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Here is it that Mr. Browning parts company most decisively with all other poets who concern themselves exclusively with life-dramatic poets, as we call them; so that it seems almost necessary to invent some new term to define precisely his special attitude. And hence it is that in his drama thought plays comparatively so large, and action comparatively so small, a part; hence, that action is valued only in so far as it reveals thought or motive, not for its own sake, as the crown and flower of these. For his endeavor is not to set men in action for the pleasure of seeing them move; but to see and show, in their action and inaction alike, the real impulses of their being: to see how each soul conceives of itself.
The dramatic poet, in the ordinary sense, in the sense in which we apply it to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, aims at showing, by means of action, the development of character as it manifests itself to the world in deeds. His study is character, but it is character in action, considered only in connection with a particular grouping of events, and only so far as it produces or operates upon these. The processes are concealed from us, we see the result. We are told nothing, we care to know nothing, of what is going on in the thought; of the infinitely subtle meshes of motive or emotion which will perhaps find no direct outcome in speech, no direct manifestation in action, but by which the soul's life in reality subsists.
But is there no other sense in which a poet may be dramatic, besides this sense of the acting drama? no new form possible, which
“peradventure may outgrow
This new form of drama is the drama as we see it in Mr. Browning-a drama of the interior, a tragedy or comedy of the soul. Instead of a grouping of characters which shall act
* Aurora Leigh, Book Fifth.
on one another to produce a certain result in action, we have a grouping of events useful or important only as they influence the character or the mind. In this way, by making the soul the center of action, he is enabled (thinking himself into it, as all dramatists must do) to bring out its characteristics, to reveal its very nature.
This, then, is Mr. Browning's consistent mental attitude, and his special method. But he has also a special instrument—the monologue. The drama of action demands a concurrence of several distinct personalities, influencing one another rapidly by word or deed, so as to bring about the catastrophe; hence the propriety of the dialogue. But the introspective drama, in which the design is to represent and reveal the individual, requires a concentration of interest, a focusing of light on one point, to the exclusion or subordination of surroundings; hence the propriety of the monologue, in which a single speaker or thinker can consciously or unconsciously exhibit his own soul. Nearly all the lyrics, romances, idyls-nearly all the miscellaneous poems, long and short-are monologues.
The characteristic of which I have been speaking—the persistent care for the individual and personal, as distinguished from the universal and general-while it is the secret of his finest achievements, and rightly his special charm, is of all things the most alien to the ordinary conceptions of poetry, and the usual preferences for it. Compare, altogether apart from the worth and workmanship, one of Lord Tennyson's with one of Mr. Browning's best lyrics. The perfection of the former consists in the exquisite way in which it expresses feelings common to all. The perfection of the latter consists in the intensity of its expression of a single moment of passion or emotion; one peculiar to a single personality, and to that personality only at such a single moment. To appreciate it we must enter keenly and instantaneously into the imaginary character at its imagined crisis; and, even when this is easiest to do, it is evident that there must be more difficulty in doing it-for it requires a certain exertion—than in merely letting the mind lie at rest, accepting and absorbing.
