Robert Browning's Poems

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    Progressing from hence, we find doggerel in Mr. Browning's love verses, doggerel in his artistic poems, and even his pro­fessedly religious piece, 'Christmas Eve and Easter Day,' is written, for a considerable portion, in Hudibrastic doggerel rhyme.  Mr. Browning can apparently never resist the fascination of doggerel when it occurs to him.  His most popular lyrics are probably the three 'Cavalier Tunes.'  In the first of them the jingle of 'Charles' and 'carles' caught his ear, and he thought it so good that he has repeated it twice over in three short verses, united with the further rhymes of parles and snarlsCharles, carles, parles, Charles, snarls, carles. These ballads, however, are among Mr. Browning's best; they are very spirited, and have a certain smack of the times about them, although no one could fancy the Cavaliers singing them.  No Cavalier ever called himself a 'great-hearted gentleman,' or talked about the 'hot day brightening to blue from its silver gray.'  The quaintest specimen, perhaps, of all Mr. Browning's success in doggerel is his description of Nelson:—

'Leaning with one shoulder digging
 Jigging, as it were, and zig-zag-zigging
 Up against the mizen-rigging.'

    In fact, there can hardly be brought a single complete poem from these volumes which would not prove that Mr. Browning has an ear and a taste incapable of distinguishing sufficiently the delicacies of rhyme and rhythm to become a lyric poet: his very best passages of rhyme have a creak in them which sets the teeth on edge.  One of his best songs, for example, is in 'Pippa Passes;' it is the song sung by Pippa in the hearing of Jules the sculptor; but pretty as the thought is, the rhymes in two instances hardly seem above doggerel; the expression is bad, and the fourth line of the second stanza is, we think, the harshest we ever read:—

'Give her but a least excuse to love me!
 When—where—
 How—can this arm establish her above
        me, 
 If fortune fixed her as my lady there, 
 There already, to eternally reprove me?
 ("Hist "—said Kate the queen;
 But "Oh "—cried the maiden, binding her
         tresses, 
 "'Tis only a page that carols unseen
 "Crumbling your hounds their messes!")

 'Is she wronged?—To the rescue of her
        honour,
 My heart!
 Is she poor?—What costs it to be styled a
        donor?
 Merely an earth's to cleave, a sea's to part!
 But that fortune should have thrust all
        this upon her! 
 ("Nay, list,"—bade Kate the queen;
 And still cried the maiden, binding her
        tresses, "
 "'Tis only a page that carols unseen
 "Fitting your hawks their jesses!")' 

    Mr. Browning's religious feelings and his daring ingenuity of thought and invention have found congenial application in subjects in which a foreknowledge of the Advent of Christ is introduced, as by David in the very fine poem called 'Saul;' or as dimly known to Karshish, the Arab physician, by hearsay report and by examination of Lazarus; or as just known to 'Cleon,' the Greek poet and philosopher, who is not certain whether Paulus, 'the barbarian Jew,' 'is not one with him;' or as more fully known to John in the 'Death in the Desert.'  All these four poems display a different and remarkable power; and it is to be observed that the daring of the poet has increased with each new attempt in handling the awful theme.

    It was a bold undertaking to re-sing the song with which David chased away the evil spirit of Saul; to commence with the celebration of the joys of the shepherd and the reaper—to pass onward through the raptures of manhood and of strength—of the hunter and the warrior—through the praise of exaltation and kingly glory of royalty—finally, to describe the ineffable mercy of the coming of Christ; but the poem has fulfilled its promise more completely than any other of the volumes.  It has something like real rhythm in it, and possesses a solemn, and at the same time an easy flow, and is, for Mr. Browning, remarkably clear in expression.  The description of Saul, and of the effect of the various portions of David's song upon him, is extremely imposing, and remains upon the imagination.  Less praise, however, can, in our opinion, be accorded to the 'Epistle' containing the strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the ' Arab Physician.'  The subject is treated with all Mr. Brown­ing's usual subtlety, quaintness, and ingenuity; but it seems to us irreverent in the highest degree to attempt to describe, through Karshish, the demeanour and mode of thought of Lazarus after his three days' experience of the mysterious realms of death.  The piece is full of life-like touches—as where the learned leech becomes half ashamed from time to time to dwell much upon the 'case' of a resuscitated man, every quack professing to do as much in these days, and then, while he makes his report to his master in the science, he turns aside to give other more scientific information:—

'Why write of trivial matters, things of price
 Calling at every moment for remark?
 I noticed on the margin of a pool
 Blue-flowering borage, the Aleppo sort,
 Aboundeth, very nitrous.   It is strange!'

