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however, the reporters (ie., R. C.) withdrew, so that it is not in our power to state any further particulars of the Candlemaker Row Festival.
And so farewell to the sweet-voiced, guileless, warm-hearted Shepherd.
NOTES ON THE GENIUS OF
I.-Browning's Variety and Knowledge.-2. The Charge of Obscurity.-3. The Charge of Harshness, and of Affectation, which really means Naturalness.-4. Browning's Activity and Rapidity.-5. Browning's Manliness.-6. Browning's Vitality. -7. Browning's Christianity.
1. Browning's Variety and Knowledge. Perhaps a reader looking for the first time through Browning's volumes would be first struck by the remarkable number and variety of his works, though these now cover a period of fifty years. On a somewhat closer acquaintance, this reader would surely be impressed. with an ever-increasing astonishment at the prodigious amount and variety of knowledge brought to bear upon so vast a range of subjects. I mean not only, nor even mainly, knowledge of literature and art, but also what I may term knowledge of things in general. Marvellous as his acquirements in the former kinds must appear to one who, like myself, is neither scholar nor connoisseur, I am yet more overwhelmed by the immensity of his acquisitions in this other kind, by what Mr. Swinburne has happily summed up as "the inexhaustible stores of his
* Read at the Third Meeting of the Browning Society, on Friday, January 27, 1882.
perception." Not all of us have the opportunity of mastering the contents of libraries and museums and art-galleries; but all of us have the opportunity of mastering the common facts of nature and human life; yet it is precisely in these departments of knowledge that Browning's pre-eminence appears to me most decided. With the great majority of us the senses are dull, the perceptions slow and vague and confused; Browning drinks in the living world at every pore. There exist, in fact, some men so rarely endowed that their minds are as revolving mirrors, which, without effort, reflect clearly everything that passes before them and around them in the world of life, and without effort retain all the images constantly ready for use; while we ordinary men can only with fixed purpose and long endeavour catch and keep some very small fragments of the whole. Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Goethe, Scott, Balzac, are familiar examples of this quietly rapacious, indefinitely capacious acquisitiveness, men of whom we can say, "They have learned everything and forgotten nothing;" and the star of Browning is of the first magnitude in this constellation.
2. Charge of Obscurity.-But we have heard of great scholars who could only communicate a plentiful lack of ideas in many languages, of very learned men who were simply Dryasdusts, of people with keen perceptiveness and tenacious memories, whose minds or nominds were of the Dame Quickly order; though I do not remember any combination of both the scholar and the keen retentive observer with the dullard. The heaped-up knowledge is as heaped-up fuel: the questions occur, Is the fire intense enough to kindle
the whole mass through and through into clear glow of light and heat? or but strong enough to smoulder smokily under it? or so relatively weak as to be crushed out by it? Here the admirers of Browning directly join issue with the common critics, and the public led or misled by them, who assert that his fire is of the second or smoky species. As he himself puts it with humorous contempt in the Pacchiarotto (1876):—
"Then he who directed the measure
An old friend-put leg forward nimbly,
In bringing more filth into my house
Than ever you found there !-I'm pious,
I shall not attempt to argue this issue here, as Mr. Swinburne, in his excellent Critical Essay on George Chapman, has discussed it with admirable power and eloquence, and to my mind conclusively, in general vindication of the great poet against the small critics "as sweeps out his chimbly." I will venture to add but one remark of my own on this matter. Many years since, in 1864 or '65, I wrote: "Robert Browning, a true and splendid genius, though his vigorous and restless talents often overpower and run away with his genius, so that some of his creations are left but half-retrieved from chaos." This now seems to me put much too strongly, save perhaps in reference to "Sordello" and a very few of the minor poems; but I
still think that it points to a real fault in his art—a fault, however, be it observed, of overplus, not of insufficiency. Such overpowering talents are almost as rare as the sometimes overpowered genius. Landor, writing, it is true, about twenty years earlier, said similarly of Browning: "I only wish he would atticise a little. Few of the Athenians had such a quarry on their property, but they constructed better roads for the conveyance of the material." And such comments but mark what Coleridge has noted in a certain stage of the development of Shakespeare: "The intellectual power and the creative energy wrestle as in a warembrace." And the wrestling is mighty when both the athletes are Titanic.
Admitting that "Sordello" is very hard, if not obscure, I would observe that the difficulty is not so much in the mere language, as in the abrupt transitions, the rapid discursions, and the continual recondite allusions to matters with which very few readers can be familiar. The yet young fire, struggling with its enormous mass of gnarled and intertangled fuel, burns murkily with fitful sheets of splendid flame, and the mass of metal is not thoroughly fused for the mould; the result differing herein decisively from the magnificent Sordello of the Purgatorio (vi.), defined, solid, massive, as if cast colossal in bronze, the most superb figure, I think, in all Dante; him who leaps from his haughty impassibility to embrace Virgil at the one word "Mantuan," kindling the Florentine to the fulgurant invective, Ahi serva Italia; the Sordello of that noble passage, not to be rendered into English :—
* Mr. J. T. Nettleship gives a very careful analysis of it in his volume.