Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
Public Domain Books
Chapter VI. Browning’s Treatment of the Principle of Love.
“God! Thou art Love! I build my faith on that!"[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus]
It may be well before going further to gather together the results so far reached.
Browning was aware of the conflict of the religious and moral consciousness, but he did not hesitate to give to each of them its most uncompromising utterance. And it is on this account that he is instructive; for, whatever may be the value of compromise in practical affairs, there is no doubt that it has never done anything to advance human thought. His religion is an optimistic faith, a peaceful consciousness of the presence of the highest in man, and therefore in all other things. Yet he does not hesitate to represent the moral life as a struggle with evil, and a movement through error towards a highest good which is never finally realized. He sees that the contradiction is not an absolute one, but that a good man is always both moral and religious, and, in every good act he does, transcends their difference. He knew that the ideal apart from the process is nothing, and that “a God beyond the stars” is simply the unknowable. But he knew, too, that the ideal is not merely the process, but also that which starts the process, guides it, and comes to itself through it. God, emptied of human elements, is a mere name; but, at the same time, the process of human evolution does not exhaust the idea of God. The process by itself, i.e., mere morality, is a conception of a fragment, a fiction of abstract thought; it is a movement which has no beginning or end; and in it neither the head nor the heart of man could find contentment. He is driven by ethics into philosophy, and by morality into religion.
It was in this way that Browning found himself compelled to trace back the moral process to its origin, and to identify the moral law with the nature of God. It is this that gives value to his view of moral progress, as reaching beyond death to a higher stage of being, for which man’s attainments in this life are only preliminary.
“What’s time? Leave Now for dogs and apes, Man has Forever."[A]
[Footnote A: Grammarian’s Funeral.]
There are other “adventures brave and new” for man, “more lives yet," other ways of warfare, other depths of goodness and heights of love. The poet lifts the moral ideal into infinitude, and removes all limits to the possibility and necessity of being good. Nay, the process itself is good. Moral activity is its own bountiful reward; for moral progress, which means struggle, is the best thing in the world or out of it. To end such a process, to stop that activity, were therefore evil. But it cannot end, for it is the self-manifestation of the divine life. There is plenty of way to make, for the ideal is absolute goodness. The process cannot exhaust the absolute, and it is impossible that man should be God. And yet this process is the process of the absolute, the working of the ideal, the presence of the highest in man as a living power realizing itself in his acts and in his thoughts. And the absolute cannot fail; not in man, for the process is the evolution of his essential nature; and not in the world, for that is but the necessary instrument of the evolution. By lifting the moral ideal of man to infinitude, the poet has identified it with the nature of God, and made it the absolute law of things.
Now, this idea of the identity of the human and the divine is a perfectly familiar Christian idea.
“Thence shall I, approved A man, for aye removed From the developed brute; a God though in the germ."[A]
[Footnote A: Rabbi Ben Ezra.]
This idea is involved in the ordinary expressions of religious thought. But, nevertheless, both theology and philosophy shrink from giving to it a clear and unembarrassed utterance. Instead of rising to the sublime boldness of the Nazarene Teacher, they set up prudential differences between God and man–differences not of degree only but of nature; and, in consequence, God is reduced into an unknowable absolute, and man is made incapable not only of moral, but also of intellectual life. The poet himself has proved craven-hearted in this, as we shall see. He, too, sets up insurmountable barriers between the divine and the human, and thereby weakens both his religious and his moral convictions. His moral inspiration is greatest just where his religious enthusiasm is most intense. In Rabbi Ben Ezra, The Death in the Desert, and The Ring and the Book, there prevails a constant sense of the community of God and man within the realm of goodness; and the world itself, “with its dread machinery of sin and sorrow,” is made to join the great conspiracy, whose purpose is at once the evolution of man’s character, and the realization of the will of God.
“So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too– So, through the thunder comes a human voice Saying, ’O heart I made, a heart beats here! Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself! Thou hast no power nor may’st conceive of mine, But love I gave thee, with myself to love, And thou must love Me who have died for thee.’"[A]
[Footnote A: An Epistle from Karshish.]
