The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Browning. "Education is a Life."

by E. A. Skurray.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 161-169

"If the same law were followed in nature, and beautiful souls had beautiful envelopes, life would be less complex. Yet are hearts still attracted to each other by the means of a face, that is why choice is so diverse . . ."

Part I.

"Poetry is the criticism of life," said M. Arnold, and by no poet is this more truly exemplified than by Browning. It has been justly remarked that he is the real successor to Wordsworth, not Tennyson, the spiritual truths which the one gave out with "the Prophet's calm," and the other has struggled and fought for and amplified according to our modern needs. Were I asked to sum up Browning's meaning of life in a few words, I could not do it better than in these of the Pope [In The Ring and the Book.]--

    "Life is probation and the earth no goal
    But starting point of man: compel him strive."

Whatever other lessons he may wish to teach us, this is the motif which runs through all his poems: life is a school in which we train, a race we have to run, a struggle against difficulties we must overcome, and for this we need a great courage and a high aim.

    "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
    Or what's a heaven for?"
    [Andrea del Sarto.]

All of this we shall find in our poet; for he places before us both the smallness of life, compared with Eternity, and also its importance, since it is here must be begun that formation of character which will have infinite development in that hereafter, for which earth is only the preparation. He first strikes this note in his earliest published poem, Pauline, where, through all questionings, all doubts and fears, he ever returns to "The clear, dear breath of God that loveth us." He feels

    "I cannot chain my soul, it will not rest
    In its clay prison, this most narrow sphere."

It is still his trumpet-sound when as an old man, but with the unimpaired vigour of manhood, he bids us

    "Greet the unseen with a cheer!
    Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
    Strive and thrive! cry 'Speed,'--fight on, fare ever
    There as here!"
    [His last poem in Asolando.]

Therefore he can look upon death with confidence and courage, he who was

    "Ever a fighter, so--one fight more,
    The best and the last!"

He wishes to face it with unbandaged eyes; for him the future is full of hope, when he will be re-united to his wife.

    "O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp there again,
    And with God be the rest!"

To Browning love did not belong to earth alone: if it were a noble and worthy love it was only begun here, to have hereafter a more perfect consummation. Even when, for one cause or another, it bears the words "too late," he cannot believe that the God who "creates the love"--for all love worthy the name comes from Him--will not sometime allow it perfect fulfilment:--

    "Delayed it may be for more worlds yet,
          Through words I shall traverse not a few:
    Much to learn, much to forget,
          Ere the time be come for my taking you."
    [Evelyn Hope.]

Love, as he knew and taught it, was an education in itself, a religion:--

    "For all love greatens and glorifies
    Till God's aglow, in loving eyes,
    In what was mere earth before."

In his poem, James Lee's Wife, we are given the workings of a woman's mind, whose love was neither happy nor perfect. She is evidently superior in every way to her husband, and awakes to the fact that while she still loves him intensely, the very fleeting hold she has on his affections is gone: she is an unattractive woman, without beauty or grave to win or hold the type of man indicated. Sadly it is borne in upon her mind

    "If you loved only what were worth your love,
    Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
          Make the low nature better for your throes!
    Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!"

Some day he may need her, then he will find her ready for him.

The reader will notice the artistic beauty of this poem, how the metre changes with each changing mood: the keen eye for nature, e.g., [Section V.] how we feel the scorch of that fierce sun, and see before us that wonderful picture of a butterfly on the rock,

    "Like a drop of fire
    From a brandished torch.

The inconsequence of where it may next alight is compared with "Love settling unawares." While in another part [Section VII.] we have such a warm touch of the All-Mother:--

    "Oh, good gigantic smile of the brown old earth
    This autumn morning!"

So exactly does each part interpret the undercurrent of thought.

In Fifine at the Fair we are given the man's point of view and his relation to the woman, in a twofold aspect. First, the good and elevated as represented by Elvire, the wife; she is a priceless possession; her presence is a haven of rest to which he always returns, and she would be his first thought if danger threatened. He compares her with a valuable picture of Raphael's, he is not always gazing at it, at times he finds pleasure in a picture books of Dore's, or in some slight sketch; but he knows it is in a certain place, and returns to it; should a fire threaten his gallery, this picture would be the first he would save: such is his attitude towards Elvire. "Here, too, love ends where love began." But there is also the lower influence, the Fifines of the world, they cannot be ignored. Is there no redemption for them? It is characteristic of Browning's spiritual insight, that he at once pierces through to the latent good lying hidden in all. It may be covered up by the dust accumulated in life's journey, as a fire of wood is covered with ashes: it seems quite extinct, yet it only needs a breath to fan it into life. So may it also be with these soiled and wasted lives:--

    "Beneath the veriest ash, there hides a spark of soul
    Which, quickened by love's breath may yet pervade the whole."

