Robert Browning by GK Chesterson - HTML preview

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On the subject of Browning’s work innumerable things have been said and remain to be said; of his life, considered as a

narrative of facts, there is little or nothing to say. It was a lucid and public and yet quiet life, which culminated in one great

dramatic test of character, and then fell back again into this union of quietude and publicity. And yet, in spite of this, it is a

great deal more difficult to speak finally about his life than about his work. His work has the mystery which belongs to the

complex; his life the much greater mystery which belongs to the simple. He was clever enough to understand his own

poetry; and if he understood it, we can understand it. But he was also entirely unconscious and impulsive, and he was

never clever enough to understand his own character; consequently we may be excused if that part of him which was

hidden from him is partly hidden from us. The subtle man is always immeasurably easier to understand than the natural

man; for the subtle man keeps a diary of his moods, he practises the art of self–analysis and self–revelation, and can tell

us how he came to feel this or to say that. But a man like Browning knows no more about the state of his emotions than

about the state of his pulse; they are things greater than he, things growing at will, like forces of Nature. There is an old

anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning

of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: "When that poem was written, two people knew what it

meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means." This story gives, in all probability, an

entirely false impression of Browning’s attitude towards his work. He was a keen artist, a keen scholar, he could put his

finger on anything, and he had a memory like the British Museum Library. But the story does, in all probability, give a

tolerably accurate picture of Browning’s attitude towards his own emotions and his psychological type. If a man had

asked him what some particular allusion to a Persian hero meant he could in all probability have quoted half the epic; if a

man had asked him which third cousin of Charlemagne was alluded to in Sordello, he could have given an account of the

man and an account of his father and his grandfather. But if a man had asked him what he thought of himself, or what

were his emotions an hour before his wedding, he would have replied with perfect sincerity that God alone knew.

This mystery of the unconscious man, far deeper than any mystery of the conscious one, existing as it does in all men,

existed peculiarly in Browning, because he was a very ordinary and spontaneous man. The same thing exists to some

extent in all history and all affairs. Anything that is deliberate, twisted, created as a trap and a mystery, must be

discovered at last; everything that is done naturally remains mysterious. It may be difficult to discover the principles of the

Rosicrucians, but it is much easier to discover the principles of the Rosicrucians than the principles of the United States:

nor has any secret society kept its aims so quiet as humanity. The way to be inexplicable is to be chaotic, and on the

surface this was the quality of Browning’s life; there is the same difference between judging of his poetry and judging of

his life, that there is between making a map of a labyrinth and making a map of a mist. The discussion of what some

particular allusion in Sordello means has gone on so far, and may go on still, but it has it in its nature to end. The life of

Robert Browning, who combines the greatest brain with the most simple temperament known in our annals, would go on

for ever if we did not decide to summarise it in a very brief and simple narrative.

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell on May 7th 1812. His father and grandfather had been clerks in the Bank of

England, and his whole family would appear to have belonged to the solid and educated middle class—the class which is

interested in letters, but not ambitious in them, the class to which poetry is a luxury, but not a necessity.

This actual quality and character of the Browning family shows some tendency to be obscured by matters more remote.

It is the custom of all biographers to seek for the earliest traces of a family in distant ages and even in distant lands; and

Browning, as it happens, has given them opportunities which tend to lead away the mind from the main matter in hand.

There is a tradition, for example, that men of his name were prominent in the feudal ages; it is based upon little beyond a

coincidence of surnames and the fact that Browning used a seal with a coat–of–arms. Thousands of middle–class men

use such a seal, merely because it is a curiosity or a legacy, without knowing or caring anything about the condition of

their ancestors in the Middle Ages. Then, again, there is a theory that he was of Jewish blood; a view which is perfectly

conceivable, and which Browning would have been the last to have thought derogatory, but for which, as a matter of fact,

there is exceedingly little evidence. The chief reason assigned by his contemporaries for the belief was the fact that he

was, without doubt, specially and profoundly interested in Jewish matters. This suggestion, worthless in any case, would,

if anything, tell the other way. For while an Englishman may be enthusiastic about England, or indignant against

England, it never occurred to any living Englishman to be interested in England. Browning was, like every other

intelligent Aryan, interested in the Jews; but if he was related to every people in which he was interested, he must have

been of extraordinarily mixed extraction. Thirdly, there is the yet more sensational theory that there was in Robert

Browning a strain of the negro. The supporters of this hypothesis seem to have little in reality to say, except that

Browning’s grandmother was certainly a Creole. It is said in support of the view that Browning was singularly dark in

early life, and was often mistaken for an Italian. There does not, however, seem to be anything particular to be deduced

from this, except that if he looked like an Italian, he must have looked exceedingly unlike a negro.

