Browning - The Poet Of Love
( Originally Published 1919 )
BROWNING'S reputation has not yet risen again beyond a half-tide. The fact that two books about him were published during the war, however, suggests that there is a revival of interest in his work. It would have been surprising if this had not been so. He is one of the poets who inspire confidence at a time when all the devils are loosed out of Hell. Browning was the great challenger of the multitude of devils. He did not achieve his optimism by ignoring Satan, but by defying him His courage was not merely of the stomach, but of the daring imagination. There is no more detestable sign of literary humbug than the pretence that Browning was an optimist simply because he did not experience sorrow and indigestion as other people do. I do not mean to denythat he enjoyed good health. As Professor Phelps, of Yale, says in a recent book, Robert Browning: How to Know Hint : ---
He had a truly wonderful digestion : it was his firm belief that one should eat only what one really enjoyed, desire being the infallible sign that the food was healthful. " My father was a man of bonne fourchette," said Barett Browning to me ; " he was not very fond of meat, but liked all kinds of Italian dishes, especially with rich sauces. He always ate freely of rich and delicate things. He would make a whole meal off mayonnaise."
Upon which the American professor comments with ingenuous humour of a kind rare in professors in this hemisphere: ---
It is pleasant to remember that Emerson, the other great optimist of the century, used to eat pie for breakfast.
The man who does not suffer from pie will hardly suffer from pessimism but, as Professor Phelps insists, Browning faced greater terrors than pie for breakfast, and his philosophy did not flinch. There was no other English writer of the nineteenth century who to the same degree made all human experiences his own. His poems are not poems about little children who win good-conduct prizes. They are poems of the agonies of life, poems about tragic severance, poems about failure. They range through the virtues and the vices with the magnificent boldness of Dostoevsky's novels. The madman, the atheist, the adulterer, the traitor, the murderer, the beast, are portrayed in them side by side with the hero, thee saint, and the perfect woman. There is every sort of rogue here half-way between good and evil, and every sort of half-hero who is either worse than his virtue or better than his sins. Nowhere else in English poetry outside the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer is there such a varied and humorous gallery of portraits. Landor's often quoted comparison of Browning with Chaucer is a piece of perfect and essential criticism : ---
Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
For Browning was a portrait-painter by genius and a philosopher only by accident. He was a historian even more than a moralist. He was born with a passion for living in other people's experiences. So impartially and eagerly did he make himself a voice of the evil as well as the good in human nature that occasionally one has heard people speculating as to whether he can have led so reputable a life as the biographers make one believe. To speculate in this manner, however, is to blunder into forgetfulness of Browning's own answer, in How it Strikes a Contemporary, to all such calumnies on poets.
Of all the fields of human experience, it was love into which the imagination of Browning most fully entered. It may seem an obvious thing to say about almost any poet, but Browning differed from other poets in being able to express, not only the love of his own heart, but the love of the hearts of all sorts of people. He dramatized every kind of love from the spiritual to the sensual. One might say of him that there never was another poet in whom there was so much of the obsession of love and so little of the obsession of sex. Love was for him the crisis and test of a man's life. The disreputable lover has his say in Browning's monologues no less than Count Gismond. Porphyria's lover, mad and a murderer, lives in our imaginations as brightly as the idealistic lover of Cristina.
The dramatic lyric and monologue in which Browning set forth the varieties of passionate experience was an art-form of immense possibilities, which it was a work of genius to discover. To say that Browning, the inventor of this amazingly fine form, was indifferent to form has always seemed to me the extreme of stupidity. At the same time, its very newness puzzles many readers, even to-day. Some people cannot read Browning without note or comment, because they are unable to throw themselves imaginatively into the " I " of each new poem. Our artistic sense is as yet so little developed that many persons are appalled by the energy of imagination which is demanded of them before they are reborn, as it were, into the setting of his dramatic studies. Professor Phelps's book should be of especial service to such readers, because it will train them in the right method of approach to Browning's best work. It is a very admirable essay in popular literary interpretation. One is astonished by. its insight even more than by its recurrent banality. There are sentences that will make the fastidious shrink, such as :
Their (the Brownings') love-letters reveal a drama of noble passion that excels in beauty and intensity the universally popular examples of Heloise and Abelard, Aucassin and Nicolette, Paul and Virginia.
And, again, in the story of the circumstances that led to Browning's death :
In order to prove to his son that nothing was the matter with him, he ran rapidly up three flights of stairs, the son vainly trying to restrain him. Nothing is more characteristic of the youthful folly of aged folk than their impatient resentment of proffered hygienic advice.
Even the interpretations of the poems sometimes take one's breath away, as when, discussing The Lost Mistress, Professor Phelps observes that the lover : instead of thinking of his own misery . . . endeavours to make the awkward situation easier for the girl by small talk about the sparrows and the leaf-buds.
When one has marvelled one's fill at the professor's phrases and misunderstandings, however, one is compelled to admit that he has written what is probably the best popular introduction to Browning in existence.