While this is the most obvious meaning, the poem abounds in reflections on life and thought, philosophy and religion. Elvire and Fifine are only the strings on which these pearls are strung. It is also full of allusions, similes and side issues, which make it more intricate than those mentioned before, it requires careful study.

In the Prologue [And more especially in Sections LXIV.--LXVIII.] the poet gives us as a picture of life, a man swimming. He sees a butterfly flying in front and above him, which he likes to the soul. Man cannot fly, he struggles uncouthly in the water; but it is this struggle with the dense medium in which he finds himself which constitutes his progress. Still his head is in "the blue above," and if heaven cannot be reached yet, we will substitute for it poetry, the ideal, which helps us to breathe. Just as a man in swimming must keep his head above the water, so, too, we must not become submerged in the dense medium of material life, or the soul will be stifled. One of the deepest spiritual truths of this poem may be summed up thus: look beneath the surface of things; tear away disguises, the falsehoods which envelop the kernel of truth, "Since in the seeing soul all worth lies."

There is something intensely human in the poet's musings; he has a dream or vision of life, uncouth ill-shaped men and women jostle each other in a dense ever-moving crowd. To him they appear grotesque, inhuman, he cannot understand them; then something tells him it is by drawing closer to them, going down into their midst, that he will be able to interpret them through sympathy:--

    "And plump I pitched into the square
    A groundling like the rest."

Among them, no longer apart from them, he finds they are less abnormal than they formerly appeared.

    "I found, one must abate
    One's scorn of the soul's casing, distinct from the soul's self."

The soul he likens to a dewdrop shut up in the hard crystal orb, used by the Druids for divination. [Sections XCV. to CII.] Then "the mammoth stones" of those old temples pass before him, with other and more polished fanes: "Art's smooth for Nature's rough, new chip from the old block." From this by natural transition he passes to religious beliefs, and tells us that whatever form the temple may take, the essential thing is "it makes men lift their heads," for it typifies the force which aspires to heaven, and the strength which is rooted in earth; it is the impulse of all being towards something outside itself, which is constant amid change, uniform amid all diversity.

[Fanes: temples]

    "All's change, but permanence as well.
    Grave note whence--list aloft! harmonies sound, that mean:
    Truth inside, and outside, truth also; and between
    Each falsehood that is change, as truth is permanence."

Again and again throughout this poem, Browning emphasizes the power of truth:--

    "So absolutely good is truth, truth never hurts
    The teller."

    "Into the truth of things--
    Out of their falsehood rise, and reach thou and remain!"

    "Life means--learning to abhor
    The false, and love the true,"

to give only a few instances. Indeed, this absolute love of truth, as far as we can attain unto it here--truth of thought and character, as well as of word and deed--is one of the most salient characteristics of his poetry. As he says in another place, [In A Balcony.] "Truth is the strong thing. Let man's life be true!" It (truth) ought to be expressed by perfect form: this is its artistic representation. If the same law were followed in nature, and beautiful souls had beautiful envelopes, life would be less complex. Yet are hearts still attracted to each other by the means of a face, that is why choice is so diverse, not always wrong, for sometimes we see the divine

    "Transparent through the flesh, by parts which prove a whole
    By hints which make the soul discernible by soul."

The unessentials which are false, or partly so, will drop off, and we shall see

    "Something as true as soul is true, though veils between
    Prove false and fleet away." *

* [Maeterlinck in Le tresor de humbles enters fully into this revelation of souls, especially in silences.]

The great Interpreter of life, with its contrasts and inequalities, is Love. Browning just suggests the idea of the redemption of women by the good of their own sex, as typified in Elvire; not by the skirt drawn back for fear of smirch, but by human sympathy and contact can the Fifines be purified and saved. He likens these to "the sea foam," and asks why cannot the great calm sea absorb them? Yet is the sea too unstable an element, Elvire is rather "the solid land the safe"--the idea in the poet's mind being that of an enclosed haven, into which the "foam flake" is washed.

What is the conclusion of the whole matter? The circumstances of our lives are meant to test of what stuff we are: as we respond, so will be our position in a higher wider sphere,

    "Because,--whatever end we answer by this life,--
    Next time, best chance must be for who, with toil and strife,
    Manages now to live most like what he was meant
    Become: since who succeeds so far, 'tis evident,
    Stands foremost on the file; who fails, has less to hope
    From new probation."

