Vol. 120, No. 246, October 1864.
ROBERT BROWNING'S POEMS
(Author unknown, but possibly John Camden Hotten)
1. Robert Browning's Poems. 3 vols. London: 1863.
2. Dramatis Personæ. By ROBERT BROWNING. London: 1864.
[Ed. see also Gerald Massey's
response to this highly critical review]
IF the shades of Jeffrey and of Gifford were to appear among us and to survey the poetic literature of the present generation, they would feel a stern satisfaction and a self-gratulatory delight at the remembrance of the hard-handed castigations which they had inflicted on the young poets of the commencement of this century.
For a style of poetry more at variance with the canons of criticism then
recognised than that in which it is now the ambition of most of our poets to express themselves, is hardly conceivable.
Even the chief offenders of those days would refuse to recognise their own offspring in many of the most belauded poetic flights of the present time, which frequently unite an affected simplicity with such tortured, artificial, and foppish vagueness of expression and fantastic flimsiness of ideas, that it is generally a labour of infinite pain to extract from them the little meaning they possess.
Indeed, the age now appears to be ripe for some 'Theory of the Obscure,' which, like Pope's famous 'Treatise on Bathos or the Art of sinking in Poetry,' might be copiously illustrated from the works of contemporary poets, and afford at least a warning to the young aspirant for the honours of verse.
For such a book Mr. Browning's volumes would form an inexhaustible mine of examples, and the last volume which he has published is, perhaps, richer than any that have preceded it in materials for such a purpose.
Yet much as we may lament the great defects of expression which enshroud his thoughts and distort his compositions, it were vain to deny that his steady perseverance in the course which he has chosen has won at length for himself an influence among readers of poetry second only to that of the Laureate, and no one pretending to be at all conversant with the literature of our time can forbear from making acquaintance with and forming some estimate of his labours.
Every reader who glances at Mr. Browning's volumes however cursorily, must perceive that he is a man of rare accomplishments, with a singularly original mind capable of sympathising with a multiplicity
of tastes and characters very far removed from everyday experience.
We may regret that he has omitted to draw from those sources of the sublime, the tender, and the pathetic which will ever be the most potent means of
touching and purifying the heart, refining the feelings, and elevating the imagination.
We may regret also the habitual neglect of the ordinary canons of taste and judgment which lamentably diminishes the effectiveness of his poetry; but Mr. Browning now lays the work of thirty years before us, and we have but to take it to ourselves and to enjoy it and understand it as well as we can.
For it is clear that he has so wedded himself to what is quaint and obscure in his forms of expression and choice of subject, that no change in these is to be hoped for from him; far different in this respect from Mr. Tennyson, whose last volume shows a power of adaptation and a pliability of invention which even his strongest admirers hardly anticipated.
His two rustic sketches, 'The Grandmother' and 'The Northern Farmer,' have enriched the language with two scenes of homely and rural life scarcely to be surpassed in truthfulness and simplicity of expression;
while his two tales, 'Enoch Arden' and 'Aylmer's Field,' although open to some objection as to the character and construction of the stories, are yet rare triumphs of poetic diction, and in their chastened strength form a very striking contrast with the highly-wrought and fastidious execution of 'Locksley Hall' and 'Œnone.'
On the other hand, there is hardly a fault with which Mr. Browning has ever been charged which is not, in the 'Dramatis
Personæ,' intensified to an extravagant degree. It was said of an eminent lawyer that he wrote his opinions in three different kinds
of handwriting—one which he and his clerk could read, another which only he himself could decypher, and a third which neither he or anybody could make out; and into similar categories we are compelled to parcel out the poems of the 'Dramatis Personæ.'
To form, however, a proper estimate of Mr. Browning as a poet it would not be fair to dwell exclusively upon this volume, and we shall proceed therefore to pass in review the collected edition of his works as last given to the pubic.
'Paracelsus,' published in 1835, was the first poem by which Mr. Browning became known to the world; its reception was not unfavourable, and this and one or two of Mr. Browning's tragedies may be regarded as the most perfect of his
productions, besides being the most ambitious in conception.
