Robert Browning

THE death of Browning is an event which makes ns reflect, almost involuntarily, upon the character of the literature in which our century has left the most permanent record of its spiritual life, and upon the extent and value of his contribution to it. The period in which his own life lay has plainly run its course. The romantic movement, it is true, beginning with the revival of the imagination, at the close of the last century. may not yet be at an end; the strong infusion of the realistic spirit at present so noticeable, though it has something of reaction in it, may prove to be only a subsidiary element reinforcing with vigor and body the larger and controlling influence; at least it may be said with entire truth that the romantic movement will fail of perfect achievement unless it shall bring forth a literature of the pure ideal, positive in matter and beautiful in form beyond the reach of any that has gone before. Browning’s death does not necessarily denote the end of a great literary age, but only the conclusion of its middle stage, as Shelley marks the point where its first period ceased. Within the limits of his own time, however, his work has a unity and wholeness of meaning which may be separately considered, and which reflects the temperament and convictions of his contemporaries in a way to give his poetry permanent value in itself, apart from its worth as pure literature. It is this expression of the age through him which his death naturally recalls to mind, and which may be attended to both for our own profit and as a mark of respect to his memory ; and such a treatment of his work places it in the light most favorable to his fame.

There are two ways in which a poet may succeed. He may create beauty which affords pleasure by contemplation, or he may embody thought which is prized by the mind in search of truth. In the great poets, those of the first rank, these two ways are made one; in others they may both be used, but one is preferred. Browning depends less upon art than matter; and his individuality seems to be more directly and effectively active because the universal element in art solves personality and merges it in expression as matter does not. Browning’s original force suffers no transformation, but is felt in its primitive energy in all his poems. This strong personal accent, this excess of individuality, is a trait of the age. In Carlyle or Ruskin, in the most characteristic prose style of the period generally, it is the distinguishing mark. Cardinal Newman and Tennyson stand almost alone among the great writers in their freedom from eccentricity in manner. Bat in none has self-assertion gone to the length that is allowed to it in Browning’s genius. Usually such independence is a fatal weakness ; but Browning was, fortunately, great enough and sufficiently gifted with wisdom, arrived at by following his own paths, to make his individuality not merely interesting, but really enlightening. He requires us, indeed, to submit to his own dialect and method ; but when the concession is made, and the reader capitulates on the poet’s terms, he has both charm and value, and he gains besides credit for originality. His art in his own manner is not the best, but it is striking and effective. He expresses himself in it as well as through it, and it is to be accepted with all its defects, or else we are repelled to our loss. One who values his own personal force so much, and insists on differing from the type of clear mind and immediate expression in literature, may be expected to place a disproportionate estimate on individuality in other men. Thence it comes that Browning is not only whimsical, eccentric, and self-asserting himself, but deals in his poetry largely with the exceptional and abnormal in others. The distortions of character which error in life or thought produces have a peculiar attraction for him. He loves the grotesque; he almost patronizes the morally maimed and halt and blind; he assumes the self-justification of the depraved, the deluded, the palterer with right and wrong. Individuality, however brought about, is dear to him, and he knows its efficiency as a source of those picturesque, and intense, and gross sensations of which the modern taste is fond. One finds in him, in its fullness, that dispersion of interest in the concrete variety of human nature which has been so powerfully fostered by the novel. To him, truly, all the world is a stage, and one on which no single drama has imposed even a temporary unity. His art does not present a scene, but a gallery. Any unity it may have belongs not to his figures, but to his thought about them, to his philosophy of life.