But these familiar allusions in the person of the Arab phy­sician present a strange contrast to the supernatural element in the poem.  The description of Lazarus, and of his three days' experience of the world beyond the grave, is the reverse of natural, and we trace the far-fetched artifices of Mr. Browning's invention in every line.  Much more, however, do we object to see St. John on his death-bed made a medium for a writer to philosophise upon the Gospel in Platonic strains, and to add an apocryphal chapter to the New Testament.  This latter poem, however, is so obscurely written, that it would puzzle an inquisition of theologians to find any other heresy in it than that of its conception.  'Cleon,' on the other hand, is kept strictly within the limits of the reverential, and is extremely happy in its invention.  It was suggested apparently by the words of St. Paul's address to the Athenians: 'As certain also of your own poets have said,'—indicating that some of these already had had a foretaste of some of the truths of Christianity.  Mr. Browning, therefore, exhibits Cleon, the Greek poet and philosopher, writing to his friend Protos 'in his tyranny,' discoursing on man, mind and its destination, the necessity of a future life, and the probability of a revelation; all this while St. Paul was preaching close at hand, whose doctrines, however, he refused to hear:—

'I dare at times imagine to my need
Some future state revealed to us by Zeus,
Unlimited in capability
For joy, as this is in desire for joy,
—To seek which, the joy-hunger forces us:
That, stung by straitness of our life, made strait
On purpose to make sweet the life at large—
Freed by the throbbing impulse we call death
We burst there as the worm into the fly,
Who, while a worm still, wants his wings. But, no!
Zeus has not yet revealed it; and, alas,
He must have done so, were it possible!
'Live long and happy, and in that thought die,
Glad for what was. Farewell. And for the rest,
I cannot tell thy messenger aright
Where to deliver what he bears of thine
To one called Paulus—we have heard his fame
Indeed, if Christus be not one with him—
I know not, nor am troubled much to know.
Thou canst not think a mere barbarian Jew,
As Paulus proves to be, one circumcised,
Hath access to a secret shut from us?
Thou wrongest our philosophy, O king,
In stooping to inquire of such an one,
As if his answer could impose at all.
He writeth, doth he? well, and he may write.
Oh, the Jew findeth scholars! certain slaves
Who touched on this same isle, preached him and Christ;
And (as I gathered from a bystander)
Their doctrines could be held by no sane man.'

    The subtle reasoning in the course of the poem on the pro­gressive nature of man's mental faculties is very characteristic of Mr. Browning, although there is of course much to be said against it, and of its applicability in the mouth of Cleon:—

'We of these latter days, with greater mind
 Than our forerunners, since more composite,
 Look not so great, beside their simple way,
 To a judge who only sees one way at once,
 One mind-point, and no other at a time,—
 Compares the small part of a man of us
 With some whole man of the heroic age,
 Great in his way—not ours, nor meant for ours;
 And ours is greater, had we skill to know.'

'The grapes which dye thy wine, are richer far
 Through culture, than the wild wealth of the rock;
 The suave plum than the savage-tasted drupe;
 The pastured honey-bee drops choicer sweet;
 The flowers turn double, and the leaves turn flowers;
 That young and tender crescent-moon, thy slave,
 Sleeping upon her robe as if on clouds,
 Refines upon the women of my youth.
 What, and the soul alone deteriorates?
 I have not chanted verse like Homer's, no—
 Nor swept string like Terpander, no—nor carved
 And painted men like Phidias and his friend:
 I am not great as they are, point by point:
 But I have entered into sympathy
 With these four, running these into one soul,
 Who, separate, ignored each others' arts.'

