George MacDonald included this essay in A Dish Of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare (1893). I have used the online version provided by the Project Gutenberg [EBook #9393] produced by Jonathan Ingram, Sandra Brown, and Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders. Links take you to material in the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow
Goethe says: —
“Poems are painted window panes.
If one looks from the square into the church,
Dusk and dimness are his gains —
Sir Philistine is left in the lurch!
The sight, so seen, may well enrage him,
Nor anything henceforth assuage him.
“But come just inside what conceals;
Cross the holy threshold quite —
All at once ‘tis rainbow-bright,
Device and story flash to light,
A gracious splendour truth reveals.
This to God’s children is full measure,
It edifies and gives you pleasure!”
This is true concerning every form in which truth is embodied, whether it be sight or sound, geometric diagram or scientific formula. Unintelligible, it may be dismal enough, regarded from the outside; prismatic in its revelation of truth from within. Such is the world itself, as beheld by the speculative eye; a thing of disorder, obscurity, and sadness: only the child-like heart, to which the door into the divine idea is thrown open, can understand somewhat the secret of the Almighty. In human things it is particularly true of art, in which the fundamental idea seems to be the revelation of the true through the beautiful. But of all the arts it is most applicable to poetry; for the others have more that is beautiful on the outside; can give pleasure to the senses by the form of the marble, the hues of the painting, or the sweet sounds of the music, although the heart may never perceive the meaning that lies within. But poetry, except its rhythmic melody, and its scattered gleams of material imagery, for which few care that love it not for its own sake, has no attraction on the outside to entice the passer to enter and partake of its truth. It is inwards that its colours shine, within that its forms move, and the sound of its holy organ cannot be heard from without.
Now, if one has been able to reach the heart of a poem, answering to Goethe’s parabolic description; or even to discover a loop-hole, through which, from an opposite point, the glories of its stained windows are visible; it is well that he should seek to make others partakers in his pleasure and profit. Some who might not find out for themselves, would yet be evermore grateful to him who led them to the point of vision. Surely if a man would help his fellow-men, he can do so far more effectually by exhibiting truth than exposing error, by unveiling beauty than by a critical dissection of deformity. From the very nature of the things it must be so. Let the true and good destroy their opposites. It is only by the good and beautiful that the evil and ugly are known. It is the light that makes manifest.
The poem “Christmas Eve,” by Robert Browning, with the accompanying poem “Easter Day,” seems not to have attracted much notice from the readers of poetry, although highly prized by a few. This is, perhaps, to be attributed, in a great measure, to what many would call a considerable degree of obscurity. But obscurity is the appearance which to a first glance may be presented either by profundity or carelessness of thought. To some, obscurity itself is attractive, from the hope that worthiness is the cause of it. To apply a test similar to that by which Pascal tries the Koran and the Scriptures: what is the character of those portions, the meaning of which is plain? Are they wise or foolish? If the former, the presumption is that the obscurity of other parts is caused not by opacity, but profundity. But some will object, notwithstanding, that a writer ought to make himself plain to his readers; nay, that if he has a clear idea himself, he must be able to express that idea clearly. But for communion of thought, two minds, not one, are necessary. The fault may lie in him that receives or in him that gives, or it may be in neither. For how can the result of much thought, the idea which for mouths has been shaping itself in the mind of one man, be at once received by another mind to which it comes a stranger and unexpected? The reader has no right to complain of so caused obscurity. Nor is that form of expression, which is most easily understood at first sight, necessarily the best. It will not, therefore, continue to move; nor will it gather force and influence with more intimate acquaintance. Here Goethe’s little parable, as he calls it, is peculiarly applicable. But, indeed, if after all a writer is obscure, the man who has spent most labour in seeking to enter into his thoughts, will be the least likely to complain of his obscurity; and they who have the least difficulty in understanding a writer, are frequently those who understand him the least.
