NORTH BRITISH REVIEW
VOL. 34, MAY 1861.
THE POEMS AND PLAYS OF ROBERT BROWNING.
BY GERALD MASSEY.
Men and Women. 2 Vols. Chapman and Hall. 1855.
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. A Poem. Chapman and Hall. 1850.
Poems. 2 Vols. New Ed., Chapman and Hall. 1849.
Sordello. A Poem. Moxon. 1840.
[Ed. —see also John Camden Hotten's
highly critical review (1864)
and Massey's response].
IT appears improbable that any great poet will, in our time, pass from amongst his
contemporaries, as Milton did, without seeing the dawn of his epic fame; or, as Shakspeare left his play-fellows, with so few of them really knowing what manner of man and majesty of mind had been with them.
The true poet is pretty certain of a more immediate recognition in our time, and no great genius is likely to go down to the grave unknown.
The recognition may be but partial. Yet the writer will be known to a chosen few who will stand by him as did the friends of Tennyson in his day of need.
These friends, in the course of time, come into power, and occupy the old judgment-seats from whence the adverse verdict used to be given.
They now write for thousands in sober certainty, what they before talked to one another in the intoxication of their young enthusiasm.
The writer's merits are pointed out and set forth to win their widening way.
The chances are also increased, from the fact that we have so many channels of literary opinion, and that no one organ can now either permanently make or mar the true fame of any worthy writer.
Our criticism is higher and nobler. But for the well-known modesty of our craft, we might repeat what Emerson, in his
'English Traits,' says of criticism in this country. Undoubtedly we are improving.
We do not permit all the work to be done by the merely classical critic who judges according to Greek canons; nor by the merely 'Queen Anne' mind that judges by the traditions
of its Augustan era. We have here and there a mind in the lists that is also creative, and not shut up in the past, but, being open to all life, is open to any new life of the present, and can push forward to keep abreast with those who are forerunners of the age.
Also, in the broader illumination of knowledge spreading over the land, there must be a continually increasing number of readers of poetry who are waiting eagerly for what the announcers may say of a new poet.
We may concede, then, that a true poet has a better chance of a more immediate recognition in our age, than in any bygone century.
Yet, we still hold, that the more immediately popular writers of any time will seldom be the men for all time, and that
the deepest thought cannot be immediately popular. The greatest fame must still be of slow growth, for it has to endure long!
We are suspicious of all sudden reputations, and quite satisfied that the great enduring element is wanting to the fame of some of our foremost men.
We do not wake up in the morning and find full-grown oaks where saplings stood over-night.
And we doubt whether any man will, in his life time, attain to the fame which we call immortal.
We think, too, that there are writers even in our time who will pass away with but a very scanty recognition, whose after-fame will majestically rise and over-top many earlier reputations.
And of all our living poets we believe that Mr Browning is about the likeliest to win his least fame and fewest readers in his own life-time.
The spread of intelligence has necessarily covered a much larger surface with what we way term the reading mind of the present, which is acute and sensitive to all the fleeting glow of novelty; but, if fairly gauged, will not be found to have much increased in depth.
We live in what has been called the Mediæval era. A time that is well calculated to produce a run-and-read sort of mind; or rather, a mind that may run-and-ride at the rate of forty miles an hour!
The haste in which so many people live and move and have their being, tends to foster a shallow and snatchy habit of mind, and to utterly destroy that attention which is so absolutely necessary for the appreciation of deep thought and subtle poetry.
Much of our modern reading mind is a good deal like a bran-new house, built in the most recent style, and furnished for show.
There is a great scarcity of all natural growths about it. Everything was done in a hurry, and run up in haste.
Compo puts on a bare-faced look and tries to stare you into a belief that it is stone.
Oak graining and veneer smirkingly try to pass themselves off for the real wood. Tinsel and lacquer take the place of metal that will stand ringing.
But all will not do. It cannot improvise reality, nor put on the stately air of the past.
The leafy luxury, the depth of solemn shade and immemorial quiet are wanting without!
And the solidity, spaciousness choiceness of mellow-hues—with which all the fragrant flowers and perfect fruit of Time come to their ripe
perfection—are wanting within. Haste is its great bane. Attention is the great desideratum.
Sir William Hamilton used to tell his class that it was better to read one good book ten times over, than to read ten good books only once.
So much attention is necessary to get all the good out of a good book; and only in this way can it be got out.
Many people fancy that they are acquainted with our best authors, as a matter of course, who have never fathomed to one thousandth part of their meaning.
Perhaps only those who write, adequately know how much attention it is necessary to bring to hear on all books that are worth knowing.
These writers, when they have read and read, and written on the subject, will then begin to learn how little they know about it after all.
It happens that a good deal of the poetry produced in our time will require much more attention on the part of readers than the old familiar poetry of the past, which dealt more with action and objective circumstance.
And it so happens, that the poetry of Robert Browning is pre-eminent amongst our nineteenth century poetry, for those subtle qualities of thought and feeling which demand the profoundest attention.
With a most penetrating power of genius, his works have failed to reach any considerable number of people.
The poetry of Alfred Tennyson was very long in obtaining the attention due to it.
The present triumph of its popularity was only won by a thirty-years-long fight for it.
And even now we think that one-half the sale of that poetry may fairly be set down to the fashionable fact of his laureateship.
But the peculiarities of Mr Browning's poetry, and the peculiarities of our reading mind, as before specified, are so wide apart, as to make it very difficult for the two to draw together.
We said the peculiarities of Mr Browning's poetry, because we do not lay all the blame on the age that his poetry is not more read.
Want of natural affinity and incompatibility of temper are not the only reasons for the separation.
In the first place, Mr Browning scarcely seems at home amongst us.
He is hardly an Englishman. He has English instincts. It is the body and voice of an Englishman, as we know by a home-yearning like this:—
Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there;
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning unaware,
That the lowest boughs, and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
And after April, when May follows,
And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows—
Hark! where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dew-drops—at the bent spray's edge—
That's the wise thrush! he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And tho' the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noon-tide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy mellow-flower.
