OTHER ESSAYS (3)
1. Love-Songs Of Horace And Catullus
2. Pythagoras And The Poets
3. Dramatis Personæ
From The St. James’s Magazine - February, 1864 - Vol. 9, pp. 343-352.
LOVE-SONGS OF HORACE AND CATULLUS.
WHILE the writings of Horace are in use at every English grammar school and university, and are consequently known to every advanced schoolboy, the “Lepidum Novum Libellum” of Catullus is familiar only to those who read poetry for pure purposes of pleasure. The odes and epodes of the former have been translated, dissected, commented upon by almost every English scholar; but there is no extant edition of Catullus with English notes. The reasons of this are obvious. Chief among them is the fact that Horace loses very little when bereft of his impure passages, while an expurgated Catullus would be a caput mortuum.
Yet the reader of Latin poetry can scarcely think of the gifted freedman without remembering his patrician predecessor. Horace’s boast that he was the first to enrich the Roman literature with translations from the
Greek lyric poets,—
“Qui sibi fidit
Dux regit examen. Parios ego primus iambos
Ostendi Latio, numeros animosqne secutus
Archilochi, non res et agentia verba Lycamben,”—
is nullified by the fact that he had been preceded by Catullus, whose works abound with Greek paraphrases, and who had translated verbatim the most delicious love-song of Sappho.* Moreover, the author of the “Epithalamium” was equal to original flights of a high description, which cannot be said of his elegant successor. Be that as it may, there is between these two poets a certain similarity, a certain bond of taste, which tempts one to regard them as Castor and Pollux in the poetical firmament. This similarity is perhaps most conspicuous in their love-songs—a species of composition in which both excelled, and which, by the sweetness of its cadence and the familiarity of its images, can never fail to afford delight to the parched literary Arab. For the tender passion is radically the same in all ages; and Romeo still goes musing under high heaven, albeit not in the toga of the Roman Manlius, or the theatrical tights of the Italian Montague.
In order to understand the Latin love-songs, it is necessary to know something of a state of society which has been rather amusingly described by Samuel Butler in one of his shorter satires, and when gallantry was carried to an extreme shocking in the eyes of modern communities. But to describe this state of society as it was, might be to trespass over the borders of polite decorum. Perhaps the hint we have given will be sufficient to those who know nothing of the subject. When we add that
* Capitally rendered into English by Ambrose Phillips, in the lines beginning,
“Blest as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee.”
344 Lesbia, whom Catullus really and ardently loved, was a married woman, the insight will be clearer. As for Horace, we question very much whether he was not too much of an epicurean to be capable of a grand passion. His verses, at all events, are so elaborately finished as to warrant the assumption that the feelings they described were learned at second hand. In the extracts we shall give from the love-songs of both these poets, we shall furnish our own renderings, save in cases where we are familiar with some first-rate existing translation, and when we shall specify the source from which our translation is derived.
Personally speaking, Catullus possessed all those qualifications which are popularly supposed to belong to a successful lover. He was handsome, blessed with an excellent constitution, and nobly born. One can readily imagine him to have been a delightful, graceful companion; and, at any rate, we have it on good authority that he was fond of good wine and the company of the fair sex. He had scarcely assumed the toga virilis, when he plunged into all the dissipation of Rome. Polite company there, as in London during the reign of the second Charles, was the most debauched of all company; and gallantry was by no means the worst of the fashionable vices. Silo made money by catering for the pleasures of the dissolute aristocracy; and Catullus very speedily became one of his clients. His two villas—the one at Sirmio, and the other at Tibur—were doubtless the scenes of terrible excesses; and he speedily had to resort to usurers for the means of keeping up his splendid sins. Yet, amid all the dissolute influence of a dissolute age, in spite of the temptations which surrounded him and to which he yielded, he found time to foster a passion which seems to have been as genuine as it was undeserved, and which he has celebrated in poetry unrivalled for the naturalness of its transitions and the fine frenzy of its amorous appeals.
We are neither competent nor willing to enter into the vexed controversy relative to the identity of Lesbia. The most general belief, however, appears to be that she was Clodia, sister of the Clodius killed by Milo, and addressed by her bitterest enemy, Cicero, as amica omnium. Whoever she was, she was certainly one of the most dissolute women of the time; but the extraordinary adoration with which she was regarded by Catullus must either have been exaggerated or have arisen from a voluntary blindness to her infidelities. Faithless alike to her husband and to her gallant, her iniquities gradually forced themselves on the attention of the latter. By slow degrees his eyes became opened to the fact that he had been idolizing a worthless woman; yet, even when he is fully conscious of that fact, he clings to her image with a passionate tenderness which is at once undignified and pathetic. He weeps, he upbraids, he implores; and throughout he chronicles the history of his infatuation in lyrics with the music of the waterfall, and epigrams with the swiftness of the sunflash. To understand this infatuation at all, we must forget that we live in the nineteenth century. Among the contemporaries of Catullus, it would 345 seem that women were not expected to be faithful to the men they married. It was elegant to choose one gallant, but a lady became odious when she tolerated half a dozen.
The very first poem in the collection, if we except the Dedication to Cornelius Nepos, introduces Lesbia to the reader. It is the famous, and deservedly famous, address to the sparrow—pulcer deliciæ meæ puellæ. Here we find the lover in his tenderest yet happiest vein. All is couleur de rose; he loves, and he is beloved. With rapturous eyes he watches the fair divinity as she toys with her feathered pet, and when it flies into her bosom he cannot help envying its happiness. The sins of Lesbia are yet unknown; she is pure, perfect, beautiful,—a delicious little girl, who delights her blooming innocence by sporting merrily with a tame bird. Immediately afterwards follows the immortal lament on the sparrow’s death, one of the most exquisite morceaux in any language, and the following lines of which have always seemed to us in the highest vein of fancy:—
“Circumsiliens modo huc, modo illuc,
Ad solum dominam usque pipilabat.
Qui nunc per iter tenebricosum,
Illuc, unde negant redire quemquam!”
The sparrow does not fold up its wings, and lie down to die; it waves its little wings, leaps from Lesbia’s bosom, and goes flying away along the shades. The eyes of the lovers watch it as it wings away and becomes a mere speck in the distance; and they turn to one another, crying, O factum male, and Lesbia’s eyes are red with weeping. Centuries have passed since the lines were written, but the sparrow is still sailing on among the shades of Orcus; it is a speck above us, and it will fly on eternally to some bourne that it is destined never to reach. We watch its flight with much the same feeling as filled the heart of Catullus. This is a very poetical view of the lines; but the poetical interpretation of such delicate suggestions is the only true one. It is in soft touches like this that Catullus abounds—touches not easily perceived by minds that have nothing to confer; and that liberal applications lie in art as well as nature, we uphold on no less an authority than Mr. Tennyson. Elegance of diction, which is generally consequent on delicacy of meaning, is the main peculiarity of the love-songs of Catullus. We are never told too much; but we are ever held in chain by the true Roman art of scholarly reticence.
But here we have our lover on the very pinnacle of amorous happiness:—
“We live, my Lesbia, and we love;
Though hoary heads may shake reproving,
A farthing for them! Let them rail;
What were our life without our loving?
Days may break, and days may die—
Time will fly!
Days will die, and days will break, dear;
But yon and I,
When once we sleep, will never wake, dear!
“Therefore, my dear, we’ll live and love— 346
All hoary wrath is harsh and vain, dear.
Kiss me, sweet, a thousand times,
Then a thousand times again, dear!
Hundreds, thousands, kisses, kisses—
Such as this is!
Then confuse the sum we count, dear—
Revel in blisses,
That none may envy the amount, dear !”—Carm. V.
Again, when Lesbia desires to know the precise number of kisses which would satisfy her admirer, he passionately replies,—
“Many as the stars that brightly
Look on clasping lovers nightly!
So to kiss you o’er and o’er, dear,
Is enough for him and more, dear,
Who so madly doth adore, dear !”—Carm. VII., 7—10.
The rapture of the lover, however, is seldom of long duration. Shortly after the above fine frenzy we find our poet in the dumps. There has been a quarrel, it seems. Lesbia snubs her admirer, who retaliates. He will be a man, he will be obdurate, he will seek no more favours, he will fly from the greedy altar that yet smokes with his last sacrifice, he has been miserable too long. He holds to this determination for a time; he delights himself in other amours; but one can tell that he is not quite cured, by the bitterness of his satire on several occasions. He addresses a poem to Hypsithilla; but the tone is not genuine, it lacks spontaneity. Presently the master passion conquers him; by this time, too, he has probably made it up with his mistress. Somebody has been drawing a comparison between Lesbia and the sweetheart of Formianus, and Catullus is contemptuously indignant:—
“Hail, girl with very little nose,
No well-turn’d foot, no jet-black eyes,
No tapering fingers,* mouth of rose,
No tongue to please us and surprise!
The province tells thee thou art fair,
O girl whom Formian keeps in cage!
Thee with my Lesbia they compare!
O silly, stupid, senseless age!”—Carm. XLIII.
The next poem in the collection which is specially addressed to Lesbia is the translation of Sappho’s exquisitely beautiful ode. The last lines of the translation are sadly inferior to the original.