To those to whom the religion of Christ has been the law of liberty; who by that door have entered into the universe of God, and have begun to feel a growing delight in all the manifestations of God, it is cause of much joy to find that, whatever may be the position taken by men of science, or by those in whom the intellect predominates, with regard to the Christian religion, men of genius, at least, in virtue of what is child-like in their nature, are, in the present time, plainly manifesting deep devotion to Christ. There are exceptions, certainly; but even in those, there are symptoms of feelings which, one can hardly help thinking, tend towards him, and will one day flame forth in conscious worship. A mind that recognizes any of the multitudinous meanings of the revelation of God, in the world of sounds, and forms, and colours, cannot be blind to the higher manifestation of God in common humanity; nor to him in whom is hid the key to the whole, the First-born of the creation of God, in whose heart lies, as yet but partially developed, the kingdom of heaven, which is the redemption of the earth. The mind that delights in that which is lofty and great, which feels there is something higher than self, will undoubtedly be drawn towards Christ; and they, who at first looked on him as a great prophet, came at length to perceive that he was the radiation of the Father’s glory, the likeness of his unseen being.
A description of the poem may, perhaps, both induce to the reading of it, and contribute to its easier comprehension while being perused. On a stormy Christmas Eve, the poet, or rather the seer (for the whole must be regarded as a poetic vision), is compelled to take refuge in the “lath and plaster entry” of a little chapel, belonging to a congregation of Calvinistic Methodists, who are at the time assembling for worship. Wonderful in its reality is the description of various of the flock that pass him as they enter the chapel, from
Little old-faced, peaking sister-turned-mother
Of the sickly babe she tried to smother
Somehow up, with its spotted face,
From the cold, on her breast, the one warm place:”
to the “shoemaker’s lad;” whom he follows, determined not to endure the inquisition of their looks any longer, into the chapel. The humour of the whole scene within is excellent. The stifling closeness, both of the atmosphere and of the sermon, the wonderful content of the audience, the “old fat woman,” who
“purred with pleasure,
And thumb round thumb went twirling faster,
While she, to his periods keeping measure,
Maternally devoured the pastor;”
are represented by a few rapid touches that bring certain points of the reality almost unpleasantly near. At length, unable to endure it longer, he rushes out into the air. Objection may, probably, be made to the mingling of the humorous, even the ridiculous, with the serious; at least, in a work of art like this, where they must be brought into such close proximity. But are not these things as closely connected in the world as they can be in any representation of it? Surely there are few who have never had occasion to attempt to reconcile the thought of the two in their own minds. Nor can there be anything human that is not, in some connexion or other, admissible into art. The widest idea of art must comprehend all things. A work of this kind must, like God’s world, in which he sends rain on the just and on the unjust, be taken as a whole and in regard to its design. The requisition is, that everything introduced have a relation to the adjacent parts and to the whole suitable to the design. Here the thing is real, is true, is human; a thing to be thought about. It has its place amongst other phenomena, with which, however apparently incongruous, it is yet vitally connected within.
A coolness and delight visit us, on turning over the page and commencing to read the description of sky, and moon, and clouds, which greet him outside the chapel. It is as a vision of the vision-bearing world itself, in one of its fine, though not, at first, one of its rarest moods. And here a short digression to notice like feelings in unlike dresses, one thought differently expressed will, perhaps, be pardoned. The moon is prevented from shining out by the “blocks” of cloud “built up in the west:” —
“And the empty other half of the sky
Seemed in its silence as if it knew
What, any moment, might look through
A chance-gap in that fortress massy.”
Old Henry Vaughan says of the “Dawning:” —
“The whole Creation shakes off night,
And for thy shadow looks the Light;
Stars now vanish without number,
Sleepie Planets set and slumber,
The pursie Clouds disband and scatter,
All expect some sudden matter.”
