The three generations of readers who have lived since Browning's first
publication have seen as many attitudes taken toward one of the ablest
poetic spirits of the century. To the first he appeared an enigma, a
writer hopelessly obscure, perhaps not even clear in his own mind,
as to the message he wished to deliver; to the second he appeared a
prophet and a philosopher, full of all wisdom and subtlety, too deep
for common mortals to fathom with line and plummet,--concealing below
green depths of ocean priceless gems of thought and feeling; to the
third, a poet full of inequalities in conception and expression, who
has done many good things well and has made many grave failures.
No poet in our generation has fared so ill at the hands of the
critics. Already the Browning library is large. Some of the criticism
is good; much of it, regarding the author as philosopher and
symbolist, is totally askew. Reams have been written in interpretation
of _Childe Roland_, an imaginative fantasy composed in one day.
Abstruse ideas have been wrested from the simple story of _My Last
Duchess_. His poetry has been the stamping-ground of theologians
and the centre of prattling literary circles. In this tortuous maze of
futile criticism the one thing lost sight of is the fact that a poet
must be judged by the standards of art. It must be confessed, however,
that Browning is himself to blame for much of the smoke of commentary
that has gathered round him. He has often chosen the oblique
expression where the direct would serve better; often interpolated
his own musing subtleties between the reader and the life he would
present; often followed his theme into intricacies beyond his own
power to resolve into the simple forms of art. Thus it has come about
that misguided readers became enigma hunters, and the poet their
The real question with Browning, as with any poet, is, What is his
work and worth as an artist? What of human life has he presented,
and how clear and true are his presentations? What passions, what
struggles, what ideals, what activities of men has he added to the art
world? What beauty and dignity, what light, has he created? How does
he view life: with what of hope, or aspiration, or strength? These
questions may be discussed under his sense and mastery of form, and
under his views of human life.
Browning's sense of form has often been attacked and defended. The
first impression upon reading him is of harshness amounting to the
grotesque. Rhymes often clash and jangle like the music of savages.
Such rhymes as
"Fancy the fabric...
Ere mortar dab brick,"
strain dignity and beauty to the breaking-point. Archaic and bizarre
words are pressed into service to help out the rhyme and metre;
instead of melodic rhythm there are harsh and jolting combinations;
until the reader brought up in the traditions of Shakespeare, Milton,
and Tennyson, is fain to cry out, This is not poetry!
In internal form, as well, Browning often defies the established laws
of literature. Distorted and elliptical sentences, long and irrelevant
parentheses, curious involutions of thought, and irregular or
incoherent development of the narrative or the picture, often leave
the reader in despair even of the meaning. Nor can these departures
from orderly beauty always be defended by the exigencies of the
subjects. They do not fit the theme. They are the discords of a
musician who either has not mastered his instrument or is not
sensitive to all the finer effects. Some of his work stands out
clear from these faults: _A Toccata of Galuppi's_, _Love Among the
Ruins_, the Songs from _Pippa Passes_, _Apparitions_, _Andrea del
Sarto_, and a score of others might be cited to show that Browning
could write with a sense of form as true, and an ear as delicate, as
could any poet of the century, except Tennyson.
To Browning belongs the credit of having created a new poetic
form,--the dramatic monologue. In this form the larger number of his
poems are cast. Among the best examples in this volume are _My
Last Duchess_, _The Bishop Orders his Tomb_, _The Laboratory_, and
_Confessions_. One person only is speaking, but reveals the
presence, action, and thoughts of the others who are in the scene at
the same time that he reveals his own character, as in a conversation
in which but one voice is audible. The dramatic monologue has in a
peculiar degree the advantages of compression and vividness, and is,
in Browning's hands, an instrument of great power.
