Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
Public Domain Books
Chapter IV. Browning’s Optimism.
“Gladness be with thee, Helper of the World! I think this is the authentic sign and seal Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad, And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts Into a rage to suffer for mankind, And recommence at sorrow."[A]
[Footnote A: Balaustion’s Adventure.]
I have tried to show that one of the distinctive features of the present era is the stress it lays on the worth of the moral life of man, and the new significance it has given to that life by its view of the continuity of history. This view finds expression, on its social and ethical side, in the pages of Carlyle and Browning: both of whom are interested exclusively, one may almost say, in the evolution of human character; and both of whom, too, regard that evolution as the realization by man of the purposes, greater than man’s, which rule in the world. And, although neither of them developed the organic view of humanity, which is implied in their doctrines, into an explicit philosophy, still the moral life of the individual is for each of them the infinite life in the finite. The meaning of the universe is moral, its last might is rightness; and the task of man is to catch up that meaning, convert it into his own motive, and thereby make it the source of his actions, the inmost principle of his life. This, fully grasped, will bring the finite and the infinite, morality and religion, together, and reconcile them.
But the reconciliation which Carlyle sought to effect was incomplete on every side–even within the sphere of duty, with which alone, as moralist, he specially concerned himself. The moral law was imposed upon man by a higher power, in the presence of whom man was awed and crushed; for that power had stinted man’s endowment, and set him to fight a hopeless battle against endless evil. God was everywhere around man, and the universe was just the expression of His will–a will inexorably bent on the good, so that evil could not prevail; but God was not withinman, except as a voice of conscience issuing imperatives and threats. An infinite duty was laid upon a finite being, and its weight made him break out into a cry of despair.
Browning, however, not only sought to bring about the reconciliation, but succeeded, in so far as that is possible in terms of mere feeling. His poetry contains suggestions that the moral will without is also a force within man; that the power which makes for righteousness in the world has penetrated into, or rather manifests itself as, man. Intelligence and will, the reason which apprehends the nature of things, and the original impulse of self-conscious life which issues in action, are God’s power in man; so that God is realizing Himself in the deeds of man, and human history is just His return to Himself. Outer law and inner motive are, for the poet, manifestations of the same beneficent purpose; and instead of duty in the sense of an autocratic imperative, or beneficent tyranny, he finds, deep beneath man’s foolishness and sin, a constant tendency towards the good which is bound up with the very nature of man’s reason and will. If man could only understand himself he would find without him no limiting necessity, but the manifestation of a law which is one with his own essential being. A beneficent power has loaded the dice, according to the epigram, so that the chances of failure and victory are not even; for man’s nature is itself a divine endowment, one with the power that rules his life, and man must finally reach through error to truth, and through sin to holiness. In the language of theology, it may be said that the moral process is the spiritual incarnation of God; it is God’s goodness as love, effecting itself in human action. Hence Carlyle’s cry of despair is turned by Browning into a song of victory. While the former regards the struggle between good and evil as a fixed battle, in which the forces are immovably interlocked, the latter has the consciousness of battling against a retreating foe; and the conviction of coming triumph gives joyous vigour to every stroke. Browning lifted morality into an optimism, and translated its battle into song. This was the distinctive mark and mission which give to him such power of moral inspiration.
In order, however, to estimate the value of this feature of the poet’s work, it is necessary to look more closely into the character of his faith in the good. Merely to attribute to him an optimistic creed is to say very little; for the worth, or worthlessness, of such a creed depends upon its content–upon its fidelity to the facts of human life, the clearness of its consciousness of the evils it confronts, and the intensity of its realism.
