Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
Public Domain Books
Chapter III. Browning’s Place in English Poetry.
“But there’s a great contrast between him and me. He seems very content with life, and takes much satisfaction in the world. It’s a very strange and curious spectacle to behold a man in these days so confidently cheerful.” (Carlyle.)
It has been said of Carlyle, who may for many reasons be considered as our poet’s twin figure, that he laid the foundations of his world of thought in Sartor Resartus, and never enlarged them. His Orientirungwas over before he was forty years old–as is, indeed, the case with most men. After that period there was no fundamental change in his view of the world; nothing which can be called a new idea disturbed his outline sketch of the universe. He lived afterwards only to fill it in, showing with ever greater detail the relations of man to man in history, and emphasizing with greater grimness the war of good and evil in human action. There is evidence, it is true, that the formulae from which he more or less consciously set forth, ultimately proved too narrow for him, and we find him beating himself in vain against their limitations; still, on the whole, Carlyle speculated within the range and influence of principles adopted early in life, and never abandoned for higher or richer ideas, or substantially changed.
In these respects, there is considerable resemblance between Carlyle and Browning. Browning, indeed, fixed his point of view and chose his battleground still earlier; and he held it resolutely to his life’s close. In his Pauline and in his Epilogue to Asolando we catch the triumphant tone of a single idea, which, during all the long interval, had never sunk into silence. Like
“The wise thrush, he sings each song twice over, Lest you should think he never could recapture The first fine careless rapture!"[A]
[Footnote A: Home Thoughts from Abroad.]
Moreover, these two poets, if I may be permitted to call Carlyle a poet, taught the same truth. They were both witnesses to the presence of God in the spirit of man, and looked at this life in the light of another and a higher; or rather, they penetrated through the husk of time and saw that eternity is even here, a tranquil element underlying the noisy antagonisms of man’s earthly life. Both of them, like Plato’s philosopher, made their home in the sunlight of ideal truth: they were not denizens of the cave taking the things of sense for those of thought, shadows for realities, echoes for the voices of men.
But, while Carlyle fought his way into this region, Browning found himself in it from the first; while Carlyle bought his freedom with a great sum, the poet “was free born.” Carlyle saw the old world faith break up around him, and its fragments never ceased to embarrass his path. He was at the point of transition, present at the collision of the old and new, and in the midst of the confusion. He, more than any other English writer, was the instrument of the change from the Deism of the eighteenth century and the despair which followed it, into the larger faith of our own. But, for Browning, there was a new heaven and a new earth, and old things had passed away. This notable contrast between the two men, arising at once from their disposition and their moral environment, had far-reaching effects on their lives and their writings. But their affinity was deeper than the difference, for they are essentially heirs and exponents of the same movement in English thought.
The main characteristic of that movement is that it is both moral and religious, a devotion to God and the active service of man, a recognition at once of the rights of nature and of spirit. It does not, on the one hand, raise the individual as a natural being to the throne of the universe, and make all forces social, political, and spiritual stoop to his rights; nor does it, on the other hand, deny these rights, or make the individual a mere instrument of society. It at least attempts to reconcile the fundamental facts of human nature, without compromising any of them. It cannot be called either individualistic or socialistic; but it strives to be both at once, so that both man and society mean more to this age than they ever did before. The narrow formulae that cramped the thought of the period which preceded ours have been broken through. No one can pass from the hedonists and individualists to Carlyle and Browning without feeling that these two men are representatives of new forces in politics, in religion, and in literature,–forces which will undoubtedly effect momentous changes before they are caught again and fixed in creeds.
That a new epoch in English thought was veritably opened by them is indicated by the surprise and bewilderment they occasioned at their first appearance. Carlyle had Emerson to break his loneliness and Browning had Rossetti; but, to most other men at that day, Sartor and Pauline were all but unintelligible. The general English reader could make little of the strange figures that had broken into the realm of literature; and the value and significance of their work, as well as its originality, will be recognized better by ourselves if we take a hurried glance at the times which lay behind them. Its main worth will be found to lie in the fact that they strove to bring together again certain fundamental elements, on which the moral life of man must always rest, and which had fallen asunder in the ages which preceded their own.