It is impossible to affix dates to many of these poems; but it is quite certain that they are not printed in the order in which they were written. In following the writer’s amour with Lesbia, therefore, we must jump forward to poem eighty-third, where we find some amusing badinage relative
* Longis digitis.
347 to Lesbia’s husband. A little further on is a poem written certainly long after fruition, and which is delightful for its brevity and point:—
“Lesbia constantly abuses me,
Upbraids me, mocks me, and accuses me,
Reviles me, snubs me, and reproves me—
May I perish, but she loves me!
“For just as often I abuse her,
Upbraid her, mock her, and accuse her,
Revile her, snub her, and reprove her—
Yet may I perish, but I love her!”
The eighty-sixth song, however, draws a pretty comparison between Quintia and Lesbia:—
“The many swear that Quintia’s fair—
She’s straight and tall, I will confess;
In detail, few with her compare;
But, in the aggregate, her air
Lacks sweetness, grace, and prettiness.
“No! Lesbia, Lesbia for me;
In her all beauties meet combined!
Faultless in every detail, she
Mingles in sweet entirety
The stolen charms of all her kind!”—
a poem which has been very nicely imitated by Moore, in the “Irish Melodies.”
Time enlightens the most credulous of lovers. Slowly, but surely, it forces itself upon Catullus that he has been wasting his best years on an unworthy strumpet. Very pathetic are his appeals; very touching is the fervour with which he clings to an image once esteemed divine. Thus tenderly does he exclaim:—
“Ah! never was a woman so beloved
As thou art loved by me, dear;
Ah! never was a woman so beloved,
And ne’er was lover’s faith so truly proved
As mine was proved to thee, dear!
“By thy unfaith I’m brought to such distress,
So does my heart implore thee,
That I should love thee less if free from guilt;
That, sin thine utmost, do whate’er thou wilt,
I cannot but adore thee!”
And all this tenderness was wasted upon a woman who, if we identify her with Claudia, was very appropriately named by Cicero Quadrantaria. Truly, the blind god makes man bend at extraordinary shrines. We cannot suppose for a moment that the agony of Catullus was purely poetical; every line of his fragments tends to abolish such an assumption. Never were lines fraught with deeper pathos than we find here:—
“Cæli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa, 348
Illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
Plus quam se, atque suos amavit omnes!”—
where the very music itself seems to wail monotonously. Utterances such as this became absolutely painful in their intensity. Even when he feels convinced that his idol is a mere strumpet, he cannot resign her. He despises her, he cries, but, alas! he cannot help loving her.
“Etsi impensius uror,
Multo mî tamen es vilior et levior!”
At last, Catullus can no longer disguise from himself the fact that Lesbia is unworthy. Such a love as his, however, must have endured till death, however disguised by the elegant abandon of the fine gentleman; and Lesbia, wretch as she was, and whoever she was, abides for ever among the immortal heroines of classic song. Indeed, the reader appears to catch the poet’s complaint; he somehow finds it impossible to think very harshly of such a pretty little creature, and one so dearly beloved by such a sweet singer. The last passionate cry of Catullus, beginning, “Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas,” rings in the ear with a deep music of solemn agony. We translate it into blank verse, with a slender hope of doing some justice to its beauty:—
“If there be comfort in the memory
Of past good deeds,—if to have acted well,
Nor broken holy promise, nor profaned
The name of the immortal gods to lure
The ears of men, be comfort,—then for thee,
Catullus, out of this thy bitter love
Shall spring a well of calmer, sadder joy.
For thou hast gentle been in word and deed,
Ay, gentle, gentle beyond gentleness,
Though thou hast spent thy choicest years in vain
On one unworthy. So lament no more,
But boldly tear from out thy breast the poor
Illusion throbbing there, in spite of pride;
Vex not the gods by loving baseness still
Though bitter be the struggle—for ’tis hard
To quite forget a love so cherishèd—
Yet conquer, conquer, for thy soul’s sake. This
Victory thou must achieve, or perish quite.
“O gods, great gods, if ever ye have help’d
Weak man to cast his blackest sorrow off,—
If pity be your heavenly attribute,—
Strengthen me; look with mercy on my woe!
If ever I have served ye virtuously,
Pluck from my bosom this infestuons plague
Polluting every fibre, from my soul
Affrighting joy! ’Tis little that I ask:
Tis not her love I wish, nor do I beg 349
A look ye cannot give—to make her pure.
Tis but oblivion of her face I crave!
1 would be heal’d of my disease accursed!
And, for the sake of pious service done,
Refuse me not, but heal me, gentle gods!”—Carm. LXXVI.
Few readers will question the beauty of this appeal; it possesses all the simplicity of perfect truth. The agony of the writer is too deep to admit of elaborate conceits or farfetched images. It is this simplicity, or naturalness, which places Catullus so far above all other Roman writers of love-songs, and particularly distinguishes him from Horace. He seldom strains after an effect in any of his writings; in his poems about Lesbia, never. They are as wholesomely real as flesh and blood; they are as elegantly simple as the lyrics of Burns. Their very impurities were the natural language of the time, and sprang from no love of filth for its own sake. Catullus never revels in the dirt of the pigsty, as Juvenal seems to do. He was far too delicately cultured to admire mud, though he was obliged to fling it sometimes; and he was much too sincere a lover to be a voluntary voluptuary. His defence of his coarser passages is, perhaps, questionable:—
“Nam castum esse decet pium poetam
Ipsum: versiculos nihil necesse est.”—Carm. XVI., 5, 6.
But the plea has been a common one from time immemorial, and was paraphrased by our own Herrick, for instance (whose obligations to Catullus and Horace are very numerous), in the last two lines of the “Hesperides:”—
“To this book’s end, this last line he’d have placed,—
Jocund his Muse was, but his life was chaste.”
If we are of a mind to treat such transgressions of propriety with super-excessive rigour, we had better commit the entire deliciæ poetarum Latinorum, complete or fragmentary, into one great bonfire; for the mud is so mixed up with the gold, that it is impossible to separate the one from the other in any but a crucible in which both would evaporate.
Comparisons are odious sometimes, but a comparison between Catullus and Horace naturally suggests itself. There can be no doubt whatever that Catullus was the more original genius, and that Horace was the more finished artist. Catullus is nearly always vehement; Horace is invariably cool. The one is an easy epicurean;* the other would be an epicurean if he could, but he is too tender-hearted. Yet these poets are alike remarkable for elegance of poetical diction. In the case of Catullus, the elegance springs from the simple fervour of the thought; in the case of Horace, it is the result of elaborate art. Both poets are delightful, but Catullus
* That is to say, an epicurean according to that wilful misinterpretation of Epicurus prevalent among the Romans.
350 flops down on his knees, beseeches, implores, in the fine frenzy of his passion; while Horace, when he does complain, does so in quite a dignified way, and pastes together pretty morceaux of Sappho and Alcæus, with a view to making the complaint as elegant as possible.
But it will never do to go on asking ourselves if Horace was an original poet. We must adopt no half-measures of criticism with a man whose works have, perhaps, afforded more pleasure, and been recurred to with more delight, than all the other Latin books put together. Let us take him for what he is, without grumbling. Never was there a more perfect artist than Horace, and never were readers less conscious of the presence of a laborious artist, than the readers of Horace. All is delightfully simple; the parts harmonize beautifully. It is only when we begin to pick the lines to pieces that the skill with which the work has been done awakens our astonishment.
Mr. Macleane, in the preface to his excellent edition of Horace (“Bibliotheca Classica,” vol. ii.), observes of the poet’s amatory verses:—
“With rare exceptions, his compositions of this class, however elegant they may be, appear frigid and passionless, bearing the stamp of imitation, with unequivocal signs of art, and none of nature. The crowd of mistresses that have been gathered for him out of his poems is beyond belief; and the laborious folly that has tried to classify his amours, and to follow chronologically the shifting of his affections, I have had occasion to notice. It proceeds upon an interpretation of the odes which is foreign to their true character. Horace was neither more nor less licentious, probably, than most of his contemporaries, though his biographer charges him with gross sensuality; but however this may be, that the women of his odes are in nearly every instance fictitious I have no doubt whatever.”
This is the best point of view to take, not only because it is the most logically probable, but because it is the fairest to Horace. The whole tone of his love poems is that of an easy looker on, a philosophic sympathizer with the amours of wealthy friends. Now and then he makes love himself; but though he flows nectar (as in the “Ode to Pyrrha,” which
Scaliger calls “all nectar”), he evinces very little of the milk of human passion.
Personally speaking, Horace was a decided contrast to the handsome Catullus. He was not a healthy man: he had a liver; he had weak eyes; he was prematurely gray. He was short and fat—epicuri de grege porcum, as he humorously calls himself in the epistle to Albius Tibullus. He was not over-valiant, as we learn from his exploit at Actium. Altogether, he does not seem to have been the sort of person likely to succeed with the fair sex; nor do we believe that he was the sort of person to break his heart for any woman. He was fonder of good living than the airy food of the lover; he loved a brimming cup of old Massia fully as well as the sweetest kiss of Lydia’s lips.
