Browning established his eminence among Victorian poets with four volumes published over a period of twenty years in mid-century. Dramatic Lyrics and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics were followed by two additional collections of short poems: Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Personae (1864). In the ensuing discussion no attempt is made to adhere to the chronological order of these four collections. The fact that for the edition of his poems in 1863 Browning retained the original titles of his first three volumes of short pieces, but completely redistributed their contents, is evidence enough that he did not attach any significance to dates of composition within this body of work.
Whether the form be the lyric, the narrative, or the monologue, the poems in these volumes, as the titles indicate, exhibit a remarkable uniformity of conception in their concentration on the dynamics of behavior. Mindful of the reproof visited on his earlier writing because of its self-conscious quality, the poet rigorously externalized his perceptions under dramatic forms. The advertisement to the original Dramatic Lyrics in 1842 declares: "Such poems as the following come properly enough, I suppose, under the head of 'Dramatic Pieces;' being, though for the most part Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine." Henceforth Browning was to exploit all the devices of objectivity at his command in an effort to capture the attention of his age. When he was writing the poems to be gathered [91/92] in Men and Women, he informed Milsand: "I am writinga first step towards popularity for me-lyrics with more music and painting than before, so as to get people to hear and see."
Yet, a review of the four key works, Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Men and Women, and Dramatis Personae, in the light of what has already been said about his previous work, and especially "Pippa Passes," reveals that like Sordello's reliance on the font at Goito, Browning continued to depend for inspiration on the sources which had fed his imagination from the start. The dramatic technique, as he employed it, became simply a process of sublimation equivalent in stylistic terms to Tennyson's thematic use of dream, madness, vision, and the quest. By motivating the actors in his dramas with his own ideas and impulses, Browning could speak out with greater originality and boldness than would ever have been possible in his own person. One wonders how the Victorian middle class with its worship of conformity could have failed to take exception to the poet's outspoken flouting of social conventions. It can only be supposed that approving the apparent regard for morality in his teaching, contemporary readers did not bother to look below the surface to investigate the assumptions on which that morality was founded.
By his constant advocacy of intuitive over rational knowledge, Browning took over the anti-intellectualism of the Romantics and pushed it in the direction of pure primitivism. Along with Carlyle, although much more subtly, Browning endorsed the unconscious as the true wellspring of being. Pippa is only the first of a long line of innocents, including, to name only a few, the duke's last duchess, the maligned lady of "Count Gismond," Brother Lawrance, the Pied Piper and the resurrected Lazarus of "An Epistle of Karshish." In Browninog's world, the prophets and artists, the lovers and doers of great deeds are never primarily remarkable for intellectual power. Their supremacy is the result of a genius for experiencing life intuitively. They possess a phenomenal capacity for passionate emotion, combined with a childlike [92/93] reliance on instinct. These qualities put them in conflict with conventionalized modes of social conduct. Whether it be Fra Lippo, or Rabbi Ben Ezra, or David in "Saul," or the Grammarian, or Childe Roland, Browning's heroes are always the children of their intuitions.
In their capacity for instinctive action Browning's heroes are akin to Tennyson's visionaries. The moments of recognition come to both in the same mysterious and unpredictable ways. Thus, Childe Roland, reaching his journey's end, knows in a blinding flash what is expected of him. Abt Vogler and David improvise their rhapsodies in states of trance-like exaltation. More especially, true love is love at first sight. Such instantaneous perceptions of elective affinity occur, among other poems, in "Count Gismond," "Cristina," "The Statue and the Bust," "Evelyn Hope."
His belief that the intuitions operate through the instrumentality of the emotions rather than the intellect led Browning to a frank celebration of man's physical nature, very foreign to Victorian reticence in such matters. Remembering the Prior's pretty niece, Fra Lippo says: "If you get simple beauty and nought else,/ You get about the best thing God invents." (See Browning's defense of the nude in art in the "Parleying With Francis Furini.") Such an admission is unthinkable in Tennyson, for whom the essential philosophic problem was to league mind and spirit into effective opposition against the bodily appetites. To Browning, on the other hand, flesh and the spirit seemed natural allies against the insidious distortions of the intellect. So Fra Lippo in his defense of the street-urchin's apprenticeship to life exclaims: "Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike." Browning's constant assertion of the soul's interrelationship with the body on an instinctual plane permits him to make claims for the latter which would not otherwise have been admissible. Indeed, two of the most forthright statements that fleshly and spiritual well-being are bound up together come from the mouths of holy men. The Apostle John in "A Death in the Desert" says: [93/94}
But see the double way wherein we are led,
How the soul learns diversely from the flesh!
With flesh, that hath so little time to stay,
And yields mere basement for the soul's emprise,
Expect prompt teaching.
And in the words of Rabbi Ben Ezra:
Let us not always say
"Spite of this flesh to-day
"I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole!"
As the bird wings and sings,
Let us cry "All good things
"Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!"
The vitalism inherent in Browning's emphasis on man's intuitive as opposed to his ratiocinative faculties further explains the poet's acceptance of the real and demonstrable, and, conversely his distrust of make-believe. The characters in his poems whom we are asked to admire are all exceptionally clear-sighted in their confrontation of actuality. They see through the false shows at which society connives, preferring to meet life on its own terms rather than to indulge in fanciful self-delusion. Although Browning's lovers are usually unhappy, there is never any question of escape into a Tennysonian dream world. In his hopeless predicament the lover of "In a Gondola" three times falls to imagining ideal situations which would allow his mistress and himself to be together, and as often rejects the wish for the fact:
Rescue me thou, the only real!
And scare away this mad ideal
That came, nor motions to depart!
Thanks! Now, stay ever as thou art!
Finally, worldly criteria for success lose their validity in Browning's poetry. The poet's so-called philosophy of imperfection, with its lesson that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp," has anti-social implications. This belief holds that an individual's first and highest obligation is to fulfill his own [94/95] being, regardless of consequences. A lifetime of devotion to settling ""Hoti"'s business," properly basing "Oun," and providing "us the doctrine of the enclitic De" entitles the grammarian to a final resting-place on the heights. The lover of In a Gondola makes a Romeo-like death in the fullness of his passion:
The Three, I do not scorn
To death, because they never lived: but I
Have lived indeed, and so- (yet one more kiss) -can die!
And Childe Roland's ultimate intuition is that success in his quest means just to die bravely.
Once the intuitional psychology at the heart of Browning's thinking is fully understood, all the major thematic concerns in his poetry become meaningful as deriving therefrom. Among Victorian poets he is the great champion of individualism. If self-realization is the purpose of life, then it follows that any agency which thwarts that process is inimical to the best interests of human nature. And since formalized systems of thought operating through social institutions have always tended to repress freedom of belief and action, Prowning~s most characteristic poems have to do with the conflict-between the individual and his environment. There is a wisdom of the mind and a wisdom of the heart; and the two are always at odds, since the one teaches compliance with the ways of the world while the other inculcates non-conformity. Thus, where his political and religious convictions or his beliefs about love and art are concerned, each man must make a choice between intellectual subservience to customary values and emancipation from all such restrictions.
In insisting on the integrity of the individual soul, Browning allies himself on one side with the Romantic poets, and on the other with the Pre-Raphaelites. He differs from both, however, in his concept of the artist's responsibilities. Whereas Byron delivered frontal assaults on contemporary manners and morals and Rossetti inclined to ignore his milieu, Browning adopted an oblique approach to his age. By dramatizing [95/96] individual case histories, he stepped before his readers in such a variety of poetic guises that it was impossible to identify him with any single rÔle. Furthermore, since he made his attacks piecemeal through anatomizing characters each of whom embodied but a single aspect of contemporary thought, he could be sure of enlisting on his side all those who did not share this particular foible, and so of forestalling unified opposition. It is only when the widely diversified types in Browning's catalogue are grouped according to family resemblance that one begins to comprehend the scope and consistency of the poet's opposition to existing values, and hence the extent of his alienation from Victorian society.
One such grouping, it has been suggested, would include all those characters whose ways of life are conditioned by some clearly defined set of conventions. Superficially dissimilar though they are, "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" present versions of a single conflict. Just as the duke in the former is motivated in all he does by punctilious pride of rank, so the hypocritical friar who soliloquizes in the second poem appeals to the minutiae of religious observance. And just as the dead duchess in her childlike response to all innocent pleasures unknowingly made a mockery of her husband's ceremoniousness, so Brother Lawrence's every spontaneous action criticizes religious formalism. In both poems the central irony grows out of the fact that the speaker damns hiimself in endeavouring to cast discredit on his unsuspecting adversary.
