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


Among the women whom Browning made, Balaustion is the crown. So vivid is her presentation that she seems with us in our daily life. And she also fills the historical imagination.

One would easily fall in love with her, like those sensitive princes in the Arabian Nights, who, hearing only of the charms of a princess, set forth to find her over the world. Of all Browning’s women, she is the most luminous, the most at unity with herself. She has the Greek gladness and life, the Greek intelligence and passion, and the Greek harmony. All that was common, prattling, coarse, sensual and spluttering in the Greek, (and we know from Aristophanes how strong these lower elements were in the Athenian people), never shows a trace of its influence in Balaustion. Made of the finest clay, exquisite and delicate in grain, she is yet strong, when the days of trouble come, to meet them nobly and to change their sorrows into spiritual powers.

And the mise-en-scene in which she is placed exalts her into a heroine, and adds to her the light, colour and humanity of Greek romance. Born at Rhodes, but of an Athenian mother, she is fourteen when the news arrives that the Athenian fleet under Nikias, sent to subdue Syracuse, has been destroyed, and the captive Athenians driven to labour in the quarries. All Rhodes, then in alliance with Athens, now cries, Desert Athens, side with Sparta against Athens. Balaustion alone resists the traitorous cry. What, throw off Athens, be disloyal to the source of art and intelligence

to the life and light
Of the whole world worth calling world at all!”

And she spoke so well that her kinsfolk and others joined her and took ship for Athens. Now, a wind drove them off their course, and behind them came a pirate ship, and in front of them loomed the land. Is it Crete? they thought; Crete, perhaps, and safety. But the oars flagged in the hands of the weary men, and the pirate gained. Then Balaustion, springing to the altar by the mast, white, rosy, and uplifted, sang on high that song of AEschylus which saved at Salamis

’O sons of Greeks, go, set your country free,
Free your wives, free your children, free the fanes
O’ the Gods, your fathers founded, sepulchres
They sleep in! Or save all, or all be lost.’

The crew, impassioned by the girl, answered the song, and drove the boat on, “churning the black water white,” till the land shone clear, and the wide town and the harbour, and lo, ’twas not Crete, but Syracuse, luckless fate! Out came a galley from the port. “Who are you; Sparta’s friend or foe?” “Of Rhodes are we, Rhodes that has forsaken Athens!”

“How, then, that song we heard? All Athens was in that AEschylus. Your boat is full of Athenians back to the pirate; we want no Athenians here.... Yet, stay, that song was AEschylus; every one knows it how about Euripides? Might you know any of his verses?” For nothing helped the poor Athenians so much if any of them had his mouth stored with

Old glory, great plays that had long ago
Made themselves wings to fly about the world,

But most of all those were cherished who could recite Euripides to Syracuse, so mighty was poetry in the ancient days to make enemies into friends, to build, beyond the wars and jealousies of the world, a land where all nations are one.

At this the captain cried: “Praise the God, we have here the very girl who will fill you with Euripides,” and the passage brings Balaustion into full light.

Therefore, at mention of Euripides,
The Captain crowed out, “Euoi, praise the God!
Ooep, boys, bring our owl-shield to the fore!
Out with our Sacred Anchor! Here she stands,
Balaustion! Strangers, greet the lyric girl!
Euripides? Babai! what a word there ’scaped
Your teeth’s enclosure, quoth my grandsire’s song
Why, fast as snow in Thrace, the voyage through,
Has she been falling thick in flakes of him!
Frequent as figs at Kaunos, Kaunians said.
Balaustion, stand forth and confirm my speech!
Now it was some whole passion of a play;
Now, peradventure, but a honey-drop
That slipt its comb i’ the chorus. If there rose
A star, before I could determine steer
Southward or northward if a cloud surprised
Heaven, ere I fairly hollaed Furl the sail!
She had at fingers’ end both cloud and star
Some thought that perched there, tame and tuneable,
Fitted with wings, and still, as off it flew,
‘So sang Euripides,’ she said, ’so sang
The meteoric poet of air and sea,
Planets and the pale populace of heaven,
The mind of man, and all that’s made to soar!’
And so, although she has some other name,
We only call her Wild-pomegranate-flower,
Balaustion; since, where’er the red bloom burns
I’ the dull dark verdure of the bounteous tree,
Dethroning, in the Rosy Isle, the rose,
You shall find food, drink, odour, all at once;
Cool leaves to bind about an aching brow.
And, never much away, the nightingale.
Sing them a strophe, with the turn-again,
Down to the verse that ends all, proverb like.
And save us, thou Balaustion, bless the name”

And she answered: I will recite the last play he wrote from first to last Alkestis his strangest, saddest, sweetest song.”

