G.K. Chesterton.

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Carlyle when he asks the Irish why they do not bestir themselves and
re-forest their country: saying not a word about the soaking up of every
sort of profit by the landlords which made that and every other Irish
improvement impossible. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Ruskin when he says, with a solemn visage, that building in iron is ugly
and unreal, but that the weightiest objection is that there is no
mention of it in the Bible; we feel as if he had just said he could find
no hair-brushes in Habakkuk. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man
like Thackeray when he proposes that people should be forcibly prevented
from being nuns, merely because he has no fixed intention of becoming a
nun himself. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like Tennyson,
when he talks of the French revolutions, the huge crusades that had
recreated the whole of his civilisation, as being "no graver than a
schoolboy's barring out." We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Browning to make spluttering and spiteful puns about the names Newman,
Wiseman, and Manning. We feel that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Newman when he confesses that for some time he felt as if he couldn't
come in to the Catholic Church, because of that dreadful Mr. Daniel
O'Connell, who had the vulgarity to fight for his own country. We feel
that it _is_ a disgrace to a man like Dickens, when he makes a blind
brute and savage out of a man like St. Dunstan; it sounds as if it were
not Dickens talking but Dombey. We feel it _is_ a disgrace to a man like
Swinburne, when he has a Jingo fit and calls the Boer children in the
concentration camps "Whelps of treacherous dams whom none save we have
spared to starve and slay": we feel that Swinburne, for the first time,
really has become an immoral and indecent writer. All this is a certain
odd provincialism peculiar to the English in that great century: they
were in a kind of pocket; they appealed to too narrow a public opinion;
I am certain that no French or German men of the same genius made such
remarks. Renan was the enemy of the Catholic Church; but who can imagine
Renan writing of it as Kingsley or Dickens did? Taine was the enemy of
the French Revolution; but who can imagine Taine talking about it as
Tennyson or Newman talked? Even Matthew Arnold, though he saw this peril
and prided himself on escaping it, did not altogether escape it. There
must be (to use an Irishism) something shallow in the depths of any man
who talks about the _Zeitgeist_ as if it were a living thing.

But this defect is very specially the key to the case of the two great
Victorian poets, Tennyson and Browning; the two spirited or beautiful
tunes, so to speak, to which the other events marched or danced. It was
especially so of Tennyson, for a reason which raises some of the most
real problems about his poetry. Tennyson, of course, owed a great deal
to Virgil. There is no question of plagiarism here; a debt to Virgil is
like a debt to Nature. But Tennyson was a provincial Virgil. In such
passages as that about the schoolboy's barring out he might be called a
suburban Virgil. I mean that he tried to have the universal balance of
all the ideas at which the great Roman had aimed: but he hadn't got hold
of all the ideas to balance. Hence his work was not a balance of truths,
like the universe. It was a balance of whims; like the British
Constitution. It is intensely typical of Tennyson's philosophical temper
that he was almost the only Poet Laureate who was not ludicrous. It is
not absurd to think of Tennyson as tuning his harp in praise of Queen
Victoria: that is, it is not absurd in the same sense as Chaucer's harp
hallowed by dedication to Richard II or Wordsworth's harp hallowed by
dedication to George IV is absurd. Richard's court could not properly
appreciate either Chaucer's daisies or his "devotion." George IV would
not have gone pottering about Helvellyn in search of purity and the
simple annals of the poor. But Tennyson did sincerely believe in the
Victorian compromise; and sincerity is never undignified. He really did
hold a great many of the same views as Queen Victoria, though he was
gifted with a more fortunate literary style. If Dickens is Cobbett's
democracy stirring in its grave, Tennyson is the exquisitely ornamental
extinguisher on the flame of the first revolutionary poets. England has
settled down; England has become Victorian. The compromise was
interesting, it was national and for a long time it was successful:
there is still a great deal to be said for it. But it was as freakish
and unphilosophic, as arbitrary and untranslatable, as a beggar's
patched coat or a child's secret language. Now it is here that Browning
had a certain odd advantage over Tennyson; which has, perhaps, somewhat
exaggerated his intellectual superiority to him. Browning's eccentric
style was more suitable to the poetry of a nation of eccentrics; of
people for the time being removed far from the centre of intellectual
interests. The hearty and pleasant task of expressing one's intense
dislike of something one doesn't understand is much more poetically
achieved by saying, in a general way "Grrr - you swine!" than it is by
laboured lines such as "the red fool-fury of the Seine." We all feel
that there is more of the man in Browning here; more of Dr. Johnson or
Cobbett. Browning is the Englishman taking himself wilfully, following
his nose like a bull-dog, going by his own likes and dislikes. We cannot
help feeling that Tennyson is the Englishman taking himself
seriously - an awful sight. One's memory flutters unhappily over a
certain letter about the Papal Guards written by Sir Willoughby
Patterne. It is here chiefly that Tennyson suffers by that very
Virgilian loveliness and dignity of diction which he put to the service
of such a small and anomalous national scheme. Virgil had the best news
to tell as well as the best words to tell it in. His world might be
sad; but it was the largest world one could live in before the coming of
Christianity. If he told the Romans to spare the vanquished and to war
down the mighty, at least he was more or less well informed about who
_were_ mighty and who _were_ vanquished. But when Tennyson wrote verses
like -