There is nothing particularly original in the scheme of 'Paracelsus;' it depends for its interest, like Faust,
René, Manfred, Jacopo Ortia, Oberman, El mundo diablo, Festus, and a crowd of lesser known productions, on psychological incidents and transformations—works which have their prototypes in the Book of Job and the Confessions of St. Augustine.
The hero of the poem is a shadowy transfiguration of the notorious doctor, alchemist, and quack of the sixteenth century, who filled for a time the chair of physic and surgery at the University of Basle, and began his course by publicly burning in the amphitheatre the works of Galen and Avicenna, and informing his auditory that he was henceforth to hold the monarchy of science; one of his proper names was Bombastus, which from the inflated character of his discourse has passed into modern language, with a signification which will render it immortal.
The 'Paracelsus' of Mr. Browning is a very different character, however, from the vain and drunken Swiss empiric, as his drunkenness becomes converted into a sentimental attachment to the wine-cup, and his familiar demons, one of whom was said to reside in the handle of his sword, are kept for the most part unobtrusively behind the scenes.
In the first division of the poem, Paracelsus, inspired by the conviction that he has been selected by God for a special mission, determines to go forth in search of
knowledge,—having set before him knowing as the great end of achievement.
He departs, contrary to the wishes of his friends, on a lonely pilgrimage to various countries to gather
'The sacred knowledge here and there dispersed
About the world, long lost or never found.'
In reply to the persuasions of his friend Festus to remain with him and to avoid so perilous a career, he
'What should I
Do, kept among you all; your loves, your cares,
Your life—all to be mine? Be sure that God
Ne'er dooms to waste the strength He deigns impart!
Ask the gier-eagle why she stoops at once
Into the vast and unexplored abyss,
What full-grown power informs her from the first,
Why she not marvels, strenuously beating
The silent boundless regions of the sky!
. . .
. ' 'Tis time
New hopes should animate the world, new light
Should dawn from new revealings to a race
Weighed down so long, forgotten so long; thus shall
The heaven reserved for us, at last receive
Creatures whom no unwonted splendours blind,
But ardent to confront the unclouded blaze
Whose beams not seldom blessed their pilgrimage,
Not seldom glorified their life below.
. . . . I seemed to
At once to trample on, yet save mankind,
To make some unexampled sacrifice
In their behalf, to wring some wondrous good
From heaven or earth for them, to perish, winning
Eternal weal in the act: as who should dare
Pluck out the angry thunder from its cloud,
That, all its gathered flame discharged on him,
No storm might threaten summer's azure sleep:
Yet never to be mixed with men so much
As to have part even in my own work, share
In my own largess. Once the feat achieved,
I would withdraw from their officious praise,
Would gently put aside their profuse thanks.
. . .
. I go to prove my soul!
I see my way as birds their trackless way.
I shall arrive! what time, what circuit first,
I ask not: but unless God send His hail
Or blinding fire-balls, sleet or stifling snow,
In some time, His good time, I shall arrive:
He guides me and the bird. In his good time!'
In this sublime self-confidence, with this contempt of his kind and scorn of help from all his forerunners, Paracelsus sets forth in pursuit of
knowledge—though what kind of knowledge he seeks is uncertain; apparently it consists of secrets, however, of some kind which are to lift the entire race up to a new heritage of glory.
In the course of his travels he comes to Constantinople, and there pauses for awhile, partly wearied, and partly to sum up the results already attained.
While at Constantinople, he falls in with Aprile, an Italian poet, who has failed in the search after love as the end of existence, and dies before Paracelsus of exhaustion and suffering.
The seemingly invincible confidence of Paracelsus had already abandoned him before the meeting with Aprile,
but a considerable portion of assurance still remains:—
'At worst I have performed my share of the task;
The rest is God's concern; mine, merely thus,
To know that I have obstinately held
By my own work . . .
Crush not my mind, dear God, though I be crushed!
Hold me before the frequence of Thy seraphs
And say—" I crushed him, lest he should disturb
My law. Men must not know their strength: behold,
Weak and alone, how he had raised himself!" '
This superb egotism melts away, however, before the presence of Aprile, whose desire of love has found vent in a passion for art, which is thus described by Mr. Browning in a passage not unworthy of Keats, though it is disfigured here and there by grotesque and extravagant conceits:—
'I would love infinitely, and be loved.
