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Title: Browning and His Century
Author: Clarke, Helen Archibald, -1926
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.

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[Illustration: BROWNING AT 23 (LONDON 1835)]

  Browning and His Century

  Author of "_Browning's Italy_,"
  "_Browning's England_," etc.



  _Copyright, 1912, by_

  _All rights reserved, including that of
  translation into foreign languages,
  including the Scandinavian_




    THE BATTLE OF MIND AND SPIRIT                      3

    THE CENTURY'S END: PROMISE OF PEACE               77

    POLITICAL TENDENCIES                             118

    SOCIAL IDEALS                                    174

    ART SHIBBOLETHS                                  217

    CLASSIC SURVIVALS                                277

    PROPHETIC VISIONS                                342


  Browning at 23 (London 1835)            _Frontispiece_

                                             FACING PAGE

  Paracelsus                                          38

  Herbert Spencer                                     94

  David Strauss                                      112

  Cardinal Wiseman                                   120

  William Ewart Gladstone                            160

  William Morris                                     196

  John Burns                                         208

  Alfred Tennyson                                    250

  A. C. Swinburne                                    260

  Dante Gabriel Rossetti                             266

  George Meredith                                    272

  Euripides                                          296

  Aristophanes                                       306

  Walter Savage Landor                               330

  Browning at 77 (1889)                              360




  "Say not we know but rather that we love,
    And so we know enough." Thus deeply spoke
    The Sage; and in men's stunted hearts awoke
  A haunting fear, for fain are they to prove
  Their life, their God, with yeas and nays that move
    The mind's uncertain flow. Then fierce outbroke,--
    Knowledge, the child of pain shall we revoke?
  The guide wherewith men climb to things above?
  Nay, calm your fears! 'Tis but the mere mind's knowing,
    The soul's alone the poet worthy deeming.
    Let mind up-build its entities of seeming
  With toil and tears! The toil is but for showing
    How much there lacks of truth. But 'tis no dreaming
    When sky throbs back to heart, with God's love beaming.



During the nineteenth century, which has already receded far enough into
the perspective of the past for us to be able to take a comprehensive view
of it, the advance guard of the human race found itself in a position
entirely different from that ever before occupied by it. Through the
knowledge of cosmic, animal, and social evolution gradually accumulated by
the laborious and careful studies of special students in every department
of historical research and scientific experiment, a broader and higher
state of self-consciousness was attained. Mankind, on its most perceptive
plane, no longer pinned its faith to inherited traditions, whether of
religion, art, or morals. Every conceivable fact and every conceivable
myth was to be tested in the laboratory of the intellect, even the
intellect itself was to undergo dissection, with the result that, once for
all, it has been decided what particular range of human knowledge lies
within the reach of mental perception, and what particular range of human
knowledge can be grasped only through spiritual perception.

Such a momentous decision as this in the history of thought has not been
reached without a long and protracted struggle extending back into the
early days of Christianity, nor, it may be said, is the harmony as yet
complete, for there are to-day, and perhaps always will be, human beings
whose consciousness is not fully orbed and who either seek their point of
equilibrium too entirely in the plane of mind or too entirely in the plane
of spirit.

In the early days, before Christianity came to bring its "sword upon
earth," there seems to have been little or no consciousness of such a
struggle. The ancient Hindu, observing Nature and meditating upon the
universe, arrived intuitively at a perception of life and its processes
wonderfully akin to that later experimentally proved by the nineteenth
century scientist, nor did he have a suspicion that such truth was in any
way antagonistic to religious truth. On the contrary, he considered that,
by it, the beauty and mystery of religion was immeasurably enhanced, and,
letting his imagination play upon his intuition, he brought forth a theory
of spiritual evolution in which the world to-day is bound to recognize
many elements of beauty and power necessary to any complete conception of
religion in the future.

Even the Babylonians made their guesses at an evolutionary theory of the
universe. Greek philosophy, later, was permeated with the idea, it having
been derived by them perhaps from the Chaldeans through the Phoenicians,
or if the theories of Aryan migrations be correct, perhaps through
inheritance from a remote Aryan ancestry.

When Christian thought gained its hold upon the world, the account of
creation given in Genesis became so thoroughly impressed upon the minds of
men that it was regarded as the orthodox view, rooted in divine
revelation, and to question it was to incur the danger of being called an
atheist, with its possibly uncomfortable consequences of being martyred.

Strangely enough, the early Church adopted into its fold many pagan
superstitions, such as a belief in witchcraft and in signs and wonders, as
well as some myths, but this great truth upon which the pagan mind had
stumbled, it would have none of.

These two circumstances--the adoption on the part of Christianity of pagan
superstitions and its utter repudiation of the pagan guesses upon
evolution, carrying within it the germs of truth, later to be unearthed by
scientific research--furnished exactly the right conditions for the
throwing down of the gauntlet between the mind and the spirit. The former,
following intellectual guidance, found itself coming more and more into
antagonism with the spirit, not yet freed from the trammels of
imagination. The latter, guided by imagination, continued to exercise a
mythopoeic faculty, which not only brought it more and more into
antagonism with the mind, but set up within its own realm an internecine
warfare which has blackened the pages of religious history with crimes and
martyrdoms so terrible as to force the conviction that the true devil in
antagonism to spiritual development has been the imagination of mankind,
masquerading as verity, and not yet having found its true function in art.

Regarded from the point of view of the student of intellectual
development, this conflict of two thousand years has the fascination of a
great drama of which the protagonist is the mind struggling to free the
spirit from its subjection to the evil aspects of the imagination. Great
thinkers in the field of science, philosophy, and religion are the
_dramatis personæ_, and in the onward rush of this world-drama the
sufferings of those who have fallen by the way seem insignificant.

But when the student of history takes his more intimate survey of the
purely human aspects of the struggle, heartrending, indeed, become the
tragedies resulting from the exercise of human bigotry and stupidity.

Indignation and sorrow take possession of us when we think upon such a
spectacle as that of Roger Bacon, making ready to perform a few scientific
experiments before a small audience at Oxford, confronted by an uproar in
which monks, fellows, and students rushed about, their garments streaming
in the wind, crying out, "Down with the magician!" And this was only the
beginning of a persecution which ended in his teaching being solemnly
condemned by the authorities of the Franciscan order and himself thrown
for fourteen years into prison, whence he issued an old and broken man of

More barbarous still was the treatment of Giordano Bruno, a strange sort
of man who developed his philosophy in about twenty-five works, some
prose, some poetry, some dialogues, some comedies, with such enticing
titles as "The Book of the Great Key," "The Explanation of the Thirty
Seals," "The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast," "The Threefold
Minimum," "The Composition of Images," "The Innumerable, the Immense and
the Unfigurable." His utterances were vague, especially to the intellects
of his time, yet not so vague that theology, whether Catholic or
Calvinistic, did not at once take fright.

He held that the investigation of nature in the unbiased light of reason
is our only guide to truth. He rejected antiquity, tradition, faith, and
authority; he exclaimed, "Let us begin by doubt. Let us doubt till we
know." Acting upon these principles, he began to unfold again that current
of Greek thought which the system imposed by the Church had intercepted
for more than a thousand years, and arrived at a conception of evolution
prefiguring the modern theories.

He conceived the law of the universe to be unceasing change. "Each
individual," he declared, "is the resultant of innumerable individuals;
each species is the starting point for the next." Furthermore, he
maintained that the perfecting of the individual soul is the aim of all

Tenets so opposite to the orthodox view of special creation and the fall
of man could not be allowed to go unchallenged. It is to be remembered
that he was a priest in holy orders in the Convent of St. Dominic, and in
the year 1576 he was accused by the Provincial of his order of heresy on
one hundred and thirty counts. He did not await his trial, but fled to
Rome, thence to northern Italy, and became for some years a wanderer. He
was imprisoned at Geneva; at Toulouse he spent a year lecturing on
Aristotle; in Paris, two years as professor extraordinary in the Sorbonne;
three years in London, where he became the friend of Sir Philip Sidney,
and influenced the philosophy of both Bacon and Shakespeare. Oxford,
however, was unfriendly to his teachings and he was obliged to flee from
England also. Then he wandered for five years from city to city in
Germany--at one time warned to leave the town, at another excommunicated,
at another not even permitted to lodge within the gates. Finally, he
accepted the invitation of a noble Venetian, Zuane Mocenigo, to visit
Venice and teach him the higher and secret learning. The two men soon
quarreled, and Bruno was betrayed by the count into the hands of the
Inquisition. He was convicted of heresy in Venice and delivered to the
Inquisition in Rome. He spent seven years in its dungeons, and was again
tried and convicted, and called upon to recant, which he stoutly refused
to do. Sentence of death was then passed upon him and he was burned at the
stake on February 17, 1600, on the Campo de' Fiori, where there now stands
a statue erected by Progressive Italy in his honor.

His last words were, "I die a martyr, and willingly." Then they cast his
ashes into the Tiber and placed his name among the accused on the rolls of
the Church. And there it probably still remains, for no longer ago than
1889, when his statue was unveiled on the ninth of June, on the site of
his burning, in full view of the Vatican, Pope Leo XIII, it is said,
refused food and spent hours in an agony of prayer at the foot of the
statue of St. Peter. Catholic, and even Protestant, denunciation of Bruno
at this time showed that the smoke from this particular battle in the war
of mind with spirit was still far from being laid.

With the fate of Giordano Bruno still fresh in his mind, Galileo succumbed
to the demands of the Inquisition and recanted, saying that he no longer
believed what he, himself, with his telescope had proved to be true.

    "I, Galileo, being in my seventieth year, being a prisoner and on my
    knees, and before your Eminences, having before my eyes the Holy
    Gospel, which I touch with my hands, abjure, curse, and detest the
    error and the heresy of the movement of the earth."

If this recantation had brought any comfort or peace into his life it
might have been hard to forgive Galileo's perjury of himself. His
persecution, however, continued to the end. He was exiled from his family
and friends, and, even when he had become blind and wasted by sorrow and
disease, he was still closely watched lest he might utter the awful heresy
that the earth moved.

A hundred years later than this, when Buffon attempted to teach the simple
truths of geology, he was deposed from his high position and made to
recant by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne. The man who promulgated
geological principles, as firmly established to-day as that of the
rotation of the earth upon its axis, was forced to write: "I declare that
I had no intention to contradict the text of Scripture; that I believe
most firmly all therein related about the creation, both as to order of
time and matter of fact. I abandon everything in my book respecting the
formation of the earth, and generally all which may be contrary to the
narrative of Moses."

Such are the more heinous examples of the persecution of the men who
discovered the truths of science. To these should be added the wholesale
persecution of witches and magicians, for unusual knowledge of any sort
ran the chance of being regarded as contrary to biblical teaching and of
being attributed to the machinations of the Prince of Darkness.

Every new step made in the direction of scientific truth has had thus to
face the most determined opposition. Persecution by torture and death died
out, but up to the nineteenth century, and well on through it,
denunciation, excommunication, suppression, the loss of honorable
positions have all been used as weapons by church or university in the
attempt to stamp out whatever it considered dangerous and subverting
doctrines of science.

The decisive battle was not to be inaugurated until the latter half of the
nineteenth century, with the advent in the field of such names in science
as Spencer, Darwin, Tyndall and Huxley, and such names in biblical
criticism as Strauss and Renan.

The outposts, it is true, had been won by advancing scientific thought,
for step by step the Church had compromised, and had admitted one
scientific doctrine after another as not incompatible with biblical truth.
But now, not only theology, the imperfect armor in which the spirit had
been clothed, was attacked, but the very existence of spirit itself was to
be questioned. The thinking world was to be divided into materialists and
supernaturalists. Now, at last, mind and spirit, who in the ages long gone
had been brothers, were to stand face to face as enemies. Was this mortal
combat to end in the annihilation of either, or would this, too, end in a
compromise leading to harmony?

At the dawn of this century, in 1812, came into the world its master
poetic mind. I say this to-day without hesitation, for no other English
poet of the century has been so thoroughly aware of the intellectual
tendencies of his century, and has so emotionalized them and brought them
before us under the humanly real conditions of dramatic utterance.

It is not surprising, considering this fact, that in his second poem,
written in 1835, Browning ventures into the arena and at once tackles the
supreme problem of the age, what is to be the relation of mind and spirit?

It is characteristic of the poetic methods, which dominated his work, that
he should have presented this problem through the personality of a
historical figure who played no inconsiderable part in the intellectual
development of his time, though not a man to whom general historians have
been in the habit of assigning much space in their pages. Browning,
however, as Hall Griffin informs us, had been familiar with the name of
Paracelsus from his childhood, of whom he had read anecdotes in a queer
book, Wanley's "Wonders of the Little World." Besides, his father's
library, wherein as a boy he was wont to browse constantly, contained the
_Opera Omnia_ of Paracelsus.

With the confidence of youth and of genius the poet attempts in this poem
a solution of the problem. To mind he gives the attribute of knowledge, to
spirit the attribute of love.

The poem as a whole does not concern us here except as a background for
its final thoughts. In order, however, to put the situation clearly before
readers not already familiar with it, I venture to transcribe a portion of
a former analysis of my own.

Paracelsus aspires to the acquisition of absolute knowledge and feels born
within him the capabilities for attaining this end, and, when attained, it
is to be devoted to enlarging the possibilities of man's life. The whole
race is to be elevated at once. Man may not be doomed to cope with
seraphs, yet by the exercise of human strength alone he hopes man may one
day beat God's angels.

He is a revolter, however, against the magical and alchemistic methods of
his age, which seek for the welfare of men through the elixir of youth or
the philosopher's stone. He especially disclaims such puerile schemes in
the passionate moment when he has realized how futile all his lifelong
efforts have been. He stands, indeed, at the threshold of a new world. He
has a glimmering of the true scientific methods which would discover first
the secrets of life's laws, and then use these natural laws to bring about
life's betterment, instead of hoping for salvation through the discovery
of some magic secret by means of which life's laws might be overcome. Yet
he is sufficiently of his own superstitious age to desire and expect
fairly magical results from the laws he hopes to discover. The creed which
spurs him to his quest is his belief that truth is inborn in the soul, but
to set this truth free and make it of use to mankind correspondences in
outer nature must be found. An intuitive mind like Paracelsus's will
recognize these natural corollaries of the intuition wherever it finds
them; and these are what Paracelsus goes forth over the earth to seek
and find, sure he will "arrive." One illustration of the results so
obtained is seen in the doctrine of the signatures of plants according to
which the flowers, leaves, and fruits of plants indicate by their color or
markings, etc., the particular diseases they are intended to cure. The
real Paracelsus practised medicine upon this theory.

Though such methods are a long distance from those of the modern
scientist, who deduces his laws from careful and patient observation of
nature, they go a step toward his in seeking laws in nature to correspond
to hypotheses born of intuition.

Browning's presentation of the attitude of mind and the place held by
Paracelsus in the development of science is exactly in line with the most
recent criticisms of this extraordinary man's life. According to these he
fluctuated between the systems of magic then prevalent and scientific
observation, but always finally threw in the balance of his opinion on the
side of scientific ways of working; and above all made the great step from
a belief in the influence of nature upon man to that of the existence of
parallelisms between nature processes and human processes.

Though he thus opened up new vistas for the benefit of man, he must
necessarily be a failure, from his own point of view, with his "India" not
found, his absolute truth unattained; and it is upon this side that the
poet dwells. For a moment he is somewhat reassured by the apparition of
Aprile, scarcely a creature of flesh and blood, more the spirit of art who
aspires to love infinitely and has found the attainment of such love as
impossible as Paracelsus has found the attainment of knowledge. Both have
desired to help men, but Paracelsus has desired to help them rather
through the perfecting, even immortalizing, of their physical being;
Aprile, through giving man, as he is, infinite sympathy and through
creating forms of beauty which would show him his own thoughts and hopes
glorified by the all-seeing touch of the artist.

Paracelsus recognizes his deficient sympathy for mankind, and tries to
make up for it in his own way by giving out of the fulness of his
knowledge to men. The scornful and proud reformer has not, however, truly
learned the lesson of love, and verily has his reward when he is turned
against by those whom he would teach. Then the old ideal seizes upon him
again, and still under the influence of Aprile he seeks in human
experience the loves and passions of mankind which he learns through
Aprile he had neglected for the ever-illusive secret, but neither does
success attend him here, and only on his deathbed does his vision clear
up, and he is made to indulge in a prophetic utterance quite beyond the
reach of the original Paracelsus.

In this passage is to be found Browning's first contribution to a solution
of the great problem. That it is instinct with the idea of evolution has
become a commonplace of Browning criticism, a fact which was at least
independently or, as far as I know, first pointed out by myself in an
early essay upon Browning. At the time, I was reading both Browning and
Spencer, and could not but be impressed by the parallelisms in thought
between the two, especially those in this seer-like passage and "The Data
of Ethics."

Writers whose appreciation of a poet is in direct ratio to the number of
exact historical facts to be found in a poem like to emphasize this fact
that the doctrine of evolution can be found in the works of Paracelsus.
Why not? Since, as we have seen it had been floating about in
philosophical thought in one form or another for some thousands of years.

Indeed, it has been stated upon good authority that the idea of a gradual
evolution according to law and of a God from whom all being emanates,
from whom all power proceeds, is an inherent necessity of the Aryan mind
as opposed to the Semitic idea of an outdwelling God and of
supernaturalism. Thus, all down the ages the Aryan mind has revolted from
time to time against the religious ideas superimposed upon it by the
Semitic mind. This accounts for the numerous heresies within the bosom of
the Church as well as for the scientific advance against the superstitions
of the Church.

Generalizations of this sweeping order are apt to contain only partial
truth. It would probably be nearer the whole truth, as we are enabled
to-day to trace historical development, to say that, starting with
opposite conceptions, these two orders of mind have worked toward each
other and the harmonization of their respective points of view, and,
furthermore, that this difference in mind belongs to a period prior even
to the emergence of the Aryan or the Semitic. Researches in mythology and
folklore seem to indicate that no matter how far back one may go in the
records of human thought there will be found these two orders of mind--one
which naturally thinks of the universe as the outcome of law, and one
which naturally thinks of it as the outcome of creation. There are
primitive myths in which mankind is supposed to be descended from a
primitive ancestor, which may range all the way from a serpent to an oak
tree, or, as in a certain Zulu myth, a bed of reeds growing on the back of
a small animal. And there are equally primitive myths in which mankind is
created out of the trees or the earth by an external agent, varying in
importance from a grasshopper to a more or less spiritual being.

Browning did not need to depend upon Paracelsus for his knowledge of
evolution. He may not have known that the ancient Hindu in the dim mists
of the past had an intuition of the cosmic egg from which all life had
evolved, and that he did not know of the theory as it is developed in the
great German philosophers we are certain, because he, himself, asseverated
that he had never read the German philosophers, but it is hardly possible
that he did not know something of it as it appears in the writings of the
Greek philosophers, for Greek literature was among the earliest of his
studies. He might, for instance, have taken a hint from the speculations
of that half mythical marvel of a man, Empedocles, with which the
Paracelsus theory of the universe, as it appears in the passage under
discussion, has many points of contact.

According to Empedocles, the four primal elements, earth, air, fire and
water, are worked upon by the forces of love and discord. By means of
these forces, out of the primal elements are evolved various and horrible
monstrosities before the final form of perfection is reached. It is true
he did not correctly imagine the stages in the processes of evolution, for
instead of a gradual development of one form from another, he describes
the process as a haphazard and chaotic one. "Many heads sprouted up
without necks, and naked arms went wandering forlorn of shoulders, and
solitary eyes were straying destitute of foreheads." These detached
portions of bodies coming together by haphazard produced the earlier
monstrous forms. "Many came forth with double faces and two breasts, some
shaped like oxen with a human front, others, again, of human race with a
bull's head." However, the latter part of the evolutionary process as
described by Empedocles, when Love takes command, seems especially
pertinent as a possible source of Browning's thought:

    "When strife has reached the very bottom of the seething mass, and
    love assumes her station in the center of the ball, then everything
    begins to come together, and to form one whole--not instantaneously,
    but different substances come forth, according to a steady process of
    development. Now, when these elements are mingling, countless kinds of
    things issue from their union. Much, however, remains unmixed, in
    opposition to the mingling elements, and these, malignant strife still
    holds within his grasp. For he has not yet withdrawn himself
    altogether to the extremities of the globe; but part of his limbs
    still remain within its bounds, and part have passed beyond. As
    strife, however, step by step retreats, mild and innocent love pursues
    him with her force divine; things which had been immortal instantly
    assume mortality; the simple elements become confused by interchange
    of influences. When these are mingled, then the countless kinds of
    mortal beings issue forth, furnished with every sort of form--a sight
    of wonder."

Though evolution was no new idea, it had been only a hypothesis arrived at
intuitionally or suggested by crude observations of nature until by
perfected methods of historical study and of scientific experimentation
proof was furnished of its truth as a scientific verity.

Let us glance at the situation at the time when Paracelsus was published.
In 1835 science had made great strides in the direction of proving the
correctness of the hypothesis. Laplace had lived and died and had given to
the world in mathematical reasoning of remarkable power proof of the
nebular hypothesis, which was later to be verified by Fraunhofer's
discoveries in spectrum analysis. Lamarck had lived and died and had
given to the world his theory of animal evolution. Lyall in England had
shown that geological formations were evolutionary rather than
cataclysmal. In fact, greater and lesser scientific lights in England and
on the continent were every day adding fresh facts to the burden of proof
in favor of the hypothesis. It was in the air, and denunciations of it
were in the air.

Most interesting of all, however, in connection with our present theme is
the fact that Herbert Spencer was still a lad of fifteen, who was
independently of Darwin to work out a complete philosophy of evolution,
which was to be applied in every department of cosmic, geologic, plant,
animal and human activity, but (and this is of special interest) he was
not to give to the world his plan for a synthetic philosophy until 1860,
and not to publish his "First Principles" until 1862, nor the first
instalment of the "Data of Ethics," the fruit of his whole system, until

Besides being familiar with the idea as it crops out in Greek thought, it
is impossible that the young Browning was not cognizant of the scientific
attitude of the time. In fact, he tells us as much himself, for when
Doctor Wonivall asked him some questions as to his attitude toward Darwin,
Browning responded in a letter: "In reality all that seems proved in
Darwin's scheme was a conception familiar to me from the beginning."

Entirely familiar with the evolutionary idea, then, however he may have
derived it, it is just what might be expected that he should have worked
it into Paracelsus's final theory of life. The remarkable thing is that he
should have applied its principles in so masterly a fashion--namely, that
he should have made a complete philosophical synthesis by bringing the
idea of evolution to bear upon all natural, human and spiritual processes
of growth twenty-five years before Herbert Spencer, who is regarded on
this particular ground as the master mind of the century, gave his
synthetic philosophy of evolution to the world.

A momentary glance at the passage in question will make this clear.
Paracelsus traces first development as illustrated in geological forms:

    "The center-fire heaves underneath the earth,
  And the earth changes like a human face;
  The molten one bursts up among the rocks,
  Winds into the stone's heart, outbranches bright
  In hidden mines, spots barren river beds,
  Crumbles into fine sand where sunbeams bask."

Next he touches upon plant life and animal life. The grass grows bright,
the boughs are swollen with blooms, ants make their ado, birds fly in
merry flocks, the strand is purple with its tribe of nested limpets,
savage creatures seek their loves in wood and plain. Then he shows how in
all this animal life are scattered attributes foreshadowing a being that
will combine them. Then appears primitive man, only half enlightened, who
gains knowledge through the slow, uncertain fruit of toil, whose love is
not serenely pure, but strong from weakness, a love which endures and
doubts and is oppressed. And out of the travail of the human soul as it
proceeds from lower to higher forms is finally evolved self-conscious
man--man who consciously looks back upon all that has preceded him and
interprets nature by means of his own human perceptions. The winds are
henceforth voices, wailing or a shout, a querulous mutter or a quick, gay
laugh, never a senseless gust, now man is born.

But development does not end with the attainment of this
self-consciousness. After this stage has been reached there continues an
evolution which is distinctively spiritual, a tendency to God. Browning
was not content with the evolution of man, he was prophetic of the final
flowering of man in the superman, although he had never heard of

The corollary to this progressive theory of life, a view held by
scientific thinkers, is that sin is not depravity, but is merely a lack of
development. Paracelsus is therefore made wise to know even hate is but a
mask of love, to see a good in evil, a hope in ill-success, to sympathize,
even be proud of man's half-reasons, faint aspirings, dim struggles for
truth--all with a touch of nobleness despite their error, upward tending
all, though weak.

Though there are points of contact between the thought of the true
Paracelsus and of Browning, the points of contact between Spencer and
Browning are far more significant, for Browning seems intuitively to have
perceived the fundamental truths of social and psychic evolution at the
early age of twenty-three--truths which the philosopher worked out only
after years of laborious study.

We, who, to-day, are familiar with the application of the theory of
evolution to every object from a dustpan to a flying machine, can hardly
throw ourselves into the atmosphere of the first half of the last century
when this dynamic ideal was flung into a world with static ideals. The
Christian world knew little and cared less about the guesses of Greek
philosophers, whom they regarded when they did know about them as
unregenerate pagans. German thought was caviare to the general, and what
new thought of a historical or scientific nature made its way into the
strongholds of conservatism filled people with suspicion and dread. Such a
sweeping synthesis, therefore, as Browning gives of dawning scientific
theories in Paracelsus was truly phenomenal. That it did not prove a bone
of contention and arouse controversies as hot as those which were waged
later around such scientific leaders as Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, and
Clifford was probably due to the circumstance that the poem was little
read and less understood, and also to the fact that it contained other
elements which overlaid the bare presentation of the doctrines of

So far I have spoken only of the form of the Paracelsus theory of life,
but a theory of life to be complete must have soul as well as form. Only
in adding the soul side to his theory of life does Browning really give
his solution of the problem, what is to be the relation of mind and

One other point of resemblance is to be noted between the thought of
Browning's Paracelsus and Herbert Spencer. They agree that ultimate
knowledge is beyond the grasp of the intellect. Neither was this a new
idea; but up to the time of Spencer it was taken simply as a negative
conclusion. Spencer, however, having found this negation makes it the body
of his philosophy--a body so shadowy that many of his critics consider it
too ghostly to stand as a substantial basis for philosophical thought. He
regards the failure of the intellect to picture the nature of the absolute
as the most certain proof that our intuitions of its existence are
trustworthy, and upon this he bases all religious aspiration. Like the
psalmist, he exclaims, "Who by searching can find out God?"

The attitude of Paracelsus is identical as far as the intellect is
concerned. His life, spent in the search for knowledge, had proved it to
him. But he does not, like Spencer, make it the body of his philosophy.
Through the influence of Aprile he is led to a definite conception of the
Infinite as a Being whose especial characteristic is that he feels!--feels
unbounded joy in his own creations. This is eminently an artist's or
poet's perception of the relation of God to his universe. As Aprile in one
place says, "God is the perfect poet, who in his person acts his own

As I have already pointed out, the evil of pain, of decay, of degeneration
is taken no account of.

There is the constant passing onward from joy to joy. All the processes of
nature from the simplest to the most complex bring, in their turn, a
delight to their Creator until man appears, and is not only a joy to his
Creator, but is the first in the order of creation to share in the joy of
existence, the first to arrive at the full consciousness of beauty. So
overwhelming is this consciousness of beauty that man perceives it
struggling for expression in the hates and fallacies of undeveloped

All this is characteristic of the artistic way of looking at life. The
artist is prone either to ignore the ugly or to transmute it by art into
something possessing beauty of power if not of loveliness. What are plays
like "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," "Brand" and "Peer Gynt," music like "Tristan
and Isolde" or the "Pathetic Symphony," Rodin's statues, but actual,
palpable realizations of the fact that hate is but a mask of love, or that
human fallacies and human passions have within them the seeds of immense
beauty if only there appear the artist who can bring them forth. If this
is true of the human artist, how much more is it true of the divine
artist in whose shadow, as Pompilia says, even a Guido may find healing.

The optimism of such a theory of existence is intoxicating. Not only does
this artist-man look backward and rejoice in all the beauty of past phases
of creation, but he looks forward to endless progression in the enjoyment
of fresh phases of beauty--"a flying point of bliss remote." This is a
universe in which the Prometheus of the old myths is indeed unbound.
Mankind is literally free to progress forever upward. If there are some
men in darkness, they are like plants in mines struggling to break out
into the sunlight they see beyond.

The interesting question arises here, was Browning, himself, entirely
responsible for the soul of his Paracelsus theory of life or was there
some source beyond him from which he drew inspiration?

It has frequently been suggested that Aprile in this poem is a sort of
symbolic representation of Shelley. Why not rather a composite of both
Shelley and Keats, the poet of love and the poet of beauty? An examination
of the greatest poems of these two writers, "Prometheus Unbound" and
"Hyperion," will bring out the elements in both which I believe entered
into Browning's conception.

In the exalted symbolism of the "Prometheus Unbound" Shelley shows that,
in his view, evil and suffering were not inherent in the nature of things,
the tyranny of evil having gained its ascendancy through the persistence
of out-worn ideals, such as that of Power or Force symbolized in the Greek
idea of Jupiter. Prometheus is the revolting mind of mankind, enslaved by
the tyranny of Jupiter, hating the tyrant, yet determined to endure all
the tyrant can inflict upon him rather than admit his right to rule. The
freeing of Prometheus and the dethronement of Jupiter come through the
awakening in the heart of Prometheus of pity for the tyrant--that is,
Prometheus has learned to love his enemies as he loves his friends. The
remainder of the poem is occupied with showing the effects upon humanity
of this universal awakening of love.

In the fine passage where the Spirit of the Earth hears the trumpet of the
Spirit of the Hour sound in a great city, it beholds all ugly human shapes
and visages which had caused it pain pass floating through the air, and
fading still

  "Into the winds that scattered them, and those
  From whom they passed seemed mild and lovely forms
  After some foul disguise had fallen, and all
  Were somewhat changed, and after brief surprise
  And greetings of delighted wonder, all
  Went to their sleep again."

And the Spirit of the Hour relates:

  "Soon as the sound had ceased whose thunder filled
  The abysses of the sky and the wide earth,
  There was a change: the impalpable thin air
  And the all-circling sunlight were transformed
  As if the sense of love dissolved in them
  Had folded itself around the sphered world."

In the meantime, the over-souls of humanity--Prometheus, symbolic of
thought or knowledge, is reunited to Asia, his spouse, symbolic of Nature
or emotion, from whom he has long been separated and together with Asia's
sisters, Panthea and Ione--retire to the wonderful cave where they are
henceforth to dwell and where their occupations are inspired by the most
childlike and exalted moods of the soul.

Before considering the bearing of their life of love and art in the cave
upon the character of Aprile let us turn our attention for a moment to a
remarkable passage in "Hyperion," which poem was written as far back as
1820. Keats, like Shelley, deals with the dethronement of gods, but it
is the older dynasty of Titans--Saturn and Hyperion usurped by Jupiter and
Apollo. Shelley's thought in the "Prometheus" is strongly influenced by
Christian ideals, but Keats's is thoroughly Greek.

The passing of one series of gods and the coming into power of another
series of gods was a familiar idea in Greek mythology. It reflected at
once the literal fact that ever higher and higher forces of nature had
been deified by them, beginning with crude Nature gods and ending with
symbols of the most ideal human attributes, and at the same time that
their thought leaned in the direction of interpreting nature as an
evolutionary process. Seizing upon this, Keats has presented in the words
of the old Titan Oceanus a theory of the evolution of beauty quite as
startling as a prophecy of psychological theories upon this subject as
Browning's is of cosmic and social theories. Addressing Saturn, Oceanus

  "We fall by course of Nature's law, not force
  Of thunder, or of love....
    ... As thou wast not the first of powers
  So art thou not the last; it cannot be:
  From chaos and parental darkness came
  Light, the first fruits of that intestine broil,
  That sullen ferment, which for wondrous ends
  Was ripening in itself. The ripe hour came
  And with it light, and light, engendering
  Upon its own producer, forthwith touched,
  The whole enormous matter into life.
  Upon that very hour, our parentage
  The Heavens and the Earth were manifest;
  Then thou first-born, and we the giant-race,
  Found ourselves ruling new and beauteous realms

    *       *       *       *       *

  As Heaven and Earth are fairer far
  Than chaos and blank darkness, though once chiefs,
  And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
  In form and shape compact and beautiful,
  In will, in action free, companionship
  And thousand other signs of purer life,
  So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
  A power more strong in beauty, born of us
  And fated to excel us, as we pass
  In glory that old darkness: nor are we
  Thereby more conquered than by us the rule
  Of shapeless chaos. For 'tis the eternal law
  That first in beauty should be first in might.
  Yea, by that law, another race may drive
  Our conquerors to mourn as we do now."

There is in the attitude of Oceanus a magnificent acceptance of this
ruthless course of nature reminding one of that taken by such men as
Huxley and Clifford in the face of their own scientific discoveries, but
one is immediately struck by the absence of love in the idea. An Apollo,
no matter what new beauty he may have, himself, to offer, who yet
disregards the beauty of Hyperion and calmly accepts the throne of the sun
in his stead, does not satisfy us. What unreason it is that so splendid a
being as Hyperion should be deposed! As a matter of fact, he was not
deposed. He is left standing forever in our memories in splendor like the
morn, for Keats did not finish the poem and no picture of the enthroned
Apollo is given. Perhaps Keats remembered his earlier utterance, "A thing
of beauty is a joy forever," and cared for his own Hyperion too much to
banish him for the sake of Apollo.

Be that as it may, the points in relation to our subject are that
Shelley's emphasis is upon the conservation of beauty, while Keats's
emphasis is upon the evolution of new beauty.

In the cave where Prometheus and Asia dwell--the cave of universal
spirit--is given forth the inspiration to humanity for painting, poetry
and arts, yet to be born, and all these arts return to delight them,
fashioned into form by human artists. Love is the ruling principle.
Therefore all forms of beautiful art are immortal. Aprile,[1] as he
first appears, is an elaboration upon this idea. He would love all
humanity with such intensity that he would immortalize in all forms of
art--painting, poetry, music--every thought and emotion of which the human
soul is capable, and this done he would say:

                            "His spirits created--
  God grants to each a sphere to be its world,
  Appointed with the various objects needed
  To satisfy its own peculiar want;
  So, I create a world for these my shapes
  Fit to sustain their beauty and their strength."

In short, he would found a universal art museum exactly like the cave in
which Prometheus dwelt. The stress is no more than it is in Shelley upon a
search for new beauty, and there is not a hint that a coming beauty shall
blot out the old until Aprile recognizes Paracelsus as his king. Then he
awakes to the fact that his own ideal has been partial, because he has
not been a seeker after knowledge, or new beauty, and in much the same
spirit as Oceanus, he exclaims:

  "Lo, I forget my ruin, and rejoice
  In thy success, as thou! Let our God's praise
  Go bravely through the world at last! What care
  Through me or thee?"

But Paracelsus had learned a lesson through Aprile which the Apollo of
Keats had not learned. He does not accept kingship at the expense of
Aprile as Apollo would do at the expense of Hyperion. He includes in his
final theory of life all that is beautiful in Aprile's or Shelley's ideal
and adds to it all that is beautiful of the Keats ideal. The form of his
philosophy is evolutionary, and up to the time of his meeting with Aprile
had expressed itself as the search for knowledge. Through Aprile his
philosophy becomes imbued with soul, the attributes of which are the
spirit of love and the spirit of beauty, one of which conserves and
immortalizes beauty, the other of which searches out new beauty.

So, working hand in hand, they become one, while the search for knowledge,
thus spiritualized, becomes the search for beauty always inspired by love.
The aim of the evolutionary process thus becomes the unfolding of ever
new phases of beauty in which God takes endless delight, and to the final
enjoyment of which mankind shall attain.

To sum up, Browning's solution of the problem in the Paracelsus theory of
life is reached not only through a synthesis of the doctrines of evolution
as applied to universal activities, cosmic and human, prophetic, on the
one hand, of the most advanced scientific thought of the century, but it
is a synthesis of these and of the art-spirit in its twofold aspect of
love and beauty as already expressed in the poetry of Shelley and Keats.

It is not in the least probable that Browning set to work consciously to
piece together these ideals. That is not the method of the artist! But
being familiar to him in the two best beloved poets of his youth, they had
sunk into his very being, and welled forth from his own subconsciousness,
charged with personal emotion, partly dramatic, partly the expression of
his own true feeling at the time, and the result be it said is one of the
most inspiring and beautiful passages in English poetry.

[Illustration: PARACELSUS]

At the end of his life and the end of the century Herbert Spencer, who had
spent years of labor to prove the fallacies in all religious dogmas, and
who had insisted upon religion's being entirely relegated to
intellectually unknowable regions of thought, spoke in his autobiography
of the mysteries inherent in life, in the evolution of human beings, in
consciousness, in human destiny--mysteries that the very advance of
science makes more and more evident, exhibits as more and more profound
and impenetrable, adding:

    "Thus religious creeds, which in one way or other occupy the sphere
    that rational interpretation seeks to occupy and fails, and fails the
    more, the more it seeks, I have come to regard with a sympathy based
    on community of need: feeling that dissent from them results from
    inability to accept the solutions offered, joined with the wish that
    solutions could be found."

Loyal to the last to his determination to accept as knowledge only what
the intellect could prove, he never permitted himself to come under the
awakening influence of an Aprile, yet like Browning's ancient Greek,
Cleon, he longed for a solution of the mystery.

At the dawn of the century, and in his youth, Browning ventured upon a
solution. In the remainder of this and the next chapter I shall attempt to
show what elements in this solution the poet retained to the end of his
life, how his thought became modified, and what relation his final
solution bears to the final thought of the century.

In this first attempt at a synthesis of life in which the attributes
peculiar to the mind and to the spirit are brought into harmonious
relationship, Browning is more the intuitionalist than the scientist. His
convictions well forth with all the force of an inborn revelation, just as
kindred though much less rational views of nature's processes sprang up in
the mind of the ancient Hindu or the ancient Greek.

The philosophy of life herein flashed out by the poet was later to be
elaborated fully on its objective or observational side by Spencer--the
philosopher par excellence of evolution--and finally, also, of course, on
the objective side, to become an assured fact of science through the
publication in 1859 of Darwin's epoch-making book, "The Origin of
Species," wherein the laws, so disturbing to many at the time, of natural
selection and the survival of the fittest were fully set forth.

While the genetic view of nature, as the phraseology of to-day goes, had
been anticipated in writers on cosmology like Leibnitz and Laplace, in
geology by such men as Hutton and Lyall, and had entered into the domain
of embryology through the researches of Von Baer, and while Spencer had
already formulated a philosophy of evolution, Darwin went out into the
open and studied the actual facts in the domain of living beings. His
studies made evolution a certainty. They revealed the means by which its
processes were accomplished, and in so doing pointed to an origin of man
entirely opposed to orthodox views upon this subject. Thus was inaugurated
the last great phase in the struggle between mind and spirit.

Henceforth, science stood completely revealed as the unflinching searcher
of truth. Intuition was but a handmaid whose duty was to formulate working
hypotheses, to become scientific law if provable by investigation or
experiment, to be discarded if not.

The aspects which this battle has assumed in the latter half of the
century have been many and various. Older sciences with a new lease of
life and sciences entirely new have advanced along the path pointed out by
the doctrines of evolution. Battalions of determined men have held aloft
the banner of uncompromising truth. Each battalion has stormed truth's
citadel only to find that about its inmost reality is an impregnable wall.
The utmost which has been attained in any case is a working hypothesis,
useful in bringing to light many new objective phenomena, it is true,
but, in the end, serving only to deepen the mystery inherent in the nature
of all things.

Such a working hypothesis was the earlier one of gravitation whose laws of
action were elaborated by Sir Isaac Newton, and by the great mind of
Laplace were still further developed with marvelous mathematical precision
in his "Méchanique Celeste."

Such another hypothesis is that of the atomic theory of the constitution
of matter usually associated with the name of Dalton, though it has
undergone many modifications from other scientific thinkers. Of this
hypothesis Theodore Merz writes in his history of nineteenth-century
scientific thought:

    "As to the nature of the differences of the elements, the atomic view
    gives no information; it simply asserts these differences, assumes
    them as physical constants, and tries to describe them by number and
    measurement. The atomic view is therefore at best only a provisional
    basis, a convenient resting place, similar to that which Newton found
    in physical astronomy, and on which has been established the
    astronomical view of nature."

The vibratory theories of the ether, the theories of the conservation of
energy, the vitalistic view of life, the theory of parallelism of physical
and psychical phenomena are all such hypotheses. They have been of
incalculable value in helping to a larger knowledge of the appearances of
things, and in the formation of laws of action and reaction, but in no way
have they aided in revealing the inner or transcendent realities of the
myriad manifestations of nature and life!

During the last half of the century this truth has forced itself with ever
increasing power upon the minds of scientists, and has resulted in many
divisions among the ranks. Some rest upon phenomena as the final reality;
hence materialistic or mechanical views of life. Some believe that the
only genuine reality is the one undiscoverable by science; hence new
presentations of metaphysical views of life.

During these decades the solid phalanx of religious believers has
continued to watch from its heights with more or less of fear the advance
of science. Here, too, there has been division in the ranks. Many
denounced the scientists as the destroyers of religion; others like the
good Bishop Colenso could write such words as these in 1873: "Bless God
devoutly for the gift of modern science"; and who ten years earlier had
expressed satisfaction in the fact that superstitious belief in the letter
of the Bible was giving way to a true appreciation of the real value of
the ancient Hebrew Scriptures as containing the dawn of religious light.

From another quarter came the critical students of the Bible, who
subjected its contents to the keen tests of historical and archæological
study. Serene, above all the turmoil, was the small band of genuine
philosophers who, like Browning's own musician, Abt Vogler, knew the very
truth. No matter what disturbing facts may be brought to light by science,
be it man's descent from Anthropoids or a mechanical view of sensation,
they continue to dwell unshaken in the light of a transcendent truth which
reaches them through some other avenue than that of the mind.

Browning belonged by nature in this last group. Already in "Sordello" his
attention is turned to the development of the soul, and from that time on
to the end of his career he is the champion of the soul-side of existence
with all that it implies of character development--"little else being
worth study," as he declared in his introduction to a second edition of
the poem written twenty years after its first appearance.

On this rock, the human soul, he takes his stand, and, though all the
complex waves of the tempest of nineteenth-century thought break against
his feet, he remains firm.

Beginning with "Sordello," it is no longer evolution as applied to every
aspect of the universe but evolution as applied to the human spirit which
has his chief interest. Problems growing out of the marvelous developments
of such sciences as astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry or biology do
not enter into the main body of the poet's thought, though there are
allusions many and exact which show his familiarity with the growth of
these various objective sciences during his life.

During all the middle years of his poetic career the relations of the mind
and the spirit seemed to fascinate Browning, especially upon the side of
the problems connected with the supernatural bases of religious
experience. These are the problems which grew out of that phase of
scholarly advance represented by biblical criticism.

Such a poem as "Saul," for example, though full of a humanity and
tenderness, as well as of a sheer poetic beauty, which endear it alike to
those who appreciate little more than the content of the poem, and to
those whose appreciation is that of the connoisseur in poetic art, is
nevertheless an interpretation of the origin of prophecy, especially of
the Messianic idea, which places Browning in the van of the thought of the
century on questions connected with biblical criticism.

At the time when "Saul" was written, 1845, modern biblical criticism had
certainly gained very little hearing in England, for even as late as 1862
Bishop Colenso's enlightened book on the Pentateuch was received, as one
writer expresses it, with "almost unanimous disapprobation and widespread

Critics of the Bible there had been since the seventeenth century, but
they had produced a confused mass of stuff in their attacks upon the
authenticity of the Bible against which the orthodox apologists had
succeeded in holding their own. At the end of the eighteenth and the dawn
of the nineteenth century came the more systematic criticism of German
scholars, echoes of whose theories found their way into England through
the studies of such men as Pusey. But these, though they gave full
consideration to the foremost of the German critics of the day, ranged
themselves, for the most part, on the side of orthodoxy.

Eichhorn, one of the first of the Germans to be studied in England, had
found a point of departure in the celebrated "Wolfenbüttel Fragments,"
which had been printed by Lessing from manuscripts by an unknown writer
Reimarus discovered in the Wolfenbüttel library. These fragments represent
criticism of the sweepingly destructive order, characteristic of what has
been called the naturalistic school. Although Eichhorn agreed with the
writer of the "Fragments" that the biblical narratives should be divested
of all their supernatural aspects, he did not interpret the supernatural
elements as simply frauds designed to deceive in order that personal ends
might be gained. He restored dignity to the narrative by insisting at once
upon its historical verity and upon a natural interpretation of the
supernatural--"a spontaneous illumination reflected from antiquity
itself," which might result from primitive misunderstanding of natural
phenomena, from the poetical embellishment of facts, or the symbolizing of
an idea.

Doctor Paulus, in his commentary on the Gospels (1800), carried the idea
still farther, and the rationalistic school of Bible criticism became an
assured fact, though Kant at this time developed an entirely different
theory of Bible interpretation, which in a sense harked back to the older
allegorical interpretation of the Bible.