So, in poem after poem representing every kind of career, the protagonist must make his decision between the practical inducements to worldly success and lonely integrity of spirit. The Lost Leader, who sold out "just for a handful of silver ... just for a riband to stick in his coat," stands in telling contrast to the Italian in England who, even in exile, remains loyal to the patriot's dream. For the grammarian, gifted above his fellows, the search for knowledge means sacrifice of all that would otherwise have been his due:
He knew the signal, and stepped on with pride
Over men's pity; [96/97]
Left play for work, and grappled with the world
Bent on escaping...
Childe Roland's thoughts are saddened by memories of his lost companions, Cuthbert and Giles, who, presumably unable to sustain the rigors of the quest, fell away, seduced by the world's allurements. All the grotesque properties of this poem-the "hateful cripple," the "stiff blind horse, his every bone astare," the engine of torture, the "great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend"-are marshalled as if to epitomize the malice of society against the dedicated ones who step aside from the trodden path.
Browning's most forcible condemnations of rationalism, however, come in those poems which deal with the problems of religious belief. In "Christmas-Eve" and "Easter-Day," published in the same year as "In Memoriam," the poet had worked out the grounds of his own highly individualistic faith. It sprang from a purely intuitive conviction of the necessity for a loving God. "Saul" and "Rabbi Ben Ezra" give full expression to this religious optimism; but the modern reader may well take greater interest in those works which dramatize alternative positions and show the poet dealing with the seeptical tendencies in contemporary thought. Among the best things to be found in Men and Women and Dramatis Personae is a series of monologues surveying the principal intellectual traditions which have militated against the Christian revelation.
A uniform tone of nostalgia pervades "An Epistle, containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician; Cleon; and Caliban upon Setebos; or, Natural Theology in the Island." The speaker in each poem, instinctively realizing the spiritual limitations of the system of thought to which he is committed, is driven against his will to postulate a Christian deity. Yet wistful longing never actualizes itself in terms of faith, because it is smothered under the weight of inherited prejudice. Karshish stands for the scientific mentality wholly at a loss to cope with the mystery of Lazarus' resurrection. Cleon, living in the end of the Hellenistic era, finds such meager consolation as he can [97/98] in the synthesizing temper of a decadent culture. In the superficial view Caliban appears to belong among Browning's primitives; actually he is man materialized to the point where he can only construct God in his own capricious and spiteful image. The historical or literary guise under which these issues are presented suggests the devious operation of Browning's critical intent. The poet was not really interested in the historical process, as Carlyle or Ruskin tried to be; nor did he have Tennyson's genius for reanimating myth. Karshish, Cleon, and Caliban are representative Victorians in fancy dress. As time passed, Browning inclined more and more to put aside the cloak of historical remoteness and to address himself to the psychoanalysis of contemporary types. "Bishop Blougram's Apology" and "Mr. Sludge," ""The Medium,"" for example, bring the charge of spiritual sterility directly home to Victorian society.
"Bishop Blougram's Apology" is an early example of the special pleading, the skillful conduct of casuistic argument, which bewildered so many of Browning's readers. The difficulty, of course, is that Blougram is a sort of devil's advocate who appropriates typical Browningesque doctrines and converts them to his own ends. In the words of his creator: "He said true things, but called them by wrong names." The whole tenor of the Bishop's plea points to the conclusion that worldly self-interest is identical with spiritual well-being. In demonstrating this line of reasoning, Blougram boldly enlists theories which have a diametrically opposed significance in Browning's own thinking. Thus, he says: "My business is not to remake myself,/ But to make the absolute best of what God made"; and again:
Let us concede (gratuitously though)
Next life relieves the soul of body, yields
Pure spiritual enjoyment: well, my friend,
Why lose this life i' the meantime, since its use
May be to make the next life more intense?
Only gradually do we recognize the extent of the clever Bishop's compromise with the existing order. In making [98/99] choice of a way of life, he has consulted only his physical comfort, out of regard for which he has become the servant of institutionalized religion. He has, in other words, allowed himself to be corrupted by the self-deluding operations of his own intellect. The key to Browning's meaning in the more abstruse dramatic monologues may nearly always be discovered in the culminating action. In this case Gigadibs instinctively revolts against Blougram's intellectual gymnastics, and turning his back on England, takes up a Carlylean life of unthinking action as a colonist.
"Mr. Sludge," ""The Medium"" follows a similar pattern. Browning, of course, had no use for mediums, seeing in their vogue clear evidence of the frivolous sensation-seeking of a society that had lost its spiritual bearings. Nevertheless, until the last extraordinary diatribe which reveals Sludge as the unregenerate charlatan he is, the poet allows his protagonist to make out the best possible case for himself. Ironically, despite the fact that Sludge has been caught red-handed at his sham practices, he has relied on trickery for so long that he is partially self-duped:
I tell you, sir, in one sense, I believe
Nothing at aIl, — that everybody can,
Will, and does cheat: but in another sense
I'm ready to believe my very self —
That every cheat's inspired, and every lie
Quick with a germ of truth.
More damaging, however, as a concealed expression of Browning's own sense of the price which society pays for trifling with its genuine spiritual impulses, is Sludge's mocking vindication of himself. In a world where the prizes go to those who live by their wits, Sludgehood is a normal phenomenon:
Why should I set so fine a gloss on things?
What need I care? I cheat in self-defence,
And there's my answer to a world of cheats!
Cheat? To be sure, sir! What's the world worth else? [99/100]
Browning's intuitionism announces itself most ardently when he writes about love, this being a subject which he handles with greater candor and penetration than any other poet of the early and mid-Victorian periods. It is not hard to understand why he should have thought the experience of love so important. Through the emotions which it releases man reaches heights of intensity, both physical and spiritual, such as are achievable in no other way. Romantic love, however, is little subject to discipline; and the Victorians in their regard for social stability endeavored to safeguard themselves against its disruptive power behind an elaborate system of conventions. A double standard of conduct was in force for the sexes, and the family stood as the central support of the entire social fabric. To the authority of these ideals Tennyson's poetry bears constant testimony. Browning, on the other hand, challenges the sexual morality of the Victorians at nearly every point. His interest is in the fulfillment of passion, rather than in the preservation of domestic proprieties. In no way are his convictions less conformable to accepted theories than in his refusal to recognize any basis for social inequality between men and women. His adoration of Elizabeth Barrett no doubt explains a good deal in this connection; but while Browning yielded to no other Victorian in his idealization of womanhood, his thinking had very little in common with the contemporary concept of the womanly woman. Only Meredith's heroines challenge Browning's in the qualities of fortitude, loyalty, idealism, intelligence, and insight. The Euripides of "The Last Adventure of Balaustion" is speaking for his creator when he says: "Mere puppets once, I now make womankind,/ For thinking, saying, doing, match the male." Browning, like Meredith, finds that the woman is usually right. With a few exceptions, his love lyrics fall into two classes. In the first the speaker is a man who has been rejected and who humbly accepts responsibility for failure, attributing it to some inadequacy in his own nature. In the second it is the woman who has been cast off. She too is humble; but we are made [100/101] to feel that she suffers not because of any innate unworthiness, but rather because of some flaw in her lover.
The central problem in Browning's love poetry is invariably one of communication between the sexes. The intangible influences which encourage or destroy intimacy between men and women elicit all his skill in psychological analysis; for love exists in and through human intuitions. Reference has already been made to the poet's belief that destined lovers recognize each other on first sight. But these moments of full and perfect communion are precarious; and, save for the most exceptional cases, the initial harmony does not survive social pressures or the importunities of individual temperament. It is rare in Browning's work to find such a poem as "By the Fire-Side," in which the lovers have so come to exist in each other that one of them can say:
When, if I think but deep enough,
You are wont to answer, prompt as rhyme;
And you, too, find without rebuff
Response your soul seeks many a time
Piercing its fine flesh-stuff.
More commonly the good moment passes, as in "Two in the Campagna," where we watch it slip away despite the lovers' longing to prolong their felicity; or "The Last Ride Together," in which the speaker strives desperately to eternalize his fleeting togetherness with the woman he loves.
Ideal love is for Browning the consummation of an intuitive process by which the lovers transcend the barriers of their separate individualities and achieve spiritual union. Whenever this happens, there results the most exquisite and productive form of communication possible between human beings. The very possibility of a love like this excites the heroine of "The Flight of the Duchess" to say:
If any two creatures grew into one,
They would do more than the world has done:
Though each apart were never so weak,
Ye vainly through the world should seek [101/102]
For the knowledge and the might
Which in such union grew their right...
Browning's men and women, then, are always seeking to pierce the barrier which, in his favorite metaphor, separates two isolated souls reaching towards each other. The lover of "In a Gondola" pleads with his mistress:
Do, break down the partition-wall
'Twixt us, the daylight world beholds
Curtained in dusk and splendid folds!