There is nothing valid against any of these three theories, just as there is nothing valid in their favour; they may, any or

all of them, be true, but they are still irrelevant. They are something that is in history or biography a great deal worse than

being false—they are misleading. We do not want to know about a man like Browning, whether he had a right to a shield

used in the Wars of the Roses, or whether the tenth grandfather of his Creole grandmother had been white or black: we

want to know something about his family, which is quite a different thing. We wish to have about Browning not so much

the kind of information which would satisfy Clarencieux King–at–Arms, but the sort of information which would satisfy us,

if we were advertising for a very confidential secretary, or a very private tutor. We should not be concerned as to whether

the tutor were descended from an Irish king, but we should still be really concerned about his extraction, about what

manner of people his had been for the last two or three generations. This is the most practical duty of biography, and this

is also the most difficult. It is a great deal easier to hunt a family from tombstone to tombstone back to the time of Henry II.

than to catch and realise and put upon paper that most nameless and elusive of all things—social tone.

It will be said immediately, and must as promptly be admitted, that we could find a biographical significance in any of

these theories if we looked for it. But it is, indeed, the sin and snare of biographers that they tend to see significance in

everything; characteristic carelessness if their hero drops his pipe, and characteristic carefulness if he picks it up again.

It is true, assuredly, that all the three races above named could be connected with Browning’s personality. If we believed,

for instance, that he really came of a race of mediæval barons, we should say at once that from them he got his pre–

eminent spirit of battle: we should be right, for every line in his stubborn soul and his erect body did really express the

fighter; he was always contending, whether it was with a German theory about the Gnostics, or with a stranger who

elbowed his wife in a crowd. Again, if we had decided that he was a Jew, we should point out how absorbed he was in

the terrible simplicity of monotheism: we should be right, for he was so absorbed. Or again, in the case even of the negro

fancy; it would not be difficult for us to suggest a love of colour, a certain mental gaudiness, a pleasure

"When reds and blues were indeed red and blue,"

as he says in The Ring and the Book. We should be right; for there really was in Browning a tropical violence of taste,

an artistic scheme compounded as it were, of orchids and cockatoos, which, amid our cold English poets, seems

scarcely European. All this is extremely fascinating; and it may be true. But, as has above been suggested, here comes

in the great temptation of this kind of work, the noble temptation to see too much in everything. The biographer can

easily see a personal significance in these three hypothetical nationalities. But is there in the world a biographer who

could lay his hand upon his heart and say that he would not have seen as much significance in any three other

nationalities? If Browning’s ancestors had been Frenchmen, should we not have said that it was from them doubtless that

he inherited that logical agility which marks him among English poets? If his grandfather had been a Swede, should we

not have said that the old sea–roving blood broke out in bold speculation and insatiable travel? If his great–aunt had

been a Red Indian, should we not have said that only in the Ojibways and the Blackfeet do we find the Browning

fantasticality combined with the Browning stoicism? This over–readiness to seize hints is an inevitable part of that secret

hero–worship which is the heart of biography. The lover of great men sees signs of them long before they begin to

appear on the earth, and, like some old mythological chronicler, claims as their heralds the storms and the falling stars.

