THE QUARTERLY REVIEW
VOLUME 118.— No. 235
ART. III.—l. Dramatis Personae. London, 1864.
2. Robert Browning's Poems. 3 Vols. London, 1863.
Robert Browning in Vanity Fair
T a time like the present, when the tendency is for
minds to grow more and more alike, all thinking the same thoughts with the
regularity of Wordsworth's forty cattle feeding as one; when for a single
original poet, like Mr. Tennyson, we have a hundred tuneful echoes, and
one popular novelist has his scores of imitators, we think that a writer
of Mr. Browning's powers ought to be better understood than he is, and the
discrepancy lessened betwixt what is known of him by the few, and what is
thought of him by the many. He has qualities such as should be
cherished by the age we live in, for it needs them. His poetry ought
to be taken as a tonic. He grinds no mere hand-organ or music-box of
pretty tunes; he does not try to attract the multitude with the scarlet
dazzle of poppies in his corn; he is not a poet of similes, who
continually makes comparisons which are the mere play of fancy; he has
nothing of the ordinary technique of poetry; he has felt himself driven,
somewhat consciously, to the opposite course of using, as much as
possible, the commonest forms of speech. The language of his verse
is generally as sturdy as is the prose of Swift or De Foe. Certainly
these homely words are to be found in singular places, saying strange
things now and again,—many things not easily understood, and many which
good taste must condemn,—but the poetry is full, nevertheless, of hearty
English character. In his process of thinking, he is the exact
reverse of those writers who are for making the most of their subject in
expression. Mr. Browning can never concentrate sufficiently.
The current opinion of his poetry, outside the circle of the
few who have thoroughly studied the subject, and met with their reward,
would be somewhat nearer the mark, supposing the poet had only written his
poem called 'Sordello.' That work has all the poet's faults, and all
the defects of his poetry. It has only a few of the merits.
Flung down, as it was, to make readers stumble on the threshold of their
acquaintanceship with a new poet, the obstacle has remained in memory, and
in the minds of many has influenced, if not determined, their estimate of
all that he has since written. 'Sordello' has to answer for much of its
author's lengthened unpopularity. It revels in a mental motion swift
as that of the Irishman who said with him it was a word and a blow, and
the blow came first. So with 'Sordello' we get blow after blow, and
shock after shock, without knowing what these are for. There is
flash after flash of a lightning energy, and all is dark again, before we
have caught the object that should have been illuminated.
The author certainly was not one of the 'serene
creators of immortal things' when he wrote 'Sordello.' It has not
the look of a finished poem. It rather represents the confusion of
the mental workshop, with the poem in the making and the poet hard at it;
the whole poetic process instead of the pure result. Even then it
sometimes looks as though the poet were tearing a poem to pieces, and
flinging the reader jewels by the lapful, rather than creating a work of
art, and giving his gems a worthy setting. The author may know his
own meaning, but it is not conveyed to us. Mr. Browning tells us
that there is little worth study in 'Sordello,' except the incidents in
the development of a soul. But for our part we cannot see how
'Sordello' the poet is evolved from the incidents of the story. The
inner life of the poet, and the outer movements of the history, remain
apart by hundreds of years; are never combined. The poetic
experience has much more of modern meaning than of ancient application.
Whatever the 'Sordello' of Italian story may have been, the poet of this
work has the mark of a nineteenth century creation. We hold the poem
to have been an imperfect conception, flawed from the first. The
author has, in the latest edition endeavoured to complete his work; tried,
as it were, to drop a keystone between the two sides of an imperfect arch,
by means of headlines to the pages, in spite of which few readers will
ever be able to cross the arch. Mr. Browning will, after all, have
to give up 'Sordello' to the rage of the irritated reader, as Nelson gave
up his Jacket when pursued by the bear, and rest content with the
knowledge that he is now safely past it by some twenty-five years.
He can afford to offer as a sacrifice that serves a purpose a poem which
was written by an immature dramatist, who had strayed into narrative
poetry by mistake, and erred in trying to obtain certain modern
reflections from an uncertain story of the past.
Next to 'Sordello,' which is an obstacle of the poet's own
making, the greatest hindrance to a proper appreciation of Mr. Browning
appears to us to lie in the critical treatment his poetry has hitherto
received. It has been dealt with just as though the writer had been
'altogether such an one' as the rest of the poets of this century; and
half the objections that have been urged, half the faults that have been
discovered, really resolve themselves into a complaint that he is not a
subjective poet, but something quite different. Now the mass of our
nineteenth century poetry has been mainly subjective. Very few are
the characters in its whole range to which we could point as
uncoloured by the personality of the writer. We seem to have lost
the secret of the old dramatists, who could make plays that were peopled
with real human beings, and pour forth such a prodigality of what we may
call physical life. The objective poetry of simple description,
broad handling, and portraiture at first sight, seems to have passed away
with Scott. Indeed, it almost looks as though in our time the
poetic mind was divided against itself. Instead of great poets, we
have poets and novelists, the latter employing themselves upon the rich
range of human character, while the former shut themselves up more and
more in the special domain of their own personal experience. Mr.
Browning came at a time when there was every likelihood that the excessive
subjectiveness of our modern poetry would lead to decay. He supplies
a counter irritant. He 'blows through bronze' oftener than through
silver, a music calculated to awake God Mars rather than 'serenade a
slumbering princess;' a 'medicated music,' as it was rightly called
by Elizabeth Barrett.
Mr. Browning is not one of those who can look upon men as
trees walking, and see all things through a misty glamour or a 'kind of
glory,' which is really a suffusion of self; not one of the
cloud-worshippers who, as Aristaphanes says, 'speak ingeniously concerning
smoke,' and who, in their inability to dramatise human nature, are for
ever endeavouring to humanise external nature, and always paint it
according to their special moods of mind. He belongs to a robuster
race of thinkers. His genius being dramatic, he has to make his way
to the heart of a character, conceal himself there, and then, looking
abroad through the eyes of the man or woman, reveal their nature in their
own speech. He is dramatic down to his smallest lyrics. He is
not present in person to help us in making out his meaning. He
cannot show us all he has to reveal, from the describer's own personal
point of view. We must be able to reach many a point of view,
according to the character of the speaker. Let us quote an example
of his way of working. Here is a perfect little poem, entitled, 'My
Last Duchess;' the scene is 'Ferrara,' and the Duke is the speaker.
'That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive: I call
That piece a wonder now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a while, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf " by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat;" such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good; but thanked
Somehow,—I know not how,—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years'-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark;"—and if she let
Herself be lessened so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
E'en then would be some stooping, and I chuse
Never to stoop. Oh, Sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below there. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down. Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.'
