Browning could write thus, out of his intellect alone. None of the greater poets could. Their genius could not work without fusing into their intellectual work intensity of feeling; and that combination secured poetic treatment of their subject. It would have been totally impossible for Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, Vergil, or even the great mass of second-rate poets, to have written some of Browning's so-called poetry—no matter how they tried. There was that in Browning's nature which enabled him to exercise his intellectual powers alone, without passion, and so far he almost ceases to deserve the name of poet. And his pleasure in doing this grew upon him, and having done it with dazzling power in part of The Ring and the Book, he was carried away by it and produced a number of so-called poems; terrible examples of what a poet can come to when he has allowed his pleasure in clever analysis to tyrannise over him—Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, The Inn Album, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, and a number of shorter poems in the volumes which followed. In these, what Milton meant by passion, simplicity and sensuousness were banished, and imagination existed only as it exists in a prose writer.
This condition was slowly arrived at. It had not been fully reached when he wrote The Ring and the Book. His poetic powers resisted their enemies for many years, and had the better in the struggle. If it takes a long time to cast a devil out, it takes a longer time to depose an angel. And the devil may be utterly banished, but the angel never. And though the devil of mere wit and the little devils of analytic exercise—devils when they usurp the throne in a poet's soul and enslave imaginative emotion—did get the better of Browning, it was only for a time. Towards the end of his life he recovered, but never as completely as he had once possessed them, the noble attributes of a poet. The evils of the struggle clung to him; the poisonous pleasure he had pursued still affected him; he was again and again attacked by the old malaria. He was as a brand plucked from the burning.
The Ring and the Book is the central point of this struggle. It is full of emotion and thought concentrated on the subject, and commingled by imagination to produce beauty. And whenever this is the case, as in the books which treat of Caponsacchi and Pompilia, we are rejoiced by poetry. In their lofty matter of thought and feeling, in their simplicity and nobleness of spiritual beauty, poetry is dominant. In them also his intellectual powers, and his imaginative and passionate powers, are fused into one fire. Nor is the presentation of Guido Franceschini under two faces less powerful, or that of the Pope, in his meditative silence. But in these books the poetry is less, and is mingled, as would naturally indeed be the case, with a searching analysis, which intrudes too much into their imaginative work. Over-dissection makes them cold. In fact, in fully a quarter of this long poem, the analysing understanding, that bustling and self-conscious person, who plays only on the surface of things and separates their elements from one another instead of penetrating to their centre; who is incapable of seeing the whole into which the various elements have combined—is too masterful for the poetry. It is not, then, imaginative, but intellectual pleasure which, as we read, we gain.
Then again there is throughout a great part of the poem a dangerous indulgence of his wit; the amusement of remote analogies; the use of far-fetched illustrations; quips and cranks and wanton wiles of the reasoning fancy in deviating self-indulgence; and an allusiveness which sets commentators into note-making effervescence. All these, and more, which belong to wit, are often quite ungoverned, allowed to disport themselves as they please. Such matters delight the unpoetic readers of Browning, and indeed they are excellent entertainment. But let us call them by their true name; let us not call them poetry, nor mistake their art for the art of poetry. Writing them in blank verse does not make them poetry. In Half-Rome, in The Other Half-Rome, and in Tertium Quid, these elements of analysis and wit are exhibited in three-fourths of the verse; but the other fourth—in description of scenes, in vivid portraiture, in transient outbursts out of which passion, in glimpses, breaks—rises into the realm of poetry. In the books which sketch the lawyers and their pleadings, there is wit in its finest brilliancy, analysis in its keenest veracity, but they are scarcely a poet's work. The whole book is then a mixed book, extremely mixed. All that was poetical in Browning's previous work is represented in it, and all the unpoetical elements which had gradually been winning power in him, and which showed themselves previously in Bishop Blougram and Mr. Sludge, are also there in full blast. It was, as I have said, the central battlefield of two powers in him. And when The Ring and the Book was finished, the inferior power had for a time the victory.
To sum up then, there are books in the poem where matter of passion and matter of thought are imaginatively wrought together. There are others where psychological thought and metaphysical reasoning are dominant, but where passionate feeling has also a high place. There are others where analysis and wit far excel the elements of imaginative emotion; and there are others where every kind of imagination is absent, save that which is consistent throughout and which never fails—the power of creating men and women into distinct individualities. That is left, but it is a power which is not special to a poet. A prose writer may possess it with the same fulness as a poet. Carlyle had it as remarkably as Browning, or nearly as remarkably. He also had wit—a heavier wit than Browning's, less lambent, less piercing, but as forcible.
One thing more may be said. The poem is far too long, and the subject does not bear its length. The long poems of the world (I do not speak of those by inferior poets) have a great subject, are concerned with manifold fates of men, and are naturally full of various events and varied scenery. They interest us with new things from book to book. In The Ring and the Book the subject is not great, the fates concerned are not important, and the same event runs through twelve books and is described twelve times. However we may admire the intellectual force which actually makes the work interesting, and the passion which often thrills us in it—this is more than the subject bears, and than we can always endure. Each book is spun out far beyond what is necessary; a great deal is inserted which would be wisely left out. No one could be more concise than Browning when he pleased. His power of flashing a situation or a thought into a few words is well known. But he did not always use this power. And in The Ring and the Book, as in some of the poems that followed it, he seems now and then to despise that power.
And now for the poem itself. Browning tells the story eight times by different persons, each from a different point of view, and twice more by the same person before and after his condemnation and, of course, from two points of view. Then he practically tells it twice more in the prologue and the epilogue—twelve times in all—and in spite of what I have said about the too great length of the poem, this is an intellectual victory that no one else but Browning could have won against its difficulties. Whether it was worth the creation by himself of the difficulty is another question. He chose to do it, and we had better submit to him and get the good of his work. At least we may avoid some of the weariness he himself feared by reading it in the way I have mentioned, as Browning meant it to be read. Poems—being the highest product of the highest genius of which man is capable—ought to be approached with some reverence. And a part of that reverence is to read them in accordance with the intention and desire of the writer.
We ought not to forget the date of the tale when we read the book. It is just two hundred years ago. The murder of Pompilia took place in 1698; and the book completes his studies of the Renaissance in its decay. If Sordello is worth our careful reading as a study of the thirteenth century in North Italy, this book is as valuable as a record of the society of its date. It is, in truth, a mine of gold; pure crude ore is secreted from man's life, then moulded into figures of living men and women by the insight and passion of the poet. In it is set down Rome as she was—her customs, opinions, classes of society; her dress, houses, streets, lanes, byeways and squares; her architecture, fountains, statues, courts of law, convents, gardens; her fashion and its drawing-rooms, the various professions and their habits, high life and middle class, tradesmen and beggars, priest, friar, lay-ecclesiastic, cardinal and Pope. Nowhere is this pictorial and individualising part of Browning's genius more delighted with its work. Every description is written by a lover of humanity, and with joy.
Nor is he less vivid in the mise-en-scene in which he places this multitude of personages. In Half-Rome we mingle with the crowd between Palazzo Fiano and Ruspoli, and pass into the church of Lorenzo in Lucina where the murdered bodies are exposed. The mingled humours of the crowd, the various persons and their characters are combined with and enhanced by the scenery. Then there is the Market Place by the Capucin convent of the Piazza Barberini, with the fountains leaping; then the Reunion at a palace, and the fine fashionable folk among the mirrors and the chandeliers, each with their view of the question; then the Courthouse, with all its paraphernalia, where Guido and Caponsacchi plead; then, the sketches, as new matters turn up, of the obscure streets of Rome, of the country round Arezzo, of Arezzo itself, of the post road from Arezzo to Rome and the country inn near Rome, of the garden house in the suburbs, of the households of the two advocates and their different ways of living; of the Pope in his closet and of Guido in the prison cell; and last, the full description of the streets and the Piazza del Popolo on the day of the execution—all with a hundred vivifying, illuminating, minute details attached to them by this keen-eyed, observant, questing poet who remembered everything he saw, and was able to use each detail where it was most wanted. Memories are good, but good usage of them is the fine power. The mise-en-scene is then excellent, and Browning was always careful to make it right, fitting and enlivening. Nowhere is this better done than in the Introduction where he finds the book on a stall in the Square of San Lorenzo, and describes modern Florence in his walk from the Square past the Strozzi, the Pillar and the Bridge to Casa Guidi on the other side of the Arno opposite the little church of San Felice. During the walk he read the book through, yet saw everything he passed by. The description will show how keen were his eyes, how masterly his execution.
