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


Two Volumes of Dramatic Idyls, one in 1879, the other in 1880, followed La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic. These are also mixed books, composed, partly of studies of character written in rhythmical prose, and partly of poems wrought out of the pure imagination. Three of them if they were written at this time show how the Greek legends still dwelt with Browning; and they brought with them the ocean-scent, heroic life, and mythical charm of Athenian thought. It would be difficult, if one could write of them at all, not to write of them poetically; and Pheidippides, Echetlos, Pan and Luna are alive with force, imaginative joy, and the victorious sense the poet has of having conquered his material. Pheidippides is as full of fire, of careless heroism as Hervé Riel, and told in as ringing verse. The versing of Echetlos, its rugged, rousing sound, its movement, are in most excellent harmony with the image of the rude, giant “Holder of the ploughshare,” who at Marathon drove his furrows through the Persians and rooted up the Mede. Browning has gathered into one picture and one sound the whole spirit of the story. Pan and Luna is a bold re-rendering of the myth that Vergil enshrines, and the greater part of it is of such poetic freshness that I think it must be a waif from the earlier years of his poetry. Nor is there better imaginative work in his descriptive poetry than the image of the naked moon, in virginal distress, flying for refuge through the gazing heaven to the succourable cloud fleece on fleece of piled-up snow, drowsily patient where Pan lay in ambush for her beauty.

Among these more gracious idyls, one of singular rough power tells the ghastly tale of the mother who gave up her little children to the wolves to save herself. Browning liked this poem, and the end he added to the story how the carpenter, Ivan, when the poor frightened woman confessed, lifted his axe and cut off her head; how he knew that he did right, and was held to have done right by the village and its pope. The sin by which a mother sacrificed the lives of her children to save her own was out of nature: the punishment should be outside of ordinary law. It is a piteous tale, and few things in Browning equal the horror of the mother’s vain attempt to hide her crime while she confesses it. Nor does he often show greater imaginative skill in metrical movement than when he describes in galloping and pattering verse the grey pack emerging from the forest, their wild race for the sledge, and their demon leader.

The other idyls in these two volumes are full of interest for those who care for psychological studies expressed in verse. What the vehicle of verse does for them is to secure conciseness and suggestiveness in the rendering of remote, daring, and unexpected turns of thought and feeling, and especially of conscience. Yet the poems themselves cannot be called concise. Their subjects are not large enough, nor indeed agreeable enough, to excuse their length. Goethe would have put them into a short lyrical form. It is impossible not to regret, as we read them, the Browning of the Dramatic Lyrics. Moreover, some of them are needlessly ugly. Halbert and Hob and in Jocoseria Donald, are hateful subjects, and their treatment does not redeem them; unlike the treatment of Ivan Ivanovitch which does lift the pain of the story into the high realms of pity and justice. Death, swift death, was not only the right judgment, but also the most pitiful. Had the mother lived, an hour’s memory would have been intolerable torture. Nevertheless, if Browning, in his desire to represent the whole of humanity, chose to treat these lower forms of human nature, I suppose we must accept them as an integral part of his work; and, at least, there can be no doubt of their ability, and of the brilliancy of their psychological surprises. Ned Bratts is a monument of cleverness, as well as of fine characterisation of a momentary outburst of conscience in a man who had none before; and who would have lost it in an hour, had he not been hanged on the spot. The quick, agile, unpremeditated turns of wit in this poem, as in some of the others, are admirably easy, and happily expressed. Indeed, in these later poems of character and event, ingenuity or nimbleness of intellect is the chief element, and it is accompanied by a facile power which is sometimes rude, often careless, always inventive, fully fantastical, and rarely imaginative in the highest sense of the word. Moreover, as was not the case of old, they have, beyond the story, a direct teaching aim, which, while it lowers them as art, is very agreeable to the ethical psychologist.

