Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Subject: Robert Browning (1812-1899) was an eminent English poet of the Victorian era, known for his ambitious and dramatic lyrics and monologues. He had an evangelical upbringing, and had a home-grown love for learning. His wife of many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an equally revered poet (some say better!), though her career was much shorter due to a chronic illness.
Genre: Biography, criticism.
Chesterton’s biography is quite accessible in its length and content, even for someone knowing little about Browning or his poetry. He also addresses his criticism to the novice. For that reason, I gave this book a high rating. Both Brownings were greatly admired by Chesterton, F. W. Boreham, and many other Christian writers and thinkers. Beware: If you sail into this biography, you will definitely find yourself longing to read more of both Brownings, and they were quite prolific poets.
Browning was regarded by critics as a pretentious intellectual, but Chesterton defends him on this point.
His work has the mystery which belongs to the complex; his life the much greater mystery which belongs to the simple. (p. 1)
Browning’s Family and Upbringing
Browning was not allowed to be educated at a Cambridge or Oxford because of his evangelicalism. (They were only open to Anglicans at the time.) He did not receive a first-rate education. But he did imbibe the atmosphere of his father’s expansive library, which held about 6,000 books—not too shabby for a middle-class family.
His father, Robert Browning, Sr., was something of a maverick. He had been sent to Jamaica to work. When a slave revolt happened, he was sent back to England. But, because he expressed sympathy with the slaves, Robert Browning, Sr. was disinherited by his father, and in cutting ties, he chose to leave Anglicanism as well, and became an evangelical. His father even sent him a bill for his entire education.
As Chesterton tells it, Robert Browning’s parents were clearly people of great conviction. His father’s literary taste was rather traditional; Robert was deeply moved by Keats and Shelley. Thus his own poetry falls somewhat towards the Romantics in its style, but more confessional and personal. Chesterton has a stirring passage in which he defends Browning’s so-called intellectualism, calling it not vanity but humility:
The more fixed and solid and sensible the idea appeared to him, the more dark and fantastic it would have appeared to the world. Most of us indeed, if we ever say anything valuable, say it when we are giving expression to that part of us which has become as familiar and invisible as the pattern on our wall paper. It is only when an idea has become a matter of course to the thinker that it becomes startling to the world. (p. 21)
The Great Hour: Browning’s Marriage
The story of Robert Browning’s elopement with Elizabeth Barrett is definitely the turning point of both of their lives and, in my view, almost as stunning an exploit as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The story itself nearly constitutes a screenplay. Here we have two published poets. The lady is six years the man’s senior. She is kept in a sick bed, with heavy curtains keeping out sunlight, and told that if she does not get to a better climate—the doctor says “Italy”—she will hardly last a year. Her selfish father is not only unwilling to take her to Italy, but unwilling to marry her to Robert, who is quite willing to take her to Italy. . . .
Elizabeth had not left the house in many months, and hardly left her dark bedroom. But she came down the stairs, and ordered a carriage to take her to a park. She breathed the fresh air and gazed at the trees for one hour of solitude. Then she returned, fortified, and said yes to Robert’s proposal of elopement.
In the summer of 1846 Elizabeth Barrett was still living under the great family convention which provided her with nothing but an elegant deathbed, forbidden to move, forbidden to see proper daylight, forbidden to receive a friend lest the shock should destroy her suddenly. A year or two later, in Italy, as Mrs. Browning, she was being dragged up hill in a wine hamper, toiling up to the crests of mountains at four o’clock in the morning, riding for five miles on a donkey to what she calls “an inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars.” (p. 39)
Robert Browning’s snatching of Elizabeth from her controlling father, whom they never saw again on this earth, was an act highly unusual not only for England, but for Browning himself. As Chesterton would have it, he was a routine-driven and punctual man, leaving the house at the same minute year after year. But there is no doubt that Elizabeth’s family environment was debilitating, perhaps more than any physical ailment, and that Robert’s course of action was utterly in the right.