And again, by this thrilling of proud thought—
Nobly, nobly Cape St Vincent to the north-west died away;
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay;
Bluish 'mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay;
In the dimmest north-east distance, dawned Gibraltar grand and
"Here, and here did England help me,—how can I help England?"
Whoso turns as I, this evening, turn to God to praise and pray,
While Jove's planet rises yonder, silent over Africa.
But it would seem that into this English body of his the soul of some thirteenth-century Italian painter has got by mistake, and many of these poems are the signs it makes in trying to be recognised.
Mr Browning says, elsewhere,
Open my heart, and you will see
Graved inside of it, 'Italy.'
Now, it is a wholesome prejudice with us, that if a man is to write for Englishmen, the first condition of national fame is that he be an Englishman; and, if he opens his heart to us, we expect to read 'England' written there; or, such of us as are Scotchmen, 'Great. Britain,' at least.
We who are proud of the old land, are proudest of those poets who are also the proudest of her.
We find, too, that all the greatest poets have drawn most on the national life; that Shakspeare, who was at home with all peoples and in all times, was never so mighty or so loveable as when delineating the heroes that moved around him in everyday life, and the sweet-natured English ladies, who became his 'Imogenes,' 'Perditas,' and 'Helenas;' or, dallying, with his own country wild flowers, as his fancy wandered back through the green lanes into the leafy nooks of Warwickshire; or in any way exalting his own land's heroic life and loveliness, majesty and power.
Then, if the great poet is to mirror back human nature, and bring it home to us clearly conveyed, he must have a great deal of common humanity, and show us how much may be hidden under the film of familiarity.
Mr Browning, on the contrary, seems to delight in that which is peculiar: something remote in interest that will permit of a recondite treatment.
He loves a subject that gives full scope to the philosophic thinker, rather than one which calls out the emotional energies of the poet nature freely and fully.
He dearly loves to worm his gnarly way to the dark heart of a good knotty problem that has not been hitherto penetrated.
He does not care to tread in the path where the footprints of others are in the least visible; or, if any one has been in that direction, Mr Browning will strike on a new clue, which leads him much further than others went, or saw.
For example, in the story of 'King Francis and the Glove,' which De Lorge's lady dropped, to see whether her lover would face death for her sake.
According to the ordinary version and common opinion, the lady was rightly served for her heartlessness when the knight, after leaping among the lions, recovered the
glove and flung it in her face. Our poet, looking through the eyes of Peter Ronsard, sees differently.
He caught an expression in her face such as told him she had tried the gold of her lover's fine speeches in the crucible, and found it mostly dross; and so she went out calmly amidst all the hooting and mirth, to find the truer love in one who would have died for her, and, like Curtius, jumped at the chance.
While De Lorge sank into marrying the beauty that stood so high in the royal favour;
and he would fetch her gloves, which she had always mislaid when the
king called to see her. And when the king told the old story of
The wife smiled—"His nerves are grown firmer;
Mine he brings now, and utters no murmur."
Mr Browning's matter generally requires a minute and patient study, such as only comes of a loving disposition, whilst his manner is often the very opposite of that required to foster a kindly feeling.
It frequently repels or irritates at first sight, instead of laying allurements on the reader for further acquaintanceship.
We once knew a lady who had the most tantalizing method of communicating intelligence.
Whenever she stuck fast, and either did not know what she had to say, or how to say it, she always bridged over the break with a 'You understand!'
Of course, you did not understand the least in the world; but the manner was so assuring as to make you pause to consider whether you did understand or not, by which time she had got over her little difficulty, though you had failed to surmount yours.
Mr Browning seems to have this knack of handing his little difficulties over to the reader, and of passing them by as jauntily as though the most perfect understanding existed betwixt them.
This manner is shown most provokingly just when the reader is in the greatest state of bewilderment.
Again, he will propound all sorts of odd questions to the reader, and carry on a Socratic discussion; that is, if the reader can answer the questions.
One piece concludes with two unanswerable questions. He asks—
Who fished the murex Up?
What porridge had John Keats?
For ourselves we merely reply, 'Hav'nt the least idea.' But we can imagine there may be readers who are not inclined to answer thus meekly.
They will not know what to say to such a poser, and will feel rather like Byron's 'Jack Buntin' in a similar predicament.
Not only does he take too much for granted in the way we have indicated, and pass on with the most chirping cheeriness; but, with his quick habit of leaping to conclusions, he often fails to carry the mind of the reader with him.
There is a bright flash, a blank, and then a bright flash again; but all so sudden is the process, that the midway is not illumed.
We are left in the middle, in the dark. The manner is so hurried, that the matter is not held in suspension long enough for solution.
The meaning is not brought into sufficient relief, ready for the spectator.
We see too much of the sculptor, hear too much of the hammer, with both hard at it, and chips flying.
This, however, is only a natural impediment of Mr Browning's manner; he has one other, which seems to be practised wilfully.
It is the odd way he has of twisting words into grotesque rhymes. This is all very funny and effective where the matter is humorous, as in the 'Pied Piper of Hamelin,' with the old Rat informing us how the Piper's jig-music affected his imagination:—
At the first shrill notes of the pipe,
I heard a sound of scraping tripe,
And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
Into a cider-press's gripe:
And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,
And a leaving ajar of conserve cupboards,
And a drawing the corks of train-oil flasks,
And a breaking the hoops of butter casks;
And it seemed as if a voice
(Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery
Is breathed) called out, "Oh, Rats, rejoice!
The world is grown to one vast drysaltery!
So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!"
And just as a bulky sugar puncheon,
All ready staved, like a great sun shone,
Glorious, scarce an inch before me,
Just as methought it said, "Come, bore me!"
I found the Weser rolling o'er me.
But where the subject demands a serious treatment, these quips and cranks of rhyme seem to mock at our mood of mind.
That curious mixture of grave matter and gay manner at the end of 'Christmas Eve,' constitutes a psychological riddle which many people cannot solve.
The first book of some writers—their stepping-stone to higher
things—is the stumbling-block on the threshold for most of their readers.
There they remain: and the faster the writer's after progress, the farther does he get from those who do not follow him.
