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An Essay on Robert Browning
Written by: John Jay Chapman
An Essay on Robert Browning
There is a period in the advance of any great man's influence between the moment when he appears and the moment when he has become historical, during which it is difficult to give any succinct account of him. We are ourselves a part of the thing we would describe. The element which we attempt to isolate for purposes of study is still living within us. Our science becomes tinged with autobiography. Such must be the fate of any essay on Browning written at the present time.
The generation to whom his works were unmeaning has hardly passed away. The generation he spoke for still lives. His influence seems still to be expanding. The literature of Browning dictionaries, phrase-books, treatises, and philosophical studies grows daily. Mr. Cooke in his Guide to Browning (1893) gives a condensed catalogue of the best books and essays on Browning, which covers many finely printed pages. This class of book—the text-book—is not the product of impulse. The text-book is a commercial article and follows the demand as closely as the reaper follows the crop. We can tell the acreage under cultivation by looking over the account books of the makers of farm implements. Thousands of people are now studying Browning, following in his footsteps, reading lives of his heroes, and hunting up the subjects he treated.
This Browningism which we are disposed to laugh at is a most interesting secondary outcome of his influence. It has its roots in natural piety, and the educational value of it is very great.
Browning's individuality created for him a personal following, and he was able to respond to the call to leadership. Unlike Carlyle, he had something to give his disciples beside the immediate satisfaction of a spiritual need. He gave them not only meal but seed. In this he was like Emerson; but Emerson's little store of finest grain is of a different soil. Emerson lived in a cottage and saw the stars over his head through his skylight. Browning, on the other hand, loved pictures, places, music, men and women, and his works are like the house of a rich man,—a treasury of plunder from many provinces and many ages, whose manners and passions are vividly recalled to us. In Emerson's house there was not a peg to hang a note upon,—"this is his bookshelf, this his bed." But Browning's palace craves a catalogue. And a proper catalogue to such a palace becomes a liberal education.
Robert Browning was a strong, glowing, whole-souled human being, who enjoyed life more intensely than any Englishman since Walter Scott. He was born among books; and circumstances enabled him to follow his inclinations and become a writer,—a poet by profession. He was, from early youth to venerable age, a centre of bounding vitality, the very embodiment of spontaneous life; and the forms of poetry in which he so fully and so accurately expressed himself enable us to know him well. Indeed, only great poets are known so intimately as we know Robert Browning.
Religion was at the basis of his character, and it was the function of religious poetry that his work fulfilled. Inasmuch as no man invents his own theology, but takes it from the current world and moulds it to his needs, it was inevitable that Robert Browning should find and seize upon as his own all that was optimistic in Christian theology. Everything that was hopeful his spirit accepted; everything that was sunny and joyful and good for the brave soul he embraced. What was distressing he rejected or explained away. In the world of Robert Browning everything was right.
The range of subject covered by his poems is wider than that of any other poet that ever lived; but the range of his ideas is exceedingly small. We need not apologize for treating Browning as a theologian and a doctor of philosophy, for he spent a long life in trying to show that a poet is always really both—'and he has almost convinced us. The expositors and writers of text-books have had no difficulty in formulating his theology, for it is of the simplest kind; and his views on morality and art are logically a part of it. The "message" which poets are conventionally presumed to deliver, was, in Browning's case, a very definite creed, which may be found fully set forth in any one of twenty poems. Every line of his poetry is logically dedicated to it.
He believes that the development of the individual soul is the main end of existence. The strain and stress of life are incidental to growth, and therefore desirable. Development and growth mean a closer union with God. In fact, God is of not so much importance in Himself, but as the end towards which man tends. That irreverent person who said that Browning uses "God" as a pigment made an accurate criticism of his theology. In Browning, God is adjective to man. Browning believes that all conventional morality must be reviewed from the standpoint of how conduct affects the actor himself, and what effect it has on his individual growth. The province of art and of all thinking and working is to make these truths clear and to grapple with the problems they give rise to.
The first two fundamental beliefs of Browning—namely: (1) that, ultimately speaking, the most important matter in the world is the soul of a man; and (2) that a sense of effort is coincident with development—are probably true. We instinctively feel them to be true, and they seem to be receiving support from those quarters of research to which we look for light, however dim. In the application of his dogmas to specific cases in the field of ethics, Browning often reaches conclusions which are fair subjects for disagreement. Since most of our conventional morality is framed to repress the individual, he finds himself at war with it—in revolt against it. He is habitually pitted against it, and thus acquires modes of thought which sometimes lead him into paradox—at least, to conclusions at odds with his premises. It is in the course of exposition, and incidentally to his main purpose as a teacher of a few fundamental ideas, that Browning has created his masterpieces of poetry.
