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Title: Robert Browning
Author: Herford, C. H. (Charles Harold), 1853-1931
Language: English
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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" ***

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MODERN ENGLISH WRITERS.

Crown 8vo, 2/6 each.


                  READY.

MATTHEW ARNOLD . . . . . . . Professor SAINTSBURY.
R.L. STEVENSON . . . . . . . L. COPE CORNFORD.
JOHN RUSKIN  . . . . . . . . Mrs MEYNELL.
ALFRED TENNYSON  . . . . . . ANDREW LANG.
THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY  . . . . EDWARD CLODD.
W.M. THACKERAY   . . . . . . CHARLES WHIBLEY.
ROBERT BROWNING  . . . . . . C.H. HERFORD.

             IN PREPARATION

GEORGE ELIOT  . . . . . . . A.T. QUILLER-COUCH.
J.A. FROUDE   . . . . . . . JOHN OLIVER HOBBES.

WILLIAM BLACKWOOD & SONS, EDINBURGH AND LONDON.



ROBERT BROWNING

BY

C.H. HERFORD

PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE
UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER

WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS
EDINBURGH AND LONDON
MCMV



TO THE
REV. F.E. MILLSON.


DEAR OLD FRIEND,

A generation has passed since the day when, in your study at Brackenbed
Grange, your reading of "Ben Ezra," the tones of which still vibrate in
my memory, first introduced me to the poetry of Robert Browning. He was
then just entering upon his wider fame. You had for years been one not
merely of the few who recognised him, but of those, yet fewer, who
proclaimed him. The standpoint of the following pages is not, I think,
very remote from your own; conversations with you have, in any case,
done something to define it. You see, then, that your share of
responsibility for them is, on all counts, considerable, and you must
not refuse to allow me to associate them with a name which the old
Rabbi's great heartening cry: "Strive, and hold cheap the strain, Learn,
nor account the pang, Dare, never grudge the throe," summons
spontaneously to many other lips than mine. To some it is brought yet
closer by his calm retrospect through sorrow.



ei dê theion ho nous pros ton anthrôpon, kai ho kata touton bios
theios pros ton anthrôpinon bion--ARIST., _Eth. N_. x. 8.

"Nè creator nè creatura mai,"
Cominciò ei, "figliuol, fu senza amore."
--DANTE, _Purg_. xvii. 91.



PREFACE.


Browning is confessedly a difficult poet, and his difficulty is by no
means all of the kind which opposes unmistakable impediments to the
reader's path. Some of it is of the more insidious kind, which may
co-exist with a delightful persuasion that the way is absolutely clear,
and Browning's "obscurity" an invention of the invertebrate. The
problems presented by his writing are merely tough, and will always
yield to intelligent and patient scrutiny. But the problems presented by
his mind are elusive, and it would be hard to resist the cogency of his
interpreters, if it were not for their number. The rapid succession of
acute and notable studies of Browning put forth during the last three or
four years makes it even more apparent than it was before that the last
word on Browning has not yet been said, even in that very qualified
sense in which the last word about any poet, or any poetry, can ever be
said at all. The present volume, in any case, does not aspire to say it.
But it is not perhaps necessary to apologise for adding, under these
conditions, another to the list. From most of the recent studies I have
learned something; but this book has its roots in a somewhat earlier
time, and may perhaps be described as an attempt to work out, in the
detail of Browning's life and poetry, from a more definitely literary
standpoint and without Hegelian prepossessions, a view of his genius not
unlike that set forth with so much eloquence and penetration, in his
well-known volume, by Professor Henry Jones. The narrative of Browning's
life, in the earlier chapters, makes no pretence to biographical
completeness. An immense mass of detail and anecdote bearing upon him is
now available and within easy reach. I have attempted to sift out from
this picturesque loose drift the really salient and relevant material.
Much domestic incident, over which the brush would fain linger, will be
missed; on the other hand, the great central epoch of Browning's poetic
life, from 1846 to 1869, has been treated, deliberately, on what may
appear an inordinately generous scale. Some amount of overlapping and
repetition, it may be added, in the analytical chapters the plan of the
book rendered it impossible wholly to avoid.

I am indebted to a friend, who wishes to be nameless, for reading the
proofs, with results extremely beneficial to the book.

UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER,
_January 1905_.



CONTENTS.

                                                                PAGE
PREFACE                                                          vii


      PART I.

      BROWNING'S LIFE AND WORK.

CHAP.

   I. EARLY LIFE. _PARACELSUS_                                     1

  II. ENLARGING HORIZONS. _SORDELLO_                              24

 III. MATURING METHODS.  DRAMAS AND DRAMATIC LYRICS               37
         Introduction.
      I. Dramas. From _Strafford_ to _Pippa Passes_               42
     II. From the _Blot in the 'Scutcheon_ to _Luria_             51
    III. The early Dramatic Lyrics and Romances                   65

  IV. WEDDED LIFE IN ITALY. _MEN AND WOMEN_                       74
      I. January 1845 to September 1846                           74
     II. Society and Friendships                                  84
    III. Politics                                                 88
     IV. Poems of Nature                                          91
      V. Poems of Art                                             96
     VI. Poems of Religion                                       110
    VII. Poems of Love                                           132

   V. LONDON. _DRAMATIS PERSONÆ_                                 148

  VI. _THE RING AND THE BOOK_                                    169

 VII. AFTERMATH                                                  187

VIII. THE LAST DECADE                                            220


      PART II.

      BROWNING'S MIND AND ART.

  IX. THE POET                                                   237
    I. Divergent psychical tendencies of Browning--"romantic"
       temperament, "realist" senses--blending of their
       _données_ in his imaginative activity--shifting
       complexion of "finite" and "infinite"                     237
   II. His "realism." Plasticity, acuteness, and veracity
       of intellect and senses                                   239
  III. But his realism qualified by energetic individual
       preference along certain well-defined lines               245
   IV. _Joy in Light and Colour_                                 246
    V. _Joy in Form_. Love of abruptness, of intricacy;
       clefts and spikes                                         250
   VI. _Joy in Power_. Violence in imagery and description;
       in sounds; in words. Grotesqueness. Intensity.
       Catastrophic action. The pregnant moment                  257
  VII. _Joy in Soul_. 1. Limited in Browning on the side
       of simple human nature; of the family; of the
       civic community; of myth and symbol                       266
 VIII. _Joy in Soul_. 2. Supported by Joy in Light and
       Colour; in Form; in Power. 3. Extended to
       (a) sub-human Nature, (b) the inanimate
       products of Art; Relation of Browning's poetry to
       his interpretation of life                                272

   X. THE INTERPRETER OF LIFE                                    287
    I. Approximation of God, Man, Nature in the thought
       of the early nineteenth century; how far reflected
       in the thought of Browning                                287

   II. Antagonistic elements of Browning's intellect; resulting
       fluctuations of his thought. Two conceptions of Reality.
       Ambiguous treatment of "Matter"; of Time                  290

  III. Conflicting tendencies in his conception of God           295

   IV. Conflicting tendencies in his treatment of Knowledge      297

    V. Proximate solution of these antagonisms in the conception
       of Love                                                   300

   VI. Final estimate of Browning's relation to the progressive
       and conservative movements of his age                     304


INDEX                                                            310



PART I.

BROWNING'S LIFE AND WORK



BROWNING.


CHAPTER I.

EARLY LIFE. _PARACELSUS_.

      The Boy sprang up ... and ran,
      Stung by the splendour of a sudden thought.
      --_A Death in the Desert_.

      Dass ich erkenne, was die Welt
      Im Innersten zusammenhält.
      --_Faust_.


Judged by his cosmopolitan sympathies and his encyclopædic knowledge, by
the scenery and the persons among whom his poetry habitually moves,
Browning was one of the least insular of English poets. But he was also,
of them all, one of the most obviously and unmistakably English.
Tennyson, the poetic mouthpiece of a rather specific and exclusive
Anglo-Saxondom, belonged by his Vergilian instincts of style to that
main current of European poetry which finds response and recognition
among cultivated persons of all nationalities; and he enjoyed a European
distinction not attained by any other English poet since Byron.
Browning, on the contrary, with his long and brilliant gallery of
European creations, Browning, who claimed Italy as his "university,"
remains, as a poet, all but unknown even in Italy, and all but
non-existent for the rest of the civilised world beyond the Channel. His
cosmopolitan sympathies worked through the medium of a singularly
individual intellect; and the detaching and isolating effect which
pronounced individuality of thinking usually produces, even in a genial
temperament, was heightened in his case by a robust indifference to
conventions of all kinds, and not least to those which make genius
easily intelligible to the plain man.

What is known of Browning's descent makes these contrasts in some degree
intelligible. An old strain of Wessex squires or yeomen, dimly
discernible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, issued, about
the middle of the eighteenth, in the first distinct personality among
the poet's forebears, his grandfather, who also bore the name Robert. He
was a robust, hard-headed, energetic, pushing man of business and the
world, who made his way from a clerkship to an important and responsible
post in the Bank of England, and settled accounts with religion and with
literature in a right English way, by reading the Bible and 'Tom Jones'
through every year, and very little else. More problematical and
elusive is the figure of his first wife, Margaret Tittle, with whom, to
judge from the character of her eldest son, literary and artistic
sensibility first mingled in the hard practical Browning stock. In this
second Robert Browning, indeed, the somewhat brutal and grasping egotism
of the father gave place to a cultured humanity of almost feminine
tenderness and charm. All his life long he was passionately devoted to
literature, to art, to children. He collected rare books and prints with
avidity, but was no less generous in giving them away. Indifferent to
money, he hated to see a scrap of paper wasted. He had a neat touch in
epigrams, and a boyish delight in grotesque rhymes. But there was no
lack of grit in this accomplished, fresh-minded, and lovable man. He had
the tough fibre of his race; only it was the wrongs of others that
called out its tenacity, not his own. While holding an appointment on
his mother's West Indian estate, he braved the fierce resentment of the
whole colony by teaching a negro-boy to read; and finally incurred
disinheritance rather than draw a livelihood from slave-labour. This
Shelleyan act involved for him the resignation of his intellectual and
artistic ambitions; and with the docility characteristic of him, where
only his own interests were concerned, he forthwith entered the fairly
well-paid but unexciting service of the Bank.

In 1811 he married, and on May 7 of the following year his eldest son,
Robert, was born. His wife was the daughter of a German shipowner,
William Wiedemann, who had settled and married at Dundee. Wiedemann is
said to have been an accomplished draughtsman and musician, and his
daughter, without herself sharing these gifts, probably passed them on
to her son. Whether she also communicated from her Scottish and German
ancestry the "metaphysical" proclivities currently ascribed to him, is a
hypothesis absolutely in the air.[1] What is clear is that she was
herself intellectually simple and of few ideas, but rich in the
temperament, at once nervous and spiritual, which when present in the
mother so often becomes genius in the son. "She was a divine woman,"
such was her son's brief sufficing tribute. Physically he seems to have
closely resembled her,[2] and they were bound together by a peculiarly
passionate love from first to last.

[Footnote 1: A similar but more groundless suggestion, that the author
of _Holy-cross Day_ and _Rabbi ben Ezra_ probably had Jewish
blood in his veins, can only be described as an impertinence--not to
Browning but to the Jewish race. As if to feel the spiritual genius of
Hebraism and to be moved by the pathos of Hebraic fate were an
eccentricity only to be accounted for by the bias of kin! It is
significant that his demonstrable share of German blood left him rather
conspicuously impervious to the literary--and more especially to the
"metaphysical"--products of the German mind.]

[Footnote 2: Browning himself reports the exclamation of the family
doctor when trying to diagnose an attack of his: "Why, has anybody to
search far for a cause of whatever nervous disorder you may suffer
from, when there sits your mother--whom you so absolutely resemble!"
(_Letters to E.B.B._, ii. 456.)]

The home in Camberwell into which the boy Robert was born reflected the
serene, harmonious, self-contented character of his parents. Friends
rarely disturbed the even tenor of its ways, and the storms of politics
seem to have intruded as faintly into this suburban seclusion as the
roar of London. Books, business, and religion provided a framework of
decorous routine within which these kindly and beautiful souls moved
with entire content. Well-to-do Camberwell perhaps contained few homes
so pure and refined; but it must have held many in which the life-blood
of political and social interests throbbed more vigorously, and where
thought and conversation were in closer touch with the intellectual life
of the capital and the larger movements of the time. Nothing in
Browning's boyhood tended to open his imagination to the sense of
citizenship and nationality which the imperial pageants and ceremonies
of Frankfurt so early kindled in the child Goethe. But within the limits
imposed by this quiet home young Robert soon began to display a vigour
and enterprise which tried all its resources. "He clamoured for
occupation from the moment he could speak," and "something to do" meant
above all some living thing to be caught for him to play with. The gift
of an animal was found a valuable aid to negotiations with the young
despot; when medicine was to be taken, he would name "a speckled frog"
as the price of his compliance, and presently his mother would be seen
hovering hither and thither among the strawberry-beds. A quaint
menagerie was gradually assembled: owls and monkeys, magpies and
hedgehogs, an eagle and snakes. Boy-collectors are often cruel; but
Robert showed from the first an anxious tenderness and an eager care for
life: we hear of a hurt cat brought home to be nursed, of ladybirds
picked up in the depths of winter and preserved with wondering delight
at their survival. Even in stories the death of animals moved him to
bitter tears. He was equally quick at books, and soon outdistanced his
companions at the elementary schools which he attended up to his
fourteenth year. Near at hand, too, was the Dulwich Gallery,--"a green
half-hour's walk across the fields,"--a beloved haunt of his childhood,
to which he never ceased to be grateful.[3] But his father's overflowing
library and portfolios played the chief part in his early development.
He read voraciously, and apparently without restraint or control. The
letters of Junius and of Horace Walpole were familiar to him "in
boyhood," we are assured with provoking indefiniteness by Mrs Orr; as
well as "all the works of Voltaire." Most to his mind, however, was the
rich sinewy English and athletic fancy of the seventeenth-century
Fantastic Quarles; a preference which foreshadowed his later delight in
the great master of the Fantastic school, and of all who care for
close-knit intellect in poetry, John Donne.

[Footnote 3: _To E.B.B._, March 3, 1846.]

Curiously enough, it was some fragments of the grandiose but shadowy
Ossian which first stirred the imitative impulse in this poet of
trenchant and clear-cut form. "The first composition I ever was guilty
of," he wrote to Elizabeth Barrett (Aug. 25, 1846), "was something in
imitation of Ossian, whom I had not read, but conceived through two or
three scraps in other books." And long afterwards Ossian was "the first
book I ever bought in my life" (ib.) These "imitations" were apparently
in verse, and in rhyme; and Browning's bent and faculty for both was
very early pronounced. "I never can recollect not writing rhymes; ...
but I knew they were nonsense even then." And a well-known anecdote of
his infancy describes his exhibition of a lively sense of metre in
verses which he recited with emphatic accompaniments upon the edge of
the dining-room table before he was tall enough to look over it. The
crowding thoughts of his maturity had not yet supervened to prevent the
abundant music that he "had in him" from "getting out." It is not
surprising that a boy of these proclivities was captivated by the stormy
swing and sweep of Byron; nor that he should have caught also something
of his "splendour of language," and even, a little later, a reflection,
respectable and suburban enough, of his rebellious Titanism. The less
so, that in Robert's eleventh or twelfth year Byron, the head of the
Satanic school, had become the heroic champion of Greek liberation, and
was probably spoken of with honour in the home of the large-hearted
banker who had in his day suffered so much for the sake of the
unemancipated slave. In later years Browning was accustomed to deliver
himself of breezy sarcasms at the expense of the "flat-fish" who
declaimed so eloquently about the "deep and dark blue ocean." But it is
easy to see that this genial chaff covered a real admiration,--the
tribute of one abounding nature to another, which even years and the
philosophic mind did not seriously abate. "I always retained my first
feeling for Byron in many respects," he wrote in a significant letter to
Miss Barrett in 1846. " ... I would at any time have gone to Finchley to
see a curl of his hair or one of his gloves, I am sure,--while Heaven
knows that I could not get up enthusiasm enough to cross the room if at
the other end of it all Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were
condensed into the little china bottle yonder."[4] It was thus no mere
freak of juvenile taste that took shape in these early Byronic poems. He
entitled them, with the lofty modesty of boyish authorship, _Incondita_,
and his parents sought to publish them. No publisher could be found; but
they won the attention of a notable critic, W.J. Fox, who feared too
much splendour and too little thought in the young poet, but kept his
eye on him nevertheless.

[Footnote 4: _To E.B.B._, Aug. 22, 1846.]

Two years later the boy of fourteen caught the accents of another poetic
voice, destined to touch the sources of music and passion in him with
far more intimate power. His casual discovery, on a bookstall, of "Mr
Shelley's Atheistical poem" seems to have for the first time made known
to him even the name of the poet who had died in Italy four years
before. Something of Shelley's story seems to have been known to his
parents. It gives us a measure of the indulgent sympathy and religious
tolerance which prevailed in this Evangelical home, that the parents
should have unhesitatingly supplied the boy of fourteen, at some cost of
time and trouble, with all the accessible writings of the "atheistical"
poet, and with those of his presumably like-minded friend Keats as well.
He fell instantly under the spell of both. Whatever he may have known
before of ancient or modern literature, the full splendour of romantic
poetry here broke upon him for the first time. Immature as he was, he
already responded instinctively to the call of the spirits most
intimately akin to his own. Byron's stormy power thrilled and delighted
him; but it was too poor in spiritual elements, too negative,
self-centred, and destructive to stir the deeper sources of Browning's
poetry. In Keats and in Shelley he found poetic energies not less
glowing and intense, bent upon making palpable to eye and ear visions of
beauty which, with less of superficial realism, were fed by far more
exquisite and penetrating senses, and attached by more and subtler
filaments to the truth of things. Beyond question this was the decisive
literary experience of Browning's early years. Probably it had a chief
part in making the poet's career his fixed ideal, and ultimately, with
his father's willing consent, his definite choice. What we know of his
inner and outer life during the important years which turned the boy
into the man is slight and baffling enough. The fiery spirit of poetry
can rarely have worked out its way with so little disturbance to the
frame. Minute scrutiny has disclosed traits of unrest and revolt; he
professed "atheism" and practised vegetarianism, betrayed at times the
aggressive arrogance of an able youth, and gave his devoted and tender
parents moments of very superfluous concern. For with all his immensely
vivacious play of brain, there was something in his mental and moral
nature from first to last stubbornly inelastic and unimpressible, that
made him equally secure against expansion and collapse. The same simple
tenacity of nature which kept his buoyantly adventurous intellect
permanently within the tether of a few primary convictions, kept him, in
the region of practice and morality, within the bounds of a rather nice
and fastidious decorum. Malign influences effected no lodgment in a
nature so fundamentally sound; they might cloud and trouble imagination
for a while, but their scope hardly extended further, and as they were
literary in origin, so they were mainly literary in expression. In the
meantime he was laying, in an unsystematic but not ineffective way, the
foundations of his many-sided culture and accomplishment. We hear much
of private tutors, of instruction in French, in music, in riding,
fencing, boxing, dancing; of casual attendance also at the Greek classes
in University College. In all these matters he seems to have won more or
less definite accomplishment, and from most of them his versatile
literary talent took, at one time or another, an effective toll. The
athletic musician, who composed his own songs and gloried in a gallop,
was to make verse simulate, as hardly any artificer had made it before,
the labyrinthine meanderings of the fugue and the rhythmic swing of
hoofs.

Of all these varied aims and aspirations, of all in short that was going
on under the surface of this brilliant and versatile Robert Browning of
twenty, we have a chaotic reflection in the famous fragment _Pauline_.
The quite peculiar animosity with which its author in later life
regarded this single "crab" of his youthful tree of knowledge only adds
to its interest. He probably resented the frank expression of passion,
nowhere else approached in his works. Yet passion only agitates the
surface of _Pauline_. Whether Pauline herself stand for an actual
woman--Miss Flower or another--or for the nascent spell of
womanhood--she plays, for one who is ostensibly the heroine of the poem,
a discouragingly minor part. No wonder she felt tempted to advise the
burning of so unflattering a record. Instead of the lyric language of
love, she has to receive the confessions of a subtle psychologist, who
must unlock the tumultuous story of his soul "before he can sing." And
these confessions are of a kind rare even amongst self-revelations of
genius. Pauline's lover is a dreamer, but a dreamer of an uncommon
species. He is preoccupied with the processes of his mind, but his mind
ranges wildly over the universe and chafes at the limitations it is
forced to recognise. Mill, a master, not to say a pedant, of
introspection, recognised with amazement the "intense self-consciousness"
of this poet, and self-consciousness is the keynote which persists
through all its changing harmonies. It is the self-consciousness of a
soul compelled by quick and eager senses and vivid intelligence to
recognise a host of outer realities not itself, which it constantly
strives to bring into relation with itself, as constantly baffled and
thrown back by the obstinate objectivity of that outer world. A pure
dreamer would have "contentedly lived in a nut-shell and imagined
himself king of infinite space"; a purely scientific intelligence would
have applied himself to the patient mastery of facts; in the hero of
_Pauline_ the despotic senses and intellect of science and the imperious
imagination of the poet appear to coexist and to contend, and he tosses
to and fro in a fever of fitful efforts, continually frustrated, to find
complete spiritual response and expressiveness in the intractable maze
of being. There had indeed been an earlier time when the visions of old
poets had wholly sufficed him; and the verses in which he recalls them
have almost the pellucid charm of Homer,--

                 "Never morn broke clear as those
      On the dim clustered isles in the blue sea,
      The deep groves, and white temples, and wet caves."

But growing intellect demanded something more. Shelley, the
"Sun-treader," weaving soul and sense into a radiant vesture "from his
poet's station between both," did much to sustain him; Plato's more
explicit and systematic idealism gave him for a while a stronger
assurance. But disillusion broke in: "Suddenly, without heart-wreck I
awoke; I said, 'twas beautiful, yet but a dream, and so adieu to it!"
Then the passionate restlessness of his nature stings him forth afresh.
He steeps himself in the concrete vitality of things, lives in
imagination through "all life where it is most alive," immerses himself
in all that is most beautiful and intense in Nature, so fulfilling, it
might seem, his passionate craving to "be all, have, see, know, taste,
feel all,"--yet only to feel that satisfaction is not here:

     "My soul saddens when it looks beyond:
      I cannot be immortal, taste all joy;"

only the sickness of satiety. But when all joy was tasted, what then? If
there was any "crowning" state, it could only be, thought Browning, one
in which the soul looked up to the unattainable infinity of God.

Such seem to be the outlines of the mental history which passes before
us, brilliant and incoherent as a dream, in _Pauline_. The material,
vast and many-sided as it is, is not fully mastered; but there is
nothing merely imitative; it is everywhere Browning, and no mere
disciple of Shelley or another, who is palpably at work. The influence
of Shelley seems, indeed, to have been already outgrown when _Pauline_
was written; Browning gloried in him and in his increasing fame, but he
felt that his own aims and destiny were different. Rossetti, a few years
later, took _Pauline_ to be the work of an unconscious pre-Raphaelite;
and there is enough of subtle simplicity, of curious minuteness, in the
details to justify the error. In the meantime many outward circumstances
conspired to promote the "advance" which every line of it foretold. His
old mentor of the _Incondita_ days, W.J. Fox, in some sort a Browningite
before Browning, reviewed _Pauline_ in _The Monthly Repository_ (April
1833) with generous but discerning praise. This was the beginning of a
warm friendship between the two, which ended only with Fox's death. It
was founded upon hearty admiration on both sides, and no man living was
better qualified to scatter the morbid films that clung about the
expanding genius of young Browning than this robust and masculine critic
and preacher. A few months later came an event of which we know very
little, but which at least did much to detach him from the limited
horizons of Camberwell. At the invitation of M. Benckhausen, Russian
consul-general, Browning accompanied him, in the winter of 1833-34, on a
special mission to St Petersburg. The journey left few apparent traces
on his work. But he remembered the rush of the sledge through the forest
when, half a century later, he told the thrilling tale of _Iván
Ivánovitch_. And even the modest intimacy with affairs of State
obtainable in the office of a consul-general seems to have led his
thoughts seriously to diplomacy as a career. One understands that to the
future dissector of a Hohenstiel-Schwangau and a Blougram the career
might present attractions. It marks the seriousness of his ambition
that he actually applied for a post in the Persian Embassy. This fancy
of _Ferishtah_, like a similar one of ten years later, was not
gratified, but the bent which was thus thwarted in practical life
disported itself freely in poetry, and the marks of the diplomatist _in
posse_ are pretty clearly legible in the subtle political webs which
make up so much of the plots of _Strafford, King Victor_, and
_Sordello_.

But much sharper rebuffs than this would have failed to disturb the
immense buoyancy of Browning's temperament. He was twenty-three, and in
the first flush of conscious power. His exuberant animal spirits flowed
out in whimsical talk; he wrote letters of the gayest undergraduate
_insouciance_ to Fox, and articles full of extravagant jesting for _The
Trifler_, an amateur journal which received the lucubrations of his
little circle. He enjoyed life like a boy, and shared its diversions
like a man about town. These superficial vivacities were the slighter
play of a self-consciousness which in its deeper recesses was steadily
gathering power, richness, and assurance. His keen social instincts
saved him from most of the infirmities of budding genius; but the poems
he contributed to Fox's journal during the following two years (1834-36)
show a significant predilection for imagining the extravagances and
fanaticisms of lonely self-centred minds. Joannes Agricola, sublime on
the dizzy pinnacle of his theological arrogance, looking up through the
gorgeous roof of heaven and assured that nothing can stay his course to
his destined abode, God's breast; Porphyria's lover, the more uncanny
fanatic who murders with a smile; the young man who in his pride of
power sees in the failures and mistakes of other men examples
providentially intended for his guidance,--it was such subjects as these
that touched Browning's fancy in those ardent and sanguine years. He
probably entered with keener relish into these extravagances than his
maturer wisdom approved. It is significant, at any rate, that when
_Agricola_ and _Porphyria's Lover_ were republished in _The Bells and
Pomegranates_ of 1842, a new title, _Madhouse Cells_, gave warning that
their insanity was not to be attributed to the poet. The verses "Still
ailing wind," he qualified in a yet more explicit fashion twenty years
later, for they are the young man's poem which James Lee's wife reads
"under the cliff," and subjects to her austere and disillusioned
criticism. But they mark the drift of Browning of the mid-'Thirties, so
far as they go, clearly enough. Fortunately, however, we are not
dependent upon these slight clues. For during the winter months of
1834-35 he was occupied in portraying a far more imposing embodiment of
the young man's pride of power, a Joannes Agricola of equally superb
confidence and far more magnificent ideals. In April 1835 Browning was
able to announce to his good friend Fox the completion of _Paracelsus_.

He owed the suggestion to another new acquaintance, whose intimacy, like
that of the Russian consul-general, marks the fascination exercised by
young Browning upon men of antecedents, race, and social standing widely
different from his own. Count Amédée de Ripert Monclar was a French
royalist and refugee; he was also an enthusiastic student of history.
Possibly he recognised an affinity between the vaguely outlined dreams
of Pauline's lover and those of the historic Paracelsus; and he may well
have thought that the task of grappling with definite historic material
would steady the young poet's hand. We could applaud the acuteness of
the suggestion with more confidence had not the Count had an unlucky
afterthought, which he regarded as fatal, to the effect that the story
of Paracelsus, however otherwise adapted to the creator of Pauline's
lover, was entirely destitute of a Pauline. There was no opening for
love. But Pauline, with all her warm erotic charms and her sparkling
French prose, was the most unsubstantial and perishable thing in the
poem which bore her name: she and the spirit which begot her had
vanished like a noisome smoke, and Browning threw himself with
undiminished ardour upon the task of interpreting a career in which the
sole sources of romance and of tragedy appeared to be the passion for
knowledge and the arrogance of discovery.

For it is quite clear that, whatever criticisms Browning finally brought
to bear upon Paracelsus, his attitude towards him, at no time hostile,
was at the outset rather that of a literary champion, vindicating a man
of original genius from the calumnies of ignorance and dulness. This
view, then rather unusual, was a very natural one for him to take,
Paracelsus being among the many keen interests of the elder Browning.[5]
It is a strange mistake to suppose, with a recent very ingenious
commentator, that Browning, eager to destroy the fallacy of intellectual
pride, singled out Paracelsus as a crucial example of the futilities of
intellect. On the contrary, he filled his annotations with documentary
evidences which attest not only the commanding scientific genius of
Paracelsus, but the real significance of his achievements, even for the
modern world. In the intellectual hunger of Paracelsus, in that
"insatiable avidity of penetrating the secrets of nature" which his
follower Bitiskius (approvingly quoted by Browning) ascribed to him, he
saw a fascinating realisation of his own vague and chaotic
"restlessness." Here was a spirit made up in truth "of an intensest
life," driven hither and thither by the hunger for intellectual mastery
of the universe; and Browning, far from convicting him of intellectual
futility, has made him actually divine the secret he sought, and, in one
of the most splendid passages of modern poetry, declare with his dying
lips a faith which is no less Browning's than his own.

[Footnote 5: His library, as I am informed by Prof. Hall Griffin,
contained a copy of the works of Paracelsus, doubtless that used by his
son.]

While he thus lavished his utmost power on portraying the soaring genius
of Paracelsus, as he conceived it, he turned impatiently away from the
husk of popular legend by which it was half obscured. He shrank from no
attested fact, however damaging; but he brushed away the accretions of
folklore, however picturesque. The attendant spirit who enabled
Paracelsus to work his marvellous cures, and his no less renowned Sword,
were for Browning contemptible futilities. Yet a different way of
treating legend lay nearer to the spirit of contemporary poetry. Goethe
had not long before evolved his Mephistopheles from the "attendant
spirit" attached by that same sixteenth century to the Paracelsus of
Protestantism, Faust; Tennyson was already meditating a scene full of
the enchantment of the Arthurian sword Excalibur. Browning's peremptory
rejection of such springs of poetry marks one of his limitations as a
poet. Much of the finest poetry of _Faust_, as, in a lower degree, of
the _Idylls_, is won by a subtle transformation of the rude stuff of
popular imagination: for Browning, with rare exceptions, this rude stuff
was dead matter, impervious to his poetic insight, and irresponsive to
the magic of his touch. Winnowing the full ears, catching eagerly the
solid and stimulating grain, he hardly heeded the golden gleam of the
chaff as it flew by.

He did not, however, refrain from accentuating his view of the story by
interweaving in it some gracious figures of his own. Festus, the honest,
devoted, but somewhat purblind friend, who offers Paracelsus the
criticism of sober common-sense, and is vindicated--at the bar of
common-sense--by his great comrade's tragic end; Michal, an exquisitely
tender outline of womanhood, even more devoted, and even less
distinguished; and the "Italian poet" Aprile, a creature of genius,
whose single overpowering thought avails to break down the stronghold of
Paracelsus's else unassailable conviction. Aprile, who lives for love as
Paracelsus for knowledge, is not to be identified with Shelley, but he
has unmistakable Shelleyan traits, and the dreamy pageant of his
imaginary creations might stand for a summary review of Shelley's work.
Had Shelley lived, he might have come nearer than any one else to
fulfilling the rounded and complete ideal of which Paracelsus and Aprile
were dissevered halves: the greater part of his actual achievement
belonged, Browning evidently thought, to the category of those dazzling
but imperfectly objective visions which he ascribes to his Aprile. But
Shelley--the poet of _Alastor_, the passionate "lover of Love," was yet
the fittest embodiment of that other finer spiritual energy which
Paracelsus in his Faustian passion for knowledge had ruthlessly put from
him. Sixteen years later, Browning was to define in memorable words what
he held to be the "noblest and predominating characteristic of
Shelley"--viz., "his simultaneous perception of Power and Love in the
Absolute and of Beauty and Good in the concrete, while he throws, from
his poet's station between both, swifter, subtler, and more numerous
films for the connection of each with each than have been thrown by any
modern artificer of whom I have knowledge." This divining and
glorifying power it is that Browning ascribes to Love; the lack of it is
in his conception the tragic flaw which brings to the ground the
superbly gifted genius of Paracelsus. This genuine and original tragic
motive is not worked out with uniform power; his degeneration, his
failures, are painted with the uncertain hand of one little acquainted
with either. But all the splendour of a young imagination, charged with
the passion for truth and for beauty, glows in the pictures of the great
moments in Paracelsus's career,--the scene in the quiet Würzburg garden,
where he conquers the doubts of Festus and Michal by the magnificent
assurance of his faith in his divine calling; and that in the hospital
cell at Salzburg, where his fading mind anticipates at the point of
death the clearness of immortal vision as he lays bare the conquered
secret of the world.

That Paracelsian secret of the world was for Browning doubtless the
truth, though he never again expounded it so boldly. Paracelsus's reply
to the anxious inquiry of Festus whether he is sure of God's
forgiveness: "I have lived! We have to live alone to well set forth
God's praise"--might stand as a text before the works of Browning. In
all life he sees the promise and the potency of God,--in the teeming
vitalities of the lower world, in the creative energies of man, in the
rich conquests of his Art, in his myth-woven Nature. "God is glorified
in Man, and to man's glory vowed I soul and limb." The historic
Paracelsus failed most signally in his attempt to connect vast
conceptions of Nature akin to this with the detail of his empiric
discoveries. Browning, with his mind, as always, set upon things
psychical, attributes to him a parallel incapacity to connect his
far-reaching vision of humanity with the gross, malicious, or blockish
specimens of the genus Man whom he encountered in the detail of
practice. It was the problem which Browning himself was to face, and in
his own view triumphantly to solve; and Paracelsus, rising into the
clearness of his dying vision, becomes the mouthpiece of Browning's own
criticism of his failure, the impassioned advocate of the Love which
with him is less an elemental energy drawing things into harmonious
fusion than a subtle weapon of the intellect, making it wise

     "To trace love's faint beginnings in mankind,
      To know even hate is but a mask of love's,
      To see a good in evil and a hope
      In ill-success."

Paracelsus is a clear self-revelation, rich and inspired where it marks
out the circle of sublime ideas within which the poet was through life
to move, and by which he was, as a man and a thinker, if not altogether
as a poet, to live; reticent where it approaches the complexities of the
concrete which the poet was not yet sufficiently mature to handle,
restrained where increased power was to breed a too generous
self-indulgence, a too manifest aptitude for glorying and drinking
deep. It is flushed with the peculiar mellow beauty which comes if at
all to the early manhood of genius,--a beauty like that of Amiens or
Lincoln in Gothic art, where the crudeness of youth is overworn, and the
problems of full maturity, though foreshadowed and foreseen, have not
yet begun to perplex or to disintegrate.



CHAPTER II.

ENLARGING HORIZONS. _SORDELLO_.

      Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust,
      Die eine will sich von der andern trennen;
      Die eine hält in derber Liebeslust
      Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen;
      Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust
      Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.

      --_Faust_.


_Paracelsus_, though only a series of quasi-dramatic scenes, suggested
considerable undeveloped capacity for drama. From a career in which the
most sensational event was a dismissal from a professorship, and the
absorbing passion the thirst for knowledge, he had elicited a tragedy of
the scientific intellect. But it was equally obvious that the writer's
talent was not purely dramatic; and that his most splendid and original
endowments required some other medium than drama for their full
unfolding. The author of _Paracelsus_ was primarily concerned with
character, and with action as the mirror of character; agreeing in both
points substantially with the author of _Hamlet_. But while Browning's
energetic temperament habitually impelled him to represent character in
action, his imaginative strength did not lie in the region of action at
all, but in the region of thought; the kinds of expression of which he
had boundless command were rather those which analyse character than
those which exhibit it. The two impulses derived from temperament and
from imagination thus drew him in somewhat diverse directions; and for
some years the joy in the stir and stress and many-sided life of drama
competed with the powerful bent of the portrayer of souls, until the two
contending currents finally coalesced in the dramatic monologues of _Men
and Women_. In 1835 the solution was not yet found, but the five years
which followed were to carry Browning, not without crises of perplexity
and hesitation, far on his way towards it. _Paracelsus_ was no sooner
completed than he entered upon his kindred but more esoteric portrayal
of the soul-history of Sordello,--a study in which, with the dramatic
form, almost all the dramatic excellences of its predecessors are put
aside. But the poet was outgrowing the method; the work hung fire; and
we find him, before he had gone far with the perplexed record of that
"ineffectual angel," already "eager to freshen a jaded mind by diverting
it to the healthy natures of a grand epoch."[6]

[Footnote 6: Preface to the first edition of _Strafford_ (subsequently
omitted).]

The open-eyed man of the world and of affairs in Browning was plainly
clamouring for more expression than he had yet found. An invitation from
the first actor of the day to write a tragedy for him was not likely,
under these circumstances, to be declined; and during the whole winter
of 1836-37 the story of Sordello remained untold, while its author
plunged, with a security and relish which no one who knew only his
poetry could have foretold, into the pragmatic politics and diplomatic
intrigues of _Strafford_. The performance of the play on May 1, 1837
introduced further distractions. And _Sordello_ had made little further
progress, when, in the April of the following year, Browning embarked on
a sudden but memorable trip to the South of Europe. It gave him his
first glimpse of Italy and of the Mediterranean, and plenty of the rough
homely intercourse with men which he loved. He travelled, in a fashion
that suited his purse and his hardy nature, by a merchant vessel from
London to the Adriatic. The food was uneatable, the horrors of dirt and
discomfort portentous; but he bore them cheerfully for the sake of one
advantage,--"the solitariness of the _one_ passenger among all those
rough new creatures, _I_ like it much, and soon get deep into their
friendship."[7] Grim tragedies of the high-seas, too, came within his
ken.[8] Two or three moments of the voyage stand out for us with
peculiar distinctness: the gorgeous sunset off Cadiz bay, when he
watched the fading outlines of Gibraltar and Cape St Vincent,--ghostly
mementos of England,--not as Arnold's weary Titan, but as a Herakles
stretching a hand of help across the seas; the other sunset on the
Mediterranean, when Etna loomed against the flaming sky;[9] and, between
them, that glaring noontide on the African shore, when the "solitary
passenger," weary of shipboard and sea sickness, longed for his good
horse York in the stable at home, and scribbled his ballad of brave
horses, _How they brought the Good News_, in a blank leaf of Bartoli's
_Simboli_. The voyage ended at Trieste; and thence he passed to Venice,
brooded among her ruined palaces over Sordello, and "English Eyebright"
and all the destiny and task of the poet; and so turned homeward,
through the mountains, gathering vivid glimpses as he went of "all my
places and castles,"[10] and laying by a memory, soon to germinate, of
"delicious Asolo," "palpably fire-clothed" in the glory of his young
imagination.

[Footnote 7: _R.B._ to _E.B.B._, i. 505.]

[Footnote 8: Cf. the long letter to Miss Haworth, Orr, _Life_, p. 96.]

[Footnote 9: Cf. _Sordello_, bk. iii., end.]

[Footnote 10: Ib., p. 99.]

Thus when, in 1840, _Sordello_ was at length complete, it bore the
traces of many influences and many moods. It reflected the expanding
ideals and the critical turning-points of four years of his life. In the
earlier books the brilliant yet self-centred poet of _Paracelsus_ is
still paramount, and even the "oddish boy" who had shyly evolved
_Pauline_ is not entirely effaced. But in the later books we recognise
without difficulty the man who has mixed with the larger world, has won
some fame in letters, has immersed himself in the stirring atmosphere of
a supreme national conflict, has seen Italy, and has, in the solitude
and detachment from his _milieu_ which foreign travel brings, girded up
his loins anew for a larger and more exacting poetic task. The tangled
political dissensions of the time are set before us with the baffling
allusiveness of the expert. The Italian landscape is painted, not with
richer imagination, for nothing in Browning exceeds some passages of the
earlier books, but with more depth of colouring, more precision of
contour and expression. And he has taken the "sad disheveled form,"
Humanity, for his bride, the mate of an art which will disdain no evil
and turn away from nothing common, in the service of man. Doubtless the
result was not all gain. The intermittent composition and the shifting
points of view add an element of real ambiguity and indecision to faults
of expression which mainly spring from the swiftness and discursiveness
of a brilliant and athletic intellect. The alleged "obscurity" of the
poem is in great part a real obscurity; the profiles are at times not
merely intricate, but blurred. But he had written nothing yet, and he
was to write little after, which surpasses the finest pages of
_Sordello_ in close-packed, if somewhat elusive, splendour; the soil, as
he wrote of Italy, is full of loose fertility, and gives out
intoxicating odours at every footfall. Moreover, he can now paint the
clash and commotion of crowds, the turmoil of cities and armies, with
superb force--a capacity of which there is hardly a trace in
_Paracelsus_. Sordello himself stands out less clearly than Paracelsus
from the canvas; but the sympathetic reader finally admits that this
visionary being, who gleams ghostlike at the end of all the avenues and
vistas of the poem, whom we are always looking at but never rightly see,
is an even more fascinating figure.

He is however less historical, in spite of the abstruse historic
background upon which he moves. Of the story of Paracelsus Browning
merely reinterpreted the recorded facts; whereas he brushes aside the
greater part of the Sordello story, as told confusedly and
inconsistently by Italian and Provençal tradition. The whole later
career of the Mantuan poet as an accomplished and not unsuccessful man
of the world, as the friend of Raymond of Toulouse and Charles of Anjou,
rewarded with ample estates by the latter for substantial services,--is
either rejected as myth, or purposely ignored. To all appearance, the
actual Sordello by no means lacked ability to "fit to the finite" such
"infinity" as he possessed. And if he had the chance, as is obscurely
hinted at the close, of becoming, like Dante, the "Apollo" of the
Italian people, he hardly missed it "through disbelief that anything was
to be done." But the outward shell of his career included some
circumstances which, had they befallen a Dante, might have deeply
moulded the history of Italy. His close relations with great Guelph and
Ghibelline families would have offered extraordinary opportunities to a
patriot of genius, which, for the purposes of patriotism, remained
unused. Yet Dante, a patriot of genius if ever there was one, had given
Sordello a position of extraordinary honour in the _Purgatory_, had
allowed him to illuminate the darkness of Virgil, and to guide both the
great poets towards the Gate. The contrast offered an undeniable
problem. But Dante had himself hinted the solution by placing Sordello
among those dilatory souls whose tardy repentance involved their sojourn
in the Ante-purgatory. To a mind preoccupied, like Browning's, with the
failures of aspiring souls, this hint naturally appealed. He imagined
his Sordello, too, as a moral loiterer, who, with extraordinary gifts,
failed by some inner enervating paralysis[11] to make his spiritual
quality explicit; and who impressed contemporaries sufficiently to start
a brilliant myth of what he did not do, but had to wait for recognition
until he met the eye and lips of Dante. It is difficult not to suspect
the influence of another great poet. _Sordello_ has no nearer parallel
in literature than Goethe's _Tasso_, a picture of the eternal antagonism
between the poet and the world, for which Bordello's failure to "fit to
the finite his infinity" might have served as an apt motto. Browning has
nowhere to our knowledge mentioned _Tasso_; but he has left on record
his admiration of the beautiful sister-drama _Iphigenie_.[12]

[Footnote 11:
       "Ah but to find
A certain mood enervate such a mind," &c.
                      --_Works_, i. 122.]

[Footnote 12: _To E.B.B._, July 7, 1846. He is "vexed" at Landor's
disparagement of the play, and quotes with approval Landor's earlier
declaration that "nothing so Hellenic had been written these two
thousand years."]

The elaboration of this conception is, however, entirely Browning's
own, and discloses at every point the individual quality of his mind.
Like _Faust_, like the Poet in the _Palace of Art_, Sordello bears the
stamp of an age in which the ideal of intellect, art, culture, and the
ideal of humanity, of social service, have both become potent
inspirations, often in apparent conflict, and continually demanding a
solution of their differences. Faust breaks away from the narrow
pedantries of the schools in order to heap upon his breast the weal and
woe of mankind, and to draw all their life and thought into the compass
of his mind. Tennyson's "glorious devil" (by a curious irony intended
for no other than Faust's creator) sets up his lordly pleasure-house
apart from the ways of men, until at last, confuted by experience, he
renounces his folly. _Sordello_ cannot claim the mature and classical
brilliance of the one, nor the limpid melodious beauty of the other; but
it approaches _Faust_ itself in its subtle soundings of the mysteries of
the intellectual life. It is a young poet's attempt to cope with the
problem of the poet's task and the poet's function, the relation of art
to life, and of life to art. Neither Goethe nor Tennyson thought more
loftily of the possibilities of poetic art. And neither insisted more
peremptorily--or rather assumed more unquestioningly--that it only
fulfils these possibilities when the poet labours in the service of man.
He is "earth's essential king," but his kingship rests upon his carrying
out the kingliest of mottoes--"Ich dien." Browning all his life had a
hearty contempt for the foppery of "Art for Art," and he never conveyed
it with more incisive brilliance than in the sketch of Bordello's
"opposite," the Troubadour Eglamor.

                   "How he loved that art!
      The calling marking him a man apart
      From men--one not to care, take counsel for
      Cold hearts, comfortless faces, ... since verse, the gift
      Was his, and men, the whole of them, must shift
      Without it."

To Eglamor his art is a mysterious ritual, of which he is the sacrosanct
priest, and his happy rhyme the divine response vouchsafed to him in
answer. Such beauty as he produces is no effluence from a soul mating
itself, like Wordsworth's, "in love and holy passion with the universe,"
but a cunning application of the approved recipes for effective writing
current in the literary guild;--

                      "He, no genius rare,
      Transfiguring in fire or wave or air
      At will, but a poor gnome that, cloistered up
      In some rock-chamber, with his agate-cup,
      His topaz-rod, his seed-pearl, in these few
      And their arrangement finds enough to do
      For his best art."[13]

[Footnote 13: Works, i. 131.]

From these mysticisms and technicalities of Troubadour and all other
poetic guilds Browning decisively detaches his poet. Sordello is not a
votary of poetry; he does not "cultivate the Muse"; he does not even
prostrate himself before the beauty and wonder of the visible universe.
Poetry is the atmosphere in which he lives; and in the beauty without he
recognises the "dream come true" of a soul which (like that of Pauline's
lover) "existence" thus "cannot satiate, cannot surprise." "Laugh thou
at envious fate," adorers cry to this inspired Platonist,

     "Who, from earth's simplest combination ...
      Dost soar to heaven's complexest essence, rife
      With grandeurs, unaffronted to the last,
      Equal to being all."[14]

[Footnote 14: Works, i. 122.]

And, in truth, his power of imaginative apprehension has no bounds. From
the naïve self-reflection of his boyish dreams he passes on to visions
which embrace a continually fuller measure of life, until he forestalls
the sublime Dantesque conception of a poetry vast and deep as humanity,
where every soul will stand forth revealed in its naked truth. But he
cannot, like Dante, put his vast conceptions into the shackles of
intelligible speech. His uncompromising "infinity" will not comply with
finite conditions, and he remains an inefficient and inarticulate
genius, a Hamlet of poetry.

In the second half of the poem the Hamlet of poetry becomes likewise a
Hamlet of politics. He aspires to serve the people otherwise than by
holding up to them the mirror of an all-revealing poetry. Though by
birth associated with the aristocratic and imperial Ghibellines, his
natural affinity is clearly with the Church, which in some sort stood
for the people against the nobles, and for spirit against brute force.
We see him, now, a frail, inspired Shelleyan[15] democrat, pleading the
Guelph cause before the great Ghibelline soldier Salinguerra,--as he had
once pitted the young might of native song against the accomplished
Troubadour Eglamor. Salinguerra is the foil of the political, as Eglamor
of the literary, Sordello, and the dramatic interest of the whole poem
focusses in those two scenes. He had enough of the lonely inspiration of
genius to vanquish the craftsman, but too little of its large humanity
to cope with the astute man of the world. When Salinguerra, naturally
declining his naïve entreaty that he should put his Ghibelline sword at
the service of the Guelph, offers Sordello, on his part, the command of
the imperial forces in Italy if he will remain true to the Ghibelline
cause, he makes this finite world more alluring than it had ever been
before to the "infinite" Sordello. After a long struggle, he renounces
the offer, and--dies, exhausted with the strain of choice.

[Footnote 15: There are other Shelleyan traits in _Sordello_--e.g., the
young witch image (as in _Pauline_) at the opening of the second book.]

What was Browning's judgment upon Sordello? Does he regard him as an
idealist of aims too lofty for success in this world, and whose
"failure" implied his triumph in another, where his "broken arc" would
become the "perfect round"? Assuredly not. That might indeed be his
destiny, but Browning makes it perfectly clear that he failed, not
because his ideal was incommensurate with the conditions in which he
lived, but because he lacked the supreme gift by which the greatest of
souls may find their function and create their sphere in the least
promising _milieu_,--a controlling and guiding passion of love. With
compassionate tenderness, as of a father to his wayward child, Browning
in the closing pages of the poem lays his finger on the ailing place.
"Ah, my Sordello, I this once befriend and speak for you." It was true
enough, in the past, that Soul, as belonging to Eternity, must needs
prove incomplete for Time. But is life to be therefore only a struggle
to escape from the shackles of the body? Is freedom only won by death?
No, rejoins the poet, and the reply comes from the heart of his poetry,
though at issue with much of his explicit doctrine; a harmony of soul
and body is possible here in which both fulfil their functions:

     "Like yonder breadth of watery heaven, a bay,
      And that sky-space of water, ray for ray
      And star for star, one richness where they mixed,"

the Soul seeing its way in Time without being either dazzled by, or
losing, its vision of Eternity, having the saving clue of Love. Dante,
for whom Love was the pervading spirit of the universe, and the
beginning and end of his inspiration, wrought his vision of eternal
truth and his experience of the passing lives of men into such a harmony
with unexampled power; and the comparison, implicit in every page of
_Sordello_, is driven home with almost scornful bitterness on the
last:--

                      "What he should have been,
      Could be, and was not--the one step too mean
      For him to take--we suffer at this day
      Because of: Ecelin had pushed away
      Its chance ere Dante could arrive and take
      That step Sordello spurned, for the world's sake.
                                  ... A sorry farce
      Such life is, after all!"

