William Vaughn Moody.

A first view of English literature online

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always fine, with an artistic devotion equalled in EngUsh
literature only by Keats and Milton.



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812 The Nineteenth Century



V. ROBERT BROWNING (1812-1889)
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (1806-1861)

Browning's Early Life and Poetry. — Robert Browning, who
disputes with Tennyson the first place among Victorian poets,
was bom in London in 1812. English, Scotch and German
blood was mingled in his veins with a more distant strain of
Creole. This mixed ancestry has been often pointed out as
an explanation of his wide sympathy with different races
and types of men. His father, a clerk in the Bank of Eng-
land, was a man of literary sensibility, and full of odd learning.
From him Browning gained, almost without knowing it, a
knowledge of out-of-the-way comers of history, and of little-
known by-ways of Uterature. To the end of his Ufe the in-
fluence of this early training was evident both in his choice of
themes and in the immense stores of curious information
which he lavished upon them. Browning's boyhood and youth
were passed in the suburb of Camberwell, where Ruskin also
was brought up. Camberwell was then a green, and almost
a mral neighborhood, and the youthful poet's life seems to
have been as freshly romantic as any that was ever lived. He
was fond of following gypsy caravans as they passed through
the country-side ; the refrain of a gypsy song which he once
heard, "Follow the Queen of the Gypsies, O! " formed the
kernel of a poem which he wrote years after, "The FUght of
the Duchess." He would sometimes, at night, cUmb into the
elms above Norwood, and gaze with a strange wonder and
excitement at the lights of London on the horizon ; by day
and night the nearness of the vast city was a reminder of the
complex human life he was to interpret more subtly and
deeply than any other poet had done since Shakespeare.
When a lad of fourteen he picked up by chance on a London
book-stall a pamphlet labelled "Mr. Shelley's Atheistical
Poem — * Queen Mab.' " Shelley had been deaii four years,
but was still so little known to the world at large that none of
Browning's family, though really cultivated people, could
tell him who this strangely fascinating poet was. By perse-
verance, however, he obtained the rest of Shelley's poetry,



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Photograph, Copyright, by Frederick Hollyer. London

ROBERT BROWNING
From a painting by G. F. Watts



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314 The Nineteenth Century

and through "Adonais" came into a knowledge of Keats.
The two together kindled Browning's latent genius, and
made. a poet of him.

His first long poem, Pauline, pubHshed in 1833, is a
half-dramatic study of the type of spiritual Ufe which Shel-
ley's own career embodied ; and Shelley's influence is clearly
traceable both in its thought and in its style. After a trip to
Russia and Italy, Browning published Paracelsus, in his
twenty-fourth year. This, Uke Pauline, is the "history of
a soul." It gives the life-story of Paracelsus, a mediaeval
scholar and alchemist, and shows how his absorption in the
things of the intellect, to the neglect of the things df the heart,
causes him to fail.

Paracelsus gained Browning the attention of the dis-
criminating few, and led to a request from the actor Mac-
ready for a play. In response to the invitation Browning
wrote the first of his dramas, Strafford, which had a moderate
success upon the stage. In 1840 appeared his third long
poem, Sordello, obscure and difficult by reason of its youth-
ful, uomastered abundance of thought and feeling. Of the
reception which Sordello met with, several amusing stories
are told. Carlyle wrote that his wife had read the work
with much interest, and desired to know whether 3ordello
was a man, a city, or a book. Tennyson declared ,that he
could understand but two Unes, the first and the last, "Who
will shall hear Sordello's story told," and "Who would has
heard Sordello's story told," — and that they both were Ues!
In Pippa Passes, however (1841), Browning shook himself
free from these faults of manner, and produced a poem of
sustained beauty, as clear as sunlight, a work of simple,
melodious, impassioned art. Between 1840 and 1845 Brown-
ing was chiefly occupied with attempts in the acting drama,
of which the most interesting are perhaps Colombe^s Birth-
day, A Blot in the ^Scutcheon, and The Return of the Druses.
He had also begun those short poems deaUng with special
moments in the lives of various men and women, historical
or imaginary, which constitute the most important division
of his work. These were pubhshed under the titles Dramatic
Lyrics and Dramatic Romances.



