Life and Letters of Robert Browning
Mrs. Sutherland Orr

Part 1 out of 7

Please note:
The Following Books relating to Robert Browning are now online:

Corson, Hiram. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning's Poetry,
3rd edition.
This book is primarily concerned with Browning's poems.
Advantages: This book is an excellent introduction to Browning.

Orr, Mrs. Sutherland. Life and Letters of Robert Browning, 2nd edition.
This book is primarily concerned with Browning's life.
Advantages: As a close friend, the author has a good grasp of the facts,
and is meticulous in her treatment of the material.
Disadvantages: As a close friend, the author is sometimes partisan.

Sharp, William. Life of Robert Browning, 1st edition.
Despite the title, this book is as much a critique of Browning's works
as it is a biography of the poet.
Advantages: Further removed from poet, the author is willing to make
some criticisms of the poet. As an early and frequently quoted work
on the subject, this book is a good resource.
Disadvantages: Due to carelessness on the part of the author
and his publisher, a number of factual and other errors were made.
Although this electronic text has corrected many of the obvious errors,
they are frequent enough to leave misgivings.

[Note on text: Italicized words or phrases are capitalised.
Some obvious errors may have been corrected.]

Life and Letters of Robert Browning
by Mrs. Sutherland Orr
Second Edition


Such letters of Mr. Browning's as appear, whole or in part,
in the present volume have been in most cases given to me by the persons
to whom they were addressed, or copied by Miss Browning from the originals
under her care; but I owe to the daughter of the Rev. W. J. Fox
-- Mrs. Bridell Fox -- those written to her father and to Miss Flower;
the two interesting extracts from her father's correspondence with herself
and Mr. Browning's note to Mr. Robertson.

For my general material I have been largely indebted to Miss Browning.
Her memory was the only existing record of her brother's boyhood and youth.
It has been to me an unfailing as well as always accessible authority
for that subsequent period of his life which I could only know
in disconnected facts or his own fragmentary reminiscences.
It is less true, indeed, to say that she has greatly helped me
in writing this short biography than that without her help
it could never have been undertaken.

I thank my friends Mrs. R. Courtenay Bell and Miss Hickey
for their invaluable assistance in preparing the book for,
and carrying it through the press; and I acknowledge with real gratitude
the advantages derived by it from Mr. Dykes Campbell's
large literary experience in his very careful final revision of the proofs.

A. Orr.
April 22, 1891.


Chapter 1
Origin of the Browning Family -- Robert Browning's Grandfather --
His position and Character -- His first and second Marriage --
Unkindness towards his eldest Son, Robert Browning's Father --
Alleged Infusion of West Indian Blood through Robert Browning's Grandmother
-- Existing Evidence against it -- The Grandmother's Portrait.

Chapter 2
Robert Browning's Father -- His Position in Life --
Comparison between him and his Son -- Tenderness towards his Son --
Outline of his Habits and Character -- His Death --
Significant Newspaper Paragraph -- Letter of Mr. Locker-Lampson --
Robert Browning's Mother -- Her Character and Antecedents --
Their Influence upon her Son -- Nervous Delicacy imparted
to both her Children -- Its special Evidences in her Son.

Chapter 3
Birth of Robert Browning -- His Childhood and Schooldays --
Restless Temperament -- Brilliant Mental Endowments --
Incidental Peculiarities -- Strong Religious Feeling --
Passionate Attachment to his Mother; Grief at first Separation --
Fondness for Animals -- Experiences of School Life -- Extensive Reading --
Early Attempts in Verse -- Letter from his Father concerning them --
Spurious Poems in Circulation -- `Incondita' -- Mr. Fox -- Miss Flower.

Chapter 4
First Impressions of Keats and Shelley -- Prolonged Influence of Shelley --
Details of Home Education -- Its Effects -- Youthful Restlessness --
Counteracting Love of Home -- Early Friendships: Alfred Domett,
Joseph Arnould, the Silverthornes -- Choice of Poetry as a Profession --
Alternative Suggestions; mistaken Rumours concerning them --
Interest in Art -- Love of good Theatrical Performances --
Talent for Acting -- Final Preparation for Literary Life.

Chapter 5
`Pauline' -- Letters to Mr. Fox -- Publication of the Poem;
chief Biographical and Literary Characteristics --
Mr. Fox's Review in the `Monthly Repository'; other Notices --
Russian Journey -- Desired diplomatic Appointment --
Minor Poems; first Sonnet; their Mode of Appearance -- `The Trifler' --
M. de Ripert-Monclar -- `Paracelsus' -- Letters to Mr. Fox concerning it;
its Publication -- Incidental Origin of `Paracelsus';
its inspiring Motive; its Relation to `Pauline' --
Mr. Fox's Review of it in the `Monthly Repository' --
Article in the `Examiner' by John Forster.

