They are, as he gave notice, "poems, not dramas." The interest is not in the external events, but in the "development of a soul"; but they are observations of other men's souls, not direct revelations of his own. Paracelsus was based upon a study of the original narrative, and Sordello was a historical though a very indefinite person. The background of history is intentionally vague in both cases. There is one remarkable difference between them. The Paracelsus, though full of noble passages, is certainly diffuse. Browning heard that John Sterling had complained of its "verbosity," and tried to remedy this failing by the surgical expedient of cutting out the usual connecting words. Relative pronouns henceforth become scarce in his poetry, and the grammatical construction often a matter of conjecture. Words are forcibly jammed together instead of being articulately combined. To the ordinary reader many passages in his later work are both crabbed and obscure, but the "obscurity" never afterwards reached the pitch of Sordello. It is due to the vagueness with which the story is rather hinted than told, as well as to the subtlety and intricacy of the psychological expositions.
The subtlety and vigour of the thought are indeed surprising, and may justify the frequent comparisons to Shakespeare; and it abounds in descriptive passages of genuine poetry.
Still, Browning seems to have been misled by a fallacy. It was quite legitimate to subordinate the external incidents to the psychological development in which he was really interested, but to secure the subordination by making the incidents barely intelligible was not a logical consequence. We should not understand Hamlet's psychological peculiarities the better if we had to infer his family troubles from indirect hints. Browning gave more time to Sordello than to any other work, and perhaps had become so familiar with the story which he professed to tell that he failed to make allowance for his readers' difficulties. In any case it was not surprising that the ordinary reader should be puzzled and repelled, and the general recognition of his genius long delayed, by his reputation for obscurity.
It might, however, be expected that he would make a more successful appeal to the public by purely dramatic work, in which he would have to limit his psychological speculation and to place his characters in plain situations. Paracelsus and Sordello show so great a power of reading character and appreciating subtler springs of conduct that its author clearly had one, at least, of the essential qualifications of a dramatist.
Before Sordello appeared Browning had tried his hand in this direction. He was encouraged by outward circumstances as well as by his natural bent. He was making friends and gaining some real appreciative admirers. John Forster had been greatly impressed by Paracelsus. Browning's love of the theatre had led to an introduction to Macready in the winter of 1835-1836; and Macready, who had been also impressed by Paracelsus, asked him for a play. Browning consented and wrote Strafford, which was produced at Covent Garden in May 1837, Macready taking the principal part. Later dramas were King Victor and King Charles, published in 1842; The Return of the Druses and A Blot on the 'Scutcheon (both in 1843), Colombe's Birthday (1844), Luria and A Soul's Tragedy (both in 1846), and the fragmentary In a Balcony (1853). Strafford succeeded fairly, though the defection of Vandenhoff, who took the part of Pym, stopped its run after the fifth performance. The Blot on the 'Scutcheon, produced by Macready as manager of Drury Lane on the 11th of February 1843, led to an unfortunate quarrel. Browning thought that Macready had felt unworthy jealousy of another actor, and had gratified his spite by an inadequate presentation of the play.
He remonstrated indignantly and the friendship was broken off for years. Browning was disgusted by his experience of the annoyances of practical play-writing, though he was not altogether discouraged. The play had apparently such a moderate success as was possible under the conditions, and a similar modest result was attained by Colombe's Birthday, produced at Covent Garden on the 25th of April 1853. Browning, like other eminent writers of the day, failed to achieve the feat of attracting the British public by dramas of high literary aims, and soon gave up the attempt. It has been said by competent critics that some of the plays could be fitted for the stage by judicious adaptation. The Blot on the 'Scutcheon has a very clear and forcibly treated situation; and all the plays abound in passages of high poetic power. Like the poems, they deal with situations involving a moral probation of the characters, and often suggesting the ethical problems which always interested him. The speeches tend to become elaborate analyses of motive by the persons concerned, and try the patience of an average audience.
For whatever reason, Browning, though he had given sufficient proofs of genius, had not found in these works the most appropriate mode of utterance.
The dramas, after Strafford, formed the greatest part of a series of pamphlets called Bells and Pomegranates, eight of which were issued from 1841 to 1846. The name, he explained, was intended to indicate an "alternation of poetry and thought." The first number contained the fanciful and characteristic Pippa Passes. The seventh, significantly named Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, contained some of his most striking shorter poems. In 1844 he contributed six poems, among which were "The Flight of the Duchess" and "The Bishop orders his Tomb at St Praxed's Church," to Hood's Magazine, in order to help Hood, then in his last illness. These poems take the special form in which Browning is unrivalled. He wrote very few lyrical poems of the ordinary kind purporting to give a direct expression of his own personal emotions. But, in the lyric which gives the essential sentiment of some impressive dramatic situation, he has rarely been approached. There is scarcely one of the poems published at this time which can be read without fixing itself at once in the memory as a forcible and pungent presentation of a characteristic mood.