Let us not fail, however, to do justice to the grace and beauty of some 351 of his love poems. One of the sweetest, perhaps, is the little song addressed to Chloe, and thus admirably translated by Mr. Conington:—
“You fly me, Chloe, as o’er trackless hills
A young fawn runs her timorous dam to find,
Whom empty terror thrills
Of woods and whispering wind.
Whether ’tis spring’s first shiver, faintly heard
Through the light leaves, or lizard in the brake,
The rustling thorns have stirr’d,
Her heart, her knees, they quake.
Yet I, who chase you, no grim lion am,
No tiger fell to crush you in my gripe;
Come, learn to leave your dam
For lover’s kisses ripe!” *—Carm. XXIII., Lib. i.
The expression “spring’s first shiver” capitally conveys the force of the original; but it is a pity that Mr. Conington sacrifices virides, green, in its connection with lacertæ, lizards. The tenth line is an improvement on the ninth line of the Latin, where tigris is made feminine by aspera, a very obvious shift to complete the measure. Mr. Conington judiciously reads “tiger” instead of “tigress,” and thereby corrects Horace in one of the many passages which betoken laziness.
A word here on this new attempt, as Mr. Conington himself calls it, to “translate the untranslatable.” Of the author’s qualities as a scholar there can be no question; his edition of Virgil alone, so far as it has gone (“Bibliotheca Classica”), would place him very high in the ranks of learned commentators. Of his qualities as a translator we had favourable evidence years ago. He has, however, surpassed himself in the present undertaking. His translation of the odes seems to us very much the best extant, not even excepting the more flowery one of Mr. Theodore Martin. It is very faithful to the original, in general force as well as in point of detail, and it is exceedingly readable. We are struck, however, by the fact that familiar lines of English poetry frequently run into Mr. Conington’s head, and force themselves into his translations. We will give three instances. In the first ode, the line “Who breaks the too, too solid day unblamed” (“Nec partem solido demere de die spernit”) bears a close resemblance to Shakspere’s “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt!” Here, however, the resemblance is intentional. “The rain, it rains not every day, on the soaked meads”—Mr. Conington’s rendering of “Non semper imbres nubibus hispidos manant in agro” (Carm. IX., Lib. ii.)—reminds one forcibly, up to the word “day,” of the burthen of an old familiar song. And in the twenty-sixth ode of Book Third, the line “For ladies’ love I late was fit” is
* “The Odes and Carmen Sæculare of Horace,” translated into English verse by John Conington, M.A., Corpus Professor of Latin in the University of Oxford. Bell and Daldy, 1863.
352 singularly like the line of Dryden, “Old as I am, for ladies’ love unfit.” It is, moreover, a rather weak reproduction of the original,—
“Vixi puellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria!”
As this poem, though in a very different strain, is addressed to the same Chloe alluded to above, we subjoin it:—
“For ladies’ love I late was fit,
And good success my warfare bless’d;
But now my arms, my lyre I quit,
And hang them up to rust or rest.
Here, where arising from the sea
Stands Venus, lay the load at last,
Links, crowbars, and artillery,
For threatening doors that dared be fast.
O goddess! Cyprus owns thy sway,
And Memphis, far from Thracian snow:
Raise high thy lash, and deal, I pray,
That haughty Chloe but one blow!”
R. W. B.
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From The St. James’s Magazine - March, 1864 - Vol. 9, pp. 456-465.
PYTHAGORAS AND THE POETS.
AT the early age of eighteen, Pythagoras was crowned as successful wrestler in the great Olympian circus of Elis. He is said to have been a youth of remarkable comeliness as well as strength—a reputation not easily acquired among a people who devoted so much attention to physical training. To a robust habit of body, he combined a studious, contemplative disposition, and had scarcely arrived at the period of legal manhood when he had exhausted as much as was known in Greece of music, astronomy, and medicine. He then travelled to Egypt, a land famous for the profound learning of its priests, who, it was reported, held the key of many deeper mysteries than even those hid behind the awful veil of the Eleusinian secrets. The Samian was tested by the severest ordeals before the sacred science was imparted to him; but it seems not to have satisfied his longing for knowledge, as he is reported to have subsequently studied numbers in Phœnicia, astronomy from the wise shepherds of Chaldea; and his acquaintance with some principles of moral philosophy suggest his having picked up in his wanderings many of the Hebraic traditions of the East. On returning to his native country, after an absence of twenty-two years, he gave a series of lectures, expounding his peculiar doctrines, and soon gathered a large number of pupils about him. His system included a strict novitiate of silence, and an unquestioning obedience to himself as master, as well as an unwavering faith in his theories. He inculcated the virtue of self-denial, and encouraged the practice of wholesome corporal exercise. His pupils were not denied the chiefest charm of social intercourse, and ladies were permitted to become graduates in his college, though whether the rule of silence was imposed upon them does not clearly appear. At all events, the highest honours were open to them, as we find Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, succeeding her husband as president of the association after his death—a classical precedent for the rights of women, with which Miss Martineau is certainly
Pythagoras seems to have gained an extraordinary ascendency over his disciples, and it is evident he did not shrink from using a low species of imposture to increase the great respect and veneration in which they held him. He spread a report that he was the son of Hermes, and that he derived godlike powers from his origin. One of his thighs was of gold. He had a spell to tame the fiercest beast, or to make the eagle drop from the sky stone dead to his feet. The tutelar deity of a river was known to converse with him, and by a mere exertion of will he could appear in two different places at the same moment of time. Retiring to a cave for some months, he would issue forth pale and thoughtful, and relate how he had been to hell, and spoken familiarly with the poor moaning spirits who flitted by the dread shores of the Styx. For his own 457 aims, he encouraged a belief in the gods amongst his followers, though such a man must have known as well as the Roman orator who came long after him, “that two oracles could not look each other in the face without laughing;” but he probably chose to accept as much of the mythology as suited his views, and such portions of it as would help to grace some of the wonderful æsthetic theories which he was the first to enunciate. What those theories were in their completeness is unfortunately unknown to us, though it is conjectured that Plato or Aristotle could have supplied the information. They would appear to have been based on the supposition of a universal rhythm and harmony regulating all the phenomena of nature, and it is suspected that Pythagoras reduced his speculations to some law of harmony and proportion applicable to the work of the sculptor, which served to produce those unapproachable models of art which the world has ever since been contented to imitate. We are only concerned with one chapter of his lucubrations at present, and it is the design of this paper to draw the reader’s attention to it. His notion of the music of the spheres has been passed from hand to hand—from one poet to another—from the grey dawn of those ancient days down even to our own time. So popular did the legend become, that if one were to select for illustration the poetical extracts concerning the music of the spheres, they would occupy every column of this journal from its birth to this present issue. I survived the gods themselves. It was a belief affording the most agreeable explanation of a feeling not otherwise easy to define. “The most elevated idea of music,” says Bishop Usher, “arises from a confused perception of ideal or visionary beauty and rapture, which is sufficiently perceivable to fire the imagination, but not clear enough to become an object of knowledge.” Supposing we had not the revelations of Christianity to help us, could we find any better way of giving expression to the solemn emotions stirred within us on the contemplation of the celestial bodies, than by ascribing to them a power which in its influence (though exerting it through a different medium) was very similar, causing sensations of longing, of calm, of awakening, of desire, and of worship, every one of which dispositions can be brought about by music? This would only be an ordinary effort of the mind, which is always endeavouring to explain that which is unknown and remote by something near at hand and familiar; and it would be no undue straining of any of the faculties to associate the “confused perception of ideal or visionary beauty and rapture” occurring at the moment of listening to good music, with the same feeling arising from the sight of the splendour and glory of the stars. When once we have begun to think that effects are analogous, we are anxious to establish an agreement of causes; and, indeed, it is by this process that every law of nature is constructed. It is not at all necessary to suppose that Pythagoras argued after this fashion, which more properly appertains to another system of thought than that with which he was accustomed to reason. The gossamer braids, glistening with dew, which hang from every bush in the 458 summer morning, and lie upon the meadow like ornaments of lace and jewels upon a bride, are not more slight and fragile than the materials which we often use to clothe and deck our most pleasant fancies, and bring them within the visible reach of our knowledge. The reader will see many illustrations of this in the latter portion of the following extracts.
Pythagoras taught his class that the stars moved in a grand, never-ceasing march, making an eternal concert, as it were, led by two sidereal suns, who regulated the motions of this magnificent choir. He had heard this music himself, and could even mark the different variations of note as they echoed from the vaulted roof which arched a vast distance above the orchestre. Saturn boomed a deep bass note; and the moon, which was nearest to us, emitted a shrill tenor sound. The musical scale of seven notes was represented by seven planets, whose vibrations were in harmonic proportion to their respective distances. This theory of Pythagoras gained a new and nobler signification on the advent of Christianity. It was especially gratifying to consider the greatest works of God for ever hymning the praises of their Creator; and we find the music of the spheres introduced into the earliest devotional poetry. Gregory Nazianzen, a Greek Christian poet, looked upwards, and sang,—
“The. great stars treading choral measures o’er us.”
And Cynesius, of Cyrene, in a fervid burst of laudation, says,—
“And the holy stars stood breathless,
Trembling in their chorus deathless!”
Milton takes up the same theme,—
“And ye five other wandering fires, that move
In mystic dance, not without song.”
