ROBERT BROWNING is scarcely known in this country, as, indeed, in his own, his fame can spread but slowly, from the nature of his works. On this very account,—of the peculiarity of his genius,—we are desirous to diffuse the knowledge that there is such a person, thinking and writing, so that those who, here and there, need just him, and not another, may know where to turn.
Our first acquaintance with this subtle nod radiant mind was through his” Paracelsus,” of which we cannot now obtian a copy, and must write from a distant memory.
It is one of those attempts, that illustrate the self-consciousness of this age, to represent the fever of the soul pining to embrace the secret of the universe in a single trance. Men who are once seized with this fever, carry thought upon the heart as a cross, instead of finding themselves daily warmed and enlightened to more life and joy by the sacred fire to which their lives daily bring fresh fuel.
Sometimes their martyrdoms greatly avail, as to positive achievements of knowledge for their own good and that of all men; but, oftener, they only enrich us by experience of the temporary limitations of the mind, and the inutility of seeking to transcend, instead of working within them,
Of this desire, to seize at once as a booty what it was intended we should legitimately win by gradual growth, alchemy and the elixir vitæ were, in the middle ages, apt symbols. In seeking bow to prolong life, men -wasted its exquisite spring-time and splendid summer, lost the clues they might have gained by initiation to the mysteries of the present existence. They sought to make gold in crucibles, through study of the laws which govern the material world, while within them was a crucible and a fire beneath it, which only needed watching, in faith and purity, and they would have turned all substances to treasure, which neither moth nor rust could corrupt.
Paracelsus had one of those soaring ambitions that sought the stars and built no nest amid the loves or lures of life. Incapable of sustaining himself in angelic force and purity, he tainted, after a while, his benefits, by administering them with the arts of a charlatan, seeking too ambitiously the mastery of life, he missed its best instructions.
Yet he who means nobleness, though he misses his chosen aim, cannot fail to bring down a precious quarry from the clouds. Paracelsus won deep knowledge of himself and his God. Love followed, if it could not bless him, and the ecstacies of genius wove music into his painful dreams.
The holy and domestic love of Michal, that Ave Maria Stella of his stormy life, the devotion of a friend, who living, for himself, in the humility of a genuine priest, yet is moved by the pangs of sympathy, to w.ke part against and “wrestle with” Heaven in his behalf, the birth and bud of the creative spirit which blesses through the fulness of forms, as expressed in Aprile, all are told with a beauty and, still more, a pregnancy, unsurpassed amid the works of contemporary minds.
“Sordello” we have never seen, and have been much disappointed at not being able to obtain the loan of a copy now existent in New England. It is spoken of as a work more thickly enveloped in refined obscurities than ever any other that really had a meaning; and no one acquainted with Browning’s mind can doubt his always having a valuable meaning, though sometimes we may not be willing to take the degree of trouble necessary to ferret it out. His writings have, till lately, been clouded by obscurities, his riches having seemed to accumulate beyond his mastery of them. So beautiful are the picture gleams, so full or meaning the little thoughts that are always twisting their parasites over his main purpose, that we hardly can bear to wish them away, even when we know their excess to be a defect. They seem, each and all, too good to be lopped away, and we cannot wonder the mind from which they grew was at a loss which to reject. Yet, a higher mastery in the poetic art must give him skill and resolution to reject them. Then, all true life being condensed into the main growth, instead of being so much scattered in tendrils, off-shoots and flower-bunches, the effect would be more grand and simple; nor should we be any loser as to the spirit; it would all be there, only more concentrated as to the form, more full, if less subtle, in its emanations. The tendency to variety .and delicacy, rather than to a grasp of the subject and concentration of interest, are not so obvious in Browning’s minor works as in Paracelsus, and in his tragedy of ‘Strafford.’ This very difficult subject for tragedy engaged, at about the same time, the attention of Sterling. Both he and Browning seem to have bad it brought before their attention by Foster’s spirited biography of Strafford. We say it is difficult—though we see how it tempted the poets to dramatic enterprise. The main character is one of tragic force and majesty; the cotemporary agents all splendid figures, and of marked individuality; the march of action necessarily rapid and imposing; the events induced of universal interest. But the difficulty is, that the materials are even too rich and too familiar to every one. We cannot bear any violation of reality, any straining of the common version of this story. Then the character and position of Strafford want that moral interest which is needed to give full pathos to the catastrophe. We admire his greatness of mind and character, we loathe the weakness and treachery of the King; we dislike the stern hunters notwithstanding their patriotic motives, for pursuing to the death the noble stag; and yet we feel be ought to die. We wish that he had been killed, not by the hands of men, with their spotted and doubtful feelings, but smitten direct by pure fire from heaven. Still we feel he ought to die, and our grief wants the true tragic element which hallows it in the Antigone, the Lear, and even Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” or “Wallenstein.”