That memorable day, (June was the month, Lorenzo named the Square) I leaned a little and overlooked my prize By the low railing round the fountain-source Close to the statue, where a step descends: While clinked the cans of copper, as stooped and rose Thick-ankled girls who brimmed them, and made place For marketmen glad to pitch basket down, Dip a broad melon-leaf that holds the wet, And whisk their faded fresh. And on I read Presently, though my path grew perilous Between the outspread straw-work, piles of plait Soon to be flapping, each o'er two black eyes And swathe of Tuscan hair, on festas fine: Through fire-irons, tribes of tongs, shovels in sheaves, Skeleton bedsteads, wardrobe-drawers agape, Rows of tall slim brass lamps with dangling gear,— And worse, cast clothes a-sweetening in the sun: None of them took my eye from off my prize. Still read I on, from written title page To written index, on, through street and street, At the Strozzi, at the Pillar, at the Bridge; Till, by the time I stood at home again In Casa Guidi by Felice Church, Under the doorway where the black begins With the first stone-slab of the staircase cold, I had mastered the contents, knew the whole truth Gathered together, bound up in this book, Print three-fifths, written supplement the rest.
This power, combined with his power of portraiture, makes this long poem alive. No other man of his century could paint like him the to and fro of a city, the hurly-burly of humanity, the crowd, the movement, the changing passions, the loud or quiet clash of thoughts, the gestures, the dress, the interweaving of expression on the face, the whole play of humanity in war or peace. As we read, we move with men and women; we are pressed everywhere by mankind. We listen to the sound of humanity, sinking sometimes to the murmur we hear at night from some high window in London; swelling sometimes, as in Sordello, into a roar of violence, wrath, revenge, and war. And it was all contained in that little body, brain and heart; and given to us, who can feel it, but not give it. This is the power which above all endears him to us as a poet. We feel in each poem not only the waves of the special event of which he writes, but also the large vibration of the ocean of humanity.
He was not unaware of this power of his. We are told in Sordello that he dedicated himself to the picturing of humanity; and he came to think that a Power beyond ours had accepted this dedication, and directed his work. He declares in the introduction that he felt a Hand ("always above my shoulder—mark the predestination"), that pushed him to the stall where he found the fated book in whose womb lay his child—The Ring and the Book. And he believed that he had certain God-given qualities which fitted him for this work. These he sets forth in this introduction, and the self-criticism is of the greatest interest.
The first passage is, when he describes how, having finished the book and got into him all the gold of its fact, he added from himself that to the gold which made it workable—added to it his live soul, informed, transpierced it through and through with imagination; and then, standing on his balcony over the street, saw the whole story from the beginning shape itself out on the night, alive and clear, not in dead memory but in living movement; saw right away out on the Roman road to Arezzo, and all that there befell; then passed to Rome again with the actors in the tragedy, a presence with them who heard them speak and think and act. The "life in him abolished the death of things—deep calling unto deep." For "a spirit laughed and leaped through his every limb, and lit his eye, and lifted him by the hair, and let him have his will" with Pompilia, Guido, Caponsacchi, the lawyers, the Pope, and the whole of Rome. And they rose from the dead; the old woe stepped on the stage again at the magician's command; and the rough gold of fact was rounded to a ring by art. But the ring should have a posy, and he makes that in a passionate cry to his dead wife—a lovely spell where high thinking and full feeling meet and mingle like two deep rivers. Whoso reads it feels how her spirit, living still for him, brooded over and blest his masterpiece:
O lyric Love, half angel and half bird And all a wonder and a wild desire,— Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun, Took sanctuary within the holier blue, And sang a kindred soul out to his face,— Yet human at the red-ripe of the heart— When the first summons from the darkling earth Reached thee amid thy chambers, blanched their blue, And bared them of the glory—to drop down, To toil for man, to suffer or to die,— This is the same voice: can thy soul know change Hail then, and hearken from the realms of help! Never may I commence my song, my due To God who best taught song by gift of thee, Except with bent head and beseeching hand— That still, despite the distance and the dark, What was, again may be; some interchange Of grace, some splendour once thy very thought, Some benediction anciently thy smile: —Never conclude, but raising hand and head Thither where eyes, that cannot reach, yet yearn For all hope, all sustainment, all reward, Their utmost up and on,—so blessing back In those thy realms of help, that heaven thy home, Some whiteness which, I judge, thy face makes proud, Some wanness where, I think, thy foot may fall!
The poem begins with the view that one half of Rome took of the events. At the very commencement we touch one of the secondary interests of the book, the incidental characters. Guido, Caponsacchi, Pompilia, the Pope, and, in a lesser degree, Violante and Pietro, are the chief characters, and the main interest contracts around them. But, through all they say and do, as a motley crowd through a street, a great number of minor characters move to and fro; and Browning, whose eye sees every face, and through the face into the soul, draws them one by one, some more fully than others in perhaps a hundred lines, some only in ten. Most of them are types of a class, a profession or a business, yet there is always a touch or two which isolates each of them so that they do not only represent a class but a personal character. He hated, like Morris, the withering of the individual, nor did he believe, nor any man who knows and feels mankind, that by that the world grew more and more. The poem is full of such individualities. It were well, as one example, to read the whole account of the people who come to see the murdered bodies laid out in the Church of Lorenzo. The old, curious, doddering gossip of the Roman street is not less alive than the Cardinal, and the clever pushing Curato; and around them are heard the buzz of talk, the movement of the crowd. The church, the square are humming with humanity.
He does the same clever work at the deathbed of Pompilia. She lies in the House of the dying, and certain folk are allowed to see her. Each one is made alive by this creative pencil; and all are different, one from the other—the Augustinian monk, old mother Baldi chattering like a jay who thought that to touch Pompilia's bedclothes would cure her palsy, Cavalier Carlo who fees the porter to paint her face just because she was murdered and famous, the folk who argue on theology over her wounded body. Elsewhere we possess the life-history of Pietro and Violante, Pompilia's reputed parents; several drawings of the retired tradesmen class, with their gossips and friends, in the street of a poor quarter in Rome; then, the Governor and Archbishop of Arezzo, the friar who is kindly but fears the world and all the busy-bodies of this provincial town. Arezzo, its characters and indwellers, stand in clear light. The most vivid of these sketches is Dominus Hyacinthus, the lawyer who defends Guido. I do not know anything better done, and more amusingly, than this man and his household—a paternal creature, full of his boys and their studies, making us, in his garrulous pleasure, at home with them and his fat wife. Browning was so fond of this sketch that he drew him and his boys over again in the epilogue.
These represent the episodical characters in this drama of life; and Browning has scattered them, as it were, behind the chief characters, whom sometimes they illustrate and sometimes they contrast. Of these the whitest, simplest, loveliest is Pompilia, of whom I have already written. The other chief characters are Count Guido and Giuseppe Caponsacchi; and to the full development of these two characters Browning gives all his powers. They are contrasted types of the spirit of good and the spirit of evil conquering in man. Up to a certain point in life their conduct is much alike. Both belong to the Church—one as a priest, one as a layman affiliated to the Church. The lust of money and self, when the character of Pompilia forces act, turns Guido into a beast of greed and hate. The same character, when it forces act, lifts Caponsacchi into almost a saint. This was a piece of contrasted psychology in which the genius of Browning revelled, and he followed all the windings of it in both these hearts with the zest of an explorer. They were labyrinthine, but the more labyrinthine the better he was pleased. Guido's first speech is made before the court in his defence. We see disclosed the outer skin of the man's soul, all that he would have the world know of him—cynical, mocking, not cruel, not affectionate, a man of the world whom life had disappointed, and who wishing to establish himself in a retired life by marriage had been deceived and betrayed, he pleads, by his wife and her parents—an injured soul who, stung at last into fury at having a son foisted on him, vindicates his honour. And in this vindication his hypocrisy slips at intervals from him, because his hatred of his wife is too much for his hypocrisy.
This is the only touch of the wolf in the man—his cruel teeth shown momentarily through the smooth surface of his defence. A weaker poet would have left him there, not having capacity for more. But Browning, so rich in thought he was, had only begun to draw him. Guido is not only painted by three others—by Caponsacchi, by Pompilia, by the Pope—but he finally exposes his real self with his own hand. He is condemned to death. Two of his friends visit him the night before his execution, in his cell. Then, exalted into eloquence by the fierce passions of fear of death and hatred of Pompilia, he lays bare as the night his very soul, mean, cruel, cowardly, hungry for revenge, crying for life, black with hate—a revelation such as in literature can best be paralleled by the soliloquies of Iago. Baseness is supreme in his speech, hate was never better given; the words are like the gnashing of teeth; prayers for life at any cost were never meaner, and the outburst of terror and despair at the end is their ultimate expression.
