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The Imaginative Representations to be discussed in this chapter are those which belong to the time of the Renaissance. We take a great leap when we pass from Karshish and Cleon to Fra Lippo Lippi, from early Christian times to the early manhood of the Renaissance. But these leaps are easy to a poet, and Browning is even more at his ease and in his strength in the fifteenth century than in the first.

We have seen with what force in Sordello he realised the life and tumult of the thirteenth century. The fourteenth century does not seem to have attracted him much, though he frequently refers to its work in Florence; but when the Renaissance in the fifteenth century took its turn with decision towards a more open freedom of life and thought, abandoning one after another the conventions of the past; when the moral limits, which the Church still faintly insisted on, were more and more withdrawn and finally blotted out; when, as the century passed into the next, the Church led the revolt against decency, order, and morality; when scepticism took the place of faith, even of duty, and criticism the place of authority, then Browning became interested, not of course in the want of faith and in immorality, but in the swift variety and intensity of the movement of intellectual and social life, and in the interlacing changes of the movement. This was an enchanting world for him, and as he was naturally most interested in the arts, he represented the way in which the main elements of the Renaissance appeared to him in poems which were concerned with music, poetry, painting and the rest of the arts, but chiefly with painting. Of course, when the Renaissance began to die down into senile pride and decay, Browning, who never ceased to choose and claim companionship with vigorous life, who abhorred decay either in Nature or nations, in societies or in cliques of culture, who would have preferred a blood-red pirate to the daintiest of decadents did not care for it, and in only one poem, touched with contemptuous pity and humour, represented its disease and its disintegrating elements, with so much power, however, with such grasping mastery, that it is like a painting by Velasquez. Ruskin said justly that the Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church concentrated into a few lines all the evil elements of the Renaissance. But this want of care for the decaying Renaissance was contrasted by the extreme pleasure with which he treated its early manhood in Fra Lippo Lippi.

The Renaissance had a life and seasons, like those of a human being. It went through its childhood and youth like a boy of genius under the care of parents from whose opinions and mode of life he is sure to sever himself in the end; but who, having made a deep impression on his nature, retain power over, and give direction to, his first efforts at creation. The first art of the Renaissance, awakened by the discovery of the classic remnants, retained a great deal of the faith and superstition, the philosophy, theology, and childlike naïveté of the middle ages. Its painting and sculpture, but chiefly the first of these, gave themselves chiefly to the representation of the soul upon the face, and of the untutored and unconscious movements of the body under the influence of religious passion; that is, such movements as expressed devotion, fervent love of Christ, horror of sin, were chosen, and harmonised with the expression of the face. Painting dedicated its work to the representation of the heavenly life, either on earth in the story of the gospels and in the lives of the saints, or in its glory in the circles of heaven. Then, too, it represented the thought, philosophy, and knowledge of its own time and of the past in symbolic series of quiet figures, in symbolic pictures of the struggle of good with evil, of the Church with the world, of the virtues with their opposites. Naturally, then, the expression on the face of secular passions, the movement of figures in war and trade and social life and the whole vast field of human life in the ordinary world, were neglected as unworthy of representation; and the free, full life of the body, its beauty, power and charm, the objects which pleased its senses, the frank representation of its movement under the influence of the natural as contrasted with the spiritual passions, were looked upon with religious dismay. Such, but less in sculpture than in painting, was the art of the Renaissance in its childhood and youth, and Browning has scarcely touched that time. He had no sympathy with a neglect of the body, a contempt of the senses or of the beauty they perceived. He claimed the physical as well as the intellectual and spiritual life of man as by origin and of right divine. When, then, in harmony with a great change in social and literary life, the art of the Renaissance began to turn, in its early manhood, from the representation of the soul to the representation of the body in natural movement and beauty; from the representation of saints, angels and virtues to the representation of actual men and women in the streets and rooms of Florence; from symbolism to reality Browning thought, “This suits me; this is what I love; I will put this mighty change into a poem.” And he wrote Fra Lippo Lippi.

