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but, in truth, this particular kind of optimism is inevitably, and by
its nature, destructive. The great dominant idea of the whole of that
period, the period before, during, and long after the Revolution, is
the idea that man would by his nature live in an Eden of dignity,
liberty and love, and that artificial and decrepit systems are keeping
him out of that Eden. No one can do the least justice to the great
Jacobins who does not realise that to them breaking the civilisation
of ages was like breaking the cords of a treasure-chest. And just as
for more than a century great men had dreamed of this beautiful
emancipation, so the dream began in the time of Keats and Shelley to
creep down among the dullest professions and the most prosaic classes
of society. A spirit of revolt was growing among the young of the
middle classes, which had nothing at all in common with the complete
and pessimistic revolt against all things in heaven or earth, which
has been fashionable among the young in more recent times. The
Shelleyan enthusiast was altogether on the side of existence; he
thought that every cloud and clump of grass shared his strict
republican orthodoxy. He represented, in short, a revolt of the normal
against the abnormal; he found himself, so to speak, in the heart of a
wholly topsy-turvy and blasphemous state of things, in which God was
rebelling against Satan. There began to arise about this time a race
of young men like Keats, members of a not highly cultivated middle
class, and even of classes lower, who felt in a hundred ways this
obscure alliance with eternal things against temporal and practical
ones, and who lived on its imaginative delight. They were a kind of
furtive universalist; they had discovered the whole cosmos, and they
kept the whole cosmos a secret. They climbed up dark stairs to meagre
garrets, and shut themselves in with the gods. Numbers of the great
men, who afterwards illuminated the Victorian era, were at this time
living in mean streets in magnificent daydreams. Ruskin was solemnly
visiting his solemn suburban aunts; Dickens was going to and fro in a
blacking factory; Carlyle, slightly older, was still lingering on a
poor farm in Dumfriesshire; Keats had not long become the assistant of
the country surgeon when Browning was a boy in Camberwell. On all
sides there was the first beginning of the æsthetic stir in the middle
classes which expressed itself in the combination of so many poetic
lives with so many prosaic livelihoods. It was the age of inspired
office-boys.

Browning grew up, then, with the growing fame of Shelley and Keats, in
the atmosphere of literary youth, fierce and beautiful, among new
poets who believed in a new world. It is important to remember this,
because the real Browning was a quite different person from the grim
moralist and metaphysician who is seen through the spectacles of
Browning Societies and University Extension Lecturers. Browning was
first and foremost a poet, a man made to enjoy all things visible and
invisible, a priest of the higher passions. The misunderstanding that
has supposed him to be other than poetical, because his form was often
fanciful and abrupt, is really different from the misunderstanding
which attaches to most other poets. The opponents of Victor Hugo
called him a mere windbag; the opponents of Shakespeare called him a
buffoon. But the admirers of Hugo and Shakespeare at least knew
better. Now the admirers and opponents of Browning alike make him out
to be a pedant rather than a poet. The only difference between the
Browningite and the anti-Browningite, is that the second says he was
not a poet but a mere philosopher, and the first says he was a
philosopher and not a mere poet. The admirer disparages poetry in
order to exalt Browning; the opponent exalts poetry in order to
disparage Browning; and all the time Browning himself exalted poetry
above all earthly things, served it with single-hearted intensity, and
stands among the few poets who hardly wrote a line of anything else.

