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Outlines of English and American Literature
Robert Browning
by Long, William J.


In their lifelong devotion to a single purpose the two chief poets of the Victorian Age are much alike; in most other respects they are men of contrasts. Tennyson looked like a poet, Browning like a business man. Tennyson was a solitary singer, never in better company than when alone; Browning was a city man, who must have the excitement of society. Tennyson's field was the nation, its traditions, heroes, problems, ideals; but Browning seldom went beyond the individual man, and his purpose was to play Columbus to some obscure human soul. Tennyson was at times rather narrowly British; Browning was a cosmopolitan who dealt broadly with humanity. Tennyson was the poet of youth, and will always be read by the young in heart; Browning was the philosopher, the psychologist, the poet of mature years and of a few cultivated readers.

Life

Browning portrays so many different human types as to make us marvel, but we may partly understand his wide range of character-studies by remembering he was an Englishman with some Celtic and German ancestors, and with a trace of Creole (Spanish-Negro) blood. He was born and grew up at Camberwell, a suburb of London, and the early home of Ruskin. His father was a Bank-of-England clerk, a prosperous man and fond of books, who encouraged his boy to read and to let education follow the lead of fancy. Before Browning was twenty years old, father and son had a serious talk which ended in a kind of bargain: the boy was to live a life of culture, and the father was to take care of all financial matters,--an arrangement which suited them both very well.

Since boyhood Browning had been writing romantic verses, influenced first by Byron, then by Shelley, then by Keats. His first published works, Pauline and Paracelsus, were what he called soul-studies, the one of a visionary, "a star-treader" (its hero was Shelley), the other of a medieval astrologer somewhat like Faust. These two works, if one had the patience of a puzzle-worker to read them, would be found typical of all the longer poems that Browning produced in his sixty years of writing.

These early works were not read, were not even criticized; and it was not till 1846 that Browning became famous, not because of his books but because he eloped with Elizabeth Barrett, who was then the most popular poet in England. [Footnote: The fame of Miss Barrett in mid century was above that of Tennyson or Browning. She had been for a long time an invalid. Her father, a tyrannical kind of person, insisted on her keeping her room, and expected her to die properly there. He had no personal objection to Browning, but flouted the idea of his famous daughter marrying with anybody.] The two went to Florence, discovered that they were "made for each other," and in mutual helpfulness did their best work. They lived at "Casa Guidi," a house made famous by the fact that Browning's Men and Women and Mrs. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese were written there.

The Browning Cult

This happy period of work was broken by Mrs. Browning's death in 1861. Browning returned to England with his son, and to forget his loss he labored with unusual care on The Ring and the Book (1868), his bulkiest work. The rest of his life was spent largely in London and in Venice. Fame came to him tardily, and with some unfortunate results. He became known as a poet to be likened unto Shakespeare, but more analytical, calling for a superior intelligence on the part of his readers, and presently a multitude of Browning clubs sprang up in England and America. Delighted with his popularity among the elect, Browning seems to have cultivated his talent for obscurity, or it may be that his natural eccentricity of style increased with age, as did Wordsworth's prosiness. Whatever the cause, his work grew steadily worse until a succession of grammar defying volumes threatened to separate all but a few devotees from their love of Browning. He died in Venice in 1889. On the day of his death appeared in London his last book, Asolando. The "Epilogue" to that volume is a splendid finale to a robust life.

      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


Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" is a beautiful swan song; but Browning's last poem is a bugle call, and it sounds not "taps" but the "reveille."

Browning's Dramatic Quality

Nearly all the works of Browning are dramatic in spirit, and are commonly dramatic also in form. Sometimes he writes a drama for the stage, such as A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, Colombe's Birthday and In a Balcony,--dramas without much action, but packed with thought in a way that would have delighted the Schoolmen. More often his work takes the form of a dramatic monologue, such as "My Last Duchess" and "The Bishop Orders his Tomb," in which one person speaks and, like Peter, his speech bewrayeth him; for he reveals very plainly the kind of man he is. Occasionally Browning tries to sing like another poet, but even here his dramatic instinct is strong. He takes some crisis, some unexpected meeting or parting of the ways of life, and proceeds to show the hero's character by the way he faces the situation, or talks about it. So when he attempts even a love song, such as "The Last Ride Together," or a ballad, such as "The Pied Piper," he regards his subject from an unusual viewpoint and produces what he calls a dramatic lyric.

