Read CHAPTER X of The Poetry Of Robert Browning, free online book, by Stopford A. Brooke, on


The poems on which I have dwelt in the last chapter, though they are mainly concerned with love between the sexes, illustrate the other noble passions, all of which, such as joy, are forms of, or rather children of, self-forgetful love. They do not illustrate the evil or ignoble passions envy, jealousy, hatred, base fear, despair, revenge, avarice and remorse which, driven by the emotion that so fiercely and swiftly accumulates around them, master the body and soul, the intellect and the will, like some furious tyrant, and in their extremes hurry their victim into madness. Browning took some of these terrible powers and made them subjects in his poetry. Short, sharp-outlined sketches of them occur in his dramas and longer poems. There is no closer image in literature of long-suppressed fear breaking out into its agony of despair than in the lines which seal Guido’s pleading in the The Ring and the Book.

Life is all!
I was just stark mad, let the madman live
Pressed by as many chains as you please pile!
Don’t open! Hold me from them! I am yours,
I am the Grand Duke’s no, I am the Pope’s!
Abate, Cardinal, Christ, Maria, God, ...
Pompilia, will you let them murder me?

But there is no elaborate, long-continued study of these sordid and evil things in Browning. He was not one of our modern realists who love to paddle and splash in the sewers of humanity. Not only was he too healthy in mind to dwell on them, but he justly held them as not fit subjects for art unless they were bound up with some form of pity, as jealousy and envy are in Shakespeare’s treatment of the story of Othello; or imaged along with so much of historic scenery that we lose in our interest in the decoration some of the hatefulness of the passion. The combination, for example, of envy and hatred resolved on vengeance in The Laboratory is too intense for any pity to intrude, but Browning realises not only the evil passions in the woman but the historical period also and its temper; and he fills the poem with scenery which, though it leaves the woman first in our eyes, yet lessens the malignant element. The same, but of course with the difference Browning’s variety creates, may be said of the story of the envious king, where envy crawls into hatred, hatred almost motiveless the Instans Tyrannus. A faint vein of humour runs through it. The king describes what has been; his hatred has passed. He sees how small and fanciful it was, and the illustrations he uses to express it tell us that; though they carry with them also the contemptuous intensity of his past hatred. The swell of the hatred remains, though the hatred is past. So we are not left face to face with absolute evil, with the corruption hate engenders in the soul. God has intervened, and the worst of it has passed away.

Then there is the study of hatred in the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. The hatred is black and deadly, the instinctive hatred of a brutal nature for a delicate one, which, were it unrelieved, would be too vile for the art of poetry. But it is relieved, not only by the scenery, the sketch of the monks in the refectory, the garden of flowers, the naughty girls seated on the convent bank washing their black hair, but also by the admirable humour which ripples like laughter through the hopes of his hatred, and by the brilliant sketching of the two men. We see them, know them, down to their little tricks at dinner, and we end by realising hatred, it is true, but in too agreeable a fashion for just distress.

In other poems of the evil passions the relieving element is pity. There are the two poems entitled Before and After, that is, before and after the duel. Before is the statement of one of the seconds, with curious side-thoughts introduced by Browning’s mental play with the subject, that the duel is absolutely necessary. The challenger has been deeply wronged; and he cannot and will not let forgiveness intermit his vengeance. The man in us agrees with that; the Christian in us says, “Forgive, let God do the judgment.” But the passion for revenge has here its way and the guilty falls. And now let Browning speak Forgiveness is right and the vengeance-fury wrong. The dead man has escaped, the living has not escaped the wrath of conscience; pity is all.

Take the cloak from his face, and at first
Let the corpse do its worst!

How he lies in his rights of a man!
Death has done all death can.
And, absorbed in the new life he leads,
He recks not, he heeds

Nor his wrong nor my vengeance; both strike
On his senses alike,
And are lost in the solemn and strange
Surprise of the change.

Ha, what avails death to erase
His offence, my disgrace?
I would we were boys as of old
In the field, by the fold:
His outrage, God’s patience, man’s scorn
Were so easily borne!

I stand here now, he lies in his place;
Cover the face.

Again, there are few studies in literature of contempt, hatred and revenge more sustained and subtle than Browning’s poem entitled A Forgiveness; and the title marks how, though the justice of revenge was accomplished on the woman, yet that pity, even love for her, accompanied and followed the revenge. Our natural revolt against the cold-blooded work of hatred is modified, when we see the mans heart and the womans soul, into pity for their fate. The man tells his story to a monk in the confessional, who has been the lover of his wife. He is a statesman absorbed in his work, yet he feels that his wife makes his home a heaven, and he carries her presence with him all the day. His wife takes the first lover she meets, and, discovered, tells her husband that she hates him. Kill me now, she cries. But he despises her too much to hate her; she is not worth killing. Three years they live together in that fashion, till one evening she tells him the truth. I was jealous of your work. I took my revenge by taking a lover, but I loved you, you only, all the time, and lost you

I thought you gave
Your heart and soul away from me to slave
At statecraft. Since my right in you seemed lost,
I stung myself to teach you, to your cost,
What you rejected could be prized beyond
Life, heaven, by the first fool I threw a fond
Look on, a fatal word to.

