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Browning Greatest Poet Since Shakespeare Post by :durango77 Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :3218

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Browning Greatest Poet Since Shakespeare


The greatest of English poets since Shakespeare, is the title given to Robert Browning by many admirers of recognized ability as critics. For his dramatic force and his insight into human nature there is no question that Browning deserves this high rank. In these two qualities he stands above Tennyson. But a large part of his work is written in a style so crabbed that it acts as a bar to one's enjoyment of many fine poems. Only the most resolute reader can go through Sordello or The Ring and the Book, the latter, with its interminable discussions of motive and its curious descriptions of half-forgotten legal and church methods of the seventeenth century. If one-half this long poem of over twenty thousand lines had been cut out, it would have been vastly improved.

The advocates of Browning hold that the study of the poet's obscurities is good mental discipline, but I am of the belief that poetry, like music, should not demand too great exertion of the mind to appreciate its beauty. Wagner's "Seigfried" and "Parsifal" are altogether too long to be enjoyed thoroughly. The composer would have done well to eliminate a third of each, for as they are produced they strain the attention to the point of fatigue, and no work of art should ever tire its admirers.

In the same way Browning offends against this primal canon of art. A man who was capable of writing the most melodious verse, as is shown in some of his lyrics, he refused to put his thoughts in simple form, and often clothed them in obscurity. The result is that the great public which would have enjoyed his studies of character and his powerful dramatic faculty is repelled at the outset by the difficulties of understanding his poems. Browning added to this obscurity by constant reference to little-known authors. This was not pedantry, any more than Milton's use of classic mythology was pedantry. Both men possessed unusual knowledge of rare books, and both were much given to quoting authors who are unknown to the general reading public.

But with all these difficulties in the way, there still remains a body of verse in Browning's work which will richly repay any reader. The lyrics and short poems like The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Pippa Passes, Prospice, O Lyric Love, The Last Ride, One Word More, How They Brought the Good News, Herve Riel, the epilogue to Asolando, The Lost Leader, Men and Women, and A Soul's Tragedy will give any reader a taste of the real Browning. If you like these poems, then try the more ambitious poems like A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, The Inn Album, Fifine at the Fair and others.

Browning, above all other English poets, seems to have had the power of seizing upon a character at a crucial hour in life and laying bare all the impulses that impel one to high achievement or great self-sacrifice. He seems always to have worked at the highest emotional stress, so that his words are surcharged with feeling. In many of his poems this emotional element is painful in its intensity. Character to him was the main feature, and his selections comprise some of the most picturesque in all history. That he was able to make these people live and move and impress us as real flesh-and-blood human beings shows the great creative power of the man, who ought to have written some of the world's finest plays.

Robert Browning was born in 1812 and died in 1889. His father, though a clerk in the Bank of England, was a fine classical scholar and had dabbled in verse. His mother was an accomplished musician. Browning had every early advantage, and while still a lad he came under the spell of Byron and had his poetical faculty greatly stimulated by the "Napoleon of rhyme." Then came Shelley and Keats, and their influence set him upon the course which he followed for many years. His first poem was Pauline, which has passages of rare beauty set among dreary commonplaces. He followed this with Paracelsus and Strafford, which opened to him the doors of all London salons and made his reputation. Sordello, one of his most difficult poems, came next, but he varied these dramatic tragedies with a series of short poems called Bells and Pomegranates. In this the finest thing was Pippa Passes, which was warmly praised by Elizabeth Barrett, who afterwards became his wife. Among the many poems that Browning produced in five years were Colombe's Birthday, A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics and A Soul's Tragedy.

Browning, in 1846, married Elizabeth Barrett, the author of Lady Geraldine's Courtship and other poems, a woman who had been an invalid, confined to her room for years. Love gave her strength to arise and walk, and love also gave her the courage to defy the foolish tyranny of her father and elope with Browning. What kind of man that father was may be seen in his comment after the marriage: "I've no objection to the young man, but my daughter should have been thinking of another world." They went to Italy, where for fifteen years they made an ideal home. Mrs. Browning's story of her love is seen in Sonnets From the Portuguese, and some of her finest work is in Casa Guidi Windows. Each stimulated the other, while there was a notable absence of that jealousy which has often served to turn the love of literary men and women into the fiercest hatred.

