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is true, records my failure to say anything | form of moral existence is required for a on the subject of Mr. Browning's "teach- complete human world. This conviction ing" which has not been "misleading" never rendered him callous towards the or "commonplace;' " but he treats the practical aspects of wrong-doing. question of his heterodoxy as not even man was more capable of healthy moral open to doubt; and the few words in indignation, or more anxious for the enwhich he summarizes his view abound in forcement of human justice in its most my sense to the extent almost of exceeding stringent forms. But he would have deit. This coincidence did not render my nied eternal damnation under any concepexplanations unnecessary, but it pre- tion of sin. He spurned the doctrine with scribed for them a different starting point; his whole being as incompatible with the and I was beginning to recast what I had attributes of God; and, since inexorable written, when an unexpected incident divine judgment had no part in his creed, changed for me the whole aspect of the the official Mediator or Redeemer was also excluded from it. He even spoke of the Gospel teachings as valid only for mental states other than his own. But he never ceased to believe in Christ, as, mystically or by actual miracle, a manifestation of divine love. In his own way, therefore, he was and remained a Christian; and never, I am convinced, hesitated to declare himself such if he judged the moment fitting for doing so.
In a dedicatory letter to his latest poem, "The Outcast," Mr. Robert Buchanan quotes a fragment of a conversation which took place, as he affirms, between Mr. Browning and himself, and which conveyed on Mr. Browning's part a categorical disclaimer of Christianity. The story has ere this become public property, since its natural circulation with the poem has been supplemented by that of a widely I do not know at how early a period his read literary review, which quoted and mind discarded the sterner aspects of the also enlarged upon it; and it will doubt- Christian faith. I am inclined to think less have given rise to some anxious that it never consciously entertained them. speculations as to whether, or how far, It was not in its nature to receive any Browning could have been capable of body of doctrine in a stereotyped form; denying the faith he held; or of allowing and the continuity he always claimed for himself to be credited with one which he his mental life also forbids the idea of a did not hold. I can assert that he did radical change of view as having at any neither of these things; and in re-stating time asserted itself within him. We may what I know, I shall now have the satis- read orthodox Christianity into "Christfaction of vindicating his sincerity besides mas Eve" and "Easter Day," the latter justifying my own position. I believe the part of "Saul," the "Epistle of Karshish," incident here related to be true; I have and perhaps "A Death in the Desert." no right to dispute Mr. Buchanan's assur- We may also, with a slight allowance for ance concerning it, and I know it to have the dramatic mood, construe these poems been compatible with certain aspects of in the wider sense to be discovered in all Mr. Browning's nature. I also believe, as his later words and works; even in the firmly, that in the spirit and in the inten- vision of judgment depicted in "Easter tion in which it is related, it conveys what Day," we find a culprit judged on his own was not true. Mr. Buchanan's reviewer in merits, and the scheme of eternal punishthe Literary World has rightly inter- ment superseded by one of natural retripreted the "emphatic no!” by which Mr.bution. We have no reason for thinking Browning answered the question whether or not he was a "Christian." It referred, without doubt, to some meaning of the term which Mr. Buchanan's words had suggested to him. "I am not in that sense a Christian" was what his denial contained. A momentary irritation suppressed the softening clause.
Mr. Browning neither was nor could be, at the time of which I speak, a Christian in the orthodox sense of the word; for he rejected the antithesis of good and evil, on which orthodox Christianity rests; he held, in common with Pantheists, though without reference to them, that every
that doctrine, as such, ever possessed any interest for him; his works bear little or no trace of the doctrinal controversies of his day; Bishop Blougram's "Apology" had no true bearing upon them. His Nonconformist training and still limited social experience might preclude any active interest in the Oxford Tractarian movement; but it is notable that this new quickening of the religious life of his country this new phase of religious conflict in it never even supplied him with a dramatic type. It was not till seventeen years after the appearance of the first tract that he published the one poem in
which some echo of doctrinal differences could be sought; and the question debated in "Christmas Eve" did not turn on doctrinal differences, or even on the validity of doctrine and the rights of individual thought. Its implied verdict was in favor of ultra-Protestantism; but its argument simply resolved itself into this: assuming Christ as the unfailing guide and the central reality of our religious life, how do we most truly conceive and, therefore, most truly worship him? Does his appeal to us lie through the primitive human emotions, the æsthetic imagination, or the critical reason? Is he nearest to us in the services of the Evangelical chapel, the ceremonial of the Roman Catholic Church, the discoveries of the German Rationalist professor? The conclusion would have been foregone at any moment of Mr. Browning's life.