First: I would carve in stone, or cast in brass,
The forms of earth. No ancient hunter lifted
Up to the gods by his renown, no nymph
Supposed the sweet soul of a woodland tree
Or sapphirine spirit of a twilight star,
Should be too hard for me; no shepherd-king
Regal for his white locks; no youth who stands
Silent and very calm amid the throng,
The right hand ever hid beneath his robe,
Until the tyrant pass; no lawgiver,
No swan-soft woman rubbed with lucid oils,
Given by a god for love of her—too hard!
Every passion sprung from man, conceived by man,
Would I express and clothe it in its right form,
Or blend with others struggling in one form,
Or show repressed by an ungainly form. . . .
And, at the word, I would contrive and paint
Woods, valleys, rocks and plains, dells, sands and wastes,
Lakes which, when morn breaks on their quivering bed,
Blaze like a wyvern flying round the sun,
And ocean-isles so small, the dog-fish tracking
A dead whale, who should find them, would swim thrice
Around them, and fare onward—all to hold
The offspring of my brain. Nor these alone:
Bronze labyrinth, palace, pyramid and crypt,
Baths, galleries, courts, temples and terraces,
Marts, theatres, and wharfs—all filled with men!
Men everywhere! And this performed in turn,
When those who looked on, pined to hear the hopes
And fears and hates and loves which moved the crowd,
I would throw down the pencil as the chisel,
And I would speak; no thought which ever stirred
A human breast should be untold; all passions,
All soft emotions, from the turbulent stir
Within a heart fed with desires like mine,
To the last comfort shutting the fired lids
Of him who sleeps the sultry noon away
Beneath the tent-tree by the wayside well:
And this in language as the need should be,
Now poured at once forth in a burning flow,
Now piled up in a grand array of words.
This done, to perfect and consummate all,
Even as a luminous haze links star to star,
I would supply all chasms with music, breathing
Mysterious motions of the soul, no way
To be defined save in strange melodies.
Last, having thus revealed all I could love,
Having received all love bestowed on it,
I would die: preserving so throughout my course
God full on me, as I was full on men:
He would approve my prayer, " I have bone through
The loveliness of life; create for me
If not for men, or take me to Thyself,
Eternal, infinite Love!" '
A new truth burst in upon Paracelsus from the ravings of Aprile, and he says:—
'Love me henceforth, Aprile, while I learn
To love; and, merciful God, forgive us both!
We wake at length from weary dreams; but both
Have slept in fairy-land: though dark and drear
Appears the world before us, we no less
Wake with our wrists and ankles jewelled still.
I, too, have sought to KNOW as thou to
Excluding love as thou refusedst knowledge.
Still thou hast beauty and I, power. We wake:
What penance canst devise for both of us?'
Aprile, however, dies, but his
example left on the mind of Paracelsus an ineffaceable influence:—
Taught me the worth of love in man's estate,
And what proportion love should hold with power
In its right constitution; love preceding
Power, and with much power, always much more love;
Love still too straitened in its present means,
And earnest for new power to set it free.'
Paracelsus had yet, however, other lessons to learn, which are the subject of the Third and Fourth Parts of the poem; he had to come to a due appreciation of the value of the praise and dispraise of his fellow-men, of both of which he had sufficient experience in his professorial chair; and the haughtiness of his nature led him of itself to despise men for the one and to hate them for the other, but in the final scene on his deathbed he sees his error:—
' In my own heart love had not been made wise
To trace love's faint beginnings in mankind,
To know even hate is but a mask of love's,
To see a good in evil, and a hope
In ill-success; to sympathise, be proud
Of their half-reasons, faint aspirings, dim
Struggles for truth, their poorest fallacies,
Their prejudice and fears and cares and doubts;
Which all touch upon nobleness, despite
Their error, all tend upwardly though weak,
Like plants in mines which never saw the sun,
But dream of him, and guess where he may be,
And do their best to climb and get to him.
All this I knew not, and I failed.'
He dies in the conviction that men will ultimately recognise his worth:—
'If I stoop
Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud,
It is but for a time; I press God's lamp
Close to my breast; its splendour, soon or late,
Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day.
You understand me? I
have said enough?