Mrs. Browning died suddenly in 1861, and the poet for some time was stunned by this unlooked-for calamity. He spent two years in seclusion at work on poems, but then he gathered up his courage and once more took his old place in the social life of London. In Prospice and One Word More, written in the autumn following his wife's death, he shows that he has overcome all doubts of the reality of immortality. These two poems alone would entitle Browning to the highest place among the world's great poets. In addition he wrote the memorial to his wife, O Lyric Love, that is the cry of the soul left here on this earth to the soul of the beloved in Paradise. To the sympathetic this poem, with its solemn rhythm, will appeal like splendid organ music.

Among Browning's other poems that are noteworthy are Fifine at the Fair, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, The Inn Album and Dramatic Idylls. Browning's last poem, Asolando, appeared in London on the same day that its author died at Venice. As the great bell of San Marco struck ten in the evening, Browning, as he lay in bed, asked his son if there were any news of the new volume. A telegram was read saying the book was well received. The aged poet smiled and breathed his last.

In beginning the reading of Browning it is well to understand that at least half or maybe two-thirds of his work should be discarded at the outset, as it is of interest only to scholars. My suggestion to one who would learn to love Browning is to get a little book, Lyrical Poems of Robert Browning, by Dr. A.J. George. The editor in a preface indicates the best work of Browning, and also brings out strongly the fact that readers, and especially young readers, must be given poems which interest them. His selections of lyrics have been made from this standpoint, and his notes will be found very helpful. He develops the point that Browning's great revelation to the world through his poems was his strong and abiding assurance that man has in him the principle of divinity, and that many of the experiences that the world calls failures are really the stepping stones of the ascent to that conquest of self and that development of the whole nature which means the highest life. He says also that Browning is one of the most eloquent expounders of the doctrine of the reality of a future life, in which those who live a noble and unselfish life will get their reward in an existence free from all physical ills.

In this little book will be found Pippa Passes, a noble series of lyrics, which develops the idea of the silent influence of a little silk weaver of Asolo upon four sets of people in the great crises of their lives. In each episode Pippa sings a song that awakens remorse or kindles manhood or arouses patriotism or duty. It is a perfect poem. Among other lyrics given here are Evelyn Hope, which must be bracketed with Burns' To Mary in Heaven or with Wordsworth's Lucy and Prospice, which sounds the note of deep personal love that is as sure of immortality as of life. It is as beautiful and as inspiring as Tennyson's Crossing the Bar. Other poems due to Browning's love for his wife are My Star and One Word More.

If these lyrics appeal to you, then take up some of Browning's longer poems, A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, Colombe's Birthday, A Soul's Tragedy, Fra Lippo Lippi and Rabbi Ben Ezra. Very few readers in these days have time or patience to read The Ring and the Book, but it will repay your attention, as it is the most remarkable attempt in all literature to revive the tragedy of the great and innocent love of a woman and a priest.

Among the many fine passages in Browning, I think there is nothing which equals these lines in O Lyric Love, the beautiful invocation to his wife:

O lyric Love, half angel and half bird
And all a wonder and a wild desire--
Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun,
Took sanctuary within the holier blue
And sang a kindred soul out to his face--
Hail then, and hearken from the realms of help!
Never may I commence my song, my due
To God who best taught song by gift of thee,
Except with bent head and beseeching hand--
That shall despite the distance and the dark,
What was, again may be; some interchange
Of grace, some splendor once thy very thought,
Some benediction anciently thy smile.

The songs in Pippa Passes should be read, as they are as near perfect as Shakespeare's songs or the songs of Tennyson in The Princess.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Browning Greatest Poet Since Shakespeare

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