So Young, in one of his boldest figures,—
“Thou who didst put to flight
Primeval silence, when the morning stars,
Exulting, shouted o’er the rising ball!”
On this division of our subject, however, it is scarcely necessary to dwell, as out of Milton alone whole pages of such examples might be extracted. We will see how Messieurs the poets use the Pythagorean legend in the general exercise of their art, without any theological reference; and, first of all, hear how deliciously Shakspere turns the harmonious astronomy
“Sir Jessica, look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim. 459
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
Byron heard the spheral music in its awful sublimity:—
“Suns, moons, and earths, upon their loud-voiced spheres,
Singing in thunder round me” [Cain].
Goethe, in that trumpet-tongued prologue to “Faust,” makes Raphael say,—
“In chorus with each kindred star,
The sun sounds forth his ancient song.”
And as we have got to the fatherland, hear Schiller and Klopstock on the same theme:—
“And comes the world’s wide harmony in vain upon thine ears,
The stream of music borne aloft from yonder choral spheres?
And feel’st thou not the measure which eternal nature keeps,
The whirling dance for ever held in yonder azure deeps?”
“The heavenly ear can list the moving spheres,
And while Selene and Pleione roll
In thunder, and rejoicing hears
The sounds that swell beneath the pole.”
Uhland—melancholy, dreamy Uhland—of course does not miss the divine music:—
“Ye marvellous tones, that scarce I hear,
What longing ye breathe from above!”
Longfellow, in the following passage, gives an exact and very elegant description of this beautiful fancy. The lines are full of just and musical expressions, every epithet felicitous and poetical. It is taken from one of his earlier pieces, the “Occultation of Orion:”—
“I saw, with its celestial keys,
Its chords of air, its frets of fire,
The Samian’s great Æolian lyre,
Rising through all its sevenfold bars,
From earth unto the fixèd stars.
And through the dewy atmosphere,
Not only could I see, but hear
Its wondrous and harmonious strings
In sweet vibration, sphere by sphere,—
From Dian’s circle, light and near,
Onward to vaster and wider rings,
Where, chanting through his beard of snows,
Majestic, mournful Saturn goes,
And down the sunless realms of space
Reverberates the thunder of his bass!”
460 Sir Isaac Newton said on one occasion, that he was inclined to believe that some general laws prevailed with regard to the agreeable affections of all our senses. Hazlitt was of opinion that there was a harmony of colours, and a harmony of sounds unquestionably, and an original harmony of forms, as the principle of beauty and the source of pleasure. Perhaps, after all, the towers and walls of Thebes, rising into glorious shape at the sound of Amphion’s harp, is but a legend hiding a deep and golden truth which may yet be brought to light. We have all heard of the blind man who compared a scarlet colour to the fanfare of a bugle, thus supplying a metaphysical derivation for the rather slangy adjective of “loud,” as applied to gaudy and obtrusive hues. Schlegel used to insist that the paintings of Correggio produced exactly the same effect upon him as a piece of elaborate music. At the next exhibition of the Royal Academy, how often will the art critics of the London press speak of the tone of a picture, the harmony of such and such tints, the discord and noisy vulgarism of others, &c., &c.! The poets, as well as painters, have plenty of sufficient excuses for taking harmony and melody as representatives of the highest manifestations of the beautiful, and they have done so with a remarkable unanimity. A landscape, a flower, the face and figure of a handsome woman,—in fact, all nature, all humanity, in the abstract and concrete, in the singular and general, share in this comparison. Byron tells us,—
“There’s music in all things, if men had ears;
This earth is but an echo of the spheres.”
Coleridge expresses the purely Pythagorean sentiment, —
“And if all animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought as o’er them sweeps,
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each and God of all!”
Milton goes to a “solemn music,”—and indeed music must have had a special solemnity for the blind poet, shut out from the sight of things. He, too, sings of the harmony of nature, but his truly Christian Muse, ever consecrated to worship, turns the occasion to religious thought. Once a time was when the earth joined the seraphim and the cherubic host “in hymns devout and holy psalms,”—
“Till disproportion’d sin
Jarr’d against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair music that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway’d
In perfect diapason.”
This music was not altogether silenced, for Wordsworth, passive to the impression of every stream, flower, mountain, grove, and lake, was able to hear it:—
“One song they sang, and it was audible; 461
Most audible then when the fleshy ear,
O’ercome by modest prelude of that strain,
Forgot her functions, and slept undisturb’d.”
What think you of music in the scent of a flower?—
“And the hyacinth, purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a soft peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense” (sensitive plant).—SHELLEY.
I wished I could make my pet geranium do something of this kind. The bard of Rydal had also a concert in his flower-beds:—
“Where will they stop, those breathing powers,
Those spirits of the new-born flowers?
* * * * * *
Up from their native ground they rise,
In mute aërial harmonies!”
Having noticed the music of the stars, the landscape, and the flowers, there yet remains a more charming object than any of them, to be regarded under the same condition. An ingenious Scotch gentleman,* who has done more for the true advancement of æsthetic science than any other living, engages that, with certain combinations of a circle, triangle, and square, the most perfect face and figure may be constructed; and furthermore, that this combination may result in a more perfect type of beauty than has ever been witnessed in a human creature; and further again, that the thing has been done successfully more than two thousand years ago! I doubt much whether this announcement will meet with the favour of the ladies. Miss would not like to be told that the pretty face and neat shape which she contemplates with so much satisfaction in her looking-glass every morning, was a composition of triangles and squares, and other horrid things which her brother George is always poring over when “going in,” as he calls it, for the medal on mathematical science. However, there is a gallant addition to Mr. Hay’s theory, namely, that the regulation of his geometrical figures must be in accord with certain harmonic proportions existing in music; so that we pass immediately from the prosaic figures to the poetical notes, and the ladies will, we are sure, have not the least objection to our considering them fashioned according to sweet tunes and harmonies. It may assist us, in believing this beautiful notion, to recollect that the word “harmony” originally signified the just proportions of things, and that its first application to sound was metaphorical. But who cares for philosophic data when wanting to say fine compliments? Not
* Mr. Hay, author of “The Natural Principles of Beauty as developed in the Female Figure;” “Orthographic Beauty of the Parthenon, &c.;” “Theory of Harmony and Form.”
402 your poet, certainly. Gentle Shakspere, who played Troubadour and Bonnibel on his own account, in spite of the many wicked satires he wrote against poor wistful lovers, thus addressed his mistress in “The Passionate Pilgrim:”—
“How oft when thou, my music, music play’st.”
Elsewhere he says, “The tune of Imogen.” A later poet speaks of—
“The music breathing from Znleika’s face;”
and Wordsworth very happily,—
“Beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.”
In the following description of “Evangeline” this fancy is deliciously expressed:—
“But a celestial brightness, a more ethereal beauty,
Shone in her face, and invested her voice, when, after confession,
Homeward serenely she walk’d with God’s benediction, upon her;
And where she had pass’d, it seem’d like the ceasing of exquisite music.”
She is gone from you, but the tones vibrate yet,—linger in your ear like the recollection of a sweet melody long after the world and its hard necessities have placed you apart. Alas! life is made up of sterner stuff and much more vulgar purposes for the most of us, than to pass any of it in the pleasant melodious dalliances our poets sing of.
There is truly no more delicate way of expressing the warmest passion than by comparing its influence to melody. The tenderness of a kind look; the mere stirring of lips with the timid, half-spoken words of fondness fluttering about, and yet afraid to leave them; all the dear conceits of that wild and improbable dream, which go to make up the old, old tale, find their fittest utterance in music, and their meaning is best interpreted by comparison with it:—
“And we will talk until thought’s melody
Become too sweet for utterance, and it die,
To live again in looks which dart
With thrilling tones into the voiceless heart.”
Even these cold-hearted wits of the days of bagwigs, ruffles, and swords, were obliged to seek their best types of womanhood in the prim landscape gardens of Arcadia (constructed so as not to offend by trop de verdure). Even they were sensible of a similitude between Chloe or Phœbe, and the charms of music. In No. 603 of the Spectator there is a specimen Pastoral (with an air of sly satire about it) which contains an example of this. Colin (who in old pictures is generally drawn with knickerbockers, industriously playing on a flageolet, and surrounded by numerous sheep, whose appearances are ridiculously suggestive of well-stuffed bolsters) has lost his Phœbe. Whether she went off with a 463 consumption, or another Colin, the text discloseth not. She leaves, however, a blank not only in his faithful breast, but in the lovely scenes by which he is surrounded. When formerly Phœbe and he, in sportful innocence, played (reader, it was in their salad days) with the young (spring) lamb, how happy that time, when spring love and beauty (and salad, and perhaps mint sauce) were all in their prime! But now in their frolics, when by him (Colin) they pass, he (reckless creature) flings at their fleeces a handful of grass! He also, I am sorry to say, further indulges his cruel propensities by beating his dog with his crook, an animal who, in another verse, discloses quite a sentimental Tray in his character,—at last our Colin hits on the graceful compliment which almost gives the semblance of poetry to his doleful plaint:—
“But now she is absent; though still they sing on,
The words are but lonely, the melody’s gone!”
Mr. Pope, in a mawkish composition not much better than that from which I have quoted, repeats the same idea:—
“Fair Daphne’s dead,—and music is no more!”