Then because Greeks are Greeks, and hearts are hearts.
And poetry is power, they all outbroke
In a great joyous laughter with much love:
“Thank Herakles for the good holiday!
Make for the harbour! Row, and let voice ring,
‘In we row, bringing more Euripides!’”
All the crowd, as they lined the harbour now,
“More of Euripides!” took up the cry.
We landed; the whole city, soon astir,
Came rushing out of gates in common joy
To the suburb temple; there they stationed me
O’ the topmost step; and plain I told the play,
Just as I saw it; what the actors said,
And what I saw, or thought I saw the while,
At our Kameiros theatre, clean scooped
Out of a hill side, with the sky above
And sea before our seats in marble row:
Told it, and, two days more, repeated it
Until they sent us on our way again
With good words and great wishes.

So, we see Balaustion’s slight figure under the blue sky, and the white temple of Herakles from the steps of which she spoke; and among the crowd, looking up to her with rapture, the wise and young Sicilian who took ship with her when she was sent back to Athens, wooed her, and found answer before they reached Piraeus. And there in Athens she and her lover saw Euripides, and told the Master how his play had redeemed her from captivity. Then they were married; and one day, with four of her girl friends, under the grape-vines by the streamlet side, close to the temple, Baccheion, in the cool afternoon, she tells the tale; interweaving with the play (herself another chorus) what she thinks, how she feels concerning its personages and their doings, and in the comment discloses her character. The woman is built up in this way for us. The very excuse she makes for her inserted words reveals one side of her delightful nature her love of poetry, her love of beauty, her seeing eye, her delicate distinction, her mingled humility and self-knowledge.

Look at Baccheion’s beauty opposite,
The temple with the pillars at the porch!
See you not something beside masonry?
What if my words wind in and out the stone
As yonder ivy, the God’s parasite?
Though they leap all the way the pillar leads,
Festoon about the marble, foot to frieze,
And serpentiningly enrich the roof,
Toy with some few bees and a bird or two,
What then? The column holds the cornice up.

As the ivy is to the pillar that supports the cornice, so are her words to the Alkestis on which she comments.

That is her charming way. She also is, like Pompilia, young. But no contrast can be greater than that between Pompilia at seventeen years of age and Balaustion at fifteen. In Greece, as in Italy, women mature quickly. Balaustion is born with that genius which has the experience of age in youth and the fire of youth in age. Pompilia has the genius of pure goodness, but she is uneducated, her intelligence is untrained, and her character is only developed when she has suffered. Balaustion, on the contrary, has all the Greek capacity, a thorough education, and that education also which came in the air of that time to those of the Athenian temper. She is born into beauty and the knowledge of it, into high thinking and keen feeling; and she knows well why she thought and how she felt. So finely wrought is she by passion and intelligence alike, with natural genius to make her powers tenfold, that she sweeps her kinsfolk into agreement with her, subdues the sailors to her will, enchants the captain, sings the whole crew into energy, would have, I believe, awed and enthralled the pirate, conquers the Syracusans, delights the whole city, draws a talent out of the rich man which she leaves behind her for the prisoners, is a dear friend of sombre Euripides, lures Aristophanes, the mocker, into seriousness, mates herself with him in a whole night’s conversation, and wrings praise and honour from the nimblest, the most cynical, and the most world-wise intellect in Athens.

Thus, over against Pompilia, she is the image of fine culture, held back from the foolishness and vanity of culture by the steadying power of genius. Then her judgment is always balanced. Each thing to her has many sides. She decides moral and intellectual questions and action with justice, but with mercy to the wrong opinion and the wrong thing, because her intellect is clear, tolerant and forgiving through intellectual breadth and power. Pompilia is the image of natural goodness and of its power. A spotless soul, though she is passed through hell, enables her, without a trained intellect, with ignorance of all knowledge, and with as little vanity as Balaustion, to give as clear and firm a judgment of right and wrong. She is as tolerant, as full of excuses for the wrong thing, as forgiving, as Balaustion, but it is by the power of goodness and love in her, not by that of intellect. Browning never proved his strength more than when he made these two, in vivid contrast, yet in their depths in harmony; both equal, though so far apart, in noble womanhood. Both are beyond convention; both have a touch of impulsive passion, of natural wildness, of flower-beauty. Both are, in hours of crisis, borne beyond themselves, and mistress of the hour. Both mould men, for their good, like wax in their fingers. But Pompilia is the white rose, touched with faint and innocent colour; and Balaustion is the wild pomegranate flower, burning in a crimson of love among the dark green leaves of steady and sure thought, her powers latent till needed, but when called on and brought to light, flaming with decision and revelation.

