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A just appreciation of the work which Browning published after The Ring and the Book is a difficult task. The poems are of various kinds, on widely separated subjects; and with the exception of those which treat of Balaustion, they have no connection with one another. Many of them must belong to the earlier periods of his life, and been introduced into the volumes out of the crowd of unpublished poems every poet seems to possess. These, when we come across them among their middle-aged companions, make a strange impression, as if we found a white-thorn flowering in an autumnal woodland; and in previous chapters of this book I have often fetched them out of their places, and considered them where they ought to be in the happier air and light in which they were born. I will not discuss them again, but in forming any judgment of the later poems they must be discarded.

The struggle to which I have drawn attention between the imaginative and intellectual elements in Browning, and which was equally balanced in The Ring and the Book, continued after its publication, but with a steady lessening of the imaginative and a steady increase of the intellectual elements. One poem, however, written before the publication of The Ring and the Book, does not belong to this struggle. This is Hervé Riel, a ballad of fire and joy and triumph. It is curiously French in sentiment and expression, and the eager sea-delight in it is plainly French, not English in feeling. Nor is it only French; it is Breton in audacity, in self-forgetfulness, in carelessness of reward, and in loyalty to country, to love and to home. If Browning had been all English, this transference of himself into the soul of another nationality would have been wonderful, nay, impossible. As it is, it is wonderful enough; and this self-transference one of his finest poetic powers is nowhere better accomplished than in this poem, full of the salt wind and the leap and joy of the sea-waves; but even more full, as was natural to Browning, of the Breton soul of Hervé Riel.

In Balaustion’s Adventure (1871) which next appeared, the imaginative elements, as we have seen, are still alive and happy; and though they only emerge at intervals in its continuation, Aristophanes’ Apology (1875), yet they do emerge. Meanwhile, between Balaustion’s Adventure and the end of 1875, he produced four poems Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society; Fifine at the Fair; Red Cotton Nightcap Country, or Turf and Towers; and The Inn Album. They are all long, and were published in four separate volumes. In them the intellectual elements have all but completely conquered the imaginative. They are, however, favourite “exercise-places” for some of his admirers, who think that they derive poetic pleasures from their study. The pleasure these poems give, when they give it, is not altogether a poetic pleasure. It is chiefly the pleasure of the understanding called to solve with excitement a huddle of metaphysical problems. They have the name but not the nature of poetry.

They are the work of my Lord Intelligence attended by wit and fancy who sits at the desk of poetry, and with her pen in his hand. He uses the furniture of poetry, but the goddess herself has left the room. Yet something of her influence still fills the air of the chamber. In the midst of the brilliant display that fancy, wit, and intellect are making, a soft steady light of pure song burns briefly at intervals, and then is quenched; like the light of stars seen for a moment of quiet effulgence among the crackling and dazzling of fireworks.

The poems are, it is true, original. We cannot class them with any previous poetry. They cannot be called didactic or satirical. The didactic and satirical poems of England are, for the most part, artificial, concise, clear. These poems are not artificial, clear or concise. Nor do they represent the men and women of a cultured, intellectual and conventional society, such as the poetry of Dryden and Pope addressed. The natural man is in them the crude, dull, badly-baked man what the later nineteenth century called the real man. We see his ugly, sordid, contemptible, fettered soul, and long for Salinguerra, or Lippo Lippi, or even Caliban. The representations are then human enough, with this kind of humanity, but they might have been left to prose. Poetry has no business to build its houses on the waste and leprous lands of human nature; and less business to call its work art. Realism of this kind is not art, it is science.

Yet the poems are not scientific, for they have no clarity of argument. Their wanderings of thought are as intertangled as the sheep-walks on league after league of high grasslands. When one has a fancy to follow them, the pursuit is entertaining; but unless one has the fancy, there are livelier employments. Their chief interest is the impression they give us of a certain side of Browning’s character. They are his darling debauch of cleverness, of surface-psychology. The analysis follows no conventional lines, does not take or oppose any well-known philosophical side. It is not much more than his own serious or fantastic thinking indulging itself with reckless abandon amusing itself with itself. And this gives them a humanity a Browning humanity outside of their subjects.

