Page images

ferret it out. His writings have, till lately, been clouded by obscurities, his riches having seemed to accumulate beyond his mastery of them. So beautiful are the picture gleams, so full of meaning the little thoughts that are always twisting their parasites over his main purpose, that we hardly can bear to wish them away, even when we know their excess to be a defect. They seem, each and all, too good to be lopped away, and we cannot wonder the mind from which they grew was at a loss which to reject. Yet, a higher mastery in the poetic art must give him skill and resolution to reject them. Then, all true life being condensed into the main growth, instead of being so much scattered in tendrils, off-shoots and flower-bunches, the effect would be more grand and simple; nor should we be any loser as to the spirit; it would all be there, only more concentrated as to the form, more full, if less subtle, in its emanations. The tendency to variety and delicacy, rather than to a grasp of the subject and concentration of interest, are not so obvious in Browning's minor works as in Paracelsus, and in his tragedy of Strafford.' This very difficult subject for tragedy engaged, at about the same time, the attention of Sterling. Both he and Browning seem to have had it brought before their attention by Foster's spirited biography of Strafford. We

say it is difficult—though we see how it tempted the poets to drainatic enterprise. The main character is one of tragic force and majesty; the cotemporary agents all splendid figures, and of marked individuality; the march of action necessarily rapid and imposing; the events induced of uni. versal interest. But the difficulty is, that the materials are even too rich and too familiar to every one. We cannot bear any violation of reality, any straining of the common version of this story. Then the character and position of Strafford want that moral interest which is needed to give full pathos to the catastrophe. We admire his greatness of mind and character, we loathe the weakness and treachery of the King; we dislike the stern

[ocr errors]

hunters, notwithstanding their patriotic motives, for pursuing to the death the noble stag; and yet we feel he ought to die. We wish that he had been killed, not by the hands of men, with their spotted and doubtful feelings, but smitten direct by pure fire from heaven. Still we feel he ought to die, and our grief wants the true tragic element which hallows it in the Antigone, the Lear, and even Schiller's “ Mary Stuart,” or “ Wallenstein.”

But of the two, Sterling's conception of the character and conduct of the drama is far superior to that of Browning. Both dramas are less interesting and effective than the simple outline history gives, but Browning weakens the truth in his representation of it, while Sterling at least did not falsify the character of Strafford, bitter, ruthlessly ambitious, but strong and majestic throughout. Browning loses, too, his accustomed originality and grace in the details of this work, through a misplaced ambition.

But believing that our poet has not reached that epoch of mastery, when he can do himself full justice in a great work, we would turn rather to the consideration of a series of sketches, dramatic and lyric, which he has been publishing for several years, under the title of “ Bells and Pomegranates.” We do not know whether this seemingly affected title is assumed in conformity with the catch-penny temper of the present day, or whether these be really in the mind of Robert Browning no more than the glittering fringe of his priestly garment. If so, we shall cherish high hopes, indeed, as to the splendors that will wait upon the unfolding of the main vesture.

The plan of these sketches is original, the execution in many respects, admirable, and the range of talent and perception they display, wider than that of any contemporary poet in England.

Pippa Passes” is the title of the first of these little two shil. ling volumes, which seem to contain just about as much as a man who lives wisely, might, after a good summer of mingled work, business and pleasure, have to offer to the world, as the honey he could spare from his hive.

Pippa is a little Italian girl who works in a silk mill. Once a year the workpeople in these mills have an entire day given them for their pleasure. She is introduced at sunrise of such a day, singing her morning thoughts. She then goes forth to wander through the town, singing her little songs of childish gayety and purity. She passes, not through, but by, different scenes of life, passes by a scene of guilty pleasure, by the conspiracies of the malicious, by the cruel undeception of the young sculptor who had dared trust his own heart more fully than is the wont of the corrupt and cautious world. Every where the notes of her song pierce their walls and windows, awakening them to memories of innocence and checking the course of misdeed. The plan of this work is, it will be seen, at once rich and simple. It admits of an enchanting variety, and an unobtrusive unity. Browning has made the best use of its advantages. The slides in the magic lantern succeed one another with perfect distinctness, hut, through them all shines the light of this one beautiful Italian day, and the little silk winder, its angel, discloses to us as fine gleams of garden, stream and sky, as we have time to notice while passing such various and interesting groups of human beings.

