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It will be convenient for our purpose to adhere as closely as possible to the order of Chesterton’s book. It is a hard task to do justice to Browning even in a long book; the task is not simplified when, in a chapter, it is hoped to give a criticism of an intricate criticism of Browning.

There are two ways to approach such a task: The first is to take the book as a whole and write a review of it, which is a method liable to a superficiality; the second is to take such a work chapter by chapter, and to piece the various criticisms into an ordered whole. This I have attempted to do. I make no attempt to criticize the method of Chesterton’s approach to Browning, or his combination of the effect of his life on his work; rather I wish to take what the critic says and comment on his remarks.

There is undoubtedly a fundamental difference between Browning and Dickens which is at once clear to any critic of these two writers. Dickens was, as I have said in an earlier chapter, born at the psychological moment. Browning happened to be born early in the nineteenth century. I cannot see that it would have mattered had he been born at the beginning of the twentieth. His early life, unlike Dickens, was normal, but it did not affect Browning adversely. Had Dickens’ life been uneventful, I think it not improbable that his literary output would have been commonplace instead of, as nearly as possible, divine.

There is no particular account of Browning’s family, which was probably a typical middle-class family, which is to say that they were, like many thousands of their kind, lovers of the normal a very good reason why later Browning should have acquired a love for the grotesque, which many people quite wrongly define as the abnormal.

The grotesque is a queer psychological state of mind; the abnormal is an extreme kind of individualism that is probably insane, provided the opposite is sane.

What is important, as Chesterton feels, is that we shall get some account of Browning’s home. It is in the home that we can usually detect the embryo of future activity. The germ, although sometimes hidden, is nevertheless there, which is exactly why the commonplace home life of a genius, before the public has discovered the fact, is interesting.

To quote our critic: ’Browning was a thoroughly typical Englishman of the middle class,’ and he remained so through his life.

But this middle-class Englishman walking through the streets of Camberwell, as the boys played in the gutters, was Browning, not then the master poet of the Victorian Era, but the young man who could ’pass a bookstall and find no thrill in beholding on a placard the name of Shelley.’

Browning found his early life in an age ‘of inspired office boys,’ an age that emerged from the shadow of the French Revolution, that extreme method of optimism which Chesterton believes no Englishman can understand, not even Carlyle himself. It was an optimism that was so, because it held that man was worthy of liberty, which is to say that no man is by his nature ever meant to be a slave.

While Browning was living his daily life in Camberwell, Dickens was existing in the blacking factory; yet again it was an age of the beginning of intellectual giants.

The Chestertonian standpoint with regard to the early days of Browning is interesting. It is a ready acknowledgment of the poetic instinct that was being slowly but surely nurtured in the heart of the unknown young man of Camberwell.

It is in this early period of his life that Browning attempts what Chesterton rightly describes as the most difficult of literary propositions, that of writing a good political play. This Browning essayed to do, and wrote ‘Strafford,’ a play that dealt with that most controversial part of history, the time when kings could be executed in Whitehall under the shadow of their own Parliament.

For our critic, Strafford was one of the greatest men ever born with the sacred name of England on his brow. The play was not a gigantic success, it was not a failure; it was, as was to be expected, popular with a limited public, which is very often one of the surest criterions of merit in a book or play. The success of the play was sufficient to assure the public that Browning had brains and, what was more unusual, could put them to a good advantage.

Browning became then ’a detached and eccentric personality who had arisen on the outskirts; the world began to be conscious of him at this time.’

In 1840 our critic tells us ‘Sordello’ was published. It was a poem that caused people to wonder whether it was really deep, or merely pure nonsense, a distinction some people cannot ever discover in regard to Browning.

Of this poem, its unique reception by the literary world lies in the fact ‘that it was fashionable to boast of not understanding,’ which, as I have said, was an indication that it might be termed extremely clever or extremely stupid. It was not a poem, as has been held by some critics, that was a piece of intellectual vanity. Browning was far too great a man to stoop down to such mere banal conceit. The poem was a very different thing. It was a creature created by the obscurity of Browning’s mind, which, as Chesterton thinks, was the natural reaction for a genius, born in a villa street in South London.

What is the explanation of this poem? What is its meaning? Wherein lies its soul? These are questions every lover of Browning has constantly to ask. Our critic supplies an answer, an answer that is original, and is, I think, true the poem is an epic on ‘the horror of great darkness,’ that darkness that strangely enough seems to attack the young more frequently than the old.

That which is levelled against Browning, his obscurity, is a very bulwark protecting a subtle and clear mind. This is specially so with a poet who probably of all men so lives in his own poetic world that he forgets his ideas, though clear to himself, are vague to the world occupied with conventionalities.

