|Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp||ROBERT BROWNING
ON the night of Browning's death a new star suddenly appeared in Orion. The coincidence is suggestive if we like to indulge in the fancy that in that constellation---
gleam those other "abodes where the Immortals are." Certainly, a wandering fire has passed away from us. Is the flame of genius quenched by death, or does it burn elsewhere? Does it live still in the myriad conflagrations it has litten ?
Such questions cannot meanwhile be solved. Our eyes are still confused with the light, with that ardent flame, as we knew it here. But this we know, it was indeed" a central fire descending upon many altars." These, though touched with but a spark of the immortal principle, bear enduring testimony. And what testimony ! How heartfelt : happily also how widespread, how stimulative!
But the time must come when the poet's personality will have the remoteness of tradition: when our perplexed judgments will be as a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is impossible for any student of literature, for any interested reader, not to indulge in some forecast as to what rank in the poetic hierarchy Robert Browning will ultimately occupy. The commonplace as to the impossibility of prognosticating the ultimate slow decadence, or slower rise, or, it may be, sustained suspension, of a poet's fame, is often insincere, and but an excuse of indolence. To dogmatise were the height of presumption as well as of folly : but to forego speculation, based upon complete present knowledge, for an idle contentment with narrow horizons, were perhaps foolisher still. But assuredly each must perforce be content with his own prevision. None can answer yet for the generality, whose decisive franchise will elect a fit arbiter in due time.
When Browning's enormous influence upon the spiritual and mental life of our day---an influence ever shaping itself to wise and beautiful issues---shall have lost much of its immediate import, there surely always will be discerned in his work a formative energy whose resultant is pure poetic gain. It is as the poet he will live : not merely as the "novel thinker in verse." Logically, his attitude as "thinker" is unimpressive; it is the attitude, as I think some one has pointed out, of acquiescence with codified morality. In one of his Causeries, the keen French critic Sainte-Beuve has a remark upon the great Bossuet, which may with singular aptness be repeated of Browning: "His is the Hebrew genius extended, fecundated by Christianity, and open to all the acquisitions of the understanding, but retaining some degree of sovereign interdiction, and closing its vast horizon precisely where its light ceases." Browning cannot, or will not, face the problem of the future except from the basis of assured continuity of individual existence. He is so much in love with life, for life's sake, that he cannot even credit the possibility of incontinuity ; his assurance of eternity in another world is at least in part due to is despair at not being eternal in this. He is so sure, that the intellectually scrupulous detect the odours of hypotheses amid, the sweet savour of indestructible assurance. Schopenhauer says, in one of those recently found Annotations of his which are so characteristic and so acute, "that which is called 'mathematical certainty ' is the cane of a blind man without a dog, or equilibrium in darkness." Browning would sometimes have us accept the evidence of his "cane" as all-sufficient. He does not entrench himself among conventions: for he already finds himself within the fortified lines of convention, and remains there. Thus is true what Mr. Mortimer says in an admirable critique: "His position in regard to the thought of the age is paradoxical, if not inconsistent. He is in advance of it in every respect but one, the most important of all, the matter of fundamental principles ; in these he is behind it. His processes of thought are often scientific in their precision of analysis ; the sudden conclusion which he imposes upon them is transcendental and inept." Browning's conclusions, which harmonise so well with our haphazard previsionings, are sometimes so disastrously facile that they exercise an insurrectionary influence. They occasionally suggest that wisdom of Gotham which is ever ready to postulate the certainty of a fulfilment because of the existence of a desire. It is this that vitiates so much of his poetic reasoning.
Truth may ring regnant in the lines of Abt Vogler :
but, unfortunately, the conclusion is, in itself, illogical.
Most fervently Browning believed that
though co-equally, in the necessity of "making man sole sponsor of himself." He had that profound inquietude which Sainte-Beuve says "attests a moral nature of high rank, and a mental nature stamped with the zeal of an archangel"; but he saw, believed in, held to nothing short of the return movement, for one and all, "towards an illustrious origin."
