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, Part III.

By E. A. Skurray.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 362-373

    "That perfection of form for mere form's sake, is an unworthy motive, it must be used to express great ideas which constitute the soul of art."

    "It is this confidence of Browning's that the light must pierce all the gloom of doubt, which makes him such a valuable teacher in these days of half lights and uncertainty; he is so sure the light is shining however dark the clouds may be which hide him."

Part III.

We have seen how Browning treated religion from the Christian standpoint in A Death in the Desert, Christmas Eve, and Easter Day. In that beautiful, but very mysterious poem Numpholeptos, it seems to me he gives us truth as an ideal, and man's search for her. It is true this is not altogether the accepted interpretation, and many theories have been broached in elucidation of its hidden meaning; but if we take the Nymph as a representation of truth, it makes the poem more more easy to understand than by any of the other theories. Dr. Berdoe, in Browning's Message to his Times, enters fully into the subject, but leaves us with no satisfactory conclusion. He says it was discussed at a Browning meeting, and as they could not arrive at a definite settlement the question was referred to the poet: the substance of his reply was, "The damsel is a nymph, an imaginary and not a real being, and not a woman at all." This answer by no means precludes the idea that the nymph personified Truth, but it does preclude one theory suggested, which is that Browning followed Dante in his imagery, and is depicting that ideal of all womanhood, the Virgin Mary. This is so absolutely foreign to our poet, whose temper of mind has nothing Catholic in the Dantean sense, though in the highest sense of the word he is almost as Catholic as Shakespeare.

Besides, as Dr. Berdoe himself points out, it is imperfection and failure, struggle and endeavour, not "the quintessential whiteness that surrounds" this vision of perfection, which attracted Browning most. Colour and light were not more dear even to the heart of Dante than to him; scattered through so many of his poems, in Numpholeptos this love of light and colour is gathered up into a beautiful diadem, flashing with all its rays. It is this use of the prismatic colours which points to his nymph as being truth idealised. We have first the pure white light of perfection, then it is broken up into the many colours of earth.

    "I could believe your moonbeam smile has passed
    The pallid limit, lies, transformed at last
    To sunlight and salvation--warms the soul
    It sweetens, softens!"

We may note here Browning's impatience of cold perfection, for he imagines his ideal almost transformed "to sunlight and salvation," which is the golden hue of love; just as action, quick with "the heart pulse," is crimson--

    "True blood-streaked, sun-warmth, action-time,
    By heart-pulse ripened to a ruddy glow
    Of gold above my clay--I scarce should know
    From gold's self, thus suffused! For gold means love."

The prismatic colours are in the poet's mind when he says, "Like the gem centuply-angled o'er a diadem," and again, speaking of the rays as they shine--

    "Ever--from centre to circumference,
    Shaft upon coloured shaft: this crimsons thence,
    That purples out its precinct through the waste."

The adventurer enlists himself in the service of his Ideal, he goes forth under the influence of the yellow ray, for which he believes he has her sanction. On his return he comes back to her full of confidence, for he feels he has done his best; instead of the approval and love he had expected, he is met with coldness and disdain. Then he descends to a lower key and asks for pardon, if he cannot have love.

    "His steps . . . end to-day
    Where they began--before your feet, beneath
    Your eyes, your smile: the blade is shut in sheath,
    Fire quenched in flint."

Because in his quest he has gathered some dust by the way, some stain of colour, for he has steeped his soul in

    . . . "Every dye o' the bow
    Born of the storm-cloud"--

his nymph rejects him. Then he feels his anger is just and tells her:--

    "That who would worthily retain the love
    Must share the knowledge shrined those eyes above,
    Go boldly on adventure, break through bounds
    O' the quintessential whiteness that surrounds
    Your feet, obtain experience of each tinge
    That bickers forth to broaden out, impinge
    Plainer his foot its pathway all distinct
    From every other."

