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Whatanidea, the Yaller Gal, by A. W. East
With illustrations, by the Author.)
(With illustration, by Mrs. G. M. Stephen.)
(With illustrations by 7. H. Flynn.)
NQUESTIONABLY the greatest English dramatic
poet since the age of Elizabeth is Robert Browning. Indeed, we doubt is, the two mighty Germans, Goethe
and Schiller notwithstanding, in every characteristic of the highest drama, there is anything among the modern plays of Europe equal to “ The Return of the Druses.” Bold and broad assertion this, reader; but were it just now our object to review Robert Browning's dramas, profusion of evidence and tolerably good argument are at hand. “Faust,” notwithstanding its dramatic form, is obviously outside the category of drama properly so called ; just as our own “Festus,” of which he is the antetype. But where in all the Weimar plays with their Joans of Arc, their Mary Stuarts, their ever so fair, so fragile and so hapless Theklas, is there a creation like the glorious Druse maiden, Anael ? And with all reverence for two of the greatest dramatic poets of all time, it was in the heart and brain of neither Goethe nor Schiller to have conceived and left with the world, in all its forlorn depths of ruined, darkened, blasted genius and heroism, “not less than archangel fallen,” the Druse leader and prophet, Djabel. Never in modern poetry was power at once so subtly psychologic and with so much of ideal grandeur and every delicate and tearful pathos shown, as in “King Victor and King Charles.”
* Dramatis Personæ. By Robert Browning. London : 1864.
No heart-crush, say rather, perhaps, heart-wear outside Shakspere, like the young monarch, Charles. And besides, reader, all without the element of Love about which most dramatic heart-break revolves. The affections that have play in the drama are simply the conjugal attachment of Charles for his wife; and how profound the pathos of his reliance on her as his Only One, amidst the hopeless, devilish subtlety of the meshes which his father, the abdicated Victor, had woven round him ! "Colombe's Birthday" is only inferior to “The Return of the Druses.” Indeed, if the plays were in Swedish or Danish (excuse us, majestic shade of Oehlenschlager), no English man of letters would have deemed his education complete, till he had learnt their language and read them in the original. A few good translations would have set people agog, as a quarter of a century ago Coleridge and De Quincey, and afterwards Carlyle, gave readers a craze about German, because of the bunches of grapes they had brought from the vineyards of Schiller and Jean Paul. As it is, how many fairly-educated persons, even with a love of poetry, really know anything of the author of that so deep, austere, and grand and melancholy “Paracelsus"? Robert Browning, sirs, is substantially “ caviare to the general.” And, to a great extent we fear, always will be. His own fault in some sort, you will venture to him, great and unique as his genius is. Perhaps so; there is something in that.
In his dramas, Robert Browning works at his art in as clear and keen and bright an atmosphere as that of the Italy he loves so well—the Italy with whose warm splendours of colouring he and Walter Savage Landor have suffused English literature in a kind, and to a degree, utterly unknown to Italian poetry itself.* But this quality of clear, sharp handling, except in the “Dramatic Lyrics," and such verses as the “Lost Leader," and many of the poems in “ Men and Women,” when Browning ceases to construct dramas, he chooses to leave behind him. And this from no loss of a jot of power of any kind—least of all from want of expression, in which he is a master beyond all modern men of metre. He shapes a phrase which will fix the shyest delicacy, the most elusive subtlety of meaning, as a jeweller cuts, polishes, and sets a ruby. But the context he seems to throw you down pretty well fresh from his brain,—though wondrous art in the way of presenting the thing continually shows itself. You must, as the old ballad phrase is, “rede” the text for yourself. And the reader, presented with some of the finest poetry the world has ever seen, can only make use of it on two conditions—to get at meanings, sheath within sheath, not only deep but recondite, and also to get at forms of expression often alive with splendour, but altogether elliptic-often barely indicative, and contenting themselves with suggestion. The latter characteristic has come to something like consummate flowering in this latest book of the poet's ; the school-precept of “mind your stops” was never more needed since first men learnt to read. The punctuation tyrannises over the reader's first apprehension of the meaning. Some wag on this head, tells a story of Douglas Jerrold, a hard, keen, yet at bottom a fine-hearted humourist, but not exactly the man for a postulant before the innermost shrines of which Browning is hierophant. Trying with pathetic industry, in weary days of invalid duresse, to get through some pages of “Sordello," with its intricate Franco-Gothic contours—its involute richness, he at length laid the volume down, and doubting himself rather than an octual
