Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: Two Important Books*


 

Introduction to the Poetry of Robert Browning. By Wm. J. Alexander, Ph.D. Boston: Ginn & Co,

Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages. By Ephraim Emerton, Ph.D. Boston: Ginn & Co.

 

I.   Prof. Alexander’s volume* is a very important addition to the body of what is known as Browning literature, and must take rank at once with the half dozen hand-books which no student of Browning can dispense with. In our young Canadian literature it takes a yet more prominent place. Though lacking the exquisite delicacy and poetic flavor of Mr. Dawson’s Study of the Princess, it must, I think, be at once acknowledged as the weightiest thing Canada has so far produced in the department of literary criticism. Dr. Alexander’s criticisms, to speak generally, are sound, careful and temperate. His pages are free from that tendency to erratic and "wild-cat" theorizing by which so many dilettante critics of our day strive to gain at least a notoriety. Prof. Alexander cannot be regarded as a victim of the Browning fad, in any sense. He loves Browning both well and wisely, keeping his eyes open to his defects, and making no wildly extravagant claims in regard to him. The aim of Dr. Alexander’s work is not to persuade men that Browning is the supreme genius of our race since Shakspeare, but to help us to an appreciation of what I think posterity will regard as a self-evident fact, viz., that Browning is one of the three or four master poets of the age, although, at first view, "confessedly difficult and repellant." Such careful exposition and unexaggerated admiration as we find in this hand-book can hardly fail of their purpose. The analysis of Sordello is an admirable piece of work, in which even the accomplished Browningite may well find help and suggestion. For my own part, I felt, on reading it, that had I only been thus assisted on my first encounter with that inscrutable poem, I had been saved much confusion and vexation of spirit. I would speak with special commendation, too, of the chapters on "Browning’s Philosophy" and "Browning’s Theory of Art."

The chief defect of the work is a negative one, which I would fain see remedied in a later edition; though the point is one on which Prof. Alexander may join issue with me. There is a side of Browning’s genius which Prof. Alexander has seemed to ignore; and the reader of Browning who fails to perceive that side overlooks one of Browning’s securest titles to immortality. I refer to such strange and admirable lyric power as we find in "Abt Vogler," "In a Gondola," "Never the Time and the Place," "Love Among the Ruins," "A Toccata of Galuppi’s," and half a score of poems besides, whose swing and music are hardly surpassed by the most dithyrambic of our poets. Who sees not these qualities sees not the whole of Browning’s greatness, and sees not that side of Browning which secures him the perpetual adoration of poets. It is perhaps to Browning’s subtle mastery of anapestic rhythms that we owe much of the splendor of Swinburne, who has studied Browning closely. Browning, in fact, can be as captivating as any of his fellows; and that lyric power of his, all too seldom exercised, cannot be overlooked. Dr. Alexander has been so engrossed with the psychological and analytic Browning that he has paid, I think, too little heed to the Browning who sings:

O Lyric Love, half angel and half bird,
And all a wonder and a wild desire.

There are two other points to which I would take exception, though they are so small that I may be thought hypercritical. To say "Homer would not write a great epic, were he alive now; nor Shakspeare, great dramas," is to state that may be true, with certain qualifications. But it sounds rash to dogmatize on so sweeping a universal. I would with great diffidence suggest to Dr. Alexander a little enlargement upon his idea, as a safeguard against misapprehension. I would make the same suggestion in regard to a parenthetical remark on page 109. Dr. Alexander says: "When Homer (did such a person ever exist) wrote the Iliad," etc. It seems to me that there is nothing gained by the parenthesis. The idea it contains is surely worth a paragraph, if it is to be brought forward at all in this connection. To merely throw out the query, and leave it, is likely to cause mystification and unpleasant doubt in the minds of younger readers. But enough of fault- finding. It is seldom a book of this sort leaves so little room for censure. That it will be found useful even in the most advanced Browning societies may reasonably be inferred, in view of the fact that a prominent Browning authority recently confessed to me that he has never read beyond the 2nd part of The Ring and the Book, and that the Browning society of a great American city recently urged upon its members that, in preparation for a Browning evening, they should read at least the introduction and part I of that poem. Yet The Ring and the Book is Browning’s magnum opus.

II.   Among the manuals of history which are now pouring in such profusion from the press, I select for special commendation the little volume± lately put forth by Prof. Emerton, of Harvard. The period of which it treats is one which most historians have hopelessly befogged, but Prof. Emerton conducts us through it by clear and delightful paths. Those middle ages, which are so enveloped in romance and myth that we find it difficult to regard them as other than the fabric of a fairy tale, were fruitful with the germs of all our modern civilization. One who would comprehend the aims of conflicting nationalities in the present day, and look with some degree of intelligent forecast into the political future, must seek his cues in the bewildering tangle that gathered about the death of the Western Empire. In the work of Prof. Emerton he will find the tangle brought into something like order, while the romance and fascination of the story are not impaired. The book is accompanied by abundant and adequate maps, and the large, clean type and good paper assist the charm of the lucid narrative.

Introduction to the Poetry of Robert Browning. By Wm. J. Alexander, Ph.D. Boston: Ginn & Co, [back]

Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages. By Ephraim Emerton, Ph.D. Boston: Ginn & Co. [back]

 


"The World of Books: Two Important Books," Progress 1:55 (Saint John, N.B.), 18 May 1889, 6 [back]