Minor punctuation errors have been corrected without notice. Other changes are listed at the end. All other inconsistencies are as in the original.
The Lake Library Edition
SELECTIONS FROM THE POEMS AND PLAYS OF ROBERT BROWNING
Edited, with an Introduction by
Professor of English Literature in the University of Chicago
Scott, Foresman and Company Chicago Atlanta New York
Copyright, 1909 Scott, Foresman and Company
I. The Life of Browning 7 II. The Poetry of Browning 31
CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE 60
SELECTIONS FROM BROWNING—
(The figures in parentheses refer to the pages of the Notes.)
Songs from Paracelsus (389) 65 Cavalier Tunes (391) 69 The Lost Leader (391) 72 "How They Brought the Good News" (392) 73 The Flower's Name (393) 76 Meeting at Night (393) 78 Parting at Morning (393) 78 Evelyn Hope (393) 78 Love Among the Ruins (394) 81 Up at a Villa—Down in the City (394) 84 A Toccata of Galuppi's (395) 88 Old Pictures in Florence (396) 91 "De Gustibus—" (399) 101 Home-Thoughts, from Abroad (399) 103 Home-Thoughts, from the Sea (400) 104 Saul (400) 105 My Star (402) 126 Two in the Campagna (403) 126 In Three Days (403) 129 The Guardian-Angel (403) 130 Memorabilia (404) 132 Incident of the French Camp (404) 133 My Last Duchess (404) 135 The Boy and the Angel (404) 137 The Pied Piper of Hamelin (404) 141 The Flight of the Duchess (405) 152 A Grammarian's Funeral (406) 183 "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (407) 189 How It Strikes a Contemporary (409) 196 Fra Lippo Lippi (409) 200 Andrea Del Sarto (413) 213 The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church (414) 222 Cleon (416) 227 One Word More (417) 239 Abt Vogler (419) 247 Rabbi Ben Ezra (422) 253 Caliban Upon Setebos (423) 260 May and Death (425) 271 Prospice (425) 272 A Face (425) 273 O Lyric Love (425) 274 Prologue to Pacchiarotto (425) 275 House (426) 276 Shop (426) 278 Herve Riel (426) 282 Good to Forgive (427) 289 "Such a Starved Bank of Moss" (427) 290 Epilogue to the Two Poets of Croisic (427) 290 Pheidippides (427) 295 Muleykeh (428) 302 Wanting Is—What? (428) 309 Never the Time and the Place (428) 310 The Patriot (429) 311 Instans Tyrannus (429) 312 The Italian in England (430) 315 "Round Us the Wild Creatures" (431) 321 Prologue to Asolando (431) 321 Summum Bonum (431) 323 Epilogue to Asolando (431) 324 Pippa Passes (431) 325
THE LIFE OF BROWNING
Robert Browning, the poet, was the third of that name. The first Robert Browning, a man of energy and ability, held an important post in the Bank of England. His wife, Margaret Tittle, was a Creole from the West Indies, and at the time of her marriage her property was still in the estates owned by her father near St. Kitts. When their son, the second Robert, was seven years of age, his mother died, and his father afterwards married again. The second wife's ascendency over her husband was unfortunately exerted against the best interests of the son. His desire to become an artist, his wish for a university training, were disregarded, and he was sent instead to St. Kitts, where he was given employment on his mother's sugar plantations. The breach between Robert and his father became absolute when the boy defied local prejudice by teaching a negro to read, and when, because of what his father considered a sentimental objection to slavery, he finally refused to remain in the West Indies. The young man returned to England and at twenty-two started on an independent career as a clerk in the Bank of England. In 1811 he married Sarah Anne Wiedemann. They settled in Camberwell, London, where Robert, the poet, was born, May 7, 1812, and his sister Sarianna in 1814.
Browning's father was a competent official in the Bank and a successful business man, but his tastes were aesthetic and literary, and his leisure time was accordingly devoted to such pursuits as the collection of old books and manuscripts. He also read widely in both classic and modern literatures. The first book of the Iliad he knew by heart, and all the Odes of Horace, and he was accustomed to soothe his child to sleep by humming to him snatches of Anacreon to the tune of "A Cottage in the Wood." Mr. Browning had also considerable skill in two realms of art, for he drew vigorous portraits and caricatures, and he had, even according to his son's mature judgment, extraordinary force and facility in verse-making. In character he was serene, lovable, gentle, "tenderhearted to a fault." So instinctively chivalrous was he that there was "no service which the ugliest, oldest, crossest woman in the world might not have exacted of him." He was a man of great physical vigor, dying at the age of eighty-four without ever having been ill.
Browning's mother was the daughter of William Wiedemann, a German who had settled in Dundee and married a Scotch wife. Mrs. Browning impressed all who knew her by her sweetness and goodness. Carlyle spoke of her as "the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman"; her son's friend, Mr. Kenyon, said that such as she had no need to go to heaven, because they made it wherever they were; and her son called her "a divine woman." She had deep religious instincts and concerned herself particularly with her son's moral and spiritual development. The bond between them was always very strong, and when she died in 1849 his wife wrote, "He has loved his mother as such passionate natures can love, and I never saw a man so bowed down in an extremity of sorrow—never."
Robert Browning's childhood was passed in an unusually serene and happy home. In Development he tells how, at five years of age, he was made to understand the main facts of the Trojan War by his father's clever use of the cat, the dogs, the pony in the stable, and the page-boy, to impersonate the heroes of that ancient conflict. Latin declensions were taught the child by rhymes concocted by his father as memory-easing devices. Stories and even lessons were made intelligible and vivid by colored maps and comic drawings. Until the boy was fourteen, his schooling was of the most casual sort, his only formal training being such as he received in the comparatively unimportant three or four years he spent, after he was ten, at Mr. Ready's private school. His real education came, through all his early life, from his home. What would now be called nature-study he pursued ardently and on his own initiative in the home garden and neighboring fields. His love for animals was inherited from his mother and fostered by her. He used to keep, says Mrs. Orr in her account of his life, "owls and monkeys, magpies and hedge-hogs, an eagle, and even a couple of large snakes, constantly bringing home the more portable animals in his pockets and transferring them to his mother for immediate care." Browning says that his faculty of observation at this time would not have disgraced a Seminole Indian. In the matter of reading he was not entirely without advice and guidance, but was, on the whole, allowed unusual freedom of choice. He afterwards told Mrs. Orr that Milton, Quarles, Voltaire, Mandeville, and Horace Walpole were the authors in whom, as a boy, he particularly delighted. His love for art was established and developed by visits to the Dulwich picture gallery, of which he afterwards wrote to Miss Barrett with "love and gratitude" because he had been allowed to go there before the age prescribed by the rules, and had thus learned to know "a wonderful Rembrandt," a Watteau, "three triumphant Murillos," a Giorgione Music Lesson, and various Poussins. His marked early susceptibility to music is evidenced by an incident narrated by Mr. Sharp: "One afternoon his mother was playing in the twilight to herself. She was startled to hear a sound behind her. Glancing round she beheld a little white figure distinct against an oak bookcase, and could just discern two large wistful eyes looking earnestly at her. The next moment the child had sprung into her arms, sobbing passionately at he knew not what, but, as his paroxysm subsided, whispering with shy urgency: 'Play! Play!'"
In various ways the boy Robert was noticeably precocious. He could not remember a time, he said, when he did not rhyme, and his sister records that as a very little boy he used to walk around the table "spanning out on the smooth mahogany the scansion of verses he had composed." Some of these early lines he could recall and he could recall, too, the prodigious satisfaction with which he uttered them, especially the sentence he put into the mouth of a man who had just committed murder—"Now my soul is satisfied." At twelve he had a volume named Incondita ready for publication. To discerning eyes the little volume was a production of great promise, dominated though it was by the influence of his father's idol, Pope, and of his own temporary ruling deity, Byron. But a publisher was not found, and in later years, at Browning's request, the two extant manuscript copies of Incondita were destroyed, along with many others of his youthful poems that had been preserved by his father.
