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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Robert Browning (1812–1889)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward L. Burlingame (1848–1922)
 
ROBERT BROWNING was born at Camberwell on May 7th, 1812, the son and grandson of men who held clerkships in the Bank of England—the one for more than forty and the other for full fifty years. His surroundings were apparently typical of English moderate prosperity, and neither they, nor his good but undistinguished family traditions, furnish any basis for the theorizing of biographers, except indeed in a single point. His grandmother was a West Indian Creole, and though only of the first generation to be born away from England, seems, from the restless and adventurous life led by her brother, to have belonged to a family of the opposite type from her husband’s. Whether this crossing of the imaginative, Westward-Ho strain of the English blood with the home-keeping type has to do with the production of such intensely vitalized temperaments as Robert Browning’s, is the only question suggested by his ancestry. It is noticeable that his father wished to go to a university, then to become an artist—both ambitions repressed by the grandfather; and that he took up his bank official’s career unwillingly. He seems to have been anything but a man of routine; to have had keen and wide interests outside of his work; to have been a great reader and book collector, even an exceptional scholar in certain directions; and to have kept till old age a remarkable vivacity, with unbroken health—altogether a personality thoroughly sympathetic with that of his son, to whom this may well have been the final touch of a prosperity calculated to shake all traditional ideas of a poet’s youth.  1
  Browning’s education was exceptional, for an English boy’s. He left school at fourteen, and after that was taught by tutors at home, except that at eighteen he took a Greek course at the London University. His training seems to have been unusually thorough for these conditions, though largely self-directed; it may be supposed that his father kept a sympathetic and intelligent guidance, wisely not too obvious. But in the main it is clear that from a very early age, Browning had deliberately and distinctly in view the idea of making literature the pursuit of his life, and that he troubled himself seriously with nothing that did not help to that end; while into everything that did he seems to have thrown himself with precocious intensity. Individual anecdotes of his precocity are told by his biographers; but they are flat beside the general fact of the depth and character of his studies, and superfluous of the man who had written ‘Pauline’ at twenty-one and ‘Paracelsus’ at twenty-two. At eighteen he knew himself as a poet, and encountered no opposition in his chosen career from his father, whose “kindness we must seek,” as Mrs. Sutherland Orr says, “not only in this first, almost inevitable assent to his son’s becoming a writer, but in the subsequent unfailing readiness to support him in his literary career. ‘Paracelsus,’ ‘Sordello,’ and the whole of ‘Bells and Pomegranates’ were published at his father’s expense, and, incredible as it appears, brought him no return.” An aunt, Mrs. Silverthorne, paid the costs of the earlier ‘Pauline.’  2
  From this time of his earliest published work (‘Pauline’ was issued without his name in 1833) that part of the story of his life known to the public, in spite of two or three more or less elaborate biographies, is mainly the history of his writings and the record of his different residences, supplemented by less than the usual number of personal anecdotes, to which neither circumstance nor temperament contributed material. He had nothing of the attitude of the recluse, like Tennyson; but while healthily social and a man of the world about him, he was not one of whom people tell “reminiscences” of consequence, and he was in no sense a public personality. Little of his correspondence has appeared in print; and it seems probable that he will be fortunate, to an even greater degree than Thackeray, in living in his works and escaping the “ripping up” of the personal chronicler.  3
  He traveled occasionally in the next few years, and in 1838 and again in 1844 visited Italy. In that year, or early in 1845, he became engaged to Miss Elizabeth Barrett, their acquaintance beginning through a friend,—her cousin,—and through letters from Browning expressing admiration for her poems. Miss Barrett had then been for some years an invalid from an accident, and an enforced recluse; but in September 1846 they were married without the knowledge of her father, and almost immediately afterward (she leaving her sick room to join him) went to Paris and then to Italy, where they lived first in Genoa and afterward in Florence, which with occasional absences was their home for fourteen years. Mrs. Browning died there, at Casa Guidi, in June 1861. Browning left Florence some time afterward, and in spite of his later visits to Italy, never returned there. He lived again in London in the winter, but most of his summers were spent in France, and especially in Brittany. About 1878 he formed the habit of going to Venice for the autumn, which continued with rare exceptions to the end of his life. There in 1888 his son, recently married, had made his home; and there on the 12th of December, 1889, Robert Browning died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on the last day of the year.  4
 
  ‘Pauline, a Fragment of a Confession,’ Browning’s first published poem, was a psychological self-analysis, perfectly characteristic of the time of life at which he wrote it,—very young, full of excesses of mood, of real exultation, and somewhat less real depression—the “confession” of a poet of twenty-one, intensely interested in the ever-new discovery of his own nature, its possibilities, and its relations. It rings very true, and has no decadent touch in it:—
  “I am made up of an intensest life
… a principle of restlessness
Which would be all, have, see, know, taste, feel, all—”
this is the note that stays in the reader’s mind. But the poem is psychologically rather than poetically noteworthy—except as all beginnings are so; and Browning’s statement in a note in his collected poems that he “acknowledged and retained it with extreme repugnance,” shows how fully he recognized this.