As long as this vivid representation of actual human life lasted, the art of the Renaissance was active, original, and interesting; and as it moved on, developing into higher and finer forms, and producing continually new varieties in its development, it reached its strong and eager manhood. In its art then, as well as in other matters, the Renaissance completed its new and clear theory of life; it remade the grounds of life, of its action and passion; and it reconstituted its aims. Browning loved this summer time of the Renaissance, which began with the midst of the fifteenth century. But he loved its beginnings even more than its fulness. That was characteristic. I have said that even when he was eighty years old, his keenest sympathies were with spring rather than summer, with those times of vital change when fresh excitements disturbed the world, when its eyes were smiling with hope, and its feet eager with the joy of pursuit. He rejoiced to analyse and embody a period which was shaking off the past, living intensely in the present, and prophesying the future. It charms us, as we read him, to see his intellect and his soul like two hunting dogs, and with all their eagerness, questing, roving, quartering, with the greatest joy and in incessant movement, over a time like this, where so many diverse, clashing, and productive elements mingled themselves into an enchanting confusion and glory of life. Out of that pleasure of hunting in a morning-tide of humanity, was born Fra Lippo Lippi; and there is scarcely an element of the time, except the political elements, which it does not represent; not dwelt on, but touched for the moment and left; unconsciously produced as two men of the time would produce them in conversation. The poem seems as easy as a chat in Pall Mall last night between some intelligent men, which, read two hundred years hence, would inform the reader of the trend of thought and feeling in this present day. But in reality to do this kind of thing well is to do a very difficult thing. It needs a full knowledge, a full imagination and a masterly execution. Yet when we read the poem, it seems as natural as the breaking out of blossoms. This is that divine thing, the ease of genius.

The scenery of the poem is as usual clear. We are in fifteenth-century Florence at night. There is no set description, but the slight touches are enough to make us see the silent lonely streets, the churches, the high walls of the monastic gardens, the fortress-palaces. The sound of the fountains is in our ears; the little crowds of revelling men and girls appear and disappear like ghosts; the surly watch with their weapons and torches bustle round the corner. Nor does Browning neglect to paint by slight enlivening touches, introduced into Lippo Lippi’s account of himself as a starving boy, the aspect by day and the character of the Florence of the fifteenth century. This painting of his, slight as it is, is more alive than all the elaborate descriptions in Romola.

As to the poem itself, Browning plunges at once into his matter; no long approaches, no elaborate porches belong to his work. The man and his character are before us in a moment

I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what’s to blame? You think you see a monk!
What, ’tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?

For three weeks he has painted saints, and saints, and saints again, for Cosimo in the Medici Palace; but now the time of blossoms has come. Florence is now awake at nights; the secret of the spring moves in his blood; the man leaps up, the monk retires.

Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
A sweep of lute-strings, laughs and whifts of song,
Flower o’ the broom.
Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
Flower of the quince,
I let Lisa go, and what good in life since?
Flower of the thyme and so on. Round they went.
Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter,
Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight, three slim shapes,
And a face that looked up ... zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
That’s all I’m made of! Into shreds it went,
Curtain and counterpane and coverlet,
All the bed furniture a dozen knots,
There was a ladder! Down I let myself,
Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped,
And after them. I came up with the fun
Hard by St. Laurence, hail fellow, well met,
Flower o’ the rose,
If I’ve been merry, what matter who knows?