Fest. Now die, dear Aureole!
Par. Festus, let my hand—
This hand, lie in your
own, my own true friend!
Aprile! Hand in hand with you, Aprile!
Fest. And this was Paracelsus!'
We have stayed
somewhat long over 'Paracelsus,' as it is, as we observed, the most
complete of Mr. Browning's productions, and embodies a vital
truth—although it costs an effort to extricate it from the obscurity of
the text,—for Mr. Browning's diction, if not so obscure here as
elsewhere, is still sufficiently so to render continuous perusal a
laborious process. The moral of the fate of Paracelsus is
expressed in his own words:—
Regard me, and the poet dead long ago
Who loved too rashly; and shape forth a third
And better-tempered spirit, warned by both.'
The prose rendering of which would appear to be that the culture of science must, in order to bear salutary and lasting benefits for humanity, be allied with the culture of
beauty,—a truth which the present generation have especial need to lay to heart.
We will not separate from this poem without quoting two or three of the beautiful passages which it contains:—
' 'Tis only when they spring to heaven that angels
Reveal themselves to you; they sit all day
Beside you, and lie down at night by you,
Who care not for their presence, muse or sleep,
And all at once they leave you and you know them!'
' 'Tis in the advance of individual minds
That the slow crowd should around their expectation
Eventually to follow; as the sea
Waits ages in its bed, 'till some one wave
Out of the multitudinous mass, extends
The empire of the whole, some feet perhaps
Over the strip of sand which could confine
Its fellows so long time: thenceforth the rest,
Even to the meanest, hurry in at once,
And so much is clear gained.'
'My heart! they loose my heart! these simple words
Its darkness pierces which nought else could touch;
Like some dark snake that force may not expel
Which glideth out to music sweet and low.'
'Paracelsus' was evidently written with some consideration for the public, and some fear of the critics before his eyes, which is more than be can asserted of Mr. Browning's next work, 'Sordello,' published five years afterwards.
This production alone would be amply sufficient to furnish all examples for the 'Theory of the Obscure,' which we suggested at the outset of our article. Singularly enough, too, this appears to be the only piece of the collection by the neglect of which Mr. Browning feels aggrieved.
In a dedication to one of his French critics, who appears to have arrived at the singular felicity of understanding 'Sordello,' Mr. Browning says that the poem was written only for a few, but he counted even on these few caring more for the subject than proved to be the case, and he is still sanguine enough to expect a wider public for 'Sorclello' than it has yet received.
'Sordello' is, like 'Paracelsus,' a psychological study, the history of the growth of a soul; and the historical decoration is, as Mr. Browning informs us, put in merely by way of background; but, unfortunately, the decorative part is still more hard to comprehend than the crabbed metaphysics and æsthetics which are wrought up into the 'development of 'the soul.
The psychological revolutions and aims of Sordello's mind are so mixed and matted up with an inexplicable knot of tangled and indistinguishable incidents and personages in one of the darkest periods of Italian history, that nothing short or angelic patience is required to make them out at all, and even when the story of 'Sordello's soul' is unravelled from the weeds which adhere to it, there is little interest or novelty discoverable.
Like many other poets, he doubts whether song or action should be his aim in life: in the first part of the poem he is constant to
song—in the latter portion he forsakes song, takes to action and dies, it is not clear how, under the burden of it.
A single passage will suffice to show the nature of the narrative and the peculiar character of its obscurity, to which we confess that we are unable to give any meaning whatever:—
'Heinrich, on this hand, Otho, Barbaross,
Carrying the three Imperial crowns across,
Aix' Iron, Milan's Silver, and Rome's Gold—
While Alexander, Innocent uphold
On that, each Papal key—but, link on link,
Why is it neither chain betrays a chink?
How coalesce the small and great? Alack;
For one thrust forward, fifty such fall back!
Do the popes coupled there help Gregory
Alone? Hark—from the hermit Peter's cry
At Claremont, down to the first serf that says
Friedrich's no liege of his while he delays
Getting the Pope's curse off him! The Crusade—
Or trick of breeding strength by other aid
Than strength, is safe. Hark—from the wild harangue
Of Vimmercato, to the carroch's clang
Yonder! The League—or trick of turning strength
Against pernicious strength, is safe at length.'