There is a sense, and that a true one, in which it may be said that all men are optimists; for such a faith is implied in every conscious and deliberate action of man. There is no deed which is not an attempt to realize an ideal; whenever man acts he seeks a good, however ruinously he may misunderstand its nature. Final and absolute disbelief in an ultimate good in the sphere of morals, like absolute scepticism in the sphere of knowledge, is a disguised self-contradiction, and therefore an impossibility in fact. The one stultifies action, and asserts an effect without any cause, or even contrary to the cause; the other stultifies intellectual activity: and both views imply that the critic has so escaped the conditions of human life, as to be able to pass a condemnatory judgment upon them. The belief that a harmonious relation between the self-conscious agent and the supreme good is possible, underlies the practical activity of man; just as the belief in the unity of thought and being underlies his intellectual activity. A moral order–that is, an order of rational ends–is postulated in all human actions, and we act at all only in virtue of it,–just as truly as we move and work only in virtue of the forces which make the spheres revolve, or think by help of the meaning which presses upon us from the thought-woven world, through all the pores of sense. A true ethics, like a true psychology, or a true science of nature, must lean upon metaphysics, and it cannot pretend to start ab initio. We live in the Copernican age, which puts the individual in a system, in obedience to whose laws he finds his welfare. And this is simply the assertion of an optimistic creed, for it implies a harmonious world.
But, though this is true, it must be remembered that this faith is a prophetic anticipation, rather than acquired knowledge. We are only on the way towards reconstructing in thought the fact which we are, or towards bringing into clear knowledge the elemental power which manifests itself within us as thought, desire, and deed. And, until this is achieved, we have no full right to an optimistic creed. The revelation of the unity which pervades all things, even in the natural world, will be the last attainment of science; and the reconciliation of nature and man and God is still further in the future, and will be the last triumph of philosophy. During all the interval the world will be a scene of warring elements; and poetry, religion, and philosophy can only hold forth a promise, and give to man a foretaste of ultimate victory. And in this state of things even their assurance often falters. Faith lapses into doubt, poetry becomes a wail for a lost god, and its votary exhibits, “through Europe to the AEtolian shore, the pageant of his bleeding heart.” The optimistic faith is, as a rule, only a hope and a desire, a “Grand Perhaps,” which knows no defence against the critical understanding, and sinks dumb when questioned. If, in the form of a religious conviction, its assurance is more confident, then, too often, it rests upon the treacherous foundations of authoritative ignorance, which crumble into dust beneath the blows of awakened and liberated reason. Nay, if by the aid of philosophy we turn our optimism into a faith held by reason, a fact before which the intellect, as well as the heart, worships and grows glad, it still is for most of us only a general hypothesis, a mere leap to God which spurns the intermediate steps, a universal without content, a bare form that lacks reality.
Such an optimism, such a plunge into the pure blue and away from facts, was Emerson’s. Caroline Fox tells a story of him and Carlyle which reveals this very pointedly. It seems that Carlyle once led the serene philosopher through the abominations of the streets of London at midnight, asking him with grim humour at every few steps, “Do you believe in the devil now?” Emerson replied that the more he saw of the English people the greater and better he thought them. This little incident lays bare the limits of both these great men. Where the one saw, the other was blind. To the one there was the misery and the universal mirk; to the other, the pure white beam was scarcely broken. Carlyle believed in the good, beyond all doubt: he fought his great battle in its strength and won, but “he was sorely wounded.” Emerson was Sir Galahad, blind to all but the Holy Grail, his armour spotless-white, his virtue cloistered and unbreathed, his race won without the dust and heat. But his optimism was too easy to be satisfactory. His victory was not won in the enemy’s citadel, where sin sits throned amidst the chaos, but in the placid upper air of poetic imagination. And, in consequence, Emerson can only convince the converted; and his song is not heard in the dark, nor does it cheer the wayfarer on the muddy highway, along which burthened humanity meanly toils.
But Browning’s optimism is more earnest and real than any pious hope, or dogmatic belief, or benevolent theory held by a placid philosopher, protected against contact with the sins and sorrows of man as by an invisible garment of contemplative holiness. It is a conviction which has sustained shocks of criticism and the test of facts; and it therefore, both for the poet and his readers, fulfils a mission beyond the reach of any easy trust in a mystic good. Its power will be felt and its value recognized by those who have themselves confronted the contradictions of human life and known their depths.