The whole of the boyhood and youth of Robert Browning has as much the
quality of pure poetry as the boyhood and youth of Shelley. We do not
find in it any trace of the analytical Browning who is believed in by
learned ladies and gentlemen. How indeed would such sympathisers feel
if informed that the first poems that Browning wrote in a volume
called _Incondita_ were noticed to contain the fault of "too much
splendour of language and too little wealth of thought"? They were
indeed Byronic in the extreme, and Browning in his earlier appearances
in society presents himself in quite a romantic manner. Macready, the
actor, wrote of him: "He looks and speaks more like a young poet than
any one I have ever seen." A picturesque tradition remains that Thomas
Carlyle, riding out upon one of his solitary gallops necessitated by
his physical sufferings, was stopped by one whom he described as a
strangely beautiful youth, who poured out to him without preface or
apology his admiration for the great philosopher's works. Browning at
this time seems to have left upon many people this impression of
physical charm. A friend who attended University College with him
says: "He was then a bright handsome youth with long black hair
falling over his shoulders." Every tale that remains of him in
connection with this period asserts and reasserts the completely
romantic spirit by which he was then possessed. He was fond, for
example, of following in the track of gipsy caravans, far across
country, and a song which he heard with the refrain, "Following the
Queen of the Gipsies oh!" rang in his ears long enough to express
itself in his soberer and later days in that splendid poem of the
spirit of escape and Bohemianism, _The Flight of the Duchess_. Such
other of these early glimpses of him as remain, depict him as striding
across Wimbledon Common with his hair blowing in the wind, reciting
aloud passages from Isaiah, or climbing up into the elms above Norwood
to look over London by night. It was when looking down from that
suburban eyrie over the whole confounding labyrinth of London that he
was filled with that great irresponsible benevolence which is the best
of the joys of youth, and conceived the idea of a perfectly
irresponsible benevolence in the first plan of _Pippa Passes_. At the
end of his father's garden was a laburnum "heavy with its weight of
gold," and in the tree two nightingales were in the habit of singing
against each other, a form of competition which, I imagine, has since
become less common in Camberwell. When Browning as a boy was
intoxicated with the poetry of Shelley and Keats, he hypnotised
himself into something approaching to a positive conviction that these
two birds were the spirits of the two great poets who had settled in a
Camberwell garden, in order to sing to the only young gentleman who
really adored and understood them. This last story is perhaps the most
typical of the tone common to all the rest; it would be difficult to
find a story which across the gulf of nearly eighty years awakens so
vividly a sense of the sumptuous folly of an intellectual boyhood.
With Browning, as with all true poets, passion came first and made
intellectual expression, the hunger for beauty making literature as
the hunger for bread made a plough. The life he lived in those early
days was no life of dull application; there was no poet whose youth
was so young. When he was full of years and fame, and delineating in
great epics the beauty and horror of the romance of southern Europe, a
young man, thinking to please him, said, "There is no romance now
except in Italy." "Well," said Browning, "I should make an exception
of Camberwell."

Such glimpses will serve to indicate the kind of essential issue that
there was in the nature of things between the generation of Browning
and the generation of his father. Browning was bound in the nature of
things to become at the outset Byronic, and Byronism was not, of
course, in reality so much a pessimism about civilised things as an
optimism about savage things. This great revolt on behalf of the
elemental which Keats and Shelley represented was bound first of all
to occur. Robert Browning junior had to be a part of it, and Robert
Browning senior had to go back to his water colours and the faultless
couplets of Pope with the full sense of the greatest pathos that the
world contains, the pathos of the man who has produced something that
he cannot understand.