The psychological portions of the poem, in which 'Sorrdello' exhibits a prophetic intimacy with Kantian metaphysics, are plain reading after such passages as the above, and come as a kind of relief; for though, in truth, equally unintelligible, the reader may be beguiled into thinking he understands them:—
Himself quite through mere secondary states
Of his soul's essence, little loves and hates,
Into the mid deep yearnings overlaid
By these; as who should pierce hill, plain, grove, glade,
And on into the very nucleus probe
That first determined there exist a globe.
As that were easiest, half the globe dissolved,
So seemed Sordello's closing-truth evolved
By his flesh-half's break up—the sudden swell
Of his expanding soul showed Ill and Well,
Sorrow and Joy, Beauty and Ugliness,
Virtue and Vice, the Larger and the Less,
All qualities, in fine, recorded here,
Might be but modes of Time and this one sphere,
Urgent on these, but not of force to bind
Eternity, as Time—as Matter—Mind,
If Mind, Eternity, should choose assert
Their attributes within a Life.'
On the whole, however, this poem is, in our Judgment, from its confused and tortuous style of expression, the most illegible production
of any time or country. Every kind of obscurity is to be found in it.
Infinitives without their particles—suppression of articles definite and indefinite—confusion and suppression of pronouns relative and personal—adjectives pining for their
substantives—verbs in an eternal state of suspense for their subjects—elisions of every
kind—sentences prematurely killed off by interjections, or cut short in their career by other
sentences—parentheses within parentheses—prepositions sometimes entirely divorced from their
nouns—anacoloutha, and all kinds of abnormal forms of speech for which gramarians have ever invented
names—oblique narrations, instead of direct—and puzzling allusions to obscure persons and facts disinterred front Muratori or Tiraboschi, as though they were perfectly familiar to the reader.
Indeed, to be compelled to look at a drama through a pair of horn spectacles would be a cheerful pastime compared with the
ennui of tracing the course of 'Sordello' through that veil of obscurity which Mr. Browning's style of composition places between us and his conception.
By a comparison of 'Sordello' and 'Paracelsus' it is easy to discover that the bent of Mr. Browning's genius has more of a dramatic than of an epic character. 'Sordello'
as a narrative is a signal failure, whereas the merits of 'Paracelsus'
had already encouraged its admirers to hope for something from Mr.
Browning for the Drama. The stage had not yet become the thing
which it now is—tragedies of a high order had not long before obtained
distinguished success: Milman's 'Fazio,' Shiel's 'Evadne,' Miss Mitford's 'Rienzi,' Barry Cornwall's 'Mirandola;' the plays of Sheridan Knowles and Talfourd had kept the tone and pathos of real tragic feeling alive in the hearts of the stage-going public.
Great then was the expectation of those in the secret when it was known that Mr. Macready had undertaken to bring out at Drury Lane a play called 'Strafford ' by Mr.
Browning—an expectation doomed to disappointment; for 'Strafford ' was as complete a failure as was the 'Blot in the 'Scutcheon,' also produced some six years later at the same
theatre. 'King Victor and 'King Charles,' and 'Colombe's
Birthday,' were played subsequently at the Haymarket, but none of them
succeeded in interesting the audience. Indeed, the faculty of
narration—of easily unfolding the subject and clearly putting the
circumstances and incidents of the subject before its hearers—is as
necessary to a drama as to an epic, and in this lies Mr. Browning's most
remarkable deficiency. Moreover, a stage writer is bound before
all things to be pleasing; and this is an end which Mr. Browning never
appears to have had in view. His manner of introducing his subject
is so involved, fragmentary, and tortuous that it must have been utterly
impossible to comprehend the story at a first sitting. Take, for
example, the following passage from the 'Return of the Druses,' where
the verb is waiting for its subject over two parentheses and several
lines of verse:—
'Khalil. And did you call—(according to old laws
Which bid us, lest the sacred grow profane,
Assimilate ourselves in outward rites
With strangers fortune makes our lords, and live
As Christian with the Christian, Jew with Jew,
Druse only with the
Druses)—did you call
Or no, to stand 'twist you and Osman's rage,
(Mad to pursue e'en hither thro' the sea
The remnant of your tribe) a race self-vowed
To endless warfare with his hordes and him,
The White-cross Knights of the adjacent Isle?'
