Universal Brotherhood – January 1898

THEOSOPHY IN THE POETS: BROWNING — Katharine Hillard

II. — BROWNING.

One would like to inscribe Shakespeare's name after Dante's in our list, but that would be hardly fair to a poet whose genius is so essentially dramatic that we are not at liberty to take any of the opinions uttered by his characters as his own. Moreover, while Dante was essentially a mystic, and born at a time when that element pervaded both the prose and poetry of the age, and when its language was frequently used to cover ideas that the Church would otherwise have smothered at their birth, Shakespeare, on the contrary, lived in a time of frank materialism, when the worship of the body had succeeded to the asceticism of the Middle Ages, and life had become full of luxury and the pleasures of the senses. And while Dante was one of the most subjective of poets, and put himself into every line of his poetry so that you come to know as a personal friend the man who had seen the vision of Heaven and Hell, Shakespeare was so intensely objective that we know little of his personality, of his own idiosyncrasies and convictions. Only in the sonnets does he become autobiographic, but those unfold a tale of misplaced love and of the treachery of a friend, and their scope hardly includes the subject matter of religious ideas and beliefs.

That Shakespeare was acquainted with the doctrine of metempsychosis we know by his reference to it in Twelfth Night, but we have no right to believe that he either rejected or shared the opinions of Malvolio. When the Clown professes to think Malvolio mad, he asks him, as a test of his lunacy, "What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild-fowl?" — "That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird," answers Malvolio. "What thinkest thou of his opinion?" — "I think nobly of the soul and in no way approve his opinion," replies the steward, whereupon he is told that he shall remain in darkness till he hold the opinion of Pythagoras, and fear to kill a woodcock, lest he dispossess the soul of his grandmother.

When we come to Browning, however, we find that many of his ideas can really be called theosophic, there being, in spite of Browning's strongly dramatic faculty, a subjective quality in all his writings. The mode of thought of all his personages is similar, the expression of their thought is almost identical, that is, they all use the same turns of speech that we have learned to call Browning-esque. His general tendency is optimistic, and, as Prof. Dowden once said, the mainspring of his poetry may be said to be Passion, in contrast to that of Tennyson's, which is Duty. The one thing that Browning cannot pardon is weakness, and he shows an agreement with the theosophic idea that the thought is more important than the act, in his poem of The Statue and the Bust (1) where his lovers fail to accomplish their guilty purpose solely through indecision and want of energy. They lost the counter they had staked as surely as if it had been lawful coin,

"And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost,
Is the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin,
Though the end in sight was a crime,"

says the poet. This is the moral of much of his poetry, and the strength that he exalts he feels sure is given for noble uses, and not in vain. So in Paracelsus he writes:

     "Be sure that God
Ne'er dooms to waste the strength he deigns impart!
Ask the geier eagle why she stoops at once
Into the vast and unexplored abyss,
What full-grown power informs her from the first,
Why she not marvels, strenuously beating
The silent, boundless regions of the sky!
Be sure they sleep not whom God needs!"

As for the doctrine of reincarnation, Browning touches upon it several times, in Paracelsus, his earliest poem of consequence, and elsewhere. It is Paracelsus who says:

     "At times I almost dream
I too have spent a life the sage's way,
And tread once more familiar paths.
     Perchance
I perished in an arrogant self-reliance
Ages ago; and in that act, a prayer
For one more chance went up so earnest, so
Instinct with better light let in by death,
That life was blotted out — not so completely
But scattered wrecks enough of it remain,
Dim memories, as now, when once more seems
The goal in sight again."

In the poem called Old Pictures in Florence, we have the same note touched, in a more uncertain way.

"There's a fancy some lean to and others hate,
That when this life is ended, begins
New work for the soul in another state,
Where it strives and gets weary, loses and wins:
Where the strong and the weak, this world's congeries.
Repeat in large what they practiced in small,
Through life after life in unlimited series;
Only the scale's to be changed, that's all."

And in his Christina, the poet, speaking of the supreme moments of existence when a sudden flash of intuition seems to show the true meaning and purpose of life, writes:

"Doubt you if in some such moment,
As she fixed me, she felt clearly,
Ages past the soul existed,
Here an age 'tis resting merely,
And hence fleets again for ages."

its sole end in this life being to unite itself with some kindred soul. Again in his own person, the poet expresses in the poem called La Saisiaz what he says indeed in many other places, the conviction that this life alone can in no sense satisfy the demands of man's soul, that no conception of Infinite Love and Power can stand side by side with a belief in our mortality.

"Only grant a second life; I acquiesce
In this present life as failure, count misfortune's worst assaults
Triumph not defeat, assured that loss so much the more exalts
Gain about to be. . . .
Only grant my soul may carry high through death her cup unspilled."

And over and over again in his poems Browning declares his feeling that no process of reasoning is required to convince us that "mind" and "soul" are two things. Mind he compares to an engineer (in the poem called With Charles Avison) laying a bridge stone by stone with careful measuring and adjustment of each to each. "So works Mind" says the poet, and with facts, more or less.

