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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

He treats consonants as the backbone of the language


determination never to sacrifice sense to sound is the secret of whatever repels us in Mr. Browning's verse, and also of whatever attracts. Wherever in it sense keeps company with sound, we have a music far deeper than can arise from mere sound, or even from a flow of real lyric emotion, which has its only counterpart _in_ sound. It is in the idea, and of it. It is the brain picture beating itself into words.

The technical rules by which Mr. Browning works, carry out his principle to the fullest extent.

I. He uses the smallest number of words which his meaning allows; is particularly sparing in adjectives.

II. He uses the largest _relative_ number of Saxon (therefore picturesque) words.[4]

III. He uses monosyllabic words wherever this is possible.

IV. He farther condenses his style by abbreviations and omissions, of which some are discarded, but all warranted by authority: "in," "on," and "of," for instance, become "i'," "o'," and "o'." Pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are, on the same principle, occasionally left out.

V. He treats consonants as the backbone of the language, and hence, as the essential feature in a rhyme; and never allows the repetition of a consonant in a rhyme to be modified by a change in the preceding vowel, or by the recurrence of

the rhyming syllable in a different word--or the repetition of a consonant in blank verse to create a half-consonance resembling a rhyme: though other poets do not shrink from doing so.[5]

VI. He seldom dilutes his emphasis by double rhymes, reserving these--especially when made up of combined words, and producing a grotesque effect--for those cases in which the meaning is given with a modifying colour: a satirical, or self-satirical, intention on the writer's part. Strong instances of this occur in "The Flight of the Duchess," "Christmas Eve," and "Pacchiarotto."

VII. He always uses the measure most appropriate to his subject, whether it be the ten-syllabled blank verse which makes up "The Ring and the Book," the separate dramatic monologues, and nearly all the dramas, or the heroic rhymed verse which occurs in "Sordello" and "Fifine at the Fair;" or one of the lyrical measures, of which his slighter poems contain almost, if not quite, every known form.[6]

VIII. He takes no liberties with unusual measures; though he takes any admissible liberty with the usual measures, which will interrupt their monotony, and strengthen their effect.

IX. He eschews many vulgarisms or inaccuracies which custom has sanctioned, both in prose and verse, such as, "thou _wert_;" "better than _them_ all;" "he _need_ not;" "he _dare_ not." The universal "I _had_ better;" "I _had_ rather," is abhorrent to him.[7]

X. No prosaic turns or tricks of language are ever associated in his verse with a poetic mood.


The writer of a handbook to Mr. Browning's poetry must contend with exceptional difficulties, growing out of what I have tried to describe as the unity in variety of Mr. Browning's poetic life. This unity of course impresses itself on his works; and in order to give a systematic survey of them, we must treat as a collection of separate facts what is really a living whole; and seek to give the impression of that whole by a process of classification which cuts it up alive. Mr. Browning's work is, to all intents and purposes, one group; and though we may divide and subdivide it for purposes of illustration, the division will be always more or less artificial, and, unless explained away, more or less misleading. We cannot even divide it into periods, for if the first three poems represent the author's intellectual youth, the remainder are one long maturity; while even in these the poetic faculty shows itself full-grown. We cannot trace in it the evidence of successive manners like those of Raphael, or successive moods like those of Shakespeare; or, if we do, this is neutralized by the simple fact that Mr. Browning's productive career has been infinitely longer than was Raphael's, and considerably so than Shakespeare's; and that changes which meant the development of a genius in their case, mean the course of a life in his.

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