Literatur: anonym
Literatur: The British Quarterly Review


Men and Women. By Robert Browning. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall. 1855.


THAT, among the English authors of our day, very few, indeed, could be compared with Mr. Browning for power and originality of mind, has long been the settled opinion of all acquainted with his writings, and capable of judging of them. To an intellect of extraordinary natural force and subtlety, it was plain that he added many of those other qualifications not always combined with this, which help to make an author distinguished, and to give body and character to his works – a large store of acquired ideas, the results of his previous thinking on a variety of subjects; no mean amount of learning in tracks not commonly explored, even by scholars; keen powers of observation, wit, and sarcasm, and a shrewd acquaintance with the world and its ways; and yet, with all this, and ruling it all, a certain isolated speciality of purpose, a certain rigid determination of his genius towards the noble and elevated, and towards that only. No competent person, we say, who had read Paracelsus, Pippa Passes, Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day, or any other of Mr. Browning's poems, published before the present work, could doubt [152] his intellectual power, or his firmness in keeping that power free from all the entanglements of mere literary precedent and popularity, and pursuing a path of his own. It was felt, that as the author himself was rarely seen in those circles of our British society where authors most do congregate, so also his genius kept aloof from the beaten ways – snugly ensconced, as it seemed, for the most part, in some Italian or other foreign retreat, whence it could see all that was going on, and yet be at liberty to build up its own fancies with just as much and just as little reference to the contemporary world as it thought proper.

No less clear than this general conviction that Mr. Browning was a man of genius was the conviction that his genius was that of a poet. Whether, indeed, the precise combination of qualities exhibited by him was not such as to show that if he had so chosen from the first, he could have been quite as remarkable and effective as a prose-writer as he had become as a writer of verse, might have been left an open question. It was enough that, having chosen to become a poet, he had justified the choice. He had done so amply. If the special distinction between the thinker or prose-writer, usually so called, and the poet consists in the fact that the one in the main thinks directly, and expresses his meaning straightforth in words and propositions, conveying it with the least delay to the understanding, while the other thinks representatively, and expresses his meaning rather in images, phantasies, fictitious trains of scene and incident, beautiful in themselves, and only involving the meaning in their beauty, then Mr. Browning had proved his title to be called a poet. Imagination was visibly the faculty he kept most in exercise. Perhaps he had not begun with this as the predominant habit of his mind, but he had by practice given it the predominance, and brought his whole mind round to it. He had trained himself, as it were, never to think in the purely logical manner, but always through the imagination. Instead of making it the business of his life, as a writer, to propound opinions, to investigate facts, to take up deep vexed questions and speculate on them directly to an issue, or to pen every now and then a rousing pamphlet on the 'present crisis,' he had prescribed it to himself as his proper work to invent stories – to imagine men and women, either singly or in groups, endowed with such and such characters and surrounded with such and such circumstances; and to make these ideal beings of his brain act, speak, think, and sing, so that it should almost seem in the memory afterwards that they had really existed. If a feeling moved him, then, even in expressing that, there must be an environment of fancied circumstance; it must be not his [153] mere self-speaking, but some one so featured and in such costume, singing, as it were, vicariously by a palace window, or by a marble statue in a southern garden. If he was reading a book, and came upon some old name, or fact, or legend, then, out of this hint there must spring a whole host of fancies, shaping themselves into a verisimilitude of the story thus commemorated – the piper of Hamelin, piping through the streets with all the children after him; the horseman, tearing along the highway with the good news to Ghent; Paracelsus so soliloquizing in his study, so speaking to his friends, and so conducting himself towards the outer crowd. Finally, if he meditated some connected exposition of his own philosophy, even this must be accomplished through the medium of some drama or other tale – thoughts, opinions, and modes of speculation being distributed out among characters severally engaged in the evolution of the catastrophe, and the author's own judgment only vaguely appearing in the impression made by the total synthesis, or declaring itself more obviously in the manner in which justice and mercy were meted out, according to desert, at the close. In short, various as seemed to be Mr. Browning's intellectual tastes and endowments, and large as seem to be his acquisitions, it was evident that he had disciplined them all to the service of his imagination, so as to make his ultimate literary method always that of the poet. And then, in his actual productions as a poet, already before the world, what power, what variety! How full every page of his writings of images (and what are images but the individual particles of a poet's thought, just as successive direct propositions are the atoms of the thinker's, distinctively so called?) some exquisite for their beauty, some almost burning in their fierce and fiery brilliance, and all at the least original! For example, in Pippa Passes, in the passage describing the two guilty lovers in the wood during the thunder-storm: –

'Buried in woods we lay, you recollect,
 Swift ran the searching tempest overhead;
 And ever and anon some bright white shaft
 Burnt through the pine tree roof – here burnt and there,
 As if God's messenger thro' the close wood screen
 Plunged and replunged his weapon at a venture,
 Feeling for guilty thee and me.'

What accuracy, too, in object and scene-painting, showing an eye familiar as that of a painter, nay, often as that of a naturalist, with all that is ordinary and accessible, and much even that is exotic and rare in the world of stones, plants, animals, and their various combinations to form the glory of earth and landscape! What power, also, in the descriptions of the artificial sights and [154] circumstances of city-life, from the bustle of a mean street up to the splendours of a gorgeous cathedral crowded on a day of religious festival! What range and skill, as a painter of portraits – from the common and almost comic physiognomies of old men and women, dropping into a conventicle on a rainy day, up to the dark divine countenances of sages and heroes, garbed in their mantles or their mail, walking majestically, and radiating awe around them! What power, occasionally, of leaving the sphere of actual vision altogether, and, as in the sublime phantasy of the apparition of the Divine One in the opening of Christmas-Eve, present on earth wherever two or three are gathered together in His name, daring into the region of symbolism and allegory, and embodying thoughts of the transcendent and superhuman in shapes of ghostly and terrible significance! Above all, what imagination in the antique, remote, or historic; what power of conceiving a scene or action of the past, with perfect truth to the spirit and intellectual habits of the time, and to all the detail of the local colouring and circumstance; what faculty of throwing himself into the souls, even of men of such eccentric and peculiar mould while they lived, that history has either omitted them or left them stranded here and there on its banks as waifs and wrecks, and presenting them once more in form and fashion as they were, and surrounding them with what did surround them, and making them act and speak according to their strangest and wildest passions and moods!

