Emerson and Other Essays
John Jay Chapman
Part 2 out of 3
Boston who did their best according to the light of their day. Their
purpose and taste did all that high ideals and good taste can do, and no
more eminent literati have lived during this century. They gave the
country songs, narrative poems, odes, epigrams, essays, novels. They
chose their models well, and drew their materials from decent and likely
sources. They lived stainless lives, and died in their professors'
chairs honored by all men. For achievements of this sort we need hardly
use as strong language as Emerson does in describing contemporary
literature: "It exhibits a vast carcass of tradition every year with as
much solemnity as a new revelation."
The mass and volume of literature must always be traditional, and the
secondary writers of the world do nevertheless perform a function of
infinite consequence in the spread of thought. A very large amount of
first-hand thinking is not comprehensible to the average man until it
has been distilled and is fifty years old. The men who welcome new
learning as it arrives are the picked men, the minor poets of the next
age. To their own times these secondary men often seem great because
they are recognized and understood at once. We know the disadvantage
under which these Humanists of ours worked. The shadow of the time in
which they wrote hangs over us still. The conservatism and timidity of
our politics and of our literature to-day are due in part to that
fearful pressure which for sixty years was never lifted from the souls
of Americans. That conservatism and timidity may be seen in all our
past. They are in the rhetoric of Webster and in the style of Hawthorne.
They killed Poe. They created Bryant.
Since the close of our most blessed war, we have been left to face the
problems of democracy, unhampered by the terrible complications of
sectional strife. It has happened, however, that some of the tendencies
of our commercial civilization go toward strengthening and riveting upon
us the very traits encouraged by provincial disunion. Wendell Phillips,
with a cool grasp of understanding for which he is not generally given
credit, states the case as follows:--
"The general judgment is that the freest possible government
produces the freest possible men and women, the most individual, the
least servile to the judgment of others. But a moment's reflection
will show any man that this is an unreasonable expectation, and
that, on the contrary, entire equality and freedom in political
forms almost invariably tend to make the individual subside into the
mass and lose his identity in the general whole. Suppose we stood in
England to-night. There is the nobility, and here is the church.
There is the trading class, and here is the literary. A broad gulf
separates the four; and provided a member of either can conciliate
his own section, he can afford in a very large measure to despise
the opinions of the other three. He has to some extent a refuge and
a breakwater against the tyranny of what we call public opinion. But
in a country like ours, of absolute democratic equality, public
opinion is not only omnipotent, it is omnipresent. There is no
refuge from its tyranny, there is no hiding from its reach; and the
result is that if you take the old Greek lantern and go about to
seek among a hundred, you will find not one single American who has
not, or who does not fancy at least that he has, something to gain
or lose in his ambition, his social life, or his business, from the
good opinion and the votes of those around him. And the consequence
is that instead of being a mass of individuals, each one fearlessly
blurting out his own convictions, as a nation, compared to other
nations, we are a mass of cowards. More than all other people, we
are afraid of each other."
If we take a bird's-eye view of our history, we shall find that this
constant element of democratic pressure has always been so strong a
factor in moulding the character of our citizens, that there is less
difference than we could wish to see between the types of citizenship
produced before the war and after the war.
Charles Pollen, that excellent and worthy German who came to this
country while still a young man and who lived in the midst of the social
and intellectual life of Boston, felt the want of intellectual freedom
in the people about him. If one were obliged to describe the America of
to-day in a single sentence, one could hardly do it better than by a
sentence from a letter of Follen to Harriet Martineau written in 1837,
after the appearance of one of her books: "You have pointed out the two
most striking national characteristics, 'Deficiency of individual moral
independence and extraordinary mutual respect and kindness.'"
Much of what Emerson wrote about the United States in 1850 is true of
the United States to-day. It would be hard to find a civilized people
who are more timid, more cowed in spirit, more illiberal, than we. It is
easy to-day for the educated man who has read Bryce and Tocqueville to
account for the mediocrity of American literature. The merit of Emerson
was that he felt the atmospheric pressure without knowing its reason. He
felt he was a cabined, cribbed, confined creature, although every man
about him was celebrating Liberty and Democracy, and every day was
Fourth of July. He taxes language to its limits in order to express his
revolt. He says that no man should write except what he has discovered
in the process of satisfying his own curiosity, and that every man will
write well in proportion as he has contempt for the public.
Emerson seems really to have believed that if any man would only
resolutely be himself, he would turn out to be as great as Shakespeare.
He will not have it that anything of value can be monopolized. His
review of the world, whether under the title of Manners, Self-Reliance,
Fate, Experience, or what-not, leads him to the same thought. His
conclusion is always the finding of eloquence, courage, art, intellect,
in the breast of the humblest reader. He knows that we are full of
genius and surrounded by genius, and that we have only to throw
something off, not to acquire any new thing, in order to be bards,
prophets, Napoleons, and Goethes. This belief is the secret of his
stimulating power. It is this which gives his writings a radiance like
that which shone from his personality.
The deep truth shadowed forth by Emerson when he said that "all the
American geniuses lacked nerve and dagger" was illustrated by our best
scholar. Lowell had the soul of the Yankee, but in his habits of writing
he continued English tradition. His literary essays are full of charm.
The Commemoration Ode is the high-water mark of the attempt to do the
impossible. It is a fine thing, but it is imitative and secondary. It
has paid the inheritance tax. Twice, however, at a crisis of pressure,
Lowell assumed his real self under the guise of a pseudonym; and with
his own hand he rescued a language, a type, a whole era of civilization
from oblivion. Here gleams the dagger and here is Lowell revealed. His
limitations as a poet, his too much wit, his too much morality, his
mixture of shrewdness and religion, are seen to be the very elements of
power. The novelty of the Biglow Papers is as wonderful as their
world-old naturalness. They take rank with greatness, and they were the
strongest political tracts of their time. They imitate nothing; they are
Emerson himself was the only man of his times who consistently and
utterly expressed himself, never measuring himself for a moment with the
ideals of others, never troubling himself for a moment with what
literature was or how literature should be created. The other men of his
epoch, and among whom he lived, believed that literature was a very
desirable article, a thing you could create if you were only smart
enough. But Emerson had no literary ambition. He cared nothing for
belles-lettres. The consequence is that he stands above his age like a
colossus. While he lived his figure could be seen from Europe towering
like Atlas over the culture of the United States.
Great men are not always like wax which their age imprints. They are
often the mere negation and opposite of their age. They give it the lie.
They become by revolt the very essence of all the age is not, and that
part of the spirit which is suppressed in ten thousand breasts gets
lodged, isolated, and breaks into utterance in one. Through Emerson
spoke the fractional spirits of a multitude. He had not time, he had not
energy left over to understand himself; he was a mouthpiece.
If a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that
cry will be Emerson. The region of thought he lived in, the figures of
speech he uses, are of an intellectual plane so high that the
circumstances which produced them may be forgotten; they are
indifferent. The Constitution, Slavery, the War itself, are seen as mere
circumstances. They did not confuse him while he lived; they are not
necessary to support his work now that it is finished. Hence comes it
that Emerson is one of the world's voices. He was heard afar off. His
foreign influence might deserve a chapter by itself. Conservatism is not
confined to this country. It is the very basis of all government. The
bolts Emerson forged, his thought, his wit, his perception, are not
provincial. They were found to carry inspiration to England and
Germany. Many of the important men of the last half-century owe him a
debt. It is not yet possible to give any account of his influence
abroad, because the memoirs which will show it are only beginning to be
published. We shall have them in due time; for Emerson was an outcome of
the world's progress. His appearance marks the turning-point in the
history of that enthusiasm for pure democracy which has tinged the
political thought of the world for the past one hundred and fifty years.
The youths of England and Germany may have been surprised at hearing
from America a piercing voice of protest against the very influences
which were crushing them at home. They could not realize that the chief
difference between Europe and America is a difference in the rate of
speed with which revolutions in thought are worked out.
While the radicals of Europe were revolting in 1848 against the abuses
of a tyranny whose roots were in feudalism, Emerson, the great radical
of America, the arch-radical of the world, was revolting against the
evils whose roots were in universal suffrage. By showing the identity in
essence of all tyranny, and by bringing back the attention of political
thinkers to its starting-point, the value of human character, he has
advanced the political thought of the world by one step. He has pointed
out for us in this country to what end our efforts must be bent.
* * * * *
It would be an ill turn for an essay-writer to destroy Walt
Whitman,--for he was discovered by the essayists, and but for them his
notoriety would have been postponed for fifty years. He is the mare's
nest of "American Literature," and scarce a contributor to The Saturday
Review but has at one time or another raised a flag over him.
The history of these chronic discoveries of Whitman as a poet, as a
force, as a something or a somebody, would write up into the best
possible monograph on the incompetency of the Anglo-Saxon in matters of
English literature is the literature of genius, and the Englishman is
the great creator. His work outshines the genius of Greece. His wealth
outvalues the combined wealth of all modern Europe. The English mind is
the only unconscious mind the world has ever seen. And for this reason
the English mind is incapable of criticism. There has never been an
English critic of the first rank, hardly a critic of any rank; and the
critical work of England consists either of an academical bandying of a
few old canons and shibboleths out of Horace or Aristotle, or else of
the merest impressionism, and wordy struggle to convey the sentiment
awakened by the thing studied.
Now, true criticism means an attempt to find out what something is, not
for the purpose of judging it, or of imitating it, nor for the purpose
of illustrating something else, nor for any other ulterior purpose
The so-called canons of criticism are of about as much service to a
student of literature as the Nicene Creed and the Lord's Prayer are to
the student of church history. They are a part of his subject, of
course, but if he insists upon using them as a tape measure and a
divining-rod he will produce a judgment of no possible value to any one,
and interesting only as a record of a most complex state of mind.
The educated gentlemen of England have surveyed literature with these
time-honored old instruments, and hordes of them long ago rushed to
America with their theodolites and their quadrants in their hands. They
sized us up and they sized us down, and they never could find greatness
in literature among us till Walt Whitman appeared and satisfied the
Here was a comet, a man of the people, a new man, who spoke no known
language, who was very uncouth and insulting, who proclaimed himself a
"barbaric yawp," and who corresponded to the English imagination with
the unpleasant and rampant wildness of everything in America,--with
Mormonism and car factories, steamboat explosions, strikes, repudiation,
and whiskey; whose form violated every one of their minor canons as
America violated every one of their social ideas.
Then, too, Whitman arose out of the war, as Shakespeare arose out of the
destruction of the Armada, as the Greek poets arose out of the repulse
of the Persians. It was impossible, it was unprecedented, that a
national revulsion should not produce national poetry--and lo! here was
It may safely be said that the discovery of Whitman as a poet caused
many a hard-thinking Oxford man to sleep quietly at night. America was
The Englishman travels, but he travels after his mind has been burnished
by the university, and at an age when the best he can do in the line of
thought is to make an intelligent manipulation of the few notions he
leaves home with. He departs an educated gentleman, taking with him his
portmanteau and his ideas. He returns a travelled gentleman, bringing
with him his ideas and his portmanteau. He would as soon think of
getting his coats from Kansas as his thoughts from travel. And therefore
every impression of America which the travelling Englishman experienced
confirmed his theory of Whitman. Even Rudyard Kipling, who does not in
any sense fall under the above description, has enough Anglo-Saxon blood
in him to see in this country only the fulfilment of the fantastic
notions of his childhood.