They judge his new books by the evidence of the old; that was quite enough for them. Mr Browings's stumbling-block was his second book, 'Sordello.'
We cannot understand how this could have succeeded the promise of 'Paracelsus.'
A story is told of Douglas Jerrold and 'Sordello' on good authority—his own.
He was recruiting his health at Brighton, and had been so low as to have books forbidden him.
His wife, who nursed him, being out one day, he got hold of a book; it was 'Sordello.'
The wit read, and read, but could make nothing of it. Soon the sweat broke out on his brow, and the horrible thought flashed on him that his mind was wrecked.
His wife came in, and he thrust the book into her hand with a life-and-death look, bidding her to read.
She had not read far before she exclaimed, 'Why, its gibberish.' 'Oh, thank God!' said Jerrold, 'then I'm not mad.'
We, too, have read 'Sordello,' and found it incomprehensible.
'Who will may hear Sordello's story told,' says the poet, again and again.
We thank him for the permission, and find they may for anything he cares.
Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, goes the cauldron, and the incantation keeps time to it, but the witchcraft works no miracle; no vision comes out clear and splendid.
The ingredients did not mix, or haste has snapped the charm. Page after page is liberally sprinkled with Italian nouns; but to us they do not stand for things.
Poetic phrases flash from many lines with a lustre like the burnished hues on a dove's neck; and a fear pictures will arrest us, to wit:—
A breadth of watery heaven like a bay;
A sky-like space of water, ray for ray
And star for star, one richness where they mixed,
As this and that wing of an angel, fixed,
Tumultuary splendours folded in
And this of young and eager heirs watching for the profit and the pleasure that age must leave when they push into its place:—
God God help me! for I catch
My children's greedy sparkling eyes at watch—
"He bears that double breastplate on," they say;
"So many minutes less than yesterday."
And this strip of red sundown over dark woods:—
A last remains of sunset dimly burned
O'er the far forests, like a torch-flare turned
By the wind back upon its bearer's hand,
In one long flare of crimson; as a brand
The woods lay black beneath.
For the rest, we have not made it out. The fault may be ours.
We are willing to think, with Jerrold, that it is so. We are of the blind; but, as such, shall take the liberty of not trying 'Sordello' again until it is put into type for the blind.
That would be a relief! and we should be able to feel what we were reading.
Yes! on second thought, there is one other possibility of our attempting it.
Should we ever go to Italy and get intoxicated with Montepulciano—just to see whether Redding be right respecting that
wine—we may try once more. Perhaps, if we could see double we might do it.
Till then, 'who likes may hear Sordello's story told.'
We have now made a fair and ample statement of all the difficulties that keep so many people from the poetry of Robert Browning; and, having broken through their encrusting surface, shall show a few of the treasures that may be found in its wealthy depths.
For it remains to be said that Mr Browning is one of the half-dozen original minds now amongst us who are fountain-heads of creative thought.
His influence on the young writers of the present is second only to that of Tennyson; often worth more to them in its suggestive matter, though not so easily identified as an imitation or plagiarism, because the manner is much less known.
No other living poet has sounded such depths of human feeling, or can smite the soul with such a rush of kindling energy.
Great and lofty and deep as Tennyson is, he has no such range.
Indeed, without the least intention of making a comparison, we may venture to say that since our greatest dramatist wrote, no English poet has reached so wide a range of varied character as Mr Browning.
He is not a great dramatist. His plays are not for the stage.
It is doubtful whether he could clothe characters sufficiently in flesh and blood, sights and sounds, and keep them going with action and incident, so as to become a writer of acting plays.
It is certain that he is one of the last men to stoop to some of the conditions which seem necessary in order that theatrical success may be insured.
But he is a great, dramatic poet. What a line of characters start into memory in illustration of our assertion!
Each sufficiently portrayed; often exquisitely, and some with consummate mastery.
'Paracelsus'—half-king, half-quack; the sunny little godsend, 'Pippa;' superb and haughty 'Ottima;' poor 'Mildred,' and 'Luria' the Moor; 'Jules and Phene; 'David,' glorious in his ruddy youth, charming away the madness from King Saul; 'Blougram' the bishop, so catholic in his love of this world's good things; and he, the sumptuous old sinner of St Praxed.
The Duke and Lady of the 'statue and bust;' 'the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin;' 'Andrea del Sarto,' and loose, champaigne-blooded 'Lippo Lippi;' little 'Evelyn Hope;' wise old pondering 'Kiarshish;' and many more whom we cannot stop to name.
To mention one quality of Mr Browning's poetry, in which he is pre-eminent, we think out of 'King Lear,' no pathos can be found more tragic in its tenderness than that in the closing scenes of 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon,' or more tragic in its grandeur than the pathos of 'Luria.'
But, first, we would show how clearly our poet can break through all mist of mannerism in a lyric that marches straight to its object solidly as a column of infantry; doing the greatest amount of execution in the shortest space of time.
INCIDENT OF THE FRENCH CAMP.
You, know, we French stormed Ratisbon:
A mile or so away
On a little mound, Napoleon
Stood on our storming day;
With neck out-thrust, you fancy how,
Legs wide, arms locked behind,
As if to balance the prone brow
Oppressive with its mind.
Just as perhaps he mused, "My plans
That soar to earth may fall,
Let once my army-leader, Lannes,
Waver at yonder wall"—
Out 'twixt the battery-smokes there flew
A rider, bound on bound,
Full galloping; nor bridle drew
Until he reached the mound.
Then off there flung in smiling joy,
And held himself erect
By just his horse's mane, a boy:
You hardly could suspect—
(So tight he kept his lips compressed,
Scarce any blood came thro')
You looked twice ere you saw his breast
Was all but shot in two.
"Well," cried he, "Emperor by God's grace
We're got you Ratisbon!
The Marshal's in the market-place,
And you'll be there anon
To see your flag-bird flap his vane
Where I, to heart's desire,
Perched him!" The Chiefs eye flashed; his plans
Soared up again like fire.
The Chief's eye flashed; but presently
Softened itself, as sheathes
A film the mother eagle's eye
When her bruised eaglet, breathes.
