Lecture 4: Robert Browning

After publishing two collections of poems and two collections of essays, Chesterton wrote his first real book in 1903. John Morley, the editor of the “English Men of Letters” series, took a risk assigning the 29-year-old Chesterton to write a biography of Robert Browning. Chesterton had already gained something of a reputation as an “idiosyncratic” writer, with “a distinctive style and a riotous gift of paradox.” But Chesterton was worth the risk. With his Robert Browning, he took the literary world by storm. Critics praised the book, all of them duly affected even if they weren’t quite sure what to do about it, since critics resist being brought to their knees. “One is seeing stars all the time while reading Mr. Chesterton’s ‘Browning’; but stars, after all, have a certain importance in the scheme of things.” (Vanity Fair) “[H]e does not think first and write afterwards, but he thinks and writes simultaneously.” (The Athanaeum). “He is the D’Artagnan of literary journalism, ever spoiling for a fight… It is a wholesome thing to meet with such a cheerfully pugnatious personality, even if our sensibilities are made to smart occasionally and if long-cherished convictions become slashed and scarred.” (The Westminster Gazzette) James Douglas called the book, “the most brilliant, most original, and most suggestive piece of criticism that I have read for years.” And Alfred Noyes noted how Chesterton went far beyond mere interpretation of Browning and presented “a very profound philosophy of life.”

Looking back on his first big literary commission, Chesterton reflected in his Autobiography:

I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. There were very few biographical facts in the book, and those were nearly all wrong.

Unfortunately, this amusing but overly modest self-assessment would serve to reinforce Chesterton’s posthumous reputation as being a writer who may have had some good ideas, but never got his facts right. It is a reputation that sticks to Chesterton still, though his accusers are hard-pressed to produce anything but a handful of Chesterton’s factual errors. . . and even those are not clearly all wrong. But Chesterton was right in his analysis that his book on Browning gives us less of Browning than it does of Chesterton. But Browning was perhaps the best vehicle for Chesterton’s introduction to the literary world because so many of the things Chesterton wrote of Browning were true of Chesterton himself: “He had a memory like the British Museum Library.” “[He] wished to paint the dangers and disappointments which attend the man who believes merely in the intellect.” “A young man of genius who has a genuine humility in his heart does not elaborately explain his discoveries. He thinks the whole street is humming with his ideas, and that the postman and the tailor are poets like himself.” “With him the great concrete experiences which God made always come first; his own deductions and speculations about them always second.”

Chesterton takes pleasure in Browning, and we take pleasure in that pleasure. He shares the poet’s vast appreciation of life which sees the poetic and the romantic in everything. Little details can “suddenly send an arrow through the heart.” A laundry list can be turned into a sentimental poem because of the feelings each object can arouse.

I question whether any one could read through the catalogue of a miscellaneous auction sale without coming upon things which, if realised for a moment, would be near to the elemental tears. And if any of us or all us are truly optimists, and believe as Browning did, that existence has a value wholly inexpressible, we are most truly compelled to that sentiment not by any argument or triumphant justification of the cosmos, but by a few of these momentary and immortal sights and sounds, a gesture, an old song, a portrait, a piano, an old door.

Chesterton points out that Browning is more than a mere optimist. “His happiness is primal, and beyond the reach of philosophy. He is something far more convincing, far more comforting, far more religiously significant than an optimist; he is a happy man.” Which is a description of far too few men of literature. But it explains why Chesterton was drawn to Browning, and why we are drawn to Chesterton.

This book is currently out of print.

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