No lover of Browning’s poetry can miss the vigorous manliness of the poet’s own bearing, or fail to recognize the strength that flows from his joyous, fearless personality, and the might of his intellect and heart. “When British literature,” said Carlyle of Scott and Cobbett, “lay all puking and sprawling in Wertherism, Byronism and other Sentimentalisms, nature was kind enough to send us two healthy men.” And he breaks out into a eulogy of mere health, of “the just balance of faculties that radiates a glad light outwards, enlightening and embellishing all things.” But he finds it easy to account for the health of these men: they had never faced the mystery of existence. Such healthiness we find in Browning, although he wrote with Carlyle at his side, and within earshot of the infinite wail of this moral fatalist. And yet, the word health is inadequate to convey the depth of the joyous meaning which the poet found in the world. His optimism was not a constitutional and irreflective hopefulness, to be accounted for on the ground that “the great mystery of existence was not great to him: did not drive him into rocky solitudes to wrestle with it for an answer, to be answered or to perish.” There are, indeed, certain rash and foolish persons who pretend to trace Browning’s optimism to his mixed descent; but there is a “pause in the leading and the light” of those wiseacres, who pretend to trace moral and mental characteristics to physiological antecedents. They cannot quite catch a great man in the making, nor, even by the help of evolution, say anything wiser about genius than that “the wind bloweth where it listeth.” No doubt the poet’s optimism indicates a native sturdiness of head and heart. He had the invaluable endowment of a pre-disposition to see the sunny side of life, and a native tendency to revolt against that subjectivity, which is the root of our misery in all its forms. He had little respect for the Welt-schmerz, and can scarcely be civil to the hero of the bleeding heart.
“Sinning, sorrowing, despairing, Body-ruined, spirit-wrecked– Should I give my woes an airing,– Where’s one plague that claims respect?
“Have you found your life distasteful? My life did, and does, smack sweet. Was your youth of pleasure wasteful? Mine I saved and hold complete. Do your joys with age diminish? When mine fail me I’ll complain. Must in death your daylight finish? My sun sets to rise again.
“I find earth not grey but rosy, Heaven not grim but fair of hue. Do I stoop? I pluck a posy. Do I stand and stare? All’s blue."[A]
[Footnote A: At the Mermaid.]
Browning was no doubt least of all men inclined to pout at his “plain bun"; on the contrary, he was awake to the grandeur of his inheritance, and valued most highly “his life-rent of God’s universe with the tasks it offered and the tools to do them with.” But his optimism sent its roots deeper than any “disposition"; it penetrated beyond mere health of body and mind, as it did beyond a mere sentiment of God’s goodness. Optimisms resting on these bases are always weak; for the former leaves man naked and sensitive to the evils that crowd round him when the powers of body and mind decay, and the latter is, at best, useful only for the individual who possesses it, and it breaks down under the stress of criticism and doubt. Browning’s optimism is a great element in English literature, because it opposes with such strength the shocks that come from both these quarters. His joyousness is the reflection in feeling of a conviction as to the nature of things, which he had verified in the darkest details of human life, and established for himself in the face of the gravest objections that his intellect was able to call forth. In fact, its value lies, above all, in this,–that it comes after criticism, after the condemnation which Byron and Carlyle had passed, each from his own point of view, on the world and on man.
The need of an optimism is one of the penalties which reflection brings. Natural life takes the goodness of things for granted; but reflection disturbs the placid contentment and sets man at variance with his world. The fruit of the tree of knowledge always reveals his nakedness to man; he is turned out of the paradise of unconsciousness and doomed to force Nature, now conceived as a step-dame, to satisfy needs which are now first felt. Optimism is the expression of man’s new reconciliation with his world; as the opposite doctrine of pessimism is the consciousness of an unresolved contradiction. Both are a judgment passed upon the world, from the point of view of its adequacy or inadequacy to meet demands, arising from needs which the individual has discovered in himself.
Now, as I have tried to show, one of the main characteristics of the opening years of the present era was its deeper intuition of the significance of human life, and, therefore, by implication, of its wants and claims. The spiritual nature of man, lost sight of during the preceding age, was re-discovered; and the first and immediate consequence was that man, as man, attained infinite worth. “Man was born free,” cried Rousseau, with a conviction which swept all before it; “he has original, inalienable, and supreme rights against all things which can set themselves against him.” And Rousseau’s countrymen believed him. There was not a Sans-culotte amongst them all but held his head high, being creation’s lord; and history can scarcely show a parallel to their great burst of joy and hope, as they ran riot in their new-found inheritance, from which they had so long been excluded. They flung themselves upon the world, as if they would “glut their sense” upon it.