The subjects too, though not delightful, are founded on facts of human life. Bishop Blougram was conceived from Cardinal Wiseman’s career, Mr. Sludge from Mr. Home’s. Prince Hohenstiel Schwangau explains and defends the expediency by which Napoleon III. directed his political action. The Inn Album, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, are taken from actual stories that occurred while Browning was alive, and Fifine at the Fair analyses a common crisis in the maturer lives of men and women. The poems thus keep close to special cases, yet and in this the poet appears they have an extension which carries them beyond the particular subjects into the needs and doings of a wider humanity. Their little rivers run into the great sea. They have then their human interest for a reader who does not wish for beauty, passion, imagination, or the desires of the spirit in his poetry; but who hankers at his solitary desk after realistic psychology, fanciful ethics, curiosities of personal philosophy, cold intellectual play with argument, and honest human ugliness.

Moreover, the method Browning attempts to use in them for the discovery of truth is not the method of poetry, nor of any of the arts. It is almost a commonplace to say that the world of mankind and each individual in it only arrives at the truth on any matter, large or small, by going through and exhausting the false forms of that truth and a very curious arrangement it seems to be. It is this method Browning pursues in these poems. He represents one after another various false or half-true views of the matter in hand, and hopes in that fashion to clear the way to the truth. But he fails to convince partly because it is impossible to give all or enough of the false or half-true views of any one truth, but chiefly because his method is one fitted for philosophy or science, but not for poetry. Poetry claims to see and feel the truth at once. When the poet does not assert that claim, and act on it, he is becoming faithless to his art.

Browning’s method in these poems is the method of a scientific philosopher, not of an artist. He gets his man into a debateable situation; the man debates it from various points of view; persons are introduced who take other aspects of the question, or personified abstractions such as Sagacity, Reason, Fancy give their opinions. Not satisfied with this, Browning discusses it again from his own point of view. He is then like the chess-player who himself plays both red and white; who tries to keep both distinct in his mind, but cannot help now and again taking one side more than the other; and who is frequently a third person aware of himself as playing red, and also of himself as playing white; and again of himself as outside both the players and criticising their several games. This is no exaggerated account of what is done in these poems. Three people, even when the poems are monologues, are arguing in them, and Browning plays all their hands, even in The Inn Album, which is not a monologue. In Red Cotton Nightcap Country, when he has told the story of the man and woman in all its sordid and insane detail, with comments of his own, he brings the victim of mean pleasure and mean superstition to the top of the tower whence he throws himself down, and, inserting his intelligence into the soul of the man, explains his own view of the situation. In Prince Hohenstiel Schwangau, we have sometimes what Browning really thinks, as in the beginning of the poem, about the matter in hand, and then what he thinks the Prince would think, and then, to complicate the affair still more, the Prince divides himself, and makes a personage called Sagacity argue with him on the whole situation. As to Fifine at the Fair a poem it would not be fair to class altogether with these its involutions resemble a number of live eels in a tub of water. Don Juan changes his personality and his views like a player on the stage who takes several parts; Elvire is a gliding phantom with gliding opinions; Fifine is real, but she remains outside of this shifting scenery of the mind; and Browning, who continually intrudes, is sometimes Don Juan and sometimes himself and sometimes both together, and sometimes another thinker who strives to bring, as in the visions in the poem, some definition into this changing cloudland of the brain. And after all, not one of the questions posed in any of the poems is settled in the end. I do not say that the leaving of the questions unsettled is not like life. It is very like life, but not like the work of poetry, whose high office it is to decide questions which cannot be solved by the understanding.

Bishop Blongram thinks he has proved his points. Gigadibs is half convinced he has. But the Bishop, on looking back, thinks he has not been quite sincere, that his reasonings were only good for the occasion. He has evaded the centre of the thing. What he has said was no more than intellectual fencing. It certainly is intellectual fencing of the finest kind. Both the Bishop and his companion are drawn to the life; yet, and this is the cleverest thing in the poem, we know that the Bishop is in reality a different man from the picture he makes of himself. And the truth which in his talk underlies its appearance acts on Gigadibs and sends him into a higher life. The discussion as it may be called though the Bishop only speaks concerning faith and doubt is full of admirable wisdom, and urges me to modify my statement that Browning took little or no interest in the controversies of his time. Yet, all through the fencing, nothing is decided. The button is always on the Bishop’s foil. He never sends the rapier home. And no doubt that is the reason that his companion, with “his sudden healthy vehemence” did drive his weapon home into life and started for Australia.