He did not trouble himself at all about the historical accuracy of the
narratives. He was concerned only in discovering the idea underlying the
stories, the moral gist of them in relation to human development. With the
naturalists and the rationalists, he put aside any idea of Divine
revelation. It was the moral aspiration of the authors, themselves, which
threw a supernatural glamour over their accounts of old traditions and
turned them into symbols of life instead of merely records of bona fide
facts of history. The weakness of Kant's standpoint was later pointed out
by Strauss, whose opinion is well summed up in the following paragraph.

"Whilst Kant sought to educe moral thoughts from the biblical writings,
even in their historical part, and was even inclined to consider these
thoughts as the fundamental object of the history: on the other hand he
derived these thoughts only from himself and the cultivation of his age,
and therefore could seldom assume that they had actually been laid down by
the authors of these writings; and on the other hand, and for the same
reason, he omitted to show what was the relation between these thoughts
and those symbolic representations, and how it happened that the one came
to be expressed by the other."

The next development of biblical criticism was the mythical mode of
interpretation in which are prominent the names of Gabler, Schelling,
Bauer, Vater, De Wette, and others. These critics among them set
themselves the difficult task of classifying the Bible narratives under
the heads of three kinds of myths: historical myths, philosophical myths,
and poetical myths. The first were "narratives of real events colored by
the light of antiquity, which confounded the divine and the human, the
natural and the supernatural"; the second, "such as clothe in the garb of
historical narrative a simple thought, a precept, or an idea of the time";
the third, "historical and philosophical myths partly blended together and
partly embellished by the creations of the imagination, in which the
original fact or idea is almost obscured by the veil which the fancy of
the poet has woven around it."

This sort of interpretation, first applied to the Old Testament, was later
used in sifting history from myth to the New Testament.

It will be seen that it has something in common with both the previously
opposed views. The mythical interpretation agrees with the old allegorical
view in so far that they both relinquish historical reality in favor of
some inherent truth or religious conception of which the historical
semblance is merely the shell. On the other hand it agrees with the
rationalistic view in the fact that it really gives a natural explanation
of the process of the growth of myths and legends in human society.
Immediate divine agency controls in the allegorical view, the spirit of
individuals or of society controls in the mythical view.

Neither the out-and-out rationalists nor the orthodox students of the
Bible approved of this new mode of interpretation, which was more or less
the outcome of the study of the sacred books of other religions. In 1835,
however, appeared an epoch-making book which subjected the New Testament
to the most elaborate criticism based upon mythical and legendary
interpretation. This was the "Life of Jesus, Critically Examined," by Dr.
David Friedrich Strauss. This book caused a great stir in the theological
world of Germany. Strauss was dismissed from his professorship in the
University of Tübingen in consequence of it. Not only this, but in 1839,
when he was appointed professor of Church History and Divinity at the
University of Zurich, he was compelled at once to resign, and the
administration which appointed him was overthrown. This veritable bomb
thrown into the world of theology was translated by George Eliot, and
published in England in 1846.

Through this translation the most advanced German thought must have become
familiar to many outside the pale of the professional scholar, and among
them was, doubtless, the poet Browning, if indeed he had not already
become familiar with it in the original. When the content and the thought
of Browning's poems upon religious subjects are examined, it becomes
certain that he was familiar with the whole trend of biblical criticism in
the first half of the century and of its effect upon certain of the
orthodox churchmen, and that with full consciousness he brought forward in
his religious poems, not didactically, but often by the subtlest
indirections, his own attitude toward the problems raised in this
department of scientific historical inquiry.

Some of the problems which occupied his attention, such as that in "The
Death in the Desert," are directly traceable to the influence of Strauss's
book. Whether he knew of Strauss's argument or not when he wrote "Saul,"
his treatment of the story of David and Saul is not only entirely in
sympathy with the creed of the German school of mythical interpreters, but
the poet himself becomes one of the myth makers in the series of
prophets--that is, he takes the idea, the Messianic idea, poetically
embellishes an old tradition, making it glow with humanness, throws into
that idea not only a content beyond that which David could have dreamed
of, but suggests a purely psychical origin of the Messianic idea itself in
keeping with his own thought on the subject.

The history of the origin and growth of the Messianic ideal as traced by
the most modern Jewish critics claims it to have been a slow evolution in
the minds of the prophets. In Genesis it appears as the prophecy of a time
to come of universal happiness promised to Abraham, through whose seed all
the peoples of the earth shall be blessed, because they had hearkened unto
the voice of God. From a family ideal in Abraham it passed on to being a
tribal ideal with Jacob, and with the prophets it became a national ideal,
an aspiration toward individual happiness and a noble national life. Not
until the time of Isaiah is a special agent mentioned who is to be the
instrument by means of which the blessing is to be fulfilled, and there we
read this prophecy: "There shall sprout forth a shoot from the stem of
Jesse, upon whom will rest the spirit of Yahveh, the spirit of wisdom
and understanding, of counsel and strength, of the knowledge and fear of
God. He will not judge according to appearance, nor will he according to
hearsay. He will govern in righteousness the poor, and judge with equity
the humble of the earth. He will smite the mighty with the rod of his
mouth, and the wicked with the breath of his lips."

The ideal expressed here of a great and wise national ruler who would
bring about the realization of liberty, justice and peace to the Hebrew
nation, and not only to them but to all mankind, becomes in the prophetic
vision of Daniel a mystic being. "I saw in the visions of night, and
behold, with the clouds of heaven came down as a likeness of the son of
man. He stepped forward to the ancient of days. To him was given dominion,
magnificence and rule. And all the peoples, nations and tongues did homage
to him. His empire is an eternal empire and his realm shall never cease."

In "Saul" Browning makes David the type of the prophetic faculty in its
complete development. His vision is of an ideal which was not fully
unfolded until the advent of Jesus himself--the ideal not merely of the
mythical political liberator but of the spiritual saviour, who through
infinite love would bring redemption and immortality to mankind. David
in the poem essays to cheer Saul with the thought of the greatness that
will live after him in the memory of others, but his own passionate desire
to give something better than this to Saul awakens in him the assurance
that God must be as full of love and compassion as he is. Thus Browning
explains the sudden awakening of David, not as a divine revelation from
without, but as a natural growth of the human spirit Godward. This new
perception of values produces the ecstasy during which David sees his
visions, the "witnesses, cohorts" about him, "angels, powers, the
unuttered, unseen, the alive, the aware."

This whole conception was developed by Browning from the single phrase in
I Samuel: "And David came to Saul, and stood before him: and he loved him
greatly." In thus making David prophesy of an ideal which had not been
evolved at his time, Browning indulges in what the biblical critic would
call prophecy after the fact, and so throws himself in on the side of the
mythical interpreters of the Bible.

He has taken a historical narrative, embellished it poetically as in the
imaginary accounts of the songs sung by David to Saul, and given it a
philosophical content belonging on its objective side to the dawn of
Christianity in the coming of Jesus himself and on its subjective side to
his (the poet's) own time--that is, the idea of internal instead of
external revelation--one of the ideas about which has been waged the
so-called conflict of Science and Religion as it was understood by some of
the most prominent thinkers of the latter half of the century. In this,
again, it will be seen that Browning was in the van of the thought of the
century, and still more was he in the van in the psychological tinge which
he gives to David's experience. Professor William James himself could not
better have portrayed a case of religious ecstasy growing out of genuine
exaltation of thought than the poet has in David's experience.

This poem undoubtedly sheds many rays of light upon the feelings, at the
time, of its writer. While he was a profound believer in the spiritual
nature and needs of man, he was evidently not opposed to the contemporary
methods of biblical criticism as applied to the prophecies of the Old
Testament, for has he not himself worked in accord with the light such
criticism had thrown upon the origin of prophecy? Furthermore, the poem is
not only an instance of his belief in the supremacy of the human spirit,
but it distinctly repudiates the Comtian ideal of a religion of humanity,
and of an immortality existing only in the memory of others. The Comte
philosophy growing out of a material conception of the universe and a
product of scientific thought has been one of the strong influences
through the whole of the nineteenth century in sociology and religion.
While it has worked much good in developing a deeper interest in the
social life of man, it has proved altogether unsatisfactory and barren as
a religious ideal, though there are minds which seem to derive some sort
of forlorn comfort from this religion of positivism--from such hopes as
may be inspired by the worship of Humanity "as a continuity and solidarity
in time" without "any special existence, more largely composed of the dead
than of the living," by the thought of an immortality in which we shall be
reunited with the remembrance of our "grandsires" like Tyltyl and Mytyl in
Maeterlinck's "Blue Bird."

Here, as always, the poet throws in his weight on the side of the
paramount worth of the individual, and of a conception of life which
demands that the individual shall have a future world in which to overcome
the flaws and imperfections incident to earthly life.

Although, as I have tried to show, this poem undoubtedly bears witness to
Browning's awareness to the thought currents of the day, it is couched in
a form so dramatic, and in a language so poetic, that it seems like a
spontaneous outburst of belief in which feeling alone had played a part.
Certainly, whatever thoughts upon the subject may have been stowed away in
the subconscious regions of the poet's mind, they well up here in a
fountain of pure inspiration, carrying the thought forward on the wings of
the poet's own spirit.

Poems reflecting several phases of the turmoil of religious opinion rife
in mid-century England are "Christmas Eve" and "Easter Day." Baffling they
are, even misleading to any one who is desirous of finding out the exact
attitude of the poet's mind, for example, upon the rival doctrines of a
Methodist parson and a German biblical critic.

The Methodist Chapel and the German University might be considered as
representative of the extremes of thought in the more or less prescribed
realm of theology, which largely through the influence of the filtering in
of scientific and philosophic thought had divided itself into many sects.

Within the Church of England itself there were high church and low
church, broad church and Latitudinarian, into whose different shades of
opinion it is not needful to enter here. Outside of the Established Church
were the numerous dissenters, including Congregationalists, Baptists,
Quakers, Methodists, Swedenborgians, Unitarians, and numerous others.

There was one broad line of division between the Established Church and
the dissenting bodies. In the first was inherent the ancient principle of
authority, while the principle of self-government in matters of faith
guided all the dissenters in their search for the light.

It is not surprising that with so many differing shades of opinion within
the bosom of the Anglican Church it should, in the earlier half of the
century, have lost its grip upon not only the people at large, but upon
many of its higher intellects. The principle of authority seemed to be
tottering to its fall. In this crisis the Roman Catholic Church exercised
a peculiar fascination upon men of intellectual endowment who, fearing the
direction in which their intellect might lead them, turned to that church
where the principle of authority kept itself firmly rooted by summarily
dismissing any one who might question it. It is of interest to remember
that at the date when this poem was written the Tractarian Movement, in
which was conspicuous the Oxford group of men, had succeeded in carrying
over four hundred clergymen and laity into the Catholic Church.

Those who were unafraid followed the lead of German criticism and French
materialism, but the large mass of common people found in Methodism the
sort of religious guidance which it craved.

To this sect has been attributed an unparalleled influence in the moral
development of England. By rescuing multitudes from ignorance and from
almost the degradation of beasts, and by fostering habits of industry and
thrift, Methodism became a chief factor in building up a great,
intelligent and industrious middle-class. Its influence has been felt even
in the Established Church, and as its enthusiastic historians have pointed
out, England might have suffered the political and religious convulsions
inaugurated by the French Revolution if it had not been for the saving
grace of Methodism.

Appealing at first to the poor and lowly, suffering wrong and persecution
with its founder, Wesley, it was so flexible in its constitution that
after the death of Wesley it broadened out and differentiated in a way
that made it adaptable to very varied human needs. In consequence of this
it finally became a genuine power in the Church and State of Great

The poem "Christmas Eve" becomes much more understandable when these facts
about Methodism are borne in mind--facts which were evidently in the
poet's mind, although the poem itself has the character of a symbolic
rather than a personal utterance. The speaker might be regarded as a type
of the religious conscience of England. In spite of whatever direct
visions of the divine such a type of conscience may gain through the
contemplation of nature and the revelations of the human heart, its
relations to the past cause it to feel the need of some sectarian form of
religion--a sort of inherited need to be orthodox in one form or another.
This religious conscience has its artistic side; it can clothe its inborn
religious instincts in exquisite imaginative vision. Also, it has its
clear-sighted reasoning side. This is able unerringly to put its finger
upon any flaw of doctrine or reasoning in the forms of religion it
contemplates. Hence, Catholic doctrine, which was claiming the allegiance
of those who were willing to put their troublesome intellects to sleep
and accept authority where religion was concerned, does not satisfy this
keen analyzer. Nor yet is it able to see any religious reality in such a
myth of Christ rehabilitated as an ethical prophet as the Göttingen
professor constructs in a manner so reminiscent of a passage in Strauss's
"Life of Jesus," where he is describing the opinions of the rationalists'
school of criticism, that a comparison with that passage is enlightening.

Having swept away completely the supernatural basis of religion, the
rationalist is able still to conceive of Jesus as a divine Messenger, a
special favorite and charge of the Deity:

    "He had implanted in him by God the natural conditions only of that
    which he was ultimately to become, and his realization of this destiny
    was the result of his own spontaneity. His admirable wisdom he
    acquired by the judicious application of his intellectual powers and
    the conscientious use of all the aids within his reach; his moral
    greatness, by the zealous culture of his moral dispositions, the
    restraint of his sensual inclinations and passions, and a scrupulous
    obedience to the voice of his conscience; and on these alone rested
    all that was exalted in his personality, all that was encouraging in
    his example."

The difficulty to this order of mind of the direct personal revelation
lies in the fact that it is convincing only to those who experience it,
having no basis in authority, and may even for them lose its force.

What then is the conclusion forced upon this English religious conscience?
Simply this: that, though failing both from the intellectual and the
æsthetic standpoint, the dissenting view was the only religious view of
the time possessing any genuine vitality. It represented the progressive,
democratic religious force which was then in England bringing religion
into the lives of the people with a positiveness long lost to the Anglican
Church. The religious conscience of England was growing through this
Methodist movement. This is why the speaker of the poem chooses at last
that form of worship which he finds in the little chapel.

While no one can doubt that the exalted mysticism based upon feeling, and
the large tolerance of the poem, reflect most nearly the poet's personal
attitude, on the other hand it is made clear that in his opinion the
dissenting bodies possessed the forms of religious orthodoxy most potent
at the time for good.

In "Easter Day," the doubts and fears which have racked the hearts and
minds of hundreds and thousands of individuals, as the result of the
increase of scientific knowledge and biblical criticism are given more
personal expression. The discussion turns principally upon the relation of
the finite to the Infinite, a philosophical problem capable of much
hair-splitting controversy, solved here in keeping with the prevailing
thought of the century--namely, that the finite is relative and that this
relativity is the proof of the Infinite.

The boldness of this statement, one such as might be found in the pages of
Spencer, is by Browning elaborated with pictorial and emotional power.
Only by a marvelous vision is the truth brought home to the speaker that
the beauties and joys of earth are not all-sufficient, but that they are
in the poet's speech but partial beauty, though through this very
limitation they become "a pledge of beauty in its plenitude," gleams
"meant to sting with hunger for full light." It is not, however, until
this see-er of visions perceives the highest gleam of earth that he is
able to realize through the spiritual voice of his vision that the nature
of the Infinite is in its essence Love, the supreme manifestation of which
was symbolized in the death and resurrection of Christ.

This revelation is nevertheless rendered null by the man's conviction that
the vision was merely such "stuff as dreams are made on." At the end as
at the beginning he finds it hard to be a Christian.

His vision, which thus symbolizes his own course of emotionalized
reasoning, brings hope but not conviction. Like the type in "Christmas
Eve," conviction can come to him only through a belief in supernatural
revelation. He is evidently a man of broad intellectual endowment, who
cannot, as the Tractarians did, lay his mind asleep, and rest in the
authority of a church, nor yet can he be satisfied with the unconscious
anthropomorphism of the sectarian. He doubts his own reasoning attempts to
formulate religious doctrines, he doubts even the revelations of his own
mystic states of consciousness; hence there is nothing for him but to
flounder on through life as best he can, hoping, fearing, doubting, as
many a serious mind has done owing to the nineteenth-century reaction
against the supernatural dogmas of Christianity. Like others of his ilk,
he probably stayed in the Anglican Church and weakened it through his

A study in religious consciousness akin to this is that of Bishop
Blougram. Here we have not a generalized type as in "Christmas Eve," nor
an imaginary individual as in "Easter Day," but an actual study of a real
man, it being no secret that Cardinal Wiseman was the inspiration for the

Wiseman's influence as a Catholic in the Tractarian movement was a
powerful one, and in the poet's dissection of his psychology an attempt is
made to present the reasoning by means of which he made his appeal to less
independent thinkers. With faith as the basis of religion, doubt serves as
a moral spur, since the will must exercise itself in keeping doubt
underfoot. Browning, himself, might agree that aspiration toward faith was
one of the tests of its truth, he might also consider doubt as a spur to
greater aspiration, but these ideals would connote something different to
him from what he makes them mean to Blougram. The poet's aspiration would
be toward a belief in Omniscient Love and Power, his doubts would grow out
of his inability to make this ideal tally with the sin and evil he beholds
in life. Blougram's consciousness is on a lower plane. His aspiration is
to believe in the dogmas of the Church, his doubts arise from an
intellectual fear that the dogmas may not be true. Where Browning seems to
miss comprehension of such a nature as Blougram's is in failing to
recognize that on his own plane of consciousness genuine feeling and the
perception of beauty play at least as large a part in the basis of his
faith as utilitarian and instinctive reasoning do. While this poem shows
in its references to the scientific theories of the origin of morals and
its allusions to Strauss, as well as in the indirect portrayal of
Gigadibs, the man emancipated from the Church, how entirely familiar the
poet was with the currents of religious and scientific thought, it falls
short as a fair analysis of a man who is acknowledged to have wielded a
tremendous religious influence upon Englishmen of the caliber of Cardinal
Newman, Kingsley, Arnold, and others.

If we leave out of account its connection with a special individual, the
poem stands, however, as a delightful study of a type in which is depicted
in passingly clever fashion methods of reasoning compounded of tantalizing
gleams of truth and darkening sophistication.

The poem which shows most completely the effect of contemporary biblical
criticism on the poet is "A Death in the Desert." It has been said to be
an attempt to meet the destructive criticism of Strauss. The setting of
the poem is wonderfully beautiful, while the portrayal of the mystical
quality of John's reasoning is so instinct with religious feeling that it
must be a wary reader indeed who does not come from the reading of this
poem with the conviction that here, at least, Browning has declared
himself unflinchingly on the side of supernatural Christianity in the face
of the battering rams of criticism and the projectiles of science.

But if he be a wary reader, he will discover that the argument for
supernaturalism only amounts to this--and it is put in the mouth of John,
who had in his youth been contemporary with Christ--namely, that miracles
had been performed when only by means of them faith was possible, though
miracles were probably not what those who believed in them thought they
were. Here is the gist of his defence of the supernatural:

    "I say, that as a babe, you feed awhile,
  Becomes a boy and fit to feed himself,
  So, minds at first must be spoon-fed with truth:
  When they can eat, babes'-nurture is withdrawn.
  I fed the babe whether it would or no:
  I bid the boy or feed himself or starve.
  I cried once, 'That ye may believe in Christ,
  Behold this blind man shall receive his sight!'
  I cry now, 'Urgest thou, _for I am shrewd
  And smile at stories how John's word could cure--
  Repeat that miracle and take my faith_?'
  I say, that miracle was duly wrought
  When save for it no faith was possible.
  Whether a change were wrought in the shows o' the world,
  Whether the change came from our minds which see
  Of shows o' the world so much as and no more
  Than God wills for his purpose,--(what do I
  See now, suppose you, there where you see rock
  Round us?)--I know not; such was the effect,
  So faith grew, making void more miracles,
  Because too much they would compel, not help.
  I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ
  Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
  All questions in the earth and out of it,
  And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
  Wouldst thou improve this to re-prove the proved?
  In life's mere minute, with power to use the proof,
  Leave knowledge and revert to how it sprung?
  Thou hast it; use it and forthwith, or die!"

The important truth as seen by John's dying eyes is that faith in a
beautiful ideal has been born in the human soul. Whether the accounts of
the exact means by which this faith arose were literally true is of little
importance, the faith itself is no less God-given, as another passage will
make clear:

  "Man, therefore, thus conditioned, must expect
  He could not, what he knows now, know at first;
  What he considers that he knows to-day,
  Come but to-morrow, he will find misknown;
  Getting increase of knowledge, since he learns
  Because he lives, which is to be a man,
  Set to instruct himself by his past self;
  First, like the brute, obliged by facts to learn,
  Next, as man may, obliged by his own mind,
  Bent, habit, nature, knowledge turned to law.
  God's gift was that man should conceive of truth
  And yearn to gain it, catching at mistake
  As midway help till he reach fact indeed."

The defence of Christianity in this poem reminds one very strongly of the
theology of Schleiermacher, a résumé of which the poet might have found in
Strauss's "Life of Jesus." Although Schleiermacher accepted and even went
beyond the negative criticism of the rationalists against the doctrines of
the Church, he sought to retain the essential aspects of positive
Christianity. He starts out from the consciousness of the Christian, "from
that internal experience resulting to the individual from his connection
with the Christian community, and he thus obtains a material which, as its
basis of feeling, is more flexible and to which it is easier to give
dialectically a form that satisfies science."

Again, "If we owe to him [Jesus] the continual strengthening of the
consciousness of God within us, this consciousness must have existed in
him in absolute strength, so that it or God in the form of the
consciousness was the only operative force within him." In other words, in
Jesus was the supreme manifestation of God in human consciousness. This
truth, first grasped by means which seemed miraculous, is finally
recognized in man's developing consciousness as a consummation brought
about by natural means. John's reasoning in the poem can lead to no other
conclusion than this.

Schleiermacher's theology has, of course, been objected to on the ground
that if this incarnation of God was possible in one man, there is no
reason why it should not frequently be possible. This is the orthodox
objection, and it is voiced in the comment added by "One" at the end of
the poem showing the weakness of John's argument from the strictly
orthodox point of view.

With regard to the miracles being natural events supernaturally
interpreted--that is an explanation familiar to the biblical critic, and
one which the psychologist of to-day is ready to support with numberless
proofs and analyses. How much this poem owes to hints derived from
Strauss's book is further illustrated by the "Glossa of Theotypas," which
is borrowed from Origen, whose theory is referred to by Strauss in his
Introduction as follows: "Origen attributes a threefold meaning to the
Scriptures, corresponding with his distribution of the human being into
three parts, the liberal sense answering to the body, the moral to the
soul, and the mystical to the spirit."

On the whole, the poem appears to be influenced more by the actual
contents of Strauss's book than to be deliberately directed against his
thought, for John's own reasoning when his feelings are in abeyance might
be deduced from more than one passage in this work wherein are passed in
review the conclusions of divers critics of the naturalist and rationalist
schools of thought.

The poem "An Epistle" purports to give a nearly contemporary opinion by an
Arab physician upon the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. We have here,
on the one hand, the Arab's natural explanation of the miracle as an
epileptic trance prolonged some three days, and Lazarus's interpretation
of his cure as a supernatural event. Though absolutely skeptical, the Arab
cannot but be impressed with the beliefs of Lazarus, because of their
revelation of God as a God of Love. Thus Browning brings out the power of
the truth in the underlying ideas of Christianity, whatever skepticism may
be felt as to the letter of it.

The effect of the trance upon the nature of Lazarus is paralleled to-day
by accounts, given by various persons, of their sensations when they
have sunk into unconsciousness nigh unto death. I remember reading of a
case in which a man described his feeling of entire indifference as to the
relations of life, his joy in a sense of freedom and ineffable beauty
toward which he seemed to be flying through space, and his disinclination
to be resuscitated, a process which his spirit was watching from its
heights with fear lest his friends should bring him back to earth. This
higher sort of consciousness seems to have evolved in some people to-day
without the intervention of such an experience as that of Lazarus or one
such as that of the above subject of the Society for Psychical Research.

In describing Lazarus to have reached such an outlook upon life, Browning
again ranges himself with the most advanced psychological thought of the
century. Hear William James: "The existence of mystical states absolutely
overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and
ultimate dictators of what we may believe. As a rule, mystical states
merely add a supersensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of
consciousness. They are excitements like the emotions of love or ambition,
gifts to our spirit by means of which facts already objectively before
us fall into a new expressiveness and make a new connection with our
active life. They do not contradict these facts as such, or deny anything
that our senses have immediately seized. It is the rationalistic critic
rather who plays the part of denier in the controversy, and his denials
have no strength, for there never can be a state of facts to which new
meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more
enveloping point of view. It must always remain an open question whether
mystical states may not possibly be such superior points of view, windows
through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive
world. The difference of the views seen from the different mystical
windows need not prevent us from entertaining this supposition. The wider
world would in that case prove to have a mixed constitution like that of
this world, that is all. It would have its celestial and its infernal
regions, its tempting and its saving moments, its valid experiences and
its counterfeit ones, just as our world has them; but it would be a wider
world all the same. We should have to use its experiences by selecting and
subordinating and substituting just as is our custom in this ordinary
naturalistic world; we should be liable to error just as we are now; yet
the counting in of that wider world of meanings, and the serious dealing
with it, might, in spite of all the perplexity, be indispensable stages in
our approach to the final fulness of the truth."

The vision of Lazarus belongs to the beatific realm, and the naturalistic
Arab has a longing for similar strange vision, though he calls it a
madman's, for--

  "So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too--
  So, through the thunder comes a human voice
  Saying, 'O heart I made, a heart beats here!
  Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
  Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
  But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
  And thou must love me who have died for thee.'"

A survey of Browning's contributions to the theological differences of the
mid-century would not be complete without some reference to "Caliban" and
"Childe Roland." In the former, the absurdities of anthropomorphism, of
the God conceived in the likeness of man, are presented with dramatic and
ironical force, but, at the same time, is shown the aspiration to
something beyond, which has carried dogma through all the centuries,
forward to ever purer and more spiritual conceptions of the absolute. In
the second, though it be a purely romantic ballad, there seems to be
symbolized the scientific knight-errant of the century, who, with belief
and faith completely annihilated by the science which allows for no realm
of knowledge beyond its own experimental reach, yet considers life worth
living. Despite the complex interpretations which have issued from the
oracular tripods of Browning Societies, one cannot read the last lines of
this poem--

  "Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
  And blew, '_Childe Roland to the dark Tower came_'"--

without thinking of the splendid courage in the face of disillusionment of
such men of the century as Huxley, Tyndall or Clifford.

When we ask, where is Browning in all this diversity of theological
opinion? we can only answer that beyond an ever-present undercurrent of
religious aspiration there is no possibility of pinning the poet to any
given dogmas. Everywhere we feel the dramatic artist. In "Paracelsus" the
philosophy of life was that of the artist whose adoration finds its
completion in beauty and joy; now the poet himself is the artist
experiencing as Aprile did, this beauty and joy in a boundless sympathy
with many forms of mystical religious ecstasy. Every one of these poems
presents a conflict between the doubts born of some phase of theological
controversy and the exaltation of moments or periods of ecstatic vision,
and though nowhere is dogmatic truth asserted with positiveness,
everywhere we feel a mystic sympathy with the moving power of religious
aspiration, a sympathy which belongs to a form of consciousness perhaps
more inclusive than the religious--namely, a poetic consciousness, able at
once to sympathize with the content and to present the forms of mystic
vision belonging to various phases of human consciousness.



Passing onward from this mid-century phase of Browning's interest in what
I have called the battle of the mind and the spirit, we find him in his
later poems taking up the subject in its broader aspects, more as he
treated it in "Paracelsus," yet with a marked difference in temper. God is
no longer conceived of merely as a divine creator, joying in the wonder
and beauty of his creations. The ideal of the artist has been modified by
the observation of the thinker and the feeling induced by human rather
than by artistic emotion. Life's experiences have shown to the more
humanly conscious Browning that the problem of evil is not one to be so
easily dismissed. The scientist may point out that evil is but lack of
development, and the lover and artist may exult when he sees the wonderful
processes of nature and mind carrying forward development until he can
picture a time when the evil shall become null and void, but the human,
feeling being sees the misery and the unloveliness of evil. It does not
satisfy him to know that it is lack of development or the outcome of lack
of development, nor yet that it will grow less as time goes on he ponders
the problem, "why is evil permitted, how is it to be harmonized with the
existence of a universe planned upon a scheme which he believes to be the
outcome of a source all-powerful and all-loving!"

About this problem and its corollary, the conception of the infinite,
Browning's latter-day thought revolves as it did in his middle years about
the basis of religious belief.

It is one of the strange freaks of criticism that many admirers of
Browning's earlier work have failed to see the importance of his later
poems, especially "Ferishtah's Fancies," and "The Parleyings," not only as
expressions of the poet's own spiritual growth, but as showing his mental
grasp of the problems which the advance of nineteenth-century scientific
thought brought to the fore in the last days of the century.

The date at which various critics have declared that Browning ceased to
write poetry might be considered an index of the time when that critic's
powers became atrophied. No less a person than Edmund Gosse is of the
opinion that since 1868 the poet's books were chiefly valuable as keeping
alive popular interest in him, and as leading fresh generations of readers
to what he had already published. Fortunately it has long been admitted
that Homer sometimes nods, though not with such awful effect as was said
to attend the nods of Jove. Hence, in spite of Mr. Gosse's undoubted
eminence as a critic, we may dare to assume that in this particular
instance he fell into the ancient and distinguished trick of nodding.

If Mr. Gosse were right, it would practically put on a par with a mere
advertising scheme many poems which have now become household favorites.
Take, for example, "Hervé Riel." Think of the blue-eyed Breton hero whom
all the world has learned to love through Browning, tolerated simply as an
index finger to "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." Take, too, such poems, as
"Donald." This man's dastardly sportsmanship is so vividly portrayed that
it has the power to arouse strong emotion in strong men, who have been
known literally to break down in the middle of it through excess of
feeling; "Ivan Ivanovitch," in which is embodied such fear and horror that
weak hearts cannot stand the strain of hearing it read; the story of the
dog Tray, who rescued a drowning doll with the same promptitude as he
did a drowning child--at the relation of whose noble deeds the eyes of
little children grow eager with excitement and sympathy. And where is
there in any poet's work a more vivid bit of tragedy than "A Forgiveness?"

And would not an unfillable gap be left in the ranks of our friends of the
imaginative world if Balaustion were blotted out?--the exquisite lyric
girl, brave, tender and with a mind in which wisdom and wit are fair play

As Carlyle might say, "Verily, verily, Mr. Gosse, thou hast out-Homered
Homer, and thy nod hath taken upon itself very much the semblance of a

These and many others which might be mentioned since the date when Mr.
Gosse autocratically put up the bars to the poet's genius are now
universally accepted. There are others, however, such as "The Red Cotton
Night-cap Country," "The Inn Album," "Aristophanes' Apology," "Fifine at
the Fair," which are liable at any time to attacks from atrophied critics,
and among these are the groups of poems which are to form the center of
our present discussion.

Without particularizing either critics or criticism it may be said that
criticism of these poems divides itself into the usual three
branches--one which objects to their philosophy, one which objects to
their art, one which finds them difficult of comprehension at all. This
last criticism may easily be disposed of by admitting it is in part true.
The mind whose highest reaches of poetic inspiration are ministered unto
by such simple and easily understandable lyrics as "Twinkle, twinkle,
little star," might not at once grasp the significance of the Parleying
with George Bubb Dodington. Indeed, it may be surmised that some minds
might sing upon the starry heights with Hegel and fathom the equivalence
of being and non-being, and yet be led into a slough of despond by this
same cantankerous George.

But a poetical slough of despond may be transfigured in the twinkling of
an eye--after a proper amount of study and hard thinking--into an elevated
plateau with prospects upon every side, grand or terrible or smiling.

Are we never to feel spurred to any poetical pleasure more vigorous than
dilly-dallying with Keats while we feast our eyes upon the wideness of the
seas? or lazily floating in a lotus land with Tennyson, perhaps, among the
meadows of the Musketaquid, in canoes with silken cushions? Beauty and
peace are the reward of such poetical pleasures. They fall upon the spirit
like the "sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing and
giving odor," but shall we never return from the land where it is always
afternoon? Is it only in such a land as this that we realize the true
power of emotion? Rather does it conduce to the slumber of emotion, for
progress is the law of feeling as it is the law of life, and many times we
feel--yes, feel--with tremendous rushes of enthusiasm like climbing
Matterhorns with great iron nails in our shoes, with historical and
archæological and philosophical Alpen-stocks in our hands, and when we
reach the summit what unsuspected beauties become ours!

Then let us hear no more of the critic who wishes Browning had ceased to
write in 1868 or at any other date. It may be said of him, not as of
Whitman, "he who reads my book touches a man," but "he who reads my poems
from start to finish grasps the life and thought of a century."

There will be no exaggeration in claiming that these two series of poems
form the keystone to Browning's whole work. They are like a final
synthesis of the problems of existence which he has previously portrayed
and analyzed from myriad points of view in his dramatic presentation of
character and his dramatic interpretations of spiritual moods.

In "Pauline," before the poet's personality became more or less merged in
that of his characters, we obtain a direct glimpse of the poet's own
artistic temperament, and may literally acquaint ourselves with those
qualities which were to be a large influence in moulding his work.

As described by himself, the poet of "Pauline" was

  "Made up of an intensest life,
  Of a most clear idea of consciousness
  Of self, distinct from all its qualities,
  From all affections, passions, feelings, powers;
  And thus far it exists, if tracked, in all:
  But linked in me to self-supremacy,
  Existing as a center to all things,
  Most potent to create and rule and call
  Upon all things to minister to it."

This sense of an over-consciousness is the mark of an objective poet--one
who sympathizes with all the emotions and aspirations of
humanity--interprets their actions through the light of this sympathy, and
at the same time keeps his own individuality distinct.

The poet of this poem discovers that he can no longer lose himself with
enthusiasm in any phase of life; but what does that mean to a soul
constituted as his? It means that the way has been cleared for the birth
of that greater, broader love of the fully developed artist soul which,
while entering into sympathy with all phases of life, finds its true
complement only in an ideal of absolute Love.

This picture of the artist aspiring toward the absolute by means of his
large human sympathy may be supplemented by the theory of man's relation
to the universe involved in "Paracelsus" as we have seen.

From this point in his work, Browning, like the Hindu Brahma, becomes
manifest not as himself, but in his creations. The poet whose portrait is
painted for us in "Pauline" is the same poet who sympathetically presents
a whole world of human experiences to us, and the philosopher whose
portrait is drawn in "Paracelsus" is the same who interprets these human
experiences in the light of the great life theories therein presented.

But as the creations of Brahma return into himself, so the human
experiences Browning has entered into artistic sympathy with return to
enrich his completed view of the problems of life, when, like his own
Rabbi Ben Ezra, he reaches the last of life for which the first was
planned in these "Fancies" and "Parleyings."

Though these two groups of poems undoubtedly express the poet's own mature
conclusions, they yet preserve the dramatic form. Several things are
gained in this way: First, the poems are saved from didacticism, for the
poet expresses his opinions as an individual, and not in his own person as
a seer, trying to implant his theories in the minds of disciples. Second,
variety is given and the mind stimulated by having opposite points of view
presented, while the thought is infused with a certain amount of emotional
force through the heat of argument.

It has frequently been objected, not only of these poems, but upon general
grounds, that philosophical and ethical problems are not fit subjects for
treatment in poetry. There is one point which the critic of æsthetics
seems in danger of never realizing--namely, that the law of evolution is
differentiation, in art as well as in cosmic, organic, and social life. It
is just as prejudiced and unforeseeing in these days to limit poetry to
this or that kind of a subject, or to say that nothing is dramatic which
does not deal with immediate action, as it would have been for Homer to
declare that no poem would ever be worthy the name that did not contain
a catalogue of ships.

These facts exist! We have dramas dealing merely with action, dramas in
which character development is of prime importance; dramas wherein action
and character are entirely synchronous; and those in which the action
means more than appears upon the surface, like Hauptmann's "Sunken Bell,"
or Ibsen's "Master Builder"; then why not dramas of thought and dramas of
mood when the brain and heart become the stage of action instead of an
actual stage.

Surely such an extension of the possibilities of dramatic art is a
development quite natural to the intellectual ferment of the nineteenth
century. As the man in "Half Rome" says, "Facts are facts and lie not, and
the question, 'How came that purse the poke o' you?' admits of no reply."

By using the dramatic form, the poet has furthermore been enabled to give
one a deep sense of the characteristics peculiar to the century. The
latter half of Victorian England in its thought phases lives just as
surely in these poems as Renaissance Italy in its art phases in "Fra Lippo
Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto," and the rest; and this is true though the
first series is cast in the form of Persian fables and the second in the
form of "Parleyings" with worthies of past centuries.

It may be worth while for the benefit of the reader not thoroughly
familiar with these later poems to pass quickly in review the problems in
them upon which Browning bends his poet's insight.

Nothing bears upon the grounds of moral action more disastrously than
blind fatalism, and while there have been many evil forms of this doctrine
in the past there has probably been none worse than the modern form,
because it seems to have sanction in the scientific doctrines of the
conservation of energy, the persistence of heredity, and the survival of
the fittest. Even the wise and the thoughtful with wills atrophied by
scientific phases of fatalism allow themselves to drift upon what they
call the laws of development, possessing evidently no realizing sense that
the will of man, whether it be in the last analysis absolutely free or
not, is a prime factor in the working of these laws. Such people will
hesitate, therefore, to throw in their voices upon either side in the
solution of great national problems, because, things being bound to follow
the laws of development, what matters a single voice! Such arguments were
frequently heard among the wise in our own country during the Cuban and
Philippine campaigns. Upon this attitude of mind the poet gives his
opinion in the first of "Ferishtah's Fancies," "The Eagle." It is a strong
plea for the exercise of those human impulses that lead to action. The
will to serve the world is the true force from God. Every man, though he
be the last link in a chain of causes over which he had no control, can,
at least, have a determining influence upon the direction in which the
next link shall be forged. Ferishtah appears upon the scene, himself, a
fatalist, leaving himself wholly in God's hands, until he is taught by the
dream God sent him that man's part is to act as he saw the eagle act,
succoring the helpless, not to play the part of the helpless birdlings.

Another phase of the same thought is brought out in "A Camel Driver,"
where the discussion turns upon punishment. The point is, if, as Ferishtah
declares, the sinner is not to be punished eternally, then why should man
trouble himself to punish him? Universalist doctrines are here put into
the mouth of Ferishtah, and not a few modern philanthropists would agree
with Ferishtah's questioners that punishment for sins (the manifestations
of inherited tendencies for which the sinners are not responsible) is no
longer admissible. Ferishtah's answer amounts to this. That no matter what
causes for beneficent ends may be visible to the Divine mind in the
allowance of the existence of sin, nor yet the fact that Divine love
demands that punishment shall not be eternal; man must regard sin simply
from the human point of view as absolute evil, and must will to work for
its annihilation. It follows then that the punishing of a sinner is the
means by which he may be taught to overcome the sin. There is the added
thought, also, that the suffering of the conscience over the subtler sins
which go unpunished is all the hell one needs.

Another doctrine upon which the nineteenth-century belief in progress as
the law of life has set its seal is that of the pursuit of happiness, or
the striving for the greatest good of the whole number in which oneself is
not to be excluded. With this doctrine Browning shows himself in full
sympathy in "Two Camels," wherein Ferishtah contends that only through the
development of individual happiness and the experiencing of many forms of
joyousness can one help others to happiness and joyousness, while in "Plot
Culture" the enjoyment of human emotion as a means of developing the soul
is emphasized.

The relation of good and evil in their broader aspects occupy the poet's
attention in others of this group. Nineteenth-century thought brought
about a readjustment of these relations. Good and evil as absolutely
definable entities gave place to the doctrine that good and evil are
relative terms, a phrase which we sometimes forget must be understood in
two ways: first, that good and evil are relative to the state of society
in which they exist. What may be good according to the ethics of a Fejee
Islander would not hold in the civilized society of to-day. This is the
evil of lack of development which in the long run becomes less. On the
other hand, there is the evil of suffering and pain which it is more
difficult to reconcile with the idea of omnipotent power. In "Mihrab
Shah," Browning gives a solution of this problem in consonance with the
idea that were it not for evil we should not have learned how to
appreciate the good, to work for it, and, in doing so, bring about

To his pupil, worried over this problem, Ferishtah points out that evil in
the form of bodily suffering has given rise to the beautiful sentiments of
pity and sympathy. Having proved in this way that good really grows out of
evil, there is still the query, shall evil be encouraged in order that
good may be evolved? "No!" Ferishtah declares, man bound by man's
conditions is obliged to estimate as "fair or foul right, wrong, good,
evil, what man's faculty adjudges as such," therefore the man will do all
he can to relieve the suffering or poor Mihrab Shah with a fig plaster.

The final answers, then, which Browning gives to the ethical problems
which grew out of the acceptance of modern scientific doctrines are, in
brief, that man shall use that will-power of which he feels himself
possessed--the power really distinguishing him from the brute creation--in
working against whatever appears to him to be evil; while that good for
which he shall work is the greatest happiness of all.

In the remaining poems of the group we have the poet's mature word upon
the philosophical doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, a doctrine
which received the most elaborate demonstration from Herbert Spencer in
many directions. It is insisted upon in "Cherries," "The Sun," in "A Bean
Stripe also Apple Eating," and especially in that remarkable poem, "A
Pillar at Sebzevar." That knowledge fails is the burden of these poems.
Knowledge the golden is but lacquered ignorance, as gain to be
mistrusted. Curiously enough, this contention of Browning's has been the
cause of most of the criticisms against him as a thinker, yet the deepest
thinkers of to-day as well as many in the past have held the opinion in
some form or another that the intellect was unable to solve the mysterious
problems of the universe. Even the metaphysicians who build their unstable
air castles on _à priori_ ideas declare these ideas cannot be matters of
mere intellectual perception, but must be intuitions of the higher reason.
Browning, however, does not rest in the mere assertion that the intellect
fails. From this truth, so disconcerting to many, he draws immense
comfort. Though intellectual knowledge be mistrusted as gain, it is not to
be mistrusted as means to gain, for through its very failure it becomes a
promise of greater things.

"Friend," quoth Ferishtah in "A Pillar of Sebzevar,"

  "As gain--mistrust it! Nor as means to gain:
  Lacquer we learn by: cast in firing-pot,
  We learn--when what seemed ore assayed proves dross
  Surelier true gold's worth, guess how purity
  I' the lode were precious could one light on ore
  Clarified up to test of crucible.
  The prize is in the process: knowledge means
  Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
  That victory is somehow still to reach."

For men with minds of the type of Spencer's this negative assurance of the
Infinite is sufficient, but human beings as a rule will not rest satisfied
with such cold abstractions. Though Job said thousands of years ago, "Who
by searching can find out God," mankind still continues to search. They
long to know something of the nature of the divine as well as to be
assured of its existence. In this very act of searching Browning declares
the divine becomes most directly manifest.

From the earliest times of which we have any record man has been aspiring
toward God. Many times has he thought he had found him, but with enlarged
perceptions he discovered later that what he had found was only God's
image built up out of his own human experiences.

This search of man for the divine is described with great power and
originality in the Fancy called "The Sun," under the symbol of the man who
seeks the prime Giver that he may give thanks where it is due for a
palatable fig. This search for God, Browning calls love, meaning by that
the moving, aspiring force of the whole universe in its multifarious
manifestations, from the love that goes forth in thanks for benefits
received, through the aspiration of the artist toward beauty, of the
lover toward human sympathy, even of the scientist toward knowledge, to
the lover of humanity like Ferishtah, who declares, "I know nothing save
that love I can, boundlessly, endlessly."

The poet argues from this that if mankind has with ever-increasing fervor
aspired toward a God of Love, and has ever developed toward broader
conceptions of human love, it is only reasonable to infer that in his
nature God has some attribute which corresponds to human love, though it
transcend our most exalted imagining of it.

At the end of the century a book was written in America in which an
argument similar to this was used to prove the existence of God. This book
was "Through Nature to God," by John Fiske, whose earlier work, "Cosmic
Philosophy," did much to familiarize the American reading public with the
evolutionary philosophy of Spencer.

Fiske claimed that his theory was entirely original, yet no one familiar
with the thought of Browning could fail to see the similarity of their
points of view. Fiske based his proof upon analogies drawn from the
evolution of organic life in following out the law of the adjustment of
inner to outer relations. For example, since the eye has through æons
of time gradually adjusted itself into harmony with light, why should not
man's search for God be the gradual adjustment of the soul into harmony
with the infinite spirit? This adjustment, as Browning expresses it, is
that of human love to divine love.

[Illustration: HERBERT SPENCER]

Other modern thinkers, notably Schleiermacher in Germany and Shaftsbury in
England, have placed the basis of religious truth in feeling. The idea is
thus not a new one. Yet in Browning's treatment of it the conception has
taken on new life, partly because of the intensity of conviction with
which it is expounded in these later poems, and partly because of its
having been so closely knit into the scientific thought of the century.

Optimistically the thought is finally rounded out in "A Bean Stripe also
Apple Eating," in which Ferishtah argues that life in spite of the evil in
it seems to him on the whole good. He cannot believe that evil is not
meant to serve a good purpose since he is so sure that God is infinite in

From all this it will be seen that Browning accepts with Spencerians the
negative proof of God growing out of the failure of intellect to grasp the
realities underlying all phenomena, but adds to it the positive proof
based upon emotion. The true basis of belief is the intuition of God
that comes from the direct revelation of feeling in the human heart, which
has been at once the motive force of the search for God and the basis of a
conception of the nature of God.