The whole-hearted, instinctive life of the Elizabethan age was narrowed and deepened into the severe one-sidedness of Puritanism, which cast on the bright earth the sombre shadow of a life to come. England was given up for a time to a magnificent half-truth. It did not
“Wait The slow and sober uprise all around O’ the building,”
“Ran up right to roof A sudden marvel, piece of perfectness."[A]
[Footnote A:_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
After Puritanism came Charles the Second and the rights of the flesh, which rights were gradually clarified, till they contradicted themselves in the benevolent self-seeking of altruistic hedonism. David Hume led the world out of the shadow of eternity, and showed that it was only an object of the five senses; or of six, if we add that of “hunger.” The divine element was explained away, and the proper study of mankind was, not man, as that age thought, but man reduced to his beggarly elements–a being animated solely by the sensuous springs of pleasure and pain, which should properly, as Carlyle thought, go on all fours, and not lay claim to the dignity of being moral. All things were reduced to what they seemed, robbed of their suggestiveness, changed into definite, sharp-edged, mutually exclusive particulars. The world was an aggregate of isolated facts, or, at the best, a mechanism into which particulars were fitted by force; and society was a gathering of mere individuals, repelling each other by their needs and greed, with a ring of natural necessity to bind them together. It was a fit time for political economy to supplant ethics. There was nowhere an ideal which could lift man above his natural self, and teach him, by losing it, to find a higher life. And, as a necessary consequence, religion gave way to naturalism and poetry to prose.
After this age of prose came our own day. The new light first flushed the modern world in the writings of the philosopher-poets of Germany: Kant and Lessing, Fichte and Schiller, Goethe and Hegel. They brought about the Copernican change. For them this world of the five senses, of space and time and natural cause, instead of being the fixed centre around which all things revolved, was explicable only in its relation to a system which was spiritual; and man found his meaning in his connection with society, the life of which stretched endlessly far back into the past and forward into the future. Psychology gave way to metaphysics. The universal element in the thought of man was revealed. Instead of mechanism there was life. A new spirit of poetry and philosophy brought God back into the world, revealed his incarnation in the mind of man, and changed nature into a pellucid garment within which throbbed the love divine. The antagonism of hard alternatives was at an end; the universe was spirit-woven and every smallest object was “filled full of magical music, as they freight a star with light.” There were no longer two worlds, but one; for “the other” world penetrated this, and was revealed in it: thought and sense, spirit and nature, were reconciled. These thinkers made room for man, as against the Puritans, and for God, as against their successors. Instead of the hopeless struggle of ascetic morality, which divides man against himself, they awakened him to that sense of his reconciliation with his ideal which religion gives: “Psyche drinks its stream and forgets her sorrows.”
Now, this is just the soil where art blooms. For what is beauty but the harmony of thought and sense, a universal meaning caught and tamed in the particular? To the poet each little flower that blooms has endless worth, and is regarded as perfect and complete; for he sees that the spirit of the whole dwells in it. It whispers to him the mystery of the infinite; it is a pulse in which beats the universal heart. The true poet finds God everywhere; for the ideal is actual wherever beauty dwells. And there is the closest affinity between art and religion, as its history proves, from Job and Isaiah, Homer and Aeschylus, to our own poet; for both art and religion lift us, each in its own way, above one-sidedness and limitation, to the region of the universal. The one draws God to man, brings perfection here, and reaches its highest form in the joyous life of Greece, where the natural world was clothed with almost supernatural beauty; the other lifts man to God, and finds this life good because it reflects and suggests the greater life that is to be. Both poetry and religion are a reconciliation and a satisfaction; both lift man above the contradictions of limited existence, and place him in the region of peace–where,
“with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, He sees into the life of things."[A]
[Footnote A: Tintern Abbey.]