True criticism must rest on knowledge, the mere innocence of ignorance, or of wilful blindness towards all that disturbs her:--

    "Blank pure soul, alike the source
    And tomb of that prismatic glow"-- *

is a less worthy attitude than his, because he has not been content to worship afar an impossible ideal. On the contrary he had toiled and worked and striven for it, and has made the best of the circumstances he had to encounter, his conduct surely is higher than the cold criticism of his immaculate mistress. This is the cause of his anger against her, the "unreason of a she-intelligence!" for it is impossible to suppose, as some do, that by Numpholeptos Browning intended to represent the modern woman. Whatever her faults may be, they are not those of cold aloofness towards work and action; she is no criticising mystic, but one who has descended into the arena and entered the lists with man. Yet is the attraction of this White-Truth like the moonbeams, visionary though she be, too strong for him, he feels compelled to return to her service; this time his task shall be "the crimson quest" of action.

* The reader will notice the force and beauty of this line.

To what but ideal truth are these lines applicable?

    "Tread, from source
    To issue, one more ray of rays which course
    Each other, at your bidding from the sphere
    Silver and sweet, their birthplace, down the drear
    Dark of the world,--you promise shall return
    Your pilgrim jewelled as with drops o' the urn
    The rainbow paints from."

In Numpholeptos we have much the same simile for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit as in Easter Day, in that beautiful couplet:--

    "The sun reserves love for the Spirit-Seven
    Companioning God's throne they lamp before."

In another poem, Ixion, Browning makes use of these prismatic colours he loves so much. He shows us how beauty and light and colour may be wrung out of pain.

Ixion, King of Lapithae, in Thessaly, is shunned by mankind for a crime, but is received into heaven by Zeus, who allows him to be tempted by Heré; he succumbs to the temptation, and his punishment is to be tied to a revolving wheel for ever.

Through his acceptance of pain as a just expiation, he finds his "torment is bridged by a rainbow." Out of his pain he rises to light and hope, for it is through this purification as of fire, that his anguish is changed into this rainbow wreath above him.

    "Born of my tears, sweat, blood--bursting to vapour above--
    Arching my torment, an iris ghost-like startles the darkness,
    Cold, white--jewelry quenched--justifies, glorifies pain."

Ixion feels in the end that he comes out triumphant, he is really greater than Zeus, for, "pain--and despair murk mists blends in a rainbow of hope."

He recognises there can be no greatness without love and morality; he feels there must be a something beyond, higher than Zeus, towards which he is aspiring, of which this light above him illumining his darkness is an indication.

    "No, for beyond, far, far is a Purity all unobstructed!
    Zeus was Zeus--not man: wrecked by his weakness, I whirl.
    Out of the wreck I rise--past Zeus to the Potency o'er him!

    Thither I rise, whilst thou--Zeus, keep the Godship and sink."

One more illustration, this time from that exquisite little gem, Deaf and Dumb, where we have both the triumph of the spirit over the body, and also this beautiful play of prismatic colour.

    "Only the prism's obstruction shows aright
    The secret of a sunbeam, breaks its light
    Into the jewelled bow from blankest white;
    So may a glory from defect arise."

How suggestive the thought in that last line--do we not often see this in the physical, as well as in the moral world? The pearl we prize so much for its beauty, is formed by the healing process of a diseased condition of the oyster. The strongest and most beautiful characters have become what they are through discipline, and the conquest of grave defects; for, where there is capability for greatness and supreme goodness, there must also be a possibility of converse.

Of all those who have written poetry, probably few, if any, understood music from a musician's point of view as did Milton and Browning. We wonder, sometimes, that the ear so alive to the melody of one art, was often so careless as the latter, about the melody of his verse.

Through so many of his poems Browning shows his knowledge of music, but, in three of them, he deals with it directly; they might be called his criticism of music. First, I will take a Toccata of Galuppi's, here we have the body of the music, in which the soul has only very slightly awaked.

    "The soul, doubtless, is immortal--where a soul can be discerned."

Gay, beautiful and frivolous, it is a picture of pleasure-loving Venice. For music is no end in itself, it also, to our poet, is a criticism of life; the character of a place or a nation will be expressed in its music. Here we have a hint of the gay insouciance of Venice, where they danced and made merry, fought and made love, "while you sat and played Toccatas, stately as the Clavichord." This poem is in itself music, with its dainty rhythm like the gentle splash of water falling from a fountain.

Yet music, if it be true melody, can never be quite soulless; even in this lighter poem we are given a hint of the sad undercurrents of life, and we thrill to the minor key.

    "Those lesser thirds so plaintive,
    . . . told them something?"

    "Then they left you for your pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
    Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
    Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun."

