Life of Robert Browning
by William Sharp
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Paracelsus, his friends Festus and his wife Michal, and Aprile, an Italian poet, are the characters who are the personal media through which Browning's already powerful genius found expression. The poem is, of a kind, an epic: the epic of a brave soul striving against baffling circumstance. It is full of passages of rare technical excellence, as well as of conceptive beauty: so full, indeed, that the sympathetic reader of it as a drama will be too apt to overlook its radical shortcomings, cast as it is in the dramatic mould. But it must not be forgotten that Browning himself distinctly stated he had attempted to write "a poem, not a drama": and in the light of this simple statement half the objections that have been made fall to the ground.

Paracelsus is the protagonist: the others are merely incidental. The poem is the soul-history of the great medical student who began life so brave of aspect and died so miserably at Salzburg: but it is also the history of a typical human soul, which can be read without any knowledge of actual particulars.

Aprile is a projection of the poet's own poetical ideal. He speaks, but he does not live as Festus lives, or even as Michal, who, by the way, is interesting as being the first in the long gallery of Browning's women—a gallery of superbly-drawn portraits, of noble and striking and always intensely human women, unparalleled except in Shakspere. Pauline, of course, exists only as an abstraction, and Porphyria is in no exact sense a portrait from the life. Yet Michal can be revealed only to the sympathetic eye, for she is not drawn, but again and again suddenly silhouetted. We see her in profile always: but when she exclaims at the last, "I ever did believe," we feel that she has withdrawn the veil partially hiding her fair and generous spirit.

To the lover of poetry "Paracelsus" will always be a Golconda. It has lines and passages of extraordinary power, of a haunting beauty, and of a unique and exquisite charm. It may be noted, in exemplification of Browning's artistic range, that in the descriptive passages he paints as well in the elaborate Pre-Raphaelite method as with a broad synthetic touch: as in

"One old populous green wall Tenanted by the ever-busy flies, Grey crickets and shy lizards and quick spiders, Each family of the silver-threaded moss— Which, look through near, this way, and it appears A stubble-field or a cane-brake, a marsh Of bulrush whitening in the sun...."

But oftener he prefers the more succinct method of landscape-painting, the broadest impressionism: as in

"Past the high rocks the haunts of doves, the mounds Of red earth from whose sides strange trees grow out, Past tracks of milk-white minute blinding sand."

And where in modern poetry is there a superber union of the scientific and the poetic vision than in this magnificent passage—the quintessence of the poet's conception of the rapture of life:—

"The centre-fire heaves underneath the earth, And the earth changes like a human face; The molten ore bursts up among the rocks, Winds into the stone's heart, outbranches bright In hidden mines, spots barren river-beds, Crumbles into fine sand where sunbeams bask— God joys therein. The wroth sea's waves are edged With foam, white as the bitten lip of hate, When in the solitary waste, strange groups Of young volcanoes come up, cyclops-like, Staring together with their eyes on flame— God tastes a pleasure in their uncouth pride. Then all is still; earth is a wintry clod: But Spring-wind, like a dancing psaltress, passes Over its breast to waken it, rare verdure Buds tenderly upon rough banks, between The withered tree-rests and the cracks of frost, Like a smile striving with a wrinkled face; The grass grows bright, the boughs are swoln with blooms Like chrysalids impatient for the air, The shining dorrs are busy, beetles run Along the furrows, ants make their ado; Above, birds fly in merry flocks, the lark Soars up and up, shivering for very joy; Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing gulls Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek Their loves in wood and plain—and God renews His ancient rapture."

In these lines, particularly in their close, is manifest the influence of the noble Hebraic poetry. It must have been at this period that Browning conned over and over with an exultant delight the simple but lordly diction of Isaiah and the other prophets, preferring this Biblical poetry to that even of his beloved Greeks. There is an anecdote of his walking across a public park (I am told Richmond, but more probably it was Wimbledon Common) with his hat in his left hand and his right waving to and fro declamatorily, while the wind blew his hair around his head like a nimbus: so rapt in his ecstasy over the solemn sweep of the Biblical music that he did not observe a small following consisting of several eager children, expectant of thrilling stump-oratory. He was just the man, however, to accept an anti-climax genially, and to dismiss his disappointed auditory with something more tangible than an address.

The poet-precursor of scientific knowledge is again and again manifest: as, for example, in

"Hints and previsions of which faculties Are strewn confusedly everywhere about The inferior natures, and all lead up higher, All shape out dimly the superior race, The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false, And man appears at last."[10]

[Footnote 10: Readers interested in Browning's inspiration from, and treatment of, Science, should consult the excellent essay on him as "A Scientific Poet" by Mr. Edward Berdoe, F.R.C.S., and, in particular, compare with the originals the references given by Mr. Berdoe to the numerous passages bearing upon Evolution and the several sciences, from Astronomy to Physiology.]

There are lines, again, which have a magic that cannot be defined. If it be not felt, no sense of it can be conveyed through another's words.

"Whose memories were a solace to me oft, As mountain-baths to wild fowls in their flight."

"Ask the gier-eagle why she stoops at once Into the vast and unexplored abyss, What full-grown power informs her from the first, Why she not marvels, strenuously beating The silent boundless regions of the sky."

There is one passage, beautiful in itself, which has a pathetic significance henceforth. Gordon, our most revered hero, was wont to declare that nothing in all nonscriptural literature was so dear to him, nothing had so often inspired him in moments of gloom:—

"I go to prove my soul! I see my way as birds their trackless way. I shall arrive! What time, what circuit first, I ask not: but unless God send His hail Or blinding fireballs, sleet or stifling snow, In some time, His good time, I shall arrive: He guides me and the bird. In his good time."

As for the much misused 'Shaksperian' comparison, so often mistakenly applied to Browning, there is nothing in "Paracelsus" in the least way derivative. Because Shakspere is the greatest genius evolved from our race, it does not follow that every lofty intellect, every great objective poet, should be labelled "Shaksperian." But there is a certain quality in poetic expression which we so specify, because the intense humanity throbbing in it finds highest utterance in the greatest of our poets: and there is at least one instance of such poignant speech in "Paracelsus," worthy almost to be ranked with the last despairing cry of Guido calling upon murdered Pompilia:—

"Festus, strange secrets are let out by death Who blabs so oft the follies of this world: And I am death's familiar, as you know. I helped a man to die, some few weeks since, Warped even from his go-cart to one end— The living on princes' smiles, reflected from A mighty herd of favourites. No mean trick He left untried, and truly well-nigh wormed All traces of God's finger out of him: Then died, grown old. And just an hour before, Having lain long with blank and soulless eyes, He sat up suddenly, and with natural voice Said that in spite of thick air and closed doors God told him it was June; and he knew well Without such telling, harebells grew in June; And all that kings could ever give or take Would not be precious as those blooms to him."

Technically, I doubt if Browning ever produced any finer long poem, except "Pippa Passes," which is a lyrical drama, and neither exactly a 'play' nor exactly a 'poem' in the conventional usage of the terms. Artistically, "Paracelsus" is disproportionate, and has faults, obtrusive enough to any sensitive ear: but in the main it has a beauty without harshness, a swiftness of thought and speech without tumultuous pressure of ideas or stammering. It has not, in like degree, the intense human insight of, say, "The Inn Album," but it has that charm of sequent excellence too rarely to be found in many of Browning's later writings. It glides onward like a steadfast stream, the thought moving with the current it animates and controls, and throbbing eagerly beneath. When we read certain portions of "Paracelsus," and the lovely lyrics interspersed in it, it is difficult not to think of the poet as sometimes, in later life, stooping like the mariner in Roscoe's beautiful sonnet, striving to reclaim "some loved lost echo from the fleeting strand." But it is the fleeting shore of exquisite art, not of the far-reaching shadowy capes and promontories of "the poetic land."

Of the four interlusive lyrics the freer music is in the unique chant, "Over the sea our galleys went:" a song full of melody and blithe lilt. It is marvellously pictorial, and yet has a freedom that places it among the most delightful of spontaneous lyrics:—

"We shouted, every man of us, And steered right into the harbour thus, With pomp and paean glorious."

It is, however, too long for present quotation, and as an example of Browning's early lyrics I select rather the rich and delicate second of these "Paracelsus" songs, one wherein the influence of Keats is so marked, and yet where all is the poet's own:—

"Heap cassia, sandal-buds and stripes Of labdanum, and aloe-balls, Smeared with dull nard an Indian wipes From out her hair: such balsam falls Down sea-side mountain pedestals, From tree-tops where tired winds are fain, Spent with the vast and howling main, To treasure half their island-gain.

"And strew faint sweetness from some old Egyptian's fine worm-eaten shroud Which breaks to dust when once unrolled; Or shredded perfume, like a cloud From closet long to quiet vowed, With mothed and dropping arras hung, Mouldering her lute and books among, As when a queen, long dead, was young."

With this music in our ears we can well forgive some of the prosaic commonplaces which deface "Paracelsus"—some of those lapses from rhythmic energy to which the poet became less and less sensitive, till he could be so deaf to the vanishing "echo of the fleeting strand" as to sink to the level of doggerel such as that which closes the poem called "Popularity."

"Paracelsus" is not a great, but it is a memorable poem: a notable achievement, indeed, for an author of Browning's years. Well may we exclaim with Festus, when we regard the poet in all the greatness of his maturity—

"The sunrise Well warranted our faith in this full noon!"


