Christmas Eve and Easter Day: by Robert Browning.--Chapman and Hall. 1850.
THERE are occasions when the office of the critic becomes
almost simply that of an expositor; when his duty is not to
assert, but to interpret. It is his privilege to have been the
first to study a subject, and become familiar with it; what
remains is to state facts, and to suggest considerations; not to
lay down dogmas. That which he speaks of is to him itself a
dogma; he starts from conviction: his it is to convince others,
and, as far as may be, by the same means as satisfied himself; to
incite to the same study, doing his poor best, meanwhile, to supply the
want of it.
Thus much, indeed, is the critic's duty always; but he generally feels the right, and has it, of speaking with authority. He condemns, or gives praise; and his judgment, though merely individual and subject to revision, is judgment. Before the certainty of genius and deathless power, in the contemplation of consummate art, his position changes: and well for him if he knows, and is contented it should be so. Here he must follow, happy if he only follows and serves; and while even here he will not shelve his doubts, or blindly refuse to exercise a candid discrimination, his demur at unquestioning assent, far from betraying any arrogance, will be discreetly advanced, and on clearly stated grounds.
Of all poets, there is none more than Robert Browning, in approaching whom diffidence is necessary. The mere extent of his information cannot pass unobserved, either as a fact, or as a title to respect. No one who has read the body of his works will deny that they are replete with mental and speculative subtlety, with vivid and most diversified conception of character, with dramatic incident and feeling; with that intimate knowledge of outward nature which makes every sentence of description a living truth; replete with a most human tenderness and pathos. Common as is the accusation of "extravagance," and unhesitatingly as it is applied, in a general off-hand style, to the entire character of Browning's poems, it would require some jesuitism of self-persuasion to induce any one to affirm his belief in the existence of such extravagance in the conception of the poems, or in the sentiments expressed; of any want of concentration in thought, of national or historical keeping. far from this, indeed, a deliberate unity of purpose is strikingly apparent. Without referring for the present
to what are assumed to be perverse faults of execution--a question the principles and bearing of which will shortly be considered--assuredly the mention of the names of a few among Browning's poems--of "Paracelsus," "Pippa Passes," "Luria," the "Souls's Tragedy," "King Victor and King Charles," even of the less perfect achievement," "Strafford"; or, passing to the smaller poems, of "The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "The Laboratory," and "The Bishop orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's";--will at once realize to the memory of all readers an abstruse ideal never lostsight of, and treated to the extreme of elaboration. As regards this point, we address all in any manner acquainted with the poet's works, certain of receiving an affirmative answer even from those who "can't read Sordello, or understand the object of writing in that style."
If so many exceptions to Browning's "system of extravagance" be admitted,--and we again refer for confirmation or refutation t all who have sincerely read him, and who, valuing written criticism at its worth, value also at its worth the criticism of individual conviction,--wherein are we to seek this extravagance? The ground work exempted, the imputation attaches, if anywhere, to the framework; to the body, if not to the soul. And we are thus left to consider the style, or mode of expression.
Style is not stationary, or, in the concrete, matter of principle: style is, firstly, national; next, chronological; and lastly, individual. To try the oriental system by the European, and pronounce either wrong by so much as it exceeds or falls short, would imply so entire a want of comprehensive appreciation as can scarcely fail to induce the conviction, that the two are distinct and independent, each to be tested on its own merits. Again, were the Elizabethan dramatists right, or are those our own day? Neither absolutely, as by comparison alone; his period speaks in each; and each must be judged by this: not whether he is true to any given type, but whether his own type be a true one for himself. And this, which holds good between nations and ages, holds good also between individuals. Very different from Shelley's are Wordsworth's nature in description, his sentiment, his love; Burn's and Keats's different from these and from each other: yet are all these, nature, and sentiment, and love.
But here it will be urged: by this process any and every style is pronounced good, so that it but find a measure of recognition in its own age and country; nay, even the author's self-approval will be sufficient. And, as a corollary, each age must and ought to reject its predecessor; and Voltaire was no less than right in dubbing
Shakspere barbarian. That it is not so, however, will appear when the last element of truth in style, that with which all others combine, which includes and implies consistency with the author's self, with his age and his country, is taken into account. Appropriateness of treatment to subject it is which lies at the root of all controversy on style: that is the last and the whole test. And the fact that none other is requisite, or, more strictly, that all others are but aspects of this one, will very easily be allowed when it is reflected that the subject, to be of an earnest and sincere ideal, must be an emanation of the poet's most secret soul; and that the soul receives teaching from circumstance, which is the time when and place where.
This promised, it must next be borne in mind that the poet's conception of his subject is not identical with, and, in the majority of cases, will be unlike, his reader's. And, the question of style (manner) being necessarily subordinate to that of subject (matter), it is not for the reader to dispute with the author on his mode of rendering, provided that should be accepted as embodying (within the bounds of grammatical logic) the intention preconceived. The object of the poet in writing, why he attempts to describe an event as resulting from this cause or this, or why he assumes such as the effect; all these considerations the reader is competent to entertain: any two men may deduce from the same premises, and may probably arrive at different conclusions: but, these conclusions reached, what remains is a question of resemblance, which each must determine for himself, as best conscious of his own intention. To take an instance. Shakspere's conception of Macbeth as a man capable of uttering a pompous conceit--
("Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood--")
in a moment, to him, and to all present, of startling purport, may be a correct or an impressive conception, or it may be the reverse. That the rendering of the momentary intention is adequate here there is no reason to doubt. If so, in what respect is the reader called upon to investigate a matter of style? He must simply return to the question of whether this point of character be consistent with others imagined of the same person; this, answered affirmatively, is an approval,--negatively, a condemnation, of intention; the merit of style, in either case, being mere competence, and that admitted irrespectively of the reader's liking or disliking of the passage per se, or as part of a context. Why, in this same tragedy of Macbeth, is a drunken porter introduced between a murder and its discovery? Did Shakspere really intend him to be a sharp-witted
man? These questions are pertinent and necessary. There is no room for disputing that this scene is purposely a comic scene: and, if this is certain, the style of the speech is appropriate to the scene, and of the scene, to the conception of the drama? Is that conception admirable?
