'Pauline'--Letters to Mr. Fox--Publication of the Poem; chief
Biographical and Literary Characteristics--Mr. Fox's Review in the
'Monthly Repository'; other Notices--Russian Journey--Desired diplomatic
Appointment--Minor Poems; first Sonnet; their Mode of Appearance--'The
Trifler'--M. de Ripert-Monclar--'Paracelsus'--Letters to Mr. Fox
concerning it; its Publication--Incidental Origin of 'Paracelsus'; its
inspiring Motive; its Relation to 'Pauline'--Mr. Fox's Review of it in
the 'Monthly Repository'--Article in the 'Examiner' by John Forster.
Before Mr. Browning had half completed his twenty-first year he had
written 'Pauline, a Fragment of a Confession'. His sister was in the
secret, but this time his parents were not. This is why his aunt,
hearing that 'Robert' had 'written a poem,' volunteered the sum
requisite for its publication. Even this first instalment of success did
not inspire much hope in the family mind, and Miss Browning made pencil
copies of her favourite passages for the event, which seemed only too
possible, of her never seeing the whole poem again. It was, however,
accepted by Saunders and Otley, and appeared anonymously in 1833.
Meanwhile the young author had bethought himself of his early
sympathizer, Mr. Fox, and he wrote to him as follows (the letter is
Dear Sir,--Perhaps by the aid of the subjoined initials and a little
reflection, you may recollect an oddish sort of boy, who had the honour
of being introduced to you at Hackney some years back--at that time
a sayer of verse and a doer of it, and whose doings you had a little
previously commended after a fashion--(whether in earnest or not God
knows): that individual it is who takes the liberty of addressing one
whose slight commendation then, was more thought of than all the gun
drum and trumpet of praise would be now, and to submit to you a free and
easy sort of thing which he wrote some months ago 'on one leg' and which
comes out this week--having either heard or dreamed that you contribute
to the 'Westminster'.
Should it be found too insignificant for cutting up, I shall no less
remain, Dear sir, Your most obedient servant, R. B.
I have forgotten the main thing--which is to beg you not to spoil
a loophole I have kept for backing out of the thing if necessary,
'sympathy of dear friends,' &c. &c., none of whom know anything about
Monday Morning; Rev.--Fox.
The answer was clearly encouraging, and Mr. Browning wrote again:
Dear Sir,--In consequence of your kind permission I send, or will send,
a dozen copies of 'Pauline' and (to mitigate the infliction) Shelley's
Poem--on account of what you mentioned this morning. It will perhaps
be as well that you let me know their safe arrival by a line to R. B.
junior, Hanover Cottage, Southampton Street, Camberwell. You must not
think me too encroaching, if I make the getting back 'Rosalind and
Helen' an excuse for calling on you some evening--the said 'R. and
H.' has, I observe, been well thumbed and sedulously marked by an
acquaintance of mine, but I have not time to rub out his labour of love.
I am, dear sir, Yours very really, R. Browning. Camberwell: 2 o'clock.
At the left-hand corner of the first page of this note is written: 'The
parcel--a "Pauline" parcel--is come. I send one as a witness.'
On the inner page is written:
'Impromptu on hearing a sermon by the Rev. T. R.--pronounced "heavy"--
'A _heavy_ sermon!--sure the error's great, For not a word Tom uttered
_had its weight_.'
A third letter, also undated, but post-marked March 29, 1833, refers
probably to the promise or announcement of a favourable notice. A fourth
conveys Mr. Browning's thanks for the notice itself:
My dear Sir,--I have just received your letter, which I am desirous of
acknowledging before any further mark of your kindness reaches me;--I
can only offer you my simple thanks--but they are of the sort that one
can give only once or twice in a life: all things considered, I think
you are almost repaid, if you imagine what I must feel--and it will have
been worth while to have made a fool of myself, only to have obtained a
'case' which leaves my fine fellow Mandeville at a dead lock.
As for the book--I hope ere long to better it, and to deserve your
In the meantime I shall not forget the extent to which I am, dear sir,
Your most obliged and obedient servant R. B. S. & O.'s, Conduit St.,
I must intrude on your attention, my dear sir, once more than I had
intended--but a notice like the one I have read will have its effect at
I can only say that I am very proud to feel as grateful as I do, and
not altogether hopeless of justifying, by effort at least, your most
generous 'coming forward'. Hazlitt wrote his essays, as he somewhere
tells us, mainly to send them to some one in the country who had 'always
prophesied he would be something'!--I shall never write a line without
thinking of the source of my first praise, be assured. I am, dear sir,
Yours most truly and obliged, Robert Browning. March 31, 1833.