In this sense, it will be always true of the poet, as it is of the religious man, that
“the world, The beauty and the wonder and the power, The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades, Changes, surprises,"[A]
[Footnote A: Fra Lippo Lippi.]
lead him back to God, who made it all.
He is essentially a witness to the divine element in the world.
It is the rediscovery of this divine element, after its expulsion by the age of Deism and doubt, that has given to this century its poetic grandeur. Unless we regard Burke as the herald of the new era, we may say that England first felt the breath of the returning spirit in the poems of Shelley and Wordsworth.
“The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven’s light for ever shines, earth’s shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of eternity, Until death tramples it to fragments."[B]
[Footnote B: Adonais.]
“And I have felt,” says Wordsworth,
“A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things."[C]
[Footnote C: Tintern Abbey.]
Such notes as these could not be struck by Pope, nor be understood by the age of prose. Still they are only the prelude of the fuller song of Browning. Whether he be a greater poet than these or not,–a question whose answer can benefit nothing, for each poet has his own worth, and reflects by his own facet the universal truth–his poetry contains in it larger elements, and the promise of a deeper harmony from the harsher discords of his more stubborn material. Even where their spheres touch, Browning held by the artistic truth in a different manner. To Shelley, perhaps the most intensely spiritual of all our poets,
“That light whose smile kindles the universe, That beauty in which all things work and move,”
was an impassioned sentiment, a glorious intoxication; to Browning it was a conviction, reasoned and willed, possessing the whole man, and held in the sober moments when the heart is silent. “The heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world” was lightened for Wordsworth, only when he was far from the haunts of men, and free from the “dreary intercourse of daily life"; but Browning weaved his song of hope right amidst the wail and woe of man’s sin and wretchedness. For Wordsworth “sensations sweet, felt in the blood and felt along the heart, passed into his purer mind with tranquil restoration,” and issued “in a serene and blessed mood"; but Browning’s poetry is not merely the poetry of the emotions however sublimated. He starts with the hard repellent fact, crushes by sheer force of thought its stubborn rind, presses into it, and brings forth the truth at its heart. The greatness of Browning’s poetry is in its perceptive grip: and in nothing is he more original than in the manner in which he takes up his task, and assumes his artistic function. In his postponement of feeling to thought we recognize a new poetic method, the significance of which we cannot estimate as yet. But, although we may fail to apprehend the meaning of the new method he employs, we cannot fail to perceive the fact, which is not less striking, that the region from which he quarries his material is new.
And yet he does not break away abruptly from his predecessors. His kinship with them, in that he recognizes the presence of God in nature, is everywhere evident. We quote one passage, scarcely to be surpassed by any of our poets, as indicative of his power of dealing with the supernaturalism of nature.
“The centre-fire heaves underneath the earth, And the earth changes like a human face; The molten ore burst up among the rocks, Winds into the stone’s heart, outbranches bright In hidden mines, spots barren river-beds, Crumbles into fine sand where sunbeams bask– God joys therein. The wroth sea’s waves are edged With foam, white as the bitter lip of hate, When, in the solitary waste, strange groups Of young volcanos come up, cyclops-like, Staring together with their eyes on flame– God tastes a pleasure in their uncouth pride. Then all is still; earth is a wintry clod: But spring-wind, like a dancing psaltress, passes Over its breast to waken it, rare verdure Buds tenderly upon rough banks, between The withered tree-roots and the cracks of frost, Like a smile striving with a wrinkled face.