Mr. Sludge, the medium, excuses his imposture, and then thinks “it may not altogether be imposture. For all he knows there may really be spirits at the bottom of it. He never meant to cheat; yet he did cheat. Yet, even if he lied, lies help truth to live; and he must live himself; and God may have made fools for him to live on;” and many other are the twists of his defence. The poem is as lifelike in its insight into the mind of a supple cheat as it is a brilliant bit of literature; but Browning leaves the matter unconcluded, as he would not have done, I hold, had he been writing poetry. Prince Hohenstiel’s defence of expediency in politics is made by Browning to seem now right, now wrong, because he assumes at one time what is true as the ground of his argument, and then at another what is plainly false, and in neither case do the assumptions support the arguments. What really is concluded is not the question, but the slipperiness of the man who argues. And at the end of the poem Browning comes in again to say that words cannot be trusted to hit truth. Language is inadequate to express it. Browning was fond of saying this. It does not seem worth saying. In one sense it is a truism; in another it resembles nonsense. Words are the only way by which we can express truth, or our nearest approach to what we think it is. At any rate, silence, in spite of Maeterlinck, does not express it. Moreover, with regard to the matter in hand, Browning knew well enough how a poet would decide the question of expediency he has here brought into debate. He has decided it elsewhere; but here he chooses not to take that view, that he may have the fun of exercising his clever brain. There is no reason why he should not entertain himself and us in this way; but folk need not call this intellectual jumping to and fro a poem, or try to induce us to believe that it is the work of art.

When he had finished these products of a time when he was intoxicated with his intellect, and of course somewhat proud of it, the poet in him began to revive. This resurrection had begun in Fifine at the Fair. I have said it would not be just to class this poem with the other three. It has many an oasis of poetry where it is a happiness to rest. But the way between their palms and wells is somewhat dreary walking, except to those who adore minute psychology. The poem is pitilessly long. If throughout its length it were easy to follow we might excuse the length, but it is rendered difficult by the incessant interchange of misty personalities represented by one personality. Elvire, Fifine only exist in the mind of Don Juan; their thoughts are only expressed in his words; their outlines not only continually fade into his, but his thought steals into his presentation of their thought, till it becomes impossible to individualise them. The form in which Browning wrote the poem, by which he made Don Juan speak for them, makes this want of clearness and sharpness inevitable. The work is done with a terrible cleverness, but it is wearisome at the last.

The length also might be excused if the subject were a great one or had important issues for mankind. But, though it has its interest and is human enough, it does not deserve so many thousand lines nor so much elaborate analysis. A few lyrics or a drama of two acts might say all that is worth saying on the matter. What Browning has taken for subject is an every-day occurrence. We are grateful to him for writing on so universal a matter, even though it is unimportant; and he has tried to make it uncommon and important by weaving round it an intricate lace-work of psychology; yet, when we get down to its main lines, it is the ordinary event, especially commonplace in any idle society which clings to outward respectability and is dreadfully wearied of it. Our neighbours across the Channel call it La Crise when, after years of a quiet, not unhappy, excellent married existence, day succeeding day in unbroken continuity of easy affection and limited experience, the man or the woman, in full middle life, suddenly wearies of the apparent monotony, the uneventful love, the slow encroaching tide of the commonplace, and looks on these as fetters on their freedom, as walls which shut them in from the vivid interests of the outside world, from the gipsy roving of the passions. The time arrives, when this becomes, they think, too great for endurance, and their impatience shows itself in a daily irritability quite new in the household, apparently causeless, full of sudden, inexplicable turns of thought and act which turn the peaceful into a tempestuous home. It is not that the husband or the wife are inconstant by nature to call Fifine at the Fair a defence of inconstancy is to lose the truth of the matter but it is the desire of momentary change, of a life set free from conventional barriers, of an outburst into the unknown, of the desire for new experiences, for something which will bring into play those parts of their nature of which they are vaguely conscious but which are as yet unused new elements in their senses, intellect, imagination, even in their spirit, but not always in their conscience. That, for the time being, as in this poem, is often shut up in the cellar, where its voice cannot be heard.