Browning's early tastes in the realm of poetry were, on the whole, romantic. "Now here is the truth," he wrote to Miss Barrett, "the first book I ever bought in my life was Ossian—and years before that the first composition I ever was guilty of was something in imitation of Ossian whom I had not read, but conceived, through two or three scraps in other books." But the decisive literary influence was yet to come. When he was fourteen he happened to see on a bookstall a volume marked, "Mr. Shelley's Atheistical Poem. Very Scarce"; and he at once wished to know more of this Mr. Shelley. After a perplexing search his mother found the desired poems, most of them in first editions, at the Olliers, Vere Street, London. She took home also three volumes by another poet, John Keats, who, she was told, was the subject of an elegy by Shelley. Browning never forgot the May evening when he first read these new books, to the accompaniment, he said, of two nightingales, one in a copper-beech, one in a laburnum, each striving to outdo the other in melody. A new imaginative world was opened to the boy. In Memorabilia he afterwards recorded the strong intellectual and emotional excitement, the thrill and ecstasy of this poetical experience. To Shelley especially did he give immediate and fervid personal loyalty, even to the extent of endeavoring to follow him in "atheism" and vegetarianism.
When at fourteen the boy left Mr. Ready's school it was decided that his further education should be carried on at home under private tutors. He studied music under able masters, one in thorough-bass, and one in execution. He played and sang, and he composed spirited settings for songs. He read voraciously. He took lessons in dancing, riding, boxing, and fencing, and is said to have shown himself exceptionally active and vigorous. He kept up his interest in art, and he practiced drawing from casts. He found time also for various friendships. For Miss Eliza and Miss Sarah Flower, two sisters, nine and seven years his senior, he had a deep affection. Both young ladies were gifted in music, and this was one source of their attractions for the music-loving boy. Miss Sarah Flower wrote sacred hymns, the best known of which is "Nearer my God to Thee," and her sister composed music which Browning, even in his mature years, ranked as of especial significance. Other friends of this period were Joseph Arnold, afterwards Chief Justice of Bombay, and a man of great ability; Alfred Domett, a striking and interesting personality described by Browning in a poem beginning "What's Become of Waring," and referred to in "The Guardian Angel"; and the three Silverthorne boys, his cousins, the death of one of whom was the occasion of the poem "May and Death."
In spite of friends, a beautiful home, and congenial work, this period of home tutelage does not seem to have been altogether happy. His sister in commenting on this period said, "The fact was, poor boy, he had outgrown his social surroundings. They were absolutely good, but they were narrow; it could not be otherwise; he chafed under them." Furthermore, the youth, before he had found his real work as a poet, was restless, irritable, and opinionated; and an ever-present cause of friction was the fact that there were few subjects of taste on which he and his father did not disagree. Their poetic tastes were especially at variance. The father counted Pope supreme in poetry, and it was many years before he could take pleasure in the form in which his son's genius expressed itself. All the more noteworthy, then, is the generosity with which Mr. Browning looked after his son's interests through the unprofitable early years of his poetic career, a generosity never lost sight of by the son. Mr. Sharp in his Life of Browning records some words uttered by Mr. Browning a week or two before his death, which show how permanent was his sense of indebtedness to his father. "It would have been quite unpardonable in my case," he said, "not to have done my best. My dear father put me in a condition most favorable for the best work I was capable of. When I think of the many authors who have had to fight their way through all sorts of difficulties, I have no reason to be proud of my achievements.... He secured for me all the care and comfort that a literary man needs to do good work. It would have been shameful if I had not done my best to realize his expectations of me."
After it was determined that Robert should "commence poet," he and his father came to the conclusion that a university training had many elements foreign to the aim the youth had set before him, and that a richer and more directly available preparation could be gained from "sedulous cultivation of the powers of his mind" at home, and from "seeing life in the best sense" at home and abroad. Mrs. Orr tells us that the first qualifying step of the zealous young poet was to read and digest the whole of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary.
Browning's first published poem, Pauline, appeared anonymously in January, 1833, when he was twenty years old. This poem is of especial autobiographical interest. Its enthusiastic praise of Shelley recalls his early devotion to that poet, and in many scattered passages we find references to his own personality or experiences. The following lines show with what intensity he recreated the lives and scenes in the books he read:
And I myself went with the tale—a god Wandering after beauty, or a giant Standing vast in the sunset—an old hunter Talking with gods, or a high-crested chief Sailing with troops of friends to Tenedos. I tell you, naught has ever been so clear As the place, the time, the fashion of those lives: I had not seen a work of lofty art, Nor woman's beauty, nor sweet nature's face, Yet, I say, never morn broke clear as those On the dim clustered isles in the blue sea, The deep groves and white temples and wet caves; And nothing ever will surprise me now— Who stood beside the naked Swift-footed, Who bound my forehead with Proserpine's hair.
There is true and powerful self-analysis in the lines beginning:
I am made up of an intensest life;
and the invocation in lines 811-854 reveals the passionately religious nature of the young poet. In The Early Writings of Robert Browning Mr. Gosse gives an account of the impression made by this poem upon men so diverse as the Rev. William Johnson Fox, John Stuart Mill, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to all of whom, in spite of its crudities and very evident immaturity, it seemed a production of exceptional promise.
After an interval of two years Browning published, this time under his own name, a second long poem. The subject, Paracelsus, had been suggested by the friend, Amedee de Ripert-Monclar, to whom the poem is dedicated. In pursuance of his purposed rehabilitation of a vanished age Browning made extensive researches in the British Museum into the history of Paracelsus, the great leader in sixteenth century medical science; but in the poem the facts are subordinated to a minute analysis of the spiritual history of Paracelsus. The poem was too abstruse in subject and style to bring Browning popularity, but his genius was recognized by important critics, and, though he was but twenty-three, he was admitted into the foremost literary circles of London. One of his most distinguished new friends was Mr. Macready, the great actor. It was at his house that Browning first met Mr. Forster, who had already written favorable critiques of Paracelsus, one for The Examiner and one for The New Monthly Magazine. Other literary associates of this period were Leigh Hunt, Barry Cornwall, Sergeant Talfourd, Dickens, and Walter Savage Landor. There were not infrequent dinners and suppers to which the young poet was welcomed. He is described as being at this period singularly handsome. "He looks and acts," said Mr. Macready, "more like a youthful poet than any man I ever saw." He had sculpturesque masses of dark wavy hair, a skin like delicate ivory, deep-set, expressive eyes, and a sensitive mouth. He was slender, graceful, and most attractive in manner, and he was something of a dandy in his attention to dress. He is said to have made an especially good impression on one occasion when the circumstances must have been as trying as they were exhilarating. In May, 1836, a group of poets had assembled at Mr. Talfourd's to celebrate Macready's successful production of Talfourd's Ion. Browning sat opposite Macready, who was between Wordsworth and Landor. When Talfourd proposed a toast, "The Poets of England," he spoke in complimentary terms of Wordsworth and Landor, but called for a response from "the youngest of the Poets of England, the author of Paracelsus." Landor raised his cup to the young man, and Wordsworth shook hands with him across the table, saying, "I am proud to know you, Mr. Browning."
Browning's third literary venture was a tragedy, Strafford, dedicated to Macready, at whose request it was written. The drama presents the impeachment, condemnation, and execution of the Earl of Strafford, a statesman who, according to the play, loved the unworthy King Charles the First and sacrificed everything, even to life itself, in his blind loyalty to a master who treacherously deserted him in the hour of need. It was a topic to which Browning had already given much thought, for he had the preceding year completed, from materials supplied by Mr. John Forster, a Life of Strafford begun by Forster for Lardner's Eminent British Statesmen. The question of the historic truthfulness of the drama is discussed by the historian Gardiner in the Introduction to Miss Emily H. Hickey's edition of Strafford. He shows that the play is in its details and "even in the very roots of the situation" untrue to fact, and yet he maintains that in the chief characters there is essential truth of conception. "Every time that I read the play," says Gardiner, "I feel more certain that Browning has seized the real Strafford ... Charles, too, with his faults, perhaps exaggerated, is nevertheless the real Charles." The play was produced at Covent Garden Theater in May, 1837, with Macready as Strafford and Miss Helen Faucit as Lady Carlisle, and was successful in spite of poor scenery and costuming and poor acting in some of the parts. But owing to the financial condition of the theater and the consequent withdrawal of one of the important actors after the fifth night, the play had but a brief run. It was presented again in 1886 under the auspices of the Browning Society, and its power as an acting play "surprised and impressed" the audience.