The Athenaeum dismissed "Paracelsus" with a half contemptuous line or two. On the other hand, the Examiner acknowledged it to be a work of unequivocal power, and predicted for its author a brilliant career. The same critic who wrote this review contributed an article of about twenty pages upon "Paracelsus" to the New Monthly Magazine, under the heading, "Evidences of a New Dramatic Poetry." This article is ably written, and remarkable for its sympathetic insight. "Mr. Browning," the critic writes, "is a man of genius, he has in himself all the elements of a great poet, philosophical as well as dramatic."

The author of this enthusiastic and important critique was John Forster. When the Examiner review appeared the two young men had not met: but the encounter, which was to be the seed of so fine a flower of friendship, occurred before the publication of the New Monthly article. Before this, however, Browning had already made one of the most momentous acquaintanceships of his life.

His good friend and early critic, Mr. Fox, asked him to his house one evening in November, a few months after the publication of "Paracelsus." The chief guest of the occasion was Macready, then at the height of his great reputation. Mr. Fox had paved the way for the young poet, but the moment he entered he carried with him his best recommendation. Every one who met Browning in those early years of his buoyant manhood seems to have been struck by his comeliness and simple grace of manner. Macready stated that he looked more like a poet than any man he had ever met. As a young man he appears to have had a certain ivory delicacy of colouring, what an old friend perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly described to me as an almost flower-like beauty, which passed ere long into a less girlish and more robust complexion. He appeared taller than he was, for he was not above medium height, partly because of his rare grace of movement, and partly from a characteristic high poise of the head when listening intently to music or conversation. Even then he had that expressive wave o' the hand, which in later years was as full of various meanings as the Ecco of an Italian. A swift alertness pervaded him, noticeable as much in the rapid change of expression, in the deepening and illuming colours of his singularly expressive eyes, and in his sensitive mouth, with the upper lip ever so swift to curve or droop in response to the most fluctuant emotion, as in his greyhound-like apprehension, which so often grasped the subject in its entirety before its propounder himself realised its significance. A lady, who remembers Browning at that time, has told me that his hair—then of a brown so dark as to appear black—was so beautiful in its heavy sculpturesque waves as to attract frequent notice. Another, and more subtle, personal charm was his voice, then with a rare flute-like tone, clear, sweet, and resonant. Afterwards, though always with precise clarity, it became merely strong and hearty, a little too loud sometimes, and not infrequently as that of one simulating keen immediate interest while the attention was almost wholly detached.

Macready, in his Journal,[11] about a week later than the date of his first meeting with the poet, wrote—"Read 'Paracelsus,' a work of great daring, starred with poetry of thought, feeling, and diction, but occasionally obscure: the writer can scarcely fail to be a leading spirit of his time." The tragedian's house, whither he went at week-ends and on holidays, was at Elstree, a short distance to the northward of Hampstead: and there he invited Browning, among other friends, to come on the last day of December and spend New Year's Day (1836).[12] When alluding, in after years, to this visit, Browning always spoke of it as one of the red-letter days of his life. It was here he first met Forster, with whom he at once formed what proved to be an enduring friendship; and on this occasion, also, that he was urged by his host to write a poetic play.

[Footnote 11: For many interesting particulars concerning Macready and Browning, and the production of "Strafford," etc., vide the Reminiscences, vol. i.]

[Footnote 12: It was for Macready's eldest boy, William Charles, that Browning wrote one of the most widely popular of his poems, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." It is said to have been an impromptu performance, and to have been so little valued by the author that he hesitated about its inclusion in "Bells and Pomegranates." It was inserted at the last moment, in the third number, which was short of "copy." Some one (anonymous, but whom I take to be Mr. Nettleship) has publicly alluded to his possession of a rival poem (entitled, simply, "Hamelin") by Robert Browning the elder, and of a letter which he had sent to a friend along with the verses, in which he writes: "Before I knew that Robert had begun the story of the 'Rats' I had contemplated a tale on the same subject, and proceeded with it as far as you see, but, on hearing that Robert had a similar one on hand, I desisted." This must have been in 1842, for it was in that year that the third part of Bells and Pomegranates was published. In 1843, however, he finished it. Browning's "Pied Piper" has been translated into French, Russian, Italian, and German. The latter (or one German) version is in prose. It was made in 1880, for a special purpose, and occupied the whole of one number of the local paper of Hameln, which is a quaint townlet in Hanover.]

Browning promised to consider the suggestion. Six weeks later, in company with Forster, with whom he had become intimate, he called upon Macready, to discuss the plot of a tragedy which he had pondered. He told the tragedian how deeply he had been impressed by his performance of "Othello," and how this had deflected his intention from a modern and European to an Oriental and ancient theme. "Browning said that I had bit him by my performance of 'Othello,' and I told him I hoped I should make the blood come." The "blood" had come in the guise of a drama-motive based on the crucial period in the career of Narses, the eunuch-general of Justinian. Macready liked the suggestion, though he demurred to one or two points in the outline: and before Browning left he eagerly pressed him to "go on with 'Narses.'" But whether Browning mistrusted his own interest in the theme, or was dubious as to the success with which Macready would realise his conception, or as to the reception a play of such a nature would win from an auditory no longer reverent of high dramatic ideals, he gave up the idea. Some three months later (May 26th) he enjoyed another eventful evening. It was the night of the first performance of Talfourd's "Ion," and he was among the personal friends of Macready who were invited to the supper at Talfourd's rooms. After the fall of the curtain, Browning, Forster, and other friends sought the tragedian and congratulated him upon the success both of the play and of his impersonation of the chief character. They then adjourned to the house of the author of "Ion." To his surprise and gratification Browning found himself placed next but one to his host, and immediately opposite Macready, who sat between two gentlemen, one calm as a summer evening, and the other with a tempestuous youth dominating his sixty years, whom the young poet at once recognised as Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor. Every one was in good spirits: the host perhaps most of all, who was celebrating his birthday as well as the success of "Ion." Possibly Macready was the only person who felt at all bored—unless it was Landor—for Wordsworth was not, at such a function, an entertaining conversationalist. There is much significance in the succinct entry in Macready's journal concerning the Lake-poet—"Wordsworth, who pinned me." ... When Talfourd rose to propose the toast of "The Poets of England" every one probably expected that Wordsworth would be named to respond. But with a kindly grace the host, after flattering remarks upon the two great men then honouring him by sitting at his table, coupled his toast with the name of the youngest of the poets of England—"Mr. Robert Browning, the author of 'Paracelsus.'" It was a very proud moment for Browning, singled out among that brilliant company: and it is pleasant to know, on the authority of Miss Mitford, who was present, that "he performed his task with grace and modesty," looking, the amiable lady adds, even younger than he was. Perhaps, however, he was prouder still when Wordsworth leaned across the table, and with stately affability said, "I am proud to drink your health, Mr. Browning:" when Landor, also, with a superbly indifferent and yet kindly smile, also raised his glass to his lips in courteous greeting.

Of Wordsworth Browning saw not a little in the ensuing few years, for on the rare visits the elderly poet paid to London, Talfourd never failed to ask the author of "Paracelsus," for whom he had a sincere admiration, to meet the great man. It was not in the nature of things that the two poets could become friends, but though the younger was sometimes annoyed by the elder's pooh-poohing his republican sympathies, and contemptuously waiving aside as a mere nobody no less an individual than Shelley, he never failed of respect and even reverence. With what tenderness and dignity he has commemorated the great poet's falling away from his early ideals, may be seen in "The Lost Leader," one of the most popular of Browning's short poems, and likely to remain so. For several reasons, however, it is best as well as right that Wordsworth should not be more than merely nominally identified with the Lost Leader. Browning was always imperative upon this point.

Towards Landor, on the other hand, he entertained a sentiment of genuine affection, coupled with a profound sympathy and admiration: a sentiment duly reciprocated. The care of the younger for the elder, in the old age of the latter, is one of the most beautiful incidents in a beautiful life.

But the evening was not to pass without another memorable incident, one to which we owe "Strafford," and probably "A Blot on the 'Scutcheon." Just as the young poet, flushed with the triumphant pleasure of the evening, was about to leave, Macready arrested him by a friendly grip of the arm. In unmistakable earnestness he asked Browning to write him a play. With a simplicity equal to the occasion, the poet contented himself with replying, "Shall it be historical and English? What do you say to a drama on Strafford?"

Macready was pleased with the idea, and hopeful that his friend would be more successful with the English statesman than with the eunuch Narses.

A few months elapsed before the poet, who had set aside the long work upon which he was engaged ("Sordello"), called upon Macready with the manuscript of "Strafford." The latter hoped much from it. In March the MS. was ready. About the end of the month Macready took it to Covent Garden Theatre, and read it to Mr. Osbaldiston, "who caught at it with avidity, and agreed to produce it without delay."

It was an eventful first of May—an eventful twelvemonth, indeed, for it was the initial year of the Victorian era, notable, too, as that wherein the Electric Telegraph was established, and, in letters, wherein a new dramatic literature had its origin. For "Strafford," already significant of a novel movement, and destined, it seems to me, to be still more significant in that great dramatic period towards which we are fast converging, was not less important to the Drama in England, as a new departure in method and radically indicative of a fresh standpoint, than "Hernani" was in France. But in literary history the day itself is doubly memorable, for in the forenoon Carlyle gave the first of his lectures in London. The play was a success, despite the shamefully inadequate acting of some of those entrusted with important parts. There was once, perhaps there were more occasions than one, where success poised like the soul of a Mohammedan on the invisible thread leading to Paradise, but on either side of which lies perdition. There was none to cry Timbul save Macready, except Miss Helen Faucit, who gained a brilliant triumph as Lady Carlisle. The part of Charles I. was enacted so execrably that damnation for all was again and again within measurable distance. "The Younger Vane" ranted so that a hiss, like an embodied scorn, vibrated on vagrant wings throughout the house. There was not even any extraneous aid to a fortunate impression. The house was in ill repair: the seats dusty, the "scenery" commonplace and sometimes noticeably inappropriate, the costumes and accessories almost sordid. But in the face of all this, a triumph was secured. For a brief while Macready believed that the star of regeneration had arisen. Unfortunately 'twas, in the words of a contemporary dramatic poet, "a rising sorrow splendidly forlorn." The financial condition of Covent Garden Theatre was so ruinous that not even the most successful play could have restored its doomed fortunes.

