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MATTHEW ARNOLD . . . . . . . Professor SAINTSBURY.
JOHN RUSKIN . . . . . . . . Mrs MEYNELL.











A generation has passed since the day when, in your study at Brackenbed
Grange, your reading of "Ben Ezra," the tones of which still vibrate in
my memory, first introduced me to the poetry of Robert Browning. He was
then just entering upon his wider fame. You had for years been one not
merely of the few who recognised him, but of those, yet fewer, who
proclaimed him. The standpoint of the following pages is not, I think,
very remote from your own; conversations with you have, in any case,
done something to define it. You see, then, that your share of
responsibility for them is, on all counts, considerable, and you must
not refuse to allow me to associate them with a name which the old
Rabbi's great heartening cry: "Strive, and hold cheap the strain, Learn,
nor account the pang, Dare, never grudge the throe," summons
spontaneously to many other lips than mine. To some it is brought yet
closer by his calm retrospect through sorrow.

ei dê theion ho nous pros ton anthrôpon, kai ho kata touton bios
theios pros ton anthrôpinon bion - ARIST., _Eth. N_. x. 8.

"Nè creator nè creatura mai,"
Cominciò ei, "figliuol, fu senza amore."
- DANTE, _Purg_. xvii. 91.


Browning is confessedly a difficult poet, and his difficulty is by no
means all of the kind which opposes unmistakable impediments to the
reader's path. Some of it is of the more insidious kind, which may
co-exist with a delightful persuasion that the way is absolutely clear,
and Browning's "obscurity" an invention of the invertebrate. The
problems presented by his writing are merely tough, and will always
yield to intelligent and patient scrutiny. But the problems presented by
his mind are elusive, and it would be hard to resist the cogency of his
interpreters, if it were not for their number. The rapid succession of
acute and notable studies of Browning put forth during the last three or
four years makes it even more apparent than it was before that the last
word on Browning has not yet been said, even in that very qualified
sense in which the last word about any poet, or any poetry, can ever be
said at all. The present volume, in any case, does not aspire to say it.
But it is not perhaps necessary to apologise for adding, under these
conditions, another to the list. From most of the recent studies I have
learned something; but this book has its roots in a somewhat earlier
time, and may perhaps be described as an attempt to work out, in the
detail of Browning's life and poetry, from a more definitely literary
standpoint and without Hegelian prepossessions, a view of his genius not
unlike that set forth with so much eloquence and penetration, in his
well-known volume, by Professor Henry Jones. The narrative of Browning's
life, in the earlier chapters, makes no pretence to biographical
completeness. An immense mass of detail and anecdote bearing upon him is
now available and within easy reach. I have attempted to sift out from
this picturesque loose drift the really salient and relevant material.
Much domestic incident, over which the brush would fain linger, will be
missed; on the other hand, the great central epoch of Browning's poetic
life, from 1846 to 1869, has been treated, deliberately, on what may
appear an inordinately generous scale. Some amount of overlapping and
repetition, it may be added, in the analytical chapters the plan of the
book rendered it impossible wholly to avoid.

I am indebted to a friend, who wishes to be nameless, for reading the
proofs, with results extremely beneficial to the book.

_January 1905_.








I. Dramas. From _Strafford_ to _Pippa Passes_ 42
II. From the _Blot in the 'Scutcheon_ to _Luria_ 51
III. The early Dramatic Lyrics and Romances 65

I. January 1845 to September 1846 74
II. Society and Friendships 84
III. Politics 88
IV. Poems of Nature 91
V. Poems of Art 96
VI. Poems of Religion 110
VII. Poems of Love 132







I. Divergent psychical tendencies of Browning - "romantic"
temperament, "realist" senses - blending of their
_données_ in his imaginative activity - shifting
complexion of "finite" and "infinite" 237
II. His "realism." Plasticity, acuteness, and veracity
of intellect and senses 239
III. But his realism qualified by energetic individual
preference along certain well-defined lines 245
IV. _Joy in Light and Colour_ 246
V. _Joy in Form_. Love of abruptness, of intricacy;
clefts and spikes 250
VI. _Joy in Power_. Violence in imagery and description;
in sounds; in words. Grotesqueness. Intensity.
Catastrophic action. The pregnant moment 257
VII. _Joy in Soul_. 1. Limited in Browning on the side
of simple human nature; of the family; of the
civic community; of myth and symbol 266
VIII. _Joy in Soul_. 2. Supported by Joy in Light and
Colour; in Form; in Power. 3. Extended to
(a) sub-human Nature, (b) the inanimate
products of Art; Relation of Browning's poetry to
his interpretation of life 272

I. Approximation of God, Man, Nature in the thought
of the early nineteenth century; how far reflected
in the thought of Browning 287

II. Antagonistic elements of Browning's intellect; resulting
fluctuations of his thought. Two conceptions of Reality.
Ambiguous treatment of "Matter"; of Time 290

III. Conflicting tendencies in his conception of God 295

IV. Conflicting tendencies in his treatment of Knowledge 297

V. Proximate solution of these antagonisms in the conception
of Love 300

VI. Final estimate of Browning's relation to the progressive
and conservative movements of his age 304







The Boy sprang up ... and ran,
Stung by the splendour of a sudden thought.
- _A Death in the Desert_.