Over against him is set Caponsacchi, of noble birth, of refined manner, one of those polished and cultivated priests of whom Rome makes such excellent use, and of whom Browning had drawn already a different type in Bishop Blougram. He hesitated, being young and gay, to enter the Church. But the archbishop of that easy time, two hundred years ago, told him the Church was strong enough to bear a few light priests, and that he would be set free from many ecclesiastical duties if, by assiduity in society and with women, he strengthened the social weight of the Church. In that way, making his madrigals and confessing fine ladies, he lived for four years. This is an admirable sketch of a type of Church society of that date, indeed, of any date in any Church; it is by no means confined to Rome.
On this worldly, careless, indifferent, pleasure-seeking soul Pompilia, in her trouble and the pity of it, rises like a pure star seen through mist that opens at intervals to show her excelling brightness; and in a moment, at the first glimpse of her in the theatre, the false man drops away; his soul breaks up, stands clear, and claims its divine birth. He is born again, and then transfigured. The life of convention, of indifference, dies before Pompilia's eyes; and on the instant he is true to himself, to her, and to God. The fleeting passions which had absorbed him, and were of the senses, are burned up, and the spiritual love for her purity, and for purity itself—that eternal, infinite desire—is now master of his life. Not as Miranda and Ferdinand changed eyes in youthful love, but as Dante and Beatrice look on one another in Paradise, did Pompilia and Caponsacchi change eyes, and know at once that both were true, and see without speech the central worth of their souls. They trusted one another and they loved for ever. So, when she cried to him in her distress, he did her bidding and bore her away to Rome. He tells the story of their flight, and tells it with extraordinary beauty and vehemence in her defence. So noble is the tale that he convinces the judges who at first had disbelieved him; and the Pope confesses that his imprudence was a higher good than priestly prudence would have been. When he makes his defence he has heard that Pompilia has been murdered. Then we understand that in his conversion to goodness he has not lost but gained passion. Scorn of the judges, who could not see that neither he was guilty nor Pompilia; fiery indignation with the murderer; infinite grief for the lamb slain by the wolf, and irrevocable love for the soul of Pompilia, whom he will dwell with eternally when they meet in Heaven, a love which Pompilia, dying, declares she has for him, and in which, growing and abiding, she will wait for him—burn on his lips. He is fully and nobly a man; yet, at the end—and he is no less a man for it—the wild sorrow at his heart breaks him down into a cry:
O great, just, good God! Miserable me!
Pompilia ends her words more quietly, in the faith that comes with death. Caponsacchi has to live on, to bear the burden of the world. But Pompilia has borne all she had to bear. All pain and horror are behind her, as she lies in the stillness, dying. And in the fading of this life, she knows she loves Caponsacchi in the spiritual world and will love him for ever. Each speaks according to the circumstance, but she most nobly:
He is ordained to call and I to come! Do not the dead wear flowers when dressed for God? Say,—I am all in flowers from head to foot! Say,—not one flower of all he said and did, Might seem to flit unnoticed, fade unknown, But dropped a seed, has grown a balsam-tree Whereof the blossoming perfumes the place At this supreme of moments! He is a priest; He cannot marry therefore, which is right: I think he would not marry if he could. Marriage on earth seems such a counterfeit, Mere imitation of the inimitable: In heaven we have the real and true and sure. 'Tis there they neither marry nor are given In marriage but are as the angels: right, Oh how right that is, how like Jesus Christ To say that! Marriage-making for the earth, With gold so much,—birth, power, repute so much, Or beauty, youth so much, in lack of these! Be as the angels rather, who, apart, Know themselves into one, are found at length Married, but marry never, no, nor give In marriage; they are man and wife at once When the true time is; here we have to wait Not so long neither! Could we by a wish Have what we will and get the future now, Would we wish aught done undone in the past? So, let him wait God's instant men call years; Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul, Do out the duty! Through such souls alone God stooping shows sufficient of His light For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise.
Last of these main characters, the Pope appears. Guido, condemned to death by the law, appeals from the law to the head of the Church, because, being half an ecclesiastic, his death can only finally be decreed by the ecclesiastical arm. An old, old man, with eyes clear of the quarrels, conventions, class prejudices of the world, the Pope has gone over all the case during the day, and now night has fallen. Far from the noise of Rome, removed from the passions of the chief characters, he is sitting in the stillness of his closet, set on his decision. We see the whole case now, through his mind, in absolute quiet. He has been on his terrace to look at the stars, and their solemn peace is with him. He feels that he is now alone with God and his old age. And being alone, he is not concise, but garrulous and discursive. Browning makes him so on purpose. But discursive as his mind is, his judgment is clear, his sentence determined. Only, before he speaks, he will weigh all the characters, and face any doubts that may shoot into his conscience. He passes Guido and the rest before his spiritual tribunal, judging not from the legal point of view, but from that which his Master would take at the Judgment Day. How have they lived; what have they made of life? When circumstances invaded them with temptation, how did they meet temptation? Did they declare by what they did that they were on God's side or the devil's? And on these lines he delivers his sentence on Pompilia, Caponsacchi, Guido, Pietro, Violante, and the rest. He feels he speaks as the Vicegerent of God.
This solemn, silent, lonely, unworldly judgment of the whole case, done in God's presence, is, after the noisy, crowded, worldly judgment of it by Rome, after the rude humours of the law, and the terrible clashing of human passions, most impressive; and it rises into the majesty of old age in the summing up of the characters of Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and Guido. I wish Browning had left it there. But he makes a sudden doubt invade the Pope with a chill. Has he judged rightly in thinking that divine truth is with him? Is there any divine truth on which he may infallibly repose?
And then for many pages we are borne away into a theological discussion, which I take leave to say is wearisome; and which, after all, lands the Pope exactly at the point from which he set out—a conclusion at which, as we could have told him beforehand, he would be certain to arrive. We might have been spared this. It is an instance of Browning's pleasure in intellectual discourse which had, as I have said, such sad results on his imaginative work. However, at the end, the Pope resumes his interest in human life. He determines; and quickly—"Let the murderer die to-morrow."
Then comes the dreadful passion of Guido in the condemned cell, of which I have spoken. And then, one would think the poem would have closed. But no, the epilogue succeeds, in which, after all the tragedy, humour reigns supreme. It brings us into touch with all that happened in this case after the execution of Guido; the letters written by the spectators, the lawyer's view of the deed, the gossip of Rome upon the interesting occasion. No piece of humour in Browning's poetry, and no portrait-sketching, is better than the letter written by a Venetian gentleman in Rome giving an account of the execution. It is high comedy when we are told that the Austrian Ambassador, who had pleaded for Guido's life, was so vexed by the sharp "no" of the Pope (even when he had told the Pope that he had probably dined at the same table with Guido), that he very nearly refused to come to the execution, and would scarcely vouchsafe it more than a glance when he did come—as if this conduct of his were a slight which the Pope would feel acutely. Nor does Browning's invention stop with this inimitable letter. He adds two other letters which he found among the papers; and these give to the characters of the two lawyers, new turns, new images of their steady professional ambition not to find truth, but to gain the world.
One would think, after this, that invention would be weary. Not at all! The Augustinian monk who attended Pompilia has not had attention enough; and this is the place, Browning thinks, to show what he thought of the case, and how he used it in his profession. So, we are given a great part of the sermon he preached on the occasion, and the various judgments of Rome upon it.
It is wonderful, after invention has been actively at work for eleven long books, pouring forth its waters from an unfailing fountain, to find it, at the end, as gay, as fresh, as keen, as youthful as ever. This, I repeat, is the excellence of Browning's genius—fulness of creative power, with imagination in it like a fire. It does not follow that all it produces is poetry; and what it has produced in The Ring and the Book is sometimes, save for the metre, nothing better than prose. But this is redeemed by the noble poetry of a great part of it. The book is, as I have said, a mixed book—the central arena of that struggle in Browning between prose and poetry with a discussion of which this chapter began, and with the mention of which I finish it.
* * * * *
A just appreciation of the work which Browning published after The Ring and the Book is a difficult task. The poems are of various kinds, on widely separated subjects; and with the exception of those which treat of Balaustion, they have no connection with one another. Many of them must belong to the earlier periods of his life, and been introduced into the volumes out of the crowd of unpublished poems every poet seems to possess. These, when we come across them among their middle-aged companions, make a strange impression, as if we found a white-thorn flowering in an autumnal woodland; and in previous chapters of this book I have often fetched them out of their places, and considered them where they ought to be—in the happier air and light in which they were born. I will not discuss them again, but in forming any judgment of the later poems they must be discarded.