What's left but — all of me to take?
And in "By the Fire-Side" Browning, speaking for once in his own person, describes the loss of personal identity under love's mysterious spell:
If two lives join, there is oft a scar,
They are one and one, with a shadowy third;
One near one is too far.
A moment after, and hands unseen
Were hanging night around us fast;
But we knew that a bar was broken between
Life and life: we were mixed at last
In spite of the mortal screen.
As one would expect from what has already been said, Browning holds that undue reliance on the intellect with its ulterior motivations makes for failure in affairs of the heart. The feminine nature is wiser than the masculine in its instinctive response to emotional impulse. In a number of poems love is destroyed through the man's determination to establish his mental superiority over the woman. This is the theme of Mesmerism, for example, as well as of "A Woman's Last Word" in which the woman soliloquizes:
What so false as truth is,
False to thee?
Where the serpent's tooth is
Shun the tree — [102/103]
Since in the poet's thinking the intellectual faculties are self-corrupting and prone to infection by the uses of the world, another group of poems, written from the female point of view, lays blame for the man's infidelity on the temptations held out by society. Examples in this vein are "Any Wife to Any Husband," and the group of highly sophisticated lyrics, "James Lee's Wife." The comparatively earIy "Cristina" departs from the usual pattern of Browning's love poems after he had come to know Elizabeth Barrett. For here it is the woman who is found wanting to the moment of recognition when "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!
Browning's conviction that the passionate intensity of romantic love is incompatible with conventionalized social morality leads him to glorify the one at the expense of the other. That perennial theme, the world well lost for love, is so appealing that Victorian readers in their sentimentality were apparently willing to overlook its frequent anti-social corollary in Browning's poetry, where the decision to give all for love more often than not involves some course of action at variance with established codes of conduct. Too extreme, perhaps, is the example of "Porphyria's Lover" where the demented narrator has committed murder and in this way made the final choice for a mistress
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever. [103/104]
In "The Flight of the Duchess," however, we are compelled to sympathize with the duchess in her flight from the staidly formalistic home of her husband to join the gypsies; and the prevaricating speaker in "Too Late" seems most manly when he reconstructs the lost opportunity to take his beloved away from her husband, by force if necessary. "In a Gondola" presents a more fatal but equally persuasive picture of adultery as the solution to loveless marriage. And the inescapable implication of "Respectability" is that the illicit affair there described has gained its intensity and seriousness from being carried on outside the pale of social conventions:
Dear, had the world in its caprice
Deigned to proclaim "I know you both,
"Have recognized your plighted troth,
"Am sponsor for you: live in peace!"
How many precious months and years
Of youth had passed, that speed so fast,
Before we found it out at last,
The world, and what it fears?
How much of priceless life were spent
With men that every virtue decks,
And women models of their sex,
Society's true ornament, —
Ere we dared wander, nights like this,
Thro'wind and rain, and watch the Seine,
And feel the Boulevard break again
To warmth and light and bliss?
I know! the world proscribes not love;
Allows my finger to caress
Your lips'contour and downiness,
Provided it supply a glove.
The world's good word! —
"In a Balcony" and "The Glove" present in unequivocal terms the conflict between the wisdom of the intuitions and the usages of society. The theme of "In a Balcony" is conveyed in Norbert's reference to the "instincts of the heart that teach [104/105] the head." The Queen, a marble figure of authority, comes, through passion for her minister of state, to recognize the hollowness of worldly power. Of the reality of love, on the contrary, she learns:
'T is as different from dreams,
From the mind's cold calm estimate of bliss,
As these stone statues from the flesh and blood.
Meanwhile, Constance, the Queen's protegée, who resembles the speaker in "Respectability" in her fear of the world's callous incomprehension, would prefer that her liaison with Norbert remain clandestine. In effect, she is matching wits against society out of a desire to secure her lover to herself. When Norbert wants to make an open declaration of their attachment, she replies:
A year of this compression's ecstasy
All goes for nothing! You would give this up
For the old way, the open way, the world's,
His way who beats, and his who sells his wife!
What tempts you?-their notorious happiness
Makes you ashamed of ours?
In the end Constance prevails on Norbert to make his request in a manner so ambiguous that the Queen misunderstands his intention and believes that her own love is returned. Only when Constance's subterfuges have ruined her hopes does she learn the error of playing the world's game in the world's way. Then finally she lets her heart speak out without restraint. She is willing to sacrifice her happiness to Norbert's career, but at the same time she will stop treating love as though it were a marketable commodity:
I know the thriftier way
Of giving-haply,'t is the wiser way.
Meaning to give a treasure, I might dole
Coin after coin out (each, as that were all,
With a new largess still at each despair)
And force you keep in sight the deed, preserve [105/106]
Exhaustless till the end my part and yours,
My giving and your taking; both our joys
Dying together. Is it the wiser way?
I choose the simpler; I give all at once.
Know what you have to trust to, trade upon!
Use it, abuse it, — anything but think
Hereafter, "Had I known she loved me so,
And what my means, I might have thriven with it."
This is your means. I give you all myself,
The social satire in "The Glove" results from a seeming paradox in the lady's behavior. Her motive for casting the glove into the lion-pit seems purely capricious; and the reader's first inclination is to side with King Francis' court in its condemnation of the lady and approval of De Lorge when he flings the glove back in her face after its retrieval. On reconsideration, however, we perceive that our initial judgment was conditioned by a code of etiquette, rather than by any real concern for the heroine's situation. By trifling with convention in an apparently irresponsible way, she has shown up the ingrained conventionality of her admirer whose bravery, like his subsequent rudeness, was displayed not for the lady's sake, but solely to win popular approval. The dénouement reveals the poet's meaning. The lady, followed by the youth who alone comprehends her action, departs from the artificial life of the court, while De Lorge remains to marry a lady-in-waiting and to see her become the king's mistress, while he is relegated to the position of glove-bearer.
If, for Browning, true love necessitates total disregard of the ways of the world, then it follows that self-interest is love's greatest enemy. A long succession of poems, concerned with individuals for whom the voice of society drowns out that of passion, dramatizes, on the negative side, the poet's sense that no worldly gain is ever achieved without spiritual loss. The disillusioned lover of "Dis Aliter Visum; or, Le Byron de nos Jours" recalls in bitterness of heart how he let opportunity slip through his fingers from cynical disbelief that the good moment could be prolonged: [106/107]
She might take me as I take her.
Perfect the hour would pass, alas!
Climb high, love high, what matter? Still,
Feet, feelings, must descend the hill:
An hour's perfection can't recur.
So, instead, he has elected the tamer consolation of a career:
What? All I am, was, and might be,
All, books taught, art brought, life's whole strife,
Painful results since precious, just
Were fitly exchanged, in wise disgust,
For two checks freshened by youth and sea?
But the moment, once gone past, does not return; and in the resolution we learn that each has made a wretched marriage, he with a young ballet-dancer, she with a too-old whistplayer. Artistic ambition is the force which keeps the lovers of "Youth and Art" apart; but through their failure to perceive the all-important connection between art and life, the former has betrayed them to triviality. The girl, who would surpass Grisi, is now queen at "bals-paré"; and the sculptor, aspiring to replace Gibson, has had to be content with the dubious distinction of membership in the Royal Academy.
Browning's most provocative examination of failure in love as the penalty of faint-hearted conformity to social conventions occurs in "The Statue and the Bust." The duke first beheld the lady on the day of her wedding to another man, and at once their souls "rushed together." Neither is restrained by moral scruples; yet they postpone the consummation of their love. Each is content with the daily encounter when the duke rides under the window where his beloved sits like another Lady of Shalott, but more remote from reality in her too-patient waiting. So the passing of time and the inconsequential demands of everyday existence imperceptibly dull the edge of resolve, although the lovers continue to delude themselves with the belief that such steadfastness as theirs must eventually be rewarded. Meanwhile, it is better not to provoke a scandal: [107/108]
And still, as love's brief morning wore,
With a gentle start, half smile, half sigh,
They found love not as it seemed before.
They thought it would work infallibly,
But not in despite of heaven and earth:
The rose would blow when the storm passed by.
Meantime they could profit in winter's dearth
By store of fruits that supplant the rose:
The world and its ways have a certain worth:
And to press a point while these oppose
Were a simple policy; better wait:
We lose no friends and we gain no foes.
When it is too late, they awaken to the realization that they have wasted their lives in make-believe:
And both perceived they had dreamed a dream;
Which hovered as dreams do, still above:
But who can take a dream for a truth?
Oh, hide our eyes from the next remove!