This is, as I said, a crisis of common occurrence. It may be rightly directed, its evil controlled, and a noble object chosen for the satisfaction of the impulse. Here, that is not the case; and Browning describes its beginning with great freshness and force as Juan walks down to the fair with Elvire. Nor has he omitted to treat other forms of it in his poetry. He knew how usual it was, but he has here made it unusual by putting it into the heart of a man who, before he yielded to it, was pleased to make it the subject of a wandering metaphysical analysis; who sees not only how it appears to himself in three or four moods, but how it looks to the weary, half-jealous wife to whom he is so rude while he strives to be courteous, and to the bold, free, conscienceless child of nature whose favour he buys, and with whom, after all his barren metaphysics, he departs, only to attain, when his brief spell of foolish freedom is over, loneliness and cynic satiety. It may amuse us to circle with him through his arguments, though every one knows he will yield at last and that yielding is more honest than his talk; but what we ask is Was the matter worth the trouble of more than two thousand lines of long-winded verse? Was it worth an artist’s devotion? or, to ask a question I would not ask if the poem were good art, is it of any real importance to mankind? Is it, finally, anything more than an intellectual exercise of Browning on which solitary psychologists may, in their turn, employ their neat intelligence? This poem, with the exceptions of some episodes of noble poetry, is, as well as the three others, a very harlequinade of the intellect.

I may say, though this is hypercritical, that the name of Don Juan is a mistake. Every one knows Don Juan, and to imagine him arguing in the fashion of this poem is absurd. He would instantly, without a word, have left Elvire, and abandoned Fifine in a few days. The connection then of the long discussions in the poem with his name throws an air of unreality over the whole of it. The Don Juan of the poem had much better have stayed with Elvire, who endured him with weary patience. I have no doubt that he bored Fifine to extinction.

The poems that follow these four volumes are mixed work, half imaginative, half intellectual. Sometimes both kinds are found, separated, in the same poem; sometimes in one volume half the poems will be imaginative and the other half not. Could the imaginative and intellectual elements have now been fused as they were in his earlier work, it were well; but they were not. They worked apart. His witful poems are all wit, his analytical poems are all analysis, and his imaginative poems, owing to this want of fusion, have not the same intellectual strength they had in other days. Numpholeptos, for instance, an imaginative poem, full too of refined and fanciful emotion, is curiously wanting in intellectual foundation.

The Numpholeptos is in the volume entitled Pacchiarotto, and how he worked in Distemper. Part of the poems in it are humorous, such as Pacchiarotto and Filippo Baldinucci, excellent pieces of agreeable wit, containing excellent advice concerning life. One reads them, is amused by them, and rarely desires to read them again. In the same volume there are some severe pieces, sharply ridiculing his critics. In the old days, when he wrote fine imaginative poetry, out of his heart and brain working together, he did not mind what the critics said, and only flashed a scoff or two at them in his creation of Naddo in Sordello. But now when he wrote a great deal of his poetry out of his brain alone, he became sensitive to criticism. For that sort of poetry does not rest on the sure foundation which is given by the consciousness the imagination has of its absolute rightness. He expresses his needless soreness with plenty of wit in Pacchiarotto and in the Epilogue, criticises his critics, and displays his good opinion of his work no doubt of these later poems, like The Inn Album and the rest with a little too much of self-congratulation. “The poets pour us wine,” he says, “and mine is strong the strong wine of the loves and hates and thoughts of man. But it is not sweet as well, and my critics object. Were it so, it would be more popular than it is. Sweetness and strength do not go together, and I have strength.”

But that is not the real question. The question is Is the strength poetical? Has it imagination? It is rough, powerful, full of humanity, and that is well. But is it half prose, or wholly prose? Or is it poetry, or fit to be called so? He thinks that Prince Hohenstiel, or Red Cotton Nightcap Country, are poetry. They are, it is true, strong; and they are not sweet. But have they the strength of poetry in them, and not the strength of something else altogether? That is the question he ought to have answered, and it does not occur to him.

