New Lights on Browning

IN 1864 an Atlantic reviewer of Browning’s Dramatis Personæ remarked that casual perusers of his work were like “vagrants in a gallery, who long for a catalogue, dislocate their necks, and anathematize the whole collection.” In the twoscore years that have passed since that utterance the desires of those who wished for catalogues of the Browning collection have been amply gratified. The poet has been compassed murkily about by ravage of his commentators, and a coeval gloom has invaded the breasts of many of his true lovers. There has been dire need of some dolorous and jarring blast, but nothing of the sort has been forthcoming. Walter Bagehot, Sir Leslie Stephen, and one or two others have written wisely and excellently of Browning, but their voices have availed little against the din of those whose criticism is “fainter, flushier,and flightier. ” Even some hard-headed and capable men of letters have been unable to withstand the contagion of the Browning jargon, and have written after the manner. In respect to strict biography, indeed. Browning has not been particularly unfortunate. Mrs. Qrr’s elaborate Life is well enough, and although many persons have published their recollections of him, and his own son has posted his love-letters in the market-place, he has been spared much of the tasteless biography, which, in the delicate phrase of Mr. Swinburne, enables the numerous multitude to “spy, smirk, sniff, snap, snort, snivel, snarl, and sneer.” Yet the classical life is still to be written.

The recent volumes about Browning by Mr. Brooke and Mr. Chesterton are out of the ordinary run of “Browning Literature,” critical and biographical. Each throws its ray of new light across the gloom, yet each, despite its marked individuality, shows curiously Browning’s way of disturbing his critic’s poise. Taken together, in connection with Dr. Gould’s admirable piece of quasi-medical biography, they make an edifying exhibition of critical tumbling.

Mr. Stopford Brooke, one of the most learned and genial of writers upon English Literature and the author of a noble study of Tennyson, has brought a ripened enthusiasm to his treatment of Browning. Yet even Mr. Brooke’s sturdy intellectual frame could not quite resist the Browning bacillus, and we have him here writing in a high-erected vein which not seldom reaches to tall talk and highfalutin. The texture of the book is largely of such terse and lucid pronouncements as this : “The first woman we meet in Browning’s poetry is Pauline ; a twofold person, exceedingly unlike the woman usually made by a young poet. She is not only the Pauline idealized and also materialized by the selfish passion of her lover, but also the real woman whom Browning has conceived underneath the lover’s image of her.”

Perhaps the best chapter in Mr. Brooke’s book is that in which he writes of Browning’s strangely un-Tennysonian treatment of Nature, with its comparative freedom from the “pathetic fallacy, ” and its singular fusion of a kind of primitive dualism with enlightened views on the descent of man; yet even in this chapter his hand is so — can we say — subdued to the stuff it works in, that he is capable of making Nature smile mockingly and whisper in Browning’s ear, “ Thou shalt pursue me always, but never find my secret, never grasp my streaming hair! ” It cannot be said that the image of the portly poet straining every nerve to seize Nature by the hair is particularly pleasing.

In short, Mr. Brooke’s treatise is more remarkable for glowing rhapsody than for lucid discrimination; yet, as we shall see more clearly as we go on, it has been composed with an eye always on the book, and it is so rich with Browning’s purple that for one who does not mind the extravagance it is extremely good reading. How resplendent, .for example, is the prose-poem on Browning’s color sense: —

“Again no one can help observing in all those quotations the extraordinary love of color, a love Tennyson has in far fainter measure, but which Browning seems to possess more than any other English poet. Only Sir Walter Scott approaches him in this. Scott, knowing the Highlands, knew dark magnificence of color. But Browning’s love of color arose from his having lived so long in Italy, where the light is so pure, clear, and brilliant, that color is more intense, and at dawn and sunset more deep, delicate, and various than it is in our land. Sometimes, as Ruskin said, it is not color, it is a conflagration; but wherever it is, in the bell of a flower, on the edge of a cloud, on the back of a lizard, on the veins of a lichen, it strikes in Browning’s verse at our eyes, and he only in English poetry has joy enough in it to be its full interpreter.

“He sees the wild tulip blow out its great red bell; he sees the thin clear bubble of blood at its tip; he sees the spike of gold which burns deep in the bluebell’s womb; the corals that, like lamps, disperse thick red flame through the dusk green universe of the ocean; the lakes which, when the morn breaks, —

‘ Blaze like wyvern flying round the sun ; ’

the woodland brake whose withered fern dawn feeds with gold; the moon carried off at sunrise in purple fire; the larch blooms, crisp and pink; the sanguine heart of the pomegranate; the filberts russet-sheathed and velvet-capped; the poppies crimson to blackness; the red fan of the butterfly falling on the rock like a drop of fire from a brandished torch; the star-fish, jacynth to the finger tips ; and a hundred other passionate seizures of color.”

There are many such passionate seizures in Mr. Brooke’s treatise, and they serve to disguise its essentially academic character pretty effectually. Yet academic it is, both in its merits and in its shortcomings; in its close and complete following of the text as in its curious lack of detachment of mind, — its singular Browning obsession, which even Mr. Brooke’s several set attempts at finding fault with his author do not avail to throw off. Mr. Chesterton, on the other hand, is, for better or for worse, quite other than academic; there is nothing to indicate that he has been so fond as to read Browning through more than once, and his detachment of mind is prodigious. Where Mr. Brooke is “academic,” Mr. Chesterton is “journalistic;” where Mr. Brooke is rhapsodical, Mr. Chesterton is flippant. Yet passing from one book to the other is like coming out of Plato’s idol-shadowed cave to daylight and fresh air. But it is precisely Mr. Chesterton’s vigorous liveliness that makes his flippancies of attitude and method so lamentable. Often in reading his Browning one longs to revert to the language of that blessed age when literary controversy was still good manners and a wholesome exercise, —to style him roundly an “Itinerant Paradoxer, ” and so have done with the matter. But with all its faults as biography, the book is too vital to be so airily dismissed without laying one’s self open to that most dangerous of dialectical thrusts, the tu quoque. It phrases certain true things about Browning better than they have been phrased before, while it shows unmistakably the direction of the prevailing literary wind.

The reader who wants detail, whether of biography or of criticism, must look in other books than Mr. Chesterton’s. His method has been to grasp Browning’s temperament — which is the real theme of his book — by the genial act of excogitation, pen in hand, rather than by any patient piecing of detail. He is never able to resist the temptation to preach to us, and the first third of his book is made up of a succession of homilies on the conduct of temperament, bound together into something resembling unity by an occasional allusion to Browning. Yet it is curious to note that with all his assertive independence, Mr. Chesterton, like Mr. Brooke, has his try at tall and unbridled talk. He tells us categorically that Browning had “ the greatest brain with the most simple temperament known in our annals,” that he “stands among the few poets who hardly wrote a line of anything else ” — than poetry! that at a certain time in his life he was “delineating in great epics the beauty and horror of the romance of Southern Europe; ” that Pippa Passes is “ the greatest poem ever written, with the exception of one or two by Walt Whitman, to express the sentiment of the pure love of humanity. ” If this be speaking by the card, surely it were better to be undone by equivocation.

Mr. Chesterton’s main thesis is the essential simplicity, the healthy primitiveness of Browning’s temperament. On this point he has much to say that is both wholesome and fresh. Two passages, one about personality, one about poetry, will afford a taste of his quality:

“He pictured all the passions of the earth since the fall, from the devouring amorousness of Time’s Revenges to the despotic fantasy of Installs Tyrannus; but he remained himself an Englishman of the middle class. The moment that he came in contact with anything that was slovenly, anything that was lawless, in actual life, something rose up in him, older than any opinions, the blood of generations of good men. He met George Sand and her poetical circle and hated it with all the hatred of an old city merchant for the irresponsible life. He met the Spiritualists and hated them with all the hatred of the middle class for borderlands and equivocal positions and playing with fire. His intellect went upon bewildering voyages, but his soul walked in a straight road. He piled up the fantastic towers of his imagination until they eclipsed the planets ; but the plan of the foundation on which he built was always the plan of an honest English house in Camberwell. He abandoned, with a ceaseless intellectual ambition, every one of the convictions of his class; but he carried its prejudices into eternity.”

“Poetry ” — and this is said particularly of Browning’s poetry— “deals with primal and conventional things — the hunger for bread, the love of woman, the love of children, the desire for immortal life. If men really had new sentiments, poetry could not deal with them. If, let us say, a man did not feel a bitter craving to eat bread, but did, by way of substitute, feel a fresh original craving to eat brass fenders or mahogany tables, poetry could not express him. If a man, instead of falling in love with a woman, fell in love with a fossil or a sea-anemone, poetry could not express him. Poetry can only express what is original in one sense, —the sense in which we speak of original sin. It is original not in the paltry sense of being new, but in the deeper sense of being old; it is original in the sense that it deals with origins.”

This is gay and sprightly writing, but, somehow, it lacks the sure accent of lucid truth. Unless we define “ simplicity of temperament ” as mere insular prejudice, it is not easy for the plain man to see just how it coexists with an intellect which goes on bewildering voyages, and with an imagination which piles up fantastic towers to eclipse the planets. There was, to be sure, a certain coherence in Browning’s moods. He was not subject to the vagaries and perturbations which are doubtless the affliction of the complex temperament; but a reading of Dr. Gould’s essay, with its irrefragable scientific analysis singularly humanized by a keen sense of Browning’s poetic quality, would have shown Mr. Chesterton that Browning, with his shrewd, recurrent headaches, his fidgetiness, his complete nervous exhaustion each summer, was no such healthy, primitive animal intelligence as he maintains. Nor is poetry — even Browning’s poetry — so simple and primitive an affair as the confiding reader might suppose. There is a large body of excellent poetical reading which deals with secondary and modern desires, and there have been poems which have treated poetically desires even less “primal, ” if perhaps less conspicuous, than the craving to eat brass fenders.

Mr. Chesterton is too nimble a wrestler to afford one any good hold upon him, but what he has to say of Fifine at the Fair may serve as a point of issue. This “soliloquy of an epicurean who seeks half playfully to justify upon moral grounds an infidelity into which he afterwards actually falls ” contains, says Mr. Chesterton, plenty of casuistry but no trace of cynicism. “It is difficult, ” he remarks, reverting to his definition of cynicism as that attitude of mind which sees good in nobody, “ to understand what particular connection there is between seeing good in nobody and seeing good even in a sensual fool.” To this one may object that the husband of Elvire was not precisely “a sensual fool, ” that, whatever he was, he is portrayed by Browning with something more than intellectual comprehension, and, finally, that it is not easy to conceive the casuistical mood, here seen in its intensity, without some corresponding involution of temperament.

In the main, Mr. Chesterton’s literary criticism is a matter, not so much of strictly ordered, compelling thought, as of the lively phrase, for ideas already well established. Nothing could be better than his distinction of the “hot wit ” of Browning and Donne from the “ cold wit ” of the age of Pope; and there are many such felicities. Browning’s curious vitality and emotional psychology, his love for passionate crises and tragic turnings, is excellently expounded by Mr. Chesterton in what he has to say of “the doctrine of the great hour, ” and his description of the source of power in The Ring and the Book — Browning’s deep sense of the “absolute sanctity of human difference ” — is remarkably good. Of Browning and his fellows he says: “Significance is to them a wild thing that may leap upon them from any hiding place. They have all become terribly impressed with, and a little bit alarmed at, the mysterious powers of small things. Their difference from the old epic poets is the whole difference between an age that fought with dragons and an age that fights with microbes. ”

Despite the novelty of Mr. Chesterton’s phrasing and dialectical manœuvres, his general verdict upon Browning is pretty much in accord with the opinions of the best exoteric critics. This is especially noticeable in his chapter upon Browning as a Literary Artist, where, with a fine air of discovery, he points out how Browning uses the grotesque as his chief poetic medium, gracefully abstaining from any mention of Mr. Bagehot, who, in his remarkable essay on Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art, made many similar observations. Here, however, one must speak carefully. “The truth about Browning, ” says Mr. Chesterton in his modest way, “is not that he was indifferent to technical beauty, but that he invented a particular kind of technical beauty to which any one else is free to be as indifferent as he chooses. ” Is this indeed the truth about Browning, or is it a kind of bull ? A man can invent a technique perhaps, but can he invent “technical beauty ” ? He may sometimes attain it, but can he invent it ? It is quite true, as Mr. Chesterton observes, that Browning was a great hand at inventing metrical forms; it is equally true that his creative mood was usually so deep and vital that a noble structure and formal unity underlies most of his poems, but to the “form ” that eternalizes he rarely attained. He had a style, but not style. His writing had life and tang, but a man who talks prose may have these virtues. It is hard to believe that his welded mass of queer words will ever be

“ Approved beyond the Roman panoply
Melted to make it.”

If, as Ben Jonson sturdily observed, “Donne for not keeping of accent deserved hanging, ” to what capital punishment is Robert Browning liable! In short, Mr. Chesterton’s claim of poetic permanence for Browning’s art on the score of his serious use of the grotesque is not an end of the matter. For many readers in his own age the charm of Browning’s very preposterousness was invincible. But half the charm was the charm of surprise, and it is not easy to surprise successive ages, or the same reader twice. He has, indeed, one pervasive charm which has been but slightly noted, a power over the poetic atmosphere of strange and recondite beauty, a gift of conveying

“ Faint sweetness from some old
Egyptian’s fine, worm-eaten shroud ; ”

he has this strange sweetness, he has his grotesque vigor, and his amazing metrical triumphs, but how rarely does he reach the crystalline phrase, or the golden glory of those beautiful words, which are, as a prince of critics said long ago, “in deed and in fact the very life of the spirit.” Yet such imperishable beauty is to be found in some of Browning’s poems. It is a safe guess that it is not by his grotesque poems that he will be longest remembered, but rather by such perfect pieces as Evelyn Hope and the Lyrics, in which his ruggedness was subdued to a stricter beauty; in which profound feeling is seen to be not inconsistent with purity of line,, sweetness of tone, and a fine reserve, telling of the depth more than of the tumult of the soul.

Yet though Mr. Chesterton is disposed to assign what seems to the writer an undue artistic validity to Browning’s grotesquerie, he is by no means blind to the disadvantages of the contorted manner. Once, even, his turn for paradox leads him rather inconsistently to style his poet “simply a great demagogue with an impediment in his speech.” He is so alive to that “insane swiftness ” which is the chief superficial trait of Browning’s style that he can parody it admirably; as in the incident of the man being knocked downstairs: —

“ What then ? ‘ You lie ’ and doormat below stairs
Takes bump from back.”

That insane swiftness — though Mr. Chesterton, like more pious Browningites, passes it casually — is “ the truth about Browning; ” and despite all assertions to the contrary there are many who will forever find it hard to believe that this was not a matter of creative mood as well as of narrative effect. He was — and is — in a certain sense a woman’s writer, Euripidean, never quite masculine in his literary conscience, never very careful for ce lendemain sévère, that stern to-morrow, with which, as Sainte-Beuve said, the great artist must reckon. Mr. Chesterton is doubtless quite correct in observing at the conclusion of his book that the voice which comes forth from Browning’s vast assemblage of copious and casuistical apologists is “ the voice of God, uttering his everlasting soliloquy, ” but the remark is no truer of Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau than of Proverbial Philosophy or of the Course of Time.

F. G.
  1. The Poetry of Robert Browning. By STOPFORD BROOKE, M. A. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co. 1902.
  2. Robert Browning. By G. K. CHESTERTON. (English Men of Letters.) New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903.
  3. Biographic Clinics. The origin of the illhealth of De Quincey, Carlyle, Darwin, Huxley, and Browning. By GEORGE M. GOULD. Philadelphia : P. Blakiston’s Sons & Co. 1903.