Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/Robert Browning
All his works, from the earliest, have been in the same direction. The 'Dramatic Lyrics' were the natural predecessors of 'The Ring and the Book,' and 'Hohenstiel Schwangau.' The dramas themselves, so rugged and uncouth, are necessary studies before the later works could be produced.
Strong, rugged, independent; no fashioner of pretty songs modelled upon patterns designed by greater men, no warbler of sweet and soft love ditties, no dealer in unreal and exaggerated passion, no puling complainer of mock sorrow, no dreamy poet of conventional life, is Robert Browning. When, so many years ago, he set himself to make poetry the work of his life, he undertook the task in his own sturdy and independent way. Verse should be his slave, and should express his thoughts as he designed. Now, most poets are the slaves of verse, and can only get their thoughts expressed by a sort of coaxing, and in a roundabout fashion. Then, the life they describe is conventional: Browning's should be real. The motives and springs of action which they describe are simple: those of life are really complex, manifold, various, and overlapping each other. In Browning, we find the psychologist trying to show us in his analysis some of the many influences under which the soul acts. With most poets the soul is, as it were, a river. Browning recognises the fact that it is a mighty ocean. Currents flow backwards and forwards: there are depths and shallows: there are storms on the surface and stillness below, or there are whirlpools below and calm on the surface. The sun shines on it, and the clouds rain upon it: perpetual change is going on, but it remains the same. It has infinite possibilities: it contains infinite treasure. It is ever in unrest, ever flowing and ebbing: ever disturbed, uncertain, and wayward. To describe, to dissect, to observe these currents and moods is the hardest task that poet ever set himself; and it is Browning's self-imposed task. If he has failed, he has failed splendidly. It is a defeat which is a great victory.
Please, your honours,' said he, ‘I'm able,
By means of a secret charm, to draw
All creatures living beneath the sun
That creep or swim or fly or run
After me so as you never saw!'
For Browning is an impersonal poet. Like Homer and Shakespeare, his dramatic power is so great that we lose sight of him altogether. He does not describe; he creates. He does not act before us; but he erects his stage, and presently his puppets perform upon it. His verse is rough and harsh, because he will be the master of it. He drags and forces the language to do his bidding. He presses verbs and adjectives to do service which have never before worked for mortal bard. He wants a word, and scorning the customary hack who has worked so long and worked for so many, he looks about to find a better, and having found him, he makes him come along and do his work. Thus it is that, even in his best pieces, we are conscious from time to time of a jolt. He is like a driver who drives furiously over rough ground: driving not for pleasure, but because work has to be done. If you want to float lazily on a summer sea, there is Tennyson; if you would glide down the stream without an effort, there is Byron; if you would drive along a smooth road, and admire the hedges on either hand, there is Pope. But if you are not afraid of hard work, rough work, tough work, go with Browning, and follow him while he clears the jungle of thoughts, aims, motives, and passions, and shows you a human heart as poet never showed before.
Browning is not, of course, popular. Popularity he flung to the winds years ago, when he first began to write. We suppose that he must long since have ceased even to desire that really worthless thing—the admiration of the million. True, he aimed at theatrical success; but though his play of 'Strafford' was put on the stage with every possible care, and the principal part taken by Kemble himself, it was a complete failure. His dramas have vigour, clearness of plot, strong accentuation of character, and rapid action. But one feels, on reading one after the other, that they are utterly unsuited for acting. The reason we believe to be their deficiency in tenderness. It is Browning's chief failing. Sympathy he must have, because he sees so deeply; but it is sympathy of a sort all his own. It does not lead him to be tender. It is the sympathy which comes from knowledge, and not 'that which springs from the feeling of possible partnership in misfortune or remorse. It is the pity of a strong man for the weak, mingled with a little contempt. But this is fatal to dramatic success. On the stage, above all we must be human.
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 them. Let us only consider him as he appears to the impatient class of readers those who refuse to read 'Hohenstiel Schwangau' and 'Sordello,' but are capable of delighting in the shorter pieces.
Has he humour? The 'Pied Piper' of our cartoon is an answer. Everybody knows it. The Piper—
His queer long coat, from heel to head,
Was half of yellow and half of red;
And he himself was tall and thin,
With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin;
And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin,
No tuft on cheek, nor beard on chin—
rids the town of the rats that infest it. As he pipes, they come out of the houses and follow him down the street.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, gray rats, tawny rats,
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives,
Follow'd the piper for their lives.
He leads them to the river, when all are drowned except one, who describes the effect of the piping:
At the first shrill notes of the pipe
I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
Into a cider-press's gripe:
And a moving away of pickle-tub boards,
And a leaving ajar of conserve cupboards,
And a drawing the corks of train-oil flasks,
And a breaking the hoops of butter casks;
And it seem'd as if a voice
(Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery
Is breathed) call'd out, 'O rats, rejoice!
The world is grown to one vast dry-saltery!'
Is he pathetic? Read 'Count Gismond,' where his wife recalls that day when he saved her name at the peril of his life, and slew the foul slanderer. She tells it to herself with love-soft heart: one can see her eyes swollen with the tears of happiness, tears that do not drop while she tells it:
Our eldest boy has got the clear
Great brow: though when his brother's black
Full eye shows scorn, it— Gismond here?
And have you brought my tercel back?
I just was telling Adela
How many birds it struck since May.
Is he dramatic? Head the 'Soliloquy in the Spanish Cloister,' when the monk who has nourished a foolish hatred, born of idleness and seclusion, gives vent to his thoughts, watching his enemy at his gardening:
There's a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations—
One sure if another fails.
If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven as sure can be,
Spin him round, and send him flying
Off to hell—a Manichee.
Can he stir the heart? Read the 'Good News from Ghent,' and the Cavalier songs. Can he stoop to simple love? Read these lines:
Nay, but you, who do not love her,
Is she not pure gold, my mistress?
Holds earth aught—speak truth—above her?
Aught like this tress—see, and this tress;
And this fairest tress of all,
So fair, see, ere I let it fall?
Because, you spend your lives in praising;
To praise, you search the wide world over:
So why not witness, calmly gazing,
If earth holds aught—speak truth—above her?
Above this tress, and this I touch,
But cannot praise—I love so much.
Is he simple? Read 'Pippa Passes.' Is he strong, and rough, and sinewy? Read every line which he has written.
We have, besides the usual throng of verse-writers common to every age, one or two leading poets besides Browning. But there is not one who has a better chance of that best kind of posthumous fame: not one who will so certainly be remembered as the highest product of his time.