But, if we follow Browning’s thoughts in his later and more reflective poems, such as Ferishtah’s Fancies for instance, it will not be possible to hold that the poet altogether realized the importance for both morality and religion alike, of the idea of the actual immanence of God in man. In these poems he seems to have abandoned it in favour of the hypotheses of a more timid philosophy. But, if his religious faith had not been embarrassed by certain dogmatic presuppositions of which he could not free himself, he might have met more successfully some of the difficulties which later reflection revealed to him, and might have been able to set a true value on that “philosophy,” which betrayed his faith while appearing to support it.
But, before trying to criticize the principle by means of which Browning sought to reconcile the moral and religious elements of human life, it may be well to give it a more explicit and careful statement.
What, then, is that principle of unity between the divine and the human? How can we interpret the life of man as God’s life in man, so that man, in attaining the moral ideal proper to his own nature, is at the same time fulfilling ends which may justly be called divine?
The poet, in early life and in late life alike, has one answer to this question–an answer given with the confidence of complete conviction. The meeting-point of God and man is love. Love, in other words, is, for the poet, the supreme principle both of morality and religion. Love, once for all, solves that contradiction between them which, both in theory and in practice, has embarrassed the world for so many ages. Love is the sublimest conception attainable by man; a life inspired by it is the most perfect form of goodness he can conceive; therefore, love is, at the same moment, man’s moral ideal, and the very essence of Godhood. A life actuated by love is divine, whatever other limitations it may have. Such is the perfection and glory of this emotion, when it has been translated into a self-conscious motive, and become the energy of an intelligent will, that it lifts him who owns it to the sublimest height of being.
“For the loving worm within its clod, Were diviner than a loveless God Amid his worlds, I will dare to say."[A]
[Footnote A: Christmas Eve.]
So excellent is this emotion that, if man, who has this power to love, did not find the same power in God, then man would excel Him, and the creature and Creator change parts.
“Do I find love so full in my nature, God’s ultimate gift, That I doubt His own love can compete with it? Here, the parts shift? Here, the creature surpass the Creator,–the end what Began?"[B]
[Footnote B: Saul.]
Not so, says David, and with him no doubt the poet himself. God is Himself the source and fulness of love.
“Tis Thou, God, that givest, ’tis I who receive: In the first is the last, in Thy will is my power to believe. All’s one gift.”
“Would I suffer for him that I love? So would’st Thou,–so wilt Thou! So shall crown Thee, the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown– And Thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up nor down One spot for the creature to stand in!"[A]
[Footnote A: Saul.]
And this same love not only constitutes the nature of God and the moral ideal of man, but it is also the purpose and essence of all created being, both animate and inanimate.
“This world’s no blot for us, Nor blank; it means intensely and means good."[B]
[Footnote B: Fra Lippo Lippi.]
“O world, as God has made it! All is beauty: And knowing this is love, and love is duty, What further may be sought for or declared?”
In this world then “all’s love, yet all’s law.” God permits nothing to break through its universal sway, even the very wickedness and misery of life are brought into the scheme of good, and, when rightly understood, reveal themselves as its means.
“I can believe this dread machinery Of sin and sorrow, would confound me else, Devised–all pain, at most expenditure Of pain by Who devised pain–to evolve, By new machinery in counterpart, The moral qualities of man–how else?– To make him love in turn and be beloved, Creative and self-sacrificing too, And thus eventually Godlike."[C]
[Footnote C: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1375-1383.]
The poet thus brings the natural world, the history of man, and the nature of God, within the limits of the same conception. The idea of love solves for Browning all the enigmas of human life and thought.
“The thing that seems Mere misery, under human schemes, Becomes, regarded by the light Of love, as very near, or quite As good a gift as joy before."[A]
[Footnote A: Easter Day.]
Taking Browning’s work as a whole, it is scarcely possible to deny that this is at once the supreme motive of his art, and the principle on which his moral and religious doctrine rests. He is always strong and convincing when he is dealing with this theme. It was evidently his own deepest conviction, and it gave him the courage to face the evils of the world, and the power as an artist to “contrive his music from its moans.” It plays, in his philosophy of life, the part that Reason fills for Hegel, or the Blind Will for Schopenhauer; and he is as fearless as they are in reducing all phenomena into forms of the activity of his first principle. Love not only gave him firm footing amid the wash and welter of the present world, where time spins fast, life fleets, and all is change, but it made him look forward with joy to “the immortal course"; for, to him, all the universe is love-woven. All life is but treading the “love-way,” and no wanderer can finally lose it. “The way-faring men, though fools, shall not err therein.”