But of the two, Sterling’s conception of the character and conduct of the drama is far superior to that of Browning. Both dramas are less interesting and effective than the simple outline history gives, but Browning weakens the truth in his representation of it, while Sterling at least did not falsify the character of Strafford, bitter, ruthlessly ambitious, but strong and majestic throughout. Browning loses, too, his accustomed originality and grace in the details of this work, through a misplaced ambition.
But believing that our poet has not reached that epoch of mastery, when he can do himself full justice in a great work, we would turn rather to the consideration of a series of sketches, dramatic and lyric, which he has been publishing for several years, under the title of “Bells and Pomegranates.” We do not know whether this seemingly affected title is assumed in conformity with the catch-penny temper of the present day, or whether these be really in the mind of Robert Browning no more than the glittering fringe of his priestly garment. If so, we shall cherish high hopes, indeed, as to the splendors that will we.it upon the unfolding of the main venture.
The plan of these sketches is original, the execution in many aspects, admirable, and the range of talent and perception they display, wider than that of any contemporary poet in England.
“Pippa Passes” is the title of the first of these little two shilling volumes, which seem to contain just about as much as a man who lives wisely, might, after a good summer of mingled work, business and pleasure, have to offer to the world, as the honey he could spare from his hive.
Pippa is a little Italian girl who works in a silk mill. Once a year the workpeople in these mills have an entire day given them for their pleasure. She is introduced at sunrise of such a day, singing her morning thoughts. She then goes forth to wander through the town, singing her little songs of childish gayety and purity. She passes, not through, but by, different scenes of life, passes by a scene of guilty pleasure, by the conspiracies of the malicious, by the cruel undeception of the young sculptor who had dared trust his own heart more fully than is the wont of the corrupt and cautious world. Every where the notes of her song pierce their walls and windows, awakening them to memories of innocence and checking the course of misdeed. The plan of this work is, it will be seen, at once rich and simple. It admits of an enchanting variety, and an unobtrusive unity. Browning has made the best use of its advantages. The slides in the magic lantern succeed one another with perfect distinctness, but. Through them all shines the light of this one beautiful Italian day, and the little silk winder, its angel, discloses lo us as fine gleams of garden, stream and sky, as we have time to notice while passing such various and interesting groups of human beings.
The finest sketch of these is that of Jules, the sculptor, and his young bride. Jules, like many persons of a lofty mould, in the uncompromising fervour of youth, makes all those among his companions whom he thinks weak, base and vicious, his enviers and bitter enemies. A set of such among his fellow students have devised this most wicked plan to break his heart and pride at once. They write letters as from a maiden who has distinguished him from the multitude, and knows how to sympathize with all his tastes and aims. They buy of her mother a beautiful young girl, who is to represent the character. The letters assume that she is of a family of rank who will not favour the alliance, and when Jules, enchanted by the union of the beauty of intellect in the letters and the beauty of person of which he has going glimpses, presses his suit as a lover, marriage is consented to on condition that he shall not seek to converse with her till after the ceremony. This is the first talk of Jules after he has brought his silent bride to his studio:
And I by thee—this is thy hand in mine—
And side by side we sit—all’s true. Thank God!
I have spoken—speak thou!
—O, my life to come!
My Tydeus must be carved that’s there in clay,
And how be carved with you about the chamber?