A slight examination will serve to show with what consummate art a world
of character is portrayed in that small poem. The person of the
speaker stands firmly full-drawn, as one of the portraits by Titian, with
their live eyes, and long beards, and black velvet dresses. The
proud bearing, together with the love of a proud bearing, the indifference
to shedding blood which had not the true-blue drop in it, the gentlemanly
way in which that 'matter of the murder' is delicately implied, and the
subject dismissed, as with a graceful wave of the hand, for another
passing glance at the bronze statue—the feeling for art which sets the
portrait above the wife, the painter's name over both—the slight touch or
two at which the dead face comes and smiles as in life—all is done with
the easy stroke of a master, and the verse, too, is exquisitely modulated
for its purpose, never pausing because it has to rhyme its lines.
From this quotation we may see how Mr. Browning's poems have to be judged.
They were not put together by parts. Hence they are not to be
enjoyed piecemeal. We cannot point out that this is valuable for
some deep thought or just reflection, and another for a magnificent image.
Each poetic characteristic is merged in the human character which we find
so frequently unfolded with great fulness in a few lines.
These poems of Mr. Browning, which are dramatic in principle
and lyrical in expression, are not always easy to master. The poem
once presented, we get no help from the poet. He is only a dumb showman.
We have to work our way back from where the poet left off, and get to the
centre of the web, whence strike out all the rays of detail. The
complaint often made is that readers do not at once catch the idea, which
is the root of vitality to the poem. Now the question is, not
whether obscurity is a fault or not—we think it is a great fault, and we
should have thought Mr. Browning a much greater poet if he had been free
from it; but whether it is too much to ask one or two readings of a few
stanzas in order that something worth getting at may be reached. Is it not
well known that no true work of art with any depth in it can be fathomed
at first sight? that, as Bacon says, there is an element of strangeness in
all the highest beauty? The question is, Is there something worth
getting at in such poems? And we have to answer emphatically in the
affirmative. There may be difficulties to unlock; but it is worth
while to try to unlock them, for the sake of the hidden treasure which
they keep concealed. When we have conquered, we are wealthier by a
substantial gain. The result is not like a pleasant ripple of
emotion that passes away, or a mere play of feeling, as with the
subjective poem. We are the richer by some new and original picture
of life, of intricate character, of uncommon manners, which has been
almost engraved upon the mind by the process of getting at it, and remains
a possession for ever.
Another complaint is that Mr. Browning is unmusical.
But in every case we must first grasp the character before we can judge of
the fitness of the verse, or the quality of its music. The music may
not be our music, or Mr. Tennyson's music, or like anything we ever heard
in verse: that is not the point. The point is whether the music and
movement of the verse receive their impetus and government in any sensible
way from the character, so as to become its natural expression. This
we cannot determine until we know the character well enough to be able to
read the poem off at an unchecked heat, such as may fuse all down into a
music of a fit and efficient kind, that could not be excelled for its
purpose; which can only be done upon acquaintance. It is often a
very grave and difficult character that has to be dealt with, and the
smooth music and liquid lapse of vowelled sounds which serve to convey
mellifluous emotion would be altogether inadequate to wrestle with the
sterner strength. The subjective lyric can wander at its own sweet
will, and slip softly through sunshine and shadow with pleasant murmurs
for the dreamer's ear; but the dramatic lyric has other work to do.
We think it quite probable that Mr. Browning has a peculiar
sense of music. He is, we have heard, an educated musician, and a
great lover of music. Indeed, we might learn this from his poems.
Now, it might be shown that some of the most melodious verse has been
written by poets who could not read music, or rather who put all their
feeling for music into their language, and the hidden quality has worked
more sweetly, perhaps because it was more a music of the spirit than of
the sense. Whereas the poet who could read music has sometimes
appeared harsh, crabbed, unequal, in the music of verse. With Mr.
Browning it would seem that his sense of music served to put into his
verse a greater use of accent than flow of melody; conducing to a kind of
staccato mental notation in words; and that much of the
meaning in some poems was intended to be got at through this stress of the
accent or dash of the notes. The whole poem entitled the
'Laboratory' would illustrate our remark. Here is one stanza:—
'He is with her; and they know that I know
Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow
While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
Empty church, to pray God in for them!—I am
The accent serves to italicise the meaning in these lines. It
helps to make the music bite into the subject—so to speak—in a most bitter way,
corresponding to the feeling of
the speaker. Then the accent is often varied very suddenly, intricately,
and is not followed easily by the lovers of jog-trot verse and common metre. The first two lines of the
galloping ballad, called 'How they brought the Good News from Ghent to
Aix,' will afford us a brief specimen—
'I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris,
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped
with their sudden reversal of the accent in the second line.
Following out this cue we think it will be found that the coarse, blunt,
guttural sounds, and dogged stiffnecked movement of the 'Soliloquy in the
Spanish Cloister,' are
characteristic; an essential and effective part of the character, they aid
materially in embodying the imaginary speaker, as in the poem first
quoted, the supple, fluent
movement, the low-toned suavity and colloquial case give an insinuating
grace of manner to the Italian Noble. Still the question remains whether
such harsh, abrupt sounds
can be legitimately introduced into poetry. We do not think them well
suited to the English language.
In his purely lyrical measures the poet appears at times to tread a rugged
path with lame feet, and it is not easy for the mind of the reader to move
to the measure. The
music does not meander. It is much more like a cascade that comes hurrying
from some far-off hill-top, leaping from crag to crag, and seems to split
its force in twain
because of the haste with which it dashes at all obstacles. Of this,
however, we cannot judge apart from the character of the speaker; we must
distinguish before we are able
to divide the merits from the defects. Mr. Browning, in his dramatic poems
with a lyrical utterance, undertakes to do more than any lyrical poet who
ever lived. He writes
under conditions hardly ever attempted hitherto, and has given to the
world many lyrics, dramatic in principle, and lyrical in expression,
containing a great amount and variety
of character. So that whatever flashes of lyric energy his mind may be
capable of kindling into, it is impossible for us to sum up his lyrical
power as we might that of Moore
and Burns, who are all the while singing their own sentiment or emotion,
and have nothing else to do! We cannot compare Mr. Browning's lyrics with
those of any subjective poet; he has called them Dramatic Lyrics for the very purpose of
distinguishing them from such. Nor may we judge him as a lyrical poet by
comparison with any subjective
lyrist. We must in both case appraise them on their own grounds; and if we
applaud the subjective lyrist because the movement of his verse
felicitously corresponds to the
thought or emotion, then we must at least estimate the fitness or beauty
of the movement in the Objective Lyric by its correspondence with the
speaker's character, or the
nature of the action. If we were to judge the fine dramatic lyric entitled
'A Grammarian's Funeral,' as we should a lyric of emotion set to its own
music, we should make little
of it. We might probably think the poet had gone to the extremest limit,
out of the ordinary way, to discover the most uncommon and uninteresting
measure. But, let us read
it with an understanding of what is meant. It is the burial of a man of
learning who had toiled up through the dark to meet the dawn; who was
awake and working whilst the
rest of the world were asleep, or in gross darkness. He has done his work
and shall have a symbolic burial!