"You're wounded!" "Nay," his soldier's pride
Touched to the quick, he said—
"I'm killed, Sire!" And his Chief beside,
Smiling the boy fell dead.
clear, direct, and forcible is the brave, galloping ballad, 'How they
brought the good news from Ghent to Aix,' which has a ring in it as of
horse-hoofs on a frosty road, heard in the hush of night. In the
'Confessional' we find a most smiting lyrical energy:—
It is a lie—their priests, their pope,
Their saints, their . . . all they fear or hope
Are lies, and lies—there! thro' my door
And ceiling there! and walls and floor,
There, lies, they lie, shall still be hurled,
Till spite of them, I reach the, world.
The poor victim goes on to relate,
how the confessor set her to entrap her lover to save his soul!
He told me what he would not tell
For hope of heaven or tear of hell.
Next day, happy with the chance of
saving her lover's soul in his own despite, she tripped to the church
and told the father all the young man's patriotic schemes. That
night, and the nest, her lover did not come, and the morning after she
hurried out and reached the market-place. There she saw the
scaffold, draped in black for an execution, and her betrayed lover bound
for the hangman's hands:—
No part in aught they hope or fear;
No heaven with them, no hell, and here
No earth, not so much space as pens
My body in their worst of dens.
But shall bear God and man my cry—
Lies, lies again, and still they lie.
In 'Count Gismond,' again, Mr
Browning shows us an intensity of feeling and a simple force of
expression that would go direct to the heart of a people if he would
write more in the same clear way:—
He strode to Gauthier; in his throat
Gave him the lie; then struck his mouth
With one backhanded blow, that wrote,
In blood, men's verdict there. North, south,
East, west I looked. The lie was dead
And damned; and Truth stood up instead.
In an airier mood our poet can give us dainty lyrics, that match anything done by the old dramatists when they were lyrically inclined.
These are full of fresh natural music, and bright with a gay grace.
Here is a carolling little song that quite sings of itself, and, once it gets into the head, makes the brain a sort of music-box, that some sprite keeps starting off on a sudden:—
There's a woman like a dewdrop, she's so purer than the purest
And her noble heart's the noblest, yes, and her sure faith's the
And her eyes are dark and humid, like the depth on depth of lustre
Hid i' the harebell; while her tresses, sunnier than the wild-grape
Gush in golden-tinted plenty down her neck's rose-misted marble:
Then her voice's music! call it the well's bubbling— the bird's
And this woman says; "My days were sunless and my nights were
Parched the pleasant April herbage, and the lark's heart's outbreak
If you loved me not!" and I who (ah, for words of flame!) adore
Who am mad to lay my spirit prostrate palpably before her—
I may enter at her portal soon, as now her lattice takes me,
And by noontide, as by midnight, make her mine, as hers she
|One other little lilt, quaintly beautiful, in which a lover's soul leaps naturally into song, and then we pass on to our poet's profounder utterances:—
Nay, but you, who do not love her,
Is she not pure gold, my mistress?
Hold's earth aught—speak truth—above
Aught like this tress, see, and this tress,
And this last fairest tress of all,
So fair, see, ere I let it fall.
Because you spend your lives in
To praise, you search the wide world
So, why not witness, calmly gazing,
If earth holds aught—speak truth—
Above this tress, and this I touch,
But cannot praise, I love so much!
Mr Browning started on his poetic career with a great glow and glory of dawning power.
His first effort was a noble one: a daring attempt to delineate a daring soul of the Promethean kind that would snatch fire from heaven in the brave and blind old heathen way.
Another page of the old, old story of rebellion through pride of knowledge and of the sin whereby the angels fell.
For this purpose he takes the Paracelsus of history, through whose grand failures the world learned so much, but refines and fills in the rude outline dashed on the historic wall.
We learn from Paracelsus, that one morn he woke up and ran over the seven grassy fields, startling the birds as he came to tell his friend Festus,
Leaping all the while for joy,
To leave all trouble for futurity,
Since I have just determined to become
The greatest and most glorious man on earth.
And here he sits in the garden at Würzburg, in the year 1512, talking with his friends for the last time before he starts on his wondrous way.
He promises they shall be very proud of him yet. A magnificent image of eagerness is set before us in a line descriptive of his look:—
As if where'er he gazed there stood a star.
And so there does. Star after
star of discovery already swims splendid into his vast vision of the
future. Festus, whom love has made wiser by adding its 'precious
seeing' to his eyes, has misgivings lest the motives of his friend be
not sufficiently pure:
Man should be humble; you are very proud:
And God, dethroned, has doleful plagues for such.
Festus fears there may be a plague-spot in all this sense of self and boastful self-reliance; fears lest these bladders that float him so bravely now at starting may burst under him far out in the wild sea-storm; that this yearning of the infinity within will strive in vain to embrace and clasp the Infinity without, and collapse in utter failure.
He perceives in Paracelsus the force whose first and final necessity is to be fitly confined in its own proper limiting conditions, so that it may find its own law and keep it.
For these limiting conditions supply compression for the overflowing strength, leverage and vantage-ground for the mounting footsteps, and rest for the soul that might otherwise beat its wings in vain against the prison-walls, and waste its powers in trying to step off the edge of its world.
But Paracelsus is so full of might, and blind to all boundary marks, that his friend fears such self-reliance is of the kind that has so often tried to do without God in the world, soaring up in its enthusiasm to overlook the lines drawn by the finger of the Eternal, and ending in a fatal wreck.
He will wipe out the footprints of all who have preceded him on the path of discovery, and accept nothing from the past of science.
He yearns to save mankind, and yet despises them. He would help them, but scorns to accept anything in
Would gently put aside their proffered thanks:
Like some knight traversing a wilderness,
Who on his way may chance to free a tribe
Of desert-people from their dragon-foe;
When all the swarthy race press round to kiss
His feet, and choose him for their king, and yield
Their poor tents, pitched among the sandhills, for
His realm; and he points, smiling, to his scarf,
Heavy with riveled gold, his burgonet
Gay set with twinkling stones—and to the East,
Where these must be displayed.