Yet, with all this, the critics, and even the most admiring of them, had many a fault to find with Mr. Browning. They said, for example, or they felt without saying it, that there was something perverse in the nature and bent of his genius, with all its power. That intellectual isolation and independence which they acknowledged to be a source of his strength, yet passed, they seemed to think, all proper bounds, and had been spoiled into sheer eccentricity and self-will. Why always, or, for the most part, be pursuing tracks of thought lying so out of the common road, that in following him one had to push through brambles and brush-wood? Why addict himself to such a singular metaphysics, and show such affection for the most subtle parts of it? Why, instead of appearing in the senate and in ordinary places of resort, be, like Shakespeare's Duke in Measure for Measure, a 'quaint fantastical duke of dark corners'? Why be so much of an antiquary, and dig up subjects out of old fusty chronicles? Why go so much to Italy and other foreign parts for his materials and his scenery, instead of contenting himself, as a Briton born, with the usual annual tour up the Rhine, or mayhap as far as Venice? Why always such quaint outlandish themes and titles for his poems as Pippa [155] Passes, Sordello, the Return of the Druses, and the like? The Druses; who cares about the Druses or any other such out-of-the-way gentry? To be sure, he makes us interested in them before he has done with us; but who cares to be made interested in them? Pippa, too, is a nice girl, when once we know her; but why tease the reader beforehand with a title which he infallibly supposes to be the technical name of some queer bird, or something of that sort, instead of, what it is, a complete sentence conveying the information that Pippa, a poor Italian girl from the silk-mills, is out walking, and passes this and that strange thing on her way? Nay, even keeping the trick of the title, why not have made it 'Polly Passes,' and so have had a poem with the same fine idea, but with the facts from English society? Why always offer us olives and pomegranates, which we cannot eat without a misgiving, or at least a feeling, while we eat, that we ought to regard them as botanical specimens as well as fruit, instead of putting before us plain apples and pears, whose botany we take for granted? True, as Coleridge has told us, it is in the very nature of poetical genius, and especially when poets are young, to eschew the present and the contemporary, and to go away to the remote and the antique for their themes; and the opposite theory to this, propounded by the cynical old Scotchman in Mr. Kingsley's novel of Alton Locke when he broke out in wrath against the poetic tailor for his namby-pamby poem about the Pacific and the South Sea Islands, and hauled him away to Clare Market that he might see what poetry was to be made out of that, will by no means stand its ground against the reasons and the instances with which Coleridge's doctrine could be supported. True also, even when Mr. Browning writes about the Druses, there is always in what he writes a vein of universal human significance; and often, when the names, scenery, and costume are all foreign, the thought is British enough, and will pass, after easy translation, on this side of the Channel! But does not Mr. Browning go quite beyond the bounds which such a theory as that of Coleridge would allow to poets in their choice of subjects? Keats went to Greek mythology for his subjects; but what is that in comparison with Mr. Browning's practice, many of whose poems are spun, so to speak, from the foot notes to the least known chapters of Mediæval Italian, or German history, while others almost presuppose, for understanding them, an acquaintance with the zoological galleries or galleries of antiquities in the British Museum, or with the lore and technicalities of early Italian art? The real meaning, in such cases, may always admit of being translated by the intelligent reader out of the foreign and learned language in which it is couched; but why give him the trouble of translating at all?

[156] In addition to these objections to Mr. Browning on account of the odd, recondite, and occult character of much of his thinking, and on account of his correspondingly eccentric choice of subjects as vehicles for his thinking, similar objection was also taken to his style. Strictly considered, indeed, this was but a continuation of the same criticism; for, seeing that a man's style is but his manner of thinking out his main thought by means of subsidiary minutiæ all bearing upon it and evolving it, how can the one but be in correspondence with the other? Still this matter of style and expression was made a separate ground of objection to Mr. Browning. It was objected that his style was obscure, crabbed, unnecessarily odd both as regarded the words and the syntax, and altogether deficient in the qualities that make a style easily intelligible. More than this, it was objected that, while often reaching the highest degree of beauty, and while almost always rich in imagery and allusion, it not unfrequently violated in the most perverse manner some of the simplest rules of negative good taste. It was often jagged, ragged, uncouth, and abrupt, not to say actually coarse. Above all – and this seemed the more remarkable in a writer known to be passionately fond of music, and more learned in music as an art than perhaps any British poet since Milton – his style was said to be, for so rich a writer, preeminently unmusical. Occasionally, indeed, nay, every now and then, there was a passage of glorious and consummate sound. Who, for example, that had read this verse of one of his Cavalier Lyrics could ever forget it? –

'Kentish Sir Byng stood for his King,
 Bidding the crop-headed Parliament swing;
 And, pressing a troop unable to stoop
 And see the rogues flourish and honest folk droop,
 Marched them along, fifty-score strong,
 Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song.'

There was a chorus for you. Nor were there wanting other passages, in a less rollicking measure, equally masterly to the tongue and ear. But, on the other hand, what a frequent perversity of rhythm and metre; what a torture of dissyllabic and trisyllabic rhymes, crowded upon each other as they never were even in Hudibras, though there they formed a professed part of the wit; what a hacking of sentences into bars and blocks, without any regard to vowels, consonants, gutturals, sibilants, aspirates, or cadences! To quote Mr. Browning's own words against himself, 'Instead of cramp couplets, each like a knife in your entrails, he should write, said Bluphocks, both classically and intelligibly.' If, as Bentham held, pronunciability was a quality of style little less essential than intelligibility, then surely, said Bluphocks, Mr. [157] Browning was a great sinner. Lines might be quoted from him, and that even in passages otherwise musical, at which, if one was reading aloud, one had to go again and again, like a shy horse at an obstacle, before one could be sure of clearing them. Curious, certainly, that Burns, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, all notoriously deficient in the musical ear, should have written verse so melodious, and that Browning, a musician as well as a poet, should write sometimes so as to defy vocalization! It seemed almost to prove that our notions of the musical ear and its relation to rhythm in writing required some correction.

So much for Mr. Browning's popular reputation, or rather his reputation with that higher class of readers to whom alone he was familiar before the publication of his present work. We have now to say that, so far as we can see, his present work will not alter his reputation, thus acquired, in one whit, but will rather confirm it in each and every particular taken singly. Of course, there is always the chance that a new publication by an author may find readers to whom his previous works were unknown, and who, coming with fresh minds to the perusal, may form opinions of their own, different from the old and general opinion, and capable, therefore, of modifying it. There is the chance, on the other hand, that ill-humoured critics, of the Bluphocks species, too sensitive already to Mr. Browning's reputed faults and eccentricities, may, on finding no evidence of reform here in these points, allow their ill-humour to get the better of them, and so like him less than ever, merely for his obstinacy. But surely, also, there are other critics who, making it their practice to be thankful for what is good in a writer, and to regard what is less agreeable in him, if it is persisted in, as something probably inseparable from the good by the very structure of his genius, and therefore to be accepted with it, and even, perhaps, on further acquaintance, to be liked more than at first, will rather welcome the present work as simply an additional gift to the public from a writer who has already, of his own free will, presented it with so much that is excellent, and will, accordingly, regard it as an opportunity for revising their previous judgment about him, so as to see whether it is to stand, or whether it may not be modified in his favour. Ranking ourselves among critics of this class – considering every new work which an author of approved excellence chooses to put forth, as really, in some sort, a gift, with which, seeing that we pay nothing for it, we ought to try to be pleased, and the very oddities of which, if it has any, are to be received with a kindly smile, as characteristic of the donor – we shall proceed in this spirit. 'Pay nothing for it,' echo some; 'why, the book costs twelve shillings.' Yes, but [158] that is only the cost of the carriage; and though we admit that one very sound principle of criticism is to be very savage with a fellow when, presuming on a slight acquaintance and having ulterior objects in view, he sends you something which you do not want, and which is not worth the cost of the carriage, yet we do not think that any one will say that Mr. Browning is a man to be criticised on this principle. For our part, seeing that the parcel is from Mr. Browning, we pay the carriage cheerfully, open it at once with interest, and, if the contents do seem a little queer, only feel all the more that nobody but himself could have sent us such a present.

