An Introduction to the Study of Browning. By Arthur Symons. Cassells.
WHETHER it be true or not that Mr. Browning is justly chargeable with ” obscurity” with a difficulty of manner, that is, beyond the intrinsic difficulty of his matter it is very probable that an Introduction to the study of his works, such as this of Mr. Symons, will add to the number of his readers. Mr. Symons’s opening essay on the general characteristics of Mr. Browning is a just and acceptable appreciation of his poetry as a whole, well worth reading, even at this late day. We find in Mr. Symons the thoughtful and practiced yet enthusiastic student in literature in intellectual problems; always quiet and sane, praising Mr. Browning with tact, with a real refinement and grace; saying well many things which every competent reader of the great poet must feel to be true; devoting to the subject he loves a critical gift so considerable as to make us wish for work from his hands of larger scope than this small volume. His book is, according to his intention, before all things a useful one. Appreciating Mr. Browning fairly, as we think, in all his various efforts, his aim is to point his readers to the best, the indisputable, rather than to the dubious portions of his author’s work. Not content with his own excellent general criticism of Mr. Browning, he guides the reader to his works, or division of work, seriatim, making of each a distinct and special study, and giving a great deal of welcome information about the poems, the circumstances of their composition, and the like, with delightful quotations. Incidentally, his Introduction has the interest of a brief but effective selection from Mr. Browning’s poems; and he has added an excellent biography. Certainly we shall not quarrel with Mr. Symons for reckoning Mr. Browning, among English poets, second to Shakespeare alone ” He comes very near the gigantic total of Shakespeare.” The quantity of his work ? Yes ! that too, in spite of a considerable unevenness, is a sign of genius. ” So large, indeed, appear to be his natural endowments that we cannot feel as if even thirty volumes would have come near to exhausting them.” Imaginatively, indeed, Mr. Browning has been a multitude of persons; only (as Shakespeare’s only untried style was the simple one) almost never simple ones; and certainly he has controlled them all to profoundly interesting artistic ends by his own powerful personality. The world and all its action, as a show of thought, that is the scope of his work. It makes him pre-eminently a modern poet a poet of the self- pondering, perfectly educated, modern world, which, having come to the end of all direct and purely external experiences, must necessarily turn for its entertainment to the world within: “The men and women who live and move in that new world of his creation are as varied as life itself; they are kings and beggars, saints and lovers, great captains, poets, painters, musicians, priests and Popes, Jews, gipsies and dervishes, street-girls, princesses, dancers with the wicked witchery of the daughter of Herodias, wives with the devotion of the wife of Brutus, joyous girls and malevolent grey – beards, statesmen, cavaliers, soldiers of humanity, tyrants and bigots, ancient sages and modern spiritualists, heretics, scholars, scoundrels, devotees, rabbis, persons of quality and men of low estate — men and women as multiform as nature or society has made them.” The individual, the personal, the concrete, as distinguished from, yet revealing in its fulness, the general, the universal — that is Mr. Browning’s chosen subject-matter:-” Every man is for him an epitome of the universe, a centre of creation.” It is always the particular soul, and the particular act or episode, as the flower of the particular soul the act or episode by which its quality comes to the test in which he interests us. With him it is always ” a drama of the interior, a tragedy or comedy of the soul, to see thereby how each soul becomes conscious of itself.” In the Preface to the later edition of Sordello, Mr. Browning himself told us that to him little else seems worth study except the development of a soul, the incidents, the story, of that. And, in fact, the intellectual public generally agrees with him. It is because he has ministered with such marvellous vigour, and variety, and fine skill to this interest, that he is the most modern, to modern people the most important, of poets. So much for Mr. Browning’s matter; for his manner, we hold Mr. Symons right in thinking him a master of all the arts of poetry. ” These extraordinary little poems,” says Mr. Symons of “Johannes Agricola” and ” Porphyria’s Lover”. Reveal not only an imagination of intense fire and heat, but an almost finished art, a power of conceiving subtle mental complexities with clearness and of expressing them in a picturesque form and in perfect lyric language. Each poem renders a single mood, and renders it completely.” Well, after all, that is true of a large portion of Mr. Browning’s work. A curious, an erudite artist, certainly, he is to some extent an experimenter in rhyme or metre, often hazardous. But in spite of the dramatic rudeness which is sometimes of the idiosyncrasy, the true and native colour of his multitudinous dramatic personæ‘, or monologists, Mr. Symons is right in laying emphasis on the grace, the finished skill, the music, native and ever ready to the poet himself tender, manly, humorous, awe- stricken when speaking in his own proper person. Music herself, the