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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 8. The dramatic element in Browning’s work

Browning himself, however, suggests two points of view from which the poems may be observed. He characterises them all as “dramatic.” How far is this qualification accurate? Was Browing’s genius verily dramatic in character? The question is not easily answered, even although it can be profitably asked. In comparison with Wordsworth, who was both the most selfcontained and the most impersonal of all our poets, we must answer the question with a clear affirmative. But, compared with Shakespeare, or with Sir Walter Scott (as novelist), the difference is so great as to make the epithet “dramatic” positively misleading. Of not one of Shakespeare’s creations can we say “Here is the author himself”; of scarcely one of Browning’s can we say “Here the author is not.” Browning, in writing to Elizabeth Barrett, called the poems “Mere escapes of my inner power, like the light of a revolving lighthouse leaping out at intervals from a narrow chink.” The analogy is true in more than one sense. The poems carry suggestions of the abundance of riches within the poet’s own living, alert, enterprising, sense-fraught, passion-fused soul; the motley throng of his Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances and Dramatis Personae also stand in the brilliant glare of his personality—not in the unobtrusive, quiet light of common day. There is hardly a stratum of society, an age of history, a corner of the world of man, which is altogether absent from these poems; nevertheless, we never escape the sense of the author’s powerful presence. In all the diversities of type, race and character, there are persistent qualities, and they are the poet’s own.

There is no quality of Shakespeare’s mind which can be found in all his plays, except, perhaps, his gentleness; even as only the one epithet “gentle” satisfies when we speak of Shakespeare himself. But “gentleness” is just tolerance suffused with kindliness; and, where tolerance is perfect, preferences disappear, and the poet himself remains always revealing and never revealed.

To deny tolerance to Browning is impossible, and would utterly destroy his claim to be dramatic. There is a real sense in which he stands aloof from his creations, neither approving nor disapproving but letting them go. Bishop Blougram and Mr. Sludge; Caliban and the bishop of St. Praxed’s; the lady of The Laboratory and of The Confessional; the lion of The Glove with “those eyes wide and steady,”

  • leagues in the desert already,
  • Driving the flocks up the mountain,
  • and the live creatures in Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis—“worm, slug, eft, with serious features,” tickling and tousing and browsing him all over—all these are given a place in the sun, no less than his Valence or Caponsacchi, Colombe or Constance. It were unpardonable in a critic not to recognise that, for Browning, there was no form which the human soul could take that was too strange, complex, monstrous, magnificent, commonplace and drab, in its hate or love or in any other passion, to be interesting in the artistic and purely impersonal sense. All the same, his tolerant universality is not like Shakespeare’s in quality. There are, in Browning, no characters whom we must condemn and, also, must approve; whom we cannot justify and would not miss, but like beyond all speech or sense. There is no Jack Falstaff, nor even a Dogberry, or Bottom, or Launce, far less a Touchstone. There is no Bob Acres, even, or Sir Anthony Absolute.

    Browning will persist in appealing to our reason. It is always a question of what accepts or refuses to accept its control. Morality, at rare moments, is allowed to see to itself, and the beautiful and ugly stand justified or condemned in their own right. But truth always matters to him, and his intellectualising propensities never rest. The play of fancy is rarely quite irresponsible, and of humour more rarely still. There is no touch in Browning of the singing rogue Autolycus. Some of his lyrics, no doubt, are as light as they are lovely; and The Pied Piper is by no means the only first-rate example of joyous story-telling. Nevertheless, Browning, many as are the parts he plays, is not like Bottom—he cannot aggravate his voice and roar us gently. He is never splendidly absurd, nor free of every purpose. Even at this period, he is plagued with problems, crammed with knowledge, crowded with mental energy, a revolving lighthouse bursting with light. In a word, he is intense and purposive, and his purposiveness and intensity had many consequences, not all of them favourable to his dramatic work. A brief study of these is illuminative of his whole work as a poet.

    “Hold on, hope hard in the subtle thing that’s spirit,” he said, in Pacchiarotto. He laid stress “on the incidents in the development of a soul,” he tells us, in his preface to Sordello, “little else is worth study.” This was more than a fundamental idea to Browning, it was a constitutional propensity; and it drove him to the drama. But the confession of it implies the consciousness of a mission, and the artist, at his best, knows no mission of that kind. He is in the service of no conception that the intellect can shape or express, or of no purpose that the will can frame and fix. His rapture is as fine and careless as that of the thrush, and he is snatched up and away by themes that define themselves only in the process of creation and, in the end, escape all definition and stand forth as miracles. But this absence of purpose we do not often find in Browning. His dramatic pieces are not at leisure; the poet himself never strolls, but is always set upon some business, even among his Garden Fancies.

