IV. Browning's Verse.
It seems to be admitted, even by many of the poet's
most devoted students, that his verse is, in its general character,
harsh and rugged. To judge it fairly, one must free his mind
of many merely conventional canons in regard to verse.
Pure music is absolute. The music of verse moves, or should move,
under the conditions of the thought which articulates it. It should
serve as a chorus to the thought, expressing a mystic sympathy
with it. Verse may be very musical, and yet more or less mechanical;
that is, it may CLOTHE thought and sentiment, but not be a part
of it, not EMBODY it. Unrippled verse, which many readers demand,
MUST be more or less mechanical. Such verse flows according to
its own sweet will, independently of the thought-articulation.
But the thought-articulation may be so flimsy that it's well enough
for the verse so to flow.
The careful student of Browning's language-shaping must discover --
the requisite susceptibility to vitality of form being supposed --
that his verse is remarkably organic: often, indeed, more organic,
even when it appears to be clumsy, than the "faultily faultless" verse
of Tennyson. The poet who has written `In a Gondola',
`By the Fireside', `Meeting at Night', `Parting at Morning',
`Gold Hair', `May and Death', `Love among the Ruins',
`Home Thoughts from Abroad', `Home Thoughts from the Sea',
the Incantation in `The Flight of the Duchess' (some of which are both
song and picture), and many, many more that might be named,
certainly has the very highest faculty of word and verse music,
of music, too, that is entirely new in English Poetry;
and it can be shown that he always exercises that faculty
WHENEVER THERE'S A REAL ARTISTIC OCCASION FOR IT, not otherwise.
Verse-music is never with him a mere literary indulgence.
The grotesquerie of rhythm and rhyme which some of his poems exhibit,
is as organic as any other feature of his language-shaping,
and shows the rarest command of language. He has been charged with
having "failed to reach continuous levels of musical phrasing".
It's a charge which every one who appreciates Browning's verse
in its higher forms (and its higher forms are not those which are
addressed especially to the physical ear) will be very ready to admit.
In the general tenor of his poetry, he is ABOVE the Singer, --
he is the Seer and Revealer, who sees great truths beyond the bounds
of the territory of general knowledge, instead of working over truths
within that territory; and no seer of modern times has had his eyes
more clearly purged with euphrasy and rue. Poetry is with him,
in the language of Mr. E. Paxton Hood (`Eclectic and Congregational Rev.',
Dec., 1868), "no jingle of words, or pretty amusement
for harpsichord or piano, but rather a divine trigonometry,
a process of celestial triangulation, a taking observations of
celestial places and spheres, an attempt to estimate our world,
its place, its life amidst the boundless immeasurable sweeps
of space and time; or if describing, then describing
the animating stories of the giants, how they fought and fell,
or conquered. . .a great all-inclusive strength of song,
which is as a battle march to warriors, or as the refreshment
of brooks and dates to the spent and toiling soldiers on their way,
is more than the pretty idyll, whose sweet and plaintive story
pleases the idle hour or idle ear."
The Rev. Prof. E. Johnson, in the section entitled `Poets of the Ear
and of the Eye', of his valuable paper on `Conscience and Art
in Browning' (`Browning Soc. Papers', Part III., pp. 345-380),
has ably shown that "the economy of music is a necessity
of Browning's Art" -- that music, instead of ever being an end
to itself, is with him a means to a much higher end. He says: --
"All poetry may be classified according to its form or its contents.
Formal classification is easy, but of little use. When we have
distinguished compositions as dramatic, lyrical, or characterized
a poet in like manner, we have done little. What we want to ascertain
is the peculiar quality of the imaginative stuff with which
he plastically works, and to appreciate its worth. This is always
a great task, but one particularly necessary in the case of Browning,
because the stuff in which he has wrought is so novel
in the poet's hands. Psychology itself is comparatively a new
and modern study, as a distinct science; but a psychological poet,
who has made it his business to clothe psychic abstractions
`in sights and sounds', is entirely a novel appearance in literature.
"Now that phrase `clothing in sights and sounds' may yield us the clue
to the classification we are seeking. The function of artists,
that is, musicians, poets in the narrower sense, and painters,
is to clothe Truth in sights and sounds for the hearing and seeing
of us all. Their call to do this lies in their finer and fuller
aesthetic faculty. The sense of hearing and that of seeing
stand in polar opposition, and thus a natural scale offers itself
by which we may rank and arrange our artists. At the one end
of the scale is the acoustic artist, i.e., the musician. At the other
end of the scale is the optic artist, the painter and sculptor.