It was a stroke of genius on the part of the poet to present such problems
in Persian guise, for Persia stands in Zoroastrianism for the dualism
which Ferishtah with his progressive spirit decries in his recognition of
the part evil plays in the development of good, and through Mahometanism
for the Fatalism Ferishtah learned to cast from him. The Persian
atmosphere is preserved throughout not only by the introduction constantly
of Persian allusions traceable to the great Persian epic, "The Shah
Nameh," but by the telling of fables in the Persian manner to point the
morals intended.

With the exception of the first Fancy, derived from a fable of Bidpai's,
we have the poet's own word that all the others are inventions of his own.
These clever stories make the poems lively reading in spite of their
ethical content. Ferishtah is drawn with strong strokes. Wise and clever
he stands before us, reminding us at times of Socrates--never at a loss
for an answer no matter what bothersome questions his pupils may

If we see the thoughtful and brilliant Browning in the "Fancies" proper,
we perhaps see even more clearly the emotional and passionate Browning in
the lyrics which add variety and an unwonted charm to the whole. This
feature is also borrowed from Persian form, an interesting example of
which has been given to English readers in Edwin Arnold's "Gulistan" or
"Rose Garden" of the poet Sa'di. Indeed Browning evidently derived the
hint for his humorous prologue in which he likens the poems to follow to
an Italian dish made of ortolans on toast with a bitter sage leaf,
symbolizing sense, sight, and song from Sa'di's preface to the "Rose
Garden," wherein he says, "Yet will men of light and learning, from whom
the true countenance of a discourse is not concealed, be well aware that
herein the pearls of good counsel which heal are threaded on strings of
right sense; that the bitter physic of admonition is constantly mingled
with the honey of good humor, so that the spirits of listeners grow not
sad, and that they remain not exempt from blessings of acceptance."

A further interest attaches to these lyrics because they form a series of
emotional phases in the soul-life of two lovers whom we are probably
justified in regarding as Mr. and Mrs. Browning. One naturally thinks of
them as companion pictures to Mrs. Browning's "Sonnets from the
Portuguese." In these the sunrise of a great love is portrayed with
intense and exalted passion, while the lyrics in "Ferishtah's Fancies"
reflect the subsequent development of such a love, through the awakening
of whole new realms of feeling, wherein love for humanity is enlarged
criticism from the one beloved welcome; all the little trials of life
dissolved in the new light; and divine love realized with a force never
before possible.

Do we not see a living portrait of the two poets in the lyric "So the head
aches and the limbs are faint?" Many a hint may be found in the Browning
letters to prove that Mrs. Browning with just such a frail body possessed
a fire of spirit that carried her constantly toward attainment, while he,
with all the vigor of splendid health, could with truth have frequently
said, "In the soul of me sits sluggishness." These exquisite lyrics,
which, whether they conform to Elizabethan models or not, are as fine as
anything ever done in this form, are crowned by the epilogue in which we
hear the stricken husband crying out to her whom twenty years earlier he
had called his "lyric love," in a voice doubting, yet triumphing in the
thought that his lifelong optimism is the light radiating from the halo
which her human love had irised round his head.

No more emphatic way than the interspersion of these emotional lyrics
could have been chosen to bring home the poet's conviction of the value of
emotion in finding a positive basis for religious belief.

In the "Parleyings" the discussions turn principally upon artistic
problems and their relation to modern thought. Four out of the seven were
inspired by artist, poet or musician. The forgotten worthies whom Browning
rescued from oblivion make their appeal to him upon various grounds that
connect them with the present.

Bernard de Mandeville evidently caught Browning's fancy, because in his
satirical poem, "The Grumbling Hive," he forestalled, by a defence of the
Duke of Marlborough's war policy, the doctrine of the relativity of good
and evil. This subject, though so fully treated in the "Fancies," still
continued to fascinate Browning, who seemed to feel the need of thinking
his way through all its implications. Fresh interest is added in this
case because the objector in the argument was the poet's contemporary
Carlyle, whose well-known pessimism in regard to the existence of evil is
graphically presented.

Browning clenches his side of the argument with an original and daring
variation upon the Prometheus myth led up to by one of the most
magnificent passages in the whole range of his poetry, and probably the
finest example anywhere in literature of a description of nature as
interpreted by the laws of cosmic evolution. A comparison of this passage
with the one in "Paracelsus" brings out very clearly the exact measure of
the advance in the poet's thought during the fifty years between which
they were written--1835 and 1887. While in the "Paracelsus" passage it is
the thought of the joy in the creator's soul for his creations, and the
participation of mankind in this joy of progression while pleasure climbs
its heights forever and forever, which occupies the poet's mind, in the
later passage, there is no attempt at a definite conception of the divine
nature. Force represented in the sunlight is described as developing life
upon the earth. The thrill of this life-giving power is felt by all
things, and is unquestioningly accepted and delighted in.

  Did earth acknowledge Sun's embrace sublime
  Thrilling her to the heart of things: since there
  No ore ran liquid, no spar branched anew,
  No arrowy crystal gleamed, but straightway grew
  Glad through the inrush--glad nor more nor less
  Than, 'neath his gaze, forest and wilderness,
  Hill, dale, land, sea, the whole vast stretch and spread,
  The universal world of creatures bred
  By Sun's munificence, alike gave praise."

Man alone questions. His mind reaches out for knowledge of the cause; he
would know its nature. Man's mind will not give any definite answer to
this question. But Prometheus offered an artifice whereby man's mind is
satisfied. He drew sun's rays into a focus plain and true. The very sun in
little: made fire burn and henceforth do man service. Denuded of its
scientific and mystical symbolism, Browning thus makes the Prometheus myth
teach his favorite doctrine, namely, that the image of love formed in the
human heart by means of the burning glass supplied by sense and feeling is
a symbol of infinite love.

Daniel Bartoli, a Jesuit of the seventeenth century who is dyed and doubly
dyed in superstition, is set up by Browning in the next poem simply to be
knocked down again upon the ground that all the legendary saints he
worshipped could not compare with a real woman the poet knows. The
romantic story of the lady is told in Browning's most fascinating
narrative style, so rapid and direct that it has all the force of a
dramatic sketch. The heroine's claim upon the poet's admiration consists
in her recognition of the sacredness of love, which she will not dishonor
for worldly considerations, and finding her betrothed incapable of
attaining her height of nobleness, she leaves him free.

This story bears upon the poet's philosophy as it reflects his attitude
toward human love, which he considers so clearly a revelation that any
treatment of it not absolutely noble and true to the highest ideals is a
sin against heaven itself.

George Bubb Dodington is the black sheep of these later poems. He gives
the poet an opportunity to let loose all his subtlety and sarcasm, while
the reader may exercise his wits in discovering that the poet _assumes_ to
agree with Dodington in his doubtful doctrine of serving the state with an
eye always upon his own private welfare, and pretends to criticise him
only for his method of attaining his ends. His method is to disclaim that
he works for any other good than that of the State--a proposition so
preposterous in his case that nobody would believe it. The poet then
presents what purports to be the correct method of successful
statesmanship--namely, to pose as a superior being endowed with the divine
right to rule, treating everybody as his puppet, and entirely scornful of
any criticisms against himself. If he will adopt this attitude he may
change his tactics every year and the people, instead of suspecting his
sincerity, will think that he has wise reasons beyond their insight for
his changes. The poem is a powerful, intensely cynical argument against
the imperialistic temper and in favor of liberal government. This means
for the individual not only the right but the power to judge for himself,
instead of being obliged to depend, because of his own inefficiency, upon
the leadership of the over-man, whose intentions are unfortunately too
seldom to be trusted.

The poet called from the shades by Browning, Christopher Smart, is
celebrated in the world of criticism for having only once in his life
written a great poem. The eulogies upon the beauties of "The Song of
David" might not be echoed by all lay readers of poetry; nor is it of any
moment whether Browning actually agreed with the conclusions of the
critics, since the episode is used merely as a text for discussing the
problem of beauty versus truth in art. Should the poet's province be
simply to record his vision of the beauty and the strength of nature and
the universe--visions which come to him in moments of inspiration such as
that which came once to Christopher Smart? Browning answers the question
characteristically with his feet upon the earth. The visions of poets
should not be considered as ends in themselves, but as material to be used
for greater ends.

The poet should find his inspiration in the human heart, and climb to
heaven by its means, not investigate the heavens first. Diligently must he
study mankind, and teach as man may through his knowledge.

In "Francis Furini" the subject is the nude in art. The keynote is struck
by the poet's declaring he will never believe the tale told by Baldinicci
that Furini ordered all his pictures in which there were nude figures
burned. He expresses his indignation at the tale vigorously at some
length, showing plainly his own sympathies.

The passage in the poem bearing more especially upon the present
discussion is the lecture by Furini imagined by the poet to have been
delivered before a London audience. It is a long and recondite speech in
which the scientific and the intuitional methods of arriving at truth
are compared. While the scientific method is acknowledged to be of value,
the intuitional method is claimed as by far the more important.

A philippic against Greek art and its imitation is delivered by the poet
in the "Parleying with Gerard de Lairesse," whom he makes the scapegoat of
his strictures, on the score of a book Lairesse wrote in which was
described a walk through a Dutch landscape when every feature was
transmogrified by classic imaginings.

To this good soul, an old sepulcher struck by lightning became the tomb of
Phaeton, and an old cartwheel half buried in the sand near by, the Chariot
of the Sun.

In a spirit of bravado Browning proceeds to show what he himself could
make of a walk provided he condescended to illuminate it by classic
metaphor and symbol, and a remarkable passage is the result. It occupies
from the eighth to the twelfth stanza. It is meant to be in derision of a
grandiloquent, classically embroidered style but so splendid is the
language, so haunting the pictures, the symbolism so profound that it is
as if a God were showing some poor weakling mortal how not to do it--and
through his omniscience must perforce create something wondrously
beautiful. The double feeling produced in reading this passage only adds
to its interest. After thus classicizing in a manner that might make
Euripides, himself, turn green with envy, he nonchalantly remarks:

"Enough, stop further fooling," and to show how a modern poet greets a
landscape he flings in the perfectly simple and irresistible little lyric:

  "Dance, yellows, and whites and reds."

The poet's strictures upon classicism are entirely consonant with his
philosophy, placing as he does the paramount importance on living
realities, "Do and nowise dream," he exclaims:

  "Earth's young significance is all to learn;
  The dead Greek love lies buried in its urn
  Where who seeks fire finds ashes."

The "Parleying" with Charles Avison is more a poem of moods than any of
the others. The poet's profound appreciation of music is reflected in his
claiming it as the highest artistic expression possible to man. Sadness
comes to him, however, at the thought of the ephemeralness of its forms, a
fact that is borne in on him because of the inadequateness of Avison's
old march styled "grand." He finally emerges triumphantly from this mood
of sadness through the realization that music is the most perfect symbol
of the evolution of spirit, of which the central truth--

  "The inmost care where truth abides in fulness"--

as Paracelsus expresses it, remains always permanent, while the form is
ever changing, but though ever changing it is of absolute value to the
time when the spirit found expression in it. Furthermore, in any form once
possessing beauty, by throwing one's self into its historical atmosphere
the beauty may be regained.

The poem has, of course, a still larger significance in relation to all
forms of truth and beauty of which every age has had its living, immortal
examples, the "broken arcs" which finally will make the perfect round,
each arc perfect in itself, and thus the poet's final pæan is joyous,
"Never dream that what once lived shall ever die."

The prologue of this series of poems prefigures the thought in a striking
dialogue between Apollo and the Fates wherein the Fates symbolize the
natural forces of life, behind which is Zeus or divine power; Apollo's
light symbolizes the glamour which hope and aspiration throw over the
events of human existence, without actually giving any assurance of its
worth, and the wine of Bacchus symbolizes feeling, by means of which a
perception of the absolute is gained. Man's reason, guided by the divine,
accepts this revelation through feeling not as actual knowledge of the
absolute which transcends all intellectual attempts to grasp it, but as a
promise sufficiently assuring to take him through the ills and
uncertainties of life with faith in the ultimate triumph of beauty and

The epilogue, a dialogue between John Fust and his friends, brings home
the thought once more in another form, emphasizing the fact that there can
be no new realm of actual, palpable knowledge opened up to man beyond that
which his intellect is able to perceive. Once having gained this knowledge
of the failure of intellectual knowledge to solve what Whitman calls the
"strangling problems" of life, man's part is to follow onward through

                                "Dare and deserve!
  As still to its asymptote speedeth the curve,
  So approximates Man--Thee, who reachable not,
    Hast formed him to yearningly
                              Follow thy whole
  Sole and single omniscience!"

It will be seen from this review of the salient points enlarged upon by
Browning in these last groups of poems that he has deliberately set
himself to harmonize the intellectual and the intuitional aspects of human
consciousness. He has sought to join the hands of mind and spirit. The
artistic exuberance of Paracelsus is supplemented by spiritual fervor. To
the young Browning, the beauty of immortal, joyous life pursuing its
heights forever was as a radiant vision, to the Browning who had grappled
with the strangling problems of the century this beauty was not so
distinctly seen, but its reality was felt with all the depth of an
intensely spiritual nature--a nature moreover so absolutely fearless, that
it could unflinchingly confront every giant of doubt, or of
disillusionment which science in its pristine egotism had conjured up,
saying "Keep to thine own province, where thou art indeed powerful; to the
threshold of the eternal we may come through thy ministrations, but the
consciousness of divine things cometh through the still small voice of the

Thus, while he accepted every law relating to phenomena which science has
been able to formulate, he realized the futility of resting in a primal,
wholly dehumanized energy, that is, something not greater but less than
its own outcome, humanity. He was incapable of any such absurdity as
Clifford's dictum that "Reason, intelligence and volition are properties
of a complex which is made up of elements, themselves not rational, not
intelligent, not conscious." Since Clifford's time, the marked differences
between the processes of a psychic being like man, and the processes of
nature have been so fully recognized and so carefully defined by
psychologists that Browning's insistence upon making man the center whence
truth radiates has had full confirmation.

Theodore Merz has summed up these psychological conclusions in regard to
the characteristics peculiar to man as distinguished from all the rest of
the universe in the following words:

    "There are two properties with which we are familiar through common
    sense and ordinary reflection as belonging especially to the phenomena
    of our inner self-conscious life, and these properties seem to lie
    quite beyond the sphere and the possibilities of the ordinary methods
    of exact research.

    "As we ascend in the scale of human beings we become aware that they
    exhibit a special kind of unity which cannot be defined, a unity
    which, even when apparently lost in periods of unconsciousness, is
    able to reestablish itself by the wonderful and indefinable property
    called 'memory'--a center which can only be very imperfectly
    localized--a together which is more than a mechanical sum; in fact
    we rise to the conception of individuality, that which cannot be
    divided and put together again out of its parts.

    "The second property is still more remarkable. The world of the inner
    processes which accompany the higher forms of nervous development in
    human beings is capable of unlimited growth and it is capable of this
    by a process of becoming external: it becomes external, and, as it
    were, perpetuates itself in language, literature, science and art,
    legislation, society, and the like. We have no analogue of this in
    physical nature, where matter and energy are constant quantities and
    where the growth and multiplication of living matter is merely a
    conversion of existing matter and energy into special altered forms
    without increase or decrease in quantity. But the quantity of the
    inner thing is continually on the increase; in fact, this increase is
    the only thing of interest in the whole world."

Thus the modern psychologist and the poet who in the early days of the
century said the soul was the only thing worth study join hands.

The passage already referred to in "Francis Furini" presents most
explicitly the objective or intellectual method and the subjective or
intuitional method of the search for truth.

Furini is made to question--

  At truth I glimpse from depths, you glance from heights,
  Our stations for discovery opposites,
  How should ensue agreement! I explain."

He describes, then, how the search of the evolutionist for the absolute is
outside of man. "'Tis the tip-top of things to which you strain." Arriving
at the spasm which sets things going, they are stopped, and since having
arrived at unconscious energy, they can go no further, they now drop down
to a point where atoms somehow begin to think, feel, and know themselves
to be, and the world's begun such as we recognize it. This is a true
presentation of the attitude of physicists and chemists to-day, the latter
especially holding that experiment proves that in the atoms themselves is
an embryonic form of consciousness and will. From these is finally evolved
at last self-conscious man. But after all this investigating on the part
of the evolutionist what has been gained? Of power--that is, power to
create nature or life, or even to understand it--man possesses no
particle, and of knowledge, only just so much as to show that it ends in
ignorance on every side. This is the result of the objective search for
truth. But begin with man himself, and there is a fact upon which he can
take a sure stand, his self-consciousness--a "togetherness," as Merz says,
which cannot be explained mathematically by the adding up of atoms; and
furthermore an inborn certainty that whatever is felt to be within had
its rise or cause without: "thus blend the conscious I, and all things
perceived in one Effect." Through this subjective perception of an
all-powerful cause a reflex light is thrown back upon all that the
investigations of the intellect have accomplished. The cause is no longer
simply blind energy, but must itself be possessed of gifts as great and
still greater than those with which the soul of man is endowed. The forces
at work in nature thus become instinct with wonder and beauty, the good
and evil of life reveal themselves as a means used by absolute Power and
Love for the perfecting of the soul which made to know on and ever must

  "All to be known at any halting stage
  Of [the] soul's progress, such as earth, where wage
  War, just for soul's instruction, pain with joy,
  Folly with wisdom, all that works annoy
  With all that quiets and contents."

To sum up--our investigations into Browning's thought show him to be a
type primarily of the mystic. Mysticism in its most pronounced forms
regards the emotions of the human mind as supreme. The mystic, instead of
allowing the intellectual faculty to lead the way, degrades it to an
inferior position and makes it entirely subservient to the feelings. In
some moods Browning seems almost to belong to this pronounced type; for
example, when he says in "A Pillar at Sebzevar," "Say not that we know,
rather that we love, therefore we know enough."

[Illustration: DAVID STRAUSS]

It must be remembered, however, that he is not in either class of the
supernatural mystic, one of which supposes truth to be gained by a fixed
supernatural channel, the other that it is gained by extraordinary
supernatural means. On the contrary, truth comes to Browning in pursuance
of a regular law or fact of the inward sensibility, which may be defined
in his case as a mode of intuition. His intuition of God, as we have seen,
is based upon the feeling of love both in its human and its abstract

But this is not all. Upon the intellectual side Browning accepted the
conclusions of scientific investigation as far as phenomena were
concerned, and while he denied its worth in giving direct knowledge of the
Absolute, he recognized it as useful because of its very failure in
strengthening the sense of the existence of a power transcending human
conception. "What is our failure here but a triumph's evidence of the
fulness of the days?" And, furthermore, with mystic love already in our
hearts, all knowledge that the scientist may bring us of the phenomena of
nature and life only adds immeasurably to our wonder and awe of the power
which has brought these things to pass, thus "with much more knowledge"
comes "always much more love."

Once more, the poet's mysticism is tempered by a tinge of idealism. There
are several passages in his poems, notably one already quoted from Furini,
which show him to have had a perception of God directly through his own
consciousness by means of what the idealist calls the higher reason. His
perception, for instance, that whatever takes place within the
consciousness had its rise without and that this external origin emanates
from God is the idealist's way of arriving at the absolute.

Thus we see that into Browning's religious conceptions enter the
intuitions of the artistic consciousness as illustrated in Paracelsus
where God is the divine artist joying in his creations, the intuitions of
the intellect which finds in the failure of knowledge to probe the secrets
of the universe the assurance of a transcendent power beyond human ken,
the intuition of the higher reason which affirms God is, and the
intuitions of the heart which promise that God is love, through whom is
to come fulfilment of all human aspirations toward Beauty, Truth, and Love
in immortality.

If these are all points which have been emphasized, now by one, now by
another, of the vast array of thinkers who have crowded the past century,
there is no one who to my knowledge has so completely harmonized the
various thought tendencies of the age, and certainly none who has clothed
them in such a wealth of imaginative and emotional illustration.

In these last poems Browning appears to borrow an apt term from Whitman,
as the "Answerer" of his age. In them he has unquestioningly accepted the
knowledge which science has brought, and, recognizing its relative
character, has yet interpreted it in such a way as to make it subserve the
highest ideals in ethics, religion, and art. Far from reflecting any
degeneration in Browning's philosophy of life, these poems place on a
firmer basis than ever thoughts prominent in his poetry from the first,
while adding to these the profounder insight into life which life's
experiences had brought him.

The subject matter and form are no less remarkable than their thought. The
variety in both is almost bewildering. Religion and fable, romance and
philosophy, art and science all commingled in rich profusion; everything
in language--talk almost colloquial, dainty lyrics full of exquisite
emotion, and grand passages which present in sweeping images now the
processes of cosmic evolution, now those of spiritual evolution, until it
seems as if we had indeed been conducted to some vast mountain height,
whence we can look forth upon the century's turbulent seas of thought,
into which flows many a current from the past, while suspended above
between the sea and sky, like the crucifix in Simons's wonderful symbolic
picture of the Middle Ages, is the mystical form of divine love and joy
which Browning has made symbolic of the nineteenth century.



In the political affairs of his own age and country Browning as a poet
shows little interest. This may at first seem strange, for that he was
deeply sympathetic with past historical movements indicating a growth
toward democratic ideals in government is abundantly proved by his choice
and treatment of historical epochs in which the democratic tendencies were
peculiarly evident. Why then did he not give us dramatic pictures of the
Victorian era, in which as perhaps in no other era of English history the
yeast of political freedom has been steadily and quietly working?

There were probably several reasons for his failure to make himself felt
as an influence in the political world of his time. In the first place, he
was preëminently a dramatic poet, and as such his interest was in the
presentation and analysis of individual character as it might work itself
out in a given historical environment. To deal with contemporaries in
this analytic manner would be a difficult and delicate matter, and, as we
see, in those instances where he did venture upon an analysis of English
contemporaries, as in the case of Wiseman (Bishop Blougram), Carlyle in
Bernard de Mandeville and in "George Bubb Dodington," the sketch of Lord
Beaconsfield, he takes care to suppress every external circumstance which
would lead to their identification, and to dwell only upon their
intellectual or psychic aspects.

A second reason is that the present is usually too near at hand to be used
altogether effectively as dramatic material. Contemporary conditions of
history seem to have an air of stateliness owing to the fact that every
one is familiar with them, not only through talk and experience but
through newspapers and magazines, while their larger, universal meanings
cannot be seen at too close a range. If, however, past historical episodes
and their tendencies can be so presented as to illustrate the tendencies
of the present, then the needful artistic perspective is gained. In this
manner, with a few minor exceptions, Browning has revealed the direction
in which his political sympathies lay.

When Browning was born, the first Napoleonic episode was nearing its
close. Absolutism and militarism had in its lust for power and bloodshed
slaughtered itself for the time being, and once more there was opportunity
for the people of England to strive for their own enfranchisement.

As a progressive ministry in England did not come into power until 1830,
the struggles of the people were rewarded with little success during many
years after the Battle of Waterloo. During the childhood and boyhood of
Browning the events which from time to time marked the determination of
the downtrodden Englishman to secure a larger measure of justice for
himself were exciting enough to have made a strong impression upon the
precocious mind of the incipient poet even in the seclusion of his
father's library at Camberwell.

The artificial prosperity which had buoyed up the workman during the war
with France suddenly collapsed with the advent of peace after the Battle
of Waterloo. Everything seemed to combine to make the affairs of the
workingman desperate. Public business had been blunderingly administered,
and while a fatuous Cabinet was congratulating the nation upon the
flourishing state of the country, trade was actually almost at a
standstill, and failures in business were the order of the day. To make
matters worse, a wet summer and early frosts interfered with farming, and
the result was that laborers and workmen could not find employment. A not
unusual percentage of paupers in any given district was four fifths of the
whole population. Thinking the farmers were to blame for the high price of
bread, these starving people wreaked their vengeance on them by burning
farm buildings, and machinery, and even stacks of corn and hay.

[Illustration: CARDINAL WISEMAN]

Instead of giving sympathy to these men in their desperate condition, a
conservative government saw in them only rioters, and took the most
stringent measures against them. They were tried by a special commission,
and thirty-four of them were condemned to death, though it is recorded
that only five of them were executed. The miners of Cornwall and Wales,
the lace makers of Nottingham, and the iron workers of the Black Country,
next broke out and the smashing of machinery continued. Finally there was
a meeting of the artisans of London, Westminster, and Southwick in Spa
Fields, Clerkenwall, which had been called by Harry Hunt, a man of
property and education, who was known as a supporter of extreme measures,
and the leader of the Radicals of that day. They met for the legitimate
purpose, one would think, of considering the propriety of petitioning the
Prince Regent and Parliament to adopt means of relieving the existing
distress. One of the speakers, however, a poor doctor by the name of
Watson, was of a more belligerent disposition. He made an inflammatory
speech which ended by his seizing a tri-colored flag and marching toward
the city followed by the turbulent rabble. On their way they seized the
contents of a gunsmith's shop on Snow Hill, murdered a man, and finally
were met opposite the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor, who, assisted by a
strong body of police, arrested some of the leaders and dispersed the
rest. The arrested persons were brought to trial and indicted for high
treason by the Attorney General, but the jury, evidently thinking the
indictment had taken too exaggerated a form, acquitted Watson, and the
others were dismissed.

The conservative Parliament was, however, so alarmed by these proceedings
that, instead of seeking some way of removing the cause of the
difficulties, it thought only of making restrictions for the protection of
the person of the Regent, of the more effective prevention of seditious
meetings and of surer punishment. And what were some of these measures?
Debating societies, lecture halls and reading rooms were shut up. Even
lectures on medicine, surgery and chemistry were prohibited. Though there
was a possibility of getting a license to lecture from the magistrate, the
law was interpreted in the narrowest spirit.

Parliamentary reform began to be spoken of in 1819, when a resolution
pledging the House of Commons to the consideration of the state of
representation was rejected by a vote of one hundred and fifty-three to
fifty-eight. This decision stirred up the reform spirit, and large
meetings in favor of it were held. The people attending these meetings
received military drilling and marched to their meetings in orderly
processions, a fact naturally very disturbing to the government. When a
great meeting was arranged at Manchester on the 16th of August, troops
were accordingly sent to Manchester. The cavalry was ordered to charge the
crowd, and although they used the flat side of their swords, the charge
resulted in the killing of six persons and the wounding of some hundreds.
The clash did not end here, for to offset the ministerial approval of the
action of the magistrates and their decision that the meeting was illegal,
the Common Council of London passed a resolution by a large majority
declaring that the meeting was legal. A number of Whig noblemen also were
on the side of the London Council and made similar motions. But the
ministers, unmoved by these signs of the times, introduced bills in
Parliament for the repression of disorder and the further restraining of
public liberty. The bills, it is true, were strenuously opposed in both
houses, but the eloquence expended against them was all to no purpose, the
bills were passed, and reform for the time being was nipped in the bud.

Although after this laws were gradually introduced by the ministers which
tended very much to the betterment of conditions, the fire of reform did
not burst out again with full fury until the time of the Revolution of
July, in France, which it will be remembered was directed against the
despotic King Charles X, and ended in his being deposed, when his crown
was given to his distant cousin Louis Philippe. The success of the French
in their stand against despotism caused a general revolutionary stir in
several European countries, while in England the spirit of revolution
showed itself in incendiary fires from one end of the country to the

With Parliament itself full of believers in reform, the chief of the
Cabinet, the Duke of Wellington, announced that the House of Commons did
not need reform and that he would resist all proposals for a change. So
great was the popular excitement at this announcement that the Duke could
not venture to go forth to dine at the Guildhall for fear that he might be

Such were the chief episodes in the forward advance of the people up to
the time of the presentation of the Reform Bill in Parliament. This
important measure has been described as the greatest organic change in the
British Constitution that had taken place since the revolution of 1688.
When this bill was finally passed it meant a transference of governmental
control from the upper classes to the middle classes, and was the
inauguration of a policy which has constantly added to the prosperity and
well-being of the English people. The agitation upon this bill, introduced
in the House by Lord John Russell, under the Premiership of Earl Grey, and
a ministry favorable to reform, was filling the attention of all
Englishmen to the exclusion of every other subject just at the time when
Browning was emerging into manhood, 1831 and 1832, and though he has not
commemorated in his poetry this great step in the political progress of
his own century, his first play, written in 1837, takes up a period of
English history in which a momentous struggle for liberty on the part of
the people was in progress.

Important as the Reform Bill was, it furnished no such picturesque
episodes for a dramatist as did the struggle of Pym and Strafford under
the despotic rule of King Charles I.

In choosing this period for his play the poet found not only material
which furnished to his hand a series of wonderfully dramatic situations,
but in the three men about whom the action moves is presented an
individuality and a contrast in character full of those possibilities for
analysis so attractive to Browning's mind.

Another point to be gained by taking this remote period of history was
that his attitude could be supremely that of the philosopher of history.
He could portray with fairness whatever worth of character he found to
admire in the leaders upon either side, at the same time that he could
show which possessed the winning principle--the principle of progress. In
dealing with contemporary events a strong personal feeling is sure to gain
the upper hand, and to be non-partisan and therefore truly dramatic is a
difficult, if not an impossible, task. When we come to examine this play,
we find that the character which unquestionably interested the poet most
was Strafford's; not because of his political principles but because of
his devotion to his King. Human love and loyalty in whomever manifested
was always of the supremest interest to Browning, and, working upon any
hints furnished by history, the poet has developed the character of
Strafford in the light of his personal friendship for the King--a feeling
so powerful that no fickle change of mood on the part of the King could
alter it. Upon this fact of his personal relations to the King Strafford's
actions in this great crisis have been interpreted and explained, though
not defended, from the political point of view.

Some wavering on the part of Pym is also explained upon the ground of his
friendship for and his belief in Strafford, but mark the difference
between the two men. Pym, once sure that Strafford is not on the side of
progress, crushes out all personal feeling. He allows nothing to stand in
the way of his political policy. With unflinching purpose he proceeds
against his former friend, straight on to the impeachment for treason,
straight on, like an inexorable fate, to the prevention of his rescue from
execution. Browning's dramatic imagination is responsible for this last
climax in which he brings the two men face to face. Here, in Pym's
strength of will to serve England at any cost, mingled with the hope of
meeting Strafford purged of all his errors in a future life, and in
Strafford's response, "When we meet, Pym, I'd be set right--not now! Best
die," is foreshadowed the ultimate triumph of the parliamentary over the
monarchical principles of government, and the poet's own sympathy with the
party of progress is made plain.

It is interesting in the present connection to inquire whether there are
any parallels between the agitation connected with the reform legislation
of 1832 and the revolution at the time of Charles I which might send
Browning's mind back to that period. The special point about which the
battle raged in 1832 was the representation in Parliament. This was so
irregular that it was absolutely unfair. In many instances large districts
or towns would have fewer representatives than smaller ones, or perhaps
none at all. Representation was more a matter of favoritism than of
justice. The votes in Parliament were, therefore, not at all a true
measure of the attitude of the country. It seems strange that so eminently
sensible a reform should meet with such determined opposition. As usual,
those in power feared loss of privilege. The House of Lords was the
obstruction. The bill was in fact a step logically following upon the
determination of the people of the time of Charles I that they would not
submit to be levied upon for ship-money upon the sole authority of the
King. They demanded that Parliament, which had not been assembled for ten
years, should meet and decide the question. This question was not merely
one of the war-tax or ship-money, but of whether the King should have the
power to levy taxes upon the people without consent of Parliament.

As every one knows, when the King finally consented to the assembling of
Parliament, in April, 1840, he informed it that there would be no
discussion of its demands until it had granted the war subsidies for which
it had been asked. The older Vane added to the consternation of the
assembly by announcing that the King would accept nothing less than the
twelve subsidies which he had demanded in his message. In the face of this
ultimatum the committee broke up without coming to a conclusion,
postponing further consideration until the next day, but before they had
had time to consider the matter the next day the King had decided to
dissolve the Parliament.

The King was forced, however, to reassemble Parliament again in the
autumn. In this Parliament the people's party gained control, and many
reforms were instituted. Led by such daring men as Pym, Hampden, Cromwell,
and the younger Vane, resolutions were passed censuring the levying of
ship-money, tonnage and poundage, monopolies, innovations in religion--in
fact, all the grievances of the oppressed which had been ignored for a
decade were brought to light and redressed by the House, quite regardless
of the King's attitude.

The chief of the abuses which it was bent upon remedying was the imposing
of taxes upon the authority of the King and the persecution of the
Puritans. But there was another grievance which received the attention of
the Long Parliament, and which forms a close link with the reforms of
1832--namely, the attempt to improve the system of representation in
Parliament, an attempt which was partially carried into effect by Cromwell
later. Under Charles II, however, things fell back into their old way and
gradually went on from bad to worse until the tide changed, and the people
became finally aroused after two hundred years to the need of a radical
change. The blindness of the Duke of Wellington, declaring no reform was
needed, is hardly less to be marveled at than that of King Charles
declaring he would rule without Parliament. The King took the ground that
the people had no right to representation in the government; the Minister,
that only some of the people had a right.

The horrors of revolution followed upon the blindness of the one, with its
reactionary aftermath, while upon the other there was violence, it is
true, and a revolution was feared, but through the wise measures of the
liberal ministers no subversion of the government occurred. Violence
reached such a pitch, however, that the castle of Nottingham in Derby was
burned, the King's brother was dragged from his horse, and Lord
Londonderry roughly treated. The mob at Bristol was so infuriated that Sir
C. Wetherell, the Recorder of the city, who had voted against the bill,
had to be escorted to the Guildhall by a hundred mounted gentlemen. Two
men having been arrested, the mob attacked and destroyed the interior of
the Mansion House, set fire to the Bishop's palace and to many other
buildings. There was not only an enormous loss of property, but loss of

A quieter demonstration at Birmingham carries us back, as it might have
carried Browning, to the "great-hearted men" of the Long Parliament. A
meeting was called which was attended by one hundred and fifty thousand
persons, and resolutions were passed to the effect that if the Reform Bill
were not passed they would refuse to pay taxes, as Hampden had refused to
pay ship-money.

The final act in this momentous drama was initiated with the introduction
by Lord John Russell of the third Reform Bill in December, 1831. Again it
was defeated in the House of Lords, whereupon some of the Cabinet wished
to ask the King to create a sufficient number of new peers to force the
bill through the House. Earl Grey was not at all in favor of this, but at
last consented. This course was not welcome to the House of Lords, and the
doubtful members in the House promised that if this suggestion were not
carried into effect they would insure a sufficient majority in the House
of Lords to carry the bill. This was done, but before the Lords went into
committee a hostile motion postponing the disfranchisement clauses was
carried. Then Earl Grey asked for the creation of new peers. As it would
require the creating of about fifty new peers, the King refused, the
ministry resigned and the Duke of Wellington came into power again. But
his power, like that of Strafford, was broken. He had reached the point of
recognizing that some reform was needed, but he could not persuade his
colleagues of this. In the meantime the House of Commons passed a
resolution of confidence in the Grey administration. Such determined
opposition being shown not only in Parliament but by the people in various
ways, Wellington felt his only course was resignation. William IV had,
much to his chagrin, to recall Grey, but he escaped the necessity of
creating a large number of peers, by asking the opposition in the House of
Lords to withdraw their resistance to the bill. The Duke of Wellington and
others thereupon absented themselves, and finding further obstruction was
useless, the Lords at last passed the bill and it became law in June,

This national crisis through which Browning had lived could not fail to
have made its impression on him. It is certainly an indication of the
depth of his interest in the growth of liberalism that his first English
subject, written only a few years subsequent to this momentous change in
governmental methods, should have dealt with a period whose analysis and
interpretation in dramatic form gave him every opportunity for the
expression of his sympathy with liberal ideals. Broad-minded in his
interpretation of Strafford's career, in love with his qualities of
loyalty, and his capabilities of genuine affection for the vacillating
Charles, he made Strafford the hero of his play, but it is Pym whom, in
his play, he has exalted as the nation's hero, and into whose mouth he has
put one of the greatest and most intensely pathetic speeches ever uttered
by an Englishman. It is when he confronts Strafford at the last:

  "Have I done well? Speak, England! Whose sole sake
  I still have labored for, with disregard
  To my own heart,--for whom my youth was made
  Barren, my manhood waste, to offer up
  Her sacrifice--this friend--this Wentworth here--
  Who walked in youth with me, loved me, it may be,
  And whom, for his forsaking England's cause,
  I hunted by all means (trusting that she
  Would sanctify all means) even to the block
  Which waits for him. And saying this, I feel
  No bitterer pang than first I felt, the hour
  I swore that Wentworth might leave us, but I
  Would never leave him: I do leave him now.
  I render up my charge (be witness, God!)
  To England who imposed it. I have done
  Her bidding--poorly, wrongly,--it may be,
  With ill effects--for I am weak, a man:
  Still, I have done my best, my human best,
  Not faltering for a moment. It is done.
  And this said, if I say ... yes, I will say
  I never loved but one man--David not
  More Jonathan! Even thus I love him now:
  And look for that chief portion in that world
  Where great hearts led astray are turned again,
  (Soon it may be, and, certes, will be soon:
  My mission over, I shall not live long)--
  Ay, here I know and talk--I dare and must,
  Of England, and her great reward, as all
  I look for there; but in my inmost heart,
  Believe, I think of stealing quite away
  To walk once more with Wentworth--my youth's friend
  Purged from all error, gloriously renewed,
  And Eliot shall not blame us. Then indeed ...
  This is no meeting, Wentworth! Tears increase
  Too hot. A thin mist--is it blood?--enwraps
  The face I loved once. Then, the meeting be."

At the same time that Browning was writing "Strafford," he was also
engaged upon "Sordello." In that he has given expression to his democratic
philosophy through his construction and interpretation of Sordello's
character as a champion of the people as well as a poet who ushered in the
dawn of the Italian literary Renaissance. As he made Paracelsus develop
from a dependence upon knowledge as his sole guide in his philosophy of
life into a perception of the place emotion must hold in any satisfactory
theory of life, and put into his mouth a modern conception of evolution
illuminated by his own artistic emotion, so he makes Sordello develop from
the individualistic type to the socialist type of man, who is bent upon
raising the masses of the people to higher conditions. The ideal of
liberal forms of government was even in Sordello's time a growing one,
sifting into Italy from Greek precedents, but Browning's Sordello sees
something beyond either political or ecclesiastical espousal of the
people's cause--namely, the espousal of the people's cause by the people
themselves, the arrival of the self-governing democracy, an ideal much
nearer attainment now than when Browning was writing:

  "Two parties take the world up, and allow
  No third, yet have one principle, subsist
  By the same injustice; whoso shall enlist
  With either, ranks with man's inveterate foes.
  So there is one less quarrel to compose
  The Guelf, the Ghibelline may be to curse--
  I have done nothing, but both sides do worse
  Than nothing. Nay, to me, forgotten, reft
  Of insight, lapped by trees and flowers, was left
  The notion of a service--ha? What lured
  Me here, what mighty aim was I assured
  Must move Taurello? What if there remained
  A cause, intact, distinct from these, ordained
  For me its true discoverer?"

The mood here portrayed was one which might have been fostered in Browning
in relation to his own time. He doubtless felt that neither the
progressive movements in the state nor those in religion really touched
upon the true principles of freedom for the individual. He might not have
defined these principles to himself any more definitely than as a desire
for the greatest happiness of the whole number. And even of such an ideal
as that he had his doubts because of the necessity of his mind to find a
logical use for evil in the world. This he could only do by supposing it a
divine means for the development of the human soul in its sojourn in this
life. Speaking in his own person in "Sordello," he gives expression to
this doubt in the following passage in the third book:

                          "I ask youth and strength
  And health for each of you, not more--at length
  Grown wise, who asked at home that the whole race
  Might add the spirit's to the body's grace,
  And all be dizened out as chiefs and bards.

    *       *       *       *       *

              "----As good you sought
  To spare me the Piazza's slippery stone
  Or keep me to the unchoked canals alone,
  As hinder Life the evil with the good
  Which make up Living rightly understood."

Still, though vague as to what the good for the whole people might be,
there was no vagueness in his mind as to the people's right to possess the
power to bring about their own happiness. Yet given the right principles,
he would not have the attempt made to put them into practice all at once.

His final attitude toward the problem of the best methods for bettering
human conditions in the poem is, strictly speaking, that of the
opportunist working a step toward his ideal rather than that of the
revolutionist who would gain it by one leap. Sordello should realize that

  "God has conceded two lights to a man--
  One, of men's whole work, man's first
  Step to the plan's completeness."

Man's part is to take this first step, leaving the ultimate ideal to be
worked out, as time goes, on by successive men. To reach at one bound the
ideal would be to regard one's self as a god. Some such theory of action
as this is the one which guides the Fabian socialist working in England
to-day. Nothing is to be done to subvert the present order of society, but
every opportunity is to be made the most of which will tend to the
betterment of the conditions of the masses, until by degrees the
socialist régime will become possible. Sordello was too much of the
idealist to seize the opportunity when it came to him of helping the
people by means of the Ghibelline power suddenly conferred upon him, and
so he failed.

This opportunist doctrine is one especially congenial to the English
temperament and certainly has its practical advantages, if it is not so
inspiring as the headlong idealism of a Pym, which just as surely has its
disadvantages in the danger that the ideal will be ahead of humanity's
power of seizing it and living it, and will therefore run the risk of
being overturned by a reaction to the low plane of the past; especially
does this danger become apparent when the way to the attainment of the
ideal is paved with violence.

While Browning was writing "Sordello," the preparation of which included a
short trip to Italy, the Chartist agitation was going on in England. It
may well, at that time, have been considered to demand an ideal beyond
possibility of attainment, which was proved by its final utter
annihilation. The workingmen's association led by Mr. Duncombe was
responsible for a program in the form of a parliamentary petition which
asked for six things. These were: universal suffrage, or the right of
voting by every male of twenty-one years of age; vote by ballot; annual
Parliaments; abolition of the property qualification for members of
Parliament; members of Parliament to be paid for their services; equal
electoral districts.

There were two sorts of Chartists, moral-force Chartists and
physical-force Chartists, the latter of whom did as much damage as
possible in the agitation.

The combined forces were led by Feargus O'Connor, an Irish barrister, who
madly spent his force and energy for ten years in carrying forward the
movement, and, at last, confronted by disagreement in the ranks of the
Chartists and the Duke of Wellington and his troops, gave it up in
despair. He was a martyr to the cause, for he took its failure so much to
heart that he ended his days in a lunatic asylum.

This final failure came many years after "Sordello" was finished, but the
poet's conclusions in "Sordello" seem almost prophetic in the light of the
passage in the poem already quoted, in which the poet declares himself
grown wiser than he was at home, where he had asked the utmost for all
men, and now realized that this cannot be attained in one leap.

Agitation about the relations between England and Ireland were also
filling public attention at this time, but most important of all the
contemporary movements was the League for the Repeal of the Corn Laws. The
story of the growth and the peaceful methods by which it attained its
growth is one of the most interesting in the annals of England's political
development. It meant the adoption of the great principle of free trade,
to which England has since adhered. For eight years the agitation in
regard to it was continued, during which great meetings were held,
thousands of pounds were subscribed to the cause, and the names of Sir
Richard Cobden and John Bright became famous as leaders in the righteous
cause of untaxed food for the people. John Bright's account of how he
became interested in the movement and associated himself with Cobden in
the work, told in a speech made at Rochdale, gives a vivid picture of the
human side of the problem which by the conservatives of the day was
treated as a merely political issue:

    "In the year 1841 I was at Leamington and spent several months there.
    It was near the middle of September there fell upon me one of the
    heaviest blows that can visit any man. I found myself living there
    with none living of my house but a motherless child. Mr. Cobden
    called upon me the day after that event, so terrible to me and so
    prostrating. He said, after some conversation, 'Don't allow this
    grief, great as it is, to weigh you down too much. There are at this
    moment in thousands of homes in this country wives and children who
    are dying of hunger--of hunger made by the law. If you come along with
    me, we will never rest till we have got rid of the Corn Law.' We saw
    the colossal injustice which cast its shadow over every part of the
    nation, and we thought we saw the true remedy and the relief, and that
    if we united our efforts, as you know we did, with the efforts of
    hundreds and thousands of good men in various parts of the country, we
    should be able to bring that remedy home, and to afford that relief to
    the starving people of this country."

The movement thus inaugurated was, as Molesworth declares, "without
parallel in the history of the world for the energy with which it was
conducted, the rapid advance it made, and the speedy and complete success
that crowned its efforts; for the great change it wrought in public
opinion and the consequent legislation of the country; overcoming
prejudice and passion, dispelling ignorance and conquering powerful
interests, with no other weapons than those of reason and that eloquence
which great truths and strong conviction inspire."

A signal victory for the League was gained in 1843, when the London
_Times_, which up to that time had regarded the League with suspicion
and even alarm, suddenly turned round and ranged itself with the advancing
tide of progress by declaring, "The League is a great fact. It would be
foolish, nay, rash, to deny its importance. It is a great fact that there
should have been created in the homestead of our manufacturers
(Manchester) a confederacy devoted to the agitation of one political
question, persevering at it year after year, shrinking from no trouble,
dismayed at no danger, making light of every obstacle. It demonstrates the
hardy strength of purpose, the indomitable will, by which Englishmen
working together for a great object are armed and animated."