The manner of a woman’s walk—a dignified, easy gait, regulating the natural elasticity which sound health and perfect form, is sure to give, which does not unduly disturb that engaging repose belonging to the most supreme beauty of person—has invariably been the subject of poetic admiration and enthusiasm. A goddess in mortal guise might be discovered by the unconscious dignity of her footsteps. Southey’s Kailyal, in the gorgeous Oriental epic of Kehama,—
“Moved graceful as the dark-eyed nymphs of heaven,
Such harmony to her steps was given.”
That dear old “Talking Oak” of Alfred Tennyson’s, worth all the pastoral beech trees that ever nodded above the loose-kirtled shepherdesses of Arcady, thus gallantly describes a little favourite of his:—
“Yet, since I first could cast a shade,
Did never creature pass
So slightly, musically made,
So light upon the grass.”
A broken heart (who does not recollect the “Broken Heart” of the “Annuals” of forty years ago, with the guitar, the high-bodied dress, and the air of a sea-sick Lydia Languish?) shows itself on the blank, wearied face, with a sense of a dead, complete silence. Some weight of care or disappointment has stopped the vibration of all music there. Do we not meet with faces vivacious and sprightly as a gallopade, and just for a moment capable of wearing the more thoughtful cadence of a waltz? There are those also whom we can never regard without involuntarily 464 thinking of silly polkas, and other mere hop-and-turn-about tunes, seeming not to possess any power of changing to a graver mood or more serious measure. Such countenances are really dumb of themselves, but can echo dance music faithfully enough, every feature being alive and in play at the sound of the flutes and fiddles, but dropping to a dull, noiseless vacancy at the final twirl of the orchestra. Others, again, carry a tune of false sentiment (like that sort of music which the French term classique), and if your ear be defective, or your taste uncultivated, it is very likely you will be deceived into believing that the wretched trash is a real expression of pure and worthy fancies. The various clever movements, the dying falls, the startling chords, the brilliant meretricious roulades,—the whole symphony, indeed, made up of dangerous surprises, half truthful, half sensual, and completely mischievous, form the ogling stock in trade, the nods and wreathed smiles of Miss Blanche Amory and her syren companions. But they are exceptions, those Miss Sharps and Miss Amorys, or life would be a very burden, every man having to plug his ears like Ulysses. There are women of sweet, maidenly natures, growing up in the practice of kindnesses, of tender household duties, of simple, godly aims, and of genial, pleasant accomplishments,—
“Till, at the last, they set themselves to man,
Like perfect music into noble words.”
There is no guile, no sensation tricks about them. They do not wear pork-pie hats or archery leggings. What a lovable lady is this that Bulwer describes in his “Duchess of Vallière”! in musical terms, too, which is to me a sufficient excuse for making the quotation:—
“In the maze
Of her harmonious beauties, Modesty,
Like some severer grace that leads the choir
Of her sweet sisters, every airy motion
Attunes to such chaste charm.”
Another dramatist, quoted with much gusto by Southey in the “Doctor,” tells how the fairer sex should be described after the manner of a song:—
“Sing of the nature of woman, and then the song
Shall be full of variety—old crotchets,
And most sweet closes. It shall be humorous,
Grave, fantastic, amorous, melancholy, sprightly,
One in all, and all in one.”—MARSTON.
Schelling, whose curious speculations into the rather misty regions of transcendentalism have been fruitful of many strange and recondite truths, argues in what manner our mental faculties are subject to the influences of the material nature, and how again we can make the objective world itself yield to our own representations. “This could never be,” he says, “if there did not obtain, between the ideal world and the real world, a sort of 465 pre-established harmony.” The poetic effort is ever to comprehend and fully recognize this harmony, and give expression to it. It is in this endeavour that the objective world yields to the poetic representation. It is the production of Wordsworth’s definition of the inspired art,—the description of things, not as they are, but as they seem, and, it might be added, as we would wish them to be. The old philosophers, Pythagoras and Plato for instance, formed their theories in this poetical kind; for their philosophy was, after all, only poetry in disguise. Pythagoras, with his music of the spheres; Plato, with his sad recollections of a happier state of being, both exemplify the identity of feeling which formerly existed between those who loved wisdom and those who sought the beautiful; and this alliance between poetry and philosophy is not yet broken off. The points of contact where they meet are daily becoming multiplied; the workers in the field of science often find themselves almost unconsciously following a track marked with the footsteps of the poet. Both are dealing with things of which at best they can know “only in part, and prophesy in part.” The poor Greek strove to hear that music which man hath never heard, nor can ever hear while in this vesture of clay. But the inspiration of his thought was a noble one, and it was no mean legacy that Pythagoras left to the Poets.
From The St. James’s Magazine - July, 1864 - Vol. 10, pp. 477-491.
DRAMATIS PERSONÆ. *
PROFESSOR DRAPER of New York, in his recently published volume on the intellectual development of Europe, edifies us with the information that an animal is the form through which material substance is visibly passing and suffering transmutation into new products, that in that act of transmutation force is disengaged, and that what we call its life is the display of the manner in which the force thus disengaged is expended; adding, further, that the life of an individual is a miniature of the life of a nation. Lamentable is the future which this sort of reasoning presents to the professor; enabling him to trace the progress of Europe through the ages of credulity, inquiry, faith, reason, until it finally halts, like China, at the age of decrepitude. This is the materialistic theory of life, embracing such reasoning as Lucretius would have appreciated and Buckle would have enjoyed, and promulgated by a man who lives and understands medicine better than metaphysics. The doctor, feeling the pulse of his patient, proclaims that he is growing old, and will soon become a confirmed and stupid invalid. A pleasant prospect this for those who have been accustomed, Prometheus-like, to snatch down divine fire and mingle it with the clay of our modern humanity. What, is all our boasted progress, to come to nothing—to nothing, at least, but the lifeless stagnation of intellectual senility,—while some other body of human beings, at present at the credulous stage (the subjects of the King of Dahomey, for instance), take their turn of growing up to mental manhood and gradually declining into old age? Unfortunately, the fact that Professor Draper is an American makes us doubtful as to the sincerity of his argument. We know the common Yankee notion, that America is yet in her infancy, but that she, while Europe is sinking into obtuseness and inactivity, is gradually but surely growing up to her full stature. It must be very pleasant for the Yankees to find that one of their number is clever enough to shape this notion into philosophical form, and to prove by inference that the time when they will be able, figuratively speaking, to “lick creation,” must infallibly arrive. This Professor Draper does very cleverly, but not cleverly enough to convince those who dissected the generalizations of the philosopher whose scepticism culminated in so sad a darkness at Damascus. The worst of theories like that of the professor is, that they are positively valueless as guides to human conduct. Christianity says, “Believe , and you shall receive the reward of belief; repent, and your sins shall be forgiven you.” Draper says, “Do what you please,—remonstrate, reason, aspire,—you are nevertheless a helpless log, drifted swiftly on to a fixed destination. You are merely a form of material substance which will reach the stage of decrepitude and change; and it is your destiny to pass from childhood back to childhood.” If the Professor really believes that he is right, we
— * “Dramatis Personæ,” by Robert Browning. London: Chapman and Hall. —
478 can account for the stoical calm with which, even when the din of battle was ringing at his very door, he favoured the publisher with his fatalistic reveries.
Draperism, to use its own technology, is another display of the manner in which the substance of scepticism shows itself while passing into fresh products. Pure and simple scepticism, and that of the most valuable kind, has budded forth also in “Essays and Reviews”-ism, and Colensoism—manifestations upon which far too much false emphasis has been laid by English people. Luckily, there are people who turn their eyes upward, and have not forgotten what “the wise man” said:—
“Die Geisterwelt ist nicht verschlossen;
Dein sinn ist zu, dein Herz ist todt!
Auf! bade, Schüler, unverdrossen
Die ird ’sche Brust im Morgenroth!” *
The soul listens to calls like this more willingly than to the whispers of the fatalist, and is conscious that it has the power of renewing itself by aspiration. Counteracting the influence of the materialistic teachers, English and American, is a class of minds which forms in reality one of the bulwarks of our national religion, and which, if it divided Europe into cycles as Draper has done, would certainly assign the latest and final place to the age of faith. To such men it is of infinitely less importance whether Oxford is right or Colenso wrong, than whether modern society is in danger of stagnation from the lack of original thinkers,—thinkers who are capable of communing with the spirit-world, and of renewing the Æson of upward-looking Hope by bathing him in the red of the morning. They look forward, not to the senility, but to the manhood of a world which is yet in its youth. Their reasoning is metaphysical in the highest sense of that much-bandied-about word; they decline to believe that life is merely the fortuitous form that a substance assumes in the progress of transmutation, or that the soul is evaporative carbon. They accept scepticism as a means to faith, and they value positive science as a manifestation of the thirst for divine inquiry.
Modern scepticism has developed itself markedly in two distinct forms of thinkers; the positive reasoner, who accepts nothing but direct evidence, and the merely subjective poet, who searches inward for the light in which he wishes to believe. The region of the one is the earth, the microcosm; the latter, because he feels his own soul to be boundless, is content with nothing but the universe itself. On the whole, the positivist is the more useful of the two, but both have their uses, even though they arrive at somewhat lame conclusions; they keep thought awake, and they prove, at least, what will be a great comfort to readers of
— * “The spirit-world is not yet closed: thy sense
Is shut, thy heart is dead. Up, scholar, up!