Between these, and comprising both these activities in his own,
is the poet, who is both acoustic and optic artist. He translates
the sounds of the world, both external and internal, --
the tumult of storms, the murmurs of waves, the SUSURRUS of
the woodland, the tinkling of brooks, the throbbing of human hearts,
the cries of all living creatures; all those groans of pain,
stammers of desire, shrieks of despair, yawns even of languor,
which are ever breaking out of the heart of things; and beside
all this, the hearsay, commonplace, proverbial lore of the world.
He turns these into melodies which shall be caught up by those
who listen. In short, he converts by his alchemy the common stuff
of pain and of joy into music. But he is optic as well as acoustic;
that is, he calls up at the same time by his art a procession of images
which march or dance across the theatre of the listener's fancy.
Now the question of classification on this scheme comes to this,
Does the particular poet who invites our attention deal more
with the aesthesis of the ear or with that of the eye? Does he more
fill our ear with sweet tunes or our fancy with shapes and colours?
Does he compel us to listen and shut our eyes, or to open our eyes wide
and dispense with all but the faintest musical accompaniment?
What sense, in short, does he mainly address himself to?
Goethe said that he was a `seeing' man; W. von Humboldt,
the great linguist, that he was a `listening' man. The influence
of Milton's blindness on his poetry was noticed by Lessing.
The short-sightedness of Wieland has also been detected in his poetry.
"If we apply these tests to Browning, there can be, I think,
no doubt as to the answer. He is, in common with all poets,
both musician and painter, but much more the latter than the former.
He is never for a moment the slave of his ear, if I may so express it.
We know that he has, on the contrary, the mastery of music.
But music helps and supports his imagination, never controls it.
Music is to Browning an inarticulate revelation of the truth
of the supersensual world, the `earnest of a heaven'.
He is no voluptuary in music. Music is simply the means
by which the soul wings its way into the azure of spiritual theory
and contemplation. Take only `Saul' and `Abt Vogler' in illustration.
`Saul' is a magnificent interpretation of the old theme,
a favorite with the mystics, that evil spirits are driven out by music.
But in this interpretation it is not the mere tones, the thrumming
on the harp, it is the religious movement of the intelligence,
it is the truth of Divine love throbbing in every chord,
which constitutes the spell. And so in `Abt Vogler';
the abbot's instrument is only the means whereby he strikes out
the light of faith and hope within him. Not to dwell upon this point,
I would only say that it seems clear that Browning has the finest
acoustic gifts, and could, if he had chosen, have scattered
musical bons-bons through every page. But he has printed
no `versus inopes rerum, nugaeque canorae' (Hor. ad Pis.).
He has had higher objects in view, and has dispensed better stuff
than that which lingers in the ear, and tends to suppress
rather than support the higher activity of thought.
"When for a moment he shuts his eyes, and falls purely into
the listening or `musing' mood, he becomes the instrument of
a rich deep music, breaking out of the heart of the unseen world,
as in the Dirge of unfaithful Poets in `Paracelsus',
or the Gypsy's Incantation in the `Flight of the Duchess',
or the Meditation at the crisis of Sordello's temptation.
"When the keen inquisitive intelligence is in its full waking activity
there grows `more of the words' and thought, and `less of the music',
to invert a phrase of the poet's. The melody ceases,
the rhythm is broken, as in all intense, earnest conversation.
At times only the tinkle of the pairing rhymes, of which Browning
has made a most witty use, reminds that we are called to partake
a mood in which commonplace associations are melting into the ideal.
I believe the economy of music is a necessity of Browning's art;
and it would be only fair, if those who attack him on this ground
would consider how far thought of such quality as his admits of
being chanted, or otherwise musically accompanied. In plain words
the problem is, how far the pleasures of sound and of sense
can be united in poetry; and it will be found in every case
that a poet sacrifices something either to the one or to the other.
Browning has said something in his arch way on this point. In effect,
he remarks, Italian prose can render a simple thought more sweetly
to the ear than either Greek or English verse. It seems clear
from many other of his critical remarks that he considers the demand
for music in preference to thought in poetry, as the symptom
of a false taste.
"Browning's poetry is to be gazed at, rather than listened to
and recited, for the most part. It is infinitely easier to listen
for an hour to spiritual music than to fix one's whole attention
for a few minutes on a spiritual picture. In the latter act of mind
we find a rich musical accompaniment distracting, while a slight
musical accompaniment is probably helpful. And perhaps
we may characterize Browning's poetry as a series of spiritual pictures
with a faint musical accompaniment.
"For illustration by extreme contrast, Milton may be compared
with Browning. Milton was a great hearsay poet, Browning repeats
no hearsay. In reading Milton, the difficulty is to keep up
the mental tension where there is so little thought, strictly speaking.
With Browning the highest tension is exacted.
