Browning’s Poems.

Browning’s Poems.

  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 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 and radiant mind was through his “Paracelsus,” of which we cannot now obtain 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 vitae were, in the middle ages, apt symbols. In seeking how 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 ecstasies 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 take part against and “wrestle with” Heaven in his behalf, the birth and bud of the creative spirit which blesses through the fullness of forms, as expressed in Aprile, all are told with a beauty and, still more, a pregnancy, unsurpassed amid the works of contemporary minds.

  The following poem will give some idea of the scope and style of Paracelsus:

Paracelsus(sings)—“Over the sea our galleys went,
With cleaving prows in order brave,
To a speeding wind and a bounding wave,
A gallant armament:
Each bark built out of a forest-tree,
Left leafy and rough as first it grew,
And nailed all over the gaping sides,
Within and without, with black bull-hides,
Seethed in fat and suppled in flame,
To bear the playful billows’ game:
So, each good ship was rude to see,
Rude and bare to the outward view,
But each upbore a stately tent
Where cedar-pales in scented row
Kept out the flakes of the dancing brine,
And an awning drooped the mast below,
In fold on fold of the purple fine,
That neither noontide nor star-shine
Nor moonlight cold which maketh mad,
Might pierce the regal tenement.
When the sun dawned, oh, gay and glad
We set the sail and plied the oar;
But when the night-wind blew like breath,
For joy of one day’s voyage more,
We sang together on the wide sea,
Like men at peace on a peaceful shore;
Each sail was loosed to the wind so free,
Each helm made sure by the twilight star,
And in a sleep as calm as death,
We, the voyagers from afar,
Lay stretched along, each weary crew
In a circle round its wondrous tent
Whence gleamed soft light and curled rich scent,
And with light and perfume, music too:
So the stars wheeled round, and the darkness past,
And at morn we started beside the mast,
And still each ship was sailing fast!

Now, one morn, land appeared!—a speck
Dim trembling betwixt sea and sky:
“Avoid it,” cried our pilot, “check
The shout, restrain the eager eye!”
But the heaving sea was black behind
For many a night and many a day,
And land, though but a rock, drew nigh;
So, we broke the cedar pales away,
Let the purple awning flap in the wind,
And a statue bright was on every deck!
We shouted, every man of us,
And steered right into the harbour thus,
With pomp and paean glorious.

An hundred shapes of lucid stone!
All day we built its shrine for each,
A shrine of rock for every one,
Nor paused we till in the westering sun
We sat together on the beach
To sing because our task was done.
When lo! what shouts and merry songs!
What laughter all the distance stirs!
A loaded raft with happy throngs
Of gentle islanders!
“Our isles are just at hand,” they cried,
“Like cloudlets faint in even sleeping;
Our temple-gates are opened wide,
Our olive-groves thick shade are keeping
For these majestic forms”—they cried.
Oh, then we awoke with sudden start
From our deep dream, and knew, too late,
How bare the rock, how desolate,
Which had received our precious freight:
Yet we called out—“Depart!
Our gifts, once given, must here abide.
Our work is done; we have no heart
To mar our work,”—we cried.
Aprile. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Paracelsus.  Nay, wait.
All this is tracings rude, on rugged stones
Strewn here and there, but piled in order once.
Then follows—mark what follows.
The sad rhyme of the men who proudly clung
To their first fault, and withered in their pride

  ‘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 of 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-branches, 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 his tragedy of ‘Strafford.’ This very difficult subject for tragedy engaged, at about the same time, the attention of Stirling. Both he and Browning seem to have had 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 he 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.’

  Still of the two, Stirling’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 Stirling 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 wait upon the unfolding of the main vesture.

  The plan of these sketches is original, the execution, in many respects, 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 to 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 fervor 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 favor 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 gained 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:

Thou by me
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 he carved with you about the chamber?
Where must I place you? When I 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?
Now speak!
Only, first,
Your letters to me—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 Odyssey 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 a 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 ended 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 clear 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 air 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 there, surprised
By the swift implement 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 mud her young feet have been imprisoned. Still, her first words reveal to the proud, passionate, confiding genius the horrible deception that has been practiced 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 the opinions of an often purblind world.