In this book we see her in her youth, her powers as yet untouched by heavy sorrow. In the next, in Aristophanes’ Apology, we first find her in matured strength, almost mastering Aristophanes; and afterwards in the depth of grief, as she flies with her husband over the seas to Rhodes, leaving behind her Athens, the city of her heart, ruined and enslaved. The deepest passion in her, the patriotism of the soul, is all but broken-hearted. Yet, she is the life and support of all who are with her; even a certain gladness breaks forth in her, and she secures for all posterity the intellectual record of Athenian life and the images, wrought to vitality, of some of the greater men of Athens. So we possess her completely. Her life, her soul, its growth and strength, are laid before us. To follow her through these two poems is to follow their poetry. Whenever we touch her we touch imagination. Aristophanes’ Apology is illuminated by Balaustion’s eyes. A glimpse here and there of her enables us to thread our way without too great weariness through a thorny undergrowth of modern and ancient thought mingled together on the subject of the Apology.

In Balaustion’s Adventure she tells her tale, and recites, as she did at Syracuse, the Alkestis to her four friends. But she does more; she comments on it, as she did not at Syracuse. The comments are, of course, Browning’s, but he means them to reveal Balaustion. They are touched throughout with a woman’s thought and feeling, inflamed by the poetic genius with which Browning has endowed her. Balaustion is his deliberate picture of genius the great miracle.

The story of the Alkestis begins before the play. Apollo, in his exile, having served King Admetos as shepherd, conceives a friendship for the king, helps him to his marriage, and knowing that he is doomed to die in early life, descends to hell and begs the Fates to give him longer life. That is a motive, holding in it strange thoughts of life and death and fate, which pleased Browning, and he treats it separately, and with sardonic humour, in the Prologue to one of his later volumes. The Fates refuse to lengthen Admetos’ life, unless some one love him well enough to die for him. They must have their due at the allotted time.

The play opens when that time arrives. We see, in a kind of Prologue, Apollo leaving the house of Admetos and Death coming to claim his victim. Admetos has asked his father, mother, relations and servants to die instead of him. None will do it; but his wife, Alkestis, does. Admetos accepts her sacrifice. Her dying, her death, the sorrow of Admetos is described with all the poignant humanity of Euripides. In the meantime Herakles has come on the scene, and Admetos, though steeped in grief, conceals his wife’s death and welcomes his friend to his house. As Alkestis is the heroine of self-sacrifice, Admetos is the hero of hospitality. Herakles feasts, but the indignant bearing of an old servant attracts his notice, and he finds out the truth. He is shocked, but resolves to attack Death himself, who is bearing away Alkestis. He meets and conquers Death and brings back Alkestis alive to her husband. So the strong man conquers the Fates, whom even Apollo could not subdue.

This is a fine subject. Every one can see in how many different ways it may be treated, with what different conceptions, how variously the characters may be built up, and what different ethical and emotional situations may be imaginatively treated in it. Racine himself thought it the finest of the Greek subjects, and began a play upon it. But he died before he finished it, and ordered his manuscript to be destroyed. We may well imagine how the quiet, stately genius of Racine would have conceived and ordered it; with the sincere passion, held under restraint by as sincere a dignity, which characterised his exalted style.

