Robert Browning.

The complete poetic and dramatic works of Robert Browning online

. (page 194 of 198)
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tribution exhibiting the worldly relations of a
poet whose genius nas operated by a different
law.

Doubtless we accept gladly the biography of '
an objeotiye poet, as the phrase now goes : one
whose endeayor has been to reproduce tnings
external (whether the phenomena of the scenic
uniyerse, or the manifested action of the human
heart and brain), with an immediate reference,
in eyery case, to the common eye and appre-
hension of his fellow-men, assumed ca|>able of
receiying and ]>rofiting by this reproduction. It
has been obtained through the poet's double
faculty of seeing eztemal objects more clearly,
widely, and deeply than is possible to the
ayera^ mind, at the same time that he is so
acquainted and in sympathy with its narrower
comprehension as to be careful to supply it
with no other materials than it can combine
into an iiitelli|nble whole. The auditory of
such a poet wdl include, not only the intelli-

EBuoes which, saye for such assistance, would
aye missed the deeper meaning and eujojrment
of the original objects, but also the spirits of a
like endowment with nis own, who, oy means
of his abstract, can forthwith pass to the reality



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it was made from, and either cortoborate th«r
impressions of things known already, or aqpfilj
themselyes with new from whatever shows ia
the inexhaustible yaiiety of existence may haire
hitherto escaped their Imowledge. Such a po«t
is properl]r the voiirnic, the fashioner ; and the
thing fashioned, his poetry, will of necessity be
subfftantiye, pro^ted from himself and di»>
tinct. We are ignorant what the inyentorof
Othello conceiyed of that fact as he beheld it
in completeness, how he accounted for it, an-
der what known law he registered its natare,
or to what unknown law he traced its coinei-
denoe. We leam only what he intended «•
should leam hj that particular exeroiie of hk
power, — the fact itself, — which, with its in-
nnite significances, each of us receiyes for tbe
first time as a creation, and is hereafter left
to deal with, as, in proportion to his own intel-
ligenoe, he best may« We are ignorant, sad
would fain be otherwise.

Doubtless, with respect to such a poet, we
coyet his biography. We desire to look baek
upon the process of gathering toge^er in alife-
tune the materials of the vrork we behold en-
tire; of elaborating, perhaps under difficulty
and with hindrance, all that is familiar to oor
admiration in the apparent facility of sneees.
Aud the inner impulse of this effort and open-
tion, what induced it ? Did a soul's deligot is
its own extended sphere of yision set it, for the
gratification of an insuppressible power, on
labor, as other men are set on rest ? Or did a
sense of duty or of loye lead it to commnnicate
its own sensations to mankind ? Did an^ irresisti-
ble sympathy with men compel it to bring dowa
and suit its own proyision of knowledge sod
beauty to their narrow scope ? Didthepenon-
ality of such an one stand like an open vita^
tower in the midst of the territory it is erected
to gaze on, and were the storms and calms, the
stars and meteors, its watchman was wont to
report of, the habitual yariegation of his eTeij-
day life, as they glanced across its open ^^S^
lay reflected on its four-square parapet ? Of
did some sunken and darkened chamber of im*
agery witness, in the artificial illuminatioD w
eyery storied compartment we are permitted to
contemplate, how rare and precious were the
outlooks through here and there an emhrasarB
upon a world beyond, and how blankly ▼ooia
haye pressed on the artificer the boondary w
his daily life, except for the amorous d"ig«»»
with which he had rendered permanent by sn
whateyer came to diversify the gloom ? auu^
fraught with instruction aud interest as sveo



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AN ESSAY ON SHELLEY



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details nndoubiedly are, we can, if needs be,
dispense with them. The man passes, the work
remains. The work speaks for itself, as we
say; and the biogR^>hy of the worker is no
more neoeesary to an miderstanding or enjoy-
ment of it thui is a model or anatomy of some
tropical tree to the right tasting of the fmit we
are fanuliar with on the manLet-stall, — or a
freokgist's map and stratification to the prompt
reoognition of the hill-top, oar landmark of
evenr day.