Mr. Fox was then editor of a periodical called the 'Monthly Repository',
which, as his daughter, Mrs. Bridell-Fox, writes in her graceful
article on Robert Browning, in the 'Argosy' for February 1890, he was
endeavouring to raise from its original denominational character into
a first-class literary and political journal. The articles comprised in
the volume for 1833 are certainly full of interest and variety, at once
more popular and more solid than those prescribed by the present fashion
of monthly magazines. He reviewed 'Pauline' favourably in its April
number--that is, as soon as it had appeared; and the young poet thus
received from him an introduction to what should have been, though it
probably was not, a large circle of intelligent readers.
The poem was characterized by its author, five years later, in a
fantastic note appended to a copy of it, as 'the only remaining crab
of the shapely Tree of Life in my Fool's Paradise.' This name is ill
bestowed upon a work which, however wild a fruit of Mr. Browning's
genius, contains, in its many lines of exquisite fancy and deep pathos,
so much that is rich and sweet. It had also, to discard metaphor,
its faults of exaggeration and confusion; and it is of these that Mr.
Browning was probably thinking when he wrote his more serious apologetic
preface to its reprint in 1868. But these faults were partly due to his
conception of the character which he had tried to depict; and partly to
the inherent difficulty of depicting one so complex, in a succession
of mental and moral states, irrespectively of the conditions of time,
place, and circumstance which were involved in them. Only a very
powerful imagination could have inspired such an attempt. A still more
conspicuous effort of creative genius reveals itself at its close. The
moment chosen for the 'Confession' has been that of a supreme moral or
physical crisis. The exhaustion attendant on this is directly expressed
by the person who makes it, and may also be recognized in the vivid, yet
confusing, intensity of the reminiscences of which it consists. But
we are left in complete doubt as to whether the crisis is that of
approaching death or incipient convalescence, or which character it
bears in the sufferer's mind; and the language used in the closing pages
is such as to suggest, without the slightest break in poetic continuity,
alternately the one conclusion and the other. This was intended by
Browning to assist his anonymity; and when the writer in 'Tait's
Magazine' spoke of the poem as a piece of pure bewilderment, he
expressed the natural judgment of the Philistine, while proving himself
such. If the notice by J. S. Mill, which this criticism excluded, was
indeed--as Mr. Browning always believed--much more sympathetic, I can
only record my astonishment; for there never was a large and cultivated
intelligence one can imagine less in harmony than his with the poetic
excesses, or even the poetic qualities, of 'Pauline'. But this is a
Mr. Fox, though an accomplished critic, made very light of the artistic
blemishes of the work. His admiration for it was as generous as it was
genuine; and, having recognized in it the hand of a rising poet, it was
more congenial to him to hail that poet's advent than to register his
'The poem,' he says, 'though evidently a hasty and imperfect sketch, has
truth and life in it, which gave us the thrill, and laid hold of us with
the power, the sensation of which has never yet failed us as a test of
But it had also, in his mind, a distinguishing characteristic, which
raised it above the sphere of merely artistic criticism. The article
'We have never read anything more purely confessional. The whole
composition is of the spirit, spiritual. The scenery is in the chambers
of thought; the agencies are powers and passions; the events are
transitions from one state of spiritual existence to another.'
And we learn from the context that he accepted this confessional and
introspective quality as an expression of the highest emotional life--of
the essence, therefore, of religion. On this point the sincerest
admirers of the poem may find themselves at issue with Mr. Fox. Its
sentiment is warmly religious; it is always, in a certain sense,
spiritual; but its intellectual activities are exercised on entirely
temporal ground, and this fact would generally be admitted as the
negation of spirituality in the religious sense of the word. No
difference, however, of opinion as to his judgment of 'Pauline' can
lessen our appreciation of Mr. Fox's encouraging kindness to its author.