* Strange; and we take the risk of the statement on ourselves. Keats' warm South, the true, the blushful Hippocrene, is in English poetry and in French prose (George Sand's Venetian romances), and nowhere in Italian literature. There is very little passion in Italian poetry; and, outside Dante, no imagination at al!, much less a Southern luxuriance of imagination such as you have in Robert Browning's "Pippa Passes.” In the first scene, the
Rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle,
That melt into softness-that madden to crime,” is painted as no poet ever dreamed of doing it in a literature of which Alfieri with his rigid, cold, colourless casts from the antique, is the chief,-in fact the sole dramatist of mark. Petrarca's sonnets are no more specially Italian in colour, thought or feeling, than those of
Sir Philip Sydney, of Drummond of Hawthornden, or of Hartly Coleridge, though he plays for ever on one string, and that, a chord of the deepest and the most evocative of passion in the human heart. Tasso, his melancholy and romantic story aside, might, as far as couleur locale goes, have written his Gerusalemme in England, where old Fairfax made so much better, heartier, and more warlike poetry of many of the stanzas-putting the blare of the trumpet into the smooth ottava of the original. Dante is the poet par excellence of Italy ; his poem the national evangel, whether all Ugo Foscolo and Rosatti saw in it is there or no. But, as the woman said of his own dark face, smoky as Hell” as most of it is, it mightthe politics and the mediæval Italian acharnement aside-just as well have been written in "the cold and cloudy clime” of the North, for any stamp of specific local imagination there
printed book, AND Robert Browning, ejaculated, “Good God! am I mad ?” As for that “Sordello,” si non e vero e ben trozato ; though it contains some of the finest poetry in the world. But the trouble once taken-hints and suggestions rightly and fully apprehended, and poetry regarded as any man of intelligence and sensibility regards a fine picture, till it comes out on him fully, and he has grasped it, no productions in modern literature will yield him more wealth of imaginative beauty, newer and deeper thought, than the lyrics and miscellaneous poems of Robert Browning. Perhaps none will yield him as much.
A few words more “in the general,” before we proceed to our notice of the great poet's latest book, "Dramatis Persona," dating of this year of grace eighteen hundred and sixty-four, and just brought out to us in Australia by the Northam. Irrespective of his substantial imaginative power as a poet, it is the uniqueness, the specialty of that power which will at first strike the reader. Leave Browning unread, and in the whole range of modern poetry, or of the elder poetry either, you will get no soupçon-no inkling either of the mode of handling, the points of view, or even the specific cast of imagery of this singularly powerful writer. In Keats and Tennyson, you see potentially the faculties of Robert Browning's gifted wife, though her poetry was all her own. But for anything that appears, Keats and Tennyson -or indeed any other modern poet-might never have existed, for aught that touches Browning. His treatment of his subjects is altogether novel; and, were he not so great a dramatic poet, would be idiosyncratic. From entirely new and unsuspected points, he deals with his theme and invests it with a body of his own subtle imagination—with varying and inexhaustible forms of
is about it; indeed it belongs to a harder mould than that wherein Southern poetry is cast. As for Ariosto, and his buffoon followers, such as Fortiguera, the poems might have had their romantic and sparkling quality, and all-the forest adventure, the amour, the battle, the banquet-have been composed anywhere. All this scarcely applies to Manzoni, D'Azeglio, Giacomo Leopardi (the wonderful), Cercano, Grossi, and some other modern writers. No; Dante excepted, not in her literature but in her Art, is the true exponent of the depth and grandeur of Italian character. As for her minor poets, in whom so much wealth of the poetry of other lands is found, they are only practitioners in beautiful diction, working on the loveliest language in the world. And Englishmen,-Milton, Matthias (of The Pursuit of Literature), and John Herman Merivale have written nearly as good Italian verse.