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The theory of human life which Browning conceived, and which I attempted in the last chapter to explain out of Pauline and Paracelsus, underlies the poems which have to do with the arts. Browning as the poet of Art is as fascinating a subject as Browning the poet of Nature; even more so, for he directed of set purpose a great deal of his poetry to the various arts, especially to music and painting. Nor has he neglected to write about his own art. The lover in Pauline is a poet. Paracelsus and Aprile have both touched that art. Sordello is a poet, and so are many others in the poems. Moreover, he treats continually of himself as a poet, and of the many criticisms on his work.

All through this work on the arts, the theory of which we have written appears continuously. It emerges fully in the close of Easter-Day. It is carefully wrought into poems like Abt Vogler and A Grammarian’s Funeral, in which the pursuit of grammar is conceived of as the pursuit of an art. It is introduced by the way in the midst of subjects belonging to the art of painting, as in Old Pictures in Florence and Andrea del Sarto. Finally, in those poems which represent in vivid colour and selected personalities special times and forms of art, the theory still appears, but momentarily, as a dryad might show her face in a wood to a poet passing by. I shall be obliged then to touch again and again on this theory of his in discussing Browning as the poet of the arts. This is a repetition which cannot be helped, but for which I request the pardon of my readers.

The subject of the arts, from the time when Caliban “fell to make something” to the re-birth of naturalism in Florence, from the earliest music and poetry to the latest, interested Browning profoundly; and he speaks of them, not as a critic from the outside, but out of the soul of them, as an artist. He is, for example, the only poet of the nineteenth century till we come to Rossetti, who has celebrated painting and sculpture by the art of poetry; and Rossetti did not link these arts to human life and character with as much force and penetration as Browning. Morris, when he wrote poetry, did not care to write about the other arts, their schools or history. He liked to describe in verse the beautiful things of the past, but not to argue on their how and why. Nor did he ever turn in on himself as artist, and ask how he wrote poetry or how he built up a pattern. What he did as artist was to make, and when he had made one thing to make another. He ran along like Pheidippides to his goal, without halting for one instant to consider the methods of his running. And all his life long this was his way.

Rossetti described a picture in a sonnet with admirable skill, so admirable that we say to ourselves “Give me the picture or the sonnet, not both. They blot out one another.” But to describe a picture is not to write about art. The one place where he does go down to its means and soul is in his little prose masterpiece, Hand and Soul, in which we see the path, the goal, the passion, but not the power of art. But he never, in thought, got, like Browning, to the bottom-joy of it. He does not seem to see, as clearly as Browning saw, that the source of all art was love; and that the expression of love in beautiful form was or ought to be accomplished with that exulting joy which is the natural child of self-forgetfulness. This story of Rossetti’s was in prose. In poetry, Rossetti, save in description from the outside, left art alone; and Browning’s special work on art, and particularly his poetic studies of it, are isolated in English poetry, and separate him from other poets.

I cannot wish that he had thought less and written less about other arts than poetry. But I do wish he had given more time and trouble to his own art, that we might have had clearer and lovelier poetry. Perhaps, if he had developed himself with more care as an artist in his own art, he would not have troubled himself or his art by so much devotion to abstract thinking and intellectual analysis. A strange preference also for naked facts sometimes beset him, as if men wanted these from a poet. It was as if some scientific demon entered into him for a time and turned poetry out, till Browning got weary of his guest and threw him out of the window. These reversions to some far off Browning in the past, who was deceived into thinking the intellect the king of life, enfeebled and sometimes destroyed the artist in him; and though he escaped for the best part of his poetry from this position, it was not seldom in his later years as a brand plucked from the burning. Moreover, he recognised this tendency in himself; and protested against it, sometimes humorously, sometimes seriously. At least so I read what he means in a number of poems, when he turns, after an over-wrought piece of analysis, upon himself, and bursts out of his cobwebs into a solution of the question by passion and imagination. Nevertheless the charm of this merely intellectual play pulled at him continually, and as he could always embroider it with fancy it seemed to him close to imagination; and this belief grew upon him as he got farther away from the warmth and natural truth of youth. It is the melancholy tendency of some artists, as they feel the weakness of decay, to become scientific; and a fatal temptation it is. There is one poem of his in which he puts the whole matter clearly and happily, with a curious and suggestive title, “Transcendentalism: A Poem in Twelve Books.”

He speaks to a young poet who will give to men “naked thought, good, true, treasurable stuff, solid matter, without imaginative imagery, without emotion.”

Thought’s what they mean by verse, and seek in verse.
Boys seek for images and melody,
Men must have reason so, you aim at men.

It is “quite otherwise,” Browning tells him, and he illustrates the matter by a story.

Jacob Boehme did not care for plants. All he cared for was his mysticism. But one day, as if the magic of poetry had slipped into his soul, he heard all the plants talking, and talking to him; and behold, he loved them and knew what they meant. Imagination had done more for him than all his metaphysics. So we give up our days to collating theory with theory, criticising, philosophising, till, one morning, we wake “and find life’s summer past.”

What remedy? What hope? Why, a brace of rhymes! And then, in life, that miracle takes place which John of Halberstadt did by his magic. We feel like a child; the world is new; every bit of life is run over and enchanted by the wild rose.

And in there breaks the sudden rose herself, Over us, under, round us every side, Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs And musty volumes, Boehme’s book and all Buries us with a glory, young once more, Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.

So come, the harp back to your heart again!

