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    Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    The delightful new edition of Mrs. Browning's "Casa Guidi Windows" which
    Mr. John Lane has just issued ought certainly to serve as an opportunity
    for the serious criticism and inevitable admiration to which a great
    poet is entitled. For Mrs. Browning was a great poet, and not, as is
    idly and vulgarly supposed, only a great poetess. The word poetess is
    bad English, and it conveys a particularly bad compliment. Nothing is
    more remarkable about Mrs. Browning's work than the absence of that
    trite and namby-pamby elegance which the last two centuries demanded
    from lady writers. Wherever her verse is bad it is bad from some
    extravagance of imagery, some violence of comparison, some kind of
    debauch of cleverness. Her nonsense never arises from weakness, but from
    a confusion of powers. If the phrase explain itself, she is far more a
    great poet than she is a good one.

    Mrs. Browning often appears more luscious and sentimental than many
    other literary women, but this was because she was stronger. It requires
    a certain amount of internal force to break down. A complete
    self-humiliation requires enormous strength, more strength than most of
    us possess. When she was writing the poetry of self-abandonment she
    really abandoned herself with the valour and decision of an anchorite
    abandoning the world. Such a couplet as:

    "Our Euripides, the human,
    With his dropping of warm tears,"

    gives to most of us a sickly and nauseous sensation. Nothing can be well
    conceived more ridiculous than Euripides going about dropping tears with
    a loud splash, and Mrs. Browning coming after him with a thermometer.
    But the one emphatic point about this idiotic couplet is that Mrs.
    Hemans would never have written it. She would have written something
    perfectly dignified, perfectly harmless, perfectly inconsiderable. Mrs.
    Browning was in a great and serious difficulty. She really meant
    something. She aimed at a vivid and curious image, and she missed it.
    She had that catastrophic and public failure which is, as much as a
    medal or a testimonial, the badge of the brave.

    In spite of the tiresome half-truth that art is unmoral, the arts
    require a certain considerable number of moral qualities, and more
    especially all the arts require courage. The art of drawing, for
    example, requires even a kind of physical courage. Anyone who has tried
    to draw a straight line and failed knows that he fails chiefly in nerve,
    as he might fail to jump off a cliff. And similarly all great literary
    art involves the element of risk, and the greatest literary artists have
    commonly been those who have run the greatest risk of talking nonsense.
    Almost all great poets rant, from Shakespeare downwards. Mrs. Browning
    was Elizabethan in her luxuriance and her audacity, and the gigantic
    scale of her wit. We often feel with her as we feel with Shakespeare,
    that she would have done better with half as much talent. The great
    curse of the Elizabethans is upon her, that she cannot leave anything
    alone, she cannot write a single line without a conceit:

    "And the eyes of the peacock fans
    Winked at the alien glory,"

    she said of the Papal fans in the presence of the Italian tricolour:

    "And a royal blood sends glances up her princely eye to trouble,
    And the shadow of a monarch's crown is softened in her hair,"

    is her description of a beautiful and aristocratic lady. The notion of
    peacock feathers winking like so many London urchins is perhaps one of
    her rather aggressive and outrageous figures of speech. The image of a
    woman's hair as the softened shadow of a crown is a singularly vivid and
    perfect one. But both have the same quality of intellectual fancy and
    intellectual concentration. They are both instances of a sort of
    ethereal epigram. This is the great and dominant characteristic of Mrs.
    Browning, that she was significant alike in failure and success. Just as
    every marriage in the world, good or bad, is a marriage, dramatic,
    irrevocable, and big with coming events, so every one of her wild
    weddings between alien ideas is an accomplished fact which produces a
    certain effect on the imagination, which has for good or evil become
    part and parcel of our mental vision forever. She gives the reader the
    impression that she never declined a fancy, just as some gentlemen of
    the eighteenth century never declined a duel. When she fell it was
    always because she missed the foothold, never because she funked the
    leap.