In the first place, then, all one's previous opinions as to the force, and subtlety, and variety of Mr. Browning's intellectual powers, and as to the extent of his acquirements, are confirmed by this book. Consisting, as it does, of some fifty distinct pieces, some short and some rather long, all gathered together under the somewhat weak and, in this case, really unmeaning title of Men and Women, the work does not, indeed, exhibit Mr. Browning's powers at the same continuous stretch of exercise as such previous works as Paracelsus, Sordello, or Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. There is no such profound or elaborate exposition of philosophical notions, doubts, and conclusions, for example, as in the last-named poem – a poem which, little as it seems to have impressed either the critics or the public at the time of its publication, and little as it is now talked of, is truly one of the most extraordinary of recent writings. On the other hand, however, the variety of the contents of the present work gives perhaps a better idea of the range of Mr. Browning's tastes and faculties than is obtained from any longer poem. It is difficult, where so many passages might be quoted for the purpose, to select one specially to illustrate Mr. Browning's quickness, originality, and ingenuity as a speculative thinker or reasoner; but perhaps the following, though not the best in other respects, may be chosen with advantage, as being a complete piece in itself, and also as being in reality a discussion by Mr. Browning of this very question of the relations of the pure thinker to the poet. The piece is entitled 'Transcendentalism,' and the poet is supposed to be addressing a brother-poet, who has put forth a long didactic poem under that title.

'Stop playing, poet! may a brother speak?
 'Tis you speak, that's your error. – Song's our art:
 Whereas you please to speak these naked thoughts
 Instead of draping them in sights and sounds.
 True thoughts, good thoughts, thoughts fit to treasure up!
 But why such long prolusion and display,
 [159] Such tuning and adjustment of the harp
 And taking it upon your breast at length,
 Only to speak dry words across its strings?
 Stark-naked thought is in request enough –
 Speak prose and holloa it till Europe hears!
 The six-foot Swiss tube, braced about with bark,
 Which helps the hunter's voice from Alp to Alp –
 Exchange our harp for that, – who hinders you?
    But here's your fault; grown men want thought, you think;
 Thought's what they mean by verse, and seek in verse:
 Boys seek for images and melody,
 Men must have reason – so you aim at men.
 Quite otherwise!   Objects throng our youth, 'tis true,
 We see and hear and do not wonder much.
 If you could tell us what they mean, indeed!
 As Swedish Boehme never cared for plants
 Until it happed, a-walking in the fields,
 He noticed all at once that plants could speak,
 Nay, turned with loosened tongue to talk with him.
 That day the daisy had an eye indeed –
 Colloquised with the cowslip on such themes!
 We find them extant yet in Jacob's prose.
 But by the time youth slips a stage or two
 While reading prose in that tough book he wrote,
 (Collating and emendating the same
 And settling on the sense most to our mind)
 We shut the clasps and find life's summer past.
 Then, who helps more, pray, to repair our loss –
 Another Boehme, with a tougher book,
 And subtler meanings of what roses say, –
 Or some stout Mage, like him of Halberstadt,
 John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about?
 He with a 'look you!' vents a brace of rhymes
 And in there breaks the sudden rose herself
 Over us, under, round us every side,
 Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs,
 And musty volumes, Boehme's book and all, –
 Burns as with a glory, young once more,
 Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.
    So come, the harp back to your heart again!
 You are a poem, though your poem's naught.
 The best of all you did before, believe,
 Was your own boy's face o'er the finer chords
 Bent, following the cherub at the top
 That points to God with his paired half-moon wings.'

The man who wrote that is clearly capable of thinking subtly and vigorously on all sorts of subjects – of writing a good essay on the Transcendental Metaphysics, if he chose; or one on [160] Poetry; or even, with time and materials, one on the Decimal Coinage. He is evidently not a man who has betaken himself to verse as younger sons, too stupid for either law or commerce, betake themselves to the church or the army; but a man of general available faculty, of strong, rapid, nimble intellect, that it would be rather perilous to tussle with in a prose encounter about any matter whatever, though, for reasons of its own, it disports itself usually in verse. The allusions, too, to Jacob Boehme and John of Halberstadt, show a man whose knowledge even about tough matters to be got by reading, might prove too much for one, if the trial were but in mere learning. These, of course, are but two allusions by the way, which might be incidental; but there is an abundance of others in the other poems proving a tolerably tenacious memory on Mr. Browning's part of the kind of facts which one finds accumulated in Bayle's Dictionary, Hallam's Middle Ages, and the Penny Cyclopædia. Were we to refer to any one poem in the present collection in particular, as exhibiting Mr. Browning at some length in his capacity as a writer, at once subtle in intellectual disquisition, well stored with ideas and information, and shrewd and knowing in the ways of the world, it would be to the one entitled Bishop Blougram's Apology. In this capital piece, which one can hardly call a satire, though there is satire of a most exquisite kind in it, Bishop Blougram, a portly Catholic prelate, who knows what is what as well as any man, is represented as talking after dinner, and over their wine, with Mr. Gigadibs, a young literary man who, being himself a sceptic of an honourable kind, regards Blougram as a hypocrite and humbug. Blougram, however, who sees Gigadibs through and through, and knows what Gigadibs is thinking of him, boldly seizes the bull by the horns, and enters in the freest possible manner into an exposition of his own views of life as compared with those of Gigadibs. The exposition, though there is a dash of the Jesuit in it, is so able, and there is such an oily flow of the most plausible and recondite, and sometimes just speculation in it, that one feels in the end that Gigadibs looks very small beside the Bishop, and that, if the Bishop is ever to be floored, Gigadibs is not the man to do it. There are few poems known to us in which there is such evidence that the writer is perfectly en rapport with what is most advanced and peculiar in the intellectual phenomena of his time. It is, in fact, a most cleverly imagined and admirably executed colloquy between enlightened Ultra-Montanism and the genius of Pater-noster-row; in which, if we mistake not, more is said for Ultra-Montanism against the Row than it could say for itself. The following lines in which the Bishop caps his arguments in behalf [161] of the superior wisdom of his theory of life, by pointing to the immense social superiority which it has given him over Gigadibs, with his theory, may illustrate Mr. Browning's mastery, when he chooses, in sheer wit and sarcasm. A vein, indeed, of wit and of a sense of the comic runs through much of Mr. Browning's most serious writing, and accounts for much of that oddity and coltish usage of his own best thoughts which is complained of in him. Here, however, there can be no complaint.

                                  'Of your power
And social influence, worldly worth in short,
Judge what's my estimation by the fact –
I do not condescend to enjoin, beseech,
Hint secresy on one of all these words!
You're shrewd and know that should you publish it
The world would brand the lie – my enemies first,
Who'd sneer, 'The bishop's an arch-hypocrite
And knave perhaps, but not so frank a fool;'
Whereas I should not dare for both my ears
Breathe one such syllable, smile one such smile,
Before my chaplain, who reflects myself –
My shade's so much more potent than your flesh. What's your reward, self-abnegating friend?
Stood you confessed of these exceptional
And privileged great natures that dwarf mine –
A zealot with a mad ideal in reach,
A poet just about to print an ode,
A statesman with a scheme to stop this war,
An artist whose religion is his art,
I should have nothing to object!   Such men
Carry the fire; all things grow warm to them;
Their drugget's worth my purple; they beat me.
But you, – you're just as little these as I –
You, Gigadibs, who, thirty years of age,
Write statedly for 'Blackwood's Magazine,'
Believe you see two points in Hamlet's soul
Unseized by the Germans yet – which view you'll print –
Meantime the best you have to show being still
That lively lightsome article we took
Almost for the true Dickens, – what's the name?
'The Slum and Cellar – or Whitechapel life
Limned after dark,' – it made me laugh, I know,
And pleased a month and brought you in ten pounds.
Success I recognise and compliment,
And therefore give you, if you please, three words
(The card and pencil-scratch is quite enough)
Which, whether here, in Dublin, or New York,
Will get you, prompt as at my eyebrow's wink,
Such terms as never you aspired to get
[162] In all our own Reviews and some not ours.
Go write your lively sketches – be the first,
'Blougram, or The Eccentric Confidence' –
Or better simply say, 'The Outward-bound.''

