Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Margaret L. Woods
Robert Browning (18121889)
[Robert Browning was born in 1812. His father was an official in the Bank of England, his mother of Scottish and German origin. In 1833 he published Pauline; in 1835 Paracelsus. In 1837 his tragedy of Strafford was produced by Macready, and in 1841, A Blot in the Scutcheon. Sordello appeared in 1840. From 1841 to 1846 he produced a series of poems under the name of Bells and Pomegranates: it comprised most of his plays and some of his finest Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, but it had not a large sale. In 1846 he married Elizabeth Barrett, the poetess, and they lived in Italy till her death in 1861. During these years he published Christmas Eve and Easter Day, In a Balcony, and Men and Women. He returned to England in 1861 and lived chiefly in London. In 1864 he published Dramatis Personæ; in 18689 The Ring and the Book. During the last twenty years of his life his literary activity was great. He published Balaustions Adventure, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Fifine at the Fair, Aristophanes Apology, The Agamemnon of Æschylus, The Inn Album, Pacchiarotto, La Saisiaz, The Two Poets of Croisic, Dramatic Idyls, Jocoseria, Ferishtahs Fancies, Parleyings with certain People of Importance in their Day. He died at Venice on Dec. 12, 1889, and almost on the same day was published his latest volume of poems, Asolando. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.]
SEVENTY years ago the critics and the public alike were bowing Tom Moore into the House of Fame and letting down the latch upon Shelley and Keats outside. This and other shocking examples of the vanity of contemporary criticism might impose eternal silence on the critic, did they not also make it plain that his mistakes are of no earthly consequence. For such door-keepers are but mortals, and the immortals have plenty of time; they keep on knocking. The door was obdurately shut against Browning for many years, but when it opened, it opened wide; and he is surely not of those whom another age shows out by the back way. But his exact position in Englands House of Fame that other age must determine. Mere versatility does not there count for much; since in the scales of time one thing right well done is sure to outweigh many pretty well done. But that variousness of genius which springs from a wide-sweeping imagination and sympathies that range with it counts for very much. In his comprehension of the varied aspects of human nature, in his power of dramatically presenting them, Browning stands alone among the poets of a great poetic age. Will these things loom larger in the distance, or when Prince Posterity comes to be King, will his royal eye be caught first by uncouth forms, by obscurities and weary prolixities? We cannot tell whether our poet will be freshly crowned or coldly honoured, for he beyond all others is the intellectual representative of his own generation, and his voice is still confused and it may be magnified by its echoes in the minds of his hearers.
His own generation indeed meant more than one. He represented in some respects the generation into which he was born, but yet more a later one which he antedated. This being so, he could not expect an eager welcome from his earlier contemporaries. Phantoms of the past are recognisable, and respectable, but phantoms of the future are rarely popular. Yet it was fortunate that he stood just where he did in time, rather than nearer to those who were coming to meet him and call him Master. For he was born while the divine breath of Poetry, that comes we know not whence and goes we know not whither, was streaming over England. He grew up through years when she stood elate, with victory behind her, and looking forward with all manner of sanguine beliefs in the future. So he brought into a later age not only the fuller poetic inspiration, the sincere Romance of the earlier, but its sanguine confident temperament. This temperament alone would not have recommended him to a generation which had been promised Canaan and landed in a quagmire, had it not been combined with others which made him one of themselves. But this being so, his cheerful courage, his belief in God and the ultimate triumph of good were as a tower of strength to his weaker brethren. It was not only as a poet, but as a prophet or philosopher, that he won his disciples. He himself once said that the right order of things is Philosophy first, and Poetry, which is its highest outcome, afterwards. Yet this union of Philosophy and Poetry is dangerous, especially if Philosophy be allowed to take precedence. For Philosophy is commonly more perishable than Poetry, or at any rate it is apt sooner to require resetting to rid it of an antiquated air. Whatever is worth having in the philosophy of a Rousseau soon passes into the common stock. Emile is dead, but Rousseau lives by his pictures of beautiful Nature and singular human nature.