“Above, birds fly in merry flocks, the lark Soars up and up, shivering for very joy; Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing gulls Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek Their loves in wood and plain–and God renews His ancient rapture. Thus He dwells in all, From life’s minute beginnings, up at last To man–the consummation of this scheme Of being, the completion of this sphere of life."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
Such passages as these contain neither the rapt, reflective calm of Wordsworth’s solemn tones, nor the ethereal intoxication of Shelley’s spirit-music; but there is in them the same consciousness of the infinite meaning of natural facts. And beyond this, there is also, in the closing lines, a hint of a new region for art. Shelley and Wordsworth were the poets of Nature, as all truly say; Browning was the poet of the human soul. For Shelley, the beauty in which all things work and move was well-nigh “quenched by the eclipsing curse of the birth of man"; and Wordsworth lived beneath the habitual sway of fountains, meadows, hills and groves, while he kept grave watch o’er man’s mortality, and saw the shades of the prison-house gather round him. From the life of man they garnered nought but mad indignation, or mellowed sadness. It was a foolish and furious strife with unknown powers fought in the dark, from which the poet kept aloof, for he could not see that God dwelt amidst the chaos. But Browning found “harmony in immortal souls, spite of the muddy vesture of decay.” He found nature crowned in man, though man was mean and miserable. At the heart of the most wretched abortion of wickedness there was the mark of the loving touch of God. Shelley turned away from man; Wordsworth paid him rare visits, like those of a being from a strange world, made wise and sad with looking at him from afar; Browning dwelt with him. He was a comrade in the fight, and ever in the van of man’s endeavour bidding him be of good cheer. He was a witness for God in the midmost dark, where meet in deathless struggle the elemental powers of right and wrong. For God is present for him, not only in the order and beauty of nature, but in the world of will and thought. Beneath the caprice and wilful lawlessness of individual action, he saw a beneficent purpose which cannot fail, but “has its way with man, not he with it.”
Now this was a new world for poetry to enter into; a new depth to penetrate with hope; and Browning was the first of modern poets to
“Stoop Into the vast and unexplored abyss, Strenuously beating The silent boundless regions of the sky.”
It is also a new world for religion and morality; and to understand it demands a deeper insight into the fundamental elements of human life.
To show this in a proximately adequate manner, we should be obliged, as already hinted, to connect the poet’s work, not merely with that of his English predecessors, but with the deeper and more comprehensive movement of the thought of Germany since the time of Kant. It would be necessary to indicate how, by breaking a way through the narrow creeds and equally narrow scepticism of the previous age, the new spirit extended the horizon of man’s active and contemplative life, and made him free of the universe, and the repository of the past conquests of his race. It proposed to man the great task of solving the problem of humanity, but it strengthened him with its past achievement, and inspired him with the conviction of its boundless progress. It is not that the significance of the individual or the meaning of his endeavour is lost. Under this new view, man has still to fight for his own hand, and it is still recognized that spirit is always burdened with its own fate and cannot share its responsibility. Morality does not give way to religion or pass into it, and there is a sense in which the individual is always alone in the sphere of duty.
But from this new point of view the individual is re-explained for us, and we begin to understand that he is the focus of a light which is universal, “one more incarnation of the mind of God.” His moral task is no longer to seek his own in the old sense, but to elevate humanity; for it is only by taking this circuit that he can come to his own. Such a task as this is a sufficiently great one to occupy all time; but it is to humanity in him that the task belongs, and it will therefore be achieved. This is no new one-sidedness. It does not mean, to those who comprehend it, the supplanting of the individual thought by the collective thought, or the substitution of humanity for man. The universal is in the particular, the fact is the law. There is no collision between the whole and the part, for the whole lives in the part. As each individual plant has its own life and beauty and worth, although the universe has conspired to bring it into being; so also, and in a far higher degree, man has his own duty and his own dignity, although he is but the embodiment of forces, natural and spiritual, which have come from the endless past. Like a letter in a word, or a word in a sentence, he gets his meaning from his context; but the sentence is meaningless without him. “Rays from all round converge in him,” and he has no power except that which has been lent to him; but all the same, nay, all the more, he must
“Think as if man never thought before! Act as if all creation hung attent On the acting of such faculty as his."[A]
[Footnote A: Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.]