The finest sketch of these is that of Jules, the sculptor, and his young bride. Jules, like many persons of a lofty mould, in the uncompromising fervour of youth, makes all those among his companions whom he thinks weak, base and vicious, his enviers and bitter enemies. A set of such among his fellow-students have devised this most wicked plan to break his heart and pride

They write letters as from a maiden who has distin. guished him from the multitude, and knows how to sympathize with all his tastes and aims. They buy of her mother a beautiful young girl, who is to represent the character. Th: letters assume that she is of a family of rank who will not favour the alliance, and when Jules, enchanted by the union of the beauty of intellect in the letters and the beauty of person of which he has gained glimpses, presses his suit as a lover, marriage is con sented to on condition that he shall not seek to converse with her till after the ceremony. This is the first talk of Jules after he has brought his silent bride to his studio :

at once.

Thou by me
And I by thee—this is thy hand in mine-
And side by side we sit-all's true. Thank God!
I have spoken-speak thou!

-0, my life to come!
My Tydeus must be carved that's there in clay,
And how be carved with you about the chamber ?
Where must I place you? When I think that once
This room full of rough block-work seemed my heaven
Without you! Shall I ever work again,
Get fairly into my old ways again-
Bid each conception stand while trait by trait
My hand transfers its lineaments to stone ?
Will they, my fancies, live near you, my truth-
The live truth-passing and repassing me
Sitting beside me?
-Now speak!

Only, first,
Your letters to me-was't not well contrived ?
A hiding place in Psyche's robe—there lie
Next to her skin your letters; which comes foremost ?
Good—this that swam down like a first moonbeam
Into my world.

Those? Books I told you of.
Let your first word to me rejoice them, too, -
This minion of Coluthus, writ in red
Bistre and azure by Bessarion's scribe-
Read this line-no, shame—Homer's be the Greek !
My Odyssey in coarse black vivid type
With faded yellow blossoms 'twixt page


page; “He said, and on Antin us directed A bitter shaft"-then blots a flower the rest!

-Ah, do not mind that-better that will look
When cast in bronze-an Almaign Kaiser that,
Swart-green and gold with truncheon based on hip
This rather, turn to-but a check already-
Or you had recognized that here you sit
As I imagined you, Hippolyta
Naked upon her bright Numidian horse !
-Forgot you this then? “carve in bold relief,”—
So you command me—“carve against I come
A Greek, bay filleted and thunder free,
Rising beneath the lifted myrtle-branch,
Whose turn arrives to praise Harmodius.”—Praise him!
Quite round, a cluster of mere hands and arms
Thrust in all senses,

all ways, from all sides,
Only consenting at the branches' end
They strain towards, serves for frame to a sole face-
(Place your own face)—the Praiser's, who with eyes
Sightless, so bend they back to light inside
His brain where visionary forms throng up,
(Gaze-I am your Harmodius dead and gone,)
Sings, minding not the palpitating arch
Of hands and arms, nor the quick drip of wine
From the drenched leaves o’erhead, nor who cast off
Their violet crowns for him to trample on-
Sings, pausing as the patron-ghosts approve,
Devoutly their unconquerable hymn-
But you must say a "well” to that-say “well”
Because you gaze--am I fantastic, sweet ?
Gaze like my very life's stuff, marble-marbly
Even to the silence—and before I found
The real flesh Phene, 1 inured myself
To see throughout all nature varied stuff
For better nature's birth by means of art:
With me, each substance tended to one form
Of beauty--to the human Archetype-
And every side occurred suggestive germs
Of that—the tree, the flower-why, take the fruit,
Some rosy shape, continuing the peach,
Curved beewise o'er its bough, as rosy limbs

« PreviousContinue »