Robert Browning, Michele Gordigiani, 1858
by Gerald Massey
by Robert Browning,
first published 1864, 258 pp.
Many puzzled readers of current verse are, no doubt, marvelling what our modern poetry is coming to. When, where and how is all the apparent inconsistency to attain consistency? The Epic they can somewhat understand. That has plenty of landmarks and sign-posts to tell them the way they are going. Long-winded speeches are especially devoted to their guidance. The characters continually tell their name and nature. There is an overplus of explanation. The drama, too, gives the reader plenty of stage-directions. The mind gets sufficient help in making out, from persons and names, the circumstances and shows of action. Descriptive poetry also tells you all about the subject as glibly, minutely and conventionally as any [cicerone]. You have only to listen. There is little need to awake the imagination at all, or to call the other mental powers into exertion. They can lean and listen, propped by an elbow. This is poetry made easy; delightful to the laziest. But these new tides of life in our nineteenth century poetry seem to be overflowing all the old landmarks and bursting all the boundaries; creating a new world and peopling it with strange forms. Most bewildering to many is this novel poetry, which, they are informed, is dramatic in principle and lyrical in expression. In this the poet comes upon the stage like a modern conjuror who dispenses with the old machinery for creating illusion. He has no external aid in sight, but relies on himself,—his own hand, voice, eyes,—to work the miracle and represent any number of dramatic scenes and persons without change of dress for himself. Here, then, the work has to be chiefly done in the mind of the reader, which is the real world of action, rather than on that half-objective stage which belongs to other kinds of poetry. The appeal is to the inner eye. It requires that all the powers be awake, the apprehension quick, the mind alive and stirring with those sensitive feelers of thought and fancy which will lay hold of the least hint, and almost turn air into solid by the sureness of their grasp. The reader is taken into partnership with the poet, and has to do half the work. When the reader is one of the choice fit and few, this is very pleasant; he feels there is something in poetry of this kind that makes him creative as he reads. Where it is not one of these he often stares and stares in vain with the outer eyes, very much in the condition of Byron’s Jack Bunting, who “knew not what to say, and so he swore.”
Of poetry that is dramatic in principle and Iyrical in expression, Mr. Browning is our chief living writer, and to the difficulties of the subject he has added personal peculiarities of his own, which have frequently held him an arm’s-length off from the popular heart. It appears to us that the drama would have afforded Mr. Browning, the best mould for shaping his poetry so quick in thought and so fertile in feeling. If the theatre had been to him a living thing, as it was to the Elizabethans, he would have found in it scope for his matter, and curbing limits for his mannerism. He would, we think, have found the fullest and freest development in the complete dramatic form. For, see what an obstacle this lyrical expression may be to my ample and adequate utterance of that which is dramatic in principle. The lyrist is essentially personal; the dramatist of necessity impersonal. If the lyrist be perfect, he will still offer a hundred cues for the voice to be identified as that of one person, however he may vary the appearances. And if he be imperfect, his own idiosyncrasies and mannerisms will be yet more recognisable, and tend further to mar the working of the dramatic principle. Now, Mr. Browning’s conceptions are naturally dramatic, and in blank verse the expression is often as perfect as the inherent difficulties will permit. It is when he comes to a more lyrical movement that the personal peculiarities leap to the surface in full play. The deep, steady glow of dramatic feeling, which fuses down the writer’s individuality into that of his characters past recognition, is broken up, and apt to go dancing off in splendid sparks, known all the world over as Browning’s fireworks.
In approaching the poetry, or in attempting to form an estimate of the poet, it is necessary to remember the very great difficulties that the poet has to contend with. But Mr. Browning’s Muse is likewise wilful at times, and must have that way of her own. She seems to delight in the difficulties that perplex us. She lays on us the burden of the incomprehensible in the most wickedly provoking way. We look up imploringly for the meaning, and she gives us a “you-know” kind of nod, lays a finger on her lip, or a hand on ours, and is off—possibly to laugh in her sleeve. She is too much given to the trick of the Winking Virgin in her method of communicating a mystery; or, by way of the fuller explanation, she will take you familiarly by the hand, and, as it were, give you the written cue folded up, and you are to close your fingers on it and clasp it tight. It is a precious secret, no doubt; only “don’t look! hush! there, now you understand!” Perhaps it is wisest to go your way, assuming that you must somehow understand. It might be pardonable, humanly speaking, if you confessed you didn’t, but the admission would not do critically. Surely she might tell us a little more and hint a little less, in kindly consideration of human necessities and mortal limits.
“Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself,” says the quotation attached to Mr. Browning’s ‘Caliban,’ but most assuredly no one ever thought Mr. Browning like unto any other poet! He could not be if he would, and he would not be if he could. He pioneers his own way, and follows no one’s track for the sake of ease and smoothness. His music is not as the music of other men. He frequently strikes out something nobly novel; but it is not to be quickly caught, for we have not heard the like before, and at first the mind of the reader finds it difficult to dance to the beat of the time. He has a horror of all that is hackneyed in poetry, and so he goes to the antipodes to avoid it, and finds things on the other side of the world with which we are not commonly acquainted. The “Golden” he thinks has been almost worn out in poetry; it has become so familiar that “gold” is no longer a precious metal. He thinks it will be good to try “brass” for a change; or iron might prove a tonic, and steel give our poetry something of sterner stuff. “Roses,” again, have run riot to such an extent, and been used for sole comparison so long, that he thinks it were well if poppies had their turn. Crimson has been your only red with the poets; but, like Turner amongst the painters, Mr. Browning tries the merits of scarlet. Cherries shall not supply the only likeness for ruddy lips, whilst we have the wild berries on every hedge, and the exquisite flesh-like flush of the sea-shells on every shore. Then his poetry is as different from the sort that many readers have been accustomed to as the pine-apple is to the summer jenneting. But only pierce through the rough crust and you find subtle secret qualities not found in the tamer fruit; genuine nectar gushing, and fragrance that comes from afar.
The new volume has much less of the old mannerism which so often pulled up the reader that there was always danger of his being thrown out of the saddle, or concluded a poem with a question posing as the one in which we are asked “What porridge had John Keats?” We fancy that luxurious young poet would have replied on the porridge subject as Sydney Smith did with regard to Scotch oatmeal-cake, “It was too rich for him!” On our part, however, such a question is unanswerable. In the conclusion of ‘May and Death’ there is, we think, a touch of affectation,—but will not be quite sure, for often, on looking a little closer at what seemed quite jaunty in Mr. Browning’s poetry, we have detected the lip-quiver beneath the smile, and the laughter in the voice has been more pathetic than crying. A better illustration of this and of some other things we have been saying could not be given than the reader may find in a poem called ‘The Worst of It.’ A listless peruser, would fail to discover what a tragedy lurks under the almost smiling surface of manner, the lightsome dance of the measure:
Would it were I had been false, not you!
I that am nothing; not you that are all:
I, never the worse for a touch or two
On my speckled hide; not you, the pride
Of the day, my swan, that a first fleck’s fall
On her wonder of white must unswan, undo!
I had dipped in life’s struggle, and out again,
Bore specks of it here, there, easy to see,
When I found my swan and the cure was plain;
The dull turned bright as I caught your white
On my bosom: you saved me—saved in vain.
If you ruined yourself, and all through me!
Yes, all through the speckled beast that I am,
Who taught you to stoop; you gave me yourself,
And bound your soul by the vows that damn:
Since on better thought you break, as you ought,
Vows—words, no angel set down, some elf
Mistook,—for an oath, an epigram!
Yes, might I judge you, here were my heart,
And a hundred its like, to treat as you pleased!
I choose to be yours, for my proper part,
Yours, leave or take, or mar me or make;
If I acquiesce, why should you be teased
With the conscience-prick and the memory-smart?
But what will God say? Oh, my sweet,
Think, and be sorry you did this thing!
Though earth were unworthy to feel your feet,
There’s a heaven above may deserve your love:
Should you forfeit Heaven for a snapt gold ring
And a promise broke, were it just or meet?
And I to have tempted you! I, who tried
Your soul, no doubt, till it sank! Unwise,
I loved, and was lowly, loved and aspired,
Loved, grieving or glad, till I made you mad,
And you meant to have hated and despised—
Whereas, you deceived me nor inquired!
She, ruined? How? No Heaven for her?
Crowns to give, and none for the brow
That looked like marble and smelt like myrrh?
Shall the robe be worn, and the palm-branch borne,
And she go graceless, she graced now
Beyond all saints, as themselves aver?
