Robert Browning
Edward Dowden

Part 5 out of 6

death--for now the position is reversed and the king shall receive her
living, and yet believe her dead--Herakles contrives to put Admetos to
that precise test which is alone sufficient to assure Alkestis of his
fidelity. Words are words; but here is a deed, and Admetos not only
adheres to his pledge, but demonstrates to her that for him to violate
it is impossible. She may well accept him as at length proved to be her
very own.

Browning, who delights to show how good is brought out of evil, or what
appears such to mortal eyes, is not content with this. He must trace
the whole process of the purification of the soul of Admetos, by sorrow
and its cruel yet beneficent reality, and in his commentary he
emphasises each point of development in that process. When his wife lies
at the point of death the sorrow of Admetos is not insincere, but there
was a childishness in it, for he would not confront the fact that the
event was of his own election. Presently she has departed, and he begins
to taste the truth, to distinguish between a sorrow rehearsed in fancy
and endured in fact. In greeting Herakles he rises to a manlier strain,
puts tears away, and accepts the realities of life and death; he will
not add ill to ill, as the sentimentalist does, but will be just to the
rights of earth that remain; he catches some genuine strength from the
magnanimous presence of the hero-god. He renders duty to the dead; is
quieted; and enters more and more into the sternness of his solitary
wayfaring. In dealing with the ignoble wrangle with old Pheres the
critic is hard set; but Balaustion, speaking as interpreter for
Browning, explains that for a little the king lapses back from the
firmer foothold which he had attained. Perhaps it would have been wiser
to admit that Euripides has marred his own work by this grim
tragic-comic encounter of crabbed age and youth. But it is true that one
who has much to give, like Alkestis, gives freely; and one who has
little to give, like Pheres, clutches that little desperately and is
starved not only in possessions but in soul. For Browning the
significance of the scene lies in the idea, which if not just is
ingenious, that the encounter with Pheres has an educational value for
Admetos; he detests his father because he sees in him an image of his
own egoism, and thus he learns more profoundly to hate his baser self.
When the body of Alkestis has been borne away and the king re-enters his
desolate halls the full truth breaks in upon him; nothing can be as it
has been before--"He stared at the impossible mad life"; he has learnt
that life, which yet shall be rightly lived, is a harder thing than

He was beginning to be like his wife.

And those around him felt that having descended in grief so far to the
truth of things, he could not but return to the light an altered and a
better man. Instructed so deeply in the realities of sorrow, Admetos is
at last made worthy to receive the blessed realities of joy with the

When I betray her, though she is no more,
May I die.

The regeneration of Admetos is accomplished. How much in all this
exposition is derived from the play, how much is added to it, may be
left for the consideration of the reader who will compare the original
with the transcript.

If the character of Admetos is somewhat lowered by Browning beneath the
conception of the Greek dramatist, to allow room for its subsequent
elevation, the conception of Herakles is certainly heightened. We shall
not say that Balaustion is the speaker and that Herakles is somewhat of
a woman's hero. Browning himself fully enters into Balaustion's
enthusiasm. And the presence of the strong, joyous helper of men is in
truth an inspiring one. The great voice that goes before him is itself a
_Sursum corda!_--a challenge and a summons to whatever manliness is in
us. And the best of it is that sauntering the pavement or crossing the
ferry we may happen to encounter this face of Herakles:

Out of this face emerge banners and horses--O superb! I see what is coming;
I see the high pioneer-caps--I see the slaves of runners clearing the way,
I hear victorious drums.

This face is a life-boat.

For Walt Whitman too had seen Brother Jonathan Herakles, and indeed the
face of the strong and tender wound-dresser was itself as the face of a
calmer Herakles to many about to die. The speeches of the demigod in
Browning's transcript require an abundant commentary, but it is the
commentary of an irrepressible joy, an outbreak of enthusiasm which will
not be controlled. The glorious Gargantuan creature, in the best sense
Rabelaisian, is uplifted by Browning into a very saint of joyous effort;
no pallid ascetic, indeed, beating his breast with the stone, but a
Christian saint of Luther's school, while at the same time a somewhat
over-boisterous benevolent Paynim giant:

Gladness be with thee, Helper of our world!
I think this is the authentic sign and sea!
Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad,
And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts
Into a rage to suffer for mankind,
And recommence at sorrow.

Something of the Herakles ideal appears again and again in other poems
of Browning. His Breton sailor, Herve Riel, has more than a touch of the
Heraclean frankness of gaiety in arduous effort. His Ivan Ivanovitch
wields the axe and abolishes a life with the Heraclean joy in
righteousness. And in the last of Browning's poems, not without a
pathetically over-boisterous effort and strain, there is the suggestion
of an ideal conception of himself as a Herakles-Browning; the old man
tries at least to send his great voice before him.

The new Admetos, new Alkestis, imagined by Balaustion at the close of
the poem, are wedded lovers who, like the married in Pompilia's dream of
heaven, "know themselves into one." For them the severance of death has
become an impossible thing; and therefore no place is left for Herakles
in this treatment of the story. It expresses Browning's highest
conception of the union of soul with soul:

Therewith her whole soul entered into his,
He looked the look back, and Alkestis died--

died only to be rejected by Hades, as still living, and with a more
potent life, in her husband's heart and will. Yet the mortal cloud is
round these mortals still; they cannot see things as the gods see. And,
for all their hopes and endeavours, the earth which they would renew and
make as heaven, remains the old incredulous, unconverted earth,--"Such
is the envy Gods still bear mankind." And in such an earth, if not for
them, assuredly for others, Herakles may find great deeds to do.

Balaustion has the unique distinction of being heroine throughout two of
Browning's poems; and of both we may say that the genius of Euripides is
the hero. _Aristophanes' Apology_ is written from first to last with
unflagging energy; the translation of the "Herakles" which it includes
is a masculine and masterly effort to transport the whole sense and
spirit of the original into English verse, and the rendering of the
choral passages into lyric form gives it an advantage over the
transcript of the "Alkestis." Perhaps not a little of the self-defence
of Aristophanes and his statement of the case against Euripides could
have been put as well or better in a critical essay in prose; but the
method of Browning enables him to mingle, in a dramatic fashion, truth
with sophistry, and to make both serve his purpose of presenting not
only the case but the character of the great Greek maker of comedy.
Balaustion is no longer the ardent girl of the days of her first
adventure; she is a wife, with the dignity, the authority of womanhood
and wifehood; she has known the life of Athens with its evil and its
good; she has been the favoured friend of Euripides; she is capable of
confronting his powerful rival in popular favour, and of awing him into
sobriety and becoming manners; with an instinctive avoidance she recoils
from whatever is gross or uncomely; yet she can do honour to the true
light of intellect and genius even though it shines through earth-born
vapours and amid base surroundings.

Athens, "the life and light of the whole world," has sunk under the
power of Sparta, and it can be henceforth no home for Balaustion and her
Euthukles. The bark that bears them is bounding Rhodesward, and the
verse has in it the leap and race of the prow. Balaustion, stricken at
heart, yet feels that this tragedy of Athens brings the tragic
katharsis; the justice of the gods is visible in it; and above man's
wickedness and folly she reaches to "yon blue liberality of heaven." It
seems as if the spirit which might have saved Athens is that of the
loins girt and the lamp lit which was embodied in the strenuous devotion
of Euripides to the highest things; and the spirit which has brought
Athens to its ruin is that expressed with a splendid power through the
work of Aristophanes. But Aristophanes shall plead for himself and leave
nothing unsaid that can serve to vindicate him as a poet and even as a
moralist Thus only can truth in the end stand clear, assured of its
supremacy over falsehood and over half-truth.

Nothing that Browning has written is more vividly imagined than the
encounter of Balaustion with Aristophanes and his crew of revellers on
the night when the tidings of the death of Euripides reached Athens; it
rouses and controls the feelings with the tumult of life and the
sanctity of death, while also imposing itself on the eye as a brilliant
and a solemn picture. The revellers scatter before the presence of
Balaustion, and she and the great traducer of Euripides stand face to
face. Nowhere else has Browning presented this conception of the man of
vast disorderly genius, who sees and approves the better way and
splendidly follows the worse:

Such domineering deity
Hephaistos might have carved to cut the brine
For his gay brother's prow, imbrue that path
Which, purpling, recognised the conqueror.

It is as if male force, with the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh,
and the pride of life behind it, were met and held in check by the finer
feminine force resting for its support upon the divine laws. But in
truth Aristophanes is half on the side of Balaustion and of Euripides;
he must, indeed, make his stand; he is not one to falter or quail; and
yet when the sudden cloud falls upon his face he knows that it is his
part to make the worse appear the better cause, knowing this all the
more because the justice of Balaustion's regard perceives and recognises
his higher self. Suddenly the Tuphon, "madding the brine with wrath or
monstrous sport," is transformed into something like what the child saw
once from the Rhodian sea-coast (the old romantic poet in Browning is
here young once more):

All at once, large-looming from his wave,
Out leaned, chin hand-propped, pensive on the ledge,
A sea-worn face, sad as mortality,
Divine with yearning after fellowship.
He rose but breast-high. So much god she saw;
So much she sees now, and does reverence.

But in a moment the sea-god is again the sea-monster, with "tail-splash,
frisk of fin"; the majestic Aristophanes relapses into the most
wonderful of mockers.

No passage in the poem is quite so impressive as this through its
strangeness in beauty. But the entry of Sophocles--"an old pale-swathed
majesty,"--at the supper which followed the performance of the play, is
another of those passages to find which _in situ_ is a sufficient reward
for reading many laborious pages that might almost as well have been
thrown into an imaginary conversation in prose:

Then the grey brow sank low, and Sophokles
Re-swathed him, sweeping doorward: mutely passed
'Twixt rows as mute.

The critical study of comedy, its origin, its development, its
function, its decline, is written with admirable vigour, but the case of
Aristophanes can be read elsewhere. It is interesting, however, to note
the argument in support of the thesis that comedy points really to
ideals of humanity which are beyond human attainment; that its mockery
of man's infirmities implies a conception of our nature which in truth
is extra-human; while tragedy on the contrary accepts man as he is, in
his veritable weakness and veritable strength, and wrings its pity and
its terror out of these. It is Aristophanes who thus vindicates
Euripides before the revellers who have assembled in his own honour, and
they accept what seems to them a paradox as his finest stroke of irony.
But he has indeed after the solemn withdrawal of Sophocles looked for a
moment through life and death, and seen in his hour of highest success
his depth of failure. For him, in this testing-time of life, art has
been the means of probation; he has squandered the gifts bestowed upon
him, which should have been concentrated in the special task to which he
was summoned. He should have known--he did in fact know--that the art
which "makes grave" is higher than that which "makes grin"; his own
peculiar duty was to advance his art one step beyond his predecessors;
to create a drama which should bring into harmony the virtue of tragedy
and the virtue of comedy; to discover the poetry which

Makes wise, not grave,--and glad,
Not grinning: whereby laughter joins with tears.

Instead of making this advance he had retrograded; and it remained for a
poet of a far-off future in the far-off Kassiterides--the Tin Isle
which has Stratford at its heart--to accomplish the task on which
Aristophanes would not adventure. One way a brilliant success was
certain for Aristophanes; the other and better way failure was possible;
and he declined to make the venture of faith. It is with this sense of
self-condemnation upon him that he essays his own defence, and it is
against this sense of self-condemnation more than against the genius and
the methods of Euripides that he struggles. When towards the close of
the poem he takes in hand the psalterion, and chants in splendid strains
the story of Thamuris, who aspired and failed, as he himself will never
do, the reader is almost won over to his side. Browning, who felt the
heights and depths of the lyric genius of Aristophanes, would seem to
have resolved that in this song of "Thamuris marching," moving in
ecstasy amid the glories of an autumn morning, he would dramatically
justify his conception of the poet; and never in his youth did Browning
sing with a finer rapture of spirit. But reading what follows, the
record of the subjugation of Athens, when the Athenian people accept the
ruin of their defences as if it were but a fragment of Aristophanic
comedy, we perceive that this song, which breaks off with an uproar of
laughter, is the condemnation as well as the glory of the singer.

