IN ORDER to trace the operation of a double awareness in Browning's poetry, allowance must at the outset be made for three complicating factors which do not occur in a parallel study of Tennyson. Browning was a much more original artist than the laureate. Whereas Tennyson was content to locate his themes in a familar context, whether literary or relating to comtemporary life, and generally speaking, to present this material in converntional forms, Browning naturally inclined to recondite subject-matter and to experimental methods.
Secondly, Tennyson's habit of mind was introspective, with the result, as we have seen, that the matrices of interest in his poetry are comparatively few and easy to identify. Browning, on the other hand, combined with greater intellectual self-confidence a multiple curiosity about man's external relationships. Tennyson could never have written as Browning did in the Epilogue to "Pacchiarotto, with Other Poems": "Man's thoughts and loves and hates!/ Earth is my vineyard." Finally, where Tennyson was diffident about private convictions and careful to express them in as uncontroversial a way as possible, Browning, out of enthusiasm for his own highly individualistic beliefs, was unwilling to make concessions to the aptitudes and predilections of his readers. [71/72]
Browning's most characteristic ideas are traceable to certain psychological assumptions adumbrated in the three substantial poems with which he inaugurated his career. These are: "Pauline" (1833), "Paracelsus" (1835), and "Sordello" (1840; although not published until three years after "Strafford," "Sordello" was begun on the completion of Pauline in 1833.) These works are in a sense variations on a single theme: the evolution of the creative impulse in artists beset by uncertainty as to the genuineness of their inspiration and the best uses that can be made of their talents. In "Pauline" these problems are formulated in terms of a conflict between reason and instinct. The poem introduces a youthful poet restive under the yoke of received opinion:
How should this earth's life prove my only sphere?
Can I so narrow sense but that in life
Soul still exceeds it?
In their elements
My love outsoars my reason...
To the voice of common sense, recommending subordination of this idealizing tendency to the way of the world, the speaker protests:
There's some vile juggle with my reason here;
I feel I but explain to my own loss
These impulses: they live no less the same.
Liberty! What though I despair? my blood
Rose never at a slave's name proud as now.
0 sympathies, obscured by sophistries!-
Why else have I sought refuge in myself,
But from the woes I saw and could not stay?
As a romantic assertion of the reality of the human emotions, in opposition to the delusory processes of ratiocination, "Pauline" establishes a point of view which dominates all Browning's subsequent thinking. It should be noted, furthermore, that the poet founds his faith in man's instinctual nature on private insights unsusceptible of demonstration by rational means. So, for example, he maintains that the appeal [72/73]of Christianity derives from the baffling challenge which Christ offers to philosophic inquiry:
Is it not in my nature to adore,
And e'en for all my reason do I not
Feel him, and thank him, and pray to bim-now?
Can I forego the trust that he loves me?
Do I not feel a love which only ONE . . .
0 thou pale form, so dimly seen, deep-eye!
I have denied thee calmly-do I not
Pant when I read of thy consummate power,
And burn to see thy calm pure truths out-flash
The brightest gleams of earth's philosophy?
"Pauline" contains two additional passages in which the poet calls on his experience of the arts to prove the validity of intuitional experience. The first of these is the well-known evocation of a painting of Andromeda. The second, deriving from music, is still more explicit. The speaker addresses his imagined mistress as follows:
Be still to me
A help to music's mystery which mind fails
To fathom, its solution, no mere clue!
0 reason's pedantry, life's rule prescribed!
The poet's decision, taken immediately hereafter, to shake off self-consciousness is dictated not so much by social awareness as by an intimation of nobler heights of imaginative being than he has yet attained:
I'll look within no more,
I have too trusted my own lawless wants,
Too trusted my vain self, vague intuition-
Draining soul's wine alone in the still night. . .
Once let the artist turn altruist, however, and the question then becomes how he can best exert influence on the minds of others. In his poem devoted to the pseudo-legendary figure of Paracelsus, Browning first attacks the problem of communication, while still insisting on the primacy of the intuitions [73/74] over the rational intellect. "Paracelsus" is a study of intellectual pride and its humbling. The philosopher, conscious of his mission to arouse society with "new revealings," places entire confidence in his individual powers, and thereby repudiates both the guidance of tradition and the support of love, as personified by Festus and Michal. Festus repeatedly warns him of the danger of trying to do without human sympathy: "How can that course be safe which from the first/ Produces carelessness to human love?"; and again: "But do not cut yourself from human weal!" Paracelsus, however, sets off alone on his wanderings, strong in the conviction that he is sufficient unto himself and that ultimate truth has its seat in the depths of his inner consciousness.