But imagine an Oxford man who had eyes in his head, and who should come
to this country, never having heard of Whitman. He would see an
industrious and narrow-minded population, commonplace and monotonous, so
uniform that one man can hardly be distinguished from another,
law-abiding, timid, and traditional; a community where the individual is
suppressed by law, custom, and instinct, and in which, by consequence,
there are few or no great men, even counting those men thrust by
necessary operation of the laws of trade into commercial prominence,
and who claim scientific rather than personal notice.
The culture of this people, its architecture, letters, drama, etc., he
would find were, of necessity, drawn from European models; and in its
poetry, so far as poetry existed, he would recognize a somewhat feeble
imitation of English poetry. The newspaper verses very fairly represent
the average talent for poetry and average appreciation of it, and the
newspaper verse of the United States is precisely what one would expect
from a decorous and unimaginative population,--intelligent,
conservative, and uninspired.
Above the newspaper versifiers float the minor poets, and above these
soar the greater poets; and the characteristics of the whole hierarchy
are the same as those of the humblest acolyte,--intelligence,
conservatism, conventional morality.
Above the atmosphere they live in, above the heads of all the American
poets, and between them and the sky, float the Constitution of the
United States and the traditions and forms of English literature.
This whole culture is secondary and tertiary, and it truly represents
the respectable mediocrity from which it emanates. Whittier and
Longfellow have been much read in their day,--read by mill-hands and
clerks and school-teachers, by lawyers and doctors and divines, by the
reading classes of the republic, whose ideals they truly spoke for,
whose yearnings and spiritual life they truly expressed.
Now, the Oxford traveller would not have found Whitman at all. He would
never have met a man who had heard of him, nor seen a man like him.
The traveller, as he opened his Saturday Review upon his return to
London, and read the current essay on Whitman, would have been faced by
a problem fit to puzzle Montesquieu, a problem to floor Goethe.
And yet Whitman is representative. He is a real product, he has a real
and most interesting place in the history of literature, and he speaks
for a class and type of human nature whose interest is more than local,
whose prevalence is admitted,--a type which is one of the products of
the civilization of the century, perhaps of all centuries, and which has
a positively planetary significance.
There are, in every country, individuals who, after a sincere attempt to
take a place in organized society, revolt from the drudgery of it,
content themselves with the simplest satisfactions of the grossest need
of nature, so far as subsistence is concerned, and rediscover the
infinite pleasures of life in the open air.
If the roadside, the sky, the distant town, the soft buffeting of the
winds of heaven, are a joy to the aesthetic part of man, the freedom
from all responsibility and accountability is Nirvana to his moral
nature. A man who has once tasted these two joys together, the joy of
being in the open air and the joy of being disreputable and unashamed,
has touched an experience which the most close-knit and determined
nature might well dread. Life has no terrors for such a man. Society has
no hold on him. The trifling inconveniences of the mode of life are as
nothing compared with its satisfactions. The worm that never dies is
dead in him. The great mystery of consciousness and of effort is quietly
dissolved into the vacant happiness of sensation,--not base sensation,
but the sensation of the dawn and the sunset, of the mart and the
theatre, and the stars, the panorama of the universe.
To the moral man, to the philosopher or the business man, to any one who
is a cog in the wheel of some republic, all these things exist for the
sake of something else. He must explain or make use of them, or define
his relation to them. He spends the whole agony of his existence in an
endeavor to docket them and deal with them. Hampered as he is by all
that has been said and done before, he yet feels himself driven on to
summarize, and wreak himself upon the impossible task of grasping this
cosmos with his mind, of holding it in his hand, of subordinating it to
The tramp is freed from all this. By an act as simple as death, he has
put off effort and lives in peace.
It is no wonder that every country in Europe shows myriads of these men,
as it shows myriads of suicides annually. It is no wonder, though the
sociologists have been late in noting it, that specimens of the type are
strikingly identical in feature in every country of the globe.
The habits, the physique, the tone of mind, even the sign-language and
some of the catch-words, of tramps are the same everywhere. The men are
not natally outcasts. They have always tried civilized life. Their early
training, at least their early attitude of mind towards life, has
generally been respectable. That they should be criminally inclined
goes without saying, because their minds have been freed from the
sanctions which enforce law. But their general innocence is, under the
circumstances, very remarkable, and distinguishes them from the criminal
When we see one of these men sitting on a gate, or sauntering down a
city street, how often have we wondered how life appeared to him; what
solace and what problems it presented. How often have we longed to know
the history of such a soul, told, not by the police-blotter, but by the
poet or novelist in the heart of the man!
Walt Whitman has given utterance to the soul of the tramp. A man of
genius has passed sincerely and normally through this entire experience,
himself unconscious of what he was, and has left a record of it to
enlighten and bewilder the literary world.
In Whitman's works the elemental parts of a man's mind and the fragments
of imperfect education may be seen merging together, floating and
sinking in a sea of insensate egotism and rhapsody, repellent, divine,
Our inability to place the man intellectually, and find a type and
reason for his intellectual state, comes from this: that the revolt he
represents is not an intellectual revolt. Ideas are not at the bottom of
it. It is a revolt from drudgery. It is the revolt of laziness.
There is no intellectual coherence in his talk, but merely pathological
coherence. Can the insulting jumble of ignorance and effrontery, of
scientific phrase and French paraphrase, of slang and inspired
adjective, which he puts forward with the pretence that it represents
thought, be regarded, from any possible point of view, as a philosophy,
or a system, or a belief? Is it individualism of any statable kind? Do
the thoughts and phrases which float about in it have a meaning which
bears any relation to the meaning they bear in the language of thinkers?
Certainly not. Does all the patriotic talk, the talk about the United
States and its future, have any significance as patriotism? Does it
poetically represent the state of feeling of any class of American
citizens towards their country? Or would you find the nearest equivalent
to this emotion in the breast of the educated tramp of France, or
Germany, or England? The speech of Whitman is English, and his metaphors
and catch-words are apparently American, but the emotional content is
cosmic. He put off patriotism when he took to the road.
The attraction exercised by his writings is due to their flashes of
reality. Of course the man was a poseur, a most horrid mountebank and
ego-maniac. His tawdry scraps of misused idea, of literary smartness, of
dog-eared and greasy reminiscence, repel us. The world of men remained
for him as his audience, and he did to civilized society the continuous
compliment of an insane self-consciousness in its presence.
Perhaps this egotism and posturing is the revenge of a stilled
conscience, and we ought to read in it the inversion of the social
instincts. Perhaps all tramps are poseurs. But there is this to be said
for Whitman, that whether or not his posing was an accident of a
personal nature, or an organic result of his life, he was himself an
authentic creature. He did not sit in a study and throw off his saga of
balderdash, but he lived a life, and it is by his authenticity, and not
by his poses, that he has survived.
The descriptions of nature, the visual observation of life, are
first-hand and wonderful. It was no false light that led the Oxonians to
call some of his phrases Homeric. The pundits were right in their
curiosity over him; they went astray only in their attempt at
It is a pity that truth and beauty turn to cant on the second delivery,
for it makes poetry, as a profession, impossible. The lyric poets have
always spent most of their time in trying to write lyric poetry, and the
very attempt disqualifies them.
A poet who discovers his mission is already half done for; and even
Wordsworth, great genius though he was, succeeded in half drowning his
talents in his parochial theories, in his own self-consciousness and
Walt Whitman thought he had a mission. He was a professional poet. He
had purposes and theories about poetry which he started out to enforce
and illustrate. He is as didactic as Wordsworth, and is thinking of
himself the whole time. He belonged, moreover, to that class of
professionals who are always particularly self-centred, autocratic,
vain, and florid,--the class of quacks. There are, throughout society,
men, and they are generally men of unusual natural powers, who, after
gaining a little unassimilated education, launch out for themselves and
set up as authorities on their own account. They are, perhaps, the
successors of the old astrologers, in that what they seek to establish
is some personal professorship or predominance. The old occultism and
mystery was resorted to as the most obvious device for increasing the
personal importance of the magician; and the chief difference to-day
between a regular physician and a quack is, that the quack pretends to
know it all.
Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were men of phenomenal capacity, who
actually invented a religion and created a community by the apparent
establishment of supernatural and occult powers. The phrenologists, the
venders of patent medicine, the Christian Scientists, the single-taxers,
and all who proclaim panaceas and nostrums make the same majestic and
pontifical appeal to human nature. It is this mystical power, this
religious element, which floats them, sells the drugs, cures the sick,
and packs the meetings.
By temperament and education Walt Whitman was fitted to be a prophet of
this kind. He became a quack poet, and hampered his talents by the
imposition of a monstrous parade of rattletrap theories and professions.
If he had not been endowed with a perfectly marvellous capacity, a
wealth of nature beyond the reach and plumb of his rodomontade, he
would have been ruined from the start. As it is, he has filled his work
with grimace and vulgarity. He writes a few lines of epic directness and
cyclopean vigor and naturalness, and then obtrudes himself and his
He has the bad taste bred in the bone of all missionaries and palmists,
the sign-manual of a true quack. This bad taste is nothing more than the
offensive intrusion of himself and his mission into the matter in hand.
As for his real merits and his true mission, too much can hardly be said
in his favor. The field of his experience was narrow, and not in the
least intellectual. It was narrow because of his isolation from human
life. A poet like Browning, or Heine, or Alfred de Musset deals
constantly with the problems and struggles that arise in civilized life
out of the close relationships, the ties, the duties and desires of the
human heart. He explains life on its social side. He gives us some more
or less coherent view of an infinitely complicated matter. He is a
guide-book or a note-book, a highly trained and intelligent companion.
Walt Whitman has no interest in any of these things. He was fortunately
so very ignorant and untrained that his mind was utterly incoherent and
unintellectual. His mind seems to be submerged and to have become almost
a part of his body. The utter lack of concentration which resulted from
living his whole life in the open air has left him spontaneous and
unaccountable. And the great value of his work is, that it represents
the spontaneous and unaccountable functioning of the mind and body in
It is doubtful whether a man ever enjoyed life more intensely than Walt
Whitman, or expressed the physical joy of mere living more completely.
He is robust, all tingling with health and the sensations of health. All
that is best in his poetry is the expression of bodily well-being.
A man who leaves his office and gets into a canoe on a Canadian river,
sure of ten days' release from the cares of business and housekeeping,
has a thrill of joy such as Walt Whitman has here and there thrown into
his poetry. One might say that to have done this is the greatest
accomplishment in literature. Walt Whitman, in some of his lines, breaks
the frame of poetry and gives us life in the throb.