The charge of obscurity so often made against Browning's poetry must
in part be admitted. As has been said above he is often led off by his
many-sided interests into irrelevancies and subtleties that interfere
with simplicity and beauty. His compressed style and his fondness
for unusual words often make an unwarranted demand upon the reader's
patience. Such passages are a challenge to his admirers and a repulse
to the indifferent. Sometimes, indeed, the ore is not worth the
smelting; often it yields enough to reward the greatest patience.
Browning, like all great poets, knew life widely and deeply through
men and books. He was born in London, near the great centres of the
intellectual movements of his time; he travelled much, especially in
Italy and France; he read widely in the literatures and philosophies
of many ages and many lands; and so grew into the cosmopolitanism of
spirit that belonged to Chaucer and to Shakespeare.
In all art human life is the matter of ultimate interest. To Browning
this was so in a peculiar degree. In the epistolary preface to
_Sordello_, written thirty years after its first publication, he
said: "My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul:
little else is worth study." This interest in "the development of
a soul" is the keynote of nearly all his work. To it are directly
traceable many of the most obvious excellences and defects of his
poetry. He came to look below the surfaces of things for the soul
beneath them. He came to be "the subtlest assertor of the Soul in
Song," and like his own pair of lovers on the Campagna, "unashamed of
soul." His early preference of Shelley to Keats indicated this bent.
His readers are conscious always of revelations of the souls of the
men and women he portrays; the sweet and tender womanhood of the
Duchess, the sordid and material soul of the old Bishop of St.
Praxed's, the devoted and heroic soul of Napoleon's young soldier, the
weary and despairing soul of Andrea del Sarto,--and a host of others
stand before us cleared of the veil of habit and convention. The
souls of men appear as the victors over all material and immaterial
obstacles. Human affection transforms the bare room to a bower of
fruits and flowers; human courage and resolution carry Childe Roland
victoriously past the threats and terrors of malignant nature, and
the despair from accumulated memories of failure; death itself is
described in _Evelyn Hope_, in _Prospice_, in _Rabbi Ben
Ezra_, as a phase, a transit of the soul, wherein the material
aspects and the physical terrors disappear. In Browning's poetry, the
one real and permanent thing is the world of ideas, the world of the
spirit. He is in this one of the truest Platonists of modern times.
To many young readers this method in art comes like a revelation.
Other poets also portray the souls of men; but Browning does it
more obviously, more intentionally, more insistently. It is well,
therefore, to have read Browning. To learn to read him aright is to
enter the gateway to other good and great poetry.
Out of this predominating interest in the souls of men, and out of his
intense intellectual activity and scientific curiosity, grows one of
Browning's greatest defects. He is often led too far afield, into
intricacies and anomalies of character beyond the range of common
experience and sympathy. The criminal, the "moral idiot," belong to
the alienist rather than to the poet. The abnormalities of nature
have no place in the world of great art; they do not echo the common
experience of mankind. Already the interest is decreasing in that part
of his poetry which deals with such themes. Bishop Blougram and Mr.
Sludge will not take place in the ranks of artistic creations. Nor can
the poet's "special pleading" for such types, however ingenious it
may be, whatever philanthropy of soul it may imply, be regarded as
justification. Sometimes, indeed, the poet is led by his sympathy and
his intellectual ingenuity into defences that are inconsistent with
his own standards of the true and the beautiful.
The trait in Browning which appeals to the largest number of readers
is his strenuous optimism. He will admit no evil or sorrow too
great to be borne, too irrational to have some ultimate purpose of
beneficence. "There shall never be one lost good," says Abt Vogler.
The suicides in the morgue only serve to call forth his declaration:--
"My own hope is, a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
* * * * *
That what began best can't end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst."
He has no fear of death; he will face it gladly, in confidence of the
life beyond. His Grammarian is content to assume an order of things
which will justify in the next life his ceaseless toil in this, merely
to learn how to live. Rabbi Ben Ezra's old age is serene in the hope
of the continuity of life and the eternal development of character; he
finds life good, and the plan of things perfect. In brief, Browning
accepts life as it is, and believes it good, piecing out his
conception of the goodness of life by drawing without limit upon his
hopes of the other world. With the exception of a few poems like
_Andrea del Sarto_, this is the unbroken tone of his poetry.