    For the same reason, there are no genuine little incidents in Browning’s plays. Little things are apt to be symbolic—pinpoint rays of intense light coming from afar are imprisoned in them: they suggest grave meanings: possibly, for instance, the failure of the whole life, through making love, at some moment, a merely second-best.

  • Why did not you pinch a flower
  • In a pellet of clay and fling it?
  • Why did not I put a power
  • Of thanks in a look, or sing it?
  • The whole atmosphere of the plays is heavily charged with significance; and many characters, in consequence, are, from beginning to end, in some highly-strung mood. There is tragic tension in the very first words that Mildred speaks: “Sit, Henry—do not take my hand.” The moral strain deepens with the next question, and it is never relaxed. No breath of fresh air from the unheeding outer world comes to break the spell, and, at the same time, to deepen, by contrast, the pathos and tragedy of Mildred’s overmastering consciousness that she does not deserve, and will never hold in her arms, the happiness that seemed to stand close by.

    It is, probably, this preliminary, purposive surcharging of the characters and incidents that led Dowden to say that

  • the dramatic genius of Browning was in the main of the static kind; it studies with extraordinary skill and subtlety character in position; it attains only an imperfect or laboured success with character in movement.
  • As it stands, this dictum is unsound. Restless energy is always straining against the poet’s control. His genius is dramatic, precisely in virtue of the sense of movement which it conveys, and the feeling that life is process and nothring else, a continuous new creation of itself carried on by itself. Even in The Ring and the Book, where the poet not only knows but tells the end at the beginning, the dramatic quality of movement is present. The story expands at each telling, like circles in water. The facts are transformed with each successive telling of them, by one and the other Half-Rome, Guido, Caponsacchi, Pompilia, The Pope and the lawyers. Not for a moment does the story stand still, nor does the reader feel that he is being told of past events, as in listening to an essentially epic poet, like Milton. Browning’s poems are never stagnant: tragedy never hangs overhead, as in Hamlet, a black, motionless, delayed thundercloud; but the lightning is always ablaze. There are crowded happenings, and the heat and hurry of situations crashing into their consequences. Browning’s genius is essentially dynamic, and there is abundant movement.

    What Browning’s characters lack is objectivity—if we may borrow a term from the philosophers. Such is the intensity of his interest in “the incidents in the development of a soul” that it transfuses not only the dramatis personae but the world in which they live. The outer world is not genuinely outer. It does not exist for its own sake, carrying on its own processes, “going on just the same,” whether men and women laugh or weep, live or die, utterly indifferent to every fate, distinguishing not in the least between great things and small, evil things and good, allowing “both the proudly riding and the foundering bark.” It is not a world aloof from man, non-moral and, on surface reading, non-rational, the sphere of sheer caprice and the playground of accident. The world is the stage and background for Browning’s characters and supplies the scenery they need.

    What is done by his personages, therefore, is not the result of intercourse between human character and what, in itself, is an entirely natural world. And, consequently, what takes place lacks that appearance of contingency in collusion with necessity of which the true dramatist makes tragic use. When he is most completely under the spell of his muse, the true dramatist cannot tell beforehand what will happen to his men and women, or how they will behave. He is at the mercy of two unknowns: the inexhaustible possibilities of man’s nature, and of the response which it will make to the never-ending contingencies of an indifferent outer world. He has no preconceived theory, no scheme of life, no uniformities or necessities which can be labelled: the unity of his work, as a work of art, has some more mystic source than any of these things. But we cannot quite say this of Browning. His men and women cannot be called embodiments of Ápriori conceptions; meant to illustrate a doctrine or point a moral; and, yet, their intercourse with their fellows and interaction with the world have no genuinely fashioning potency. Nothing quite new or quite unexpected ever happens to them. They are not in a world where unexpected things are permitted to happen. Had not Macbeth happened to meet the witches on the moor, with the excitement of the battle not yet subsided in his blood, he might have lived and died a loyal and victorious general. And what side-winds of mere accidents there are in Othello and Hamlet! These dramas are like life, because the fate which is irresistible comes clothed in accident and with its chaplet all awry and as careless as that of a Bacchic dancer. The accidents seem trivial, too, and might easily not have taken place or have been turned aside, until they have taken place. Then, and not till then, do we feel that they were meant, and that they were as inevitable as destiny.