When he came to reside in London, and gradually assumed his position in its intellectual world, the questions by which that world was divided naturally forced themselves upon his mind. Its scientific atmosphere was full of tests for his faith; and after disclaiming certain opinions which were implied in the name of Christian, he had still to vindicate within himself the essential Christianity which had become inwoven with the deepest currents of his life. When I first met him, after a lapse of many years, in the early summer of 1869, the traces of this spiritual disturbance were, I think, very apparent in him. The affirmations of belief which he made in the course of our conversations had a ring of self-defence scarcely justified by the circumstances which had immediately provoked them. "I know the difficulty of believing," he once said to me, when some question had arisen concerning the Christian scheme of salvation. "I know all that may be said against it, on the ground of history, of reason, of even moral sense. I grant even that it may be a fiction. But I am none the less convinced that the life and death of Christ, as Christians apprehend them, supply something which their humanity requires, and that it is true for them." He then proceeded to say why, in his judgment, humanity required Christ. "The evidence of divine power is everywhere about us; not so the evidence of divine love. That love could only reveal itself to the human heart by some supreme act of human tenderness and devotion; the fact, or fancy, of Christ's cross and passion could alone supply such a revelation." I did not, at the time, regard these words
as a plea for an even modified belief on his own part. What I read into them was an apology for the varying degrees of literalism with which the Christian doctrine has been accepted, as well as an expression of sympathy for its more mystical or more subjective forms. This was probably all he meant at the moment of speaking, although the need to which Christ responds was more real, even for him, than I then knew.
On another occasion, which I specially remember, he spoke of Christianity in relation to his own life; and he concluded what he had been saying, and I cannot now recall, by reading to me the Epilogue to "Dramatis Personæ." It will be remembered that its beautiful and pathetic second part is a cry of spiritual bereavement; the cry of those victims to nineteenthcentury scepticism for whom the Incarnate Love had disappeared from the universe, carrying with it the belief in God. The third attests the continued presence of God in Christ as mystically manifest to the individual soul.
That one Face, far from vanish rather grows,
"That Face," he said, as he closed the book, "is the face of Christ. That is how I feel him."
The divine presence thus affirmed impressed me, however, as a humanized or naturalistic aspect of the Deity, rather than God in human form; and, when I began the "Handbook " in 1882, I could still give it as my conviction that Christ was for him a spiritual mystery, much more than a definable or dogmatic fact. I may add that on this, as on every other point, my treatment of his religious views received his unqualified approbation. But the line, which in his conception of Christianity, divided spiritual experience from external fact can at no time have been firmly drawn. It was scarcely conceivable that it should be. Six years before the "Handbook" was contemplated he had written to a lady, who "believed herself dying," a letter, now frequently quoted. which claimed for intuition the value of actual knowledge in regard to the divinity of Christ; and in later days he himself asserted that divinity on the strength of certain incidents of the Gospel narrative in regard to which his known mistrust of human evidence must have been suspended. It was not till after his death that I learned the existence of this letter, though I knew something of the circum
stances in which it must have been written; but I gave full weight to its contents, reiterated as they had been in my own hearing; and it will be found that, in the memoir of the poet, I represent him as more definitely a Christian than I did when speaking of him in the "Handbook; "though the later statement could not receive his sanction, and the earlier had done so.