His responsibility, his individuality, is not less, but greater, in that he can, in his thought and moral action, command the forces that the race has stored for him. The great man speaks the thought of his people, and his invocations as their priest are just the expression of their dumb yearnings. And even the mean and insignificant man is what he is, in virtue of the humanity which is blurred and distorted within him; and he can shed his insignificance and meanness, only by becoming a truer vehicle for that humanity.
Thus, when spirit is spiritually discerned, it is seen that man is bound to man in a union closer than any physical organism can show; while “the individual,” in the old sense of a being opposed to society and opposed to the world, is found to be a fiction of abstract thought, not discoverable anywhere, because not real. And, on the other hand, society is no longer “collective,” but so organic that the whole is potentially in every part–an organism of organisms.
The influence of this organic idea in every department of thought which concerns itself with man is not to be measured. It is already fast changing all the practical sciences of man–economics, politics, ethics and religion. The material, being newly interpreted, is wrought into a new purpose, and revelation is once more bringing about a reformation. But human action in its ethical aspect is, above all, charged with a new significance. The idea of duty has received an expansion almost illimitable, and man himself has thereby attained new worth and dignity–for what is duty except a dignity and opportunity, man’s chance of being good? When we contrast this view of the life of man as the life of humanity in him, with the old individualism, we may say that morality also has at last, in Bacon’s phrase, passed from the narrow seas into the open ocean. And after all, the greatest achievement of our age may be not that it has established the sciences of nature, but that it has made possible the science of man. We have, at length, reached a point of view from which we may hope to understand ourselves. Law, order, continuity, in human action–the essential pre-conditions of a moral science–were beyond the reach of an individualistic theory. It left to ethical writers no choice but that of either sacrificing man to law, or law to man; of denying either the particular or the universal element in his nature. Naturalism did the first. Intuitionism, the second. The former made human action the re_action of a natural agent on the incitement of natural forces. It made man a mere object, a thingcapable of being affected by other things through his faculty of being pained or pleased; an object acting in obedience to motives that had an external origin, just like any other object. The latter theory cut man free from the world and his fellows, endowed him with a will that had no law, and a conscience that was dogmatic; and thereby succeeded in stultifying both law and morality.
But this new consciousness of the relation of man to mankind and the world takes him out of his isolation and still leaves him free. It relates men to one another in a humanity, which is incarnated anew in each of them. It elevates the individual above the distinctions of time; it treasures up the past in him as the active energy of his knowledge and morality in the present, and also as the potency of the ideal life of the future. On this view, the individual and the race are possible only through each other.
This fundamental change in our way of looking at the life of man is bound to abolish the ancient landmarks and bring confusion for a time. Out of the new conception, i.e., out of the idea of evolution, has sprung the tumult as well as the strength of our time. The present age is moved with thoughts beyond the reach of its powers: great aspirations for the well-being of the people and high ideals of social welfare flash across its mind, to be followed again by thicker darkness. There is hardly any limit to its despair or hope. It has a far larger faith in the destiny of man than any of its predecessors, and yet it is sure of hardly anything–except that the ancient rules of human life are false. Individualism is now detected as scepticism and moral chaos in disguise. We know that the old methods are no longer of use. We cannot now cut ourselves free of the fate of others. The confused cries for help that are heard on every hand are recognized as the voices of our brethren; and we now know that our fate is involved in theirs, and that the problem of their welfare is also ours. We grapple with social questions at last, and recognize that the issues of life and death lie in the solution of these enigmas. Legislators and economists, teachers of religion and socialists, are all alike social reformers. Philanthropy has taken a deeper meaning; and all sects bear its banner. But their forces are beaten back by the social wretchedness, for they have not found the sovereign remedy of a great idea; and the result is in many ways sad enough. Our social remedies often work mischief; for we degrade those whom we would elevate, and in our charity forget justice. We insist on the rights of the people and the duties of the privileged classes, and thereby tend to teach greed to those for whom we labour, and goodness to those whom we condemn. The task that lies before us is plain: we want the welfare of the people as a whole. But we fail to grasp the complex social elements together, and our very remedies tend to sunder them. We know that the public good will not be obtained by separating man from man, securing each unit in a charmed circle of personal rights, and protecting it from others by isolation. We must find a place for the individual within the social organism, and we know now that this organism has not, as our fathers seemed to think, the simple constitution of a wooden doll. Society is not put together mechanically, and the individual cannot be outwardly attached to it, if he is to be helped, He must rather share its life, be the heir of the wealth it has garnered for him in the past, and participate in its onward movement. Between this new social ideal and our attainment, between the magnitude of our social duties and the resources of intellect and will at our command, there lies a chasm which we despair of bridging over.