In short, open the book where we like, we find plenty of thought in it – thought sometimes deep, often curious and ingenious, not seldom shrewd and pungent, generally rich in texture, and never commonplace.

The thought, too, if we want fresh assurance on that point, is always that of a poet. Subtle, nimble, and powerful as is the intellect, and various as is the learning, all is manifested through the imagination, and comes forth shaped and tinted by it. Thus, even in the foregoing passages, where the matter is almost as purely as it can be the produce of the mere understanding, it is still evident that the method of the thought is poetic. The notions take the form of images. For example, the poet means to say that Prose is a good and mighty vehicle in its way, but that it is not Poetry; and how does the conception shape itself in his mind? Why, in an image? All at once it is not Prose that is thought about, but a huge six-foot speaking-trumpet braced round with bark, through which the Swiss hunters help their voices from Alp to Alp – Poetry, on the other hand, being no such big and blaring instrument, but a harp taken to the breast of youth and swept by ecstatic fingers. And so with the images of Boehme and his book, and John of Halberstadt with his magic rose – still a concrete body to enshrine an abstract meaning! Blougram and Gigadibs, too, are in themselves poetic incarnations – the very names of the two persons, apart altogether from the discourse that passed between them, showing a faculty of invention in the satiric vein. Or, by way of an image culled from the other poems, take the following, with the heading we venture to give it.

                      LIFE AND ART.

'We live and they experiment on life –
 Those poets, painters, all who stand aloof
 To overlook the farther.   Let us be
 The thing they look at!   I might take that face
 And write of it and paint it – to what end?
 For whom?   What pale dictatress in the air
 Feeds, smiling sadly, her fine ghost-like form
 With earth's real blood and breath, the beauteous life
 She makes despised for ever?
You are mine,
 Made for me, not for others in the world,
 Nor yet for that which I should call my art,
 [163] That cold calm power to see how fair you look.
 I come to you – I leave you not to write
 Or paint.   You are; I am.   Let Rubens there
 Paint us.'

Some poets excel in the painting of objects and scenes, others in the imagination of physiognomy, costume, and character; some have a faculty in rural nature and life, others more in the circumstances of city-life; some are at home only in the modern, others can revive the antique; some never go out of the real in their fancies, others can wing about at ease in ideal elements of the grotesque, the colossal, the elvish, the weirdly, or the ghastly. Now, if Mr. Browning had written no other poems than these, there would be proof enough in them of his versatility as an artist. By way of beginning with the simple, take the following description by an Arab physician on his travels in Judea of one or two productions of the country, mineral and zoological, that interested him as a naturalist: –

'Three samples of true snake-stone-rarer still
 One of the other sort, the melon-shaped
 (But better, pounded fine, for charms than drugs).

        *         *         *         *         *         *

 A black lynx snarled and pricked a tufted ear;
 Lust of my blood inflamed his yellow balls:
 I cried and threw my staff, and he was gone.

        *         *         *         *         *         *

                                 There's a spider here
 Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs,
 Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-grey black.

        *         *         *         *         *         *

 Or I might add, Judea's gum-tragacanth
 Scales off in purer flakes, shines clearer-grained,
 Cracks 'twixt the pestle and the porphyry,
 In fine exceeds our produce.'

Or, as something a little more fanciful, take the painter Fra Lippo Lippi's description (Lippi is by no means the most reverent of artists) of a picture he intends to paint: –

                                       'I shall paint
God in the midst, Madonna and her babe,
Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel-brood,
Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet
As puff on puff of grated orris-root
When ladies crowd to church at midsummer;
And then in the front, of course, a saint or two.'

Here is something more extensive still – a contrast between the scenery of the villa or country-house, and the scenery of the [164] city (both in Italy, mind), by a merry fellow who prefers the city: –

'What of a villa?   Though winter be over in March by rights,
'Tis May perhaps ere the snow shall have withered well off the heights:
You've the brown ploughed land before, where the oxen steam and wheeze,
And the hills oversmoked behind by the faint grey olive trees.

Is it better in May, I ask you?   You've summer all at once;
In a day he leaps complete with a few strong April suns!
'Mid the sharp short emerald wheat, scarce risen three fingers well,
The wild tulip, at end of its tube, blows out its great red bell
Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the children to pick and sell.

Is it ever hot in the square?   There's a fountain to spout and splash!
In the shade it sings and springs; in the shine such foam-bows flash
On the horses with curling fish-tails, that prance and paddle and pash
Round the lady atop in the conch – fifty gazers do not abash,
Though all that she wears is some weeds round her waist in a sort of sash!

All the year long at the villa, nothing's to see, though you linger,
Except yon cypress that points like Death's lean lifted forefinger.
Some think fireflies pretty, when they mix in the corn and mingle,
Or thrid the stinking hemp till the stalks of it seem a-tingle.
Late August or early September, the stunning cicàla is shrill,
And the bees keep their tiresome whine round the resinous firs on the hill.
Enough of the seasons – I spare you the months of the fever and chill.

Ere opening your eyes in the city, the blessed church-bells begin:
No sooner the bells leave off, than the diligence rattles in:
You get the pick of the news and it costs you never a pin.
By and bye there's the travelling doctor gives pills, lets blood, draws teeth:
Or the Pulcinello-trumpet breaks up the market beneath.
At the post-office such a scene-picture – the new play, piping hot!
And a notice how, only this morning, three liberal thieves were shot.
Above it behold the archbishop's most fatherly of rebukes,
And beneath, with his crown and his lion, some little new law of the Duke's,
Or a sonnet with flowery marge, to the Reverend Don So and So,
Who is Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarca, St. Jerome, and Cicero?
'And moreover' (the sonnet goes rhyming), 'the skirts of St. Paul has reached,
Having preached us those six Lent-lectures more unctuous than ever he preached.'
[165] Noon strikes, – here sweeps the procession! Our Lady borne smiling and smart,
With a pink gauze gown all spangles, and seven swords stuck in her heart!
Bang, whang, whang, goes the drum, tootle-te-tootle the fife;
No keeping one's haunches still: it's the greatest pleasure in life.'

As a wonderful combination of portrait-painting and character-drawing with description of Spanish street-scenery and incident, take the following typical representation of a poet, from How It strikes a Contemporary: –

'I only knew one poet in my life;
 And this, or something like it, was his way
 You saw go up and down Valladolid
 A man of mark to know next time you saw.
 His very serviceable suit of black
 Was courtly once and conscientious still,
 And many might have worn it, though none did:
 The cloak that somewhat shone and showed the threads
 Had  purpose, and the ruff, significance.
 He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane,
 Scenting the world, looking it full in face,
 An old dog, bald and blindish, at his heels.
 They turned up, now, the alley by the church,
 That leads no whither; now, they breathed themselves
 On the main promenade just at the wrong time.
 You'd come upon his scrutinizing hat,
 Making a peaked shade blacker than itself
 Against some single window spared some house
 Intact yet with its mouldered Moorish work, –
 Or else surprise the ferrel of his stick
 Trying the mortar's temper 'tween the chinks
 Of some new shop a-building, French and fine.
 He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
 The man who slices lemons into drink,
 The coffee-roaster's brazier, and the boys
 That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
 He glanced o'er books on stalls with half an eye,
 And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor's string,
 And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
 He took such cognizance of men and things,
 If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
 If any cursed a woman, he took note;
 He stared at nobody, – they stared at him,
 And found, less to their pleasure than surprise,
 He seemed to know them and expect as much.
 So, next time that a neighbour's tongue was loosed,
 It marked the shameful and notorious fact,
 We had among us, not so much a spy,
 [166] As a recording chief-inquisitor,
 The town's true master if the town but knew
 . . . . . There wanted not a touch
 A tang of . . . well, it was not wholly ease,
 As back into your mind the man's look came –  Stricken in years a little, – such a brow
 His eyes had to live under! – clear as flint
 On either side the formidable nose
 Curved, cut, and coloured, like an eagle's claw'