Balaustion treats it with an equal moral force, and also with that modern moral touch which Racine would have given it; which, while it removed the subject at certain points from the Greek morality, would yet have exalted it into a more spiritual world than even the best of the Greeks conceived. The commentary of Balaustion is her own treatment of the subject. It professes to explain Euripides: it is in reality a fresh conception of the characters and their motives, especially of the character of Herakles. Her view of the character of Alkestis, especially in her death, is not, I think, the view which Euripides took. Her condemnation of Admetos is unmodified by those other sides of the question which Euripides suggests. The position Balaustion takes up with regard to self-sacrifice is far more subtle, with its half-Christian touches, than the Greek simplicity would have conceived. Finally, she feels so strongly that the subject has not been adequately conceived that, at the end, she recreates it for herself. Even at the beginning she rebuilds the Euripidean matter. When Apollo and Death meet, Balaustion conceives the meeting for herself. She images the divine Apollo as somewhat daunted, and images the dread meeting of these two with modern, not Greek imagination. It is like the meeting, she thinks, of a ruined eagle, caught as he swooped in a gorge, half heedless, yet terrific, with a lion, the haunter of the gorge, the lord of the ground, who pauses, ere he try the worst with the frightful, unfamiliar creature, known in the shadows and silences of the sky but not known here. It is the first example we have of Balaustions imaginative power working for itself. There is another, farther on, where she stays her recitation to describe Deaths rush in on Alkestis when the dialogue between him and Apollo is over

And, in the fire-flash of the appalling sword,
The uprush and the outburst, the onslaught
Of Death’s portentous passage through the door,
Apollon stood a pitying moment-space:
I caught one last gold gaze upon the night,
Nearing the world now: and the God was gone,
And mortals left to deal with misery.

So she speaks, as if she saw more than Euripides, as if to her the invisible were visible as it was. To see the eternal unseen is the dower of imagination in its loftiest mood.

She is as much at home with the hero of earth, the highest manhood, as she is with the gods. When Herakles comes on the scene she cannot say enough about him; and she conceives him apart from the Herakles of Euripides. She paints in him, and Browning paints through her, the idea of the full, the perfect man; and it is not the ideal of the cultivated, of the sensitive folk. It is more also a woman’s than a man’s ideal. For, now, suddenly, into the midst of the sorrow of the house, every one wailing, life full of penury and inactivity, there leaps the “gay cheer of a great voice,” the full presence of the hero, his “weary happy face, half god, half man, which made the god-part god the more.” His very voice, which smiled at sorrow, and his look, which, saying sorrow was to be conquered, proclaimed to all the world “My life is in my hand to give away, to make men glad,” seemed to dry up all misery at its source, for his love of man makes him always joyful. When Admetos opened the house to him, and did not tell him of his wife’s death, Balaustion comments “The hero, all truth, took him at his word, and then strode off to feast.” He takes, she thought, the present rest, the physical food and drink as frankly as he took the mighty labours of his fate. And she rejoices as much in his jovial warmth, his joy in eating and drinking and singing, and festivity, as in his heroic soul. They go together, these things, in a hero.

Making the most o’ the minute, that the soul
And body, strained to height a minute since,
Might lie relaxed in joy, this breathing space,
For man’s sake more than ever;

He slew the pest of the marish, yesterday; to-day he takes his fill of food, wine, song and flowers; to-morrow he will slay another plague of mankind.

So she sings, praising aloud the heroic temper, as mighty in the natural joys of natural life, in the strength and honour of the body, as in the saving of the world from pain and evil. But this pleasure of the senses, though in the great nature, is in it under rule, and the moment Herakles hears of Alkestis dead, he casts aside, in “a splendour of resolve,” the feast, wine, song, and garlands, and girds himself to fight with Death for her rescue And Balaustion, looking after him as he goes, cries out the judgment of her soul on all heroism. It is Browning’s judgment also, one of the deepest things in his heart; a constant motive in his poetry, a master-thought in his life.

Gladness be with thee, Helper of our world!
I think this is the authentic sign and seal
Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad,
And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts
Into a rage to suffer for mankind,
And recommence at sorrow: drops like seed
After the blossom, ultimate of all.
Say, does the seed scorn earth and seek the sun?
Surely it has no other end and aim
Than to drop, once more die into the ground,
Taste cold and darkness and oblivion there:
And thence rise, tree-like grow through pain to joy,
More joy and most joy, do man good again.

That is the truth Browning makes this woman have the insight to reveal. Gladness of soul, becoming at one with sorrow and death and rising out of them the conqueror, but always rejoicing, in itself, in the joy of the universe and of God, is the root-heroic quality.

Then there is the crux of the play Alkestis is to die for Admetos, and does it. What of the conduct of Admetos? What does Balaustion, the woman, think of that? She thinks Admetos is a poor creature for having allowed it. When Alkestis is brought dying on the stage, and Admetos follows, mourning over her, Balaustion despises him, and she traces in the speech of Alkestis, which only relates to her children’s fate and takes no notice of her husband’s protestations, that she has judged her husband, that love is gone in sad contempt, that all Admetos has given her is now paid for, that her death is a business transaction which has set her free to think no more about him, only of her children. For, what seems most pertinent for him to say, if he loved, “Take, O Fates, your promise back, and take my life, not hers,” he does not say. That is not really the thought of Euripides.