A certain indulgence must therefore be extended to the present writer if he declines to follow that admirable veteran of

Browning study, Dr. Furnivall, into the prodigious investigations which he has been conducting into the condition of the

Browning family since the beginning of the world. For his last discovery, the descent of Browning from a footman in the

service of a country magnate, there seems to be suggestive, though not decisive evidence. But Browning’s descent from

barons, or Jews, or lackeys, or black men, is not the main point touching his family. If the Brownings were of mixed origin,

they were so much the more like the great majority of English middle–class people. It is curious that the romance of race

should be spoken of as if it were a thing peculiarly aristocratic; that admiration for rank, or interest in family, should mean

only interest in one not very interesting type of rank and family. The truth is that aristocrats exhibit less of the romance of

pedigree than any other people in the world. For since it is their principle to marry only within their own class and mode

of life, there is no opportunity in their case for any of the more interesting studies in heredity; they exhibit almost the

unbroken uniformity of the lower animals. It is in the middle classes that we find the poetry of genealogy; it is the

suburban grocer standing at his shop door whom some wild dash of Eastern or Celtic blood may drive suddenly to a

whole holiday or a crime. Let us admit then, that it is true that these legends of the Browning family have every abstract

possibility. But it is a far more cogent and apposite truth that if a man had knocked at the door of every house in the

street where Browning was born, he would have found similar legends in all of them. There is hardly a family in

Camberwell that has not a story or two about foreign marriages a few generations back; and in all this the Brownings are

simply a typical Camberwell family. The real truth about Browning and men like him can scarcely be better expressed

than in the words of that very wise and witty story, Kingsley’s Water Babies, in which the pedigree of the Professor is

treated in a manner which is an excellent example of the wild common sense of the book. "His mother was a Dutch

woman, and therefore she was born at Curaçoa (of course, you have read your geography and therefore know why), and

his father was a Pole, and therefore he was brought up at Petropaulowski (of course, you have learnt your modern

politics, and therefore know why), but for all that he was as thorough an Englishman as ever coveted his neighbour’s


It may be well therefore to abandon the task of obtaining a clear account of Brownings family, and endeavour to obtain,

what is much more important, a clear account of his home. For the great central and solid fact, which these heraldic

speculations tend inevitably to veil and confuse, is that Browning was a thoroughly typical Englishman of the middle

class. He may have had alien blood, and that alien blood, by the paradox we have observed, may have made him more

characteristically a native. A phase, a fancy, a metaphor may or may not have been born of eastern or southern

elements, but he was, without any question at all, an Englishman of the middle class. Neither all his liberality nor all his

learning ever made him anything but an Englishman of the middle class. He expanded his intellectual tolerance until it

included the anarchism of Fifine at the Fair and the blasphemous theology of Caliban; but he remained himself an

Englishman of the middle class. He pictured all the passions of the earth since the Fall, from the devouring amorousness

of Time’s Revenges to the despotic fantasy of Instans Tyrannus; but he remained himself an Englishman of the middle

class. The moment that he came in contact with anything that was slovenly, anything that was lawless, in actual life,

something rose up in him, older than any opinions, the blood of generations of good men. He met George Sand and her

poetical circle and hated it, with all the hatred of an old city merchant for the irresponsible life. He met the Spiritualists

and hated them, with all the hatred of the middle class for borderlands and equivocal positions and playing with fire. His

intellect went upon bewildering voyages, but his soul walked in a straight road. He piled up the fantastic towers of his

imagination until they eclipsed the planets; but the plan of the foundation on which he built was always the plan of an

honest English house in Camberwell. He abandoned, with a ceaseless intellectual ambition, every one of the convictions

of his class; but he carried its prejudices into eternity.

It is then of Browning as a member of the middle class, that we can speak with the greatest historical certainty; and it is

his immediate forebears who present the real interest to us. His father, Robert Browning, was a man of great delicacy of

taste, and to all appearance of an almost exaggerated delicacy of conscience. Every glimpse we have of him suggests

that earnest and almost worried kindliness which is the mark of those to whom selfishness, even justifiable selfishness, is

really a thing difficult or impossible. In early life Robert Browning senior was placed by his father (who was apparently a

father of a somewhat primitive, not to say barbaric, type) in an important commercial position in the West Indies. He threw

up the position however, because it involved him in some recognition of slavery. Whereupon his unique parent, in a

transport of rage, not only disinherited him and flung him out of doors, but by a superb stroke of humour, which stands

alone in the records of parental ingenuity, sent him in a bill for the cost of his education. About the same time that he was

suffering for his moral sensibility he was also disturbed about religious matters, and he completed his severance from his

father by joining a dissenting sect. He was, in short, a very typical example of the serious middle–class man of the