In the end the lovers call in art to eternalize their devotion; but the statue and the bust mock rather than glorify the impulse which brings them into being. Fixed in their apartness, they are as futile and as static as the couple they commemorate. Art has been made a substitute for, not a confirmation of life. That there might be no mistaking his meaning, Browning attached a coda to the poem. In Hamlet's phrase, "The readiness is all." Virtue is not in the goal, but in the passionate intensity of striving:
Do your best, whether winning or losing it,
If you choose to play! — is my principle.
Let a man contend to the uttermost
For his life's set prize, be it what it will!
The counter our lovers staked was lost
As surely as if it were lawful coin:
And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost [108/109]
Is — the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin,
Though the end in sight was a vice, I say.
If we turn now to Browning's aesthetics, it is immediately apparent from such poems as "Youth and Art" and "The Statue and the Bust" that for this poet art could never supplant life. No position is more consistently maintained throughout his writing than the one deriving from the assumption that all enduring artistic expression is incidental to the experience which inspires it. Poems otherwise so different as "The Last Ride Together, In a Balcony, Cleon, Old Pictures in Florence, "Transcendentalism: A Poem in Twelve Books," James Lee's Wife," and "One Word More" reiterate the author's vitalism. Art exists simply as one form of creative endeavor to educe life's meaning. The test of an artist's genius lies in his ability to move his audience to action. "The Pied Piper," "Fra Lippo Lippi," and the David of "Saul" have this faculty in common. The rats and children of Hamelin Town jubilantly follow wherever the piper's music leads. Fra Lippo is going to have to repaint his fresco of St. Laurence at Prato since the faithful are obliterating its details in their devout rage. The mounting ecstasy of David's songs lifts from Saul's spirit the gloom which has incapacitated him.
On first glance, Browning's artistic theories seem to accord fully with his age in its endorsement of the Ruskinian arguments that the highest art results from the perception of moral truth and promotes virtuous conduct. The poet's application of these propositions, however, is again suggestive of a double awareness. Just as the religious or political man must take a stand with regard to institutionalism and the lover with regard to conventional morality, so the artist is threatened by the tyranny of tradition. As it impinges on the life of the imagination, traditionalism has a dual authority. Its influence may be largely intellectual, regimenting instinct to a lifeless formalism. This way leads to art for art's sake. Or, in its more popular aspect, tradition may inform the artist's desire to communicate and so make of him a virtuoso. Whether he inhabit an ivory tower or the market [109/110] place, the artist who subordinates his native talent to traditional modes has, in Browning's opinion, betrayed his birthright.
The nameless painter of "Pictor Ignotus," like Aprile and Eglamor, has sought refuge from the harsh importunities of the world in the recesses of his inner being. As one naturally
inquisitive, to scan
The licence and the limit, space and bound,
Allowed to truth made visible in man,
He is all too conscious of the loss in vitality to his painting consequent on denial of the sensory world. He looks outward and sadly asks: "0 human faces, hath it spilt, my cup?" Self-withdrawal, we learn, has not taken place out of temperamental inability to respond to external stimuli, but rather because the painter shrinks from the callously imperceptive way that would-be connoisseurs deal with artists and their work. Yet within the privacy of his individual consciousness he discovers no impulse towards original creation, but only the pale inspiration of inherited tradition. The sole consolation left him after producing unending variations on stock religious themes is that he has at least dictated the terms of his defeat:
If at whiles
My heart sinks, as monotonous I paint
These endless cloisters and eternal aisles
With the same series, Virgin, Babe and Saint,
With the same cold calm beautiful regard, —
At least no merchant traffics in my heart;
The sanctuary's gloom at least shall ward
Vain tongues from where my pictures stand apart:
Only prayer breaks the silence of the shrine
While, blackening in the daily candle-smoke,
They moulder on the damp wall's travertine,
'Mid echoes the light footstep never woke.
So, die my pictures! surely, gently die!
0 youth, men praise so,-holds their praise its worth? [110/111]
Blown harshly, keeps the trump its golden cry?
Tastes sweet the water with such specks of earth?
The reasons for the failure of Andrea del Sarto are at once more complex and more symptomatic of the iconoclastic bias which carries over into Browning's aesthetic thinking. Where the speaker in "Pictor Ignotus" is frightened of the world's rough handling, Andrea has shamelessly courted popularity. The unknown painter's talent is exercised for purely private ends; Andrea paints to make money, allowing his choice of subjects to be determined by the market. He panders to the type of material-minded collector that Browning describes in "My Last Duchess" and "The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's Church." The Pictor Ignotus follows in the tradition of the Primitives who stressed soul at the expense of body; Andrea is no less slave to a realistic tradition which ignores spiritual overtones in its care for anatomic fidelity. Reluctant to acknowledge where he has gone wrong, Andrea, like the unknown painter, hypocritically pretends to exist in the realm of his imaginings:
I, painting from myself to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men's blame
Or their praise either.
Later on he declares: "Beside, incentives come from the soul's self;/ The rest avail not." But the hypocrisy of this statement, when applied to his own work, is evident even to Andrea. The error lies not in his hand with its matchless skill, but in the soul which directs that hand. Preferring any compromise to the loss of his worthless wife, the painter has silenced the admonitions of his spiritual nature. Thinking of the gigantic, though flawed genius of Michelangelo and Leonardo and Raphael, he ejaculates: "The sudden blood of these men!" The recognition that he can put over against their achievements only a certain cold proficiency wrings from him the lament: "But all the play, the insight and the stretch-/ Out of me, out of me!" No sooner does he undertake to correct a clumsy line in a drawing by Raphael than the chalk falls from his fingers: "Ay! but the soul! he's [111/112] Rafael! rub it out!" Andrea's virtuosity, we see, is simply a skill acquired through patient mastery of others' techniques, handed down in the schools and now corrupted for venal ends. It is his unforgivable fault to be faultless: "Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged."
In "An Essay on Shelley," written in 1852 to preface a spurious collection of that poet's letters, Browning distinguished between two kinds of objective poet or "fashioner." Concerning the creative impulse of the first kind, the question to be asked is: "Did a soul's delight in its own extended sphere of vision set it, for the gratification of an insuppressible power, on labor, as other men are set on rest?" For the second class, the question is rephrased as follows: "Or did a sense of duty or of love lead it to communicate its own sensations to mankind? Did an irresistible sympathy with men compel it to bring down and suit its own provision of knowledge and beauty to their narrow scope?" "Pictor Ignotus" and "Andrea del Sarto" seem to exemplify the corrupt extremes of these two types. The unknown painter has become the morbidly self-conscious victim of his "soul's delight in its own extended sphere of vision," while Andrea in his desire to communicate has sacrificed originality and compelled his talent "to bring down and suit its own provision of knowledge and beauty" to the "narrow scope" of a vulgar audience. "An Essay on Shelley," however, goes on to propose another kind of poet whose response to experience is primarily subjective. This is the seer, described by Browning as follows:
He, gifted like the objective poet with the fuller perception of nature and man, is impelled to embody the thing he perceives not so much with reference to the many below as to the one above him, the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute truth, — an ultimate view ever aspired to, if but partially attained, by the poet's own soul. . . . Not with the combination of humanity in action, but with the primal elements of humanity, he has to do; and he digs where he stands, — preferring to seek them in his own soul as the nearest reflex of the absolute Mind, according to the intuitions [112/113] of which he desires to perceive and speak. . . . He is rather a seer, accordingly, than a fashioner, and what he produces will be less a work than an effluence.
Although in his Shelley essay Browning declined to favor either the objective or the subject artist at the expense of the other, the general tone of his remarks strongly suggests that in his concept of the seer he was proposing a higher orientation for the poetic impulse than would result from conforming to the demands either of the individual ego or of society at large. And certainly in Browning's own poetry devoted to the arts and their practice it is the seer who emerges as the supreme type of artist, embodying in transmuted form the two aspects of the fashioner and merging them under the authority of a transcendent vision adequate to the opposing impulses which inhere in a double awareness.
