However, the three important dramas of Tennyson are better, as dramas, than Browning's. That is natural enough. For Browning's dramas were written when he was young, when his knowledge of the dramatic art was small, and when his intellectual powers were not fully developed. Tennyson wrote his when his knowledge of the Drama was great, and when his intellect had undergone years of careful training. He studied the composition and architecture of the best plays; he worked at the stage situations; he created a blank verse for his plays quite different from that he used in his poems, and a disagreeable thing it is; he introduced songs, like Shakespeare, at happy moments; he imitated the old work, and at the same time strove hard to make his own original. He laboured at the history, and Becket and Harold are painfully historical. History should not master a play, but the play the history. The poet who is betrayed into historical accuracy so as to injure the development of his conception in accordance with imaginative truth, is lost; and Harold and Becket both suffer from Tennyson falling into the hands of those critical historians whom Tennyson consulted.
Nevertheless, by dint of laborious intellectual work, but not by the imagination, not by dramatic genius, Tennyson arrived at a relative success. He did better in these long dramas than Coleridge, Wordsworth, Scott or Byron. Queen Mary, Harold, and Becket get along in one's mind with some swiftness when one reads them in an armchair by the fire. Some of the characters are interesting and wrought with painful skill. We cannot forget the pathetic image of Queen Mary, which dwells in the mind when the play has disappeared; nor the stately representation in Becket of the mighty and overshadowing power of Rome, claiming as its own possession the soul of the world. But the minor characters; the action; the play of the characters, great and small, and of the action and circumstance together towards the catastrophe—these things were out of Tennyson's reach, and still more out of Browning's. They could both build up characters, and Browning better than Tennyson; they could both set two people to talk together, and by their talk to reveal their character to us; but to paint action, and the action of many men and women moving to a plotted end; to paint human life within the limits of a chosen subject, changing and tossing and unconscious of its fate, in a town, on a battlefield, in the forum, in a wild wood, in the king's palace or a shepherd farm; and to image this upon the stage, so that nothing done or said should be unmotived, unrelated to the end, or unnatural; of that they were quite incapable, and Browning more incapable than Tennyson.
There is another thing to say. The three long dramas of Tennyson are better as dramas than the long ones of Browning. But the smaller dramatic pieces of Browning are much better than the smaller ones of Tennyson. The Promise of May is bad in dialogue, bad in composition, bad in delineation of character, worst of all in its subject, in its plot, and in its motives. The Cup, and The Falcon, a beautiful story beautifully written by Boccaccio, is strangely dulled, even vulgarised, by Tennyson. The Robin Hood play has gracious things in it, but as a drama it is worthless, and it is impossible to forgive Tennyson for his fairies. All these small plays are dreadful examples of what a great poet may do when he works in a vehicle—if I may borrow a term from painting—for which he has no natural capacity, but for which he thinks he has. He is then like those sailors, and meets justly the same fate, who think that because they can steer a boat admirably, they can also drive a coach and four. The love scene in Becket between Rosamund and Henry illustrates my meaning. It was a subject in itself that Tennyson ought to have done well, and would probably have done well in another form of poetry; but, done in a form for which he had no genius, he did it badly. It is the worst thing in the play. Once, however, he did a short drama fairly well. The Cup has some dramatic movement, its construction is clear, its verse imaginative, its scenery well conceived; and its motives are simple and easily understood. But then, as in Becket, Irving stood at his right hand, and advised him concerning dramatic changes and situations. Its passion is, however, cold; it leaves us unimpressed.
On the contrary, Browning's smaller dramatic pieces—I cannot call them dramas—are much better than those of Tennyson. Pippa Passes, A Soul's Tragedy, In a Balcony, stand on a much higher level, aim higher, and reach their aim more fully than Tennyson's shorter efforts. They have not the qualities which fit them for representation, but they have those which fit them for thoughtful and quiet reading. No one thinks much of the separate personalities; our chief interest is in following Browning's imagination as it invents new phases of his subject, and plays like a sword in sunlight, in and out of these phases. As poems of the soul in severe straits, made under a quasi-dramatic form, they reach a high excellence, but all that we like best in them, when we follow them as situations of the soul, we should most dislike when represented on the stage.
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Strafford is, naturally, the most immature of the dramas, written while he was still writing Paracelsus, and when he was very young. It is strange to compare the greater part of its prosaic verse with the rich poetic verse of Paracelsus; and this further illustrates how much a poet suffers when he writes in a form which is not in his genius. There are only a very few passages in Strafford which resemble poetry until we come to the fifth Act, where Browning passes from the jerky, allusive but rhythmical prose of the previous acts into that talk between Strafford and his children which has poetic charm, clearness and grace. The change does not last long, and when Hollis, Charles and Lady Carlisle, followed by Pym, come in, the whole Act is in confusion. Nothing is clear, except absence of the clearness required for a drama. But the previous Acts are even more obscure; not indeed for their readers, but for hearers in a theatre who—since they are hurried on at once to new matter—are forced to take in on the instant what the dramatist means. It would be impossible to tell at first hearing what the chopped-up sentences, the interrupted phrases, the interjected "nots" and "buts" and "yets" are intended to convey. The conversation is mangled. This vice does not prevail in the other dramas to the same extent as in Strafford. Browning had learnt his lesson, I suppose, when he saw Strafford represented. But it sorely prevails in Colombe's Birthday.
Strafford is brought before us as a politician, as the leader of the king's side in an austere crisis of England's history. The first scene puts the great quarrel forward as the ground on which the drama is to be wrought. An attempt is made to represent the various elements of the popular storm in the characters of Pym, Hampden, the younger Vane and others, and especially in the relations between Pym and Strafford, who are set over, one against the other, with some literary power. But the lines on which the action is wrought are not simple. No audience could follow the elaborate network of intrigue which, in Browning's effort to represent too much of the history, he has made so confused. Strong characterisation perishes in this effort to write a history rather than a drama. What we chiefly see of the crisis is a series of political intrigues at the Court carried out by base persons, of whom the queen is the basest, to ruin Strafford; the futility of Strafford's sentimental love of the king, whom he despises while he loves him; Strafford's blustering weakness and blindness when he forces his way into the Parliament House, and the contemptible meanness of Charles. The low intrigues of the Court leave the strongest impression on the mind, not the mighty struggle, not the fate of the Monarchy and its dark supporter.
Browning tries—as if he had forgotten that which should have been first in his mind—to lift the main struggle into importance in the last Act, but he fails. That which ought to be tragic is merely sentimental. Indeed, sentimentality is the curse of the play. Strafford's love of the king is almost maudlin. The scenes between Strafford and Pym in which their ancient friendship is introduced are over-sentimentalised, not only for their characters, but for the great destinies at stake. Even at the last, when Pym and Strafford forgive each other and speak of meeting hereafter, good sense is violated, and the natural dignity of the scene, and the characters of the men. Strafford is weaker here, if that were possible, than he is in the rest of the drama. Nothing can be more unlike the man.
Pym is intended to be especially strong. He is made a blusterer. He was a gentleman, but in this last scene he is hateful. As to Charles, he was always a selfish liar, but he was not a coward, and a coward he becomes in this play. He, too, is sentimentalised by his uxoriousness. Lady Carlisle is invented. I wish she had not been. Stratford's misfortunes were deep enough without having her in love with him. I do not believe, moreover, that any woman in the whole world from the very beginning was ever so obscure in her speech to the man she loves as Lady Carlisle was to Strafford. And the motive of her obscurity—that if she discloses the King's perfidy she robs Strafford of that which is dearest to him—his belief in the King's affection for him—is no doubt very fine, but the woman was either not in love who argued in that way, or a fool; for Strafford knew, and lets her understand that he knew, the treachery of the King. But Browning meant her to be in love, and to be clever.