Calmness settles down on his mind. He walks on, thinking of the scene he had left, and the sermon he had heard. In the latter he sees the good and the bad intimately mingled; and is convinced that the chief benefit derived from it is a reproducing of former impressions. The thought crosses him, in how many places and how many different forms the same thing takes place, “a convincing” of the “convinced;” and he rejoices in the contrast which his church presents to these; for in the church of Nature his love to God, assurance of God’s love to him, and confidence in the design of God regarding him, commenced. While exulting in God and the knowledge of Him to be attained hereafter, he is favoured with a sight of a glorious moon-rainbow, which elevates his worship to ecstasy. During which —
“All at once I looked up with terror —
He was there.
He himself with His human air,
On the narrow pathway, just before:
I saw the back of Him, no more —
He had left the chapel, then, as I.
I forgot all about the sky.
No face: only the sight
Of a sweepy garment, vast and white,
With a hem that I could recognize.
I felt terror, no surprise:
My mind filled with the cataract,
At one bound, of the mighty fact.
I remembered, He did say
Doubtless, that, to this world’s end,
Where two or three should meet and pray,
He would be in the midst, their friend:
Certainly He was there with them.
And my pulses leaped for joy
Of the golden thought without alloy,
That I saw His very vesture’s hem.
Then rushed the blood back, cold and clear,
With a fresh enhancing shiver of fear.”
Praying for forgiveness wherein he has sinned, and prostrate in adoration before the form of Christ, he is “caught up in the whirl and drift” of his vesture, and carried along with him over the earth.
Stopping at length at the entrance of St. Peter’s in Rome, he remains outside, while the form disappears within. He is able, however, to see all that goes on, in the crowded, hushed interior. It is high mass. He has been carried at once from the little chapel to the opposite aesthetic pole. From the entry, where —
“The flame of the single tallow candle
In the cracked square lanthorn I stood under
Shot its blue lip at me,”
“This miraculous dome of God —
With arms wide open to embrace
The entry of the human race
To the breast of.... what is it, yon building,
Ablaze in front, all paint and gilding,
With marble for brick, and stones of price
For garniture of the edifice?”
to “those fountains” —
“Growing up eternally
Each to a musical water-tree,
Whose blossoms drop, a glittering boon,
Before my eyes, in the light of the moon,
To the granite lavers underneath;”
from the singing of the chapel to the organ self-restrained, that “holds his breath and grovels latent,” while expecting the elevation of the Host. Christ is within; he is left without. Reflecting on the matter, he thinks his Lord would not require him to go in, though he himself entered, because there was a way to reach him there. By-and-by, however, his heart awakes and declares that Love goes beyond error with them, and if the Intellect be kept down, yet Love is the oppressor; so next time he resolves to enter and praise along with them. The passage commencing, “Oh, love of those first Christian days!” describing Love’s victory over Intellect, is very fine.
Again he is caught up and carried along as before. This time halt is made at the door of a college in a German town, in which the class-room of one of the professors is open for lecture this Christmas Eve. It is, intellectually considered, the opposite pole to both the Methodist chapel and the Roman Basilica. The poet enters, fearful of losing the society of “any that call themselves his friends.” He describes the assembled company, and the entrance of “the hawk-nosed, high-cheek-boned professor,” of part of whose Christmas Eve’s discourse he proceeds to give the substance. The professor takes it for granted that “plainly no such life was liveable,” and goes on to inquire what explanation of the phenomena of the life of Christ it were best to adopt. Not that it mattered much, “so the idea be left the same.” Taking the popular story, for convenience sake, and separating all extraneous matter from it, he found that Christ was simply a good man, with an honest, true heart; whose disciples thought him divine; and whose doctrine, though quite mistaken by those who received and published it, “had yet a meaning quite as respectable.” Here the poet takes advantage of a pause to leave him; reflecting that though the air may be poisoned by the sects, yet here “the critic leaves no air to poison.” His meditations and arguments following, are among the most valuable passages in the book. The professor, notwithstanding the idea of Christ has by him been exhausted of all that is peculiar to it, yet recommends him to the veneration and worship of his hearers, “rather than all who went before him, and all who ever followed after.” But why? says the poet. For his intellect,
“Which tells me simply what was told
(If mere morality, bereft
Of the God in Christ, be all that’s left)
Elsewhere by voices manifold?”
with which must be combined the fact that this intellect of his did not save him from making the “important stumble,” of saying that he and God were one. “But his followers misunderstood him,” says the objector. Perhaps so; but “the stumbling-block, his speech, who laid it?” Well then, is it on the score of his goodness that he should rule his race?