The struggle to which I have drawn attention between the imaginative and intellectual elements in Browning, and which was equally balanced in The Ring and the Book, continued after its publication, but with a steady lessening of the imaginative and a steady increase of the intellectual elements. One poem, however, written before the publication of The Ring and the Book, does not belong to this struggle. This is Herve Riel, a ballad of fire and joy and triumph. It is curiously French in sentiment and expression, and the eager sea-delight in it is plainly French, not English in feeling. Nor is it only French; it is Breton in audacity, in self-forgetfulness, in carelessness of reward, and in loyalty to country, to love and to home. If Browning had been all English, this transference of himself into the soul of another nationality would have been wonderful, nay, impossible. As it is, it is wonderful enough; and this self-transference—one of his finest poetic powers—is nowhere better accomplished than in this poem, full of the salt wind and the leap and joy of the sea-waves; but even more full, as was natural to Browning, of the Breton soul of Herve Riel.
In Balaustion's Adventure (1871) which next appeared, the imaginative elements, as we have seen, are still alive and happy; and though they only emerge at intervals in its continuation, Aristophanes' Apology (1875), yet they do emerge. Meanwhile, between Balaustion's Adventure and the end of 1875, he produced four poems—Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society; Fifine at the Fair; Red Cotton Nightcap Country, or Turf and Towers; and The Inn Album. They are all long, and were published in four separate volumes. In them the intellectual elements have all but completely conquered the imaginative. They are, however, favourite "exercise-places" for some of his admirers, who think that they derive poetic pleasures from their study. The pleasure these poems give, when they give it, is not altogether a poetic pleasure. It is chiefly the pleasure of the understanding called to solve with excitement a huddle of metaphysical problems. They have the name but not the nature of poetry.
They are the work of my Lord Intelligence—attended by wit and fancy—who sits at the desk of poetry, and with her pen in his hand. He uses the furniture of poetry, but the goddess herself has left the room. Yet something of her influence still fills the air of the chamber. In the midst of the brilliant display that fancy, wit, and intellect are making, a soft steady light of pure song burns briefly at intervals, and then is quenched; like the light of stars seen for a moment of quiet effulgence among the crackling and dazzling of fireworks.
The poems are, it is true, original. We cannot class them with any previous poetry. They cannot be called didactic or satirical. The didactic and satirical poems of England are, for the most part, artificial, concise, clear. These poems are not artificial, clear or concise. Nor do they represent the men and women of a cultured, intellectual and conventional society, such as the poetry of Dryden and Pope addressed. The natural man is in them—the crude, dull, badly-baked man—what the later nineteenth century called the real man. We see his ugly, sordid, contemptible, fettered soul, and long for Salinguerra, or Lippo Lippi, or even Caliban. The representations are then human enough, with this kind of humanity, but they might have been left to prose. Poetry has no business to build its houses on the waste and leprous lands of human nature; and less business to call its work art. Realism of this kind is not art, it is science.
Yet the poems are not scientific, for they have no clarity of argument. Their wanderings of thought are as intertangled as the sheep-walks on league after league of high grasslands. When one has a fancy to follow them, the pursuit is entertaining; but unless one has the fancy, there are livelier employments. Their chief interest is the impression they give us of a certain side of Browning's character. They are his darling debauch of cleverness, of surface-psychology. The analysis follows no conventional lines, does not take or oppose any well-known philosophical side. It is not much more than his own serious or fantastic thinking indulging itself with reckless abandon—amusing itself with itself. And this gives them a humanity—a Browning humanity—outside of their subjects.
The subjects too, though not delightful, are founded on facts of human life. Bishop Blougram was conceived from Cardinal Wiseman's career, Mr. Sludge from Mr. Home's. Prince Hohenstiel Schwangau explains and defends the expediency by which Napoleon III. directed his political action. The Inn Album, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, are taken from actual stories that occurred while Browning was alive, and Fifine at the Fair analyses a common crisis in the maturer lives of men and women. The poems thus keep close to special cases, yet—and in this the poet appears—they have an extension which carries them beyond the particular subjects into the needs and doings of a wider humanity. Their little rivers run into the great sea. They have then their human interest for a reader who does not wish for beauty, passion, imagination, or the desires of the spirit in his poetry; but who hankers at his solitary desk after realistic psychology, fanciful ethics, curiosities of personal philosophy, cold intellectual play with argument, and honest human ugliness.
Moreover, the method Browning attempts to use in them for the discovery of truth is not the method of poetry, nor of any of the arts. It is almost a commonplace to say that the world of mankind and each individual in it only arrives at the truth on any matter, large or small, by going through and exhausting the false forms of that truth—and a very curious arrangement it seems to be. It is this method Browning pursues in these poems. He represents one after another various false or half-true views of the matter in hand, and hopes in that fashion to clear the way to the truth. But he fails to convince partly because it is impossible to give all or enough of the false or half-true views of any one truth, but chiefly because his method is one fitted for philosophy or science, but not for poetry. Poetry claims to see and feel the truth at once. When the poet does not assert that claim, and act on it, he is becoming faithless to his art.
Browning's method in these poems is the method of a scientific philosopher, not of an artist. He gets his man into a debateable situation; the man debates it from various points of view; persons are introduced who take other aspects of the question, or personified abstractions such as Sagacity, Reason, Fancy give their opinions. Not satisfied with this, Browning discusses it again from his own point of view. He is then like the chess-player who himself plays both red and white; who tries to keep both distinct in his mind, but cannot help now and again taking one side more than the other; and who is frequently a third person aware of himself as playing red, and also of himself as playing white; and again of himself as outside both the players and criticising their several games. This is no exaggerated account of what is done in these poems. Three people, even when the poems are monologues, are arguing in them, and Browning plays all their hands, even in The Inn Album, which is not a monologue. In Red Cotton Nightcap Country, when he has told the story of the man and woman in all its sordid and insane detail, with comments of his own, he brings the victim of mean pleasure and mean superstition to the top of the tower whence he throws himself down, and, inserting his intelligence into the soul of the man, explains his own view of the situation. In Prince Hohenstiel Schwangau, we have sometimes what Browning really thinks, as in the beginning of the poem, about the matter in hand, and then what he thinks the Prince would think, and then, to complicate the affair still more, the Prince divides himself, and makes a personage called Sagacity argue with him on the whole situation. As to Fifine at the Fair—a poem it would not be fair to class altogether with these—its involutions resemble a number of live eels in a tub of water. Don Juan changes his personality and his views like a player on the stage who takes several parts; Elvire is a gliding phantom with gliding opinions; Fifine is real, but she remains outside of this shifting scenery of the mind; and Browning, who continually intrudes, is sometimes Don Juan and sometimes himself and sometimes both together, and sometimes another thinker who strives to bring, as in the visions in the poem, some definition into this changing cloudland of the brain. And after all, not one of the questions posed in any of the poems is settled in the end. I do not say that the leaving of the questions unsettled is not like life. It is very like life, but not like the work of poetry, whose high office it is to decide questions which cannot be solved by the understanding.
Bishop Blongram thinks he has proved his points. Gigadibs is half convinced he has. But the Bishop, on looking back, thinks he has not been quite sincere, that his reasonings were only good for the occasion. He has evaded the centre of the thing. What he has said was no more than intellectual fencing. It certainly is intellectual fencing of the finest kind. Both the Bishop and his companion are drawn to the life; yet, and this is the cleverest thing in the poem, we know that the Bishop is in reality a different man from the picture he makes of himself. And the truth which in his talk underlies its appearance acts on Gigadibs and sends him into a higher life. The discussion—as it may be called though the Bishop only speaks—concerning faith and doubt is full of admirable wisdom, and urges me to modify my statement that Browning took little or no interest in the controversies of his time. Yet, all through the fencing, nothing is decided. The button is always on the Bishop's foil. He never sends the rapier home. And no doubt that is the reason that his companion, with "his sudden healthy vehemence" did drive his weapon home into life—and started for Australia.
Mr. Sludge, the medium, excuses his imposture, and then thinks "it may not altogether be imposture. For all he knows there may really be spirits at the bottom of it. He never meant to cheat; yet he did cheat. Yet, even if he lied, lies help truth to live; and he must live himself; and God may have made fools for him to live on;" and many other are the twists of his defence. The poem is as lifelike in its insight into the mind of a supple cheat as it is a brilliant bit of literature; but Browning leaves the matter unconcluded, as he would not have done, I hold, had he been writing poetry. Prince Hohenstiel's defence of expediency in politics is made by Browning to seem now right, now wrong, because he assumes at one time what is true as the ground of his argument, and then at another what is plainly false, and in neither case do the assumptions support the arguments. What really is concluded is not the question, but the slipperiness of the man who argues. And at the end of the poem Browning comes in again to say that words cannot be trusted to hit truth. Language is inadequate to express it. Browning was fond of saying this. It does not seem worth saying. In one sense it is a truism; in another it resembles nonsense. Words are the only way by which we can express truth, or our nearest approach to what we think it is. At any rate, silence, in spite of Maeterlinck, does not express it. Moreover, with regard to the matter in hand, Browning knew well enough how a poet would decide the question of expediency he has here brought into debate. He has decided it elsewhere; but here he chooses not to take that view, that he may have the fun of exercising his clever brain. There is no reason why he should not entertain himself and us in this way; but folk need not call this intellectual jumping to and fro a poem, or try to induce us to believe that it is the work of art.