It is the throb of the whole physical system of a man who breathes the
open air and feels the sky over him. "When lilacs last in the dooryard
bloomed" is a great lyric. Here is a whole poem without a trace of
self-consciousness. It is little more than a description of nature. The
allusions to Lincoln and to the funeral are but a word or two--merest
suggestions of the tragedy. But grief, overwhelming grief, is in every
line of it, the grief which has been transmuted into this sensitiveness
to the landscape, to the song of the thrush, to the lilac's bloom, and
Here is truth to life of the kind to be found in King Lear or Guy
Mannering, in AEschylus or Burns.
Walt Whitman himself could not have told you why the poem was good. Had
he had any intimation of the true reason, he would have spoiled the
poem. The recurrence and antiphony of the thrush, the lilac, the thought
of death, the beauty of nature, are in a balance and dream of natural
symmetry such as no cunning could come at, no conscious art could do
other than spoil.
It is ungrateful to note Whitman's limitations, his lack of human
passion, the falseness of many of his notions about the American people.
The man knew the world merely as an observer, he was never a living part
of it, and no mere observer can understand the life about him. Even his
work during the war was mainly the work of an observer, and his poems
and notes upon the period are picturesque. As to his talk about comrades
and Manhattanese car-drivers, and brass-founders displaying their brawny
arms round each other's brawny necks, all this gush and sentiment in
Whitman's poetry is false to life. It has a lyrical value, as
representing Whitman's personal feelings, but no one else in the country
was ever found who felt or acted like this.
In fact, in all that concerns the human relations Walt Whitman is as
unreal as, let us say, William Morris, and the American mechanic would
probably prefer Sigurd the Volsung, and understand it better than
This falseness to the sentiment of the American is interwoven with such
wonderful descriptions of American sights and scenery, of ferryboats,
thoroughfares, cataracts, and machine-shops that it is not strange the
foreigners should have accepted the gospel.
On the whole, Whitman, though he solves none of the problems of life and
throws no light on American civilization, is a delightful appearance,
and a strange creature to come out of our beehive. This man committed
every unpardonable sin against our conventions, and his whole life was
an outrage. He was neither chaste, nor industrious, nor religious. He
patiently lived upon cold pie and tramped the earth in triumph.
He did really live the life he liked to live, in defiance of all men,
and this is a great desert, a most stirring merit. And he gave, in his
writings, a true picture of himself and of that life,--a picture which
the world had never seen before, and which it is probable the world will
not soon cease to wonder at.
* * * * *
A STUDY OF ROMEO
The plays of Shakespeare marshal themselves in the beyond. They stand in
a place outside of our deduction. Their cosmos is greater than our
philosophy. They are like the forces of nature and the operations of
life in the vivid world about us. We may measure our intellectual growth
by the new horizons we see opening within them. So long as they continue
to live and change, to expand and deepen, to be filled with new harmony
and new suggestion, we may rest content; we are still growing. At the
moment we think we have comprehended them, at the moment we see them as
stationary things, we may be sure something is wrong; we are beginning
to petrify. Our fresh interest in life has been arrested. There is,
therefore, danger in an attempt to "size up" Shakespeare. We cannot help
setting down as a coxcomb any man who has done it to his own
satisfaction. He has pigeon-holed himself. He will not get lost. If you
want him, you can lay your hand on him. He has written an autobiography.
He has "sized up" himself.
In writing about Shakespeare, it is excusable to put off the armor of
criticism, and speak in a fragmentary and inconclusive manner, lest by
giving way to conviction, by encouraging ourselves into positive
beliefs, we hasten the inevitable and grow old before our time.
Perhaps some such apology is needed to introduce the observations on the
character of Romeo which are here thrown together, and the remarks about
the play itself, the acting, and the text.
It is believed by some scholars that in the second quarto edition of
Romeo and Juliet, published in 1599, Shakespeare's revising hand can be
seen, and that the differences between the first and second editions
show the amendments, additions, and corrections with which Shakespeare
saw fit to embellish his work in preparing it for the press. If this
were actually the case; if we could lay the two texts on the table
before us, convinced that one of them was Shakespeare's draft or acting
copy, and the other Shakespeare's finished work; and if, by comparing
the two, we could enter into the workshop and forge of his mind,--it
would seem as if we had at last found an avenue of approach towards this
great personality, this intellect the most powerful that has ever
illumined human life. No other literary inquiry could compare in
interest with such a study as this; for the relation which Shakespeare
himself bore to the plays he created is one of the mysteries and blank
places in history, a gap that staggers the mind and which imagination
The student who examines both texts will be apt to conclude that the
second is by no means a revised edition of the first, but that
(according to another theory) the first is a pirated edition of the
play, stolen by the printer, and probably obtained by means of a
reporter who took down the lines as they were spoken on the stage. The
stage directions in the first edition are not properly the stage
directions of a dramatist as to what should be done on the stage, but
seem rather the records of an eye-witness as to what he saw happen on
the stage. The mistakes of the reporter (or the perversions of the
actors) as seen in the first edition generally injure the play; and it
was from this circumstance--the frequency of blotches in the first
edition--that the idea gained currency that the second edition was an
example of Shakespeare's never-failing tact in bettering his own lines.
Perhaps, after all, it would little advance our understanding of the
plays, or solve the essential puzzle,--that they actually had an
author,--if we could follow every stroke of his revising pen. We should
observe, no doubt, refinement of characterization, changes of stage
effect, the addition of flourishes and beauties; but their origin and
true meaning, the secret of their life, would be as safe as it is at
present, as securely lost in the midst of all this demonstration as the
manuscripts themselves were in the destruction of the Globe Theatre.
If we must then abandon the hope of seeing Shakespeare in his workshop,
we may, nevertheless, obtain from the pirated text some notion of the
manner in which Shakespeare was staged in his own day, and of how he
fared at the hands of the early actors. Romeo and Juliet is an
exceptionally difficult play to act, and the difficulties seem to have
been about the same in Shakespeare's time as they are to-day. They are,
in fact, inherent in the structure of the work itself.
As artists advance in life, they develop, by growing familiar with the
conditions of their art, the power of concealing its limitations,--a
faculty in which even the greatest artists are often deficient in their
early years. There is an anecdote of Schumann which somewhat crudely
illustrates this. It is said that in one of his early symphonies he
introduced a passage leading up to a climax, at which the horns were to
take up the aria in triumph. At the rehearsal, when the moment came for
the horns to trumpet forth their message of victory, there was heard a
sort of smothered braying which made everybody laugh. The composer had
arranged his climax so that it fell upon a note which the horns could
not sound except with closed stops. The passage had to be rewritten. The
young painter is frequently found struggling with subjects, with effects
of light, which are almost impossible to render, and which perhaps an
older man would not attempt. It is not surprising to find among the
early works of Shakespeare that some of the characters, however true to
life,--nay, because true to life,--are almost impossible to be
represented on the stage. Certainly Romeo presents us with a character
of the kind.
Shakespeare's knowledge of human nature seems to have antedated his
knowledge of the stage. In imagining the character of Romeo, a character
to fit the plot of the old story, he took little thought for his actors.
In conjuring up the probabilities which would lead a man into such a
course of conduct as Romeo's, Shakespeare had in his mind the
probabilities and facts in real life rather than the probabilities
demanded by the stage.
Romeo must be a man almost wholly made up of emotion, a creature very
young, a lyric poet in the intensity of his sensations, a child in his
helplessness beneath the ever-varying currents and whirlpools of his
feeling. He lives in a walking and frenzied dream, comes in contact with
real life only to injure himself and others, and finally drives with the
collected energy of his being into voluntary shipwreck upon the rocks of
This man must fall in love at first sight. He must marry clandestinely.
He must be banished for having taken part in a street fight, and must
return to slay himself upon the tomb of his beloved.
Shakespeare, with his passion for realism, devotes several scenes at the
opening of the play to the explanation of Romeo's state of mind. He will
give us a rationalistic account of love at first sight by bringing on
this young poet in a blind chaos of emotion owing to his rejection by a
woman not otherwise connected with the story. It is perfectly true that
this is the best and perhaps the only explanation of love at first
sight. The effect upon Romeo's very boyish, unreal, and almost
unpleasant lovesickness of the rejection (for which we must always
respect Rosaline) is to throw him, and all the unstable elements of
which he is made, into a giddy whirl, which, after a day or two, it will
require only the glance of a pair of eyes to precipitate into the very
elixir of true love.
All this is true, but no audience cares about the episode or requires
the explanation. Indeed, it jars upon the sentimental notion of many
persons to this day, and in many stage versions it is avoided.
These preparatory scenes bring out in a most subtle way the egoism at
the basis of Romeo's character,--the same lyrical egoism that is in all
his language and in all his conduct. When we first see Romeo, he is
already in an uneasy dream. He is wandering, aloof from his friends and
absorbed in himself. On meeting Juliet he passes from his first dream
into a second dream. On learning of the death of Juliet he passes into
still a third and quite different dream,--or stage of dream,--a stage in
which action is necessary, and in which he displays the calculating
intellect of a maniac. The mental abstraction of Romeo continues even
after he has met Juliet. In Capulet's garden, despite the directness of
Juliet, he is still in his reveries. The sacred wonder of the hour turns
all his thoughts, not into love, but into poetry. Juliet's anxieties are
practical. She asks him about his safety, how he came there, how he
expects to escape. He answers in madrigals. His musings are almost
impersonal. The power of the moonlight is over him, and the power of the
scene, of which Juliet is only a part.
"With love's light wings did I o'er-perch these walls;
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do that dares love attempt;
Therefore thy kinsmen are no let to me.
* * * * *
Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops--
* * * * *
It is my soul that calls upon my name:
How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears."
These reflections are almost "asides." They ought hardly to be spoken
aloud. They denote that Romeo is still in his trance. They have,
however, another and unfortunate influence: they retard the action of
the play. As we read the play to ourselves, this accompaniment of
lyrical feeling on Romeo's part does not interfere with our enjoyment.
It seems to accentuate the more direct and human strain of Juliet's
But on the stage the actor who plays Romeo requires the very highest
powers. While speaking at a distance from Juliet, and in a constrained
position, he must by his voice and gestures convey these subtlest shades
of feeling, throw these garlands of verse into his talk without
interrupting its naturalness, give all the "asides" in such a manner
that the audience feels they are in place, even as the reader does. It
is no wonder that the role of Romeo is one of the most difficult in all
Shakespeare. The demands made upon the stage are almost more than the
stage can meet. The truth to nature is of a kind that the stage is
almost powerless to render.