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The next play Browning wrote, undeterred by the fate of Strafford, was King Victor and King Charles. The subject is historical, but it is modified by Browning, quite legitimately, to suit his own purposes. In itself the plot is uninteresting. King Victor, having brought the kingdom to the verge of ruin, abdicates and hands the crown to his son, believing him to be a weak-minded person whose mistakes will bring him—Victor—back to the throne, when he can throw upon the young king the responsibility of the mess he has himself made of the kingdom. Charles turns out to be a strong character, sets right the foreign affairs of the kingdom, and repairs his father's misgovernment. Then Victor, envious and longing for power, conspires to resume the throne, and taken prisoner, begs back the crown. Charles, touched as a son, and against his better judgment, restores his father, who immediately and conveniently dies. It is a play of court intrigue and of politics, and these are not made interesting by any action, such as we call dramatic, in the play. From end to end there is no inter-movement of public passion. There are only four characters. D'Ormea, the minister, is a mere stick in a prime-minister's robes and serves Victor and Charles with equal ease, in order to keep his place. He is not even subtle in his role. When we think what Browning would have made of him in a single poem, and contrast it with what he has made of him here, we are again impressed with Browning's strange loss of power when he is writing drama. Victor and Charles are better drawn than any characters in Strafford; and Polyxena is a great advance on Lady Carlisle. But this piece is not a drama; it is a study of soul-situations, and none of them are of any vital importance. There is far too great an improbability in the conception of Charles. A weak man in private becomes a strong man in public life. To represent him, having known and felt his strength, as relapsing into his previous weakness when it endangers all his work, is quite too foolish. He did not do it in history. Browning, with astonishing want of insight, makes him do it here, and adds to it a foolish anger with his wife because she advises him against it. And the reason he does it and is angry with his wife, is a merely sentimental one—a private, unreasoning, childish love of his father, such a love as Strafford is supposed to have for Charles I.—the kind of love which intruded into public affairs ruins them, and which, being feeble and for an unworthy object, injures him who gives it and him who receives it. Even as a study of characters, much more as a drama, this piece is a failure, and the absence of poetry in it is amazing.
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The Return of the Druses approaches more nearly to a true drama than its predecessors; it is far better written; it has several fine motives which are intelligently, but not dramatically, worked out; and it is with great joy that one emerges at last into a little poetry. Browning, having more or less invented his subject, is not seduced, by the desire to be historical, to follow apparent instead of imaginative truth; nor are we wearied by his unhappy efforts to analyse, in disconnected conversations, political intrigue. Things are in this play as the logic of imaginative passion wills, as Browning's conception drove him. But, unfortunately for its success as a true drama, Browning doubles and redoubles the motives which impel his characters. Djabal, Anael, Loys, have all of them, two different and sometimes opposite aims working in them. They are driven now by one, now by the other, and the changes of speech and action made by the different motives surging up, alternately or together, within their will, are so swift and baffling that an audience would be utterly bewildered. It is amusing to follow the prestidigitation of Browning's intellect creating this confused battle in souls as long as one reads the play at home, though even then we wonder why he cannot, at least in a drama, make a simple situation. If he loved difficult work, this would be much more difficult to do well than the confused situation he has not done well. Moreover, the simplified situation would be effective on the stage; and it would give a great opportunity for fine poetry. As it is, imaginative work is replaced by intellectual exercises, poetry is lost in his analysis of complex states of feeling. However, this involved in-and-out of thought is entertaining to follow in one's study if not on the stage. It is done with a loose power no one else in England possessed, and our only regret is that he did not bridle and master his power. Finally, with regard to this play, I should like to isolate from it certain imaginative representations of characters which embody types of the men of the time, such as the Prefect and the Nuncio. The last interview between Loys and the Prefect, taken out of the drama, would be a little masterpiece of characterisation.
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The Blot in the Scutcheon is the finest of all these dramas. It might well be represented on the stage as a literary drama before those who had already read it, and who would listen to it for its passion and poetry; but its ill-construction and the unnaturalness of its situations will always prevent, and justly, its public success as a drama. It is full of pathetic and noble poetry; its main characters are clearly outlined and of a refreshing simplicity. It has few obtrusive metaphysical or intellectual subtleties—things which Browning could not keep out of his dramas, but which only a genius like Shakespeare can handle on the stage. It has real intensity of feeling, and the various passions interlock and clash together with some true dramatic interaction. Their presentation awakens our pity, and wonder for the blind fates of men. The close leaves us in sorrow, yet in love with human nature. The pathos of the catastrophe is the most pathetic thing in Browning. I do not even except the lovely record of Pompilia. The torture of the human heart, different but equal, of Tresham and Mildred in the last scene, is exceedingly bitter in its cry—too cruel almost to hear and know, were it not relieved by the beauty of their tenderness and forgiveness in the hour of death. They die of their pain, but die loving, and are glad to die. They have all of them—Mildred, Tresham, and Mertoun—sinned as it were by error. Death unites them in righteousness, loveliness and love. A fierce, swift storm sweeps out of a clear heaven upon them, destroys them, and saves them. It is all over in three days. They are fortunate; their love deserved that the ruin should be brief, and the reparation be transferred, in a moment, to the grave justice of eternity.
The first two acts bear no comparison with the third. The first scene, with all the servants, only shows how Browning failed in bringing a number of characters together, and in making them talk with ease and connectedly. Then, in two acts, the plot unfolds itself. It is a marvel of bad construction, grossly improbable, and offends that popular common sense of what is justly due to the characters concerned and to human nature itself, to which a dramatist is bound to appeal.
Mildred and Mertoun have loved and sinned. Mertoun visits her every night. Gerard, an old gamekeeper, has watched him climbing to her window, and he resolves to tell this fatal tale to Tresham, Mildred's brother, whose strongest feeling is pride in the unblemished honour of his house. Meantime Mertoun has asked Tresham for Mildred's hand in marriage, and these lovers, receiving his consent, hope that their sin will be purged. Then Gerard tells his story. Tresham summons Mildred. She confesses the lover, and Tresham demands his name. To reveal the name would have saved the situation, as we guess from Tresham's character. His love would have had time to conquer his pride. But Mildred will not tell the name, and when Tresham says: "Then what am I to say to Mertoun?" she answers, "I will marry him." This, and no wonder, seems the last and crowning dishonour to Tresham, and he curses, as if she were a harlot, the sister whom he passionately loves.
This is a horrible situation which Browning had no right to make. The natural thing would be for Mildred to disclose that her lover and Lord Mertoun, whom she was to marry, were one and the same. There is no adequate reason, considering the desperate gravity of the situation, for her silence; it ought to be accounted for and it is not, nor could it be. Her refusal to tell her lover's name, her confession of her dishonour and at the same time her acceptance of Mertoun as a husband at her brother's hands, are circumstances which shock probability and common human nature.
Then it is not only this which irritates a reader; it is also the stupidity of Tresham. That also is most unnatural. He believes that the girl whom he has loved and honoured all his life, whose purity was as a star to him, will accept Mertoun while she was sinning with another! He should have felt that this was incredible, and immediately understood, as Guendolen does, that her lover and Mertoun were the same. Dulness and blindness so improbable are unfitting in a drama, nor does the passion of his overwhelming pride excuse him. The central situation is a protracted irritation. Browning was never a good hand at construction, even in his poems. His construction is at its very worst in this drama.
But now, when we have, with wrath, accepted this revolting situation—which, of course, Browning made in order to have his tragic close, but which a good dramatist would have arranged so differently—we pass into the third act, the tragic close; and that is simple enough in its lines, quite naturally wrought out, beautifully felt, and of exquisite tenderness. Rashness of wrath and pride begin it; Mertoun is slain by Tresham as he climbs to Mildred's window, though why he should risk her honour any more when she is affianced to him is another of Browning's maddening improbabilities. And then wrath and pride pass away, and sorrow and love and the joy of death are woven together in beauty. If we must go through the previous acts to get to this, we forgive, for its sake, their wrongness. It has turns of love made exquisitely fair by inevitable death, unfathomable depths of feeling. We touch in these last scenes the sacred love beyond the world in which forgiveness is forgotten.