He comes in touch with the age, again, in the general impression which is made by human life as it appears in his pages. He is, it is true, an optimist, like the bulk of his contemporaries; but there has always been a vein of pessimism in human thought, and in our time it runs through all literature, easily to be discerned. In no period, probably, of the world’s history has such a multitude of men been engaged in individual and self-directed effort to better themselves ; hope has been high in many breasts, and the reaction of experience upon it has been profound, and is expressed in a widespread sense of incomplete results. In men of larger mind and sympathy, too, the spectacle of the people has bred a sensitiveness to the pity and sorrow of life in general, and an understanding that responsibility for it is often but slight in those who suffer from it. The sense of failure in life permeates our literature. It underlies the most elevated and consistent philosophical poem of the age in the Idylls of the King. It is felt throughout Browning’s work. He depicts the thing and the mood repeatedly, and his mind dwells upon them. In that poem which most, perfectly expresses his mature conviction about life, Rabbi Ben Ezra, he philosophizes upon it; and there he retreats to the ground whither the mass of men retire, — the sense that the soul is more than its work; that the impulse, the aspiration, the noble effort, denote an excellence in men themselves, and afford both consolation and renewed promise which they may vainly seek in anything actually accomplished. This intense consciousness of undeveloped life, obstructed in its manifestations, is the complement in his philosophy to that sense of failure from which neither he nor any true thinker since Judæa and Athens took the helm of man’s destiny can ever escape. “ All I could never be, that I was worth to God,” — so runs the formula of faith by which the optimist, relying on his own consciousness, defends himself from the pessimism as inherent in experience as the stain in blood. Browning, in illustrating the failure in other lives, by crime, by ignorance, by circumstance, and in ever-renewed expression of his faith in the soul in spite of all, has taken up into his work elements that lie deep and broad in the minds of his generation.

This naturally suggests another strong bond between the poet and his readers. He has gained hold of their more intimate spiritual life by the simplification he has made of religion. The thought of a church grows by accretion, and in time the body of doctrine becomes in part superfluous, in part burdensome; it exceeds the capacity of its disciples, and disturbs them with a sense of doubt or of incomplete belief; and from time to time some one arises in the church who grows to be the head of a schism or the leader of a revival by merely limiting the range of religious interest and intensifying truth within that range. Especially has this been observable when some one has merely declared the fundamental truth of religion in its simplest form, — of the light that lighteth every one who cometh into the world, and of the inwardness of the kingdom of heaven. Browning has, in effect, been one of these simple believers, and he owes no small part of his real influence and nearness to many lives to this fervent belief in the voice and the light within, the intuition of the soul, the piety of simple reverence and trust, the faith in the “ one divine event ” of all. Outside of the church this preaching has been a compensation for professed religion, and within it a strengthening and vivifying energy, helping the soul to a real and self - conscious religious life. In fact, Browning himself, living in the midst of the modern age, seems to have clung to his belief with the greater persistence, and to have expressed it the more loudly. He often states it as the one thing which is of most importance. It lies at the very base of his system ; for without it the mystery of the soul’s salvation, the issue of its struggle with evil and its frequent defeat, the whole validity of its high impulse and inspired vision, would be left in chaotic and dismaying confusion, the more fearful because of the gleams, seemingly leading to another world, which flash over the field. This religious faith gives law to the struggle of life in his poems, lends them their ethical power, and secures for them that ground of repose necessary to every work of art.

The energy of action in Browning’s work has also counted for much in the appeal to his contemporaries. Energy tells at all times, but in a century remarkable for its vigor, in ceaseless unrest, seeking outlets for its life in every direction, excited by its more constant and direct consciousness of its daily life throughout the world and also better acquainted with the history of the past, filled with great popular movements and wide-reaching philanthropy and sympathy, a poet who infuses his work with vitality and seems to prize it for its own sake breathes the air of the times. It is said that the purest artistic pleasure lies in contemplation ; in action there is pleasure of another kind, more strenuous. A poet who sets forth the energy of life appeals to this latter sensibility, aroused through sympathy with the doing of a deed, rather than to the former, which involves disinterestedness and disengagement of the mind. Browning himself, in many exculpatory verses, sets forth his claim to the virtue of strength ; he is ever praising force for its own sake, in the vein of Carlyle ; he likes to exhibit it in others at its highest pitch. Our own age sympathizes with this spirit, and finds it more native to itself than the mood of contemplation, which is the condition of a more ideal art. Browning, however, has reinforced even this powerful attraction by presenting life, not only with great vital force, but upon the broadest scale. He works in the whole field of history, brings his reading in forgotten hooks to bear, and crowds the stage with a marvelously diverse gathering of great and obscure men, of artists and musicians, of Jew, Arab, and Greek, of real and imaginary characters ; and thus he has satisfied the intelligent curiosity of his readers, playing on the past of the race’s history, and seeking to reconstruct it. He has dealt with the life of man in this varied way, in all ages, in all moods of the mind, and has added to his observation a mass of reflection which keeps curiosity itself alive and supports it. He is possibly as much obliged to the intellect of his readers, to their appetite for knowledge, as to their poetical sense, in a large portion of his writings.