Dass ich erkenne, was die Welt
Im Innersten zusammenhält.
- _Faust_.

Judged by his cosmopolitan sympathies and his encyclopædic knowledge, by
the scenery and the persons among whom his poetry habitually moves,
Browning was one of the least insular of English poets. But he was also,
of them all, one of the most obviously and unmistakably English.
Tennyson, the poetic mouthpiece of a rather specific and exclusive
Anglo-Saxondom, belonged by his Vergilian instincts of style to that
main current of European poetry which finds response and recognition
among cultivated persons of all nationalities; and he enjoyed a European
distinction not attained by any other English poet since Byron.
Browning, on the contrary, with his long and brilliant gallery of
European creations, Browning, who claimed Italy as his "university,"
remains, as a poet, all but unknown even in Italy, and all but
non-existent for the rest of the civilised world beyond the Channel. His
cosmopolitan sympathies worked through the medium of a singularly
individual intellect; and the detaching and isolating effect which
pronounced individuality of thinking usually produces, even in a genial
temperament, was heightened in his case by a robust indifference to
conventions of all kinds, and not least to those which make genius
easily intelligible to the plain man.

What is known of Browning's descent makes these contrasts in some degree
intelligible. An old strain of Wessex squires or yeomen, dimly
discernible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, issued, about
the middle of the eighteenth, in the first distinct personality among
the poet's forebears, his grandfather, who also bore the name Robert. He
was a robust, hard-headed, energetic, pushing man of business and the
world, who made his way from a clerkship to an important and responsible
post in the Bank of England, and settled accounts with religion and with
literature in a right English way, by reading the Bible and 'Tom Jones'
through every year, and very little else. More problematical and
elusive is the figure of his first wife, Margaret Tittle, with whom, to
judge from the character of her eldest son, literary and artistic
sensibility first mingled in the hard practical Browning stock. In this
second Robert Browning, indeed, the somewhat brutal and grasping egotism
of the father gave place to a cultured humanity of almost feminine
tenderness and charm. All his life long he was passionately devoted to
literature, to art, to children. He collected rare books and prints with
avidity, but was no less generous in giving them away. Indifferent to
money, he hated to see a scrap of paper wasted. He had a neat touch in
epigrams, and a boyish delight in grotesque rhymes. But there was no
lack of grit in this accomplished, fresh-minded, and lovable man. He had
the tough fibre of his race; only it was the wrongs of others that
called out its tenacity, not his own. While holding an appointment on
his mother's West Indian estate, he braved the fierce resentment of the
whole colony by teaching a negro-boy to read; and finally incurred
disinheritance rather than draw a livelihood from slave-labour. This
Shelleyan act involved for him the resignation of his intellectual and
artistic ambitions; and with the docility characteristic of him, where
only his own interests were concerned, he forthwith entered the fairly
well-paid but unexciting service of the Bank.

In 1811 he married, and on May 7 of the following year his eldest son,
Robert, was born. His wife was the daughter of a German shipowner,
William Wiedemann, who had settled and married at Dundee. Wiedemann is
said to have been an accomplished draughtsman and musician, and his
daughter, without herself sharing these gifts, probably passed them on
to her son. Whether she also communicated from her Scottish and German
ancestry the "metaphysical" proclivities currently ascribed to him, is a
hypothesis absolutely in the air.[1] What is clear is that she was
herself intellectually simple and of few ideas, but rich in the
temperament, at once nervous and spiritual, which when present in the
mother so often becomes genius in the son. "She was a divine woman,"
such was her son's brief sufficing tribute. Physically he seems to have
closely resembled her,[2] and they were bound together by a peculiarly
passionate love from first to last.

[Footnote 1: A similar but more groundless suggestion, that the author
of _Holy-cross Day_ and _Rabbi ben Ezra_ probably had Jewish
blood in his veins, can only be described as an impertinence - not to
Browning but to the Jewish race. As if to feel the spiritual genius of
Hebraism and to be moved by the pathos of Hebraic fate were an
eccentricity only to be accounted for by the bias of kin! It is
significant that his demonstrable share of German blood left him rather
conspicuously impervious to the literary - and more especially to the
"metaphysical" - products of the German mind.]