Can it be they are shut up in darkness, these gay Venetians and become "dust and ashes"? The poet leaves us with a tender feeling for these

    "Dear dead women, with such hair, too--what's become of all the gold
    Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chill and grown old."

In greatest contrast to this poem is the serious, severe beauty of Abt Vogler, with its confident ring of eternal hope, which Browning feels must triumph over difficulties, and struggle upwards through failures. These are typified in music by the discords which rush in, and make us prize the harmonies all the more; to all men come doubt and sorrow, through the experience they gain each one has his say, but in music there is a more absolute note struck:--

    "But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
    The rest may reason and welcome: 'tis we musicians know."

This, the third and greatest of Browning's musical poems, "is the poem of soul, the music of spiritual transcendentalism; it is a vision of the infinite, a revelation of the super-sensuas; a human soul agonizing in the passion of aspiration. Poet and musician speak not merely to the sense or intellect, but to all the emotion which man holds most sacred." *

* Miss Goodrich Freer.

The poet would build up a magnificent palace of sound with his art, and we who listen to him seem to stand in some grand Gothic cathedral, with its revelations and concealments, the mystery of its dim aisles, the almost endless vista of its arches: the music we hear is the majestic roll of the organ, just an echo of celestial melody, a promise of the eternal "music of the spheres."

    "For earth had attained to heaven, there was no more near nor far."

Among all arts, that of music is nearest to heaven. A man who paints a picture or writes a poem can more or less embody his thought, he does it by the obedience to laws which govern his art, and he leaves something of himself in his picture or poem.

    "But here is the finger of God, a flash of the Will that can,
    Existed behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are!"

A sudden inspiration had come to him out of the very heart of the Eternal, earth had aspired to heave, and heaven had stooped down to raise earth to itself. But it has gone, this palace he built, and strive as he may, his inspiration will not return; the musician mourns, still he is not uncomforted, he knows that all beauty such as this, all good which came from God, shall return to Him again:--

    "The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
    The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
    Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
    Enough that he heard it once said: we shall hear it by and by."

In the verse immediately preceding, and also in the first part of this one, Browning touches on the nature of good and evil, that the former is as eternal as the Being of God, from Him it came, to Him it must return again, there to be perfected and satisfied. Whereas evil, following the theories of the schoolmen, *

    . . . "Is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
    What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
    On earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round."

* More especially the School of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Yet evil is necessary here and now, not only for the testing of good, but also for bringing good out of evil, as we evolve harmony from discords. It has, however, no organic growth such as good has; it is a death, a negation, or as the shadow cast by light.

Between these two poems we have Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha; church music still, but it has none of the majestic sacredness of Abt Vogler, neither has it the graceful beauty of the Toccata: in this we have music in its intellectual side, "it is the music of attainment, the music of success, the mental exercise the poet loves so much." * He embodies his idea in the form of a Fugue, the construction of which he describes, as only a musician could. There is the motif which runs through it, you may play it correctly, and yet not grasp its meaning: see that you make your idea dominant, chasing the notes now this way now that in a perfect tempest of sound; then carefully picking out the theme note by note, answering, opposing, and once more mingling together. It is all so confused at times, so like the jumble we make of our lives, the web we weave of it backwards and forwards till death comes and ends them. Our lives also want a dominant idea ** which we must bring out clearly, for amid all the ins and outs, the zigzags and dodges, did we but see it, there is

    "God's gold just shining its last where that lodges,
    Palled beneath man's usurpature."

May we not recognise in this poem a sort of apologia of Browning's idea of poetry? That perfection of form for mere form's sake, is an unworthy motive, it must be used to express great ideas which constitute the soul of art. He also teaches us that intellectual perfection is not enough, man must also feel with his emotions and aspire with this spirit. Much the same idea is carried out at great length in his Paracelsus, who began his quest in life with the passion to know:--

    "Not for knowing's sake,
    But to become a star to men for ever."

* Miss Goodrich Freer.
** So beautifully expressed in Sordello:--
          "One idea that, starlike over, lures him on
          To its exclusive purpose."