'Leave we the unlettered plain, its herd and crop;
Seek we sepulture
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture!
All the peaks soar, but one the rest excels;
Clouds overcome it:
No, yonder sparkle is the citadel's,
Circling its summit!
Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
Wait ye the warning?
Our low life was the level's and the night's;
He's for the morning!'
So the bearers
chant as they carry up the corpse of the master, 'famous, calm, and dead,
borne on their shoulders;' and having reached the topmost height they
'Well, here's the platform, here's the proper place:
Hail to your purlieus,
All ye highfliers of the feathered race,
Swallows and curlews!
Here's the peak-top! the multitude below
Live—for they can, there.
This Man decided not to Live but Know—
Bury this man there?
Here—here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go! let joy break with the storm,
Peace let the dew send!
Lofty designs must close in like effects:
Leave him—still loftier than the world suspects,
Living and dying.'
Now, to our feeling, the movement of this verse is most dramatic, and
answers admirably to the character of the poem. It conveys a great sense
of going up-hill, and the
weight of the burden,—together with the exultation of the bearers, which
gives them strength to mount; it toils upward step by step—long line
forward,—and altogether carries out the idea of a spirit that climbed in
life, and a burial that shall afford the dead rest at the effort's end,
with his resting-place in the pathway of
We must understand the principles of Mr. Browning's art, then, before we
shall be on the way for interpreting his poems rightly. A good deal of the
difficulty in getting at them
lies here in the beginning. Next we must try to enter into the nature of
his genius, and its peculiar predilections. He has 'strange far-flights'
of imagination. He is fond of
dwelling abroad, and of working widely apart from the life and
circumstances of our time. He loves a gnarly character, or a knotty
problem; a conflict that is mental rather than
emotional; and he has given full scope to his choice at times in the
strangest rhymes on record. He is not yet entirely free from the
mannerisms of 'Sordello.' Nor does he
allow sufficiently for the difficulties of his own conditions, and for
those of the reader in following him. Here, we think, is a grave fault in
art. But, what strikes us as one of the
greatest drawbacks of all, is this: that, whereas the subject selected,
the character portrayed, is often of the remotest from the common
apprehension, it is treated in a
manner totally new to objective poetry. The objective poets of the past
dealt with their subjects in a simpler way, and more in the mass. A few
broad touches sufficed for
their portraits; but Mr. Browning will carry out the utmost fidelity of
detail—painting in all the minutiæ of a pre-Raphaelite
foreground—whilst representing some unfamiliar
character, unknown scene, or rare circumstance. Thus the matter may be
recondite, the manner novel, and all the conditions startling; the result
is sure to be somewhat
bewildering—especially at first sight.
We shall meet with the same closeness of observation and directness of
description in the pictures of external nature. There is a lunar rainbow
in the poem of 'Christmas
Eve,' which any one who ever witnessed the phenomenon could swear to as
drawn by a man who had seen what he painted, and who painted what he saw. Suddenly
'The rain and the wind ceased, and the sky
Received at once the full fruition
Of the Moon's consummate apparition.
The black cloud-barricade was riven,
Ruined beneath her feet, and driven
Deep in the West; while, bare and breathless,
North and South and East lay ready
For a glorious Thing, that, dauntless, deathless,
Sprang across them and stood steady.
'Twas a moon-rainbow, vast and perfect,
From heaven to heaven extending, perfect
As the mother-moon's self, full in face.
It rose, distinctly, at the base
With its seven proper colours chorded,
Which still, in the rising, were compressed,
Until at last they coälesced,
And supreme the spectral creature lorded
In a triumph of the whitest white,—
A bow which intervened the night.
But above night too, like only the nest,
The second of a wondrous sequence,
Reaching in rare and rarer frequence,
Till the heaven of heavens were circumflext.
Another rainbow rose, a mightier,
Fainter, flushier, and flightier,—
Rapture dying along its verge!
Oh, whose foot shall I see emerge,
Whose, from the straining topmost dark,
On to the keystone of that are?'
Of course a subjective poet might not have painted in this piercing,
keen-eyed way. He might have given us effects that should have been
produced according to our
preconceived notions. He might have brooded over the sight until it passed
into memory with a sense of rest. But Mr. Browning, in his imaginary
person, saw a startling thing,
and he has reproduced it so as to create the precise effects in the
reader's mind that were felt by the startled seer, and not the
conventional effects which some people look
for. He is describing of the instant—the object itself; and not a dream
of it. The truth is that many persons, when they meet with a novel
picture—something fresh from nature,
in poetry or painting—do not judge of its truthfulness by a knowledge of,
or reference to nature itself. They test it by what they know of previous
pictures in poetry and painting.
If it be unlike these; they are in haste to condemn it. If like what they
have been accustomed to, then it must be natural. Now, Mr. Browning's work
is the last to be judged in
such a way as that. He does not appeal to the second-hand knowledge of
nature, but often to the very rarest intimacy and clearest vision. Again,
there is a great deal of haze
in current criticism with regard to poetry, which was first breathed from
the mind of Coleridge. Much of his criticism was made to match the poetry
of Wordsworth, in his
exposition and defence of the same. But the view which might be very just
when applied to Wordsworth, would do great injustice if forced on Mr.
Browning and his readers.
In the one case it might shed a clear light, and in the other only create
a luminous mist. Coleridge would seem to maintain that it is the true sign
of greatness in poetry,
indeed that it is a part of the poet's work, to paint creation with an
atmosphere and tone out of his own mind; that in rendering objects he
should seek for the 'sense of
something interfused,' and add it to what we see. Mr. Browning would
say, 'Let us have things first, their associations afterwards. Let us
reach the ideal through the real.'
Mr. Browning is, as we have already said, essentially a dramatic poet. So
long as he speaks through some clearly conceived character we recognise
the master's presence.