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Robert Browning 815

Browning's Marriage; Life in Italy.— In 1846 Brown-
ing married Elizabeth Barrett, whose poetic reputation was
then far greater than his. She was a frail invaUd, Uving in
a darkened room, and awaiting the coming of death. Brown-
ing's love rescued her from the grave ; and their married life
was one of happiness so high and clear that it has already
become one of the glorified facts of literary history. Owing
to the opposition of Miss Barrett's gloomy and tyrannical
father the marriage was secret. The pair settled in Italy,
where for the remainder of Mrs. Browning's Ufe they Uved,
entering intimately into the hfe of the country, and sharing
with intense sympathy in the struggle it was then waging for
freedom from Austria. They made their home at Florence,
in the house called Casa Guidi, from which was taken the
title of Mrs. Browning's poem on the Italian hberation,
Casa Guidi Windows, Here Browning wrote his great series
of dramatic monologues, entitled Men and Women.

" The Ring and the Book." — One day in Rome Browning '
picked up from a street-stall a faded seventeenth century
pamphlet narrating the trial of Count Guido Franceschini
for the murder of his wife PompiUa. He saw in the sordid
police record the material for a great picture of human life.
After his wife's death in 1861 he threw himself, for dis-
traction from his grief, into the composition of the vast poem
in twelve parts. The Ring and the Book (1868-69), in which
he told the tragic story of Pompilia from many different
points of view, from her own and her husband's, from that of
a young priest Caponsacchi, who aids her in her distress,
from that of the lawyers upon both sides, from that of the
Pope who gives the final judgment, and from that of various
onlookers and gossips. It is a monumental study of a chain
of human circumstances as they appear to minds looking
from many different angles, with various degrees of insight,
and with various warping prejudices. It is the crowning
effort of Browning's genius for the vastness of its scope, its
intense humanity, its grasp of the complex elements of hu-
man nature. The imperfect understanding which Brown-
ing's work met with even thus late in his career is illustrated
by Carlyle's exclamation upon reading The Ring and the



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316 The Nineteenth Century

Book, "It's a wonderful poem, one of the most wonderful
poems ever written. I have re-read it all through — all made
out of an Old Bailey story that might have been told in ten
lines, and only wants forgetting!" Carlyle missed in it
its main significance, the infinite importance of that which,
from the ordinary point of view, seems unimportant.

Browning's Later Life. — ^After the death of his wife
Browning spent his time chiefly in England. He wrote
much, with a steady gain in intellectual subtlety but with a
corresponding loss of poetic beauty. Many of his later
poems, such as Bishop Blougram^s Apology, Prince Hoherir
stiel-Schwangau, and Mr, Sludge the Medium take the part,
dramatically, of dubious characters, and attempt to justify
them from their own standpoint. He made an exhaustive
study of Greek life and literature, and produced several
remarkable poems upon Greek subjects. The most enjoy-
able of these is a free translation of the Alcestis of Eurip-
ides, set in a beautiful framework of original narrative, and
entitled Balaustion^s Adventure, To the last his genius
continued to throw out, in his short poems, bursts and jets
of exquisite music, color, and feeUng. Such, for instance,
are the little pieces called "Wanting is — What?" and
"Never the Time and the Place," written in his seventy-first
year; and "Summum Bonum," written just before the pen
dropped from his hand in 1889, at Venice, in the seventy-
seventh year of his age. He had had to wait long for rec-
ognition, but during the latter years of his life his fame
overshadowed even that of Tennyson, and his works were
studied with an enthusiasm seldom accorded to a living poet.

Browning as a Man. — Although Browning spent a large
portion of his Hterary effort in defending what society has
generally regarded as indefensible, his conduct of his own
life, before and after his secret marriage and elopement,
was thoroughly plain and usual. He even prided him-
self upon being a man of the world. He was open and
abundant in conversation; he was fond of society; he
discharged all the common duties of life with thoroughness
and relish. A lady who saw him at a dinner-table, without
knowing him, asked, "Who is that too exuberant financier?"