Festus dares not probe this feeling too far, lest he should learn too much of his friend's heart.
He again warns him,—
Presume not to serve God apart from such
Appointed channel as He wills shall gather
Imperfect tributes—for that sole obedience
Valued, perchance. He seeks not that his altars
Blaze—careless how, so that they do but blaze.
In this first part of the poem, Paracelsus aspires to 'know.' He seeks knowledge for its own sake.
He goes to prove himself. There are, he says,
Two points in the adventure of the diver:
One—when a beggar, he prepares to plunge;
One—when a prince, he rises with his pearl.
Festus, I plunge.
Nine years afterwards he has attained—to what? His youth is gone; his brave hopes lie round him, dead or discrowned.
The heaven-scaler sits in dust, with the fragments of his splendid dreams shivered and strewn about him.
He has emptied youth of all its gifts,
To feed a fire meant to hold out till morn
Arrive with inexhaustible light; and, lo!
I have heapt up my last, and day dawns not?
While I am left with grey hair, faded hands,
And furrowed brow.
He has sat up o' nights only to 'fight sleep off for death's sake;' paid down his life drop by drop in blood, piecemeal in brain, and has not even learned how to imprison moonbeams till they change into opal shafts. 'Aprile' appears.
He personified a love as rash as Paracelsus' lust for knowledge was infinite.
Paracelsus now perceives that he who aspires to know must also love, and possess faith; and that he who loves must also know.
These twain must be wedded to bring forth the spirit nobler, happier, wiser than both.
Knowledge without sweet human love is poor indeed.
He has caught up the whole of life, and staked it on a single throw; so far he feels that he has lost.
Still, this life of mine
Must he lived out, and a grave thoroughly earned.
His feelings are so far modified that he will set about imparting to others such knowledge as he has gained.
He becomes a professor at Basil; is famous for his miracles in
medicine—a saviour to some, an impostor to others. Within himself the original flaw spreads wider and deeper, with its fracture and defacement.
His fresh knowledge does not serve to set him right. He despises the fools that applaud his trickeries but do not appreciate his genius.
He is dissatisfied with his present reputation, and grows bitterer over his disappointments.
The radiant wings in which the strong and self-sufficient soul once sat pluming itself for a proud flight, are moulted now, and it is no more uplifted with the old exulting power.
He tries to borrow wings of wine. In vain, in vain, he only sinks the deeper.
The fire of life, that soared so gloriously, dies down in its ashes; life crumbles inwardly.
That which he might have been stands more clearly revealed to him than that which he may be.
Here we meet once more with Festus, who has come, at his friend's call, to Basil, and tries to solace him and draw him up out of his sad condition with the cords of love.
Paracelsus seems to sneer and mock at Festus, because he mocks at his own self so bitterly.
Surely it is only a mask of simulated feelings he puts on to mock his old friend through, with painful satire and grim humour, wild words and ghastly laughters?
Poor Festus is puzzled, but looks long with his serious, loving eyes, and strives to get him out of this mournful mood, and take him back to quiet Einsiedeln.
Despise those who have treated you so badly, pleads Festus. But it is the curse of all who profess to despise mankind, that they are the slaves of the meanest, and wince at the word of the most despicable.
It was so with Byron; so with Paracelsus. They who would despise the best are not permitted to despise the worst.
As St Jerome says, in this respect—the proudest are the poorest; they brag outwardly, but beg inwardly.
In the fourth part the whole meaning of the poem is gathered into a little melodious allegory, being
The sad rhyme of the men who proudly clung
To their first fault, and withered in their pride.
It is an immortal lyric, big
with a meaning that most of us find out at some time or other. Alas for
those who will find it out for the first time at the last day!
Over the sea our galleys went,
With cleaving prows, in order brave,
To a speeding wind and a bounding wave—
A gallant armament:
Each bark built out of a forest tree,
Left, leafy, and rough as first it grew;
And nailed all over the gaping sides,
Within and without, with black-bull hides,
Seethed in fat and suppled in flame,
To bear the playful billows' game;
So each good ship was rude to see.
Rude and bare to the outward view,
But each upbore a stately tent:
Where cedar-poles, in scented row,
Kept out the fakes of the dancing brine:
And an awning droopt the mast below,
In fold on fold, of the purple fine,
That neither noontide nor star-shine,
Nor moonlight cold, which maketh mad,
Might pierce the regal tenement.
When the sun dawned, oh, gay and glad
We set the sail and plied the oar;
But when the night wind blew like breath,
For joy of one day's voyage more,
We sang together on the wide sea,
Like men at peace on a peaceful shore;
Each sail was loosed to the wind so free,
Each helm made sure by the twilight star;
And in a sleep as calm as death,
We, the strangers from afar,
Lay stretched along, each weary crew,
In a circle round its wondrous tent,
Whence gleamed soft light and curled rich scent,
And with light and perfume, music too;
So the stars wheeled round and the darkness passed,
And at morn we started beside the mast,
And still each ship was sailing fast.
One morn the land appeared!—a speck,
Dim, trembling, betwixt sea and sky:
"Avoid it!" cried our pilot; "check
The shout; restrain the longing eye."
But the heaving sea was black behind
For many a night and many a day,
And land, though but a rock, drew nigh;
So we broke the cedar-pales away,
Let the purple awning flap in the wind,
And a statue bright was on every deck!
We shouted, every man of us,
And steered right into the harbour thus,
With pomp and pæan glorious.
Alas! no sooner had they landed, and set up that statue of the soul which each in his own lifetime carves,
what shouts and merry songs!
What laughter all the distance stirs!
What raft comes loaded with its throngs
Of gentle islanders?
"The isles are just at hand," they cried,
"Like cloudlets faint at even sleeping;
Our temple gates are opened wide,
Our olive groves thick shade are keeping
For the lucid shapes you bring," they cried.
Oh, then we awoke with a sudden start
From our deep dream; we knew, too late,
How bare the rock, how desolate,
To which we had flung our precious freight.
Yet we called out, "Depart!
Our gifts, once given, must here abide;
Our work is done; we have no heart
To mar our work, though vain," we cried.