Yet, he was, in this very book, half-way out of this muddle. There are poems in it, just as strong as The Inn Album, but with the ineffable spirit of imaginative emotion and thought clasped together in them, so that the strong is stronger, and the humanity deeper than in the pieces he thought, being deceived by the Understanding, were more strong than the poems of old. In Bifurcation, in St. Martin’s Summer, the diviner spirit breathes. There is that other poem called Forgiveness of which I have already spoken one of his masterpieces. Cenciaja, which may be classed with Forgiveness as a study of the passion of hatred, is not so good as its comrade, but its hatred is shown in a mean character and for a meaner motive. And the Prologue, in its rhythm and pleasure, its subtlety of thought, its depth of feeling, and its close union of both, recalls his earlier genius.

The first of the Pisgah Sights is a jewel. It is like a poem by Goethe, only Goethe would have seen the “sight” not when he was dying, but when he was alive to his finger-tips. The second is not like Goethe’s work, nor Browning’s; but it is a true picture of what many feel and are. So is Fears and Scruples. As to Natural Magic, surely it is the most charming of compliments, most enchantingly expressed.

The next volume of original poems was La Saisiaz and the Two Poets of Croisic. The Croisic Poets are agreeable studies, written with verve and lucidity, of two fantastic events which lifted these commonplace poets suddenly into fame. They do well to amuse an idle hour. The end of both is interesting. That of the first, which begins with stanza lix., discusses the question: Who cares, how such a mediocrity as Ren lived after the fame of his prophecy died out?" And Browning answers

Well, I care intimately care to have
Experience how a human creature felt
In after life, who bore the burthen grave
Of certainly believing God had dealt
For once directly with him: did not rave
A maniac, did not find his reason melt
An idiot, but went on, in peace or strife,
The world’s way, lived an ordinary life.

The solution Browning offers is interesting, because it recalls a part of the experiences of Lazarus in the Epistle to Karshish. René, like Lazarus, but only for a moment, has lived in the eternal.

Are such revelations possible, is his second question. Yes, he answers; and the form of the answer belongs to the theory of life laid down in Paracelsus. Such sudden openings of the greater world are at intervals, as to Abt Vogler, given by God to men.

The end of the second asks what is the true test of the greater poet, when people take on them to weigh the worth of poets who was better, best, this, that or the other bard? When I read this I trembled, knowing that I had compared him with Tennyson. But when I heard the answer I trembled no more. “The best poet of any two is the one who leads the happier life. The strong and joyful poet is the greater.” But this is a test of the greatness of a man, not necessarily of a poet. And, moreover, in this case, Tennyson and Browning both lived equally happy lives. Both were strong to the end, and imaginative joy was their companion. But the verse in which Browning winds up his answer is one of the finest in his poetry.

So, force is sorrow, and each sorrow, force;
What then? since Swiftness gives the charioteer
The palm, his hope be in the vivid horse
Whose neck God clothed with thunder, not the steer
Sluggish and safe! Yoke Hatred, Crime, Remorse,
Despair; but ever mid the whirling fear,
Let, through the tumult, break the poet’s face
Radiant, assured his wild slaves win the race!

La Saisiaz is a more important poem: it describes the sudden death of his friend, Ann Egerton Smith, and passes from that, and all he felt concerning it, into an argument on the future life of the soul, with the assumption that God is, and the soul. The argument is interesting, but does not concern us here. What does concern us is that Browning has largely recovered his poetical way of treating a subject. He is no longer outside of it, but in it. He does not use it as a means of exercising his brains only. It is steeped in true and vital feeling, and the deep friendship he had for his friend fills even the theological argument with a passionate intensity. Nevertheless, the argument is perilously near the work of the understanding alone as if a question like that of immortality could receive any solution from the hands of the understanding. Only each man, in the recesses of his own spirit with God, can solve that question for himself, and not for another. That is Browning’s position when he writes as a poet, and no one has written more positively on the subject. But when he submits the question to reasoning, he wavers, as he does here, and leaves the question more undecided than anywhere else in his work. This is a pity, but it is the natural penalty of his partial abandonment of the poetic for the prosaic realm, of the imagination for the understanding, of the Reason for reasoning.