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Wider acceptance as yet he can scarcely hope, and probably does not even desire. Up to a very recent period indeed, his readers—not to say his admirers—were almost an esoteric school." Christmas Eve and Easter Day” was the first of his works that compelled the recognition of the circulating libraries. For the rest, the general knowledge about him was almost comprised in this, that Miss Elizabeth Barrett Barrett had married a poet, whose writings were mostly unintelligible, but who had, in a lucid interval, composed a child's poem, something in the Ingoldsby style, on the “ Pied Piper of Hamelin.” He was also known to have written one or two poems on Scriptural subjects, as upon King Saul, and the risen Lazarus; but, upon trial, these pieces were so utterly unlike any other sacred poetry in the language, whether written for University prizes or not, that the admirers of Heber, Montgomery, and Hankinson drew back in hopeless bewilderment. As to “Paracelsus” and “Sordello,” it was the general understanding that they were past all comprehension. The story of Douglas Jerrold's attempt to read the latter is well kuown. After a severe fit of illness he took it up, and from his utter inability to get at its meaning, concluded, with silent dismay, that his own brain had been seriously affected by the malady! Nor were his apprehensions relieved, until his clever wife had found the book as inexplicable. “What does the man mean?” she exclaimed. “Then, thank Heaven,” cried Jerrold to her unbounded astonishment, "I am not mad !”
Now we are not going to review “ Paracelsus," nor to analyze “Sordello." But oneobservation we may venture, more applicable, indeed, to Mr. Browning's earlier poems than to those immediately before us. It is a question surely admitting but of one answer, whether a poet is ever at liberty to make that demand upon our powers of attention and thought which is freely permitted to other writers. Some readers there are, we know, who take up poetry entirely for amusement. They like plain sailing, they say,
“ O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!" That is their model stanza, sharp, clear, ringing. Its meaning, though not perhaps its grammar, is seen in an instant. You never ponder it, it never grows as you gaze. The description of Waterloo in “Childe Harold," or the picture of “The Dying Gladiator,” or the apostrophe to the Ocean, conveys its full impression at once. No tasteful or imaginative mind gathers more from it by continuous meditation. Nay, the critic's work
of analysis rather weakens than enhances the charm. Such poetry accomplishes its purpose, and its readers have their reward. Other works of genius there are—and the remark applies to the whole sphere of art—the enjoyment of which requires educated taste and critical ability. They deal with phenomena of the outer or the inner world, too evanescent for any but a keen glance to observe, or too subtle for any but a thoughtful, well-cultivated mind, to reach. Now it is the function of such art, not only to gratify higher intellects, but to aid the cultivation, in general, of the observant faculties. We study such poetry with an exertion of mental power, and a result of keen delight, not wholly dissimilar to our experience in the pursuit of some high philosophic argument. The theme only is different. We do not want philosophy, properly so called, in verse. Let honest sober prose still set forth the general principles and laws which regulate the world of mind. Only when all these are duly settled, there are still exceptional moods of thought and feeling, surprises in the even flow of life, sudden impulses of the soul, throbs of joy or pain, yearnings for the mysterious, the infinite, with strange passionate love or hatred, indignation or despair, for which poetry is the only fitting vehicle of expression. Here is the highest sphere of the drama, and all the greatest dramatic poetry is difficult. Have Shakspeare's commentators made him all plain yet? In Sophocles, too, the greatest dramatist of the old world, what suggestions of “corrupted readings ” have we not been doomed to endure from critics and professors ! Far easier has it been found to escape the mystery of the poet's thought by an amended text, than to follow it into those depths which his own words but dimly unveiled.
On the whole, then, we entirely sympathize in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, in the noble preface to her early works: “ Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself, and life has been a very serious thing. ... I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of the poet.” Nor for that of the poet's readers, we would add, if his themes are of the brightest and greatest. We would rather “construe" “In Memoriam” in silent thought, than sit with our feet on the fender reading “Enoch Arden :' and we do not greatly admire the recent critic, who, to illustrate Mr. Browning's genius, quotes “The Pied Piper" almost at length, leaving “ The Death in the Desert” without a line.
Without a doubt, the poems before us are in some parts difficult to read. They have to do with unfamiliar phases of thought and feeling. Sometimes they rise higher than our ordinary mental atmosphere: now and then they sink lower, as in
displae world of themes are regarded tuld have
that wonderful poem “ Caliban upon Setebos,"* though there we have a reflected light upon our own “Natural Theology.” Many a new combination also there is of character and circumstance. Familiar faces are not where we should have expected to find them. Familiar scenes are regarded from new points of view. In the world of the affections, especially, all seems strangely displaced. The old story of change, disappointment, unfaithfulness, or of faithfulness till death, is chanted in new keys. Yet, as we listen, we recognise the profound truth. A critic whom we have quoted calls these new combinations "grotesque.” He is welcome to the word. Only, it should be remembered, that a keen appreciation of the incongruous not only co-exists with, but even depends upon, the quick sense of proportion and harmony. Mr. Browning's genius is “mediæval," it is said. Yes : but if the mediæval architect in his play carved the grinning gargoyle, he planned in his serious mood the cathedral from which it projects. Caliban's speculations on the Deity are in keeping with the Caliban nature: the only wonder is, that Caliban should have any such speculations at all. But what finer tribute can we pay to the poet than to say that the Apostle John's dying words also are such as we may well conceive that Apostle to have spoken?
Let our readers judge. The beloved Disciple, driven by persecution from Ephesus, lies in a cave of the wilderness. Affectionate disciples are near, soothing his last hours, and intent upon his farewell words. He tells them of the revelations which had been entrusted to him ; tracing thus their order and significance. Could any Biblical critic have written more clearly or wisely?
* Since I, whom Christ's mouth taught, was bidden teach,
I went for many years about the world,
But, at the last, why I seemed left alive,
Pp. 97-99. Then the dying man glances onward to coming days. What manifold questionings there would be !
" " Was John at all, -and did he say he saw ?
Assure us, e're we ask what he might see.'
Vast problem for the dying man, who had seen the power and love made manifest! How should others see? By tearning in life, the Apostle answers in part, the lesson of love.
“For life, with all it yields of joy or woe,
Is just our chance o' the prize of learning love." But the question returns, how to learn ? The answer is, by a deeper experience than any mere testimony could afford. Who,
for instance, doubts the value of fire ? “Could he give CHRIST up were His worth as plain ?" Yet here lies the difference. The physical boon is evident, indisputable; its recognition involves no probation : the spiritual blessing needs to be apprehended on other grounds. The very power to grasp it is a test of spiritual progress, for visible attestation is not everything. The disciples who had known Christ after the flesh all forsook Him and fled. But
" Another year or two,--what little child,
To quicken this insight, the testimony of facts, the demonstrative power of miracles, were necessary once, But, now ?
" I say, that as the babe you fed awhile,
Becomes a boy and fit to feed himself,
Pp. 109, 110. We have quoted largely, yet scarcely sufficiently, from this re