Then the romance of life sweeps into the world beyond. But even in that world the duchess will never settle down to a fixed life. She will be, like some of us, a child of the wandering tribes of eternity.
This romantic passion which never dies even in our modern society, is embodied in the gipsy crone who, in rags and scarcely clinging to life, suddenly lifts into youth and queenliness, just as in a society, where romance seems old or dead, it springs into fresh and lovely life. This is the heart of the poem, and it is made to beat the more quickly by the wretched attempt of the duke and his mother to bring back the observances of the Middle Ages without their soul. Nor even then does Browning leave his motive. The huntsman has heard the gipsy's song; he has seen the light on his mistress' face as she rode away—the light which is not from sun or star—and the love of the romantic world is born in him. He will not leave his master; there his duty lies. "I must see this fellow his sad life through." But then he will go over the mountains, after his lady, leaving the graves of his wife and children, into the unknown, to find her, or news of her, in the land of the wanderers. And if he never find her, if, after pleasant journeying, earth cannot give her to his eyes, he will still pursue his quest in a world where romance and formality are not married together.
So I shall find out some snug corner, Under a hedge, like Orson the wood-knight, Turn myself round and bid the world Good Night; And sleep a sound sleep till the trumpet's blowing Wakes me (unless priests cheat us laymen) To a world where will be no further throwing Pearls before swine that can't value them. Amen.
* * * * *
All poems might be called "imaginative representations." But the class of poems in Browning's work to which I give that name stands apart. It includes such poems as Cleon, Caliban on Setebos, Fra Lippo Lippi, the Epistle of Karshish, and they isolate themselves, not only in Browning's poetry, but in English poetry. They have some resemblance in aim and method to the monologues of Tennyson, such as the Northern Farmer or Rizpah, but their aim is much wider than Tennyson's, and their method far more elaborate and complex.
What do they represent? To answer this is to define within what limits I give them the name of "imaginative representations." They are not only separate studies of individual men as they breathed and spoke; face, form, tricks of body recorded; intelligence, character, temper of mind, spiritual aspiration made clear—Tennyson did that; they are also studies of these individual men—Cleon, Karshish and the rest—as general types, representative images, of the age in which they lived; or of the school of art to which they belonged; or of the crisis in theology, religion, art, or the social movement which took place while the men they paint were alive, and which these men led, on formed, or followed. That is their main element, and it defines them.
They are not dramatic. Their action and ideas are confined to one person, and their circumstance and scenery to one time and place. But Browning, unlike Tennyson, filled the background of the stage on which he placed his single figure with a multitude of objects, or animals, or natural scenery, or figures standing round or in motion; and these give additional vitality and interest to the representation. Again, they are short, as short as a soliloquy or a letter or a conversation in a street. Shortness belongs to this form of poetic work—a form to which Browning gave a singular intensity. It follows that they must not be argumentative beyond what is fitting. Nor ought they to glide into the support of a thesis, or into didactic addresses, as Bishop Blougram and Mr. Sludge do. These might be called treatises, and are apart from the kind of poem of which I speak. They begin, indeed, within its limits, but they soon transgress those limits; and are more properly classed with poems which, also representative, have not the brevity, the scenery, the lucidity, the objective representation, the concentration of the age into one man's mind, which mark out these poems from the rest, and isolate them into a class of their own.
The voice we hear in them is rarely the voice of Browning; nor is the mind of their personages his mind, save so far as he is their creator. There are a few exceptions to this, but, on the whole, Browning has, in writing these poems, stripped himself of his own personality. He had, by creative power, made these men; cast them off from himself, and put them into their own age. They talk their minds out in character with their age. Browning seems to watch them, and to wonder how they got out of his hands and became men. That is the impression they make, and it predicates a singular power of imagination. Like the Prometheus of Goethe, the poet sits apart, moulding men and then endowing them with life. But he cannot tell, any more than Prometheus, what they will say and do after he has made them. He does tell, of course, but that is not our impression. Our impression is that they live and talk of their own accord, so vitally at home they are in the country, the scenery, and the thinking of the place and time in which he has imagined them.
Great knowledge seems required for this, and Browning had indeed an extensive knowledge not so much of the historical facts, as of the tendencies of thought which worked in the times wherein he placed his men. But the chief knowledge he had, through his curious reading, was of a multitude of small intimate details of the customs, clothing, architecture, dress, popular talk and scenery of the towns and country of Italy from the thirteenth century up to modern times. To every one of these details—such as are found in Sordello, in Fra Lippo Lippi, in the Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church—his vivid and grasping imagination gave an uncommon reality.
But even without great knowledge such poems may be written, if the poet have imagination, and the power to execute in metrical words what has been imagined. Theology in the Island and the prologue to a Death in the Desert are examples of this. Browning knew nothing of that island in the undiscovered seas where Prosper dwelt, but he made all the scenery of it and all its animal life, and he re-created Caliban. He had never seen the cave in the desert where he placed John to die, nor the sweep of rocky hills and sand around it, nor the Bactrian waiting with the camels. Other poets, of course, have seen unknown lands and alien folks, but he has seen them more vividly, more briefly, more forcibly. His imagination was objective enough.
But it was as subjective as it was objective. He saw the soul of Fra Lippo Lippi and the soul of his time as vividly as he saw the streets of Florence at night, the watch, the laughing girls, and the palace of the Medici round the corner. It was a remarkable combination, and it is by this combination of the subjective and objective imagination that he draws into some dim approach to Shakespeare; and nowhere closer than in these poems.
Again, not only the main character of each of these poems, but all the figures introduced (sometimes only in a single line) to fill up the background, are sketched with as true and vigorous a pencil as the main figure; are never out of place or harmony with the whole, and are justly subordinated. The young men who stand round the Bishop's bed when he orders his tomb, the watchmen in Fra Lippo Lippi, the group of St. John's disciples, are as alive, and as much in tune with the whole, as the servants and tenants of Justice Shallow. Again, it is not only the lesser figures, but the scenery of these poems which is worth our study. That also is closely fitted to the main subject. The imagination paints it for that, and nothing else. It would not fit any other subject. For imagination, working at white heat, cannot do what is out of harmony; no more than a great musician can introduce a false chord. All goes together in these poems—scenery, characters, time, place and action.
Then, also, the extent of their range is remarkable. Their subjects begin with savage man making his god out of himself. They pass through Greek mythology to early Christian times; from Artemis and Pan to St. John dying in the desert. Then, still in the same period, while Paul was yet alive, he paints another aspect of the time in Cleon the rich artist, the friend of kings, who had reached the top of life, included all the arts in himself, yet dimly craved for more than earth could give. From these times the poems pass on to the early and late Renaissance, and from that to the struggle for freedom in Italy, and from that to modern life in Europe. This great range illustrates the penetration and the versatility of his genius. He could place us with ease and truth at Corinth, Athens or Rome, in Paris, Vienna or London; and wherever we go with him we are at home.
One word more must be said about the way a great number of these poems arose. They leaped up in his imagination full-clad and finished at a single touch from the outside. Caliban upon Setebos took its rise from a text in the Bible which darted into his mind as he read the Tempest. Cleon arose as he read that verse in St. Paul's speech at Athens, "As certain also of your own poets have said." I fancy that An Epistle of Karshish was born one day when he read those two stanzas in In Memoriam about Lazarus, and imagined how the subject would come to him. Fra Lippo Lippi slipped into his mind one day at the Belle Arti at Florence as he stood before the picture described in the poem, and walked afterwards at night through the streets of Florence. These fine things are born in a moment, and come into our world from poet, painter, and musician, full-grown; built, like Aladdin's palace, with all their jewels, in a single night. They are inexplicable by any scientific explanation, as inexplicable as genius itself. When have the hereditarians explained Shakespeare, Mozart, Turner? When has the science of the world explained the birth of a lyric of Burns, a song of Beethoven's, or a drawing of Raffaelle? Let these gentlemen veil their eyes, and confess their inability to explain the facts. For it is fact they touch. "Full fathom five thy father lies"—that song of Shakespeare exists. The overture to Don Giovanni is a reality. We can see the Bacchus and Ariadne at the National Gallery and the Theseus at the Museum. These are facts; but they are a million million miles beyond the grasp of any science. Nay, the very smallest things of their kind, the slightest water-colour sketch of Turner, a half-finished clay sketch of Donatello, the little song done in the corner of a provincial paper by a working clerk in a true poetic hour, are not to be fathomed by the most far-descending plummet of the scientific understanding. These things are in that superphysical world into which, however closely he saw and dealt with his characters in the world of the senses, the conscience, or the understanding, Browning led them all at last.
The first of these poems is Natural Theology on the Island; or, Caliban upon Setebos. Caliban, with the instincts and intelligence of an early savage, has, in an hour of holiday, set himself to conceive what Setebos, his mother's god, is like in character. He talks out the question with himself, and because he is in a vague fear lest Setebos, hearing him soliloquise about him, should feel insulted and swing a thunder-bolt at him, he not only hides himself in the earth, but speaks in the third person, as if it was not he that spoke; hoping in that fashion to trick his God.
