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

Browning is a metaphysical poet


His

treatment of visible and of invisible realities constitutes him respectively a dramatic and a metaphysical poet; but, as the two kinds of reality are inseparable in human life, so are the corresponding qualities inseparable in Mr. Browning's work. The dramatic activity of his genius always includes the metaphysical. His genius always shows itself as dramatic and metaphysical at the same time.

Mr. Browning's genius is dramatic because it always expresses itself in the forms of real life, in the supposed experiences of men and women. These men and women are usually in a state of mental disturbance or conflict; indeed, they think much more than they act. But their thinking tends habitually to a practical result; and it keeps up our sense of their reality by clothing itself always in the most practical and picturesque language which thought can assume. It has been urged that he does not sink himself in his characters as a completely dramatic writer should; and this argument must stand for what it is worth. His personality may in some degree be constructed from his works: it is, I think, generally admitted, that that of Shakespeare cannot; and in so far as this is the test of a complete dramatist, Mr. Browning fails of being one. He does not sink himself in his men and women, for his sympathy with them is too active to admit of it. He not only describes their different modes of being, but defends them from their own point of view; and it is natural

that he should often select for this treatment characters with which he is already disposed to sympathize. But his women are no less living and no less distinctive than his men; and he sinks his individuality at all times enough to interest us in the characters which are not akin to his own as much as in those which are. Even if it were otherwise, if his men and women were all variations of himself, as imagined under differences of sex, of age, of training, or of condition, he would still be dramatic in this essential quality, the only one which bears on our contention: that everything which, as a poet, he thinks or feels, comes from him in a dramatic, that is to say, a completely living form.

It is in this way also that his dramatic genius includes the metaphysical. The abstract, no less than the practical questions which shape themselves in his mind, are put before us in the thoughts and words, in the character and conduct of his men and women. This does not mean that human experience solves for him all the questions which it can be made to state, or that everything he believes can be verified by it: for in that case his mode of thought would be scientific, and not metaphysical; it simply means, that so much of abstract truth as cannot be given in a picture of human life, lies outside his philosophy of it. He accepts this residue as the ultimate mystery of what must be called Divine Thought. Thought or spirit is with him the ultimate fact of existence; the one thing about which it is vain to theorize, and which we can never get behind. His gospel would begin, "In the beginning was the Thought;" and since he can only conceive this as self-conscious, his "Alpha and Omega" is a Divine intelligence from which all the ideas of the human intellect are derived, and which stamps them as true. These religious conceptions are the meeting-ground of the dramatic and the metaphysical activity of his poetic genius. The two are blended in the vision of a Supreme Being not to be invested with human emotions, but only to be reached through them.

To show that Mr. Browning is a metaphysical poet, is to show that he is not a metaphysical _thinker_, though he is a thinker whose thought is metaphysical so far as principle goes. A metaphysical thinker is always in some way or other thinking about _thought_; and this is precisely what Mr.


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