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

Browning is a metaphysical poet


Browning has no occasion to

do, because he takes its assumptions upon trust. He is a constant analyst of secondary motives and judgments. No modern freethinker could make a larger allowance for what is incidental, personal, and even material in them: we shall see that all his practical philosophy is bound up with this fact. But he has never questioned the origin of our primary or innate ideas, for he has, as I have said, never questioned their truth. It is essential to bear in mind that Mr. Browning is a metaphysical poet, and not a metaphysical thinker, to do justice to the depth and originality of his creative power; for his imagination includes everything which at a given moment a human being can think or feel, and often finds itself, therefore, at some point to which other minds have _reasoned_ their way. The coincidence occurs most often with German lines of thought, and it has therefore been concluded that he has studied the works in which they are laid down, or has otherwise moved in the same track; the fact being that he has no bond of union with German philosophers, but the natural tendencies of his own mind. It may be easily ascertained that he did not read their language until late in life; and if what I have said of his mental habits is true, it is equally certain that their methods have been more foreign to him still. He resembles Hegel, Fichte, or Schelling, as the case may be, by the purely creative impulse which has met their thought, and which, if he had lived earlier, might have forestalled
it. Mr. Browning's position is that of a fixed centre of thought and feeling. Fifty years ago he was in advance of his age. He stood firm and has allowed the current to overtake him, or even leave him behind. If I may be allowed a comparison: other mental existences suggest the idea of a river, flowing onwards, amidst varying scenes, and in a widening bed, to lose itself in the sea. Mr. Browning's genius appears the sea itself, with its immensity and its limits, its restlessness and its repose, the constant self-balancing of its ebb and flow.

As both dramatic and metaphysical poet, Mr. Browning is inspired by one central doctrine: that while thought is absolute in itself, it is relative or personal to the mind which thinks it; so that no one man can attain the whole truth of any abstract subject, and no other can convict him of having failed to do so. And he also believes that since intellectual truth is so largely for each of us a matter of personal impression, no language is special enough to convey it. The arguments which he carries on through the mouths of his men and women often represent even moral truth as something too subtle, too complex, and too changing, to be definitely expressed; and if we did not see that he reverences what is good as much as he excuses what is bad, we might imagine that even on this ground he considered no fixed knowledge to be attainable. These opinions are, however, closely bound up with his religious beliefs, and in great measure explained by them. He is convinced that uncertainty is essential to the spiritual life; and his works are saturated by the idea that where uncertainty ceases, stagnation must begin; that our light must be wavering, and our progress tentative, as well as our hopes chequered, and our happiness even devoid of any sense of finality, if the creative intention is not to frustrate itself; we may not see the path of progress and salvation clearly marked out before us. On the other hand, he believes that the circumstances of life are as much adapted to the guidance of each separate soul as if each were the single object of creative care; and that therefore while the individual knows nothing of the Divine scheme, he _is_ everything in it.


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