It is a picture, not only of the man, but of the time and its temper, when religion and morality, as well as that simplicity of life which Dante describes, had lost their ancient power over society in Florence; when the claim to give to human nature all it desired had stolen into the Church itself. Even in the monasteries, the long seclusion from natural human life had produced a reaction, which soon, indulging itself as Fra Lippo Lippi did, ran into an extremity of licence. Nevertheless, something of the old religious life lasted at the time of this poem. It stretched one hand back to the piety of the past, and retained, though faith and devotion had left them, its observances and conventions; so that, at first, when Lippo was painting, the new only peeped out of the old, like the saucy face of a nymph from the ilexes of a sacred grove. This is the historical moment Browning illustrates. Lippo Lippi was forced to paint the worn religious subjects: Jerome knocking his breast, the choirs of angels and martyrs, the scenes of the Gospel; but out of all he did the eager modern life began to glance! Natural, quaint, original faces and attitudes appeared; the angels smiled like Florentine women; the saints wore the air of Bohemians. There is a picture by Lippo Lippi in the National Gallery of some nine of them sitting on a bench under a hedge of roses, and it is no paradox to say that they might fairly represent the Florentines who tell the tales of the Decameron.

The transition as it appeared in art is drawn in this poem. Lippo Lippi became a monk by chance; it was not his vocation. A starving boy, he roamed the streets of Florence; and the widespread intelligence of the city is marked by Browning’s account of the way in which the boy observed all the life of the streets for eight years. Then the coming change of the aims of art is indicated by the way in which, when he was allowed to paint, he covered the walls of the Carmine, not with saints, virgins, and angels, but with the daily life of the streets the boy patting the dog, the murderer taking refuge at the altar, the white wrath of the avenger coming up the aisle, the girl going to market, the crowd round the stalls in the market, the monks, white, grey, and black things as they were, as like as two peas to the reality; flesh and blood now painted, not skin and bone; not the expression on the face alone, but the whole body in speaking movement; nothing conventional, nothing imitative of old models, but actual life as it lay before the painter’s eyes. Into this fresh aera of art Lippo Lippi led the way with the joy of youth. But he was too soon. The Prior, all the representatives of the conservative elements in the convent, were sorely troubled. “Why, this will never do: faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true; life as it is; nature as she is; quite impossible.” And Browning, in Lippo’s defence of himself, paints the conflict of the past with the coming art in a passage too long to quote, too admirable to shorten.

The new art conquered the old. The whole life of Florence was soon painted as it was: the face of the town, the streets, the churches, the towers, the winding river, the mountains round about it; the country, the fields and hills and hamlets, the peasants at work, ploughing, sowing, and gathering fruit, the cattle feeding, the birds among the trees and in the sky; nobles and rich burghers hunting, hawking; the magistrates, the citizens, the street-boys, the fine ladies, the tradesmen’s wives, the heads of the guilds; the women visiting their friends; the interior of the houses. We may see this art of human life in the apse of Santa Maria Novella, painted by the hand of Ghirlandajo: in the Riccardi Palace, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli; in more than half the pictures of the painters who succeeded Fra Lippo Lippi. Only, so much of the old clings that all this actual Florentine life is painted into the ancient religious subjects the life of the Baptist and the Virgin, the embassage of the Wise Men, the life of Christ, the legends of the saints, the lives of the virgins and martyrs, Jerusalem and its life painted as if it were Florence and its life all the spiritual religion gone out of it, it is true, but yet, another kind of religion budding in it the religion, not of the monastery, but of daily common life.

the world
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights, and shades.
Changes, surprises and God made it all!

Who paints these things as if they were alive, and loves them while he paints, paints the garment of God; and men not only understand their own life better because they see, through the painting, what they did not see before; but also the movement of God’s spirit in the beauty of the world and in the life of men. Art interprets to man all that is, and God in it.

Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to think what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
No blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

He could not do it; the time was not ripe enough. But he began it. And the spirit of its coming breaks out in all he did.

