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

Elvire makes short work of his poetic theories


He

illustrates this by means of three faces roughly sketched in the sand. At first sight they are grotesque and unmeaning. Yet a few more strokes of the broken pipe which is serving him as a pencil, will give to two of these a predominating expression; convert the third into a likeness of Elvire.

"These completing touches represent the artist's action upon life. By this method Don Juan has been enabled on a former occasion, to complete a work of high art. A block of marble had come into his possession, half shaped by the hand of Michael Angelo.

"... One hand,--the Master's,--smoothed and scraped That mass, he hammered on and hewed at, till he hurled Life out of death, and left a challenge: for the world, Death still,--...." (vol. xi. p. 260.)

Not death to him: for as he gazed on the rough-hewn block, a form emerged upon his mental sight--a form which he interpreted as that of the goddess Eidothee.[53] And as his soul received it from that of the dead master, his hand carried it out."

Mr. Browning's whole theory of artistic perception is contained in the foregoing lines; but he proceeds to enforce it in another way. "The life thus evoked from death, the beauty from ugliness, is the gain of each special soul--its permanent conquest over matter. The mode of effecting this is the special secret of every soul; and this

Don Juan defines as its chemic secret, the law of its affinities, the law of its actions and reactions. Where one, he says, lights force, another draws forth pity; where one finds food for self-indulgence, another acquires strength for self-sacrifice. One blows life's ashes into rose-coloured flame, another into less heavenly hues. Love will have reached its height when the secret of each soul has become the knowledge of all; and the many-coloured rays of individual experience are fused in the white light of universal truth."

Here again Don Juan imagines a retort. Elvire makes short work of his poetic theories, and declares that this professed interest in souls is a mere pretext for the gratification of sense. "Whom in heaven's name is he trying to take in?" He entreats music to take his part. "It alone can pierce the mists of falsehood which intervene between the soul and truth. And now, as they stroll homewards in the light of the setting sun, all things seem charged with those deeper harmonies--with those vital truths of existence which words are powerless to convey. Elvire, however, has no soul for music, and her husband must have recourse to words."

The case between them may, he thinks, be stated in this question, "How do we rise from falseness into truth?" "We do so after the fashion of the swimmer who brings his nostrils to the level of the upper air, but leaves the rest of his body under water--by the act of self-immersion in the very element from which we wish to escape. Truth is to the aspiring soul as the upper air to the swimmer: the breath of life. But if the swimmer attempts to free his head and arms, he goes under more completely than before. If the soul strives to escape from the grosser atmosphere into the higher, she shares the same fate. Her truthward yearnings plunge her only deeper into falsehood. Body and soul must alike surrender themselves to an element in which they cannot breathe, for this element can alone sustain them. But through the act of plunging we float up again, with a deeper disgust at the briny taste we have brought back; with a deeper faith in the life above, and a deeper confidence in ourselves, whom the coarser element has proved unable to submerge."


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