"Builds up our solid knowledge: all the same,
Underneath rolls what Mind may hide, not tame,
An element which works beyond our guess,
Soul, the unsounded sea."

All we can really know in this life, he says, are the changes in our own consciousness, all else is, after all, mere conjecture and surmise, and this knowledge can never be obtained from without, but must be sought within. This is the teaching of Paracelsus in Browning's poem of that name, and he saw no reason in after life to abjure the conviction of his youth.

"There is an inmost centre in us all,
Where truth abides in fulness; and around
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in.
This perfect, clear perception — which is truth.
. . . . And to KNOW
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendor may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without."

Taken altogether, this poem of Paracelsus written in the full tide of Browning's poetic power, and before he had acquired all the mannerisms that make much of his later writing so difficult, and so repellent, is full of fine passages that will repay the searcher for theosophic poetry. Such is the magnificent description in Part A of the evolution of the universe, culminating in man. It is too long to quote here, but how fine are the closing lines describing man as the seal put on life,

— "man once descried, imprints forever,
His presence on all lifeless things. . . .
But in completed man begins anew
A tendency to God. Prognostics told
Man's near approach; so in man's self arise
August anticipations, symbols, types
Of a dim splendor ever on before.
In that eternal circle life pursues.
For men . . . begin to grow too great
For narrow creeds of right and wrong, which fade
Before the unmeasured thirst for good: while peace
Rises within them ever more and more.
Such men are even now upon the earth,
Serene amid the haIf-formed creatures round
Who should be saved by them, and joined with them."

The lines underlined might have been written by a Disciple of the Masters. That Browning has been in some measure a student of occultism, his many references, not only to the works of Paracelsus, but to those of Cornelius Agrippa, and to many another "quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore," amply testify. He stoutly refused to join in his wife's devotion to spiritualism, and his Sludge the Medium, is a terrific attack upon its professors and their arguments. Nevertheless he wrote a wonderful poem called Mesmerism, which shows how perfectly he understood the method of what we now prefer to call "hypnotism," and "suggestion," and in his very last book he has four curious poems called Bad Dreams, which do not amount to much except for this touch:

"Sleep leaves a door on hinge
Whence soul, ere our flesh suspect.
Is off and away."

But after all, putting aside all questions of belief, the best thing about Browning is his splendid courage, the quality of which stirs other souls like the sound of a silver trumpet, and rouses all their latent fire. "Do, and nowise dream!" he says, and this resolute bravery and fortitude was the outcome of what is generally called his optimism, but is really his absolute trust in the Divine goodness and power. The last poem of his last book, published on the very day he died, shows the secret of his confident attitude. "It looks almost like bragging to say this," he said to his sister, when he read her the proof, shortly before his death, "but it's the simple truth, and as it's true it shall stand." So he called himself

"One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,
     Never doubted clouds would break.
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
     Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

It is this strong conviction of the ultimate victory of good, this heroic defiance of misfortune and sorrow, together with his warm heart and his love for all mankind that has so endeared him to the multitude of readers who have known how to sift his precious grains of wheat from out of the bushels of chaff beneath which it seemed his pleasure in later days to conceal them. Except in his last book of all, Asolando, where there is more of the lyric quality than Browning had displayed for many years. But generally speaking, his best poetry was written before 1869.

"Nothing can be as it has been before;
     Better, so call it, only not the same.
To draw one beauty into our heart's core,
     And keep it changeless! such our claim;
So answered, — Nevermore!
Simple? Why this is the old woe o' the world;
     Tune to whose rise and fall we live and die.
Rise with it then! Rejoice that man is hurled
     From change to change unceasingly,
His soul's wings never furled!"

This idea of incessant change, ever tending towards the perfecting of man's soul, is the cornerstone of Browning's religion; "my own hope is," he says,

      "a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
     That after Last, returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched;
     That what began best can't end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accursed."

"Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure," he says elsewhere.

"He fixed thee 'mid this dance
     Of plastic circumstance,
     This Present, thou forsooth, would fain arrest;
     Machinery just meant
     To give thy soul its bent.
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed."

Browning was an accomplished musician, and many are the analogies he draws from the laws of harmony. There is nowhere, among all his poems relating to music, any one more beautiful than that called Abt Vogler. The musician has been extemporizing upon the instrument he himself invented, and it saddens him at first to think that nothing will remain of the beautiful palace of music he has reared, and then comes this magnificent outburst, with which I will conclude this brief sketch of Browning's philosophy of religion.

"Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
     Builder and maker thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
     Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
     The evil is null, is naught, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil so much good more;
     On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round.
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
     Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist,
     When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
     The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard,
     Enough that he heard it once; we shall hear it by and by.
And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence
     For the fulness of the days? Have we withered or agonized?
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue thence?
     Why rushed the discords in but that harmony should be prized?
Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear,
     Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe:
But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
     The rest may reason and welcome: 'tis we musicians know."

FOOTNOTE:

1. And in Saul: — "Tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would do!" (return to text)


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