A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Thirty-Two
THE EARLY VICTORIANS

(2) ROBERT BROWNING

THE second major prophet of the Victorians was Robert Browning ( 1812-1889). The Victorian prophets differed from those of Israel inasmuch as they came less to curse than to bless, to encourage rather than to warn, for they too shared, at least to begin with, the confident belief in progress as the solution for the ills which beset mankind, a faith in the "one far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves,"

I know there shall dawn a day
--Is it here in homely earth?
Is it yonder worlds away,
Where the strange and new have birth?
That Power comes full in play,

therefore let us "greet the unseen with a cheer." It is true that the first buoyant hopefulness was clouded in various ways as the century ran its course, and, as we have seen, the tone of Tennyson's poetry underwent a surprising and impressive change. No shadow completely darkened the courageous hopefulness of Browning, but the tone of his poetry did become more combative, more conscious of a defensive attitude.

If politics counted for little in Tennyson's poetry, it counts for less in Browning's. He lived for many years in Italy and loved her, but only in two or three places does he so much as touch on the risorgimento. He wrote a long poem on Napoleon III, but the interest is solely psychological. Love of England inspired Home Thoughts from Abroad; but two lines about the corn laws are all he has to say of home politics. The explanation lies in the dedication to Sordello: "The historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth

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