analysis of the musical soul in the characteristic episodes of its development is a wholly new range of poetic subject in which Mr. Browning is simply unique. Mr. Symons tells us: ” When Mr. Browning was a mere boy, it is recorded that he debated within himself whether he should not become a painter or a musician as well as a poet. Finally, though not, I believe, for a good many years, he decided in the negative. But the latent qualities of painter and musician had developed themselves in his poetry, and much of his finest and very much of his most original verse is that which speaks the language of painter and musician as it had never before been spoken. No English poet before him has ever excelled his utterances on music’ none has so much as rivalled his utterances on art. ‘Abt Vogler’ is the richest, deepest, fullest poem on music in the language. It is not the theories of the poet, but the instincts of the musician’ that it speaks. ‘Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha,’ another special poem on music, is unparalleled for ingenuity of technical interpretation: ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’ is as rare a rendering as can anywhere be found of the impressions and sensations caused by a musical piece; but ‘Abt Vogler’ is a very glimpse into the heaven where music is born.” It is true that ” when the head has to be exercised before the heart there is chilling of sympathy.” Of course, so intellectual a poet (and only the intellectual poet, as we have pointed out, can be adequate to modern demands) will have his difficulties. They were a part of the poet’s choice of vocation, and he was fully aware of them ” Mr. Browning might say, as his wife said in an early preface, I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of the poet as indeed he has himself said, to much the same effect, in a letter printed many years ago: I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man.” “Moreover, while a writer who deals with easy themes has no excuse if he is not pellucid to a glance, one who employs his intellect and imagination on high and hard questions has a right to demand a corresponding closeness of attention, and a right to say with Bishop Butler, in answer to a similar complaint: ‘ It must be acknowledged that some of the following discourses are very abstruse and difficult, or, if you please, obscure; but I must take leave to add that those alone are judges whether or no, and how far this is a fault, who are judges whether or no, and how far it might have been avoided those only who will be at the trouble to understand what is here said, and to see how far the things here insisted upon, and not other things, might have been put in a plainer manner.’ ” In Mr. Symons’s, opinion Pippa Passes is Mr. Browning’s most perfect piece of work, for pregnancy of intellect, combined with faultless expression in a perfectly novel yet symmetrical outline: and he is very likely right. He is certainly right in thinking Men and Women, as they formerly stood, Mr. Browning’s most delightful volumes. It is only to be regretted that in the later collected edition of the works those two magical old volumes are broken up and scattered under other headings. We think also that Mr. Symons in his high praise does no more than justice to The Ring and the Book. The Ring and the Book is at once the largest and the greatest of Mr. Browning’s works, the culmination of his dramatic method, and the turning- point more decisively than Dramatis Personæ of his style. Yet just here he rightly marks a change in Mr. Browning’s manner: ” Not merely the manner of presentment, the substance, and also the style and versification have undergone a change. I might point to the profound intellectual depth of certain pieces as its characteristic, or, equally, to the traces here and there of an apparent carelessness of workmanship; or, yet again, to the new and very marked partiality for scenes and situations of English and modern rather than mediæval and foreign life.” Noble as much of Mr. Browning’s later work is, full of intellect, alive with excellent passages (in the first volume of the Dramatic Idyls perhaps more powerful than in any earlier work); notwithstanding all that, we think the change here indicated matter of regret. After all, we have to conjure up ideal poets for ourselves out of those who stand in or behind the range of volumes on our book-shelves; and our ideal Browning would have for his entire structural type those two volumes of Men and Women with Pippa Passes. Certainly, it is a delightful world to which Mr. Browning has given us the key, and those volumes a delightful gift to our age-record of so much that is richest in the world of things, and men, and their works all so much the richer by the great intellect, the great imagination, which has made the record, transmuted them into imperishable things of art: “‘With souls should souls have place’ this, with Mr. Browning, is something more than a mere poetical conceit. It is the condensed expression of an experience, a philosophy, and an art. Like the lovers of his lyric, Mr. Browning has renounced the eelfish serenities of wild-wood and dream- palace; he has fared up and down among men, listening to the music of humanity, observing the acts of men, and he has sung what he has heard, and he has painted what he has seen. Will the work live ? we ask; and we can answer only in his own words:
If precious be the soul of man to man.”
Originally published in the Guardian, November 9, 1887