It is to be observed that the obscurity here arises not from any depth of thought, not even from terseness or any intricacy of poetic expression, the facts to be told being simple, and the obscurity arising simply from clumsiness of diction.
In reading the passage one may overcome the needless difficulty thus manufactured for the reader by looking back and finding out the governing verb.
But for a hearer this is impossible. So also the dialogue is rendered unmercifully obscure, partly from carelessness and partly from a seeming impossibility to go straightforward with the work in hand.
The personages of the drama have a most uncomfortable way of replying to one question by asking another; of giving entirely a different answer from what one would naturally expect; of breaking each other off in the middle of a sentence; and, above all, alluding to minute circumstances and objects they have been familiar with, as if the audience were equally familiar with them.
For this latter purpose, the demonstrative pronouns that and those are unsparingly employed.
Thus Berthold, in 'Colombe's Birthday,' speaks incidentally of having wooed some girl called Priscilla under some
convent wall or other. Both Priscilla and the convent wall are thrust upon its as old acquaintances, without any introduction:—
'And when I wooed Priscilla's rosy mouth
And failed so, under that grey convent-wall,
Was I more happy than I should be now
If failing of my Empire?'
Failure in the wooing of a maiden, and failure in obtaining a kingdom, may, we suppose, admit of a comparison; but merely hinted at in this obscure fashion, with the particular image of Priscilla and that
convent wall flashed upon us like a momentary scene of a magic lantern, we are simply dazzled and rendered quite unfit for the next sentence.
In the following opening of the scene between Ottima and her paramour Sebald, the German music-teacher, in 'Pippa Passes,' every line is a riddle.
It is morning, and the two lovers are alone in some building called a 'shrub-house,' closed with shutters apparently.
Sebald opens the scene by singing an extremely puzzling song in three jerking lines:—
Sebald. [sings]. Let the watching lids wink!
Day's a-blaze with eyes, think—
Deep into the night, drink!
Ottima. Night? Such may be your Rhine-land nights,
But this blood-red beam through the shutter's chink,
—We call such light, the morning's: let us see!
Mind how you grope your way, though! How these tall
Naked geraniums straggle! Push the lattice
Behind that frame!—Nay, do I bid you?—Sebald,
It shakes the dust down on me! Why, of course
The slide-bolt catches.—Well, are you content,
Or must I find you something else to spoil?
Kiss and be friends, my Sebald! Is it full morning?
Oh, don't speak then!'
If a critic should ever take it into his head to write a commentary on the above passage, the explanatory
scholia would require to be three times as long as the original lines.
No doubt Mr. Browning imagined the interior of a shrubhouse, and the relative position of flowers, frames, and lattices, and the movements of Sebald and Ottima on opening the lattice; but he has kept all these a secret from the reader, and as the whole passage stands, it reads (Sebald's song included) as if some drunken or fraudulent copyist had got hold of Mr. Browning's MS., left out all the words necessary to the understanding of the piece, and made a jumble of the remainder.
It is to be observed that here, too, none of the obscurity consists in the thought, nor is there anything approaching to poetry in a single line, but that the obscurity is solely in the description of the most trivial incidents.
'Pippa Passes ' was not, however, written for the stage; we turn, therefore, to 'Strafford,' to take a sample of such dialogue as Mr. Browning thinks adapted to stage purposes.
After Lady Carlisle has made a speech to which Strafford has not given the least attention, the latter says:—
Strafford. When could it be? no! Yet . . was it the day
We waited in the anteroom, till Holland
Should leave the presence-chamber?
Described to you my love for Charles?;
One must not lure him from a love like that!
Oh, let him love the King and die! 'Tis past.
I shall not serve him worse for that one brief
And passionate hope, silent for ever now!)
And you are really bound for Scotland, then?
I wish you well: you must be very sure
Of the King's faith, for Pym and all his crew
Will not be idle—setting Vane aside!
Straf. If Pym is busy,—you may write of Pym.
Lady Car. What need, since there's your King to take your part?
