Brooke's treatment of his subject is perhaps the most
helpful he could have chosen. Beginning with the obvious,
he devotes the first of his eighteen chapters to contrasting
Browning to Tennyson; the next two to Browning's treatment
of Nature; then on his Theory of Human Life; next on
Browning as the Poet of Art; then two on Sordello; one
on the Dramas; one on the Poems of the Passions of Love;
one on the Passions other than Love; then two each on
Imaginative Representatives and Womanhood; and finally
a chapter each on "Balaustion," "The
Ring and the Book," "Later Poems," and
does not give us a chronological survey of Browning,
but it forms a much more convenient and ready introduction
to his work, and enables us in the end to see thoroughly
the development of his genius. In the comparison of
Browning with Tennyson Mr. Stopford Brooke is particularly
illuminating and happy. He contrasts them in their public
fortune, Tennyson coming early into fame and remaining
the figurehead of English letters through a long life,
Browning for the greater part of his life working without
recognition and coming to his own only after long years
of public neglect; Tennyson followed by a host of imitators,
Browning working alone and unappraoched; Tennyson the
representative poet of his time, reflecting every change
of thought through which his country passed, Browning
the prophet of a new era, quite detached from the sentiments
and atmosphere of his own day; Tennyson so recluse in
his life and so conventional in his thought, and Browning
so unconventional, so daring, so original in his philosophy,
and so strict a conformist in all social custom.
great vogue and Browning's continued lack of populaity
for so many years, we have all recognized; and we have
too lightly attributed his slow growth in popular favor
to Browning's obscurity. Mr. Brooke points out with
admirable clearness that Browning was in many ways a
forerunner of our own time. Forty years before people
learned to care for the psychological novel, Browning
was writing the subtlest kind of psychological studies
of character; and when finally we came up to that point
in our national and racial life, there we found him.
Forty years before we cared for impressionism in art,
Browning was using it; and when at last we learned to
look at things in that way, there were Browning's vivid
drafts and sketches to delight us.
Browning satisfied the growing critical spirit, the
love of historic investigation. People began to want
to know about other times and countries as they really
were; they wanted actual accurate transcripts from life.
These they found in abundance in Browning's work, and
did not find in Tennyson's. Poems like "A Death
in the Desert," "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Abt
Volger," and "Bishop Blougram's Apology,"
are absolutely faithful historic studies, lifelike in
their portraiture and logical in their psychology. Whereas
Tennyson studies, like Tithonus and the "Idylls
of the King," were all modernized. Tennyson was
picturesque and always spoke with his own voice; Browning
was dramatic and took on the very accent of the person
he chose to represent.
the Victorian era was a time of discord and doubt and
distraction, with immense new truths to be harmonized,
new ideals to be realized-a time of discovery, expansion,
invention, when old orders were broken up and the new
order was not yet apparent. In the midst of this confusion
the Victorian poets were for the most part at a loss.
With no certitude of belief offered them from without,
they were quite incapable of evolving one for themselves.
William Morris's socialism was still not definite enough
to hold men's faith, while his poetry had no foundation
whatever in modern life, no sympathy with modern aspirations.
Matthew Arnold beheld in the turmoil all about him only
the mad bewilderment of distintegration; he did not
see the actual youth and strength of the new ideas which
were invading the world; and his poems took on the sad
tone of melancholy so characteristic of him and so alien
to the boisterous temper of his age. Tennyson at times
declared his confidence in the ultimate goodness and
reasonableness of the world, but always with a good
deal of misgiving; his optimism was only half-hearted
at best, and while he caught men's attention by reflecting
the trend of their current thought, he had no profound
and convincing teaching to give them. In Browning alone
was there ever a consuming core of faith, consistent
from youth to age, and making all his work luminous
with glad assurance. And it was only as we came to realize
our own troublous state, that we recognized in Browning
the one confident voice of cheerful reassurance. Of
all the prophets of his time, he alone is strong and
unperturbed amid the distraction of warring fads and
disintegrating creeds; he alone is never once unsettled
in his mind, never once uncertain of the profounder
abiding truths of the human soul and the spiritual experience
of the race. Others may falter and doubt, turning hither
and thither vainly for guidance; they may revert to
the plaintive Virgilian cry, so winsome and so hopeless;
they may seek to lose themselves in ancient legend or
mediŠval diction or frothy inventions of remote imagination;
only Browning is firmly fixed in the here and now, uttering
words of brave import and glad comfort, as ever was
the wont of great poets of all times. For the weak spirit
is abashed before danger and doubt, but the strong are
only stronger for the difficulty-only adhere the more
stoutly to the faith which seems to them so clear.
Stopford Broke is not, however, a blind admirer of Browning.
He notes his shortcomings very keenly, and states them
very clearly. He is particularly decided in his criticism
of those admirers of Browning's work who pick out all
the difficult poems for analysis and delight in their
tortuous psychology. But what these people admire is
not poetry; it is science. And, as our critic shows
plainly, there is far too much scientific prose in Browning.
His piercing, curious, restless mind was not always
thoroughly fused with emotion. It often went off on
long excursions by itself, producing passages of sheer
prose, interesting but unillumined, accurate but cold.
After the completion of "The Ring and the Book,"
there followed a period when Browning hardly wrote any
great poetry at all-only psychologic studies in metrical
prose. There is no doubt that the four volumes, "Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau," "Fifine at the Fair,"
"Red Cotton Night-Cap Country," and "The
Iron Album," could all be spared from Browning's
works without any loss to the lovers of poetry. For
in these works the intellectual element (as Mr. Brooke
says) has completely overpowered and thrust out the
other very penetrating piece of criticism Mr. Stopford
Brooke has in his essay, and that is in regard to the
relative peace of Nature and Man in Browning's work.
He notes the constant reference to Nature and interpretation
of her in the earlier half of the poet's life, the many
superb passages relating to Nature in "Paracelsus"
and the shorter early poems; then the distinct interest
in humanity as wholly apart from Nature, growing more
and more absorbing, until in "The Ring and the
Book" there is scarcely a reference to Nature
at all, so engrossed had Browning become in Man and
the psychology of action. And parallel to this change
of interest, we are to note a steady decline, not in
Browning's insight, indeed, but in his power to make
poetry. When he neglected Nature he lost the capacity
to be beautiful, he lost his art and grew to be a Scientist.
This is a very striking fact in his career, and, sad
as it is, full of suggestion and warning. It bids us
beware of following the intricate searchings of the
mind too far in art, to the neglect of mere beauty;
for man represents the mental side of Nature, and to
try to divorce him from his mysterious and beautiful
surroundings is to fall into the mistake of seeing life
in fragments, not as a whole.
then are the two chief features of Mr. Stopford Brooke's
admirable and authentic monograph: an exhaustive comparative
criticism of Browning, relating him to his own time,
and distinguishing him among his contemporaries; and
a careful elaborate analysis of all his work, showing
at once its strength and its fatal defects, attributable
to Browning's character and life. A model of temperate
criticism and luminous interpretation.