After the fifth night one of the leading actors, having received a better offer elsewhere, suddenly withdrew.

This was the last straw. A collapse forthwith occurred. In the scramble for shares in the few remaining funds every one gained something, except the author, who was to have received L12 for each performance for the first twenty-five nights, and, L10 each for ten nights further. This disaster was a deep disappointment to Browning, and a by no means transitory one, for three or four years later he wrote (Advt. of "Bells and Pomegranates"): "Two or three years ago I wrote a play, about which the chief matter I much care to recollect at present is, that a pitful of good-natured people applauded it. Ever since, I have been desirous of doing something in the same way that should better reward their attention." But, except in so far as its abrupt declension from the stage hurt its author in the eyes of the critics, and possibly in those of theatrical managers, "Strafford" was certainly no failure. It has the elements of a great acting play. Everything, even the language (and here was a stumbling-block with most of the critics and criticasters), was subordinated to dramatic exigencies: though the subordination was in conformity with a novel shaping method. "Strafford" was not, however, allowed to remain unknown to those who had been unable to visit Covent Garden Theatre.[13] Browning's name had quite sufficient literary repute to justify a publisher in risking the issue of a drama by him; one, at any rate, that had the advantage of association with Macready's name. The Longmans issued it, and the author had the pleasure of knowing that his third poetic work was not produced at the expense of a relative, but at that of the publishers. It had but an indifferent reception, however.

[Footnote 13: "It is time to deny a statement that has been repeated ad nauseam in every notice that professes to give an account of Mr. Browning's career. Whatever is said or not said, it is always that his plays have 'failed' on the stage. In point of fact, the three plays which he has brought out have all succeeded, and have owed it to fortuitous circumstances that their tenure on the boards has been comparatively short."—E.W. GOSSE, in article in The Century Magazine.]

Most people who saw the performance of "Strafford" given in 1886, under the auspices of the Browning Society, were surprised as well as impressed: for few, apparently, had realised from perusal the power of the play as made manifest when acted. The secret of this is that the drama, when privily read, seems hard if not heavy in its diction, and to be so inornate, though by no means correspondingly simple, as to render any comparison between it and the dramatic work of Shakspere out of the question. But when acted, the artistry of the play is revealed. Its intense naturalness is due in great part to the stern concision of the lines, where no word is wasted, where every sentence is fraught with the utmost it can convey. The outlines which disturbed us by their vagueness become more clear: in a word, we all see in enactment what only a few of us can discern in perusal. The play has its faults, but scarcely those of language, where the diction is noble and rhythmic, because it is, so to speak, the genuine rind of the fruit it envelops. But there are dramatic faults—primarily, in the extreme economy of the author in the presentment of his dramatis personae, who are embodied abstractions—monomaniacs of ideas, as some one has said of Hugo's personages—rather than men as we are, with manifold complexities in endless friction or fusion. One cardinal fault is the lack of humour, which to my mind is the paramount objection to its popular acceptance. Another, is the misproportionate length of some of the speeches. Once again, there is, as in the greater portion of Browning's longer poems and dramas, a baneful equality of emphasis. The conception of Charles I. is not only obviously weak, but strangely prejudiced adversely for so keen an analyst of the soul as Browning. For what a fellow-dramatist calls this "Sunset Shadow of a King," no man or woman could abase every hope and energy. Shakspere would never have committed the crucial mistake of making Charles the despicable deformity he is in Browning's drama. Strafford himself disappears too soon: in the fourth act there is the vacuum abhorred of dramatic propriety.

When he again comes on the scene, the charm is partly broken. But withal the play is one of remarkable vigour and beauty. It seems to me that too much has been written against it on the score of its metrical rudeness. The lines are beat out by a hammer, but in the process they are wrought clear of all needless alloy. To urge, as has been lately urged, that it lacks all human touch and is a mere intellectual fanfaronade, and that there is not once a line of poignant insight, is altogether uncritical. Readers of this mind must have forgotten or be indifferent to those lines, for example, where the wretched Charles stammeringly excuses himself to his loyal minister for his death-warrant, crying out that it was wrung from him, and begging Strafford not to curse him: or, again, that wonderfully significant line, so full of a too tardy knowledge and of concentrated scorn, where Strafford first begs the king to "be good to his children," and then, with a contempt that is almost sublime, implores, "Stay, sir, do not promise, do not swear!" The whole of the second scene in the fifth act is pure genius. The reader, or spectator, knows by this time that all hope is over: that Strafford, though all unaware, is betrayed and undone. It is a subtle dramatic ruse, that of Browning's representing him sitting in his apartment in the Tower with his young children, William and Anne, blithely singing.

Can one read and ever forget the lines giving the gay Italian rhyme, with the boy's picturesquely childish prose-accompaniment? Strafford is seated, weary and distraught:—

"O bell'andare Per barca in mare, Verso la sera Di Primavera!

William. The boat's in the broad moonlight all this while—

Verso la sera Di Primavera!

And the boat shoots from underneath the moon Into the shadowy distance; only still You hear the dipping oar—

Verso la sera,

And faint, and fainter, and then all's quite gone, Music and light and all, like a lost star.

Anne. But you should sleep, father: you were to sleep.

Strafford. I do sleep, Anne; or if not—you must know There's such a thing as ...

William. You're too tired to sleep.

Strafford. It will come by-and-by and all day long, In that old quiet house I told you of: We sleep safe there.

Anne. Why not in Ireland?

Strafford. No! Too many dreams!—"

To me this children's-song and the fleeting and now plaintive echo of it, as "Voices from Within"—"Verso la sera, Di Primavera"—in the terrible scene where Strafford learns his doom, is only to be paralleled by the song of Mariana in "Measure for Measure," wherein, likewise, is abduced in one thrilling poignant strain the quintessential part of the tense life of the whole play.

So much has been written concerning the dramas of Robert Browning—though indeed there is still room for a volume of careful criticism, dealing solely with this theme—that I have the less regret in having so inadequately to pass in review works of such poetic magnitude as those enumerated above.

But it would be impossible, in so small a book as this, to examine them in detail without incurring a just charge of misproportion. The greatness and the shortcomings of the dramas and dramatic poems must be noted as succinctly as practicable; and I have dwelt more liberally upon "Pauline," "Paracelsus," and "Strafford," partly because (certainly without more than one exception, "Sordello") these are the three least read of Browning's poems, partly because they indicate the sweep and reach of his first orient eagle-flight through new morning-skies, and mainly because in them we already find Browning at his best and at his weakest, because in them we hear not only the rush of his sunlit pinions, but also the low earthward surge of dullard wings.

Browning is foreshadowed in his earliest writings, as perhaps no other poet has been to like extent. In the "Venus and Adonis," and the "Rape of Lucrece," we have but the dimmest foreview of the author of "Hamlet," "Othello," and "Macbeth"; had Shakspere died prematurely none could have predicted, from the exquisite blossoms of his adolescence, the immortal fruit of his maturity. But, in Browning's three earliest works, we clearly discern him, as the sculptor of Melos provisioned his Venus in the rough-hewn block.

Thenceforth, to change the imagery, he developed rapidly upon the same lines, or doubled upon himself in intricate revolutions; but already his line of life, his poetic parallel, was definitely established.

In the consideration of Browning's dramas it is needful to be sure of one's vantage for judgment. The first step towards this assurance is the ablation of the chronic Shaksperian comparison. Primarily, the shaping spirit of the time wrought Shakspere and Browning to radically divergent methods of expression, but each to a method in profound harmony with the dominant sentiment of the age in which he lived. Above all others, the Elizabethan era was rich in romantic adventure, of the mind as well as of the body, and above all others, save that of the Renaissance in Italy, animated by a passionate curiosity. So, too, supremely, the Victorian era has been prolific of novel and vast Titanic struggles of the human spirit to reach those Gates of Truth whose lowest steps are the scarce discernible stars and furthest suns we scan, by piling Ossas of searching speculation upon Pelions of hardly-won positive knowledge. The highest exemplar of the former is Shakspere, Browning the profoundest interpreter of the latter. To achieve supremacy the one had to create a throbbing actuality, a world of keenest living, of acts and intervolved situations and episodes: the other to fashion a mentality so passionately alive that its manifold phases should have all the reality of concrete individualities. The one reveals individual life to us by the play of circumstance, the interaction of events, the correlative eduction of personal characteristics: the other by his apprehension of that quintessential movement or mood or phase wherein the soul is transitorily visible on its lonely pinnacle of light. The elder poet reveals life to us by the sheer vividness of his own vision: the younger, by a newer, a less picturesque but more scientific abduction, compels the complex rayings of each soul-star to a singular simplicity, as by the spectrum analysis. The one, again, fulfils his aim by a broad synthesis based upon the vivid observance and selection of vital details: the other by an extraordinary acute psychic analysis. In a word, Shakspere works as with the clay of human action: Browning as with the clay of human thought.