“Ah, is that true, you loved and still love? Then contempt perishes, and hate takes its place. Write your confession, and die by my hand. Vengeance is foreign to contempt, you have risen to the level at which hate can act. I pardon you, for as I slay hate departs and now, sir, and he turns to the monk

She sleeps, as erst
Beloved, in this your church: ay, yours!

and drives the poisoned dagger through the grate of the confessional into the heart of her lover.

This is Browning’s closest study of hate, contempt, and revenge. But bitter and close as it is, what is left with us is pity for humanity, pity for the woman, pity for the lover, pity for the husband.

Again, in the case of Sebald and Ottima in Pippa Passes, pity also rules. Love passing into lust has led to hate, and these two have slaked their hate and murdered Luca, Ottima’s husband. They lean out of the window of the shrub-house as the morning breaks. For the moment their false love is supreme. Their crime only creeps like a snake, half asleep, about the bottom of their hearts; they recall their early passion and try to brazen it forth in the face of their murder, which now rises, dreadful and more dreadful, into threatening life in their soul. They reanimate their hate of Luca to lower their remorse, but at every instant his blood stains their speech. At last, while Ottima loves on, Sebald’s dark horror turns to hatred of her he loved, till she lures him back into desire of her again. The momentary lust cannot last, but Browning shoots it into prominence that the outburst of horror and repentance may be the greater.

I kiss you now, dear Ottima, now and now!
This way? Will you forgive me be once more
My great queen?

At that moment Pippa passes by, singing:

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
Gods in his heaven
All’s right with the world!

Something in it smites Sebalds heart like a hammer of God. He repents, but in the cowardice of repentance curses her. That baseness I do not think Browning should have introduced, no, nor certain carnal phrases which, previously right, now jar with the spiritual passion of repentance. But his fury with her passes away into the passion of despair

My brain is drowned now quite drowned: all I feel
Is ... is, at swift recurring intervals,
A hurry-down within me, as of waters
Loosened to smother up some ghastly pit:
There they go whirls from a black fiery sea!

lines which must have been suggested to Browning by verses, briefer and more intense, in Webster’s

Duchess of Malfi. Even Ottima, lifted by her love, which purifies itself in wishing to die for her lover, repents.

Not me, to him, O God, be merciful!

Thus into this cauldron of sin Browning steals the pity of God. We know they will be saved, so as by fire.

Then there is the poem on the story of Cristina and Monaldeschi; a subject too odious, I think, to be treated lyrically. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, and for good cause, and of the pitiless vengeance which followed. Browning has not succeeded in it; and it may be so because he could get no pity into it. The Queen had none. Monaldeschi deserved none a coward, a fool, and a traitor! Nevertheless, more might have been made of it by Browning. The poem is obscure and wandering, and the effort he makes to grip the subject reveals nothing but the weakness of the grip. It ought not to have been published.

And now I turn to passions more delightful, that this chapter may close in light and not in darkness passions of the imagination, of the romantic regions of the soul. There is, first, the longing for the mystic world, the world beneath appearance, with or without reference to eternity. Secondly, bound up with that, there is the longing for the unknown, for following the gleam which seems to lead us onward, but we know not where. Then, there is the desire, the deeper for its constant suppression, for escape from the prison of a worldly society, from its conventions and maxims of morality, its barriers of custom and rule, into liberty and unchartered life. Lastly, there is that longing to discover and enjoy the lands of adventure and romance which underlies and wells upwards through so much of modern life, and which has never ceased to send its waters up to refresh the world. These are romantic passions. On the whole, Browning does not often touch them in their earthly activities. His highest romance was beyond this world. It claimed eternity, and death was the entrance into its enchanted realm. When he did bring romantic feeling into human life, it was for the most part in the hunger and thirst, which, as in Abt Vogler, urged men beyond the visible into the invisible. But now and again he touched the Romantic of Earth. Childe Roland, The Flight of the Duchess, and some others, are alive with the romantic spirit.

