Would it be possible to find in the whole range of modern poetry a greater contrast than between Walt Whitman and Robert Browning; the one typical of the vigorous, if somewhat undisciplined, vitality of the new Western World; the other, of power held in reserve, and of generations of culture, not inaptly symbolized by the beauty of that Venice where so much of his best work was done?
The two poets are the very antithesis of one another, yet the same truth has revealed itself to each: each has made the discovery of the great reality that is beneath all appearances, and has found the essence of true Being, From beyond the Atlantic waves and from the lagoons of Venice came the two voices bearing one testimony—the testimony that the Good is the True.
The evil is null, is naught, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more,
says Browning; and Walt Whitman makes answer:—
And the vast all that is call'd Evil I saw hastening to merge itself and become lost and dead.
"The Evil is null, is naught—" "All that is call'd Evil I saw hastening to merge itself and become lost." Were both these great thinkers, then, blind to the fact that there is evil in the world? Surely no two men were ever more wide-awake to the realities of life? It is not because they were blind, but because they saw deeper into the heart of things than others, that they both arrived at the same solution of the great problem that the Evil is not ultimately the Real. Yet their point of view is not quite identical. For Browning the evil never was: for Whitman it is hastening to merge itself and become lost. Browning looks at the eternal nature of being, and declares that it cannot be evil in itself; Whitman looks at the manifested forms of existence, and sees them hastening to assume their true relation to the living Principle which gives rise to them.
"Order is heaven's first law," and these two poets proclaim with a loud Eureka that it is the inverted order, and not the inherent nature of things, which causes the evil we see around us. As dirt has been defined to be matter out of place, so Evil may be defined to be Good in the wrong order. In the next chemist's shop you pass you will find materials sufficient to set up in business a dozen professional poisoners of Medicean Italy; yet none of them are there except for their life-giving properties. Throughout the universe there is not one thing evil in itself. lt is the order that makes all the difference. If you point your rocket to the earth, shall you blame its maker that it does not ascend into the sky? The one hope for us all, individually and collectively, lies in discovering the true order. An ancient tradition handed down in the "Gospel of the Egyptians" tells us that when Jesus was asked when the Kingdom of Heaven should come, he replied, "When that which is without shall be as that which is within"; in other words, when the outward manifestation shall correspond with the real inmost nature, which for him also was inherently good.
The optimism of these great minds is not the ostrich-like complacency which first shuts its eyes and then says that what it cannot see does not exist. lt is a great working power. It is the only working power for that vast work which is to develop the future of humanity. Columbus must first be convinced that there is a New World before he can set out in quest of it; and if the Kingdom of Heaven is to be spread upon earth, we must first be assured that the materials exist out of which to construct it. For we shall miserably deceive ourselves if we expect some new material to be miraculously introduced. "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," it is "within you"; and it is out of the men and women that we are now, and out of the material ready to hand now, that the great fabric of the coming age is to be built up. Let us not, like the carter in Aesop's fable, idly wait for some deus ex machina to do for us what the Divine Power can only do through us. Men themselves are the only agents by whom the great work can be done of substituting the living, growing order for the inverted one; and if this is ever to be accomplished, it can only be by keeping our gaze steadily upon the good that is there already, clearly visible to us, however invisible to others. We might well be discouraged if we had to make the good; but that is not our task. The right material exists already in us and around us, and our work is to bring it into that true order in which no element is left without a proper field for the full operation of all its affinities; and the student of the divine chemistry proceeds always upon the basic axiom that each spiritual element, as surely as each physical one, has its exact combining quantities, which patient and intelligent study will enable him to discover. Only bring the right elements together, and by their very nature they cannot help combining to form things useful and things beautiful in variety infinite with the universal infinitude; and in seeking these newer and fuller expressions of themselves they must perforce desert the combinations in which they formerly existed, and thus the old noxious compound which was known as Evil shall be dissipated by the proper action of the very self-same elements that composed it. It will hasten to merge itself and be lost, because it never had any place in the innermost sanctuary of Being, and in essence always it was "null" and "naught."
There is old authority for saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and we belie the very principle of Life if we assert that those conditions which restrict and narrow it are its necessary outcome. The law of Life is Expansion; and that is Evil which tells me either that I am myself cut off from the operation of this law, or that its power is so limited that my own growth can be attained only by stunting the growth of others. "Live and let live" is a motto for every man, and Marcus Aurelius was right when he said that what is not for the interest of the whole swarm is not for the interest of the single bee.
If, then, we would realize Browning's great discovery of the essential nullity of Evil, if we would see it as Walt Whitman saw it hastening to merge itself and be lost, we must each in our measure help to pull the ropes of those bells which, as yet another poet prophesies, shall in due time
Ring in the nobler modes of life;
and we must have confidence in that intuition which tells us that we are ourselves the embodiment of the Power which we seek, that we live because we are life, that the essence of Being cannot be other than the Good, and that the Evil is but a transitory form, which takes substance only as we give it substance by our limited and inverted modes of thought.