In the last part of the poem we find Paracelsus on his deathbed, in a cell of the St Sebastian Hospital at Salzburg,
1541—Festus watching him, and anxiously waiting till the poor, lost, bewildered mind shall break from its surrounding shadows and drear phantoms, to recognise him once more.
Gradually it feels its dark way back; the spirit regains its throne; there is fire in his eyes, music in his ears; all is growing plain.
He who stood at first where all aspire at last to stand, now stands at last where
the Christian is enabled by faith to stand at first. He is humbled, broken, purified.
The poem is brought to a climax in a long-sustained swell of noble poetry, and leaves us with the feeling that the shining fragments of this shattered mind will be united to form a wondrous whole in worlds not realized.
'Paracelsus' teaches a great lesson, and from end to end there runs a brimming stream of rare poetry.
Often it overbrims its banks from its abounding fulness, and runs to waste; but it carries its freightage of purpose right on into haven.
For us, each reading has brought out more meaning and fresh beauty.
It will be impossible for us to do any sort of justice to Mr Browning's dramas by quotation or otherwise.
Yet these alone ought to be sufficient to build up the fame of a true and great poet. 'King Victor and King Charles' is a profound study of statecraft and human nature, finely intervolved and as finely evolved.
The 'Return of the Druses' is likewise most subtle and intense, with its perplexity of motives solved by passionate action, and the complexity of life made all clear by death.
The conclusion of this tragedy is grand as a sunset. The Duchess 'Colombe' is one of our especial favourites; our 'play-queen,' so natural and so brave on her birthday. And 'Pippa,' everybody's favourite, with her one day's holiday, going about like an unwitting missionary of heaven, doing good without knowing it.
Imagining the life and world of others as so bright and beautiful, and then, as she passes them
by—singing—she touches their world unconsciously with her own brightness, and lights it up with a sun-flash that shows the good their own happiness, the bad their life's hideousness, and both, that God is in His heaven.
The 'blot on the scutcheon' is full of deep, moving power. The characters are living, breathing, loving and suffering human souls, real enough to stir the profoundest human feelings.
By the nearest and clearest ties they are bound up in the dark web of a bitter fate.
We see how they might be saved, but cannot save them. We behold them striving in the toils, and the great shadowing cloud overhead coming straight down big and black to bursting.
Life and death are brought to the fine turning-point of a single word, and it cannot be spoken.
Thus an interest is created intensely tragic. We have before mentioned the passionate pathos of this drama.
The pathos of that last parting betwixt Arthur and Gueuivere in Tennyson's fourth Idyl is very noble, but this is yet more piercing.
'Luria,' again, is a magnificent conception,—a Moor of nobler nature than ' Othello,' who can magnanimously forgive a great wrong.
Florence has called on him to save her, and placed him at the head of her armies.
He has led them in triumph up to the very eve of a final victory. But his employers, with the cruel and jealous traits of the Macchiavellian intellect, have set spies on spies at watch on every word, and in every
way. Their own kith and kin have proved false to the commonwealth in the intoxication of triumph; how, then, should the stranger keep true with success?
He may play false; why, then, he will. And so, on this assumption of his treason, he is being tried for his life at Florence, whilst he is fighting her battles so faithfully, crushing her foes so mightily, believing in her, his heart's beautiful idol, so proudly!
He learns what is their devil's-policy in time to have turned on them and trampled them in the dust.
He is urged by those around him to do so. He looks and listens as one by one they turn on their various
lights—the green and ghastly light of jealousy; the lurid blue light of suspicion; the blood-red light of
revenge—but accepts none of these. He has in his Moorish mind a glimmer of the great white light of God contending with the heathen gloom.
No mean feeling can span the girth and greatness of his heart. He towers up sublimely above all the suggestions of evil, and saves Florence at the sacrifice of himself.
The gathering great black thunder-cloud of his suffering soul, that hung a moment over Florence, charged with death, breaks into harmless tears of softest pity and generous blessing for her.
There is an ineffable pathos in this Luria's life; an inexpressible dignity in his death.
The poetry of this drama is one great deep of beauty set with shining truths, and thick with starry thoughts.
How the wave of feeling, too, rolls on and swells in these lines, till it bursts on the other shore:—
How inexhaustibly the spirit grows!
One, object she seemed erewhile born to reach
With her whole energies, and die content,
So like a wall at the world's end it stood,
With nought beyond to live for,—is it reached?
Already are new undreamed energies
Outgrowing under and extending further
To a new object;—There's another world!
Mr Ruskin, speaking of the poem, 'The Bishop orders his Tomb at St Praxed's Church,' has rightly said: 'Robert Browning is unerring in every sentence he writes of the Middle Ages; always vital, right, and profound.
I know no other piece of modern English prose or poetry in which there is so much told as in these lines of the Renaissance
spirit,—its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself, love of art, of luxury, and of good Latin.'
The bishop on his death-bed has reached Solomon's conclusion that 'all is vanity.'
So he proceeds to specify his particular vanity in the choice of a tombstone.
The lie must be as sumptuous in death as it was luxurious in his life.
He tells his sons that Gandolf, his old enemy, who probably had their mother's heart, though not her hand, has cozened him at last by dying first and getting the pick of the whole church for his burial-place.
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner south
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!
He bids them rear him such a tomb that old Gandolf 'shall not choose but see and burst,' for envy.
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare; the ripe,
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse,
Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,
Rosy and flawless: how learned the prize!
He promises them villas, and horses, 'brown Greek manuscripts, and mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs,' so they but do his
That's if ye carve my epitaph aright;
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line—
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need.'
Then he must have
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of; and perchance
Some tripod, thyrsus with a vase or so,
The Saviour at His sermon on the Mount,
St Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off.
So he shall lie for centuries in calm beatitude and perfect peace of mind, and be able to
Watch at leisure if he leers—
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she was.
This is quite perfect in its Pagan mixture.
Put Mr Browning is equally successful in revealing the inner life of a large number of varied characters, and always true to place and time.
Now, he will tell you what a heathen contemporary of Paul thought and said.