Action vs. Thought

There are at least two ways in which Browning's work differs from that of other dramatists. When a trained playwright produces a drama his rule is, "Action, more action, and still more action." Moreover, he stands aside in order to permit his characters to reveal their quality by their own speech or action. For example, Shakespeare's plays are filled with movement, and he never tells you what he thinks of Portia or Rosalind or Macbeth, or what ought to become of them. He does not need to tell. But Browning often halts his story to inform you how this or that situation should be met, or what must come out of it. His theory is that it is not action but thought which determines human character; for a man may be doing what appears to be a brave or generous deed, yet be craven or selfish at heart; or he may be engaged in some apparently sinful proceeding in obedience to a motive that we would acclaim as noble if the whole truth were known "It is the soul and its thoughts that make the man," says Browning, "little else is worthy of study." So he calls most of his works soul studies. If we label them now dramas, or dramatic monologues, or dramatic lyrics (the three classifications of his works), we are to remember that Browning is the one dramatist who deals with thoughts or motives rather than with action.

What to Read

One should begin with the simplest of Browning's works, and preferably with those in which he shows some regard for verbal melody. As romantic love is his favorite theme, it is perhaps well to begin with a few of the love lyrics "My Star," "By the Fireside," "Evelyn Hope," and especially "The Last Ride Together". To these may be added some of the songs that brighten the obscurity of his longer pieces, such as "I Send my Heart," "Oh Love--No Love" and "There's a Woman Like a Dewdrop". Next in order are the ballads, "The Pied Piper," "Hervé Riel" and "How they Brought the Good News"; and then a few miscellaneous short poems, such as "Home Thoughts from Abroad," "Prospice," "The Boy and the Angel" and "Up at a Villa--Down in the City."

Dramatic Monologues

The above poems are named not because they are particularly fine examples of their kind, but by way of introduction to a poet who is rather hard to read. When these are known, and are found not so obscure as we feared, then will be the time to attempt some of Browning's dramatic monologues. Of these there is a large variety, portraying many different types of character, but we shall name only a few. "Andrea del Sarto" is a study of the great Italian painter, "the perfect painter," whose love for a pretty but shallow woman was as a millstone about his neck. "My Last Duchess" is a powerfully drawn outline of a vain and selfish nobleman. "Abt Vogler" is a study of the soul of a musician. "Rabbi ben Ezra," one of the most typical of Browning's works, is the word of an old man who faces death, as he had faced life, with magnificent courage. "An Epistle" relates the strange experience of Karshish, an Arab physician, as recorded in a letter to his master Abib. Karshish meets Lazarus (him who was raised from the dead) and, regarding him as a patient, describes his symptoms,--such symptoms as a man might have who must live on earth after having looked on heaven. The physician's half-scoffing words show how his habitual skepticism is shaken by a glimpse of the unseen world. He concludes, but his doubt is stronger than his conclusion, that Lazarus must be a madman:

  "And thou must love me who have died for thee."
  The madman saith He said so: it is strange!


Saul

Another poem belonging to the same group (published under the general title of Men and Women) is "Saul," which finely illustrates the method that makes Browning different from other poets. He would select some familiar event, the brief record of which is preserved in history, and say, "Here we see merely the deed, the outward act or circumstance of life: now let us get acquainted with these men or women by showing that they thought and felt precisely as we do under similar conditions." In "Saul" he reproduces the scene recorded in the sixteenth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, where the king is "troubled by an evil spirit" and the young David comes to play the harp before him. Saul is represented as the disillusioned, the despairing man who has lost all interest in life, and David as the embodiment of youthful enthusiasm. The poem is a remarkable portrayal of the ancient scene and characters; but it is something greater than that; it is a splendid song of the fullness and joy of a brave, forward-looking life inspired by noble ideals. It is also one of the best answers ever given to the question, Is life worth living? The length of the poem, however, and its many difficult or digressive passages are apt to repel the beginner unless he have the advantage of an abridged version.