The characteristics of this epoch faithfully reflect themselves in the pages of Carlyle, with whose thoughts those of Browning are immediately connected. It was Carlyle who first effectively revealed to England the continuity of human life, and the magnitude of the issues of individual action. Seeing the infinite in the finite, living under a continued sense of the mystery that surrounds man, he flung explosive negations amidst the narrow formulae of the social and religious orthodoxy of his day, blew down the blinding walls of ethical individualism, and, amidst much smoke and din, showed his English readers something of the greatness of the moral world. He gave us a philosophy of clothes, penetrated through symbols to the immortal ideas, condemned all shibboleths, and revealed the soul of humanity behind the external modes of man’s activity. He showed us, in a word, that the world is spiritual, that loyalty to duty is the foundation of all human good, and that national welfare rests on character. After reading him, it is impossible for any one who reflects on the nature of duty to ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He not only imagined, but knew, how “all things the minutest that man does, minutely influence all men, and the very look of his face blesses or curses whom-so it lights on, and so generates ever new blessing or new cursing. I say, there is not a Red Indian, hunting by Lake Winnipeg, can quarrel with his squaw, but the whole world must smart for it: will not the price of beaver rise? It is a mathematical fact that the casting of this pebble from my hand alters the centre of gravity of the universe.” Carlyle dealt the deathblow to the “laissez-faire” theory rampant in his day, and made each individual responsible for the race. He has demonstrated that the sphere of duty does not terminate with ourselves and our next-door neighbours. There will be no pure air for the correctest Levite to breathe, till the laws of sanitation have been applied to the moral slums. “Ye are my brethren,” said he, and he adds, as if conscious of his too denunciatory way of dealing with them, “hence my rage and sorrow.”
But his consciousness of brotherhood with all men brought only despair for him. He saw clearly the responsibility of man, but not the dignity which that implies; he felt the weight of the burden of humanity upon his own soul, and it crushed him, for he forgot that all the good of the world was there to help him bear it, and that “One with God is a majority.” He taught only the half-truth, that all men are united on the side of duty, and that the spiritual life of each is conditional on striving to save all. But he neglected the complement of this truth, and forgot the greatness of the beings on whom so great a duty could be laid. He therefore dignifies humanity only to degrade it again. The “twenty millions” each must try to save “are mostly fools.” But how fools, when they can have such a task? Is it not true, on the contrary, that no man ever saw a duty beyond his strength, and that “man can because he ought” and ought only because he can? The evils an individual cannot overcome are the moral opportunities of his fellows. The good are not lone workers of God’s purposes, and there is no need of despair. Carlyle, like the ancient prophet, was too conscious of his own mission, and too forgetful of that of others. “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forgotten Thy covenant, thrown down Thine alters, and slain Thy prophets, and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” He needed, beside the consciousness of his prophetic function, a consciousness of brotherhood with humbler workers. “Yet I have left Me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.” It would have helped him had he remembered, that there were on all sides other workers engaged on the temple not made with hands, although he could not hear the sound of their hammers for the din he made himself. It would have changed his despair into joy, and his pity into a higher moral quality, had he been able to believe that, amidst all the millions against whom he hurled his anathemas, there is no one who, let him do what he will, is not constrained to illustrate either the folly and wretchedness of sin, or the glory of goodness. It is not given to any one, least of all to the wicked, to hold back the onward movement of the race, or to destroy the impulse for good which is planted within it.