No one who loved Mr. Browning in himself, or in his work, can read the
last lines of this review without a throb of affectionate gratitude
for the sympathy so ungrudgingly, and--as he wrote during his latest
years--so opportunely given:
'In recognizing a poet we cannot stand upon trifles nor fret ourselves
about such matters [as a few blemishes]. Time enough for that
afterwards, when larger works come before us. Archimedes in the bath had
many particulars to settle about specific gravities and Hiero's crown,
but he first gave a glorious leap and shouted 'Eureka!''
Many persons have discovered Mr. Browning since he has been known to
fame. One only discovered him in his obscurity.
Next to that of Mr. Fox stands the name of John Forster among the first
spontaneous appreciators of Mr. Browning's genius; and his admiration
was, in its own way, the more valuable for the circumstances which
precluded in it all possible, even unconscious, bias of personal
interest or sympathy. But this belongs to a somewhat later period of our
I am dwelling at some length on this first experience of Mr. Browning's
literary career, because the confidence which it gave him determined its
immediate future, if not its ultimate course--because, also, the poem
itself is more important to the understanding of his mind than perhaps
any other of his isolated works. It was the earliest of his dramatic
creations; it was therefore inevitably the most instinct with himself;
and we may regard the 'Confession' as to a great extent his own, without
for an instant ignoring the imaginative element which necessarily and
certainly entered into it. At one moment, indeed, his utterance is so
emphatic that we should feel it to be direct, even if we did not know it
to be true. The passage beginning, 'I am made up of an intensest life,'
conveys something more than the writer's actual psychological state. The
feverish desire of life became gradually modified into a more or less
active intellectual and imaginative curiosity; but the sense of
an individual, self-centred, and, as it presented itself to him,
unconditioned existence, survived all the teachings of experience, and
often indeed unconsciously imposed itself upon them.
I have already alluded to that other and more pathetic fragment of
distinct autobiography which is to be found in the invocation to the
'Sun-treader'. Mr. Fox, who has quoted great part of it, justly declares
that 'the fervency, the remembrance, the half-regret mingling with
its exultation, are as true as its leading image is beautiful.' The
'exultation' is in the triumph of Shelley's rising fame; the regret, for
the lost privilege of worshipping in solitary tenderness at an obscure
shrine. The double mood would have been characteristic of any period of
Mr. Browning's life.
The artistic influence of Shelley is also discernible in the natural
imagery of the poem, which reflects a fitful and emotional fancy instead
of the direct poetic vision of the author's later work.
'Pauline' received another and graceful tribute two months later than
the review. In an article of the 'Monthly Repository', and in the course
of a description of some luxuriant wood-scenery, the following passage
'Shelley and Tennyson are the best books for this place. . . . They are
natives of this soil; literally so; and if planted would grow as surely
as a crowbar in Kentucky sprouts tenpenny nails. 'Probatum est.' Last
autumn L----dropped a poem of Shelley's down there in the wood,* amongst
the thick, damp, rotting leaves, and this spring some one found a
delicate exotic-looking plant, growing wild on the very spot, with
'Pauline' hanging from its slender stalk. Unripe fruit it may be, but of
pleasant flavour and promise, and a mellower produce, it may be hoped,
* Mr. Browning's copy of 'Rosalind and Helen', which he had lent
to Miss Flower, and which she lost in this wood on a picnic.
This and a bald though well-meant notice in the 'Athenaeum'
exhaust its literary history for this period.*
* Not quite, it appears. Since I wrote the above words,
Mr. Dykes Campbell has kindly copied for me the following extract
from the 'Literary Gazette' of March 23, 1833:
'Pauline: a Fragment of a Confession', pp. 71. London, 1833.
Saunders and Otley.
'Somewhat mystical, somewhat poetical, somewhat sensual,
and not a little unintelligible,--this is a dreamy volume,
without an object, and unfit for publication.'
The anonymity of the poem was not long preserved; there was no reason
why it should be. But 'Pauline' was, from the first, little known or
discussed beyond the immediate circle of the poet's friends; and when,
twenty years later, Dante Gabriel Rossetti unexpectedly came upon it
in the library of the British Museum, he could only surmise that it had
been written by the author of 'Paracelsus'.
The only recorded event of the next two years was Mr. Browning's
visit to Russia, which took place in the winter of 1833-4. The Russian
consul-general, Mr. Benckhausen, had taken a great liking to him, and
being sent to St. Petersburg on some special mission, proposed that
he should accompany him, nominally in the character of secretary.