Your fealty to such rule? What, all —
From Heavenly John and Attic Paul,
And that brave weather-battered Peter,
Whose stout faith only stood completer
For buffets, sinning to be pardoned,
As the more his hands hauled nets, they hardened —
All, down to you, the man of men,
Professing here at Göttingen,
Compose Christ’s flock! So, you and I
Are sheep of a good man! And why?”
Did Christ invent goodness? or did he only demonstrate that of which the common conscience was judge?
“I would decree
Worship for such mere demonstration
And simple work of nomenclature,
Only the day I praised, not Nature,
But Harvey, for the circulation.”
The worst man, says the poet, knows more than the best man does. God in Christ appeared to men to help them to do, to awaken the life within them.
“Morality to the uttermost,
Supreme in Christ as we all confess,
Why need we prove would avail no jot
To make Him God, if God he were not?
What is the point where Himself lays stress?
Does the precept run, ‘Believe in good,
In justice, truth, now understood
For the first time?’ — or, ‘Believe in ME,
Who lived and died, yet essentially
Am Lord of life’? Whoever can take
The same to his heart, and for mere love’s sake
Conceive of the love, — that man obtains
A new truth; no conviction gains
Of an old one only, made intense
By a fresh appeal to his faded sense.”
In this lies the most direct practical argument with regard to what is commonly called the Divinity of Christ. Here is a man whom those that magnify him the least confess to be a good man, the best of men. He says, “I and the Father are one.” Will an earnest heart, knowing this, be likely to draw back, or will it draw nearer to behold the great sight? Will not such a heart feel: “A good man like this would not have said so, were it not so. In all probability the great truth of God lies behind this veil.” The reality of Christ’s nature is not to be proved by argument. He must be beheld. The manifestation of Him must “gravitate inwards” on the soul. It is by looking that one can know. As a mathematical theorem is to be proved only by the demonstration of that theorem itself, not by talking about it; so Christ must prove himself to the human soul through being beheld. The only proof of Christ’s divinity is his humanity. Because his humanity is not comprehended, his divinity is doubted; and while the former is uncomprehended, an assent to the latter is of little avail. For a man to theorize theologically in any form, while he has not so apprehended Christ, or to neglect the gazing on him for the attempt to substantiate to himself any form of belief respecting him, is to bring on himself, in a matter of divine import, such errors as the expounders of nature in old time brought on themselves, when they speculated on what a thing must be, instead of observing what it was; this must be having for its foundation not self-evident truth, but notions whose chief strength lay in their preconception. There are thoughts and feelings that cannot be called up in the mind by any power of will or force of imagination; which, being spiritual, must arise in the soul when in its highest spiritual condition; when the mind, indeed, like a smooth lake, reflects only heavenly images. A steadfast regarding of Him will produce this calm, and His will be the heavenly form reflected from the mental depth.
But to return to the poem. The fact that Christ remains inside, leads the poet to reflect, in the spirit of Him who found all the good in men he could, neglecting no point of contact which presented itself, whether there was anything at this lecture with which he could sympathize; and he finds that the heart of the professor does something to rescue him from the error of his brain. In his brain, even, “if Love’s dead there, it has left a ghost.” For when the natural deduction from his argument would be that our faith
“Be swept forthwith to its natural dust-hole, —
He bids us, when we least expect it,
Take back our faith — if it be not just whole,
Yet a pearl indeed, as his tests affect it,
Which fact pays the damage done rewardingly,
So, prize we our dust and ashes accordingly!”
