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In the previous chapter, some of the statements made on Browning as a poet of Nature were not sufficiently illustrated; and there are other elements in his natural description which demand attention. The best way to repair these deficiencies will be to take chronologically the natural descriptions in his poems and to comment upon them, leaving out those on which we have already touched. New points of interest will thus arise; and, moreover, taking his natural description as it occurs from volume to volume, we may be able within this phase of his poetic nature to place his poetic development in a clearer light.

I begin, therefore, with Pauline. The descriptions of nature in that poem are more deliberate, more for their own sake, than elsewhere in Browning’s poetry. The first of them faintly recalls the manner of Shelley in the Alastor, and I have no doubt was influenced by him. The two others, and the more finished, have already escaped from Shelley, and are almost pre-Raphaelite, as much so as Keats, in their detail. Yet all the three are original, not imitative. They suggest Shelley and Keats, and no more, and it is only the manner and not the matter of these poets that they suggest. Browning became instantly original in this as in other modes of poetry. It was characteristic of him from the beginning to the end of his career, to possess within himself his own methods, to draw out of himself new matter and new shapings.

From one point of view this was full of treasureable matter for us. It is not often the gods give us so opulent an originality. From another point of view it was unfortunate. If he had begun by imitating a little; if he had studied the excellences of his predecessors more; if he had curbed his individuality sufficiently to mark, learn and inwardly digest the noble style of others in natural description, and in all other matters of poetry as well, his work would have been much better than it is; his original excellences would have found fitter and finer expression; his faults would have been enfeebled instead of being developed; his style would have been more concise on one side, less abrupt on another, and we should not have been wrongly disturbed by obscurities of diction and angularities of expression. He would have reached more continuously the splendid level he often attained. This is plentifully illustrated by his work on external nature, but less perhaps than by his work on humanity.

The first natural description he published is in the beginning of Pauline:

Thou wilt remember one warm morn when winter
Crept aged from the earth, and spring’s first breath
Blew soft from the moist hills; the blackthorn boughs,
So dark in the bare wood, when glistening
In the sunshine were white with coming buds,
Like the bright side of a sorrow, and the banks
Had violets opening from sleep like eyes.

That is fairly good; he describes what he has seen; but it might have been better. We know what he means, but his words do not accurately or imaginatively convey this meaning. The best lines are the first three, but the peculiar note of Shelley sighs so fully in them that they do not represent Browning. What is special in them is his peculiar delight not only in the morning which here he celebrates, but in the spring. It was in his nature, even in old age, to love with passion the beginnings of things; dawn, morning, spring and youth, and their quick blood; their changes, impulses, their unpremeditated rush into fresh experiment. Unlike Tennyson, who was old when he was old, Browning was young when he was old. Only once in Asolando, in one poem, can we trace that he felt winter in his heart. And the lines in Pauline which I now quote, spoken by a young man who had dramatised himself into momentary age, are no ill description of his temper at times when he was really old:

As life wanes, all its care and strife and toil
Seem strangely valueless, while the old trees
Which grew by our youth’s home, the waving mass
Of climbing plants heavy with bloom and dew,
The morning swallows with their songs like words.
All these seem clear and only worth our thoughts:
So, aught connected with my early life,
My rude songs or my wild imaginings,
How I look on them most distinct amid
The fever and the stir of after years!

The next description in Pauline is that in which he describes to illustrate what Shelley was to him the woodland spring which became a mighty river. Shelley, as first conceived by Browning, seemed to him like a sacred spring:

Scarce worth a moth’s flitting, which long grasses cross,
And one small tree embowers droopingly
Joying to see some wandering insect won
To live in its few rushes, or some locust
To pasture on its boughs, or some wild bird
Stoop for its freshness from the trackless air.

A piece of careful detail, close to nature, but not close enough; needing to be more detailed or less detailed, but the first instance in his work of his deliberate use of Nature, not for love of herself only, (Wordsworth, Coleridge or Byron would have described the spring in the woods for its own sake), but for illustration of humanity. It is Shelley Shelley in his lonely withdrawn character, Shelley hidden in the wood of his own thoughts, and, like a spring in that wood, bubbling upwards into personal poetry of whom Browning is now thinking. The image is good, but a better poet would have dwelt more on the fountain and left the insects and birds alone. It is Shelley also of whom he thinks Shelley breaking away from personal poetry to write of the fates of men, of liberty and love and overthrow of wrong, of the future of mankind when he expands his tree-shaded fountain into the river and follows it to the sea:

And then should find it but the fountain head,
Long lost, of some great river washing towns
And towers, and seeing old woods which will live
But by its banks untrod of human foot.
Which, when the great sun sinks, lie quivering
In light as some thing lieth half of life
Before God’s foot, waiting a wondrous change;
Then girt with rocks which seek to turn or stay
Its course in vain, for it does ever spread
Like a sea’s arm as it goes rolling on,
Being the pulse of some great country so
Wast thou to me, and art thou to the world!