Again, he will show you what young David saw when, with harp in hand, and face like the dawn, he peered into the tent of King Saul:—
At first. I saw nought but the blackness; but soon I descried
A something more black than the blackness—the vast, the upright
Main prop which sustains the pavilion; and slow into sight
Grew a figure against it, gigantic and blackest of all;—
Then a sunbeam that burst through the tent-roof showed Saul.
He stood as erect as that tent-prop; both arms stretched out wide
On the great cross-support in the centre, that goes to each side:
He relaxed not a muscle, but hung there,—as, caught in his pangs,
And waiting his change, the king-serpent all heavily hangs
Far away from his kind, in the pine, till deliverance come
With the spring-time,—so agonized Saul, drear and stark, blind
As an example of our poet's dramatic power in getting right at the heart of a man, reading what is there written, and then looking through his eyes and revealing it all in the man's own speech, nothing can be more complete in its inner soundings and outer keeping, than the epistle containing the 'Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,' who has been picking up the crumbs of
learning on his travels in the Holy Land, and writes to Abib, the all-sagacious, at home.
It is so solemnly real and so sagely fine. He has found 'three samples of true snake-stone;' and has discovered a happier cure for the 'falling-sickness' in
A spider here
Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs,
Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-grey back.
But, strangest story of all, which he blushes to tell the wise master, and himself tries not to believe: he has met with one Lazarus, a Jew:—
And first—the man's own firm conviction rests
That he was dead (in fact they buried him),
That he was dead, and then restored to life
By a Nazarene physician of his tribe:
Sayeth, the same bade, "Rise," and he did rise.
This is not an instance of trance, says 'Karshish;'
the man is of healthy habit beyond the common!
Think! could we penetrate by any drug,
And bathe the wearied soul and worried flesh,
And bring it clear and fair, by three days' sleep!
Whence has the man the balm that brightens all?
There was something in the look of Lazarus which made the physician watch him while lending an ear to his story:—
And oft the man's soul springs into his face,
As if he saw again and heard again
This sage that bade him "Rise," and he did rise]
Something—a word, a tick of the blood within—
Admonishes; then back he sinks at once
To ashes, that was very fire before.
Why not seek out the man who
performed this miracle, and learn the secret that baffles all their
Alas! it grieveth me, the learned leech
Perished in a tumult many years ago,
Accused—our learning's fate—of wizardry.
He was killed, as the sage conjectures, because he could not prevent the earthquake which befell at the time of his death.
Of course it must be stark madness on the part of Lazarus, but it is well for
him—Karshish—to keep nothing back in reporting the case to his master:—
This man, so cured, regards the curer then,
As—God forgive me—who but God Himself,
Creator and Sustainer of the world,
That came and dwelt in flesh on it awhile!
Sayeth that such an One was born and lived,
Taught, healed the sick, broke bread at his own house,
Then died, with Lazarus by, for aught I know.
He tries to put this story of miracles out of his head for matters calling every moment for remark, such as the 'blue flowering borage, the Aleppo sort, abounding, very nitrous;' but is still haunted with its strong interest, and muses on in a weird wonderment—
The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great were the All-Loving too—
So, through the thunder comes a human voice,
Saying, "O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in Myself;
Thou hast no power, nor may'st conceive of Mine;
But love I gave thee, with Myself to love,
And thou must love Me who have died for thee! "
The madman saith, he said so: it is strange.
Most faithfully conceived; most tenderly felt; most beautifully expressed.
Mr Browning is nowhere more at home than with the old painters and their pictures.
With more than the affection of a brother of the brush does he enter into their secret thoughts and hidden feelings, to tell us how life went with them hundreds of years ago, from the most unknown of them to the most famous.
Their pictures are windows through which he sees into their souls, and can show us the colour of life's under-currents.
His picture of 'Andrea del Sarto' is perfect as anything of that painter's, who was called the 'Faultless.'
Here we find the beating heart belonging to the face that looked out on us so mournfully from a picture at the Manchester Art Treasures' Exhibition.
Very perfect is the poet's interpretation of the well-known facts of the painter's love for a beautiful bad woman whose influence darkened his life, embittered his lot; dragged down the lifted hand, and broke the aspiring heart.
We write, with an engraving of one of Andrea del Sarto's pictures hanging in front of us.
It is curious to read Mr Browning's poem and look up at the woman who held the painter in her 'strong toils of grace.'
It is a bold type of face, physically fine, but a heartless nature lies couchant in the sleepy beauty of those slow eyes:—
But had you—oh, with the same perfect brow,
And perfect eyes, and more than perfect mouth,
And the low voice my soul hears, as a bird
The fowler's pipe and follows to the snare—
Had you, with these the same, but brought a mind!
Some women do so. Had the mouth there urged
God and His glory! never care for gain.
The present, by the future, what is that?
Live for fame, side by side with Angelo—
Rafael is waiting. Up to God, all three.
Many of our quotations have been made merely to elucidate our meaning, by the way.
The following stanzas are given for their own sake. The subject is a picture by Guercino—'The Guardian-Angel.'
They will bear reading and re-reading until their fine fatherly tenderness and peaceful desire of a gentle heart are fully felt:—
Dear and great Angel, wouldst thou only leave
That child, when thou hast done with him, for me!
Let me sit all the day here, that when eve
Shall find performed thy special ministry,
And time come for departure, thou, suspending
Thy flight, may'st see another child for tending,
Another still, to quiet and retrieve.
Then I shall feel thee step one step, no more,
From where thou standest now, to where I gaze,
And suddenly my head be covered o'er
With those wings, white above the child who prays
Now on that tomb—and I shall feel thee guarding
Me, out of all the world; for me, discarding
Yon heaven thy home, that waits and opes its door!
I would not look up thither past thy head,
Because the door opes, like that child, I know,
For I should have thy gracious face instead,
Thou bird of God! And wilt thou bend me low
Like him, and lay, like his, my hands together,
And lift them up to pray, and gently tether
Me, as thy lamb there, with thy garments spread?
