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lous Acatholic, as by a courteous euphemism we are called in the preface to this work, may not gaze on this picture with as profound interest as the most devout worshipper of the Virgin. Of that worship, there is in the design not a shadow of a shade; the adoration is all centred on the child Jesus. Our own illustrated Bibles (Mr. Longman's or Mr. Murray's) may, without fear, transfer it to their pages.
The age of this picture M. de Rossi labours to raise, if not to that of the Apostles, to a period closely bordering upon it. It cannot at any rate be later than the Antonines. Into one of our author's arguments we fully enter. .Its rare beauty shows a time when Roman art was yet in its prime, before it had begun to degenerate into that rude and coarse conception and execution which gradually, during the third and fourth centuries, darkened towards the Byzantine. We are the last to doubt that the accomplished student of early Christian art, with the countless specimens which are now multiplying around him, collected, and examined and compared with such eager and emulous zeal, may acquire that fine perception which can assign probable dates for their execution. Yet there must still be limits to this critical divination; some uncertainty will cleave to the soundest judgment. The individual artist may be later than his age, as he may be before his age. The sense of beauty and the skill
, as they rose to precocious life, so may still linger in some chosen votaries.
Where the periods are defined, and marked by great names, each with his distinctive character; where the advance or degradation may be traced through numerous and undoubted examples, as in the history of Greek sculpture or Italian painting, we receive the decisions of the wise without mistrust. But it seems far more questionable, whether any taste however sensitive, any knowledge however extensive, can peremptorily discriminate between the Flavian age and the age of the Antonines, or even that of the immediate successors of the Antonines, especially in Christian art, of which, after all, the examples are comparatively few, and far from perfect; and where the employment of Pagan artists may in some cases have continued longer, in others been sooner proscribed and fallen into desuetude.
But while we treat M. de Rossi's artistic argument with much respect, he must permit us to say that his historical argument for the antiquity of these paintings, however ingenious, seems to us utterly worthless. It rests on very doubtful legend, on the forced association of names, arbitrarily brought together. Our doubts would require more room than his statement, for every
step in his reasoning seems to us liable to doubt; there is hardly an assumption which our critical spirit would grant; and the whole is as inconclusive as the separate steps.
We know not that we can better part with M. de Rossi (we would part with him on the friendliest terms) than with the old Spanish salutation, . May you live a thousand years.' Certainly, considering the extent and variety of his undertakings, the magnificent scale on which those undertakings are conducted, the narrow three score years and ten, to which it has pleased Divine Providence to contract the life of man, that span would seem to offer but insufficient space for the full accomplishment of his ambitious schemes.
ART. III.-1. Dramatis Personce. London, 1864.
2. Robert Browning's Poems. 3 Vols. London, 1863. AT
T a time like the present, when the tendency is for minds
to grow more and more alike, all thinking the same thoughts with the regularity of Wordsworth's forty cattle feeding as one; when for a single original poet, like Mr. Tennyson, we have a hundred tuneful echoes, and one popular novelist has his scores of imitators, we think that a writer of Mr. Browning's powers ought to be better understood than he is, and the discrepancy lessened betwixt what is known of him by the few, and what is thought of him by the many. He has qualities such as should be cherished by the age we live in, for it needs them. His poetry ought to be taken as a tonic. He grinds no mere hand-organ or music-box of pretty tunes; he does not try to attract the multitude with the scarlet dazzle of poppies in his corn; he is not a poet of similes, who continually makes comparisons which are the mere play of fancy; he has nothing of the ordinary technique of poetry; he has felt himself driven, somewhat consciously, to the opposite course of using, as much as possible, the commonest forms of speech. The language of his verse is generally as sturdy as is the prose of Swift or De Foe. Certainly these homely words are to be found in singular places, saying strange things now and again,—many things not easily understood, and many which good taste must condemn,but the poetry is full, nevertheless, of hearty English character. In his process of thinking, he is the exact reverse of those writers who are for making the most of their subject in expression. Mr. Browning can never concentrate sufficiently. The current opinion of his poetry, outside the circle of the
few who have thoroughly studied the subject, and met with their reward, would be somewhat nearer the mark, supposing the poet had only written his poem called “Sordello. That work has all the poet's faults, and all the defects of
It has only a few of the merits. Flung down, as it was, to make readers stumble on the threshold of their acquaintanceship with a new poet, the obstacle has remained in memory, and in the minds of many has influenced, if not determined, their estimate of all that he has since written. • Sordello' has to answer for much of its author's lengthened unpopularity. It revels in a mental motion swift as that of the Irishman who said with him it was a word and a blow, and the blow came first. So with “Sordello;' we get blow after blow, and shock after shock, without knowing what these are for. There is flash after flash of a lightning energy, and all is dark again, before we have caught the object that should have been illuminated.