The publication of _Sordello_ in 1840 closes the first phase of
Browning's literary career. By the great majority of those who had
hailed the splendid promise of _Paracelsus_, the author of _Sordello_
was frankly given up. Surprisingly few thought it worth while to wrestle
with the difficult book. It was the day of the gentle literary public
which had a few years before recoiled from _Sartor Resartus_, and which
found in the difficulty of a book the strongest presumption against it.
A later generation, leavened by Carlyle, came near to regarding
difficulty as a presumption in its favour, and this more strenuous and
athletic attitude towards literature was among the favouring conditions
which brought Browning at length into vogue.



CHAPTER III.

MATURING METHODS. DRAMAS AND DRAMATIC LYRICS.

        Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
      No man hath walk'd along our roads with step
      So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
      So varied in discourse.
      --LANDOR.

The memorable moment when Browning, standing on the ruined palace-step
at Venice, had taken Humanity for his mate, opened an epoch in his
poetic life to which the later books of _Sordello_ form a splendid
prelude. For the Browning of 1840 it was no longer a sufficient task to
trace the epochs in the spiritual history of lonely idealists, to pursue
the problem of existence in minds themselves preoccupied with its
solution. "Soul" is still his fundamental preoccupation; but the
continued play of an eager intellect and vivacious senses upon life has
immensely multiplied the points of concrete experience which it vivifies
and transfigures to his eyes. It is as if a painter trained in the
school of Raphael or Lionardo had discovered that he could use the
minute and fearless brush of the Flemings in the service of their
ideals. He pursues soul in all its rich multiplicity, in the
tortuosities and dark abysses of character; he forces crowds of sordid,
grotesque, or commonplace facts to become its expressive speech; he
watches its thought and passion projected into the tide of affairs,
caught up in the clash and tangle of plot. In all these three ways the
Dramas and Dramatic Lyrics and Romances, which were to be his poetic
occupation during the Forties, detach themselves sharply from
_Paracelsus_ and the early books of _Sordello_. A poem like _The
Laboratory_ (1844), for instance, stands at almost the opposite pole of
art to these. All that Browning neglected or veiled in _Paracelsus_ he
here thrusts into stern relief. The passion and crime there faintly
discerned in the background of ideally beautiful figures are here his
absorbing theme. The curious technicalities of the chemist's workshop,
taken for granted in _Paracelsus_, are now painted with a realism
reminiscent of Romeo's Apothecary and _The Alchemist_. And the outward
drama of intrigue, completely effaced in _Paracelsus_ by the inward
drama of soul, sounds delusive scorn and laughter in the background, the
more sinister because it is not seen. These lyrics and romances are
"dramatic" not only in the sense that the speakers express, as Browning
insisted, other minds and sentiments than his own, but in the more
legitimate sense that they are plucked as it were out of the living
organism of a drama, all the vital issues of which can be read in their
self-revelation.

A poet whose lyrics were of this type might be expected to find in drama
proper his free, full, and natural expression. This was not altogether
the case with Browning, who, despite an unquenchable appetency for
drama, did better work in his dramatic monologues than in his plays. The
drama alone allowed full scope for the development of plot-interest. But
it was less favourable to another yet more deeply rooted interest of
his. Not only did action and outward event--the stuff of drama--interest
Browning chiefly as "incidents in the development of soul," but they
became congenial to his art only as projected upon some other mind, and
tinged with its feeling and its thought. Half the value of a story for
him lay in the colours it derived from the narrator's personality; and
he told his own experience, as he uttered his own convictions, most
easily and effectively through alien lips. For a like reason he loved to
survey the slow continuities of actual events from the standpoint of a
given moment, under the conditions of perspective and illusion which it
imposed. Both these conditions were less well satisfied by drama, which
directly "imitates action," than by the dramatic speech or monologue,
which imitates action as focussed in a particular mind. And Browning's
dramatic genius found its most natural and effective outlet in the
wealth of implicit drama which he concentrated in these salient moments
tense with memory and hope. The insuppressible alertness and enterprise
of his own mind tells upon his portrayal of these intense moments. He
sees passion not as a blinding fume, but as a flame, which enlarges the
area, and quickens the acuteness, of vision; the background grows alive
with moving shapes. To the stricken girl in _Ye Banks and Braes_ memory
is torture, and she thrusts convulsively from her, like dagger-points,
the intolerable loveliness of the things that remind her of her love;
whereas the victim of _The Confessional_ pours forth from her frenzied
lips every detail of her tragic story.

So in _The Laboratory_, once more, all the strands of the implicit drama
are seen like incandescent filaments in the glow of a single moment of
fierce impassioned consciousness:--

     "He is with her, and they know that I know
      Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow
      While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
      Empty church, to pray God in, for them!--I am here."

Both kinds--drama and dramatic lyric--continued to attract him, while
neither altogether satisfied; and they engaged him concurrently
throughout the decade.

In this power of seizing the salient moment of a complex situation and
laying bare at a stroke all its issues, Browning's monologues have no
nearer parallel than the Imaginary Conversations of Landor, which
illuminate with so strange a splendour so many unrecorded scenes of the
great drama of history. To Landor, according to his wife's testimony,
Browning "always said that he owed more than to any contemporary"; to
Landor he dedicated the last volume of the _Bells and Pomegranates_.
Landor, on his part, hailed in Browning the "inquiring eye" and varied
discourse of a second Chaucer. It is hardly rash to connect with his
admiration for the elder artist Browning's predilection for these brief
revealing glimpses into the past. Browning cared less for the actual
_personnel_ of history, and often imagined his speakers as well as their
talk; but he imagined them with an equal instinct for seizing the
expressive traits of nationalities and of times, and a similar, if more
spontaneous and naïve, anti-feudal temper. The French camp and the
Spanish cloister, _Gismond_ and _My Last Duchess_ (originally called
_France_ and _Italy_), are penetrated with the spirit of peoples, ages,
and institutions as seized by a historical student of brilliant
imagination and pronounced antipathies.

But in one point Landor and Browning stood at opposite poles. Landor,
far beyond any contemporary English example, had the classic sense and
mastery of style; Browning's individuality of manner rested on a robust
indifference to all the traditional conventions of poetic speech. The
wave of realism which swept over English letters in the early 'Forties
broke down many barriers of language; the new things that had to be said
demanded new ways of saying them; homely, grotesque, or sordid life was
rendered in sordid, grotesque, and homely terms. _Pickwick_ in 1837 had
established the immense vogue of Dickens, the _Heroes_ in 1840 had
assured the imposing prestige of Carlyle; and the example of both made
for the freest and boldest use of language. Across the Channel the
stupendous fabric of the _Comédie Humaine_ was approaching completion,
and Browning was one of Balzac's keenest English readers. Alone among
the greater poets of the time Browning was in genius and temperament a
true kinsman to these great romantic realists; his poetry, as it emerged
in the rich dramatic harvest of the 'Forties, is the nearest counterpart
and analogue of their prose.


I.


Browning's first drama, as is well known, was the result of a direct
application from Macready. Introduced in November 1835 by his "literary
father" Fox, Browning immediately interested the actor. A reading of
_Paracelsus_ convinced him that Browning could write, if not a good
play, yet one with an effective tragic _rôle_ for himself. Strained
relations with his company presently made him eager to procure this
service. Browning, suddenly appealed to (in May 1836), promptly
suggested _Strafford_. He was full of the subject, having recently
assisted his friend Forster in compiling his life. The actor closed with
the suggestion, and a year later (May 1, 1837) the play was performed
at Covent Garden. The fine acting of Macready, and of Helen Faucit, who
was now associated with him, procured the piece a moderate success. It
went through five performances.

Browning's _Strafford_, like his _Paracelsus_, was a serious attempt to
interpret a historic character; and historic experts like Gardiner have,
as regards the central figure, emphatically indorsed his judgment. The
other persons, and the action itself, he treated more freely, with
evident regard to their value as secondary elements in the portrayal of
Stafford; and it is easy to trace in the whole manner of his innovations
the well-marked ply of his mind. The harsh and rugged fanaticisms, the
splendid frivolities, of the seventeenth century, fade and lose
substance in an atmosphere charged with idealism and self-consciousness.
Generous self-devotion is not the universal note, but it is the
prevailing key, that in which the writer most naturally thinks and most
readily invents. Strafford's devotion to Charles and Pym's to his
country were historical; but Browning accentuates Pym's heroism by
making the man he sends to the scaffold his old friend; and devotion is
the single trait of the beautiful but imaginary character of Lucy
Carlisle. "Give me your notion of a thorough self-devotement,
self-forgetting," he wrote a few years later to Miss Flower: the idea
seems to have been already busy moulding his still embryonic invention
of character. Something of the visionary exaltation of the dying
Paracelsus thus hangs over the final scene in which Strafford goes to
meet the fate which the one friend imposes on him and the other cannot
turn aside. All the characters have something of the "deep
self-consciousness" of the author of _Pauline_. Not that they are, any
of them, drawn with very profound grasp of human nature or a many-sided
apprehension of life. They are either absolutely simple, like Lady
Carlisle, or built upon a rivalry or conflict of simple elements, like
Strafford and Charles; but there is so much restless vivacity in their
discourse, the broad surface of mood is so incessantly agitated by the
play and cross-play of thought and feeling, that they seem more complex
than they are.

Though played for only five nights, _Strafford_ had won a success which
might well have dazzled a young and untried aspirant, and which was
sufficiently impressive to shrewd men of business like Messrs Longman to
induce them to undertake its publication free of cost. It appeared in
April, with an interesting preface, subsequently withdrawn, from which a
significant sentence has already been quoted. The composition of
_Strafford_ had not only "freshened a jaded mind" but permanently
quickened his zest for the drama of political crises. New projects for
historical dramas chased and jostled one another through his busy brain,
which seems to have always worked most prosperously in a highly charged
atmosphere. I am going "to begin ... thinking a Tragedy," he wrote
characteristically to Miss Haworth--"(an Historical one, so I shall want
heaps of criticisms on _Strafford_), and I want to have _another_
tragedy in prospect; I write best so provided."[16]

[Footnote 16: Orr, _Life_, p. 103.]

The "Historical Tragedies" here foreshadowed, _King Victor and King
Charles_ and _The Return of the Druses_, were eventually published as
the Second and Fourth of the _Bells and Pomegranates_, in 1842-43. How
little Browning cared for history except as a quarry for psychical
problems, how little concern he had at bottom with the changing drama of
national life, is clear from the directions in which he now sought his
good. In _Strafford_ as in _Paracelsus_, and even in _Sordello_, the
subject had made some appeal to the interest in great epochs and famous
men. Henceforth his attitude, as a dramatist, to history is a curious
blend of the historical specialist who explores the recondite byways of
history, and the romantic poet who abandons actuality altogether. He
seeks his heroes in remote sequestered corners of the world,--Sardinia,
Juliers, Lebanon; but actual historic research gradually yields ground
to a free invention which, however, always simulates historic truth.
_King Victor and King Charles_ contains far less poetry than
_Paracelsus_, but it was the fruit of historic studies no less severe.
There was material for genuine tragedy in the story. The old king, who
after fifty years of despotic rule shifts the crown to the head of his
son with the intention of still pulling the wires behind the scenes,
but, finding that Charles means to rule as well as reign, clutches
angrily at his surrendered crown,--this King Victor has something in
him of Lear, something of the dying Henry IV. But history provided more
sober issues, and Browning's temperament habitually inclined him to
stave off the violence of tragic passion which disturbs the subtle
eddyings of thought and feeling. Charles is no Regan, hardly even an
Albany, no weakling either, but a man of sensitive conscience, who
shifts and gyrates responsively to the complex play of motive which
Browning brings to bear upon him. Reluctantly he orders Victor's arrest,
and when the old man, baffled and exasperated, is brought before him and
imperiously demands the crown, he puts it upon his father's head.
Neither character is drawn with the power of Strafford, but the play is
largely built upon the same contrasts between personal devotion and
political expediency, the untutored idealism of youth and the ruses or
rigidity of age. This was a type of dramatic action which Browning
imagined with peculiar power and insight, for it bodied forth a contrast
between contending elements of his own nature. Towards this type all his
drama tended to gravitate. In _The Return of the Druses_ Browning's
native bent can be more freely studied, for history has contributed only
the general situation. His turn for curious and far-fetched incident is
nowhere better illustrated than in this tangled intrigue carried on
between Frankish Hospitallers, Venetians, and Druses of Lebanon in a
lonely island of the Aegean where none of the three are at home. A
political revolution--the revolt of the Druses against their Frankish
lords--provides the outer momentum of the action; but the central
interest is concentrated upon a "Soul's tragedy," in which the conflict
of races goes on within the perplexed and paralysed bosom of a single
man. Djabal, the Druse patriot brought up in Brittany, analyses his own
character with the merciless self-consciousness of Browning himself:

     "I with my Arab instinct--thwarted ever
      By my Frank policy, and with in turn
      My Frank brain thwarted by my Arab heart--
      While these remained in equipoise, I lived--
      Nothing; had either been predominant,
      As a Frank schemer or an Arab mystic
      I had been something."

The conflict between policy and devotion is now transferred to the arena
of a single breast, where its nature is somewhat too clearly understood
and formulated. The "Frank schemer" conceives the plan of turning the
Druse superstition to account by posing as an incarnation of their
Founder. But the "Arab mystic" is too near sharing the belief to act his
part with ease, and while he is still paltering the devoted Anael slays
the Prefect. The play is thenceforth occupied, ostensibly, with the
efforts of the Christian authorities to discover and punish the
murderers. Its real subject is the subtle changes wrought in Djabal and
Anael by their gradual transition from the relation of prophet and
devotee to that of lovers. Her passion, even before he comes to share
it, has begun to sap the security of his false pretensions: he longs,
not at first to disavow them, but to make them true: he will be the
prophetic helper of his people in very deed. To the outer world he
maintains his claim with undiminished boldness and complete success; but
the inner supports are gradually giving way, Arab mystic and Frank
schemer lose their hold, and

     "A third and better nature rises up,
      My mere man's nature."

Anael, a simpler character than any previous woman of the plays, thus
has a more significant function. Lady Carlisle fumbles blindly with the
dramatic issues without essentially affecting them; Polyxena furthers
them with loyal counsel, but is not their main executant. Anael, in her
fervid devotion, not only precipitates the catastrophe, but emancipates
her lover from the thraldom of his lower nature. In her Browning for the
first time in drama represented the purifying power of Love. The
transformations of soul by soul were already beginning to occupy
Browning's imagination. The poet of _Cristina_ and _Saul_ was already
foreshadowed. But nothing as yet foreshadowed the kind of spiritual
influence there portrayed--that which, instead of making its way through
the impact of character upon character, passion upon passion, is
communicated through an unconscious glance or a song. For one who
believed as fixedly as Browning in the power of these moments to change
the prevailing bias of character and conduct, such a conception was full
of implicit drama. A chance inspiration led him to attempt to show how
a lyric soul flinging its soul-seed unconsciously forth in song might
become the involuntary _deus ex machina_ in the tangle of passion and
plot through which she moved, resolving its problems and averting its
catastrophes.

The result was a poem which Elizabeth Barrett "could find it in her
heart to envy" its author, which Browning himself (in 1845) liked better
than anything else he had yet done.[17] It has won a not less secure
place in the affections of all who care for Browning at all. It was
while walking alone in a wood near Dulwich, we are told by Mrs Orr, that
"the idea flashed upon him of some one walking thus through life; one
apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet
exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it;
and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo."[18]
The most important effect of this design was to call out Browning's
considerable powers of rendering those gross, lurid, unspiritualised
elements of the human drama upon which Pippa was to flash her
transforming spell. His somewhat burly jocosity had expatiated freely in
letters; but he had done nothing which, like the cynical chaff of his
art students, suggests the not unskilful follower of Balzac and Dickens.
And he had given no hint of the elemental tragic power shown in the
great Ottima and Sebald scene, nor of the fierce and cruel sensuality,
the magnificence in sin, of Ottima herself.

[Footnote 17: _Letters of R. and E.B.B._, i. 28.]

[Footnote 18: Orr, _Handbook_, p. 55.]

_Pippa Passes_, the most romantic in conception of all Browning's plays,
thus first disclosed his genius for realism. _Strafford_, _King Victor_,
_The Druses_ are couched in the tempered ideality of blank verse; here
we pass to and fro from the airiest lyric to the most massive and sinewy
prose. It counted for something, too, that Italy, and above all the
little hill-town in which the scene was laid, was a vivid personal
memory, not a vague region of fancy like his Sardinia or Lebanon. Asolo,
with its walls and turret, its bishop's palace and duomo, and girls
sitting on the steps, its upland farms among the cherry orchards, its
beetles sparkling along the dust, its "warm slow yellow moonlit nights"
of May, and "glaring pomps" of June,--Asolo, with its legend of "Kate
the queen" and her carolling page, lives as few other spots do for
Browning's readers. Pippa herself, in her exquisite detachment from the
sordid humanity amid which she moves, might have appeared too like a
visionary presence, not of earth though on it, had she not been brought
into touch, at so many points, with things that Browning had seen.
_Pippa Passes_ has, among Browning's dramas, the same kind of peculiar
interest which belongs to the _Tempest_ and to _Faust_ among
Shakespeare's and Goethe's. Faery and devilry were not Browning's
affair; but, within the limits of his resolute humanism, _Pippa Passes_
is an ideal construction, shadowing forth, under the semblance of a
single definite bit of life, the controlling elements, as Browning
imagined them, in all life. For Browning, too, the world teemed with
Stephanos and Trinculos, Sebastians and Antonios; it was, none the less,
a magical Isle, where strange catastrophes and unsuspected revolutions
sprang suddenly into being at the unseen carol of Ariel as he passed.
Browning's Ariel is the organ of a spiritual power which, unlike
Prospero, seeks not merely to detect and avert crime, or merely to
dismiss the would-be criminal, forgiven, to "live and deal with others
better," but to renovate character; to release men from the bondage of
their egoisms by those influences, slight as a flower-bell or a sunset
touch, which renew us by setting all our aims and desires in a new
proportion.


II.


Browning's first four plays seemed to mark a growing neglect of the
requirements and traditions of the stage. He might even appear to have
renounced the stage altogether when in 1841 he arranged with Moxon to
publish his writings in a cheap pamphlet form. The first number of
_Bells and Pomegranates_ contained the least theatrical of his dramas,
_Pippa Passes_. "Two or three years ago" he declared in the preface (not
reprinted), "I wrote a play, about which the chief matter I much care to
recollect at present is that a Pit-full of good-natured people applauded
it. Ever since I have been desirous of doing something in the same way
that should better reward their attention. What follows I mean for the
first of a series of Dramatical Pieces, to come out at intervals; and I
amuse myself by fancying that the cheap mode in which they appear will
for once help me to a sort of Pit-audience again."

But Browning's ambition for fame as a maker of plays was still keen, and
nothing but a renewed invitation to write for the stage was needed to
lure him back into tentative compliance with its ways. In the course of
1841 Macready intervened with a request for another play from the author
of _Strafford_.[19] Thereupon Browning produced with great rapidity _A
Blot in the 'Scutcheon_. After prolonged and somewhat sordid green-room
vicissitudes, it was performed on Feb. 11, 1843. Macready, its first
begetter, did his best to wreck it; the majority of the players refused
to understand their parts; but through the fine acting of Helen Faucit
(Mildred) and Phelps (Lord Tresham), it achieved a moderate but brief
success.

[Footnote 19: The date is fixed by Browning's statement (Orr, p. 119).]

The choice of subject indicates, as has been said, a desire to make
terms with stage tradition. But the ordinary theatre-goer, who went
expecting to witness what the title appeared to promise, found himself,
as the play proceeded, perplexed and out of his bearings. An English
nobleman, with the deep-engrained family pride of his order, had
suffered, or was to suffer, dishonour. But this seemingly commonplace
_motif_ was developed in a strange and unfamiliar ethical atmosphere--an
atmosphere of moral ideas which seemed to embrace both those who upheld
the feudal honour and those who "blotted" it; to hint at a purity deeper
than sin. In a more sinister sense than _Colombe's Birthday_, this play
might have been prefaced by the beautiful motto of its successor:--

     "Ivy and violet, what do ye here
      With blossom and shoot in the warm spring weather
      Hiding the arms of Montecchi and Vere?"

The love of Mildred and Mertoun, which blots the Tresham 'scutcheon, is
in origin as innocent as that which breaks into flower across the royal
ambitions of Colombe; and their childlike purity of passion becomes, in
spite of the wrong to which it has led them, the reconciling fact upon
which at the close all animosities and resentments die away. The
conception is genuinely tragic, for the doom which descends upon them
all is a Nemesis which they have all contributed to provoke, but which
none of them deserves; and which precisely the blended nobility and
naïveté of Mildred and Mertoun prevents from passing by them altogether.
More mature or less sensitive lovers would have found an issue from the
situation as easily as an ordinary Hamlet from his task of vengeance.
But Mertoun and Mildred are at once too timid and too audacious, too
tremulous in their consciousness of guilt, too hardy and reckless in
their mutual devotion, to carry through so difficult a game. Mertoun
falters and stammers in his suit to Tresham; Mildred stands mute at her
brother's charge, incapable of evasion, only resolute not to betray.
Yet these same two children in the arts of politic self-defence are
found recklessly courting the peril of midnight meetings in Mildred's
chamber with the aid of all the approved resources and ruses of
romance--the disguise, the convenient tree, the signal set in the
window, the lover's serenade. And when the lover, who dared all risks to
his lady and to himself for a stolen interview with her night by night,
finally encounters Tresham, he is instantly paralysed, and will not even
lift a sword in his own defence. Upon this union of boundless daring for
one another's sake and sensibility to the shame of having wronged the
house and blotted the 'scutcheon Mertoun's fate hangs, and with his
Mildred's, and with hers Tresham's.

Beside the tragedy and the stain of the love of Mertoun and Mildred,
Browning characteristically sets the calm, immaculate, cousinly
affection of Gwendolen and Austin. One has a glimpse here of his
habitual criticism of all satisfied attainment, of all easy completeness
on a low plane. It is Gwendolen herself who half disarms that criticism,
or makes it, as applied to her, more pathetic than trenchant by
instantly detecting and proclaiming the different quality of Mertoun's
love. "Mark him, Austin: that's true love! Ours must begin again." In
Tresham Browning seems to have designed to portray the finest type of
ancestral pride. He is "proud" of his "interminable line," because the
men were all "paladins" and the women all of flawless honour; and he
has the chivalrous tenderness of ideal knighthood, as well as its
honourable pride. When Mertoun has received his death-stroke and told
his story, the tenderness comes out; the sullied image of his
passionately loved sister not only recovers its appeal, but rises up
before him in mute intolerable reproach; and Mildred has scarcely
breathed her last in his arms when Tresham succumbs to the poison he has
taken in remorse for his hasty act. It is unlucky that this tragic
climax, finely conceived as it is, is marred by the unconscious
burlesque of his "Ah,--I had forgotten: I am dying." In such things one
feels Browning's want of the unerring sureness of a great dramatist at
the crucial moments of action.

Although not brilliantly successful on the boards, _A Blot in the
'Scutcheon_ made a deep impression upon the more competent part of the
audience. For Browning himself the most definite result was that
Macready passed out of his life--for twenty years they never met--and
that his most effective link with the stage was thus finally severed.
But his more distant and casual relations with it were partly balanced
by the much enlarged understanding of dramatic effect which he had by
this time won; and _A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_ was followed by a drama
which attains a beauty and charm not far below that of _Pippa Passes_
under the conditions of a regular dramatic plot. The ostensible subject
of _Colombe's Birthday_ is a political crisis on the familiar lines;--an
imperilled throne in the centre of interest, a background of vague
oppression and revolt. But as compared with _King Victor_ or _The
Druses_ the dispute is harmless, the tumult of revolution easily
overheard. The diplomatic business is not etherealised into romance,
like the ladies' embassy in _Love's Labour's Lost_; but neither is it
allowed to become grave or menacing. Berthold's arrival to present his
claim to the government of this miniature state affects us somewhat like
the appearance of a new and formidable player in some drawing-room
diversion; and the "treason" of the courtiers like the "unfairness" of
children at play. Nevertheless, the victory of love over political
interest which the motto foreshadows is not accomplished without those
subtle fluctuations and surprises which habitually mark the conduct of
Browning's plots. The alternative issues gain in seriousness and
ideality as we proceed, and Browning has nowhere expressed the ideal of
sovereignty more finely than it is expressed in this play, by the man
for whose sake a sovereign is about to surrender her crown.[20] Colombe
herself is one of Browning's most gracious and winning figures. She
brings the ripe decision of womanhood to bear upon a series of difficult
situations without losing the bright glamour of her youth. Her inborn
truth and nature draw her on as by a quiet momentum, and gradually
liberate her from the sway of the hollow fictions among which her lot is
cast. Valence, the outward instrument of this liberation, is not the
least noble of that line of chivalrous lovers which reaches from Gismond
to Caponsacchi. With great delicacy the steps are marked in this inward
and spiritual "flight" of Colombe. Valence's "way of love" is to make
her realise the glory and privileges of the rulership which places her
beyond his reach, at the very moment when she is about to resign it in
despair. She discovers the needs of the woman and the possibilities of
power at the same time, and thus is brought, by Valence's means, to a
mood in which Prince Berthold's offer of his hand and crown together
weighs formidably, for a moment, against Valence's offer of his love
alone, until she discovers that Berthold is the very personation, in
love and in statecraft alike, of the fictions from which she had
escaped. Then, swiftly recovering herself, she sets foot finally on the
firm ground where she had first sought her "true resource."

[Footnote 20: This fine speech of Valence to the greater glory of his
rival (Act iv.) is almost too subtle for the stage. Browning with good
reason directed its omission unless "a very good Valence" could be
found.]

Berthold, like Blougram, Ogniben, and many another of Browning's mundane
personages, is a subtler piece of psychology than men of the type of
Valence, in whom his own idealism flows freely forth. He comes before us
with a weary nonchalance admirably contrasted with the fiery intensity
of Valence. He means to be emperor one day, and his whole life is a
process of which that is to be the product; but he finds the process
unaffectedly boring. Without relaxing a whit in the mechanical pursuit
of his end, he views life with much mental detachment, and shows a cool
and not unsympathetic observation of men who pursue other ideals, as
well as an abundance of critical irony towards those who apparently
share his own. An adept in courtly arts, and owing all his successes to
courtly favour, he meets the assiduities of other courtiers with open
contempt. His ends are those of Laertes or Fortinbras, and he is quite
capable of the methods of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; but he regards
ends and methods alike with the sated distaste of Hamlet. By birth and
principle a man of action, he has, even more than most of Browning's men
of action, the curious introspectiveness of the philosophic onlooker. He
"watches his mind," and if he does not escape illusions, recognises and
exposes them with ironical candour. Few of Browning's less right-minded
persons attain final insight at less cost to dramatic propriety than
Berthold when he pronounces his final verdict:--

     "All is for the best.
      Too costly a flower were this, I see it now,
      To pluck and set upon my barren helm
      To wither,--any garish plume will do."

_Colombe's Birthday_ was published in 1844 as No. 6 of the _Bells_, but
had for the present no prospect of the stage. Nine years later, however,
the loyal Phelps, who had so doughtily come to the rescue of its
predecessor, put it successfully on the boards of his theatre at
Sadler's Wells.

The most buoyant of optimists has moments of self-mockery, and the
hardiest believer in ideal truth moods in which poetry seems the phantom
and prose the fact. Such a mood had its share in colouring the dramatic
sketch which, it is now pretty evident, Browning wrote not long after
finishing _Colombe's Birthday_.[21] That play is a beautiful triumph of
poetry over prose, of soul and heart over calculation and business. _A
Soul's Tragedy_ exhibits the inverse process: the triumph of mundane
policy and genial _savoir faire_ in the person of Ogniben over the
sickly and equivocal "poetry" of Chiappino. Browning seems to have
thrown off this bitter parody of his own idealisms in a mood like that
in which Ibsen conceived the poor blundering idealist of the _Wild
Duck_. Chiappino is Browning's Werle; the reverse side of a type which
he had drawn with so much indulgence in the Luigi of _Pippa Passes_.
Plainly, it was a passing mood; as plainly, a mood which, from the high
and luminous vantage-ground of 1846, he could look back upon with
regret, almost with scorn. His intercourse with Elizabeth Barrett was
far advanced before she was at length reluctantly allowed to see it.
"For _The Soul's_ _Tragedy_," he wrote (Feb. 11)--"that will surprise
you, I think. There is no trace of you there,--you have not put out the
black face of _it_--it is all sneering and disillusion--and shall not be
printed but burned if you say the word." This word his correspondent,
needless to add, did not say; on the contrary, she found it even more
impressive than its successor _Luria_. This was, however, no tribute to
its stage qualities; for in hardly one of his plays is the stage more
openly ignored. The dramatic form, though still preserved, sets strongly
towards monologue; the entire second act foreshadows unmistakably the
great portrait studies of _Men and Women_; it might be called _Ogniben_
with about as good right as they are called _Lippo Lippi_ or _Blougram_;
the personality of the supple ecclesiastic floods and takes possession
of the entire scene; we see the situation and the persons through the
brilliant ironic mirror of his mind. The Chiappino of the second act is
Ogniben's Chiappino, as Gigadibs is Blougram's Gigadibs. His "tragedy"
is one in which there is no room for terror or pity, only for contempt.
All real stress of circumstance is excluded. Both sides fight with
blunted weapons; the revolt is like one of those Florentine risings
which the Brownings later witnessed with amusement from the windows of
Casa Guidi, which were liable to postponement because of rain. The
prefect who is "assassinated" does not die, and the rebellious city is
genially bantered into submission. The "soul" of Chiappino is, in fact,
not the stuff of which tragedy is made. Even in his instant acceptance
of Luitolfo's bloodstained cloak when the pursuers are, as he thinks, at
the door, he seems to have been casually switched off the proper lines
of his character into a piece of heroism which properly belongs to the
man he would like to be thought, but has not the strength to be. On the
whole, Browning's scorn must be considered to have injured his art.
Tragedy, in the deepest sense, lay beyond his sphere; and this "tragedy"
of mere degeneration and helpless collapse left untouched all the
springs from which his poetry drew its life.

[Footnote 21: Browning's letter to Elizabeth Barrett, Feb. 13, 1846,
which does not seem to have been adequately noticed. The piece is
ignored by Mrs Orr. He speaks of suspending the publication of the
"unlucky play" until a second edition of the _Bells_--an "apparition"
which Moxon, he says, seems to think possible; and then inserting it
before _Luria_: it will then be "in its place, for it was written two or
three years ago." In other words, _The Soul's Tragedy_ was written in
1843-44, between _Colombe's Birthday_ and _Luria_.]

In the autumn of 1844 Browning made a second tour to Italy. It was
chiefly memorable for his meeting, at Leghorn, with Edward John
Trelawney, to whom he carried a letter of introduction;--one who had not
only himself "seen Shelley plain," but has contributed more than any one
else, save Hogg, to flash the unfading image of what he saw on the eyes
of posterity. The journey quickened and enriched his Italian memories;
and left many vivid traces in the poetry of the following year. Among
these was the drama of _Luria_, ultimately published as the concluding
number of the _Bells_.

In this remarkable drama Browning turned once more to the type of
historical tragedy which he had originally essayed in _Strafford_. The
fall of a man of passionate fidelity through the treachery of the prince
or the people in whom he has put his trust, was for Browning one of the
most arresting of the great traditional motives of tragic drama. He
dwelt with emphasis upon this aspect of the fate of Charles's great
minister; in _Luria_, where he was working uncontrolled by historical
authority, it is the fundamental theme. At the same time the effect is
heightened by those race contrasts which had been so abundantly used in
_The Return of the Druses_. Luria is a Moor who has undertaken the
service of Florence, and whose religion it is to serve her. Like
Othello,[22] he has been intrusted, alien as he is, by a jealous and
exacting State, with the supreme command of her military forces, a
position in which the fervour of the Oriental and the frank simplicity
of the soldier inevitably lie open to the subtle strategy of Italians
and statesmen. "Luria," wrote Browning, while the whole scheme was "all
in my brain yet, ... devotes himself to something he thinks Florence,
and the old fortune follows, ... and I will soon loosen my Braccio and
Puccio (a pale discontented man) and Tiburzio (the Pisan, good true
fellow, this one), and Domizia the lady--loosen all these on dear
foolish (ravishing must his folly be) golden-hearted Luria, all these
with their worldly wisdom and Tuscan shrewd ways." Florence, in short,
plays collectively somewhat the part of Iago to this second Othello, but
of an Iago (need it be said) immeasurably less deeply rooted in
malignity than Shakespeare's. It was a source of weakness as well as of
strength in Browning as a dramatist that the evil things in men
dissolve so readily under his scrutiny as if they were mere shells of
flimsy disguise for the "soul of goodness" they contain. He has, in
fact, put so much strong sense on the side of the jealous Florentine
masters of his hero that his own sympathies were divided, with
paralysing effect, it would seem, upon his interest in drama.[23] Even
the formidable antagonism of Braccio, the Florentine Commissary, is
buttressed, if not based, upon a resolve to defend the rights of
civilisation against militarism, of intellect against brute force.
"Brute force shall not rule Florence." Even so, it is only after
conflict and fluctuation that he decides to allow Luria's trial to take
its course. Puccio, again, the former general of Florence, superseded by
Luria, and now serving under his command, turns out not quite the "pale
discontented man" whom Browning originally designed and whom such a
situation was no doubt calculated to produce. Instead of a Cassius,
enviously scowling at the greatness of his former comrade, Cæsar, we
have one whose generous admiration for the alien set over him struggles
hard, and not unsuccessfully, with natural resentment. In keeping with
such company is the noble Pisan general, who vies with Luria in
generosity and twice intervenes decisively to save him from the
Florentine attack. Even Domizia, the "panther" lady who comes to the
camp burning for vengeance upon Florence for the death of her kinsmen,
and hoping to attain it by embroiling him with the city, finally emerges
as his lover. But in Domizia he confessedly failed. The correspondence
with Miss Barrett stole the vitality from all mere imaginary women; "the
panther would not be tamed." Her hatred and her love alike merely beat
the air. With all her volubility, she is almost as little in place in
the economy of the drama as in that of the camp; her "wild mass of rage"
has the air of being a valued property which she manages and exhibits,
not an impelling and consuming fire. The more potent passion of Luria
and his lieutenant Husain is more adequately rendered, though "the
simple Moorish instinct" in them is made to accomplish startling feats
in European subtlety. The East with its gift of "feeling" comes once
more, as in the _Druses_, into tragic contact with the North and its
gift of "thought"; but it is to the feeling East and not to thinking
North that we owe the clear analysis and exposition of the contrast.
Luria has indeed, like Djabal, assimilated just so much of European
culture as makes its infusion fatal to him: he suffers the doom of the
lesser race

     "Which when it apes the greater is forgone."

But the noblest quality of the lesser race flashes forth at the close
when he takes his life, not in defiance, nor in despair, but as a last
act of passionate fidelity to Florence. This is conceived with a
refinement of moral imagination too subtle perhaps for appreciation on
the stage; but of the tragic power and pathos of the conception there
can be no question. Mrs Browning, whose eager interest accompanied this
drama through every stage of its progress, justly dwelt upon its
"grandeur." The busy exuberance of Browning's thinking was not
favourable to effects which multiplicity of detail tends to destroy; but
the fate of this son of the "lone and silent East," though utterly
un-Shakespearean in motive, recalls, more nearly than anything else in
Browning's dramas, the heroic tragedy of Shakespeare.

[Footnote 22: Browning himself uses this parallel in almost his first
reference to _Luria_ while still unwritten: _Letters of R.B. and
E.B.B._, i. 26.]

[Footnote 23: "For me, the misfortune is, I sympathise just as much with
these as with him,--so there can no good come of keeping this wild
company any longer."--Feb. 26, 1845.]


III.


"Mere escapes of my inner power, like the light of a revolving
lighthouse leaping out at intervals from a narrow chink;" so wrote
Browning in effect to Miss Barrett (Feb. 11, 1845) of the "scenes and
song-scraps," of which the first instalment had appeared three years
before as the _Dramatic Lyrics_. Yet it is just by the intermittent
flashes that the lighthouse is identified; and Browning's genius, as we
have seen, was in the end to be most truly denoted by these "mere
escapes." With a few notable exceptions, they offer little to the
student of Browning's ideology; they do not illustrate his theories of
life, they disclose no good in evil and no hope in ill-success. But they
are full of an exuberant joy in life itself, as seen by a keen observer
exempt from its harsher conditions, to whom all power and passion are a
feast. He watches the angers, the malignities of men and women, as one
might watch the quarrels of wild beasts, not cynically, but with the
detached, as it were professional, interest of a born "fighter." The
loftier hatred, which is a form of love,--the sublime hatred of a Dante,
the tragic hatred of a Timon, even the unforgetting, self-consuming
hatred of a Heathcliff,--did not now, or ever, engage his imagination.
The indignant invective against a political renegade, "Just for a
handful of silver he left us," in which Browning spoke his own mind, is
poor and uncharacteristic compared with pieces in which he stood aside
and let some accomplished devil, like the Duke in _My last Duchess_,
some clerical libertine, like the bishop of St Praxed's, some sneaking
reptile, like the Spanish friar, some tiger-hearted Regan, like the lady
of _The Laboratory_, or some poor crushed and writhing worm, like the
girl of _The Confessional_, utter their callous cynicism or their
deathbed torment, the snarl of petty spite, the low fierce cry of
triumphant malice, the long-drawn shriek of futile rage. There was
commonly an element of unreason, extravagance, even grotesqueness, in
the hatreds that caught his eye; he had a relish for the gratuitous
savagery of the lady in _Time's Revenges_, who would calmly decree that
her lover should be burnt in a slow fire "if that would compass her
desire." He seized the grotesque side of persecution; and it is not
fanciful to see in the delightful chronicle of the Nemesis inflicted
upon "Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis" a foretaste of the sardonic
confessions of _Instans Tyrannus_. And he seized the element of sheer
physical zest in even eager and impassioned action; the tramp of the
march, the swing of the gallop in the fiery Cavalier Tunes, the crash of
Gismond's "back--handed blow" upon Gauthier's mouth; the exultant lift
of the "great pace" of the riders who bring the Good News.

Of love poetry, on the other hand, there was little in these first
Lyrics and Romances. Browning had had warm friendships with women, and
was singularly attractive to them; but at thirty-three love had at most
sent a dancing ripple across the bright surface of his life, and it
apparently counted for nothing in his dreams. His plans, as he told Miss
Barrett, had been made without any thought of "finding such a one as
you." That discovery introduced a new and unknown factor into his scheme
of things. The love-poetry of the Dramatic Lyrics and Romances is still
somewhat tentative and insecure. The beautiful fantasia _In a Gondola_
was directly inspired by a picture of his friend Maclise. He paints the
romance of the lover's twilight tryst with all his incisive vigour; but
his own pulse beats rather with the lover who goes forth at daybreak,
and feels the kindling summons of the morning glory of sea and sunlight
into the "world of men." His attitude to women is touched with the
virginal reserve of the young Hippolytus, whose tragic fate he had told
in the lofty _Prologue_ of Artemis. He approaches them with a kind of
delicate and distant awe; tender, even chivalrous, but accentuating
rather the reserves and reticences of chivalry than its rewards. The
lady of _The Flower's Name_ is beautiful, but her beauty is only shyly
hinted; we see no feature of face or form; only the fold of her dress
brushing against the box border, the "twinkling" of her white fingers
among the dark leaves. The typical lover of these lyrics is of a
temperament in which feminine sensitiveness and masculine tenacity are
characteristically blended; a temperament which the faintest and most
fugitive signs of love--a word, a glance, the impalpable music of a
romantic name--not only kindle and subdue, but permanently fortify and
secure. _Cristina_, _Rudel_, and the _Lost Mistress_ stand in a line of
development which culminates in _The Last Ride Together_. Cristina's
lover has but "changed eyes" with her; but no queenly scorn of hers can
undo the spiritual transformation which her glance has wrought:

     "Her soul's mine; and thus, grown perfect,
      I shall pass my life's remainder."

The _Lost Mistress_ is an exquisitely tender and pathetic farewell, but
not the stifled cry of a man who has received a crushing blow. Not
easily, but yet without any ruinous convulsion, he makes that transition
from love to "mere friendship" which passionate men so hardly endure.

The really tragic love-story was, for Browning, the story not of love
rejected but of love flagging, fading, or crushed out.

     "Never fear, but there's provision
      Of the devil's to quench knowledge
      Lest on earth we walk in rapture,"

Cristina's lover had bitterly reflected. Courts, as the focuses of
social artifice and ceremonial restraint, were for him the peculiar
breeding-places of such tragedies, and in several of the most incisive
of the Lyrics and Romances he appears as the champion of the love they
menace. The hapless _Last Duchess_ suffers for the largess of her kindly
smiles. The duchess of _The Flight_ and the lady of _The Glove_
successfully revolt against pretentious substitutes for love offered in
love's name. _The Flight_ is a tale, as Mrs Browning said, "with a great
heart in it." Both the Gipsy-woman whose impassioned pleading we
overhear, and the old Huntsman who reports it, are drawn from a domain
of rough and simple humanity not very often trodden by Browning. The
genial retainer admirably mediates between the forces of the Court which
he serves and those of the wild primitive race to which his world-old
calling as a hunter makes him kin; his hearty, untutored speech and
character envelop the story like an atmosphere, and create a presumption
that heart and nature will ultimately have their way. Even the hinted
landscape-background serves as a mute chorus. In this "great wild
country" of wide forests and pine-clad mountains, the court is the
anomaly.

Similarly, in _The Glove_, the lion, so magnificently sketched by
Browning, is made to bear out the inner expressiveness of the tale in a
way anticipated by no previous teller. The lion of Schiller's ballad is
already assuaged to his circumstances, and enters the arena like a
courtier entering a drawing-room. Browning's lion, still terrible and
full of the tameless passion for freedom, bursts in with flashing
forehead, like the spirit of the desert of which he dreams: it is the
irruption of this mighty embodiment of elemental Nature which wakens in
the lady the train of feeling and thought that impel her daring
vindication of its claims.

       *       *       *       *       *

Art was far from being as strange to the Browning of 1842-45 as love.
But he seized with a peculiar predilection those types and phases of the
Art-world with which love has least to do. He studies the egoisms of
artists, the vanities of connoisseurs; the painter Lutwyche showing "how
he can hate"; the bishop of St Praxed's piteously bargaining on his
death-bed for the jasper and lapislazuli "which Gandolph shall not
choose but see and burst"; the duke of the _Last Duchess_ displaying his
wife's portrait as the wonder of his gallery, and unconcernedly
disposing of her person. In a single poem only Browning touches those
problems of the artist life which were to occupy him in the 'Fifties;
and the _Pictor Ignotus_ is as far behind the _Andrea del_ _Sarto_ and
_Fra Lippo Lippi_ in intellectual force as in dramatic brilliance and
plasticity. Browning's sanguine and energetic temperament always
inclined him to over-emphasis, and he has somewhat over-emphasised the
anæmia of this anæmic soul. Rarely again did he paint in such resolute
uniformity of ashen grey. The "Pictor" is the earliest, and the palest,
of Browning's pale ascetics, who make, in one way or another, the great
refusal, and lose their souls by trying to save them in a barrenness
which they call purity.

The musician as such holds at this stage an even smaller place in
Browning's art than the painter. None of these Lyrics foreshadows _Abt
Vogler_ and _Hugues of Saxe-Gotha_ as the _Pictor_ foreshadows _Lippi_
and _Del Sarto_. But if he did not as yet explore the ways of the
musical soul, he shows already a peculiar instinct for the poetic uses
and capabilities of music. He sings with peculiar _entrain_ of the
transforming magic of song. The thrush and cuckoo, among the throng of
singing-birds, attract him by their musicianly qualities--the "careless
rapture" repeated, the "minor third" _which only the cuckoo knows_.
These Lyrics and Romances of 1842-45 are as full of tributes to the
power of music as _L'Allegro_ and _Il Penseroso_ themselves. Orpheus,
whose story Milton there touched so ravishingly, was too trite an
instance to arrest Browning; it needed perhaps the stimulus of his
friend Leighton's picture to call forth, long afterwards, the few choice
verses on Eurydice. More to his mind was the legend of that motley
Orpheus of the North, the Hamelin piper,--itself a picturesque motley
of laughter and tears. The Gipsy's lay of far-off romance awakens the
young duchess; Theocrite's "little human praise" wins God's ear, and
Pippa's songs transform the hearts of men. A poet in this vein would
fall naturally enough upon the Biblical story of the cure of the
stricken Saul by the songs of the boy David. But a special influence
drew Browning to this subject,--the wonderful _Song to David_ of
Christopher Smart,--"a person of importance in his day," who owes it
chiefly to Browning's enthusiastic advocacy of a poem he was never weary
of declaiming, that he is a poet of importance in ours. Smart's David is
before all things the glowing singer of the Joy of Earth,--the glory of
the visible creation uttering itself in rapturous Praise of the Lord.
And it is this David of whom we have a presentiment in the no less
glowing songs with which Browning's shepherd-boy seeks to reach the
darkened mind of Saul.

Of the poem we now possess, only the first nine sections belong to the
present phase of Browning's work. These were confessedly incomplete, but
Browning was content to let them go forth as they were, and less bent
upon even their ultimate completion, it would seem, than Miss Barrett,
who bade him "remember" that the poem was "there only as a first part,
and that the next parts must certainly follow and complete what will be
a great lyrical work--now remember."[24] And the "next parts" when they
came, in _Men and Women_, bore the mark of his ten years' fellowship
with her devout and ecstatic soul, as well as of his own growth towards
the richer and fuller harmonies of verse. The 1845 fragment falls, of
course, far short of its sequel in imaginative audacity and splendour,
but it is steeped in a pellucid beauty which Browning's busy
intellectuality was too prone to dissipate. Kenyon read it nightly, as
he told Mrs Browning, "to put his dreams in order"; finely comparing it
to "Homer's Shield of Achilles, thrown into lyrical whirl and life." And
certainly, if Browning anywhere approaches that Greek plasticity for
which he cared so little, it is in these exquisitely sculptured yet
breathing scenes. Then, as the young singer kindles to his work, his
song, without becoming less transparent, grows more personal and
impassioned; he no longer repeats the familiar chants of his tribe, but
breaks into a new impetuous inspiration of his own; the lyrical whirl
and life gathers swiftness and energy, and the delicate bas-reliefs of
Saul's people, in their secular pieties of grief or joy, merge in the
ecstatic vision of Saul himself, as he had once been, and as he might
yet be, that

                            "boyhood of wonder and hope,
      Present promise and wealth of the future beyond the eye's scope,"

all the fulness and glory of the life of humanity gathered upon his
single head. It is the very voice of life, which thrills and strikes
across the spiritual darkness of Saul, as the coming of Hyperion
scattered the shadows of Saturnian night.

[Footnote 24: _E.B.B. to R.B._, Dec. 10, 1845.]



CHAPTER IV.


WEDDED LIFE IN ITALY. _MEN AND WOMEN_.


      This foot, once planted on the goal;
      This glory-garland round my soul.
                           --_The Last Ride Together_.

                                  Warmer climes
      Give brighter plumage, stronger wing; the breeze
      Of Alpine highths thou playest with, borne on
      Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
      The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.
                                                --LANDOR.


I.

The _Bells and Pomegranates_ made no very great way with the public,
which found the matter unequal and the title obscure. But both the title
and the greater part of the single poems are linked inseparably with the
most intimate personal relationship of his life. Hardly one of the
Romances, as we saw, but had been read in MS. by Elizabeth Barrett, and
pronounced upon with the frank yet critical delight of her nature. In
the abstruse symbolic title, too,--implying, as Browning expected his
readers to discover, "sound and sense" or "music and discoursing,"--her
wit had divined a more felicitous application to Browning's poetry--

     "Some 'Pomegranate,' which, if cut deep down the middle,
      Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity."

The two poets were still strangers when this was written; but each had
for years recognised in the other a new and wonderful poetic force,[25]
and the vivid words marked the profound community of spirit which was
finally to draw them together. A few years later, a basket of
pomegranates was handed to her, when travelling with her husband in
France, and she laughingly accepted the omen. The omen was fulfilled;
Elizabeth Browning's poetry expanded and matured in the companionship of
that rich-veined human heart; it was assuredly not by chance that
Browning, ten years after her death, recalled her symbol in the name of
his glorious woman-poet, Balaustion.

[Footnote 25: She had at once discerned the "new voice" in _Paracelsus_,
1835; and the occasion may have been not much later ("years ago" in
1845) on which he was all but admitted to the "shrine" of the "world's
wonder" _(R.B. to E.B.B._, Jan. 10, 1845).]

