The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 15. Later poems
During the six years which followed The Ring and the Book, Browning wrote nothing but long poems—with the exception of Hervè Riel, which was published for a charitable purpose. Balaustion’s Adventure appeared in 1871. Balaustion had the Alcestis of Euripides by heart, and, by rendering that “strangest, saddest, sweetest song,” saves her own life and wins for the ship refuge in the harbour of Syracuse. Balaustion’s character has the charm of Pippa; Hercules, re-created by Browning, is magnificent—with “the gay cheer” of his great voice, heralding gladness as he helped the world, “the human and divine, i’” the weary, happy face of him, half god, half man, which made the god-part god the more (a favourite and recurrent conception). In Aristophanes’ Apology, Balaustion is reintroduced, and we have a second transcript from Euripides—and, with it, above all else, the incomparable portrait of Aristophanes.“No ignoble presence”: “mind a-wantoning,” it is true, but “at ease,” all the same, “of undisputed mastery over the body’s brood, those appetites.”
The transcribed portions of both poems have only secondary value; and the translation is said to be often tame, literal and even awkward. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1877) is said to be an even less acceptable rendering: “exact” and unintelligible. It was undertaken on the suggestion of Carlyle and dedicated to him. One would like to know what mood Carlyle was in, when he gave his advice, telling Browning “ye ought to translate the whole of the Greek tragedians—that’s your vocation.” Browning was better left to sport in his own way, in his own element, like his “King of Pride,” “through deep to deep,” “churning the blackness hoary.” There is ample evidence of his wide, intimate knowledge of the literature of Athens, and of his love of its methods; but his strength was not similar to that of the Greeks; and he cannot be said to have made a significant contribution either to the knowledge or to the love, in England, of the Greek drama.
As if Browning were under compulsion to squander the popularity gained by Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, and with both hands, there appeared, besides these Greek poems, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau (1871), Fifine at the Fair (1872), Red Cotton Night-Cap Country or Turf and Towers (1873) and The Inn Album (1875). Either for its theme, or for the treatment of it, or for both theme and treatment, every one of these poems failed to please. Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, a monologue over a cigar, illustrated by connecting blot with blot on a “soiled bit” of paper, is the mean and tortuous plea of a weak, possibly well-meaning, certainly discredited, politician. Its hero, Napoleon III, was hardly great enough to be tragical, or even picturesque. Fifine at the Fair shocked and alienated good people. It was supposed to be a defence of illicit love; and its style was thought as turgid as its morality was false. Red Cotton Night-Cap Country is a novel in verse; the story of a Paris jeweller and his mistress. It has been defended on the ground that, as a strong treatment of the ugly, it makes the ugly uglier! More sanely it has been disapproved as “versified special correspondence,” “from which every pretence of poetry is usually remote.” The Inn Album once more deals with illicit passion, and, once more, is “a novel in verse.” Its hero is all tinsel, and “rag and feather sham,” irredeemably mean, smart and shallow, a cheat at cards, growing old amid his “scandalous successes”—a figure, one might say, better let be by the poet. The heroine, the betrayed girl, is a genuinely tragical figure. And the tragedy is final, remorseless; for she marries a parish priest who is unloving and unloved, dull, elderly, poor, conscientious, whom she “used to pity,” till she “learned what woes are pity-worth.” Him, in an ugly, filthy village, sterile as if “sown with salt,” she helps to drug and dose his flock with the doctrine of heaven and hell—the latter “made explicit.” Much of this poem is powerful; it contains one passage strangely Shakespearean in quality: that in which the elder lady describes her lost love, when its reality was questioned by her betrayer. As a whole, however, it cannot compare with Fifine at the Fair, either in range of reflective power, or in wealth of artistic splendour, or in the weight of the issues which are called forth. It was not without reason that Browning spoke of Fifine as “the most metaphysical and boldest he had written since Sordello”; and not in all respects was Swinburne’s dictum wrong—“This is far better than anything Browning has yet written.” Its main defect is that in it, even more than usual, “Browning has presumed too much upon his reader’s insight” and taken no pains to “obviate confusions he would have held to be impossible had they occurred to his mind.”
