Chaucer was alive and hale,
No man hath walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse.
For Browning was a portrait-painter by genius and a philosopher only by accident. He was a historian even more than a moralist. He was born with a passion for living in other people’s experiences. So impartially and eagerly did he make himself a voice of the evil as well as the good in human nature that occasionally one has heard people speculating as to whether he can have led so reputable a life as the biographers make one believe. To speculate in this manner, however, is to blunder into forgetfulness of Browning’s own answer, in How it Strikes a Contemporary, to all such calumnies on poets.
Of all the fields of human experience, it was love into which the imagination of Browning most fully entered. It may seem an obvious thing to say about almost any poet, but Browning differed from other poets in being able to express, not only the love of his own heart, but the love of the hearts of all sorts of people. He dramatized every kind of love from the spiritual to the sensual. One might say of him that there never was another poet in whom there was so much of the obsession of love and so little of the obsession of sex. Love was for him the crisis and test of a man’s life. The disreputable lover has his say in Browning’s monologues no less than Count Gismond. Porphyria’s lover, mad and a murderer, lives in our imaginations as brightly as the idealistic lover of Cristina.
The dramatic lyric and monologue in which Browning set forth the varieties of passionate experience was an art-form of immense possibilities, which it was a work of genius to discover. To say that Browning, the inventor of this amazingly fine form, was indifferent to form has always seemed to me the extreme of stupidity. At the same time, its very newness puzzles many readers, even to-day. Some people cannot read Browning without note or comment, because they are unable to throw themselves imaginatively into the “I” of each new poem. Our artistic sense is as yet so little developed that many persons are appalled by the energy of imagination which is demanded of them before they are reborn, as it were, into the setting of his dramatic studies. Professor Phelps’s book should be of especial service to such readers, because it will train them in the right method of approach to Browning’s best work. It is a very admirable essay in popular literary interpretation. One is astonished by its insight even more than by its recurrent banality. There are sentences that will make the fastidious shrink, such as:—