But she, on her part, also brought a new and potent influence to bear
upon his poetry, the only one which after early manhood he ever
experienced; and their union was by far the most signal event in
Browning's intellectual history, as it was in his life. Her experience
up to the time when they met had been in most points singularly unlike
his own. Though of somewhat higher social status, she had seen far less
of society and of the world; but she had gone through the agony of a
passionately loved brother's sudden death, and the glory of English wood
and meadow was for her chiefly, as to Milton in his age, an enchanted
memory of earlier days, romantically illuminating a darkened London
chamber. "Most of my events, and nearly all my intense pleasures," she
said to Horne, "have passed in my thoughts." Both were eager students,
and merited the hazardous reputation which both incurred, of being
"learned poets"; but Browning wore his learning, not indeed "lightly,
like a flower," but with the cool mastery of a scholarly man of the
world, whose interpretation of books is controlled at every point by his
knowledge of men; while Miss Barrett's Greek and Hebrew chiefly served
to allure an imagination naturally ecstatic and visionary along paths
crowded with congenial unearthly symbols, with sublime shapes of gods
and Titans, angels and seraphim. Then, notwithstanding the _rôle_ of
hopeless invalid which she was made to play, and did play with touching
conviction, she had, it is clear, a fund of buoyant and impulsive
vitality hardly inferior to Browning's own; only that the energy which
in him flowed out through natural channels had in her to create its own
opportunities, and surged forth with harsh or startling
violence,--sometimes "tearing open a parcel instead of untying it," and
sometimes compelling words to serve her will by masterful audacities of
collocation. Both poets stood apart from most of their contemporaries
by a certain exuberance--"a fine excess"--quite foreign to the instincts
of a generation which repudiated the Revolution and did its best to
repudiate Byron. But Browning's exuberance was genial, hearty, and on
occasion brutal; hers was exalted, impulsive, "head-long," [26] intense,
and often fantastic and quaint. His imagination flamed forth like an
intenser sunlight, heightening and quickening all that was alive and
alert in man and Nature; hers shot out superb or lurid volcanic gleams
across the simplicity of natural chiaro-oscuro, disturbing the air with
conflicting and incalculable effects of strange horror and strange
loveliness. It might have been averred of Browning that he said
everything he thought; of her the truer formula would be her own, that
she "took every means of saying" what she thought.[27] There was
something of Æschylus in her, as there was much of Aristophanes in him;
it was not for nothing that her girlish ardour had twice flung itself
upon the task of rendering the _Prometheus Bound_ in English; they met
on common ground in the human and pathetic Euripides. But her power was
lyric, not dramatic. She sang from the depths of a wonderfully rich and
passionate nature; while he was most truly himself when he was
personating some imaginary mind.

[Footnote 26: The word her Italian tutor meant to describe her by, but
could not pronounce it. He said she was _testa lunga (Letters of R. and
E.B., i. 7)_.]

[Footnote 27: _Letters, R. and E. B._, i. 8. Cf. her admirable letter to
Ruskin, ten years later, apropos of the charge of "affectation." "To say
a thing faintly, because saying it strongly sounds odd or obscure or
unattractive for some reason to careless readers, does appear to me bad
policy as well as bad art" (_Letters of E. B. B._, ii., 200).]

Early in January 1845 the two poets were brought by the genial Kenyon,
her cousin and his good friend, into actual communication, and the
memorable correspondence, the most famous of its kind in English
literature, at once began. Browning, as his way was in telling other
men's stories, burst at once _in medias res_ in this great story of his
own. "I love your verses, my dear Miss Barrett, with all my heart," he
assures her in the first sentence of his first letter. He feels them
already too much a part of himself to ever "try and find
fault,"--"nothing comes of it all,--so into me has it gone and part of
me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of
which but took root and grew." It was "living," like his own; it was
also direct, as his own was not. His frank _cameraderie_ was touched
from the outset with a fervent, wondering admiration to which he was by
no means prone. "You _do_, what I always wanted, hoped to do, and only
seem likely now to do for the first time. You speak out, _you_,--I only
make men and women speak--give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and
fear the pure white light, even if it is in me, _but I am going to
try_." Thus the first contact with the "Lyric Love" of after days set
vibrating the chords of all that was lyric and personal in Browning's
nature. His brilliant virtuosity in the personation of other minds
threatened to check all simple utterance of his own. The "First Poem" of
Robert Browning had yet to be written, but now, as soon as he had broken
from his "dancing ring of men and women,"--the Dramatic Lyrics and
Romances and one or two outstanding dramas,--he meant to write it. Miss
Barrett herself hardly understood until much later the effect that her
personality, the very soul that spoke in her poetry, had upon her
correspondent. She revelled in the Dramatic Lyrics and Romances, and not
least in rollicking pieces, like _Sibrandus_ or _The Spanish Cloister_,
which appealed to the robust masculine humour with which this outwardly
fragile woman is too rarely credited. _Pippa Passes_ she could find in
her heart to covet the authorship of, more than any of his other
works--a preference in which he agreed. Few more brilliant appreciations
of English poetry are extant than some of those which sped during 1845
and 1846 from the invalid chamber in Harley Street to the "old room"
looking out on the garden at New Cross. But she did not conceal from him
that she wished him to seek "the other crown" also. "I do not think,
with all that music in you, only your own personality should be
dumb."[28] But she undoubtedly, with all her sense of the glory of the
dramatic art, discouraged his writing for the stage, a domain which she
regarded with an animus curiously compounded of Puritan loathing, poetic
scorn, and wellbred shrinking from the vulgarity of the green-room. And
it is clear that before the last plays, _Luria_ and _A Soul's Tragedy_,
were published his old stage ambition had entirely vanished. It was not
altogether hyperbole (in any case the hyperbole was wholly unconscious)
when he spoke of her as a new medium to which his sight was gradually
becoming adjusted, "_seeing all things, as it does, in you._"

[Footnote 28: _E.B.B to R.B._, 26th May 1846. Cf. _R.B._, 13th Feb.
1846.]

She, on her part, united, as clever women in love so often do, with a
woman's more utter self-abasement a larger measure of critical
penetration. The "poor tired wandering singer," who so humbly took the
hand of the liberal and princely giver, and who with perfect sincerity
applied to herself his unconscious phrase--

     "Cloth of frieze, be not too bold
      Though thou'rt match'd with cloth of gold,"

"That, beloved, was written for me!"[29]--shows at the same time the
keenest insight into the qualities of his work. She felt in him the
masculine temper and the masculine range, his singular union of rough
and even burly power with subtle intellect and penetrating music. With
the world of society and affairs she had other channels of
communication. But no one of her other friends--not _Orion_ Horne, not
even Kenyon--bridged as Browning did the gulf between the world of
society and affairs, which she vaguely knew, and the romantic world of
poetry in which she lived. If she quickened the need for lyrical
utterance in him, he drew her, in his turn, into a closer and richer
contact with common things. If she had her part in _Christmas-Eve and
Easter-Day_, he had his, no less, in _Aurora Leigh_.

[Footnote 29: _E.B.B. to R.B._, 9th Jan. 1846.]

Twenty-one months passed between Browning's first letter and their
marriage. The tentative exchange of letters passed into a formal
"contract" to correspond,--sudden if not as "unadvised" as the love-vows
of Juliet, a parallel which he shyly hinted, and she, with the security
of the whole-hearted, boldly recalled. All the winter and early spring
her health forbade a meeting, and it is clear that but for the quiet
pressure of his will they never would have met. But with May came
renewed vigour, and she reluctantly consented to a visit. "He has a way
of putting things which I have not, a way of putting aside,--so he
came." A few weeks later he spoke. She at first absolutely refused to
entertain the thought; he believed, and was silent. But in the meantime
the letters and the visits "rained down more and more," and the fire
glowed under the surface of the writing and the talk, subdued but
unsuppressed. Once more his power of "putting aside" compelled her to
listen, and when she listened she found herself assailed at a point
which her own exalted spirituality made her least able to defend, by a
love more utterly self-sacrificing than even she had ever imagined. This
man of the masterful will, who took no refusals, might perhaps in any
case have finally "put aside" all obstacles to her consent. But when he
disclosed--to her amazement, well as she thought she knew him--that he
had asked the right to love her without claiming any love in return,
that when he first spoke he had believed her disease to be incurable,
and yet preferred to be allowed to sit only a day at her side to the
fulfilment of "the brightest dream which should exclude her," her
resistance gave way,--and little by little, in her own beautiful words,
she was drawn into the persuasion that something was left, and that she
could still do something for the happiness of another. In another sense
than she intended in the great opening sonnet "from the Portuguese,"
Love, undreamt of, had come to her with the irresistible might of Death,
and called her back into life by rekindling in her the languishing,
almost extinguished, desire to live. Is it hyperbole, to be reminded of
that other world-famous rescue from death which Browning, twenty-five
years later, was to tell with such infinite verve? Browning did not need
to imagine, but only to remember, the magnificent and audacious vitality
of his Herakles; he had brought back his own "espoused saint," like
Alcestis, from the grave.

But the life thus gained was, in the immediate future, full of problems.
Browning, said Kenyon, was "great in everything"; and during the year
which followed their engagement he had occasion to exhibit the
capacities both of the financier he had once declined to be, and of the
diplomatist he was willing to become. Love had flung upon his life, as
upon hers, a sudden splendour for which he was in no way prepared. "My
whole scheme of life," he wrote to her,[30] "(with its wants, material
wants at least, closely cut down), was long ago calculated--and it
supposed _you_, the finding such an one as you, utterly impossible." But
his schemes for a profession and an income were summarily cut short.
Elizabeth Barrett peremptorily declined to countenance any such
sacrifice of the work he was called to for any other. The same deep
sense of what was due to him, and to his wife, sustained her through the
trial that remained,--from the apparent degradation of secrecy and
subterfuge which the domestic policy of Mr Barrett made inevitable, to
the mere physical and nervous strain of rising, that September morning
of 1846, from an invalid's couch to be married. That "peculiarity," as
she gently termed it, of her father's, malign and cruel as it was, twice
precipitated a happy crisis in their fortunes, which prudence might have
postponed. His refusal to allow her to seek health in Italy in Oct. 1845
had brought them definitely together; his second refusal in Aug. 1846
drove her to the one alternative of going there as Browning's wife. A
week after the marriage ceremony, during which they never met, Mrs
Browning left her home, with the faithful Wilson and the indispensable
Flush, _en route_ for Southampton. The following day they arrived in
Paris.

[Footnote 30: _R.B. to E.B.B._, Sept. 13, 1845.]


II.


There followed fifteen years during which the inexhaustible
correspondents of the last twenty months exchanged no further letter,
for they were never parted. That is the sufficient outward symbol of
their all but flawless union. After a leisurely journey through France,
and an experimental sojourn at the goal of Mrs Browning's two frustrated
journeys, Pisa, they settled towards the close of April 1847 in
furnished apartments in Florence, moving some four months later into the
more permanent home which their presence was to render famous, the
Palazzo (or "Casa") Guidi, just off the Piazza Pitti.

Their life--mirrored for us in Mrs Browning's vivid and delightful
letters--was, like many others, in which we recognise rare and precious
quality, singularly wanting in obviously expressive traits. It is
possible to describe everything that went on in the Browning household
in terms applicable to those of scores of other persons of wide
interests, cultivated tastes, and moderate but not painfully restricted
means. All that was passionate, ideal, heroic in them found expression
through conditions which it needs a fine eye to distinguish from those
of easy-going bourgeois mediocrity. Their large and catholic humanity
exempted them from much that makes for bold and sensational outline in
the story of a career. Their poetic home was built upon all the
philistine virtues. Mrs Jameson laughed at their "miraculous prudence
and economy"; and Mrs Browning herself laughed, a little, at her
husband's punctilious rigour in paying his debts,--his "horror of owing
five shillings for five days"; Browning, a born virtuoso in whatever he
undertook, abhorring a neglected bill as he did an easy rhyme, and all
other symbols of that slovenly Bohemia which came nearest, on the whole,
to his conception of absolute evil. They lived at first in much
seclusion, seeking no society, and unknown alike to the Italian and the
English quarters of the Florentine world. But Arcady was, at bottom,
just as foreign to their ways as Bohemia. "Soundless and stirless
hermits," Mrs Browning playfully called them; but in no house in
Florence did the news of political and literary Europe find keener
comment or response than in this quiet hermitage. Two long absences,
moreover (1851-52 and 1855-56), divided between London and Paris,
interrupted their Italian sojourn; and these times were crowded with
friendly intercourse, which they keenly enjoyed. "No place like Paris
for living in," Browning declared after returning from its blaze to the
quiet retreat of Casa Guidi. But both felt no less deeply the charm of
their "dream life" within these old tapestried walls.[31] Nor did
either, in spite of their delight in French poetry and their vivid
interest in French politics, really enter the French world. They were
received by George Sand, whose "indiscreet immortalities" had ravished
Elizabeth Barrett in her invalid chamber years before; but though she
"felt the burning soul through all that quietness," and through the
"crowds of ill-bred men who adore her _à genoux bas_, betwixt a puff of
smoke and an ejection of saliva,"--they both felt that she did not care
for them. Dumas, another admiration, they did not see; an introduction
to Hugo, Browning carried about for years but had no chance of
presenting; Béranger they saw in the street, and regretted the absence
of an intermediator. Balzac, to their grief, was just dead. A complete
set of his works was one of their Florentine ambitions. One memorable
intimacy was formed, however, during the Paris winter of 1851-52; for it
was now that he first met Joseph Milsand, his warm friend until
Milsand's death in 1886, and probably, for the last twenty years at
least, the most beloved of all his friends, as he was at all times one
of his shrewdest yet kindliest critics. Their summer visits to London
(1851, 1852, 1855, 1856) brought them much more of intimate personal
converse, tempered, however, inevitably, in a yet greater proportion, by
pain, discomfort, and fatigue. Of himself, yet more than of the
Laureate, might have been used the phrase in which he was to dedicate a
later poem to Tennyson--"noble and sincere in friendship." The visitors
who gathered about him in these London visits included friends who
belonged to every phase and aspect of his career--from his old master
and mentor, Fox, and Kenyon, the first begetter of his wedded happiness,
to Dante Rossetti, his first and, for years to come, solitary disciple,
and William Allingham, whom Rossetti introduced. Among his own
contemporaries they were especially intimate with Tennyson,--the
sterling and masculine "Alfred" of Carlyle, whom the world first learnt
to know from his biography; and with Carlyle himself, a more genial and
kindly Carlyle than most others had the gift of evoking, and whom his
biographers mostly efface.

[Footnote 31: _Letters of E.B.B._, ii. 199.]

After their return from the second journey to the north their Italian
life lost much of its dream-like seclusion. The publication of _Men and
Women_ (1855) and _Aurora Leigh_ (1856) drew new visitors to the salon
in Casa Guidi, and after 1853 they repeatedly wintered in Rome, mingling
freely in its more cosmopolitan society, and, on occasion, in the
gaieties of the Carnival. To the end, however, their Roman circle was
more American than English. "Is Mr Browning an American?" asked an
English lady of the American ambassador. "Is it possible that you ask me
that?" came the prompt and crushing retort; "why, there is not a village
in the United States so small that they could not tell you that Robert
Browning is an Englishman, and they wish he were an American."
Spiritualism, in the main an American institution, became during the
later years a centre of fervid interest to the one and an irritant to
the other. One turns gladly from that episode to their noble and helpful
friendship for a magnificent old dying lion, with whom, as every one
else discovered, it was ill to play--Walter Savage Landor. Here it was
the wife who looked on with critical though kindly sarcasm at what she
thought her husband's generous excess of confidence. Of all these
intimacies and relationships, however, the poetry of these years
discloses hardly a glimpse. His actual dealings with men and women
called out all his genial energies of heart and brain, but--with one
momentous exception--they did not touch his imagination.


III.


Almost as faint as these echoes of personal friendship are those of the
absorbing public interest of these years, the long agony, fitfully
relieved by spells of desperate and untimely hope, of the Italian
struggle for liberty. The Brownings arrived in Florence during the lull
which preceded the great outbreak of 1848. From the historic "windows of
Casa Guidi" they looked forth upon the gentle futilities of the Tuscan
revolution, the nine days' fight for Milan, the heroic adventure of
Savoy, and the apparently final collapse of all these high endeavours on
the field of Novara. Ten years of petty despotism on the one side, of "a
unanimity of despair" on the other, followed; and then the monotonous
tragedy seemed to break suddenly into romance, as the Emperor, "deep and
cold," marched his armies over the Alps for the Deliverance of Italy.

Of all this the Brownings were deeply moved spectators. Browning shared
his wife's sympathy with the Italians and her abhorrence of Austria,
and it is not likely that he uttered either sentiment with less vivacity
and emphasis, though much less of his talk is on record. "'How long, O
Lord, how long!' Robert kept saying." But he had not her passionate
admiration for France, still less her faith in the President-Emperor.
His less lyric temperament did not so readily harbour unqualified
emotion as hers. His judgment of character was cooler, and with all his
proverbial readiness as a poet to provide men of equivocal conduct with
hypothetical backgrounds of lofty or blameless motive, he was in
practice as exempt from amiable illusions as he was from narrow spite.
Himself the most exact and precise in his dealings with the world, he
could pardon the excesses and irregularities of a great nature; but
sordid self-seeking under the mask of high ideals revolted him. He
laughed at the boyish freaks of Lander's magnificent old age, which
irritated even his large-hearted wife; but he could not forgive Louis
Napoleon the _coup d'état_, and when the liberation of Lombardy was
followed by the annexation of Savoy and Nice, the Emperor's devoted
defender had to listen, without the power of effective retort, to his
biting summary of the situation: "It was a great action; but he has
taken eighteenpence for it, which is a pity."

A dozen years later Louis Napoleon's equivocal character and career were
to be subjected by Browning to a still more equivocal exposition. But
this sordid trait brought him within a category of "soul" upon which
Browning did not yet, in these glowing years, readily lavish his art. A
poem upon Napoleon, which had occupied him much during the winter of
1859 (cf. note, p. 167 below), was abandoned. "Blougram's" splendid and
genial duplicity already attracted him, but the analysis of the
meretricious figure of Napoleon became a congenial problem only to that
later Browning of the 'Sixties and 'Seventies who was to explore the
shady souls of a Guido, a Miranda, and a Sludge. On the other hand,
deeply as he felt the sorrows of Italy, it was no part of his poetic
mission to sing them. The voice of a great community wakened no lyric
note in him, nor did his anger on its behalf break into dithyrambs.
Nationality was not an effectual motive with him. He felt as keenly as
his wife, or as Shelley; but his feeling broke out in fitful allusion or
sardonic jest in the _De Gustibus_ or the _Old Pictures_--not in a _Casa
Guidi Windows_, or _Songs before Congress_, an _Ode to Naples_, or a
_Hellas_. An "Ode" containing, by his own account, fierce things about
England, he destroyed after Villafranca. It is only in subtle and
original variations that we faintly recognise the broad simple theme of
Italy's struggle for deliverance. The _Patriot_ and _Instans Tyrannus_
both have a kind of nexus with the place and time; but the one is a
caustic satire on popular fickleness and the other a sardonically
humorous travesty of persecution. Italy is mentioned in neither. Both
are far removed from the vivid and sympathetic reflection of the
national struggle which thrills us in _The Italian in England_ and the
third scene of _Pippa Passes_. This "tyrant" has nothing to do with the
Austrian whom Luigi was so eager to assassinate, or any other: whatever
in him belongs to history has been permeated through and through with
the poet's derisive irony; he is despotism stripped of the passionate
conviction which may lend it weight and political significance, reduced
to a kind of sport, like the chase of a butterfly, and contemplating its
own fantastic tricks with subdued amusement.


IV.


The great political drama enacted in Italy during the Brownings'
residence there, thus scarcely stirred the deeper currents of Browning's
imagination, any more than, for all the vivid and passionate eloquence
she poured forth in its name, it really touched the genius of his wife.
The spell of Italian scenery was less easily evaded than the
abstractions of politics by a poet of his keen sensibility to light and
colour. And the years of his Italian sojourn certainly left palpable
traces, not only, as is obvious, upon the landscape background which
glows behind his human figures, but on his way of conceiving and
rendering the whole relation between Nature and Man. They did not,
indeed, make him in any sense a Nature poet. In that very song of
delight in "Italy, my Italy," which tells how the things he best loves
in the world are

                "a castle precipice-encurled
      In a gash of the wind-grieved Apennine,"

or some old palazzo, with a pointed cypress to guard it, by the opaque
blue breadth of summer sea, the joy in mountain and sea is subtly
reinforced at every point by the play of human interest; there are
frescoes on the crumbling walls, and a barefooted girl tumbles melons on
the pavement with news that the king has been shot at; art and politics
asserting their place beside Nature in the heart of Italy's "old lover."
And in the actual life of the Brownings "Nature" had to be content, as a
rule, with the humbler share. Their chosen abode was not a castle in the
Apennines or an old crumbling house by the southern sea, but an
apartment commanding the crowded streets of Florence; and their
principal absences from it were spent in Rome, in London, or in the yet
more congenial "blaze of Paris." They delighted certainly to escape into
the forest uplands. "Robert and I go out and lose ourselves in the woods
and mountains, and sit by the waterfalls on the starry and moonlit
nights," she wrote from their high perch above Lucca in 1849; but their
adventures in this kind were on the whole like the noon-disport of the
amphibian swimmer in _Fifine_,--they always admitted of an easy retreat
to the _terra firma_ of civilisation,--

     "Land the solid and safe
        To welcome again (confess!)
      When, high and dry, we chafe
        The body, and don the dress."

The Nature Browning knew and loved was well within sight of humanity,
and it was commonly brought nearer by some intrusive vestiges of man's
work; the crescent moon drifting in the purple twilight, or "lamping"
between the cypresses, is seen over Fiesole or Samminiato; the "Alpine
gorge" above Lucca has its ruined chapel and its mill; the Roman
Campagna has its tombs--"Rome's ghost since her decease"; the Etrurian
hill--fastnesses have their crowning cities "crowded with culture." He
had always had an alert eye for the elements of human suggestion in
landscape. But his rendering of landscape before the Italian period was
habitually that of a brilliant, graphic, but not deeply interested
artist, wielding an incisive pencil and an opulent brush, fastening upon
every bit of individual detail, and sometimes, as in the admirable
_Englishman in Italy_, recalling Wordsworth's indignant reproof of the
great fellow-artist--Scott--who "made an inventory of Nature's charms."
This hard objective brilliance does not altogether disappear from the
work of his Italian period. But it tends to give way to a strangely
subtle interpenetration of the visible scene with the passion of the
seeing soul. Nature is not more alive, but her life thrills and
palpitates in subtler relation with the life of man. The author of _Men
and Women_ is a greater poet of Nature than the author of the _Lyrics
and Romances_, because he is, also, a greater poet of "Soul"; for his
larger command of soul-life embraces just those moods of spiritual
passion which beget the irradiated and transfigured Nature for which,
since Wordsworth, poetry has continually striven to find expression.
Browning's subtler feeling for Nature sprang from his profounder insight
into love. Love was his way of approach, as it was eminently not
Wordsworth's, to the transfigured Nature which Wordsworth first
disclosed. It is habitually lovers who have these visions,--all that was
mystical in Browning's mind attaching itself, in fact, in some way to
his ideas of love. To the Two in the Campagna its primeval silence grows
instinct with passion, and its peace with joy,--the joy of illimitable
space and freedom, alluring yet mocking the finite heart that yearns. To
the lovers of the Alpine gorge the old woods, heaped and dim, that hung
over their troth-plighting, mysteriously drew them together; the moment
that broke down the bar between soul and soul also breaking down, as it
were, the bar between man and nature:

     "The forests had done it; there they stood;
        We caught for a moment the powers at play:
      They had mingled us so, for once and good,
        Their work was done, we might go or stay,
      They relapsed to their ancient mood."

Such "moments" were, in fact, for Browning as well as for his lovers,
rare and fitful exceptions to the general nonchalance of Nature towards
human affairs. The powers did good, as they did evil, "at play";
intervening with a kind of cynical or ironical detachment (like Jaques
plighting Touchstone and Audrey) in an alien affair of hearts. A certain
eerie playfulness is indeed a recurring trait in Browning's highly
individual feeling about Nature; the uncanny playfulness of a wild
creature of boundless might only half intelligible to man, which man
contemplates with mingled joy, wonder, and fear. Joy, when the brown old
Earth wears her good gigantic smile, on an autumn morning; wonder, when
he watches the "miracles wrought in play" in the teeming life of the
Campagna; fear, when, on a hot August midnight, Earth tosses stormily on
her couch. And all these notes of feelings are struck, with an intensity
and a boldness of invention which make it unique among his writings, in
the great romantic legend of _Childe Roland_. What the _Ancient Mariner_
is in the poetry of the mysterious terrors and splendours of the sea,
that _Childe Roland_ is in the poetry of bodeful horror, of haunted
desolation, of waste and plague, ragged distortion, and rotting ugliness
in landscape. The Childe, like the Mariner, advances through an
atmosphere and scenery of steadily gathering menace; the "starved
ignoble" Nature, "peevish and dejected" among her scrub of thistle and
dock, grows malignant; to the barren waste succeed the spiteful little
river with its drenched despairing willows, the blood-trampled mire and
wrecked torture-engine, the poisonous herbage and palsied oak, and
finally the mountains, ignoble as the plain--"mere ugly heights and
heaps," ranged round the deadly den of the Dark Tower. But Browning's
horror-world differs from Coleridge's in the pervading sense that the
powers which control its issues are "at play." The catastrophe is not
the less tragic for that; but the heroic knight is not a culprit who has
provoked the vengeance of his pursuers, but a quarry whose course they
follow with grim half-suppressed laughter as he speeds into the trap.
The hoary cripple cannot hide his malicious glee, the "stiff blind
horse" is as grotesque as he is woeful, the dreary day itself, as it
sinks, shoots one grim red leer at the doomed knight as he sets forth;
in the penury and inertness of the wasted plain he sees "grimace"; the
mountains fight like bulls or doze like dotards; and the Dark Tower
itself is "round and squat," built of brown stone, a mere anticlimax to
romance; while round it lie the sportsmen assembled to see the end--

     "The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay
      Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay."


V.


But the scenery of Italy, with all its appeals of picturesque outline
and glowing colour, interested Browning less than its painting,
sculpture, and music. "Nature I loved, and after Nature, Art," Landor
declared in one of his stately epitaphs on himself; Browning would, in
this sense of the terms at least, have inverted their order. Casa Guidi
windows commanded a view, not only of revolutionary throngs, but of the
façade of the Pitti--a fact of at least equal significance. From the
days of his boyish pilgrimages to the Dulwich Gallery across the
Camberwell meadows, he had been an eager student and critic of painting;
curious, too, if not yet expert in all the processes and technicalities
of the studio. He judged pictures with the eye of a skilful draughtsman;
and two rapid journeys had given him some knowledge of the Italian
galleries. Continuous residence among the chief glories of the brush and
chisel did not merely multiply artistic incitement and appeal; it
brought the whole world of art into more vital touch with his
imaginative activity. It would be hard to say that there is any definite
change in his view of art, but its problems grow more alluring to him,
and its images more readily waylay and capture his passing thought. The
artist as such becomes a more dominant figure in his hierarchy of
spiritual workers; while Browning himself betrays a new
self-consciousness of his own function as an artist in verse;
conceiving, for instance, his consummate address to his wife as an
artist's way of solving a perplexity which only an artist could feel,
that of finding unique expression for the unique love.

     "He who works in fresco, steals a hair-brush,
      Curbs the liberal hand, subservient proudly,
      Cramps his spirit, crowds its all in little,
      Makes a strange art of an art familiar,
      Fills his lady's missal-marge with flowerets;
      He who blows thro' bronze may breathe thro' silver,
      Fitly serenade a slumbrous princess;
      He who writes may write for once, as I do."

Browning is distinguished among the poets to whom art meant much by the
prominence with him of the specifically artist's point of view. He cared
for pictures, or for music, certainly, as clues to the interpretation of
human life, hints of "the absolute truth of things" which the sensible
world veils and the senses miss. But he cared for them also, and yet
more, as expressions of the artist's own "love of loving, rage of
knowing, seeing, feeling" that absolute truth. And he cared for them
also and not less, without regard to anything they expressed, as simple
outflows of vitality, however grotesque or capricious. His own eye and
ear continually provoked his hand to artistic experiments and
activities. During the last years in Italy his passion for modelling
even threatened to divert him from poetry; and his wife playfully
lamented that the "poor lost soul" produced only casts, which he broke
on completion, and no more Men and Women. And his own taste in art drew
him, notoriously, to work in which the striving hand was
palpable,--whether it was a triumphant _tour de force_ like Cellini's
Perseus, in the Loggia--their daily banquet in the early days at
Florence; or the half-articulate utterances of "the Tuscan's early art,"
like those "Pre-Giotto pictures" which surrounded them in the salon of
Casa Guidi, "quieting" them if they were over busy, as Mrs Browning
beautifully says,[32] more perhaps in her own spirit than in her
husband's.

[Footnote 32: _Letters of E.B.B._, ii. 199.]

Almost all Browning's finest poems of painting belong to these Italian
years, and were enshrined in _Men and Women._ They all illustrate more
or less his characteristic preoccupation with the artist's point of
view, and also, what is new, the point of view of particular and
historical artists,--a Guercino, an Andrea del Sarto, a Giotto, a Lippo
Lippi. Even where he seems to write under the peculiar spell of his
wife, as in the _Guardian Angel_, this trait asserts itself. They had
spent three glowing August days of 1848 at Fano, and thrice visited the
painting by Guercino there,--"to drink its beauty to our soul's
content." Mrs Browning wrote of the "divine" picture. Browning entered,
with a sympathy perhaps the more intimate that his own "angel" was with
him, and the memory of an old friend peculiarly near, into sympathy with
the guardian angel; but with one of his abrupt turns he passes into the
world of the studio, telling us how he has written for the sake of "dear
Guercino's fame," because he "did not work thus earnestly at all times,
and has endured some wrong." With all this, however, the _Guardian
Angel_ is one of the few pieces left by Browning which do not instantly
discover themselves as his. His typical children are well-springs of
spiritual influence, scattering the aerial dew of quickening song upon
a withered world, or taking God's ear with their "little human praise."
The spirituality of this child is of a different temper,--the submissive
"lamblike" temper which is fulfilled in quiescence and disturbed by
thought.

What is here a mere flash of good-natured championship becomes in the
great monologue of _Andrea del Sarto_ an illuminating compassion.
Compassion, be it noted, far less for the husband of an unfaithful wife
than for the great painter whose genius was tethered to a soulless mate.
The situation appealed profoundly to Browning, and Andrea's monologue is
one of his most consummate pieces of dramatic characterisation. It is a
study of spiritual paralysis, achieved without the least resort to the
rhetorical conventions which permit poetry to express men's silence with
speech and their apathy with song. Tennyson's Lotos-eaters chant their
world-weariness in choral strains of almost too magnificent afflatus to
be dramatically proper on the lips of spirits so resigned. Andrea's
spiritual lotus-eating has paralysed the nerve of passion in him, and
made him impotent to utter the lyrical cry which his fate seems to
crave. He is half "incapable of his own distress"; his strongest
emotions are a flitting hope or a momentary pang, quickly dissolved into
the ground-tone of mournful yet serene contemplation, which seems to
float ghostlike in the void between grief and joy. Reproach turns to
grateful acquiescence on his lips; the sting of blighted genius is
instantly annulled by the momentary enchantment of her smile, whose
worth he knows too well and remembers too soon:--

                "And you smile indeed!
      This hour has been an hour! Another smile?
      If you would sit thus by me every night
      I should work better, do you comprehend?
      I mean that I should earn more, give you more."

The tragedy is for us, not for him: he regrets little, and would change
still less. The "silver-grey" lights of dreamy autumn eve were never
with more delicate insight rendered in terms of soul.

Suddenly these autumnal half-tones give way to the flash of torches in
the fragrant darkness of an Italian night. There is a scurry of feet
along a dark alley, a scuffle at the end, and the genial rotundity of
Brother Lippo Lippi's face, impudent, brilliant, insuppressible, leers
into the torchlight. _Fra Lippo Lippi_ is not less true and vivacious
than the _Andrea_, if less striking as an example of Browning's dramatic
power. Sarto is a great poetic creation; Browning's own robust
temperament provided hardly any aid in delineating the emaciated soul
whose gifts had thinned down to a morbid perfection of technique. But
this vigorous human creature, with the teeming brain, and the realist
eye, and the incorrigible ineptitude for the restraints of an insincere
clerical or other idealism, was a being to which Browning's heart went
out; and he even makes him the mouthpiece of literary ideas, which his
own portrait as here drawn aptly exemplifies. There is not much "soul"
in Lippo, but he has the hearty grasp of common things, of the world in
its business and its labour and its sport and its joys, which "edifies"
men more than artificial idealities designed expressly to "beat nature."
He "lends his mind out" and finds the answering mind in other men
instead of imposing one from without:--

           "This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink."

"Ay, but," objects the Prior, "you do not instigate to prayer!" And it
is the prior and his system which for Lippi stand in the place of
Andrea's soulless wife. Lucrezia's illusive beauty lured his soul to its
doom; and Lippo, forced, as a child of eight, to renounce the world and
put on the cassock he habitually disgraced, triumphantly cast off the
incubus of a sham spirituality which only tended to obscure what was
most spiritual in himself. He was fortunate in the poet who has drawn
his portrait so superbly in his sitter's own style.

These two monologues belong to the most finished achievements of
Browning. But we should miss much of the peculiar quality of his mind,
as well as a vivid glimpse into the hope-and-fear-laden atmosphere of
Tuscany in the early 'Fifties, if we had not that quaint heterogeneous
causerie called _Old Pictures in Florence_. There is passion in its
grotesqueness and method in its incoherence; for the old painters,
whose apologies he is ostensibly writing, with their imperfect
achievement and their insuppressible idealism, sounded a congenial note
to men whose eyes were bent incessantly upon the horizon waiting for the
invisible to come into play, and Florence looked for her completion as
Giotto's unfinished campanile for its spire.

If Italy deepened Browning's hold upon the problems of painting, it
witnessed the beginnings of his equally characteristic achievement in
the kindred poetry of music. Not that his Italian life can have brought
any notable access of musical impressions to a man who had grown up
within easy reach of London concerts and operas. But England was a land
in which music was performed; Italy was a land in which it was made.
Verdi's "worst opera" could be heard in many places; but in Florence the
knowing spectator might see Verdi himself, at its close,

     "Look through all the roaring and the wreaths
      Where sits Rossini patient in his stall."

Italian music, with its facile melody and its relative poverty of ideas,
could not find so full a response in Browning's nature as Italian
painting. It had had its own gracious and tender youth; and Palestrina,
whom he contrasts with the mountainous fuguists of "Saxe-Gotha" and
elsewhere, probably had for him the same kind of charm as the early
painters of Florence. Out of that "infancy," however, there had arisen
no "titanically infantine" Michelangelo, but a race of accomplished
_petits maîtres_, whose characteristic achievement was the opera of the
rococo age. A Goldsmith or a Sterne can make the light songs of their
contemporaries eloquent even to us of gracious amenities and cultivated
charm; but Browning, with the eternal April in his heart and brain,
heard in the stately measures it danced to, only the eloquence of a
dirge, penetrated with the sense of the mortality of such joy as theirs.
Byron had sung gaily of the gaieties of Venice; but the vivacious swing
of _Beppo_ was less to Browning's mind than the "cold music" of
Baldassare Galuppi, who made his world dance to the strains of its own
requiem, and fall upon dreamy suggestions of decay in the very climax of
the feast:--

     "What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished,
          sigh on sigh,
      Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions--'Must
          we die?'
      Those commiserating sevenths--"Life might last! We can but try!"

The musician himself has no such illusions; but his music is only a more
bitter echo:--

     "Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned:
      The soul, doubtless, is immortal--where a soul can be discerned."

And so the poet, in the self-consciousness of his immense vitality,
sweeps into the limbo of oblivion these dusty _débris_ of the past, with
no nearer approach to the romantic regret of a Malory for the glories of
old time or to Villon's awestruck contemplation of the mysterious
evanishment of storied beauty, than the half-contemptuous echo--

     "'Dust and ashes!' So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
      Dear dead women, with such hair too--what's become of all the gold
      Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old."

In the other music-poem of the Italian time it is not difficult to
detect a kindred mood beneath the half-disguise of rollicking rhymes and
whimsical comparisons. Once more Browning seems preoccupied with that in
music which lends expression to a soulless animation, a futile and
aimless vivacity. Only here it is the vivacity of the schools, not of
the ballroom. Yet some lines seem a very echo of that hollow joyless
mirth, for ever revolving on itself:--

     "Est fuga, volvitur rota;
      On we drift: where looms the dim port?"

The intertwining and conflicting melodies of the fugue echo the impotent
strife of jangling tongues, "affirming, denying, holding, risposting,
subjoining,"--the shuttle play of comment and gloze shrouding the light
of nature and truth:--

     "Over our heads truth and nature--
        Still our life's zigzags and dodges,
      Ins and outs, weaving a new legislature--
        God's gold just shining its last where that lodges,
      Palled beneath man's usurpature."

But Browning was at heart too alive to the charm of this shuttle-play,
of these zigzags and dodges,--of zigzags and dodges of every kind,--not
to feel the irony of the attack upon this "stringing of Nature through
cobwebs"; when the organist breaks out, as the fugue's intricacy grows,
"But where's music, the dickens?" we hear Browning mocking the indignant
inquiries of similar purport so often raised by his readers. _Master
Hugues_ could only have been written by one who, with a childlike purity
of vision for truth and nature, for the shining of "God's gold" and the
glimpses of the "earnest eye of heaven," had also a keen perception and
instinctive delight in every filament of the web of human "legislature."

This double aspect of Browning's poetic nature is vividly reflected in
the memorable essay on Shelley which he wrote at Paris in 1851, as an
introduction to a series of letters since shown to have been forged. The
essay--unfortunately not included in his Works--is a document of
first-rate importance for the mind of Browning in the midst of his
greatest time; it is also by far the finest appreciation of Shelley
which had yet appeared. He saw in Shelley one who, visionary and
subjective as he was, had solved the problem which confronts every
idealist who seeks to grasp the visible world in its concrete actuality.
To Browning himself that problem presented itself in a form which tasked
far more severely the resources of poetic imagination, in proportion as
actuality bodied itself forth to his alert senses in more despotic
grossness and strength. Shelley is commonly thought to have evaded this
task altogether,--building his dream-world of cloud and cavern
loveliness remote from anything we know. It is Browning, the most
"actual" of poets, who insisted, half a century ago, on the
"practicality" of Shelley,--insisted, as it is even now not superfluous
to insist, on the fearless and direct energy with which he strove to
root his intuitions in experience. "His noblest and predominating
characteristic," he urges, to quote these significant words once more,
"is his simultaneous perception of Power and Love in the absolute, and
of Beauty and Good in the concrete, while he throws, from his poet's
station between both, swifter, subtler, and more numerous films for the
connection of each with each than have been thrown by any modern
artificer of whom I have knowledge; proving how, as he says--

     "'The spirit of the worm beneath the sod
      In love and worship blends itself with God.'"

Browning has nowhere else expounded so fully his ideas about the aims of
his own art. It lay in the peculiar "dramatic" quality of his mind to
express himself freely only in situations not his own. Hence, while he
does not altogether avoid the poet as a character, his poets are drawn
with a curious externality and detachment. It is in his musicians, his
painters, his grammarians, that the heart and passion of Browning the
poet really live. He is the poet of musicians and of painters, the poet
of lawyers and physicians and Rabbis, and of scores of callings which
never had a poet before; but he is not the poets' poet. In the
_Transcendentalism_, however, after tilting with gay irony at the fault
of over-much argument in poetry, which the world ascribed to his own, he
fixes in a splendid image the magic which it fitfully yet consummately
illustrates. The reading public which entertained any opinion about him
at all was inclined to take him for another Boehme, "with a tougher book
and subtler meanings of what roses say." A few knew that they had to
deal, not less, with a "stout Mage like him of Halberstadt," who

        "with a 'look you' vents a brace of rhymes,
      And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,
      Over us, under, round us every side."

The portrait of the poet of Valladolid, on the other hand (_How it
Strikes a Contemporary_), is not so much a study of a poet as of popular
misconception and obtuseness. A grotesquely idle legend of the habits of
the "Corregidor" flourishes among the good folks of Valladolid; the
speaker himself, who desires to do him justice, is a plain, shrewd, but
unimaginative observer ("I never wrote a line of verse, did you?"), and
makes us acquainted with everything but the inner nature of the man. We
see the corregidor in the streets, in his chamber, at his frugal supper
and "decent cribbage" with his maid, but never at his verse. We see the
alert objective eye of this man with the "scrutinizing hat," who

        "stood and watched the cobbler at his trade, ...
      If any beat a horse, you felt he saw,
      If any cursed a woman, he took note,"--

and all this, for Browning, went to the making of the poet, but we get
no inkling of the process itself. Browning had, in his obscure as in his
famous days, peculiar opportunities of measuring the perversities of
popular repute. Later on, in the heyday of his renown, he chaffed its
critical dispensers in his most uproarious vein in _Pacchiarotto_. The
_Popularity_ stanzas present us with a theory of it conveyed in that
familiar manner of mingled poetry and grotesqueness which was one of the
obstacles to his own.

There is, however, among these fifty men and women one true and sublime
poet,--the dying "Grammarian," who applies the alchemy of a lofty
imagination to the dry business of verbal erudition.

     "He said, 'What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!
       Man has Forever.'"

This is one of the half-dozen lyrics which enshrine in noble and
absolutely individual form the central core of Browning's passion and
thought. Even the verse, with its sequence of smooth-flowing iambics
broken by the leap of the dactyl, and the difficult double rhyme,
sustains the mood of victorious but not lightly won serenity of
soul--"too full for sound and foam." It is, among songs over the dead,
what _Rabbi ben Ezra_ and _Prospice_ are among the songs which face and
grapple with death; the fittest requiem to follow such deaths as those.
Like Ben Ezra, the Grammarian "trusts death," and stakes his life on the
trust:--

     "He ventured neck or nothing--heaven's success
        Found, or earth's failure:
      'Wilt thou trust death or not?' He answered, 'Yes:
        Hence with life's pale lure!'"

To ordinary eyes he spends his days grovelling among the dust and dregs
of erudition; but it is the grovelling of a builder at work upon a
fabric so colossally planned that life is fitly spent in laying the
foundations. He was made in the large mould of the gods,--born with "thy
face and throat, Lyric Apollo,"--and the disease which crippled and
silenced him in middle life could only alter the tasks on which he
wreaked his mind. And now that he is dead, he passes, as by right, to
the fellowship of the universe--of the sublime things of nature.

     "Here--here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
        Lightnings are loosened,
      Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm,
        Peace let the dew send!
      Lofty designs must close in like effects:
        Loftily lying,
      Leave him--still loftier than the world suspects,
        Living and dying."


VI.


_The Grammarian's Funeral_ achieves, in the terms and with the resources
of Browning's art, the problem of which he saw the consummate master in
Shelley,--that of throwing "films" for the connexion of Power and Love
in the abstract with Beauty and Good in the concrete, and finding a link
between the lowliest service or worship and the spirit of God. Such a
conception of a poet's crowning glory implied a peculiarly close
relation in Browning's view between poetry and religion, and in
particular with the religion which, above all others, glorified the
lowly. Here lay, in short, the supreme worth for him of the Christian
idea. "The revelation of God in Christ" was for him the consummate
example of that union of divine love with the world--"through all the
web of Being blindly wove"--which Shelley had contemplated in the
radiant glow of his poetry; accepted by the reason, as he wrote a few
years later, it solved "all problems in the earth and out of it." To
that solution Shelley seemed to Browning to be on the way, and his
incomplete grasp of it appealed to him more powerfully than did the
elaborate dogmatisms professedly based upon it. Shelley had mistaken
"Churchdom" for Christianity; but he was on the way, Browning was
convinced, to become a Christian himself. "I shall say what I
think,--had Shelley lived he would have finally ranged himself with the
Christians."

This emphatic declaration is of great importance for Browning's
intellectual history. He may have overlooked the immense barriers which
must have always divided Shelley from the Christian world of his time;
he may have overlooked also that the Christian thought of our time has
in some important points "ranged itself with" Shelley; so that the
Christianity which he might finally have adopted would have been
sufficiently unlike that which he assailed. But it is clear that for
Browning himself the essence of Christianity lay at this time in
something not very remote from what he revered as the essence of
Shelleyism--a corollary, as it were, ultimately implicit in his thought.

It was thus a deeper poetical rather than a religious or doctrinal
interest which drew Browning in these Italian years, again and again to
seek his revealing experiences of souls amid the eddies and convulsions,
the exultations and the agonies, brought into the world by the amazing
"revelation of God in Christ." It is true that we nowhere approach this
focus of interest, that we have no glimpse, through Browning's art, how
that "revelation" shaped itself in the first disciples, far less of
Christ himself. But that was at no time Browning's way of bringing to
expression what he deeply cared for. He would not trumpet forth truth in
his own person, or blazon it through the lips of the highest recognised
authority; he let it struggle up through the baffling density, or
glimmer through the conflicting persuasions of alien minds, and break
out in cries of angry wonder or involuntary recognition. And nowhere is
this method carried further than in the Christian poems of the Italian
time. The supreme musicians and painters he avoids, but Fra Lippo Lippi
and Master Hugues belong at least to the crafts whose secrets they
expound; while the Christian idea is set in a borrowed light caught from
the souls of men outside the Christian world--an Arab physician, a Greek
poet, a Jewish shepherd or rabbi, or from Christians yet farther from
the centre than these, like Blougram and the Abbe Deodaet. In method as
in conception these pieces are among the most Browningesque things that
Browning ever wrote. It is clear, however, that while his way of
handling these topics is absolutely his own, his peculiar concern with
them is new. The _Karshish_, the _Clean_, and the _Blougram_ have no
prototype or parallel among the poems of Browning's previous periods. In
the early Dramatic Lyrics and Romances, and in the plays, there is
exquisite rendering of religion, and also of irreligion; but the
religion is just the simple faith of Pippa or of Theocrite that "God's
in his world"; and the irreligion is the Humanist paganism of St
Praxed's, not so much hostile to Christianity as unconscious of it. No
single poem written before 1850 shows that acute interest in the
problems of Christian faith which constantly emerges in the work of this
and the following years. _Saul_, which might be regarded as signally
refuting this view, strikingly confirms it; the David of the first nine
sections, which alone were produced in 1845, being the naïve, devout
child, brother of Pippa and of Theocrite; the evolution of this harping
shepherd-boy into the illuminated prophet of Christ was the splendid
achievement of the later years.[33] And to all this more acutely
Christian work the _Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day_ (1850) served as a
significant prologue.

[Footnote 33: It is, indeed, clear, as has been seen, from Browning's
correspondence that a sequel of this kind was intended when the first
nine sections were published. The traditional legend of David would in
any case suggest so much. That the intention was not then executed is
just the significant fact.]

There can be little doubt that the devout Christian faith of his wife
was principally concerned in this new direction of his poetry. Yet we
may easily overstate both the nature of her influence and its extent.
She, as little as he, was a dogmatic Christian; both refused to put on,
in her phrase, "any of the liveries of the sects."[34] "The truth, as
God sees it, must be something so different from these opinions about
truth.... I believe in what is divine and floats at highest, in all
these different theologies,--and because the really Divine draws
together souls, and tends so to a unity, could pray anywhere and with
all sorts of worshippers, from the Sistine chapel to Mr Fox's, those
kneeling and those standing."[35] Yet she demurs, a little farther on in
the same letter, to both these extremes. "The Unitarians seem to me to
throw over what is most beautiful in the Christian Doctrine; but the
Formulists, on the other side, stir up a dust, in which it appears
excusable not to see." To which he replies (Aug. 17): "Dearest, I know
your very meaning, in what you said of religion, and responded to it
with my whole soul--what you express now is for us both, ... those are
my own feelings, my convictions beside--instinct confirmed by reason."

[Footnote 34: _E.B.B. to R.B._, 15th Aug. 1846.]

[Footnote 35: Ib.]

These words of Browning's seem to furnish the clue to the relation
between their minds in this matter. Their intercourse disturbed no
conviction on either side, for their convictions were identical. But her
intense personal devoutness undoubtedly quickened what was personal in
his belief, drew it into an atmosphere of keener and more emotional
consciousness, and in particular gave to that "revelation of God in
Christ" which they both regarded as what was "most beautiful in the
Christian doctrine," a more vital hold upon his intellectual and
imaginative life. In this sense, but only in this sense, his fervid
words to her (February 1846)--"I mean to ... let my mind get used to its
new medium of sight, seeing all things as it does through you; and then
let all I have done be the prelude and the real work begin"--were not
unfulfilled. No deep hiatus, such as this phrase suggests, divides the
later, as a whole, from the earlier work: the "dramatic" method, which
was among the elements of his art most foreign to her lyric nature,
established itself more and more firmly in his practice. But the letters
of 1845-46 show that her example was stimulating him to attempt a more
direct and personal utterance in poetry, and while he did not succeed,
or succeeded only "once and for one only," in evading his dramatic bias,
he certainly succeeded in making the dramatic form more eloquently
expressive of his personal faith.

This was peculiarly the case in the remarkable _Christmas-Eve and
Easter-Day_ (1850), the first-fruits of his married life, and the most
instinct of all his poems with the mingled literary and religious
influences which it brought. The influence of the ardent singer, which
impelled him to fuller self-expression, here concurred with that of the
devout but undogmatic Christian, which drew the problem of Christianity
nearer to the focus of his imagination and his thought. There is much
throughout which suggests that Browning was deliberately putting off the
habits and usages of his art, and reaching out this way and that towards
untried sources and avenues of expression. He lays hold for the first
time of the machinery of supernatural vision. Nothing that he had yet
done approached in boldness these Christmas and Easter apparitions of
the Lord of Love. They break in, unheralded, a startling but splendid
anomaly, upon his human and actual world. And the really notable thing
is that never had he drawn human actuality with so remorseless and even
brutal fidelity as just here. He seeks no legendary scene and atmosphere
like that of Theocrite's Rome, in which the angels who come and go, and
God who enjoys his "little human praise," would be missed if they were
not there; but opens the visions of the Empyrean upon modern Camberwell.
The pages in which Browning might seem, for once, to vie with the author
of the Apocalypse are interleaved with others in which, for once, he
seems to vie with Balzac or Zola. Of course this is intensely
characteristic of Browning. The quickened spiritual pulse which these
poems betoken betrays itself just in his more daringly assured embrace
of the heights and the depths of the universe, as communicating and
akin, prompting also that not less daring embrace of the extremes of
expression,--sublime imagery and rollicking rhymes,--as equally genuine
utterances of spiritual fervour,--

     "When frothy spume and frequent sputter
      Prove that the soul's depths boil in earnest."