Chapter 6
Removal to Hatcham; some Particulars -- Renewed Intercourse
with the second Family of Robert Browning's Grandfather --
Reuben Browning -- William Shergold Browning -- Visitors at Hatcham --
Thomas Carlyle -- Social Life -- New Friends and Acquaintance --
Introduction to Macready -- New Year's Eve at Elm Place --
Introduction to John Forster -- Miss Fanny Haworth -- Miss Martineau --
Serjeant Talfourd -- The `Ion' Supper -- `Strafford' --
Relations with Macready -- Performance of `Strafford' --
Letters concerning it from Mr. Browning and Miss Flower --
Personal Glimpses of Robert Browning -- Rival Forms
of Dramatic Inspiration -- Relation of `Strafford' to `Sordello' --
Mr. Robertson and the `Westminster Review'.

Chapter 7
First Italian Journey -- Letters to Miss Haworth -- Mr. John Kenyon --
`Sordello' -- Letter to Miss Flower -- `Pippa Passes' --
`Bells and Pomegranates'.

Chapter 8
`A Blot in the 'Scutcheon' -- Letters to Mr. Frank Hill; Lady Martin --
Charles Dickens -- Other Dramas and Minor Poems --
Letters to Miss Lee; Miss Haworth; Miss Flower --
Second Italian Journey; Naples -- E. J. Trelawney -- Stendhal.

Chapter 9
Introduction to Miss Barrett -- Engagement -- Motives for Secrecy --
Marriage -- Journey to Italy -- Extract of Letter from Mr. Fox --
Mrs. Browning's Letters to Miss Mitford -- Life at Pisa --
Vallombrosa -- Florence; Mr. Powers; Miss Boyle --
Proposed British Mission to the Vatican -- Father Prout -- Palazzo Guidi --
Fano; Ancona -- `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon' at Sadler's Wells.

Chapter 10
Death of Mr. Browning's Mother -- Birth of his Son --
Mrs. Browning's Letters continued -- Baths of Lucca -- Florence again --
Venice -- Margaret Fuller Ossoli -- Visit to England -- Winter in Paris --
Carlyle -- George Sand -- Alfred de Musset.

Chapter 11
M. Joseph Milsand -- His close Friendship with Mr. Browning;
Mrs. Browning's Impression of him -- New Edition of Mr. Browning's Poems --
`Christmas Eve and Easter Day' -- `Essay' on Shelley -- Summer in London --
Dante Gabriel Rossetti -- Florence; secluded Life --
Letters from Mr. and Mrs. Browning -- `Colombe's Birthday' --
Baths of Lucca -- Mrs. Browning's Letters -- Winter in Rome --
Mr. and Mrs. Story -- Mrs. Sartoris -- Mrs. Fanny Kemble --
Summer in London -- Tennyson -- Ruskin.

Chapter 12
`Men and Women' -- `Karshook' -- `Two in the Campagna' -- Winter in Paris;
Lady Elgin -- `Aurora Leigh' -- Death of Mr. Kenyon and Mr. Barrett --
Penini -- Mrs. Browning's Letters to Miss Browning --
The Florentine Carnival -- Baths of Lucca -- Spiritualism --
Mr. Kirkup; Count Ginnasi -- Letter from Mr. Browning to Mr. Fox -- Havre.

Chapter 13
Mrs. Browning's Illness -- Siena -- Letter from Mr. Browning to Mr. Leighton
-- Mrs. Browning's Letters continued -- Walter Savage Landor --
Winter in Rome -- Mr. Val Prinsep -- Friends in Rome:
Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright -- Multiplying Social Relations -- Massimo d'Azeglio
-- Siena again -- Illness and Death of Mrs. Browning's Sister --
Mr. Browning's Occupations -- Madame du Quaire --
Mrs. Browning's last Illness and Death.

Chapter 14
Miss Blagden -- Letters from Mr. Browning to Miss Haworth and Mr. Leighton
-- His Feeling in regard to Funeral Ceremonies -- Establishment in London --
Plan of Life -- Letter to Madame du Quaire -- Miss Arabel Barrett --
Biarritz -- Letters to Miss Blagden -- Conception of `The Ring and the Book'
-- Biographical Indiscretion -- New Edition of his Works --
Mr. and Mrs. Procter.

Chapter 15
Pornic -- `James Lee's Wife' -- Meeting at Mr. F. Palgrave's --
Letters to Miss Blagden -- His own Estimate of his Work --
His Father's Illness and Death; Miss Browning -- Le Croisic --
Academic Honours; Letter to the Master of Balliol --
Death of Miss Barrett -- Audierne -- Uniform Edition of his Works --
His rising Fame -- `Dramatis Personae' -- `The Ring and the Book';
Character of Pompilia.

Chapter 16
Lord Dufferin; Helen's Tower -- Scotland; Visit to Lady Ashburton --
Letters to Miss Blagden -- St.-Aubin; The Franco-Prussian War --
`Herve Riel' -- Letter to Mr. G. M. Smith -- `Balaustion's Adventure';
`Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau' -- `Fifine at the Fair' --
Mistaken Theories of Mr. Browning's Work -- St.-Aubin;
`Red Cotton Nightcap Country'.