As for the difference in value of the two methods it is useless to dogmatise. The psychic portraiture produced by either is valuable only so far as it is convincingly true.

The profoundest insight cannot reach deeper than its own possibilities of depth. The physiognomy of the soul is never visible in its entirety, barely ever even its profile. The utmost we can expect to reproduce, perhaps even to perceive in the most quintessential moment, is a partially faithful, partially deceptive silhouette. As no human being has ever seen his or her own soul, in all its rounded completeness of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of what is temporal and perishable and what is germinal and essential, how can we expect even the subtlest analyst to adequately depict other souls than his own. It is Browning's high distinction that he has this soul-depictive faculty—restricted as even in his instance it perforce is—to an extent unsurpassed by any other poet, ancient or modern. As a sympathetic critic has remarked, "His stage is not the visible phenomenal England (or elsewhere) of history; it is a point in the spiritual universe, where naked souls meet and wrestle, as they play the great game of life, for counters, the true value of which can only be realised in the bullion of a higher life than this." No doubt there is "a certain crudeness in the manner in which these naked souls are presented," not only in "Strafford" but elsewhere in the plays. Browning markedly has the defects of his qualities.

As part of his method, it should be noted that his real trust is upon monologue rather than upon dialogue. To one who works from within outward—in contradistinction to the Shaksperian method of striving to win from outward forms "the passion and the life whose fountains are within"—the propriety of this dramatic means can scarce be gainsaid. The swift complicated mental machinery can thus be exhibited infinitely more coherently and comprehensibly than by the most electric succinct dialogue. Again and again Browning has nigh foundered in the morass of monologue, but, broadly speaking, he transcends in this dramatic method.

At the same time, none must take it for granted that the author of the "Blot on the 'Scutchcon," "Luria," "In a Balcony," is not dramatic in even the most conventional sense. Above all, indeed—as Mr. Walter Pater has said—his is the poetry of situations. In each of the dramatis personae, one of the leading characteristics is loyalty to a dominant ideal. In Strafford's case it is that of unswerving devotion to the King: in Mildred's and in Thorold's, in the "Blot on the 'Scutcheon," it is that of subservience respectively to conventional morality and family pride (Lord Tresham, it may be added, is the most hopelessly monomaniacal of all Browning's "monomaniacs"): in Valence's, in "Colombe's Birthday," to chivalric love: in Charles, in "King Victor and King Charles," to kingly and filial duty: in Anael's and Djabal's, in "The Return of the Druses," respectively to religion and unscrupulous ambition modified by patriotism: in Chiappino's, in "A Soul's Tragedy," to purely sordid ambition: in Luria's, to noble steadfastness: and in Constance's, in "In a Balcony," to self-denial. Of these plays, "The Return of the Druses" seems to me the most picturesque, "Luria" the most noble and dignified, and "In a Balcony" the most potentially a great dramatic success. The last is in a sense a fragment, but, though the integer of a great unaccomplished drama, is as complete in itself as the Funeral March in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. The "Blot on the 'Scutcheon" has the radical fault characteristic of writers of sensational fiction, a too promiscuous "clearing the ground" by syncope and suicide. Another is the juvenility of Mildred:—a serious infraction of dramatic law, where the mere tampering with history, as in the circumstances of King Victor's death in the earlier play, is at least excusable by high precedent. More disastrous, poetically, is the ruinous banality of Mildred's anticlimax when, after her brother reveals himself as her lover's murderer, she, like the typical young Miss Anglaise of certain French novelists, betrays her incapacity for true passion by exclaiming, in effect, "What, you've murdered my lover! Well, tell me all. Pardon? Oh, well, I pardon you: at least I think I do. Thorold, my dear brother, how very wretched you must be!"

I am unaware if this anticlimax has been pointed out by any one, but surely it is one of the most appalling lapses of genius which could be indicated. Even the beautiful song in the third scene of the first act, "There's a woman like a dew-drop, she's so purer than the purest," is, in the circumstances, nearly over the verge which divides the sublime from the ridiculous. No wonder that, on the night the play was first acted, Mertoun's song, as he clambered to his mistress's window, caused a sceptical laugh to ripple lightly among the tolerant auditory. It is with diffidence I take so radically distinct a standpoint from that of Dickens, who declared he knew no love like that of Mildred and Mertoun, no passion like it, no moulding of a splendid thing after its conception, like it; who, further, at a later date, affirmed that he would rather have written this play than any work of modern times: nor with less reluctance, that I find myself at variance with Mr. Skelton, who speaks of the drama as "one of the most perfectly conceived and perfectly executed tragedies in the language." In the instance of Luria, that second Othello, suicide has all the impressiveness of a plenary act of absolution: the death of Anael seems as inevitable as the flash of lightning after the concussion of thunder-clouds. But Thorold's suicide is mere weakness, scarce a perverted courage; and Mildred's broken heart was an ill not beyond the healing of a morally robust physician. "Colombe's Birthday" has a certain remoteness of interest, really due to the reader's more or less acute perception of the radical divergence, for all Valence's greatness of mind and spirit, between the fair young Duchess and her chosen lover: a circumstance which must surely stand in the way of its popularity. Though "A Soul's Tragedy" has the saving quality of humour, it is of too grim a kind to be provocative of laughter.

In each of these plays[14] the lover of Browning will recall passage after passage of superbly dramatic effect. But supreme in his remembrance will be the wonderful scene in "The Return of the Druses," where the Prefect, drawing a breath of relief, is almost simultaneously assassinated; and that where Anael, with every nerve at tension in her fierce religious resolve, with a poignant, life-surrendering cry, hails Djabal as Hakeem—as Divine—and therewith falls dead at his feet. Nor will he forget that where, in the "Blot on the 'Scutcheon," Mildred, with a dry sob in her throat, stammeringly utters—

"I—I—was so young! Besides I loved him, Thorold—and I had No mother; God forgot me: so I fell——"

or that where, "at end of the disastrous day," Luria takes the phial of poison from his breast, muttering—

"Strange! This is all I brought from my own land To help me."

[Footnote 14: "Strafford," 1837; "King Victor and King Charles," 1842; "The Return of the Druses," and "A Blot on the 'Scutcheon," 1843; "Colombe's Birthday," 1844; "Luria," and "A Soul's Tragedy," 1845.]

Before passing on from these eight plays to Browning's most imperishable because most nearly immaculate dramatic poem, "Pippa Passes," and to "Sordello," that colossal derelict upon the ocean of poetry, I should like—out of an embarrassing quantity of alluring details—to remind the reader of two secondary matters of interest pertinent to the present theme. One is that the song in "A Blot on the 'Scutcheon," "There's a woman like a dew-drop," written several years before the author's meeting with Elizabeth Barrett, is so closely in the style of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," and other ballads by the sweet singer who afterwards became a partner in the loveliest marriage of which we have record in literary history, that, even were there nothing to substantiate the fact, it were fair to infer that Mertoun's song to Mildred was the electric touch which compelled to its metric shape one of Mrs. Browning's best-known poems.

The further interest lies in the lordly acknowledgment of the dedication to him of "Luria," which Landor sent to Browning—lines pregnant with the stateliest music of his old age:—

"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 enquiring 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."


In my allusion to "Pippa Passes," towards the close of the preceding chapter, as the most imperishable because the most nearly immaculate of Browning's dramatic poems, I would not have it understood that its pre-eminence is considered from the standpoint of technical achievement, of art, merely. It seems to me, like all simple and beautiful things, profound enough for the searching plummet of the most curious explorer of the depths of life. It can be read, re-read, learned by heart, and the more it is known the wider and more alluring are the avenues of imaginative thought which it discloses. It has, more than any other long composition by its author, that quality of symmetry, that symmetria prisca recorded of Leonardo da Vinci in the Latin epitaph of Platino Piatto; and, as might be expected, its mental basis, what Rossetti called fundamental brain-work, is as luminous, depth within depth, as the morning air. By its side, the more obviously "profound" poems, Bishop Blougram and the rest, are mere skilled dialectics.

The art that is most profound and most touching must ever be the simplest. Whenever AEschylus, Dante, Shakspere, Milton, are at white heat they require no exposition, but meditation only—the meditation akin to the sentiment of little children who listen, intent upon every syllable, and passionately eager of soul, to hearth-side tragedies. The play of genius is like the movement of the sea. It has its solemn rhythm: its joy, irradiate of the sun; its melancholy, in the patient moonlight: its surge and turbulence under passing tempests: below all, the deep oceanic music. There are, of course, many to whom the sea is but a waste of water, at best useful as a highway and as the nursery of the winds and rains. For them there is no hint "of the incommunicable dream" in the curve of the rising wave, no murmur of the oceanic undertone in the short leaping sounds, invisible things that laugh and clap their hands for joy and are no more. To them it is but a desert: obscure, imponderable, a weariness. The "profundity" of Browning, so dear a claim in the eyes of the poet's fanatical admirers, exists, in their sense, only in his inferior work. There is more profound insight in Blake's Song of Innocence, "Piping down the valleys wild," or in Wordsworth's line, "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears," or in Keats' single verse, "There is a budding morrow in midnight," or in this quatrain on Poetry, by a young living poet—

"She comes like the husht beauty of the night, But sees too deep for laughter; Her touch is a vibration and a light From worlds before and after—"

there is more "profundity" in any of these than in libraries of "Sludge the Medium" literature. Mere hard thinking does not involve profundity, any more than neurotic excitation involves spiritual ecstasy. De profundis, indeed, must the poet come: there must the deep rhythm of life have electrified his "volatile essence" to a living rhythmic joy. In this deep sense, and this only, the poet is born, not made. He may learn to fashion anew that which he hath seen: the depth of his insight depends upon the depth of his spiritual heritage. If wonder dwell not in his eyes and soul there can be no "far ken" for him. Here it seems apt to point out that Browning was the first writer of our day to indicate this transmutive, this inspired and inspiring wonder-spirit, which is the deepest motor in the evolution of our modern poetry. Characteristically, he puts his utterance into the mouth of a dreamy German student, the shadowy Schramm who is but metaphysics embodied, metaphysics finding apt expression in tobacco-smoke: "Keep but ever looking, whether with the body's eye or the mind's, and you will soon find something to look on! Has a man done wondering at women?—there follow men, dead and alive, to wonder at. Has he done wondering at men?—there's God to wonder at: and the faculty of wonder may be, at the same time, old and tired enough with respect to its first object, and yet young and fresh sufficiently, so far as concerns its novel one."