Wilberforce period, a man to whom duty was all in all, and who would revolutionise an empire or a continent for the

satisfaction of a single moral scruple. Thus, while he was Puritan at the core, not the ruthless Puritan of the seventeenth,

but the humanitarian Puritan of the eighteenth century, he had upon the surface all the tastes and graces of a man of

culture. Numerous accomplishments of the lighter kind, such as drawing and painting in water colours, he possessed;

and his feeling for many kinds of literature was fastidious and exact. But the whole was absolutely redolent of the polite

severity of the eighteenth century. He lamented his son’s early admiration for Byron, and never ceased adjuring him to

model himself upon Pope.

He was, in short, one of the old–fashioned humanitarians of the eighteenth century, a class which we may or may not

have conquered in moral theory, but which we most certainly have not conquered in moral practice. Robert Browning

senior destroyed all his fortunes in order to protest against black slavery; white slavery may be, as later economists tell

us, a thing infinitely worse, but not many men destroy their fortunes in order to protest against it. The ideals of the men of

that period appear to us very unattractive; to them duty was a kind of chilly sentiment. But when we think what they did

with those cold ideals, we can scarcely feel so superior. They uprooted the enormous Upas of slavery, the tree that was

literally as old as the race of man. They altered the whole face of Europe with their deductive fancies. We have ideals

that are really better, ideals of passion, of mysticism, of a sense of the youth and adventurousness of the earth; but it will

be well for us if we achieve as much by our frenzy as they did by their delicacies. It scarcely seems as if we were as

robust in our very robustness as they were robust in their sensibility.

Robert Browning’s mother was the daughter of William Wiedermann, a German merchant settled in Dundee, and

married to a Scotch wife. One of the poet’s principal biographers has suggested that from this union of the German and

Scotch, Browning got his metaphysical tendency; it is possible; but here again we must beware of the great biographical

danger of making mountains out of molehills. What Browning’s mother unquestionably did give to him, was in the way of

training—a very strong religious habit, and a great belief in manners. Thomas Carlyle called her "the type of a Scottish

gentlewoman," and the phrase has a very real significance to those who realise the peculiar condition of Scotland, one of

the very few European countries where large sections of the aristocracy are Puritans; thus a Scottish gentlewoman

combines two descriptions of dignity at the same time. Little more is known of this lady except the fact that after her death

Browning could not bear to look at places where she had walked.

Browning’s education in the formal sense reduces itself to a minimum. In very early boyhood he attended a species of

dame–school, which, according to some of his biographers, he had apparently to leave because he was too clever to be

tolerable. However this may be, he undoubtedly went afterwards to a school kept by Mr. Ready, at which again he was

marked chiefly by precocity. But the boy’s education did not in truth take place at any systematic seat of education; it

took place in his own home, where one of the quaintest and most learned and most absurdly indulgent of fathers poured

out in an endless stream fantastic recitals from the Greek epics and mediæval chronicles. If we test the matter by the test

of actual schools and universities, Browning will appear to be almost the least educated man in English literary history.

But if we test it by the amount actually learned, we shall think that he was perhaps the most educated man that ever

lived; that he was in fact, if anything, overeducated. In a spirited poem he has himself described how, when he was a

small child, his father used to pile up chairs in the drawing–room and call them the city of Troy. Browning came out of the

home crammed with all kinds of knowledge—knowledge about the Greek poets, knowledge about the Provençal

Troubadours, knowledge about the Jewish Rabbis of the Middle Ages. But along with all this knowledge he carried one

definite and important piece of ignorance, an ignorance of the degree to which such knowledge was exceptional. He was

no spoilt and self–conscious child, taught to regard himself as clever. In the atmosphere in which he lived learning was a

pleasure, and a natural pleasure, like sport or wine. He had in it the pleasure of some old scholar of the Renascence,

when grammar itself was as fresh as the flowers of spring. He had no reason to suppose that every one did not join in so

admirable a game. His sagacious destiny, while giving him knowledge of everything else, left him in ignorance of the

ignorance of the world.

