Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Robert Browning
Author: Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith), 1874-1936
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Robert Browning" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



         ROBERT BROWNING


               BY

         G.K. CHESTERTON



          CONTENTS

          CHAPTER I
BROWNING IN EARLY LIFE               1

          CHAPTER II
EARLY WORKS                         34

          CHAPTER III
BROWNING AND HIS MARRIAGE           55

          CHAPTER IV
BROWNING IN ITALY                   81

          CHAPTER V
BROWNING IN LATER LIFE             105

          CHAPTER VI
BROWNING AS A LITERARY ARTIST      133

          CHAPTER VII
"THE RING AND THE BOOK"            160

          CHAPTER VIII
THE PHILOSOPHY OF BROWNING         177

INDEX                              203



ROBERT BROWNING



CHAPTER I

BROWNING IN EARLY LIFE


On the subject of Browning's work innumerable things have been said
and remain to be said; of his life, considered as a narrative of
facts, there is little or nothing to say. It was a lucid and public
and yet quiet life, which culminated in one great dramatic test of
character, and then fell back again into this union of quietude and
publicity. And yet, in spite of this, it is a great deal more
difficult to speak finally about his life than about his work. His
work has the mystery which belongs to the complex; his life the much
greater mystery which belongs to the simple. He was clever enough to
understand his own poetry; and if he understood it, we can understand
it. But he was also entirely unconscious and impulsive, and he was
never clever enough to understand his own character; consequently we
may be excused if that part of him which was hidden from him is partly
hidden from us. The subtle man is always immeasurably easier to
understand than the natural man; for the subtle man keeps a diary of
his moods, he practises the art of self-analysis and self-revelation,
and can tell us how he came to feel this or to say that. But a man
like Browning knows no more about the state of his emotions than about
the state of his pulse; they are things greater than he, things
growing at will, like forces of Nature. There is an old anecdote,
probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to
Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and
received the following reply: "When that poem was written, two people
knew what it meant--God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows
what it means." This story gives, in all probability, an entirely
false impression of Browning's attitude towards his work. He was a
keen artist, a keen scholar, he could put his finger on anything, and
he had a memory like the British Museum Library. But the story does,
in all probability, give a tolerably accurate picture of Browning's
attitude towards his own emotions and his psychological type. If a man
had asked him what some particular allusion to a Persian hero meant he
could in all probability have quoted half the epic; if a man had asked
him which third cousin of Charlemagne was alluded to in _Sordello_, he
could have given an account of the man and an account of his father
and his grandfather. But if a man had asked him what he thought of
himself, or what were his emotions an hour before his wedding, he
would have replied with perfect sincerity that God alone knew.

This mystery of the unconscious man, far deeper than any mystery of
the conscious one, existing as it does in all men, existed peculiarly
in Browning, because he was a very ordinary and spontaneous man. The
same thing exists to some extent in all history and all affairs.
Anything that is deliberate, twisted, created as a trap and a
mystery, must be discovered at last; everything that is done naturally
remains mysterious. It may be difficult to discover the principles of
the Rosicrucians, but it is much easier to discover the principles of
the Rosicrucians than the principles of the United States: nor has any
secret society kept its aims so quiet as humanity. The way to be
inexplicable is to be chaotic, and on the surface this was the quality
of Browning's life; there is the same difference between judging of
his poetry and judging of his life, that there is between making a map
of a labyrinth and making a map of a mist. The discussion of what some
particular allusion in _Sordello_ means has gone on so far, and may go
on still, but it has it in its nature to end. The life of Robert
Browning, who combines the greatest brain with the most simple
temperament known in our annals, would go on for ever if we did not
decide to summarise it in a very brief and simple narrative.

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell on May 7th 1812. His father and
grandfather had been clerks in the Bank of England, and his whole
family would appear to have belonged to the solid and educated middle
class--the class which is interested in letters, but not ambitious in
them, the class to which poetry is a luxury, but not a necessity.

This actual quality and character of the Browning family shows some
tendency to be obscured by matters more remote. It is the custom of
all biographers to seek for the earliest traces of a family in distant
ages and even in distant lands; and Browning, as it happens, has given
them opportunities which tend to lead away the mind from the main
matter in hand. There is a tradition, for example, that men of his
name were prominent in the feudal ages; it is based upon little beyond
a coincidence of surnames and the fact that Browning used a seal with
a coat-of-arms. Thousands of middle-class men use such a seal, merely
because it is a curiosity or a legacy, without knowing or caring
anything about the condition of their ancestors in the Middle Ages.
Then, again, there is a theory that he was of Jewish blood; a view
which is perfectly conceivable, and which Browning would have been the
last to have thought derogatory, but for which, as a matter of fact,
there is exceedingly little evidence. The chief reason assigned by his
contemporaries for the belief was the fact that he was, without doubt,
specially and profoundly interested in Jewish matters. This
suggestion, worthless in any case, would, if anything, tell the other
way. For while an Englishman may be enthusiastic about England, or
indignant against England, it never occurred to any living Englishman
to be interested in England. Browning was, like every other
intelligent Aryan, interested in the Jews; but if he was related to
every people in which he was interested, he must have been of
extraordinarily mixed extraction. Thirdly, there is the yet more
sensational theory that there was in Robert Browning a strain of the
negro. The supporters of this hypothesis seem to have little in
reality to say, except that Browning's grandmother was certainly a
Creole. It is said in support of the view that Browning was singularly
dark in early life, and was often mistaken for an Italian. There does
not, however, seem to be anything particular to be deduced from this,
except that if he looked like an Italian, he must have looked
exceedingly unlike a negro.

There is nothing valid against any of these three theories, just as
there is nothing valid in their favour; they may, any or all of them,
be true, but they are still irrelevant. They are something that is in
history or biography a great deal worse than being false--they are
misleading. We do not want to know about a man like Browning, whether
he had a right to a shield used in the Wars of the Roses, or whether
the tenth grandfather of his Creole grandmother had been white or
black: we want to know something about his family, which is quite a
different thing. We wish to have about Browning not so much the kind
of information which would satisfy Clarencieux King-at-Arms, but the
sort of information which would satisfy us, if we were advertising for
a very confidential secretary, or a very private tutor. We should not
be concerned as to whether the tutor were descended from an Irish
king, but we should still be really concerned about his extraction,
about what manner of people his had been for the last two or three
generations. This is the most practical duty of biography, and this is
also the most difficult. It is a great deal easier to hunt a family
from tombstone to tombstone back to the time of Henry II. than to
catch and realise and put upon paper that most nameless and elusive of
all things--social tone.

It will be said immediately, and must as promptly be admitted, that we
could find a biographical significance in any of these theories if we
looked for it. But it is, indeed, the sin and snare of biographers
that they tend to see significance in everything; characteristic
carelessness if their hero drops his pipe, and characteristic
carefulness if he picks it up again. It is true, assuredly, that all
the three races above named could be connected with Browning's
personality. If we believed, for instance, that he really came of a
race of mediæval barons, we should say at once that from them he got
his pre-eminent spirit of battle: we should be right, for every line
in his stubborn soul and his erect body did really express the
fighter; he was always contending, whether it was with a German theory
about the Gnostics, or with a stranger who elbowed his wife in a
crowd. Again, if we had decided that he was a Jew, we should point out
how absorbed he was in the terrible simplicity of monotheism: we
should be right, for he was so absorbed. Or again, in the case even of
the negro fancy; it would not be difficult for us to suggest a love of
colour, a certain mental gaudiness, a pleasure

      "When reds and blues were indeed red and blue,"

as he says in _The Ring and the Book_. We should be right; for there
really was in Browning a tropical violence of taste, an artistic
scheme compounded as it were, of orchids and cockatoos, which, amid
our cold English poets, seems scarcely European. All this is extremely
fascinating; and it may be true. But, as has above been suggested,
here comes in the great temptation of this kind of work, the noble
temptation to see too much in everything. The biographer can easily
see a personal significance in these three hypothetical nationalities.
But is there in the world a biographer who could lay his hand upon his
heart and say that he would not have seen as much significance in any
three other nationalities? If Browning's ancestors had been Frenchmen,
should we not have said that it was from them doubtless that he
inherited that logical agility which marks him among English poets?
If his grandfather had been a Swede, should we not have said that the
old sea-roving blood broke out in bold speculation and insatiable
travel? If his great-aunt had been a Red Indian, should we not have
said that only in the Ojibways and the Blackfeet do we find the
Browning fantasticality combined with the Browning stoicism? This
over-readiness to seize hints is an inevitable part of that secret
hero-worship which is the heart of biography. The lover of great men
sees signs of them long before they begin to appear on the earth, and,
like some old mythological chronicler, claims as their heralds the
storms and the falling stars.

A certain indulgence must therefore be extended to the present writer
if he declines to follow that admirable veteran of Browning study, Dr.
Furnivall, into the prodigious investigations which he has been
conducting into the condition of the Browning family since the
beginning of the world. For his last discovery, the descent of
Browning from a footman in the service of a country magnate, there
seems to be suggestive, though not decisive evidence. But Browning's
descent from barons, or Jews, or lackeys, or black men, is not the
main point touching his family. If the Brownings were of mixed origin,
they were so much the more like the great majority of English
middle-class people. It is curious that the romance of race should be
spoken of as if it were a thing peculiarly aristocratic; that
admiration for rank, or interest in family, should mean only interest
in one not very interesting type of rank and family. The truth is that
aristocrats exhibit less of the romance of pedigree than any other
people in the world. For since it is their principle to marry only
within their own class and mode of life, there is no opportunity in
their case for any of the more interesting studies in heredity; they
exhibit almost the unbroken uniformity of the lower animals. It is in
the middle classes that we find the poetry of genealogy; it is the
suburban grocer standing at his shop door whom some wild dash of
Eastern or Celtic blood may drive suddenly to a whole holiday or a
crime. Let us admit then, that it is true that these legends of the
Browning family have every abstract possibility. But it is a far more
cogent and apposite truth that if a man had knocked at the door of
every house in the street where Browning was born, he would have found
similar legends in all of them. There is hardly a family in Camberwell
that has not a story or two about foreign marriages a few generations
back; and in all this the Brownings are simply a typical Camberwell
family. The real truth about Browning and men like him can scarcely be
better expressed than in the words of that very wise and witty story,
Kingsley's _Water Babies_, in which the pedigree of the Professor is
treated in a manner which is an excellent example of the wild common
sense of the book. "His mother was a Dutch woman, and therefore she
was born at Curaçoa (of course, you have read your geography and
therefore know why), and his father was a Pole, and therefore he was
brought up at Petropaulowski (of course, you have learnt your modern
politics, and therefore know why), but for all that he was as thorough
an Englishman as ever coveted his neighbour's goods."

It may be well therefore to abandon the task of obtaining a clear
account of Brownings family, and endeavour to obtain, what is much
more important, a clear account of his home. For the great central
and solid fact, which these heraldic speculations tend inevitably to
veil and confuse, is that Browning was a thoroughly typical Englishman
of the middle class. He may have had alien blood, and that alien
blood, by the paradox we have observed, may have made him more
characteristically a native. A phase, a fancy, a metaphor may or may
not have been born of eastern or southern elements, but he was,
without any question at all, an Englishman of the middle class.
Neither all his liberality nor all his learning ever made him anything
but an Englishman of the middle class. He expanded his intellectual
tolerance until it included the anarchism of _Fifine at the Fair_ and
the blasphemous theology of Caliban; but he remained himself an
Englishman of the middle class. He pictured all the passions of the
earth since the Fall, from the devouring amorousness of _Time's
Revenges_ to the despotic fantasy of _Instans Tyrannus_; but he
remained himself an Englishman of the middle class. The moment that he
came in contact with anything that was slovenly, anything that was
lawless, in actual life, something rose up in him, older than any
opinions, the blood of generations of good men. He met George Sand and
her poetical circle and hated it, with all the hatred of an old city
merchant for the irresponsible life. He met the Spiritualists and
hated them, with all the hatred of the middle class for borderlands
and equivocal positions and playing with fire. His intellect went upon
bewildering voyages, but his soul walked in a straight road. He piled
up the fantastic towers of his imagination until they eclipsed the
planets; but the plan of the foundation on which he built was always
the plan of an honest English house in Camberwell. He abandoned, with
a ceaseless intellectual ambition, every one of the convictions of his
class; but he carried its prejudices into eternity.

It is then of Browning as a member of the middle class, that we can
speak with the greatest historical certainty; and it is his immediate
forebears who present the real interest to us. His father, Robert
Browning, was a man of great delicacy of taste, and to all appearance
of an almost exaggerated delicacy of conscience. Every glimpse we have
of him suggests that earnest and almost worried kindliness which is
the mark of those to whom selfishness, even justifiable selfishness,
is really a thing difficult or impossible. In early life Robert
Browning senior was placed by his father (who was apparently a father
of a somewhat primitive, not to say barbaric, type) in an important
commercial position in the West Indies. He threw up the position
however, because it involved him in some recognition of slavery.
Whereupon his unique parent, in a transport of rage, not only
disinherited him and flung him out of doors, but by a superb stroke of
humour, which stands alone in the records of parental ingenuity, sent
him in a bill for the cost of his education. About the same time that
he was suffering for his moral sensibility he was also disturbed about
religious matters, and he completed his severance from his father by
joining a dissenting sect. He was, in short, a very typical example of
the serious middle-class man of the Wilberforce period, a man to whom
duty was all in all, and who would revolutionise an empire or a
continent for the satisfaction of a single moral scruple. Thus, while
he was Puritan at the core, not the ruthless Puritan of the
seventeenth, but the humanitarian Puritan of the eighteenth century,
he had upon the surface all the tastes and graces of a man of culture.
Numerous accomplishments of the lighter kind, such as drawing and
painting in water colours, he possessed; and his feeling for many
kinds of literature was fastidious and exact. But the whole was
absolutely redolent of the polite severity of the eighteenth century.
He lamented his son's early admiration for Byron, and never ceased
adjuring him to model himself upon Pope.

He was, in short, one of the old-fashioned humanitarians of the
eighteenth century, a class which we may or may not have conquered in
moral theory, but which we most certainly have not conquered in moral
practice. Robert Browning senior destroyed all his fortunes in order
to protest against black slavery; white slavery may be, as later
economists tell us, a thing infinitely worse, but not many men destroy
their fortunes in order to protest against it. The ideals of the men
of that period appear to us very unattractive; to them duty was a kind
of chilly sentiment. But when we think what they did with those cold
ideals, we can scarcely feel so superior. They uprooted the enormous
Upas of slavery, the tree that was literally as old as the race of
man. They altered the whole face of Europe with their deductive
fancies. We have ideals that are really better, ideals of passion, of
mysticism, of a sense of the youth and adventurousness of the earth;
but it will be well for us if we achieve as much by our frenzy as they
did by their delicacies. It scarcely seems as if we were as robust in
our very robustness as they were robust in their sensibility.

Robert Browning's mother was the daughter of William Wiedermann, a
German merchant settled in Dundee, and married to a Scotch wife. One
of the poet's principal biographers has suggested that from this union
of the German and Scotch, Browning got his metaphysical tendency; it
is possible; but here again we must beware of the great biographical
danger of making mountains out of molehills. What Browning's mother
unquestionably did give to him, was in the way of training--a very
strong religious habit, and a great belief in manners. Thomas Carlyle
called her "the type of a Scottish gentlewoman," and the phrase has a
very real significance to those who realise the peculiar condition of
Scotland, one of the very few European countries where large sections
of the aristocracy are Puritans; thus a Scottish gentlewoman combines
two descriptions of dignity at the same time. Little more is known of
this lady except the fact that after her death Browning could not bear
to look at places where she had walked.

Browning's education in the formal sense reduces itself to a minimum.
In very early boyhood he attended a species of dame-school, which,
according to some of his biographers, he had apparently to leave
because he was too clever to be tolerable. However this may be, he
undoubtedly went afterwards to a school kept by Mr. Ready, at which
again he was marked chiefly by precocity. But the boy's education did
not in truth take place at any systematic seat of education; it took
place in his own home, where one of the quaintest and most learned and
most absurdly indulgent of fathers poured out in an endless stream
fantastic recitals from the Greek epics and mediæval chronicles. If we
test the matter by the test of actual schools and universities,
Browning will appear to be almost the least educated man in English
literary history. But if we test it by the amount actually learned, we
shall think that he was perhaps the most educated man that ever lived;
that he was in fact, if anything, overeducated. In a spirited poem he
has himself described how, when he was a small child, his father used
to pile up chairs in the drawing-room and call them the city of Troy.
Browning came out of the home crammed with all kinds of
knowledge--knowledge about the Greek poets, knowledge about the
Provençal Troubadours, knowledge about the Jewish Rabbis of the Middle
Ages. But along with all this knowledge he carried one definite and
important piece of ignorance, an ignorance of the degree to which such
knowledge was exceptional. He was no spoilt and self-conscious child,
taught to regard himself as clever. In the atmosphere in which he
lived learning was a pleasure, and a natural pleasure, like sport or
wine. He had in it the pleasure of some old scholar of the Renascence,
when grammar itself was as fresh as the flowers of spring. He had no
reason to suppose that every one did not join in so admirable a game.
His sagacious destiny, while giving him knowledge of everything else,
left him in ignorance of the ignorance of the world.

Of his boyish days scarcely any important trace remains, except a kind
of diary which contains under one date the laconic statement, "Married
two wives this morning." The insane ingenuity of the biographer would
be quite capable of seeing in this a most suggestive foreshadowing of
the sexual dualism which is so ably defended in _Fifine at the Fair_.
A great part of his childhood was passed in the society of his only
sister Sariana; and it is a curious and touching fact that with her
also he passed his last days. From his earliest babyhood he seems to
have lived in a more or less stimulating mental atmosphere; but as he
emerged into youth he came under great poetic influences, which made
his father's classical poetic tradition look for the time insipid.
Browning began to live in the life of his own age.

As a young man he attended classes at University College; beyond this
there is little evidence that he was much in touch with intellectual
circles outside that of his own family. But the forces that were
moving the literary world had long passed beyond the merely literary
area. About the time of Browning's boyhood a very subtle and profound
change was beginning in the intellectual atmosphere of such homes as
that of the Brownings. In studying the careers of great men we tend
constantly to forget that their youth was generally passed and their
characters practically formed in a period long previous to their
appearance in history. We think of Milton, the Restoration Puritan,
and forget that he grew up in the living shadow of Shakespeare and the
full summer of the Elizabethan drama. We realise Garibaldi as a sudden
and almost miraculous figure rising about fifty years ago to create
the new Kingdom of Italy, and we forget that he must have formed his
first ideas of liberty while hearing at his father's dinner-table that
Napoleon was the master of Europe. Similarly, we think of Browning as
the great Victorian poet, who lived long enough to have opinions on
Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule Bill, and forget that as a young man he
passed a bookstall and saw a volume ticketed "Mr. Shelley's Atheistic
Poem," and had to search even in his own really cultivated circle for
some one who could tell him who Mr. Shelley was. Browning was, in
short, born in the afterglow of the great Revolution.

The French Revolution was at root a thoroughly optimistic thing. It
may seem strange to attribute optimism to anything so destructive;
but, in truth, this particular kind of optimism is inevitably, and by
its nature, destructive. The great dominant idea of the whole of that
period, the period before, during, and long after the Revolution, is
the idea that man would by his nature live in an Eden of dignity,
liberty and love, and that artificial and decrepit systems are keeping
him out of that Eden. No one can do the least justice to the great
Jacobins who does not realise that to them breaking the civilisation
of ages was like breaking the cords of a treasure-chest. And just as
for more than a century great men had dreamed of this beautiful
emancipation, so the dream began in the time of Keats and Shelley to
creep down among the dullest professions and the most prosaic classes
of society. A spirit of revolt was growing among the young of the
middle classes, which had nothing at all in common with the complete
and pessimistic revolt against all things in heaven or earth, which
has been fashionable among the young in more recent times. The
Shelleyan enthusiast was altogether on the side of existence; he
thought that every cloud and clump of grass shared his strict
republican orthodoxy. He represented, in short, a revolt of the normal
against the abnormal; he found himself, so to speak, in the heart of a
wholly topsy-turvy and blasphemous state of things, in which God was
rebelling against Satan. There began to arise about this time a race
of young men like Keats, members of a not highly cultivated middle
class, and even of classes lower, who felt in a hundred ways this
obscure alliance with eternal things against temporal and practical
ones, and who lived on its imaginative delight. They were a kind of
furtive universalist; they had discovered the whole cosmos, and they
kept the whole cosmos a secret. They climbed up dark stairs to meagre
garrets, and shut themselves in with the gods. Numbers of the great
men, who afterwards illuminated the Victorian era, were at this time
living in mean streets in magnificent daydreams. Ruskin was solemnly
visiting his solemn suburban aunts; Dickens was going to and fro in a
blacking factory; Carlyle, slightly older, was still lingering on a
poor farm in Dumfriesshire; Keats had not long become the assistant of
the country surgeon when Browning was a boy in Camberwell. On all
sides there was the first beginning of the æsthetic stir in the middle
classes which expressed itself in the combination of so many poetic
lives with so many prosaic livelihoods. It was the age of inspired
office-boys.

Browning grew up, then, with the growing fame of Shelley and Keats, in
the atmosphere of literary youth, fierce and beautiful, among new
poets who believed in a new world. It is important to remember this,
because the real Browning was a quite different person from the grim
moralist and metaphysician who is seen through the spectacles of
Browning Societies and University Extension Lecturers. Browning was
first and foremost a poet, a man made to enjoy all things visible and
invisible, a priest of the higher passions. The misunderstanding that
has supposed him to be other than poetical, because his form was often
fanciful and abrupt, is really different from the misunderstanding
which attaches to most other poets. The opponents of Victor Hugo
called him a mere windbag; the opponents of Shakespeare called him a
buffoon. But the admirers of Hugo and Shakespeare at least knew
better. Now the admirers and opponents of Browning alike make him out
to be a pedant rather than a poet. The only difference between the
Browningite and the anti-Browningite, is that the second says he was
not a poet but a mere philosopher, and the first says he was a
philosopher and not a mere poet. The admirer disparages poetry in
order to exalt Browning; the opponent exalts poetry in order to
disparage Browning; and all the time Browning himself exalted poetry
above all earthly things, served it with single-hearted intensity, and
stands among the few poets who hardly wrote a line of anything else.

The whole of the boyhood and youth of Robert Browning has as much the
quality of pure poetry as the boyhood and youth of Shelley. We do not
find in it any trace of the analytical Browning who is believed in by
learned ladies and gentlemen. How indeed would such sympathisers feel
if informed that the first poems that Browning wrote in a volume
called _Incondita_ were noticed to contain the fault of "too much
splendour of language and too little wealth of thought"? They were
indeed Byronic in the extreme, and Browning in his earlier appearances
in society presents himself in quite a romantic manner. Macready, the
actor, wrote of him: "He looks and speaks more like a young poet than
any one I have ever seen." A picturesque tradition remains that Thomas
Carlyle, riding out upon one of his solitary gallops necessitated by
his physical sufferings, was stopped by one whom he described as a
strangely beautiful youth, who poured out to him without preface or
apology his admiration for the great philosopher's works. Browning at
this time seems to have left upon many people this impression of
physical charm. A friend who attended University College with him
says: "He was then a bright handsome youth with long black hair
falling over his shoulders." Every tale that remains of him in
connection with this period asserts and reasserts the completely
romantic spirit by which he was then possessed. He was fond, for
example, of following in the track of gipsy caravans, far across
country, and a song which he heard with the refrain, "Following the
Queen of the Gipsies oh!" rang in his ears long enough to express
itself in his soberer and later days in that splendid poem of the
spirit of escape and Bohemianism, _The Flight of the Duchess_. Such
other of these early glimpses of him as remain, depict him as striding
across Wimbledon Common with his hair blowing in the wind, reciting
aloud passages from Isaiah, or climbing up into the elms above Norwood
to look over London by night. It was when looking down from that
suburban eyrie over the whole confounding labyrinth of London that he
was filled with that great irresponsible benevolence which is the best
of the joys of youth, and conceived the idea of a perfectly
irresponsible benevolence in the first plan of _Pippa Passes_. At the
end of his father's garden was a laburnum "heavy with its weight of
gold," and in the tree two nightingales were in the habit of singing
against each other, a form of competition which, I imagine, has since
become less common in Camberwell. When Browning as a boy was
intoxicated with the poetry of Shelley and Keats, he hypnotised
himself into something approaching to a positive conviction that these
two birds were the spirits of the two great poets who had settled in a
Camberwell garden, in order to sing to the only young gentleman who
really adored and understood them. This last story is perhaps the most
typical of the tone common to all the rest; it would be difficult to
find a story which across the gulf of nearly eighty years awakens so
vividly a sense of the sumptuous folly of an intellectual boyhood.
With Browning, as with all true poets, passion came first and made
intellectual expression, the hunger for beauty making literature as
the hunger for bread made a plough. The life he lived in those early
days was no life of dull application; there was no poet whose youth
was so young. When he was full of years and fame, and delineating in
great epics the beauty and horror of the romance of southern Europe, a
young man, thinking to please him, said, "There is no romance now
except in Italy." "Well," said Browning, "I should make an exception
of Camberwell."

Such glimpses will serve to indicate the kind of essential issue that
there was in the nature of things between the generation of Browning
and the generation of his father. Browning was bound in the nature of
things to become at the outset Byronic, and Byronism was not, of
course, in reality so much a pessimism about civilised things as an
optimism about savage things. This great revolt on behalf of the
elemental which Keats and Shelley represented was bound first of all
to occur. Robert Browning junior had to be a part of it, and Robert
Browning senior had to go back to his water colours and the faultless
couplets of Pope with the full sense of the greatest pathos that the
world contains, the pathos of the man who has produced something that
he cannot understand.

The earliest works of Browning bear witness, without exception, to
this ardent and somewhat sentimental evolution. _Pauline_ appeared
anonymously in 1833. It exhibits the characteristic mark of a juvenile
poem, the general suggestion that the author is a thousand years old.
Browning calls it a fragment of a confession; and Mr. Johnson Fox, an
old friend of Browning's father, who reviewed it for _Tait's
Magazine_, said, with truth, that it would be difficult to find
anything more purely confessional. It is the typical confession of a
boy laying bare all the spiritual crimes of infidelity and moral
waste, in a state of genuine ignorance of the fact that every one else
has committed them. It is wholesome and natural for youth to go about
confessing that the grass is green, and whispering to a priest
hoarsely that it has found a sun in heaven. But the records of that
particular period of development, even when they are as ornate and
beautiful as _Pauline_, are not necessarily or invariably wholesome
reading. The chief interest of _Pauline_, with all its beauties, lies
in a certain almost humorous singularity, the fact that Browning, of
all people, should have signalised his entrance into the world of
letters with a poem which may fairly be called morbid. But this is a
morbidity so general and recurrent that it may be called in a
contradictory phrase a healthy morbidity; it is a kind of intellectual
measles. No one of any degree of maturity in reading _Pauline_ will be
quite so horrified at the sins of the young gentleman who tells the
story as he seems to be himself. It is the utterance of that bitter
and heartrending period of youth which comes before we realise the one
grand and logical basis of all optimism--the doctrine of original sin.
The boy at this stage being an ignorant and inhuman idealist, regards
all his faults as frightful secret malformations, and it is only later
that he becomes conscious of that large and beautiful and benignant
explanation that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and
desperately wicked. That Browning, whose judgment on his own work was
one of the best in the world, took this view of _Pauline_ in after
years is quite obvious. He displayed a very manly and unique capacity
of really laughing at his own work without being in the least ashamed
of it. "This," he said of _Pauline_, "is the only crab apple that
remains of the shapely tree of life in my fool's paradise." It would
be difficult to express the matter more perfectly. Although _Pauline_
was published anonymously, its authorship was known to a certain
circle, and Browning began to form friendships in the literary world.
He had already become acquainted with two of the best friends he was
ever destined to have, Alfred Domett, celebrated in "The Guardian
Angel" and "Waring," and his cousin Silverthorne, whose death is
spoken of in one of the most perfect lyrics in the English language,
Browning's "May and Death." These were men of his own age, and his
manner of speaking of them gives us many glimpses into that splendid
world of comradeship which. Plato and Walt Whitman knew, with its
endless days and its immortal nights. Browning had a third friend
destined to play an even greater part in his life, but who belonged to
an older generation and a statelier school of manners and
scholarship. Mr. Kenyon was a schoolfellow of Browning's father, and
occupied towards his son something of the position of an irresponsible
uncle. He was a rotund, rosy old gentleman, fond of comfort and the
courtesies of life, but fond of them more for others, though much for
himself. Elizabeth Barrett in after years wrote of "the brightness of
his carved speech," which would appear to suggest that he practised
that urbane and precise order of wit which was even then
old-fashioned. Yet, notwithstanding many talents of this kind, he was
not so much an able man as the natural friend and equal of able men.

Browning's circle of friends, however, widened about this time in all
directions. One friend in particular he made, the Comte de
Ripert-Monclar, a French Royalist with whom he prosecuted with renewed
energy his studies in the mediæval and Renaissance schools of
philosophy. It was the Count who suggested that Browning should write
a poetical play on the subject of Paracelsus. After reflection,
indeed, the Count retracted this advice on the ground that the history
of the great mystic gave no room for love. Undismayed by this terrible
deficiency, Browning caught up the idea with characteristic
enthusiasm, and in 1835 appeared the first of his works which he
himself regarded as representative--_Paracelsus_. The poem shows an
enormous advance in technical literary power; but in the history of
Browning's mind it is chiefly interesting as giving an example of a
peculiarity which clung to him during the whole of his literary life,
an intense love of the holes and corners of history. Fifty-two years
afterwards he wrote _Parleyings with certain Persons of Importance in
their Day_, the last poem published in his lifetime; and any reader
of that remarkable work will perceive that the common characteristic
of all these persons is not so much that they were of importance in
their day as that they are of no importance in ours. The same
eccentric fastidiousness worked in him as a young man when he wrote
_Paracelsus_ and _Sordello_. Nowhere in Browning's poetry can we find
any very exhaustive study of any of the great men who are the
favourites of the poet and moralist. He has written about philosophy
and ambition and music and morals, but he has written nothing about
Socrates or Cæsar or Napoleon, or Beethoven or Mozart, or Buddha or
Mahomet. When he wishes to describe a political ambition he selects
that entirely unknown individual, King Victor of Sardinia. When he
wishes to express the most perfect soul of music, he unearths some
extraordinary persons called Abt Vogler and Master Hugues of
Saxe-Gotha. When he wishes to express the largest and sublimest scheme
of morals and religion which his imagination can conceive, he does not
put it into the mouth of any of the great spiritual leaders of
mankind, but into the mouth of an obscure Jewish Rabbi of the name of
Ben Ezra. It is fully in accordance with this fascinating craze of his
that when he wishes to study the deification of the intellect and the
disinterested pursuit of the things of the mind, he does not select
any of the great philosophers from Plato to Darwin, whose
investigations are still of some importance in the eyes of the world.
He selects the figure of all figures most covered with modern satire
and pity, the _à priori_ scientist of the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance. His supreme type of the human intellect is neither the
academic nor the positivist, but the alchemist. It is difficult to
imagine a turn of mind constituting a more complete challenge to the
ordinary modern point of view. To the intellect of our time the wild
investigators of the school of Paracelsus seem to be the very crown
and flower of futility, they are collectors of straws and careful
misers of dust. But for all that Browning was right. Any critic who
understands the true spirit of mediæval science can see that he was
right; no critic can see how right he was unless he understands the
spirit of mediæval science as thoroughly as he did. In the character
of Paracelsus, Browning wished to paint the dangers and
disappointments which attend the man who believes merely in the
intellect. He wished to depict the fall of the logician; and with a
perfect and unerring instinct he selected a man who wrote and spoke in
the tradition of the Middle Ages, the most thoroughly and even
painfully logical period that the world has ever seen. If he had
chosen an ancient Greek philosopher, it would have been open to the
critic to have said that that philosopher relied to some extent upon
the most sunny and graceful social life that ever flourished. If he
had made him a modern sociological professor, it would have been
possible to object that his energies were not wholly concerned with
truth, but partly with the solid and material satisfaction of society.
But the man truly devoted to the things of the mind was the mediæval
magician. It is a remarkable fact that one civilisation does not
satisfy itself by calling another civilisation wicked--it calls it
uncivilised. We call the Chinese barbarians, and they call us
barbarians. The mediæval state, like China, was a foreign
civilisation, and this was its supreme characteristic, that it cared
for the things of the mind for their own sake. To complain of the
researches of its sages on the ground that they were not materially
fruitful, is to act as we should act in telling a gardener that his
roses were not as digestible as our cabbages. It is not only true that
the mediæval philosophers never discovered the steam-engine; it is
quite equally true that they never tried. The Eden of the Middle Ages
was really a garden, where each of God's flowers--truth and beauty and
reason--flourished for its own sake, and with its own name. The Eden
of modern progress is a kitchen garden.

It would have been hard, therefore, for Browning to have chosen a
better example for his study of intellectual egotism than Paracelsus.
Modern life accuses the mediæval tradition of crushing the intellect;
Browning, with a truer instinct, accuses that tradition of
over-glorifying it. There is, however, another and even more important
deduction to be made from the moral of _Paracelsus_. The usual
accusation against Browning is that he was consumed with logic; that
he thought all subjects to be the proper pabulum of intellectual
disquisition; that he gloried chiefly in his own power of plucking
knots to pieces and rending fallacies in two; and that to this method
he sacrificed deliberately, and with complete self-complacency, the
element of poetry and sentiment. To people who imagine Browning to
have been this frigid believer in the intellect there is only one
answer necessary or sufficient. It is the fact that he wrote a play
designed to destroy the whole of this intellectualist fallacy at the
age of twenty-three.

_Paracelsus_ was in all likelihood Browning's introduction to the
literary world. It was many years, and even many decades, before he
had anything like a public appreciation, but a very great part of the
minority of those who were destined to appreciate him came over to his
standard upon the publication of _Paracelsus_. The celebrated John
Forster had taken up _Paracelsus_ "as a thing to slate," and had ended
its perusal with the wildest curiosity about the author and his works.
John Stuart Mill, never backward in generosity, had already interested
himself in Browning, and was finally converted by the same poem. Among
other early admirers were Landor, Leigh Hunt, Horne, Serjeant
Talfourd, and Monckton-Milnes. One man of even greater literary
stature seems to have come into Browning's life about this time, a man
for whom he never ceased to have the warmest affection and trust.
Browning was, indeed, one of the very few men of that period who got
on perfectly with Thomas Carlyle. It is precisely one of those little
things which speak volumes for the honesty and unfathomable good
humour of Browning, that Carlyle, who had a reckless contempt for most
other poets of his day, had something amounting to a real attachment
to him. He would run over to Paris for the mere privilege of dining
with him. Browning, on the other hand, with characteristic
impetuosity, passionately defended and justified Carlyle in all
companies. "I have just seen dear Carlyle," he writes on one occasion;
"catch me calling people dear in a hurry, except in a letter
beginning." He sided with Carlyle in the vexed question of the Carlyle
domestic relations, and his impression of Mrs. Carlyle was that she
was "a hard unlovable woman." As, however, it is on record that he
once, while excitedly explaining some point of mystical philosophy,
put down Mrs. Carlyle's hot kettle on the hearthrug, any frigidity
that he may have observed in her manner may possibly find a natural
explanation. His partisanship in the Carlyle affair, which was
characteristically headlong and human, may not throw much light on
that painful problem itself, but it throws a great deal of light on
the character of Browning, which was pugnaciously proud of its
friends, and had what may almost be called a lust of loyalty. Browning
was not capable of that most sagacious detachment which enabled
Tennyson to say that he could not agree that the Carlyles ought never
to have married, since if they had each married elsewhere there would
have been four miserable people instead of two.