The final victory, however, did not come until three years later, when Sir
Robert Peel, who became Prime Minister to defend the Corn Laws, announced
that he had been completely convinced of their injustice, and that he was
an "absolute convert to the free-trade principle, and that the
introduction of the principle into all departments of our commercial
legislation was, according to his intention, to be a mere question of time
and convenience." This was in January, 1845, and shortly after, June,
1846, the bill for the total repeal of the Corn Laws passed the House.

How much longer it might have been before the opposition was carried is a
question if it had not been for the failure of the grain crops and the
widespread potato disease which plunged Ireland into a state of famine,
and threatened the whole country with more or less of disaster.

Even when this state of affairs became apparent in the summer of 1845
there was still much delay. The Cabinet met and discussed and discussed;
still Parliament was not assembled; and then it was that the Mansion House
Relief Committee of Dublin drew up resolutions stating that famine and
pestilence were approaching throughout the land, and impeaching the
conduct of the Ministry for not opening the ports or calling Parliament

But still Peel, already won over, could not take his Cabinet with him; he
was forced to resign. Lord John Russell was called to form a ministry, but
failed, when Peel was recalled, and the day was carried.

Browning's brief but pertinent allusion to this struggle in "The
Englishman in Italy" shows clearly how strongly his sympathies were with
the League and how disgusted he was with the procrastination of Parliament
in taking a perfectly obvious step for the betterment of the people.

  "Fortnu, in my England at home,
  Men meet gravely to-day
  And debate, if abolishing Corn laws
  Be righteous and wise
  If 'twere proper, Scirocco should vanish
  In black from the skies!"

An occasional allusion or poem like this makes us aware from time to time
of Browning's constant sympathy with any movement which meant good to the
masses. Even if he had not written near the end of his life "Why I am a
Liberal," there could be no doubt in any one's mind of his political
ideals. In "The Lost Leader" is perhaps his strongest utterance upon the
subject. The fact that it was called out by Wordsworth's lapse into
conservatism after the horrors of the French Revolution had brought him
and his _sans culotte_ brethren, Southey and Coleridge, to pause, a fact
very possibly freshened in Browning's mind by Wordsworth's receiving a
pension in 1842 and the poet-laureateship in 1843, does not affect the
force of the poem as a personal utterance on the side of democracy.
Browning, himself, considered the poem far too fierce as a portrayal of
Wordsworth's case.[2] He evidently forgot Wordsworth, and thought only of
a renegade liberal as he went on with the poem. It was written the same
year that there occurred the last attempt to postpone the passing of the
Anti-Corn Law Bill, when the intensity of feeling on the part of all who
believed in progress was at its height, and the bare thought of a deserter
from Liberal ranks would be enough to exasperate any man who had the
nation's welfare at heart. That Browning's feeling at the time reached the
point not only of exasperation but of utmost scorn for any one who was not
on the liberal side is shown most forcibly in the bitter lines:

  "Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
    One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
  One more devil's triumph and sorrow for angels,
    One more wrong to man, one more insult to God!"

Browning speaks of having thought of Wordsworth at an unlucky juncture.

Whatever the exact episode which called forth the poem may have been, we
are safe in saying that at a time when Disraeli was attacking Sir Robert
Peel because of his honesty in avowing his conversion to free trade, and
because of his bravery in coming out from his party, in breaking up his
cabinet and regardless of all costs in determining to carry the bill or
resign, and finally carrying it in the face of the greatest odds--at
such a time, when a great conservative leader had shown himself capable of
being won over to a great liberal principle; the spectacle of a deserter
from the cause, and that deserter a member of one's own brotherhood of
poets, would be especially hard to bear.

One feels a little like asking why did not Browning let his enthusiasm
carry him for once into a contemporary expression of admiration for Sir
Robert Peel? Perhaps the tortuous windings of parliamentary proceedings
obscured to a near view the true greatness of Peel's action.

The year of this great change in England's policy was the year of Robert
Browning's marriage and his departure for Italy, where he lived for
fifteen years. During this time and for some years after his return to
England there is no sign that he was taking any interest in the political
affairs of his country. Human character under romantic conditions in a
social environment, or the thought problems of the age, as we have already
seen, occupied his attention, and for the subject matter of these he more
often than not went far afield from his native country.

In "Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau" is the poet's first deliberate portrayal
of a person of contemporary prominence in the political world. The
alliance of Napoleon III with England brought his policy of government
into strong contrast with that of the liberal leaders in English politics,
a contrast which had been emphasized through Lord Palmerston's sympathy
with the _coup d'état_.

The news of the manner in which Louis Napoleon had carried out his policy
of smashing the French constitution caused horror and consternation in
England, and the Queen at once gave instructions that nothing should be
done by her ambassador in Paris which could be in any way construed as an
interference in the internal affairs of France. Already, however, Lord
Palmerston had expressed to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs his
entire approbation in the act of Napoleon and his conviction that he could
not have acted otherwise than as he had done. When this was known, the
Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, wrote Palmerston a letter, causing his
resignation, which was accepted very willingly by the Queen. The letter
was as follows:

    "While I concur in the foreign policy of which you have been the
    adviser, and much as I admire the energy and ability with which it has
    been carried into effect, I cannot but observe that misunderstandings
    perpetually renewed, violations of prudence and decorum too
    frequently repeated, have marred the effects which ought to have
    followed from a sound policy and able admirers. I am, therefore, most
    reluctantly compelled to come to the conclusion that the conduct of
    foreign affairs can no longer be left in your hands with advantage to
    the country."

When England's fears that Louis Napoleon would emulate his illustrious
predecessor and invade her shores were allayed, her attitude was modified.
She forgot the horrors of the _coup d'état_ and formed an alliance with
him, and her hospitable island became his refuge in his downfall.

A prominent figure in European politics for many years, Louis Napoleon had
just that combination of greatness and mediocrity which would appeal to
Browning's love of a human problem. Furthermore, Napoleon was brought very
directly to the poet's notice through his Italian campaign and Mrs.
Browning's interest in the political crisis in Italy, which found
expression in her fine group of Italian patriotic poems.

The question has been asked, "Will the unbiased judgment of posterity
allow to Louis Napoleon some extenuating circumstances, or will it
pronounce an unqualified condemnation upon the man who, for the sake of
consolidating his own power and strengthening his corrupt government,
spilled the blood of no less than a hundred thousand Frenchmen?"

When all Europe was putting to itself some such question as this, and
answering it with varying degrees of leniency, Browning conceived the idea
of making Napoleon speak for himself, and at the same time he added what
purports to be the sort of criticism of him indulged in by a Thiers or a
Victor Hugo. The interest of the poem centers in Napoleon's own
vindication of himself as portrayed by Browning. What Browning wrote of
the poem in a letter to a friend in 1872 explains fully his aim, as well
as showing by indirection, at least, how much he was interested in
political affairs at this time, though so little of this interest crops
out in his poetry: "I think in the main he meant to do what I say, and but
for weakness--grown more apparent in his last years than formerly--would
have done what I say he did not. I thought badly of him at the beginning
of his career, _et pour cause_; better afterward, on the strength of the
promises he made and gave indications of intending to redeem. I think him
very weak in the last miserable year. At his worst I prefer him to
Thiers's best." At another time he wrote: "I am glad you like what the
editor of the _Edinburgh_ calls my eulogium on the Second Empire, which it
is not, any more than what another wiseacre affirms it to be, 'a
scandalous attack on the old constant friend of England.' It is just what
I imagine the man might, if he pleased, say for himself."

Browning depicts the man as perfectly conscious of his own limitations. He
recognizes that he is not the genius, nor the creator of a new order of
things, but that his power lies in his faculty of taking an old ideal and
improving upon it. He contends that in following out his special gifts as
a conservator he is doing just what God intended him to do, and as to his
method of doing it that is his own affair. God gives him the commission
and leaves it to his human faculties to carry it out, not inquiring what
these are, but simply asking at the end if the commission has been

Once admit these two things--namely, that his nature, though not of the
highest, is such as God gave him, and his lack of responsibility in regard
to any moral ideal, so that he accomplishes the purpose of this
nature--and a loophole is given for any inconsistencies he may choose to
indulge in in bringing about that strengthening of an old ideal in which
he believes. The old ideal is, of course, the monarchical principle of
government, administered, however, in such a manner that it will be for
the good of society in all its complex manifestations of to-day. His
notion of society's good consists in a balancing of all its forces,
secured by the smoothing down of any extreme tendencies, each having its
orbit marked but no more, so that none shall impede the other's path.

  "In this wide world--though each and all alike,
  Save for [him] fain would spread itself through space
  And leave its fellow not an inch of way."

Browning makes him indulge in a curiously sophisticated view of the
relativity of good and evil in the course of his argument, to the effect
that since there is a further good conceivable beyond the utmost earth can
realize, therefore to change the agency--the evil whereby good is brought
about, try to make good do good as evil does--would be just as foolish as
if a chemist wanting white and knowing that black ingredients were needed
to make the dye insisted these should be white, too. A bad world is that
which he experiences and approves. A good world he does not want in which
there would be no pity, courage, hope, fear, sorrow, joy--devotedness, in
short--which he believes form the ultimate allowed to man; therefore it
has been his policy not to do away with the evil in the society he is
saving. To mitigate, not to cure, has been his aim.

Browning would, himself, answer the sophistry, here, by showing that evil
though permitted by divine power was only a means of good through man's
working against whatever he conceives to be evil with the whole strength
of his being. To deliberately follow the policy of conserving evil would
be in the end to annihilate the good. Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau could
not see so far as this.

It is not astonishing that with such a policy as this his methods of
carrying it out might seem somewhat dubious if not positively criminal.
His departure from his early idealism is excused for the reason that
idealism is not practicable when the region of talk is left for the real
action of life. Every step in his own aggrandizement is apologized for on
the ground that what needed to be accomplished could only be done by a
strong hand and that strong hand his own. He was in fact an unprincipled
utilitarian as Browning presents him, who spoiled even what virtue resides
in utilitarianism by letting his care for saving society be too much
influenced by his desire for personal glory. One ideal undertaking he
permitted himself, the freeing of Italy from the Austrian yoke. But he was
not strong enough for any such high flight of idealism, as the sequel

Browning does not bring out in the poem the Emperor's real reasons for
stopping short in the Italian campaign, which certainly were sufficient
from a practical standpoint, but as Archibald Forbes says in his "Life of
Napoleon," should have been thought of before he published his program of
freedom to Italy "from the Alps to the Adriatic." "Even when he addressed
the Italians at Milan," continues Forbes, "the new light had not broken in
upon him which revealed the strength of the quadrilateral, the cost of
expelling the Austrians from Venetia, and the conviction that further
French successes would certainly bring mobilized Germany into the field.
That new light seems to have flashed upon Napoleon for the first time from
the stern Austrian ranks on the day of Solferino. It was then he realized
that should he go forward he would be obliged to attack in front an enemy
entrenched behind great fortresses, and protected against any diversion on
his flanks by the neutrality of the territories surrounding him."

Mrs. Browning, whose consternation and grief over Villafranca broke out in
burning verse, yet made a defence of Napoleon's action here which might
have been worked into Browning's poem with advantage. She wrote to John
Foster that while Napoleon's intervention in Italy overwhelmed her with
joy it did not dazzle her into doubts as to the motive of it, "but
satisfied a patient expectation and fulfilled a logical inference. Thus it
did not present itself to my mind as a caprice of power, to be followed
perhaps by an onslaught on Belgium and an invasion of England. Have we not
watched for a year while every saddle of iniquity has been tried on the
Napoleonic back, and nothing fitted? Wasn't he to crush Piedmontese
institutions like so many eggshells? Was he ever going away with his army,
and hadn't he occupied houses in Genoa with an intention of bombarding the
city? Didn't he keep troops in the north after Villafranca on purpose to
come down on us with a grand duke or a Kingdom of Etruria and Plon-Plon to
rule it? And wouldn't he give back Bologna to the Pope?... Were not
Cipriani, Farini and other patriots his 'mere creatures' in treacherous
correspondence with the Tuileries 'doing his dirty work'?" Of such
accusations as these the intelligent English journals were full, but she
maintains that against "The Inane and Immense Absurd" from which they were
born is to be set "a nation saved." She realized also how hard Napoleon's
position in France must be to maintain "forty thousand priests with
bishops of the color of Monseigneur d'Orleans and company, having, of
course, a certain hold on the agricultural population which forms so large
a part of the basis of the imperial throne. Then add to that the parties
who use this Italian question as a weapon simply."

Many of Napoleon's own statements have furnished Browning with the
arguments used in the apology. After deliberately destroying the
constitution, for example, and himself being the cause of the violence and
bloodshed in Paris, he coolly addressed the people in the following
strain, in which we certainly recognize Hohenstiel-Schwangau:

"Frenchmen! the disturbances are appeased. Whatever may be the decision of
the people, society is saved. The first part of my task is accomplished.
The appeal to the nation, for the purpose of terminating the struggle of
parties, I knew would not cause any serious risk to the public
tranquillity. Why should the people have risen against me? If I do not
any longer possess your confidence--if your ideas are changed--there is no
occasion to make precious blood flow; it will be sufficient to place an
adverse vote in the urn. I shall always respect the decision of the

His cleverness in combining the idea of authority with that of the idea of
obeying the will of the people is curiously illustrated in his speech at
the close of his dictatorship, during which it must be confessed that he
had done excellently well for the country--so well, indeed, that even the
socialists were ready to cry "_Vive l'Empereur!_"

    "While watching me reëstablish the institutions and reawaken the
    memories of the Empire, people have repeated again and again that I
    wished to reconstitute the Empire itself. If this had been so the
    transformation would have been accomplished long ago; neither the
    means nor the opportunities would have been lacking.... But I have
    remained content with that I had. Resolved now, as heretofore, to do
    all in my power for France and nothing for myself, I would accept any
    modification of the present state of things only if forced by
    necessity.... If parties remain quiet, nothing shall be changed. But
    if they endeavor to sap the foundations of my government; if they deny
    the legitimacy of the result of the popular vote; if, in short, they
    continually put the future of the country in jeopardy, then, but only
    then, it might be prudent to ask the people for a new title which
    would irrevocably fix on my head the power with which they have
    already clothed me. But let us not anticipate difficulties; let us
    preserve the Republic. Under its banner I am anxious to inaugurate
    once more an epoch of reconciliation and pardon; and I call on all
    without distinction who will frankly coöperate with me for the public

In contrast to such fair-sounding phrases Napoleon was capable of the most
dishonorable tactics in order to gain his ends. Witness the episode of his
tempting Bismarck with offers of an alliance against Austria at the same
time that he was treating secretly with Francis Joseph for the cession of
Venetia in return for Silesia. And while negotiating secretly and
separately with these two sworn enemies, he pretended to be so
disinterested as to suggest the submission of their quarrel to a European

Browning has certainly presented a good portrait of the man as the history
of his own utterances contrasted with the history of his actions proves.
In trying to bridge with this apology the discrepancies between the two he
has, however, attributed to Louis Napoleon a degree of self-consciousness
beyond any ever evinced by him. The principle of imperialism was a
conviction with him. That he desired to help the people of France and to a
great extent succeeded, is true; that he combined with this desire the
desire of power for himself is true; that he used unscrupulous means to
gain whatever end he desired when such were necessary is true; but that he
was conscious of his own despicable traits to the extent that the poet
makes him conscious of them is most unlikely. Nor is it likely that he
would defend himself upon any such subtle ground as that his character and
temperament being the gift of God he was bound to follow out his nature in
order that God's purposes might be accomplished. It is rather an
explanation of his life from the philosopher's or psychologist's
standpoint than a self-conscious revelation. It is none the less
interesting on this account, while the scene setting gives it a thoroughly
human and dramatic touch.

Whatever may be said of Napoleon himself, his rule was fraught with
consequences of import for the whole of Europe, not because of what he
was, but because of what he was not. He was an object lesson on the
fallacy of trying to govern so that all parties will be pleased by
autocratically keeping each one from fully expressing itself. The result
is that each grows more aware of the suppression than of the amount of
freedom allowed to it, and nobody is pleased. When added to such a policy
as this is the surmounting desire for power and the Machiavellian
determination to attain it by any means, fair or foul, a principle of
statecraft which by the middle of the century could not be practised in
its most acute form without arousing the most severe criticism, his power
carried within it the seeds of destruction.

It has been said that "never in the history of the world has one man
undertaken a task more utterly beyond the power of mortal man than that
which Louis Napoleon was pledged to carry through." He professed to be at
one and the same time the elect sovereign of the people, a son of the
revolution, a champion of universal suffrage, and an adversary of the
demagogues. In the first of these characters he was bound to justify his
elevation by economic and social reforms, in his second character he had
to destroy the last trace of political liberty. He had, in fact, assumed
various utterly incompatible attitudes, and the day that the masses found
themselves deceived in their expectations, and the middle classes found
their interests were betrayed, reaction was inevitable.


In spite of his heinous faults, however, historians have grown more and
more inclined to admit that Napoleon filled for a time a necessary niche
in the line of progress, just that step which Browning makes him say
the genius will recognize that he fills--namely, to

  "Carry the incompleteness on a stage,
  Make what was crooked straight, and roughness smooth,
  And weakness strong: wherein if I succeed,
  It will not prove the worst achievement, sure
  In the eyes at least of one man, one I look
  Nowise to catch in critic company:
  To-wit, the man inspired, the genius, self
  Destined to come and change things thoroughly.
  He, at least, finds his business simplified,
  Distinguishes the done from undone, reads
  Plainly what meant and did not mean this time
  We live in, and I work on, and transmit
  To such successor: he will operate
  On good hard substance, not mere shade and shine."

That is, at a time when Europe was seething with the idea of a new order,
in which the ideal of nationality was to take the place of such decaying
ideas as the divine right of kings, balance of power, and so on, Napoleon
held on to these ideas just long enough to prevent a general
disintegration of society. He held in his hands the balance of power until
the nations began to find themselves, and in the case of Italy actually
helped on the triumph of the new order.

It is interesting to note in this connection that one of the principal
factors in the making of Gladstone into the stanch liberal which he
became was the freeing of Italy, in which Napoleon had so large a share.
Gladstone himself wrote in 1892 of the events which occurred in the fifth
decade: "Of the various and important incidents which associated me almost
unawares with foreign affairs ... I will only say that they all
contributed to forward the action of those home causes more continuous in
their operation, which, without in any way effacing my old sense of
reverence for the past, determined for me my place in the present and my
direction toward the future." In 1859 Gladstone dined with Cavour at
Turin, when the latter had the opportunity of explaining his position and
policy to the man whom he considered "one of the sincerest and most
important friends that Italy had." But as his biographer says, Gladstone
was still far from the glorified democracy of the Mazzinian propaganda,
and expressed his opinion that England should take the stand that she
would be glad if Italian unity proved feasible, "but the conditions of it
must be gradually matured by a course of improvement in the several
states, and by the political education of the people; if it cannot be
reached by these means, it hardly will by any others; and certainly not by
opinions which closely link Italian reconstruction with European
disorganization and general war." Yet he was as distressed as Mrs.
Browning at the peace of Villafranca, about which he wrote: "I little
thought to have lived to see the day when the conclusion of a peace should
in my own mind cause disgust rather than impart relief." By the end of the
year he thought better of Napoleon and expressed himself again somewhat in
the same strain as Mrs. Browning, to the effect that the Emperor had
shown, "though partial and inconsistent, indications of a genuine feeling
for the Italians--and far beyond this he has committed himself very
considerably to the Italian cause in the face of the world. When in reply
to all that, we fling in his face the truce of Villafranca, he may
reply--and the answer is not without force--that he stood single-handed in
a cause when any moment Europe might have stood combined against him. We
gave him verbal sympathy and encouragement, or at least criticism; no one
else gave him anything at all. No doubt he showed then that he had
undertaken a work to which his powers were unequal; but I do not think
that, when fairly judged, he can be said to have given proof by that
measure of insincerity or indifference."

Gladstone's gradual and forceful emancipation into the ranks of the
liberals may be followed in the fascinating pages of Morley's "Life," who
at the end declares that his performances in the sphere of active
government were beyond comparison. Gladstone's own summary of his career
gives a glimpse of what these performances were as well as an
interpretation of the century and England's future growth which indicate
that had he had another twenty years in which to progress, perhaps fewer,
he would beyond all doubt have become an out and out social democrat.

    "The public aspect of the period which closes for me with the fourteen
    years (so I love to reckon them) of my formal connection with
    Midlothian is too important to pass without a word. I consider it as
    beginning with the Reform Act of Lord Grey's government. That great
    act was for England, improvement and extension: for Scotland it was
    political birth, the beginning of a duty and a power, neither of which
    had attached to the Scottish nation in the preceding period. I rejoice
    to think how the solemnity of that duty has been recognized, and how
    that power has been used. The threescore years offer as the pictures
    of what the historian will recognize as a great legislative and
    administrative period--perhaps, on the whole, the greatest in our
    annals. It has been predominantly a history of emancipation--that is,
    of enabling man to do his work of emancipation, political, economical,
    social, moral, intellectual. Not numerous merely, but almost
    numberless, have been the causes brought to issue, and in every one of
    them I rejoice to think that, so far as my knowledge goes, Scotland
    has done battle for the right.

    "Another period has opened and is opening still--a period possibly of
    yet greater moral dangers, certainly a great ordeal for those classes
    which are now becoming largely conscious of power, and never
    heretofore subject to its deteriorating influences. These have been
    confined in their actions to the classes above them, because they were
    its sole possessors. Now is the time for the true friend of his
    country to remind the masses that their present political elevation is
    owing to no principles less broad and noble than these--the love of
    liberty, of liberty for all without distinction of class, creed or
    country, _and the resolute preference of the interests of the whole_
    to any interest, be it what it may, of a narrower scope."

Mr. Gladstone entered Parliament at twenty-three, in 1832, and a year
later Browning, at twenty-one, printed his first poem, "Pauline." The
careers of the two men ran nearly parallel, for Browning died in 1889, on
the day of the publication of his last volume of poems, and Gladstone's
retirement from active life took place in 1894, shortly after the defeat
of his second Home Rule Bill. Though there is nothing to show that these
two men came into touch with each other during their life, and while it is
probable that Browning would not have been in sympathy with many of the
aspects of Gladstone's mentality, there is an undercurrent of similarity
in their attitude of mind toward reform. The passage in "Sordello" already
referred to, written in 1840, might be regarded almost as a prophecy of
the sort of leader Gladstone became. I have said of that passage that it
expressed the ideal of the opportunist, not that of the revolutionary.
Opportunist Mr. Gladstone was often called by captious critics, but any
unbiased reader following his career now as a whole will see, as Morley
points out, that whenever there was a chance of getting anything done it
was generally found that he was the only man with courage and resolution
enough to attempt it.

A distinction should be made between that sort of opportunism which
_waits_ upon the growth of conditions favorable to the taking of a short
step in amelioration, and what might be called militant opportunism,
which, at all times, seizes every opportunity to take a step in the
direction of an evolving, all-absorbing ideal. Is not this the opportunism
of both a Browning and a Gladstone? Such a policy at least tacitly
acknowledges that the law of evolution is the law that should be followed,
and that the mass of the people as well as the leader have their share in
the unfolding of the coming ideal, though their part in it may be less
conscious than his and though they may need his leadership to make the
steps by the way clear.

The other political leader of the Victorian era with whom Gladstone came
most constantly into conflict was Disraeli, of whom Browning in "George
Bubb Dodington" has given a sketch in order to draw a contrast between the
unsuccessful policy of a charlatan of the Dodington type and that of one
like Disraeli. The skeptical multitude of to-day cannot be taken in by
declarations that the politician is working only for their good, and if he
frankly acknowledged that he is working also for his own good they would
have none of him. The nice point to be decided is how shall he work for
his own good and yet gain control of the multitude. Dodington did not know
the secret, but according to Browning Disraeli did, and what is the
secret? It seems to be an attitude of absolute self-assurance, a disregard
of consistency, a scorn of the people he is dealing with, and a pose
suggesting the play of supernatural forces in his life.

This is a true enough picture of the real Disraeli, who seems to have had
a leaning toward a belief in spiritualism, and who was notorious for his
unblushing changes of opinion and for a style of oratory in which his
points were made by clever invective and sarcasm hurled at his opponents
instead of by any sound, logical argument, it being, indeed one of his
brilliant discoveries that "wisdom ought to be concealed under folly, and
consistency under caprice."

Many choice bits of history might be given in illustration of Browning's
portrayal of him; for example, speaking against reform, he exclaims:
"Behold the late Prime Minister and the Reform Ministry! The spirited and
snow-white steeds have gradually changed into an equal number of sullen
and obstinate donkeys, while Mr. Merryman, who, like the Lord Chancellor,
was once the very life of the ring, now lies his despairing length in the
middle of the stage, with his jokes exhausted and his bottle empty."

As a specimen of his quickness in retort may be cited an account of an
episode which occurred at the time when he came out as the champion of the
Taunton Blues. In the course of his speech he "enunciated," says an
anonymous writer of the fifties, "one of those daring historical paradoxes
which are so signally characteristic of the man: 'Twenty years ago' said
the Taunton Blue hero, 'tithes were paid in Ireland more regularly than

"Even his supporters appeared astounded by this declaration.

"'How do you know?' shouted an elector.

"'I have read it,' replied Mr. Disraeli.

"'Oh, oh!' exclaimed the elector.

"'I know it,' retorted Disraeli, 'because I have read, and you' (looking
daggers at his questioner) 'have not.'

"This was considered a very happy rejoinder by the friends of the
candidate, and was loudly cheered by the Blues.

"'Didn't you write a novel?' again asked the importunate elector, not very
much frightened even by Mr. Disraeli's oratorical thunder and the
sardonical expression on his face.

"'I have certainly written a novel,' Mr. Disraeli replied; 'but I hope
there is no disgrace in being connected with literature.'

"'You are a curiosity of literature, you are,' said the humorous elector.

"'I hope,' said Mr. Disraeli, with great indignation, 'there is no
disgrace in having written that which has been read by hundreds of
thousands of my fellow-countrymen, and which has been translated into
every European language. I trust that one who is an author by the gift of
nature may be as good a man as one who is Master of the Mint by the gift
of Lord Melbourne.' Great applause then burst forth from the Blues. Mr.
Disraeli continued, 'I am not, however, the puppet of the Duke of
Buckingham, as one newspaper has described me; while a fellow laborer in
the same vineyard designated me the next morning, "the Marleybone
Radical." If there is anything on which I figure myself it is my

"'Oh, oh!' exclaimed many hearers.

"'I am prepared to prove it,' said Mr. Disraeli, with menacing energy. 'I
am prepared to prove it, and always shall be, either in the House of
Commons or on the hustings, considering the satisfactory manner in which I
have been attacked, but I do not think the attack will be repeated.'"

It seems extraordinary that such tactics of bluff could take a man onward
to the supreme place of Prime Minister. Possibly it was just as much owing
to his power to amuse as to any of the causes brought out by Browning. Is
there anything the majority of mankind loves more than a laugh?

The conflicts of Disraeli and Gladstone form one of the most remarkable
episodes of nineteenth-century politics. One is tempted to draw a parallel
between Napoleon III and Disraeli, whose tactics were much the same,
except that Disraeli was backed up by a much keener intellect. Possibly he
held a part in English politics similar to that held by Napoleon in
European politics--that is, he conserved the influences of the past long
enough to make the future more sure of itself. Browning, however,
evidently considered him nothing more than a successful charlatan.

When Browning wrote, "Why I Am a Liberal," in 1885, liberalism in English
politics had reached its climax in the nineteenth century through the
introduction by Mr. Gladstone, then Premier for the third time, of his
Home Rule Bill. The injustices suffered by the Irish people and the
horrible atrocities resulting from these had had their effect upon Mr.
Gladstone and had taken him the last great step in his progress toward
freedom. The meeting at which this bill was introduced has been described
as the greatest legislative assembly of modern times. The House was full
to overflowing, and in a brilliant speech of nearly four hours the veteran
leader held his audience breathless as he unfolded his plans for the
betterment of Irish conditions. We are told that during the debates that
followed there was a remarkable exhibition of feeling--"the passions, the
enthusiasm, the fear, and hope, and fury and exultation, sweeping, now
the surface, now stirring to its depths the great gathering." The bill,
which included, besides the founding of an Irish Parliament in Dublin,
which would have the power to deal with all matters "save the Crown, the
Army and Navy, Foreign and Colonial Policy, Trade, Navigation, Currency,
Imperial Taxation, and the Endowment of Churches," also provided that
Ireland should annually contribute to the English exchequer the sum of

Eloquence, enthusiasm, exultation--all came to naught. The bill did not
even suit the liberals, the bargain from a financial point of view being
regarded as hard. It was defeated in Parliament and fared no better when
an appeal was made to the country, and Mr. Gladstone resigned. In nine
months, however, a general election returned him to office again, and
again he introduced a Home Rule Bill, and though it passed the Commons, it
was overwhelmingly defeated in the House of Lords.

It is pleasant to reflect that in this last act of a noble and brilliant
career spent in the interests of the ever-growing ideals of democracy
Gladstone had the sympathy of Browning, shown by his emphatic expression
of "liberal sentiments" at a momentous crisis, when a speech on the
liberal side even from the mouth of a poet counted for much.

As we have seen, the reflections in Browning's poetry of his interest in
public affairs are comparatively few, yet such glimpses as he has given
prove him, beyond all doubt, to have been a democrat in principle, to have
arrived, in fact, at the beginning of his career at a point beyond that
attained by England's rulers at the end of the century. This far-sighted
vision of his may have been another reason to be added to those mentioned
at the beginning of the chapter why his interest in the practical affairs
of his country did not more often express itself. The wrangling, the
inconsequentialness, the eloquence expended upon mere personal interests
which make up by far the larger proportion of all political agitation, are
irritating to the last degree to a man of vision. His part was that of the
philosopher and artist--to watch and to record in the portrayal of his
many characters the underlying principle of freedom, which was the guiding
star in all his work.



Browning's social ideals revolve about a trinity of values: the value of
love, the value of truth, the value of evil. His ethics are the natural
outgrowth of his mysticism and his idealism, with no touch of the
utilitarianism which has been a distinctive mark of the fabric of English
society during the nineteenth century, nor, on the other hand, of the
hidebound conventionalism which has limited personal freedom in ways
detrimental to just those aspects of social morality it was most anxious
to preserve.

The fact of which Browning seemed more conscious than of any other fact of
his existence, and which, as we have seen, was the very core of his
mysticism, was feeling. Things about which an ordinary man would feel no
emotion at all start in his mind a train of thoughts, ending only in the
perception of divine love. The eating of a palatable fig fills his heart
with such gratefulness to the giver of the fig that immediately he fares
forth upon the way which brings him into the presence of the Prime Giver
from whom all gifts are received. What ecstasy of feeling in the artist
aspiring through his art to the higher regions of Absolute Beauty in "Abt
Vogler" of the poet who loves, aspiring to the divine through his human
love in the epilogue to "Ferishtah's Fancies!" The perception of feeling
was so intense that it became in him exalted and concentrated, incapable
of dissipating itself in ephemeral sentimentalities, and this it is which
gives feeling to Browning its mystical quality, and puts personal love
upon the plane of a veritable revelation.

Though reports have often floated about in regard to his attachments to
other women after Mrs. Browning's death, the fact remains that he did not
marry again, that he wrote the lyrics in "Ferishtah's Fancies," and the
sonnet to Edward Fitzgerald just before his death, and thirty years after
his wife's death. Moreover, in the epilogue to "The Two Poets of Croisic"
he gives a hint of what might be his attitude toward any other women who
may have come into his life, in the application of the tale of the cricket
chirping "love" in the place of the broken string of a poet's lyre--

  "For as victory was nighest,
    While I sang and played,
  With my lyre at lowest, highest,
    Right alike--one string that made
    Love sound soft was snapt in twain,
    Never to be heard again,----

  "Had not a kind cricket fluttered,
    Perched upon the place
  Vacant left, and duly uttered,
    'Love, Love, Love,' when'er the bass
    Asked the treble to atone
    For its somewhat sombre drone."

These rare qualities of constancy, exaltation and aspiration, in love
sublimating it into a spiritual emotion, which was evidently the
distinctive mark of Browning's personality on the emotional side,
furnishes the keynote by which his presentation or solution of the social
problems involved in the relations of men and women is always to be

He had been writing ten years when he essayed his first serious
presentation of what we might to-day call a problem play on an English
subject in "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon." In all of his long poems and in
many of his short ones personal love had been portrayed under various
conditions--between friends or lovers, husband and wife, or father and
son, and in every instance it is a dominating influence in the action, as
we have already seen it to be in "Strafford." Again, in "King Victor and
King Charles" the action centers upon Charles's love for his father, and
is also moulded in many ways by Polyxena's love for her husband, Charles.

But a perception of the possible heights to be obtained by the passion of
romantic love only fully emerges in "Pippa Passes," for example in
Ottima's vision of the reality of her own love, despite her great sin as
contrasted with that of Sebald's, and in Jules's rising above the
conventionally low when he discovers he has been duped, and perceiving in
Phene a purity of soul which no earthly conditions had been able to sully,

  "Who, what is Lutwyche, what Natalia's friends,
  What the whole world except our love--my own,
  Own Phene?...
  I do but break these paltry models up
  To begin art afresh ...
  Some unsuspected isle in the far seas!
  Like a god going through the world there stands
  One mountain for a moment in the dusk,
  Whole brotherhoods of cedars on its brow:
  And you are ever by me while I gaze
  --Are in my arms as now--as now--as now!
  Some unsuspected isle in the far seas!
  Some unsuspected isle in far-off seas!"

Again, in "The Return of the Druses" there is a complicated clash between
the ideal of religious reverence for the incarnation of divinity in Djabal
and human love for him in the soul of Anael, resulting at the end in the
destruction of the idea of Djabal's supernatural divinity, and his
reinstatement perceived by Anael as divine through the complete exaltation
of his human love for Anael.

These examples, however, while they illustrate Browning's attitude toward
human love, are far enough removed from nineteenth-century conditions in
England. In "Pippa," the social conditions of nineteenth-century Italy are
reflected; in "The Druses," the religious conditions of the Druse nation
in the fifteenth century.

In the "Blot in the 'Scutcheon" a situation is developed which comes home
forcibly to the nineteenth-century Englishman despite the fact that the
scene is supposed to be laid in the eighteenth century. The poet's
treatment of the clash between the ideal, cherished by an old and honored
aristocratic family of its own immaculate purity, and the spontaneous,
complete and exalted love of the two young people who in their ecstasy
transcend conventions, illustrates, as perhaps no other situation could,
his reverential attitude upon the subject of love. Gwendolen, the older,
intuitional woman, and Mertoun, the young lover, are the only people in
the play to realize that purity may exist although the social enactments
upon which it is supposed to depend have not been complied with. Tresham
learns it only when he has wounded Mertoun unto death; Mildred never
learns it. The grip of conventional teaching has sunk so deeply into her
nature that she feels her sin unpardonable and only to be atoned for by
death. Mertoun, as he dies, gives expression to the essential purity and
truth of his nature in these words:

                                      "Die along with me,
  Dear Mildred! 'tis so easy, and you'll 'scape
  So much unkindness! Can I lie at rest,
  With rude speech spoken to you, ruder deeds
  Done to you?--heartless men shall have my heart
  And I tied down with grave-clothes and the worm,
  Aware, perhaps, of every blow--O God!--
  Upon those lips--yet of no power to bear
  The felon stripe by stripe! Die Mildred! Leave
  Their honorable world to them! For God
  We're good enough, though the world casts us out."

This is only one of many instances which go to show that Browning's
conception of love might include, on the one hand, a complete freedom
from the trammels imposed upon it by conventional codes of morality, but
on the other, was so real and permanent a sympathy between two souls, and
so absolute a revelation of divine beauty, that its morality far
transcended that of the conventional codes, which under the guise of
lawful alliances permit and even encourage marriages based upon the most
external of attractions, or those entered into for merely social or
commercial reasons. A sin against love seems in Browning's eyes to come
the nearest of all human failings to the unpardonable sin.

It must not be supposed from what has been said that he had any
anarchistic desire to do away with the solemnization of marriage, but his
eyes were wide open to the fact that there might be sin within the
marriage bond, and just as surely that there might be love pure and true
outside of it.

Another illustration of Browning's belief in the existence of a love such
as Shakespeare describes, which looks on tempests and is never shaken, is
given in the "Inn Album." Here, again, the characters are all English, and
the story is based upon an actual occurrence. Such changes as Browning
has made in the story are with the intention of pitting against the
villainy of an aristocratic seducer of the lowest type a bourgeois young
man, who has been in love with the betrayed woman, and who when he finds
out that it was this man, his friend, who had stood between them, does not
swerve from his loyalty and truth to her, and in the end avenges her by
killing the aristocratic villain. The young man is betrothed to a girl he
cares nothing for, the woman has married a man she cares nothing for. All
is of no moment in the presence of a genuine loyal emotion which shows
itself capable of a life of devotion with no thought of reward.

Browning has nowhere translated into more noble action the love of a man
than in the passage where the hero of the story gives himself unselfishly
to the woman who has been so deeply wronged:

                            "Take heart of hers,
  And give her hand of mine with no more heart
  Than now, you see upon this brow I strike!
  What atom of a heart do I retain
  Not all yours? Dear, you know it! Easily
  May she accord me pardon when I place
  My brow beneath her foot, if foot so deign,
  Since uttermost indignity is spared--
  Mere marriage and no love! And all this time
  Not one word to the purpose! Are you free?
  Only wait! only let me serve--deserve
  Where you appoint and how you see the good!
  I have the will--perhaps the power--at least
  Means that have power against the world. Fortune--
  Take my whole life for your experiment!
  If you are bound--in marriage, say--why, still,
  Still, sure, there's something for a friend to do,
  Outside? A mere well-wisher, understand!
  I'll sit, my life long, at your gate, you know,
  Swing it wide open to let you and him
  Pass freely,--and you need not look, much less
  Fling me a '_Thank you!--are you there, old friend?_'
  Don't say that even: I should drop like shot!
  So I feel now, at least: some day, who knows?
  After no end of weeks and months and years
  You might smile! '_I believe you did your best!_'
  And that shall make my heart leap--leap such leap
  As lands the feet in Heaven to wait you there!
  Ah, there's just one thing more! How pale you look!
  Why? Are you angry? If there's after all,
  Worst come to worst--if still there somehow be
  The shame--I said was no shame,--none, I swear!--
  In that case, if my hand and what it holds,--
  My name,--might be your safeguard now,--at once--
  Why, here's the hand--you have the heart."

The genuine lovers in Browning's gallery will occur to every reader of
Browning: lovers who are not deterred by obstacles, like Norbert, lovers
like Miranda, devoted to a woman with a "past"; like the lover in "One Way
of Love," who still can say, "Those who win heaven, blest are they."
Sometimes there is a problem to be solved, sometimes not. Whenever there
is a problem, however, it is solved by Browning on the side of sincerity
and truth, never on the side of convention.

Take, for example, "The Statue and the Bust," which many have considered
to uphold an immoral standard and of which its defenders declare that the
moral point of the story lies not in the fact that the lady and the Duke
wished to elope with each other but that they never had strength enough of
mind to do so. Considering what an entirely conventional and loveless
marriage this of the lady and the Duke evidently was we cannot suppose, in
the light of Browning's solution of similar situations, that he would have
thought it any great crime if the Duke and the lady had eloped, since
there was so genuine an attraction between them. But he does word his
climax, it must be confessed, in a way to leave a loophole of doubt on the
subject for those who do not like to be scandalized by their Browning:
"Let a man contend to the uttermost for his life's set prize, be it what
it will!"

There is a saving grace to be extracted from the last line.

  "--The sin I impute to each frustrate ghost
  Is--the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin,
  Though the end in sight was a vice, I say."

In "The Ring and the Book," the problem is similar to that in the "Inn
Album," except that the villain in the case is the lawful husband. The
lover, Caponsacchi, under different conditions demanding that he shall not
give the slightest expression to his love, rises to a reverential height
which even some of Browning's readers seem to doubt as possible.
Caponsacchi is, however, too much under the spell of Catholic theology to
see the mystical meaning of the love which he acknowledges in his own soul
for Pompilia. In this poem it is Pompilia who is given the divine vision.
If I may resay what I have said in another connection,[3] there is no
moral struggle in Pompilia's short life such as that in Caponsacchi's.
Both were alike in the fact that up to a certain point in their lives
their full consciousness was unawakened: hers slept, through innocence and
ignorance; his, in spite of knowledge, through lack of aspiration. She was
rudely awakened by suffering; he by the sudden revelation of a possible
ideal. Therefore, while for him, conscious of his past failures, a
struggle begins: for her, conscious of no failure in her duty, which she
had always followed according to her light, there simply continues duty
according to the new light. Neither archbishop nor friendly "smiles and
shakes of head" could weaken her conviction that, being estranged in soul
from her husband, her attitude toward him was inevitable. No qualms of
conscience troubled her as to her inalienable right to fly from him. That
she submitted as long as she did was only because no one could be found to
aid her. And how quick and certain her defence of Caponsacchi, threatened
by Guido, when he overtakes them at the Inn! As she thinks over it calmly
afterward, she makes no apology, but justifies her action as the voice of

  "If I sinned so--never obey voice more.
  O, the Just and Terrible, who bids us 'Bear.'
  Not--'Stand by; bear to see my angels bear!'"

The gossip over her flight with Caponsacchi does not trouble her as it
does him. He saved her in her great need; the supposition that their
motives for flight had any taint of impurity in them is too puerile to be
given a thought, yet with the same sublime certainty of the right,
characteristic of her, she acknowledges, at the end, her love for
Caponsacchi, and looks for its fulfilment in the future when marriage
shall be an interpenetration of souls that know themselves into one.
Having attained so great a good she can wish none of the evil she has
suffered undone. She goes a step farther. Not only does she accept her own
suffering for the sake of the final supreme good to herself, but she feels
assured that good will fall at last to those who worked the evil.

In her absolute certainty of her realization of an unexpressed love in a
future existence, she is only equaled in Browning's poetry by the speaker
in "Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead."

That Browning's belief in the mystical quality of personal love never
changed is shown by the fact that near the end of his life, in the
"Parleying" with Daniel Bartoli, he treats a love romance based upon fact
in a way to emphasize this same truth which so constantly appears in his
earlier work. The lady in this case, who is of the people, having been
offered a bribe by the King which will mean the dishonoring of herself and
her husband, and which if she does not accept will mean her complete
separation from her husband, instantly decides against the bribe. She
prefers love in spirit in a convent to the accepting of the King's
promise that she will be made much of in court if she will sign a paper
agreeing that her husband shall at once cede his dukedoms to the King. She
explains her attitude to the Duke, who hesitates in his decision,
whereupon she leaves and saves his honor for him, but his inability to
decide at once upon the higher ground of spiritual love reveals to her the
inadequacy of his love as compared with her own and kills her love for
him. She later, however, marries a man who was only a boy of ten at the
time of this episode, and their life together was a dream of happiness.
But she dies and the devoted husband becomes a man of the world again. The
Duke, however, has a streak of genuineness in his nature after all.
Although carried away by the charms of a bold, black-eyed, tall creature,
a development in keeping with the nature of the Duke in the true story,
Browning is equal to the occasion, and makes him declare that the real man
in him is dead and is still faithful to the old love. All she has is his
ghost. Some day his soul will again be called into life by his ideal love.

The poet frequently expresses a doubt of man's power to be faithful to the
letter in case of a wife's death. "Any wife to any husband" reveals that
feeling as it comes to a woman. The poet's answer to this doubt is
invariably, that where the love was true other attraction is a makeshift
by which a desolate life is made tolerable, or, as in "Fifine at the
Fair," an ephemeral indulgence in pleasure which does not touch the
reality of the spiritual love.

Browning was well aware that the ordinary woman had a stronger sense of
the eternal in love than the ordinary man. In relation to the Duke in the
poem previously mentioned he remarks:

  "One leans to like the duke, too; up we'll patch
  Some sort of saintship for him--not to match
  Hers--but man's best and woman's worst amount
  So nearly to the same thing, that we count
  In man a miracle of faithfulness
  If, while unfaithful somewhat, he lay stress
  On the main fact that love, when love indeed,
  Is wholly solely love from first to last--
  Truth--all the rest a lie."

It may be said that all this is the romantic love about which the poets
have always sung, and has as much existence in real life as the ideal of
disinterested helpfulness to lovelorn damsels sung about in the days of
chivalry. True, others have sung of the exaltation and the immortality of
love, and few have been those who have found it, but nowhere has the
distinctively human side been touched with such reverence as in Browning.
It is not Beatrice translated into a divine personage to be adored by a
worshipping devotee, but a wholly human woman who loves and is loved, who
touches divinity in Browning's mind. Human love is then not an impossible
ideal of which he writes in poetic language existing only in the realm of
fancy; it is a living religion, bringing those who love nearer to God
through the exaltation of their feeling than any other revelation of the
human soul. Other states of consciousness reveal to humanity the existence
of the absolute, but this gives a premonition of what divine love may have
in store for the aspiring soul.