Love as well as learning being necessary to the understanding of the New Testament, it is to the poet matter of regret that “loveless learning” should leave its proper work, and make such havoc in that which belongs not to it. But while he sits “talking with his mind,” his mood begins to degenerate from sympathy with that which is good to indifference towards all forms, and he feels inclined to rest quietly in the enjoyment of his own religious confidence, and trouble himself in no wise about the faith of his neighbours; for doubtless all are partakers of the central light, though variously refracted by the varied translucency of the mental prism....
“‘Twas the horrible storm began afresh!
The black night caught me in his mesh,
Whirled me up, and flung me prone!
I was left on the college-step alone.
I looked, and far there, ever fleeting
Far, far away, the receding gesture,
And looming of the lessening vesture,
Swept forward from my stupid hand,
While I watched my foolish heart expand
In the lazy glow of benevolence
O’er the various modes of man’s belief.
I sprang up with fear’s vehemence.
— Needs must there be one way, our chief
Best way of worship: let me strive
To find it, and when found, contrive
My fellows also take their share.
This constitutes my earthly care:
God’s is above it and distinct!”
The symbolism in the former part of this extract is grand. As soon as he ceases to look practically on the phenomena with which he is surrounded, he is enveloped in storm and darkness, and sees only in the far distance the disappearing skirt of his Lord’s garment. God’s care is over all, he goes on to say; I must do my part. If I look speculatively on the world, there is nothing but dimness and mystery. If I look practically on it,
“No mere mote’s-breadth, but teems immense
With witnessings of Providence.”
And whether the world which I seek to help censures or praises me — that is nothing to me. My life — how is it with me?
“Soul of mine, hadst thou caught and held
By the hem of the vesture....
And I caught
At the flying robe, and, unrepelled,
Was lapped again in its folds full-fraught
With warmth and wonder and delight,
God’s mercy being infinite.
And scarce had the words escaped my tongue,
When, at a passionate bound, I sprung
Out of the wandering world of rain,
Into the little chapel again.”
Had he dreamed? how then could he report of the sermon and the preacher? of which and of whom he proceeds to give a very external account. But correcting himself —
“Ha! Is God mocked, as He asks?
Shall I take on me to change his tasks,
And dare, despatched to a river-head
For a simple draught of the element,
Neglect the thing for which He sent,
And return with another thing instead!
Saying .... ‘Because the water found
Welling up from underground,
Is mingled with the taints of earth,
While Thou, I know, dost laugh at dearth,
And couldest, at a word, convulse
The world with the leap of its river-pulse, —
Therefore I turned from the oozings muddy,
And bring thee a chalice I found, instead.
See the brave veins in the breccia ruddy!
One would suppose that the marble bled.
What matters the water? A hope I have nursed,
That the waterless cup will quench my thirst.’
— Better have knelt at the poorest stream
That trickles in pain from the straitest rift!
For the less or the more is all God’s gift,
Who blocks up or breaks wide the granite seam.
And here, is there water or not, to drink?”
He comes to the conclusion, that the best for him is that mode of worship which partakes the least of human forms, and brings him nearest to the spiritual; and, while expressing good wishes for the Pope and the professor —
“Meantime, in the still recurring fear
Lest myself, at unawares, be found,
While attacking the choice of my neighbours round,
Without my own made — I choose here!”
He therefore joins heartily in the hymn which is sung by the congregation of the little chapel at the close of their worship. And this concludes the poem.