These lines, and the great Shelleyan declaration that

     "A loving worm within its clod
      Were diviner than a loveless God,"

are the key to both poems, but peculiarly to the _Christmas-Day_, in
which they occur. We need not in any wise identify Browning with the
Christmas-Day visionary; but it is clear that what is "dramatic" in him
exfoliates, as it were, from a root of character and thought which are
altogether Browning's own. Browning is apparent in the vivacious critic
and satirist of religious extravagances, standing a little aloof from
all the constituted religions; but he is apparent also in the
imaginative and sympathetic student of religion, who divines the
informing spark of love in all sincere worship; and however far he may
have been from putting forward the little conventicle with its ruins of
humanity, its soul at struggle with insanity, as his own final choice,
that choice symbolised in a picturesque half-humorous way his own
profound preference for the spiritual good which is hardly won. He makes
the speaker choose the "earthen vessel" in spite of its "taints of
earth," because it brimmed with spiritual water; but in Browning himself
there was something which relished the spiritual water the more because
the earthen vessel was flawed.

Like _Christmas-Eve_, _Easter-Day_ is a dramatic study,--profound
convictions of the poet's own being projected as it were through forms
of religious consciousness perceptibly more angular and dogmatically
defined than his own. The main speaker is plainly not identical with the
narrator of _Christmas-Eve_, who is incidentally referred to as "our
friend." Their first beliefs may be much alike, but in the temper of
their belief they differ widely. The speaker in _Christmas-Eve_ is a
genial if caustic observer, submitting with robust tolerance to the
specks in the water which quenches his thirst; the speaker of
_Easter-Day_ is an anxious precisian, fearful of the contamination of
earth, and hoping that he may "yet escape" the doom of too facile
content. The problem of the one is, what to believe; the problem of the
other, how to believe; and each is helped towards a solution by a vision
of divine love. But the Easter-Day Vision conveys a sterner message than
that of _Christmas-Eve_. Love now illuminates, not by enlarging sympathy
and disclosing the hidden soul of good in error, but by suppressing
sympathies too diffusely and expansively bestowed. The Christmas Vision
makes humanity seem more divine; the Easter Vision makes the divine seem
less human. The hypersensitive moral nature of the Easter-Day speaker,
on the other hand, sees his own criminal darkness of heart and mind
before all else, and the divine visitation becomes a Last Judgment, with
the fierce vindictive red of the Northern Lights replacing the mild
glory of the lunar rainbows, and a stern and scornful cross-examination
the silent swift convoy of the winged robe. This difference of temper is
vividly expressed in the style. The rollicking rhymes, the "spume and
sputter" of the fervent soul, give place to a manner of sustained
seriousness and lyric beauty.

Yet the Easter-Day speaker probes deeper and raises more fundamental
issues. When the form of Christian belief to be adopted has been
settled, a certain class of believing minds, not the least estimable,
will still remain restive. Browning of all men felt impatient of every
nominal belief held as unassimilated material, not welded into the
living substance of character; and he makes his Easter-Day visionary
confound with withering irony the "faith" which seeks assurance in
outward "evidence,"--

                          "'Tis found,
      No doubt: as is your sort of mind,
      So is your sort of search: you'll find
      What you desire."

Still less mercy has he for the dogmatic voluptuary who complacently
assumes the "all-stupendous tale" of Christianity to have been enacted

               "to give our joys a zest,
      And prove our sorrows for the best."

Upon these complacent materialisms and epicureanisms of the religious
character falls the scorching splendour of the Easter Vision, with its
ruthless condemnation of whatever is not glorified by Love, passing over
into the uplifting counter--affirmation, indispensable to Browning's
optimism, that--

              "All thou dost enumerate
      Of power and beauty in the world
      The mightiness of Love was curled
      Inextricably round about."

With all their nobility of feeling, and frequent splendour of
description, these twin poems cannot claim a place in Browning's work at
all corresponding to the seriousness with which he put them forward, and
the imposing imaginative apparatus called in. The strong personal
conviction which seems to have been striving for direct utterance,
checked without perfectly mastering his dramatic instincts and
habitudes, resulting in a beautiful but indecisive poetry which lacks
both the frankness of a personal deliverance and the plasticity of a
work of art. The speakers can neither be identified with the poet nor
detached from him; they are neither his mouthpieces nor his creations.
The daring supernaturalism seems to indicate that the old spell of
Dante, so keenly felt in the _Sordello_ days, had been wrought to new
potency by the magic of the life in Dante's Florence, and the subtler
magic of the love which he was presently to compare not obscurely to
that of Dante for Beatrice.[36] The divine apparitions have the ironic
hauteurs and sarcasms of Beatrice in the _Paradise_. Yet the comparison
brings into glaring prominence the radical incoherence of Browning's
presentment. In Dante's world all the wonders that he describes seem to
be in place; but the Christmas and Easter Visions are felt as intrusive
anachronisms in modern London, where the divinest influences are not
those which become palpable in visions, but those which work through
heart and brain.

[Footnote 36: _One Word More_.]

Browning probably felt this, for the _Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day_
stands in this respect alone in his work. But the idea of Christ as the
sign and symbol of the love which penetrates the universe lost none of
its hold upon his imagination; and it inspired some of the greatest
achievements of the _Men and Women_. It was under this impulse that he
now, at some time during the early Italian years, completed the splendid
torso of _Saul_. David's Vision of the Christ that is to be has as
little apparent relation to the quiet pastoralism of the earlier stanzas
as the Easter Vision to the common-sense reflections that preceded it.
But while this Vision abruptly bursts upon him, David's is the final
conquest of his own ardent intellect, under the impulse of a great human
task which lifts it beyond its experience, and calls out all its
powers. David is occupied with no speculative question, but with the
practical problem of saving a ruined soul; and neither logical ingenuity
nor divine suggestion, but the inherent spiritual significance of the
situation, urges his thought along the lonely path of prophecy. The love
for the old king, which prompts him to try all the hidden paths of his
soul in quest of healing, becomes a lighted torch by which he tracks out
the meaning of the world and the still unrevealed purposes of God; until
the energy of thought culminates in vision, and the Christ stands full
before his eyes. All that is supernatural in the _Saul_ is viewed
through the fervid atmosphere of David's soul. The magic of the
wonderful Nocturne at the close, where he feels his way home through the
appalled and serried gloom, is broken by no apparition; the whole earth
is alive and awake around him, and thrills to the quickening inrush of
the "new land"; but its light is the tingling emotion of the stars, and
its voice the cry of the little brooks; and the thronging cohorts of
angels and powers are unuttered and unseen.

Only less beautiful than Browning's pictures of spiritual childhood are
his pictures of spiritual maturity and old age. The lyric simplicity,
the naïve intensity which bear a David, a Pippa, a Pompilia without
effort into the region of the highest spiritual vision, appealed less
fully to his imagination than the more complex and embarrassed processes
through which riper minds forge their way towards the completed insight
of a Rabbi ben Ezra. In this sense, the great song of David has a
counterpart in the subtle dramatic study of the Arab physician Karshish.
He also is startled into discovery by a unique experience. But where
David is lifted on and on by a continuous tide of illuminating thought,
perfectly new and strange, but to which nothing in him opposes the
semblance of resistance, Karshish feels only a mysterious attraction,
which he hardly confesses, and which all the intellectual habits and
convictions of a life given up to study and thought seem to gainsay. No
touch of worldly motive belongs to either. The shepherd-boy is not more
single-souled than this devoted "picker up of learning's crumbs," who
makes nothing of perilous and toilsome journeys for the sake of his art,
who is threatened by hungry wild beasts, stripped and beaten by robbers,
arrested as a spy. At every step his quick scrutiny is rewarded by the
discovery of some new drug, mineral, or herb,--"things of price"--"blue
flowering borage, the Aleppo sort," or "Judaea's gum-tragacanth." But
Karshish has much of the temper of Browning himself: these
technicalities are the garb of a deep underlying mysticism. This man's
flesh so admirably made by God is yet but the earthly prison for "that
puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul." The case of Lazarus, though
at once, as a matter of course, referred to the recognised medical
categories, yet strangely puzzles and arrests him, with a fascination
that will not be put by. This abstracted docile man of perfect physical
vigour, who heeds the approach of the Roman avenger as he would the
passing of a woman with gourds by the way, and is yet no fool, who seems
apathetic and yet loves the very brutes and the flowers of the
field,--compels his scrutiny, as a phenomenon of soul, and it is with
the eye of a psychological idealist rather than of a physician that he
interprets him:--

     "He holds on firmly to some thread of life-- ...
      Which runs across some vast distracting orb
      Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
      Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet--
      The spiritual life around the earthly life:
      The law of that is known to him as this,
      His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
      So is the man perplext with impulses
      Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
      Proclaiming what is right and wrong across,
      And not along, this black thread through the blaze--
      'It should be' baulked by 'here it cannot be.'"

Lazarus stands where Paracelsus conceived that he himself stood: he
"knows God's secret while he holds the thread of life"; he lives in the
glare of absolute knowledge, an implicit criticism of the Paracelsian
endeavour to let in upon men the searing splendour of the unclouded day.
To Karshish, however, these very embarrassments--so unlike the knowing
cleverness of the spiritual charlatan--make it credible that Lazarus is
indeed no oriental Sludge, but one who has verily seen God. But then
came the terrible crux,--the pretension, intolerable to Semitic
monotheism, that God had been embodied in a man. The words scorch the
paper as he writes, and, like Ferishtah, he will not repeat them. Yet
he cannot escape the spell of the witness, and the strange thought
clings tenaciously to him, defying all the evasive shifts of a trained
mind, and suddenly overmastering him when his concern with it seems
finally at an end--when his letter is finished, pardon asked, and
farewell said--in that great outburst, startling and unforeseen yet not
incredible:--

     "The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
      So, the All-Great were the All-Loving too,--
      So, through the thunder comes a human voice
      Saying, 'O heart I made, a heart beats here!'
      Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!"

That words like these, intensely Johannine in conception, should seem to
start naturally from a mind which just before has shrunk in horror from
the idea of an approximation between God and that which He fashioned, is
an extraordinary _tour de force_ of dramatic portraiture. Among the
minor traits which contribute to it is one of a kind to which Browning
rarely resorts. The "awe" which invests Lazarus is heightened by a
mystic setting of landscape. The visionary scene of his first meeting
with Karshish, though altogether Browningesque in detail, is
Wordsworthian in its mysterious effect upon personality:--

     "I crossed a ridge of short, sharp, broken hills
      Like an old lion's cheek teeth. Out there came
      A moon made like a face with certain spots
      Multiform, manifold and menacing:
      Then a wind rose behind me."

A less formidable problem is handled in the companion study of _Cleon_.
The Greek mind fascinated Browning, though most of his renderings of it
have the savour of a salt not gathered in Attica, and his choice of
types shows a strong personal bias. From the heroic and majestic elder
art of Greece he turns with pronounced preference to Euripides the human
and the positive, with his facile and versatile intellect, his agile
criticism, and his "warm tears." It is somewhat along these lines that
he has conceived his Greek poet of the days of Karshish, confronted,
like the Arab doctor, with the "new thing." As Karshish is at heart a
spiritual idealist, for all his preoccupation with drugs and stones, so
Cleon, a past-master of poetry and painting, is among the most positive
and worldly-wise of men. He looks back over a life scored with literary
triumphs, as Karshish over his crumbs of learning gathered at the cost
of blows and obloquy. But while Karshish has the true scholar's
dispassionate and self-effacing thirst for knowledge, Cleon measures his
achievements with the insight of an epicurean artist. He gathers in
luxuriously the incense of universal applause,--his epos inscribed on
golden plates, his songs rising from every fishing-bark at
nightfall,--and wistfully contrasts the vast range of delights which as
an artist he imagines, with the limited pleasures which as a man he
enjoys. The magnificent symmetry, the rounded completeness of his life,
suffer a serious deduction here, and his Greek sense of harmony suffers
offence as well as his human hunger for joy. He is a thorough realist,
and finds no satisfaction in contemplating what he may not possess. Art
itself suffers disparagement, as heightening this vain capacity of
contemplation:--

     "I know the joy of kingship: well, thou art king!"

With great ingenuity this Greek realism is made the stepping-stone to a
conception of immortality as un-Greek as that of the Incarnation is
un-Semitic. Karshish shrank intuitively from a conception which
fascinated while it awed; to Cleon a future state in which joy and
capability will be brought again to equality seems a most plausible
supposition, which he only rejects with a sigh for lack of outer
evidence:--

     "Zeus has not yet revealed it; and alas,
      He must have done so, were it possible!"

The little vignette in the opening lines finely symbolises the brilliant
Greek decadence, as does the closing picture in Karshish the mystic dawn
of the Earth. Here the portico, flooded with the glory of a sun about to
set, profusely heaped with treasures of art; there the naked uplands of
Palestine, and the moon rising over jagged hills in a wind-swept sky.

In was in such grave _adagio_ notes as these that Browning chose to set
forth the "intimations of immortality" in the meditative wisdom and
humanity of heathendom. The after-fortunes of the Christian legend, on
the other hand, and the naïve ferocities and fantasticalities of the
medieval world provoked him rather to _scherzo_,--audacious and
inimitable _scherzo_, riotously grotesque on the surface, but with a
grotesqueness so penetrated and informed by passion that it becomes
sublime. _Holy-Cross Day_ and _The Heretic's Tragedy_ both culminate,
like _Karshish_ and _Clean_, in a glimpse of Christ. But here, instead
of being approached through stately avenues of meditation, it is wrung
from the grim tragedy of persecution and martyrdom. The Jews, packed
like rats to hear the sermon, mutter under their breath the sublime song
of Ben Ezra, one of the most poignant indictments of Christianity in the
name of Christ ever conceived:--

     "We withstood Christ then? Be mindful how
      At least we withstand Barabbas now!
      Was our outrage sore? But the worst we spared,
      To have called these--Christians, had we dared!
      Let defiance of them pay mistrust of Thee,
      And Rome make amends for Calvary!"

And John of Molay, as he burns in Paris Square, cries upon "the Name he
had cursed with all his life." The _Tragedy_ stands alone in literature;
Browning has written nothing more original. Its singularity springs
mainly from a characteristic and wonderfully successful attempt to
render several planes of emotion and animus through the same tale. The
"singer" looks on at the burning, the very embodiment of the robust,
savagely genial spectator, with a keen eye for all the sporting-points
in the exhibition,--noting that the fagots are piled to the right height
and are of the right quality--

     "Good sappy bavins that kindle forthwith, ...
      Larch-heart that chars to a chalk-white glow:"

and when the torch is clapt-to and he has "leapt back safe," poking
jests and gibes at the victim. But through this distorting medium we see
the soul of John himself, like a gleam-lit landscape through the whirl
of a storm; a strange weird sinister thing, glimmering in a dubious
light between the blasphemer we half see in him with the singer's eyes
and the saint we half descry with our own. Of explicit pathos there is
not a touch. Yet how subtly the inner pathos and the outward scorn are
fused in the imagery of these last stanzas:--

     "Ha, ha, John plucketh now at his rose
        To rid himself of a sorrow at heart!
      Lo,--petal on petal, fierce rays unclose;
        Anther on anther, sharp spikes outstart;
      And with blood for dew, the bosom boils;
        And a gust of sulphur is all its smell;
      And lo, he is horribly in the toils
        Of a coal-black giant flower of hell!

      So, as John called now, through the fire amain,
        On the Name, he had cursed with, all his life--
      To the Person, he bought and sold again--
        For the Face, with his daily buffets rife--
      Feature by feature It took its place:
        And his voice, like a mad dog's choking bark,
      At the steady whole of the Judge's face--
        Died. Forth John's soul flared into the dark."

None of these dramatic studies of Christianity attracted so lively an
interest as _Bishop Blougram's Apology._ It was "actual" beyond anything
he had yet done; it portrayed under the thinnest of veils an
illustrious Catholic prelate familiar in London society; it could be
enjoyed with little or no feeling for poetry; and it was amazingly
clever. Even Tennyson, his loyal friend but unwilling reader, excepted
it, on the last ground, from his slighting judgment upon _Men and Women_
at large. The figure of Blougram, no less than his discourse, was
virtually new in Browning, and could have come from him at no earlier
time. He is foreshadowed, no doubt, by a series of those accomplished
mundane ecclesiastics whom Browning at all times drew with so keen a
zest,--by Ogniben, the bishop in _Pippa Passes_, the bishop of St
Praxed's. But mundane as he is, he bears the mark of that sense of the
urgency of the Christian problem which since _Christmas-Eve and
Easter-Day_ had so largely and variously coloured Browning's work. It
occurred to none of those worldly bishops to justify their
worldliness,--it was far too deeply ingrained for that. But Blougram's
brilliant defence, enormously disproportioned as it is to the
insignificance of the attack, marks his tacit recognition of loftier
ideals than he professes. Like Cleon, he bears involuntary witness to
what he repudiates.

But there is much more in Blougram than this. The imposing personality
of Wiseman contained much to attract and conciliate a poet like
Browning, whose visionary idealism went along with so unaffected a
relish for the world and the talents which succeed there. A great
spiritual ruler, performing with congenial ease the enormous and varied
functions of his office, and with intellectual resources, when they were
discharged, to win distinction in scholarship, at chess, in society,
appealed powerfully to Browning's congenital delight in all strong and
vivid life. He was a great athlete, who had completely mastered his
circumstances and shaped his life to his will. Opposed to a man of this
varied and brilliant achievement, an ineffectual dilettante appeared a
sorry creature enough; and Browning, far from taking his part and
putting in his craven mouth the burning retorts which the reader in vain
expects, makes him play helplessly with olive-stones while the great
bishop rolls him out his mind, and then, as one cured and confuted,
betake himself to the life of humbler practical activity and social
service.

It is plain that the actual Blougram offered tempting points of contact
with that strenuous ideal of life which he was later to preach through
the lips of "Rabbi ben Ezra." Even what was most problematic in him, his
apparently sincere profession of an outworn creed, suggested the
difficult feat of a gymnast balancing on a narrow edge, or forcibly
holding his unbelief in check,--

     "Kept quiet like the snake 'neath Michael's foot,
      Who stands calm just because he feels it writhe."

But Browning marks clearly the element both of self-deception and
deliberate masquerade in Blougram's defence. He made him "say right
things and call them by wrong names." The intellectual athlete in him
went out to the intellectual athlete in the other, and rejoiced in
every equation he seemed to establish. He played, and made Blougram
play, upon the elusive resemblance between the calm of effortless
mastery and that of hardly won control.

The rich and varied poetry reviewed in the last three sections occupies
less than half of _Men and Women_, and leaves the second half of the
title unexplained. In that richer emotional atmosphere which breathes
from every line of his Italian work, the profound fulfilment of his
spiritual needs which he found in his home was the most vital and potent
element. His imaginative grasp of every kind of spiritual energy, of
every "incident of soul," was deepened by his new but incessant and
unqualified experience of love. His poetry focussed itself more
persistently than ever about those creative energies akin to love, of
which art in the fullest sense is the embodiment, and religion the
recognition. It would have been strange if the special form of
love-experience to which the quickening thrill was due had remained
untouched by it. In fact, however, the title of the volume is
significant as well as accurate; for Browning's poetry of the love
between men and women may be said, save for a few simple though
exquisite earlier notes, to begin with it.


VII.


The love-poetry of the _Men and Women_ volumes, as originally published,
was the most abundant and various, if not the most striking, part of its
contents. It was almost entirely transferred, in the collected edition
of his Poems issued in 1863, to other rubrics, to the _Dramatic
Lyrics_, of which it now forms the great bulk, and to the _Dramatic
Romances_. But of Browning's original "fifty men and women," nearly half
were lovers or occupied with love. Such fertility was natural enough in
the first years of a supremely happy marriage, crowning an early manhood
in which love of any kind had, for better or worse, played hardly any
part at all. Yet almost nothing in these beautiful and often brilliant
lyrics is in any strict sense personal. The biographer who searches them
for traits quivering with intimate experience searches all but in vain.
Browning's own single and supreme passion touched no fountain of song,
such as love sets flowing in most poets and in many who are not poets:
even the memorable months of 1845-46 provoked no Sonnets "_to_ the
Portuguese." His personal story impresses itself upon his poetry only
through the preoccupation which it induces with the love-stories of
other people, mostly quite unlike his own. The white light of his own
perfect union broke from that prismatic intellect of his in a poetry
brilliant with almost every other hue. No English poet of his century,
and few of any other, have made love seem so wonderful; but he
habitually takes this wonder bruised and jostled in the grip of
thwarting conditions. In his way of approaching love Browning strangely
blends the mystic's exaltation with the psychologist's cool penetrating
scrutiny of its accompanying phenomena, its favourable or impeding
conditions. The keen analytic accent of Paracelsus mingles with the
ecstatic unearthly note of Shelley. "Love is all" might have served as
the text for the whole volume of Browning's love-poetry; but the text is
wrought out with an amazingly acute vision for all the things which are
not love. "Love triumphing over the world" might have been the motto for
most of the love-poems in _Men and Women_; but some would have had to be
assigned to the opposite rubric, "The world triumphing over love."
Sometimes Love's triumph is, for Browning, the rapture of complete
union, for which all outer things exist only by subduing themselves to
its mood and taking its hue; sometimes it is the more ascetic and
spiritual triumph of an unrequited lover in the lonely glory of his
love.

The triumph of Browning's united lovers has often a superb Elizabethan
note of defiance. Passion obliterates for them the past and throws a
mystically hued veil over Nature. The gentle Romantic sentiments hardly
touch the fresh springs of their emotion. They may meet and woo "among
the ruins," as Coleridge met and wooed his Genevieve "beside the ruined
tower"; but their song does not, like his, "suit well that ruin old and
hoary," but, on the contrary, tramples with gay scorn upon the lingering
memories of the ruined city,--a faded pageant yoked to its triumphal
car.

     "Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
        Earth's returns
      For whole centuries of folly, noise, and sin!
        Shut them in,
      With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
        Love is best."

Another lover, in _My Star_, pours lyric disdain upon his friends for
whose purblind common-sense vision the star which to him "dartled red
and blue," now a bird, now a flower, was just--a star. More finely
touched than either of these is _By the Fireside_. After _One Word
More_, to which it is obviously akin, it is Browning's most perfect
rendering of the luminous inner world, all-sufficing and self-contained,
of a rapturous love. The outer world is here neither thrust aside nor
fantastically varied; it is drawn into the inner world by taking its hue
and becoming the confidant and executant of its will. A landscape so
instinct with the hushed awe of expectation and with a mystic tenderness
is hardly to be found elsewhere save in _Christabel_,--

     "We two stood there with never a third,
        But each by each, as each knew well:
      The sights we saw and the sounds we heard,
        The lights and the shades made up a spell,
      Till the trouble grew and stirred.

       *       *       *       *       *

      A moment after, and hands unseen
        Were hanging the night around us fast;
      But we knew that a bar was broken between
        Life and life: we were mixed at last
      In spite of the mortal screen.

      The forests had done it; there they stood;
        We caught for a moment the powers at play:
      They had mingled us so, for once and good,
        Their work was done--we might go or stay,
      They relapsed to their ancient mood."

_By the Fireside_ is otherwise memorable as portraying with whatever
disguise the Italian home-life of the poet and his wife. The famous
description of "the perfect wife" as she sat

     "Musing by firelight, that great brow
        And the spirit-small hand propping it,
      Yonder, my heart knows how"--

remain among the most living portraitures of that exquisite but fragile
form. Yet neither here nor elsewhere did Browning care to dwell upon the
finished completeness of the perfect union. His intellectual thirst for
the problematic, and his ethical thirst for the incomplete, combined to
hurry him away to the moments of suspense, big with undecided or
unfulfilled fate. The lover among the ruins is awaiting his mistress;
the rapturous expectancy of another waiting lover is sung in _In Three
Days_. And from the fireside the poet wanders in thought from that
highest height of love which he has won to the mystic hour before he won
it, when the elements out of which his fate was to be resolved still
hung apart, awaiting the magical touch, which might never be given:--

     "Oh moment, one and infinite!
        The water slips o'er stock and stone;
      The West is tender, hardly bright:
        How grey at once is the evening grown--
      One star, its chrysolite!

       *       *       *       *       *

      Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
        And the little less, and what worlds away!
      How a sound shall quicken content to bliss,
        Or a breath suspend the blood's best play,
      And life be a proof of this!"

But the poet who lingered over these moments of suspended fate did not
usually choose the harmonious solution of them. The "little less" of
incomplete response might "suspend the breath" of the lover, but it was
an inexhaustible inspiration to the poet. It provokes, for instance, the
delicate symbolism of the twin lyrics _Love in a Life_ and _Life in a
Love_, variations on the same theme--vain pursuit of the averted
face--the one a _largo_, sad, persistent, dreamily hopeless; the other
impetuous, resolute, glad. The dreamier mood is elaborated in the
_Serenade at the Villa_ and _One Way of Love_. A few superbly
imaginative phrases bring the Italian summer night about us, sultry,
storm-shot, starless, still,--

     "Life was dead, and so was light."

The Serenader himself is no child of Italy but a meditative Teuton, who,
Hamlet-like, composes for his mistress the answer which he would not
have her give. The lover in _One Way of Love_ is something of a Teuton
too, and has thoughts which break the vehemence of the impact of his
fate. But there is a first moment when he gasps and knits himself closer
to endure--admirably expressed in the sudden change to a brief trochaic
verse; then the grim mood is dissolved in a momentary ecstasy of
remembrance or of idea--and the verse, too, unfolds and releases itself
in sympathy:--

     "She will not hear my music? So!
        Break the string; fold music's wing;
      Suppose Pauline had bade me sing!"

Or, instead of this systole and diastole alternation, the glory and the
pang are fused and interpenetrated in a continuous mood. Such a mood
furnishes the spiritual woof of one of Browning's most consummate and
one of his loveliest lyrics, _The Last Ride Together_ and _Evelyn Hope_.
"How are we to take it?" asks Mr Fotheringham of the latter. "As the
language of passion resenting death and this life's woeful
incompleteness? or as a prevision of the soul in a moment of intensest
life?" The question may be asked; yet the passion of regret which glows
and vibrates through it is too suffused with exalted faith in a final
recovery to find poignant expression. This lyric, with its taking
melody, has delighted thousands to whom Browning is otherwise "obscure,"
partly because it appeals with naïve audacity at once to Romantic and to
Christian sentiment--combining the faith in love's power to seal its
object for ever as its own with the Christian faith in personal
immortality--a personal immortality in which there is yet marrying and
giving in marriage, as Romance demands. _The Last Ride Together_ has
attracted a different audience. Its passion is of a rarer and more
difficult kind, less accessible to the love and less flattering to the
faith of common minds. This lover dreams of no future recovery of more
than he still retains; his love, once for all, avails nothing; and the
secure faith of Evelyn's lover, that "God creates the love to reward the
love," is not his. His mistress will never "awake and remember and
understand." But that dead form he is permitted to clasp; and in the
rapture of that phantom companionship passion and thought slowly
transfigure and glorify his fate, till from the lone limbo of outcast
lovers he seems to have penetrated to the innermost fiery core of life,
which art and poetry grope after in vain--to possess that supreme moment
of earth which, prolonged, is heaven.

     "What if heaven be that, fair and strong
      At life's best, with our eyes upturned
      Whither life's flower is first discerned,
        We, fixed so, ever should so abide?
      What if we still ride on, we two
      With life for ever old yet new,
      Changed not in kind but in degree,
      The instant made eternity,--
      And heaven just prove that I and she
        Ride, ride together, for ever ride?"

The "glory of failure" is with Browning a familiar and inexhaustible
theme; but its spiritual abstraction here flushes with the human glory
of possession; the æthereal light and dew are mingled with breath and
blood; and in the wonderful long-drawn rhythm of the verse we hear the
steady stride of the horses as they bear their riders farther and
farther in to the visionary land of Romance.

It is only the masculine lover whom Browning allows thus to get the
better of unreturned love. His women have no such _remedia amoris_;
their heart's blood will not transmute into the ichor of poetry. It is
women almost alone who ever utter the poignancy of rejected love; in
them it is tragic, unreflecting, unconsolable, and merciless; while
something of his own elastic buoyancy of intellect, his supple optimism,
his analytic, dissipating fancy, infused itself into his portrayal of
the grief-pangs of his own sex. This distinction is very apparent in the
group of lyrics which deal with the less complete divisions of love. An
almost oppressive intensity of womanhood pulses in _A Woman's Last Word,
In a Year_, and _Any Wife to Any Husband_: the first, with its depth of
self-abasement and its cloying lilting melody, trembles, exquisite as it
is, on the verge of the "sentimental." There is a rarer, subtler pathos
in _Two in the Campagna_. The outward scene finds its way to his senses,
and its images make a language for his mood, or else they break sharply
across it and sting it to a cry. He feels the Campagna about him, with
its tranced immensity lying bare to heaven:--

     "Silence and passion, joy and peace,
        An everlasting wash of air-- ...
      Such life here, through such length of hours,
        Such miracles performed in play,
      Such primal naked forms of flowers,
        Such letting nature have her way
      While heaven looks from its towers;"

and in the presence of that large sincerity of nature he would fain also
"be unashamed of soul" and probe love's wound to the core. But the
invisible barriers will not be put aside or transcended, and in the
midst of that "infinite passion" there remain "the finite hearts that
yearn." Or else he wakes after the quarrel in the blitheness of a bright
dawn:--

          "All is blue again
          After last night's rain,
      And the South dries the hawthorn spray.
          Only, my love's away!
      I'd as lief that the blue were grey."

The disasters of love rarely, with Browning, stir us very deeply. His
temperament was too elastic, his intellect too resourceful, to enter
save by artificial processes into the mood of blank and hopeless grief.
Tragedy did not lie in his blood, and fortune--kinder to the man than to
the poet--had as yet denied him, in love, the "baptism of sorrow" which
has wrung immortal verse from the lips of frailer men. It may even be
questioned whether all Browning's poetry of love's tragedy will live as
long as a few stanzas of Musset's _Nuits_,--bare, unadorned verses,
devoid of fancy or wit, but intense and penetrating as a cry:--

     "Ce soir encor je t'ai vu m'apparaître,
        C'était par une triste nuit.
      L'aile des vents battait à ma fenêtre;
        J'étais seul, courbé sur mon lit.
      J'y regardais une place chérie,
        Tiède encor d'un baiser brûlant;
      Et je songeais comme la femme oublie,
      Et je sentais un lambeau de ma vie,
        Qui se déchirait lentement.
      Je rassemblais des lettres de la veille,
        Des cheveux, des débris d'amour.
      Tout ce passé me criait à l'oreille
        Ses éternels serments d'un jour.
      Je contemplais ces réliques sacrées,
        Qui me faisaient trembler la main:
      Larmes du coeur par le coeur devorées,
      Et que les yeux qui les avaient pleurées
        Ne reconnaîtront plus demain!"[37]

[Footnote 37: Musset, _Nuit de décembre_.]

The same quest of the problematic which attracted Browning to the poetry
of passion repelled or unrequited made him a curious student also of
fainter and feebler "wars of love"--embryonic or simulated forms of
passion which stood still farther from his personal experience. _A Light
Woman, A Pretty Woman_, and _Another Way of Love_ are refined studies in
this world of half tones. But the most important and individual poem of
this group is _The Statue and the Bust_, an excellent example of the
union in Browning of the Romantic temper with a peculiar mastery of
everything in human nature which traverses and repudiates Romance. The
duke and the lady are simpler and slighter Hamlets--Hamlets who have no
agonies of self-questioning and self-reproach; intervening in the long
pageant of the famous lovers of romantic tradition with the same
disturbing shock as he in the bead-roll of heroic avengers. The poet's
indignant denunciation of his lovers at the close, apparently for not
violating the vows of marriage, is puzzling to readers who do not
appreciate the extreme subtlety of Browning's use of figure. He was at
once too much and too little of a casuist,--too habituated to fine
distinctions and too unaware of the pitfalls they often present to
others,--to understand that in condemning his lovers for wanting the
energy to commit a crime he could be supposed to imply approval of the
crime they failed to commit.

Lastly, in the outer periphery of his love poetry belong his rare and
fugitive "dreams" of love. _Women and Roses_ has an intoxicating
swiftness and buoyancy of music. But there is another and more sinister
kind of love-dream--the dream of an unloved woman. Such a dream, with
its tragic disillusion, Browning painted in his poignant and original
_In a Balcony_. It is in no sense a drama, but a dramatic incident in
three scenes, affecting the fates of three persons, upon whom the entire
interest is concentrated. The three vivid and impressive character-heads
stand out with intense and minute brilliance from a background
absolutely blank and void. Though the scene is laid in a court and the
heroine is a queen, there is no bustle of political intrigue, no
conflict between the rival attractions of love and power, as in
_Colombe's Birthday_. Love is the absorbing preoccupation of this
society, the ultimate ground of all undertakings. There is vague talk of
diplomatic victories, of dominions annexed, of public thanksgivings; but
the statesman who has achieved all this did it all to win the hand of a
girl, and the aged queen whom he has so successfully served has secretly
dreamed all the time, though already wedded, of being his. For a
brilliant young minister to fail to make love to his sovereign, in spite
of her grey hairs and the marriage law, is a kind of high treason. In
its social presuppositions this community belongs to a world as
visionary as the mystic dream-politics of M. Maeterlinck. But, those
presuppositions granted, everything in it has the uncompromising
clearness and persuasive reality that Browning invariably communicates
to his dreams. The three figures who in a few hours taste the height of
ecstasy and then the bitterness of disillusion or severance, are drawn
with remarkable psychologic force and truth. For all three love is the
absorbing passion, the most real thing in life, scornfully contrasted
with the reflected joys of the painter or the poet. Norbert's noble
integrity is of a kind which mingles in duplicity and intrigue with
disastrous results; he is too invincibly true to himself easily to act a
part; but he can control the secret hunger of his heart and give no
sign, until the consummate hour arrives when he may

                                        "resume
      Life after death (it is no less than life,
      After such long unlovely labouring days)
      And liberate to beauty life's great need
      O' the beautiful, which, while it prompted work,
      Suppress'd itself erewhile."

In the ecstasy of release from that suppression, every tree and flower
seems to be an embodiment of the harmonious freedom he had so long
foregone, as Wordsworth, chafing under his unchartered freedom, saw
everywhere the willing submission to Duty. Even

     "These statues round us stand abrupt, distinct,
      The strong in strength, the weak in weakness fixed,
      The Muse for ever wedded to her lyre,
      Nymph to her fawn, and Silence to her rose:
      See God's approval on his universe!
      Let us do so--aspire to live as these
      In harmony with truth, ourselves being true!"

But it is the two women who attract Browning's most powerful handling.
One of them, the Queen, has hardly her like for pity and dread. A
"lavish soul" long starved, but kindling into the ecstasy of girlhood at
the seeming touch of love; then, as her dream is shattered by the
indignant honesty of Norbert, transmuted at once into the daemonic
Gudrun or Brynhild, glaring in speechless white-heat and implacable
frenzy upon the man who has scorned her proffered heart and the hapless
girl he has chosen.[38] Between these powerful, rigid, and simple
natures stands Constance, ardent as they, but with the lithe and
palpitating ardour of a flame. She is concentrated Romance. Her love is
an intense emotion; but some of its fascination lies in its secrecy,--

     "Complots inscrutable, deep telegraphs,
      Long-planned chance meetings, hazards of a look";

she shrinks from a confession which "at the best" will deprive their
love of its spice of danger and make them even as their "five hundred
openly happy friends." She loves adventure, ruse, and stratagem for
their own sake. But she is also romantically generous, and because she
"owes this withered woman everything," is eager to sacrifice her own
hopes of happiness.

[Footnote 38: An anecdote to which Prof. Dowden has lately called
attention (_Browning_, p. 66) describes Browning in his last years as
demurring to the current interpretation of the _dénoûment_. Some one had
remarked that it was "a natural sequence that the guard should be heard
coming to take Norbert to his doom." "'Now I don't quite think that,'
answered Browning, _as if he were following out the play as a
spectator_. 'The queen has a large and passionate temperament.... She
would have died by a knife in her heart. The guard would have come to
carry away her dead body.'" The catastrophe here suggested is
undoubtedly far finer tragedy. But we cannot believe that this was what
Browning originally meant to happen. That Norbert and Constance expect
"doom" is obvious, and the queen's parting "glare" leaves the reader in
no doubt that they are right. They may, nevertheless, be wrong; but
what, then, is meant by the coming of the guard, and the throwing open
of the doors? The queen has in any case not died on the stage, for she
had left it; and if she died outside, how should they have come "to
carry away her dead body"?]

Were it not for its unique position in Browning's poetry, one might well
be content with a passing tribute to the great love canticle which
closes _Men and Women_--the crown, as it is in a pregnant sense the
nucleus, of the whole. But here, for "once, and only once, and for one
only," not only the dramatic instinct, which habitually coloured all his
speech, but the reticence which so hardly permitted it to disclose his
most intimate personal emotion, were deliberately overcome--overcome,
however, only in order, as it were, to explain and justify their more
habitual sway. All the poetry in it is reached through the endeavour to
find speaking symbols for a love that cannot be told. The poet is a high
priest, entering with awed steps the sanctuary which even he cannot
tread without desecration save after divesting himself of all that is
habitual and of routine,--even the habits of his genius and the routine
of his art. Unable to divest himself of his poetry altogether, for he
has no other art, he lays aside his habitual dramatic guise to speak,
for once, not as Lippo, Roland, or Andrea, but "in his true person." And
he strips off the veil of his art and speaks in his own person only to
declare that speech is needless, and to fall upon that exquisite symbol
of an esoteric love uncommunicated and incommunicable to the
apprehension of the world,--the moon's other face with all its "silent
silver lights and darks," undreamed of by any mortal. "Heaven's gift
takes man's abatement," and poetry itself may only hint at the divinity
of perfect love. The _One Word More_ was written in September 1855,
shortly before the publication of the volume it closed, as the old moon
waned over the London roofs. Less than six years later the "moon of
poets" had passed for ever from his ken.



CHAPTER V.

LONDON. _DRAMATIS PERSONÆ._


      Ah, Love! but a day
        And the world has changed!
      The sun's away,
        And the bird estranged.
      --_James Lee's Wife_.

      That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows,
      Or decomposes but to recompose,
      Become my universe that feels and knows.
      --_Epilogue_.


The catastrophe of June 29, 1861, closed with appalling suddenness the
fifteen years' married life of Browning. "I shall grow still, I hope,"
he wrote to Miss Haworth, a month later, "but my root is taken, and
remains." The words vividly express the valour in the midst of
desolation which animated one little tried hitherto by sorrow. The
Italian home was shattered, and no thought of even attempting a
patched-up existence in its ruined walls seems to have occurred to him;
even the neighbourhood of the spot in which all that was mortal of her
had been laid had no power to detain him. But his departure was no mere
flight from scenes intolerably dear. He had their child to educate and
his own life to fulfil, and he set himself with grim resolution to the
work, as one who had indeed _had everything_, but who was as little
inclined to abandon himself to the past as to forget it. After visiting
his father in Paris--the "dear _nonno_" of his wife's charming
letters[39]--he settled in London, at first in lodgings, then at the
house in Warwick Crescent which was for a quarter of a century to be his
home. Something of that dreary first winter found its way, ten years
later, through whatever dramatic disguise, into the poignant epilogue of
_Fifine_. Browning had been that "Householder," had gone through the
dragging days and nights,--

     "All the fuss and trouble of street-sounds, window-sights,
      All the worry of flapping door and echoing roof; and then
      All the fancies,"--

perhaps, among them, that of the "knock, call, cry," and the pang and
rapture of the visionary meeting. Certainly one of the effects of his
loss was to accentuate the mood of savage isolation which lurked beneath
Browning's genial sociality. The world from which his saint had been
snatched looked very common, sordid, and mean, and he resented its
intrusiveness on occasion with startling violence. When proposals were
made in 1863 in various quarters to publish her life, he turned like a
wild beast upon the "blackguards" who "thrust their paws into his
bowels" by prying into his intimacies. To the last he dismissed similar
proposals by critics of the highest status with a cavalier bluntness
highly surprising to persons who only knew him as the man of punctilious
observance and fastidious good form. For the rest, London contained much
that was bound by degrees to temper the gloom and assuage the hostility.
Florence and Rome could furnish nothing like the circle of men of genius
and varied accomplishment, using like himself the language of
Shakespeare and Milton, in which he presently began to move as an
intimate. Thackeray, Ruskin, Tennyson, Carlyle, Rossetti, Leighton,
Woolner, Prinsep, and many more, added a kind of richness to his life
which during the last fifteen years he had only enjoyed at intervals.
And the flock of old friends who accepted Browning began to be
reinforced by a crowd of unknown readers who proclaimed him. Tennyson
was his loyal comrade; but the prestige of Tennyson's popularity had
certainly blocked many of the avenues of Browning's fame, appealing as
the Laureate largely did to tastes in poetry which Browning rudely
traversed or ignored. On the Tennysonian reader _pur sang_ Browning's
work was pretty sure to make the impression so frankly described by
Frederick Tennyson to his brother, of "Chinese puzzles, trackless
labyrinths, unapproachable nebulosities." Even among these intimates of
his own generation were doubtless some who, with F. Tennyson again,
believed him to be "a man of infinite learning, jest, and bonhomie, and
a sterling heart that reverbs no hollowness," but who yet held "his
school of poetry" to be "the most grotesque conceivable." This was the
tone of the 'Fifties, when Tennyson's vogue was at its height. But with
the 'Sixties there began to emerge a critical disposition to look beyond
the trim pleasances of the Early Victorians to more daring romantic
adventure in search of the truth that lies in beauty, and more fearless
grip of the beauty that lies in truth. The genius of the pre-Raphaelites
began to find response. And so did the yet richer and more composite
genius of Browning. Moreover, the immense vogue won by the poetry of his
wife undoubtedly prepared the way for his more difficult but kindred
work. If _Pippa Passes_ counts for something in _Aurora Leigh, Aurora
Leigh_ in its turn trained the future readers of _The Ring and the
Book_.

[Footnote 39: His father beautifully said of Mrs Browning's portrait
that it was a face which made the worship of saints seem possible.]

The altered situation became apparent on the publication, in rapid
succession, in 1864, of Browning's _Dramatis Personæ_ and Mr Swinburne's
_Atalanta in Calydon_. Both volumes found their most enthusiastic
readers at the universities. "All my new cultivators are young men,"
Browning wrote to Miss Blagden; adding, with a touch of malicious
humour, "more than that, I observe that some of my old friends don't
like at all the irruption of outsiders who rescue me from their sober
and private approval, and take those words out of their mouths which
they 'always meant to say,' and never did." The volume included
practically all that Browning had actually written since 1855,--less
than a score of pieces,--the somewhat slender harves of nine years. But
during these later years in Italy, as we have seen, he had done little
at his art; and after his return much time had been occupied in
projecting the great scheme of that which figures in his familiar
letters as his "murder-poem," and was ultimately known as _The Ring and
the Book_. As a whole, the _Dramatis Personæ_ stands yet more clearly
apart from _Men and Women_ than that does from all that had gone before.
Both books contain some of his most magnificent work; but the earlier is
full of summer light and glow, the later breathes the hectic and
poignant splendour of autumn. The sense of tragic loss broods over all
its music. In lyric strength and beauty there is no decay; but the
dramatic imagination has certainly lost somewhat of its flexible
strength and easy poise of wing: falling back now upon the personal
convictions of the poet, now upon the bald prose of daily life. _Rabbi
ben Ezra_ and _Abt Vogler, A Death in the Desert_, are as noble poetry
as _Andrea del Sarto_ or _The Grammarian's Funeral_; but it is a poetry
less charged with the "incidents" of any other soul than his own; and,
on the other hand, _Dis Aliter Visum_ and _Youth and Art_, and others,
effective as they are, yet move in an atmosphere less remote from prose
than any of the songs and lays of love which form one of the chief
glories of _Men and Women_. The world which is neither thrillingly
beautiful nor grotesquely ugly, but simply poor, unendowed, humdrum,
finds for the first time a place in his poetry. Its blankness answered
too well to the desolate regard which in the early 'Sixties he turned
upon life. The women are homely, even plain, like James Lee's wife,
with her "coarse hands and hair," and Edith in _Too Late_, with her
thin, odd features, or mediocre, like the speaker in _Dis Aliter Visum_;
and they have homely names, like "Lee" or "Lamb" or "Brown," not
gratuitously grotesque ones like Blougram, Blouphocks, or the outrageous
"Gigadibs." "Sludge" stands on a different footing; for it is
dramatically expressive, as these are not. The legend of the gold-haired
maiden of Pornic is told with a touch of harsher cynicism than was heard
in Galuppi's "chill" music of the vanished beauties of Venice. If we may
by no means say that the glory of humanity has faded for Browning, yet
its glory has become more fugitive and more extrinsic,--a "grace not
theirs" brought by love "settling unawares" upon minds "level and low,
burnt and bare" in themselves. And he dwells now on desolate and desert
scenes with a new persistence, just as it was wild primitive nooks of
the French coast which now became his chosen summer resorts in place of
the semi-civic rusticity which had been his choice in Italy. "This is a
wild little place in Brittany," he wrote to Miss Blagden in August 1863;
"close to the sea, a hamlet of a dozen houses, perfectly lonely--one may
walk on the edge of the low rocks by the sea for miles.... If I could I
would stay just as I am for many a day. I feel out of the very earth
sometimes as I sit here at the window." The wild coast scenery falls in
with the desolate mood of James Lee's wife; the savage luxuriance of the
Isle with the primitive fancies of Caliban; the arid desert holds in
its embrace, like an oasis, the well-spring of Love which flows from the
lips of the dying Apostle. In the poetry of _Men and Women_ we see the
ripe corn and the flowers in bloom; in _Dramatis Personæ_, the processes
of Nature are less spontaneous and, as it were, less complete; the
desert and the abounding streams, the unreclaimed human nature and the
fertilising grace of love, emerge in a nearer approach to elemental
nakedness, and there are moods in which each appears to dominate.
Doubtless the mood which finally triumphed was that of the dying John
and of the Third Speaker; but it was a triumph no longer won by "the
happy prompt instinctive way of youth," and the way to it lay through
moods not unlike those of James Lee's wife, whose problem, like his own,
was how to live when the answering love was gone. His "fire," like hers,
was made "of shipwreck wood",[40] and her words "at the window" can only
be an echo of his--

     "Ah, Love! but a day
        And the world has changed!
      The sun's away,
        And the bird estranged;
      The wind has dropped,
        And the sky's deranged:
      Summer has stopped."

[Footnote 40: The second section of _James Lee's Wife, By the Fireside_,
cannot have been written without a conscious, and therefore a purposed
and significant, reference to the like-named poem in _Men and Women_,
which so exquisitely plays with the intimate scenery of his home-life.]

As her problem is another life-setting of his, so she feels her way
towards its solution through processes which cannot have been strange to
him. She walks "along the Beach," or "on the Cliff," or "among the
rocks," and the voices of sea and wind ("Such a soft sea and such a
mournful wind!" he wrote to Miss Blagden) become speaking symbols in her
preoccupied mind. Not at all, however, in the fashion of the "pathetic
fallacy." She is too deeply disenchanted to imagine pity; and Browning
puts into her mouth (part vi.) a significant criticism of some early
stanzas of his own, in which he had in a buoyant optimistic fashion
interpreted the wailing of the wind.[41] If Nature has aught to teach,
it is the sterner doctrine, that nothing endures; that Love, like the
genial sunlight, has to glorify base things, to raise the low nature by
its throes, sometimes divining the hidden spark of God in what seemed
mere earth, sometimes only lending its transient splendour to a dead and
barren spirit,--the fiery grace of a butterfly momentarily obliterating
the dull turf or rock it lights on, but leaving them precisely what they
were.

[Footnote 41: Cf. _supra_, p. 16.]

_James Lee's Wife_ is a type of the other idyls of love which form so
large a part of the _Dramatis Personæ_. The note of dissonance, of loss,
which they sound had been struck by Browning before, but never with the
same persistence and iteration. The _Dramatic Lyrics_ and _Men and
Women_ are not quite silent of the tragic failure of love; but it is
touched lightly in "swallow flights of song," like the _Lost Mistress_,
that "dip their wings in tears and skim away." And the lovers are
spiritual athletes, who can live on the memory of a look, and seem to be
only irradiated, not scorched, by the tragic flame. But these lovers of
the 'Sixties are of less ætherial temper; they are more obviously,
familiarly human; the loss of what they love comes home to them, and
there is agony in the purifying fire. Such are the wronged husband in
_The Worst of It_, and the finally frustrated lover in _Too Late_. In
the group of "Might-have-been" lyrics the sense of loss is less poignant
and tragic but equally uncompensated. "You fool!" cries the homely
little heroine of _Dis Aliter Visum_ to the elderly scholar who ten
years before had failed to propose to her,--

          "You fool for all your lore!...
      The devil laughed at you in his sleeve!
      You knew not? That I well believe;
      Or you had saved two souls;--nay, four."

Nor is there much of the glory of failure in Kate Brown's bitter smile,
as she sums up the story of Youth and Art:--

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

It is no accident that with the clearer recognition of sharp and
absolute loss Browning shows increasing preoccupation with the thought
of recovery after death. For himself death was now inseparably
intertwined with all that he had known of love, and the prospect of the
supreme reunion which death, as he believed, was to bring him, drew it
nearer to the core of his imagination and passion. Not that he looked
forward to it with the easy complacency of the hymn-writer. _Prospice_
would not be the great uplifting song it is were the note of struggle,
of heroic heart to bear the brunt and pay in one moment all "life's
arrears of pain, darkness, and cold," less clearly sounded; and were the
final cry less intense with the longing of bereavement. How near this
thought of rapturous reunion lay to the springs of Browning's
imagination at this time, how instantly it leapt into poetry, may be
seen from the _Eurydice to Orpheus_ which he fitly placed immediately
after these--

     "But give them me, the mouth, the eyes, the brow!
       Let them once more absorb me!"