Since love has such an important place in Browning’s theory of life, it is necessary to see what he means by it. For love has had for different individuals, ages and nations, a very different significance; and almost every great poet has given it a different interpretation. And this is not unnatural. For love is a passion which, beginning with youth and the hey-day of the blood, expands with the expanding life, and takes new forms of beauty and goodness at every stage. And this is equally true, whether we speak of the individual or of the human race.
Love is no accident in man’s history, nor a passing emotion. It is rather a constitutive element of man’s nature, fundamental and necessary as his intelligence. And, like everything native and constitutive, it is obedient to the law of evolution, which is the law of man’s being; and it passes, therefore, through ever varying forms. To it–if we may for the moment make a distinction between the theoretical and practical life, or between ideas and their causative potency–must be attributed the constructive power which has built the world of morality, with its intangible but most real relations which bind man to man and age to age. It is the author of the organic institutions which, standing between the individual and the rudeness of nature, awaken in him the need, and give him the desire and the faculty, of attaining higher things than physical satisfaction. Man is meant to act as well as to think, to be virtuous as well as to have knowledge. It is possible that reverence for the intellect may have led men, at times, to attribute the evolution of the race too exclusively to the theoretic consciousness, forgetting that, along with reason, there co-operates a twin power in all that is wisest and best in us, and that a heart which can love, is as essential a pre-condition of all worthy attainment, as an intellect which can see. Love and reason[A] are equally primal powers in man, and they reflect might into each other: for love increases knowledge, and knowledge love. It is their combined power that gives interest and meaning to the facts of life, and transmutes them into a moral and intellectual order. They, together, are lifting man out of the isolation and chaos of subjectivity into membership in a spiritual kingdom, where collision and exclusion are impossible, and all are at once kings and subjects.
[Footnote A: It would be more correct to say the reason that is loving or the love that is rational; for, though there is distinction, there is no dualism.]
And, just as reason is present as a transmuting power in the sensational life of the infancy of the individual and race, so is love present amidst the confused and chaotic activity of the life that knows no law other than its own changing emotions. Both make for order, and both grow with it. Both love and reason have travelled a long way in the history of man. The patriot’s passion for his country, the enthusiasm of pity and helpfulness towards all suffering which marks the man of God, are as far removed from the physical attraction of sex for sex, and the mere liking of the eye and ear, as is the intellectual power of the sage from the vulpine cunning of the savage. “For,” as Emerson well said, “it is a fire that, kindling its first embers in the narrow nook of a private bosom, caught from a wandering spark out of another heart, glows and enlarges until it warms and beams upon multitudes of men and women, upon the universal heart of all, and so lights up the world and all nature with its generous flames.” Both love and reason alike pass through stage after stage, always away from the particularity of selfishness and ignorance, into larger and larger cycles of common truth and goodness, towards the full realization of knowledge and benevolence, which is the inheritance of emancipated man. In this transition, the sensuous play of feeling within man, and the sensitive responses to external stimuli, are made more and more organic to ends which are universal, that is, to spiritual ends. Love, which in its earliest form, seems to be the natural yearning of brute for brute, appearing and disappearing at the suggestion of physical needs, passes into an idealized sentiment, into an emotion of the soul, into a principle of moral activity which manifests itself in a permanent outflow of helpful deeds for man. It represents, when thus sublimated, one side at least of the expansion of the self, which culminates when the world beats in the pulse of the individual, and the joys and sorrows, the defeats and victories of mankind are felt by him as his own. It is no longer dependent merely on the incitement of youth, grace, beauty, whether of body or character; it transcends all limitations of sex and age, and finds objects on which it can spend itself in all that God has made, even in that which has violated its own law of life and become mean and pitiful. It becomes a love of fallen humanity, and an ardour to save it by becoming the conscious and permanent motive of all men. The history of this evolution of love has been written by the poets. Every phase through which this ever-deepening emotion has passed, every form which this primary power has taken in its growth, has received from them its own proper expression. They have made even the grosser instincts lyric with beauty; and, ascending with their theme, they have sung the pure passion of soul for soul, its charm and its strength, its idealism and heroism, up to the point at which, in Browning, it transcends the limits of finite existence, sheds all its earthly vesture, and becomes a spiritual principle of religious aspiration and self-surrender to God.
