Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Mr. Stopford Brooke's Study of Browning*


 

With all the vogue Browning has had in the past ten or fifteen years, there has never been until now any competent study of his work, commensurate in scope with his wonderful prodigality, and adequate in critical insight to interpret his subtle and varied imagination. It has been left for Mr. Stopford Brooke to supply such a work. One hesitates to call so thorough and masterly an essay a handbook. It seems too big for that, too individual in tone, too sure in touch; and yet that is the great use it will serve-as a handbook for the study of the greatest of the Victorian poets. And so exhaustive, penetrating, and temperate has Mr. Brooke been, that he has produced not merely a valuable aid to Browning students, but the one invaluable book on the subject. For while his judgements are sound and his instincts sure, his style is everywhere simple and uninvolved. So that his voluminous work, painstaking and conscientious as it is, ought to make confirmed Browningites even among the non-elect.

Mr. 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 "Last Poems."

This 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.

Tennyson's 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.

Again 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.

Again 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.

Mr. 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 imaginative.

One 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.

These 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.


"Mr. Stopford Brooke's Study of Browning," Reader, Feb. 1903 [back]