While Browning thus, in Nietzsche’s phrase, said “Yes” to many sides of existence which his Romantic predecessors repudiated or ignored, he had some very definite limitations of his own. He gathered into his verse crowded regions of experience which they neglected; but some very glorious avenues of poetry pursued by them he refused to explore. Himself the most ardent believer in the supernatural among all the great poets of his time, the supernatural, as such, has hardly any explicit place in his poetry. To the eternal beauty of myth and folk-lore,—dream-palaces “never built at all and therefore built for ever,”—all that province of the poetical realm which in the memorable partition of 1797 Coleridge had taken for his own, splendidly emulated by Shelley and by Keats, Browning the Platonist maintained on the whole the attitude of the utilitarian man of facts. “Fairy-poetry,” he agreed with Elizabeth Barrett in 1845-46, was “impossible in the days of steam.” With a faith in a transcendent divine world as assured as Dante’s or Milton’s, he did not aspire to “pass the flaming bounds of Space or Time,” or “to possess the sun and stars.” No reader of Gerard de Lairesse at one end of his career, or of the vision of Paracelsus at the other, or Childe Roland in the middle, can mistake the capacity; but habit is more trustworthy than an occasional tour de force; and Browning’s imagination worked freely only when it bodied forth a life in accord with the waking experience of his own day. “A poet never dreams,” said his philosophical Don Juan, “we prose folk always do”; and the epigram brilliantly announced the character of Browning’s poetic world,—the world of prose illuminated through and through in every cranny and crevice by the keenest and most adventurous of exploring intellects.
In physical organisation Browning’s endowment was decidedly of the kind which prompts men to “accept the universe” with joyful alacrity. Like his contemporary Victor Hugo, he was, after all reserves have been made, from first to last one of the healthiest and heartiest of men. If he lacked the burly stature and bovine appetite with which young Hugo a little scandalised the delicate sensibilities of French Romanticism, he certainly “came eating and drinking,” and amply equipped with nerve and muscle, activity, accomplishment, social instinct, and savoir faire. The isolating loneliness of genius was checkmated by a profusion of the talents which put men en rapport with their kind. The reader of his biography is apt to miss in it the signs of that heroic or idealist detachment which he was never weary of extolling in his verse. He is the poet par excellence of the glory of failure and dissatisfaction: but his life was, in the main, that of one who succeeded and who was satisfied with his success. In the vast bulk of his writings we look in vain for the “broken arc,” the “half-told tale,” and it is characteristic that he never revised. Even after the great sorrow of his life, the mood of Prospice, though it may have underlain all his other moods, did not suppress or transform them; he “lived in the world and loved earth’s way,” and however assured that this earth is not his only sphere, did not wish