    An equally characteristic class of poems with the above are those which deal with ancient and little-known artists of music and poetry; such as 'Old Pictures in Florence,' 'Fra Lippo Lippi,' 'A Toccata of Galuppi's,' 'Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha,' and 'Abt Vogler.'  The musical pieces, and that of 'Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha' especially, show what an eccentric delight Mr. Browning finds in losing himself utterly in an obscure subject, and how entirely congenial to his own nature is the strange rhapsody of the organist who remains by himself in the old Church with the lights expiring one by one, trying to wring out every crotchet of subtle meaning from the over-wrought fugue of Master Hugues, and has to grope his way from the loft to the foot of the 'rotten-runged rat-riddled stairs.'  The piece called 'Fra Lippo Lippi' is also a very quaint mixture of strange humour, realistic treatment, and artistic theorising.  No other writer could have conceived so strange a character as this wine-bibbing licentious monk and painter, dropping out of the convent-window by night, and caught by the watch while reeling back to his convent, to whom, with sundry snatches of song, he unburdens himself about his own life in particular, and art in general.  In 'Andrea del Sarto,' Mr. Browning has been less happy, and his piece contrasts unfavourably with the little drama of Alfred de Musset on the same subject—so finely, clearly, and delicately touched, as, indeed, all his pieces are, and full of action and interest.  It is, however, in dramatic monologues of this kind that Mr. Browning has achieved the most complete success.  He has the faculty of conceiving circumstantially, and sympathising with artist­natures of singular aims and secluded merit.  Among such conceptions must also be classed the singular story, the 'Grammarian's Funeral,' which, in spite of its extreme oddity of thought and imagination, is a noble elegy of one of the indefatigable seekers after learning such as lived shortly after the revival of learning.

    To this curious sympathy with exceptional classes and persons we must attribute the excellence of portraiture of all his monks and ecclesiastics, from the monk of the 'Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister' to the very confidential 'Bishop Blougram:' the Monsignore in 'Pippa Passes' and Ogniben, the Pontifical Legate, in the 'Soul's Tragedy,' are also equally lifelike.  For Mr. Browning's taste for human nature being something of the nature of a taste for rare china or odd old-fashioned weapons, he has, by dint of concentrating all the interest into one character and all the action into one incident, produced some very characteristic studies.  It is, however, here not so much the poetry, as the very great condensation of a whole life or a drama into a few lines, which excites the reader's interest; and so artificial a production, where the whole of the speaker's life or character is to be derived from his own words, must always retain something of an air of improbability.  In Mr. Tennyson's 'St. Simon Stylites,' which, excepting, perhaps, the 'Ulysses' of the same writer, is the only analogous poem in the language, the monologue is natural from the very situation of the solitary fanatic; but in the piece called 'My Last Duchess,' it is very unnatural that the Duke should betray himself so entirely to the envoy who comes to negotiate a new marriage as to let him have the same opportunity of knowing as we have ourselves that his cold austerity and pride had been the death of his late wife; and in the 'Bishop ordering his Tomb' on his death-bed we never lose the peculiar accents of Mr. Browning's quaintness for a moment.  It is, for example, Mr. Browning who is speaking through the Bishop's mouth when he says—

'And then how I shall lie through centuries,
 And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
 And see God made and eaten all day long,
 And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
 Good strong thick stupifying incense smoke!'

These lines have a characteristic aptness about them, but no bishop would describe Church ceremonies in this way. Nevertheless, the portrait of the old voluptuous antique-hunting, marble-purloining Roman ecclesiastic is one which cannot fail to strike and to please also to a certain extent; it is a rich example of Mr. Browning's humour in dealing with eccle­siastical subjects, which, however, finds its quaintest expression in the 'Heretic's Tragedy,'—a Middle-Age Interlude, where the grotesque chuckle of triumph, of self-satisfied, undoubting mediæval intolerance, over the burning of the Grand Master of the Templars at Paris, after two centuries have elapsed, is most characteristically but not pleasingly, rendered in the 'Conceit of Master Gysbrecht.'