The translation of _Agamemnon_, the preface to which is dated "October
1st, 1877," was undertaken at the request or command of Carlyle. The
argument of the preface fails to justify Browning's method. A
translation "literal at every cost save that of absolute violence to our
language" may be highly desirable; it is commonly called a "crib"; and
a crib contrived by one who is not only a scholar but a man of genius
will now and again yield a word or a phrase of felicitous precision. But
that a translation "literal at every cost" should be put into verse is a
wrong both to the original and to the poetry of the language to which
the original is transferred; it assumes a poetic garb which in assuming
it rends to tatters. A translation into verse implies that a certain
beauty of form is part of the writer's aim; it implies that a poem is to
be reproduced as a poem, and not as that bastard product of learned ill
judgment--a glorified crib; and a glorified crib is necessarily a bad
crib. Mrs Orr, who tells us that Browning refused to regard even the
first of Greek writers as models of literary style, had no doubt that
the translation of the _Agamemnon_ was partly made for the pleasure of
exposing the false claims made on their behalf. Such a supposition does
not agree well with Browning's own Preface; but if he had desired to
prove that the _Agamemnon_ can be so rendered as to be barely readable,
he has been singularly successful. From first to last in the genius of
Browning there was an element, showing itself from time to time, of
strange perversity.


[Footnote 103: Was this a "baffled visit," as described by Mr Henry
James in his "Life of Story" (ii. 197), when the hostess was absent, and
the guests housed in an inn?]

[Footnote 104: Letter quoted by Mrs Orr, p. 288.]

[Footnote 105: The attitude is reproduced in a photograph from which a
woodcut is given in Mme. Blanc's article "A French Friend of Browning."]

[Footnote 106: "Records of Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning," by Annie
Ritchie, pp. 291, 292.]

[Footnote 107: "A Bibliography of the Writings of Robert Browning," by
T.J. Wise, pp. 157, 158.]

[Footnote 108: _Aristophanes' Apology_ is connected with these poems by
its character as a casuistical self-defence of the chief speaker.]

[Footnote 109: North's "Plutarch," 1579, p. 599.]

[Footnote 110: "Les Deux Masques," ii. 281.]

[Footnote 111: A comment of Paul de Saint-Victor on the silence of the
recovered Alkestis deserves to be quoted: "Hercule apprend a Admete
qu'il lui est interdit d'entendre sa voix avant qu'elle soit purifiee de
sa consecration aux Divinites infernales. J'aime mieux voir dans cette
reserve un scrupule religieux du poete laissant a la morte sa dignite
d'Ombre. Alceste a ete nitiee aux profonds mysteres de la mort; elle a
vu l'invisible, elle a entendu l'ineffable; toute parole sortie de ses
levres serait une divulgation sacrilege. Ce silence mysterieux la
spiritualise et la rattache par un dernier lien au monde eternel."]

Chapter XIV

Problem and Narrative Poems

_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, which appeared in December 1871, four
months after the publication of _Balaustions Adventure_, was written by
Browning during a visit to friends in Scotland. His interest in modern
politics was considerable, but in general it remained remote from his
work as a poet. He professed himself a liberal, but he was a liberal who
because he was such, claimed the right of independent judgment. He had
rejoiced in the enfranchisement of Italy. During the American Civil War
he was strongly on the side of the North, as letters to Story, written
when his private grief lay heavy upon him, abundantly show. He was at
one time a friend of the movement in favour of granting the
parliamentary suffrage to women, but late in life his opinion on this
question altered. He was as decidedly opposed to the proposals for a
separate or subordinate Parliament for Ireland as were his friends
Carlyle and Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. After the introduction of the
Home Rule Bill he could not bring himself, though requested by a friend,
to write words which would have expressed or implied esteem for the
statesman who had made that most inopportune experiment in
opportunism[112] and whose talents he admired. Yet for a certain kind of
opportunism--that which conserves rather than destroys--Browning
thought that much might fairly be said. To say this with a special
reference to the fallen Emperor of France he wrote his _Prince

Browning's instinctive sympathies are not with the "Saviour of Society,"
who maintains for temporary reasons a tottering edifice. He naturally
applauds the man who builds on sure foundations, or the man who in order
to reach those foundations boldly removes the accumulated lumber of the
past. But there are times when perhaps the choice lies only between
conservation of what is imperfect and the attempt to erect an airy
fabric which has no basis upon the solid earth; and Browning on the
whole preferred a veritable _civitas hominum_, however remote from the
ideal, to a sham _civitas Dei_ or a real Cloudcuckootown. "It is true,
that what is settled by custom, though it be not good, yet at least it
is fit; and those things, which have long gone together, are as it were
confederate within themselves; whereas new things piece not so well; but
though they help by their utility, yet they trouble by their
inconformity." These words, of one whose worldly wisdom was more
profoundly studied than ever Browning's was, might stand as a motto for
the poem. But the pregnant sentence of Bacon which follows these words
should be added--"All this is true if time stood still." Browning's
pleading is not a merely ingenious defence of the untenable, either with
reference to the general thesis or its application to the French Empire.
He did not, like his wife, think of the Emperor as if he were a paladin
of modern romance; but he honestly believed that he had for a time done
genuine service--though not the highest--to France and to the world. "My
opinion of the solid good rendered years ago," he wrote in September
1863 to Story, "is unchanged. The subsequent deference to the clerical
party in France and support of brigandage is poor work; but it surely is
doing little harm to the general good." And to Miss Blagden after the
publication of his poem: "I thought badly of him at the beginning of his
career, _et pour cause_; better afterward, on the strength of the
promises he made, and gave indications of intending to redeem. I think
him very weak in the last miserable year." It seemed to Browning a case
in which a veritable _apologia_ was admissible in the interests of truth
and justice, and by placing this _apologia_ in the mouth of the Emperor
himself certain sophistries were also legitimate that might help to give
the whole the dramatic character which the purposes of poetry, as the
exposition of a complex human character, required.

The misfortune was that in making choice of such a subject Browning
condemned himself to write with his left hand, to fight with one arm
pinioned, to exhibit the case on behalf of the "Saviour of Society" with
his brain rather than with brain and heart acting together. He was to
demonstrate that in the scale of spiritual colours there is a
respectable place for drab. This may be undertaken with skill and
vigour, but hardly with enthusiastic pleasure. _Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ is an interesting intellectual exercise, and if
this constitutes a poem, a poem it is; but the theme is fitter for a
prose discussion. Browning's intellectual ability became a snare by
which the poet within him was entrapped. The music that he makes here is
the music of Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha:

So your fugue broadens and thickens,
Greatens and deepens and lengthens,
Till one exclaims--"But where's music, the dickens!"

The mysterious Sphinx who expounds his riddle and dissertates on himself
in an imaginary Leicester Square says many things that deserve to be
considered; but they are addressed to our understanding in the first
instance, and only in a secondary and indirect way reach our feelings
and our imagination. The interest of the poem is virtually exhausted in
a single reading; to a true work of art we return again and again for
renewed delight. We return to _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ as to a
valuable store-house of arguments or practical considerations in defence
of a conservative opportunism; but if we have once appropriated these,
we do not need the book. There is a spirit of conservation, like that of
Edmund Burke, which has in it a wise enthusiasm, we might almost say a
wise mysticism. Browning's Prince is not a conservator possessed by this
enthusiasm. Something almost pathetic may be felt in his sense that the
work allotted to him is work of mere temporary and transitory utility.
He has no high inspirations such as support the men who change the face
of the world. The Divine Ruler who has given him his special faculties,
who has enjoined upon him his special tasks, holds no further
communication with him. But he will do the work of a mere man in a man's
strength, such as it is; he cannot make new things; he can use the
thing he finds; he can for a term of years "do the best with the least
change possible"; he can turn to good account what is already half-made;
and so, he believes, he can, in a sense, co-operate with God. So long as
he was an irresponsible dreamer, a mere voice in the air, it was
permitted him to indulge in glorious dreams, to utter shining words. Now
that his feet are on the earth, now that his thoughts convert themselves
into deeds, he must accept the limitations of earth. The idealists may
put forth this programme and that; his business is not with them but
with the present needs of the humble mass of his people--"men that have
wives and women that have babes," whose first demand is bread; by
intelligence and sympathy he will effect "equal sustainment everywhere"
throughout society; and when the man of genius who is to alter the world
arises, such a man most of all will approve the work of his predecessor,
who left him no mere "shine and shade" on which to operate, but the good
hard substance of common human life.

All this is admirably put, and it is interesting to find that Browning,
who had rejoiced with Herakles doing great deeds and purging the world
of monsters, could also honour a poor provisional Atlas whose task of
sustaining a poor imperfect globe upon his shoulders is less brilliant
but not perhaps less useful. Nor would it be just to overlook the fact
that in three or four pages the poet asserts himself as more than the
prudent casuist. The splendid image of society as a temple from which
winds the long procession of powers and beauties has in it something of
the fine mysticism of Edmund Burke.[113] The record of the Prince's
early and irresponsible aspirations for a free Italy--

Ay, still my fragments wander, music-fraught,
Sighs of the soul, mine once, mine now, and mine
For ever!--

with what immediately follows, would have satisfied the ardent spirit of
Mrs Browning.[114] And the characterisation of the genius of the French
nation, whose lust for war and the glory of war Browning censures as
"the dry-rot of the race," rises brilliantly out of its somewhat gray

The people here,
Earth presses to her heart, nor owns a pride
Above her pride i' the race all flame and air
And aspiration to the boundless Great,
The incommensurably Beautiful--
Whose very faulterings groundward come of flight
Urged by a pinion all too passionate
For heaven and what it holds of gloom and glow:
Bravest of thinkers, bravest of the brave
Doers, exalt in Science, rapturous
In Art, the--more than all--magnetic race
To fascinate their fellows, mould mankind.

It is a passage conceived in the same spirit as the great chaunt "O Star
of France!" written, at the same date, and with a recognition of both
the virtues and the shames of France, by the American poet of Democracy.
To these memorable fragments from _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ one
other may be added--that towards the close of the poem which applies the
tradition of the succession by murder of the priesthood at the shrine of
the Clitumnian god to the succession of men of genius in the priesthood
of the world--"The new power slays the old, but handsomely."

In _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ there is nothing enigmatical. "It is
just what I imagine the man might, if he pleased, say for himself," so
Browning wrote to Miss Blagden soon after the publication of the volume.
Many persons, however, have supposed that in _Fifine at the Fair_ (1872)
a riddle rather than a poem was given to the world by the perversity of
the writer. When she comes to speak of this work Browning's biographer
Mrs Orr is half-apologetic; it is for her "a piece of perplexing
cynicism." The origin of the poem was twofold. The external suggestion
came from the fact that during one of his visits to Pornic, Browning had
seen the original of his Fifine, and she lived in his memory as a
subject of intellectual curiosity and imaginative interest. The internal
suggestion, as Mrs Orr hints, lay in a certain mood of resentment
against himself arising from the fact that the encroachments of the
world seemed to estrange in some degree a part of his complex being from
entire fidelity to his own past. The world, in fact, seemed to be
playing with Browning the part of a Fifine. If this were so, it would be
characteristic of Browning that he should face round upon the world and
come to an explanation with his adversary. But this could not in a
printed volume be done in his own person; he was not one to take the
public into his confidence. The discussion should be removed as far as
possible from his own circumstances and even his own feelings. It should
be a dramatic debate on the subject of fidelity and infidelity, on the
bearings of the apparent to the true, on the relation of reality in
this our mortal life to illusion. As he studied the subject it assumed
new significances and opened up wider issues. An actual Elvire and an
actual Fifine may be the starting points, but by-and-by Elvire shall
stand for all that is permanent and substantial in thought and feeling,
Fifine for all that is transitory and illusive. The question of conjugal
fidelity is as much the subject of _Fifine at the Fair_ as the virtue of
tar-water is the subject of Berkeley's _Siris_. The poem is in fact
Browning's _Siris_--a chain of thoughts and feelings, reaching with no
break in the chain, from a humble basis to the heights of speculation.

But before all else _Fifine at the Fair_ is a poem. Of all the longer
poems which followed _The Ring and the Book_ it is the most sustained
and the most diversified in imaginative power. To point out passages of
peculiar beauty, passages vivid in feeling, original in thought, would
here be out of place; for the brilliance and vigour are unflagging, and
what we have to complain of is the lack of some passages of repose. The
joy in freedom--freedom accepting some hidden law--of these poor losels
and truants from convention, who stroll it and stage it, the gypsy
figure of Fifine in page-costume, the procession of imagined
beauties--Helen, Cleopatra, the Saint of Pornic Church--the
half-emerging, half-undelivered statue by Michelagnolo, the praise of
music as nearer to the soul than words, sunset at Saint-Marie, the play
of the body in the sea at noontide (with all that it typifies), woman as
the rillet leaping to the sea, woman as the dolphin that upbears Orion,
the Venetian carnival, which is the carnival of human life, darkness
fallen upon the plains, and through the darkness the Druidic stones
gleaming--all these are essentially parts of the texture of the poem,
yet each has a lustre or a shimmer or grave splendour of its own.

