The Mysticism Of Robert Browning
ROBERT BROWNING was once asked by a friend whether he cared much for nature. "Yes, a great deal," he replied : " but for human beings a great deal more." 1 No reader of his poems can fail to see that this is true, and also that the poet was right in saying " human beings," not " humanity." Browning loved and studied, not mankind, but men. He is, therefore, complementary to Wordsworth ; he might be called the Wordsworth of human nature. We may rightly call him a mystic, in virtue of his profound belief in a perfect spiritual world, in which all broken fragments are made whole, all riddles solved, and all legitimate hopes satisfied. A strong hunger for eternity and perfection, combined with close and reverent handling of the facts of life ; a tenacious grip of the concrete finite example, with a determination to make it illustrate, and be illustrated by, its ideal and spiritual principle ; —this is the method of the true mystic, and in all that concerns human character it is the method of Browning. I shall therefore not be afraid of classing him with a type of humanity which in some ways seems so opposite to his own. This breezy optimist, who faced the difficulties of life by charging them as a bull goes at a fence, who had so firm a hold of the actual and concrete, was certainly not a mere mystic. But that there was a mystical element in his genius and his teaching, and that this element constitutes a very valuable part of his message, is a proposition which I think easy to establish, and which I hope will be acknowledged to be true by those who follow me in what I am about to say.
My present task is more difficult than that which I attempted in my last Lecture, because while Wordsworth's poetry is totally destitute of the dramatic element, Browning is particularly anxious that the dramatic character of his poems should not be forgotten. He will not believe that Shakespeare ever " unlocked his heart " for his readers, and does not wish his own readers to assume that they have the key to the heart of Robert Browning.
" Which of you did I enable
Only in a few poems, such as One Word More, Prospice, and perhaps Christmas Eve and Easter Day, can we be sure that he is speaking in his own person.
When Browning began to write, natural science was being preached as a complete gospel, with a confidence which has now abated considerably. Few had then suspected that science could be other than materialistic or could make terms with metaphysics. The spiritualistic monism which is now embraced by many physicists would have been scouted by their predecessors. Science at that time threatened to become what Lucretius describes religion as being--a horrible spectre standing in the path of humanity, forbidding hope and faith, casting its icy hand even upon love, and offering no comfort save in unconditional submission to a mechanical order, in which neither purpose nor goodness could be traced. Idealism was treated as a deliberate sojourn in dreamland ; men were absorbed in " mankind." Until about the last twenty years of his life Browning was swimming against the stream almost as much as Wordsworth was in the great period of his productiveness. He is never tired of insisting on the relativity and inadequacy of scientific knowledge, and on the necessary falsehood of a philosophy of life which ignores the affections or denies the validity of their intuitions. He is the sworn foe of intellectualism, which he pursues with such animosity that occasionally he seems to have declared war even against the intellect. This polemical attitude must be judged with reference to the dominant tendencies of thought at the time when he began to write.
In his old age it cannot be denied that he pushed his protest too far, and at a time when the opposite error had ceased to be aggressive.
Browning is the poet of personality. Amiel considered that " to depersonalise man is the great tendency of our age." This tendency found an unrelenting antagonist in Browning. Any attempt to belittle man, or rather men, by comparison with natural forces aroused his ire.
" `O littleness of man 1' deplores the bard;
We recognise here a revolt against the assumption that the value of things depends on their bulk, or universality. Kant, as every one knows, bowed his head in reverence before two things— the star-sown deep of space, and the moral consciousness of man-kind. Natural science seemed to threaten to leave us only the former object of worship. Browning claimed a truer greatness for the latter, not as a general idea, but in its individual manifestations.
And yet he was no enemy to the new discoveries. The organic idea was grasped and utilised by him, as by few others of his generation. We are not to look for completeness either in the present divorced from the past and future, or in the individual life divorced from that of other individuals. " The race of man . . . receives life in parts to live in a whole." And the " whole," in which we are to strive "resolutely" (as Goethe also tells us) to live, is a whole which gathers into a unity all the partial and faulty manifestations of reality which occur as successive events in the time-process, and all the fragmentary souls which are born separate only that they may feel the need of mingling, and by mingling may attain their true rights and full development as persons. The doctrine of preexistence, in some form not easy to grasp, is a more serious part of Browning's teaching than of Wordsworth's.
