Page:Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day.djvu/38

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14
Robert Browning.

The comparatively few who read Browning regard him with an admiration and intensity of affection almost unequalled in modern times. When, twenty years old, Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' burst into popularity, it gained no such enthusiastic admirers as those who hang upon the lips of Browning. When Byron awoke and found himself famous, his fame was like brass beside gold compared with the reputation of Browning among his admirers. These seem few in number, when we count up those who read Tupper; but they are strong in quality. To begin with, it requires a certain amount—we may say, a high amount—of culture before we can appreciate the poet at all; and no small effort of the intellect is needed to follow him through all the mazy windings and involutions of his thought. The story is well known how Douglas Jerrold, recovering from an illness, took up 'Sordello,' and began to read it. Presently he burst into tears, and threw the book away. 'Good God ' he cried, 'I have lost my intellect!'

A profound irritation takes possession of him who begins the study of Browning, against the obscurity of his style. He is obscure, he is involved, he is difficult, he is even at times unintelligible;—and this not wilfully, but because there are times when even he is not able to make language adequate. Words are poor weak things, after all. They are overworked; we expect too much of them. They are too few in number. Doubtless, in a better world, our vocabulary will be more copious, and equal to expressing all our thoughts. And then every man will be a poet. But with the reading of Browning grows one's love for him. L'appetit vient en mangeant. And when the taste is once formed, there can be for his admirer but one living poet.

It must be confessed that, in his anxiety to get the full grasp of a subject, he is not only complex, which may be pardoned, but he is also long, which may not be pardoned in any poet. Who, for instance, has read throughout that most extraordinary collection of metaphysical speculations, analytical discussions, and attempts to penetrate and understand the workings of the soul, 'The Ring and the Book'? And why, for the sake of his own reputation, was not Browning persuaded to compress all he had to say into the space of one volume?

We do not want to criticise his poems, or to give any complete list of