importance, he informs the King, in a postscript,
that he cannot tell his messenger aright where to deliver what he bears
to one called Paulus. Protos, it must be understood, having heard
of the fame of Paul, and being perplexed in the extreme,
has written the great apostle to know of his doctrine.
But Cleon writes that it is vain to suppose that a mere barbarian Jew,
one circumcised, hath access to a secret which is shut from them,
and that the King wrongs their philosophy in stooping to inquire
of such an one. "Oh, he finds adherents, who does not.
Certain slaves who touched on this same isle, preached him and Christ,
and, as he gathered from a bystander, their doctrines could be held
by no sane man."

There is a quiet beauty about this poem which must insinuate itself
into the feelings of every reader. In tone it resembles
the `Epistle of Karshish, the Arab Physician'. The verse
of both poems is very beautiful. No one can read these two poems,
and `Bishop Blougram's Apology', and `The Bishop orders his Tomb
at St. Praxed's Church', and not admit that Browning is a master
of blank verse in its most difficult form -- a form far more difficult
than that of the epic blank verse of Milton, or the Idyllic blank verse
of Tennyson, argumentative and freighted with thought, and,
at the same time, almost chatty, as it is, and bearing in its course
exquisitely poetical conceptions. The same may be said of much
of the verse of `The Ring and the Book', especially that
of the monologues of the Canon Caponsacchi, Pompilia, the Pope,
and Count Guido Franceschini. But this by the way.

'Cleon' belongs to a grand group of poems, in which Browning
shows himself to be, as I've said, the most essentially Christian
of living poets -- the poet who, more emphatically than any
of his contemporaries have done, has enforced the importance,
the indispensableness of a new birth, the being born from above
(a'/nwqen) as the condition not only of soul vitality and progress,
but also of intellectual rectitude. In this group of poems
are embodied the profoundest principles of education --
principles which it behoves the present generation of educators
to look well to. The acquisition of knowledge is a good thing,
the sharpening of the intellect is a good thing, the cultivation
of philosophy is a good thing; but there is something of
infinitely more importance than all these -- it is, the rectification,
the adjustment, through that mysterious operation we call sympathy,
of the unconscious personality, the hidden soul, which co-operates
with the active powers, with the conscious intellect, and,
as this unconscious personality is rectified or unrectified,
determines the active powers, the conscious intellect,
for righteousness or unrighteousness.

The attentive reader of Browning's poetry must soon discover
how remarkably homogeneous it is in spirit. There are many authors,
and great authors too, the reading of whose collected works
gives the impression of their having "tried their hand" at many things.
No such impression is derivable from the voluminous poetry of Browning.
Wide as is its range, one great and homogeneous spirit pervades
and animates it all, from the earliest to the latest.
No other living poet gives so decided an assurance of having
a BURDEN to deliver. An appropriate general title to his works
would be, `The Burden of Robert Browning to the 19th Century'.
His earliest poems show distinctly his ATTITUDE toward things.
We see in what direction the poet has set his face --
what his philosophy of life is, what soul-life means with him,
what regeneration means, what edification means in its deepest sense
of building up within us the spiritual temple. And if he had left
this world after writing no more than those poems of his youth,
`Pauline' and `Paracelsus', a very fair `ex-pede-Herculem' estimate
might have been made of the possibilities which he has since
so grandly realized.

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