It is strange that any reader should have supposed either the Prologue
or the Epilogue to be uttered by the imaginary speaker of the poem. Both
shadow forth the personal feelings of Browning; the prologue tells of
the gladness he still found both in the world of imagination and the
world of reality, over which hovers the spirit that had once been so
near his own, the spirit that is near him still, yet moving on a
different plane, perhaps wondering at or pitying this life of his, which
yet he accepts with cheer and will turn to the best account; the
epilogue veils behind its grim humour the desolate feeling that came
upon him again and again as a householder in this house of life, for
behind the happiness which he strenuously maintained, there lay a great
desolation. But the last word of the epilogue--"Love is all and Death is
nought" is a word of sustainment wrung out of sorrow. These poems have
surely in them no "perplexing cynicism," nor has the poem enclosed
between them, when it is seen aright. Browning's idea in the poem he
declared in reply to a question of Dr Furnivall, "was to show merely how
a Don Juan might justify himself, partly by truth, somewhat by
sophistry." No more unhappy misnomer than this "Don Juan" could have
been devised for the curious, ingenious, learned experimenter in life,
no man of pleasure, in the vulgar sense of the word, but a deliberate
explorer of thoughts and things, who argues out his case with so much
fine casuistry and often with the justest conceptions of human character
and conduct. If we could discover a dividing line between his truth and
his sophistry, we might discover also that the poem is no exceptional
work of Browning, for which an apology is required, but of a piece with
his other writings and in harmony with the body of thought and feeling
expressed through them. Now it is certain that as Browning advanced in
years he more and more distrusted the results of the intellect in its
speculative research; he relied more and more upon the knowledge that
comes through or is embodied in love. Love by its very nature implies a
relation; what is felt is real for us. But the intellect, which aspires
to know things as they are, forever lands us in illusions--illusions
needful for our education, and therefore far from unprofitable, to be
forever replaced by fresh illusions; and the only truth we thus attain
is the conviction that truth there assuredly is, that we must forever
reach after it, and must forever grasp its shadow. Theologies,
philosophies, scientific theories--these change like the shifting and
shredding clouds before our eyes, and are forever succeeded by clouds of
another shape and hue. But the knowledge involved in love is veritable
and is verified at least for us who love. While in his practice he grew
more scientific in research for truth, and less artistic in his desire
for beauty, such was the doctrine which Browning upheld.

The speaker in _Fifine at the Fair_ is far more a seeker for knowledge
than he is a lover. And he has learnt, and learnt aright, that by
illusions the intellect is thrown forward towards what may relatively be
termed the truth; through shadows it advances upon reality. When he
argues that philosophies and theologies are the fizgigs of the brain,
its Fifines the false which lead us onward to Elvire the true, he
expresses an idea which Browning has repeatedly expressed in
_Ferishtah's Fancies_ and which, certainly, was an idea he had made his
own. And if a man approaches the other sex primarily with a view to
knowledge, with a view to confirm and to extend his own
self-consciousness and to acquire experience of the strength and the
weakness of womanhood, it is true that he will be instructed more
widely, if not more deeply, by Elvire supplemented by Fifine than by
Elvire alone. The sophistry of the speaker in Browning's poem consists
chiefly in a juggle between knowledge and love, and in asserting as true
of love what Browning held to be, in the profoundest sense, true of
knowledge. The poet desires, as Butler in his "Analogy" desired, to take
lower ground than his own; but the curious student of man and woman, of
love and knowledge--imagination aiding his intellect--is compelled, amid
his sophistical jugglings, to work out his problems upon Browning's own
lines, and he becomes a witness to Browning's own conclusions. Saul,
before the poem closes, is also among the prophets. For him, as for
Browning, "God and the soul stand sure." He sees, as Browning sees, man
reaching upward through illusions--religious theories, philosophical
systems, scientific hypotheses, artistic methods, scholarly
attainments--to the Divine. The Pornic fair has become the Venice
carnival, and this has grown to the vision of man's life, in which the
wanton and coquette named a philosophy or a theology has replaced the
gipsy in tricot. The speaker misapplies to love and the truths obtained
by love Browning's doctrine concerning knowledge. And yet, even so, he
is forced to confess, however inconsistent his action may be with his
belief, that the permanent--which is the Divine--can be reached through
a single, central point of human love, but not through any vain attempt
to manufacture an infinite by piecing together a multitude of detached

His problem posed aright
Was--"From a given point evolve the infinite!"
Not--"Spend thyself in space, endeavouring to joint
Together, and so make infinite, point and point:
Fix into one Elvire a Fair-ful of Fifines!"

If he continues his experiments, they are experiments of the senses or
of the intellect, which he knows can bring no profit to the heart: "Out
of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant." He will
undoubtedly--let this be frankly acknowledged--grow in a certain kind of
knowledge, and as certainly he will dwindle in the higher knowledge that
comes through love. The poem is neither enigmatical nor cynical, but in
entire accord with Browning's own deepest convictions and highest

Although in his later writings Browning rendered ever more and more
homage to the illuminating power of the affections, his methods
unfortunately became, as has been said, more and more scientific,
or--shall we say?--pseudo-scientific. Art jealously selects its
subjects, those which possess in a high degree spiritual or material
beauty, or that more complete beauty which unites the two. Science
accepts any subject which promises to yield its appropriate truth.
Browning, probing after psychological truth, became too indifferent to
the truth of beauty. Or shall we say that his vision of beauty became
enlarged, so that in laying bare by dissection the anatomy of any poor
corpse, he found an artistic joy in studying the enlacements of veins
and nerves? To say this is perhaps to cheat oneself with words. His own
defence would, doubtless, have been a development of two lines which
occur near the close of _Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_:

Love bids touch truth, endure truth, and embrace
Truth, though, embracing truth, love crush itself.

And he would have pleaded that art, which he styles

The love of loving, rage
Of knowing, seeing, feeling the absolute truth of things
For truth's sake, whole and sole,

may "crush itself" for sake of the truth which is its end and aim. But
the greatest masters have not sought for beauty merely or mainly in the
dissection of ugliness, nor did they find their rejoicing in artistic
suicide for the sake of psychological discovery. To Browning such a
repulsive story as that of _Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_ served now as
well as one which in earlier days would have attracted him by its
grandeur or its grace. Here was a fine morbid growth, an exemplary moral
wen, the enormous product of two kinds of corruption--sensuality and
superstition, and what could be a more fortunate field for exploration
with aid of the scalpel? The incidents of the poem were historical and
were recent. Antoine Mellerio, the sometime jeweller of Paris, had flung
himself from his belvedere in 1870; the suit, which raised the question
of his sanity at the date when his will had been signed, was closed in
1872; the scene of his death was close to Browning's place of summer
sojourn, Saint-Aubin. The subject lay close to Browning's hand. It was
an excellent subject for a short story of the kind that gets the name of
realistic. It was an unfortunate subject for a long poem. But the
botanist who desires to study vegetable physiology does not require a
lily or a rose. Browning who viewed things from the ethical as well as
the psychological standpoint was attracted to the story partly because
it was, he thought, a story with a moral. He did not merely wish to
examine as a spiritual chemist the action of Castilian blood upon a
French brain, to watch and make a report upon the behaviour of inherited
faith when brought into contact with acquired scepticism--the scepticism
induced by the sensual temperament of the boulevards; he did not merely
wish to exhibit the difficulties and dangers of a life divided against
itself. His purpose was also to rebuke that romantic sentimentalism
which would preserve the picturesque lumber of ruined faiths and
discredited opinions, that have done their work, and remain only as
sources of danger to persons who are weak of brain and dim of sight.
Granted the conditions, it was, Browning maintains, an act of entire
sanity on the part of his sorry hero, Monsieur Leonce Miranda, to fling
himself into mid air, to put his faith to the final test, and trust to
our Blessed Lady, the bespangled and bejewelled Ravissante, to bear him
in safety through the air. But the conditions were deplorable; and those
who declined to assist in carting away the rubbish of medievalism are
responsible for Leonce Miranda's bloody night-cap.

The moral is just, and the story bears it well. Yet Browning's own
conviction that man's highest and clearest faith is no more than a
shadow of the unattainable truth may for a moment give us pause. An
iconoclast, even such an iconoclast as Voltaire, is ordinarily a man of
unqualified faith in the conclusions of the intellect. If our best
conceptions of things divine be but a kind of parable, why quarrel with
the parables accepted by other minds than our own? The answer is
twofold. First Browning was not a sceptic with respect to the truths
attained through love, and he held that mankind had already attained
through love truths that condemned the religion of self-torture and
terrified propitiations, which led Leonce Miranda to reduce his right
hand and his left to carbonised stumps and dragged him kneeling along
the country roads to manifest his devotion to the image of the Virgin.
Secondly he held that our education through intellectual illusions is a
progressive education, and that to seek to live in an obsolete illusion
is treason against humanity. Therefore his exhortation is justified by
his logic:

Quick conclude
Removal, time effects so tardily,
Of what is plain obstruction; rubbish cleared,
Let partial-ruin stand while ruin may,
And serve world's use, since use is manifold.

The tower which once served as a belfry may possibly be still of use to
some Father Secchi to "tick Venus off in transit"; only never bring bell
again to the partial-ruin,

To damage him aloft, brain us below,
When new vibrations bury both in brick.

For which sane word, if not for all the pages of his poem, we may feel
gratefully towards the writer. It is the word of Browning the moralist.
The study of the double-minded hero belongs to Browning the
psychologist. The admirable portrait of Clara, the successful
adventuress, harlot and favoured daughter of the Church, is the chief
gift received through this poem from Browning the artist. She is a very
admirable specimen of her kind--the _mamestra brassicae_ species of
caterpillar, and having with beautiful aplomb outmanoeuvred and flouted
the rapacious cousinry, Clara is seen at the last, under the protection
of Holy Church, still quietly devouring her Miranda leaf--such is the
irony of nature, and the merit of a perfect digestive apparatus.

The second narrative poem of this period, _The Inn Album_ (1875), is in
truth a short series of dramatic scenes, placed in a narrative
frame-work. It is as concentrated as _Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_ is
diffuse; and the unities of time and place assist the tragic
concentration. A recast of _The Inn Album_ might indeed have appeared as
a drama on the Elizabethan stage side by side with such a brief
masterpiece, piteous and terrible, as "A Yorkshire Tragedy"; it moves
with a like appalling rapidity towards the climax and the catastrophe.
The incident of the attempted barter of a discarded mistress to clear
off the score of a gambling debt is derived from the scandalous
chronicle of English nineteenth century society.[116] Browning's tale of
crime was styled on its appearance by a distinguished critic of
Elizabethan drama the story of a "penny dreadful." He was right; but he
should have added that some of the most impressive and elevated pieces
of our dramatic literature have had sources of no greater dignity. The
story of the "penny dreadful" is here rehandled and becomes a tragedy of
which the material part is only a translation into external deed of a
tragedy of the soul. The _dramatis personae_, as refashioned from the
crude fact and the central passions of the poem, were such as would
naturally call forth what was characteristic in Browning's genius. A
martyr of love, a traitor to love, an avenger of love,--these are the
central figures. The girlish innocence of the cousin is needed only as a
ray of morning sunlight to relieve the eye that is strained and pained
by the darkness and the pallor of the faces of the exponents of passion.
And a like effect is produced by the glimpses of landscape, rich in the
English qualities of cultured gladness and repose, which Browning so
seldom presented, but which are perfectly rendered here:

The wooded watered country, hill and dale
And steel-bright thread of stream, a-smoke with mist,
A-sparkle with May morning, diamond drift
O' the sun-touched dew.