But Carlyle saw only one side of the truth about man’s moral nature and destiny. He knew, as the ancient prophets did, that evil is potential wreck; and he taxed the power of metaphor to the utmost to indicate, how wrong gradually takes root, and ripens into putrescence and self-combustion, in obedience to a necessity which is absolute. That morality is the essence of things, that wrong must prove its weakness, that right is the only might, is reiterated and illustrated on all his pages; they are now commonplaces of speculation on matters of history, if not conscious practical principles which guide its makers. But Carlyle never inquired into the character of this moral necessity, and he overlooked the beneficence which places death at the heart of sin. He never saw wrong except on its way to execution, or in the death throes; but he did not look in the face of the gentle power that led it on to death. He saw the necessity which rules history, but not the beneficent character of that necessity.
The same limitations marred his view of duty, which was his greatest revelation to his age. He felt its categorical authority and its binding force. But the power which imposed the duty was an alien power, awful in majesty, infinite in might, a “great task-master"; and the duty itself was an outer law, written in letters of flame across the high heavens, in comparison with which man’s action at its best sank into failure. His only virtue is obedience, and his last rendering even of himself is “unprofitable servant.” In this he has much of the combined strength and weakness of the old Scottish Calvinism. “He stands between the individual and the Infinite without hope or guide. He has a constant disposition to crush the human being by comparing him with God,” said Mazzini, with marvellous penetration. “From his lips, at times so daring, we seem to hear every instant the cry of the Breton Mariner–’My God protect me! My bark is so small, and Thy ocean so vast.’” His reconciliation of God and man was incomplete: God seemed to him to have manifested Himself to man but not in man. He did not see that “the Eternity which is before and behind us is also within us.”
But the moral law which commands is just the reflection of the aspirations of progressive man, who always creates his own horizon. The extension of duty is the objective counterpart of man’s growth; a proof of victory and not of failure, a sign that man is mounting upwards. And, if so, it is irrational to infer the impossibility of success from the magnitude of the demands of a moral law, which is itself the promise of a better future. The hard problems set for us by our social environment are recognized as set by ourselves; for, in matters of morality, the eye sees only what the heart prompts. The very statement of the difficulty contains the potency of its solution; for evil, when understood, is on the way towards being overcome, and the good, when seen, contains the promise of its own fulfilment. It is ignorance which is ruinous, as when the cries of humanity beat against a deaf ear; and we can take a comfort, denied to Carlyle, from the fact that he has made us awake to our social duties. He has let loose the confusion upon us, and it is only natural that we should at first be overcome by a sense of bewildered helplessness. But this very sense contains the germ of hope, and England is struggling to its feet to wrestle with its wrongs. Carlyle has brought us within sight of our future, and we are now taking a step into it. He has been our guide in the wilderness; but he died there, and was denied the view from Pisgah.
Now, this view was given to Robert Browning, and he broke out into a song of victory, whose strains will give strength and comfort to many in the coming time. That his solution of the evils of life is not final, may at once be admitted. There are elements in the problem of which he has taken no account, and which will force those who seek light on the deeper mysteries of man’s moral nature, to go beyond anything that the poet has to say. Even the poet himself grows, at least in some directions, less confident of the completeness of his triumph as he grows older. His faith in the good does not fail, but it is the faith of one who confesses to ignorance, and links himself to his finitude. Still, so thorough is his conviction of the moral purpose of life, of the certainty of the good towards which man is moving, and of the beneficence of the power which is at work everywhere in the world, that many of his poems ring like the triumphant songs of Luther.