The one consistent fact of Mr. Browning's heterodoxy was its exclusion of any belief in revelation. He had framed for himself a gospel of uncertainty; and, whether this related itself to his scepticism as cause or as effect, it was rooted in his religious life. I have touched on it in the memoir in reference to "Easter Day," and the discrepancies to be noted between the teaching of this poem and that of "Christmas Eve; " but it is more distinctly formulated in his later works. The "Pope " deplores the existing certainties of belief and the habit of mind engendered by them, as answerable for the depravities which he is called upon to judge. John, dying in the desert, and reaffirming his own faith in the mournful prophetic vision of an age of doubt, pleads the value of receding knowledge to the quickened spiritual life. I need hardly suggest that it is neither the seventeenth-century pope nor the Evangelist John who thus anticipates the perplexities of our modern thought; but the poet's own soul, which cries to us in their words.
This condition is best illustrated by his attitude towards the question of immortality; and that again is brought home to us in the letter to which I have referred, and which several critics have accused me of ignoring, as hostile to my own judg. ment of the case. I now quote it in full:
vous que je me connais en hommes? Eh
We learn from these words that he had been "thrilled" by the conviction of Dante as, on a different point, by that of Charles Lamb and of Napoleon. It had found a vivid response in his own mind. But his habitual condition was that of simple hope, and it appears to me that if the reiterated affirmings of the great Italian poet had proceeded directly from himself, they would have proved him no nearer to the Christian certitude which acknowledges a divinely revealed fact and leaves no room for affirmation. That Dante was a believer, and nevertheless affirmed, was a singular circumstance which does not affect the position.
It will perhaps be argued that the uncertainties implied in Mr. Browning's expression of hope referred, not to the fact of eternal life, but to his own destined admission to it. This idea cannot for a moment be entertained. The life beyond the grave, which that hope foreshadowed, was no more for him necessarily a scene of reward than, in any conceivable case, one of eternal punishment. It involved neither conditions of fitness nor possibil ity of exclusion. It was simply a continuance of the life begun on earth; another stage in the development of the divine scheme of creation.
It is a great thing-the greatest-that a human being should have passed the probation of life, and sum up its experience in a witness to the power and love of God. I dare congratulate you. All the help I can offer in my poor degree is the assurance that I see ever more reason to hold by the same hope, and that by no means in ignorance of what has been advanced to the contrary, and for your sake I would wish it to be true that I had so much of "genius " as to permit the testimony The hope of renewed existence was in of an especially privileged insight to come in his case the impulse of a nature too vivid aid of the ordinary argument. For I know I to admit the thought of annihilation. It myself have been aware of the communication was justified by his belief in the existence of something more subtle than a ratiocinative process when the convictions of genius have of God and in the immateriality of the thrilled my soul to its depths; as when Napo- soul. But it clearly borrowed nothing from leon, shutting up the New Testament, said of the words of Christ, and it sought a negaChrist: "Do you know, I am an understander tive confirmation in the very absence of a of men? Well, he was no man." (Savez- promise, which, as he strove to demon
idea of God were with him superadded to the first conception. This fact connects itself with a passage in my book which has been subjected to special criticism, and which also I desire to amplify and explain, for the reasons given at the beginning of this paper. The passage is
But such weaknesses as were involved in
his logical position are inherent to all the higher forms of natural theology when once it has been erected into a dogma. As main
strate, would itself have neutralized the conditions of its fulfilment. The demonstration was worked out in "La Saisiaz," by what process I need not repeat, since I have described it in the "Life," and more in detail in the "Handbook;" but it may be worth while to add that the main argument of the poem as given in the "Handbook" was not only endorsed by Mr. Browning; it was directly supplied by him. (This is my answer to a critic who taxes me with not appreciating the real drift of the poem.) The whole retained by Mr. Browning, this belief held a mainder of my work was only submitted to him in proof, thus receiving the corrections which I have mentioned in the second edition. "La Saisiaz" offered no difficulties which I could not have dealt with in the same way; but I had an extraneous reason for desiring that, in this case, the interpretation of the poem should proceed from the author's lips. I begged him to give me a short statement of its argument and its conclusion; and he answered the request by bringing me a prose abstract of the dialogue between "Fancy and "Reason," and saying, "It is all there." I almost verbally copied the little manuscript, supplying, of course, the general summary of the poem myself.