Then, and this is subtly but not quite justly wrought into Euripides by Balaustion, she traces through the play the slow awakening of the soul of Admetos to the low-hearted thing he had done. He comes out of the house, having disposed all things duteously and fittingly round the dead, and Balaustion sees in his grave quietude that the truth is dawning on him; when suddenly Pheres, his father, who had refused to die for him, comes to lay his offering on the bier. This, Balaustion thinks, plucks Admetos back out of unselfish thought into that lower atmosphere in which he only sees his own advantage in the death of Alkestis; and in which he now bitterly reproaches his father because he did not die to save Alkestis. And the reproach is the more bitter because and this Balaustion, with her subtle morality, suggests an undernote of conscience causes him to see his own baser self, now prominent in his acceptance of Alkestis’ sacrifice, finished and hardened in the temper of his father young Admetos in old Pheres. He sees with dread and pain what he may become when old. This hatred of himself in his father is, Balaustion thinks, the source of his extreme violence with his father. She, with the Greek sense of what was due to nature, seeks to excuse this unfitting scene. Euripides has gone too far for her. She thinks that, if Sophocles had to do with the matter, he would have made the Chorus explain the man.

But the unnatural strife would not have been explained by Sophocles as Balaustion explains it. That fine ethical twist of hers “that Admetos hates himself in his father,” is too modern for a Greek. It has the casuistical subtlety which the over-developed conscience of the Christian Church encouraged. It is intellectual, too, rather than real, metaphysical more than moral, Browning rather than Sophocles. Nor do I believe that a Rhodian girl, even with all Athens at the back of her brain, would have conceived it at all. Then Balaustion makes another comment on the situation, in which there is more of Browning than of herself. “Admetos,” she says, “has been kept back by the noisy quarrel from seeing into the truth of his own conduct, as he was on the point of doing, for ‘with the low strife comes the little mind.’” But when his father is gone, and Alkestis is borne away, then, in the silence of the house and the awful stillness in his own heart, he sees the truth. His shame, the whole woe and horror of his failure in love, break, like a toppling wave, upon him, and the drowned truth, so long hidden from him by self, rose to the surface, and appalled him by its dead face. His soul in seeing true, is saved, yet so las by fire. At this moment Herakles comes in, leading Alkestis, redeemed from death; and finding, so Balaustion thinks, her husband restored to his right mind.

But, then, we ask, how Alkestis, having found him fail, will live with him again, how she, having topped nobility, will endure the memory of the ignoble in him? That would be the interesting subject, and the explanation Euripides suggests does not satisfy Balaustion. The dramatic situation is unfinished. Balaustion, with her fine instinct, feels that, to save the subject, it ought to be otherwise treated, and she invents a new Admetos, a new Alkestis. She has heard that Sophocles meant to make a new piece of the same matter, and her balanced judgment, on which Browning insists so often, makes her say, “That is well. One thing has many sides; but still, no good supplants a good, no beauty undoes another; still I will love the Alkestis which I know. Yet I have so drunk this poem, so satisfied with it my heart and soul, that I feel as if I, too, might make a new poem on the same matter.”

Ah, that brave
Bounty of poets, the one royal race
That ever was, or will be, in this world!
They give no gift that bounds itself and ends
I’ the giving and the taking: theirs so breeds
I’ the heart and soul o’ the taker, so transmutes
The man who only was a man before,
That he grows godlike in his turn, can give
He also: share the poet’s privilege,
Bring forth new good, new beauty, from the old.

And she gives her conception of the subject, and it further unfolds her character.

When Apollo served Admetos, the noble nature of the God so entered into him that all the beast was subdued in the man, and he became the ideal king, living for the ennoblement of his people. Yet, while doing this great work, he is to die, still young, and he breaks out, in a bitter calm, against the fate which takes him from the work of his life.

“Not so,” answers Alkestis, “I knew what was coming, and though Apollo urged me not to disturb the course of things, and not to think that any death prevents the march of good or ends a life, yet he yielded; and I die for you all happiness.”

“It shall never be,” replies Admetos; “our two lives are one. But I am the body, thou art the soul; and the body shall go, and not the soul. I claim death.”