Jocoseria has poems of a higher quality, some of which, like the lovely Never the Time and Place, I have been already quoted. Ixion is too obscurely put to attain its end with the general public. But it may be recommended, though vainly, to those theologians who, hungry for the Divine Right of torture, build their God, like Caliban, out of their own minds; who, foolish enough to believe that the everlasting endurance of evil is a necessary guarantee of the everlasting endurance of good, are still bold and bad enough to proclaim the abominable lie of eternal punishment. They need that spirit the little child whom Christ placed in the midst of his disciples; and in gaining which, after living the life of the lover, the warrior, the poet, the statesman, Jochanan Hakkadosh found absolute peace and joy. Few poems contain more of Browning’s matured theory of life than this of the Jewish Rabbi; and its seriousness is happily mingled with imaginative illustrations and with racy wit. The sketch of Tsaddik, who puts us in mind of Wagner in the Faust, is done with a sarcastic joy in exposing the Philistine, and with a delight in its own cleverness which is fascinating.

Ferishtah’s Fancies and Parleyings with Certain People followed Jocoseria in 1884 and 1887. The first of these books is much the better of the two. A certain touch of romance is given by the Dervish, by the Fables with which he illustrates his teaching, and by the Eastern surroundings. Some of the stories are well told, and their scenery is truthfully wrought and in good colour. The subjects are partly theological, with always a reference to human life; and partly of the affections and their working. It is natural to a poet, and delightful in Browning, to find him in his old age dwelling from poem to poem on the pre-eminence of love, on love as the ultimate judge of all questions. He asserts this again and again; with the greatest force in A Pillar at Sebzevar, and, more lightly, in Cherries. Yet, and this is a pity, he is not satisfied with the decision of love, but spends pages in argumentative discussions which lead him away from that poetical treatment of the subjects which love alone, as the master, would have enabled him to give. However, the treatment that love gives we find in the lyrics at the end of each Fancy; and some of these lyrics are of such delicate and subtle beauty that I am tempted to think that they were written at an earlier period, and their Fancies composed to fit them. If they were written now, it is plain that age had not disenabled him from walking with pleasure and power among those sweet, enamelled meadows of poetry in whose soil he now thought great poetry did not grow. And when we read the lyrics, our regret is all the more deep that he chose the thorn-clad and desert lands, where barren argument goes round and round its subjects without ever finding the true path to their centre.

He lost himself more completely in this error in Parleyings with Certain People, in which book, with the exception of the visionary landscapes in Gerard de Lairesse, and some few passages in Francis Furini and Charles Avison, imagination, such as belongs to a poet, has deserted Browning. He feels himself as if this might be said of him; and he asks in Gerard de Lairesse if he has lost the poetic touch, the poetic spirit, because he writes of the soul, of facts, of things invisible not of fancy’s feignings, not of the things perceived by the senses? “I can do this,” he answers, “if I like, as well as you,” and he paints the landscape of a whole day filled with mythological figures. The passage is poetry; we see that he has not lost his poetic genius. But, he calls it “fooling,” and then contrasts the spirit of Greek lore with the spirit of immortal hope and cheer which he possesses, with his faith that there is for man a certainty of Spring. But that is not the answer to his question. It only says that the spirit which animates him now is higher than the Greek spirit. It does not answer the question Whether Daniel Bartoli or Charles Avison or any of these Parleyings even approach as poetry Paracelsus, the Dramatic Lyrics, or Men and Women. They do not. Nor has their intellectual work the same force, unexpectedness and certainty it had of old. Nevertheless, these Parleyings, at the close of the poet’s life, and with biographical touches which give them vitality, enshrine Browning’s convictions with regard to some of the greater and lesser problems of human life. And when his personality is vividly present in them, the argument, being thrilled with passionate feeling, rises, but heavily like a wounded eagle, into an imaginative world.

