Mildred and Guendolen are the two women in A Blot in the 'Scutcheon. Guendolen is the incarnation of high-hearted feminine commonsense, of clear insight into the truth of things, born of the power of love in her. Amid all the weaknesses of the personages and the plot; in the wildered situation made by a confused clashing of pride and innocence and remorse, in which Browning, as it were on purpose to make a display of his intellectual ability, involves those poor folk—Guendolen is the rock on which we can rest in peace; the woman of the world, yet not worldly; full of experience, yet having gained by every experience more of love; just and strong yet pitiful, and with a healthy but compassionate contempt for the intelligence of the men who belong to her.
Contrasted with her, and the quality of her love contrasted also, is Mildred, the innocent child girl who loves for love's sake, and continues to be lost in her love. But Browning's presentation of her innocence, her love, is spoiled by the over-remorse, shame and fear under whose power he makes her so helpless. They are in the circumstances so unnaturally great that they lower her innocence and love, and the natural courage of innocence and love. These rise again to their first level, but it is only the passion of her lover's death which restores them. And when they recur, she is outside of girlhood. One touch of the courage she shows in the last scene would have saved in the previous scene herself, her lover, and her brother. The lie she lets her brother infer when she allows him to think that the lover she has confessed to is not the Earl, yet that she will marry the Earl, degrades her altogether and justly in her brother's eyes, and is so terribly out of tune with her character that I repeat I cannot understand how Browning could invent that situation. It spoils the whole presentation of the girl. It is not only out of her character, it is out of nature. Indeed, in spite of the poetry, in spite of the pathetic beauty of the last scene, Mildred and Tresham are always over-heightened, over-strained beyond the concert-pitch of nature. But the drawing of the woman's character suffers more from this than the man's, even though Tresham, in the last scene, is half turned into a woman. Sex seems to disappear in that scene.
A different person is Colombe, the Duchess in Colombe's Birthday. That play, as I have said, gets on, but it gets on because Colombe moves every one in the play by her own motion. From beginning to end of the action she is the fire and the soul of it. Innocent, frank and brave, simple and constant among a group of false and worldly courtiers, among whom she moves like the white Truth, untouched as yet by love or by the fates of her position, she is suddenly thrown into a whirlpool of affairs and of love; and her simplicity, clearness of intelligence, unconscious rightness of momentary feeling, which comes of her not thinking about her feelings—that rare and precious element in character—above all, her belief in love as the one worthy thing in the world, bring her out of the whirlpool, unshipwrecked, unstained by a single wave of ill-feeling or mean thinking, into a quiet harbour of affection and of power. For she will influence Berthold all his life long.
She is herself lovely. Valence loves her at sight. Her love for Valence is born before she knows it, and the touch of jealousy, which half reveals it to her, is happily wrought by Browning. When she finds out that Valence did for love of her what she thought was done for loyalty alone to her, she is a little revolted; her single-heartedness is disappointed. She puts aside her growing love, which she does not know as yet is love, and says she will find out if Berthold wishes to marry her because he loves her, or for policy. Berthold is as honest as she is, and tells her love has nothing to do with the matter. The thought of an untrue life with Berthold then sends her heart with a rush back to Valence, and she chooses love and obscurity with Valence. It is the portrait of incarnate truth, in vivid contrast to Constance, who is a liar in grain.
Constance is the heroine of the fragment of a drama called In a Balcony. Norbert, a young diplomat, has served the Queen, who is fifty years old, for a year, all for the love of Constance, a cousin and dependent of the Queen. He tells Constance he will now, as his reward, ask the Queen for her hand. Constance says, "No; that will ruin us both; temporise; tell the Queen, who is hungry for love, that you love her; and that, as she cannot marry a subject, you will be content with me, whom the Queen loves." Norbert objects, and no wonder, to this lying business, but he does it; and the Queen runs to Constance, crying, "I am loved, thank God! I will throw everything aside and marry him. I thought he loved you, but he loves me." Then Constance, wavering from truth again, says that the Queen is right. Norbert does love her. And this is supposed by some to be a noble self-sacrifice, done in pity for the Queen. It is much more like jealousy.
Then, finding that all Norbert's future depends on the Queen, she is supposed to sacrifice herself again, this time for Norbert's sake. She will give him up to the Queen, for the sake of his career; and she tells the Queen, before Norbert, that he has confessed to her his love for the Queen—another lie! Norbert is indignant—he may well be—and throws down all this edifice of falsehood. The Queen knows then the truth, and leaves them in a fury. Constance and Norbert fly into each other's arms, and the tramp of the soldiers who come to arrest them is heard as the curtain falls.
I do not believe that Browning meant to make self-sacrifice the root of Constance's doings. If he did, he has made a terrible mess of the whole thing. He was much too clear-headed a moralist to link self-sacrifice to systematic lying. Self-sacrifice is not self-sacrifice at all when it sacrifices truth. It may wear the clothes of Love, but, in injuring righteousness, it injures the essence of love. It has a surface beauty, for it imitates love, but if mankind is allured by this beauty, mankind is injured. It is the false Florimel of self-sacrifice. Browning, who had studied self-sacrifice, did not exhibit it in Constance. There is something else at the root of her actions, and I believe he meant it to be jealousy. The very first lie she urges her lover to tell (that is, to let the Queen imagine he loves her) is just the thing a jealous woman would invent to try her lover and the Queen, if she suspected the Queen of loving him, and him of being seduced from her by the worldly advantage of marrying the Queen. And all the other lies are best explained on the supposition of jealous experiments. At the last she is satisfied; the crowning test had been tried. Through a sea of lying she had made herself sure of Norbert's love, and she falls into his arms. Had Browning meant Constance to be an image of self-sacrifice, he would scarcely have written that line when Norbert, having told the truth of the matter to the Queen, looks at both women, and cries out, "You two glare, each at each, like panthers now." A woman, filled with the joy and sadness of pure self-sacrifice, would not have felt at this moment like a panther towards the woman for whom she had sacrificed herself.
Even as a study of jealousy, Constance is too subtle. Jealousy has none of these labyrinthine methods; it goes straight with fiery passion to its end. It may be said, then, that Constance is not a study of jealousy. But it may be a study by Browning of what he thought in his intellect jealousy would be. At any rate, Constance, as a study of self-sacrifice, is a miserable failure. Moreover, it does not make much matter whether she is a study of this or that, because she is eminently wrong-natured. Her lying is unendurable, only to be explained or excused by the madness of jealousy, and she, though jealous, is not maddened enough by jealousy to excuse her lies. The situations she causes are almost too ugly. Whenever the truth is told, either by the Queen or Norbert, the situations break up in disgrace for her. It is difficult to imagine how Norbert could go on loving her. His love would have departed if they had come to live together. He is radically true, and she is radically false. A fatal split would have been inevitable. Nothing could be better for them both—after their momentary outburst of love at the end—than death.
From the point of view of art, Constance is interesting. It is more than we can say of Domizia in Luria. She is nothing more than a passing study whom Browning uses to voice his theories. Eulalia in A Soul's Tragedy is also a transient thing, only she is more colourless, more a phantom than Domizia.
By this time, by the year 1846, Browning had found out that he could not write dramas well, or even such dramatic proverbs as In a Balcony. And he gave himself up to another species of his art. The women he now draws (some of which belong to the years during which he wrote dramas) are done separately, in dramatic lyrics as he called them, and in narrative and philosophical poems. Some are touched only at moments of their lives, and we are to infer from the momentary action and feeling the whole of the woman. Others are carefully and lovingly drawn from point to point in a variety of action, passion and circumstance. In these we find Browning at his best in the drawing of women. I know no women among the second-rate poets so sweetly, nobly, tenderly and wisely drawn as Pompilia and Balaustion.
* * * * *
WOMANHOOD IN BROWNING
(THE DRAMATIC LYRICS AND POMPILIA)
No modern poet has written of women with such variety as Browning. Coleridge, except in a few love-poems, scarcely touched them. Wordsworth did not get beyond the womanhood of the home affections, except in a few lovely and spiritual sketches of girlhood which are unique in our literature, in which maidenhood and the soul of nature so interchange their beauty that the girl seems born of the lonely loveliness of nature and lives with her mother like a child.