    The last passage we have quoted leads us to speak of Mr. Browning's descriptive power, which is remarkable. His faculty of word-painting, and of seeing quaint resemblances in dis­similar objects, by some happy touch often vividly calls up a scene before the imagination.  In his two Italian sketches, the one called 'Up at a Villa—down in the City; as distinguished by an Italian person of quality,' and 'The Englishman in Sorrento,' Mr. Browning's descriptive faculty has produced some pleasant effects.  In the following lines we are transplanted at once into the middle of some provincial Italian capital:—

'Ere opening your eyes in the city, the blessed church-bells begin:
No sooner the bells leave off, than the diligence rattles in:
You get the pick of the news, and it costs you never a pin.
By and by there's the travelling doctor gives pills, lets blood, draws
            teeth;
Or the Pulcinello-trumpet breaks up the market beneath.
At the post-office such a scene-picture—the new play, piping hot!
And a notice how, only this morning, three liberal thieves were
            shot.
Above it, behold the archbishop's most fatherly of rebukes,
And beneath, with his crown and his lion, some little new law of
            the Duke's!

*        *        *        *

BANG, whang, whang goes the drum, tootle-te-tootle the fife;
No keeping one's haunches still: it's the greatest pleasure in life.'

    The Sorrento poem is also a most vivid picture of Italian autumnal life, and has justly been cited by Mr. Ruskin as a choice example of this kind of painting.

    Another peculiar class of poems forms no small portion of Mr. Browning's first volume, and this may be called the Sophistical,—embodying in rhyme the attempt to make the worse appear the better side.  One of the most striking of these is the poem called the 'Glove.'  Everybody knows Schiller's ballad on the same subject: how the Knight Delorges on being bidden by his lady to bring up her glove which she had wilfully thrown into the lion's den, leapt, brought it back, and threw it in her face.  The ballad is not one of Schiller's best, but Schiller and the world in general have thought the knight to have been in the right.  Mr. Browning, however, thinks there is something to be said for the lady, and he has written a poem on the subject.  The poem is as ingenious as any of Mr. Browning's, but we doubt if the lady's defence of herself will make many converts, and it is suspicious, to say the least of it, that her excuse is pretty nearly as long as Schiller's whole poem.  Perhaps the most successful as well as the most striking of all the poems of this class is that styled 'Holy Cross Day,'—the day on which, before the present Pontificate, the Jews were compelled to attend on an annual sermon at Rome.  It does not, however, begin very promisingly.  A Jew is speaking:—

'Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!
 Blessedest Thursday's the fat of the week.
 Rumble and tumble, sleek and rough,
 Stinking and savoury, smug and gruff,
 Take the church-road, for the bell's due chime
 Gives us the summons—'tis sermon-time.

 Bob, here's Barnabas! Job, that's you?
 Up stumps Solomon—bustling too?
 Shame, man! greedy beyond your years
 To handsel the bishop's shaving shears?
 Fair play's a jewel! leave friends in the lurch?
 Stand on a line ere you start for the church.'

    The sermon is delivered, and its effect on the Jew audience and the rascally converts, the black sheep of the tribe, is told in the same grotesque but graphic fashion; but the most striking portion of the poem is the Rabbi Ben Ezra's song of death which the unconverted sang in church while obliged to sit there after the Bishop's sermon and meditate on the truths he has been endeavouring to enforce upon them.

    'Evelyn Hope' is one of the prettiest of Mr. Browning's love pieces, because it is one of the simplest; though we by no means concur in the exaggerated praises which have been heaped upon it.  An elderly student, of about fifty years of age, fell in love with Evelyn Hope, who died at sixteen:—

'For God's hand beckoned unawares,
 And the sweet white brow was all of her.'

The lover speculates, in Mr. Browning's peculiar fashion, on what was the use of his attachment:—

'Is it too late then, Evelyn Hope?
 What, your soul was pure and true,
 The good stars met in your horoscope,
 Made you of spirit, fire and dew—
 And, just because I was thrice as old
 And our paths in the world diverged so wide,
 Each was nought to each, must I be told?
 We were fellow mortals, nought beside?