To this end he ignores the emotions, and he finds that he cannot even attain to perfect knowledge through the intellect alone. He learns it is necessary to lose himself "among the common creatures of the world," and acknowledges that "love's undoing taught me the worth of love in man's estate:"--so when he is dying he is confident in spite of any "dark tremendous sea of cloud" he may pass through--

    "It is but for a time; I press God's lamp
    Close to my breast; its splendour, soon or late,
    Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day."

It is this confidence of Browning's that the light must pierce all the gloom of doubt, which makes him such a valuable teacher in these days of half lights and uncertainty; he is so sure the light is shining however dark the clouds may be which hide him.

On the sacredness of service those lovely lines in Pippa Passes,

    "All service ranks the same with God;
    If now, as formerly he trod
    Paradise, his presence fills
    Our earth, each only as God wills
    Can work"--

might serve as a text for The Boy and the Angel. Theocrite, who has served God well in his humble round of daily duties, and praised Him "morning, evening, noon and night," gets weary of his work. It seems so small, he wishes to do Him greater service. The old monk Blaise sees his discontent, and tells him that his praise is as acceptable as the greater praise rendered by the Pope; Theocrite wishes that he too might praise Him thus. His wish was granted, and in due time he becomes Pope. The Angel Gabriel takes his humble place, and plies his tasks, it is all so perfectly done, yet:--

    "God said, 'A praise is in mine ear;
    There is no doubt in it, or fear:

    Clearer loves sound other ways:
    I miss my little human praise.'"

Then Gabriel sees that no one, not even an Angel, can perform another's task. He flies to Rome, to the new Pope, and tells him that though he had taken his place and performed his tasks, yet because Theocrite had left his appointed service for what seemed higher work, therefore God missed something in Creation.

    "Thy voices' praise seemed weak; it dropped
    Creation's chorus stopped!"

Theocrite goes back to his humble sphere, a new Pope reigns in his stead,

    "Theocrite grew old at home;
    A new Pope dwelt in Peter's dome.
    One vanished as the others died:
    They sought God side by side."

This sacredness of service, or, in other words, obedience to duty, is a very salient point of Browning's teaching: a few illustrations will suffice. It is the clear clarion sound of dying Pompelia to her "soldier-saint," when she bids him--"hold hard by truth and his great soul, Do out the duty!"

In Bifurcation love and duty clash, the lovers have to go different ways; but though their lives could not mingle here, the poet is certain this union is only delayed, and that hereafter duty and love will be one.

    "But deep within my heart of hearts there hid
    Ever the confidence, amends for all,
    That heaven repairs what wrong earth's journey did,
    When love from life-long exile comes at call.
    Duty and love, one broadway, were the best--
    Who doubts?"

To Browning as to Michael Angelo came the ideal of beauty and truth at one:--"The uncreated Beauty, the Truth who is Eternity, the Love who is Truth, the Eternity who is Love:" * was the vision towards which Michael Angelo aspired. Much the same ideal came to Browning, he sees it is one not always possible to perfectly realise now, but the homely watchword duty remained, and that is always possible of fulfiment.

    "I looked beyond the world for truth and beauty:
    Sought, found and did my duty." †

Duty may not always be so clear to us as it is in moments of insight, those "flashes struck from midnights." ‡ As King Victor realised-- ††

    "'Twill be, I feel,
    Only in moments that the duty's seen
    As palpably as now: the months, the years
    Of painful indistinctness are to come."

* Renaissance Types.
Ferishtar's Fancies.
†† King Victor and King Charles.

Still, it can be followed just the same in those dreary days of dimness, as in that first real revealing light.

In The Guardian Angel Browning shows us how even here and now, Michael Angelo's ideal might be realised--

    "O world, as God has made it! All is beauty:
    And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.
    What further may be sought for or declared?"

It is we who have marred that beauty by our discords, and hindered the realisation of that ideal which ought still to be our aspiration.

Imperialism is in the very air we breathe nowadays, our poet grasped the essential idea of it as long ago as 1845, when he wrote Home Thoughts, from the sea. As he rounds Cape Vincent and faces Trafalgar, the greatness of his heritage comes over him--"Here and here did England help me: how can I help England?--say." Not in exultation at our greatness, but in the acceptance of responsibility does true patriotism consist. What return can I make to the mother who has made me? Our modern poet of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, expands the same idea in his White Man's Burden, where he tells us it is by fulfilling the duties that burden entails, the title to world-wide Empire should be founded.