Brownings philosophy is mainly religious. It has been said of him with truth: His processes of thought are often scientific in their precision of analysis; the sudden conclusion which he imposes upon them is transcendental and inept. This was not so much due to a defect in his own mind as to the circumstances of the world of thought about him. An interest in theological questions had been quickened and spread by more than one religious revival, and then scientific and historical criticism began to make its voice heard. Intelligent religious people could not close their ears to it, but they were as yet unprepared either to accept or to effectually combat its conclusions. Hence there arose in very many minds a confusion between two opposing strains of thought, similar to that which has been remarked in Brownings poetry, and something like a religious system in which what was called Doubt and Faith had each its allotted part. Here was plainly a transition state of thought, and it is one from which mens minds have already moved away in opposite directions; but it has left deep traces on the literature of the middle Victorian period. Brownings philosophy does not fundamentally differ from that of other poets and writers of the time. It was by his superior powers of analysis, by the swiftness and ingenuity of his mind, that he was in advance of them and retained his influence over a generation that had ceased to look to them for guidance. Besides, his philosophy does not all bear the stamp of the temporary. He has some less transient religious thoughts, and many varied and fertile views of human life, breathing energy, courage, benignant wisdom: and those who like can make a system of them.
But it is not by Philosophy, it is by Imagination and Form that a poet lives. In a century that has been wonderfully enriched with song, a time when we have all grown epicures in our taste for exquisite verse, too much has been said about Brownings want of form. It would be an absurdity to call a man a poet who had no sense of poetic form, who could not sing. Browning was a poet but not always a singer; song was not to him the inevitable language, the supreme instinct. When he strains his metre by attempting to pack more meaning into a line than it will bear with grace, when he juggles with far-fetched and hideous rhymes, he really ceases to be a poet and puts his laurels in jeopardy. But oftener his form, more especially his blank verse form, is justified by the fact that he is essentially a dramatic poet; his verse must fit the character and the mood in which he speaks. The Elizabethans, who were no fumblers in the matter of metre, had their reasons for choosing a form for dramatic verse which should be not severe, but loose and flexible; a form which might alternately approach the classical iambus, a lyric measure and plain prose, yet remain more forcible than prose by the retention of a certain beat. It resembles not a mask and cothurn, but a fine and flowing garment, following the movements of the actors limbs. Great is the liberty of English unrhymed verse, and nobly it has been used; it has given us the most various treasures, from the ordered magnificence of Paradise Lost to the lyric cry of Romeo at Juliets grave. Browning has often misused his liberty, but by no means so often as his hasty critics suppose. Try to think of Caliban upon Setebos, and even Dominus Hyacinthus, in prose, and you see at once by the loss involved that they are really poems; that is, that the verse form, and their own special form, is an essential part of their excellence. His unrhymed verse is seldom or never rich and stately, it is sometimes harsh and huddled; but it is constantly vigorous and appropriate, it can flow with a clear idyllic grace, as in Cleon and Andrea del Sarto, or spring up in simple lyric beauty, as in One Word more and the dedication to The Ring and the Book. He had that great gift of singing straight from the heart which some great poets have lacked. Such songs have always an incommunicable charm, a piercing sweetness of their own. A strong emotion, whether personal or dramatic, has a magical effect in smoothing what is rugged and clearing what is turbid in Brownings style. For the rest, he wrote Pippa Passes, the gallant marching Cavalier Songs, the galloping ballad of How they brought the Good News, the serene harmonies of Love among the Ruins. These, and many other outbursts of beautiful song, make it doubly ridiculous to speak of him as a poet who could not sing. Yet is it true that he frequently sacrificed sound to sense. This the plain person thinks right, but the poet knows or should know it to be wrong. And it did not even save him from obscurity. Such are his deficienciesthe more noticeable because the whole tendency of the century has been and is toward the perfecting of lyric and narrative forms of verse. In dramatic poetry this age of poets has been strangely poor. Let Shelleys lurid drama of The Cenci be set aside in the high place that it deserves: after that the first seventy years of this century produced nothing of importance as dramatic poetry except Brownings work. For what makes work dramatic? Not special fitness for the stage, but the authors impersonality and power of characterisation; the clash of human passions and interests on each other, the event or even the accident, that as in a lightning-flash reveals the dim hearts of men. In his dramatic power Browning stands alone among the poets of the nineteenth century.
