Robert Browning's Poems

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THE READER

26 NOVEMBER, 1864

ROBERT BROWNING'S POETRY AND
THE EDINBURGH REVIEW.

To the Editor of T
HE READER.


SIR,—I was told some days ago that the Edinburgh Review had "come down a smasher on Robert Browning," and quite settled all our difficulties with regard to his poetry by assuring us that it could not survive (the attack, I presume) except as a curiosity and a puzzle.  Well, sir, we all like to know when a new Daniel has come to judgment, and I turned with some eagerness to the article; because, when any one gives a verdict so sweeping, he ought, at least, to show some unmistakable warrant for the authority.  I have now read the article, and been so excessively tickled that I should be greatly obliged if you would permit me to laugh aloud over it: it will do me a world of good.

    The writer opines that, if the shades of Jeffrey and of Gifford were to visit us, they would "feel a stern satisfaction, and a self-gratulatory delight, at the remembrance of the hard-handed castigations which they had inflicted on the young poets" of their time.  I have always understood that it was not Gifford who wrote the notorious review of Keats in the Quarterly.  But I never shall understand what satisfaction Jeffrey could possibly feel at the figure we all hold him to have cut, as he strutted backwards and forwards between the giant legs of Wordsworth, trying in vain to take his measure, and pertly proclaimed that the poet "would not do." Nor can I see what cause of self-gratulation those critics could have found in the complete reversal of their favourite verdicts, unless we may imagine them to have so deeply repented of their doings that they now rejoice because poetry has been saved from much of the mischief they meant.  But, passing on, we are soon entangled and tripped up by the numerous "whiches" of the article, and we were compelled to take note of the kind of writing whereby Mr. Browning is condemned so emphatically for his "obscurity," his bad English, &c.  At p. 543, we find this:—"As it is, as we observed, the most complete of Mr. Browning's productions and embodies a vital truth—although it costs an effort to extricate it from the obscurity of the text, "&c.  Now which it is it?  Or whose is the "obscurity," and the it?  Mr. Browning's or the Critic's?  At p. 544, we read—"Paracelsus was evidently written with some consideration for the public, and some fear of the critics before his eyes."  Whose eyes?  Paracelsus's?  The man never had the fear of any critic before his eyes; but, if he had, he did not write Mr. Browning's poem; besides which, he was not written if the poem was.  On the same page some one is said to have "arrived at a singular felicity."  Certainly, the Critic cannot be congratulated on having reached any such terminus in his peculiar mode of expression; for on this same page he says that Mr. Browning is "still sanguine enough to expect a wider public for 'Sordello' than it has yet received." How can a poem receive a public?  The public might receive a poem, open-mouthed, and then the epithet "wider" would be remarkably appropriate.  Indeed there is a slang expression—I do not know if Mr. Hotten has it —"Tip us a wide un!"  This maybe Mr. Browning's present prayer.  But that does not get rid of our difficulty.   Oh, I see it now!   The public would not receive the poem—that is well known—and so the poem is to receive the public.   Capital!

    At p. 515 we have the "story of a soul unravelled from the weeds which adhere to it"- which is very like one of Lord Castlereagh's famous illustrations.   If it had been a woman, we might have fancied widow's "weeds "were meant.  But it's a man—Sordello's soul that has to be unravelled.  Who shall unravel it?  But, first of all, we should like to know how weeds do adhere to a ravelled soul.  At p. 546 we read "the stage had not yet become the thing which it is now." Is it the thing now?  We had, fancied it was not—quite!

    At p. 547 the writer, in speaking of Mr. Browning's drama "Strafford,"says, "It was as complete a failure as was the 'Blot on the 'Scutcheon,' also produced some six years later."    Does he mean that "Strafford "was produced six years later than it was—or what does he mean? We learn on the same page that the "faculty of narration is necessary to a drama." We should have thought it was necessary to a dramatist—if either required it.  Merely for the sake of information, I ask how does a play "omit," p. 551, and how does an "estimate omit to take notice of," p. 553.  Again, what are we to make of this account of the "Flight of the Duchess "—"The mother of the duke, the dowager duchess, who was part of the torment of the young duchess's life, painted, and the teller of the tale, with some pretence of squeamishness."  That beats Quin's celebrated puzzle-story altogether. And I am not misquoting in the least.

    At p. 555 the critic says of "Saul," "the poem has fulfilled its promise more completely than any other of the volumes"!  What volumes?  "Saul" is not a volume, but a lyric poem of a few pages!