And bathe thy earthly breast in the crimson day.”
“FAUST,” Scene I. —
479 Professor Draper, that the age of faith, whatsoever be its relative position in the cycle of intellectual progress, is as yet far distant.
These remarks have been partly called forth by a perusal of Mr. Browning’s last volume of poetry, a book as remarkable for its immediate applications as for thoughts which will endure for all time, and which, if taken up after a perusal of Professor Draper’s “History of Intellectual Development,” must help much to disperse the fogs of materialistic theory. Mr. Browning’s usual reticence as regards his own religious belief is dignified and manly; and the opinions he puts into the mouths of his characters must not be identified with his personal convictions. In one or two remarkable instances, however, he gives us a plain, straightforward statement, as in the last verses of the “Legend of Poruic:”—
“The candid incline to surmise, of late,
That the Christian faith may be false, I find;
For our “Essays and Reviews” debate
Begins to tell on the public mind,
And Colenso’s words have weight.
“I still, to suppose it true, for my part,
See reasons and reasons; this, to begin,—
’Tis the faith that launch’d point-blank her dart
At the head of a lie—taught Original Sin,
The Corruption of Man’s Heart.”
But whether Mr. Browning does or does not believe in Original Sin is a minor question! More than most men does he believe in the ever-present stimulation of divine agencies. Nor is he a mere torpid acceptor of the respectable, the orthodox; he has reasoned out the matter entirely to his own conviction.
This brings us to a point from which we wish to look at Browning’s genius. Nothing, it seems to us, is more remarkable in his poetry than the steady determination shown by the writer to regard things from their best side, to look with lenience on human frailty and shortcoming, and to get as much good out of human character as possible. Browning is the “Man of Feeling” without his stupidity and effeminacy. He does justice to everybody, even the most vicious, and discovers that even Mr. Sludge, the medium, has his good points; he won’t be too hard even upon sophistry, so he shows glimpses of the divine even through the portly waistcoat of Bishop Blougram. He is not an optimist, but he is always trying, unsuccessfully, to be one. He seems grieved beyond measure when brought face to face with wickedness and humbug, so close that he must perforce see and recognize them; but he immediately sets to work to take them to pieces, not with a view to detecting the weak points, but solely in order to find out the good ones; and if the search prove unsatisfactory, he has always the grand resource of discovering the divine agency, whose marvellous workmanship brings him to his knees. He could see more fine points in the character of the Devil than any man that ever wrote, and solely for 480 the reason he trusts so completely in the wisdom of the devil’s master. In fact, he finds something to like everywhere, but he never likes without a reason; and his extraordinary sympathy with humanity in general makes him as much at his ease in Petticoat Lane as in Belgravia; as much at home at Stoke-in-Pogis, which is agitated by the squabbles of a vestry, as in Paris, which is softly stirred by the on dits of a salon. This is meant to be high praise, and it is praise which shows the distinction between Mr. Browning and the poets who, however exalted be their musings, are merely subjective. The merely subjective poet has very little sympathy with the world in general; he admires his own little circle, and he employs his faculties in inward contemplation. Intellectually speaking, he is as lonely as a St. Simeon Stylites. Like Wordsworth, he feels himself an exceptional creature in the world, or like Shelley, he endows all mankind with his own high-mindedness and generosity. It is pretty evident that such a man lacks the weapons to combat with materialistic reasoners; while he dreams, they work; they are not satisfied with his dreams, though they are facts to him; they ask proofs—he retreats in high dudgeon, and appeals to the invisible. But when the dramatist steps forward to do battle on the side of faith, the case is widely different; he is armed at all points, and is not to be laughed down. Like his opponents, he is content to confine his arguments to facts, and mighty are the facts that humanity affords him. He is content to allow the enemy to heap the Pelion of positive science upon the Ossa of scepticism, and to climb to the top, and to cry out that they can still behold no God, while he remains in the earth, and, entering into the psychology of motives, discovers the divine spark there. History aids him with her wondrous suggestions. While the other side has ascertained that the Pentateuch is a marvellous contradiction, the dramatist has held commune with the souls of Luther and St. Paul. If they cry “Fate!” he answers “Napoleon!” While they are raking the old red sandstone, he is standing at the death-bed of Voltaire.
And Mr. Browning is a dramatist of a very high, if not of the highest, order. He has not written a line which, however lyrical in form, is not essentially dramatic in expression. Even “Evelyn Hope,” that most exquisite of English morceaux, is the last sweet scene of a beautiful drama. His long plays are not successful, simply because the form they wear leads us to expect something more familiar in their character; but if they were divided into separate poems, they would rank among the noblest dramatic studies. It is in miniature pictures—such as “My Last Duchess” and the “Epistle of Karsheek”—that Browning excels. Nothing could be nobler or truer than the description of Lazarus in the latter poem. The man lives before us—gentle, subdued, mysterious, after the spirit of Christ has passed over him:—
“The man is witless of the size, the sum,
The value in proportion of all things,
Or whether it be little or be much.
Discourse to him of prodigious armaments 481
Assembled to besiege his city now,
And of the passing of a mule with gourds—
’Tis one! Then take it on the other side,
Speak of some trifling fact—he will gaze rapt
With stupor at its very littleness
(Far as I see),—as if in that indeed
He caught prodigious import, whole results;
And so will turn to us the bystanders
In ever the same stupor (note this point)
That we, too, see not with his open’d eyes.
* * * * *
And oft the man’s soul springs into his face,
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage that bade him “Rise,” and he did rise.
Something—a word, a tick of the blood within—
Admonishes—then back he sinks at once
To ashes, that was very fire before,
In sedulous recurrence to his trade
Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
And studiously the humbler for that pride,
Professedly the faultier that he knows
God’s secret, while he holds the thread of life.
Indeed, the especial marking of the man
Is prone submission to the heavenly will—
Seeing it what is, and why it is.
Sayeth, he will wait patient to the last
For that same death which must restore his being
To equilibrium, body loosening soul,
Divorced even now by premature full growth.” *
This is a mere outline of the drawing, but it shows the subtilty of Mr. Browning’s psychology. The result produced in Lazarus by the visible presence of Christ is such as now appears frequently in men when the invisible Spirit actuates. Mr. Browning seems to have gone about his work in a pre-Raphaelite spirit, and starting from the assumption that men are radically the same in all ages, he may have drawn Lazarus from a living model. As Browning paints him, Lazarus must doubtless have appeared to the learned men of his time—such as the Leech who tells the story; but the picture affords glimpses which are true to all time, and which will manifest themselves wherever there is great faith.
We have suggested that Mr. Browning’s method is pre-Raphaelistic. Nothing could be more commonplace than this method, were it not raised above commonplace by the startling fidelity of its results. Like Millais, Mr. Browning throws in the background by a few broad dashes of the brush, leaving a great deal to the imagination, and adopting a boldness of colour which sometimes startles one, as nature often does. Like Hunt, he is laboriously elaborate in the execution of his figures. His poetry,
— “The Collected Works of Robert Browning.” Chapman and Hall, 1864. —
482 indeed, has the faults as well as the beauties of the pre-Raphaelites. These faults consist of a certain unpleasant look of the work at first sight, and a frequent smudginess of the tints on further examination; and they constitute what is known to a large portion of the public as Mr. Browning’s style—a style so bold, rough-hewn, and withal so original, that it has never been imitated with any success. Those who call it careless don’t know what they are talking about. It is the fine conscientious expression of clearly defined thought, startling one ever and again by unconscious effects; and if it be full of mannerisms, they are the mannerisms of a man who is so much in earnest that he has no time to fill his pictures with charmingly pretty bits of unnatural colour. And in more than one marked respect does Mr. Browning resemble the painters who preceded Raphael. He is so pre-eminently Christian that he sacrifices everything for the sake of truth, pure and simple. The central figure in his mind’s eye is Christ, whose spirit breathes gently through all his poetry. We are inclined to think that those poems in which Mr. Browning deals with historical religious subjects are his masterpieces. The parsimony of their colouring results in one gentle and very lovely evenness of tone; for Christianity abhors tinsel.
There is nothing in the new volume better than the “Epistle of Karsheek,” but there is one poem which is more immediately available for purposes of moral teaching. This is entitled “A Death in the Desert,” and describes the last moments of the apostle John. Here the background is thrown quickly in by a few soft lines. Inside, the dark cool cave; further, a subdued glimpse of “noon and the burning blue;” and, halfway up the mouth of the cave, tending his goat, the wild Bactrian convert, who lives before us through the might of two strong lines,—
“The Bactrian was but a wild, childish man,
And could not read nor speak, but only loved.”
Painfully interesting is the figure of the apostle, who, stretched dying on his camel’s skin, delivers his last teaching to his companions in hiding. The words live and breathe, while John sinks fast; and already, afar away, people who wish to believe are beginning to doubt whether or not John has lived at all, and to doubt the promise of His coming. Antichrist is already in the world. Men doubt the miracles, and ask for more; but the dying apostle has an answer, which should reach the souls of those who admire M. Ernest Renan:—
“I say that man was made to grow, not stop;
That help he needed once, and needs no more,
Having grown up but an inch by, is withdrawn:
For he hath new needs, and new helps to these.