Browning, conceiving in himself the mind and temper of an honest, earthly, imaginative savage—who is developed far enough to build nature-myths in their coarse early forms—architectures the character of Setebos out of the habits, caprices, fancies, likes and dislikes, and thoughts of Caliban; and an excellent piece of penetrative imagination it is. Browning has done nothing better, though he has done as well.
But Browning's Caliban is not a single personage. No one savage, at no one time, would have all these thoughts of his God. He is the representative of what has been thought, during centuries, by many thousands of men; the concentration into one mind of the ground-thoughts of early theology. At one point, as if Browning wished to sketch the beginning of a new theological period, Caliban represents a more advanced thought than savage man conceives. This is Caliban's imagination of a higher being than Setebos who is the capricious creator and power of the earth—of the "Quiet," who is master of Setebos and whose temper is quite different; who also made the stars, things which Caliban, with a touch of Browning's subtle thought, separates from the sun and moon and earth. It is plain from this, and from the whole argument which is admirably conducted, that Caliban is an intellectual personage, too long neglected; and Prospero, could he have understood his nature, would have enjoyed his conversation. Renan agreed with Browning in this estimate of his intelligence, and made him the foundation of a philosophical play.
There is some slight reason for this in Shakespeare's invention. He lifts Caliban in intellect, even in feeling, far above Trinculo, Stephano, the Boatswain and the rest of the common men. The objection, however, has been made that Browning makes him too intelligent. The answer is that Browning is not drawing Caliban only, but embodying in an imagined personage the thoughts about God likely to be invented by early man during thousands of years—and this accounts for the insequences in Caliban's thinking. They are not the thoughts of one but of several men. Yet a certain poetic unity is given to them by the unity of place. The continual introduction of the landscape to be seen from his refuge knits the discursive thinking of the savage into a kind of unity. We watch him lying in the thick water-slime of the hollow, his head on the rim of it propped by his hands, under the cave's mouth, hidden by the gadding gourds and vines; looking out to sea and watching the wild animals that pass him by—and out of this place he does not stir.
In Shakespeare's Tempest Caliban is the gross, brutal element of the earth and is opposed to Ariel, the light, swift, fine element of the air. Caliban curses Prospero with the evils of the earth, with the wicked dew of the fen and the red plague of the sea-marsh. Browning's Caliban does not curse at all. When he is not angered, or in a caprice, he is a good-natured creature, full of animal enjoyment. He loves to lie in the cool slush, like a lias-lizard, shivering with earthy pleasure when his spine is tickled by the small eft-things that course along it,
Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh.
The poem is full of these good, close, vivid realisations of the brown prolific earth.
Browning had his own sympathy with Caliban Nor does Shakespeare make him altogether brutish. He has been so educated by his close contact with nature that his imagination has been kindled. His very cursing is imaginative:
As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed With raven's feather from unwholesome fen Drop on you both; a south-west blow on you And blister you all o'er.
Stephano and Trinculo, vulgar products of civilisation, could never have said that. Moreover, Shakespeare's Caliban, like Browning's, has the poetry of the earth-man in him. When Ariel plays, Trinculo and Stephano think it must be the devil, and Trinculo is afraid: but Caliban loves and enjoys the music for itself:
Be not afear'd; the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices That, if I then had waked after long sleep. Will make me sleep again.
Stephano answers, like a modern millionaire:
This will prove a brave kingdom for me, where I shall have my music for nothing.
Browning's Caliban is also something of a poet, and loves the Nature of whom he is a child. We are not surprised when he
looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross And recross till they weave a spider web (Meshes of fire some great fish breaks at times)
though the phrase is full of a poet's imagination, for so the living earth would see and feel the sea. It belongs also to Caliban's nearness to the earth that he should have the keenest of eyes for animals, and that poetic pleasure in watching their life which, having seen them vividly, could describe them vividly. I quote one example from the poem; there are many others:
'Thinketh, He made thereat the sun, this isle, Trees and the fowls here, beast and creeping thing. Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech; Yon auk, one fire-eye in a ball of foam, That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown He hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eye By moonlight; and the pie with the long tongue That pricks deep into oakwarts for a worm, And says a plain word when she finds her prize, But will not eat the ants; the ants themselves That build a wall of seeds and settled stalks About their hole—
There are two more remarks to make about this poem. First, that Browning makes Caliban create a dramatic world in which Miranda, Ariel, and he himself play their parts, and in which he assumes the part of Prosper. That is, Caliban invents a new world out of the persons he knows, but different from them, and a second self outside himself. No lower animal has ever conceived of such a creation. Secondly, Browning makes Caliban, in order to exercise his wit and his sense of what is beautiful, fall to making something—a bird, an insect, or a building which he ornaments, which satisfies him for a time, and which he then destroys to make a better. This is art in its beginning; and the highest animal we know of is incapable of it. We know that the men of the caves were capable of it. When they made a drawing, a piece of carving, they were unsatisfied until they had made a better. When they made a story out of what they knew and saw, they went on to make more. Creation, invention, art—this, independent entirely of the religious desire, makes the infinite gulf which divides man from the highest animals.
I do not mean, in this book, to speak of the theology of Caliban, though the part of the poem which concerns the origin of sacrifice is well worth our attention. But the poem may be recommended to those theological persons who say there is no God; and to that large class of professional theologians, whose idea of a capricious, jealous, suddenly-angered God, without any conscience except his sense of power to do as he pleases, is quite in harmony with Caliban's idea of Setebos.
The next of these "imaginative representations" is the poem called Cleon. Cleon is a rich and famous artist of the Grecian isles, alive while St. Paul was still making his missionary journeys, just at the time when the Graeco-Roman culture had attained a height of refinement, but had lost originating power; when it thought it had mastered all the means for a perfect life, but was, in reality, trembling in a deep dissatisfaction on the edge of its first descent into exhaustion. Then, as everything good had been done in the art of the past, cultivated men began to ask "Was there anything worth doing?" "Was life itself worth living?"; questions never asked by those who are living. Or "What is life in its perfection, and when shall we have it?"; a question also not asked by those who live in the morning of a new aera, when the world—as in Elizabeth's days, as in 1789, as perhaps it may be in a few years—is born afresh; but which is asked continually in the years when a great movement of life has passed its culminating point and has begun to decline. Again and again the world has heard these questions; in Cleon's time, and when the Renaissance had spent its force, and at the end of the reign of Louis XIV., and before Elizabeth's reign had closed, and about 1820 in England, and of late years also in our society. This is the temper and the time that Browning embodies in Cleon, who is the incarnation of a culture which is already feeling that life is going out of it.
Protus, the king, has written to him, and the poem is Cleon's answer to the king. Browning takes care, as usual, to have his background of scenery quite clear and fair. It is a courtyard to Cleon's house in one of the sprinkled isles—
Lily on lily, that o'erlace the sea, And laugh their pride when the light wave lisps "Greece."
I quote it; it marks the man and the age of luxurious culture.
They give thy letter to me, even now; I read and seem as if I heard thee speak. The master of thy galley still unlades Gift after gift; they block my court at last And pile themselves along its portico Royal with sunset, like a thought of thee; And one white she-slave from the group dispersed Of black and white slaves (like the chequer work Pavement, at once my nation's work and gift, Now covered with this settle-down of doves), One lyric woman, in her crocus vest Woven of sea-wools, with her two white hands Commends to me the strainer and the cup Thy lip hath bettered ere it blesses mine.
But he is more than luxurious. He desires the highest life, and he praises the king because he has acknowledged by his gifts the joy that Art gives to life; and most of all he praises him, because he too aspires, building a mighty tower, not that men may look at it, but that he may gaze from its height on the sun, and think what higher he may attain. The tower is the symbol of the cry of the king's soul.
Then he answers the king's letter. "It is true, O king, I am poet, sculptor, painter, architect, philosopher, musician; all arts are mine. Have I done as well as the great men of old? No, but I have combined their excellences into one man, into myself.
"I have not chanted verse like Homer, no— Nor swept string like Terpander—no—nor carved And painted men like Phidias and his friend: I am not great as they are, point by point. But I have entered into sympathy With these four, running these into one soul, Who, separate, ignored each other's art. Say, is it nothing that I know them all?
"This, since the best in each art has already been done, was the only progress possible, and I have made it. It is not unworthy, king!
"Well, now thou askest, if having done this, 'I have not attained the very crown of life; if I cannot now comfortably and fearlessly meet death?' 'I, Cleon, leave,' thou sayest, 'my life behind me in my poems, my pictures; I am immortal in my work. What more can life desire?'"