This wonder is akin to that 'insanity' of the poet which is but impassioned sanity. Plato sums the matter when he says, "He who, having no touch of the Muse's madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks he will get into the temple by the help of Art—he, I say, and his poetry, are not admitted."

In that same wood beyond Dulwich to which allusion has already been made, the germinal motive of "Pippa Passes" flashed upon the poet. No wonder this resort was for long one of his sacred places, and that he lamented its disappearance as fervently as Ruskin bewailed the encroachment of the ocean of bricks and mortar upon the wooded privacies of Denmark Hill.

Save for a couple of brief visits abroad, Browning spent the years, between his first appearance as a dramatic writer and his marriage, in London and the neighbourhood. Occasionally he took long walks into the country. One particular pleasure was to lie beside a hedge, or deep in meadow-grasses, or under a tree, as circumstances and the mood concurred, and there to give himself up so absolutely to the life of the moment that even the shy birds would alight close by, and sometimes venturesomely poise themselves on suspicious wings for a brief space upon his recumbent body. I have heard him say that his faculty of observation at that time would not have appeared despicable to a Seminole or an Iroquois: he saw and watched everything, the bird on the wing, the snail dragging its shell up the pendulous woodbine, the bee adding to his golden treasure as he swung in the bells of the campanula, the green fly darting hither and thither like an animated seedling, the spider weaving her gossamer from twig to twig, the woodpecker heedfully scrutinising the lichen on the gnarled oak-hole, the passage of the wind through leaves or across grass, the motions and shadows of the clouds, and so forth. These were his golden holidays. Much of the rest of his time, when not passed in his room in his father's house, where he wrote his dramas and early poems, and studied for hours daily, was spent in the Library of the British Museum, in an endless curiosity into the more or less unbeaten tracks of literature. These London experiences were varied by whole days spent at the National Gallery, and in communion with kindred spirits. At one time he had rooms, or rather a room, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Strand, whither he could go when he wished to be in town continuously for a time, or when he had any social or theatrical engagement.

Browning's life at this period was distraught by more than one episode of the heart. It would be strange were it otherwise. He had in no ordinary degree a rich and sensuous nature, and his responsiveness was so quick that the barriers of prudence were apt to be as shadowy to him as to the author of "The Witch of Atlas." But he was the earnest student for the most part, and, above all, the poet. His other pleasure, in his happy vagrant days, was to join company with any tramps, gipsies, or other wayfarers, and in good fellowship gain much knowledge of life that was useful at a later time. Rustic entertainments, particularly peripatetic "Theatres Royal," had a singular fascination for him, as for that matter had rustic oratory, whether of the alehouse or the pulpit. At one period he took the keenest interest in sectaries of all kinds: and often he incurred a gentle reproof from his mother because of his nomad propensities in search of "pastors new." There was even a time when he seriously deliberated whether he should not combine literature and religious ministry, as Faraday combined evangelical fervour with scientific enthusiasm. "'Twas a girl with eyes like two dreams of night" that saved him from himself, and defrauded the Church Independent of a stalwart orator.

It was, as already stated, while he strolled through Dulwich Wood one day that the thought occurred to him which was to find development and expression in "Pippa Passes." "The image flashed upon him," writes his intimate friend, Mrs. Sutherland Orr, "of some one walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it; and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo, Felippa or Pippa."

It has always seemed to me a radical mistake to include "Pippa Passes" among Browning's dramas. Not only is it absolutely unactable, but essentially undramatic in the conventional sense. True dramatic writing concerns itself fundamentally with the apt conjunction of events, and the more nearly it approximates to the verity of life the more likely is it to be of immediate appeal. There is a vraie verite which only the poet, evolving from dramatic concepts rather than attempting to concentrate these in a quick, moving verisimilitude, can attempt. The passing hither and thither of Pippa, like a beneficent Fate, a wandering chorus from a higher amid the discordant medley of a lower world, changing the circumstances and even the natures of certain more or less heedless listeners by the wild free lilt of her happy song of innocence, is of this vraie verite. It is so obviously true, spiritually, that it is unreal in the commonplace of ordinary life. Its very effectiveness is too apt for the dramatist, who can ill afford to tamper further with the indifferent banalities of actual existence. The poet, unhampered by the exigencies of dramatic realism, can safely, and artistically, achieve an equally exact, even a higher verisimilitude, by means which are, or should be, beyond adoption by the dramatist proper.

But over and above any 'nice discrimination,' "Pippa Passes" is simply a poem, a lyrical masque with interspersed dramatic episodes, and subsidiary interludes in prose. The suggestion recently made that it should be acted is a wholly errant one. The finest part of it is unrepresentable. The rest would consist merely of a series of tableaux, with conversational accompaniment.

The opening scene, "the large mean airy chamber," where Pippa, the little silk-winder from the mills at Asolo, springs from bed, on her New Year's Day festa, and soliloquises as she dresses, is as true as it is lovely when viewed through the rainbow glow of the poetic atmosphere: but how could it succeed on the stage? It is not merely that the monologue is too long: it is too inapt, in its poetic richness, for its purpose. It is the poet, not Pippa, who evokes this sweet sunrise-music, this strain of the "long blue solemn hours serenely flowing." The dramatic poet may occupy himself with that deeper insight, and the wider expression of it, which is properly altogether beyond the scope of the playwright. In a word, he may irradiate his theme with the light that never was on sea or land, nor will he thereby sacrifice aught of essential truth: but his comrade must see to it that he is content with the wide liberal air of the common day. The poetic alchemist may turn a sword into pure gold: the playwright will concern himself with the due usage of the weapon as we know it, and attribute to it no transcendent value, no miraculous properties. What is permissible to Blake, painting Adam and Eve among embowering roses and lilies, while the sun, moon, and stars simultaneously shine, is impermissible to the portrait-painter or the landscapist, who has to idealise actuality to the point only of artistic realism, and not to transmute it at the outset from happily-perceived concrete facts to a glorified abstract concept.

In this opening monologue the much-admired song, "All service ranks the same with God," is no song at all, properly, but simply a beautiful short poem. From the dramatist's point of view, could anything be more shaped for disaster than the second of the two stanzas?—

"Say not 'a small event!' Why 'small'? Costs it more pain than this, ye call A 'great event,' should come to pass, Than that? Untwine me from the mass Of deeds which make up life, one deed Power shall fall short in or exceed!"

The whole of this lovely prologue is the production of a dramatic poet, not of a poet writing a drama. On the other hand, I cannot agree with what I read somewhere recently—that Sebald's song, at the opening of the most superb dramatic writing in the whole range of Victorian literature, is, in the circumstances, wholly inappropriate. It seems to me entirely consistent with the character of Ottima's reckless lover. He is akin to the gallant in one of Dumas' romances, who lingered atop of the wall of the prison whence he was escaping in order to whistle the concluding bar of a blithe chanson of freedom. What is, dramatically, disastrous in the instance of Mertoun singing "There's a woman like a dewdrop," when he ought to be seeking Mildred's presence in profound stealth and silence, is, dramatically, electrically startling in the mouth of Sebald, among the geraniums of the shuttered shrub-house, where he has passed the night with Ottima, while her murdered husband lies stark in the adjoining room.

It must, however, be borne in mind that this thrilling dramatic effect is fully experienced only in retrospection, or when there is knowledge of what is to follow.

A conclusive objection to the drama as an actable play is that three of the four main episodes are fragmentary. We know nothing of the fate of Luigi: we can but surmise the future of Jules and Phene: we know not how or when Monsignor will see Pippa righted. Ottima and Sebald reach a higher level in voluntary death than they ever could have done in life.

It is quite unnecessary, here, to dwell upon this exquisite flower of genius in detail. Every one who knows Browning at all knows "Pippa Passes." Its lyrics have been unsurpassed, for birdlike spontaneity and a rare high music, by any other Victorian poet: its poetic insight is such as no other poet than the author of "The Ring and the Book" and "The Inn Album" can equal. Its technique, moreover, is superb. From the outset of the tremendous episode of Ottima and Sebald, there is a note of tragic power which is almost overwhelming. Who has not known what Jakob Boehme calls "the shudder of a divine excitement" when Luca's murderer replies to his paramour,

"morning? It seems to me a night with a sun added."