Although "Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day" is largely a defense of Browning's particular brand of Christianity, the philosophic implications of religion and art were so closely allied in his thinking that the poem is also a declaration of his aesthetic creed. "Christmas-Eve" considers among other things the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual in this life-all that is signified by Abt Vogler's statement: "On earth the broken arcs; in heaven, a perfect round." The ideal, as it exists in God, is unattainable on earth; but this knowledge does not exonerate humanity from attempting the impossible; for in the effort lies the hope of spiritual salvation. Hence Andrea del Sarto's saddened perception: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what's a heaven for?" The artist, endowed with special intuitions, is better equipped than other men to apprehend the spirit world. His senses are more keenly responsive to beauty and his mind probes deeper into the laws of cause and effect; but the faculty on which before all others he relies is imaginative insight. Possession of this attribute to an unequalled degree made Shakespeare a poet apart. But, as Browning proceeds to expound in "Easter-Day," the artist's unique gifts impose on him the highest possible responsibility. Perceiving the divine plan, he must place his genius at God's disposal. Thus, although [113/114] the creative impulse has its source within the individual consciousness, its operation must not be expended on self-expression, but rather on elucidation of the heavenly will. It is on these grounds that Browning takes issue witb art for art's sake. Whereas the deluded devotee of this doctrine endeavors to meet self-imposed standards of perfection, the true artist hears a more imperious voice speaking through his intuitions. While humbly aware that the human imagination is at best a distorting medium, he nevertheless tries, as much as possible, to keep his message uncontaminated by the vanity of artifice. So the apocalyptic presence in Easter-Day admonishes the desperate poet who places reliance in his own earth-bound powers:
"And so much worse thy latter quest,"
(Added the voice,) "that even on earth —
Whenever, in man's soul, had birth
Those intuitions, grasps of guess,
Which pull the more into the less,
Making the finite comprehend
Infinity, — the bard would spend
Such praise alone, upon his craft,
As, when wind-lyres obey the waft,
Goes to the craftsman who arranged
The seven strings, changed them and rechanged
Knowing it was the South that harped.
He felt his song, in singing, warped;
Distinguished his and God's part: whence
A world of spirit as of sense
Was plain to him, yet not too plain,
Which he could traverse, not remain
A guest in: — else were permanent
Heaven on earth its gleams were meant
To sting with hunger for full light,
Made visible in verse, despite
The veiling weakness, — truth by means
Of fable, showing while it screens, —
Since highest truth, man e'er supplied,
Was ever fable on outside. [114/115]
Such gleams made bright the earth an age;
Now the whole sun's his heritage!
Take up thy world, it is allowed,
Thou who hast entered in the cloud!"
Browning's belief that the creative instinct can only function at its highest potential under divine inspiration is the counterpart of Tennyson's reliance on vision. It follows, then, that the poet-seer must acknowledge the sanction under which he fulfills his mission, and that, in Browning's own words, he will be "impelled to embody the thing he perceives not so much with reference to the many below, as to the one above him, the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute truth." "How It Strikes a Contemporary" exemplifies this concept of the artist in his capacity as God's "recording chief-inquisitor." The protagonist of the poem is a solitary figure, alert to every incident in the life around him, yet mysteriously alien to his environment, his whole loyalty absorbed by the "King" to whom he writes his nightly missive. Of the poet-seer Browning also says that his writing will "be less a work than an effluence." "Saul" and "Abt Vogler" illustrate the true nature of artistic inspiration. David in the former poem, at the approach of the final ecstatic vision of Christ, flings away the harp which has formalized his earlier utterances: "Then truth came upon me. No harp more-no song more!" And in contrast to the musician who labors over the mannered fugues of Hugues of Saxe-Gotha, Abt Vogler is a master of extemporization. Vogler, furthermore, is playing in an empty church solely for his own pleasure when the inspiration descends. His mystic communion with God is thus achieved as a private revelation. And although his improvisations can never be recaptured on earth, he is consoled by the knowledge that they have reached the One to whom they were addressed:
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour. [115/116]
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by-and-by.
But Abt Vogler remains something of an exception in Browning's gallery of artists. Even the seer's field of activity is this world and the life which he shares with other men. God is manifest through his handiwork, and all that mortals can know of his being comes in rightly interpretating the phenomena which condition earthly existence. It is on these phenomena that the imagination must exercise itself, avoiding all willful delusions prompted by the intellect. Any work of the imagination which fails to take cognizance of the facts of human experience is necessarily for Browning either false or imperfect. Thus, in "Old Pictures in Florence" he chooses Christian in preference to Greek art because of the classic artist's unrealistic refusal to "paint man man." Similarly, the speaker in the eighth lyric of "James Lee's Wife" has learned from Leonardo that there is more true beauty in the workworn hand of a peasant than in any academic dream of perfection that "lived long ago or was never born." And in ""Transcendentalism: A Poem in Twelve Books"" the youthful poet gets severely scolded for letting his vision of actuality become obscured by metaphysical theories: "So come, the harp back to your heart again!/ You are a poem, though your poem's naught."
The greatest artists are those whose senses and intuitions work together in harmonious unison. The great enemy of man's intuitional nature, as we have seen, is the intellect; and in artistic enterprises the intellect's weapon of attack against the freshness and immediacy of sensory impressions is tradition. Therefore, the artists whom Browning holds up for admiration are, like his lovers and men of action, noncomformists, rebels, and individualists on instinct. The fullest expression of the poet's aesthetic philosophy is to be found in "Fra Lippo Lippi." The circumstances under which we encounter Fra Lippo are significant in themselves; for he has [116/117] just been apprehended as a potential law-breaker. We learn that he has fled the confinement of his patron's house because it is carnival time and he is unable to resist the lure of the streets. The irrepressible gaiety of life is implicit in the jigging refrain that keeps running through the painter's mind:
"Flower o' the broom,
Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!"
With this preparation, it is not surprising to find that Fra Lippo has rejected the institutional repression of the Church, and especially that he has thrown over traditional forms of ecclesiastical art as exemplified in the work of such artists as Fra Angelico and Lorenzo Monaco. Fra Lippo is one of Browning's incorruptible innocents. He paints by instinct; and what he paints is the world of his perceptions, not an intellectualized abstraction of it: "The world and life's too big to pass for a dream." But underlying the intensity of his response to human experience is the innate perception of a higher reality made manifest, if at all, through the appearances of this world. The artist cannot do better than reproduce with as great fidelity as possible his individual sense of the observed fact; in so doing he records his own gratitude for the privilege of living, and in the process opens the eyes of others to the meaning of life:
However, you're my man, you've seen the world
— The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, — and God made it all!
— For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town's face, yonder river's line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What's it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? oh, this last of course! — you say.
But why not do as well as say, — paint these [117/118]
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God's works — paint any one, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. Don't object, "His works
"Are here already; nature is complete:
"Suppose you reproduce her — (which you can't)
"There's no advantage! you must beat her, then."
For, don't you mark? we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
That were to take the Prior's pulpit — place,
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
In the appeal which his paintings make to the emotions of an unsophisticated populace Fra Lippo finds the ultimate vindication of his artistic theories. But while Browning believed that great art would always communicate so long as the sensibilities of its audience had not been deadened by tradition or materialized by social pressures, the half-hearted reception of his own early work inclined him to emphasize the creator's individual integrity rather than his influence. After "Sordello," worldly prestige is never invoked as a consideration relevant to artistic success. Almost invariably, the artists in his poetry are somewhat alien figures, either neglected or misprized by the society in which they live. Even Fra Lippo shows a defensive attitude in challenging the tradition-ridden prejudices of his age. In "A Toccata of Galuppi's" the composer plays his premonitory compositions [118/119] to an unheeding audience. "Memorabilia" and "Popularity" have a like theme in the disheartening failure of Shelley and Keats to make an impression on their generation. And in "One Word More" Browning, speaking out of his own experience, refers to the intolerable burden of misunderstanding to which the modern poet is subject when once he has assumed the prophet's rÓle:
Wherefore? Heaven's gift takes earth's abatement!
He who smites the rock and spreads the water,
Bidding drink and live a crowd beneath him,
Even he, the minute makes immortal,
Proves, perchance, but mortal in the minute,
Desecrates, belike, the deed in doing.
While he smites, how can he but remember,
So he smote before, in such a peril,
When they stood and mocked-"Shall smiting help us?"
When they drank and sneered-"A stroke is easy!"
When they wiped their mouths and went their journey,
Throwing him for thanks — "But drought was pleasant."
Thus old memories mar the actual triumph;
Thus the doing savours of disrelish;
Thus achievement lacks a gracious somewhat;
O'er — importuned brows becloud the mandate,
Carelessness or consciousness, the gesture.
For he bears an ancient wrong about him,
Sees and knows again those phalanxed faces,
Hears, yet one time more, the 'customed prelude —
"How shouldst thou, of all men, smite and save us?"
Guesses what is like to prove the sequel —
"Egypt's flesh-pots-nay, the drought was better."
Oh, the crowd must have emphatic warrant!
Theirs, the Sinai-forehead's cloven brilliance,
Right-arm's rod-sweep, tongue's imperial fiat.
Never dares the man put off the prophet.
Browning's masterwork, The Ring and the Book, like Tennyson's Idylls of the King, draws together the principal [119/120] strands in its author's thinking and integrates them within a single grand design. Where Tennyson turned to legend, Browning characteristically found his theme in the court records of an old criminal trial. The case history of Count Guido Franceschini's murder of his wife, Pompilia, not only raised psychological problems which challenged the author's analytic habits of mind, but also offered a type of situation which could be counted on to hold the attention of an audience schooled to melodrama. The details of the affair were certainly sensational. Yet for all its violence and sordid malignancy, the case invited moralistic interpretation, since it involved within a religious framework all the familial relationshipsfilial piety, connubial faith, mother-love. And, indeed, " The Ring and the Book has continued to be cited as the final summation of those strenuous qualities of optimism and moral fervor which, according to the received notion, made Browning a representative Victorian.