How good some of that is; how bad it is elsewhere! How much it needs thought, concentration, and yet how vivid also and original! And the faults of it, of grammar, of want of clearness, of irritating parenthesis, of broken threads of thought, of inability to leave out the needless, are faults of which Browning never quite cleared his work. I do not think he ever cared to rid himself of them.

The next description is not an illustration of man by means of Nature. It is almost the only set description of Nature, without reference to man, which occurs in the whole of Browning’s work. It is introduced by his declaration (for in this I think he speaks from himself) of his power of living in the life of all living things. He does not think of himself as living in the whole Being of Nature, as Wordsworth or Shelley might have done. There was a certain matter of factness in him which prevented his belief in any theory of that kind. But he does transfer himself into the rejoicing life of the animals and plants, a life which he knows is akin to his own. And this distinction is true of all his poetry of Nature. “I can mount with the bird,” he says,

Leaping airily his pyramid of leaves
And twisted boughs of some tall mountain tree,
Or like a fish breathe deep the morning air
In the misty sun-warm water.

This introduces the description of a walk of twenty-four hours through various scenes of natural beauty. It is long and elaborate the scenery he conceives round the home where he and Pauline are to live. And it is so close, and so much of it is repeated in other forms in his later poetry, that I think it is drawn direct from Nature; that it is here done of set purpose to show his hand in natural description. It begins with night, but soon leaves night for the morning and the noon. Here is a piece of it:

Morning, the rocks and valleys and old woods.
How the sun brightens in the mist, and here,
Half in the air, like creatures of the place,
Trusting the elements, living on high boughs
That sway in the wind look at the silver spray
Flung from the foam-sheet of the cataract
Amid the broken rocks! Shall we stay here
With the wild hawks? No, ere the hot noon come
Dive we down safe! See, this is our new retreat
Walled in with a sloped mound of matted shrubs,
Dark, tangled, old and green, still sloping down
To a small pool whose waters lie asleep,
Amid the trailing boughs turned water-plants:
And tall trees overarch to keep us in,
Breaking the sunbeams into emerald shafts,
And in the dreamy water one small group
Of two or three strange trees are got together
Wondering at all around

This is nerveless work, tentative, talkative, no clear expression of the whole; and as he tries to expand it further in lines we may study with interest, for the very failures of genius are interesting, he becomes even more feeble. Yet the feebleness is traversed by verses of power, like lightning flashing through a mist upon the sea. The chief thing to say about this direct, detailed work is that he got out of its manner as fast as he could. He never tried it again, but passed on to suggest the landscape by a few sharp, high-coloured words; choosing out one or two of its elements and flashing them into prominence. The rest was left to the imagination of the reader.

He is better when he comes forth from the shadowy woodland-pool into the clear air and open landscape:

Up for the glowing day, leave the old woods!
See, they part like a ruined arch: the sky!
Blue sunny air, where a great cloud floats laden
With light, like a dead whale that white birds pick,
Floating away in the sun in some north sea.
Air, air, fresh life-blood, thin and searching air,
The clear, dear breath of God that loveth us,
Where small birds reel and winds take their delight!

The last three lines are excellent, but nothing could be worse than the sensational image of the dead whale. It does not fit the thing he desires to illustrate, and it violates the sentiment of the scene he is describing, but its strangeness pleased his imagination, and he put it in without a question. Alas, in after times, he only too often, both in the poetry of nature and of the human soul, hurried into his verse illustrations which had no natural relation to the matter in hand, just because it amused him to indulge his fancy. The finished artist could not do this; he would hear, as it were, the false note, and reject it. But Browning, a natural artist, never became a perfect one. Nevertheless, as his poetry went on, he reached, by natural power, splendid description, as indeed I have fully confessed; but, on the other hand, one is never sure of him. He is never quite “inevitable.”