Never was there a man who in the course of a long life changed less. What as a boy he dreamed of doing, that he did. The thoughts of his earliest poems are the thoughts of his latest. His tales, his songs, his monologues, his dramas, his jests, his sermons, his rage, his prayer, are all upon the same theme: whatever fed his mind nourished these beliefs. His interest in the world was solely an interest in them. He saw them in history and in music; his travels and studies brought him back nothing else but proofs of them; the universe in each of its manifestations was a commentary upon them. His nature was the simplest, the most positive, the least given to abstract speculation, which England can show in his time. He was not a thinker, for he was never in doubt. He had recourse to disputation as a means of inculcating truth, but he used it like a lawyer arguing a case. His conclusions are fixed from the start. Standing, from his infancy, upon a faith as absolute as that of a martyr, he has never for one instant undergone the experience of doubt, and only knows that there is such a thing because he has met with it in other people. The force of his feelings is so much greater than his intellect that his mind serves his soul like a valet. Out of the whole cosmos he takes what belongs to him and sustains him, leaving the rest, or not noting it.
There never was a great poet whose scope was so definite. That is the reason why the world is so cleanly divided into people who do and who do not care for Browning. One real glimpse into him gives you the whole of him. The public which loves him is made up of people who have been through certain spiritual experiences to which he is the antidote. The public which loves him not consists of people who have escaped these experiences. To some he is a strong, rare, and precious elixir, which nothing else will replace. To others, who do not need him, he is a boisterous and eccentric person,—a Heracles in the house of mourning.
Let us remember his main belief,—the value of the individual. The needs of society constantly require that the individual be suppressed. They hold him down and punish him at every point. The tyranny of order and organization—of monarch or public opinion—weights him and presses him down. This is the inevitable tendency of all stable social arrangements. Now and again there arises some strong nature that revolts against the influence of conformity which is becoming intolerable,—against the atmosphere of caste or theory; of Egyptian priest or Manchester economist; of absolutism or of democracy.
And this strong nature cries out that the souls of men are being injured, and that they are important; that your soul and my soul are more important than Cæsar—or than the survival of the fittest. Such a voice was the voice of Christ, and the lesser saviors of the world bring always a like message of revolt: they arise to fulfil the same fundamental need of the world.
Carlyle, Emerson, Victor Hugo, Browning, were prophets to a generation oppressed in spirit, whose education had oppressed them with a Jewish law of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham and Malthus, of Clarkson and Cobden,—of thought for the million, and for man in the aggregate. "To what end is all this beneficence, all this conscience, all this theory?" some one at length cries out. "For whom is it in the last analysis that you legislate? You talk of man, I see only men." To men suffering from an age of devotion to humanity came Robert Browning as a liberator. Like Carlyle, he was understood first in this country because we had begun earlier with our theoretical and practical philanthropies, and had taken them more seriously. We had suffered more. We needed to be told that it was right to love, hate, and be angry, to sin and repent. It was a revelation to us to think that we had some inheritance in the joys and passions of mankind. We needed to be told these things as a tired child needs to be comforted. Browning gave them to us in the form of a religion. There was no one else sane or deep or wise or strong enough to know what we lacked.
If ever a generation had need of a poet,—of some one to tell them they might cry and not be ashamed, rejoice and not find the reason in John Stuart Mill; some one who should justify the claims of the spirit which was starving on the religion of humanity,—it was the generation for whom Browning wrote.
Carlyle had seized upon the French Revolution, which served his ends because it was filled with striking, with powerful, with grotesque examples of individual force. In his Hero Worship he gives his countrymen a philosophy of history based on nothing but worship of the individual. Browning with the same end in view gave us pictures of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in France and Italy. He glorified what we had thought crime and error, and made men of us. He was the apostle to the educated of a most complex period, but such as he was, he was complete. Those people to whom he has been a poet know what it is for the heart to receive full expression from the lips of another.
The second thesis which Browning insists on—the identity of spiritual suffering with spiritual growth—is the one balm of the world. It is said that recent physiological experiment shows that muscles do not develop unless exercised up to what is called the "distress point." If this shall prove to be an instance of a general law,—if the struggles and agony of the spirit are really signs of an increase of that spiritual life which is the only sort of life we can conceive of now or hereafter,—then the truth-to-feeling of much of Browning's poetry has a scientific basis. It cannot be denied that Browning held firmly two of the most moving and far-reaching ideas of the world, and he expanded them in the root, leaf, flower, and fruit of a whole world of poetic disquisition.