saving clause, which removed it from all dogmatic, hence all admissible grounds of controversy: the more definite or concrete conceptions of which it consists possessed no finality for even his own mind; they represented for him an absolute truth in contingent relations to it. No one felt more strongly than he the contradictions involved in any conceivable system of Divine creation and government. No one knew better that every act and motive which we attribute to a Supreme Being is a virtual negation of his existence. He believed nevertheless that such a Being exists; and he "accepted his reflection in the mirror of the human consciousness, as a necessarily false image, but one which bears witness to the
The arguments advanced by "Reason" in support of uncertainty do not, however, show him at his best. They do not display the usual subtlety of his appreciations of human life. They either ignore the immense advantage possessed by the near over the far, the known over the unknown, in all the normal conditions of our existence, or they confuse the conceivable certainty of a future state with a knowledge of its circumstance, which has no part in the question. They apply at best to that crude idea of eternal reward and punish ment which is excluded from his habitual point of view. There were moments when he himself would have welcomed a more positive guarantee for a life beyond the grave than his practically pure theism could supply; though his tone concerning this and other objects of belief became more confident as his life advanced.
God could only exist for Mr. Browning as source and origin of thought; in this respect, therefore, as first and last word of creation, But he otherwise imagined him in all the negations of pure being. ("Caliban upon Setebos" was only a travesty of his natural conviction that a complete divine existence could contain no motive for the making of a world.) He was at best a colorless Omnipotence, or a power combined with will. It was because the Deity of his conception had nothing in common with the emotional life of man, that Christ, whether in his mystical or historical character, became for him a necessity of belief; and I can account in no other way for the constant appeal which meets us in all his works of the middle period against the denial of Christ or the worship of a "loveless" God. Its full dramatic justification is only to be found in the mind of David. Its personal inMr. Browning's theism was more defi- spiration cannot have proceeded from the nite than his Christianity, but his mental poet's external life. Religious heterodoxy idiosyncrasies were still more strongly has been always directed against the impressed upon it. The metaphysical and avenging aspects of the Deity. The the emotional elements which composed arguments which impugn his love proceed it did not combine, as is usually the case, from wider grounds of disbelief, and are into the theological idea of God. His combated in this sense in the epilogue to abstract idea of the Deity was, in fact, far" Dramatis Personæ." The problem of more the Supreme Being of metaphysics than the God of theology; and the human attributes which enter into the received 3972
suffering may have been more present to him in those years of marriage and the first period of his widowhood than it was
in the later stages of his life; but it never
While what I needs must thank, must needs
Purpose with power, -humanity like mine,
What need of will, then? what opposes power?
And he now evolves the doctrine of a double being in God, from the necessity of discovering an object for the higher emotions of mankind:
Man's soul is moved by what, if it in turn
It is impossible to describe a very complex nature from even a sustained point of view without incurring the appearance of inconsistency; and I confess that, when I began the "Handbook," a somewhat different and more uniform impression of Mr. Browning's faith had established itself in my mind. But he had not then published "Ferishtah's Fancies;" and, as his actual life shaped itself in the memoir, one of the parables of this work flashed upon me, in connection with his spoken words, as striking the true key-note of his religious belief. I have referred my readers to this poem at the close of the very passage which was in part inspired by it; but my critics have found it convenient to ignore the fact. The parable is that of the Let each assume that scent and love alike "Sun." In it the Supreme Being is sym-Being once born, must needs have use! Man's bolized by that heat and-life-giving orb which is sometimes worshipped as a Is plain- to send love forth, ― astray, perdivinity. The speaker dwells on the difficulties of worship, where the giver of all good may be credited with neither benevolent consciousness in the gift nor sensibility to the gratitude which it inspires; and in so doing he sets forth what was, for the poet himself, the logical dilemma of the conception of God. The italics are mine:
But that the sun
No matter, he has done his part.
When Mr. Browning wrote this parable, the question which it embodied had, for all effective purposes, solved itself in his mind. Then, as so often in matters of faith, the object of his reasonings was to defend a foregone conclusion. The belief in Christ had asserted itself as guarantee for the human sympathies of the Creator; and, without losing in strength, had re