“Expend Eternity upon its shows, Flung them as freely as one rose Out of a summer’s opulence."[A]
[Footnote A:_Easter Day.]
But the very discovery that man is spirit, which is the source of all his rights, is also an implicit discovery that he has outgrown the resources of the natural world. The infinite hunger of a soul cannot be satisfied with the things of sense. The natural world is too limited even for Carlyle’s shoe-black; nor is it surprising that Byron should find it a waste, and dolefully proclaim his disappointment to much-admiring mankind. Now, both Carlyle and Browning apprehended the cause of the discontent, and both endured the Byronic utterance of it with considerable impatience. “Art thou nothing other than a vulture, then,” asks the former, “that fliest through the universe seeking after somewhat to eat, and shrieking dolefully because carrion enough is not given thee? Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.”
“Huntsman Common Sense Came to the rescue, bade prompt thwack of thong dispense Quiet i’ the kennel: taught that ocean might be blue, And rolling and much more, and yet the soul have, too, Its touch of God’s own flame, which He may so expand ’Who measured the waters i’ the hollow of His hand’ That ocean’s self shall dry, turn dew-drop in respect Of all-triumphant fire, matter with intellect Once fairly matched."[A]
[Footnote A:_Fifine at the Fair, lxvii.]
But Carlyle was always more able to detect the disease than to suggest the remedy. He had, indeed, “a glimpse of it.” “There is in man a Higher than love of Happiness: he can do without Happiness, and instead thereof find Blessedness.” But the glimpse was misleading, for it penetrated no further than the first negative step. The “Everlasting Yea” was, after all, only a deeper “No!” only Entsagung, renunciation: “the fraction of life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your numerator as by lessening your denominator.” Blessed alone is he that expecteth nothing. The holy of holies, where man hears whispered the mystery of life, is “the sanctuary of sorrow.” “What Act of Legislature was there that thou shouldst be Happy? A little while ago thou hadst no right to be at all. What if thou wert born and predestined not to be Happy, but to be Unhappy? Nay, is not ’life itself a disease, knowledge the symptom of derangement’? Have not the poets sung ’Hymns to the Night’ as if Night were nobler than Day; as if Day were but a small motley-coloured veil spread transiently over the infinite bosom of Night, and did but deform and hide from us its pure transparent eternal deeps.” “We, the whole species of Mankind, and our whole existence and history, are but a floating speck in the illimitable ocean of the All ... borne this way and that way by its deep-swelling tides, and grand ocean currents, of which what faintest chance is there that we should ever exhaust the significance, ascertain the goings and comings? A region of Doubt, therefore, hovers for ever in the back-ground.... Only on a canvas of Darkness, such is man’s way of being, could the many-coloured picture of our Life paint itself and shine.”
In such passages as these, there is far deeper pessimism than in anything which Byron could experience or express. Scepticism is directed by Carlyle, not against the natural elements of life–the mere sensuous outworks, but against the citadel of thought itself. Self-consciousness, or the reflecting interpretation by man of himself and his world, the very activity that lifts him above animal existence and makes him man, instead of being a divine endowment, is declared to be a disease, a poisonous subjectivity destructive of all good. The discovery that man is spirit and no vulture, which was due to Carlyle himself more than to any other English writer of his age, seemed, after all, to be a great calamity; for it led to the renunciation of happiness, and filled man with yearnings after a better than happiness, but left him nothing wherewith they might be satisfied, except “the duty next to hand.” And the duty next to hand, as interpreted by Carlyle, is a means of suppressing by action, not idle speech only, but thought itself. But, if this be true, the highest in man is set against itself. And what kind of action remains possible to a “speck on the illimitable ocean, borne this way and that way by its deep-swelling tides”? “Here on earth we are soldiers, fighting in a foreign land; that understand not the plan of the campaign, and have no need to understand it, seeing what is at our hand to be done.” But there is one element of still deeper gloom in this blind fighting; it is fought for a foreign cause. It is God’s cause and not ours, or ours only in so far as it has been despotically imposed upon us; and it is hard to discover from Carlyle what interest we can have in the victory. Duty is to him a menace–like the duty of a slave, were that possible. It lacks the element which alone can make it imperative to a free being, namely, that it be recognized as his good, and that the outer law become his inner motive. The moral law is rarely looked at by Carlyle as a beneficent revelation, and still more rarely as the condition which, if fulfilled, will reconcile man with nature and with God. And consequently, he can draw little strength from religion; for it is only love that can cast out fear.