The character of Romeo cannot hope to be popular. Such pure passion,
such unreasonable giving way, is not easily forgiven in a man. He must
roll on the floor and blubber and kick. There is no getting away from
this. He is not Romeo unless he cries like a baby or a Greek hero. This
is the penalty for being a lyric poet. Had he used his mind more upon
the problems of his love, and less upon its celebration in petalled
phrases, his mind would not have deserted him so lamentably in the hour
of his need. In fact, throughout the play, Romeo, by the exigencies of
the plot, is in fair danger of becoming contemptible. For one instant
only does he rise into respectability,--at the moment of his quarrel
with Tybalt. At this crisis he is stung into life by the death of
Mercutio, and acts like a man. The ranting manner in which it is
customary to give Romeo's words in this passage of the play shows how
far most actors are from understanding the true purport of the lines;
how far from realizing that these few lines are the only opportunity the
actor has of establishing the character of Romeo as a gentleman, a man
of sense and courage, a formidable fellow, not unfit to be the hero of a
"Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain!
Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire-ey'd fury be my conduct now!
Now, Tybalt, take the 'villain' back again
That late thou gay'st me;--for Mercutio's soul
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine to keep him company:
Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him."
The first three lines are spoken by Romeo to himself. They are a
reflection, not a declamation,--a reflection upon which he instantly
acts. He assumes the calmness of a man of his rank who is about to
fight. More than this, Romeo, the man of words and moods, when once
roused, as we shall see later, in a worser cause,--when once pledged to
action,--Romeo shines with a sort of fatalistic spiritual power. He is
now visibly dedicated to this quarrel. We feel sure that he will kill
Tybalt in the encounter. The appeal to the supernatural is in his very
gesture. The audience--nay, Tybalt himself--gazes with awe on this
sudden apparition of Romeo as a man of action.
This highly satisfactory conduct is soon swept away by his behavior on
hearing the news of his banishment. The boy seems to be without much
stamina, after all. He is a pitiable object, and does not deserve the
love of fair lady.
At Mantua the tide of his feelings has turned again, and by one of those
natural reactions which he himself takes note of he wakes up
unaccountably happy, "and all this day an unaccustom'd spirit lifts him
above the ground with cheerful thoughts." It is the lightning before the
"Her body sleeps to Capel's monument,
And her immortal part with angels lives.
I saw her laid low in her kindred's vault,
And presently took post to tell it you."
Balthasar makes no attempt to break the news gently. The blow descends
on Romeo when he least expects it. He is not spared. The conduct of
Romeo on hearing of Juliet's death is so close to nature as to be nature
itself, yet it happens to be conduct almost impossible to be given on
the stage. _He does nothing._ He is stunned. He collapses. For fully
five minutes he does not speak, and yet in these five minutes he must
show to the audience that his nature has been shaken to its foundations.
The delirium of miraculously beautiful poetry is broken. His words are
gone. His emotion is paralyzed, but his mind is alert. He seems suddenly
to be grown up,--a man, and not a boy,--and a man of action. "Is it even
so?" is all he says. He orders post-horses, ink and paper, in a few
rapid sentences; it is evident that before speaking at all he has
determined what he will do, and from now on to the end of the play Romeo
is different from his old self, for a new Romeo has appeared. He is in a
state of intense and calm exultation. All his fluctuating emotions have
been stilled or stunned. He gives his orders in staccato. We feel that
he knows what he is going to do, and will certainly accomplish it.
Meanwhile his mind is dominant. It is preternaturally active. His
"asides," which before were lyrical, now become the comments of an acute
intellect. His vivid and microscopic recollection of the apothecary
shop, his philosophical bantering with the apothecary, his sudden
violence to Balthasar at the entrance to the tomb, and his as sudden
friendliness, his words and conflict with Paris, whom he kills
incidentally, absent-mindedly, and, as it were, with his left hand,
without malice and without remorse,--all these things show an intellect
working at high pressure, while the spirit of the man is absorbed in
another and more important matter.
There is a certain state of mind in which the will to do is so soon
followed by the act itself that one may say the act is automatic. The
thought has already begun to be executed even while it is being formed.
This occurs especially where the intent is to do some horrid deed which
requires preparation, firmness of purpose, ingenuity, and, above all,
"Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection."
This is the phase through which Romeo is passing on the way from Mantua
to Verona. His own words give us a picture of him during that ride:--
"What said my man when my betossed soul
Did not attend him as we rode?"
He has come like an arrow, his mind closed to the external world,
himself in the blind clutch of his own deadly purpose, driving on
towards its fulfilment. Only at the end, when he stands before the bier
of Juliet, sure of his will, beyond the reach of hindrance, alone for
the first time,--only then is his spirit released in floods of
eloquence; then does his triumphant purpose break into speech, and his
words soar up like the flames of a great bonfire of precious incense
streaming upward in exultation and in happiness.
The whole course of these last scenes of Romeo's life, which are
scarcely longer than this description of them, is in the highest degree
naturalistic; but the scenes are in the nature of things so difficult to
present on the stage as to be fairly impossible. The very long, the very
minute description of the apothecary's shop, given by a man whose heart
has stopped beating, but whose mind is at work more actively and more
accurately than it has ever worked before, is a thing highly sane as to
its words. It must be done quietly, rapidly, and yet the impression must
be created, which is created upon Balthasar, that Romeo is not in his
right mind. A friend seeing him would cross the street to ask what was
The whole character of Romeo, from the beginning, has been imagined with
reference to this self-destroying consummation. From his first speech we
might have suspected that something destructive would come out of this
There is a type of highly organized being, not well fitted for this
world, whose practical activities are drowned in a sea of feeling.
Egoists by their constitution, they become dangerous beings when vexed,
cornered, or thwarted by society. Their fine energies have had no
training in the painful constructive processes of civilization. Their
first instincts, when goaded into activity, are instincts of
destruction. They know no compromise. If they are not to have all, then
no one shall possess anything. Romeo is not suffering in this final
scene. He is experiencing the greatest pleasure of his life. He glories
in his deed. It satisfies his soul. It gives him supreme spiritual
activity. The deed brings widespread desolation, but to this he is
indifferent, for it means the destruction of the prison against which
his desires have always beaten their wings, the destruction of a
material and social universe from which he has always longed to be free.
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh."
How much of all this psychology may we suppose was rendered apparent to
the motley collection of excitable people who flocked to see the
play--which appears to have been a popular one--in the years 1591-97?
Probably as much as may be gathered by an audience to-day from a
tolerable representation of the piece. The subtler truths of Shakespeare
have always been lost upon the stage. In turning over the first quarto
of Romeo and Juliet, we may see that many such matters were pruned
ruggedly off by the actors. The early audiences, like the popular
audiences of to-day, doubtless regarded action as the first merit of a
play, and the stage managers must have understood this. It is noticeable
that, in the authentic text, the street fight with which this play opens
is a carefully-worked-up scene, which comes to a climax in the entry of
the prince. The reporter gives a few words only to a description of the
scene. No doubt, in Shakespeare's time, the characters spoke very
rapidly or all at once. It is impossible that the longer plays, like
King Lear, should have been finished in an evening, unless the scenes
moved with a hurry of life very different from the declamatory leisure
with which our actors move from scene to scene. To make plain the course
of the story was evidently the chief aim of the stage managers. The
choruses are finger-posts. It is true that the choruses in Shakespeare
are generally so overloaded with curious ornament as to be
incomprehensible except as explanations of things already understood.
The prologue to Romeo and Juliet is a riddle to which the play is the
answer. One might at first suppose that the need of such finger-posts
betrayed a dull audience, but no dull person was ever enlightened by
Shakespeare's choruses. They play variations on the theme. They instruct
only the instructed.
If interest in the course of the story be the first excitement to the
theatre-goer, interest in seeing a picture of contemporary manners is
probably the second. Our chief loss in reading Shakespeare is the loss
of the society he depicts, and which we know only through him. In every
line and scene there must be meanings which have vanished forever with
the conditions on which they comment. A character on the stage has need,
at the feeblest, of only just so much vitality as will remind us of
something we know in real life. The types of Shakespeare which have been
found substantial enough to survive the loss of their originals must
have had an interest for the first audiences, both in nature and in
intensity, very different from their interest to us. The high life
depicted by Shakespeare has disappeared. No one of us has ever known a
Mercutio. Fortunately, the types of society seem to change less in the
lower orders than in the upper classes. England swarms with old women
like Juliet's nurse; and as to these characters in Shakespeare whose
originals still survive, and as to them only, we may feel that we are
near the Elizabethans.
We should undoubtedly suffer some disenchantment by coming in contact
with these coarse and violent people. How much do the pictures of
contemporary England given us by the novelists stand in need of
correction by a visit to the land! How different is the thing from the
abstract! Or, to put the same thought in a more obvious light, how
fantastic are the ideas of the Germans about Shakespeare! How Germanized
does he come forth from their libraries and from their green-rooms!
We in America, with our formal manners, our bloodless complexions, our
perpetual decorum and self-suppression, are about as much in sympathy
with the real element of Shakespeare's plays as a Baptist parson is with
a fox-hunt. Our blood is stirred by the narration, but our constitution
could never stand the reality. As we read we translate all things into
the dialect of our province; or if we must mouth, let us say that we
translate the dialect of the English province into the language of our
empire; but we still translate. Mercutio, on inspection, would turn out
to be not a gentleman,--and indeed he is not; Juliet, to be a most
extraordinary young person; Tybalt, a brute and ruffian, a type from the
plantation; and the only man with whom we should feel at all at ease
would be the County Paris, in whom we should all recognize a perfectly
bred man. "What a man!" we should cry. "Why, he's a man of wax!"
* * * * *
MICHAEL ANGELO'S SONNETS
Michael Angelo is revealed by his sonnets. He wears the triple crown of
painter, poet, and sculptor, and his genius was worshipped with a kind
of awe even while he lived, yet we know the man best through these
little pieces of himself which he broke off and gave to his friends. The
fragments vibrated with the life of the man, and were recognized as
wonderful things. Even in his lifetime they were treasured and collected
in manuscript, and at a later day they were seized upon by the world at
The first published edition of the sonnets was prepared for the press
many years after the death of the author by his grandnephew, who edited
them to suit the taste of the seventeenth century. The extent and
atrocity of his emendations can be realized by a comparison of texts.
But the sonnets survived the improvements, and even made headway under
them; and when, in 1863, Guasti gave the original readings to the
public, the world was prepared for them. The bibliography of editions
and translations which Guasti gives is enough to show the popularity of
the sonnets, their universal character, their international currency.
There are upward of one hundred sonnets in every stage of perfection,
and they have given rise not only to a literature of translations, but
to a literature of comment. Some years ago Mrs. Ednah Cheney published a
selection of the sonnets, giving the Italian text, together with English
translations by various hands. This little volume has earned the
gratitude of many to whom it made known the sonnets. The Italians
themselves have gone on printing the corrupt text in contempt of
Guasti's labors. But it has not been left to the Italians to protect the
treasures of their land. The barbarians have been the devoutest
worshippers at all times. The last tribute has come from Mr. John
Addington Symonds, who has done the sonnets into the English of the
pre-Raphaelites, and done them, on the whole, amazingly well. His
translations of the more graceful sonnets are facile, apt, and charming,
and rise at times into beauty. He has, however, insisted on polishing
the rugged ones. Moreover, being deficient in reverence, Mr. Symonds
fails to convey reverence. Nevertheless, to have boldly planned and
carried out the task of translating them all was an undertaking of so
much courage, and has been done with so much success, that every rival
must give in his admiration.