But in two well-known poems of the _Dramatis Personæ_ Browning has
splendidly unfolded what is implicit in the strong simple clarion--note
of _Prospice_. _Abt Vogler_ and _Rabbi ben Ezra_ are among the surest
strongholds of his popular fame. _Rabbi ben Ezra_ is a great song of
life, bearing more fully perhaps than any other poem the burden of what
he had to say to his generation, but lifted far above mere didacticism
by the sustained glow in which ethical passion, and its imaginative
splendour, indistinguishably blend. It is not for nothing that Browning
put this loftiest utterance of all that was most strenuous in his own
faith into the mouth of a member of the race which has beyond others
known how to suffer and how to transfigure its suffering. Ben Ezra's
thoughts are not all Hebraic, but they are conceived in the most exalted
temper of Hebrew prophecy; blending the calm of achieved wisdom with the
fervour of eagerly accepted discipline, imperious scorn for the
ignorance of fools, and heroic ardour, for the pangs and throes of the
fray. Ideals which, coolly analysed, seem antithetical, and which have
in reality inspired opposite ways of life, meet in the fusing flame of
the Rabbi's impassioned thought: the body is the soul's beguiling
sorceress, but also its helpful comrade; man is the passive clay which
the great Potter moulded and modelled upon the Wheel of Time, and yet is
bidden rage and strive, the adoring acquiescence of Eastern Fatalism
mingling with the Western gospel of individual energy. And all this
complex and manifold ethical appeal is conveyed in verse of magnificent
volume and resonance, effacing by the swift recurrent anvil crash of its
rhythm any suggestion that the acquiescence of the "clay" means
passivity.

In _Abt Vogler_ the prophetic strain is even more daring and assured;
only it springs not from "old experience," but from the lonely ecstasy
of artistic creation. Browning has put into the mouth of his old
Catholic musician the most impassioned and undoubting assertion to be
found in his work of his faith that nothing good is finally lost. The
Abbé's theology may have supplied the substance of the doctrine, but it
could not supply the beautiful, if daring, expansion of it by which the
immortality of men's souls is extended to "all we have willed or hoped
or dreamed of good." This was the work of music; and the poem is in
truth less remarkable for this rapturous statement of faith than for the
penetrating power with which the mystical and transcendental suggestions
of music are explored and unfolded,--the mysterious avenues which it
seems to open to kinds of experience more universal than ours, exempt
from the limitations of our narrow faculties, even from the limitations
of time and space themselves. All that is doctrinal and speculative in
_Abt Vogler_ is rooted in musical experience,--the musical experience,
no doubt, of a richly imaginative mind, for which every organ-note turns
into the symbol of a high romance, till he sees heaven itself yearning
down to meet his passion as it seeks the sky. Of the doctrine and
speculation we may think as we will; of the psychological force and
truth of the whole presentment there can be as little question as of its
splendour and glow. It has the sinew, as well as the wing, of poetry.
And neither in poetry nor in prose has the elementary marvel of the
simplest musical form been more vividly seized than in the well-known
couplet--

     "I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man
      That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but
        a star."

_A Death in the Desert_, though a poem of great beauty, must be set, in
intrinsic value, below these two. To attack Strauss through the mouth of
the dying apostle was a smart pamphleteering device; but it gave his
otherwise noble verse a disagreeable twang of theological disputation,
and did no manner of harm to Strauss, who had to be met on other ground
and with other weapons,--the weapons of history and comparative
religion--in which Browning's skill was that only of a brilliant
amateur. But the impulse which created it had deeper springs than this.
What is most clearly personal and most deeply felt in it is the
exaltation of love, which seems to have determined the whole imaginative
fabric. Love, Browning's highest expression of spiritual vitality, was
the cardinal principle of his creed; God was vital to him only as a
loving God, and Christ only as the human embodiment and witness of God's
love. The traditional story of Christ was in this sense of profound
significance for him, while he turned away with indifference or disgust
from the whole doctrinal apparatus of the Atonement, which, however
closely bound up with the popular conception of God's love, had nothing
to do with his conception of it, and he could thus consistently decline
the name of Christian, as some witnesses aver that he did.[42] It was
thus in entire keeping with his way of approaching Christianity that he
imagined this moving episode,--the dying apostle whose genius had made
that way so singularly persuasive, the little remnant of doomed and
hunted fugitives who seem to belong to earth only by the spiritual bond
of their love to him, as his own physical life is now a firebrand all
but extinct,--"all ashes save the tip that holds a spark," but that still
glowing with undiminished soul. The material fabric which enshrines this
fine essence of the Christian spirit is of the frailest; and the
contrast is carried out in the scenic setting,--the dim cool cavern,
with its shadowy depth and faint glimmerings of day, the hushed voices,
the ragged herbage, and the glory in the face of the passing saint
within; without, the hard dazzling glare of the desert noon, and the
burning blue, and the implacable and triumphant might of Rome.

[Footnote 42: Other testimony, it is true, equally strong, asserts that
he accepted the name; in any case he used it in a sense of his own.]

The discourse of the "aged friend" is full of subtle and vivid thinking,
and contains some of Browning's most memorable utterances about Love, in
particular the noble lines--

     "For life with all it yields of joy and woe ...
      Is just our chance of the prize of learning love,
      How love might be, hath been indeed, and is."

Nowhere, either, do we see more clearly how this master-conception of
his won control of his reasoning powers, framing specious ladders to
conclusions towards which his whole nature yearned, but which his vision
of the world did not uniformly bear out. Man loved, and God would not be
above man if He did not also love. The horrible spectre of a God who has
power without love never ceased to lurk in the background of Browning's
thought, and he strove with all his resources of dialectic and poetry to
exorcise it. And no wonder. For a loving God was the very keystone of
Browning's scheme of life and of the world, and its withdrawal would
have meant for him the collapse of the whole structure.

It is no accident that the _Death in the Desert_ is followed immediately
by a theological study in a very different key, _Caliban upon Setebos_.
For in this brilliantly original "dramatic monologue" Caliban--the
"savage man"--appears "mooting the point 'What is God?'" and
constructing his answer frankly from his own nature. It was quite in
Browning's way to take a humorous delight in imagining grotesque
parallels to ideas and processes in which he profoundly believed; a
proclivity aided by the curious subtle relation between his grotesquerie
and his seriousness, which makes _Pacchiarotto_, for instance, closely
similar in effect to parts of _Christmas-Eve_. Browning is one of three
or four sons of the nineteenth century who dared to fill in the
outlines, or to complete the half-told tale, of Shakespeare's
Caliban.[43] Kenan's hero is the quondam disciple of Stephano and
Trinculo, finished and matured in the corrupt mob-politics of Europe; a
caustic symbol of democracy, as Renan saw it, alternately trampling on
and patronising culture. Browning's Caliban is far truer to
Shakespeare's conception; he is the Caliban of Shakespeare, not
followed into a new phase but observed in a different attitude,--Caliban
of the days before the Storm, an unsophisticated creature of the island,
inaccessible to the wisdom of Europe, and not yet the dupe of its vice.
His wisdom, his science, his arts, are all his own. He anticipates the
heady joy of Stephano's bottle with a mash of gourds of his own
invention. And his religion too is his own,--no decoction from any of
the recognised vintages of religious thought, but a home-made brew
cunningly distilled from the teeming animal and plant life of the
Island. It is a mistake to call Caliban's theology a study of primitive
religion; for primitive religion is inseparable from the primitive
tribe, and Caliban the savage, who has never known society, was a
conception as unhistorical as it was exquisitely adapted to the
individualist ways of Browning's imagination. Tradition and
prescription, which fetter the savage with iron bonds, exist for Caliban
only in the form of the faith held by his dam, which he puts aside in
the calm decisive way of a modern thinker, as one who has nothing to
fear from the penalties of heresy, and has even outlived the exultation
of free thought:--

     "His dam held that the Quiet made all things
      Which Setebos vexed only: 'holds not so;
      Who made them weak, made weakness He might vex."

[Footnote 43: It is characteristic that M. Maeterlinck found no place
for Caliban in his striking fantasia on the _Tempest, Joyzelle_.]

Caliban's theology has, moreover, very real points of contact with
Browning's own. His god is that sheer Power which Browning from the
first recognised; it is because Setebos feels heat and cold, and is
therefore a weak creature with ungratified wants, that Caliban decides
there must be behind him a divinity that "all it hath a mind to, doth."
Caliban is one of Browning's most consummate realists; he has the
remorselessly vivid perceptions of a Lippo Lippi and a Sludge.
Browning's wealth of recondite animal and plant lore is nowhere else so
amazingly displayed; the very character of beast or bird will be hit off
in a line,--as the pie with the long tongue

     "That pricks deep into oakwarts for a worm,
      And says a plain word when she finds her prize,"

or the lumpish sea-beast which he blinded and called Caliban (an
admirable trait)--

     "A bitter heart that bides its time and bites."

And all this curious scrutiny is reflected in Caliban's god. The sudden
catastrophe at the close

     ("What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!")

is one of Browning's most superb surprises, breaking in upon the
leisured ease of theory with the suddenness of a horrible practical
emergency, and compelling Caliban, in the act of repudiating his
theology, to provide its most vivid illustration.

Shakespeare, with bitter irony, brought his half-taught savage into
touch with the scum of modern civilisation, and made them conspire
together against its benignity and wisdom. The reader is apt to remember
this conjunction when he passes from _Caliban_ to _Mr Sludge._ Stephano
and Trinculo, almost alone among Shakespeare's rascals, are drawn
without geniality, and Sludge is the only one of Browning's "casuists"
whom he treats with open scorn. That some of the effects were palpably
fraudulent, and that, fraud apart, there remained a residuum of
phenomena not easy to explain, were all irritating facts. Yet no one can
mistake _Sludge_ for an outflow of personal irritation, still less for
an act of literary vengeance upon the impostor who had beguiled the
lofty and ardent intelligence of his wife. The resentful husband is
possibly there, but so elementary an emotion could not possibly have
taken exclusive possession of Browning's complex literary faculty, or
baulked the eager speculative curiosity which he brought to all new and
problematic modes of mind. His attitude towards spiritualism was in fact
the product of strangely mingled conditions. Himself the most convinced
believer in spirit among the poets of his time, he regarded the bogus
demonstrations of the "spiritualist" somewhat as the intellectual
sceptic regards the shoddy logic by which the vulgar unbeliever proves
there is no God. But even this anger had no secure tenure in a nature so
rich in solvents for disdain. It is hard to say where scorn ends and
sympathy begins, or where the indignation of the believer who sees his
religion travestied passes over into the curious interest of the
believer who recognises its dim distorted reflection in the unlikeliest
quarters. But Sludge is clearly permitted, like Blougram before and
Juan and Hohenstiel-Schwangau after him, to assume in good faith
positions, or at least to use, with perfect sincerity, language, which
had points of contact with Browning's own. He has an eye for "spiritual
facts" none the less genuine in its gross way that it has been acquired
in the course of professional training, and is valued as a professional
asset. But his supernaturalism at its best is devoid of spiritual
quality. His "spiritual facts" are collections of miraculous
coincidences raked together by the anteater's tongue of a cool egoist,
who waits for them

        "lazily alive,
      Open-mouthed, ...
      Letting all nature's loosely guarded motes
      Settle and, slick, be swallowed."

Like Caliban, who also finds the anteater an instructive symbol, he sees
"the supernatural" everywhere, and everywhere concerned with himself.
But Caliban's religion of terror, cunning, and cajolery is more
estimable than Sludge's business-like faith in the virtue of wares for
which he finds so profitable a market, and which he gets on such easy
terms. Caliban tremblingly does his best to hitch his waggon to
Setebos's star--when Setebos is looking; Sludge is convinced that the
stars are once for all hitched to his waggon; that heaven is occupied in
catering for his appetite and becoming an accomplice in his sins.
Sludge's spiritual world was genuine for him, but it had nothing but the
name in common with that of the poet of Ben Ezra, and of the _Epilogue_
which immediately follows.[44]

[Footnote 44: The foregoing account assumes that the poem was not
written, as is commonly supposed, in Florence in 1859-60, but after his
settlement in London. The only ground for the current view is Mrs
Browning's mention of his having been "working at a long poem" that
winter (_Letters_, May 18, 1860). I am enabled, by the kindness of Prof.
Hall Griffin, to state that an unpublished letter from Browning to
Buchanan in 1871 shows this "long poem" to have been one on Napoleon
III. (cf. above, p. 90). Some of it probably appears in _Hohenstiel
Schwangau_.]

This _Epilogue_ is one of the few utterances in which Browning draws the
ambiguous dramatic veil from his personal faith. That he should choose
this moment of parting with the reader for such a confession confirms
one's impression that the focus of his interest in poetry now, more than
ever before, lay among those problems of life and death, of God and man,
to which nearly all the finest work of this collection is devoted. Far
more emphatically than in the analogous _Christmas-Eve_, Browning
resolves not only the negations of critical scholarship but the dogmatic
affirmations of the Churches into symptoms of immaturity in the
understanding of spiritual things; in the knowledge how heaven's high
with earth's low should intertwine. The third speaker voices the
manifold protest of the nineteenth century against all theologies built
upon an aloofness of the divine and human, whether the aloof God could
be reached by special processes and ceremonies, or whether he was a bare
abstraction, whose "pale bliss" never thrilled in response to human
hearts. The best comment upon his faith is the saying of Meredith, "The
fact that character can be and is developed by the clash of
circumstances is to me a warrant for infinite hope."[45] Only, for
Browning, that "infinite hope" translates itself into a sense of present
divine energies bending all the clashing circumstance to its benign end,
till the walls of the world take on the semblance of the shattered
Temple, and the crowded life within them the semblance of the seemingly
vanished Face, which

        "far from vanish, rather grows,
      Or decomposes but to recompose,
      Become my universe that feels and knows."[46]

[Footnote 45: Quoted _Int. Journ. of Ethics_, April 1902.]

[Footnote 46: The last line is pantheistic in expression, and has been
so understood by some, particularly by Mr J.M. Robertson. But pantheism
was at most a tendency, which the stubborn concreteness of his mind held
effectually in check; a point, one might say, upon which his thinking
converges, but which it never even proximately attains. God and the Soul
never mingle, however intimate their communion. Cf. chap. x. below.]



CHAPTER VI.

_THE RING AND THE BOOK_.

      Tout passe.--L'art robuste
      Seul a l'éternité.
        Le buste
      Survit à la cité.
      Et la médaille austère
      Que trouve un laboureur
        Sous terre
      Révèle un empereur.
            --GAUTIER: _L'Art_.


After four years of silence, the _Dramatis Personæ_ was followed by _The
Ring and the Book_. This monumental poem, in some respects his
culminating achievement, has its roots in an earlier stratum of his life
than its predecessor. There is little here to recall the characteristic
moods of his first years of desolate widowhood--the valiant Stoicism,
the acceptance of the sombre present, the great forward gaze upon the
world beyond. We are in Italy once more, our senses tingle with its
glowing prodigality of day, we jostle the teeming throng of the Roman
streets, and are drawn into the vortex of a vast debate which seems to
occupy the entire community, and which turns, not upon immortality, or
spiritualism, or the nature of God, or the fate of man, but on the guilt
or innocence of the actors in one pitiful drama,--a priest, a noble, an
illiterate girl.

With the analytic exuberance of one to whom the processes of Art were
yet more fascinating than its products, Browning has described how he
discovered this forgotten tale and forged its glowing metal into the
_Ring_. The chance finding of an "old square yellow book" which aroused
his curiosity among the frippery of a Florentine stall, was as
grotesquely casual an inception as poem ever had. But it was one of
those accidents which, suddenly befalling a creative mind, organise its
loose and scattered material with a magical potency unattainable by
prolonged cogitation. The story of Pompilia took shape in the gloom and
glare of a stormy Italian night of June 1860, as he watched from the
balcony of Casa Guidi. The patient elaboration of after-years wrought
into consummate expressiveness the _donnée_ of that hour. But the
conditions under which the elaboration was carried out were pathetically
unlike those of the primal vision. Before the end of June in the
following year Mrs Browning died, and Browning presently left Florence
for ever. For the moment all the springs of poetry were dried up, and it
is credible enough that, as Mrs Orr says, Browning abandoned all thought
of a poem, and even handed over his material to another. But within a
few months, it is clear, the story of Pompilia not merely recovered its
hold upon his imagination, but gathered a subtle hallowing association
with what was most spiritual in that vanished past of which it was the
last and most brilliant gift. The poem which enshrined Pompilia was thus
instinct with reminiscence; it was, with all its abounding vitality, yet
commemorative and memorial; and we understand how Browning, no friend of
the conventions of poetic art, entered on and closed his giant task with
an invocation to the "Lyric Love," as it were the Urania, or heavenly
Muse, of a modern epic.

The definite planning of the poem in its present shape belongs to the
autumn of 1862. In September 1862 he wrote to Miss Blagden from Biarritz
of "my new poem which is about to be, and of which the whole is pretty
well in my head--the Roman murder-story, you know."[48] After the
completion of the _Dramatis Personæ_ in 1863-64, the "Roman
murder-story" became his central occupation. To it three quiet early
morning hours were daily given, and it grew steadily under his hand. For
the rest he began to withdraw from his seclusion, to mix freely in
society, to "live and like earth's way." He talked openly among his
literary friends of the poem and its progress, rumour and speculation
busied themselves with it as never before with work of his, and the
literary world at large looked for its publication with eager and
curious interest. At length, in November 1868, the first instalment was
published. It was received by the most authoritative part of the press
with outspoken, even dithyrambic eulogies, in which the severely
judicial _Athenæum_ took the lead. Confirmed sceptics or deriders, like
Edward FitzGerald, rubbed their eyes and tried once again, in vain, to
make the old barbarian's verses construe and scan. To critics trained in
classical traditions the original structure of the poem was extremely
disturbing; and most of FitzGerald's friends shared, according to him,
the opinion of Carlyle, who roundly pronounced it "without _Backbone_ or
basis of Common-sense," and "among the absurdest books ever written by a
gifted Man." Tennyson, however, admitted (to FitzGerald) that he "found
greatness" in it,[47] and Mr Swinburne was in the forefront of the
chorus of praise. The audience which now welcomed Browning was in fact
substantially that which had hailed the first fresh runnels of Mr
Swinburne's genius a few years before; the fame of both marked a wave of
reaction from the austere simplicity and attenuated sentiment of the
later _Idylls of the King_. Readers upon whom the shimmering
exquisiteness of Arthurian knighthood began to pall turned with relish
to Browning's Italian murder story, with its sensational crime, its
mysterious elopement, its problem interest, its engaging actuality.

[Footnote 47: W.M. Rossetti reports Browning to have told him, in a
call, March 15, 1868, that he "began it in October 1864. Was staying at
Bayonne, and walked out to a mountain-gorge traditionally said to have
been cut or kicked out by Roland, and there laid out the full plan of
his twelve cantos, accurately carried out in the execution." The date is
presumably an error of Rossetti's for 1862 (_Rossetti Papers_, p. 302).
Cf. Letter of Sept. 29, 1862 (Orr, p. 259).]

[Footnote 48: _More Letters_ of E.F.G.]

And undoubtedly this was part of the attraction of the theme for
Browning himself. He had inherited his father's taste for stories of
mysterious crime.[49] And to the detective's interest in probing a
mystery, which seems to have been uppermost in the elder Browning, was
added the pleader's interest in making out an ingenious and plausible
case for each party. The casuist in him, the lover of argument as such,
and the devoted student of Euripides,[50] seized with delight upon a
forensic subject which made it natural to introduce the various "persons
of the drama," giving their individual testimonies and "apologies." He
avails himself remorselessly of all the pretexts for verbosity, for
iteration, for sophistical invention, afforded by the cumbrous machinery
of the law, and its proverbial delay. Every detail is examined from
every point of view. Little that is sordid or revolting is suppressed.
But then it is assuredly a mistake to represent, with one of the
liveliest of Browning's recent exponents, that the story was for him,
even at the outset, in the stage of "crude fact," merely a common and
sordid tale like a hundred others, picked up "at random" from a
rubbish-heap to be subjected to the alchemy of imagination by way of
showing the infinite worth of "the insignificant." Rather, he thought
that on that broiling June day, a providential "Hand" had "pushed" him
to the discovery, in that unlikely place, of a forgotten treasure, which
he forthwith pounced upon with ravishment as a "prize." He saw in it
from the first something rare, something exceptional, and made wondering
inquiries at Rome, where ecclesiasticism itself scarcely credited the
truth of a story which told "for once clean for the Church and dead
against the world, the flesh, and the devil."[51] The metal which went
to the making of the _Ring_, and on which he poured his imaginative
alloy, was crude and untempered, but it was gold. Its disintegrated
particles gleamed obscurely, as if with a challenge to the restorative
cunning of the craftsman. Above all, of course, and beyond all else,
that arresting gleam lingered about the bald record of the romance of
Pompilia and Caponsacchi. It was upon these two that Browning's divining
imagination fastened. Their relation was the crucial point of the whole
story, the point at which report stammered most lamely, and where the
interpreting spirit of poetry was most needed "to abolish the death of
things, deep calling unto deep." This process was itself, however, not
sudden or simple. This first inspiration was superb, visionary,
romantic,--in keeping with "the beauty and fearfulness of that June
night" upon the terrace at Florence, where it came to him.

                                   "All was sure,
      Fire laid and cauldron set, the obscene ring traced,
      The victim stripped and prostrate: what of God?
      The cleaving of a cloud, a cry, a crash,
      Quenched lay their cauldron, cowered i' the dust the crew,
      As, in a glory of armour like Saint George,
      Out again sprang the young good beauteous priest
      Bearing away the lady in his arms
      Saved for a splendid minute and no more."[52]

[Footnote 49: Cf. II. Corkran, _Celebrities and I_ (R. Browning,
senior), 1903.]

[Footnote 50: It is perhaps not without significance that in the summer
sojourn when _The Ring and the Book_ was planned, Euripides was, apart
from that, his absorbing companion. "I have got on," he writes to Miss
Blagden, "by having a great read at Euripides,--the one book I brought
with me."]

[Footnote 51: _Ring and the Book_, i. 437.]

[Footnote 52: _Ring and the Book_, i. 580-588.]

Such a vision might have been rendered without change in the chiselled
gold and agate of the _Idylls of the King_. But Browning's hero could be
no Sir Galahad; he had to be something less; and also something more.
The idealism of his nature had to force its way through perplexities and
errors, beguiled by the distractions and baffled by the duties of his
chosen career. Born to be a lover, in Dante's great way, he had groped
through life without the vision of Beatrice, seeking to satisfy his
blind desire, as perhaps Dante after Beatrice's death did also, with the
lower love and scorning the loveless asceticism of the monk. The Church
encouraged its priest to be "a fribble and a coxcomb"; and a fribble and
a coxcomb, by his own confession, Caponsacchi became. But the vanities
he mingled with never quite blinded him. He walked in the garden of the
Hesperides bent on great adventure, plucked in ignorance hedge-fruit
and feasted to satiety, but yet he scorned the achievement, laughing at
such high fame for hips and haws.[53] Then suddenly flashed upon him the
apparition, in the theatre, of

     "A lady, young, tall, beautiful, strange and sad."

[Footnote 53: _Caponsacchi_, 1002 f.]

The gaze burnt to his soul, and the beautiful, sad, strange smile
haunted him night and day; but their first effect was to crush and
scatter all thoughts of love. The young priest found himself haunting
the solemn shades of the Duomo instead of serenading countesses; vowed
to write no more canzonets, and doubted much whether Marini were a
better poet than Dante after all. His patron jocularly charged him with
playing truant in Church all day long:--

     "'Are you turning Molinist?' I answered quick:
      'Sir, what if I turned Christian? It might be.'"

The forged love-letters he instantly sees through. They are the
scorpion--blotch feigned to issue miraculously from Madonna's mouth. And
then Pompilia makes her appeal. "Take me to Rome!" The Madonna has
turned her face upon him indeed, "to summon me and signify her choice,"
and he at once receives and accepts

        "my own fact, my miracle
      Self-authorised and self-explained,"

in the presence of which all hesitation vanished,--nay, thought itself
fell back before the tide of revealing emotion:--

     "I paced the city: it was the first Spring.
      By the invasion I lay passive to,
      In rushed new things, the old were rapt away;
      Alike abolished--the imprisonment
      Of the outside air, the inside weight o' the world
      That pulled me down."

The bonds of his old existence snapped, the former heaven and earth died
for him, and that death was the beginning of life:--

        "Death meant, to spurn the ground.
      Soar to the sky,--die well and you do that.
      The very immolation made the bliss;
      Death was the heart of life, and all the harm
      My folly had crouched to avoid, now proved a veil
      Hiding all gain my wisdom strove to grasp:
      As if the intense centre of the flame
      Should turn a heaven to that devoted fly
      Which hitherto, sophist alike and sage,
      Saint Thomas with his sober grey goose-quill,
      And sinner Plato by Cephisian reed,
      Would fain, pretending just the insect's good,
      Whisk off, drive back, consign to shade again.
      Into another state, under new rule
      I knew myself was passing swift and sure;
      Whereof the initiatory pang approached,
      Felicitous annoy, as bitter-sweet
      As when the virgin-band, the victors chaste,
      Feel at the end the earthly garments drop,
      And rise with something of a rosy shame
      Into immortal nakedness: so I
      Lay, and let come the proper throe would thrill
      Into the ecstasy and outthrob pain."

But he presently discovered that his new task did not contravene, but
only completed, the old ideal. The Church had offered her priest no
alternative between the world and the cloister,--self-indulgence and
self-slaughter. For ignoble passion her sole remedy was to crush passion
altogether. She calls to the priest to renounce the fleshly woman and
cleave to Her, the Bride who took his plighted troth; but it is a
scrannel voice sighing from stone lungs:--

     "Leave that live passion, come, be dead with me!"

From the exalted Pisgah of his "new state" he recognised that the true
self-sacrifice, the perfect priesthood, lay by way of life, not death,
that life and death

     "Are means to an end, that passion uses both,
      Indisputably mistress of the man
      Whose form of worship is self-sacrifice."

Yet it is not this recognition, but the "passion" which ultimately
determines his course. Love is, for Browning, in his maturity, deeper
and more secure than thought; Caponsacchi wavers in his thinking, falls
back upon the narrower conception of priesthood, persuades himself that
his duty is to serve God:--

     "Duty to God is duty to her: I think
      God, who created her, will save her too
      Some new way, by one miracle the more,
      Without me."

But when once again he is confronted with the strange sad face, and
hears once more the pitiful appeal, all hesitations vanish, and he sees
no duty

     "Like daring try be good and true myself,
      Leaving the shows of things to the Lord of Show."

With the security of perfect innocence he flings at his judges as "the
final fact"--

     "In contempt for all misapprehending ignorance
      Of the human heart, much more the mind of Christ,--
      That I assuredly did bow, was blessed
      By the revelation of Pompilia."

Thus, through all the psychologic subtlety of the portrait the
groundwork of spiritual romance subsists. The militant saint of legend
reappears, in the mould and garb of the modern world, subject to all its
hampering conditions, and compelled to make his way over the corpses,
not of lions and dragons only, but of consecrated duties and treasured
instincts. And the matter-of-course chivalry of professed knighthood is
as inferior in art as in ethics to the chivalry to which this priest,
vowed to another service, is lifted by the vision of Pompilia.

Pompilia is herself, like her soldier saint, vowed to another service.
But while he only after a struggle overcomes the apparent discrepancy
between his duty as a priest and as a knight, she rises with the ease
and swiftness of a perfectly pure and spiritual nature from the duty of
endurance to the duty of resistance--

                          "Promoted at one cry
      O' the trump of God to the new service, not
      To longer bear, but henceforth fight, be found
      Sublime in new impatience with the foe!"[54]

[Footnote 54: _The Pope_, 1057.]

And she carries the same fearless simplicity into her love. Caponsacchi
falters and recoils in his adorations of her, with the compunction of
the voluptuary turned ascetic; he hardly dares to call his passion by a
name which the vulgar will mumble and misinterpret: she, utterly
unconscious of such peril, glories in the immeasurable devotion

     "Of my one friend, my only, all my own,
      Who put his breast between the spears and me."

Pompilia is steeped in the remembrance of the poet's "Lyric Love."
Remote enough this illiterate child must seem from the brilliant and
accomplished Elizabeth Browning. But Browning's conception of his wife's
nature had a significant affinity to his portrayal of Pompilia. She, he
declared, was "the poet," taught by genius more than by experience; he
himself "the clever person," effectively manipulating a comprehensive
knowledge of life. Pompilia does indeed put her narrow experience to
marvellous use; her blending of the infantine with the profound touches
the bounds of possible consistency; but her naïve spiritual instinct is
ever on the alert, and fills her with a perpetual sense of the
strangeness of the things that happen, a "childlike, wondering yet
subtle perception of the anomalies of life."

Spiritual simplicity has received no loftier tribute than from the most
opulent and complex poetic intellect of our day. He loves to bring such
natures into contrast with the cunning and cleverness of the world; to
show an Aprile, a David, a Pippa loosening the tangle of more
complicated lives with a song. Pompilia is a sister of the same
spiritual household as these. But she is a far more wonderful creation
than any of them; the same exquisite rarity of soul, but unfolded under
conditions more sternly real, and winning no such miraculous alacrity of
response. In lyrical wealth and swiftness Browning had perhaps advanced
little since the days of Pippa; but how much he had grown in
Shakespearian realism is fairly measured by the contrast between that
early, half-legendary lyric child, by whose unconscious alchemy the hard
hearts of Asolo are suddenly turned, and this later creation, whose
power over her world, though not less real, is so much more slowly and
hardly achieved. Her "song" is only the ravishing "unheard melody" which
breathes like incense from her inarticulate childhood. By simple force
of being what she is, she turns the priest into the saint, compels a
cynical society to believe in spiritual love, and wins even from the
husband who bought her and hated her and slew her the confession of his
last desperate cry--

     "Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"

In contrast with these two, who shape their course by the light of
their own souls, the authorised exponents of morality play a secondary
and for the most part a sorry part. The old Pope mournfully reflects
that his seven years' tillage of the garden of the Church has issued
only in the "timid leaf and the uncertain bud," while the perfect
flower, Pompilia, has sprung up by the wayside 'neath the foot of the
enemy, "a mere chance-sown seed."

    "Where are the Christians in their panoply?
     The loins we girt about with truth, the breasts
     Righteousness plated round, the shield of faith?...
     Slunk into corners!"

The Aretine Archbishop, who thrust the suppliant Pompilia back upon the
wolf, the Convent of Convertities, who took her in as a suffering saint,
and after her death claimed her succession because she was of dishonest
life, the unspeakable Abate and Canon, Guido's brothers,--it is these
figures who have played the most sinister part, and the old Pope
contemplates them with the "terror" of one who sees his fundamental
assumptions shaken at the root. For here the theory of the Church was
hard to maintain. Not only had the Church, whose mission it was to guide
corrupt human nature by its divine light, only darkened and destroyed,
but the saving love and faith had sprung forth at the bidding of natural
promptings of the spirit, which its rule and law were to supersede.[55]
The blaze of "uncommissioned meteors" had intervened where the
authorised luminaries failed, and if they dazzled, it was with excess of
light. Was Caponsacchi blind?

     "Ay, as a man should be inside the sun,
      Delirious with the plenitude of light."[56]

[Footnote 55: _The Pope_, 1550 f.]

[Footnote 56: _The Pope_, 1563.]

It is easy to imagine how so grave an indictment would have been forced
home by the author of the _Cenci_ had this other, less famous, "Roman
murder-case" fallen into his hands. The old Godwinian virus would have
found ready material in this disastrous breakdown of a great
institution, this magnificent uprising of emancipated souls. Yet, though
the Shelleyan affinities of Browning are here visible enough, his point
of view is clearly distinct. The revolutionary animus against
institutions as the sole obstacle to the native goodness of man has
wholly vanished; but of historic or mystic reverence for them he has not
a trace. He parts company with Rousseau without showing the smallest
affinity to Burke. As sources of moral and spiritual growth the State
and the Church do not count. Training and discipline have their relative
worth, but the spirit bloweth where it listeth, and the heights of moral
achievement are won by those alone in whom it breathes the heroism of
aspiration and resolve. His idealists grow for the most part in the
interstices of the social organism. He recognises them, it is true,
without difficulty even in the most central and responsible organs of
government. None of his unofficial heroes--Paracelsus or Sordello or
Rabbi ben Ezra--has a deeper moral insight than the aged Pope. But the
Pope's impressiveness for Browning and for his readers lies just in his
complete emancipation from the bias of his office. He faces the task of
judgment, not as an infallible priest, but as a man, whose wisdom, like
other men's, depends upon the measure of his God-given judgment, and
flags with years. His "grey ultimate decrepitude" is fallible, Pope
though he be; and he naïvely submits the verdict it has framed to the
judgment of his former self, the vigorous, but yet uncrowned, worker in
the world. This summing-up of the case is in effect the poet's own, and
is rich in the familiar prepossessions of Browning's individualist and
unecclesiastical mind. He vindicates Caponsacchi more in the spirit of
an antique Roman than of a Christian; he has open ears for the wisdom of
the pagan world, and toleration for the human Euripides; scorn for the
founder of Jesuitism, sympathy for the heretical Molinists; and he
blesses the imperfect knowledge which makes faith hard. The Pope, like
his creator, is "ever a fighter," and his last word is a peremptory
rejection of all appeals for mercy, whether in the name of policy,
Christian forgiveness, or "soft culture," and a resolve to

     "Smite with my whole strength once more, ere end my part,
      Ending, so far as man may, this offence."

And with this solemn and final summing-up--this quietly authoritative
keynote into which all the clashing discords seem at length to be
resolved--the poem, in most hands, would have closed. But Browning was
too ingrained a believer in the "oblique" methods of Art to acquiesce in
so simple and direct a conclusion; he loved to let truth struggle
through devious and unlikely channels to the heart instead of missing
its aim by being formally proclaimed or announced. Hence we are hurried
from the austere solitary meditation of the aged Pope to the condemned
cell of Guido, and have opened before us with amazing swiftness and
intensity all the recesses of that monstrous nature, its "lips unlocked"
by "lucidity of soul." It ends, not on a solemn keynote, but in that
passionate and horror-stricken cry where yet lurks the implicit
confession that he is guilty and his doom just--

     "Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"

It is easy--though hardly any longer quite safe--to cavil at the unique
structure of _The Ring and the Book_. But this unique structure, which
probably never deterred a reader who had once got under way, answers in
the most exact and expressive way to Browning's aims. The subject is not
the story of Pompilia only, but the fortunes of her story, and of all
stories of spiritual naïvete such as hers, when projected upon the
variously refracting media of mundane judgment and sympathies. It is not
her guilt or innocence only which is on trial, but the mind of man in
its capacity to receive and apprehend the surprises of the spirit. The
issue, triumphant for her, is dubious and qualified for the mind of
man, where the truth only at last flames forth in its purity. Browning
even hints at the close that "one lesson" to be had from his work is the
falseness of human estimation, fame, and speech. But for the poet who
thus summed up the purport of his twenty thousand verses, this was not
the whole truth of the matter. Here, as always, that immense, even
riotous, vitality of his made the hazards and vicissitudes of the
process even more precious than the secure triumph of the issue, and the
spirit of poetry itself lured him along the devious ways of minds in
which personality set its own picturesque or lurid tinge upon truth. The
execution vindicated the design. Voluble, even "mercilessly voluble,"
the poet of _The Ring and the Book_ undoubtedly is. But it is the
volubility of a consummate master of expression, in whose hands the
difficult medium of blank verse becomes an instrument of Shakespearian
flexibility and compass, easily answering to all the shifts and windings
of a prodigal invention, familiar without being vulgar, gritty with
homely detail without being flat; always, at its lowest levels, touched,
like a plain just before sunrise, with hints of ethereal light,
momentarily withheld; and rising from time to time without effort to a
magnificence of phrase and movement touched in its turn with that
suggestion of the homely and the familiar which in the inmost recesses
of Browning's genius lurked so near--so vitally near--to the roots of
the sublime.



CHAPTER VII.

AFTERMATH.

      Which wins--Earth's poet or the Heavenly Muse?
      --_Aristophanes' Apology_.


The publication of _The Ring and the Book_ marks in several ways a
turning-point in Browning's career. Conceived and planned before the
tragic close of his married life, and written during the first desolate
years of bereavement, it is, more than any other of his greater poems,
pervaded by his wife's spirit, a crowning monument to his Lyric Love.
But it is also the last upon which her spirit left any notable trace.
With his usual extraordinary recuperative power, Browning re-moulded the
mental universe which her love had seemed to complete, and her death
momentarily to shatter, into a new, lesser completeness. He lived in the
world, and frankly "liked earth's way," enjoying the new gifts of
friendship and of fame which the years brought in rich measure. The
little knot of critics whose praise even of _Men and Women_ and
_Dramatis Personæ_; had been little more than a cry in the wilderness,
found their voices lost in the chorus of admiration which welcomed the
story of Pompilia. Some stout recalcitrants, it is true, like Edward
FitzGerald, held their ground. And while the tone of even hostile
criticism became respectful, enough of it remained to provide objects,
seven years later, for the uproarious chaff of _Pacchiarotto_.

From 1869 to 1871 Browning published nothing, and he appears also to
have written nothing beyond a sonnet commemorating Helen, the mother of
Lord Dufferin (dated April 26, 1870), almost the only set of fourteen
lines in his works of which not one proclaims his authorship. But the
decade which followed was more prolific than any other ten years of his
life. Between 1871 and 1878 nine volumes in swift succession allured,
provoked, or bewildered the reading world. Everything was now planned on
a larger scale; the vast compass and boundless volubility of _The Ring
and the Book_ became normal. He gave free rein to his delight in
intricate involutions of plot and of argument; the dramatic monologue
grew into novels in verse like _Red-cotton Night-cap Country_ and _The
Inn Album_; and the "special pleaders," Hohenstiel and Juan, expounded
their cases with a complexity of apparatus unapproached even by Sludge.
A certain relaxation of poetic nerve is on the whole everywhere
apparent, notwithstanding the prodigal display of crude intellectual
power. His poetic alchemy is less potent, the ore of sordid fact remains
sordid still. Not that his high spirituality is insecure, his heroic
idealism dimmed; but they coalesce less intimately with the alert wit
and busy intelligence of the mere "clever man," and seek their nutriment
and material more readily in regions of legend and romance, where the
transmuting work of imagination has been already done. It is no accident
that his lifelong delight in the ideal figures of Greek tragedy, so
unlike his own creations, became in these years for the first time an
effective source of poetry. The poems of this decade form thus an odd
motley series--realism and romance interlaced but hardly blent,
Aeschylus and Euripides, the divine helper Herakles and the glorious
embodiment of the soul of Athens, Balaustion, emerging and re-emerging
after intervals occupied by the chicaneries of Miranda or the Elder Man.
No inept legend for the Browning of this decade is the noble song of
Thamuris which his Aristophanes half mockingly declaimed. "Earth's poet"
and "the heavenly Muse" are not allies, and they at times go different
ways.

_Hervé Riel_ (published March 1871) is less characteristic of Browning
in purely literary quality than in the hearty helpfulness which it
celebrates, and the fine international chivalry by which it was
inspired. The French disasters moved him deeply; he had many personal
ties with France, and was sharing with his dearest French friend, Joseph
Milsand, as near neighbour, a primitive villeggiatura in a Norman
fishing-village when the stupendous catastrophe of Sedan broke upon
them. Sympathy with the French sufferers induced Browning to do
violence to a cherished principle by offering the poem to George Smith
for publication in _The Cornhill_. Most of its French readers doubtless
heard of Hervé Riel, as well as of Robert Browning, for the first time.
His English readers found it hard to classify among the naval ballads of
their country, few of which had been devoted to celebrating the exploits
of foreign sailors, or the deliverance of hostile fleets. But they
recognised the poet of _The Ring and the Book_, Hervé has no touch of
Browning's "philosophy." He is none the less a true kinsman, in his
homely fashion, of Caponsacchi,--summoned in a supreme emergency for
which the appointed authorities have proved unequal.

A greater tale of heroic helpfulness was presently to engage him.
_Balaustion's Adventure_ was, as the charming dedication tells us, the
most delightful of May-month amusements; but in the splendid proem which
enshrines the story of Herakles and Alkestis, we still feel the thrill
of the deadly conflict; the agony of France may be partly divined in the
agony of Athens. Thirty years before, he had shown, in the noble
fragmentary "prologue" to a _Hippolytus (Artemis Prologizes)_, a command
of the majestic, reticent manner of Greek tragedy sufficiently
remarkable in one whose natural instincts of expression were far more
Elizabethan than Greek. The incongruity of Greek dramatic methods with
his own seems to have speedily checked his progress; but Euripides, the
author of the Greek _Hippolytus_, retained a peculiar fascination for
him, and it was on another Euripidean drama that he now, in the fulness
of his powers, set his hand. The result certainly does not diminish our
sense of the incongruity. Keenly as he admired the humanity and pathos
of Euripides, he challenges comparison with Euripides most successfully
when he goes completely his own way. He was too robustly original to
"transcribe" well, and his bold emphatic speech, curbed to the task of
reproducing the choice and pregnant sobriety of Attic style, is apt to
eliminate everything but the sobriety. The "transcribed" Greek is often
yet flatter than "literal" versions of Greek verse are wont to be, and
when Browning speaks in his own person the style recovers itself with a
sudden and vehement bound, like a noble wild creature abruptly released
from restraint. Among the finest of these "recoveries" are the bursts of
description which Balaustion's enthusiasm interjects between the
passages of dialogue. Such is the magnificent picture of the coming of
Herakles. In the original he merely enters as the chorus end their song,
addressing them with the simple inquiry, "Friends, is Admetos haply
within?" to which the chorus reply, like civil retainers, "Yes,
Herakles, he is at home." Browning, or his Balaustion, cannot permit the
mighty undoer of the tragic harms to come on in this homely fashion. A
great interrupting voice rings suddenly through the dispirited
maunderings of Admetos' house-folk; and the hearty greeting, "My hosts
here!" thrills them with the sense that something good and opportune is
at hand:--

     "Sudden into the midst of sorrow leapt,
      Along with the gay cheer of that great voice
      Hope, joy, salvation: Herakles was here!
      Himself o' the threshold, sent his voice on first
      To herald all that human and divine
      I' the weary, happy face of him,--half god,
      Half man, which made the god-part god the more."

The heroic helpfulness of Herakles is no doubt the chief thing for
Browning in the story. The large gladness of spirit with which he
confronts the meticulous and perfunctory mourning of the stricken
household reflected his own habitual temper with peculiar vividness. But
it is clear that the Euripidean story contained an element which
Browning could not assimilate--Admetos' acceptance of Alkestis'
sacrifice. To the Greek the action seemed quite in order; the persons
who really incurred his reproof were Admetos' parents, who in spite of
their advanced years refused to anticipate their approaching death in
their son's favour. Browning cannot away with an Admetos who, from sheer
reluctance to die, allowed his wife to suffer death in his place; and he
characteristically suggests a version of the story in which its issues
are determined from first to last, and on both sides, by
self-sacrificing love. Admetos is now the large-minded king who grieves
to be called away before his work for his people is done. Alkestis
seeks, with Apollo's leave, to take his place, so that her lord may live
and carry out the purposes of his soul,--

     "Nor let Zeus lose the monarch meant in thee."

But Admetos will not allow this; for Alkestis is as spirit to his flesh,
and his life without her would be but a passive death. To which "pile of
truth on truth" she rejoins by adding the "one truth more," that his
refusal of her sacrifice would be in effect a surrender of the supreme
duty laid upon him of reigning a righteous king,--that this life-purpose
of his is above joy and sorrow, and the death which she will undergo for
his and its sake, her highest good as it is his. And in effect, her
death, instead of paralysing him, redoubles the vigour of his soul, so
that Alkestis, living on in a mind made better by her presence, has not
in the old tragic sense died at all, and finds her claim to enter Hades
rudely rejected by "the pensive queen o' the twilight," for whom death
meant just to die, and wanders back accordingly to live once more by
Admetos' side. Such the story became when the Greek dread of death was
replaced by Browning's spiritual conception of a death glorified by
love. The pathos and tragic forces of it were inevitably enfeebled; no
Herakles was needed to pluck this Alkestis from the death she sought,
and the rejection of her claim to die is perilously near to Lucianic
burlesque. But, simply as poetry, the joyous sun-like radiance of the
mighty spoiler of death is not unworthily replaced by the twilight
queen, whose eyes

                     "lingered still
      Straying among the flowers of Sicily,"

absorbed in the far memory of the life that Herakles asserted and
enforced,--until, at Alkestis' summons, she

             "broke through humanity
      Into the orbed omniscience of a god."

From his idealised Admetos Browning passed with hardly a pause to
attempt the more difficult feat of idealising a living sovereign.
Admetos was ennobled by presenting him as a political idealist; the
French Emperor, whose career had closed at Sedan, was in some degree
qualified for a parallel operation by the obscurity which still invested
the inmost nature of that well-meaning adventurer. Browning had watched
Louis Napoleon's career with mixed feelings; he had resented the _coup
d'état_, and still more the annexation of Savoy and Nice after the war
of 1859. But he had never shared the bitter animus which prevailed at
home. He was equally far, no doubt, from sharing the exalted
hero-worship which inspired his wife's _Poems before Congress_. The
creator of _The Italian in England_, of Luigi, and Bluphocks, could not
but recognise the signal services of Napoleon to the cause of Italian
freedom, however sharply he condemned the hard terms on which Italy had
been compelled to purchase it. "It was a great action; but he has taken
eighteenpence for it--which is a pity";[57] it was on the lines of this
epigram, already quoted, that eleven years later he still interpreted
the fallen emperor, and that he now completed, as it would seem, the
abandoned poem of 1860. He saw in him a man of generous impulses doubled
with a _borné_ politician, a ruler of genuine Liberal and even
democratic proclivities, which the timid calculations of a second-rate
opportunist reduced to a contemptible travesty of Liberalism. The
shifting standpoints of such a man are reproduced with superfluous
fidelity in his supposed Defence, which seems designed to be as elusive
and impalpable as the character it reflects. How unlike the brilliant
and precise realism of Blougram, sixteen years before! The upcurling
cloud-rings from Hohenstiel's cigar seem to symbolise something
unsubstantial and evasive in the whole fabric. The assumptions we are
invited to form give way one after another. Leicester Square proves the
"Residenz," the "bud-mouthed arbitress" a shadowy memory, the discourse
to a friendly and flattered hearer a midnight meditation. And there is a
like fluctuation of mood. Now he is formally justifying his past, now
musing, half wistfully, half ironically, over all that he might have
been and was not. At the outset we see him complacently enough
intrenched within a strong position, that of the consistent opportunist,
who made the best of what he found, not a creator but a conservator,
"one who keeps the world safe." But he has ardent ideas and
aspirations. The freedom of Italy has kindled his imagination, and in
the grandest passage of the poem he broods over his frustrate but
deathless dream:--

     "Ay, still my fragments wander, music-fraught,
      Sighs of the soul, mine once, mine now, and mine
      For ever! Crumbled arch, crushed aqueduct,
      Alive with tremors in the shaggy growth
      Of wild-wood, crevice-sown, that triumphs there,
      Imparting exultation to the hills."

[Footnote 57: _Letters of E.B.B._, ii. 385.]

But if he had abandoned these generous dreams, he had won free trade and
given the multitude cheap bread, and in a highly ingenious piece of
sophistry he explains, by the aid of the gospel of Evolution, how men
are united by their common hunger, and thrust apart by their conflicting
ideas. But Hohenstiel knows very well that his intrenchments are not
unassailable; and he goes on to compose an imaginary biography of
himself as he might have been, with comments which reflect his actual
course. The finest part of this æthereal voyage is that in which his
higher unfulfilled self pours scorn upon the paltry duplicities of the
"Peace" policy by which his actual and lower self had kept on good terms
abroad, and beguiled the imperious thirst for "la gloire" at home.
Indignantly the author of _Hervé Riel_ asks why "the more than all
magnetic race" should have to court its rivals by buying their goods
untaxed, or guard against them by war for war's sake, when Mother Earth
has no pride above her pride in that same

                    "race all flame and air
      And aspiration to the boundless Great,
      The incommensurably Beautiful--
      Whose very falterings groundward come of flight
      Urged by a pinion all too passionate
      For heaven and what it holds of gloom and glow."

_The Ring and the Book_ had made Browning famous. But fame was far from
tempting him to undue compliance with the tastes of his new-won public;
rather it prompted him to indulge his genius more freely, and to go his
own way with a more complete security and unconcern.
_Hohenstiel-Schwangau_--one of the rockiest and least attractive of all
Browning's poems--had mystified most of its readers and been little
relished by the rest. And now that plea for a discredited politician was
followed up by what, on the face of it, was, as Mrs Orr puts it, "a
defence of inconstancy in marriage." The apologist for Napoleon III.
came forward as the advocate of Don Juan. The prefixed bit of dialogue
from Molière's play explains the situation. Juan, detected by his wife
in an intrigue, is completely nonplussed. "Fie!" cries Elvire, mockingly
(in Browning's happy paraphrase),--

     "Fie! for a man of mode, accustomed at the court
      To such a style of thing, how awkwardly my lord
      Attempts defence!"

In this emergency, Browning, as it would seem, steps in, and provides
the arch-voluptuary with a philosophy of illicit love, quite beyond the
speculative capacity of any Juan in literature, and glowing with poetry
of a splendour and fertility which neither Browning himself nor the
great English poet who had identified his name with that of Juan, and
whom Browning in this very poem overwhelms with genial banter, ever
surpassed. The poem inevitably challenged comparison with Byron's
masterpiece. In dazzling play of intellect, in swift interchange of wit
and passion, the English nineteenth century produced nothing more
comparable to the _Don Juan_ of Byron than _Fifine at the Fair_.