Among the motley and brilliant crowd with which Browning had now begun
to mingle, there was no figure more eccentric and spontaneous than
that of Macready the actor. This extraordinary person, a man living
from hand to mouth in all things spiritual and pecuniary, a man
feeding upon flying emotions, conceived something like an attraction
towards Browning, spoke of him as the very ideal of a young poet, and
in a moment of peculiar excitement suggested to him the writing of a
great play. Browning was a man fundamentally indeed more steadfast and
prosaic, but on the surface fully as rapid and easily infected as
Macready. He immediately began to plan out a great historical play,
and selected for his subject "Strafford."

In Browning's treatment of the subject there is something more than a
trace of his Puritan and Liberal upbringing. It is one of the very
earliest of the really important works in English literature which
are based on the Parliamentarian reading of the incidents of the time
of Charles I. It is true that the finest element in the play is the
opposition between Strafford and Pym, an opposition so complete, so
lucid, so consistent, that it has, so to speak, something of the
friendly openness and agreement which belongs to an alliance. The two
men love each other and fight each other, and do the two things at the
same time completely. This is a great thing of which even to attempt
the description. It is easy to have the impartiality which can speak
judicially of both parties, but it is not so easy to have that larger
and higher impartiality which can speak passionately on behalf of both
parties. Nevertheless, it may be permissible to repeat that there is
in the play a definite trace of Browning's Puritan education and
Puritan historical outlook.

For _Strafford_ is, of course, an example of that most difficult of
all literary works--a political play. The thing has been achieved once
at least admirably in Shakespeare's _Julius Cæsar_, and something like
it, though from a more one-sided and romantic stand-point, has been
done excellently in _L'Aiglon_. But the difficulties of such a play
are obvious on the face of the matter. In a political play the
principal characters are not merely men. They are symbols,
arithmetical figures representing millions of other men outside. It
is, by dint of elaborate stage management, possible to bring a mob
upon the boards, but the largest mob ever known is nothing but a
floating atom of the people; and the people of which the politician
has to think does not consist of knots of rioters in the street, but
of some million absolutely distinct individuals, each sitting in his
own breakfast room reading his own morning paper. To give even the
faintest suggestion of the strength and size of the people in this
sense in the course of a dramatic performance is obviously impossible.
That is why it is so easy on the stage to concentrate all the pathos
and dignity upon such persons as Charles I. and Mary Queen of Scots,
the vampires of their people, because within the minute limits of a
stage there is room for their small virtues and no room for their
enormous crimes. It would be impossible to find a stronger example
than the case of _Strafford_. It is clear that no one could possibly
tell the whole truth about the life and death of Strafford,
politically considered, in a play. Strafford was one of the greatest
men ever born in England, and he attempted to found a great English
official despotism. That is to say, he attempted to found something
which is so different from what has actually come about that we can in
reality scarcely judge of it, any more than we can judge whether it
would be better to live in another planet, or pleasanter to have been
born a dog or an elephant. It would require enormous imagination to
reconstruct the political ideals of Strafford. Now Browning, as we all
know, got over the matter in his play, by practically denying that
Strafford had any political ideals at all. That is to say, while
crediting Strafford with all his real majesty of intellect and
character, he makes the whole of his political action dependent upon
his passionate personal attachment to the King. This is
unsatisfactory; it is in reality a dodging of the great difficulty of
the political play. That difficulty, in the case of any political
problem, is, as has been said, great. It would be very hard, for
example, to construct a play about Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule Bill. It
would be almost impossible to get expressed in a drama of some five
acts and some twenty characters anything so ancient and complicated as
that Irish problem, the roots of which lie in the darkness of the age
of Strongbow, and the branches of which spread out to the remotest
commonwealths of the East and West. But we should scarcely be
satisfied if a dramatist overcame the difficulty by ascribing Mr.
Gladstone's action in the Home Rule question to an overwhelming
personal affection for Mr. Healy. And in thus basing Strafford's
action upon personal and private reasons, Browning certainly does some
injustice to the political greatness, of Strafford. To attribute Mr.
Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule to an infatuation such as that
suggested above, would certainly have the air of implying that the
writer thought the Home Rule doctrine a peculiar or untenable one.
Similarly, Browning's choice of a motive for Strafford has very much
the air of an assumption that there was nothing to be said on public
grounds for Strafford's political ideal. Now this is certainly not the
case. The Puritans in the great struggles of the reign of Charles I.
may have possessed more valuable ideals than the Royalists, but it is
a very vulgar error to suppose that they were any more idealistic. In
Browning's play Pym is made almost the incarnation of public spirit,
and Strafford of private ties. But not only may an upholder of
despotism be public-spirited, but in the case of prominent upholders
of it like Strafford he generally is. Despotism indeed, and attempts
at despotism, like that of Strafford, are a kind of disease of public
spirit. They represent, as it were, the drunkenness of responsibility.
It is when men begin to grow desperate in their love for the people,
when they are overwhelmed with the difficulties and blunders of
humanity, that they fall back upon a wild desire to manage everything
themselves. Their faith in themselves is only a disillusionment with
mankind. They are in that most dreadful position, dreadful alike in
personal and public affairs--the position of the man who has lost
faith and not lost love. This belief that all would go right if we
could only get the strings into our own hands is a fallacy almost
without exception, but nobody can justly say that it is not
public-spirited. The sin and sorrow of despotism is not that it does
not love men, but that it loves them too much and trusts them too
little. Therefore from age to age in history arise these great
despotic dreamers, whether they be Royalists or Imperialists or even
Socialists, who have at root this idea, that the world would enter
into rest if it went their way and forswore altogether the right of
going its own way. When a man begins to think that the grass will not
grow at night unless he lies awake to watch it, he generally ends
either in an asylum or on the throne of an Emperor. Of these men
Strafford was one, and we cannot but feel that Browning somewhat
narrows the significance and tragedy of his place in history by making
him merely the champion of a personal idiosyncrasy against a great
public demand. Strafford was something greater than this; if indeed,
when we come to think of it, a man can be anything greater than the
friend of another man. But the whole question is interesting, because
Browning, although he never again attacked a political drama of such
palpable importance as _Strafford_, could never keep politics
altogether out of his dramatic work. _King Victor and King Charles_,
which followed it, is a political play, the study of a despotic
instinct much meaner than that of Strafford. _Colombe's Birthday_,
again, is political as well as romantic. Politics in its historic
aspect would seem to have had a great fascination for him, as indeed
it must have for all ardent intellects, since it is the one thing in
the world that is as intellectual as the _Encyclopædia Britannica_ and
as rapid as the Derby.

One of the favourite subjects among those who like to conduct long
controversies about Browning (and their name is legion) is the
question of whether Browning's plays, such as _Strafford_, were
successes upon the stage. As they are never agreed about what
constitutes a success on the stage, it is difficult to adjudge their
quarrels. But the general fact is very simple; such a play as
_Strafford_ was not a gigantic theatrical success, and nobody, it is
to be presumed, ever imagined that it would be. On the other hand, it
was certainly not a failure, but was enjoyed and applauded as are
hundreds of excellent plays which run only for a week or two, as many
excellent plays do, and as all plays ought to do. Above all, the
definite success which attended the representation of _Strafford_ from
the point of view of the more educated and appreciative was quite
enough to establish Browning in a certain definite literary position.
As a classical and established personality he did not come into his
kingdom for years and decades afterwards; not, indeed, until he was
near to entering upon the final rest. But as a detached and eccentric
personality, as a man who existed and who had arisen on the outskirts
of literature, the world began to be conscious of him at this time.

Of what he was personally at the period that he thus became personally
apparent, Mrs. Bridell Fox has left a very vivid little sketch. She
describes how Browning called at the house (he was acquainted with her
father), and finding that gentleman out, asked with a kind of abrupt
politeness if he might play on the piano. This touch is very
characteristic of the mingled aplomb and unconsciousness of Browning's
social manner. "He was then," she writes, "slim and dark, and very
handsome, and--may I hint it?--just a trifle of a dandy, addicted to
lemon-coloured kid gloves and such things, quite the glass of fashion
and the mould of form. But full of 'ambition,' eager for success,
eager for fame, and, what is more, determined to conquer fame and to
achieve success." That is as good a portrait as we can have of the
Browning of these days--quite self-satisfied, but not self-conscious
young man; one who had outgrown, but only just outgrown, the pure
romanticism of his boyhood, which made him run after gipsy caravans
and listen to nightingales in the wood; a man whose incandescent
vitality, now that it had abandoned gipsies and not yet immersed
itself in casuistical poems, devoted itself excitedly to trifles, such
as lemon-coloured kid gloves and fame. But a man still above all
things perfectly young and natural, professing that foppery which
follows the fashions, and not that sillier and more demoralising
foppery which defies them. Just as he walked in coolly and yet
impulsively into a private drawing-room and offered to play, so he
walked at this time into the huge and crowded salon of European
literature and offered to sing.



CHAPTER II

EARLY WORKS


In 1840 _Sordello_ was published. Its reception by the great majority
of readers, including some of the ablest men of the time, was a
reception of a kind probably unknown in the rest of literary history,
a reception that was neither praise nor blame. It was perhaps best
expressed by Carlyle, who wrote to say that his wife had read
_Sordello_ with great interest, and wished to know whether Sordello
was a man, or a city, or a book. Better known, of course, is the story
of Tennyson, who said that the first line of the poem--

    "Who will, may hear Sordello's story told,"

and the last line--

    "Who would, has heard Sordello's story told,"

were the only two lines in the poem that he understood, and they were
lies.

Perhaps the best story, however, of all the cycle of Sordello legends
is that which is related of Douglas Jerrold. He was recovering from an
illness; and having obtained permission for the first time to read a
little during the day, he picked up a book from a pile beside the bed
and began _Sordello_. No sooner had he done so than he turned deadly
pale, put down the book, and said, "My God! I'm an idiot. My health
is restored, but my mind's gone. I can't understand two consecutive
lines of an English poem." He then summoned his family and silently
gave the book into their hands, asking for their opinion on the poem;
and as the shadow of perplexity gradually passed over their faces, he
heaved a sigh of relief and went to sleep. These stories, whether
accurate or no, do undoubtedly represent the very peculiar reception
accorded to _Sordello_, a reception which, as I have said, bears no
resemblance whatever to anything in the way of eulogy or condemnation
that had ever been accorded to a work of art before. There had been
authors whom it was fashionable to boast of admiring and authors whom
it was fashionable to boast of despising; but with _Sordello_ enters
into literary history the Browning of popular badinage, the author
whom it is fashionable to boast of not understanding.

Putting aside for the moment the literary qualities which are to be
found in the poem, when it becomes intelligible, there is one question
very relevant to the fame and character of Browning which is raised by
_Sordello_ when it is considered, as most people consider it, as
hopelessly unintelligible. It really throws some light upon the reason
of Browning's obscurity. The ordinary theory of Browning's obscurity
is to the effect that it was a piece of intellectual vanity indulged
in more and more insolently as his years and fame increased. There are
at least two very decisive objections to this popular explanation. In
the first place, it must emphatically be said for Browning that in all
the numerous records and impressions of him throughout his long and
very public life, there is not one iota of evidence that he was a man
who was intellectually vain. The evidence is entirely the other way.
He was vain of many things, of his physical health, for example, and
even more of the physical health which he contrived to bestow for a
certain period upon his wife. From the records of his early dandyism,
his flowing hair and his lemon-coloured gloves, it is probable enough
that he was vain of his good looks. He was vain of his masculinity,
his knowledge of the world, and he was, I fancy, decidedly vain of his
prejudices, even, it might be said, vain of being vain of them. But
everything is against the idea that he was much in the habit of
thinking of himself in his intellectual aspect. In the matter of
conversation, for example, some people who liked him found him genial,
talkative, anecdotal, with a certain strengthening and sanative
quality in his mere bodily presence. Some people who did not like him
found him a mere frivolous chatterer, afflicted with bad manners. One
lady, who knew him well, said that, though he only met you in a crowd
and made some commonplace remark, you went for the rest of the day
with your head up. Another lady who did not know him, and therefore
disliked him, asked after a dinner party, "Who was that too-exuberant
financier?" These are the diversities of feeling about him. But they
all agree in one point--that he did not talk cleverly, or try to talk
cleverly, as that proceeding is understood in literary circles. He
talked positively, he talked a great deal, but he never attempted to
give that neat and æsthetic character to his speech which is almost
invariable in the case of the man who is vain of his mental
superiority. When he did impress people with mental gymnastics, it was
mostly in the form of pouring out, with passionate enthusiasm, whole
epics written by other people, which is the last thing that the
literary egotist would be likely to waste his time over. We have
therefore to start with an enormous psychological improbability that
Browning made his poems complicated from mere pride in his powers and
contempt of his readers.

There is, however, another very practical objection to the ordinary
theory that Browning's obscurity was a part of the intoxication of
fame and intellectual consideration. We constantly hear the statement
that Browning's intellectual complexity increased with his later
poems, but the statement is simply not true. _Sordello_, to the
indescribable density of which he never afterwards even approached,
was begun before _Strafford_, and was therefore the third of his
works, and even if we adopt his own habit of ignoring _Pauline_, the
second. He wrote the greater part of it when he was twenty-four. It
was in his youth, at the time when a man is thinking of love and
publicity, of sunshine and singing birds, that he gave birth to this
horror of great darkness; and the more we study the matter with any
knowledge of the nature of youth, the more we shall come to the
conclusion that Browning's obscurity had altogether the opposite
origin to that which is usually assigned to it. He was not
unintelligible because he was proud, but unintelligible because he was
humble. He was not unintelligible because his thoughts were vague, but
because to him they were obvious.

A man who is intellectually vain does not make himself
incomprehensible, because he is so enormously impressed with the
difference between his readers' intelligence and his own that he
talks down to them with elaborate repetition and lucidity. What poet
was ever vainer than Byron? What poet was ever so magnificently lucid?
But a young man of genius who has a genuine humility in his heart does
not elaborately explain his discoveries, because he does not think
that they are discoveries. He thinks that the whole street is humming
with his ideas, and that the postman and the tailor are poets like
himself. Browning's impenetrable poetry was the natural expression of
this beautiful optimism. _Sordello_ was the most glorious compliment
that has ever been paid to the average man.

In the same manner, of course, outward obscurity is in a young author
a mark of inward clarity. A man who is vague in his ideas does not
speak obscurely, because his own dazed and drifting condition leads
him to clutch at phrases like ropes and use the formulæ that every one
understands. No one ever found Miss Marie Corelli obscure, because she
believes only in words. But if a young man really has ideas of his
own, he must be obscure at first, because he lives in a world of his
own in which there are symbols and correspondences and categories
unknown to the rest of the world. Let us take an imaginary example.
Suppose that a young poet had developed by himself a peculiar idea
that all forms of excitement, including religious excitement, were a
kind of evil intoxication, he might say to himself continually that
churches were in reality taverns, and this idea would become so fixed
in his mind that he would forget that no such association existed in
the minds of others. And suppose that in pursuance of this general
idea, which is a perfectly clear and intellectual idea, though a very
silly one, he were to say that he believed in Puritanism without its
theology, and were to repeat this idea also to himself until it became
instinctive and familiar, such a man might take up a pen, and under
the impression that he was saying something figurative indeed, but
quite clear and suggestive, write some such sentence as this, "You
will not get the godless Puritan into your white taverns," and no one
in the length and breadth of the country could form the remotest
notion of what he could mean. So it would have been in any example,
for instance, of a man who made some philosophical discovery and did
not realise how far the world was from it. If it had been possible for
a poet in the sixteenth century to hit upon and learn to regard as
obvious the evolutionary theory of Darwin, he might have written down
some such line as "the radiant offspring of the ape," and the maddest
volumes of mediæval natural history would have been ransacked for the
meaning of the allusion. The more fixed and solid and sensible the
idea appeared to him, the more dark and fantastic it would have
appeared to the world. Most of us indeed, if we ever say anything
valuable, say it when we are giving expression to that part of us
which has become as familiar and invisible as the pattern on our wall
paper. It is only when an idea has become a matter of course to the
thinker that it becomes startling to the world.

It is worth while to dwell upon this preliminary point of the ground
of Browning's obscurity, because it involves an important issue about
him. Our whole view of Browning is bound to be absolutely different,
and I think absolutely false, if we start with the conception that he
was what the French call an intellectual. If we see Browning with the
eyes of his particular followers, we shall inevitably think this. For
his followers are pre-eminently intellectuals, and there never lived
upon the earth a great man who was so fundamentally different from his
followers. Indeed, he felt this heartily and even humorously himself.
"Wilkes was no Wilkite," he said, "and I am very far from being a
Browningite." We shall, as I say, utterly misunderstand Browning at
every step of his career if we suppose that he was the sort of man who
would be likely to take a pleasure in asserting the subtlety and
abstruseness of his message. He took pleasure beyond all question in
himself; in the strictest sense of the word he enjoyed himself. But
his conception of himself was never that of the intellectual. He
conceived himself rather as a sanguine and strenuous man, a great
fighter. "I was ever," as he says, "a fighter." His faults, a certain
occasional fierceness and grossness, were the faults that are counted
as virtues among navvies and sailors and most primitive men. His
virtues, boyishness and absolute fidelity, and a love of plain words
and things are the virtues which are counted as vices among the
æsthetic prigs who pay him the greatest honour. He had his more
objectionable side, like other men, but it had nothing to do with
literary egotism. He was not vain of being an extraordinary man. He
was only somewhat excessively vain of being an ordinary one.

The Browning then who published _Sordello_ we have to conceive, not as
a young pedant anxious to exaggerate his superiority to the public,
but as a hot-headed, strong-minded, inexperienced, and essentially
humble man, who had more ideas than he knew how to disentangle from
each other. If we compare, for example, the complexity of Browning
with the clarity of Matthew Arnold, we shall realise that the cause
lies in the fact that Matthew Arnold was an intellectual aristocrat,
and Browning an intellectual democrat. The particular peculiarities of
_Sordello_ illustrate the matter very significantly. A very great part
of the difficulty of _Sordello_, for instance, is in the fact that
before the reader even approaches to tackling the difficulties of
Browning's actual narrative, he is apparently expected to start with
an exhaustive knowledge of that most shadowy and bewildering of all
human epochs--the period of the Guelph and Ghibelline struggles in
mediæval Italy. Here, of course, Browning simply betrays that
impetuous humility which we have previously observed. His father was a
student of mediæval chronicles, he had himself imbibed that learning
in the same casual manner in which a boy learns to walk or to play
cricket. Consequently in a literary sense he rushed up to the first
person he met and began talking about Ecelo and Taurello Salinguerra
with about as much literary egotism as an English baby shows when it
talks English to an Italian organ grinder. Beyond this the poem of
_Sordello_, powerful as it is, does not present any very significant
advance in Browning's mental development on that already represented
by _Pauline_ and _Paracelsus_. _Pauline, Paracelsus_, and _Sordello_
stand together in the general fact that they are all, in the excellent
phrase used about the first by Mr. Johnson Fox, "confessional." All
three are analyses of the weakness which every artistic temperament
finds in itself. Browning is still writing about himself, a subject
of which he, like all good and brave men, was profoundly ignorant.
This kind of self-analysis is always misleading. For we do not see in
ourselves those dominant traits strong enough to force themselves out
in action which our neighbours see. We see only a welter of minute
mental experiences which include all the sins that were ever committed
by Nero or Sir Willoughby Patterne. When studying ourselves, we are
looking at a fresco with a magnifying glass. Consequently, these early
impressions which great men have given of themselves are nearly always
slanders upon themselves, for the strongest man is weak to his own
conscience, and Hamlet flourished to a certainty even inside Napoleon.
So it was with Browning, who when he was nearly eighty was destined to
write with the hilarity of a schoolboy, but who wrote in his boyhood
poems devoted to analysing the final break-up of intellect and soul.

_Sordello_, with all its load of learning, and almost more oppressive
load of beauty, has never had any very important influence even upon
Browningites, and with the rest of the world the name has passed into
a jest. The most truly memorable thing about it was Browning's saying
in answer to all gibes and misconceptions, a saying which expresses
better than anything else what genuine metal was in him, "I blame no
one, least of all myself, who did my best then and since." This is
indeed a model for all men of letters who do not wish to retain only
the letters and to lose the man.

When next Browning spoke, it was from a greater height and with a new
voice. His visit to Asolo, "his first love," as he said, "among
Italian cities," coincided with the stir and transformation in his
spirit and the breaking up of that splendid palace of mirrors in which
a man like Byron had lived and died. In 1841 _Pippa Passes_ appeared,
and with it the real Browning of the modern world. He had made the
discovery which Byron never made, but which almost every young man
does at last make--the thrilling discovery that he is not Robinson
Crusoe. _Pippa Passes_ is the greatest poem ever written, with the
exception of one or two by Walt Whitman, to express the sentiment of
the pure love of humanity. The phrase has unfortunately a false and
pedantic sound. The love of humanity is a thing supposed to be
professed only by vulgar and officious philanthropists, or by saints
of a superhuman detachment and universality. As a matter of fact, love
of humanity is the commonest and most natural of the feelings of a
fresh nature, and almost every one has felt it alight capriciously
upon him when looking at a crowded park or a room full of dancers. The
love of those whom we do not know is quite as eternal a sentiment as
the love of those whom we do know. In our friends the richness of life
is proved to us by what we have gained; in the faces in the street the
richness of life is proved to us by the hint of what we have lost. And
this feeling for strange faces and strange lives, when it is felt
keenly by a young man, almost always expresses itself in a desire
after a kind of vagabond beneficence, a desire to go through the world
scattering goodness like a capricious god. It is desired that mankind
should hunt in vain for its best friend as it would hunt for a
criminal; that he should be an anonymous Saviour, an unrecorded
Christ. Browning, like every one else, when awakened to the beauty
and variety of men, dreamed of this arrogant self-effacement. He has
written of himself that he had long thought vaguely of a being passing
through the world, obscure and unnameable, but moulding the destinies
of others to mightier and better issues. Then his almost faultless
artistic instinct came in and suggested that this being, whom he
dramatised as the work-girl, Pippa, should be even unconscious of
anything but her own happiness, and should sway men's lives with a
lonely mirth. It was a bold and moving conception to show us these
mature and tragic human groups all at the supreme moment eavesdropping
upon the solitude of a child. And it was an even more precise instinct
which made Browning make the errant benefactor a woman. A man's good
work is effected by doing what he does, a woman's by being what she
is.

There is one other point about _Pippa Passes_ which is worth a
moment's attention. The great difficulty with regard to the
understanding of Browning is the fact that, to all appearance,
scarcely any one can be induced to take him seriously as a literary
artist. His adversaries consider his literary vagaries a
disqualification for every position among poets; and his admirers
regard those vagaries with the affectionate indulgence of a circle of
maiden aunts towards a boy home for the holidays. Browning is supposed
to do as he likes with form, because he had such a profound scheme of
thought. But, as a matter of fact, though few of his followers will
take Browning's literary form seriously, he took his own literary form
very seriously. Now _Pippa Passes_ is, among other things, eminently
remarkable as a very original artistic form, a series of disconnected
but dramatic scenes which have only in common the appearance of one
figure. For this admirable literary departure Browning, amid all the
laudations of his "mind" and his "message," has scarcely ever had
credit. And just as we should, if we took Browning seriously as a
poet, see that he had made many noble literary forms, so we should
also see that he did make from time to time certain definite literary
mistakes. There is one of them, a glaring one, in _Pippa Passes_; and,
as far as I know, no critic has ever thought enough of Browning as an
artist to point it out. It is a gross falsification of the whole
beauty of _Pippa Passes_ to make the Monseigneur and his accomplice in
the last act discuss a plan touching the fate of Pippa herself. The
whole central and splendid idea of the drama is the fact that Pippa is
utterly remote from the grand folk whose lives she troubles and
transforms. To make her in the end turn out to be the niece of one of
them, is like a whiff from an Adelphi melodrama, an excellent thing in
its place, but destructive of the entire conception of Pippa. Having
done that, Browning might just as well have made Sebald turn out to be
her long lost brother, and Luigi a husband to whom she was secretly
married. Browning made this mistake when his own splendid artistic
power was only growing, and its merits and its faults in a tangle. But
its real literary merits and its real literary faults have alike
remained unrecognised under the influence of that unfortunate
intellectualism which idolises Browning as a metaphysician and
neglects him as a poet. But a better test was coming. Browning's
poetry, in the most strictly poetical sense, reached its flower in
_Dramatic Lyrics_, published in 1842. Here he showed himself a
picturesque and poignant artist in a wholly original manner. And the
two main characteristics of the work were the two characteristics most
commonly denied to Browning, both by his opponents and his followers,
passion and beauty; but beauty had enlarged her boundaries in new
modes of dramatic arrangement, and passion had found new voices in
fantastic and realistic verse. Those who suppose Browning to be a
wholly philosophic poet, number a great majority of his commentators.
But when we come to look at the actual facts, they are strangely and
almost unexpectedly otherwise.

Let any one who believes in the arrogantly intellectual character of
Browning's poetry run through the actual repertoire of the _Dramatic
Lyrics_. The first item consists of those splendid war chants called
"Cavalier Tunes." I do not imagine that any one will maintain that
there is any very mysterious metaphysical aim in them. The second item
is the fine poem "The Lost Leader," a poem which expresses in
perfectly lucid and lyrical verse a perfectly normal and old-fashioned
indignation. It is the same, however far we carry the query. What
theory does the next poem, "How they brought the Good News from Ghent
to Aix," express, except the daring speculation that it is often
exciting to ride a good horse in Belgium? What theory does the poem
after that, "Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr," express, except that
it is also frequently exciting to ride a good horse in Africa? Then
comes "Nationality in Drinks," a mere technical oddity without a gleam
of philosophy; and after that those two entirely exquisite "Garden
Fancies," the first of which is devoted to the abstruse thesis that a
woman may be charming, and the second to the equally abstruse thesis
that a book may be a bore. Then comes "The Soliloquy of the Spanish
Cloister," from which the most ingenious "Browning student" cannot
extract anything except that people sometimes hate each other in
Spain; and then "The Laboratory," from which he could extract nothing
except that people sometimes hate each other in France. This is a
perfectly honest record of the poems as they stand. And the first
eleven poems read straight off are remarkable for these two obvious
characteristics--first, that they contain not even a suggestion of
anything that could be called philosophy; and second, that they
contain a considerable proportion of the best and most typical poems
that Browning ever wrote. It may be repeated that either he wrote
these lyrics because he had an artistic sense, or it is impossible to
hazard even the wildest guess as to why he wrote them.

It is permissible to say that the _Dramatic Lyrics_ represent the
arrival of the real Browning of literary history. It is true that he
had written already many admirable poems of a far more ambitious
plan--_Paracelsus_ with its splendid version of the faults of the
intellectual, _Pippa Passes_ with its beautiful deification of
unconscious influence. But youth is always ambitious and universal;
mature work exhibits more of individuality, more of the special type
and colour of work which a man is destined to do. Youth is universal,
but not individual. The genius who begins life with a very genuine and
sincere doubt whether he is meant to be an exquisite and idolised
violinist, or the most powerful and eloquent Prime Minister of modern
times, does at last end by making the discovery that there is, after
all, one thing, possibly a certain style of illustrating Nursery
Rhymes, which he can really do better than any one else. This was what
happened to Browning; like every one else, he had to discover first
the universe, and then humanity, and at last himself. With him, as
with all others, the great paradox and the great definition of life
was this, that the ambition narrows as the mind expands. In _Dramatic
Lyrics_ he discovered the one thing that he could really do better
than any one else--the dramatic lyric. The form is absolutely
original: he had discovered a new field of poetry, and in the centre
of that field he had found himself.

The actual quality, the actual originality of the form is a little
difficult to describe. But its general characteristic is the fearless
and most dexterous use of grotesque things in order to express sublime
emotions. The best and most characteristic of the poems are
love-poems; they express almost to perfection the real wonderland of
youth, but they do not express it by the ideal imagery of most poets
of love. The imagery of these poems consists, if we may take a rapid
survey of Browning's love poetry, of suburban streets, straws,
garden-rakes, medicine bottles, pianos, window-blinds, burnt cork,
fashionable fur coats. But in this new method he thoroughly expressed
the true essential, the insatiable realism of passion. If any one
wished to prove that Browning was not, as he is said to be, the poet
of thought, but pre-eminently one of the poets of passion, we could
scarcely find a better evidence of this profoundly passionate element
than Browning's astonishing realism in love poetry. There is nothing
so fiercely realistic as sentiment and emotion. Thought and the
intellect are content to accept abstractions, summaries, and
generalisations; they are content that ten acres of ground should be
called for the sake of argument X, and ten widows' incomes called for
the sake of argument Y; they are content that a thousand awful and
mysterious disappearances from the visible universe should be summed
up as the mortality of a district, or that ten thousand intoxications
of the soul should bear the general name of the instinct of sex.
Rationalism can live upon air and signs and numbers. But sentiment
must have reality; emotion demands the real fields, the real widows'
homes, the real corpse, and the real woman. And therefore Browning's
love poetry is the finest love poetry in the world, because it does
not talk about raptures and ideals and gates of heaven, but about
window-panes and gloves and garden walls. It does not deal much with
abstractions; it is the truest of all love poetry, because it does not
speak much about love. It awakens in every man the memories of that
immortal instant when common and dead things had a meaning beyond the
power of any dictionary to utter, and a value beyond the power of any
millionaire to compute. He expresses the celestial time when a man
does not think about heaven, but about a parasol. And therefore he is,
first, the greatest of love poets, and, secondly, the only optimistic
philosopher except Whitman.

The general accusation against Browning in connection with his use of
the grotesque comes in very definitely here; for in using these homely
and practical images, these allusions, bordering on what many would
call the commonplace, he was indeed true to the actual and abiding
spirit of love. In that delightful poem "Youth and Art" we have the
singing girl saying to her old lover--

    "No harm! It was not my fault
      If you never turned your eye's tail up
    As I shook upon E _in alt_,
      Or ran the chromatic scale up."

This is a great deal more like the real chaff that passes between
those whose hearts are full of new hope or of old memory than half the
great poems of the world. Browning never forgets the little details
which to a man who has ever really lived may suddenly send an arrow
through the heart. Take, for example, such a matter as dress, as it is
treated in "A Lover's Quarrel."

    "See, how she looks now, dressed
    In a sledging cap and vest!
        'Tis a huge fur cloak--
        Like a reindeer's yoke
    Falls the lappet along the breast:
    Sleeves for her arms to rest,
    Or to hang, as my Love likes best."

That would almost serve as an order to a dressmaker, and is therefore
poetry, or at least excellent poetry of this order. So great a power
have these dead things of taking hold on the living spirit, that I
question whether any one could read through the catalogue of a
miscellaneous auction sale without coming upon things which, if
realised for a moment, would be near to the elemental tears. And if
any of us or all of us are truly optimists, and believe as Browning
did, that existence has a value wholly inexpressible, we are most
truly compelled to that sentiment not by any argument or triumphant
justification of the cosmos, but by a few of these momentary and
immortal sights and sounds, a gesture, an old song, a portrait, a
piano, an old door.

In 1843 appeared that marvellous drama _The Return of the Druses_, a
work which contains more of Browning's typical qualities exhibited in
an exquisite literary shape, than can easily be counted. We have in
_The Return of the Druses_ his love of the corners of history, his
interest in the religious mind of the East, with its almost terrifying
sense of being in the hand of heaven, his love of colour and verbal
luxury, of gold and green and purple, which made some think he must be
an Oriental himself. But, above all, it presents the first rise of
that great psychological ambition which Browning was thenceforth to
pursue. In _Pauline_ and the poems that follow it, Browning has only
the comparatively easy task of giving an account of himself. In _Pippa
Passes_ he has the only less easy task of giving an account of
humanity. In _The Return of the Druses_ he has for the first time the
task which is so much harder than giving an account of humanity--the
task of giving an account of a human being. Djabal, the great Oriental
impostor, who is the central character of the play, is a peculiarly
subtle character, a compound of blasphemous and lying assumptions of
Godhead with genuine and stirring patriotic and personal feelings: he
is a blend, so to speak, of a base divinity and of a noble humanity.
He is supremely important in the history of Browning's mind, for he is
the first of that great series of the apologiæ of apparently evil men,
on which the poet was to pour out so much of his imaginative
wealth--Djabal, Fra Lippo, Bishop Blougram, Sludge, Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau, and the hero of _Fifine at the Fair_.

With this play, so far as any point can be fixed for the matter, he
enters for the first time on the most valuable of all his labours--the
defence of the indefensible. It may be noticed that Browning was not
in the least content with the fact that certain human frailties had
always lain more or less under an implied indulgence; that all human
sentiment had agreed that a profligate might be generous, or that a
drunkard might be high-minded. He was insatiable: he wished to go
further and show in a character like Djabal that an impostor might be
generous and that a liar might be high-minded. In all his life, it
must constantly be remembered, he tried always the most difficult
things. Just as he tried the queerest metres and attempted to manage
them, so he tried the queerest human souls and attempted to stand in
their place. Charity was his basic philosophy; but it was, as it were,
a fierce charity, a charity that went man-hunting. He was a kind of
cosmic detective who walked into the foulest of thieves' kitchens and
accused men publicly of virtue. The character of Djabal in _The Return
of the Druses_ is the first of this long series of forlorn hopes for
the relief of long surrendered castles of misconduct. As we shall see,
even realising the humanity of a noble impostor like Djabal did not
content his erratic hunger for goodness. He went further again, and
realised the humanity of a mean impostor like Sludge. But in all
things he retained this essential characteristic, that he was not
content with seeking sinners--he sought the sinners whom even sinners
cast out.

Browning's feeling of ambition in the matter of the drama continued to
grow at this time. It must be remembered that he had every natural
tendency to be theatrical, though he lacked the essential lucidity.
He was not, as a matter of fact, a particularly unsuccessful
dramatist; but in the world of abstract temperaments he was by nature
an unsuccessful dramatist. He was, that is to say, a man who loved
above all things plain and sensational words, open catastrophes, a
clear and ringing conclusion to everything. But it so happened,
unfortunately, that his own words were not plain; that his
catastrophes came with a crashing and sudden unintelligibleness which
left men in doubt whether the thing were a catastrophe or a great
stroke of good luck; that his conclusion, though it rang like a
trumpet to the four corners of heaven, was in its actual message quite
inaudible. We are bound to admit, on the authority of all his best
critics and admirers, that his plays were not failures, but we can all
feel that they should have been. He was, as it were, by nature a
neglected dramatist. He was one of those who achieve the reputation,
in the literal sense, of eccentricity by their frantic efforts to
reach the centre.