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Robert Browning 817

and Browning was flattered by the question. Yet, notwith-
standing all this, his romanticism was as vivid as Shelley's or
Byron's, and perhaps deeper than theirs. Macready, the
actor, said of him in his youth that he looked and spoke
more like a poet than anyone he had ever known. Carlyle
tells how, on one of his solitary gallops he was stopped
on Wimbledon Common by a young man, singularly beauti-
ful, with dark Italian face and black hair flowing in the
wind, who poured out to him, without preface or apology,
his admiration for the philosopher's writings. The anecdote,
besides giving us a picturesque glimpse of Browning in his
ardent youth, shows the impulsiveness and generous admira-
tion for others which characterized him always, and which
made him the friend of men whose differences of tempera-
ment estranged them from each other. There was in him,
also, an almost savage virility and force of feeUng, capable
at rare intervals of transforming the affable man of the world
into a. primeval creature, violent and terrible. Much of
Browning's work is intellectual; but we cannot rightly un-
derstand him unless we remember that the core of his nature
was simply and glowingly human ; that he was, first of all,
a poet, and therefore one iawhom feeling and imagination
were the moving forces, and thought was only a secondary
thing.

Browning's Poems as " Soul Histories ''; " Pippa Passes."
— Browning's earliest poem, Pauline, was, he tells us, in-
tended as the first of a series of "mono-dramatic epics,"
each of which was to present the " history of a soul." Broadly
viewed, the whole of Browning's work is what his youthful
ambition dreamed of making it. In three forms, pure drama,
dramatic narrative, and dramatic lyric, he gave the history
of hundreds of souls; or if not their whole history, at least
some exciting moment of it. In his earlier life he made
many attempts to present these high moments in regular
drama, but the form was not perfectly suited to his pecu-
liar task. In Pippa Passes^ however, he threw aside many
of the conventional demands of the stage, and presented four
special moments of. soul-history, connected with each other
by only a slight thread. The germ of the poem came to him



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818 The Nineteenth Century

in youth, while listening to a gypsy girl singing in the Cam-
berwell woods. He imagined someone walking alone through
life, apparently too obscure to leave any trace behind, but
imconsciously exercising at every step a determining influ-
ence upon other lives. This conception he afterward con-
nected with the personality of a little work-girl in the silk-
mills of Asolo, a mountain town which he had visited on
his first journey to Italy. Pippa walks through Asolo on
New Year's Day, her one holiday in the year, unconsciously
dropping her divine songs into the lives of various people,
just at the moment when their fates are trembling between
good and evil, courage and cowardice. By the touching
purity and gladness of her voice, or by the significant words
she utters, she saves in turn each of the four persons whose
lives are at the turning point. At evening she goes back to
her bare room, and sinks to sleep with a final song on her
lips, still ignorant of the service she has done.

Browning's Short Poems: Peculiarities of His Method. —
Browning is less a dramatist than an exhibitor of single
dramatic situations, such as the four which are bound loosely
together by Pippa's chance-heard songs. It follows that
his most vital work is, generally ospeaking, in his short poems.
In these he not only selects a special moment in the life of
his characters, but as a rule he views his theme from some
odd and striking point of view. Perhaps the best example
of his skill in selecting a point of view, is to be found in
the "Epistle of Karshish." The aim of the poem is to
present the state of mind of Lazarus, who has beheld the
mysteries of existence beyond the grave, and who has brought
back into mortal life a sense of immortality so strong that
every act and every judgment is determined by it. The
time is about thirty years after the death of Christ ; and the
speaker, Karshish, is an Arab doctor who in travelling through
Palestine has met Lazarus, and who sends a report of the
strange case to his old master in leechcraft, Abib. Through
the vain struggle of Karshish to maintain his scientific scep-
ticism in the face of Lazarus's story and bearing, we are made
to feel the reality of the miracle with overwhelming force,
and are brought strangely near to the conditions of life in Pal-