The following, in the same department of art, is more majestic and awful. It is a picture of Saul in the darkness of his tent gradually roused to consciousness and sanity out of his madness by the music of David. He is roused by stages, as David, proceeding with his song, and watching its effects, changes the theme from the quiet and pastoral to the more valiant and powerful. At first, when David entered the gloom of the tent, the vast figure of Saul was dimly seen standing upright, a dumb, senseless, and motionless mass, against the huge tent-prop in the centre, his arms stretched heavily against the great cross-beam extending out to each side. The first strain had touched him so that he shuddered, and, though his body moved not, the rubies and sapphires glancing in his turban showed that his head had fallen forward. At the second and bolder strain, he had moved still more; like snow from a mountain at the touch of spring, the evil mood had fallen from off him; he had passed his hand across his brow, as beginning vacantly to discern the objects around him; and then, folding his arms to still the heavings of his chest, he was again subject to the music. The strain becomes bolder yet, and affects him at last thus: –

                                                                  'My song
While I sang thus, assuring the monarch, and ever more strong
Made a proffer of good to console him – he slowly resumed
His old motions and habitudes kingly.   The right hand replumed
His black locks to their wonted composure, adjusted the swathes
Of his turban, and see – the huge sweat that his countenance bathes,
He wipes off with the robe; and he girds now his loins as of yore
And feels slow for the armlets of price, with the clasp set before.
He is Saul, ye remember in glory, – ere error had bent
The broad brow from the daily communion; and still, though much spent
Be the life and the bearing that front you, – the same, God did choose,
To receive what a man may waste, desecrate, never quite lose.
So sank he along by the tent-prop, till, stayed by the pile
Of his armour and war-cloak and garments, he leaned there awhile,
And so sat out my singing, – one arm round the tent-prop to raise
His bent head, and the other hung slack – till I touched on the praise
[167] I foresaw from all men in all times to the man patient there,
And thus ended, the harp falling forward.   Then first I was 'ware
That he sat, as I say, with my head just above his vast knees
Which were thrust out on each side around me, like oak-roots which please
To encircle a lamb when it slumbers.   I looked up to know
If the best I could do had brought solace; he spoke not, but slow
Lifted up the hand slack at his side, till he laid it with care
Soft and grave, but in mild settled will, on my brow: thro'my hair
The large fingers were pushed, and he bent back my head, with kind power –
All my face back, intent to peruse it, as men do a flower.
Thus held he me there with his great eyes that scrutinized mine –
And oh, all my heart how it loved him!'

As specimens of Mr. Browning's ability in giving poetical shape and expression to simple, transient feelings, whether sweet, gentle, and sprightly, or more grave, passionate, and intense, the reader may take, if he chooses, all the shorter pieces in the volumes. Of this kind are Evelyn Hope, A Lover's Quarrel, Any Wife to Any Husband, A Serenade at the Villa, Lore in a Life, Life in a Love, Women and Roses, &c. We cannot say, however, that we greatly admire these shorter sentimental pieces of Browning, or think them equal to his genius as shown in others. He does not seem at home in such brief and purely lyrical effusions, requiring, as they do, an instant gush of feeling, a cessation for the time of all merely intellectual activity, and a clear and flowing tune. Other poets greatly excel Mr. Browning in these melodious love-songs and outpourings of immediate emotion. In his case, the head is constantly intruding its suggestions where the heart alone should be speaking; we have strokes of the hard imagination where we expect nothing but unconscious melody and cadence; and hence a roughness and a constraint incompatible with the simple beauty and warmth of the lyric. But for this very reason, when Mr. Browning takes that larger space for his pen which the intellectual nature of his genius requires, when he adopts the narrative or dramatic form in lieu of the lyric, and sets himself to the work of representing feeling or passion expanded and complicated into character and mode of existence, he attains a success which few can rival. In the art of character-painting, as we have said, in the power of throwing himself into states of mind and trains of circumstance the most alien from our present habits, in the intuitive faculty of reconceiving the most peculiar and obsolete modes of thinking, he ranks as a master. Generally, as we have seen, when he exercises his genius in this manner, he works on a basis of history, adopting a story, or appropriating a character, or at least borrowing a [168] hint from the actual records of the past ages of the world; and almost always when he does so we are struck by the strange selection he makes. It is from the bye-ways of history, or, at least, from what are reckoned such, that he derives the hints on which he proceeds; or, if ever he comes upon broad track familiar to the traditions of common men, he is seen approaching it by some unexpected bye-path. Thus, if you would meet him in the domain of ancient Roman history, it is in the Byzantine portion of it that you must seek him, and even there it is not before the busts of Diocletian or Constantine that you will find him, but most probably before those of the baby-emperor Protus, and his successor and dethroner John the Blacksmith with the massive jaws. And yet, finding him there and standing beside him, how you see the busts become animated beneath his gaze, and Protus and John, and the decrepit Byzantine empire, with the Huns raging round its borders till John's death shall let them in, all again existing as they were. No reader of the volumes should miss the little sketch entitled Protus.

Not so graceful an instance in itself, but better for our purpose, because Mr. Browning has appended the historical note out of which he has spun the fancy, is the piece called Holy-Cross Day. Holy-Cross Day was the day on which till lately the Jews were forced to attend an annual Christian sermon in Rome; and the purpose of the piece is to revive the impression of one of these annual compulsory sermons about the year 1600, and to represent the ceremony from the Jewish point of view. To enable him and his readers to do this better, he first quotes a passage purporting to be from a contemporary diary, written by the secretary of the bishop who preached the sermon. Here is the passage: –

"Now was come about Holy-Cross Day, and now must my lord preach his first sermon to the Jews: as it was of old cared for in the merciful bowels of the church, that, so to speak, a crumb at least from her conspicuous table here in Rome, should be, though but once yearly, cast to the famishing dogs, under-trampled and bespitten-upon beneath the feet of the guests. And a moving sight, in truth, this, of so many of the besotted, blind, restive, and ready-to-perish Hebrews, now paternally brought – nay (for He saith, compel them to come in,') haled, as it were, by the head and hair, and against their obstinate hearts, to partake of the heavenly grace. What awakening, what striving with tears, what working of a yeasty conscience! Nor was my lord wanting to himself on so apt an occasion; witness the abundance of conversions which did incontinently reward him: though not to my lord be altogether the glory.'

So the bishop's secretary. Mr. Browning, however, thinks (and [169] probably with greater historical accuracy) that what the Jews really said, on thus being driven to church to hear the bishop, was rather to the following effect: –

'Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!
 Blessedest Thursday's the fat of the week.
 Rumble and tumble, sleek and rough,
 Stinking and savoury, smug and gruff,
 Take the church-road, for the bell's due chime
 Gives us the summons- -'tis sermon-time.

 Boh, here's Barnabas! Job, that's you?
 Up stumps Solomon-bustling too?
 Shame, man! greedy beyond your years
 To handsel the bishop's shaving-shears?
 Fair play's a jewel! leave friends in the lurch?
 Stand in a line ere you start for the church.