"Paracelsus" is divided into five sections to suggest the stages in the hero's tragic progress. In the second part there begins for Paracelsus the betrayal by the intellect, althouzh he continues to insist that this is the supreme faculy:
God! Thou art mind! Unto the master-mind
Mind should be precious.
Spare my mind alone!
All else I will endure. . .
The lyric poet Aprile now enters the scene to emphasize the protagonist's alienation. Aprile compensates for the weakness of his intellect by a capacity for love denied to Paracelsus. Lacking Festus' humble veneration for humanity, however, he loves unrealistically. For Aprile inhabits a Shelleyean world of make-believe where mankind is an idealized abstraction. In their isolation both Paracelsus and Aprile are self-infatuated, the one by the life of reason, the other by the life of the imagination. Paracelsus realizes that they are "halves of one dissevered world"; but although, having learned to love Aprile, he has begun to move towards recognition of the need for closer communion with his kind, he is not yet ready to renounce his chosen path. To the dying poet he says:
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[74/75]
Wake with our wrists and ankles jewelled still.
I too have sought to KNOW as thou to LOVE -
Excluding love as thou refusedst knowledge.
Still thou hast beauty and I, power.
With the third section disillusionment sets in for Paracelsus. He has found that his teachings are unintelligible to the populace, and scorning the artifices of the demagogue, has taken refuge in aristocratic disdain for his audience. Aprile's example is for the moment lost on him. In his thinking of the dead poet merely as a devotee of art for art's sake, we can perhaps detect Browning's own rejection of that alluring doctrine:
I cannot feed on beauty for the sake
Of beauty only, nor can drink in balm
From lovely objects for their loveliness;
My nature cannot lose her first imprint;
I still must hoard and heap and class all truths
With one ulterior purpose: I must know!
. . . For other men,
Beauty is prodigally strewn around,
And I were happy could I quench as they
This mad and thriveless longing, and content me
With beauty for itself alone...
Festus reappears to suggest that Paracelsus' difficulties are of his own making, the result of a deficiency in the loving wisdom of the heart; but the philosopher reasserts the supremacy of the individual:
'T is in the advance of individual minds
That the slow crowd should ground their expectation
Eventually to follow . . .
Yet he is not so sure of himself as once; and although without much humility, he is beginning to perceive that his failure may be attributable to pride of intellect:
... were man all mind-he gains
A station little enviable. From God [75/76]
Down to the lowest spirit ministrant,
Intelligence exists which casts our mind
Into immeasurable shade. No, no:
Love, hope, fear, faith-these make humanity;
These are its sign and note and character,
And these I have lost!
Paracelsus next turns his mental powers to unscrupulous ends, and so betrays himself to the ways of the world. He condescends to magical practices in order to bedazzle his audience. Unwilling to bow to the authority of the magistrates at Basel, he is cast out as a charlatan. Paracelsus thus becomes the first of many compositions in which Browning was to show the enslavement of minds to ambition for material power. The coarsening of Paracelsus' fibre spreads out from the intellect through his whole nature and leads to sensual indulgence. He falls prey to morbid Satanism: "mind is nothing but disease,/ And natural health is ignorance." In a final despairing effort to hold onto some remnants of self-respect, he makes the gesture of arrogating to himself godlike infallibility:
I am above them like a god, there's no
Hiding the fact: what idle scruples, then,
Were those that ever bade me soften it,
Communicate it gently to the world,
Instead of proving my supremacy,
Taking my natural station o'er their head,
Then owning all the glory was a man's!
— And in my elevation man's would be.
It is only in his old age, a failure and on the point of death, that Paracelsus under Festus' ministrations finally attains to full recognition of his error. Man in his slow ascent of the evolutionary scale is to be pitied rather than disdained; his groping, but endlessly valiant struggle to rise is the very thing that makes him lovable. And the superior beings sent to guide the way must possess the faculty of love if they are to fulfill their function. Paracelsus retains to the end his [76/77]confidence that he is one of those so elected; but the qualities on which he should have relied, as he now realizes, were his "inborn uninstructed impulses,"-not, that is to say, the reasoning mind, but
Uncomprehended by our narrow thought,
But somehow felt and known in every shift
And change in the spirit, — nay, in every pore
Of the body, even ...