When he had finished these products of a time when he was intoxicated with his intellect, and of course somewhat proud of it, the poet in him began to revive. This resurrection had begun in Fifine at the Fair. I have said it would not be just to class this poem with the other three. It has many an oasis of poetry where it is a happiness to rest. But the way between their palms and wells is somewhat dreary walking, except to those who adore minute psychology. The poem is pitilessly long. If throughout its length it were easy to follow we might excuse the length, but it is rendered difficult by the incessant interchange of misty personalities represented by one personality. Elvire, Fifine only exist in the mind of Don Juan; their thoughts are only expressed in his words; their outlines not only continually fade into his, but his thought steals into his presentation of their thought, till it becomes impossible to individualise them. The form in which Browning wrote the poem, by which he made Don Juan speak for them, makes this want of clearness and sharpness inevitable. The work is done with a terrible cleverness, but it is wearisome at the last.
The length also might be excused if the subject were a great one or had important issues for mankind. But, though it has its interest and is human enough, it does not deserve so many thousand lines nor so much elaborate analysis. A few lyrics or a drama of two acts might say all that is worth saying on the matter. What Browning has taken for subject is an every-day occurrence. We are grateful to him for writing on so universal a matter, even though it is unimportant; and he has tried to make it uncommon and important by weaving round it an intricate lace-work of psychology; yet, when we get down to its main lines, it is the ordinary event, especially commonplace in any idle society which clings to outward respectability and is dreadfully wearied of it. Our neighbours across the Channel call it La Crise when, after years of a quiet, not unhappy, excellent married existence, day succeeding day in unbroken continuity of easy affection and limited experience, the man or the woman, in full middle life, suddenly wearies of the apparent monotony, the uneventful love, the slow encroaching tide of the commonplace, and looks on these as fetters on their freedom, as walls which shut them in from the vivid interests of the outside world, from the gipsy roving of the passions. The time arrives, when this becomes, they think, too great for endurance, and their impatience shows itself in a daily irritability quite new in the household, apparently causeless, full of sudden, inexplicable turns of thought and act which turn the peaceful into a tempestuous home. It is not that the husband or the wife are inconstant by nature—to call Fifine at the Fair a defence of inconstancy is to lose the truth of the matter—but it is the desire of momentary change, of a life set free from conventional barriers, of an outburst into the unknown, of the desire for new experiences, for something which will bring into play those parts of their nature of which they are vaguely conscious but which are as yet unused—new elements in their senses, intellect, imagination, even in their spirit, but not always in their conscience. That, for the time being, as in this poem, is often shut up in the cellar, where its voice cannot be heard.
This is, as I said, a crisis of common occurrence. It may be rightly directed, its evil controlled, and a noble object chosen for the satisfaction of the impulse. Here, that is not the case; and Browning describes its beginning with great freshness and force as Juan walks down to the fair with Elvire. Nor has he omitted to treat other forms of it in his poetry. He knew how usual it was, but he has here made it unusual by putting it into the heart of a man who, before he yielded to it, was pleased to make it the subject of a wandering metaphysical analysis; who sees not only how it appears to himself in three or four moods, but how it looks to the weary, half-jealous wife to whom he is so rude while he strives to be courteous, and to the bold, free, conscienceless child of nature whose favour he buys, and with whom, after all his barren metaphysics, he departs, only to attain, when his brief spell of foolish freedom is over, loneliness and cynic satiety. It may amuse us to circle with him through his arguments, though every one knows he will yield at last and that yielding is more honest than his talk; but what we ask is—Was the matter worth the trouble of more than two thousand lines of long-winded verse? Was it worth an artist's devotion? or, to ask a question I would not ask if the poem were good art, is it of any real importance to mankind? Is it, finally, anything more than an intellectual exercise of Browning on which solitary psychologists may, in their turn, employ their neat intelligence? This poem, with the exceptions of some episodes of noble poetry, is, as well as the three others, a very harlequinade of the intellect.
I may say, though this is hypercritical, that the name of Don Juan is a mistake. Every one knows Don Juan, and to imagine him arguing in the fashion of this poem is absurd. He would instantly, without a word, have left Elvire, and abandoned Fifine in a few days. The connection then of the long discussions in the poem with his name throws an air of unreality over the whole of it. The Don Juan of the poem had much better have stayed with Elvire, who endured him with weary patience. I have no doubt that he bored Fifine to extinction.
The poems that follow these four volumes are mixed work, half imaginative, half intellectual. Sometimes both kinds are found, separated, in the same poem; sometimes in one volume half the poems will be imaginative and the other half not. Could the imaginative and intellectual elements have now been fused as they were in his earlier work, it were well; but they were not. They worked apart. His witful poems are all wit, his analytical poems are all analysis, and his imaginative poems, owing to this want of fusion, have not the same intellectual strength they had in other days. Numpholeptos, for instance, an imaginative poem, full too of refined and fanciful emotion, is curiously wanting in intellectual foundation.
The Numpholeptos is in the volume entitled Pacchiarotto, and how he worked in Distemper. Part of the poems in it are humorous, such as Pacchiarotto and Filippo Baldinucci, excellent pieces of agreeable wit, containing excellent advice concerning life. One reads them, is amused by them, and rarely desires to read them again. In the same volume there are some severe pieces, sharply ridiculing his critics. In the old days, when he wrote fine imaginative poetry, out of his heart and brain working together, he did not mind what the critics said, and only flashed a scoff or two at them in his creation of Naddo in Sordello. But now when he wrote a great deal of his poetry out of his brain alone, he became sensitive to criticism. For that sort of poetry does not rest on the sure foundation which is given by the consciousness the imagination has of its absolute rightness. He expresses his needless soreness with plenty of wit in Pacchiarotto and in the Epilogue, criticises his critics, and displays his good opinion of his work—no doubt of these later poems, like The Inn Album and the rest—with a little too much of self-congratulation. "The poets pour us wine," he says, "and mine is strong—the strong wine of the loves and hates and thoughts of man. But it is not sweet as well, and my critics object. Were it so, it would be more popular than it is. Sweetness and strength do not go together, and I have strength."
But that is not the real question. The question is—Is the strength poetical? Has it imagination? It is rough, powerful, full of humanity, and that is well. But is it half prose, or wholly prose? Or is it poetry, or fit to be called so? He thinks that Prince Hohenstiel, or Red Cotton Nightcap Country, are poetry. They are, it is true, strong; and they are not sweet. But have they the strength of poetry in them, and not the strength of something else altogether? That is the question he ought to have answered, and it does not occur to him.
Yet, he was, in this very book, half-way out of this muddle. There are poems in it, just as strong as The Inn Album, but with the ineffable spirit of imaginative emotion and thought clasped together in them, so that the strong is stronger, and the humanity deeper than in the pieces he thought, being deceived by the Understanding, were more strong than the poems of old. In Bifurcation, in St. Martin's Summer, the diviner spirit breathes. There is that other poem called Forgiveness of which I have already spoken—one of his masterpieces. Cenciaja, which may be classed with Forgiveness as a study of the passion of hatred, is not so good as its comrade, but its hatred is shown in a mean character and for a meaner motive. And the Prologue, in its rhythm and pleasure, its subtlety of thought, its depth of feeling, and its close union of both, recalls his earlier genius.
The first of the Pisgah Sights is a jewel. It is like a poem by Goethe, only Goethe would have seen the "sight" not when he was dying, but when he was alive to his finger-tips. The second is not like Goethe's work, nor Browning's; but it is a true picture of what many feel and are. So is Fears and Scruples. As to Natural Magic, surely it is the most charming of compliments, most enchantingly expressed.
The next volume of original poems was La Saisiaz and the Two Poets of Croisic. The Croisic Poets are agreeable studies, written with verve and lucidity, of two fantastic events which lifted these commonplace poets suddenly into fame. They do well to amuse an idle hour. The end of both is interesting. That of the first, which begins with stanza lix., discusses the question: "Who cares, how such a mediocrity as Rene lived after the fame of his prophecy died out?" And Browning answers—
Well, I care—intimately care to have Experience how a human creature felt In after life, who bore the burthen grave Of certainly believing God had dealt For once directly with him: did not rave —A maniac, did not find his reason melt —An idiot, but went on, in peace or strife, The world's way, lived an ordinary life.