The sub-consciousness in Browning’s mind to which I have alluded that these later productions of his were not as poetical as his earlier work and needed defence is the real subject of a remarkable little poem at the end of the second volume of the Dramatic Idyls. He is thinking of himself as poet, perhaps of that double nature in him which on one side was quick to see and love beauty; and on the other, to see facts and love their strength. Sometimes the sensitive predominated. He was only the lover of beauty whom everything that touched him urged into song.

“Touch him ne’er so lightly, into song he broke:
Soil so quick-receptive, not one feather-seed,
Not one flower-dust fell but straight its fall awoke
Vitalising virtue: song would song succeed
Sudden as spontaneous prove a poet-soul!”

This, which Browning puts on the lips of another, is not meant, we are told, to describe himself. But it does describe one side of him very well, and the origin and conduct of a number of his earlier poems. But now, having changed his manner, even the principles of his poetry, he describes himself as different from that as a sterner, more iron poet, and the work he now does as more likely to endure, and be a power in the world of men. He was curiously mistaken.

Indeed, he cries, is that the soil in which a poet grows?

“Rock’s the song-soil rather, surface hard and bare:
Sun and dew their mildness, storm and frost their rage
Vainly both expend, few flowers awaken there:
Quiet in its cleft broods what the after-age
Knows and names a pine, a nation’s heritage.”

In this sharp division, as in his Epilogue to Pacchiarotto, he misses the truth. It is almost needless to say that a poet can be sensitive to beauty, and also to the stern facts of the moral and spiritual struggle of mankind through evil to good. All the great poets have been sensitive to both and mingled them in their work. They were ideal and real in both the flower and the pine. They are never forced to choose one or other of these aims or lives in their poetry. They mingled facts and fancies, the intellectual and the imaginative. They lived in the whole world of the outward and the inward, of the senses and the soul. Truth and beauty were one to them. This division of which Browning speaks Was the unfortunate result of that struggle between his intellect and his imagination on which I have dwelt. In old days it was not so with him. His early poetry had sweetness with strength, stern thinking with tender emotion, love of beauty with love of truth, idealism with realism, nature with humanity, fancy with fact. And this is the equipment of the great poet. When he divides these qualities each from the other, and is only aesthetic or only severe in his realism; only the worshipper of Nature or only the worshipper of human nature; only the poet of beauty or only the poet of austere fact; only the idealist or only the realist; only of the senses or only of the soul he may be a poet, but not a great poet. And as the singular pursuit of the realistic is almost always bound up with pride, because realism does not carry us beyond ourselves into the infinite where we are humbled, the realistic poetry loses imagination; its love of love tends to become self-love, or love of mere cleverness. And then its poetic elements slowly die.

There was that, as I have said, in Browning which resisted this sad conclusion, but the resistance was not enough to prevent a great loss of poetic power. But whatever he lost, there was one poetic temper of mind which never failed him, the heroic temper of the faithful warrior for God and man; there was one ideal view of humanity which dominated all his work; there was one principle which directed all his verse to celebrate the struggle of humanity towards the perfection for which God, he believed, had destined it. These things underlie all the poems in Ferishtah’s Fancies and the Parleyings with Certain People, and give to them the uplifted, noble trumpet note with which at times they are animated. The same temper and principle, the same view of humanity emerge in that fine lyric which is the Epilogue to Ferishtah’s Fancies, and in the Epilogue to Asolando.

The first sees a vision of the present and the future in which all the battle of our life passes into a glorious end; nor does the momentary doubt that occurs at the close of the poem that his belief in a divine conclusion of our strife may only have been caused by his own happiness in love really trouble his conviction. That love itself is part of the power which makes the noble conclusion sure. The certainty of this conclusion made his courage in the fight unwavering, despair impossible, joy in battle, duty; and to be “ever a fighter” in the foremost rank the highest privilege of man.

Then the cloud-rift broadens, spanning earth that’s under,
Wide our world displays its worth, man’s strife and strife’s success:
All the good and beauty, wonder crowning wonder,
Till my heart and soul applaud perfection, nothing less.