We take a leap of more than half a century when we pass from Fra Lippo Lippi to Andrea del Sarto. That advance in art to which Lippo Lippi looked forward with a kind of rage at his own powerlessness had been made. In its making, the art of the Renaissance had painted men and women, both body and soul, in every kind of life, both of war and peace; and better than they had ever been painted before. Having fulfilled that, the painters asked, “What more? What new thing shall we do? What new aim shall we pursue?” And there arose among them a desire to paint all that was paintable, and especially the human body, with scientific perfection. “In our desire to paint the whole of life, we have produced so much that we were forced to paint carelessly or inaccurately. In our desire to be original, we have neglected technique. In our desire to paint the passions on the face and in the movements of men, we have lost the calm and harmony of the ancient classic work, which made its ethical impression of the perfect balance of the divine nature by the ideal arrangement, in accord with a finished science, of the various members of the body to form a finished whole. Let the face no longer then try to represent the individual soul. One type of face for each class of art-representation is enough. Let our effort be to represent beauty by the perfect drawing of the body in repose and in action, and by chosen attitudes and types. Let our composition follow certain guiding lines and rules, in accordance with whose harmonies all pictures shall be made. We will follow the Greek; compose as he did, and by his principles; and for that purpose make a scientific study of the body of man; observing in all painting, sculpture, and architecture the general forms and proportions that ancient art, after many experiments, selected as the best. And, to match that, we must have perfect drawing in all we do.”

This great change, which, as art’s adulterous connection with science deepened, led to such unhappy results, Browning represents, when its aim had been reached, in his poem, Andrea del Sarto; and he tells us through Andrea’s talk with his wife Lucretia what he thought of it; and what Andrea himself, whose broken life may have opened his eyes to the truth of things, may himself have thought of it. On that element in the poem I have already dwelt, and shall only touch on the scenery and tragedy, of the piece:

We sit with Andrea, looking out to Fiesole.

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.

As the poem goes on, the night falls, falls with the deepening of the painter’s depression; the owls cry from the hill, Florence wears the grey hue of the heart of Andrea; and Browning weaves the autumn and the night into the tragedy of the painter’s life.

That tragedy was pitiful. Andrea del Sarto was a faultless painter and a weak character; and it fell to his lot to love with passion a faithless woman. His natural weakness was doubled by the weakness engendered by unconquerable passion; and he ruined his life, his art, and his honour, to please his wife. He wearied her, as women are wearied, by passion unaccompanied by power; and she endured him only while he could give her money and pleasures. She despised him for that endurance, and all the more that he knew she was guilty, but said nothing lest she should leave him. Browning fills his main subject his theory of the true aim of art with this tragedy; and his treatment of it is a fine example of his passionate humanity; and the passion of it is knitted up with close reasoning and illuminated by his intellectual play.

It is worth a reader’s while to read, along with this poem, Alfred de Musset’s short play, Andre del Sarto. The tragedy of the situation is deepened by the French poet, and the end is told. Unlike Browning, only a few lines sketch the time, its temper, and its art. It is the depth of the tragedy which De Musset paints, and that alone; and in order to deepen it, Andrea is made a much nobler character than he is in Browning’s poem. The betrayal is also made more complete, more overwhelming. Lucretia is false to Andrea with his favourite pupil, with Cordiani, to whom he had given all he had, whom he loved almost as much as he loved his wife. Terrible, inevitable Fate broods over this brief and masterly little play.

The next of these imaginative representations of the Renaissance is, The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church. We are placed in the full decadence of the Renaissance. Its total loss of religion, even in the Church; its immorality the bishop’s death-bed is surrounded by his natural sons and the wealth he leaves has been purchased by every kind of iniquity its pride of life; its luxury; its semi-Paganism; its imitative classicism; its inconsistency; its love of jewels, and fine stones, and rich marbles; its jealousy and envy; its pleasure in the adornment of death; its delight in the outsides of things, in mere workmanship; its loss of originality; its love of scholarship for scholarship’s sake alone; its contempt of the common people; its exhaustion are one and all revealed or suggested in this astonishing poem.