When he speaks in person, which he seldom does, he never quite reaches us
or we him. He has shown himself a skilful delineator of those conflicts in
which good and evil
strive and wrestle for the victory, and noble spirits are caught up in the
tragic toils which death alone can loosen. He has created characters
intensely human, real enough to
stir the profoundest feelings, and exhibited them to us bound by the
nearest and dearest ties in that web of a bitter fate which is the dark
delight of tragedy, which loves to
show us how they might be saved, even with a word, and we cannot save
them. The theatre would probably have unfolded more of the theatrical part
of his genius; he would
have grown more in a direction, toward the people, and cultivated such
qualities as stir the national feeling, instead of giving so great a range
to those personal predilections
of his which cling to what is peculiar and problematic. We should have
seen less of the philosophic thinker, and felt more of the emotional
energy of the catholic poet.
Likewise he would have derived help from the actor, in giving a tangible
embodiment to his creations, and conveying to thousands of minds some
personification of those
shapes of grandeur or of race which are now shut up in the pages of a
book. But we imagine that the theatre in our day is about the last place
Mr. Browning would care to be
found in; and ever since he wrote his plays the theatre and the poet have
been pulling more widely apart. The qualities that now-a-days win
theatrical success are precisely
those which Mr. Browning has endeavoured to strain his poetry quite clear
Howsoever unfitted for our stage his dramas may be, many of the characters
in his plays will take their place, and become abiding presences on the
stage of the reader's
mind. There is 'Pippa,' the Italian girl, a sunny little godsend, direct
from heaven, unconsciously touching the edge of other lives with a beam
that flashes through her own,
and showing to the uplifted eye that 'God is in His Heaven:' 'Luria,' the
Moor, who can so magnanimously forgive a great wrong: the 'Duchess Colombe,'
who, like 'Pippa,' is
one of everybody's favourites: Poor 'Mildred,' with that
'Depth of purity immovable
Beneath the troubled surface of her crime':
superb, haughty 'Ottima,' 'magnificent in sin:' 'Jules and Phene,'—and a
long line of characters that start into memory to show us how much we are
indebted to the poet, how
greatly his art has enriched us.
If any one thinks Mr. Browning cannot enter into a woman's, heart or paint
the feminine character, let him especially study the sayings and doings of
the 'Duchess Colombe,'
the latter part of the 'Plot on the Scutcheon,' and feel its ineffable
pathos—the subtle force, as of sun and rain on plants, which 'Polyxena'
brings to bear on King Charles,
making the character grow visibly. The two widely-different interpreters
of the passion of love, who are at cross purposes in the 'Balcony Scene.' There is not one of these
plays but contains fine characters and a great wealth of dramatic
qualities: whilst one alone, 'King Victor and King Charles,' would furnish
proof that the author possesses the
secret of unfolding the character whilst the action flows on continuously. We hardly know pathos more piercing than
that of the 'Blot on the Scutcheon,' pathos more grand than that of 'Luria,'
or pathos more passionate than in the 'Return of the Druses.' Although it
is almost as vain as
trying to take a dew-drop in hand, we extract a specimen of the latter. In
the closing scene 'Anael' has fallen dead, and her brother pleads with 'Djabal,'
having a perfect belief
in his supernatural powers to restore her life.
'Save her for my sake!
She was already thine; she would have shared
To-day thine exaltation: think! this day
Her hair was plaited thus because of thee.
Yes, feel the soft bright hair—feel!
Just restore her life!
So little does it! there—the eyelids tremble!
'Twas not my breath that made them: and the lips
Move of themselves!
See, I kiss—how I kiss thy garment's hem
For her! She kisses it—Oh, take her deed
In mine! Thou dost believe now, Anael?—see,
She smiles! Were her lips open o'er the teeth
Thus, when I spoke first? She believes in thee!
Go not without her to the Cedars, Lord!
Or leave us both—I cannot go alone!'
The conclusion of this tragedy is splendid as some fierce sunset after
storm. The mustering of the dramatic forces, and the mustering of the
'Druses,' who are 'bound for the
land where their redemption dawns'—the words of the dying leader who,
with his last breath of life, leads them on the first few steps of the
way, and promises that he shall be
with them, his spirit will await them 'above the cedars,' see them return
're-peopling the old solitudes;' the complexities of life made clear in
death. It is all exceedingly fine.
Mr. Browning has none of the humours of farce which the Elizabethans
supplied so plentifully, as sops to Cerberus, and which seem to have been
looked for in dramas ever
since. But if he causes no horse-laughter he has a contemplative humour of
a rare kind. We should say that it is a strong sense of the grotesque
which caused him to take in
hand several of his singular subjects. See the curious poem entitled 'Sibrandus
Schafnaburgensis,' wherein the speaker describes the vengeance he wreaked
on a dry pedantic book which he had carried into the garden to amuse himself
with, and, seeing that Nature had nothing to do with the inside, he left
it to see what she would do with
the outside of the book.
Also in 'A Soul's Tragedy,' there is a comic creation which is very droll. There has been a local revolution at Faenza, as large as the little place
could get up, and the Provost
has been killed. All is commotion when the Pontifical Legate comes
trotting quietly into the town, a portly personage on muleback, humming a
'Cur fremuere gentes.' 'Ah,'
he says to the populace, 'one Messer Chiappino is your leader. I
have known three-and-twenty leaders of revolt!' and he laughs gently to
himself. The way in which he helps demagogues to 'carry out their
own principles,' judges 'people by what they might be, not are, nor will
be,' shows the leader how not to change
his principles but re-adapt
them more adroitly, turning him inside out softly as he might a glove on
his hand, is delightfully humorous. 'And naturally;' says the changing
leader, 'time must wear off such
asperities (betwixt the opposite parties), the bitterest adversaries get
to discover certain points of similarity between each other, common
sympathies, do they not?' 'Ay,'
replies this humorist, full of smiling satire and wise insight, 'had the
young David but sat first to dine on his cheeses with the Philistine, he
had soon discovered an abundance
of such common sympathies. But, for the sake of one broad antipathy that
had existed from the beginning, David slung the stone, cut off the giant's
head, made a spoil of it,
and after ate his cheeses alone.' Having quietly upset the revolution,
sent the leader to the right-about, put the keys of the Provost's palace
in his own pocket, he dismisses
the populace to profitable meditations at home with this finishing stroke
to his homily:—
'You do right to believe you must get better as you get older. All men do
so, they are worst in childhood, improve in manhood, and get ready in old
age for another world.