Those for whom Browning's optimism is too robust, are apt to say he has no sympathy for failure. Those who maintain this have certainly not studied him very carefully. It is true that modern morbidness finds no place in his poetry, but it is quite untrue to say he ignores the failure and incompleteness of human life. Fifine at the Fair in its intense humanity might be called the apologia of the suffering many: listen to the beauty and pathos of these lines:--

    "Many the pregnant brain brought never child to birth,
    Many the great heart broke beneath its girdle-girth!
    Be mine the privilege to supplement defect,
    Give dumbness voice, and let the labouring intellect
    Find utterance."

In these two passages much of the argument of this poem is summed up.

Childe Roland to the dark Tower [The actual Tower is in the Carrara Mountains.] came, is so unlike the other poems of Browning; it is weird and uncanny, a picture of an enchanted country and an adventurous Knight, and gives us a poetic vision of life in a spiritual and allegorical sense: it depicts a man's progress towards his ideal, which is typified by the tower, with the temptations, contradictions, mockeries, and difficulties he meets with: these give way when they seem most insuperable. Very vividly is described the desolation of starved ignoble nature: "A burr had been a treasure there"; even the grass "grew as scant as hair in leprosy." The swift stream so little expected in such surroundings, may it not typify a sudden sharp temptation? There are the failures which looked like successes, while success, when at last it came, just as he is sinking in despair, looked at first like failure. He cannot believe he has attained his quest, nor does he even recognise the Tower at once, in spite of "a life spent training for the sight!" Which things are an allegory; but before night came, light shot through the clouds, he saw and understood; and to his poet's heart came the burden of the years, and of the many who had followed the quest before.

    "Of all the lost adventurers my peers,--
    How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
    And such was fortunate, yet each of old
    Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years."

In Andre del Sarto and A Grammarian's Funeral the poet gives us his criticism of art and learning, which with him also meant of life. In the first we have a picture of "the perfect artist"; but perfection in art can only be reached if the aim be a low one. Man, half-animal, half-divine, must fall short of his ideal if his aspiration be high.

Andrea, with all his technical mastery, could not emulate Raphael, because he had lost his spiritual impulse. The poem supplies the reason: married to a beautiful but worthless woman, Lucrezia:--"My face, my moon, my everybody's moon," loving her to distraction, he has sunk to her level, for does he not at least acquiesce in her unfaithfulness? Andrea's theme is a small one, it lies within his grasp: the pity of it all is that he feels his own degradation so keenly. Had Lucrezia but possessed a soul to match her beautiful face, and made some demands on his higher nature, what might he not have done! He does not reproach her, for he knew she had no ideals to give him:--

    "Had you enjoined them on me, given me soul,
    We might have risen to Rafael, I and you."

He feels he is judged. Of lesser artists than he it can be said

    "There burns a truer light of God in them,"

so they may

    "Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me,
    Enter and take their place their sure enough,
    Though they come back and cannot tell the world."

Of himself the verdict might be, "That low man seeks a little thing to do, sees it and does it."

A Grammarian's Funeral is a great contrast to the other poem, for it might be designated the tragedy of high aim and magnificent failure.* It is prophetic of future attainment, of the certainty of personal life through death; therefore the discipline of study, as of character, are invaluable, for the faculties which did not reach achievement here will attain perfection hereafter. Browning believes there will be a field for exercise of every noble power, that what had been consecrated could not be wasted. "Things learned on earth we shall practise in heaven," [Old Pictures in Florence.] thus placing intellectual work on the very highest level. Probably this is not a true picture of the Renaissance, but the perfect self-sacrifice of the scholar as realized there, is true in a deeper sense of that, and of all times.

* In another poem--The last ride together--he says--
            "What hand and brain were ever paired?
            What heart alike conceived and dared?"

A large proportion of a student's labour must be in preparation for tasks he cannot himself accomplish: his material remains for other students, but the experience, insight, delicate tact and enthusiasm, abide for us all as a common heritage. In another poem Browning touches on the imperfection of all great art, and gives the example of Giotto, who, when he was asked what was the most perfect thing he could do, drew a circle--

    "Thy one work, not to decrease or diminish,
    Done at a stroke, was just (was it not?) O!
    Thy great Campanile is still to finish"

--and it never was finished.

The form in which A Grammarian's Funeral is cast is so artistic, it exactly represents the rhythm of footfalls carrying a heavy body a long distance over level ground. We can hear the tramp of feet, and almost feel the easing of the shoulders under the weight.

    "Was it not great? did not he throw on God,
          (He loves the burthen)--
    God's task to make the heavenly period
          Perfect the earthen?
    Did he not magnify the mind, show clear
          Just what it all meant?
    He could not discount life, as fools do here,
          Paid by instalment.
    He ventured neck or nothing--heaven's success
          Found, on earth failure:

    Leave him--still loftier than the world suspects,
    Living and dying."

In the "severity of peace in death." [Fifines at the Fair.]

(To be continued.)

Typed by Blossom Barden, Mar 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020