Professor Phelps's book is one of those rare essays in popular criticism which will introduce an average reader to a world of new excitements. One of its chief virtues is that it is an anthology as well as a commentary. It contains more than fifty complete poems of Browning quoted in the body of the book'. And these include, not merely short poems like Meeting at Night, but long poems, such as Andrea del Sarto, Caliban on Setebos, and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. This is the right kind of introduction to a great author. The poet is allowed as far as possible to be his own interpreter.
At the outset Professor Phelps quotes in full Transcendentalism and How it Strikes a Contemporary Browning's confession of his aims as an artist. The first of these is Browning's most energetic assertion that the poet is no philosopher concerned with ideas rather than with things—with abstractions rather than with actions. His disciples have written a great many books that seem to reduce him from' a poet to a philosopher, and one cannot protest too vehemently against this dulling of an imagination richer than a child's in adventures and in the passion for the detailed and the concrete. In Transcendentalism he bids a younger poet answer whether there is more help to be got from Jacob Boehme with his subtle meanings:---
Or some stout Mage like him of Halberstadt,
With how magnificent an image he then justifies the poet of things " as compared with the philosopher of " thoughts " :
He with a " look you ! " vents a brace of rhymes,
One of the things one constantly marvels at as one reads Browning is the splendid æstheticism with which he lights up prosaic words and pedestrian details with beauty.
The truth is, if we do not realize that he is a great singer and a great painter as well as a, great humorist and realist, we shall have read him in vain. No doubt his phrases are often as grotesque as jagged teeth, as when the mourners are made to say in A Grammarian's Funeral : ---
Look out if yonder be not day again,
Reading the second of these lines one feels as if one of the mourners had stubbed his foot against a sharp stone on, the mountain-path. And yet, if Browning invented a harsh speech of his own for common use, he uttered it in all the varied rhythms of genius and passion. There may often be no music in the individual words, but there is always in the poems as a, whole a deep undercurrent of music as from some hidden river. His poems have the movement of living things. They are lacking only, in smooth and static loveliness. They are full of the hoof-beats of Pegasus.
We find in his poems, indeed, no fastidious escape from life, but an exalted acceptance of it. Browning is one of the very few poets who, echoing the Creator, have declared that the world is good. His sense of the goodness of it even in foulness and in failure is written over half of his poems. Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is a fable of life triumphant in a world tombstoned with every abominable and hostile thing—a world, too, in which the hero is doomed to perish at devilish hands. Whenever one finds oneself doubting the immensity of Browning's genius, one has only to read Childe Roland again to restore one's faith. There never was a landscape so alive with horror as that amid which the knight travelled in quest of the Dark Tower. As detail is added to detail, it becomes horrible as suicide, a shrieking progress of all the torments, till one is Wrought up into a very nightmare of apprehension and the Tower itself appears:---
The round squat tower, blind as the fool's heart.
Was there ever such a pause and gathering of courage as in the verses that follow in which the last of the knights takes his resolve?:
Not see ? because of night perhaps ?—why, day
Not hear ? When noise was everywhere ! it tolled
There they stood, ranged along the hillside, met
There, if anywhere in literature, is the summit of tragic and triumphant music. There, it seems to me, is as profound and imaginative expression of the heroic spirit as is to be found in the English language.
To belittle Browning as an artist after such a poem is to blaspheme against art. To belittle him as an optimist is to play the fool with words. Browning was an optimist only in the sense that he believed in what Stevenson called " the ultimate decency of things," and that he believed in the capacity of the heroic spirit to face any test devised for it by inquisitors or devils. He was not defiant in a fine attitude like Byron. His defiance was rather a form of magnanimity. He is said, on Robert Buchanan's authority, to have thundered " No," when in his later years he was asked if he were a Christian. But his defiance was the defiance of a Christian, the dauntlessness of a knight of the Holy Ghost. Perhaps it is that he was more Christian than the Christians. Like the Pope in The Ring and the Book, he loathed the association of Christianity with respectability. Some readers are bewildered by his respectability in trivial things, such as dress, into failing to see his hatred of respectability when accepted as a standard in spiritual things. He is more sympathetic towards the disreputable suicides in Apparent Failure than towards the vacillating and respectable lovers in The Statue and the Bust. There was at least a hint of heroism in the Iast madness of the doomed men. Browning again and again protests, as Blake had done earlier, against the mean moral values of his age. Energy to him as to Blake meant endless delight, and especially those two great energies of the spirit—love and heroism. For, though his work is not a philosophic expression of moral ideas, it is an imaginative expression of moral ideas, as a result of which he is, above all, the poet of lovers and heroes. Imagination is a caged bird in these days ; with Browning it was a soaring eagle. In some ways Mr. Conrad's is the most heroic imagination in contemporary literature. But he does not take this round globe of light and darkness into, his purview as Browning did. The whole earth is to him shadowed with futility. Browning was too lyrical to resign him-self to the shadows. He saw the earth through the eyes of a lover till the end. He saw 'death itself as no more than an interlude of pain, darkness, and cold before a lovers' meeting. It may be that it is all a rapturous illusion, and that, after we have laid him aside and slept a night's broken sleep, we sink back again naturally into the little careful hopes and infidelities of everyday. But it seems to me that here is a whole heroic literature to which the world will always do well to turn in days of inexorable pain and horror such as those through which it has but recently passed.
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