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Robert Browning 319

estine in the next generation after Christ. Another pecu-
liarity of Browning's method in his short poems is that he
throws the reader into the midst of the theme with startfing
suddenness, and proceeds with a rapidity which is apt to
bewilder a reader not in the secret of the method. There
are no explanations, no gradual transitions. A capital ex-
ample of this peculiarity is the "Soliloquy in a Spanish
Cloister," which has to be read to the end before we see it
for what it is, the self-revealed picture of a narrow-minded,
superstitious, sensual monk, stirred to hatred by a brother
monk, whose mild, benignant ways and genuine piety we
gradually discern through the speaker's jeers and curses.
If we add to these peculiarities of method the fact that
Browning's best work is very compressed in style, we see
why many persons have found obscure in him what is in
reality clear enough, but is not to be perceived clearly with-
out alertness on the reader's part. Perhaps the poem which
best illustrates all Browning's peculiarities of method, har-
moniously combined, is "My Last Duchess," a marvellous
example of his power to give a whole life-history, with a
wealth of picturesque detail, in a few vivid, suggestive lines.
Some of Browning's Themes. — In "Cahban upon Sete-
bos," taking a hint from Shakespeare's Tempest, Browning
has shown the grotesque imaginings of a half-human mon-
ster, groping after an explanation of the universe. In
"Childe Roland," starting with a snatch of song from the
fool in Lear, he has shown the heart of mediaeval knight-
hood, fronting spectral terrors in its search after the strong-
hold of sin, the Dark Tower, where lurks the enemy of life
and joy. In "Abt Vogler," and "A Toccata of Galuppi"
he has touched upon the inner meanings of music, and has
painted for us permanent types of the musical enthusiast.
In "The Grammarian's Funeral" he has shown the poetry
and heroism hidden underneath the gray exterior of the life
of a Renaissance pedant. In "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea
del Sarto," and "Pictor Ignotus," he has given the secret
workings of the painter's nature, and has flashed illumination
upon the sources of success and failure in art which lie deep
in the moral being of the artist. In " Balaustion's Adven-



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820 The Nineteenth Century

ture" he has revealed the inner spirit of Greek life in the
fourth century before Christ. In *'A Death in the Desert"
he has led us into the mystical rapture of the early Christians ;
and in "Christmas Eve" and "Easter Day" he has ap-
proached Christian faith from the modem standpoint. In
"Saul" he has shown us, against' the splendid background
of patriarchal Israel, the boy David singing, in the tent of
the great king, songs of human joy which rise, in a sudden
opening of the heavens of prophecy, into a song of the coming
of the Messiah. Nowhere out of Shakespeare can be found
a mind more wide-ranging over the outer circumstances and
the inner significance of man's life.

Love, as the supreme experience of the soul, testing its
temper and revealing its probable fate, holds the first place
in Browning's thought. In such poems as "Cristina,"
"Evelyn Hope," "The Last Ride Together," "My Star,"
"By the Fireside," and a multitude more, he has presented
love in its varied phases; and has celebrated its manifold
meanings not only on earth, but in the infinite range of
worlds through which he believes that the soul is destined
to go in search after its own perfection. By the intensity
and positiveness of his doctrine he has influenced his age
profoundly, and has made his name synonymous with faith-
fulness to the human love which life brings, and through
that to the divine love which it impHes and promises.

The robustness of Browning's nature, its courage, its
abounding joy and faith in life, make his works a perma-
nent storehouse of spiritual energy. In an age distracted by
doubt and divided in will, his strong unfaltering voice has
been hfted above the perplexities and hesitations of men,
like a bugle-call to joyous battle, in which the victory is to
the brave.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. — One of Browning's most
perfect short poems, "One Word More," is addressed to his
wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), and is a
kind of counter-tribute to her most perfect work, the Son-
nets from the Portuguese, which contain the record of her
courtship and marriage. Her early life was shadowed by
illness and affliction ; and her early poetry {The Seraphim^



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Photog^raph, Copyright, by Frederick Hullyer, Loudon

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING
From a drawing by Field TalfAurd, Rome, March, 1859



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822 The Nineteenth Century

1838, Poems J 1844) shows in many places the defects of
unreaUty and of overwrought emotion natural to work pro-
duced in a sick-chamber. The best known of these early
poems are perhaps "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," where
she works under the influence of Tennyson's idylls, and
"The Cry of the Children," where she voices the humani-
tarian protest against child-labor in mines and factories.
After her marriage and removal to Italy her health im-
proved, and her art greatly strengthened. The Sonnets
from the Portuguese (1850) are among the noblest love-
poems in the language. Mrs. Browning was deeply in-
terested in the struggle of Italy to shake off her bondage
to Austria, as is shown by her Casa Guidi Windows, pub-
lished in 1 85 1. In 1856 appeared her most ambitious work,
Aurora Leigh, a kind of versified novel of modem English
life, with a social reformer of aristocratic lineage for hero,
and a young poetess, in large part a reflection of Mrs. Brown-
ing's own personality, for heroine. Aurora Leigh shows the
influence of a great novel-writing age, when the novel was
becoming more and more imbued with social purpose. The
interest in public questions also appears in Mrs. Browning's
Poems Before Congress (i860), and in her Last Poems (1862).
Mrs. Browning's touch is uncertain, and her style some-
times vague or extravagant. But she had a noble sympathy
with noble causes, her emotion is elevated and ardent, and
her expression, at its best (as in the Sonnets from the Portu-
guese), is as lofty as her mood. Her characteristic note is that
of intimate, personal feeling ; even Casa Guidi Windows has
been called "a woman's love-making with a nation."