Before the composition of Strafford Browning had begun a long poem, Sordello, which he completed after his first visit to Italy in 1838, and published in 1840. No one of his poems is more difficult to read, and many are the stories told of the dismay occasioned by its various perplexities. The effect of this poem on Browning's fame was disastrous. In fact, after Sordello there began a period, twenty years long, of almost complete indifference in England to Browning's work. The enthusiasm over the promise of his early poems died quite away. Late in life Mr. Browning commented on this period of his literary career as a time of "prolonged desolateness." Yet the years 1841-1846 are the years in which he attained his poetic maturity, and years in which he did some of his best work. During this period he brought out the series somewhat fancifully called Bells and Pomegranates. The phrase itself comes from Exodus xxviii, 33, 34. As a title Browning explained it to mean "something like a mixture of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought." This cheap serial edition, the separate numbers of which sold at first at sixpence and later at half a crown, included Pippa Passes, King Victor and King Charles, Dramatic Lyrics, The Return of the Druses, A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, Colombe's Birthday, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Luria, and A Soul's Tragedy.
All of Browning's plays except Strafford and In a Balcony came out of this series. The most beautiful of them all, Pippa Passes, appeared in 1841. It is hardly a drama at all in the conventional sense, though it has one scene, that between Ottima and Sebald, of the highest dramatic power; but it has always been a favorite with readers. When it was published Miss Barrett wrote to Mr. Browning that she found it in her heart to covet the authorship of this poem more than any other of his works, and he said in answer that he, too, liked Pippa better than anything else he had yet done. Mr. Sharp, while emphasizing the undramatic quality of the play, counts it "the most imperishable because the most nearly immaculate of Browning's dramatic poems." "It seems to me," he adds, "like all simple and beautiful things, profound enough for the sinking 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.... Everyone who knows Browning at all knows Pippa Passes."
Of the seven dramas published in Bells and Pomegranates there is comparatively little stage history to record. In spite of occasional fairly successful productions it must be admitted that Browning's plays have never achieved, probably never will achieve, popularity in the shape of long runs in many cities. They are too subjective, too analytic, too psychological, for quick or easy understanding. But to the reader they offer many delights. The stories are clear, coherent, interesting; the characters strongly individualized; the crises of experience stimulating; the interaction of personalities subtly analyzed; the poetry noble and beautiful.
The two non-dramatic numbers of Bells and Pomegranates were Dramatic Lyrics (No. 3, 1842) and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (No. 7, 1845). The first included such poems as "Cavalier Tunes," "In a Gondola," "Porphyria," and "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"; the second included "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," "The Lost Leader," "The Tomb at St. Praxed's," "The Flight of the Duchess," "The Boy and the Angel," and the first part of "Saul." These poems, together with the dramas, make a remarkably rich body of poetry to be produced in the short space of five years. And the character of the work, its variety and beauty and strength and originality, were such that its meager and grudging acceptance seems now inexplicable.
The most important event in the life of Browning during this period was his acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth Barrett. In 1844 she brought out a new volume of poems which he saw and greatly admired. He wrote to her expressing delight in her work and asking permission to call; but Miss Barrett, owing to long-continued invalidism, had lived in almost entire seclusion, and she was not at first willing to receive Mr. Browning. This was in January, 1845, and many letters passed between them before the first interview in the following May. Mr. Browning's love for Miss Barrett found almost immediate expression and she was soon conscious of an equally strong love for him, but for a considerable time she persistently refused to marry him. To her mind the obstacles were almost insurmountable. Of these her ill-health was chief. She could not consent, she said, to dim the prosperities of his career by a union with her future, which she characterized as a precarious thing, a thing for making burdens out of—but not for his carrying. In exchange for the "noble extravagancies" of his love she could bring him only "anxiety and more sadness than he was born to." This obstacle of ill-health was unexpectedly modified by a very mild winter and by the new physical vigor brought in the train of new happiness. From this point of view the marriage, though hazardous, was practicable by the end of the summer of 1846. A second obstacle lay in the nature and opinions of Miss Barrett's father, who governed even his grown-up children by "an incredible system of patriarchal absolutism." By what was variously termed an obliquity of the will, an eccentricity, a monomania, he had decided that none of his children should marry, and on this point he demanded "passive obedience." It was perfectly clear that Miss Barrett could not gain his consent to her marriage, and so, after long hesitation and much unhappiness, she decided to marry Mr. Browning without that consent. In order to save her family and close friends from the blame sure to fall upon them for the remotest sanction of her marriage, her plans were kept an absolute secret. She met Mr. Browning at Marylebone Church on September 12, 1846, and they were married there, Mrs. Browning returning at once to her own home, where she remained till a week later, when she started for Italy with her husband. The wedding was then announced. Throughout her father's life Mrs. Browning endeavored to placate him, for she devotedly loved him and she had been his favorite child, but in vain. He would never see her again, he returned her letters unopened, and he would not allow her to be spoken of in his presence.
After resting a week in Paris Mr. and Mrs. Browning went on to Pisa, where they remained nearly seven months. The "miracle" of the Pisa life was Mrs. Browning's gain in health. "You are not improved, you are transformed," was Mrs. Jameson's exclamation. It was at Pisa that Mr. Browning came to know of the sonnets his wife had written during the progress of their courtship and engagement. In Critical Kit-Kats (1896) Mr. Gosse tells the story as Mr. Browning gave it to him: "One day, early in 1847, their breakfast being over, Mrs. Browning went upstairs, while her husband stood at the window watching the street till the table could be cleared. He was presently aware of someone behind him, although the servant had gone. It was Mrs. Browning who held him by the shoulder to prevent his turning to look at her, and at the same time pushed a packet of papers into the pocket of his coat. She told him to read that and to tear it up if he did not like it; and then she fled again to her room." Mr. Browning felt at once that he had no right to keep such poetry as a private possession. "I dared not," he said, "reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare's." They were accordingly published in 1850, under the intentionally mystifying title, Sonnets from the Portuguese.
The Brownings reached Florence April 20, 1847. After several changes they were, in May, 1848, established in the home in which they remained during Mrs. Browning's life. It was a suite of rooms on the second floor of the Palazzo Guidi. Of the practical side of this early Florentine life, Mrs. Browning wrote, "My dear brothers have the illusion that nobody should marry on less than two thousand a year. Good heavens! how preposterous it does seem to me! We scarcely spend three hundred, and I have every luxury I ever had, and which it would be so easy to give up, at need; and Robert wouldn't sleep, I think, if an unpaid bill dragged itself by any chance into another week. He says that when people get into pecuniary difficulties his sympathies always go with the butchers and the bakers." In accordance with this horror of owing five shillings five days, the furnishings of the new home, "the rococo chairs, spring sofas, carved bookcases, satin from cardinals' beds, and the rest," were accumulated at a pace dictated by the bank account, but for all that it was not long before the rooms began to take on an aspect as beautiful as it was homelike.
By preference the Brownings lived very quietly. At the end of fifteen months Mrs. Browning wrote, "Robert has not been out an evening of the fifteen months; but what with music and books and writing and talking, we scarcely know how the days go, it's such a gallop on the grass." March 9, 1849, was born Wiedemann, later known as "Penini" or "Pen" Browning. Coincident with this joy was the grief caused by the death of Browning's mother, a sorrow from which he rallied but slowly. The Florentine life was occasionally varied by summers at Bagni di Lucca, winters in Paris or Rome, and several visits to England. There was also an increasing social life. Americans were especially welcome to the Brownings because, while England was still indifferent to Browning's work, America had given it an appreciative welcome. In March, 1861, Mrs. Browning wrote, "I don't complain for myself of an unappreciative public. I have no reason. But just for that reason I complain more about Robert.... In America he is a power, a writer, a poet—he is read, he lives in the hearts of the people."
Among the Americans associated with the Brownings for longer or shorter periods during their life in Florence were two distinguished women, Margaret Fuller Ossoli and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1847, George William Curtis spent two days with the Brownings at Vallombrosa, a visit later described in his Easy Chair. Mr. Field, who had brought out the American reprint of the two-volume edition of Browning's poems in 1849, was a guest at Casa Guidi in 1852. Charles Sumner writes of "delicious Tuscan evenings" with the Brownings and the Storys in 1859. Mr. Browning's interests in art led to friendships with American artists, among whom were Mr. Page, who painted a successful portrait of Browning; Miss Harriet Hosmer, to whom Mr. and Mrs. Browning finally consented to sit for the "Clasped Hands"; and Hiram Powers. The dearest American friends were, however, Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne and Mr. and Mrs. Story.
