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the language. But he would have praised the Nie-
belungen Lied and the poems of Wolfram von
Eschenbach and Heine had he known them. Again
and again we find him coupling Goethe with Shake-
speare with significant assurance.

Take him for all in all there is no greater figure
In English literature, except Shakespeare himself;
In spite of his imperfect accomplishment Meredith
should rank with Emerson and Blake among our
noblest. I do not care much for his novels, one
can get his mind better through his poems, and best
of all though these letters. But certain of his poems
will live as long as the language, and there are


pages of his novels, such as the love-Idyll In Richard
Fever el J which are of the same quality. Here is a
short poem almost as fine as Goethe's best; indeed
It Is almost a rendering of the magical verse be-
ginning: Ueber alien Gipfeln 1st Ruh.^

DraoE IN Woods

A wind sways the pines

And below
Not a breatli of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine tree drops its dead;
They are quiet as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race.
As the clouds the clouds chase;

And we go.
And we drop like the fruits of the tree.
Even we.
Even so.

^ I have Englished this verse so that my readers may compare
the two masters; but my rendering is shockingly inferior to the

O'er all the hilltops is silence now,
From all the forest hearest thou
Hardly a breath.
The birds in the woodlands are nesting.
Patience — soon thou will be resting
Gently in Death.


I have given his written judgments of his literary
contemporaries at some length because they show, I
think, the ripest critical faculty to be found in any
literature. This man, one would say, had the widest,
fairest mind imaginable: it fails nowhere. If one
compares him with the best critics so called, his
superiority is astounding: matched with him the
Hazlitts and Sainte Beuves are pigmies: Swin-
burne continually overshoots the mark in praise or
blame: Matthew Arnold is snobbish, and petty
and hidebound: Emerson is puritanical; even Goethe
lacks the subtle sureness of appreciation, the vivid
painting phrases. Shakespeare alone has the same
imperial vision wedded to magic of expression.

These Letters give me the same sense of fullness
as Meredith's wonderful talk; I have often come
away from him feeling that on everything we had
discussed his judgment was final. I have never
met so fine a mind, so perfect a mirror; were it
not for that harshness of moral condemnation of
which I have given an instance, and that bias of
insular patriotism, I should have said that in Mere-
dith, as in Shakespeare, one touched the zenith of

In these crucial matters he fell short of the ideal.
In virile virtues he was better endowed than Shake-
speare: he had loved passionately, but had not lost
himself in passion: he had fought again and again
for unpopular causes and had stood against the


world for the Right with heroic courage: he had
accepted all the conditions of life without murmur
or complaint, and had triumphed over all difficulties;
he had lived in poverty without cringing or revolt;
one of our Conquerors for all time; after a more
desperate battle than Browning waged he had won
to greater sweetness of nature. I call him a great
man and a noble, not so great as Shakespeare, who
rose above race-vanity and above condemnation of
even the worst of men to those heights where "par-
don's the word to all" and where malice Itself can
only mean forgiveness. But Meredith's life and be-
ing are witness enough that this age of ours is the
noblest age in all history, for he did not dwarf his
contemporaries and his stature is proof sufficient
that men will yet be born on earth greater than any
of our models. Nature Is always surpassing her-
self, and her most prodigious achievement today but
prepares a nobler accomplishment tomorrow.

It is worth notice perhaps that Meredith did not
pass almost unrecognized through life as Shake-
speare passed and Cervantes. He was fairly well
known to a good many of us. Barrie and Max Beer-
bohm wrote of him during his lifetime as the great-
est man since Shakespeare: Lord Morley took care
that he should have the Order of Merit, and though
his novels never had a large sale and his poems
hardly covered the cost of publication, all the best
readers in the English-speaking lands were his de-


voted and enthusiastic friends and admirers. He
was the one writer of the time of whom we were all
proud. He went through life crowned, and nothing
he said or did injured his reputation or tarnished
the sovereign lustre of his genius. He was poor
with dignity and a friend of man without affectation
or snobbishness : his joy in living, his sympathy, his
happy vahance made life brighter to all of us.


IT was as a student in Gottingen that I first got
to know Robert Browning. The passion of the
lyrics "The Last Ride Together," "In a Gondola,"
and many others enthralled me, and the "Men and
Women" taught me that the great lover was a great
man to boot; but it was "The Ring and the Book"
which gave me his measure, allowed me, so to speak,
to lay my ear to the page and listen to Browning's
heart beat. Curiously enough, a little thing became
a sort of symbol of my liking for the man, the gen-
erous kindly warmth of his dedications to John Ken-
yon and Barry Cornwall and Sergeant Talfourd.
The world knows little about these almost forgot-
ten worthies, but just because of that the notices re-
minded me of Balzac's numerous dedications, and
everything connected with Balzac, however remote,
has a certain significance for me. For Balzac is one
of the "Sacred Band" who has enlarged one's con-
ception of human capacity and given new horizons
to the spirit. Browning profited by this connection,
and when some years later I came to London to
work I hoped to meet the poet who was at least half
a seer as a poet should be. I used to call Browning



to myself "Greatheart," for his courage and con-
fidence and hope, and as "Greatheart" I often spoke
of him.