The attempt at deliberate natural description in Pauline, of which I have now spoken, is not renewed in Paracelsus. By the time he wrote that poem the movement and problem of the spirit of man had all but quenched his interest in natural scenery. Nature is only introduced as a background, almost a scenic background for the players, who are the passions, thoughts, and aspirations of the intellectual life of Paracelsus. It is only at the beginning of Part II. that we touch a landscape:

Over the waters in the vaporous West
The sun goes down as in a sphere of gold
Behind the arm of the city, which between;
With all the length of domes and minarets,
Athwart the splendour, black and crooked runs
Like a Turk verse along a scimitar.

That is all; nothing but an introduction. Paracelsus turns in a moment from the sight, and absorbs himself in himself, just as Browning was then doing in his own soul. Nearly two thousand lines are then written before Nature is again touched upon, and then Festus and Paracelsus are looking at the dawn; and it is worth saying how in this description Browning’s work on Nature has so greatly improved that one can scarcely believe he is the same poet who wrote the wavering descriptions of Pauline. This is close and clear:

Morn must be near.

FESTUS. Best ope the casement: see,
The night, late strewn with clouds and flying stars,
Is blank and motionless: how peaceful sleep
The tree-tops all together! Like an asp
The wind slips whispering from bough to bough.

PARACELSUS. See, morn at length. The heavy darkness seems
Diluted, grey and clear without the stars;
The shrubs bestir and rouse themselves as if
Some snake, that weighed them down all night, let go
His hold; and from the East, fuller and fuller,
Day, like a mighty river, flowing in;
But clouded, wintry, desolate and cold.

That is good, clear, and sufficient; and there the description should end. But Browning, driven by some small demon, adds to it three lines of mere observant fancy.

Yet see how that broad prickly star-shaped plant,
Half-down in the crevice, spreads its woolly leaves,
All thick and glistening with diamond dew.

What is that for? To give local colour or reality? It does neither. It is mere childish artistry. Tennyson could not have done it. He knew when to stay his hand.

The finest piece of natural description in Paracelsus is of the coming of Spring. It is full of the joy of life; it is inspired by a passionate thought, lying behind it, concerning man. It is still more inspired by his belief that God himself was eternal joy and filled the universe with rapture. Nowhere did Browning reach a greater height in his Nature poetry than in these lines, yet they are more a description, as usual, of animal life than of the beauty of the earth and sea:

Then all is still; earth is a wintry clod:
But spring-wind, like a dancing psaltress, passes
Over its breast to waken it, rare verdure
Buds tenderly upon rough banks, between
The withered tree-roots and the cracks of frost,
Like a smile striving with a wrinkled face;
The grass grows bright, the boughs are swoln with blooms
Like chrysalids impatient for the air,
The shining dorrs are busy, beetles run
Along the furrows, ants make their ado;
Above, birds fly in merry flocks, the lark
Soars up and up, shivering for very joy;
Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing-gulls
Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe
Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek
Their loves in wood and plain and God renews
His ancient rapture.

Once more, in Paracelsus, there is the lovely lyric about the flowing of the Mayne. I have driven through that gracious country of low hill and dale and wide water-meadows, where under flowered banks only a foot high the slow river winds in gentleness; and this poem is steeped in the sentiment of the scenery. But, as before, Browning quickly slides away from the beauty of inanimate nature into a record of the animals that haunt the stream. He could not get on long with mountains and rivers alone. He must people them with breathing, feeling things; anything for life!

Thus the Mayne glideth
Where my Love abideth.
Sleep’s no softer; it proceeds
On through lawns, on through meads,
On and on, whate’er befall,
Meandering and musical,
Though the niggard pasturage
Bears not on its shaven ledge
Aught but weeds and waving grasses
To view the river as it passes,
Save here and there a scanty patch
Of primroses too faint to catch
A weary bee.
And scarce it pushes
Its gentle way through strangling rushes
Where the glossy kingfisher
Flutters when noon-heats are near,
Glad the shelving banks to shun
Red and steaming in the sun,
Where the shrew-mouse with pale throat
Burrows, and the speckled stoat;
Where the quick sandpipers flit
In and out the marl and grit
That seems to breed them, brown as they:
Naught disturbs its quiet way,
Save some lazy stork that springs,
Trailing it with legs and wings,
Whom the shy fox from the hill
Rouses, creep he ne’er so still.