_A Blot on the 'Scutcheon_ followed _The Return of the Druses_. In
connection with the performance of this very fine play a quarrel arose
which would not be worth mentioning if it did not happen to illustrate
the curious energetic simplicity of Browning's character. Macready,
who was in desperately low financial circumstances at this time, tried
by every means conceivable to avoid playing the part; he dodged, he
shuffled, he tried every evasion that occurred to him, but it never
occurred to Browning to see what he meant. He pushed off the part upon
Phelps, and Browning was contented; he resumed it, and Browning was
only discontented on behalf of Phelps. The two had a quarrel; they
were both headstrong, passionate men, but the quarrel dealt entirely
with the unfortunate condition of Phelps. Browning beat down his own
hat over his eyes; Macready flung Browning's manuscript with a slap
upon the floor. But all the time it never occurred to the poet that
Macready's conduct was dictated by anything so crude and simple as a
desire for money. Browning was in fact by his principles and his
ideals a man of the world, but in his life far otherwise. That worldly
ease which is to most of us a temptation was to him an ideal. He was
as it were a citizen of the New Jerusalem who desired with perfect
sanity and simplicity to be a citizen of Mayfair. There was in him a
quality which can only be most delicately described; for it was a
virtue which bears a strange resemblance to one of the meanest of
vices. Those curious people who think the truth a thing that can be
said violently and with ease, might naturally call Browning a snob. He
was fond of society, of fashion and even of wealth: but there is no
snobbery in admiring these things or any things if we admire them for
the right reasons. He admired them as worldlings cannot admire them:
he was, as it were, the child who comes in with the dessert. He bore
the same relation to the snob that the righteous man bears to the
Pharisee: something frightfully close and similar and yet an
everlasting opposite.



CHAPTER III

BROWNING AND HIS MARRIAGE


Robert Browning had his faults, and the general direction of those
faults has been previously suggested. The chief of his faults, a
certain uncontrollable brutality of speech and gesture when he was
strongly roused, was destined to cling to him all through his life,
and to startle with the blaze of a volcano even the last quiet years
before his death. But any one who wishes to understand how deep was
the elemental honesty and reality of his character, how profoundly
worthy he was of any love that was bestowed upon him, need only study
one most striking and determining element in the question--Browning's
simple, heartfelt, and unlimited admiration for other people. He was
one of a generation of great men, of great men who had a certain
peculiar type, certain peculiar merits and defects. Carlyle, Tennyson,
Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, were alike in being children of a very
strenuous and conscientious age, alike in possessing its earnestness
and air of deciding great matters, alike also in showing a certain
almost noble jealousy, a certain restlessness, a certain fear of other
influences. Browning alone had no fear; he welcomed, evidently without
the least affectation, all the influences of his day. A very
interesting letter of his remains in which he describes his pleasure
in a university dinner. "Praise," he says in effect, "was given very
deservedly to Matthew Arnold and Swinburne, and to that pride of
Oxford men, Clough." The really striking thing about these three names
is the fact that they are united in Browning's praise in a way in
which they are by no means united in each other's. Matthew Arnold, in
one of his extant letters, calls Swinburne "a young pseudo-Shelley,"
who, according to Arnold, thinks he can make Greek plays good by
making them modern. Mr. Swinburne, on the other hand, has summarised
Clough in a contemptuous rhyme:--

    "There was a bad poet named Clough,
    Whom his friends all united to puff.
    But the public, though dull,
    Has not quite such a skull
    As belongs to believers in Clough."

The same general fact will be found through the whole of Browning's
life and critical attitude. He adored Shelley, and also Carlyle who
sneered at him. He delighted in Mill, and also in Ruskin who rebelled
against Mill. He excused Napoleon III. and Landor who hurled
interminable curses against Napoleon. He admired all the cycle of
great men who all contemned each other. To say that he had no streak
of envy in his nature would be true, but unfair; for there is no
justification for attributing any of these great men's opinions to
envy. But Browning was really unique, in that he had a certain
spontaneous and unthinking tendency to the admiration of others. He
admired another poet as he admired a fading sunset or a chance spring
leaf. He no more thought whether he could be as good as that man in
that department than whether he could be redder than the sunset or
greener than the leaf of spring. He was naturally magnanimous in the
literal sense of that sublime word; his mind was so great that it
rejoiced in the triumphs of strangers. In this spirit Browning had
already cast his eyes round in the literary world of his time, and had
been greatly and justifiably struck with the work of a young lady
poet, Miss Barrett.

That impression was indeed amply justified. In a time when it was
thought necessary for a lady to dilute the wine of poetry to its very
weakest tint, Miss Barrett had contrived to produce poetry which was
open to literary objection as too heady and too high-coloured. When
she erred it was through an Elizabethan audacity and luxuriance, a
straining after violent metaphors. With her reappeared in poetry a
certain element which had not been present in it since the last days
of Elizabethan literature, the fusion of the most elementary human
passion with something which can only be described as wit, a certain
love of quaint and sustained similes, of parallels wildly logical, and
of brazen paradox and antithesis. We find this hot wit, as distinct
from the cold wit of the school of Pope, in the puns and buffooneries
of Shakespeare. We find it lingering in _Hudibras_, and we do not find
it again until we come to such strange and strong lines as these of
Elizabeth Barrett in her poem on Napoleon:--

    "Blood fell like dew beneath his sunrise--sooth,
    But glittered dew-like in the covenanted
    And high-rayed light. He was a despot--granted,
    But the [Greek: autos] of his autocratic mouth
    Said 'Yea' i' the people's French! He magnified
    The image of the freedom he denied."

Her poems are full of quaint things, of such things as the eyes in the
peacock fans of the Vatican, which she describes as winking at the
Italian tricolor. She often took the step from the sublime to the
ridiculous: but to take this step one must reach the sublime.
Elizabeth Barrett contrived to assert, what still needs but then
urgently needed assertion, the fact that womanliness, whether in life
or poetry, was a positive thing, and not the negative of manliness.
Her verse at its best was quite as strong as Browning's own, and very
nearly as clever. The difference between their natures was a
difference between two primary colours, not between dark and light
shades of the same colour.

Browning had often heard not only of the public, but of the private
life of this lady from his father's friend Kenyon. The old man, who
was one of those rare and valuable people who have a talent for
establishing definite relationships with people after a comparatively
short intercourse, had been appointed by Miss Barrett as her "fairy
godfather." He spoke much about her to Browning, and of Browning to
her, with a certain courtly garrulity which was one of his talents.
And there could be little doubt that the two poets would have met long
before had it not been for certain peculiarities in the position of
Miss Barrett. She was an invalid, and an invalid of a somewhat unique
kind, and living beyond all question under very unique circumstances.

Her father, Edward Moulton Barrett, had been a landowner in the West
Indies, and thus, by a somewhat curious coincidence, had borne a part
in the same social system which stung Browning's father into revolt
and renunciation. The parts played by Edward Barrett, however, though
little or nothing is known of it, was probably very different. He was
a man Conservative by nature, a believer in authority in the nation
and the family, and endowed with some faculties for making his
conceptions prevail. He was an able man, capable in his language of a
certain bitter felicity of phrase. He was rigidly upright and
responsible, and he had a capacity for profound affection. But
selfishness of the most perilous sort, an unconscious selfishness, was
eating away his moral foundations, as it tends to eat away those of
all despots. His most fugitive moods changed and controlled the whole
atmosphere of the house, and the state of things was fully as
oppressive in the case of his good moods as in the case of his bad
ones. He had, what is perhaps the subtlest and worst spirit of
egotism, not that spirit merely which thinks that nothing should stand
in the way of its ill-temper, but that spirit which thinks that
nothing should stand in the way of its amiability. His daughters must
be absolutely at his beck and call, whether it was to be brow-beaten
or caressed. During the early years of Elizabeth Barrett's life, the
family had lived in the country, and for that brief period she had
known a more wholesome life than she was destined ever to know again
until her marriage long afterwards. She was not, as is the general
popular idea, absolutely a congenital invalid, weak, and almost
moribund from the cradle. In early girlhood she was slight and
sensitive indeed, but perfectly active and courageous. She was a good
horsewoman, and the accident which handicapped her for so many years
afterwards happened to her when she was riding. The injury to her
spine, however, will be found, the more we study her history, to be
only one of the influences which were to darken those bedridden years,
and to have among them a far less important place than has hitherto
been attached to it. Her father moved to a melancholy house in Wimpole
Street; and his own character growing gloomier and stranger as time
went on, he mounted guard over his daughter's sickbed in a manner
compounded of the pessimist and the disciplinarian. She was not
permitted to stir from the sofa, often not even to cross two rooms to
her bed. Her father came and prayed over her with a kind of melancholy
glee, and with the avowed solemnity of a watcher by a deathbed. She
was surrounded by that most poisonous and degrading of all
atmospheres--a medical atmosphere. The existence of this atmosphere
has nothing to do with the actual nature or prolongation of disease. A
man may pass three hours out of every five in a state of bad health,
and yet regard, as Stevenson regarded, the three hours as exceptional
and the two as normal. But the curse that lay on the Barrett household
was the curse of considering ill-health the natural condition of a
human being. The truth was that Edward Barrett was living emotionally
and æsthetically, like some detestable decadent poet, upon his
daughter's decline. He did not know this, but it was so. Scenes,
explanations, prayers, fury, and forgiveness had become bread and meat
for which he hungered; and when the cloud was upon his spirit, he
would lash out at all things and every one with the insatiable cruelty
of the sentimentalist.

It is wonderful that Elizabeth Barrett was not made thoroughly morbid
and impotent by this intolerable violence and more intolerable
tenderness. In her estimate of her own health she did, of course,
suffer. It is evident that she practically believed herself to be
dying. But she was a high-spirited woman, full of that silent and
quite unfathomable kind of courage which is only found in women, and
she took a much more cheerful view of death than her father did of
life. Silent rooms, low voices, lowered blinds, long days of
loneliness, and of the sickliest kind of sympathy, had not tamed a
spirit which was swift and headlong to a fault. She could still own
with truth the magnificent fact that her chief vice was impatience,
"tearing open parcels instead of untying them;" looking at the end of
books before she had read them was, she said, incurable with her. It
is difficult to imagine anything more genuinely stirring than the
achievement of this woman, who thus contrived, while possessing all
the excuses of an invalid, to retain some of the faults of a tomboy.

Impetuosity, vividness, a certain absoluteness and urgency in her
demands, marked her in the eyes of all who came in contact with her.
In after years, when Browning had experimentally shaved his beard off,
she told him with emphatic gestures that it must be grown again "that
minute." There we have very graphically the spirit which tears open
parcels. Not in vain, or as a mere phrase, did her husband after her
death describe her as "all a wonder and a wild desire."

She had, of course, lived her second and real life in literature and
the things of the mind, and this in a very genuine and strenuous
sense. Her mental occupations were not mere mechanical accomplishments
almost as colourless as the monotony they relieved, nor were they
coloured in any visible manner by the unwholesome atmosphere in which
she breathed. She used her brains seriously; she was a good Greek
scholar, and read Æschylus and Euripides unceasingly with her blind
friend, Mr. Boyd; and she had, and retained even to the hour of her
death, a passionate and quite practical interest in great public
questions. Naturally she was not uninterested in Robert Browning, but
it does not appear that she felt at this time the same kind of fiery
artistic curiosity that he felt about her. He does appear to have felt
an attraction, which may almost be called mystical, for the
personality which was shrouded from the world by such sombre curtains.
In 1845 he addressed a letter to her in which he spoke of a former
occasion on which they had nearly met, and compared it to the
sensation of having once been outside the chapel of some marvellous
illumination and found the door barred against him. In that phrase it
is easy to see how much of the romantic boyhood of Browning remained
inside the resolute man of the world into which he was to all external
appearance solidifying. Miss Barrett replied to his letters with
charming sincerity and humour, and with much of that leisurely
self-revelation which is possible for an invalid who has nothing else
to do. She herself, with her love of quiet and intellectual
companionship, would probably have been quite happy for the rest of
her life if their relations had always remained a learned and
delightful correspondence. But she must have known very little of
Robert Browning if she imagined he would be contented with this airy
and bloodless tie. At all times of his life he was sufficiently fond
of his own way; at this time he was especially prompt and impulsive,
and he had always a great love for seeing and hearing and feeling
people, a love of the physical presence of friends, which made him
slap men on the back and hit them in the chest when he was very fond
of them. The correspondence between the two poets had not long begun
when Browning suggested something which was almost a blasphemy in the
Barrett household, that he should come and call on her as he would on
any one else. This seems to have thrown her into a flutter of fear and
doubt. She alleges all kinds of obstacles, the chief of which were her
health and the season of the year and the east winds. "If my truest
heart's wishes avail," replied Browning obstinately, "you shall laugh
at east winds yet as I do."

Then began the chief part of that celebrated correspondence which has
within comparatively recent years been placed before the world. It is
a correspondence which has very peculiar qualities and raises many
profound questions.

It is impossible to deal at any length with the picture given in these
remarkable letters of the gradual progress and amalgamation of two
spirits of great natural potency and independence, without saying at
least a word about the moral question raised by their publication and
the many expressions of disapproval which it entails. To the mind of
the present writer the whole of such a question should be tested by
one perfectly clear intellectual distinction and comparison. I am not
prepared to admit that there is or can be, properly speaking, in the
world anything that is too sacred to be known. That spiritual beauty
and spiritual truth are in their nature communicable, and that they
should be communicated, is a principle which lies at the root of every
conceivable religion. Christ was crucified upon a hill, and not in a
cavern, and the word Gospel itself involves the same idea as the
ordinary name of a daily paper. Whenever, therefore, a poet or any
similar type of man can, or conceives that he can, make all men
partakers in some splendid secret of his own heart, I can imagine
nothing saner and nothing manlier than his course in doing so. Thus it
was that Dante made a new heaven and a new hell out of a girl's nod in
the streets of Florence. Thus it was that Paul founded a civilisation
by keeping an ethical diary. But the one essential which exists in all
such cases as these is that the man in question believes that he can
make the story as stately to the whole world as it is to him, and he
chooses his words to that end. Yet when a work contains expressions
which have one value and significance when read by the people to whom
they were addressed, and an entirely different value and significance
when read by any one else, then the element of the violation of
sanctity does arise. It is not because there is anything in this world
too sacred to tell. It is rather because there are a great many things
in this world too sacred to parody. If Browning could really convey to
the world the inmost core of his affection for his wife, I see no
reason why he should not. But the objection to letters which begin "My
dear Ba," is that they do not convey anything of the sort. As far as
any third person is concerned, Browning might as well have been
expressing the most noble and universal sentiment in the dialect of
the Cherokees. Objection to the publication of such passages as that,
in short, is not the fact that they tell us about the love of the
Brownings, but that they do not tell us about it.

Upon this principle it is obvious that there should have been a
selection among the Letters, but not a selection which should exclude
anything merely because it was ardent and noble. If Browning or Mrs.
Browning had not desired any people to know that they were fond of
each other, they would not have written and published "One Word More"
or "The Sonnets from the Portuguese." Nay, they would not have been
married in a public church, for every one who is married in a church
does make a confession of love of absolutely national publicity, and
tacitly, therefore, repudiates any idea that such confessions are too
sacred for the world to know. The ridiculous theory that men should
have no noble passions or sentiments in public may have been designed
to make private life holy and undefiled, but it has had very little
actual effect except to make public life cynical and preposterously
unmeaning. But the words of a poem or the words of the English
Marriage Service, which are as fine as many poems, is a language
dignified and deliberately intended to be understood by all. If the
bride and bridegroom in church, instead of uttering those words, were
to utter a poem compounded of private allusions to the foibles of Aunt
Matilda, or of childish secrets which they would tell each other in a
lane, it would be a parallel case to the publication of some of the
Browning Letters. Why the serious and universal portions of those
Letters could not be published without those which are to us idle and
unmeaning it is difficult to understand. Our wisdom, whether expressed
in private or public, belongs to the world, but our folly belongs to
those we love.

There is at least one peculiarity in the Browning Letters which tends
to make their publication far less open to objection than almost any
other collection of love letters which can be imagined. The ordinary
sentimentalist who delights in the most emotional of magazine
interviews, will not be able to get much satisfaction out of them,
because he and many persons more acute will be quite unable to make
head or tail of three consecutive sentences. In this respect it is the
most extraordinary correspondence in the world. There seem to be only
two main rules for this form of letter-writing: the first is, that if
a sentence can begin with a parenthesis it always should; and the
second is, that if you have written from a third to half of a sentence
you need never in any case write any more. It would be amusing to
watch any one who felt an idle curiosity as to the language and
secrets of lovers opening the Browning Letters. He would probably come
upon some such simple and lucid passage as the following: "I ought to
wait, say a week at least, having killed all your mules for you,
before I shot down your dogs.... But not being Phoibos Apollon, you
are to know further that when I _did_ think I might go modestly on ...
[Greek: ômoi], let me get out of this slough of a simile, never mind
with what dislocated ankles."

What our imaginary sentimentalist would make of this tender passage it
is difficult indeed to imagine. The only plain conclusion which
appears to emerge from the words is the somewhat curious one--that
Browning was in the habit of taking a gun down to Wimpole Street and
of demolishing the live stock on those somewhat unpromising premises.
Nor will he be any better enlightened if he turns to the reply of
Miss Barrett, which seems equally dominated with the great central
idea of the Browning correspondence that the most enlightening
passages in a letter consist of dots. She replies in a letter
following the above: "But if it could be possible that you should mean
to say you would show me. . . . Can it be? or am I reading this 'Attic
contraction' quite the wrong way. You see I am afraid of the
difference between flattering myself and being flattered . . . the
fatal difference. And now will you understand that I should be too
overjoyed to have revelations from the Portfolio . . . however
incarnated with blots and pen scratches . . . to be able to ask
impudently of them now? Is that plain?" Most probably she thought it
was.

With regard to Browning himself this characteristic is comparatively
natural and appropriate. Browning's prose was in any case the most
roundabout affair in the world. Those who knew him say that he would
often send an urgent telegram from which it was absolutely impossible
to gather where the appointment was, or when it was, or what was its
object. This fact is one of the best of all arguments against the
theory of Browning's intellectual conceit. A man would have to be
somewhat abnormally conceited in order to spend sixpence for the
pleasure of sending an unintelligible communication to the dislocation
of his own plans. The fact was, that it was part of the machinery of
his brain that things came out of it, as it were, backwards. The words
"tail foremost" express Browning's style with something more than a
conventional accuracy. The tail, the most insignificant part of an
animal, is also often the most animated and fantastic. An utterance of
Browning is often like a strange animal walking backwards, who
flourishes his tail with such energy that every one takes it for his
head. He was in other words, at least in his prose and practical
utterances, more or less incapable of telling a story without telling
the least important thing first. If a man who belonged to an Italian
secret society, one local branch of which bore as a badge an
olive-green ribbon, had entered his house, and in some sensational
interview tried to bribe or blackmail him, he would have told the
story with great energy and indignation, but he would have been
incapable of beginning with anything except the question of the colour
of olives. His whole method was founded both in literature and life
upon the principle of the "ex pede Herculem," and at the beginning of
his description of Hercules the foot appears some sizes larger than
the hero. It is, in short, natural enough that Browning should have
written his love letters obscurely, since he wrote his letters to his
publisher and his solicitor obscurely. In the case of Mrs. Browning it
is somewhat more difficult to understand. For she at least had, beyond
all question, a quite simple and lucent vein of humour, which does not
easily reconcile itself with this subtlety. But she was partly under
the influence of her own quality of passionate ingenuity or emotional
wit of which we have already taken notice in dealing with her poems,
and she was partly also no doubt under the influence of Browning.
Whatever was the reason, their correspondence was not of the sort
which can be pursued very much by the outside public. Their letters
may be published a hundred times over, they still remain private. They
write to each other in a language of their own, an almost
exasperatingly impressionist language, a language chiefly consisting
of dots and dashes and asterisks and italics, and brackets and notes
of interrogation. Wordsworth when he heard afterwards of their
eventual elopement said with that slight touch of bitterness he always
used in speaking of Browning, "So Robert Browning and Miss Barrett
have gone off together. I hope they understand each other--nobody else
would." It would be difficult to pay a higher compliment to a
marriage. Their common affection for Kenyon was a great element in
their lives and in their correspondence. "I have a convenient theory
to account for Mr. Kenyon," writes Browning mysteriously, "and his
otherwise unaccountable kindness to me." "For Mr. Kenyon's kindness,"
retorts Elizabeth Barrett, "no theory will account. I class it with
mesmerism for that reason." There is something very dignified and
beautiful about the simplicity of these two poets vying with each
other in giving adequate praise to the old dilettante, of whom the
world would never have heard but for them. Browning's feeling for him
was indeed especially strong and typical. "There," he said, pointing
after the old man as he left the room, "there goes one of the most
splendid men living--a man so noble in his friendship, so lavish in
his hospitality, so large-hearted and benevolent, that he deserves to
be known all over the world as 'Kenyon the Magnificent.'" There is
something thoroughly worthy of Browning at his best in this feeling,
not merely of the use of sociability, or of the charm of sociability,
but of the magnificence, the heroic largeness of real sociability.
Being himself a warm champion of the pleasures of society, he saw in
Kenyon a kind of poetic genius for the thing, a mission of
superficial philanthropy. He is thoroughly to be congratulated on the
fact that he had grasped the great but now neglected truth, that a man
may actually be great, yet not in the least able.

Browning's desire to meet Miss Barrett was received on her side, as
has been stated, with a variety of objections. The chief of these was
the strangely feminine and irrational reason that she was not worth
seeing, a point on which the seeker for an interview might be
permitted to form his own opinion. "There is nothing to see in me; nor
to hear in me.--I never learned to talk as you do in London; although
I can admire that brightness of carved speech in Mr. Kenyon and
others. If my poetry is worth anything to any eye, it is the flower of
me. I have lived most and been most happy in it, and so it has all my
colours; the rest of me is nothing but a root, fit for the ground and
dark." The substance of Browning's reply was to the effect, "I will
call at two on Tuesday."

They met on May 20, 1845. A short time afterwards he had fallen in
love with her and made her an offer of marriage. To a person in the
domestic atmosphere of the Barretts, the incident would appear to have
been paralysing. "I will tell you what I once said in jest ..." she
writes, "If a prince of El Dorado should come with a pedigree of
lineal descent from some signory in the moon in one hand and a ticket
of good behaviour from the nearest Independent chapel in the
other!--'Why, even _then_,' said my sister Arabel, 'it would not
_do_.' And she was right; we all agreed that she was right."

This may be taken as a fairly accurate description of the real state
of Mr. Barrett's mind on one subject. It is illustrative of the very
best and breeziest side of Elizabeth Barrett's character that she
could be so genuinely humorous over so tragic a condition of the human
mind.

Browning's proposals were, of course, as matters stood, of a character
to dismay and repel all those who surrounded Elizabeth Barrett. It was
not wholly a matter of the fancies of her father. The whole of her
family, and most probably the majority of her medical advisers, did
seriously believe at this time that she was unfit to be moved, to say
nothing of being married, and that a life passed between a bed and a
sofa, and avoiding too frequent and abrupt transitions even from one
to the other, was the only life she could expect on this earth. Almost
alone in holding another opinion and in urging her to a more vigorous
view of her condition, stood Browning himself. "But you are better,"
he would say; "you look so and speak so." Which of the two opinions
was right is of course a complex medical matter into which a book like
this has neither the right nor the need to enter. But this much may be
stated as a mere question of fact. In the summer of 1846 Elizabeth
Barrett was still living under the great family convention which
provided her with nothing but an elegant deathbed, forbidden to move,
forbidden to see proper daylight, forbidden to receive a friend lest
the shock should destroy her suddenly. A year or two later, in Italy,
as Mrs. Browning, she was being dragged up hill in a wine hamper,
toiling up to the crests of mountains at four o'clock in the morning,
riding for five miles on a donkey to what she calls "an inaccessible
volcanic ground not far from the stars." It is perfectly incredible
that any one so ill as her family believed her to be should have
lived this life for twenty-four hours. Something must be allowed for
the intoxication of a new tie and a new interest in life. But such
exaltations can in their nature hardly last a month, and Mrs. Browning
lived for fifteen years afterwards in infinitely better health than
she had ever known before. In the light of modern knowledge it is not
very difficult or very presumptuous, of us to guess that she had been
in her father's house to some extent inoculated with hysteria, that
strange affliction which some people speak of as if it meant the
absence of disease, but which is in truth the most terrible of all
diseases. It must be remembered that in 1846 little or nothing was
known of spine complaints such as that from which Elizabeth Barrett
suffered, less still of the nervous conditions they create, and least
of all of hysterical phenomena. In our day she would have been ordered
air and sunlight and activity, and all the things the mere idea of
which chilled the Barretts with terror. In our day, in short, it would
have been recognised that she was in the clutch of a form of neurosis
which exhibits every fact of a disease except its origin, that strange
possession which makes the body itself a hypocrite. Those who
surrounded Miss Barrett knew nothing of this, and Browning knew
nothing of it; and probably if he knew anything, knew less than they
did. Mrs. Orr says, probably with a great deal of truth, that of
ill-health and its sensations he remained "pathetically ignorant" to
his dying day. But devoid as he was alike of expert knowledge and
personal experience, without a shadow of medical authority, almost
without anything that can be formally called a right to his opinion,
he was, and remained, right. He at least saw, he indeed alone saw, to
the practical centre of the situation. He did not know anything about
hysteria or neurosis, or the influence of surroundings, but he knew
that the atmosphere of Mr. Barrett's house was not a fit thing for any
human being, alive, dying, or dead. His stand upon this matter has
really a certain human interest, since it is an example of a thing
which will from time to time occur, the interposition of the average
man to the confounding of the experts. Experts are undoubtedly right
nine times out of ten, but the tenth time comes, and we find in
military matters an Oliver Cromwell who will make every mistake known
to strategy and yet win all his battles, and in medical matters a
Robert Browning whose views have not a technical leg to stand on and
are entirely correct.

But while Browning was thus standing alone in his view of the matter,
while Edward Barrett had to all appearance on his side a phalanx of
all the sanities and respectabilities, there came suddenly a new
development, destined to bring matters to a crisis indeed, and to
weigh at least three souls in the balance. Upon further examination of
Miss Barrett's condition, the physicians had declared that it was
absolutely necessary that she should be taken to Italy. This may,
without any exaggeration, be called the turning-point and the last
great earthly opportunity of Barrett's character. He had not
originally been an evil man, only a man who, being stoical in
practical things, permitted himself, to his great detriment, a
self-indulgence in moral things. He had grown to regard his pious and
dying daughter as part of the furniture of the house and of the
universe. And as long as the great mass of authorities were on his
side, his illusion was quite pardonable. His crisis came when the
authorities changed their front, and with one accord asked his
permission to send his daughter abroad. It was his crisis, and he
refused.

He had, if we may judge from what we know of him, his own peculiar and
somewhat detestable way of refusing. Once when his daughter had asked
a perfectly simple favour in a matter of expediency, permission, that
is, to keep her favourite brother with her during an illness, her
singular parent remarked that "she might keep him if she liked, but
that he had looked for greater self-sacrifice." These were the weapons
with which he ruled his people. For the worst tyrant is not the man
who rules by fear; the worst tyrant is he who rules by love and plays
on it as on a harp. Barrett was one of the oppressors who have
discovered the last secret of oppression, that which is told in the
fine verse of Swinburne:--

    "The racks of the earth and the rods
    Are weak as the foam on the sands;
    The heart is the prey for the gods,
    Who crucify hearts, not hands."

He, with his terrible appeal to the vibrating consciences of women,
was, with regard to one of them, very near to the end of his reign.
When Browning heard that the Italian journey was forbidden, he
proposed definitely that they should marry and go on the journey
together.

Many other persons had taken cognisance of the fact, and were active
in the matter. Kenyon, the gentlest and most universally complimentary
of mortals, had marched into the house and given Arabella Barrett,
the sister of the sick woman, his opinion of her father's conduct
with a degree of fire and frankness which must have been perfectly
amazing in a man of his almost antiquated social delicacy. Mrs.
Jameson, an old and generous friend of the family, had immediately
stepped in and offered to take Elizabeth to Italy herself, thus
removing all questions of expense or arrangement. She would appear to
have stood to her guns in the matter with splendid persistence and
magnanimity. She called day after day seeking for a change of mind,
and delayed her own journey to the continent more than once. At
length, when it became evident that the extraction of Mr. Barrett's
consent was hopeless, she reluctantly began her own tour in Europe
alone. She went to Paris, and had not been there many days, when she
received a formal call from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning, who had been married for some days. Her astonishment is
rather a picturesque thing to think about.

The manner in which this sensational elopement, which was, of course,
the talk of the whole literary world, had been effected, is narrated,
as every one knows, in the Browning Letters. Browning had decided that
an immediate marriage was the only solution; and having put his hand
to the plough, did not decline even when it became obviously necessary
that it should be a secret marriage. To a man of his somewhat stormily
candid and casual disposition this necessity of secrecy was really
exasperating; but every one with any imagination or chivalry will
rejoice that he accepted the evil conditions. He had always had the
courage to tell the truth; and now it was demanded of him to have the
greater courage to tell a lie, and he told it with perfect
cheerfulness and lucidity. In thus disappearing surreptitiously with
an invalid woman he was doing something against which there were
undoubtedly a hundred things to be said, only it happened that the
most cogent and important thing of all was to be said for it.

It is very amusing, and very significant in the matter of Browning's
character, to read the accounts which he writes to Elizabeth Barrett
of his attitude towards the approaching _coup de théâtre_. In one
place he says, suggestively enough, that he does not in the least
trouble about the disapproval of her father; the man whom he fears as
a frustrating influence is Kenyon. Mr. Barrett could only walk into
the room and fly into a passion; and this Browning could have received
with perfect equanimity. "But," he says, "if Kenyon knows of the
matter, I shall have the kindest and friendliest of explanations (with
his arm on my shoulder) of how I am ruining your social position,
destroying your health, etc., etc." This touch is very suggestive of
the power of the old worldling, who could manoeuvre with young people
as well as Major Pendennis. Kenyon had indeed long been perfectly
aware of the way in which things were going; and the method he adopted
in order to comment on it is rather entertaining. In a conversation
with Elizabeth Barrett, he asked carelessly whether there was anything
between her sister and a certain Captain Cooke. On receiving a
surprised reply in the negative, he remarked apologetically that he
had been misled into the idea by the gentleman calling so often at the
house. Elizabeth Barrett knew perfectly well what he meant; but the
logical allusiveness of the attack reminds one of a fragment of some
Meredithian comedy.

The manner in which Browning bore himself in this acute and
necessarily dubious position is, perhaps, more thoroughly to his
credit than anything else in his career. He never came out so well in
all his long years of sincerity and publicity as he does in this one
act of deception. Having made up his mind to that act, he is not
ashamed to name it; neither, on the other hand, does he rant about it,
and talk about Philistine prejudices and higher laws and brides in the
sight of God, after the manner of the cockney decadent. He was
breaking a social law, but he was not declaring a crusade against
social laws. We all feel, whatever may be our opinions on the matter,
that the great danger of this kind of social opportunism, this pitting
of a private necessity against a public custom, is that men are
somewhat too weak and self-deceptive to be trusted with such a power
of giving dispensations to themselves. We feel that men without
meaning to do so might easily begin by breaking a social by-law and
end by being thoroughly anti-social. One of the best and most striking
things to notice about Robert Browning is the fact that he did this
thing considering it as an exception, and that he contrived to leave
it really exceptional. It did not in the least degree break the
rounded clearness of his loyalty to social custom. It did not in the
least degree weaken the sanctity of the general rule. At a supreme
crisis of his life he did an unconventional thing, and he lived and
died conventional. It would be hard to say whether he appears the more
thoroughly sane in having performed the act, or in not having allowed
it to affect him.

Elizabeth Barrett gradually gave way under the obstinate and almost
monotonous assertion of Browning that this elopement was the only
possible course of action. Before she finally agreed, however, she did
something, which in its curious and impulsive symbolism, belongs
almost to a more primitive age. The sullen system of medical seclusion
to which she had long been subjected has already been described. The
most urgent and hygienic changes were opposed by many on the ground
that it was not safe for her to leave her sofa and her sombre room. On
the day on which it was necessary for her finally to accept or reject
Browning's proposal, she called her sister to her, and to the
amazement and mystification of that lady asked for a carriage. In this
she drove into Regent's Park, alighted, walked on to the grass, and
stood leaning against a tree for some moments, looking round her at
the leaves and the sky. She then entered the cab again, drove home,
and agreed to the elopement. This was possibly the best poem that she
ever produced.

Browning arranged the eccentric adventure with a great deal of
prudence and knowledge of human nature. Early one morning in September
1846 Miss Barrett walked quietly out of her father's house, became
Mrs. Robert Browning in a church in Marylebone, and returned home
again as if nothing had happened. In this arrangement Browning showed
some of that real insight into the human spirit which ought to make a
poet the most practical of all men. The incident was, in the nature of
things, almost overpoweringly exciting to his wife, in spite of the
truly miraculous courage with which she supported it; and he desired,
therefore, to call in the aid of the mysteriously tranquillising
effect of familiar scenes and faces. One trifling incident is worth
mentioning which is almost unfathomably characteristic of Browning. It
has already been remarked in these pages that he was pre-eminently one
of those men whose expanding opinions never alter by a hairsbreadth
the actual ground-plan of their moral sense. Browning would have felt
the same things right and the same things wrong, whatever views he had
held. During the brief and most trying period between his actual
marriage and his actual elopement, it is most significant that he
would not call at the house in Wimpole Street, because he would have
been obliged to ask if Miss Barrett was disengaged. He was acting a
lie; he was deceiving a father; he was putting a sick woman to a
terrible risk; and these things he did not disguise from himself for a
moment, but he could not bring himself to say two words to a
maidservant. Here there may be partly the feeling of the literary man
for the sacredness of the uttered word, but there is far more of a
certain rooted traditional morality which it is impossible either to
describe or to justify. Browning's respectability was an older and
more primeval thing than the oldest and most primeval passions of
other men. If we wish to understand him, we must always remember that
in dealing with any of his actions we have not to ask whether the
action contains the highest morality, but whether we should have felt
inclined to do it ourselves.

At length the equivocal and exhausting interregnum was over. Mrs.
Browning went for the second time almost on tiptoe out of her father's
house, accompanied only by her maid and her dog, which was only just
successfully prevented from barking. Before the end of the day in all
probability Barrett had discovered that his dying daughter had fled
with Browning to Italy.

They never saw him again, and hardly more than a faint echo came to
them of the domestic earthquake which they left behind them. They do
not appear to have had many hopes, or to have made many attempts at a
reconciliation. Elizabeth Barrett had discovered at last that her
father was in truth not a man to be treated with; hardly, perhaps,
even a man to be blamed. She knew to all intents and purposes that she
had grown up in the house of a madman.