 No, indeed! for God above
 Is great to grant, as mighty to make,
 And creates the love to reward the love:
 I claim you still, for my own love's sake!
 Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
 Though worlds I shall traverse, not a few:
 Much is to learn and much to forget
 Ere the time be come for taking you.'

    This, an unjilted lover, consoles himself by placing a leaf in Evelyn Hope's dead hand and persuading himself she will understand all about it when she awakes:—

'I loved you, Evelyn, all the while!
 My heart seemed full as it could hold—
 There was place and to spare for the frank young smile
 And the red young mouth and the hair's young gold.
 So, hush—I will give you this leaf to keep—
 See, I shut it inside this sweet cold hand.
 There, that is our secret! go to sleep;
 You will wake, and remember, and understand.'

While on the subject of Mr. Browning's love poems, we must not omit to mention that his lovers are prepared to go lengths in the demonstration of their affection which we hardly like to contemplate.  One lover concludes a love poem by exclaiming:—

                        'There you stand
Warm too, and white too; would this wine
Had washed all over that body of yours,
Ere I drunk it, and you down with it thus!'

    Another lover, we are informed by the lady, used to kiss her body 'all over till it burned.'  Their playfulness is sometimes of an equally strange character.  In a 'Lovers Quarrel,' two lovers are blocked up together for some time in a snow-storm; to wile the time away they devise games out of straws, draw each other's faces in the ashes of the grate, chatter like church daws, look in the 'Times,' an old one we suppose, find there

                      'A scold
At the Emperor deep and cold.'

Practise table-turning, walk about the room with arms round each other's necks, while the lady teaches the gentleman

                       'To flirt a fan
As the Spanish ladies can;'

and the gentleman playfully takes the lady and

                             'Tints her lip
         With a burnt stick's tip,
And she turns into such a man!
          Just the two spots that span
Half the bill of the male swan.'

    In such endearments they pass away the time, until

                'A shaft from the Devil's bow
          Pierced to their ingle-glow,
And the friends were friend and foe!'

    Winter has fled, but the lover now that they are estranged wishes the spring away and November back.

'Could not November come,
 Were the noisy birds struck dumb
         At the warning slash
         Of the driver's lash—
I would laugh like the valiant Thumb
         Facing the castle glum
And the giant's fee faw fum!'

    In fact, he wishes the world to be stripped of all the adornments which make it easier for them to remain apart, then

'The world's hangings ripped,
 They were both in a bare-walled crypt!
 Each in the crypt would cry
 "But one freezes here! and why?
         When a heart as chill
         At my own would thrill
 Back to life, and its fires out-fly?
         Heart, shall we live or die?
 The rest, . . . settle it by an by!"'

    The lover having concluded that each of them would cry out thus, in their hypothetical November, declares that it is twelve o'clock, and concludes with a meteorological prediction that a storm will come:—

'In the worst of the storm's uproar,
         I shall pull her through the door,
 I shall have her for evermore!'

    Among, however, Mr. Browning's inexhaustible variety of poems about lovers—jilted lovers, deserted lovers, quarrelling lovers, forgiving lovers, fortunate lovers, unfortunate lovers, and lovers of every denomination, with their infinite perplexi­ties of love, we come occasionally upon touches as delicate as the following in 'The Lost Mistress,' where the lover considers how he shall behave towards the lady in future:—

'Yes! I will say what mere friends say,
 Or only a thought stronger;
 I will hold your hand but as long as all may,
 Or so very little longer!'

    The self-questioning of a deserted mistress has some noticeable touches in spite of the lop-sided metre:—

'Was it something said,
     Something done,
 Vexed him? was it touch of hand,
     Turn of head?
 Strange! that very way
     Love began:
 I as little understand
     Love's decay.'