"Doubt you if, in some such moment,
"And hence fleets again for ages,
Humanity is ihcarnated in each man, but each man is only realised so far as he passes out of himself into the wider life of humanity.
Carlyle was contemptuous of the charge of pantheism, which was brought against him as against others who have grasped the organic new of human life and history. He thought t, at any rate, a better creed than what he :ailed the "pot-theism" of the Calvinist. But pantheism has many developments. We cannot even say whether a thorough-going pessimism or a thorough-going optimism is he more legitimate outcome of its principles. t is interesting to contrast the gloomy outlook of Carlyle with the facile cheerfulness of Emerson, when we consider how closely akin they are in their view of reality. Emerson's creed is true pantheism—the old Oriental philosophy which sees the divine equally in everything ; while Carlyle has very little belief in any divine immanence except as the voice of conscience uttering commands and threats. Such a view of the relation between God and man was sure to carry with it a stern and dark philosophy of life. Browning agrees with neither of them. His message is his own. He stakes every-thing on the non-existence of absolute evil, He holds that there is a natural tendency towards good in all men—a victorious striving upward which is our natural and healthy activity, and which can never be wholly destroyed. We are reminded of the suppose( faculty of synteresis, about which scholastic mystics like the Victorines and Bonaventura discourse learnedly — the divinely implante^ centre of the soul which can never consent to sin. Browning sees a silvery lining t the blackest cloud. Though at times a seems dark—
" All the same
This kindly and hopeful view of human nature is always given by Browning as the result of his observation. His high spirits are the reflection in feeling of an experience of men which has led him to the conclusion that there is none that doeth ill—pure unmixed evil—no, not one. Hence his love for dissecting a knave's soul, and showing that the scoundrel is a human being, with whose point of view it is even possible to feel some sympathy. The worldly agnostic bishop, the vulgar spiritualist "medium," the painter of Madonnas caught in low haunts, even the bishop who orders his tomb in St Praxed's Church, are not odious ; there is something not wholly vile in each of them. He will not accept the rough-and-ready division of human beings into sheep and goats. There is much in every character which the world's coarse thumb and finger fails to plumb. It is not for us to stick a label on to a man, and say that such is his character. Original sin is a defect imposed on us by God for our final good ; it is not a total corruption of our nature. A human being cannot be wholly bad. " Even badness," says Plotinus, " is still human, and is mixed with something contrary to itself." If a man or a thing were wholly bad, it would fall to pieces and cease in mere nothingness. Giuseppe Caponsacchi sees Guido gliding down from depth to depth of infamy,
"Till at the doleful end,
By a merciful decree, God has made dissolution the penalty of moral evil, so that what is incurable soon passes into annihilation.
Browning is a firm believer in teleology. A purpose runs through all that happens in the world. But the purpose is the redemption of individual lives. " In the seeing soul al: worth lies." " Progress," in the sense it which the word was constantly used by the confident scientists of Browning's generation appealed to him very little. He regarded life as the battle-ground on which the struggle for an autonomous moral personality is to be fought out. The combatants are free will and circumstance ; the life succeeds—the man gains what he lived for—in proportion as free will is able to assert its supremacy over circumstance. Difficulty, pain, and even sin, may be factors in the victory of will — needful elements in its emancipation from the tyranny of circumstance. But whereas man "partly is, and wholly hopes to be" (his condition of becoming being, indeed, his great characteristic, distinguishing him from higher and lower existencies, which simply are), no classification of him by hard and fast names can be true. It is his privilege to be imperfect ; his shortcomings are, in a sense, the measure of his potential greatness. " Our present life," says Bishop Westcott, " is to be taken in its entirety. The discipline of man is to be fulfilled, the progress of man is to be secured, under the conditions of our complex earthly being. These lets and limitations are not to be disparaged or overborne, but accepted and used in due order. No attempt must be made either to retain that which has been, or to anticipate that which will be. Each element in human nature is to be allowed its proper office. Each season brings its own work and its own means." The lessons of advancing years are taught in Rabbi ben Ezra: ---
"Grow old along with me!