It cannot be denied that the critics had some excuse who, like Mortimer,
frankly identified Browning with his hero, and described the poem as an
assertion of the "claim to relieve the fixity of conjugal affection by
varied adventure in the world of temporary loves."[58] For Browning has
not merely given no direct hint of his own divergence from Juan,
corresponding to his significant comment upon Blougram--"he said true
things but called them by false names"; he has made his own subtlest and
profoundest convictions on life and art spring spontaneously from the
brain of this brilliant conqueror of women. Like Goethe's Faust, he
unmistakably shares the mind, the wisdom, the faith, of his creator; it
is plausible to suppose that the poet indorses his application of them.
This is unquestionably a complete mistake; but Browning, as usual,
presumed too much upon his readers' insight, and took no pains to
obviate a confusion which he clearly supposed to be impossible.

[Footnote 58: Mrs Orr, _Life_, p. 297. Her own criticism is, however,
curiously indecisive and embarrassed.]

It was on the strand at Pornic that he encountered the fateful gipsy
whom he calls Fifine. Arnold, years before, had read unutterable depths
of soul in another gipsy child by another shore. For Browning now, as in
the days of the _Flight of the Duchess_, the gipsy symbolised the life
of joyous detachment from the constraints of society and civilisation.
The elementary mood, out of which the wondrous woof of reasonings and
images is evolved, is simply the instinctive beat of the spirit of
romance in us all, in sympathy with these light-hearted losels of the
wild, who "cast allegiance off, play truant, nor repine," and though
disgraced but seem to relish life the more.

The beautiful _Prologue_--one of the most original lyrics in the
language--strikes the keynote:--

     "Sometimes, when the weather
        Is blue, and warm waves tempt
      To free oneself of tether,
        And try a life exempt

      From worldly noise and dust,
        In the sphere which overbrims
      With passion and thought,--why, just
        Unable to fly, one swims....

      Emancipate through passion
        And thought,--with sea for sky,
      We substitute, in a fashion,
        For heaven--poetry."

It is this "emancipation" from our confinement in the bonds of prose,
commonplace, and routine, by a passion and thought-winged imagination,
which is the true subject of the poem. But he chooses to convey his
meaning, as usual, through the rich refracting medium of dramatic
characters and situations quite unlike his own. So his "apology for
poetry" becomes an item in Don Juan's case for the "poetry" of dalliance
with light-o'-loves. Fifine herself acquires new importance; the
emancipated gipsy turns into the pert seductive coquette, while over
against her rises the pathetic shadow of the "wife in trouble," her
white fingers pressing Juan's arm, "ravishingly pure" in her "pale
constraint." Between these three persons the moving drama is played out,
ending, like all Don Juan stories, with the triumph of the baser
influence. Elvire, with her eloquent silences and wistful pathos, is an
exquisite creation,--a wedded sister of Shakespeare's Hero; Fifine, too,
with her strutting bravado and "pose half frank, half fierce," shrills
her discordant note vivaciously enough. The principal speaker himself is
the most complex of Browning's casuists, a marvellously rich and
many-hued piece of portraiture. This Juan is deeply versed in all the
activities of the imagination which he so eloquently defends. Painting
and poetry, science and philosophy, are at his command; above all, he is
an artist and a poet in the lore of Love.

It is easy to see that the kind of adventure on which Juan claims the
right of projecting his imagination has close affinities with the
habitual procedure of Browning's own. Juan defends his dealings with
the gay fizgig Fifine as a step to the fuller appreciation of Elvire; he
demands freedom to escape only as a means of possessing more surely and
intimately what he has. And Browning's "emancipation" is not that of the
purely Romantic poet, who pursues a visionary abstraction remote from
all his visible environment. The emancipated soul, for him, was rather
that which incessantly "practised with" its environment, fighting its
way through countless intervening films of illusion to the full
knowledge of itself and of all that it originally held _in posse_. This
might not be an adequate account of his own artistic processes, in which
genial instinct played a larger, and resolute will a smaller, part than
his invincible athleticism of temperament would suggest. But his
marvellous wealth of spontaneous vision was fed and enriched by
incessant "practice with" his environment; his idealism was vitalised by
the ceaseless play of eye and brain upon the least promising mortal
integuments of spirit; he possessed "Elvire" the more securely for
having sent forth his adventurous imagination to practise upon
innumerable Fifines.

The poem itself--as a defence of his poetic methods--was an "adventure"
in which imagination played an unusually splendid part. A succession of
brilliant and original images, visions, similes, parables, exhibits the
twofold nature of the "stuff" with which the artist plays,--its
inferiority, its poverty, its "falseness" in itself, its needfulness,
its potency, its worth for him. It is the water which supports the
swimmer, but in which he cannot live; the dross of straw and chaff which
yields the brilliant purity of flame (c. 55); the technical cluster of
sounds from which issues "music--that burst of pillared cloud by day and
pillared fire by night" (c. 41). The whole poem is haunted by the sense
of dissonance which these images suggest between the real and the
apparent meaning of things. Browning's world, else so massive and so
indubitable, becomes unsubstantial and phantasmal, an illusive pageant
in which Truth is present only under a mask, being "forced to manifest
itself through falsehood." Juan, who declares that, unlike poets, "we
prose-folk" always dream, has, in effect, a visionary quality of
imagination which suits his thesis and his theme. The "dream figures" of
the famous ladies pass before us like a gorgeous tapestry,--some rich
Venetian rendering of a medieval _ballade du temps jadis_; then Venice
itself opens before us, all moving life and colour, under the
enchantment of Schumann's _Carnival_, only to resolve itself into a
vaster pageant of the world, with its mighty fanes of art and science,
which, seemingly "fixed as fate, not fairy-work," yet

                               "tremblingly grew blank
      From bright, then broke afresh in triumph,--ah, but sank
      As soon, for liquid change through artery and vein
      O' the very marble wound its way."

The August of 1872 found Browning and his sister once more in France.
This time, however, not at Croisic but Saint Aubin--the primitive
hamlet on the Norman coast to which he had again been drawn by his
attachment to Joseph Milsand. At a neighbouring village was another old
friend, Miss Thackeray, who has left a charming account of the place.
They walked along a narrow cliff-path: "The sea-coast far below our
feet, the dried, arid vegetation of the sandy way, the rank yellow
snapdragon lining the paths.... We entered the Brownings' house. The
sitting-room door opened to the garden and the sea beyond--a fresh-swept
bare floor, a table, three straw chairs, one book upon the table." A
misunderstanding, now through the good offices of Milsand happily
removed, had clouded the friendship of Browning and Miss Thackeray; and
his joyous revulsion of heart has left characteristic traces in the poem
which he dedicated to his "fair friend." The very title is jest--an
outflow of high spirits in an exuberantly hearty hand-shake--"British
man with British maid"; the country of the "Red-cotton Night-cap" being
in fact, of course, the country which her playful realism had already
nicknamed "White-cotton Night-cap Country," from the white lawn
head-dress of the Norman women. Nothing so typical and everyday could
set Browning's imagination astir, and among the wilderness of white,
innocent and flavourless, he caught at a story which promised to be
"wrong and red and picturesque," and vary "by a splotch the righteous
flat of insipidity."

The story of Miranda the Paris jeweller and his mistress, Clara de
Millefleurs, satisfied this condition sufficiently. Time had not
mellowed the raw crudity of this "splotch," which Browning found
recorded in no old, square, yellow vellum book, but in the French
newspapers of that very August; the final judgment of the court at Caen
("Vire") being actually pronounced while he wrote. The poet followed on
the heels of the journalist, and borrowed, it must be owned, not a
little of his methods. If any poem of Browning's may be compared to
versified special correspondence, it is this. He tells the story, in his
own person, in blank verse of admirable ease and fluency, from which
every pretence of poetry is usually remote. What was it in this rather
sordid tale that arrested him? Clearly the strangely mingled character
of Miranda. Castile and Paris contend in his blood; and his love
adventures, begun on the boulevards and in their spirit, end in an
ecstasy of fantastic devotion. His sins are commonplace and prosaic
enough, but his repentances detach him altogether from the herd of
ordinary penitents as well as of ordinary sinners--confused and violent
gesticulations of a visionary ascetic struggling to liberate himself
from the bonds of his own impurity. "The heart was wise according to its
lights"; but the head was incapable of shaping this vague heart-wisdom
into coherent practice. A parallel piece of analysis presents Clara as a
finished artist in life--a Meissonier of limited but flawless perfection
in her unerring selection of means to ends. In other words, this not
very attractive pair struck Browning as another example of his familiar
contrast between those who "try the low thing and leave it done," and
those who aim higher and fail. Yet it must be owned that these
Browningesque ideas are not thoroughly wrought into the substance of the
poem; they are rather a sort of marginal embroidery woven on to a story
which, as a whole, has neither been shaped by Browning's hand nor
vitalised with his breath. Neither Clara nor Miranda can be compared in
dramatic force with his great creations; even Clara's harangue to the
Cousinry, with all its passion and flashing scorn, is true rather to her
generic character as the injured champion of her dead lord than to her
individual variety of it--the woman of subtle, inflexible, yet
calculating devotion. Miranda's soliloquy before he throws himself from
the Tower is a powerful piece of construction, but, when the book is
closed, what we seem to see in it is not the fantastical goldsmith
surveying the motives of his life, but Browning filling in the bizarre
outlines of his construction with appropriate psychological detail.
Another symptom of decline in Browning's most characteristic kind of
power is probably to be found in the play of symbolism which invests
with an air of allegorical abstraction the "Tower" and the "Turf," and
makes the whole poem, with all its prosaic realism, intelligibly
regarded as a sort of fantasia on self-indulgence and self-control.

The summer retreat of 1874 was found once more on the familiar north
coast of France,--this time at the quiet hamlet of Mers, near Treport.
In this lonely place, with scarcely a book at hand, he wrote the greater
part of the most prodigally and exuberantly learned of all his
poems--_Aristophanes' Apology_ (published April 1875). It was not
Browning's way to repeat his characters, but the story of Balaustion,
the brilliant girl devotee of Euripides, had proved an admirable setting
for his interpretations of Greek drama; and the charm of that earlier
"most delightful of May-month amusements" was perhaps not the less
easily revived in these weeks of constant companionship with a devoted
woman-friend of his own. Balaustion is herself full ten years older than
at the time of her first adventure; her fresh girlish enthusiasm has
ripened into the ardent conviction of intellectual maturity; she can not
only cite Euripides, but vindicate his art against his mightiest
assailant. Situation, scenery, language, are here all more complex. The
first Adventure was almost Greek in its radiant and moving simplicity;
the last is Titanically Browningesque, a riot of the least Hellenic
elements of Browning's mind with the uptorn fragments of the Hellenic
world. Moreover, the issue is far from being equally clear. The glory of
Euripides is still the ostensible theme; but Aristophanes had so many
points of contact with Browning himself, and appeals in his defence to
so many root-ideas of Browning's own, that the reader hesitates between
the poet to whom Browning's imagination allied him, and the poet whom
his taste preferred. His Aristophanes is, like himself, the poetry of
"Life," a broad and generous realist, who like Lippo Lippi draws all
existence into his art; an enemy of all asceticisms and abstractions,
who drives his meaning home through vivid concrete example and drastic
phrase, rather than by enunciating the impressive moral commonplaces of
tragic poetry.[59] Aristophanes, too, had been abused for his
"unintelligible" poetry,--"mere psychologic puzzling,"[60]--by a
"chattering" public which preferred the lilt of nursery rhymes. The
magnificent portrait of Aristophanes is conceived in the very spirit of
the riotous exuberance of intellect and senses--

                 "Mind a-wantoning
      At ease of undisputed mastery
      Over the body's brood"--

which was so congenial to the realist in Browning; "the clear
baldness--all his head one brow"--and the surging flame of red from
cheek to temple; the huge eyeballs rolling back native fire, imperiously
triumphant, the "pursed mouth's pout aggressive," and "the beak supreme
above," "beard whitening under like a vinous foam."

[Footnote 59: _Arist. Ap._, p. 698.]

[Footnote 60: Ib., p. 688.]

Balaustion is herself the first to recognise the divinity shrouded in
this half satyr-like form: in some of the finest verses of the poem she
compares him to the sea-god, whom as a child she had once seen peer

     "large-looming from his wave,

       *       *       *       *       *

      A sea-worn face, sad as mortality,
      Divine with yearning after fellowship,"

while below the surface all was "tail splash, frisk of fin." And when
Balaustion has recited her poet's masterpiece of tragic pathos,
Aristophanes lays aside the satirist a moment and attests his affinity
to the divine poets by the noble song of Thamyris. The "transcript from
Euripides" itself is quite secondary in interest to this vivid and
powerful dramatic framework. Far from being a vital element in the
action, like the recital of the _Alkestis_, the reading of the _Hercules
Furens_ is an almost gratuitous diversion in the midst of the talk; and
the tameness of a literal (often awkwardly literal) translation is
rarely broken by those inrushes of alien genius which are the glory of
Browning's _Alkestis_. Yet the very self-restraint sprang probably from
Browning's deep sensibility to the pathos of the story. "Large tears,"
as Mrs Orr has told us, fell from his eyes, and emotion choked his
voice, when he first read it aloud to her.

The _Inn Album_ is, like _Red-cotton Night-cap Country_, a versified
novel, melodramatic in circumstances, frankly familiar in scenery and
atmosphere. Once more, as in the _Blot in the 'Scutcheon_, and in _James
Lee's Wife_, Browning turned for his "incidents in the development of
souls" to the passion and sin-frayed lives of his own countrymen. But no
halo of seventeenth-century romance here tempers the sordid modernity of
the facts; the "James Lee" of this tragedy appears in person and is
drawn with remorseless insistence on every mean detail which announces
the "rag-and-feather hero-sham." Everything except his wit and eloquence
is sham and shabby in this Club-and-Country-house villain, who violates
more signally than any figure in poetic literature the canon that the
contriver of the tragic harms must not be totally despicable. A thief,
as Schiller said, can qualify for a tragic hero only by adding to his
theft the more heroic crime of murder; but Browning's Elder Man
compromises even the professional perfidies of a Don Juan with shady
dealings at cards and the like which Don Juan himself would have
scouted. In _Fifine_ the Don Juan of tradition was lifted up into and
haloed about with poetical splendours not his own; here he is depressed
into an equally alien sorriness of prose. But the decisive and
commanding figure, for Browning and for his readers, is of course his
victim and Nemesis, the Elder Lady. She is as unlike Pompilia as he is
unlike Guido; but we see not less clearly how the upleaping of the soul
of womanhood in the child, under the stress of foul and cruel wrongs,
has once more asserted its power over him. And if Pompilia often recalls
his wife, the situation of the Elder Lady may fairly remind us of that
of Marion Erle in _Aurora Leigh_. But many complexities in the working
out mark Browning's design. The betrayed girl, scornfully refusing her
betrayer's tardy offer of marriage, has sought a refuge, as the wife of
a clergyman, in the drudgery of a benighted parish. The chance meeting
of the two, four years after, in the inn parlour, their bitter
confessions, through the veil of mutual hatred, that life has been
ruined for both,--he, with his scandalous successes growing at last
notorious, she, the soul which once "sprang at love," now sealed
deliberately against beauty, and spent in preaching monstrous doctrines
which neither they nor their savage parishioners believe nor
observe,--all this is imagined very powerfully and on lines which would
hardly have occurred to any one else.

The _Pacchiarotto_ volume forms a kind of epilogue to the work of the
previous half-dozen years. Since _The Ring and the Book_ he had become a
famous personage; his successive poems had been everywhere reviewed at
length; a large public was genuinely interested in him, while a yet
larger complained of his "obscurity," but did not venture to ignore him,
and gossiped eagerly about his private life. He himself, mingling
freely, an ever-welcome guest, in the choicest London society, had the
air of having accepted the world as cordially as it on the whole
accepted him. Yet barriers remained. Poems like the _Red-cotton
Night-cap Country_, the _Inn Album_, and _Fifine_ had alienated many
whom _The Ring and the Book_ had won captive, and embarrassed the
defence of some of Browning's staunchest devotees. Nobody knew better
than the popular diner-out, Robert Browning, how few of the men and
women who listened to his brilliant talk had any grip upon his inner
mind; and he did little to assist their insight. The most affable and
accessible of men up to a certain point, he still held himself, in the
deeper matters of his art, serenely and securely aloof. But it was a
good-humoured, not a cynical, aloofness, which found quite natural
expression in a volley of genial chaff at the critics who thought
themselves competent to teach him his business. This is the main, at
least the most dominant, note of _Pacchiarotto_. It is like an aftermath
of _Aristophanes' Apology_. But the English poet scarcely deigns to
defend his art. No beautiful and brilliant woman is there to put him on
his mettle and call out his chivalry. The mass of his critics are
roundly made game of, in a boisterously genial sally, as "sweeps"
officiously concerned at his excess of "smoke." _Pacchiarotto_ is a
whimsical tale of a poor painter who came to grief in a Quixotic effort
to "reform" his fellows. Rhyme was never more brilliantly abused than in
this _tour de force_, in which the clang of the machinery comes near to
killing the music. More seriously, in the finely turned stanzas _At the
Mermaid_, and _House_, he avails himself of the habitual reticence of
Shakespeare to defend by implication his own reserve, not without a
passing sarcasm at the cost of the poet who took Europe by storm with
the pageant of his broken heart. _House_ is for the most part rank
prose, but it sums up incisively in the well-known retort:

                                        "'_With this same key
      Shakespeare unlocked his heart_,' once more!
        Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!"

This "house" image is singularly frequent in this volume. The poet seems
haunted by the idea of the barrier walls, which keep off the public
gaze, but admit the privileged spirit. In _Fears and Scruples_ it
symbolises the reticence of God. In _Appearances_ the "poor room" in
which troth was plighted and the "rich room" in which "the other word
was spoken" become half human in sympathy. A woman's "natural magic"
makes the bare walls she dwells in a "fairy tale" of verdure and song.
The prologue seems deliberately to strike this note, with its exquisite
idealisation of the old red brick wall and its creepers lush and
lithe,--a formidable barrier indeed, but one which spirit and love can
pass. For here the "wall" is the unsympathetic throng who close the poet
in; there

     "I--prison-bird, with a ruddy strife
        At breast, and a life whence storm-notes start--
      Hold on, hope hard in the subtle thing
        That's spirit: though cloistered fast, soar free;
      Account as wood, brick, stone, this ring
        Of the rueful neighbours, and--forth to thee!"

These stanzas finely hint at a second theme which wanders in and out
among the strident notes of Browning's anti-critical "apologetics." Of
all the springs of poetry none lay deeper in Browning than love; to the
last he could sing of love with the full inspiration of his best time;
and the finest things in this volume are concerned with it. But as
compared with the love-lays of the _Dramatic Lyrics_ or _Men and Women_
there is something wistful, far off, even elegiac, in this love-poetry.
A barrier, undefinable but impassable, seems to part us from the full
tide of youthful passion. The richest in this tender sunset beauty is
the _St Martin's Summer_, where the late love is suddenly smitten with
the discovery that its apparent warmth is a ghost of old passion buried
but unallayed. Again and again Browning here dwells upon the magic of
love,--as if love still retained for the ageing poet an isolated and
exceptional irradiating power in a world fast fading into commonplace
and prose. The brief, exquisite snatches of song, _Natural Magic,
Magical Nature_, are joyous tributes to the power of the charm, paid by
one who remains master of his heart. _Numpholeptos_ is the long-drawn
enchanted reverie of one in the very toils of the spell--a thing woven
of dreams and emotions, dark-glowing, iridescent to the eye, languorous
to the ear, impalpable to the analytic intellect. In _Bifurcation_ he
puts again, with more of subtlety and of detachment, the problem of the
conventional conflict of love with duty, so peremptorily decided in
love's favour in _The Statue and the Bust_. _A Forgiveness_ is a
powerful reworking of the theme of _My Last Duchess_, with an added
irony of situation: Browning, who excels in the drama of silent
figures, has drawn none more effective than this guilty priest, who
grinds his teeth behind the confessional grating as he listens perforce
to the story of his own crime from the lips of the wronged husband,
still cherishing the hope that he is unrecognised, or at the worst may
elude vengeance in his cloister's solitude; until the avenger's last
words throw off the mask:--

     "Hardly, I think! As little helped his brow
      The cloak then, Father--as your grate helps now!"

From these high matters of passion and tragedy we pass by easy steps
into the jocular-colloquial region in which the volume opened. Painting
in these later days of Browning's has ceased to yield high, or even
serious poetry, and Baldinucci's tale of shabby trickery cannot be
compared, even for grotesque humour, with the powerful grotesquerie of
_Holy-Cross Day_, while it wholly lacks the great lift of Hebraic
sublimity at the close. The _Epilogue_ returns to the combative
apologetics of the title poem; but, unlike that, does attempt some reply
to the cavils of the discontented. They cannot have the strong and the
sweet--body and bouquet--at once, he tells them in effect, and he
chooses to be strong, to give the good grape and leave the cowslips
growing in the meadow. The argument was but another sally of the poet's
good-humoured chaff, and would not have stood the scrutiny of his
subtler mind. Doubtless he, like Ben Jonson, inclined to see signs of
the "strong" in the astringent and the gritty; but no one knew better,
when he chose, to wed his "strength" with "sweetness." The falling-off
of the present volume compared with _Men and Women_ or _Dramatis
Personæ_ lay less in the lack of either quality than in his failure to
bring them together. Of the "stiff brew" there is plenty; but the
choicest aroma comes from that "wine of memories"--the fragrant
reminiscences--which the poet affected to despise. The epilogue ends,
incorrigibly, with a promise to "posset and cosset" the cavilling reader
henceforward with "nettle-broth," good for the sluggish blood and the
disordered stomach.

The following year brought a production which the cavilling reader might
excusably regard as a fulfilment of this jocose threat. For the
translation of the _Agamemnon_ (1877) was not in any sense a serious
contribution to the English knowledge and love of Greek drama. The
Balaustion "transcripts" had betrayed an imperfect sensibility to the
finer qualities of Greek dramatic style. But Browning seems to have gone
to work upon the greatest of antique tragedies with the definite
intention of showing, by a version of literal fidelity, how little the
Greek drama at its best owed to Greek speech. And he has little
difficulty in making the oracular brevity of Aeschylus look bald, and
his sublime incoherences frigid.[61] The result is, nevertheless, very
interesting and instructive to the student of Browning's mind. Nowhere
else do we feel so acutely how foreign to his versatile and athletic
intellect was the primitive and elemental imagination which interprets
the heart and the conscience of nations. His acute individualism in
effect betrayed him, and made his too faithful translation resemble a
parody of this mighty fragment of the mind of Themistoclean Athens by
one of the brilliant irresponsible Sophists of the next generation.

[Footnote 61: It is hard to explain how Browning came also to choose his
restless hendecasyllables as a medium for the stately iambic of
Æschylus. It is more like Fletcher outdoing himself in double endings.]

The spring and summer of 1877 were not productive. The summer holiday
was spent in a new haunt among the Savoy Alps, and Browning missed the
familiar stimulus of the sea-air. But the early autumn brought an event
which abruptly shattered his quiescence, and called forth, presently,
the most intimately personal poem of his later years. Miss Ann
Egerton-Smith, his gifted and congenial companion at London concerts,
and now, for the fourth year in succession, in the summer
_villeggiatura_, died suddenly of heart disease at dawn on Sept. 14, as
she was preparing for a mountain expedition with her friends. It was not
one of those losses which stifle thought or sweep it along on the
vehement tide of lyric utterance; it was rather of the kind which set it
free, creating an atmosphere of luminous serenity about it, and allaying
all meaner allurements and distractions. Elegy is often the outcome of
such moods; and the elegiac note is perceptible in the grave music of
_La Saisiaz_. Yet the poem as a whole does not even distantly recall,
save in the quiet intensity of its ground tone, the noble poems in which
Milton or Shelley, Arnold or Tennyson, commemorated their dead friends.
He himself commemorated no other dead friend in a way like this; to his
wife's memory he had given only the sacred silence, the impassioned
hymn, the wealth of poetry inspired by her spirit but not addressed to
her. This poem, also, was written "once, and only once, and for one
only." _La Saisiaz_ recalls to us, perversely perhaps, poems of his in
which no personal sorrow beats. The glory of the dawn and the
mountain-peak--Salève with its outlook over the snowy splendour of Mont
Blanc--instils itself here into the mourner's mood, as, long before, a
like scene had animated the young disciples of the Grammarian; while the
"cold music" of Galuppi's Toccata seems to be echoed inauspiciously in
these lingering trochaics. Something of both moods survives, but the
dominant tone is a somewhat grey and tempered hope, remote indeed from
the oppressive sense of evanescence, the crumbling mortality, of the
second poem, remote no less from the hushed exaltation, the subdued but
rapturous confidence of the first.

The poet is growing old; the unity of poetic vision is breaking up into
conflicting aspects only to be adjusted in the give and take of debate;
he puts off his singing robes to preside as moderator, while Fancy and
Reason exchange thrust and parry on the problem of immortality;
delivering at last, as the "sad summing up of all," a balanced and
tentative affirmation. And he delivers the decision with an oppressive
sense that it is but his own. He is "Athanasius contra mundum"; and he
dwells, with a "pallid smile" which Athanasius did not inspire, upon the
marvellous power of fame. Nay, Athanasius himself has his doubts. Even
his sober hope is not a secure possession; but in the gloom of London's
November he remembers that he had hoped in the sunset glory of Salève,
and "saves up" the memory of that pregnant hour for succour in less
prosperous times.

The _Two Poets of Croisic_, published with _La Saisiaz_, cannot be
detached from it. The opening words take up the theme of "Fame," there
half mockingly played with, and the whole poem is a sarcastic criticism
of the worship of Fame. The stories of René Gentilhomme and Paul
Desfarges Maillard are told with an immense burly vivacity, in the
stanza, and a Browningesque version of the manner, of _Beppo_. Both
stories turned upon those decisive moments which habitually caught
Browning's eye. Only, in their case, the decisive moment was not one of
the revealing crises which laid bare their utmost depths, but a crisis
which temporarily invested them with a capricious effulgence. Yet these
instantaneous transformations have a peculiar charm for Browning; they
touch and fall in with his fundamental ideas of life; and the delicious
prologue and epilogue hint these graver analogies in a dainty music
which pleasantly relieves the riotous uncouthness of the tale itself.
If René's life is suddenly lighted up, so is the moss bank with the
"blue flash" of violets in spring; and the diplomatic sister through
whose service Paul wins his laurels has a more spiritual comrade in the
cicada, who, with her little heart on fire, sang forth the note of the
broken string and won her singer his prize. Browning's pedestrian verse
passes into poetry as he disengages from the transient illusions, the
flickerings and bickerings, of Fame, the eternal truth of Love. But it
is only in the closing stanzas of the main poem that his thought clearly
emerges; when, having exposed the vanity of fame as a test of poetic
merit, he asks how, then, poets shall be tried; and lays down the
characteristic criterion, a happy life. But it is the happiness of Rabbi
ben Ezra, a joy three parts pain, the happiness won not by ignoring evil
but by mastering it!--

     "So, force is sorrow, and each sorrow, force:
        What then? since Swiftness gives the charioteer
      The palm, his hope be in the vivid horse
        Whose neck God clothed with thunder, not the steer
      Sluggish and safe! Yoke Hatred, Crime, Remorse,
        Despair: but ever mid the whirling fear
      Let, through the tumult, break the poet's face
      Radiant, assured his wild slaves win the race!"



CHAPTER VIII.

THE LAST DECADE.

      Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiled.


Since the catastrophe of 1861 Browning had not entered Italy. In the
autumn of 1878 he once more bent his steps thither. Florence, indeed, he
refused to revisit; it was burnt in upon his brain by memories
intolerably dear. But in Venice the charm of Italy reasserted itself,
and he returned during his remaining autumns with increasing frequency
to the old-fashioned hostelry, Dell' Universo, on the Grand Canal, or
latterly, to the second home provided by the hospitality of his gifted
and congenial American friend, Mrs Arthur Bronson. Asolo, too, the town
of Pippa, he saw again, after forty years' absence, with poignant
feelings,--"such things have begun and ended with me in the interval!"
But the poignancy of memory did not restore the magic of perception
which had once been his. The mood described ten years later in the
Prologue to _Asolando_ was already dominant: the iris glow of youth no
longer glorified every common object of the natural world, but "a flower
was just a flower." The glory still came by moments; some of his most
thrilling outbursts of song belong to this time. But he built up no more
great poems. He was approaching seventy, and it might well seem that if
so prolific a versifier was not likely to become silent his poetry was
rapidly resolving itself into wastes of theological argument, of
grotesque posturing, or intellectualised anecdotage. The _Dramatic
Idyls_ of 1879 and 1880 showed that these more serious forebodings were
at least premature. There was little enough in them, no doubt, of the
qualities traditionally connected with "idyll." Browning habitually wore
his rue with a difference, and used familiar terms in senses of his own.
There is nothing here of "enchanted reverie" or leisurely pastoralism.
Browning's "idyls" are studies in life's moments of stress and strain,
not in its secluded pleasances and verdurous wooded ways. It is for the
most part some new variation of his familiar theme--the soul taken in
the grip of a tragic crisis, and displaying its unsuspected deeps and
voids. Not all are of this kind, however; and while his keenness for
intense and abnormal effects is as pronounced as ever, he seeks them in
an even more varied field. Italy, the main haunt of his song, yields--it
can hardly be said to have inspired--one only of the _Idyls_--_Pietro of
Abano_. Old memories of Russia are furbished up in _Iván Ivánovitch_,
odd gatherings from the byways of England and America in _Ned Bratts,
Halbert and Hob, Martin Relph_; and he takes from Virgil's hesitating
lips the hint of a joyous pagan adventure of the gods, and tells it with
his own brilliant plenitude and volubility. The mythic treatment of
nature had never appealed much to Browning, even as a gay decorative
device; he was presently to signalise his rejection of it in _Gerard de
Lairesse_, a superb example of what he rejected. In all mythology there
was something foreign to the tenacious humanity of his intellect; he was
most open to its appeal where it presented divinity stretching forth a
helping hand to man. The noble "idyl" of _Echetlos_ is thus a
counterpart, in its brief way, to the great tragic tale of Herakles and
Alkestis. Echetlos, the mysterious ploughman who shone amid the ranks at
Marathon,

                           "clearing Greek earth of weed
      As he routed through the Sabian and rooted up the Mede,"

is one of the many figures which thrill us with Browning's passion for
Greece, and he is touched with a kind of magic which it did not lie in
his nature often to communicate. But the great successes of the
_Dramatic Idyls_ are to be found mainly among the tales of the purely
human kind that Browning had been used to tell. _Pheidippides_ belongs
to the heroic line of _How they brought the Good News_ and _Hervé Riel_.
The poetry of crisis, of the sudden, unforeseen, and irremediable
critical moment, upon which so much of Browning's psychology converges,
is carried to an unparalleled point of intensity in _Clive_ and _Martin
Relph_. And in most of these "idyls" there emerges a trait always
implicit in Browning but only distinctly apparent in this last
decade--the ironical contrasts between the hidden deeps of a man's soul
and the assumptions or speculations of his neighbours about it. The two
worlds--inner and outer--fall more sharply apart; stranger abysses of
self-consciousness appear on the one side, more shallow and complacent
illusions on the other. Relph's horror of remorse--painted with a few
strokes of incomparable intensity, like his 'Get you behind the man I am
now, you man that I used to be!'--is beyond the comprehension of the
friendly peasants; Clive's "fear" is as much misunderstood by his
auditor as his courage by the soldiers; the "foolishness" of Muleykeh
equally illudes his Arab comrades; the Russian villagers, the Pope, and
the lord have to fumble through a long process of argument to the
conclusion which for Iván had been the merest matter of fact from the
first. Admirable in its quiet irony is the contrast between the stormy
debate over his guilt or innocence and his serene security of mind as he
sits cutting out a toy for his children:--

                         "They told him he was free
      As air to walk abroad; 'How otherwise?' asked he."

With the "wild men" Halbert and Hob it is the spell of a sudden memory
which makes an abrupt rift between the men they have seemed to be and
the men they prove. Browning in his earlier days had gloried in these
moments of disclosure; now they served to emphasise the normal illusion.
"Ah me!" sounds the note of the proem to the second series, scornful and
sad:--

                       "Ah me!
      So ignorant of man's whole,
      Of bodily organs plain to see--
      So sage and certain, frank and free,
      About what's under lock and key--
               Man's soul!"

The volume called _Jocoseria_ (1883) contains some fine things, and
abounds with Browning's invariable literary accomplishment and metrical
virtuosity, but on the whole points to the gradual disintegration of his
genius. "Wanting is--what?" is the significant theme of the opening
lyric, and most of the poetry has something which recalls the "summer
redundant" of leaf and flower not "breathed above" by vitalising
passion. Compared with the _Men and Women_ or the _Dramatis Personæ_,
the _Jocoseria_ as a whole are indeed

     "Framework which waits for a picture to frame, ...
      Roses embowering with nought they embower."

Browning, the poet of the divining imagination, is less apparent here
than the astute ironical observer who delights in pricking the bubbles
of affectation, stripping off the masks of sham, and exhibiting human
nature in unadorned nakedness. _Donald_ is an exposure, savage and
ugly, of savagery and ugliness in Sport; _Solomon and Balkis_ a
reduction, dainty and gay, of these fabled paragons of wisdom to the
dimensions of ordinary vain and amorous humanity. Lilith and Eve unmask
themselves under stress of terror, as Balkis and Solomon at the
compulsion of the magic ring, and Adam urbanely replaces the mask.
Jochanan Hakka-dosh, the saintly prop of Israel, expounds from his
deathbed a gospel of struggle and endurance in which a troubled echo of
the great strain of Ben Ezra may no doubt be heard; but his career is,
as a whole, a half-sad, half-humorous commentary on the vainness of
striving to extend the iron frontiers of mortality. Lover, poet,
soldier, statist have each contributed a part of their lives to prolong
and enrich the saint's: but their fresh idealisms have withered when
grafted upon his sober and sapless brain; while his own garnered wisdom
fares no better when committed to the crude enthusiasm of his disciples.
But twice, in this volume, a richer and fuller music sounds. In the
great poem of _Ixion_, human illusions are still the preoccupying
thought; but they appear as fetters, not as specious masks, and instead
of the serio-comic exposure of humanity we see its tragic and heroic
deliverance. Ixion is Browning's Prometheus. The song that breaks from
his lips as he whirls upon the penal wheel of Zeus is a great liberating
cry of defiance to the phantom-god--man's creature and his ape--who may
plunge the body in torments but can never so baffle the soul but that

     "From the tears and sweat and blood of his torment
      Out of the wreck he rises past Zeus to the Potency o'er him,
      Pallid birth of my pain--where light, where light is, aspiring,
      Thither I rise, whilst thou--Zeus take thy godship and sink."

And in _Never the Time and the Place_, the pang of love's aching void
and the rapture of reunion blend in one strain of haunting magical
beauty, the song of an old man in whom one memory kindles eternal youth,
a song in which, as in hardly another, the wistfulness of autumn blends
with the plenitude of spring.

Browning spent the summer months of 1883 at Gressoney St Jean, a lonely
spot high up in the Val d'Aosta, living, as usual when abroad, on the
plainest of vegetable diet. "Delightful Gressoney!" he wrote,

     "Who laughest, 'Take what is, trust what may be!'"

And a mood of serene acquiescence in keeping with the scene breathes
from the poem which occupied him during this pleasant summer. To
Browning's old age, as to Goethe's, the calm wisdom and graceful
symbolism of Persia offered a peculiar attraction. In the _Westöstlicher
Divan_, seventy years earlier, Goethe, with a subtler sympathy, laid his
finger upon the common germs of Eastern and Western thought and poetry.
Browning, far less in actual touch with the Oriental mind, turned to the
East in quest of picturesque habiliments for his very definitely
European convictions--"Persian garments," which had to be "changed" in
the mind of the interpreting reader.

The _Fancies_ have the virtues of good fables,--pithy wisdom, ingenious
moral instances, homely illustrations, easy colloquial dialogue; and the
ethical teaching has a striking superficial likeness to the common-sense
morality of prudence and content, which fables, like proverbs,
habitually expound. "Cultivate your garden, don't trouble your head
about insoluble riddles, accept your ignorance and your limitations,
assume your good to be good and your evil to be evil, be a man and
nothing more"--such is the recurring burden of Ferishtah's counsel. But
such preaching on Browning's lips always carried with it an implicit
assumption that the preacher had himself somehow got outside the human
limitations he insisted on; that he could measure the plausibility of
man's metaphysics and theology, and distinguish between the
anthropomorphism which is to be acquiesced in because we know no better,
and that which is to be spurned because we know too much. Ferishtah's
thought is a game of hide-and-seek, and its movements have all the
dexterity of winding and subterfuge proper to success in that game.
Against the vindictive God of the creeds he trusts his human assurance
that pain is God's instrument to educate us into pity and love; but
when it is asked how a just God can single out sundry fellow-mortals

     "To undergo experience for our sake,
      Just that the gift of pain, bestowed on them,
      In us might temper to the due degree
      Joy's else-excessive largess,"--

instead of admitting a like appeal to the same human assurance, he falls
back upon the unfathomable ways of Omnipotence. If the rifts in the
argument are in any sense supplied, it is by the brief snatches of song
which intervene between the _Fancies_, as the cicada-note filled the
pauses of the broken string. These exquisite lyrics are much more
adequate expressions of Browning's faith than the dialogues which
professedly embody it. They transfer the discussion from the jangle of
the schools and the cavils of the market-place to the passionate
persuasions of the heart and the intimate experiences of love, in which
all Browning's mysticism had its root. Thus Ferishtah's pragmatic,
almost philistine, doctrine of "Plot-culture," by which human life is
peremptorily walled in within its narrow round of tasks, "minuteness
severed from immensity," is followed by the lyric which tells how Love
transcends those limits, making an eternity of time and a universe of
solitude. Finally, the burden of these wayward intermittent strains of
love-music is caught up, with an added intensity drawn from the poet's
personal love and sorrow, in the noble Epilogue. As he listens to the
call of Love, the world becomes an enchanted place, resounding with the
triumph of good and the exultant battle-joy of heroes. But a "chill
wind" suddenly disencharms the enchantment, a doubt that buoyant faith
might be a mirage conjured up by Love itself:--

                "What if all be error,
      If the halo irised round my head were--Love, thine arms?"

He disdains to answer; for the last words glow with a fire which of
itself dispels the chill wind. A faith founded upon love had for
Browning a surer guarantee than any founded upon reason; it was secured
by that which most nearly emancipated men from the illusions of
mortality, and enabled them to see things as they are seen by God.

The _Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day_ (1887)
is a more laboured and, save for one or two splendid episodes, a less
remarkable achievement than _Ferishtah_. All the burly diffuseness which
had there been held in check by a quasi-oriental ideal of lightly-knit
facility and bland oracular pithiness, here has its way without stint,
and no more songs break like the rush of birds' wings upon the dusty air
of colloquy. Thrusting in between the lyrics of _Ferishtah_ and
_Asolando_, these _Parleyings_ recall those other "people of importance"
whose intrusive visit broke in upon "the tenderness of Dante." Neither
their importance in their own day nor their relative obscurity, for the
most part, in ours, had much to do with Browning's choice. They do not
illustrate merely his normal interest in the obscure freaks and
out-of-the-way anomalies of history. The doings of these "people" had
once been "important" to Browning himself, and the old man's memory
summoned up these forgotten old-world friends of his boyhood to be
championed or rallied by their quondam disciple. The death of the
dearest friend of his later life, J. Milsand, in 1886, probably set
these chords vibrating; the book is dedicated to his memory. Perhaps the
_Imaginary Conversations_ of an older friend and master of Browning's,
one even more important in Browning's day and in ours than in his own,
and the master of his youth, once more suggested the scheme. But these
_Parleyings_ are conversations only in name. They are not even
monologues of the old brilliantly dramatic kind. All the dramatic zest
of converse is gone, the personages are the merest shadows, nothing is
seen but the old poet haranguing his puppets or putting voluble
expositions of his own cherished dogmas into their wooden lips. We have
glimpses of the boy, when not yet able to compass an octave, beating
time to the simple but stirring old march of Avison "whilom of Newcastle
organist"; and before he has done, the memory masters him, and the
pedestrian blank verse breaks into a hymn "rough, rude, robustious,
homely heart athrob" to Pym the "man of men." Or he calls up Bernard
Mandeville to confute the formidable pessimism of his old friend
Carlyle--"whose groan I hear, with guffaw at the end disposing of
mock--melancholy." Gerard de Lairesse, whose rococo landscapes had
interested him as a boy, he introduces only to typify an outworn way of
art--the mythic treatment of nature; but he illustrates this "inferior"
way with a splendour of poetry that makes his ironic exposure
dangerously like an unwitting vindication. These visions of Prometheus
on the storm-swept crag, of Artemis hunting in the dawn, show that
Browning was master, if he had cared to use it, of that magnificent
symbolic speech elicited from Greek myth in the _Hyperion_ or the
_Prometheus Unbound_. But it was a foreign idiom to him, and his
occasional use of it a _tour de force_.

Two years only now remained for Browning, and it began to be apparent to
his friends that his sturdy health was no longer secure. His way of life
underwent no change, he was as active in society as ever, and
acquaintances, old and new, still claimed his time, and added to the
burden, always cheerfully endured, of his correspondence. In October
1887 the marriage of his son attached him by a new tie to Italy, and the
Palazzo Rezzonico on the Grand Canal, where "Pen" and his young American
wife presently settled, was to be his last, as it was his most
magnificent, abode. To Venice he turned his steps each autumn of these
last two years; lingering by the way among the mountains or in the
beautiful border region at their feet. It was thus that, in the early
autumn of 1889, he came yet once again to Asolo. His old friend and
hostess, Mrs Arthur Bronson, had discovered a pleasant, airy abode on
the old town-wall, overhanging a ravine, and Asolo, seen from this
"castle precipice-encurled," recovered all its old magic. It was here
that he put together the disconnected pieces, many written during the
last two years in London, others at Asolo itself, which were finally
published on the day of his death. The Tower of Queen Cornaro still
overlooked the little town, as it had done half a century before; and he
attached these last poems to the same tradition by giving them the
pleasant title said to have been invented by her secretary.
_Asolando_--_Facts and Fancies_, both titles contain a hint of the
ageing Browning,--the relaxed physical energy which allows this
strenuous waker to dream (_Reverie; Bad Dreams_); the flagging poetic
power, whose fitful flashes could no longer transfigure the world for
him, but only cast a fantastic flicker at moments across its prosaic
features. The opening lines sadly confess the wane of the old vision:--

     "And now a flower is just a flower:
        Man, bird, beast are but beast, bird, man--
      Simply themselves, uncinct by dower
        Of dyes which, when life's day began,
      Round each in glory ran."

The famous Epilogue is the last cheer of an old warrior in whom the
stout fibre of heroism still held out when the finer nerve of vision
decayed; but _A Reverie_ shows how heavy a strain it had to endure in
sustaining his faith that the world is governed by Love. Of outward
evidence for that conviction Browning saw less and less. But age had
not dimmed his inner witness, and those subtle filaments of mysterious
affinity which, for Browning, bound the love of God for man to the love
of man for woman, remained unimpaired. The old man of seventy-seven was
still, in his last autumn, singing songs redolent, not of autumn, but of
the perfume and the ecstasy of spring and youth,--love-lyrics so
illusively youthful that one, not the least competent, of his critics
has refused to accept them as work of his old age. Yet _Now_ and _Summum
Bonum_, and _A Pearl, a Girl_, with all their apparent freshness and
spontaneity, are less like rapt utterances of passion than eloquent
analyses of it by one who has known it and who still vibrates with the
memory. What preoccupies and absorbs him is not the woman, but the
wonder of the transfiguration wrought for him by her word or kiss,--the
moment made eternal, the "blaze" in which he became "lord of heaven and
earth." But some of the greatest love-poetry of the world--from Dante
onwards--has reflected an intellect similarly absorbed in articulating a
marvellous experience. For the rest, _Asolando_ is a miscellany of old
and new,--bright loose drift from the chance moods of genius, or bits of
anecdotic lumber carefully recovered and refurbished, as in prescience
of the nearing end.

Yet no such prescience appears to have been his. His buoyant confidence
in his own vitality held its own. He was full of schemes of work. At the
end of October the idyllic days at Asolo ended, and Browning repaired
for the last time to the Palazzo Rezzonico. A month later he caught a
bronchial catarrh; failure of the heart set in, and on the evening of
December 12 he peacefully died. On the last day of the year his body was
laid to rest in "Poets' Corner."



PART II.

BROWNING'S MIND AND ART



CHAPTER IX.

THE POET.

      Then, who helps more, pray, to repair our loss--
      Another Boehme with a tougher book
      And subtler meanings of what roses say,--
      Or some stout Mage, like him of Halberstadt,
      John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about?
      He with a "look you!" vents a brace of rhymes,
      And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,

       *       *       *       *       *

      Buries us with a glory, young once more,
      Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.

      --_Transcendentalism_.


I.


"I have, you are to know," Browning once wrote to Miss Haworth, "such a
love for flowers and leaves ... that I every now and then in an
impatience at being unable to possess them thoroughly, to see them
quite, satiate myself with their scent,--bite them to bits." "All
poetry," he wrote some twenty years later to Ruskin, "is the problem of
putting the infinite into the finite." Utterances like these, not
conveyed through the lips of some "dramatic" creation, but written
seriously in his own person to intimate friends, give us a clue more
valuable it may be than some other utterances which are oftener quoted
and better known, to the germinal impulses of Browning's poetic work.
"Finite" and "infinite" were words continually on his lips, and it is
clear that both sides of the antithesis represented instincts rooted in
his mental nature, drawing nourishment from distinct but equally
fundamental springs of feeling and thought. Each had its stronghold in a
particular psychical region. The province and feeding-ground of his
passion for "infinity" was that eager and restless self-consciousness
which he so vividly described in _Pauline_, seeking to "be all, have,
see, know, taste, feel all," to become all natures, like Sordello, yet
retain the law of his own being. "I pluck the rose and love it more than
tongue can speak," says the lover in _Two in the Campagna_. Browning had
his full portion of the romantic idealism which, under the twofold
stimulus of literary and political revolution, had animated the poetry
of the previous generation. But while he clearly shared the uplifted
aspiring spirit of Shelley, it assumed in him a totally different
character. Shelley abhors limits, everything grows evanescent and
ethereal before his solvent imagination, the infinity he aspires after
unveils itself at his bidding, impalpable, undefined, "intense,"
"inane." Whereas Browning's restlessly aspiring temperament worked under
the control of an eye and ear that fastened with peculiar emphasis and
eagerness upon all the limits, the dissonances, the angularities that
Shelley's harmonising fancy dissolved away. The ultimate psychological
result was that the brilliant clarity and precision of his imagined
forms gathered richness and intensity of suggestion from the vaguer
impulses of temperament, and that an association was set up between them
which makes it literally true to say that, for Browning, the "finite" is
not the rival or the antithesis, but the very language of the
"infinite,"--that the vastest and most transcendent realities have for
him their _points d'appui_ in some bit of intense life, some darting
bird or insect, some glowing flower or leaf. Existence ebbs away from
the large, featureless, monotonous things, to concentrate itself in a
spiked cypress or a jagged mountain cleft. A placid soul without
"incidents" arrests him less surely than the fireflies on a mossy bank.
Hence, while "the finite" always appears, when explicitly contrasted
with "the infinite," as the inferior,--as something _soi-disant_
imperfect and incomplete,--its actual status and function in Browning's
imaginative world rather resembles that of Plato's peras in
relation to the apeiron,--the saving "limit" which gives
definite existence to the limitless vague.


II.


Hence Browning, while a romantic in temper, was, in comparison with his
predecessors, a thorough realist in method. All the Romantic poets of
the previous generation had refused and decried some large portion of
reality. Wordsworth had averted his ken from half of human fate; Keats
and Shelley turned from the forlornness of human society as it was to
the transfigured humanity of myth. All three were out of sympathy with
civilisation; and their revolt went much deeper than a distaste for the
types of men it bred. They attacked a triumphant age of reason in its
central fastness, the brilliant analytic intelligence to which its
triumphs were apparently due. Keats declaimed at cold philosophy which
undid the rainbow's spells; Shelley repelled the claim of mere
understanding to settle the merits of poetry; Wordsworth, the
profoundest, though by no means the most cogent or connected, thinker of
the three, denounced the "meddling intellect" which murders to dissect,
and strove to strip language itself of every element of logic and fancy,
as distortions of the truth, only to be uttered in the barest words,
which comes to the heart that watches and receives. On all these issues
Browning stands in sharp, if not quite absolute, contrast. "Barbarian,"
as he has been called, and as in a quite intelligible sense he was, he
found his poetry pre-eminently among the pursuits, the passions, the
interests and problems, of civilised men. His potent gift of imagination
never tempted him, during his creative years, to assail the sufficiency
of intellect, or to disparage the intellectual and "artificial" elements
of speech; on the contrary, he appears from the outset employing in the
service of poetry a discursive logic of unsurpassed swiftness and
dexterity, and a vast heterogeneous army of words gathered, like a
sudden levy, with a sole eye to their effective force, from every
corner of civilised life, and wearing the motley of the most prosaic
occupations. It was only in the closing years that he began to distrust
the power of thought to get a grip upon reality. His delight in poetic
argument is often doubtless that of the ironical casuist, looking on at
the self-deceptions of a soul; but his interest in ideas was a rooted
passion that gave a thoroughly new, and to many readers most unwelcome,
"intellectuality" to the whole manner as well as substance of his poetic
work.