CHAPTER IV

BROWNING IN ITALY


The married pair went to Pisa in 1846, and moved soon afterwards to
Florence. Of the life of the Brownings in Italy there is much perhaps
to be said in the way of description and analysis, little to be said
in the way of actual narrative. Each of them had passed through the
one incident of existence. Just as Elizabeth Barrett's life had before
her marriage been uneventfully sombre, now it was uneventfully happy.
A succession of splendid landscapes, a succession of brilliant
friends, a succession of high and ardent intellectual interests, they
experienced; but their life was of the kind that if it were told at
all, would need to be told in a hundred volumes of gorgeous
intellectual gossip. How Browning and his wife rode far into the
country, eating strawberries and drinking milk out of the basins of
the peasants; how they fell in with the strangest and most picturesque
figures of Italian society; how they climbed mountains and read books
and modelled in clay and played on musical instruments; how Browning
was made a kind of arbiter between two improvising Italian bards; how
he had to escape from a festivity when the sound of Garibaldi's hymn
brought the knocking of the Austrian police; these are the things of
which his life is full, trifling and picturesque things, a series of
interludes, a beautiful and happy story, beginning and ending nowhere.
The only incidents, perhaps, were the birth of their son and the death
of Browning's mother in 1849.

It is well known that Browning loved Italy; that it was his adopted
country; that he said in one of the finest of his lyrics that the name
of it would be found written on his heart. But the particular
character of this love of Browning for Italy needs to be understood.
There are thousands of educated Europeans who love Italy, who live in
it, who visit it annually, who come across a continent to see it, who
hunt out its darkest picture and its most mouldering carving; but they
are all united in this, that they regard Italy as a dead place. It is
a branch of their universal museum, a department of dry bones. There
are rich and cultivated persons, particularly Americans, who seem to
think that they keep Italy, as they might keep an aviary or a
hothouse, into which they might walk whenever they wanted a whiff of
beauty. Browning did not feel at all in this manner; he was
intrinsically incapable of offering such an insult to the soul of a
nation. If he could not have loved Italy as a nation, he would not
have consented to love it as an old curiosity shop. In everything on
earth, from the Middle Ages to the amoeba, who is discussed at such
length in "Mr. Sludge the Medium," he is interested in the life in
things. He was interested in the life in Italian art and in the life
in Italian politics.

Perhaps the first and simplest example that can be given of this
matter is in Browning's interest in art. He was immeasurably
fascinated at all times by painting and sculpture, and his sojourn in
Italy gave him, of course, innumerable and perfect opportunities for
the study of painting and sculpture. But his interest in these studies
was not like that of the ordinary cultured visitor to the Italian
cities. Thousands of such visitors, for example, study those endless
lines of magnificent Pagan busts which are to be found in nearly all
the Italian galleries and museums, and admire them, and talk about
them, and note them in their catalogues, and describe them in their
diaries. But the way in which they affected Browning is described very
suggestively in a passage in the letters of his wife. She describes
herself as longing for her husband to write poems, beseeching him to
write poems, but finding all her petitions useless because her husband
was engaged all day in modelling busts in clay and breaking them as
fast as he made them. This is Browning's interest in art, the interest
in a living thing, the interest in a growing thing, the insatiable
interest in how things are done. Every one who knows his admirable
poems on painting--"Fra Lippo Lippi" and "Andrea del Sarto" and
"Pictor Ignotus"--will remember how fully they deal with
technicalities, how they are concerned with canvas, with oil, with a
mess of colours. Sometimes they are so technical as to be mysterious
to the casual reader. An extreme case may be found in that of a lady I
once knew who had merely read the title of "Pacchiarotto and how he
worked in distemper," and thought that Pacchiarotto was the name of a
dog, whom no attacks of canine disease could keep from the fulfilment
of his duty. These Browning poems do not merely deal with painting;
they smell of paint. They are the works of a man to whom art is not
what it is to so many of the non-professional lovers of art, a thing
accomplished, a valley of bones: to him it is a field of crops
continually growing in a busy and exciting silence. Browning was
interested, like some scientific man, in the obstetrics of art. There
is a large army of educated men who can talk art with artists; but
Browning could not merely talk art with artists--he could talk shop
with them. Personally he may not have known enough about painting to
be more than a fifth-rate painter, or enough about the organ to be
more than a sixth-rate organist. But there are, when all is said and
done, some things which a fifth-rate painter knows which a first-rate
art critic does not know; there are some things which a sixth-rate
organist knows which a first-rate judge of music does not know. And
these were the things that Browning knew.

He was, in other words, what is called an amateur. The word amateur
has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of
tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is
this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual
characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and
reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it
without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any
hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more
than any other man can love the rewards of it. Browning was in this
strict sense a strenuous amateur. He tried and practised in the course
of his life half a hundred things at which he can never have even for
a moment expected to succeed. The story of his life is full of absurd
little ingenuities, such as the discovery of a way of making pictures
by roasting brown paper over a candle. In precisely the same spirit
of fruitless vivacity, he made himself to a very considerable extent a
technical expert in painting, a technical expert in sculpture, a
technical expert in music. In his old age, he shows traces of being so
bizarre a thing as an abstract police detective, writing at length in
letters and diaries his views of certain criminal cases in an Italian
town. Indeed, his own _Ring and the Book_ is merely a sublime
detective story. He was in a hundred things this type of man; he was
precisely in the position, with a touch of greater technical success,
of the admirable figure in Stevenson's story who said, "I can play the
fiddle nearly well enough to earn a living in the orchestra of a penny
gaff, but not quite."

The love of Browning for Italian art, therefore, was anything but an
antiquarian fancy; it was the love of a living thing. We see the same
phenomenon in an even more important matter--the essence and
individuality of the country itself.

Italy to Browning and his wife was not by any means merely that
sculptured and ornate sepulchre that it is to so many of those
cultivated English men and women who live in Italy and enjoy and
admire and despise it. To them it was a living nation, the type and
centre of the religion and politics of a continent; the ancient and
flaming heart of Western history, the very Europe of Europe. And they
lived at the time of the most moving and gigantic of all dramas--the
making of a new nation, one of the things that makes men feel that
they are still in the morning of the earth. Before their eyes, with
every circumstance of energy and mystery, was passing the panorama of
the unification of Italy, with the bold and romantic militarism of
Garibaldi, the more bold and more romantic diplomacy of Cavour. They
lived in a time when affairs of State had almost the air of works of
art; and it is not strange that these two poets should have become
politicians in one of those great creative epochs when even the
politicians have to be poets.

Browning was on this question and on all the questions of continental
and English politics a very strong Liberal. This fact is not a mere
detail of purely biographical interest, like any view he might take of
the authorship of the "Eikon Basilike" or the authenticity of the
Tichborne claimant. Liberalism was so inevitably involved in the
poet's whole view of existence, that even a thoughtful and imaginative
Conservative would feel that Browning was bound to be a Liberal. His
mind was possessed, perhaps even to excess, by a belief in growth and
energy and in the ultimate utility of error. He held the great central
Liberal doctrine, a belief in a certain destiny of the human spirit
beyond, and perhaps even independent of, our own sincerest
convictions. The world was going right he felt, most probably in his
way, but certainly in its own way. The sonnet which he wrote in later
years, entitled "Why I am a Liberal," expresses admirably this
philosophical root of his politics. It asks in effect how he, who had
found truth in so many strange forms after so many strange wanderings,
can be expected to stifle with horror the eccentricities of others. A
Liberal may be defined approximately as a man who, if he could by
waving his hand in a dark room, stop the mouths of all the deceivers
of mankind for ever, would not wave his hand. Browning was a Liberal
in this sense.

And just as the great Liberal movement which followed the French
Revolution made this claim for the liberty and personality of human
beings, so it made it for the liberty and personality of nations. It
attached indeed to the independence of a nation something of the same
wholly transcendental sanctity which humanity has in all legal systems
attached to the life of a man. The grounds were indeed much the same;
no one could say absolutely that a live man was useless, and no one
could say absolutely that a variety of national life was useless or
must remain useless to the world. Men remembered how often barbarous
tribes or strange and alien Scriptures had been called in to revive
the blood of decaying empires and civilisations. And this sense of the
personality of a nation, as distinct from the personalities of all
other nations, did not involve in the case of these old Liberals
international bitterness; for it is too often forgotten that
friendship demands independence and equality fully as much as war. But
in them it led to great international partialities, to a great system,
as it were, of adopted countries which made so thorough a Scotchman as
Carlyle in love with Germany, and so thorough an Englishman as
Browning in love with Italy.

And while on the one side of the struggle was this great ideal of
energy and variety, on the other side was something which we now find
it difficult to realise or describe. We have seen in our own time a
great reaction in favour of monarchy, aristocracy, andecclesiasticism,
a reaction almost entirely noble in its instinct, and dwelling almost
entirely on the best periods and the best qualities of the old
_régime_. But the modern man, full of admiration for the great virtue
of chivalry which is at the heart of aristocracies, and the great
virtue of reverence which is at the heart of ceremonial religion, is
not in a position to form any idea of how profoundly unchivalrous, how
astonishingly irreverent, how utterly mean, and material, and devoid
of mystery or sentiment were the despotic systems of Europe which
survived, and for a time conquered, the Revolution. The case against
the Church in Italy in the time of Pio Nono was not the case which a
rationalist would urge against the Church of the time of St. Louis,
but diametrically the opposite case. Against the mediæval Church it
might be said that she was too fantastic, too visionary, too dogmatic
about the destiny of man, too indifferent to all things but the
devotional side of the soul. Against the Church of Pio Nono the main
thing to be said was that it was simply and supremely cynical; that it
was not founded on the unworldly instinct for distorting life, but on
the worldly counsel to leave life as it is; that it was not the
inspirer of insane hopes, of reward and miracle, but the enemy, the
cool and sceptical enemy, of hope of any kind or description. The same
was true of the monarchical systems of Prussia and Austria and Russia
at this time. Their philosophy was not the philosophy of the cavaliers
who rode after Charles I. or Louis XIII. It was the philosophy of the
typical city uncle, advising every one, and especially the young, to
avoid enthusiasm, to avoid beauty, to regard life as a machine,
dependent only upon the two forces of comfort and fear. That was,
there can be little doubt, the real reason of the fascination of the
Napoleon legend--that while Napoleon was a despot like the rest, he
was a despot who went somewhere and did something, and defied the
pessimism of Europe, and erased the word "impossible." One does not
need to be a Bonapartist to rejoice at the way in which the armies of
the First Empire, shouting their songs and jesting with their
colonels, smote and broke into pieces the armies of Prussia and
Austria driven into battle with a cane.

Browning, as we have said, was in Italy at the time of the break-up of
one part of this frozen continent of the non-possumus, Austria's hold
in the north of Italy was part of that elaborate and comfortable and
wholly cowardly and unmeaning compromise, which the Holy Alliance had
established, and which it believed without doubt in its solid unbelief
would last until the Day of Judgment, though it is difficult to
imagine what the Holy Alliance thought would happen then. But almost
of a sudden affairs had begun to move strangely, and the despotic
princes and their chancellors discovered with a great deal of
astonishment that they were not living in the old age of the world,
but to all appearance in a very unmanageable period of its boyhood. In
an age of ugliness and routine, in a time when diplomatists and
philosophers alike tended to believe that they had a list of all human
types, there began to appear men who belonged to the morning of the
world, men whose movements have a national breadth and beauty, who act
symbols and become legends while they are alive. Garibaldi in his red
shirt rode in an open carriage along the front of a hostile fort
calling to the coachman to drive slower, and not a man dared fire a
shot at him. Mazzini poured out upon Europe a new mysticism of
humanity and liberty, and was willing, like some passionate Jesuit of
the sixteenth century, to become in its cause either a philosopher or
a criminal. Cavour arose with a diplomacy which was more thrilling and
picturesque than war itself. These men had nothing to do with an age
of the impossible. They have passed, their theories along with them,
as all things pass; but since then we have had no men of their type
precisely, at once large and real and romantic and successful. Gordon
was a possible exception. They were the last of the heroes.

When Browning was first living in Italy, a telegram which had been
sent to him was stopped on the frontier and suppressed on account of
his known sympathy with the Italian Liberals. It is almost impossible
for people living in a commonwealth like ours to understand how a
small thing like that will affect a man. It was not so much the
obvious fact that a great practical injury was really done to him;
that the telegram might have altered all his plans in matters of vital
moment. It was, over and above that, the sense of a hand laid on
something personal and essentially free. Tyranny like this is not the
worst tyranny, but it is the most intolerable. It interferes with men
not in the most serious matters, but precisely in those matters in
which they most resent interference. It may be illogical for men to
accept cheerfully unpardonable public scandals, benighted educational
systems, bad sanitation, bad lighting, a blundering and inefficient
system of life, and yet to resent the tearing up of a telegram or a
post-card; but the fact remains that the sensitiveness of men is a
strange and localised thing, and there is hardly a man in the world
who would not rather be ruled by despots chosen by lot and live in a
city like a mediæval Ghetto, than be forbidden by a policeman to
smoke another cigarette, or sit up a quarter of an hour later; hardly
a man who would not feel inclined in such a case to raise a rebellion
for a caprice for which he did not really care a straw. Unmeaning and
muddle-headed tyranny in small things, that is the thing which, if
extended over many years, is harder to bear and hope through than the
massacres of September. And that was the nightmare of vexatious
triviality which was lying over all the cities of Italy that were
ruled by the bureaucratic despotisms of Europe. The history of the
time is full of spiteful and almost childish struggles--struggles
about the humming of a tune or the wearing of a colour, the arrest of
a journey, or the opening of a letter. And there can be little doubt
that Browning's temperament under these conditions was not of the kind
to become more indulgent, and there grew in him a hatred of the
Imperial and Ducal and Papal systems of Italy, which sometimes passed
the necessities of Liberalism, and sometimes even transgressed its
spirit. The life which he and his wife lived in Italy was
extraordinarily full and varied, when we consider the restrictions
under which one at least of them had always lain. They met and took
delight, notwithstanding their exile, in some of the most interesting
people of their time--Ruskin, Cardinal Manning, and Lord Lytton.
Browning, in a most characteristic way, enjoyed the society of all of
them, arguing with one, agreeing with another, sitting up all night by
the bedside of a third.

It has frequently been stated that the only difference that ever
separated Mr. and Mrs. Browning was upon the question of spiritualism.
That statement must, of course, be modified and even contradicted if
it means that they never differed; that Mr. Browning never thought an
_Act of Parliament_ good when Mrs. Browning thought it bad; that Mr.
Browning never thought bread stale when Mrs. Browning thought it new.
Such unanimity is not only inconceivable, it is immoral; and as a
matter of fact, there is abundant evidence that their marriage
constituted something like that ideal marriage, an alliance between
two strong and independent forces. They differed, in truth, about a
great many things, for example, about Napoleon III. whom Mrs. Browning
regarded with an admiration which would have been somewhat beyond the
deserts of Sir Galahad, and whom Browning with his emphatic Liberal
principles could never pardon for the _Coup d'État_. If they differed
on spiritualism in a somewhat more serious way than this, the reason
must be sought in qualities which were deeper and more elemental in
both their characters than any mere matter of opinion. Mrs. Orr, in
her excellent _Life of Browning_, states that the difficulty arose
from Mrs. Browning's firm belief in psychical phenomena and Browning's
absolute refusal to believe even in their possibility. Another writer
who met them at this time says, "Browning cannot believe, and Mrs.
Browning cannot help believing." This theory, that Browning's aversion
to the spiritualist circle arose from an absolute denial of the
tenability of such a theory of life and death, has in fact often been
repeated. But it is exceedingly difficult to reconcile it with
Browning's character. He was the last man in the world to be
intellectually deaf to a hypothesis merely because it was odd. He had
friends whose opinions covered every description of madness from the
French legitimism of De Ripert-Monclar to the Republicanism of
Landor. Intellectually he may be said to have had a zest for heresies.
It is difficult to impute an attitude of mere impenetrable negation to
a man who had expressed with sympathy the religion of "Caliban" and
the morality of "Time's Revenges." It is true that at this time of the
first popular interest in spiritualism a feeling existed among many
people of a practical turn of mind, which can only be called a
superstition against believing in ghosts. But, intellectually
speaking, Browning would probably have been one of the most tolerant
and curious in regard to the new theories, whereas the popular version
of the matter makes him unusually intolerant and negligent even for
that time. The fact was in all probability that Browning's aversion to
the spiritualists had little or nothing to do with spiritualism. It
arose from quite a different side of his character--his uncompromising
dislike of what is called Bohemianism, of eccentric or slovenly
cliques, of those straggling camp followers of the arts who exhibit
dubious manners and dubious morals, of all abnormality and of all
irresponsibility. Any one, in fact, who wishes to see what it was that
Browning disliked need only do two things. First, he should read the
_Memoirs_ of David Home, the famous spiritualist medium with whom
Browning came in contact. These _Memoirs_ constitute a more thorough
and artistic self-revelation than any monologue that Browning ever
wrote. The ghosts, the raps, the flying hands, the phantom voices are
infinitely the most respectable and infinitely the most credible part
of the narrative. But the bragging, the sentimentalism, the moral and
intellectual foppery of the composition is everywhere, culminating
perhaps in the disgusting passage in which Home describes Mrs.
Browning as weeping over him and assuring him that all her husband's
actions in the matter have been adopted against her will. It is in
this kind of thing that we find the roots of the real anger of
Browning. He did not dislike spiritualism, but spiritualists. The
second point on which any one wishing to be just in the matter should
cast an eye, is the record of the visit which Mrs. Browning insisted
on making while on their honeymoon in Paris to the house of George
Sand. Browning felt, and to some extent expressed, exactly the same
aversion to his wife mixing with the circle of George Sand which he
afterwards felt at her mixing with the circle of Home. The society was
"of the ragged red, diluted with the low theatrical, men who worship
George Sand, _à genou bas_ between an oath and an ejection of saliva."
When we find that a man did not object to any number of Jacobites or
Atheists, but objected to the French Bohemian poets and to the early
occultist mediums as friends for his wife, we shall surely be fairly
right in concluding that he objected not to an opinion, but to a
social tone. The truth was that Browning had a great many admirably
Philistine feelings, and one of them was a great relish for his
responsibilities towards his wife. He enjoyed being a husband. This is
quite a distinct thing from enjoying being a lover, though it will
scarcely be found apart from it. But, like all good feelings, it has
its possible exaggerations, and one of them is this almost morbid
healthiness in the choice of friends for his wife.

David Home, the medium, came to Florence about 1857. Mrs. Browning
undoubtedly threw herself into psychical experiments with great ardour
at first, and Browning, equally undoubtedly, opposed, and at length
forbade, the enterprise. He did not do so however until he had
attended one _séance_ at least, at which a somewhat ridiculous event
occurred, which is described in Home's _Memoirs_ with a gravity even
more absurd than the incident. Towards the end of the proceedings a
wreath was placed in the centre of the table, and the lights being
lowered, it was caused to rise slowly into the air, and after hovering
for some time, to move towards Mrs. Browning, and at length to alight
upon her head. As the wreath was floating in her direction, her
husband was observed abruptly to cross the room and stand beside her.
One would think it was a sufficiently natural action on the part of a
man whose wife was the centre of a weird and disturbing experiment,
genuine or otherwise. But Mr. Home gravely asserts that it was
generally believed that Browning had crossed the room in the hope that
the wreath would alight on his head, and that from the hour of its
disobliging refusal to do so dated the whole of his goaded and
malignant aversion to spiritualism. The idea of the very conventional
and somewhat bored Robert Browning running about the room after a
wreath in the hope of putting his head into it, is one of the genuine
gleams of humour in this rather foolish affair. Browning could be
fairly violent, as we know, both in poetry and conversation; but it
would be almost too terrible to conjecture what he would have felt and
said if Mr. Home's wreath had alighted on his head.

Next day, according to Home's account, he called on the hostess of the
previous night in what the writer calls "a ridiculous state of
excitement," and told her apparently that she must excuse him if he
and his wife did not attend any more gatherings of the kind. What
actually occurred is not, of course, quite easy to ascertain, for the
account in Home's _Memoirs_ principally consists of noble speeches
made by the medium which would seem either to have reduced Browning to
a pulverised silence, or else to have failed to attract his attention.
But there can be no doubt that the general upshot of the affair was
that Browning put his foot down, and the experiments ceased. There can
be little doubt that he was justified in this; indeed, he was probably
even more justified if the experiments were genuine psychical
mysteries than if they were the _hocus-pocus_ of a charlatan. He knew
his wife better than posterity can be expected to do; but even
posterity can see that she was the type of woman so much adapted to
the purposes of men like Home as to exhibit almost invariably either a
great craving for such experiences or a great terror of them. Like
many geniuses, but not all, she lived naturally upon something like a
borderland; and it is impossible to say that if Browning had not
interposed when she was becoming hysterical she might not have ended
in an asylum.

The whole of this incident is very characteristic of Browning; but the
real characteristic note in it has, as above suggested, been to some
extent missed. When some seven years afterwards he produced "Mr.
Sludge the Medium," every one supposed that it was an attack upon
spiritualism and the possibility of its phenomena. As we shall see
when we come to that poem, this is a wholly mistaken interpretation of
it. But what is really curious is that most people have assumed that a
dislike of Home's investigations implies a theoretic disbelief in
spiritualism. It might, of course, imply a very firm and serious
belief in it. As a matter of fact it did not imply this in Browning,
but it may perfectly well have implied an agnosticism which admitted
the reasonableness of such things. Home was infinitely less dangerous
as a dexterous swindler than he was as a bad or foolish man in
possession of unknown or ill-comprehended powers. It is surely curious
to think that a man must object to exposing his wife to a few
conjuring tricks, but could not be afraid of exposing her to the loose
and nameless energies of the universe.

Browning's theoretic attitude in the matter was, therefore, in all
probability quite open and unbiassed. His was a peculiarly hospitable
intellect. If any one had told him of the spiritualist theory, or
theories a hundred times more insane, as things held by some sect of
Gnostics in Alexandria, or of heretical Talmudists at Antwerp, he
would have delighted in those theories, and would very likely have
adopted them. But Greek Gnostics and Antwerp Jews do not dance round a
man's wife and wave their hands in her face and send her into swoons
and trances about which nobody knows anything rational or scientific.
It was simply the stirring in Browning of certain primal masculine
feelings far beyond the reach of argument--things that lie so deep
that if they are hurt, though there may be no blame and no anger,
there is always pain. Browning did not like spiritualism to be
mentioned for many years.

Robert Browning was unquestionably a thoroughly conventional man.
There are many who think this element of conventionality altogether
regrettable and disgraceful; they have established, as it were, a
convention of the unconventional. But this hatred of the conventional
element in the personality of a poet is only possible to those who do
not remember the meaning of words. Convention means only a coming
together, an agreement; and as every poet must base his work upon an
emotional agreement among men, so every poet must base his work upon a
convention. Every art is, of course, based upon a convention, an
agreement between the speaker and the listener that certain objections
shall not be raised. The most realistic art in the world is open to
realistic objection. Against the most exact and everyday drama that
ever came out of Norway it is still possible for the realist to raise
the objection that the hero who starts a subject and drops it, who
runs out of a room and runs back again for his hat, is all the time
behaving in a most eccentric manner, considering that he is doing
these things in a room in which one of the four walls has been taken
clean away and been replaced by a line of footlights and a mob of
strangers. Against the most accurate black-and-white artist that human
imagination can conceive it is still to be admitted that he draws a
black line round a man's nose, and that that line is a lie. And in
precisely the same fashion a poet must, by the nature of things, be
conventional. Unless he is describing an emotion which others share
with him, his labours will be utterly in vain. If a poet really had an
original emotion; if, for example, a poet suddenly fell in love with
the buffers of a railway train, it would take him considerably more
time than his allotted three-score years and ten to communicate his
feelings.

Poetry deals with primal and conventional things--the hunger for
bread, the love of woman, the love of children, the desire for
immortal life. If men really had new sentiments, poetry could not deal
with them. If, let us say, a man did not feel a bitter craving to eat
bread; but did, by way of substitute, feel a fresh, original craving
to eat brass fenders or mahogany tables, poetry could not express him.
If a man, instead of falling in love with a woman, fell in love with a
fossil or a sea anemone, poetry could not express him. Poetry can only
express what is original in one sense--the sense in which we speak of
original sin. It is original, not in the paltry sense of being new,
but in the deeper sense of being old; it is original in the sense that
it deals with origins.

All artists, who have any experience of the arts, will agree so far,
that a poet is bound to be conventional with regard to matters of art.
Unfortunately, however, they are the very people who cannot, as a
general rule, see that a poet is also bound to be conventional in
matters of conduct. It is only the smaller poet who sees the poetry of
revolt, of isolation, of disagreement; the larger poet sees the poetry
of those great agreements which constitute the romantic achievement of
civilisation. Just as an agreement between the dramatist and the
audience is necessary to every play; just as an agreement between the
painter and the spectators is necessary to every picture, so an
agreement is necessary to produce the worship of any of the great
figures of morality--the hero, the saint, the average man, the
gentleman. Browning had, it must thoroughly be realised, a real
pleasure in these great agreements, these great conventions. He
delighted, with a true poetic delight, in being conventional. Being
by birth an Englishman, he took pleasure in being an Englishman; being
by rank a member of the middle class, he took a pride in its ancient
scruples and its everlasting boundaries. He was everything that he was
with a definite and conscious pleasure--a man, a Liberal, an
Englishman, an author, a gentleman, a lover, a married man.

This must always be remembered as a general characteristic of
Browning, this ardent and headlong conventionality. He exhibited it
pre-eminently in the affair of his elopement and marriage, during and
after the escape of himself and his wife to Italy. He seems to have
forgotten everything, except the splendid worry of being married. He
showed a thoroughly healthy consciousness that he was taking up a
responsibility which had its practical side. He came finally and
entirely out of his dreams. Since he had himself enough money to live
on, he had never thought of himself as doing anything but writing
poetry; poetry indeed was probably simmering and bubbling in his head
day and night. But when the problem of the elopement arose he threw
himself with an energy, of which it is pleasant to read, into every
kind of scheme for solidifying his position. He wrote to Monckton
Milnes, and would appear to have badgered him with applications for a
post in the British Museum. "I will work like a horse," he said, with
that boyish note, which, whenever in his unconsciousness he strikes
it, is more poetical than all his poems. All his language in this
matter is emphatic; he would be "glad and proud," he says, "to have
any minor post" his friend could obtain for him. He offered to read
for the Bar, and probably began doing so. But all this vigorous and
very creditable materialism was ruthlessly extinguished by Elizabeth
Barrett. She declined altogether even to entertain the idea of her
husband devoting himself to anything else at the expense of poetry.
Probably she was right and Browning wrong, but it was an error which
every man would desire to have made.

One of the qualities again which make Browning most charming, is the
fact that he felt and expressed so simple and genuine a satisfaction
about his own achievements as a lover and husband, particularly in
relation to his triumph in the hygienic care of his wife. "If he is
vain of anything," writes Mrs. Browning, "it is of my restored
health." Later, she adds with admirable humour and suggestiveness,
"and I have to tell him that he really must not go telling everybody
how his wife walked here with him, or walked there with him, as if a
wife with two feet were a miracle in Nature." When a lady in Italy
said, on an occasion when Browning stayed behind with his wife on the
day of a picnic, that he was "the only man who behaved like a
Christian to his wife," Browning was elated to an almost infantile
degree. But there could scarcely be a better test of the essential
manliness and decency of a man than this test of his vanities.
Browning boasted of being domesticated; there are half a hundred men
everywhere who would be inclined to boast of not being domesticated.
Bad men are almost without exception conceited, but they are commonly
conceited of their defects.

One picturesque figure who plays a part in this portion of the
Brownings' life in Italy is Walter Savage Landor. Browning found him
living with some of his wife's relations, and engaged in a continuous
and furious quarrel with them, which was, indeed, not uncommonly the
condition of that remarkable man when living with other human beings.
He had the double arrogance which is only possible to that old and
stately but almost extinct blend--the aristocratic republican. Like an
old Roman senator, or like a gentleman of the Southern States of
America, he had the condescension of a gentleman to those below him,
combined with the jealous self-assertiveness of a Jacobin to those
above. The only person who appears to have been able to manage him and
bring out his more agreeable side was Browning. It is, by the way, one
of the many hints of a certain element in Browning which can only be
described by the elementary and old-fashioned word goodness, that he
always contrived to make himself acceptable and even lovable to men of
savage and capricious temperament, of detached and erratic genius, who
could get on with no one else. Carlyle, who could not get a bitter
taste off his tongue in talking of most of his contemporaries, was
fond of Browning. Landor, who could hardly conduct an ordinary
business interview without beginning to break the furniture, was fond
of Browning. These are things which speak more for a man than many
people will understand. It is easy enough to be agreeable to a circle
of admirers, especially feminine admirers, who have a peculiar talent
for discipleship and the absorption of ideas. But when a man is loved
by other men of his own intellectual stature and of a wholly different
type and order of eminence, we may be certain that there was something
genuine about him, and something far more important than anything
intellectual. Men do not like another man because he is a genius,
least of all when they happen to be geniuses themselves. This general
truth about Browning is like hearing of a woman who is the most famous
beauty in a city, and who is at the same time adored and confided in
by all the women who live there.

Browning came to the rescue of the fiery old gentleman, and helped by
Seymour Kirkup put him under very definite obligations by a course of
very generous conduct. He was fully repaid in his own mind for his
trouble by the mere presence and friendship of Landor, for whose
quaint and volcanic personality he had a vast admiration, compounded
of the pleasure of the artist in an oddity and of the man in a hero.
It is somewhat amusing and characteristic that Mrs. Browning did not
share this unlimited enjoyment of the company of Mr. Landor, and
expressed her feelings in her own humorous manner. She writes, "Dear,
darling Robert amuses me by talking of his gentleness and sweetness. A
most courteous and refined gentleman he is, of course, and very
affectionate to Robert (as he ought to be), but of self-restraint he
has not a grain, and of suspicion many grains. What do you really say
to dashing down a plate on the floor when you don't like what's on it?
Robert succeeded in soothing him, and the poor old lion is very quiet
on the whole, roaring softly to beguile the time in Latin alcaics
against his wife and Louis Napoleon."

One event alone could really end this endless life of the Italian
Arcadia. That event happened on June 29, 1861. Robert Browning's wife
died, stricken by the death of her sister, and almost as hard (it is a
characteristic touch) by the death of Cavour. She died alone in the
room with Browning, and of what passed then, though much has been
said, little should be. He, closing the door of that room behind him,
closed a door in himself, and none ever saw Browning upon earth again
but only a splendid surface.



CHAPTER V

BROWNING IN LATER LIFE


Browning's confidences, what there were of them, immediately after his
wife's death were given to several women-friends; all his life,
indeed, he was chiefly intimate with women. The two most intimate of
these were his own sister, who remained with him in all his later
years, and the sister of his wife, who seven years afterwards passed
away in his presence as Elizabeth had done. The other letters, which
number only one or two, referring in any personal manner to his
bereavement are addressed to Miss Haworth and Isa Blagden. He left
Florence and remained for a time with his father and sister near
Dinard. Then he returned to London and took up his residence in
Warwick Crescent. Naturally enough, the thing for which he now chiefly
lived was the education of his son, and it is characteristic of
Browning that he was not only a very indulgent father, but an
indulgent father of a very conventional type: he had rather the
chuckling pride of the city gentleman than the educational gravity of
the intellectual.

Browning was now famous, _Bells and Pomegranates, Men and Women,
Christmas Eve_, and _Dramatis Personæ_ had successively glorified his
Italian period. But he was already brooding half-unconsciously on more
famous things. He has himself left on record a description of the
incident out of which grew the whole impulse and plan of his greatest
achievement. In a passage marked with all his peculiar sense of
material things, all that power of writing of stone or metal or the
fabric of drapery, so that we seem to be handling and smelling them,
he has described a stall for the selling of odds and ends of every
variety of utility and uselessness:--

                                  "picture frames
    White through the worn gilt, mirror-sconces chipped,
    Bronze angel-heads once knobs attached to chests,
    (Handled when ancient dames chose forth brocade)
    Modern chalk drawings, studies from the nude,
    Samples of stone, jet, breccia, porphyry
    Polished and rough, sundry amazing busts
    In baked earth, (broken, Providence be praised!)
    A wreck of tapestry proudly-purposed web
    When reds and blues were indeed red and blue,
    Now offer'd as a mat to save bare feet
    (Since carpets constitute a cruel cost).
           *       *       *       *       *
    Vulgarised Horace for the use of schools,
    'The Life, Death, Miracles of Saint Somebody,
    Saint Somebody Else, his Miracles, Death, and Life'--
    With this, one glance at the lettered back of which,
    And 'Stall,' cried I; a _lira_ made it mine."

This sketch embodies indeed the very poetry of _débris_, and comes
nearer than any other poem has done to expressing the pathos and
picturesqueness of a low-class pawnshop. "This," which Browning bought
for a lira out of this heap of rubbish, was, of course, the old Latin
record of the criminal case of Guido Franceschini, tried for the
murder of his wife Pompilia in the year 1698. And this again, it is
scarcely necessary to say, was the ground-plan and motive of _The Ring
and the Book_.

Browning had picked up the volume and partly planned the poem during
his wife's lifetime in Italy. But the more he studied it, the more the
dimensions of the theme appeared to widen and deepen; and he came at
last, there can be little doubt, to regard it definitely as his
_magnum opus_ to which he would devote many years to come. Then came
the great sorrow of his life, and he cast about him for something
sufficiently immense and arduous and complicated to keep his brain
going like some huge and automatic engine. "I mean to keep writing,"
he said, "whether I like it or not." And thus finally he took up the
scheme of the Franceschini story, and developed it on a scale with a
degree of elaboration, repetition, and management, and inexhaustible
scholarship which was never perhaps before given in the history of the
world to an affair of two or three characters. Of the larger literary
and spiritual significance of the work, particularly in reference to
its curious and original form of narration, I shall speak
subsequently. But there is one peculiarity about the story which has
more direct bearing on Browning's life, and it appears singular that
few, if any, of his critics have noticed it. This peculiarity is the
extraordinary resemblance between the moral problem involved in the
poem if understood in its essence, and the moral problem which
constituted the crisis and centre of Browning's own life. Nothing,
properly speaking, ever happened to Browning after his wife's death;
and his greatest work during that time was the telling, under alien
symbols and the veil of a wholly different story, the inner truth
about his own greatest trial and hesitation. He himself had in this
sense the same difficulty as Caponsacchi, the supreme difficulty of
having to trust himself to the reality of virtue not only without the
reward, but even without the name of virtue. He had, like Caponsacchi,
preferred what was unselfish and dubious to what was selfish and
honourable. He knew better than any man that there is little danger of
men who really know anything of that naked and homeless responsibility
seeking it too often or indulging it too much. The conscientiousness
of the law-abider is nothing in its terrors to the conscientiousness
of the conscientious law-breaker. Browning had once, for what he
seriously believed to be a greater good, done what he himself would
never have had the cant to deny, ought to be called deceit and
evasion. Such a thing ought never to come to a man twice. If he finds
that necessity twice, he may, I think, be looked at with the beginning
of a suspicion. To Browning it came once, and he devoted his greatest
poem to a suggestion of how such a necessity may come to any man who
is worthy to live.