"Of freedom in her regal seat,
Of England; not the schoolboy heat,
The blind hysterics of the Celt"

he quite literally did not know one word of what he was talking about;
he did not know what Celts are, or what hysterics are, or what freedom
was, or what regal was or even of what England was - in the living Europe
of that time.

His religious range was very much wider and wiser than his political;
but here also he suffered from treating as true universality a thing
that was only a sort of lukewarm local patriotism. Here also he
suffered by the very splendour and perfection of his poetical powers. He
was quite the opposite of the man who cannot express himself; the
inarticulate singer who dies with all his music in him. He had a great
deal to say; but he had much more power of expression than was wanted
for anything he had to express. He could not think up to the height of
his own towering style.

For whatever else Tennyson was, he was a great poet; no mind that feels
itself free, that is, above the ebb and flow of fashion, can feel
anything but contempt for the later effort to discredit him in that
respect. It is true that, like Browning and almost every other Victorian
poet, he was really two poets. But it is just to him to insist that in
his case (unlike Browning's) both the poets were good. The first is more
or less like Stevenson in metre; it is a magical luck or skill in the
mere choice of words. "Wet sands marbled with moon and cloud" - "Flits by
the sea-blue bird of March" - "Leafless ribs and iron horns" - "When the
long dun wolds are ribbed with snow" - in all these cases one word is the
keystone of an arch which would fall into ruin without it. But there are
other strong phrases that recall not Stevenson but rather their common
master, Virgil - "Tears from the depths of some divine despair" - "There
is fallen a splendid tear from the passion-flower at the gate" - "Was a
great water; and the moon was full" - "God made Himself an awful rose of
dawn." These do not depend on a word but on an idea: they might even be
translated. It is also true, I think, that he was first and last a lyric
poet. He was always best when he expressed himself shortly. In long
poems he had an unfortunate habit of eventually saying very nearly the
opposite of what he meant to say. I will take only two instances of what
I mean. In the _Idylls of the King_, and in _In Memoriam_ (his two
sustained and ambitious efforts), particular phrases are always flashing
out the whole fire of the truth; the truth that Tennyson meant. But
owing to his English indolence, his English aristocratic
irresponsibility, his English vagueness in thought, he always managed to
make the main poem mean exactly what he did not mean. Thus, these two
lines which simply say that

"Lancelot was the first in tournament,
But Arthur mightiest in the battle-field"

do really express what he meant to express about Arthur being after all
"the highest, yet most human too; not Lancelot, nor another." But as his
hero is actually developed, we have exactly the opposite impression;
that poor old Lancelot, with all his faults, was much more of a man than
Arthur. He was a Victorian in the bad as well as the good sense; he
could not keep priggishness out of long poems. Or again, take the case
of _In Memoriam_. I will quote one verse (probably incorrectly) which
has always seemed to me splendid, and which does express what the whole
poem should express - but hardly does.