Chapter 17
London Life -- Love of Music -- Miss Egerton-Smith --
Periodical Nervous Exhaustion -- Mers; `Aristophanes' Apology' --
`Agamemnon' -- `The Inn Album' -- `Pacchiarotto and other Poems' --
Visits to Oxford and Cambridge -- Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald --
St. Andrews; Letter from Professor Knight -- In the Savoyard Mountains --
Death of Miss Egerton-Smith -- `La Saisiaz'; `The Two Poets of Croisic' --
Selections from his Works.

Chapter 18
He revisits Italy; Asolo; Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald -- Venice --
Favourite Alpine Retreats -- Mrs. Arthur Bronson -- Life in Venice --
A Tragedy at Saint-Pierre -- Mr. Cholmondeley -- Mr. Browning's
Patriotic Feeling; Extract from Letter to Mrs. Charles Skirrow --
`Dramatic Idyls' -- `Jocoseria' -- `Ferishtah's Fancies'.

Chapter 19
The Browning Society; Mr. Furnivall; Miss E. H. Hickey --
His Attitude towards the Society; Letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald --
Mr. Thaxter, Mrs. Celia Thaxter -- Letter to Miss Hickey; `Strafford' --
Shakspere and Wordsworth Societies -- Letters to Professor Knight --
Appreciation in Italy; Professor Nencioni -- The Goldoni Sonnet --
Mr. Barrett Browning; Palazzo Manzoni -- Letters to Mrs. Charles Skirrow --
Mrs. Bloomfield Moore -- Llangollen; Sir Theodore and Lady Martin --
Loss of old Friends -- Foreign Correspondent of the Royal Academy --
`Parleyings with certain People of Importance in their Day'.

Chapter 20
Constancy to Habit -- Optimism -- Belief in Providence --
Political Opinions -- His Friendships -- Reverence for Genius --
Attitude towards his Public -- Attitude towards his Work --
Habits of Work -- His Reading -- Conversational Powers --
Impulsiveness and Reserve -- Nervous Peculiarities -- His Benevolence --
His Attitude towards Women.

Chapter 21
Marriage of Mr. Barrett Browning -- Removal to De Vere Gardens --
Symptoms of failing Strength -- New Poems; New Edition of his Works --
Letters to Mr. George Bainton, Mr. Smith, and Lady Martin --
Primiero and Venice -- Letters to Miss Keep -- The last Year in London --
Asolo -- Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, Mrs. Skirrow, and Mr. G. M. Smith.

Chapter 22
Proposed Purchase of Land at Asolo -- Venice --
Letter to Mr. G. Moulton-Barrett -- Lines in the `Athenaeum' --
Letter to Miss Keep -- Illness -- Death -- Funeral Ceremonial at Venice --
Publication of `Asolando' -- Interment in Poets' Corner.



Illustrations {not included in ASCII text}

Portrait of Robert Browning (1889)
Mr. Browning's Study in De Vere Gardens

Life and Letters of Robert Browning

Chapter 1

Origin of the Browning Family -- Robert Browning's Grandfather --
His position and Character -- His first and second Marriage --
Unkindness towards his eldest Son, Robert Browning's Father --
Alleged Infusion of West Indian Blood through Robert Browning's Grandmother
-- Existing Evidence against it -- The Grandmother's Portrait.

A belief was current in Mr. Browning's lifetime that he had Jewish blood
in his veins. It received outward support from certain accidents of his life,
from his known interest in the Hebrew language and literature,
from his friendship for various members of the Jewish community in London.
It might well have yielded to the fact of his never claiming the kinship,
which could not have existed without his knowledge, and which,
if he had known it, he would, by reason of these very sympathies,
have been the last person to disavow. The results of more recent
and more systematic inquiry have shown the belief to be unfounded.

Our poet sprang, on the father's side, from an obscure or,
as family tradition asserts, a decayed branch, of an Anglo-Saxon stock
settled, at an early period of our history, in the south,
and probably also south-west, of England. A line of Brownings
owned the manors of Melbury-Sampford and Melbury-Osmond,
in north-west Dorsetshire; their last representative disappeared --
or was believed to do so -- in the time of Henry VII.,
their manors passing into the hands of the Earls of Ilchester,
who still hold them.* The name occurs after 1542 in different parts
of the country: in two cases with the affix of `esquire', in two also,
though not in both coincidently, within twenty miles of Pentridge,
where the first distinct traces of the poet's family appear.
Its cradle, as he called it, was Woodyates, in the parish of Pentridge,
on the Wiltshire confines of Dorsetshire; and there his ancestors,
of the third and fourth generations, held, as we understand,
a modest but independent social position.

* I am indebted for these facts, as well as for some others
referring to, or supplied by, Mr. Browning's uncles,
to some notes made for the Browning Society by Dr. Furnivall.

This fragment of history, if we may so call it, accords better
with our impression of Mr. Browning's genius than could any pedigree
which more palpably connected him with the `knightly' and `squirely' families
whose name he bore. It supplies the strong roots of English national life
to which we instinctively refer it. Both the vivid originality of that genius
and its healthy assimilative power stamp it as, in some sense,
the product of virgin soil; and although the varied elements
which entered into its growth were racial as well as cultural,
and inherited as well as absorbed, the evidence of its strong
natural or physical basis remains undisturbed.