Music and art were among Browning's chief delights in Florence. George William Curtis in describing the trip to Vallombrosa says that it was part of their pleasure to sit in the dusky convent chapel while Browning at the organ "chased a fugue of Master Hughes of Saxe Gotha, or dreamed out upon twilight keys a faint throbbing toccata of Galuppi's." Modeling in clay was even more satisfying as a personal resource. In the autumn of 1860 Mrs. Browning wrote, "Robert has taken to modeling under Mr. Story (at his studio) and is making extraordinary progress, turning to account his studies in anatomy. He has copied already two busts, the young Augustus and the Psyche, and is engaged on another, enchanted with his new trade, working six hours a day." Some months later she added, "The modeling combines body-work and soul-work, and the more tired he has been, and the more his back ached, poor fellow, the more he has exulted and been happy—'no, nothing ever made him so happy before.'" He found, also, an unfailing pleasure in the study of great pictures. And he was a buyer of pictures with a collector's delight in hunting out the work of the unappreciated early Tuscan artists. Mrs. Orr says that he owned at least one picture by each of the obscure artists mentioned in "Old Pictures in Florence."
Mrs. Browning sometimes expressed regret that Browning should give himself so unreservedly in so many directions, because she felt that he had thus too little time and energy left for poetry. Her fear was not without justification, for after the richly productive period from 1841 to 1846, we come upon a space of nine years the only publications of which are, in 1850, Christmas Eve and Easter Day, a long poem in two parts giving the arguments in favor of Christianity; and, in 1852, an introduction to a collection of letters then supposed to be by Shelley, but since found to be spurious. The essay is nevertheless of importance as an exposition of Browning's theory of poetry, and as an interesting study of Shelley.
In 1855, at the close of this period of nine years, there appeared a collection of fifty-one poems entitled Men and Women. In "fundamental brain power," insight, beauty, and mastery of style, these poems show Browning at the highest level of his poetic achievement. It is in these remarkable poems that he brought to perfection a poetic form which he practically invented, the dramatic monologue, a form in which there is but one speaker but which is essentially dramatic in effect. The dramatic quality arises partly from the implied presence of listeners whose expressions of assent or dissent determine the progress or the abrupt changes of direction of the speaker's words. In "Andrea del Sarto," for example, Lucrezia's smiles and frowns and gestures of impatience are a constant influence, and the poem presents as vivid an interplay of personalities as any scene in a drama. But the implied listener is hardly more than a secondary dramatic element, the chief one being that the speaker talks, as do the characters in a play, out of the demands of the immediate experience, gradually and casually disclosing all the tangled web of influence, all the clashes of will with destiny, of desire with convention, that have led to the crisis depicted. Fra Lippo Lippi gives no consecutive history of his life, only such snatches of it as partially account for his present mad freak, but the strife between his own nature and instinct on the one hand and the conventions and traditions of religious art on the other could hardly be more vividly presented. In a Balcony, the one drama in Men and Women, has but a fragment of a plot, but in intensity, reality, and passion it excels most of Browning's dramas, and, in spite of its long speeches, has proved effective on the stage. In variety of theme, subject-matter, and verse-form, the poems of Men and Women defy classification. Whatever page one turns, there is something novel, stimulating, captivating. All of Browning's Florentine interests are represented here—his love of old pictures and little-known music, his delight in Florence, Venice, Rome, in all Italy, her skies and her landscapes, the vagrants of her streets, her religious ceremonies, her church dignitaries, her scholars. Then there are love-poems in all tones and tempers, the noblest of them all, "One Word More," being Browning's most direct and personal tribute to his wife. And we see in its keenest form his intellectual delight in subtle disquisition. The doctrine of immortality as it appeals to the mind of the cultured, dissatisfied pagan Cleon; the miracle of Lazarus as it is brooded over by the Arab physician Karshish; the balancing of faith and doubt in the clever casuistry of Bishop Blougram—these are topics to Browning's taste and are treated with skill and mastery. Taken all in all these poems give to the reader a full impression of Browning's characteristic force, the darting, penetrating power of his phrase, the rush and energy and leap of his thought. It is by Men and Women, the somewhat similar Dramatis Personae, and the earlier Dramatic Lyrics and Dramatic Romances, that Browning is most widely and most favorably known.
During the first ten years that the Brownings were in Florence Mrs. Browning's health was so good that she was able to enjoy social and outdoor pleasures to a degree that would have been thought impossible before her marriage. She had also kept up her literary work. A new edition of her poems appeared in 1849; in 1851 she published Casa Guidi Windows, poems illustrative of her ardent interest in all that pertained to the fight for Italian freedom; and in 1856 her long-planned verse novel Aurora Leigh was completed and published. But soon after this her strength began insensibly to fail and during the last three years of her life she suffered much from repeated bronchial attacks. However, her death, in June, 1861, was entirely unexpected. The Florentines had loved her deeply and had appreciated her utterances in behalf of a free Italy. She was, accordingly, buried in Florence, with "extraordinary demonstrations of respect," and the house where she had lived was marked by the municipality with a commemorative tablet.
Browning's wish was to leave Florence at once and to make the new life as unlike the old as possible. He went to London, and after some delay established himself in a house at Warwick Crescent, where he lived till 1887. The first portion of his life in England was one of "unbearable loneliness." He took care of his son, busied himself with a new edition of his wife's poems, read and studied and wrote with feverish intensity, and avoided people. But with the spring of 1863, says Mr. Gosse, "a great change came over Browning's habits. He had shunned all invitations into society, but ... it suddenly occurred to him that this mode of life was morbid and unworthy," and thereupon he entered into the social, literary, musical, and artistic life of London.
The nine years following 1855 were again a period of small productivity. Dramatis Personae was a slender volume to represent so many years, even though it contained such great poems as "Rabbi Ben Ezra," "A Death in the Desert," and "Abt Vogler." But during this period a long poem, The Ring and the Book, had been maturing. In 1860, while still at Casa Guidi, Browning had found at a book-stall the now famous "square old yellow Book," containing the legal record of a famous Roman murder case. He read the account on the way home, and before night had so mastered the details that, as he paced up and down on the terrace in the darkness, he saw the tragedy unfold before him in picture after picture. It was not, however, till 1864 that he definitely set to work on the composition of the poem. It was published in four volumes of three parts each, in the winter and spring of 1868-9. The poem has a novel structure. The story is retold ten times by different persons and with such variations of fact and opinions and style as are dictated by the knowledge and the character of the speaker. The monologues of Count Guido, who murdered his wife, of Pompilia the young wife, of Caponsacchi the "soldier saint" who endeavored to save her, and of the old Pope, are by far the most interesting portions of the poem, but the whole of it is remarkable, and it justly takes rank as one of England's greatest poems. With the appearance of this book Browning's genius received adequate recognition in high places. The Athenaeum called it "the opus magnum of the generation, not merely beyond all parallel the supremest poetic achievement of the time, but the most precious and profound spiritual treasure that England has possessed since the days of Shakespeare."
The last ten or twelve years of Browning's life were so crowded with interests, occupations, publications, friends, honors, that not even a summary of them can be undertaken here. Mr. Sharp says of this period:
"Everybody wished him to come and dine; and he did his best to gratify Everybody. He saw everything; read all the notable books; kept himself acquainted with the leading contents of the journals and magazines; conducted a large correspondence; read new French, German, and Italian books of mark; read and translated Euripides and AEschylus; knew all the gossip of the literary clubs, the salons, and the studios; was a frequenter of afternoon tea parties; and then, over and above it, he was Browning—the most profoundly subtle mind that has exercised itself in poetry since Shakespeare."
Mr. Henry James in commenting on Browning's rich and ample London period with "its felicities and prosperities of every sort," says that in contemplating "the wonderful Browning ... the accomplished, saturated, sane, sound man of the London world and the world of culture," it was impossible not to believe that "he had arrived somehow, for his own deep purposes, at the enjoyment of a double identity," so dissociated were the poet and the "member of society." Phillips Brooks, who met Browning in England in 1865-6, was impressed by his fullness of life and said he was "very like some of the best of Thackeray's London men." In public and on ordinary social occasions Browning is said to have been frank, charming, friendly—"more agreeable," Mary Anderson said, "than distinguished." With intimate friends, however, the poet had quite another sort of charm. "To a single listener," says Mr. Gosse, with whom he was on familiar terms, "the Browning of his own study was to the Browning of a dinner party as a tiger cat is to a domestic cat. In such conversation his natural strength came out. His talk assumed the volume and the tumult of a cascade. His voice rose to a shout, sank to a whisper, ran up and down the gamut of conversational melody. Those whom he was expecting will never forget his welcome, the loud trumpet-note from the other end of the passage, the talk already in full flood at a distance of twenty feet. Then, in his own study or drawing-room, what he loved was to capture his visitor in a low armchair's 'sofa-lap of leather,' and from a most unfair vantage of height to tyrannize, to walk around the victim, in front, behind, on this side, on that, weaving magic circles, now with gesticulating arms thrown high, now groveling on the floor to find some reference in a folio, talking all the while, a redundant turmoil of thoughts, fancies, and reminiscences flowing from those generous lips."