He may endure Vane's counsel; but for Pym—
Think you he'll suffer Pym to . . .
Child, your hair
Is glossier than the Queen's!
Is that to ask
A curl of me?
Scotland—the weary way!
Lady Car. Stay, let me fasten it.
—A rival's, Strafford?
Straf. [showing the George.] He hung it there: twine
Even in the 'Dramatic Lyrics' some of the best-known pieces are utterly spoiled by Mr. Browning's abhorrence of lucidity.
The 'Ride to Aix,' for example, labours under this fatal defect. The poem is a spirited one, in spite of its quaintnesses, of which it has its full share.
For example, if 'Dirck' is 'he' in the first line, why should he not be 'he' in the second?
Then why did not Roland's rider put his riding-gear in good order before starting? and Roland must indeed have been a steady roadster if his bit could be chained slacker without interfering with his galloping.
All these and other singularities do not hinder the poem from being a very spirited one.
But what is fatal to its general success is the impossibility of knowing what all the galloping is about.
Some one a few years ago, we observed, was so moved by Roland's achievements as to write to 'Notes and Queries' to ask what was the news brought, but the inquiry still remains unanswered.
The incidents and actors represented are not, either in the case of his Tragedies or Dramatic Lyrics, such as to stir deeply the passions or touch the feelings; but are sometimes of an unpleasant character to dwell upon, and sometimes of that super-sublime or fantastic nature which excites no very deep sympathy.
In 'King Victor and King Charles,' father and son are scheming against each other for the possession of a crown, but the plot has none of the tragic awe of a great crime like that of Clytemnestra to subdue the natural repugnance produced by seeing son and parent in unnatural relations.
In the 'Blot on the 'Scutcheon,' a boy and girl of noble family are living in unchastity before marriage.
The circumstances under which the seduction is described as innocently taking
place are most improbable; and all sense of proportion of tragic crime and punishment is violated by its termination in a murder and two suicides.
In the 'Return of the Druses,' Djabal, the hero, is a mixture of the impostor and fanatic, for whom one has small concern, while the most interesting personage, Loys de Dreux, the Knight
Novice—described as one of the noblest and most generous of men—thinks so lightly of the vows of his order and of his Christian faith, that he is quite ready to go off with the Druses and live with them as a renegade in Mount Lebanon.
Luria is the grandest character of all Mr. Browning's plays: but we cannot conceive the existence of such a character out of Mr. Browning's pages; and he certainly would be utterly unintelligible to any English audience. Luria, the Moor of Florence, is a sentimentally magnanimous Othello without his passions and without his Desdemona.
He stands at the head of a devoted army—having often achieved a series of victories which has made Florence superior to all her rivals, and because he becomes aware that the ungrateful city is endeavouring, after the manner of Italian republics, to disembarrass herself of a successful general, he, notwithstanding that he has unlimited opportunities of revenge or of making his escape, forestalls her purpose and takes poison.
It certainly required an immense deal of ingenuity to invent reasons for this act of self-immolation: Mr. Browning has, however, found some, though we apprehend that none but minds of his own subtle and ingenious turn call possibly appreciate them. Luria, a bold and passionate son of the East, having been converted by his irresistible yearning for European civilisation into a blind and
childlike reverence for the beauty and glory of Florence, yielded up himself and his
irresistible military genius to be a passive instrument of her aggrandisement.
The wrong done to himself he imagined must have been caused by prior wrong committed by himself.
And rather than that he should run the risk of injuring the city whose inviolability and existence is the prime article of his faith, either by being estranged from her or by his judicial death, he determines to end his existence.
He lives long enough, however, to know that his sacrifice was uncalled
for; since the Florentines, on receiving irrefragable evidence of his probity, had repented of their proceedings, and abandoned the evidence against him.
The tragedy, nevertheless, in point of style is the best in the volume; it is true to the manners of Italy in the middle ages, and contains some good characters. Tiburzio, the commander of the Pisans, Puccio, Luria's chief officer, are both noble natures, and Braccio, the Commissary of the Republic of Florence, and Husain, the Moor, the friend of Luria, are truly conceived and developed.