* * * * *
Colombe's Birthday is of all these plays the nearest to a true drama. It has been represented in America as well as in England, and its skilful characterisation of Valence, Colombe, and Berthold has won deserved praise; but it could not hold the stage. The subject is too thin. Colombe finds out on her birthday that she is not the rightful heir to the Duchy; but as there is some doubt, she resolves to fight the question. In her perplexities she is helped and supported by Valence, an advocate from one of the cities of the Duchy, who loves her, but whom she believes to serve her from loyalty alone. Berthold, the true heir, to avoid a quarrel, offers to marry Colombe, not because he loves her, but as a good piece of policy. She then finds out that she loves Valence, and refusing the splendid alliance, leaves the court a private person, with love and her lover. This slight thing is spun out into five acts by Browning's metaphysics of love and friendship. There is but little action, or pressure of the characters into one another. The intriguing courtiers are dull, and their talk is not knit together. The only thing alive in them is their universal meanness. That meanness, it is true, enhances the magnanimity of Valence and Berthold, but its dead level in so many commonplace persons lowers the dramatic interest of the piece. The play is rather an interesting conversational poem about the up-growing of love between two persons of different but equally noble character; who think love is of more worth than power or wealth, and who are finally brought together by a bold, rough warrior who despises love in comparison with policy. Its real action takes place in the hearts of Valence and Colombe, not in the world of human life; and what takes place in their hearts is at times so quaintly metaphysical, so curiously apart from the simplicities of human love, so complicated, even beyond the complexity of the situation—for Browning loved to pile complexity on complexity—that it makes the play unfit for public representation but all the more interesting for private reading. But, even in the quiet of our room, we ask why Browning put his subject into a form which did not fit it; why he overloaded the story of two souls with a host of characters who have no vital relation to it, and, having none, are extremely wearisome? It might have been far more successfully done in the form of In a Balcony, which Browning himself does not class as a drama.
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Luria, the last of the dramas in date of composition, may be said to have no outward action, except in one scene where Tiburzio breaks in suddenly to defend Luria, who, like a wounded stag, stands at bay among the dogs and hunters who suspect his fidelity to Florence. It is a drama of inward action, of changes in the souls of men. The full purification of Luria is its one aim, and the motive of Luria himself is a single motive. The play occupies one day only, and passes in one place.
Luria is a noble Moor who commands the armies of Florence against Pisa, and conquers Pisa. He is in love with the city of Florence as a man is with a woman. Its beauty, history, great men, and noble buildings attract his Eastern nature, by their Northern qualities, as much as they repel his friend and countryman Husain. He lives for her with unbroken faithfulness, and he dies for her with piteous tenderness when he finds out that Florence distrusts him. When he is suspected of treachery, his heart breaks, and to explain his broken heart, he dies. There is no other way left to show to Florence that he has always been true to her. And at the moment of his death, all who spied on him, distrusted and condemned him, are convinced of his fidelity. Even before he dies, his devotion to his ideal aim, his absolute unselfishness, have won over and ennobled all the self-interested characters which surround him—Puccio, the general who is jealous of him; Domizia, the woman who desires to use him as an instrument of her hate to Florence; even Braccio, the Macchiavellian Florentine who thinks his success must be dangerous to the state. Luria conquers them all. It is the triumph of self-forgetfulness. And the real aim of the play is not dramatic. It is too isolated an aim to be dramatic. It is to build up and image the noble character of Luria, and it reaches that end with dignity.
The other characters are but foils to enhance the solitary greatness of Luria. Braccio is a mere voice, a theory who talks, and, at the end, when he becomes more human, he seems to lose his intelligence. The Secretaries have no individuality. Domizia causes nothing, and might with advantage be out of the play. However, when, moved by the nobleness of Luria, she gives up her revenge on Florence, she speaks well, and her outburst is poetical. Puccio is a real personage, but a poor fellow. Tiburzio is a pale reflection of Luria. Husain alone has some personality, but even his Easternness, which isolates him, is merged in his love of Luria. All of them only exist to be the scaffolding by means of which Luria's character is built into magnificence, and they disappear from our sight, like scaffolding, when the building is finished.
There are fine things in the poem: the image of Florence; its men, its streets, its life as seen by the stranger-eyes of Luria; the contrast between the Eastern and the Latin nature; the picture of hot war; the sudden friendship of Luria and Tiburzio, the recognition in a moment of two high hearts by one another; the picture of Tiburzio fighting at the ford, of Luria tearing the letter among the shamed conspirators; the drawing of the rough honest soldier-nature in Puccio, and, chief of all, the vivid historic painting of the time and the type of Italian character at the time of the republics.
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The first part of A Soul's Tragedy is written in poetry and the second in prose. The first part is dull but the second is very lively and amusing; so gay and clever that we begin to wish that a good deal of Browning's dramas had been written in prose. And the prose itself, unlike his more serious prose in his letters and essays, is good, clear, and of an excellent style. The time of the play is in the sixteenth century; but there is nothing in it which is special to that time: no scenery, no vivid pictures of street life, no distinct atmosphere of the period. It might just as well be of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The character of Chiappino may be found in any provincial town. This compound of envy, self-conceit, superficial cleverness and real silliness is one of our universal plagues, and not uncommon among the demagogues of any country. And he contrasts him with Ogniben, the Pope's legate, another type, well known in governments, skilled in affairs, half mocking, half tolerant of the "foolish people," the alluring destroyer of all self-seeking leaders of the people. He also is as common as Chiappino, as modern as he is ancient. Both are representative types, and admirably drawn. They are done at too great length, but Browning could not manage them as well in Drama as he would have done in a short piece such as he placed in Men and Women. Why this little thing is called A Soul's Tragedy I cannot quite understand. That title supposes that Chiappino loses his soul at the end of the play. But it is plain from his mean and envious talk at the beginning with Eulalia that his soul is already lost. He is not worse at the end, but perhaps on the way to betterment. The tragedy is then in the discovery by the people that he who was thought to be a great soul is a fraud. But that conclusion was not Browning's intention. Finally, if this be a tragedy it is clothed with comedy. Browning's humour was never more wise, kindly, worldly and biting than in the second act, and Ogniben may well be set beside Bishop Blougram. It would be a privilege to dine with either of them.
Every one is in love with Pippa Passes, which appeared immediately after Sordello. It may have been a refreshment to Browning after the complexities and metaphysics of Sordello, to live for a time with the soft simplicity of Pippa, with the clear motives of the separate occurrences at Asolo, with the outside picturesque world, and in a lyric atmosphere. It certainly is a refreshment to us. It is a pity so little was done by Browning in this pleasant, graceful, happy way. The substance of thought in it and its intellectual force are just as strong as in Sordello or Paracelsus, and are concerned, especially in the first two pieces, with serious and weighty matters of human life. Beyond the pleasure the poem gives, its indirect teaching is full of truth and beauty; and the things treated of belong to many phases of human life, and touch their problems with poetic light and love. Pippa herself, in her affectionate, natural goodness, illuminates the greater difficulties of life in a single day more than Sordello or Paracelsus could in the whole course of their lives.
It may be that there are persons who think lightly of Pippa Passes in comparison with Fifine at the Fair, persons who judge poetry by the difficulties they find in its perusal. But Pippa Passes fulfils the demands of the art of poetry, and produces in the world the high results of lovely and noble poetry. The other only does these things in part; and when Fifine at the Fair and even Sordello are in the future only the study of pedants, Pippa Passes will be an enduring strength and pleasure to all who love tenderly and think widely. And those portions of it which belong to Pippa herself, the most natural, easy and simplest portions, will be the sources of the greatest pleasure and the deepest thought. Like Sordello's song, they will endure for the healing, comforting, exalting and impelling of the world.
I have written of her and of other parts of the poem elsewhere. It only remains to say that nowhere is the lyric element in Browning's genius more delightfully represented than in this little piece of mingled song and action. There is no better love-lyric in his work than
You'll love me yet!—and I can tarry Your love's protracted growing;
and the two snatches of song which Pippa sings when she is passing under Ottima's window and the Monsignore's—"The year's at the spring" and "Overhead the tree-tops meet"—possess, independent of the meaning of the words and their poetic charm, a freshness, dewiness, morning ravishment to which it is difficult to find an equal. They are filled with youth and its delight, alike of the body and the soul. What Browning's spirit felt and lived when he was young and his heart beating with the life of the universe, is in them, and it is their greatest charm.
* * * * *
POEMS OF THE PASSION OF LOVE
When we leave Paracelsus, Sordello and the Dramas behind, and find ourselves among the host of occasional poems contained in the Dramatic Lyrics and Romances, in Men and Women, in Dramatis Personae, and in the later volumes, it is like leaving an unencumbered sea for one studded with a thousand islands. Every island is worth a visit and different from the rest. Their variety, their distinct scenery, their diverse inhabitants, the strange surprises in them, are as continual an enchantment for the poetic voyager as the summer isles of the Pacific. But while each of them is different from the rest, yet, like the islands in the Pacific, they fall into groups; and to isolate these groups is perhaps the best way to treat so varied a collection of poems. To treat them chronologically would be a task too long and wearisome for a book. To treat them zoologically, if I may borrow that term, is possible, and may be profitable. This chapter is dedicated to the poems which relate to Love.