Browning nowhere shows his native strength more clearly than in his treatment of love. He has touched this world-old theme–which almost every poet has handled, and handled in his highest manner–with that freshness and insight, which is possible only to the inborn originality of genius. Other poets have, in some ways, given to love a more exquisite utterance, and rendered its sweetness, and tenderness, and charm with a lighter grace. It may even be admitted that there are poets whose verses have echoed more faithfully the fervour and intoxication of passion, and who have shown greater power of interpreting it in the light of a mystic idealism. But, in one thing, Browning stands alone. He has given to love a moral significance, a place and power amongst those substantial elements on which rest the dignity of man’s being and the greatness of his destiny, in a way which is, I believe, without example in any other poet. And he has done this by means of that moral and religious earnestness, which pervades all his poetry. The one object of supreme interest to him is the development of the soul, and his penetrative insight revealed to him the power to love as the paramount fact in that development. To love, he repeatedly tells us, is the sole and supreme object of man’s life; it is the one lesson which he has to learn on earth; and, love once learnt, in what way matters little, “it leaves completion in the soul.” Love we dare not, and, indeed, cannot absolutely miss. No man can be absolutely selfish and be man.
“Beneath the veriest ash, there hides a spark of soul Which, quickened by love’s breath, may yet pervade the whole O’ the grey, and, free again, be fire; of worth the same, Howe’er produced, for, great or little, flame is flame."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, xliii.]
Love, once evoked, once admitted into the soul,
“adds worth to worth, As wine enriches blood, and straightway sends it forth, Conquering and to conquer, through all eternity, That’s battle without end."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid. liv.]
This view of the significance of love grew on Browning as his knowledge of man’s nature and destiny became fuller and deeper, while, at the same time, his trust in the intellect became less. Even in Paracelsus he reveals love, not as a sentiment or intoxicating passion, as one might expect from a youthful poet, but as one of the great fundamental “faculties” of man. Love, “blind, oft-failing, half-enlightened, often-chequered trust,” though it be, still makes man
“The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false.”
In that poem, love is definitely lifted by the poet to the level of knowledge. Intellectual gain, apart from love, is folly and futility, worthless for the individual and worthless to the race. “Mind is nothing but disease,” Paracelsus cries in the bitterness of his disappointment, “and natural health is ignorance"; and he asks of the mad poet who “loved too rashly,”
“Are we not halves of one dissevered world, Whom this strange chance unites once more? Part? Never! Till thou the lover, know; and I, the knower, Love–until both are saved."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
And, at the end of the poem, Paracelsus, coming to an understanding with himself as to the gain and loss of life, proclaims with his last strength the truth he had missed throughout his great career, namely, the supreme worth of love.
“I saw Aprile–my Aprile there! And as the poor melodious wretch disburthened His heart, and moaned his weakness in my ear, I learned my own deep error; love’s undoing Taught me the worth of love in man’s estate, And what proportion love should hold with power In his right constitution; love preceding Power, and with much power, always much more love; Love still too straitened in his present means, And earnest for new power to set love free.”
As long as he hated men, or, in his passionate pursuit of truth, was indifferent to their concerns, it was not strange that he saw no good in men and failed to help them. Knowledge without love is not trueknowledge, but folly and weakness.
But, great as is the place given to love in Paracelsus, it is far less than that given to it in the poet’s later works. In Ferishtah’s Fancies and La Saisiaz it is no longer rivalled by knowledge; nor even in Easter Day, where the voice beside the poet proclaiming that
“Life is done, Time ends, Eternity’s begun,”
gives a final pronouncement upon the purposes of the life of man. The world of sense–of beauty and art, of knowledge and truth, are given to man, but none of them satisfy his spirit; they merely sting with hunger for something better. “Deficiency gapes every side,” till love is known as the essence and worth of all things.
