G.A.Simcox, Academy 1873
DOI link for G.A.Simcox, Academy 1873
G.A.Simcox, Academy 1873 book
When Mr. Browning published Dramatis Personae in 1864 it seemed permissible to suppose that his reputation was in some sense fixed. It was generally admitted that his poetry had certain faults; it was coming to be generally admitted that it had also certain merits whose value might be open to discussion but in any case deserved to be rated high. It seemed too that criticism might be spared the sterile labour of balancing the faults against the merits when one grew visibly out of the other, and might settle down at leisure to the fruitful work of analysing the sources of the author’s undeniable power, if it was too early to hope to ascertain his literary rank. Since then Mr. Browning has resolved to make the British public like him; he has set to work with a will to get rid of the faults which went naturally with the merits that he had; perhaps it was hardly surprising that in spite of his stupendous cleverness he has fallen into other faults which naturally go with merits which he will never have. We do not mean that his work is falling off, or that his own public have a right to be disappointed, but they have a right to feel disconcerted. Every new book is a surprise to them, they never know what to expect of him; not because he is always putting forth new powers, but because he is always inventing fresh uses for old powers. The mere astonishing bulk and completeness of the Ring and the Book extorted too unlimited admiration for it to be obvious at once that clearness was purchased at the expense of prolixity, and even if it had been obvious it might have been retorted that Sordello was prolix without being clear. But Balaustion’s Adventure and Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau suggested a more alarming suspicion: it almost looked as if in rubbing off his roughness Mr. Browning would rub off his distinction too-as if he would file away asperities till nothing was left except an ingeniously intricate arrangement of too sterling common sense. Such fears were happily set at rest by the appearance of Fifine: the profane might object that the old harshness and obscurity were if possible exaggerated, but the faithful easily overlooked those familiar blemishes (and after all the meaning had more room in the Alexandrine couplets than in the rhyming heroics of Sordello); it was enough for them to recover the old shifting subtlety of suggestion, the rapid depth of insight, which were not to be found elsewhere. Even in Fifine however it was possible to trace new aims which mingled themselves with the familiar charm: the dramatic power was unimpaired, but it was less disinterested, less impersonal
everything else that Mr. Browning has published since Dramatis Personae, it compels us to revise our estimate of him. Certainly there is no lack of clearness here, there is no excess of rapidity to create confusion, but the distinctive feature of the book is a resolute pursuit of purely artistic graces. Talleyrand used to say that the Duke of Wellington spoke French with a great deal of courage: Mr. Browning has practised elegance and irony and other refinements of a Platonic dialogue with a vehement uncompromising energy which cannot but deepen our admiration of his prodigious intellectual force.