To sum up all in a word, Carlyle regarded evil as having penetrated into the inmost recesses of man’s being. Thought was disease; morality was blind obedience to a foreign authority; religion was awe of an Unknowable, with whom man can claim no kinship. Man’s nature was discovered to be spiritual, only on the side of its Wants. It was an endowment of a hunger which nothing could satisfy–not the infinite, because it is too great, not the finite, because it is too little; not God, because He is too far above man, not nature, because it is too far beneath him. We are unable to satisfy ourselves with the things of sense, and are also “shut out of the heaven of spirit.” What have been called, “the three great terms of thought"–the World, Self, and God–have fallen asunder in his teaching. It is the difficulty of reconciling these which brings despair, while optimism is evidently the consciousness of their harmony.
Now, these evils which reflection has revealed, and which are so much deeper than those of mere sensuous disappointment, can only be removed by deeper reflection. The harmony of the world of man’s experience, which has been broken by “the comprehensive curse of sceptical despair," can, as Goethe teaches us, be restored only by thought–
“In thine own soul, build it up again.”
The complete refutation of Carlyle’s pessimistic view can only come, by reinterpreting each of the contradicting terms in the light of a higher conception. We must have a deeper grasp and a new view of the Self, the World, and God. And such a view can be given adequately only by philosophy. Reason alone can justify the faith that has been disturbed by reflection, and re-establish its authority.
How, then, it may be asked, can a poet be expected to turn back the forces of a scepticism, which have been thus armed with the weapons of dialectic? Can anything avail in this region except explicit demonstration? A poet never demonstrates, but perceives; art is not a process, but a result; truth for it is immediate, and it neither admits nor demands any logical connection of ideas. The standard-bearers and the trumpeters may be necessary to kindle the courage of the army and to lead it on to victory, but the fight must be won by the thrust of sword and pike. Man needs more than the intuitions of the great poets, if he is to maintain solid possession of the truth.
Now, I am prepared to admit the force of this objection, and I shall endeavour in the sequel to prove that, in order to establish optimism, more is needed than Browning can give, even when interpreted in the most sympathetic way. His doctrine is offered in terms of art, and it cannot have any demonstrative force without violating the limits of art. In some of his poems, however,–for instance, in La Saisiaz, Ferishtatis Fancies and the Parleyings, Browning sought to advance definite proofs of the theories which he held. He appears before us at times armed cap-à-pie, like a philosopher. Still, it is not when he argues that Browning proves: it is when he sees, as a poet sees. It is not by means of logical demonstrations that he helps us to meet the despair of Carlyle, or contributes to the establishment of a better faith. Browning’s proofs are least convincing when he was most aware of his philosophical presuppositions; and a philosophical critic could well afford to agree with the critic of art, in relegating the demonstrating portions of his poems to the chaotic limbo lying between philosophy and poetry.
When, however, he forgets his philosophy, and speaks as poet and religious man, when he is dominated by that sovereign thought which gave unity to his life-work, and which, therefore, seemed to lie deeper in him than the necessities of his art and to determine his poetic function, his utterances have a far higher significance. For he so lifts the artistic object into the region of pure thought, and makes sense and reason so to interpenetrate, that the old metaphors of “the noble lie" and “the truth beneath the veil” seem no longer to help. He seems to show us the truth so vividly and simply, that we are less willing to make art and philosophy mutually exclusive, although their methods differ. Like some of the greatest philosophers, and notably Plato and Hegel, he constrains us to doubt, whether the distinction penetrates low beneath the surface; for philosophy, too, when at its best, is a thinking of things together. In their light we begin to ask, whether it is not possible that the interpretation of the world in terms of spirit, which is the common feature of both Hegel’s philosophy and Browning’s poetry, does not necessarily bring with it a settlement of the ancient feud between these two modes of thought.
