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BROWNING'S USE OF HISTORY.
Browning and Tennyson have published verse chiefly, and History as ordinarily written is essentially prose. Indeed the first appearance of prose in literature is where the epic and lyric break down to quiet narrative, when Homer makes room for Herodotus and Æschylus for Thucydides. A poet's treatment of history must therefore be judged by the canons of his art. He creates for us a life or an epoch, illuminating some coil and cluster of human activities by the rhythmic speech which discloses to us motive and emotion and reveals the hidden laws of being, from which there is for none of us, escape.
Hence to the poet, the past is either like the valley of dry bones into which Ezekiel came, the breath of life upon his lips, or a world of mere suggestions out of which he shapes images, which corresponding exactly to no realities of history are yet ofter truer than the unilluminated fact; more truthful just as certain experiments of the laboratory are more truthful than the phenomena of nature unassisted, in that they bring us nearer to the laws for which all science seeks.
Now in his treatment of historic fact Mr. Browning was both prophet and creator. Sometimes, for instance in King Victor and King Charles he simply raised forgotten dead to life; sometimes in the glow of his powerful mind the miracle of the fiery furnace is wrought before our eyes and there appears a form nobler and diviner than any committed to the flames. Balaustion for example is such an apparition amid the realities of ruined Athens; an apparition serenely (why should I shrink from the Hellenic word), divinely beautiful. And only by her intervention is it possible for the Poet to place Aristophanes before us in a radiance sufficient to disclose the startling convolutions of his character. This poetic glorification of historic fact compares with the dull and lustreless chronicle as the diamond compares with the common forms of carbon; this is fact wrought to its highest potency, no longer inert and opaque but alive with light and flashing with ever new suggestion.
When Mr. Browning aimed at reproduction inerely, he spared no pains to discover the exact reality; musty chronicles and forgotten memoirs were studied with antiquarian zest and every detail noted. But his interest in history was in the disclosure and
evelopment of character; to use his own words he counted nothing worthy of study but the incidents in the history of a soul. Yet he was too great a scholar, too deep a thinker, and too much the child of his age not to perceive the correlation of souls, the imprisonment of men in their environment, the clash of individual life with stubborn and hostile circumstance; too great an artist not to take advantage of the immense variety of back-ground which history would furnish for his men and women, caught in the hour and article of self-revelation.
So we have Italy presented in Sordello, in Luria, in the Soul's Tragedy, in the Ring and the Book; Athens and Hellenic life in Balaustion and Aristophanes with a richness of detail, a fulness of learning, a minuteness of erudite knowledge which surprises and delights, and all held, for the most part, in due subordination to the characters which live and move before us.
Strafford is remarkable for the care bestowed upon each person of the drama ; Paracelsus on the other hand for the skill with which the heart of the real man's mystery has been plucked out and glorified. In the English play all that could heighten the spectator's interest in character or plot has been discovered and made use of; if it fails to be history illuminated and transformed as a historic drama ought to be, it is because the central figures are hardly of colossal mould. Yet possibly it is the perspective of the historian which makes them seem so great and the Poet has after all, only reduced them to life size.
Mr. Browning has been cosmopolitan and catholic in his selection of historical characters, and singularly free from bias and prejudice of every kind. And there again the Poet proves himself more truthful than the partisan historian. Take for instance Mr. Browning's delineation of Italian character and contrast it with the paradox expounded so brilliantly in Lord Macaulay's Essay upon Machiavelli. The land of Dante and Vittoria Colonna, of Manzoni and Silvio Pellico and Mazzini has found no nobler defence than in the immortal picture of Antonio Pignatelli, called Innocent XII. Though I must speak with hesitation here, since the Encyclopedia Britannica refers to Mr. Browning's portrait as a truthful and powerful sketch of Innocent XI., who was quite another man, though also great and good. For all that, the sketch is a faithful portrait of a great and pious pope who lived a very noble life and stood for Christ among his fellow-men. Mr. Browning himself spoke too much perhaps through his characters, making them give his thought rather than their own; he possesses them when he ought to be possessed by them: a defect which is especially noticeable in a character taken from the historic world. But making every abatement which the truth requires, one may say without extravagance that no writer of our age has known more about the men and times of which he gave us pictures. Again there are indications everywhere but especially in the minor poems, of a knowledge, rich and various of which his published work is only the outer crust, however rich in precious things. Who that studies the picture of Napoleon given us in the Incident in the French Camp does not wish that we had a Napoleon in Exile by the same master hand? But it was characteristic of Mr. Browning to shun the over-treated figures of history. These did not seem to him to be the makers of epochs after all.
“ God's “puppets best and worst are we; there are no last nor first.”.