As has already been suggested, any apparent danger that there may be
in this excusing of an exceptional act is counteracted by the perils
of the act, since it must always be remembered that this kind of act
has the immense difference from all legal acts--that it can only be
justified by success. If Browning had taken his wife to Paris, and she
had died in an hotel there, we can only conceive him saying, with the
bitter emphasis of one of his own lines, "How should I have borne me,
please?" Before and after this event his life was as tranquil and
casual a one as it would be easy to imagine; but there always remained
upon him something which was felt by all who knew him in after
years--the spirit of a man who had been ready when his time came, and
had walked in his own devotion and certainty in a position counted
indefensible and almost along the brink of murder. This great moral of
Browning, which may be called roughly the doctrine of the great hour,
enters, of course, into many poems besides _The Ring and the Book_,
and is indeed the mainspring of a great part of his poetry taken as a
whole. It is, of course, the central idea of that fine poem, "The
Statue and the Bust," which has given a great deal of distress to a
great many people because of its supposed invasion of recognised
morality. It deals, as every one knows, with a Duke Ferdinand and an
elopement which he planned with the bride of one of the Riccardi. The
lovers begin by deferring their flight for various more or less
comprehensible reasons of convenience; but the habit of shrinking from
the final step grows steadily upon them, and they never take it, but
die, as it were, waiting for each other. The objection that the act
thus avoided was a criminal one is very simply and quite clearly
answered by Browning himself. His case against the dilatory couple is
not in the least affected by the viciousness of their aim. His case is
that they exhibited no virtue. Crime was frustrated in them by
cowardice, which is probably the worse immorality of the two. The same
idea again may be found in that delightful lyric "Youth and Art,"
where a successful cantatrice reproaches a successful sculptor with
their failure to understand each other in their youth and poverty.

    "Each life unfulfilled, you see;
    It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:
    We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
    Starved, feasted, despaired,--been happy."

And this conception of the great hour, which breaks out everywhere in
Browning, it is almost impossible not to connect with his own internal
drama. It is really curious that this correspondence has not been
insisted on. Probably critics have been misled by the fact that
Browning in many places appears to boast that he is purely dramatic,
that he has never put himself into his work, a thing which no poet,
good or bad, who ever lived could possibly avoid doing.

The enormous scope and seriousness of _The Ring and the Book_ occupied
Browning for some five or six years, and the great epic appeared in
the winter of 1868. Just before it was published Smith and Elder
brought out a uniform edition of all Browning's works up to that time,
and the two incidents taken together may be considered to mark the
final and somewhat belated culmination of Browning's literary fame.
The years since his wife's death, that had been covered by the writing
of _The Ring and the Book_, had been years of an almost feverish
activity in that and many other ways. His travels had been restless
and continued, his industry immense, and for the first time he began
that mode of life which afterwards became so characteristic of
him--the life of what is called society. A man of a shallower and more
sentimental type would have professed to find the life of
dinner-tables and soirées vain and unsatisfying to a poet, and
especially to a poet in mourning. But if there is one thing more than
another which is stirring and honourable about Browning, it is the
entire absence in him of this cant of dissatisfaction. He had the one
great requirement of a poet--he was not difficult to please. The life
of society was superficial, but it is only very superficial people who
object to the superficial. To the man who sees the marvellousness of
all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its
interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as
its mysteries. The young man in evening dress, pulling on his gloves,
is quite as elemental a figure as any anchorite, quite as
incomprehensible, and indeed quite as alarming.

A great many literary persons have expressed astonishment at, or even
disapproval of, this social frivolity of Browning's. Not one of these
literary people would have been shocked if Browning's interest in
humanity had led him into a gambling hell in the Wild West or a low
tavern in Paris; but it seems to be tacitly assumed that fashionable
people are not human at all. Humanitarians of a material and dogmatic
type, the philanthropists and the professional reformers go to look
for humanity in remote places and in huge statistics. Humanitarians of
a more vivid type, the Bohemian artists, go to look for humanity in
thieves' kitchens and the studios of the Quartier Latin. But
humanitarians of the highest type, the great poets and philosophers,
do not go to look for humanity at all. For them alone among all men
the nearest drawing-room is full of humanity, and even their own
families are human. Shakespeare ended his life by buying a house in
his own native town and talking to the townsmen. Browning was invited
to a great many conversaziones and private views, and did not pretend
that they bored him. In a letter belonging to this period of his life
he describes his first dinner at one of the Oxford colleges with an
unaffected delight and vanity, which reminds the reader of nothing so
much as the pride of the boy-captain of a public school if he were
invited to a similar function and received a few compliments. It may
be indeed that Browning had a kind of second youth in this
long-delayed social recognition, but at least he enjoyed his second
youth nearly as much as his first, and it is not every one who can do
that.

Of Browning's actual personality and presence in this later middle age
of his, memories are still sufficiently clear. He was a middle-sized,
well set up, erect man, with somewhat emphatic gestures, and, as
almost all testimonies mention, a curiously strident voice. The beard,
the removal of which his wife had resented with so quaint an
indignation, had grown again, but grown quite white, which, as she
said when it occurred, was a signal mark of the justice of the gods.
His hair was still fairly dark, and his whole appearance at this time
must have been very well represented by Mr. G.F. Watts's fine portrait
in the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait bears one of the many
testimonies which exist to Mr. Watts's grasp of the essential of
character, for it is the only one of the portraits of Browning in
which we get primarily the air of virility, even of animal virility,
tempered but not disguised, with a certain touch of the pallor of the
brain-worker. He looks here what he was--a very healthy man, too
scholarly to live a completely healthy life.

His manner in society, as has been more than once indicated, was that
of a man anxious, if anything, to avoid the air of intellectual
eminence. Lockhart said briefly, "I like Browning; he isn't at all
like a damned literary man." He was, according to some, upon occasion,
talkative and noisy to a fault; but there are two kinds of men who
monopolise conversation. The first kind are those who like the sound
of their own voice; the second are those who do not know what the
sound of their own voice is like. Browning was one of the latter
class. His volubility in speech had the same origin as his
voluminousness and obscurity in literature--a kind of headlong
humility. He cannot assuredly have been aware that he talked people
down or have wished to do so. For this would have been precisely a
violation of the ideal of the man of the world, the one ambition and
even weakness that he had. He wished to be a man of the world, and he
never in the full sense was one. He remained a little too much of a
boy, a little too much even of a Puritan, and a little too much of
what may be called a man of the universe, to be a man of the world.

One of his faults probably was the thing roughly called prejudice. On
the question, for example, of table-turning and psychic phenomena he
was in a certain degree fierce and irrational. He was not indeed, as
we shall see when we come to study "Sludge the Medium," exactly
prejudiced against spiritualism. But he was beyond all question
stubbornly prejudiced against spiritualists. Whether the medium Home
was or was not a scoundrel it is somewhat difficult in our day to
conjecture. But in so far as he claimed supernatural powers, he may
have been as honest a gentleman as ever lived. And even if we think
that the moral atmosphere of Home is that of a man of dubious
character, we can still feel that Browning might have achieved his
purpose without making it so obvious that he thought so. Some traces
again, though much fainter ones, may be found of something like a
subconscious hostility to the Roman Church, or at least a less full
comprehension of the grandeur of the Latin religious civilisation than
might have been expected of a man of Browning's great imaginative
tolerance. Æstheticism, Bohemianism, the irresponsibilities of the
artist, the untidy morals of Grub Street and the Latin Quarter, he
hated with a consuming hatred. He was himself exact in everything,
from his scholarship to his clothes; and even when he wore the loose
white garments of the lounger in Southern Europe, they were in their
own way as precise as a dress suit. This extra carefulness in all
things he defended against the cant of Bohemianism as the right
attitude for the poet. When some one excused coarseness or negligence
on the ground of genius, he said, "That is an error: Noblesse oblige."

Browning's prejudices, however, belonged altogether to that healthy
order which is characterised by a cheerful and satisfied ignorance. It
never does a man any very great harm to hate a thing that he knows
nothing about. It is the hating of a thing when we do know something
about it which corrodes the character. We all have a dark feeling of
resistance towards people we have never met, and a profound and manly
dislike of the authors we have never read. It does not harm a man to
be certain before opening the books that Whitman is an obscene ranter
or that Stevenson is a mere trifler with style. It is the man who can
think these things after he has read the books who must be in a fair
way to mental perdition. Prejudice, in fact, is not so much the great
intellectual sin as a thing which we may call, to coin a word,
"postjudice," not the bias before the fair trial, but the bias that
remains afterwards. With Browning's swift and emphatic nature the bias
was almost always formed before he had gone into the matter. But
almost all the men he really knew he admired, almost all the books he
had really read he enjoyed. He stands pre-eminent among those great
universalists who praised the ground they trod on and commended
existence like any other material, in its samples. He had no kinship
with those new and strange universalists of the type of Tolstoi who
praise existence to the exclusion of all the institutions they have
lived under, and all the ties they have known. He thought the world
good because he had found so many things that were good in
it--religion, the nation, the family, the social class. He did not,
like the new humanitarian, think the world good because he had found
so many things in it that were bad.

As has been previously suggested, there was something very queer and
dangerous that underlay all the good humour of Browning. If one of
these idle prejudices were broken by better knowledge, he was all the
better pleased. But if some of the prejudices that were really rooted
in him were trodden on, even by accident, such as his aversion to
loose artistic cliques, or his aversion to undignified publicity, his
rage was something wholly transfiguring and alarming, something far
removed from the shrill disapproval of Carlyle and Ruskin. It can only
be said that he became a savage, and not always a very agreeable or
presentable savage. The indecent fury which danced upon the bones of
Edward Fitzgerald was a thing which ought not to have astonished any
one who had known much of Browning's character or even of his work.
Some unfortunate persons on another occasion had obtained some of Mrs.
Browning's letters shortly after her death, and proposed to write a
_Life_ founded upon them. They ought to have understood that Browning
would probably disapprove; but if he talked to them about it, as he
did to others, and it is exceedingly probable that he did, they must
have thought he was mad. "What I suffer with the paws of these
black-guards in my bowels you can fancy," he says. Again he writes:
"Think of this beast working away, not deeming my feelings, or those
of her family, worthy of notice. It shall not be done if I can stop
the scamp's knavery along with his breath." Whether Browning actually
resorted to this extreme course is unknown; nothing is known except
that he wrote a letter to the ambitious biographer which reduced him
to silence, probably from stupefaction.

The same peculiarity ought, as I have said, to have been apparent to
any one who knew anything of Browning's literary work. A great number
of his poems are marked by a trait of which by its nature it is more
or less impossible to give examples. Suffice it to say that it is
truly extraordinary that poets like Swinburne (who seldom uses a gross
word) should have been spoken of as if they had introduced moral
license into Victorian poetry. What the Non-conformist conscience has
been doing to have passed Browning is something difficult to imagine.
But the peculiarity of this occasional coarseness in his work is
this--that it is always used to express a certain wholesome fury and
contempt for things sickly, or ungenerous, or unmanly. The poet seems
to feel that there are some things so contemptible that you can only
speak of them in pothouse words. It would be idle, and perhaps
undesirable, to give examples; but it may be noted that the same
brutal physical metaphor is used by his Caponsacchi about the people
who could imagine Pompilia impure and by his Shakespeare in "At the
Mermaid," about the claim of the Byronic poet to enter into the heart
of humanity. In both cases Browning feels, and perhaps in a manner
rightly, that the best thing we can do with a sentiment essentially
base is to strip off its affectations and state it basely, and that
the mud of Chaucer is a great deal better than the poison of Sterne.
Herein again Browning is close to the average man; and to do the
average man justice, there is a great deal more of this Browningesque
hatred of Byronism in the brutality of his conversation than many
people suppose.

Such, roughly and as far as we can discover, was the man who, in the
full summer and even the full autumn of his intellectual powers, began
to grow upon the consciousness of the English literary world about
this time. For the first time friendship grew between him and the
other great men of his time. Tennyson, for whom he then and always
felt the best and most personal kind of admiration, came into his
life, and along with him Gladstone and Francis Palgrave. There began
to crowd in upon him those honours whereby a man is to some extent
made a classic in his lifetime, so that he is honoured even if he is
unread. He was made a Fellow of Balliol in 1867, and the homage of the
great universities continued thenceforth unceasingly until his death,
despite many refusals on his part. He was unanimously elected Lord
Rector of Glasgow University in 1875. He declined, owing to his deep
and somewhat characteristic aversion to formal public speaking, and in
1877 he had to decline on similar grounds the similar offer from the
University of St. Andrews. He was much at the English universities,
was a friend of Dr. Jowett, and enjoyed the university life at the age
of sixty-three in a way that he probably would not have enjoyed it if
he had ever been to a university. The great universities would not let
him alone, to their great credit, and he became a D.C.L. of Cambridge
in 1879, and a D.C.L. of Oxford in 1882. When he received these
honours there were, of course, the traditional buffooneries of the
undergraduates, and one of them dropped a red cotton night-cap neatly
on his head as he passed under the gallery. Some indignant
intellectuals wrote to him to protest against this affront, but
Browning took the matter in the best and most characteristic way. "You
are far too hard," he wrote in answer, "on the very harmless
drolleries of the young men. Indeed, there used to be a regularly
appointed jester, 'Filius Terrae' he was called, whose business it was
to gibe and jeer at the honoured ones by way of reminder that all
human glories are merely gilded baubles and must not be fancied
metal." In this there are other and deeper things characteristic of
Browning besides his learning and humour. In discussing anything, he
must always fall back upon great speculative and eternal ideas. Even
in the tomfoolery of a horde of undergraduates he can only see a
symbol of the ancient office of ridicule in the scheme of morals. The
young men themselves were probably unaware that they were the
representatives of the "Filius Terrae."

But the years during which Browning was thus reaping some of his late
laurels began to be filled with incidents that reminded him how the
years were passing over him. On June 20, 1866, his father had died, a
man of whom it is impossible to think without a certain emotion, a man
who had lived quietly and persistently for others, to whom Browning
owed more than it is easy to guess, to whom we in all probability
mainly owe Browning. In 1868 one of his closest friends, Arabella
Barrett, the sister of his wife, died, as her sister had done, alone
with Browning. Browning was not a superstitious man; he somewhat
stormily prided himself on the contrary; but he notes at this time "a
dream which Arabella had of Her, in which she prophesied their meeting
in five years," that is, of course, the meeting of Elizabeth and
Arabella. His friend Milsand, to whom _Sordello_ was dedicated, died
in 1886. "I never knew," said Browning, "or ever shall know, his like
among men." But though both fame and a growing isolation indicated
that he was passing towards the evening of his days, though he bore
traces of the progress, in a milder attitude towards things, and a
greater preference for long exiles with those he loved, one thing
continued in him with unconquerable energy--there was no diminution in
the quantity, no abatement in the immense designs of his intellectual
output.

In 1871 he produced _Balaustion's Adventure_, a work exhibiting not
only his genius in its highest condition of power, but something more
exacting even than genius to a man of his mature and changed life,
immense investigation, prodigious memory, the thorough assimilation
of the vast literature of a remote civilisation. _Balaustion's
Adventure_, which is, of course, the mere framework for an English
version of the Alcestis of Euripides, is an illustration of one of
Browning's finest traits, his immeasurable capacity for a classic
admiration. Those who knew him tell us that in conversation he never
revealed himself so impetuously or so brilliantly as when declaiming
the poetry of others; and _Balaustion's Adventure_ is a monument of
this fiery self-forgetfulness. It is penetrated with the passionate
desire to render Euripides worthily, and to that imitation are for the
time being devoted all the gigantic powers which went to make the
songs of Pippa and the last agony of Guido. Browning never put himself
into anything more powerfully or more successfully; yet it is only an
excellent translation. In the uncouth philosophy of Caliban, in the
tangled ethics of Sludge, in his wildest satire, in his most
feather-headed lyric, Browning was never more thoroughly Browning than
in this splendid and unselfish plagiarism. This revived excitement in
Greek matters; "his passionate love of the Greek language" continued
in him thenceforward till his death. He published more than one poem
on the drama of Hellas. _Aristophanes' Apology_ came out in 1875, and
_The Agamemnon of Æschylus_, another paraphrase, in 1877. All three
poems are marked by the same primary characteristic, the fact that the
writer has the literature of Athens literally at his fingers' ends. He
is intimate not only with their poetry and politics, but with their
frivolity and their slang; he knows not only Athenian wisdom, but
Athenian folly; not only the beauty of Greece, but even its vulgarity.
In fact, a page of _Aristophanes' Apology_ is like a page of
Aristophanes, dark with levity and as obscure as a schoolman's
treatise, with its load of jokes.

In 1871 also appeared _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau: Saviour of
Society_, one of the finest and most picturesque of all Browning's
apologetic monologues. The figure is, of course, intended for Napoleon
III., whose Empire had just fallen, bringing down his country with it.
The saying has been often quoted that Louis Napoleon deceived Europe
twice--once when he made it think he was a noodle, and once when he
made it think he was a statesman. It might be added that Europe was
never quite just to him, and was deceived a third time, when it took
him after his fall for an exploded mountebank and nonentity. Amid the
general chorus of contempt which was raised over his weak and
unscrupulous policy in later years, culminating in his great disaster,
there are few things finer than this attempt of Browning's to give the
man a platform and let him speak for himself. It is the apologia of a
political adventurer, and a political adventurer of a kind peculiarly
open to popular condemnation. Mankind has always been somewhat
inclined to forgive the adventurer who destroys or re-creates, but
there is nothing inspiring about the adventurer who merely preserves.
We have sympathy with the rebel who aims at reconstruction, but there
is something repugnant to the imagination in the rebel who rebels in
the name of compromise. Browning had to defend, or rather to
interpret, a man who kidnapped politicians in the night and deluged
the Montmartre with blood, not for an ideal, not for a reform, not
precisely even for a cause, but simply for the establishment of a
_régime_. He did these hideous things not so much that he might be
able to do better ones, but that he and every one else might be able
to do nothing for twenty years; and Browning's contention, and a very
plausible contention, is that the criminal believed that his crime
would establish order and compromise, or, in other words, that he
thought that nothing was the very best thing he and his people could
do. There is something peculiarly characteristic of Browning in thus
selecting not only a political villain, but what would appear the most
prosaic kind of villain. We scarcely ever find in Browning a defence
of those obvious and easily defended publicans and sinners whose
mingled virtues and vices are the stuff of romance and melodrama--the
generous rake, the kindly drunkard, the strong man too great for
parochial morals. He was in a yet more solitary sense the friend of
the outcast. He took in the sinners whom even sinners cast out. He
went with the hypocrite and had mercy on the Pharisee.

How little this desire of Browning's, to look for a moment at the
man's life with the man's eyes, was understood, may be gathered from
the criticisms on _Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, which, says Browning, "the
Editor of the _Edinburgh Review_ calls my eulogium on the Second
Empire, which it is not, any more than what another wiseacre affirms
it to be, a scandalous attack on the old constant friend of England.
It is just what I imagine the man might, if he pleased, say for
himself."

In 1873 appeared _Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country_, which, if it be not
absolutely one of the finest of Browning's poems, is certainly one of
the most magnificently Browningesque. The origin of the name of the
poem is probably well known. He was travelling along the Normandy
coast, and discovered what he called

    "Meek, hitherto un-Murrayed bathing-places,
    Best loved of sea-coast-nook-full Normandy!"

Miss Thackeray, who was of the party, delighted Browning beyond
measure by calling the sleepy old fishing district "White Cotton
Night-Cap Country." It was exactly the kind of elfish phrase to which
Browning had, it must always be remembered, a quite unconquerable
attraction. The notion of a town of sleep, where men and women walked
about in nightcaps, a nation of somnambulists, was the kind of thing
that Browning in his heart loved better than _Paradise Lost_. Some
time afterwards he read in a newspaper a very painful story of
profligacy and suicide which greatly occupied the French journals in
the year 1871, and which had taken place in the same district. It is
worth noting that Browning was one of those wise men who can perceive
the terrible and impressive poetry of the police-news, which is
commonly treated as vulgarity, which is dreadful and may be
undesirable, but is certainly not vulgar. From _The Ring and the Book_
to _Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country_ a great many of his works might be
called magnificent detective stories. The story is somewhat ugly, and
its power does not alter its ugliness, for power can only make
ugliness uglier. And in this poem there is little or nothing of the
revelation of that secret wealth of valour and patience in humanity
which makes real and redeems the revelation of its secret vileness in
_The Ring and the Book_. It almost looks at first sight as if Browning
had for a moment surrendered the whole of his impregnable
philosophical position and admitted the strange heresy that a human
story can be sordid. But this view of the poem is, of course, a
mistake. It was written in something which, for want of a more exact
word, we must call one of the bitter moods of Browning; but the
bitterness is entirely the product of a certain generous hostility
against the class of morbidities which he really detested, sometimes
more than they deserved. In this poem these principles of weakness and
evil are embodied to him as the sicklier kind of Romanism, and the
more sensual side of the French temperament. We must never forget what
a great deal of the Puritan there remained in Browning to the end.
This outburst of it is fierce and ironical, not in his best spirit. It
says in effect, "You call this a country of sleep, I call it a country
of death. You call it 'White Cotton Night-Cap Country'; I call it 'Red
Cotton Night-Cap Country.'"

Shortly before this, in 1872, he had published _Fifine at the Fair_,
which his principal biographer, and one of his most uncompromising
admirers, calls a piece of perplexing cynicism. Perplexing it may be
to some extent, for it was almost impossible to tell whether Browning
would or would not be perplexing even in a love-song or a post-card.
But cynicism is a word that cannot possibly be applied with any
propriety to anything that Browning ever wrote. Cynicism denotes that
condition of mind in which we hold that life is in its nature mean and
arid; that no soul contains genuine goodness, and no state of things
genuine reliability. _Fifine at the Fair_, like _Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, is one of Browning's apologetic
soliloquies--the soliloquy of an epicurean who seeks half-playfully
to justify upon moral grounds an infidelity into which he afterwards
actually falls. This casuist, like all Browning's casuists, is given
many noble outbursts and sincere moments, and therefore apparently the
poem is called cynical. It is difficult to understand what particular
connection there is between seeing good in nobody and seeing good even
in a sensual fool.

After _Fifine at the Fair_ appeared the _Inn Album_, in 1875, a purely
narrative work, chiefly interesting as exhibiting in yet another place
one of Browning's vital characteristics, a pleasure in retelling and
interpreting actual events of a sinister and criminal type; and after
the _Inn Album_ came what is perhaps the most preposterously
individual thing he ever wrote, _Of Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in
Distemper_, in 1876. It is impossible to call the work poetry, and it
is very difficult indeed to know what to call it. Its chief
characteristic is a kind of galloping energy, an energy that has
nothing intellectual or even intelligible about it, a purely animal
energy of words. Not only is it not beautiful, it is not even clever,
and yet it carries the reader away as he might be carried away by
romping children. It ends up with a voluble and largely unmeaning
malediction upon the poet's critics, a malediction so outrageously
good-humoured that it does not take the trouble even to make itself
clear to the objects of its wrath. One can compare the poem to nothing
in heaven or earth, except to the somewhat humorous, more or less
benevolent, and most incomprehensible catalogues of curses and oaths
which may be heard from an intoxicated navvy. This is the kind of
thing, and it goes on for pages:--

    "Long after the last of your number
    Has ceased my front-court to encumber
    While, treading down rose and ranunculus,
    You _Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle_-us!
    Troop, all of you man or homunculus,
    Quick march! for Xanthippe, my housemaid,
    If once on your pates she a souse made
    With what, pan or pot, bowl or _skoramis_,
    First comes to her hand--things were more amiss!
    I would not for worlds be your place in--
    Recipient of slops from the basin!
    You, Jack-in-the-Green, leaf-and-twiggishness
    Won't save a dry thread on your priggishness!"

You can only call this, in the most literal sense of the word, the
brute-force of language.

In spite however of this monstrosity among poems, which gives its
title to the volume, it contains some of the most beautiful verses
that Browning ever wrote in that style of light philosophy in which he
was unequalled. Nothing ever gave so perfectly and artistically what
is too loosely talked about as a thrill, as the poem called "Fears and
Scruples," in which a man describes the mystifying conduct of an
absent friend, and reserves to the last line the climax--

                     "Hush, I pray you!
    What if this friend happen to be--God."

It is the masterpiece of that excellent but much-abused literary
quality, Sensationalism.

The volume entitled _Pacchiarotto_, moreover, includes one or two of
the most spirited poems on the subject of the poet in relation to
publicity--"At the Mermaid," "House," and "Shop."

In spite of his increasing years, his books seemed if anything to
come thicker and faster. Two were published in 1878--_La Saisiaz_, his
great metaphysical poem on the conception of immortality, and that
delightfully foppish fragment of the _ancien régime_, _The Two Poets
of Croisic_. Those two poems would alone suffice to show that he had
not forgotten the hard science of theology or the harder science of
humour. Another collection followed in 1879, the first series of
_Dramatic Idylls_, which contain such masterpieces as "Pheidippides"
and "Ivàn Ivànovitch." Upon its heels, in 1880, came the second series
of _Dramatic Idylls_, including "Muléykeh" and "Clive," possibly the
two best stories in poetry, told in the best manner of story-telling.
Then only did the marvellous fountain begin to slacken in quantity,
but never in quality. _Jocoseria_ did not appear till 1883. It
contains among other things a cast-back to his very earliest manner in
the lyric of "Never the Time and the Place," which we may call the
most light-hearted love-song that was ever written by a man over
seventy. In the next year appeared _Ferishtah's Fancies_, which
exhibit some of his shrewdest cosmic sagacity, expressed in some of
his quaintest and most characteristic images. Here perhaps more than
anywhere else we see that supreme peculiarity of Browning--his sense
of the symbolism of material trifles. Enormous problems, and yet more
enormous answers, about pain, prayer, destiny, liberty, and conscience
are suggested by cherries, by the sun, by a melon-seller, by an eagle
flying in the sky, by a man tilling a plot of ground. It is this
spirit of grotesque allegory which really characterises Browning among
all other poets. Other poets might possibly have hit upon the same
philosophical idea--some idea as deep, as delicate, and as spiritual.
But it may be safely asserted that no other poet, having thought of a
deep, delicate, and spiritual idea, would call it "A Bean Stripe; also
Apple Eating."

Three more years passed, and the last book which Browning published in
his lifetime was _Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in
their Day_, a book which consists of apostrophes, amicable, furious,
reverential, satirical, emotional to a number of people of whom the
vast majority even of cultivated people have never heard in their
lives--Daniel Bartoli, Francis Furini, Gerard de Lairesse, and Charles
Avison. This extraordinary knowledge of the fulness of history was a
thing which never ceased to characterise Browning even when he was
unfortunate in every other literary quality. Apart altogether from
every line he ever wrote, it may fairly be said that no mind so rich
as his ever carried its treasures to the grave. All these later poems
are vigorous, learned, and full-blooded. They are thoroughly
characteristic of their author. But nothing in them is quite so
characteristic of their author as this fact, that when he had
published all of them, and was already near to his last day, he turned
with the energy of a boy let out of school, and began, of all things
in the world, to re-write and improve "Pauline," the boyish poem that
he had written fifty-five years before. Here was a man covered with
glory and near to the doors of death, who was prepared to give himself
the elaborate trouble of reconstructing the mood, and rebuilding the
verses of a long juvenile poem which had been forgotten for fifty
years in the blaze of successive victories. It is such things as these
which give to Browning an interest of personality which is far beyond
the more interest of genius. It was of such things that Elizabeth
Barrett wrote in one of her best moments of insight--that his genius
was the least important thing about him.

During all these later years, Browning's life had been a quiet and
regular one. He always spent the winter in Italy and the summer in
London, and carried his old love of precision to the extent of never
failing day after day throughout the year to leave the house at the
same time. He had by this time become far more of a public figure than
he had ever been previously, both in England and Italy. In 1881, Dr.
Furnivall and Miss E.H. Hickey founded the famous "Browning Society."
He became President of the new "Shakespeare Society" and of the
"Wordsworth Society." In 1886, on the death of Lord Houghton, he
accepted the post of Foreign Correspondent to the Royal Academy. When
he moved to De Vere Gardens in 1887, it began to be evident that he
was slowly breaking up. He still dined out constantly; he still
attended every reception and private view; he still corresponded
prodigiously, and even added to his correspondence; and there is
nothing more typical of him than that now, when he was almost already
a classic, he answered any compliment with the most delightful vanity
and embarrassment. In a letter to Mr. George Bainton, touching style,
he makes a remark which is an excellent criticism on his whole
literary career: "I myself found many forgotten fields which have
proved the richest of pastures." But despite his continued energy, his
health was gradually growing worse. He was a strong man in a muscular,
and ordinarily in a physical sense, but he was also in a certain sense
a nervous man, and may be said to have died of brain-excitement
prolonged through a lifetime. In these closing years he began to feel
more constantly the necessity for rest. He and his sister went to live
at a little hotel in Llangollen, and spent hours together talking and
drinking tea on the lawn. He himself writes in one of his quaint and
poetic phrases that he had come to love these long country retreats,
"another term of delightful weeks, each tipped with a sweet starry
Sunday at the little church." For the first time, and in the last two
or three years, he was really growing old. On one point he maintained
always a tranquil and unvarying decision. The pessimistic school of
poetry was growing up all round him; the decadents, with their belief
that art was only a counting of the autumn leaves, were approaching
more and more towards their tired triumph and their tasteless
popularity. But Browning would not for one instant take the scorn of
them out of his voice. "Death, death, it is this harping on death that
I despise so much. In fiction, in poetry, French as well as English,
and I am told in American also, in art and literature, the shadow of
death, call it what you will, despair, negation, indifference, is upon
us. But what fools who talk thus! Why, _amico mio_, you know as well
as I, that death is life, just as our daily momentarily dying body is
none the less alive, and ever recruiting new forces of existence.
Without death, which is our church-yardy crape-like word for change,
for growth, there could be no prolongation of that which we call life.
Never say of me that I am dead."

On August 13, 1888, he set out once more for Italy, the last of his
innumerable voyages. During his last Italian period he seems to have
fallen back on very ultimate simplicities, chiefly a mere staring at
nature. The family with whom he lived kept a fox cub, and Browning
would spend hours with it watching its grotesque ways; when it
escaped, he was characteristically enough delighted. The old man could
be seen continually in the lanes round Asolo, peering into hedges and
whistling for the lizards.

This serene and pastoral decline, surely the mildest of slopes into
death, was suddenly diversified by a flash of something lying far
below. Browning's eye fell upon a passage written by the distinguished
Edward Fitzgerald, who had been dead for many years, in which
Fitzgerald spoke in an uncomplimentary manner of Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. Browning immediately wrote the "Lines to Edward Fitzgerald,"
and set the whole literary world in an uproar. The lines were bitter
and excessive to have been written against any man, especially bitter
and excessive to have been written against a man who was not alive to
reply. And yet, when all is said, it is impossible not to feel a
certain dark and indescribable pleasure in this last burst of the old
barbaric energy. The mountain had been tilled and forested, and laid
out in gardens to the summit; but for one last night it had proved
itself once more a volcano, and had lit up all the plains with its
forgotten fire. And the blow, savage as it was, was dealt for that
great central sanctity--the story of a man's youth. All that the old
man would say in reply to every view of the question was, "I felt as
if she had died yesterday."

Towards December of 1889 he moved to Venice, where he fell ill. He
took very little food; it was indeed one of his peculiar small fads
that men should not take food when they are ill, a matter in which he
maintained that the animals were more sagacious. He asserted
vigorously that this somewhat singular regimen would pull him through,
talked about his plans, and appeared cheerful. Gradually, however, the
talking became more infrequent, the cheerfulness passed into a kind of
placidity; and without any particular crisis or sign of the end,
Robert Browning died on December 12, 1889. The body was taken on board
ship by the Venice Municipal Guard, and received by the Royal Italian
marines. He was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, the
choir singing his wife's poem, "He giveth His beloved sleep." On the
day that he died _Asolando_ was published.



CHAPTER VI

BROWNING AS A LITERARY ARTIST


Mr. William Sharp, in his _Life_ of Browning, quotes the remarks of
another critic to the following effect: "The poet's processes of
thought are scientific in their precision and analysis; the sudden
conclusion that he imposes upon them is transcendental and inept."

This is a very fair but a very curious example of the way in which
Browning is treated. For what is the state of affairs? A man publishes
a series of poems, vigorous, perplexing, and unique. The critics read
them, and they decide that he has failed as a poet, but that he is a
remarkable philosopher and logician. They then proceed to examine his
philosophy, and show with great triumph that it is unphilosophical,
and to examine his logic and show with great triumph that it is not
logical, but "transcendental and inept." In other words, Browning is
first denounced for being a logician and not a poet, and then
denounced for insisting on being a poet when they have decided that he
is to be a logician. It is just as if a man were to say first that a
garden was so neglected that it was only fit for a boys' playground,
and then complain of the unsuitability in a boys' playground of
rockeries and flower-beds.

As we find, after this manner, that Browning does not act
satisfactorily as that which we have decided that he shall be--a
logician--it might possibly be worth while to make another attempt to
see whether he may not, after all, be more valid than we thought as to
what he himself professed to be--a poet. And if we study this
seriously and sympathetically, we shall soon come to a conclusion. It
is a gross and complete slander upon Browning to say that his
processes of thought are scientific in their precision and analysis.
They are nothing of the sort; if they were, Browning could not be a
good poet. The critic speaks of the conclusions of a poem as
"transcendental and inept"; but the conclusions of a poem, if they are
not transcendental, must be inept. Do the people who call one of
Browning's poems scientific in its analysis realise the meaning of
what they say? One is tempted to think that they know a scientific
analysis when they see it as little as they know a good poem. The one
supreme difference between the scientific method and the artistic
method is, roughly speaking, simply this--that a scientific statement
means the same thing wherever and whenever it is uttered, and that an
artistic statement means something entirely different, according to
the relation in which it stands to its surroundings. The remark, let
us say, that the whale is a mammal, or the remark that sixteen ounces
go to a pound, is equally true, and means exactly the same thing,
whether we state it at the beginning of a conversation or at the end,
whether we print it in a dictionary or chalk it up on a wall. But if
we take some phrase commonly used in the art of literature--such a
sentence, for the sake of example, as "the dawn was breaking"--the
matter is quite different. If the sentence came at the beginning of a
short story, it might be a mere descriptive prelude. If it were the
last sentence in a short story, it might be poignant with some
peculiar irony or triumph. Can any one read Browning's great
monologues and not feel that they are built up like a good short
story, entirely on this principle of the value of language arising
from its arrangement. Take such an example as "Caliban upon Setebos,"
a wonderful poem designed to describe the way in which a primitive
nature may at once be afraid of its gods and yet familiar with them.
Caliban in describing his deity starts with a more or less natural and
obvious parallel between the deity and himself, carries out the
comparison with consistency and an almost revolting simplicity, and
ends in a kind of blasphemous extravaganza of anthropomorphism, basing
his conduct not merely on the greatness and wisdom, but also on the
manifest weaknesses and stupidities, of the Creator of all things.
Then suddenly a thunderstorm breaks over Caliban's island, and the
profane speculator falls flat upon his face--

    "Lo! 'Lieth flat and loveth Setebos!
    'Maketh his teeth meet through his upper lip,
    Will let those quails fly, will not eat this month
    One little mess of whelks, so he may 'scape!"

