« PreviousContinue »
rest of what we call the fine arts revolve, receiving light and warmth. He should consider that only they whose understandings are superior to and include that of the artist can criticize his work by intuition. He should feel that his duty is to follow his author, and not to guide him. Above all, he should consider that the effort which the
author has made to please the world was very likely not intended as a personal insult to be indignantly resented, but should make an attempt to read the book he is about to pronounce judgment upon, and that, too, with a civil attention.
The difference between a true poet and a mere rhymer is not one of degree, but of kind. It is as great as that between the inventor and the mechanician. The latter can make all the several parts of the machine, and adapt them to each other with a polished nicety. The idea once given, he can always reproduce the complete engine. The product of his labor is the highest finish of which brass and steel are capable, but it remains a dead body of metal still. The inventor alone can furnish these strong, weariless limbs with a soul. In his creative intellect resides the spirit of life which shall inspire this earthborn Titan, which shall set him at work in the forge and the mill
, and compel him to toil side by side in friendly concert with the forces of nature. There, in the dark, patiently delves the hundred-handed Pyrophagus, and it is this primal breath of the master's spirit which for ever gives motion and intelligence to that iron brain and those nerves of steel.
The first thing that we have to demand of a poet is, that his verses be really alive. Life we look for first, and growth as its necessary consequence and indicator. And it must be an original, not a parasitic life, -- a life capable of reproduction. There will be harnacles which glue themselves fast to every intellectual movement of the world, and seem to possess in themselves that power of motion which they truly diminish in that which sustains them and bears them along. But there are also unseen winds which fill the sails, and stars by which the courses are set. The oak, which lies in the good ship's side an inert mass, still lives in the green progeny of its chance-dropped acorns. The same gale which bends the creaking mast of pine sings through the tossing hair of its thousand sons in the far inland. The tree of the mechanic bears only wooden acorns.
Is Robert Browning, then, a poet ? Our knowledge of him can date back seven years, and an immortality which has withstood the manifold changes of so long a period can be, as immortalities go, no mushroom. How many wooden gods have we seen during that period transformed into choppingblocks, or kindled into unwilling and sputtering sacrificial fires upon the altars of other deities as ligneous as themselves! We got our first knowledge of him from two verses of his which we saw quoted in a newspaper, and from that moment took him for granted as a new poet. Since then we have watched him with a constantly deepening interest. Much that seemed obscure and formless in his earlier productions has been interpreted by his later ones. Taken by itself, it might remain obscure and formless still, but it becomes clear and assumes definite shape when considered as only a part of a yet unfinished whole. We perceive running through and knitting together all his poems the homogeneous spirit, gradually becoming assured of itself, of an original mind. We know not what higher praise to bestow on him than to say that his latest poems are his best.
His earlier poems we shall rather choose to consider as parts and illustrations of his poetic life than as poems. We find here the consciousness of wings, the heaven grasped and measured by the aspiring eye, but no sustained flight as yet. These are the poet's justifications of himself to himself, while he was brooding over greater designs. They are the rounds of the ladder by which he has climbed, and more interesting for the direction they indicate than from any intrinsic worth. We would not be considered as undervaluing them. Had he written nothing else, we should allow them as heights attained, and not as mere indications of upward progress. We shall hope presently to show by some extracts, that they are not simply limbs, but are endowed with a genuine and vigorous individual life. But Mr. Browning can afford to do without them. And if he has not yet fully expressed himself, if we can as yet see only the lower half of the statue, we can in some measure foretell the whole. We can partly judge whether there is likely to be in it the simplicity and comprehensiveness, the poise, which indicates the true artist. At least, we will not judge it by its base, however the sculptor's fancy may have wreathed it with graceful or grotesque arabesques, to render it the worthy footstool of his crowning work. Above all, let us divest ourselves of the peity influences of contemporaneousness, and look at it as if it were just unburied from the embalming lava of Pompeii. Is the eye of the critic so constituted, that it can see only when turned backward ?