I return, after this introduction, to Browning’s doctrine of life as it is connected with the arts. It appears with great clearness in Easter-Day. He tells of an experience he had when, one night, musing on life, and wondering how it would be with him were he to die and be judged in a moment, he walked on the wild common outside the little Dissenting Chapel he had previously visited on Christmas-Eve and thought of the Judgment. And Common-sense said: “You have done your best; do not be dismayed; you will only be surprised, and when the shock is over you will smile at your fear.” And as he thought thus the whole sky became a sea of fire. A fierce and vindictive scribble of red quick flame ran across it, and the universe was burned away. “And I knew,” thought Browning, “now that Judgment had come, that I had chosen this world, its beauty, its knowledge, its good that, though I often looked above, yet to renounce utterly the beauty of this earth and man was too hard for me.” And a voice came: “Eternity is here, and thou art judged.” And then Christ stood before him and said: “Thou hast preferred the finite when the infinite was in thy power. Earthly joys were palpable and tainted. The heavenly joys flitted before thee, faint, and rare, and taintless. Thou hast chosen those of this world. They are thine.”

“O rapture! is this the Judgment? Earth’s exquisite treasures of wonder and delight for me!”

“So soon made happy,” said the voice. “The loveliness of earth is but like one rose flung from the Eden whence thy choice has excluded thee. The wonders of earth are but the tapestry of the ante-chamber in the royal house thou hast abandoned.

All partial beauty was a pledge
Of beauty in its plenitude:
But since the pledge sufficed thy mood,
Retain it! plenitude be theirs
Who looked above!

“O sharp despair! but since the joys of earth fail me, I take art. Art gives worth to nature; it stamps it with man. I’ll take the Greek sculpture, the perfect painting of Italy that world is mine!”

“Then obtain it,” said the voice: “the one abstract form, the one face with its one look all they could manage. Shall I, the illimitable beauty, be judged by these single forms? What of that perfection in their souls these artists were conscious of, inconceivably exceeding all they did? What of their failure which told them an illimitable beauty was before them? What of Michael Angelo now, who did not choose the world’s success or earth’s perfection, and who now is on the breast of the Divine? All the beauty of art is but furniture for life’s first stage. Take it then. But there are those, my saints, who were not content, like thee, with earth’s scrap of beauty, but desired the whole. They are now filled with it. Take thy one jewel of beauty on the beach; lose all I had for thee in the boundless ocean.”

“Then I take mind; earth’s knowledge carries me beyond the finite. Through circling sciences, philosophies and histories I will spin with rapture; and if these fail to inspire, I will fly to verse, and in its dew and fire break the chain which binds me to the earth; Nay, answer me not, I know what Thou wilt say: What is highest in knowledge, even those fine intuitions which lead the finite into the infinite, and which are best put in noble verse, are but gleams of a light beyond them, sparks from the sum of the whole. I give that world up also, and I take Love. All I ask is leave to love.”

“Ah,” said the voice, “is this thy final choice? Love is the best; ’tis somewhat late. Yet all the power and beauty, nature and art and knowledge of this earth were only worth because of love. Through them infinite love called to thee; and even now thou clingest to earth’s love as all. It is precious, but it exists to bear thee beyond the love of earth into the boundless love of God in me.” At last, beaten to his last fortress, all broken down, he cries:

Thou Love of God! Or let me die,
Or grant what shall seem heaven almost.
Let me not know that all is lost,
Though lost it be leave me not tied
To this despair this corpse-like bride!
Let that old life seem mine no more
With limitation as before,
With darkness, hunger, toil, distress:
Be all the earth a wilderness!
Only let me go on, go on,
Still hoping ever and anon
To reach one eve the Better Land!

This is put more strongly, as in the line: “Be all the earth a wilderness!” than Browning himself would have put it. But he is in the passion of the man who speaks, and heightens the main truth into an extreme. But the theory is there, and it is especially applied to the love of beauty and therefore to the arts. The illustrations are taken from music and painting, from sculpture and poetry. Only in dwelling too exclusively, as perhaps the situation demands, on the renunciation of this world’s successes, he has left out that part of his theory which demands that we should, accepting our limits, work within them for the love of man, but learn from their pressure and pain to transcend them always in the desire of infinite perfection. In Rabbi Ben Ezra, a masterpiece of argumentative and imaginative passion such a poem as only Browning could have written, who, more than other poets, equalised, when most inspired, reasoning, emotions and intuitions into one material for poetry he applies this view of his to the whole of man’s life here and in the world to come, when the Rabbi in the quiet of old age considers what his life has been, and how God has wrought him through it for eternity. But I leave that poem, which has nothing to do with art, for Abt Vogler, which is dedicated to music.

“When Solomon pronounced the Name of God, all the spirits, good and bad, assembled to do his will and build his palace. And when I, Abt Vogler, touched the keys, I called the Spirits of Sound to me, and they have built my palace of music; and to inhabit it all the Great Dead came back, till in the vision I made a perfect music. Nay, for a moment, I touched in it the infinite perfection; but now it is gone; I cannot bring it back. Had I painted it, had I written it, I might have explained it. But in music, out of the sounds something emerges which is above the sounds, and that ineffable thing I touched and lost. I took the well-known sounds of earth, and out of them came a fourth sound, nay, not a sound but a star. This was a flash of God’s will which opened the Eternal to me for a moment; and I shall find it again in the eternal life. Therefore, from the achievement of earth and the failure of it, I turn to God, and in him I see that every image, thought, impulse, and dream of knowledge or of beauty which, coming whence we know not, flit before us in human life, breathe for a moment, and then depart; which, like my music, build a sudden palace in imagination; which abide for an instant and dissolve, but which memory and hope retain as a ground of aspiration are not lost to us though they seem to die in their immediate passage. Their music has its home in the Will of God and we shall find them completed there.

All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by-and-by.

Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:
I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.
Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,
Sliding by semitones, till I sink to the minor, yes,
And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,
The C Major of this life: so, now I will try to sleep.”