According to Browning, salvation is only to be won by obedience to the laws of the universe. In this he agrees with the ethics of naturalism. But he has very distinct views as to what the laws of the universe are. Most thinkers construct their world out of some one constitutive principle, which serves as an explanation of the general scheme. With Hegel it is reason ; with Schopenhauer it is will ; some writers have regarded mechanical uniformity as the law, the end, and aim of all Nature's activities. Browning's constitutive principle is Love. Love and reciprocity of life are the condition and necessary expression of human perfection. The comparative poverty of our language, which comprehends under one name such different emotions as sexual love, love of parents, and love of country, enabled Browning to present his constitutive principle under various aspects. But it is distinctly sexual love, not Christian charity— not ¬ he considers to possess the key of life's real meaning. He is not ashamed of its connection with and growth out of the instincts which we share with the lower animals. Its true nature is not to be sought in its origin, but in its completed development. And love, in its perfect state, is a principle of moral activity, a mode of the expansion of the self into universal and eternal relations. No other poet has set himself to show, under so many different aspects, the immense importance of love in the growth of the soul.
The essence of love is going out of oneself, shifting the centre of our lives outside the merely self-regarding sphere. Therefore sensuality and brutal lust, so far from being the reality of love when its clothes and trappings have been stripped off, are the perversion of love, and even its contradictory. For lust is the extreme of selfishness, which does not hesitate to sacrifice others to itself. True love may begin with a large element of bodily appetite ; but it issues in a communion of souls, in which each makes the other see "new depths of the divine."
"But who could have expected this
Love is the "spark God gave us from His fire of fires." We need fear nothing "while that burns on, though all the rest grow dark." This favourite doctrine and metaphor of mysticism, that of the of Plotinus, the " Funkelein" of Eckhart, is thus connected by our poet with love of the opposite sex. This would have shocked inexpressibly many of the earlier Christian mystics ; but Browning has no quarrel with the flesh, as flesh. To quote Krause, whose beautiful little book, The Ideals of Humanity, is in many ways an admirable commentary on Browning's poetry, "spirit and body in man are equally original, equally living, equally divine ; they claim to be maintained in the same purity and holiness, and to be equally loved and developed." " Neither nature nor reason," says the same writer, undertakes to give man form and maintenance as an individual being. Hence the highest wisdom and goodness has implanted in every breast a longing for other human beings, and for their companionship and love." This desire for companionship and communion shows itself in all parts of our nature, and is innocent and right in all.
Browning is the hierophant of these new mysteries. He shows us under innumerable examples how love can guide us into all truth, and how those who refuse opportunities of sharing this highest of our privileges are in danger of losing eternally what they lived for. It is a mystical philosophy, based on a sacrimental view of experience. What makes Browning such an original teacher is that none else has believed so whole-heartedly in the advantages of this particular "pathway to reality," or has described so completely the ground which we shall traverse if we follow it.
It is too much to expect that a thinker with so strong a bent in one direction should do justice to views which are antagonistic or even only complementary to his own. We have seen how he speaks with impatience, almost with contempt, of the æsthetic contemplation of nature without reference to human interests. We must now add that he shows an excessive and an increasing distrust of the intellectual faculties as a means of bringing us to God. The error, if it is an error, cannot be easily removed from his philosophy, because it is intimately bound up with his doctrine of imperfection. As long as life and development go on, our scheme of ultimate truth cannot be rounded off. In the speculative thought of finite, growing beings, there must always be a heel of Achilles—a vulnerable point which may prove fatal to the whole. Behind our clearest consciousness there are latent coefficients, and a dark chaos of tendencies and dispositions, out of which our consciousness works itself. It is useless, he thinks, to attempt to construct a system out of such imperfect material. Our intellectual faculties, our æsthetic faculties—in fact, all the contents of our minds, with the exception of our affections—are flawed. Love only is Divine, and a guide whom we may trust implicitly. The constant " tendency to God" which he finds in human nature is bound up with the heart and will, not with the intellect. On this side Browning is an ultra - mystic. He considers that discursive thought plays round about the facts without ever reaching them. Such a theory of knowledge leads logically to complete scepticism, a theory which is almost crudely avowed in a late poem, A Pillar of Sebzevar. Know-ledge, it appears, always deludes us with false hopes. We crown our brows with it, but each garland is pushed off by another, which proves nowise more constant ; to-day's gain is to - morrow's loss ; knowledge the golden turns out to be only lacquered ignorance ; what seemed ore proves when assayed to be but dross. The prize of know-ledge is in the process of acquiring it, in the ever-renewed assurance by defeat that victory may still be reached ; but love is victory, the prize itself.
" Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust
" So let us say—not, Since we know, we love,
The reaction against intellectualism could go no further than this. By way of complete contrast, let us recall the ingredients of blessedness according to Spinoza. They are (I) knowledge of the causes of things, (2) control of our passions, (3) sound health. It is true that love, even in Spinoza, comes in at the summit of the ascent. But the amer intellectualis Dei, which constitutes the beatific vision for Spinoza, is far enough from the "love allied to ignorance" which Browning came to consider the happiest state.
How came a learned poet, whose intellectual curiosity, assisted by a wonderful memory, has left its impress on nearly every page of his writing, to pour scorn on the noblest of his own endowments, and preach what looks like mere sentimentalism and emotionalism? Perhaps the problem of evil has something to do with it. For to the intellect evil must be either real or not real. But if it is real, optimism is destroyed. And if it is not real, morality is destroyed. Browning will not surrender a jot of the claims of either optimism or morality. Therefore, since these claims, when judged by the intellect, are manifestly incompatible with each other, there is no help for it but to assert that the intellect is essentially self - stultifying. Hence Browning's intellectual pessimism, which is simply the price which he is willing to pay for his moral and emotional optimism.
But this disparagement of intellect is suicidal. It is impossible to sunder the mind from the heart so completely as to follow the one blindly, while "wholly distrusting" the other. This personification of our faculties, as rival claimants to our confidence, is really almost absurd. We cannot love what we do not know: perhaps we cannot truly know what we do not love. Knowledge and love are not two mutually exclusive faculties. Love is the culminating point in a series of which knowledge is the last stage but one, and the condition of reaching the highest. The fact that we cannot round off our intellectual system of the universe, that our theory seems always to halt at one point, is, when rightly considered, not a reason for "wholly distrusting" reason, but for trusting it. We know why it cannot tell us everything. The reason is that we are less than that which we desire to comprehend. Browning's own doctrine of the value of the time-process, which leads us through imperfection to our goal, should teach us not to despise or distrust imperfect knowledge. This is life eternal, says the Fourth Gospel, that we should know God and Jesus Christ. Not "knowledge," a word which, like " faith," St John studiously avoids, but the process of knowing, the life of learning, this is eternal life. A faith which is sceptical on the intellectual side, which acquiesces in ignorance, and fills the void with the products of mere emotion, is a house built upon the sand. Browning, to do him justice, is not so far from admitting this, as the quotations made just now would lead us to think. " The heart," it has been well said, "quarrels with reasons, not with reason;" and this is really Browning's position. His homage to love is based on reason. Knowledge and love are two forms of experience ; and experience (he would probably have admitted) is the ultimate metaphysical reality. Love is the purest form in which reality is presented to us, since it is not given us in shreds and patches, but in its essence. As the old theologians said, There is no gift, except love, in which the giver gives himself.
An interesting parallel to Browning's teaching about love as the highest law of life is the chapter about love as the reconciling principle of knowledge and volition, in Mr McTaggart's Studies in Hegelian Dialectic. " The concrete and material content of a life of perfected knowledge and volition means one thing only—love." And he continues that, since perfection alone deserves love, love in an imperfect world must be love of the person as he really is — that is, as he will be. Love is unreasonable only because reason is not yet worthy of it. In the perfect life knowledge and volition will be swallowed up in a higher reality, and love will reveal itself as the only thing in the universe. (" Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail ; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.") The distinction between know-ledge and volition can have no place in the absolute perfection. The true and the good, which seem now so different, can only be harmonised by "emotion." Knowledge and volition both postulate an ideal which they can never reach while they remain knowledge and volition. The element of Not-Self is essential to both, but is incompatible with their perfection. But in the case of love this contradiction is overcome. We regard the person whom we love as we regard ourselves.