The solution Browning offers is interesting, because it recalls a part of the experiences of Lazarus in the Epistle to Karshish. Rene, like Lazarus, but only for a moment, has lived in the eternal.
Are such revelations possible, is his second question. Yes, he answers; and the form of the answer belongs to the theory of life laid down in Paracelsus. Such sudden openings of the greater world are at intervals, as to Abt Vogler, given by God to men.
The end of the second asks what is the true test of the greater poet, when people take on them to weigh the worth of poets—who was better, best, this, that or the other bard? When I read this I trembled, knowing that I had compared him with Tennyson. But when I heard the answer I trembled no more. "The best poet of any two is the one who leads the happier life. The strong and joyful poet is the greater." But this is a test of the greatness of a man, not necessarily of a poet. And, moreover, in this case, Tennyson and Browning both lived equally happy lives. Both were strong to the end, and imaginative joy was their companion. But the verse in which Browning winds up his answer is one of the finest in his poetry.
So, force is sorrow, and each sorrow, force; What then? since Swiftness gives the charioteer The palm, his hope be in the vivid horse Whose neck God clothed with thunder, not the steer Sluggish and safe! Yoke Hatred, Crime, Remorse, Despair; but ever mid the whirling fear, Let, through the tumult, break the poet's face Radiant, assured his wild slaves win the race!
La Saisiaz is a more important poem: it describes the sudden death of his friend, Ann Egerton Smith, and passes from that, and all he felt concerning it, into an argument on the future life of the soul, with the assumption that God is, and the soul. The argument is interesting, but does not concern us here. What does concern us is that Browning has largely recovered his poetical way of treating a subject. He is no longer outside of it, but in it. He does not use it as a means of exercising his brains only. It is steeped in true and vital feeling, and the deep friendship he had for his friend fills even the theological argument with a passionate intensity. Nevertheless, the argument is perilously near the work of the understanding alone—as if a question like that of immortality could receive any solution from the hands of the understanding. Only each man, in the recesses of his own spirit with God, can solve that question for himself, and not for another. That is Browning's position when he writes as a poet, and no one has written more positively on the subject. But when he submits the question to reasoning, he wavers, as he does here, and leaves the question more undecided than anywhere else in his work. This is a pity, but it is the natural penalty of his partial abandonment of the poetic for the prosaic realm, of the imagination for the understanding, of the Reason for reasoning.
 Rene Gentilhomme, page to Prince Conde, heir of France since Louis XIII. and his brother Gaston were childless, is surprised, while writing a love poem, by a lightning flash which shatters a marble ducal crown. He thinks this a revelation from God, and he prophecies that a Dauphin will be born to the childless Queen. The Dauphin was born, and Rene pushed suddenly into fame.
* * * * *
THE LAST POEMS
Two Volumes of Dramatic Idyls, one in 1879, the other in 1880, followed La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic. These are also mixed books, composed, partly of studies of character written in rhythmical prose, and partly of poems wrought out of the pure imagination. Three of them—if they were written at this time—show how the Greek legends still dwelt with Browning; and they brought with them the ocean-scent, heroic life, and mythical charm of Athenian thought. It would be difficult, if one could write of them at all, not to write of them poetically; and Pheidippides, Echetlos, Pan and Luna are alive with force, imaginative joy, and the victorious sense the poet has of having conquered his material. Pheidippides is as full of fire, of careless heroism as Herve Riel, and told in as ringing verse. The versing of Echetlos, its rugged, rousing sound, its movement, are in most excellent harmony with the image of the rude, giant "Holder of the ploughshare," who at Marathon drove his furrows through the Persians and rooted up the Mede. Browning has gathered into one picture and one sound the whole spirit of the story. Pan and Luna is a bold re-rendering of the myth that Vergil enshrines, and the greater part of it is of such poetic freshness that I think it must be a waif from the earlier years of his poetry. Nor is there better imaginative work in his descriptive poetry than the image of the naked moon, in virginal distress, flying for refuge through the gazing heaven to the succourable cloud—fleece on fleece of piled-up snow, drowsily patient—where Pan lay in ambush for her beauty.
Among these more gracious idyls, one of singular rough power tells the ghastly tale of the mother who gave up her little children to the wolves to save herself. Browning liked this poem, and the end he added to the story—how the carpenter, Ivan, when the poor frightened woman confessed, lifted his axe and cut off her head; how he knew that he did right, and was held to have done right by the village and its pope. The sin by which a mother sacrificed the lives of her children to save her own was out of nature: the punishment should be outside of ordinary law. It is a piteous tale, and few things in Browning equal the horror of the mother's vain attempt to hide her crime while she confesses it. Nor does he often show greater imaginative skill in metrical movement than when he describes in galloping and pattering verse the grey pack emerging from the forest, their wild race for the sledge, and their demon leader.
The other idyls in these two volumes are full of interest for those who care for psychological studies expressed in verse. What the vehicle of verse does for them is to secure conciseness and suggestiveness in the rendering of remote, daring, and unexpected turns of thought and feeling, and especially of conscience. Yet the poems themselves cannot be called concise. Their subjects are not large enough, nor indeed agreeable enough, to excuse their length. Goethe would have put them into a short lyrical form. It is impossible not to regret, as we read them, the Browning of the Dramatic Lyrics. Moreover, some of them are needlessly ugly. Halbert and Hob—and in Jocoseria—Donald, are hateful subjects, and their treatment does not redeem them; unlike the treatment of Ivan Ivanovitch which does lift the pain of the story into the high realms of pity and justice. Death, swift death, was not only the right judgment, but also the most pitiful. Had the mother lived, an hour's memory would have been intolerable torture. Nevertheless, if Browning, in his desire to represent the whole of humanity, chose to treat these lower forms of human nature, I suppose we must accept them as an integral part of his work; and, at least, there can be no doubt of their ability, and of the brilliancy of their psychological surprises. Ned Bratts is a monument of cleverness, as well as of fine characterisation of a momentary outburst of conscience in a man who had none before; and who would have lost it in an hour, had he not been hanged on the spot. The quick, agile, unpremeditated turns of wit in this poem, as in some of the others, are admirably easy, and happily expressed. Indeed, in these later poems of character and event, ingenuity or nimbleness of intellect is the chief element, and it is accompanied by a facile power which is sometimes rude, often careless, always inventive, fully fantastical, and rarely imaginative in the highest sense of the word. Moreover, as was not the case of old, they have, beyond the story, a direct teaching aim, which, while it lowers them as art, is very agreeable to the ethical psychologist.
Jocoseria has poems of a higher quality, some of which, like the lovely Never the Time and Place, I have been already quoted. Ixion is too obscurely put to attain its end with the general public. But it may be recommended, though vainly, to those theologians who, hungry for the Divine Right of torture, build their God, like Caliban, out of their own minds; who, foolish enough to believe that the everlasting endurance of evil is a necessary guarantee of the everlasting endurance of good, are still bold and bad enough to proclaim the abominable lie of eternal punishment. They need that spirit the little child whom Christ placed in the midst of his disciples; and in gaining which, after living the life of the lover, the warrior, the poet, the statesman, Jochanan Hakkadosh found absolute peace and joy. Few poems contain more of Browning's matured theory of life than this of the Jewish Rabbi; and its seriousness is happily mingled with imaginative illustrations and with racy wit. The sketch of Tsaddik, who puts us in mind of Wagner in the Faust, is done with a sarcastic joy in exposing the Philistine, and with a delight in its own cleverness which is fascinating.
Ferishtah's Fancies and Parleyings with Certain People followed Jocoseria in 1884 and 1887. The first of these books is much the better of the two. A certain touch of romance is given by the Dervish, by the Fables with which he illustrates his teaching, and by the Eastern surroundings. Some of the stories are well told, and their scenery is truthfully wrought and in good colour. The subjects are partly theological, with always a reference to human life; and partly of the affections and their working. It is natural to a poet, and delightful in Browning, to find him in his old age dwelling from poem to poem on the pre-eminence of love, on love as the ultimate judge of all questions. He asserts this again and again; with the greatest force in A Pillar at Sebzevar, and, more lightly, in Cherries. Yet, and this is a pity, he is not satisfied with the decision of love, but spends pages in argumentative discussions which lead him away from that poetical treatment of the subjects which love alone, as the master, would have enabled him to give. However, the treatment that love gives we find in the lyrics at the end of each Fancy; and some of these lyrics are of such delicate and subtle beauty that I am tempted to think that they were written at an earlier period, and their Fancies composed to fit them. If they were written now, it is plain that age had not disenabled him from walking with pleasure and power among those sweet, enamelled meadows of poetry in whose soil he now thought great poetry did not grow. And when we read the lyrics, our regret is all the more deep that he chose the thorn-clad and desert lands, where barren argument goes round and round its subjects without ever finding the true path to their centre.
