The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 7. Bells and Pomegranates
At the time when Browning was ”going to begin the finishing of Sordello,” as he wrote to Miss Haworth, he was also beginning “thinking a Tragedy.” He had still another tragedy in prospect, he tells us, and “wrote best so provided.” The two tragedies were King Victor and King Charles and The Return of the Druses. He was also occupied with what was not strictly a play, but a new poetic form—a series of scenes connected together like pearls on a silken thread by the magic influence of the little silk-winder of Asolo—the exquisitely beautiful and simple Pippa Passes. The plays were written with the view of being acted; but Macready’s refusal kept them back, for a time, and they were published. They appeared in a series of what may be called poetical pamphlets, issued between 1841 and 1846, which undoubtedly constituted as remarkable literary merchandise as was ever offered to any public. This plan of publication was suggested by Moxon, and was intended to popularise the poet’s works by selling them cheaply. They were at first sold at sixpence. But (among other hinderances) they were called Bells and Pomegranates, and it was only at the close of the series and on the instigation of Elizabeth Barrett that Browning explained to the puzzled readers how it was intended by this reference to “the hem of the robe of the high priest” to indicate “the mixture of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought,” which the pamphlets were. Moreover, literary critics had not forgotten or forgiven Sordello, and literary prejudice is stubborn stuff. Even Pippa Passes, the first of the series, had a reluctant and frigid reception. A generously appreciative article, in The Eclectic Review, in 1849, mentions it along with Sordello as one of the poems against which “the loudest complaints of obscurity have been raised.”
Nothing that Browning ever wrote was better fitted than Pippa Passes to arrest the public attention. It was as novel in charm as it was in form. Pippa herself, it has been suggested, is Browning’s Ariel—a magic influence in the magic isle of man’s world. The little silk-winder, walking along the streets of Asolo on her “one day in the year” and fancying herself to be, in turn, each of its “Four Happiest Ones,” pours forth her lyric soul in song. The songs striking into the world of passions, plots and crimes, in which the “Four Happiest Ones” were involved, arrest, cleanse and transform. She is as charming as the lyrics she carols. Elizabeth Barrett “could find in her heart to envy the Author,” and Pippa was Browning’s own favourite among the creations of his early manhood. She has “crept into the study of imagination” of all his readers ever since.
Pippa Passes was followed, in 1842, by King Victor and King Charles, and that tragedy, in turn, by a collection of some sixteen short pieces, which were called Dramatic Lyrics. Then, in 1843, appeared The Return of the Druses, written some years earlier, and two other plays—A Blot in the ’Scutcheon and Colombe’s Birthday (published in 1844). These were followed by another collection of short poems, on the greatest variety of subjects, entitled Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. In 1846, the series entitled Bells and Pomegranates was brought to an end, and Browing’s period of playwriting closed with Luria and the dramatic sketch A Soul’s Tragedy.
At this time, also, the first period of Browning’s amazing productiveness came to a close. The poems that appeared cannot even be classified except in the roughest way, and any classification must mislead. The familiar distinctions which criticism sets up fade and become false. There are lyrical effects in most of the dramas, dramatic touches in almost every lyric and romance, and his muse will not be demure and prim. On the other hand, the variety of the subjects, forms, moods, scenes and passions, and of the workings of each of them, baffles classification. And each is so “clear proclaimed”—whether “Hope rose a-tiptoe,” or “Rapture drooped the eyes,” or “Confidence lit swift the forehead up”—that the distinctions, if they are to be faithful, must be as numerous as the poems themselves. In truth, it is not art but science, not love but knowledge, which classifies. So far as poems are true works of art, each one is, and must be, unique—a carved golden cup filled with its own wine. For the artist, every tress of hair, in turn, is the one song, and, for the lover, every tress of hair, in turn, “is the fairest tress of all.”