“Is this thy final choice? Love is the best? ’Tis somewhat late! And all thou dost enumerate Of power and beauty in the world, The righteousness of love was curled Inextricably round about. Love lay within it and without, To clasp thee,–but in vain! Thy soul Still shrunk from Him who made the whole, Still set deliberate aside His love!–Now take love! Well betide Thy tardy conscience!"[A]
[Footnote A: Easter Day.]
In his later reflective poems, in which he deals with the problems of life in the spirit of a metaphysician, seeking a definite answer to the questions of the intelligence, he declares the reason for his preference of love to knowledge. In La Saisiaz he states that man’s love is God’s too, a spark from His central fire; but man’s knowledge is man’s only. Knowledge is finite, limited and tinged with sense. The truth we reach at best is only truth for us, relative, distorted. We are for ever kept from the fact which is supposed to be given; our intellects play about it; sense and even intellect itself are interposing media, which we must use, and yet, in using them, we only fool ourselves with semblances. The poet has now grown so cautious that he will not declare his own knowledge to be valid for any other man. David Hume could scarcely be more suspicious of the human intellect; nor Berkeley more surely persuaded of the purely subjective nature of its attainments. In fact, the latter relied on human knowledge in a way impossible to Browning, for he regarded it as the language of spirit speaking to spirit. Out of his experience, Browning says,
“There crowds conjecture manifold. But, as knowledge, this comes only,–things may be as I behold Or may not be, but, without me and above me, things there are; I myself am what I know not–ignorance which proves no bar To the knowledge that I am, and, since I am, can recognize What to me is pain and pleasure: this is sure, the rest–surmise."[A]
[Footnote A: La Saisiaz.]
Thought itself, for aught he knows, may be afflicted with a kind of colour-blindness; and he knows no appeal when one affirms “green as grass,” and another contradicts him with “red as grass.” Under such circumstances, it is not strange that Browning should decline to speak except for himself, and that he will
“Nowise dare to play the spokesman for my brothers strong or weak,”
or that he will far less presume to pronounce for God, and pretend that the truth finds utterance from lips of clay–
“Pass off human lisp as echo of the sphere-song out of reach.”
“Have I knowledge? Confounded it shrivels at Wisdom laid bare! Have I forethought? how purblind, how blank, to the Infinite Care!
“And thus looking within and around me, I ever renew (With that stoop of the soul, which in bending upraises it too) The submission of man’s nothing-perfect to God’s all-complete, As by each new obeisance in spirit, I climb to His feet."[B]
[Footnote B: Saul, III.]
But David finds in himself one faculty so supreme in worth that he keeps it in abeyance–
“Lest, insisting to claim and parade in it, wot ye, I worst E’en the Giver in one gift.–Behold, I could love if I durst! But I sink the pretension as fearing a man may o’ertake God’s own speed in the one way of love: I abstain for love’s sake."[A]
[Footnote A: Saul, III.]
This faculty of love, so far from being tainted with finitude, like knowledge; so far from being mere man’s, or a temporary and deceptive power given to man for temporary uses, by a Creator who has another ineffably higher way of loving, as He has of truth, is itself divine. In contrast with the activity of love, Omnipotence itself dwindles into insignificance, and creation sinks into a puny exercise of power. Love, in a word, is the highest good; and, as such, it has all its worth in itself, and gives to all other things what worth they have. God Himself gains the “ineffable crown” by showing love and saving the weak. It is the power divine, the central energy of God’s being.
Browning never forgets this moral or religious quality of love. So pure is this emotion to the poet, “so perfect in whiteness, that it will not take pollution; but, ermine-like, is armed from dishonour by its own soft snow.” In the corruptest hearts, amidst the worst sensuality, love is still a power divine, making for all goodness. Even when it is kindled into flame by an illicit touch, and wars against the life of the family, which is its own product, its worth is supreme. He who has learned to love in any way, has “caught God’s secret.” How he has caught it, whom he loves, whether or not he is loved in return, all these things matter little. The paramount question on which hangs man’s fate is, has he learned to love another, any other, Fifine or Elvire. “She has lost me,” said the unloved lover; “I have gained her. Her soul’s mine.”