“My heart, they loose my heart, those simple words,” cries Paracelsus, and he was right. They tell of that which to see and love is better, wiser, than to probe and know all the problems of knowledge. But that is a truth not understood, not believed. And few there be who find it. And if Browning had found the secret of how to live more outside of his understanding than he did, or having found it, had not forgotten it, he would not perhaps have spoken more wisely for the good of man, but he would have more continuously written better poetry.

The next poem in which he may be said to touch Nature is Sordello. Strafford does not count, save for the charming song of the boat in music and moonlight, which the children sing. In Sordello, the problem of life, as in Paracelsus, is still the chief matter, but outward life, as not in Paracelsus, takes an equal place with inward life. And naturally, Nature, its changes and beauty, being outward, are more fully treated than in Paracelsus. But it is never treated for itself alone. It is made to image or reflect the sentiment of the man who sees it, or to illustrate a phase of his passion or his thought. But there is a closer grip upon it than before, a clearer definition, a greater power of concentrated expression of it, and especially, a fuller use of colour. Browning paints Nature now like a Venetian; the very shadows of objects are in colour. This new power was a kind of revelation to him, and he frequently uses it with a personal joy in its exercise. Things in Nature blaze in his poetry now and afterwards in gold, purple, the crimson of blood, in sunlit green and topaz, in radiant blue, in dyes of earthquake and eclipse. Then, when he has done his landscape thus in colour, he adds more; he places in its foreground one drop, one eye of still more flaming colour, to vivify and inflame the whole.

The main landscape of Sordello is the plain and the low pine-clad hills around Mantua; the half-circle of the deep lagoon which enarms the battlemented town; and the river Mincio, seen by Sordello when he comes out of the forest on the hill, as it enters and leaves the lagoon, and winds, a silver ribbon, through the plain. It is the landscape Vergil must have loved. A long bridge of more than a hundred arches, with towers of defence, crosses the marsh from the towered gateway of the walls to the mainland, and in the midst of the lagoon the deep river flows fresh and clear with a steady swiftness. Scarcely anywhere in North Italy is the upper sky more pure at dawn and even, and there is no view now so mystic in its desolation. Over the lagoon, and puffing from it, the mists, daily encrimsoned by sunrise and sunset, continually rise and disperse.

The character and the peculiarities of this landscape Browning has seized and enshrined in verse. But his descriptions are so arranged as to reflect certain moments of crisis in the soul of Sordello. He does not describe this striking landscape for its own sake, but for the sake of his human subject. The lines I quote below describe noon-day on the lagoon, seen from the golden woods and black pines; and the vision of the plain, city and river, suddenly opening out from the wood, symbolises the soul of Sordello opening out from solitude “into the veritable business of mankind.”

Then wide
Opened the great morass, shot every side
With flashing water through and through; a-shine,
Thick-steaming, all-alive. Whose shape divine
Quivered i’ the farthest rainbow-vapour, glanced
Athwart the flying herons? He advanced,
But warily; though Mincio leaped no more,
Each footfall burst up in the marish-floor
A diamond jet.

And then he somewhat spoils this excellent thing by a piece of detail too minute for the largeness of the impression. But how clear and how full of true sentiment it is; and how the image of Palma rainbowed in the mist, and of Sordello seeing her, fills the landscape with youthful passion!

Here is the same view in the morning, when Mincio has come down in flood and filled the marsh:

Mincio, in its place,
Laughed, a broad water, in next morning’s face,
And, where the mists broke up immense and white
I’ the steady wind, burned like a spilth of light
Out of the crashing of a million stars.

It were well to compare that brilliant piece of light with the grey water-sunset at Ferrara in the beginning of Book VI.

While eve slow sank
Down the near terrace to the farther bank,
And only one spot left from out the night
Glimmered upon the river opposite
breadth of watery heaven like a bay,
A sky-like space of water, ray for ray,
And star for star, one richness where they mixed
As this and that wing of an angel, fixed,
Tumultuary splendours folded in
To die.

As usual, Spring enchants him. The second book begins with her coming, and predicates the coming change in Sordello’s soul.

The woods were long austere with snow; at last
Pink leaflets budded on the beech, and fast
Larches, scattered through pine-tree solitudes,
Brightened, as in the slumbrous heart of the woods
Our buried year, a witch, grew young again
To placid incantations, and that stain
About were from her cauldron, green smoke blent
With those black pines.