The author certainly was not one of the serene creators of immortal things' when he wrote “Sordello.' It has not the look of a finished poem. It rather represents the confusion of the mental workshop, with the poem in the making and the poet hard at it; the whole poetic process instead of the pure result. . Even then it sometimes looks as though the poet were tearing a poem to pieces, and flinging the reader jewels by the lapful, rather than creating a work of art, and giving his gems a worthy setting. The author may know his own meaning, but it is not conveyed to us. Mr. Browning tells us that there is little worth study in ‘Sordello,' except the incidents in the development of a soul. But for our part we cannot see how 'Sordello' the poet is evolved from the incidents of the story. The inner life of the poet, and the outer movements of the history, remain apart by hundreds of years; are never combined. The poetic experience has much more of modern meaning than of ancient application. Whatever the “Sordello' of Italian story may have been, the poet of this work has the mark of a nineteenth century creation. We hold the poem to have been an imperfect conception, fatally flawed from the first. The author has, in the latest edition, endeavoured to complete his work ; tried, as it were, to drop a keystone between the two sides of an imperfect arch, by means of headlines to the pages, in spite of which few readers will ever be able to cross the arch. Mr. Browning will, after all, have to give up Sordello' to the rage of the irritated reader, as Nelson gave up his jacket when pursued by the bear, and rest content with the knowledge that he is now safely past it by
some twenty-five years. He can afford to offer as a sacrifice that serves a purpose a poem which was written by an immature dramatist, who had strayed into narrative poetry by mistake, and erred in trying to obtain certain modern reflections from an uncertain story of the past.
Next to Sordello,' which is an obstacle of the poet's own making, the greatest hindrance to a proper appreciation of Mr. Browning appears to us to lie in the critical treatment his poetry bas hitherto received. It has been dealt with just as though the writer had been "altogether such an one' as the rest of the poets of this century; and half the objections that have been urged, half the faults that have been discovered, really resolve themselves into a complaint that he is not a subjective poet, but something quite different. Now the mass of our nineteenth century poetry has been mainly subjective. Very few are the characters in its whole range to which we could point as uncoloured by the personality of the writer. We seem to have lost the secret of the old dramatists, who could make plays that were peopled with real human beings, and pour forth such a prodigality of what we may call physical life. The objective poetry of simple description, broad handling, and portraiture at first sight, seems to have passed away with Scott. Indeed, it almost looks as though in our time the poetic mind was divided against itself. Instead of great poets, we have poets and novelists, the latter employing themselves upon the rich range of human character, while the former shut themselves up more and more in the special domain of their own personal experience. Mr. Browning came at a time when there was every likelihood that the excessive subjectiveness of our modern poetry would lead to decay. He supplies a counterirritant. He blows through bronze' oftener than through silver, a music calculated to awake God Mars rather than serenade a slumbering princess;' a 'medicated music, as it was rightly called by Elizabeth Barrett.
Mr. Browning is not one of those who can look upon men as trees walking, and see all things through a misty glamour or a kind of glory,' which is really a suffusion of self; not one of the cloud-worshippers who, as Aristophanes says, “speak ingeniously concerning smoke,' and who, in their inability to dramatise human nature, are for ever endeavouring to humanise external nature, and always paint it according to their special moods of mind.
He belongs to a robuster race of thinkers. His genius being dramatic, he has to make his way to the heart of a character, conceal himself there, and then, looking abroad through the eyes of the man or woman, reveal their
nature in their own speech. He is dramatic down to his smallest lyrics. He is not present in person to help us in making out his meaning. He cannot show us all he has to reveal, from the describer's own personal point of view. We must be able to reach many a point of view, according to the character of the speaker. Let us quote an example of his way of working. Here is a perfect little poem, entitled, “My Last Duchess ;' the scene is · Ferrara,' and the Duke is the speaker. "That's
last Duchess painted on the wall,