Elsewhere Mr. Gosse summed up his personal impressions of Mr. Browning, as follows:
"I am bound to tell you that I saw a different Browning from the hero of all the handbooks and 'gospels' which are now in vogue. People are beginning to treat this vehement and honest poet as if he were a sort of Marcus Aurelius and John the Baptist rolled into one. I have just seen a book in which it is proposed that Browning should supersede the Bible, in which it is asserted that a set of his volumes will teach religion better than all the theologies in the world. Well, I did not know that holy monster.... What I saw was an unostentatious, keen, active man of the world, one who never failed to give good practical advice in matters of business and conduct, one who loved his friends and certainly hated his enemies; a man alive in every eager passionate nerve of him; a man who loved to discuss people and affairs, and a bit of a gossip; a bit of a partisan, too, and not without his humorous prejudices. He was simple to a high degree, simple in his scrupulous dress, his loud, happy voice, his insatiable curiosity."
Browning's London life was varied by many summer journeyings to French sea-coast towns, to Wales, and to Scotland. But it was seventeen years after the death of his wife before he could bring himself to revisit Italy. Even then he avoided Florence. He took his sister to Northern Italy; and Asolo and Venice became the towns around which their affections centered. Two American friends, Mrs. Bloomfield-Moore, and Mrs. Arthur Bronson, contributed to the happiness of these Italian sojourns. In 1888 Browning's son, who had married an American girl, bought the Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice, so that Browning had an additional personal reason for his trip to Venice in 1889. He was well, and he took great pleasure in his son's admirably planned restoration of the old Venetian palace. He worked, walked, talked with nearly normal vigor. But a bronchial attack proved more than his weakened heart could withstand, and he died peacefully, almost painlessly, in his son's home on December 12, 1889. On the day of his death his last book, Asolando, was published, so that his brave-hearted "Epilogue" was really his valediction to this and his heroic greeting to another world. He could "greet the unseen with a cheer," because in thought and act he was
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward, Never doubted clouds would break, Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph, Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep to wake.
Browning was buried in Westminster Abbey on the last day of the year. The most pathetic element of the imposing ceremonies was the singing of Mrs. Browning's poem, "He Giveth His Beloved Sleep."
THE POETRY OF BROWNING
Before entering upon a discussion of Browning's poetry it will be of interest to note briefly some of the more striking general characteristics of the English literature contemporary with his work. From Pauline to Asolando is over half a century, but as a central and especially significant portion of Browning's career we may take the three decades from 1841, when he began the Bells and Pomegranates series, to 1869, when The Ring and the Book appeared, for these years include all of his dramas and most of the poetry on which his fame rests. A survey of this period at once reveals the predominance of fiction. Within these years come nearly all the novels of Charles Dickens, of William Makepeace Thackeray, of Charlotte Bronte, of Wilkie Collins, of Charles Kingsley, of Mrs. Gaskell, of Anthony Trollope, of George Macdonald, of Charles Reade, much of the work of Bulwer Lytton, all the novels of George Eliot except Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and the earliest of George Meredith's books. This is a notable showing. No previous period in English literature had presented anything like so wide a range in fiction or had brought forward so large a number of novels of the first rank. These years were equally rich in essays, including much of Carlyle's work, all of Macaulay's except the early "Essay on Milton," the religious polemics of Frederick Dennison Maurice and John Henry Newman, nearly all of Ruskin's discussions of art and social history, most of Leigh Hunt's literary criticism, and Matthew Arnold's important early critical essays. This, too, is a notable showing. But if we turn to the two realms in which Browning excelled, poetry and drama, we find different conditions. During the central period of his career, there was, aside from his own work, not a single important drama published. The theaters were prosperous, but they brought out only old plays or new ones of inferior rank. In poetry, too, if we set aside the great names of Tennyson and Browning, the period was neither rich nor varied. During Browning's first great productive period, 1841-46, the only other poems of note were Tennyson's two volumes in 1842. In the nine years from 1846 to Men and Women in 1855, the chief poems were Tennyson's The Princess, In Memoriam, and Maud, for though Wordsworth's Prelude was one of the greatest publications of the mid-century, it was written years before, and can hardly be counted as belonging to this era. There are, during the decade, many poems of secondary rank, the most important of them being Mrs. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh, but besides Tennyson and Browning, the only poet of high rank is Matthew Arnold, whose slender volumes voice the doubts and difficulties of the age as Browning's poems voice its optimism. In the fourteen years between Men and Women and The Ring and the Book poets of a new kind appear; William Morris's Defense of Guinevere, The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise, and Swinburne's early poems are alien to the work of Browning in form, subject-matter, and ideals. The fact is, the more definitely we try to place Browning in his literary environment the more distinctly do we perceive that he was sui generis among his contemporaries. He combined in striking fashion the intensity of the poet and the strong social sense of the prose writer.
It seems also wise to glance at the outset at a few of the main criticisms that have been made on Browning's poetry, for the result of his marked originality is that no poet of the time has been so greatly praised and blamed.
A natural first topic is his really famous "obscurity." This obscurity is variously ascribed to a diction unduly learned, or almost unintelligibly colloquial, or grotesquely inventive; to figures of speech drawn from sources too unfamiliar or elaborated to the point of confusion; to sentences complicated by startling inversions, by double parentheses, by broken constructions, or by a grammatical structure defying analysis. It would be quite possible to illustrate each of these points from Browning's works, and it cannot be denied that his poetry is sometimes needlessly and inexcusably hard reading. But in reality the difficulties in his poems come less from stylistic defects than from the subject matter. What Mr. Chesterton calls Browning's love for "the holes and corners of history," leads him to the use of much unfamiliar detail. A large part of the difficulty in reading Sordello arises from the fact that all Browning's accumulated knowledge of medieval Italy is there poured forth in an allusive, taken-for-granted manner, till even the practiced reader turns away perplexed and overwhelmed. So, too, "Old Pictures in Florence," "Pictor Ignotus," and "Fra Lippo Lippi" assume on the part of the reader a minute familiarity with early Florentine art. Occasionally the poems demand an exceptional technical knowledge of some sort, as in "Abt Vogler," where only a trained musician can fully understand the terminology. Many even of the minor poems belong to realms of thought and experience so remote that only by distinct effort do we transport ourselves thither. It would, for instance, be absurd to call "Two in the Campagna" difficult in form or phrasing, yet it narrates an experience intelligible only to those who have loved deeply but have found in the very heart of that love a baffling sense of inevitable personal isolation. Sometimes the difficulty arises from the extreme subtlety of the thought. "Evelyn Hope," the simplest of poems in expression, presents novel and elusive ideas. Mr. Chesterton ingeniously ascribes Browning's obscurity to "intellectual humility," to an assumption that his readers were in possession of a native endowment and an acquired intellectual wealth on a par with his own; but the defense seems rather forced. Mrs. Browning gave one of the best brief analyses of Mr. Browning's obscurity. He had been attacked as being "misty" and she wrote to him, "You never are misty, not even in 'Sordello'—never vague. Your graver cuts deep, sharp lines, always—and there is an extra distinctness in your images and thoughts, from the midst of which, crossing each other infinitely, the general significance seems to escape." But the classic defense of Browning from this point of view may be found in Swinburne's Introduction to Chapman's Poems:
"The difficulty found by many in certain of Mr. Browning's works arises from a quality the very reverse of that which produces obscurity, properly so-called. Obscurity is the natural product of turbid forces and confused ideas; of a feeble and clouded or of a vigorous but unfixed and chaotic intellect.... Now if there is any great quality more perceptible than another in Mr. Browning's intellect it is his decisive and incisive faculty of thought, his sureness and intensity of perception, his rapid and trenchant resolution of aim.... The very essence of Mr. Browning's aim and method, as exhibited in the ripest fruits of his intelligence, is such as implies above all other things the possession of a quality the very opposite of obscurity—a faculty of spiritual illumination rapid and intense and subtle as lightning, which brings to bear upon its object by way of direct and vivid illustration every symbol and every detail on which its light is flashed in passing." Browning has himself a word to say on this topic. He wrote to a friend:
"I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole, I get my deserts, and something over—not a crowd but a few I value more."