He lost himself more completely in this error in Parleyings with Certain People, in which book, with the exception of the visionary landscapes in Gerard de Lairesse, and some few passages in Francis Furini and Charles Avison, imagination, such as belongs to a poet, has deserted Browning. He feels himself as if this might be said of him; and he asks in Gerard de Lairesse if he has lost the poetic touch, the poetic spirit, because he writes of the soul, of facts, of things invisible—not of fancy's feignings, not of the things perceived by the senses? "I can do this," he answers, "if I like, as well as you," and he paints the landscape of a whole day filled with mythological figures. The passage is poetry; we see that he has not lost his poetic genius. But, he calls it "fooling," and then contrasts the spirit of Greek lore with the spirit of immortal hope and cheer which he possesses, with his faith that there is for man a certainty of Spring. But that is not the answer to his question. It only says that the spirit which animates him now is higher than the Greek spirit. It does not answer the question—Whether Daniel Bartoli or Charles Avison or any of these Parleyings even approach as poetry Paracelsus, the Dramatic Lyrics, or Men and Women. They do not. Nor has their intellectual work the same force, unexpectedness and certainty it had of old. Nevertheless, these Parleyings, at the close of the poet's life, and with biographical touches which give them vitality, enshrine Browning's convictions with regard to some of the greater and lesser problems of human life. And when his personality is vividly present in them, the argument, being thrilled with passionate feeling, rises, but heavily like a wounded eagle, into an imaginative world.
The sub-consciousness in Browning's mind to which I have alluded—that these later productions of his were not as poetical as his earlier work and needed defence—is the real subject of a remarkable little poem at the end of the second volume of the Dramatic Idyls. He is thinking of himself as poet, perhaps of that double nature in him which on one side was quick to see and love beauty; and on the other, to see facts and love their strength. Sometimes the sensitive predominated. He was only the lover of beauty whom everything that touched him urged into song.
"Touch him ne'er so lightly, into song he broke: Soil so quick-receptive,—not one feather-seed, Not one flower-dust fell but straight its fall awoke Vitalising virtue: song would song succeed Sudden as spontaneous—prove a poet-soul!"
This, which Browning puts on the lips of another, is not meant, we are told, to describe himself. But it does describe one side of him very well, and the origin and conduct of a number of his earlier poems. But now, having changed his manner, even the principles of his poetry, he describes himself as different from that—as a sterner, more iron poet, and the work he now does as more likely to endure, and be a power in the world of men. He was curiously mistaken.
Indeed, he cries, is that the soil in which a poet grows?
"Rock's the song-soil rather, surface hard and bare: Sun and dew their mildness, storm and frost their rage Vainly both expend,—few flowers awaken there: Quiet in its cleft broods—what the after-age Knows and names a pine, a nation's heritage."
In this sharp division, as in his Epilogue to Pacchiarotto, he misses the truth. It is almost needless to say that a poet can be sensitive to beauty, and also to the stern facts of the moral and spiritual struggle of mankind through evil to good. All the great poets have been sensitive to both and mingled them in their work. They were ideal and real in both the flower and the pine. They are never forced to choose one or other of these aims or lives in their poetry. They mingled facts and fancies, the intellectual and the imaginative. They lived in the whole world of the outward and the inward, of the senses and the soul. Truth and beauty were one to them. This division of which Browning speaks Was the unfortunate result of that struggle between his intellect and his imagination on which I have dwelt. In old days it was not so with him. His early poetry had sweetness with strength, stern thinking with tender emotion, love of beauty with love of truth, idealism with realism, nature with humanity, fancy with fact. And this is the equipment of the great poet. When he divides these qualities each from the other, and is only aesthetic or only severe in his realism; only the worshipper of Nature or only the worshipper of human nature; only the poet of beauty or only the poet of austere fact; only the idealist or only the realist; only of the senses or only of the soul—he may be a poet, but not a great poet. And as the singular pursuit of the realistic is almost always bound up with pride, because realism does not carry us beyond ourselves into the infinite where we are humbled, the realistic poetry loses imagination; its love of love tends to become self-love, or love of mere cleverness. And then its poetic elements slowly die.
There was that, as I have said, in Browning which resisted this sad conclusion, but the resistance was not enough to prevent a great loss of poetic power. But whatever he lost, there was one poetic temper of mind which never failed him, the heroic temper of the faithful warrior for God and man; there was one ideal view of humanity which dominated all his work; there was one principle which directed all his verse to celebrate the struggle of humanity towards the perfection for which God, he believed, had destined it. These things underlie all the poems in Ferishtah's Fancies and the Parleyings with Certain People, and give to them the uplifted, noble trumpet note with which at times they are animated. The same temper and principle, the same view of humanity emerge in that fine lyric which is the Epilogue to Ferishtah's Fancies, and in the Epilogue to Asolando.
The first sees a vision of the present and the future in which all the battle of our life passes into a glorious end; nor does the momentary doubt that occurs at the close of the poem—that his belief in a divine conclusion of our strife may only have been caused by his own happiness in love—really trouble his conviction. That love itself is part of the power which makes the noble conclusion sure. The certainty of this conclusion made his courage in the fight unwavering, despair impossible, joy in battle, duty; and to be "ever a fighter" in the foremost rank the highest privilege of man.
Then the cloud-rift broadens, spanning earth that's under, Wide our world displays its worth, man's strife and strife's success: All the good and beauty, wonder crowning wonder, Till my heart and soul applaud perfection, nothing less.
And for that reason, because of the perfectness to come, Browning lived every hour of his life for good and against wrong. He said with justice of himself, and with justice he brought the ideal aim and the real effort together:
I looked beyond the world for truth and beauty: Sought, found, and did my duty.
Nor, almost in the very grasp of death, did this faith fail him. He kept, in the midst of a fretful, slothful, wailing world, where prophets like Carlyle and Ruskin were as impatient and bewildered, as lamenting and despondent, as the decadents they despised, the temper of his Herakles in Balaustion. He left us that temper as his last legacy, and he could not have left us a better thing. We may hear it in his last poem, and bind it about our hearts in sorrow and joy, in battle and peace, in the hour of death and the days of judgment.
At the midnight in the silence of the sleep-time When you set your fancies free, Will they pass to where—by death, fools think, imprisoned— Low he lies who once so loved you, whom you loved so —Pity me?
Oh to love so, be so loved, yet so mistaken What had I on earth to do With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly? Like the aimless, helpless, hopeless, did I drivel —Being—who?
One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward, Never doubted clouds would break, Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph, Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep to wake.
No, at noonday in the bustle of man's work-time Greet the unseen with a cheer! Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be, "Strive and thrive!" cry "Speed,—fight on, fare ever There as here!"
With these high words he ended a long life, and his memory still falls upon us, like the dew which fell on Paradise. It was a life lived fully, kindly, lovingly, at its just height from the beginning to the end. No fear, no vanity, no lack of interest, no complaint of the world, no anger at criticism, no villain fancies disturbed his soul. No laziness, no feebleness in effort, injured his work, no desire for money, no faltering of aspiration, no pandering of his gift and genius to please the world, no surrender of art for the sake of fame or filthy lucre, no falseness to his ideal, no base pessimism, no slavery to science yet no boastful ignorance of its good, no morbid naturalism, no devotion to the false forms of beauty, no despair of man, no retreat from men into a world of sickly or vain beauty, no abandonment of the great ideas or disbelief in their mastery, no enfeeblement of reason such as at this time walks hand in hand with the worship of the mere discursive intellect, no lack of joy and healthy vigour and keen inquiry and passionate interest in humanity. Scarcely any special bias can be found running through his work; on the contrary, an incessant change of subject and manner, combined with a strong but not overweening individuality, raced, like blood through the body, through every vein of his labour. Creative and therefore joyful, receptive and therefore thoughtful, at one with humanity and therefore loving; aspiring to God and believing in God, and therefore steeped to the lips in radiant Hope; at one with the past, passionate with the present, and possessing by faith an endless and glorious future—this was a life lived on the top of the wave, and moving with its motion from youth to manhood, from manhood to old age.
There is no need to mourn for his departure. Nothing feeble has been done, nothing which lowers the note of his life, nothing we can regret as less than his native strength. His last poem was like the last look of the Phoenix to the sun before the sunlight lights the odorous pyre from which the new-created Bird will spring. And as if the Muse of Poetry wished to adorn the image of his death, he passed away amid a world of beauty, and in the midst of a world endeared to him by love. Italy was his second country. In Florence lies the wife of his heart. In every city he had friends, friends not only among men and women, but friends in every ancient wall, in every fold of Apennine and Alp, in every breaking of the blue sea, in every forest of pines, in every Church and Palace and Town Hall, in every painting that great art had wrought, in every storied market place, in every great life which had adorned, honoured and made romantic Italy; the great mother of Beauty, at whose breasts have hung and whose milk have sucked all the arts and all the literatures of modern Europe. Venice saw and mourned his death. The sea and sky and mountain glory of the city he loved so well encompassed him with her beauty; and their soft graciousness, their temperate power of joy and life made his departure peaceful. Strong and tender in life, his death added a new fairness to his life. Mankind is fortunate to have so noble a memory, so full and excellent a work to rest upon and love.
OF PASSAGES RELATING TO THE POEMS
Andre del Sarto (A. de Musset)
Art, Poems dealing with Romantic Revival in During the Renaissance
Art, Browning's Poetic, Compared with that of Tennyson Compared with that of Morris and Rossetti In Abt Vogler In the Grammarian's Funeral In the Ring and the Book
Art, Browning's Theory of, In Andrea del Sarto In Pippa Passes In Sordello
Aurora Leigh (E.B. Browning)
Balaustion's Adventures and Aristophanes' Apology, Character of the Heroine Contrast between Balaustion and Pompilia Balaustion's Prologue The Story of Alkestis Representation of Aristophanes
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Poems relating to
Browning— His relation to his Age His artistic Development His Art Poems His Minor Characters His Sense of Colour His Composition His Cosmopolitan Sympathies As a Dramatist As Poet of Humanity His Imagination The Influence of Shelley Intellectual Analysis His Love Poems His Lyrical Poems His Methods His Treatment of Nature His Obscurity His Originality His Treatment of the Renaissance Romantic and Classic Elements in His Spontaneity His Style Compared with Tennyson His Theory of Life His Wideness of Range His Wit and Humour
Cenci, The (Shelley)
Charles the First (Shelley)
Colour-sense in Browning
Cup, The (Tennyson)
Dramas, The Absence of Nature Pictures in Defects in Browning's Dramatic Treatment Dramas separately considered
Duchess of Malfi (Webster)
English Scenery in Browning
Falcon, The (Tennyson)
Form in Poetry
French Revolution, its Influence in England
Hand and Soul (Rossetti)
History, Imaginative Study of
Humanity, Browning's Treatment of
Imagination in Browning
Imaginative Representations Definition of Term Their Inception Theological Studies Renaissance Studies Poems on Modern Italy
In Memoriam (Tennyson)
Later Poems More intellectual than imaginative Subjects generally founded on Fact Show Sensitiveness to Criticism
Last Poems Psychological Studies in
Lotos-Eaters, The (Tennyson)
Love Poetry, What it is and when produced Rare in Browning
Love Poems, The Poems of Passion Poems to Elizabeth Barrett Browning Impersonal Poems Poems embodying Phases of Love
Lyrical Element in Browning
Mariana in the South (Tennyson)
Midsummer Night's Dream, A
Musset, Alfred de
Nature, Browning's Treatment of Separate from and subordinate to Man Joy in Nature God and Nature The Pathetic Fallacy Illustrations drawn from Nature Browning's view compared with that of other Poets His Treatment illustrated in Saul Faults in his Treatment Nature Pictures Later Indifference to Nature
New Age, The (Arnold)
Northern Farmer, The (Tennyson)
Palace of Art, The (Tennyson)
Paracelsus Nature-description in Theory of Life in Sketch of Argument
Passions, Poems of the Fiercer Poems of the Romantic
Pathetic Fallacy, The
Pauline Theory of Life in Nature-description in Mental Development of Hero Character of Pauline
Pippa Passes Nature-description in Theory of Art in Lyrics in Studies of Women in
Poems, Passages relating to, Abt Vogler Adam, Lilith and Eve After Andrea del Sarto Any Wife to any Husband Aristophanes' Apology Asolando Balaustion's Adventure Bean Stripe, A Before Bells and Pomegranates Bifurcation Bishop Blougram Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church, The Blot in the 'Scutcheon, A By the Fireside Caliban upon Setebos Cavalier Tunes Cenciaja Charles Avison Cherries Childe Ronald Christmas Eve Cleon Colombe's Birthday Confessions Count Gismond Cristina Cristina and Monaldeschi Daniel Bartoli Death in the Desert, A De Gustibus Dis Aliter Visum Donald Dramas, The Strafford King Victor and King Charles The Return of the Druses A Blot in the 'Scutcheon Colombe's Birthday Luria A Soul's Tragedy Pippa Passes Dramatic Idylls Dramatic Lyrics Dramatic Romances Dramatis Personae Easter Day Echetlos Englishman in Italy, The Epilogue to Asolando, in Epilogue to Ferishtah's Fancies Epilogue to Pacchiarotto Epistle of Karshish, An Evelyn Hope Fears and Scruples Ferishtah's Fancies Fifine at the Fair Filippo Baldinucci Flight of the Duchess, The Flower's Name, The Forgiveness, A Fra Lippo Lippi Francis Furini Gerard de Lairesse Glove, The Gold Hair Grammarian's Funeral, A Halbert and Hob Herve Riel Holy Cross Day Home Thoughts from Abroad Home Thoughts from the Sea How it strikes a Contemporary How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix In a Balcony In a Gondola Inn Album, The Instans Tyrannus In Three Days Italian in England, The Ivan Ivanovitch Ixion James Lee's Wife Jochanan Hakkadosh Jocoseria Johannes Agricola in Meditation King Victor and King Charles Laboratory, The Last Ride Together, The Light Woman, A Lost Mistress, The Love Among the Ruins Lovers' Quarrel, A Luria Meeting at Night—Parting at Morning Men and Women Mr. Sludge, the Medium My Last Duchess Natural Magic Natural Theology on the Island Ned Bratts Never the Time and the Place Now Numpholeptos Old Pictures in Florence One Word More Pacchiarotto Pacchiarotto Prologue to Pacchiarotto Epilogue to Pan and Luna Paracelsus Parleyings with Certain People Pauline Pearl—A Girl, A Pheidippides Pictor Ignotus Pied Piper of Hamelin, The Pillar at Sebzevar, A Pippa Passes Pisgah Sights Porphyria's Lover Pretty Woman, A Rabbi Ben Ezra Red Cotton Nightcap Country Return of the Druses, The Reverie Rudel and the Lady of Tripoli St. Martin's Summer Saisiaz, La Saul Serenade at the Villa, A Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, A Solomon and Balkis Sordello Soul's Tragedy, A Speculative Strafford Summum Bonum Time's Revenges Toccata of Galuppi's, A Too Late Transcendentalism Two in the Campagna Two Poets of Croisic Up in a Villa—Down in the City Waring Worst of it, The Youth and Art
Poet, Characteristics of a
Poetry Grounds of Judgment on Characteristics of Best Form in Matter in Thought and Emotion in
Portraiture, Browning's Power of Minute
Prelude, The (Wordsworth)
Princess, The (Tennyson)
Promise of May, The (Tennyson)
Purgatorio, The (Dante)
Queen Mary (Tennyson)
Realism in Browning
Religious Phases, Poems dealing with
Renaissance, Poems dealing with the
Revenge, The (Tennyson)
Ring and the Book, The Nature-description in Its Position among Browning's Works Its Plan Humour and Wit in Partly intellectual, partly imaginative Study of Renaissance in Scenery and human Background Browning's imaginative Method in Minor Characters in Principal Characters Guido Caponsacchi Pompilia The Pope The Conclusion
Robin Hood (Tennyson)
Romantic Spirit in Browning
St. Simeon Stylites (Tennyson)
Sir Galahad (Tennyson)
Sordello Landscape in The Temperament of the Hero His artistic Development The Argument Historical Background to the Story Nature Pictures Portraiture Illustrative Episodes Analogy between Sordello and Browning Theory of Art in Theory of Life in Character of the Heroine
Style in Browning
Tempest, The (Shakespeare)
Theory of Life, Browning's Its main Features In Pauline In Paracelsus In Easter Day In Abt Vogler In Andrea del Sarto In Old Pictures in Florence In Sordello
Vergil Vita Nuova, La (Dante)
Will Waterproof's Monologue (Tennyson)
Womanhood, Studies of In the Early Poems Pauline Lady Carlisle Palma In the Dramas, &c. Ottima Pippa Anael Mildred and Guendolen Colombe Constance In the Dramatic Lyrics Characteristics of Browning's Women Poems to Mrs. Browning Pompilia Balaustion
Womanhood in the Modern Poets