But before I write of these, there are a few lyrical poems, written in the freshness of his youth, which are steeped in the light of the story-telling world; and might be made by one who, in the morning of imagination, sat on the dewy hills of the childish world. They are full of unusual melody, and are simple and wise enough to be sung by girls knitting in the sunshine while their lovers bend above them. One of these, a beautiful thing, with that touch of dark fate at its close which is so common in folk-stories, is hidden away in Paracelsus. “Over the sea,” it begins:

Over the sea our galleys went,
With cleaving prows in order brave
To a speeding wind and a bounding wave,
A gallant armament:
Each bark built out of a forest-tree
Left leafy and rough as first it grew,
And nailed all over the gaping sides,
Within and without, with black bull-hides,
Seethed in fat, and suppled with flame,
To bear the playful billows’ game.

It is made in a happy melody, and the curious mingling in the tale, as it continues, of the rudest ships, as described above, with purple hangings, cedar tents, and noble statues,

A hundred shapes of lucid stone,

and with gentle islanders from Graecian seas, is characteristic of certain folk-tales, especially those of Gascony. That it is spoken by Paracelsus as a parable of the state of mind he has reached, in which he clings to his first fault with haughty and foolish resolution, scarcely lessens the romantic element in it. That is so strong that we forget that it is meant as a parable.

There is another song which touches the edge of romance, in which Paracelsus describes how he will bury in sweetness the ideal aims he had in youth, building a pyre for them of all perfumed things; and the last lines of the verse I quote leave us in a castle of old romance

And strew faint sweetness from some old
Egyptian’s fine worm-eaten shroud
Which breaks to dust when once unrolled;
Or shredded perfume, like a cloud
From closet long to quiet vowed,
With mothed and dropping arras hung,
Mouldering her lute and books among,
As when a queen, long dead, was young.

The other is a song, more than a song, in Pippa Passes, a true piece of early folk-romance, with a faint touch of Greek story, wedded to Eastern and mediaeval elements, in its roving imaginations. It is admirably pictorial, and the air which broods over it is the sunny and still air which, in men’s fancy, was breathed by the happy children of the Golden Age. I quote a great part of it:

A King lived long ago,
In the morning of the world,
When earth was nigher heaven than now:
And the King’s locks curled,
Disparting o’er a forehead full
As the milk-white space ’twixt horn and horn
Of some sacrificial bull
Only calm as a babe new-born:
For he was got to a sleepy mood,
So safe from all decrepitude,
Age with its bane, so sure gone by,
(The gods so loved him while he dreamed)
That, having lived thus long, there seemed
No need the King should ever die.

LUIGI. No need that sort of King should ever die!

Among the rocks his city was:
Before his palace, in the sun,
He sat to see his people pass,
And judge them every one
From its threshold of smooth stone
They haled him many a valley-thief
Caught in the sheep-pens, robber chief
Swarthy and shameless, beggar, cheat,
Spy-prowler, or rough pirate found
On the sea-sand left aground;

These, all and every one,
The King judged, sitting in the sun.

LUIGI. That King should still judge sitting in the sun!

His councillors, on left and right,
Looked anxious up, but no surprise
Disturbed the King’s old smiling eyes
Where the very blue had turned to white.
’Tis said, a Python scared one day
The breathless city, till he came,
With forty tongue and eyes on flame,
Where the old King sat to judge alway;
But when he saw the sweepy hair
Girt with a crown of berries rare
Which the god will hardly give to wear
To the maiden who singeth, dancing bare
In the altar-smoke by the pine-torch lights,
At his wondrous forest rites,
Seeing this, he did not dare
Approach the threshold in the sun,
Assault the old king smiling there.
Such grace had kings when the world begun!

Then there are two other romantic pieces, not ringing with this early note, but having in them a wafting scent of the Provencal spirit. One is the song sung by Pippa when she passes the room where Jules and Phene are talking the song of Kate, the Queen. The other is the cry Rudel, the great troubadour, sent out of his heart to the Lady of Tripoli whom he never saw, but loved. The subject is romantic, but that, I think, is all the romance in it. It is not Rudel who speaks but Browning. It is not the twelfth but the nineteenth century which has made all that analysis and over-worked illustration.

There remain, on this matter, Childe Roland and the Flight of the Duchess. I believe that Childe Roland emerged, all of a sudden and to Browning’s surprise, out of the pure imagination, like the Sea-born Queen; that Browning did not conceive it beforehand; that he had no intention in it, no reason for writing it, and no didactic or moral aim in it. It was not even born of his will. Nor does he seem to be acquainted with the old story on the subject which took a ballad form in Northern England. The impulse to write it was suddenly awakened in him by that line out of an old song the Fool quotes in King Lear. There is another tag of a song in Lear which stirs a host of images in the imagination; and out of which some poet might create a romantic lyric:

Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind.

But it does not produce so concrete a set of images as Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came. Browning has made that his own, and what he has done is almost romantic. Almost romantic, I say, because the peculiarities of Browning’s personal genius appear too strongly in Childe Roland for pure romantic story, in which the idiosyncrasy of the poet, the personal element of his fancy, are never dominant. The scenery, the images, the conduct of the tales of romance, are, on account of their long passage through the popular mind, impersonal.