A second charge not infrequently brought against Browning's verse is that it is harsh, and at times even ugly. This charge, like that of obscurity, cannot be wholly denied. The harshness results from incorrect rhymes, from irregular movement of the verse, or from difficult combinations of vowels and consonants. No reader of Browning's poems can fail to have been impressed by his intellectual agility in matching odd rhymes. In dash and originality his rhymes out-rank even those in Butler's Hudibras and Lowell's Fable for Critics. We find in Pacchiarotto, for instance, many rhymes of the gayest, most freakish, most grotesque character—"monkey, one key," "prelude, hell-hued," "stubborn, cub-born," "was hard, hazard," all occur in a single stanza. An example of exceptional facility in rhyming is found in "Through the Metidja," where, without repetition of words and without forcing of the sense thirty-six words rhyme with "ride." It cannot be denied that this remarkable facility led Browning occasionally into the use of odd rhymes in poems where no light or comic effect was intended; but a detailed study of his rhymes shows that the proportion of incorrect rhymes is really small, that the grotesque rhymes are more striking than numerous, and that they are usually in places where they are dramatically appropriate. His use of harsh words and sound-blendings is also often to be justified on the ground of their appropriateness to the idea. Compare, for instance, the flowing, easy words, the musical linking of sounds, in the first stanza of "Love Among the Ruins" with the harsh words, harshly combined, in the twelfth and thirteenth stanzas of "Childe Roland." Both effects are artistic because each sort of combination is in response to the nature of the thought. It is true that sometimes, perhaps not infrequently, the verse is rugged or uncouth where the sense does not call for such form, and there are lines that not only remind us of De Quincey's dictum that certain words should be "boiled before they are eaten," but which have no metrical flow at all; they defy any sort of scansion and read like rough prose. But a poet has a right of appeal to the sum of his manifest excellencies rather than to his defects, and if we take Browning's best work we find a harmony of movement superior in musical effect to a more technically regular meter. In many poems the meter is indissolubly fused with the pictures, the ideas, the events. Take, for instance, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," where the hurry-skurry of the verse is in complete harmony with the quaint, rapid tale. The hoof-beats of galloping horses is heard all through "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix." The slow march, the stately chant, are rhythmically present throughout "A Grammarian's Funeral." In "The Flight of the Duchess" the change from the rough servitor's narrative to the incantation of the gypsy-queen is as exquisitely marked in the metrical movement and in the rhymes as it is in the diction and tone of thought. Many other examples might be cited. Mr. Brinton, who has made a detailed and competent study of Browning's verse, gives his final opinion in these words: "In the volumes of Browning I maintain that we find so many instances of profound insight into verbal harmonies, such singular strength of poetic grouping, and such a marvelous grasp of the rhythmic properties of the English language that we must assign to him a rank second to no English poet of this century."
A third charge brought against Browning's art is that he makes all his characters talk "Browningese"; that is, that he endows all of them with the power to use such words and sentences and thought processes as are natural to him and to him only. Mr. Stedman in emphasizing this characteristic of the poet says of Pippa Passes: "The usual fault is present—the characters, whether students, peasants, or soldiers, all talk like sages; Pippa reasons like a Paracelsus in pantalettes." It is, of course, obvious at the first glance that there is a lack of verisimilitude in Pippa's rich and beautiful soliloquies. Certainly no fourteen-year-old mill girl could so describe a sunrise, or play so brilliantly with a sunbeam in a water-basin, or outline so cleverly the stories of the happiest four in Asolo. The same is true of Phene's long speech to Jules; no untutored girl brought up in degradation, could present such thoughts in such words. When we analyze Browning's way of presenting a character, however, we find that the lack of verisimilitude is usually external and has to do chiefly with expression. Browning works on the fundamental assumption that he has a poetic right to make all sorts of people articulate. He lends his mind out in the service of their thoughts and feelings. He makes people reveal themselves by putting into words their elusive, dim, tangled, and even unrecognized motives and hopes and joys and despairs. He sums up in the speeches all the potentialities of the situation. All the significance latent in the type of character and environment is somehow heightened and symbolized. All this is put in his own highly individual diction. Yet it can hardly be said that he violates poetic realism in the deeper sense, for he never puts a halo around a situation, never goes counter to its potentialities. Instead he strikes fire from it. He shows what is actually in the situation, but at white heat and laid bare to its center. When this method has once been recognized, discomfort on the score of lack of verisimilitude practically disappears, and the reader yields himself to the joy of the rich, subtle, and stimulating analysis.
We may now turn to a consideration of the subject-matter and the main ideas of Browning's poetry. From whatever point of view we regard his work, we find that ultimately the emphasis rests on the same great central fact, the supremacy of his interest in human nature. This dominating interest is shown, for instance, by a study of his treatment of physical nature. To be sure, no one can read his poems without recognizing the truth that his use of natural facts is distinctive in kind and very stimulating. A mere reference to the pictures of the sky in Pippa Passes, the vivid descriptions of fruits and flowers in "An Englishman in Italy," the remarkable studies of small animal life in "Saul" and "Caliban upon Setebos," of birds in "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad," of insects in the first part of Paracelsus and in many later poems, suffices to show that in mature life he did not lose the keenness of observation and interest characteristic of his youth. Yet it is also evident that his use of nature by way of direct description, or even as illustrative material, is far less in amount than that of other notable nineteenth century poets. He cares much less for "the river's line, the mountains round it and the sky above" than for the "figures of man, woman, and child these are frame to." Where nature is drawn upon, it is almost invariably in complete subordination to some human interest, and its literary form is almost always that of casual mention, background, or similitude, and the first of these is the most frequent. Furthermore, nearly all these passages are a mere statement of observed fact without comment or interpretation. There is one great passage in Paracelsus where the joy of God in the act of creation is depicted; there are occasional references to the delight of man in the external world; and now and then, as in "By the Fireside," man and nature are intimately fused; but such conceptions rarely occur. In Browning's poetry the boundary lines between man and nature are clearly marked. In Paracelsus he definitely protests against man's way of reading his own moods into nature, and of attributing to her his own qualities and emotions. He also always accounts man, if he has truly entered into his spiritual heritage, as consciously superior to nature. The troubadour Eglamour, in Sordello, says that man shrinks to naught if matched with a quiet sea or sky, but Browning calls that Eglamour's "false thought." To Browning, nature was to be studied, enjoyed, and used, but it was not as to Keats a realm of enchantment; or as to Wordsworth the realm where alone the divine and the human could pass the boundaries of sense and meet; or as to Matthew Arnold a refuge from pain and disillusionment. Browning regards the world about him more in the sane, unsentimental, straightforward, intelligible way of Chaucer or of Shakespeare. The mystical elements in Wordsworth's feeling for nature were foreign to Browning's mind. An instructive comparison might be made between Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality" and Browning's "Prologue to Asolando." The poems have the same starting point. Each one attributes sadness to the poet's old age, and each gives as a cause of the sadness the inevitable fading of the glory with which all nature was invested to the eye of his youth. But here the resemblance ends. Wordsworth believes that the youthful vision was a divine revelation to be regained when the round of existence should be completed by a return to his immortal home, and on the memory of that vision he founded his faith in a future life. But Browning welcomed the loss of the vision. Objects had been to him "palpably fire-clothed"; but with the loss of "flame" there was a gain in reality. The vision had enthralled and subjugated him; but with the sight of "a naked world" he had become conscious of things as they are, and he rejoiced in a justness of perception that declared what were to him the two great facts of life, the power and beauty of God, and the glory of the human soul. On these, not on nature, he put his stress.
Browning's paramount interest in human nature is further illustrated by his poems on the various arts. Of music, painting, and sculpture he has written with the intimate and minute knowledge of a specialist in each art. He is familiar with implements and materials, with the tricks of the trade, the talk of the studios; but, after all, the art as an art is of much less interest to him than is the worker. The process and even the completed product are in Browning's view important only in so far as they reveal or affect the artist, the musician, the sculptor, or some phase of life. In such poems as "Abt Vogler," "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto," we are conscious not so much of music and pictures as of the secret springs of failure, the divine despairs and discontents, the aspirations, the creative ecstasies, of the men who wrought in these realms. Andrea del Sarto's art is not the real theme of the poem bearing his name. It is, rather, his character, of which his art is an expression. The central fact of the poem is the recognition that a soul morally impoverished cannot, even with well-nigh perfect technique, produce great work, while, even with faulty technique, a setting of the soul to grand issues will secure transcendent meanings. So, too, with Abt Vogler. His music is not of the greatest, but our concern is with the musician who, through the completeness of his spiritual absorption in music, is conducted into a realm of experience beyond that of speech or even of articulate thought.