If The Ring and the Book is reexamined in the light of what has been said in the foregoing pages, however, it may appear that this treatment of the conflict between good and evil in terms of domestic tragedy dramatizes certain concepts not altogether congenial to the age in which it was written. As is also true of Idylls of the King, The Ring and the Book needs to be approached on more than one level if its theme is to become fully evident. The reader who bothers to look below surface meanings finds opening up unexpected perspectives into the author's mind. For The Ring and the Book not only presents a full-scale vindication of Browning's intuitional psychology, it also embodies the author's moral and aesthetic philosophy.
Pompilia is the central figure among Browning's heroines. In common with Pippa she possesses the wisdom of the heart in its purest form. She is illiterate, and by heredity and environment the victim of every mischance. Her only defense against the world is the primitive faith which finds expression in natural goodness and a boundless capacity for love; but these qualities stand by her through all her fearful trials. Browning would persuade us that a corrupt social order is [120/121] solely responsible for Pompilia's misfortunes. The initial injustice is traced back to the circumstances of her birth as the by-product of a prostitute's struggle for survival. At successive periods she is victimized by Violante's snobbery, by Guido's greed, and by the rigid authoritarianism of church and state. She submits to the tyranny of each, because in her naÏveté she has accepted the world's assurance that parents, husbands, and social institutions have a care for the best interests of the individuals placed in their charge. In so doing she goes against her intuitions which tell her that she is at the mercy of hostile forces; and her ultimate revolt, when it comes, is an instinctive one motivated by a frantic determination to give her son the freedom she has never enjoyed.
Perhaps the most skillful stroke in Browning's portrayal of Pompilia is the way he suggests her intuitive reaction against the falsity of the social conventions under which she suffers. The girl's imagination operates through symbols, the significance of which is never explicit to her, although she feels and acts under their emotional drive. No other character in the poem has anything like her insights. Thus, for example, the memory of the church where she was married brings to her mind the marble lion in the street outside: "With half his body rushing from the wall,/ Eating the figure of a prostrate man." As a child she had always borne her offering to
the poor Virgin that I used to know
At our street-corner in a lonely niche, —
The babe, that sat upon her knees, broke of...
Thoughts of Caponsacchi and St. George go hand in hand because she had once seen the saint's exploit depicted in a tapestry. Her decision to flee from Guido's bondage, taken in the first blinding apprehension of pregnancy, is dramatized through a passage in which Pompilia unknowingly recreates the scene of the Annunciation as she must have known it from a hundred Renaissance paintings.
Pompilia is the only character in The Ring and the Book [121/122] whose actions are never (save for her escape from Arezzo) calculated in advance. Even the Pope and Caponsacchi pause to estimate the probable consequences of their conduct. Guido, of course, is all materialized body, as Pompilia is all etherealized spirit. He is the darkness to her light, the hate to her love, the craft to her guilelessness. [An interesting and important study might be made of light effects in Browning's work. The poet constantly calls on the painter's eye in composing his scenes. See the chapter on Gerard de Lairesse in W. C. DeVane's Browning's Parleyings; "The Autobiography of a Mind."] But all possible variants of their difference may be subsumed under the one enormous antithesis between conscious intellect and unconscious intuition. As we shall see, the evil in Guido does not derive from mere conformity with the ways of the world; its power is deeper and more enigmatic. Like lago, Guido deliberately exploits social usages which have no real meaning for him. He is the completely rational man; and by showing the lengths to which rationality, undirected by any altruistic motive, can go, Browning immeasurably strengthens his case against over-intellectualism. For Guido is incapable of any decisive action which has not first gone sour through delay. The campaign of spite incidental to getting rid of Pietro and Violante, the slow, relentless persecution of Pompilia, the involved maneuvers to entrap Caponsacchi in the plot are all characteristic of a man who has never been able to bring any undertaking to a conclusive issue, who has mismanaged his patrimony, trifled with religious orders, frittered away years of sycophantic time-serving in Rome. No court, Browning hints, would have convicted him had he murdered Pompilia and Caponsacchi in hot blood when he caught up with them at Castelnuovo. The stupid oversight as a result of which the assassins are apprehended before they can make good their escape is, we feel, a fittingly ironic commentary on Guido's want of imagination.
Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and the Pope share a lonely eminence, environed on every side by the outraged forces of social prejudice. Of the ten books which bear directly on the poem's action, four ("Giuseppe Caponsacchi," "Pompilia," "The Pope," and [122/123] "Guido") are most helpful in illuminating the truth as Browning perceived it. The other books call in for purposes of contrast a variety of conventionalized views of the affair. Since the persons who give their versions are, in fact, types representative of standard societal attitudes, the crime is made to take on far-reaching implications. Ultimately the problem expands to include the nature of the individual's responsibilities to the institutions on which any social order is based.
The three introductory monologues present the gossip about Guido's crime current in Roman society. The speaker in "Half-Rome" is a jealous husband who has reason to suspect a rival. He naturally takes Guido's side, and in so doing distorts the facts to reflect his own spiritual meanness. "The Other Half-Rome" comes to Pompilia's defense in a no less biased way. Here the narrator is a sentimentalist of the kind to be titillated by a "crime passionel." Taking for granted an adulterous passion between Pompilia and Caponsacchi, he endows their intrigue with all the elements of cloak-and-dagger romance played by stock characters. "Tertium Quid" adds cynical commentary from the mouth of a total worldling. The speaker is wholly detached, interested only in displaying his wit to a fashionable audience. He refuses to commit himself to any moral judgment, but rather makes a malicious game of sorting over all conceivable motives for the murder. The civilized man, he would have us understand, is a relativist who knows that right and wrong are never absolute, since they depend on the particular circumstances of a given situation. In these three books Browning is showing, in effect, that society is too much dominated by its own selfish interests ever to be able to adjudicate the actions of its individual members.
The books devoted to the arguments of the lawyers broaden Browning's social satire to include the institution of law which pretends to hold the scales of justice. Here the anti-social implications are still more prominent, for the two attorneys make a travesty of legal procedure. Hyacinthus resolves in his defense of Guido to uphold his client's conduct on the score of wounded honor. The trial, offering at best an [123/124] opportunity to exercise his talent for casuistry, seems rather a joke to him. While he prepares his brief, the concerns really uppermost in his mind are his small son, the purity of his Latin, malice against his rival, and the joys of the table. His celebration of natural man's reliance on instinct, although applied to Guido, is in actuality a vindication of Pompilia and Caponsacchi. In his self-admiring speech, Bottinius, the state prosecutor, juggles with logic and parades all the tricks of the rhetorician. His repeated insinuations of Pompilia's wantonness would be more appropriate in Guido's support. We are not surprised to learn in the last book that Bottinius has made a "volte-face" and is now getting ready to defame the girl's reputation, partly as a means of depriving her son of his inheritance, but more to assert the law's authority in an unjust cause. In these two books, then, it is Browning's intent to show that the machinery of social justice is as prejudiced as public opinion, and no more capable of distinguishing between right and wrong.
At the summit of the social hierarchy stand church and state; and in The Ring and the Book Browning's severest strictures are reserved for these ultimate seats of authority. The governor of Arezzo, concerned only to guarantee property and rank, delivers Pompilia back into her husband's hands when she throws herself on his mercy. And the central government in Florence condemns Pompilia in "absentia" and would unhesitatingly have exonerated Guido and his companions had they succeeded in escaping from papal territory. Even darker is Browning's portrayal of ecclesiastical administration in its abandonment to material self-interest. The archbishop to whom Pompilia despairingly appeals is the religious counterpart of the governor, and equally ready to sacrifice the individual to the system. Of him Pompilia says: "My heart died out at the Archbishop's smile;/ — It seemed so stale and worn a way o' the world." Even the Augustinian friar, although moved to pity by Pompilia's plight, is afraid to jeopardize his career by any overt action in her behalf. Caponsacchi's scornful comment on him is significant: "He fears God, why then needs he fear the world?" [124/125]
It is through the characters of Guido and the Pope, however, that Browning most fully develops the anti-social implications of his theme in The Ring and the Book. Although poles apart in other respects, the two are alike in three ways: both are thinkers rather than doers; both seek a rational basis for intuitive perceptions; and both are intellectually emancipated from social conventions. In his first monologue Guido cleverly exploits every vulgar prejudice that has found voice in the three preceding books. The inference is inescapable: if Guido's actions are to be judged by worldly standards, then he is innocent. Notice, for example, how shrewdly he translates the Marital relationship into terms calculated to discomfit his inquisitors:
Am I to teach my lords what marriage means,
What God ordains thereby and man fulfils
Who, docile to the dictate, treads the house?
