Robert Browning: Poems

Introduction: Appreciations

Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world's,

Therefore, on him no speech! and brief for thee,

Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale

No man has walked along our roads with step

So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue

So varied in discourse. But warmer climes

Give brighter plumage, stronger wing: the breeze

Of Alpine heights thou playest with, borne on

Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where

The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.


Tennyson has a vivid feeling of the dignity and potency of law.... Browning vividly feels the importance, the greatness and beauty of passions and enthusiasms, and his imagination is comparatively unimpressed by the presence of law and its operations.... It is not the order and regularity in the processes of the natural world which chiefly delight Browning's imagination, but the streaming forth of power, and will, and love from the whole face of the visible universe....

Tennyson considers the chief instruments of human progress to be a vast increase of knowledge and of political organization. Browning makes that progress dependent on the production of higher passions, and aspirations,--hopes, and joys, and sorrows; Tennyson finds the evidence of the truth of the doctrine of progress in the universal presence of a self-evolving law. Browning obtains his assurance of its truth from inward presages and prophecies of the soul, from anticipations, types, and symbols of a higher greatness in store for man, which even now reside within him, a creature ever unsatisfied, ever yearning upward in thought, feeling, and endeavour.

... Hence, it is not obedience, it is not submission to the law of duty, which points out to us our true path of life, but rather infinite desire and endless aspiration. Browning's ideal of manhood in this world always recognizes the fact that it is the ideal of a creature who never can be perfected on earth, a creature whom other and higher lives await in an endless hereafter....

The gleams of knowledge which we possess are of chief value because they "sting with hunger for full light." The goal of knowledge, as of love, is God himself. Its most precious part is that which is least positive--those momentary intuitions of things which eye hath not seen nor ear heard. The needs of the highest parts of our humanity cannot be supplied by ascertained truth, in which we might rest, or which we might put to use for definite ends; rather by ventures of faith, which test the courage of the soul, we ascend from surmise to assurance, and so again to higher surmise.--Condensed from EDWARD DOWDEN, Studies in Literature.

... Browning has not cared for that poetic form which bestows perennial charm, or else he was incapable of it. He fails in beauty, in concentration of interest, in economy of language, in selection of the best from the common treasure of experience. In those works where he has been most indifferent, as in the Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, he has been merely whimsical and dull; in those works where the genius he possessed is most felt, as in Saul, A Toccata of Galuppi's, Rabbi Ben Ezra, The Flight of the Duchess, The Bishop Orders his Tomb in Saint Praxed's Church, Herve Riel, Cavalier Tunes, Time's Revenges, and many more, he achieves beauty, or nobility, or fitness of phrase such as only a poet is capable of. It is in these last pieces and their like that his fame lies for the future. It was his lot to be strong as the thinker, the moralist, with "the accomplishment of verse," the scholar interested to rebuild the past of experience, the teacher with an explicit dogma in an intellectual form with examples from life, the anatomist of human passions, instincts, and impulses in all their gamut, the commentator on his own age; he was weak as the artist, often unnecessarily and by choice, in the repulsive form,--in the awkward, the obscure, the ugly. He belongs with Jonson, with Dryden, with the heirs of the masculine intellect, the men of power not unvisited by grace, but in whom mind is predominant. Upon the work of such poets time hesitates, conscious of their mental greatness, but also of their imperfect art, their heterogeneous matter; at last the good is sifted from that whence worth has departed.--From GEORGE EDWARD WOODBERRY'S Studies in Letters and Life.

When it is urged that for a poet the intellectual energies are too strong in Browning, that for poetry the play of intellectual interests and activities is too great in his work, and that Browning often and at times ruthlessly sacrifices the requirements and effects of art for the expression of thought, that "though he refreshes the heart he tires the brain," we should admit this with regard to a good deal of the work of the third period. We should allow that this is the side to which he leans generally, but still hold that, though to many his intellectual quality and energy may well seem excessive, yet in great part of his work, and that of course, his best, the passion of the poet and his kind of imagination are just as fresh and powerful as the intellectual force and subtlety are keen and abundant.--JAMES FROTHINGHAM, Studies of the Mind and Art of Robert Browning.

Now dumb is he who waked the world to speak, And voiceless hangs the world beside his bier, Our words are sobs, our cry or praise a tear: We are the smitten mortal, we the weak. We see a spirit on earth's loftiest peak Shine, and wing hence the way he makes more clear: See a great Tree of Life that never sere Dropped leaf for aught that age or storms might wreak; Such ending is not death: such living shows What wide illumination brightness sheds From one big heart,--to conquer man's old foes: The coward, and the tyrant, and the force Of all those weedy monsters raising heads When Song is muck from springs of turbid source.