His experience of his critics—“the inability of the human goose to do other than either cackle or hiss”—led him to banter them in Pacchiarotto and how he worked in Distemper (1876), which tells the whimsical tale of the artist who tried to reform his fellows. The poem is genial and boisterous and, in its rime, brilliant and absurd; an instance of another of the poet’s ways of Aristophanic wantoning. In At the “Mermaid” and House and other poems in the same volume, the aloofness of the inner life, the deepest and real, is brought before us; and how, in the last resort, the world of men, mingle with them as he might, was nothing but “world without”—
The fact that, unmistakably, he speaks of himself, mingles and involves himself in his creations, shows that Browning’s dramatic power was beginning to decline. The plea that the “utterances” are those of “imaginary characters” becomes less and less valid; for the imagined characters are unsubstantial, the shadows thrown by the poet himself. But there is one theme which, change as life’s seasons may, remains for him a perennial source of perfect song. In St. Martin’s Summer, where much that is green had turned sere, and the heart had lost its enterprise, in Numpholeptos and in other poems in this volume, love, which is now a memory of what was, and a wistful longing for what must yet be, retains all its mystic power and breaks into Iyric poetry of unabated beauty.
In 1877, Browning visited the Savoy alps; and there his companion, Miss Egerton Smith, died suddenly, as she was making ready for a mountain expedition with him.
In the following year, La Saisiaz was published, a commemorative poem which states and tests the arguments for and against the immortality of the soul, and pronounces judgment. But the pronouncement, though affirmative, is not untinged with doubt, and it has the fatal weakness of being, at best, valid or conclusive only for the poet. Here, as elsewhere, there is a sophistic touch in Browning’s philosophy; and it was not in the intelligence, but in the potency of love that he trusted. In the same volume as La Saisiaz there appeared The Two Poets of Croisic, in which, once more, the poet gambols, mocking, this time, at fame.
In the autumn of 1878, for the first time after the death of his wife, Browning went to Italy; and he repeated his visits every year until the close of his life. On his first journey, he stayed for some weeks at a hotel near the summit of the Splugen pass. IvÁn IvÁnovitch and Ned Bratts were written here, and the volume entitled Dramatic Idyls (1879) contains these and Martin Relph, and Pheidippides, both magnificently told stories, the latter carrying the reader back to the tale How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. The second series of Dramatic Idyls contained the dramatic stories of “the foolishness,” which is love, of MulÈykeh’s Arab owner, and Clive’s confession to fear, with its startling turn. Jocoseria, published in 1883, contains two great poems, namely, Ixion and the Iyric Never the Time and the Place—where longing love finds once more its perfect utterance. Then came Ferishtah’s Fancies (1884) and Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day (1887) and, finally, Asolando (1890). The garb of Ferishtah is eastern: he is a Persian sage; and the allegories and parables have, also, an eastern flavour. But Ferishtah is only a name, and the sage who speaks the wisdom of commonsense through his lips, illustrating his convictions regarding moral matters, pain, prayer, asceticism, punishment, by reference to common objects—the sun, a melon-seller, cherries, two camels, plotculture—is Browning himself. The poems are simple, direct and pleasing; they contain a practical faith touched with theoretical doubt. The conclusions are all tentative and insecure, so long as the heart does not lead to them, and love is silent. The lyrics that intervene between the dialogues are exquisite.
Browning was seventy-five years old when he published Parleyings; and the “importance” of the people with whom he parleys comes from the fact that they carried him back to his boyhood’s industrious happiness in his father’s library. There he learnt of “Artistry’s Ideal” from “the prodigious book” of Gerard de Lairesse; and he remembered his mother playing Avison’s grand march. The poems are vigorous, the learning displayed in them is immense and they abound in intellectualvitality; but the personages are as shadowy as they are voluble, and the poetic glory has left the grey.
Browning’s health was becoming more uncertain, but he continued both his social life in London and his journeys south to the mountains and to Italy. In 1887, his son married, and bought the Rezzonico palace, Venice, and thither, for two summers more, the poet returned. He also went back (after forty years) to Asolo, and lived in a house there on the old townwall; and the place which he had loved from the days of Pippa renewed its charm for him. He died at Venice, on 12 December, 1889, and was buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster abbey on the last day of the year.
He had not expected death, but, to the last, was full of projects, his courage unabated and his enterprise not weary; and his last words, the great Epilogue with which, in Asolando, he closed the collected gleanings of his genius, fitly express the faith which made his life heroic.