How deep a note, again, is touched when Sebald exclaims, in allusion to his murder of Luca, that he was so "wrought upon," though here, it may be, there is an unconscious reminiscence of the tenser and more culminative cry of Othello, "but being wrought, perplext in the extreme." Still more profound a touch is that where Ottima, daring her lover to the "one thing that must be done; you know what thing: Come in and help to carry," says, with affected lightsomeness, "This dusty pane might serve for looking-glass," and simultaneously exclaims, as she throws them rejectingly from her nervous fingers, "Three, four—four grey hairs!" then with an almost sublime coquetry of horror turns abruptly to Sebald, saying with a voice striving vainly to be blithe—

"Is it so you said A plait of hair should wave across my neck? No—this way."

Who has not been moved by the tragic grandeur of the verse, as well as by the dramatic intensity of the episode of the lovers' "crowning night"?

"Ottima. The day of it too, Sebald! When heaven's pillars seemed o'erbowed with heat, Its black-blue canopy suffered descend Close on us both, to weigh down each to each, And smother up all life except our life. So lay we till the storm came.

Sebald. How it came!

Ottima. Buried in woods we lay, you recollect; Swift ran the searching tempest overhead; And ever and anon some bright white shaft Burned thro' the pine-tree roof, here burned and there, As if God's messenger thro' the close wood screen Plunged and replunged his weapon at a venture, Feeling for guilty thee and me: then broke The thunder like a whole sea overhead ——"

Surely there is nothing in all our literature more poignantly dramatic than this first part of "Pippa Passes." The strains which Pippa sings here and throughout are as pathetically fresh and free as a thrush's song in the heart of a beleaguered city, and as with the same unconsidered magic. There is something of the mavis-note, liquid falling tones, caught up in a moment in joyous caprice, in

"Give her but a least excuse to love me! When—where——"

No one of these songs, all acutely apt to the time and the occasion, has a more overwhelming effect than that which interrupts Ottima and Sebald at the perilous summit of their sin, beyond which lies utter darkness, behind which is the narrow twilit backward way.

"Ottima. Bind it thrice about my brow; Crown me your queen, your spirit's arbitress, Magnificent in sin. Say that!

Sebald. I crown you My great white queen, my spirit's arbitress, Magnificent..

[From without is heard the voice of PIPPA singing—]

The year's at the spring, And day's at the morn; Morning's at seven; The hill-side's dew-pearled; The lark's on the wing; The snail's on the thorn: God's in his heaven— All's right with the world! [PIPPA passes,

Sebald. God's in his heaven! Do you hear that? Who spoke?"

This sweet voice of Pippa reaches the guilty lovers, reaches Luigi in his tower, hesitating between love and patriotic duty, reaches Jules and Phene when all the happiness of their unborn years trembles in the balance, reaches the Prince of the Church just when his conscience is sore beset by a seductive temptation, reaches one and all at a crucial moment in the life of each. The ethical lesson of the whole poem is summed up in

"All service ranks the same with God— With God, whose puppets, best and worst, Are we: there is no last nor first,"

and in

"God's in his heaven— All's right with the world!"

"With God there is no lust of Godhood," says Rossetti in "Hand and Soul": Und so ist der blaue Himmel grosser als jedes Gewoelk darin, und dauerhafter dazu, meditates Jean Paul: "There can be nothing good, as we know it, nor anything evil, as we know it, in the eye of the Omnipresent and the Omniscient," utters the Oriental mystic.

It is interesting to know that many of the nature touches were indirectly due to the poet's solitary rambles, by dawn, sundown, and "dewy eve," in the wooded districts south of Dulwich, at Hatcham, and upon Wimbledon Common, whither he was often wont to wander and to ramble for hours, and where he composed one day the well-known lines upon Shelley, with many another unrecorded impulse of song. Here, too, it was, that Carlyle, riding for exercise, was stopped by 'a beautiful youth,' who introduced himself as one of the philosopher's profoundest admirers.

It was from the Dulwich wood that, one afternoon in March, he saw a storm glorified by a double rainbow of extraordinary beauty; a memorable vision, recorded in an utterance of Luigi to his mother: here too that, in autumnal dusks, he saw many a crescent moon with "notched and burning rim." He never forgot the bygone "sunsets and great stars" he saw in those days of his fervid youth. Browning remarked once that the romance of his life was in his own soul; and on another occasion I heard him smilingly add, to some one's vague assertion that in Italy only was there any romance left, "Ah, well, I should like to include poor old Camberwell!" Perhaps he was thinking of his lines in "Pippa Passes," of the days when that masterpiece came ebullient from the fount of his genius—

"May's warm slow yellow moonlit summer nights— Gone are they, but I have them in my soul!"

There is all the distinction between "Pippa Passes" and "Sordello" that there is between the Venus of Milos and a gigantic Theban Sphinx. The latter is, it is true, proportionate in its vastness; but the symmetry of mere bulk is not the symmetria prisca of ideal sculpture. I have already alluded to "Sordello" as a derelict upon the ocean of poetry. This, indeed, it still seems to me, notwithstanding the well-meaning suasion of certain admirers of the poem who have hoped "I should do it justice," thereby meaning that I should eulogise it as a masterpiece. It is a gigantic effort, of a kind; so is the sustained throe of a wrestling Titan. That the poem contains much which is beautiful is undeniable, also that it is surcharged with winsome and profound thoughts and a multitude of will-o'-the-wisp-like fancies which all shape towards high thinking.

But it is monotonous as one of the enormous American inland seas to a lover of the ocean, to whom the salt brine is as the breath of delight. The fatal facility of the heroic couplet to lapse into diffuseness, has, coupled with a warped anxiety for irreducible concision, been Browning's ruin here.

There is one charge even yet too frequently made against "Sordello," that of "obscurity." Its interest may be found remote, its treatment verbose, its intricacies puzzling to those unaccustomed to excursions from the familiar highways of old usage, but its motive thought is not obscure. It is a moonlit plain compared with the "silva oscura" of the "Divina Commedia."

Surely this question of Browning's obscurity was expelled to the Limbo of Dead Stupidities when Mr. Swinburne, in periods as resplendent as the whirling wheels of Phoebus Apollo's chariot, wrote his famous incidental passage in his "Essay on Chapman."

Too probably, in the dim disintegrating future which will reduce all our o'ertoppling extremes, "Sordello" will be as little read as "The Faerie Queene," and, similarly, only for the gleam of the quenchless lamps amid its long deserted alleys and stately avenues. Sadly enough, for to poets it will always be an unforgotten land—a continent with amaranth-haunted Vales of Tempe, where, as Spenser says in one of the Aeclogues of "The Shepherd's Calendar," they will there oftentimes "sitten as drouned in dreme."

It has, for those who are not repelled, a charm all its own. I know of no other poem in the language which is at once so wearisome and so seductive. How can one explain paradoxes? There is a charm, or there is none: that is what it amounts to, for each individual. Tutti ga, i so gusti, e mi go i mii—"everybody follows his taste, and I follow mine," as the Venetian saying, quoted by Browning at the head of his Rawdon Brown sonnet, has it.

All that need be known concerning the framework of "Sordello," and of the real Sordello himself, will be found in the various Browning hand-books, in Mr. Nettleship's and other dissertations, and, particularly, in Mrs. Ball's most circumspect and able historical essay. It is sufficient here to say that while the Sordello and Palma of the poet are traceable in the Cunizza and the strange comet-like Sordello of the Italian and Provencal Chronicles (who has his secure immortality, by Dante set forth in leonine guise—a guisa di leon quando si posa—in the "Purgatorio"), both these are the most shadowy of prototypes. The Sordello of Browning is a typical poetic soul: the narrative of the incidents in the development of this soul is adapted to the historical setting furnished by the aforesaid Chronicles. Sordello is a far more profound study than Aprile in "Paracelsus," in whom, however, he is obviously foreshadowed. The radical flaw in his nature is that indicated by Goethe of Heine, that "he had no heart." The poem is the narrative of his transcendent aspirations, and more or less futile accomplishment.

It would be vain to attempt here any adequate excerption of lines of singular beauty. Readers familiar with the poem will recall passage after passage—among which there is probably none more widely known than the grandiose sunset lines:—

"That autumn eve was stilled: A last remains of sunset dimly burned O'er the far forests,—like a torch-flame turned By the wind back upon its bearer's hand In one long flare of crimson; as a brand, The woods beneath lay black." ...

What haunting lines there are, every here and there—such as those of Palma, with her golden hair like spilt sunbeams, or those on Elys, with her

"Few fine locks Coloured like honey oozed from topmost rocks Sun-blanched the livelong summer," ...

or these,

"Day by day New pollen on the lily-petal grows, And still more labyrinthine buds the rose——"

or, once more,

"A touch divine— And the sealed eyeball owns the mystic rod; Visibly through his garden walketh God——"

But, though sorely tempted, I must not quote further, save only the concluding lines of the unparalleled and impassioned address to Dante:—

"Dante, pacer of the shore Where glutted hell disgorgeth filthiest gloom, Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume, Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope Into a darkness quieted by hope; Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God's eye In gracious twilights where his chosen lie——" * * * * *

It is a fair land, for those who have lingered in its byways: but, alas, a troubled tide of strange metres, of desperate rhythms, of wild conjunctions, of panic-stricken collocations, oftentimes overwhelms it. "Sordello" grew under the poet's fashioning till, like the magic vapour of the Arabian wizard, it passed beyond his control, "voluminously vast."