What motherhood in its deep grief and joy, what sisterhood and wifehood may be, have never been sung with more penetration and exquisiteness than Wordsworth sang them. But of the immense range, beyond, of womanhood he could not sing. Byron's women are mostly in love with Byron under various names, and he rarely strays beyond the woman who is loved or in love. The woman who is most vital, true and tender is Haidee in Don Juan. Shelley's women melt into philosophic mist, or are used to build up a political or social theory, as if they were "properties" of literature. Cythna, Rosalind, Asia, Emilia are ideas, not realities. Beatrice is alive, but she was drawn for him in the records of her trial. Even the woman of his later lyrics soon ceases to be flesh and blood. Keats let women alone, save in Isabella, and all that is of womanhood in her is derived from Boccaccio. Madeline is nothing but a picture. It is curious that his remarkable want of interest in the time in which he lived should be combined with as great a want of interest in women, as if the vivid life of any period in the history of a people were bound up with the vivid life of women in that period. When women awake no full emotion in a poet, the life of the time, as in the case of Keats, awakes little emotion in him. He will fly to the past for his subjects. Moreover, it is perhaps worth saying that when the poets cease to write well about women, the phase of poetry they represent, however beautiful it be, is beginning to decay. When poetry is born into a new life, women are as living in it as men. Womanhood became at once one of its dominant subjects in Tennyson and Browning. Among the new political, social, religious, philosophic and artistic ideas which were then borne like torches through England, the idea of the free development of women was also born; and it carried with it a strong emotion. They claimed the acknowledgment of their separate individuality, of their distinct use and power in the progress of the world. This was embodied with extraordinary fulness in Aurora Leigh, and its emotion drove itself into the work of Tennyson and Browning. How Tennyson treated the subject in the Princess is well known. His representation of women in his other poems does not pass beyond a few simple, well-known types both of good and bad women. But the particular types into which the variety of womanhood continually throws itself, the quick individualities, the fantastic simplicities and subtleties, the resolute extremes, the unconsidered impulses, the obstinate good and evil, the bold cruelties and the bold self-sacrifices, the fears and audacities, the hidden work of the thoughts and passions of women in the far-off worlds within them where their soul claims and possesses its own desires—these were beyond the power of Tennyson to describe, even, I think, to conceive. But they were in the power of Browning, and he made them, at least in lyric poetry, a chief part of his work.
In women he touched great variety and great individuality; two things each of which includes the other, and both of which were dear to his imagination. With his longing for variety of representation, he was not content to pile womanhood up into a few classes, or to dwell on her universal qualities. He took each woman separately, marking out the points which differentiated her from, not those which she shared with, the rest of her sex. He felt that if he dwelt only on the deep-seated roots of the tree of womanhood, he would miss the endless play, fancy, movement, interaction and variety of its branches, foliage and flowers. Therefore, in his lyrical work, he leaves out for the most part the simpler elements of womanhood and draws the complex, the particular, the impulsive and the momentary. Each of his women is distinct from the rest. That is a great comfort in a world which, through laziness, wishes to busy itself with classes rather than with personalities. I do not believe that Browning ever met man or woman without saying to himself—Here is a new world; it may be classed, but it also stands alone. What distinguishes it from the rest—that I will know and that describe.
When women are not enslaved to conventions—and the new movement towards their freedom of development which began shortly after 1840 had enfranchised and has continued ever since to enfranchise a great number from this slavery—they are more individual and various than men are allowed to be. They carry their personal desires, aspirations and impulses into act, speech, and into extremes with much greater licence than is possible to men. One touches with them much more easily the original stuff of humanity. It was this original, individual and various Thing in women on which Browning seized with delight. He did not write half as much as other poets had done of woman as being loved by man or as loving him. I have said that the mere love-poem is no main element in his work. He wrote of the original stuff of womanhood, of its good and bad alike, sometimes of it as all good, as in Pompilia; but for the most part as mingled of good and ill, and of the good as destined to conquer the ill.
He did not exalt her above man. He thought her as vital, interesting and important for progress as man, but not more interesting, vital, or important. He neither lowered her nor idealised her beyond natural humanity. She stands in his poetry side by side with man on an equality of value to the present and future of mankind. And he has wrought this out not by elaborate statement of it in a theory, as Tennyson did in the Princess with a conscious patronage of womanhood, but by unconscious representation of it in the multitude of women whom he invented.
But though the wholes were equal, the particulars of which the wholes were composed differed in their values; and women in his view were more keenly alive than men, at least more various in their manifestation of life. It was their intensity of life which most attracted him. He loved nothing so much as life—in plant or animal or man. His longer poems are records of the larger movement of human life, the steadfast record in quiet verse as in Paracelsus, or the clashing together in abrupt verse as in Sordello, of the turmoil and meditation, the trouble and joy of the living soul of humanity. When he, this archangel of reality, got into touch with pure fact of the human soul, beating with life, he was enchanted. And this was his vast happiness in his longest poem, the Ring and the Book—
Do you see this square old yellow book I toss I' the air, and catch again, and twirl about By the crumpled vellum covers—pure crude fact Secreted from man's life when hearts beat hard And brains, high blooded, ticked two centuries hence? Give it me back. The thing's restorative I' the touch and sight.
But in his lyrics, it was not the steady development of life on which he loved to write, but the unexpected, original movement of life under the push of quick thought and sudden passion into some new form of action which broke through the commonplace of existence. Men and women, and chiefly women, when they spoke and acted on a keen edge of life with a precipice below them or on the summit of the moment, with straight and clear intensity, and out of the original stuff of their nature—were his darling lyric subjects. And he did this work in lyrics, because the lyric is the poem of the moment.
There was one of these critical moments which attracted him greatly—that in which all after-life is contained and decided; when a step to the right or left settles, in an instant, the spiritual basis of the soul. I have already mentioned some of these poems—those concerned with love, such as By the Fireside or Cristina—and the woman is more prominent in them than the man. One of the best of them, so far as the drawing of a woman is concerned, is Dis aliter visum. We see the innocent girl, and ten years after what the world has made of her. But the heart of the girl lies beneath the woman of the world. And she recalls to the man the hour when they lingered near the church on the cliff; when he loved her, when he might have claimed her, and did not. He feared they might repent of it; sacrificing to the present their chance of the eternities of love. "Fool! who ruined four lives—mine and your opera-dancer's, your own and my husband's!" Whether her outburst now be quite true to her whole self or not Browning does not let us know; but it is true to that moment of her, and it is full of the poetry of the moment she recalls. Moreover, these thirty short verses paint as no other man could have done the secret soul of a woman in society. I quote her outburst. It is full of Browning's keen poetry; and the first verse of it may well be compared with a similar moment in By the Fireside, where nature is made to play the same part, but succeeds as here she fails:
Now I may speak: you fool, for all Your lore! Who made things plain in vain? What was the sea for? What, the grey Sad church, that solitary day, Crosses and graves and swallows' call?
Was there nought better than to enjoy? No feat which, done, would make time break, And let us pent-up creatures through Into eternity, our due? No forcing earth teach heaven's employ?
No wise beginning, here and now, What cannot grow complete (earth's feat) And heaven must finish, there and then? No tasting earth's true food for men, Its sweet in sad, its sad in sweet?
No grasping at love, gaining a share O' the sole spark from God's life at strife With death, so, sure of range above The limits here? For us and love. Failure; but, when God fails, despair.
This you call wisdom? Thus you add Good unto good again, in vain? You loved, with body worn and weak; I loved, with faculties to seek: Were both loves worthless since ill-clad?
Let the mere star-fish in his vault Crawl in a wash of weed, indeed, Rose-jacynth to the finger tips: He, whole in body and soul, outstrips Man, found with either in default.
But what's whole, can increase no more, Is dwarfed and dies, since here's its sphere. The devil laughed at you in his sleeve! You knew not? That I well believe; Or you had saved two souls: nay, four.
For Stephanie sprained last night her wrist, Ankle or something. "Pooh," cry you? At any rate she danced, all say, Vilely; her vogue has had its day. Here comes my husband from his whist.
Here the woman speaks for herself. It is characteristic of Browning's boldness that there are a whole set of poems in which he imagines the unexpressed thoughts which a woman revolves in self-communion under the questionings and troubles of the passions, and chiefly of the passion of love. The most elaborate of these is James Lee's Wife, which tells what she thinks of when after long years she has been unable to retain her husband's love. Finally, she leaves him. The analysis of her thinking is interesting, but the woman is not. She is not the quick, natural woman Browning was able to paint so well when he chose. His own analytic excitement, which increases in mere intellectuality as the poem moves on, enters into her, and she thinks more through Browning the man than through her womanhood. Women are complex enough, more complex than men, but they are not complex in the fashion of this poem. Under the circumstances Browning has made, her thought would have been quite clear at its root, and indeed in its branches. She is represented as in love with her husband. Were she really in love, she would not have been so involved, or able to argue out her life so anxiously. Love or love's sorrow knows itself at once and altogether, and its cause and aim are simple. But Browning has unconsciously made the woman clear enough for us to guess the real cause of her departure. That departure is believed by some to be a self-sacrifice. There are folk who see self-sacrifice in everything Browning wrote about women. Browning may have originally intended her action to be one of self-sacrifice, but the thing, as he went on, was taken out of his hands, and turns out to be quite a different matter. The woman really leaves her husband because her love for him was tired out. She talks of leaving her husband free, and perhaps, in women's way, persuades herself that she is sacrificing herself; but she desires in reality to set herself free from an unavailing struggle to keep his love. There comes a time when the striving for love wearies out love itself. And James Lee's wife had reached that moment. Her departure, thus explained, is the most womanly thing in the poem, and I should not wonder if Browning meant it so. He knew what self-sacrifice really was, and this departure of the woman was not a true self-sacrifice.