Mr. Browning's first published poem was Paracelsus. This was followed by Strafford, a Tragedy, of which we know only that it was “acted at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. We do not need it in order to get a distinct view of his steady poetical growth. Next comes Sordello, a Poem; and the list is completed by Bells and Pomegranates, a series of lyrical and dramatic poems published at intervals during the last six years. Were we to estimate Paracelsus and Sordello separately and externally as individual poems, without taking into consideration their antecedent or consequent internal relations, we should hardly do justice to the
Viewed by itself, Sordello would incline us to think that Mr. Browning had lost in simplicity, clearness, and directness of aim, in compactness and decision of form, and in unity of effect. We may as well say bluntly, that it is totally incomprehensible as a connected 'whole. It reminds one of Coleridge's epigram on his own Ancient Mariner :
" Your poem must eternal be,
Dear Sir, it cannot fail ;
And without head or tail." It presents itself to us, at first view, as a mere nebulosity, triumphantly defying the eye to concentrate itself on any one point. But if we consider it intently, as possibly having some definite relation to the author's poetic life, we begin to perceive a luminous heart in the midst of the misty whirl, and, indeed, as a natural consequence of it. By dint of patient watchfulness through such telescope as we possess, we have even thought that it might not be wholly incapable of resolution as a system by itself. It is crowded full of images, many of them truly grand. Here and there it opens cloudily, and reveals glimpses of profound thought and conception of character. The sketch of Taurello, the Italian captain of the Middle Ages, drawn rapidly, as with a bit of charcoal on a rough wall, is masterly. Perhaps we should define what is in itself indefinable as well as may be, if we say that we find in Sordello the materials of a drama, proVOL. LXVI. — NO. 139.
fuse, but as yet in formless solution, not crystallized firmly round the thread of any precise plot, but capable of it. We will say that it was a fine poem before the author wrote it. In reading it, we have seemed to ourselves to be rambling along some wooded ridge in the tropics. Here gigantic vines clamber at random, hanging strange trees with clusters that seem dipped in and dripping with the sluggish sunshine. Here we break our way through a matted jungle, where, nevertheless, we stumble over giant cactuses in bloom, lolling delighted in the sultry air. Now and then a gap gives us a glimpse of some ravishing distance, with a purple mountainpeak or two, and all the while clouds float over our heads, gorgeous and lurid, which we may consider as whales or camels, just as our Polonian fancy chooses.
A book is often termed obscure and unintelligible by a kind of mental hypallage, which exchanges the cases of the critic and the thing criticized. But we honestly believe that Sordello is enveloped in mists, of whose begetting we are quite guiltless. It may have a meaning, but, as the logicians say, a posse ad esse non valet argumentum. Or the meaning may be in the same category with those flitting islands of the Canary group, which vanished as soon as seen, and of which stout Sir John Hawkins says mournfully, that “ it should seem he was not yet born to whom God hath appointed the finding of them.” Obscurity is a luxury in which no young author has a right to indulge himself. We allow writers of established reputations to tax our brains to a limited extent, because we expect to find something, and feel a little natural delicacy about confessing that we come back from the search without a mare's egg or so, at the very least. Then, too, there are some writers whose obscurity seems to be their chief merit. Of these, some of the Persian religious poets, and, above all, the “ later Platonists,” may serve as examples. These have a title by prescription to every imaginable form of obfuscation. When we hear that any one has retired into obscurity, we can fancy him plunging into the speculations of these useful men. Before we had seen the Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum, we took it for granted as a collection of their correspondence, though we found it hard to conceive of any contemporary class of persons who corresponded with them in the smallest particular.
We do not by any means join in the vulgar demand, that
authors should write down to the average understanding ; because we have faith that this understanding is becoming equal to higher and higher tasks from year to year. Nor should we be thankful for that simplicity which many inculcate, and by which they mean that an author should be as artificial and as Alat as he can. The simplicity of one age can never be that of the next. That which was natural to Homer would be a mechanical contrivance now. Our age is eminently introspective. It is continually asking itself (with no very satisfactory result), Whence ? and Whither ? and though seven cities quarrelled over one limb of this problem after Homer's death, it is hardly probable that he ever asked himself the question, whence he came, or whither he was going, in the whole course of his life. Our poets do not sing to an audience who can neither read nor write. The
persons for their verses are not a half-dozen of petty kings, who would not (as the boys say) know B from a bull's foot, and the polish of whose courts would be pretty well paralleled in that of his present Gracious Majesty of Ashantee. The law of demand and supply rules everywhere, and we doubt not that Apollo composed bucolics in words of one syllable for the edification of his serene dunceship Admetus. His sheep (a less critical audience) may have heard grander music, of which Orpheus perhaps caught echoes among the hills. We cannot have back the simplicity of the song without the simplicity of the age to which it was addressed. Our friend Jinks, who is so clamorous for it, must wear raw bull's-hide, or that still less expensive undress of Sir Richard Blackmore's Pict. The reading public cannot have its cake and eat it too, still less can it have the cake which it ate two thousand years ago. Moreover, we are not Greeks, but Goths; and the original blood is still so vivacious in our veins, that our rustic architects, though admitting, as a matter of pure æsthetics, that all modern meeting-houses should be exact Grecian temples or tombs (steeple and all), will yet contrive to smuggle a pointed window somewhere into the back of the building, or the belfry.
Having glanced confusedly at Sordello, as far as it concerns ourselves, let us try if we can discover that it has any more distinct relation to the author. And here we ought naturally to take it in connection with Paracelsus. From this point of view, a natural perspective seems to arrange itself, ,