My lords have chosen the happier part with Paul
And neither marry nor burn, — yet priestliness
Can find a parallel to the marriage-bond
In its own blessed special ordinance
Whereof indeed was marriage made the type:
The Church may show her insubordinate,
As marriage her refractory. How of the Monk
Who finds the claustral regimen too sharp
After the first month's essay? What's the mode
With the Deacon who supports indifferently
The rod o' the Bishop when he tastes its smart
Full four weeks? Do you straightway slacken hold
Of the innocents, the all-unwary ones
Who, eager to profess, mistook their mind?
Remit a fast-day's rigor to the Monk,
Who fancied Francis'manna meant roast quails, —
Concede the Deacon sweet society,
He never thought the Levite-rule renounced, —
Or rather prescribe short chain and sharp scourge
Corrective of such peccant humors? This —
I take to be the Church's mode, and mine. [125/126]
It is only in his second monologue that Guido, now shorn of hope, declares himself in his true colors and lets it be seen that he is in his way as little conformable to traditional codes of behavior as Pompilia. Perhaps part of the fascination which Browning found in the workings of the criminal mentality was their very oppugnancy to the hollow formalities of social intercourse. In any event, Guido in his farewell appearance arouses moral indignation of a kind hardly to be satisfied by the edict of any earthly tribunal. The reader is appalled to realize that this world should after all provide so fair a field for the exercise of man's infernal potentialities.
Just as, on the one side, Guido for all his intelligence possesses only the most rudimentary kind of social conscience, so, on the other, the Pope in his spirituality has passed through and beyond the limitations of convention. Thus, while the two characters stand apart from society, they look on it from opposite extremes. Guido makes capital of institutions; the Pope, deriving his authority from the greatest of all institutions, seeks the living reality within the outer shell. Guido treats the world as his friend, in order further to corrupt it to his own ends; the Pope repudiates the world, fearing its powers of corruption over himself.
The Pope voices Browning's conviction that men are to be judged not by their actions, but by the motives which generate those actions:
For I am 'ware it is the seed of act,
God holds appraising in his hollow palm,
Not act grown great thence on the world below,
Leafage and branchage, vulgar eyes admire.
The world, of course, values only appearances. Therefore, it is vain to try to make of society an agency for the moral discipline of its members: "What does the world, told truth, but lie the more?" Still, the world has its use as a spiritual point of reference; the degree of opposition or submission to its dictates is the measure of the soul's state of grace. Thus, the Pope, fully sensible of human fallibility, does not at first trust his intuitions in apportioning guilt to those who have [126/127] had a hand in Pompilia's death, but brings their conduct to the bar of Christian justice. When viewed in this light, Guido and his associates are seen to have misused their worldly privileges and thereby to have strengthened the existing powers of evil. Thanks to Guido's example, intrinsically noble ideals of conduct have been further degraded:
Honor and faith, — a lie and a disguise,
Probably for all livers in this world,
Certainly for himself!
As the Pope passes in review the characters who have persecuted Pompilia, he finds each guilty of a vice indicative of its possessor's rejection of spiritual salvation for material ends. Guido is perhaps the exception here, since his inborn capacity for hatred would have put him outside the pale of humanity under any circumstances. But all of the others bear the world's stigma in some characteristic form: ambition for Paul, lust for Girolamo, greed for the hired assassins, power for the archbishop. Social institutions, the Pope sorrowfully concludes, simply consolidate the selfish interests of the individuals on whom they depend:
Since all flesh is weak,
Bind weaknesses together, we get strength:
The individual weighed, found wanting, try
Some institution, honest artifice
Whereby the units grow compact and firm!
Each props the other, and so stand is made
For our embodied cowards that grow brave.
It is small wonder, then, that the Pope, now in his extreme old age and worn out in the search for truth, yearns for a better world where knowledge will be simply a matter of intuitive perception:
We men, in our degree, may know
There, simply, instantaneously, as here
After long time and amid many lies,
Whatever we dare think we know indeed...
At the end of his life the Pope's sympathy goes out to those in whom instinct and act are as one. For in unhesitating response to emotional impulse, as over against the devious processes of the intellect, he recognizes the token of God's immanence in human affairs. Caponsacchi is exonerated in the Pope's eyes because he acted "at an instinct of the natural man," and so revealed himself a true exemplar of "the chivalry/ That dares the right and disregards alike/ The yea and nay o' the world." It is Pompilia, however, who fully confirms the Pope's faith. In the naked simplicity of her feelings, in her yielding to the promptings of primitive instinct, he perceives the operation of a moral sense about which civilized society knows nothing. Her decision to fly from Guido bore witness to a higher fidelity than is due to conventional canons of behavior:
Thou at first prompting of what I call God,
And fools call Nature, didst hear, comprehend,
Accept the obligation laid on thee,
Mother elect, to save the unborn child . . .
Under the shadow of death the Pope pins his faith to a loving God, as revealed not through the intellectual traditions of the Church, but through the intuitions of an innocent victim of the Church's authority:
First of the first,
Such I pronounce Pompilia, then as now
Perfect in whiteness: stoop thou down, my child,
Give one good moment to the poor old Pope
Heart-sick at having all his world to blame —
Let me look at thee in the flesh as erst,
Let me enjoy the old clean linen garb,
Not the new splendid vesture! Armed and crowned,
Would Michael, yonder, be, nor crowned nor armed,
The less pre-eminent angel? Everywhere
I see in the world the intellect of man,
That sword, the energy his subtle spear,
The knowledge which defends him like a shield — [128/129]
Everywhere; but they make not up, I think,
The marvel of a soul like thine, earth's flower
She holds up to the softened gaze of God!
It was not given Pompilia to know much,
Speak much, to write a book, to move mankind,
Be memorized by who records my time.
Yet if in purity and patience, if
In faith held fast despite the plucking fiend,
Safe like the signet-stone with the new name
That saints are known by, — if in right returned
For wrong, most pardon for worst injury,
If there be any virtue, and praise,
Then will this woman-child have proved — who knows?
Just the one prize vouchsafed unworthy me,
Seven years a gardener of the untoward ground
I till, — this earth, my sweat and blood manure
All the long day that barrenly grows dusk:
At least one blossom makes me proud at eve
Born 'mid the briers of my enclosure!
Interest in the Pope's monologue as a lofty exposition of Browning's own philosophic optimism has tended to obscure the dramatic relevance of the grounds on which the old man finally judges Guido. After he has reached the end of his metaphysical speculations, a new voice is heard, advocating mercy. This is "the spirit of culture," ironically described as
a new tribunal now
Higher than God's — the educated man's!
Nice sense of honor in the human breast
Supersedes here the old coarse oracle...
Disguised in the Mephistophelean guise of cool and lucid reasonableness, worldly interest summons all its inducements in a final endeavor to undermine the Pope's confidence in the validity of his position. The assault comes from every side, and the logical inconsistency of many of the arguments is concealed by the cogency of their appeal to human weakness. Since Guido has taken minor orders, his acquittal is essential to preservation of the Church's prestige. To condemn [129/130] him would look like an attempt to cover up Caponsacchi's guilt, a blunder calculated to play straight into the hands of the Molinists. In tune with the absolutist drift of the times, intervention in Guido's behalf offers a fitting opportunity for the arbitrary assertion of papal power. The death of the criminals would jeopardize the very compacts which knit society together: the wife's obedience to her husband, the servant's fealty to his master. And so on. "Mercy is safe and graceful," says the voice of the world. And because the safe thing and the graceful thing spell damnation, the Pope in a final gesture of repudiation seizes pen and signs Guido's death-warrant:
Enough, for I may die this very night:
And how should I dare die, this man let live?
Pompilia completes the Pope as a speculative man, and in the same way she completes Caponsacchi as a man of action. In both cases she accomplishes this by releasing their intuitive being from the shackles of tradition and convention. On the evidence, there can be no doubt that Pompilia and Caponsacchi in Browning's conception loved each other. Their moment of recognition demonstrates the poet's doctrine of elective affinity. Guido's forged correspondence had prepared each to take the cheapest view of the other; but at the first meeting of their eyes and without the need for a spoken word, the two penetrate the deception. A flash of insight tells Caponsacchi that Pompilia could not possibly have written those "billets-doux":
. . . oh! I gave a passing glance
To a certain ugly cloud-shape, goblin-shred
Of hell-smoke hurrying past the splendid moon
Out now to tolerate no darkness more,
And saw right through the thing that tried to pass
For truth and solid, not an empty lie . . .