It is the question so many are asking now, and it is the answer now given. What better immortality than in one's work left behind to move in men? What more than this can life desire? But Cleon does not agree with that. "If thou, O king, with the light now in thee, hadst looked at creation before man appeared, thou wouldst have said, 'All is perfect so far.' But questioned if anything more perfect in joy might be, thou wouldst have said, 'Yes; a being may be made, unlike these who do not know the joy they have, who shall be conscious of himself, and know that he is happy. Then his life will be satisfied with daily joy.'" O king, thou wouldst have answered foolishly. The higher the soul climbs in joy the more it sees of joy, and when it sees the most, it perishes. Vast capabilities of joy open round it; it craves for all it presages; desire for more deepening with every attainment. And then the body intervenes. Age, sickness, decay, forbid attainment. Life is inadequate to joy. What have the gods done? It cannot be their malice, no, nor carelessness; but—to let us see oceans of joy, and only give us power to hold a cupful—is that to live? It is misery, and the more of joy my artist nature makes me capable of feeling, the deeper my misery.
"But then, O king, thou sayest 'that I leave behind me works that will live; works, too, which paint the joy of life.' Yes, but to show what the joy of life is, is not to have it. If I carve the young Phoebus, am I therefore young? I can write odes of the delight of love, but grown too grey to be beloved, can I have its delight? That fair slave of yours, and the rower with the muscles all a ripple on his back who lowers the sail in the bay, can write no love odes nor can they paint the joy of love; but they can have it—not I."
The knowledge, he thinks, of what joy is, of all that life can give, which increases in the artist as his feebleness increases, makes his fate the deadlier. What is it to him that his works live? He does not live. The hand of death grapples the throat of life at the moment when he sees most clearly its infinite possibilities. Decay paralyses his hand when he knows best how to use his tools. It is accomplished wretchedness.
I quote his outburst. It is in the soul of thousands who have no hope of a life to come.
"But," sayest thou—(and I marvel, I repeat, To find thee trip on such a mere word) "what Thou writest, paintest, stays; that does not die: Sappho survives, because we sing her songs, And AEschylus, because we read his plays!" Why, if they live still, let them come and take Thy slave in my despite, drink from thy cup, Speak in my place! "Thou diest while I survive?"— Say rather that my fate is deadlier still, In this, that every day my sense of joy Grows more acute, my soul (intensified By power and insight) more enlarged, more keen; While every day my hairs fall more and more, My hand shakes, and the heavy years increase— The horror quickening still from year to year, The consummation coming past escape When I shall know most, and yet least enjoy— When all my works wherein I prove my worth, Being present still to mock me in men's mouths, Alive still, in the praise of such as thou, I, I the feeling, thinking, acting man, The man who loved his life so overmuch, Sleep in my urn. It is so horrible I dare at times imagine to my need Some future state revealed to us by Zeus, Unlimited in capability For joy, as this is in desire of joy, —To seek which the joy-hunger forces us: That, stung by straitness of our life, made strait On purpose to make prized the life at large— Freed by the throbbing impulse we call death, We burst there as the worm into the fly. Who, while a worm still, wants his wings. But no! Zeus has not yet revealed it; and alas, He must have done so, were it possible!
This is one only of Browning's statements of what he held to be the fierce necessity for another life. Without it, nothing is left for humanity, having arrived at full culture, knowledge, at educated love of beauty, at finished morality and unselfishness—nothing in the end but Cleon's cry—sorrowful, somewhat stern, yet gentle—to Protus,
Live long and happy, and in that thought die, Glad for what was. Farewell.
But for those who are not Cleon and Protus, not kings in comfort or poets in luxury, who have had no gladness, what end—what is to be said of them? I will not stay to speak of A Death in the Desert, which is another of these poems, because the most part of it is concerned with questions of modern theology. St. John awakes into clear consciousness just before his death in the cave where he lies tended by a few disciples. He foresees some of the doubts of this century and meets them as he can. The bulk of this poem, very interesting in its way, is Browning's exposition of his own belief, not an imaginative representation of what St. John actually would have said. It does not therefore come into my subject. What does come into it is the extraordinary naturalness and vitality of the description given by John's disciple of the place where they were, and the fate of his companions. This is invented in Browning's most excellent way. It could not be better done.
The next poem is the Epistle of Karshish, the Arab Physician, to his master, concerning his strange medical experience. The time is just before the last siege of Jerusalem, and Karshish, journeying through Jericho, and up the pass, stays for a few days at Bethany and meets Lazarus. His case amazes him, and though he thinks his interest in it unworthy of a man of science in comparison with the new herbs and new diseases he has discovered, yet he is carried away by it and gives a full account of it to his master.
I do not think that Browning ever wrote a poem the writing of which he more enjoyed. The creation of Karshish suited his humour and his quaint play with recondite knowledge. He describes the physician till we see him alive and thinking, in body and soul. The creation of Lazarus is even a higher example of the imaginative power of Browning; and that it is shaped for us through the mind of Karshish, and in tune with it, makes the imaginative effort the more remarkable. Then the problem—how to express the condition of a man's body and soul, who, having for three days according to the story as Browning conceives it lived consciously in the eternal and perfect world, has come back to dwell in this world—was so difficult and so involved in metaphysical strangenesses, that it delighted him.
Of course, he carefully prepares his scenery to give a true semblance to the whole. Karshish comes up the flinty pass from Jericho; he is attacked by thieves twice and beaten, and the wild beasts endanger his path;
A black lynx snarled and pricked a tufted ear, Lust of my blood inflamed his yellow balls; I cried and threw my staff and he was gone,
and then, at the end of the pass, he met Lazarus. See how vividly the scenery is realised—
I crossed a ridge of short, sharp, broken hills Like an old lion's cheek-teeth. Out there came A moon made like a face with certain spots, Multiform, manifold and menacing: Then a wind rose behind me. So we met In this old sleepy town at unaware The man and I.
And the weird evening, Karshish thinks, had something to do with the strange impression the man has made on him. Then we are placed in the dreamy village of Bethany. We hear of its elders, its diseases, its flowers, its herbs and gums, of the insects which may help medicine—
There is a spider here Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs, Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-grey back;
and then, how the countryside is all on fire with news of Vespasian marching into Judaea. So we have the place, the village, the hills, the animals, and the time, all clear, and half of the character of Karshish. The inner character of the man emerges as clearly when he comes to deal with Lazarus. This is not a case of the body, he thinks, but of the soul. "The Syrian," he tells his master, "has had catalepsy, and a learned leech of his nation, slain soon afterwards, healed him and brought him back to life after three days. He says he was dead, and made alive again, but that is his madness; though the man seems sane enough. At any rate, his disease has disappeared, he is as well as you and I. But the mind and soul of the man, that is the strange matter, and in that he is entirely unlike other men. Whatever he has gone through has rebathed him as in clear water of another life, and penetrated his whole being. He views the world like a child, he scarcely listens to what goes on about him, yet he is no fool. If one could fancy a man endowed with perfect knowledge beyond the fleshly faculty, and while he has this heaven in him forced to live on earth, such a man is he. His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here. He has lost all sense of our values of things. Vespasian besieging Jerusalem and a mule passing with gourds awaken the same interest. But speak of some little fact, little as we think, and he stands astonished with its prodigious import. If his child sicken to death it does not seem to matter to him, but a gesture, a glance from the child, starts him into an agony of fear and anger, as if the child were undoing the universe. He lives like one between two regions, one of distracting glory, of which he is conscious but must not enter yet; and the other into which he has been exiled back again—and between this region where his soul moves and the earth where his body is, there is so little harmony of thought or feeling that he cannot undertake any human activity, nor unite the demands of the two worlds. He knows that what ought to be cannot be in the world he has returned to, so that his life is perplexed; but in this incessant perplexity he falls back on prone submission to the heavenly will. The time will come when death will restore his being to equilibrium; but now he is out of harmony, for the soul knows more than the body and the body clouds the soul."
"I probed this seeming indifference. 'Beast, to be so still and careless when Rome is at the gates of thy town.' He merely looked with his large eyes at me. Yet the man is not apathetic, but loves old and young, the very brutes and birds and flowers of the field. His only impatience is with wrongdoing, but he curbs that impatience."
At last Karshish tells, with many apologies for his foolishness, the strangest thing of all. Lazarus thinks that his curer was God himself who came and dwelt in flesh among those he had made, and went in and out among them healing and teaching, and then died. "It is strange, but why write of trivial matters when things of price call every moment for remark? Forget it, my master, pardon me and farewell."
Then comes the postscript, that impression which, in spite of all his knowledge, is left in Karshish's mind—
The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think? So, the All-Great were the All-Loving too— So, through the thunder comes a human voice Saying: "O heart I made, a heart beats here! Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself! Thou hast no power, nor may'st conceive of mine, But love I gave thee, with myself to love, And thou must love me who have died for thee!"— The madman saith He said so; it is strange.
* * * * *
IMAGINATIVE REPRESENTATIONS RENAISSANCE
The Imaginative Representations to be discussed in this chapter are those which belong to the time of the Renaissance. We take a great leap when we pass from Karshish and Cleon to Fra Lippo Lippi, from early Christian times to the early manhood of the Renaissance. But these leaps are easy to a poet, and Browning is even more at his ease and in his strength in the fifteenth century than in the first.