Nor does he omit in Sordello to recall two other favourite aspects of nature, long since recorded in Pauline, the ravine and the woodland spring. Just as Turner repeated in many pictures of the same place what he had first observed in it, so Browning recalled in various poems the first impressions of his youth. He had a curious love for a ravine with overhanging trees and a thin thread of water, looping itself round rocks. It occurs in the Fireside, it is taken up in his later poems, and up such a ravine Sordello climbs among the pines of Goito:

He climbed with (June at deep) some close ravine
Mid clatter of its million pebbles sheen,
Over which, singing soft, the runnel slipped
Elate with rains.

Then, in Sordello, we come again across the fountain in the grove he draws in Pauline, now greatly improved in clearness and word-brightness a real vision. Fate has given him here a fount

Of pure loquacious pearl, the soft tree-tent
Guards, with its face of reate and sedge, nor fail
The silver globules and gold-sparkling grail
At bottom

where the impulse of the water sends up the sand in a cone a solitary loveliness of Nature that Coleridge and Tennyson have both drawn with a finer pencil than Browning. The other examples of natural description in Sordello, as well as those in Balaustion I shall reserve till I speak of those poems. As to the dramas, they are wholly employed with humanity. In them man’s soul has so overmastered Browning that they are scarcely diversified half a dozen times by any illustrations derived from Nature.

We now come, with The Ring and the Book, to a clear division in his poetry of Nature. From this time forth Nature decays in his verse. Man masters it and drives it out. In The Ring and the Book, huge as it is, Nature rarely intrudes; the human passion of the matter is so great that it swallows up all Browning’s interest. There is a little forky flashing description of the entrance to the Val d’Ema in Guido’s first statement. Caponsacchi is too intensely gathered round the tragedy to use a single illustration from Nature. The only person who does use illustrations from Nature is the only one who is by age, by his life, by the apartness of his high place, capable of sufficient quiet and contemplation to think of Nature at all. This is the Pope.

He illustrates with great vigour the way in which Guido destroyed all the home life which clung about him and himself remained dark and vile, by the burning of a nest-like hut in the Campagna, with all its vines and ivy and flowers; till nothing remains but the blackened walls of the malicious tower round which the hut had been built.

He illustrates the sudden event which, breaking in on Caponsacchi’s life, drew out of him his latent power and his inward good, by this vigorous description:

As when a thundrous midnight, with black air
That burns, rain-drops that blister, breaks a spell,
Draws out the excessive virtue of some sheathed
Shut unsuspected flower that hoards and hides
Immensity of sweetness.

And the last illustration, in which the Pope hopes that Guido’s soul may yet be saved by the suddenness of his death, is one of the finest pieces of natural description in Browning, and reads like one of his own memories:

I stood at Naples once, a night so dark
I could have scarce conjectured there was earth
Anywhere, sky or sea or world at all:
But the nights black was burst through by a blaze
Thunder struck blow on blow, earth groaned and bore,
Through her whole length of mountain visible:
There lay the city thick and plain with spires,
And, like a ghost disshrouded, white the sea.
So may the truth be flashed out by one blow,
And Guido see, one instant, and be saved.

After The Ring and the Book, poor Nature, as one of Browning’s mistresses, was somewhat neglected for a time, and he gave himself up to ugly representations of what was odd or twisted in humanity, to its smaller problems, like that contained in Fifine at the Fair, to its fantastic impulses, its strange madnesses, its basenesses, even its commonplace crimes. These subjects were redeemed by his steady effort to show that underneath these evil developments of human nature lay immortal good; and that a wise tolerance, based on this underlying godlikeness in man, was the true attitude of the soul towards the false and the stupid in mankind. This had been his attitude from the beginning. It differentiates him from Tennyson, who did not maintain that view; and at that point he is a nobler poet than Tennyson.

But he became too much absorbed in the intellectual treatment of these side-issues in human nature. And I think that he was left unprotected from this or not held back from it by his having almost given up Nature in her relation to man as a subject for his poetry. To love that great, solemn and beautiful Creature, who even when she seems most merciless retains her glory and loveliness, keeps us from thinking too much on the lower problems of humanity, on its ignobler movements; holds before us infinite grandeur, infinite beauty, infinite order, and suggests and confirms within us eternal aspiration. Those intimations of the ideal and endless perfectness which are dimmed within us by the meaner aspects of human life, or by the sordid difficulties of thought which a sensual and wealth-seeking society present to us, are restored to us by her quiet, order and beauty. When he wrote Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, and The Inn Album, Nature had ceased to awaken the poetic passion in him, and his poetry suffered from the loss. Its interest lies in the narrow realm of intellectual analysis, not in the large realm of tragic or joyous passion. He became the dissector of corrupt bodies, not the creator of living beings.