  5
  In ‘Paracelsus,’ his next long poem, published some two years later, the strength of his later work is first definitely felt. Taking for theme the life of the sixteenth-century physician, astrologer, alchemist, conjuror,—compound of Faust and Cagliostro, mixture of truth-seeker, charlatan, and dreamer,—Browning makes of it the history of the soul of a feverish aspirant after the finality of intellectual power, the knowledge which should be for man the key to the universe; the tragedy of its failure, and the greater tragedy of its discovery of the barrenness of the effort, and the omission from its scheme of life of an element without which power was impotent.

  “Yet, constituted thus and thus endowed,
I failed; I gazed on power till I grew blind.
Power—I could not take my eyes from that;
That only I thought should be preserved, increased.
*        *        *        *        *
I learned my own deep error: love’s undoing
Taught me the worth of love in man’s estate,
And what proportion love should hold with power
In his right constitution; love preceding
Power, and with much power always much more love.”
  6
 
  ‘Paracelsus’ is the work of a man still far from maturity; but it is Browning’s first use of a type of poem in which his powers were to find one of their chief manifestations—a psychological history, told with so slight an aid from “an external machinery of incidents” (to use his own phrase), or from conventional dramatic arrangement, as to constitute a form virtually new.  7
  This was to be notably the method of ‘Sordello,’ which appeared in 1840. In a note written twenty-three years later to his friend Milsand, and prefixed as a dedication to ‘Sordello’ in his collected works, he defined the form and its reason most exactly:—“The historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires, and my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul; little else is worth study.” This poem, with its “historical decoration” or “background” from the Guelf and Ghibelline struggles in Italy, carries out this design in a fashion that defies description or characterization. With its inexhaustible wealth of psychological suggestion, its interwoven discussion of the most complex problems of life and thought, its metaphysical speculation, it may well give pause to the reader who makes his first approach to Browning through it, and send him back,—if he begins, as is likely, with the feeling of one challenged to an intellectual task,—baffled by the intricacy of its ways and without a comprehension of what it contains or leads to. Mr. Augustine Birrell says of it:—
          “We have all heard of the young architect who forgot to put a staircase in his house, which contained fine rooms but no way of getting into them. ‘Sordello’ is a poem without a staircase. The author, still in his twenties, essayed a high thing. For his subject
            ‘He singled out
Sordello compassed murkily about
With ravage of six long sad hundred years.’
  “He partially failed; and the British public, with its accustomed generosity, and in order, I suppose, to encourage the others, has never ceased girding at him because, forty-two years ago, he published at his own charges a little book of two hundred and fifty pages, which even such of them as were then able to read could not understand.”