The supreme worth of love, the mere emotion itself, however called into activity, secures it against all taint. No one who understands Browning in the least, can accuse him of touching with a rash hand the sanctity of the family; rather he places it on the basis of its own principle, and thereby makes for it the strongest defence. Such love as he speaks of, however irregular its manifestation or sensuous its setting, can never be confounded with lust–"hell’s own blue tint.” It is further removed from lust even than asceticism. It has not even a negative attitude towards the flesh; but finds the flesh to be “stuff for transmuting,” and reduces it to the uses of the spirit. The love which is sung by Browning is more pure and free, and is set in a higher altitude than anything that can be reached by the way of negation. It is a consecration of the undivided self, so that “soul helps not flesh more, than flesh helps soul.” It is not only a spiritual and divine emotion, but it also “shows a heart within blood-tinctured with a veined humanity.”
“Be a God and hold me With a charm! Be a man and hold me With thine arm!
“Teach me, only teach, Love! As I ought I will speak thy speech, Love! Think thy thought–
“Meet, if thou require it, Both demands, Laying flesh and spirit In thy hands."[A]
[Footnote A: A Woman’s Last Word.]
True love is always an infinite giving, which holds nothing back. It is a spendthrift, magnificent in its recklessness, squandering the very essence of the self upon its object, and by doing so, in the end enriching the self beyond all counting. For in loving, the individual becomes re-impersonated in another; the distinction of Me and Thee is swept away, and there pulses in two individuals one warm life.
“If two lives join, there is oft a scar They are one and one with a shadowy third; One near one is too far.
“A moment after, and hands unseen Were hanging the night around us fast; But we knew that a bar was broken between Life and life: we were mixed at last In spite of the mortal screen."[B]
[Footnote B: By the Fireside.]
The throwing down of the limits that wall a man within himself, the mingling of his own deepest interests with those of others, always marks love; be it love of man for maid, parent for child, or patriot for his country. It opens an outlet into the pure air of the world of objects, and enables man to escape from the stuffed and poisonous atmosphere of his narrow self. It is a streaming outwards of the inmost treasures of the spirit, a consecration of its best activities to the welfare of others. And when this is known to be the native quality and quintessence of love, no one can regard it anywhere, or at any time, as out of place. “Prize-lawful or prize-lawless” it is ever a flower, even though it grow, like the love of the hero of Turf and Towers, in slime. Lust, fleshly desire, which has been too often miscalled love, is its worst perversion. Love spends itself for another, and seeks satisfaction only in another’s good. But last uses up others for its own worst purposes, wastes its object, and turns the current of life back inwards, into the slush and filth of selfish pleasure. The distinction between love and its perversion, which is impossible in the naive life of an animal, ought to be clear enough to all, and probably is. Nor should the sexual impulse in human beings be confused with fleshly desire, and treated as if it were merely natural, “the mere lust of life” common to all living things,–"that strive,” as Spinoza put it, “to persevere in existing." For there is no purely natural impulse in man; all that he is, is transfused with spirit, whether he will or no. He cannot act as a mere animal, because he cannot leave his rational nature behind him.
He cannot desire as an innocent brute desires: his desire is always love or lust. We have as little right to say that the wisdom of the sage is nothing but the purblind savagery of a Terra del Fuegian, as we have to assert that love is nothing but a sexual impulse. That impulse rather, when its potency is set free, will show itself, at first confusedly, but with more and more clearness as it expands, to be the yearning of soul for soul. It puts us “in training for a love which knows not sex, nor person, nor partiality; but which seeks virtue and wisdom everywhere, to the end of increasing virtue and wisdom.” The height to which this passion lifts man, is just what makes possible the fall into a sensuality and excess of brutishness, in comparison with which animal life is a paradise of innocence.
If this is clearly recognized, many of the idle questions of casuistry that are sometimes raised regarding sexual love and marriage will cease to trouble. For these questions generally presuppose the lowest possible view of this passion. Browning shows us how to follow with serene security the pure light of the emotion of love, amidst all the confused lawlessness of lustful passion, and through all the intricacies of human character. Love, he thinks, is never illicit, never unwise, except when it is disloyal to itself; it never ruins, but always strives to enrich its object. Bacon quotes with approval a saying “That it is impossible to love, and to be wise.” Browning asserts that it is impossible to love and not be wise. It is a power that, according to the Christian idea which the poet adopts, has infinite goodness for its source, and that, even in its meanest expression, is always feeling its way back to its origin, flowing again into the ocean whence it came.