    But Browning’s plays can be seen from afar to march straightforward to their consummation; and the world in which they take place is all too obtrusively “a moral order.” The personages are, from the first, inwardly charged with some dominant passion or propensity. They are dedicated, even when they are complex, to some one form of good or of evil; and some one misdeed stains the whole of life like ink in water. They are enveloped in their own atmosphere, and outer incidents cannot affect their career; carried along by the powers within as if by a driving storm; freighted full from the first with their destiny: Pym with his love of England; Mildred with the guilt of her innocence; Luria with his “own East”; Tresham with the pride of family and the ’scutcheon without a blot; Valence with his stormy rectitude and great heart.

    This is the only sense in which Browning’s dramas lack movement, and his method may be called static. His characters are impervious to outward influence, except in so far as it serves to discharge what is already within. Within the inner realm of passions, emotions, volitions, ambitions, and the world which these catch up in their career, there is no lack of movement. A plenitude of powers all active are revealed by him: they co-operate, sever, mingle, collide, combine, and are all astrain—but they are all psychical. Browning places us in the parliament of the mind. It is the powers of mind to which we listen in high debate. And we are reminded by them of the fugues of Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha:

  • One dissertates, he is candid;
  • Two must discept-has distinguished;
  • Three helps the couple, if ever yet man did;
  • Four protests; Five makes a dart at the thing wished:
  • Back to One, goes the case bandied.
  • And they require scope to declare themselves, as they reveal the wonder-world of the human soul.

    Now, we have stated these points somewhat fully because they seem to throw light upon the whole of Browning’s work as a poet. The tendency towards dwelling upon ideal issues rather than upon outer deeds, on the significance of facts for souls, and the insignificance of all things save in the soul’s context, was always present in Browning; so, also, was the tendency towards monologue, with its deliberate, ordered persistency. And both of these tendencies grew. External circumstance became, more and more, the mere garb of the inner mood; deeds, more and more, the creatures of thoughts; and all real values were, more and more, undisguisedly ideal ministrants to man’s need of beauty, or goodness, or love and happiness.

    But to say this is to admit not only that the dramatic element in his poetry was on the wane, but that his poetry was itself becoming more deliberately reflective. And the spirit of reflection which rejects first appearances, sublimates sense and its experience into meanings, is, to say the least, as characteristic of philosophy as it is of art. It is philosophy rather than art which concentrates upon principles, and which allows facts and events to dwindle into instances of general laws. Art must value a thing for what it is in itself, not for the truth which it exemplifies. The reference of the beautiful object beyond itself to a beauty that is eternal must be, for art, as undesigned as the music of a harp swung in the wind. And, when a poet takes to illustrating themes, or the unity of his poems, instead of being a mystic harmony of elements mingling of themselves, comes of a set purpose which can be stated in words, then, indeed, is the glory of art passing into the grey. The poet outlived the dramatist in Browning, and, if the poet did not succumb to the philosopher, it was because of the strength of the purely lyrical element in his soul and the marvellous wealth of his sensuous and emotional endowments. His humanity was too richly veined for him to become an abstract thinker; and certain apparent accidents of his outer life conspired with the tendencies of his poetic genius to lead them away from the regular drama.

    One of these was his quarrel over A Blot in the ’Scutcheon with Macready, for whom and at whose request this play was written. But Macready’s affairs were entangled; he would withdraw from his arrangement with Browning, was not frank with him, but shuffled: and Browning was angered, imperious and explosive. The play was produced but “damned,” apparently not by the audience but by Macready’s own stage and press arrangements. The Times pronounced it “one of the most faulty dramas we ever beheld,” and The Athenaeum called it “a puzzling and unpleasant business,” and the characters inscrutable and abhorrent. This was in 1843.

    The quarrel with Macready was not the poet’s only unpleasant experience of the stage. Soon after this incident, Charles Kean negotiated with Browning for a suitable play, and, in March, 1844, Colombe’s Birthday was read to him and approved. But Kean asked that it should be left with him, unpublished, till the Easter of the following year. Browning, however, thought the long delay unreasonable, was, possibly, doubtful of the actor’s good faith and resolved to publish the play at once. It was not acted till 1853, when it was produced by Phelps with Helen Faucit as heroine and ran for a fortnight. But it was reviewed on publication by Forster—who said that he abominated the tastes of Browning as much as he respected his genius. Forster repented, called on Browning and was “very profuse of graciocities”; but their friendship had received a fatal injury. Browning concluded that there was too much “spangle” and “smutch” in connection with actors, and wrote no more for the stage.

    During the years 1844–5, Browning made a series of contributions to Hood’s Magazine. The series included The Flight of the Duchess and The Bishop orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church. The poet, having gone to Italy in 1844, and having visited the grave of Shelley, had turned into the little church of Saint Prassede near Santa Maria Maggiore.