Hardly! That must be understood!
The earth is your place of penance, then;
And what will it prove? I desire your good,
But, plot as I may, I can find no way
How a blow should fall, such as falls on men,
Nor prove too much for your womanhood.
It will come, I suspect, at the end of life,
When you walk alone, and review the past;
And I, who so long shall have done with strife,
And journeyed my stage, and earned my wage,
And retired as was right,—I am called at last
When the devil stabs you, to lend the knife.
He stabs for the minute of trivial wrong,
Nor the other hours are able to save,
The happy, that lasted my whole life long:
For a promise broke, not for first words spoke,
The true, the only, that turn my grave
To a blaze of joy and a crash of song.
Witness beforehand! Off I trip
On a safe path gay through the flowers you flung:
My very name made great by your lip,
And my heart a-glow with the good I know
Of a perfect year when we both were young,
And I tasted the angels’ fellowship.
And witness, moreover . . . Ah, but wait!
I spy the loop whence an arrow shoots!
It may be for yourself, when you meditate,
That you grieve—for slain ruth, murdered truth.
“Though falsehood escape in the end, what boots?
How truth would have triumphed!”—you sigh too late.
Ay, who would have triumphed like you, I say!
Well, it is lost now; well, you must bear,
Abide and grow fit for a better day
You should hardly grudge, could I be your judge!
But hush! For you, can be no despair
There’s amend: ’tis a secret: hope and pray!
For I was true at least—oh, true enough!
And, Dear, truth is not as good as it seems!
Commend me to conscience! Idle stuff!
Much help is in mine, as I mope and pine,
And skulk through day, and scowl in my dreams
At my swan’s obtaining the crow’s rebuff.
Men tell me of truth now—“False!” I cry:
Of beauty—“A mask, friend! Look beneath!”
We take our own method, the devil and I,
With pleasant and fair and wise and rare
And the best we wish to what lives, is—death;
Which even in wishing, perhaps we lie!
Far better commit a fault and have done—
As you, Dear!—for ever; and choose the pure,
And look where the healing waters run,
And strive and strain to be good again,
And a place in the other world ensure,
All glass and gold, with God for its sun.
Misery! What shall I say or do?
I cannot advise, or, at least, persuade:
Most like, you are glad you deceived me—rue
No whit of the wrong: you endured too long.
Have done no evil and want no aid,
Will live the old life out and chance the new.
And your sentence is written all the same,
And I can do nothing,—pray, perhaps
But somehow the world pursues its game,
If I pray, if I curse,—for better or worse:
And my faith is torn to a thousand scraps,
And my heart feels ice while my words breathe flame.
Dear, I look from my hiding-place.
Are you still so fair? Have you still the eyes?
Be happy! Add but the other grace,
Be good! Why want what the angels vaunt?
I knew you once: but in Paradise,
If we meet, I will pass nor turn my face.
That climax is ineffably pathetic. If they meet in heaven, he will know her as though he had not known her here; he will not trouble her peace, nor expose, her past; he will pass, and not turn his face either towards or from her! These are the arrows that the poet appears to let loose so lightly, and yet they pierce so mightily. We wish he could always set his creations forth in as clear a light as he has this ‘Worst of It.’ In a poem entitled ‘Too Late,’ the passionate force which fills it to overflow fails in effect because we cannot at once grasp the story from what is told. This is the conclusion:—
There you stand,
Warm too and white too: would this wine
Had washed all over that body of yours,
Ere I drank it, and you down with it-thus!
Before we swallow such a draught in sympathy with the speaker, we require to know, on the clearest understanding, that it is a real, warm, live woman we are about to gulp down. It must be dreadful to have misgivings after the deed is done that we may have tossed off a ghost or spirit cold; that would be “too late” indeed! Such misgivings may arise from one or two obscure allusions to the “grave” and the “churchyard,” and we consider our condition would be worse than that of Clarence, if he had found too late that the wine he begged to be drowned in was not malmsey after all!