The earliest works of Browning bear witness, without exception, to
this ardent and somewhat sentimental evolution. _Pauline_ appeared
anonymously in 1833. It exhibits the characteristic mark of a juvenile
poem, the general suggestion that the author is a thousand years old.
Browning calls it a fragment of a confession; and Mr. Johnson Fox, an
old friend of Browning's father, who reviewed it for _Tait's
Magazine_, said, with truth, that it would be difficult to find
anything more purely confessional. It is the typical confession of a
boy laying bare all the spiritual crimes of infidelity and moral
waste, in a state of genuine ignorance of the fact that every one else
has committed them. It is wholesome and natural for youth to go about
confessing that the grass is green, and whispering to a priest
hoarsely that it has found a sun in heaven. But the records of that
particular period of development, even when they are as ornate and
beautiful as _Pauline_, are not necessarily or invariably wholesome
reading. The chief interest of _Pauline_, with all its beauties, lies
in a certain almost humorous singularity, the fact that Browning, of
all people, should have signalised his entrance into the world of
letters with a poem which may fairly be called morbid. But this is a
morbidity so general and recurrent that it may be called in a
contradictory phrase a healthy morbidity; it is a kind of intellectual
measles. No one of any degree of maturity in reading _Pauline_ will be
quite so horrified at the sins of the young gentleman who tells the
story as he seems to be himself. It is the utterance of that bitter
and heartrending period of youth which comes before we realise the one
grand and logical basis of all optimism - the doctrine of original sin.
The boy at this stage being an ignorant and inhuman idealist, regards
all his faults as frightful secret malformations, and it is only later
that he becomes conscious of that large and beautiful and benignant
explanation that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and
desperately wicked. That Browning, whose judgment on his own work was
one of the best in the world, took this view of _Pauline_ in after
years is quite obvious. He displayed a very manly and unique capacity
of really laughing at his own work without being in the least ashamed
of it. "This," he said of _Pauline_, "is the only crab apple that
remains of the shapely tree of life in my fool's paradise." It would
be difficult to express the matter more perfectly. Although _Pauline_
was published anonymously, its authorship was known to a certain
circle, and Browning began to form friendships in the literary world.
He had already become acquainted with two of the best friends he was
ever destined to have, Alfred Domett, celebrated in "The Guardian
Angel" and "Waring," and his cousin Silverthorne, whose death is
spoken of in one of the most perfect lyrics in the English language,
Browning's "May and Death." These were men of his own age, and his
manner of speaking of them gives us many glimpses into that splendid
world of comradeship which. Plato and Walt Whitman knew, with its
endless days and its immortal nights. Browning had a third friend
destined to play an even greater part in his life, but who belonged to
an older generation and a statelier school of manners and
scholarship. Mr. Kenyon was a schoolfellow of Browning's father, and
occupied towards his son something of the position of an irresponsible
uncle. He was a rotund, rosy old gentleman, fond of comfort and the
courtesies of life, but fond of them more for others, though much for
himself. Elizabeth Barrett in after years wrote of "the brightness of
his carved speech," which would appear to suggest that he practised
that urbane and precise order of wit which was even then
old-fashioned. Yet, notwithstanding many talents of this kind, he was
not so much an able man as the natural friend and equal of able men.