 Higgledy piggledy, packed we lie,
 Rats in a hamper, swine in a sty,
 Wasps in a bottle, frogs in a sieve,
 Worms in a carcass, fleas in a sleeve,
 Hist! square shoulders, settle your thumbs,
 And buzz for the bishop– here he comes.'

In short, Mr. Browning goes on to suggest that the Jews went through the ceremony in this wild and horrible strain of assumed jocosity, as a thing that must be, themselves providing from their own number the unlucky wretches who were to enact the farce of becoming the bishop's converts; all the while, however, with rage in their hearts, which bursts out at last in a song of vengeance and contempt, and a longing for the restoration of Israel. The piece, though far from pleasant, shows a singular power of historical imagination.

Mr. Browning's familiarity with Italian art and painting is something far beyond that of ordinary connoisseurs. He has studied painting and art generally with an interest and a minuteness of inquiry which, even in technical disquisition on such subjects, might enable him to co-operate or contest with Mr. Ruskin; and few of his poems are more remarkable than those, in which he displays, at length or incidentally, his acquaintance with the history and principles of art. In the present work, in particular, there are two poems in which he shows the most subtle power of conceiving, by a kind of inference from their works, the modes of thinking and personal characters of two of the most eminent of the Italian artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centurries. In the piece called Fra Lippo Lippi, we have a delineation from the very life of the intellectual and moral habits of one kind of painter; and in the piece entitled Andrea Del Sarto, we have [170] a companion-portrait, equally vivid, of a painter of graver and more melancholy nature. These two poems are, in fact, biographies in miniature, and, probably, give a more perfect idea of the two men as they lived, and of the principles on which they painted, than many more extensive accounts of them, accompanied by criticisms of their pictures. They ought to be read entire to be fully appreciated; and extracts may, therefore, be spared.

As a different example of the same faculty of sympathising with the antique and eccentric in character and mode of existence we would direct the especial attention of those who have the volumes by them to the poem in the second volume, which bears the somewhat quaint title of A Grammarian's Funeral . We do not know that others will agree with us, but there is, to our taste, something grand and solemn in this poem – a tribute, as it is, to a kind of greatness so far removed from all that belongs to our present ideas of what is great, and so seldom visited, at all events, by any recognition save that of a sneer. The time is supposed to be shortly after the revival of learning in Europe; and the supposed spectacle is that of a procession of students slowly wending their way from the plain up to a high mountain-peak, carrying with them the dead body of their master, the great grammarian, whom they are to bury far above the herd of men on that lofty spot. As they march on slowly, they chant the praises of the dead – how he toiled and laboured in poverty and obscurity; how, at last, when he was old and his eyes dim, fame overtook him; and how, to the end, when more a corpse than a man, he and his books were still together. Here is the conclusion; and, strange as is the melody, and, intentionally, half grotesque the phraseology, there is, to our ear, a world of pathos in this song of the Learner of the Middle Ages.

'So, with the throttling hands of death at strife,
     Ground he at grammar;
 Still, through the rattle, parts of speech were rife.
     While he could stammer
 He settled Hoti's business – let it be! –
     Properly based Oun
 Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
     Dead from the waist down.
 Well, here's the platform, here's the proper place:
     Hail to your purlieus
 All ye highfliers of the feathered race,
     Swallows and curlews!
 Here's the top peak! the multitude below
     Live, for they can there.
 This man decided not to live but know –
     Bury this man there!
 [171] Here – here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
     Lightnings are loosened,
 Stars come and go! let joy break with the storm –
     Peace let the dew send!
 Lofty designs must close in like effects:
     Loftily lying,
 Leave him – still loftier than the world suspects,
     Living and dying.'

There is no point of past time over which Mr. Browning's imagination seems to hover so wistfully as over that at which Christianity began to mingle with the history of the Roman world. He seems to have a peculiar pleasure in realising to himself the different impressions made on different men occupying different points of view in that great Pagan and Polytheistic world, by this new doctrine which they saw creeping in upon them from Judea, and by the facts reported to them concerning its origin. There are two very interesting and beautiful poems of this kind in the volumes before us, the one entitled An Epistle containing the strange medical experience of Karshish, the Arab physician; the other, Cleon. In the one, Karshish, an Arab physician, travelling in Judea, a good many years after the death of Christ, is supposed to meet with Lazarus, then still living, to hear his story and to investigate it, and being excessively interested in 'the case’ (in which light he is disposed at first to view the matter), to write an account of it home to his friend and fellow-sage Abib. In the other, Cleon, a Greek poet, writing a philosophic letter, in which he gives expression to a wish that it were possible to have some revelation of a future state direct from Zeus, ends by incidentally alluding to one Paulus, a Jew, respecting whom his correspondent has made inquiries, and of whom he says he has heard something. In both poems there is a singular truth to the states of feeling portrayed and to the historical circumstances with which they are associated. Karshish is left visibly disturbed and awed by what he has been trying to relate only as something medically curious to his correspondent; but Cleon, as a Greek, rather wonders how his correspondent, an enlightened man like himself, should feel any interest in a Jew, even if he had, as this Paulus seemed to have, some acquaintance with literature.

But Mr. Browning, though he usually exercises his imagination in giving body and expansion to some hint furnished by the actual world of history, can yet, when he chooses, fling reality and history aside altogether, and revel, as well as any poet, in a world of shifting allegoric shapes and sounds and phantasies, where nothing is fixed and nothing literal. This is proved by [172] more than one piece in the present volume, but above all by the one entitled Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came. Perhaps, indeed, taking the kind of the poetry here attempted into account, as well as the success of the attempt in that kind, this poem deserves all in all to be regarded as the greatest thing in the volumes. The notion of the poem, as in Tennyson's Mariana, is that of expanding one of those snatches of old ballad and allusion which have such a mystic effect in Shakespeare. Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came is one such snatch of old song quoted by Edgar in Lear; and Mr. Browning offers us his imaginative rendering of these gloomy hieroglyphic words. The phantasy is one of the most wild and ghastly within the range of our literature, with more of sheer terror in it than in any corresponding phantasy in Spenser. Childe Roland, a knight, has been all his life wandering over the world in a vain quest of that hideous thing, 'the dark tower,' which exists somewhere, inclosing no one knows what unnameable horror, and in the quest of which many other knights, his peers and predecessors, have perished or disappeared. He has arrived at last at an ominous tract, within whose borders he is sure the tower is to be fund. But how reach it through all the black enchantments which possess the tract round about, and circle in the central object of so much hate and search? Lo! as he is walking along the road, a hateful cripple, posted there evidently to waylay victims bent on the old errand and point them to their destruction, gives him the necessary information, and, with a hideous skulllike laugh, shows him the way he must take – a path leading from the road over a plain. He notes the laugh and understands it; but there is no spirit of resistance or rage now left in him.

'So, quiet as despair, I turned from him,
     That hateful cripple, out of his highway,
     Into the path he pointed.   All the day
 Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
 Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
     Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.

 For mark, no sooner was I fairly found
     Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
     Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
 To the safe road, 'twas gone! grey plain all round!
 Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound.
     I might go on; nought else remained to do.

 So on I went.   I think I never saw
     Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
     For flowers – as well expect a cedar grove!
 [173] But cockle, spurge, according to their law
 Might propagate their kind, with none to awe
     You'd think: a burr had been a treasure trove.?

        *         *         *         *         *         *

 If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
     Above its mates, the head was chopped – the bents
     Were jealous else.   What made those holes and rents
 In the dock's harsh swarth leaves—bruised as to baulk
 All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
     Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.