The poems are exceedingly various, some being rough and some elegant,
some obvious and some obscure, some humorous, some religious. Yet they
have this in common, that each seems to be the bearer of some deep
harmony, whose vibrations we feel and whose truth we recognize. From the
very beginning they seem to have had a provocative and stimulating
effect upon others; ever since they were written, cultivated people have
been writing essays about them. One of them has been the subject of
repeated academical disquisition. They absorb and reflect the spirit of
the times; they appeal to and express the individual; they have done
this through three centuries and throughout who shall say how many
different educational conditions. Place them in what light you will,
they gleam with new meanings. This is their quality. It is hard to say
whence the vitality comes. They have often a brilliancy that springs
from the juxtaposition of two thoughts,--a brilliancy like that
produced by unblended colors roughly but well laid on. They have, as it
were, an organic force which nothing can render. The best of them have
the reflective power which gives back light from the mind of the reader.
The profounder ones appear to change and glow under contemplation; they
re-echo syllables from forgotten voices; they suggest unfathomable
depths of meaning. These sonnets are protean in character; they
represent different things to different people,--religion to one, love
to another, philosophy to a third.
It is easy to guess what must be the fate of such poems in translation.
The translator inevitably puts more of himself than of Michael Angelo
into his version. Even the first Italian editor could not let them
alone. He felt he must dose them with elegance. This itching to amend
the sonnets results largely from the obscurity of the text. A translator
is required to be, above all things, comprehensible, and, therefore, he
must interpret, he must paraphrase. He is not at liberty to retain the
equivocal suggestiveness of the original. The language of a translation
must be chastened, or, at least, grammatical, and Michael Angelo's verse
is very often neither the one nor the other.
The selections which follow are not given as representative of the
different styles in the original. They have been chosen from among those
sonnets which seemed most capable of being rendered into English.
The essential nature of the sonnet is replete with difficulty, and
special embarrassments are encountered in the Italian sonnet. The
Italian sonnet is, both in its form and spirit, a thing so foreign to
the English idea of what poetry should be, that no cultivation can ever
domesticate it into the tongue. The seeds of flowers from the Alps may
be planted in our gardens, but a new kind of flower will come up; and
this is what has happened over and over again to the skilled gardeners
of English literature in their struggles with the Italian sonnet. In
Italy, for six hundred years, the sonnet has been the authorized form
for a disconnected remark of any kind. Its chief aim is not so much to
express a feeling as an idea--a witticism--a conceit--a shrewd saying--a
clever analogy--a graceful simile--a beautiful thought. Moreover, it is
not primarily intended for the public; it has a social rather than a
The English with their lyrical genius have impressed the form, as they
have impressed every other form, into lyrical service, and with some
success, it must be admitted. But the Italian sonnet is not lyrical. It
is conversational and intellectual, and many things which English
instinct declares poetry ought not to be. We feel throughout the poetry
of the Latin races a certain domination of the intelligence which is
foreign to our own poetry. But in the sonnet form at least we may
sympathize with this domination. Let us read the Italian sonnets, then,
as if they were prose; let us seek first the thought and hold to that,
and leave the eloquence to take care of itself. It is the thought, after
all, which Michael Angelo himself cared about. He is willing to
sacrifice elegance, to truncate words, to wreck rhyme, prosody, and
grammar, if he can only hurl through the verse these thoughts which were
The platonic ideas about life and love and art, which lie at the bottom
of most of these sonnets, are familiar to us all. They have been the
reigning commonplace ideas of educated people for the last two thousand
years. But in these sonnets they are touched with new power; they become
exalted into mystical importance. We feel almost as if it were Plato
himself that is talking, and the interest is not lessened when we
remember that it is Michael Angelo. It is necessary to touch on this
element in the sonnets, for it exists in them; and because while some
will feel chiefly the fiery soul of the man, others will be most struck
by his great speculative intellect.
It is certain that the sonnets date from various times in Michael
Angelo's life; and, except in a few cases, it must be left to the
instinct of the reader to place them. Those which were called forth by
the poet's friendship for Vittoria Colonna were undoubtedly written
towards the close of his life. While he seems to have known Vittoria
Colonna and to have been greatly attached to her for many years, it is
certain that in his old age he fell in love with her. The library of
romance that has been written about this attachment has added nothing to
Condivi's simple words:--
"He greatly loved the Marchesana of Pescara, with whose divine
spirit he fell in love, and was in return passionately beloved of
her; and he still keeps many of her letters, which are full of most
honest and tenderest love, such as used to issue from a heart like
hers; and he himself had written her many and many a sonnet full of
wit and tenderness. She often left Viterbo and other places, where
she had gone for pleasure, and to pass the summer, and came to Rome
for no other reason than to see Michael Angelo. And in return he
bore her so much love that I remember hearing him say that he
regretted nothing except that when he went to see her on her
death-bed he had not kissed her brow and her cheek as he had kissed
her hand. He was many times overwhelmed at the thought of her death,
and used to be as one out of his mind."
It seems, from reading the sonnets, that some of those which are
addressed to women must belong to a period anterior to his friendship
with Vittoria. This appears from the internal evidence of style and
feeling, as well as by references in the later sonnets.
One other fact must be mentioned,--both Vittoria and Michael Angelo
belonged to, or at least sympathized with, the Piagnoni, and were in a
sense disciples of Savonarola. Now, it is this religious element which
makes Michael Angelo seem to step out of his country and out of his
century and across time and space into our own. This religious feeling
is of a kind perfectly familiar to us; indeed, of a kind inborn and
native to us. Whether we be reading the English prayer-book or listening
to the old German Passion Music, there is a certain note of the spirit
which, when we hear it, we perfectly recognize as a part of ourselves.
What we recognize is, in fact, the Protestantism which swept over Europe
during the century of Michael Angelo's existence; which conquered
Teutonic Europe, and was conquered, but not extinguished, in Latin
Europe; and a part of which survives in ourselves. If one wishes to feel
the power of Savonarola, one may do so in these sonnets. We had
connected Michael Angelo with the Renaissance, but we are here face to
face with the Reformation. We cannot help being a little surprised at
this. We cannot help being surprised at finding how well we know this
Few of us are familiar enough with the language of the plastic arts to
have seen without prompting this same modern element in Michael Angelo's
painting and sculpture. We might, perhaps, have recognized it in the
Pieta in St. Peter's. We may safely say, however, that it exists in all
his works. It is in the Medicean statues; it is in the Julian marbles;
it is in the Sistine ceiling. What is there in these figures that they
leave us so awestruck, that they seem so like the sound of trumpets
blowing from a spiritual world? The intelligence that could call them
forth, the craft that could draw them, have long since perished. But the
meaning survives the craft. The lost arts retain their power over us. We
understand but vaguely, yet we are thrilled. We cannot decipher the
signs, yet we subscribe to their import. The world from which Michael
Angelo's figures speak is our own world, after all. That is the reason
they are so potent, so intimate, so inimitably significant. We may be
sure that the affinity which we feel with Michael Angelo, and do not
feel with any other artist of that age, springs from experiences and
beliefs in him which are similar to our own.
His work speaks to the moral sense more directly and more powerfully
than that of any one,--so directly and so powerfully, indeed, that we
whose physical senses are dull, and whose moral sense is acute, are
moved by Michael Angelo, although the rest of the _cinque cento_ culture
remain a closed book to us.
It is difficult, this conjuring with the unrecoverable past, so rashly
done by us all. Yet we must use what light we have. Remembering, then,
that painting is not the reigning mode of expression in recent times,
and that in dealing with it we are dealing with a vehicle of expression
with which we are not spontaneously familiar, we may yet draw
conclusions which are not fantastic, if we base them upon the identity
of one man's nature some part of which we are sure we understand. We may
throw a bridge from the ground in the sonnets, upon which we are sure we
stand firmly, to the ground in the frescos, which, by reason of our own
ignorance, is less certain ground to us, and we may walk from one side
to the other amid the elemental forces of this same man's mind.
Give me again, ye fountains and ye streams,
That flood of life, not yours, that swells your front
Beyond the natural fulness of your wont.
I gave, and I take back as it beseems.
And thou dense choking atmosphere on high
Disperse thy fog of sighs--for it is mine,
And make the glory of the sun to shine
Again on my dim eyes.--O, Earth and Sky
Give me again the footsteps I have trod.
Let the paths grow where I walked them bare,
The echoes where I waked them with my prayer
Be deaf--and let those eyes--those eyes, O God,
Give me the light I lent them.--That some soul
May take my love. Thou hadst no need of it.
This rough and exceedingly obscure sonnet, in which strong feeling has
condensed and distorted the language, seems to have been written by a
man who has been in love and has been repulsed. The shock has restored
him to a momentary realization of the whole experience. He looks at the
landscape, and lo! the beauty has dropped out of it. The stream has lost
its power, and the meadow its meaning. Summer has stopped. His next
thought is: "But it is I who had lent the landscape this beauty. That
landscape was myself, my dower, my glory, my birthright," and so he
breaks out with "Give me back the light I threw upon you," and so on
till the bitter word flung to the woman in the last line. The same
clearness of thought and obscurity of expression and the same passion is
to be found in the famous sonnet--"_Non ha l' ottimo artista alcun
concetto_,"--where he blames himself for not being able to obtain her
good-will--as a bad sculptor who cannot hew out the beauty from the
rock, although he feels it to be there; and in that heart-breaking one
where he says that people may only draw from life what they give to it,
and says no good can come to a man who, looking on such great beauty,
feels such pain.
It is not profitable, nor is it necessary for the comprehension of the
poems, to decide to whom or at what period each one was written. There
is dispute about some of them as to whether they were addressed to men
or women. There is question as to others whether they are prayers
addressed to Christ or love poems addressed to Vittoria. In this latter
case, perhaps, Michael Angelo did not himself know which they were.
Vittoria used to instruct him in religion, and he seems to have felt for
her a love so deep, so reverent, so passionate, and so touching that the
words are alive in which he mentions her.
"I wished," he writes beneath a sonnet which he sent her, evidently in
return for some of her own religious poems, "I wished, before taking the
things that you had many times deigned to give me, in order that I might
receive them the less unworthily, to make something for you from my own
hand. But then, remembering and knowing that the grace of God may not be
bought, and that to accept it reluctantly is the greatest sin, I confess
my fault, and willingly receive the said things, and when they shall
arrive, not because they are in my house, but I myself as being in a
house of theirs, shall deem myself in Paradise."