We turn with stronger needs to the genius
of an opposite tendency, — the subiectiye poet of
modem dassBication. He, gifted like the ob-
jectiye poet with the fuller peroeption of nature
and man, is impeUed to embody the thing he
perceives, not so much with reference to the
many below as to the one above him. the su-
preme Intelligence which apprehends all things
m their absMute truth, — an ultimate view
ever aspired to, if but partially attained, by Uie
poet's own soul. Not what man sees, but what
God sees, — the Ideas of Plato^seeds of creation
lying bumingly on the Divine Hand, — it is to-
ward these that he struggles. Not with the
eombination of humanity in action, but with
the primal elements of humanity, he has to do ;
and he di^ where he stands, — preferring to
seek them m his own soul as the nearest r^ex
of that absolute Mind, according to the intui-
tions of which he desires to perceive and speak.
Such a poet does not deal habitually with the
picturesque groupings and tempestuous toesings
of the forest trees, but with their roots and
fibres naked to the chalk and stone. He does
not paint pictures and hang them on the walls,
but rather carries them on the retina of his own
eyes : we must look deep into his human eyes
to see those pictures on tnem. He Lb rather a
seer, accordingly, than a fashioner, and what
he produces wiU be less a work than an efflu-
ence. That effluence cannot be easily con-
sidered in abstraction from his personality, —
being indeed the very radiance and aroma of
his personality, projected from it but not sepa-
rated. Ther^ore, in onrapproach to the poetay,
we necessarily approach the personality of the
poet; in apprehending it we apprehend him,
and certainly we cannot love it without loving
him. Both for love's and for understanding's
sake we desire to know him, and, as readers
of his poetry, must be readers of his biogn^>hy
also.

I shall observe, in passing, that it seems not
so much from any essential distinction in the
faculty of the two poets, or in the nature of the
objects contemplated by either, as in the more
immediate adaptabilitv of these objects to the
distinct purpose of each, that the objective poet,
in his appeid to the aggregate human mind,
chooses to deal with the doings of men (the re-
sult of which dealing, in its pure form, when
even description, as suggesting a deeoriber, is
dispensed with, is what we call dramatic po-
etry); while the subjective poet, whose study
has been himself^ appealing through himself to
the absolute Divme mind, prefers to dwell upon
those external scenic appearances whioh strike



out most abundantly and niunt err upt edly his
inner lis^ht and power, selects that silence o£
the earth and sea in which he can best hear the
beating of his individual heart, and leaves the
noisy, complex, yet imperfect ezhibitioiis of
nature in the manifoldf experience of man
around him, which serve only to distract and
suppress the working of his brain. These
opposite tendencies of genius will be more
readily descried in their artistic effect than in
their moral spring' and cause. Pudied to an
esctreme and manifested as a deformity, they
wiD be seen plainest of all in the fault of either
artist when, subsidiarily to the human interest
of his work, his occasional illustrations from
scenic nature are introduced as in the earlier
works of the originative painters, — men and
women filling the foreground with consummate
mastery, whde mountain, grove, and rivulet
show kke an anticipatory revenge on that
succeeding race of landscape-painters^ whose
** figures " disturb the perfection of their earth
anasky. It would be idle to inquire, of these
two kinds of poetic faculty in operation, which
is the lugher or even rarer endowment. If the
subjective might seem to be the ultimate re-
quirement of every age, the objective, in the
strictest state^ must still retain its originid
value. For it is with this world, as start-
ing point and basis alike, that we shall always
have to concern ourselves : the world ia not to
be learned and thrown aside, but reverted to
and releamed. The spiritual comprehension
ma^ be infinitely subtilized, but the raw ma-
terial it operates upon must remain. There
may be no end of the poets who communicate
to us what they see in an object with reference
to their own individuality : what it was before
they saw it, in reference to the aggregate
human mind, will be as desirable to h^ow as
ever. Nor is there any reason why these two
modes of poetic faculty may not issue hereafter
from the same poet in successive perfect works,
examples of which, according to what are now
considered the exi^ncies of art, we have hith-
erto possessed in distinct individuals only. A
mere running in of the one faculty upon the
other is, of course, the ordinary circumstance.
Far more rarely it happens that either is found
BO decidedly prominent and superior as to be
pronounced comparatively pure ; while of the
perfect shield, with the gold and the silver side
set up for all comers to diallenge, there has yet
been no instance. £ither facultv in its eminent
state is doubtless conceded by Providence as a
best gift to men, according to their especial
want. There is a time when the general eye
has, so to speak, absorbed its fill of the pheno-
mena around it, whether spiritual or material,
and desires rather to learn the exacter signifi-
cance of what it possesses than to receive any
augmentation of what is possessed. Then is
the opportunity for the poet of loftier vision to
lift his fellows, with their half-apprehensions,
up to his own sphere, by intensifying the im-
port of details and rounding the univenal mean-
11^. The infiuence of such an achievement
wul not soon die out. A tribe of successors