Pippa Passes

Of the longer works of Browning, only Pippa Passes can be recommended with any confidence that it will give pleasure to the reader. Other works, such as The Ring and the Book, [Footnote: The Ring and the Book is remarkable for other things than its inordinate length. In it Browning tells how he found an old book containing the record of a murder trial in Rome,--a horrible story of a certain Count Guido, who in a jealous rage killed his beautiful young wife. That is the only story element of the poem, and it is told, with many irritating digressions, at the beginning. The rest of the work is devoted to "soul studies," the subjects being nine different characters who rehearse the same story, each for his own justification. Thus, Guido gives his view of the matter, and Pompilia the wife gives hers. "Half Rome," siding with Guido, is personified to tell one tale, and then "The Other Half" has its say. Final judgment rests with the Pope, an impressive figure, who upholds the decision of the civil judges. Altogether it is a remarkable piece of work; but it would have been more remarkable, better in every way, if fifteen thousand of its twenty thousand lines had been left in the inkpot.] are doubtless more famous; but reading them is like solving a puzzle: a few enjoy the matter, and therefore count it pleasure, but to the majority it is a task to be undertaken as mental discipline.

Pippa is the story of a working girl, a silk weaver of Asolo, who has a precious holiday and goes forth to enjoy it, wishing she could share her happiness with others, especially with the great people of her town. But the great live in another world, she thinks, a world far removed from that of the poor little working girl; so she puts the wish out of her head, and goes on her way singing:

      The year's at the spring,
      And day's at the morn;
      Morning's at seven;
      The hillside's dew-pearled;
      The lark's on the wing;
      The snail's on the thorn:
      God's in his heaven--
      All's right with the world!


It happens that her songs come, in succession, to the ears of the four greatest people in Asolo at moments when they are facing a terrible crisis, when a straw may turn them one way or the other, to do evil or to do good. In each case the song and the pure heart of the singer turn the scale in the right direction; but Pippa knows nothing of her influence. She enjoys her holiday and goes to bed still happy, still singing, quite ignorant of the wonder she has accomplished.

A mere story-teller would have brought Pippa and the rescued ones together, making an affecting scene with rewards, in the romantic manner; but Browning is content to depict a bit of ordinary human life, which is daily filled with deeds worthy to be written in a book of gold, but of which only the Recording Angel takes any notice.

A Criticism of Browning

Comparatively few people appreciate the force, the daring, the vitality of Browning, and those who know him best are least inclined to formulate a favorable criticism. They know too well the faults of their hero, his whims, crotchets, digressions, garrulity; his disjointed ideas, like rich plums in a poor pudding; his ejaculatory style, as of a man of second thoughts; his wing-bound fancy, which hops around his subject like a grasshopper instead of soaring steadily over it like an eagle. Many of his lines are rather gritty:

  Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?


and half his blank verse is neither prose nor poetry:

  What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I'd meet.)
  Be ruled by me and have a care o' the crowd:
  This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
  I'll tell you like a book and save your shins.
  Fie, what a roaring day we've had! Whose fault?
  Lorenzo in Lucina,--here's a church!


Instead of criticism, therefore, his admirers offer this word of advice: Try to like Browning; in other words, try to understand him. He is not "easy"; he is not to be read for relaxation after dinner, but in the morning and in a straight-backed chair, with eyes clear and intellect at attention. If you so read him, you must soon discover that he has something of courage and cheer which no other poet can give you in such full measure. If you read nothing else, try at least "Rabbi ben Ezra," and after the reading reflect that the optimism of this poem colors everything that the author wrote. For Browning differs from all other poets in this: that they have their moods of doubt or despondency, but he has no weary days or melancholy hours. They sing at times in the twilight, but Browning is the herald of the sunrise. Always and everywhere he represents "the will to live," to live bravely, confidently here; then forward still with cheerful hearts to immortality:

  Grow old along with me!
  The best is yet to be,
  The last of life, for which the first was made:
  Our times are in his hand
  Who saith, "A whole I planned,
  Youth shows but half: trust God: see all, nor be afraid!"


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