A little less remoteness of stand-point, a little more release from the over-pressure of crowding thought and feeling, would have allowed the meaning of Mr. Browning’s ‘Epilogue’ to come nearer home to us. We presume that the face which is so dim to us in the clouding incense, is one over which the dark shadow lately passed, and of which so many readers would have been glad to catch the least glimpse made visible by such a light. But we are left in doubt as to whether it be a dear human face lately withdrawn from our world, leaving its smile with us, or the divine countenance that shone through the cloud some eighteen centuries ago. When the poetry is purely subjective, a writer can hint and leave much to the imagination. A slight breathing of meaning is sufficient to send the most delicious ripples over the mind, as, for example, in Tennyson’s lines commencing “Break, break, break”; but Mr. Browning carries this mode of suggesting into the objective domain, where we require much more “making out,” more visible grounds, in order that we may obtain a satisfactory foot hold. In the realm of sentiment we can float in the vaguest cloud-land; in the world of fact we want to feel a pavement underfoot. Here again, half the difficulty springs from this wedding of the dramatic with the lyrical, only we fancy the poet might figure forth some of his creations a little more definitely, if he would make a greater allowance on behalf of readers. One of the perfectest things in this book is a brief poem, entitled ‘Prospice.’ Matter, manner and music are all one, and without flaw. It marches on to its end with the inevitable force of a great, green sea-wave, rolling, mounting and curling into its white crest!—
Fear deat?—to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
‘When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers-fall,
Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more
The best and the last! –
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute’s at end,
And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace, then a joy,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O then soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!
Mr. Browning’s art is chastened, his expression only rich now in the most precious plainness of speech. Rare, telling English language he speaks in. His imagination is cut down, so to speak, to bare poles, and the simplicity serves to show a greater majesty. There is much less play of fancy, fewer purple words, than in the earlier poems, but more royalty of thought and kinglier dignity of expression. Fine images are more scarce, but he can use a noble metaphor and give it magnificent setting. He thus uses the image of the potter’s wheel in his ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra.’—
What though the earlier grooves
Which ran the laughing loves
Around thy base, no longer pause and press?
What though, about thy rim,
Scull-things in order grim
Grow out, in graver mood, obey the sterner stress?
Look not thou down but up
To uses of a cup,
The festal board, lamp’s flash and trumpet’s peal,
The new mine’s foaming flow,
The Master’s lips a-glow!
Thou, heaven’s consummate cup, what needst thou with
What Mendelssohn, amongst musicians, was to poetry and poets, that is Mr. Browning amongst poets; to painters and musicians, an interpreter who gives utterance to so much that cannot be expressed, even by their art, of the secret glories of their own house beautiful. In the present volume is a poem that seems to very nearly tell us the unuttered something that sings in the musician’s soul, but which refuses to be fettered in chains of notes, bound in bars of music, or tied down to “time.” This is what is said to the spirit of “Alit Vogler,” although he yearned: in vain to grasp it, and left the world no such satisfactory record of accomplishment.—
Would that the structure brave, the manifold music I
Bidding my organ obey, calling its keys to their work,
Claiming each slave of the sound, at a touch, as when Solomon
Armies of angels that soar, legions of demons that lurk,
Man, brute, reptile, fly,—alien of end and of aim,
Adverse, each from the other heaven-high, hell-deep removed,—
Should rush into sight at once as he named the ineffable
And pile him a palace straight, to pleasure the princess
Would it might tarry like his, the beautiful building of
This which my keys in a crowd pressed and importuned
Ah, one and all, how they helped, would dispart now and
Zealous to hasten the work, heighten their master his
And one would bury his brow with a blind plunge down to
Burrow awhile and build, broad on the roots of things,
Then up again swim into sight, having based me my palace
Founded it, fearless of flame, flat on the nether springs.
And another would mount and march, like the excellent
minion he was,
Ay, another and yet another, one crowd but with many
Raising my rampired walls of gold as transparent as glass,
Eager to do and die, yield each his place to the rest:
For higher still and higher (as a runner tips with fire,
When a great illumination surprises a festal night—
Outlining round and round Rome’s dome from space to
Up, the pinnacled glory reached, and the pride of my
soul was in sight.
In sight? Not half! for it seemed, it was certain, to match
Nature in turn conceived, obeying an impulse as I;
And the emulous heaven yearned down, made effort to
reach the earth,
As the earth had done her best, in my passion, to scale
Novel splendours burst forth, grew familiar and dwelt with
Not a point nor peak but found and fixed its wandering
Meteor-moons, balls of blaze: and they did not pale nor
For earth had attained to heaven, there was no more
near nor far.