Mr. Browning, for his own part, maintained a neutral attitude in the matter.
He neither claimed nor disclaimed the more remote genealogical past
which had presented itself as a certainty to some older members of his family.
He preserved the old framed coat-of-arms handed down to him
from his grandfather; and used, without misgiving as to his right to do so,
a signet-ring engraved from it, the gift of a favourite uncle,
in years gone by. But, so long as he was young, he had no reason
to think about his ancestors; and, when he was old, he had no reason
to care about them; he knew himself to be, in every possible case,
the most important fact in his family history.

Roi ne suis, ni Prince aussi,
Suis le seigneur de Conti,

he wrote, a few years back, to a friend who had incidentally
questioned him about it.

Our immediate knowledge of the family begins with Mr. Browning's grandfather,
also a Robert Browning, who obtained through Lord Shaftesbury's influence
a clerkship in the Bank of England, and entered on it when barely twenty,
in 1769. He served fifty years, and rose to the position of
Principal of the Bank Stock Office, then an important one,
and which brought him into contact with the leading financiers of the day.
He became also a lieutenant in the Honourable Artillery Company,
and took part in the defence of the Bank in the Gordon Riots of 1789.
He was an able, energetic, and worldly man: an Englishman,
very much of the provincial type; his literary tastes being limited
to the Bible and `Tom Jones', both of which he is said to have read through
once a year. He possessed a handsome person and, probably,
a vigorous constitution, since he lived to the age of eighty-four,
though frequently tormented by gout; a circumstance which may help
to account for his not having seen much of his grandchildren,
the poet and his sister; we are indeed told that he particularly dreaded
the lively boy's vicinity to his afflicted foot. He married, in 1778,
Margaret, daughter of a Mr. Tittle by his marriage with Miss Seymour;
and who was born in the West Indies and had inherited property there.
They had three children: Robert, the poet's father; a daughter,
who lived an uneventful life and plays no part in the family history;
and another son who died an infant. The Creole mother died also
when her eldest boy was only seven years old, and passed out of his memory
in all but an indistinct impression of having seen her lying in her coffin.
Five years later the widower married a Miss Smith, who gave him
a large family.

This second marriage of Mr. Browning's was a critical event
in the life of his eldest son; it gave him, to all appearance,
two step-parents instead of one. There could have been little sympathy
between his father and himself, for no two persons were ever more unlike,
but there was yet another cause for the systematic unkindness
under which the lad grew up. Mr. Browning fell, as a hard man easily does,
greatly under the influence of his second wife, and this influence
was made by her to subserve the interests of a more than natural jealousy
of her predecessor. An early instance of this was her banishing
the dead lady's portrait to a garret, on the plea that her husband
did not need two wives. The son could be no burden upon her
because he had a little income, derived from his mother's brother;
but this, probably, only heightened her ill-will towards him.
When he was old enough to go to a University, and very desirous of going --
when, moreover, he offered to do so at his own cost --
she induced his father to forbid it, because, she urged,
they could not afford to send their other sons to college.
An earlier ambition of his had been to become an artist;
but when he showed his first completed picture to his father, the latter
turned away and refused to look at it. He gave himself the finishing stroke
in the parental eyes, by throwing up a lucrative employment
which he had held for a short time on his mother's West Indian property,
in disgust at the system of slave labour which was still in force there;
and he paid for this unpractical conduct as soon as he was of age,
by the compulsory reimbursement of all the expenses which his father,
up to that date, had incurred for him; and by the loss
of his mother's fortune, which, at the time of her marriage, had not been
settled upon her. It was probably in despair of doing anything better,
that, soon after this, in his twenty-second year, he also became a clerk
in the Bank of England. He married and settled in Camberwell, in 1811;
his son and daughter were born, respectively, in 1812 and 1814.
He became a widower in 1849; and when, four years later, he had completed
his term of service at the Bank, he went with his daughter to Paris,
where they resided until his death in 1866.

Dr. Furnivall has originated a theory, and maintains it as a conviction,
that Mr. Browning's grandmother was more than a Creole
in the strict sense of the term, that of a person born of white parents
in the West Indies, and that an unmistakable dash of dark blood
passed from her to her son and grandson. Such an occurrence was,
on the face of it, not impossible, and would be absolutely unimportant
to my mind, and, I think I may add, to that of Mr. Browning's sister and son.
The poet and his father were what we know them, and if negro blood
had any part in their composition, it was no worse for them,
and so much the better for the negro. But many persons among us
are very averse to the idea of such a cross; I believe its assertion,
in the present case, to be entirely mistaken; I prefer, therefore,
touching on the facts alleged in favour of it, to passing them over
in a silence which might be taken to mean indifference,
but might also be interpreted into assent.