These are the three greater poems dedicated to this period; but there are some minor poems which represent different phases of its life. One of these is the Pictor Ignotus. There must have been many men, during the vital time of the Renaissance, who, born, as it were, into the art-ability of the period, reached without trouble a certain level in painting, but who had no genius, who could not create; or who, if they had some touch of genius, had no boldness to strike it into fresh forms of beauty; shy, retiring men, to whom the criticism of the world was a pain they knew they could not bear. These men are common at a period when life is racing rapidly through the veins of a vivid city like Florence. The general intensity of the life lifts them to a height they would never reach in a dull and sleepy age. The life they have is not their own, but the life of the whole town. And this keen perception of life outside of them persuades them that they can do all that men of real power can do. In reality, they can do nothing and make nothing worth a people’s honour. Browning, who himself was compact of boldness, who loved experiment in what was new, and who shaped what he conceived without caring for criticism, felt for these men, of whom he must have met many; and, asking himself “How they would think; what they would do; and how life would seem to them,” wrote this poem. In what way will poor human nature excuse itself for failure? How will the weakness in the man try to prove that it was power? How, having lost the joy of life, will he attempt to show that his loss is gain, his failure a success; and, being rejected of the world, approve himself within?

This was a subject to please Browning; meat such as his soul loved: a nice, involved, Daedalian, labyrinthine sort of thing, a mixture of real sentiment and self-deceit; and he surrounded it with his pity for its human weakness.

“I could have painted any picture that I pleased,” cries this painter; “represented on the face any passion, any virtue.” If he could he would have done it, or tried it. Genius cannot hold itself in.

I have dreamed of sending forth some picture which should enchant the world (and he alludes to Cimabues picture)

“Bound for some great state,
Or glad aspiring little burgh, it went
Flowers cast upon the car which bore the freight,
Through old streets named afresh from the event.

“That would have been, had I willed it. But mixed with the praisers there would have been cold, critical faces; judges who would press on me and mock. And I I could not bear it.” Alas! had he had genius, no fear would have stayed his hand, no judgment of the world delayed his work. What stays a river breaking from its fountain-head?

So he sank back, saying the world was not worthy of his labours. “What? Expose my noble work (things he had conceived but not done) to the prate and pettiness of the common buyers who hang it on their walls! No, I will rather paint the same monotonous round of Virgin, Child, and Saints in the quiet church, in the sanctuary’s gloom. No merchant then will traffic in my heart. My pictures will moulder and die. Let them die. I have not vulgarised myself or them.” Brilliant and nobly wrought as the first three poems are of which I have written, this quiet little piece needed and received a finer workmanship, and was more difficult than they.

Then there is How it strikes a Contemporary the story of the gossip of a Spanish town about a poor poet, who, because he wanders everywhere about the streets observing all things, is mistaken for a spy of the king. The long pages he writes are said to be letters to the king; the misfortunes of this or that man are caused by his information. The world thinks him a wonder of cleverness; he is but an inferior poet. It imagines that he lives in Assyrian luxury; he lives and dies in a naked garret. This imaginative representation might be of any time in a provincial town of an ignorant country like Spain. It is a slight study of what superstitious imagination and gossip will work up round any man whose nature and manners, like those of a poet, isolate him from the common herd. Force is added to this study by its scenery. The Moorish windows, the shops, the gorgeous magistrates pacing down the promenade, are touched in with a flying pencil; and then, moving through the crowd, the lean, black-coated figure, with his cane and dog and his peaked hat, clear flint eyes and beaked nose, is seen, as if alive, in the vivid sunshine of Valladolid. But what Browning wished most to describe in this poem was one of the first marks of a poet, even of a poor one like this gentleman the power of seeing and observing everything. Nothing was too small, nothing uninteresting in this man’s eyes. His very hat was scrutinising.

He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edged bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognisance of man and things,
If any beat a horse you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note;
Yet stared at nobody, you stared at him,
And found, less to your pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know you and expect as much.