This God-given instinct he has perverted through the selfish desire for individual power; yet he cannot refrain from pointing out the temptation to deal with the world in its own terms:
All quackery; all deceit; myself can laugh
The first at it, if you desire; but still
You know the obstacles which taught me tricks
So foreign to my nature — envy and hate,
Blind opposition, brutal prejudice,
Bald ignorance-what wonder if I sunk
To humor men the way they most approved?
And the poem leaves the reader with the ineradicable impression that in Browning's view the way of the original thinker must needs be a lonely one, since devotion to the best interests of humanity inevitably entails incomprehension and active hostility from all those whom one seeks to serve: "We have to live alone to set forth well/ God's praise."
In theme "Sordello" occupies a position midway between "Pauline" and "Paracelsus." The first sections of "Sordello" trace the growth of a poet's mind, the later ones his career in the world. As had been the case with "Paracelsus," "Sordello" represents an attempt on Browning's part to gain perspective on his own situation through imaginative treatment of an historical figure sufficiently obscure to allow considerable latitude of interpretation. The hero of the poem is obsessed by the problem of making himself heard. The theme of the artist's communicative function, emerging from a welter of imperfectly[77/78]assimilated material, gives the work what little unity it possesses. Like the speaker in "Pauline," Sordello is motivated in turn by two impulsions, one turning him inward towards self-contemplation, the other driving him outward to a life of action; and like Paracelsus, his career follows a pattern of alternating advance and retreat, as he assumes and is then dislodged from one position after another "vis-à-vis" society.
In total seclusion from worldly affairs Sordello passes his youth amidst the natural beauties of Goito. His imagination is peopled with ideal beings, and he dreams of emulating Apollo, the poet-god. But such isolation, with its inducements to egocentric complacency, is precarious at best; for we are told that
this world of ours by tacit pact is pledged
To laying such a spangled fabric low
Whether by gradual brush or gallant blow.
Sordello's first departure from Goito into a larger sphere of activity comes about under auspicious circumstances. Inspired to spontaneous song, he vanquishes the reigning troubadour, Eglamor, at Palma's Court of Love. Eglamor is an interesting, though somewhat vague figure. He foreshadows the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of the artist wholly devoted to aesthetic discipline: "Then, how he loved that art!/ The calling making him a man apart/ From men." Like Aprile, however, his preference for fancy over fact is mitigated by a generous capacity for love; he dies acknowledging Sordello his master. Earlier in the poem Browning had specified two categories of poets. The first includes all those who feel
A need to blend with each external charm,
Bury themselves, the whole heart wide and warm,-
In something not themselves; they would belong
To what they worship. . .
Eglamor clearly belongs to the other category, described as follows:[78/79]
For there's a class that eagerly looks, too,
On beauty, but, unlike the gentler crew,
Proclaims each new revealment born a twin
With a distinctest consciousness within,
Referring still the quality, now first
Revealed, to their own soul — its instinct nursed
In silence, now remembered better, shown
More thoroughly, but not the less their own. . .
Eglamor, at least, has the virtue of absorption in the technical demands of his craft. Sordello, on the other hand, vainglorious over his easy success, assumes that all he henceforth need do is give unbridled expression to his imagination: "So, range, free soul! — who, by self-consciousness,/ The last drop of all beauty dost express." At the furthest remove from Eglamor's perfectionism, his sole concern is for popular acclaim- "'t was the song's effect/ He cared for, scarce the song itself." In the outcome he falls between two stools. Lack of worldly experience, coupled with excessive self-confidence, causes him to go astray among abstractions which are meaningless to his audience. When he attempts to adopt more concrete modes of communication, notably the dramatic, he discovers his temperamental disaffinity to prevailing forms of thought.