Surely it would be very difficult to persuade oneself that this
thunderstorm would have meant exactly the same thing if it had
occurred at the beginning of "Caliban upon Setebos." It does not mean
the same thing, but something very different; and the deduction from
this is the curious fact that Browning is an artist, and that
consequently his processes of thought are not "scientific in their
precision and analysis."

No criticism of Browning's poems can be vital, none in the face of the
poems themselves can be even intelligible, which is not based upon the
fact that he was successfully or otherwise a conscious and deliberate
artist. He may have failed as an artist, though I do not think so;
that is quite a different matter. But it is one thing to say that a
man through vanity or ignorance has built an ugly cathedral, and quite
another to say that he built it in a fit of absence of mind, and did
not know whether he was building a lighthouse or a first-class hotel.
Browning knew perfectly well what he was doing; and if the reader does
not like his art, at least the author did. The general sentiment
expressed in the statement that he did not care about form is simply
the most ridiculous criticism that could be conceived. It would be far
nearer the truth to say that he cared more for form than any other
English poet who ever lived. He was always weaving and modelling and
inventing new forms. Among all his two hundred to three hundred poems
it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that there are half as
many different metres as there are different poems.

The great English poets who are supposed to have cared more for form
than Browning did, cared less at least in this sense--that they were
content to use old forms so long as they were certain that they had
new ideas. Browning, on the other hand, no sooner had a new idea than
he tried to make a new form to express it. Wordsworth and Shelley were
really original poets; their attitude of thought and feeling marked
without doubt certain great changes in literature and philosophy.
Nevertheless, the "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality" is a
perfectly normal and traditional ode, and "Prometheus Unbound" is a
perfectly genuine and traditional Greek lyrical drama. But if we study
Browning honestly, nothing will strike us more than that he really
created a large number of quite novel and quite admirable artistic
forms. It is too often forgotten what and how excellent these were.
_The Ring and the Book_, for example, is an illuminating departure in
literary method--the method of telling the same story several times
and trusting to the variety of human character to turn it into several
different and equally interesting stories. _Pippa Passes_, to take
another example, is a new and most fruitful form, a series of detached
dramas connected only by the presence of one fugitive and isolated
figure. The invention of these things is not merely like the writing
of a good poem--it is something like the invention of the sonnet or
the Gothic arch. The poet who makes them does not merely create
himself--he creates other poets. It is so in a degree long past
enumeration with regard to Browning's smaller poems. Such a pious and
horrible lyric as "The Heretic's Tragedy," for instance, is absolutely
original, with its weird and almost blood-curdling echo verses,
mocking echoes indeed--

    "And dipt of his wings in Paris square,
       They bring him now to lie burned alive.

       _[And wanteth there grace of lute or clavicithern,
           ye shall say to confirm him who singeth_--

       We bring John now to be burned alive."

A hundred instances might, of course, be given. Milton's "Sonnet on
his Blindness," or Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," are both thoroughly
original, but still we can point to other such sonnets and other such
odes. But can any one mention any poem of exactly the same structural
and literary type as "Fears and Scruples," as "The Householder," as
"House" or "Shop," as "Nationality in Drinks," as "Sibrandus
Schafnaburgensis," as "My Star," as "A Portrait," as any of
"Ferishtah's Fancies," as any of the "Bad Dreams."

The thing which ought to be said about Browning by those who do not
enjoy him is simply that they do not like his form; that they have
studied the form, and think it a bad form. If more people said things
of this sort, the world of criticism would gain almost unspeakably in
clarity and common honesty. Browning put himself before the world as a
good poet. Let those who think he failed call him a bad poet, and
there will be an end of the matter. There are many styles in art which
perfectly competent æsthetic judges cannot endure. For instance, it
would be perfectly legitimate for a strict lover of Gothic to say that
one of the monstrous rococo altar-pieces in the Belgian churches with
bulbous clouds and oaken sun-rays seven feet long, was, in his
opinion, ugly. But surely it would be perfectly ridiculous for any one
to say that it had no form. A man's actual feelings about it might be
better expressed by saying that it had too much. To say that Browning
was merely a thinker because you think "Caliban upon Setebos" ugly, is
precisely as absurd as it would be to call the author of the old
Belgian altarpiece a man devoted only to the abstractions of religion.
The truth about Browning is not that he was indifferent to technical
beauty, but that he invented a particular kind of technical beauty to
which any one else is free to be as indifferent as he chooses.

There is in this matter an extraordinary tendency to vague and
unmeaning criticism. The usual way of criticising an author,
particularly an author who has added something to the literary forms
of the world, is to complain that his work does not contain something
which is obviously the speciality of somebody else. The correct thing
to say about Maeterlinck is that some play of his in which, let us
say, a princess dies in a deserted tower by the sea, has a certain
beauty, but that we look in vain in it for that robust geniality, that
really boisterous will to live which may be found in _Martin
Chuzzlewit_. The right thing to say about _Cyrano de Bergerac_ is that
it may have a certain kind of wit and spirit, but that it really
throws no light on the duty of middle-aged married couples in Norway.
It cannot be too much insisted upon that at least three-quarters of
the blame and criticism commonly directed against artists and authors
falls under this general objection, and is essentially valueless.
Authors both great and small are, like everything else in existence,
upon the whole greatly under-rated. They are blamed for not doing, not
only what they have failed to do to reach their own ideal, but what
they have never tried to do to reach every other writer's ideal. If we
can show that Browning had a definite ideal of beauty and loyally
pursued it, it is not necessary to prove that he could have written
_In Memoriam_ if he had tried.

Browning has suffered far more injustice from his admirers than from
his opponents, for his admirers have for the most part got hold of the
matter, so to speak, by the wrong end. They believe that what is
ordinarily called the grotesque style of Browning was a kind of
necessity boldly adopted by a great genius in order to express novel
and profound ideas. But this is an entire mistake. What is called
ugliness was to Browning not in the least a necessary evil, but a
quite unnecessary luxury, which he enjoyed for its own sake. For
reasons that we shall see presently in discussing the philosophical
use of the grotesque, it did so happen that Browning's grotesque style
was very suitable for the expression of his peculiar moral and
metaphysical view. But the whole mass of poems will be misunderstood
if we do not realise first of all that he had a love of the grotesque
of the nature of art for art's sake. Here, for example, is a short
distinct poem merely descriptive of one of those elfish German jugs in
which it is to be presumed Tokay had been served to him. This is the
whole poem, and a very good poem too--

    "Up jumped Tokay on our table,
    Like a pigmy castle-warder,
    Dwarfish to see, but stout and able,
    Arms and accoutrements all in order;
    And fierce he looked North, then, wheeling South
    Blew with his bugle a challenge to Drouth,
    Cocked his flap-hat with the tosspot-feather,
    Twisted his thumb in his red moustache,
    Jingled his huge brass spurs together,
    Tightened his waist with its Buda sash,
    And then, with an impudence nought could abash,
    Shrugged his hump-shoulder, to tell the beholder,
    For twenty such knaves he would laugh but the bolder:
    And so, with his sword-hilt gallantly jutting,
    And dexter-hand on his haunch abutting,
    Went the little man, Sir Ausbruch, strutting!"

I suppose there are Browning students in existence who would think
that this poem contained something pregnant about the Temperance
question, or was a marvellously subtle analysis of the romantic
movement in Germany. But surely to most of us it is sufficiently
apparent that Browning was simply fashioning a ridiculous
knick-knack, exactly as if he were actually moulding one of these
preposterous German jugs. Now before studying the real character of
this Browningesque style, there is one general truth to be recognised
about Browning's work. It is this--that it is absolutely necessary to
remember that Browning had, like every other poet, his simple and
indisputable failures, and that it is one thing to speak of the
badness of his artistic failures, and quite another thing to speak of
the badness of his artistic aim. Browning's style may be a good style,
and yet exhibit many examples of a thoroughly bad use of it. On this
point there is indeed a singularly unfair system of judgment used by
the public towards the poets. It is very little realised that the vast
majority of great poets have written an enormous amount of very bad
poetry. The unfortunate Wordsworth is generally supposed to be almost
alone in this; but any one who thinks so can scarcely have read a
certain number of the minor poems of Byron and Shelley and Tennyson.

Now it is only just to Browning that his more uncouth effusions should
not be treated as masterpieces by which he must stand or fall, but
treated simply as his failures. It is really true that such a line as

    "Irks fear the crop-full bird, frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?"

is a very ugly and a very bad line. But it is quite equally true that
Tennyson's

    "And that good man, the clergyman, has told me words of peace,"

is a very ugly and a very bad line. But people do not say that this
proves that Tennyson was a mere crabbed controversialist and
metaphysician. They say that it is a bad example of Tennyson's form;
they do not say that it is a good example of Tennyson's indifference
to form. Upon the whole, Browning exhibits far fewer instances of this
failure in his own style than any other of the great poets, with the
exception of one or two like Spenser and Keats, who seem to have a
mysterious incapacity for writing bad poetry. But almost all original
poets, particularly poets who have invented an artistic style, are
subject to one most disastrous habit--the habit of writing imitations
of themselves. Every now and then in the works of the noblest
classical poets you will come upon passages which read like extracts
from an American book of parodies. Swinburne, for example, when he
wrote the couplet--

    "From the lilies and languors of virtue
    To the raptures and roses of vice,"

wrote what is nothing but a bad imitation of himself, an imitation
which seems indeed to have the wholly unjust and uncritical object of
proving that the Swinburnian melody is a mechanical scheme of initial
letters. Or again, Mr. Rudyard Kipling when he wrote the line--

    "Or ride with the reckless seraphim on the rim of a red-maned star,"

was caricaturing himself in the harshest and least sympathetic spirit
of American humour. This tendency is, of course, the result of the
self-consciousness and theatricality of modern life in which each of
us is forced to conceive ourselves as part of a _dramatis personæ_
and act perpetually in character. Browning sometimes yielded to this
temptation to be a great deal too like himself.

    "Will I widen thee out till thou turnest
    From Margaret Minnikin mou' by God's grace,
    To Muckle-mouth Meg in good earnest."

This sort of thing is not to be defended in Browning any more than in
Swinburne. But, on the other hand, it is not to be attributed in
Swinburne to a momentary exaggeration, and in Browning to a vital
æsthetic deficiency. In the case of Swinburne, we all feel that the
question is not whether that particular preposterous couplet about
lilies and roses redounds to the credit of the Swinburnian style, but
whether it would be possible in any other style than the Swinburnian
to have written the Hymn to Proserpine. In the same way, the essential
issue about Browning as an artist is not whether he, in common with
Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, and Swinburne, sometimes wrote
bad poetry, but whether in any other style except Browning's you could
have achieved the precise artistic effect which is achieved by such
incomparable lyrics as "The Patriot" or "The Laboratory." The answer
must be in the negative, and in that answer lies the whole
justification of Browning as an artist.

The question now arises, therefore, what was his conception of his
functions as an artist? We have already agreed that his artistic
originality concerned itself chiefly with the serious use of the
grotesque. It becomes necessary, therefore, to ask what is the serious
use of the grotesque, and what relation does the grotesque bear to the
eternal and fundamental elements in life?

One of the most curious things to notice about popular æsthetic
criticism is the number of phrases it will be found to use which are
intended to express an æsthetic failure, and which express merely an
æsthetic variety. Thus, for instance, the traveller will often hear
the advice from local lovers of the picturesque, "The scenery round
such and such a place has no interest; it is quite flat." To disparage
scenery as quite flat is, of course, like disparaging a swan as quite
white, or an Italian sky as quite blue. Flatness is a sublime quality
in certain landscapes, just as rockiness is a sublime quality in
others. In the same way there are a great number of phrases commonly
used in order to disparage such writers as Browning which do not in
fact disparage, but merely describe them. One of the most
distinguished of Browning's biographers and critics says of him, for
example, "He has never meant to be rugged, but has become so in
striving after strength." To say that Browning never tried to be
rugged is to say that Edgar Allan Poe never tried to be gloomy, or
that Mr. W.S. Gilbert never tried to be extravagant. The whole issue
depends upon whether we realise the simple and essential fact that
ruggedness is a mode of art like gloominess or extravagance. Some
poems ought to be rugged, just as some poems ought to be smooth. When
we see a drift of stormy and fantastic clouds at sunset, we do not say
that the cloud is beautiful although it is ragged at the edges. When
we see a gnarled and sprawling oak, we do not say that it is fine
although it is twisted. When we see a mountain, we do not say that it
is impressive although it is rugged, nor do we say apologetically that
it never meant to be rugged, but became so in its striving after
strength. Now, to say that Browning's poems, artistically considered,
are fine although they are rugged, is quite as absurd as to say that a
rock, artistically considered, is fine although it is rugged.
Ruggedness being an essential quality in the universe, there is that
in man which responds to it as to the striking of any other chord of
the eternal harmonies. As the children of nature, we are akin not only
to the stars and flowers, but also to the toad-stools and the
monstrous tropical birds. And it is to be repeated as the essential of
the question that on this side of our nature we do emphatically love
the form of the toad-stools, and not merely some complicated botanical
and moral lessons which the philosopher may draw from them. For
example, just as there is such a thing as a poetical metre being
beautifully light or beautifully grave and haunting, so there is such
a thing as a poetical metre being beautifully rugged. In the old
ballads, for instance, every person of literary taste will be struck
by a certain attractiveness in the bold, varying, irregular verse--

    "He is either himsell a devil frae hell,
    Or else his mother a witch maun be;
    I wadna have ridden that wan water
    For a' the gowd in Christentie,"

is quite as pleasing to the ear in its own way as

    "There's a bower of roses by Bendemeer stream,
    And the nightingale sings in it all the night long,"

is in another way. Browning had an unrivalled ear for this particular
kind of staccato music. The absurd notion that he had no sense of
melody in verse is only possible to people who think that there is no
melody in verse which is not an imitation of Swinburne. To give a
satisfactory idea of Browning's rhythmic originality would be
impossible without quotations more copious than entertaining. But the
essential point has been suggested.

    "They were purple of raiment and golden,
    Filled full of thee, fiery with wine,
    Thy lovers in haunts unbeholden,
    In marvellous chambers of thine,"

is beautiful language, but not the only sort of beautiful language.
This, for instance, has also a tune in it--

    "I--'next poet.' No, my hearties,
    I nor am, nor fain would be!
    Choose your chiefs and pick your parties,
    Not one soul revolt to me!
           *       *       *       *       *
    Which of you did I enable
    Once to slip inside my breast,
    There to catalogue and label
    What I like least, what love best,
    Hope and fear, believe and doubt of,
    Seek and shun, respect, deride,
    Who has right to make a rout of
    Rarities he found inside?"

This quick, gallantly stepping measure also has its own kind of music,
and the man who cannot feel it can never have enjoyed the sound of
soldiers marching by. This, then, roughly is the main fact to remember
about Browning's poetical method, or about any one's poetical
method--that the question is not whether that method is the best in
the world, but the question whether there are not certain things which
can only be conveyed by that method. It is perfectly true, for
instance, that a really lofty and lucid line of Tennyson, such as--

    "Thou art the highest, and most human too"
and
    "We needs must love the highest when we see it"

would really be made the worse for being translated into Browning. It
would probably become

    "High's human; man loves best, best visible,"

and would lose its peculiar clarity and dignity and courtly plainness.
But it is quite equally true that any really characteristic fragment
of Browning, if it were only the tempestuous scolding of the organist
in "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha"--

    "Hallo, you sacristan, show us a light there!
    Down it dips, gone like a rocket.
    What, you want, do you, to come unawares,
    Sweeping the church up for first morning-prayers,
    And find a poor devil has ended his cares
    At the foot of your rotten-runged rat-riddled stairs?
    Do I carry the moon in my pocket?"

--it is quite equally true that this outrageous gallop of rhymes
ending with a frantic astronomical image would lose in energy and
spirit if it were written in a conventional and classical style, and
ran--

    "What must I deem then that thou dreamest to find
    Disjected bones adrift upon the stair
    Thou sweepest clean, or that thou deemest that I
    Pouch in my wallet the vice-regal sun?"

Is it not obvious that this statelier version might be excellent
poetry of its kind, and yet would be bad exactly in so far as it was
good; that it would lose all the swing, the rush, the energy of the
preposterous and grotesque original? In fact, we may see how
unmanageable is this classical treatment of the essentially absurd in
Tennyson himself. The humorous passages in _The Princess_, though
often really humorous in themselves, always appear forced and feeble
because they have to be restrained by a certain metrical dignity, and
the mere idea of such restraint is incompatible with humour. If
Browning had written the passage which opens _The Princess_,
descriptive of the "larking" of the villagers in the magnate's park,
he would have spared us nothing; he would not have spared us the
shrill uneducated voices and the unburied bottles of ginger beer. He
would have crammed the poem with uncouth similes; he would have
changed the metre a hundred times; he would have broken into doggerel
and into rhapsody; but he would have left, when all is said and done,
as he leaves in that paltry fragment of the grumbling organist, the
impression of a certain eternal human energy. Energy and joy, the
father and the mother of the grotesque, would have ruled the poem. We
should have felt of that rowdy gathering little but the sensation of
which Mr. Henley writes--

    "Praise the generous gods for giving,
    In this world of sin and strife,
    With some little time for living,
    Unto each the joy of life,"

the thought that every wise man has when looking at a Bank Holiday
crowd at Margate.

To ask why Browning enjoyed this perverse and fantastic style most
would be to go very deep into his spirit indeed, probably a great
deal deeper than it is possible to go. But it is worth while to
suggest tentatively the general function of the grotesque in art
generally and in his art in particular. There is one very curious idea
into which we have been hypnotised by the more eloquent poets, and
that is that nature in the sense of what is ordinarily called the
country is a thing entirely stately and beautiful as those terms are
commonly understood. The whole world of the fantastic, all things
top-heavy, lop-sided, and nonsensical are conceived as the work of
man, gargoyles, German jugs, Chinese pots, political caricatures,
burlesque epics, the pictures of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley and the puns of
Robert Browning. But in truth a part, and a very large part, of the
sanity and power of nature lies in the fact that out of her comes all
this instinct of caricature. Nature may present itself to the poet too
often as consisting of stars and lilies; but these are not poets who
live in the country; they are men who go to the country for
inspiration and could no more live in the country than they could go
to bed in Westminster Abbey. Men who live in the heart of nature,
farmers and peasants, know that nature means cows and pigs, and
creatures more humorous than can be found in a whole sketch-book of
Callot. And the element of the grotesque in art, like the element of
the grotesque in nature, means, in the main, energy, the energy which
takes its own forms and goes its own way. Browning's verse, in so far
as it is grotesque, is not complex or artificial; it is natural and in
the legitimate tradition of nature. The verse sprawls like the trees,
dances like the dust; it is ragged like the thunder-cloud, it is
top-heavy like the toadstool. Energy which disregards the standard of
classical art is in nature as it is in Browning. The same sense of the
uproarious force in things which makes Browning dwell on the oddity of
a fungus or a jellyfish makes him dwell on the oddity of a
philosophical idea. Here, for example, we have a random instance from
"The Englishman in Italy" of the way in which Browning, when he was
most Browning, regarded physical nature.

    "And pitch down his basket before us,
    All trembling alive
    With pink and grey jellies, your sea-fruit;
    You touch the strange lumps,
    And mouths gape there, eyes open, all manner
    Of horns and of humps,
    Which only the fisher looks grave at."

Nature might mean flowers to Wordsworth and grass to Walt Whitman, but
to Browning it really meant such things as these, the monstrosities
and living mysteries of the sea. And just as these strange things
meant to Browning energy in the physical world, so strange thoughts
and strange images meant to him energy in the mental world. When, in
one of his later poems, the professional mystic is seeking in a
supreme moment of sincerity to explain that small things may be filled
with God as well as great, he uses the very same kind of image, the
image of a shapeless sea-beast, to embody that noble conception.

    "The Name comes close behind a stomach-cyst,
    The simplest of creations, just a sac
    That's mouth, heart, legs, and belly at once, yet lives
    And feels, and could do neither, we conclude,
    If simplified still further one degree."

                                          (SLUDGE.)

These bulbous, indescribable sea-goblins are the first thing on which
the eye of the poet lights in looking on a landscape, and the last in
the significance of which he trusts in demonstrating the mercy of the
Everlasting.

There is another and but slightly different use of the grotesque, but
which is definitely valuable in Browning's poetry, and indeed in all
poetry. To present a matter in a grotesque manner does certainly tend
to touch the nerve of surprise and thus to draw attention to the
intrinsically miraculous character of the object itself. It is
difficult to give examples of the proper use of grotesqueness without
becoming too grotesque. But we should all agree that if St. Paul's
Cathedral were suddenly presented to us upside down we should, for the
moment, be more surprised at it, and look at it more than we have done
all the centuries during which it has rested on its foundations. Now
it is the supreme function of the philosopher of the grotesque to make
the world stand on its head that people may look at it. If we say "a
man is a man" we awaken no sense of the fantastic, however much we
ought to, but if we say, in the language of the old satirist, "that
man is a two-legged bird, without feathers," the phrase does, for a
moment, make us look at man from the outside and gives us a thrill in
his presence. When the author of the Book of Job insists upon the
huge, half-witted, apparently unmeaning magnificence and might of
Behemoth, the hippopotamus, he is appealing precisely to this sense of
wonder provoked by the grotesque. "Canst thou play with him as with a
bird, canst thou bind him for thy maidens?" he says in an admirable
passage. The notion of the hippopotamus as a household pet is
curiously in the spirit of the humour of Browning.

But when it is clearly understood that Browning's love of the
fantastic in style was a perfectly serious artistic love, when we
understand that he enjoyed working in that style, as a Chinese potter
might enjoy making dragons, or a mediæval mason making devils, there
yet remains something definite which must be laid to his account as a
fault. He certainly had a capacity for becoming perfectly childish in
his indulgence in ingenuities that have nothing to do with poetry at
all, such as puns, and rhymes, and grammatical structures that only
just fit into each other like a Chinese puzzle. Probably it was only
one of the marks of his singular vitality, curiosity, and interest in
details. He was certainly one of those somewhat rare men who are
fierily ambitious both in large things and in small. He prided himself
on having written _The Ring and the Book_, and he also prided himself
on knowing good wine when he tasted it. He prided himself on
re-establishing optimism on a new foundation, and it is to be
presumed, though it is somewhat difficult to imagine, that he prided
himself on such rhymes as the following in _Pacchiarotto_:--

    "The wolf, fox, bear, and monkey,
    By piping advice in one key--
    That his pipe should play a prelude
    To something heaven-tinged not hell-hued,
    Something not harsh but docile,
    Man-liquid, not man-fossil."

This writing, considered as writing, can only be regarded as a kind of
joke, and most probably Browning considered it so himself. It has
nothing at all to do with that powerful and symbolic use of the
grotesque which may be found in such admirable passages as this from
"Holy Cross Day":--

    "Give your first groan--compunction's at work;
    And soft! from a Jew you mount to a Turk.
    Lo, Micah--the self-same beard on chin
    He was four times already converted in!"

This is the serious use of the grotesque. Through it passion and
philosophy are as well expressed as through any other medium. But the
rhyming frenzy of Browning has no particular relation even to the
poems in which it occurs. It is not a dance to any measure; it can
only be called the horse-play of literature. It may be noted, for
example, as a rather curious fact, that the ingenious rhymes are
generally only mathematical triumphs, not triumphs of any kind of
assonance. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," a poem written for children,
and bound in general to be lucid and readable, ends with a rhyme which
it is physically impossible for any one to say:--

    "And, whether they pipe us free, fróm rats or fróm mice,
    If we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise!"

This queer trait in Browning, his inability to keep a kind of demented
ingenuity even out of poems in which it was quite inappropriate, is a
thing which must be recognised, and recognised all the more because as
a whole he was a very perfect artist, and a particularly perfect
artist in the use of the grotesque. But everywhere when we go a little
below the surface in Browning we find that there was something in him
perverse and unusual despite all his working normality and
simplicity. His mind was perfectly wholesome, but it was not made
exactly like the ordinary mind. It was like a piece of strong wood
with a knot in it.

The quality of what, can only be called buffoonery which is under
discussion is indeed one of the many things in which Browning was more
of an Elizabethan than a Victorian. He was like the Elizabethans in
their belief in the normal man, in their gorgeous and over-loaded
language, above all in their feeling for learning as an enjoyment and
almost a frivolity. But there was nothing in which he was so
thoroughly Elizabethan, and even Shakespearian, as in this fact, that
when he felt inclined to write a page of quite uninteresting nonsense,
he immediately did so. Many great writers have contrived to be
tedious, and apparently aimless, while expounding some thought which
they believed to be grave and profitable; but this frivolous stupidity
had not been found in any great writer since the time of Rabelais and
the time of the Elizabethans. In many of the comic scenes of
Shakespeare we have precisely this elephantine ingenuity, this hunting
of a pun to death through three pages. In the Elizabethan dramatists
and in Browning it is no doubt to a certain extent the mark of a real
hilarity. People must be very happy to be so easily amused.

In the case of what is called Browning's obscurity, the question is
somewhat more difficult to handle. Many people have supposed Browning
to be profound because he was obscure, and many other people, hardly
less mistaken, have supposed him to be obscure because he was
profound. He was frequently profound, he was occasionally obscure, but
as a matter of fact the two have little or nothing to do with each
other. Browning's dark and elliptical mode of speech, like his love of
the grotesque, was simply a characteristic of his, a trick of is
temperament, and had little or nothing to do with whether what he was
expressing was profound or superficial. Suppose, for example, that a
person well read in English poetry but unacquainted with Browning's
style were earnestly invited to consider the following verse:--

    "Hobbs hints blue--straight he turtle eats.
      Nobbs prints blue--claret crowns his cup.
    Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats--
      Both gorge. Who fished the murex up?
    What porridge had John Keats?"

The individual so confronted would say without hesitation that it must
indeed be an abstruse and indescribable thought which could only be
conveyed by remarks so completely disconnected. But the point of the
matter is that the thought contained in this amazing verse is not
abstruse or philosophical at all, but is a perfectly ordinary and
straightforward comment, which any one might have made upon an obvious
fact of life. The whole verse of course begins to explain itself, if
we know the meaning of the word "murex," which is the name of a
sea-shell, out of which was made the celebrated blue dye of Tyre. The
poet takes this blue dye as a simile for a new fashion in literature,
and points out that Hobbs, Nobbs, etc., obtain fame and comfort by
merely using the dye from the shell; and adds the perfectly natural
comment:--

    "... Who fished the murex up?
    What porridge had John Keats?"

So that the verse is not subtle, and was not meant to be subtle, but
is a perfectly casual piece of sentiment at the end of a light poem.
Browning is not obscure because he has such deep things to say, any
more than he is grotesque because he has such new things to say. He is
both of these things primarily, because he likes to express himself in
a particular manner. The manner is as natural to him as a man's
physical voice, and it is abrupt, sketchy, allusive, and full of gaps.
Here comes in the fundamental difference between Browning and such a
writer as George Meredith, with whom the Philistine satirist would so
often in the matter of complexity class him. The works of George
Meredith are, as it were, obscure even when we know what they mean.
They deal with nameless emotions, fugitive sensations, subconscious
certainties and uncertainties, and it really requires a somewhat
curious and unfamiliar mode of speech to indicate the presence of
these. But the great part of Browning's actual sentiments, and almost
all the finest and most literary of them, are perfectly plain and
popular and eternal sentiments. Meredith is really a singer producing
strange notes and cadences difficult to follow because of the delicate
rhythm of the song he sings. Browning is simply a great demagogue,
with an impediment in his speech. Or rather, to speak more strictly,
Browning is a man whose excitement for the glory of the obvious is so
great that his speech becomes disjointed and precipitate: he becomes
eccentric through his advocacy of the ordinary, and goes mad for the
love of sanity.

If Browning and George Meredith were each describing the same act,
they might both be obscure, but their obscurities would be entirely
different. Suppose, for instance, they were describing even so prosaic
and material an act as a man being knocked downstairs by another man
to whom he had given the lie, Meredith's description would refer to
something which an ordinary observer would not see, or at least could
not describe. It might be a sudden sense of anarchy in the brain of
the assaulter, or a stupefaction and stunned serenity in that of the
object of the assault. He might write, "Wainwood's 'Men vary in
veracity,' brought the baronet's arm up. He felt the doors of his
brain burst, and Wainwood a swift rushing of himself through air
accompanied with a clarity as of the annihilated." Meredith, in other
words, would speak queerly because he was describing queer mental
experiences. But Browning might simply be describing the material
incident of the man being knocked downstairs, and his description
would run:--

    "What then? 'You lie' and doormat below stairs
    Takes bump from back."

This is not subtlety, but merely a kind of insane swiftness. Browning
is not like Meredith, anxious to pause and examine the sensations of
the combatants, nor does he become obscure through this anxiety. He is
only so anxious to get his man to the bottom of the stairs quickly
that he leaves out about half the story.

Many who could understand that ruggedness might be an artistic
quality, would decisively, and in most cases rightly, deny that
obscurity could under any conceivable circumstances be an artistic
quality. But here again Browning's work requires a somewhat more
cautious and sympathetic analysis. There is a certain kind of
fascination, a strictly artistic fascination, which arises from a
matter being hinted at in such a way as to leave a certain tormenting
uncertainty even at the end. It is well sometimes to half understand a
poem in the same manner that we half understand the world. One of the
deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will
suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping
meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered
something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a
prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain
poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed
the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but
in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.

But in truth it is very difficult to keep pace with all the strange
and unclassified artistic merits of Browning. He was always trying
experiments; sometimes he failed, producing clumsy and irritating
metres, top-heavy and over-concentrated thought. Far more often he
triumphed, producing a crowd of boldly designed poems, every one of
which taken separately might have founded an artistic school. But
whether successful or unsuccessful, he never ceased from his fierce
hunt after poetic novelty. He never became a conservative. The last
book he published in his life-time, _Parleyings with Certain People of
Importance in their Day_, was a new poem, and more revolutionary than
_Paracelsus_. This is the true light in which to regard Browning as an
artist. He had determined to leave no spot of the cosmos unadorned by
his poetry which he could find it possible to adorn. An admirable
example can be found in that splendid poem "Childe Roland to the Dark
Tower came." It is the hint of an entirely new and curious type of
poetry, the poetry of the shabby and hungry aspect of the earth
itself. Daring poets who wished to escape from conventional gardens
and orchards had long been in the habit of celebrating the poetry of
rugged and gloomy landscapes, but Browning is not content with this.
He insists upon celebrating the poetry of mean landscapes. That sense
of scrubbiness in nature, as of a man unshaved, had never been
conveyed with this enthusiasm and primeval gusto before.

    "If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
       Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
       Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
    In the dock's harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
    All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
       Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents."

This is a perfect realisation of that eerie sentiment which comes upon
us, not so often among mountains and water-falls, as it does on some
half-starved common at twilight, or in walking down some grey mean
street. It is the song of the beauty of refuse; and Browning was the
first to sing it. Oddly enough it has been one of the poems about
which most of those pedantic and trivial questions have been asked,
which are asked invariably by those who treat Browning as a science
instead of a poet, "What does the poem of 'Childe Roland' mean?" The
only genuine answer to this is, "What does anything mean?" Does the
earth mean nothing? Do grey skies and wastes covered with thistles
mean nothing? Does an old horse turned out to graze mean nothing? If
it does, there is but one further truth to be added--that everything
means nothing.



CHAPTER VII

_THE RING AND THE BOOK_


When we have once realised the great conception of the plan of _The
Ring and the Book_, the studying of a single matter from nine
different stand-points, it becomes exceedingly interesting to notice
what these stand-points are; what figures Browning has selected as
voicing the essential and distinct versions of the case. One of the
ablest and most sympathetic of all the critics of Browning, Mr.
Augustine Birrell, has said in one place that the speeches of the two
advocates in _The Ring and the Book_ will scarcely be very interesting
to the ordinary reader. However that may be, there can be little doubt
that a great number of the readers of Browning think them beside the
mark and adventitious. But it is exceedingly dangerous to say that
anything in Browning is irrelevant or unnecessary. We are apt to go on
thinking so until some mere trifle puts the matter in a new light, and
the detail that seemed meaningless springs up as almost the central
pillar of the structure. In the successive monologues of his poem,
Browning is endeavouring to depict the various strange ways in which a
fact gets itself presented to the world. In every question there are
partisans who bring cogent and convincing arguments for the right
side; there are also partisans who bring cogent and convincing
arguments for the wrong side. But over and above these, there does
exist in every great controversy a class of more or less official
partisans who are continually engaged in defending each cause by
entirely inappropriate arguments. They do not know the real good that
can be said for the good cause, nor the real good that can be said for
the bad one. They are represented by the animated, learned, eloquent,
ingenious, and entirely futile and impertinent arguments of Juris
Doctor Bottinius and Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis. These two men
brilliantly misrepresent, not merely each other's cause, but their own
cause. The introduction of them is one of the finest and most artistic
strokes in _The Ring and the Book_.

We can see the matter best by taking an imaginary parallel. Suppose
that a poet of the type of Browning lived some centuries hence and
found in some _cause célèbre_ of our day, such as the Parnell
Commission, an opportunity for a work similar in its design to _The
Ring and the Book_. The first monologue, which would be called
"Half-London," would be the arguments of an ordinary educated and
sensible Unionist who believed that there really was evidence that the
Nationalist movement in Ireland was rooted in crime and public panic.
The "Otherhalf-London" would be the utterance of an ordinary educated
and sensible Home Ruler, who thought that in the main Nationalism was
one distinct symptom, and crime another, of the same poisonous and
stagnant problem. The "Tertium Quid" would be some detached
intellectual, committed neither to Nationalism nor to Unionism,
possibly Mr. Bernard Shaw, who would make a very entertaining Browning
monologue. Then of course would come the speeches of the great actors
in the drama, the icy anger of Parnell, the shuffling apologies of
Pigott. But we should feel that the record was incomplete without
another touch which in practice has so much to do with the confusion
of such a question. Bottinius and Hyacinthus de Archangelis, the two
cynical professional pleaders, with their transparent assumptions and
incredible theories of the case, would be represented by two party
journalists; one of whom was ready to base his case either on the fact
that Parnell was a Socialist or an Anarchist, or an Atheist or a Roman
Catholic; and the other of whom was ready to base his case on the
theory that Lord Salisbury hated Parnell or was in league with him, or
had never heard of him, or anything else that was remote from the
world of reality. These are the kind of little touches for which we
must always be on the look-out in Browning. Even if a digression, or a
simile, or a whole scene in a play, seems to have no point or value,
let us wait a little and give it a chance. He very seldom wrote
anything that did not mean a great deal.

