he had said in Pauline, and the soul that ceased to advance ceased for Browning, in his most habitual mood, to exist. The “infinity” of the soul was not so much a gift as a destiny, a power of hungering for ever after an ideal completeness which it was indefinitely to pursue and to approach, but not to reach. Far from having to await a remote emancipation to become completely itself, the soul’s supremest life was in its hours of heroic stress, when it kept some dragon of unbelief quiet underfoot, like Michael,
“Who stands calm, just because he feels it writhe.”
It was at this point that the athletic energy of Browning’s nature told most palpably upon the complexion of his thought. It did not affect its substance, but it altered the bearing of the parts, giving added weight to all its mundane and positive elements. It gave value to every challenging obstruction akin to that which allured him to every angular and broken surface, to all the “evil” which balks our easy perception of “good." Above all, by idealising effort, it created a new ethical end which every strenuous spirit could not merely strive after but fulfil, every day of its mortal life; and thus virtually transferred the focus of interest and importance from “the next world’s reward and repose” to the vital “struggles in this.”
[Footnote 127: Bishop Blougram.]
Browning’s characteristic conception of the nature and destiny of man was thus not a compact and consistent system, but a group of intuitions nourished from widely different regions of soul and sense, and undergoing, like the face of a great actor, striking changes of expression without material change of feature under the changing incidence of stress and glow. The ultimate gist of his teaching was presented through the medium of conceptions proper to another school of thought, which, like a cryptogram, convey one meaning but express another, He had to work with categories like finite and infinite, which the atomic habits of his mind thrust into exclusive opposition; whereas the profoundest thing that he had to say was that the “infinite” has to be achieved in and through the finite, that just the most definitely outlined action, the most individual purpose, the most sharply expressive thought, the most intense and personal passion, are the points or saliency in life which most surely catch the radiance of eternity they break. The white light was “blank” until shattered by refraction; and Browning is less Browning when he glories in its unbroken purity than when he rejoices in the prism, whose obstruction alone
The secret of a sunbeam, breaks its light
Into the jewelled bow from blankest white."
[Footnote 128: Deaf and Dumb.]
We have now to watch Browning’s efforts to interpret this profound and intimate persuasion of his in terms of the various conceptions at his disposal.