Commonly speaking, the term Love Poems does not mean poems concerning the absolute Love, or the love of Ideas, such as Truth or Beauty, or Love of mankind or one's own country, or the loves that belong to home, or the love of friends, or even married love unless it be specially bound up, as it is in Browning's poem of By the Fireside, with ante-nuptial love—but poems expressing the isolating passion of one sex for the other; chiefly in youth, or in conditions which resemble those of youth, whether moral or immoral. These celebrate the joys and sorrows, rapture and despair, changes and chances, moods, fancies, and imaginations, quips and cranks and wanton wiles, all the tragedy and comedy, of that passion, which is half of the sense and half of the spirit, sometimes wholly of the senses and sometimes wholly of the spirit. It began, in one form of it, among the lower animals and still rules their lives; it has developed through many thousand years of humanity into myriads of shapes in and outside of the soul; into stories whose varieties and multitudes are more numerous than the stars of heaven or the sand of the seashore; and yet whose multitudinous changes and histories have their source in two things only—in the desire to generate, which is physical; in the desire to forget self in another, which is spiritual. The union of both these desires into one passion of thought, act and feeling is the fine quintessence of this kind of love; but the latter desire alone is the primal motive of all the other forms of love, from friendship and maternal love to love of country, of mankind, of ideas, and of God.
With regard to love-poems of the sort we now discuss, the times in history when they are most written are those in which a nation or mankind renews its youth. Their production in the days of Elizabeth was enormous, their passion various and profound, their fancy elaborate, their ornament extravagant with the extravagance of youth; and, in the hands of the greater men, their imagination was as fine as their melody. As that age grew older they were not replaced but were dominated by more serious subjects; and though love in its fantasies was happily recorded in song during the Caroline period, passion in English love-poetry slowly decayed till the ideas of the Revolution, before the French outbreak, began to renew the youth of the world. The same career is run by the individual poet. The subject of his youth is the passion of love, as it was in Browning's Pauline. The subjects of his manhood are serious with other thought and feeling, sad with another sadness, happy with another happiness. They traverse a wider range of human feeling and thought, and when they speak of love, it is of love in its wiser, steadier, graver and less selfish forms. It was so with Browning, who far sooner than his comrades, escaped from the tangled wilderness of youthful passion. It is curious to think that so young a creature as he was in 1833 should have left the celebration of the love of woman behind him, and only written of the love which his Paracelsus images in Aprile. It seems a little insensitive in so young a man. But I do not think Browning was ever quite young save at happy intervals; and this falls in with the fact that his imagination was more intellectual than passionate; that while he felt love, he also analysed, even dissected it, as he wrote about it; that it scarcely ever carried him away so far as to make him forget everything but itself. Perhaps once or twice, as in The Last Ride Together, he may have drawn near to this absorption, but even then the man is thinking more of his own thoughts than of the woman by his side, who must have been somewhat wearied by so silent a companion. Even in By the Fireside, when he is praising the wife whom he loved with all his soul, and recalling the moment of early passion while yet they looked on one another and felt their souls embrace before they spoke—it is curious to find him deviating from the intensity of the recollection into a discussion of what might have been if she had not been what she was—a sort of excursus on the chances of life which lasts for eight verses—before he returns to that immortal moment. Even after years of married life, a poet, to whom passion has been in youth supreme, would scarcely have done that. On the whole, his poetry, like that of Wordsworth, but not so completely, is destitute of the love-poem in the ordinary sense of the word; and the few exceptions to which we might point want so much that exclusiveness of a lover which shuts out all other thought but that of the woman, that it is difficult to class them in that species of literature. However, this is not altogether true, and the main exception to it is a curious-piece of literary and personal history. Those who read Asolando, the last book of poems he published, were surprised to find with what intensity some of the first poems in it described the passion of sexual love. They are fully charged with isolated emotion; other thoughts than those of love do not intrude upon them. Moreover, they have a sincere lyric note. It is impossible, unless by a miracle of imagination, that these could have been written when he was about eighty years of age. I believe, though I do not know, that he wrote them when he was quite a young man; that he found them on looking over his portfolios, and had a dim and scented pleasure in reading and publishing them in his old age. He mentions in the preface that the book contains both old and new poems. The new are easily isolated, and the first poem, the introduction to the collection, is of the date of the book. The rest belong to different periods of his life. The four poems to which I refer are Now, Summum Bonum, A Pearl—A Girl, and Speculative. They are beautiful with a beauty of their own; full of that natural abandonment of the whole world for one moment with the woman loved, which youth and the hours of youth in manhood feel. I should have been sorry if Browning had not shaped into song this abandonment. He loved the natural, and was convinced of its rightness; and he had, as I might prove, a tenderness for it even when it passed into wrong. He was the last man in the world to think that the passion of noble sexual love was to be despised. And it is pleasant to find, at the end of his long poetic career, that, in a serious and wise old age, he selected, to form part of his last book, poems of youthful and impassioned love, in which the senses and the spirit met, each in their pre-eminence.
The two first of these, Now and Summum Bonum, must belong to his youth, though from certain turns of expression and thought in them, it seems that Browning worked on them at the time he published them. I quote the second for its lyric charm, even though the melody is ruthlessly broken,
All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee: All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem: In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea: Breath and bloom, shade and shine,—wonder, wealth, and —how far above them— Truth, that's brighter than gem, Trust, that's purer than pearl,— Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe—all were for me In the kiss of one girl.
The next two poems are knit to this and to Now by the strong emotion of earthly love, of the senses as well as of the spirit, for one woman; but they differ in the period at which they were written. The first, A Pearl—A Girl, recalls that part of the poem By the Fireside, when one look, one word, opened the infinite world of love to Browning. If written when he was young, it has been revised in after life.
A simple ring with a single stone To the vulgar eye no stone of price: Whisper the right word, that alone— Forth starts a sprite, like fire from ice, And lo, you are lord (says an Eastern scroll) Of heaven and earth, lord whole and sole Through the power in a pearl.
A woman ('tis I this time that say) With little the world counts worthy praise Utter the true word—out and away Escapes her soul: I am wrapt in blaze, Creation's lord, of heaven and earth Lord whole and sole—by a minute's birth— Through the love in a girl!
The second—Speculative—also describes a moment of love-longing, but has the characteristics of his later poetry. It may be of the same date as the book, or not much earlier. It may be of his later manhood, of the time when he lost his wife. At any rate, it is intense enough. It looks back on the love he has lost, on passion with the woman he loved. And he would surrender all—Heaven, Nature, Man, Art—in this momentary fire of desire; for indeed such passion is momentary. Momentariness is the essence of the poem. "Even in heaven I will cry for the wild hours now gone by—Give me back the Earth and Thyself." Speculative, he calls it, in an after irony.
Others may need new life in Heaven— Man, Nature, Art—made new, assume! Man with new mind old sense to leaven, Nature—new light to clear old gloom, Art that breaks bounds, gets soaring-room.
I shall pray: "Fugitive as precious— Minutes which passed,—return, remain! Let earth's old life once more enmesh us, You with old pleasure, me—old pain, So we but meet nor part again!"
Nor was this reversion to the passion of youthful love altogether a new departure. The lyrics in Ferishtah's Fancies are written to represent, from the side of emotion, the intellectual and ethical ideas worked out in the poems. The greater number of them are beautiful, and they would gain rather than lose if they were published separately from the poems. Some are plainly of the same date as the poems. Others, I think, were written in Browning's early time, and the preceding poems are made to fit them. But whatever be their origin, they nearly all treat of love, and one of them with a crude claim on the love of the senses alone, as if that—as if the love of the body, even alone—were not apart from the consideration of a poet who wished to treat of the whole of human nature. Browning, when he wished to make a thought or a fact quite plain, frequently stated it without any of its modifications, trusting to his readers not to mistake him; knowing indeed, that if they cared to find the other side—in this case the love which issues from the senses and the spirit together, or from the spirit alone—they would find it stated just as soundly and clearly. He meant us to combine both statements, and he has done so himself with regard to love.
When, however, we have considered these exceptions, it still remains curious how little the passionate Love-poem, with its strong personal touch, exists in Browning's poetry. One reason may be that Love-poems of this kind are naturally lyrical, and demand a sweet melody in the verse, and Browning's genius was not especially lyrical, nor could he inevitably command a melodious movement in his verse. But the main reason is that he was taken up with other and graver matters, and chiefly with the right theory of life; with the true relation of God and man; and with the picturing—for absolute Love's sake, and in order to win men to love one another by the awakening of pity—of as much of humanity as he could grasp in thought and feeling. Isolated and personal love was only a small part of this large design.