Nevertheless, in Fifine at the Fair there are several intercalated illustrations from Nature, all of which are interesting and some beautiful. The sunset over Sainte-Marie and the lie Noirmoutier, with the birds who sing to the dead, and the coming of the nightwind and the tide, is as largely wrought as the description of the mountain rill the “infant of mist and dew,” and its voyage to the sea is minute and delicate. There is also that magnificent description of a sunset which I have already quoted. It is drawn to illustrate some remote point in the argument, and is far too magnificent for the thing it illustrates. Yet how few in this long poem, how remote from Browning’s heart, are these touches of Nature.

Again, in The Inn Album there is a description of an English elm-tree, as an image of a woman who makes marriage life seem perfect, which is interesting because it is the third, and only the third, reference to English scenery in the multitude of Browning’s verses. The first is in Pauline, the second in that poem, “Oh, to be in England,” and this is the third. The woman has never ceased to gaze

On the great elm-tree in the open, posed
Placidly full in front, smooth hole, broad branch,
And leafage, one green plenitude of May.
... bosomful
Of lights and shades, murmurs and silences,
Sun-warmth, dew-coolness, squirrel, bee, bird,
High, higher, highest, till the blue proclaims
“Leave Earth, there’s nothing better till next step

This, save in one line, is not felt or expressed with any of that passion which makes what a poet says completely right.

Browning could not stay altogether in this condition, in which, moreover, his humour was also in abeyance; and in his next book, Pacchiarotto, &c., he broke away from these morbid subjects, and, with that recovery, recovered also some of his old love of Nature. The prologue to that book is poetry; and Nature (though he only describes an old stone wall in Italy covered with straying plants) is interwoven with his sorrow and his love. Then, all through the book, even in its most fantastic humour, Nature is not altogether neglected for humanity; and the poetry, which Browning seemed to have lost the power to create, has partly returned to him. That is also the case in La Saisiaz, and I have already spoken of the peculiar elements of the nature-poetry in that work. In the Dramatic Idyls, of which he was himself fond; and in Jocoseria, there is very little natural description. The subjects did not allow of it, but yet Nature sometimes glides in, and when she does, thrills the verse into a higher humanity. In Ferishtah’s Fancies, a book full of flying charm, Nature has her proper place, and in the lyrics which close the stories she is not forgotten; but still there is not the care for her which once ran like a full river of delight through his landscape of human nature. He loved, indeed, that landscape of mankind the most, the plains and hills and woods of human life; but when he watered it with the great river of Nature his best work was done. Now, as life grew to a close, that river had too much dried up in his poetry.

It was not that he had not the power to describe Nature if he cared. But he did not care. I have spoken of the invented descriptions of morn and noon and sunset in Gerard de Lairesse in the book which preceded Asolando. They have his trenchant power, words that beat out the scene like strokes on an anvil, but, curiously enough, they are quite unsuffused with human feeling; as if, having once divorced Nature from humanity, he never could bring them together again. Nor is this a mere theory. The Prologue to Asolando supports it.

That sorrowful poem, written, it seems, in the year he died (1889), reveals his position towards Nature when he had lost the power of youth to pour fire on the world. It is full of his last thinking. “The poet’s age is sad,” he says. “In youth his eye lent to everything in the natural world the colours of his own soul, the rainbow glory of imagination:

And now a flower is just a flower:
Man, bird, beast are but beast, bird, man
Simply themselves, uncinct by dower
Of dyes which, when life’s day began,
Round each in glory ran.”

“Ah! what would you have?” he says. “What is the best: things draped in colour, as by a lens, or the naked things themselves? truth ablaze, or falsehood’s fancy haze? I choose the first.”