  Another song, with which Pippa passes, contains, in its first stanza, this grand picture:

A king lived long ago,
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 was 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 palace, 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.

            ITALY AND FRANCE.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its 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’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra 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 everywhere.
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 approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
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 choose
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 pretense
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 down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

SHE should never have looked at me,
If she meant I should not love her:
There are plenty . . men, you call such,
I suppose . . she may discover
All her soul to, if she pleases,
And yet leave much as she found them.
But I’m not so, and she knew it
When she fixed me, glancing round them.

What? To fix me thus meant nothing?
But I can’t tell . . there’s my weakness . .
What her look said: no vile cant, sure,
About “need to strew the bleakness
“Of some lone shore with its pearl-seed,
“That the sea feels”—no strange yearning
“That such souls have, most to lavish”
“Where there’s chance of least returning.”

Oh, we’re sunk enough here, God knows!
But not quite so sunk that moments,
Sure tho’ seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit’s true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones,
And apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way,
To its triumph or undoing.

There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,
Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse,
Which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time
That away the rest have trifled.

Doubt you if, in some such moment,
As she fixed me, she felt clearly,
Ages past the soul existed,
Here an age ‘tis resting merely,
And hence fleets again for ages:
While the true end, sole and single,
It stops here for is, this love-way,
With some other soul to mingle?

Else it loses what it lived for,
And eternally must lose it,
Better ends may be in prospect,
Deeper blisses (if you choose it),
But this life’s end and this love-bliss
Have been lost here. Doubt you whether
This she felt as, looking at me,
Mine and her souls rushed together?

Oh, observe! Of course, next moment,
The world’s honours, in derision,
Trampled out the light for ever:
Never fear but there’s provision
Of the devil’s to quench knowledge
Lest we walk the earth in rapture!
Making those who catch God’s secret
Just so much more prize their capture!

Such am I: the secret’s mine now!
She has lost me—I have gained her!
Her soul’s mine: and thus, grown perfect,
I shall pass my life’s remainder.
Life will just hold out the proving
Both our powers, alone and blended—
And then, come next life quickly!
This life will have been ended!

  To this volume succeeded “King Victor and King Charles,” “The Return of the Druses,”—“A Blot in the ’Scutcheon,” and “Colombe’s Birth Day.”

  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 Myrrah. 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 Birth Day” a queenly rose-bud 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 exalting 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 and purple gawds of that elaborate system. Accordingly the hypocrites do not seem so bad, individually, as in other churches, and the satire is continually softening into humor in the “Tomb at 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 but too long to copy, and must not be taken apart. “Italy in England,” we shall publish by itself and for the present must content ourselves with:

I.—The Flower’s Name
HERE’S the garden she walked across,
Arm in my arm, such a short while since:
Hark, now I push its wicket, the moss
Hinders the hinges and makes them wince!
She must have reached this shrub ere she turned,
As back with that murmur the wicket swung;
For she laid the poor snail, my chance foot spurned,
To feed and forget it the leaves among.

Down this side ofthe gravel-walk
She went while her robe’s edge brushed the box:
And here she paused in her gracious talk
To point me a moth on the milk-white flox.
Roses, ranged in valiant row,
I will never think that she passed you by!
She loves you noble roses, I know;
But yonder, see, where the rock-plants lie!

This flower she stopped at, finger on lip,
Stooped over, in doubt, as settling its claim;
Till she gave me, with pride to make no slip,
Its soft meandering Spanish name:
What a name! Was it love or praise?
Speech half-asleep or song half-awake?
I must learn Spanish, one of these days,
Only for that slow sweet name’s sake.

Roses, if I live and do well,
I may bring her, one of these days,
To fix you fast with as fine a spell,
Fit you each with his Spanish phrase;
But do not detain me now; for she lingers
There, like sunshine over the ground,
And ever I see her soft white fingers
Searching after the bud she found.