We must feel that life goes on with leisurely happiness outside the
little room that isolates its tragic occupants; the smoke from fires of
turf and wood is in the air; cottagers are at their morning cookery.
After all the poet of the inn album was well inspired in his eloquent
address:--"Hail, calm acclivity, salubrious spot!" and only certain
incidents, which time will soon efface, have touched the salutation with

In this poem Browning reverts to his earlier method of clearly and
simply dividing the evil from the good. We are not embarrassed by the
mingling of truth with sophistry; our instinctive sympathies are not
held in check, but are on the contrary reinforced by the undisguised
sympathies of the writer. We are no more in doubt where wrong and where
justice lie than if Count Gismond were confronting Count Gauthier. The
avenger, indeed, is no champion of romance; he is only a young English
snob, a little slow of brain, a little unrefined in manner, a "clumsy
giant handsome creature," who for a year has tried to acquire under an
accomplished tutor the lore of cynical worldliness, and has not
succeeded, for he is manly and honest, and has the gentleness of
strength; "for ability, all's in the rough yet." Of his education the
best part is that he has once loved and been thwarted in his love. And
now in a careless-earnest regard for his cousin his need is that of
occupation for his big, idle boy's heart; he wants something to do,
someone also to serve. Browning wishes to show the passion of
righteousness, which suddenly flames forth and abolishes an evil thing
as springing from no peculiar knightly virtue but from mere honest human
nature. The huge boy, somewhat crude, somewhat awkward, with a moral
temper still unclarified, has enough of our good, common humanity in him
to hold no parley with utter wickedness, when once he fully apprehends
its nature; therefore he springs upon it in one swift transport of rage
and there and then makes an end of it. His big red hands are as much the
instruments of divine justice as is the axe of Ivan Ivanovitch.

The traitor of the poem is "refinement every inch from brow to
boot-heel"; and in this respect it cannot be said that Browning's
villain departs widely from the conventional, melodramatic villain of
the stage. He has perhaps like the stage villain a little too much of
that cheap knowingness, which is the theatrical badge of the complete
man of the world, but which gentlemen in actual life do not ordinarily
affect. There is here and elsewhere in Browning's later poetry somewhat
too free an indulgence in this cheap knowingness, as if with a nod and a
wink he would inform us that he has a man of the world's acquaintance
with the shady side of life; and this is not quite good art, nor is it
quite good manners. The vulgarity of the man in the street may have a
redeeming touch of animal spirits, if not of _naivete_, in it; the
vulgarity of the man in the club, "refinement every inch" is beyond
redemption. The exhibition of Browning's traitor as having slipped lower
and lower down the slopes of baseness because he has been false to his
one experience of veritable love may remind us also of the melodramatic
stage villain; but the tragic and pathetic motives of melodrama, its
demonstrative heroisms, its stage generosities, its striking attitudes,
are really fictions founded upon fact, and the facts which give some
credit to the stage fictions remain for the true creator of tragedy to
discover and interpret aright. The melodramatic is often the truth
falsely or feebly handled; the same truth handled aright may become
tragic. There is much in Shakespeare's plays which if treated by an
inferior artist would at once sink from tragedy to melodrama. Browning
escapes from melodrama but not to such a safe position that we can quite
forget its neighbourhood. When the traitor of this poem is withdrawn--as
was Guido--

Into that sad obscure sequestered state
Where God unmakes but to remake the soul
He else made first in vain,

there will be found in him that he knew the worth of love, that he saw
the horror of the void in which he lived, and that for a moment--though
too late--a sudden wave of not ignoble passion overwhelmed his baser
self, even if only to let the fangs of the treacherous rock reappear in
their starkness and cruelty.

The lady, again, with her superb statue-like beauty, her low wide brow

Oppressed by sweeps of hair
Darker and darker as they coil and swathe
The crowned corpse-wanness whence the eyes burn black,

her passion, her despair, her recovery through chilling to ice the heart
within her, her reawakening to life, and the pain of that return to
sensation, her measureless scorn of her betrayer, her exposure of his
last fraud, and her self-sought death--the lady is dangerously near the
melodramatic heroine, and yet she is not a melodramatic but a tragic
figure. Far more than Pompilia, who knew the joy of motherhood, is she
the martyr of love. And yet, before she quits life, in her protective
care of that somewhat formidable, somewhat ungainly baby, the huge boy,
her champion, hero and snob, she finds a comforting maternal instinct at

Did you love me once?
Then take love's last and best return! I think
Womanliness means only motherhood;
All love begins and ends there,--roams enough,
But, having run the circle, rests at home.

Her husband, good man, will not suffer acutely for her loss; he will be
true to duty, and continue to dose his flock with the comfortable dogma
of hell-fire, in which not one of them believes.

The _Pacchiarotto_ volume of 1876 was the first collection of
miscellaneous poetry put forth by Browning since the appearance, twelve
years previously, of _Dramatis Personae_[117] There is, of course,
throughout the whole the presence of a vigorous personality; we can in
an occasional mood tumble and toss even in the rough verse of
_Pacchiarotto_, as we do on a choppy sea on which the sun is a-shine,
and which invigorates while it--not always agreeably--bobs our head, and
dashes down our throat. But vigour alone does not produce poetry, and it
may easily run into a kind of good-humoured effrontery. The speciality
of the volume as compared with its predecessors is that it contains not
a little running comment by Browning upon himself and his own work,
together with a jocular-savage reply to his unfriendly critics. There is
a little too much in all this of the robustious Herakles sending his
great voice before him. An author ought to be aware of the fact that no
pledge to admire him and his writings has been administered to every one
who enters the world, and that as sure as he attracts, so surely must he
repel. In the _Epilogue_ the poet informs his readers that those who
expect from him, or from any poet, strong wine of verse which is also
sweet demand the impossible. Sweet the strong wine can become only after
it has long lain mellowing in the cask. The experience of Browning's
readers contradicted the assertion. Some who drank the good wines of
1855 and of 1864 in the year of the vintages found that they were
strong and needed no keeping to be sweet. Wine-tasters must make
distinctions, and the quality of the yield of 1876 does not entitle it
to be remembered as an extraordinary year.

The poem from which the volume was named tells in verse, "timed by raps
of the knuckle," how the painter Pacchiarotto must needs become a
world-reformer, or at least a city-reformer in his distressed Siena,
with no good results for his city and with disastrous results for
himself. He learns by unsavoury experience his lesson, to hold on by the
paint-brush and maul-stick, and do his own work, accepting the mingled
evil and good of life in a spirit of strenuous--not
indolent--_laissez-faire_, playing, as energetically as a human being
can, his own part, and leaving others to play theirs, assured that for
all and each this life is the trial-time and test of eternity, the
rehearsal for the performance in a future world, and "Things rarely go
smooth at Rehearsal." Browning's joy in difficult rhyming as seen in
this serio-grotesque jingle was great; some readers may be permitted to
wish that many of his rhymes were not merely difficult but impossible.
At a dinner given by Sir Leslie Stephen he met successfully the
challenge to produce a rhyme for "rhinoceros," and for Tennyson's
diversion he delivered himself of an impromptu in which rhymes were
found for "Ecclefechan" and "Craigenputtock." But in rhyming ingenuity
Browning is inferior to the author of "Hudibras," in a rhymer's elegant
effrontery he is inferior to the author of "Don Juan." Browning's
good-humoured effrontery in his rhymes expects too much good-humour from
his reader, who may be amiable enough to accept rough and ready
successes, but cannot often be delighted by brilliant gymnastics of
sound and sense. In like manner it asks for a particularly well-disposed
reader to appreciate the wit of Browning's retort upon his critics: "You
are chimney-sweeps," he sings out in his great voice, "listen! I have
invented several insulting nicknames for you. Decamp! or my housemaid
will fling the slops in your faces." This may appear to some persons to
be genial and clever. It certainly has none of the exquisite malignity
of Pope's poisoned rapier. Perhaps it is a little dull; perhaps it is a
little outrageous.

The Browning who masks as Shakespeare in _At the Mermaid_ disclaims the
ambition of heading a poetical faction, condemns the Byronic
_Welt-schmerz_, and announces his resolvedly cheerful acceptance of
life. Elsewhere he assures his readers that though his work is theirs
his life is his own; he will not unlock his heart in sonnets. Such is
the drift of the verses entitled _House_; a peep through the window is
permitted, but "please you, no foot over threshold of mine." This was
not Shakespeare's wiser way; if he hid himself behind his work, it was
with the openness and with the taciturnity of Nature. He did not stand
in the window of his "House" declaring that he was not to be seen; he
did not pull up and draw down the blind to make it appear that he was at
home and not at home. In the poem _Shop_ Browning continues his
assurances that he is no Eglamor to whom verse is "a temple-worship
vague and vast." Verse-making is his trade as jewel-setting and
jewel-selling is the goldsmith's--but do you suppose that the poet lives
no life of his own?--how and where it is not for you to guess, only be
certain it is far away from his counter and his till. These poems were
needless confidences to the public that no confidences would be
vouchsafed to them.

But the volume of 1876 contains better work than these pieces of
self-assertion. The two love-lyrics _Natural Magic_ and _Magical Nature_
have each of them a surprise of beauty; the one tells of the fairy-tale
of love, the other of its inward glow and gem-like stability.
_Bifurcation_ is characteristic of the writer; the woman who chooses
duty rather than love may have done well, but she has chosen the easier
way and perhaps has evaded the probation of life; the man who chooses
passion rather than duty has slipped and stumbled, but his was the
harder course and perhaps the better. Which of the two was sinner? which
was saint? To be impeccable may be the most damning of offences. In _St
Martin's Summer_ the eerie presence of ghosts of dead loves, haunting a
love that has grown upon the graves of the past, is a check upon
passion, which by a sudden turn at the close triumphs in a victory that
is defeat. _Fears and Scruples_ is a confession of the trials of
theistic faith in a world from which God seems to be an absentee. What
had been supposed to be letters from our friend are proved forgeries;
what we called his loving actions are the accumulated results of the
natural law of heredity. Yet even if theism had to be abandoned, it
would have borne fruit:

All my days I'll go the softlier, sadlier
For that dream's sake! How forget the thrill
Through and through me as I thought "The gladlier
Lives my friend because I love him still?"

And the friend will value love all the more which persists through the
obstacles of partial ignorance.[118] The blank verse monologue _A
Forgiveness_, Browning's "Spanish Tragedy," is a romance of passion,
subtle in its psychology, tragic in its action. Out of its darkness
gleams especially one resplendent passage--the description of those
weapons of Eastern workmanship--

Horror coquetting with voluptuousness--

one of which is the instrument chosen by the husband's hatred, now
replacing his contempt, to confer on his wife a death that is
voluptuous. The grim-grotesque incident from the history of the Jews in
Italy related in _Filippo Baldinucci_ recalls the comedy and the pathos
of _Holy Cross Day_, to which it is in every respect inferior. The Jew
of the centuries of Christian persecution is for Browning's imagination
a being half-sublime and half-grotesque, and wholly human. _Cenciaja_, a
note in verse connected with Shelley's _Cenci_, would be excellent as a
note in prose appended to the tragedy, explaining, as it does, why the
Pope, inclining to pardon Beatrice, was turned aside from his purposes
of mercy; it rather loses than gains in value by having been thrown into
verse. To recover our loyalty to Browning as a poet, which this volume
sometimes puts to the test, we might well reserve _Numpholeptos_ for the
close. The pure and disempassioned in womanly form is brought face to
face with the passionate and sullied lover, to whom her charm is a
tyranny; she is no warm sun but a white moon rising above this lost
Endymion, who never slumbers but goes forth on hopeless quests at the
bidding of his mistress, and wins for all his reward the "sad, slow,
silver smile," which is now pity, now disdain, and never love. The
subjugating power of chaste and beautiful superiority to passion over
this mere mortal devotee is absolute and inexorable. Is the nymph an
abstraction and incarnation of something that may be found in womanhood?
Is she an embodiment of the Ideal, which sends out many questers, and
pities and disdains them when they return soiled and defeated? Soft and
sweet as she appears, she is _La belle Dame sans merci_, and her
worshipper is as desperately lost as the knight-at-arms of Keats's poem.


[Footnote 112: See Morley's "Life of Gladstone," vol. iii. p. 417.]

[Footnote 113: Pages 46, 47 of the first edition.]

[Footnote 114: Pages 58-60.]

[Footnote 115: It may here be noted that Dante Rossetti in a morbid mood
supposed that certain passages of _Fifine_ were directed against
himself; and so ceased his friendship with Browning.]

[Footnote 116: Fanny Kemble also derived from the story of Lord De Ros
the subject of her "English Tragedy."]

[Footnote 117: Some sentences in what follows are taken from a notice of
the volume which I wrote on its appearance for _The Academy_.]

[Footnote 118: See Browning's letter to Mr Kingsland in "Robert
Browning" by W. G. Kingsland (1890), pp. 32, 33.]