The story reminds one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conscientious disobedience to the German Reich. Chesterton calls it “virtue not only without the reward, but even without the name of virtue.” (p. 59)
This great moral of Browning, which may be called roughly the doctrine of the great hour, enters, of course, into many poems besides The Ring and the Book, and is indeed the mainspring of a great part of his poetry taken as a whole. (p. 60)
Chesterton writes that such a “great hour,” in which we are called to bury all thought of established convention, and fly in the face of fear for the sake of righteousness, may come to a man only once in his lifetime, and if any man claims it has come twice, we should be immediately skeptical. But there are times when we prove our mettle, not through compliance, but through rebellion.
Chesterton hits on many of Browning’s works, especially in Chapters II, VI, VII, and VIII. Chesterton calls Browning
first, the greatest of love poets, and, secondly, the only optimistic philosopher except Whitman. (p. 27)
Chesterton describes Browning’s early poems as primarily confessional, and his later poems as mainly dramatic monologues, which often deal with finding the good in questionable persons. Browning lived to an old age, was productive throughout his lifetime, and wrote in a great variety of forms. Interestingly, even the worst of his characters relate themselves to a higher power, and feel some longing for divine approval and forgiveness. (p. 112)
Browning’s “magnus opus” (Chesterton’s words) occupied five or six years after the death of Elizabeth, and consists of nine perspectives on the same event. The scheme of the poem is based on a case that Browning read in a dingy old book of Italian legal proceedings. Browning imagined a crime
[The Ring and The Book] is the great epic of the enormous importance of small things. (p. 91)
Browning’s Philosophy of Life
In the last chapter, Chesterton summarizes Browning’s philosophy in only two points.
The first point is the hope in the imperfection of man. The analogy given is that an incomplete puzzle implies the existence of the missing piece; so our incomplete longing for eternity justifies confidence in human immortality.
Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness implies completeness, life implies immortality. (p. 99)
Thus a confident assertion of the Fall of Man becomes the very grounds for believing in God’s redemptive act.
Man’s sense of his own imperfection implies a design of perfection. (p. 100)
The second point, Chesterton calls the hope in the “imperfection” of God. Before you burn all your Chesterton and Browning books, I believe that “imperfection” is used only in a hypothetical sense here. The “imperfection” here referred to is the sense in which God is bound in honor to exceed the moral perfections of his creatures. George MacDonald, as well as modern relational theologians, have more ably expressed the same sentiment than Chesterton does here. Thus,
Man’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies God’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice. (p. 100)
Overall, the theology expressed in Browning’s life and poetry is compassionate, relational, and intensely personal.
There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.” (p. 1)
Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. (p. 112)
To the man who sees the marvellousness of all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as its mysteries. (p. 61)
Charity was his basic philosophy; but it was, as it were, a fierce charity, a charity that went man-hunting. He was a kind of cosmic detective who walked into the foulest of thieves’ kitchens and accused men publicly of virtue. (p. 28)
A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. (p. 46)
This was what happened to Browning; like every one else, he had to discover first the universe, and then humanity, and at last himself. With him, as with all others, the great paradox and the great definition of life was this, that the ambition narrows as the mind expands. (p. 26)
I am not prepared to admit that there is or can be, properly speaking, in the world anything that is too sacred to be known. That spiritual beauty and spiritual truth are in their nature communicable, and that they should be communicated, is a principle which lies at the root of every conceivable religion. Christ was crucified upon a hill, and not in a cavern, and the word Gospel itself involves the same idea as the ordinary name of a daily paper. Whenever, therefore, a poet or any similar type of man can, or conceives that he can, make all men partakers in some splendid secret of his own heart, I can imagine nothing saner and nothing manlier than his course in doing so. (p. 35)
On relativism and seeing all sides:
He held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. . . . He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the nature of things wrong. . . . [Here follows the “blind men and the elephant” analogy.] . . . Although the blind men found out very little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was there all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because an elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning firmly believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious shape indeed. . . . To the impressionist artist of our time we are not blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent. We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and serpents without reason and without result. (p. 98)