“No,” answered Alkestis; “the active power to rule and weld the people into good is in the man. Thou art the acknowledged power. And as to the power which, thou sayest, I give thee, as to the soul of me take it, I pour it into thee. Look at me.” And as he looks, she dies, and the king is left still twofold as before, with the soul of Alkestis in him himself and her. So is Fate cheated, and Alkestis in Admetos is not dead. A passage follows of delicate and simple poetry, written by Browning in a manner in which I would he had oftener written. To read it is to regret that, being able to do this, he chose rather to write, from time to time, as if he were hewing his way through tangled underwood. No lovelier image of Proserpina has been made in poetry, not even in Tennyson’s Demeter, than this

And even while it lay, i’ the look of him,
Dead, the dimmed body, bright Alkestis’ soul
Had penetrated through the populace
Of ghosts, was got to Korê, throned and crowned
The pensive queen o’ the twilight, where she dwells
Forever in a muse, but half away
From flowery earth she lost and hankers for,
And there demanded to become a ghost
Before the time.
Whereat the softened eyes
Of the lost maidenhood that lingered still
Straying among the flowers in Sicily,
Sudden was startled back to Hades’ throne
By that demand: broke through humanity
Into the orbed omniscience of a God,
Searched at a glance Alkestis to the soul
And said ...
“Hence, thou deceiver! This is not to die,
If, by the very death which mocks me now,
The life, that’s left behind and past my power,
Is formidably doubled ...”
And so, before the embrace relaxed a whit,
The lost eyes opened, still beneath the look;
And lo, Alkestis was alive again,
And of Admetos’ rapture who shall speak?

The old conception has more reality. This is in the vague world of modern psychical imagination. Nevertheless it has its own beauty, and it enlarges Browning’s picture of the character of Balaustion.

Her character is still further enlarged in Aristophanes’ Apology. That poem, if we desire intellectual exercise, illuminated by flashings of imagination, is well worth reading, but to comprehend it fully, one must know a great deal of Athenian life and of the history of the Comic Drama. It is the defence by Aristophanes of his idea of the business, the method, and the use of Comedy. How far what he says is Browning speaking for Aristophanes, and how far it is Browning speaking for himself, is hard to tell. And it would please him to leave that purposely obscure. What is alive and intense in the poem is, first, the realisation of Athenian life in several scenes, pictured with all Browning’s astonishing force of presentation, as, for instance, the feast after the play, and the grim entrance of Sophocles, black from head to foot, among the glittering and drunken revellers, to announce the death of Euripides.

Secondly, there is the presentation of Aristophanes. Browning has created him for us

And no ignoble presence! On the bulge
Of the clear baldness, all his head one brow,
True, the veins swelled, blue network, and there surged
A red from cheek to temple, then retired
As if the dark-leaved chaplet damped a flame,
Was never nursed by temperance or health.
But huge the eyeballs rolled back native fire,
Imperiously triumphant: nostrils wide
Waited their incense; while the pursed mouth’s pout
Aggressive, while the beak supreme above,
While the head, face, nay, pillared throat thrown back,
Beard whitening under like a vinous foam,
There made a glory, of such insolence
I thought, such domineering deity
Hephaistos might have carved to cut the brine
For his gay brother’s prow, imbrue that path
Which, purpling, recognised the conqueror.
Impudent and majestic: drunk, perhaps,
But that’s religion; sense too plainly snuffed:
Still, sensuality was grown a rite.

We see the man, the natural man, to the life. But as the poem goes on, we company with his intellect and soul, with the struggle of sensualism against his knowledge of a more ideal life; above all, with one, who indulging the appetites and senses of the natural man, is yet, at a moment, their master. The coarse chambers of his nature are laid bare, his sensuous pleasure in the lower forms of human life, his joy in satirising them, his contempt for the good or the ideal life if it throw the sensual man away. Then, we are made to know the power he has to rise above this without losing it into the higher imaginative region where, for the time, he feels the genius of Sophocles, Euripides, the moral power of Balaustion, and the beauty of the natural world. Indeed, in that last we find him in his extant plays. Few of the Greeks could write with greater exquisiteness of natural beauty than this wild poet who loved the dunghill. And Browning does not say this, but records in this Apology how when Aristophanes is touched for an instant by Balaustion’s reading of the Herakles, and seizing the psaltérion sings the song of Thamuris marching to his trial with the Muses through a golden autumn morning it is the glory and loveliness of nature that he sings. This portraiture of the poet is scattered through the whole poem. It is too minute, too full of detail to dwell on here. It has a thousand touches of life and intimacy. And it is perhaps the finest thing Browning has done in portraiture of character. But then there was a certain sympathy in Browning for Aristophanes. The natural man was never altogether put aside by Browning.