 As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
     In leprosy – thin dry blades pricked the mud
     Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
 One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
 Stood stupified, however he came there –
     Thrust out past service from the devil's stud.

 Alive?   He might be dead for all I know
     With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain
     And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane.
 Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
 I never saw a brute I hated so –
     He must be wicked to deserve such pain.'

On over this hideous plain he moves, trying to avoid the sight of its horrors, and to nerve his heart for the part he has to play by good thoughts of the past and of the companions of his youth. In vain; nothing occurs to his mind or will stay in it that has not some element of the cheerless and dismal in it. Behold, at last, however, an interruption to the dreary flat – a little river crossing his path. This river, which is as horrible to look at and think of as the plain, he fords in the growing darkness, trying for its hollows with his spear, and feeling as if at every step he might find his foot on a dead man's face. Reaching the other bank, he hoped for better country there than what he had left; but, instead of that, it was worse. All the ground was a plash of trodden soil, as if it had been the scene of some mad battle of men fighting like wild cats in a cage; for neither to nor from the spot was there any path of footprints. A furlong further on there lay on the ground the most fearful thing ever seen by eyes – a huge engine, or wheel, or rack, or harrow with teeth, fit to reel men's bodies out like silk. Beyond this there came a bit of stubby ground, which had once seemingly been a wood, then a marsh, but had now become a blotched confusion of bog, clay, sand, and earth, with here and there a patch of moss, and here and there a dry palsied oak, cleft and gaping [174] like a distorted mouth. Still there seemed to be no end to the journey – nothing but evening, on and still on, over the ground, without aught to direct his footsteps; when lo, in his perplexity, a great black bird, like a dragon, wings over his head, so close as to brush his cap. Immediately, how he knows not, he becomes aware, spite of the dusk, that the plain has given place all round to mountains – ugly heights and heaps from among which he sees no outlet. After vain toil forward, he is on the point of giving it up, when, under him or behind him, there comes a click as when a trap shuts, and he feels that he is within the den.

'Burningly it came on me all at once:
    This was the place! those two hills on the right,
    Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight.
 While to the left, a tall scalped mountain. . . . Dunce,
 Fool, to be dozing at the very nonce
    After a life spent training for the sight!

 What in the midst lay but the tower itself?
    The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
    Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
 In the whole world.   The tempest's mocking elf
 Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
    He strikes on only when the timbers start.

 Not see? because of night perhaps?   Why, day
    Came back again for that!   Before it left,
    The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
 The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay
 Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay, –
    'Now stab and end the creature – to the heft.'

 Not hear? when noise was everywhere?   It tolled,
    Increasing like a bell, names in my ears
    Of all the lost adventurers, my peers, –
 How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
 And such was fortunate, yet each of old,
    Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.

 There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides – met
    To view the last of me, a living frame
    For one more picture! In a sheet of flame
 I saw them, and I knew them all.   And yet
 Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
    And blew, 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.'

If this piece be not poetry, we do not know what is. It is poetry of the highest symbolic kind, and we have reserved it to the last among our quotations, as being the farthest removed in its nature of all the pieces in the volumes from the domain of the mere understanding. How it holds the imagination, and is felt to be coherent [175] and significant in meaning, though no one will venture to explain what the meaning is!

And now for a word or two on the other side, to wit, as to the effect this book is likely to have on the criticisms of Browning in respect of his alleged faults. From what we have already quoted, even while our purpose has been to illustrate his merits, and not his faults, it will have been seen that there is no lack of occasion in the present volumes for the reiteration by Mr. Browning's severer critics of their former complaints against him. Add to this that, in the parts of the volumes from which we have not quoted, some of Mr.  Browning's least liked characteristics are exhibited more roughly and profusely; and it will be understood why in some quarters the present publication has been made an opportunity for letting loose all the pent-up dissatisfaction with Mr. Browning's style in general, and for reading him a lecture on his obstinacy.

There is plenty of room, in the first place, for a repetition by the weaker class of critics and readers of the charges against Mr. Browning on account of the obscure, occult, eccentric, and difficult character of much of his thinking. In not a few of the finest poems, as may have been seen, such as Transcendentalism, Bishop Blougram's Apology, and others in the semi-expository vein – the thought is of a kind so high and subtle, so inwound with the topics of the deeper philosophy and metaphysics of the time, that, though perfectly intelligible to those who are already competent in such matters, it can have no interest for the many who like only what may be called nice fire-side poetry, and must even be unintelligible to them, for want of the necessary preliminary acquaintance with the same class of ideas. Only a small proportion of Mr. Browning's poetry, in fact, can meet the wants of such ordinary readers. But, again, even for those who can keep on the wing with Mr. Browning easily enough so long as he remains in the wide region of general thought and philosophy, there is an occasional necessity of parting company and losing sight of him. This happens whenever (as in the little poem called Women and Roses) he does not sufficiently hint to the understanding the meaning which he has in view, but leaves the two imaginations – his own and the reader's – to communicate directly, without an interpreter; in which case, unless where there is an unusual previous agreement in the signs or picture-language used, obscurity, or at least delay of comprehension, is sometimes unavoidable. Such poems – poems in which, though there is a meaning intended for the understanding, the due explanatory hint is wanting – belong to the mystical species; except that, where the explanatory hint is too deliberately [176] omitted, they may be rather called mystifications or enigmas. But, besides these, and more irritating to some readers, because they seem like a direct accusation of their own deficient knowledge, are those poems of Mr. Browning which may be called technical. Thus, let the general ability of the reader be what it may, unless he has also some special knowledge of the history and technicalities of painting, it will be difficult for him to appreciate to the full those poems in which Mr. Browning has treated topics relating to that art. Much more are the poems pre-supposing an acquaintance with music likely to be irritating to a large number of readers. Such poems in the present volumes are – that entitled A Toccata of Galuppi's, and that entitled Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha. To a learned musician, for a example, the following verses from the latter, describing a fugue on the organ, may be intelligible; but what is an ordinary mortal, or even an ordinary instinctive singing mortal, to make of them?

'First you deliver your phrase –
    Nothing propound, that I see,
 Fit in itself for much blame or much praise –
    Answered no less, where no answer needs be:
 Off start the two on their ways!

 Straight must a third interpose,
    Volunteer needlessly help –
 In strikes a fourth, a fifth thrusts in his nose,
    So the cry's open, the kennel's a-yelp
 Argument's hot to the close!

 One dissertates, he is candid –
    Two must discept –has distinguished!
 Three helps the couple, if ever yet man did:
    Four protests, Five makes a dart at the thing wished –
 Back to One, goes the case bandied!

 One says his say with a difference,
    More of expounding, explaining!
 All now is wrangle, abuse, and vociferance –
    Now there's a truce, all's subdued, self-restraining –
 Five, though, stands out all the stiffer hence.

 One is incisive, corrosive –
    Two retorts, nettled, curt, crepitant –
 Three makes rejoinder, expansive, explosive –
    Four overbears them all, strident and strepitant –
 Five ... O Danaides, O Sieve!

 Now, they ply axes and crowbars –
    Now, they prick pins at a tissue
 Fine as a skein of the casuist Escobar's
    Worked on the bone of a lie.   To what issue?
 Where is our gain at the Two-bar:?

 [177] Est fuga, volvitur rota!
    On we drift.   Where looms the dim port?
 One, two, three, four, five, contribute their quota –
    Something is gained, if one caught but the import –
 Show it us, Hugues of Saxe-Gotha!'

Show it us, indeed! echoes the unlearned reader, to whom the poem itself is as much a fugue as the one it describes!