We must not forget that at this time Michael Angelo was an old man,
that he carried about with him a freshness and vigor of feeling that
most people lose with their youth. A reservoir of emotion broke loose
within him at a time when it caused his hale old frame suffering to
undergo it, and reillumined his undimmed intellect to cope with it. A
mystery play was enacted in him,--each sonnet is a scene. There is the
whole of a man in each of many of these sonnets. They do not seem so
much like poems as like microcosms. They are elementally complete. The
soul of man could be evolved again from them if the formula were lost.
I know not if it be the longed for light
Of its creator which the soul perceives,
Or if in people's memory there lives
A touch of early grace that keeps them bright
Or else ambition,--or some dream whose might
Brings to the eyes the hope the heart conceives
And leaves a burning feeling when it leaves--
That tears are welling in me as I write.
The things I feel, the things I follow and the things
I seek--are not in me,--I hardly know the place
To find them. It is others make them mine.
It happens when I see thee--and it brings
Sweet pain--a yes,--a no,--sorrow and grace
Surely it must have been those eyes of thine.
There are others which give a most touching picture of extreme piety in
extreme old age. And there are still others which are both love poems
and religious poems at the same time.
Thou knowest that I know that thou dost know
How, to enjoy thee, I did come more near.
Thou knowest, I know thou knowest--I am here.
Would we had given our greetings long ago.
If true the hope thou hast to me revealed,
If true the plighting of a sacred troth,
Let the wall fall that stands between us both,
For griefs are doubled when they are concealed.
If, loved one,--if I only loved in thee
What thou thyself dost love,--'tis to this end
The spirit with his beloved is allied.
The things thy face inspires and teaches me
Mortality doth little comprehend.
Before we understand we must have died.
Give me the time when loose the reins I flung
Upon the neck of galloping desire.
Give me the angel face that now among
The angels,--tempers Heaven with its fire.
Give the quick step that now is grown so old,
The ready tears--the blaze at thy behest,
If thou dost seek indeed, O Love! to hold
Again thy reign of terror in my breast.
If it be true that thou dost only live
Upon the sweet and bitter pains of man
Surely a weak old man small food can give
Whose years strike deeper than thine arrows can.
Upon life's farthest limit I have stood--
What folly to make fire of burnt wood.
The occasion of the following was probably some more than wonted favor
shown to him by Vittoria.
Great joy no less than grief doth murder men.
The thief, even at the gallows, may be killed
If, while through every vein with fear he's chilled,
Sudden reprieve do set him free again.
Thus hath this bounty from you in my pain
Through all my griefs and sufferings fiercely thrilled,
Coming from a breast with sovereign mercy filled,
And more than weeping, cleft my heart in twain.
Good news, like bad, may bring the taker death.
The heart is rent as with the sharpest knife,
Be it pressure or expansion cause the rift.
Let thy great beauty which God cherisheth
Limit my joy if it desire my life--
The unworthy dies beneath so great a gift.
The heart is not the life of love like mine.
The love I love thee with has none of it.
For hearts to sin and mortal thought incline
And for love's habitation are unfit.
God, when our souls were parted from Him, made
Of me an eye--of thee, splendor and light.
Even in the parts of thee which are to fade
Thou hast the glory; I have only sight.
Fire from its heat you may not analyze,
Nor worship from eternal beauty take,
Which deifies the lover as he bows.
Thou hast that Paradise all within thine eyes
Where first I loved thee. 'T is for that love's sake
My soul's on fire with thine, beneath thy brows.
The German musicians of the seventeenth century used to write
voluntaries for the organ, using the shorthand of the older notation;
they jotted down the formulas of the successive harmonies expressed in
terms of the chords merely. The transitions and the musical explanation
were left to the individual performer. And Michael Angelo has left
behind him, as it were, the poetical equivalents of such shorthand
musical formulas. The harmonies are wonderful. The successions show a
great grasp of comprehension, but you cannot play them without filling
"Is that music, after all," one may ask, "which leaves so much to the
performer, and is that poetry, after all, which leaves so much to the
reader?" It seems you must be a Kapellmeister or a student, or
dilettante of some sort, before you can transpose and illustrate these
hieroglyphics. There is some truth in this criticism, and the modesty of
purpose in the poems is the only answer to it. They claim no comment.
Comment claims them. Call them not poetry if you will. They are a window
which looks in upon the most extraordinary nature of modern times,--a
nature whose susceptibility to impressions of form through the eye
allies it to classical times; a nature which on the emotional side
belongs to our own day.
Is it a wonder that this man was venerated with an almost superstitious
regard in Italy, and in the sixteenth century? His creations were
touched with a superhuman beauty which his contemporaries felt, yet
charged with a profoundly human meaning which they could not fathom. No
one epoch has held the key to him. There lives not a man and there never
has lived a man who could say, "I fully understand Michael Angelo's
works." It will be said that the same is true of all the very greatest
artists, and so it is in a measure. But as to the others, that truth
comes as an afterthought and an admission. As to Michael Angelo, it is
primary and overwhelming impression. "We are not sure that we comprehend
him," say the centuries as they pass, "but of this we are sure: _Simil
ne maggior uom non nacque mai_."
* * * * *
THE FOURTH CANTO OF THE INFERNO
There are many great works of fiction where the interest lies in the
situation and development of the characters or in the wrought-up climax
of the action, and where it is necessary to read the whole work before
one can feel the force of the catastrophe. But Dante's poem is a series
of disconnected scenes, held together only by the slender thread of the
itinerary. The scenes vary in length from a line or two to a page or
two; and the power of them comes, one may say, not at all from their
connection with each other, but entirely from the language in which they
A work of this kind is hard to translate because verbal felicities, to
use a mild term, are untranslatable. What English words can render the
mystery of that unknown voice that calls out of the deep,--
"Onorate 'l altissimo poeta,
Torna sua ombra che era dipartita"?
The cry breaks upon the night, full of awful greeting, proclamation,
prophecy, and leaves the reader standing next to Virgil, afraid now to
lift up his eyes to the poet. Awe breathes in the cadence of the words
themselves. And so with many of the most splendid lines in Dante, the
meaning inheres in the very Italian words. They alone shine with the
idea. They alone satisfy the spiritual vision.
Of all the greatest poets, Dante is most foreign to the genius of the
English race. From the point of view of English-speaking people, he is
lacking in humor. It might seem at first blush as if the argument of his
poem were a sufficient warrant for seriousness; but his seriousness is
of a nature strange to northern nations. There is in it a gaunt and
sallow earnestness which appears to us inhuman.
In the treatment of the supernatural the Teutonic nations have generally
preserved a touch of humor. This is so intrinsically true to the
Teutonic way of feeling that the humor seems to go with and to heighten
the terror of the supernatural. When Hamlet, in the scene on the
midnight terrace, addresses the ghost as "old mole," "old truepenny,"
etc., we may be sure that he is in a frenzy of excitement and
apprehension. Perhaps the explanation of this mixture of humor and
terror, is that when the mind feels itself shaken to its foundations by
the immediate presence of the supernatural,--palsied, as it were, with
fear,--there comes to its rescue, and as an antidote to the fear itself,
a reserve of humor, almost of levity. Staggered by the unknown, the mind
opposes it with the homely and the familiar. The northern nations were
too much afraid of ghosts to take them seriously. The sight of one made
a man afraid he should lose his wits if he gave way to his fright. Thus
it has come about that in the sincerest terror of the north there is a
touch of grotesque humor; and this touch we miss in Dante. The hundred
cantos of his poem are unrelieved by a single scene of comedy. The
strain of exalted tragedy is maintained throughout. His jests and wit
are not of the laughing kind. Sometimes they are grim and terrible,
sometimes playful, but always serious and full of meaning. This lack of
humor becomes very palpable in a translation, where it is not disguised
by the transcendent beauty of Dante's style.
There is another difficulty peculiar to the translating of Dante into
English. English is essentially a diffuse and prodigal language. The
great English writers have written with a free hand, prolific,
excursive, diffuse. Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Browne, Sir Walter Scott,
Robert Browning, all the typical writers of English, have been
many-worded. They have been men who said everything that came into their
heads, and trusted to their genius to make their writings readable. The
eighteenth century in England, with all its striving after classical
precision, has left behind it no great laconic English classic who
stands in the first rank. Our own Emerson is concise enough, but he is
disconnected and prophetic. Dante is not only concise, but logical,
deductive, prone to ratiocination. He set down nothing that he had not
thought of a thousand times, and conned over, arranged, and digested. We
have in English no prototype for such condensation. There is no native
work in the language written in anything which approaches the style of
My heavy sleep a sullen thunder broke,
So that I shook myself, springing upright,
Like one awakened by a sudden stroke,
And gazed with fixed eyes and new-rested sight
Slowly about me,--awful privilege,--
To know the place that held me, if I might.
In truth I found myself upon the edge
That girds the valley of the dreadful pit,
Circling the infinite wailing with its ledge.
Dark, deep, and cloudy, to the depths of it
Eye could not probe, and though I bent mine low,
It helped my vain conjecture not a whit.
"Let us go down to the blind world below,"
Began the poet, with a face like death,
"I shall go first, thou second." "Say not so,"
Cried I when I again could find my breath,
For I had seen the whiteness of his face,
"How shall I come if thee it frighteneth?"
And he replied: "The anguish of the place
And those that dwell there thus hath painted me
With pity, not with fear. But come apace;
The spur of the journey pricks us." Thus did he
Enter himself, and take me in with him,
Into the first great circle's mystery
That winds the deep abyss about the brim.
Here there came borne upon the winds to us,
Not cries, but sighs that filled the concave dim,
And kept the eternal breezes tremulous.
The cause is grief, but grief unlinked to pain,
That makes the unnumbered peoples suffer thus.
I saw great crowds of children, women, men,
Wheeling below. "Thou dost not seek to know
What spirits are these thou seest?" Thus again
My master spoke. "But ere we further go,
Thou must be sure that these feel not the weight
Of sin. They well deserved,--and yet not so.--
They had not baptism, which is the gate
Of Faith,--thou holdest. If they lived before
The days of Christ, though sinless, in that state
God they might never worthily adore.
And I myself am such an one as these.
For this shortcoming--on no other score--
We are lost, and most of all our torment is
That lost to hope we live in strong desire."
Grief seized my heart to hear these words of his,
Because most splendid souls and hearts of fire
I recognized, hung in that Limbo there.
"Tell me, my master dear, tell me, my sire,"
Cried I at last, with eager hope to share
That all-convincing faith,--"but went there not
One,--once,--from hence,--made happy though it were
Through his own merit or another's lot?"
"I was new come into this place," said he,
Who seemed to guess the purport of my thought,
"When Him whose brows were bound with Victory
I saw come conquering through this prison dark.
He set the shade of our first parent free,
With Abel, and the builder of the ark,
And him that gave the laws immutable,
And Abraham, obedient patriarch,
David the king, and ancient Israel,
His father and his children at his side,
And the wife Rachel that he loved so well,
And gave them Paradise,--and before these men
None tasted of salvation that have died."
