Not hear? When noise
was everywhere! it tolled
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears,
Of all the lost adventurers my peers—
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.
There they stood, ranged along
the hillside, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set.
And blew. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”
There, if anywhere in literature, is the summit of tragic and triumphant music. There, it seems to me, is as profound and imaginative expression of the heroic spirit as is to be found in the English language.
To belittle Browning as an artist after such a poem is to blaspheme against art. To belittle him as an optimist is to play the fool with words. Browning was an optimist only in the sense that he believed in what Stevenson called “the ultimate decency of things,” and that he believed in the capacity of the heroic spirit to face any test devised for it by inquisitors or devils. He was not defiant in a fine attitude like Byron. His defiance was rather a form of magnanimity. He is said, on Robert Buchanan’s authority, to have thundered “No,” when in his later years he was asked if he were a Christian. But his defiance was the defiance of a Christian, the dauntlessness of a knight of the Holy Ghost. Perhaps it is that he was more Christian than the Christians. Like the Pope in The Ring and the Book, he loathed the association of Christianity with respectability. Some readers are bewildered by his respectability in trivial things, such as dress, into failing to see his hatred of respectability when accepted as a standard in spiritual things. He is more sympathetic towards the disreputable suicides in Apparent Failure than towards the vacillating and respectable lovers in The Statue and the Bust. There was at least a hint of heroism in the last madness of the doomed men. Browning again and again protests, as Blake had done earlier, against the mean moral values of his age. Energy to him as to Blake meant endless delight, and especially those two great energies of the spirit—love and heroism. For, though his work is not a philosophic expression of moral ideas, it is an imaginative expression of moral ideas, as a result of which he is, above all, the poet of lovers and heroes. Imagination is a caged bird in these days; with Browning it was a soaring eagle. In some ways Mr. Conrad’s is the most heroic imagination in contemporary literature. But he does not take this round globe of light and darkness into his purview as Browning did. The whole earth is to him shadowed with futility. Browning was too lyrical to resign himself to the shadows. He saw the earth through the eyes of a lover till