With that he returns to human life, content to labour in its limits the common chord is his. But he has been where he shall be, and he is not likely to be satisfied with the C major of life. This, in Browning’s thought, is the true comfort and strength of the life of the artist, to whom these fallings from us, vanishings, these transient visits of the infinite Divine, like swallows that pass in full flight, are more common than to other men. They tell him of the unspeakable beauty; they let loose his spirit to fly into the third heaven.

So much for the theory in this poem. As to the artist and his art in it, that is quite a different matter; and as there are few of Browning’s poems which reach a higher level than this both in form, thought, and spiritual passion, it may be worth while, for once, to examine a poem of his at large.

Browning’s imagination conceived in a moment the musician’s experience from end to end; and the form of the experience arose along with the conception. He saw Abt Vogler in the silent church, playing to himself before the golden towers of the organ, and slipping with sudden surprise into a strain which is less his than God’s. He saw the vision which accompanied the music, and the man’s heart set face to face with the palace of music he had built. He saw him live in it and then pass to heaven with it and lose it. And he saw the close of the experience, with all its scenery in the church and in Abt Vogler’s heart, at the same time, in one vision. In this unconscious shaping of his thought into a human incident, with its soul and scenery, is the imagination creating, like a god, a thing unknown, unseen before.

Having thus shaped the form, the imagination passed on to make the ornament. It creates that far-off image of Solomon and his spirits building their palace for the Queen of Sheba which exalts the whole conception and enlarges the reader’s imagination through all the legends of the great King and then it makes, for fresh adornment, the splendid piling up of the sounds into walls of gold, pinnacles, splendours and meteor moons; and lastly, with upward sweeping of its wings, bids the sky to fall in love with the glory of the palace, and the mighty forms of the noble Dead to walk in it. This is the imagination at play with its conception, adorning, glorifying, heightening the full impression, but keeping every imaged ornament misty, impalpable, as in a dream for so the conception demanded.

And then, to fill the conception with the spirit of humanity, the personal passion of the poet rises and falls through the description, as the music rises and falls. We feel his breast beating against ours; till the time comes when, like a sudden change in a great song, his emotion changes into ecstasy in the outburst of the 9th verse:

Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?

It almost brings tears into the eyes. This is art-creation this is what imagination, intense emotion, and individuality have made of the material of thought poetry, not prose.

Even at the close, the conception, the imagination, and the personal passion keep their art. The rush upwards of the imaginative feeling dies slowly away; it is as evanescent as the Vision of the Palace, but it dies into another picture of humanity which even more deeply engages the human heart. Browning sees the organ-loft now silent and dark, and the silent figure in it, alone and bowed over the keys. The church is still, but aware of what has been. The golden pipes of the organ are lost in the twilight and the music is over all the double vision of the third heaven into which he has been caught has vanished away. The form of the thing rightly fits the idea. Then, when the form is shaped, the poet fills it with the deep emotion of the musician’s soul, and then with his own emotion; and close as the air to the earth are the sorrow and exultation of Abt Vogler and Browning to the human heart sorrow for the vanishing and the failure, exultant joy because what has been is but an image of the infinite beauty they will have in God. In the joy they do not sorrow for the failure. It is nothing but an omen of success. Their soul, greater than the vision, takes up common life with patience and silent hope. We hear them sigh and strike the chord of C.

This is lyric imagination at work in lyric poetry. There are two kinds of lyrics among many others. One is where the strong emotion of the poet, fusing all his materials into one creation, comes to a height and then breaks off suddenly. It is like a thunderstorm, which, doubling and redoubling its flash and roar, ends in the zenith with the brightest flash and loudest clang of thunder. There is another kind. It is when the storm of emotion reaches, like the first, its climax, but does not end with it. The lyric passion dies slowly away from the zenith to the horizon, and ends in quietude and beauty, attended by soft colour and gentle sounds; like the thunderstorm which faints with the sunset and gathers its clouds to be adorned with beauty. This lyric of Browning’s is a noble example of the second type.

I take another poem, the Grammarian’s Funeral, to illustrate his art. The main matter of thought in it is the same as that of Abt Vogler, with the variation that the central figure is not a musician but a grammarian; that what he pursued was critical knowledge, not beauty, and that he is not a modern, like Abt Vogler, but one of the Renaissance folk, and seized, as men were seized then, with that insatiable curiosity which characterised the outbreak of the New Learning. The matter of thought in it is of less interest to us than the poetic creation wrought out of it, or than the art with which it is done. We see the form into which the imaginative conception is thrown the group of sorrowing students carrying their master’s corpse to the high platform of the mountain, singing what he was, in admiration and honour and delight that he had mastered life and won eternity; a conception full of humanity, as full of the life of the dead master’s soul as of the students’ enthusiasm. This thrills us into creation, with the poet, as we read. Then the imagination which has made the conception into form adorns it. It creates the plain, the encircling mountains, one cloudy peak higher than the rest; as we mount we look on the plain below; we reach the city on the hill, pass it, and climb the hill-top; there are all the high-flying birds, the meteors, the lightnings, the thickest dew. And we lay our dead on the peak, above the plain. This is the scenery, the imaginative ornament, and all through it we are made to hear the chant of the students; and so lifting is the melody of the verse we seem to taste the air, fresher and fresher as we climb. Then, finally, into the midst of this flows for us the eager intensity of the scholar. Dead as he is, we feel him to be alive; never resting, pushing on incessantly, beating failure beneath his feet, making it the step for further search for the infinite, resolute to live in the dull limits of the present work, but never content save in waiting for that eternity which will fulfil the failure of earth; which, missing earth’s success, throws itself on God, dying to gain the highest. This is the passion of the poem, and Browning is in it like a fire. It was his own, his very life. He pours it into the students who rejoice in the death of their master, and he gives it to us as we read the poem. And then, because conception, imagination, and intensity of thought and emotion all here work together, as in Abt Vogler, the melody of the poem is lovely, save in one verse which ought to be out of the poem. As to the conclusion, it is priceless. Such a conclusion can only emerge when all that precedes it finely contains it, and I have often thought that it pictures Browning himself. I wish he had been buried on a mountain top, all Italy below him.