The real difficulty of ‘Sordello’ lies in the fact that it is written about an obscure piece of Italian history of which Browning happened to have knowledge the struggles of mediaeval Italy. This obscurity is not studied, as in the case of academic distinction; it is natural. The obscurity of many of the passages of St. John’s Gospel is natural because the mind of St. John dwelt on the ‘depths,’ as did Browning’s dwell on the grotesque. The result is the same. Each needs an interpreter, each has an abundance of the richest philosophy, each has an imprint of the Finger of God.

With all the controversy it has caused, ‘Sordello’ has had no great influence on Browningites; its name has passed into almost contempt. Chesterton has done much to give the true meaning of this strange work. With his next poem Browning spoke with a voice that, as our critic says, proved that he had found that he was not Robinson Crusoe, which is to say that he had found that the world contained a great number of people. Despite the 1,500 millions amongst whom we ’live and move and have our being’ we are apt to think that we alone are important, which is not conceit but a mere proposition demonstrating that man is a universe in himself while being but an infinitesimal part of the universe.

‘Pippa Passes’ is a poem which expresses a love of humanity; it is an epic of unconscious influence which, no doubt, Browning felt was the key to all that is best and noble in human activity. ’The whole idea of the poem lies in the fact that “Pippa Passes” is utterly remote from the grand folk whose lives she troubles and transforms.’

Browning’s poetry in the poetical sense was now nearing its zenith. The ‘Dramatic Lyrics’ were published in 1842, possibly about the time that Dickens was returning from his triumphant American tour. These showed, Chesterton thinks, the two qualities most often denied to Browning, passion and beauty. They are the contradiction to critics, other than ours, who regard Browning as wholly a philosophic poet, which is to say a poet who wrote poetry not for its own sake but for purely utilitarian purpose; not that poetry of the emotions is not useful it is on a different plane.

The poems were those that ’represent the arrival of the real Browning of literary history’; for in these he discovered what was, for Chesterton, Browning’s finest achievement, his dramatic lyrical poems.

Critics have said that Browning’s poetry lacks passion and the most poignant emotion of human nature, love. Chesterton, on the other hand, considers that Browning was the finest love poet of the world. It is real love poetry, because it talks about real people, not ideals; it does not muse of the Prince Charming meeting the Fairy Princess, and forget the devoted wife meeting her husband on the villa doorstep with open arms and a nice dinner in the parlour. Sentiment must be based on reality if it is to have worth. This is the strong point, for our critic, of Browning’s love poetry.

The next work of importance that came from Browning’s pen was the ‘Return of the Druses,’ which shows Browning’s interest in the strange religions of the East, that queer phantastic part of the world that gave birth to a Western religion which has transformed the West, leaving the East to gaze afar off. This poem is, for Chesterton, a psychological one. It is an attempt to give an account of a human being; perhaps the most difficult task in the world, because it can never hope to solve all sides of the question. The central character of this splendid poem is one ‘Djubal,’ a queer mixture of the virtues of the Deity with the vices of Humanity. He is for Browning the first of a series of characters on which he displays his wonderful powers of apologizing for apparently bad men.

He attempted, to quote our critic, ’to seek out the sinners whom even sinners cast out,’ which Christ always did, and which His Church does not always do.

Again Browning turned his hand to writing plays, but he was always a ‘neglected dramatist’ in the sense that he had to push his plays; his plays did not push him.

His next play, ‘A Blot on the “Scutcheon,"’ is chiefly interesting, as it was the occasion of a quarrel between its author and that most eccentric of theatrical personalities, Macready. The quarrel was, our critic points out, a matter of money. But Browning failed to see this; he was a man of the world in his poems, but not in his life.

It is interesting here to see what our critic says of Browning about this period before we consider the question of his marriage. ’There were people who called Browning a snob. He was fond of wealth and fond of society; he admired them as the child who comes in from the desert. He bore the same relation to the snob that the righteous man bears to the Pharisee something frightfully close and similar and yet an everlasting opposite.’

It has been left for Chesterton to give the truest definition of a Pharisee that has yet been penned, because it is exactly what every man feels but has never expressed in so brilliant a paradox.

That Browning had faults Chesterton would be the last to deny. Faults are as much a part of a great man as virtues. The more pronounced the fault, the more exquisite is the virtue, especially in a man of the character of Browning, a character that had a certain ’uncontrollable brutality of speech,’ together with a profound and unaffected respect for other people.

