In prose, Arnold attains highest rank as a critic of literature. His culture, the breadth of his literary sympathies, his scientific analyses, and his lucid literary style make his critical works the greatest of his age. He has a light, rather fanciful, humor, which gives snap and spice to his style. He is also a master of irony, which is galling to an opponent. He himself never loses his suavity or good breeding. Arnold’s prose style is as far removed from Carlyle’s as the calm simplicity of the Greeks is from the powerful passion of the Vikings. The ornament and poetic richness of Ruskin’s style are also missing in Arnold’s. His style has a classic purity and refinement. He has a terseness, a crystalline clearness, and a precision that have been excelled in the works of few even of the greatest masters of English prose.
[Illustration: ROBERT BROWNING. From the painting by G. F. Watts, National Portrait Gallery.]
Life.—The long and peaceful lives of Browning and Tennyson, the two most eminent poets of the Victorian age, are in marked contrast to the short and troubled careers of Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
Robert Browning’s life was uneventful but happy. He inherited a magnificent physique and constitution from his father, who never knew a day’s illness. With such health, Robert Browning felt a keen relish for physical existence and a robust joyousness in all kinds of activity. Late in life he wrote, in the poem At the Mermaid:—
“Have you found your life distasteful?
My life did, and does, smack sweet.
* * * * *
I find earth not gray but rosy,
Heaven not grim but fair of hue.
Do I stoop? I pluck a posy.
Do I stand and stare? All’s blue.”
Again, in Saul, he burst forth with the lines:—
“How good is man’s life, the
mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses forever in joy?”
These lines, vibrant with life and joy, could not have been written by a man of failing vitality or physical weakness.
Robert Browning was born in 1812 at Camberwell, whose slopes overlook the smoky chimneys of London. In this beautiful suburb he spent his early years in the companionship of a brother and a sister. A highly gifted father and a musical mother assisted intelligently in the development of their children. Browning’s education was conducted mainly under his father’s eye. The boy attended neither a large school nor a college. After he had passed from the hands of tutors, he spent some time in travel, and was wont to call Italy his university. Although his training was received in an irregular way, his scholarship cannot be doubted by the student of his poetry.
He early determined to devote his life to poetry, and his father wisely refrained from interfering with his son’s ambitions.