Another distinctly human aspect of art interests Browning, and that is its power to represent and so to recall a vanished civilization. Greek statues, the devotional pictures of the early Florentines, the work of the later Italian realists, stand, in "Old Pictures in Florence," as representatives of the life and thought that produced them. In "A Toccata of Galuppi's" the music revivifies the superficial gaiety, the undertone of fear, in the life of eighteenth century Venice. Highly significant in this connection are the poems in which he traces the evolution of art. Running through "Old Pictures in Florence" and "Fra Lippo Lippi" we find an ordered statement of the chief changes in the ideals of art as Browning saw them. The Greeks, we are told, had produced in sculpture the most beautiful representations of the human body. But if their successors had been content merely to admire this perfect achievement, they would have purchased satisfaction at the price of their own arrested development. Progress came only when, in the dawn of Italian art, men turned from Greek perfection, from the supremely beautiful but limited representations of the human body, to an attempt to paint the invisible, the spiritual side of man's nature. The work of these artists was great because it was not imitative and because it stretched toward an unending and ideal future. But the idealistic and aspiring temper of early Tuscan art had the defects of its qualities. Its spiritual ecstasy once conventionalized and reduced to a formula led to unreality, and, if not to untruth, at least to an unwholesome ignoring of a part of truth. There was, therefore, an inevitable reaction to the naturalism described with such verve and gusto by Fra Lippo Lippi. But this is, after all, social history in terms of art, and to Browning what has happened in painting is of value chiefly as showing concretely what has happened in the mind of man.
From the instances already cited it is apparent that Browning's interest centered, not in abstract or theoretical discussions of human problems, but in the individuals who face the problems. In this point Browning is sharply distinguished from his poetic contemporaries as a class. They felt deeply "all the weary weight of this unintelligible world," so deeply that while they gave much thought to ideals of social amelioration, few of them presented individuals with any dramatic distinctness. Browning stands practically by himself in the nineteenth century as the poet who gives us both the "doubter and the doubt," who is able to join with an impressive statement of the hopes and fears of man, an equally impressive sequence of individual men and women. In this he harks back to the broad inclusiveness of the Elizabethan dramatists. In contemporary literature, his nearest congeners are in fiction, not in poetry.
The great number and variety of Browning's characters can be illustrated in different ways. We might, for instance, note how many nationalities are represented. The personages in "Stafford" and the "Cavalier Tunes" are Englishmen from the time of the Civil War. "Clive" is a true story of the Indian Empire. We have from Italian life the numerous characters in Sordello, "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Pictor Ignotus," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church," "My Last Duchess," The Ring and the Book, "A Grammarian's Funeral," "Up at a Villa—Down in the City," "In a Gondola," and many more. "Count Gismond" and "Herve Riel" are French stories. Paracelsus and "Abt Vogler" are of German origin. Balaustion's Adventure, Aristophanes' Apology, "Pheidippides," and "Echetlos" celebrate Greek thought and adventure. Very important poems such as "Saul" and "Rabbi Ben Ezra," have to do with Jewish life. And unlike Shakespeare, who is not concerned with making Julius Caesar a Roman or Duke Theseus a Greek, Browning brings to the creation of each of these widely divergent characters, a detailed knowledge of the special habits of life and thought of the nation or race concerned. He represents also many kinds of human interest. We find in his poems seekers after knowledge such as Paracelsus, who takes all thought and fact as his domain; or such as the Grammarian, who found Greek particles too wide a realm; or such as the pedant Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis, whose learned rubbish cumbers the land. There are likewise those who grope after the truths of religion from Caliban on his island to the learned physician Karshish and the highly cultured Cleon; those who have the full vision from John to Rabbi Ben Ezra; those who juggle with terms and creeds as does Bishop Blougram; and out and out frauds like Sludge the Medium. The church is represented by many men dissimilar in endowments, tastes, spiritual experiences, and aims. There are Italian prelates of every sort, from the worldly-minded Bishop of St. Praxed's, occupied in death with vain thoughts of lapis-lazuli and pure Latin, to the "soldier-saint," Caponsacchi, who saved Pompilia, and the wise old Pope who pronounced Guido's doom; from the unworthy priest in the Spanish Cloister to the very human, kindly Pope in "The Bean Feast." And from all these it is far down the ages to the evangelical parish priest of The Inn Album, that "purblind honest drudge," who, the deeper to impress his flock, painted heaven dimly but "made hell distinct." There are many artists, many musicians. There are poets from Aprile in Paracelsus, and the troubadours Eglamour and Sordello, to Keats and Shelley. The extremes of social life are given. There are the street-girls in Pippa Passes and there are kings and queens with royal retinues. There are statesmen, and warriors, and seekers after romantic adventure. There are haughty aristocrats of cold and cruel natures, and there are obscure but high-hearted doers of heroic deeds. Browning's dictum, "Study man, man, whatever the issue," led him into a world wider than that known by any other poet of his time, and akin, as has been pointed out, to that of the great writers of fiction. As an observer of human life he was not unlike his poor poet of Valladolid who, with his "scrutinizing hat," went about the streets, absorbed in watching all kinds of people, all sorts of occupations, "scenting the world, looking it full in the face." He chose to set forth "the wants and ways" of actual life. He summed up his work in the "Epilogue to Pacchiarotto":
Man's thoughts and loves and hates! Earth is my vineyard, these grew there: From grape of the ground I made or marred My vintage.
It is further apparent that Browning's characters are never merely types, but must always be reckoned with as individuals. It was his belief that no two beings were ever made similar in head and heart; hence, even where there are external similarities the essential elements are strongly differentiated. Take, for instance, three poems in which the situations are not unlike. In "My Last Duchess," "The Flight of the Duchess," and The Ring and the Book, we have a portrayal of three men of high lineage, but cold, egotistic, cruel, who have married very young and lovely women over whom the custom of the times gives them absolute power. But there the likeness ends. We cannot for a moment class together the polished, aesthetic, well-bred aristocrat of the first poem, the absurd little popinjay of the second, and the "tiger-cat" of the third. Less strongly, but as clearly are the wives differentiated. To the innocent gaiety of heart, the bright, sweet friendliness of the hapless lady in "My Last Duchess" must be added for the lady in "The Flight of the Duchess" a native force of character which, when roused by the call of the gypsy-queen, enables her to break the yoke imposed on her by the Duke and his mother and go forth into a life of adventure, freedom, and love. The delicate, flower-like Pompilia in The Ring and the Book has also power to initiate and carry through a plan of escape, but her incentive is no call to romantic freedom. Her passive endurance changes to active revolt only when motive and energy are supplied by her love for her child. Or take Pippa and Phene in Pippa Passes, two beautiful young girls brought up in dangerous and evil surroundings, but both innately pure. In character and experience they are, however, as unlike as two girls could be. Phene, undeveloped in mind and heart, the easily duped agent of a cruel trick, appeals to us by her slow, incredulous, but eager response to goodness and aspiration, the tremulous opening of her soul to love. But Pippa, with her observant love of nature, her gay, sportive, winsome fancies, her imaginative sympathy with the lives of others, her knowledge of good and evil, her poise, her bright steadiness of soul, carries us into a different and much more highly evolved world of thought and feeling. So we might go through the great assemblage of Browning's characters to find that each one stands out by himself as a person with his own qualities, possibilities, and problems.
In all this portrayal of individuals the emphasis is on things of the mind and heart. In these realms Browning found nothing alien or uninteresting. From point to point his poetry illustrates what he said in his comment on Sordello, "My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a human soul; little else is worth study." In all his poetry environment is of importance only in so far as it is the stuff on which the soul works. It is "the subtle thing called spirit," it is "the soul's world" to which he devotes himself.
It is only from a study of Browning's many characters that we may arrive at a statement of some of the distinguishing features of his philosophy of life. And any such statements must be made with extreme caution because of his dramatic method. He utters this caution himself when he says of his poems, "Their contents are always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary people." Yet it is possible, by taking the general trend and scope of his work, to make justifiable deductions concerning the dominant ideas in the rich field of his poetry and drama.