Browning's circle of friends, however, widened about this time in all
directions. One friend in particular he made, the Comte de
Ripert-Monclar, a French Royalist with whom he prosecuted with renewed
energy his studies in the mediæval and Renaissance schools of
philosophy. It was the Count who suggested that Browning should write
a poetical play on the subject of Paracelsus. After reflection,
indeed, the Count retracted this advice on the ground that the history
of the great mystic gave no room for love. Undismayed by this terrible
deficiency, Browning caught up the idea with characteristic
enthusiasm, and in 1835 appeared the first of his works which he
himself regarded as representative - _Paracelsus_. The poem shows an
enormous advance in technical literary power; but in the history of
Browning's mind it is chiefly interesting as giving an example of a
peculiarity which clung to him during the whole of his literary life,
an intense love of the holes and corners of history. Fifty-two years
afterwards he wrote _Parleyings with certain Persons of Importance in
their Day_, the last poem published in his lifetime; and any reader
of that remarkable work will perceive that the common characteristic
of all these persons is not so much that they were of importance in
their day as that they are of no importance in ours. The same
eccentric fastidiousness worked in him as a young man when he wrote
_Paracelsus_ and _Sordello_. Nowhere in Browning's poetry can we find
any very exhaustive study of any of the great men who are the
favourites of the poet and moralist. He has written about philosophy
and ambition and music and morals, but he has written nothing about
Socrates or Cæsar or Napoleon, or Beethoven or Mozart, or Buddha or
Mahomet. When he wishes to describe a political ambition he selects
that entirely unknown individual, King Victor of Sardinia. When he
wishes to express the most perfect soul of music, he unearths some
extraordinary persons called Abt Vogler and Master Hugues of
Saxe-Gotha. When he wishes to express the largest and sublimest scheme
of morals and religion which his imagination can conceive, he does not
put it into the mouth of any of the great spiritual leaders of
mankind, but into the mouth of an obscure Jewish Rabbi of the name of
Ben Ezra. It is fully in accordance with this fascinating craze of his
that when he wishes to study the deification of the intellect and the
disinterested pursuit of the things of the mind, he does not select
any of the great philosophers from Plato to Darwin, whose
investigations are still of some importance in the eyes of the world.
He selects the figure of all figures most covered with modern satire
and pity, the _à priori_ scientist of the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance. His supreme type of the human intellect is neither the
academic nor the positivist, but the alchemist. It is difficult to
imagine a turn of mind constituting a more complete challenge to the
ordinary modern point of view. To the intellect of our time the wild
investigators of the school of Paracelsus seem to be the very crown
and flower of futility, they are collectors of straws and careful
misers of dust. But for all that Browning was right. Any critic who
understands the true spirit of mediæval science can see that he was
right; no critic can see how right he was unless he understands the
spirit of mediæval science as thoroughly as he did. In the character
of Paracelsus, Browning wished to paint the dangers and
disappointments which attend the man who believes merely in the
intellect. He wished to depict the fall of the logician; and with a
perfect and unerring instinct he selected a man who wrote and spoke in
the tradition of the Middle Ages, the most thoroughly and even
painfully logical period that the world has ever seen. If he had
chosen an ancient Greek philosopher, it would have been open to the
critic to have said that that philosopher relied to some extent upon
the most sunny and graceful social life that ever flourished. If he
had made him a modern sociological professor, it would have been
possible to object that his energies were not wholly concerned with
truth, but partly with the solid and material satisfaction of society.
But the man truly devoted to the things of the mind was the mediæval
magician. It is a remarkable fact that one civilisation does not
satisfy itself by calling another civilisation wicked - it calls it
uncivilised. We call the Chinese barbarians, and they call us
barbarians. The mediæval state, like China, was a foreign
civilisation, and this was its supreme characteristic, that it cared
for the things of the mind for their own sake. To complain of the
researches of its sages on the ground that they were not materially
fruitful, is to act as we should act in telling a gardener that his
roses were not as digestible as our cabbages. It is not only true that
the mediæval philosophers never discovered the steam-engine; it is
quite equally true that they never tried. The Eden of the Middle Ages
was really a garden, where each of God's flowers - truth and beauty and
reason - flourished for its own sake, and with its own name. The Eden
of modern progress is a kitchen garden.

It would have been hard, therefore, for Browning to have chosen a
better example for his study of intellectual egotism than Paracelsus.
Modern life accuses the mediæval tradition of crushing the intellect;
Browning, with a truer instinct, accuses that tradition of
over-glorifying it. There is, however, another and even more important
deduction to be made from the moral of _Paracelsus_. The usual
accusation against Browning is that he was consumed with logic; that
he thought all subjects to be the proper pabulum of intellectual
disquisition; that he gloried chiefly in his own power of plucking
knots to pieces and rending fallacies in two; and that to this method
he sacrificed deliberately, and with complete self-complacency, the
element of poetry and sentiment. To people who imagine Browning to
have been this frigid believer in the intellect there is only one
answer necessary or sufficient. It is the fact that he wrote a play
designed to destroy the whole of this intellectualist fallacy at the
age of twenty-three.