Well, here’s the platform, here’s the proper place:
Hail to your purlieus,
All ye high-flyers of the feathered race,
Swallows and curlews!
Here’s the top-peak; the multitude below
Live, for they can, there:
This man decided not to Live but Know
Bury this man there?

Here here’s his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
Lightenings are loosened.
Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm,
Peace let the dew send!
Lofty designs must close in like effects:
Loftily lying,
Leave him still loftier than the world suspects,
Living and dying.

This is the artist at work, and I doubt whether all the laborious prose written, in history and criticism, on the revival of learning, will ever express better than this short poem the inexhaustible thirst of the Renaissance in its pursuit of knowledge, or the enthusiasm of the pupils of a New Scholar for his desperate strife to know in a short life the very centre of the Universe.

Another poem on the arts which is mixed up with Browning’s theory of life is Andrea del Sarto. Into it the theory slips, like an uninvited guest into a dinner-party of whom it is felt that he has some relation to some one of the guests, but for whom no cover is laid. The faulty and broken life of Andrea, in its contrast with his flawless drawing, has been a favourite subject with poets. Alfred de Musset and others have dramatised it, and it seems strange that none of our soul-wrecking and vivisecting novelists have taken it up for their amusement. Browning has not left out a single point of the subject. The only criticism I should make of this admirable poem is that, when we come to the end, we dislike the woman and despise the man more than we pity either of them; and in tragic art-work of a fine quality, pity for human nature with a far-off tenderness in it should remain as the most lasting impression. All the greater artists, even while they went to the bottom of sorrow and wickedness, have done this wise and beautiful thing, and Browning rarely omits it.

The first art-matter in the poem is Browning’s sketch of the sudden genesis of a picture. Andrea is sitting with his wife on the window-seat looking out to Fiesole. As he talks she smiles a weary, lovely, autumn smile, and, born in that instant and of her smile, he sees his picture, knows its atmosphere, realises its tone of colour, feels its prevailing sentiment. How he will execute it is another question, and depends on other things; but no better sketch could be given of the sudden spiritual fashion in which great pictures are generated. Here are the lines, and they also strike the keynote of Andrea’s soul that to which his life has brought him.

You smile? why, there’s my picture ready made,
There’s what we painters call our harmony!
A common greyness silvers everything,
All in a twilight, you and I alike ,
You at the point of your first pride in me
(That’s gone, you know), but I, at every point;
My youth, my hope, my art, being all toned down
To yonder sober pleasant Fiesole.
There’s the bell clinking from the chapel-top;
That length of convent-wall across the way
Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside;
The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease,
And autumn grows, autumn in everything.
Eh? the whole seems to fall into a shape
As if I saw alike my work and self
And all that I was born to be and do,
A twilight piece. Love, we are in God’s hand.

In God’s hand? Yes, but why being free are we so fettered? And here slips in the unbidden guest of the theory. Andrea has chosen earthly love; Lucrezia is all in all; and he has reached absolute perfection in drawing

I do what many dream of, all their lives.

He can reach out beyond himself no more. He has got the earth, lost the heaven. He makes no error, and has, therefore, no impassioned desire which, flaming through the faulty picture, makes it greater art than his faultless work. “The soul is gone from me, that vext, suddenly-impassioned, upward-rushing thing, with its play, insight, broken sorrows, sudden joys, pursuing, uncontented life. These men reach a heaven shut out from me, though they cannot draw like me. No praise or blame affects me. I know my handiwork is perfect. But there burns a truer light of God in them. Lucrezia, I am judged.”

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse

“Here,” he says, “is a piece of Rafael. The arm is out of drawing, and I could make it right. But the passion, the soul of the thing is not in me. Had you, my love, but urged me upward, to glory and God, I might have been uncontent; I might have done it for you. No,” and again he sweeps round on himself, out of his excuses, “perhaps not, ’incentives come from the soul’s self’; and mine is gone. I’ve chosen the love of you, Lucrezia, earth’s love, and I cannot pass beyond my faultless drawing into the strife to paint those divine imaginations the soul conceives.”

That is the meaning of Browning. The faultless, almost mechanical art, the art which might be born of an adulterous connection between science and art, is of little value to men. Not in the flawless painter is true art found, but in those who painted inadequately, yet whose pictures breathe

Infinite passion and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

In this incessant strife to create new worlds, and in their creation, which, always ending in partial failure, forces fresh effort, lies, Browning might have said, the excuse for God having deliberately made us defective. Had we been made good, had we no strife with evil; had we the power to embody at once the beauty we are capable of seeing; could we have laid our hand on truth, and grasped her without the desperate struggle we have to win one fruit from her tree; had we had no strong crying and tears, no agony against wrong, against our own passions and their work, against false views of things we might have been angels; but we should not have had humanity and all its wild history, and all its work; we should not have had that which, for all I know, may be unique in the universe; no, nor any of the great results of the battle and its misery. Had it not been for the defectiveness, the sin and pain, we should have had nothing of the interest of the long evolution of science, law and government, of the charm of discovery, of pursuit, of the slow upbuilding of moral right, of the vast variety of philosophy. Above all, we should have had none of the great art men love so well, no Odyssey, Divine Comedy no Hamlet, no Oedipus, no Handel, no Beethoven, no painting or sculpture where the love and sorrow of the soul breathe in canvas, fresco, marble and bronze, no, nor any of the great and loving lives who suffered and overcame, from Christ to the poor woman who dies for love in a London lane. All these are made through the struggle and the sorrow. We should not have had, I repeat, humanity; and provided no soul perishes for ever but lives to find union with undying love, the game, with all its terrible sorrow, pays for the candle. We may find out, some day, that the existence and work of humanity, crucified as it has been, are of untold interest and use to the universe which things the angels desire to look into. If Browning had listened to that view, he would, I think, have accepted it.