VI. MATTHEW ARNOLD (1822-1888)

Arnold's Life. — Browning's robust optimism in the face of
all the unsettling and disturbing forces of the age is thrown
out in sharp relief when we contrast him with a somewhat
younger poet, Matthew Arnold, in whom the prevailing tone
is one of half-despairing doubt. Arnold was born in 1822,
the son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the famous head-master of
Rugby. The Arnolds had a house in the lake country,



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Matthew Arnold 323

near Wordsworth, and the two families were on friendly
terms. In his later life as a critic Matthew Arnold was to
do much toward fixing Wordsworth's high place in the minds
of his countrymen. From the first the influence of Words-
worth's poetry upon Arnold was strong. Arnold went up
to Oxford in 1840, and five years later won a fellowship at
Oriel College. His first volume appeared in 1849, with the
title, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems, This was fol-
lowed by Poems (1853), Merope, a drama in Greek form and
on a Greek subject (1858), and by New Poems, in 1867.
From his thirtieth year until shortly before his death, he held
the position of inspector of schools. To the demands and
responsibilities of this official position were added, in 1857,
those of a professorship of poetry at Oxford. These outer
circumstances were largely instrumental in turning his ener-
gies away from poetry into the field of prose criticism, where,
for the last twenty years of his life, he held the position of
a leader, almost of a dictator. His most important work in
prose is the Essays in Criticism (1865). Toward the end
of his life he made a lecturing tour in America, the chief
outcome of which was the brilliant address on Emerson,
published, with other essays, in Discourses in America, He
died in 1888.

Arnold as a Poet. — ^Arnold may be described as a poet of
transition. He grew up in the interval between the first and
the second outburst of creative energy in the century. Car-
lyle. Browning, Tennyson, and others, were, each in his way,
already building anew the structures of spiritual faith and
hope ; but by Arnold, as by many others, the ebbing of the old
wave was far more clearly felt than the rising of the new one.
Standing, as he says,

" between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,"

he fronts life wearily, or at best stoically. He seeks conso-
lation in the intellect ; and his poetry, which addresses itself
to the cultivated few, is rather thoughtful than impassioned.
His religious dejection is expressed very beautifully in " Dover



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824 The Nineteenth Century

Beach" and "Obermann." It is this same dejection applied
to the facts of human intercourse, which breathes sadly but
calmly through the series of love lyrics entitled " Switzerland."
The imperfections and unrealized ideals of Ufe, in which Ten-
nyson found cause to "faintly trust the larger hope," and in
which Browning saw the "broken arcs" of heaven's "perfect
round," Arnold made a reason for doubt, declaring that men
should put away delusion, and expect in the future only what
they see in the past. Other phases of this stoic melancholy
and of the struggle which it wages with the restless craving
for joy, are to be studied in the pieces called " Self-Depend-
ence" and "A Summer Night."

For his ideal of form, Arnold went to the Uterature of
Greece. When he works more deliberately in the Greek
spirit and manner, his style is often cold and dry. In his
long poems, especially, he is apt to sacrifice too much to his
reverence for classical tradition. Only one of them, Soh-
rab and Rustunt^ which tells an oriental story of a duel
between a father and his lost son, and their recognition of
each other in death, combines classic purity of style with
romantic ardor of feeUng. The truth of its oriental color,
the deep pathos of the situation, the fire and intensity of
the action, the strong conception of character, and the full,
solemn music of the verse, make"Sohrab and Rustum" the
masterpiece among Arnold's longer poems. The same unity
of classic form with romantic feeling characterizes his two
shorter masterpieces, "The Scholar Gypsy" and "Thyrsis,"



Online LibraryWilliam Vaughn MoodyA first view of English literature → online text (page 27 of 33)