Allied to Mr. Browning's originality in temper, topic, man. ner of treatment, and special form, is his originality in style. His style is vital; his verse moves to the throbbing of an inner organism, not to the pulsations of a machine. He prefers, as indeed all true poets do, but more exclusively than any other poet, sense to sound, thought to expression. In his desire of condensation he employs as few words as are consistent with the right expression of his thought; he rejects superlative adjectives and all stop-gap words. He refuses to use words for words' sake; he declines to interrupt conversation with a display of fireworks; and, as a result, it will be found that his fnest effects of versification correspond with his highest achievements in imagination and passion. As a dramatic poet he is obliged to modulate and moderate, sometimes even to vulgarize, his style and diction for the proper expression of some particular character, in whose mouth exquisite turns of phrase and delicate felicities of rhythm would be inappropriate. He will not let himself go in the way of easy floridity, as writers may whose themes are more ideal.” And where many writers would attempt merely to simplify and sweeten verse, he endeavors to give it fuller expressiveness, to give it strength and newness. It follows that Mr. Browning's verse is not so uniformly melodious as that of many other poets. But he is far, indeed, from paying no attention, or little, to meter and versification. In one very important matter, that of rhyme, he is perhaps the greatest master in our language; in single and double, in simple and grotesque alike, he succeeds in fitting rhyme to rhyme with a perfection which I have never found in any other poet of any age. His lyrical poems contain more structural varieties of form than those of any preceding English poet, not excepting Shelley. His blank verse at its best is of higher quality-taking it for what it is, dramatic blank verse-than that of any modern poet. And both in rhymed and in blank verse he has written passages which for almost every quality of verse are hardly to be surpassed in the language.
That there is some excuse for the charge of “ obscurity” so often brought against Mr. Browning, no one would or could deny. But it is only the excuse of a misconception. Mr. Browning is a thinker of extraordinary depth and subtlety; his themes are seldom superficial, often very remote, and his thought is, moreover, as swift as it is subtle. To a dull reader there is little difference between cloudy and fiery thought; the one is as much too bright for him as the other is too dense. Of all thinkers in poetry, Mr. Browning is the most swift and fiery. Moreover, while a writer who deals with easy themes has no excuse if he is not pellucid to a glance, one who employs his intellect and imagination on high and hard questions has a right to demand a corresponding closeness of attention.
When Mr. Browning was a mere boy, it is recorded that he debated within himself whether he should not become a painter or a musician as well as a poet. Finally, though not, I believe, for a good many years, he decided in the negative. But the latent qualities of painter and musician have devel. oped themselves in his poetry, and much of his finest and very much of his most original verse is that which speaks the language of painter and musician as it had never before been spoken. No English poet before him has ever excelled his utterances on music, none has so much as rivaled his utterances on art. In his poems on the sister arts of painting and sculpture-not in themselves more perfect in sympathy, though far greater in number, than those on music—he is simply the first to write of these arts as an artist might, if he could express his soul in words or rhythm.
It is only natural that a poet with the instincts of a painter should be capable of superb landscape painting in verse; and we find in Mr. Browning this power. It is further evident that such a poet-a man who has chosen poetry instead of painting—must consider the latter art subordinate to the former, and it is only natural that we should find Mr. Browning subordinating the pictorial to the poetic capacity, and this more carefully than most other poets. His best landscapes are as brief as they are brilliant. They are as saber-strokes, swift, sudden, flashing the light from their sweep, and striking straight to the heart. And they are never pushed into prominence for an effect of ideal beauty, nor strewn about in the way of thoughtful or passionate utterance, like roses in a runner's path. They are subordinated always to the human interest; blended, fused with it, so that a landscape in a poem of Mr. Browning's is literally a part of the emotion.
Of all poets Mr. Browning is the healthiest and manliest. His genius is robust with vigorous blood, and his tone has the cheeriness of intellectual health. The most subtle of minds, his is the least sickly. The wind that blows in his pages is no hot or languorous breeze, laden with scents and sweets, but a fresh salt wind blowing in from the sea. The keynote of his philosophy is:
“God's in his heaven,
He has such a hopefulness of belief in human nature that he shrinks from no man, however clothed and cloaked in evil, however miry with stumblings and fallings. This vivid hope and trust in man is bound up with a strong and strenuous faith in God. Mr. Browning's Christianity is wider than our creeds, and is all the more vitally Christian in that it never sinks into pietism. He is never didactic, but his faith is the root of his art, and transforms and transfigures it. Yet as a dramatic poet he is so impartial, and can express all creeds with so easy an interpretative accent, that it is possible to prove him (as Shakespeare has been proved) a believer in everything and a disbeliever in anything.
Condensed from “ Introduction to Study of Browning" by Arthur Symons.