We are told that Mr. Browning was so dark in early life,
that a nephew who saw him in Paris, in 1837, mistook him for an Italian.
He neither had nor could have had a nephew; and he was not out of England
at the time specified. It is said that when Mr. Browning senior
was residing on his mother's sugar plantation at St. Kitt's,
his appearance was held to justify his being placed in church
among the coloured members of the congregation. We are assured
in the strongest terms that the story has no foundation,
and this by a gentleman whose authority in all matters concerning
the Browning family Dr. Furnivall has otherwise accepted as conclusive.
If the anecdote were true it would be a singular circumstance
that Mr. Browning senior was always fond of drawing negro heads,
and thus obviously disclaimed any unpleasant association with them.

I do not know the exact physical indications by which a dark strain
is perceived; but if they are to be sought in the colouring of eyes,
hair, and skin, they have been conspicuously absent in the two persons
who in the present case are supposed to have borne them.
The poet's father had light blue eyes and, I am assured by those
who knew him best, a clear, ruddy complexion. His appearance
induced strangers passing him in the Paris streets to remark,
`C'est un Anglais!' The absolute whiteness of Miss Browning's skin
was modified in her brother by a sallow tinge sufficiently explained
by frequent disturbance of the liver; but it never affected
the clearness of his large blue-grey eyes; and his hair,
which grew dark as he approached manhood, though it never became black,
is spoken of, by everyone who remembers him in childhood and youth, as golden.
It is no less worthy of note that the daughter of his early friend Mr. Fox,
who grew up in the little social circle to which he belonged,
never even heard of the dark cross now imputed to him;
and a lady who made his acquaintance during his twenty-fourth year,
wrote a sonnet upon him, beginning with these words:

Thy brow is calm, young Poet -- pale and clear
As a moonlighted statue.

The suggestion of Italian characteristics in the Poet's face may serve,
however, to introduce a curious fact, which can have no bearing
on the main lines of his descent, but holds collateral possibilities
concerning it. His mother's name Wiedemann or Wiedeman
appears in a merely contracted form as that of one of the oldest families
naturalized in Venice. It became united by marriage with the Rezzonico;
and, by a strange coincidence, the last of these who occupied the palace
now owned by Mr. Barrett Browning was a Widman-Rezzonico.
The present Contessa Widman has lately restored her own palace,
which was falling into ruin.

That portrait of the first Mrs. Browning, which gave so much umbrage
to her husband's second wife, has hung for many years
in her grandson's dining-room, and is well known to all his friends.
It represents a stately woman with an unmistakably fair skin;
and if the face or hair betrays any indication of possible dark blood,
it is imperceptible to the general observer, and must be
of too slight and fugitive a nature to enter into the discussion.
A long curl touches one shoulder. One hand rests upon
a copy of Thomson's `Seasons', which was held to be
the proper study and recreation of cultivated women in those days.
The picture was painted by Wright of Derby.

A brother of this lady was an adventurous traveller,
and was said to have penetrated farther into the interior of Africa
than any other European of his time. His violent death will be found recorded
in a singular experience of the poet's middle life.

Chapter 2

Robert Browning's Father -- His Position in Life --
Comparison between him and his Son -- Tenderness towards his Son --
Outline of his Habits and Character -- His Death --
Significant Newspaper Paragraph -- Letter of Mr. Locker-Lampson --
Robert Browning's Mother -- Her Character and Antecedents --
Their Influence upon her Son -- Nervous Delicacy imparted
to both her Children -- Its special Evidences in her Son.

It was almost a matter of course that Robert Browning's father
should be disinclined for bank work. We are told, and can easily imagine,
that he was not so good an official as the grandfather;
we know that he did not rise so high, nor draw so large a salary.
But he made the best of his position for his family's sake,
and it was at that time both more important and more lucrative
than such appointments have since become. Its emoluments could be increased
by many honourable means not covered by the regular salary.
The working-day was short, and every additional hour's service well paid.
To be enrolled on the night-watch was also very remunerative;
there were enormous perquisites in pens, paper, and sealing-wax.*
Mr. Browning availed himself of these opportunities of adding to his income,
and was thus enabled, with the help of his private means, to gratify
his scholarly and artistic tastes, and give his children the benefit
of a very liberal education -- the one distinct ideal of success in life
which such a nature as his could form. Constituted as he was,
he probably suffered very little through the paternal unkindness
which had forced him into an uncongenial career. Its only palpable result
was to make him a more anxiously indulgent parent when his own time came.

* I have been told that, far from becoming careless in the use of these things
from his practically unbounded command of them, he developed for them
an almost superstitious reverence. He could never endure
to see a scrap of writing-paper wasted.

Many circumstances conspired to secure to the coming poet
a happier childhood and youth than his father had had. His path was to be
smoothed not only by natural affection and conscientious care,
but by literary and artistic sympathy. The second Mr. Browning differed,
in certain respects, as much from the third as from the first.
There were, nevertheless, strong points in which, if he did not resemble,
he at least distinctly foreshadowed him; and the genius of the one
would lack some possible explanation if we did not recognize in great measure
its organized material in the other. Much, indeed, that was genius in the son
existed as talent in the father. The moral nature of the younger man
diverged from that of the older, though retaining strong points of similarity;
but the mental equipments of the two differed far less in themselves than in
the different uses to which temperament and circumstances trained them.