Old Pictures in Florence touches another side of his theory. In itself, it is one of Brownings half-humorous poems; a pleasantly-composed piece, glancing here and glancing there, as a mans mind does when leaning over a hill-villas parapet on a sunny morning in Florence. I have elsewhere quoted its beginning. It is a fine example of his nature-poetry: it creates the scenery and atmosphere of the poem; and the four lines with which the fourth verse closes sketch what Browning thought to be one of his poetic gifts

And mark through the winter afternoons.
By a gift God grants me now and then,
In the mild decline of those suns like moons.
Who walked in Florence, besides her men.

This, then, is a poem of many moods, beginning with Giotto’s Tower; then wondering why Giotto did not tell the poet who loved him so much that one of his pictures was lying hidden in a shop where some one else picked it up; then, thinking of all Giotto’s followers, whose ghosts he imagines are wandering through Florence, sorrowing for the decay of their pictures.

“But at least they have escaped, and have their holiday in heaven, and do not care one straw for our praise or blame. They did their work, they and the great masters. We call them old Masters, but they were new in their time; their old Masters were the Greeks. They broke away from the Greeks and revolutionised art into a new life. In our turn we must break away from them.”

And now glides in the theory. “When Greek art reached its perfection, the limbs which infer the soul, and enough of the soul to inform the limbs, were faultlessly represented. Men said the best had been done, and aspiration and growth in art ceased. Content with what had been done, men imitated, but did not create. But man cannot remain without change in a past perfection; for then he remains in a kind of death. Even with failure, with faulty work, he desires to make new things, and in making, to be alive and feel his life. Therefore Giotto and the rest began to create a fresh aspect of humanity, which, however imperfect in form, would suggest an infinite perfection. The Greek perfection ties us down to earth, to a few forms, and the sooner, if it forbid us to go on, we reject its ideal as the only one, the better for art and for mankind.

Tis a life-long toil till our lump be leaven
The better! What’s come to perfection perishes.
Things learned on earth, we shall practise in heaven:
Works done least rapidly, Art most cherishes.

“The great Campanile is still unfinished;” so he shapes his thoughts into his scenery. Shall man be satisfied in art with the crystallised joy of Apollo, or the petrified grief of Niobe, when there are a million more expressions of joy and grief to render? In that way felt Giotto and his crew. “We will paint the whole of man,” they cried, “paint his new hopes and joys and pains, and never pause, because we shall never quite succeed. We will paint the soul in all its infinite variety bring the invisible full into play. Of course we shall miss perfection who can get side by side with infinitude? but we shall grow out of the dead perfection of the past, and live and move, and have our being.

Let the visible go to the dogs what matters?”

Thus art began again. Its spring-tide came, dim and dewy; and the world rejoiced.

And that is what has happened again and again in the history of art. Browning has painted a universal truth. It was that which took place when Wordsworth, throwing away the traditions of a century and all the finished perfection, as men thought, of the Augustan age, determined to write of man as man, whatever the issue; to live with the infinite variety of human nature, and in its natural simplicities. What we shall see, he thought, may be faulty, common, unideal, imperfect. What we shall write will not have the conventional perfection of Pope and Gray, which all the cultivated world admires, and in which it rests content growth and movement dead but it will be true, natural, alive, running onwards to a far-off goal. And we who write our loins are accinct, our lights burning, as men waiting for the revelation of the Bridegroom. Wordsworth brought back the soul to Poetry. She made her failures, but she was alive. Spring was blossoming around her with dews and living airs, and the infinite opened before her.

So, too, it was when Turner recreated landscape art. There was the perfect Claudesque landscape, with all its parts arranged, its colours chosen, the composition balanced, the tree here, the river there, the figures in the foreground, the accurate distribution and gradation of the masses of light and shade. “There,” the critics said, “we have had perfection. Let us rest in that.” And all growth in landscape-art ceased. Then came Turner, who, when he had followed the old for a time and got its good, broke away from it, as if in laughter. “What,” he felt, “the infinite of nature is before me; inconceivable change and variety in earth, and sky, and sea and shall I be tied down to one form of painting landscape, one arrangement of artistic properties? Let the old perfection go.” And we had our revolution in landscape art: nothing, perhaps, so faultless as Claude’s composition, but life, love of nature, and an illimitable range; incessant change, movement, and aspiration which have never since allowed the landscape artist to think that he has attained.

On another side of the art of painting, Rossetti, Millais, Hunt arose; and they said, “We will paint men as they actually were in the past, in the moments of their passion, and with their emotions on their faces, and with the scenery around them as it was; and whatever background of nature there was behind them, it shall be painted direct from the very work of nature herself, and in her very colours. In doing this our range will become infinite. No doubt we shall fail. We cannot grasp the whole of nature and humanity, but we shall be in their life: aspiring, alive, and winning more and more of truth.” And the world of art howled at them, as the world of criticism howled at Wordsworth. But a new life and joy began to move in painting. Its winter was over, its spring had begun, its summer was imagined. Their drawing was faulty; their colour was called crude; they seemed to know little or nothing of composition; but the Spirit of Life was in them, and their faults were worth more than the best successes of the school that followed Rafael; for their faults proved that passion, aspiration and originality were again alive:

Give these, I exhort you, their guerdon and glory
For daring so much, before they well did it.