In another aspect he stands alone. While they have remained curiously untouched by the most important literary movement of the last fifty years, he has been in it, and even, for a time, in advance of it. In his measure as a poet he is a realist. His aim, like that of contemporary writers of prose fiction, is to see and represent human life and character as it is. The history of literature during the entire century has been a history of revolts. Daumier represents the eloquent M. Prudhomme telling his son, with a noble sweep of the arm, how on the place where they now stand once stood a tyrannous barrier, but he, M. Prudhomme, and his friends right bravely knocked it down. Yes, dear Papa, returns the child, looking a few yards ahead, And then I see you built it up again a little further on. The barrier of the conventional has been constantly moved on, here quickly, there slowly; but in English poetry, since the great move that separated the eighteenth from the nineteenth century, it has been stationary. Browning climbed over it. He climbed over other barriers too, which have since been moved on. He was not afraid of passion when mild sentiment was the literary thing. Some one when he died made a sonnet commemorating him as the Poet of Love. For a moment it seemed strange that the philosopher, the psychologist, the man the ruggedness of whose genius had challenged so much criticism, should be lamented as the Poet of Love. Yet such he emphatically was. He was so not only because he had that power of singing straight from the heart to which I have before referred, but because he was fearlessly truthful in his presentation of human nature, and also because he was drawn by his dramatic bent to the strong situations which cannot be evolved out of mild sentiments. In the fearlessness as well as the subtlety of his psychology, he is from the first with Balzac rather than with his contemporaries in England, where the barriers were many and moved reluctantly. The play of light and shadow in the world, of good and evil in complex characters, has an endless attraction for him. The clear sweet song of his Pippa runs sparkling through dark scenes of crime and treachery; Chiappino is at the height of heroism when the Nuncio comes to him, and like a wise benevolent kind of devil, shows him the stupidity of heroism and all that sort of thing, and how much better he can serve the world by serving his own interests first. Twice, in Paracelsus and in The Return of the Druses, he has taken impostors for his heroes, and shown them to have been so largely because they were men of finer mould than the most honest of their dupes. From first to last he feels a passionate interest in the story of a soul. Now the simple soul, like the knife-grinder, has got no story. The simple heart, however, may have story enough, and it is the Pippa of all his work. It is, above all, truth of which he is in search, whether he paints the sixteenth-century bishop ordering his tomb, or the nineteenth-century bishop chatting over his wine. His aim is to keep poetry in touch not merely with the life of the imagination, but with life in general. It is of course where it touches this modern life of ours that the real poetic crux occurs. There will always be the stuff of poetry in the world, so long as there are hearts and souls in it, and so long as the earth moves on through starry space, clothed in her beautiful vesture of air. But either the surface of our life has really grown prosaic, or we think it has, which comes to the same thing. It requires tact as well as boldness and power to harmonise it with the imaginative atmosphere that we expect in poetry. Browning sometimes failed in tact; at other times, as in Waring and the brief poem called Confessions, his touch was sure. But this realism of his, at its best as well as its worst, inevitably repelled readers who were only just beginning to relish realism in prose. Besides, he had a language of his own, with a strange new flavour about it, which made him seem much more obscure than he really was. So here a little ahead of his contemporaries and there a great way, most of Robert Brownings road was something solitary. The pleasanter for him when one fine day he found a troop of followers marching behind him; young folk, full of sympathy and enthusiasm.