And Pompilia with equal certainty has taken measure of the priest: [130/131]
But now, that you stand and I see your face,
Though you have never uttered word yet, — well, I know,
Here too has been dream-work, delusion too,
And that at no time, you with the eyes here,
Ever intended to do wrong by me . . .
After this, the confederacy of Pompilia and Caponsacchi against the world is a foregone conclusion. In her time of need Caponsaccbi without a moment's hesitation brushes aside the proprieties, unmindful that his conduct in arranging Pompilia's escape is on the face of it a betrayal of his priestly function and of her wifely duties. At Castelnuovo it is not only Guido but all society with its outraged prejudices which comes between them. Thinking of Caponsacch's rustication at Civita, Pompilia cries: "do I once doubt/ The world again is holding us apart?" But although separated, each finds through the other courage to face his solitary fate. Henceforth the priest will go about his duties sustained by dreams of what might have been:
I do but play with an imagined life
Of who, unfettered by a vow, unblessed
By the higher call, — since you will have it so, —
Leads it companioned by the woman there.
And the dying Pompilia finds solace in the hope of meeting Caponsacchi in heaven, there to be joined with him in everlasting union.
The anti-social bias that is inseparable from Browning's ideal of romantic love emerges through the evolution of Caponsacchi's character after be has come under Pompilia's influence. Before this his career in the Church had promised well on the basis of accomplishments anything but spiritual. "The young frank personable priest" bad declared himself "earth's clear-accepted servitor." The Church had need for such sparkling young aristocrats in its fashionable forefront; and as long as he wore his vestments with dash and elegance, his superiors were ready to overlook the peccadilloes incidental to the rôle. When Caponsacchi exchanges play-acting [131/132] for the real thing, however, when the mistress becomes the runaway wife of a nobleman in minor orders, when the hand accustomed to twanging a lute and inditing a sonnet grips a sword, the situation takes on a very different complexion. To Pompilia's eyes Caponsacchi may seem the reembodiment of St. George, but the Renaissance Church found saintliness an inconvenient concept.
When called on by his examiners to explain his motive in befriending Pompilia, Caponsacchi champions the superiority of intuition over reason in as forthright a manner as the Pope:
"Thought?" nay, Sirs, what shall follow was not thought:
I have thought sometimes, and thought long and hard.
I have stood before, gone round a serious thing,
Tasked my whole mind to touch and clasp it close,
As I stretch forth my arm to touch this bar.
God and man, and what duty I owe both, —
I dare to say I have confronted these
In thought: but no such faculty helped here.
I put forth no thought,-powerless, all that night
I paced the city: it was the first Spring.
By the invasion I lay passive to,
In rushed new things, the old were rapt away;
Alike abolished-the imprisonment
Of the outside air, the inside weight o' the world
That pulled me down. Death meant, to spurn the ground,
Soar to the sky,-die well and you do that.
The very immolation made the bliss;
Death was the heart of life, and all the harm
My folly had crouched to avoid, now proved a veil
Hiding all gain my wisdom strove to grasp:
As if the intense centre of the flame
Should turn a heaven to that devoted fly
Which hitherto, sophist alike and sage,
Saint Thomas with his sober gray goose-quill,
And sinner Plato by Cephisian reed,
Would fain, pretending just the insect's good, [132/133]
Whisk off, drive back, consign to shade again.
Into another state, under new rule
I knew myself was passing swift and sure . . .
The "new rule" which the priest has accepted is, of course, that of man's instinctual nature. From Pompilia he has learned the heart's wisdom; and Browning wants us to realize that, having experienced the compulsion of love, he is at last qualified to do God's work. "Priests," says Caponsacchi, "should study passion; how else cure mankind,/ Who come for help in passionate extremes?" Whatever future awaits him in the way of ecclesiastical preferment, we may be sure that, awakened by Pompilia, he will never again subscribe to the comfortable forms of worldly religion. He conducts his defense in a spirit of fierce and belligerent individualism. The responsibility for Pompilia's tragic death he attributes directly to the organized forces of justice, which in their regard for the word rather than the spirit have disastrously bungled their God-given function. His furious indictment of officialdom for its blindness to truth evokes by inference Browning's own antipathy to social institutions:
But you were law and gospel, — would one please
Stand back, allow your faculty elbow-room?
You blind guides who must needs lead eyes that see!
Fools, alike ignorant of man and God!
The first and last books of The Ring and the Book discuss the circumstances under which the poem came to be written and the manner of its writing. Here Browning reveals with unusual explicitness his aesthetic theories. There is first the belief that the artist carries on his work under the express sanction of God. Thus, we are told "a Hand,/ Always above my shoulder" one day pointed out amid the bric-à-brac of a Florentine street-mart the Old Yellow Book in which the poet found his subject. The literal accuracy of the "ring" metaphor has been questioned, but the meaning which Browning meant to convey through its use is clear enough. The truth about Guido's murder of Pompilia reposed in the legal documents containing the details of the case, but was only to be deduced [133/134] through interpretation of the material by a mind endowed with imaginative insight. Describing how he ultimately penetrated the raw facts to the heart of their significance, the poet says:
I fused my live soul and that inert stuff,
Before attempting smithcraft,
with the result that "the life in me abolished the death of things." The inference here is unmistakable. The artist's attitude towards his subject-matter is highly subjective, depending on the private vision which the imagination sheds on the facts with which it works. Browning makes lofty claims for the inner urge from which the creative act originates:
Yet by a special gift, an art of arts,
More insight and more outsight and much more
> Will to use both of these than boast my mates,
I can detach from me, commission forth
Half of my soul. . .
At the same time he scrupulously traces the artist's special insights, not to any center of self-sufficiency in the individual being, but rather to the Creator of all being. Man is, properly speaking, incapable of creation; at best, he seeks to imitate the creative process as it occurs in God's mind, In so doing, he fulfills the supreme law of life — the aspiration to comprehend, however imperfectly, the divine purpose:
I find first
Writ down for very A B C of fact,
"In the beginning God made heaven and earth;"
From which, no matter with what lisp, I spell
And speak you out a consequence — that man,
Man, — as befits the made, the inferior thing, —
Purposed, since made, to grow, not make in turn,
Yet forced to try and make, else fail to grow, —
Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain
The good beyond him,-which attempt is growth, —
Repeats God's process in man's due degree,
Attaining man's proportionate result, — [134/135]
Creates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps.
Inalienable, the arch-prerogative
Which turns thought, act-conceives, expresses too!
Thus it is that Browning can call his poem his "due to God," since the artist's primary responsibility must be to the source of his inspiration.
As interpreter of God's will to humanity, however, the artist has a secondary responsibility to society. Near the end of the first book Browning addresses his Victorian readers as follows:
Such, British Public, ye who like me not,
(God love you!) — whom I yet have labored for,
Perchance more careful whoso runs may read
Than erst when all, it seemed, could read who ran,
Perchance more careless whoso reads may praise
Than late when he who praised and read and wrote
Was apt to find himself the selfsame me,
Such labor had such issue, so I wrought
This arc, by furtherance of such alloy,
And so, by one spirt, take away its trace
Till, justifiably golden, rounds my ring.
This is an important confession of the change that had taken place in the poet's concept of his relationship to his audience. He admits the importance to the artist of the communicative faculty. Having in his early work misestimated the capabilities of his readers, he has subsequently made a sincere attempt to capture their attention through writing more intelligibly. On the other hand, he categorically denies that he has courted a wider circle of readers out of any desire for popularity. He is willing to adapt his manner to the world's capacity, but his matter is in higher keeping.
With the body of the poem behind, Browning goes on in the concluding lines to develop the theory which he had previously sketched in "Fra Lippo Lippi." First he suggests that the true theme of The Ring and the Book is [135/136]
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
But since it ought to be obvious that ultimate truth is only apprehensible by intuitive means, "Why," he continues, "take the artistic way to prove so much?" The answer follows at once:
Because, it is the glory and the good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least.
The elaboration of the meaning contained in these lines leads the poet to acknowledge the double awareness as a condition of artistic expression. The creative impulse, originating as imaginative insight in the individual consciousness, imposes on the artist the obligation to find suitable forms for its embodiment, since the process of arousing men's deeper responses begins in an appeal to their superficial sympathies. The artist mediates between God and humanity; and his art, if truly inspired, in giving pleasure becomes at the same time a means of grace:
But Art, — where man nowise speaks to men,
Only to mankind, — Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.
So may you paint your picture, twice show truth,
Beyond mere imagery on the wall,
So, note by note, bring music from your mind,
Deeper than ever een Beethoven dived, —
So write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.
Last modified 2000