If ever the artist should say to himself, “What I desire has been attained: I can but imitate or follow it”; or if the people who care for any art should think, “The best has been reached; let us be content to rest in that perfection”; the death of art has come.

The next poem belonging to this subject is the second part of Pippa Passes. What concerns us here is that Jules, the French artist, loves Phene; and on his return from his marriage pours out his soul to her concerning his art.

In his work, in his pursuit of beauty through his aspiration to the old Greek ideal, he has found his full content his heaven upon earth. But now, living love of a woman has stolen in. How can he now, he asks, pursue that old ideal when he has the real? how carve Tydeus, with her about the room? He is disturbed, thrilled, uncontent A new ideal rises. How can he now

Bid each conception stand while, trait by trait,
My hand transfers its linéaments to stone?
Will my mere fancies live near you, their truth
The live truth, passing and repassing me,
Sitting beside me?

Before he had seen her, all the varied stuff of Nature, every material in her workshop, tended to one form of beauty, to the human archetype. But now she, Phene, represents the archetype; and though Browning does not express this, we feel that if Jules continue in that opinion, his art will die. Then, carried away by his enthusiasm for his art, he passes, through a statement that nature suggests in all her doings man and his life and his beauty a statement Browning himself makes in Paracelsus to a description of the capabilities of various stuffs in nature under the sculptor’s hand, and especially of marble as having in it the capabilities of all the other stuffs and also something more a living spirit in itself which aids the sculptor and even does some of his work.

This is a subtle thought peculiarly characteristic of Browning’s thinking about painting, music, poetry, or sculpture. I believe he felt, and if he did not, it is still true, that the vehicle of any art brought something out of itself into the work of the artist. Abt Vogler feels this as he plays on the instrument he made. Any musician who plays on two instruments knows that the distinct instrument does distinct work, and loves each instrument for its own spirit; because each makes his art, expressed in it, different from his art expressed in another. Even the same art-creation is different in two instruments: the vehicle does its own part of the work. Any painter will say the same, according as he works in fresco or on canvas, in water-colour or in oil. Even a material like charcoal makes him work the same conception in a different way. I will quote the passage; it goes to the root of the matter; and whenever I read it, I seem to hear a well-known sculptor as he talked one night to me of the spiritual way in which marble, so soft and yet so firm, answered like living material to his tool, sending flame into it, and then seemed, as with a voice, to welcome the emotion which, flowing from him through the chisel, passed into the stone.

But of the stuffs one can be master of,
How I divined their capabilities!
From the soft-rinded smoothening facile chalk
That yields your outline to the air’s embrace,
Half-softened by a halo’s pearly gloom:
Down to the crisp imperious steel, so sure
To cut its one confided thought clean out
Of all the world. But marble! ’neath my tools
More pliable than jelly as it were
Some clear primordial creature dug from depths
In the earth’s heart, where itself breeds itself.
And whence all baser substance may be worked;
Refine it off to air, you may condense it
Down to the diamond; is not metal there,
When o’er the sudden speck my chisel trips?
Not flesh, as flake off flake I scale, approach,
Lay bare those bluish veins of blood asleep?
Lurks flame in no strange windings where, surprised
By the swift implement sent home at once,
Flushes and glowings radiate and hover
About its track?

But Jules finds that Phene, whom he has been deceived into believing an intelligence equal to his own, does not understand one word he has said, is nothing but an uneducated girl; and his dream of perfection in the marriage of Art and Love vanishes away, and with the deception the aims and hopes of his art as it has been. And Browning makes this happen of set purpose, in order that, having lost satisfaction in his art-ideal, and then his satisfaction in that ideal realised in a woman having failed in Art and Love he may pass on into a higher aim, with a higher conception, both of art and love, and make a new world, in the woman and in the art. He is about to accept the failure, to take only to revenge on his deceivers, when Pippa sings as she is passing, and the song touches him into finer issues of thought. He sees that Phene’s soul is, like a butterfly, half-loosed from its chrysalis, and ready for flight. The sight and song awake a truer love, for as yet he has loved Phene only through his art. Now he is impassioned with pity for a human soul, and his first new sculpture will be the creation of her soul.

Shall to produce form out of unshaped stuff
Be Art and further, to evoke a soul
From form be nothing? This new soul is mine!

At last, he is borne into self-forgetfulness by love, and finds a man’s salvation. And in that loss of self he drinks of the deep fountain of art. Aprile found that out. Sordello dies as he discovers it, and Jules, the moment he has touched its waters with his lip, sees a new realm of art arise, and loves it with such joy that he knows he will have power to dwell in its heart, and create from its joy.

One may do whate’er one likes
In Art; the only thing is, to make sure
That one does like it which takes pains to know.

He breaks all his models up. They are paltry, dead things belonging to a dead past. “I begin,” he cries, “art afresh, in a fresh world,

Some unsuspected isle in far-off seas.”

The ideal that fails means the birth of a new ideal. The very centre of Browning as an artist is there:

Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake!