The most salient intellectual characteristic of Mr. Browning senior
was his passion for reading. In his daughter's words,
`he read in season, and out of season;' and he not only read, but remembered.
As a schoolboy, he knew by heart the first book of the `Iliad',
and all the odes of Horace; and it shows how deeply
the classical part of his training must have entered into him,
that he was wont, in later life, to soothe his little boy to sleep
by humming to him an ode of Anacreon. It was one of his amusements at school
to organize Homeric combats among the boys, in which the fighting
was carried on in the manner of the Greeks and Trojans,
and he and his friend Kenyon would arm themselves with swords and shields,
and hack at each other lustily, exciting themselves to battle
by insulting speeches derived from the Homeric text.*

* This anecdote is partly quoted from Mrs. Andrew Crosse,
who has introduced it into her article `John Kenyon and his Friends',
`Temple Bar', April 1890. She herself received it from Mr. Dykes Campbell.

Mr. Browning had also an extraordinary power of versifying,
and taught his son from babyhood the words he wished him to remember,
by joining them to a grotesque rhyme; the child learned
all his Latin declensions in this way. His love of art had been proved
by his desire to adopt it as a profession; his talent for it
was evidenced by the life and power of the sketches, often caricatures,
which fell from his pen or pencil as easily as written words.
Mr. Barrett Browning remembers gaining a very early
elementary knowledge of anatomy from comic illustrated rhymes
(now in the possession of their old friend, Mrs. Fraser Corkran)
through which his grandfather impressed upon him the names and position
of the principal bones of the human body.

Even more remarkable than his delight in reading was the manner in which
Mr. Browning read. He carried into it all the preciseness of the scholar.
It was his habit when he bought a book -- which was generally
an old one allowing of this addition -- to have some pages of blank paper
bound into it. These he filled with notes, chronological tables,
or such other supplementary matter as would enhance the interest,
or assist the mastering, of its contents; all written in a clear and firm
though by no means formal handwriting. More than one book thus treated by him
has passed through my hands, leaving in me, it need hardly be said,
a stronger impression of the owner's intellectual quality
than the acquisition by him of the finest library could have conveyed.
One of the experiences which disgusted him with St. Kitt's
was the frustration by its authorities of an attempt he was making
to teach a negro boy to read, and the understanding
that all such educative action was prohibited.

In his faculties and attainments, as in his pleasures and appreciations,
he showed the simplicity and genuineness of a child. He was not only
ready to amuse, he could always identify himself with children,
his love for whom never failed him in even his latest years.
His more than childlike indifference to pecuniary advantages had been shown
in early life. He gave another proof of it after his wife's death,
when he declined a proposal, made to him by the Bank of England,
to assist in founding one of its branch establishments in Liverpool.
He never indeed, personally, cared for money, except as a means
of acquiring old, i.e. rare books, for which he had,
as an acquaintance declared, the scent of a hound and the snap of a bulldog.
His eagerness to possess such treasures was only matched by the generosity
with which he parted with them; and his daughter well remembers
the feeling of angry suspicion with which she and her brother noted
the periodical arrival of a certain visitor who would be closeted
with their father for hours, and steal away before the supper time,
when the family would meet, with some precious parcel of books or prints
under his arm.

It is almost superfluous to say that he was indifferent to creature comforts.
Miss Browning was convinced that, if on any occasion she had said to him,
`There will be no dinner to-day,' he would only have looked up from his book
to reply, `All right, my dear, it is of no consequence.'
In his bank-clerk days, when he sometimes dined in Town,
he left one restaurant with which he was not otherwise dissatisfied,
because the waiter always gave him the trouble of specifying
what he would have to eat. A hundred times that trouble
would not have deterred him from a kindly act. Of his goodness of heart,
indeed, many distinct instances might be given; but even
this scanty outline of his life has rendered them superfluous.

Mr. Browning enjoyed splendid physical health. His early love of reading
had not precluded a wholesome enjoyment of athletic sports;
and he was, as a boy, the fastest runner and best base-ball player
in his school. He died, like his father, at eighty-four (or rather,
within a few days of eighty-five), but, unlike him, he had never been ill;
a French friend exclaimed when all was over, `Il n'a jamais e/te/ vieux.'
His faculties were so unclouded up to the last moment
that he could watch himself dying, and speculate on the nature of the change
which was befalling him. `What do you think death is, Robert?'
he said to his son; `is it a fainting, or is it a pang?'
A notice of his decease appeared in an American newspaper.
It was written by an unknown hand, and bears a stamp of genuineness
which renders the greater part of it worth quoting.