What is the central point from which this poem can be regarded? It does not seem to be very hard to find. Novalis has said: “Die Philosophie ist eigentlich Heimweh, ein Trieb überall zu Hause zu sein.” (Philosophy is really home-sickness, an impulse to be at home everywhere.) The life of a man here, if life it be, and not the vain image of what might be a life, is a continual attempt to find his place, his centre of recipiency, and active agency. He wants to know where he is, and where he ought to be and can be; for, rightly considered, the position a man ought to occupy is the only one he truly can occupy. It is a climbing and striving to reach that point of vision where the multiplex crossings and apparent intertwistings of the lines of fact and feeling and duty shall manifest themselves as a regular and symmetrical design. A contradiction, or a thing unrelated, is foreign and painful to him, even as the rocky particle in the gelatinous substance of the oyster; and, like the latter, he can only rid himself of it by encasing it in the pearl-like enclosure of faith; believing that hidden there lies the necessity for a higher theory of the universe than has yet been generated in his soul. The quest for this home-centre, in the man who has faith, is calm and ceaseless; in the man whose faith is weak, it is stormy and intermittent. Unhappy is that man, of necessity, whose perceptions are keener than his faith is strong. Everywhere Nature herself is putting strange questions to him; the human world is full of dismay and confusion; his own conscience is bewildered by contradictory appearances; all which may well happen to the man whose eye is not yet single, whose heart is not yet pure. He is not at home; his soul is astray amid people of a strange speech and a stammering tongue. But the faithful man is led onward; in the stillness that his confidence produces arise the bright images of truth; and visions of God, which are only beheld in solitary places, are granted to his soul.
“O struggling with the darkness all the night,
And visited all night by troops of stars!”
What is true of the whole, is true of its parts. In all the relations of life, in all the parts of the great whole of existence, the true man is ever seeking his home. This poem seems to show us such a quest. “Here I am in the midst of many who belong to the same family. They differ in education, in habits, in forms of thought; but they are called by the same name. What position with regard to them am I to assume? I am a Christian; how am I to live in relation to Christians?” Such seems to be something like the poet’s thought. What central position can he gain, which, while it answers best the necessities of his own soul with regard to God, will enable him to feel himself connected with the whole Christian world, and to sympathize with all; so that he may not be alone, but one of the whole. Certainly the position necessary for both requirements is one and the same. He that is isolated from his brethren, loses one of the greatest helps to draw near to God. Now, in this time, which is so peculiarly transitional, this is a question of no little import for all who, while they gladly forsake old, or rather modern, theories, for what is to them a more full development of Christianity as well as a return to the fountain-head, yet seek to be saved from the danger of losing sympathy with those who are content with what they are compelled to abandon. Seeing much in the common modes of thought and belief that is inconsistent with Christianity, and even opposed to it, they yet cannot but see likewise in many of them a power of spiritual good; which, though not dependent on the peculiar mode, is yet enveloped, if not embodied, in that mode.
“Ask, else, these ruins of humanity,
This flesh worn out to rags and tatters,
This soul at struggle with insanity,
Who thence take comfort, can I doubt,
Which an empire gained, were a loss without.”
The love of God is the soul of Christianity. Christ is the body of that truth. The love of God is the creating and redeeming, the forming and satisfying power of the universe. The love of God is that which kills evil and glorifies goodness. It is the safety of the great whole. It is the home-atmosphere of all life. Well does the poet of the “Christmas Eve” say: —
“The loving worm within its clod,
Were diviner than a loveless God
Amid his worlds, I will dare to say.”
Surely then, inasmuch as man is made in the image of God nothing less than a love in the image of God’s love, all-embracing, quietly excusing, heartily commending, can constitute the blessedness of man; a love not insensible to that which is foreign to it, but overcoming it with good. Where man loves in his kind, even as God loves in His kind, then man is saved, then he has reached the unseen and eternal. But if, besides the necessity to love that lies in a man, there be likewise in the man whom he ought to love something in common with him, then the law of love has increased force. If that point of sympathy lies at the centre of the being of each, and if these centres are brought into contact, then the circles of their being will be, if not coincident, yet concentric. We must wait patiently for the completion of God’s great harmony, and meantime love everywhere and as we can.