The letters written to his sister during this, as during every other
absence, were full of graphic description, and would have been a mine
of interest for the student of his imaginative life. They are,
unfortunately, all destroyed, and we have only scattered reminiscences
of what they had to tell; but we know how strangely he was impressed
by some of the circumstances of the journey: above all, by the endless
monotony of snow-covered pine-forest, through which he and his companion
rushed for days and nights at the speed of six post-horses, without
seeming to move from one spot. He enjoyed the society of St. Petersburg,
and was fortunate enough, before his return, to witness the breaking-up
of the ice on the Neva, and see the Czar perform the yearly ceremony
of drinking the first glass of water from it. He was absent about three
The one active career which would have recommended itself to him in his
earlier youth was diplomacy; it was that which he subsequently desired
for his son. He would indeed not have been averse to any post of
activity and responsibility not unsuited to the training of a gentleman.
Soon after his return from Russia he applied for appointment on a
mission which was to be despatched to Persia; and the careless wording
of the answer which his application received made him think for a moment
that it had been granted. He was much disappointed when he learned,
through an interview with the 'chief', that the place was otherwise
In 1834 he began a little series of contributions to the 'Monthly
Repository', extending into 1835-6, and consisting of five poems. The
earliest of these was a sonnet, not contained in any edition of Mr.
Browning's works, and which, I believe, first reappeared in Mr. Gosse's
article in the 'Century Magazine', December 1881; now part of his
'Personalia'. The second, beginning 'A king lived long ago', was to be
published, with alterations and additions, as one of 'Pippa's' songs.
'Porphyria's Lover' and 'Johannes Agricola in Meditation' were reprinted
together in 'Bells and Pomegranates' under the heading of 'Madhouse
Cells'. The fifth consisted of the Lines beginning 'Still ailing, Wind?
wilt be appeased or no?' afterwards introduced into the sixth section of
'James Lee's Wife'. The sonnet is not very striking, though hints of the
poet's future psychological subtlety are not wanting in it; but his most
essential dramatic quality reveals itself in the last three poems.
This winter of 1834-5 witnessed the birth, perhaps also the extinction,
of an amateur periodical, established by some of Mr. Browning's friends;
foremost among these the young Dowsons, afterwards connected with Alfred
Domett. The magazine was called the 'Trifler', and published in monthly
numbers of about ten pages each. It collapsed from lack of pocket-money
on the part of the editors; but Mr. Browning had written for it one
letter, February 1833, signed with his usual initial Z, and entitled
'Some strictures on a late article in the 'Trifler'.' This boyish
production sparkles with fun, while affecting the lengthy quaintnesses
of some obsolete modes of speech. The article which it attacks was 'A
Dissertation on Debt and Debtors', where the subject was, I imagine,
treated in the orthodox way: and he expends all his paradox in showing
that indebtedness is a necessary condition of human life, and all his
sophistry in confusing it with the abstract sense of obligation. It is,
perhaps, scarcely fair to call attention to such a mere argumentative
and literary freak; but there is something so comical in a defence of
debt, however transparent, proceeding from a man to whom never in his
life a bill can have been sent in twice, and who would always have
preferred ready-money payment to receiving a bill at all, that I may be
forgiven for quoting some passages from it.
For to be man is to be a debtor:--hinting but slightly at the grand and
primeval debt implied in the idea of a creation, as matter too hard
for ears like thine, (for saith not Luther, What hath a cow to do with
nutmegs?) I must, nevertheless, remind thee that all moralists
have concurred in considering this our mortal sojourn as indeed an
uninterrupted state of debt, and the world our dwelling-place as
represented by nothing so aptly as by an inn, wherein those who lodge
most commodiously have in perspective a proportionate score to reduce,*
and those who fare least delicately, but an insignificant shot to
discharge--or, as the tuneful Quarles well phraseth it--
He's most in _debt_ who lingers out the day,
Who dies betimes has less and less to pay.