We did not pause while he was talking then,
But held our constant course along the track,
Where spirits thickly thronged the wooded glen.
And we had reached a point whence to turn back
Had not been far, when I, still touched with fear,
Perceived a fire, that, struggling with the black,
Made conquest of a luminous hemisphere.
The place was distant still, but I could see
Clustered about the fire, as we drew near,
Figures of an austere nobility.
"Thou who dost honor science and love art,
Pray who are these, whose potent dignity
Doth eminently set them thus apart?"
The poet answered me, "The honored fame
That made their lives illustrious touched the heart
Of God to advance them." Then a voice there came,
"Honor the mighty poet;" and again,
"His shade returns,--do honor to his name."
And when the voice had finished its refrain,
I saw four giant shadows coming on.
They seemed nor sad nor joyous in their mien.
And my good master said: "See him, my son,
That bears the sword and walks before the rest,
And seems the father of the three,--that one
Is Homer, sovran poet. The satirist
Horace comes next; third, Ovid; and the last
Is Lucan. The lone voice that name expressed
That each doth share with me; therefore they haste
To greet and do me honor;--nor do they wrong."
Thus did I see the assembled school who graced
The master of the most exalted song,
That like an eagle soars above the rest.
When they had talked together, though not long,
They turned to me, nodding as to a guest.
At which my master smiled, but yet more high
They lifted me in honor. At their behest
I went with them as of their company,
And made the sixth among those mighty wits.
Thus towards the light we walked in colloquy
Of things my silence wisely here omits,
As there 'twas sweet to speak them, till we came
To where a seven times circled castle sits,
Whose walls are watered by a lovely stream.
This we crossed over as it had been dry,
Passing the seven gates that guard the same,
And reached a meadow, green as Arcady.
People were there with deep, slow-moving eyes
Whose looks were weighted with authority.
Scant was their speech, but rich in melodies.
The walls receding left a pasture fair,
A place all full of light and of great size,
So we could see each spirit that was there.
And straight before my eyes upon the green
Were shown to me the souls of those that were,
Great spirits it exalts me to have seen.
Electra with her comrades I descried,
I saw AEneas, and knew Hector keen,
And in full armor Caesar, falcon-eyed,
Camilla and the Amazonian queen,
King Latin with Lavinia at his side,
Brutus that did avenge the Tarquin's sin,
Lucrece, Cornelia, Martia Julia,
And by himself the lonely Saladin.
The Master of all thinkers next I saw
Amid the philosophic family.
All eyes were turned on him with reverent awe;
Plato and Socrates were next his knee,
Then Heraclitus and Empedocles,
Thales and Anaxagoras, and he
That based the world on chance; and next to these,
Zeno, Diogenes, and that good leech
The herb-collector, Dioscorides.
Orpheus I saw, Livy and Tully, each
Flanked by old Seneca's deep moral lore,
Euclid and Ptolemy, and within their reach
Hippocrates and Avicenna's store,
The sage that wrote the master commentary,
Averois, with Galen and a score
Of great physicians. But my pen were weary
Depicting all of that majestic plain
Splendid with many an antique dignitary.
My theme doth drive me on, and words are vain
To give the thought the thing itself conveys.
The six of us were now cut down to twain.
My guardian led me forth by other ways,
Far from the quiet of that trembling wind,
And from the gentle shining of those rays,
To places where all light was left behind.
* * * * *
There is a period in the advance of any great man's influence between
the moment when he appears and the moment when he has become historical,
during which it is difficult to give any succinct account of him. We are
ourselves a part of the thing we would describe. The element which we
attempt to isolate for purposes of study is still living within us. Our
science becomes tinged with autobiography. Such must be the fate of any
essay on Browning written at the present time.
The generation to whom his works were unmeaning has hardly passed away.
The generation he spoke for still lives. His influence seems still to be
expanding. The literature of Browning dictionaries, phrase-books,
treatises, and philosophical studies grows daily. Mr. Cooke in his Guide
to Browning (1893) gives a condensed catalogue of the best books and
essays on Browning, which covers many finely printed pages. This class
of book--the text-book--is not the product of impulse. The text-book is
a commercial article and follows the demand as closely as the reaper
follows the crop. We can tell the acreage under cultivation by looking
over the account books of the makers of farm implements. Thousands of
people are now studying Browning, following in his footsteps, reading
lives of his heroes, and hunting up the subjects he treated.
This Browningism which we are disposed to laugh at is a most interesting
secondary outcome of his influence. It has its roots in natural piety,
and the educational value of it is very great.
Browning's individuality created for him a personal following, and he
was able to respond to the call to leadership. Unlike Carlyle, he had
something to give his disciples beside the immediate satisfaction of a
spiritual need. He gave them not only meal but seed. In this he was like
Emerson; but Emerson's little store of finest grain is of a different
soil. Emerson lived in a cottage and saw the stars over his head through
his skylight. Browning, on the other hand, loved pictures, places,
music, men and women, and his works are like the house of a rich man,--a
treasury of plunder from many provinces and many ages, whose manners
and passions are vividly recalled to us. In Emerson's house there was
not a peg to hang a note upon,--"this is his bookshelf, this his bed."
But Browning's palace craves a catalogue. And a proper catalogue to such
a palace becomes a liberal education.
Robert Browning was a strong, glowing, whole-souled human being, who
enjoyed life more intensely than any Englishman since Walter Scott. He
was born among books; and circumstances enabled him to follow his
inclinations and become a writer,--a poet by profession. He was, from
early youth to venerable age, a centre of bounding vitality, the very
embodiment of spontaneous life; and the forms of poetry in which he so
fully and so accurately expressed himself enable us to know him well.
Indeed, only great poets are known so intimately as we know Robert
Religion was at the basis of his character, and it was the function of
religious poetry that his work fulfilled. Inasmuch as no man invents his
own theology, but takes it from the current world and moulds it to his
needs, it was inevitable that Robert Browning should find and seize upon
as his own all that was optimistic in Christian theology. Everything
that was hopeful his spirit accepted; everything that was sunny and
joyful and good for the brave soul he embraced. What was distressing he
rejected or explained away. In the world of Robert Browning _everything_
The range of subject covered by his poems is wider than that of any
other poet that ever lived; but the range of his ideas is exceedingly
small. We need not apologize for treating Browning as a theologian and a
doctor of philosophy, for he spent a long life in trying to show that a
poet is always really both--and he has almost convinced us. The
expositors and writers of text-books have had no difficulty in
formulating his theology, for it is of the simplest kind; and his views
on morality and art are logically a part of it. The "message" which
poets are conventionally presumed to deliver, was, in Browning's case, a
very definite creed, which may be found fully set forth in any one of
twenty poems. Every line of his poetry is logically dedicated to it.
He believes that the development of the individual soul is the main end
of existence. The strain and stress of life are incidental to growth,
and therefore desirable. Development and growth mean a closer union with
God. In fact, God is of not so much importance in Himself, but as the
end towards which man tends. That irreverent person who said that
Browning uses "God" as a pigment made an accurate criticism of his
theology. In Browning, God is adjective to man. Browning believes that
all conventional morality must be reviewed from the standpoint of how
conduct affects the actor himself, and what effect it has on his
individual growth. The province of art and of all thinking and working
is to make these truths clear and to grapple with the problems they give
The first two fundamental beliefs of Browning--namely: (1) that,
ultimately speaking, the most important matter in the world is the soul
of a man; and (2) that a sense of effort is coincident with
development--are probably true. We instinctively feel them to be true,
and they seem to be receiving support from those quarters of research to
which we look for light, however dim. In the application of his dogmas
to specific cases in the field of ethics, Browning often reaches
conclusions which are fair subjects for disagreement. Since most of our
conventional morality is framed to repress the individual, he finds
himself at war with it--in revolt against it. He is habitually pitted
against it, and thus acquires modes of thought which sometimes lead him
into paradox--at least, to conclusions at odds with his premises. It is
in the course of exposition, and incidentally to his main purpose as a
teacher of a few fundamental ideas, that Browning has created his
masterpieces of poetry.
Never was there a man who in the course of a long life changed less.
What as a boy he dreamed of doing, that he did. The thoughts of his
earliest poems are the thoughts of his latest. His tales, his songs, his
monologues, his dramas, his jests, his sermons, his rage, his prayer,
are all upon the same theme: whatever fed his mind nourished these
beliefs. His interest in the world was solely an interest in them. He
saw them in history and in music; his travels and studies brought him
back nothing else but proofs of them; the universe in each of its
manifestations was a commentary upon them. His nature was the simplest,
the most positive, the least given to abstract speculation, which
England can show in his time. He was not a thinker, for he was never in
doubt. He had recourse to disputation as a means of inculcating truth,
but he used it like a lawyer arguing a case. His conclusions are fixed
from the start. Standing, from his infancy, upon a faith as absolute as
that of a martyr, he has never for one instant undergone the experience
of doubt, and only knows that there is such a thing because he has met
with it in other people. The force of his feelings is so much greater
than his intellect that his mind serves his soul like a valet. Out of
the whole cosmos he takes what belongs to him and sustains him, leaving
the rest, or not noting it.
There never was a great poet whose scope was so definite. That is the
reason why the world is so cleanly divided into people who do and who do
not care for Browning. One real glimpse into him gives you the whole of
him. The public which loves him is made up of people who have been
through certain spiritual experiences to which he is the antidote. The
public which loves him not consists of people who have escaped these
experiences. To some he is a strong, rare, and precious elixir, which
nothing else will replace. To others, who do not need him, he is a
boisterous and eccentric person,--a Heracles in the house of mourning.
Let us remember his main belief,--the value of the individual. The needs
of society constantly require that the individual be suppressed. They
hold him down and punish him at every point. The tyranny of order and
organization--of monarch or public opinion--weights him and presses him
down. This is the inevitable tendency of all stable social arrangements.
Now and again there arises some strong nature that revolts against the
influence of conformity which is becoming intolerable,--against the
atmosphere of caste or theory; of Egyptian priest or Manchester
economist; of absolutism or of democracy.
And this strong nature cries out that the souls of men are being
injured, and that they are important; that your soul and my soul are
more important than Caesar--or than the survival of the fittest. Such a
voice was the voice of Christ, and the lesser saviors of the world bring
always a like message of revolt: they arise to fulfil the same
fundamental need of the world.
Carlyle, Emerson, Victor Hugo, Browning, were prophets to a generation
oppressed in spirit, whose education had oppressed them with a Jewish
law of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham and Malthus, of Clarkson and
Cobden,--of thought for the million, and for man in the aggregate. "To
what end is all this beneficence, all this conscience, all this theory?"
some one at length cries out. "For whom is it in the last analysis that
you legislate? You talk _of man_, I see only _men_."
To men suffering from an age of devotion to humanity came Robert
Browning as a liberator. Like Carlyle, he was understood first in this
country because we had begun earlier with our theoretical and practical
philanthropies, and had taken them more seriously. We had suffered more.