`He was not only a ruddy, active man, with fine hair,
that retained its strength and brownness to the last,
but he had a courageous spirit and a remarkably intelligent mind.
He was a man of the finest culture, and was often, and never vainly,
consulted by his son Robert concerning the more recondite facts relating
to the old characters, whose bones that poet liked so well to disturb.
His knowledge of old French, Spanish, and Italian literature was wonderful.
The old man went smiling and peaceful to his long rest,
preserving his faculties to the last, insomuch that the physician,
astonished at his continued calmness and good humour, turned to his daughter,
and said in a low voice, "Does this gentleman know that he is dying?"
The daughter said in a voice which the father could hear, "He knows it;"
and the old man said with a quiet smile, "Death is no enemy in my eyes."
His last words were spoken to his son Robert, who was fanning him,
"I fear I am wearying you, dear."'

Four years later one of his English acquaintances in Paris,
Mr. Frederick Locker, now Mr. Locker-Lampson, wrote to Robert Browning
as follows:

Dec. 26, 1870.

My dear Browning, -- I have always thought that you or Miss Browning,
or some other capable person, should draw up a sketch of your excellent father
so that, hereafter, it might be known what an interesting man he was.

I used often to meet you in Paris, at Lady Elgin's. She had a genuine taste
for poetry, and she liked being read to, and I remember you gave her
a copy of Keats' poems, and you used often to read his poetry to her.
Lady Elgin died in 1860, and I think it was in that year
that Lady Charlotte and I saw the most of Mr. Browning.*
He was then quite an elderly man, if years could make him so,
but he had so much vivacity of manner, and such simplicity
and freshness of mind, that it was difficult to think him old.

* Mr. Locker was then married to Lady Charlotte Bruce, Lady Elgin's daughter.

I remember, he and your sister lived in an apartment in the Rue de Grenelle,
St. Germain, in quite a simple fashion, much in the way that most people live
in Paris, and in the way that all sensible people would wish to live
all over the world.

Your father and I had at least one taste and affection in common.
He liked hunting the old bookstalls on the `quais',
and he had a great love and admiration for Hogarth; and he possessed
several of Hogarth's engravings, some in rare and early states of the plate;
and he would relate with glee the circumstances under which
he had picked them up, and at so small a price too! However,
he had none of the `petit-maitre' weakness of the ordinary collector,
which is so common, and which I own to! -- such as an infatuation
for tall copies, and wide margins.

I remember your father was fond of drawing in a rough and ready fashion;
he had plenty of talent, I should think not very great cultivation;
but quite enough to serve his purpose, and to amuse his friends.
He had a thoroughly lively and HEALTHY interest in your poetry,
and he showed me some of your boyish attempts at versification.

Taking your dear father altogether, I quite believe him to have been
one of those men -- interesting men -- whom the world never hears of.
Perhaps he was shy -- at any rate he was much less known
than he ought to have been; and now, perhaps, he only remains
in the recollection of his family, and of one or two superior people
(like myself!) who were capable of appreciating him. My dear Browning,
I really hope you will draw up a slight sketch of your father
before it is too late.
Frederick Locker.

The judgments thus expressed twenty years ago are cordially re-stated
in the letter in which Mr. Locker-Lampson authorizes me to publish them.
The desired memoir was never written; but the few details
which I have given of the older Mr. Browning's life and character
may perhaps stand for it.

With regard to the `strict dissent' with which her parents have been taxed,
Miss Browning writes to me: `My father was born and educated
in the Church of England, and, for many years before his death,
lived in her communion. He became a Dissenter in middle life,
and my mother, born and brought up in the Kirk of Scotland, became one also;
but they could not be called bigoted, since we always in the evening attended
the preaching of the Rev. Henry Melvill* (afterwards Canon of St. Paul's),
whose sermons Robert much admired.'**

* At Camden Chapel, Camberwell.
** Mr. Browning was much interested, in later years, in hearing Canon,
perhaps then already Archdeacon, Farrar extol his eloquence and ask
whether he had known him. Mr. Ruskin also spoke of him with admiration.

Little need be said about the poet's mother. She was spoken of by Carlyle
as `the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman.' Mr. Kenyon declared
that such as she had no need to go to heaven, because they made it
wherever they were. But her character was all resumed in her son's words,
spoken with the tremulous emotion which so often accompanied
his allusion to those he had loved and lost: `She was a divine woman.'
She was Scotch on the maternal side, and her kindly, gentle,
but distinctly evangelical Christianity must have been derived
from that source. Her father, William Wiedemann, a ship-owner,
was a Hamburg German settled in Dundee, and has been described by Mr. Browning
as an accomplished draughtsman and musician. She herself had nothing
of the artist about her, though we hear of her sometimes playing the piano;
in all her goodness and sweetness she seems to have been
somewhat matter-of-fact. But there is abundant indirect evidence
of Mr. Browning's love of music having come to him through her,
and we are certainly justified in holding the Scottish-German descent
as accountable, in great measure at least, for the metaphysical quality
so early apparent in the poet's mind, and of which we find no evidence
in that of his father. His strong religious instincts must have been derived
from both parents, though most anxiously fostered by his mother.