It is an old man’s effort to make the best of age. For my part, I do not see that the things are the better for losing the colour the soul gives them. The things themselves are indifferent. But as seen by the soul, they are seen in God, and the colour and light which imagination gives them are themselves divine. Nor is their colour or light only in our imagination, but in themselves also, part of the glory and beauty of God. A flower is never only a flower, or a beast a beast. And so Browning would have said in the days when he was still a lover of Nature as well as of man, when he was still a faithful soldier in the army of imagination, a poet more than a philosopher at play. It is a sad business. He has not lost his eagerness to advance, to climb beyond the flaming walls, to find God in his heaven. He has not lost the great hopes with which he began, nor the ideals he nursed of old. He has not lost his fighting power, nor his cheerful cry that life is before him in the fulness of the world to come. The Reverie and the Epilogue to Asolando are noble statements of his courage, faith, and joy. There is nothing sad there, nothing to make us beat the breast. But there is sadness in this abandonment of the imaginative glory with which once he clothed the world of Nature; and he ought to have retained it. He would have done so had he not forgotten Nature in anatomising man.

However, he goes on with his undying effort to make the best of things, and though he has lost his rapture in Nature, he has not lost his main theory of man’s life and of the use of the universe. The end of this Prologue puts it as clearly as it was put in Paracelsus. Nothing is changed in that.

“At Asolo,” he continues, “my Asolo, when I was young, all natural objects were palpably clothed with fire. They mastered me, not I them. Terror was in their beauty. I was like Moses before the Bush that burned. I adored the splendour I saw. Then I was in danger of being content with it; of mistaking the finite for the infinite beauty. To be satisfied that was the peril. Now I see the natural world as it is, without the rainbow hues the soul bestowed upon it. Is that well? In one sense yes.

And now? The lambent flame is where?
Lost from the naked world: earth, sky,
Hill, vale, tree, flower Italia’s rare
Oer-running beauty crowds the eye
But flame? The Bush is bare.

All is distinct, naked, clear, Nature and nothing else. Have I lost anything in getting down to fact instead of to fancy? Have I shut my eyes in pain pain for disillusion? No now I know that my home is not in Nature; there is no awe and splendour in her which can keep me with her. Oh, far beyond is the true splendour, the infinite source of awe and love which transcends her:

No, for the purged ear apprehends
Earth’s import, not the eye late dazed:
The Voice said “Call my works thy friends!
At Nature dost thou shrink amazed?
God is it who transcends.”

All Browning is in that way of seeing the matter; but he forgets that he could see it in the same fashion while he still retained the imaginative outlook on the world of Nature. And the fact is that he did do so in Paracelsus, in Easter-Day, in a host of other poems. There was then no need for him to reduce to naked fact the glory with which young imagination clothed the world, in order to realise that God transcended Nature. He had conceived that truth and believed it long ago. And this explanation, placed here, only tells us that he had lost his ancient love of Nature, and it is sorrowful to understand it of him.

Finally, the main contentions of this chapter, which are drawn from a chronological view of Browning’s treatment of Nature, are perhaps worth a summary. The first is that, though the love of Nature was always less in him than his love of human nature, yet for the first half of his work it was so interwoven with his human poetry that Nature suggested to him humanity and humanity Nature. And these two, as subjects for thought and feeling, were each uplifted and impassioned, illustrated and developed, by this intercommunion. That was a true and high position. Humanity was first, Nature second in Browning’s poetry, but both were linked together in a noble marriage; and at that time he wrote his best poetry.

The second thing this chronological treatment of his Nature-poetry shows, is that his interest in human nature pushed out his love of Nature, gradually at first, but afterwards more swiftly, till Nature became almost non-existent in his poetry. With that his work sank down into intellectual or ethical exercises, in which poetry decayed.

It shows, thirdly, how the love of Nature, returning, but returning with diminished power, entered again into his love of human nature, and renewed the passion of his poetry, its singing, and its health. But reconciliations of this kind do not bring back all the ancient affection and happiness. Nature and humanity never lived together in his poetry in as vital a harmony as before, nor was the work done on them as good as it was of old. A broken marriage is not repaired by an apparent condonation. Nature and humanity, though both now dwelt in him, kept separate rooms. Their home-life was destroyed. Browning had been drawn away by a Fifine of humanity. He never succeeded in living happily again with Elvire; and while our intellectual interest in his work remained, our poetic interest in it lessened. We read it for mental and ethical entertainment, not for ideal joy.

No; if poetry is to be perfectly written; if the art is to be brought to its noblest height; if it is to continue to lift the hearts of men into the realm where perfection lives; if it is to glow, an unwearied fire, in the world; the love of Nature must be justly mingled in it with the love of humanity. The love of humanity must be first, the love of Nature second, but they must not be divorced. When they are, when the love of Nature forms the only subject, or when the love of Man forms the only subject, poetry decays and dies.