We needed to be told that it was right to love, hate, and be angry, to
sin and repent. It was a revelation to us to think that we had some
inheritance in the joys and passions of mankind. We needed to be told
these things as a tired child needs to be comforted. Browning gave them
to us in the form of a religion. There was no one else sane or deep or
wise or strong enough to know what we lacked.
If ever a generation had need of a poet,--of some one to tell them they
might cry and not be ashamed, rejoice and not find the reason in John
Stuart Mill; some one who should justify the claims of the spirit which
was starving on the religion of humanity,--it was the generation for
whom Browning wrote.
Carlyle had seized upon the French Revolution, which served his ends
because it was filled with striking, with powerful, with grotesque
examples of individual force. In his Hero Worship he gives his
countrymen a philosophy of history based on nothing but worship of the
individual. Browning with the same end in view gave us pictures of the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in France and Italy. He glorified what
we had thought crime and error, and made men of us. He was the apostle
to the educated of a most complex period, but such as he was, he was
complete. Those people to whom he has been a poet know what it is for
the heart to receive full expression from the lips of another.
The second thesis which Browning insists on--the identity of spiritual
suffering with spiritual growth--is the one balm of the world. It is
said that recent physiological experiment shows that muscles do not
develop unless exercised up to what is called the "distress point." If
this shall prove to be an instance of a general law,--if the struggles
and agony of the spirit are really signs of an increase of that
spiritual life which is the only sort of life we can conceive of now or
hereafter,--then the truth-to-feeling of much of Browning's poetry has a
scientific basis. It cannot be denied that Browning held firmly two of
the most moving and far-reaching ideas of the world, and he expanded
them in the root, leaf, flower, and fruit of a whole world of poetic
It is unnecessary at this day to point out the beauties of Browning or
the sagacity with which he chose his effects. He gives us the sallow
wife of James Lee, whose soul is known to him, Pippa the silk-spinning
girl, two men found in the morgue, persons lost, forgotten, or
misunderstood. He searches the world till he finds the man whom
everybody will concur in despising, the mediaeval grammarian, and he
writes to him the most powerful ode in English, the mightiest tribute
ever paid to a man. His culture and his learning are all subdued to what
he works in; they are all in harness to draw his thought. He mines in
antiquity or drags his net over German philosophy or modern
drawing-rooms,--all to the same end.
In that miracle of power and beauty--The Flight of the Duchess--he has
improvised a whole civilization in order to make the setting of contrast
which shall cause the soul of the little duchess to shine clearly. In
Childe Roland he creates a cycle, an epoch of romance and mysticism,
because he requires it as a stage property. In A Death in the Desert you
have the East in the first century--so vividly given that you wish
instantly to travel there, Bible in hand, to feel the atmosphere with
which your Bible ought always to have been filled. His reading brings
him to Euripides. He sees that Alcestis can be set to his theme; and
with a week or two of labor, while staying in a country house, he draws
out of the Greek fable the world of his own meaning and shows it shining
forth in a living picture of the Greek theatre which has no counterpart
for vitality in any modern tongue.
The descriptive and narrative powers of Browning are above, beyond, and
outside of all that has been done in English in our time, as the odd
moments prove which he gave to the Pied Piper, The Ride from Ghent to
Aix, Incident in the French Camp. These chips from his workshop passed
instantly into popular favor because they were written in familiar
How powerfully his gifts of utterance were brought to bear upon the
souls of men will be recorded, even if never understood, by literary
historians. It is idle to look to the present generation for an
intelligible account of One Word More, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Prospice, Saul,
The Blot on the 'Scutcheon. They must be judged by the future and by men
who can speak of them with a steady lip.
It must be conceded that the conventional judgments of society are
sometimes right, and Browning's mission led him occasionally into
paradox and _jeux d'esprit_. Bishop Blougram is an attempt to discover
whether a good case cannot be made out for the individual hypocrite. The
Statue and the Bust is frankly a _reductio ad absurdum_, and ends with a
There is more serious trouble with others. The Grammarian's Funeral is
false to fact, and will appear so to posterity. The grammarian was not a
hero, and our calmer moments show us that the poem is not a great ode.
It gave certain people the glow of a great truth, but it remains a
paradox and a piece of exaggeration. The same must be said of a large
part of Browning. The New Testament is full of such paradoxes of
exaggeration, like the parable of the unjust steward, the rich man's
chance for heaven, the wedding garment; but in these, the truth is
apparent,--we are not betrayed. In Browning's paradoxes we are often led
on and involved in an emotion over some situation which does not
honestly call for the emotion.
The most noble quality in Browning is his temper. He does not proceed,
as liberators generally do, by railing and pulling down. He builds up;
he is positive, not negative. He is less bitter than Christianity
While there is no more doubt as to the permanent value of the content of
Browning than of the value of the spiritual truths of the New Testament,
there is very little likelihood that his poems will be understood in the
remote future. At present, they are following the waves of influence of
the education which they correct. They are built like Palladio's Theatre
at Vicenza, where the perspective converges toward a single seat. In
order to be subject to the illusion, the spectator must occupy the
duke's place. The colors are dropping from the poems already. The
feeblest of them lose it first. There was a steady falling off in power
accompanied by a constant increase in his peculiarities during the last
twenty years of his life, and we may make some surmise as to how
Balaustion's Adventure will strike posterity by reading Parleyings with
The distinctions between Browning's characters--which to us are so
vivid--will to others seem less so. Paracelsus and Rabbi Ben Ezra, Lippo
Lippi, Karshish, Caponsacchi, and Ferishtah will all appear to be run in
the same mould. They will seem to be the thinnest disguises which a poet
ever assumed. The lack of the dramatic element in Browning--a lack
which is concealed from us by our intense sympathy for him and by his
fondness for the trappings of the drama--will be apparent to the
after-comers. They will say that all the characters in The Blot on the
'Scutcheon take essentially the same view of the catastrophe of the
play; that Pippa and Pompilia and Phene are the same person in the same
state of mind. In fact, the family likeness is great. They will say that
the philosophic monologues are repetitions of each other. It cannot be
denied that there is much repetition,--much threshing out of old straw.
Those who have read Browning for years and are used to the monologues
are better pleased to find the old ideas than new ones, which they could
not understand so readily. When the later Browning takes us on one of
those long afternoon rambles through his mind,--over moor and fen,
through jungle, down precipice, past cataract,--we know just where we
are coming out in the end. We know the place better than he did himself.
Nor will posterity like Browning's manners,--the dig in the ribs, the
personal application, and _de te fabula_ of most of his talking. These
unpleasant things are part of his success with us to whom he means
life, not art. Posterity will want only art. We needed doctrine. If he
had not preached, we would not have listened to him. But posterity
evades the preachers and accepts only singers. Posterity is so dainty
that it lives on nothing but choice morsels. It will cull such out of
the body of Browning as the anthologists are beginning to do already,
and will leave the great mass of him to be rediscovered from time to
time by belated sufferers from the philosophy of the nineteenth century.
There is a class of persons who claim for Browning that his verse is
really good verse, and that he was a master of euphony. This cannot be
admitted except as to particular instances in which his success is due
to his conformity to law, not to his violation of it.
The rules of verse in English are merely a body of custom which has
grown up unconsciously, and most of which rests upon some simple
requirement of the ear.
In speaking of the power of poetry we are dealing with what is
essentially a mystery, the outcome of infinitely subtle, numerous, and
The rhythm of versification seems to serve the purpose of a prompter. It
lets us know in advance just what syllables are to receive the emphasis
which shall make the sense clear. There are many lines in poetry which
become obscure the instant they are written in prose, and probably the
advantages of poetry over prose, or, to express it modestly, the excuse
for poetry at all, is that the form facilitates the comprehension of the
matter. Rhyme is itself an indication that a turning-point has been
reached. It punctuates and sets off the sense, and relieves our
attention from the strain of suspended interest. All of the artifices of
poetical form seem designed to a like end. Naturalness of speech is
somewhat sacrificed, but we gain by the sacrifice a certain uniformity
of speech which rests and exhilarates. We need not, for the present,
examine the question of euphony any further, nor ask whether euphony be
not a positive element in verse,--an element which belongs to music.
The negative advantages of poetry over prose are probably sufficient to
account for most of its power. A few more considerations of the same
negative nature, and which affect the vividness of either prose or
verse, may be touched upon by way of preface to the inquiry, why
Browning is hard to understand and why his verse is bad.
Every one is more at ease in his mind when he reads a language which
observes the ordinary rules of grammar, proceeds by means of sentences
having subjects and predicates, and of which the adjectives and adverbs
fall easily into place. A doubt about the grammar is a doubt about the
sense. And this is so true that sometimes when our fears are allayed by
faultless grammar we may read absolute nonsense with satisfaction. We
sometimes hear it stated as a bitter epigram, that poetry is likely to
endure just in proportion as the form of it is superior to the content.
As to the "inferiority" of the content, a moment's reflection shows that
the ideas and feelings which prevail from age to age, and in which we
may expect posterity to delight, are in their nature, and of necessity,
commonplace. And if by "superiority of form" it is meant that these
ideas shall be conveyed in flowing metres,--in words which are easy to
pronounce, put together according to the rules of grammar, and largely
drawn from the vulgar tongue,--we need not wonder that posterity should
enjoy it. In fact, it is just such verse as this which survives from age
Browning possesses one superlative excellence, and it is upon this that
he relies. It is upon this that he has emerged and attacked the heart
of man. It is upon this that he may possibly fight his way down to
posterity and live like a fire forever in the bosom of mankind.
His language is the language of common speech; his force, the immediate
force of life. His language makes no compromises of any sort. It is not
subdued to form. The emphasis demanded by the sense is very often not
the emphasis demanded by the metre. He cuts off his words and forces
them ruthlessly into lines as a giant might force his limbs into the
armor of a mortal. The joints and members of the speech fall in the
wrong places and have no relation to the joints and members of the
He writes like a lion devouring an antelope. He rends his subject,
breaks its bones, and tears out the heart of it. He is not made more,
but less, comprehensible by the verse-forms in which he writes. The
sign-posts of the metre lead us astray. He would be easier to understand
if his poems were printed in the form of prose. That is the reason why
Browning becomes easy when read aloud; for in reading aloud we give the
emphasis of speech, and throw over all effort to follow the emphasis of
the metre. This is also the reason why Browning is so unquotable--why he
has made so little effect upon the language--why so few of the phrases
and turns of thought and metaphor with which poets enrich a language
have been thrown into English by him. Let a man who does not read poetry
take up a volume of Familiar Quotations, and he will find page after
page of lines and phrases which he knows by heart--from Tennyson,
Milton, Wordsworth--things made familiar to him not by the poets, but by
the men whom the poets educated, and who adopted their speech. Of
Browning he will know not a word. And yet Browning's poetry is full of
words that glow and smite, and which have been burnt into and struck
into the most influential minds of the last fifty years.
But Browning's phrases are almost impossible to remember, because they
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