In holding to such an ideal of love as this Browning has ranged himself
entirely apart from the main tendencies of thought of the century, on the
relations of men and women, which have, on the one hand, been wholly
conventional, marriage being a contract under the law binding for life
except in cases of definite breaches of conduct, and under the Church of
affection which is binding only for life; and have, on the other hand,
gone extreme lengths in the advocacy of entire freedom in the relations
of the sexes. The first degrades love by making it too much a matter of
law, the second by making it an ephemeral passion from which almost
everything truly beautiful in the relationship of two human beings is, of
necessity, eliminated.

To either of these extreme factions Browning's attitude is equally
incomprehensible. The first cries out against his liberalness, the second,
declaring that human emotion should be untrammeled by either Church, law
or God, would find him a pernicious influence against freedom; there are,
however, many shades of opinion between the two extremes which would feel
sympathy with his ideals in one or more directions.

The chief difficulty in the acceptance of the ideal for most people is
that they have not yet developed to the plane where feeling comes to them
with the intensity, the concentration, the depth or the constancy that
brings with it the sense of revelation. For many people law or the Church
is absolutely necessary to preserve such feeling as they are capable of
from dissipating itself in shallow sentimentalism; while one or the other
will always be necessary in some form because love has its social as well
as its personal aspect.

Yet the law and the Church should both allow sufficient freedom for the
breaking of relations from which all sincerity has departed, even though
humanity as a whole has not yet and probably will not for many ages arrive
at Browning's conception of human love.

Truth to one's own highest vision in love being a cardinal principle with
Browning, it follows that truth to one's nature in any direction is
desirable. He even carries this doctrine of truth to the individual nature
so far as to base upon it an apology for the most unmitigated villain he
has portrayed, Guido, and to put this apology into the mouth of the person
he had most deeply wronged, Pompilia. With exquisite vision she, even, can

  "But where will God be absent! In his face
  Is light, but in his shadow healing too:
  Let Guido touch the shadow and be healed!
  And as my presence was unfortunate,--
  My earthly good, temptation and a snare,--
  Nothing about me but drew somehow down
  His hate upon me,--somewhat so excused
  Therefore, since hate was thus the truth of him,--
  May my evanishment for evermore
  Help further to relieve the heart that cast
  Such object of its natural loathing forth!
  So he was made; he nowise made himself:
  I could not love him, but his mother did."

It is this notion that every nature must express its own truth which
underlies a poem like "Fifine at the Fair." Through expressing the truth
of itself, and so grasping at half truths, even at the false, it finally
reaches a higher truth. A nature like Guido's was not born with a faculty
for development. He simply had to live out his own hate. The man in
"Fifine" had the power of perceiving an ideal, but not the power of living
up to it without experimentation upon lower planes of living, probably the
most common type of man to-day. There are others like Norbert or Mertoun,
in whom the ideal truth is the real truth of their natures and for whom
life means the constant expansion of this ideal truth within them. In many
of the varying types of men and women portrayed by Browning there is the
recognition of the possibility of psychic development either by means of
experience or by sudden intuitions, and if, as in the case of Guido, there
is no development in this life, there is hope in a future existence in a
universe ruled by a God of love.

In his views upon human character and its possibilities of development
Browning is, of course, in touch with the scientific views on the subject
which filled the air in all later nineteenth-century thought, changing the
orthodox ideal of a static humanity born in sin and only to be saved by
belief in certain dogmas to that of a humanity born to develop; changing
the notion that sin was a terrible and absolutely defined entity, against
which every soul had ceaselessly to war, into the notion that sin is a
relative evil, consequent upon lack of development, which, as the human
soul advances on its path, led by its inborn consciousness of the divine
to be attained, will gradually disappear.

But the evil which results from this lack of development in individuals to
other individuals, and to society at large, brings a problem which as we
have already seen in the first chapter is not so easy of solution. Yet
Browning solves it, for is it not through the combat with this evil that
the soul is given its real opportunity for development? Pain and suffering
give rise to the thirst for happiness and joy, and through the arousing of
sympathy and pity, the desire that others shall have happiness and joy,
therefore to be despairing and pessimistic about evil or to wish for its
immediate annihilation would really be suicidal to the best interests of
the human race; nay, he even goes farther than this, as is hinted in one
of his last poems, "Rephan," and imagines that any other state than one
of flux between good and evil would be monotonous:

  "Startle me up, by an Infinite
  Discovered above and below me--height
  And depth alike to attract my flight,

  "Repel my descent: by hate taught love.
  Oh, gain were indeed to see above
  Supremacy ever--to move, remove,

  "Not reach--aspire yet never attain
  To the object aimed at! Scarce in vain,--
  As each stage I left nor touched again.

  "To suffer, did pangs bring the loved one bliss,
  Wring knowledge from ignorance:--just for this--
  To add one drop to a love--abyss!

  "Enough: for you doubt, you hope, O men,
  You fear, you agonize, die: what then?
  Is an end to your life's work out of ken?

  "Have you no assurance that, earth at end,
  Wrong will prove right? Who made shall mend
  In the higher sphere to which yearnings tend?"

In his attitude toward the existence of evil Browning takes issue with
Carlyle, as already noted in the second chapter. Carlyle, as Browning
represents him, cannot reconcile the existence of evil with beneficent and
omniscient power. He makes the opponent, who is an echo of Carlyle in the
argument in "Bernard de Mandeville," exclaim:

  Knowledge, where power and will in evidence
  'Tis Man's-play merely! Craft foils rectitude,
  Malignity defeats beneficence,
  And grant, at very last of all, the feud
  'Twixt good and evil ends, strange thoughts intrude
  Though good be garnered safely and good's foe
  Bundled for burning. Thoughts steal even so--
  Why grant tares leave to thus o'ertop, o'ertower
  Their field-mate, boast the stalk and flaunt the flower,
  Triumph one sunny minute?"

No attempt must be made to show God's reason for allowing evil. Any such
attempt will fail. This passage comes as near as any in Browning to a
plunge into the larger social questions which during the nineteenth
century have come more and more to the front, and is an index of just
where the poet stood in relation to the social movements of the century's
end. His gaze was so centered upon the individual and the power of the
individual to work out his own salvation and the need of evil in the
process that his philosophical attitude toward evil quite overtops the
militant interest in overcoming it.

Carlyle, on the other hand, saw the immense evil of the social conditions
in England, and raged and stormed against them, but could see no light by
which evil could be turned into good. He little realized that his own
storming at the ineptitude, the imbecility, the fool-ness of society, and
his own despair over the, to him, unaccountable evils of existence, were
in themselves a positive good growing out of the evil. Though he was not
to suggest practical means for leading the masses out of bondage, he was
to call attention in trumpet tones to the fact that the bondage existed.
By so doing he was taking a first step or rather drawing aside the curtain
and revealing the dire necessity that steps should be taken and taken
soon. While Carlyle was militantly shouting against evil to some purpose
which would later mean militant action against it, Browning was settling
in his own mind just what relation evil should hold to good in the scheme
of the universe, and writing a poem to tell why he was a liberal. In fine,
Carlyle was opening the way toward the socialism of the latter part of the
century, while Browning was still found in the camp of what the socialist
of to-day calls the middle-class individualist.

Liberalism, which had taken on social conditions to the point through
legislation where every man was free to be a property holder if he could
manage to become one, and to amass wealth, left out of consideration the
fact that he never could be free as long as he had to compete with
every other man in the state to get these things. Hence the movement of
the working classes to gain freedom by substituting for a competitive form
of society a coöperative form. Great names in literature and art have
helped toward the on-coming of this movement. Carlyle had railed at the
millions of the English nation, "mostly fools;" Ruskin had bemoaned the
enthronement of ugliness as the result of the industrial conditions;
Matthew Arnold had proposed a panacea for the ills of the social condition
in the bringing about of social equality through culture, and, best of
all, William Morris had not only talked but acted.

[Illustration: WILLIAM MORRIS]

To any student of social movements to-day, whether he has been drawn into
the swirl of socialistic propaganda or whether he is still comfortably
sitting in his parlor feeling an intellectual sympathy but no emotional
call to leave his parlor and be up and doing, Morris appears as the most
interesting figure of the century. The pioneers in the nineteenth-century
movement toward socialism in England, unless we except the social
enthusiasm of a Shelley or a Blake, were Owen and Maurice. Owen was that
remarkable anomaly, a self-made man who had gained his wealth because of
the new industrial order inaugurated by the invention of machinery, who
yet could look at the circumstances so fortuitous for him in an impersonal
manner, and realize that what had put a silver spoon into his own mouth
was taking away even pewter spoons from other men's mouths. Although he
was really in love with the new order of machine production, he realized
what many to-day fail to see, that machine production organized for the
benefit of private persons would most assuredly mean the poverty and the
degradation of the workers. He did not stop here, however, but spent his
vast fortune in trying to make the conditions of the workingmen better. In
the estimation of socialists to-day his work was of a very high order,
"not mere utopianism." It bore no similarity to the romantic dreams of
poets who saw visions of a perfect society regardless of the fact that a
perfect society cannot suddenly blossom from conditions of appalling
misery and degradation. Owen was a practical business man. He knew all the
ins and outs of the industrial régime, and consequently he had a practical
program, not a dream, which he wished to see carried out. Accounts of the
conditions of the workers at that time are heartrending. Everywhere the
same tale of abject poverty, ignorance, and oppression in field and
factory, long hours of labor and dear food. To bring help to these
downtrodden people was the burning desire of Robert Owen and his
followers. His efforts were not rewarded by that success which they
deserved, his failure being a necessary concomitant of the fact that even
a practical program for betterment cannot suddenly take effect owing to
the inevitable inertia of any long-established conditions. In showing the
causes which kept him from the full accomplishment of his ideals, in spite
of his genuine practicalness, Brougham Villiers, the recent historian of
the socialist movement in England, says he attempted too much "to
influence the workers from without, trying, of course vainly, to induce
the governing classes to interest themselves in the work of social reform.
Yet it is difficult to see what else he could have done at the time. We
have already shown how utterly disorganized the working classes were, how
incapable, indeed, of any organization. They were also destitute of
political power, and miserably underpaid. What could they do to help
themselves? Help, if it was to come at all, must come from the only people
who then had the power, if they only had the will, to accord it, and to
them, at first, Robert Owen appealed. Later, he turned to the people,
and for them indeed his work was not utterly wasted, though generations
were to pass before the full effect of it could be seen."

However abortive his attempts to gain political sympathy for his socialist
program, and in spite of the fact that socialist agitation came to a
standstill in England with the defeat of the somewhat chaotic socialism of
the Chartists, it cannot be doubted that his efforts influenced the
political reformers who were to take up one injustice after another and
fight for its melioration until the working classes were at least brought
to a plane where they could begin to organize and develop toward the still
higher plane where they could themselves take their own salvation in hand.

Another man who did much to bring the workingman's cause into prominence
was Maurice, who emphasized the Christian aspect of the movement. He was
an excellent supplement to Owen, whose liberal views on religion militated
in some quarters against an acceptance of his humane views in regard to

Notwithstanding the personal strength of these two men they failed not
only in the practical attainment of their object, but their ideas on
socialism did not even wedge itself into the thought consciousness of the

The men who did more than any one else to awaken the sleeping English
consciousness were Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold and Morris. Of these Morris
held a position midway between the old-fashioned dreamer of dreams and the
new-fashioned hustling political socialist, who now sends his
representatives to Parliament and has his "say" in the national affairs of
the country.

Being a poet, he could, of course, dream dreams, and one of these, "The
Dream of John Ball," puts the case of the toilers in a form at once so
convincing and so full of divine pity that it does not seem possible it
could be read even by the most hardened of trust magnates without making
him see how unjust has been the distribution of this world's goods through
the making of one man do the work of many: "In days to come one man shall
do the work of a hundred men--yea, of a thousand or more: and this is the
shift of mastership that shall make many masters and many rich men." This
is a riddle which John Ball cannot grasp at once, and when it is explained
to him he is still more mystified at the result.

"Thou hast seen the weaver at his loom: think how it should be if he sit
no longer before the web and cast the shuttle and draw home the sley, but
if the shed open of itself, speed through it as swift as the eye can
follow, and the sley come home of itself, and the weaver standing by ...
looking to half a dozen looms and bidding them what to do. And as with the
weaver so with the potter, and the smith, and every worker in metals, and
all other crafts, that it shall be for them looking on and tending, as
with the man that sitteth in the cart while the horse draws. Yea, at last
so shall it be even with those who are mere husbandmen; and no longer
shall the reaper fare afield in the morning with his hook over his
shoulder, and smite and bind and smite again till the sun is down and the
moon is up; but he shall draw a thing made by men into the field with one
or two horses, and shall say the word and the horses shall go up and down,
and the thing shall reap and gather and bind, and do the work of many men.
Imagine all this in thy mind if thou canst, at least as ye may imagine a
tale of enchantment told by a minstrel, and then tell me what shouldst
thou deem that the life of men would be amidst all this, men such as these
of the township here, or the men of the Canterbury guilds."

And John Ball's conclusion is that things in that day to come will be not
as they are but as they ought to be. With irresistible logic he declares:

"I say that if men still abide men as I have known them, and unless these
folk of England change as the land changeth--and forsooth of the men, for
good and for evil, I can think no other than I think now, or behold them
other than I have known them and loved them--I say if the men be still
men, what will happen except that there should be all plenty in the land,
and not one poor man therein ... for there would then be such abundance of
good things, that, as greedy as the lords might be, there would be enough
to satisfy their greed and yet leave good living for all who labored with
their hands; so that these should labor for less than now, and they would
have time to learn knowledge," and he goes on, "take part in the making of

But Morris was not the man to dream, merely. Though he did not trouble
himself about the doctrinaire side of socialism, he preached it constantly
from the human side and from the artistic side. While some socialist
writers make us feel that socialism might possibly only be Gradgrind in
another guise, he makes us feel that peace and plenty and loveliness
would attend upon the sons and daughters of socialism. As one of his many
admirers says of him: "He was an out-and-out Communist because of the
essential sanity of a mind incapable of the desire to monopolize anything
he could not use."

The authoritarianism of the Marxian socialists was distasteful to him,
for, to quote from the same admirer, his "conception of socialism was that
of a free society, based on the simple rights of all to use the earth and
anything in it, and the consequent abolition of all competition for the
means of life." His attitude of mind on these points led him to break away
from the Social Democratic Federation, which, with its political program,
was distasteful to Morris's more purely social feeling, and found the
Socialist League. This emphasized more particularly the artistic side of
socialism. Morris and his followers were bent upon making life a beautiful
thing as well as a comfortable thing.

According to all accounts, the League was not as great a force in the
development of socialist ideals as was Morris himself, who inspired such
men as Burne-Jones and Walter Crane with a sympathy in the new ideals, as
well as multitudes of lesser men in the crowds that gathered to listen to
him in Waltham Green or in some other like open place of a Sunday.

Morris's chief contribution to the growth of the cause was perhaps his own
business plant, into which he put as many of his ideals for the betterment
of the workingmen's conditions as he was able to do under existing
conditions. Who has not gloated over his exquisite editions of Chaucer and
the like--books in which even the punctuation marks are a delight to the
eye, and the illustrations as far beyond ordinary illustrations as the
punctuation marks are beyond ordinary periods. If anything could add to
the richness of the interior it is the contrasting simplicity of the white
vellum bindings, and, again, if there is another possible touch of
grace--a gilding of the lily--what could better fulfil that purpose than
the outer boxing covered with a Morris cotton print! The critical may
object that these Morris editions are so expensive that none but
millionaire bibliophiles can have many of them. How many of us have even
seen them except in such collections! And how many of his workmen are able
to share in this product of their labor to any greater extent than the
product of labor is usually shared in by its producers, may be asked.

Though we are obliged to answer that the workmen probably do not have the
Morris books in their own libraries, they yet have the joy of making these
beautiful books under conditions of happy workmanship--that is, they are
skilled craftsmen, who have been trained in an apprenticeship, who are
asked to work only eight hours a day, who receive higher wages than other
workmen and, above all, who have the stimulation of the presence of
Morris, himself, working among them.

Morris's enthusiasm for a more universally happy and beautiful society
combined with the object lesson of his own methods in conducting a
business upon genuinely artistic principles has done an incalculable
amount in spreading the gospel of socialism. Still there was too much of
the _laissez faire_ atmosphere about his attitude for it to bring about
any marked degree of progress.

The opinion of Mr. William Clarke who had many conversations with Morris
on the subject reveals that, after all, there was too much of the poet
about him for him to be a really practical force in the movement. He

"It is not easy to understand how Morris proposes to bring about the
condition of things he looks forward to. No parliamentary or municipal
methods, no reliance upon lawmaking machinery, an abhorrence of everything
that smacks of 'politics': it all seems very impracticable to the average
man, and certainly suggests the poet rather than the man of affairs. What
Morris thinks will really happen is, I should say, judging from numerous
conversations I have had with him, something like this: Existing society
is, he thinks, gradually, but with increasing momentum, disintegrating
through its own rottenness. The capitalist system of production is
breaking down fast and is compelled to exploit new regions in Africa and
other parts, where he thinks its term will be short. Economically,
socially, morally, politically, religiously, civilization is becoming
bankrupt. Meanwhile it is for the socialist to take advantage of this
disintegration by spreading discontent, by preaching economic truths, and
by any kind of demonstration which may harass the authorities and develop
among the people an _esprit de corps_. By these means the people will, in
some way or other, be ready to take up the industry of the world when the
capitalist class is no longer able to direct or control it. Morris
believes less in a violent revolution than he did and thinks that
workmen's associations and labor unions form a kind of means between
brute force on the one hand and a parliamentary policy on the other. He
does not, however, share the sanguine views of John Burns as to the
wonders to be accomplished by the 'new' trades unionism."

The practical ineffectiveness of the Morris socialism in spite of its
having taken some steps in the direction of vital activity was overcome by
the next socialist body which came into prominence--the Fabian Society, in
which Bernard Shaw has been so conspicuous a figure.

As already mentioned, the Fabians are not a fighting body, but a solidly
educational body. To them is due the bringing of socialism into the realm
of political economy, and in so doing they have striven to harmonize it
with English practical political methods. Besides this, they have done a
vast amount of work in educating public opinion, not with the view to
immediately converting the English nation to a belief in the changing of
the present order into one wholly socialistic, but with a view to
introducing socialistic treatment of the individual problems which arise
in contemporary politics.

[Illustration: JOHN BURNS]

Their campaign of education was conducted so well that its effects were
soon visible, not only in the modification of public opinion, but upon
the workingmen themselves. The method was simple enough: "If any public,
especially any social, question came to the front, the Fabian method was
to make a careful independent study of the matter, and present to the
public, in a penny pamphlet, a thoughtful statement of the case and some
common sense, and incidentally socialistic, suggestions for a solution."
Fabian ideas were thus introduced into the consciousness of the awakening
trades unionists.

It has been objected that the gain was much more for the trades unionists
than for the Fabians. Their one-time eager pupils have, it is said,
progressed beyond their masters, as a review of recent socialistic
tendencies would divulge had we the time to follow them in this place.
However that may be, the great fact remains that the Fabians have done
more than any other branch of socialists to bridge over the distance
between what the English writers call the middle-class idealist and the
proletarian, with the result that the proletarian has begun to think for
himself and to translate middle-class idealism into proletarian realism.

Socialism, from being the watch word of the enthusiastic revolutionary,
began to be discussed in every intelligent household and in every
debating society. This enormous growth in public sentiment occurred during
the session of the Unionist Parliament, 1886-92. When this Parliament
opened there was hardly any socialist literature, and when it closed
everybody was reading Bellamy and the "Fabian Essays," and Sir William
Harcourt had made his memorable remark: "We are all socialists now."

The gesticulating and bemoaning idealists, the Carlyles and the Ruskins,
the revolutionary but _laissez faire_ prophets like Morris, who believed
in a complete change but not in using any of the means at hand to bring
about that change, had given place to men like Keir Hardie and John Burns,
who had sprung into leadership from the ranks of the workingmen
themselves, and who were to be later their representatives in Parliament
when the Independent Labor Party came into existence. All this had been
done by that group of progressive men, long-headed enough to see that the
ideal of a better and more beautiful social life could not be gained
except by a long and toilsome process of education and of action which
would consciously follow the principles of growth discovered by scientists
to obtain in all unconscious cosmic and physical development, the very
principle which as we have seen, Browning declared should have guided his
hero Sordello long before the Fabian socialists came into
existence--namely, the principle of evolution. That their methods should
have peacefully brought about the conditions where it was possible to form
an Independent Labor Party, which would have the power to speak and act
for itself instead of working as the Fabians themselves do through the
parties already in power, shouts aloud for the wisdom of their policy. And
is there not still plenty of work for them to do in the still further
educating of all parties toward the flowering of genuine democracy, when
the dreams of the dreamer shall have become actualities, because true and
not spurious ways of making them actual shall have been worked out by

This remarkable growth in social ideals was taking place during the ninth
decade of the century and the last decade of Browning's life. Is there any
indication in his later work that he was conscious of it? There is
certainly no direct evidence in his work that he progressed any farther in
the development of democratic ideals than we find in the liberalism of
such a parliamentary leader as Mr. Gladstone, while in that poem in which
he considers more especially than in any other the subject of better
conditions for the people, "Sordello," he distinctly expresses a mood of
doubt as to the advisability of making conditions too easy for the human
being, who needs the hardships and ills of life to bring his soul to
perfection, a far more important thing in Browning's eyes than to live
comfortably and beautifully. All he wishes for the human being is the fine
chance to make the most of himself spiritually. The socialist would say
that he could not secure the chance to do this except in a society where
the murderous principle of competition should give way to that of
coöperation. With this Browning might agree. Indeed, may this not have
been the very principle Sordello had in mind as something revealed to him
which neither Guelf nor Ghibelline could see, or was this only the more
obvious principle of republican as opposed to monarchical principle and
still falling under an individualistic conception of society?

While his work is instinct with sympathy for all classes and conditions of
men, Browning does not feel the ills of life with the intensity of a
Carlyle, nor its ugliness with the grief of a Ruskin, nor yet its lack of
culture with the priggishness of an Arnold, nor would he stand in open
spaces and preach discontent to the masses like Morris. Why? Because he
from the first was made wise to see a good in evil, a hope in ill-success,
to be proud of men's fallacies, their half reasons, their faint aspirings,
upward tending all though weak, the lesson learned after weary experiences
of life by Paracelsus. His thought was centered upon the worth of every
human being to himself and for God. Earth is after all only a place to
grow in and prepare one's self for lives to come, and failure here, so
long as the fight has been bravely fought, is to be regarded with anything
but regret, for it is through the failure that the vision of the future is
made more sure.

What he finds true, as we saw, in the religious or philosophical world, he
finds true in the moral world. Lack in human knowledge points the way to
God; lack in human success points the way to immortality.

The meaning of this life in relation to a future life being so much more
important than this life in itself, and man's individual development being
so much more important than his social development, Browning naturally
would not turn his attention upon those practical, social or governmental
means by which even the chance for individual development must be
secured. He is too much occupied with the larger questions. He is not even
a middle-class idealist, dreaming dreams of future earthly bliss; he is
the prophet of future existences.

Does his practical influence upon the social development of the century
amount to nothing then? Not at all. He started out on his voyage through
the century toward the democratic ideal in the good ship
Individualism--the banner ship indeed. What he has emphasized upon this
voyage is first the paramount worth of each and every human being, whether
good or bad. Second, the possibility in every human being of conceiving an
ideal, toward which by the exertion of his will power he should aspire,
battling steadfastly against every obstruction that life throws in his
course. Third, that even those who are incapable of formulating an ideal
must be regarded as living out the truth of their natures and must
therefore be treated with compassion. Fourth, that the highest function of
the human soul is love, which expresses itself in many ways, but attains
its full flowering only in the love of man and woman on a plane of
spiritual exaltation, and that through this power of human love some
glimpse of the divine is caught; therefore to this function of the soul
it is of the utmost importance that human beings should be loyal and true,
even if that loyalty and truth conflict with conventional ways of looking
at life. Sailing in this good ship he also expresses his sympathy
indirectly in his dramas and directly upon several occasions with the
ideals of political freedom which during the century have been making
progress toward democracy in the English Parliament through the
legislation of the liberals, whose laws have brought a greater and greater
measure of freedom to the middle classes and some measure of freedom to
the working classes.

But it seems as if when nearing the end of the century Browning landed
from his ship upon some high island and straining his eyes toward the
horizon of the dawn of another life did not fully realize that there was
another good ship, Socialism, struggling to reach the ideal of democracy,
and now become the banner ship whose work is to sail out into the unknown,
turbulent seas of the future, finding the path to another high island in
order that the way may be made clear for the ship Individualism to
continue her course to another stage in the voyage toward a perfect
democracy. And as the new ship, Socialism, passes on its way it will do
well to heed the vision of the poet seer, straining his eyes toward the
dawn of other lives in other spheres, lest in the struggle and strain to
bring about a more comfortable and beautiful life upon earth, the
important truth be slighted that humanity has a higher destiny to fulfil
than can be realized in the most Utopian dreams of an earthly democracy.
This truth is in fact not only forgotten but is absolutely denied by many
of the latter-day social reformers.

To sum up, I think one is justified in concluding that as a sympathizer
with the liberal political tendencies of the nineteenth century Browning
is of his age. In his quiescence upon the proletarian movement of the
latter part of the nineteenth century he seems to have been left behind by
his age. In his insistence upon the worth of the individual to himself and
to God he is both of his age and beyond it. As has been said of
philosophy, "It cannot give us bread but it can give us God, soul and
immortality," so we may say of Browning, that though he did not raise up
his voice in the cry of the proletarian for bread, he has insisted upon
the truths of God, the soul and immortality.



In the foregoing chapters the relations of the poet to the philosophical,
religious, political, and social movements of the nineteenth century have
been pointed out. In this and the next chapter some account of his
relation to the artistic and literary ideals of the century will be

Browning's relation to the art of the century is, of course, twofold,
dealing as it must with his own conceptions and criticisms of art as well
as with the position of his own art in the poetic development of the

In order to understand more fully his own contribution to the developing
literary standards of the century it may be well first to consider the
fundamental principles of art laid down by him in various poems wherein he
has deliberately dealt with the subject.

The poem in which he has most clearly formulated the general principles
underlying the growth of art is the "Parleying" with Charles Avison.
Though music is the special art under consideration, the rules of growth
obtaining in that are equally applicable to other arts. They are found to
be, as we should expect in Browning, a combination of the ideas of
evolution and conservation. Though the standards of art change and
develop, because as man's soul evolves, more complex forms are needed to
express his deeper experiences, his wider vision, yet in each stage of the
development there is an element of permanent beauty which by the aid of
the historical sense man may continue to enjoy. That element of permanence
exists when genuine feeling and aspiration find expression in forms of
art. The element of change grows out of the fact that both the thought
expressed and the form in which it is expressed are partial manifestations
of the beauty or truth toward which feeling aspires; hence the need of
fresh attempts to reach the infinite. The permanence of feeling,
expressing itself in ever new forms, is brought out finely in this

                                          "Truths escape
  Time's insufficient garniture: they fade,
  They fall--those sheathings now grown sere, whose aid
  Was infinite to truth they wrapped, saved fine
    And free through march frost: May dews crystalline
    Nourish truth merely,--does June boast the fruit
  As--not new vesture merely but, to boot,
  Novel creation? Soon shall fade and fall
  Myth after myth--the husk-like lies I call
  New truth's Corolla-safeguard."

In another passage is shown how the permanence of feeling conserves even
the form, if we will bring ourselves into touch with it:

                                "Never dream
  That what once lived shall ever die! They seem
  Dead--do they? lapsed things lost in limbo? Bring
  Our life to kindle theirs, and straight each king
  Starts, you shall see, stands up."

This kindling of an old form with our own life is more difficult in the
case of music than it is in painting or poetry, for in these we have a
concrete form to deal with--a form which reflects the thought with much
more definiteness than music is able to do. The strength and weakness, at
once, of music is that it gives expression to subtler regions of thought
and feeling than the other arts, at the same time that the form is more
evanescent, because fashioned out of elements infinitely less related to
nature than those of other art forms. In his poems on music, the poet
always emphasizes these aspects of music. Its supremacy as a means of
giving expression to the subtlest regions of feeling is dwelt upon in
"Abt Vogler" and "Fifine at the Fair." The Abbé, from the standpoint of
the creator of music, feels so strongly from the inside its power for
expressing infinite aspiration that in his ecstasy he exclaims: "The rest
may reason and welcome. 'Tis we musicians know." Upon the evanescence of
the form peculiar emphasis is also laid in this poem, through the fact
that the music is improvised. Yet even this fact does not mean the entire
annihilation of the form. In the tenth stanza of the poem the idea of the
permanence of the art form as well as of the feeling is expanded into a
symbol of the immortality of all good:

  "All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
    Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
  Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
    When eternity confirms the conception of an hour,
  The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
    The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
  Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
    Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by-and-by."

The sophistical arguer in "Fifine" feels this same power of music to
express thoughts not to be made palpable in any other manner.

                        "Words struggle with the weight
  So feebly of the False, thick element between
  Our soul, the True, and Truth! which, but that intervene
  False shows of things, were reached as easily by thought
  Reducible to word, and now by yearnings wrought
  Up with thy fine free force, oh Music, that canst thrill,
  Electrically win a passage through the lid
  Of earthly sepulchre, our words may push against,
  Hardly transpierce as thou."

And again, in another passage, he gives to music the power of conserving a
mood of feeling, which in this case is not an exalted one, since it is one
that chimes in with his own rather questionable feeling for Fifine, the
fiz-gig. It is found in Schumann's "Carnival":

  "Thought hankers after speech, while no speech may evince
  Feeling like music,--mine, o'er-burthened with each gift
  From every visitant, at last resolved to shift
  Its burthen to the back of some musician dead
  And gone, who feeling once what I feel now, instead
  Of words, sought sounds, and saved forever, in the same,
  Truth that escapes prose,--nay, puts poetry to shame.
  I read the note, I strike the Key, I bid _record_
  The instrument--thanks greet the veritable word!
  And not in vain I urge: 'O dead and gone away,
  Assist who struggles yet, thy strength becomes my stay,
  Thy record serve as well to register--I felt
  And knew thus much of truth! With me, must knowledge melt
  Into surmise and doubt and disbelief unless
  Thy music reassure--I gave no idle guess,
  But gained a certitude I yet may hardly keep!
  What care? since round is piled a monumental heap
  Of music that conserves the assurance, thou as well
  Was certain of the same! thou, master of the spell,
  Mad'st moonbeams marble, didst _record_ what other men
  Feel only to forget!'"

The man in the case is merely an appreciator, not a creator, yet he
experiences with equal force music's power as a recorder of feeling. He
notes also that the feeling must appear from time to time in a new dress,

                              "the stuff that's made
  To furnish man with thought and feeling is purveyed
  Substantially the same from age to age, with change
  Of the outside only for successive feasters."

In this case, the old tunes have actually been worked over by the more
modern composer whose form has not yet sufficiently gone by to fail of an
immediate appeal to this person with feelings kindled by similar
experiences. What the speaker in the poem perceives is not merely the fact
of the feelings experienced but the power of the music to take him off
upon a long train of more or less philosophical reasoning born of that
very element of change. In this power of suggestiveness lies music's
greater range of spiritual force even when the feeling expressed is not of
the deepest.

If we look at his poems on painting, the same principles of art are
insisted upon except that more emphasis is laid upon the positive value of
the incompleteness of the form. In so far as painting or sculpture reaches
a perfect unity of thought and form it loses its power of suggesting an
infinite beauty beyond any that our earth-born race may express.

This in Browning's opinion is the limitation of Greek art. It touches
perfection or completion in expression and in so doing limits its range to
the brief passion of a day. The effect of such art is to arouse a sort of
despair, for it so far transcends merely human beauty that there seems
nothing left to accomplish:

  "So, testing your weakness by their strength,
    Your meagre charms by their rounded beauty
  Measured by Art in your breadth and length,
    You learned--to submit is a mortal's duty."

When such a deadlock as this is reached through the stultifying effect of
an art expression which seems to have embodied all there is of passion and
physical beauty, the one way out is to turn away from the abject
contemplation of such art and go back again to humanity itself, in whose
widening nature may be discovered the promise of an eternity of
progression. Therefore, "To cries of Greek art and what more wish you?"
the poet would have it that the early painters replied:

          "To become now self-acquainters,
    And paint man, whatever the issue!
  Make new hopes shine through the flesh they fray,
    New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters:
  To bring the invisible full into play!
    Let the visible go to the dogs--what matters?"

The revolution in art started by these early worthies had more of
spiritual promise in it than the past perfection--"The first of the new,
in our race's story, beats the last of the old."

His emphasis here upon the return to humanity in order to gain a new
source of inspiration in art is further illustrated in his attitude toward
the two painters which he portrays so splendidly: Fra Lippo Lippi, the
realist, whose Madonnas looked like real women, and who has scandalized
some critics on this account, and Andrea del Sarto, the faultless painter,
who exclaims in despair as he gazes upon a picture by Raphael, in which he
sees a fault to pardon in the drawing's line, an error that he could alter
for the better, "But all the play, the insight and the stretch," beyond

The importance of basing art upon the study of the human body is later
insisted upon in Francis Furini, not as an end in itself, but as the
dwelling place of the soul. "Let my pictures prove I know," says Furini,

  "Somewhat of what this fleshly frame of ours
  Or is or should be, how the soul empowers
  The body to reveal its every mood
  Of love and hate, pour forth its plenitude
  Of passion."

The evolutionary ideal appears again in his utterances upon poetry, though
when speaking of poetry it is the value of the subject matter and its
intimate relation to the form upon which he dwells.

The little poem "Popularity" shows as clearly as any the importance which
he attaches to a new departure in poetic expression, besides giving vent
to his scorn of the multitude which sees nothing in the work of the
innovator but which is ready at a later date to laud his imitators. Any
minor poet, for that matter, any Nokes or Stokes who merely prints blue
according to the poetic conventions of the past, possessing not a
suspicion of the true inspiration which goes to the making of a poet of
the new order, is more acceptable to an unseeing public than him with
power to fish "the murex up" that contains the precious drop of royal

More than one significant hint may be gleaned from his verse in regard to
his opinion upon the formal side of the poet's art. In "Transcendentalism"
he has his fling at the didactic poet who pleases to speak naked thoughts
instead of draping them in sights and sounds, for "song" is the art of the
poet. Some stout mage like him of Halberstadt has his admiration, who with

                "'Look you!' vents a brace of rhymes,
  And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,
  Over us, under, round us every side,
  Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs
  And musty volumes, Boehme's book and all,--
  Buries us with a glory young once more,
  Pouring heaven into this shut house of life."

He was equally averse to an ornate classical embellishment of a latter day
subject or to a looking at nature through mythopoeic Greek eyes. This is
driven home in the splendid fooling in "Gerard de Lairesse" where the poet
himself indulges by way of a joke in some high-flown classical imagery in
derision of the style of Lairesse and hints covertly probably at the
nineteenth-century masters of classical resuscitation, in subject matter
and allusion, Swinburne and Morris. Reacting to soberer mood, he
reiterates his belief in the utter deadness of Greek ideals of art,
speaking with a strength of conviction so profound as to make one feel
that here at least Browning suffered from a decided limitation, all the
more strange, too, when one considers his own masterly treatment of Greek
subjects. To the poets whose poetic creed is

              "Dream afresh old godlike shapes,
  Recapture ancient fable that escapes,
  Push back reality, repeople earth
  With vanished falseness, recognize no worth
  In fact new-born unless 'tis rendered back
  Pallid by fancy, as the western rack
  Of fading cloud bequeaths the lake some gleam
  Of its gone glory!"

he would reply,

                          "Let things be--not seem,
  I counsel rather,--do, and nowise dream!
  Earth's young significance is all to learn;
  The dead Greek lore lies buried in the urn
  Where who seeks fire finds ashes. Ghost, forsooth!
  What was the best Greece babbled of as truth?
  A shade, a wretched nothing,--sad, thin, drear,

    *       *       *       *       *

                                    Sad school
  Was Hades! Gladly,--might the dead but slink
  To life back,--to the dregs once more would drink
  Each interloper, drain the humblest cup
  Fate mixes for humanity."

The rush onward to the supreme is uppermost in the poet's mind in this
poem. Though he does indulge in the refrain that there shall never be one
lost good echoing the thought in "Charles Avison," the climax of his mood
is in the contemplation of the evolutionary force of the soul which must
leave Greek art behind and find new avenues of beauty:

                                  "The Past indeed
  Is past, gives way before Life's best and last
  The all-including Future! What were life
  Did soul stand still therein, forego her strife
  Through the ambiguous Present to the goal
  Of some all-reconciling Future? Soul,
  Nothing has been which shall not bettered be
  Hereafter,--leave the root, by law's decree
  Whence springs the ultimate and perfect tree!
  Busy thee with unearthing root? Nay, climb--
  Quit trunk, branch, leaf and flower--reach, rest sublime
  Where fruitage ripens in the blaze of day."

When it comes to the subject matter of poetry, Browning constantly insists
that it should be the study of the human soul. A definite statement as to
the range of subjects under this general material of poetry is put forth
very early in his poetical career in "Paracelsus" and it is all-inclusive.
It is the passage where Aprile describes how universal he wished to make
his sympathy as a poet. No one is to be left out of his all-embracing

Such, then, are his general principles in regard to poetic development and
subject matter. These do not touch upon the question so often discussed of
the relative value of the subjective as against the objective poet. This
point the poet considers in "Sordello," where he throws in his weight on
the side of the objective poet. In the passage in the third book the poet,
speaking in person, gives illustrations of three sorts of poetic
composition: the dramatic, the descriptive and the meditative; the first
belongs to the objective, the second, not distinctively to either, and the
third to the subjective manner of writing. The dramatic method is the most
forceful, for it imparts the gift of seeing to others, while the
descriptive and meditative merely tell what they saw, or, worse still,
talk about it.

Further indications of his allegiance to the dramatic form of poetry as
the supreme one are found in his poems inspired by Shakespeare, "House"
and "Shop," but we must turn to a pregnant bit of his prose in order to
find his exact feeling upon the relations of the subjective and objective
poet, together with a clear conception of what he meant by a dramatic
poet, which was something more than Shakespeare's "holding the mirror up
to nature." In his view the dramatic poet must have the vision of the seer
as well as the penetration of a psychologist. He must hold the mirror up
not only to nature, regarded as phenomena, but to the human soul, and he
must perceive the relation of that human soul to the universal. He must in
fact plunge beneath the surface of actions and events and bring forth to
the light the psychic and cosmic causes of these things. The passage
referred to in the "Introduction to the Shelley Letters" points out how in
the evolution of poetry there will be the play and interplay of the
subjective and the objective faculties upon each other, with the probable
result of the arising of poets who will combine the two sorts of faculty.
While Browning's own sympathy with the dramatic poet is as fully evident
here as in the passage in "Sordello," he realizes, as perhaps he did not
at that time, when he was himself breaking away from Shelley's influence,
the value of the subjective method in carrying on the process of poetic

    "It would be idle to inquire, of these two kinds of poetic faculty in
    operation, which is the higher or even rarer endowment. If the
    subjective might seem to be the ultimate requirement of every age,
    the objective, in the strictest state, must still retain its original
    value. For it is with this word, as starting-point and basis alike,
    that we shall always have to concern ourselves: the world is not to be
    learned and thrown aside, but reverted to and relearned. The spiritual
    comprehension may be infinitely subtilized, but the raw material it
    operates upon must remain. There may be no end of the poets who
    communicate to us what they see in an object with reference to their
    own individuality; what it was before they saw it, in reference to the
    aggregate human mind, will be as desirable to know as ever. Nor is
    there any reason why these two modes of poetic faculty may not issue
    hereafter from the same poet in successive perfect works, examples of
    which, according to what are now considered the exigencies of art, we
    have hitherto possessed in distinct individuals only. A mere running
    in of the one faculty upon the other is, of course, the ordinary
    circumstance. Far more rarely it happens that either is found so
    decidedly prominent and superior as to be pronounced comparatively
    pure: while of the perfect shield, with the gold and the silver side
    set up for all comers to challenge, there has yet been no instance. A
    tribe of successors (Homerides), working more or less in the same
    spirit, dwell on his discoveries and reinforce his doctrine; till, at
    unawares, the world is found to be subsisting wholly on the shadow of
    a reality, on sentiments diluted from passions, on the tradition of a
    fact, the convention of a moral, the straw of last year's harvest.
    Then is the imperative call for the appearance of another sort of
    poet, who shall at once replace this intellectual rumination of food
    swallowed long ago, by a supply of the fresh and living swathe;
    getting at new substance by breaking up the assumed wholes into parts
    of independent and unclassed value, careless of the unknown laws for
    recombining them (it will be the business of yet another poet to
    suggest those hereafter), prodigal of objects for men's outer and not
    inner sight; shaping for their uses a new and different creation from
    the last, which it displaces by the right of life over death,--to
    endure until, in the inevitable process, its very sufficiency to
    itself shall require, at length, an exposition of its affinity to
    something higher--when the positive yet conflicting facts shall again
    precipitate themselves under a harmonizing law, and one more degree
    will be apparent for a poet to climb in that mighty ladder, of which,
    however cloud-involved and undefined may glimmer the topmost step, the
    world dares no longer doubt that its gradations ascend."

If we measure Browning's own work by the poetic standards which he has
himself set up in the course of that work, it is quite evident that he has
on the whole lived up to them. He has shown himself to be an illustration
of the evolutionary principles in which he believes by breaking away from
all previous standards of taste in poetry. The history of poetry in
England has shown this to be a distinctive characteristic of all the
greatest English poets. From Shakespeare down they have one and all run
afoul of the critics whose special province seems to be to set up literary
shibboleths which every genius is bent upon disregarding. When Spenser was
inventing his stanza, verse critics were abject in their worship of
hexameters, and their hatred of bald rhymes. Though these sticklers for
classical forms could see clearly enough that Spenser was possessed of
genius, they yet lamented the blindness of one, who might have written
hexameters, perversely exclaiming "Why a God's name may not we as else the
Greeks have the kingdom of our own language, and measure our accents by
the sound, reserving quantity to the verse?" When Milton appears and finds
blank verse the medium best suited to his subject, he comes up against the
rhyming standards of his day and is forced to submit to the indignity of
having his "Paradise Lost" "tagged with rhymes," as he expresses it, by
Dryden, who graciously devoted his powers of rhyme to an improved version
of the poem. Milton was actually obliged to defend himself in his preface
to "Paradise Lost" for using blank verse, as Browning defends himself in
the Epilogue to "Pacchiarotto and How We Worked in Distemper" for writing
"strong" verse instead of the "sweet" verse the critics demand of him.

By the time the nineteenth century dawns the critics are safely intrenched
in the editorial den, from which, shielded by any sort of shibboleth they
can get hold of, they may hurl forth their projectiles upon the
unoffending head of the genius, who, with no chance of firing back in the
open arena of the magazine, must either suffer in silence or take refuge
in sarcastic slurs upon his critics in his poetry, for here lies the only
chance of getting even without waiting for the whirligig of time to bring
the public round to a recognition of the fact that he is the one who has
in very truth, "fished the murex up."

The caliber of man who could speak of "The Ode to Immortality" as "a most
illegible and unintelligible poem," or who wonders that any man in his
senses could put his name to such a rhapsody as "Endymion," or who
dismissed "Prometheus Unbound" with the remark that it was a _mélange_ of
nonsense, cockneyism, poverty and pedantry, would hardly be expected to
welcome "Sordello" with effusion. Even very intelligent people cracked
unseemly jokes upon the appearance of "Sordello," and what wonder, for
Browning's British instinct for freedom carried him in this poem to the
most extreme lengths. In "Pauline" he had allied himself with things
familiar to the English reader of poetry. Many of the allusions are
classical and introduced with a rich musicalness that Shelley himself
might have envied. The reminiscences of Shelley would also come within the
intellectual acreage of most of the cultured people of the time. And even
in "Paracelsus," despite the unfamiliarity of the subject, there was
music and imagery such as to link the art with the admired poetic art of
the day, but in "Sordello" all bounds are broken.

No one but a delver in the byways of literature could, at that time, have
been expected to know anything about Sordello; no one but a historian
could have been expected to know about the complicated struggles of the
Guelfs and the Ghibellines; no one but a philosopher about the tendencies,
both political and literary, manifesting themselves in the direction of
the awakening of democratic ideals in these pre-Dantean days; no one but a
psychologist about the tortuous windings of Sordello's mind.

Only by special searching into all these regions of knowledge can one
to-day gain a complete grasp of the situation. He must patiently tread all
the paths that Browning trod before he can enter into sympathy with the
poet. Then he will crack no more jokes, but he will marvel at the mind
which could wield all this knowledge with such consummate familiarity; he
will grow ecstatic over the splendors of the poem, and will regret its
redundancy not of diction so much but of detail and its amazing lack of
organic unity.