In Browning's philosophy of life, words of especial significance are "growth" and "progress." Domizia in Luria says:
How inexhaustibly the spirit grows! One object, she seemed erewhile born to reach With her whole energies and die content— So like a wall at the world's edge is stood, With naught beyond to live for—is that reached?— Already are new undreamed energies Outgrowing under, and extending farther To a new object.
So, too, John in "A Death in the Desert" sums up his belief in the line,
I say that man was made to grow, not stop.
Growth here and growth hereafter are the essential elements of Browning's creed. And there is no other poet in whom all kinds of thinking and doing are so uniformly tested by their outcome in the growth of the soul. Does joy stimulate to fuller life; does suffering bring out moral qualities; do obstacles develop energy; do sharp temptations become a source of strength and assured soldiership; does knowledge of evil lead to a new exaltation of good; does sin lead to self-knowledge and so to regeneration? Then all these are ministers of grace, for through them the soul has reached greater heights and fuller life. Whatever bids the soul "nor stand nor sit, but go" is to be welcomed. The cost of this growth may be great, but the advances of spirit are represented as worth any sacrifice. The lady in "The Flight of the Duchess" goes from splendor and ease to hardship and obscurity, but she wins freedom of thought and of act and the opportunity to test the qualities of her soul. In Pippa Passes Sebald might have had love and wealth, Jules might have attained fame along the conventional path marked out for him by the Monsignor, Luigi had the prospect of an easy life and happy love, the Monsignor might have had enhanced honor from the church into whose coffers he could have turned great revenues. But instead each responds in turn to Pippa's songs; Sebald gains a true view of sin, Jules gets a new conception of service and attainment, Luigi's wavering purpose of self-sacrifice for his country's good is strengthened, the Monsignor is held back from connivance at a crime. In all these cases the external loss is as nothing compared to the gain in spiritual knowledge and energy.
Contact with magnetic and superior personalities is a way of growth particularly noted by Browning. There are men, he says, who bring new feeling fresh from God, and whose life "reteaches us what life should be, what faith is, loyalty and simpleness." Pompilia says of Caponsacchi:
Through such souls alone God stooping shows sufficient of his light For us i' the dark to rise by.
The highest souls are "seers" in the noblest sense and they "impart the gift of seeing to the rest." But the helpful personality need not be great in knowledge or rank. In Pippa Browning emphasizes the power of unconscious goodness in clarifying the spiritual vision of others and in thus stimulating to right action. And in David he shows the power of poetic charm, innocence, and eager love to drive away from another heart a mood of black despair.
But outside influences are, after all, says Browning, of secondary importance. They can, at best, do no more than stimulate and guide. When Andrea del Sarto attributes his general lowering of ideals and power to the influence of Lucrezia, he evades the real issue. Incentives must come from the soul's self. Growth is dependent on personal struggle. Man is, by his very nature,
forced to try and make, else fail to grow— Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain The good beyond him—which attempt is growth.
So, also, is it better that youth
should strive, through acts uncouth, Toward making, than repose on aught found made.
It is in the independence and originality of such striving that the soul discovers and frees its innate potentialities.
An inevitable corollary of this idea of progress is the emphasis put upon aspiration as a habit of the mind. The pursuit of an ideal, a divine discontent with present accomplishment, are enjoined upon man. The gleams of heaven on earth are not meant to be permanent or satisfying, but only to sting man into hunger for full light. When a human being has achieved to the full extent of his perceptions or aspirations, he has, thinks Browning, met with the greatest possible disaster, that of arrested development. Man's powers should ever climb new heights. For his soul's health he should always see "a flying point of bliss remote, a happiness in store afar, a sphere of distant glory." "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" According to this ideal, man's conception of good is ever changing and ever widening and hence never in this life to be fully attained; yet the condition of growth is that he have an unmeasured thirst for good and that he pursue it with unquenchable ardor.
The importance of love as one of the most effective agencies in spiritual growth is stated and restated in Browning's poetry and by exceedingly diverse characters. The Queen in In a Balcony turns away from her lonely splendor to exclaim,
There is no good of life but love—but love! What else looks good is some shade flung from love; Love gilds it, gives it worth.
The Duchess learns from the gypsy
How love is the only good in the world.
The famous singer in "Dis Aliter Visum" knows that art, verse, music, count as naught beside "love found, gained, and kept." Browning seems to regard almost any genuine love as a means of opening out the nature to fuller self-knowledge, to wider sympathies, and to increased power of action. Hence he condemns all cautious calculation of obstacles, all dwelling upon conventional difficulties, in the path of those who have clearly seen "the love-way." Hence even love unrequited is counted of inestimable value. In Colombe's Birthday Valence says,
Is the knowledge of her, naught? the memory, naught? —Lady, should such an one have looked on you, Ne'er wrong yourself so far as quote the world And say, love can go unrequited here! You will have blessed him to his whole life's end— Low passions hindered, baser cares kept back, All goodness cherished where you dwelt—and dwell.
But the love of man and woman is not the only sort. A part of the value of this individual relationship is that it may be regarded as a revelation and symbol of the spirit of all-embracing sympathy whereby mankind should be ruled. When Paracelsus analyzes his life he ascribes his failure to the fact that he has sought knowledge to the exclusion of all else; he finally came to see that knowledge, however profound, is of itself barren of satisfaction. He had meant to serve men by revealing truth to them, but he found that real service is based on the understanding given by love. In self condemnation he says,
In my own heart love had not been made wise To trace love's faint beginnings in mankind, To know even hate is but a mask of love's. To see a good in evil, and a hope In ill-success; to sympathize, be proud Of their half-reasons, faint aspirings, dim Struggles for truth, their poorest fallacies, Their prejudice and fears and cares and doubts; All with a touch of nobleness, despite Their error, upward tending all though weak.
Browning's conception of the function and power of love is based on his belief in its divine origin. Twice at least, in "Easter Day" and "Saul," his characters work out from an overpowering recognition of God's omniscience and omnipotence to a final recognition that his love is equal in scope with his power and knowledge. And he counts human service as most complete when, as in David before Saul, it reaches out to God's love and recruits its failing forces from the divine source.
Underlying Browning's doctrine of the value of love, and his doctrine of progress and aspiration, is his belief in personal immortality. When he was charged with being strongly against Darwin, with rejecting the truths of science and regretting its advance, he answered that the idea of a progressive development from senseless matter until man's appearance had been a familiar conception to him from the beginning, but he reiterated his constant faith in creative intelligence acting on matter but not resulting from it. "Soul," he said, "is not matter, nor from matter, but above." Two assumptions which though not susceptible of proof he regards as "inescapable," are the existence of creative intelligence and of "the subtle thing called spirit." When he argues out the question of the immortality of this spirit, as in La Saisiaz, he admits the subjective character of the evidence; but when he speaks spontaneously out of his own feeling or experience, it is with positive belief in life after death. To Mr. Sharp he said, "Death, death! It is this harping on death that I do despise so much! Why, amico mio, you know as well as I that death is life, just as our daily, our momentarily dying body is none the less alive and ever recruiting new forces of existence. Without death which is our crape-like church-yardy word for change, for growth, there could be no prolongation of what we call life. Pshaw, it is foolish to argue upon such a thing, even. For myself, I deny death as an end of everything. Never say of me that I am dead!" When his wife died he wrote in her Testament these words from Dante, "Thus I believe, thus I affirm, thus I am certain it is, that from this life I shall pass to another better there where that lady lives of whom my soul was enamored." This faith in life after death explains much of Browning's philosophy. The source of the pagan Cleon's profound discouragement was the fact that man should be dowered with "joy-hunger," should be given the ability to perceive and comprehend splendor and breadth of experience, but should, through the straitness of human limitations, be held back from satisfaction and achievement, and should be left to die thus dazzled, thus baffled. The secret of Browning's optimism, on the other hand, is his belief that in heaven the soul is freed from limitations, and blossoms out into capabilities of joy and of activity beyond anything suggested by the most golden dreams of earth. To him all life is a unit, beginning here and destined to unimaginable development hereafter. Earth is regarded as a place of tutelage where man may learn to set foot on some one path to heaven. And no work begun here shall ever pause for death. Even apparent failure here counts for little so the quest be not abandoned. Each of us may, as Abt Vogler, look without despair on the broken arcs of earth if his faith reveals the perfect round in heaven.