We have entered thus at length on the investigation of adequacy and appropriateness of style, and of the mode by which entire classes of disputable points, usually judged under that name, may be reduced to the more essential element of conception; because it will be almost invariably found, that a mere arbitrary standard of irresponsible private predilection is then resorted to. Nor can this be well guarded against. The concrete, style, being assumed as always constituting an entity auxiliary to, but not of necessity modified by, and representing subject,--as something substantially pre-existing in the author's mind or practice, and belonging to him individually; the reader will, not without show of reason, betake himself to the trial of personality by personality, another's by his own; and will thus pronounce on poems or passages of poems not as elevated, or vigorous, or well-sustained, or the opposite, in idea, but, according to certain notions of his own, as attractive, original, or conventional writing.
Thus far as regards those parts of execution which concern human* embodiment--the metaphysical and dramatic or epic faculties. Of style in description the reader is more nearly as competent a judge as the writer. In the one case, the poet is bound to realize an idea, which is his own, and the justness of which, and therefore of the form of its expression, can be decided only by reasoning and analogy; in the other, having for his type material phaenomena, he must reproduce the things as cognizable by all, though not hereby in any way exempt from adhering absolutely to his proper perception of them. Here, even as to ideal description or simile, the reader can assert its truth or falsehood of purpose, its sufficiency or insufficiency of means: but here again he must beware of exceeding his rights, and of substituting himself to his author. He must not dictate under what aspect nature is to be considered, stigmatizing the one chosen, because his own bent is rather towards some other. In the exercise of censure, he cannot fairly allow any personal peculiarities of view to influence him; but will have to decide from common grounds of perception, unless clearly conscious of
* In employing the word "human," we would have our intention understood to include organic spiritualism--the superhuman treated, from a human pou sto, as ideal mind, form, power, action, &c.
short-coming, or of the extreme of any corresponding peculiarity on the author's part.
In speaking of the adaptation of style to conception, we advanced that, details of character and of action being a portion of the latter, the real point to determine in reference to the former is, whether such details are completely rendered in relation to the general purpose. And here, to return to Robert Browning, we would enforce on the attention of those among his readers who assume that he spoils fine thoughts by a vicious, extravagant, and involved style, a few analytical questions, to be answered unbiassed by hearsay evidence. Concerning the dramatic works: Is the leading idea conspicuously brought forward throughout each work? Is the language of the several speakers such as does not create any impression other than warranted by the subject matter of each? If so, does it create the impression apparently intended? Is the character of speech varied according to that of the speaker? Are the passages of description and abstract reflection so introduced as to add to poetic, without detracting from dramatic, excellence? About the narrative poems, and those of a more occasional and personal quality the same questions may be asked with some obvious adaptation; and this about all: Are the versification strong, the sound sharp or soft, monotonous, hurried, in proportion to the requirement of sense; the illustrative thoughts apt and new; the humour quaint and relishing? Finally, is not in many cases that which is spoken of as something extraneous, dragged in aforethought, for the purpose of singularity, the result more truly of a most earnest and single-minded labor after the utmost rendering of idiomatic conversational truth; the rejection of all stop-gap words; about the most literal transcript of fact compatible with the ends of poetry and true feeling for Art? This a point worthy note, and not capable of contradiction.**
These questions answered categorically will, we believe, be found to establish the assurance that Browning's style is copious, and certainly not other than appropriate, instance contrasted with instance--as the form of expression bestowed on the several phases of certain ever-present form of thought. We have already endeavored to show that, where style is not inadequate, its object as a means being attained, the mind must revert to its decision as to relative and collective value of intention: and we will again leave
** We may instance several scenes of "Pippa Passes,"--the concluding one especially, where Pippa reviews her day; the whole of the "Soul's Tragedy,"--the poetic as well as the prose portion; "The Flight of the Duchess;" "Waring," &c.; and passages continually recurring in "Sordello," and in "Colombe's Birthday."
Browning's manifestations of intellectual purpose, as such, for the verdict of his reader.
To those who yet insist: "Why cannot I read Sordello?" we can only answer:--Admitted a leading idea, not only metaphysical but subtle and complicated to the highest degree; how work out this idea, unless through the finest intricacy of shades of mental development? Admitted a philosophic comprehensiveness of historical estimate and a minuteness of familiarity with details, with the added assumption, besides, of speaking with the very voice of the times; how present this position, unless by standing at an eminent point, and addressing thence a not unprepared audience? Admitted an intense arching concentration of thought; how be self-consistent, unless uttering words condensed to the limits of language?--And let us at last say: Read Sordello again. Why hold firm that you ought to be able at once to know Browning's stops, and to pluck out the heart of his mystery? Surely, if you do not understand him, the fact tells two ways. But, if you will understand him, you shall.
We have been desirous to explain and justify the state of feeling in which we enter on the consideration of a new poem by Robert Browning. Those who already feel with us will scarcely be disposed to forgive the prolixity which, for the present, has put it out of our power to come at the work itself: but, if earnestness of intention will plead our excuse, we need seek for no other.
Last modified 26 March 1996