The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Browning on the Incarnation: An Address to Those Who Teach.

by Rev. C. V. Gorton.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 301

The Victorian age is drawing to its close, an age second only to the Elizabethan in the variety and magnitude of that genius which is its chief claim on futurity. There have been giants in these days--Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Darwin and Ruskin. Whatever names pass away, these will remain. Ruskin alone still is with us, but he is like one of the lake-land mountains when shrouded from the eye by mists and clouds.

These men consciously or unconsciously influence us; for if we have not come directly into contact with their influence by knowledge of their works, yet, those who have taught us have gained their inspiration from these directly. To have lived in the same age as such as these is a great privilege and a great responsibility; and I hold that if we are not at pains to understand what truth each of these brought, how they have ministered to men, we are not fitted ourselves in turn to teach.

Perhaps we may think study of the works of the chief thinkers of the day is not a duty which is binding on us; or, in the case of Browning perhaps, we say, poetry stands apart from religion.

On the first point, listen to Dr. Martensen:--"Would we in truth love men, and thereby attain to the true joy of life, we must learn to recognise what is strange and be thankful for it. Not to recognise what is valuable, not to admire it, is a sentiment that leads to inward desolation. He that will not receive from men--will not appropriate, will also never become adapted to give anything to men. One of the most serious points of complaint when once a reckoning is required of our life will be this--to have neglected the recognition of the human in pride, or obstinate dislike, or mental torpor." We ought then, I urge, to be at pains to know and admire.

And now for a second objection:--"The poets are not our guides, and, personally, I do not care for poetry, ours it is to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we would quote, let us quote from Scripture and the divines." I cannot tell you how much error such a statement seems to me to contain.

For, what is a poet? He is a seer, and a maker; one who "sees the infinite in things." He has the intuitive gift. He must make his way to truth, which truth he ever clothes in beauty. He is not one who preaches, but one who meditates, and who, to give his meditations clearness, clothes them in words of beauty. He is one whose thoughts on realities his fellows overhear. You do not care for poetry? Of course you do, though you may take no pains to seek for it. It is the poetic, the pathetic, as opposed to the prosaic and commonplace, which quicken your heartbeat, which lift you above yourself. We are not to "quote poetry" in our teaching, we are certainly not to look out for quotations, any more than we are to pull in texts. But how much poetry did our Lord quote? Are not most of His quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah, and what are these but the purest and noblest poetry? Did not St. Paul teach his audience through what they knew, by what touched them? Did he not quote heathen poets, as those who had received light from Him that lighteneth every man that cometh into the world?

We shall help men most by bringing them what has helped us; and such a poet as Browning, who seeks truth from the beginning, who starts from a different standpoint, pursues a different path, and who makes his way to an assured stand on the selfsame rock of truth as that on which we stand, who has no ecclesiastical training or prejudice, and holds no brief for any doctrine, is not his testimony that the acknowledgement of God in Christ.

    "Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
    All questions in the earth and out of it,"

is not such evidence worth tomes of sermons, is it not evidence which we Christians may rejoice to possess?

That Browning has thus helped men in their need I would show from the words of Dr. Burdoe:--"Twenty years ago, after a long course of reading the words of Agnostic teachers I ceased to believe in the fundamental doctrine of Christianity. About two years after this painful necessity of breaking with all my associations in religious matters I had approached as near to Agnosticism as a reasonable being may; that is to say, I no longer believed in the God of the Bible. On the whole, such fragments of Buddhism as I had been able to appreciate seemed to be more satisfactory than anything else in the way of religious teaching.

"It was my good fortune one day to hear a powerful lecture by Mr. Conway, on 'Sordello.' Up to that moment I had read nothing of the works of that poet. On the following day I purchased a set of Browning's works. The first poem I read was 'Saul.' I soon recognised that I was in the grasp of a strong hand, and as I continued to read, the feeling came over me that in Browning I had found my religious teacher, one who could put me right on a hundred points which had troubled my mind for many years and which had ultimately caused me to abandon the Christian religion. I joined the Browning Society, and in the discussions which followed the readings of the papers, I found the opportunity of having my doubts resolved, not by theological arguments but by those suggested by Browning as 'solving for me all questions in the earth and out of it.' By slow and painful steps I found my way back to the faith I had forsaken."

Now, my aim in this paper is not to attempt a survey of Browning's works, or to analyse the poems which deal with the relation of the soul to God, and God's revelation of Himself to man. This would require, not a paper, but a volume. I should need also to assume that you were familiar with his poems. My aim is to seek to lead some one who has stumbled at Browning's style to open a volume again, and therefore I shall aim at illustrating by one or two poems one point only--Browning's view of the Incarnation. I will take firstly the poem "Saul."

This poem, though lyrical in form and wonderfully musical, is dramatic in method. The speaker is David. The spirit has departed from Saul. For three days, in awful gloom of heart, Saul has agonised in his loneliness, "drear and stark, blind and dumb." David, "God's child, with His dew on his gracious golden hair," with lilies twined round his harp, is led by Abner to the tent to charm by his minstrelsy this evil spirit. He lifted up his heart in silent prayer and tuned the strings. First he played the tunes all his sheep knew, then those with which he was wont to charm the crickets--

    "For God made all the creatures and gave them our love and our fear,
    To give sign we and they are His children, one family here."