One personal love, however, he possessed fully and intensely. It was his love for his wife, and three poems embody it. The first is By the Fireside. It does not take rank as a true love lyric; it is too long, too many-motived for a lyric. It is a meditative poem of recollective tenderness wandering through the past; and no poem written on married love in England is more beautiful. The poet, sitting silent in the room where his wife sits with him, sees all his life with her unrolled, muses on what has been, and is, since she came to bless his life, or what will be, since she continues to bless it; and all the fancies and musings which, in a usual love lyric, would not harmonise with the intensity of love-passion in youth, exactly fit in with the peace and satisfied joy of a married life at home with God and nature and itself. The poem is full of personal charm. Quiet thought, profound feeling and sweet memory like a sunlit mist, soften the aspect of the room, the image of his wife, and all the thoughts, emotions and scenery described. It is a finished piece of art.
The second of these poems is the Epilogue to the volumes of Men and Women, entitled One Word More. It also is a finished piece of art, carefully conceived, upbuilded stone by stone, touch by touch, each separate thought with its own emotion, each adding something to the whole, each pushing Browning's emotion and picture into our souls, till the whole impression is received. It is full, and full to the brim, with the long experience of peaceful joy in married love. And the subtlety of the close of it, and of Browning's play with his own fancy about the moon, do not detract from the tenderness of it; for it speaks not of transient passion but of the love of a whole life lived from end to end in music.
The last of these is entitled Prospice. When he wrote it he had lost his wife. It tells what she had made of him; it reveals alike his steadfast sadness that she had gone from him and the steadfast resolution, due to her sweet and enduring power, with which, after her death, he promised, bearing with him his sorrow and his memory of joy, to stand and withstand in the battle of life, ever a fighter to the close—and well he kept his word. It ends with the expression of his triumphant certainty of meeting her, and breaks forth at last into so great a cry of pure passion that ear and heart alike rejoice. Browning at his best, Browning in the central fire of his character, is in it.
Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat, The mist in my face, When the snows begin, and the blasts denote I am nearing the place, The power of the night, the press of the storm, The post of the foe; Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form, Yet the strong man must go: For the journey is done and the summit attained And the barriers fall, Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained, The reward of it all. I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more, The best and the last! I would hate that Death bandaged my eyes, and forbore, And bade me creep past. No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers The heroes of old, Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears Of pain, darkness and cold. For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave, The black minute's at end, And the elements' rage, the fiend-voices that rave, Shall dwindle, shall blend, Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, Then a light, then thy breast, O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, And with God be the rest!
Leaving now these personal poems on Love, we come to those we may call impersonal. They are poems about love, not in its simplicities, but in its subtle moments—moments that Browning loved to analyse, and which he informed not so much with the passion of love, as with his profound love of human nature. He describes in them, with the seriousness of one who has left youth behind, the moods of love, its changes, vagaries, certainties, failures and conquests. It is a man writing, not of the love of happy youth, but of love tossed on the stormy seas of manhood and womanhood, and modified from its singular personal intensity by the deeper thought, feeling and surprising chances of our mortal life. Love does not stand alone, as in the true love lyric, but with many other grave matters. As such it is a more interesting subject for Browning. For Love then becomes full of strange turns, unexpected thoughts, impulses unknown before creating varied circumstances, and created by them; and these his intellectual spirituality delighted to cope with, and to follow, labyrinth after labyrinth. I shall give examples of these separate studies, which have always an idea beyond the love out of which the poem arises. In some of them the love is finally absorbed in the idea. In all of them their aim is beyond the love of which they speak.
Love among the Ruins tells of a lover going to meet his sweetheart. There are many poems with this expectant motive in the world of song, and no motive has been written of with greater emotion. If we are to believe these poems, or have ever waited ourselves, the hour contains nothing but her presence, what she is doing, how she is coming, why she delays, what it will be when she comes—a thousand things, each like white fire round her image. But Browning's lover, through nine verses, cares only for the wide meadows over which he makes his way and the sheep wandering over them, and their flowers and the ruins in the midst of them; musing on the changes and contrasts of the world—the lonely land and the populous glory which was of old in the vast city. It is only then, and only in two lines, that he thinks of the girl who is waiting for him in the ruined tower. Even then his imagination cannot stay with her, but glances from her instantly—thinking that the ancient king stood where she is waiting, and looked, full of pride, from the high tower on his splendid city. When he has elaborated this second excursion of thought he comes at last to the girl. Then is the hour of passion, but even in its fervour he draws a conclusion, belonging to a higher world than youthful love, as remote from it as his description of the scenery and the ruins. "Splendour of arms, triumph of wealth, centuries of glory and pride, they are nothing to love. Love is best." It is a general, not a particular conclusion. In a true Love-poem it would be particular.
Another poem of waiting love is In Three Days. And this has the spirit of a true love lyric in it. It reads like a personal thing; it breathes exaltation; it is quick, hurried, and thrilled. The delicate fears of chance and change in the three days, or in the years to come, belong of right and nature to the waiting, and are subtly varied and condensed. It is, however, the thoughtful love of a man who can be metaphysical in love, not the excluding mastery of passion.
Two in the Campagna is another poem in which love passes away into a deeper thought than love—a strange and fascinating poem of twofold desire. The man loves a woman and desires to be at peace with her in love, but there is a more imperative passion in his soul—to rest in the infinite, in accomplished perfection. And his livelong and vain pursuit of this has wearied him so much that he has no strength left to realise earthly love. Is it possible that she who now walks with him in the Campagna can give him in her love the peace of the infinite which he desires, and if not, why—where is the fault? For a moment he seems to catch the reason, and asks his love to see it with him and to grasp it. In a moment, like the gossamer thread he traces only to see it vanish, it is gone—and nothing is left, save
Infinite passion, and the pain Of finite hearts that yearn.
Least of all is the woman left. She has quite disappeared. This is not a Love-poem at all, it is the cry of Browning's hunger for eternity in the midst of mortality, in which all the hunger for earthly love is burnt to dust.
The rest are chiefly studies of different kinds of love, or of crises in love; moments in its course, in its origin or its failure. There are many examples in the shorter dramatic pieces, as In a Balcony; and even in the longer dramas certain sharp climaxes of love are recorded, not as if they belonged to the drama, but as if they were distinct studies introduced by chance or caprice. In the short poems called "dramatic" these studies are numerous, and I group a few of them together according to their motives, leaving out some which I shall hereafter treat of when I come to discuss the women in Browning. Evelyn Hope has nothing to do with the passion of love. The physical element of love is entirely excluded by the subject. It is a beautiful expression of a love purely spiritual, to be realised in its fulness only after death, spirit with spirit, but yet to be kept as the master of daily life, to whose law all thought and action are referred. The thought is noble, the expression of it simple, fine, and clear. It is, moreover, close to truth—there are hundreds of men who live quietly in love of that kind, and die in its embrace.
In Cristina the love is just as spiritual, but the motive of the poem is not one, as in Evelyn Hope, but two. The woman is not dead, and she has missed her chance. But the lover has not. He has seen her and in a moment loved her. She also looked on him and felt her soul matched by his as they "rushed together." But the world carried her away and she lost the fulness of life. He, on the contrary, kept the moment for ever, and with it, her and all she might have been with him.
Her soul's mine: and thus grown perfect, I shall pass my life's remainder.
This is not the usual Love-poem. It is a love as spiritual, as mystic, even more mystic, since the woman lives, than the lover felt for Evelyn Hope.
The second motive in Cristina of the lover who meets the true partner of his soul or hers, and either seizes the happy hour and possesses joy for ever, or misses it and loses all, is a favourite with Browning. He repeats it frequently under diverse circumstances, for it opened out so many various endings, and afforded so much opportunity for his beloved analysis. Moreover, optimist as he was in his final thought of man, he was deeply conscious of the ironies of life, of the ease with which things go wrong, of the impossibility of setting them right from without. And in the matter of love he marks in at least four poems how the moment was held and life was therefore conquest. Then in Youth and Art, in Dis Aliter Visum, in Bifurcation, in The Lost Mistress, and in Too Late, he records the opposite fate, and in characters so distinct that the repetition of the motive is not monotonous. These are studies of the Might-have-beens of love.
