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Mrs. Browning's frail life began to fade, although she was surrounded by all that love could devise for her, and she died in 1861. Browning returned to England, where he did not shut himself up in morbid sorrow, but lived a sane, wholesome life, going out a great deal, hearing the best music, going to the art exhibitions, and strengthening all with whom he came in contact by his noble personality. In 1868 Browning's greatest work, The Ring and the Book, was published. It is a huge psychological epic of more than twentyone thousand lines, one of the most considerable poetic achievements of the century. He returned to Italy, and was living in Venice, when, taking cold, bronchitis set in, and he died after a short illness, on December 12, 1889.
Browning had the scholar's love of curious learning, the artist's delight in beauty. He loved books and poetry, paintings, sculpture, and music, but he felt that even art and knowledge were narrower and less wonderful than life. He did not shut himself away in a library or a studio; he entered into the wholesome joys of man's life, of "the mere living," and declared
"Indeed to know is something,
But, knowing naught, to enjoy is something too."
While a great deal that he wrote is hard to understand, and deals with profound subjects, Browning could, when he chose, write simple and spirited narrative poems, such as Hervé Riel, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. It is doubtful whether in any one of his dramas he really meets the needs of the stage, yet, while he is not a dramatist, a large proportion of his poems, monologues, idyls, or lyrics, are distinctly dramatic in spirit. The dramatic monologue is a poetic form in which, while there is only one
speaker, he is not speaking to himself, as in a soliloquy, but to some one else, whose presence is constantly suggested or implied. Browning probably excels all other poets in his mastery of this form. In My Last Duchess we can fairly watch the merry light fade from the Duchess' face, before the withering blight of the Duke's chill presence. Browning believes that if we are to understand the meaning and purpose of our life here, we must think of it as merely a prelude and a preparation for a life hereafter. This world is a great training-school, a place where souls are developed and disciplined by pain and by pleasure, where they are given a chance to grow. While this earthly life will end, its effect upon the soul will remain:
"Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure."
The most important thing in life, therefore, is neither art nor knowledge, neither pain nor pleasure: it is the soul, and the use it makes of its earthly experience. With the Pre-Raphaelites art is an end in itself; with Browning it is only a means for the soul's development. In such a poem as Abt Vogler, Browning shows us how music can lift us out of ourselves:
'The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard, The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky, Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;"
In Andrea del Sarto we are taught to perceive that the aspiration in a picture is worth more than mere technical skill. As Andrea looks at Raphael's work he is in despair, for, although he feels that he could improve the drawing, he says,
"its soul is right, He means right—that a child may understand'
and Andrea knew that with all his skill he could not paint the soul in the picture, for he had not kept his own soul free from guilt. Browning saw the art for art's sake when he wrote The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, for there the art was made simply an accessory to the Bishop's pride, and became "Vanity."
With Browning, life must be lived to the full, and love enters, and is used also as a means of attaining the highest. In Youth and Art, Browning shows us how small all earthly gain is, if we barter love for riches. The young students in the poem might have found bliss, but they chose wealth, and the youth sums it up,
(( This could have happened once,
So art, and love, and all of life go to the development of the soul. The soul in its relation to the unseen is the chief subject of Browning's work, as in his judgment it is the supreme interest in life. Familiar as this may seem to us, Browning had virtually created poetry of a wholly new order. As life here is to be looked at as a preparation for life hereafter, we are to welcome all experiences, and they are important chiefly as they forward, or retard, the growth of the soul. So Browning teaches us to prize all experiences, — joy, sorrow, aspiration, and moments of intense feeling, for in them we too have our Mount of Vision, and our souls learn to breathe a purer air.
We have left our study of Tennyson to the last, because he represents, more fully and faithfully than any other writer, the changing life and thought of the Victorian era from first to last. Rossetti represents an art movement, which does not become important until the Victorian era is well advanced; Arnold represents a particular phase of thought, characteristic, as we have seen, of the middle and later years of the century. But, apart from other reasons, Tennyson holds a very different position from such writers as Rossetti and Arnold, because he lived and worked longer than any other English poet of the time. He was born in the early years of the nineteenth century, before the Waverley novels were written, when George III was on the throne, and Napoleon was the terror of Europe; he died when the century was nearing its end. He began his work as a poet before Victoria came to the throne; he continued to write until her long reign was almost over. He lived to be eighty-three years old, and sixty-five busy years lie between the appearance of his first work and the publication of his last. For half a century he was generally looked up to, both in England and America, as the greatest living poet of the English race. So we cannot definitely associate him, as we can Rossetti, with any one group of poets; we cannot say that he belongs wholly, or even chiefly, either to the earlier or the later part of the era. He belongs to it all. The greater part of those changes in life and thought which have already been described took place during his lifetime. He saw the old order yielding place to the
new; he felt the fierce struggle of his time, and fought out the long battle of his generation from first to last. So, if we study Tennyson carefully, and read his poems in the order in which they were written, we shall find that they help us to follow the inner life of Victorian England from the beginning almost to the end.
Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809, at Somersby, a tiny village in the East Midland region of Lincolnshire, where his father, the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson, was rector. The country immediately about Somersby has a richness and beauty wanting in many other parts of the county. It is "A land of quiet villages, large fields, grey hillsides, and noble talltowered churches." From the first, Tennyson was an observant and a true lover of nature, and these quiet country scenes entered deeply into his life.
After some training at home, and in the grammar school at Louth, a town some twenty miles away, Tennyson entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1828. Here, shy as he was, he showed that he had a great power of making friends. He joined a debating society, which included among its members several of the ablest young men in the University. Among this little group of bright and congenial spirits was Arthur Henry Hallam, a young man of rare promise and singularly sweet and lovable nature, whose short life is indissolubly linked with the career of Tennyson. Long before he entered college, Tennyson had written verses; he had even printed a volume in conjunction with his brother Charles, in 1827; but at Cambridge he first made a decided impression by his prize poem, Timbuctoo. In 1830 Tennyson made his real entrance into the world of English letters by the publication of a slim volume, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. It is largely