"That we may lift from out the dust,
A voice as unto him that hears
A cry above the conquered years
Of one that ever works, and trust."

The poem should have been a cry above the conquered years. It might well
have been that if the poet could have said sharply at the end of it, as
a pure piece of dogma, "I've forgotten every feature of the man's face:
I know God holds him alive." But under the influence of the mere
leisurely length of the thing, the reader _does_ rather receive the
impression that the wound has been healed only by time; and that the
victor hours _can_ boast that this is the man that loved and lost, but
all he was is overworn. This is not the truth; and Tennyson did not
intend it for the truth. It is simply the result of the lack of
something militant, dogmatic and structural in him: whereby he could not
be trusted with the trail of a very long literary process without
entangling himself like a kitten playing cat's-cradle.

Browning, as above suggested, got on much better with eccentric and
secluded England because he treated it as eccentric and secluded; a
place where one could do what one liked. To a considerable extent he did
do what he liked; arousing not a few complaints; and many doubts and
conjectures as to why on earth he liked it. Many comparatively
sympathetic persons pondered upon what pleasure it could give any man to
write _Sordello_ or rhyme "end-knot" to "offend not." Nevertheless he
was no anarchist and no mystagogue; and even where he was defective, his
defect has commonly been stated wrongly. The two chief charges against
him were a contempt for form unworthy of an artist, and a poor pride in
obscurity. The obscurity is true, though not, I think, the pride in it;
but the truth about this charge rather rises out of the truth about the
other. The other charge is not true. Browning cared very much for form;
he cared very much for style. You may not happen to like his style; but
he did. To say that he had not enough mastery over form to express
himself perfectly like Tennyson or Swinburne is like criticising the
griffin of a mediƦval gargoyle without even knowing that it is a
griffin; treating it as an infantile and unsuccessful attempt at a
classical angel. A poet indifferent to form ought to mean a poet who did
not care what form he used as long as he expressed his thoughts. He
might be a rather entertaining sort of poet; telling a smoking-room
story in blank verse or writing a hunting-song in the Spenserian stanza;
giving a realistic analysis of infanticide in a series of triolets; or
proving the truth of Immortality in a long string of limericks. Browning
certainly had no such indifference. Almost every poem of Browning,
especially the shortest and most successful ones, was moulded or graven
in some special style, generally grotesque, but invariably deliberate.
In most cases whenever he wrote a new song he wrote a new kind of song.
The new lyric is not only of a different metre, but of a different
shape. No one, not even Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as
that horrible one beginning "John, Master of the Temple of God," with
its weird choruses and creepy prose directions. No one, not even
Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as _Pisgah-sights_. No
one, not even Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as _Time's
Revenges_. No one, not even Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same
style as _Meeting at Night_ and _Parting at Morning_. No one, not even
Browning, ever wrote a poem in the same style as _The Flight of the
Duchess_, or in the same style as _The Grammarian's Funeral_, or in the
same style as _A Star_, or in the same style as that astounding lyric
which begins abruptly "Some people hang pictures up." These metres and
manners were not accidental; they really do suit the sort of spiritual
experiment Browning was making in each case. Browning, then, was not
chaotic; he was deliberately grotesque. But there certainly was, over
and above this grotesqueness, a perversity and irrationality about the
man which led him to play the fool in the middle of his own poems; to
leave off carving gargoyles and simply begin throwing stones. His
curious complicated puns are an example of this: Hood had used the pun
to make a sentence or a sentiment especially pointed and clear. In
Browning the word with two meanings seems to mean rather less, if
anything, than the word with one. It also applies to his trick of
setting himself to cope with impossible rhymes. It may be fun, though it
is not poetry, to try rhyming to ranunculus; but even the fun
presupposes that you _do_ rhyme to it; and I will affirm, and hold under
persecution, that "Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle-us" does not rhyme to
it.