And for that reason, because of the perfectness to come, Browning lived every hour of his life for good and against wrong. He said with justice of himself, and with justice he brought the ideal aim and the real effort together:

I looked beyond the world for truth and beauty:
Sought, found, and did my duty.

Nor, almost in the very grasp of death, did this faith fail him. He kept, in the midst of a fretful, slothful, wailing world, where prophets like Carlyle and Ruskin were as impatient and bewildered, as lamenting and despondent, as the decadents they despised, the temper of his Herakles in Balaustion. He left us that temper as his last legacy, and he could not have left us a better thing. We may hear it in his last poem, and bind it about our hearts in sorrow and joy, in battle and peace, in the hour of death and the days of judgment.

At the midnight in the silence of the sleep-time
When you set your fancies free,
Will they pass to where by death, fools think, imprisoned
Low he lies who once so loved you, whom you loved so
Pity me?

Oh to love so, be so loved, yet so mistaken
What had I on earth to do
With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly?
Like the aimless, helpless, hopeless, did I drivel
Being who?

One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

No, at noonday in the bustle of man’s work-time
Greet the unseen with a cheer!
Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
“Strive and thrive!” cry “Speed, fight on, fare ever
There as here!”

With these high words he ended a long life, and his memory still falls upon us, like the dew which fell on Paradise. It was a life lived fully, kindly, lovingly, at its just height from the beginning to the end. No fear, no vanity, no lack of interest, no complaint of the world, no anger at criticism, no villain fancies disturbed his soul. No laziness, no feebleness in effort, injured his work, no desire for money, no faltering of aspiration, no pandering of his gift and genius to please the world, no surrender of art for the sake of fame or filthy lucre, no falseness to his ideal, no base pessimism, no slavery to science yet no boastful ignorance of its good, no morbid naturalism, no devotion to the false forms of beauty, no despair of man, no retreat from men into a world of sickly or vain beauty, no abandonment of the great ideas or disbelief in their mastery, no enfeeblement of reason such as at this time walks hand in hand with the worship of the mere discursive intellect, no lack of joy and healthy vigour and keen inquiry and passionate interest in humanity. Scarcely any special bias can be found running through his work; on the contrary, an incessant change of subject and manner, combined with a strong but not overweening individuality, raced, like blood through the body, through every vein of his labour. Creative and therefore joyful, receptive and therefore thoughtful, at one with humanity and therefore loving; aspiring to God and believing in God, and therefore steeped to the lips in radiant Hope; at one with the past, passionate with the present, and possessing by faith an endless and glorious future this was a life lived on the top of the wave, and moving with its motion from youth to manhood, from manhood to old age.

There is no need to mourn for his departure. Nothing feeble has been done, nothing which lowers the note of his life, nothing we can regret as less than his native strength. His last poem was like the last look of the Phoenix to the sun before the sunlight lights the odorous pyre from which the new-created Bird will spring. And as if the Muse of Poetry wished to adorn the image of his death, he passed away amid a world of beauty, and in the midst of a world endeared to him by love. Italy was his second country. In Florence lies the wife of his heart. In every city he had friends, friends not only among men and women, but friends in every ancient wall, in every fold of Apennine and Alp, in every breaking of the blue sea, in every forest of pines, in every Church and Palace and Town Hall, in every painting that great art had wrought, in every storied market place, in every great life which had adorned, honoured and made romantic Italy; the great mother of Beauty, at whose breasts have hung and whose milk have sucked all the arts and all the literatures of modern Europe. Venice saw and mourned his death. The sea and sky and mountain glory of the city he loved so well encompassed him with her beauty; and their soft graciousness, their temperate power of joy and life made his departure peaceful. Strong and tender in life, his death added a new fairness to his life. Mankind is fortunate to have so noble a memory, so full and excellent a work to rest upon and love.