Chesterton’s chapter on Browning and his marriage is one of the most homely chapters of the book; it gives the lie to those critics who have glibly said that he has no way in which to reach our hearts or cause a lump in our throats.

The very method of describing how a great man wooed a great woman, how the two loved, married, and disagreed upon certain matters, is one that has an essential appeal to the heart. The exquisite description of the effect of the death of his wife on Browning is pathetic by its very simplicity.

It is enough to say that Browning’s marriage was a successful one, which is not to say that it was entirely free from certain disagreements. The domestic relations of great writers and poets have not always been of the rosiest. Swift did not make an ideal marriage at least, not on conventional lines. Milton had a wife who utterly misunderstood that her husband was a genius. Dickens was not blessed with matrimonial bliss. Shelley found faith in one woman hard.

But Browning and his wife had no disagreements on their life interests. They were both poets, though of a different calibre. What they really did not see eye to eye upon was something which the human race is still much divided about. This great point of difference was with regard to spiritualism. Browning did not dislike spiritualism; he disliked spiritualists. The difference is tremendous. Unfortunately many of the interpreters of spiritualism have degraded it into a kind of blatant necromancy which is in no way dignified or useful. It is entirely opposed to proper psychic research.

Miss Barrett had been an invalid. Therefore Browning feared that spiritualism might have a really bad effect on his wife. ’He was sensible to put a stop to it.’

The theory, on the other hand, held by other critics of Browning than Chesterton was that his dislike of spiritualism was fostered by a direct disbelief in immortality, which is as absurd a statement as is possible to make. Spiritualism and Immortality have no necessary connection whatever, though to a certain extent Spiritualism is presumed on the belief in a future life.

But this, as Chesterton points out, was not the reason for Browning’s position; it was entirely that Browning thought ’if he had not interposed when she was becoming hysterical she might have ended in a lunatic asylum.’

As Browning spent so much of his life in Italy it will be well to see what our critic considers he thought of that country under the blue skies jutting on to the blue seas of the Mediterranean.

‘Italy,’ says Chesterton, ’to Browning and his wife, was not by any means merely that sculptured and ornate sepulchre that it is to so many of those cultured Englishmen who live in Italy and despise it. To them it was a living nation, the type and centre of the religion and politics of a continent, the ancient and flaming heart of Western history, the very Europe of Europe.’

Browning’s life in Italy was more or less uneventful. It consisted of a conventional method the meeting of famous Englishmen visiting Italy, the writing of numerous poems, the pleasant domestic life of a literary genius and his wife.

There was only one thing that could break it, and it came in 1861. Mrs. Browning died. ’Alone in the room with Browning. He, closing the door of that room behind him, closed a door in himself, and none ever saw Browning upon earth again but only a splendid surface.’

During his wife’s life Browning had planned his great work, that of the ‘Ring and the Book.’ In the meantime came the death of his wife, and Browning moved on the earth alone. Of this period of his life, shortly after the death of Mrs. Browning, Chesterton gives us a clear picture. ’Browning liked social life, he liked the excitement of the dinner, the exchange of opinions, the pleasant hospitality that is so much a part of our life. He was a good talker because he had something to say.’

One of his chief faults, according to our critic, was prejudice. Prejudice is probably an unconscious obeying of instinct; it may even be a warning. Yet it can be and often is entirely unreasonable.

Browning’s prejudice was, Chesterton thinks, the type that hated a thing it knew nothing about, a state of mind that is comparatively harmless. What is dangerous is disliking a thing when we know what it is. The prejudice of Browning was synonymous with his profound contempt for certain things of which he can only speak ‘in pothouse words.’

About this period Browning produced ’Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangu, Saviour of Society.’ This is ’one of the most picturesque of Browning’s apologetic monologues.’ It is Browning’s courageous attempt to allow Napoleon III to speak for himself. Yet again Browning ’took in those sinners whom even sinners cast out.’

Two years later, we are told, Browning produced one of his most characteristic works, ‘Night-cap Country.’ It is an elegant poem of the sicklier side of the French Revolution and the more sensual side of the French temperament.

This is the period in Browning’s life when he produced his most characteristic work. It was that time when he was nearly middle aged, when the lamp of youth was just flickering, and when the lamp of old age was about to be lighted.

Chesterton treats the whole of this period with a calm straightforwardness that we are not accustomed to in his writings. There is no doubt, I think, of all our critic’s books, that his work on Browning is the least Chestertonian, which is not in any way to disparage it, but rather to state that the book might have been written by any biographer who knew Browning’s works and had the sense to see that his characteristics were such that many of his critics were unfair to him. Chesterton will never allow for an instant that Browning suffered from anything but an evident ‘naturalness,’ which expressed itself in a rugged style, concealing charity in an original grotesqueness of manner.