  8
  With ‘Sordello,’ however, ended for many years—until he may perhaps be said to have taken it up in a greatly disciplined and more powerful form in ‘The Ring and the Book’ and others—this type and this length of the psychological poem for Browning; and now began that part of his work which is his best gift to English literature.  9
  Four years before the publication of ‘Sordello’ he had written one play, ‘Strafford,’ of which the name sufficiently indicates the subject, which had been put upon the stage with some success by Macready;—the forerunner of a noble series of poems in dramatic form, most conveniently mentioned here together, though not always in chronological order. They were ‘The Blot on the ’Scutcheon,’ perhaps the finest of those actually fitted for the stage; ‘Colombe’s Birthday’; ‘King Victor and King Charles’; ‘The Return of the Druses’; ‘Luria’; ‘A Soul’s Tragedy’; ‘In a Balcony’; and,—though less on the conventional lines of a play than the others,—perhaps the finest dramatic poem of them all, ‘Pippa Passes,’ which, among the earlier (it was published in 1841), is also among the finest of all Browning’s works, and touches the very highest level of his powers.  10
  Interspersed with these during the fifteen years between 1840 and 1855, and following them during the next five, appeared the greater number of the single shorter poems which make his most generally recognized, his highest, and his unquestionably permanent title to rank among the first of English poets. Manifestly, it is impossible and needless to recall any number of these here by even the briefest description; and merely to enumerate the chief among them would be to repeat a familiar catalogue, except as they illustrate the points of a later general consideration.  11
  Finally, to complete the list of Browning’s works, reference is necessary to the group of books of his later years: the two self-called narrative poems, ‘The Ring and the Book,’ with its vast length, and ‘Red Cotton Nightcap Country,’ its fellow in method if not in extent. Mr. Birrell (it is worth while to quote him again, as one who has not merged the appreciator in the adulator) calls ‘The Ring and the Book’ “a huge novel in 20,000 lines—told after the method not of Scott, but of Balzac; it tears the hearts out of a dozen characters; it tells the same story from ten different points of view. It is loaded with detail of every kind and description: you are let off nothing.” But he adds later:—“If you are prepared for this, you will have your reward; for the style, though rugged and involved, is throughout, with the exception of the speeches of counsel, eloquent and at times superb: and as for the matter—if your interest in human nature is keen, curious, almost professional; if nothing man, woman, or child has been, done, or suffered, or conceivably can be, do, or suffer, is without interest for you; if you are fond of analysis, and do not shrink from dissection—you will prize ‘The Ring and the Book’ as the surgeon prizes the last great contribution to comparative anatomy or pathology.”  12
  This is the key of the matter: the reader who has learned, through his greater work, to follow with interest the very analytic exercises, and as it were tours de force of Browning’s mind, will prize ‘The Ring and the Book’ and ‘Red Cotton Nightcap Country’; even he will prize but little the two ‘Adventures of Balaustion,’ ‘Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau,’ ‘The Inn Album,’ and one or two others of the latest works in the same genre. But he can well do without them, and still have the inexhaustible left.  13
  The attitude of a large part of his own generation toward Browning’s poetry will probably be hardly understood by the future, and is not easy to comprehend even now for those who have the whole body of his work before them. It is intelligible enough that the “crude preliminary sketch” ‘Pauline’ should have given only the bare hint of a poet to the few dozen people who saw that it was out of the common; that ‘Paracelsus’ should have carried the information,—though then, beyond a doubt, to only a small circle; and especially that ‘Sordello,’ a clear call to a few, should have sounded to even an intelligent many like an exercise in intricacy, and to the world at large like something to which it is useless to listen. Or, to look at the other end of his career, it is not extraordinary that the work of his last period—‘The Ring and the Book,’ ‘Red Cotton Nightcap Country,’—those wonderful minute studies of human motive, made with the highly specialized skill of the psychical surgeon and with the confidence of another Balzac in the reader’s following power—should always remain more or less esoteric literature. But when it is remembered that between these lie the most vivid and intensely dramatic series of short poems in English,—those grouped in the unfortunately diverse editions of his works under the rubrics ‘Men and Women,’ ‘Dramatic Lyrics,’ ‘Dramatic Romances,’ ‘Dramatis Personæ,’ and the rest, as well as larger masterpieces of the broad appeal of ‘Pippa Passes,’ ‘A Blot on the ’Scutcheon,’ or ‘In a Balcony,’—it is hard to understand, and will be still harder fifty years hence, why Browning has not become the familiar and inspiring poet of a vastly larger body of readers. Undoubtedly a large number of intelligent persons still suspect a note of affectation in the man who declares his full and intense enjoyment—not only his admiration—of Browning; a suspicion showing not only the persistence of the Sordello-born tradition of “obscurity,” but the harm worked by those commentators who approach him as a problem. Not all commentators share this reproach; but as Browning makes Bishop Blougram say:—
  “Even your prime men who appraise their kind
Are men still, catch a wheel within a wheel,
See more in a truth than the truth’s simple self—
Confuse themselves—”
and beyond question such persons are largely responsible for the fact that for some time to come, every one who speaks of Browning to a general audience will feel that he has some cant to clear away. If he can make them read this body of intensely human, essentially simple and direct dramatic and lyrical work, he will help to bring about the time when the once popular attitude will seem as unjustifiable as to judge Goethe only by the second part of ‘Faust.’
