Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Review of G.K. Chesterton's Robert Browning*


 

The choice of Mr. G.K. Chesterton to write the life of Robert Browning in the English Men of Letters Series was not an unhappy one. There is a rugged spontaneity about Mr. Chesterton that qualifies him very well for his task. The only danger was, that he might have been tempted to be too clever at the expense of sober judgement. The result is more fortunate than might have been expected; he seems to have put some restraint on his waywardness; and while his judgements are not less cocksure than usual, they are somewhat more moderate.

Mr. Chesterton delights in taking liberties with men and manners, with letters and with logic. With all the exuberant confidence of youth, nothing pleases him better than to take a fall out of anyone. That seems to be his idea of criticism. He must be unusual at any cost, not for the sake of novelty of phrase, but rather for the titilation that comes with paradox. Hesitation is unknown to him, and Omniscience itself could hardly be more prompt and sure in its opinions. The truth is Mr. Chesterton is an up-to-date American journalist, masquerading as an English man of letters. The wonder is that he doesn't come home. He is one of those "breezy" and "brainy" persons in whom our editors delight, and so long as he remains in London he must feel strangely out of his element.

His life of Browning is good; in the first place it will make the reader sit up; and in the second place it is very often true as well as startling. He says, for instance, that Browning "combines the greatest brain with the most simple temperament known in our annals"; and again, "the mystery of the unconscious man, far deeper than any mystery of the conscious one, existing as it does in all men, existed peculiarly in Browning, because he was a very ordinary and spontaneous man"; and we are almost convinced at sight. And once more there is much truth, though not the whole truth in the following reference to Browning's technique: "The general sentiment expressed in the statement that he did not care for form is simply the most ridiculous criticism that could be conceived. It would be far nearer the truth to say that he cared more for form than any other English poet who ever lived."

He has a lively brush with Mr. Santayana, who contends in his book, "Poetry and Religion," that Browning was something of a barbarian by temperament and thought, and that his philosophic trend is far too individualistic. Says Mr. Chesterton, "Whether the quality be a good or a bad quality, Mr. Santayana is perfectly right. The whole of Browning's poetry does rest upon primitive feeling; and the comment to be added is that so does the whole of everyone else's poetry." Any one who has read Mr. Santayana carefully will not think he is to be answered so easily. Of course all poetry is based on primitive feeling. But it does not all follow that all poetry is devoid of moral ideas which belong to civilization. Feeling is the mainspring of poetry, but thought is its regulator. And while our feeling and instincts may remain primitive, they may be largely tempered and influenced by intellectual judgments that are very complex and modern. If all good poetry were based on primitive feeling alone, we should still be in the Stone Age.

But even if the truth is not always served by such flat statements, as Mr. Chesterton nearly always makes, with all its faults, his book is not one that students of Browning can afford to skip; it is so free from cant, and has so much good sense after all.


"Rev. of G.K. Chesterson's Robert Browning," Reader, Aug. 1903 [back]