It is unnecessary at this day to point out the beauties of Browning or the sagacity with which he chose his effects. He gives us the sallow wife of James Lee, whose soul is known to him, Pippa the silk-spinning girl, two men found in the morgue, persons lost, forgotten, or misunderstood. He searches the world till he finds the man whom everybody will concur in despising, the mediaeval grammarian, and he writes to him the most powerful ode in English, the mightiest tribute ever paid to a man. His culture and his learning are all subdued to what he works in; they are all in harness to draw his thought. He mines in antiquity or drags his net over German philosophy or modern drawing-rooms,—all to the same end.
In that miracle of power and beauty—The Flight of the Duchess—he has improvised a whole civilization in order to make the setting of contrast which shall cause the soul of the little duchess to shine clearly. In Childe Roland he creates a cycle, an epoch of romance and mysticism, because he requires it as a stage property. In A Death in the Desert you have the East in the first century—so vividly given that you wish instantly to travel there, Bible in hand, to feel the atmosphere with which your Bible ought always to have been filled. His reading brings him to Euripides. He sees that Alcestis can be set to his theme; and with a week or two of labor, while staying in a country house, he draws out of the Greek fable the world of his own meaning and shows it shining forth in a living picture of the Greek theatre which has no counterpart for vitality in any modern tongue.
The descriptive and narrative powers of Browning are above, beyond, and outside of all that has been done in English in our time, as the odd moments prove which he gave to the Pied Piper, The Ride from Ghent to Aix, Incident in the French Camp. These chips from his workshop passed instantly into popular favor because they were written in familiar forms.
How powerfully his gifts of utterance were brought to bear upon the souls of men will be recorded, even if never understood, by literary historians. It is idle to look to the present generation for an intelligible account of One Word More, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Prospice, Saul, The Blot on the 'Scutcheon. They must be judged by the future and by men who can speak of them with a steady lip.
It must be conceded that the conventional judgments of society are sometimes right, and Browning's mission led him occasionally into paradox and jeux d'esprit. Bishop Blougram is an attempt to discover whether a good case cannot be made out for the individual hypocrite. The Statue and the Bust is frankly a reductio ad absurdum, and ends with a query.
There is more serious trouble with others. The Grammarian's Funeral is false to fact, and will appear so to posterity. The grammarian was not a hero, and our calmer moments show us that the poem is not a great ode. It gave certain people the glow of a great truth, but it remains a paradox and a piece of exaggeration. The same must be said of a large part of Browning. The New Testament is full of such paradoxes of exaggeration, like the parable of the unjust steward, the rich man's chance for heaven, the wedding garment; but in these, the truth is apparent,—we are not betrayed. In Browning's paradoxes we are often led on and involved in an emotion over some situation which does not honestly call for the emotion.
The most noble quality in Browning is his temper. He does not proceed, as liberators generally do, by railing and pulling down. He builds up; he is positive, not negative. He is less bitter than Christianity itself.
While there is no more doubt as to the permanent value of the content of Browning than of the value of the spiritual truths of the New Testament, there is very little likelihood that his poems will be understood in the remote future. At present, they are following the waves of influence of the education which they correct. They are built like Palladio's Theatre at Vicenza, where the perspective converges toward a single seat. In order to be subject to the illusion, the spectator must occupy the duke's place. The colors are dropping from the poems already. The feeblest of them lose it first. There was a steady falling off in power accompanied by a constant increase in his peculiarities during the last twenty years of his life, and we may make some surmise as to how Balaustion's Adventure will strike posterity by reading Parleyings with Certain People.