Sordello is another example of his theory, of a different type from Aprile, or that poet in Pauline who gave Browning the sketch from which Sordello was conceived. But Browning, who, as I have said, repeated his theory, never repeated his examples: and Sordello is not only clearly varied from Aprile and the person in Pauline, but the variations themselves are inventively varied. The complex temperament of Sordello incessantly alters its form, not only as he grows from youth to manhood, but as circumstances meet him. They give him a shock, as a slight blow does to a kaleidoscope, and the whole pattern of his mind changes. But as with the bits of coloured glass in the kaleidoscope, the elements of Bordello’s mind remain the same. It is only towards the end of his career, on the forcible introduction into his life of new elements from the outward world, that his character radically changes, and his soul is born. He wins that which he has been without from the beginning. He wins, as we should say, a heart. He not only begins to love Palma otherwise than in his dreams, but with that love the love of man arises for, in characters like Sordello, personal love, once really stirred, is sure to expand beyond itself and then, following on the love of man, conscience is quickened into life, and for the first time recognises itself and its duties. In this new light of love and conscience, directed towards humanity, he looks back on his life as an artist, or rather, Browning means us to do so; and we understand that he has done nothing worthy in his art; and that even his gift of imagination has been without the fire of true passion. His aspirations, his phantasies, his songs, done only for his own sake, have been cold, and left the world cold.

He has aspired to a life in the realm of pure imagination, to winning by imagination alone all knowledge and all love, and the power over men which flows from these. He is, in this aspiration, Paracelsus and Aprile in one. But he has neither the sincerity of Paracelsus nor the passion of Aprile. He lives in himself alone, beyond the world of experience, and only not conscious of those barriers which limit our life on which Browning dwells so much, because he does not bring his aspirations or his imaginative work to the test by shaping them outside of himself. He fails, that is, to create anything which will please or endure; fails in the first aim, the first duty of an artist. He comes again and again to the verge of creating something which may give delight to men, but only once succeeds, when by chance, in a moment of excited impulse, caused partly by his own vanity, and partly by the waves of humanity at Palma’s Court of Love beating on his soul, he breaks for a passing hour into the song which conquers Eglamor. When, at the end, he does try to shape himself without for the sake of men he is too late for this life. He dies of the long struggle, of the revelation of his failure and the reasons of it, of the supreme light which falls on his wasted life; and yet not wasted, since even in death he has found his soul and all it means. His imagination, formerly only intellectual, has become emotional as well; he loves mankind, and sacrifices fame, power, and knowledge to its welfare. He no longer thinks to avoid, by living only in himself, the baffling limitations which inevitably trouble human life; but now desires, working within these limits, to fix his eyes on the ineffable Love; failing but making every failure a ladder on which to climb to higher things. This the true way of life he finds out as he dies. To have that spirit, and to work in it, is the very life of art. To pass for ever out of and beyond one’s self is to the artist the lesson of Bordello’s story.

It is hardly learnt. The self in Sordello, the self of imagination unwarned by love of men, is driven out of the artist with strange miseries, battles and despairs, and these Browning describes with such inventiveness that at the last one is inclined to say, with all the pitiful irony of Christ, “This kind goeth not forth but with prayer and fasting.”

The position in the poem is at root the same as that in Tennyson’s Palace of Art. These two poets found, about the same time, the same idea, and, independently, shaped it into poems. Tennyson put it into the form of a vision, the defect of which was that it was too far removed from common experience. Browning put it into the story of a man’s life. Tennyson expressed it with extraordinary clearness, simplicity, and with a wealth of lovely ornament, so rich that it somewhat overwhelmed the main lines of his conception. Browning expressed it with extraordinary complexity, subtlety, and obscurity of diction. But when we take the trouble of getting to the bottom of Sordello, we find ourselves where we do not find ourselves in The Palace of Art we find ourselves in close touch and friendship with a man, living with him, sympathising with him, pitying him, blessing him, angry and delighted with him, amazingly interested in his labyrinthine way of thinking and feeling; we follow with keen interest his education, we see a soul in progress; we wonder what he will do next, what strange turn we shall come to in his mind, what new effort he will make to realise himself; and, loving him right through from his childhood to his death, we are quite satisfied when he dies. At the back of this, and complicating it still more but, when we arrive at seeing it clearly, increasing the interest of the poem is a great to-and-fro of humanity at a time when humanity was alive and keen and full of attempting; when men were savagely original, when life was lived to its last drop, and when a new world was dawning. Of all this outside humanity there is not a trace in Tennyson, and Browning could not have got on without it. Of course, it made his poetry difficult. We cannot get excellences without their attendant defects. We have a great deal to forgive in Sordello. But for the sake of the vivid humanity we forgive it all.

Sordello begins as a boy, living alone in a castle near Mantua, built in a gorge of the low hills, and the description of the scenery of the castle, without and within, is one example of the fine ornament of which Sordello is so full. There, this rich and fertile nature lives, fit to receive delight at every sense, fit to shape what is received into imaginative pictures within, but not without; content with the contemplation of his own imaginings. At first it is Nature from whom Sordello receives impressions, and he amuses himself with the fancies he draws from her. But he never shapes his emotion into actual song. Then tired of Nature, he dreams himself into the skin and soul of all the great men of whom he has read. He becomes them in himself, as Pauline’s lover has done before him; but one by one they fade into unreality for he knows nothing of men and the last projection of himself into Apollo, the Lord of Poetry, is the most unreal of them all: at which fantasy all the woods and streams and sunshine round Goito are infinitely amused. Thus, when he wants sympathy, he does not go down to Mantua and make song for the crowd of men; he invents in dreams a host of sympathisers, all of whom are but himself in other forms. Even when he aims at perfection, and, making himself Apollo, longs for a Daphne to double his life, his soul is still such stuff as dreams are made of, till he wakes one morning to ask himself: “When will this dream be truth?”