It is not the truest admirers of what is good in it who will refuse to smile at the miseries of conscientious but baffled readers. Who can fail to sympathise with Douglas Jerrold when, slowly convalescent from a serious illness, he found among some new books sent him by a friend a copy of "Sordello." Thomas Powell, writing in 1849, has chronicled the episode. A few lines, he says, put Jerrold in a state of alarm. Sentence after sentence brought no consecutive thought to his brain. At last the idea occurred to him that in his illness his mental faculties had been wrecked. The perspiration rolled from his forehead, and smiting his head he sank back on the sofa, crying, "O God, I am an idiot!" A little later, adds Powell, when Jerrold's wife and sister entered, he thrust "Sordello" into their hands, demanding what they thought of it. He watched them intently while they read. When at last Mrs. Jerrold remarked, "I don't understand what this man means; it is gibberish," her delighted husband gave a sigh of relief and exclaimed, "Thank God, I am not an idiot!"

Many friends of Browning will remember his recounting this incident almost in these very words, and his enjoyment therein: though he would never admit justification for such puzzlement.

But more illustrious personages than Douglas Jerrold were puzzled by the poem. Lord Tennyson manfully tackled it, but he is reported to have admitted in bitterness of spirit: "There were only two lines in it that I understood, and they were both lies; they were the opening and closing lines, 'Who will may hear Sordello's story told,' and 'Who would has heard Sordello's story told!'" Carlyle was equally candid: "My wife," he writes, "has read through 'Sordello' without being able to make out whether 'Sordello' was a man, or a city, or a book."

In an article on this poem, in a French magazine, M. Odysse Barot quotes a passage where the poet says "God gave man two faculties"—and adds, "I wish while He was about it (pendant qu'il etait en train) God had supplied another—viz., the power of understanding Mr. Browning."

And who does not remember the sad experience of generous and delightful Gilead P. Beck, in "The Golden Butterfly": how, after "Fifine at the Fair," frightful symptoms set in, till in despair he took up "Red Cotton Nightcap Country," and fell for hours into a dull comatose misery. "His eyes were bloodshot, his hair was pushed in disorder about his head, his cheeks were flushed, his hands were trembling, the nerves in his face were twitching. Then he arose, and solemnly cursed Robert Browning. And then he took all his volumes, and, disposing them carefully in the fireplace, set light to them. 'I wish,' he said, 'that I could put the poet there too.'" One other anecdote of the kind was often, with evident humorous appreciation, recounted by the poet. On his introduction to the Chinese Ambassador, as a "brother-poet," he asked that dignitary what kind of poetic expression he particularly affected. The great man deliberated, and then replied that his poetry might be defined as "enigmatic." Browning at once admitted his fraternal kinship.

That he was himself aware of the shortcomings of "Sordello" as a work of art is not disputable. In 1863, Mrs. Orr says, he considered the advisability of "rewriting it in a more transparent manner, but concluded that the labour would be disproportionate to the result, and contented himself with summarising the contents of each 'book' in a continuous heading, which represents the main thread of the story."

The essential manliness of Browning is evident in the famous dedication to the French critic Milsand, who was among his early admirers. "My own faults of expression were many; but with care for a man or book such would be surmounted, and without it what avails the faultlessness of either? I blame nobody, least of all myself, who did my best then and since."

Whatever be the fate of "Sordello," one thing pertinent to it shall survive: the memorable sentence in the dedicatory preface—"My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study."

The poem has disastrous faults, but is a magnificent failure. "Vast as night," to borrow a simile from Victor Hugo, but, like night, innumerously starred.


"Pippa Passes," "The Ring and the Book," "The Inn Album," these are Browning's three great dramatic poems, as distinct from his poetic plays. All are dramas in the exact sense, though the three I have named are dramas for mental and not for positive presentation. Each reader must embody for himself the images projected on his brain by the electric quality of the poet's genius: within the ken of his imagination he may perceive scenes not less moving, incidents not less thrilling, complexities of motive and action not less intricately involved, than upon the conventional stage.

The first is a drama of an idea, the second of the immediate and remote consequences of a single act, the third of the tyranny of the passions.

I understand the general opinion among lovers and earnest students of Browning's poetry to be that the highest peaks of his genius tower from the vast tableland of "The Ring and the Book"; that thenceforth there was declension. But Browning is not to be measured by common estimates. It is easy to indicate, in the instances of many poets, just where the music reaches its sweetest, its noblest, just where the extreme glow wanes, just where the first shadows come leaping like greyhounds, or steal almost imperceptibly from slow-closing horizons.

But with Browning, as with Shakspere, as with Victor Hugo, it is difficult for our vision to penetrate the glow irradiating the supreme heights of accomplishment. Like Balzac, like Shakspere again, he has revealed to us a territory so vast, that while we bow down before the sun westering athwart distant Andes, the gold of sunrise is already flashing behind us, upon the shoulder of Atlas.

It is certain that "The Ring and the Book" is unique. Even Goethe's masterpiece had its forerunners, as in Marlowe's "Faustus," and its ambitious offspring, as in Bailey's "Festus." But is it a work of art? Here is the only vital question which at present concerns us.

It is altogether useless to urge, as so many admirers of Browning do, that "The Ring and the Book" is as full of beauties as the sea is of waves. Undeniably it is, having been written in the poet's maturity. But, to keep to the simile, has this epical poem the unity of ocean? Does it consist of separate seas, or is it really one, as the wastes which wash from Arctic to Antarctic, through zones temperate and equatorial, are yet one and indivisible? If it have not this unity it is still a stupendous accomplishment, but it is not a work of art. And though art is but the handmaiden of genius, what student of Comparative Literature will deny that nothing has survived the ruining breath of Time—not any intellectual greatness nor any spiritual beauty, that is not clad in perfection, be it absolute or relative—for relative perfection there is, despite the apparent paradox.

The mere bulk of "The Ring and the Book" is, in point of art, nothing. One day, after the publication of this poem, Carlyle hailed the author with enthusiastic praise in which lurked damning irony: "What a wonderful fellow you are, Browning: you have written a whole series of 'books' about what could be summed up in a newspaper paragraph!" Here, Carlyle was at once right and wrong. The theme, looked at dispassionately, is unworthy of the monument in which it is entombed for eternity. But the poet looked upon the central incident as the inventive mechanician regards the tiny pivot remote amid the intricate maze of his machinery. Here, as elsewhere, Browning's real subject is too often confounded with the accidents of the subject. His triumph is not that he has created so huge a literary monument, but rather that, notwithstanding its bulk, he has made it shapely and impressive. Stress has frequently been laid on the greatness of the achievement in the writing of twelve long poems in the exposition of one theme. Again, in point of art, what significance has this? None. There is no reason why it should not have been in nine or eleven parts; no reason why, having been demonstrated in twelve, it should not have been expanded through fifteen or twenty. Poetry ever looks askance at that gipsy-cousin of hers, "Tour-de-force."

Of the twelve parts—occupying in all about twenty-one thousand lines—the most notable as poetry are those which deal with the plea of the implicated priest, Caponsacchi, with the meditation of the Pope, and with the pathetic utterance of Pompilia. It is not a dramatic poem in the sense that "Pippa Passes" is, for its ten Books (the first and twelfth are respectively introductory and appendical) are monologues. "The Ring and the Book," in a word, consists, besides the two extraneous parts, of ten monodramas, which are as ten huge facets to a poetic Koh-i-Noor.

The square little Italian volume, in its yellow parchment and with its heavy type, which has now found a haven in Oxford, was picked up by Browning for a lira (about eightpence), on a second-hand bookstall in the Piazza San Lorenzo at Florence, one June day, 1865. Therein is set forth, in full detail, all the particulars of the murder of his wife Pompilia, for her supposed adultery, by a certain Count Guido Franceschini; and of that noble's trial, sentence, and doom. It is much the same subject matter as underlies the dramas of Webster, Ford, and other Elizabethan poets, but subtlety of insight rather than intensity of emotion and situation distinguishes the Victorian dramatist from his predecessors. The story fascinated Browning, who, having in this book and elsewhere mastered all the details, conceived the idea of writing the history of the crime in a series of monodramatic revelations on the part of the individuals more or less directly concerned. The more he considered the plan the more it shaped itself to a great accomplishment, and early in 1866 he began the most ambitious work of his life.

An enthusiastic admirer has spoken of the poem as "one of the most extraordinary feats of which we have any record in literature." But poetry is not mental gymnastics. All this insistence upon "extraordinary feats" is to be deprecated: it presents the poet as Hercules, not as Apollo: in a word, it is not criticism. The story is one of vulgar fraud and crime, romantic to us only because the incidents occurred in Italy, in the picturesque Rome and Arezzo of two centuries ago. The old bourgeois couple, Pietro and Violante Comparini, manage to wed their thirteen-year-old putative daughter to a middle-aged noble of Arezzo. They expect the exquisite repute of an aristocratic connection, and other tangible advantages. He, impoverished as he is, looks for a splendid dowry. No one thinks of the child-wife, Pompilia. She becomes the scapegoat, when the gross selfishness of the contracting parties stands revealed. Count Guido has a genius for domestic tyranny. Pompilia suffers. When she is about to become a mother she determines to leave her husband, whom she now dreads as well as dislikes. Since the child is to be the inheritor of her parents' wealth, she will not leave it to the tender mercies of Count Guido. A young priest, a canon of Arezzo, Giuseppe Caponsacchi, helps her to escape. In due course she gives birth to a son. She has scarce time to learn the full sweetness of her maternity ere she is done to death like a trampled flower. Guido, who has held himself thrall to an imperative patience, till his hold upon the child's dowry should be secure, hires four assassins, and in the darkness of night betakes himself to Rome. He and his accomplices enter the house of Pietro Comparini and his wife, and, not content with slaying them, also murders Pompilia. But they are discovered, and Guido is caught red-handed. Pompilia's evidence alone is damnatory, for she was not slain outright, and lingers long enough to tell her story. Franceschini is not foiled yet, however. His plea is that he simply avenged the wrong done to him by his wife's adulterous connection with the priest Caponsacchi. But even in the Rome of that evil day justice was not extinct. Guido's motive is proved to be false; he himself is condemned to death. An appeal to the Pope is futile. Finally, the wretched man pays the too merciful penalty of his villainy.

