The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 4. Paracelsus

Browning is said to have written Paracelsus in six months, meditating not a few of its passages during midnight walks, within sight of the glare of London lights, and the muffled hearing of its quieting tumult. This poem belongs to an altogether different altitude from that of Pauline. Instead of a confused rendering of vague dreams and seething sentiments and passions, we have, in Paracelsus, the story of the lithe and sinewy strength of early manhood, the manifold powers of a most gifted spirit braced together and passionately dedicated to the service of an iron-hard intellectual ambition. Here is the “intensest life” resolute upon acquiring, at any cost, the intellectual mastery of mankind.

The subject was suggested to Browning by a French royalist and refugee, count Amédée de Ripert-Monclar, and the poem is dedicated to him. Browning was already acquainted with the career and character of Paracelsus—his works were in his father’s library. Moreover, it is beyond doubt that, at this stage of his life, in particular, the poet was driven by a like hunger for knowledge and ambition for intellectual sovereignty. His reading of his subject implies affinity of mind and is altogether sympathetic. The eccentricities of behaviour, the charlatanism, the boundless conceit, the miracles and absurdities with which Paracelsus was accredited by popular belief, either disappear or are sublimated into elements of a dramatic romance which has something of the greatness and seriousness of tragedy. To assume that Browning, in this poem, was depicting “the fall of a logician,” or of set design “destroying the intellectualist fallacy,” is to misunderstand the spirit in which the poem was written. The adventurous alchemist was himself too much a poet to serve such an unpoetic purpose, even if Browning had been so little a poet as to form it. Paracelsus does not “fall”: he “attains.”

  • Far from convicting him of intellectual futility, Browning actually made him divine the secret he sought, and, in one of the most splendid passages of modern poetry, declare with his dying lips a faith which is no less Browning’s than his own.
  • True! knowledge without love is not even power; but neither is love without knowledge; and the consummation of the achievement of Paracelsus is that love becomes the means of knowledge and intelligence the instrument of love. “The simultaneous perception of Love and Power in the Absolute” was, in Browning’s view, “the noblest and predominant characteristic of Shelley”; and, for Browning, even in his most “metaphysical” days, when knowledge was always said to have “failed,” it was still a power.

    Paracelsus is the most miraculous and inexplicable of all the exhibitions of Browning’s genius. The promise it contained, with all the poet’s lasting greatness, was not fulfilled. Its form and artistic manner, the lineaments and the movements of the mind which works within it, the noble passions which moved the poet and the faith which inspired and controlled him—these are pre-eminently illuminating to the student of Browning and by far the best introduction to all he strove to do. Paracelsus is interesting, also, as touching the new times which were dawning around the young poet. In its closing pages, something of the spirit of modern science comes forth, for the moment, at least, wearing the garb of poetry. Never was the conception of the evolutionary continuity of nature more marvellously rendered,

  • as successive zones
  • Of several wonder open on some spirit
  • Flying secure and glad from heaven to heaven.
  • The young poet had even grasped, what took the world another half-century to perceive, that the idea of evolution levelled upwards and not downwards, spiritualised nature rather than naturalised spirit.

    The minor characters of Paracelsus need not detain us. Festus is the commonsense foil of the hero, and the gentle domestic Michal, maiden and sorrowing mother, is only less of a shadow than Pauline. Aprile is an unsubstantial moonstruck “wraith of a poet,” who “would love infinitely and be loved” but his rôle is most significantly derived and borrowed and accidental.

  • I saw Aprile—my Aprile there!
  • And as the poor melodious wretch disburthened
  • His heart, and moaned his weakness in my ear,
  • I learned my own deep error.
  • Paracelsus learnt from him “the worth of love in man’s estate and what proportion love should hold with power.” It was this new knowledge which made him wise to know mankind,
  • be proud
  • Of their half-reasons, faint aspirings, dim
  • Struggles for truth, their poorest fallacies,
  • “all with a touch of nobleness … upward tending,”
  • Like plants in mines which never saw the sun,
  • But dream of him, and guess where he may be,
  • And do their best to climb and get to him.
  • With this knowledge, this “splendour of God’s lamp” on his dying brow, he is as secure of “emerging one day,” as he was when he first set forth “to prove his soul.”

    Paracelsus, on its publication, was hailed by the ever faithful and watchful Fox; but the most striking notice it received was from John Forster. He predicted for the author a brilliant career, and, in a second article on the poem, said, with unusual daring as well as insight, “Without the slightest hesitation we name Mr. Robert Browning at once with Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth.” But, by most journals, Paracelsus was simply neglected. In his letters to Elizabeth Barrett, Browning refers to the contemptuous treatment it received. It brought him neither money nor fame.

    But it brought him, first, the acquaintance, and, then, the friendship, of the most distinguished men of the day—among them were Wordsworth, Dickens, Landor and Carlyle; and in nothing was the manly munificence of Browning’s nature more evident than in his friendships. His affection for Landor, touched with sympathy as well as admiration, showed itself, in later years, in a care for him which was “one of the most beautiful incidents in a beautiful life.” The friendship with Carlyle was, on both sides, peculiarly warm and trustful. “I have just seen dear Carlyle,” says Browning, “catch me calling people ‘dear,’ in a hurry”; and that Carlyle should cross over to Paris just to see and dine with Browning is, assuredly, eloquent of his regard and affection for the young poet. “Commanded of me by my venerated friend Thomas Carlyle,” says Browning of his translation of Agamemnon, “and rewarded will it indeed become if I am permitted to dignify it by the prefatory insertion of his dear and noble name.” John Forster and William Macready were also added at this time to the group of Browning’s friends and his acquaintance with the latter had, for a time, an important bearing upon his work.

    In Pauline and Paracelsus, it has been well said, Browning had “analysed rather than exhibited” character. The soul, “the one thing” which he thought “worth knowing,” was the psychologist’s abstract entity, little more than a stage occupied successively by moods and passions: it was not the concrete, complex self, veined and blood-tinctured. Moreover (which signifies much), all its history fell within itself, and external circumstance, instead of furnishing it with the material out of which character is hewn, was but “decoration,” to use Browning’s own phrase, and was purposely put into the background. These two poems were thus justly called “confessional”: they were subjective and self-conscious.

    No sooner was Paracelsus finished than Browning contemplated another “soul-history.” In it, once more, a greatly aspiring soul was to recognize, only at the last moment and after much “apparent failure,” the mission which could save, fitting to the finite his infinity. The story that he wished to tell was Sordello.