It is now convenient to turn to Browning’s greatest work, ’The Ring and the Book,’ and see what Chesterton has to say about it.

Rumour is really distorted truth, or rather very often originates from a different standpoint being taken of the same thing. Thus a man may say that another man is a good fellow but borrows money too often; another may say of the same man he is a good fellow but talks too much; a third that he is a good fellow but would be better without a moustache. The essential man is the same, but his three critics make really a different person, or, at least, each sees him from a different angle.

As Chesterton so finely points out, the conception of ’The Ring and the Book’ is the studying of a single matter from nine different standpoints. In successive monologues Browning is endeavouring to depict the various strange ways a fact gets itself presented to the world.

Further, the work indicates the extraordinary lack of logic used by those who would be ashamed to be denied the name of dialectician. Probably, thinks Chesterton, very many people do harm in their cause, not by want of propaganda, but by the fallaciousness of their arguments for it.

There have been critics who have denied to this work the right of immortality. Chesterton is not one of these; rather he contends such a criticism is a gross misunderstanding of the work. For our critic the greatness of this poem is the very point upon which it is attacked, that of environment. For once and all Browning has demonstrated that there are riches and depths in small things that are often denied to what we think is greater.

‘It is an epic round a sordid police court case.’ ’The essence of “The Ring and the Book” is that it is the great epic of the nineteenth century, because it is the great epic of the importance of small things.’ Browning says, ’I will show you the relation of man to heaven by telling you a story out of a dirty Italian book of criminal trials, from which I select one of the meanest and most completely forgotten.’

It is then that Chesterton sees that this poem is more than a mere poem; it is a natural acknowledgment of the monarchy of small things, the same idea that made Dickens believe that common men could be kings that is, in the same category as the Divine care of the hairs of the head. It gives the lie to the rather popular fallacy that events are important by their size. It is once more a position that the stone on the hillside is as mighty as the mountain of which it is only a small part.

Again, ‘The Ring and the Book’ is an embodiment of the spiritual in the material, the good that can be contained in a sordid story; it is the typical epic of our age, ’because it expresses the richness of life by taking as a text a poor story. It pays to existence the highest of all possible compliments, the great compliment of selecting from it almost at random.’

There is a second respect, he feels, which makes this poem the epic of the age. It is that every man has a point of view. And, what is more, every man probably has a different point of view at least in something.

‘The Ring and the Book,’ to sum up briefly why Chesterton thinks so highly of it, is an epic; it is a national expression of a characteristic love of small things, the germination of great truths; it pays a compliment to humanity by asserting the value of every opinion, it demonstrates that even in so sordid a thing as a police court there is a spiritual spark; in a word, it is an attempt to see God, not on the hill-tops or in the valleys, but in the back streets teeming with common men.

It is now time to turn to two qualities of Browning that are full of the deepest interest, and which are dealt with by Chesterton with the greatest skill and judgment. These two qualities may be described as Browning as a literary artist and Browning as a philosopher. For our purpose it will be useful to take Browning as a literary artist first and see what was his position. Philosophy is usually in the nature of a summing up. The philosophy of a poet is best looked at when the poet has been studied; therefore it is best to follow Chesterton’s order and take Browning’s philosophical position at the end of this chapter.

He feels that in some ways the critics want Browning to be poet and logician, and are rather cross when he is either. They want him to be a poet and are annoyed that he is a logician; they want him to be a logician and are annoyed that he is a poet. The fact of the matter is he was probably a poet!

Chesterton is convinced that Browning was a literary artist that is to say, he was a symbolist. The wealth of Browning’s poetry depends on arrangement of language. It is so with all great literature: it is not so much what is said as how it is said, in what way the sentences are formed so that the climax comes in the right place.

For all practical purposes Browning was, our critic thinks, a deliberate artist. The suggestion that Browning cared nothing for form is for Chesterton a monstrous assertion. It is as absurd as saying that Napoleon cared nothing for feminine love or that Nero hated mushrooms. What Browning did was always to fall into a different kind of form, which is a totally different thing to saying he disregarded it.

There is rather an assumption among a certain class of critics that the artistic form is a quality that is finite. As a matter of fact, it is infinite; it cannot be bound up with any particular mode of expression; it is elastic, and so elastic that certain critics cannot adjust their minds to such lucidity.

There is, our critic feels, another suggestion that if Browning had a form, it was a bad one. This really does not matter very much. Whether form in an artistic sense is good or bad can only be determined by setting up a criterion; this is not possible in the case of Browning, because, though he has many forms, they are original ones, which render them impervious to values of good and bad.

