The three generations of readers who have lived since Browning's first publication have seen as many attitudes taken toward one of the ablest poetic spirits of the century. To the first he appeared an enigma, a writer hopelessly obscure, perhaps not even clear in his own mind, as to the message he wished to deliver; to the second he appeared a prophet and a philosopher, full of all wisdom and subtlety, too deep for common mortals to fathom with line and plummet,--concealing below green depths of ocean priceless gems of thought and feeling; to the third, a poet full of inequalities in conception and expression, who has done many good things well and has made many grave failures.
No poet in our generation has fared so ill at the hands of the critics. Already the Browning library is large. Some of the criticism is good; much of it, regarding the author as philosopher and symbolist, is totally askew. Reams have been written in interpretation of Childe Roland, an imaginative fantasy composed in one day. Abstruse ideas have been wrested from the simple story of My Last Duchess. His poetry has been the stamping-ground of theologians and the centre of prattling literary circles. In this tortuous maze of futile criticism the one thing lost sight of is the fact that a poet must be judged by the standards of art. It must be confessed, however, that Browning is himself to blame for much of the smoke of commentary that has gathered round him. He has often chosen the oblique expression where the direct would serve better; often interpolated his own musing subtleties between the reader and the life he would present; often followed his theme into intricacies beyond his own power to resolve into the simple forms of art. Thus it has come about that misguided readers became enigma hunters, and the poet their Sphinx.
The real question with Browning, as with any poet, is, What is his work and worth as an artist? What of human life has he presented, and how clear and true are his presentations? What passions, what struggles, what ideals, what activities of men has he added to the art world? What beauty and dignity, what light, has he created? How does he view life: with what of hope, or aspiration, or strength? These questions may be discussed under his sense and mastery of form, and under his views of human life.
Browning's sense of form has often been attacked and defended. The first impression upon reading him is of harshness amounting to the grotesque. Rhymes often clash and jangle like the music of savages. Such rhymes as
"Fancy the fabric... Ere mortar dab brick,"
strain dignity and beauty to the breaking-point. Archaic and bizarre words are pressed into service to help out the rhyme and metre; instead of melodic rhythm there are harsh and jolting combinations; until the reader brought up in the traditions of Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson, is fain to cry out, This is not poetry!
In internal form, as well, Browning often defies the established laws of literature. Distorted and elliptical sentences, long and irrelevant parentheses, curious involutions of thought, and irregular or incoherent development of the narrative or the picture, often leave the reader in despair even of the meaning. Nor can these departures from orderly beauty always be defended by the exigencies of the subjects. They do not fit the theme. They are the discords of a musician who either has not mastered his instrument or is not sensitive to all the finer effects. Some of his work stands out clear from these faults: A Toccata of Galuppi's, Love Among the Ruins, the Songs from Pippa Passes, Apparitions, Andrea del Sarto, and a score of others might be cited to show that Browning could write with a sense of form as true, and an ear as delicate, as could any poet of the century, except Tennyson.
To Browning belongs the credit of having created a new poetic form,--the dramatic monologue. In this form the larger number of his poems are cast. Among the best examples in this volume are My Last Duchess, The Bishop Orders his Tomb, The Laboratory, and Confessions. One person only is speaking, but reveals the presence, action, and thoughts of the others who are in the scene at the same time that he reveals his own character, as in a conversation in which but one voice is audible. The dramatic monologue has in a peculiar degree the advantages of compression and vividness, and is, in Browning's hands, an instrument of great power.
The charge of obscurity so often made against Browning's poetry must in part be admitted. As has been said above he is often led off by his many-sided interests into irrelevancies and subtleties that interfere with simplicity and beauty. His compressed style and his fondness for unusual words often make an unwarranted demand upon the reader's patience. Such passages are a challenge to his admirers and a repulse to the indifferent. Sometimes, indeed, the ore is not worth the smelting; often it yields enough to reward the greatest patience.
Browning, like all great poets, knew life widely and deeply through men and books. He was born in London, near the great centres of the intellectual movements of his time; he travelled much, especially in Italy and France; he read widely in the literatures and philosophies of many ages and many lands; and so grew into the cosmopolitanism of spirit that belonged to Chaucer and to Shakespeare.
In all art human life is the matter of ultimate interest. To Browning this was so in a peculiar degree. In the epistolary preface to Sordello, written thirty years after its first publication, he said: "My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study." This interest in "the development of a soul" is the keynote of nearly all his work. To it are directly traceable many of the most obvious excellences and defects of his poetry. He came to look below the surfaces of things for the soul beneath them. He came to be "the subtlest assertor of the Soul in Song," and like his own pair of lovers on the Campagna, "unashamed of soul." His early preference of Shelley to Keats indicated this bent. His readers are conscious always of revelations of the souls of the men and women he portrays; the sweet and tender womanhood of the Duchess, the sordid and material soul of the old Bishop of St. Praxed's, the devoted and heroic soul of Napoleon's young soldier, the weary and despairing soul of Andrea del Sarto,--and a host of others stand before us cleared of the veil of habit and convention. The souls of men appear as the victors over all material and immaterial obstacles. Human affection transforms the bare room to a bower of fruits and flowers; human courage and resolution carry Childe Roland victoriously past the threats and terrors of malignant nature, and the despair from accumulated memories of failure; death itself is described in Evelyn Hope, in Prospice, in Rabbi Ben Ezra, as a phase, a transit of the soul, wherein the material aspects and the physical terrors disappear. In Browning's poetry, the one real and permanent thing is the world of ideas, the world of the spirit. He is in this one of the truest Platonists of modern times.