But, in any case, Browning’s utterances, especially those which he makes when he is most poet and least philosopher, have something of the convincing impressiveness of a reasoned system of optimism. And this comes, as already suggested, from his loyalty to a single idea, which gives unity to all his work. That idea we may, in the end, be obliged to treat not only as a hypothesis–for all principles of reconciliation, even those of the sciences, as long as knowledge is incomplete, must be regarded as hypotheses–but also as a hypothesis which he had no right to assume. It may be that in the end we shall be obliged to say of him, as of so many others–
“See the sage, with the hunger for the truth, And see his system that’s all true, except The one weak place, that’s stanchioned by a lie!"[A]
[Footnote A: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
It may be that the religious form, through which he generally reaches his convictions, is not freed from a dogmatic element, which so penetrates his thought as to vitiate it as a philosophy. Nevertheless, it answered for the poet all the uses of a philosophy, and it may do the same for many who are distrustful of the systems of the schools, and who are “neither able to find a faith nor to do without one.” It contains far-reaching hints of a reconciliation of the elements of discord in our lives, and a suggestion of a way in which it may be demonstrated, that an optimistic theory is truer to facts than any scepticism or agnosticism, with the despair that they necessarily bring.
For Browning not only advanced a principle, whereby, as he conceived, man might again be reconciled to the world and God, and all things be viewed as the manifestation of a power that is benevolent; he also sought to apply his principle to the facts of life. He illustrates his fundamental hypothesis by means of these facts; and he tests its validity with the persistence and impressive candour of a scientific investigator. His optimism is not that of an eclectic, who can ignore inconvenient difficulties. It is not an attempt to justify the whole by neglecting details, or to make wrong seem right by reference to a far-off result, in which the steps of the process are forgotten. He stakes the value of his view of life on its power to meet all facts; one fact, ultimately irreconcilable with his hypothesis, will, he knows, destroy it.
“All the same, Of absolute and irretrievable black,–black’s soul of black Beyond white’s power to disintensify,– Of that I saw no sample: such may wreck My life and ruin my philosophy Tomorrow, doubtless."[A]
[Footnote A: A Bean Stripe–Ferishtah’s Fancies.]
He knew that, to justify God, he had to justify all His ways to man; that if the good rules at all, it rules absolutely; and that a single exception would confute his optimism.
“So, gazing up, in my youth, at love As seen through power, ever above All modes which make it manifest, My soul brought all to a single test– That He, the Eternal First and Last, Who, in His power, had so surpassed All man conceives of what is might,– Whose wisdom, too, showed infinite, –Would prove as infinitely good; Would never, (my soul understood,) With power to work all love desires, Bestow e’en less than man requires."[B]
[Footnote B: Christmas Eve.]
“No: love which, on earth, amid all the shows of it, Has ever been seen the sole good of life in it, The love, ever growing there, spite of the strife in it, Shall arise, made perfect, from death’s repose of it. And I shall behold Thee, face to face, O God, and in Thy light retrace How in all I loved here, still wast Thou!"[C]
[Footnote C: Ibid.]
We can scarcely miss the emphasis of the poet’s own conviction in these passages, or in the assertion that,–
“The acknowledgment of God in Christ Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee All questions in the earth and out of it, And has so far advanced thee to be wise."[A]
[Footnote A: A Death in the Desert.]
Consequently, there is a defiant and aggressive element in his attitude. Strengthened with an unfaltering faith in the supreme Good, this knight of the Holy Spirit goes forth over all the world seeking out wrongs. “He has,” said Dr. Westcott, “dared to look on the darkest and meanest forms of action and passion, from which we commonly and rightly turn our eyes, and he has brought back for us from this universal survey a conviction of hope.” I believe, further, that it was in order to justify this conviction that he set out on his quest. His interest in vice–in malice, cruelty, ignorance, brutishness, meanness, the irrational perversity of a corrupt disposition, and the subtleties of philosophic and aesthetic falsehood–was no morbid curiosity. Browning was no “painter of dirt"; no artist can portray filth for filth’s sake, and remain an artist. He crowds his pages with criminals, because he sees deeper than their crimes. He describes evil without “palliation or reserve,” and allows it to put forth all its might, in order that he may, in the end, show it to be subjected to God’s purposes. He confronts evil in order to force it to give up the good, which is all the reality that is in it. He conceives it as his mission to prove that evil is “stuff for transmuting,” and that there is nought in the world.