Youth, with its beauty and grace, would seem to be bestowed on us to make
us partly endurable till we have time for really becoming so of ourselves,
without their aid, when
they leave us. The sweetest child we all smile on, for his pleasant want
of the whole world to break up or such in his mouth,—seeing no other good
in it,—would be rudely
handled by that world's inhabitants, if he retained those angelic
infantine desires when he has grown six feet high, black and boarded: but
little by little he sees fit to forego
claim after claim on the world, puts up with a less and less share of its
good as his proper portion,—and when the octogenarian asks barely a sup
of gruel and a fire of dry
sticks and thanks you for his full allowance and right in the common good
of life,—hoping nobody may murder him,—he who began by asking and
expecting the whole of us to
bow down in worship to him,—why, I say he is advanced far onward, very
far, nearly out of sight, like our friend Chiappino yonder. Good-by to
you! I have known four-and-twenty leaders of Revolt.'
Turning from the plays to the poems we find that a large number of these
are to be judged as the work of a dramatic poet who has no stage. They are
pieces. The poet has no aid from the actor, and we get no help in the
making out from the usual stage directions to the lookers-on, and from the
shows and circumstances of
action. The poet has to dispense with the old stage machinery. Also he has
to rely more on the quick apprehension of his readers. He requires that
all their mental powers
be awake. To follow him fully in all his ramifications of remote character
the reader should be able to meet him halfway at the outset. If it be a
loss, however, for this writer to
be limited to dramatic fragments which have to be presented under these
more difficult conditions, he has his compensations. He is able to make
points in various directions
where he could not have shaped out complete plays. He can thus portray
much that is of intense interest to us in our modern days. There are
dramas of mental conflict, such
as could not be shown on the stage in action; tragedies and farces that
occur in the intellectual sphere, as well as in the world of feeling, to
be witnessed by God and his
angels rather than by men. Mr. Browning has taken advantage of this
liberty. He has thus given us such a daring delineation of the struggles
of some solitary soul, as we find
in Paracelsus; thrown off a most wonderful series of sketches and
portraits of character in attitude; produced things sometimes totally
unlike anything called 'poems' hitherto,
but remarkable works of art nevertheless. We allude now more particularly
to 'Mr. Sludge, the Medium,' and 'Bishop Blougram's Apology.' This
dramatic latitude has permitted
Mr. Browning to indulge his taste for the untrodden paths, his tendency to
prefer such forms of character and such mental conflicts as afford the
more startling contrast, the
swifter movement of thought, the far-off foreign colour, showing
everywhere the subtlest intuition in following nature through some of her
most secret windings. Also it has
allowed him free scope amongst his favourite subjects—painting and music.
He has portrayed the inner man and outer relationships of characters,
which in the hands of
biography have so often lacked interest because the life was uneventful. For example, if we turn to that reproduction of the painter 'Lippo Lippi,'
we shall see how he has set
before us, with his surroundings, the very man of a sensuous southern
soul, compelled to wear a shaven crown and a monk's serge garb,—the merry
eye twinkling from under
the cowl,—the painter who so conscientiously felt the 'value and
significance of flesh,' doomed by circumstances, and the monks, to be
preached to in this style:—
'Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay;
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
Give us no more of body than shows soul!
Why put all thoughts of praise out of our heads
With wonder at hues, colours, and what not?'
The humour of the contrast is capital, and the painter, his art, the art
of his time, the local scenery, are all rendered with the most faithful
exactness. It has been pointed out
with what truth Mr. Browning writes of the Middle Ages being, as he is,
always 'vital, right and profound.' Mr. Ruskin remarks that there is
hardly a principle connected with
the mediæval temper that he has not struck upon. He says, 'I know no
other piece of modern English prose or poetry, in which there is so much
told, as in these lines (the
Bishop orders his tomb at St. Praxed's Church), of the Renaissance spirit,
its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself,
love of art, luxury, and of good
Latin.' The Bishop is on his death-bed, and he has come to the conclusion
that Solomon was right after all, and all is vanity. So drawing his
sons—if they be his sons, for he
is not sure that their mother may not have played him false—round his bed; he gives directions for his sumptuous tomb which they are to erect in
the church. It must be rich and costly, and prominent enough for Gandolf, his old dead enemy, who
probably had his wife's heart, to
'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.'
His epitaph must be '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 will be able to rest in peace beneath his tabernacle amongst the
tall pillars, just in sight of the 'very dome where the angels live and a
sunbeam is sure to lurk;' there
'Watch at leisure if he leers—
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she was!'
The chief cause of the complaint which we hear, that Mr, Browning's poetry
is wanting in common human warmth and personal nearness, undoubtedly
arises from his genius
being more intellectual than emotional; and the intellect, unless drawn
down, as it were, by the heart, and made to brood in a domestic way, is
apt to dwell aloof, and remain
remote. The higher the intellectual range, the larger and more genial the
humanity necessary to bring the poet home to the mass of men. Impersonal
as Shakspeare is, we
do not feel that to be the result of his remoteness from us. He is hidden
by his nearness, rather than lost in the distance. We lose him
through interfusion, not in isolation.
He has passed into invisibility. We feel his presence through his sympathy
with his subject. He floats the profoundest thoughts on a warm tide of
human feeling. He is
able to waft us within reach of lofty things—of all that may be uncommon
with us, in virtue of his wealth of those feelings which we share in
common with him. Lack of this
human quality, which, like personal love, melts all barriers, fuses down
all difficulties, will for long, if not for ever, keep the poetry of Mr.
Browning an arm's-length farther from
the popular heart. In despite of this constitutional defect, however, he
has shown a power quite capable of moving the common human heart in
portraying various characters
and conflicts of emotion. In addition to such proofs as may be adduced
from the dramas, there are certain little poems, special favourites of
ours, in which the intellect is
more than usually domesticated, and the poetry breathes the most fragrant
warmth of affection in the shyest of ways. One of these is a happy reverie
by the fireside, in which
the husband looks back with brimming heart and eyes to the hour—the very
moment—when, 'at a touch of the woodland time,' two lives—subtly as two
drops of dew—closed
together in one.
BY THE FIRE-SIDE.
'Oh moment, one and infinite!
The water slips o'er stock and stone;
The west is tender, hardly bright;
How grey at once is the evening grown—
One star, the chrysolite!
We two stood there with never a third,
But each by each, as each knew well:
The sights we saw and the sounds we heard,
The lights and the shades made up a spell
Till the trouble grew and stirred.
Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
And the little less, and what worlds away!
How a sound shall quicken content to bliss,
Or a breath suspend the blood's best play,
And life be a proof of this!