Lastly, there is the fresh presentation of Balaustion, of the matured and experienced woman whom we have known as a happy girl. Euthycles and she are married, and one night, as she is sitting alone, he comes in, bringing the grave news that Euripides is dead, but had proved at the court of Archelaos of Macedonia his usefulness as counsellor to King and State, and his power still to sing

Clashed thence Alkaion, maddened Pentheus’ up;
Then music sighed itself away, one moan
Iphigeneia made by Aulis’ strand;
With her and music died Euripides.

And Athens, hearing, ceased to mock and cried “Bury Euripides in Peiraios, bring his body back.” “Ah,” said Balaustion, “Death alters the point of view. But our tribute is in our hearts; and more, his soul will now for ever teach and bless the world.

Is not that day come? What if you and I
Re-sing the song, inaugurate the fame?

For, like Herakles, in his own Alkestis, he now strides away (and this is the true end of the Alkestis) to surmount all heights of destiny.” While she spoke thus, the Chorus of the Comedy, girls, boys, and men, in drunken revel and led by Aristophanes, thundered at the door and claimed admittance. Balaustion is drawn confronting them tall and superb, like Victory’s self; her warm golden eyes flashing under her black hair, “earth flesh with sun fire,” statuesque, searching the crowd with her glance. And one and all dissolve before her silent splendour of reproof, all save Aristophanes. She bids him welcome. “Glory to the Poet,” she cries. “Light, light, I hail it everywhere; no matter for the murk, that never should have been such orb’s associate.” Aristophanes changes as he sees her; a new man confronts her.

“So!” he smiled, “piercing to my thought at once,
You see myself? Balaustion’s fixed regard
Can strip the proper Aristophanes
Of what our sophists, in their jargon, style
His accidents?”

He confesses her power to meet him in discourse, unfolds his views and plans to her, and having contrasted himself with Euripides, bids her use her thrice-refined refinement, her rosy strength, to match his argument. She claims no equality with him, the consummate creator; but only, as a woman, the love of all things lovable with which to meet him who has degraded Comedy. She appeals to the high poet in the man, and finally bids him honour the deep humanity in Euripides. To prove it, and to win his accord, she reads the Herakles, the last of Euripides.

It is this long night of talk which Balaustion dictates to Euthycles as she is sailing, day after day, from Athens back to Rhodes. The aspect of sea and sky, as they sail, is kept before us, for Balaustion uses its changes as illustrations, and the clear descriptions tell, even more fully than before, how quick this woman was to observe natural beauty and to correlate it with humanity. Here is one example. In order to describe a change in the temper of Aristophanes from wild license to momentary gravity, Balaustion seizes on a cloud-incident of the voyage Euthycles, she cries,

... “o’er the boat side, quick, what change, Watch in the water! But a second since, It laughed a ripply spread of sun and sea, Ray fused with wave, to never disunite. Now, sudden, all the surface hard and black, Lies a quenched light, dead motion: what the cause? Look up, and lo, the menace of a cloud Has solemnised the sparkling, spoiled the sport! Just so, some overshadow, some new care Stopped all the mirth and mocking on his face.”

Her feeling for nature is as strong us her feeling for man, and both are woven together.

All her powers have now ripened, and the last touch has been given to them by her ideal sorrow for Athens, the country of her soul, where high intelligence and imagination had created worlds. She leaves it now, ruined and degraded, and the passionate outbreak of her patriotic sorrow with which the poem opens lifts the character and imagination of Balaustion into spiritual splendour. Athens, “hearted in her heart,” has perished ignobly. Not so, she thinks, ought this beauty of the world to have died, its sea-walls razed to the ground to the fluting and singing of harlots; but in some vast overwhelming of natural energies in the embrace of fire to join the gods; or in a sundering of the earth, when the Acropolis should have sunken entire and risen in Hades to console the ghosts with beauty; or in the multitudinous over-swarming of ocean. This she could have borne, but, thinking of what has been, of the misery and disgrace, “Oh,” she cries, “bear me away wind, wave and bark!” But Browning does not leave Balaustion with only this deep emotion in her heart. He gives her the spiritual passion of genius. She is swept beyond her sorrow into that invisible world where the soul lives with the gods, with the pure Ideas of justice, truth and love; where immortal life awaits the disembodied soul and we shall see Euripides. In these high thoughts she will outlive her sorrow.