Moreover, Browning’s poem is too much in the vague. The romantic tales are clear in outline; this is not. But the elements in the original story entered, as it were of their own accord, into Browning. There are several curious, unconscious reversions to folk-lore which have crept into his work like living things which, seeing Browning engaged on a story of theirs, entered into it as into a house of their own, and without his knowledge. The wretched cripple who points the way; the blind and wicked horse; the accursed stream; the giant mountain range, all the peaks alive, as if in a nature myth; the crowd of Roland’s predecessors turned to stone by their failure; the sudden revealing of the tower where no tower had been, might all be matched out of folk-stories. I think I have heard that Browning wrote the poem at a breath one morning; and it reads as if, from verse to verse, he did not know what was coming to his pen. This is very unlike his usual way; but it is very much the way in which tales of this kind are unconsciously up-built.

Men have tried to find in the poem an allegory of human life; but Browning had no allegorising intention. However, as every story which was ever written has at its root the main elements of human nature, it is always possible to make an allegory out of any one of them. If we like to amuse ourselves in that fashion, we may do so; but we are too bold and bad if we impute allegory to Browning. Childe Roland is nothing more than a gallop over the moorlands of imagination; and the skies of the soul, when it was made, were dark and threatening storm. But one thing is plain in it: it is an outcome of that passion for the mystical world, for adventure, for the unknown, which lies at the root of the romantic tree.

The Flight of the Duchess is full of the passion of escape from the conventional; and no where is Browning more original or more the poet. Its manner is exactly right, exactly fitted to the character and condition of the narrator, who is the Duke’s huntsman. Its metrical movement is excellent, and the changes of that movement are in harmony with the things and feelings described. It is astonishingly swift, alive, and leaping; and it delays, as a stream, with great charm, when the emotion of the subject is quiet, recollective, or deep. The descriptions of Nature in the poem are some of the most vivid and true in Browning’s work. The sketches of animal life so natural on the lips of the teller of the story are done from the keen observation of a huntsman, and with his love for the animals he has fed, followed and slain. And, through it all, there breathes the romantic passion to be out of the world of custom and commonplace, set free to wander for ever to an unknown goal; to drink the air of adventure and change; not to know to-day what will take place to-morrow, only to know that it will be different; to ride on the top of the wave of life as it runs before the wind; to live with those who live, and are of the same mind; to be loved and to find love the best good in the world; to be the centre of hopes and joys among those who may blame and give pain, but who are never indifferent; to have many troubles, but always to pursue their far-off good; to wring the life out of them, and, at the last, to have a new life, joy and freedom in another and a fairer world. But let Browning tell the end:

So, at the last shall come old age.
Decrepit as befits that stage;
How else would’st thou retire apart
With the hoarded memories of thy heart,
And gather all to the very least
Of the fragments of life’s earlier feast,
Let fall through eagerness to find
The crowning dainties yet behind?
Ponder on the entire past
Laid together thus at last,
When the twilight helps to fuse
The first fresh with the faded hues.
And the outline of the whole
Grandly fronts for once thy soul.
And then as, ’mid the dark, a gleam
Of yet another morning breaks,
And, like the hand which ends a dream,
Death, with the might of his sunbeam,
Touches the flesh, and the soul awakes,

Then the romance of life sweeps into the world beyond. But even in that world the duchess will never settle down to a fixed life. She will be, like some of us, a child of the wandering tribes of eternity.

This romantic passion which never dies even in our modern society, is embodied in the gipsy crone who, in rags and scarcely clinging to life, suddenly lifts into youth and queenliness, just as in a society, where romance seems old or dead, it springs into fresh and lovely life. This is the heart of the poem, and it is made to beat the more quickly by the wretched attempt of the duke and his mother to bring back the observances of the Middle Ages without their soul. Nor even then does Browning leave his motive. The huntsman has heard the gipsy’s song; he has seen the light on his mistress’ face as she rode away the light which is not from sun or star and the love of the romantic world is born in him. He will not leave his master; there his duty lies. “I must see this fellow his sad life through.” But then he will go over the mountains, after his lady, leaving the graves of his wife and children, into the unknown, to find her, or news of her, in the land of the wanderers. And if he never find her, if, after pleasant journeying, earth cannot give her to his eyes, he will still pursue his quest in a world where romance and formality are not married together.

So I shall find out some snug corner,
Under a hedge, like Orson the wood-knight,
Turn myself round and bid the world Good Night;
And sleep a sound sleep till the trumpet’s blowing
Wakes me (unless priests cheat us laymen)
To a world where will be no further throwing
Pearls before swine that can’t value them. Amen.