Where must I place you? When J think that once
This room full of rough block-work seemed my heaven
Without you! Shall I ever work again—
Get fairly into my old ways again—
Bid each conception stand while trait by trait
My hand transfers its lineaments to stone?
Will they, my fancies, live near you, my truth—
The live truth—passing and repassing me—
Sitting beside me?
Your letters to mc—was’t not well contrived?
A hiding place in Psyche’s robe—there lie
Next to her skin your letters; which comes foremost?
Good—this that swam down like a first moonbeam
Into my world.
Those? Books I told you of.
Let your first word to me rejoice them, too,—
This minion of Coluthus, writ in red
Bistre and azure by Bessarion’s scribe—
Read this line—no, shame—Homer’s be the Greek!
My Odyessy in coarse black vivid type
With faded yellow blossoms ‘twixt page and page;
“He said, and on Antinous directed
A bitter shaft”—then blots a flower the rest!
—Ah, do not mind that—better that will look
When cast in bronze—an Almaign Kaiser that,
Swart-green and gold with truncheon based on hip—
This rather, turn to—but a check already—
Or you had recognized that here you sit
As I imagined you, Hippolyta
Naked upon her bright Numidian horse!
—Forgot you this then? “carve in bold relief,”—
So you command me—“carve against I come
A Greek, bay filleted and thunder free,
Rising beneath the lifted myrtle-branch,
Whose turn arrives to praise Harmodius.”—Praise him!
Quite round, a cluster of mere hands and arms
Thrust in all senses, all ways, from all sides,
Only consenting at the branches’ end
They strain towards, serves for frame to sole face—
(Place your own face)—the Praiser’s; who with eyes
Sightless, so bend they back to light inside
His brain where visionary forms throng up,
(Gaze—I am your Harmodius dead and gone,)
Sings, minding not the palpitating arch
Of hands and arms, nor the quick drip of wine
From the drenched leaves o’erhead, nor who cast off
Their violet crowns for him to trample on—
Sings, pausing as the patron-ghosts approve,
Devoutly their unconquerable hymn—
But you must say a “well” to that—say “well”
Because you gaze—am I fantastic, sweet?
Gaze like my very life’s stuff, marble—marbly
Even to the silence—and before I found
The real flesh Phene, I inured myself
To see throughout all nature varied stuff
For better nature’s birth by means of art:
With me, each substance tended to one form
Of beauty—to the human Archetype—
And every side occurred suggestive germs
Of that—the tree, the flower—why, take the fruit,
Some rosy shape, continuing the peach,
Curved beewise o’er its bough, as rosy limbs
Depending nestled in the leaves—and just
From a cleft rose-peach the whole Dryad sprung!
But of the stuffs one can be master of;
How I divined their capabilities
From the soft-rinded smoothening facile chalk
That yields your outline to the air’s embrace,
Down to the crisp imperious steel, so sure
To cut its one confided thought clean out
Of all the world: but marble!—’neath my tools
More pliable than jelly—as it were
Some dear primordial creature dug from deep
In the Earth’s heart where itself breeds itself
And whence all baser substance may be worked;
Refine it off to sir you may—condense it
Down to the diamond;—is not metal there
When o’er the sudden specks my chisel trips?
—Not flesh—as flake off flake I scale, approach,
Lay bare these bluish veins of blood asleep?
Lurks flame in no strange windings, where surprised
By the swift implements sent home at once,
Flushes and glowings radiate and hover
About its track?—
The girl, thus addressed, feels the wings budding within her, that shall upbear her from the birth-place of pollution in whose mind her young feet have been imprisoned. Still, her first words reveal to the proud, passionate, confiding genius the horrible deception that has been practised on him. After his first anguish, one of Pippa’s songs steals in to awaken consoling thoughts. He feels that only because his heart was capable of noble trust could it be so deceived; feels too that the beauty which had enchanted him could not be a mere mask, but yet might be vivified by a soul worthy of it, and finds the way to soar above his own pride and toe opinions of an often purblind world.