So sparklingly pure is this passion that it could exorcise the evil and turn old to new, even in the case of Léonce Miranda. At least Browning, in this poem, strives to show that, being true love, though the love of an unclean man for an unclean woman, it was a power at war with the sordid elements of that sordid life. Love has always the same potency, flame is always flame,
“no matter whence flame sprung, From gums and spice, or else from straw and rottenness."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair, lv.]
“Let her but love you, All else you disregard! what else can be? You know how love is incompatible With falsehood–purifies, assimilates All other passions to itself."[B]
[Footnote B: Colombe’s Birthday.]
“Ne’er wrong yourself so far as quote the world And say, love can go unrequited here! You will have blessed him to his whole life’s end– Low passions hindered, baser cares kept back, All goodness cherished where you dwelt–and dwell."[C]
[Footnote C: Ibid.]
But, while love is always a power lifting a man upwards to the level of its own origin from whatever depths of degradation, its greatest potency can reveal itself only in characters intrinsically pure, such as Pompilia and Caponsacchi. Like mercy and every other spiritual gift, it is mightiest in the mighty. In the good and great of the earth love is veritably seen to be God’s own energy;
“Who never is dishonoured in the spark He gave us from His fire of fires, and bade Remember whence it sprang, nor be afraid While that burns on, though all the rest grow dark."[A]
[Footnote A: Any Wife to Any Husband, III.]
It were almost an endless task to recount the ways in which Browning exhibits the moralizing power of love: how it is for him the quintessence of all goodness; the motive, and inspiring cause, of every act in the world that is completely right; and how, on that account, it is the actual working in the man of the ideal of all perfection. This doctrine of love is, in my opinion, the richest vein of pure ore in Browning’s poetry.
But it remains to follow briefly our poet’s treatment of love in another direction–as a principle present, not only in God as creative and redeeming Power, and in man as the highest motive and energy of the moral life, but also in the outer world, in the “material” universe. In the view of the poet, the whole creation is nothing but love incarnate, a pulsation from the divine heart. Love is the source of all law and of all beauty. “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night speaketh knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” And our poet speaks as if he had caught the meaning of the language, and believes that all things speak of love–the love of God.
“I think,” says the heroine of the Inn Album,
“Womanliness means only motherhood; All love begins and ends there,–roams enough, But, having run the circle, rests at home."[A]
[Footnote A: The Inn Album.]
And Browning detects something of this motherhood everywhere. He finds it as
“Some cause Such as is put into a tree, which turns Away from the north wind with what nest it holds."[B]
[Footnote B: The Ring and the Book–Canon Caponsacchi, 1374-1376.]
The Pope–who, if any one, speaks for Browning–declares that
“Brute and bird, reptile and the fly, Ay and, I nothing doubt, even tree, shrub, plant And flower o’ the field, are all in a common pact To worthily defend the trust of trusts, Life from the Ever Living."[C]
[Footnote C: The Ring and the Book–The Pope, 1076-1081.]
“Because of motherhood,” said the minor pope in Ivān Ivānovitch,
“each male Yields to his partner place, sinks proudly in the scale: His strength owned weakness, wit–folly, and courage–fear, Beside the female proved males’s mistress–only here The fox-dam, hunger-pined, will slay the felon sire Who dares assault her whelp.”
The betrayal of the mother’s trust is the “unexampled sin,” which scares the world and shames God.
“I hold that, failing human sense, The very earth had oped, sky fallen, to efface Humanity’s new wrong, motherhood’s first disgrace."[A]
[Footnote A: Ivān Ivānovitch.]