    The peculiar humour of the 'Lovers' Quarrel,' which we have just noticed, leads us to speak of Mr. Browning's humour generally, which is of as singular a character as his poetry—sometimes grim and grotesque as in the 'Heretic's Tragedy,' 'Holy Cross Thursday,' 'Caliban upon Setebos;' sometimes refining, elaborate, like 'Bishop Blougram's Apology,' or 'Mr. Sludge the Medium;' sometimes fantastic and trivial, like 'Nationality in Drinks,' but always partaking of the same queer extravagance, such as we find in the strange poem called 'Sibrandus Schafnaburensis.'  Here some solitary joker reads an old pedantic volume in his garden:—

'In the white of a matin-prime
Just when the birds sang all together.'

Having read the book through from beginning to end, for what reason, except mere whim, we are unable to divine, he proceeds to take his revenge on the volume by dropping it into the mossy hollow of an old plum-tree, in whose bottom there was a stagnant pool of rain water; he then goes into his home and brings out a loaf, half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis, lays on the grass and forgets 'the oaf over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.'  After awhile, when the spider had had time enough to spin his web over the buried volume, 'and sat in the midst with arms akimbo,' the ballad-maker took pity for learning's sake, and got a rake and fished up the 'delectable treatise,' dried it and put it back on his bookshelf.  The hero then proceeds to make merry over the past sufferings of his victim:—

'How did he like it when the live creatures
     Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
 And worm, slug, elf, with serious features,
     Came in, each one, for his right of trover?
     —When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
     Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
 And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
     As tiled in the top of his black wife's closet?'

    Cognate with Mr. Browning's strange sense of humour is his introduction of new interjections and combinations of letters into his poetry to express certain sounds.  Thus we have Gr—sh and a variety of other new interjections, Hy! Zy! Hine! to represent the sound of a bell; Bang-whang-whang for a drum, tootle-te-tootle for a fife, wheet-wheet for a mouse, &c.  The peculiar names of such personages as Bluphocks, Blougram, Gigadibs, &c., must be ascribed to the same quality.

    But, whether in sport or in earnest, Mr. Browning has always chosen to adopt methods of execution, and to remain apart from the beaten track of the ordinary world; and we can imagine him sharing in the feelings of his own 'Pictor Ignotus' who refuses, though he possesses the power of painting 'pictures like that youth's you praise so,' to enter into competition with him, and thus expresses his contempt for the vulgar crowd—

    '. . Who summoned those cold faces that begun
To press on me and judge me? Though I stooped
    Shrinking, as from the soldiery a nun,
They drew me forth, and spite of me . . . enough!
    These buy and sell our pictures, take and give,
Count them for garniture and household-stuff,
    And where they live our pictures needs must live
And see their faces, listen to their prate,
    Partakers of their daily pettiness,
Discussed of—"This I love, or this I hate,
    This likes me more, and this affects me less! "
Wherefore I chose my portion.'

    So Mr. Browning has chosen his portion, and the popularity which he has despised will in all probability never be thrust upon him.

    Having a sincere respect for what we know of Mr. Browning's character, and for his literary industry, we have not sought in the foregoing remarks to disparage or ridicule the efforts of his singular genius; but to enable our readers to form an impartial opinion of his merits or defects from the extracts we have made.  Some of them will doubtless think that we have devoted too much of our space to these productions, and will ask, with alarm, whether these are specimens of the latest fashion of English poetry.  We confess that it is to ourselves a subject of amazement that poems of so obscure and uninviting a character should find numerous readers, and that successive editions of them should be in demand.  Yet this is undoubtedly the case; and far from having reason to complain of neglect, Mr. Browning has a considerable number of admirers in England, and more, we believe, in America.  It would seem that in this practical and mechanical age, there is some attraction in wild and extravagant language—some mysterious fascination in obscure half-expressed thoughts.  Mr. Browning in truth more nearly resembles the American writers Emerson, Wendell Holmes, and Bigelow, than any poet of our own country.  Tried by the standards which have hitherto been supposed to uphold the force and beauty of the English tongue and of English literature, his works are deficient in the qualities we should desire to find them.  We do not believe that they will survive, except as a curiosity and a puzzle.  But they undoubtedly exercise a certain degree of influence over the taste of the present generation; and on this ground we think they deserve the notice we have bestowed upon them.

 



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