Another song, with which Pippa passes, contains, in its first stanza, this grand picture:
In the morning of the world,
When Earth was nigher Heaven than now:
And the King’s locks curled
Disparting o’er a forehead full
As the milk-white space ’twixt horn and horn
Of some sacrificial bull.
Only calm as a babe new-born;
For he has got to a sleepy mood,
So safe from all decrepitude.
Age with its bane so sure gone by,
(The gods so loved him while he dreamed)
That, having lived thus, long there seemed
No need the King should ever die.
Luigi.—No need that sort of King should ever die.
Among the rocks his city was;
Before his place, in the sun,
He sat to see his people pass,
And judge them every one,
From its threshold of smooth stone.
This picture is as good as the Greeks.
Next came a set of Dramatic Lyrics, all more or less good, from which we select
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive; I call
That piece a wonder, now; Frà Pandolf’s hand.
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of that earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘twas not
Her husband’a presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
“Over my Lady’s wrist too much,” or “ Paint
“Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat;” such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went every where.
Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the forward speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good; but thanked
Some how—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine hundred years’ old name
With any body’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—could make your wil1
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
“Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping, and I chuse
Never to stoop. Oh, Sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together clown, Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.
To this volume succeeded “King Victor and King Charles,” “The Return of the Druses’ “A Blot in the Scutcheon,” and “Colombe’s Birthday.”
The first we do not so much admire, but the other three have all the same originality of conception, delicate penetration into the mysteries of human feeling, atmospheric individuality, and skill in picturesque detail. All four exhibit very high and pure ideas of Woman, and a knowledge very rare in man of the ways in which what is peculiar in her office and nature works. Her loftiest elevation does not, in his eyes, lift her out of nature. She becomes not a mere saint, but the goddess queen of nature. Her purity is not cold like marble, but the healthy, gentle energy of the flower, instinctively rejecting what is not fit for it, with no need of disdain to dig a gulf between it and the lower forms of creation. Her office to man is that of the Muse, inspiring him to all good thoughts and deeds. The passions that sometimes agitate these maidens of his verse, are the surprises of noble hearts, unprepared for evil, and even their mistakes cannot cost bitter tears to their attendant angels.
The girl in the “Return of the Druses” is the sort of nature Byron tried to paint in Myrrha. But Byron could only paint women as they were to him. Browning can show what they are in themselves.
In “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon” we see a lily, storm-struck, half broken, but still a lily. In “Colombe’s Birthday” a queenly rosebud, which expands into the full glowing rose before our eyes. This is marvelous in this drama, how the characters are unfolded before us by the crisis, which not only exhibits, but calls to life, the higher passions and thoughts which were latent within them.
We bless the poet for these pictures of women, which, however the common tone of society, by the grossness and levity of the remarks bandied from tongue to tongue, would seem to say the contrary, declare there is still in the breasts of men a capacity for pure and uniting passion,-for immortal tenderness.
But we must hasten to conclude with some extracts from another number of “Dramatic Lyrics” lately received. These seem to show that Browning is attaining a more masterly clearness in expression, without seeking to popularize, or omitting to heed the faintest whisper of his genius. He gains without losing as he advances—a rare happiness.
In the former number was a poem called “The Cloister,” and in this are two, “The Confessional” and the “Tomb at St. Praxed’s,” which are the keenest yet a wisely true satire on the forms that hypocrisy puts on in the Romish church. This hateful weed grows rank in all cultivated gardens, but it seems to hide itself, with great care and adroitness, beneath the unnumbered forms nod purple gauds of that elaborate system. Accordingly, the hypocrites do not seem so bad, individually, as in other churches, and the satire is continually softening into humour in the “Tomb of St. Praxed’s,” with its terrible naturalness as to a life-long deception. Tennyson has described the higher kind with a force that will not be surpassed in his Simeon Stylites, but in this piece of Browning’s, we find the Flemish school of the same vice.
The “Flight of the Duchess,” in its entrancing revelations of the human heart, is a boon to think of. We were, however, obliged to forbear further extracts, with the exception of two from the “Garden Fancies.” We regret that these poems, with several others which have been circulated in “The Tribune,” could not find room in the present volume.