That is the artist’s way. It was Browning’s way. He is describing himself. In that fashion he roamed through Venice or Florence, stopping every moment, attracted by the smallest thing, finding a poem in everything, lost in himself yet seeing all that surrounded him, isolated in thinking, different from and yet like the rest of the world.

Another poem My Last Duchess must be mentioned. It is plainly placed in the midst of the period of the Renaissance by the word Ferrara, which is added to its title. But it is rather a picture of two temperaments which may exist in any cultivated society, and at any modern time. There are numbers of such men as the Duke and such women as the Duchess in our midst. Both are, however, drawn with mastery. Browning has rarely done his work with more insight, with greater keenness of portraiture, with happier brevity and selection. As in The Flight of the Duchess, untoward fate has bound together two temperaments sure to clash with each other and no gipsy comes to deliver the woman in this case. The man’s nature kills her. It happens every day. The Renaissance society may have built up more men of this type than ours, but they are not peculiar to it.

Germany, not Italy, is, I think, the country in which Browning intended to place two other poems which belong to the time of the Renaissance Johannes Agricola in Meditation and A Grammarian’s Funeral. Their note is as different from that of the Italian poems as the national temper of Germany is from that of Italy. They have no sense of beauty for beauty’s sake alone. Their atmosphere is not soft or gay but somewhat stern. The logical arrangement of them is less one of feeling than of thought. There is a stronger manhood in them, a grimmer view of life. The sense of duty to God and Man, but little represented in the Italian poems of the Renaissance, does exist in these two German poems. Moreover, there is in them a full representation of aspiration to the world beyond. But the Italian Renaissance lived for the earth alone, and its loveliness; too close to earth to care for heaven.

It pleased Browning to throw himself fully into the soul of Johannes Agricola; and he does it with so much personal fervour that it seems as if, in one of his incarnations, he had been the man, and, for the moment of his writing, was dominated by him. The mystic-passion fills the poetry with keen and dazzling light, and it is worth while, from this point of view, to compare the poem with Tennyson’s Sir Galahad, and on another side, with St. Simeon Stylites.

Johannes Agricola was one of the products of the reforming spirit of the sixteenth century in Germany, one of its wild extremes. He believes that God had chosen him among a few to be his for ever and for his own glory from the foundation of the world. He did not say that all sin was permitted to the saints, that what the flesh did was no matter, like those wild fanatics, one of whom Scott draws in Woodstock; but he did say, that if he sinned it made no matter to his election by God. Nay, the immanence of God in him turned the poison to health, the filth to jewels. Goodness and badness make no matter; God’s choice is all. The martyr for truth, the righteous man whose life has saved the world, but who is not elected, is damned for ever in burning hell. “I am eternally chosen; for that I praise God. I do not understand it. If I did, could I praise Him? But I know my settled place in the divine decrees.” I quote the beginning. It is pregnant with superb spiritual audacity, and kindled with imaginative pride.

There’s heaven above, and night by night
I look right through its gorgeous roof;
No suns and moons though e’er so bright
Avail to stop me; splendour-proof
Keep the broods of stars aloof:
For I intend to get to God,
For ’tis to God I speed so fast,
For in God’s breast, my own abode,
Those shoals of dazzling glory, passed,
I lay my spirit down at last.
I lie where I have always lain,
God smiles as he has always smiled;
Ere suns and moons could wax and wane,
Ere stars were thunder-girt, or piled
The heavens, God thought on me his child;
Ordained a life for me, arrayed
Its circumstances every one
To the minutest; ay, God said
This head this hand should rest upon
Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.
And having thus created me,
Thus rooted me, he bade me grow,
Guiltless for ever, like a tree
That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know
The law by which it prospers so:
But sure that thought and word and deed
All go to swell his love for me,
Me, made because that love had need
Of something irreversibly
Pledged solely its content to be.