Had she willed it, still had stood the screen
So slight, so sure, twixt my love and her:
I could fix, her face with a guard between,
And find her soul as when friends confer,
Friends—lovers that might have
* * * *
Oh, you might have turned and tried a man,
Set him a space to weary and wear,
And prove which suited more your plan,
His best of hope or his worst despair,
Yet end as he began.
But you spared me this, like the heart you are,
And filled my empty heart at a word.
If you join two lives there is oft a scar,
They are one and one, with a shadowy third;
One near, one is too far.
A moment after, and hands unseen
Were hanging the night around us fast;
But we knew that a bar was broker between
Life and life: we were mixed at last
In spite of the mortal screen.
The forests had done it; there they stood!
We caught for a second the powers at play;
They had mingled us so, for once and for good,
Their work was done—we might go or stay,
They relapsed to their ancient mood.'
Another, entitled 'Any Wife to any Husband,' is a poem full of quiet
beauty and a most searching pathos. The subject is a dying woman, or, at
least, one who is gradually
fading away—a true wife, who offers up the last of her life in an incense
of love for the husband. He loves her, too; loves her with all manly
fervour; would, if she lived, love her
to the end. This knowledge is sweet to her; but then, measuring his love
by her own great feeling, dilated to its present height through nearness
to death, 'this is the
bitterness' to know that, with all his truth and love, he will marry again
when she is gone. He thinks such a thing impossible, but she knows it will
be. When they loose
hands, and she arises to go, he will sink; he will grope; he will take
another hand in his, and she must see from where she sits watching—
'My own self sell myself, my hand attach
Its warrant to the very thefts from me.'
'Re-issue looks and words from the old mint,
Pass them afresh, no matter whose the print
Image and superscription once they bore!'
She thinks no blame. It must all come to the same thing in the end. Back
to her he must come:—
'Since mine thou wast, mine art, and mine shall be,
Faithful or faithless, sealing up the sum
Or lavish of my treasure, thou must come
Back to the heart's place here I keep for thee!
Only why should it be with stain at all?
Why must I 'twixt the leaves of coronal,
Put any kiss of pardon on thy brow?
Might I die last and show thee!'
How much the woman's wedded love transcends the man's, in ranges out of
sight! The poem contains a true statement of one of those facts of life
that make so much of the
tragedy of the human lot, the pathos of which is so intensely human.
Here, again, is a touching little 'interior' from married life. There has
been a quarrel, and, in the tearful calm that follows, the wife steals
closer into her husband's bosom with
a 'woman's last word;' and, if women must have the proverbial last word,
they will seldom find one more apposite or beautiful under the
circumstances. The poem should be
read slowly, the music being helped out with thoughtful pauses, that are
filled up with meaning:—
'Let's contend no more, Love; strive nor weep—
All be as before, Love,—only sleep!
What so wild as words are?—I and thou
In debate, as birds are,—hawk on bough!
See the creature stalking —while we speak
Hush, and hide the talking, cheek on cheek!
What so false as Truth is,—false to thee?
Where the serpent's tooth is, shun the tree.
Where the Apple reddens never pry
Lost we lose our Edens,—Eve and I!
Be a god and hold me with a charm—
Be a man and fold me with thine arm!
Teach me, only teach, Love!—as I ought
I will speak thy speech, Love,—think thy thought—
Meet—if thou require it—both demands,
Laying flesh and spirit in thy hands!
That shall be to-morrow, not to-night:
I must bury sorrow out of sight.
Must a little weep, Love,—foolish me!
And so fall asleep, Love, loved by thee!'
At the risk of quoting lines amongst the best known of Mr. Browning's
poetry, we make room for these affectionate 'Home-Thoughts; ' being, as we
are, only too glad to
catch the writer on English ground, where we should like to meet with him
'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 brush-wood 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 whitethroat 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 though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon flower!'
FROM THE SEA.
'Nobly, nobly Cape Saint 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, turns to God to praise and pray,
While Jove's planet rises yonder, silent over Africa.'
Again, a picture of life from the modern Italian point of view—
UP AT A VILLA—DOWN
IN THE CITY.
AS DISTINGUISHED BY AN ITALIAN PERSON OF
'Had I plenty of money, money enough and to spare,
The house for me, no doubt, were a house in the city square;
Ah, such a life, such a life, as one leads at the window there!
Something to see, by Bacchus, something to hear, at least!
There the whole day long, one's life is a perfect feast;
While up at a villa one lives, I maintain it, no more than a beast.
Well now, look at our villa! stuck like the horn of a bull
Just on a mountain's edge as bare as the creature's skull,
Save a mere shag of a bush, with hardly a leaf to pull!
—I scratch my own, sometimes, to see if the hair's turned wool.
But the city, oh the city—the square with the houses! Why?
They are stone-faced, white as a curd, there's something to take the
Houses in four straight lines, not a single front awry!
You watch who crosses and gossips, who saunters, who hurries by;
Green blinds, as a matter of course, to draw when the sun gets high;
And the shops with fanciful signs, which are painted properly.
What of a villa? Though winter be over in March by rights,
'Tis May perhaps ere the snow shall have withered well off the
You've the brown ploughed land before, where the oxen steam and
And the hills over-smoked behind by the faint grey olive-trees.
Is it better in May, I ask you? you've summer all at once;
In a day he leaps complete with a few strong April suns!
'Mid the sharp short emerald wheat, scarce risen three fingers well,
The wild tulip, at the end of its tube, blows out its great red bell
Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the children to pick and
Is it ever hot in the square? There's a fountain to spout and
In the shade it sings and springs; in the shine such foam-bows flash
On the horses with curling fish-tails, that prance and paddle and
Round the lady atop in the conch—fifty gazers do not abash,
Though all that she wears is some weeds round her waist in a sort
All the year long at the villa, nothing's to see though you linger,
Except yon cypress that points like Death's lean lifted forefinger.
Some think fireflies pretty when they mix in the corn and mingle,
Or thrid the stinking hemp till the stalks of it seem a-tingle.
Late August or early September, the stunning cicala is shrill,
And the bees keep their tiresome whine round the resinous firs on
Enough of the seasons,—I spare you the months of the fever and
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,
Or the Pulcinello-trumpet breaks, up the market beneath.
At the post-office such a scene-picture—the now play, piping hot!
And a notice how, only this morning, three liberal thieves twere
Above it behold the archbishop's most fatherly of rebukes,
And beneath, with his crown and his lion, some little new law of
Or a sonnet with flowery marge, to the Reverend Don So-and-so
Who is Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarca, Saint Jerome, and Cicero,
"And moreover," (the sonnet goes rhyming,) "the skirts of St. Pall
Having preached us those six Lent-lectures more unctuous than
ever be preached."
