A few words must still be said upon that purport and tendency of Robert
Browning's work, which has been defined by a few persons, and felt by
very many as his 'message'.
The definition has been disputed on the ground of Art. We are told by
Mr. Sharp, though in somewhat different words, that the poet, qua poet,
cannot deliver a 'message' such as directly addresses itself to the
intellectual or moral sense; since his special appeal to us lies not
through the substance, but through the form, or presentment, of what he
has had to say; since, therefore (by implication), in claiming for it
an intellectual--as distinct from an aesthetic--character, we ignore its
function as poetry.
It is difficult to argue justly, where the question at issue turns
practically on the meaning of a word. Mr. Sharp would, I think, be the
first to admit this; and it appears to me that, in the present case, he
so formulates his theory as to satisfy his artistic conscience, and yet
leave room for the recognition of that intellectual quality so peculiar
to Mr. Browning's verse. But what one member of the aesthetic school may
express with a certain reserve is proclaimed unreservedly by many more;
and Mr. Sharp must forgive me, if for the moment I regard him as one of
these; and if I oppose his arguments in the words of another poet
and critic of poetry, whose claim to the double title is I believe
undisputed--Mr. Roden Noel. I quote from an unpublished fragment of a
published article on Mr. Sharp's 'Life of Browning'.
'Browning's message is an integral part of himself as writer; (whether
as poet, since we agree that he is a poet, were surely a too curious
and vain discussion;) but some of his finest things assuredly are the
outcome of certain very definite personal convictions. "The question,"
Mr. Sharp says, "is not one of weighty message, but of artistic
presentation." There seems to be no true contrast here. "The primary
concern of the artist must be with his vehicle of expression"--no--not
the primary concern. Since the critic adds--(for a poet) "this vehicle
is language emotioned to the white heat of rhythmic music by impassioned
thought or sensation." Exactly--"thought" it may be. Now part of this
same "thought" in Browning is the message. And therefore it is part of
his "primary concern". "It is with presentment," says Mr. Sharp, "that
the artist has fundamentally to concern himself." Granted: but it must
surely be presentment of _something_. . . . I do not understand how
to separate the substance from the form in true poetry. . . . If the
message be not well delivered, it does not constitute literature. But
if it be well delivered, the primary concern of the poet lay with the
message after all!'
More cogent objection has been taken to the character of the 'message'
as judged from a philosophic point of view. It is the expression or
exposition of a vivid a priori religious faith confirmed by positive
experience; and it reflects as such a double order of thought, in which
totally opposite mental activities are often forced into co-operation
with each other. Mr. Sharp says, this time quoting from Mr. Mortimer
('Scottish Art Review', December 1889):
'His position in regard to the thought of the age is paradoxical, if not
inconsistent. He is in advance of it in every respect but one, the most
important of all, the matter of fundamental principles; in these he
is behind it. His processes of thought are often scientific in their
precision of analysis; the sudden conclusion which he imposes upon them
is transcendental and inept.'
This statement is relatively true. Mr. Browning's positive reasonings
often do end with transcendental conclusions. They also start from
transcendental premises. However closely his mind might follow the
visible order of experience, he never lost what was for him the
consciousness of a Supreme Eternal Will as having existed before it; he
never lost the vision of an intelligent First Cause, as underlying all
minor systems of causation. But such weaknesses as were involved in
his logical position are inherent to all the higher forms of natural
theology when once it has been erected into a dogma. As maintained by
Mr. Browning, this belief held a saving clause, which removed it from
all dogmatic, hence all admissible grounds of controversy: the more
definite or concrete conceptions of which it consists possessed no
finality for even his own mind; they represented for him an absolute
truth in contingent relations to it. No one felt more strongly than he
the contradictions involved in any conceivable system of Divine creation
and government. No one knew better that every act and motive which we
attribute to a Supreme Being is a virtual negation of His existence.
He believed nevertheless that such a Being exists; and he accepted His
reflection in the mirror of the human consciousness, as a necessarily
false image, but one which bears witness to the truth.
His works rarely indicate this condition of feeling; it was not often
apparent in his conversation. The faith which he had contingently
accepted became absolute for him from all practical points of view; it
became subject to all the conditions of his humanity. On the ground of
abstract logic he was always ready to disavow it; the transcendental
imagination and the acknowledged limits of human reason claimed the last
word in its behalf. This philosophy of religion is distinctly suggested
in the fifth parable of 'Ferishtah's Fancies'.
But even in defending what remains, from the most widely accepted point
of view, the validity of Mr. Browning's 'message', we concede the fact
that it is most powerful when conveyed in its least explicit form; for
then alone does it bear, with the full weight of his poetic utterance,
on the minds to which it is addressed. His challenge to Faith and Hope
imposes itself far less through any intellectual plea which he can
advance in its support, than through the unconscious testimony of all
creative genius to the marvel of conscious life; through the passionate
affirmation of his poetic and human nature, not only of the goodness and
the beauty of that life, but of its reality and its persistence.
We are told by Mr. Sharp that a new star appeared in Orion on the night
on which Robert Browning died. The alleged fact is disproved by the
statement of the Astronomer Royal, to whom it has been submitted; but it
would have been a beautiful symbol of translation, such as affectionate
fancy might gladly cherish if it were true. It is indeed true that
on that twelfth of December, a vivid centre of light and warmth was
extinguished upon our earth. The clouded brightness of many lives
bears witness to the poet spirit which has departed, the glowing human
presence which has passed away. We mourn the poet whom we have lost far
less than we regret the man: for he had done his appointed work; and
that work remains to us. But the two beings were in truth inseparable.
The man is always present in the poet; the poet was dominant in the man.
This fact can never be absent from our loving remembrance of him. No
just estimate of his life and character will fail to give it weight.