_Paracelsus_ was in all likelihood Browning's introduction to the
literary world. It was many years, and even many decades, before he
had anything like a public appreciation, but a very great part of the
minority of those who were destined to appreciate him came over to his
standard upon the publication of _Paracelsus_. The celebrated John
Forster had taken up _Paracelsus_ "as a thing to slate," and had ended
its perusal with the wildest curiosity about the author and his works.
John Stuart Mill, never backward in generosity, had already interested
himself in Browning, and was finally converted by the same poem. Among
other early admirers were Landor, Leigh Hunt, Horne, Serjeant
Talfourd, and Monckton-Milnes. One man of even greater literary
stature seems to have come into Browning's life about this time, a man
for whom he never ceased to have the warmest affection and trust.
Browning was, indeed, one of the very few men of that period who got
on perfectly with Thomas Carlyle. It is precisely one of those little
things which speak volumes for the honesty and unfathomable good
humour of Browning, that Carlyle, who had a reckless contempt for most
other poets of his day, had something amounting to a real attachment
to him. He would run over to Paris for the mere privilege of dining
with him. Browning, on the other hand, with characteristic
impetuosity, passionately defended and justified Carlyle in all
companies. "I have just seen dear Carlyle," he writes on one occasion;
"catch me calling people dear in a hurry, except in a letter
beginning." He sided with Carlyle in the vexed question of the Carlyle
domestic relations, and his impression of Mrs. Carlyle was that she
was "a hard unlovable woman." As, however, it is on record that he
once, while excitedly explaining some point of mystical philosophy,
put down Mrs. Carlyle's hot kettle on the hearthrug, any frigidity
that he may have observed in her manner may possibly find a natural
explanation. His partisanship in the Carlyle affair, which was
characteristically headlong and human, may not throw much light on
that painful problem itself, but it throws a great deal of light on
the character of Browning, which was pugnaciously proud of its
friends, and had what may almost be called a lust of loyalty. Browning
was not capable of that most sagacious detachment which enabled
Tennyson to say that he could not agree that the Carlyles ought never
to have married, since if they had each married elsewhere there would
have been four miserable people instead of two.

Among the motley and brilliant crowd with which Browning had now begun
to mingle, there was no figure more eccentric and spontaneous than
that of Macready the actor. This extraordinary person, a man living
from hand to mouth in all things spiritual and pecuniary, a man
feeding upon flying emotions, conceived something like an attraction
towards Browning, spoke of him as the very ideal of a young poet, and
in a moment of peculiar excitement suggested to him the writing of a
great play. Browning was a man fundamentally indeed more steadfast and
prosaic, but on the surface fully as rapid and easily infected as
Macready. He immediately began to plan out a great historical play,
and selected for his subject "Strafford."

In Browning's treatment of the subject there is something more than a
trace of his Puritan and Liberal upbringing. It is one of the very
earliest of the really important works in English literature which
are based on the Parliamentarian reading of the incidents of the time
of Charles I. It is true that the finest element in the play is the
opposition between Strafford and Pym, an opposition so complete, so
lucid, so consistent, that it has, so to speak, something of the
friendly openness and agreement which belongs to an alliance. The two
men love each other and fight each other, and do the two things at the
same time completely. This is a great thing of which even to attempt
the description. It is easy to have the impartiality which can speak
judicially of both parties, but it is not so easy to have that larger
and higher impartiality which can speak passionately on behalf of both
parties. Nevertheless, it may be permissible to repeat that there is
in the play a definite trace of Browning's Puritan education and
Puritan historical outlook.

For _Strafford_ is, of course, an example of that most difficult of
all literary works - a political play. The thing has been achieved once
at least admirably in Shakespeare's _Julius Cæsar_, and something like
it, though from a more one-sided and romantic stand-point, has been
done excellently in _L'Aiglon_. But the difficulties of such a play
are obvious on the face of the matter. In a political play the
principal characters are not merely men. They are symbols,
arithmetical figures representing millions of other men outside. It
is, by dint of elaborate stage management, possible to bring a mob
upon the boards, but the largest mob ever known is nothing but a
floating atom of the people; and the people of which the politician
has to think does not consist of knots of rioters in the street, but
of some million absolutely distinct individuals, each sitting in his
own breakfast room reading his own morning paper. To give even the
faintest suggestion of the strength and size of the people in this
sense in the course of a dramatic performance is obviously impossible.
That is why it is so easy on the stage to concentrate all the pathos
and dignity upon such persons as Charles I. and Mary Queen of Scots,
the vampires of their people, because within the minute limits of a
stage there is room for their small virtues and no room for their
enormous crimes. It would be impossible to find a stronger example
than the case of _Strafford_. It is clear that no one could possibly
tell the whole truth about the life and death of Strafford,
politically considered, in a play. Strafford was one of the greatest


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Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonRobert Browning → online text (page 2 of 15)