The obscurity, to which he must in a large degree plead guilty, was,
curiously enough, the result rather of the gay artist in him than the
deep thinker. It is patience in the Browning students; in Browning it
was only impatience. He wanted to say something comic and energetic and
he wanted to say it quick. And, between his artistic skill in the
fantastic and his temperamental turn for the abrupt, the idea sometimes
flashed past unseen. But it is quite an error to suppose that these are
the dark mines containing his treasure. The two or three great and true
things he really had to say he generally managed to say quite simply.
Thus he really did want to say that God had indeed made man and woman
one flesh; that the sex relation was religious in this real sense that
even in our sin and despair we take it for granted and expect a sort of
virtue in it. The feelings of the bad husband about the good wife, for
instance, are about as subtle and entangled as any matter on this earth;
and Browning really had something to say about them. But he said it in
some of the plainest and most unmistakable words in all literature; as
lucid as a flash of lightning. "Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"
Or again, he did really want to say that death and such moral terrors
were best taken in a military spirit; he could not have said it more
simply than: "I was ever a fighter; one fight more, the best and the
last." He did really wish to say that human life was unworkable unless
immortality were implied in it every other moment; he could not have
said it more simply: "leave now to dogs and apes; Man has for ever." The
obscurities were not merely superficial, but often covered quite
superficial ideas. He was as likely as not to be most unintelligible of
all in writing a compliment in a lady's album. I remember in my boyhood
(when Browning kept us awake like coffee) a friend reading out the poem
about the portrait to which I have already referred, reading it in that
rapid dramatic way in which this poet must be read. And I was profoundly
puzzled at the passage where it seemed to say that the cousin
disparaged the picture, "while John scorns ale." I could not think what
this sudden teetotalism on the part of John had to do with the affair,
but I forgot to ask at the time and it was only years afterwards that,
looking at the book, I found it was "John's corns ail," a very
Browningesque way of saying he winced. Most of Browning's obscurity is
of that sort - the mistakes are almost as quaint as misprints - and the
Browning student, in that sense, is more a proof reader than a disciple.
For the rest his real religion was of the most manly, even the most
boyish sort. He is called an optimist; but the word suggests a
calculated contentment which was not in the least one of his vices. What
he really was was a romantic. He offered the cosmos as an adventure
rather than a scheme. He did not explain evil, far less explain it away;
he enjoyed defying it. He was a troubadour even in theology and
metaphysics: like the _Jongleurs de Dieu_ of St. Francis. He may be said
to have serenaded heaven with a guitar, and even, so to speak, tried to
climb there with a rope ladder. Thus his most vivid things are the
red-hot little love lyrics, or rather, little love dramas. He did one
really original and admirable thing: he managed the real details of
modern love affairs in verse, and love is the most realistic thing in
the world. He substituted the street with the green blind for the faded
garden of Watteau, and the "blue spirt of a lighted match" for the
monotony of the evening star.

Before leaving him it should be added that he was fitted to deepen the
Victorian mind, but not to broaden it. With all his Italian sympathies
and Italian residence, he was not the man to get Victorian England out
of its provincial rut: on many things Kingsley himself was not so
narrow. His celebrated wife was wider and wiser than he in this sense;
for she was, however one-sidedly, involved in the emotions of central
European politics. She defended Louis Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel; and
intelligently, as one conscious of the case against them both. As to
why it now seems simple to defend the first Italian King, but absurd to
defend the last French Emperor - well, the reason is sad and simple. It
is concerned with certain curious things called success and failure, and
I ought to have considered it under the heading of _The Book of Snobs_.
But Elizabeth Barrett, at least, was no snob: her political poems have
rather an impatient air, as if they were written, and even published,
rather prematurely - just before the fall of her idol. These old
political poems of hers are too little read to-day; they are amongst the
most sincere documents on the history of the times, and many modern
blunders could be corrected by the reading of them. And Elizabeth
Barrett had a strength really rare among women poets; the strength of
the phrase. She excelled in her sex, in epigram, almost as much as
Voltaire in his. Pointed phrases like: "Martyrs by the pang without the
palm" - or "Incense to sweeten a crime and myrrh to embitter a curse,"
these expressions, which are witty after the old fashion of the conceit,
came quite freshly and spontaneously to her quite modern mind. But the
first fact is this, that these epigrams of hers were never so true as
when they turned on one of the two or three pivots on which contemporary
Europe was really turning. She is by far the most European of all the
English poets of that age; all of them, even her own much greater
husband, look local beside her. Tennyson and the rest are nowhere. Take
any positive political fact, such as the final fall of Napoleon.
Tennyson wrote these profoundly foolish lines -

"He thought to quell the stubborn hearts of oak
Madman!"

as if the defeat of an English regiment were a violation of the laws of
Nature. Mrs. Browning knew no more facts about Napoleon, perhaps, than
Tennyson did; but she knew the truth. Her epigram on Napoleon's fall is
in one line

"And kings crept out again to feel the sun."