Of his boyish days scarcely any important trace remains, except a kind of diary which contains under one date the

laconic statement, "Married two wives this morning." The insane ingenuity of the biographer would be quite capable of

seeing in this a most suggestive foreshadowing of the sexual dualism which is so ably defended in Fifine at the Fair. A

great part of his childhood was passed in the society of his only sister Sariana; and it is a curious and touching fact that

with her also he passed his last days. From his earliest babyhood he seems to have lived in a more or less stimulating

mental atmosphere; but as he emerged into youth he came under great poetic influences, which made his father’s

classical poetic tradition look for the time insipid. Browning began to live in the life of his own age.

As a young man he attended classes at University College; beyond this there is little evidence that he was much in

touch with intellectual circles outside that of his own family. But the forces that were moving the literary world had long

passed beyond the merely literary area. About the time of Browning’s boyhood a very subtle and profound change was

beginning in the intellectual atmosphere of such homes as that of the Brownings. In studying the careers of great men we

tend constantly to forget that their youth was generally passed and their characters practically formed in a period long

previous to their appearance in history. We think of Milton, the Restoration Puritan, and forget that he grew up in the

living shadow of Shakespeare and the full summer of the Elizabethan drama. We realise Garibaldi as a sudden and

almost miraculous figure rising about fifty years ago to create the new Kingdom of Italy, and we forget that he must have

formed his first ideas of liberty while hearing at his father’s dinner–table that Napoleon was the master of Europe.

Similarly, we think of Browning as the great Victorian poet, who lived long enough to have opinions on Mr. Gladstone’s

Home Rule Bill, and forget that as a young man he passed a bookstall and saw a volume ticketed "Mr. Shelley’s Atheistic

Poem," and had to search even in his own really cultivated circle for some one who could tell him who Mr. Shelley was.

Browning was, in short, born in the afterglow of the great Revolution.

The French Revolution was at root a thoroughly optimistic thing. It may seem strange to attribute optimism to anything

so destructive; but, in truth, this particular kind of optimism is inevitably, and by its nature, destructive. The great

dominant idea of the whole of that period, the period before, during, and long after the Revolution, is the idea that man

would by his nature live in an Eden of dignity, liberty and love, and that artificial and decrepit systems are keeping him

out of that Eden. No one can do the least justice to the great Jacobins who does not realise that to them breaking the

civilisation of ages was like breaking the cords of a treasure–chest. And just as for more than a century great men had

dreamed of this beautiful emancipation, so the dream began in the time of Keats and Shelley to creep down among the

dullest professions and the most prosaic classes of society. A spirit of revolt was growing among the young of the middle

classes, which had nothing at all in common with the complete and pessimistic revolt against all things in heaven or

earth, which has been fashionable among the young in more recent times. The Shelleyan enthusiast was altogether on

the side of existence; he thought that every cloud and clump of grass shared his strict republican orthodoxy. He

represented, in short, a revolt of the normal against the abnormal; he found himself, so to speak, in the heart of a wholly

topsy–turvy and blasphemous state of things, in which God was rebelling against Satan. There began to arise about this

time a race of young men like Keats, members of a not highly cultivated middle class, and even of classes lower, who felt

in a hundred ways this obscure alliance with eternal things against temporal and practical ones, and who lived on its

imaginative delight. They were a kind of furtive universalist; they had discovered the whole cosmos, and they kept the

whole cosmos a secret. They climbed up dark stairs to meagre garrets, and shut themselves in with the gods. Numbers

of the great men, who afterwards illuminated the Victorian era, were at this time living in mean streets in magnificent

daydreams. Ruskin was solemnly visiting his solemn suburban aunts; Dickens was going to and fro in a blacking factory;

Carlyle, slightly older, was still lingering on a poor farm in Dumfriesshire; Keats had not long become the assistant of the

country surgeon when Browning was a boy in Camberwell. On all sides there was the first beginning of the æsthetic stir