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APPENDIX



(Homerides), workiiig more or leas in the same
spirit, dwell on his discoTerieB and reinforce
his doctrine ; till, at nnawares, the world is
fonnd to be snbsiBting wholly on the shadow of
a reality, on sentiments dilated from passions,
on the tradition of a fact, the convention of a
moral, the straw of last year's harvest. Then
is the imperative call for the appearance of an-
other sort of poet, who^ shall at once replace
this intellectual rumination of food swallowed
long ago, by a supply of the fresh and living
swathe ; getting at new substance bv breaking
up the assumed wholes into parts oi independ-
ent and undassed value, careless of the un-
known laws for recombining them (it will be
the business of yet another poet to suggest those
hereafter), prodigal of objects for men's outer
and not inner sight ; shaping for their uses a
new and different creation from the last, which
it displaces b3r the right of life over death, —
to endure imtil, in the inevitable process, its
very sufficiency to itself shall require at length
an exposition of its affinity to something higher,
when the ixxiitive yet conflicting facts shall
again precipitate themselves under a harmoniz-
ing law, and one more degree will be apnarent
for a poet to dimb in that mighl^ ladder, of
which, however doud-involved ana undefined
mav glimmer the topmost step, the world dares
no longer doubt that its gradations ascend.

Such being the two kinds of artists, it is nat-
urally, as I have shown, with the biography of
the subjective poet that we have the deeper oon-
eem. Apart nom his recorded life altoeether,
we might fail to determine with satisuustory
precision to what class his productions belong,
and what amount ot praise is assignable to the
producer. Certainly, in the fact of any con-
spicuous achievement of ^nius, philosophy no
less Uian sympathetic instmct warrants our be-
lief in a great moral purpose having mainly-
inspired even where it does not vieably look
out of the same. GJreatness in a work suggests
an adcMjuate instrumentality ; and none of the
lower indtements, however they may avul to
initiate or even effect many considerable dis-
plays of power, simulating the nobler inspira-
tion to which thev are mistakenly referred,
have been found able, under the ordinary con-
ditions of humanity, to task themsdves to the
end of so exacting a performance as a poet's
complete work. As soon will the g^alvanism,
that provokes to violent action the muscles of a
corpse, induce it to cross the chamber steadilv :
sooner. The love of displaving power for the
display's sake; the love of riches, of distinc-
tion, of notoriety; the desire of a triumph
over rivals, and the vanity in the applause of
friends, — each and all of such whetted appe-
tites ^w intenser by exerdse, and increasingly
sagacious as to the best and readiest means of
self-appeasement : while for any of their ends,
whether the money or the pointed finger of the
crowd, or the flattery and hate to heart's con-
tent, there are cheaper prices to pay, they will
all find soon enough, than the bestowment of
a life upon a labor hard, dow, and not sure.
Also, assuming the proper moral aim to have



produced a work, there are many and varioaa
states of an aim : it may be more intense titan
deai^dghted^ or too easily satined with a lower
field of activity than a steadier aspiration would
reach. All the bad poetry in the world (re-
counted poetry, that is, by its affinities) will be
found to result from some one of the infinite
degrees of discrepancy between the attributes
of the poet's soul, occasioning a want of corre-
spondency between his work and the verities of
nature,— issuing in poetry, false under wha^
ever form, which shows a thinjg:, not as it is to
mankind generally, nor as it is to the particu-
lar describer, but as it is supposed to be for
some unreal neutral mood, midway betweoi
both and of value to neither, and living its brief
minute simply through the indolence of whoever
accepts it or nis incapadty to denounce a cheat.
Although of such depths of failure there csd
be no question here, we must in every case be-
take oursdves to the review of a poet's life ere
we determine some of the nicer questions con-
cerning his poetry, — more especially if the per-
formance we seek to estimate arieht has been
obstructed and cut short of completion by cir-
cumstances, — a disastrous vouth or a prema-
ture death. We may learn nrom the biography
whether his spirit invariably saw and spoks
from the last neight to which it had attained.
An absolute vision ib not for this world, but we
are permitted a continual approximatifMi to It,
every degree of which in the individual, pro-
vided it exceed the attainment of the masses,
must procure him a dear advantage. Did the
poet ever attain to a higher plraorm than
where he rested and exhibited a result ? Did
he know more than he spoke of ?