This imports solely, man should mount on each
New height in view; the help whereby he mounts,
The ladder-rung his foot has left, may fall,
Since all things suffer change save God the Truth.
Man apprehends Him newly at each stage 483
Whereat earth’s ladder drops, its service done;
And nothing shall prove twice what once was proved.
You stick a garden plot with order’d twigs
To show inside the germs of herbs unborn,
And check the careless step would spoil their birth;
But when herbs wave, the guardian twigs may go,
Since should you doubt of virtues, questions kind,
It is no longer for old twigs ye look,
Which proved once underneath lay store of seed,
But to the herb’s self, by what light ye boast,
For what fruit’s signs are. This book’s fruit is plain,
Nor miracles need prove it any more.
Doth the fruit show? Then miracles bade ’ware
At first of root and stem, saved both till now
From trampling ox, rough boar and wanton goat.
What? Was man made a wheelwork to wind up,
And be discharged, and straight wound up anew?
No!—grown, his growth lasts; taught, he ne’er forgets:
May learn a thousand things, not twice the same.
“This might be pagan teaching; now hear mine.
“I say, that as the babe, you feed awhile
Becomes a boy, and fit to feed himself,
So minds at first must be spoon-fed with truth:
When they can eat, babes’ nurture is withdrawn.
I fed the babe whether it would or no:
I bid the boy to feed himself or starve.
I cried once, ‘That ye may believe in Christ,
Behold, this blind man shall receive his sight!’
I cry now, ‘Urgest thou, for I am shrewd
And smile at stories how John’s word could cure—
Repeat that miracle and take my faith?’
I say, that miracle was duly wrought
When, save for it, no faith was possible.
Whether a change were wrought i’ the shows o’ the world,
Whether the change came from our minds which see
Of the shows o’ the world so much as and no more
Than God wills for His purpose,—(what do I
See now, suppose you, there where you see rock
Round us?)—I know not; such was the effect,
So faith grew, making void more miracles
Because too much: they would compel, not help.
I say the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it,
And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
Wouldst thou unprove this to re-prove the proved?
In life’s mere minute, with power to use that proof,
Leave knowledge and revert to how it sprung?
Thou hast it; use it, and forthwith, or die!
“For I say, this is death, and the sole death,
When a man’s loss comes to him from his gain,
Darkness from light, from knowledge ignorance, 484
And lack of love from love made manifest.”
Further on, John adds forcibly,—
“Man knows partly, but conceives beside,
Creeps ever on from fancies to the fact,
And in this striving, this converting air
Into a solid he may grasp and use,
Finds progress, man’s destructive march alone,
Not God’s, and not the hearts: God is, they are,
Man partly is, and wholly hopes to be.
Such progress could no more attend his soul,
Were all it struggles after found at first
And guesses changed to knowledge absolute,
Than motion wait his body, were all else
Than it the solid earth on every side,
Where now through space he moves from rest to rest.
Man, therefore, thus condition’d, must expect
He could not, what he knows now, know at first;
What he considers that he knows to-day,
Come but to-morrow, he will find misknown;
Getting increase of knowledge, since he learns
Because he lives, which is to be a man,
Set to instruct himself by his past self:
First, like the brute, obliged by facts to learn;
Next, as man may, obliged by his own mind,
Bent, habit, nature, knowledge turned to law.
God’s gift was that man should conceive of truth
And yearn to gain it, catching at mistake,
As midway help, till he reach fact indeed.”
Here we indeed hear the voice of John, the “well-beloved,” phrasing into clear speech reflections which must have occurred to many thinking people. “More miracles!” cry the unbelievers. “Nay,” answers John, “miracles are no longer necessary if man be made to grow, not stop.” The good seed sown—the sun and rain will nourish it until it peeps greenly through the earth. Mr. Browning has shown elsewhere, in former volumes, how useful scepticism is in promoting the good growth. Side by side with John’s glorification of revealed religion is a companion poem, marvellously unlike the other, but fit to be placed side by side with it on account of that law of mental association which is called contrast. Whom have we here, sprawling in the mire, grumbling, muttering, gazing out from the island, but Caliban, that most unprototyped of extraordinary mundane monsters? Browning enters into the pyschology of Shakspere’s creation with that marvellous sympathy which expressly distinguishes his method of character-painting, and which enables him to draw the very souls of his subjects. If Caliban could have been at all, his “natural theology” would have been precisely that described in the strange soliloquy put upon his lips by Mr. Browning . His Setebos is a tyrant god, much of Caliban’s 485 own humour—jealous of the beautiful things he has made, but occasionally good-natured; loving what does him good; falling to making things, or to knocking things down again, just as a means of wiling away the time; having a spite against Caliban, and an unaccountable liking for Prosper; probably doomed some day to be caught napping; to doze, doze, as good as die. A cold god, Setebos, but powerful to mar and make, with much such power over Caliban as has the monster in his turn over the crabs and creeping things that crawl, slimy, on the shore of the enchanted isle:—
“Thinketh such shows nor right nor wrong in Him,
Nor kind, nor cruel: He is strong and Lord.
Am strong myself, compared to yonder crabs
That march now from the mountain to the sea.
Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty first,
Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.
Say the first straggler that boasts purple spots,
Shall join the file, one pincer twisted off;
Say this bruised fellow shall receive a worm,
And two worms he whose nippers end in red;
As it likes me each time, I do: so He.
“Well, then, supposeth He is good i’ the main,
Placable if His mind and ways were guess’d,
But rougher than His handiwork, be sure!
Oh, He hath made things worthier than Himself,
And envieth that, so help’d, such things do more
Than He who made them! What consoles but this?
That they, unless through Him, do nought at all,
And must submit: what other use in things?
Hath cut a pipe of pithless elder joint
That, blown through, gives exact the scream o’ the jay,
When from her wing you twitch the feathers blue:
Sound this, and little birds that hate the jay
Flock within stone’s throw, glad their foe is hurt:
But case such pipe could prattle and boast forsooth,
‘I catch the birds, I am the crafty thing,
I make the cry my maker cannot make
With his great round mouth; he must blow through mine!’
Would not I smash it with my foot? So He .
“But wherefore rough, why cold and ill at ease?
Aha! that is a question. Ask, for that,
What knows,—the something over Setebos
That made Him, or He, may be, found and fought,
Worsted, drove off and did to nothing, perchance.
There may be something quiet o’er His head,
Out of His reach, that feels nor joy nor grief,
Since both derive from weakness in some way.
I joy because the quails come; would not joy
Could I bring quails here when I have a mind?
This Quiet, all it hath a mind to, doth.
Esteemeth stars the outposts of its couch,
But never spends much thought nor care that way.
It may look up; work up,—the worse for those 486
It works on!”
Here we have indeed a true glimpse of the “very shallow monster, most poor credulous monster, most puppy-headed monster,” described by Master Trinculo, and “the freckled whelp, hag-born” of Prospero. The conception seems founded on the following lines in the “Tempest:”—
“I must obey: his art is of such power,
It would control my dam’s god, SETEBOS,
And make a vassal of him.”
But the quotation at the head of the poem touches the key-note of the whole howling tune;—“Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself.”
But clever as “Caliban” is, it is a mistake. The subject is exceedingly repulsive, and almost unfit for separate artistic treatment. As part of the strange machinery of a play brimful of characters, Caliban is invaluable; and while his character is abundantly conveyed in the strong touches of the great master, he is always kept studiously in the background. More than once Mr. Browning, in his desire to say the best he can of things, has affirmed that mere beauty is something; but what plea can he set up for mere ugliness—ugliness so extreme as to fill the gazer with instinctive detestation and loathing? What would Mr. Millais make of a gorilla? The poem is a mistake; yet we value it highly, as a true index to the character of the poet’s mind. In the excess of his Christian love and sympathy, we have no doubt that he sees some points of sympathy between himself and the whelp of Sycorax. But his error lies here; though the point of sympathy is discernible, it is swamped in the solitary full-length figure of the monster. In Shakspere, Caliban is far more likeable than in Mr. Browning’s poem.
One feels quite ashamed to find fault with so mighty a master of psychology as Mr. Browning, who is as far above mere fault-finding as it is possible for writer to be. Nothing is more remarkable in his career than the steady, determined manner in which, regardless of neglect and hostile censure, he has clung to what he considers the right principles of art, without deviating for a moment into unbelief or hesitation. Like the Christian painters before Raphael, he merges the means in the end, deeming fineness of workmanship of less importance than the plain representation of what is true. His Christian feeling guides him at every step, and gives force and meaning to his very roughest outlines. He is the Michael Angelo of poets, with the qualification that he has the advantage of modern progress, and perceives, instead of the Great Terror, the Great Charity. Even when raking the dregs of our contemporary life, and turning up that unmitigated humbug, “Mr. Sludge, the Medium,” Mr. Browning shows far more mercy than any one of his contemporary authors—Mr. Dickens, for instance—would have done under the same 487 circumstances. This exposé of spirit-rapping is powerful enough in its way; and it strikes us forcibly that we know who sat for the portrait. But Mr. Sludge is not proper matter for poetry, save from a point of view which Browning touches very lightly in the following passage:—
“I and all such boys, of course,
Started with the same stock of Bible truth;
Only,—what in the rest you style their sense,
Instinct, blind reasoning but imperative,
This, betimes, taught them the old world had one law,
And ours another: ‘New world, new laws,’ cried they;
‘None but old laws seem everywhere at work,’
Cried I, and by their help explain’d my life,
The Jews’ way, still a waking way to me.