Another motive, used with varied circumstance in three or four poems, but fully expanded in James Lee's Wife, is the discovery, after years of love, that love on one side is lost irretrievably. Another motive is, that rather than lose love men or women will often sacrifice their conscience, their reason, or their liberty. This sacrifice, of all that makes our nobler being for the sake of personal love alone, brings with it, because the whole being is degraded, the degradation, decay, and death of personal love itself.
Another set of poems describes with fanciful charm, sometimes with happy gaiety, love at play with itself. True love makes in the soul an unfathomable ocean in whose depths are the imaginations of love, serious, infinite, and divine. But on its surface the light of jewelled fancies plays—a thousand thousand sunny memories and hopes, flying thoughts and dancing feelings. A poet would be certain to have often seen this happy crowd, and to desire to trick them out in song. So Browning does in his poem, In a Gondola. The two lovers, with the dark shadow of fate brooding over them, sing and muse and speak alternately, imaging in swift and rival pictures made by fancy their deep-set love; playing with its changes, creating new worlds in which to place it, but always returning to its isolated individuality; recalling how it began, the room where it reached its aim, the pictures, the furniture, the balcony, her dress, all the scenery, in a hundred happy and glancing pictures; while interlaced through their gaiety—and the gaiety made keener by the nearness of dark fate—is coming death, death well purchased by an hour of love. Finally, the lover is stabbed and slain, and the pity of it throws back over the sunshine of love's fancies a cloud of tears. This is the stuff of life that Browning loved to paint—interwoven darkness and brightness, sorrow and joy trembling each on the edge of the other, life playing at ball, as joyous as Nausicaa and her maids, on a thin crust over a gulf of death.
Just such another poem—of the sportiveness of love, only this time in memory, not in present pleasure, is to be found in A Lovers' Quarrel, and the quarrel is the dark element in it. Browning always feels that mighty passion has its root in tragedy, and that it seeks relief in comedy. The lover sits by the fireside alone, and recalls, forgetting pain for a moment, the joyful play they two had together, when love expressed its depth of pleasure in dramatic fancies. Every separate picture is done in Browning's impressionist way. And when the glad memories are over, and the sorrow returns, passion leaps out—
It is twelve o'clock: I shall hear her knock In the worst of a storm's uproar, I shall pull her through the door, I shall have her for evermore!
This is partly a study of the memory of love; and Browning has represented, without any sorrow linked to it, memorial love in a variety of characters under different circumstances, so that, though the subject is the same, the treatment varies. A charming instance of this is The Flowers Name; easy to read, happy in its fancy, in its scenery, in the subtle play of deep affection, in the character of its lover, in the character of the girl who is remembered—a good example of Browning's power to image in a few verses two human souls so clearly that they live in our world for ever. Meeting at Night—Parting at Morning is another reminiscence, mixed up with the natural scenery of the meeting and parting, a vivid recollection of a fleeting night of passion, and then the abandonment of its isolation for a wider, fuller life with humanity. I quote it for the fine impassioned way in which human feeling and natural scenery are fused together.
MEETING AT NIGHT.
The grey sea and the long black land; And the yellow half-moon large and low; And the startled little waves that leap In fiery ringlets from their sleep, As I gain the cove with pushing prow. And quench its speed i' the slushy sand. Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach; Three fields to cross till a farm appears; A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch And blue spurt of a lighted match, And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears. Than the two hearts beating each to each!
PARTING AT MORNING.
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea, And the sun looked over the mountain's rim: And straight was a path of gold for him, And the need of a world of men for me.
The poem entitled Confessions is another of these memories, in which a dying man, careless of death, careless of the dull conventions of the clergyman, cares for nothing but the memory of his early passion for a girl one happy June, and dies in comfort of the sweetness of the memory, though he thinks—
How sad and bad and mad it was.
Few but Browning would have seen, and fewer still have recorded, this vital piece of truth. It represents a whole type of character—those who in a life of weary work keep their day of love, even when it has been wrong, as their one poetic, ideal possession, and cherish it for ever. The wrong of it disappears in the ideal beauty which now has gathered round it, and as it was faithful, unmixed with other love, it escapes degradation. We see, when the man images the past and its scenery out of the bottles of physic on the table, how the material world had been idealised to him all his life long by this passionate memory—
Do I view the world as a vale of tears? Ah, reverend sir, not I.
It might be well to compare with this another treatment of the memory of love in St. Martin's Summer. A much less interesting and natural motive rules it than Confessions; and the characters, though more "in society" than the dying man, are grosser in nature; gross by their inability to love, or by loving freshly to make a new world in which the old sorrow dies or is transformed. There is no humour in the thing, though there is bitter irony. But there is humour in an earlier poem—A Serenade at the Villa, where, in the last verse, the bitterness of wrath and love together (a very different bitterness from that of St. Martin's Summer), breaks out, and is attributed to the garden gate. The night-watch and the singing is over; she must have heard him, but she gave no sign. He wonders what she thought, and then, because he was only half in love, flings away—
Oh how dark your villa was, Windows fast and obdurate! How the garden grudged me grass Where I stood—the iron gate Ground its teeth to let me pass!
It is impossible to notice all these studies of love, but they form, together, a book of transient phases of the passion in almost every class of society. And they show how Browning, passing through the world, from the Quartier Latin to London drawing-rooms, was continually on the watch to catch, store up, and reproduce a crowd of motives for poetry which his memory held and his imagination shaped.
There is only one more poem, which I cannot pass by in this group of studies. It is one of sacred and personal memory, so much so that it is probable the loss of his life lies beneath it. It rises into that highest poetry which fuses together into one form a hundred thoughts and a hundred emotions, and which is only obscure from the mingling of their multitude. I quote it, I cannot comment on it.
Never the time and the place And the loved one all together! This path—how soft to pace! This May—what magic weather! Where is the loved one's face? In a dream that loved one's face meets mine But the house is narrow, the place is bleak Where, outside, rain and wind combine With a furtive ear, if I strive to speak, With a hostile eye at my flushing cheek, With a malice that marks each word, each sign! O enemy sly and serpentine, Uncoil thee from the waking man! Do I hold the Past Thus firm and fast Yet doubt if the Future hold I can? This path so soft to pace shall lead Through the magic of May to herself indeed! Or narrow if needs the house must be, Outside are the storms and strangers: we— Oh, close, safe, warm sleep I and she, —I and she!
That, indeed, is passionate enough.
Then there is another group—tales which embody phases of love. Count Gismond is one of these. It is too long, and wants Browning's usual force. The outline of the story was, perhaps, too simple to interest his intellect, and he needed in writing poetry not only the emotional subject, but that there should be something in or behind the emotion through the mazes of which his intelligence might glide like a serpent.
The Glove is another of these tales—a good example of the brilliant fashion in which Browning could, by a strange kaleidoscopic turn of his subject, give it a new aspect and a new ending. The world has had the tale before it for a very long time. Every one had said the woman was wrong and the man right; but here, poetic juggler as he is, Browning makes the woman right and the man wrong, reversing the judgment of centuries. The best of it is, that he seems to hold the truth of the thing. It is amusing to think that only now, in the other world, if she and Browning meet, will she find herself comprehended.
Finally, as to the mightier kinds of love, those supreme forms of the passion, which have neither beginning nor end; to which time and space are but names; which make and fill the universe; the least grain of which predicates the whole; the spirit of which is God Himself; the breath of whose life is immortal joy, or sorrow which means joy; whose vision is Beauty, and whose activity is Creation—these, united in God, or divided among men into their three great entities—love of ideas for their truth and beauty; love of the natural universe, which is God's garment; love of humanity, which is God's child—these pervade the whole of Browning's poetry as the heat of the sun pervades the earth and every little grain upon it. They make its warmth and life, strength and beauty. They are too vast to be circumscribed in a lyric, represented in a drama, bound up even in a long story of spiritual endeavour like Paracelsus. But they move, in dignity, splendour and passion, through all that he deeply conceived and nobly wrought; and their triumph and immortality in his poetry are never for one moment clouded with doubt or subject to death. This is the supreme thing in his work. To him Love is the Conqueror, and Love is God.
 There is one simple story at least which he tells quite admirably, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. But then, that story, if it is not troubled by intellectual matter, is also not troubled by any deep emotion. It is told by a poet who becomes a child for children.