Why should despair be? Since, distinct above
Man’s wickedness and folly, flies the wind
And floats the cloud, free transport for our soul
Out of its fleshly durance dim and low,
Since disembodied soul anticipates
(Thought-borne as now, in rapturous unrestraint)
Above all crowding, crystal silentness,
Above all noise, a silver solitude:
Surely, where thought so bears soul, soul in time
May permanently bide, “assert the wise,”
There live in peace, there work in hope once more
O nothing doubt, Philemon! Greed and strife,
Hatred and cark and care, what place have they
In yon blue liberality of heaven?
How the sea helps! How rose-smit earth will rise
Breast-high thence, some bright morning, and be Rhodes!
Heaven, earth and sea, my warrant in their name,
Believe o’er falsehood, truth is surely sphered,
O’er ugliness beams beauty, o’er this world
Extends that realm where, “as the wise assert,”
Philemon, thou shalt see Euripides
Clearer than mortal sense perceived the man!

We understand that she has drunk deep of Socrates, that her spiritual sense reached onward to the Platonic Socrates. In this supersensuous world of thought she is quieted out of the weakness which made her miserable over the fall of Athens; and in the quiet, Browning, who will lift his favourite into perfectness, adds to her spiritual imagination the dignity of that moral judgment which the intellect of genius gathers from the facts of history. In spite of her sorrow, she grasps the truth that there was justice in the doom of Athens. Let justice have its way. Let the folk die who pulled her glory down. This is her prophetic strain, the strength of the Hebrew in the Greek.

And then the prophet in the woman passes, and the poet in her takes the lyre. She sees the splendid sunset. Why should its extravagance of glory run to waste? Let me build out of it a new Athens, quarry out the golden clouds and raise the Acropolis, and the rock-hewn Place of Assembly, whence new orators may thunder over Greece; and the theatre where AEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, godlike still, may contend for the prize. Yet and there is a further change of thought yet that may not be. To build that poetic vision is to slip away from reality, and the true use of it. The tragedy is there irrevocable. Let it sink deep in us till we see Rhodes shining over the sea. So great, so terrible, so piteous it is, that, dwelt on in the soul and seen in memory, it will do for us what the great tragedians made their tragic themes do for their hearers. It will purify the heart by pity and terror from the baseness and littleness of life. Our small hatreds, jealousies and prides, our petty passions will be rebuked, seem nothing in its mighty sorrow.

What else in life seems piteous any more
After such pity, or proves terrible
Beside such terror;

This is the woman the finest creature Browning drew, young and fair and stately, with her dark hair and amber eyes, lovely the wild pomegranate flower of a girl as keen, subtle and true of intellect as she is lovely, able to comment on and check Euripides, to conceive a new play out of his subject, to be his dearest friend, to meet on equality Aristophanes; so full of lyric sympathy, so full of eager impulse that she thrills the despairing into action, enslaves a city with her eloquence, charms her girl-friends by the Ilissus, and so sends her spirit into her husband that, when the Spartans advise the razing of Athens to the ground he saves the city by those famous lines of Euripides, of which Milton sang; so at one with natural beauty, with all beauty, that she makes it live in the souls of men; so clear in judgment that she sees the right even when it seems lost in the wrong, that she sees the justice of the gods in the ruin of the city she most loved; so poetic of temper that everything speaks to her of life, that she acknowledges the poetry which rises out of the foulness she hates in Aristophanes, that she loves all humanity, bad or good, and Euripides chiefly because of his humanity; so spiritual, that she can soar out of her most overwhelming sorrow into the stormless world where the gods breathe pure thought and for ever love; and, abiding in its peace, use the griefs of earth for the ennoblement of the life of men, because in all her spiritual apartness, however far it bear her from earth, she never loses her close sympathy with the fortunes of mankind. Nay, from her lofty station she is the teacher of truth and love and justice, in splendid prophecy. It is with an impassioned exaltation, worthy of Sibyl and Pythoness in one, of divine wisdom both Roman and Greek, that she cries to the companions of her voyage words which embody her soul and the soul of all the wise and loving of the earth, when they act for men; bearing their action, thought and feeling beyond man to God in man

Speak to the infinite intelligence,
Sing to the everlasting sympathy!