Calvinism, asceticism, pessimism in any form, he rejects. He sustains
his position not by argument, but by hope and assertion. It is a
matter of temperament: he is optimistic because he was born so.
Different from the serene optimism of Shakespeare's later life, in
_The Tempest_ and _The Winter's Tale_, in that it is
not, like Shakespeare's, born of long and deep suffering from the
contemplation of the tragedies of human life, it bears, in that
degree, less of solace and conviction.
To Browning's temperament, also, may be ascribed another prominent
trait in his work. He steadily asserts the right of the individual to
live out his own life, to be himself in fulfilling his desires and
aspirations. _The Statue and the Bust_ is the famous exposition
of this doctrine. It is a teaching that neither the poet's optimism
nor his acumen has justified in the minds of men. It is a return to
the unbridled freedom of nature advocated by Whitman and Rousseau;
an extreme assertion of the value of the individual man, and of
unregulated democracy; an outgrowth, it may be, of the robustness and
originality of Browning's nature, and interesting--not as a clew to
his life, which conformed to that of organized society--but as a
clew to his independence of classical and conventional forms in the
exercise of his art.
Creative energy Browning has in high degree. With the poet's insight
into character and motives, the poet's grasp of the essential laws of
human life, the poet's vividness of imagination, he has portrayed a
host of types distinct from each other, true to life, strongly marked
and consistent. With fine dramatic instinct he has shown these
characters in true relation to the facts of life and to each other. In
this respect he has satisfied the most exigent demands of art, and
has already taken rank as one of the great creative minds of the
True poet he is, also, in his depth of feeling and range of sympathy.
Beneath a ruggedness of intellect, like his landscape in _De
Gustibus_, there is always sympathy and tenderness. It is, indeed,
more like the serenity of Chaucer's emotions than like the tragic
fervor of Shakespeare's. Mrs. Browning's estimate of him in _Lady
"Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate,' which, if cut deep down the middle,
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity,"
is true criticism.
His love of nature, and his sense of the joy and beauty of it, appear
often in his poetry; but not with the same insistence as in Wordsworth
and Burns, and seldom with the same pervasiveness, or with the same
beauty, as in Tennyson. He was rather the poet of men's souls. When
he does use nature, it is generally to illustrate some phase or
experience of the soul, and not for the sake of its beauty. He has,
however, some nature-descriptions so exquisite that English poetry
would be the poorer for their loss. Witness _De Gustibus_, _Up at a
Villa_, _Home Thoughts from Abroad_, _Pippa's Songs_, and _Saul_.
It is too early to guess at Browning's permanent place in our
literature. But his vigor of intellect, his insight into the human
heart, his originality in phrase and conception, his unquenchable and
fearless optimism, and his grasp of the problems of his century, make
him beyond question one of its greatest figures.
Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world's,
Therefore, on him no speech! and brief for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale
No man has walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing: the breeze
Of Alpine heights thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.
--WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR.
Tennyson has a vivid feeling of the dignity and potency of
_law_.... Browning vividly feels the importance, the greatness
and beauty of passions and enthusiasms, and his imagination
is comparatively unimpressed by the presence of law and its
operations.... It is not the order and regularity in the processes of
the natural world which chiefly delight Browning's imagination, but
the streaming forth of power, and will, and love from the whole face
of the visible universe....
Tennyson considers the chief instruments of human progress to be a
vast increase of knowledge and of political organization. Browning
makes that progress dependent on the production of higher passions,
and aspirations,--hopes, and joys, and sorrows; Tennyson finds the
evidence of the truth of the doctrine of progress in the universal
presence of a self-evolving law. Browning obtains his assurance of
its truth from inward presages and prophecies of the soul, from
anticipations, types, and symbols of a higher greatness in store for
man, which even now reside within him, a creature ever unsatisfied,
ever yearning upward in thought, feeling, and endeavour.