Chapter XV

Solitude and Society

The volume which consists of _La Saisiaz_ and _The Two Poets of Croisic_
(1878) brings the work of this decade to a close.[119] _La Saisiaz_, the
record of thoughts that were awakened during that solitary clamber to
the summit of Saleve after the death of Miss Egerton-Smith, is not an
elegy, but it remains with us as a memorial of friendship. In reading it
we discern the tall white figure of the "stranger lady," leaning through
the terrace wreaths of leaf and bloom, or pacing that low grass-path
which she had loved and called her own. It serves Browning's purpose in
the poem that she should have been one of those persons who in this
world have not manifested all that lies within them. Does she still
exist, or is she now no more than the thing which lies in the little
enclosure at Collonge? The poem after its solemn and impressive prelude
becomes the record of an hour's debate of the writer with himself--a
debate which has a definite aim and is brought to a definite issue. In
conducting that debate on immortality, Browning is neither Christian nor
anti-Christian. The Christian creed involves a question of history; he
cannot here admit historical considerations; he will see the matter out
as he is an individual soul, on the grounds suggested by his individual
consciousness and his personal knowledge. It may be that any result he
arrives at is a result for himself alone.

But why conduct an argument in verse? Is not prose a fitter medium for
such a discussion? The answer is that the poem is more than an argument;
it is the record in verse of an experience, the story of a pregnant and
passionate hour, during which passion quickened the intellect; and the
head, while resisting all illusions of the heart, was roused to that
resistance by the heart itself. Such an hour is full of events; it may
be almost epic in its plenitude of action; but the events are ideas. The
frame and setting of the discussion also are more than frame and
setting; they co-operate with the thoughts; they form part of the
experience. The poet is alone among the mountains, with dawn and sunset
for associates, Jura thrilled to gold at sunrise, Saleve in its evening
rose-bloom, Mont-Blanc which strikes greatness small; or at night he is
beneath the luminous worlds which

One by one came lamping--chiefly that prepotency of Mars.

While he climbs towards the summit he is aware of "Earth's most
exquisite disclosures, heaven's own God in evidence"; he stands face to
face with Nature--"rather with Infinitude." All through his mountain
ascent the vigour of life is aroused within him; and, as he
returns--there is her grave.

The idea of a future life, for which this earthly life serves as an
education and a test, is so central with Browning, so largely influences
all his feelings and penetrates all his art, that it is worth while to
attend to the course of his argument and the nature of his conclusion.
He puts the naked question to himself--What does death mean? Is it total
extinction? Is it a passage into life?--without any vagueness, without
any flattering metaphor; he is prepared to accept or endure any answer
if only it be the truth. Whether his discussion leads to a trustworthy
result or not, the sincerity and the energy of his endeavour after truth
serve to banish all supine and half-hearted moods. The debate, of which
his poem is a report, falls into two parts: first, a statement of facts;
secondly, a series of conjectures--conjectures and no more--rising from
the basis of facts that are ascertained. To put the question, "Shall I
survive death?" is to assume that I exist and that something other than
myself exists which causes me now to live and presently to die. The
nature of this power outside myself I do not know; we may for
convenience call it "God." Beyond these two facts--myself and a power
environing me--nothing is known with certainty which has any bearing on
the matter in dispute. I am like a floating rush borne onward by a
stream; whither borne the rush cannot tell; but rush and stream are
facts that cannot be questioned.

Knowing that I exist--Browning goes on--I know what for me is pain and
what is pleasure. And, however it may be with others, for my own part I
can pronounce upon the relation of joy to sorrow in this my life on

I must say--or choke in silence----"Howsoever came my fate,
Sorrow did and joy did nowise--life well weighed--preponderate."

If this failure be ordained by necessity, I shall bear it as best I can;
but, if this life be all, nothing shall force me to say that life has
proceeded from a cause supreme in goodness, wisdom, and power. What I
find here is goodness always intermixed with evil; wisdom which means an
advance from error to the confession of ignorance; power that is
insufficient to adapt a human being to his surroundings even in the
degree in which a worm is fitted to the leaf on which it feeds.

Browning tacitly rejects the idea that the world is the work of some
blind, force; and undoubtedly our reason, which endeavours to reduce all
things in nature to rational conceptions, demands that we should
conceive the world as rational rather than as some wild work of chance.
Upon one hypothesis, and upon one alone, can the life of man upon this
globe appear the result of intelligence:

I have lived then, done and suffered, loved and hated, learnt and taught
This--there is no reconciling wisdom with a world distraught,
Goodness with triumphant evil, power with failure in the aim,
If (to my own sense, remember! though none other feel the same!)
If you bar me from assuming earth to be a pupil's place,
And life, time,--with all their chances, changes,--just probation--space,
Mine for me.

Grant this hypothesis, and all changes from irrational to rational, from
evil to good, from pain to a strenuous joy:--

Only grant a second life, I acquiesce
In this present life as failure, count misfortune's worst assaults
Triumph, not defeat, assured that loss so much the more exalts
Gain about to be.

Thus out of defeat springs victory; never are we so near to knowledge as
when we are checked at the bounds of ignorance; beauty is felt through
its opposite; good is known through evil; truth shows its potency when
it is confronted by falsehood;

While for love--Oh how but, losing love, does whoso loves succeed
By the death-pang to the birth-throe--learning what is love indeed?

Yet at best this idea of a future life remains a conjecture, an
hypothesis, a hope, which gives a key to the mysteries of our troubled
earthly state. Browning proceeds to argue that such a hope is all that
we can expect or ought to desire. The absolute assurance of a future
life and of rewards and punishments consequent on our deeds in the
present world would defeat the very end for which, according to the
hypothesis, we are placed here; it would be fatal to the purpose of our
present life considered as a state of probation. What such a state of
probation requires is precisely what we have--hope; no less than this
and no more. Does our heaven overcloud because we lack certainty? No:

Hope the arrowy, just as constant, comes to pierce its gloom, compelled
By a power and by a purpose which, if no one else beheld,
I behold in life, so--hope!

Such is the conclusion with Browning of the whole matter. It is in
entire accordance with a letter which he wrote two years previously to a
lady who supposed herself to be dying, and who had thanked him for help
derived from his poems: "All the help I can offer, in my poor degree, is
the assurance that I see ever _more_ reason to hold by the same
hope--and that by no means in ignorance of what has been advanced to the
contrary.... God bless you, sustain you, and receive you." To Dr
Moncure Conway, who had lost a son, Browning wrote: "If I, who cannot,
would restore your son, He who can, will." And Mr Rudolph Lehmann
records his words in conversation: "I have doubted and denied it [a
future life], and I fear have even printed my doubts; but now I am as
deeply convinced that there is something after death. If you ask me
what, I no more know it than my dog knows who and what I am. He knows
that I am there and that is enough for him."[120]

Browning's confession in _La Saisias_ that the sorrow of his life
outweighed its joy is not inconsistent with his habitual cheerfulness of
manner. Such estimates as this are little to be trusted. One great shock
of pain may stand for ever aloof from all other experiences; the
pleasant sensations of many days pass from our memory. We cannot tell.
But that Browning supposed himself able to tell is in itself worthy of
note. In _The Two Poets of Croisic_, which was written in London
immediately after _La Saisiaz_, and which, though of little intrinsic
importance, shows that Browning was capable of a certain grace in verse
that is light, he pleads that the power of victoriously dealing with
pain and transforming it into strength may be taken as the test of a
poet's greatness:

Yoke Hatred, Crime, Remorse,
Despair: but ever 'mid the whirling fear,
Let, through the tumult, break the poet's face
Radiant, assured his wild slaves win the race.

This is good counsel for art; but not wholly wise counsel for life.
Sorrow, indeed, is not wronged by a cheerfulness cultivated and
strenuously maintained; but gladness does suffer a certain wrong.
Sunshine comes and goes; the attempt to substitute any unrelieved light
for sunshine is somewhat of a failure at the best. Shadows and
brightness pursuing each other according to the course of nature make
more for genuine happiness than does any stream of moral electricity
worked from a dynamo of the will. It is pleasanter to encounter a breeze
that sinks and swells, that lingers and hastens, than to face a vigorous
and sustained gale even of a tonic quality. Browning's unfailing cheer
and cordiality of manner were admirable; they were in part spontaneous,
in part an acceptance of duty, in part a mode of self-protection; they
were only less excellent than the varying moods of a simple and
beautiful nature.

When _La Saisiaz_ appeared Browning was sixty-six years old. He lived
for more than eleven years longer, during which period he published six
volumes of verse, showing new powers as a writer of brief poetic
narrative and as a teacher through parables; but he produced no single
work of prolonged and sustained effort--which perhaps was well. His
physical vigour continued for long unabated. He still enjoyed the
various pleasures and excitements of the London season; but it is noted
by Mrs Orr that after the death of Miss Egerton-Smith he "almost
mechanically renounced all the musical entertainments to which she had
so regularly accompanied him." His daily habits were of the utmost
regularity, varying hardly at all from week to week. He was averse, says
Mrs Orr, "to every hought of change," and chose rather to adapt himself
to external conditions than to enter on the effort of altering them;
"what he had done once he was wont, for that very reason, to continue
doing." A few days after Browning's death a journalist obtained from a
photographer, Mr Grove, who had formerly been for seven years in
Browning's service, the particulars as to how an ordinary day during the
London season went by at Warwick Crescent. Browning rose without fail at
seven, enjoyed a plate of whatever fruit--strawberries, grapes,
oranges--were in season; read, generally some piece of foreign
literature, for an hour in his bedroom; then bathed; breakfasted--a
light meal of twenty minutes; sat by the fire and read his _Times_ and
_Daily News_ till ten; from ten to one wrote in his study or meditated
with head resting on his hand. To write a letter was the reverse of a
pleasure to him, yet he was diligent in replying to a multitude of
correspondents. His lunch, at one, was of the lightest kind, usually no
more than a pudding. Visits, private views of picture exhibitions and
the like followed until half-past five. At seven he dined, preferring
Carlowitz or claret to other wines, and drinking little of any. But on
many days the dinner was not at home; once during three successive weeks
he dined out without the omission of a day. He returned home seldom at a
later hour than half-past twelve; and at seven next morning the round
began again. During his elder years, says Mr Grove, he took little
interest in politics. He was not often a church-goer, but discussed
religious matters earnestly with his clerical friends. He loved not only
animals but flowers, and when once a Virginia creeper entered the study
window at Warwick Crescent, it was not expelled but trained inside the
room. To his servants he was a considerate friend rather than a master.

So far Mr Grove as reported in the _Pall Mall Gazette_ (Dec 16, 1889).

Many persons have attempted to describe Browning as he appeared in
society; there is a consensus of opinion as to the energy and cordiality
of his way of social converse; but it is singular that, though some
records of his out-pourings as a talker exist, very little is on record
that possesses permanent value. Perhaps the best word that can be quoted
is that remembered by Sir James Paget--Browning's recommendation of
Bach's "Crucifixus--et sepultus--et resurrexit" as a cure for want of
belief. He did not fling such pointed shafts as those of Johnson which
still hang and almost quiver where they struck. His energy did not
gather itself up into sentences but flowed--and sometimes foamed--in a
tide. Cordial as he was, he could be also vehemently intolerant, and
sometimes perhaps where his acquaintance with the subject of his
discourse was not sufficient to warrant a decided opinion.[121] He
appeared, says his biographer, "more widely sympathetic in his works
than in his life"; with no moral selfishness he was, adds Mrs Orr,
intellectually self-centred; and unquestionably the statement is
correct. He could suffer fools, but not always gladly. Speaking of
earlier days in Italy, T.A. Trollope observes that, while he was never
rough or discourteous even to the most exasperating fool, "the men used
to be rather afraid of Browning." His cordiality was not insincere; but
it belonged to his outer, not his inner self. With the exception of
Milsand, he appears to have admitted no man to his heart, though he gave
a portion of his intellect to many. His friends, in the more intimate
sense of the word, were women, towards whom his feeling was that of
comradeship and fraternal affection without over-much condescension or
any specially chivalric sentiment. When early in their acquaintance Miss
Barrett promised Browning that he would find her "an honest man on the
whole," she understood her correspondent, who valued a good comrade of
the other sex, and had at the same time a vivid sense of the fact that
such a comrade was not so unfortunate as to be really a man.