    Thus much for the use of language.  I will only add one sample of the criticism.  The writer considers that the "Ride to Aix" has a fatal defect.  "For example, if 'Dirck' is 'ho' in the first line, why should he not be 'he' in the second?" The reader will remember how they run:—

"I sprang to the stirrup, and Jorris, and he;
   I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three."

    It is of no use, asking such a writer what he means.  But does the reader perceive anything wrong?  "He" of the first line is the "Dirck" of the second.  What more do we want?  The Critic also asks, "Why did not Roland's rider put his riding-gear in good order before starting?"  Simply because he saddled in too much haste, and Mr. Browning tells of this haste by action—his chief way of indicating.

    Perhaps the last page of the article is the most exquisite of all.  The Critic "arrives" at this "felicity." "Mr. Browning, in truth, more nearly resembles the American writers Emerson, Wendell Holmes, and Bigelow than any poet of our country." Mr. Browning does not resemble any writer whatever—Emerson included.  To say he resembles Holmes is about equal to a comparison betwixt Mr. Carlyle and Tow Moore.  But who is "Bigelow"?  I have searched Allibone's Dictionary, which contains 30,000 authors' names, chiefly American, and find no such writer.  There was a William "Biglow," but there is no Bigelow.  Surely it cannot be our old friend "Hosea"?  Is it, can it be, an obscure allusion to the "Biglow Papers," written by James Russell Lowell? If so, which are we to understand that Mr. Browning is like—"Hosea "or "Lowell"?

    Should it be Hosea, then we touch firm ground at last.  Next to knowing what a thing is, we are glad to know what it is like.  Here is a graphic sketch of "Hosea" himself, in a state of inspiration.  It is done by Ezekiel Biglow, father of the poet.

    "Hosea he come home considerabal riled, and arter I'd gone to Bed I heern Him a threshin round like a short-tailed Bull in fli-time.  The old Woman, ses she to me, ses she, Zekle, ses she, our Hosee's gut the chollery or suthin anuther, ses she.  Don't you Bee skeered, ses I; he's oney amakin' pottery ses i; and shure enuf cum mornin', Hosy he cum down stares full chizzle, hare on eend and cote tales flyin' "!

    Is that Mr. Browning's likeness according to the Edinburgh Review?  To be serious, however, the position of Mr. Browning in our literature and the worth of his poetry are not yet determined.  The controversy is not yet closed.  But the subject is of sufficient importance that any one who proclaims an opinion should at least prove his ability to form one, and his right to possess it.  He who so loudly attacks another's writing, on account of its obscurity ought to be clear in his own.  A critic of poetry should show some genuine insight, some faculty for fathoming and interpreting some true and vital touch in expression, more especially when the poet is a man of great genius and vast intellectual vigour.  Most especially where the genius is so peculiar in the manner of working; working often with a pre-Raphaelite minuteness in subjects that lie so far remote from ordinary experience, and so unlike anything we have hitherto become, acquainted with.  But let any one read that article in the Edinburgh and tell me if they call find any, the smallest sign of faculty or fitness for reviewing such a poet, or any literary merit whatever.  Its tawdry twaddle is an insult to the earnest students of a subject so surprisingly novel.  The writer positively cannot write English.  He is continually making a mystery of his being in a mist!  We could point to various proofs of his total ignorance of what he professes to write about.  One in his notice of the "Ride to Aix," another in his account of the death of the "Duchess." The duke's "austerity and pride" did not kill the lady: the poem tells us that he "gave commands; then "all smiles ceased"! A third in a remark on "Fra Lippo Lippi"—to wit, "No other writer could have conceived so strange a character"! Apparently he does not know that there once lived just such a man.  Then Mr. Tennyson's poem, "St. Simeon Stylites," he calls "St. Simon Stylites," and makes the "Bigelow"blunder we have referred to.  When Jeffrey exhibited his incapacity for gauging Wordsworth he did it in plain English. And, if he is aware of such writing as this being in the Edinburgh, I fancy he will feel a "stern satisfaction," a "self-gratulatory delight," at being out of it!  It has been said that the first motto proposed for the Edinburgh was, "We cultivate literature upon a little oatmeal;" but, if this criticism of Mr. Browning's poetry be a fair sample of the Review, its latest motto might be, "We cultivate literature upon a great deal of shoddy"!

    Mr Browning may very fairly retort on some of his critics, who complain that they do not understand him. "I cannot supply you with understanding.  I give you poetry, and cannot give you brains! nor am I compelled to chew the poetic pabulum for such as may be in a state of mumbling intellectual toothlessness."—Yours, &c.,

GERALD MASSEY.

 



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