Nay more; for there wanted not who walked in the glare
Presences plain in the place; or, fresh from the Proto-
Furnished for ages to come, when a kindlier wind should
Lured now to begin and live, in a house to their liking
Or else the wonderful Dead who have passed through the
body and gone,
But were back once more to breathe in an old world worth
What never had been, was now; what was, as it shall be
And what is,—shall I say, matched both? for I was made
All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—
But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can,
Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound,
but a star.
Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is nought;
It is everywhere in the world—loud, soft, and all is said:
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought:
And, there! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow
Well, it is gone at last, the palace of music I reared;
Gone! and the good tears start, the praises that come too
For one is assured at first, one scarce can say that he
That he even gave it a thought, the gone thing was
Never to be again! But many more of the kind
As good, nay, better perchance: is this your comfort to
To me, who must be saved because I cling with my mind
To the same, same self, same love, same God: ay, what
was, shall be.
Therefore to whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, Thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from Thee who art ever the
Doubt that Thy power can fill the heart that Thy power
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
What was good, shall be good, with, for evil, so much good
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good, shall
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that He heard it once: we shall hear it
And what is our failure here but a triumph’s evidence
For the fullness of the days? Have we withered or
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might
Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be
Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear,
Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and
But God has a few of us whom He whispers in the ear;
The rest may reason and welcome: ’tis we musicians
As usual, Mr. Browning shows his old predilection for doing things which no other writer has done, or could have done, and striking out a path where no human footprint is to be found. A good hard, knotty problem of human nature is as “nuts” for him to crack. He reminds us somewhat of those Life Assurance Societies that only take up the rejected cases of all the rest. We should not be surprised if, on opening a new book of his, we found a full, true and particular account of “The Man that Died on Wednesday.” Our wonder is never at where we find him; but where shall we meet with him next? Two or three striking illustrations of this occur in the ‘Dramatis Personæ.’ One in a poem called ‘Caliban upon Setebos; or Natural Theology in the Island.’ This revelation of what ‘Caliban’ “thinketh” would have delighted Shakspeare himself, who would have been first to have acknowledged that it faithfully represented the inner man of his original creation. Only a great dramatic poet could have written this poem. We cannot quote it, and there is no need to emphasize its subtleties; these must be felt: and the reader will hardly fail to make out a good deal of the satire which Caliban’s theology reflects upon ours. In another poem, and at another extreme of his very great range, the poet enters into the heart of a modern pretender to mediumship. Or rather he turns the poor wretch inside out, and in his reversed shape makes him go backward over his past history. On being found out by his patron he goes down on his knees and gradually makes as clean a breast as he can of so oul a business. The subject is not pleasant to dwell upon, but the way in which patronizing credulity leads into temptation those who have a love of tampering with human wonder, and opens its mouth and shuts its eyes so invitingly that it would be almost a sin not to deceive it, is exquisitely pictured. The dark parts of Mr. Sludge’s nature are not attractive to us, but the dramatic illumination of them is admirable. At a third extreme from the two poems last mentioned, is ‘Death in the Desert,’ perhaps, on the whole, the finest poem in the book. In manner it is somewhat like Mr. Browning’s poem, the ‘Epistle of Karshish.’ It is massive and weighty thought, solemnly real and sagely fine. It embodies the death of St. John in the Desert, and has the piquancy of making the beloved apostle reply with last words, in far-off ghostly tones, which come, weirdly impressive, from that cave in the wilderness, to the Frenchman’s ‘Life of Jesus.’ It is done simply and naturally; but could any sensation-novelist contrive anything half so striking?
Very startlingly does it put the fact that when St. John was speaking many in the world were asking each other about Christ’s second coming, seeing signs of promise all around them; and now possibly there are as many asking, did Christ ever come at all?
The reader will pardon the length of our illustrations for the sake of the poetry, and hurry on eagerly to the book. Our remarks are intended to converge towards that end, for, with all faults admitted and all hindrances acknowledged, Mr. Browning is one of our very few living poets, and this book is a richer gift than we shall often receive at the hands of poetry in our time.
Piece originally published in Athenaeum, June 4, 1864
About the Author:
Gerald Massey (29 May 1828 – 29 October 1907) was an English poet.