[Footnote 2: Browning himself reports the exclamation of the family
doctor when trying to diagnose an attack of his: "Why, has anybody to
search far for a cause of whatever nervous disorder you may suffer
from, when there sits your mother - whom you so absolutely resemble!"
(_Letters to E.B.B._, ii. 456.)]

The home in Camberwell into which the boy Robert was born reflected the
serene, harmonious, self-contented character of his parents. Friends
rarely disturbed the even tenor of its ways, and the storms of politics
seem to have intruded as faintly into this suburban seclusion as the
roar of London. Books, business, and religion provided a framework of
decorous routine within which these kindly and beautiful souls moved
with entire content. Well-to-do Camberwell perhaps contained few homes
so pure and refined; but it must have held many in which the life-blood
of political and social interests throbbed more vigorously, and where
thought and conversation were in closer touch with the intellectual life
of the capital and the larger movements of the time. Nothing in
Browning's boyhood tended to open his imagination to the sense of
citizenship and nationality which the imperial pageants and ceremonies
of Frankfurt so early kindled in the child Goethe. But within the limits
imposed by this quiet home young Robert soon began to display a vigour
and enterprise which tried all its resources. "He clamoured for
occupation from the moment he could speak," and "something to do" meant
above all some living thing to be caught for him to play with. The gift
of an animal was found a valuable aid to negotiations with the young
despot; when medicine was to be taken, he would name "a speckled frog"
as the price of his compliance, and presently his mother would be seen
hovering hither and thither among the strawberry-beds. A quaint
menagerie was gradually assembled: owls and monkeys, magpies and
hedgehogs, an eagle and snakes. Boy-collectors are often cruel; but
Robert showed from the first an anxious tenderness and an eager care for
life: we hear of a hurt cat brought home to be nursed, of ladybirds
picked up in the depths of winter and preserved with wondering delight
at their survival. Even in stories the death of animals moved him to
bitter tears. He was equally quick at books, and soon outdistanced his
companions at the elementary schools which he attended up to his
fourteenth year. Near at hand, too, was the Dulwich Gallery, - "a green
half-hour's walk across the fields," - a beloved haunt of his childhood,
to which he never ceased to be grateful.[3] But his father's overflowing
library and portfolios played the chief part in his early development.
He read voraciously, and apparently without restraint or control. The
letters of Junius and of Horace Walpole were familiar to him "in
boyhood," we are assured with provoking indefiniteness by Mrs Orr; as
well as "all the works of Voltaire." Most to his mind, however, was the
rich sinewy English and athletic fancy of the seventeenth-century
Fantastic Quarles; a preference which foreshadowed his later delight in
the great master of the Fantastic school, and of all who care for
close-knit intellect in poetry, John Donne.

[Footnote 3: _To E.B.B._, March 3, 1846.]

Curiously enough, it was some fragments of the grandiose but shadowy
Ossian which first stirred the imitative impulse in this poet of
trenchant and clear-cut form. "The first composition I ever was guilty
of," he wrote to Elizabeth Barrett (Aug. 25, 1846), "was something in
imitation of Ossian, whom I had not read, but conceived through two or
three scraps in other books." And long afterwards Ossian was "the first
book I ever bought in my life" (ib.) These "imitations" were apparently
in verse, and in rhyme; and Browning's bent and faculty for both was
very early pronounced. "I never can recollect not writing rhymes; ...
but I knew they were nonsense even then." And a well-known anecdote of
his infancy describes his exhibition of a lively sense of metre in
verses which he recited with emphatic accompaniments upon the edge of
the dining-room table before he was tall enough to look over it. The
crowding thoughts of his maturity had not yet supervened to prevent the
abundant music that he "had in him" from "getting out." It is not
surprising that a boy of these proclivities was captivated by the stormy
swing and sweep of Byron; nor that he should have caught also something
of his "splendour of language," and even, a little later, a reflection,
respectable and suburban enough, of his rebellious Titanism. The less
so, that in Robert's eleventh or twelfth year Byron, the head of the
Satanic school, had become the heroic champion of Greek liberation, and
was probably spoken of with honour in the home of the large-hearted
banker who had in his day suffered so much for the sake of the
unemancipated slave. In later years Browning was accustomed to deliver
himself of breezy sarcasms at the expense of the "flat-fish" who
declaimed so eloquently about the "deep and dark blue ocean." But it is
easy to see that this genial chaff covered a real admiration, - the
tribute of one abounding nature to another, which even years and the
philosophic mind did not seriously abate. "I always retained my first
feeling for Byron in many respects," he wrote in a significant letter to
Miss Barrett in 1846. " ... I would at any time have gone to Finchley to
see a curl of his hair or one of his gloves, I am sure, - while Heaven
knows that I could not get up enthusiasm enough to cross the room if at
the other end of it all Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were
condensed into the little china bottle yonder."[4] It was thus no mere
freak of juvenile taste that took shape in these early Byronic poems. He
entitled them, with the lofty modesty of boyish authorship, _Incondita_,
and his parents sought to publish them. No publisher could be found; but
they won the attention of a notable critic, W.J. Fox, who feared too
much splendour and too little thought in the young poet, but kept his
eye on him nevertheless.