IN closing this series of dramatic and lyrical sketches, Browning explains his plan and title thus:
“Here ends my first series of ‘Bells and Pomegranates,’ and I take the opportunity of explaining, in reply to inquiries, that I only meant by that title to indicate an endeavour toward something like an alternation or mixture of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought, which looks too ambitious, thus expressed the symbol was preferred. It is little to the purpose that such is actually one of the most familiar of the Rabbinical (and Patristic) acceptations of the phrase; because I confess that letting authority alone, I supposed the bare words in such juxtaposition would sufficiently convey the desired meaning. ‘Faith and good works’ is another fancy for instance, and perhaps no easier to arrive at; yet Giotto placed a pomegranate fruit in the hand of Dante, and Raffaelle crowned his Theology with blossoms of the same.”
That the poet should have supposed the symbol would be understood at once, marks the nature of his mind, a mind which soars in the creative element, and can only be understood by those who are in a state of congenial activity.
The two pieces before us display, or rather betray, a deep and growing acquaintance with the mysteries of the breast. If one tithe of what informs this little pamphlet were brought out into clear relief by the plastic power of a Shakspeare, the world would stand transfixed before the sad revelation.
In the first piece, Luria, a Moor, is put in command of the Florentine army against Pisa; but spies are set around him, and the base mistress sits in trial on the hero she has won by smiles to fight her battles. His great, simple, fiery nature is captivated by the grace, deep sagacity and self-possession of the Florentines.
He glows with delight at feeling in himself the birth of a more intellectual life beneath their influence. But when he finds the treachery hid beneath all this beautiful sculptured outside, he 18tanda amazed, not lost1 not overwhelmed, but unable to meet or brave what is so opposite to his own soul. He is, indeed, too noble to resent or revenge, or look on the case other than as God may.
My barbarous illustration—it sounds ill,
Yet there’s no wrong at bottom—rather praise.
Luria.—We have creatures there which if you saw
The first time, you would doubtless marvel at,
For their surpassing beauty, craft and strength,
And tho’ it were a lively moment’s shock
Wherein you found the purpose of their tongues—
That seemed innocuous in their lambent play,
Yet, once made known, such grace required a guard,
Your reason soon would acquiesce, I think,
In th’ Wisdom which made all things for the best,
So take them, good with ill, contentedly—
The prominent beauty with the secret sting,
I am glad to have seen you, wondrous Florentines.
And having seen them, and staked his heart entirely on this venture, he went through with them—and lost. He cannot survive the shock of their treachery. He arranges all things nobly in their behalf; and dies, for he was of that mould, the “precious porcelain of human clay” which
but not without first exercising a redeeming power upon all the foes and traitors round him. His chivalric antagonist, Tiburzio, needed no· conversion, for he is one of the noble race who
A foeman worthy of their steel,”
and are the best friends of such a foeman. But the shrewd, worldly spy, the supplanted rival, the woman who was guilty of that lowest baseness of wishing to make of a lover the tool of her purposes, all grow better by seeing the action of this; noble creature under the crucifixion they have prepared for him; especially the feelings of the rival, who learns from his remorse to understand genius and magnanimity, are admirably depicted. Such repentance always comes too late for the one injured; men kill him first, then grow wiser and mourn; this dreadful and frequent tragedy is shown in Luria’s case with its full weight of dark significance, spanned by the rainbow beauty that springs from the perception of truth and nobleness in the victim.
The second piece, “A Soul’s Tragedy,” is another of the deepest tragedies-a man fancying himself good because he was harsh, honourable because he was not sweet, truer than the lovely and loving natures, because unskilled to use their winning ways.
His self-deception is revealed to him by means the most original and admirably managed. Both these dramas are full of genius; both make the heart ache terribly. A text might well suit the cover-a text we must all of us learn ever more and more deeply to comprehend: “Let him who thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
We hope these eight numbers of “Bells and Pomegranates” will now be reprinted here. They would make one volume of proper size to take into the woods and fields.
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