“But, touched aright, prompt yields each particle its tongue Of elemental flame–no matter whence flame sprung, From gums and spice, or else from straw and rottenness.”
All we want is–
“The power to make them burn, express What lights and warms henceforth, leaves only ash behind, Howe’er the chance."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair.]
He had Pompilia’s faith.
“And still, as the day wore, the trouble grew, Whereby I guessed there would be born a star.”
He goes forth in the might of his faith in the power of good, as if he wished once for all to try the resources of evil at their uttermost, and pass upon it a complete and final condemnation. With this view, he seeks evil in its own haunts. He creates Guido, the subtlest and most powerful compound of vice in our literature–except Iago, perhaps–merely in order that we may see evil at its worst; and he places him in an environment suited to his nature, as if he was carrying out an experimentum crucis. The
“Midmost blotch of black Discernible in the group of clustered crimes Huddling together in the cave they call Their palace."[B]
[Footnote B: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 869-872.]
Beside him are his brothers, each with his own “tint of hell"; his mistress, on whose face even Pompilia saw the glow of the nether pit “flash and fade"; and his mother–
“The gaunt grey nightmare in the furthest smoke, The hag that gave these three abortions birth, Unmotherly mother and unwomanly Woman, that near turns motherhood to shame, Womanliness to loathing"[A]
[Footnote A: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 911-915.]
Such “denizens o’ the cave now cluster round Pompilia and heat the furnace sevenfold.” While she
“Sent prayer like incense up To God the strong, God the beneficent, God ever mindful in all strife and strait, Who, for our own good, makes the need extreme, Till at the last He puts forth might and saves."[B]
[Footnote B: The Ring and the Book–Pompilia, 1384-1388.]
In these lines we feel the poet’s purpose, constant throughout the whole poem. We know all the while that with him at our side we can travel safely through the depths of the Inferno–for the flames bend back from him; and it is only what we expect as the result of it all, that there should come
“A bolt from heaven to cleave roof and clear place, . . . . then flood And purify the scene with outside day– Which yet, in the absolutest drench of dark, Ne’er wants its witness, some stray beauty-beam To the despair of hell."[C]
[Footnote C: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 996-1003.]
The superabundant strength of Browning’s conviction in the supremacy of the good, which led him in The Ring and the Book to depict criminals at their worst, forced him later on in his life to exhibit evil in another form. The real meaning and value of such poems as Fifine at the Fair, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, Ferishtah’s Francies, and others, can only be determined by a careful and complete analysis of each of them. But they have one characteristic so prominent, and so new in poetry, that the most careless reader cannot fail to detect it. Action and dramatic treatment give place to a discussion which is metaphysical; instead of the conflict of motives within a character, the stress and strain of passion and will in collision with circumstances, there is reflection on action after it has passed, and the conflict of subtle arguments on the ethical value of motives and ways of conduct, which the ordinary moral consciousness condemns without hesitation. All agree that these poems represent a new departure in poetry, and some consider that in them the poet, in thus dealing with metaphysical abstractions, has overleapt the boundaries of the poetic art. To such critics, this later period seems the period of his decadence, in which the casuistical tendencies, which had already appeared in Bishop Blougram’s Apology, Mr. Sludge the Medium, and other poems, have overwhelmed his art, and his intellect, in its pride of strength, has grown wanton. Fifine at the Fair is said to be “a defence of inconstancy, or of the right of experiment in love.” Its hero, who is “a modern gentleman, a refined, cultured, musical, artistic and philosophic person, of high attainments, lofty aspirations, strong emotions, and capricious will,” produces arguments “wide in range, of profound significance and infinite ingenuity,” to defend and justify immoral intercourse with a gipsy trull. The poem consists of the speculations of a libertine, who coerces into his service truth and sophistry, and “a superabounding wealth of thought and imagery,” and with no further purpose on the poet’s part than the dramatic delineation of character. Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau is spoken of in a similar manner as the justification, by reference to the deepest principles of morality, of compromise, hypocrisy, lying, and a selfishness that betrays every cause to the individual’s meanest welfare. The object of the poet is “by no means to prove black white, or white black, or to make the worse appear the better reason, but to bring a seeming monster and perplexing anomaly under the common laws of nature, by showing how it has grown to be what it is, and how it can with more or less self-delusion reconcile itself to itself.”