The distinctions between Browning's characters—which to us are so vivid—will to others seem less so. Paracelsus and Rabbi Ben Ezra, Lippo Lippi, Karshish, Caponsacchi, and Ferishtah will all appear to be run in the same mould. They will seem to be the thinnest disguises which a poet ever assumed. The lack of the dramatic element in Browning—a lack which is concealed from us by our intense sympathy for him and by his fondness for the trappings of the drama—will be apparent to the after-comers. They will say that all the characters in The Blot on the 'Scutcheon take essentially the same view of the catastrophe of the play; that Pippa and Pompilia and Phene are the same person in the same state of mind. In fact, the family likeness is great. They will say that the philosophic monologues are repetitions of each other. It cannot be denied that there is much repetition,—much threshing out of old straw. Those who have read Browning for years and are used to the monologues are better pleased to find the old ideas than new ones, which they could not understand so readily. When the later Browning takes us on one of those long afternoon rambles through his mind,—over moor and fen, through jungle, down precipice, past cataract,—we know just where we are coming out in the end. We know the place better than he did himself. Nor will posterity like Browning's manners,—the dig in the ribs, the personal application, and de te fabula of most of his talking. These unpleasant things are part of his success with us to whom he means life, not art. Posterity will want only art. We needed doctrine. If he had not preached, we would not have listened to him. But posterity evades the preachers and accepts only singers. Posterity is so dainty that it lives on nothing but choice morsels. It will cull such out of the body of Browning as the anthologists are beginning to do already, and will leave the great mass of him to be rediscovered from time to time by belated sufferers from the philosophy of the nineteenth century.
There is a class of persons who claim for Browning that his verse is really good verse, and that he was a master of euphony. This cannot be admitted except as to particular instances in which his success is due to his conformity to law, not to his violation of it.
The rules of verse in English are merely a body of custom which has grown up unconsciously, and most of which rests upon some simple requirement of the ear.
In speaking of the power of poetry we are dealing with what is essentially a mystery, the outcome of infinitely subtle, numerous, and complex forces.
The rhythm of versification seems to serve the purpose of a prompter. It lets us know in advance just what syllables are to receive the emphasis which shall make the sense clear. There are many lines in poetry which become obscure the instant they are written in prose, and probably the advantages of poetry over prose, or, to express it modestly, the excuse for poetry at all, is that the form facilitates the comprehension of the matter. Rhyme is itself an indication that a turning-point has been reached. It punctuates and sets off the sense, and relieves our attention from the strain of suspended interest. All of the artifices of poetical form seem designed to a like end. Naturalness of speech is somewhat sacrificed, but we gain by the sacrifice a certain uniformity of speech which rests and exhilarates. We need not, for the present, examine the question of euphony any further, nor ask whether euphony be not a positive element in verse,—an element which belongs to music.
The negative advantages of poetry over prose are probably sufficient to account for most of its power. A few more considerations of the same negative nature, and which affect the vividness of either prose or verse, may be touched upon by way of preface to the inquiry, why Browning is hard to understand and why his verse is bad.
Every one is more at ease in his mind when he reads a language which observes the ordinary rules of grammar, proceeds by means of sentences having subjects and predicates, and of which the adjectives and adverbs fall easily into place. A doubt about the grammar is a doubt about the sense. And this is so true that sometimes when our fears are allayed by faultless grammar we may read absolute nonsense with satisfaction. We sometimes hear it stated as a bitter epigram, that poetry is likely to endure just in proportion as the form of it is superior to the content. As to the "inferiority" of the content, a moment's reflection shows that the ideas and feelings which prevail from age to age, and in which we may expect posterity to delight, are in their nature, and of necessity, commonplace. And if by "superiority of form" it is meant that these ideas shall be conveyed in flowing metres,—in words which are easy to pronounce, put together according to the rules of grammar, and largely drawn from the vulgar tongue,—we need not wonder that posterity should enjoy it. In fact, it is just such verse as this which survives from age to age.
Browning possesses one superlative excellence, and it is upon this that he relies. It is upon this that he has emerged and attacked the heart of man. It is upon this that he may possibly fight his way down to posterity and live like a fire forever in the bosom of mankind.
His language is the language of common speech; his force, the immediate force of life. His language makes no compromises of any sort. It is not subdued to form. The emphasis demanded by the sense is very often not the emphasis demanded by the metre. He cuts off his words and forces them ruthlessly into lines as a giant might force his limbs into the armor of a mortal. The joints and members of the speech fall in the wrong places and have no relation to the joints and members of the metre.
He writes like a lion devouring an antelope. He rends his subject, breaks its bones, and tears out the heart of it. He is not made more, but less, comprehensible by the verse-forms in which he writes. The sign-posts of the metre lead us astray. He would be easier to understand if his poems were printed in the form of prose. That is the reason why Browning becomes easy when read aloud; for in reading aloud we give the emphasis of speech, and throw over all effort to follow the emphasis of the metre. This is also the reason why Browning is so unquotable—why he has made so little effect upon the language—why so few of the phrases and turns of thought and metaphor with which poets enrich a language have been thrown into English by him. Let a man who does not read poetry take up a volume of Familiar Quotations, and he will find page after page of lines and phrases which he knows by heart—from Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth—things made familiar to him not by the poets, but by the men whom the poets educated, and who adopted their speech. Of Browning he will know not a word. And yet Browning's poetry is full of words that glow and smite, and which have been burnt into and struck into the most influential minds of the last fifty years.