So far, therefore, from these sagacious ethics holding that
Debt cramps the energies of the soul, &c.
as thou pratest, 'tis plain that they have willed on the very outset
to inculcate this truth on the mind of every man,--no barren and
inconsequential dogma, but an effectual, ever influencing and productive
rule of life,--that he is born a debtor, lives a debtor--aye, friend,
and when thou diest, will not some judicious bystander,--no recreant as
thou to the bonds of nature, but a good borrower and true--remark, as
did his grandsire before him on like occasions, that thou hast 'paid the
_debt_ of nature'? Ha! I have thee 'beyond the rules', as one (a bailiff)
* Miss Hickey, on reading this passage, has called my
attention to the fact that the sentiment which it parodies
is identical with that expressed in these words of
. . . in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness, and cold.
Such performances supplied a distraction to the more serious work of
writing 'Paracelsus', which was to be concluded in March 1835, and which
occupied the foregoing winter months. We do not know to what extent Mr.
Browning had remained in communication with Mr. Fox; but the following
letters show that the friend of 'Pauline' gave ready and efficient help
in the strangely difficult task of securing a publisher for the new
The first is dated April 2, 1835.
Dear Sir,--I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your
letter:--Sardanapalus 'could not go on multiplying kingdoms'--nor I
protestations--but I thank you very much.
You will oblige me indeed by forwarding the introduction to Moxon. I
merely suggested him in particular, on account of his good name and
fame among author-folk, besides he has himself written--as the Americans
say--'more poetry 'an you can shake a stick at.' So I hope we shall come
I also hope my poem will turn out not utterly unworthy your kind
interest, and more deserving your favour than anything of mine you have
as yet seen; indeed I all along proposed to myself such an endeavour,
for it will never do for one so distinguished by past praise to prove
nobody after all--'nous verrons'. I am, dear sir, Yours most truly and
obliged Robt. Browning.
On April 16 he wrote again as follows:
Your communication gladdened the cockles of my heart. I lost no time
in presenting myself to Moxon, but no sooner was Mr. Clarke's letter
perused than the Moxonian visage loured exceedingly thereat--the
Moxonian accent grew dolorous thereupon:--'Artevelde' has not paid
expenses by about thirty odd pounds. Tennyson's poetry is 'popular at
Cambridge', and yet of 800 copies which were printed of his last,
some 300 only have gone off: Mr. M. hardly knows whether he shall ever
venture again, &c. &c., and in short begs to decline even inspecting,
I called on Saunders and Otley at once, and, marvel of marvels, do
really think there is some chance of our coming to decent terms--I shall
know at the beginning of next week, but am not over-sanguine.
You will 'sarve me out'? two words to that; being the man you are, you
must need very little telling from me, of the real feeling I have of
your criticism's worth, and if I have had no more of it, surely I
am hardly to blame, who have in more than one instance bored you
sufficiently: but not a particle of your article has been rejected or
neglected by your observant humble servant, and very proud shall I be
if my new work bear in it the marks of the influence under which it was
undertaken--and if I prove not a fit compeer of the potter in Horace
who anticipated an amphora and produced a porridge-pot. I purposely
keep back the subject until you see my conception of its
capabilities--otherwise you would be planning a vase fit to give the
go-by to Evander's best crockery, which my cantharus would cut but a
sorry figure beside--hardly up to the ansa.
But such as it is, it is very earnest and suggestive--and likely I hope
to do good; and though I am rather scared at the thought of a _fresh eye_
going over its 4,000 lines--discovering blemishes of all sorts which
my one wit cannot avail to detect, fools treated as sages, obscure
passages, slipshod verses, and much that worse is,--yet on the whole
I am not much afraid of the issue, and I would give something to be
allowed to read it some morning to you--for every rap o' the knuckles I
should get a clap o' the back, I know.
I have another affair on hand, rather of a more popular nature, I
conceive, but not so decisive and explicit on a point or two--so I
decide on trying the question with this:--I really shall _need_ your
notice, on this account; I shall affix my name and stick my arms akimbo;
there are a few precious bold bits here and there, and the drift and
scope are awfully radical--I am 'off' for ever with the other side, but
must by all means be 'on' with yours--a position once gained, worthier
works shall follow--therefore a certain writer* who meditated a notice
(it matters not laudatory or otherwise) on 'Pauline' in the 'Examiner',
must be benignant or supercilious as he shall choose, but in no case an
idle spectator of my first appearance on any stage (having previously
only dabbled in private theatricals) and bawl 'Hats off!' 'Down in
front!' &c., as soon as I get to the proscenium; and he may depend that
tho' my 'Now is the winter of our discontent' be rather awkward, yet
there shall be occasional outbreaks of good stuff--that I shall warm as
I get on, and finally wish 'Richmond at the bottom of the seas,' &c. in
the best style imaginable.
