Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
Public Domain Books
This Book Is Dedicated to My Dear Friends
Miss Harriet MacArthur
Miss Jane MacArthur.
The purpose of this book is to deal with Browning, not simply as a poet, but rather as the exponent of a system of ideas on moral and religious subjects, which may fairly be called a philosophy. I am conscious that it is a wrong to a poet to neglect, or even to subordinate, the artistic aspect of his work. At least, it would be a wrong, if our final judgment on his poetry were to be determined on such a method. But there is a place for everything; and, even in the case of a great poet, there is sometimes an advantage in attempting to estimate the value of what he has said, apart from the form in which he has said it. And of all modern poets, Browning is the one who most obviously invites and justifies such a method of treatment. For, in the first place, he is clearly one of that class of poets who are also prophets. He was never merely “the idle singer of an empty day,” but one for whom poetic enthusiasm was intimately bound up with religious faith, and who spoke “in numbers," not merely “because the numbers came,” but because they were for him the necessary vehicle of an inspiring thought. If it is the business of philosophy to analyze and interpret all the great intellectual forces that mould the thought of an age, it cannot neglect the works of one who has exercised, and is exercising so powerful an influence on the moral and religious life of the present generation.
In the second place, as will be seen in the sequel, Browning has himself led the way towards such a philosophical interpretation of his work. For, even in his earlier poems, he not seldom crossed the line that divides the poet from the philosopher, and all but broke through the strict limits of art in the effort to express–and we might even say to preach–his own idealistic faith. In his later works he did this almost without any disguise, raising philosophical problems, and discussing all the pros and cons of their solution, with no little subtlety and dialectical skill. In some of these poems we might even seem to be receiving a philosophical lesson, in place of a poetic inspiration, if it were not for those powerful imaginative utterances, those winged words, which Browning has always in reserve, to close the ranks of his argument. If the question is stated in a prosaic form, the final answer, as in the ancient oracle, is in the poetic language of the gods.
From this point of view I have endeavoured to give a connected account of Browning’s ideas, especially of his ideas on religion and morality, and to estimate their value. In order to do so, it was necessary to discuss the philosophical validity of the principles on which his doctrine is more or less consciously based. The more immediately philosophical chapters are the second, seventh, and ninth; but they will not be found unintelligible by those who have reflected on the difficulties of the moral and religious life, even although they may be unacquainted with the methods and language of the schools.
I have received much valuable help in preparing this work for the press from my colleague, Professor G.B. Mathews, and still more from Professor Edward Caird. I owe them both a deep debt of gratitude.