No one but a fanatic could claim that "Sordello" is a success as an
organic work of art. While the poet had a mastery of knowledge, thought
and feeling, he did not have sufficient mastery of his own form to weld
these together into a harmonious and convincing whole, such mastery as he,
for example, shows in "The Ring and the Book," though even in that there
is some survival of the old redundancy.

One feels when considering "Sordello" as a whole as if gazing upon a
picture in which the perspective and the high lights and the shadows are
not well related to each other. As great an abundance of detail is
expended upon the less important as upon the more important fact, and
while the details may be interesting enough in themselves, they dislodge
more important affairs from the center of consciousness. It is, not to be
too flippant, something like Alice's game of croquet in "Through the
Looking Glass." When the hedgehog ball is nicely rolled up ready to be
struck, the flamingo mallet walks off somewhere else.

There, then, in "Sordello" is perhaps the most remarkable departure from
the accepted in poetic art that an Englishman has ever attempted. In its
elements of failure, however, it gave "a triumph's evidence," to use the
poet's own phrase, "of the fulness of the days." In this poem he had
thrown down the gauntlet. His subject matter was not to be like that of
any other poet, nor was his form to be like that of any other poet. He
discarded the flowing music of "Pauline" and of "Paracelsus." His
allusions were no longer to be classic, but to be directly related to
whatever subject he had in hand; his style was also to be forth-right and
related to his subject, strong, idiomatic, rugged, even jolting if need
be, or noble, sweeping along in large rhythms or couched in rare forms of
symbolism, but, whatever it was to be, always different from what had

All he required at the time when "Sordello" appeared was to find that form
in which he could so unify his powers that his poems would gain the
organic completeness necessary to a work of art. No matter what new
regions an artist may push into he must discover the law of being of this
new region. Unless he does, his art will not convince, but the moment he
does, all that was not convincing falls into its right place. He becomes
the master of his art, and relates the new elements in such a way that
their rightness and their beauty, if not immediately recognized, are sure
sooner or later to be recognized by the evolving appreciator, who is the
necessary complement, by the way, of the evolving artist. Before
"Sordello" Browning had tried three other forms; the subjective narrative
in "Pauline," the dramatic poem in "Paracelsus," a regular drama in
"Strafford," which however runs partly parallel with "Sordello" in
composition. He had also done two or three short dramatic monologues.

He evidently hoped that the regular drama would prove to be the form most
congenial to him, for he kept on persistently in that form for nearly ten
years, wrote much magnificent poetry in it and at times attained a
grandeur of dramatic utterance hardly surpassed except in the master of
all dramatists, Shakespeare. But while he has attained a very genuine
success in this form, it is not the success of the popular acting drama.
His dramas are to-day probably being left farther and farther aside every
moment in the present exaggerated demands for characters in action, or
perhaps it might be nearer the truth to say clothes horses in action.
Besides, the drama of action in character, which is the type of drama
introduced into English literature by Browning, has reached a more perfect
development in other hands. Ibsen's dramas are preëminently dramas of
action in character, but the action moves with such rapidity that the
audience is almost cheated into thinking they are the old thing over
again--that is, dramas of characters in action.

Browning's characters in his dramas are presented with a completeness of
psychological analysis which makes them of paramount interest to those few
who can and like to listen to people holding forth to any length on the
stage, and with superb actors, who can give every subtlest change of mood,
a Browning drama furnishes an opportunity for the utmost intensity of
pleasure. Still, one cannot help but feel that the impressionistic
psychology of Ibsen reaches a pinnacle of dramatic art not attained by
Browning in his plays, delightful in character portrayal as they are, and
not upon any account to have been missed from dramatic literature.

In the dramatic monologue Browning found just that form which would focus
his forces, bringing them into the sort of relationship needed to reveal
the true law of being for his new region of poetic art.

If we inquire just why this form was the true medium for the most perfect
expression of his genius, I think we may answer that in it, as he has
developed it, is given an opportunity for the legitimate exercise of his
mental subtlety. Through the voice of one speaker he can portray not only
the speaker but one or more other characters, and at the same time show
the scene setting, and all without any direct description. On the other
hand, his tendency to redundancy, so marked when he is making a character
reveal only his own personality, is held in check by the necessity of
using just those words and turns of expression and dwelling upon just
those details which will make each character stand out distinctly, and at
the same time bring the scene before the reader.

The people in his dramatic monologues live before us by means of a
psychology as impressionistic as that of Ibsen's in his plays. The effect
is the same as that in a really great impressionistic painting. Nature is
revealed far more distinctly--the thing of lights and shadows, space and
movement--than in pictures bent upon endless details of form. "My Last
Duchess" is one among many fine examples of his method in monologue. In
that short poem we are made to see what manner of man is the duke, what
manner of woman the duchess. We see what has been the duke's past, what is
to be his future, also the present scene, as the duke stands in the hall
of his palace talking to an ambassador from the count who has come to
arrange a marriage with the duke for the count's daughter. Besides all
this a glimpse of the ambassador's attitude of mind is given. This is done
by an absolutely telling choice of words and by an organic relationing of
the different elements. The law of his genius asserts itself.

Browning's own ideal of the poet who makes others see was not completely
realized until he had perfected a form which would lend itself most
perfectly to the manner of thing which he desired to make others
see--namely, the human soul in all its possible manifestations of feeling
and mood, good, bad, and indifferent, from the uninspired organist who
struggles with a mountainous fugue to the inspired improvisor whose soul
ascends to God on the wings of his music, from the unknown sensitive
painter who cannot bear to have his pictures the subject of criticism or
commerce to the jolly life-loving Fra Lippo, from the jealous, vindictive
woman of "The Laboratory" to the vision-seeing Pompilia, from Ned Bratts
to Bishop Blougram, and so on--so many and wonderful that custom cannot
state their infinite variety.

Consistent, so far, with his own theories we find the work of Browning to
be. He also follows his ideal in the discarding of classical allusion
and illustration. Part of his dictum that the form should express the
thought is shown in his habitual fitting of his allusions to the subject
he is treating. By this means he produces his atmosphere and brings the
scene clearly before us; witness his constant references to Molinos and
his influence in "The Ring and the Book," an influence which was making
itself felt in all classes of society at the time when the actual tragedy
portrayed in the poem occurred. This habit, of course, brings into his
poetry a far wider range of allusions unfamiliar to his contemporaries
than is to be found in other Victorian poets, and makes it necessary that
these should be "looked up" before an adequate enjoyment of their fitness
is possible. Hence the Browning societies, so often held up to ridicule by
the critics, who blindly prefer to show their superior attitude of mind in
regard to everything they do not know, and growl about his obscurity, to
welcoming any movement which means an increase of general culture. The
Browning societies have not only done much to make Browning's unusual
allusions common matters of knowledge, but they have helped to keep alive
a taste for all poetry in an age when poetry has needed all the friendly
support it could get.

All great poets lead the ordinary mind to unfamiliar regions of knowledge
and thereby to fresh planes of enjoyment. That Browning has outdone all
other poets in this particular should be to his honor, not to his

In one very marked direction, however, he is not a perfect exemplar of his
own theories--that is, he is not always consistently dramatic. He belongs
to that order of poets described by himself in the Shelley Introduction as
neither completely subjective nor completely objective, but with the two
faculties at times running in upon each other. He is often absolutely
objective in his expression of a mood or a feeling, but the moment the
mood takes upon it the tinge of thought we begin to feel Browning himself.

The fundamental principles upon which he bases his own solution of the
problems of existence are seen to crop out, colored, it is true, by the
personality of the speaker, but yet traceable to their source in the
mental make up of Browning himself. It may well be that Browning has come
so near to the ultimate truth discoverable by man in his fundamental
principles that they are actually universal truths, to be found lying deep
down at the roots of all more partial expressions, just as gravitation,
conservation of energy, evolution underlie every phenomena of nature,
and therefore when a Pope in "The Ring and the Book," a Prince
Hohenstiel-Swangau, a Bishop Blougram, a Cleon or a John in "The Death in
the Desert," give utterance to their views upon life, they are bound to
touch from one or another angle the basic principles of life common to all
humanity as well as to the poet--the center within us all where "truth
abides in fulness."

This would seem an even more complete fusing of the two faculties in one
poet than that spoken of by Browning, where a poet would issue successive
works, in some of them the one faculty and in some of them the other
faculty being supreme.

That Browning was, to a certain extent, a poet of this third order of
which he prophesied is true, for he has written a number of poems like "La
Saisiaz," "Reverie," various of his prologues and epilogues which are
purely subjective in content. There are also subjective passages in the
midst of other poems, like those in "Sordello," "Prince Hohenstiel," the
"Parleyings," etc. If we place such a poem as "Reverie" side by side with
"Fra Lippo Lippi" we see well-nigh perfect illustrations of the two
faculties as they existed in the one poet, Browning. On the other hand,
in those poems where the thought, as I have said, suggests Browning, in
the speech of his characters he has something of the quality of what
Browning calls the subjective poet of modern classification. "Gifted like
the objective poet, with the fuller perception of nature and man, he is
impelled to embody the thing he perceives, not so much with reference to
the many below as to the One above him, the supreme intelligence which
apprehends all things in their absolute truth, an ultimate view ever
aspired to, if but partially attained, by the poet's soul."

Browning may be said to have carried to its flood tide the "Liberal
Movement in English Literature," as Courthope calls it, inaugurated at the
dawn of the century by the Lake School, which reacted against the correct
school of Dryden and Pope. Along with the earlier poets of the century he
shared lack of appreciation at the hands of critics in general. The
critics had been bred in the school of the eighteenth century, and
naturally would be incapable of understanding a man whose thought was
permeated with the doctrines of evolution, then an unknown quantity except
to the elect in scientific circles, and not to become the possession of
the thinking world at large until beyond the middle of the century;
whose soul was full of the ardor of democracy, shown not only in his
choice and treatment of subjects, but in his reckless independence of all
the shibboleths of the past; and whose liberalness in the treatment of
moral and religious problems was such as to scandalize many in an age when
the law forbade that a man should marry his deceased wife's sister, and
when the Higher Criticism of the Bible had not yet migrated to England
from Germany; and, finally, whose style was everything that was atrocious
because entirely different from anything they had seen before.

The century had to grow up to him. It is needless to say that it did so.
Just as out of the turmoil of conflicting scientific and religious thought
has emerged a serene belief in man's spiritual destiny, so out of the
turmoil of conflicting schools of criticism has arisen a perception of the
value of the new, the original, the different in art. Critics begin to
apply the principles of evolution to their criticism as Browning applied
it to his art, with the result that they no longer measure by past
standards of art but by relating the art to the life of the time in its
various manifestations, not forgetting that the poet or the dramatist may
have a further vision of what is to come than any other man of his age.

The people first, for the most part, found out that here in Browning's
work was a new force, and calmly formed themselves into groups to study
what manner of force it might be, regardless of the sneers of newspaperdom
and conventional academies. And gradually to the few appreciative critics
of the early days have been added one authoritative voice after another
until the chorus of praise has become a large one, and Browning, though
later than any great poet of the century, is coming into his own.

In a certain chart of English literature with which I am acquainted,
wherein the poets are graphically represented in mountain ranges with
peaks of various heights, Tennyson is shown as the towering peak of the
Victorian Era, while Browning is a sturdy but much lower peak with a
blunted top. This is quite symbolic of the general attitude toward
Browning at the end of the century, for, with all the appreciation, there
has been on the part of authority a disinclination to assign to him the
chief place among the poets of the Victorian Era. Courthope, who most of
the time preserves a remarkable reticence upon Browning, voices this
general attitude in a remark ventured upon in one of his lectures in
1900. He says:

"No one who is capable of appreciating genius will refuse to admire the
powers of this poet, the extent of his sympathy and interest in external
things, the boldness of his invention, the energy of his analysis, the
audacity of his experiments. But so absolutely does he exclude all
consideration for the reader from his choice of subject, so arbitrarily,
in his treatment of his themes, does he compel his audience to place
themselves at his own point of view, that the life of his art depends
entirely upon his own individuality. Should future generations be less
inclined than our own to surrender their imagination to his guidance, he
will not be able to appeal to them through that element of life which lies
in the Universal."

To the present writer this seems simply like a confession on Courthope's
part that he was unable to perceive in Browning the elements of the
Universal which are most assuredly there, and which were fully recognized
by a Scotch writer, Dawson, at the same time that Courthope was
questioning his power to hold coming generations.

"The fashions of the world may change," writes Dawson, "and the old doubts
may wear themselves out and sink like shadows out of sight in the
morning of a stronger faith; but even so the world will still turn to the
finer poems of Browning for intellectual stimulus, for the purification of
pity and of pathos, for the exaltation of hope.

"Or if the darkness still thickens, all the more will men turn to this
strong man of the race, who has wrestled and prevailed; who has illumined
with imaginative insight the deepest problems of the ages; who has made
his poetry not merely the vehicle of pathos, passion, tenderness, fancy,
and imagination, but also of the most robust and masculine thought. He has
written lyrics which must charm all who love, epics which must move all
who act, songs which must cheer all who suffer, poems which must fascinate
all who think; and when 'Time hath sundered shell from pearl,' however
stern may be the scrutiny, it may be said that there will remain enough of
Robert Browning to give him rank among the greatest of poets, and secure
for him the sure reward of fame."

But it is to France we must go for the surest authoritative note--that
land of the Academy and correct taste which _hums_ and _hahs_ over its own
Immortals in proverbially unpenetrating conclave. No less a man than
Taine declares that Browning stands first among English poets--"the most
excellent where excellence is greatness, the most gifted where genius is a
common dower."

While there can be no doubt that Browning outdid all the other great poets
of his time in "azure feats," in developing an absolutely self-centered
ideal of art, which is yet so true to the ultimate tendencies of the
century, indeed to those of all time, for evolution and democracy are
henceforth the torch-bearers of the human soul--each of the other
half-dozen or so greatest poets had distinct and independent
individualities which were more nearly the outcome of the current
tendencies of the time than Browning's.

[Illustration: ALFRED TENNYSON]

Tennyson was equally familiar with the thought and much more familiar with
the politics of the day, but there is an infinite difference in their
attitude. Browning, if I may be excused for quoting one of Shakespeare's
most abused phrases, rides over the century like a "naked new-born babe
striding the blast." Tennyson ambles through it on a palfrey which has a
tendency to flounder into every slough of despond it comes to. This may
seem to be putting it rather too strongly, but is it not true? Browning
has the vision belonging to the latest child of time. He never follows; he
leads. With his eyes fixed upon a far-off future where man shall be _man_
at last, he faces every problem with the intrepidity of an Oedipus
confronting the Sphynx. The mystery of its riddles has no terrors for him.
It is given to him as to few others to see the ineffable beauty of life's
mystery, the promise it holds out of eternal joy. While he frequently
discourses upon the existence of evil, he never for a moment admits any
doubt into his own utmost soul of the beneficent part evil is meant to
play in the molding of human destinies. Mr. Santayana has called him a
barbarous poet. In a certain sense he is, if to be born among the first on
a new plane of psychic perception where of no account become the endless
metaphysical meanderings of the intellect, which cry "proof, proof, where
there can be no proof," is barbarous. It was doubtless largely owing to
this power of vision reminding us again somewhat of the child's in
Maeterlinck's "Les Aveugles" which kept Browning from tinkering in the
half-measures of the political leaders of his time. His plane is not
unlike that of his own Lazarus, about whom the Arab physician says:

  "The man is witless of the size, the sum,
  The value in proportion of all things,
  Or whether it be little or be much.
  Discourse to him of prodigious armament
  Assembled to besiege his city now,
  And of the passing of a mule with gourds--
  'Tis one! Then take it on the other side,
  Speak of some trifling fact,--he will gaze rapt
  With stupor at its very littleness,
  (For as I see) as if in that indeed
  He caught prodigious import, whole results;
  And so will turn to us the bystanders
  In ever the same stupor (note this point)
  That we, too, see not with his opened eyes."

The import of an event is everything. Large imports may lurk more surely
in the awakening of some obscure soul than in the pageantry of law
bringing a tardy and wholly inadequate measure of justice to humanity.
Though Tennyson talks of the "far-off divine event" he has no burning
conviction of it and does not ride toward it with triumph in his eye and
flaming joy in his soul. As he ambles along, steeping himself in the
science of the time, its revelations make him nervous; he falls into doubt
from which he can only extricate himself by holding on to belief, a very
different thing from Browning's vision.

Thus it happens that Tennyson voices the feelings of an immense class of
cultured people, who have gone through the century in the same ambling
fashion, a prey to its fears, intellectual enough to see the truths of
science, but not spiritual enough to see the import of the dawn of the new

Tennyson, then, quite of and in his time, would desire above all things to
appeal to it as it appealed to him. He waxes enthusiastic over
conventional politics, he treats his social problems so entirely in
accordance with the conventions of the day that they are not problems at
all, and he is quite in love with the beauty of aristocratic society,
though he occasionally descends to the people for a subject. These are all
entirely sufficient reasons for his popularity as a poet during his life,
further emphasized by the added fact that having no subject matter (that
is thought-content) wherewith to startle the world by strangeness, he took
the wiser part of delighting them with his exquisite music.

Though so satisfactory a representative of his times, he did outrage one
of the shibboleths of the critics in his efforts to find a new and richer
music than poets had before used by bringing scientific imagery into his
verse. Of all the absurd controversies indulged in by critics, the most
absurd is that fought out around the contention that science and poetry
cannot be made to harmonize. Wordsworth was keen enough to see this before
the rest of the world and prophesied in the preface to his "Lyrical
Ballads" that science would one day become the closest of allies to
poetry, and Tennyson was brilliant enough to seize the new possibilities
in scientific language with a realization that nature imagery might almost
be made over by the use in describing it of scientific epithets. A famous
illustration of the happy effects he produced by these means is in the
lines "Move eastward happy Earth and round again to-night." His
observation of Nature, moreover, had a scientific accuracy, which made
possible far more delicate and individual descriptions of Nature's aspects
than had been produced before. It was also a happy thought for him to
weave so much of his poetry around the Arthurian legends. Beautiful in
themselves, they came nearer home than classical or Italian legends, and,
when made symbolic of an ideal which must appeal to the heart of every
cultured Englishman, who regarded himself as a sort of prototype of the
blameless King Arthur, and whose grief at the failure of the social fabric
planned by him would be as poignant as that of the King himself, they
carried with them a romantic and irresistible attraction.

The reasons why Tennyson should appeal especially to the nineteenth
century cultured and highly respectable Englishman far outweighed any
criticisms that might be made by critics on his departure from poetic
customs of the past. He pleased the highest powers in the land, became
Laureate and later Lord Tennyson. He will therefore always remain the poet
most thoroughly representative of that especial sort of beauty belonging
to a social order which has reached a climax of refinement and
intelligence, but which, through its very self-satisfaction, cuts itself
off from a perception of the true value of the new forces coming into play
in the on-rushing stream of social development.

The other poets who divide with Browning and Tennyson the highest honors
of the Victorian Era are Landor, Arnold, Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, Mrs.
Browning, George Meredith.

Landor and Arnold preserved more than any of the others a genuine
classical aroma in their verse, and on this account have always been
delighted in by a few. After all, the people may not immediately accept a
poet of too great independence, but they are least of all likely to grow
enthusiastic over anything reactionary either in style or thought.
Romantic elements of not too startling a character win the favor of most

Though classic in style both these poets reflected phases of the century's
thought. Landor differed from Browning in the fact that he frequently
expressed himself vigorously upon the subject of current politics. His
political principles were not of the most advanced type, however. He
believed in the notion of a free society, but seems to have thought the
best way of attaining it would be a commonwealth in which the wise should
rule, and see that the interests of all should be secured. Still his
insistence upon liberty, however old-fashioned his ideas of the means by
which it should be maintained, puts him in the line of the democratic
march of the century.

Swinburne calls him his master, and represents himself in verse as having
learned many wise and gracious things of him, but his thought was not
sufficiently progressive to triumph over the classicism of his style in an
age of romantic poetry, though there will always be those who hold on to
the shibboleth that, after all, the classic is the real thing in poetry,
never realizing that where the romantic is old enough, it, too, becomes

Matthew Arnold stands in poetry where men like Huxley and Clifford stood
in science, who, Childe-Roland like, came to the dark tower, calmly put
the slug horn to their lips and blew a blast of courage. Science had
undermined their belief in a future life as well as destroying the
revealed basis of moral action. In such a man the intellectual nature
overbalances the intuitional, and when inherited belief based on authority
is destroyed, there is nothing but the habit of morality left.

Arnold has had the sympathy of those who could no longer believe in their
revealed religion, but who loved it and regretted its passing away from
them. He gives expression to this feeling in lines like these:

                      "The sea of faith
  Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
  Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
  But now I only hear
  Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
  Retreating, to the breath
  Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
  And naked shingles of the world."

The regret for something beautiful that is gone is capable of exquisite
poetic treatment, but it is not an abiding note of the century. It
represents only one phase of its thought, and that a transcient one,
because it could be felt with poignancy only by those whose lives were
rudely shaken by the destruction of the ideal in which they had been bred
and in which they devoutly believed. Arnold's sympathetic treatment of
this phase of doubt seems, however, to have been of incalculable service
to those who felt as he did. It softened the anguish of the shock to have
not only the beauty of the past dwelt upon, but to have the beauty of
courage in the face of a destroyed ideal erected into a new ideal for
living brave and noble lives. In "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" is a
fine example of the beauty which may be imparted to a mood as melancholy
as could well be imagined:

  "Not as their friend, or child, I speak!
    But as, on some far northern strand,
  Thinking of his own Gods, a Greek
    In pity and mournful awe might stand
  Before some fallen Runic stone--
  For both were faiths, and both are gone.

  "Wandering between two worlds, one dead
    The other powerless to be born,
  With nowhere yet to rest my head,
    Like these, on earth I wait forlorn,
  Their faith, my tears, the world deride--
  I come to shed them at their side."

Such hope as he has to offer comes out in stanzas like the following,
but all is dependent upon strenuous living:

  "No, no! the energy of life may be
  Kept on after the grave, but not begun;
  And he who flagg'd not in the earthly strife,
  From strength to strength advancing--only he,
  His soul well-knit, and all his battle won,
  Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life."

Nor shall better days on earth come without struggle since life

  "Is on all sides o'ershadowed by the high
  Uno'erleaped Mountains of Necessity,
  Sparing us narrower margin than we deem.
  Nor will that day dawn at a human nod,
  When, bursting through the network, superposed
  By selfish occupation--plot and plan,
  Lust, avarice, envy-liberated man,
  All difference with his fellow-mortal closed,
  Shall be left standing face to face with God."

Though Arnold was sternly criticised he had before the end of the century
been accorded his proper place as a poet, which was that of the chief poet
between the greatest lights of the century, Browning and Tennyson and the
pre-Raphaelite group. Gosse, with more penetration than can always be
accorded to him, declares that "His devotion to beauty, the composure,
simplicity and dignity of his temper, and his deep moral sincerity gave
to his poetry a singular charm which may prove as durable as any element
in modern verse."

The phase of romanticism carried to its climax by the pre-Raphaelite poets
Rossetti and his sister, Morris and Swinburne had, like the work of
Tennyson, its full recognition, in its own time, because these poets, like
him, have put into exquisite music romantic subjects derived both from the
classics and from mediæval legend. The new note of sensuousness, due
largely to the Italian influence of Rossetti, with his sensuous
temperament, his intensity of passion and his love of art, and also in
Morris and Swinburne to their pagan feeling, one of the elements
inaugurated by the general breaking down of orthodox religious ideals
through the encroachments of science, does not seem to have affected their

As there were those who would sympathize with the Tennysonian attitude
toward doubt, and those who would sympathize with Matthew Arnold's, there
were others to feel like Swinburne, pantheistic, and, like Morris, utterly
hopeless of a future, while others again might criticise the pagan
feeling, but, with their inheritance of beauty from Tennyson and his
predecessors of the dawn of the century, would delight in these new
developments of the romantic spirit.

[Illustration: A. C. SWINBURNE]

Ruskin is said to have been the original inspirer of these four poets,
though Fitz-Gerald's "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayyám was not without its
influence. But as Edmund Gosse says, "The attraction of the French
romances of chivalry for William Morris, of Tuscan painting for D. G.
Rossetti, of the spirit of English Gothic architecture for Christina
Rossetti, of the combination of all these with Greek and Elizabethan
elements for Swinburne, were to be traced back to start--words given by
the prophetic author of the 'Seven Lamps of Architecture.'"

Though the first books of this group of poets, the "Defence of Guenevere"
(1858), "Goblin Market," "Early Italian Poets," "Queen Mother and
Rosamond" (1861), did not make any impression on the public, with the
publication of Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon" an interest was awakened
which reached a climax with the publication of Rossetti's poems in 1870.
Rossetti had thrown these poems into his wife's grave, as the world knows,
but was prevailed upon to have them recovered and published.

In the success of this group was vindicated at last the principles of the
naturalists of the dawn of the century. Here was a mixture of color, of
melody, of mysticism, of sensuousness, of elaboration of form which
carried originality and independence as far as it could well go in a
direction which painted life primarily from the outside. But when this
brilliant culminating flash of the early school of Coleridge and Keats
began to burn itself out, there was Tennyson, who might be called the
conservative wing of the romantic movement, dominant as ever, and
Browning, the militant wing, advanced from his mid-century obscurity into
a flood-tide of appreciation which was to bear him far onward toward
literary pre-eminence, placing him among the few greatest names in

The originality of the pre-Raphaelites grew out of their welding of
romantic, classical, and mediæval elements, tempered in each case by the
special mental attitude of the poet.

Rossetti and his brother artists, Millais and Holman Hunt, who founded the
pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of painters, pledged themselves to the
fundamental principle laid down by Rossetti in the little magazine they
started called the _Germ_. This new creed was simple enough and ran: "The
endeavor held in view throughout the writings on art will be to
encourage and enforce an entire adherence to the simplicity of Nature."

In their interpretation and development of this simple principle, artists
and the poets who joined them differentiated from one another often to a
wide extent. In Rossetti, it becomes an adoration of the beauty of woman
expressed in ultra-sensuous though not in sensual imagery, combined with
an atmosphere of religious wonder such as one finds in mediæval poets, of
which "The Blessed Damozel" stands as a typical example. In it, as one
appreciator has said, all the qualities of Rossetti's poetry are found.
"He speaks alternately like a seer and an artist; one who is now bewitched
with the vision of beauty, and now is caught up into Paradise, where he
hears unutterable things. To him the spiritual world is an intense
reality. He hears the voices, he sees the presences of the supernatural.
As he mourns beside the river of his sorrow, like Ezekiel, he has his
visions of winged and wheeling glory, and leaning over the ramparts of the
world his gaze is fixed on the uncovered mysteries of a world to come.
There is no poet to whom the supernatural has been so much alive.
Religious doubt he seems never to have felt. But the temper of religious
wonder, the old, childlike, monkish attitude of awe and faith in the
presence of the unseen, is never absent in him. The artistic force of his
temperament drives him to the worship of beauty; the poetic and religious
forces to the adoration of mystery."

To Swinburne the simplicity of nature included the utmost lengths to which
eroticism could go. Upon this ground he has been severely censured and he
has had an unfortunate influence upon scores and scores of younger writers
who have seemed to think that the province of the poet is to decry the
existence of sincere affection, and who in their turn have exercised
actual mischief in lowering social standards.

This is not all of Swinburne, however. His superb metrical power is his
chief contribution to the originality of this group, and when he developed
away from his nauseating eroticism, he could charm as no one else with his
delicious music, though it often be conspicuous for its lack of richness
in thought.

His fate has been somewhat different from that of most poets. When his
"Atalanta in Calydon" was published it was received with enthusiasm, but
the volumes overweighted with eroticism which followed caused a fierce
controversy, and many have not even yet discovered that this was only one
phase of Swinburne's art, and that, unfortunate as it is in many
respects, it was a phase of the century's life which must find its
expression in art if that life is to be completely given, and that it was
a passing phase Swinburne himself proved in the development of other
phases shown in his interest in current political situations, his
enthusiasm for Italy and his later expressions of high moral ideals, as
well as in a quasi-religious attitude of mind, not so far from that of
Emerson, himself, in which strong emphasis is placed upon the importance
of the individual, and upon the unity of God and man.

There is moral courage and optimism in the face of doubt of a high order
in the following lines:

  --"Are ye not weary and faint not by the way
  Seeing night by night devoured of day by day,
    Seeing hour by hour consumed in sleepless fire?
      Sleepless; and ye too, when shall ye, too sleep?
  --We are weary in heart and head, in hands and feet,
  And surely more than all things sleep were sweet,
    Than all things save the inexorable desire
      Which whoso knoweth shall neither faint nor weep.

  "Is this so sweet that one were fain to follow?
  Is this so sure when all men's hopes are hollow,
     Even this your dream, that by much tribulation
      Ye shall make whole flawed hearts, and bowed necks straight?
  --Nay though our life were blind, our death were fruitless,
  Not therefore were the whole world's high hope rootless;
    But man to man, nation would turn to nation,
      And the old life live, and the old great word be great."

But Swinburne in his farthest reaches of pantheistic aspiration is to be
seen in a poem like "Hertha":

              "I am that which began;
                Out of me the years roll;
              Out of me God and man;
                I am equal and whole;
  God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily; I am the soul.

              "The tree many-rooted
                That swells to the sky
              With frondage red-fruited
                The life-tree am I;
  In the buds of your lives is the sap of my leaves; ye shall live and not

              "But the Gods of your fashion
                That take and that give,
              In their pity and passion
                That scourge and forgive,
  They are worms that are bred in the bark that falls off; they shall die
      and not live.

              "My own blood is what stanches
                The wounds in my bark:
              Stars caught in my branches
                Make day of the dark,
  And are worshipped as suns till the sunrise shall tread out their fires
      as a spark."

Morris's interpretation of pre-Raphaelite tenets took him into mediæval
legend and the classics for his subject matter. In his first volume, "The
Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems," he came into competition with
Tennyson, who was at the same time issuing his Arthurian legends. The
polish of Tennyson's verse, as well as its symbolical meaning for the
time, was more acceptable than the actual return to the nature of the
fifteenth century, and this the first volume from a pre-Raphaelite was
hardly noticed by the critics. Morris sulked within his literary tents for
ten years before he again appeared, this time with "The Life and Death of
Jason" (1867), which immediately became popular. Later came the "Earthly
Paradise." These tales, in verse noble and simple, in style recalling the
tales of Chaucer, yet with a charm all their own, in which the real men
and women of Chaucer give place to types, have been the delight of those
who like to find in poetry a dreamland of romance where they may enjoy
themselves far from the problems and toils of everyday life. He differs
from all the other poets of this group in his lack of religious hope. His
mind was of the type that could not stand up against the undermining
influences of the age: hence world-weariness and despair are the
constantly recurring notes.


Mrs. Browning far outdistanced her husband in the early days in
popularity. She pleased the people by her social enthusiasm, a
characteristic more marked in her verse than in that of any of the poets
mentioned. The critics have found many faults in her style, mainly those
growing out of an impassioned nature which carried her at times beyond the
realm of perfectly balanced art. But even an English critic of the
conservatism of Edmund Gosse could at last admit that "In some of her
lyrics and more rarely in her sonnets she rose to heights of passionate
humanity which place her only just below the great poets of her country."

Contemporary criticism of "Aurora Leigh," which was certainly a departure
both in form and matter from the accepted standards, was, on the whole,
just. _The Quarterly Review_ in 1862 said of it: "This 'Aurora Leigh' is a
great poem. It is a wonder of art. It will live. No large audience will it
have, but it will have audience; and that is more than most poems have. To
those who know what poetry is and in what struggles it is born--how the
great thoughts justify themselves--this work will be looked upon as one of
the wonders of the age." Mrs. Browning resembles her husband in the fact
that she does not fit into the main line of evolution of the romantic
school, but is an individual manifestation of the romantic spirit, showing
almost as great freedom from the trammels of accepted romanticism as
Browning does.

The writer of the century whose experience as a novelist almost paralleled
that of Browning as poet was Meredith. Because of his psychological
analysis and the so-called obscurity of his style, he waited many years
for recognition and finally was accepted as one of the most remarkable
novelists of the age. His poetry, showing similar tendencies, and
overshadowed by his novels, has not yet emerged into the light of
universal appreciation. One finds it even ignored altogether in the most
recent books of English literature, yet he is the author of one of the
most remarkable series of sonnets in the English language, "Modern Love,"
presenting, as it does, a vivid picture of domestic decadence which forms
a strange contrast to Rossetti's sonnets, "The House of Life," indicating
how many and various have been the forces at work during the nineteenth
century in the disintegrating and molding of social ideals. Meredith
writes of "Hiding the Skeleton".

  "At dinner she is hostess, I am host.
  Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
  The topic over intellectual deeps
  In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
  With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:
  It is in truth a most contagious game;
  _Hiding the Skeleton_ shall be its name.
  Such play as this the devils might appall,
  But here's the greater wonder; in that we,
  Enamor'd of our acting and our wits,
  Admire each other like true hypocrites.
  Warm-lighted glances, Love's Ephemeral,
  Shoot gayly o'er the dishes and the wine.
  We waken envy of our happy lot.
  Fast sweet, and golden, shows our marriage-knot.
  Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine!"

Rossetti writes "Lovesight":

  "When do I see thee most, beloved one?
    When in the light the spirits of mine eyes
    Before thy face, their altar, solemnize
  The worship of that Love through thee made known?
  Or when, in the dusk hours (we two alone),
    Close-kiss'd and eloquent of still replies
    Thy twilight--hidden glimmering visage lies,
  And my soul only sees thy soul its own?
    O love, my love! if I no more should see
    Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee,
  Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,--
    How then should sound upon Life's darkening slope,
    The ground-whirl of the perish'd leaves of Hope,
  The wind of Death's imperishable wing?"

Browning's criticism of painting was evidently much influenced by the
pre-Raphaelites. Their admiration for the painters who preceded Raphael,
revealing as it did to them an art not satisfied with itself, but reaching
after higher things, and earnestly seeking to interpret nature and human
life, is echoed in his "Old Pictures in Florence," which was written but
six years after Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti formed their brotherhood. In
poetry, they did not eschew classical subjects, as Browning did for the
most part, but they treated these subjects in a romantic spirit, and so
removed them from the sort of strictures that Browning made upon the
perfection of Greek art.

From this summary of the chief lines of literary development in the
nineteenth century it will be seen, not only what a marvelous age it has
been for the flowering of individualism in literary invention, but how
Browning has surpassed all the other poets of note in the wideness of his
departure from accepted standards, and how helpless the earlier critics
were in the face of this departure, because of their dependence always
upon critical shibboleths--in other words, of principles not sufficiently
universal--as their means of measuring a poet's greatness. Tennyson and
the pre-Raphaelites won their popularity sooner among critics because
they followed logically in the line of development inaugurated by the
earlier poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, etc., whose poetry had already
done some good work in breaking down the school of Dryden and Pope, though
it succeeded only in erecting another standard not sufficiently universal
to include Browning. The evolution of art forms, a principle so clearly
understood, as we have shown by Browning, has never become a guiding one
with critics, though Mr. Gosse in his "Modern English Literature" has
expressed a wish that the principle of evolution might be adapted to
criticism. He has evidently felt how hopeless is the task of appraising
poets by the old individualistic method, which, as he says, has been in
favor for at least a century. It possesses, he declares, considerable
effectiveness in adroit hands, but is, after all, an adaptation of the old
theory of the unalterable type, merely substituting for the one authority
of the ancients an equal rigidity in a multitude of isolated modern
instances. For this inflexible style of criticism he proposes that a
scientific theory shall be adopted which shall enable us at once to take
an intelligent pleasure in Pope and in Wordsworth, in Spenser and in
Swift. He writes:

"Herbert Spencer has, with infinite courage, opened the entire world of
phenomena to the principles of evolution, but we seem slow to admit them
into the little province of æsthetics. We cling to the individualist
manner, to that intense eulogy which concentrates its rays on the
particular object of notice and relegates all others to proportional
obscurity. There are critics of considerable acumen and energy who seem to
know no other mode of nourishing a talent or a taste than that which is
pursued by the cultivators of gigantic gooseberries. They do their best to
nip off all other buds, that the juices of the tree of fame may be
concentrated on their favorite fruit. Such a plan may be convenient for
the purposes of malevolence, and in earlier times our general ignorance of
the principles of growth might well excuse it. But it is surely time that
we should recognize only two criteria of literary judgment. The first is
primitive, and merely clears the ground of rubbish; it is, Does the work
before us, or the author, perform what he sets out to perform with a
distinguished skill in the direction in which his powers are exercised? If
not, he interests the higher criticism not at all; but if yes, then
follows the second test: Where, in the vast and ever-shifting scheme of
literary evolution, does he take his place, and in what relation does he
stand, not to those who are least like him, but to those who are of his
own kith and kin?"

[Illustration: GEORGE MEREDITH]

With such principles of criticism as this, the public would sooner be
brought to an appreciation of all that is best worth while in literature,
instead of being taken, as it too often is, upon a wrong scent to worship
at the shrine of the Nokes and Stokes, who simply print blue and eat the

If Mr. Gosse had himself been fully imbued with such principles would he
have made the statement quoted in chapter two in regard to Browning's
later books? And should we have such senseless criticism as a remark which
has become popular lately, and which I believe emanated from a university
in the South--namely, that Browning never said anything that Tennyson had
not said better? As an illustration of this a recent critic may be quoted
who is entirely scornful of the person who prefers Browning's

  "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world"

to Tennyson's

  "And hear at times a sentinel
    Who moves about from place to place,
    And whispers to the worlds of space
  In the deep night that all is well."

One might reply to this that it is a matter of taste had not Courthope
shown conclusively that Matthew Arnold's criterion of criticism--namely,
that a taste which is born of culture is the only certain possession by
which the critic can measure the beauty of a poet's line--is a fallacy.
His argument is worth quoting:

    "You have stated strongly one side of the truth, but you have ignored,
    completely ignored, the other. You have asserted the claims of
    individual liberty, and up to a certain point I agree with you. I do
    not deny that spiritual liberty is founded on consciousness, and hence
    the self-consciousness of the age is part of the problem we are
    considering. I do not deny that the prevailing rage for novelty must
    also be taken into account. Liberty, variety, novelty, are all
    necessary to the development of Art. Without novelty there can be no
    invention, without variety there can be no character, without liberty
    there can be no life. Life, character, invention, these are of the
    essence of Poetry. But while you have defended with energy the freedom
    of the Individual, you have said nothing of the authority of society.
    And yet the conviction of the existence of this authority is a belief
    perhaps even more firmly founded in the human mind than the sentiment
    as to the rights of individual liberty....

    The great majority of the professors of poetry, however various their
    opinions, however opposite their tastes, have felt sure that there was
    in taste, as in science, a theory of false and true; in art, as in
    conduct, a rule of right and wrong. And even among those who have
    asserted most strongly the inward and relative nature of poetry, do
    you think there was one so completely a skeptic as to imagine that he
    was the sole proprietor of the perception he sought to embody in
    words; one who doubted his power, by means of accepted symbols, to
    communicate to his audience his own ideas and feelings about external
    things? Yet until some man shall have been found bold enough to defend
    a thesis so preposterous, we must continue to believe that there is a
    positive standard, by which those at least who speak a common language
    may reason about questions of taste."

Armed with this gracious permission on the part of a professor of poetry,
we may venture to reason a little upon the foregoing quotations from
Tennyson and Browning to the effect that the person of really good taste
might like each of them in its place. While Tennyson's mystical quatrain
is beautiful and quite appropriate in such a poem as "In Memoriam," it
would not be in the least appropriate from the lips of a little
silk-winding girl as she wanders through the streets of Asolo on a sunny
morning singing her little songs. She is certainly a more lifelike child
speaking Browningese, as she has often been criticised for doing, than she
would be if upon this occasion she spoke in a Tennysonian manner. That her
song has touched the hearts of the twentieth century, if it was not
altogether appreciated in the nineteenth, is proved by the fact that it is
one of the most popular songs of the day as set by Mrs. H. H. A. Beach,
and that the line is heard upon the lips of people to-day who do not even
know whose it is, and herein lies the ultimate test of greatness.



Before passing in review Browning's treatment of classical subjects as
compared with the other great poets of the nineteenth century, it will be
interesting to take a glimpse at his choice of subject-matter in general.

To compare Browning's choice of subject-matter with that of other English
poets is to strike at the very root of his position in the chain of
literary development. Subject-matter is by no means simple in its nature,
but as a musical sound is composed of vibrations within vibrations, so it
is made up of the complex relations of body and spirit--the mere external
facts of the story are blended with such philosophical undercurrent, or
dramatic _motif_, or unfolding of the hidden springs of action as the poet
is able to insinuate into it.

However far back one penetrates in the history of poetry, poets will be
found depending largely upon previous sources, rather than upon their own
creative genius, for the body of their subject-matter, until the
question presents itself with considerable force as to who could have been
the mysterious first poet who supplied plots to the rest of mankind.
Conjecture is obliged to play a part here, as it does wherever human
origins are in question. Doubtless, this first poet was no separate
individual, but simply the elements man and nature, through whose action
and reaction upon each other grew up story-forms, evidently compounded of
human customs, and observed natural phenomena such as those we find in the
great Hindu, Greek, and Teutonic classics, and which thus crystallized
became great well-springs of inspiration for future generations of poets.

Each new poet, however, who is worthy of the name, sets up his own
particular interplay with man and nature; and however much he may be
indebted for his inspiration to past products of this universal law of
action and reaction, he is bound to use them or interpret them in a manner
colored by his own personal and peculiar relations with the universe.

In so doing he supplies the more important spiritual side of
subject-matter and becomes in very truth the poet or maker, to that extent
at least which Browning himself lays down as the province of art--namely,
to arrange,

  "Dissociate, redistribute, interchange
  Part with part: lengthen, broaden
  ... simply what lay loose
  At first lies firmly after, what design
  Was faintly traced in hesitating line
  Once on a time grows firmly resolute
  Henceforth and evermore."

Sometimes the poet's power of arranging and redistributing and
interchanging carries him upward into the realm of ideas alone, among
which his imagination plays in absolute freedom; he throws over the
results of man's past dallyings with Nature and makes his own terms with
her, and the result is an approach to absolute creation.

Except in the case of lyric poetry the instances where there have been no
suggestions as to subject-matter are rare in comparison with those where
the subject-matter has been derived from some source.

Look, for instance, at the father of English poetry, Chaucer, how he
ransacked French, Italian and Latin literature for his subject-matter,
most conscientiously carrying out his own saying, that

  "Out of olde feldys as men sey
    Comyth all this newe corn from yere to yere,
  And out of olde books in good fey
    Cometh all this new science that men alere."

How external a way he had of working over old materials, especially in his
earlier work, is well illustrated in "The Parliament of Fowls," which he
opens by relating the dream of Scipio, originally contained in Cicero's
treatise on the "Republic," and preserved by Macrobius. This dream, which
tells how Africanus appears to Scipio, and carries him up among the stars
of the night, shows him Carthage, and prophesies to him of his future
greatness, tells him of the blissful immortal life that is in store for
those who have served their country, points out to him the brilliant
celestial fires, and how insignificant the earth is in comparison with
them, and opens his ears to the wondrous harmony of the spheres--this
dream is as far removed from the main argument of the poem as anything
well could be a contest between three falcons for the hand of a formel.
The bringing together of such diverse elements presents no difficulties to
the childlike stage of literary development that depends upon surface
analogies for the linking together of its thoughts. Just as talking about
his ancestor, the great Scipio Africanus, with the old King Masinissa
caused Scipio to dream of him, so reading about this dream caused Chaucer,
who has to close his book and go to bed for want of a light, to dream of
Scipio Africanus also, who "was come and stood right at his bedis syde."

Africanus then plays the part of conductor to Chaucer in a manner
suggestive not only of his relations to Scipio, but of Virgil's relation
to Dante, and brings him to the great gateway and through it into the
garden of love. The description is of the temple of Venus in Boccaccio's
"La Teseide." There Nature and the "Fowls" are introduced and described,
and at last the point is reached. Nature proclaims that it is St.
Valentine's day, and all the fowls may choose them mates. The royal falcon
is given first choice, and chooses the lovely formel that sits upon
Nature's hand. Two other ardent falcons declare their devotion to the same
fowl, and Nature, when the formel declares that she will serve neither
Venus nor Cupid and asks a respite for a year, decides that the three
shall serve their lady another year--a pretty allegory supposed to refer
to the wooing of Blanche of Lancaster by John of Gaunt.

The main argument of this poem, when it finally is reached by artificially
welding together rich links borrowed from other poets, is one of the few
examples in Chaucer of subject-matter derived direct from a real event,
but the putting of it in an allegorical form at once lays him under
obligations to his poetic predecessors, not only on Anglo-Saxon soil, but
in France and Italy.

His most important contributions as an inventor are, of course, his
descriptions of the Canterbury Pilgrims, which are the pure outcome of a
keen observation of men and women at first hand. So lifelike are they that
in them he has made the England of the fourteenth century live again. But
how small a proportion of the bulk of the "Canterbury Tales" is contained
in these glimpses of English life and manners. It is but the framework
upon which luxuriate vines of fancy transplanted from many another garden,
and even in its place resembling, if not borrowed from, Boccaccio.