Then he sang the song of work of happy reapers, then of sorrow and of consolation, then of the joy of the marriage feast, then of the march of war, then the hymn of worship. Saul shuddered. He listened. Then David sang of the mild joys of living.

    "How good is man's life, the mere living, how fit to employ
    All the heart and the soul and the sense for ever in joy."

He sang of the joys of home, of the friendship and freedom of boyhood; he sang of kingship, of the splendour of rule, high ambition, and deeds which surpass it, "fame crowning them all." Then as he struck the chord he cried, "King! Saul!" He appealed to the man, who has awakened to consciousness, but he would reach not the sense of Saul only, not the mind, but the spirit, through his own spirit. He will inspire Saul with his own longings, which are the needs of the spirit of man.

                        "Yea, my king,
    Thou dost well in rejecting mere comforts that spring
    From the mere mortal life held in common by man and by brute.
    In our flesh grows the branch of this life, in our soul it bears fruit.
    Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for; the spirit be thine.
    By the spirit, when age shall o'ercome thee, thou still shalt enjoy
    More, indeed, than at first when, inconscious, the life of a boy."

The present does not satisfy, nor is the actual all, or the real. You, Saul, die. A tomb is reared, and with the gold of the graver, Saul's story--"the statesman's great word side by side with the poet's sweet comment." There is an immorality which comes from fame and great deeds. "Then the first of the mighty thank God that thou art." Thus striving to awaken the king to a sense of the goodness of living, the poet-psalmist sees beyond things seen. Saul is aroused. He is there the Saul loved by Samuel, loved by Jonathan, loved by David, loved by us,

    "He is Saul, ye remember in glory; ere error had bent
    The broad brow from the daily communion."

He raises his giant arm, and settles the hand on the young singer's head, pushes his fingers through the lad's hair, and

              "His great eyes that scrutinized mine;
    And oh, all my heart how it loved him!"

David's heart yearns; he longs in his love to help him, to blot out the wretched failures and sins, to heal him with love, to give him new life. And the longing of love, the yearning to help, the embodiment in Saul of what was, the assurance of what might have been, this leads the singer into the truest region of prophecy. He sees the Christ.

    "I have gone the whole round of creation: I saw and I spoke;
    I repeat, as a man may, of God's work--all's love, yet all's law."

Then what may we conclude is the nature of God?

    "Have I knowledge? Confounded it shrivels at Wisdom laid bare.
    Have I forethought? How purblind, how blank, to the Infinite Care!--
    Do I task any faculty highest, to image success?
    I but open my eyes--and perfection, no more and no less,
    In the kind I imagined, full-fronts me and God is seen God
    In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul, and the clod."

Shall I then think that I alone possess one faculty, and that the highest--Love, which pities, which stoops, love which would help, which would forgive, which would, if it could, renew? If God excels me in an infinite way in all other powers, shall He not excel me in an infinite way in this power also, in the power of redeeming love?

    "What, my soul, see thus far and no farther? When doors great and small
    Nine and ninety flew ope at our touch, should the hundredth appal?--
    In the least things have faith, yet distrust in the greatest of all?
    Do I find love so full in my nature, God's ultimate gift,
    That I doubt His own love can compete with it? Here, the parts shift?--
    Here the creature surpass the Creator,--the end, what began?"

This man Saul, whom I love, did I create him, did I bestow on him body, and life, and soul? Yet I would give all to redeem and restore him, to interpose and snatch "Saul the mistake," "Saul the failure," the ruin he seems now,

                        "And bid him awake
    From the dream, the probation, the prelude, to find himself set
    Clear and safe in new light and new life, a new harmony yet
    To be run and continued and ended.
    The man taught enough by life's dream, of the rest to make sure.
    See the king! I would help him, but cannot; the wishes fall through.
    Could I wrestle to raise him from sorrow, grow poor to enrich,
    To fill up his life, starve my own out, I would; knowing which,
    I know that my service is perfect. Oh speak through me; now!
    Would I suffer for him that I love? so would'st thou, so wilt thou?
    So shall crown thee, the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown,
    And thy love fill infinitude wholly.
    As thy love is discovered almighty, almighty be proved
    Thy power, that exists with and for it, of being beloved.
    He who did most shall bear most; the strongest shall stand the most weak.
    'Tis the weakness in strength that I cry for! my flesh that I seek
    In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
    A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me
    Thou shalt love and be loved by for ever: a Hand like this hand
    Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!"

The vision of the coming Christ, the revelation immensely yearned for, fills the heart of the singer. The belief founded on the fact of God's love fills him with rapture. The world for the prophet-poet becomes transfigured; the stars of evening, the holy quiet of night, the rest of the earth on his homeward way confirm the thought. He watches in intense emotion the dawn of day. He beholds its tender birth, the grey hills catching the light. He feels the breath of the forest; the startled bird and wild beast, even the serpents, feel the new law.

    "The same stared in the white humid faces upturned by the flowers;
    The same worked in the heart of the cedar, and moved the vine-bowers:
    And the little brooks witnessing murmured, persistent and low,
    With their obstinate, all but hushed voices--'e'en so, it is so!'"

Thus life and nature are transfigured by love, foreshadowed in Christ.

(To be continued.)

Proofread by LNL, June 2020