Noon strikes,—here sweeps the procession! our Lady borne smiling
With a pink gauze gown all spangles, and seven swords stuck in her
Bang, whang, whang goes the drum, tootle-te-tootle the
No keeping one's haunches still: it's the greatest pleasure in life.
But bless you, it's dear—it's dear! fowls, wine, at double the rate.
They have clapped a new tax upon salt, and what oil pays passing
It's a horror to think of. And so, the villa for me, not the city!
Beggars can scarcely be choosers: but still—ah, the pity, the pity!
Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks with cowls and
And the penitents dressed in white shirts, a-holding the yellow
One, he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with
And the Duke's guard brings up the rear, for the better prevention
Bang, whang, whang goes the drum, tootle-te-tootle the
Oh, a day in the city-square, there is no such pleasure in life!'
Notwithstanding that spirit of impatience to be felt in many of Mr.
Browning's pages, that tendency which we have admitted, to dart his
thoughts at us after the manner of these lines:—
'A shaft from the Devil's bow
Pierced to our ingle-glow,
And the friends were friend and foe!'
or, to spring a
mine of thought in a moment, thus:—
'Me do you leave aghast
With the memories we amassed?'
yet he has
given us poems in which the struggling forces have all blended in a
brooding calm. These are generally in blank verse, which does not
impose the difficulties of a more lyrical movement. One piece of
this quiet kind is a surpassingly beautiful picture of 'Andrea del Sarto '
and his wife; a twilight scene, full of the sweetest silvery greys.
It is twilight, too, in more senses than one. Twilight in the poor
painter's soul, whose love-longings bring him no rest; light up no evening
star large and luminous against the coming night. The poem is sweet
to sadness; the pathos of the painter's pleadings with the bold bad woman
whom he loved, and who dragged down his lifted arm, broke his loving
heart, is very touching. The evening hush, the twilight tone, the
slow musical speech, serve solemnly to lay bare the weary soul and wasted
life, and make clear the wreck lying below the surface, that is trying so
piteously to smile, with a cheery effort to love and labour on.
There is a stately calm in the poem called the 'Strange
Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician.' Karshish is on his
travels, picking up the crumbs of learning, and he makes a report of his
discoveries in a letter to his master, Abib, the 'all-sagacious' in
medical art. But the real object of emptying his wallet is not to
show the curious spider that 'weaves no web,' the 'blue-flowering borage,'
the Aleppo sort, more nitrous than theirs at home, the three 'samples of
true snake-stone,' or any other little rarities he may have found.
The secret truth is, he has met with one 'Lazarus, a Jew,' and he wishes
to report his case to the master; only, being ashamed and bewildered at
the hold which the man's story has taken upon his mind, he approaches the
subject in a stealthy way, and with windings truly oriental. Of
course the tale is despicable, still it were best to keep nothing back in
writing to the learned leech. He means only to allude to it in an
offhand manner; just skirt the edge of the subject; but it fascinates him,
and draws him into a whirling vortex of wild strange thoughts which he
'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.'
Such cases are diurnal, the master may reply. Not so 'this figment.'
For here is a man of healthy habit, much beyond the ordinary; he is
sanguine, proportioned, fifty years of age.
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?'
He points out the effect of this trance on the mind of Lazarus, and the
way in which he takes up his after-life. This grown man now looks on
the world with the eyes of a child. He is witless of the size, and
sum, and value of things. Wonder and doubt come into play at the
wrong time, 'preposterously at cross-purposes.'
'Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
Earth forced on a soul's use while seeing Heaven.
He holds on firmly to some thread of life
Which runs across some vast distracting orb
Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet—
The spiritual life around the earthly life!
The law of that is known to him as this—
His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
So is the man perplexed with impulses
Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on.
And oft the man's soul springs into his face
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage that bade him "Rise," and he did rise.'
He works hard at his daily trade, all the humbler for the exaltation that
made him the proud possessor of such a secret.
'Sayeth he will wait patient to the last
For that same death which will restore his being
Some of his friends led Lazarus into the physician's presence obedient as
a sheep. He did not listen except when spoken to; he folded his
hands and let them talk, watching the flies that buzzed. And yet no
fool, says Karshish, nor apathetic by nature.
'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 a while!
And must have so avouched himself, in fact,
In hearing of this very Lazarus.'
Of course, says Karshish, this is the raving of stark madness, and yet
here is a case before which science is dumb and made ashamed. What
is the fact in the presence of which he stands, and is touched with
'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 (lied for thee!"
The madman saith He said so; it is strange.'
The spell which this new fact, in the physician's experience, exercises on
his imagination, is most subtly and exquisitely portrayed. And
throughout, the character, so faithfully conceived, completely informs the
movement of the verse with its own spirit. We have no hurry, no
gasps of utterance, but a work perfect in manner as in matter, grave and
staid, the pauses answering to the pondering, and altogether fine in
expression as it is weighty in thought. This poem leads us up into
the highest range of Mr. Browning's poetic powers. He has the true
reverence for the Creator of all that beauty on which poetry is fed—the
clearest of all the seeing faculties—and recognises the Master of the
feast. His poetry, however, is not religious in a vague general way,
nor dry through being doctrinal: it is, as in 'Christmas Eve' and ' Easter
Day,' passionately alive with the most intense yearning for a personal
relationship. In many places we shall find the influence of the
unseen treated as a solemn verity—the dark disc of this life's orb edged
with a touch of light from the next. But in the last-mentioned poem the
mystery of the Incarnation is pondered and proclaimed in the most powerful
way. In a 'Death in the Desert,' there is a close grapple of
thought with the Subject of Subjects. No one can understand Mr.
Browning's poetry without having fully examined these two poems. The
casual reader may possibly set the 'Christmas Eve' down hastily as a
strange mixture of grave matter and gay manner; a religious subject
loosely treated with quips and cranks of irreverent rhyme. But this
would be a mistake. The author has a sardonic way of conveying
certain hints of the truth when no other way would be so effective.
In this poem we have a contrast such as furnished a hint of the true
grotesque in art. But it is the work of a man whose faith can afford
the freaks of fancy.