One day, I think In 1888 or 1889, I went to lunch
at Lady Shrewsbury's. It was a large party; an
earl was on the right of the hostess and a promi-
nent Member of the House of Commons on her
left: opposite me, about the middle of the table, was
a small man inclined to be stout, carefully dressed,
with healthy tanned skin, blue eyes and silver hair.
He had a red tie on, and to my shortsightedness
seemed commonplace. Suddenly some one addressed
him as Mr. Browning. Breathless I turned to my
neighbor, a lady; "Is that Robert Browning the
poet?" I asked In wonder. "I think so," she re-
plied, a little surprised at my tone, "he's nice. Isn't
he? But I'm afraid I don't know much about
poetry: I don't care for It really: I'm not liter-
ary." I hardly heard her chatter: so that was Rob-
ert Browning: I gazed and gazed, studied his face,
his eyes, his expression; but could not see anything:
his eyes were blue and clear, his nose a little beaked;
but there was nothing distinguished about him, I
had to admit to myself, nothing peculiar even,
nothing remarkable. Of course, I took myself to
task at once: "What had I expected, a giant or an
ogre?" "No, no," my heart replied, "yet I had
hoped to catch In eyes or expression something to


show the greatness of the spirit; but nothing, noth-


He spoke to his neighbors in a low tone, kept
the quiet manners and reserve of the ordinary gen-
tleman, using politeness perhaps as a barrier be-
tween himself and the world.

I was introduced to him, and told him how glad
I was to meet him; how his work had delighted
me. He bowed as if I had been using ordinary
conventional phrases and turned away, his cool,
indifferent manner fencing him off from my enthu-
siastic admiration. I could get nothing from him,
no glint of fire from the polished flint.

I met him again and again that season, but never
got inside his armor. Once or twice I had hardly
spoken to him, I had contented myself with bowing,
so convinced I was that it was impossible to enter
into intimate relations with him.

One day I was at Mrs. Jeune's at lunch. On
her right she had Russell Lowell, the American Am-
bassador: on her left a Cabinet Minister. I was
at the other end of the table, on the left of the host,
who had Browning on his right hand. The conver-
sation at our end of the table was formal and dull,
but Russell Lowell was in great form and kept the
table interested and amused to judge by the laughter
of the pretty women.

At the end of lunch Russell Lowell got up to go,
excusing himself, and the bevy of women all gath-


ered about him talking and laughing. It made a
good picture, Lowell with his leonine grey head,
bright and happy as a schoolboy, and the women
flirting with him with that happy mixture of con-
fidence and familiarity that young women often show
distinguished men on the verge of old age.

I had gone round to Browning's side of the table.
I don't know how the conversation commenced, but
I remember quoting in illustration of something I
said, a verse of Rabbi Ben Ezra with passionate ap-

Suddenly there came a peal of laughter from the
other end of the room. Lowell, exclaiming "the
one privilege of age," was kissing the pretty hands
extended to him when taking his leave. Suddenly
Browning clutched my arm.

"But what has he done," he said, indicating Low-
ell with his head at the other end of the room, "what
has he done to be so feted?"

The tone was so angry, so bitter, that I started.

"He has lived for just that," I replied, "that is
why he made verse and not poetry. He wanted the
facile admiration of the moment and the liking of
pretty women: he has got them. But there are
three or four who honor you at this table, who don't
care whether Lowell is alive or dead."

"One tries to console oneself with thoughts like
that," Browning admitted, "but it is difficult as one
grows older. When one Is young, one Is so occupied


with the work that one doesn't much care whether
it is liked or disliked, but later, when one has fought
and had, at any rate, a partial success, it is hard to
see others who have not fought at all, put before

Naturally I did my best to show him the other
side. I spoke to him of the enthusiastic admiration
of the little group of literary students at Heidelberg
and Gottlngen, who thought more of him than of
any living poet. His only competitor in our admira-
tion, I told him, was Victor Hugo; If he had paid
a visit to Germany we should have chaired him
through the streets. He appeared to be gratified.

We went away together and walked, I remember,
across the park, and from that day on I began to
know him. I soon found that all he had to give he
had given in his books: in fact, I came to see that
the poetry, the mere words, or. If you will, the in-
spiration of the moment had lent him thoughts be-
yond his seeing.

Take this verse in which he shows that injustice,
or wrong may have a good result as a spur:

Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough.
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go !
Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge
the throe!


Or this one with its lofty optimism:

Therefore I summon age
To grant youth's heritage.

Life's struggle having so far reached its term:
Thence shall I pass, approved
A man, for aye removed

From the developed brute; a God though in the

Here is the heart of his song and it is mere Chris-

Not once beat "Praise be Thine!
"I see the whole design,
"I, who saw power, see now love perfect too:
"Perfect I call Thy plan:
"Thanks that I was a man !

"Maker, remake, complete, — I trust what Thou
shalt do !"

No honest human soul can call the plan "perfect."
Browning was certainly bigger in his writings than
he was in intimacy. He is often spoken of as the
least inspired of poets. To my mind he owed more
to verse and the inspiration of reflection than any
man of genius I ever met. His belief as shown in
the Rabbi Ben Ezra and other poems is uncompro-
mising, definite, clear, authoritative as the utterance
of a Jewish prophet. But when you probed the man
in quiet conversation, you found no such certainty.


His beliefs were really a mere echo of his child-
hood's faith, and his optimism was of health and
sound heart rather than of insight. He was not one
of those who had gone round the world and returned
to his native place; he had always lingered in the
vicinity of home without seel

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 13 of 20)