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Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?"
But Morris was no mere dreamer, he was a burly, robust man, full of vitality, a fighter and a reformer. In his later years, he faced, as Ruskin did, the pressing social questions of his time, and strove manfully to set the crooked straight. He became a socialist, and his belief in the possibility of social reform gave a new hopefulness and vigor to his work; he was a prolific writer both in poetry and in prose; he had unquestionably a strong influence upon the social, artistic, and literary life of his time, but there is a diffuseness in his poetry which is likely to tell against its permanence.
Swinburne. Another poet associated with the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood was ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE (1837-1909), the eldest son of Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne, who came of an old and honorable Northumbrian family. He was educated at Eton and at Oxford. He early began a long friendship with William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and Rossetti, who was nine years his senior. But while Swinburne, like Morris and Rossetti, lived in an ideal world of art and beauty; while, like his brother poets, he often chose to write on classic or medieval themes, his temper, unlike theirs, was not gentle and dreamy, but stirring, rebellious, and defiant. The first book of Swinburne's which made a decided impression was his noble drama, Atalanta in Calydon (1865), which is among the greatest reproductions of classical tragedy in English literature. Its pathos is true and restrained; and in its choruses, with their superb union of force and grace, with the exultant and impetuous lightness of their lyrical flight, the world heard for the first time the marvelous music
of the great modern master of English verse. In 1866 the publication of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads awoke a tempest of mingled praise and condemnation. After this time Swinburne wrote steadily and produced a number of historical dramas and other poems.
Swinburne's ultimate place among English poets is still uncertain. Every one admits his gifts of expression; but many feel that he is not merely fluent, but too often unrestrained and diffuse. Swinburne, in fact, was an artist, not a philosopher. He was guided by impulse, by feeling, not by careful thought or a well-balanced judgment; and, when he assayed to think, his highly emotional nature, combined as it was with an extraordinary volubility, led him into extremes. In spirit Byron and Swinburne, while separated by obvious differences in form, have much in common. Both men show the same genuine, but shallow, ardor for liberty; the same impatience of restraint; the same passionate rebellion against the order of things. To Swinburne, life was bitterness; love a consuming passion, an added misery; death a welcome oblivion which shall cure all and end all. Man, indeed, is the one being in Creation worthy of reverence, "the master of things," and in the progress of man towards some undefined goal, Swinburne found, or attempted to find, a ground of consolation and of hope. In such ideas there is nothing either original or profound. Swinburne's lack of philosophic insight should not blind us to the splendor of his poetic achievement, nor should the glorious melody, the profuse beauty of his verse, lead us to attribute to his poetry virtues which it cannot be said to possess.
Robert Browning, the most stimulating and original poet of his time, was born in Camberwell, a London suburb, in 1812. His father, a clerk in the Bank of England, was a cultivated man, an omnivorous reader, a student of the classics, and an art critic of no mean ability. He early taught his son Robert to read Greek and Latin, making his declensions amusing to him by setting them in rhymes. At eight years of age the boy began to translate the Odes of Horace. His mother was a gentle, sensitive woman, whom he dearly loved, and whose music early entered into his soul. Camberwell, which was at that time almost like the country, is on the south side of the Thames, not far from Herne Hill, where Ruskin lived. The boy could ramble about under the trees, and hear the nightingales sing. He loved to go to a quiet spot near three big elm trees, and gaze at London. He could see the great towers of Westminster Abbey rising above the roofs as out of a great plain, and the gold cross on the dome of St. Paul's gleam in the sunshine. The mystery of the great city with its countless throngs of people appealed strongly to his imagination. He was largely taught at home, although he went for a time to school at Peckham, which was near Camberwell. His father preferred giving his son a private tutor and lessons in music at home, to sending him to a public school and the univerversity, which was the more regular training for an English boy. Browning heard a few lectures at the University of London, and then he went abroad as to a larger university, first to Russia, and then to Italy,
which became the land of his adoption. He loved Italy devotedly all his life; his own words were,
"Open my heart and you will see
Thus while he had not such a thorough and regular
education as Matthew Arnold enjoyed, he had a broad and deep cultivation, he loved art in its various forms, music and painting as well as poetry. He came under the spell of Byron, and a little later was fascinated by Shelley.
Browning's literary career, which extended over a period of fifty years, began in 1833 with the publication
of his first long poem, Pauline, which was followed by Paracelsus. Shortly after the publication of Paracelsus, a well-known actor, Macready, met Browning and asked him to write a play. Browning wrote Strafford, and it was successfully produced at the Covent Garden Theatre. In 1841 Browning consented to publish a number of his plays and poems in a series of cheap pamphlets, the series to be called Bells and Pomegranates. The first number contained Pippa Passes and was sold for sixpence. At first people were slow to recognize as a genius this new, strong, earnest poet, who wrote so buoyantly and hopefully of life and death. He made many friends, however, for his winning personality drew to him all sorts and conditions of men, among them Wordsworth and Tennyson.
In 1845 the romance of Browning's life began in his introduction to Elizabeth Barrett, whose poems he had long admired. She was an invalid, seldom leaving her couch, a delicate, spiritual woman, who had early imbibed a love of Greek literature, as Browning himself had. Browning loved her at first sight and made her his wife in 1846, ignoring the despotic opposition of her father. It was a most happy marriage, in spite of Wordsworth's wondering remark when he heard of it: "So, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett have gone off together! Well, I hope they may understand each other - nobody else could!" They did understand each other most perfectly, for each spoke the language of spirit and truth, and their life together was an exquisite living love-poem. They settled in Florence, in an old palace called Casa Guidi, and here they loved and lived and wrote. In 1855 Men and Women was published, containing fifty of Browning's best known and some of his noblest poems.