I concede, however, in respect to this subject
of our study as well as some few other illustri-
ous examples, that the unmistakable quality of
the verse would be evidence enough, under usual
circumstances, not only of the kma and degree
of the intellectual but of the moral constitutioa
of Shelley ; the whole personality of the poet
shining forward from the poems, without much
need oi going further to seek it. The '* Re-
mains" — produced within a period of ten
years, and at a season of life when other men
of at all comparable genius have hardly done
more than prepare the eye for future si^t and
the tongue for speech — present us with the
complete enginery of a poet, as signal in the ex-
cellence of its several aptitudes as transcendent
in ^ the combination of effects^ — examples, in
fact, of the whole poet's function of beholding
with an understanoing keenness the universe,
nature and man, in their actual state of perfec-
tion in imperfection ; of the whole poet's vir-
tue of being imtempted, by the manifold partial
devdopments of beauty and good on every side,
into leaving them the ultimates he found them,
— induced by the facility of the gratification of
hb own sense of those qualities, or b}r the ]deaa-
ure of acquiescence in the shortcomii^ of his
predecessors in art, and the pain of dutorbing
their conventionalisms, —the whde poet's vir-
tue, I repeat, of looking higher than any mani-
festation yet made of both beauty and good.



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in order to suggest from the utmost realization
of the one a corresponding ci^hility in the
other, and oat of the calm, punty, and energy
of nature to reconstitute ana store up^ for the
forthcoming stage of man's being, a gift in re-
payment of that former gift in which man's
own thought and passion had been laTished by
the poet on the else-incompleted magnificence
of the sunrise, the elscK-unmterpreted mystery
of the lake, — so drawing out, lifting up, and
assimilating this ideal of a future man^ thus
descried as possible, to the present reality of
the poet's soul already arrived at the higher
state of deyelopment, and still aspirant to ele-
vate and extend itself in conformity with its
still -improving perceptions of, no longer the
eventual Human, but the actual Divine. In
conjunction with which noble and^ rare powers
came the subordinate power of delivering these
attained results to the world in an embodiment
of verse more closely answering to and indi-
cative of the process of the informing spirit,
(failing, as it occasionally does, in art, omy to
sucoeea in highest art), — with a diction more
adequate to the task in its natural and acquired
richness, its material color and spiritual trans-
parencyj — the whole being moved by and suf-
fused with a music at once of the soul and the
sense, expressive both of an external might of
sincere passion and an internal fitness and con-
flonancy, — than can be attributed to any other
writer whose record is among us. Such was
the spheric poetical faculty of Shelley, as its
own self-sacrificing central lieht, radiating
equally through immaturity and accomplish-
ment, through many fragments and occasional
eompietion, reveals it to a competent judg^
ment.

But the acceptance of this truth by the ]>ub-
lic has been retarded by certain objections
which cast us back on the evidence of oiogra-
phy, even with Shellev's poetry in our hands.
Except for the particular character of these ob-
jections, indeed, the non-appreciation of his
contemporaries would simply class, now that
it is over, with a series of experiences which
have necessarily happened, and needlessly been
wondered at, ever smoe the world began, and
concerning which any present anger may well
be moderated, no less in justice to our forerun-
ners than in policy to ourselves. For ^e mis-
apprehensiveness of his age is exacdy what a
poet is sent to remedy; and the interval be-
tween lus operation and the generally percepti-
ble effect of it is no greater, less indeed, than
in many other departments of great human
effort. The ^* £ pur si muove " of the astrono-
mer was as bitter a word as any uttered before
or since by a poet over his rejected living work,
in that depth of conviction which is so like de-
spair.