But the great lesson which this poem teaches, and which is taught more directly in the “Easter Day” (forming part of the same volume), is that the business of a man’s life is to be a Christian. A man has to do with God first; in Him only can he find the unity and harmony he seeks. To be one with Him is to be at the centre of things. If one acknowledges that God has revealed himself in Christ; that God has recognized man as his family, by appearing among them in their form; surely that very acknowledgment carries with it the admission that man’s chief concern is with this revelation. What does God say and mean, teach and manifest, herein? If this world is God’s making, and he is present in all nature; if he rules all things and is present in all history; if the soul of man is in his image, with all its circles of thought and multiplicity of forms; and if for man it be not enough to be rooted in God, but he must likewise lay hold on God; then surely no question, in whatever direction, can be truly answered, save by him who stands at the side of Christ. The doings of God cannot be understood, save by him who has the mind of Christ, which is the mind of God. All things must be strange to one who sympathizes not with the thought of the Maker, who understands not the design of the Artist. Where is he to begin? What light has he by which to classify? How will he bring order out of this apparent confusion, when the order is higher than his thought; when the confusion to him is caused by the order’s being greater than he can comprehend? Because he stands outside and not within, he sees an entangled maze of forces, where there is in truth an intertwining dance of harmony. There is for no one any solution of the world’s mystery, or of any part of its mystery, except he be able to say with our poet: —
“I have looked to Thee from the beginning,
Straight up to Thee through all the world,
Which, like an idle scroll, lay furled
To nothingness on either side:
And since the time Thou wast descried,
Spite of the weak heart, so have I
Lived ever, and so fain would die,
Living and dying, Thee before!”
Christianity is not the ornament, or even complement, of life; it is its necessity; it is life itself glorified into God’s ideal.
Dr. Chalmers, from considering the minuteness of the directions given to Moses for the making of the tabernacle, was led to think that he himself was wrong in attending too little to the “petite morale” of dress. Will this be excuse enough for occupying a few sentences with the rhyming of this poem? Certainly the rhymes of a poem form no small part of its artistic existence. Probably there is a deeper meaning in this part of the poetic art than has yet been made clear to poet’s mind. In this poem the rhymes have their share in its humorous charm. The writer’s power of using double and triple rhymes is remarkable, and the effect is often pleasing, even where they are used in the more solemn parts of the poem. Take the lines: —
“No! love which, on earth, amid all the shows of it,
Has ever been seen the sole good of life in it,
The love, ever growing there, spite of the strife in it,
Shall arise, made perfect, from death’s repose of it.”
A poem is a thing not for the understanding or heart only, but likewise for the ear; or, rather, for the understanding and heart through the ear. The best poem is best set forth when best read. If, then, there be rhymes which, when read aloud, do, by their composition of words, prevent the understanding from laying hold on the separate words, while the ear lays hold on the rhymes, the perfection of the art must here be lost sight of, notwithstanding the completeness which the rhyming manifests on close examination. For instance, in “equipt yours,” “Scriptures;” “Manchester,” “haunches stir;” or “affirm any,” “Germany;” where two words rhyme with one word. But there are very few of them that are objectionable on account of this difficulty and necessity of rapid analysis.
One of the most wonderful things in the poem is, that so much of argument is expressed in a species of verse, which one might be inclined, at first sight, to think the least fitted for embodying it. But, in fact, the same amount of argument in any other kind of verse would, in all likelihood, have been intolerably dull as a work of art. Here the verse is full of life and vigour, flagging never. Where, in several parts, the exact meaning is difficult to reach, this results chiefly from the dramatic rapidity and condensation of the thoughts. The argumentative power is indeed wonderful; the arguments themselves powerful in their simplicity, and embodied in words of admirable force. The poem is full of pathos and humour; full of beauty and grandeur, earnestness and truth.
- “Robert Browning (homepage on this site)
- Discussion in Linda H. Peterson’s “Biblical Typology and the Self-Portrait of the Poet in Robert Browning”
- Discussion in E. D. H. Johnson’s The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry
Last modified 27 June 2018