Chesterton is naturally aware that Browning wrote a great deal of bad poetry every poet does. The way to take with Browning’s bad poetry is not to condemn him for it, but to say quite frankly this poem or that poem was a failure. It is by his masterpieces that Browning must be judged.

Perhaps, as he points out, the peculiar characteristic of Browning’s art lay in his use of the grotesque, which, as I said at the beginning of this chapter, is a totally different thing from the abnormal.

In other words, Browning was rugged. It was as natural for him to be rugged as for Ruskin to be polished, for Swift to be cynical (in an optimistic sense), for Chesterton to be paradoxical. Ruggedness is a form of beauty, but it is a beauty that is quite different from the commonly accepted grounds. A mountain is rugged and it is beautiful, a woman is beautiful; but the two features of the aesthetic are quite different. It is the same with poetry. There is (and Browning proved it) a ‘beautifulness’ in the rugged; it is a sense of being ‘beautifully’ rugged.

Enough has been said to make it quite clear that Browning was a literary artist; but, as Chesterton contends, an original one. He did not confine himself to any one form: his beauty lay in the placing of the ‘rugged’ before his readers, the method he used of employing the grotesque.

It is now an excellent time in which to look at Browning’s philosophy and Chesterton’s interpretation of it.

As it is perfectly true to say that every man has a point of view, a position so admirably brought out by Browning in his ’Ring and the Book,’ so it is also, I think, a truism that every man has (not always consciously) a philosophy. A philosophy is, after all, a point of view; it is not necessarily an abstract academic position; nor is it always a well-defined attempt to discover the ultimate purpose of things. It can be, and very often is, a point of view really acquired by experience.

Naturally a man of the intellect of Browning would have a philosophy, and he had, as our critic points out, a very definite one.

In his quaint way Chesterton tells us ’Browning had opinions as he had a dress suit or a vote for Parliament.’ And he had no hesitation in expressing these opinions. There was no reason why he should; at least part of his philosophy, as I have indicated, lay in his knowledge of the value of men’s opinions yet again brought out in ’The Ring and the Book.’

He had, so we are told, two great theories of the universe: the first, the hope that lies in man, imperfect as he is; the second, a bold position that has offended many people but is nevertheless at least a reasonable one, that God is in some way imperfect; that is, in some obscure way He could be made jealous.

This is, no doubt, a highly unorthodox position. Yet it is a position that thousands have felt does make it plainer (as it did to Browning) the necessity of the Crucifixion; it was a pandering to Divine jealousy.

These are, as Chesterton admits, great thoughts, and, as such, are liable to be disliked by those Christians and others who will not think and dislike any one else doing so.

This strange theological position of Browning is, I think, indicated in ‘Saul.’

Chesterton usually does not agree with the other critics about most things, but he does at least agree in regard to the fact that Browning was an optimist. His theory of the use of men, though imperfect, is as good an argument for optimism as could well be found. Browning’s optimism was, as our critic says, founded on experience, it was not a mere theory that had nothing practical behind it.

As I have said, Browning disliked Spiritualists; but that is not, our critic thinks, the reason he wrote ‘Sludge the Medium.’ What this poem showed was that Spiritualism could be of use in spite of insincere mediums. It was in no way an attack on the tenets of Spiritualism.

The understanding of this poem gives the key to other poems of Browning’s, as ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology,’ and some of the monologues in ‘The Ring and the Book’; which is, that ’a man cannot help telling some truth, even when he sets out to tell lies.’

This may be the right interpretation of these poems, but I think Browning really meant that there is an end somewhere to lying; in other words, lying is negative and temporary; truth is positive and eternal.

The summing up of Browning’s knaves cannot be better expressed than by Chesterton. ’They are real somewhere. We are talking to a garrulous and peevish sneak; we are watching the play of his paltry features, his evasive eyes and babbling lips. And suddenly the face begins to change and harden, the eyes glare like the eyes of a mask, the whole face of clay becomes a common mouthpiece, and the voice that comes forth is the voice of God uttering his everlasting soliloquy.’

It is the essence of Browning; it is the certainty that however far distant there is the face of God behind the human features.

If there is one characteristic about this study of Browning it lies in the fact that it is a very clear exposition of a remarkable poet. A man might take up the book knowing Browning only as a name; he might well lay it down knowing what Browning was, what he achieved, what his essence was. The book is a masterly study it lays claim to our sympathies; and never more so than when our critic describes that moment when Browning, alone in the room, saw his wife die.