The chief difference between the scheme here sketched and Browning's teaching, is that the latter attributes only a subordinate place to the intellect and to "knowledge." And "emotion," in his poetry, seems often not so much to reconcile knowledge and volition, as to override them both.
The other great poet of the Victorian era is at one with Browning in his revolt against intellectualism. In a well - known stanza of In Memoriam Tennyson says :
" A warmth within the soul would melt
This is at any rate a good description of the methods of emotionalism, which gives us heat instead of light, and vehement assertion instead of argument. But the claim of the heart to be heard may be admitted without leaving reason quite out in the cold.
Some may think that Tennyson would have been a better example of mysticism in con-temporary poetry than Browning. I cannot agree with this view. Poems like the Ancient Sage certainly show knowledge and appreciation of mysticism, and his biography shows that he was no stranger to the mystical trance. But Tennyson's ethics are decidedly anti-mystical. The moral of his Arthurian epic really seems to be : " Do not pursue the Holy Grail, but obey your king, and be dutiful and active in practical life." In Tennyson the quest of the Holy Grail has as much to do with wrecking Arthur's great scheme, as Guinevere's unfaithfulness. Browning, we may be sure, would have made the Grail the centre of his story. It would have been never attained even by Galahad, but in the search for it the true knights would have done their life's work, and received, in doing it, their reward. In that unattainable ideal would have lain realisation of all attainable nobleness, and success for those who pursued it. This doctrine is very finely expounded in Colombe's Birthday :
"One great aim, like a guiding-star, above—
For Tennyson, the individual is less, and society more. He has (at least in the first half of his poetical career) a real belief in " progress," as preached by the science of his generation. He believed that the ape and tiger were being gradually eliminated. And in this process, knowledge and improved organisation are naturally important factors. The unreasoning passions must be curbed and repressed ; undisciplined aspirations must be sternly discouraged. All this is quite foreign to Browning. Progress, for him, is in the individual, not in the race, and obedience to law means very little to him. It is better to trust our deepest and strongest instincts than any conventional code. Earthly life is only a means of ascent to God. -While we are climbing spiritually, earthly failures do not matter at all, and even sins do not matter much. Browning's teaching is in danger of antinomianism, as one or two poems—The Flight of the Duchess and The Statue and the Bust, for example — prove. This is chiefly apparent when he is dealing with the subject of love. In Tennyson's eyes the danger is the gratification of passion in violation of law or conscience. In Browning, the danger is that we may sacrifice an ennobling passion to the world—to considerations of prudence or fear of public opinion. This explains his admiration for the unconventional life of the Bohemian artist, " Under the present conditions of industrial life, the artist is almost the only workman who can without reserve set himself to do his best." 1 Moreover, the artist knows that "richness of emotional life determines the intensity of the vision." Our heritage of glorious passion can not only be squandered —that we all know well enough—but it can also be hoarded till it perishes unused ; and this is perhaps a more complete failure than the other. The spendthrift of his emotions gets something ; the miser of them may gain the whole world, but he has lost his own soul. Browning's ethics are thus the very opposite of the meticulous counsels of mediæval Catholicism. To have avoided positive sins is a small matter for congratulation ; to have missed opportunities of fulness of life is a great matter for blame. So he dares to say : --
"Let a man contend to the uttermost
And the sin I impute to each. frustrate ghost
Low aims, despondency, and cowardice are the cardinal vices for Robert Browning, and next to these, intellectual arrogance. The basis of his religion was the conviction that there is a witness to the presence of God in the spirit of man ; a witness which declares itself in gleams and glimpses, "when the spirit's true endowments stand out plainly from its false ones." Even the worldly and disingenuous priest, Bishop Blougram, is made to say :
" Just when we're safest, there's a sunset touch,
But religion is not for him "the great Perhaps." He holds that assurance and illumination come to those who follow their noblest instincts—the instincts of love and healthy activity — and never doubt or look back. This confidence, which never flagged to the last, made him something better than an optimist—it made him a happy man. He was thoroughly convinced that the scheme of things means well, and that all things must work together for good to those who love God. And, believing as he did in the continuity of existence, he felt scorn for those who fear death. "Death, death," he said, "it is this harping on death that I despise so much. In fiction, in poetry, in art, in 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 momentarily dying body is none the less alive, and ever recruiting new forces of existence. Without death, which is our church-yardy, crape-like word for change, for growth, there could be no prolongation of that which we call life. Never say of me that I am dead." The same brave spirit appears in the poem ,Prospice, which perhaps gives us as clear a glimpse of the poet's inmost soul as any other ; and in the Epilogue, which is printed at his word of farewell. Death means very little to a Christian ; and to dwell in thought upon it, to gloat over it, to grow sentimental or maudlin about it, to harp upon it, in Browning's own phrase, is mere faithlessness or vulgarity. " There is no subject," says Spinoza, who for once may be quoted on the same side as Browning, "on which the wise man will think so seldom as on death."
