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FIVE ENGLISH POETS
VI.-IDEAS AND IDEALS.
We started out with the intention of talking about five poets, and about one of the five hardly a word has been said. Because in many ways Mrs. Browning stands curiously apart from the rest, it is harder to find common ground for the purposes of comparison. The reason of this appears to me to be, that she deals more in abstract ideas; that her thoughts are rarely selfcentred, as is so much the case with Arnold, and with much of Wordsworth and some of Tennyson ; and her sympathies are less for individuals than for classes. The Portuguese sonnets, one of which was quoted in a previous paper, are a marked exception to this general statement, but it accounts for the absence from her work of anything of high dramatic quality on the one hand, and of egoistic meditation on the other. For her poetry shows both the susceptibility to strong feeling on her own part and the ready sympathy, the power of understanding other
people, which might have been expected to result in outbursts of lyrical passion or dramatic characterisation.
Lyrical passion of a sort we have from her.
'Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years ?
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young birds are chirping in the nest,
The young flowers are blowing towards the west :
They are weeping bitterly!
In the country of the free.'
There is a cry of passionate pity running all through the 'Cry of
the Children ;' but if Tennyson had desired to stir the syrnpathies which are aroused by it, he would have set to work with a poem after the manner of the ' Children's Hospital,' and similarly Browning would have made the interest centre on the sufferings of some individual child. The voice, so to speak, would have come, not from the poet, but from the child. Not the poet, but one of the children, would have interpreted the cry of the rest; the method would have been dramatic. One may say that with Robert Browning the method is always dramatic; even if there is an abstract idea to be dealt with, it is done by ‘Lippo, Roland, or Andrea' and the treatment of it is full of the personality of the imagined speaker. On the other hand, the *Cry of the Children' is not an expression of the poet's own personal mood, as 'In Memoriam' is, or the ‘Ode to Duty,' or “Thyrsis.' So that the point of the distinction is, that whereas what I might lamely call the Lyrical as opposed to the Dramatic method is used by the other poets for the expression of a personal mood, and is almost confined to that, Mrs. Browning uses it instead of the Dramatic method ; while, like her husband, she rarely expresses her personal mood at all.
The habit of mind which has led to this result seems to come out also when she does intend to be dramatic. Her speakers do not really retain their individuality, but become mouthpieces for the declamation of some generalisation ; some broad observations which go altogether outside the immediate range of the individual's interest. Imagine any one talking at large after the manner of the lover in ‘Lady Geraldine's Courtship'! There is not space to quote enough to show what I mean, but no man would ever have dreamed of saying all that. It is just the ideas which the situation suggests to the poet. She forgets the individual feeling of the moment, and generalises, just when generalising is dramatically absurd. Now he of' Locksley Hall, concerning whom I have said sundry hard things, talks a good deal of nonsense and proves himself rather a poor creature ; but his generalising is dramatically right: whereas Lady Geraldine's lover makes exactly the sort of speech that he might have composed for himself a week later as the proper thing for him to have said under the circumstances, but just what he never would have said at the time. Mrs. Browning's sense of dramatic fitness is overturned by her pursuit of abstract ideas. The ideas may be fine, but they are out of place just where they come.
Hence her finest effects are produced when she is not attempting to be dramatic, but is interpreting some comparatively abstract conception; the feeling of a whole class, as in the ‘Cry of the Children'; the idea of liberty as in “Casa Guidi ;' the idea of patriotism as in “The Forced Recruit'-a Venetian, forced to serve in the Austrian ranks against his countrymen at Solferino.
* By your enemy tortured and goaded
To march with them, stand in their file,
He facing your guns with that smile.
'That moves you ? Nay, grudge not to show it,
While digging a grave for him here;
Have glory :- let him have a tear.'
In her right perception of what is base, in her ready response to what is noble, in her tender sympathy for suffering, in her high conception of the ideals at which a pure nature must aim, Mrs. Browning was a true poet, and a true woman. Her artistic capacity fell very far short of her poetic feeling, and the defectiveness of her versification as well as the other demerits of her manner of composition (as in the dramatic pieces criticised above) makes her work much less effective and convincing than it deserved to be ; always with the exception of the Portuguese sonnets, which stand alone as the genuine outpouring of her own heart. Apart from these (and from ‘Aurora Leigh,' which is not included for the purpose of these papers), it is in the Vision of Poets' that the highest qualities of the poet, the best gift she has given us, are to be found. There at least we find that courageous acceptance of pain, that assurance of holiness, that triumph through suffering, which make men into martyrs and heroes; and to make men ready to be martyrs and heroes would seem to be among the highest functions of the poets. The lines which VOL. 85 (V.—NEW SERIES). 42
follow are in form characteristic of the writer ; their spirit is closely akin to much in the noblest poems of her husband.
'I laid my soul before thy feet
Heroism and martyrdom are not as a rule suggested by Matthew Arnold, but rather that calm and unemotional attitude towards what we have got to put up with which is perhaps as good an antidote as may be found for the hysterical raptures and equally hysterical despair that sometimes play havoc with reason and feeling. Nevertheless when he betakes himself to barbaric realms, although Thor and Rustum would hardly know themselves in their polished and stately half-Hellenised portraits, the poet is in sufficient sympathy with his subject to give a sense of emotion controlled, instead of emotion educated away altogether.
In · Balder 'then is an element altogether wanting in Arnold's latterday meditations ; a something which is in curious contrast with his usually very academic habit of mind. The grim old Norse world, with its gods and heroes loving and hating, feasting and fighting, fearing nothing, dauntless and stubborn, with Ragnarok ‘the Twilight of the Gods' to end it all for most of them; and in the midst of the turbulent bloodstained crowd, the strange pure figure of Balder the Beautiful, the Beloved, the Reconciler, captive among the strengthless dead; one day to reappear spreading peace amid new heavens and a new earth-I find this infinitely more stirring, more instinct with life. For the idea is heroic. Perhaps the reeds did have a better time of it than the oak when the storm came, but one's sympathies are with the oak, for all that. The conception is grim enough ; barbarous if you will; but at any rate not effete. If we have not the higher inspiration of the confidence that the struggle
is after all but purification, we have at least the stern triumph of fighting it out, and falling with all our wounds in front.
Moreover, in this poem Arnold has touched, strangely enough, a note of tenderness which is wanting in him as a rule; whether from sheer force of contrast between Balder and his fellow-gods, or just because in that barbaric atmosphere the poet was for once constrained to loose the bonds in which for the most part he kept his emotions fettered. The nearest thing to tears in his poems is to be found in the speech of Hoder—the blind Hoder who all unwitting had dealt the fatal blow whereby the halls of Heaven had been reft of that gracious presence—when he meets Hermod on the outer bounds of the realms of gloom.
'For this I died, and fled beneath the gloom,
fellow-sport of Lok with me.'
The man who does the best service to mankind is he who, whatever his particular function may be, most helps us to live nobler lives. The ideal of suppressed emotion, of a calm above perturbation by the ordinary freaks of fate, which in general Matthew Arnold seems to me to set before us, is a fine one in its way ; but it is fatalistic. If we have just to take what fortune sends us, and bear it as best we may, this attitude would seem to be about the best to strive after ; at least it is far better than wasting our time on vain complaints against the cruelty of Fortune, which is not only blind, but deaf. But something more is wanted if we are to be roused to activity instead of mere passivity. If we are to take our own share in making our own lot; more, if we can take a part in the making of our neighbour's lot for weal or woe; we want something beyond the capacity for