I am not able to accept this as a complete explanation of the intention of the poet, except with reference to Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau. The Prince is a psychological study, like Mr. Sludge the Medium, and Bishop Blougram. No doubt he had the interest of a dramatist in the hero of Fifine at the Fair and in the hero of Red Cotton Nightcap Country; but, in these poems, his dramatic interest is itself determined by an ethical purpose, which is equally profound. His meeting with the gipsy at Pornic, and the spectacle of her unscrupulous audacity in vice, not only “sent his fancy roaming,” but opened out before him the fundamental problems of life. What I would find, therefore, in Fifine at the Fair is not the casuistic defence of an artistic and speculative libertine, but an earnest attempt on the part of the poet to prove,
“That, through the outward sign, the inward grace allures, And sparks from heaven transpierce earth’s coarsest covertures,– All by demonstrating the value of Fifine."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, xxviii.]
Within his scheme of the universal good he seeks to find a place even for this gipsy creature, who traffics “in just what we most pique us that we keep.” Having, in the Ring and the Book, challenged evil at its worst as it manifests itself practically in concrete characters and external action, and having wrung from it the victory of the good, in Fifine and in his other later poems he meets it again in the region of dialectic. In this sphere of metaphysical ethics, evil has assumed a more dangerous form, especially for an artist. His optimistic faith has driven the poet into a realm into which poetry never ventured before. His battle is now, not with flesh and blood, but with the subtler powers of darkness grown vocal and argumentative, and threatening to turn the poet’s faith in good into a defence of immorality, and to justify the worst evil by what is highest of all. Having indicated in outward fact “the need,” as well as the “transiency of sin and death,” he seeks here to prove that need, and seems, thereby, to degrade the highest truth of religion into a defence of the worst wickedness.
No doubt the result is sufficiently repulsive to the abstract moralist, who is apt to find in Fifine nothing but a casuistical and shameless justification of evil, which is blasphemy against goodness itself. We are made to “discover,” for instance, that
“There was just Enough and not too much of hate, love, greed and lust, Could one discerningly but hold the balance, shift The weight from scale to scale, do justice to the drift Of nature, and explain the glories by the shames Mixed up in man, one stuff miscalled by different names."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, cviii.]
We are told that–
“Force, guile were arms which earned My praise, not blame at all.”
Confronted with such utterances as these, it is only natural that, rather than entangle the poet in them, we should regard them as the sophistries of a philosophical Don Juan, powerful enough, under the stress of self-defence, to confuse the distinctions of right and wrong. But, as we shall try to show in the next chapter, such an apparent justification of evil cannot be avoided by a reflective optimist; and it is implicitly contained even in those religious utterances of Rabbi Ben Ezra, Christmas Eve, and A Death in the Desert, with which we not only identify the poet but ourselves, in so far as we share his faith that
“God’s in His heaven,– All’s right with the world.”
The poet had far too much speculative acumen to be ignorant of this, and too much boldness and strength of conviction in the might of the good, to refuse to confront the issues that sprang from it. In his later poems, as in his earlier ones, he is endeavouring to justify the ways of God to man; and the difficulties which surround him are not those of a casuist, but the stubborn questionings of a spirit, whose religious faith is thoroughly earnest and fearless. To a spirit so loyal to the truth, and so bold to follow its leading, the suppression of such problems is impossible; and, consequently, it was inevitable that he should use the whole strength of his dialectic to try those fundamental principles, on which the moral life of man is based. And it is this, I believe, which we find in Fifine, as in Ferishtah’s Fancies and the Parleyings; not an exhibition of the argumentative subtlety of a mind whose strength has become lawless, and which spends itself in intellectual gymnastics, that have no place within the realm of either the beautiful or the true.