... Hence, it is not obedience, it is not submission to the law
of duty, which points out to us our true path of life, but rather
infinite desire and endless aspiration. Browning's ideal of manhood
in this world always recognizes the fact that it is the ideal of a
creature who never can be perfected on earth, a creature whom other
and higher lives await in an endless hereafter....
The gleams of knowledge which we possess are of chief value because
they "sting with hunger for full light." The goal of knowledge, as of
love, is God himself. Its most precious part is that which is least
positive--those momentary intuitions of things which eye hath not seen
nor ear heard. The needs of the highest parts of our humanity cannot
be supplied by ascertained truth, in which we might rest, or which we
might put to use for definite ends; rather by ventures of faith, which
test the courage of the soul, we ascend from surmise to assurance, and
so again to higher surmise.--Condensed from EDWARD DOWDEN, _Studies
... Browning has not cared for that poetic form which bestows
perennial charm, or else he was incapable of it. He fails in beauty,
in concentration of interest, in economy of language, in selection of
the best from the common treasure of experience. In those works where
he has been most indifferent, as in the _Red Cotton Night-Cap
Country_, he has been merely whimsical and dull; in those works
where the genius he possessed is most felt, as in _Saul_, _A Toccata
of Galuppi's_, _Rabbi Ben Ezra_, _The Flight of the Duchess_, _The Bishop
Orders his Tomb in Saint Praxed's Church_, _Herv� Riel_, _Cavalier Tunes_,
_Time's Revenges_, and many more, he achieves beauty, or nobility,
or fitness of phrase such as only a poet is capable of. It is in these
last pieces and their like that his fame lies for the future. It
was his lot to be strong as the thinker, the moralist, with "the
accomplishment of verse," the scholar interested to rebuild the past
of experience, the teacher with an explicit dogma in an intellectual
form with examples from life, the anatomist of human passions,
instincts, and impulses in all their gamut, the commentator on his own
age; he was weak as the artist, often unnecessarily and by choice, in
the repulsive form,--in the awkward, the obscure, the ugly. He belongs
with Jonson, with Dryden, with the heirs of the masculine intellect,
the men of power not unvisited by grace, but in whom mind is
predominant. Upon the work of such poets time hesitates, conscious
of their mental greatness, but also of their imperfect art, their
heterogeneous matter; at last the good is sifted from that whence
worth has departed.--From GEORGE EDWARD WOODBERRY'S _Studies in
Letters and Life_.
When it is urged that for a poet the intellectual energies are too
strong in Browning, that for poetry the play of intellectual interests
and activities is too great in his work, and that Browning often and
at times ruthlessly sacrifices the requirements and effects of art
for the expression of thought, that "though he refreshes the heart he
tires the brain," we should admit this with regard to a good deal of
the work of the third period. We should allow that this is the side
to which he leans generally, but still hold that, though to many his
intellectual quality and energy may well seem excessive, yet in great
part of his work, and that of course, his best, the passion of the
poet and his kind of imagination are just as fresh and powerful as
the intellectual force and subtlety are keen and abundant.--JAMES
FROTHINGHAM, _Studies of the Mind and Art of Robert Browning_.
Now dumb is he who waked the world to speak,
And voiceless hangs the world beside his bier,
Our words are sobs, our cry or praise a tear:
We are the smitten mortal, we the weak.
We see a spirit on earth's loftiest peak
Shine, and wing hence the way he makes more clear:
See a great Tree of Life that never sere
Dropped leaf for aught that age or storms might wreak;
Such ending is not death: such living shows
What wide illumination brightness sheds
From one big heart,--to conquer man's old foes:
The coward, and the tyrant, and the force
Of all those weedy monsters raising heads
When Song is muck from springs of turbid source.
* * * * *
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