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IS BROWNING DRAMATIC
BY ARTHUR SYMONS, ESQ.
Read at the 29th Meeting of the Browning Society, Friday,
I BELIEVE Some one has been good enough to compose an epigram on the Browning Society, in which he compares us to mice—or a mouse-nibbling at the bonds of an imprisoned lion: that is, Mr. Browning. The epigram is scarcely as polite as might be wished, and was hardly intended as a compliment; but it is a compliment. It matters little about the agency: the point of the story is that the lion was set free. Supposing there is an atom of truth in the comparison of the great poet whom we meet to study, to a fettered lion, of course it is evident that the fable must be carried out to the end; thus becoming an unintended prophecy of success on our part in removing the last links or meshes which impede the progress of Browning's poetry. And that there is an atom of truth in the comparison is true, although the comparison is a false one. The notion that Browning himself is fettered or impeded by inability to turn his thoughts into form, by natural awkwardness, natural unmusicalness, or I know not what, as some people really seem to think, is of course (and has been shown over and over again to be) ludicrous in the extreme. But that there is a hindrance somewhere, a something which checks or fails to excite the interest of the masses, is just as evident. The fault most certainly lies (to a great extent) with the people themselves, the people who look to poetry for what Mr. Browning once said his poetry never was intended to be, the solace of an afternoon cigar. Some of these persons would never, could never, care in the slightest degree for such a poet as Mr. Browning: any more than they would care for such a poet as Shakspere if they did not know that it was considered proper to admire him, that they had to at least profess an admiration for him if they did not wish to appear altogether stupid. Besides, is not the Merry Wives of Windsor very readable?
To such as these, we can, in the nature of the case, have nothing to say. But besides these, there are many people who have praiseworthy intentions, if inadequate means of fulfilling them. They find
in poetry a delight, instruction, stimulus; they catch some reflection, or at least refraction, of that light that never was on sea or land. But perhaps their mental media are not the most transparent, or perhaps, to leave metaphor and accept literal fact, they have not much time for what must be after all merely the refined recreation of a very few out of their hours. Suppose they take up Browning. They find themselves at once in a new atmosphere, where the throbbing of hearts is more audible than the sound of streams or of wind among the trees; where the eye grows dim, straining to see the unseen secrets of the human soul. They find that this poet is thoroughly in earnest and terribly original; knows nothing of the faint false lisp-language of the crockery swains of Parnassus, but has got a language of his own, stamped royally in his own mint, and capable of rhyming words quite other than "love" and "dove." They have to follow breathlessly their poet's pursuit of things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme; and to crown all, this poet will treat all the strange things as if a word or two of interpretation will be quite sufficient,-as if, that is, every reader were also a Browning! Charity is the best of the virtues; but the charity of Mr. Browning in respect of the intelligence of ordinary people, and their capacity for grasping subtle questions on a minute hint, is, as has been already noted, appalling. The readers are not Brownings; they will often fail to apprehend rightly the very drift of a poem (as Mr. Cotter Morison has so ably pointed out in his notes on Browning's subtlety and humour); they will find many things to repel them and throw them back on their prejudices; they will be disappointed, chagrined, exasperated; they will throw down the book!-These are the very real links and meshes of the fabled lion's chain; these links and meshes the Browning Society is doing its best to remove, and is removing, and no doubt will remove, so far as that is possible to be done.
It seems to me that one of the chief causes of prejudice and misconception in connection with the poetry of Robert Browning is due to what is usually called his "dramatic power." It is very common for admirers and non-admirers to say that Browning is specially distinguished as a dramatic poet; on the other hand, we are sometimes told—and have been told by persons not at all desirous of decrying the genius of the poet-that he is not dramatic. It is sometimes also suggested that there are dramatic poets and dramatic poets; that though Browning does not follow the modes of Shakspere, he is in a certain sense, and in a very true sense, dramatic, in spirit if not in form. But I do not think we see sufficient recognition of
the fact, that Browning works with quite a different intention to, and in quite a different manner from, Shakspere, and must be judged by other standards,—that is, by his own. It is no use to say-and yet it is so often said that a certain result, which we see perfected in Shakspere, is not attained in Browning; as if, that is, the latter had attempted to do the work of the former, and failed. The work that the poet of the nineteenth century tries to do, is not the same as the work of the poet of the sixteenth. The drama of Shakspere was a natural outcome of the circumstances and motives of his time, as they acted upon a mind supremely "receptive" (as Emerson says) and supremely creative. The vivid and adventurous England of the sixteenth century, full of youth and strength, full of curious delight in new acquisitions of strange and yet untried knowledge, but not yet overflooded with encyclopædical digests, and wisdom oppressive as folly, -this vivid and romantically practical time gave birth to the objective drama which culminated in Shakspere. But the dramatic tendency of Browning, feeling out for guidance and direction in the surrounding elements of his own time, could never naturally and healthily take the same course. About him, like the very air he breathes, lies this intensely subjective and analytic nineteenth century, with its dominant science seeking the very basis of life, and the key to the order of all the worlds; its music, the product of a late age and a complex civilization; its analytical novel; its infinite outlook and inlook, ceaseless restless gathering in of knowledge, ceaseless restless introspection. How, under these new conditions, could the same product ensue? Shakspere, in his objective drama, summed up into himself the whole character of his age; am I rash in saying that Browning also, in his subjective drama, epitomises our age?
To do so, as I have said, requires a new method. That method can, I think, be traced throughout the works of Robert Browning. A recognition of it in its full importance would at once reduce to order apparent incongruities, about which much misconception seems to have arisen.
If you tell a person that So-and-so is a dramatic poet, he will probably (and quite naturally) understand you to mean that So-and-so writes plays. He may, however, further understand that the poet in question does not necessarily write plays, or plays only: his idea, in respect to the epithet "dramatic" applied to him, will be still the same. The dramatic poet, in the ordinary sense, in the sense in which we apply it to Shakspere and his successors, aims at showing, by means of action expressed in speech, the development of character as