Another of these poems in which a woman speaks out her heart is Any Wife to any Husband. She is dying, and she would fain claim his undying fidelity to his love of her; but though she believes in his love, she thinks, when her presence is not with him, that his nature will be drawn towards other women. Then what he brings her, when he meets her again, will not be perfect. Womanly to the core, and her nature is a beautiful nature, she says nothing which is not kind and true, and the picture she draws of faithfulness, without one stain of wavering, is natural and lovely. But, for all that, it is jealousy that speaks, the desire to claim all for one's self. "Thou art mine, and mine only"—that fine selfishness which injures love so deeply in the end, because it forbids its expansion, that is, forbids the essential nature of love to act. That may be pardoned, unless in its extremes, during life, if the pardon does not increase it; but this is in the hour of death, and it is unworthy of the higher world. To carry jealousy beyond the grave is a phase of that selfish passion over which this hour, touched by the larger thought of the infinite world, should have uplifted the woman. Still, what she says is in nature, and Browning's imagination has closed passionately round his subject. But he has left us with pity for the woman rather than with admiration of her.
Perhaps the subtlest part of the poem is the impression left on us that the woman knows all her pleading will be in vain, that she has fathomed the weakness of her husband's character. He will not like to remember that knowledge of hers; and her letting him feel it is a kind of vengeance which will not help him to be faithful. It is also her worst bitterness, but if her womanhood were perfect, she would not have had that bitterness.
In these two poems, and in others, there is to be detected the deep-seated and quiet half-contempt—contempt which does not damage love, contempt which is half pity—which a woman who loves a man has for his weakness under passion or weariness. Both the wives in these poems feel that their husbands are inferior to themselves in strength of character and of intellect. To feel this is common enough in women, but is rarely confessed by them. A man scarcely ever finds it out from his own observation; he is too vain for that. But Browning knew it. A poet sees many things, and perhaps his wife told him this secret. It was like his audacity to express it.
This increased knowledge of womanhood was probably due to the fact that Browning possessed in his wife a woman of genius who had studied her own sex in herself and in other women. It is owing to her, I think, that in so many poems the women are represented as of a finer, even a stronger intellect than the men. Many poets have given them a finer intuition; that is a common representation. But greater intellectual power allotted to women is only to be found in Browning. The instances of it are few, but they are remarkable.
It was owing also to his wife, whose relation to him was frank on all points, that Browning saw so much more clearly than other poets into the deep, curious or remote phases of the passions, thoughts and vagaries of womanhood. I sometimes wonder what women themselves think of the things Browning, speaking through their mouth, makes them say; but that is a revelation of which I have no hope, and for which, indeed, I have no desire.
Moreover, he moved a great deal in the society where women, not having any real work to do, or if they have it, not doing it, permit a greater freedom to their thoughts and impulses than those of their sex who sit at the loom of duty. Tennyson withdrew from this society, and his women are those of a retired poet—a few real types tenderly and sincerely drawn, and a few more worked out by thinking about what he imagined they would be, not by knowing them. Browning, roving through his class and other classes of society, and observing while he seemed unobservant, drew into his inner self the lives of a number of women, saw them living and feeling in a great diversity of circumstances; and, always on the watch, seized the moment into which he thought the woman entered with the greatest intensity, and smote that into a poem. Such poems, naturally lyrics, came into his head at the opera, at a ball, at a supper after the theatre, while he talked at dinner, when he walked in the park; and they record, not the whole of a woman's character, but the vision of one part of her nature which flashed before him and vanished in an instant. Among these poems are A Light Woman, A Pretty Woman, Solomon and Balkis, Gold Hair, and, as a fine instance of this sheet-lightning poem about women—Adam, Lilith and Eve. Too Late and The Worst of It do not belong to these slighter poems; they are on a much higher level. But they are poems of society and its secret lives. The men are foremost in them, but in each of them a different woman is sketched, through the love of the men, with a masterly decision.
Among all these women he did not hesitate to paint the types farthest removed from goodness and love. The lowest woman in the poems is she who is described in Time's Revenges—
So is my spirit, as flesh with sin, Filled full, eaten out and in With the face of her, the eyes of her, The lips, the little chin, the stir Of shadow round her mouth; and she —I'll tell you—calmly would decree That I should roast at a slow fire, If that would compass her desire And make her one whom they invite To the famous ball to-morrow night
Contrasted with this woman, from whose brutal nature civilisation has stripped away the honour and passion of the savage, the woman of In a Laboratory shines like a fallen angel. She at least is natural, and though the passions she feels are the worst, yet she is capable of feeling strongly. Neither have any conscience, but we can conceive that one of these women might attain it, but the other not. Both are examples of a thing I have said is exceedingly rare in Browning's poetry—men or women left without some pity of his own touched into their circumstances or character.
In a Laboratory is a full-coloured sketch of what womanhood could become in a court like that of Francis I.; in which every shred of decency, gentlehood and honour had disappeared. Browning's description, vivid as it is, is less than the reality. Had he deepened the colours of iniquity and indecency instead of introducing so much detailed description of the laboratory, detail which weakens a little our impression of the woman, he had done better, but all the same there is no poet in England, living or dead, who could have done it so well. One of the best things in the poem is the impression made on us that it is not jealousy, but the hatred of envy which is the motive of the woman. Jealousy supposes love or the image of love, but among those who surrounded Francis, love did not exist at all, only lust, luxury and greed of power; and in the absence of love and in the scorn of it, hate and envy reign unchallenged. This is what Browning has realised in this poem, and, in this differentiation, he has given us not only historical but moral truth.
Apart from these lighter and momentary poems about women there are those written out of his own ideal of womanhood, built up not only from all he knew and loved in his wife, but also out of the dreams of his heart. They are the imaginings of the high honour and affection which a man feels for noble, natural and honest womanhood. They are touched here and there by complex thinking, but for the most part are of a beloved simplicity and tenderness, and they will always be beautiful. There is the sketch of the woman in The Italian in England, a never to be forgotten thing. It is no wonder the exile remembered her till he died. There is the image we form of the woman in The Flowers Name. He does not describe her; she is far away, but her imagined character and presence fill the garden with an incense sweeter than all the flowers, and her beauty irradiates all beauty, so delicately and so plenteously does the lover's passion make her visible. There is Evelyn Hope, and surely no high and pure love ever created a more beautiful soul in a woman than hers who waits her lover in the spiritual world. There are those on whom we have already dwelt—Pippa, Colombe, Mildred, Guendolen. There is the woman in the Flight of the Duchess; not a sketch, but a completed picture. We see her, just emerged from her convent, thrilling with eagerness to see the world, believing in its beauty, interested in everything, in the movement of the leaves on the trees, of the birds in the heaven, ready to speak to every one high or low, desirous to get at the soul of all things in Nature and Humanity, herself almost a creature of the element, akin to air and fire.
She is beaten into silence, but not crushed; overwhelmed by dry old people, by imitation of dead things, but the life in her is not slain. When the wandering gipsy claims her for a natural life, her whole nature blossoms into beauty and joy. She will have troubles great and deep, but every hour will make her conscious of more and more of life. And when she dies, it will be the beginning of an intenser life.
Finally, there is his wife. She is painted in these lyric poems with a simplicity of tenderness, with a reticence of worship as sacred as it is fair and delicate, with so intense a mingling of the ideal and the real that we never separate them, and with so much passion in remembrance of the past and in longing for the future, that no comment can enhance the picture Browning draws of her charm, her intellect and her spirit.
These pictures of womanhood were set forth before 1868, when a collected edition of his poems was published in six volumes. They were chiefly short, even impressionist studies, save those in the dramas, and Palma in Sordello. Those in the dramas were troubled by his want of power to shape them in that vehicle. It would have then been a pity if, in his matured strength, he had not drawn into clear existence, with full and careful, not impressionist work, and with unity of conception, some women who should, standing alone, become permanent personages in poetry; whom men and women in the future, needing friends, should love, honour and obey, and in whom, when help and sympathy and wisdom were wanted, these healing powers should be found. Browning did this for us in Pompilia and Balaustion, an Italian and a Greek girl—not an English girl. It is strange how to the very end he lived as a poet outside of his own land.
In 1868, Pompilia appeared before the world, and she has captured ever since the imagination, the conscience and the sentiment of all who love womanhood and poetry. Her character has ennobled and healed mankind. Born of a harlot, she is a star of purity; brought up by characters who love her, but who do not rise above the ordinary meanness and small commercial honesty of their class, she is always noble, generous, careless of wealth, and of a high sense of honour. It is as if Browning disdained for the time all the philosophy of heredity and environment; and indeed it was characteristic of him to believe in the sudden creation of beauty, purity and nobility out of their contraries and in spite of them. The miracle of the unrelated birth of genius—that out of the dunghill might spring the lily, and out of the stratum of crime the saint—was an article of faith with him. Nature's or God's surprises were dear to him; and nothing purer, tenderer, sweeter, more natural, womanly and saintly was ever made than Pompilia, the daughter of a vagrant impurity, the child of crime, the girl who grew to womanhood in mean and vulgar circumstances.
