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Life and Letters of Robert Browning


Author: Sutherland Orr Total hits: 3914 User hits: 1 Date: 05-07-2014

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A few words must still be said upon that purport and tendency of Robert Browning's work, which has been defined by a few persons, and felt by very many as his 'message'.

The definition has been disputed on the ground of Art. We are told by Mr. Sharp, though in somewhat different words, that the poet, qua poet, cannot deliver a 'message' such as directly addresses itself to the intellectual or moral sense; since his special appeal to us lies not through the substance, but through the form, or presentment, of what he has had to say; since, therefore (by implication), in claiming for it an intellectual—as distinct from an aesthetic—character, we ignore its function as poetry.

It is difficult to argue justly, where the question at issue turns practically on the meaning of a word. Mr. Sharp would, I think, be the first to admit this; and it appears to me that, in the present case, he so formulates his theory as to satisfy his artistic conscience, and yet leave room for the recognition of that intellectual quality so peculiar to Mr. Browning's verse. But what one member of the aesthetic school may express with a certain reserve is proclaimed unreservedly by many more; and Mr. Sharp must forgive me, if for the moment I regard him as one of these; and if I oppose his arguments in the words of another poet and critic of poetry, whose claim to the double title is I believe undisputed—Mr. Roden Noel. I quote from an unpublished fragment of a published article on Mr. Sharp's 'Life of Browning'.

'Browning's message is an integral part of himself as writer; (whether as poet, since we agree that he is a poet, were surely a too curious and vain discussion;) but some of his finest things assuredly are the outcome of certain very definite personal convictions. "The question," Mr. Sharp says, "is not one of weighty message, but of artistic presentation." There seems to be no true contrast here. "The primary concern of the artist must be with his vehicle of expression"—no—not the primary concern. Since the critic adds—(for a poet) "this vehicle is language emotioned to the white heat of rhythmic music by impassioned thought or sensation." Exactly—"thought" it may be. Now part of this same "thought" in Browning is the message. And therefore it is part of his "primary concern". "It is with presentment," says Mr. Sharp, "that the artist has fundamentally to concern himself." Granted: but it must surely be presentment of something. . . . I do not understand how to separate the substance from the form in true poetry. . . . If the message be not well delivered, it does not constitute literature. But if it be well delivered, the primary concern of the poet lay with the message after all!'

More cogent objection has been taken to the character of the 'message' as judged from a philosophic point of view. It is the expression or exposition of a vivid a priori religious faith confirmed by positive experience; and it reflects as such a double order of thought, in which totally opposite mental activities are often forced into co-operation with each other. Mr. Sharp says, this time quoting from Mr. Mortimer ('Scottish Art Review', December 1889):

'His position in regard to the thought of the age is paradoxical, if not inconsistent. He is in advance of it in every respect but one, the most important of all, the matter of fundamental principles; in these he is behind it. His processes of thought are often scientific in their precision of analysis; the sudden conclusion which he imposes upon them is transcendental and inept.'

This statement is relatively true. Mr. Browning's positive reasonings often do end with transcendental conclusions. They also start from transcendental premises. However closely his mind might follow the visible order of experience, he never lost what was for him the consciousness of a Supreme Eternal Will as having existed before it; he never lost the vision of an intelligent First Cause, as underlying all minor systems of causation. But such weaknesses as were involved in his logical position are inherent to all the higher forms of natural theology when once it has been erected into a dogma. As maintained by Mr. Browning, this belief held a saving clause, which removed it from all dogmatic, hence all admissible grounds of controversy: the more definite or concrete conceptions of which it consists possessed no finality for even his own mind; they represented for him an absolute truth in contingent relations to it. No one felt more strongly than he the contradictions involved in any conceivable system of Divine creation and government. No one knew better that every act and motive which we attribute to a Supreme Being is a virtual negation of His existence. He believed nevertheless that such a Being exists; and he accepted His reflection in the mirror of the human consciousness, as a necessarily false image, but one which bears witness to the truth.

His works rarely indicate this condition of feeling; it was not often apparent in his conversation. The faith which he had contingently accepted became absolute for him from all practical points of view; it became subject to all the conditions of his humanity. On the ground of abstract logic he was always ready to disavow it; the transcendental imagination and the acknowledged limits of human reason claimed the last word in its behalf. This philosophy of religion is distinctly suggested in the fifth parable of 'Ferishtah's Fancies'.

But even in defending what remains, from the most widely accepted point of view, the validity of Mr. Browning's 'message', we concede the fact that it is most powerful when conveyed in its least explicit form; for then alone does it bear, with the full weight of his poetic utterance, on the minds to which it is addressed. His challenge to Faith and Hope imposes itself far less through any intellectual plea which he can advance in its support, than through the unconscious testimony of all creative genius to the marvel of conscious life; through the passionate affirmation of his poetic and human nature, not only of the goodness and the beauty of that life, but of its reality and its persistence.

We are told by Mr. Sharp that a new star appeared in Orion on the night on which Robert Browning died. The alleged fact is disproved by the statement of the Astronomer Royal, to whom it has been submitted; but it would have been a beautiful symbol of translation, such as affectionate fancy might gladly cherish if it were true. It is indeed true that on that twelfth of December, a vivid centre of light and warmth was extinguished upon our earth. The clouded brightness of many lives bears witness to the poet spirit which has departed, the glowing human presence which has passed away. We mourn the poet whom we have lost far less than we regret the man: for he had done his appointed work; and that work remains to us. But the two beings were in truth inseparable. The man is always present in the poet; the poet was dominant in the man. This fact can never be absent from our loving remembrance of him. No just estimate of his life and character will fail to give it weight.
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