But in this respect was the experience of
Shelley peculiarly unfortunate, — that the dis-
belief in him as a man even preceded the disbe-
Uef in him as a writer ; the misconstruction of
hb moral nature preparing the way for the mis-
appreoiation of ms utellectual labors. There
existed from the beginning — simultaneous



with, indeed anterior to, his earliest noticeable
works, and not brought forward to counteract
any impression they had succeeded in tniAing
— certam charges against his private character
and life, which, if substantiated to their whole
breadth, would materially^ disturb, I do not at-
tempt to deny, our reception and enjojrment of
his works, however wonderful the artistic qual-
ities of these. For we are not suffidentlv sup-
plied with instances of genius of his order to
be able to pronounce certainly how many of its
constituent parts have been tasked and strained
to the production of a given lie, and how lugh
and pure a mood of the creative mind may be
dramatically simulated as the poet's habitual
and exclusive one. The doubts^ therefore, aris-
ing from such a question, required to be set at
rest, as they were effectnallv, by those early
authentic notices of Shelley's career and the
corroborative accompaniment of his letters, in
which not only the main tenor and principal
result of his life, but the purity and beauty of
many of the processes which had conduced to
them, were made apparent enough for the gen-
eral reader's purpose,— whoever lightly con-
demned Shelley first, on the evidence of reviews
and gossip, as lightly aoquittinff him now, on
that of memoirs and correspondence. Still, it
is advisable to lose no opportunity of strength-
ening and completing the chain of biograpmcal
testimony ; much more, of course, for the sake
of the poet's ori^;inal lovers, whose volunteered
sacrifice of particular principle in favor of ab-
sorbing sympathy we might desire to dispense
with, than for the sake of his foolish haters,
who nave long since diverted upon other obiects
their obtuseness or malignancy. A full life of
Shelley should be writtcoi at once, while the
materials for it continue in reach ; not to min-
ister to the curiosity of the public, but to oblit-
erate the last stain of that false life which was
forced on the public's attention before it had
any curiosity on the matter, — a biography
composed in harmon;|r with the present genenu
disposition to have faith in him, yet not shrink-
ing from a candid statement of all ambiguous
passages, through a reasonable confidence that
the most doubtful of them will be found oonsistp
ent with a belief in the eventual perfection of
his character, according to the poor limits of
our humanity. Nor will men persbt in con-
founding, any more than God confounds, with
gnenuine infidelity and atheism of the heart
those passionate, impatient struggles of a boy
towards distant truth and love, made in the
dark, and ended bv one sweep of the natural
seas before the full moral sunrise could shine
out on him. Crude convictions of boyhood,
conveyed in imperfect and inapt forms oi
speech, — for suon things all bojrs have been
pardoned. There are growing^pains, accompa-
nied by temporary distortion, ot the soul also*
And it would be hard indeed upon this ^roui^g
Titan of genius, murmuring in divine music his
human ignorances through his very thirst for
knowledge, and his rebeluon in mere aspiration
to law, S the melody itself substantiated the
enor» and the tragic cutting short of life per-



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APPENDIX



peiaated into nn otmIi ^iilts as, under happier
oirciiinstanoeB, would bave been left behind by
the oonsent of the most arrogant moralist, f or-
gottoi on Uie lowent steps of youth.

The responsibility of presenting to the publio
a biograpny of Shelley does not, however, lie
wiih roe : I have onlv to make it a little easier
by arranging these few supplementary letters,
with a recognition of the vaJae of the whole col-
lection. This Talae I take to consist in a most
truthful conformity of the Correspohdence. in
its limited degree, with the moral and intelleo-
tnal character of the writer as displayed in the
highest manifestations of his genius. Letters
and poems are obyiously an act of the same
mind, produced by the same law, only differ-
ing in tne application to the indiyidnal or collec-
tive understanding. Letters and poems may be
used indifferentl]^ <ui the basement of our opin-
ion upon the writer's character ; the fimsned
expression of a sentiment in the poems giving
Kght and significance to the rudiments of the
same in the letters, and these again, in their
inoipiency and unripeness,^ authenticating the
exalted mood and reattaching it to the person-
ality of the writer. The musician speaks on
ihe note he sings with ; there is no onange in
the scale as he diminishes the volume into far
miliar intercourse. There is*nothing of that
jarring between the man and the author, which
has been found so amusing or so melancholy ;
no dropping of the trap^ic mask as the crowd
melts away ; no mean discovery of the real mo-
tives of a life's achievement, often in other
lives hud bare as pitifully as when, at the dose



Online LibraryRobert BrowningThe complete poetic and dramatic works of Robert Browning → online text (page 194 of 198)