The man and the artist split apart:
Weeks, months, years went by,
And lo, Sordello vanished utterly,
Sundered in twain; each spectral part at strife
With each; one jarred against another life;
The Poet thwarting hopelessly the Man,
Who, fooled no longer, free in fancy ran
Here, there, — let slip no opportunities
As pitiful, forsooth, beside the prize
To drop on him some no-time and acquit
His constant faith (the Poet-half's to wit —
That waiving any compromise between
No joy and all joy kept the hunger keen
Beyond most methods) — of incurring scoff
From the Man-portion — not to be put off [79/80]
With self-reflectings by the Poet's scheme,
Though ne'er so bright. Who sauntered forth in dream,
Dressed anyhow, nor waited mystic' frames,
Immeasurable gifts, astounding claims,
But just his sorry self? — who yet might be
Sorrier for aught he in reality
Achieved, so pinioned Man's the Poet — part,
Fondling, in turn of fancy, verse; the Art
Developing his soul a thousand ways —
Potent, by its assistance, to amaze
The multitude with majesties, convince
Each sort of nature, that the nature's prince
Accosted it. Language, the makeshift, grew
Into a bravest of expedients, too;
Apollo, seemed it now, perverse had thrown
Quiver and bow away, the lyre alone
Sufficed. While, out of dream, his day's work went
To tune a crazy tenzon or sirvent —
So hampered him the Man-part, thrust to judge
Between the bard and the bard's audience, grudge
A minute's toil that missed its due reward!
There ensues a period of withdrawal to Goito and self-renewal at the font which symbolizes the inner sources of Sordello's creative being. As a result of the illumination received during this time, Sordello vows himself to a career of constructive endeavor in the cause of his countrymen suffering under the wars of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. As happened to Paracelsus when he aspired the second time, however, Sordello is seduced by a thirst for power. Finding that Rome is not built in a day, he despairs once more and is ready to exchange his newly assumed mission for the consolations of the imagination. In vain his conscience reprimands him for failure to abide by the choice it dictates:
Only bear in mind,
Ferrara's reached, Goito's left behind:
As you then were, as half yourself, desist!
-The warrior-part of you may, an it list, [80/81]
Finding real falchions difficult to poise,
Fling them afar and taste the cream of joys
By wielding such in fancy, — what is bard
Of you may spurn the vehicle that marred
Elys so much, and in free fancy glut
His sense, yet write no verses-you have but
To please yourself for law, and once could please
What once appeared yourself, by dreaming these
Rather than doing these, in days gone by.
But all is changed the moment you descry
Mankind as half yourself, — then, fancy's trade
Ends once and always: how may half evade
The other half? men are found half of you.
Out of a thousand helps, just one or two
Can be accomplished presently: but flinch
From these (as from the falchion, raised an inch,
Elys, described a couplet) and make proof
Of fancy,-then, while one half lolls aloof
I' the vines, completing Rome to the tip-top-
See if, for that, your other half will stop
A tear, begin a smile!
Not until after Salinguerra, the ruthlessly practical soldier who acts on instinct, has mocked his feeble vacillations does Sordello come to the recognition that it is the poet's true function to incite his auditors to noble actions:
Thought is the soul of act, and, stage by stage,
Soul is from body still to disengage
As tending to a freedom which rejects
Such help and incorporeally affects
The world, producing deeds but not by deeds,
Swaying, in others, frames itself exceeds,
Assigning them the simpler tasks it used
To patiently perform till Song produced
Acts, by thoughts only, for the mind ...
No sooner has Sordello found the direction in which he must henceforth move, however, than fresh temptations are placed in his way. With the twofold discovery that he is [81/82]Salinguerra's son and Palma's accepted lover, a career of boundless power opens up for him. In the ensuing conflict between altruism and the will to power, the former wins out, but the price of victory is extinction. Sordello stamps on Salinguerra's badge of authority and then, emotionally exhausted, dies. Into this somewhat ambiguous denouement Browning steps to confirm the reader's suspicion that Sordello's life is to be viewed as a tragic failure in its twin aspects — both the early immersion in fanciful dreams, the weakness of Pauline's lover, and the later surrender to selfish ambition, Paracelsus' flaw. Sordello's name is forgotten; his influence, ironically enough, survives to aftertimes in the sole unpremeditated and wholly instinctive utterance of his poetic being, the Elys lyric, as it is sung in fragmentary form by an Italian urchin.
Created 2000; last modified 27 July 2015