There is nothing grand, nothing noble here: at most only a tragic pathos in the fate of the innocent child-wife Pompilia. It is clear, therefore, that the greatness of "The Ring and the Book" must depend even less upon its subject, its motive, than upon its being "an extraordinary feat" in the gymnastics of verse.

In a sense, Browning's longest work is akin to that of his wife. Both "The Ring and the Book" and "Aurora Leigh" are metrical novels. The one is discursive in episodes and spiritual experiences: the other in intricacies of evidence. But there the parallel ends. If "The Ring and the Book" were deflowered of its blooms of poetry and rendered into a prose narrative, it might interest a barrister "getting up" a criminal case, but it would be much inferior to, say, "The Moonstone"; its author would be insignificant beside the ingenious M. Gaboriau. The extraordinariness of the feat would then be but indifferently commented upon.

As neither its subject, nor its extraordinariness as a feat, nor its method, will withstand a searching examination, we must endeavour to discern if transcendent poetic merit be discoverable in the treatment. To arrive at a just estimate it is needful to free the mind not merely from preconceptions, but from that niggardliness of insight which can perceive only the minor flaws and shortcomings almost inevitable to any vast literary achievement, and be blind to the superb merits. One must prepare oneself to listen to a new musician, with mind and body alert to the novel harmonies, and oblivious of what other musicians have done or refrained from doing.

"The Ring and the Book," as I have said, was not begun in the year of its imagining.[15] It is necessary to anticipate the biographical narrative, and state that the finding of the parchment-booklet happened in the fourth year of the poet's widowerhood, for his happy married period of less than fifteen years came to a close in 1861.

[Footnote 15: The title is explained as follows:—"The story of the Franceschini case, as Mr. Browning relates it, forms a circle of evidence to its one central truth; and this circle was constructed in the manner in which the worker in Etruscan gold prepares the ornamental circlet which will be worn as a ring. The pure metal is too soft to bear hammer or file; it must be mixed with alloy to gain the necessary power of resistance. The ring once formed and embossed, the alloy is disengaged, and a pure gold ornament remains. Mr. Browning's material was also inadequate to his purpose, though from a different cause. It was too hard. It was 'pure crude fact,' secreted from the fluid being of the men and women whose experience it had formed. In its existing state it would have broken up under the artistic attempt to weld and round it. He supplied an alloy, the alloy of fancy, or—as he also calls it—of one fact more: this fact being the echo of those past existences awakened within his own. He breathed into the dead record the breath of his own life; and when his ring of evidence had re-formed, first in elastic then in solid strength, here delicately incised, there broadly stamped with human thought and passion, he could cast fancy aside, and bid his readers recognise in what he set before them unadulterated human truth."—Mrs. Orr.]

On the afternoon of the day on which he made his purchase he read the book from end to end. "A Spirit laughed and leapt through every limb." The midsummer heats had caused thunder-clouds to congregate above Vallombrosa and the whole valley of Arno: and the air in Florence was painfully sultry. The poet stood by himself on his terrace at Casa Guidi, and as he watched the fireflies wandering from the enclosed gardens, and the sheet-lightnings quivering through the heated atmosphere, his mind was busy in refashioning the old tale of loveless marriage and crime.

"Beneath I' the street, quick shown by openings of the sky When flame fell silently from cloud to cloud, Richer than that gold snow Jove rained on Rhodes, The townsmen walked by twos and threes, and talked, Drinking the blackness in default of air— A busy human sense beneath my feet: While in and out the terrace-plants, and round One branch of tall datura, waxed and waned The lamp-fly lured there, wanting the white flower."

Scene by scene was re-enacted, though of course only in certain essential details. The final food for the imagination was found in a pamphlet of which he came into possession of in London, where several important matters were given which had no place in the volume he had picked up in Florence.

Much, far the greater part, of the first "book" is—interesting! It is mere verse. As verse, even, it is often so involved, so musicless occasionally, so banal now and again, so inartistic in colour as well as in form, that one would, having apprehended its explanatory interest, pass on without regret, were it not for the noble close—the passionate, out-welling lines to "the truest poet I have ever known," the beautiful soul who had given her all to him, whom, but four years before he wrote these words, he had laid to rest among the cypresses and ilexes of the old Florentine garden of the dead.

"O lyric Love, half angel and half bird And all a wonder and a wild desire,— Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun, Took sanctuary within the holier blue, And sang a kindred soul out to his face,— Yet human at the red-ripe of the heart— When the first summons from the darkling earth Reached thee amid thy chambers, blanched their blue, And bared them of the glory—to drop down, To toil for man, to suffer or to die,— This is the same voice: can thy soul know change? Hail then, and hearken from the realms of help! Never may I commence my song, my due To God who best taught song by gift of thee, Except, with bent head and beseeching hand— That still, despite the distance and the dark, What was, again may be; some interchange Of grace, some splendour once thy very thought, Some benediction anciently thy smile: —Never conclude, but raising hand and head Thither where eyes, that cannot reach, yet yearn For all hope, all sustainment, all reward, Their utmost up and on,—so blessing back In those thy realms of help, that heaven thy home, Some whiteness which, I judge, thy face makes proud, Some wanness where, I think, thy foot may fall!" * * * * *

Thereafter, for close upon five thousand words, the poem descends again to the level of a versified tale. It is saved from ruin by subtlety of intellect, striking dramatic verisimilitude, an extraordinary vigour, and occasional lines of real poetry. Retrospectively, apart from the interest, often strained to the utmost, most readers, I fancy, will recall with lingering pleasure only the opening of "The Other Half Rome," the description of Pompilia, "with the patient brow and lamentable smile," with flower-like body, in white hospital array—a child with eyes of infinite pathos, "whether a flower or weed, ruined: who did it shall account to Christ."

In these three introductory books we have the view of the matter taken by those who side with Count Guido, of those who are all for Pompilia, and of the "superior person," impartial because superciliously indifferent, though sufficiently interested to "opine."

In the ensuing three books a much higher poetic level is reached. In the first, Guido speaks; in the second, Caponsacchi; the third, that lustrous opal set midway in the "Ring," is Pompilia's narrative. Here the three protagonists live and move before our eyes. The sixth book may be said to be the heart of the whole poem. The extreme intellectual subtlety of Guido's plea stands quite unrivalled in poetic literature. In comparing it, for its poetic beauty, with other sections, the reader must bear in mind that in a poem of a dramatic nature the dramatic proprieties must be dominant. It would be obviously inappropriate to make Count Guido Franceschini speak with the dignity of the Pope, with the exquisite pathos of Pompilia, with the ardour, like suppressed molten lava, of Caponsacchi. The self-defence of the latter is a superb piece of dramatic writing. Once or twice the flaming volcano of his heart bursts upward uncontrollably, as when he cries—

"No, sirs, I cannot have the lady dead! That erect form, flashing brow, fulgurant eye, That voice immortal (oh, that voice of hers!)— That vision of the pale electric sword Angels go armed with—that was not the last O' the lady. Come, I see through it, you find, Know the manoeuvre! Also herself said I had saved her: do you dare say she spoke false? Let me see for myself if it be so!"

Than the poignant pathos and beauty of "Pompilia," there is nothing more exquisite in our literature. It stands alone. Here at last we have the poet who is the Lancelot to Shakspere's Arthur. It takes a supreme effort of genius to be as simple as a child. How marvellously, after the almost sublime hypocrisy of the end of Guido's defence, after the beautiful dignity of Caponsacchi's closing words, culminating abruptly in the heart-wrung cry, "O great, just, good God! miserable me!"—how marvellously comes upon the reader the delicate, tearful tenderness of the innocent child-wife—

"I am just seventeen years and five months old, And, if I lived one day more, three full weeks; 'Tis writ so in the church's register, Lorenzo in Lucina, all my names At length, so many names for one poor child, —Francesca Camilla Vittoria Angela Pompilia Comparini—laughable!"

Only two writers of our age have depicted women with that imaginative insight which is at once more comprehensive and more illuminative than women's own invision of themselves—Robert Browning and George Meredith, but not even the latter, most subtle and delicate of all analysts of the tragi-comedy of human life, has surpassed "Pompilia." The meeting and the swift uprising of love between Lucy and Richard, in "The Ordeal of Richard Feveral," is, it is true, within the highest reach of prose romance: but between even the loftiest height of prose romance and the altitudes of poetry, there is an impassable gulf.

And as it is with simplicity so it is with tenderness. Only the sternly strong can be supremely tender. And infinitely tender is the poetry of "Pompilia"—

"Oh, how good God is that my babe was born, —Better than born, baptised and hid away Before this happened, safe from being hurt! That had been sin God could not well forgive: He was too young to smile and save himself——"

or the lines which tell how as a little girl she gave her roses not to the spick and span Madonna of the Church, but to the poor, dilapidated Virgin, "at our street-corner in a lonely niche," with the babe that had sat upon her knees broken off: or that passage, with its exquisite naivete, where Pompilia relates why she called her boy Gaetano, because she wished "no old name for sorrow's sake," so chose the latest addition to the saints, elected only twenty-five years before—

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