There is one other point in Browning's mysticism which calls for a few words before I conclude. No poet before him had realised so fully the profound significance of the apparently trivial. Other poets have chosen themes for tragedy from the misfortunes of princes, or the clash of supernatural and Titanic forces. Browning can find a theme as elevating in a common police-case. Words-worth had often found thoughts too deep for tears in the meanest flower. Tennyson had reflected that a tiny plant growing on a wall contains implicitly the secret of what God and man is. But to find the universal significance of human meanness is a rarer gift. The murdering villain of the Ring and the Book, a licentious monk, a detected swindler, an agnostic priest — who before Browning had thought of a sympathetic study of such characters? There is something at once profoundly Christian and thoroughly scientific in his method. It belongs to his own generation, and still more perhaps to the younger generation whom he lived to teach ; but it was also, if we may say it reverently, the method of Jesus Christ, who despaired of nobody except a Pharisee, and counted nothing common or unclean. And if mysticism is correctly defined as the habit of mind which discerns the spiritual in common things, Browning may certainly be claimed as one of the band, in virtue of his manner of regarding ordinary human nature.
I think that I have now justified the statement which I made in my opening lecture, that the mystical type of religious thought has been well - represented in our literature. I have chosen examples as widely different from each other as could be found anywhere. No two lives could be more unlike than that of a mediæval anchoress, and that of the nineteenth century poet who lived much in society and enjoyed it. But the votaries of the inner light have something in common which goes deeper than the accidents of social position and outward habits. They agree in looking within themselves for their authority in matters of belief. It is this which makes the study of mysticism and mystical writers so attractive to many in our generation. Thousands are craving for a basis of belief which shall rest, not on tradition or authority or historical evidence, but on the ascertainable facts of human experience. And the mystics, it has been truly said, are the only through - going empiricists. They guide us to the perennial " fresh springs of religion, and present it to us as a living and active force, as palpable and undeniable as the so-called "forces of nature," though less easy to explain and control. Whether psychology will ever reduce the phenomena of mysticism to rule, it is impossible to say. I f it does, the validity of the testimony will be in no way impaired. It is to the study of religious experience that faith must look for the reinforcement which it needs against its many enemies. The religions of authority are tottering to their fall ; but the religion of the Spirit is still near the beginning of that triumphant course which Christ foretold for it on the last evening of His life : "When He, the Spirit of Truth is come, He will guide you into all truth. .
He will glorify Me ; for He will take of Mine, and will show it unto you." It is to the guidance of that Spirit, which, through manifold diversities of operations, divides to every man severally as He will, yet works in all harmoniously towards one end, that the Church of the twentieth century must commit itself for guidance ; not spurning the counsels of those who hold no ministerial commission to preach or teach, but welcoming from every quarter the testimony of those whose hearts God has touched.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Studies of English Mystics:
On The Psychology Of Mysticism
The Ancren Riwle And Julian Of Norwich
Mystical Phenomena With Walter Hylton
William Law On English Mystics
The Mysticism Of Wordsworth
The Mysticism Of Robert Browning