If this was ever granted, I would rest
My head beneath thine, while thy healing hands
Close covered both my eyes beside thy breast,
Pressing the brain, which too much thought expands,
Back to its proper size again, and smoothing
Distortion down till every nerve bad soothing,
And all lay quiet, happy and supprest.
How soon all worldly wrong would be repaired!
I think how I should view the earth and skies
And sea, when once again my brow was bared
After thy healing, with such different eyes.
O world, as God has made it! all is beauty:
And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.
What further may be sought for or declared?
Lastly, we have to speak of Mr Browning as a great religious poet.
We have had too many poets who were endowed with the sense of beauty, without the fitting reverence for the Creator of all beauty; and there is too great a divorce between our poetry and religion for us not to rejoice over a poet who possesses the clearest of all seeing
faculties—religious faith. The poet's nature, of all others, most needs that high reverence which is to the spirit what iron is to the
blood,—the very strength that prevents a relaxing of the moral fibre in the presence of beauty, and keeps the health sound.
The poet's nature, of all others, most needs the revelation of Christianity, by virtue of its own peculiar temptations, doubts, and fears, obstinate questionings, and yearnings for the bosom of rest.
Mr Browning has this reverence, and accepts this revelation. He is not, like some poets, half ashamed to mention God or Christ, though he never takes the name of either in vain.
Nor does he set up nature for a kind of Pantheistic worship. His poem of 'Christmas Eve and Easter Day' is passionately alive with an intense desire for the most personal relationship, lowly of heart as it is lofty in awe.
The text of the poem is, 'How hard it is to be a Christian.'
The poet has a tremendous dream. It is the Judgment-day. Through the black dome of the firmament
Sudden there went,
Like horror and astonishment,
A fierce vindictive scribble of red
Quick flame across, as if one said
(The angry scribe of Judgment), "There—
And he stands 'found and fixed' in his choice. He has chosen the world.
He tries to plead that it was so beautiful, so near—
It was hard so soon
As in a short life to give up
Such beauty: I had put the cup
Undrained of half its fulness by;
But, to renounce it utterly,
That was too hard! Nor did the cry
Which bade renounce it, touch my brain
Authentically deep and plain
Enough to make my lips let go.
But Thou, who knowest all, dost know
Whether I was not, life's brief while,
Endeavouring to reconcile
Those lips—too tardily, alas!—
To letting the dear remnant pass,
One day—some drops of earthly good
A voice tells him he is welcome to the world he has chose.
Flung thee as freely as one rose
Out of a summer's opulence,
Over the Eden barrier whence
Thou art, excluded. Knock in vain!
Welcome so to rate
The arras-folds that variegate
The earth, God's antechamber, well!
The wise who waited there, could tell
By these, what royalties in store
Lay one step past the entrance-door.
His trust is gone from natural things; henceforth, then, he will turn to art, and there fix his choice:—
"Obtain it," said the voice.
The one form with its single act,
Which sculptors laboured to extract,
The one face painters tried to draw
With its one look, from throngs they saw!
And that perfection in the soul
These only hinted at.
What then? Can the
possibilities of the soul and the promises of God be judged by this?
If such his soul's capacities,
Even while he trod the earth,—think, now,
What pomp in Buonarotti's brow,
With its new palace-brain, where dwells
Superb the soul?
At length the pleading spirit gives up the world, intellect, and art, and will choose love; love of family, friends, country; dear human love.
He looks up for the approval of the form standing at his side.
But its look is as the look of the headsman who shoulders the axe to make an end. Love? you trying to be a Christian, and asking for love? when
HE so loved the world as to give His own beloved
Son to die for love!
And I cowered deprecatingly—
"Thou Love of God! or let me die,
Or grant what shall seem heaven almost;
Let me not know that all is lost,
Tho' lost it be; leave me not tied
To this despair—this corpse-like bride!
Let that old life seem mine—no more—
With limitation as before,
With darkness, hunger, toil, distress:
Be all the earth a wilderness!
Only, let me go, on, go on,
Still hoping ever and anon
To reach one eve the better land!"
Then did the Farm expand, expand—
I knew Him thro' the dread disguise,
As the whole God within his eyes
It seems to us that Mr Browning has narrowly missed being the greatest poet living.
But he has missed it, and Tennyson is crowned instead. Mr Browning has the wider range, and grasps more, but he brings less home to us.
So much of his poetry wants releasing from an over-pressure. The reader is called in to the help of the artist.
He has immense fertility of fancy and infinite tenderness, rare intuition; and his thinking is vivid and logically sequent in its profoundest depths.
But his works do not come so cleary golden from the mint as do those of Tennyson, nor are they so calm with that repose of beauty which is the perfect harmony of restrained strength.
His earlier poetry, more especially, was so profuse in riches, so tumultuous with thronging materials, so dazzling with many glancing lights, that half as much might have been made to go twice as far.
Or rather, he had so much genius, as has been said of some one's wit, that he needed as much again to govern it.
In later poems the art is choicer, and chaster. He may yet surprise us as Tennyson did when he finished his Greek studies, ranged his statues in their beauty and their majesty, and turned to pour the whole
of his new life into English moulds. Mr Browning is two years younger than the Laureate, and it is not too late for him to get down nearer the roots of our English nature.
He has lived long enough abroad, figuratively speaking; let him come home and dwell a while.
The man who wrote that 'Scene in a Balcony' might have reproduced our Queen Elizabeth, of haughty visage and aching heart, surrounded with her chivalry.
There are many characters in our history whose dim personality Mr Browning might evoke from their shadowy realm to kindle with the breath and light of life.
There are many unsung actions worthy of setting to inspiring ballad music, so that the recital of them should beget deeds as noble in other times to come, and new heroism be created for the future, by looking on such heroes in our pictures of the past.
We wish that Mr Browning could be induced to look beyond the 'fit audience, though few;' we are confident that he can write such poems as shall bring his books home to many.
Meanwhile, if we cannot bring the mountain to Mahomet, it is a great pleasure to help a little in leading Mahomet to the mountain, and to bear witness that these books are worth knowing; for, with all their shortcomings, they constitute one of the most precious gifts that our time will receive from the hands of Poetry.