Let witnesses be cited and each give his fragment of evidence. Mr W.J.
Stillman, an excellent observer, was specially impressed in his
intercourse with Browning, by the mental health and robustness of a
nature sound to the core; "an almost unlimited intellectual vitality,
and an individuality which nothing could infringe on, but which a
singular sensitiveness towards others prevented from ever wounding even
the most morbid sensibility; a strong man armed in the completest
defensive armour, but with no aggressiveness."[122] A writer in the
first volume of _The New Review_, described Browning as a talker in
general society so faithfully that it is impossible to improve on what
he has said: "It may safely be alleged," he writes, "that no one meeting
Mr Browning for the first time, and unfurnished with a clue, would guess
his vocation. He might be a diplomatist, a statesman, a discoverer, or a
man of science. But, whatever were his calling, we should feel that it
must be essentially practical.... His conversation corresponds to his
appearance. It abounds in vigour, in fire, in vivacity. Yet all the time
it is entirely free from mystery, vagueness, or technical jargon. It is
the crisp, emphatic and powerful discourse of a man of the world, who is
incomparably better informed than the mass of his congeners. Mr Browning
is the readiest, the blithest, and the most forcible of talkers. Like
the Monsignore in _Lothair_ he can 'sparkle with anecdote and blaze with
repartee,' and when he deals in criticism the edge of his sword is
mercilessly whetted against pretension and vanity. The inflection of his
voice, the flash of his eye, the pose of his head, the action of his
hand, all lend their special emphasis to the condemnation." The mental
quality which most impressed Mr W.M. Rossetti in his communications with
Browning was, he says, "celerity "--"whatever he had to consider or
speak about, he disposed of in the most forthright style." His method
was of the greatest directness; "every touch told, every nail was hit on
the head." He was not a sustained, continuous speaker, nor exactly a
brilliant one; "but he said something pleasant and pointed on whatever
turned up; ... one felt his mind to be extraordinarily rich, while his
facility, accessibility, and _bonhomie_, softened but did not by any
means disguise the sense of his power."[123] Browning's discourse with a
single person who was a favoured acquaintance was, Mr Gosse declares, "a
very much finer phenomenon than when a group surrounded him." Then "his
talk assumed the volume and the tumult of a cascade. His voice rose to
a shout, sank to a whisper, ran up and down the gamut of conversational
melody.... In his own study or drawing-room, what he loved was to
capture the visitor in a low arm-chair's "sofa-lap of leather", and from
a most unfair vantage of height to tyrannize, to walk round the victim,
in front, behind, on this side, on that, weaving magic circles, now with
gesticulating arms thrown high, now grovelling on the floor to find some
reference in a folio, talking all the while, a redundant turmoil of
thoughts, fancies, and reminiscences flowing from those generous

Mr Henry James in his "Life of Story"[125] is less pictorial, but he is
characteristically subtle in his rendering of the facts. He brings us
back, however, to Browning as seen in society. He speaks of the Italian
as a comparatively idyllic period which seemed to be "built out," though
this was not really the case, by the brilliant London period. It was, he
says, as if Browning had divided his personal consciousness into two
independent compartments. The man of the world "walked abroad, showed
himself, talked, right resonantly, abounded, multiplied his connections,
did his duty." The poet--an inscrutable personage--"sat at home and
knew, as well he might, in what quarters of _that_ sphere to look for
suitable company." "The poet and the 'member of society' were, in a
word, dissociated in him as they can rarely elsewhere have been.... The
wall that built out the idyll (as we call it for convenience) of which
memory and imagination were virtually composed for him, stood there
behind him solidly enough, but subject to his privilege of living almost
equally on both sides of it. It contained an invisible door, through
which, working the lock at will, he could softly pass, and of which he
kept the golden key--carrying about the same with him even in the pocket
of his dinner waistcoat, yet even in his most splendid expansions
showing it, happy man, to none." Tennyson, said an acquaintance of Miss
Anna Swanwick, "hides himself behind his laurels, Browning behind the
man of the world." She declares that her experience was more fortunate;
that she seldom heard Browning speak without feeling that she was
listening to the poet, and that on more than one occasion he spoke to
her of his wife[126]. But many witnesses confirm the impression which is
so happily put into words by Mr Henry James. The "member of society"
protected the privacy of the poet. The questions remain whether the poet
did not suffer from such protection; whether, beside the superfluous
forces which might be advantageously disposed of at the drawing-board or
in thumping wet clay, some of the forces proper to the poet were not
drawn away and dissipated by the incessant demands of Society; whether
while a sufficient fund of energy for the double life was present with
Browning, the peculiar energy of the poet did not undergo a certain
deterioration. The doctrine of the superiority of the heart to the
intellect is more and more preached in Browning's poetry; but the
doctrine itself is an act of the intellect. The poet need not perhaps
insist on the doctrine if he creates--as Browning did in earlier
years--beautiful things which commend themselves, without a preacher,
to our love.

In the autumn of 1878, after seventeen years of absence from Italy,
Browning was recaptured by its charm, and henceforward to the close of
his life Venice and the Venetian district became his accustomed place of
summer refreshment and repose. For a time, with his sister as his
companion, he paused at a hotel near the summit of the Spluegen, enjoyed
the mountain air, walked vigorously, and wrote, with great rapidity,
says Mrs Orr, his poem of Russia, _Ivan Ivanovitch_. When a boy he had
read in Bunyan's "Life and Death of Mr Badman" the story of "Old Tod",
and with this still vivid in his memory, he added to his Russian tale
the highly unidyllic "idyl" of English life, _Ned Bratts_. It was thus
that subjects for poems suddenly presented themselves to Browning, often
rising up as it were spontaneously out of the remote past. "There comes
up unexpectedly," he wrote in a letter to a friend, "some subject for
poetry, which has been dormant, and apparently dead, for perhaps dozens
of years. A month since I wrote a poem of some two hundred lines
['Donald'] about a story I heard more than forty years ago, and never
dreamed of trying to repeat, wondering how it had so long escaped me;
and so it has been with my best things."[127] Before the close of
September the travellers were in a rough but pleasant albergo at Asolo,
which Browning had not seen since his first Italian journey more than
forty years previously. "Such things," he writes, "have begun and ended
with me in the interval!" Changes had taken place in the little city;
yet much seemed familiar and therefore the more dreamlike. The place had
indeed haunted him in his dreams; he would find himself travelling with
a friend, or some mysterious stranger, when suddenly the little town
sparkling in the sunshine would rise before him. "Look! look there is
Asolo," he would cry, "do let us go there!" And always, after the way of
dreams, his companions would declare it impossible and he would be
hurried away.[128] From the time that he actually saw again the city
that he loved this recurring dream was to come no more. He wandered
through the well-known places, and seeking for an echo in the Rocca, the
ruined fortress above the town, he found that it had not lost its
tongue. A fortnight at Venice in a hotel where quiet and coolness were
the chief attractions, prepared the way for many subsequent visits to
what he afterwards called "the dearest place in the world." Everything
in Venice, says Mrs Bronson, charmed him: "He found grace and beauty in
the _popolo_ whom he paints so well in the Goldoni sonnet. The poorest
street children were pretty in his eyes. He would admire a carpenter or
a painter, who chanced to be at work in the house, and say to me 'See
the fine poise of the head ... those well-cut features. You might fancy
that man in the crimson robe of a Senator as you see them in Tintoret's

But these are reminiscences of later days. It was in 1880 that Browning
made the acquaintance of his American friend Mrs Arthur Bronson, whose
kind hospitalities added to the happiness of his visits to Asolo and to
Venice, who received, as if it were a farewell gift, the dedication of
his last volume, and who, not long before her death in 1901, published
interesting articles on "Browning in Asolo" and "Browning in Venice" in
_The Century Magazine_. The only years in which he did not revisit
Venice were 1882, 1884 and 1886, and in each of these years his absence
was occasioned by some unforeseen mis-adventure. In 1882 the floods were
out, and he proceeded no farther than Verona. Could he have overcome the
obstacles and reached Venice, he feared that he might have been
incapable of enjoying it. For the first time in his life he was lamed by
what he took for an attack of rheumatism, "caught," he says, "just
before leaving St Pierre de Chartreuse, through my stupid inadvertence
in sitting with a window open at my back--reading the Iliad, all my
excuse!--while clad in a thin summer suit, and snow on the hills and
bitterness every where."[129] In 1884 his sister's illness at first
forbade travel to so considerable a distance. The two companions were
received by another American friend, Mrs Bloomfield Moore, at the Villa
Berry, St Moritz, and when she was summoned across the Atlantic, at her
request they continued to occupy her villa. The season was past; the
place deserted; but the sun shone gloriously. "We have walked every
day," Browning wrote at the end of September, "morning and
evening--afternoon I should say--two or three hours each excursion, the
delicious mountain air surpassing any I was ever privileged to breathe.
My sister is absolutely herself again, and something over: I was hardly
in want of such doctoring."[130] Two years later Miss Browning was
ailing again, and they did not venture farther than Wales. At the Hand
Hotel, Llangollen, they were at no great distance from Brintysilio, the
summer residence of their friends Sir Theodore and Lady Martin--in
earlier days the Lady Carlisle and Colombe of Browning's plays.[131] Mrs
Orr notices that Browning, Liberal as he declared himself, was now very
favourably impressed by the services to society of the English country
gentleman. "Talk of abolishing that class of men!" he exclaimed, "they
are the salt of the earth!" She adds, as worthy of remark, that he
attended regularly the afternoon Sunday service in the parish church at
Llantysilio, where now a tablet of Lady Martin's placing marks the spot.
Churchgoing was not his practice in London; "but I do not think," says
Mrs Orr, "he ever failed in it at the Universities or in the country."
At Venice it was his custom to be present with his sister at the
services of a Waldensian chapel, where "a certain eloquent pastor," as
Mrs Bronson describes him, was the preacher. A year before his death
Browning in a letter to Lady Martin recalls the happy season in the Vale
of Llangollen--"delightful weeks--each tipped with a sweet starry Sunday
at the little church leading to the House Beautiful where we took our
rest of an evening spent always memorably."


_From a drawing by_ Miss N. ERICHSEN.]

Before passing on to Venice, where repose was mingled with excitement,
Browning was accustomed to seek a renewal of physical energy, after the
fatigues of London, in some place not too much haunted by the English
tourist, where he could walk for hours in the clear mountain air. In
1881 and 1882 it was St Pierre de Chartreuse, from which he visited the
Grande Chartreuse, and heard the midnight mass; in 1883 and 1885 it was
Gressoney St Jean in the Val d'Aosta--the "delightful Gressoney" of the
Prologue to _Ferishtah's Fancies_, where "eggs, milk, cheese, fruit"
sufficed "for gormandizing"; in 1888 it was the yet more beautiful
Primiero, near Feltre. In the previous year he had, for the second time,
stayed at St Moritz. These were seasons of abounding life. St Pierre was
only "a wild little clump of cottages on a mountain amid loftier
mountains," with the roughest of little inns for its hotel; but its
primitive arrangements suited Browning well and were bravely borne by
his sister.[132] From Gressoney in September 1885 he wrote: "We are all
but alone, the brief 'season' being over, and only a chance traveller
turning up for a fortnight's lodging. We take our walks in the old way;
two and a half hours before breakfast, three after it, in the most
beautiful country I know. Yesterday the three hours passed without our
meeting a single man, woman, or child; one man only was discovered at a
distance at the foot of a mountain we had climbed."[133] All things
pleased him; an August snowstorm at St Moritz was made amends for by
"the magnificence of the mountain and its firs black against the
universal white"; it served moreover as an illustration of a passage in
the Iliad, the only book that accompanied him from England: "The days
glide away uneventfully, _nearly_, and I breathe in the pleasant
idleness at every pore. I have no few acquaintances here--nay, some
old friends--but my intimates are the firs on the hillside, and the
myriad butterflies all about it, every bright wing of them under the
snow to-day, which ought not to have been for a fortnight yet."[134] And
from Primiero in 1888, when his strength had considerably declined, a
letter tells of unabated pleasure; of mountains "which morning and
evening, in turn, transmute literally to gold," with at times a silver
change; of the valley "one green luxuriance"; of the tiger-lilies in the
garden above ten feet high, every bloom and every leaf faultless; and of
the captive fox, "most engaging of little vixens," who, to Browning's
great joy, broke her chain and escaped.[135] As each successive volume
that he published seemed to him his best, so of his mountain places of
abode the last always was the loveliest.

