Henry James ever retained a beautiful detachment of intellect, even after his conversion. He was a wit as well as an enthusiast. The Middle Years, indeed, is precious in every page for its wit as well as for its confessional raptures. It may be objected that Henry James’s wit is only a new form of the old-fashioned periphrasis. He might be described as the last of the periphrastic humorists. At the same time, if ever in any book there was to be found the free play of an original genius—a genius however limited and even little—it is surely in the autobiography of Henry James. Those who can read it at all will read it with shining eyes.
BROWNING: THE POET OF LOVE
Browning’s reputation has not yet risen again beyond a half-tide. The fact that two books about him were published during the war, however, suggests that there is a revival of interest in his work. It would have been surprising if this had not been so. He is one of the poets who inspire confidence at a time when all the devils are loosed out of Hell. Browning was the great challenger of the multitude of devils. He did not achieve his optimism by ignoring Satan, but by defying him. His courage was not merely of the stomach, but of the daring imagination. There is no more detestable sign of literary humbug than the pretence that Browning was an optimist simply because he did not experience sorrow and indigestion as other people do. I do not mean to deny that he, enjoyed good health. As Professor Phelps, of Yale, says in a recent book, Robert Browning: How to Know Him:—
He had a truly wonderful digestion: it was his firm belief that one should eat only what one really enjoyed, desire being the infallible sign that the food was healthful. “My father was a man of bonne fourchette,” said Barett Browning to me “he was not very fond of meat, but liked all kinds of Italian dishes, especially with rich sauces. He always ate freely of rich and delicate things. He would make a whole meal off mayonnaise.”
Upon which the American professor comments with ingenuous humour of a kind rare in professors in this hemisphere:—
It is pleasant to remember
that Emerson, the other great optimist
of the century, used to eat pie for breakfast.
The man who does not suffer from pie will hardly suffer from pessimism; but, as Professor Phelps insists, Browning faced greater terrors than pie for breakfast, and his philosophy did not flinch. There was no other English writer of the nineteenth century who to the same degree made all human experiences his own. His is poems are not poems about little children who win good-conduct prizes. They are poems of the agonies of life, poems about tragic severance, poems about failure. They range through the virtues and the vices with the magnificent boldness of Dostoevsky’s