HANDBOOK TO BROWNING’S WORKS
THE NATURE OF MR. BROWNING’S GENIUS.
If we were called upon to describe Mr. Browning’s poetic genius in one phrase, we should say it consisted of an almost unlimited power of imagination exerted upon real things; but we should have to explain that with Mr. Browning the real includes everything which a human being can think or feel, and that he is realistic only in the sense of being never visionary; he never deals with those vague and incoherent fancies, so attractive to some minds, which we speak of as coming only from the poet’s brain. He imagines vividly because he observes keenly and also feels strongly; and this vividness of his nature puts him in equal sympathy with the real and the ideal—with the seen and the unseen. The one is as living to him as the other.
His treatment of visible and of invisible realities constitutes him respectively a dramatic and a metaphysical poet; but, as the two kinds of reality are inseparable in human life, so are the corresponding qualities inseparable in Mr. Browning’s work. The dramatic activity of his genius always includes the metaphysical. His genius always shows itself as dramatic and metaphysical at the same time.
Mr. Browning’s genius is dramatic because it always expresses itself in the forms of real life, in the supposed experiences of men and women. These men and women are usually in a state of mental disturbance or conflict; indeed, they think much more than they act. But their thinking tends habitually to a practical result; and it keeps up our sense of their reality by clothing itself always in the most practical and picturesque language which thought can assume. It has been urged that he does not sink himself in his characters as a completely dramatic writer should; and this argument must stand for what it is worth. His personality may in some degree be constructed from his works: it is, I think, generally admitted, that that of Shakespeare cannot; and in so far as this is the test of a complete dramatist, Mr. Browning fails of being one. He does not sink himself in his men and women, for his sympathy with them is too active to admit of it. He not only describes their different modes of being, but defends them from their own point of view; and it is natural that he should often select for this treatment characters with which he is already disposed to sympathize. But his women are no less living and no less distinctive than his men; and he sinks his individuality at all times enough to interest us in the characters which are not akin to his own as much as in those which are. Even if it were otherwise, if his men and women were all variations of himself, as imagined under differences of sex, of age, of training, or of condition, he would still be dramatic in this essential quality, the only one which bears on our contention: that everything which, as a poet, he thinks or feels, comes from him in a dramatic, that is to say, a completely living form.