As to A Grammarian’s Funeral, that poem also belongs to the German rather than to the Italian spirit. The Renaissance in Italy lost its religion; at the same time, in Germany, it added a reformation of religion to the New Learning. The Renaissance in Italy desired the fulness of knowledge in this world, and did not look for its infinities in the world beyond. In Germany the same desire made men call for the infinities of knowledge beyond the earth. A few Italians, like Savonarola, like M. Angelo, did the same, and failed to redeem their world; but eternal aspiration dwelt in the soul of every German who had gained a religion. In Italy, as the Renaissance rose to its luxury and trended to its decay, the pull towards personal righteousness made by belief in an omnipotent goodness who demands the subjection of our will to his, ceased to be felt by artists, scholars and cultivated society. A man’s will was his only law. On the other hand, the life of the New Learning in Germany and England was weighted with a sense of duty to an eternal Righteousness. The love of knowledge or beauty was modified into seriousness of life, carried beyond this life in thought, kept clean, and, though filled with incessant labour on the earth, aspired to reach its fruition only in the life to come.

This is the spirit and the atmosphere of the Grammarian’s Funeral, and Browning’s little note at the beginning says that its time “was shortly after the revival of learning in Europe.” I have really no proof that Browning laid the scene of his poem in Germany, save perhaps the use of such words as “thorp” and “croft,” but there is a clean, pure morning light playing through the verse, a fresh, health-breathing northern air, which does not fit in with Italy; a joyous, buoyant youthfulness in the song and march of the students who carry their master with gay strength up the mountain to the very top, all of them filled with his aspiring spirit, all of them looking forward with gladness and vigour to life which has no relation whatever to the temper of Florentine or Roman life during the age of the Medici. The bold brightness, moral earnestness, pursuit of the ideal, spiritual intensity, reverence for good work and for the man who did it, which breathe in the poem, differ by a whole world from the atmosphere of life in Andrea del Sarto. This is a crowd of men who are moving upwards, who, seizing the Renaissance elements, knitted them through and through with reformation of life, faith in God, and hope for man. They had a future and knew it. The semi-paganism of the Renaissance had not, and did not know it had not.

We may close this series of Renaissance representations by A Toccata of Galuppi’s. It cannot take rank with the others as a representative poem. It is of a different class; a changeful dream of images and thoughts which came to Browning as he was playing a piece of eighteenth-century Venetian music. But in the dream there is a sketch of that miserable life of fruitless pleasure, the other side of which was dishonourable poverty, into which Venetian society had fallen in the eighteenth century. To this the pride, the irreligion, the immorality, the desire of knowledge and beauty for their own sake alone, had brought the noblest, wisest, and most useful city in Italy. That part of the poem is representative. It is the end of such a society as is drawn in The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church. That tomb is placed in Rome, but it is in Venice that this class of tombs reached their greatest splendour of pride, opulence, folly, debasement and irreligion.

Finally, there are a few poems which paint the thoughts, the sorrows, the pleasures, and the political passions of modern Italy. There is the Italian in England, full of love for the Italian peasant and of pity for the patriot forced to live and die far from his motherland. Mazzini used to read it to his fellow-exiles to show them how fully an English poet could enter into the temper of their soul. So far it may be said to represent a type. But it scarcely comes under the range of this chapter. But Up in a Villa, down in the City, is so vivid a representation of all that pleased a whole type of the city-bred and poor nobles of Italy at the time when Browning wrote the Dramatic Lyrics that I cannot omit it. It is an admirable piece of work, crowded with keen descriptions of nature in the Casentino, and of life in the streets of Florence. And every piece of description is so filled with the character of the “Italian person of quality” who describes them a petulant, humorous, easily angered, happy, observant, ignorant, poor gentleman that Browning entirely disappears. The poem retains for us in its verse, and indeed in its light rhythm, the childlikeness, the naïveté, the simple pleasures, the ignorance, and the honest boredom with the solitudes of nature of a whole class of Italians, not only of the time when it was written, but of the present day. It is a delightful, inventive piece of gay and pictorial humour.