    "Casa Guidi Windows" is, in one aspect, a poem very typical of its
    author. Mrs. Browning may fairly be called the peculiar poet of
    Liberalism, of that great movement of the first half of the nineteenth
    century towards the emancipation of men from ancient institutions which
    had gradually changed their nature, from the houses of refuge which had
    turned into dungeons, and the mystic jewels which remained only as
    fetters. It was not what we ordinarily understand by revolt. It had no
    hatred in its heart for ancient and essentially human institutions. It
    had that deeply conservative belief in the most ancient of institutions,
    the average man, which goes by the name of democracy. It had none of
    the spirit of modern Imperialism which is kicking a man because he is
    down. But, on the other hand, it had none of the spirit of modern
    Anarchism and scepticism which is kicking a man merely because he is up.
    It was based fundamentally on a belief in the destiny of humanity,
    whether that belief took an irreligious form, as in Swinburne, or a
    religious form, as in Mrs. Browning. It had that rooted and natural
    conviction that the Millennium was coming to-morrow which has been the
    conviction of all iconoclasts and reformers, and for which some
    rationalists have been absurd enough to blame the early Christians. But
    they had none of that disposition to pin their whole faith to some
    black-and-white scientific system which afterwards became the curse of
    philosophical Radicalism. They were not like the sociologists who lay
    down a final rectification of things, amounting to nothing except an end
    of the world, a great deal more depressing than would be the case if it
    were knocked to pieces by a comet. Their ideal, like the ideal of all
    sensible people, was a chaotic and confused notion of goodness made up
    of English primroses and Greek statues, birds singing in April, and
    regiments being cut to pieces for a flag. They were neither Radicals nor
    Socialists, but Liberals, and a Liberal is a noble and indispensable
    lunatic who tries to make a cosmos of his own head.

    Mrs. Browning and her husband were more liberal than most Liberals.
    Theirs was the hospitality of the intellect and the hospitality of the
    heart, which is the best definition of the term. They never fell into
    the habit of the idle revolutionists of supposing that the past was bad
    because the future was good, which amounted to asserting that because
    humanity had never made anything but mistakes it was now quite certain
    to be right. Browning possessed in a greater degree than any other man
    the power of realising that all conventions were only victorious
    revolutions. He could follow the mediæval logicians in all their sowing
    of the wind and reaping of the whirlwind with all that generous ardour
    which is due to abstract ideas. He could study the ancients with the
    young eyes of the Renaissance and read a Greek grammar like a book of
    love lyrics. This immense and almost confounding Liberalism of Browning
    doubtless had some effect upon his wife. In her vision of New Italy she
    went back to the image of Ancient Italy like an honest and true
    revolutionist; for does not the very word "revolution" mean a rolling
    backward. All true revolutions are reversions to the natural and the
    normal. A revolutionist who breaks with the past is a notion fit for an
    idiot. For how could a man even wish for something which he had never
    heard of? Mrs. Browning's inexhaustible sympathy with all the ancient
    and essential passions of humanity was nowhere more in evidence than in
    her conception of patriotism. For some dark reason, which it is
    difficult indeed to fathom, belief in patriotism in our day is held to
    mean principally a belief in every other nation abandoning its patriotic
    feelings. In the case of no other passion does this weird contradiction
    exist. Men whose lives are mainly based upon friendship sympathise with
    the friendships of others. The interest of engaged couples in each other
    is a proverb, and like many other proverbs sometimes a nuisance. In
    patriotism alone it is considered correct just now to assume that the
    sentiment does not exist in other people. It was not so with the great
    Liberals of Mrs. Browning's time. The Brownings had, so to speak, a
    disembodied talent for patriotism. They loved England and they loved
    Italy; yet they were the very reverse of cosmopolitans. They loved the
    two countries as countries, not as arbitrary divisions of the globe.
    They had hold of the root and essence of patriotism. They knew how
    certain flowers and birds and rivers pass into the mills of the brain
    and come out as wars and discoveries, and how some triumphant adventure
    or some staggering crime wrought in a remote continent may bear about it
    the colour of an Italian city or the soul of a silent village of Surrey.
    If you're writing a Elizabeth Barrett Browning essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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