* Mr. John Stuart Mill.
Excuse all this swagger, I know you will, and
(The signature has been cut off; evidently for an autograph.)
Mr. Effingham Wilson was induced to publish the poem, but more, we
understand, on the ground of radical sympathies in Mr. Fox and the
author than on that of its intrinsic worth.
The title-page of 'Paracelsus' introduces us to one of the warmest
friendships of Mr. Browning's life. Count de Ripert-Monclar was a young
French Royalist, one of those who had accompanied the Duchesse de Berri
on her Chouan expedition, and was then, for a few years, spending his
summers in England; ostensibly for his pleasure, really--as he
confessed to the Browning family--in the character of private agent of
communication between the royal exiles and their friends in France. He
was four years older than the poet, and of intellectual tastes which
created an immediate bond of union between them. In the course of one of
their conversations, he suggested the life of Paracelsus as a possible
subject for a poem; but on second thoughts pronounced it unsuitable,
because it gave no room for the introduction of love: about which, he
added, every young man of their age thought he had something quite new
to say. Mr. Browning decided, after the necessary study, that he would
write a poem on Paracelsus, but treating him in his own way. It was
dedicated, in fulfilment of a promise, to the friend to whom its
inspiration had been due.
The Count's visits to England entirely ceased, and the two friends
did not meet for twenty years. Then, one day, in a street in Rome, Mr.
Browning heard a voice behind him crying, 'Robert!' He turned, and
there was 'Amedee'. Both were, by that time, married; the Count--then, I
believe, Marquis--to an English lady, Miss Jerningham. Mrs. Browning, to
whom of course he was introduced, liked him very much.*
* A minor result of the intimacy was that Mr. Browning
became member, in 1835, of the Institut Historique, and in
1836 of the Societe Francaise de Statistique Universelle, to
both of which learned bodies his friend belonged.
Mr. Browning did treat Paracelsus in his own way; and in so doing
produced a character--at all events a history--which, according
to recent judgments, approached far nearer to the reality than any
conception which had until then been formed of it. He had carefully
collected all the known facts of the great discoverer's life, and
interpreted them with a sympathy which was no less an intuition of their
truth than a reflection of his own genius upon them. We are enabled
in some measure to judge of this by a paper entitled 'Paracelsus, the
Reformer of Medicine', written by Dr. Edward Berdoe for the Browning
Society, and read at its October meeting in 1888; and in the difficulty
which exists for most of us of verifying the historical data of
Mr. Browning's poem, it becomes a valuable guide to, as well as an
interesting comment upon it.
Dr. Berdoe reminds us that we cannot understand the real Paracelsus
without reference to the occult sciences so largely cultivated in his
day, as also to the mental atmosphere which produced them; and he quotes
in illustration a passage from the writings of that Bishop of Spanheim
who was the instructor of Paracelsus, and who appears as such in the
poem. The passage is a definition of divine magic, which is apparently
another term for alchemy; and lays down the great doctrine of all
mediaeval occultism, as of all modern theosophy--of a soul-power equally
operative in the material and the immaterial, in nature and in the
consciousness of man.
The same clue will guide us, as no other can, through what is apparently
conflicting in the aims and methods, anomalous in the moral experience,
of the Paracelsus of the poem. His feverish pursuit, among the things of
Nature, of an ultimate of knowledge, not contained, even in fragments,
in her isolated truths; the sense of failure which haunts his most
valuable attainments; his tampering with the lower or diabolic magic,
when the divine has failed; the ascetic exaltation in which he begins
his career; the sudden awakening to the spiritual sterility which has
been consequent on it; all these find their place, if not always their
counterpart, in the real life.
The language of Mr. Browning's Paracelsus, his attitude towards himself
and the world, are not, however, quite consonant with the alleged facts.
They are more appropriate to an ardent explorer of the world of abstract
thought than to a mystical scientist pursuing the secret of existence.