At Venice for a time the quiet Albergo dell' Universo suited Browning
and his sister well, but when Mrs Bronson pressed them to accept the use
of a suite of rooms in the Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati and the kind
offer was accepted, the gain was considerable; and the _Palazzo_ has
historical associations dating from the fifteenth century which pleased
Browning's imagination. It was his habit to rise early, and after a
light breakfast to visit the Public Gardens with his sister. He had many
friends--Mrs Bronson is our informant--whose wants or wishes he bore in
mind--the prisoned elephant, the baboon, the kangaroo, the marmosets,
the pelicans, the ostrich; three times, with strict punctuality, he
made his rounds, and then returned to his apartment. At noon appeared
the second and more substantial breakfast, at which Italian dishes were
preferred. Browning wrote passionately against the vivisection of
animals, and strenuously declaimed against the decoration of a lady's
hat with the spoils of birds--

Clothed with murder of His best
Of harmless beings.

He praised God--for pleasure as he teaches us is praise--by heartily
enjoying ortolans, "a dozen luscious lumps" provided by the cook of the
Giustiniani-Recanati palace; to vary his own phrasing, he was

Fed with murder of His best
Of harmless beings,

and laughed, innocently enough, with his good sister over the delicious
"mouthfuls for cardinals."[136] As if the pleasure of the eye in beauty
gained at a bird's expense were more criminal than the gusto of the
tongue in lusciousness, curbed by piquancy, gained at the expense of a
dozen other birds! At three o'clock came the gondola, and it was often
directed to the Lido. "I walk, even in wind and rain, for a couple of
hours on Lido," Browning wrote when nearly seventy, "and enjoy the break
of sea on the strip of sand as much as Shelley did in those old
days."[137] And to another friend: "You don't know how absolutely well I
am after my walking, not on the mountains merely, but on the beloved
Lido. Go there, if only to stand and be blown about by the sea
wind."[138] At one time he even talked of completing an unfinished villa
on the Lido from which "the divine sunsets" could be seen, but the
dream-villa faded after the manner of such dreams. Sunsets, however, and
sunrises never faded from Browning's brain. "I will not praise a cloud
however bright," says Wordsworth, although no one has praised them more
ardently than he. From Pippa's sunrise to the sunrises of mornings when
his life drew towards its close, Browning lavished his praise upon the
scenery of the sky. A passage quoted by Mrs Orr from a letter written a
little more than a year before his death is steeped in colour; when
_Pippa Passes_ becomes the prey of the annotating editor it will
illuminate his page: "Every morning at six I see the sun rise.... My
bedroom window commands a perfect view: the still, grey lagune, the few
sea-gulls flying, the islet of S. Giorgio in deep shadow, and the clouds
in a long purple rack, behind which a sort of spirit of rose burns up
till presently all the rims are on fire with gold, and last of all the
orb sends before it a long column of its own essence apparently: so my
day begins." The sea-gulls of which this extract speaks were, Mrs
Bronson tells us, a special delight to Browning. On a day of gales "he
would stand at the window and watch them as they sailed to and fro, a
sure sign of heavy storms in the Adriatic." To him, as he declared, they
were even more interesting than the doves of St Mark.

Sometimes his walks, guided by Mrs Bronson's daughter, "the best
cicerone in the world," he said, were through the narrowest by-streets
of the city, where he rejoiced in the discovery, or what he supposed to
be discovery, of some neglected stone of Venice. Occasionally he
examined curiously the monuments of the churches. His American friend
tells at length the story of a search in the Church of San Niccolo for
the tomb of the chieftain Salinguerra of Browning's own _Sordello_. At
times he entered the bric-a-brac shops, and made a purchase of some
piece of old furniture or tapestry. His rule "never to buy anything
without knowing exactly what he wished to do with it" must have been
interpreted liberally, for when about to move in June 1887 from Warwick
Crescent to De Vere Gardens many treasures acquired in Italy were, Mrs
Orr tells us, stowed away in the house which he was on the point of
leaving. And the latest bibelot was always the most enchanting: "Like a
child with a new toy," says Mrs Bronson, "he would carry it himself
(size and weight permitting) into the gondola, rejoice over his chance
in finding it, and descant eloquently upon its intrinsic merits." Thus,
or with his son's assistance, came to De Vere Gardens brass lamps that
had hung in Venetian chapels, the silver Jewish "Sabbath lamp," and the
"four little heads"--the seasons--after which, Browning declared, he
would not buy another thing for the house.[139] Returning from his walks
on the Lido or wanderings through the little _calli_, he showed that
unwise half-disdain, which an unenlightened masculine Herakles might
have shown, for the blessedness of five o'clock tea. At dinner he was in
his toilet what Mr Henry James calls the "member of society," never the
poet whose necktie is a dithyramb. Good sense was his habit if not his
foible. And why should we deny ourselves here the pleasure of imagining
Miss Browning at these pleasant ceremonies, as Mrs Bronson describes
her, wearing "beautiful gowns of rich and sombre tints, and appearing
each day in a different and most dainty French cap and quaint antique
jewels"? If other guests were not present, sometimes a visit to the
theatre followed. The Venetian comedies of Gallina especially pleased
Browning; he went to his spacious box at the Goldoni evening after
evening, and did not fail to express his thanks to his "brother
dramatist" for the enjoyment he had received. In his _Toccata of
Galuppi_ he had expressed the melancholy which underlies the transitory
gaiety of eighteenth-century life in Venice; but he could also remember
its innocent gladnesses without this sense of melancholy. When in 1883
the committee of the Goldoni monument asked Browning to contribute a
poem to their Album he immediately complied with the request. It was
"scribbled off," according to Mrs Orr, while Professor Molmenti's
messenger was waiting; it was ready the day after the request reached
him, says Mrs Bronson, and was probably "carefully thought out before he
put pen to paper." It catches, in the happiest temper, the spirit of
Goldoni's sunniest plays:

There throng the People: how they come and go,
Lisp the soft language, flaunt the bright garb--see--
On Piazza, Calle, under Portico
And over Bridge! Dear King of Comedy,
Be honoured! Thou that didst love Venice so,
Venice, and we who love her, all love thee!

The brightness and lightness of southern life soothed Browning's
northern strenuousness of mood. He would enumerate of a morning the
crimes of "the wicked city" as revealed by the reports of the public
press--a gondolier's oars had been conveyed away, a piece of linen a-dry
had corrupted the virtue of some lightfingered Autolycus of the
canals![140] Yet all the while much of his heart remained with his
native land. He could not be happy without his London daily paper; Mrs
Orr tells us how deeply interested he was in the fortunes of the British
expedition for the relief of General Gordon.

In 1885 Browning's son for the first time since his childhood was in
Italy. With Venice he was in his father's phrase "simply infatuated."
For his son's sake, but also with the thought of a place of retreat when
perhaps years should bring with them feebleness of body, Browning
entered into treaty with the owner, an Austrian and an absentee, for the
purchase of the Manzoni Palazzo on the Grand Canal. He considered it the
most beautiful house in Venice. Ruskin had described it in the "Stones
of Venice" as "a perfect and very rich example of Byzantine
Renaissance." It wholly captured the imagination of Browning. He not
only already possessed it in his dream, but was busy opening new windows
to admit the morning sunshine, and throwing out balconies, while leaving
undisturbed the rich facade with its medallions in coloured marble. The
dream was never realised. The vendor, Marchese Montecucculi, hoping to
secure a higher price, drew back. Browning was about to force him by
legal proceedings to fulfil his bargain, when it was discovered that the
walls were cracked and the foundations were untrustworthy. To his great
mortification the whole scheme had to be abandoned. It was not until
his son in 1888, the year after his marriage, acquired possession of the
Palazzo Rezzonico--"a stately temple of the rococo" is Mr Henry James's
best word for it--that Browning ceased to think with regret of the lost
Manzoni. At no time, however, did he design a voluntary abandonment of
his life in England. When in full expectation of becoming the owner of
the Palazzo Manzoni he wrote to Dr Furnivall: "Don't think I mean to
give up London till it warns me away; when the hospitalities and
innumerable delights grow a burden.... Pen will have sunshine and beauty
about him, and every help to profit by these, while I and my sister have
secured a shelter when the fogs of life grow too troublesome."


[Footnote 119: Some parts of what follows on _La Saisiaz_ have already
appeared in print in a forgotten article of mine on that poem.]

[Footnote 120: "An Artist's Reminiscences," by R. Lehmann (1894), p.

[Footnote 121: Thus he declaimed to Robert Buchanan against Walt
Whitman's writings, with which, according to Buchanan, he had little

[Footnote 122: "Autobiography of a Journalist," ii. 210.]

[Footnote 123: From the first of three valuable articles by Mr Rossetti
in _The Magazine of Art_ (1890) on "Portraits of Robert Browning."]

[Footnote 124: Robert Browning, "Personalia," by Edmund Gosse, pp. 81,

[Footnote 125: Vol. ii. pp. 88, 89.]

[Footnote 126: Anna Swanwick, "A Memoir by Mary L. Bruce," pp. 130, 131.
To Dr Furnivall he often spoke of Mrs Browning.]

[Footnote 127: From Mrs Bronson's article in _The Century Magazine_,
"Browning in Venice."]

[Footnote 128: Related more fully in Mrs Bronson's article "Browning in
Asolo" in _The Century Magazine_.]

[Footnote 129: Mrs Bronson's "Browning in Venice" in _The Century

[Footnote 130: To Dr Furnivall, Sept. 28, 1884.]

[Footnote 131: Some notices of Browning in Wales occur in Sir T.
Martin's "Life of Lady Martin."]

[Footnote 132: Letter to Dr Furnivall, August 29, 1881.]

[Footnote 133: To Dr Furnivall, Sept. 7, 1885.]

[Footnote 134: To Dr Furnivall, August 21, 1887.]

[Footnote 135: See for fuller details the letter in Mrs Orr's _Life of
Browning_, pp. 407, 408.]

[Footnote 136: So described by Mrs Bronson.]

[Footnote 137: To Dr Furnivall, Oct. 11, 1881.]

[Footnote 138: Quoted by Mrs Bronson.]

[Footnote 139: Mrs Orr, "Life of Browning," p. 400.]

[Footnote 140: Mrs Bronson records this.]

Chapter XVI

Poet and Teacher in Old Age

During the last decade of his life Browning's influence as a literary
power was assured. The publication indeed of _The Ring and the Book_ in
1868 did much to establish his reputation with those readers who are not
watchers for a new planet but revise their astronomical charts upon
authority. He noted with satisfaction that fourteen hundred copies of
_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ were sold in five days, and says of
_Balaustion's Adventure_ "2500 in five months is a good sale for the
likes of me." The later volumes were not perhaps more popular, but they
sent readers to the earlier poems, and successive volumes of Selections
made these easily accessible. That published by Moxon in 1865, and
dedicated in words of admiration and friendship to Tennyson, by no means
equalled in value the earlier Selections made by John Forster. The
volume of 1872--dedicated also to Tennyson--which has been frequently
reprinted, was arranged upon a principle, the reference of which to the
poems chosen is far from clear--"by simply stringing together certain
pieces"; Browning wrote, "on the thread of an imaginary personality, I
present them in succession, rather as the natural development of a
particular experience than because I account them the most noteworthy
portion of my work." We can perceive that some poems of love are
brought together, and some of art, and that the series closes with poems
of religious thought or experience, but such an order is not strictly
observed, and the "imaginary personality"--the thread--seems to be
imaginary in the fullest sense of the word. Yet it is of interest to
observe that something of a psychological-dramatic arrangement was at
least designed. A second series of Selections followed in 1880. Browning
was accepted by many admirers not only as a poet but as a prophet.
"Tennyson and I seem now to be regarded as the two kings of Brentford,"
he said laughingly in 1879.[141] The later-enthroned king was soon to
have an interesting court. In 1881 The Browning Society, founded by Dr
Furnivall--initiator of so much work that is invaluable to the student
of our literature--and Miss E.H. Hickey, herself a poet, began its
course. At first, according to Mrs Orr, Browning "treated the project as
a joke," but when once he understood it to be serious, "he did not
oppose it." He felt, however, that before the public he must stand aloof
from its work: "as Wilkes was no Wilkeite," he wrote to Edmund Yates, "I
am quite other than a Browningite." With a little nervousness as to the
discretion which the Society might or might not show, he felt grateful
for the interest in his writings demonstrated by persons many of whom
had been unknown to him even by name. He was always ready to furnish Dr
Furnivall with a note of facts or elucidation. His old admirers had made
him somewhat too much of a peculiar and private possession. A propaganda
of younger believers could not be unwelcome to one who had for so many
years been commonly regarded as an obscure heretic--not even an
heresiarch--of literature.