To many young readers this method in art comes like a revelation. Other poets also portray the souls of men; but Browning does it more obviously, more intentionally, more insistently. It is well, therefore, to have read Browning. To learn to read him aright is to enter the gateway to other good and great poetry.
Out of this predominating interest in the souls of men, and out of his intense intellectual activity and scientific curiosity, grows one of Browning's greatest defects. He is often led too far afield, into intricacies and anomalies of character beyond the range of common experience and sympathy. The criminal, the "moral idiot," belong to the alienist rather than to the poet. The abnormalities of nature have no place in the world of great art; they do not echo the common experience of mankind. Already the interest is decreasing in that part of his poetry which deals with such themes. Bishop Blougram and Mr. Sludge will not take place in the ranks of artistic creations. Nor can the poet's "special pleading" for such types, however ingenious it may be, whatever philanthropy of soul it may imply, be regarded as justification. Sometimes, indeed, the poet is led by his sympathy and his intellectual ingenuity into defences that are inconsistent with his own standards of the true and the beautiful.
The trait in Browning which appeals to the largest number of readers is his strenuous optimism. He will admit no evil or sorrow too great to be borne, too irrational to have some ultimate purpose of beneficence. "There shall never be one lost good," says Abt Vogler. The suicides in the morgue only serve to call forth his declaration:--
"My own hope is, a sun will pierce The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
* * * *
* That what began best can't end worst, Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst."
He has no fear of death; he will face it gladly, in confidence of the life beyond. His Grammarian is content to assume an order of things which will justify in the next life his ceaseless toil in this, merely to learn how to live. Rabbi Ben Ezra's old age is serene in the hope of the continuity of life and the eternal development of character; he finds life good, and the plan of things perfect. In brief, Browning accepts life as it is, and believes it good, piecing out his conception of the goodness of life by drawing without limit upon his hopes of the other world. With the exception of a few poems like Andrea del Sarto, this is the unbroken tone of his poetry. Calvinism, asceticism, pessimism in any form, he rejects. He sustains his position not by argument, but by hope and assertion. It is a matter of temperament: he is optimistic because he was born so. Different from the serene optimism of Shakespeare's later life, in The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, in that it is not, like Shakespeare's, born of long and deep suffering from the contemplation of the tragedies of human life, it bears, in that degree, less of solace and conviction.
To Browning's temperament, also, may be ascribed another prominent trait in his work. He steadily asserts the right of the individual to live out his own life, to be himself in fulfilling his desires and aspirations. The Statue and the Bust is the famous exposition of this doctrine. It is a teaching that neither the poet's optimism nor his acumen has justified in the minds of men. It is a return to the unbridled freedom of nature advocated by Whitman and Rousseau; an extreme assertion of the value of the individual man, and of unregulated democracy; an outgrowth, it may be, of the robustness and originality of Browning's nature, and interesting--not as a clew to his life, which conformed to that of organized society--but as a clew to his independence of classical and conventional forms in the exercise of his art.
Creative energy Browning has in high degree. With the poet's insight into character and motives, the poet's grasp of the essential laws of human life, the poet's vividness of imagination, he has portrayed a host of types distinct from each other, true to life, strongly marked and consistent. With fine dramatic instinct he has shown these characters in true relation to the facts of life and to each other. In this respect he has satisfied the most exigent demands of art, and has already taken rank as one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century.
True poet he is, also, in his depth of feeling and range of sympathy. Beneath a ruggedness of intellect, like his landscape in De Gustibus, there is always sympathy and tenderness. It is, indeed, more like the serenity of Chaucer's emotions than like the tragic fervor of Shakespeare's. Mrs. Browning's estimate of him in Lady Geraldine's Courtship,--
"Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate,' which, if cut deep down the middle, Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity,"
is true criticism.
His love of nature, and his sense of the joy and beauty of it, appear often in his poetry; but not with the same insistence as in Wordsworth and Burns, and seldom with the same pervasiveness, or with the same beauty, as in Tennyson. He was rather the poet of men's souls. When he does use nature, it is generally to illustrate some phase or experience of the soul, and not for the sake of its beauty. He has, however, some nature-descriptions so exquisite that English poetry would be the poorer for their loss. Witness De Gustibus, Up at a Villa, Home Thoughts from Abroad, Pippa's Songs, and Saul.
It is too early to guess at Browning's permanent place in our literature. But his vigor of intellect, his insight into the human heart, his originality in phrase and conception, his unquenchable and fearless optimism, and his grasp of the problems of his century, make him beyond question one of its greatest figures.