Nor is it only that the essential intellectual meaning of the poems is here, as in Mr. Browning's previous volumes, often difficult and erudite. The world of circumstance and allusion from which Mr. Browning's imagination draws the materials in which he invests that meaning, is also, for the most part strange to British readers. We have seen how fond he is of the less explored parts of History; how he derives the subjects of his poems more frequently out of the footnotes and appendices, so to speak, of the great volume of past record than out of the main text. We have seen also how, even when, as regards time, he is in the world of the present, he generally keeps out of Britain, and away to the south of Europe, where the skies are more blue and sunny than ours, and the vegetation of the earth, and its very zoology, and the costumes, customs, physiognomies and ways of thinking of its human inhabitants are all different. If he describes a typical poet moving about in a city, Valladolid is that city; the houses are Moorish, and the men in the streets are slicing lemons or roasting coffee in braziers. And so throughout – save that Italy, rather than Spain or any other country, is the land which supplies his materials. He is himself aware of this, and of what may be said about it; and, accordingly, in one poem entitled De Gustibus, he boldly discusses the point. Here is the poem: –

'Your ghost will walk, you lover of trees
  (If loves remain)
  In an English lane
By a cornfield-side a-flutter with poppies.
Hark, these two in the hazel coppice –
A boy and a girl, if the good fates please,
  Making love, say, –
  The happier they!
Draw yourself up from the light of the moon,
And let them pass, as they will too soon,
  With the beanflower's boon,
  And the blackbird's tune,
  And May, and June!
What I love best in all the world,
Is, a castle, precipice-encurled,
In a gash of the wind-grieved Apennine.
Or look for me, old fellow of mine,
[178] (If I get my head from out the mouth
Ö' the grave, and loose my spirit's bands,
And come again to the land of lands) –
In a sea-side house to the farther south,
Where the baked cicalas die of drouth,
And one sharp tree ('tis a cypress) stands,
By the many hundred years red-rusted,
Rough iron-spiked, ripe fruit-o'ercrusted,
My sentinel to guard the sands
To the water's edge.  For what expands
Without the house, but the great opaque
Blue breadth of sea, and not a break?
While, in the house, for ever crumbles
Some fragment of the frescoed walls,
From blisters where a scorpion sprawls.
A girl bare-footed brings and tumbles
Down on the pavement, green-fresh melons,
And says there's news to-day – the king
Was shot at, touched in the liver-wing,
Goes with his Bourbon arm in a sling;
–She hopes they have not caught the felons.
  Italy, my Italy!
Queen Mary's saying serves for me –
  (When fortune's malice
  Lost her Calais.)
Open my heart and you will see
Graved inside of it 'Italy.'
Such lovers old are I and she;
So it always was, so it still shall be!

It is pleasant to remark that Mr. Browning's sympathies with Italy are thoroughgoing, and that, like her who is at once the partner of his heart and home and his sister in the muses, he does not hesitate ever and anon to speak a poet's flashing word on Italian wrongs and Italian politics.

Lastly, those critics, sensitive in the more minute matters of style, who have already found fault with Mr. Browning for his defects in such matters – for the harshness, crabbedness, and obscurity of many of his expressions, his arbitrary and cranky rhymes, and the frequent want of music in his lines and rhythms – will have no difficulty in accumulating instances from the present work in support of the same charges. The quotations we have already made, and especially the last ones, will supply such instances. Of odd and extravagant rhymes other instances may be found abundantly in the poem entitled Old Pictures in Florence; while from slovenly and untasteful expressions there is perhaps not one of the poems which a very sensitive person would pronounce altogether free. Not to multiply instances of this kind, however, let us quote [179] but two where it is chiefly the ear that is offended. Here is one –

'When I do come she will speak not, she will stand
    Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
    Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
    Each on each.'

Speech, each, each, is certainly not the most pleasing of assonances, however true to the fact, in which to record poetically such a historic consummation. Or, take this line: –

'That day, the earth's feast-master's brow,'

Try this line by Bentham's rule of easy pronunciability; and either your vocal organs are unusually capable of consecutive combinations of consonants, or you must condemn it. And though Mr. Browning when he likes can present his readers with passages of as powerful and beautiful sound as any poet, yet it requires but a glance at his pages to see that those who regard pleasing and flowing melody as an essential in verse, will frequently have cause of deadly quarrel with him.

For ourselves, trying to combine what we think just in all this adverse criticism with our already expressed agreement with Mr. Browning's highest admirers on the ground of his general merits, the final judgment is still immensely more on the side of admiration than on that of dissatisfaction or criticism.

As regards the objections popularly taken to the quality of his thought and to his strange choice of themes and materials, these, it seems to us, are not properly objections at all, but rather indications of his peculiar place and rank among British poets. That, for the reasons so stated, much of Mr. Browning's poetry is and must always remain 'caviare to the general' must of course be admitted; but we have yet to learn that a man may not be a great poet, and yet be 'caviare to the general'. It may be that the greatest poets of all are those whose genius enables them to thrill the most universal human emotions, and so to command the largest constituencies; but surely, if the select and most cultured minds of a time can have a poet all to themselves, or nearly so, handling the questions which they handle, and leading them out in new tracks which have for them all the interest of blended curiosity and familiarity, that is also a great gain to the community. Nay, if the same man, besides showing his power in the general region of thought and fact where intellectual men meet in common, can also deviate into side-regions of technical art or knowledge, and still seem a true poet to those who can [180] follow him there and understand his lectures, what harm is done? Finally, if the man himself has some peculiar tastes, if he likes a rich and foreign garb for his thoughts, even where substantially the same thoughts might be presented in a plain tissue of British associations, may not this serve to make him more impressive and effective? The pleasure we have in seeing a simple and handsome English dress is one thing; that which we have in seeing a bright Greek or Spanish dress, or a gorgeous Turkish one, is another. We allow foreign costumes, architecture, and scenery in our pictures, and find a reason why our painters should not always paint our own grey skies, our own English landscapes, and our own fair-haired peasantry. Why should it not be so with our poets? Nay, just as, if a painter will always paint Italian pictures, we may regret that Britain has so little of him, and still not let this regret interfere with our notion of his powers as a painter, why should we not allow a poet to work with Italian materials and circumstance, and still admire him as a poet? We may be sure that in these cases the genius obeys the law of its own instincts.

As regards the objections made to Mr. Browning's style, to his minute mechanical execution and taste as an artist, we cannot say that we are equally disposed to take his part. It may be, indeed, that he has framed for himself higher and more complex notions of literary harmony than those by which simple folks judge. What seems rough discord to the common reader may be to him but a phrase of richer music. What is called harshness, crabbedness, or even coarseness in his words and allusions, may seem to him only the assertion of healthy, manly taste, against a feeble and insipid conventionalism. We do not think that it is quite so, however. Even his own peers, or highest brother-poets, being judges, we believe that Mr. Browning would not be acquitted from the charges in question. Certainly, knowing many of his most enthusiastic admirers, we have never met one who did not always append to his encomiums on Mr. Browning's extraordinary powers as a thinker and a man of poetical genius, an admission of his imperfections as an artist. To us it seems that his art is more perfect the nearer he keeps to blank verse, and the other kinds of verse suited to narration, description, and exposition, and the less he ventures on purely lyrical measures, except for a bold or grand occasional purpose.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The British Quarterly Review.
Bd. 23, 1856, Nr. 45, Januar, S. 151-180.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The British quarterly review   online
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DOI: 10.14361/9783839451137-018



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer