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lustrate one moral, you cannot press it into the service of the opposite moral (there always is an opposite moral) without a certain awkwardness. Browning's characteristic subtlety leads him to take pleasure in discovering such unexpected aspects of an apparently plain situation. When he tells the story of Clive's early duel, for example, we ordinary readers are quite content with the obvious view. When the officer whom he has accused of cheating holds a pistol to his breast, and he repeats the accusation, he has shown courage enough. He might have confessed without shame to having been afraid, even without appealing to the dictum of Charles XII., that every hero has known fear who has snuffed a candle with his fingers. But Browning's Clive is not content. What frightened him, as he explained, was not the risk of a bullet through his heart, but the possibility that his opponent might have spared him, saying "Keep your life, calumniator!" Then he would have been disgraced, and had no course except to use his pistol on himself. The story is most impressively told, but it is hard to imagine this ingenious refinement could have occurred to Clive at the time. It is another illustration of Browning's characteristic love of seeing a story at some odd angle. The flash of intuitive perception may sometimes appear to reveal truth overlooked by the conventional; but it also sometimes suggests to the prosaic that even morality wants a little guidance by common sense. One of Browning's undeniable triumphs is the "Old Grammarian.” Considered as an illustration of the period of the spirit of the student's "soul, hydroptic with a sacred thirst" -it is inimitable. "That low man," says Browning,
That low man seeks a little thing to do, Sees it and does it;
That high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
Professor Maitland has lately applied these noble verses with singular felicity to Lord Acton. Clearly the "high man" is worthy of all respect; and yet one cannot help asking, does not the "low man" make the right choice? No doubt the tragedy of the high man "settling the doctrine of the enclitic De, dead from the waist down," is pathetic; and we admire his wasted heroism. But was it not wasted? Browning's judgment is not explicitly stated, but the Grammarian is justified to his disciples that he "left Now for dogs and apes," whereas "Man has for ever." Possibly, but after all even the best of us have to live in time, and it does not seem quite clear that we shall find opportunity in another world for completing our theory of the enclitic De. Life is limited, and vulgar-minded people like myself will hold that it is possible to have too much even of romantic heroism. A man, no doubt, as Rabbi Ben Ezra remarks, is not to be judged by the "vulgar mass called Work"-by his tangible achievements, but by the intrinsic qualities which he has developed. But that may be held consistently with the belief that the development should be governed by directing one's energies to the feasible.
Browning's heroes are equally interesting poetically, whatever view we may take of such points. There is another direction in which he stirs some more difficult problems. One of them is touched in the curious poem called "The Statue and the Bust." The lady means to leave her husband for the duke, but the lovers go on postponing their design till months grow into years, and both perceive that they have been dreaming their lives away. The reader is supposed to urge that they were at least right in not carrying out the criminal intention. Browning re
plies that a crime will serve for a text as well as a virtue "golden through and through." If you choose to play a game, you should fight for the prize to the uttermost. The sin he imputes to each frustrate ghost:
Is the unlit lamp, and the ungirt loin, Though the end in sight was sin, I say;
You of the virtue (we issue join)
How strive you? De te fabula!
That raises the question whether a resolute is not to be preferred to an irresolute sinner. In the supposed case, the hesitation is not due to conscientious scruples, but to simple weakness of character. One bad quality happens This to be antagonistic to another. illustrates the difficulty of judging action by an absolute and abstract rule when a complete judgment involves an estimate of the whole implication as to character. A man acts rightly, as the ordinary observer will say, when he does not break one of the ten commandments. But in the complexity of human life he may have bad motives for externally good conduct. He is saved from committing murder simply by fear of the gallows. Perhaps, then, he is only a greater coward, not a less malevolent person, than an actual murderer. The actors in this case are withheld by feebleness of will from breaking the seventh commandment. Are we to condemn or approve? The answer cannot be given in one word. The solution to which Browning would seem to lean is that energy is the fundamental quality. It may, no doubt, stimulate to the most outrageous crimes. The murderer, the tyrant, the reckless sensualist may show energy by breaking all laws human and divine. Still, they come under the principle which underlies the maxim, "the greater the sinner, the greater the saint." They are at least of the raw material of which heroes can be made.
It is the undecided Mr. Facing-bothways whose case is really hopeless. The irresolute become hateful both to God and them his enemies, and of nothing can be made. They are too brittle to be shaped into a satisfactory vessel by the potter's wheel, and must be thrown on the rubbish heap. We must admit, then, that obedience to the established code does not give a satisfactory test of virtue. We must go beyond that fact to consider whether conduct which appears to be immoral should not be rather described as imperfect. Morality is in this sense "relative." The judgment must take into account the individual's stage of development and the surroundings in which he is placed. An Achilles who behaved to-day as he behaved in the Siege of Troy would be a simple ruffian; and yet the hero may have been in the line of furthest advance towards a higher moral type. We may admire qualities in the heroic age which would be extremely awkward in a modern drawing-room, because after all they represent stages in the development of the chivalrous gentleman.
The theory is of course familiar to a generation which has got "evolution" on the brain. With some allied problems, it appears in Browning in a shape which suggests a whole series of intricate dissertations. In the genuine poetry he is content to embody impressive types of character in the most concentrated form, and leaves it to the reader to solve the resulting problems of casuistry. In the later or extrapoetical works, we have an elaborate exposition of the casuistry itself. Then the sentences draw out in telescope fashion as each phrase suggests some new thought, and parentheses are placed into the middle of them, or a quotation is introduced from a hypothetical speaker who introduces into that again a quotation from yet another person; and connecting words are
ruthlessly struck out and verses made
to cohere by simply jamming them together by main force and padlocking them by a quaint rhyme; and we cannot tell who is the speaker, Browning himself or one of the interlocutors, or whether he is speaking seriously or ironically; and we are carried off upon what is meant for an illustration which gradually diverges from the statement meant to be illustrated, and has to be corrected by another equally recalcitrant. One must suppose that Browning more or less kept his head in this distracting whirl of argument and illustration; but I, at least, must confess that I am often hopelessly bogged, and that the commentators do not always extricate me completely. What I seem to perceive is the general nature of some of the perplexities through which one has to wander. One at least is that of which I have been speaking. Browning, as Mr. Stopford Brooke says, is clearly an optimist. Life means a struggle, but never suggests despair. He never whines or pronounces happiness to be a dream, and the universe to be a thoroughly unsatisfactory arrangement of which we can hope at least that it may be all illusion. He is not tormented by Tennyson's misgiving that men of science may some day prove that there is no God, and therefore no basis for morality or any worthy aim for living at all. He holds always that evil not good is transitory and illusory. Still, he admits of course that there is a mystery, and it comes before him in another shape. The mixture of evil and good in the human heart, he says in "A Story of Pornic," "is a marvel and a curse." "Essays and Reviews" have inclined the candid to surmise that the Christian faith may be false. He sees reasons for supposing it true, and especially that it was the faith which launched its dart point-blank at the heart of a lie by teaching "original
sin," and "the corruption of man's heart." Huxley, we may remember, said something to the same effect. To say so is to admit the essential difficulty. How are we to reconcile "optimism" with the belief in the essential vileness of mankind? Pope long ago taught that if plague and earthquake did not break heaven's design, neither would a Borgia or a Catiline. But his conclusion that whatever is is right has been generally taken as a rather hollow answer to the difficulty. It constantly meets Browning in various poems. Paracelsus in his last moments sees that if he had truly loved, he would have known that "even hate is but a mask of love's," and would have seen good in evil, and hope in ill-success. Sordello, under the same circumstances, reflects that evil is not less natural than good, and even that it is necessary to the existence of good. He perceives that "Ill and Well, Sorrow and Joy, Beauty and Ugliness, Virtue and Vice, the Larger and the Less," may be "but modes of time," and have "no force to bind eternity." I do not consider this to be particularly clear. Sordello is being driven to the mystical; and Browning, if I understand him rightly, considers the position to be dangerous. If, indeed, we could see the universe as a whole, we might perceive that evil exists only in appearance. But to perceive or to utter our perception we must be more than human. Abt Vogler gives the musical analogy which is characteristically Browning's favorite. Others are welcome to reason, "'tis we musicians know"; rather, we would say, feel without knowing. Abt Vogler finds the C Major of this life (I don't know what a C Major is), which implies that the discords are in reality essential to the universal harmony. We must, however, for the present, accept our limitations. We cannot grasp the whole or rise to the transcendental region from
which the good of evil could be understood. There are obvious practical objections to such an application, and Browning is quite determined to keep his footing on the solid earth of actual facts and moral rules. What remains, however, is a tendency to discover that even the wicked have their place in the general order, and that sin is rather negative than positive, or implies a partial view of truth rather than a positive error.
It is, in fact, when Browning gets into speculations of this kind that he is led into those singular disquisitions where the poetry, though it never quite disappears, becomes subordinate. The problem what is the good of evil-if we are audacious enough to attempt a solution-can only be attacked in the remote transcendental regions where we soar, or fancy that we soar, altogether above the atmosphere of solid experience. Even then the answer cannot be given in logical terms, though the existence of an answer is somehow indicated by the musical analogy. We do not get an answer, but are recommended to a frame of mind. But it suggests another set of questions less impracticable and belonging to Browning's psychological domain. We may perceive that the lower nature, instead of being purely bad, represents a moment essential to the development of the higher; that even the bad man may be unconsciously or reluctantly an ally of the virtuous; and therefore that there is something to be learnt by cross-examining him, and finding out what is his own view of the case. That apparently is the line of reflection which takes Browning into some of the singular performances in which he gets furthest from the legitimate region of the poetical. "Caliban upon Setebos" embodies the first dim stirrings of the semi-brutal creature, whose crude anthropomorphism yet suggests that he is becoming vaguely
alive to speculations which will grow into higher forms of creed. Caliban, however, is so concrete a personage that he can be presented as dramatiIcally as his original without the help of dialectical disquisition. Bishop Blougram, who is nearly at the other end of the scale, represents the difficulty for even the cultured intellect of quite shaking off the surviving traces of the Caliban creed. He has to compromise and to defend himself for practising "economy," or the adulteration of truth by a considerable admixture of falsehood. He is becoming, perhaps, a little too discursive, but is still so impressive dramatically that we can hardly condemn the method. "Sludge, the Medium," takes us into more questionable ground. The poem, if it can be called a poem, is, as Tennyson said, “an example of exceeding ingenuity of mind," but, as Tennyson undeniably added, it is too long by twothirds. The trickery of mere vulgar impostors is not worth such elaborate analysis; and we grow tired, spite of all the ingenuity, of forcing so wretched a vermin to bolt out of such a series of dirty holes and corners. Browning's personal motives probably gave him excessive enjoyment of this rather ignoble variety of sport. But it is in the works which succeeded the "Ring and the Book" that his singular fascination by this class of problems leads to the strangest performances. What, he asks, is to be said for Aristophanes, for the highest literary genius condescending to gross ribaldry and cynicism? That can only be done, it seems, by giving an "excursus" in a history of the Greek drama, in which the poet and the straightforward literary historian seem to be always tripping each other up. Then there is the case of Louis Napoleon-swarming, no doubt, with interesting problems both for the politician and the psychologist; of the opportunism which listens alternately
to the sagacity of slow expediency and the promptings of really high purpose; and of the hypocrisy of a man who really means well, though he has to break the most obvious moral laws. The difficulty of knowing whether Browning is speaking for himself or speaking for the actual Napoleon or for a kind of potential Napoleon, who might have hit upon some of the pretexts put forward, becomes so great that most readers have to give up the task in despair. In "Red Cotton Night Cap Country," besides Browning's interest in all abnormal (in this case, surely lunatic) psychology, the problem is raised as to the proper judgment upon a display of good instincts hopelessly blinded by gross superstition. The most remarkable illustration, however, of Browning's interests and methods is in the singular "Fifine at the Fair." The full interpretation of that and the other works I have mentioned must be left to the zealous commentator, who finds edifying lessons throughout, and prefers, it seems, to have to dig for edification through tortuous labyrinths of argument and allegory. I only take it as exhibiting its author's peculiarities most forcibly. "Fifine," it seems, was meant by Browning for a discussion of the problem-what excuse can a Don Juan make for himself? The motto is taken from Molière, who in the "Festin de Pierre" gives a very simple reply. Don Juan, according to him, does not make any excuses at all. He is simply a sensualist, who takes pleasure as he can get it, and does not happen to be troubled with any such thing as a conscience. That is naturally unsatisfactory to Browning. A simple sinner, who will not spin a web of casuistical sophistry, has not taken a proper advantage of his opportunities. He ought to have speculated; and if he has not, Browning will do it for him. The sophistry, moreover, has to be made poetical, and
therefore stated in concrete terms. The professor of casuistry would argue in syllogisms to bring out as clearly as may be the abstract logical formula. To give to the reasoning a semblance of poetry, the argument must be translated into imagery, the general principle must be "immersed in circumstances," or some analogy must be found in simple sensible objects. Án ordinary poet may be content with a simple metaphor to drive his meaning home. But with Browning the metaphor is pregnant with reasoning which expands it into an allegory. Then as an allegory is apt to be unmanageable, especially when overloaded with detail, the logic is in danger of being shunted into irrelevant lines, and we have to hark back and try to get fairly upon the rails again. Fifine is a series of such performances which may, by ingenious treatment, be converted into something like continuous argument; but which, I confess, appears to me to be an incoherent collection of suggestions for argument: a team of allegories or long-drawn metaphors so refractory and digressive that it is beyond the skill of any charioteer to direct them to the definite goal. The startingpoint is the existence of a class of Bohemians who care nothing for respectability or the moral laws recognized by the respectable, and yet seem to get on very well without it. What is the compensation for them? how account for the topsy-turvy order in which lawlessness becomes law and vice virtue and disease health? Several comparisons suggest principles which might serve as bases for attacking the problem. There is the case of the swimmer, or "amphibian," given in the prologue, and afterwards worked out at great length in the poem. The swimmer is too corporeal for the upper air, and yet has aspirations for something higher than the earth. He so far represents the necessary compro