It seems but a day or two ago that the present writer heard from the lips of the dead poet a mockery of death's vanity---a brave assertion of the glory of life. "Death, death! It is this harping on death I despise so much," he remarked with emphasis of gesture as well as of speech,---"this idle and often cowardly as well as ignorant harping! Why should we not change like everything else? In fiction, in poetry, in so much of both, French as well as English, and, I am told, in American art and literature, the shadow of death---call it what you will, despair, negation, indifference---is upon us. But what fools who talk thus! Why, amico mio, you know as well as I that death is life, just as our daily, our momentarily dying body is none the less alive and ever recruiting new forces of existence. Without death, which is our crapy, churchyardy word for change, for growth, there could be no prolongation of that which we call life. Pshaw! it is foolish to argue upon such a thing even. For myself I deny death as an end of everything. Never say of me that I am dead!
Browning's habitual outlook towards Death as the Gate of Life is not a novel one. The attitude is not so much that of the daring pioneer as the sedate assurance of "the oldest inhabitant." It is of good hap, of welcome significance: none the less there is an aspect of our mortality of which the poet's evasion is uncompromising and absolute, I cannot do better than quote Mr. Mortimer's noteworthy words hereupon, in connection, moreover, with Browning's artistic relation to Sex, that other great Protagonist in the relentless duel of Humanity with Circumstance. "The final inductive hazard he declines for himself ; his readers may take it if they will. It is part of the insistent and perverse ingenuity which we display in masking with illusion the more disturbing elements of life. Veil after veil is torn down, but seldom before another has been slipped behind it, until we acquiesce without a murmur in the concealment that we ourselves have made. Two facts thus carefully shrouded from full vision by elaborate illusion conspicuously round in our lives the life-giving and life-destroying elements, Sex and Death, We are compelled to occasional physiologic and economic discussion of the one, but we shrink from recognising the full extent to which it bases the whole social fabric, carefully concealing its insurrections, and ignoring or misreading their lessons. The other, in certain aspects, we are compelled to face, but to do it we tipple on illusions, from our cradle upwards, in dread of the coming grave, purchasing a drug for our poltroonery at the expense of our sanity. We uphold our wayward steps with the promises and the commandments for crutches, but on either side of us trudge ,the shadow Death and the bacchanal Sex, and we mumble prayers against the one, while we scourge ourselves for leering at the other. On one only of these can Browning be said to have spoken with novel force---the relations of sex, which he has treated with a subtlety and freedom, and often with a beauty, unapproached since Goethe. On the problem of Death, except in masquerade of robes and wings, his eupeptic temperament never allowed him to dwell. He sentimentalised where Shakespeare thought." Browning's whole attitude to the Hereafter is different from that of Tennyson only in that the latter "faintly," while he strenuously "trusts the larger hope." To him all credit, that, standing upon the frontiers of the Past, he can implicitly trust the Future.
The teacher may be forgotten, the prophet may be hearkened to no more, but a great poet's utterance is never temporal, having that in it which conserves it against tlxe antagonism of time, and the ebb and flow of literary ideals. What range, what extent of genius! As Frederick Wedmore has well said, "Browning is not a book---he is a literature."
But that he will "stand out gigantic" in mass of imperishable work, in that far-off day, is not so readily credible. His poetic shortcomings seem too essential to permit of this. That fatal excess of cold over emotive thought, of thought that, however profound, incisive, or scrupulously clear, is not yet impassioned, is a fundamental defect of his. It is the very impetuosity of this mental energy to which is due the miscalled obscurity of much of Browning's work---miscalled, because, however remote in his allusions, however pedantic even, he is never obscure in his thought. His is that "palace infinite which darkens with excess of light." But mere excess in itself is nothing more than symptomatic. Browning has suffered more from intellectual exploitation than any writer. It is a ruinous process---for the poet. "He so well repays intelligent study." That is it, unfortunately. There are many, like the old Scotch lady who attempted to read Carlyle's French Revolution, who think they have become "daft when they encounter a passage such as, for example,
The old lady persevered with Carlyle, and, after a few days, found"she was nae sae daft, but that she had tackled a varra dee-fee-cult author." What would even that indomitable student have said to the above quotation, and to the poem whence it comes? To many it is not the poetry, but the difficulties, that are the attraction. They rejoice, after long and frequent dippings, to find their plummet, almost lost in remote depths, touch bottom. "Enough meaning" has been educed from Childe Roland, to cite but one instance, to start a School of Philosophy with : though it happens that the poem is an imaginative fantasy, written in one day. Worse still, it was not inspired by the mystery of existence, but by "a red horse with a glaring eye standing behind a dun one on a piece of tapestry that used to hang in the poet's drawing-room." *
*One account says Childe Roland was written in three days ; another, that it was composed in one. Browning's rapidity in composition was extraordinary. The Return of the Druses was written in five days, an act a day; so, also, was the Blot on the 'Scutcheon. Of all his faults, however the worst is that jugglery, that inferior legerdemain, with the elements of the beautiful in verse ; most obvious in Sordello, in portions of The Ring and the Book, and in so many of the later poems. There are, in poetry, in any art, faults which are like the larvae within certain vegetable growths : soon or late they will destroy their environment, before they perish themselves. Browning, though so pre-eminent in that science of the percipient in the allied arts of painting and music, wherein he found the unconventional Shelley so missuaded by convention, seemed ever more alert to the substance than to the manner of poetry. In a letter of Mrs. Browning's she alludes to a friend's " melodious feeling " for poetry. Possibly the phrase was accidental, but it is significant. To inhale the vital air of poetry we must love it, not merely find it " interesting," suggestive," soothing," " stimulative in a word, we must have a "melodious feeling " for poetry before we can deeply enjoy it. Browning, who has so often compelled from his lyre melodies and harmonies of transcendent, though novel, beauty, was too frequently, during composition, without this melodious feeling of which his wife speaks. The distinction between literary types such as Browning or Balzac on the one hand, and Keats or Gustave Flaubert on the other, is that with the former there exists a reverence for the vocation and a relative indifference to the means, in themselves---and, with the latter, a scrupulous respect for the mere means as well as for that to which they conduce. The poet who does not love words for themselves, as an artist loves any chance colour upon his palette, or as the musician any vagrant tone evoked by a sudden touch in idleness or reverie, has not entered into the full inheritance of the sons of Apollo. The writer cannot aim at beauty, that which makes literature and art, without this heed-without, rather, this creative anxiety : for it is certainly not enough, as some one has said, that language should be, used merely for the transportation. of intelligence, as a wheelbarrow carries brick. Of course, Browning is not persistently neglectful of this fundamental necessity for the literary artist. He is often as masterly in this as in other respects. But he is not always, not often enough, alive to the paramount need. He writes with "the verse being as the mood it paints" : but, unfortunately, the mood is often poetically unformative. He had no passion for the quest for seductive forms. Too much of his poetry has been born prematurely. Too much of it, indeed, has not died and been born again---for all immortal verse is a poetic resurrection. Perfect poetry is the deathless part of mortal beauty. The great artists never perpetuate gross actualities, though they are the supreme realists. It is Schiller, I think, who says in effect, that to live again in the serene beauty of art, it is needful that things should first die in reality. Thus Browning's dramatic method, even, is sometimes disastrous in its untruth, as in Caliban's analytical reasoning---an initial absurdity, as Mr. Berdoe has pointed out, adding epigrammatically, "Caliban is a savage, with the introspective powers of a Hamlet, and the theology of an evangelical Churchman." Not only Caliban, but several other of Browning's personages (Aprile, Eglamour, &c.) are what Goethe calls schwan-kende Gestalten, mere " wavering images."
Montaigne, in one of his essays, says that to stop gracefully is sure proof of high race in a horse : certainly to stop in time is imperative upon the poet. Of Browning may be said what Poe wrote of another, that his genius was too impetuous for the minuter technicalities of that elaborate art so needful in the building up of monuments for immortality. But has not a greater than Poe declared that " what distinguishes the artist from the amateur is architectonikÚ in the highest sense ; that power of execution which creates, forms, and constitutes : not the profoundness of single thoughts, not the richness of imagery, not the abundance of illtistration." Assuredly, no "new definition" can be an effective one which conflicts with Goethe's incontrovertible dictum.
But this much having been admitted, I am only too willing to protest against the uncritical outcry against Browning's musical incapacity.
A deficiency is not incapacity, otherwise Coleridge, at his highest the most perfect of our poets, would be lowly estimated.
Browning's music is oftener harmonic than melodic : and musicians know how the general ear, charmed with immediate appellant melodies, resents, wearies of, or is deaf to the harmonies of a more remote, a more complex, and above all a more novel creative method. He is, among poets, what Wagner is among musicians; as Shakespeare may be likened to Beethoven, or Shelley to Chopin. The common assertion as to his incapacity for metric music is on the level of those affirmations as to his not being widely accepted of the people, when the people have the chance; or as to the indifference of the public to poetry generally---and this in an age when poetry has never been so widely understood, loved, and valued and wherein it is yearly growing more acceptable and more potent!
A great writer is to be adjudged by his triumphs, not by his failures : as, to take up Montaigne's simile again, a famous racehorse is remembered for its successes and not for the races which it lost. The tendency with certain critics is to reverse the process. Instead of saying with the archbishop in Horne's Gregory VII., "He owes it all to his Memnonian voice! He has no genius:" as Prospero says of Caliban or of declaring. in The Tempest, "He is as disproportioned in his manners as in his shape: " how much better to affirm of him what Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare: "Hee redeemed his vices with his vertues : there was ever more in him to bee praysed than to bee pardoned." In the balance of triumphs and failures, however, is to be sought the relative measure of genius---whose equipoise should be the first matter of ascertainment in comparative criticism.
For those who would discriminate between what Mr. Traill succinctly terms his generic greatness as thinker and man of letters, and his specific power as poet, it is necessary to disabuse the mind of Browning's " message." The question is not one of weighty message, but of artistic presentation. To praise a poem because of its optimism is like commending a peach because it loves the sunshine, rather than because of its distinguishing bloom and savour. The primary concern of the artist must be with his vehicle of expression. In the instance of a poet, this vehicle is language emotioned to the white-heat of rhythmic music by impassioned thought or sensation. Schopenhauer declares it is all a question of style now with poetry; that everything has been sung, that everything has been duly cursed, but to that there is nothing left for poetry to be the glowing forge of words. He forgets that in quintessential art there is nothing of the past, nothing old : even the future has part therein only in that the present is always encroaching upon, becoming, the future. The famous pessimistic philosopher has, in common with other critics, made, in effect, the same remark---that Style exhales the odour of the soul : yet he himself has indicated that the strength of Shakespeare lay in the fact that " he had no taste," that "he was not a man of letters." Whenever genius has displayed epic force it has established a new order. In the general disintegration and reconstruction of literary it is easier to be ideals thus involved, confused by the novel flashing of strange lights than to discern the central vivifying altar-flame. It may prove that what seem to us the regrettable accidents of Browning's genius are no malfortunate flaws, but as germane thereto as his Herculean ruggednesses are to Shakespeare, as the laboured inversions of his blank verse are to Milton, as his austere concision is to Dante. Meanwhile, to the more exigent among us at any rate, the flaws seem flaws, and in nowise essential.
But when we find weighty message and noble utterance in union, as we do in the magnificent remainder after even the severest ablation of the poor and mediocre portion of Browning's life-work, how beneficent seem the generous gods! Of this remainder most aptly may be quoted these lines from The Ring and the Book,
How gladly, in this dubious hour---when, an eminent writer has phrased it, a colossal Hand, which some call the hand of Destiny and others that of Humanity, is putting out the lights of Heaven one by one, like candles after a feast---how gladly we listen to this poet with his serene faith in God, and immortal life, and the soul's unending development!" Hope hard in the subtle thing that's Spirit," he cries in the Prologue to Pacchiarotto; and this, in manifold phrasing, is his leit-motif, his fundamental idea, in unbroken line from the Pauline of his twenty-first to the Asolando of his seventy-sixth year. This superb phalanx of faith---what shall prevail against it ?
How winsome it is, moreover : this, and how winsome the humanity of his song. Profoundly he realised that there is no more significant study than the human heart. "The development of a soul: little else is worth study," he wrote in his preface to Sordello ; so in his old age, in his last Reverie :
As the record from Youth to age
Of my own, the single soul---
So the world's wide book : one Page ,
Deciphered explains the whole
Of our common heritage. He had faith also that "the record from youth to age of his own soul would outlast any present indifference or neglect---that whatever tide might bear him away from our regard for a time would ere long flow again. The reaction must come: it is, indeed, already at hand. But one almost fancies one can hear the gathering of the remote waters once more. We may, with Strafford,
Indeed, Browning has the grand manner, for all it is more that of the Scandinavian Jarl than of the Italian count or Spanish grandee.
And ever, below all the stress and failure, below all the triumph of his toil, is the beauty of his dream. It was "a surpassing Spirit" that went from out our midst:
One who never turned his back but marched breast