The thoroughly human instincts of the poet assert themselves, however, in
the choice of the tales which he puts into the mouths of his pilgrims. He
allows a place to the crudities and even the vulgarities of common stories
as well as to culture-lore. The magic of the East, the love tales of
Italy, the wisdom of philosophers, the common stories of the people, all
give up their wealth to his gentle touch. With a keen sense of propriety
he, with few exceptions, gives each one of his pilgrims a tale suited in
its general tendency to the character of its narrator, and in the critical
chatter of the pilgrims about the tales, reflects not only his own tastes,
but that of the times, the opinions expressed frequently being most
uncomplimentary in their tenor.

In fine, the life of reality and the life of books is spread out before
Chaucer, and his observation of both is keen and interested; and this it
is which makes him much more than the "great translator" that Eustace Les
Champs called him, and settles the nature of the "subtle thing" called
spirit contributed by the individuality of the poet to his subject-matter.
He brings everything within the reach of human sympathy, because his way
of putting a story into his own words is sympathetic. He was a combination
of the story-teller, the scholar, the poet, and the critic. As a scholar
he brings in learned allusions that are entirely extraneous to the action
in hand; as the story-teller, he takes delight in the tales that both the
poet and the people have told; as the poet, his imagination dresses up a
story with a fresh environment, often anachronous, and sometimes he alters
the moral tone of the characters. Cressida is an interesting example of
this. But instead of the characters suggesting by their own action and
speech all the needed moral, Chaucer himself appears ever at hand to
analyze and criticise and moralize, though he does it so delightfully that
one hesitates to call him didactic. The result of all this is that the
external form and the underlying essence of his subject-matter are not
completely fused. We often see a sort of guileless working of the
machinery of art, yet it is true, no doubt, though perhaps not to the
extent insisted on by Morley, that he has something of the Shakespearian
quality which enables him to show men as they really are, "wholly
developed as if from within, not as described from without by an imperfect
and prejudiced observer."

In his great work, Spenser is no less dependent upon sources for his
inspiration, but there is a marked difference in his use of them. Although
his range of observation is much narrower than Chaucer's, hardly extending
at all into the realm of actual human effort, yet he makes an advance in
so far as his powers of redistribution are much greater than Chaucer's.

The various knights of the "Fairy Queen" and their exploits are not
modeled directly upon any previous stories, but they are made up of
incidents similar to those found scattered all through classic lore; and
as his inspirations were drawn in most cases directly from the
fountain-head of story in the Greek writers--instead of as they filtered
through the Latin, Italian, and French, with the inevitable accretions
that result from migrations,--and from the comparatively unalloyed
Arthurian legends, there is a clearer reflection in them of the cosmic
elements that shine through both the Greek and Arthurian originals than is
found in Chaucer.

Although Spenser was certainly unaware of any such modern refinement of
the mythologist as a solar myth, yet the "Fairy Queen" forms a curious and
interesting study on account of the survivals everywhere evident of solar
characteristics in his characters and plots. Indeed it could hardly be
otherwise, considering his intention, and his method of carrying it out,
which he, himself, explains in his quaint letter to Sir Walter
Raleigh--namely, "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and
gentle discipline." He goes on:

    "I close the history of King Arthur as most fit for the excellency of
    his person, being made famous by many men's former works, and also
    further from danger and envy of suspicion of present time. In which I
    have followed all the antique poets historical; first Homer, who in
    the person of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governor
    and a virtuous man, the one in his 'Iliad,' the other in his
    'Odyssey'; then Virgil, whose like intention was to do in the person
    of Æneas: After him, Ariosto comprised them both in his Orlando, and
    lately Tasso dissevered them again, and formed both parts in two
    persons, the part which they in Philosophy call Ethice or virtues of a
    private man, colored in his Rinaldo, the other, named Politice, in his
    Godfieldo. By example of which excellent poets, I labor to portray in
    Arthur before he was King, the image of a brave Knight perfected in
    the twelve private moral virtues as Aristotle hath devised, the which
    is the purpose of these first twelve books."

In the fashioning of his knight he took Arthur, a hero whose life as it
appears in the early romances is inextricably mingled with solar elements,
and has built up his virtues upon other ancient solar heroes. Here are all
the paraphernalia of solar mythology: invincible knights with marvelous
weapons, brazen castles guarded by dragons, marriage with a beautiful
maiden and parting from the bride to engage in new quests, an enchantress
who turns men into animals, even the outcast child; but none of the
incidents appear intact. It is as if there had been a great explosion in
the ancient land of romance and that in the mending up of things the
separate pieces are all recognizable, although all joined together in a
different pattern, while under all is the allegory. A gentle knight is
no longer a solar hero as set forth by Max Müller or Cox, but Holiness;
his invincible armor is not the all-powerful rays of the sun, but truth;
the enchantress not night casting a spell over mortals, but sensuous
pleasure entangling them.

These two poets, Chaucer and Spenser, are prototypes of two poet types of
two poetical tendencies that have gone on developing side by side in
English literature: Chaucer, democratic, interested supremely in the
personalities of men and women, portraying the real, and Spenser,
aristocratic, interested in imaging forth an ideal of manhood, choosing
his subject-matter from sources that will lend themselves to such a
purpose; Chaucer drawing his lessons out of the real actions of humanity;
Spenser framing his story so that it will illustrate the moral he wishes
to inculcate.

Shakespeare, of course, ranges himself in line with Chaucer. His interest
centered on character, and wherever a story capable of character
development presented itself, that he chose, altered it in outline
comparatively little, and when he did so it was in order to carry forward
the dramatic _motif_ which he infused into his subject. The dramatic
form in which he wrote furnished him a better medium for reaching a
complete welding together of the external and spiritual side of his
subject-matter. Where Chaucer hinted at the possibilities of an artistic
development of character that would cause the events of the story to
appear as the inevitable outcome of the hidden springs of action,
Shakespeare accomplished it, and peopled the world of imagination with
group after group of living, acting characters.

In the nineteenth century Tennyson and Browning have represented, broadly
speaking, these two tendencies. As with Spenser, the classics and the
Arthurian legends have been the sources from which Tennyson has drawn most
largely; but although a philosophical undercurrent is this poet's
spiritual addition to the subject-matter, his method of putting his soul
inside his work is very different from Spenser's. He does not tear the old
myths to pieces and join them together again after a pattern of his own to
fit his allegorical situation, but keeps the events of his stories almost
unchanged, in this particular resembling Chaucer and Shakespeare,
and--except in a few instances, such as Tithonus and Lucretius, where the
classic spirit of the originals is preserved--he infuses in his subject a
vein of philosophy, illustrating those modern tendencies of English
thought of which Tennyson, himself, was the exemplar. Even when inventing
subjects, founded upon the experiences of everyday life, he so manipulates
the story as to make it illustrate some of his favorite moral maxims. His
characters do not act from motives which are the inherent necessities of
their natures, but they act in accordance with Tennyson's preconceived
notions of how they ought to act. He manipulates the elements of character
to suit his own view of development, just as Spenser manipulated the
elements of the story to suit his own allegorical purpose.

Browning is the nineteenth-century heir of Chaucer; but it is doubtful
whether Chaucer would recognize his own offspring, so remarkable has the
development been in those five centuries. With Chaucer's keen interest in
human nature deepened to a profound insight into the very soul of
humanity, and the added wealth of these centuries of human history,
Browning not only had a far wider range of choice in subject-matter, but
he was enabled to instil into it greater intellectual and emotional

Rarely has he treated any subject that has already been treated poetically
unless we except the transcripts from the classics soon to be
considered. Wherever he saw an interesting historical personage,
interesting, not on account of his brilliant achievements in the eyes of
the world, but on account of potentialities of character, such a one he
has set before us to reveal himself. There are between twenty and thirty
portraits of this nature in his work, chosen from all sorts and conditions
of men--men who stand for some phase of growth in human thought; and
always in developing a personality he gives the kernel of truth upon which
their peculiar point of view is based. Thus, among the musical poems, Abt
Vogler speaks for the intuitionalist--he who is blessed by a glimpse of
the absolute truth. Charles Avison, on the other hand, is the philosopher
of the relative in music and the arts generally. Among the art poems, Fra
Lippo Lippi is the apostle of beauty in realism, Andrea del Sarto the
attainer of perfection in form. In the religious poems the Jewish
standpoint is illustrated in "Saul" and "Rabbi Ben Ezra," the Christian in
the portrait of John in "The Death in the Desert"; the empirical reasoner
in "Paracelsus."

This is only one of Browning's methods in the choice and use of
subject-matter. The characters and incidents in his stories are
frequently the result of pure invention, but he sets them in an
environment recreated from history, developing their individualities in
harmony with the environment, thus giving at one stroke the spirit of the
time and the individual qualities of special representatives of the time.
Examples of this are: "My Last Duchess," where the Duke is an entirely
imaginary person and the particular incident is invented, but he is made
to act and talk in a way perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the
time--mediæval Italy. "Hugues of Saxe-Gotha" is another being of
Browning's fancy, who yet represents to perfection the spirit of the old
fugue writers. "Luria," "The Soul's Tragedy," "In a Balcony," all
represent the same method.

Another plan pursued by the poet is either to invent or borrow a
historical personage into whose mouth he puts the defence of some course
of action or ethical standard that may or may not be founded upon the
highest ideals. Sludge, the hero of "Fifine at the Fair," Bishop Blougram,
Hohenstiel-Schwangau, range themselves in this group.

There are comparatively few cases where he has taken a complete story and
developed its spiritual possibilities without much change in external
detail, but how adequate his art was to such ends, "The Ring and the
Book," "Inn Album," "Two Poets of Croisic," "Red Cotton Nightcap Country,"
the historical dramas of "Strafford," and "King Victor and King Charles"
fully prove, including, as they do, some of his finest masterpieces.

History and story have furnished many of the incidents which he has worked
up in his dramatic lyrics and romances like "Clive," "Hervé Riel,"
"Donald," etc. There remains, however, a large number of poems containing
some of Browning's loveliest work in which the subject-matter is, as far
as we know, the creation of pure, unadulterated fancy. "A Blot in the
'Scutcheon," "In a Balcony," "Colombe's Birthday," "Childe Roland," "James
Lee's Wife" are some of them. Even in this rapid survey of the field the
fact is patent that Browning's range of subject-matter is infinitely wider
and his method of developing it far more varied than has been that of any
other English poet. He seems the first to have completely shaken himself
free from the trammels of classic or mediæval literature. There are no
echoes of Arthur and his Knights in his poetry, the shadows of the Greek
gods and goddesses exert no spell--except in the few instances when he
deliberately chose a Greek subject.

The fact that Browning was so free from classical influence in the great
body of his work as compared with the other chief poets of the nineteenth
century gives an especial interest to those poems in which he chose
classical themes for his subjects. There are not more than ten all told,
and one of these is a translation, yet they represent some of his finest
and most original work, for Browning could not touch a classical theme
without infusing into it that grasp and insight peculiar to his own

His first and most conventionally classical poem is the fragment in "Men
and Women," "Artemis Prologizes," written in 1842. It was to have been the
introduction to a long poem telling of the mad love of Hippolytus for a
nymph of Artemis, after that goddess had brought about his resuscitation.
It has been suggested by Mr. Boynton in an interesting paper that Browning
shows traces of the influence of Landor in his poetry. This fragment
certainly furnishes argument for this opinion, though it has a strength of
diction along with its Greek severity and terseness of style which leads
to the conclusion that the influence came from the fountain head of
Greek poetry itself rather than through the lesser muse of this
nineteenth-century Greek.

The poem is said to have been begun on a sick-bed and when the poet
recovered he had forgotten or lost interest in his plans. This is to be
regretted for if he had continued as he began, the poem would have stood
unique in his work as a true survival of Greek subject wedded with
classical form and style, and would certainly have challenged comparison
with the best work done in this field by Landor or Swinburne, who tell
over the classical stories or even invent new episodes, but, when all is
said, do not write as if they were actually themselves Greeks.

There is no other instance in Browning of such a survival. In his other
poems on Greek subjects it is Browning bringing Greek life to our ken with
wonderful distinctness, but doing it according to his own accustomed
poetical methods, or, as in "Ixion," a Greek story has been used as a
symbol for the inculcating of a philosophy which is largely Browning's

In spite of the fact that he has turned to Greece so seldom for
inspiration, his Greek poems range from such stirring pictures of Greek
life and feeling as one gets in the splendid dramatic idyl
"Pheidippides," based on a historical incident, through the imaginary
"Cleon," in which is found the sublimated essence of Greek philosophical
thought at the time of Christ--thought, weary of law and beauty, longing
for a fresh inspiration, knowing not what, and unable to perceive it in
the new ideal of love being taught by the Christians--to "Aristophanes'
Apology," in which the Athens of his day, with its literary and political
factions, is presented with a force and analysis which place it second
only to "The Ring and the Book."

This poem taken, with Balaustion, gives the reader not only a
comprehensive view of the historical atmosphere of the time but indirectly
shows the poet's own attitude toward the literary war between Euripides
and Aristophanes. So different are Browning's Greek poems from all other
poems upon classical subjects that it will be interesting to dwell upon
the most important of them at greater length than has been deemed
necessary in the case of the more widely known and read of the poems.

"Cleon" links itself with the nineteenth century, because of its dealing
with the problem of immortality, a problem which has been ever present in
the mind of the century. Cleon has, beside that type of synthetic mind
which belongs to a ripe phase of civilization. Though he is a Greek and a
pagan, he stretches hands across the centuries to men of the type of
Morris or Matthew Arnold. He is the latest child of his own time, the heir
of all the ages during which Greece had developed its æsthetic perfection,
discovered the inadequacy of its established religion, come through its
philosophers and poets to a perception of the immortality of the soul, and
sunk again to a skepticism which had no vision of personal immortality at
least, though among the stoics there were some who believed in an
absorption into divine being. Cleon would fain believe in personal
immortality but cannot, and, like Matthew Arnold, believes in facing death

In "Balaustion's Adventure" a historical tradition is used as the central
episode of the poem, but life and romance are given to it by the creation
of the heroine, Balaustion, a young Greek woman whose fascinating
personality dominates the whole poem. She was a Rhodian, else her freedom
of action and speech might seem too modern, but among the islands of
Greece, at least at the time of Euripides, there still survived that
attitude toward woman which we see reflected in the Homeric epics. Away
from Athens, too, Euripides was a power; hence his defence is put into the
mouth of one not an Athenian. She had saved a shipload of Athenian
sympathizers by reciting Euripides when they were in danger from the
hostile Syracusans.

[Illustration: EURIPIDES]

Besides the romantic touch which is given the story by the creation of the
lyric girl, there is an especial fitness in making the enthusiastic
devotee of this poet a woman, for no one among the ancients has so fully
and sympathetically portrayed woman in all her human possibilities of
goodness and badness as Euripides, yet he has been called a
woman-hater--because some of his men have railed against women--but one
Alkestis is enough to offset any dramatic utterances of his men about
women. The poet's attitude should be looked for in his power of portraying
women of fine traits, not in any opinions expressed by his men.
Furthermore, Browning had before him a model of Balaustion in her
enthusiasm for Euripides, in Mrs. Browning. These circumstances are
certainly sufficient to prove the appropriateness of making a Rhodian girl
the defender of Euripides.

There is nothing more delicious in Browning than Balaustion's relation of
"Alkestis," as she had seen it acted, to her three friends. Her woman's
comment and criticisms combine a Browning's penetration of the fine points
in the play with a girl's idealism. Such a combination of masculine
intellectualism and feminine charm has been known in women of all
centuries. As the translation of the beautiful play of "Alkestis"
proceeds, Balaustion interprets its art and moral, defending her favorite
poet, not with the ponderousness of a grave critic weighing the influences
which may have molded his genius, or calculating the pros and cons of his
style, but with the swift appreciation of a mind and spirit full of the
ardor of sympathy. Moreover, her talk of the play being a recollection of
how it appeared to her as she saw it acted, the mere text is constantly
enlarged upon and made vital with flashing glimpses of the action, as, for
example, in the passage just after the funeral of Alkestis:

  "So, to the struggle off strode Herakles,
  When silence closed behind the lion-garb,
  Back came our dull fact settling in its place,
  Though heartiness and passion half-dispersed
  The inevitable fate. And presently
  In came the mourners from the funeral,
  One after one, until we hoped the last
  Would be Alkestis, and so end our dream.
  Could they have really left Alkestis lone
  I' the wayside sepulchre! Home, all save she!
  And when Admetos felt that it was so,
  By the stand-still: when he lifted head and face
  From the two hiding hands and peplos' fold,
  And looked forth, knew the palace, knew the hills,
  Knew the plains, knew the friendly frequence there,
  And no Alkestis any more again,
  Why, the whole woe billow-like broke on him."

Again, her criticism of Admetos gives at once the natural feeling of a
girl who could not be satisfied with what seemed to her his selfish
action, and Browning's feeling that Euripides saw its selfishness just as
surely as Balaustion, despite the fact that it was in keeping, as numerous
critics declare, with the customs of the age, and would not by any of his
contemporaries be regarded as selfish on his part:

  "So he stood sobbing: nowise insincere,
  But somehow child-like, like his children, like
  Childishness the world over. What was new
  In this announcement that his wife must die?
  What particle of pain beyond the pact
  He made with his eyes wide open, long ago--
  Made and was, if not glad, content to make?
  Now that the sorrow, he had called for, came,
  He sorrowed to the height: none heard him say,
  However, what would seem so pertinent,
  'To keep this pact, I find surpass my power;
  Rescind it, Moirai! Give me back her life,
  And take the life I kept by base exchange!
  Or, failing that, here stands your laughing-stock
  Fooled by you, worthy just the fate o' the fool
  Who makes a pother to escape the best
  And gain the worst you wiser Powers allot!'
  No, not one word of this; nor did his wife
  Despite the sobbing, and the silence soon
  To follow, judge so much was in his thought--
  Fancy that, should the Moirai acquiesce,
  He would relinquish life nor let her die.
  The man was like some merchant who in storm,
  Throws the freight over to redeem the ship;
  No question, saving both were better still,
  As it was,--why, he sorrowed, which sufficed.
  So, all she seemed to notice in his speech
  Was what concerned her children."

Among modern critics who take the conventional ground in regard to Admetos
may be cited Churton Collins, whose opinion is, of course, weighty. He

    "Alcestis would be considered fortunate for having had an opportunity
    of displaying so conspicuously the fidelity to a wife's first and
    capital duty. Had Admetus prevented such a sacrifice he would have
    robbed Alcestis of an honor which every nobly ambitious woman in
    Hellas would have coveted. This is so much taken for granted by the
    poet that all that he lays stress on in the drama is the virtue
    rewarded by the return of Alcestis to life, the virtue characteristic
    of Admetus, the virtue of hospitality; to this duty in all the agony
    of his sorrow Admetus had been nobly true, and as a reward for what he
    had thus earned, the wife who had been equally true to woman's
    obligations was restored all-glorified to home and children and mutual

Most readers, however, will find it difficult to put themselves into the
appropriate Greek frame of mind, and will sympathize with Browning's
supposition that after all Euripides had transcended current ideas on the
subject and deliberately intended to convey such an interpretation of the
character of Admetos as Balaustion gives.

Balaustion shows her penetration again in her appreciation of Herakles. He
distinguishes clearly between evil that is inherent in the nature as the
selfishness of Admetos, and evil which is more or less external, growing
out of conditions incident to the time rather than from any real trait of
nature. Herakles' delight in the hospitality accorded him, his drinking
and feasting in the interim of his labors, did not touch the genuine,
large-hearted helpfulness of the demigod, who became sober the moment he
learned there was sorrow in the house and need of his aid.

In her proposed version of the story, Balaustion is surely the romantic
girl, who would have her hero a hero indeed and in every way the equal of
his spouse. Yet if we delve below this romanticism of Balaustion we shall
find the poet's own belief in the almost omniscient power of human love
the basis of the relation between Admetos and Alkestis.

The soul of Alkestis in one look entered into that of Admetos; she died,
but he is entirely guiltless of agreeing to her death. Alkestis herself
had made the pact with Apollo to die for her husband. He, when he learns
it, refuses to accept the sacrifice, and unable to persuade him that his
duty to humanity demands that he accept it, Alkestis asks him to look at
her. Then her soul enters his, but when she goes to Hades and demands to
become a ghost, the Queen of Hades replies:

  "Hence, thou deceiver! This is not to die,
  If, by the very death which mocks me now,
  The life, that's left behind and past my power,
  Is formidably doubled--Say, there fight
  Two athletes, side by side, each athlete armed
  With only half the weapons, and no more,
  Adequate to a contest with their foes.
  If one of these should fling helm, sword and shield
  To fellow--shieldless, swordless, helmless late--
  And so leap naked o'er the barrier, leave
  A combatant equipped from head to heel,
  Yet cry to the other side, 'Receive a friend
  Who fights no longer!' 'Back, friend, to the fray!'
  Would be the prompt rebuff; I echo it.
  Two souls in one were formidable odds:
  Admetos must not be himself and thou!

  "And so, before the embrace relaxed a whit,
  The lost eyes opened, still beneath the look;
  And lo, Alkestis was alive again,
  And of Admetos' rapture who shall speak?"

How unique a treatment of a classical subject this poem is, is
self-evident. Not content with making a superb translation of the play,
remarkable both for its literalness and for its poetic beauty, the poet
has dared to present that translation indirectly through the mouth of
another speaker, and to incorporate with it a running commentary of
criticism in blank verse. Still more daring was it to make play and
criticism an episode in a dramatic monologue in which we learn not only
the story of the rescue of the shipload of Athenian sympathizers, but the
story of Balaustion's love. Along with all this complexity of interest
there is still room for a lifelike portrayal of Balaustion herself, one of
the loveliest conceptions of womanhood in literature.

To reiterate what I have upon another occasion expressed in regard to her,
she is a girl about whom the fancy loves to cling--she is so joyous, so
brave, and so beautiful, and possessed of so rare a mind scintillating
with wit, wisdom and critical insight, not Browning's own mind either
except in so far as his sympathies were with Euripides. Her ardor for
purity and perfection is perhaps peculiarly feminine. It is quite
different from that of the mind tormented by the problem of evil and
taking refuge in a partisanship of evil as a force which works for good
and without which the world would be a waste of insipidity. Her suggested
version of the Alkestis story converts Admetos into as much of a saint as
Alkestis, and makes an exquisite and soul-stirring romance of their
perfect union, though it must be admitted that it would do away with all
the intensity and dramatic force of the play as it is presented by
Euripides. Like the angels who rejoice more over one sinner returned than
over the ninety and nine that did not go astray, an artist prefers the
contrast and movement of a sinning and regenerated Admetos to an Admetos
more suited from the first to be the consort of Alkestis. This is the
touch, however, which preserves Balaustion's feminine charm and makes her
truly her own self--an ardent soul very far from being simply Browning's

"Aristophanes' Apology" is a still more remarkable play in its complexity.
Again, Balaustion is the speaker, and Browning has set himself the task in
this monologue of relating the fall of Athens, of presenting the
personality of Aristophanes, of defending Euripides, a translation of
whose play, "Herakles," is included, and incidentally sketching the
history of Greek comedy, all through the mouth of the one speaker,
Balaustion. Not until one has grasped the law by which the poet has
accomplished this, and has moreover freshly in his mind the facts of Greek
history at the time of Athens' fall, and Greek literature, especially the
plays of Aristophanes and Euripides, can the poem be thoroughly enjoyed.

In the very first line the suggestion of the scene setting is given, and
such suggestions occur from time to time all through the poem. It should
be observed that they are never brought in for themselves alone, but are
always used in connection with some mood of Balaustion's or as imagery in
relation to some thought. While the reader is thus kept conscious of the
background of wind and wave, as Balaustion and her husband voyage toward
Rhodes, it is not until the end of the poem that we learn with a pleasant
surprise that the boat on which they are sailing is the same one saved
once by Balaustion when she recited Euripides' "sweetest, saddest song."
Thus there is a dramatic denouement in connection with the scene setting.

Through the expression of a mood of despair on the part of Balaustion at
the opening of the poem the reader is put in possession not only of the
scene setting but of the occasion of the voyage, which is the overthrow
of Athens. From the mood of despair Balaustion passes to one in which she
describes how she could better have borne to see Athens perish. This
carries her on to a more hopeful frame of mind, in which she can foresee
the spiritual influence of Athens persisting. The peace of mind ensuing
upon this consideration makes it possible for her calmly to survey the
events connected with its downfall, among which the picturesque episode of
the dancing of the flute girls to the demolition of the walls of the
Piræus is conspicuous. She then sees the vision of the immortal Athens
while Sparta the victorious in arms will die. Then comes a mood in which
she declares it will be better to face the grief than to brood over it,
which leads to her proposing to Euthukles that they treat the fall of
Athens as a tragic theme, as the poet might do, and enact it on the
voyage. Then grief over the recent events takes possession of her again,
and now with the feminine privilege of changing her mind, she thinks it
would be better to rehearse an event which happened to herself a year ago
as a prologue. Speaking of adventures causes her very naturally to drop
into reminiscences about her first adventure, when she recited
Euripides and met the man who was to become her husband.

[Illustration: ARISTOPHANES]

Thus, through this perfectly natural transition from one mood to another,
Balaustion leads up to the real subject-matter of the poem, Aristophanes'
defence of himself, which, however, is preceded by an account of the
effect of the death of Euripides upon the Athenians as witnessed by
Euthukles, his death being the occasion of Aristophanes' call on
Balaustion. What she calls the prologue is really the main theme of the
poem, while all her talk up to this point is truly the prologue. The
actual account of the fall of Athens does not come until the conclusion,
and is related in comparatively few words.

What seems, then, to be the chief theme of the poem with its setting of
wind and wave and bark bears somewhat the same relation to the real theme
as incidental music does to a play. Upon first thoughts it may seem like a
clumsy contrivance for introducing Aristophanes upon the scene, but in the
end it will be perceived, I think, that it serves the artistic purpose of
placing Aristophanes in proper perspective. Balaustion with her
exquisitely human moods and progressive spirit forms the right complement
to the decaying ideals of Aristophanes, and gives him the proper flavor
of antiquity. Instead of seeing him in the broad light of a direct
dramatic presentation we see him indirectly through Balaustion's thoughts
and moods, who, though permitting him to do full justice to himself, yet
surrounds him all the time with the subtle influence of her sympathy for

As the better way to follow the development of the preliminary part of the
poem is by regarding every step as the outcome of a mood on the part of
Balaustion, so the better way of following Aristophanes through what seems
his interminable defence of himself is again by tracing the moods through
which his arguments express themselves.

Aristophanes comes in half drunk to make his call on Balaustion, and his
first mood is one of graciousness toward her whose beauty has impressed
his artistic perceptions, but noticing her dignity and its effect in
routing the chorus, he immediately begins to be on the defensive. The
disappearance of his chorus, however, takes him off on a little excursion
about the moves which are being made by the city to cut down the expense
of dramatic performances by curtailing the chorus. In a spirit of bravado
he declares that he does not care so long as he has his actors left. A
coarse reference causes Balaustion to turn and he changes his mood. He
acknowledges he is drunk and rushes off into a defence of drunkenness in
general for playwrights and for himself, which on this occasion came about
on account of the supper he and his players have attended. He rattles on
about the supper, telling how the merriment increased until something
happened. The thought of this something changes his mood completely.
Balaustion notices it, he reads her expression, and characteristically
explains the change in himself as due to her fixed regard. The reader is
left in suspense as to the something which happened, yet it haunts the
memory, and he feels convinced that some time he is to know what it was.

Now Aristophanes bids Balaustion speak to him without fear. She does so,
conveying in her welcome both her disapproval and her admiration.
Aristophanes, evidently piqued, does not answer, but makes personal
remarks upon the manner of her speech, asking her if she learned tragedy
from _him_--Euripides. This starts him off on dreams of a new comedy in
which women shall act, but he concludes that his mission is to ornament
comedy as he finds it, not invent a new comedy.

This gives Balaustion a chance to ask if in his last play, later than the
one Euthukles had seen, he had smoothed this ancient club of comedy he
speaks of into a more human and less brutal implement of warfare, and was
it a conviction of this new method he might use in comedy which was the
something that happened at the feast. Aristophanes, as usual when he is
cornered, makes no direct reply, but asks if Euthukles saw his last play,
to which Balaustion frankly replies that having seen the first he never
cared to see the following. Aristophanes avows he can show cause why he
wrote them, but glances off in a sarcastic reference to Euripides, whose
art he says belongs to the closet or the cave, not to the world. He
prefers to stick to the old forms of art and make Athens happy in what
coarse way she desires. He then proceeds to enlarge upon what that is.
Then he changes again and asks with various excursions into side issues
(for example: the rise of comedy; how it is now being regarded by the
government, which favors tragedy, giving him another chance for a dig at
Euripides) if he is the man likely to be satisfied to be classed merely a
comic poet since he wrote the "Birds?" Balaustion encourages him a little
here, and, cheered up, he goes on to tell how he gave the people draught
divine in "Wasps" and "Grasshoppers," and how he praised peace by
showing the kind of pleasures one may have when peace reigns--and still at
every opportunity casting slurs at the tragic muse, especially Euripides.

He goes on describing his play until he touches on some of the sarcasms
which make Balaustion wince.

Then he turns about and declares he loathes as much as she does the things
of which he tells, but his attempts at bringing comedy up to a high level
having failed, he is obliged to give the Athenians what they want, a
smartened up version of the "Thesmaphoriazousai," which had failed the
year before. He describes his triumph with this which was being celebrated
at the supper when the something happened which is now at last
described--namely, the entrance of Sophocles, who announces that he
intends to commemorate the death of Euripides by having his chorus clothed
in black and ungarlanded at the performance of his play next month.

This startling scene, being prepared for and not brought in until
Aristophanes has done much talking, seems to throw a sudden flash of
reality into the poem. Ill-natured criticism, Aristophanes shows, follows
on the part of the feasters, though Aristophanes' mood is one of sudden
recognition of the value of Euripides. But when he, sobered for the time
being, proposes a toast to the Tragic Muse, the feasters consider it a
joke. He quickly accepts the situation, and comes off triumphant by
proposing a toast to both muses.

After this Balaustion asks Aristophanes if he will commemorate Euripides
with them. But his sober mood is gone. He looks about the room, sees
things that belong to Euripides, and immediately begins stabbing at him.
Balaustion objects, and upon the theme of respect to the dead he begins
his usual invective against his rivals, but finally ends by giving respect
to Euripides, him whose serenity, he declares, could never with his gibes
be disturbed.

After venting this mood of animosity he begins soberly to discuss the
origin of comedy. He traces its growth to the point where he found it, and
enlarges on the improvements he has made, touching, as always, upon the
criticisms of his opposers, and finally arriving at the chief point of
difference between himself and Euripides, which he enlarges upon at great
length. Here the incidental music breaks in with talk between Balaustion
and Euthukles, in which the former rather tries to excuse herself from
relating her reply to Aristophanes.

However, she does give her reply, which is conducted in a more truly
argumentative fashion than the defence of Aristophanes. She picks up his
points and makes her points against him usually by denying the truth of
what he has said. Her supreme defence is, however, the reading of the play

Aristophanes, touched but not convinced, finally insists that he is
Athens' best friend. He is no Thamuris to be punished for seeing beyond
human vision. The last characteristic touch is when Aristophanes catches
up the psalterion and sings the lyric of Thamuris. Then he departs, and
Balaustion rehearses the last days of Athens, with Euthukles' part in
delaying the tragedy of the doomed city.

By threading one's way thus through the apology, not from the point of
view of Aristophanes' arguments, but from the point of view of his moods,
one experiences a tremendous sense of the personality of the man.
Repetitions which are not required for the full presentation of his case
take their place as natural to a man who is not only inordinately vain but
is immediately swayed by every suggestion and emotion that comes to him.
Owing to his volatile temperament the argument is varied by now a bit of
vivid description like that of the archon's feast when Sophocles appeared,
now by some merely personal remark to Balaustion.

The criticism in this play, as in that of "Balaustion's Adventure," may be
considered either as representing some phase of contemporary opinion about
Aristophanes or as expressing the opinion of the poet himself.
Balaustion's indignation is especially aroused by the two plays, "The
Lusistrata" and the "Thesmophoriazousai," both of which she finds utterly
detestable. It is interesting to compare with this entirely unfavorable
criticism the feeling of such distinguished classical scholars as Gilbert
Murray and J. A. Symonds. The first Murray describes as a play "full of
daring indecency, it is true, but the curious thing is that Aristophanes,
while professing to ridicule the women, is all through on their side. The
jokes made by the superior sex at the expense of the inferior--to give
them their Roman names--are seldom remarkable either for generosity or
refinement, and it is our author's pleasant humor to accuse everybody of
every vice he can think of at the moment. Yet with the single exception
that he credits women with an inordinate fondness for wine parties--the
equivalent it would seem of afternoon tea--he makes them on the whole
perceptibly more sensible and more sympathetic than his men."

Of the second play Symonds speaks with actual enthusiasm. "It has a
regular plot--an intrigue and a solution--and its persons are not
allegorical but real. Thus it approaches the standard of modern comedy.
But the plot, though gigantic in its scale, and prodigious in its wealth
of wit and satire, is farcical. The artifices by which Euripides endeavors
to win Agathon to undertake his cause, the disguise of Muesilochus in
female attire, the oratory of the old man against the women in the midst
of their assembly, his detection, the momentary suspension of the dramatic
action by his seizure of the supposed baby, his slaughter of the swaddled
wine jar, his apprehension by Cleisthenes, the devices and disguises by
which Euripides endeavors to extricate his father-in-law from the scrape,
and the final _ruse_ by which he eludes the Scythian bowmen, and carries
off Muesilochus in triumph--all these form a series of highly diverting
comic scenes." Again, "There is no passage in Aristophanes more amusing
than the harangue of Muesilochus. The portrait, too, of Agathon in the act
of composition is exquisitely comic. But the crowning sport of the
'Thesmophoriazousai' is in the last scene when Muesilochus adapts the
Palamedes and the Helen of Euripides to his own forlorn condition,
jumbling up the well-known verses of these tragedies with coarse-flavored,
rustical remarks; and when at last Euripides, himself, acts Echo and
Perseus to the Andromeda of his father-in-law, and both together mystify
the policeman by their ludicrous utterance of antiphonal lamentation."

In her welcome of him, Balaustion expresses rather what she thinks he
might be than what she really thinks he is. She welcomes him:

  "Good Genius! Glory of the poet, glow
  O' the humorist who castigates his kind,
  Suave summer-lightning lambency which plays
  On stag-horned tree, misshapen crag askew,
  Then vanishes with unvindictive smile
  After a moment's laying black earth bare.
  Splendor of wit that springs a thunder ball--
  Satire--to burn and purify the world,
  True aim, fair purpose: just wit justly strikes
  Injustice,--right, as rightly quells the wrong,
  Finds out in knaves', fools', cowards', armory
  The tricky tinselled place fire flashes through.
  No damage else, sagacious of true ore;
  Wit learned in the laurel, leaves each wreath
  O'er lyric shell or tragic barbiton,--
  Though alien gauds be singed,--undesecrate."

Her attitude here is very like that of criticism in general, except that
she is more or less sarcastic, meaning to imply that such Aristophanes
might be but is not. Symonds, on the other hand, thinks him really what
Balaustion thinks he might be.

"If," he says, "Coleridge was justified in claiming the German word
Lustspiel for the so-called comedies of Shakespeare, we have a far greater
right to appropriate this wide and pregnant title to the plays of
Aristophanes. The brazen mask which crowns his theatre smiles indeed
broadly, serenely, as if its mirth embraced the universe; but its hollow
eye-sockets suggest infinite possibilities of profoundest irony.
Buffoonery carried to the point of paradox, wisdom disguised as insanity,
and gaiety concealing the whole sum of human disappointment, sorrow and
disgust, seem ready to escape from its open but rigid lips, which are
molded to a proud perpetual laughter. It is a laughter which spares
neither God nor man--which climbs Olympus only to drag down the immortals
to its scorn, and trails the pall of august humanity in the mire; but
which, amid its mockery and blasphemy, seems everlastingly asserting, as
by paradox, that reverence of the soul which bends our knees to heaven and
makes us respect our brothers."

One cannot help feeling, in view of these very diverse opinions, that both
are exaggerated. The enthusiasm of Symonds seems almost fanatic. Though no
one of penetration can fail to see the wit and wisdom, and at times, in
such lyrics as those in "The Clouds," the poetic charm of Aristophanes,
the person of fastidious taste, whether a Greek girl of his own day, or a
man of these latter days, must sometimes feel that his buffoonery
oversteps the bounds of true wit, even when it is not shadowed by a
coarseness not to be borne at the present day. When Balaustion asks him
"in plain words,"

  "Have you exchanged brute blows, which teach the brute
  Man may surpass him in brutality,--
  For human fighting, or true god-like force
  Which breeds persuasion nor needs fight at all?"

Aristophanes replies that it had not been his intention to turn art's
fabric upside down and invent an entirely new species of comedy. That sort
of thing can be done by one who has turned his back on life, friendly
faces, sympathetic cheer, as Euripides had done in his Salaminian cave.

This may be regarded, on the whole, as a good bit of defence on
Aristophanes' part. It is equivalent to his saying that there was no use
in his trying to be anything for which his genius had not fitted him. This
chimes in, again, with such authoritative criticism as Murray's, who
declares: "The general value of his view of life, and, above all, his
treatment of his opponent's alleged vices, may well be questioned. Yet
admitting that he often opposed what was best in his age, or advocated it
on the lowest grounds, admitting that his slanders are beyond description
and that, as a rule, he only attacks the poor and the leaders of the poor,
nevertheless he does it all with such exhuberant high spirits, such an air
of its all being nonsense together, such insight and swiftness, such
incomparable directness and charm of style, that even if some Archelaus
had handed him over to Euripides to scourge, he would probably have
escaped his well-earned whipping."

Much of Aristophanes' defence consists in slurring at Euripides, against
whom he waxes more and more fierce as he goes on. His plays furnish
numerous illustrations of his rivalry with Euripides, yet curiously
enough, as critics have pointed out, Aristophanes imitates Euripides to a
noteworthy extent, so much so that the dramatist Cratinus invented a word
to describe the style of the two--Euripid-Aristophanize. Judging from his
parodies on Euripides, he must certainly have read and reread his plays
until he knew them practically by heart.

Balaustion, as Browning has portrayed her in this poem, is the lyric girl
developed into splendid womanhood. She has a large heart and a large
brain, as well as imagination and strong ethical fervor. Her intense
feeling at the fall of Athens, which had been the ideal to her of
greatness, and her reverential love for Euripides, her charity toward
Aristophanes the man, if not toward his work, show how deep and
far-reaching her sympathies were. Again, her imagination flashes forth in
her picturesque descriptions of the ruined Athens and her prophetic
picture of the new Athens, of the spirit which will arise in its place, in
her telling portraiture of Aristophanes and his entrance into her house,
as well as in many another passage. Her intellect shines out in her clever
management of the argument with Aristophanes, and her ethical fervor in
her denunciations of the moral depravity of certain of the plays.

As to the question of whether a young Greek woman would be likely to
criticise Aristophanes in this way, opinion certainly differs. History is,
for the most part, silent about women. As Mahaffy says, it is only in the
dramatists and the philosophers that we can get any glimpses of the woman
of the time.

Mahaffy's opinions are worth quoting as an example of the pessimism
growing out of a bias in favor of a particular type of woman which he
idealized in his own mind. He seems utterly incapable of appreciating the
humanness of the women in the Greek dramatists, especially those in
Euripides. "Sadder than the condition of the aged was that of women," he
writes, "at this remarkable period. The days of the noble and
high-principled Penelope, of the refined and intellectual Helen, of the
innocent and spirited Nausikaa, of the gentle and patient Andromache, had
passed away. Men no longer sought and respected the society of the gentler
sex. Would that Euripides had even been familiar, as Homer was, with the
sound of women brawling in the streets! For in these days they were
confined to Asiatic silence and seclusion, while the whole life of the
men, both in business and recreation, was essentially public. Just as the
feverish excitement of political life nowadays prompts men to spend even
their leisure in the clubs, where they meet companions of like passions
and interests with themselves, so the Athenian gentleman only came home
to eat and sleep. His leisure as well as his business kept him in the
market place. His wife and daughters, ignorant of philosophy and politics,
were strangers to his real life, and took no interest in his pursuits.

"The results were fatal to Athenian society. The women, uninstructed,
neglected, and enslaved, soon punished their oppressors with their own
keen and bitter weapons, and with none keener than their vices. For, of
course, all the grace and delicacy of female character disappeared.
Intellectual power in women was distinctly associated with moral
depravity, so that excessive ignorance and stupidity was considered the
only guarantee of virtue. The qualifications for society became
incompatible with the qualifications for home duties, so that the outcasts
from society, as we call them, were not the immoral and the profligate but
the honorable and the virtuous."

Such is the view to be gleaned from history, and in Mahaffy's opinion the
literature of the time tells the same story. He goes on: "When we consult
the literature of the day, we find women treated either with contemptuous
ridicule in comedy, or with still more contemptuous silence in history. In
tragedy or in the social theories of the philosophers alone can we hope
for a glimpse into the average character and position of Athenian women.
Here at least we might have expected that the portraits drawn with such
consummate skill by Homer would have been easily transferred to the
Athenian stage. But to our astonishment we find the higher social feelings
toward women so weak that the Athenian tragic poets seem quite unable to
appreciate, or even to understand, the more delicate features in Homeric
characters. They are painted so coarsely and ignorantly by Euripides that
we should never recognize them but for their names. Base motives and
unseemly wrangling take the place of chivalrous honor and graceful

"But the critics of the day complained that Euripides degraded the ideal
character of tragedy by painting human nature as he found it: in fact as
it was, and not as it ought to be. Let us turn, then, to Sophokles, who
painted the most ideal women which the imagination of a refined Athenian
could conceive, and consider his most celebrated characters, his Antigone
and his Elektra. A calm, dispassionate survey will, I think, pronounce
them harsh and masculine. They act rightly, no doubt, and even nobly, but
they do it in the most disagreeable way. Except in their external
circumstances they differ in no respect from men."

Certainly, the opinion expressed of the women of Euripides is tainted by
the feeling that they ought to act like English matrons and their

Quite a different impression is given by Symonds, who, in regard to some
of the sentences occurring in Euripides which are uncomplimentary to
women, says: "It is impossible to weigh occasional sententious sarcasms
against such careful studies of heroic virtue in women as the Iphigenia,
the Elektra, the Polyxena, the Alkestis."

But the complete vindication of the fact that Balaustion and Mrs. Browning
and our own women of to-day are on the right side in their appreciation of
Euripides as the great woman's poet of antiquity is found in the opinion
of our contemporary critic, Gilbert Murray, who more than thirty years
after these poems were written writes of the "wonderful women-studies by
which Euripides dazzled and aggrieved his contemporaries. They called him
a hater of women; and Aristophanes makes the women of Athens conspire for
revenge against him. Of course he was really the reverse. He loved and
studied and expressed the women whom the Socratics ignored and Pericles
advised to stay in their rooms. Crime, however, is always more striking
and palpable than virtue. Heroines like Medea, Phaedra, Stheneboia,
Aërope, Clytemnestra, perhaps fill the imagination more than those of the
angelic or devoted type--Alcestis, who died to save her husband, Evadne
and Laodamia, who could not survive theirs, and all the great list of
virgin-martyrs. But the significant fact is that, like Ibsen, Euripides
refuses to idealize any man, and does idealize women. There is one
youth-martyr, Menoikeus in the 'Phænissae,' but his martyrdom is a
masculine, businesslike performance--he gets rid of his prosaic father by
a pretext about traveling money without that shimmer of loveliness that
hangs over the virgins."

Where then did Euripides find these splendid women of force and character?
It seems quite impossible that he could have evolved them out of his own
inner consciousness. He must have known women who served at least, in
part, as models. Besides, there was undoubtedly a new woman movement in
the air or Plato in his "Republic" would not have suggested a plan for
educating men and women alike. The free women of Athens are known in some
cases to have attained a high degree of culture. Aspasia, who became the
wife of Pericles, is a shining example. There was Sappho, also, with her
school of poetry attended by girls in Lesbos.

Taking all these facts into consideration, it would seem that Browning was
sufficiently justified in drawing such a woman as Balaustion, and that a
woman of her penetrating intellect and ardor of spirit would love
Euripides, and dislike Aristophanes, seems absolutely certain.

Therefore, if the historical attitude is taken toward Balaustion and her
criticism and appreciation, it can be on the whole accepted as reflecting
what would probably be the feeling of an ardent woman-follower of
Euripides in his own day.

But, on the other hand, if the criticism be taken as Browning's own, it is
open to question whether it is partisan rather than entirely broad-minded.
Take the consensus of opinion of modern critics and we find them all
agreed in regard to the genius of Aristophanes, though admitting that his
coarseness must, at times, detract from their enjoyment of him.