Talleyrand would have clapped his horrible old hands at that. Her
instinct about the statesman and the soldier was very like Jane Austen's
instinct for the gentleman and the man. It is not unnoticeable that as
Miss Austen spent most of her life in a village, Miss Barrett spent most
of her life on a sofa. The godlike power of guessing seems (for some
reason I do not understand) to grow under such conditions. Unfortunately
Mrs. Browning was like all the other Victorians in going a little lame,
as I have roughly called it, having one leg shorter than the other. But
her case was, in one sense, extreme. She exaggerated both ways. She was
too strong and too weak, or (as a false sex philosophy would express it)
too masculine and too feminine. I mean that she hit the centre of
weakness with almost the same emphatic precision with which she hit the
centre of strength. She could write finally of the factory wheels
"grinding life down from its mark," a strong and strictly true
observation. Unfortunately she could also write of Euripides "with his
droppings of warm tears." She could write in _A Drama of Exile_, a
really fine exposition, touching the later relation of Adam and the
animals: unfortunately the tears were again turned on at the wrong
moment at the main; and the stage direction commands a silence, only
broken by the dropping of angel's tears. How much noise is made by
angel's tears? Is it a sound of emptied buckets, or of garden hose, or
of mountain cataracts? That is the sort of question which Elizabeth
Barrett's extreme love of the extreme was always tempting people to ask.
Yet the question, as asked, does her a heavy historical injustice; we
remember all the lines in her work which were weak enough to be called
"womanly," we forget the multitude of strong lines that are strong
enough to be called "manly"; lines that Kingsley or Henley would have
jumped for joy to print in proof of their manliness. She had one of the
peculiar talents of true rhetoric, that of a powerful concentration. As
to the critic who thinks her poetry owed anything to the great poet who
was her husband, he can go and live in the same hotel with the man who
can believe that George Eliot owed anything to the extravagant
imagination of Mr. George Henry Lewes. So far from Browning inspiring or
interfering, he did not in one sense interfere enough. Her real
inferiority to him in literature is that he was consciously while she
was unconsciously absurd.

It is natural, in the matter of Victorian moral change, to take
Swinburne as the next name here. He is the only poet who was also, in
the European sense, on the spot; even if, in the sense of the Gilbertian
song, the spot was barred. He also knew that something rather crucial
was happening to Christendom; he thought it was getting unchristened. It
is even a little amusing, indeed, that these two Pro-Italian poets
almost conducted a political correspondence in rhyme. Mrs. Browning
sternly reproached those who had ever doubted the good faith of the King
of Sardinia, whom she acclaimed as being truly a king. Swinburne,
lyrically alluding to her as "Sea-eagle of English feather," broadly
hinted that the chief blunder of that wild fowl had been her support of
an autocratic adventurer: "calling a crowned man royal, that was no more
than a king." But it is not fair, even in this important connection, to
judge Swinburne by _Songs Before Sunrise_. They were songs before a
sunrise that has never turned up. Their dogmatic assertions have for a
long time past stared starkly at us as nonsense. As, for instance, the
phrase "Glory to Man in the Highest, for man is the master of things";
after which there is evidently nothing to be said, except that it is
not true. But even where Swinburne had his greater grip, as in that
grave and partly just poem _Before a Crucifix_, Swinburne, the most
Latin, the most learned, the most largely travelled of the Victorians,
still knows far less of the facts than even Mrs. Browning. The whole of
the poem, _Before a Crucifix_, breaks down by one mere mistake. It


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