"He is pre-eminently the looker, the seer, the `maker-see';
the reporter, the painter of the scenery and events of the soul.
And if the sense of vision is our noblest, and we instinctively
express the acts of intelligence in terms drawn from physical vision,
the poet who leans most towards the `SEER of Power and Love
in the absolute, Beauty and Goodness in the concrete',
takes the higher rank. This is no matter for bigotry of taste.
Singers and seers, musicians and reporters, and reproducers
of every degree, who have something to tell us or to show us
of the `world as God has made it, where all is beauty',
we have need of all. But of singers there are many,
of seers there are few, that is all."
In the most difficult form of verse, namely, blank verse,
Browning has shown himself a great master, and has written some
of the very best in the literature. And great as is the extent
of his blank verse, the `Ring and the Book' alone containing 21,116 verses,
it never entirely lapses into prose.
One grand merit of blank verse is in the SWEEP of it; another,
in its pause-melody, which can be secured only by a skilful recurrence
of an unbroken measure; without this, variety of pause
ceases to be variety, and results in a metrical chaos;
a third is in its lightsomeness of movement, its go,
when well-freighted with thought. All these merits are found
united in much of Browning's blank verse, especially
in that of `The Ring and the Book'. As an example of this,
take the following passage from the monologue of the Canon Caponsacchi.
It gives expression to his vision of Count Guido's
spiritual down-sliding; "in the lowest deep a lower deep still
threatening to devour him, opens wide": --
"And thus I see him slowly and surely edged
Off all the table-land whence life upsprings
Aspiring to be immortality,
As the snake, hatched on hill-top by mischance,
Despite his wriggling, slips, slides, slidders down
Hill-side, lies low and prostrate on the smooth
Level of the outer place, lapsed in the vale:
So I lose Guido in the loneliness,
Silence, and dusk, till at the doleful end,
At the horizontal line, creation's verge,
From what just is to absolute nothingness --
Lo, what is this he meets, strains onward still?
What other man, deep further in the fate,
Who, turning at the prize of a foot-fall
To flatter him and promise fellowship,
Discovers in the act a frightful face --
Judas, made monstrous by much solitude!
The two are at one now! Let them love their love
That bites and claws like hate, or hate their hate
That mops and mows and makes as it were love!
There, let them each tear each in devil's-fun,
Or fondle this the other while malice aches --
Both teach, both learn detestability!
Kiss him the kiss, Iscariot! Pay that back,
That smatch o' the slaver blistering on your lip --
By the better trick, the insult he spared Christ --
Lure him the lure o' the letters, Aretine!
Lick him o'er slimy-smooth with jelly-filth
O' the verse-and-prose pollution in love's guise!
The cockatrice is with the basilisk!
There let him grapple, denizens o' the dark,
Foes or friends, but indissolubly bound,
In their one spot out of the ken of God
Or care of man for ever and ever more!"
Browning has distinctly indicated the standard by which
he estimates art-work, in the closing paragraph of his Essay
`On the Poet objective and subjective; on the latter's aim;
on Shelley as man and poet'.
"I would rather," he says, "consider Shelley's poetry as a sublime
fragmentary essay towards a presentment of the correspondency
of the universe to Deity, of the natural to the spiritual,
and of the actual to the ideal, than I would isolate
and separately appraise the worth of many detachable portions
which might be acknowledged AS UTTERLY PERFECT IN A LOWER
MORAL POINT OF VIEW, UNDER THE MERE CONDITIONS OF ART.
It would be easy to take my stand on successful instances
of objectivity in Shelley: there is the unrivalled `Cenci'; there is
the `Julian and Maddalo' too; there is the magnificent `Ode to Naples':
why not regard, it may be said, the less organized matter
as the radiant elemental foam and solution, out of which would have
been evolved, eventually, creations as perfect even as those?
But I prefer to look for the highest attainment, not simply the high,
-- and, seeing it, I hold by it. There is surely enough
of the work `Shelley' to be known enduringly among men, and, I believe,
to be accepted of God, as human work may; and AROUND THE IMPERFECT
PROPORTIONS OF SUCH, THE MOST ELABORATED PRODUCTIONS OF ORDINARY ART
MUST ARRANGE THEMSELVES AS INFERIOR ILLUSTRATIONS."
The italics are mine. I would say, but without admitting
imperfect art on the part of Browning, for I regard him as one
of the greatest of literary artists, that HE must be estimated by
the standard presented in this passage, by the "presentment",
everywhere in his poetry, "of the correspondency of the universe
to Deity, of the natural to the spiritual, and of the actual
to the ideal."
The same standard is presented in `Andrea del Sarto',
in `Old Pictures in Florence', and in other of his poems.