* * * * *
THE PASSIONS OTHER THAN LOVE
The poems on which I have dwelt in the last chapter, though they are mainly concerned with love between the sexes, illustrate the other noble passions, all of which, such as joy, are forms of, or rather children of, self-forgetful love. They do not illustrate the evil or ignoble passions—envy, jealousy, hatred, base fear, despair, revenge, avarice and remorse—which, driven by the emotion that so fiercely and swiftly accumulates around them, master the body and soul, the intellect and the will, like some furious tyrant, and in their extremes hurry their victim into madness. Browning took some of these terrible powers and made them subjects in his poetry. Short, sharp-outlined sketches of them occur in his dramas and longer poems. There is no closer image in literature of long-suppressed fear breaking out into its agony of despair than in the lines which seal Guido's pleading in the The Ring and the Book.
Life is all! I was just stark mad,—let the madman live Pressed by as many chains as you please pile! Don't open! Hold me from them! I am yours, I am the Grand Duke's—no, I am the Pope's! Abate,—Cardinal,—Christ,—Maria,—God, ... Pompilia, will you let them murder me?
But there is no elaborate, long-continued study of these sordid and evil things in Browning. He was not one of our modern realists who love to paddle and splash in the sewers of humanity. Not only was he too healthy in mind to dwell on them, but he justly held them as not fit subjects for art unless they were bound up with some form of pity, as jealousy and envy are in Shakespeare's treatment of the story of Othello; or imaged along with so much of historic scenery that we lose in our interest in the decoration some of the hatefulness of the passion. The combination, for example, of envy and hatred resolved on vengeance in The Laboratory is too intense for any pity to intrude, but Browning realises not only the evil passions in the woman but the historical period also and its temper; and he fills the poem with scenery which, though it leaves the woman first in our eyes, yet lessens the malignant element. The same, but of course with the difference Browning's variety creates, may be said of the story of the envious king, where envy crawls into hatred, hatred almost motiveless—the Instans Tyrannus. A faint vein of humour runs through it. The king describes what has been; his hatred has passed. He sees how small and fanciful it was, and the illustrations he uses to express it tell us that; though they carry with them also the contemptuous intensity of his past hatred. The swell of the hatred remains, though the hatred is past. So we are not left face to face with absolute evil, with the corruption hate engenders in the soul. God has intervened, and the worst of it has passed away.
Then there is the study of hatred in the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. The hatred is black and deadly, the instinctive hatred of a brutal nature for a delicate one, which, were it unrelieved, would be too vile for the art of poetry. But it is relieved, not only by the scenery, the sketch of the monks in the refectory, the garden of flowers, the naughty girls seated on the convent bank washing their black hair, but also by the admirable humour which ripples like laughter through the hopes of his hatred, and by the brilliant sketching of the two men. We see them, know them, down to their little tricks at dinner, and we end by realising hatred, it is true, but in too agreeable a fashion for just distress.
In other poems of the evil passions the relieving element is pity. There are the two poems entitled Before and After, that is, before and after the duel. Before is the statement of one of the seconds, with curious side-thoughts introduced by Browning's mental play with the subject, that the duel is absolutely necessary. The challenger has been deeply wronged; and he cannot and will not let forgiveness intermit his vengeance. The man in us agrees with that; the Christian in us says, "Forgive, let God do the judgment." But the passion for revenge has here its way and the guilty falls. And now let Browning speak—Forgiveness is right and the vengeance-fury wrong. The dead man has escaped, the living has not escaped the wrath of conscience; pity is all.
Take the cloak from his face, and at first Let the corpse do its worst!
How he lies in his rights of a man! Death has done all death can. And, absorbed in the new life he leads, He recks not, he heeds
Nor his wrong nor my vengeance; both strike On his senses alike, And are lost in the solemn and strange Surprise of the change.
Ha, what avails death to erase His offence, my disgrace? I would we were boys as of old In the field, by the fold: His outrage, God's patience, man's scorn Were so easily borne!
I stand here now, he lies in his place; Cover the face.
Again, there are few studies in literature of contempt, hatred and revenge more sustained and subtle than Browning's poem entitled A Forgiveness; and the title marks how, though the justice of revenge was accomplished on the woman, yet that pity, even love for her, accompanied and followed the revenge. Our natural revolt against the cold-blooded work of hatred is modified, when we see the man's heart and the woman's soul, into pity for their fate. The man tells his story to a monk in the confessional, who has been the lover of his wife. He is a statesman absorbed in his work, yet he feels that his wife makes his home a heaven, and he carries her presence with him all the day. His wife takes the first lover she meets, and, discovered, tells her husband that she hates him. "Kill me now," she cries. But he despises her too much to hate her; she is not worth killing. Three years they live together in that fashion, till one evening she tells him the truth. "I was jealous of your work. I took my revenge by taking a lover, but I loved you, you only, all the time, and lost you—
I thought you gave Your heart and soul away from me to slave At statecraft. Since my right in you seemed lost, I stung myself to teach you, to your cost, What you rejected could be prized beyond Life, heaven, by the first fool I threw a fond Look on, a fatal word to.
"Ah, is that true, you loved and still love? Then contempt perishes, and hate takes its place. Write your confession, and die by my hand. Vengeance is foreign to contempt, you have risen to the level at which hate can act. I pardon you, for as I slay hate departs—and now, sir," and he turns to the monk—
She sleeps, as erst Beloved, in this your church: ay, yours!
and drives the poisoned dagger through the grate of the confessional into the heart of her lover.
This is Browning's closest study of hate, contempt, and revenge. But bitter and close as it is, what is left with us is pity for humanity, pity for the woman, pity for the lover, pity for the husband.
Again, in the case of Sebald and Ottima in Pippa Passes, pity also rules. Love passing into lust has led to hate, and these two have slaked their hate and murdered Luca, Ottima's husband. They lean out of the window of the shrub-house as the morning breaks. For the moment their false love is supreme. Their crime only creeps like a snake, half asleep, about the bottom of their hearts; they recall their early passion and try to brazen it forth in the face of their murder, which now rises, dreadful and more dreadful, into threatening life in their soul. They reanimate their hate of Luca to lower their remorse, but at every instant his blood stains their speech. At last, while Ottima loves on, Sebald's dark horror turns to hatred of her he loved, till she lures him back into desire of her again. The momentary lust cannot last, but Browning shoots it into prominence that the outburst of horror and repentance may be the greater.
I kiss you now, dear Ottima, now and now! This way? Will you forgive me—be once more My great queen?
At that moment Pippa passes by, 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!
Something in it smites Sebald's heart like a hammer of God. He repents, but in the cowardice of repentance curses her. That baseness I do not think Browning should have introduced, no, nor certain carnal phrases which, previously right, now jar with the spiritual passion of repentance. But his fury with her passes away into the passion of despair—
My brain is drowned now—quite drowned: all I feel Is ... is, at swift recurring intervals, A hurry-down within me, as of waters Loosened to smother up some ghastly pit: There they go—whirls from a black fiery sea!
lines which must have been suggested to Browning by verses, briefer and more intense, in Webster's
Duchess of Malfi. Even Ottima, lifted by her love, which purifies itself in wishing to die for her lover, repents.
Not me,—to him, O God, be merciful!
Thus into this cauldron of sin Browning steals the pity of God. We know they will be saved, so as by fire.
Then there is the poem on the story of Cristina and Monaldeschi; a subject too odious, I think, to be treated lyrically. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, and for good cause, and of the pitiless vengeance which followed. Browning has not succeeded in it; and it may be so because he could get no pity into it. The Queen had none. Monaldeschi deserved none—a coward, a fool, and a traitor! Nevertheless, more might have been made of it by Browning. The poem is obscure and wandering, and the effort he makes to grip the subject reveals nothing but the weakness of the grip. It ought not to have been published.
* * * * *
And now I turn to passions more delightful, that this chapter may close in light and not in darkness—passions of the imagination, of the romantic regions of the soul. There is, first, the longing for the mystic world, the world beneath appearance, with or without reference to eternity. Secondly, bound up with that, there is the longing for the unknown, for following the gleam which seems to lead us onward, but we know not where. Then, there is the desire, the deeper for its constant suppression, for escape from the prison of a worldly society, from its conventions and maxims of morality, its barriers of custom and rule, into liberty and unchartered life. Lastly, there is that longing to discover and enjoy the lands of adventure and romance which underlies and wells upwards through so much of modern life, and which has never ceased to send its waters up to refresh the world. These are romantic passions. On the whole, Browning does not often touch them in their earthly activities. His highest romance was beyond this world. It claimed eternity, and death was the entrance into its enchanted realm. When he did bring romantic feeling into human life, it was for the most part in the hunger and thirst, which, as in Abt Vogler, urged men beyond the visible into the invisible. But now and again he touched the Romantic of Earth. Childe Roland, The Flight of the Duchess, and some others, are alive with the romantic spirit.