  14
  The first great characteristic of Browning’s poetry is undoubtedly the essential, elemental quality of its humanity—a trait in which it is surpassed by no other English poetry but that of Shakespeare. It can be subtile to a degree almost fantastic (as can Shakespeare’s to an extent that familiarity makes us forget); but this is in method. The stuff of it—the texture of the fabric which the swift and intricate shuttle is weaving—is always something in which the human being is vitally, not merely æsthetically interested. It deals with no shadows, and indeed with few abstractions, except those that form a part of vital problems—a statement which may provoke the scoffer, but will be found to be true.  15
  A second characteristic, which, if not a necessary result of this first, would at least be impossible without it, is the extent to which Browning’s poetry produces its effect by suggestion rather than by elaboration; by stimulating thought, emotion, and the æsthetic sense, instead of seeking to satisfy any one of these—especially instead of contenting itself with only soothing the last. The comparison of his poetry with—for instance—Tennyson’s, in this respect, is instructive; if it is possibly unjust to both.  16
  And a third trait in Browning—to make an end of a dangerously categorical attempt to characterize him—follows logically from this second; its extreme compactness and concentration. Browning sometimes dwells long—even dallies—over an idea, as does Shakespeare; turns it, shows its every facet; and even then it is noticeable, as with the greater master, that every individual phrase with which he does so is practically exhaustive of the suggestiveness of that particular aspect. But commonly he crowds idea upon idea even in his lyrics, and—strangely enough—without losing the lyric quality; each thought pressed down to its very essence, and each with that germinal power that makes the reading of him one of the most stimulating things to be had from literature. His figures especially are apt and telling in the very minimum of words; they say it all, like the unsurpassable Shakespearean example of “the dyer’s hand”; and the more you think of them, the more you see that not a word could be added or taken away.  17
  It may be said that this quality of compactness is common to all genius, and of the very essence of all true poetry; but Browning manifested it in a way of his own, such as to suggest that he believed in the subordination of all other qualities to it; even of melody, for instance, as may be said by his critics and admitted in many cases by even his strongest admirers. But all things are not given to one, even among the giants; and Browning’s force with its measure of melody (which is often great) has its place among others’ melody with its measure of force. Open at random: here are two lines in ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s,’ not deficient in melody by any means:—
  “Dear dead women—with such hair, too: what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms?—I feel chilly and grown old.”
  18
  This is not Villon’s ‘Ballad of Dead Ladies,’ nor even Tennyson’s ‘Dream of Fair Women’; but a master can still say a good deal in two lines.  19
  What is called the “roughness” of Browning’s verse is at all events never the roughness that comes from mismanagement or disregard of the form chosen. He has an unerring ear for time and quantity; and his subordination to the laws of his metre is extraordinary in its minuteness. Of ringing lines there are many; of broadly sonorous or softly melodious ones but few; and especially (if one chooses to go into details of technic) he seems curiously without that use of the broad vowels which underlies the melody of so many great passages of English poetry. Except in the one remarkable instance of ‘How we Carried the Good News from Ghent to Aix,’ there is little onomatopœia, and almost no note of the flute; no “moan of doves in immemorial elms” or “lucent sirops tinct with cinnamon.” On the other hand, in his management of metres like that of ‘Love Among the Ruins,’ for instance, he shows a different side; the pure lyrics in ‘Pippa Passes’ and elsewhere sing themselves; and there are memorable cadences in some of the more meditative poems, like ‘By the Fireside.’  20
  The vividness and vigor and truth of Browning’s embodiments of character come, it is needless to say, from the same power that has created all great dramatic work,—the capacity for incarnating not a quality or an ideal, but the mixture and balance of qualities that make up the real human being. There is not a walking phantom among them, or a lay-figure to hang sentiment on. A writer in the New Review said recently that of all the poets he remembered, only Shakespeare and Browning never drew a prig. It is this complete absence of the false note that gives to certain of Browning’s poems the finality which is felt in all consummate works of art, great and small; the sense that they convey, if not the last word, at least the last necessary word, on their subject. ‘Andrea del Sarto’ is in its way the whole problem of the artist-ideal, the weak will and the inner failure, in all times and guises; and at the other end of the gamut, nobody will ever need again to set forth Bishop Blougram’s attitude, or even that of Mr. Sludge the Medium. Of the informing, almost exuberant vitality of all the lyric and dramatic poems, it is needless to speak; that fairly leaps to meet the reader at every page of them, and a quality of it is their essential optimism.
  “What is he buzzing in my ears?
  Now that I come to die,
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?
  Ah, reverend sir, not I!”
  21
  The world was never a vale of tears to Robert Browning, man or poet; but a world of men and women, with plenty of red corpuscles in their blood.  22
 
 
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