Ghosts made the noises, fairies waved the lights,
Or Santaclaus slid down on New Year’s eve,
And stuff’d with cakes the stocking at my bed,
Changed the worn shoes, rubb’d clean the finger’d slate
Of the sum that came to grief the day before.
“This could not last long: soon enough I found
Who had work’d wonders thus, and to what end:
But did I find all easy, like my mates?
Henceforth no supernatural any more?
Not a whit: what projects the billiard balls?
‘A cue,’ you answer: ‘yes, a cue,’ said I;
‘But what hand, off the cushion, moved the cue?
What unseen agency, outside the world,
Prompted its puppets to do this and that,
Put cakes and shoes and slates into their mind,
These mothers and aunts, nay, even schoolmasters?’
Thus high I sprang, and there have settled since,
But so I reason, in sober earnest still,
About the greater godsends, what you call
The serious gains and losses of my life.
What do I know or care about your world,
Which either is or seems to be? This snap
Of my fingers, sir! My care is for myself.”
But the worst of this poem is that it proves nothing—lets in no new light upon the vexed question on which it touches. It proves that Sludge is a humbug—that is all, and of course it is gentler with humbug than it might have been; but we know that there are “mediums” in the world, who, so far from being Sludges, are quite cultured enough to love and understand Mr. Browning. The intention of the writer, we guess, was merely to divert himself with a little psychological dissection. And the portrait, besides being grossly ill-favoured, becomes inconsistent with itself when it represents Sludge as talking tenderly about the spirits of infants, and quoting the “Bridgewater Treatises.” It is very like Mr. Browning to make his medium feel deeply conscious of the pathos which is woven in with the hyprocrisy of his profession. But it is not like Sludge. 488 The short lyrics interspersed with the longer poems are much better. The best of them is called “A Face,” but we shall not quote it. More to our purpose is it to follow Mr. Browning into the Morgue, where the sight of “the three men who did most abhor their life in Paris” the day previous, leads to the utterance of a fine truth:—
“Poor men, God-made, and all for that!
* * * * *
My own hope is, a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretch’d;
That, after Last, returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetch’d;
That what began best can’t prove worst,
Nor what God bless’d once prove accurst.”
Out of these weighty lines, perhaps, might be constructed Mr. Browning’s answer to certain philosophers, of whom we preambled. The man in whom the Morgue could awaken no sadder reflection than the above, would never, in his theorizing, let mankind stop short at the age of decrepitude. The life of the world, like the life of an individual, “began best,” and was blessed by God. That was in the fig-leaf time, when man “knew not vice at all, and kept true state.” * Then came knowledge; and for century after century the intellect strove wildly, grandly, vainly, after the old faith; but Egypt had the fate of its Pharaohs, and Greece fell. These great peoples, Draperism would argue, proved decrepitude the fate of nations to come. Not so; they attained to the highest possible mental perfection,—and they fell. Divinity sent Plato to show man how much the mere intellect could do in its grand strivings after the immortal; till there came the period when man knew that faith was as ungraspable as an angel’s robe by the clutchings of the mind. This was the time for a new dispensation—the time for the coming of that Teacher whose aim was the cultivation of perfect self-abnegation, perfect love and hope, in which lay the strength which intellect sought in vain—the strength of faith. The whole aim of His teaching was to prove that God was right after all; that the strife after knowledge was vain and unprofitable, and that we were better in the humble state, just as we were in the beginning. Egypt fell, and Greece perished, to prove this. When we know this thoroughly we have gained much; and the world learns it much in the same manner as do individuals—by special loss and suffering. Day by day, year by year, century by century, man grows nearer and nearer to the period when faith will put on his wings for him, and he will take flight to the immortal,—with no joy but the glory he sought to comprehend through the knowledge of good and evil. John in the desert might have prophesied that Christ never intended to “return” until this same good time came. Much of this high trust is whispered in “Abt Volger:”—
— * Ben Jonson’s “Underwoods.” —
“All we have will’d, or hoped, or dream’d of good, shall exist; 489
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty nor good power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
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: we shall hear it by-and-bye.
“And what is our failure here but a triumph’s evidence
For the fulness of the days? Have we wither’d and agonized?
Why else was the pause prolong’d but that singing might issue thence?
Why rush’d the discords in, but that harmony should be prized?
Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear;
Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe:
But God has a few of us whom He whispers in the ear;
The rest may reason and welcome: ’tis we musicians know.”
More of the same teaching is put upon the lips of “Rabbi Ben Ezra:”—
“What is he but a brute,
Whose flesh hath soul to suit,
Whose spirit works lest arms and legs want play?
To man propose this test,—
Thy body at its best,
How far can that project thy soul on its lone way?
“Yet gifts should prove their use:
I own the past profuse
Of power each side, perfection every turn:
Eyes, ears took in their dole,
Brain treasured up the whole;
Should not the heart beat once, ‘How good to live and learn?
“Not once beat, ‘Praise be Thine!
I see the whole design,
I, who saw power, see now love perfect too:
Perfect I call Thy plan:
Thanks that I was a man!
Maker, remake, complete,—I trust what Thou shalt do!’
“For pleasant is this flesh;
Our soul, in its rose-mesh
Pull’d ever to the earth, still yearns for rest:
Would me some prize might hold
To match those manifold
Possessions of the brute,—gain most, as we did best!
“Let us not always say
’Spite of this flesh to-day
I strove, made head, gain’d ground upon the whole!’
As the bird wings and sings,
Let us cry ‘All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!’
“Therefore I summon age
To grant youth’s heritage,
Life’s struggle having so far reach’d its term:
Thence shall I pass, approved 490
A man, for aye removed
From the develop’d brute; a god, though in the germ.
“And I shall thereupon
Take rest, ere I be gone
Once more on my adventure brave and new:
Fearless and unperplexed,
When I wage battle next,
What weapons to select , what armour to indue.
“Youth ended, I shall try
My gain or loss thereby;
Be the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
And I shall weigh the same,
Give life its praise or blame:
Young, all lay in dispute, I shall know, being old.
“For note, when evening shuts,
A certain moment cuts
The deed off, calls the glory from the grey:
A whisper from the west
Shoots—‘Add this to the rest,
Take it and try its worth: here dies another day.’
“So still within this life,
Though lifted o’er its strife,
Let me discern, compare, pronounce at last,
‘This rage was right i’ the main,
That acquiescence vain:
The future I may face now I have proved the past.’
“For more is not reserved
To man, with soul just nerved
To act to-morrow what he learns to-day:
Here, work enough to watch
The master work, and catch
Hints of the proper craft, tricks of the tool’s true play.
“As it was better, youth
Should strive, through acts uncouth,
Toward making, than repose on aught found made;
So, better age, exempt
From strife, should know than tempt
Further. Thou waitedst age; wait death, nor be afraid!”
It is impossible not to feel that Mr. Browning utters here, under the guises of the musician and the rabbi, some of the dearly-bought experience of his own life. As through the masks of Æschylus we catch glimpses of the white faces, agonized with human passion, so here we see the veil lifted occasionally by a quick painful movement, and the earnest eyes of the poet gleam for a moment on his audience. But in these eyes lies no shade of Byronic misanthropy; they are full of the deep wondrous light which never was in sea or land, and they gaze, not at the feet of clay, but upward. 491 Those who know the story of the one great loss of Mr. Browning’s life feel how and whence has come to him the serene wisdom, the belief in things good, which is the best and most valuable characteristic of his poetry. Further, out of his great love for and belief in mankind, he takes his readers into his secret, though with a vague reticence that shows how profound and how sacred has been the man’s agony. This is in the “Epilogue,” the spirit of which is, “I believe because I have loved much.” How many men have learned this mystery, whereby belief is woven out of love? How many men know that when one loves wholly, he must believe? Yet this is the knowledge which it is the business of Mr. Browning, and all great modern poets, to teach. This is the knowledge which is born out of suffering, and which the world has been struggling for centuries to attain. Do we perceive now why Mr. Browning has so much gentleness for human frailty and error? or do we deny what Christ came to prove—that when man has learned to love once, he has learned to love for ever? When the world, in its restless strife, has taught us the truth which Mr. Browning utters in his Epilogue—when our vanished faces, dear to us as hers to him, have mingled into the ineffable Face which rose at Bethlehem, and made a visible place for the dim human tribute—when we know that the end of all this wild pageant is to enhance the worth of each individual, from the highest to the meanest of mankind,—
“Why, where’s the need of temple, when the walls
O’ the world are that? What use of swells and falls
From Levite’s choir, priests’ cries, and trumpet-calls?
That one face, far from vanish, rather grows,
Or decomposes but to recompose,
Became my universe that feels and knows!”
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