This instinct of love, which binds brute-parent to brute-offspring, is a kind of spiritual law in the natural world: it, like all law, guarantees the continuity and unity of the world, and it is scarcely akin to merely physical attraction. No doubt its basis is physical; it has an organism of flesh and blood for its vehicle and instrument: but mathematical physics cannot explain it, nor can it be detected by chemical tests. Rather, with the poet, we are to regard brute affection as a kind of rude outline of human love; as a law in nature, which, when understood by man and adopted as his rule of conduct, becomes the essence and potency of his moral life.
Thus Browning regards love as an omnipresent good. There is nothing, he tells us in Fifine, which cannot reflect it; even moral putridity becomes phosphorescent, “and sparks from heaven transpierce earth’s coarsest covertures.”
“There is no good of life but love–but love! What else looks good, is some shade flung from love, Love gilds it, gives it worth."[B]
[Footnote B: In a balcony.]
There is no fact which, if seen to the heart, will not prove itself to have love for its purpose, and, therefore, for its substance. And it is on this account that everything finds its place in a kosmos and that there is
“No detail but, in place allotted it, was prime And perfect."[A]
[Footnote A: Fifine at the Fair. xxxi.]
Every event in the history of the world and of man is explicable, as the bursting into new form of this elemental, all-pervading power. The permanence in change of nature, the unity in variety, the strength which clothes itself in beauty, are all manifestations of love. Nature is not merely natural; matter and life’s minute beginnings, are more than they seem. Paracelsus said that he knew and felt
“What God is, what we are, What life is–how God tastes an infinite joy In finite ways–one everlasting bliss, From whom all being emanates, all power Proceeds: in whom is life for evermore, Yet whom existence in its lowest form Includes."[B]
[Footnote B: Paracelsus.]
The scheme of love does not begin with man, he is rather its consummation.
“Whose attributes had here and there Been scattered o’er the visible world before, Asking to be combined, dim fragments meant To be united in some wondrous whole, Imperfect qualities throughout creation, Suggesting some one creature yet to make, Some point where all those scattered rays should meet Convergent in the faculties of man.
“Hints and previsions of which faculties, Are strewn confusedly everywhere about The inferior natures, and all lead up higher, All shape out divinely the superior race, The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false, And man appears at last."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
Power, knowledge, love, all these are found in the world, in which
“All tended to mankind, And, man produced, all has its end thus far: But, in completed man begins anew A tendency to God."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid.]
For man, being intelligent, flings back his light on all that went before,
“Illustrates all the inferior grades, explains Each back step in the circle."[C]
[Footnote C: Ibid. 189.]
He gives voice to the mute significance of Nature, and lets in the light on its blind groping.
“Man, once descried, imprints for ever His presence on all lifeless things.”
And how is this interpretation achieved? By penetrating behind force, power, mechanism, and even intelligence, thinks the poet, to a purpose which is benevolent, a reason which is all embracing and rooted in love. The magnificent failure of Paracelsus came from missing this last step. His transcendent hunger for knowledge was not satisfied, not because human knowledge is essentially an illusion or mind disease, but because his knowledge did not reach the final truth of things, which is love. For love alone makes the heart wise, to know the secret of all being. This is the ultimate hypothesis in the light of which alone man can catch a glimpse of the general direction and intent of the universal movement in the world and man. Dying, Paracelsus, taught by Aprile, caught a glimpse of this elemental “love-force,” in which alone lies the clue to every problem, and the promise of the final satisfaction of the human spirit. Failing in this knowledge, man may know many things, but nothing truly; for all such knowledge stays with outward shows. It is love alone that puts man in the right relation to his fellows and to the world, and removes the distortion which fills life with sorrow, and makes it
“Only a scene Of degradation, ugliness and tears, The record of disgraces best forgotten, A sullen page in human chronicles Fit to erase."[A]
[Footnote A: Paracelsus.]
But in the light of love, man “sees a good in evil, and a hope in ill success,” and recognizes that mankind are
“All with a touch of nobleness, despite Their error, upward tending all though weak; Like plants in mines which never saw the sun, But dream of him, and guess where he may be, And do their best to climb and get to him."[B]
[Footnote B: Ibid.]
“All this I knew not,” adds Paracelsus, “and I failed. Let men take the lesson and press this lamp of love, ’God’s lamp, close to their breasts’; its splendour, soon or late, will pierce the gloom,” and show that the universe is a transparent manifestation of His beneficence.