But before I write of these, there are a few lyrical poems, written in the freshness of his youth, which are steeped in the light of the story-telling world; and might be made by one who, in the morning of imagination, sat on the dewy hills of the childish world. They are full of unusual melody, and are simple and wise enough to be sung by girls knitting in the sunshine while their lovers bend above them. One of these, a beautiful thing, with that touch of dark fate at its close which is so common in folk-stories, is hidden away in Paracelsus. "Over the sea," it begins:
Over the sea our galleys went, With cleaving prows in order brave To a speeding wind and a bounding wave, A gallant armament: Each bark built out of a forest-tree Left leafy and rough as first it grew, And nailed all over the gaping sides, Within and without, with black bull-hides, Seethed in fat, and suppled with flame, To bear the playful billows' game.
It is made in a happy melody, and the curious mingling in the tale, as it continues, of the rudest ships, as described above, with purple hangings, cedar tents, and noble statues,
A hundred shapes of lucid stone,
and with gentle islanders from Graecian seas, is characteristic of certain folk-tales, especially those of Gascony. That it is spoken by Paracelsus as a parable of the state of mind he has reached, in which he clings to his first fault with haughty and foolish resolution, scarcely lessens the romantic element in it. That is so strong that we forget that it is meant as a parable.
There is another song which touches the edge of romance, in which Paracelsus describes how he will bury in sweetness the ideal aims he had in youth, building a pyre for them of all perfumed things; and the last lines of the verse I quote leave us in a castle of old romance—
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.
The other is a song, more than a song, in Pippa Passes, a true piece of early folk-romance, with a faint touch of Greek story, wedded to Eastern and mediaeval elements, in its roving imaginations. It is admirably pictorial, and the air which broods over it is the sunny and still air which, in men's fancy, was breathed by the happy children of the Golden Age. I quote a great part of it:
A King lived long ago, In the morning of the world, When earth was nigher heaven than now: And the King's locks curled, Disparting o'er a forehead full As the milk-white space 'twixt horn and horn Of some sacrificial bull— Only calm as a babe new-born: For he was got to a sleepy mood, So safe from all decrepitude, Age with its bane, so sure gone by, (The gods so loved him while he dreamed) That, having lived thus long, there seemed No need the King should ever die.
LUIGI. No need that sort of King should ever die!
Among the rocks his city was: Before his palace, in the sun, He sat to see his people pass, And judge them every one From its threshold of smooth stone They haled him many a valley-thief Caught in the sheep-pens, robber chief Swarthy and shameless, beggar, cheat, Spy-prowler, or rough pirate found On the sea-sand left aground;
* * *
These, all and every one, The King judged, sitting in the sun.
LUIGI. That King should still judge sitting in the sun!
His councillors, on left and right, Looked anxious up,—but no surprise Disturbed the King's old smiling eyes Where the very blue had turned to white. 'Tis said, a Python scared one day The breathless city, till he came, With forty tongue and eyes on flame, Where the old King sat to judge alway; But when he saw the sweepy hair Girt with a crown of berries rare Which the god will hardly give to wear To the maiden who singeth, dancing bare In the altar-smoke by the pine-torch lights, At his wondrous forest rites,— Seeing this, he did not dare Approach the threshold in the sun, Assault the old king smiling there. Such grace had kings when the world begun!
Then there are two other romantic pieces, not ringing with this early note, but having in them a wafting scent of the Provencal spirit. One is the song sung by Pippa when she passes the room where Jules and Phene are talking—the song of Kate, the Queen. The other is the cry Rudel, the great troubadour, sent out of his heart to the Lady of Tripoli whom he never saw, but loved. The subject is romantic, but that, I think, is all the romance in it. It is not Rudel who speaks but Browning. It is not the twelfth but the nineteenth century which has made all that analysis and over-worked illustration.
There remain, on this matter, Childe Roland and the Flight of the Duchess. I believe that Childe Roland emerged, all of a sudden and to Browning's surprise, out of the pure imagination, like the Sea-born Queen; that Browning did not conceive it beforehand; that he had no intention in it, no reason for writing it, and no didactic or moral aim in it. It was not even born of his will. Nor does he seem to be acquainted with the old story on the subject which took a ballad form in Northern England. The impulse to write it was suddenly awakened in him by that line out of an old song the Fool quotes in King Lear. There is another tag of a song in Lear which stirs a host of images in the imagination; and out of which some poet might create a romantic lyric:
Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind.
But it does not produce so concrete a set of images as Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came. Browning has made that his own, and what he has done is almost romantic. Almost romantic, I say, because the peculiarities of Browning's personal genius appear too strongly in Childe Roland for pure romantic story, in which the idiosyncrasy of the poet, the personal element of his fancy, are never dominant. The scenery, the images, the conduct of the tales of romance, are, on account of their long passage through the popular mind, impersonal.
Moreover, Browning's poem is too much in the vague. The romantic tales are clear in outline; this is not. But the elements in the original story entered, as it were of their own accord, into Browning. There are several curious, unconscious reversions to folk-lore which have crept into his work like living things which, seeing Browning engaged on a story of theirs, entered into it as into a house of their own, and without his knowledge. The wretched cripple who points the way; the blind and wicked horse; the accursed stream; the giant mountain range, all the peaks alive, as if in a nature myth; the crowd of Roland's predecessors turned to stone by their failure; the sudden revealing of the tower where no tower had been, might all be matched out of folk-stories. I think I have heard that Browning wrote the poem at a breath one morning; and it reads as if, from verse to verse, he did not know what was coming to his pen. This is very unlike his usual way; but it is very much the way in which tales of this kind are unconsciously up-built.
Men have tried to find in the poem an allegory of human life; but Browning had no allegorising intention. However, as every story which was ever written has at its root the main elements of human nature, it is always possible to make an allegory out of any one of them. If we like to amuse ourselves in that fashion, we may do so; but we are too bold and bad if we impute allegory to Browning. Childe Roland is nothing more than a gallop over the moorlands of imagination; and the skies of the soul, when it was made, were dark and threatening storm. But one thing is plain in it: it is an outcome of that passion for the mystical world, for adventure, for the unknown, which lies at the root of the romantic tree.
The Flight of the Duchess is full of the passion of escape from the conventional; and no where is Browning more original or more the poet. Its manner is exactly right, exactly fitted to the character and condition of the narrator, who is the Duke's huntsman. Its metrical movement is excellent, and the changes of that movement are in harmony with the things and feelings described. It is astonishingly swift, alive, and leaping; and it delays, as a stream, with great charm, when the emotion of the subject is quiet, recollective, or deep. The descriptions of Nature in the poem are some of the most vivid and true in Browning's work. The sketches of animal life—so natural on the lips of the teller of the story—are done from the keen observation of a huntsman, and with his love for the animals he has fed, followed and slain. And, through it all, there breathes the romantic passion—to be out of the world of custom and commonplace, set free to wander for ever to an unknown goal; to drink the air of adventure and change; not to know to-day what will take place to-morrow, only to know that it will be different; to ride on the top of the wave of life as it runs before the wind; to live with those who live, and are of the same mind; to be loved and to find love the best good in the world; to be the centre of hopes and joys among those who may blame and give pain, but who are never indifferent; to have many troubles, but always to pursue their far-off good; to wring the life out of them, and, at the last, to have a new life, joy and freedom in another and a fairer world. But let Browning tell the end:
So, at the last shall come old age. Decrepit as befits that stage; How else would'st thou retire apart With the hoarded memories of thy heart, And gather all to the very least Of the fragments of life's earlier feast, Let fall through eagerness to find The crowning dainties yet behind? Ponder on the entire past Laid together thus at last, When the twilight helps to fuse The first fresh with the faded hues. And the outline of the whole Grandly fronts for once thy soul. And then as, 'mid the dark, a gleam Of yet another morning breaks, And, like the hand which ends a dream, Death, with the might of his sunbeam, Touches the flesh, and the soul awakes, Then——