The fantastic piece, however, with the fantastic title, 'Pippa Passes,' is perhaps the best known of all Mr. Browning's dramatic efforts, and deservedly so, for it combines all his peculiar exellences at the same time that it omits some of his characteristic defects.
The notion of 'Pippa,' the obscure girl of the silk-mills, exercising, unknown to herself, a good influence over the four little dramas of the piece is pretty enough, notwithstanding that the songs she sings seem little calculated to move the actors of each separate intrigue in the way they do.
The verses overheard by Jules the sculptor are an ingenious and appropriate introduction to his story, which leaves him married and determined to be happy with his bride; although he had been befooled into espousing a girl he had never seen before.
On the other hand, the criminal amour of Ottima and the German Sebald, which contains a description of a love-scene of questionable decency in a forest, has so uncertain an ending that we cannot tell whether simple suicide, or suicide and murder, or double suicide, or anything of the kind,
happens—we only know that Luca Gaddi, the old husband, has been made away with, although he does not seem to have interfered with the happiness of the lovers more than enough to give zest to their illicit intercourse.
Luigi goes off on some indefinite errand of assassination, but we are unable to determine whether the strange song which Pippa sings in his hearing had the effect of strengthening or making him waiver in his purpose; and we are quite left in the dark as to what the Monsignore—the most natural character in the
piece—means to do after he has circumvented his Intendant and discovers that Pippa is his niece, and the heiress of his brother's property, of which he has arrived to take possession.
It is to be regretted, too, that the conception of Pippa's character, which is simple and playful, should be marred by the grotesque rhymes and metaphors which are put into her mouth.
Can any one imagine a simple village girl getting out of bed and saying?—
Faster and more fast,
O'er night's brim, day boils at last;
Boils, pure gold, o'er the cloud-cup's brim
Where spurting and supprest it lay.'
The idea of a 'boiling day' is not likely to be associated with the cool breath of a New Year's morn in the mind of any one but a writer straining a metaphor.
The following playful prattle about the sunbeam is more natural, but the jingle of 'bits' and 'wits' spoils it altogether:—
'Aha, you foolhardy sunbeam—caught
With a single splash from my ewer!
You that would mock the best pursuer,
Was my basin over-deep?
One splash of water ruins you asleep,
And up, up, fleet your brilliant bits
Wheeling and counterwheeling,
Reeling, broken beyond healing—
Now grow together on the ceiling!
That will task your wits!'
The strangest puzzle, however, occurs at the close of the day, where we are entirely at a loss to know what the lark is expected to do:—
'Oh, Lark, be day's apostle
To mavis, merle and throstle,
Bid them their betters jostle
From day and its delights!
But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats' sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!'
We are led by the concluding line to speak of Mr. Browning's passion for doggerel rhymes, which is one of his most striking peculiarities, and one which no estimate of his poetry can omit to take notice of.
In a piece like that called the 'Pied Piper of Hamelin,' a tale written expressly for children, and which, though of a quainter fashion than the 'Ingoldsby Legends,' is a poem of the same order, we expect to find such rhymes as we meet with in the speech of the rat, the sole survivor of his legion, when describing the peculiar fascination in the tones of the piper's melody, which induced all his brethren to drown themselves in the Weser:—
'At the first shrill notes of the pipe,
I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
Into a cider-press's gripe:
And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,
And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards,
And a drawing the corks of train-oil-flasks,
And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks;
And it seemed as if a voice
(Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery
Is breathed) called out, Oh rats, rejoice!
The world is grown to one vast drysaltery!
So, munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!'
Here such rhymes may be in their place, but 'The Flight of the Duchess,' who goes away so strangely to
Gypsy-land—a tale intended to have something of the pathetic about it—has still stranger and much coarser rhymes.
The mother of the Duke, the dowager Duchess, who was part of the torment of the young Duchess's life, painted, and the teller of the tale, with some pretence of squeamishness, describes it
'And were I not, as a man may say, cautious
How I trench, more than needs, on the nauseous,
I could favour you with sundry touches
Of the paint-smutches with which the Duchess
Heightened the mellowness of her cheek's yellowness
(To get on faster) until at last her
Cheek grew to be one master-plaster
Of mucus and fucus from mere use of ceruse:
In short, she grew from scalp to udder
Just the object to make you shudder.'