We have seen with what force in Sordello he realised the life and tumult of the thirteenth century. The fourteenth century does not seem to have attracted him much, though he frequently refers to its work in Florence; but when the Renaissance in the fifteenth century took its turn with decision towards a more open freedom of life and thought, abandoning one after another the conventions of the past; when the moral limits, which the Church still faintly insisted on, were more and more withdrawn and finally blotted out; when, as the century passed into the next, the Church led the revolt against decency, order, and morality; when scepticism took the place of faith, even of duty, and criticism the place of authority, then Browning became interested, not of course in the want of faith and in immorality, but in the swift variety and intensity of the movement of intellectual and social life, and in the interlacing changes of the movement. This was an enchanting world for him, and as he was naturally most interested in the arts, he represented the way in which the main elements of the Renaissance appeared to him in poems which were concerned with music, poetry, painting and the rest of the arts, but chiefly with painting. Of course, when the Renaissance began to die down into senile pride and decay, Browning, who never ceased to choose and claim companionship with vigorous life, who abhorred decay either in Nature or nations, in societies or in cliques of culture, who would have preferred a blood-red pirate to the daintiest of decadents—did not care for it, and in only one poem, touched with contemptuous pity and humour, represented its disease and its disintegrating elements, with so much power, however, with such grasping mastery, that it is like a painting by Velasquez. Ruskin said justly that the Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church concentrated into a few lines all the evil elements of the Renaissance. But this want of care for the decaying Renaissance was contrasted by the extreme pleasure with which he treated its early manhood in Fra Lippo Lippi.
The Renaissance had a life and seasons, like those of a human being. It went through its childhood and youth like a boy of genius under the care of parents from whose opinions and mode of life he is sure to sever himself in the end; but who, having made a deep impression on his nature, retain power over, and give direction to, his first efforts at creation. The first art of the Renaissance, awakened by the discovery of the classic remnants, retained a great deal of the faith and superstition, the philosophy, theology, and childlike naivete of the middle ages. Its painting and sculpture, but chiefly the first of these, gave themselves chiefly to the representation of the soul upon the face, and of the untutored and unconscious movements of the body under the influence of religious passion; that is, such movements as expressed devotion, fervent love of Christ, horror of sin, were chosen, and harmonised with the expression of the face. Painting dedicated its work to the representation of the heavenly life, either on earth in the story of the gospels and in the lives of the saints, or in its glory in the circles of heaven. Then, too, it represented the thought, philosophy, and knowledge of its own time and of the past in symbolic series of quiet figures, in symbolic pictures of the struggle of good with evil, of the Church with the world, of the virtues with their opposites. Naturally, then, the expression on the face of secular passions, the movement of figures in war and trade and social life and the whole vast field of human life in the ordinary world, were neglected as unworthy of representation; and the free, full life of the body, its beauty, power and charm, the objects which pleased its senses, the frank representation of its movement under the influence of the natural as contrasted with the spiritual passions, were looked upon with religious dismay. Such, but less in sculpture than in painting, was the art of the Renaissance in its childhood and youth, and Browning has scarcely touched that time. He had no sympathy with a neglect of the body, a contempt of the senses or of the beauty they perceived. He claimed the physical as well as the intellectual and spiritual life of man as by origin and of right divine. When, then, in harmony with a great change in social and literary life, the art of the Renaissance began to turn, in its early manhood, from the representation of the soul to the representation of the body in natural movement and beauty; from the representation of saints, angels and virtues to the representation of actual men and women in the streets and rooms of Florence; from symbolism to reality—Browning thought, "This suits me; this is what I love; I will put this mighty change into a poem." And he wrote Fra Lippo Lippi.
As long as this vivid representation of actual human life lasted, the art of the Renaissance was active, original, and interesting; and as it moved on, developing into higher and finer forms, and producing continually new varieties in its development, it reached its strong and eager manhood. In its art then, as well as in other matters, the Renaissance completed its new and clear theory of life; it remade the grounds of life, of its action and passion; and it reconstituted its aims. Browning loved this summer time of the Renaissance, which began with the midst of the fifteenth century. But he loved its beginnings even more than its fulness. That was characteristic. I have said that even when he was eighty years old, his keenest sympathies were with spring rather than summer, with those times of vital change when fresh excitements disturbed the world, when its eyes were smiling with hope, and its feet eager with the joy of pursuit. He rejoiced to analyse and embody a period which was shaking off the past, living intensely in the present, and prophesying the future. It charms us, as we read him, to see his intellect and his soul like two hunting dogs, and with all their eagerness, questing, roving, quartering, with the greatest joy and in incessant movement, over a time like this, where so many diverse, clashing, and productive elements mingled themselves into an enchanting confusion and glory of life. Out of that pleasure of hunting in a morning-tide of humanity, was born Fra Lippo Lippi; and there is scarcely an element of the time, except the political elements, which it does not represent; not dwelt on, but touched for the moment and left; unconsciously produced as two men of the time would produce them in conversation. The poem seems as easy as a chat in Pall Mall last night between some intelligent men, which, read two hundred years hence, would inform the reader of the trend of thought and feeling in this present day. But in reality to do this kind of thing well is to do a very difficult thing. It needs a full knowledge, a full imagination and a masterly execution. Yet when we read the poem, it seems as natural as the breaking out of blossoms. This is that divine thing, the ease of genius.
The scenery of the poem is as usual clear. We are in fifteenth-century Florence at night. There is no set description, but the slight touches are enough to make us see the silent lonely streets, the churches, the high walls of the monastic gardens, the fortress-palaces. The sound of the fountains is in our ears; the little crowds of revelling men and girls appear and disappear like ghosts; the surly watch with their weapons and torches bustle round the corner. Nor does Browning neglect to paint by slight enlivening touches, introduced into Lippo Lippi's account of himself as a starving boy, the aspect by day and the character of the Florence of the fifteenth century. This painting of his, slight as it is, is more alive than all the elaborate descriptions in Romola.
As to the poem itself, Browning plunges at once into his matter; no long approaches, no elaborate porches belong to his work. The man and his character are before us in a moment—
I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave! You need not clap your torches to my face. Zooks, what's to blame? You think you see a monk! What, 'tis past midnight, and you go the rounds, And here you catch me at an alley's end Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
For three weeks he has painted saints, and saints, and saints again, for Cosimo in the Medici Palace; but now the time of blossoms has come. Florence is now awake at nights; the secret of the spring moves in his blood; the man leaps up, the monk retires.
Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air. There came a hurry of feet and little feet, A sweep of lute-strings, laughs and whifts of song,— Flower o' the broom. Take away love, and our earth is a tomb! Flower of the quince, I let Lisa go, and what good in life since? Flower of the thyme—and so on. Round they went. Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter, Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight,—three slim shapes, And a face that looked up ... zooks, sir, flesh and blood, That's all I'm made of! Into shreds it went, Curtain and counterpane and coverlet, All the bed furniture—a dozen knots, There was a ladder! Down I let myself, Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped, And after them. I came up with the fun Hard by St. Laurence, hail fellow, well met,— Flower o' the rose, If I've been merry, what matter who knows?
It is a picture, not only of the man, but of the time and its temper, when religion and morality, as well as that simplicity of life which Dante describes, had lost their ancient power over society in Florence; when the claim to give to human nature all it desired had stolen into the Church itself. Even in the monasteries, the long seclusion from natural human life had produced a reaction, which soon, indulging itself as Fra Lippo Lippi did, ran into an extremity of licence. Nevertheless, something of the old religious life lasted at the time of this poem. It stretched one hand back to the piety of the past, and retained, though faith and devotion had left them, its observances and conventions; so that, at first, when Lippo was painting, the new only peeped out of the old, like the saucy face of a nymph from the ilexes of a sacred grove. This is the historical moment Browning illustrates. Lippo Lippi was forced to paint the worn religious subjects: Jerome knocking his breast, the choirs of angels and martyrs, the scenes of the Gospel; but out of all he did the eager modern life began to glance! Natural, quaint, original faces and attitudes appeared; the angels smiled like Florentine women; the saints wore the air of Bohemians. There is a picture by Lippo Lippi in the National Gallery of some nine of them sitting on a bench under a hedge of roses, and it is no paradox to say that they might fairly represent the Florentines who tell the tales of the Decameron.
The transition as it appeared in art is drawn in this poem. Lippo Lippi became a monk by chance; it was not his vocation. A starving boy, he roamed the streets of Florence; and the widespread intelligence of the city is marked by Browning's account of the way in which the boy observed all the life of the streets for eight years. Then the coming change of the aims of art is indicated by the way in which, when he was allowed to paint, he covered the walls of the Carmine, not with saints, virgins, and angels, but with the daily life of the streets—the boy patting the dog, the murderer taking refuge at the altar, the white wrath of the avenger coming up the aisle, the girl going to market, the crowd round the stalls in the market, the monks, white, grey, and black—things as they were, as like as two peas to the reality; flesh and blood now painted, not skin and bone; not the expression on the face alone, but the whole body in speaking movement; nothing conventional, nothing imitative of old models, but actual life as it lay before the painter's eyes. Into this fresh aera of art Lippo Lippi led the way with the joy of youth. But he was too soon. The Prior, all the representatives of the conservative elements in the convent, were sorely troubled. "Why, this will never do: faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true; life as it is; nature as she is; quite impossible." And Browning, in Lippo's defence of himself, paints the conflict of the past with the coming art in a passage too long to quote, too admirable to shorten.
The new art conquered the old. The whole life of Florence was soon painted as it was: the face of the town, the streets, the churches, the towers, the winding river, the mountains round about it; the country, the fields and hills and hamlets, the peasants at work, ploughing, sowing, and gathering fruit, the cattle feeding, the birds among the trees and in the sky; nobles and rich burghers hunting, hawking; the magistrates, the citizens, the street-boys, the fine ladies, the tradesmen's wives, the heads of the guilds; the women visiting their friends; the interior of the houses. We may see this art of human life in the apse of Santa Maria Novella, painted by the hand of Ghirlandajo: in the Riccardi Palace, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli; in more than half the pictures of the painters who succeeded Fra Lippo Lippi. Only, so much of the old clings that all this actual Florentine life is painted into the ancient religious subjects—the life of the Baptist and the Virgin, the embassage of the Wise Men, the life of Christ, the legends of the saints, the lives of the virgins and martyrs, Jerusalem and its life painted as if it were Florence and its life—all the spiritual religion gone out of it, it is true, but yet, another kind of religion budding in it—the religion, not of the monastery, but of daily common life.
the world —The beauty and the wonder and the power, The shapes of things, their colours, lights, and shades. Changes, surprises—and God made it all!
Who paints these things as if they were alive, and loves them while he paints, paints the garment of God; and men not only understand their own life better because they see, through the painting, what they did not see before; but also the movement of God's spirit in the beauty of the world and in the life of men. Art interprets to man all that is, and God in it.
Oh, oh, It makes me mad to think what men shall do And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us, No blank; it means intensely, and means good: To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
He could not do it; the time was not ripe enough. But he began it. And the spirit of its coming breaks out in all he did.
We take a leap of more than half a century when we pass from Fra Lippo Lippi to Andrea del Sarto. That advance in art to which Lippo Lippi looked forward with a kind of rage at his own powerlessness had been made. In its making, the art of the Renaissance had painted men and women, both body and soul, in every kind of life, both of war and peace; and better than they had ever been painted before. Having fulfilled that, the painters asked, "What more? What new thing shall we do? What new aim shall we pursue?" And there arose among them a desire to paint all that was paintable, and especially the human body, with scientific perfection. "In our desire to paint the whole of life, we have produced so much that we were forced to paint carelessly or inaccurately. In our desire to be original, we have neglected technique. In our desire to paint the passions on the face and in the movements of men, we have lost the calm and harmony of the ancient classic work, which made its ethical impression of the perfect balance of the divine nature by the ideal arrangement, in accord with a finished science, of the various members of the body to form a finished whole. Let the face no longer then try to represent the individual soul. One type of face for each class of art-representation is enough. Let our effort be to represent beauty by the perfect drawing of the body in repose and in action, and by chosen attitudes and types. Let our composition follow certain guiding lines and rules, in accordance with whose harmonies all pictures shall be made. We will follow the Greek; compose as he did, and by his principles; and for that purpose make a scientific study of the body of man; observing in all painting, sculpture, and architecture the general forms and proportions that ancient art, after many experiments, selected as the best. And, to match that, we must have perfect drawing in all we do."
This great change, which, as art's adulterous connection with science deepened, led to such unhappy results, Browning represents, when its aim had been reached, in his poem, Andrea del Sarto; and he tells us—through Andrea's talk with his wife Lucretia—what he thought of it; and what Andrea himself, whose broken life may have opened his eyes to the truth of things, may himself have thought of it. On that element in the poem I have already dwelt, and shall only touch on the scenery and tragedy, of the piece:
We sit with Andrea, looking out to Fiesole.
sober, pleasant Fiesole. There's the bell clinking from the chapel top; That length of convent-wall across the way Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside; The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease, And autumn grows, autumn in everything.
As the poem goes on, the night falls, falls with the deepening of the painter's depression; the owls cry from the hill, Florence wears the grey hue of the heart of Andrea; and Browning weaves the autumn and the night into the tragedy of the painter's life.
That tragedy was pitiful. Andrea del Sarto was a faultless painter and a weak character; and it fell to his lot to love with passion a faithless woman. His natural weakness was doubled by the weakness engendered by unconquerable passion; and he ruined his life, his art, and his honour, to please his wife. He wearied her, as women are wearied, by passion unaccompanied by power; and she endured him only while he could give her money and pleasures. She despised him for that endurance, and all the more that he knew she was guilty, but said nothing lest she should leave him. Browning fills his main subject—his theory of the true aim of art—with this tragedy; and his treatment of it is a fine example of his passionate humanity; and the passion of it is knitted up with close reasoning and illuminated by his intellectual play.
It is worth a reader's while to read, along with this poem, Alfred de Musset's short play, Andre del Sarto. The tragedy of the situation is deepened by the French poet, and the end is told. Unlike Browning, only a few lines sketch the time, its temper, and its art. It is the depth of the tragedy which De Musset paints, and that alone; and in order to deepen it, Andrea is made a much nobler character than he is in Browning's poem. The betrayal is also made more complete, more overwhelming. Lucretia is false to Andrea with his favourite pupil, with Cordiani, to whom he had given all he had, whom he loved almost as much as he loved his wife. Terrible, inevitable Fate broods over this brief and masterly little play.
The next of these imaginative representations of the Renaissance is, The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church. We are placed in the full decadence of the Renaissance. Its total loss of religion, even in the Church; its immorality—the bishop's death-bed is surrounded by his natural sons and the wealth he leaves has been purchased by every kind of iniquity—its pride of life; its luxury; its semi-Paganism; its imitative classicism; its inconsistency; its love of jewels, and fine stones, and rich marbles; its jealousy and envy; its pleasure in the adornment of death; its delight in the outsides of things, in mere workmanship; its loss of originality; its love of scholarship for scholarship's sake alone; its contempt of the common people; its exhaustion—are one and all revealed or suggested in this astonishing poem.
These are the three greater poems dedicated to this period; but there are some minor poems which represent different phases of its life. One of these is the Pictor Ignotus. There must have been many men, during the vital time of the Renaissance, who, born, as it were, into the art-ability of the period, reached without trouble a certain level in painting, but who had no genius, who could not create; or who, if they had some touch of genius, had no boldness to strike it into fresh forms of beauty; shy, retiring men, to whom the criticism of the world was a pain they knew they could not bear. These men are common at a period when life is racing rapidly through the veins of a vivid city like Florence. The general intensity of the life lifts them to a height they would never reach in a dull and sleepy age. The life they have is not their own, but the life of the whole town. And this keen perception of life outside of them persuades them that they can do all that men of real power can do. In reality, they can do nothing and make nothing worth a people's honour. Browning, who himself was compact of boldness, who loved experiment in what was new, and who shaped what he conceived without caring for criticism, felt for these men, of whom he must have met many; and, asking himself "How they would think; what they would do; and how life would seem to them," wrote this poem. In what way will poor human nature excuse itself for failure? How will the weakness in the man try to prove that it was power? How, having lost the joy of life, will he attempt to show that his loss is gain, his failure a success; and, being rejected of the world, approve himself within?
This was a subject to please Browning; meat such as his soul loved: a nice, involved, Daedalian, labyrinthine sort of thing, a mixture of real sentiment and self-deceit; and he surrounded it with his pity for its human weakness.
"I could have painted any picture that I pleased," cries this painter; "represented on the face any passion, any virtue." If he could he would have done it, or tried it. Genius cannot hold itself in.
"I have dreamed of sending forth some picture which should enchant the world (and he alludes to Cimabue's picture)—
"Bound for some great state, Or glad aspiring little burgh, it went— Flowers cast upon the car which bore the freight, Through old streets named afresh from the event.
"That would have been, had I willed it. But mixed with the praisers there would have been cold, critical faces; judges who would press on me and mock. And I—I could not bear it." Alas! had he had genius, no fear would have stayed his hand, no judgment of the world delayed his work. What stays a river breaking from its fountain-head?
So he sank back, saying the world was not worthy of his labours. "What? Expose my noble work (things he had conceived but not done) to the prate and pettiness of the common buyers who hang it on their walls! No, I will rather paint the same monotonous round of Virgin, Child, and Saints in the quiet church, in the sanctuary's gloom. No merchant then will traffic in my heart. My pictures will moulder and die. Let them die. I have not vulgarised myself or them." Brilliant and nobly wrought as the first three poems are of which I have written, this quiet little piece needed and received a finer workmanship, and was more difficult than they.
Then there is How it strikes a Contemporary—the story of the gossip of a Spanish town about a poor poet, who, because he wanders everywhere about the streets observing all things, is mistaken for a spy of the king. The long pages he writes are said to be letters to the king; the misfortunes of this or that man are caused by his information. The world thinks him a wonder of cleverness; he is but an inferior poet. It imagines that he lives in Assyrian luxury; he lives and dies in a naked garret. This imaginative representation might be of any time in a provincial town of an ignorant country like Spain. It is a slight study of what superstitious imagination and gossip will work up round any man whose nature and manners, like those of a poet, isolate him from the common herd. Force is added to this study by its scenery. The Moorish windows, the shops, the gorgeous magistrates pacing down the promenade, are touched in with a flying pencil; and then, moving through the crowd, the lean, black-coated figure, with his cane and dog and his peaked hat, clear flint eyes and beaked nose, is seen, as if alive, in the vivid sunshine of Valladolid. But what Browning wished most to describe in this poem was one of the first marks of a poet, even of a poor one like this gentleman—the power of seeing and observing everything. Nothing was too small, nothing uninteresting in this man's eyes. His very hat was scrutinising.
He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade, The man who slices lemons into drink, The coffee-roaster's brazier, and the boys That volunteer to help him turn its winch. He glanced o'er books on stalls with half an eye, And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor's string, And broad-edged bold-print posters by the wall. He took such cognisance of man and things, If any beat a horse you felt he saw; If any cursed a woman, he took note; Yet stared at nobody, you stared at him, And found, less to your pleasure than surprise, He seemed to know you and expect as much.
That is the artist's way. It was Browning's way. He is describing himself. In that fashion he roamed through Venice or Florence, stopping every moment, attracted by the smallest thing, finding a poem in everything, lost in himself yet seeing all that surrounded him, isolated in thinking, different from and yet like the rest of the world.
Another poem—My Last Duchess—must be mentioned. It is plainly placed in the midst of the period of the Renaissance by the word Ferrara, which is added to its title. But it is rather a picture of two temperaments which may exist in any cultivated society, and at any modern time. There are numbers of such men as the Duke and such women as the Duchess in our midst. Both are, however, drawn with mastery. Browning has rarely done his work with more insight, with greater keenness of portraiture, with happier brevity and selection. As in The Flight of the Duchess, untoward fate has bound together two temperaments sure to clash with each other—and no gipsy comes to deliver the woman in this case. The man's nature kills her. It happens every day. The Renaissance society may have built up more men of this type than ours, but they are not peculiar to it.
Germany, not Italy, is, I think, the country in which Browning intended to place two other poems which belong to the time of the Renaissance—Johannes Agricola in Meditation and A Grammarian's Funeral. Their note is as different from that of the Italian poems as the national temper of Germany is from that of Italy. They have no sense of beauty for beauty's sake alone. Their atmosphere is not soft or gay but somewhat stern. The logical arrangement of them is less one of feeling than of thought. There is a stronger manhood in them, a grimmer view of life. The sense of duty to God and Man, but little represented in the Italian poems of the Renaissance, does exist in these two German poems. Moreover, there is in them a full representation of aspiration to the world beyond. But the Italian Renaissance lived for the earth alone, and its loveliness; too close to earth to care for heaven.
It pleased Browning to throw himself fully into the soul of Johannes Agricola; and he does it with so much personal fervour that it seems as if, in one of his incarnations, he had been the man, and, for the moment of his writing, was dominated by him. The mystic-passion fills the poetry with keen and dazzling light, and it is worth while, from this point of view, to compare the poem with Tennyson's Sir Galahad, and on another side, with St. Simeon Stylites.
Johannes Agricola was one of the products of the reforming spirit of the sixteenth century in Germany, one of its wild extremes. He believes that God had chosen him among a few to be his for ever and for his own glory from the foundation of the world. He did not say that all sin was permitted to the saints, that what the flesh did was no matter, like those wild fanatics, one of whom Scott draws in Woodstock; but he did say, that if he sinned it made no matter to his election by God. Nay, the immanence of God in him turned the poison to health, the filth to jewels. Goodness and badness make no matter; God's choice is all. The martyr for truth, the righteous man whose life has saved the world, but who is not elected, is damned for ever in burning hell. "I am eternally chosen; for that I praise God. I do not understand it. If I did, could I praise Him? But I know my settled place in the divine decrees." I quote the beginning. It is pregnant with superb spiritual audacity, and kindled with imaginative pride.
There's heaven above, and night by night I look right through its gorgeous roof; No suns and moons though e'er so bright Avail to stop me; splendour-proof Keep the broods of stars aloof: For I intend to get to God, For 'tis to God I speed so fast, For in God's breast, my own abode, Those shoals of dazzling glory, passed, I lay my spirit down at last. I lie where I have always lain, God smiles as he has always smiled; Ere suns and moons could wax and wane, Ere stars were thunder-girt, or piled The heavens, God thought on me his child; Ordained a life for me, arrayed Its circumstances every one To the minutest; ay, God said This head this hand should rest upon Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun. And having thus created me, Thus rooted me, he bade me grow, Guiltless for ever, like a tree That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know The law by which it prospers so: But sure that thought and word and deed All go to swell his love for me, Me, made because that love had need Of something irreversibly Pledged solely its content to be.
As to A Grammarian's Funeral, that poem also belongs to the German rather than to the Italian spirit. The Renaissance in Italy lost its religion; at the same time, in Germany, it added a reformation of religion to the New Learning. The Renaissance in Italy desired the fulness of knowledge in this world, and did not look for its infinities in the world beyond. In Germany the same desire made men call for the infinities of knowledge beyond the earth. A few Italians, like Savonarola, like M. Angelo, did the same, and failed to redeem their world; but eternal aspiration dwelt in the soul of every German who had gained a religion. In Italy, as the Renaissance rose to its luxury and trended to its decay, the pull towards personal righteousness made by belief in an omnipotent goodness who demands the subjection of our will to his, ceased to be felt by artists, scholars and cultivated society. A man's will was his only law. On the other hand, the life of the New Learning in Germany and England was weighted with a sense of duty to an eternal Righteousness. The love of knowledge or beauty was modified into seriousness of life, carried beyond this life in thought, kept clean, and, though filled with incessant labour on the earth, aspired to reach its fruition only in the life to come.
This is the spirit and the atmosphere of the Grammarian's Funeral, and Browning's little note at the beginning says that its time "was shortly after the revival of learning in Europe." I have really no proof that Browning laid the scene of his poem in Germany, save perhaps the use of such words as "thorp" and "croft," but there is a clean, pure morning light playing through the verse, a fresh, health-breathing northern air, which does not fit in with Italy; a joyous, buoyant youthfulness in the song and march of the students who carry their master with gay strength up the mountain to the very top, all of them filled with his aspiring spirit, all of them looking forward with gladness and vigour to life—which has no relation whatever to the temper of Florentine or Roman life during the age of the Medici. The bold brightness, moral earnestness, pursuit of the ideal, spiritual intensity, reverence for good work and for the man who did it, which breathe in the poem, differ by a whole world from the atmosphere of life in Andrea del Sarto. This is a crowd of men who are moving upwards, who, seizing the Renaissance elements, knitted them through and through with reformation of life, faith in God, and hope for man. They had a future and knew it. The semi-paganism of the Renaissance had not, and did not know it had not.
We may close this series of Renaissance representations by A Toccata of Galuppi's. It cannot take rank with the others as a representative poem. It is of a different class; a changeful dream of images and thoughts which came to Browning as he was playing a piece of eighteenth-century Venetian music. But in the dream there is a sketch of that miserable life of fruitless pleasure, the other side of which was dishonourable poverty, into which Venetian society had fallen in the eighteenth century. To this the pride, the irreligion, the immorality, the desire of knowledge and beauty for their own sake alone, had brought the noblest, wisest, and most useful city in Italy. That part of the poem is representative. It is the end of such a society as is drawn in The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church. That tomb is placed in Rome, but it is in Venice that this class of tombs reached their greatest splendour of pride, opulence, folly, debasement and irreligion.
Finally, there are a few poems which paint the thoughts, the sorrows, the pleasures, and the political passions of modern Italy. There is the Italian in England, full of love for the Italian peasant and of pity for the patriot forced to live and die far from his motherland. Mazzini used to read it to his fellow-exiles to show them how fully an English poet could enter into the temper of their soul. So far it may be said to represent a type. But it scarcely comes under the range of this chapter. But Up in a Villa, down in the City, is so vivid a representation of all that pleased a whole type of the city-bred and poor nobles of Italy at the time when Browning wrote the Dramatic Lyrics that I cannot omit it. It is an admirable piece of work, crowded with keen descriptions of nature in the Casentino, and of life in the streets of Florence. And every piece of description is so filled with the character of the "Italian person of quality" who describes them—a petulant, humorous, easily angered, happy, observant, ignorant, poor gentleman—that Browning entirely disappears. The poem retains for us in its verse, and indeed in its light rhythm, the childlikeness, the naivete, the simple pleasures, the ignorance, and the honest boredom with the solitudes of nature—of a whole class of Italians, not only of the time when it was written, but of the present day. It is a delightful, inventive piece of gay and pictorial humour.
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WOMANHOOD IN BROWNING
The first woman we meet in Browning's poetry is Pauline; a twofold person, exceedingly unlike the woman usually made by a young poet. She is not only the Pauline idealised and also materialised by the selfish passion of her lover, but also the real woman whom Browning has conceived underneath the lover's image of her. This doubling of his personages, as seen under two diverse aspects or by two different onlookers, in the same poem, is not unfrequent in his poetry, and it pleased his intellect to make these efforts. When the thing was well done, its cleverness was amazing, even imaginative; when it was ill done, it was confusing. Tennyson never did this; he had not analytic power enough. What he sees of his personages is all one, quite clearly drawn and easy to understand. But we miss in them, and especially in his women, the intellectual play, versatility and variety of Browning. Tennyson's women sometimes border on dulness, are without that movement, change and surprises, which in women disturb mankind for evil or for good. If Tennyson had had a little more of Browning's imaginative analysis, and Browning a little less of it, both would have been better artists.
The Pauline of the lover is the commonplace woman whom a young man so often invents out of a woman for his use and pleasure. She is to be his salvation, to sympathise with his ideals, joys and pains, to give him everything, with herself, and to live for him and him alone. Nothing can be more naif and simple than this common selfishness which forgets that a woman has her own life, her own claim on the man, and her own individuality to develop; and this element in the poem, which never occurs again in Browning's poetry, may be the record of an early experience. If so, he had escaped from this youthful error before he had finished the poem, and despised it, perhaps too much. It is excusable and natural in the young. His contempt for this kind of love is embodied in the second Pauline. She is not the woman her lover imagines her to be, but far older and more experienced than her lover; who has known long ago what love was; who always liked to be loved, who therefore suffers her lover to expatiate as wildly as he pleases; but whose life is quite apart from him, enduring him with pleasurable patience, criticising him, wondering how he can be so excited. There is a dim perception in the lover's phrases of these elements in his mistress' character; and that they are in her character is quite plain from the patronising piece of criticism in French which Browning has put into her mouth. The first touch of his humour appears in the contrast of the gentle and lofty boredom of the letter with the torrents of love in the poem. And if we may imagine that the lover is partly an image of what Browning once felt in a youthful love, we may also think that the making of the second and critical Pauline was his record, when his love had passed, of what he thought about it all.
This mode of treatment, so much more analytic than imaginative, belongs to Browning as an artist. He seems, while he wrote, as if half of him sat apart from the personages he was making, contemplating them in his observant fashion, discussing them coolly in his mind while the other half of him wrote about them with emotion; placing them in different situations and imagining what they would then do; inventing trials for them and recombining, through these trials, the elements of their characters; arguing about and around them, till he sometimes loses the unity of their personality. This is a weakness in his work when he has to create characters in a drama who may be said, like Shakespeare's, to have, once he has created them, a life of their own independent of the poet. His spinning of his own thoughts about their characters makes us often realise, in his dramas, the individuality of Browning more than the individuality of the characters. We follow him at this work with keen intellectual pleasure, but we do not always follow him with a passionate humanity.
On the contrary, this habit, which was one cause of his weakness as an artist in the drama, increased his strength as an artist when he made single pictures of men and women at isolated crises in their lives; or when he pictured them as they seemed at the moment to one, two, or three differently tempered persons—pictorial sketches and studies which we may hang up in the chambers of the mind for meditation or discussion. Their intellectual power and the emotional interest they awaken, the vivid imaginative lightning which illuminates them in flashes, arise out of that part of his nature which made him a weak dramatist.
Had he chosen, for example, to paint Lady Carlisle as he conceived her, in an isolated portrait, and in the same circumstances as in his drama of Strafford, we should have had a clear and intimate picture of her moving, alive at every point, amidst the decay and shipwreck of the Court. But in the play she is a shade who comes and goes, unoutlined, confused and confusing, scarcely a woman at all. The only clear hints of what Browning meant her to be are given in the asides of Strafford.
Browning may have been content with Strafford as a whole, but, with his passion for vitality, he could not have been content with either Lady Carlisle or the Queen as representatives of women. Indeed, up to this point, when he had written Pauline, Paracelsus and Strafford, he must have felt that he had left out of his poetry one half of the human race; and his ambition was to represent both men and women. Pauline's chief appearance is in French prose. Michel, in Paracelsus, is a mere silhouette of the sentimental German Frau, a soft sympathiser with her husband and with the young eagle Paracelsus, who longs to leave the home she would not leave for the world—an excellent and fruitful mother. She is set in a pleasant garden landscape. Twice Browning tries to get more out of her and to lift her into reality. But the men carry him away from her, and she remains undrawn. These mere images, with the exception of the woman in Porphyria's Lover, who, with a boldness which might have astonished even Byron but is characteristic of Browning in his audacious youth, leaves the ball to visit her lover in the cottage in the garden—are all that he had made of womanhood in 1837, four years after he had begun to publish poetry.
It was high time he should do something better, and he had now begun to know more of the variousness of women and of their resolute grip on life and affairs. So, in Sordello, he created Palma. She runs through the poem, and her appearances mark turning points in Sordello's development; but thrice she appears in full colour and set in striking circumstances—first, in the secret room of the palace at Verona with Sordello when she expounds her policy, and afterwards leans with him amid a gush of torch-fire over the balcony, whence the grey-haired councillors spoke to the people surging in the square and shouting for the battle. The second time is in the streets of Ferrara, full of camping men and fires; and the third is when she waits with Taurello in the vaulted room below the chamber where Sordello has been left to decide what side he shall take, for the Emperor or the Pope. He dies while they wait, but there is no finer passage in the poem than this of Palma and Taurello talking in the dim corridor of the new world they would make for North Italy with Sordello. It is not dramatic characterisation, but magnificent individualisation of the woman and the man.
We see Palma first as a girl at Goito, where she fills Sordello with dreams, and Browning gives her the beauty of the Venetians Titian painted.
How the tresses curled Into a sumptuous swell of gold and wound About her like a glory! even the ground Was bright as with spilt sunbeams:
Full consciousness of her beauty is with her, frank triumph in it; but she is still a child. At the Court of Love she is a woman, not only conscious of her loveliness, but able to use it to bind and loose, having sensuous witchery and intellectual power, that terrible combination. She lays her magic on Sordello.
But she is not only the woman of personal magic and beauty. Being of high rank and mixed with great events, she naturally becomes the political woman, a common type in the thirteenth century. And Browning gives her the mental power to mould and direct affairs. She uses her personal charm to lure Sordello into politics.
Her wise And lulling words are yet about the room, Her presence wholly poured upon the gloom Down even to her vesture's creeping stir. And so reclines he, saturate with her.
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But when she felt she held her friend indeed Safe, she threw back her curls, began implant Her lessons;
Her long discourse on the state of parties, and how Sordello may, in mastering them, complete his being, fascinates him and us by the charm of her intelligence.
But the political woman has often left love behind. Politics, like devotion, are a woman's reaction from the weariness of loving and being loved. But Palma is young, and in the midst of her politics she retains passion, sentiment, tenderness and charm. She dreams of some soul beyond her own, who, coming, should call on all the force in her character; enable her, in loving him, to give consummation to her work for Italy; and be himself the hand and sword of her mind. Therefore she held herself in leash till the right man came, till she loved. "Waits he not," her heart cries, and mixes him with coming Spring:
Waits he not the waking year? His almond blossoms must be honey-ripe By this; to welcome him, fresh runnels stripe The thawed ravines; because of him, the wind Walks like a herald. I shall surely find Him now.
She finds him in Sordello, and summons him, when the time is ripe, to Verona. Love and ambition march together in her now. In and out of all her schemes Sordello moves. The glory of her vision of North Italian rule is like a halo round his brow. Not one political purpose is lost, but all are transfigured in her by love. Softness and strength, intellect and feeling meet in her. This is a woman nobly carved, and the step from Michel, Pauline and Lady Carlisle to her is an immense one.
By exercise of his powers Browning's genius had swiftly developed. There comes a time, sooner or later, to a great poet when, after many experiments, the doors of his intellect and soul fly open, and his genius is flooded with the action and thought of what seems a universe. And with this revelation of Man and Nature, a tidal wave of creative power, new and impelling, carries the poet far beyond the station where last he rested. It came to Browning now. The creation of Palma would be enough to prove it, but there is not a character or scene in Sordello which does not also prove it.
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In this new outrush of his genius he created a very different woman from Palma. He created Pippa, the Asolan girl, at the other end of society from Palma, at the other end of feminine character. Owing to the host of new thoughts which in this early summer of genius came pouring into his soul—all of which he tried to express, rejecting none, choosing none out of the rest, expressing only half of a great number of them; so delighted with them all that he could leave none out—he became obscure in Sordello. Owing also to the great complexity of the historical mise-en-scene in which he placed his characters in that poem, he also became obscure. Had he been an experienced artist he would have left out at least a third of the thoughts and scenes he inserted. As it was, he threw all his thoughts and all the matters he had learnt about the politics, cities, architecture, customs, war, gardens, religion and poetry of North Italy in the thirteenth century, pell-mell into this poem, and left them, as it were, to find their own places. This was very characteristic of a young man when the pot of his genius was boiling over. Nothing bolder, more incalculable, was ever done by a poet in the period of his storm and stress. The boundless and to express it, was never sought with more audacity. It was impossible, in this effort, for him to be clear, and we need not be vexed with him. The daring, the rush, the unconsciousness and the youth of it all, are his excuse, but not his praise. And when the public comes to understand that the dimness and complexity of Sordello arise from plenteousness not scarcity of thought, and that they were not a pose of the poet's but the natural leaping of a full fountain just let loose from its mountain chamber, it will have a personal liking, not perhaps for the poem but for Browning. "I will not read the book," it will say, "but I am glad he had it in him."
Still it was an artistic failure, and when Browning understood that the public could not comprehend him—and we must remember that he desired to be comprehended, for he loved mankind—he thought he would use his powers in a simpler fashion, and please the honest folk. So, in the joy of having got rid in Sordello of so many of his thoughts by expression and of mastering the rest; and determined, since he had been found difficult, to be the very opposite—loving contrast like a poet—he wrote Pippa Passes. I need not describe its plan. Our business is with the women in it.
Ottima, alive with carnal passion, in the fire of which the murder of her husband seems a mere incident, is an audacious sketch, done in splashes of ungradated colour. Had Browning been more in the woman's body and soul he would not have done her in jerks as he has done. Her trick of talking of the landscape, as if she were on a holiday like Pippa, is not as subtly conceived or executed as it should be, and is too far away from her dominant carnality to be natural. And her sensualism is too coarse for her position. A certain success is attained, but the imagination is frequently jarred. The very outburst of unsensual love at the end, when her love passes from the flesh into the spirit, when self-sacrifice dawns upon her and she begins to suffer the first agonies of redemption, is plainly more due to the poet's pity than to the woman's spirit. Again, Sebald is the first to feel remorse after the murder. Ottima only begins to feel it when she thinks her lover is ceasing to love her. I am not sure that to reverse the whole situation would not be nearer to the truth of things; but that is matter of discussion. Then the subject-matter is sordid. Nothing relieves the coarseness of Sebald, Ottima and Luca and their relations to one another but the few descriptions of nature and the happy flash of innocence when Pippa passes by. Nor are there any large fates behind the tale or large effects to follow which might lift the crime into dignity. This mean, commonplace, ugly kind of subject had a strange attraction for Browning, as we see in The Inn Album, in Red Cotton Nightcap Country, and elsewhere. I may add that it is curious to find him, in 1841, writing exactly like a modern realist, nearly fifty years before realism of this kind had begun. And this illustrates what I have said of the way in which he anticipated by so many years the kind of work to which the literary world should come. The whole scene between Sebald and Ottima might have been written by a powerful, relentless modern novelist.
We have more of this realism, but done with great skill, humanity, even tenderness, in the meeting and talk of the young harlotry on the steps of the Duomo near the fountain. When we think of this piece of bold, clear, impressionist reality cast into the midst of the proprieties of literature in 1841, it is impossible not to wonder and smile. The girls are excellently drawn and varied from each other. Browning's pity gathers round them, and something of underlying purity, of natural grace of soul, of tenderness in memory of their youth emerges in them; and the charm of their land is round their ways. There was also in his mind, I think, a sense of picturesqueness in their class when they were young, which, mingling with his pity for them, attracted his imagination, or touched into momentary life that roving element in a poet which resents the barriers made by social and domestic purity. Fifine at the Fair is partly a study of that temper which comes and goes, goes and comes in the life not only of poets but of ordinary men and women.
Then, to illustrate this further, there is in Sordello a brilliant sketch of girls of this kind at Venice, full of sunlight, colour and sparkling water, in which he has seen these butterflies of women as a painter would see them, or as a poet who, not thinking then of moral questions or feeling pity for their fate, is satisfied for the flying moment with the picture they make, with the natural freedom of their life.
But he does not leave that picture without a representation of the other side of this class of womanhood. It was a daring thing, when he wished to say that he would devote his whole work to the love and representation of humanity to symbolise it by a sorrowful street-girl in Venice who wistfully asks an alms; worn and broken with sorrow and wrong; whose eyes appeal for pity, for comprehension of her good and for his love; and whose fascination and beauty are more to him than those of her unsuffering companions. The other side of that class of women is here given with clear truth and just compassion, and the representation is lifted into imaginative strength, range and dignity of thought and feeling by her being made the image of the whole of humanity. "This woman," he thought, "is humanity, whom I love, who asks the poet in me to reveal her as she is, a divine seed of God to find some day its flowering—the broken harlot of the universe, who will be, far off, the Magdalen redeemed by her ineradicable love. That, and with every power I have, I will, as poet, love and represent."
This is the imagination working at its best, with its most penetrative and passionate power, and Browning is far greater as a poet in this Thing of his, where thought and love are knit into union to give birth to moral, intellectual and spiritual beauty, than he is in those lighter and cleverer poems in which he sketches with a facile but too discursive a pencil, the transient moments, grave or light, of the lives of women. Yet this and they show his range, his variety, the embracing of his sympathy.
Over against these girls in the market-place, against Ottima in her guilt, and Phene who is as yet a nonentity (her speech to the sculptor is too plainly Browning's analysis of the moment, not her own thinking—no girl of fourteen brought up by Natalia would talk in that fashion) is set Pippa, the light, life and love of the day, the town, the people and the poem. She passes like an angel by and touches with her wing events and persons and changes them to good. She has some natural genius, and is as unconscious of her genius as she is of the good she does. In her unconsciousness is the fountain of her charm. She lives like a flower of the field that knows not it has blest and comforted with its beauty the travellers who have passed it by. She has only one day in the whole year for her own, and for that day she creates a fresh personality for herself. She clothes her soul, intellect, imagination, and spiritual aspiration in holiday garments for the day, becoming for the time a new poetic self, and able to choose any other personality in Asolo from hour to hour—the queen and spirit of the town; not wishing to be, actually, the folk she passes by, but only, since she is so isolated, to be something in their lives, to touch them for help and company.
The world of nature speaks to her and loves her. She sees all that is beautiful, feeds on it, and grasps the matter of thought that underlies the beauty. And so much is she at home with nature that she is able to describe with ease in words almost as noble as the thing itself the advent of the sun. When she leaps out of her bed to meet the leap of the sun, the hymn of description she sings might be sung by the Hours themselves as they dance round the car of the god. She can even play with the great Mother as with an equal, or like her child. The charming gaiety with which she speaks to the sunlights that dance in her room, and to the flowers which are her sisters, prove, however isolated her life may be, that she is never alone. Along with this brightness she has seriousness, the sister of her gaiety; the deep seriousness of imagination, the seriousness also of the evening when meditation broods over the day and its doings before sleep. These, with her sweet humanity, natural piety, instinctive purity, compose her of soft sunshine and soft shadow. Nor does her sadness at the close, which is overcome by her trust in God, make her less but more dear to us. She is a beautiful creation. There are hosts of happy women like her. They are the salt of the earth. But few poets have made so much of them and so happily, or sung about these birds of God so well as Browning has in Pippa Passes.
That was in 1841. Pleased with his success in this half-lyrical, half-dramatic piece, he was lured towards the drama again, and also to try his hand at those short lyrics—records of transient emotion on fanciful subjects—or records of short but intense moments of thought or feeling. It is a pity that he did not give to dramatic lyrics (in which species of poetry he is quite our first master) the time he gave to dramas, in which he is not much better than an amateur. Nevertheless, we cannot omit the women in the dramas. I have already written of Lady Carlisle. Polyxena, in King Victor and King Charles, is partly the political woman and partly the sensible and loving wife of a strangely tempered man. She is fairly done, but is not interesting. Good womanly intelligence in affairs, good womanly support of her man; clear womanly insight into men and into intrigue—a woman of whom there are hundreds of thousands in every rank of life. In her, as in so much of Browning's work, the intellect of the woman is of a higher quality than the intellect of the man.
Next, among his women, is Anael in the Return of the Druses, She is placed in too unnatural a situation to allow her nature to have fair play. In the preternatural world her superstition creates, she adores Djabal, murders the Prefect, and dies by her own hand. She is, in that world, a study of a young girl's enthusiasm for her faith and her country, and for the man she thinks divine; and were the subject, so far as it relates to her character, well or clearly wrought, she might be made remarkable. As it is wrought, it is so intertwisted with complex threads of thought and passion that any clear outline of her character is lost. Both Djabal and she are like clouds illuminated by flashes of sheet lightning which show an infinity of folds and shapes of vapour in each cloud, but show them only for an instant; and then, when the flashes come again, show new folds, new involutions. The characters are not allowed by Browning to develop themselves.
Anael, when she is in the preternatural world, loves Djabal as an incarnation of the divine, but in the natural world of her girlhood her heart goes out to the Knight of Malta who loves her. The in-and-out of these two emotional states—one in the world of religious enthusiasm, and one in her own womanhood, as they cross and re-cross one another—is elaborated with merciless analysis; and Anael's womanhood appears, not as a whole, but in bits and scraps. How will this young girl, divided by two contemporaneous emotions, one in the supernatural and one in the natural world, act in a crisis of her life? Well, the first, conquering the second, brings about her death the moment she tries to transfer the second into the world of the first—her dim, half-conscious love for Lois into her conscious adoration of Djabal.