But Browning's phrases are almost impossible to remember, because they are speech not reduced to poetry. They do not sing, they do not carry. They have no artificial buoys to float them in our memories.
It follows from this uncompromising nature of Browning that when, by the grace of inspiration, the accents of his speech do fall into rhythm, his words will have unimaginable sweetness. The music is so much a part of the words—so truly spontaneous—that other verse seems tame and manufactured beside his.
Rhyme is generally so used by Browning as not to subserve the true function of rhyme. It is forced into a sort of superficial conformity, but marks no epoch in the verse. The clusters of rhymes are clusters only to the eye and not to the ear. The necessity of rhyming leads Browning into inversions,—into expansions of sentences beyond the natural close of the form,—into every sort of contortion. The rhymes clog and distress the sentences.
As to grammar, Browning is negligent. Some of his most eloquent and wonderful passages have no grammar whatever. In Sordello grammar does not exist; and the want of it, the strain upon the mind caused by an effort to make coherent sentences out of a fleeting, ever-changing, iridescent maze of talk, wearies and exasperates the reader. Of course no one but a school-master desires that poetry shall be capable of being parsed; but every one has a right to expect that he shall be left without a sense of grammatical deficiency.
The Invocation in The Ring and the Book is one of the most beautiful openings that can be imagined.
"O lyric love, half angel and half bird,
And all a wonder and a wild desire—Boldest
of hearts that ever braved the sun,
Took sanctuary within the holier blue,
And sang a kindred soul out to his face—
Yet human at the red-ripe of the heart—
When the first summons from the darkling earth
Reached thee amid thy chambers, blanched their blue,
And bared them of the glory—to drop down,
To toil for man, to suffer or to die—
This is the same voice: can thy soul know change?
Hail then, and hearken from the realms of help!
Never may I commence my song, my due
To God who best taught song by gift of thee,
Except with bent head and beseeching hand—
That still, despite the distance and the dark
What was, again may be; some interchange
Of grace, some splendor once thy very thought,
Some benediction anciently thy smile;—
Never conclude, but raising hand and head
Thither where eyes, that cannot reach, yet yearn
For all hope, all sustainment, all reward,
Their utmost up and on—so blessing back
In those thy realms of help, that heaven thy home,
Some whiteness, which, I judge, thy face makes proud,
Some wanness where, I think, thy foot may fall."
These sublime lines are marred by apparent grammatical obscurity. The face of beauty is marred when one of the eyes seems sightless. We re-read the lines to see if we are mistaken. If they were in a foreign language, we should say we did not fully understand them.
In the dramatic monologues, as, for instance, in The Ring and the Book and in the innumerable other narratives and contemplations where a single speaker holds forth, we are especially called upon to forget grammar. The speaker relates and reflects,—pours out his ideas in the order in which they occur to him,—pursues two or three trains of thought at the same time, claims every license which either poetry or conversation could accord him. The effect of this method is so startling, that when we are vigorous enough to follow the sense, we forgive all faults of metre and grammar, and feel that this natural Niagara of speech is the only way for the turbulent mind of man to get complete utterance. We forget that it is possible for the same thing to be done, and yet to be subdued, and stilled, and charmed into music.
Prospero is as natural and as individual as Bishop Blougram. His grammar is as incomplete, yet we do not note it. He talks to himself, to Miranda, to Ariel, all at once, weaving all together his passions, his philosophy, his narrative, and his commands. His reflections are as profuse and as metaphysical as anything in Browning, and yet all is clear,—all is so managed that it lends magic. The characteristic and unfathomable significance of this particular character Prospero comes out of it.
"Prospero. My brother and thy uncle, called Antonio— I pray thee mark me,—that a brother should
Be so perfidious!—he whom next thyself,
Of all the world I lov'd, and to him put
The manage of my state; as at that time
Through all the seignories it was the first,
And Prospero, the Prime Duke, being so reputed
In dignity and for the liberal arts,
Without a parallel: those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And wrapped in secret studies. Thy false uncle—
Dost thou attend me?"