It is sometimes curious to notice how a critic, possessing no little
cultivation and fertility, will, in speaking of a work of art, let
fall almost accidentally some apparently trivial comment, which
reveals to us with an instantaneous and complete mental illumination
the fact that he does not, so far as that work of art is concerned, in
the smallest degree understand what he is talking about. He may have
intended to correct merely some minute detail of the work he is
studying, but that single movement is enough to blow him and all his
diplomas into the air. These are the sensations with which the true
Browningite will regard the criticism made by so many of Browning's
critics and biographers about _The Ring and the Book_. That criticism
was embodied by one of them in the words "the theme looked at
dispassionately is unworthy of the monument in which it is entombed
for eternity." Now this remark shows at once that the critic does not
know what _The Ring and the Book_ means. We feel about it as we should
feel about a man who said that the plot of _Tristram Shandy_ was not
well constructed, or that the women in Rossetti's pictures did not
look useful and industrious. A man who has missed the fact that
_Tristram Shandy is_ a game of digressions, that the whole book is a
kind of practical joke to cheat the reader out of a story, simply has
not read _Tristram Shandy_ at all. The man who objects to the Rossetti
pictures because they depict a sad and sensuous day-dream, objects to
their existing at all. And any one who objects to Browning writing his
huge epic round a trumpery and sordid police-case has in reality
missed the whole length and breadth of the poet's meaning. The essence
of _The Ring and the Book_ is that it is the great epic of the
nineteenth century, because it is the great epic of the enormous
importance of small things. The supreme difference that divides _The
Ring and the Book_ from all the great poems of similar length and
largeness of design is precisely the fact that all these are about
affairs commonly called important, and _The Ring and the Book_ is
about an affair commonly called contemptible. Homer says, "I will show
you the relations between man and heaven as exhibited in a great
legend of love and war, which shall contain the mightiest of all
mortal warriors, and the most beautiful of all mortal women." The
author of the Book of Job says, "I will show you the relations between
man and heaven by a tale of primeval sorrows and the voice of God out
of a whirlwind." Virgil says, "I will show you the relations of man to
heaven by the tale of the origin of the greatest people and the
founding of the most wonderful city in the world." Dante says, "I will
show you the relations of man to heaven by uncovering the very
machinery of the spiritual universe, and letting you hear, as I have
heard, the roaring of the mills of God." Milton says, "I will show you
the relations of man to heaven by telling you of the very beginning of
all things, and the first shaping of the thing that is evil in the
first twilight of time." Browning says, "I will show you the relations
of man to heaven by telling you a story out of a dirty Italian book of
criminal trials from which I select one of the meanest and most
completely forgotten." Until we have realised this fundamental idea in
_The Ring and the Book_ all criticism is misleading.

In this Browning is, of course, the supreme embodiment of his time.
The characteristic of the modern movements _par excellence_ is the
apotheosis of the insignificant. Whether it be the school of poetry
which sees more in one cowslip or clover-top than in forests and
waterfalls, or the school of fiction which finds something
indescribably significant in the pattern of a hearth-rug, or the tint
of a man's tweed coat, the tendency is the same. Maeterlinck stricken
still and wondering by a deal door half open, or the light shining out
of a window at night; Zola filling note-books with the medical
significance of the twitching of a man's toes, or the loss of his
appetite; Whitman counting the grass and the heart-shaped leaves of
the lilac; Mr. George Gissing lingering fondly over the third-class
ticket and the dilapidated umbrella; George Meredith seeing a soul's
tragedy in a phrase at the dinner-table; Mr. Bernard Shaw filling
three pages with stage directions to describe a parlour; all these
men, different in every other particular, are alike in this, that they
have ceased to believe certain things to be important and the rest to
be unimportant. Significance is to them a wild thing that may leap
upon them from any hiding-place. They have all become terribly
impressed with and a little bit alarmed at the mysterious powers of
small things. Their difference from the old epic poets is the whole
difference between an age that fought with dragons and an age that
fights with microbes.

This tide of the importance of small things is flowing so steadily
around us upon every side to-day, that we do not sufficiently realise
that if there was one man in English literary history who might with
justice be called its fountain and origin, that man was Robert
Browning. When Browning arose, literature was entirely in the hands of
the Tennysonian poet. The Tennysonian poet does indeed mention
trivialities, but he mentions them when he wishes to speak trivially;
Browning mentions trivialities when he wishes to speak sensationally.
Now this sense of the terrible importance of detail was a sense which
may be said to have possessed Browning in the emphatic manner of a
demoniac possession. Sane as he was, this one feeling might have
driven him to a condition not far from madness. Any room that he was
sitting in glared at him with innumerable eyes and mouths gaping with
a story. There was sometimes no background and no middle distance in
his mind. A human face and the pattern on the wall behind it came
forward with equally aggressive clearness. It may be repeated, that if
ever he who had the strongest head in the world had gone mad, it would
have been through this turbulent democracy of things. If he looked at
a porcelain vase or an old hat, a cabbage, or a puppy at play, each
began to be bewitched with the spell of a kind of fairyland of
philosophers: the vase, like the jar in the _Arabian Nights_, to send
up a smoke of thoughts and shapes; the hat to produce souls, as a
conjuror's hat produces rabbits; the cabbage to swell and overshadow
the earth, like the Tree of Knowledge; and the puppy to go off at a
scamper along the road to the end of the world. Any one who has read
Browning's longer poems knows how constantly a simile or figure of
speech is selected, not among the large, well-recognised figures
common in poetry, but from some dusty corner of experience, and how
often it is characterised by smallness and a certain quaint exactitude
which could not have been found in any more usual example. Thus, for
instance, _Prince Hohenstiel--Schwangau_ explains the psychological
meaning of all his restless and unscrupulous activities by comparing
them to the impulse which has just led him, even in the act of
talking, to draw a black line on the blotting-paper exactly, so as to
connect two separate blots that were already there. This queer example
is selected as the best possible instance of a certain fundamental
restlessness and desire to add a touch to things in the spirit of
man. I have no doubt whatever that Browning thought of the idea after
doing the thing himself, and sat in a philosophical trance staring at
a piece of inked blotting-paper, conscious that at that moment, and in
that insignificant act, some immemorial monster of the mind, nameless
from the beginning of the world, had risen to the surface of the
spiritual sea.

It is therefore the very essence of Browning's genius, and the very
essence of _The Ring and the Book_, that it should be the enormous
multiplication of a small theme. It is the extreme of idle criticism
to complain that the story is a current and sordid story, for the
whole object of the poem is to show what infinities of spiritual good
and evil a current and sordid story may contain. When once this is
realised, it explains at one stroke the innumerable facts about the
work. It explains, for example, Browning's detailed and picturesque
account of the glorious dust-bin of odds and ends for sale, out of
which he picked the printed record of the trial, and his insistence on
its cheapness, its dustiness, its yellow leaves, and its crabbed
Latin. The more soiled and dark and insignificant he can make the text
appear, the better for his ample and gigantic sermon. It explains
again the strictness with which Browning adhered to the facts of the
forgotten intrigue. He was playing the game of seeing how much was
really involved in one paltry fragment of fact. To have introduced
large quantities of fiction would not have been sportsmanlike. _The
Ring and the Book_ therefore, to re-capitulate the view arrived at so
far, is the typical epic of our age, because it expresses the richness
of life by taking as a text a poor story. It pays to existence the
highest of all possible compliments--the great compliment which
monarchy paid to mankind--the compliment of selecting from it almost
at random.

But this is only the first half of the claim of _The Ring and the
Book_ to be the typical epic of modern times. The second half of that
claim, the second respect in which the work is representative of all
modern development, requires somewhat more careful statement. _The
Ring and the Book_ is of course, essentially speaking, a detective
story. Its difference from the ordinary detective story is that it
seeks to establish, not the centre of criminal guilt, but the centre
of spiritual guilt. But it has exactly the same kind of exciting
quality that a detective story has, and a very excellent quality it
is. But the element which is important, and which now requires
pointing out, is the method by which that centre of spiritual guilt
and the corresponding centre of spiritual rectitude is discovered. In
order to make clear the peculiar character of this method, it is
necessary to begin rather nearer the beginning, and to go back some
little way in literary history.

I do not know whether anybody, including the editor himself, has ever
noticed a peculiar coincidence which may be found in the arrangement
of the lyrics in Sir Francis Palgrave's _Golden Treasury_. However
that may be, two poems, each of them extremely well known, are placed
side by side, and their juxtaposition represents one vast revolution
in the poetical manner of looking at things. The first is Goldsmith's
almost too well known

    "When lovely woman stoops to folly,
    And finds too late that men betray,
    What charm can soothe her melancholy?
    What art can wash her guilt away?"

Immediately afterwards comes, with a sudden and thrilling change of
note, the voice of Burns:--

    "Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
      How can ye bloom sae fair?
    How can ye chant, ye little birds,
      And I sae fu' of care?

    Thou'll break my heart, thou bonny bird,
      That sings upon the bough,
    Thou minds me of the happy days
      When my fause Love was true."

A man might read those two poems a great many times without happening
to realise that they are two poems on exactly the same subject--the
subject of a trusting woman deserted by a man. And the whole
difference--the difference struck by the very first note of the voice
of any one who reads them--is this fundamental difference, that
Goldsmith's words are spoken about a certain situation, and Burns's
words are spoken in that situation.

In the transition from one of these lyrics to the other, we have a
vital change in the conception of the functions of the poet; a change
of which Burns was in many ways the beginning, of which Browning, in a
manner that we shall see presently, was the culmination.

Goldsmith writes fully and accurately in the tradition of the old
historic idea of what a poet was. The poet, the _vates_, was the
supreme and absolute critic of human existence, the chorus in the
human drama; he was, to employ two words, which when analysed are the
same word, either a spectator or a seer. He took a situation, such as
the situation of a woman deserted by a man before-mentioned, and he
gave, as Goldsmith gives, his own personal and definite decision upon
it, entirely based upon general principles, and entirely from the
outside. Then, as in the case of _The Golden Treasury_, he has no
sooner given judgment than there comes a bitter and confounding cry
out of the very heart of the situation itself, which tells us things
which would have been quite left out of account by the poet of the
general rule. No one, for example, but a person who knew something of
the inside of agony would have introduced that touch of the rage of
the mourner against the chattering frivolity of nature, "Thou'll break
my heart, thou bonny bird." We find and could find no such touch in
Goldsmith. We have to arrive at the conclusion therefore, that the
_vates_ or poet in his absolute capacity is defied and overthrown by
this new method of what may be called the songs of experience.

Now Browning, as he appears in _The Ring and the Book_, represents the
attempt to discover, not the truth in the sense that Goldsmith states
it, but the larger truth which is made up of all the emotional
experiences, such as that rendered by Burns. Browning, like Goldsmith,
seeks ultimately to be just and impartial, but he does it by
endeavouring to feel acutely every kind of partiality. Goldsmith
stands apart from all the passions of the case, and Browning includes
them all. If Browning were endeavouring to do strict justice in a case
like that of the deserted lady by the banks of Doon, he would not
touch or modify in the smallest particular the song as Burns sang it,
but he would write other songs, perhaps equally pathetic. A lyric or a
soliloquy would convince us suddenly by the mere pulse of its
language, that there was some pathos in the other actors in the drama;
some pathos, for example, in a weak man, conscious that in a
passionate ignorance of life he had thrown away his power of love,
lacking the moral courage to throw his prospects after it. We should
be reminded again that there was some pathos in the position, let us
say, of the seducer's mother, who had built all her hopes upon
developments which a mésalliance would overthrow, or in the position
of some rival lover, stricken to the ground with the tragedy in which
he had not even the miserable comfort of a _locus standi_. All these
characters in the story, Browning would realise from their own
emotional point of view before he gave judgment. The poet in his
ancient office held a kind of terrestrial day of judgment, and gave
men halters and haloes; Browning gives men neither halter nor halo, he
gives them voices. This is indeed the most bountiful of all the
functions of the poet, that he gives men words, for which men from the
beginning of the world have starved more than for bread.

Here then we have the second great respect in which _The Ring and the
Book_ is the great epic of the age. It is the great epic of the age,
because it is the expression of the belief, it might almost be said,
of the discovery, that no man ever lived upon this earth without
possessing a point of view. No one ever lived who had not a little
more to say for himself than any formal system of justice was likely
to say for him. It is scarcely necessary to point out how entirely the
application of this principle would revolutionise the old heroic
epic, in which the poet decided absolutely the moral relations and
moral value of the characters. Suppose, for example, that Homer had
written the _Odyssey_ on the principle of _The Ring and the Book_, how
disturbing, how weird an experience it would be to read the story from
the point of view of Antinous! Without contradicting a single material
fact, without telling a single deliberate lie, the narrative would so
change the whole world around us, that we should scarcely know we were
dealing with the same place and people. The calm face of Penelope
would, it may be, begin to grow meaner before our eyes, like a face
changing in a dream. She would begin to appear as a fickle and selfish
woman, passing falsely as a widow, and playing a double game between
the attentions of foolish but honourable young men, and the fitful
appearances of a wandering and good-for-nothing sailor-husband; a man
prepared to act that most well-worn of melodramatic rôles, the
conjugal bully and blackmailer, the man who uses marital rights as an
instrument for the worse kind of wrongs. Or, again, if we had the
story of the fall of King Arthur told from the stand-point of Mordred,
it would only be a matter of a word or two; in a turn, in the
twinkling of an eye, we should find ourselves sympathising with the
efforts of an earnest young man to frustrate the profligacies of
high-placed paladins like Lancelot and Tristram, and ultimately
discovering, with deep regret but unshaken moral courage, that there
was no way to frustrate them, except by overthrowing the cold and
priggish and incapable egotist who ruled the country, and the whole
artificial and bombastic schemes which bred these moral evils. It
might be that in spite of this new view of the case, it would
ultimately appear that Ulysses was really right and Arthur was really
right, just as Browning makes it ultimately appear that Pompilia was
really right. But any one can see the enormous difference in scope and
difficulty between the old epic which told the whole story from one
man's point of view, and the new epic which cannot come to its
conclusion, until it has digested and assimilated views as paradoxical
and disturbing as our imaginary defence of Antinous and apologia of
Mordred.

One of the most important steps ever taken in the history of the world
is this step, with all its various aspects, literary, political, and
social, which is represented by _The Ring and the Book_. It is the
step of deciding, in the face of many serious dangers and
disadvantages, to let everybody talk. The poet of the old epic is the
poet who had learnt to speak; Browning in the new epic is the poet who
has learnt to listen. This listening to truth and error, to heretics,
to fools, to intellectual bullies, to desperate partisans, to mere
chatterers, to systematic poisoners of the mind, is the hardest lesson
that humanity has ever been set to learn. _The Ring and the Book_ is
the embodiment of this terrible magnanimity and patience. It is the
epic of free speech.

Free speech is an idea which has at present all the unpopularity of a
truism; so that we tend to forget that it was not so very long ago
that it had the more practical unpopularity which attaches to a new
truth. Ingratitude is surely the chief of the intellectual sins of
man. He takes his political benefits for granted, just as he takes
the skies and the seasons for granted. He considers the calm of a city
street a thing as inevitable as the calm of a forest clearing, whereas
it is only kept in peace by a sustained stretch and effort similar to
that which keeps up a battle or a fencing match. Just as we forget
where we stand in relation to natural phenomena, so we forget it in
relation to social phenomena. We forget that the earth is a star, and
we forget that free speech is a paradox.

It is not by any means self-evident upon the face of it that an
institution like the liberty of speech is right or just. It is not
natural or obvious to let a man utter follies and abominations which
you believe to be bad for mankind any more than it is natural or
obvious to let a man dig up a part of the public road, or infect half
a town with typhoid fever. The theory of free speech, that truth is so
much larger and stranger and more many-sided than we know of, that it
is very much better at all costs to hear every one's account of it, is
a theory which has been justified upon the whole by experiment, but
which remains a very daring and even a very surprising theory. It is
really one of the great discoveries of the modern time; but, once
admitted, it is a principle that does not merely affect politics, but
philosophy, ethics, and finally poetry.

Browning was upon the whole the first poet to apply the principle to
poetry. He perceived that if we wish to tell the truth about a human
drama, we must not tell it merely like a melodrama, in which the
villain is villainous and the comic man is comic. He saw that the
truth had not been told until he had seen in the villain the pure and
disinterested gentleman that most villains firmly believe themselves
to be, or until he had taken the comic man as seriously as it is the
custom of comic men to take themselves. And in this Browning is beyond
all question the founder of the most modern school of poetry.
Everything that was profound, everything, indeed, that was tolerable
in the aesthetes of 1880, and the decadent of 1890, has its ultimate
source in Browning's great conception that every one's point of view
is interesting, even if it be a jaundiced or a blood-shot point of
view. He is at one with the decadents, in holding that it is
emphatically profitable, that it is emphatically creditable, to know
something of the grounds of the happiness of a thoroughly bad man.
Since his time we have indeed been somewhat over-satisfied with the
moods of the burglar, and the pensive lyrics of the receiver of stolen
goods. But Browning, united with the decadents on this point, of the
value of every human testimony, is divided from them sharply and by a
chasm in another equally important point. He held that it is necessary
to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of
it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. He held that
justice was a mystery, but not, like the decadents, that justice was a
delusion. He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in
a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent
doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the
nature of things wrong.

Browning's conception of the Universe can hardly be better expressed
than in the old and pregnant fable about the five blind men who went
to visit an elephant. One of them seized its trunk, and asserted that
an elephant was a kind of serpent; another embraced its leg, and was
ready to die for the belief that an elephant was a kind of tree. In
the same way to the man who leaned against its side it was a wall; to
the man who had hold of its tail a rope, and to the man who ran upon
its tusk a particularly unpleasant kind of spear. This, as I have
said, is the whole theology and philosophy of Browning. But he differs
from the psychological decadents and impressionists in this important
point, that he thinks that although the blind men found out very
little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was there
all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because an
elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning firmly
believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious shape
indeed. No blind poet could even imagine an elephant without
experience, and no man, however great and wise, could dream of God and
not die. But there is a vital distinction between the mystical view of
Browning, that the blind men are misled because there is so much for
them to learn, and the purely impressionist and agnostic view of the
modern poet, that the blind men were misled because there was nothing
for them to learn. To the impressionist artist of our time we are not
blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent.
We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and
serpents without reason and without result.



CHAPTER VIII

THE PHILOSOPHY OF BROWNING


The great fault of most of the appreciation of Browning lies in the
fact that it conceives the moral and artistic value of his work to lie
in what is called "the message of Browning," or "the teaching of
Browning," or, in other words, in the mere opinions of Browning. Now
Browning had opinions, just as he had a dress-suit or a vote for
Parliament. He did not hesitate to express these opinions any more
than he would have hesitated to fire off a gun, or open an umbrella,
if he had possessed those articles, and realised their value. For
example, he had, as his students and eulogists have constantly stated,
certain definite opinions about the spiritual function of love, or the
intellectual basis of Christianity. Those opinions were very striking
and very solid, as everything was which came out of Browning's mind.
His two great theories of the universe may be expressed in two
comparatively parallel phrases. The first was what may be called the
hope which lies in the imperfection of man. The characteristic poem of
"Old Pictures in Florence" expresses very quaintly and beautifully the
idea that some hope may always be based on deficiency itself; in other
words, that in so far as man is a one-legged or a one-eyed creature,
there is something about his appearance which indicates that he
should have another leg and another eye. The poem suggests admirably
that such a sense of incompleteness may easily be a great advance upon
a sense of completeness, that the part may easily and obviously be
greater than the whole. And from this Browning draws, as he is fully
justified in drawing, a definite hope for immortality and the larger
scale of life. For nothing is more certain than that though this world
is the only world that we have known, or of which we could even dream,
the fact does remain that we have named it "a strange world." In other
words, we have certainly felt that this world did not explain itself,
that something in its complete and patent picture has been omitted.
And Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness
implies completeness, life implies immortality. This then was the
first of the doctrines or opinions of Browning: the hope that lies in
the imperfection of man. The second of the great Browning doctrines
requires some audacity to express. It can only be properly stated as
the hope that lies in the imperfection of God. That is to say, that
Browning held that sorrow and self-denial, if they were the burdens of
man, were also his privileges. He held that these stubborn sorrows and
obscure valours might, to use a yet more strange expression, have
provoked the envy of the Almighty. If man has self-sacrifice and God
has none, then man has in the Universe a secret and blasphemous
superiority. And this tremendous story of a Divine jealousy Browning
reads into the story of the Crucifixion. If the Creator had not been
crucified He would not have been as great as thousands of wretched
fanatics among His own creatures. It is needless to insist upon this
point; any one who wishes to read it splendidly expressed need only be
referred to "Saul." But these are emphatically the two main doctrines
or opinions of Browning which I have ventured to characterise roughly
as the hope in the imperfection of man, and more boldly as the hope in
the imperfection of God. They are great thoughts, thoughts written by
a great man, and they raise noble and beautiful doubts on behalf of
faith which the human spirit will never answer or exhaust. But about
them in connection with Browning there nevertheless remains something
to be added.

Browning was, as most of his upholders and all his opponents say, an
optimist. His theory, that man's sense of his own imperfection implies
a design of perfection, is a very good argument for optimism. His
theory that man's knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies
God's knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice is another very good
argument for optimism. But any one will make the deepest and blackest
and most incurable mistake about Browning who imagines that his
optimism was founded on any arguments for optimism. Because he had a
strong intellect, because he had a strong power of conviction, he
conceived and developed and asserted these doctrines of the
incompleteness of Man and the sacrifice of Omnipotence. But these
doctrines were the symptoms of his optimism, they were not its origin.
It is surely obvious that no one can be argued into optimism since no
one can be argued into happiness. Browning's optimism was not founded
on opinions which were the work of Browning, but on life which was
the work of God. One of Browning's most celebrated biographers has
said that something of Browning's theology must be put down to his
possession of a good digestion. The remark was, of course, like all
remarks touching the tragic subject of digestion, intended to be funny
and to convey some kind of doubt or diminution touching the value of
Browning's faith. But if we examine the matter with somewhat greater
care we shall see that it is indeed a thorough compliment to that
faith. Nobody, strictly speaking, is happier on account of his
digestion. He is happy because he is so constituted as to forget all
about it. Nobody really is convulsed with delight at the thought of
the ingenious machinery which he possesses inside him; the thing which
delights him is simply the full possession of his own human body. I
cannot in the least understand why a good digestion--that is, a good
body--should not be held to be as mystic a benefit as a sunset or the
first flower of spring. But there is about digestion this peculiarity
throwing a great light on human pessimism, that it is one of the many
things which we never speak of as existing until they go wrong. We
should think it ridiculous to speak of a man as suffering from his
boots if we meant that he had really no boots. But we do speak of a
man suffering from digestion when we mean that he suffers from a lack
of digestion. In the same way we speak of a man suffering from nerves
when we mean that his nerves are more inefficient than any one else's
nerves. If any one wishes to see how grossly language can degenerate,
he need only compare the old optimistic use of the word nervous,
which we employ in speaking of a nervous grip, with the new
pessimistic use of the word, which we employ in speaking of a nervous
manner. And as digestion is a good thing which sometimes goes wrong,
as nerves are good things which sometimes go wrong, so existence
itself in the eyes of Browning and all the great optimists is a good
thing which sometimes goes wrong. He held himself as free to draw his
inspiration from the gift of good health as from the gift of learning
or the gift of fellowship. But he held that such gifts were in life
innumerable and varied, and that every man, or at least almost every
man, possessed some window looking out on this essential excellence of
things.

Browning's optimism then, since we must continue to use this somewhat
inadequate word, was a result of experience--experience which is for
some mysterious reason generally understood in the sense of sad or
disillusioning experience. An old gentleman rebuking a little boy for
eating apples in a tree is in the common conception the type of
experience. If he really wished to be a type of experience he would
climb up the tree himself and proceed to experience the apples.
Browning's faith was founded upon joyful experience, not in the sense
that he selected his joyful experiences and ignored his painful ones,
but in the sense that his joyful experiences selected themselves and
stood out in his memory by virtue of their own extraordinary intensity
of colour. He did not use experience in that mean and pompous sense in
which it is used by the worldling advanced in years. He rather used it
in that healthier and more joyful sense in which it is used at
revivalist meetings. In the Salvation Army a man's experiences mean
his experiences of the mercy of God, and to Browning the meaning was
much the same. But the revivalists' confessions deal mostly with
experiences of prayer and praise; Browning's dealt pre-eminently with
what may be called his own subject, the experiences of love.

And this quality of Browning's optimism, the quality of detail, is
also a very typical quality. Browning's optimism is of that ultimate
and unshakeable order that is founded upon the absolute sight, and
sound, and smell, and handling of things. If a man had gone up to
Browning and asked him with all the solemnity of the eccentric, "Do
you think life is worth living?" it is interesting to conjecture what
his answer might have been. If he had been for the moment under the
influence of the orthodox rationalistic deism of the theologian he
would have said, "Existence is justified by its manifest design, its
manifest adaptation of means to ends," or, in other words, "Existence
is justified by its completeness." If, on the other hand, he had been
influenced by his own serious intellectual theories he would have
said, "Existence is justified by its air of growth and doubtfulness,"
or, in other words, "Existence is justified by its incompleteness."
But if he had not been influenced in his answer either by the accepted
opinions, or by his own opinions, but had simply answered the question
"Is life worth living?" with the real, vital answer that awaited it in
his own soul, he would have said as likely as not, "Crimson toadstools
in Hampshire." Some plain, glowing picture of this sort left on his
mind would be his real verdict on what the universe had meant to him.
To his traditions hope was traced to order, to his speculations hope
was traced to disorder. But to Browning himself hope was traced to
something like red toadstools. His mysticism was not of that idle and
wordy type which believes that a flower is symbolical of life; it was
rather of that deep and eternal type which believes that life, a mere
abstraction, is symbolical of a flower. With him the great concrete
experiences which God made always come first; his own deductions and
speculations about them always second. And in this point we find the
real peculiar inspiration of his very original poems.

One of the very few critics who seem to have got near to the actual
secret of Browning's optimism is Mr. Santayana in his most interesting
book _Interpretations of Poetry and Religion_. He, in contradistinction
to the vast mass of Browning's admirers, had discovered what was the
real root virtue of Browning's poetry; and the curious thing is, that
having discovered that root virtue, he thinks it is a vice. He
describes the poetry of Browning most truly as the poetry of
barbarism, by which he means the poetry which utters the primeval and
indivisible emotions. "For the barbarian is the man who regards his
passions as their own excuse for being, who does not domesticate them
either by understanding their cause, or by conceiving their ideal
goal." Whether this be or be not a good definition of the barbarian,
it is an excellent and perfect definition of the poet. It might,
perhaps, be suggested that barbarians, as a matter of fact, are
generally highly traditional and respectable persons who would not put
a feather wrong in their head-gear, and who generally have very few
feelings and think very little about those they have. It is when we
have grown to a greater and more civilised stature that we begin to
realise and put to ourselves intellectually the great feelings that
sleep in the depths of us. Thus it is that the literature of our day
has steadily advanced towards a passionate simplicity, and we become
more primeval as the world grows older, until Whitman writes huge and
chaotic psalms to express the sensations of a schoolboy out fishing,
and Maeterlinck embodies in symbolic dramas the feelings of a child in
the dark.

Thus, Mr. Santayana is, perhaps, the most valuable of all the Browning
critics. He has gone out of his way to endeavour to realise what it is
that repels him in Browning, and he has discovered the fault which
none of Browning's opponents have discovered. And in this he has
discovered the merit which none of Browning's admirers have
discovered. Whether the quality be a good or a bad quality, Mr.
Santayana is perfectly right. The whole of Browning's poetry does rest
upon primitive feeling; and the only comment to be added is that so
does the whole of every one else's poetry. Poetry deals entirely with
those great eternal and mainly forgotten wishes which are the ultimate
despots of existence. Poetry presents things as they are to our
emotions, not as they are to any theory, however plausible, or any
argument, however conclusive. If love is in truth a glorious vision,
poetry will say that it is a glorious vision, and no philosophers will
persuade poetry to say that it is the exaggeration of the instinct of
sex. If bereavement is a bitter and continually aching thing, poetry
will say that it is so, and no philosophers will persuade poetry to
say that it is an evolutionary stage of great biological value. And
here comes in the whole value and object of poetry, that it is
perpetually challenging all systems with the test of a terrible
sincerity. The practical value of poetry is that it is realistic upon
a point upon which nothing else can be realistic, the point of the
actual desires of man. Ethics is the science of actions, but poetry is
the science of motives. Some actions are ugly, and therefore some
parts of ethics are ugly. But all motives are beautiful, or present
themselves for the moment as beautiful, and therefore all poetry is
beautiful. If poetry deals with the basest matter, with the shedding
of blood for gold, it ought to suggest the gold as well as the blood.
Only poetry can realise motives, because motives are all pictures of
happiness. And the supreme and most practical value of poetry is this,
that in poetry, as in music, a note is struck which expresses beyond
the power of rational statement a condition of mind, and all actions
arise from a condition of mind. Prose can only use a large and clumsy
notation; it can only say that a man is miserable, or that a man is
happy; it is forced to ignore that there are a million diverse kinds
of misery and a million diverse kinds of happiness. Poetry alone, with
the first throb of its metre, can tell us whether the depression is
the kind of depression that drives a man to suicide, or the kind of
depression that drives him to the Tivoli. Poetry can tell us whether
the happiness is the happiness that sends a man to a restaurant, or
the much richer and fuller happiness that sends him to church.

Now the supreme value of Browning as an optimist lies in this that we
have been examining, that beyond all his conclusions, and deeper than
all his arguments, he was passionately interested in and in love with
existence. If the heavens had fallen, and all the waters of the earth
run with blood, he would still have been interested in existence, if
possible a little more so. He is a great poet of human joy for
precisely the reason of which Mr. Santayana complains: that his
happiness is primal, and beyond the reach of philosophy. He is
something far more convincing, far more comforting, far more
religiously significant than an optimist: he is a happy man.

This happiness he finds, as every man must find happiness, in his own
way. He does not find the great part of his joy in those matters in
which most poets find felicity. He finds much of it in those matters
in which most poets find ugliness and vulgarity. He is to a
considerable extent the poet of towns. "Do you care for nature much?"
a friend of his asked him. "Yes, a great deal," he said, "but for
human beings a great deal more." Nature, with its splendid and
soothing sanity, has the power of convincing most poets of the
essential worthiness of things. There are few poets who, if they
escaped from the rowdiest waggonette of trippers, could not be quieted
again and exalted by dropping into a small wayside field. The
speciality of Browning is rather that he would have been quieted and
exalted by the waggonette.

To Browning, probably the beginning and end of all optimism was to be
found in the faces in the street. To him they were all the masks of a
deity, the heads of a hundred-headed Indian god of nature. Each one of
them looked towards some quarter of the heavens, not looked upon by
any other eyes. Each one of them wore some expression, some blend of
eternal joy and eternal sorrow, not to be found in any other
countenance. The sense of the absolute sanctity of human difference
was the deepest of all his senses. He was hungrily interested in all
human things, but it would have been quite impossible to have said of
him that he loved humanity. He did not love humanity but men. His
sense of the difference between one man and another would have made
the thought of melting them into a lump called humanity simply
loathsome and prosaic. It would have been to him like playing four
hundred beautiful airs at once. The mixture would not combine all, it
would lose all. Browning believed that to every man that ever lived
upon this earth had been given a definite and peculiar confidence of
God. Each one of us was engaged on secret service; each one of us had
a peculiar message; each one of us was the founder of a religion. Of
that religion our thoughts, our faces, our bodies, our hats, our
boots, our tastes, our virtues, and even our vices, were more or less
fragmentary and inadequate expressions.

In the delightful memoirs of that very remarkable man Sir Charles
Gavan Duffy, there is an extremely significant and interesting
anecdote about Browning, the point of which appears to have attracted
very little attention. Duffy was dining with Browning and John
Forster, and happened to make some chance allusion to his own
adherence to the Roman Catholic faith, when Forster remarked, half
jestingly, that he did not suppose that Browning would like him any
the better for that. Browning would seem to have opened his eyes with
some astonishment. He immediately asked why Forster should suppose
him hostile to the Roman Church. Forster and Duffy replied almost
simultaneously, by referring to "Bishop Blougram's Apology," which had
just appeared, and asking whether the portrait of the sophistical and
self-indulgent priest had not been intended for a satire on Cardinal
Wiseman. "Certainly," replied Browning cheerfully, "I intended it for
Cardinal Wiseman, but I don't consider it a satire, there is nothing
hostile about it." This is the real truth which lies at the heart of
what may be called the great sophistical monologues which Browning
wrote in later years. They are not satires or attacks upon their
subjects, they are not even harsh and unfeeling exposures of them.
They are defences; they say or are intended to say the best that can
be said for the persons with whom they deal. But very few people in
this world would care to listen to the real defence of their own
characters. The real defence, the defence which belongs to the Day of
Judgment, would make such damaging admissions, would clear away so
many artificial virtues, would tell such tragedies of weakness and
failure, that a man would sooner be misunderstood and censured by the
world than exposed to that awful and merciless eulogy. One of the most
practically difficult matters which arise from the code of manners and
the conventions of life, is that we cannot properly justify a human
being, because that justification would involve the admission of
things which may not conventionally be admitted. We might explain and
make human and respectable, for example, the conduct of some old
fighting politician, who, for the good of his party and his country,
acceded to measures of which he disapproved; but we cannot, because we
are not allowed to admit that he ever acceded to measures of which he
disapproved. We might touch the life of many dissolute public men with
pathos, and a kind of defeated courage, by telling the truth about the
history of their sins. But we should throw the world into an uproar if
we hinted that they had any. Thus the decencies of civilisation do not
merely make it impossible to revile a man, they make it impossible to
praise him.

Browning, in such poems as "Bishop Blougram's Apology," breaks this
first mask of goodness in order to break the second mask of evil, and
gets to the real goodness at last; he dethrones a saint in order to
humanise a scoundrel. This is one typical side of the real optimism of
Browning. And there is indeed little danger that such optimism will
become weak and sentimental and popular, the refuge of every idler,
the excuse of every ne'er-do-well. There is little danger that men
will desire to excuse their souls before God by presenting themselves
before men as such snobs as Bishop Blougram, or such dastards as
Sludge the Medium. There is no pessimism, however stern, that is so
stern as this optimism, it is as merciless as the mercy of God.

It is true that in this, as in almost everything else connected with
Browning's character, the matter cannot be altogether exhausted by
such a generalisation as the above. Browning's was a simple character,
and therefore very difficult to understand, since it was impulsive,
unconscious, and kept no reckoning of its moods. Probably in a great
many cases, the original impulse which led Browning to plan a
soliloquy was a kind of anger mixed with curiosity; possibly the first
charcoal sketch of Blougram was a caricature of a priest. Browning,
as we have said, had prejudices, and had a capacity for anger, and two
of his angriest prejudices were against a certain kind of worldly
clericalism, and against almost every kind of spiritualism. But as he
worked upon the portraits at least, a new spirit began to possess him,
and he enjoyed every spirited and just defence the men could make of
themselves, like triumphant blows in a battle, and towards the end
would come the full revelation, and Browning would stand up in the
man's skin and testify to the man's ideals. However this may be, it is
worth while to notice one very curious error that has arisen in
connection with one of the most famous of these monologues.

When Robert Browning was engaged in that somewhat obscure quarrel with
the spiritualist Home, it is generally and correctly stated that he
gained a great number of the impressions which he afterwards embodied
in "Mr. Sludge the Medium." The statement so often made, particularly
in the spiritualist accounts of the matter, that Browning himself is
the original of the interlocutor and exposer of Sludge, is of course
merely an example of that reckless reading from which no one has
suffered more than Browning despite his students and societies. The
man to whom Sludge addresses his confession is a Mr. Hiram H.
Horsfall, an American, a patron of spiritualists, and, as it is more
than once suggested, something of a fool. Nor is there the smallest
reason to suppose that Sludge considered as an individual bears any
particular resemblance to Home considered as an individual. But
without doubt "Mr. Sludge the Medium" is a general statement of the
view of spiritualism at which Browning had arrived from his
acquaintance with Home and Home's circle. And about that view of
spiritualism there is something rather peculiar to notice. The poem,
appearing as it did at the time when the intellectual public had just
become conscious of the existence of spiritualism, attracted a great
deal of attention, and aroused a great deal of controversy. The
spiritualists called down thunder upon the head of the poet, whom they
depicted as a vulgar and ribald lampooner who had not only committed
the profanity of sneering at the mysteries of a higher state of life,
but the more unpardonable profanity of sneering at the convictions of
his own wife. The sceptics, on the other hand, hailed the poem with
delight as a blasting exposure of spiritualism, and congratulated the
poet on making himself the champion of the sane and scientific view of
magic. Which of these two parties was right about the question of
attacking the reality of spiritualism it is neither easy nor necessary
to discuss. For the simple truth, which neither of the two parties and
none of the students of Browning seem to have noticed, is that "Mr.
Sludge the Medium" is not an attack upon spiritualism. It would be a
great deal nearer the truth, though not entirely the truth, to call it
a justification of spiritualism. The whole essence of Browning's
method is involved in this matter, and the whole essence of Browning's
method is so vitally misunderstood that to say that "Mr. Sludge the
Medium" is something like a defence of spiritualism will bear on the
face of it the appearance of the most empty and perverse of paradoxes.
But so, when we have comprehended Browning's spirit, the fact will be
found to be.

The general idea is that Browning must have intended "Sludge" for an
attack on spiritual phenomena, because the medium in that poem is made
a vulgar and contemptible mountebank, because his cheats are quite
openly confessed, and he himself put into every ignominious situation,
detected, exposed, throttled, horsewhipped, and forgiven. To regard
this deduction as sound is to misunderstand Browning at the very start
of every poem that he ever wrote. There is nothing that the man loved
more, nothing that deserves more emphatically to be called a
speciality of Browning, than the utterance of large and noble truths
by the lips of mean and grotesque human beings. In his poetry praise
and wisdom were perfected not only out of the mouths of babes and
sucklings, but out of the mouths of swindlers and snobs. Now what, as
a matter of fact, is the outline and development of the poem of
"Sludge"? The climax of the poem, considered as a work of art, is so
fine that it is quite extraordinary that any one should have missed
the point of it, since it is the whole point of the monologue. Sludge
the Medium has been caught out in a piece of unquestionable trickery,
a piece of trickery for which there is no conceivable explanation or
palliation which will leave his moral character intact. He is
therefore seized with a sudden resolution, partly angry, partly
frightened, and partly humorous, to become absolutely frank, and to
tell the whole truth about himself for the first time not only to his
dupe, but to himself. He excuses himself for the earlier stages of the
trickster's life by a survey of the border-land between truth and
fiction, not by any means a piece of sophistry or cynicism, but a
perfectly fair statement of an ethical difficulty which does exist.
There are some people who think that it must be immoral to admit that
there are any doubtful cases of morality, as if a man should refrain
from discussing the precise boundary at the upper end of the Isthmus
of Panama, for fear the inquiry should shake his belief in the
existence of North America. People of this kind quite consistently
think Sludge to be merely a scoundrel talking nonsense. It may be
remembered that they thought the same thing of Newman. It is actually
supposed, apparently in the current use of words, that casuistry is
the name of a crime; it does not appear to occur to people that
casuistry is a science, and about as much a crime as botany. This
tendency to casuistry in Browning's monologues has done much towards
establishing for him that reputation for pure intellectualism which
has done him so much harm. But casuistry in this sense is not a cold
and analytical thing, but a very warm and sympathetic thing. To know
what combination of excuse might justify a man in manslaughter or
bigamy, is not to have a callous indifference to virtue; it is rather
to have so ardent an admiration for virtue as to seek it in the
remotest desert and the darkest incognito.

This is emphatically the case with the question of truth and falsehood
raised in "Sludge the Medium." To say that it is sometimes difficult
to tell at what point the romancer turns into the liar is not to state
a cynicism, but a perfectly honest piece of human observation. To
think that such a view involves the negation of honesty is like
thinking that red is green, because the two fade into each other in
the colours of the rainbow. It is really difficult to decide when we
come to the extreme edge of veracity, when and when not it is
permissible to create an illusion. A standing example, for instance,
is the case of the fairy-tales. We think a father entirely pure and
benevolent when he tells his children that a beanstalk grew up into
heaven, and a pumpkin turned into a coach. We should consider that he
lapsed from purity and benevolence if he told his children that in
walking home that evening he had seen a beanstalk grow half-way up the
church, or a pumpkin grow as large as a wheelbarrow. Again, few people
would object to that general privilege whereby it is permitted to a
person in narrating even a true anecdote to work up the climax by any
exaggerative touches which really tend to bring it out. The reason of
this is that the telling of the anecdote has become, like the telling
of the fairy-tale, almost a distinct artistic creation; to offer to
tell a story is in ordinary society like offering to recite or play
the violin. No one denies that a fixed and genuine moral rule could be
drawn up for these cases, but no one surely need be ashamed to admit
that such a rule is not entirely easy to draw up. And when a man like
Sludge traces much of his moral downfall to the indistinctness of the
boundary and the possibility of beginning with a natural extravagance
and ending with a gross abuse, it certainly is not possible to deny
his right to be heard.

We must recur, however, to the question of the main development of the
Sludge self-analysis. He begins, as we have said, by urging a general
excuse by the fact that in the heat of social life, in the course of
telling tales in the intoxicating presence of sympathisers and
believers, he has slid into falsehood almost before he is aware of it.
So far as this goes, there is truth in his plea. Sludge might indeed
find himself unexpectedly justified if we had only an exact record of
how true were the tales told about Conservatives in an exclusive
circle of Radicals, or the stories told about Radicals in a circle of
indignant Conservatives. But after this general excuse, Sludge goes on
to a perfectly cheerful and unfeeling admission of fraud; this
principal feeling towards his victims is by his own confession a
certain unfathomable contempt for people who are so easily taken in.
He professes to know how to lay the foundations for every species of
personal acquaintanceship, and how to remedy the slight and trivial
slips of making Plato write Greek in naughts and crosses.

    "As I fear, sir, he sometimes used to do
    Before I found the useful book that knows."

It would be difficult to imagine any figure more indecently
confessional, more entirely devoid of not only any of the restraints
of conscience, but of any of the restraints even of a wholesome
personal conceit, than Sludge the Medium. He confesses not only fraud,
but things which are to the natural man more difficult to confess even
than fraud--effeminacy, futility, physical cowardice. And then, when
the last of his loathsome secrets has been told, when he has nothing
left either to gain or to conceal, then he rises up into a perfect
bankrupt sublimity and makes the great avowal which is the whole pivot
and meaning of the poem. He says in effect: "Now that my interest in
deceit is utterly gone, now that I have admitted, to my own final
infamy, the frauds that I have practised, now that I stand before you
in a patent and open villainy which has something of the
disinterestedness and independence of the innocent, now I tell you
with the full and impartial authority of a lost soul that I believe
that there is something in spiritualism. In the course of a thousand
conspiracies, by the labour of a thousand lies, I have discovered that
there is really something in this matter that neither I nor any other
man understands. I am a thief, an adventurer, a deceiver of mankind,
but I am not a disbeliever in spiritualism. I have seen too much for
that." This is the confession of faith of Mr. Sludge the Medium. It
would be difficult to imagine a confession of faith framed and
presented in a more impressive manner. Sludge is a witness to his
faith as the old martyrs were witnesses to their faith, but even more
impressively. They testified to their religion even after they had
lost their liberty, and their eyesight, and their right hands. Sludge
testifies to his religion even after he has lost his dignity and his
honour.

It may be repeated that it is truly extraordinary that any one should
have failed to notice that this avowal on behalf of spiritualism is
the pivot of the poem. The avowal itself is not only expressed
clearly, but prepared and delivered with admirable rhetorical force:--

    "Now for it, then! Will you believe me, though?
    You've heard what I confess: I don't unsay
    A single word: I cheated when I could,
    Rapped with my toe-joints, set sham hands at work,
    Wrote down names weak in sympathetic ink.
    Rubbed odic lights with ends of phosphor-match,
    And all the rest; believe that: believe this,
    By the same token, though it seem to set
    The crooked straight again, unsay the said,
    Stick up what I've knocked down; I can't help that,
    It's truth! I somehow vomit truth to-day.
    This trade of mine--I don't know, can't be sure
    But there was something in it, tricks and all!"

It is strange to call a poem with so clear and fine a climax an attack
on spiritualism. To miss that climax is like missing the last sentence
in a good anecdote, or putting the last act of _Othello_ into the
middle of the play. Either the whole poem of "Sludge the Medium" means
nothing at all, and is only a lampoon upon a cad, of which the matter
is almost as contemptible as the subject, or it means this--that some
real experiences of the unseen lie even at the heart of hypocrisy, and
that even the spiritualist is at root spiritual.

One curious theory which is common to most Browning critics is that
Sludge must be intended for a pure and conscious impostor, because
after his confession, and on the personal withdrawal of Mr. Horsfall,
he bursts out into horrible curses against that gentleman and cynical
boasts of his future triumphs in a similar line of business. Surely
this is to have a very feeble notion either of nature or art. A man
driven absolutely into a corner might humiliate himself, and gain a
certain sensation almost of luxury in that humiliation, in pouring out
all his imprisoned thoughts and obscure victories. For let it never be
forgotten that a hypocrite is a very unhappy man; he is a man who has
devoted himself to a most delicate and arduous intellectual art in
which he may achieve masterpieces which he must keep secret, fight
thrilling battles, and win hair's-breadth victories for which he
cannot have a whisper of praise. A really accomplished impostor is the
most wretched of geniuses; he is a Napoleon on a desert island. A man
might surely, therefore, when he was certain that his credit was gone,
take a certain pleasure in revealing the tricks of his unique trade,
and gaining not indeed credit, but at least a kind of glory. And in
the course of this self-revelation he would come at last upon that
part of himself which exists in every man--that part which does
believe in, and value, and worship something. This he would fling in
his hearer's face with even greater pride, and take a delight in
giving a kind of testimony to his religion which no man had ever given
before--the testimony of a martyr who could not hope to be a saint.
But surely all this sudden tempest of candour in the man would not
mean that he would burst into tears and become an exemplary ratepayer,
like a villain in the worst parts of Dickens. The moment the danger
was withdrawn, the sense of having given himself away, of having
betrayed the secret of his infamous freemasonry, would add an
indescribable violence and foulness to his reaction of rage. A man in
such a case would do exactly as Sludge does. He would declare his own
shame, declare the truth of his creed, and then, when he realised what
he had done, say something like this:--

    "R-r-r, you brute-beast and blackguard! Cowardly scamp!
    I only wish I dared burn down the house
    And spoil your sniggering!"

and so on, and so on.

He would react like this; it is one of the most artistic strokes in
Browning. But it does not prove that he was a hypocrite about
spiritualism, or that he was speaking more truthfully in the second
outburst than in the first. Whence came this extraordinary theory that
a man is always speaking most truly when he is speaking most coarsely?
The truth about oneself is a very difficult thing to express, and
coarse speaking will seldom do it.

When we have grasped this point about "Sludge the Medium," we have
grasped the key to the whole series of Browning's casuistical
monologues--_Bishop Blaugram's Apology, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau,
Fra Lippo Lippi, Fifine at the Fair, Aristophanes' Apology_, and
several of the monologues in _The Ring and the Book_. They are all,
without exception, dominated by this one conception of a certain
reality tangled almost inextricably with unrealities in a man's mind,
and the peculiar fascination which resides in the thought that the
greatest lies about a man, and the greatest truths about him, may be
found side by side in the same eloquent and sustained utterance.

    "For Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke."

Or, to put the matter in another way, the general idea of these poems
is, that a man cannot help telling some truth even when he sets out to
tell lies. If a man comes to tell us that he has discovered perpetual
motion, or been swallowed by the sea-serpent, there will yet be some
point in the story where he will tell us about himself almost all that
we require to know.

If any one wishes to test the truth, or to see the best examples of
this general idea in Browning's monologues, he may be recommended to
notice one peculiarity of these poems which is rather striking. As a
whole, these apologies are written in a particularly burly and even
brutal English. Browning's love of what is called the ugly is nowhere
else so fully and extravagantly indulged. This, like a great many
other things for which Browning as an artist is blamed, is perfectly
appropriate to the theme. A vain, ill-mannered, and untrustworthy
egotist, defending his own sordid doings with his own cheap and
weather-beaten philosophy, is very likely to express himself best in a
language flexible and pungent, but indelicate and without dignity. But
the peculiarity of these loose and almost slangy soliloquies is that
every now and then in them there occur bursts of pure poetry which are
like a burst of birds singing. Browning does not hesitate to put some
of the most perfect lines that he or anyone else have ever written in
the English language into the mouths of such slaves as Sludge and
Guido Franceschini. Take, for the sake of example, "Bishop Blougram's
Apology." The poem is one of the most grotesque in the poet's works.
It is intentionally redolent of the solemn materialism and patrician
grossness of a grand dinner-party _à deux_. It has many touches of an
almost wild bathos, such as the young man who bears the impossible
name of Gigadibs. The Bishop, in pursuing his worldly argument for
conformity, points out with truth that a condition of doubt is a
condition that cuts both ways, and that if we cannot be sure of the
religious theory of life, neither can we be sure of the material
theory of life, and that in turn is capable of becoming an uncertainty
continually shaken by a tormenting suggestion. We cannot establish
ourselves on rationalism, and make it bear fruit to us. Faith itself
is capable of becoming the darkest and most revolutionary of doubts.
Then comes the passage:--

    "Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
    A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
    A chorus ending from Euripides,--
    And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
    As old and new at once as Nature's self,
    To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
    Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
    Round the ancient idol, on his base again,--
    The grand Perhaps!"

Nobler diction and a nobler meaning could not have been put into the
mouth of Pompilia, or Rabbi Ben Ezra. It is in reality put into the
mouth of a vulgar, fashionable priest, justifying his own cowardice
over the comfortable wine and the cigars.

Along with this tendency to poetry among Browning's knaves, must be
reckoned another characteristic, their uniform tendency to theism.
These loose and mean characters speak of many things feverishly and
vaguely; of one thing they always speak with confidence and composure,
their relation to God. It may seem strange at first sight that those
who have outlived the indulgence, and not only of every law, but of
every reasonable anarchy, should still rely so simply upon the
indulgence of divine perfection. Thus Sludge is certain that his life
of lies and conjuring tricks has been conducted in a deep and subtle
obedience to the message really conveyed by the conditions created by
God. Thus Bishop Blougram is certain that his life of panic-stricken
and tottering compromise has been really justified as the only method
that could unite him with God. Thus Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau is
certain that every dodge in his thin string of political dodges has
been the true means of realising what he believes to be the will of
God. Every one of these meagre swindlers, while admitting a failure in
all things relative, claims an awful alliance with the Absolute. To
many it will at first sight appear a dangerous doctrine indeed. But,
in truth, it is a most solid and noble and salutary doctrine, far less
dangerous than its opposite. Every one on this earth should believe,
amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament
have some object on the earth. Every one on the earth should believe
that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be
given. Every one should, for the good of men and the saving of his own
soul, believe that it is possible, even if we are the enemies of the
human race, to be the friends of God. The evil wrought by this
mystical pride, great as it often is, is like a straw to the evil
wrought by a materialistic self-abandonment. The crimes of the devil
who thinks himself of immeasurable value are as nothing to the crimes
of the devil who thinks himself of no value. With Browning's knaves we
have always this eternal interest, that they are real somewhere, and
may at any moment begin to speak poetry. We are talking to a peevish
and garrulous sneak; we are watching the play of his paltry features,
his evasive eyes, and babbling lips. And suddenly the face begins to
change and harden, the eyes glare like the eyes of a mask, the whole
face of clay becomes a common mouthpiece, and the voice that comes
forth is the voice of God, uttering His everlasting soliloquy.



INDEX


A

_Agamemnon of Aeschylus, The_, 120.

Alliance, The Holy, 89.

"Andrea del Sarto," 83.

_Aristophanes' Apology_, 120, 199.

Arnold, Matthew, 41, 55, 56.

_Asolando_, 132.

Asolo (Italy), 42, 131.

"At the Mermaid," 117.

Austria, 88, 89.


B

"Bad Dreams," 138.

_Balaustion's Adventure_, 119-120.

Barrett, Arabella, 74, 119.

Barrett, Edward Moulton, 58 _seq._, 70, 73, 74, 76, 79.

Beardsley, Mr. Aubrey, 149.

_Bells and Pomegranates_, 105.

"Ben Ezra," 23, 201.

Birrell, Mr. Augustine, 160.

"Bishop Blougram," 51, 189.

_Bishop Blougram's Apology_, 188, 189, 199, 200.

_Blot on the 'Scutcheon, A_, 53.

Boyd, Mr., 62.

Browning, Robert: birth and family history, 3;
  theories as to his descent, 4-8;
  a typical Englishman of the middle class, 9;
  his immediate ancestors, 10 _seq._;
  education, 12;
  boyhood and youth, 17;
  first poems, _Incondita_, 17;
  romantic spirit, 18;
  publication of _Pauline_, 20;
  friendship with literary men, 21;
  _Paracelsus_, 22;
  introduction to literary world, 25;
  his earliest admirers, 26;
  friendship with Carlyle, 26;
  _Strafford_, 27;
  _Sordello_, 34;
  _Pippa Passes_, 43;
  _Dramatic Lyrics_, 45;
  _The Return of the Druses_, 51;
  _A Blot on the 'Scutcheon_, 53;
  correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett, 62 _seq._;
  their first meeting, 70;
  marriage and elopement, 78, 79;
  life in Italy, 81 _seq._;
  love of Italy, 82, 85 _seq._;
  sympathy with Italian Revolution, 90;
  attitude towards spiritualism, 91 _seq._, 113, 190-199;
  death of his wife, 103;
  returns to England, 105;
  _The Ring and the Book_, 110;
  culmination of his literary fame, 110, 117;
  life in society, 110;
  elected Fellow of Balliol, 117;
  honoured by the great Universities, 118;
  _Balaustion's Adventure_, 119-120;
  _Aristophanes' Apology_, 120;
  _The Agamemnon of Aeschylus_, 120;
  _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, 121;
  _Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country_, 122;
  _Fifine at the Fair_, 124;
  _The Inn Album_, 125;
  _Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper_, 125;
  _La Saisiaz_, 127;
  _The Two Poets of Croisic_, 127;
  _Dramatic Idylls_, 127;
  _Jocoseria_, 127;
  _Ferishtah's Fancies_, 127;
  _Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day_, 128;
  accepts post of Foreign Correspondent to the Royal Academy, 129;
  goes to Llangollen with his sister, 130;
  last journey to Italy, 130;
  death at Venice, 132;
  publication of _Asolando_, 132;
  his conversation, 36;
  vanity, 33, 36;
  faults and virtues, 40, 55;
  his interest in Art, 82 _seq._;
  his varied accomplishments, 84-85;
  personality and presence, 18, 33, 112 _seq._;
  his prejudices, 113-116;
  his occasional coarseness, 116;
  politics, 86 _seq._;
  Browning as a father, 105;
  as dramatist, 52;
  as a literary artist, 133 _seq._;
  his use of the grotesque, 48, 140, 143, 148 _seq._;
  his failures, 141;
  artistic originality, 136, 143, 158;
  keen sense of melody and rhythm, 145 _seq._;
  ingenuity in rhyming, 152;
  his buffoonery, 154;
  obscurity, 154 _seq._;
  his conception of the Universe, 175;
  philosophy, 177 _seq._;
  optimism, 179 _seq._;
  his love poetry, 49;
  his knaves, 51, 201-202;
  the key to his casuistical monologues, 199.

_Browning, Life of_ (Mrs. Orr), 92.

Browning, Robert (father of the poet), 10, 119.

Browning, Mrs., _née_ Wiedermann (mother), 11, 82.

Browning, Anna (sister), 14, 105.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (wife),
57 _seq._, 91-99, 101, 103, 116, 119,
129, 131.

Browning Society, 129.

Burns, Robert, 169-170.

Byron, 11, 38, 141, 143.

Byronism, 19, 117.


C

"Caliban," 9, 120.

"Caliban upon Setebos," 93, 135, 138.

Camberwell, 3, 8, 19.

"Caponsacchi," 108.

Carlyle, Thomas, 12, 16, 17, 26, 55, 56, 87, 115.

Carlyle, Mrs., 26.

"Cavalier Tunes," 46.

Cavour, 86, 90, 103.

Charles I., 28, 29.

Chaucer, 117.

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came," 159.

_Christmas Eve_, 105.

Church in Italy, The, 88.

"Clive," 127.

Clough, Arthur Hugh, 56.

_Colombe's Birthday_, 32.

Corelli, Miss Marie, 38.

Cromwell, Oliver, 73.


D

Darwin, 23, 39.

Dickens, 16.

"Djabal," 51, 52.

Domett, Alfred, 21.

"Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis," 161.

_Dramatic Idylls_, 127.

_Dramatic Lyrics_, 45-50.

_Dramatis Personæ_, 105.

Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan, 187, 188.


E

_Edinburgh Review_, 122.

"Englishman in Italy, The," 150.


F

"Fears and Scruples," 126, 138.

"Ferishtah's Fancies," 138.

_Fifine at the Fair_, 9, 13, 51, 124, 199.

Fitzgerald, Edward, 116, 131.

_Flight of the Duchess, The_, 18.

Florence, 81, 94.

Forster, John, 26.

Foster, John, 187, 188.

Fox, Mr. Johnson, 20.

Fox, Mrs. Bridell, 33.

"Fra Lippo,", 51.

_Fra Lippo Lippi_, 83, 199.

French Revolution, 87.

Furnivall, Dr., 7, 129.


G

"Garden Fancies," 46.

Garibaldi, 86, 89.

Gilbert, W.S., 144.

Gissing, Mr. George, 165.

Gladstone, 117.

_Golden Treasury_ (Palgrave), 168.

Goldsmith, 169, 170.

Gordon, General, 90.

"Guido Franceschini," 106, 120, 200.


H

Henley, Mr., 148.

"Heretic's Tragedy, The," 137.

Hickey, Miss E.H., 129.

"Holy Cross Day," 153.

Home, David (spiritualist), 93-97, 113, 190, 191.

Home, David, _Memoirs_ of, 93 _seq._

Horne, 26.

Houghton, Lord, 129.

"House," 138.

"Householder, The," 138.

"How they brought the good News from Ghent to Aix," 46.

_Hudibras_ (Butler), 57.

Hugo, Victor, 17.

Hunt, Leigh, 26.


I

_Incondita_, 17.

_Inn Album, The_, 125.

_Instans Tyrannus_, 9.

Italy, 85 _seq._

Italian Revolution, 88 _seq._

"Ivàn Ivànovitch," 127.


J

Jameson, Mrs., 75.

Jerrold, Douglas, 34.

_Jocoseria_, 127.

Jowett, Dr., 118.

_Julius Cæsar_ (Shakespeare), 28.

"Juris Doctor Bottinius," 161.


K

Keats, 15, 16, 19, 137, 142.

Kenyon, Mr., 22, 58, 69-70, 74, 76.

_King Victor and King Charles_, 32.

Kipling, Rudyard, 142.

Kirkup, Seymour, 103.


L

_L'Aiglon_, 28.

"Laboratory, The," 47, 143.

Landor, 26, 56, 93, 101-103.

_La Saisiaz_, 127.

_Letters, The Browning_, 63.

Liberalism, 86.

"Lines to Edward Fitzgerald," 131.

Llangollen, 130.

Lockhart, 112.

"Lost Leader, The," 46.

"Lover's Quarrel, A," 50.

"Luigi," 45.

Lytton, Lord (novelist), 91.


M

Macready, 17, 27, 53.

Maeterlinck, 164, 184.

Manning, Cardinal, 91.

Mary Queen of Scots, 29.

"Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha," 147.

"May and Death." 21.

Mazzini, 89.

_Men and Women_, 105.

Meredith, George, 156, 165.
Mill, John Stuart, 26, 56.

Milsand, 119.

Milton, 137.

Monckton-Milnes, 26, 100.

_Mr. Sludge the Medium_, 82, 96, 120, 190-199.

"Muléykeh," 127.

"My Star," 138.


N

"Nationality in Drinks," 46, 138.

Napoleon, 42, 89.

Napoleon III., 56, 92, 121.

"Never the Time and the Place," 127.

Newman, Cardinal, 193.

Norwood, 18.


O

"Ode on the Intimations of Immortality" (Wordsworth), 136.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" (Keats), 137.

"Old Masters in Florence," 177.

"One Word More," 65.

Orr, Mrs., 72.


P

_Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper_, 125, 126, 152.

_Paracelsus_, 22, 25, 26, 41, 47, 158.

"Paracelsus," 24, 25.

Painting, Poems on, 83.

Palgrave, Francis, 117.

Paris, 94.

_Parleyings with certain Persons of Importance in their Day_, 22, 128, 158.

_Pauline_, 20, 21, 37, 41, 51.

"Pheidippides," 127.

Phelps (actor), 53.

"Pictor Ignotus," 83.

"Pied Piper of Hamelin, The," 153.

"Pippa," 45, 120.

_Pippa Passes_, 18, 45, 47, 51, 137.

Pisa, 81.

Pius IX., Church under, 88.

Plato, 21, 23.

Poe, Edgar Allan, 144.

Poetry, Pessimistic school of, 130.

"Pompilia," 201.

Pope, 11, 20, 57.

"Portrait, A," 138.

_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, 121-122.

_Princess, The_ (Tennyson), 148.

"Prometheus Unbound" (Shelley), 137.

Prussia, 88, 89.

Puritans, 30.

Pym, 28, 30.


R

"Rabbi Ben Ezra," 201.

_Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country_, 122-124.

_Return of the Druses, The_, 51-53.

Revolution,
  The French, 15;
  Italian, 90.

_Ring and the Book, The_, 85, 106, 109, 123, 137, 160-176.

Ripert-Monclar, Comte de, 22, 93.

Roman Church, 114, 187, 188.

Rossetti, 163.

Royalists, 30.

Ruskin, 16, 55, 56, 91, 115.

Russia, 88.


S

Sand, George, 9, 94.

Santayana's, Mr., _Interpretations of Poetry and Religion_, 183-186.

"Sebald," 45.

Shakespeare, 17, 57.

Shakespeare Society, 129.

Sharp, Mr. William, 133.

Shaw, Mr. Bernard, 165.

Shelley, 15, 16, 17,19, 56, 136, 141, 143.

"Shop," 138.

"Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis," 138.

Silverthorne (Browning's cousin), 21.

"Sludge," 51, 52, 150, 189, 200.

Smith, Elder (publishers), 110.

"Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, The," 47.

"Sonnets from the Portuguese," 65.

_Sordello_, 23, 34, 42.

Speech, Free, 173.

Spenser, 142.

Spiritualism, 9, 91, 113, 190.

"Statue and the Bust, The," 109.

Sterne, 117.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, 60, 114.

_Straford_, 27 _seq._, 37.

"Stafford," 28, 29, 30.

Swinburne, 56, 116, 142,143.


T


_Tait's Magazine_, 20.

Talfourd, Sergeant, 26.

Tennyson, 27, 34, 55, 117, 141, 142, 143, 148.

Thackeray, Miss, 123.

"Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr," 46.

_Time's Revenges_, 9, 93.

Tolstoi, 115.

_Tristram Shandy_ (Sterne), 163.

_Two Poets of Croisic, The_, 127.


U


University College, 14.

"Up jumped Tokay" (poem quoted), 140.


V


Venice, 131.

Victor of Sardinia, King, 23.

Vogler, Abt, 23.


W


_Water Babies_ (Kingsley), 8.

Watts, Mr. G.F., 112.

Whitman, Walt, 21, 43, 49, 114, 165, 184.

"Why I am a Liberal" (sonnet), 86.

Wiedermann, William, 12.

Wiseman, Cardinal, 188.

Wimbledon Common, 18.

Wordsworth, 69, 136, 141, 143.

Wordsworth Society, 129.


Y

"Youth and Art," 50, 109.


Z

Zola, 164.

       *       *       *       *       *

ENGLISH MEN OF LETTERS.

NEW SERIES.

_Crown 8vo. Gilt tops. Flat backs. 2s. net each._


    GEORGE ELIOT. By Sir LESLIE STEPHEN, K.C.B.
    HAZLITT. By AUGUSTINE BIRRELL, K.C.
    MATTHEW ARNOLD. By HERBERT W. PAUL.
    RUSKIN. By FREDERIC HARRISON.
    TENNYSON. By Sir ALFRED LYALL.
    RICHARDSON. By AUSTIN DOBSON.
    BROWNING. By G.K. CHESTERTON.
    CRABBE. By the Rev. Canon AINGER.
    JANE AUSTEN. By the Rev. Canon BEECHING.
    HOBBES. By Sir LESLIE STEPHEN, K.C.B.
    ADAM SMITH. By FRANCIS W. HIRST.
    SYDNEY SMITH. By GEORGE W.E. RUSSELL.
    FANNY BURNEY. By AUSTIN DOBSON.
    JEREMY TAYLOR. By EDMUND GOSSE.
    ANDREW MARVELL. By AUGUSTINE BIRRELL, K.C.
    DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. By A.C. BENSON.
    MARIA EDGEWORTH. By the Hon. EMILY LAWLESS.
    MRS. GASKELL. By CLEMENT SHORTER.
    THOMAS MOORE. By STEPHEN GWYNN.


RE-ISSUE OF THE ORIGINAL SERIES

_Library Edition. Uniform with the above. 2s. net each._


    ADDISON. By W.J. COURTHOPE.
    BACON. By Dean CHURCH.
    BENTLEY. By Sir RICHARD JEBB.
    BUNYAN. By J.A. FROUDE.
    BURKE. By JOHN MORLEY.
    BURNS. By Principal SHAIRP.
    BYRON. By Professor NICHOL.
    CARLYLE. By Professor NICHOL.
    CHAUCER. By Dr. A.W. WARD.
    COLERIDGE. By H.D. TRAILL.
    COWPER. By GOLDWIN SMITH.
    DEFOE. By W. MINTO.
    DEQUINCEY. By Prof. MASSON.
    DICKENS. By Dr. A.W. WARD.
    DRYDEN. By Prof. SAINTSBURY.
    FIELDING. By AUSTIN DOBSON.
    GIBBON. By J.C. MORISON.
    GOLDSMITH. By W. BLACK.
    GRAY. By EDMUND GOSSE.
    HAWTHORNE. By HENRY JAMES.
    HUME. By Prof. HUXLEY, F.R.S.
    JOHNSON. By Sir LESLIE STEPHEN, K.C.B.
    KEATS. By SIDNEY COLVIN.
    LAMB, CHARLES. By Canon AINGER.
    LANDOR. By SIDNEY COLVIN.
    LOCKE. By THOMAS FOWLER.
    MACAULAY. By J.C. MORISON.
    MILTON. By MARK PATTISON.
    POPE. By Sir LESLIE STEPHEN, K.C.B.
    SCOTT. By R.H. HUTTON.
    SHELLEY. By J.A. SYMONDS.
    SHERIDAN. By Mrs. OLIPHANT.
    SIDNEY. By J.A. SYMONDS.
    SOUTHEY. By Prof. DOWDEN.
    SPENSER. By Dean CHURCH.
    STERNE. By H.D. TRAILL.
    SWIFT. By Sir LESLIE STEPHEN, K.C.B.
    THACKERAY. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE.
    WORDSWORTH. By F.W.H. MYERS.

  MACMILLAN AND CO., LTD., LONDON.

       *       *       *       *       *

ENGLISH MEN OF ACTION SERIES.

Crown 8vo. Cloth. With Portraits. 2s. 6d. each.


    CAMPBELL (COLIN). By ARCHIBALD FORBES.
    CLIVE. By Sir CHARLES WILSON.
    COOK (Captain). By Sir WALTER BESANT.
    DAMPIER. By W. CLARK RUSSELL.
    DRAKE. By JULIAN CORBETT.
    DUNDONALD. By the Hon. J.W. FORTESCUE.
    GORDON (General). By Sir W. BUTLER.
    HASTINGS (Warren). By Sir A. LYALL.
    HAVELOCK (Sir Henry). By A. FORBES.
    HENRY V. By the Rev. A.J. CHURCH.
    LAWRENCE (Lord). By Sir RICHARD TEMPLE.
    LIVINGSTONE. By THOMAS HUGHES.
    MONK. By JULIAN CORBETT.
    MONTROSE. By MOWBRAY MORRIS.
    NAPIER (Sir Charles). By Colonel Sir W. BUTLER.
    NELSON. By Prof. J.K. LAUGHTON.
    PETERBOROUGH. By W. STEBBING.
    RODNEY. By DAVID HANNAY.
    STRAFFORD. By H.D. TRAILL.
    WARWICK, the King-Maker By C.W. OMAN.
    WELLINGTON. By GEORGE HOOPER.
    WOLFE. By A.G. BRADLEY.

       *       *       *       *       *

TWELVE ENGLISHMEN STATESMEN.

Crown 8vo. 2s. 6d. each.

* *
 * _A Series of Short Biographies, not designed to be a complete roll
of famous Statesmen, but to present in historic order the lives and
work of those leading actors in our affairs who by their direct
influence have left an abiding mark on the policy, the institutions,
and the position of Great Britain among States_.


WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. By EDWARD A. FREEMAN, D.C.L., LL.D., late
Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford.

HENRY II. By Mrs. J.R. GREEN.

EDWARD I. By T.F. TOUT, M.A., Professor of History, The Owens
College, Manchester.

HENRY VII. By JAMES GAIRDNER. CARDINAL WOLSEY. By Bishop
CREIGHTON, D.D., late Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the
University of Cambridge.

ELIZABETH. By E.S. BEESLY, M.A., Professor of Modern History,
University College, London.

OLIVER CROMWELL. By FREDERIC HARRISON.

WILLIAM III. By H.D. TRAILL.

WALPOLE. By JOHN MORLEY.

CHATHAM. By JOHN MORLEY. [_In preparation_

PITT. By Lord ROSEBERY.

PEEL. By J.R. THURSFIELD, M.A., late Fellow of Jesus College,
Oxford.





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Robert Browning" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home