While Browning thus, in Nietzsche's phrase, said "Yes" to many sides of
existence which his Romantic predecessors repudiated or ignored, he had
some very definite limitations of his own. He gathered into his verse
crowded regions of experience which they neglected; but some very
glorious avenues of poetry pursued by them he refused to explore.
Himself the most ardent believer in the supernatural among all the great
poets of his time, the supernatural, as such, has hardly any explicit
place in his poetry. To the eternal beauty of myth and
folk-lore,--dream-palaces "never built at all and therefore built for
ever,"--all that province of the poetical realm which in the memorable
partition of 1797 Coleridge had taken for his own, splendidly emulated
by Shelley and by Keats, Browning the Platonist maintained on the whole
the attitude of the utilitarian man of facts. "Fairy-poetry," he agreed
with Elizabeth Barrett in 1845-46, was "impossible in the days of
steam." With a faith in a transcendent divine world as assured as
Dante's or Milton's, he did not aspire to "pass the flaming bounds of
Space or Time," or "to possess the sun and stars." No reader of _Gerard
de Lairesse_ at one end of his career, or of the vision of _Paracelsus_
at the other, or _Childe Roland_ in the middle, can mistake the
capacity; but habit is more trustworthy than an occasional _tour de
force_; and Browning's imagination worked freely only when it bodied
forth a life in accord with the waking experience of his own day. "A
poet never dreams," said his philosophical Don Juan, "we prose folk
always do"; and the epigram brilliantly announced the character of
Browning's poetic world,--the world of prose illuminated through and
through in every cranny and crevice by the keenest and most adventurous
of exploring intellects.

In physical organisation Browning's endowment was decidedly of the kind
which prompts men to "accept the universe" with joyful alacrity. Like
his contemporary Victor Hugo, he was, after all reserves have been made,
from first to last one of the healthiest and heartiest of men. If he
lacked the burly stature and bovine appetite with which young Hugo a
little scandalised the delicate sensibilities of French Romanticism, he
certainly "came eating and drinking," and amply equipped with nerve and
muscle, activity, accomplishment, social instinct, and _savoir faire_.
The isolating loneliness of genius was checkmated by a profusion of the
talents which put men _en rapport_ with their kind. The reader of his
biography is apt to miss in it the signs of that heroic or idealist
detachment which he was never weary of extolling in his verse. He is the
poet _par excellence_ of the glory of failure and dissatisfaction: but
his life was, in the main, that of one who succeeded and who was
satisfied with his success. In the vast bulk of his writings we look in
vain for the "broken arc," the "half-told tale," and it is
characteristic that he never revised. Even after the great sorrow of his
life, the mood of _Prospice_, though it may have underlain all his other
moods, did not suppress or transform them; he "lived in the world and
loved earth's way," and however assured that this earth is not his only
sphere, did not wish

        "the wings unfurled
      That sleep in the worm, they say."

Whatever affinities Browning may have with the mystic or the symbolist
for whom the whole sense-world is but the sign of spiritual realities,
it is plain that this way of envisaging existence found little support
in the character of his senses. He had not the brooding eye, beneath
which, as it gazes, loveliness becomes far lovelier, but an organ
aggressively alert, minutely inquisitive, circumstantially exact, which
perceived the bearings of things, and explored their intricacies, noted
how the mortar was tempered in the walls and if any struck a woman or
beat a horse, but was as little prone to transfigure these or other
things with the glamour of mysterious suggestion as the eye of Peter
Bell himself. He lacked the stranger and subtler sensibilities of eye
and ear, to which Nature poetry of the nineteenth century owes so much.
His senses were efficient servants to an active brain, not magicians
flinging dazzling spells into the air before him or mysterious music
across his path. By a curious and not unimportant peculiarity he could
see a remote horizon clearly with one eye, and read the finest print in
twilight with the other; but he could not, like Wordsworth, hear the
"sound of alien melancholy" given out from the mountains before a storm.
The implicit realism of his eye and ear was fortified by acute tactual
and muscular sensibilities. He makes us vividly aware of surface and
texture, of space, solidity, shape. Matter with him is not the
translucent, tenuous, half-spiritual substance of Shelley, but
aggressively massive and opaque, tense with solidity. And he had in an
eminent degree the quick and eager apprehension of space--relations
which usually goes with these developed sensibilities of eye and muscle.
There is a hint of it in an early anecdote. "Why, sir, you are quite a
geographer!" he reported his mother to have said to him when, on his
very first walk with her, he had given her an elaborate imaginary
account of "his houses and estates."[62] But it was only late in life
that this acute plasticity and concreteness of his sensibility found its
natural outlet. When in their last winter at Rome (1860-61) he took to
clay-modelling, it was with an exultant rapture which for the time
thrust poetry into the shade. "The more tired he has been, and the more
his back ached, poor fellow," writes his wife, "the more he has exulted
and been happy--no, nothing ever made him so happy before."[63] This was
the immense joy of one who has at length found the key after half a
lifetime of trying at the lock.

[Footnote 62: Mrs Orr, _Life_, p. 24.]

[Footnote 63: Mrs Browning's _Letters_, March 1861.]


III.


And yet realism as commonly understood is a misleading term for
Browning's art. If his keen objective senses penned his imagination,
save for a few daring escapades, within the limits of a somewhat normal
actuality, it exercised, within those limits, a superb individuality of
choice. The acute observer was doubled with a poet whose vehement and
fiery energy and intense self-consciousness influenced what he observed,
and yet far more what he imagined and what he expressed. It is possible
to distinguish four main lines along which this determining bias told.
He gloried in the strong sensory-stimulus of glowing colour, of dazzling
light; in the more complex _motory_-stimulus of intricate, abrupt, and
plastic form,--feasts for the agile eye; in all the signs of power,
exciting a kindred joy by sympathy; and in all the signs of conscious
life or "soul," exciting a joy which only reaches its height when it is
enforced by those more elemental and primitive springs of joy, when he
is engaged with souls that glow like a flower or a gem, with souls
picturesquely complex and diversified, or vehement, aspiring, heroic. In
each of those four domains, light and colour, form, power, soul,
Browning had a profound, and in the fullest sense creative, joy, which
in endless varieties and combinations dominated his imagination,
controlled and pointed its flight, and determined the contents, the
manner, and the atmosphere of his poetic work. To trace these operations
in detail will be the occupation of the five following sections.


IV.

1. JOY IN LIGHT AND COLOUR.


Browning's repute as a thinker and "teacher" long overshadowed his glory
as a singer, and it still to some extent impedes the recognition of his
bold and splendid colouring. It is true that he is never a colourist
pure and simple; his joy in light and colour is never merely epicurean.
Poets so great as Keats often seem to sit as luxurious guests at their
own feasts of sense; Browning has rather the air of a magnificent
dispenser, who "provides and not partakes." His colouring is not subtle;
it recalls neither the æthereal opal of Shelley nor the dewy flushing
glow and "verdurous glooms" of Keats, nor the choice and cultured
splendour of Tennyson; it is bold, simple, and intense. He neglects the
indecisive and subdued tones; the mingled hues chiefly found in Nature,
or the tender "silvery-grey" of Andrea's placid perfection. He dazzles
us with scarlet and crimson; with rubies, and blood, and "the poppy's
red effrontery," with topaz, and amethyst, and the glory of gold, makes
the sense ache with the lustre of blue, and heightens the effect of all
by the boldest contrast. Who can doubt that he fell the more readily
upon one of his quaintest titles because of the priestly ordinance that
the "Pomegranates" were to be "of blue and of purple and of scarlet,"
and the "Bells" "of gold"? He loves the daybreak hour of the world's
awakening vitality as poets of another temper love the twilight; the
splendour of sunrise pouring into the chamber of Pippa, and steeping
Florence in that "live translucent bath of air"[64]; he loves the blaze
of the Italian mid-day--

     "Great noontides, thunderstorms, all glaring pomps
      That triumph at the heels of June the god."

Even a violet-bed he sees as a "flash" of "blue."[65] He loves the play
of light on golden hair, and rarely imagines womanhood without it, even
in the sombre South and the dusky East; Poiphyria and Lady Carlisle,
Evelyn Hope and the maid of Pornic, share the gift with Anael the Druse,
with Sordello's Palma, whose

                "tresses curled
      Into a sumptuous swell of gold, and wound
      About her like a glory! even the ground
      Was bright as with spilt sunbeams;"

and the girl in _Love among the Ruins_, and the "dear dead women" of
Venice. His love of fire and of the imagery of flame has one of its
sources in his love of light. Verona emerges from the gloom of the past
as "a darkness kindling at the core." He sees the "pink perfection of
the cyclamen," the "rose bloom o'er the summit's front of stone." And,
like most painters of the glow of light, he throws a peculiar intensity
into his glooms. When he paints a dark night, as in _Pan and Luna_, the
blackness is a solid jelly-like thing that can be cut. And even night
itself falls short of the pitchy gloom that precedes the Eastern vision,
breaking in despair "against the soul of blackness there," as the gloom
of Saul's tent discovers within it "a something more black than the
blackness," the sustaining tent-pole, and then Saul himself "gigantic
and blackest of all."

[Footnote 64: "I never grow tired of sunrises," he wrote in a letter,
recently published, to Aubrey de Vere, in 1851 (_A. de Vere: A Memoir_,
by Wilfrid Ward).]

[Footnote 65: _Two Poets of Croisic_.]

But mostly the foil is a vivid, even strident, contrast. He sees the
"old June weather" blue above, and the

                "great opaque
      Blue breadth of sea without a break"

under the walls of the seaside palazzo in Southern Italy, "where the
baked cicala dies of drouth"; and the blue lilies about the harp of
golden-haired David; and Solomon gold-robed in the blue abyss of his
cedar house, "like the centre spike of gold which burns deep in the
blue-bell's womb";[66] and the "gaze of Apollo" through the gloom of
Verona woods;[67] he sees the American pampas--"miles and miles of gold
and green," "where the sunflowers blow in a solid glow," with a
horse--"coal-black"--careering across it; and his swarthy Ethiop uses
the yellow poison-wattles of a lizard to divine with.[68] If he imagines
the "hairy-gold orbs" of the sorb-fruit, they must be ensconced in
"black glossy myrtle-berries," foils in texture as in hue;[69] and he
neglects the mellow harmonies of autumnal decay in order to paint the
leaf which is like a splash of blood intense, abrupt, across the flame
of a golden shield.[70] He makes the most of every hint of contrast he
finds, and delights in images which accentuate the rigour of antithesis;
Cleon's mingled black and white slaves remind him of a tesselated
pavement, and Blougram's fluctuating faith and doubt of a chess-board.
And when, long after the tragic break-up of his Italian home, he
reverted in thought to Miss Blagden's Florentine garden, the one
impression that sifted itself out in his tell-tale memory was of spots
of colour and light upon dark backgrounds,--"the herbs in red flower,
and the butterflies on the top of the wall under the olive-trees."[71]

[Footnote 66: _Popularity_.]

[Footnote 67: _Sordello_.]

[Footnote 68: Ibid.]

[Footnote 69: _Englishman in Italy_.]

[Footnote 70: _By the Fireside_.]

[Footnote 71: Mrs Orr, _Life_, p. 258.]

Browning's colouring is thus strikingly expressive of the build of his
mind, as sketched above. It is the colouring of a realist in so far as
it is always caught from life, and never fantastic or mythical. But it
is chosen with an instinctive and peremptory bias of eye and
imagination--the index of a mind impatient of indistinct confusions and
placid harmony, avid of intensity, decision, and conflict.


V.

2. JOY IN FORM.


If the popular legend of Browning ignores his passion for colour, it
altogether scouts the suggestion that he had a peculiar delight in form.
By general consent he lacked the most ordinary and decent attention to
it. No doubt he is partly responsible for this impression himself. His
ideals of literary form were not altogether those commonly recognised in
literature. If we understand by form the quality of clear-cut outline
and sharply defined articulation, there is a sense in which it was one
of the most ingrained instincts of his nature, indulged at times with
even morbid excess. Alike in life and in art he hated sloth,--the
slovenliness of the "ungirt loin" and of the indecisive touch. In
conduct, this animus expressed itself in a kind of punctilious
propriety. The forms of social convention Browning observed not merely
with the scrupulous respect of the man of fashion, but with the
enthusiasm of the virtuoso. Near akin in genius to the high priests of
the Romantic temple, Browning rarely, even in the defiant heyday of
adolescence, set more than a tentative foot across the outer precincts
of the Romantic Bohemia. His "individualism" was not of the type which
overflows in easy affectations; he was too original to be eccentric, too
profoundly a man of letters to look "like a damned literary man." In his
poetry this animus took a less equivocal shape. Not a little, both of
its vividness and of its obscurity, flows from the undisciplined
exuberance of his joy in form. An acute criticism of Mrs Browning's--in
some points the very best critic he ever had--puts one aspect of this
admirably. _The Athenæum_ had called him "misty." "Misty," she retorts,
"is an infamous word for your kind of obscurity. You never are misty,
not even in _Sordello_--never vague. Your graver cuts deep sharp lines,
always,--and there is an extra distinctness in your images and thoughts,
from the midst of which, crossing each other infinitely, the general
significance seems to escape."[72] That is the overplus of form
producing obscurity. But through immense tracts of Browning the effect
of the extra-distinctness of his images and thoughts, of the deep sharp
lines cut by his graver, is not thus frustrated, but tells to the full
in amazingly vivid and unforgettable expression. Yet he is no more a
realist of the ordinary type here than in his colouring. His deep sharp
lines are caught from life, but under the control of a no less definite
bias of eye and brain. Sheer nervous and muscular energy had its part
here also. As he loved the intense colours which most vigorously
stimulate the optic nerve, so he delighted in the angular, indented,
intertwining, labyrinthine varieties of line and surface which call for
the most delicate, and at the same time the most agile, adjustments of
the muscles of the eye. He caught at the edges of things--the white line
of foam against the shore, the lip of the shell, and he could compare
whiteness as no other poet ever did to "the bitten lip of hate." He once
saw with delight "a solitary bee nipping a leaf round till it exactly
fitted the front of a hole."[73] Browning's joy in form was as little
epicurean as his joy in colour; it was a banquet of the senses in which
the sense of motion and energy had the largest part. Smooth, flowing,
rounded, undulating outlines, which the eye glides along without check,
are insipid and profitless to him, and he "welcomes the rebuff" of every
jagged excrescence or ragged fray, of every sudden and abrupt breach of
continuity. His eye seizes the crisp indentations of ferns as they "fit
their teeth to the polished block" of a grey boulder-stone;[74] seizes
the "sharp-curled" olive-leaves as they "print the blue sky" above the
morning glories of Florence;[75] seizes the sharp zigzag of lightning
against the Italian midnight, the fiery west through a dungeon grating
or a lurid rift in the clouds,[76]--"one gloom, a rift of fire, another
gloom,"--the brilliant line of Venice suspended "between blue and blue."
"Cup-mosses and ferns and spotty yellow leaves--all that I love
heartily," he wrote to E.B.B.[77] Roses and moss strike most men's
senses by a soft luxuriance in which all sharp articulation of parts is
merged; but what Browning seizes on in the rose is its "labyrinthine"
intricacy, while the moss becomes a little forest of "fairy-cups and elf
needles." And who else would have thought of saying that "the fields
look _rough_ with hoary dew"?[78] In the _Easter-Day_ vision he sees the
sky as a network of black serrated ridges. He loves the intricate play
of light and shade, and the irregular, contorted, honeycombed surface
which produces it; craggy, scarred, indented mountains, "like an old
lion's cheek-teeth";[79] old towns with huddled roofs and towers picked
out "black and crooked," like "fretwork," or "Turkish verse along a
scimitar"; old walls, creviced and crannied, intertwined with creepers,
and tenanted by crossing swarms of ever-busy flies,--such things are the
familiar commonplace of Browning's sculpturesque fancy. His metrical
movements are full of the same joy in "fretwork" effects--verse-rhythm
and sense-rhythm constantly crossing where the reader expects them to
coincide.[80]

[Footnote 72: _E.B. to R.B._, Jan. 19, 1846.]

[Footnote 73: _To E.B.B._, Jan. 5, 1846.]

[Footnote 74: _By the Fireside_.]

[Footnote 75: _Old Pictures in Florence_.]

[Footnote 76: _Sordello_, i. 181.]

[Footnote 77: Jan. 5, 1846, apropos of a poem by Horne. The "love" may
refer to Horne's description of these things, but it matters little for
the present purpose.]

[Footnote 78: _Home Thoughts_.]

[Footnote 79: _Karshish_, i. 515. Cf. _Englishman in Italy_, i. 397.]

[Footnote 80: Cf., _e.g._, his treatment of the six-line stanza.]

Nor was his imaginative sculpture confined to low-relief. Every rift in
the surface catches his eye, and the deeper and more intricate the
recess, the more curiously his insinuating fancy explores it. Sordello's
palace is "a maze of corridors,"--"dusk winding stairs, dim galleries."
He probes the depths of the flower-bell; he pries after the warmth and
scent that lie within the "loaded curls" of his lady, and irradiates the
lizard, or the gnome,[81] in its rock-chamber, the bee in its amber
drop,[82] or in its bud,[83] the worm in its clod. When Keats describes
the closed eyes of the sleeping Madeline he is content with the
loveliness he sees:--

     "And still she slept an _azure-lidded_ sleep."

Browning's mining fancy insists on showing us the eye of the dead
Porphyria "ensconced" within its eyelid, "like a bee in a bud." A cleft
is as seductive to his imagination as a cave to Shelley's. In a cleft of
the wind gashed Apennines he imagines the home he would best love in all
the world;[84] in a cleft the pine-tree, symbol of hardy song,[85]
strikes precarious root, the ruined eagle finds refuge,[86] and
Sibrandus Schaffnaburgensis a watery Inferno. A like instinct allures
him to other images of deep hollow things the recesses of which
something else explores and occupies,--the image of the sheath; the
image of the cup. But he is equally allured by the opposite, or salient,
kind of angularity. Beside the Calabrian seaside house stands a "sharp
tree--a cypress--rough iron-spiked, ripe fruit o'er-crusted,"--in all
points a thoroughly Browningesque tree.

[Footnote 81: _Sordello_.]

[Footnote 82: This turn of fancy was one of his points of affinity with
Donne; cf. _R.B. to E.B.B._, i. 46: "Music should enwrap the thought, as
Donne says an amber drop enwraps a bee."]

[Footnote 83: _Porphyria_.]

[Footnote 84: _De Gustibus_.]

[Footnote 85: _Pan and Luna_.]

[Footnote 86: E.g., _Balaustion's Adventure_; Proem.]

And so, corresponding to the cleft-like array of sheaths and cups, a not
less prolific family of _spikes_ and _wedges_ and _swords_ runs riot in
Browning's work. The rushing of a fresh river-stream into the warm ocean
tides crystallises into the "crystal spike between two warm walls of
wave;"[87] "air thickens," and the wind, grown solid, "edges its wedge
in and in as far as the point would go."[88] The fleecy clouds embracing
the flying form of Luna clasp her as close "as dented spine fitting its
flesh."[89] The fiery agony of John the heretic is a plucking of sharp
spikes from his rose.[90] Lightning is a bright sword, plunged through
the pine-tree roof. And Mont Blanc himself is half effaced by his
"earth-brood" of aiguilles,--"needles red and white and green, Horns of
silver, fangs of crystal, set on edge in his demesne."[91]

[Footnote 87: _Caliban on Setebos_.]

[Footnote 88: _A Lover's Quarrel_.]

[Footnote 89: _Pan and Luna_.]

[Footnote 90: _The Heretic's Tragedy_.]

[Footnote 91: _La Saisiaz_.]

Browning's joy in abrupt and intricate form had then a definite root in
his own nervous and muscular energy. It was no mere preference which
might be indulged or not, but an instinctive bias, which deeply affected
his way not only of imagining but of conceiving the relations of things.
In this brilliant visual speech of sharply cut angles and saliences, of
rugged incrustations, and labyrinthine multiplicity, Browning's romantic
hunger for the infinite had to find its expression; and it is clear that
the bias implicit in speech imposed itself in some points upon the
matter it conveyed. Abrupt demarcations cut off soul from body, and man
from God; the infinite habitually presented itself to him as something,
not transcending and comprehending the finite, but _beginning where the
finite stopped_,--Eternity at the end of Time. But the same imaginative
passion for form which imposed some concrete limitations upon the
Absolute deprived it also of the vagueness of abstraction. Browning's
divinity is very finite, but also amazingly real and near; not
"interfused" with the world, which is full of stubborn distinctness, but
permeating it through and through, "curled inextricably round about" all
its beauty and its power,[92] "intertwined" with earth's lowliest
existence, and thrilling with answering rapture to every throb of life.
The doctrine of God's "immanence" was almost a commonplace with
Browning's generation. Browning turned the doctrine into imaginative
speech equalled in impressiveness by that of Carlyle and by that of
Emerson, but distinguished from both by an eager articulating concrete
sensibility which lifts into touch with supreme Good all the
labyrinthine multiplicity of existence which Carlyle impatiently
suppressed, while it joyously accentuates the sharp dissonances which
Emerson's ideality ignored.

[Footnote 92: _Easter-Day_, xxx.]


VI.

3. JOY IN POWER.


Browning was thus announced, we have seen, even by his splendour of
colouring and his rich and clear-cut plasticity, as something more than
a feaster upon colour and form. In his riot of the senses there was more
of the athlete than of the voluptuary. His joy was that of one to whom
nervous and muscular tension was itself a stimulating delight. In such a
temperament the feeling of energy was an elementary instinct, a
passionate obsession, which projected itself through eye and ear and
imagination into the outer world, filling it with the throbbing
pulsations or the clashing conflict of vehement powers. We know that it
was thus with Browning. "From the first Power was, I knew," he wrote in
the last autumn of his life.[93] It was a primitive instinct, and it
remained firmly rooted to the last. As Wordsworth saw Joy everywhere,
and Shelley Love, so Browning saw Power. If he later "saw Love as
plainly," it was the creative and transforming, not the emotional,
aspect of Love which caught his eye. His sense of Power played a yet
more various part in the shaping of his poetic world than did his sense
of form. But intellectual growth inevitably modified the primitive
instinct which it could not uproot; and his sense of Power traverses the
whole gamut of dynamic tones, from the lusty "barbaric" joy in the
sheer violence of ripping and clashing, to the high-wrought sensibility
which throbs in sympathy with the passionate heart-beats of the stars.

[Footnote 93: _Asolando: Reverie._]

No one can miss the element of savage energy in Browning. His associates
tell us of his sudden fits of indignation, "which were like
thunder-storms"; of his "brutal scorn" for effeminacy, of the "vibration
of his loud voice, and his hard fist upon the table," which made short
work of cobwebs.[94] The impact of hard resisting things, the jostlings
of stubborn matter bent on going its own way, attracted him as the
subtle compliances of air appealed to Shelley; and he runs riot in the
vocabulary (so abundantly developed in English) which conveys with
monosyllabic vigour to the ear these jostlings and impacts.

[Footnote 94: Mr E. Gosse, in _Dict. of N.B._]

     "Who were the stragglers, what war did they wage;
      Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
      Soil to a plash?"

he asks in _Childe Roland_,--altogether an instructive example of the
ways of Browning's imagination when working, as it so rarely did, on a
deliberately fantastic theme. Hear again with what savage joy his Moon
"rips the womb" of the cloud that crosses it; Shelley's Moon, in keeping
with the ways of his more tender-hefted universe, merely _broke its
woof_. So the gentle wife of James Lee sees in a vineyard "the vines
writhe in rows each impaled on its stake."

His "clefts" and "wedges" owe their attraction not only to their
intricate angularity but to the violent cleavings and thrustings apart
which they result from or produce. And his clefts are as incomplete
without some wild bit of fierce or frightened life in their grip as are
Shelley's caves without some form of unearthly maidenhood in their
embrace.[95] His mountains--so rarely the benign pastoral presences of
Wordsworth--are not only craggy and rough, but invisible axes have hewn
and mutilated them,--they are fissured and cloven and "scalped" and
"wind-gashed." When they thrust their mighty feet into the plain and
"entwine base with base to knit strength more intensely,"[96] the image
owes its grandeur to the double suggestion of sinewy power and
intertwined limbs. Still grander, but in the same style, is the sketch
of Hildebrand in _Sordello_:--

                       "See him stand
      Buttressed upon his mattock, Hildebrand
      Of the huge brain-mask welded ply o'er ply
      As in a forge; ... teeth clenched,
      The neck tight-corded too, the chin deep-trenched,
      As if a cloud enveloped him while fought
      Under its shade, grim prizers, thought with thought
      At deadlock."[97]

[Footnote 95: Cf. _Prometheus Unbound_, passim.]

[Footnote 96: _Saul_.]

[Footnote 97: _Sordello_, i. 171.]

When the hoary cripple in _Childe Roland_ laughs, his mouth-edge is
"pursed and scored" with his glee; and his scorn must not merely be
uttered, but _written_ with his crutch "in the dusty thoroughfare."
This idea is resumed yet more dramatically in the image of the palsied
oak, cleft like "a distorted mouth that splits its rim gaping at death."
Later on, thrusting his spear into the gloom, he fancies it "tangled in
a dead man's hair or beard." Similarly, Browning is habitually lured
into expressive detail by the idea of smooth surfaces frayed or
shredded,--as of flesh torn with teeth or spikes: Akiba,--

                            "the comb
      Of iron carded, flesh from bone, away,"[98]

or Hippolytus, ruined on the "detested beach" that was "bright with
blood and morsels of his flesh."[99]

[Footnote 98: _Joch. Halk._]

[Footnote 99: _Artemis Prol._]

This savageness found vent still more freely in his rendering of sounds.
By one of those apparent paradoxes which abound in Browning, the poet
who has best interpreted the glories of music in verse, the poet of
musicians _par excellence_, is also the poet of grindings and jostlings,
of jars and clashes, of grating hinges and flapping doors; civilisation
mated with barbarism, "like Jove in a thatched house."

Music appealed to him by its imaginative suggestiveness, or by its
intricate technique; as the mine from which Abt Vogler reared his
palace, the loom on which Master Hugues wove the intertwining harmonies
of his fugue. But the most dulcet harmony aroused him less surely to
vivacious expression than some "gruff hinge's invariable scold,"[100] or
the quick sharp rattle of rings down the net-poles,[101] or the
hoof-beat of a galloping horse, or the grotesque tumble of the old
organist, in fancy, down the "rotten-runged, rat-riddled stairs" of his
lightless loft. There was much in him of his own Hamelin rats' alacrity
of response to sounds "as of scraping tripe" and squeezing apples, and
the rest. Milton contrasted the harmonious swing of the gates of
Paradise with the harsh grinding of the gates of hell. Browning would
have found in the latter a satisfaction subtly allied to his zest for
other forms of robust malignity.

[Footnote 100: _Christmas Eve_, i. 480.]

[Footnote 101: _Englishman in Italy_, i. 396.]

And with his joy in savage images went an even more pronounced joy in
savage words. He loved the grinding, clashing, and rending sibilants and
explosives as Tennyson the tender-hefted liquids. Both poets found their
good among Saxon monosyllables, but to Tennyson they appealed by limpid
simplicity, to Browning by gnarled and rugged force. Dante, in a famous
chapter of the _De Vulgari Eloquio_[102] laid down a fourfold
distinction among words on the analogy of the varying texture of the
hair; enjoining the poet to avoid both the extremes of smoothness and
roughness,--to prefer the "combed" and the "shaggy" to the "tousled" and
the "sleek." All four kinds had their function in the versatile
technique of Browning and Tennyson; but it is safe to say that while
Tennyson's vocabulary is focussed among the "combed" in the direction of
the "sleek," Browning's centres in the "shaggy," verging towards the
"tousled."[103] The utmost sweetness is his when he will; it is the
counterpart of his pure intensity of colouring, and of the lyric
loveliness of his Pippas and Pompilias; but

     "All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee,"

though genuine Browning, is not distinctively and unmistakably his, like

     "Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?"

[Footnote 102: _De Vulg. Eloq._, ii. 8.]

[Footnote 103: Making allowance, of course, for the more "shaggy" and
"tousled" character of the English vocabulary as a whole, compared with
Italian.]

Browning's genial violence continually produced strokes which only
needed a little access of oddity or extravagance to become grotesque. He
probably inherited a bias in this direction; we know that his father
delighted in drawing grotesque heads, and even "declared that he could
not draw a pretty face."[104] But his grotesqueness is never the mere
comic oddness which sometimes assumes the name. It is a kind of
monstrosity produced not by whimsical mutilations, but by a riot of
exuberant power. And he has also a grave and tragic use of the
grotesque, in which he stands alone. He is, in fact, by far the greatest
English master of grotesque. _Childe Roland_, where the natural bent of
his invention has full fling, abounds with grotesque traits which,
instead of disturbing the romantic atmosphere, infuse into it an
element of strange, weird, and uncanny mirth, more unearthly than any
solemnity; the day shooting its grim red leer across the plain, the old
worn-out horse with its red, gaunt, and colloped neck a-strain; or, in
_Paracelsus_, the "Cyclops-like" volcanoes "staring together with their
eyes on flame," in whose "uncouth pride" God tastes a pleasure. Shelley
had recoiled from the horrible idea of a host of these One-eyed
monsters;[105] Browning deliberately invokes it. But he can use
grotesque effects to heighten tragedy as well as romance. One source of
the peculiar poignancy of the _Heretic's Tragedy_ is the eerie blend in
it of mocking familiarity and horror.

[Footnote 104: H. Corkran, _Celebrities and I_.]

[Footnote 105: Cf. Locock, _Examination of the Shelley MSS. in the
Bodleian_, p. 19. At the words "And monophalmic (_sic_) Polyphemes who
haunt the pine-hills, flocked," the writing becomes illegible and the
stanza is left incomplete. Mr Forman explains the breaking-off in the
same way.]

Yet it was not always in this brutal and violent guise that Browning
imagined power. He was "ever a fighter," and had a sense as keen as
Byron's, and far more joyous, for storm and turbulence; but he had also,
as Byron had not, the finer sense which feels the universe tense with
implicit energies, and the profoundest silences of Nature oppressive
with the burden of life straining to the birth. The stars in _Saul_
"beat with emotion" and "shot out in fire the strong pain of pent
knowledge," and a "gathered intensity" is "brought to the grey of the
hills"; upon the lovers of _In a Balcony_ evening comes "intense with
yon first trembling star." Wordsworth's "quiet" is lonely, pensive, and
serene; his stars are not beating with emotion, but "listening quietly."
Browning's is hectic, bodeful, high-strung. The vast featureless
Campagna is instinct with "passion," and its "peace with joy."[106]

     "Quietude--that's a universe in germ--
      The dormant passion needing but a look
      To burst into immense life."[107]

[Footnote 106: _Two in the Campagna._]

[Footnote 107: _Asolando: Inapprehensiveness_.]

Half the romantic spell of _Childe Roland_ lies in the wonderful
suggestion of impending catastrophe. The gloom is alive with mysterious
and impalpable menace; the encompassing presences which everything
suggests and nothing betrays, grow more and more oppressively real,
until the decisive moment when Roland's blast suddenly lets them loose.

For the power that Browning rejoiced to imagine was pre-eminently
sudden; an unforeseen cataclysm, abruptly changing the conditions it
found, and sharply marking off the future from the past. The same bias
of imagination which crowded his inner vision of space with abrupt
angular forms tended to resolve the slow, continuous, organic energies
of the world before his inner vision into explosion and catastrophe. His
geology neglects the æons of gradual stratification; it is not the slow
stupendous upheaval of continents, but the volcanic uprush of the molten
ore among the rocks, which renew the ancient rapture of the Paracelsian
God. He is the poet of the sudden surprises of plant-life: the bud
"bursting unaware" into flower, the brushwood about the elm-tree
breaking, some April morning, into tiny leaf, the rose-flesh mushroom
born in a night. The "metamorphoses of plants,"[108] which fascinated
Goethe by their inner continuity, arrest Browning by their outward
abruptness: that the flower is implicit in the leaf was a fact of much
less worth for him than that the bud suddenly passes into something so
unlike it as the flower. The gradual coming on of spring among the
mountains concentrates itself for him in one instant of epic
sublimity,--that in which the mountain unlooses its year's load of
sound, and

     "Fold on fold all at once it crowds thunderously down to his
          feet."[109]

[Footnote 108: _Metamorphose der Pflanzen_.]

[Footnote 109: _Saul_.]

Even in the gradual ebb of day he discovers a pregnant instant in which
day dies:--

          "For note, when evening shuts,
           A certain moment cuts
      The deed off, calls the glory from the grey."

Hence his love of images which convey these sudden transformations,--the
worm, putting forth in autumn its "two wondrous winglets,"[110] the
"transcendental platan," breaking into foliage and flower at the summit
of its smooth tall bole; the splendour of flame leaping from the dull
fuel of gums and straw. In such images we see how the simple joy in
abrupt changes of sensation which belonged to his riotous energy of
nerve lent support to his peremptory way of imagining all change and
especially all vital and significant becoming. For Browning's trenchant
imagination things were not gradually evolved; a sudden touch loosed the
springs of latent power, or an overmastering energy from without rushed
in like a flood. With all his connoisseur's delight in technique,
language and sound were only spells which unlocked a power beyond their
capacity to express. Music was the "burst of pillared cloud by day and
pillared fire by night," starting up miraculously from the barren
wilderness of mechanical expedients,[111] and poetry "the sudden
rose"[112] "breaking in" at the bidding of a "brace of rhymes." That in
such transmutations Browning saw one of the most marvellous of human
powers we may gather from the famous lines of _Abt Vogler_ already
quoted:--

     "And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
      That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star."

[Footnote 110: _Sordello_ (Works, i. 123).]

[Footnote 111: _Fifine_, xlii.]

[Footnote 112: _Transcendentalism_.]


VII.

4. JOY IN SOUL.


No saying of Browning's is more familiar than that in which he declared
"incidents in the development of souls"[113] to be to him the supreme
interest of poetry. The preceding sections of this chapter have
sufficiently shown how far this formula was from exhausting the vital
springs of Browning's work. "Little else" might be "worth study"; but a
great many other things had captured those rich sensibilities, without
which the "student's analytic zeal" might have devoured the poet. On the
other hand, his supreme interest in "incidents in the development of
souls" was something very different from the democratic enthusiasm for
humanity, or the Wordsworthian joy in the "common tears and mirth" of
"every village." The quiet routine existence of uneventful lives hardly
touched him more than the placid quiescence of animal and vegetable
existence; the commonplace of humanity excited in him no mystic rapture;
the human "primrose by the river's brim," merely as one among a throng,
was for him pretty much what it was to Peter Bell. There was no doubt a
strain of pantheistic thought in Browning which logically involved a
treatment of the commonplace as profoundly reverent as Wordsworth's own.
But his passionate faith in the divine love pervading the universe did
not prevent his turning away resolutely from regions of humanity, as of
nature, for which his poetic alchemy provided no solvent. His poetic
throne was not built on "humble truth"; and he, as little as his own
Sordello, deserved the eulogy of the plausible Naddo upon his verses as
based "on man's broad nature," and having a "staple of common-sense."[114]
The homely toiler as such, all members of homely undistinguished classes
and conditions of men, presented, _as_ embodiments of those classes
and conditions, no coign of vantage to his art. In this point,
human-hearted and democratic as he was, he fell short not only of the
supreme portrayers of the eternal commonplaces of peasant life,--of a
Burns, a Wordsworth, a Millet, a Barnes,--but even of the fastidious
author of _The Northern Farmer_. Once, in a moment of exaltation, at
Venice, Browning had seen Humanity in the guise of a poor soiled and
faded bit of Venetian girlhood, and symbolically taken her as the future
mistress of his art. The programme thus laid down was not, like
Wordsworth's similarly announced resolve to sing of "sorrow barricadoed
evermore within the walls of cities," simply unfulfilled; but it was far
from disclosing the real fountain of his inspiration.

[Footnote 113: Preface to _Sordello_, ed. 1863.]

[Footnote 114: _Sordello_, ii. 135.]

And as Browning deals little with the commonplace in human nature, so he
passes by with slight concern the natural relationships into which men
are born, as compared with those which they enter by passion or choice.
The bond of kinship, the love between parents and children, brothers and
sisters, so prolific of poetry elsewhere, is singularly rare and
unimportant in Browning, to whom every other variety of the love between
men and women was a kindling theme. The names of husband, of wife, of
lover, vibrate for him with a poetry more thrilling than any that those
names excite elsewhere in the poetry of his generation; but the mystic
glory which in Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge gathered about
unconscious childhood is all but fled. Children--real children, naïve
and inarticulate, like little Fortù--rarely appear in his verse, and
those that do appear seem to have been first gently disengaged, like
Pippa, David, Theocrite, from all the clinging filaments of Home. In its
child pathos _The Pied Piper_--addressed to a child--stands all but
alone among his works. His choicest and loveliest figures are lonely and
unattached. Pippa, David, Pompilia, Bordello, Paracelsus, Balaustion,
Mildred, Caponsacchi, have no ties of home and blood, or only such as
work malignly upon their fate. Mildred has no mother, and she falls;
Sordello moves like a Shelleyan shadow about his father's house;
Balaustion breaks away from the ties of kindred to become a spiritual
daughter of Athens; Paracelsus goes forth, glorious in the possession of
"the secret of the world," which is his alone; Caponsacchi, himself
sisterless and motherless, releases Pompilia from the doom inflicted on
her by her parents' calculating greed; the song of Pippa releases Luigi
from the nobler but yet hurtful bondage of his mother's love.

More considerable, but yet relatively slight, is the part played in
Browning's poetry by those larger and more complex communities, like the
City or the State, whose bond of membership, though less involuntary
than that of family, is still for the most part the expression of
material necessity or interest, not of spiritual discernment, passion,
or choice. Patriotism, in this sense, is touched with interest but
hardly with conviction, or with striking power, by Browning. Casa Guidi
windows betrayed too much. Two great communities alone moved his
imagination profoundly; just those two, namely, in which the bond of
common political membership was most nearly merged in the bond of a
common spiritual ideal. And Browning puts the loftiest passion for
Athens in the mouth of an alien, and the loftiest Hebraism in the mouth
of a Jew of the dispersion. Responsive to the personal cry of the
solitary hero, Browning rarely caught or cared to reproduce the vaguer
multitudinous murmur of the great mass. In his defining, isolating
imagination the voice of the solitary soul rings out with thrilling
clearness, but the "still sad music of humanity" escapes. The inchoate
and the obsolescent, the indistinctness of immaturity, the incipient
disintegration of decay, the deepening shadow of oblivion, the
half-instinctive and organic bond of custom, whatever stirs the blood
but excites only blurred images in the brain, and steals into character
without passing through the gates of passion or of thought, finds
imperfect or capricious reflection in his verse.

Browning's interest in "soul" was not, then, a diffused enjoyment of
human nature as such. But, on the other hand, human nature stood for too
much with him, his sense of what all personality at the lowest implies
was too keen, to allow him to relish, or make much use of, those
unpsychological amalgams of humanity and thought,--the personified
abstractions. Whether in the base form branded by Wordsworth, or in the
lofty and noble form of Keats's "Autumn" and Shelley's "West Wind," this
powerful instrument of poetic expression was touched only in fugitive
and casual strokes to music by Browning's hand. Personality, to interest
him, had to possess a possible status in the world of experience. It had
to be of the earth, and like its inhabitants. The stamp of fashioning
intelligence, or even of blind myth-making instinct, alienates and warns
him off. He climbs to no Olympus or Valhalla, he wanders through no
Empyrean. His rare divinities tread the visible and solid ground. His
Artemis "prologizes" to, his Herakles plays a part in, a human drama;
and both are as frankly human themselves as the gods of Homer. Shelley
and Keats had rekindled about the faded forms of the Greek gods the
elemental Nature-worship from which they had started; Apollo, Hyperion,
are again glorious symbols of the "all-seeing" and all-vitalising Sun.
Browning, far from seeking to recover their primitive value, treats
their legends, with the easy rationalism of Euripides or Ferishtah, as a
mine of ethical and psychological illustration. He can play charmingly,
in later years, with the myth of Pan and Luna, of Arion and the
dolphin,[115] or of Apollo and the Fates, but idyl gets the better of
nature feeling; "maid-moon" Luna is far more maid than moon. The spirit
of autumn does not focus itself for him, as for Keats, in some symbolic
shape, slumbering among the harvest swathes or at watch over the
fragrant cider-press; it breaks up into the vivid concrete traits of
_The Englishman in Italy_. The spirit of humanity is not shadowed forth
in a Prometheus, but realised in a Caponsacchi.

[Footnote 115: _Fifine at the Fair_, lxxviii.]


VIII.


What, then, in the vast multifarious field of soul-life were the points
of special attraction for Browning? To put it in a word, the same
fundamental instincts of the senses and the imagination which we have
watched shaping the visible world of his poetry, equally determined the
complexion of its persons. The joy in pure and intense colour, in
abruptness of line and intricacy of structure, in energetic movement and
sudden disclosure and transformation,--all these characteristics have
their analogies in Browning's feeling for the complexion, morphology,
and dynamics of what he calls the soul. Just as this lover of crowded
labyrinthine forms surprises us at first by his masses of pure and
simple colour, untroubled by blur or modulation, so in the long
procession of Browning's men of the world, adepts in the tangled lore of
experience, there mingle from time to time figures radiant with a pure,
intense, immaculate spiritual light,--Pippa, Pompilia, the David of the
earlier _Saul_. Something of the strange charm of these naïvely
beautiful beings springs from their isolation. That detachment from the
bonds of home and kindred which was noticed above in its negative
aspect, appears now as a source of positive expressiveness. They start
into unexplained existence like the sudden beauty of flames from straw.
Browning is no poet of the home, but he is peculiarly the poet of a kind
of spirituality which subsists independently of earthly ties without
disdaining them, lonely but unconscious of loneliness. Pippa would
hardly be so recognisably steeped as she is in the very atmosphere of
Browning's mind, but for this loneliness of hers,--the loneliness
neither of the exile nor of the anchorite, but native, spontaneous, and
serene. Wordsworth sometimes recalls it, but he is apt to invest his
lonely beings with a mystic glamour which detaches them from humanity as
well as from their fellow-men. The little "H.C., six years old," is "a
dewdrop which the morn brings forth," that

        "at the touch of wrong, without a strife,
      Slips in a moment out of life."

Pippa, with all her ideality and her upward gaze, has her roots in
earth; she is not the dewdrop but the flower.

But loneliness belongs in a less degree to almost all characters which
seriously engaged Browning's imagination. His own intense isolating
self-consciousness infused itself into them. Each is a little island
kingdom, judged and justified by its own laws, and not entirely
intelligible to the foreigner. Hence his persistent use of the dramatic
monologue. Every man had his point of view, and his right to state his
case. "Where you speak straight out," Browning wrote in effect, as we
saw, in one of his earliest letters to his future wife, "I break the
white light in the seven colours of men and women"[116]; and each colour
had its special truth and worth. His study of character is notoriously
occupied with failures of transit between mind and mind. His lovers miss
the clue; if they find it, as in _By the Fireside_, the collapse of the
barrier walls is told with triumph, and the spell of the forests invoked
to explain it.

[Footnote 116: _R.B. to E.B.B._, i. 6.]

And within the viewless intrenchments thus drawn about character
Browning's imagination was prone to reproduce the abrupt and intricate
play of line and surface which fascinated his outward eye. "The
care-bit, erased, broken-up beauties ever took my taste," says, in
_Sordello_, the creator of the pure flame-like soul-beauty of Pompilia
and Pippa; very much as the crumbling and blistering of the frescoed
walls are no less needful to the charm he feels in his Southern villa
than the "blue breadth of sea without break" expanding before it. The
abruptness, the sharp transitions, the startling and picturesque
contrasts which mark so much of the talk of his persons, reflect not
merely his agility of mind but his æsthetic relish for the Gothic
richness and fretted intricacy that result. The bishop of St Praxed's
monologue, for instance, is a sort of live mosaic,--anxious entreaty to
his sons, diapered with gloating triumph over old Gandulph. The larger
tracts of soul-life are apt in his hands to break up into shifting
phases, or to nodulate into sudden crises; here a Blougram, with his
"chess-board" of faith diversified by doubt, there a Paracelsus,
advancing by complex alternations of "aspiring" and "attainment."
Everywhere in Browning the slow continuities of existence are obscured
by vivid moments,--the counterpart of his bursts of sunlight through
rifts and chinks. A moment of speech with Shelley stands out, a
brilliant handbreadth of time between the blank before and after; a
moment of miserable failure blots out the whole after-life of Martin
Relph; a moment of heroism stamps once for all the quality of Clive; the
whole complex story of Pompilia focuses in the "splendid minute and no
more" in which she is "saved"; the lover's whole life is summed up in
"some moment's product" when "the soul declares itself,"[117] or utters
the upgarnered poetry of its passion; or else, conversely, he looks back
on a moment equally indelible, when the single chance of love was
missed. "It once might have been, once only," is the refrain of the
lover's regret in Browning, as "once and only once and for one only" is
the keynote of his triumph. In the contours of event and circumstance,
as in those of material objects, he loves jagged angularity, not
harmonious curve. "Our interest's in the dangerous edge of things,"--

     "The honest thief, the tender murderer,
      The superstitious atheist;"

where an alien strain violently crosses the natural course of kind; and
these are only extreme examples of the abnormal nature which always
allured and detained Browning's imagination, though it was not always
the source of its highest achievement. Ivánovitch, executing justice
under the forms of murder, Caponsacchi, executing mercy under the forms
of an elopement, the savagery of Halbert and Hob unnerved by an abrupt
reminiscence,--it is in these suggestive and pregnant situations, at the
meeting-points of apparently irreconcilable classes and kinds, that
Browning habitually found or placed those of his characters who
represent any class or kind at all.

[Footnote 117: _By the Fireside_.]

The exploring, in-and-out scrutinising instincts of Browning's
imagination equally left their vivid impress upon his treatment of
character. If the sharp nodosities of character caught his eye, its
mysterious recesses and labyrinthine alleys allured his curiosity; this
lover of "clefts," this pryer among tangled locks and into the depths of
flower-bells, peered into all the nooks and chambers of the soul with
inexhaustible enterprise. It is hard to deny that even _The Ring and the
Book_ itself suffers something from the unflagging zest with which the
poet pursues all the windings of popular speculation, all the fretwork
of Angelo de Hyacinthis's forensic and domestic futilities. The poem is
a great poetic Mansion, with many chambers, and he will lead us sooner
or later to its inner shrine; but on the way there are "closets to
search and alcoves to importune,"--

            "The day wears,
          And door succeeds door,
            We try the fresh fortune,
      Range the wide house from the wing to the centre."

For the most part, after the not wholly successful experiment of direct
analysis in _Sordello_, he chose to make his men and women the
instruments of their own illumination; and this was a second source of
his delight in the dramatic monologue. He approached all problematic
character with a bias towards disbelieving appearances, which was fed,
if not generated, by that restlessly exploring instinct of an
imagination that spontaneously resolved surface and solidity into
integument and core. Not that Browning always displays the core; on the
contrary, after elaborately removing an imposing mask from what appears
to be a face, he will hint that the unmasked face is itself a mask. "For
Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke." Browning is less concerned
to "save" the subjects of his so-called "Special Pleadings" than to
imagine them divested of the gross disguises of public rumour about
them; not naked as God made them, but clothed in the easy undress of
their own subtly plausible illusions about themselves. But the optimist
in him is always alert, infusing into the zest of exploration a cheery
faith that behind the last investiture lurks always some soul of
goodness, and welcoming with a sudden lift of verse the escape of some
diviner gleam through the rifts, such as Blougram's--

     "Just when we're safest comes a sunset touch."

Yet it is hardly a paradox to say that his faith throve upon the
obstacles it overcame. He imagined yet more vividly than he saw, and the
stone wall which forbade vision but whetted imagination, acquired an
ideal merit in his eyes because it was not an open door. In later life
he came with growing persistence to regard the phenomenal world as a
barrier of illusion between man and truth. But instead of chilling his
faith, the obstacle only generated that poet's philosophy of the "value
of a lie" which perturbs the less experienced reader of _Fifine_.
"Truth" was "forced to manifest itself through falsehood," won thence by
the excepted eye, at the rare season, for the happy moment, till
"through the shows of sense, which ever proving false still promise to
be true," the soul of man worked its way to its final union with the
soul of God.[118]

[Footnote 118: _Fifine at the fair_, cxxiv.]

       *       *       *       *       *

And here at length if not before we have a clear glimpse of the athlete
who lurks behind the explorer. Browning's joy in imagining impediment
and illusion was only another aspect of his joy in the spiritual energy
which answers to the spur of difficulty and "works" through the shows of
sense; and this other joy found expression in a poetry of soul yet more
deeply tinged with the native hue of his mind. "From the first, Power
was, I knew;" and souls were the very central haunt and focus of its
play. Not that strong natures, as such, have much part in Browning's
poetic-world; the strength that allured his imagination was not the
strength that is rooted in nerve or brain, slowly enlarging with the
build of the organism, but the strength that has suddenly to be begotten
or infused, that leaps by the magic of spiritual influence from heart to
heart. If Browning multiplies and deepens the demarcations among
material things, he gives his souls a rare faculty of transcending them.
Bright spiritual beings like Pippa shed their souls innocently and
unwittingly about like a spilth of "X-rays," and the irradiation
penetrates instantly the dense opposing integuments of passion,
cupidity, and worldliness. At all times in his life these accesses of
spiritual power occupied his imagination. Cristina's momentary glance
and the Lady of Tripoli's dreamed-of face lift their devotees to
completeness:--

     "She has lost me, I have gained her,
      Her soul's mine, and now grown perfect
      I shall pass my life's remainder."

Forty years later, Browning told with far greater realistic power and a
grim humour suited to the theme, the "transmutation" of Ned Bratts.
Karshish has his sudden revealing flash as he ponders the letter of
Abib:--

     "The very God! Think, Abib, dost thou think,--
      So the All-great were the All-loving too"--

and the boy David his prophetic vision. A yet more splendid vision
breaks from the seemingly ruined brain of the dying Paracelsus, and he
has a gentler comrade in the dying courtier, who starts up from his
darkened chamber crying that--

                "Spite of thick air and closed doors
      God told him it was June,--when harebells grow,
      And all that kings could ever give or take
      Would not be precious as those blooms to me."