Other honours accompanied his old age. In 1884 he received the LL.D. of
the University of Edinburgh, and again declined to be nominated for the
Lord Rectorship of the University of St Andrews. Next year he accepted
the Honorary Presidency of the Five Associated Societies of Edinburgh.
In 1886 he was appointed Foreign Correspondent to the Royal Academy, a
sinecure post rendered vacant by the death of Lord Houghton. Though so
vigorous in talk, Browning could not make a public speech, or he shrank
from such an effort; none of the honours which he accepted were such as
to put him to this test. During many years he was President of the New
Shakspere Society. His veneration for Shakespeare is expressed in a
sonnet entitled _The Names_, written for the Book of the Show held in
the Albert Hall, May 1884, on behalf of the Fulham Road Hospital for
Women; it was not included in the edition of his works which he was
superintending during the last two years of his life. Browning was not
wholly uninterested in the attempts made to transfer the glory of the
Shakespearian drama to Bacon; he agreed with Spedding that whatever else
might be a matter of doubt, it was certain that the author of the
"Essays" could not have been the author of the plays. On another
question it is perhaps worth recording his opinion--he could see nothing
of Shakespeare, he declared, in the tragedy of _Titus Andronicus_.

In 1879 appeared _Dramatic Idyls_ and in the following year _Dramatic
Idyls, Second Series_. They differed in two respects from the volumes of
miscellaneous poetry which Browning had previously published. Hitherto
the contents of his collections of verse in the main fell into three
groups--poems which were interpretations of the passion of love, poems
which dealt with art and artists, poems which were inspired by the ideas
and emotions of religion. Unless we regard _Ned Bratts_ as a poem of
religious experience, we may say that these themes are wholly absent
from the _Dramatic Idyls_. Secondly, the short story in verse for the
first time becomes predominant, or rather excludes other forms, and the
short story here is in general not romantic or fantastic, but what we
understand by the word "realistic." The outward body of the story is in
several instances more built up by cumulative details than formerly,
which gives it an air of solidity or massiveness, and is less expressed
through a swift selection of things essential. And this may lead a
reader to suppose that the story is more a narrative of external
incidents than is actually the case. In truth, though the "corporal
rind" of the narrative bulks upon our view, the poet remains essentially
the psychologist. The narrative interest is not evenly distributed over
the whole as it is in the works of such a writer as Chaucer, who loves
narrative for its own sake. There is ordinarily a crisis, a culmination,
a decisive and eventful invasion or outbreak of spiritual passion to
which we are led up by all that precedes it. If the poem should be
humorous, it works up to some humorous point, or surprise. The narrative
is in fact a picture that hangs from a nail, and the nail here is some
vivid moment of spiritual experience, or else some jest which also has
its crisis. A question sometimes arises as to whether the central
motive is sufficient to bear the elaborate apparatus; for the parts of
the poem do not always justify themselves except by reference to their
centre, in the case, for example, of _Doctor_----, the thesis is that a
bad wife is stronger than death; the jest culminates at the point where
the Devil upon sight of his formidable spouse flies from the bed's-head
of one who is about to die, and thus allows his victim to escape the
imminent death. The question, "Will the jest sustain a poem of such
length?" is a fair one, and a good-natured reader will stretch a point
and say that he has not after all been so ill amused, which he might
also say of an Ingoldsby Legend; but even a good-natured reader will
hardly return to _Doctor_ ---- with pleasure. Chaucer with as thin a
jest could have made an admirable poem, for the interest would have been
distributed by his lightness of touch, by his descriptive power, by
slyness, by geniality, by a changeful ripple of enjoyment over the
entire piece. With Browning, when we have arrived at the apex of the
jest, we are fatigued by the climb, and too much out of breath to be
capable of laughter. In like manner few persons except the Browning
enthusiast, who is not responsible for his fervour, will assert that
either the jest or the frankly cynical moral of _Pietro of Abano_
compensates for the jolting in a springless waggon over a rough road and
a long. We make the acquaintance of a magician who with knowledge
uninspired by love has kicks and cuffs for his reward, and the
acquaintance of an astute Greek, who, at least in his dream of life,
imposed upon him by the art of magic, exploits the talents of his friend
Pietro, and gains the prize of his astuteness, having learnt to rule men
by the potent spell of "cleverness uncurbed by conscience." The
cynicism is only inverted morality, and implies that the writer is the
reverse of cynical; but it lacks the attractive sub-acid flavour of a
delicate cynicism, which insinuates its prophylactic virus into our
veins, and the humour of the poem, ascending from stage to stage until
we reach Pietro's final failure, is cumbrous and mechanical.

The two series of _Dramatic Idyls_ included some conspicuous successes.
The classical poems _Pheidippides_, _Echetlos_, _Pan and Luna_, idyls
heroic and mythological, invite us by their beauty to return to them
again and again. Browning's sympathy with gallantry in action, with
self-devotion to a worthy cause, was never more vividly rendered than in
the first of these poems. The runner of Athens is a more graceful
brother of the Breton sailor who saved a fleet for France; but the
vision of majestical Pan in "the cool of a cleft" exalts our human
heroism into relation with the divine benevolence, and the reward of
release from labour is proportionally higher than a holiday with the
"belle Aurore." Victory and then domestic love is the human
interpretation of Pan's oracular promise; but the gifts of the gods are
better than our hopes and it proves to be victory and death:

He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died--the bliss!

The companion poem of Marathon, the story of the nameless clown, the
mysterious holder of the ploughshare, is not less inspiring. The unknown
champion, so plain in his heroic magnitude of mind, so brilliant as he
flashes in the van, in the rear, is like the incarnated genius of the
soil, which hides itself in the furrow and flashes into the harvest; and
it is his glory to be obscured for ever by his deed--"the great deed
ne'er grows small." Browning's development of the Vergilian myth--"si
credere dignum est"--of Pan and Luna astonishes by its vehement
sensuousness and its frank chastity; and while the beauty of the
Girl-moon and the terror of her betrayal are realised with the utmost
energy of imagination, we are made to feel that all which happens is the
transaction of a significant dream or legend.

In contrast with these classical pieces, _Halbert and Hob_ reads like a
fragment from some Scandinavian saga telling of the life of forlorn and
monstrous creatures, cave-dwellers, who are less men than beasts. Yet
father and son are indeed men; the remorse which checks the last outrage
against paternity is the touch of the finger of God upon human hearts;
and though old Halbert sits dead,

With an outburst blackening still the old bad fighting face,

and young Hob henceforth goes tottering, muttering, mumbling with a
mindless docility, they are, like Browning's men of the Paris morgue,
only "apparent failures"; there was in them that spark of divine
illumination which can never be wholly extinguished. Positive misdeeds,
the presence of a wild crew of evil passions, do not suffice to make
Browning's faith or hope falter. It is the absence of human virtue which
appals him; if the salt have lost its savour wherewith shall it be
salted? This it is which condemns to a swift, and what the poem
represents as a just, abolishment from earth the mother who in _Ivan
Ivanovitch_ has given her children to the wolves, and has thereby proved
the complete nullity of her womanhood. For her there is no possible
redemption; she must cease to cumber the ground. Ivan acts merely as the
instinctive doomsman of Nature or of God, and the old village Pope, who,
as the veil of life grows thin, is feeling after the law above human
law, justifies the wielder of the axe, which has been no instrument of
vengeance but simply an exponent of the wholesome vitality of earth. The
objection that carpenters and joiners, who assume the Heraklean task of
purging the earth of monsters, must be prepared to undergo a period of
confinement at the pleasure of the Czar in a Criminal Lunatic Asylum is
highly sensible, and wholly inappropriate, belonging, as it does, to a
plane of thought and feeling other than that in which the poem moves.
But perhaps it is not a defect of feeling to fail in admiration of that
admired final tableau in which the formidable carpenter is discovered
building a toy Kremlin for his five children. We can take for granted
that the excellent homicide, having done so simple a bit of the day's
work as that of decapitating a fellow-creature, proceeds tranquilly to
other innocent pleasures and duties; we do not require the ostentatious
theatrical group, with limelight effects on the Kremlin and the
honey-coloured beard, displayed for our benefit just before the curtain
is rung down.[142]


_From a letter to D.S. CURTIS, Esq._]

_Martin Relph_ is a story of life-long remorse, self-condemnation and
self-denunciation; there is something approaching the supernatural, and
yet terribly real, in the figure of the strange old man with a beard as
white as snow, standing, on a bright May day, in monumental grief, and
exposing his ulcerated heart to the spectators who form for him a kind
of posterity. One instant's failure in the probation of life, one
momentary syncope of his better nature long years ago, has condemned his
whole after-existence to become a climbing of the purgatorial mount,
with an agony of pain annually renewed at the season when the earth
rejoices. Only a high-strung delicate spirit is capable of such a
perennial passion of penitence. _Ned Bratts_ may be described as a
companion, but a contrasted piece. It is a story of sudden conversion
and of penitence taking an immediate and highly effective form. The
humour of the poem, which is excellent of its kind, resembles more the
humour of Rowlandson than that of Hogarth. The Bedford Court House on
the sweltering Midsummer Day, the Puritan recusants, reeking of piety
and the cow-house conventicle, the Judges at high jinks upon the
bench--to whom, all in a muck-sweat and ablaze with the fervour of
conversion, enter Black Ned, the stout publican, and big Tab, his slut
of a wife,--these are drawn after the broad British style of humorous
illustration, which combines a frank exaggeration of the characteristic
lines with, at times, a certain grace in deformity. Here at least is
downright belief in the invisible, here is genuine conviction driven
home by the Spirit of God and the terror of hell-fire. Black Ned and the
slut Tabby as yet may not seem the most suitable additions to the
company of the blessed who move singing

In solemn troops and sweet societies;

but when a pair of lusty sinners desire nothing so much as to be hanged,
and that forthwith, we may take it that they are resolved, as
"Christmas" was, to quit the City of Destruction; and the saints above
have learnt not to be fastidious as they bend over repentant rogues.
Thanks to the grace of God and John Bunyan's book, husband and wife
triumphantly aspire to and attain the gallows; "they were lovely and
pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided." A
wise economy of spiritual force!--for while their effectual calling
cannot be gainsaid, the final perseverance of these interesting
converts, had they lingered on the pilgrims' way, as Ned is painfully
aware, might have been less of a certainty.

Browning's method as a story-teller may be studied with special
advantage in _Clive_. The circumstances under which the tale is related
have to be caught at by the reader, which quickens his attention and
keeps him on the alert; this device is, of course, not in itself
difficult, but to employ it with success is an achievement requiring
skill; it is a device proper to the dramatic or quasi-dramatic form; the
speaker, who is by no means a Clive, has to betray something of his own
character, and at the same time to set forth the character of the hero
of his tale; the narrative must tend to a moment of culmination, a
crisis; and that this should involve a paradox--Clive's fear, in the
present instance, being not that the antagonist's pistol, presented at
his head, should be discharged but rather that it should be remorsefully
or contemptuously flung away--gives the poet an opportunity for some
subtle or some passionate casuistry. The effect of the whole is that of
a stream or a shock from an electric battery of mind, for which the
story serves as a conductor. It is not a simple but a highly complex
species of narrative. In _Muleykeh_, one of the most delightful of
Browning's later poems, uniting, as it does, the poetry of the rapture
of swift motion with the poetry of high-hearted passion, the narrative
leads up to a supreme moment, and this resolves itself through a paradox
of the heart. Shall Hoseyn recover his stolen Pearl of a steed, but
recover her dishonoured in the race, or abandon her to the captor with
her glory untarnished? It is he himself who betrays himself to loss and
grief, for to perfect love, pride in the supremacy of the beloved is
more than possession; and thus as Clive's fear was courage, as Ivan's
violation of law was obedience to law, so Hoseyn's loss is Hoseyn's
gain. In each case Browning's casuistry is not argumentative; it lies in
an appeal to some passion or some intuition that is above our common
levels of passion or of insight, and his power of uplifting his reader
for even a moment into this higher mood is his special gift as a poet.
We can return safely enough to the common ground, but we return with a
possession which instructs the heart.

A mood of acquiescence, which does not displace the moods of aspiration
and of combat but rather floats above them as an atmosphere, was growing
familiar to Browning in these his elder years. He had sought for truth,
and had now found all that earth was likely to yield him, of which not
the least important part was a conviction that much of our supposed
knowledge ends in a perception of our ignorance. He was now disposed to
accept what seemed to be the providential order that truth and error
should mingle in our earthly life, that truth should be served by
illusion; he would not rearrange the disposition of things if he could.
He was inclined to hold by the simple certainties of our present life


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