He preserves, in all his mental vicissitudes, a loftiness of tone and a
unity of intention, difficult to connect, even in fancy, with the real
man, in whom the inherited superstitions and the prognostics of true
science must often have clashed with each other. Dr. Berdoe's picture
of the 'Reformer' drawn more directly from history, conveys this double
impression. Mr. Browning has rendered him more simple by, as it were,
recasting him in the atmosphere of a more modern time, and of his own
intellectual life. This poem still, therefore, belongs to the same group
as 'Pauline', though, as an effort of dramatic creation, superior to it.
We find the Poet with still less of dramatic disguise in the deathbed
revelation which forms so beautiful a close to the story. It supplies a
fitter comment to the errors of the dramatic Paracelsus, than to those
of the historical, whether or not its utterance was within the compass
of historical probability, as Dr. Berdoe believes. In any case it was
the direct product of Mr. Browning's mind, and expressed what was to
be his permanent conviction. It might then have been an echo of German
pantheistic philosophies. From the point of view of science--of modern
science at least--it was prophetic; although the prophecy of one for
whom evolution could never mean less or more than a divine creation
operating on this progressive plan.
The more striking, perhaps, for its personal quality are the evidences
of imaginative sympathy, even direct human insight, in which the poem
abounds. Festus is, indeed, an essentially human creature: the
man--it might have been the woman--of unambitious intellect and large
intelligence of the heart, in whom so many among us have found comfort
and help. We often feel, in reading 'Pauline', that the poet in it was
older than the man. The impression is more strongly and more definitely
conveyed by this second work, which has none of the intellectual
crudeness of 'Pauline', though it still belongs to an early phase of the
author's intellectual life. Not only its mental, but its moral maturity,
seems so much in advance of his uncompleted twenty-third year.
To the first edition of 'Paracelsus' was affixed a preface, now long
discarded, but which acquires fresh interest in a retrospect of the
author's completed work; for it lays down the constant principle
of dramatic creation by which that work was to be inspired. It also
anticipates probable criticism of the artistic form which on this, and
so many subsequent occasions, he selected for it.
'I am anxious that the reader should not, at the very outset--mistaking
my performance for one of a class with which it has nothing in
common--judge it by principles on which it was never moulded, and
subject it to a standard to which it was never meant to conform. I
therefore anticipate his discovery, that it is an attempt, probably more
novel than happy, to reverse the method usually adopted by writers whose
aim it is to set forth any phenomenon of the mind or the passions,
by the operation of persons and events; and that, instead of having
recourse to an external machinery of incidents to create and evolve the
crisis I desire to produce, I have ventured to display somewhat minutely
the mood itself in its rise and progress, and have suffered the agency
by which it is influenced and determined, to be generally discernible
in its effects alone, and subordinate throughout, if not altogether
excluded: and this for a reason. I have endeavoured to write a poem, not
a drama: the canons of the drama are well known, and I cannot but think
that, inasmuch as they have immediate regard to stage representation,
the peculiar advantages they hold out are really such only so long as
the purpose for which they were at first instituted is kept in view. I
do not very well understand what is called a Dramatic Poem, wherein all
those restrictions only submitted to on account of compensating good
in the original scheme are scrupulously retained, as though for some
special fitness in themselves--and all new facilities placed at an
author's disposal by the vehicle he selects, as pertinaciously rejected.
. . .'
Mr. Fox reviewed this also in the 'Monthly Repository'. The article
might be obtained through the kindness of Mrs. Bridell-Fox; but it will
be sufficient for my purpose to refer to its closing paragraph, as given
by her in the 'Argosy' of February 1890. It was a final expression of
what the writer regarded as the fitting intellectual attitude towards a
rising poet, whose aims and methods lay so far beyond the range of
the conventional rules of poetry. The great event in the history of
'Paracelsus' was John Forster's article on it in the 'Examiner'. Mr.
Forster had recently come to town. He could barely have heard Mr.
Browning's name, and, as he afterwards told him, was perplexed in
reading the poem by the question of whether its author was an old or a
young man; but he knew that a writer in the 'Athenaeum' had called it
rubbish, and he had taken it up as a probable subject for a piece of
slashing criticism. What he did write can scarcely be defined as praise.
It was the simple, ungrudging admission of the unequivocal power, as
well as brilliant promise, which he recognized in the work. This
mutual experience was the introduction to a long and, certainly on Mr.
Browning's part, a sincere friendship.