The 'Death in the Desert' is one of Mr. Browning's finest
poems; a very lofty and solemn strain of religious thought. It is
evident that he takes great interest in the stir of our time, the
obstinate questionings of doubt, which will yet make the flame of faith
burn up toward heaven more direct and clear than ever. And he says his say
emphatically on the side of belief. It is a poem for the profoundest
thinkers, and yet a dramatic creation of exceeding beauty. It
embodies the death of the beloved Apostle St. John in a cave of the
desert, where he has been hidden from the persecution. This chamber
in the rock, a nestling-place of coolness and shadow, outside of which is
the blinding white sand, the 'burning blue,' and the desert stillness, the
waking up from his last trance to utter his last warning words of
exhortation to the watchers listening round, are all rendered with
impressive power. The dying man rises and dilates, 'as on a wind of
prophecy,' whilst in solemn vision his spirit ranges forward into the
far-off time, when in many lands men will be saying, 'Did John live at
all? and did he say he saw the veritable Christ?' And, as he
grows more and more inspired, and the energy of his spirit appears to rend
itself almost free from the earthy conditions, the rigid strength of
thought, the inexorable logic, the unerring force of will, have all the
increased might that we sometimes see in the dying. We have no space
left to touch the argument, but we should greatly regret if the poem
failed to be made known far and wide. After M. Renan's 'Life of
Jesus,' and the prelections of the Strasbourg school of theological
thought, it should be welcome as it is worthy.
In the course of our explorations and explanations we have
shown something of the poet's range, which is the result of peculiarity as
well as of power. He carries along each line of the radius almost
the same thoroughness of conception and surprising novelty of treatment.
We have also shown that the obscurity is not always poetic incompleteness.
It sometimes arises from the dramatic conditions. In support of this
statement we may remind readers how much greater was the demand on their
patience when Mr. Tennyson cast his poem 'Maud' in a dramatic mould, than
with his previous poems. At other times it comes from the murky
atmosphere in which the poet has had to take some of his portraits in
mental photography; the mystery of the innermost life; the action of the
invisible, which can only be apprehended dimly through the veil. His
genius is flexible as it has been fertile. If he could have brought
it to bear in a more ordinary way by illuminating the book of life with
traits of our common human character, making the popular appeals to our
home affections,—if he could have revealed to the many those rich colours
in the common light of day, which have delighted the few in many a dark
nook of nature and desert-place of the past, he would have been hailed
long since as a true poet. His poetry is not to be dipped into or
skimmed lightly with swallow-flights of attention. Its pearls must
be dived for. It must be read, studied, and dwelt with for a while.
The difficulties which arise from novelty must be encountered; the poetry
must be thought over before its concentrated force is unfolded and its
subtler qualities can be fully felt. Coming fresh from a great deal
of our nineteenth-century poetry to that of Mr. Browning, we are in a new
world altogether, and one of the first things we are apt to do is to
regret the charms of the old. But the new land is well worth
exploring; it possesses treasures that will repay us richly. The
strangeness and its startling effects will gradually wear away, and there
will be a growth of permanent beauty. With all its peculiarities,
and all its faults, the poetry of Mr. Browning is thoroughly sanative,
masculine, bracing in its, influence. It breathes into modern verse
a breath of new life and more vigorous health, with its aroma of a
newly-turned and virgin soil.
There are plenty of poems for beginners. Simple lyrics like
the 'Cavalier Tunes,' brave ballads, and tender poems like 'Evelyn Hope,'
lead up to such fine romances as 'Count Gismond' and the 'Pied Piper;'
these again conduct the reader to a gallery of portraits in 'Men and
Women,' painted with the strength of Velasquez, the glow of Giorgione, or
the tenderness of Correggio. No one is forced to plunge into the
mysteries of 'Sordello' and get entangled there. Curiously enough,
the author in arranging his latest edition has printed this poem last; the
reader, if so minded, can reject it altogether. The mass of poems is
crowned, as we have stated, with noble religious poetry, most suggestive
and profound in thought, most Christian in feeling.
We conclude with the latter part of the 'Pied Piper of
Hamelin.' The Piper had agreed with the mayor and magistrates, for a
thousand guilders, to clear the town of rats, had accordingly by his music
enticed all the rats into the Weser, where they were drowned, and had been
contemptuously denied his stipulated reward; whereupon he proceeds to take
'Once more he stept into the street;
And to his lips again
Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane;
And ere he blew three notes (such sweet
Soft notes as yet musician's cunning
Never gave the enraptured air)
There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.
The Mayor was dumb, and the Council stood
As if they were changed into blocks of wood,
Unable to move a step or cry
To the children merrily skipping by—
And could only follow with the eye
That joyous crowd at the Piper's back.
But how the Mayor was on the rack,
And the wretched Council's bosoms beat,
As the Piper turned from the High Street
To where the Weser rolled its waters
Right in the way of their sons and daughters!
However, he turned from south to west,
And to Koppelberg Hill his steps addressed,
And after him the children pressed;
Great was the joy in every breast.
"He never can cross that mighty top!
"He's forced to let the piping drop,
"And we shall see our children stop!"
When, lo, as they reached the mountain side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! one was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say,
"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
"I can't forget that I'm bereft
"Of all the pleasant sights they see,
"Which the Piper also promised me.
"For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
"Joining the town and just at hand,
"Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
"And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
"And everything was strange and new;
"The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
"And their dogs outran our fallow door,
"And honey-bees had lost their stings,
"And horses were born with eagles' wings:
"And just as I became assured
"My lame foot would be speedily cured,
"The music stopped and I stood still,
"And found myself outside the Hill,
"Left alone against my will,
"To go now limping as before
"And never hear of that country more! "
Alas, alas for Hamelin!
There came into many a burgher's pate,
A text which says, that Heaven's Gate
Opes to the Rich at as easy rate
As the needle's eye takes a camel in!
The Mayor sent East, West, North, and South,
To offer the Piper, by word of month,
Wherever it was men's lot to find him,
Silver and gold to his heart's content,
If he'd only return the way he went,
And bring the children behind him.
But when they saw 't was a lost endeavour,
And Piper and dancers were gone for ever,
They made a decree that lawyers never
Should think their records dated duly
If, after the day of the month and year,
These words did not as well appear,
"And so long after what happened here
"On the Twenty-second of July,
"Thirteen hundred and seventy-six:"
And the better in memory to fix
The place of the children's last retreat,
They called it the Pied Piper's Street—
Where any one playing on pipe or tabor
Was sure for the future to lose his labour.
Nor suffered they hostelry or tavern
To shock with mirth a street so solemn;
But opposite the place of the cavern,
They wrote the story on a column,
And on the great Church-window painted
The same, to make the world acquainted
How their children were stolen away;
And there it stands to this very day.
And I must not omit to say,
That in Transylvania there's a tribe,
Of alien people that ascribe
The outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbours lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen
Out of some subterraneous prison
Into which they were trepanned
Long time ago in a mighty band
Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
But how or why they don't understand.'