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[ROBERT BROWNING was born in 1812. His father was an official in the Bank of England, his mother of Scotch and German origin. In 1833 he published Pauline ; in 1835 Paracelsus. In 1837 his tragedy of Strafford was produced by Macready, and in 1841, A Blot on the Scutcheon. Sordello appeared in 1840. From 1841 to 1846 he produced a series of poems under the name of Bells and Pomegranates : it comprised most of his plays and some of his finest Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, but it had not a large sale. In 1846 he married Elizabeth Barrett, the poetess, and they lived in Italy till her death in 1861. During these years he published Christmas Eve and Easter Day, In a Balcony, and Men and Women. He returned to England in 1861 and lived chiefly in London. In 1864 he published Dramatis Personæ ; in 1868-9 The Ring and the Book. During the last twenty years of his life his literary activity was great. He published Balaustion's Adventure, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Fifine at the Fair, Aristophanes' Apology, The Agamemnon of Æschylus, The Inn Album, Pachiarotto, La Saisiaz, The Two Poets of Croisic, Dramatic Idyls, Jocoseria, Ferishtah's Fancies, Parleyings with certain People of Importance in their Day. He died at Venice on Dec. 12, 1889, and almost on the same day was published his latest volume of poems, Asolando. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.]
Seventy years ago the critics and the public alike were bowing Tom Moore into the House of Fame and letting down the latch upon Shelley and Keats outside. This and other shocking examples of the vanity of contemporary criticism might impose eternal silence on the critic, did they not also make it plain that his mistakes are of no earthly consequence. For such door-keepers are but mortals, and the immortals have plenty of time; they keep on knocking. The door was obdurately shut against Browning for many years, but when it opened, it opened wide; and he is surely not of those whom another age shows out by the back way. But his exact position in England's House of Fame that other age must determine. Mere versatility does not there count for much ; since in the scales of time one thing right well done is sure to outweigh many pretty well done. But that variousness of genius which
springs from a wide-sweeping imagination and sympathies that range with it counts for very much. In his comprehension of the varied aspects of human nature, in his power of dramatically presenting them, Browning stands alone among the poets of a great poetic age. Will these things loom larger in the distance, or when Prince Posterity comes to be King, will his royal eye be caught first by uncouth forms, by obscurities and weary prolixities? We cannot tell whether our poet will be freshly crowned or coldly honoured, for he beyond all others is the intellectual representative of his own .generation, and his voice is still confused and it may be magnified by its echoes in the minds of his hearers.
His own generation indeed meant more than one. He represented in some respects the generation into which he was born, but yet more a later one which he ante-dated. This being so, he could not expect an eager welcome from his earlier contemporaries. Phantoms of the past are recognisable, and respectable, but phantoms of the future are rarely popular. Yet it was fortunate that he stood just where he did in time, rather than nearer to those who were coming to meet him and call him Master. For he was born while the divine breath of Poetry, that comes we know not whence and goes we know not whither, was streaming over England. He grew up through years when she stood elate, with victory behind her, and looking forward with all manner of sanguine beliefs in the future. So he brought into a later age not only the fuller poetic inspiration, the sincere Romance of the earlier, but its sanguine confident temperament. This temperament alone would not have recommended him to a generation which had been promised Canaan and landed in a quagmire, had it not been combined with others which made him one of themselves. But this being so, his cheerful courage, his belief in God and the ultimate triumph of good were as a tower of strength to his weaker brethren. It was not only as a poet, but as a prophet or philosopher, that he won his disciples. He himself once said that 'the right order of things' is 'Philosophy first, and Poetry, which is its highest outcome, afterwards. Yet this union of Philosophy and Poetry is dangerous, especialıy if Philosophy be allowed to take precedence. For Philosophy is commonly more perishable than Poetry, or at any rate it is apt sooner to require resetting to rid it of an antiquated air. Whatever is worth having in the philosophy of a Rousseau soon passes into the common stock. Emile is dead, but Rousseau lives by his pictures of beautiful Nature and singular human nature.
Browning's philosophy is mainly religious. It has been said of him with truth : ‘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 was not so much due to a defect in his own mind as to the circumstances of the world of thought about him. An interest in theological questions had been quickened and spread by more than one religious revival, and then scientific and historical criticism began to make its voice heard. Intelligent religious people could not close their ears to it, but they were as yet unprepared either to accept or to effectually combat its conclusions. Hence there arose in very many minds a confusion between two opposing strains of thought, similar to that which has been remarked in Browning's poetry, and something like a religious system in which what was called Doubt and Faith had each its allotted part. Here was plainly a transition state of thought, and it is one from which men's minds have already moved away in opposite directions ; but it has left deep traces on the literature of the middle Victorian period. Browning's philosophy does not fundamentally differ from that of other poets and writers of the time. It was by his superior powers of analysis, by the swiftness and ingenuity of his mind, that he was in advance of them and retained his influence over a generation that had ceased to look to them for guidance. Besides, his philosophy does not all bear the stamp of the temporary. He has some less transient religious thoughts, and many varied and ferti'e views of human life, breathing energy, courage, benignant wisdom; and those who like can make a system of them.
But it is not by Philosophy, it is by Imagination and Form that a poet lives. In a century that has been wonderfully enriched with song, a time when we have all grown epicures in our taste for exquisite verse, too much has been said about Browning's want of form. It would be an absurdity to call a man a poet who had no sense of poetic form, who could not sing. Browning was a poet but not always a singer ; song was not to him the inevitable language, the supremie instinct. When he strains his metre by attempting to pack more meaning into a line than it will bear with grace, when he juggles with far-fetched and hideous rhymes, he really ceases to be a poet and puts his laurels in jeopardy. But oftener his form, more especially his blank verse form, is justified by the fact that he is essentially a dramatic poet ; his verse must fit the character and the mood in which he speaks. The Elizabethans, who were no