These are some of the more obvious grounds upon which Browning may be held to reflect his time. But it is not enough that a poet should be representative. There remains the question as to the mode in which he has expressed himself, the degree of power with which he has wrought his material into poetry. It must be held to be true that he has written no long poem which can be put in the first rank; it would probably be acknowledged by the majority that none of his work on a great scale is likely to retain permanent interest. The Ring and the Book may be granted to prove great intellectual power ; but it lies in the region of argument and subtlety ; poetically it fails, and belongs with the other “ leviathans ” on the shelves of literature. It lacks, for one thing, a great action ; and, secondly, it is deficient in universal human interest, in sympathetic and moral power; it appeals to the intellect, and is great by reason of other qualities than go distinctively with poetical genius. Of the remaining long poems, there is not one that can be seriously brought forward for the suffrage of immortality. They are prolix, or gnarled, or whimsical, and their fate is to lie unread. The dramas stand in a class by themselves ; they are more excellent than the long poems in art, more lucid and smooth, more to the point sought for, and often touched in parts with sentiment and grace, with passion elsewhere, and characterized in general by a poetical handling. Yet as dramas they do not succeed in reaching the mark. They are not great art, nor are they especially interesting in matter. They too must yield precedence to the dramatic lyrics and romances in which Browning’s genius achieved most nearly artistic form, and submitted to the laws without which fine construction and free expression are impossible. In the best of them, the success is well-nigh perfect; they captivate at once, and allow no question of their excellence and the right they have to be reckoned with the treasures of English verse. Their variety, too, is marked, and they do not suffer in originality from obeying the requirements of art. Out of the shorter poems, though a considerable proportion are as much flawed and distorted as are the longer ones, many occur to the mind at once to justify the decision already popularly made with regard to Browning’s lyrical and dramatic power when exercised within a certain limit.

Criticism beyond this is now superfluous. The qualities of his poetry in detail have been often set forth, and praise and blame bestowed with an equally liberal hand. If we seem to restrict narrowly the amount of his work which will live, we do not forget the impression that must be made upon the future, as upon his own time, by the entire mass of writings. They insure by their mere bulk and the labor they represent the remembrance of him as a genius of high productiveness. They illustrate the great compass of his culture, his scholarship, his varied tastes and interests, and give a knowledge of his life which is not to be gained by acquaintance with only his best. The fecundity and grasp of his mind, his intelligence as distinguished from his genius, are not to be known except by reading a large portion of what is not valuable on other grounds. His culture was vital, and entered into his life and blended with it. One feels the more, as he becomes familiar with the poet’s entire work, that he truly put his own life into it; and this not merely for the pleasure of the world, or from literary ambition, but in order that he might be serviceable to men. He desired that his life and its energy should be felt as an influence in others, and be helpful to them in the most important and difficult portion of their lives. This has aided in winning for him close study of his meaning for other than poetical purposes, and has made him an acknowledged master in spiritual matters. It now swells his fame ; but it belongs to contemporaries to make more of the matter of a poet than of his form, and to overvalue his special and close relation to themselves ; the new writers displace the old when only matter is at stake; form, and that alone, preserves literature from decay. The poet is at last remembered as one of his time, be it longer or shorter; his volumes are treasured in the history of literature; but his immortality contracts its life within the limits of that perfect work which is for all time.

The prevalent opinion even now is that Browning, notwithstanding the rare intellectual power which enriches much of his inferior work, will suffer very seriously from his defective art. Nevertheless, he must rank as the most powerful realist in the representation of human life who has appeared in England since Shakespeare. He also possessed a lyrical gift which, in its best expression, entitles him to a place only below the first. He had, too, a peculiar felicity in rendering mysticism, in giving form to vague feeling, and in expressing the moods of indefinite suggestion that music awakens. He had an estate in the borderland of thought and feeling, on the confines of our knowledge, in the places that look to the promised land. This faculty yielded to him a few characteristic and original poems, in which there is a kind of exaltation at times, and at times of sorcery. The fascination in these, together with his dramatic realism and his lyrical movement, constitute his power as a poet, apart from all consideration of what he said. They do not place him among the few supreme poets of his country.

It was fortunate that long life was given him, so that he made the most of his gifts. The romantic movement thus found in him one of its most original and striking products, and gained by his strong sense of reality and his wideranging intellect. It completes in him and in Tennyson its second stage of development.