He had other things in common with them, besides realistic and psychological tendencies. His poems from Sordello onwards bear witness to his love and knowledge of Italian Art. This he had gained for himself as he travelled through Italy, looking round him with a painters eye. But Ruskin taught a younger generation to share it with him. Then, though from first to last a sturdy lover of England, he was something of a cosmopolitan in his sympathies; and cosmopolitanism is strongly characteristic of the literature of to-day, and even mildly characteristic of the literary man. It used not to be so. The novelists of Brownings date can never quite repress their chuckles at the idea of any one being ridiculous enough to be born a Frenchman or a German. The other poets travelled and even made their homes in Italy, but they were interested only in its scenery and romance. Browning not only travelled much, but formed intimate friendships outside his own country, and when he and his wife lived in Florence it was not as strangers and sojourners. Their poems reflect their sympathy with the national life about them. For this freedom from provincialism, as well as for some other kindred qualities, he doubtless owed much thanks to his education, which was remarkable for its appropriateness to his genius. He was not machine made.
In yet another and a more important characteristic he was in harmony with the most modern developments. His dramatic bent was unseasonable in the middle years of this century. English literature had turned its back on the theatre, in spite of Macreadys and Kembles. Not only so, but its tendencies were non-dramatic. Scenes may of course be found in the works of the great novelists of the period which stand in contradiction to this. But all the same the tendency was towards a gentle development of plot and character, an absence of central situations, of crucial moments in the affairs and minds of men: that is, towards the non-dramatic. Browning instinctively turned towards the stage. He did not succeed there, yet one cannot but think that had circumstances encouraged the clever young man to go on writing stage-plays, he would eventually have learned the business. There is nothing to regret in the fact that he did not. His genius found for itself the most full and fitting expression. Through the plays, the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, it swept on to that Dramatic Epic of The Ring and the Book, which perhaps most perfectly embodied it. The plan of The Ring and the Book grew so naturally out of the documents on which it was founded and his own habitual manner of writing, that probably he himself was hardly conscious of its originalityof its excellence as a device for breaking the monotony of a long poem. The brilliant Introduction tells the facts of the story with a lucidity to which he did not always attain. By thus on the threshold revealing his whole plot, he at once asserts and vindicates his old belief in the interest of the story of souls; for no one would wish it otherwise. Then at the touch of the magicians wand arise out of their dust the hearts that beat hard, the brains that ticked two centuries since. All Rome is there, Arezzo too, yet the plan of the poem permits the principal figures to stand out clear against that crowded background. They react dramatically upon each other, yet they are more complete than they could be in a play, where much must be left to conjecture. Long as it is, it is seldom long-winded. When it is, the remedy is plainly in the readers own hands; another virtue of the plan. General practice has long suppressed Doctor Bottinius, and many persons think they can do without Tertium Quid; but this is not universal. At any rate it is possible without these to realise the rest; the pathetic figure of Pompilia, the wise great Pope, the philoprogenitive Dominus Hyacinthus, and Guido couched in his dungeon like a wolf at bay.
This great poem, which touches the high-water mark of Brownings genius, received at once its meed of praise. He had been ignored, he had been ridiculed, and now a reaction set in. The little band of Browning enthusiasts rapidly increased to a multitude, till at length he became a fashion. His very faults were glorified, and too much attention bestowed on such tentative and immature work as Sordello. There were many people to whom an obscure passage in Browning gave the amusement of an acrostic, plus the pleasures of intellectuality. Thus his obscurity was as much exaggerated by his admirers as by his opponents. Sometimes that obscurity may be justified by his own beliefa belief on which he did not always actthat poetry should suggest trains of thought rather than carry them out. At others it results from a real failure to crystallise a thought, or again from a kind of overwhelming of his powers of expression by the hurrying crowd of his ideas. But modern life is crowded and hurrying too. Already what may be called the acrostic interest in Browning is on the wane. As a fashion it needs must go. But besides the literary modists, there are in every generation the lovers of literature. To these we may leave in all confidence the works of Robert Browning, sure that they cannot miss seeing the treasure of true if alloyed gold that lies there; sure too that they will understand, as we cannot understand, how to send