But it is not only in these magical transitions and transformations that
Browning's joy in soul was decisively coloured by his joy in power. A
whole class of his characters--the most familiarly "Browningesque"
division of them all--was shaped under the sway of this master-passion;
the noble army of "strivers" who succeed and of "strivers" who fail,
baffled artists and rejected lovers who mount to higher things on
stepping-stones of their frustrated selves, like the heroes of _Old
Painters in Florence_, and _The Last Ride Together_, and _The Lost
Mistress_; and on the other hand, the artists and lovers who fail for
want of this saving energy, like the Duke and Lady of the _Statue and
the Bust_, like Andrea del Sarto and the Unknown Painter. But his very
preoccupation with Art and with Love itself sprang mainly from his
peculiar joy in the ardent putting-forth of soul. No kind of vivid
consciousness was indifferent to him, but the luxurious receptivity of
the spectator or of a passively beloved mistress touched him little,
compared with the faintest pulsation of the artist's "love of loving,
rage of knowing, feeling, seeing the absolute truth of things," of the
lover's passion for union with another soul. When he describes effects
of music or painting, he passes instinctively over to the standpoint of
the composer or the performer; shows us Hugues and Andrea themselves at
the organ, or the easel; and instead of feeling the world turned into
"an unsubstantial faery place" by the magic of the cuckoo or the thrush,
strikes out playful theories of the professional methods of these
songsters,--the cuckoo's monopoly of the "minor third," the thrush's
wise way of repeating himself "lest you should think he never could
recapture his first fine careless rapture." Suffering enters Browning's
poetry almost never as the artless wail of the helpless stricken thing;
the intolerable pathos of _Ye Banks and Braes_, or of

     "We twa hae paidl't in the burn
      Frae morning sun till dine,"

belonged to a side of primitive emotion to which "artificial" poets like
Tennyson were far more sensitive than he. Suffering began to interest
him when the wail passed into the fierceness of vindictive passion, as
in _The Confessional_, or into the outward calm of a self-subjugated
spirit, as in _Any Wife to any Husband_, or _A Woman's Last Word_; or
into reflective and speculative, if bitter, retrospect, as in _The Worst
of It_ or _James Lee's Wife_. And happiness, equally,--even the lover's
happiness,--needed, to satisfy Browning, to have some leaven of
challenging disquiet; the lover must have something to fear, or
something to forgive, some hostility, or guilt, or absence, or death, to
brave. Or the rapturous union of lovers must be remembered with a pang,
when they have quarrelled; or its joy be sobered by recalling the
perilous hairbreadth chances incurred in achieving it (_By the
Fireside_)--

     "Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
        And the little less, and what worlds away!
      How a sound shall quicken content to bliss,
        Or a breath suspend the blood's best play,
          And life be a proof of this!"

Further, his joy in soul drew into the sphere of his poetry large tracts
of existence which lay wholly or partly outside the domain of soul
itself. The world of the lower animals hardly touched the deeper chords
of his thought or emotion; but he watched their activities with a very
genuine and constant delight, and he took more account of their pangs
than he did of the soul-serving throes of man.[119] His imaginative
selection among the countless types of these "low kinds" follows the
lead of all those forms of primitive joy which we have traced in his
types of men and women: here it is the quick-glancing intricate flights
of birds or insects, the flitting of quick sandpipers in and out of the
marl, or of flies about an old wall; now the fierce contrasts of hue,
angularity, and grotesque deformity all at once in Caliban's beasts:--

     "Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech;
      Yon auk, one fire-eye in a ball of foam,
      That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown
      He hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eye
      By moonlight;"

or it is the massive power of the desert lion, in _The Glove_ or the
bright æthereal purity of the butterfly fluttering over the swimmer's
head, with its

        "membraned wings
      So wonderful, so wide,
      So sun-suffused;"[120]

or the cheery self-dependence of the solitary insect. "I always love
those wild creatures God sets up for themselves," he wrote to Miss
Barrett, "so independently, so successfully, with their strange happy
minute inch of a candle, as it were, to light them." [121]

[Footnote 119: _Donald_.]

[Footnote 120: Some of these examples are from Mr Brooke's excellent
chapter on Browning's Treatment of Nature.]

[Footnote 121: _To E.B.B._, 5th Jan. 1846.]

Finally, Browning's joy in soul flowed over also upon the host of
lifeless things upon which "soul" itself has in any way been spent. To
bear the mark of Man's art and toil, to have been hewn or moulded or
built, compounded or taken to pieces, by human handiwork, was to
acquire a certain romantic allurement for Browning's imagination hardly
found in any other poet in the same degree. The "artificial products" of
civilised and cultured life were for him not merely instruments of
poetic expression but springs of poetic joy. No poetry can dispense with
images from "artificial" things; Wordsworth himself does not always
reject them; with most poets they are commoner, merely because they are
better known; but for Browning the impress of "our meddling intellect"
added exactly the charm and stimulus which complete exemption from it
added for Wordsworth. His habitual imagery is fetched, not from flowers
or clouds or moving winds and waters, but from wine-cups, swords and
sheaths, lamps, tesselated pavements, chess-boards, pictures, houses,
ships, shops. Most of these appealed also to other instincts,--to his
joy in brilliant colour, abrupt line, intricate surface, or violent
emotion. But their "artificiality" was an added attraction. The wedge,
for instance, appeals to him not only by its angularity and its rending
thrust, but as a weapon contrived by man's wit and driven home by his
muscle. The cup appeals to him not only by its shape, and by the rush of
the foaming wine, but as fashioned by the potter's wheel, and flashing
at the festal board. His delight in complex technicalities, in the
tangled issues of the law-courts, and the intertwining harmonies of
Bach, sprang from his joy in the play of mind as well as from his joy in
mere intricacy as such. His mountains are gashed and cleft and carved
not only because their intricacy of craggy surface or the Titanic
turmoil of mountain-shattering delights him, but also because he loves
to suggest the deliberate axe or chisel of the warrior or the artist
Man. He turns the quiet vicissitudes of nature into dexterous
achievements of art. If he does not paint or dye the meads, he turns the
sunset clouds into a feudal castle, shattered slowly with a visible
mace; the morning sun pours into Pippa's chamber as from a wine-bowl;
and Fifine's ear is

                                                  "cut
      Thin as a dusk-leaved rose carved from a cocoanut."[122]

[Footnote 122: _Fifine at the Fair_, ii. 325.]

Sordello's slowly won lyric speech is called

                          "a rude
      Armour ... hammered out, in time to be
      Approved beyond the Roman panoply
      Melted to make it."[123]

[Footnote 123: _Sordello_, i. 135.]

And thirty years later he used the kindred but more recondite simile of
a ring with its fortifying alloy, to symbolise the welded _Wahrheit_ and
_Dichtung_ of his greatest poem.

Between _Dichtung_ and _Wahrheit_ there was, indeed, in Browning's mind,
a closer affinity than that simile suggests. His imagination was a
factor in his apprehension of truth; his "poetry" cannot be detached
from his interpretation of life, nor his interpretation of life from his
poetry. Not that all parts of his apparent teaching belong equally to
his poetic mind. On the contrary, much of it was derived from traditions
of which he never shook himself clear; much from the exercise of a
speculative reason which, though incomparably agile, was neither well
disciplined in its methods nor particularly original in its grasp of
principles. But with the vitalising heart of his faith neither tradition
nor reasoning had so much to do as that logic of the imagination by
which great poets often implicitly enunciate what the after-thinker
slowly works out. The characteristic ways of Browning's poetry, the
fundamental joys on which it fed, of which the present chapter attempts
an account, by no means define the range or the limits of his
interpreting intellect, but they mark the course of its deepest
currents, the permanent channels which its tides overflow, but to which
in the last resort they return. In the following chapter we shall have
to study these fluctuating movements of his explicit and formulated
thought, and to distinguish, if we may, the ground-tone of the deep
waters from the more resonant roll of the shifting tides.



CHAPTER X.

THE INTERPRETER OF LIFE.

    His voice sounds loudest and also clearest for the things that as a
    race we like best; ... the fascination of faith, the acceptance of
    life, the respect for its mysteries, the endurance of its charges,
    the vitality of the will, the validity of character, the beauty of
    action, the seriousness, above all, of great human passion.

    --HENRY JAMES.



I.


The trend of speculative thought in Europe during the century which
preceded the emergence of Browning may be described as a progressive
integration along several distinct lines of the great regions of
existence which common beliefs, resting on a still vigorous medievalism,
thrust apart. Nature was brought into nearer relation with Man, and Man
with God, and God with Nature and with Man. In one aspect, not the least
striking, it was a "return to Nature"; economists from Adam Smith to
Malthus worked out the laws of man's dependence upon the material world;
poets and idealists from Rousseau to Wordsworth discovered in a life
"according to nature" the ideal for man; sociologists from Hume to
Bentham, and from Burke to Coleridge, applied to human society
conceptions derived from physics or from biology, and emphasised all
that connects it with the mechanical aggregate of atoms, or with the
organism.

In another aspect it was a return to God. If the scientific movement
tended to subjugate man to a Nature in which, as Laplace said, there was
no occasion for God, Wordsworth saw both in Nature and in man a spirit
"deeply interfused"; and the great contemporary school of German
philosophy set all ethical thinking in a new perspective by its original
handling of the old thesis that duty is a realisation of the will of
God.

But, in yet another aspect, it was a return to Man. If Man was brought
nearer to Nature and to God, it was to a Nature and to a God which had
themselves acquired, for him, closer affinities with humanity. He
divined, with Wordsworth, his own joy, with Shelley his own love, in the
breathing flower; he saw with Hegel in the Absolute Spirit a power
vitally present in all man's secular activities and pursuits. And these
interpreting voices of poets and philosophers were but the signs of less
articulate sensibilities far more widely diffused, which were in effect
bringing about a manifold expansion and enrichment of normal, mental,
and emotional life. Scott made the romantic past, Byron and Goethe, in
their different ways, the Hellenic past, a living element of the
present; and Fichte, calling upon his countrymen to emancipate
themselves, in the name not of the "rights of men" but of the genius of
the German people, uttered the first poignant recognition of national
life as a glorious vesture arraying the naked body of the individual
member, not an aggregate of other units competing with or controlling
him.

In this complicated movement Browning played a very notable and
memorable part. But it was one of which the first generation of his
readers was entirely, and he himself to a great extent, unconscious, and
which his own language often disguises or conceals. Of all the poets of
the century he had the clearest and most confident vision of the working
of God in the world, the most buoyant faith in the divine origin and
destiny of man. Half his poetry is an effort to express, in endless
variety of iteration, the nearness of God, to unravel the tangled
circumstance of human life, and disclose everywhere infinity enmeshed
amid the intricacies of the finite.

On the side of Nature his interest was less keen and his vision less
subtle. His "visitations of the living God" came to him by other avenues
than those opened by Wordsworth's ecstatic gaze, "in love and holy
passion," upon outward beauty. Only limited classes of natural phenomena
appealed to him powerfully at all, the swift and sudden upheavals and
catastrophes, the ardours and accesses, the silence that thrills with
foreboding and suspense. For continuities, both of the mechanical and
the organic kind, he lacked sense. We have seen how his eye fastened
everywhere upon the aspects of life least suggestive of either iron
uniformity or harmonious evolution. The abrupt demarcations which he
everywhere imposes or discovers were the symptom of a primitive
ingrained atomism of thought which all the synthetic strivings of a
God-intoxicated intellect could not entirely overcome.


II.


His metaphysical thinking thus became an effort to reconcile an
all-embracing synthesis with a sense of individuality as stubborn and
acute as ever man had. Body and Soul, Nature and Spirit, Man and God,
Good and Evil, he presented now as co-operative or alien, now as hostile
antagonists or antitheses. That their opposition is not ultimate, that
evil is at bottom a form of good, and all finite existence a passing
mode of absolute being, was a conviction towards which his thought on
one side constantly strove, which it occasionally touched, but in which
it could not securely rest. Possessed by the thirst for absoluteness, he
vindicated the "infinity" of God and the soul by banishing all the
"finiteness" of sense into a limbo of illusion. The infinite soul,
imprisoned for life in a body which at every moment clogs its motion and
dims its gaze, fights its way through the shows of sense,[124] "which
ever proving false still promise to be true," until death opens the
prison-gate and restores the captive to its infinity. Sorrow and evil
were stains imposed by Time upon the white radiance of an eternal being;
and Browning sometimes rose, though with a less sure step, to the
dizzier height of holding Time itself to be unreal, and the soul's
earthly life not an episode in an endless sequence, but a dream of
progressive change imposed upon a changeless and timeless essence.

[Footnote 124: _Fifine at the Fair._]

But there were, as has been said, elements in Browning's mental make
which kept this abstract and formal theory, fortified though it was by
theological prepossessions, in check. His most intense consciousness,
his most definite grip upon reality, was too closely bound up with the
collisions and jostlings, the limits and angularities, of the world of
the senses, for the belief in their illusoriness easily to hold its
ground. This "infinite soul" palpably had its fullest and richest
existence in the very heart of finite things. Wordsworth had turned for
"intimations of immortality" to the remembered intuitions of childhood;
Browning found them in every pang of baffled aspiration and frustrate
will. Hence there arose in the very midst of this realm of illusion a
new centre of reality; the phantoms took on solid and irrefragable
existence, and refused to take to flight when the cock-crow announced
that "Time was done, Eternity begun."

Body and Time had in general too strong a grip upon him to be resolved
into illusion. His actual pictures of departed souls suggest a state
very unlike that reversion of the infinite spirit which had been thrust
upon Matter and distended in Time, to the timeless Infinitude it had
forgone. It does not escape from Time, but only passes on from the
limited section of Time known as life, into another section, without
limit, known as Eternity. And if it escapes from Body, at least Browning
represents his departed soul more boldly than any other modern poet in a
garb of flesh. Evelyn Hope, when she wakens in another world, will find
her unknown lover's leaf in her hand, and "remember, and understand."

And just as Matter and Time invade Browning's spiritual eternity, so his
ideal of conduct for man while still struggling with finite conditions
casts its shadow on to the state of immortal release. Two conceptions,
in fact, of the life after death, corresponding to divergent aspects of
his thought, contend in Browning's mind. Now it is a state of
emancipation from earthly limits,--when the "broken arcs" become
"perfect rounds" and "evil" is transformed into "so much good more," and
"reward and repose" succeed the "struggles"[125] by which they have been
won. But at times he startles the devout reader by foreshadowing not a
sudden transformation but a continuation of the slow educative process
of earth in a succession of preliminary heavens before the consummate
state is reached. "Progress," in short, was too deeply ingrained in
Browning's conception of what was ultimately good, and therefore
ultimately real, not to find entrance into his heaven, were it only by
some casual backdoor of involuntary intuition. Even in that more
gracious state "achievement lacked a gracious somewhat"[126] to his
indomitable fighting instinct.

[Footnote 125: _Saul_, xvii.]

[Footnote 126: _One Word More_.]

     "Soul resteth not, and mine must still advance,"

he had said in _Pauline_, and the soul that ceased to advance ceased for
Browning, in his most habitual mood, to exist. The "infinity" of the
soul was not so much a gift as a destiny, a power of hungering for ever
after an ideal completeness which it was indefinitely to pursue and to
approach, but not to reach. Far from having to await a remote
emancipation to become completely itself, the soul's supremest life was
in its hours of heroic stress, when it kept some dragon of unbelief
quiet underfoot, like Michael,

     "Who stands calm, just because he feels it writhe."

It was at this point that the athletic energy of Browning's nature told
most palpably upon the complexion of his thought. It did not affect its
substance, but it altered the bearing of the parts, giving added weight
to all its mundane and positive elements. It gave value to every
challenging obstruction akin to that which allured him to every angular
and broken surface, to all the "evil" which balks our easy perception of
"good."[127] Above all, by idealising effort, it created a new ethical
end which every strenuous spirit could not merely strive after but
fulfil, every day of its mortal life; and thus virtually transferred the
focus of interest and importance from "the next world's reward and
repose" to the vital "struggles in this."

[Footnote 127: _Bishop Blougram_.]

Browning's characteristic conception of the nature and destiny of man
was thus not a compact and consistent system, but a group of intuitions
nourished from widely different regions of soul and sense, and
undergoing, like the face of a great actor, striking changes of
expression without material change of feature under the changing
incidence of stress and glow. The ultimate gist of his teaching was
presented through the medium of conceptions proper to another school of
thought, which, like a cryptogram, convey one meaning but express
another, He had to work with categories like finite and infinite, which
the atomic habits of his mind thrust into exclusive opposition; whereas
the profoundest thing that he had to say was that the "infinite" has to
be achieved in and through the finite, that just the most definitely
outlined action, the most individual purpose, the most sharply
expressive thought, the most intense and personal passion, are the
points or saliency in life which most surely catch the radiance of
eternity they break. The white light was "blank" until shattered by
refraction; and Browning is less Browning when he glories in its
unbroken purity than when he rejoices in the prism, whose obstruction
alone

                           "shows aright
      The secret of a sunbeam, breaks its light
      Into the jewelled bow from blankest white."[128]

[Footnote 128: _Deaf and Dumb_.]

We have now to watch Browning's efforts to interpret this profound and
intimate persuasion of his in terms of the various conceptions at his
disposal.[129]

[Footnote 129: On the matter of this section cf. Mr A.C. Pigou's acute
and lucid discussions, _Browning as a Religious Teacher_, ch. viii. and
ix.]


III.


Beside the soul, there was something else that "stood sure" for
Browning--namely, God. Here, too, a theological dogma, steeped in his
ardent mind, acquired a new potency for the imagination, and a more
vital nexus with man and nature than any other poet of the century had
given it. And here, too, the mystic and the positive strains of
Browning's genius wrought together, impressing themselves equally in
that wonderful Browningesque universe in which every germ seems to be
itself a universe "needing but a look to burst into immense life," and
infinity is ever at hand, behind a closed door. The whole of his
theology was an attempt to express consistently two convictions, rarely
found of the same intensity in the same brain, of the divineness of the
universe and the individuality of man.

The mechanical Creator of Paley and the deists could never have
satisfied him. From the first he "saw God everywhere." There was in him
the stuff of which the "God-intoxicated" men are made, and he had
moments, like that expressed in one of his most deliberate and emphatic
personal utterances, in which all existence seemed to be the visible
Face of God--

     "Become my universe that feels and knows."[130]

[Footnote 130: _Epilogue_.]

He clearly strained towards the sublime pantheistic imaginings of the
great poets of the previous generation,--Wordsworth's "Something far
more deeply interfused," Shelley's "One spirit's plastic stress," and
Goethe's _Erdgeist_, who weaves the eternal vesture of God at the loom
of Time. The dying vision of Paracelsus is as sublime as these, and
marks Browning's nearest point of approach to the ways of thought they
embody. In all the vitalities of the world, from the uncouth play of the
volcano to the heaven-and-earth transfiguring mind of man, God was
present, sharing their joy. But even here the psychological barrier is
apparent, against which all the surge of pantheistic impulse in Browning
broke in vain. This God of manifold joys was sharply detached from his
universe; he was a sensitive and sympathetic spectator, not a pervading
spirit. In every direction human personality opposed rigid frontiers
which even the infinite God could not pass, and no poet less needed the
stern warning which he addressed to German speculation against the
"gigantic stumble"[131] of making them one. The mystic's dream of
seeing all things in God, the Hegelian thesis of a divine mind realising
itself in and through the human, found no lodgment in a consciousness of
mosaic-like clearness dominated by the image of an incisively individual
and indivisible self. In later life the sharp lines which he drew from
the first about individual personality became a ring-fence within which
each man "cultivated his plot,"[132] managing independently as he might
the business of his soul. The divine love might wind inextricably about
him,[133] the dance of plastic circumstance at the divine bidding
impress its rhythms upon his life,[134] he retained his human identity
inviolate, a "point of central rock" amid the welter of the waves.[135]
His love might be a "spark from God's fire," but it was his own, to use
as he would; he "stood on his own stock of love and power."[136]

[Footnote 131: _Christmas-Eve._]

[Footnote 132: _Ferishtah_.]

[Footnote 133: _Easter-Day_.]

[Footnote 134: _Rabbi ben Ezra_.]

[Footnote 135: _Epilogue_.]

[Footnote 136: _Christmas-Eve_.]


IV.


In this sharp demarcation of man's being from God's, Browning never
faltered. On the contrary, the individualising animus which there found
expression impelled him to raise more formidable barriers about man, and
to turn the ring-fence which secured him from intrusion into a high wall
which cut off his view. In other words, the main current of Browning's
thought sets strongly towards a sceptical criticism of human knowledge.
At the outset he stands on the high _à priori_ ground of Plato. Truth in
its fulness abides in the soul, an "imprisoned splendour," which
intellect quickened by love can elicit, which moments of peculiar
insight, deep joy, and sorrow, and the coming on of death, can release.
But the gross flesh hems it in, wall upon wall, "a baffling and
perverting carnal mesh,"[137] the source of all error. The process of
discovery he commonly conceived as an advance through a succession of
Protean disguises of truth, each "one grade above its last
presentment,"[138] until, at the rare moment, by the excepted eye, the
naked truth was grasped. But Browning became steadily more reluctant to
admit that these fortunate moments ever occurred, that the Proteus was
ever caught. Things would be known to the soul as they were known to God
only when it was emancipated by death. Infinity receded into an ever
more inaccessible remoteness from the finite. For the speaker in
_Christmas-Eve_ man's mind was the image of God's, reflecting trace for
trace his absolute knowledge; for Francis Furini the bare fact of his
own existence is all he knows, a narrow rock-spit of knowledge enisled
in a trackless ocean of ignorance. Thus for Browning, in differing moods
and contexts, the mind of man becomes now a transparent pane, opening
directly upon the truth as God sees it, now a coloured lens, presenting
truth in blurred refraction, now an opaque mirror idly bodying forth his
futile and illusive dreams.

[Footnote 137: _Paracelsus_.]

[Footnote 138: _Fifine_, cxxiv.]

These conflicting views were rooted in different elements of Browning's
many-sided nature. His vivid intuition of his own self-consciousness
formed a standing type of seemingly absolute immediate knowledge, to
which he stubbornly clung. When the optimism of the "Head" was
discredited, passion-fraught instinct, under the name of the Heart, came
to the rescue, and valiantly restored its authority. On the other hand,
a variety of subtle attractions drew him on to give "illusion" a wider
and wider scope. Sheer joy in battle had no small share. The immortal
and infinite soul, projected among the shows of sense, could not be
expected to do its part worthily if it saw through them: it had to
believe its enemies real enemies, and its warfare a rational warfare; it
had to accept time and place, and good and evil, as the things they
seem. To have a perfectly clear vision of truth as it is in God was to
be dazzled with excess of light, to grope and fumble about the world as
it is for man, like the risen Lazarus--

            "witless of the size, the sum,
      The value in proportion of all things,
      Or whether it be little or be much."

The mystic who withdrew from the struggle with phantoms to gaze upon
eternal realities was himself the victim of the worst illusions; while
the hero who plunged into that struggle was training his soul, and
thereby getting a grip upon ultimate truth. Thus Browning's passionate
and reiterated insistence upon the illusiveness of knowledge was rooted
in his inalienable faith in the worth and reality of moral conflict. The
infinite soul realised itself most completely when it divested itself of
the trappings of its infinity, and it worked out God's law most
implicitly when it ignored God's point of view.


V.


Such a result could not be finally satisfying, and Browning's thought
fastened with increasing predilection and exclusiveness upon one intense
kind of vitality in which the hard antagonism of good and evil seems to
be transcended, and that complete immersion of the soul in a nature not
its own appears not as self-abnegation but as self-fulfilment. He did
not himself use this phraseology about Love; it is that of a school to
which he, at no time, it would seem, made any conscious approach. But it
is clear that he found in the mysterious union and transfusion of
diverse being which takes place in Love, as Hegel found in the union of
opposites, the clue to the nature of reality, the very core of the heart
of life. He did not talk of the union of opposites, but of "infinitude
wreaking itself upon the finite." God himself would have been less
divine, and so, as God, less real, had he remained aloof in lonely
infinity instead of uniting himself with all creation in that love
which "moves the world and the other stars"; the "loving worm," to
quote his pregnant saying once more, were diviner than a loveless God.
We saw how his theology is double-faced between the pantheistic yearning
to find God everywhere and the individualist's resolute maintenance of
the autonomy of man. God's Love, poured through the world, inextricably
blended with all its power and beauty, thrilled with answering rapture
by all its joy, and striving to clasp every human soul, provided the
nearest approach to a solution of that conflict which Browning's
mechanical metaphysics permitted. One comprehends, then, the profound
significance for him of the actual solution apparently presented by
Christian theology. In one supreme, crucial example the union of God
with man in consummate love had actually, according to Christian belief,
taken place, and Browning probably uttered his own faith when he made St
John declare that

     "The acknowledgment of God in Christ
      Acknowledged by thy reason solves for thee
      All questions in the earth and out of it."[139]

[Footnote 139: _Death in the Desert_. These lines, however "dramatic,"
mark with precision the extent, and the limits, of Browning's Christian
faith. The evidence of his writings altogether confirms Mrs Orr's
express statement that Christ was for him, from first to last, "a
manifestation of divine love," by human form accessible to human love;
but not the Redeemer of the orthodox creed.]

For to acknowledge this was to recognise that love was divine, and that
mankind at large, in virtue of their gift of love, shared in God's
nature, finite as they were; that whatever clouds of intellectual
illusion they walked in, they were lifted to a hold upon reality as
unassailable as God's own by the least glimmer of love. Whatever else is
obscure or elusive in Browning, he never falters in proclaiming the
absolute and flawless worth of love. The lover cannot, like the
scientific investigator, miss his mark, he cannot be baffled or misled;
the object of his love may be unworthy, or unresponsive, but in the mere
act of loving he has his reward.

                       "Knowledge means
      Ever renewed assurance by defeat
      That victory is somehow still to reach;
      But love is victory, the prize itself."[140]

[Footnote 140: _Pillar of Sebzevir_.]

This aspect of Browning's doctrine of love, though it inspired some of
his most exalted lyrics, throws into naked relief the dearth of social
consciousness in Browning's psychology. Yet it is easy to see that the
absolute self-sufficiency into which he lifted the bare fact of love was
one of the mainsprings of his indomitable optimism. In Love was
concentrated all that emancipates man from the stubborn continuities of
Nature. It started up in corrupt or sordid hearts, and swept all their
blind velleities into its purifying flame of passion--

              "Love is incompatible
      With falsehood,--purifies, assimilates
      All other passions to itself."[141]

[Footnote 141: _Colombe's Birthday_.]

And the glimmer of soul that lurked in the veriest act of humanity the
breath of love could quicken into pervading fire.[142] Love was only the
most intense and potent of those sudden accesses of vitality which are
wont, in Browning, suddenly to break like a flame from the straw and
dross of a brutish or sophisticated consciousness, confounding foresight
and calculation, but giving endless stimulus to hope. Even in the
contact with sin and sorrow Browning saw simply the touch of Earth from
which Love, like Antaeus, sprang into fuller being; they were the "dread
machinery" devised to evolve man's moral qualities, "to make him love in
turn and be beloved."[143]

[Footnote 142: _Fifine_.]

[Footnote 143: _The Pope_.]

But with all its insurgent emancipating vehemence Love was for Browning,
also, the very ground of stable and harmonious existence, "the energy of
integration," as Myers has finely said, "which makes a cosmos of the sum
of things," the element of permanence, of law. True, its harmony was of
the kind which admits discord and eschews routine; its law that which is
of eternity and not of yesterday; its stability that which is only
assured and fortified by the chivalry that plucks a Pompilia, or an
Alcestis, from their legal doom. The true anarchist, as he sometimes
dared to hint, was the cold unreason of duty which, as in _Bifurcation_,
keeps lovers meant for each other apart. It is by love that the soul
solves the problem--so tragically insoluble to poor Sordello--of
"fitting to the finite its infinity," and satisfying the needs of Time
and Eternity at once;[144] for Love, belonging equally to both spheres,
can bring the purposes of body and soul into complete accord:

     "Like yonder breadth of watery heaven, a bay
      And that sky-space of water, ray for ray
      And star for star, one richness where they mixed,
      As this and that wing of an angel, fixed
      Tumultuary splendours."

[Footnote 144: _Sordello, sub fin_.]

In a life thus thrilled into harmony heaven was already realised on
earth; and Eternity itself could but continue what Time had begun.
Death, for such a soul, was not an awaking, for it had not slept; nor an
emancipation, for it was already free; nor a satisfying of desire, for
the essence of Love was to want; it was only a point at which the "last
ride together" might pass into an eternal "riding on"--

     "With life for ever old, yet new,
      Changed not in kind but in degree,
      The instant made Eternity,--
      And Heaven just prove that I and she
      Ride, ride together, for ever ride!"


VI.


No intellectual formula, no phrase, no word, can express the whole
purport of those intense and intimate fusions of sensation, passion, and
thought which we call poetic intuition, and which all strictly poetic
"philosophy" or "criticism of life" is an attempt to interpret and
articulate. Browning was master of more potent weapons of the strictly
intellectual kind than many poets of his rank, and his work is charged
with convictions which bear upon philosophic problems and involve
philosophic ideas. But they were neither systematic deductions from a
speculative first principle nor fragments of tradition eclectically
pieced together; by their very ambiguity and Protean many-sidedness they
betrayed that, however tinged they might be on the surface with
speculative or traditional phrases, the nourishing roots sprang from the
heart of joyous vitality in a primitive and original temperament. In
Browning, if in any man, Joy sang that "strong music of the soul" which
re-creates all the vitalities of the world, and endows us with "a new
Earth and a new Heaven." And if joy was the root of Browning's
intuition, and life "in widest commonalty spread" the element in which
it moved, Love, the most intimate, intense, and marvellous of all vital
energies, was the ideal centre towards which it converged. In Love, as
Browning understood it, all those elementary joys of his found
satisfaction. There he saw the flawless purity which rejoiced him in
Pompilia's soul, which "would not take pollution, ermine-like armed from
dishonour by its own soft snow." There he saw sudden incalculableness of
power abruptly shattering the continuities of routine, throwing life
instantly into a new perspective, and making barren trunks break into
sudden luxuriance like the palm; or, again, intimately interpenetrating
soul with soul,--"one near one is too far"; or entangling the whole
creation in the inextricable embrace of God.

But if all his instincts and imaginative proclivities found their ideal
in Love, they also insensibly impressed their own character upon his
conception of it. The "Love" which has so deep a significance for
Browning is a Love steeped in the original complexion of his mind, and
bearing the impress of the singular position which he occupies in the
welter of nineteenth-century intellectual history. His was one of the
rare natures in which revolutionary liberalism and spiritual reaction,
encountering in nearly equal strength, seem to have divided their
principles and united their forces. Psychologically, the one had its
strongest root in the temper which reasons, and values ideas; the other
in that which feels, and values emotions. Sociologically, the one stood
for individualism, the other for solidarity. In their ultimate
presuppositions, the one inclined to the standpoint of the senses and
experience; the other to a mostly vague and implicit idealism. In their
political ideals, the one strove for progress, and for freedom as its
condition; the other for order, and for active legal intervention as its
safeguard.

In two of these four points of contrast, Browning's temperament ranged
him more or less decisively on the Liberal side. Individualist to the
core, he was conspicuously deficient in the kind of social mind which
makes a poet the voice of an organised community, a nation, or a class.
Progress, again, was with him even more an instinct than a principle;
and he became the _vates sacer_ of unsatisfied aspiration. On the other
hand, that he was not without elements of the temper which makes for
order was shown by his punctilious, almost eager, observance of social
conventions, and, in the last years of his life, by the horror excited
in him by what he took to be the anarchy of Women's Suffrage and Home
Rule. In the other two fields of opposition he belonged decisively to
the spiritual and emotional reaction. Spirit was for him the ultimate
fact of existence, the soul and God were the indissoluble realities. But
his idealism was not potent and pure enough either to control the
realist suggestions of his strong senses and energetic temperament, or
to interpret them in its own terms. And in the conflict between reason
and feeling, or, as he put it, between "head" and "heart," as sources of
insight, and factors in human advancement, feeling found its most
brilliant champion in Browning, and its most impressive statement in his
doctrine of Love. An utilitarian reduction of welldoing to a
distribution of properly calculated doses of satisfaction he dismissed
with a scorn as derisive as Carlyle's; "general utility" was a favourite
of "that old stager the devil."[145] Yet no critic of intellect ever
used intellect more vigorously, and no preacher of the rights of the
heart ever dealt less in flaccid sentiment. Browning was Paracelsus as
well as Aprile, and sharply as he chose to dissever "Knowledge" and
"Love," Love was for him never a foe of intellect, but a more gifted
comrade who does the same work more effectively, who dives deeper, soars
higher, welds more potently into more enduring unities, and flings upon
dry hearts with a more infallible magic the seed of more marvellous new
births. Browning as the poet of Love is thus the last, and assuredly not
the least, in the line which handed on the torch of Plato. The author of
the _Phoedrus_ saw in the ecstasy of Love one of the avenues to the
knowledge of the things that indeed are. To Dante the supreme realities
were mirrored in the eyes of Beatrice. For Shelley Love was interwoven
through all the mazes of Being; it was the source of the strength by
which man masters his gods. To all these masters of idealism Browning's
vision of Love owed something of its intensity and of its range. With
the ethical Love of Jesus and St Paul his affinities were more apparent,
but less profound. For him, too, love was the sum of all morality and
the root of all goodness. But it resembled more the joyous
self-expansion of the Greek than the humility and self-abnegation of
Christian love. Not the saintly ascetic nor the doer of good works, but
the artist and the "lover," dominated his imagination when he wrote of
Love; imbuing even God's love for the world with the joy of creation and
the rapture of embrace. Aprile's infinite love for things impelled him
to body them visibly forth. Deeper in Browning than his Christianity,
and prior to it, lay his sense of immeasurable worth in all life, the
poet's passion for being.

[Footnote 145: _Red-cotton Night-cap Country_.]

Browning's poetry is thus one of the most potent of the influences which
in the nineteenth century helped to break down the shallow and
mischievous distinction between the "sacred" and the "secular," and to
set in its place the profounder division between man enslaved by apathy,
routine, and mechanical morality, and man lifted by the law of love into
a service which is perfect freedom, into an approximation to God which
is only the fullest realisation of humanity.



INDEX.


Note--The names of the Persons are given in small capitals; titles of
literary works in _italics_; other names in ordinary type; *black figures*
indicate the more detailed references. Only the more important of the
incidental quotations are included. Poems are referred to only under
their authors' names.


AESCHYLUS, 215.
ALLINGHAM, W., 87.
American fame of Browning, 87.
ARISTOPHANES, 77, 207 f.
ARNOLD, M., 26.
Asolo, 27, 50, 220, 232.
_Athenæum, The_, 172, 251.

BALZAC, 42, 49, 86, 117.
BARRETT, ELIZABETH. See Browning, E.B.
BARTOLI, his _Simboli_, 27.
BENCKHAUSEN, Russian Consul-General, 14.
BÉRANGER, 86.
BLAGDEN, ISA. See BROWNING, R., letters.
BRONSON, Mrs ARTHUR, 220, 231.
BRONTE, EMILY, her character "Heathcliff," 66.
BROWNING, ROBERT (grandfather), 2.
BROWNING, ROBERT (father), 3, 6, 18, 149 n., 173.
BROWNING, ROBERT,
    cosmopolitan in sympathies, English by his art, 1, 2;
    his birth, 3;
    likeness to his mother, 4 n.;
    character of his home, 5;
    boyhood, 5, 6;
    early sense of rhythm, 7;
    reads Shelley, Keats, and Byron, 8 f.;
    journey to St Petersburg, 14;
    first voyage to Italy, 26 f.;
    second voyage to Italy, 61;
    correspondence with E.B. Barrett, 78;
    marriage, 81;
    settlement in Italy, 84;
    friendships and society at Florence, 84 f.;
    Italian politics, 88;
    Italian scenery, 91;
    Italian painting, 98 f.;
    and music, 103 f.;
    religion, 110 f.;
    his interpretation of _In a Balcony_, 145 n.;
    death of Mrs Browning, 147;
    return to London, 148;
    society, 150;
    summer sojourns in France, 153 f., 202 f.;
    in the Alps, 216;
    death of Miss Egerton-Smith, 216;
    Italy once more, 220;
    Asolo and Venice, 231 f.;
    death, 234.
    Works--
        _Abt Vogler_, 71, *158* f.
        _Agamemnon_ (translation of), 215 f.
        _Andrea del Sarto_, 70 f., *100* f.
        _Another Way of Love_, 142.
        _Any Wife to Any Husband_, 140.
        _Appearances_, 212.
        _Aristophanes' Apology_, *206* f.
        _Artemis Prologizes_, 68, 190.
        _Asolando_, 220, *232* f.
        _At the Mermaid_, 211.
        _Bad Dreams_, 232.
        _Balaustion's Adventure_, 75, *190* f.
        _Baldinucci_, 214.
        _Bells and Pomegranates_, 16, 41 f., 74.
        _Bifurcation_, 213.
        _Bishop of St Praxed's, The_, 70, 113, 275.
        _Blot in the 'Scutcheon, A_, *52* f.
        _Blougram's Apology_, 14, 57, 60, 90, 113, *129* f., 277 f.
        _Boy and the Angel, The_, 113, 116.
        _By the Fireside_, 94, *135* f., 275.
        _Caliban upon Setebos_, *162* f.
        _Cavalier Tunes_, 67.
        _Childe Roland_, *95* f., 262 f.
        _Christmas-Eve and Easter Day_, 81, *114* f., 162.
        _Cleon_, 113, *126* f.
        _Clive_, 223.
        _Colombe's Birthday_, 53, *55* f.
        _Confessional, The_, 40, 66.
        _Cristina_, 48, *68* f.
        _Deaf and Dumb_, 295.
        _Death in the Desert, A_, 152, *160* f.
        _De Gustibus_, 90, 92, 254.
        _Dis Aliter Visum_, 152, 156.
        _Dramas_, 37 f.
        _Dramatic Idylls_, *221* f.
        _Dramatic Lyrics_, 38 f., *65* f., 79.
        _Dramatic Romances_, 38, 79.
        _Dramatis Personæ_, *151-168*, 213.
        _Echetlos_, 222.
        _Englishman in Italy, The_, 93.
        _Epilogue to Dramatis Personæ_, 154, *167* f., 296.
        _Epistle of Karshish, An_, 113, *123* f.
        _Eurydice to Orpheus_, 157.
        _Evelyn Hope_, 138, 293.
        _Fears and Scruples_, 212.
        _Ferishtah's Fancies_, *227* f.
        _Fifine at the Fair_, 92 f., 149, *197* f., 209, 242.
        _Flight of the Duchess, The_, *69* f., 199.
        _Flower's Name, The_, 68.
        _Forgiveness, A_, 213.
        _Fra Lippo Lippi_, 71, *101* f., 112.
        _Francis Furini_, 298.
        _Gerard de Lairesse_, 222.
        _Gismond_, 41, 57, 67.
        _Glove, The_, 69, *70*.
        _Grammarian's Funeral, The_, *109* f.
        _Guardian Angel, The_, 99.
        _Halbert and Hob_, *222*.
        _Helen's Tower_, sonnet, 188.
        _Heretic's Tragedy, A_, *128* f., 263.
        _Hervé Riel_, *189* f., 222.
        _Holy Cross Day_, 4 n., *128*.
        _Home Thoughts from Abroad_ (quoted), 265.
        _Home Thoughts from the Sea_, 26.
        _House_, 211.
        _How it Strikes a Contemporary_, 108 f.
        _How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix_, 27, 67, 222.
        _Hugues of Saxe Gotha, Master_, 71, *105* f., 113.
        _In a Balcony_, *143* f.
        _In a Gondola_, 67.
        _In a Year_, 140.
        _Incondita_, 8.
        _Inn Album, The_, 188, *208* f.
        _Instans Tyrannus_, 66, 90.
        _In Three Days_, 137, 141.
        _Italian in England, The_, 91.
        _Iván Ivánovitch_, 14, 221, *223*.
        _Ixion_, *225* f.
        _James Lee's Wife_, 153 f.
        _Jochanan Halkadosh_, 225.
        _Jocoseria_, *224* f.
        _Johannes Agricola_, 15 f.
        _King Victor and King Charles_, 15, *45*, 50.
        _Laboratory, The_, 38, 66.
        _La Saisiaz_, *216* f.
        _Last Ride Together, The_, 68, *138* f., 304.
        _Life in a Love_, 137.
        _Light Woman, A_, 142.
        _Lost Leader, The_, 66.
        _Lost Mistress, The_, 68, 156.
        _Love in a Life_, 137.
        _Luria_, 60, *61* f.
        _Madhouse Cells_, 16.
        _Martin Relph_, 222 f., 275.
        _Men and Women_, 25, 60, 72, 74, *87-147*, 152, 213.
        _Muleykeh_, 223.
        _My Last Duchess_, 66, 70, 213.
        _My Star_, 140.
        _Natural Magic_, 213.
        _Ned Bratts_, 222.
        _Never the Time and the Place_, 226.
        _Now_, 233.
        _Numpholeptos_, 213.
        _Old Pictures in Florence_, 90, 102 f.
        _One Way of Love_, 137.
        _One Word More_, 97 f., *146* f.
        _Pacchiarotto_, 109, 162, 188, *210* f.
        _Pan and Luna_, 248.
        _Paracelsus_, 16 f., 25, 29, 38, 42.
        _Parleyings with Certain People of Importance_, 229 f.
        _Patriot, The_, 90.
        _Pauline_, 11 f.
        _Pearl, a Girl, A_, 233.
        _Pheidippides_, 222.
        _Pictor Ignolus_, 70 f.
        _Pied Piper, The_, 71 f., 269.
        _Pippa Passes_, *49* f., 59, 79, 91, 151, 181.
        _Popularity_, 109.
        _Porphyria's Lover_, 16.
        _Pretty Woman, A_, 142.
        _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, 14, *194* f.
        _Prospice_, 109, 157.
        _Rabbi ben Ezra_, 4 n., 109, *157* f.
        _Red-cotton Night-cap Country_, 90
            (Miranda), 188, *203* f.
        _Return of the Druses, The_, 45, *46* f., 64.
        _Reverie_, 233.
        _Ring and the Book, The_, 151 f., *169-186*, 276 f.
        _Rudel_, 68.
        _Saint Martin's Summer_, 213.
        _Saul_, 48, *72* f., 113, *121* f.
        _Serenade at the Villa_, 137.
        _Shelley, Essay on_, 20, *106* f., 109 f.
        _Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis_, 67, 79.
        _Sludge, Mr, the Medium_, 90, *165* f.
        _Solomon and Balkis_, 225.
        _Sordello_, 15, *25* f., 238.
        _Soul's Tragedy, A_, 59 f.
        _Spanish Cloister, The_, 79.
        _Statue and the Bust, The_, 142, 213.
        _Strafford_, 15, 25, *42* f.
        _Summum Bonum_, 233.
        _Time's Revenges_, 66.
        _Toccata of Galuppi's, A_, 104 f.,153.
        _Too Late_, 153.
        _Transcendentalism_, 108.
        _Two in the Campagna_, 93, 134, *140*, 238.
        _Two Poets of Croisic, The_, *218* f.
        _Woman's Last Word, A_, 140.
        _Women and Roses_, 143.
        _Worst of It, The_, 156.
        _Youth and Art_, 152, 156.
    Letters,
        to E.B.B., 4 n., 6, 8, 49, 59 n., 62, 63, 65, 67, 72, 75, 78-83
            passim, 85, 114 f., 241, 252 f., 283;
        to Miss Blagden, 153, 171, 173 n., 249;
        to Miss Flower, 43;
        to Miss Haworth, 26 n., 44, 237;
        to Ruskin, 237;
        to Aubrey de Vere, 247 n.
BROWNING, ELIZABETH BARRETT MOULTON-BARRETT (wife).
    First allusion to Browning, 75;
    reads _Paracelsus_, 75 n.;
    her character, early life, and poetry, 76 f.;
    correspondence with Browning, 78 f.;
    marriage, 81;
    settlement in Italy, 84;
    friendships, society at Florence, 84 f.;
    death, 147;
    her relation to Pompilia, 180.
        _Aurora Leigh_, 81, 87, 151, 209.
        _Songs before Congress_, 90.
        _Sonnets from the Portuguese_, 87.
        _Casa Guidi Windows_, 90.
        Letters to R.B., 49, 65, 77 n., 78-83 _passim_, 114, 251.
        Letter to Ruskin, 77 n.
        Letters to others, 85, 89, 92, 99, 245.
BROWNING, SARAH ANNA (mother), 4.
BURNS, R., 40, 281.
BYRON, LORD, 7, 8, 104, 198, 218, 263.

CARLYLE, THOMAS, 36, 42, 87, 150, 172, 230, 256, 307.
_Carnival_, Schumann's, 202.
Casa Guidi, 84 f., 97.
CELLINI, BENVENUTO, 98.
CHAUCER, G., 41.
COLERIDGE, S. T., 8, 95 f., 134.
CORNARO, CATHARINE, 50, 331.
_Cornhill Magazine, The_, 190.

DANTE, 29 f., 33, 35, 66, 120 f, 261 f., 308.
DICKENS, CHARLES, 42, 49.
DOMETT, ALFRED (referred to), 99.
DONNE, JOHN, 6, 254 n.
Dulwich, 6, 49, 97.

EGERTON-SMITH, ANN, 216.
EMERSON, R.W., 256.
EURIPIDES, 173 n., 191, 208.

Fano, the Brownings at, 99.
FAUCIT, HELEN (Lady Martin), 43.
FICHTE, J.E., 288 f.
FITZGERALD, EDWARD, 172, 188.
Florence, 84 f. _passim._
FLOWER, ELIZA, 11, 43.
FORSTER, JOHN, 42.
FOX, W.J., 8, 14, 42, 86.

Germany.  German strain in Browning, 4 n.
GIOTTO, 99, 103.
GOETHE, J.W. VON, 5, 288;
    _Faust_, 19, 31, 50, 198, 296;
    _Iphigenie_, 30 n.;
    _Metamorphose der Pflanzen_, 265;
    _Tasso_, 30;
    _Westöstlicher Divan_, 226.
Greek, early studies in, 8.
Gressoney, 226.

HAWORTH, EUPHRASIA FANNY, 27.
HORNE, author of _Orion_, 80.
HUGO, VICTOR, 86, 242.

IBSEN, H., _The Wild Duck_, 59.

JAMESON, ANNA, 84.
Jews. Browning's attitude towards the Jewish race, 4 n.
JONSON, BEN, 38, 214.
_Junius, Letters of_, 6.

KEATS, J., 9, 73, 240 f., 254.
KENYON, JOHN, 73, 78, 80, 82, 86.

LANDOR, W.S., 30 n., 40 f., 87 f., 96, 229.
LEIGHTON, Sir FREDERIC, 71, 150.
Lucca, the Brownings at, 92.

MACLISE, 67.
MACREADY, 42 f., 32.
MAETERLINCK, M., 144, 162 n.
MALORY, 104.
MEREDITH, Mr G., 168.
Metres, Browning's, 186, 253, 261.
MICHELANGELO, 103.
MILL, JOHN STUART, 11 f.
MILSAND, JOSEPH, 86, 188, 203, 230.
MILTON, J., 71, 261.
_Monthly Repository_, 14.
MOXON, EDWARD, publisher, 59 n.
MUSSET, ALFRED DE, 141 f.

NAPOLEON III., Emperor, 88 f., 194.

OSSIAN, 7.

PALESTRINA, 103.
Paris, 85 f., 92, 106, 204.
PAUL, SAINT, 308.
PHELPS, actor, 58.
Pisa, 84.
PLATO, 12, 239, 307.
PRINSEP, V., 150.

QUARLES, FRANCIS, 6.

Rezzonico Palace, 231.
RIPERT-MONCLAR, COMTE AMÉDÉE DE, 17.
Rome, the Brownings in, 87.
ROSSETTI, D.G., 13 f., 86 f., 150.
ROSSETTI, Mr W.M., 171 n.
RUSKIN, JOHN, 77 n., 150, 237.

SAND, GEORGE, 85.
SCHILLER, F., 70, 209.
SCOTT, Sir W., 93.
SHAKESPEARE, W., 65, 200, 211;
    _Romeo and Juliet_, 38;
    _The Tempest_, 50 f., 162 f.;
    _Loves Labour's Lost_, 56;
    _Hamlet_, 58;
    _Julius Cæsar_, 63;
    _Othello_, 62;
    _As You Like It_, 95.
SHELLEY, P.B., 8, 9, 12 f., 20, 34, 90, 110 f., 183, 238, 240, 254, 257,
      263, 271, 296.
SMART, CHRISTOPHER, his _Song to David_, 72.
SOUTHEY, R., 8.
Spiritualism, 87.
SWINBURNE, Mr A.C., 151.

TENNYSON, ALFRED LORD, 1, 19, 31, 86 f., 130, 150, 172, 175, 261 f.
TENNYSON, FREDERICK, 150.
THACKERAY, ANNIE  (Mrs Ritchie), 203.
THACKERAY, W.M., 150.
TITTLE, MARGARET, the poet's grandmother, 3.
TRELAWNEY, E.J., 61.
_Trifler, The_, 15.

Venice, 27, 37.
VERDI, 103.
VILLON, 105.
Virgil, Dante's, 30.
Vocabulary, Browning's, 261.
VOLTAIRE, 6.

WALPOLE, HORACE, 6.
WIEDEMANN, WILLIAM, the poet's maternal grandfather, 4.
WISEMAN, CARDINAL, 130.
WOOLNER, 150.
WORDSWORTH, 8, 32, 93 f., 244, 264, 268, 273, 284.

York (a horse), 27.


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