This is the artist’s temperament in youth when he is not possessed of the greater qualities of genius his imaginative visions, his aspirations, his pride in apartness from men, his self-contentment, his sloth, the presence in him of barren imagination, the absence from it of the spiritual, nothing in him which as yet desires, through the sorrow and strife of life, God’s infinitude, or man’s love; a natural life indeed, forgiveable, gay, sportive, dowered with happy self-love, good to pass through and enjoy, but better to leave behind. But Sordello will not become the actual artist till he lose his self-involvement and find his soul, not only in love of his Daphne but in love of man. And the first thing he will have to do is that which Sordello does not care to do to embody before men in order to give them pleasure or impulse, to console or exalt them, some of the imaginations he has enjoyed within himself. Nor can Sordello’s imagination reach true passion, for it ignores that which chiefly makes the artist; union with the passions of mankind. Only when near to death does he outgrow the boy of Goito, and then we find that he has ceased to be the artist. Thus, the poem is the history of the failure of a man with an artistic temperament to be an artist. Or rather, that is part of the story of the poem, and, as Browning was an artist himself, a part which is of the greatest interest.

Sordello, at the close of the first book, is wearied of dreams. Even in his solitude, the limits of life begin to oppress him. Time fleets, fate is tardy, life will be over before he lives. Then an accident helps him

Which breaking on Sordello’s mixed content
Opened, like any flash that cures the blind,
The veritable business of mankind.

This accident is the theme of the second book. It belongs to the subject of this chapter, for it contrasts two types of the artist, Eglamor and Sordello, and it introduces Naddo, the critic, with a good knowledge of poetry, with a great deal of common sense, with an inevitable sliding into the opinion that what society has stamped must be good a mixed personage, and a sketch done with Browning’s humorous and pitying skill.

The contrast between Eglamor and Sordello runs through the whole poem. Sordello recalls Eglamor at the last, and Naddo appears again and again to give the worldly as well as the common-sense solution of the problems which Sordello makes for himself. Eglamor is the poet who has no genius, whom one touch of genius burns into nothing, but who, having a charming talent, employs it well; and who is so far the artist that what he feels he is able to shape gracefully, and to please mankind therewith; who, moreover loves, enjoys, and is wholly possessed with what he shapes in song. This is good; but then he is quite satisfied with what he does; he has no aspiration, and all the infinitude of beauty is lost to him. And when Sordello takes up his incomplete song, finishes it, inspires, expands what Eglamor thought perfect, he sees at last that he has only a graceful talent, that he has lived in a vain show, like a gnome in a cell of the rock of gold. Genius, momentarily realising itself in Sordello, reveals itself to Eglamor with all its infinities; Heaven and Earth and the universe open on Eglamor, and the revelation of what he is, and of the perfection beyond, kills him. That is a fine, true, and piteous sketch.

But Sordello, who is the man of possible genius, is not much better off. There has been one outbreak into reality at Palma’s Court of Love. Every one, afterwards, urges him to sing. The critics gather round him. He makes poems, he becomes the accepted poet of Northern Italy. But he cannot give continuous delight to the world. His poems are not like his song before Palma. They have no true passion, being woven like a spider’s web out of his own inside. His case then is more pitiable, his failure more complete, than Eglamor’s. Eglamor could shape something; he had his own enjoyment, and he gave pleasure to men. Sordello, lured incessantly towards abstract ideals, lost in their contemplation, is smitten, like Aprile, into helplessness by the multitudinousness of the images he sees, refuses to descend into real life and submit to its limitations, is driven into the slothfulness of that dreaming imagination which is powerless to embody its images in the actual song. Sometimes he tries to express himself, longing for reality. When he tries he fails, and instead of making failure a step to higher effort, he falls back impatiently on himself, and is lost in himself. Moreover, he tries always within himself, and with himself for judge. He does not try the only thing which would help him the submission of his work to the sympathy and judgment of men. Out of touch with any love save love of his own imaginings, he cannot receive those human impressions which kindle the artist into work, nor answer the cry which comes from mankind, with such eagerness, to genius “Express for us in clear form that which we vaguely feel. Make us see and admire and love.” Then he ceases even to love song, because, though he can imagine everything, he can do nothing; and deaf to the voices of men, he despises man. Finally he asks himself, like so many young poets who have followed his way, What is the judgment of the world worth? Nothing at all, he answers. With that ultimate folly, the favourite resort of minor poets, Sordello goes altogether wrong. He pleases nobody, not even himself; spends his time in arguing inside himself why he has not succeeded; and comes to no conclusion, except that total failure is the necessity of the world. At last one day, wandering from Mantua, he finds himself in his old environment, in the mountain cup where Goito and the castle lie. And the old dream, awakened by the old associations, that he was Apollo, Lord of Song, rushed back upon him and enwrapped him wholly. He feels, in the blessed silence, that he is no longer what he has been of late,

a pettish minstrel meant
To wear away his soul in discontent,
Brooding on fortune’s malice,

but himself once more, freed from the world of Mantua; alone again, but in his loneliness really more lost than he was at Mantua, as we soon find out in the third book.

I return, in concluding this chapter, to the point which bears most clearly on Browning as the poet of art. The only time when Sordello realises what it is to be an artist is when, swept out of himself by the kindled emotion of the crowd at the Court of Love and inspired also by the true emotion of Eglamor’s song, which has been made because he loved it his imagination is impassioned enough to shape for man the thing within him, outside of himself, and to sing for the joy of singing having forgotten himself in mankind, in their joy and in his own.

But it was little good to him. When he stole home to Goito in a dream, he sat down to think over the transport he had felt, why he felt it, how he was better than Eglamor; and at last, having missed the whole use of the experience (which was to draw him into the service of man within the limits of life but to always transcend the limits in aspiration), he falls away from humanity into his own self again; and perfectly happy for the moment, but lost as an artist and a man, lies lazy, filleted and robed on the turf, with a lute beside him, looking over the landscape below the castle and fancying himself Apollo. This is to have the capacity to be an artist, but it is not to be an artist. And we leave Sordello lying on the grass enjoying himself, but not destined on that account to give any joy to man.