    "By all ye will or whisper,
    By all ye leave or do,
    The silent, sullen peoples
    Shall weigh your God and you."

In that most dramatic of poems, Clive, Browning gives us an example of the truest and highest form of courage. When the Conqueror of Plassy is asked by a friend which of his many feats bore off the palm for courage, he names, not one of his great battles, but an incident when, little more than a boy, he was an office clerk in India. One evening, after dinner, he is playing cards with some officers, into whose circle he is admitted on sufferance. He detects one of is companions forcing a card, rises at once and exposes him for cheating; when he is dared to repeat his accusation, he does so. Then there broke over his head an outburst of fury, the accused bids him stand up and answer for his words by his life. Pistols are the weapons chosen, Clive fires too soon, and is left unarmed at the mercy of his opponent.

Once again the question is asked, "Did I cheat?" and the chance to recant given.

    "Cheat you did, you knew you cheated, and, this moment, know as well.
    As for me, my homely breeding bids you--fire and go to Hell!
    Twice the muzzle touched my forehead . . . Thrice; then,
    'Laugh at Hell who list,
    I can't! God's no fable either. Did this boy's eye wink once? No!
    There's no standing him and Hell and God, all three against me,--so
    I did cheat!"

He throws down the pistol and rushes out of the room. Then all those other men who had looked on calmly to see the boy done to death, turn against their comrade. Clive rounds upon them, saying for any injury done to his erst opponent, they will have to answer to him. This man had, at least, spared his life, whilst they said no word in his favour, held out no hand to save. Magnanimous himself, he recognised the honesty which could own a fault to a mere boy. When his tale is told, he has the moral courage to own he had feared to face death thus, in cold blood (even the memory of it made him blench), though outwardly he had not flinched.

In Hervé Riel Browning gives us an instance of disinterested patriotism from the French side. As the poem opens what a nautical ring it has! We can almost feel the swing of the sailors pulling at the ropes, the rhythm so exactly copies it.

While in that intensely dramatic little poem such a multum in parvo, Incident in the French Camp, we read how a private saved the day for Napoleon at Ratisbon, by riding with an important message to Lannes. He returns stricken to death, almost cut in two. Napoleon, intent on his own thoughts, intensely relieved at the favourable turn the battle will now take, very natural in a great General, does not at once notice the poor lad who had risked so much for him. Then his thoughts come back to the present, he sees his messenger and notices he is wounded.

    . . ."'Nay,' the soldier's pride
    Touched to the quick, he said:
    'I'm killed, Sire!' And his chief beside
    Smiling the boy fell dead."

Browning's poems are so full of suggestive thought and of ethical teaching, that the difficulty is to know where and when to stop. The writer's earnest endeavour has been to attract readers to his pages, to find for themselves the gems scattered everywhere with a lavish hand: sometimes it must be admitted uncut gems, half-hidden in their native bed.

I will only add "one word more," his own. First in prose and then in verse, which will serve as a brave motto for us all, be our lives long or short.

"Live out truth nobly, bravely, wisely; your human life, as a human life not as a supernatural life, for you are a man and not an angel: not as a sensual life, for you are a man and not a brute; not as a wicked life, for you are a man and not a demon; not as a frivolous life, for you are a man and not an insect. Live each day the true life of a man of to-day; not yesterday's life only, lest you become a murmurer; not to-morrow's life only, lest you become a visionary, but the life of happy yesterdays and confident to-morrows,. . . .Life is indeed a mystery, but it was God who gave it, in a world wrapped with sweet air and bathed in sunshine and abounding with knowledge: a ray of eternal light falls upon it even here, and that light shall wholly transfigure it beyond the grave." †

    "But what if I fail of my purpose here?
    It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
    To-day one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
    And baffled, get up and begin again,--
    So the chace takes up one's life, that's all." *

[I feel I must acknowledge a debt to Mrs. Sutherland Orr's Handbook on Browning, in some of the criticism contained in these papers.]

* Life in a Love.

[This quote appears in a review of Browning by F. W. Farrar, Dean of Canterbury, titled "The Significance of Browning's Message," 1897, which is online at Google Books. Compare the handwritten quote in the book with this letter from Robert Browning. The proofreader of this article wonders if the quote is not by Browning, but by Farrar.]

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