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I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole I get my deserts and something over-not a crowd, but a few I value more.—Robert Browning to W. G. Kingsland.
Browning, when, in poem or drama, he puts forth his peculiar power, when he writes with the motive which gives his work its singular value, is always dramatic. Whether he is so of purpose I shall not venture to say; but the seeming of his poetry is that it takes its shape from a necessity of his moral nature, not from deliberate intellectual preference. He never seems to be telling us what he thinks or feels; but he puts before us some man,-male or female,—whose individuality soon becomes as clear and as absolute as our own; and that man pours his heart and soul out before us in words which are a part of him, utterly careless of what we think of the life whose hidden motives are thus laid bare to censure. The poet does not appear; indeed so wholly is he merged in the creature of his own will that, as we hear that creature speak, his creator is, for the time, quite forgotten. This is the perfection of dramatic power. It has been shown with this high absoluteness in English poetry by but two men, one of whom is Browning.–Richard Grant White.
Man here on earth, according to the central and controlling thought of Mr. Browning, man here in a state of preparation for other lives, and surrounded by wondrous spiritual influences, is too great for the sphere that contains him, while, at the same time, he can exist only by submitting for the present to the conditions it imposes; never without fatal loss becoming content with submission, or regarding his present state as perfect or final. Our nature here is unfinished, imperfect, but its glory, its peculiarity, that which makes us men—not God, and not brutes—lies precisely in this character of imperfection, giving scope as it does for indefinite growth and progress.
“ Progress, man's distinctive mark alone, not God's, and not the beasts'; God is, they are, man partly is, and wholly hopes to be.”
With Mr. Browning the moments are most glorious in which the obscure tendency of many years has been revealed by the lightning of sudden passion, or in which a resolution that changes the current of life has been taken in reliance upon that insight which vivid emotion bestows; and those periods of our history are charged most fully with moral purpose which take their direction from moments such as these.—Edward Dowden.
If there is any great quality more perceptible than another in Mr. Browning's intellect, it is his decisive and incisive faculty of thought, his sureness and intensity of perception, his rapid and trenchant resolution of aim. To charge him with obscurity is about as accurate as to call Lynceus purblind, or complain of the sluggish action of the telegraphic wire. He is something too much the reverse of obscure; he is too brilliant and subtle for the ready reader of a ready writer to follow with any certainty the track of intelligence which moves with such incessant rapidity. essence of Mr. Browning's aim and method, as exhibited in the ripest fruits of his intelligence, is such as implies above all other things the possession of a quality the very reverse of obscurity-a faculty of spiritual illumination rapid and intense and subtle as lightning, which brings to bear upon its central object by way of direct and vivid illustration every symbol and detail on which its light is flashed in passing.– A. C. Swinburne.
SAUL AND OTHER POEMS
SAID Abner, “At last thou art come! Ere I tell, ere thou
speak, Kiss my cheek, wish me well!” Then I wished it, and did
kiss his cheek. And he, “ Since the king, O my friend, for thy countenance
sent, Neither drunken nor eaten have we; nor until from his tent Thou return with the joyful assurance the King liveth yet, Shall our lip with the honey be bright, with the water be wet.
6 For out of the black mid-tent's silence, a space of three days, Not a sound hath escaped to thy servants, of prayer nor of
praise, * The first nine sections of Saul were printed in the seventh number of Bells and Pomegranates in 1845. The concluding stanzas were written in the winter of 1853–54, and the poem as enlarged was published in Men and Women, 1855.
The poem is based on 1 Sam. xvi. 14-23, where Saul is roused to consciousness and sanity by the music of David. This music is represented as “having three series of rising motives: first, tunes used to the brutes, sheep, quail, crickets, jerboa ; second, the help-tunes of great epochs in human life,--reapers, burial, marriage, soldiers, priests; third, the songs of human aspirations, wild joys of living, fame crowning ambition and noble deeds, praise of unborn generations, the next world's reward and repose," but it is not until the culmination, the assurance of the God-love, which is the Christ, that the king is roused from his lethargy. “Saul is a magnificent interpretation of the old theme, a favorite with the mystics, that evil spirits are driven out by music. But in this interpretation it is not the mere tones, the thrumming on the harp, it is the religious movement of the intelligence, it is the truth of Divine love throbbing in every chord, which constitutes the spell.”—Corson.
1. Abner. A Jewish general, Saul's cousin and friend.
To betoken that Saul and the Spirit have ended their strife, And that, faint in his triumph, the inonarch sinks back upon
“ Yet now my heart leaps, O beloved! God's child with his
dew On thy gracious gold hair, and those lilies still living and
blue Just broken to twine round thy harp-strings, as if no wild
heat Were now raging to torture the desert!”
Then I, as was meet, Knelt down to the God of my fathers, and rose on my feet, And ran o'er the sand burnt to powder. The tent was unlooped;
16 I pulled up the spear that obstructed, and under I stooped; Hands and knees on the slippery grass-patch, all withered
That extends to the second inclosure, I groped my way on Till I felt where the foldskirts fly open. Then once more
I prayed, And opened the foldskirts and entered, and was not afraid But spoke, “ Here is David, thy servant!” And no voice
replied. At the first I saw naught but the blackness; but soon I
descried A something more black than the blackness—the vast, the
upright Main prop which sustains the pavilion: and slow into sight Grew a figure against it, gigantic and blackest of all. 26 Then a sunbeam, that burst thro' the tent roof, showed Saul.
9. Spirit. Melancholy and insanity were anciently attributed to evil spirits, which took possession of the afflicted persons.
He stood as erect as that tent-prop, both arms stretched out
wide On the great cross-support in the center, that goes to each
side; He relaxed not a muscle, but hung there as, caught in his pangs
30 And waiting his change, the king serpent all heavily hangs, Far away from his kind, in the pine, till deliverance come With the spring-time,-so agonized Saul, drear and stark,
blind and dumb.
Then I tuned my harp,—took off the lilies we twine round
its chords Lest they snap 'neath the stress of the noontide—those sunbeams like swords!
35 And I first played the tune all our sheep know, as, one after
one, So docile they come to the pen-door till folding be done. They are white and untorn by the bushes, for lo, they have
fed Where the long grasses stifle the water within the stream's
bed; And now one after one seeks its lodging, as star follows star
40 Into eve and the blue far above us,-so blue and so far!
-Then the tune, for which quails on the cornland will each
leave his mate To fly after the player; then, what makes the crickets elate Till for boldness they fight one another: and then, what has
33. Drear (AS. dreorig, sad). Dreary, cheerless. Stark (AS. Stearc, stiff). Rigid.