Flower, you Spaniard, look that you grow not,
Stay as you are and be loved for ever!
Bud, if I kiss you ’tis that you blow not:
Mind, the shut pink mouth opens never!
For while it pouts, her fingers wrestle,
Twinkling the audacious leaves between,
Till round they turn and down they nestle—
Is not the dear mark still to be seen?

Where I find her not, beauties vanish;
Whither I follow her, beauties flee;
Is there no method to tell her in Spanish
June’s twice June since she breathed it with me?
Come, bud, show me the least of her traces,
Treasure my lady’s lightest footfall!
—Ah, you may flout and turn up your faces—
Roses, you are not so fair after all!

II.—Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis.

Plague take all your pedants, say I!
He who wrote what I hold in my hand,
Centuries back was so good as to die,
Leaving this rubbish to cumber the land;
This, that was a book in its time,
Printed on paper and bound in leather,
Last month in the white of a matin-prime
Just when the birds sang all together.

Into the garden I brought it to read,
And under the arbute and laurustine
Read it, so help me grace in my need,
From title-page to closing line.
Chapter on chapter did I count,
As a curious traveller counts Stonehenge;
Added up the mortal amount;
And then proceeded to my revenge.

Yonder’s a plum-tree with a crevice
An owl would build in, were he but sage;
For a lap of moss, like a fine pont-levis
In a castle of the Middle Age,
Joins to a lip of gum, pure amber;
When he’d be private, there might he spend
Hours alone in his lady’s chamber:
Into this crevice I dropped our friend.

Splash, went he, as under he ducked,
—At the bottom, I knew, rain-drippings stagnate;
Next, a handful of blossoms I plucked
To bury him with, my bookshelf’s magnate;
Then I went in-doors, brought out a loaf,
Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis;
Lay on the grass and forgot the oaf
Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.

Now, this morning, betwixt the moss
And gum that locked our friend in limbo,
A spider had spun his web across,
And sat in the midst with arms akimbo:
So, I took pity, for learning’s sake,
And, de profundis, accentibus lætis,
Cantate! quoth I, as I got a rake;
And up I fished his delectable treatise.

Here you have it, dry in the sun,
With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow—
Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!

How did he like it when the live creatures
Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
Came in, each one, for his right of trover;
When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet?

All that life and fun and romping,
All that frisking and twisting and coupling,
While slowly our poor friend’s leaves were swamping
And clasps were cracking and covers suppling!
As if you had carried sour John Knox
To the play-house at Paris, Vienna or Munich,
Fastened him into a front-row box,
And danced off the Ballet with trousers and tunic.

Come, old Martyr! What, torment enough is it?
Back to my room shall you take your sweet self.
Good-bye, mother-beetle; husband-eft, sufficit!
See the snug niche I have made on my shelf!
A.’s book shall prop you up, B.’s shall cover you,
Here’s C. to be grave with, or D. to be gay,
And with E. on each side, and F. right over you,
Dry-rot at ease till the Judgment-day!

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
—He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.

Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit.

‘Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld,’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So, Joris broke silence with, ‘Yet there is time!’’

At Aershot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each hutting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray:

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, ‘Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault’s not in her,
We’ll remember at Aix’—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
‘Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And ‘Gallop,’ gasped Joris, ‘for Aix is in sight!’

‘How they’ll greet us!’—and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is—friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ‘twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

  Even Shakespeare never made a horse gallop better!

  These poems will afford some ideas of Browning’s compass. Of his delicate sheaths of meaning within meaning which must be opened slowly, petal by petal, as we seek the heart of a flower, and the spirit-like distant breathings of his lute, familiar with the secrets of shores distant and enchanted, a sense can only be gained by reading him a great deal, and we wish that the “Bells and Pomegranates,” at least, may be brought within the reach of those American readers who have time and soul to wait and listen for such.*

“Browning’s Poems.” New-York Daily Tribune, 1 April 1846, p. 1.