There is much truth in Symonds' criticism of the poem. He says of it: "As
a sophist and a rhetorician of poetry, Mr. Browning proves himself
unrivaled, and takes rank with the best writers of historical romances.
Yet students may fairly accuse him of some special pleading in favor of
his friends and against his foes. It is true that Aristophanes did not
bring back again the golden days of Greece; true that his comedy revealed
a corruption latent in Athenian life. But neither was Euripides in any
sense a savior. Impartiality regards them both as equally destructive:
Aristophanes, because he indulged animalism and praised ignorance in an
age which ought to have outgrown both; Euripides, because he criticised
the whole fabric of Greek thought and feeling in an age which had not yet
distinguished between analysis and skepticism.

"What has just been said about Mr. Browning's special pleading indicates
the chief fault to be found with his poem. The point of view is modern.
The situation is strained. Aristophanes becomes the scapegoat of Athenian
sins, while Euripides shines forth a saint as well as a sage. Balaustion,
for her part, beautiful as her conception truly is, takes up a position
which even Plato could not have assumed. Into her mouth Mr. Browning has
put the views of the most searching and most sympathetic modern analyst.
She judges Euripides not as he appeared to his own Greeks, but as he
strikes the warmest of his admirers, who compare his work with that of all
the poets who have ever lived."

It would seem that Mr. Symonds, himself, does some special pleading here.
As we have seen, Euripides, though not a favorite in Athens, did have warm
admirers in his own day; consequently there is nothing out of the way in
portraying one of his contemporaries as an admirer. Furthermore,
Balaustion does not represent him as a savior of his age. She sees only
too clearly that in the narrow sense of convincing his age he has not been
a success. What is her vision of the spiritual Athens which is to arise
but a confession of this fact! Nor is it entirely improbable that she
might be prophetic of a time when Euripides will be recognized as the true
power. Any disciple of a poet ahead of his time perceives these things.
One should be careful in judging of the poem as good modern criticism not
to be entirely guided by the opinions of Balaustion. It should never be
forgotten that it is a dramatic poem in which Aristophanes is allowed to
speak for himself at great length, and whatever can be accepted as good
argument for himself upon his own ground should be set over against the
sweeping strictures of Balaustion. Indeed it may turn out that Browning
has, after all, said for him the most exculpatory word of any critic, for
he has so presented his case as to show that he considers him the outcome
of the undeveloped phase of morals then existing for which he is hardly
responsible because the higher light has not yet broken in upon him. This
is evidenced especially in the strange combination in him of a frank
belief in a life of the senses which goes along with a puritanical
reverence for the gods, and a hatred of anything that falls within his own
definition of vice.

To sum up, if I may again be forgiven for re-expressing an opinion
elsewhere printed, which states as clearly as I am able to do my
conviction of where the play stands as criticism, like all dramatic work,
this poem aims to present the actual spirit of the time in which the
actors moved upon the stage of life, and to reproduce something of their
mental and emotional natures. Any criticism of the poets who figure in the
poem, or of the larger question of the quarrel between tragedy and comedy,
should be deduced indirectly, as implied in the sympathetic presentation
of both sides, not based exclusively upon direct expressions of opinion
on either side. So regarded it would seem that Browning was able to
appreciate the genius of Aristophanes as well as that of Euripides, but
that he considered Aristophanes to have value chiefly in relation to his
age, as the artistic mouthpiece of its long-established usages, while
Euripides had caught the breath of the future, and was the mirror of the
prophetic impulses of his age rather than of its dominant civilization.

It is not improbable that Landor's fascinating portrayal of the brilliant
Aspasia may have had some influence upon Browning's conception of
Balaustion, upon the intellectual side at least. Alcibiades says that many
people think her language as pure and elegant as Pericles, and Pericles
says she was never seen out of temper or forgetful of what argument to
urge first and most forcibly. When all is said, however, it may be that
the "halo irised around" Balaustion's head was due, more than to any one
else, to the influence of the memory of Mrs. Browning, of whom she is made
to say with a sublime disregard of its anachronism:

  "I know the poetess who graved in gold,
  Among her glories that shall never fade,
  This style and title for Euripides,
  _The Human with his droppings of warm tears_."

After such a study of Greek life as this, wherein every available incident
in history, every episode in the plays of Aristophanes bearing on the
subject, every contemporary allusion are all woven together with such
consummate skill that the very soul and body of the time is imaged forth,
the classical poems of the other great names of the century seem almost
like child's play. Landor's poems on Greek subjects sound like imitations
in inferior material of antiquity. Arnold's are even duller. Swinburne
tells his Greek tales in an endless flow of rhythmical, musical verse,
which occasionally rises into the realm of having something to say. Morris
tells his at equal length in a manner suggestive of Chaucer without
Chaucer's snap, but where among them all is there such a bit of stinging
life as in "Pheidippedes" or "Echetlos?"


Tennyson has, it is true, written some altogether exquisite verse, upon
classical themes, and in every case the poems are not descriptive nor
dramatic, but are dramatic soliloquies, thus approaching in form
Browning's dramatic idyls. One of the most beautiful of these is "Oenone."
There we have a mere tradition enlarged upon and the feelings of Oenone
upon the desertion of Paris expressed with a richness of emotional fervor
in a setting of appropriate nature imagery which carries us back to the
idyls of Theocritus. "Ulysses," again gives the psychology of a wanderer
who has become so habituated to adventures that he is quite incapable of
settling down with Penelope for the remainder of his life. One cannot
quite forgive the poet for calling the ever youthful and beautiful
Penelope, whose hand was sought by so many suitors, and who, although
twenty years had passed, might still be quite young, an "aged wife." It
has always seemed to the writer like a wholly unnecessary stab at a very
beautiful story, and the poem would have been just as effective if
Ulysses' hunger for lands beyond the sun had not been coupled with any
scorn of Penelope, but with a feeling of pain that again Fate must take
him away from her. Aside from this note of bad taste--bad, because it
shadows a picture of faithfulness, cherished as an almost universal
possession of humanity--the poem is fine. There is also, though not Greek,
the remarkable study of Lucretius going mad from the effects of his wife's
love philter, in which the most fascinating glimpses of his philosophy of
atoms are caught amid his maniacal wanderings, and, last, the very
beautiful Demeter and Persephone.

These are as unique in their way as Browning's Greek poems are in theirs,
standing quite apart from such work as Morris', or Swinburne's, not only
because of their haunting music, which even Swinburne cannot equal, but
because of a deeper vein of thought running through them. As far as
thought is concerned, however, all pale in significance the moment they
are placed in juxtaposition with any of Browning's classical productions.

Not the least interesting of Browning's classical poems is "Ixion." In his
treatment of the myth of Ixion he proves himself a true child of the
Greeks, not that he makes any slavish attempt to reproduce a Greek
atmosphere as it existed in the lifetime of Greek poetry, but he exercises
that prerogative which the Greek poets always claimed, of interpreting a
myth to suit their own ends.

It has become a sort of critical axiom to compare Browning's "Ixion" with
the "Prometheus" of literature. This is one of those catching analogies
which lay hold upon the mind, and cannot be shaken off again without
considerable difficulty. Mr. Arthur Symons first spoke of the resemblance;
and almost every other critic with the exception of Mr. Nettleship has
dwelt mainly upon that aspect of the poem which bears out the comparison.
But why, it might very well be asked, did Browning, if he intended to make
another Prometheus, choose Ixion for his theme? And the answer is evident,
because in the story of Ixion he found some quality different from any
which existed in the story of Prometheus, and which was especially suited
to the end he had in view.

The kernel of the myth of Prometheus as developed by Æschylus is proud,
unflinching suffering of punishment, inflicted, not by a god justly angry
for sin against himself, but by a god sternly mindful of his own
prerogatives, whose only right is might, and jealous of any interference
in behalf of the race which he detested--the race of man. Thus Prometheus
stands out as a hero in Greek mythology, a mediator between man and the
blind anger of a god of unconditional power; and Prometheus, with an
equally blind belief in Fate, accepts while he defies the punishment
inflicted by Zeus. He tacitly acknowledges the right of Zeus to punish
him, since he confesses his deeds to be sins, but, nevertheless, he would
do exactly the same thing over again:

                "By my choice, my choice
  I freely sinned--I will confess my sin--
  And helping mortals found mine own despair."

On the other hand, Ixion never appears in classic lore as a hero. He has
been called the "Cain" of Greece, because he was the first, as Pindar
says, "to introduce to mortal men the murder of kin not unaccompanied by
cunning." Zeus appears, however, to have shown more leniency to him for
the crime of killing his father-in-law than he ever did to Prometheus, as
he not only purified him from murder, but invited him to a seat among the
gods. But to quote Pindar again, "he found his prosperity too great to
bear, when with infatuate mind he became enamored of Hera.... Thus his
conceit drave him to an act of enormous folly, but the man soon suffered
his deserts, and received an exquisite torture." Ixion, then, in direct
contrast to Prometheus, stands forth an embodiment of the most detestable
of sins, perpetrated simply for personal ends. To depict such a man as
this in an attitude of defiance, and yet to justify his defiance, is a far
more difficult problem than to justify the already admired heroism of
Prometheus. It is entirely characteristic of Browning that he should
choose perhaps the most unprincipled character in the whole range of Greek
mythology as his hero. He is not content, like Emerson, with simply
telling us that "in the mud and scum of things there alway, alway
something sings"; his aim is ever to bring us face to face with reality,
and to open our ears that we may hear for ourselves this universal song.
In fine, Browning chose Ixion and not another, because he wanted above all
things an unquestioned sinner; and the task he set himself was to show the
use of sin and at the same time exonerate the sinner from the eternal
consequences of his act.

So mystical is the language of the poem that it is extremely difficult to
trace behind it the subtle reasoning. Mr. Nettleship has given by far the
best exposition of the poem, though even he does not seize all its

Ixion, the sinner, suffering eternal torment, questions the justice of
such torment. The first very important conclusion to which he comes, and
it is one entirely in accord with science, is that sin is an aberration of
sense, merely the result of external conditions in which the soul of man
has no active part. The soul simply dreams, but once fully awakened, it
would free itself from this bondage of sense if it were allowed to do so.
Ixion argues that it is Zeus that hath made him and not he himself, and if
he has sinned it is through the bodily senses which Zeus has conferred
upon him, and if he were the friendly and all-powerful god which he
claimed himself to be and which Ixion believed he was, why did he allow
these distractions of sense to lead him (Ixion) into sin which could only
be expiated by eternal punishment? Without body there would have been
nothing to obstruct his soul's rush upon the real; and with one touch of
pitying power Zeus might have dispersed "this film-work, eye's and ear's."
It is entirely the fault of Zeus that he had sinned; and having done so
will external torture make him repent any more who has repented already?
This is the old, old problem that has taxed the brains of many a
philosopher and the faith of many a theologian--the reconcilement of the
existence of evil with an omnipotent God. Then follows a comparison
between the actions of Zeus, a god, and of Ixion, the human king; and
Ixion declares could he have known all, as Zeus does, he would have warded
off evil from his subjects, would have seen that they were trained aright
from the first--in fact, would not have allowed evil to exist, or failing
this, could he have seen the heart of the criminals and realized how they
repented he would have given them a chance to retrieve their past. Ixion
now realizes that his human ideal is higher than that of Zeus. He had
imagined him possessed of human qualities, and finds his qualities are
less than human. What must be the inevitable result of arriving at such a
conclusion? It means the dethronement of the god, and either a lapse into
hopeless atheism or the recognition that the conception formed of the god
was that of the human mind at an earlier stage of understanding. This
conception becomes crystallized into an anthropomorphic god; but the mind
of man goes onward on its way to higher heights, and lo! there comes a day
when the god-ideal of the past is lower than the human ideal of the
present. It is such a crisis as this that Ixion has arrived at, and his
faith is equal to the strain. Since Zeus is man's own mind-made god,
Ixion's tortures must be the natural consequences of his sin, and not the
arbitrary punishment of a god; and what is Ixion's sin as Browning has
interpreted the myth?

The sin is that of arrogance. Ixion, a mere man, strives to be on an
equality with gods. In Lucian's dialogue between Hera and Zeus the stress
is laid upon the arrogance of Ixion. Jupiter declares that Ixion shall pay
the "penalty not of his love--for that surely is not so dreadful a
crime--but of his loud boasting." Browning raises the sin into a rarer
atmosphere than that of the Greek or Latin. Zeus and Hera may be taken to
represent the attributes of power and love as conceived by man in
Divinity; and Ixion, symbolic of man, arrogantly supposes that he is
capable of putting himself on an equality with Divinity by conceiving the
entire nature of Divinity, that out of his finite mind he can construct
the absolute god, and this is the sin, or, better, the aberration of
sense, which results in the crystallization of his former inadequate
conceptions into an anthropomorphic god, and causes his own downfall.
Ixion, now fully aroused to the fact that the god he has been defying is
but his own miserable conception of God, realizes that the suffering
caused by this conception of God is the very means through which man
struggles toward higher ideals: through evil he is brought to a
recognition of the good; from his agony is bred the rainbow of hope, which
ever shines above him glorified by the light from a Purity far beyond,
all-unobstructed. Successive conceptions of God must sink; but man,
however misled by them, must finally burst through the obstructions of
sense, freeing his spirit to aspire forever toward the light.

"Ixion," then, is not merely an argument against eternal punishment, nor
a picture of heroic suffering, though he who will may draw these lessons
from it, but it is a tremendous symbol of the spiritual development of
man. Pure in its essence, the spirit learns through the obstructions of
sense to yearn forever for higher attainment, and this constitutes the
especial blessedness of man as contrasted with Zeus. He, like the
Pythagorean Father of Number, is the conditioned one; but man is
privileged through all æons of time to break through conditions, and thus
Ixion, triumphant, exclaims:

            "Where light, where light is, aspiring
  Thither I rise, whilst thou--Zeus, keep the godship and sink."

In these poems, as in other phases of his work, Browning runs the gamut of
life, of art, and of thought. He has set a new standard in regard to the
handling of classic material, one which should open the field of classic
lore afresh to future poets. Instead of trying to ape in more or less
ineffectual imitations the style and thought of the great masters of
antiquity, or simply use their mythology as a well-spring of romance to be
clothed in whatever vagaries of style the individual poet might be able to
invent, the aim of the future poet should be to reconstruct the life and
thought of that wonderful civilization. One playwright, at least, has made
a step in the right direction. I refer to Gilbert Murray, whose classical
scholarship has thrown so much light upon the vexed questions of
Browning's attitude toward Euripides, and who, in his "Andromache," has
written a play, not in classical, but in modern form, which seems to bring
us more into touch with the life of Homer's day than even Homer himself.



The division between centuries, though it be an arbitrary one, does
actually appear to mark fairly definite steps in human development, and
already there are indications that the twentieth century is taking on a
character quite distinct from that of the nineteenth. It looks now as if
it were to be the century of the realization of mankind's wildest dreams
in the past. Air navigation, the elixir of life, perpetual motion, are
some of them. About the first no one can now have much skepticism, for if
airships are not as yet common objects of the everyday sky, they, at
least, occupy a large share of attention in the magazines, while the
aviator, a being who did not exist in the last century, is now the hero of
the hour.

With regard to the second, though no sparkling elixir distilled from some
rare flower, such as that Septimius Felton sought in Hawthorne's tale, has
been discovered, the great scientist Metchnikoff has brought to light a
preserver of youth more in keeping with the science of the day--namely, a
microbe, possessing power to destroy the poison that produces age. Whether
perpetual youth is to lead to immortality in the flesh will probably be a
question for other centuries to discuss, though if Metchnikoff is right
there is no reason why we should not retain our youthfulness all our lives
in this century. Add to this, machinery run by the perpetual energy of
radium--a possibility, if radium can ever be obtained in sufficient
quantities to supply the needed power to keep modern civilization on its
ceaseless "go"--and we may picture to ourselves, before the end of the
twentieth century, youths of ninety starting forth on voyages of thirty
years in radium ships, which, like the fairy watch of the Princess
Rossetta, will never go wrong and will never need to be wound up,
metaphorically speaking. It would almost seem as if some method of
enlarging the earth, or of arranging voyages to the moon and Mars, would
be necessary in order to give the new radium machinery sufficient scope
for its activities. However, at present it seems unlikely that it will
ever be possible to produce more than half an ounce of radium a year. As
it would take a ton to run one ship for thirty years, and the expense
would be something almost incalculable, it is a dream only to be realized
by the inventing of methods by which the feeble radio-activity known to
exist in many other substances can be utilized. These methods have not yet
been invented, but it is a good deal that they have been thought of, for
what man thinks of he generally seems to have the indomitable energy to

How such inventions as these, even if very far from attaining success, may
affect the social and thought ideals of the century it is impossible to
say. The automobile is said to have brought about a change, not altogether
beneficial, to the intellectual and artistic growth of society to-day. It
has taken such powerful possession of the minds of humanity that homes
have been mortgaged, music and books and pictures have been sacrificed, in
order that all the money procurable could be put into the machines and
their running. You hear complaints against the automobile from writers,
musicians, and artists. The only thing that really has a good sale is the
automobile. What effect rushing about so constantly at high speed in the
open air is to have on the brain-power is another interesting problem.
Perhaps it is this growing subjective delight in motion which is causing
the development of an artistic taste dependent upon motion as its chief
element. Motion pictures and dancing appeal to the public with such
insistence that plays will not hold successfully without an almost
exaggerated attention to action and dancing, which, whenever it is at all
possible, make a part of the "show."

The pictures of the new school of painters, the futurists, also reveal the
craze for motion. They try to put into their pictures the successive and
decidedly blurred impressions, from the illustrations I have seen, of
scenes in motion, with a result that is certainly startling and
interesting, but which it is difficult to believe is beautiful. One has a
horrible suspicion that all this emphasis upon motion in art is a running
to seed of the art which appeals to the eye and with a psychological
content derived principally from sensation. Perhaps in some other century,
fatuous humanity will like to listen to operas or to plays in a pitch-dark
theatre. This will represent the going to seed of the art which appeals to
the ear, and a psychological content derived principally from sentiment.

While movement seems to be the keynote of the century thus far, in its
everyday life and in its art manifestation, very interesting developments
are taking place in scientific theories and in philosophy, as well as in
the world of education and sociology.

In relation to Browning and the other chief poets of the nineteenth
century, the only aspects of interest are in the region of thought and
social ideals.

With the exception of Tennyson, no other of the chief poets of the century
need be considered in this connection with Browning, because, as we have
seen in a previous chapter, they reflected on the whole the prevalent
disbelief and doubt of the century which came with the revelations of
science. Many people have regarded Tennyson as the chief prophet of the
century. He seems, however, to the present writer to have held an attitude
which reflected the general tone of religious aspiration in the century,
rather than one which struck a new note indicating the direction in which
future religious aspiration might turn.

The conflict in his mind is between doubt and belief. To doubt he has
often given the most poignant expression, as in his poem called "Despair."
The story is of a man and his wife who have lost all religious faith
through the reading of scientific books:

  "Have I crazed myself over their horrible infidel writings? O, yes,
  For these are the new dark ages, you see, of the popular press,
  When the bat comes out of his cave, and the owls are whooping at noon,
  And doubt is the lord of the dunghill, and crows to the sun and the moon,
  Till the sun and the moon of our science are both of them turned into
  And hope will have broken her heart, running after a shadow of good;
  For their knowing and know-nothing books are scatter'd from hand to
  _We_ have knelt in your know-all chapel, too, looking over the sand."

If the effect of science was bad upon this weak-minded pair, the effect of
religion as it had been taught them was no better. The absolute
hopelessness of a blasted faith in all things reaches its climax in the
following stanzas:

  "And the suns of the limitless universe sparkled and shone in the sky,
  Flashing with fires as of God, but we knew that their light was a lie--
  Bright as with deathless hope--but, however they sparkled and shone,
  The dark little worlds running round them were worlds of woe like our
  No soul in the heaven above, no soul on the earth below,
  A fiery scroll written over with lamentation and woe.

  "See, we were nursed in the drear nightfold of your fatalist creed,
  And we turn'd to the growing dawn, we had hoped for a dawn indeed,
  When the light of a sun that was coming would scatter the ghosts of the
  And the cramping creeds that had madden'd the peoples would vanish at
  And we broke away from the Christ, our human brother and friend,
  For He spoke, or it seemed that He spoke, of a hell without help,
      without end.

  "Hoped for a dawn, and it came, but the promise had faded away;
  We had passed from a cheerless night to the glare of a drearier day;
  He is only a cloud and a smoke who was once a pillar of fire,
  The guess of a worm in the dust and the shadow of its desire--
  Of a worm as it writhes in a world of the weak trodden down by the
  Of a dying worm in a world, all massacre, murder and wrong."

There are many hopeful passages in Tennyson to offset such deep pessimism
as is expressed in this one, which, moreover, being a dramatic utterance
it must be remembered, does not reflect any settled conviction on the
poet's part, though it shows him liable to moods of the most extreme
doubt. In "The Ancient Sage" the agnostic spirit of the century is fully
described, but instead of leading to a mood of despair, the mood is one
of clinging to faith in the face of all doubt. The sage speaking, says:

  "Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son,
  Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
  Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
  Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one.
  Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no,
  Nor yet that thou art mortal--nay, my son,
  Thou canst not prove that I who speak with thee,
  Are not thyself in converse with thyself,
  For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
  Nor yet disproven. Wherefore thou be wise,
  Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
  And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith!
  She reels not in the storm of warring words,
  She brightens at the clash of 'Yes' and 'No.'
  She sees the best that glimmers thro' the worst,
  She feels the sun is hid but for a night,
  She spies the summer thro' the winter bud,
  She tastes the fruit before the blossom falls,
  She hears the lark within the songless egg,
  She finds the fountain where they wail'd Mirage!"

There is nothing here more reassuring than a statement made by the sage,
based upon no argument, nor revelation, nor intuition--nothing but the
utilitarian doctrine that it will be wiser to cling to Faith beyond Faith!
This is a sample of the sort of assurance in the reality of God and of
immortality which Tennyson was in the habit of giving. In the poem called
"Vastness" he presents with genuine power a pessimistic view of humanity
and civilization in all its various phases--all of no use, neither the
good any more than the bad, "if we all of us end but in being our own
corpse-coffins at last?" The effect of the dismal atmosphere of the poem
as a whole is supposed to be dissipated by the last stanza:

  "Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him forever: the dead are
      not dead but alive."

The conviction here of immortality through personal love is born of the
feeling that his friend whom he has loved must live forever. The note of
"In Memoriam" is sounded again. Tennyson's philosophy, in a nutshell,
seems to be that doubts are not so much overcome as quieted by a
struggling faith in the truths of religion, of which the chief assurance
lies in the thought of personal love. Not as in Browning, that human love,
because of its beauty and ecstasy, is a symbol of divine love, but because
of its wish to be reunited to the one beloved is an earnest of continued
existence. While Tennyson's poetry is saturated with allusions to the
science of the century, it seems to be ever the dark side of the doctrine
of evolution that is dwelt upon by him, while his religion is held to in
spite of the truths of science, not because the truths of science have
given him in any way a new revelation of beauty.

Much more emphasis has been laid upon Tennyson's importance as a prophet
in religious matters than seems to the present writer warranted. He did
not even keep pace with the thought of the century, though his poetry
undoubtedly reflected the liberalized theology of the earlier years of the
second half of the century. As Joseph Jacobs says, "In Memoriam" has been
to the Broad Church Movement what the "Christian Year" has been to the
High Church. But where is the Broad Church now? Tennyson was, on the
whole, adverse to evolution, which has been almost an instinct in English
speculation for the last quarter of a century. So far as he was the voice
of his age in speculative matters, he only represented the thought of the

What vision Tennyson did have came not through intuition or the higher
reason, but through his psychic power of self-hypnotism. In "The Ancient
Sage" is a passage describing the sort of trance into which he could
evidently cause himself to fall:

                          "For more than once when I
  Sat all alone, revolving in myself
  The word that is the symbol of myself,
  The mortal limit of the self was loosed,
  And passed into the Nameless, as a cloud
  Melts into Heaven. I touch'd my limbs, the limbs
  Were strange, not mine--and yet no shade of doubt,
  But utter clearness, and thro' loss of self,
  The gain of such large life as match'd with ours
  Were sun to spark--unshadowable in words,
  Themselves but shadows of a shadow world."

Such trances have been of common occurrence in the religious life of the
world, as Professor James has shown so exhaustively in his great book,
"Varieties of Religious Experience." And in that book, too, it is
maintained, against the scientific conclusions, that such ecstasies
"signify nothing but suggested and imitated hypnoid states, on an
intellectual basis of superstition, and a corporal one of degeneration and
hysteria," that mystical states have an actual value as revelations of the
truth. After passing in review many examples of ecstasy and trance, from
the occasional experiences of the poets to the constant experiences of the
mediæval mystics and the Hindu Yogis, he finally comes to the interesting
conclusion that:

    "This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and
    the absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we
    both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our one-ness.
    This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly
    altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in
    Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we
    find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical
    utterances an eternal unanimity--which ought to make a critic stop and
    think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as
    has been said, neither birthday nor native land."

The witness given religion in Tennyson's mystical trances is then his most
valuable contribution to the speculative thought of the century, and in a
sense is prophetic of the twentieth century, because in this century
revelations attained in this way have been given a credence long denied
them except in the case of the uneducated and super-emotional, by a man of
the sound scholarship and good judgment of Professor James.

How fully Browning was a representative of the thought of this time,
combining as he did an intuitional with a scientific outlook has already
been shown. Evolution means for him the progress toward the infinite, and
is full of beauty and promise. The failures in nature and life which fill
Tennyson with despair furnish to Browning's mind a proof of the existence
of the absolute, or a somewhere beyond, where things will be righted.
Observation shows him everywhere in the universe the existence of power
and mystery. The mystery is either that of the incomprehensibleness of
causes, or is emphasized in the existence of evil. The first leads to awe
and wonder, and is a constant spur to mankind to seek further knowledge,
but the poet insists that the knowledge so accumulated is not actual gain,
but only a means to gain in so far as it keeps bringing home to the human
mind the fact of its own inadequacy in the discovery of truth. The
existence of evil leads to the constant effort to overcome it, and to
sympathy and pity, and as the failure of knowledge proves a future of
truth to be won, so the failure of mankind to attain perfection in moral
action proves a future of goodness to be realized. All this may be found
either explicitly or implied in the synthetic philosophy of Herbert
Spencer, whose fundamental principles, despite the fire of criticism to
which he has been subjected from all sides--science, religion,
metaphysics, each of which felt it could not claim him exclusively as its
own, yet resenting his inclusion of the other two--are now, in the first
decade of the twentieth century, receiving the fullest recognition by such
masters of the history of nineteenth-century thought as Theodore Merz and
Émile Boutroux.

People often forget that while Spencer spent his life upon the knowledge
or scientific side of human experience, he frequently asserted that there
was in the human consciousness an intuition of the absolute which was the
only certain knowledge possessed by man. Here again Browning was at one
with Spencer. Discussing the problem of a future life in "La Saisiaz," he
declares that God and the soul are the only facts of which he is
absolutely certain:

  "I have questioned and am answered. Question, answer presuppose
  Two points: that the thing itself which questions, answers--_is_, it
  As it also knows the thing perceived outside itself--a force
  Actual ere its own beginning, operative through its course,
  Unaffected by its end--that this thing likewise needs must be;
  Call this--God, then, call that--soul, and both--the only facts for me.
  Prove them facts? That they o'erpass my power of proving, proves them

To this scientific and metaphysical side Browning adds, as has also
already been pointed out, a mystical side based upon feeling. His
revelations of divinity do not come by means of self-induced trances, as
Tennyson's seem to have come, but through the mystery of feeling. This
mystical state seems to have been his habitual one, if we may judge by its
prominence in his poetry. He occasionally descends to the realm of reason,
as he has in "La Saisiaz," but the true plane of his existence is up among
the exaltations of aspiration and love. His cosmic sense is a sense of God
as Love, and is the quality most characteristic of the man. It is like,
though perhaps not identical with, the mysticism of Whitman, which seems
to have been an habitual state. He writes: "There is, apart from mere
intellect, in the make-up of every superior human identity, a wondrous
something that realizes without argument, frequently without what is
called education (though I think it the goal and apex of all education
deserving the name), an intuition of the absolute balance, in time and
space, of the whole of this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and
incredible make-believe and general unsettledness we call _the world_; a
soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole
congeries of things, all history and time, and all events, however
trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hand of the

This mystic mood of Browning's which underlies his whole work--even a work
like "The Ring and the Book," where evil in various forms is rampant and
seems for the time being to conquer--is nowhere more fully, and at the
same time more concisely, expressed than in his poem "Reverie," one of his
last, which ends with a full revelation of this mystical feeling, from
which the less inspired reasoning of "La Saisiaz" is a descent:

  "Even as the world its life,
      So have I lived my own--
  Power seen with Love at strife,
      That sure, this dimly shown--
  Good rare and evil rife

  "Whereof the effect be--faith
      That, some far day, were found
  Ripeness in things now rathe,
      Wrong righted, each chain unbound,
  Renewal born out of scathe.

  "Why faith--but to lift the load,
      To leaven the lump, where lies
  Mind prostrate through knowledge owed
      To the loveless Power it tries
  To withstand, how vain! In flowed

  "Ever resistless fact:
      No more than the passive clay
  Disputes the potter's act,
      Could the whelmed mind disobey
  Knowledge the cataract.

  "But, perfect in every part,
      Has the potter's moulded shape,
  Leap of man's quickened heart,
      Throe of his thought's escape,
  Stings of his soul which dart,

  "Through the barrier of flesh, till keen
      She climbs from the calm and clear,
  Through turbidity all between
      From the known to the unknown here,
  Heaven's 'Shall be' from Earth's 'Has been'?

  "Then life is--to wake not sleep,
      Rise and not rest, but press
  From earth's level where blindly creep
      Things perfected more or less,
  To the heaven's height, far and steep,

  "Where, amid what strifes and storms
      May wait the adventurous quest,
  Power is Love--transports, transforms,
      Who aspired from worst to best,
  Sought the soul's world, spurned the worms!

  "I have faith such end shall be:
      From the first, Power was--I knew.
  Life has made clear to me
      That, strive but for closer view,
  Love were as plain to see.

  "When see? When there dawns a day,
      If not on the homely earth,
  Then yonder, worlds away,
      Where the strange and new have birth
  And Power comes full in play."

Browning has, far more than Tennyson, put religious speculation upon a
basis where it may stand irrespective of a belief in the revelations of
historical Christianity. For the central doctrine of Christianity he had
so profound a reverence that he recurs to it again and again in his
poetry, and at times his feeling seems to carry him to the verge of
orthodox belief. So near does he come to it that many religious critics
have been convinced that he might be claimed as a Christian in the
orthodox sense of the word.

A more careful reading, however, of such poems as "The Death in the
Desert," and "Christmas Eve and Easter Day," upon which rest principally
the claim of the poet's orthodoxy, will reveal that no certain assertion
of a belief in supernaturalism is made, even though the poems are dramatic
and it might be made without necessarily expressing the feeling of the
poet. What Browning felt was that in historical Christianity the highest
symbol of divine love had been reached. Though he may at times have had
moods in which he would fain have believed true an ideal which held for
him great beauty, his worth for his age was in saving religion, _not_ upon
a basis of faith, but upon the ground of logical arguments deduced from
the failure of knowledge, of his personal intuition of God and his
mystical vision in regard to the nature of God.

So complete a synthesis is this that only in the present century is its
full purport likely to be realized. The thought of the century is showing
everywhere a strong reaction away from materialism and toward religious

Even in the latest stronghold of science, psychology, as we have already
seen, there is no formula which will explain the existence of
individuality. While the scientists themselves plod on, often quite
unconscious that they are not dealing with ultimates, the thinkers are no
longer satisfied with a philosophy of materialism, and once more it is
being recognized that the province of philosophy is to give us God, the
soul and immortality.

It is especially interesting in this connection to observe that Germany,
the land of destructive biblical criticism, which Browning before the
middle of the century handled with the consummate skill characteristic of
him, by accepting its historical conclusions while conserving the spirit
of Christianity, has now in the person of Professor Rudolf Eucken done an
almost similar thing. Like Browning, he is a strong individualist and
believes that the development of the soul is the one thing of supreme
moment. "There is a spontaneous springing up of the individual spiritual
life," he writes, "only within the soul of the individual. All social and
all historical life that does not unceasingly draw from this source falls
irrecoverably into a state of stagnation and desolation. The individual
can never be reduced to the position of a mere member of society, of a
church, of a state; notwithstanding all external subordination, he must
assert an inner superiority; each spiritual individual is more than the
whole external world."

[Illustration: BROWNING AT 77 (1889)]

He calls his system "activism," which merely seems to be another way of
saying that the soul-life is one of aspiration toward moral ideals and the
will to carry them out. Such a life, he thinks, demands a new world and a
new character in man, and is entirely at variance with nature. "Our whole
life is an indefatigable seeking and pressing forward. In
self-consciousness the framework is given which has to be filled; in it we
have acquired only the basis upon which the superstructure has to be
raised. We have to find experience in life itself to reveal something new,
to develop life, to increase its range and depth. The endeavor to advance
in spirituality, to win through struggle, is the soul of the life of the
individual and the work of universal history." Readers of Browning will
certainly not feel that there is anything new in this.

In so far, however, as he finds the spiritual life at variance with nature
he parts company with Browning, showing himself to be under the influence
of the dualism of the past which regarded matter and spirit as
antagonistic. In Browning's view, matter and spirit are the two aspects of
God, in the one, power being manifested; in the other, love.

It follows naturally from this, that Eucken does not think of evil as a
means by which good is developed. He prefers to regard it as unexplained,
and forever with us to be overcome. Its reduction to a means of realizing
the good leads, he thinks, "to a weakening which threatens to transform
the mighty world-struggle into an artistic arrangement of things and into
an effeminate play, and which takes away that bitterness from evil without
which there is no strenuousness in the struggle and no vitality in life.
Thus it remains true that religion does not so much explain as presuppose
evil." An attempt to explain evil, he says, belongs to speculation rather
than to religion. That he has an inkling of the region to which
speculation might lead him is shown when it is realized, that upon his
explanation, as one critic of him has said, it might be possible to find
"some reconciliation in the fact that this world with its negations had
awakened the spiritual life to its absolute affirmation, which could,
therefore, not be in absolute opposition."

In leaving aside speculation and confining himself to what he considers
the religious aspects of life, he no doubt strengthens himself as a leader
of those whose speculative powers have not yet been developed, or who can
put one side of the mind to sleep and accept with the other half-truths.
The more developed mind, however, will prefer Browning's greater
inclusiveness. To possess a complete view of life, man must live his own
life as a human being struggling to overcome the evil, at the same time
keeping in mind the fact that evil is in a sense the raw material provided
by God, or the Absolute, or whatever name one chooses to give to the
all-powerful and all-loving, from which the active soul of man is to
derive a richness of beauty and harmony of development not otherwise
possible. Eucken's attitude toward Jesus is summed up in a way which
reminds one strongly of the position taken in the comment made at the end
of "The Death in the Desert." He writes: "The position of the believer in
the universal Christian Church is grounded upon a relation to God whose
uniqueness emerges from the essential divinity of Jesus; only on this
supposition can the personality of Christ stand as the unconditional Lord
and Master to whom the ages must do homage. And while the person of Jesus
retains a wonderful majesty apart from dogma, its greatness is confined to
the realm of humanity, and whatever of new and divine life it brings to us
must be potential and capable of realization in us all. We therefore see
no more in this figure the normative and universally valid type of all
human life, but merely an incomparable individuality which cannot be
directly imitated. At any rate the figure of Jesus, thus understood in all
its height and pure humanity, can no longer be an object of faith and
divine honor. All attempts to take shelter in a mediating position are
shattered against a relentless either--or. Between man and God there is no
intermediate form of being for us, for we cannot sink back into the
ancient cult of heroes. If Jesus, therefore, is not God, if Christ is not
the second person in the Trinity, then he is a man; not a man like any
average man among ourselves, but still man. We can therefore honor him as
a leader, a hero, a martyr, but we cannot directly bind ourselves to him
or root ourselves in him; we cannot submit to him unconditionally. Still
less can we make him the centre of a cult. To do so from our point of view
would be nothing else than an intolerable deification of a human being."
The comment at the end of "The Death in the Desert" puts a similar
question, and answers, "Call Christ, then, the illimitable God, Or Lost!"
But the final word which casts a light back upon the previous conclusion
is "But, 'twas Cerinthus that is lost"--the man, in other words, who held
the heresy that the Christ part only resided in Jesus, who was merely
human, and that the divine part was not crucified, having flown away
before. Thus it is implied that neither those who believe Jesus divine,
nor those who believe him human, are lost, but those who try as Cerinthus
did to make a compromise. The same note is struck in "Christmas Eve," and
now Professor Eucken takes an exactly similar ground in regard to any sort
of compromise, coming out boldly, however, as Browning does not in this
poem, though he makes no strong argument against it--in the acceptance of
Christ as human. Browning's own attitude is expressed as clearly as it is
anywhere in his work in the epilogue to "Dramatis Personæ," in which the
conclusion is entirely in sympathy with that of Eucken:

  "When you see what I tell you--nature dance
  About each man of us, retire, advance,
  As though the pageant's end were to enhance

  "His worth, and--once the life, his product gained--
  Roll away elsewhere, keep the strife sustained,
  And show thus real, a thing the North but feigned--

  "When you acknowledge that one world could do
  All the diverse work, old yet ever new,
  Divide us, each from other, me from you--

  "Why, where's the need of Temple, when the walls
  O' the world are that? What use of swells and falls
  From Levites' choir, Priests' cries, and trumpet calls?

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

The hold which the philosophy of Eucken seems to have taken upon the minds
of many people all over the world shows that it must have great elements
of strength. That there is a partial resemblance between his thought,
which belongs to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the
twentieth century, and Browning's is certain, but the fact remains that
the poet made a synthesis of the elements which must go to the forming of
any complete religious conceptions of the future so far in advance of his
own century that even Eucken is in some respects behind it.

Another interesting instance of Browning's presenting a line of reasoning
which resembles very strongly one phase of present-day philosophy is to be
found in "Bishop Blougram's Apology." The worldly Bishop gives voice to
good pragmatic doctrine, which in a nutshell is, "believe in, or rather
follow, that ideal which will be of the most use to you, and if it turns
out not to be successful, then try another one." The poet declares that
Blougram said good things but called them by wrong names. If the ideal is
a high one there is no great danger in such reasoning, but it can very
easily be turned into sophistical arguments for an ideal of living to
thoroughly selfish ends, as Blougram actually did. The poem might almost
be taken as a prophetic criticism of the weak aspects of pragmatism.

The belief in immortality which pervades Browning's work often comes out
in a form suggesting the idea of reincarnation. His future for the human
soul is not a heaven of bliss, but life in other worlds full of activity
and aspiration. This note is struck in "Paracelsus," where life's destiny
is described to be the climbing of pleasure's heights forever the seeking
of a flying point of bliss remote. In his last volume the idea is more
fully brought out in "Rephan." In this it is held that a state of perfect
bliss might grow monotonous, and that a preferable state would be to
aspire, yet never attain, to the object aimed at. The transmigration is
from "Rephan," where all was merged in a neutral Best to Earth, where the
soul which had been stagnating would have an opportunity to strive, not
rest. The most beautiful expression, however, of the idea of a future of
many lives is found in "One Word More":

  "So it seems: I stand on my attainment.
  This of verse, alone, one life allows me;
  Verse and nothing else have I to give you.
  Other heights in other lives, God willing:
  All the gifts from all the heights, your own, Love!"

Though the theory of reincarnation is so ancient a one, and one entirely
discredited by Christianity, Browning was again expressing an ideal which
was to be revived in our own day. Oriental thought has made it almost a
commonplace of talk. Many people doubtless speak of what they mean to do
in their next incarnation without having the thought very deeply imbedded
in their consciousness, yet the mere fact that one hears the remark so
often proves what a hold the theory has on the imagination of mankind. As
Browning gives it in "One Word More," the successive incarnations take one
on to higher heights--"other lives in other worlds." Thus regarded, it is
the final outcome of evolution and progress, a process to be carried
forward in other worlds than our own, and has no degrading suggestion of a
degenerating, because of sin, into lower forms of existence. The movement
is always upward. Thus it has been effected by the idea that progress is
the law of life, and that evolution means, on the whole, progress.

Again, in the liberality of his social ideals, combined with an intensest
belief in the supremacy of genuine love, he was the forerunner of Ibsen,
who, the world is beginning to discover, was not a subverter of high moral
ideals, as it had thought, but a prophet of the new day, when to be untrue
to the highest ideal of love will be accounted the greatest crime of one
human being against another. From "The Doll's House" to "When We That Are
Dead Awaken" the same lesson is taught. Few people realize that this is
the keynote of Browning's teaching, or would be ready to regard him as a
prophet of an ideal of love which shall come to be seen as the true one
after the science of eugenics, the latest of the exact sciences, has found
itself as powerless as all other sciences have been to touch the reality
of life, because amid all the mysteries of the universe none is greater
than the spiritual mystery of love. Among writers who are to-day
recognizing a part of the truth, at least, is Ellen Key, but neither she
nor Ibsen has insisted in the way that Browning has upon the mystical
source of human love. That Browning is the poet who has given the world
the utmost certainty of God, the soul and immortality, and the most
inspiring ideals of human love, will be more completely recognized in the
future. As time goes on he will emerge above the tumultuous intellectual
life of the present, which, with its enormous increase of knowledge of
phenomena, bringing with it a fairly titanic mastery of the forces of
nature, and its generation of multitudes of ideas upon every conceivable
subject, many of them trite, many of them puerile, and some of them no
doubt of genuine value, obscures for the time being the greatness of any
one voice. A little later, when the winnowing of ideas shall come,
Browning will be recognized as one of the greatest men of his own age or
any age--a man combining knowledge, wisdom, aspiration, and vision to a
marvelous degree. He belongs to the master-order of poets, who write some
things which will pass into the popular knowledge of the day, but whose
serious achievements will be read and studied by the cultured and
scholarly of all time. No students of Greek literature will feel that they
can omit from their reading his Greek poems, no students of sociology will
feel that they can omit from their reading "The Ring and the Book." Lovers
of the drama must ever respond to the beauty of "The Blot in the
'Scutcheon" and "Pippa Passes." Even the student of verse technique will
not be able to leave Browning out of account, and making allowances for
the fact that the individuality of his style sometimes overasserts itself,
he will realize more and more its freshness and its vividness, its power
of suggestion, and its depths of emotional fervor. When the romanticism of
a Keats or a Shelley has completely worked itself out in musical
efflorescence; from which all thought-content has disappeared, there may
grow up a school of poets which shall, without direct imitation, develop
poetry along the lines of vigor and strength in form, and which shall have
for its content a tremendous sense of the worth of humanity and an
unshakable belief in the splendor of its destiny. _Virilists_ might well
be the name of this future school of poets who would hark back to Browning
as their inspiration, and a most pleasant contrast would they be to the
sentimental namby-pambyism which passes muster as poetry in much of the
work of to-day.

In closing this volume which has been inspired by a deep sense of the
abiding greatness of Robert Browning, it has been my desire to put on
record in some way my personal indebtedness to his poetry as an
inspiration not only to high thinking and living, but as a genuine
revelation to me of the rare possibilities in poetic art, for I may almost
say that Browning was my first poet, and through him, strange as it may
seem, I came to an appreciation of all other poets. His poetry,
fortunately for me an early influence in my life, awakened my, until then,
dormant faculty for poetic appreciation. I owe him, therefore, a double
debt of gratitude: Not only has he given me the joy of knowing his own
great work, but through him I have entered the land of all poésie, led as
I truly think by his sympathy with the scientific dispensation into which
I was born. His thought has always seemed so naturally akin to my own
that it has never seemed to me obscure. Finding such thoughts expressed
through the medium of great poetic genius, the beauty of poetic expression
was brought home to me as it never had been before, and hence the poetic
expression of all thought became a deep pleasure to me.

So much interpretation and criticism of Browning has been given to the
world during the last twenty years, that further work in that direction
seems hardly necessary for the present. There will for many a day to come
be those who feel him to be among the greatest poets the world has seen,
and those who find much more to blame in his work than to praise.

I have tried to give a few suggestions in regard to what Robert Browning
actually was in relation to his time. The nineteenth century was so
remarkable a one in the complexity of its growth, both in practical
affairs and in intellectual developments, that it has been possible in the
space of one volume to touch only upon the most important aspects under
each division, and to try to show what measure of influence important
movements had in the molding of the poet's genius.

Though in the nature of the case the treatment could not be exhaustive, I
hope to have opened out a sufficient number of pathways into the
fascinating vistas of the nineteenth century in its relation to Browning
to inspire others to make further excursions for themselves; and, above
all, I hope I may have added at least one stone to the cairn which many,
past and to come, are building to his fame.




[1] The influence of the "Prometheus Unbound" upon the conception of
Aprile's character was first brought forward by the writer in a paper read
before the Boston Browning Society, March 15, 1910, a typewritten copy of
which was placed in the Browning alcove in the Boston Public Library. In
the "Life of Browning," published the same year and not read by the writer
until recently, Mr. Hall Griffin touches upon the same thought in the
following words: "From some elements in the myth of Prometheus Browning
unmistakably evolved the conception of his Aprile as not only the lover
and the poet but as the potential sculptor, painter, orator, and

[2] See the author's "Browning's England."

[3] See Introduction to "Ring and Book"--Camberwell Browning.

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