It is unnecessary to give examples from Browning of defective verse, of passages which cannot be understood, which cannot be construed, which cannot be parodied, and which can scarcely be pronounced. They are mentioned only as throwing light on Browning's cast of mind and methods of work. His inability to recast and correct his work cost the world a master. He seems to have been condemned to create at white heat and to stand before the astonishing draft, which his energy had flung out, powerless to complete it.
We have a few examples of things which came forth perfect, but many of even the most beautiful and most original of the shorter poems are marred by some blotches that hurt us and which one feels might have been struck out or corrected in half an hour. How many of the poems are too long! It is not that Browning went on writing after he had completed his thought,—for the burst of beauty is as likely to come at the end as at the beginning,—but that his thought had to unwind itself like web from a spider. He could not command it. He could only unwind and unwind.
Pan and Luna is a sketch, as luminous as a Correggio, but not finished. Caliban upon Setebos, on the other hand, shows creative genius, beyond all modern reach, but flounders and drags on too long. In the poems which he revised, as, for instance, Hervé Riel, which exists in two or more forms, the corrections are verbal, and were evidently done with the same fierce haste with which the poems were written.
We must not for an instant imagine that Browning was indolent or indifferent; it is known that he was a taskmaster to himself. But he could not write other than he did. When the music came and the verse caught the flame, and his words became sweeter, and his thought clearer, then he could sweep down like an archangel bringing new strains of beauty to the earth. But the occasions when he did this are a handful of passages in a body of writing as large as the Bible.
Just as Browning could not stop, so he found it hard to begin. His way of beginning is to seize the end of the thread just where he can, and write down the first sentence.
"She should never have looked at me,
If she meant I should not love her!"
"Water your damned flowerpots, do—"
"No! for I'll save it! Seven years since."
"But give them me, the mouth, the eyes, the brow!"
"Fear Death? to feel the fog in my throat."
Sometimes his verse fell into coils as it came, but he himself, as he wrote the first line of a poem, never knew in what form of verse the poem would come forth. Hence the novel figures and strange counterpoint. Having evolved the first group of lines at haphazard, he will sometimes repeat the form (a very complex form, perhaps, which, in order to have any organic effect, would have to be tuned to the ear most nicely), and repeat it clumsily. Individual taste must be judge of his success in these experiments. Sometimes the ear is worried by an attempt to trace the logic of the rhymes which are concealed by the rough jolting of the metre. Sometimes he makes no attempt to repeat the first verse, but continues in irregular improvisation.
Browning never really stoops to literature; he makes perfunctory obeisance to it. The truth is that Browning is expressed by his defects. He would not be Robert Browning without them. In the technical part of his art, as well as in his spirit, Browning represents a reaction of a violent sort. He was too great an artist not to feel that his violations of form helped him. The blemishes in The Grammarian's Funeral—hoti's business, the enclitic de—were stimulants; they heightened his effects. They helped him make clear his meaning, that life is greater than art. These savageries spoke to the hearts of men tired of smoothness and platitude, and who were relieved by just such a breaking up of the ice. Men loved Browning not only for what he was, but also for what he was not.
These blemishes were, under the circumstances, and for a limited audience, strokes of art. It is not to be pretended that, even from this point of view, they were always successful, only that they are organic. The nineteenth century would have to be lived over again to wipe these passages out of Browning's poetry.
In that century he stands as one of the great men of England. His doctrines are the mere effulgence of his personality. He himself was the truth which he taught. His life was the life of one of his own heroes; and in the close of his life—by a coincidence which is not sad, but full of meaning—may be seen one of those apparent paradoxes in which he himself delighted.
Through youth and manhood Browning rose like a planet calmly following the laws of his own being. From time to time he put forth his volumes which the world did not understand. Neglect caused him to suffer, but not to change. It was not until his work was all but finished, not till after the publication of The Ring and the Book, that complete recognition came to him. It was given him by men and women who had been in the nursery when he began writing, who had passed their youth with his minor poems, and who understood him.
In later life Browning's powers declined. The torrent of feeling could no longer float the raft of doctrine, as it had done so lightly and for so long. His poems, always difficult, grew dry as well.
But Browning was true to himself. He had all his life loved converse with men and women, and still enjoyed it. He wrote constantly and to his uttermost. It was not for him to know that his work was done. He wrote on manfully to the end, showing, occasionally, his old power, and always his old spirit. And on his death-bed it was not only his doctrine, but his life that blazed out in the words:—
"One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph.
Held, we fall to rise—are baffled to fight better—
Sleep to wake."