The only hatred she earns is the hatred of Count Guido her husband, the devil who has tortured and murdered her—the hatred of evil for good. When Count Guido, condemned to death, bursts into the unrestrained expression of his own nature, he cannot say one word about Pompilia which is not set on fire by a hell of hatred. Nothing in Browning's writing is more vivid, more intense, than these sudden outbursts of tiger fierceness against his wife. They lift and enhance the image of Pompilia.
When she comes into contact with other characters such as the Archbishop and the Governor, men overlaid with long-deposited crusts of convention, she wins a vague pity from them, but her simplicity, naturalness and saintliness are nearly as repugnant to social convention as her goodness is to villany; and Browning has, all through the poem, individualised in Pompilia the natural simplicity of goodness in opposition to the artificial moralities of conservative society. But when Pompilia touches characters who have any good, however hidden, in them, she draws forth that good. Her so-called parents pass before they die out of meanness into nobility of temper. Conti, her husband's cousin, a fat, waggish man of the world, changes into seriousness, pity and affection under her silent influence. The careless folk she meets on her flight to Rome recognise, even in most suspicious circumstances, her innocence and nobleness; and change at a touch their ordinary nature for a higher. And when she meets a fine character like Caponsacchi, who has been led into a worldly, immoral and indifferent life, he is swept in a moment out of it by the sight alone of this star of innocence and spiritual beauty, and becomes her true mate, daily self-excelled. The monk who receives her dying confession, the Pope, far set by his age above the noise of popular Rome, almost at one with the world beyond death and feeling what the divine judgment would be, both recognise with a fervour which carries them beyond the prejudices of age and of their society the loveliness of Heaven in the spirit of this girl of seventeen years, and claim her as higher than themselves.
It is fitting that to so enskied and saintly a child, when she rests before her death, the cruel life she had led for four years should seem a dream; and the working out of that thought, and of the two checks of reality it received in the coming of her child and the coming of Caponsacchi, is one of the fairest and most delicate pieces of work that Browning ever accomplished. She was so innocent and so simple-hearted—and the development of that part of her character in the stories told of her childhood is exquisitely touched into life—so loving, so born to be happy in being loved, that when she was forced into a maze of villany, bound up with hatred, cruelty, baseness and guilt, she seemed to live in a mist of unreality. When the pain became too deep to be dreamlike she was mercifully led back into the dream by the approach of death. As she lay dying there, all she had suffered passed again into unreality. Nothing remained but love and purity, the thrill when first she felt her child, the prayer to God which brought Caponsacchi to her rescue so that her child might be born, and lastly the vision of perfect union hereafter with her kindred soul, who, not her lover on earth, would be her lover in eternity. Even her boy, who had brought her, while she lived, her keenest sense of reality (and Browning's whole treatment of her motherhood, from the moment she knew she was in child, till the hour when the boy lay in her arms, is as true and tender as if his wife had filled his soul while he wrote), even her boy fades away into the dream. It is true she was dying, and there is no dream so deep as dying. Yet it was bold of Browning, and profoundly imagined by him, to make the child disappear, and to leave the woman at last alone with the thought and the spiritual passion of her union with Caponsacchi—
O lover of my life, O soldier saint, No work begun shall ever pause for death.
It is the love of Percival's sister for Galahad.
It is not that she is naturally a dreamer, that she would not have felt and enjoyed the realities of earth. Her perceptions are keen, her nature expansive. Browning, otherwise, would not have cared for her. It was only when she was involved in evil, like an angel in hell (a wolfs arm round her throat and a snake curled over her feet), that she seemed to be dreaming, not living. It was incredible to her that such things should be reality. Yet even the dream called the hidden powers of her soul into action. In realising these as against evil she is not the dreamer. Her fortitude is unbroken; her moral courage never fails, though she is familiar with fear; her action, when the babe has leaped in her womb, is prompt, decisive and immediate; her physical courage, when her husband overtakes her and befouls her honour, is like a man's. She seizes his sword and would have slain the villain. Then, her natural goodness, the genius of her goodness, gives her a spiritual penetration which is more than an equivalent in her for an educated intelligence. Her intuition is so keen that she sees through the false worldliness of Caponsacchi to the real man beneath, and her few words call it into goodness and honour for ever. Her clear sense of truth sees all the threads of the net of villany in which she has been caught, and the only means to break through it, to reveal and bring it into condemnation. Fortitude, courage, intuition and intelligence are all made to arise out of her natural saintliness and love. She is always the immortal child.
For a time she has passed on earth through the realms of pain; and now, stabbed to her death, she looks back on the passage, and on all who have been kind and unkind to her—on the whole of the falsehood and villany. And the royal love in her nature is the master of the moment. She makes excuses for Violante's lie. "She meant well, and she did, as I feel now, little harm." "I am right now, quite happy; dying has purified me of the evil which touched me, and I colour ugly things with my own peace and joy. Every one that leaves life sees all things softened and bettered." As to her husband, she finds that she has little to forgive him at the last. Step by step she goes over all he did, and even finds excuses for him, and, at the end, this is how she speaks, a noble utterance of serene love, lofty intelligence, of spiritual power and of the forgiveness of eternity.
For that most woeful man my husband once, Who, needing respite, still draws vital breath, I—pardon him? So far as lies in me, I give him for his good the life he takes, Praying the world will therefore acquiesce. Let him make God amends,—none, none to me Who thank him rather that, whereas strange fate Mockingly styled him husband and me wife, Himself this way at least pronounced divorce, Blotted the marriage bond: this blood of mine Flies forth exultingly at any door, Washes the parchment white, and thanks the blow We shall not meet in this world nor the next, But where will God be absent? In His face Is light, but in His shadow healing too: Let Guido touch the shadow and be healed! And as my presence was importunate,— My earthly good, temptation and a snare,— Nothing about me but drew somehow down His hate upon me,—somewhat so excused Therefore, since hate was thus the truth of him,— May my evanishment for evermore Help further to relieve the heart that cast Such object of its natural loathing forth! So he was made; he nowise made himself: I could not love him, but his mother did. His soul has never lain beside my soul: But for the unresisting body,—thanks! He burned that garment spotted by the flesh. Whatever he touched is rightly ruined: plague It caught, and disinfection it had craved Still but for Guido; I am saved through him So as by fire; to him—thanks and farewell!
Thus, pure at heart and sound of head, a natural, true woman in her childhood, in her girlhood, and when she is tried in the fire—by nature gay, yet steady in suffering; brave in a hell of fears and shame; clear-sighted in entanglements of villany; resolute in self-rescue; seeing and claiming the right help and directing it rightly; rejoicing in her motherhood and knowing it as her crown of glory, though the child is from her infamous husband; happy in her motherhood for one fortnight; slain like a martyr; loving the true man with immortal love; forgiving all who had injured her, even her murderer; dying in full faith and love of God, though her life had been a crucifixion; Pompilia passes away, and England's men and women will be always grateful to Browning for her creation.
* * * * *
Among the women whom Browning made, Balaustion is the crown. So vivid is her presentation that she seems with us in our daily life. And she also fills the historical imagination.
One would easily fall in love with her, like those sensitive princes in the Arabian Nights, who, hearing only of the charms of a princess, set forth to find her over the world. Of all Browning's women, she is the most luminous, the most at unity with herself. She has the Greek gladness and life, the Greek intelligence and passion, and the Greek harmony. All that was common, prattling, coarse, sensual and spluttering in the Greek, (and we know from Aristophanes how strong these lower elements were in the Athenian people), never shows a trace of its influence in Balaustion. Made of the finest clay, exquisite and delicate in grain, she is yet strong, when the days of trouble come, to meet them nobly and to change their sorrows into spiritual powers.
And the mise-en-scene in which she is placed exalts her into a heroine, and adds to her the light, colour and humanity of Greek romance. Born at Rhodes, but of an Athenian mother, she is fourteen when the news arrives that the Athenian fleet under Nikias, sent to subdue Syracuse, has been destroyed, and the captive Athenians driven to labour in the quarries. All Rhodes, then in alliance with Athens, now cries, "Desert Athens, side with Sparta against Athens." Balaustion alone resists the traitorous cry. "What, throw off Athens, be disloyal to the source of art and intelligence—
to the life and light Of the whole world worth calling world at all!"
And she spoke so well that her kinsfolk and others joined her and took ship for Athens. Now, a wind drove them off their course, and behind them came a pirate ship, and in front of them loomed the land. "Is it Crete?" they thought; "Crete, perhaps, and safety." But the oars flagged in the hands of the weary men, and the pirate gained. Then Balaustion, springing to the altar by the mast, white, rosy, and uplifted, sang on high that song of AEschylus which saved at Salamis—
'O sons of Greeks, go, set your country free, Free your wives, free your children, free the fanes O' the Gods, your fathers founded,—sepulchres They sleep in! Or save all, or all be lost.'
The crew, impassioned by the girl, answered the song, and drove the boat on, "churning the black water white," till the land shone clear, and the wide town and the harbour, and lo, 'twas not Crete, but Syracuse, luckless fate! Out came a galley from the port. "Who are you; Sparta's friend or foe?" "Of Rhodes are we, Rhodes that has forsaken Athens!"
"How, then, that song we heard? All Athens was in that AEschylus. Your boat is full of Athenians—back to the pirate; we want no Athenians here.... Yet, stay, that song was AEschylus; every one knows it—how about Euripides? Might you know any of his verses?" For nothing helped the poor Athenians so much if any of them had his mouth stored with
Old glory, great plays that had long ago Made themselves wings to fly about the world,—
But most of all those were cherished who could recite Euripides to Syracuse, so mighty was poetry in the ancient days to make enemies into friends, to build, beyond the wars and jealousies of the world, a land where all nations are one.
At this the captain cried: "Praise the God, we have here the very girl who will fill you with Euripides," and the passage brings Balaustion into full light.
Therefore, at mention of Euripides, The Captain crowed out, "Euoi, praise the God! Ooep, boys, bring our owl-shield to the fore! Out with our Sacred Anchor! Here she stands, Balaustion! Strangers, greet the lyric girl! Euripides? Babai! what a word there 'scaped Your teeth's enclosure, quoth my grandsire's song Why, fast as snow in Thrace, the voyage through, Has she been falling thick in flakes of him! Frequent as figs at Kaunos, Kaunians said. Balaustion, stand forth and confirm my speech! Now it was some whole passion of a play; Now, peradventure, but a honey-drop That slipt its comb i' the chorus. If there rose A star, before I could determine steer Southward or northward—if a cloud surprised Heaven, ere I fairly hollaed 'Furl the sail!'— She had at fingers' end both cloud and star Some thought that perched there, tame and tuneable, Fitted with wings, and still, as off it flew, 'So sang Euripides,' she said, 'so sang The meteoric poet of air and sea, Planets and the pale populace of heaven, The mind of man, and all that's made to soar!' And so, although she has some other name, We only call her Wild-pomegranate-flower, Balaustion; since, where'er the red bloom burns I' the dull dark verdure of the bounteous tree, Dethroning, in the Rosy Isle, the rose, You shall find food, drink, odour, all at once; Cool leaves to bind about an aching brow. And, never much away, the nightingale. Sing them a strophe, with the turn-again, Down to the verse that ends all, proverb like. And save us, thou Balaustion, bless the name"
And she answered: "I will recite the last play he wrote from first to last—Alkestis—his strangest, saddest, sweetest song."
Then because Greeks are Greeks, and hearts are hearts. And poetry is power,—they all outbroke In a great joyous laughter with much love: "Thank Herakles for the good holiday! Make for the harbour! Row, and let voice ring, 'In we row, bringing more Euripides!'" All the crowd, as they lined the harbour now, "More of Euripides!"—took up the cry. We landed; the whole city, soon astir, Came rushing out of gates in common joy To the suburb temple; there they stationed me O' the topmost step; and plain I told the play, Just as I saw it; what the actors said, And what I saw, or thought I saw the while, At our Kameiros theatre, clean scooped Out of a hill side, with the sky above And sea before our seats in marble row: Told it, and, two days more, repeated it Until they sent us on our way again With good words and great wishes.
So, we see Balaustion's slight figure under the blue sky, and the white temple of Herakles from the steps of which she spoke; and among the crowd, looking up to her with rapture, the wise and young Sicilian who took ship with her when she was sent back to Athens, wooed her, and found answer before they reached Piraeus. And there in Athens she and her lover saw Euripides, and told the Master how his play had redeemed her from captivity. Then they were married; and one day, with four of her girl friends, under the grape-vines by the streamlet side, close to the temple, Baccheion, in the cool afternoon, she tells the tale; interweaving with the play (herself another chorus) what she thinks, how she feels concerning its personages and their doings, and in the comment discloses her character. The woman is built up in this way for us. The very excuse she makes for her inserted words reveals one side of her delightful nature—her love of poetry, her love of beauty, her seeing eye, her delicate distinction, her mingled humility and self-knowledge.
Look at Baccheion's beauty opposite, The temple with the pillars at the porch! See you not something beside masonry? What if my words wind in and out the stone As yonder ivy, the God's parasite? Though they leap all the way the pillar leads, Festoon about the marble, foot to frieze, And serpentiningly enrich the roof, Toy with some few bees and a bird or two,— What then? The column holds the cornice up.
As the ivy is to the pillar that supports the cornice, so are her words to the Alkestis on which she comments.
That is her charming way. She also is, like Pompilia, young. But no contrast can be greater than that between Pompilia at seventeen years of age and Balaustion at fifteen. In Greece, as in Italy, women mature quickly. Balaustion is born with that genius which has the experience of age in youth and the fire of youth in age. Pompilia has the genius of pure goodness, but she is uneducated, her intelligence is untrained, and her character is only developed when she has suffered. Balaustion, on the contrary, has all the Greek capacity, a thorough education, and that education also which came in the air of that time to those of the Athenian temper. She is born into beauty and the knowledge of it, into high thinking and keen feeling; and she knows well why she thought and how she felt. So finely wrought is she by passion and intelligence alike, with natural genius to make her powers tenfold, that she sweeps her kinsfolk into agreement with her, subdues the sailors to her will, enchants the captain, sings the whole crew into energy, would have, I believe, awed and enthralled the pirate, conquers the Syracusans, delights the whole city, draws a talent out of the rich man which she leaves behind her for the prisoners, is a dear friend of sombre Euripides, lures Aristophanes, the mocker, into seriousness, mates herself with him in a whole night's conversation, and wrings praise and honour from the nimblest, the most cynical, and the most world-wise intellect in Athens.
Thus, over against Pompilia, she is the image of fine culture, held back from the foolishness and vanity of culture by the steadying power of genius. Then her judgment is always balanced. Each thing to her has many sides. She decides moral and intellectual questions and action with justice, but with mercy to the wrong opinion and the wrong thing, because her intellect is clear, tolerant and forgiving through intellectual breadth and power. Pompilia is the image of natural goodness and of its power. A spotless soul, though she is passed through hell, enables her, without a trained intellect, with ignorance of all knowledge, and with as little vanity as Balaustion, to give as clear and firm a judgment of right and wrong. She is as tolerant, as full of excuses for the wrong thing, as forgiving, as Balaustion, but it is by the power of goodness and love in her, not by that of intellect. Browning never proved his strength more than when he made these two, in vivid contrast, yet in their depths in harmony; both equal, though so far apart, in noble womanhood. Both are beyond convention; both have a touch of impulsive passion, of natural wildness, of flower-beauty. Both are, in hours of crisis, borne beyond themselves, and mistress of the hour. Both mould men, for their good, like wax in their fingers. But Pompilia is the white rose, touched with faint and innocent colour; and Balaustion is the wild pomegranate flower, burning in a crimson of love among the dark green leaves of steady and sure thought, her powers latent till needed, but when called on and brought to light, flaming with decision and revelation.
In this book we see her in her youth, her powers as yet untouched by heavy sorrow. In the next, in Aristophanes' Apology, we first find her in matured strength, almost mastering Aristophanes; and afterwards in the depth of grief, as she flies with her husband over the seas to Rhodes, leaving behind her Athens, the city of her heart, ruined and enslaved. The deepest passion in her, the patriotism of the soul, is all but broken-hearted. Yet, she is the life and support of all who are with her; even a certain gladness breaks forth in her, and she secures for all posterity the intellectual record of Athenian life and the images, wrought to vitality, of some of the greater men of Athens. So we possess her completely. Her life, her soul, its growth and strength, are laid before us. To follow her through these two poems is to follow their poetry. Whenever we touch her we touch imagination. Aristophanes' Apology is illuminated by Balaustion's eyes. A glimpse here and there of her enables us to thread our way without too great weariness through a thorny undergrowth of modern and ancient thought mingled together on the subject of the Apology.
In Balaustion's Adventure she tells her tale, and recites, as she did at Syracuse, the Alkestis to her four friends. But she does more; she comments on it, as she did not at Syracuse. The comments are, of course, Browning's, but he means them to reveal Balaustion. They are touched throughout with a woman's thought and feeling, inflamed by the poetic genius with which Browning has endowed her. Balaustion is his deliberate picture of genius the great miracle.
The story of the Alkestis begins before the play. Apollo, in his exile, having served King Admetos as shepherd, conceives a friendship for the king, helps him to his marriage, and knowing that he is doomed to die in early life, descends to hell and begs the Fates to give him longer life. That is a motive, holding in it strange thoughts of life and death and fate, which pleased Browning, and he treats it separately, and with sardonic humour, in the Prologue to one of his later volumes. The Fates refuse to lengthen Admetos' life, unless some one love him well enough to die for him. They must have their due at the allotted time.
The play opens when that time arrives. We see, in a kind of Prologue, Apollo leaving the house of Admetos and Death coming to claim his victim. Admetos has asked his father, mother, relations and servants to die instead of him. None will do it; but his wife, Alkestis, does. Admetos accepts her sacrifice. Her dying, her death, the sorrow of Admetos is described with all the poignant humanity of Euripides. In the meantime Herakles has come on the scene, and Admetos, though steeped in grief, conceals—his wife's death and welcomes his friend to his house. As Alkestis is the heroine of self-sacrifice, Admetos is the hero of hospitality. Herakles feasts, but the indignant bearing of an old servant attracts his notice, and he finds out the truth. He is shocked, but resolves to attack Death himself, who is bearing away Alkestis. He meets and conquers Death and brings back Alkestis alive to her husband. So the strong man conquers the Fates, whom even Apollo could not subdue.
This is a fine subject. Every one can see in how many different ways it may be treated, with what different conceptions, how variously the characters may be built up, and what different ethical and emotional situations may be imaginatively treated in it. Racine himself thought it the finest of the Greek subjects, and began a play upon it. But he died before he finished it, and ordered his manuscript to be destroyed. We may well imagine how the quiet, stately genius of Racine would have conceived and ordered it; with the sincere passion, held under restraint by as sincere a dignity, which characterised his exalted style.
Balaustion treats it with an equal moral force, and also with that modern moral touch which Racine would have given it; which, while it removed the subject at certain points from the Greek morality, would yet have exalted it into a more spiritual world than even the best of the Greeks conceived. The commentary of Balaustion is her own treatment of the subject. It professes to explain Euripides: it is in reality a fresh conception of the characters and their motives, especially of the character of Herakles. Her view of the character of Alkestis, especially in her death, is not, I think, the view which Euripides took. Her condemnation of Admetos is unmodified by those other sides of the question which Euripides suggests. The position Balaustion takes up with regard to self-sacrifice is far more subtle, with its half-Christian touches, than the Greek simplicity would have conceived. Finally, she feels so strongly that the subject has not been adequately conceived that, at the end, she recreates it for herself. Even at the beginning she rebuilds the Euripidean matter. When Apollo and Death meet, Balaustion conceives the meeting for herself. She images the divine Apollo as somewhat daunted, and images the dread meeting of these two with modern, not Greek imagination. It is like the meeting, she thinks, of a ruined eagle, caught as he swooped in a gorge, half heedless, yet terrific, with a lion, the haunter of the gorge, the lord of the ground, who pauses, ere he try the worst with the frightful, unfamiliar creature, known in the shadows and silences of the sky but not known here. It is the first example we have of Balaustion's imaginative power working for itself. There is another, farther on, where she stays her recitation to describe Death's rush in on Alkestis when the dialogue between him and Apollo is over—
And, in the fire-flash of the appalling sword, The uprush and the outburst, the onslaught Of Death's portentous passage through the door, Apollon stood a pitying moment-space: I caught one last gold gaze upon the night, Nearing the world now: and the God was gone, And mortals left to deal with misery.
So she speaks, as if she saw more than Euripides, as if to her the invisible were visible—as it was. To see the eternal unseen is the dower of imagination in its loftiest mood.
She is as much at home with the hero of earth, the highest manhood, as she is with the gods. When Herakles comes on the scene she cannot say enough about him; and she conceives him apart from the Herakles of Euripides. She paints in him, and Browning paints through her, the idea of the full, the perfect man; and it is not the ideal of the cultivated, of the sensitive folk. It is more also a woman's than a man's ideal. For, now, suddenly, into the midst of the sorrow of the house, every one wailing, life full of penury and inactivity, there leaps the "gay cheer of a great voice," the full presence of the hero, his "weary happy face, half god, half man, which made the god-part god the more." His very voice, which smiled at sorrow, and his look, which, saying sorrow was to be conquered, proclaimed to all the world "My life is in my hand to give away, to make men glad," seemed to dry up all misery at its source, for his love of man makes him always joyful. When Admetos opened the house to him, and did not tell him of his wife's death, Balaustion comments "The hero, all truth, took him at his word, and then strode off to feast." He takes, she thought, the present rest, the physical food and drink as frankly as he took the mighty labours of his fate. And she rejoices as much in his jovial warmth, his joy in eating and drinking and singing, and festivity, as in his heroic soul. They go together, these things, in a hero.
Making the most o' the minute, that the soul And body, strained to height a minute since, Might lie relaxed in joy, this breathing space, For man's sake more than ever;
He slew the pest of the marish, yesterday; to-day he takes his fill of food, wine, song and flowers; to-morrow he will slay another plague of mankind.
So she sings, praising aloud the heroic temper, as mighty in the natural joys of natural life, in the strength and honour of the body, as in the saving of the world from pain and evil. But this pleasure of the senses, though in the great nature, is in it under rule, and the moment Herakles hears of Alkestis dead, he casts aside, in "a splendour of resolve," the feast, wine, song, and garlands, and girds himself to fight with Death for her rescue And Balaustion, looking after him as he goes, cries out the judgment of her soul on all heroism. It is Browning's judgment also, one of the deepest things in his heart; a constant motive in his poetry, a master-thought in his life.
Gladness be with thee, Helper of our world! I think this is the authentic sign and seal Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad, And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts Into a rage to suffer for mankind, And recommence at sorrow: drops like seed After the blossom, ultimate of all. Say, does the seed scorn earth and seek the sun? Surely it has no other end and aim Than to drop, once more die into the ground, Taste cold and darkness and oblivion there: And thence rise, tree-like grow through pain to joy, More joy and most joy,—do man good again.
That is the truth Browning makes this woman have the insight to reveal. Gladness of soul, becoming at one with sorrow and death and rising out of them the conqueror, but always rejoicing, in itself, in the joy of the universe and of God, is the root-heroic quality.
Then there is the crux of the play—Alkestis is to die for Admetos, and does it. What of the conduct of Admetos? What does Balaustion, the woman, think of that? She thinks Admetos is a poor creature for having allowed it. When Alkestis is brought dying on the stage, and Admetos follows, mourning over her, Balaustion despises him, and she traces in the speech of Alkestis, which only relates to her children's fate and takes no notice of her husband's protestations, that she has judged her husband, that love is gone in sad contempt, that all Admetos has given her is now paid for, that her death is a business transaction which has set her free to think no more about him, only of her children. For, what seems most pertinent for him to say, if he loved, "Take, O Fates, your promise back, and take my life, not hers," he does not say. That is not really the thought of Euripides.
Then, and this is subtly but not quite justly wrought into Euripides by Balaustion, she traces through the play the slow awakening of the soul of Admetos to the low-hearted thing he had done. He comes out of the house, having disposed all things duteously and fittingly round the dead, and Balaustion sees in his grave quietude that the truth is dawning on him; when suddenly Pheres, his father, who had refused to die for him, comes to lay his offering on the bier. This, Balaustion thinks, plucks Admetos back out of unselfish thought into that lower atmosphere in which he only sees his own advantage in the death of Alkestis; and in which he now bitterly reproaches his father because he did not die to save Alkestis. And the reproach is the more bitter because—and this Balaustion, with her subtle morality, suggests—an undernote of conscience causes him to see his own baser self, now prominent in his acceptance of Alkestis' sacrifice, finished and hardened in the temper of his father—young Admetos in old Pheres. He sees with dread and pain what he may become when old. This hatred of himself in his father is, Balaustion thinks, the source of his extreme violence with his father. She, with the Greek sense of what was due to nature, seeks to excuse this unfitting scene. Euripides has gone too far for her. She thinks that, if Sophocles had to do with the matter, he would have made the Chorus explain the man.
But the unnatural strife would not have been explained by Sophocles as Balaustion explains it. That fine ethical twist of hers—"that Admetos hates himself in his father," is too modern for a Greek. It has the casuistical subtlety which the over-developed conscience of the Christian Church encouraged. It is intellectual, too, rather than real, metaphysical more than moral, Browning rather than Sophocles. Nor do I believe that a Rhodian girl, even with all Athens at the back of her brain, would have conceived it at all. Then Balaustion makes another comment on the situation, in which there is more of Browning than of herself. "Admetos," she says, "has been kept back by the noisy quarrel from seeing into the truth of his own conduct, as he was on the point of doing, for 'with the low strife comes the little mind.'" But when his father is gone, and Alkestis is borne away, then, in the silence of the house and the awful stillness in his own heart, he sees the truth. His shame, the whole woe and horror of his failure in love, break, like a toppling wave, upon him, and the drowned truth, so long hidden from him by self, rose to the surface, and appalled him by its dead face. His soul in seeing true, is saved, yet so las by fire. At this moment Herakles comes in, leading Alkestis, redeemed from death; and finding, so Balaustion thinks, her husband restored to his right mind.
But, then, we ask, how Alkestis, having found him fail, will live with him again, how she, having topped nobility, will endure the memory of the ignoble in him? That would be the interesting subject, and the explanation Euripides suggests does not satisfy Balaustion. The dramatic situation is unfinished. Balaustion, with her fine instinct, feels that, to save the subject, it ought to be otherwise treated, and she invents a new Admetos, a new Alkestis. She has heard that Sophocles meant to make a new piece of the same matter, and her balanced judgment, on which Browning insists so often, makes her say, "That is well. One thing has many sides; but still, no good supplants a good, no beauty undoes another; still I will love the Alkestis which I know. Yet I have so drunk this poem, so satisfied with it my heart and soul, that I feel as if I, too, might make a new poem on the same matter."
Ah, that brave Bounty of poets, the one royal race That ever was, or will be, in this world! They give no gift that bounds itself and ends I' the giving and the taking: theirs so breeds I' the heart and soul o' the taker, so transmutes The man who only was a man before, That he grows godlike in his turn, can give— He also: share the poet's privilege, Bring forth new good, new beauty, from the old.
And she gives her conception of the subject, and it further unfolds her character.
When Apollo served Admetos, the noble nature of the God so entered into him that all the beast was subdued in the man, and he became the ideal king, living for the ennoblement of his people. Yet, while doing this great work, he is to die, still young, and he breaks out, in a bitter calm, against the fate which takes him from the work of his life.
"Not so," answers Alkestis, "I knew what was coming, and though Apollo urged me not to disturb the course of things, and not to think that any death prevents the march of good or ends a life, yet he yielded; and I die for you—all happiness."
"It shall never be," replies Admetos; "our two lives are one. But I am the body, thou art the soul; and the body shall go, and not the soul. I claim death."
"No," answered Alkestis; "the active power to rule and weld the people into good is in the man. Thou art the acknowledged power. And as to the power which, thou sayest, I give thee, as to the soul of me—take it, I pour it into thee. Look at me." And as he looks, she dies, and the king is left—still twofold as before, with the soul of Alkestis in him—himself and her. So is Fate cheated, and Alkestis in Admetos is not dead. A passage follows of delicate and simple poetry, written by Browning in a manner in which I would he had oftener written. To read it is to regret that, being able to do this, he chose rather to write, from time to time, as if he were hewing his way through tangled underwood. No lovelier image of Proserpina has been made in poetry, not even in Tennyson's Demeter, than this—
And even while it lay, i' the look of him, Dead, the dimmed body, bright Alkestis' soul Had penetrated through the populace Of ghosts, was got to Kore,—throned and crowned The pensive queen o' the twilight, where she dwells Forever in a muse, but half away From flowery earth she lost and hankers for,— And there demanded to become a ghost Before the time. Whereat the softened eyes Of the lost maidenhood that lingered still Straying among the flowers in Sicily, Sudden was startled back to Hades' throne By that demand: broke through humanity Into the orbed omniscience of a God, Searched at a glance Alkestis to the soul And said ... "Hence, thou deceiver! This is not to die, If, by the very death which mocks me now, The life, that's left behind and past my power, Is formidably doubled ..." And so, before the embrace relaxed a whit, The lost eyes opened, still beneath the look; And lo, Alkestis was alive again, And of Admetos' rapture who shall speak?
The old conception has more reality. This is in the vague world of modern psychical imagination. Nevertheless it has its own beauty, and it enlarges Browning's picture of the character of Balaustion.
Her character is still further enlarged in Aristophanes' Apology. That poem, if we desire intellectual exercise, illuminated by flashings of imagination, is well worth reading, but to comprehend it fully, one must know a great deal of Athenian life and of the history of the Comic Drama. It is the defence by Aristophanes of his idea of the business, the method, and the use of Comedy. How far what he says is Browning speaking for Aristophanes, and how far it is Browning speaking for himself, is hard to tell. And it would please him to leave that purposely obscure. What is alive and intense in the poem is, first, the realisation of Athenian life in several scenes, pictured with all Browning's astonishing force of presentation, as, for instance, the feast after the play, and the grim entrance of Sophocles, black from head to foot, among the glittering and drunken revellers, to announce the death of Euripides.
Secondly, there is the presentation of Aristophanes. Browning has created him for us—
And no ignoble presence! On the bulge Of the clear baldness,—all his head one brow,— True, the veins swelled, blue network, and there surged A red from cheek to temple,—then retired As if the dark-leaved chaplet damped a flame,— Was never nursed by temperance or health. But huge the eyeballs rolled back native fire, Imperiously triumphant: nostrils wide Waited their incense; while the pursed mouth's pout Aggressive, while the beak supreme above, While the head, face, nay, pillared throat thrown back, Beard whitening under like a vinous foam, There made a glory, of such insolence— I thought,—such domineering deity Hephaistos might have carved to cut the brine For his gay brother's prow, imbrue that path Which, purpling, recognised the conqueror. Impudent and majestic: drunk, perhaps, But that's religion; sense too plainly snuffed: Still, sensuality was grown a rite.
We see the man, the natural man, to the life. But as the poem goes on, we company with his intellect and soul, with the struggle of sensualism against his knowledge of a more ideal life; above all, with one, who indulging the appetites and senses of the natural man, is yet, at a moment, their master. The coarse chambers of his nature are laid bare, his sensuous pleasure in the lower forms of human life, his joy in satirising them, his contempt for the good or the ideal life if it throw the sensual man away. Then, we are made to know the power he has to rise above this—without losing it—into the higher imaginative region where, for the time, he feels the genius of Sophocles, Euripides, the moral power of Balaustion, and the beauty of the natural world. Indeed, in that last we find him in his extant plays. Few of the Greeks could write with greater exquisiteness of natural beauty than this wild poet who loved the dunghill. And Browning does not say this, but records in this Apology how when Aristophanes is touched for an instant by Balaustion's reading of the Herakles, and seizing the psalterion sings the song of Thamuris marching to his trial with the Muses through a golden autumn morning—it is the glory and loveliness of nature that he sings. This portraiture of the poet is scattered through the whole poem. It is too minute, too full of detail to dwell on here. It has a thousand touches of life and intimacy. And it is perhaps the finest thing Browning has done in portraiture of character. But then there was a certain sympathy in Browning for Aristophanes. The natural man was never altogether put aside by Browning.
Lastly, there is the fresh presentation of Balaustion, of the matured and experienced woman whom we have known as a happy girl. Euthycles and she are married, and one night, as she is sitting alone, he comes in, bringing the grave news that Euripides is dead, but had proved at the court of Archelaos of Macedonia his usefulness as counsellor to King and State, and his power still to sing—
Clashed thence Alkaion, maddened Pentheus' up; Then music sighed itself away, one moan Iphigeneia made by Aulis' strand; With her and music died Euripides.
And Athens, hearing, ceased to mock and cried "Bury Euripides in Peiraios, bring his body back." "Ah," said Balaustion, "Death alters the point of view. But our tribute is in our hearts; and more, his soul will now for ever teach and bless the world.
Is not that day come? What if you and I Re-sing the song, inaugurate the fame?
For, like Herakles, in his own Alkestis, he now strides away (and this is the true end of the Alkestis) to surmount all heights of destiny." While she spoke thus, the Chorus of the Comedy, girls, boys, and men, in drunken revel and led by Aristophanes, thundered at the door and claimed admittance. Balaustion is drawn confronting them—tall and superb, like Victory's self; her warm golden eyes flashing under her black hair, "earth flesh with sun fire," statuesque, searching the crowd with her glance. And one and all dissolve before her silent splendour of reproof, all save Aristophanes. She bids him welcome. "Glory to the Poet," she cries. "Light, light, I hail it everywhere; no matter for the murk, that never should have been such orb's associate." Aristophanes changes as he sees her; a new man confronts her.
"So!" he smiled, "piercing to my thought at once, You see myself? Balaustion's fixed regard Can strip the proper Aristophanes Of what our sophists, in their jargon, style His accidents?"
He confesses her power to meet him in discourse, unfolds his views and plans to her, and having contrasted himself with Euripides, bids her use her thrice-refined refinement, her rosy strength, to match his argument. She claims no equality with him, the consummate creator; but only, as a woman, the love of all things lovable with which to meet him who has degraded Comedy. She appeals to the high poet in the man, and finally bids him honour the deep humanity in Euripides. To prove it, and to win his accord, she reads the Herakles, the last of Euripides.
It is this long night of talk which Balaustion dictates to Euthycles as she is sailing, day after day, from Athens back to Rhodes. The aspect of sea and sky, as they sail, is kept before us, for Balaustion uses its changes as illustrations, and the clear descriptions tell, even more fully than before, how quick this woman was to observe natural beauty and to correlate it with humanity. Here is one example. In order to describe a change in the temper of Aristophanes from wild license to momentary gravity, Balaustion seizes on a cloud-incident of the voyage—Euthycles, she cries,
... "o'er the boat side, quick, what change, Watch—in the water! But a second since, It laughed a ripply spread of sun and sea, Ray fused with wave, to never disunite. Now, sudden, all the surface hard and black, Lies a quenched light, dead motion: what the cause? Look up, and lo, the menace of a cloud Has solemnised the sparkling, spoiled the sport! Just so, some overshadow, some new care Stopped all the mirth and mocking on his face."
Her feeling for nature is as strong us her feeling for man, and both are woven together.
All her powers have now ripened, and the last touch has been given to them by her ideal sorrow for Athens, the country of her soul, where high intelligence and imagination had created worlds. She leaves it now, ruined and degraded, and the passionate outbreak of her patriotic sorrow with which the poem opens lifts the character and imagination of Balaustion into spiritual splendour. Athens, "hearted in her heart," has perished ignobly. Not so, she thinks, ought this beauty of the world to have died, its sea-walls razed to the ground to the fluting and singing of harlots; but in some vast overwhelming of natural energies—in the embrace of fire to join the gods; or in a sundering of the earth, when the Acropolis should have sunken entire and risen in Hades to console the ghosts with beauty; or in the multitudinous over-swarming of ocean. This she could have borne, but, thinking of what has been, of the misery and disgrace, "Oh," she cries, "bear me away—wind, wave and bark!" But Browning does not leave Balaustion with only this deep emotion in her heart. He gives her the spiritual passion of genius. She is swept beyond her sorrow into that invisible world where the soul lives with the gods, with the pure Ideas of justice, truth and love; where immortal life awaits the disembodied soul and we shall see Euripides. In these high thoughts she will outlive her sorrow.
Why should despair be? Since, distinct above Man's wickedness and folly, flies the wind And floats the cloud, free transport for our soul Out of its fleshly durance dim and low,— Since disembodied soul anticipates (Thought-borne as now, in rapturous unrestraint) Above all crowding, crystal silentness, Above all noise, a silver solitude:— Surely, where thought so bears soul, soul in time May permanently bide, "assert the wise," There live in peace, there work in hope once more— O nothing doubt, Philemon! Greed and strife, Hatred and cark and care, what place have they In yon blue liberality of heaven? How the sea helps! How rose-smit earth will rise Breast-high thence, some bright morning, and be Rhodes! Heaven, earth and sea, my warrant—in their name, Believe—o'er falsehood, truth is surely sphered, O'er ugliness beams beauty, o'er this world Extends that realm where, "as the wise assert," Philemon, thou shalt see Euripides Clearer than mortal sense perceived the man!
We understand that she has drunk deep of Socrates, that her spiritual sense reached onward to the Platonic Socrates. In this supersensuous world of thought she is quieted out of the weakness which made her miserable over the fall of Athens; and in the quiet, Browning, who will lift his favourite into perfectness, adds to her spiritual imagination the dignity of that moral judgment which the intellect of genius gathers from the facts of history. In spite of her sorrow, she grasps the truth that there was justice in the doom of Athens. Let justice have its way. Let the folk die who pulled her glory down. This is her prophetic strain, the strength of the Hebrew in the Greek.
And then the prophet in the woman passes, and the poet in her takes the lyre. She sees the splendid sunset. Why should its extravagance of glory run to waste? Let me build out of it a new Athens, quarry out the golden clouds and raise the Acropolis, and the rock-hewn Place of Assembly, whence new orators may thunder over Greece; and the theatre where AEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, godlike still, may contend for the prize. Yet—and there is a further change of thought—yet that may not be. To build that poetic vision is to slip away from reality, and the true use of it. The tragedy is there—irrevocable. Let it sink deep in us till we see Rhodes shining over the sea. So great, so terrible, so piteous it is, that, dwelt on in the soul and seen in memory, it will do for us what the great tragedians made their tragic themes do for their hearers. It will purify the heart by pity and terror from the baseness and littleness of life. Our small hatreds, jealousies and prides, our petty passions will be rebuked, seem nothing in its mighty sorrow.
What else in life seems piteous any more After such pity, or proves terrible Beside such terror;
This is the woman—the finest creature Browning drew, young and fair and stately, with her dark hair and amber eyes, lovely—the wild pomegranate flower of a girl—as keen, subtle and true of intellect as she is lovely, able to comment on and check Euripides, to conceive a new play out of his subject, to be his dearest friend, to meet on equality Aristophanes; so full of lyric sympathy, so full of eager impulse that she thrills the despairing into action, enslaves a city with her eloquence, charms her girl-friends by the Ilissus, and so sends her spirit into her husband that, when the Spartans advise the razing of Athens to the ground he saves the city by those famous lines of Euripides, of which Milton sang; so at one with natural beauty, with all beauty, that she makes it live in the souls of men; so clear in judgment that she sees the right even when it seems lost in the wrong, that she sees the justice of the gods in the ruin of the city she most loved; so poetic of temper that everything speaks to her of life, that she acknowledges the poetry which rises out of the foulness she hates in Aristophanes, that she loves all humanity, bad or good, and Euripides chiefly because of his humanity; so spiritual, that she can soar out of her most overwhelming sorrow into the stormless world where the gods breathe pure thought and for ever love; and, abiding in its peace, use the griefs of earth for the ennoblement of the life of men, because in all her spiritual apartness, however far it bear her from earth, she never loses her close sympathy with the fortunes of mankind. Nay, from her lofty station she is the teacher of truth and love and justice, in splendid prophecy. It is with an impassioned exaltation, worthy of Sibyl and Pythoness in one, of divine wisdom both Roman and Greek, that she cries to the companions of her voyage words which embody her soul and the soul of all the wise and loving of the earth, when they act for men; bearing their action, thought and feeling beyond man to God in man—
Speak to the infinite intelligence, Sing to the everlasting sympathy!
* * * * *
THE RING AND THE BOOK
When Browning published The Ring and the Book, he was nearly fifty years old. All his powers (except those which create the lyric) are used therein with mastery; and the ease with which he writes is not more remarkable than the exultant pleasure which accompanies the ease. He has, as an artist, a hundred tools in hand, and he uses them with certainty of execution. The wing of his invention does not falter through these twelve books, nor droop below the level at which he began them; and the epilogue is written with as much vigour as the prologue. The various books demand various powers. In each book the powers are proportionate to the subject; but the mental force behind each exercise of power is equal throughout. He writes as well when he has to make the guilty soul of Guido speak, as when the innocence of Pompilia tells her story. The gain-serving lawyers, each distinctly isolated, tell their worldly thoughts as clearly as Caponsacchi reveals his redeemed and spiritualised soul. The parasite of an aristocratic and thoughtless society in Tertium Quid is not more vividly drawn than the Pope, who has left in his old age the conventions of society behind him, and speaks in his silent chamber face to face with God. And all the minor characters—of whom there are a great number, ranging from children to old folk, from the peasant to the Cardinal, through every class of society in Italy—are drawn, even when they are slashed out in only three lines, with such force, certainty, colour and life that we know them better than our friends. The variousness of the product would seem to exclude an equality of excellence in drawing and invention. But it does not. It reveals and confirms it. The poem is a miracle of intellectual power.
This great length, elaborate detail, and the repetition so many times of the same story, would naturally suggest to an intending reader that the poem might be wearisome. Browning, suspecting this, and in mercy to a public who does not care for a work of longue haleine, published it at first in four volumes, with a month's interval between each volume. He thought that the story told afresh by characters widely different would strike new, if each book were read at intervals of ten days. There were three books in each volume. And if readers desire to realise fully the intellectual tour de force contained in telling the same story twelve times over, and making each telling interesting, they cannot do better than read the book as Browning wished it to be read. "Give the poem four months, and let ten days elapse between the reading of each book," is what he meant us to understand. Moreover, to meet this possible weariness, Browning, consciously, or probably unconsciously, since genius does the right thing without asking why, continually used a trick of his own which, at intervals, stings the reader into wakefulness and pleasure, and sends him on to the next page refreshed and happy. After fifty, or it may be a hundred lines of somewhat dry analysis, a vivid illustration, which concentrates all the matter of the previous lines, flashes on the reader as a snake might flash across a traveller's dusty way: or some sudden description of an Italian scene in the country or in the streets of Rome enlivens the well-known tale with fresh humanity. Or a new character leaps up out of the crowd, and calls us to note his ways, his dress, his voice, his very soul in some revealing speech, and then passes away from the stage, while we turn, refreshed (and indeed at times we need refreshment), to the main speaker, the leading character.
But to dwell on the multitude of portraits with which Browning's keen observation, memory and love of human nature have embellished The Ring and the Book belongs to another part of this chapter. At present the question rises: "What place does The Ring and the Book hold in Browning's development?" It holds a central place. There was always a struggle in Browning between two pleasures; pleasure in the exercise of his intellect—his wit, in the fullest sense of the word; pleasure in the exercise of his poetic imagination. Sometimes one of these had the upper hand in his poems, sometimes the other, and sometimes both happily worked together. When the exercise of his wit had the upper hand, it tended to drive out both imagination and passion. Intellectual play may be without any emotion except its delight in itself. Then its mere cleverness attracts its user, and gives him an easily purchased pleasure. When a poet falls a complete victim to this pleasure, imagination hides her face from him, passion runs away, and what he produces resembles, but is not, poetry. And Browning, who had got perilously near to the absence of poetry in Bishop Blougram's Apology, succeeded in Mr. Sludge, the Medium, in losing poetry altogether. In The Ring and the Book there are whole books, and long passages in its other books in which poetry almost ceases to exist and is replaced by brilliant cleverness, keen analysis, vivid description, and a combination of wit and fancy which is rarely rivalled; but no emotion, no imagination such as poets use inflames the coldness of these qualities into the glow of poetry. The indefinable difference which makes imaginative work into poetry is not there. There is abundance of invention; but that, though a part of imagination, belongs as much to the art of prose as to the art of poetry.