[Footnote 4: _To E.B.B._, Aug. 22, 1846.]

Two years later the boy of fourteen caught the accents of another poetic
voice, destined to touch the sources of music and passion in him with
far more intimate power. His casual discovery, on a bookstall, of "Mr
Shelley's Atheistical poem" seems to have for the first time made known
to him even the name of the poet who had died in Italy four years
before. Something of Shelley's story seems to have been known to his
parents. It gives us a measure of the indulgent sympathy and religious
tolerance which prevailed in this Evangelical home, that the parents
should have unhesitatingly supplied the boy of fourteen, at some cost of
time and trouble, with all the accessible writings of the "atheistical"
poet, and with those of his presumably like-minded friend Keats as well.
He fell instantly under the spell of both. Whatever he may have known
before of ancient or modern literature, the full splendour of romantic
poetry here broke upon him for the first time. Immature as he was, he
already responded instinctively to the call of the spirits most
intimately akin to his own. Byron's stormy power thrilled and delighted
him; but it was too poor in spiritual elements, too negative,
self-centred, and destructive to stir the deeper sources of Browning's
poetry. In Keats and in Shelley he found poetic energies not less
glowing and intense, bent upon making palpable to eye and ear visions of
beauty which, with less of superficial realism, were fed by far more
exquisite and penetrating senses, and attached by more and subtler
filaments to the truth of things. Beyond question this was the decisive
literary experience of Browning's early years. Probably it had a chief
part in making the poet's career his fixed ideal, and ultimately, with
his father's willing consent, his definite choice. What we know of his
inner and outer life during the important years which turned the boy
into the man is slight and baffling enough. The fiery spirit of poetry
can rarely have worked out its way with so little disturbance to the
frame. Minute scrutiny has disclosed traits of unrest and revolt; he
professed "atheism" and practised vegetarianism, betrayed at times the
aggressive arrogance of an able youth, and gave his devoted and tender
parents moments of very superfluous concern. For with all his immensely
vivacious play of brain, there was something in his mental and moral
nature from first to last stubbornly inelastic and unimpressible, that
made him equally secure against expansion and collapse. The same simple
tenacity of nature which kept his buoyantly adventurous intellect
permanently within the tether of a few primary convictions, kept him, in
the region of practice and morality, within the bounds of a rather nice
and fastidious decorum. Malign influences effected no lodgment in a
nature so fundamentally sound; they might cloud and trouble imagination
for a while, but their scope hardly extended further, and as they were
literary in origin, so they were mainly literary in expression. In the
meantime he was laying, in an unsystematic but not ineffective way, the
foundations of his many-sided culture and accomplishment. We hear much
of private tutors, of instruction in French, in music, in riding,
fencing, boxing, dancing; of casual attendance also at the Greek classes
in University College. In all these matters he seems to have won more or
less definite accomplishment, and from most of them his versatile
literary talent took, at one time or another, an effective toll. The
athletic musician, who composed his own songs and gloried in a gallop,
was to make verse simulate, as hardly any artificer had made it before,
the labyrinthine meanderings of the fugue and the rhythmic swing of

Of all these varied aims and aspirations, of all in short that was going
on under the surface of this brilliant and versatile Robert Browning of
twenty, we have a chaotic reflection in the famous fragment _Pauline_.
The quite peculiar animosity with which its author in later life
regarded this single "crab" of his youthful tree of knowledge only adds
to its interest. He probably resented the frank expression of passion,
nowhere else approached in his works. Yet passion only agitates the
surface of _Pauline_. Whether Pauline herself stand for an actual
woman - Miss Flower or another - or for the nascent spell of
womanhood - she plays, for one who is ostensibly the heroine of the poem,
a discouragingly minor part. No wonder she felt tempted to advise the
burning of so unflattering a record. Instead of the lyric language of
love, she has to receive the confessions of a subtle psychologist, who
must unlock the tumultuous story of his soul "before he can sing." And
these confessions are of a kind rare even amongst self-revelations of
genius. Pauline's lover is a dreamer, but a dreamer of an uncommon
species. He is preoccupied with the processes of his mind, but his mind

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