There is yet another point on which Mrs. Browning must have influenced
the life and destinies of her son, that of physical health,
or, at least, nervous constitution. She was a delicate woman,
very anaemic during her later years, and a martyr to neuralgia, which was
perhaps a symptom of this condition. The acute ailment reproduced itself
in her daughter in spite of an otherwise vigorous constitution.
With the brother, the inheritance of suffering was not less surely present,
if more difficult to trace. We have been accustomed to speaking of him
as a brilliantly healthy man; he was healthy, even strong,
in many essential respects. Until past the age of seventy
he could take long walks without fatigue, and endure an amount
of social and general physical strain which would have tried many younger men.
He carried on until the last a large, if not always serious, correspondence,
and only within the latest months, perhaps weeks of his life,
did his letters even suggest that physical brain-power was failing him.
He had, within the limits which his death has assigned to it,
a considerable recuperative power. His consciousness of health was vivid,
so long as he was well; and it was only towards the end
that the faith in his probable length of days occasionally deserted him.
But he died of no acute disease, more than seven years younger
than his father, having long carried with him external marks of age
from which his father remained exempt. Till towards the age of forty
he suffered from attacks of sore-throat, not frequent, but of an angry kind.
He was constantly troubled by imperfect action of the liver,
though no doctor pronounced the evil serious. I have spoken of this
in reference to his complexion. During the last twenty years, if not
for longer, he rarely spent a winter without a suffocating cold and cough;
within the last five, asthmatic symptoms established themselves;
and when he sank under what was perhaps his first real attack of bronchitis
it was not because the attack was very severe, but because the heart
was exhausted. The circumstances of his death recalled that of his mother;
and we might carry the sad analogy still farther in his increasing pallor,
and the slow and not strong pulse which always characterized him.
This would perhaps be a mistake. It is difficult to reconcile any idea
of bloodlessness with the bounding vitality of his younger body and mind.
Any symptom of organic disease could scarcely, in his case,
have been overlooked. But so much is certain: he was conscious
of what he called a nervousness of nature which neither father nor grandfather
could have bequeathed to him. He imputed to this, or, in other words,
to an undue physical sensitiveness to mental causes of irritation,
his proneness to deranged liver, and the asthmatic conditions
which he believed, rightly or wrongly, to be produced by it.
He was perhaps mistaken in some of his inferences, but he was not mistaken
in the fact. He had the pleasures as well as the pains
of this nervous temperament; its quick response to every congenial stimulus
of physical atmosphere, and human contact. It heightened the enjoyment,
perhaps exaggerated the consciousness of his physical powers.
It also certainly in his later years led him to overdraw them.
Many persons have believed that he could not live without society;
a prolonged seclusion from it would, for obvious reasons,
have been unsuited to him. But the excited gaiety which to the last
he carried into every social gathering was often primarily
the result of a moral and physical effort which his temperament prompted,
but his strength could not always justify. Nature avenged herself
in recurrent periods of exhaustion, long before the closing stage had set in.

I shall subsequently have occasion to trace this nervous impressibility
through various aspects and relations of his life; all I now seek to show
is that this healthiest of poets and most real of men was not compounded
of elements of pure health, and perhaps never could have been so.
It might sound grotesque to say that only a delicate woman
could have been the mother of Robert Browning. The fact remains
that of such a one, and no other, he was born; and we may imagine,
without being fanciful, that his father's placid intellectual powers
required for their transmutation into poetic genius
just this infusion of a vital element not only charged
with other racial and individual qualities, but physically and morally
more nearly allied to pain. Perhaps, even for his happiness as a man,
we could not have wished it otherwise.

Chapter 3


Birth of Robert Browning -- His Childhood and Schooldays --
Restless Temperament -- Brilliant Mental Endowments --
Incidental Peculiarities -- Strong Religious Feeling --
Passionate Attachment to his Mother; Grief at first Separation --
Fondness for Animals -- Experiences of School Life -- Extensive Reading --
Early Attempts in Verse -- Letter from his Father concerning them --
Spurious Poems in Circulation -- `Incondita' -- Mr. Fox -- Miss Flower.

Robert Browning was born, as has been often repeated, at Camberwell,
on May 7, 1812, soon after a great comet had disappeared from the sky.
He was a handsome, vigorous, fearless child, and soon developed
an unresting activity and a fiery temper. He clamoured for occupation
from the moment he could speak. His mother could only keep him quiet
when once he had emerged from infancy by telling him stories
-- doubtless Bible stories -- while holding him on her knee.
His energies were of course destructive till they had found
their proper outlet; but we do not hear of his ever having destroyed anything
for the mere sake of doing so. His first recorded piece of mischief
was putting a handsome Brussels lace veil of his mother's into the fire;
but the motive, which he was just old enough to lisp out, was also his excuse:
`A pitty baze [pretty blaze], mamma.' Imagination soon came to his rescue.
It has often been told how he extemporized verse aloud while walking
round and round the dining-room table supporting himself by his hands,
when he was still so small that his head was scarcely above it.
He remembered having entertained his mother in the very first walk
he was considered old enough to take with her, by a fantastic account
of his possessions in houses, &c., of which the topographical details
elicited from her the remark, `Why, sir, you are quite a geographer.'
And though this kind of romancing is common enough among intelligent children,
it distinguishes itself in this case by the strong impression
which the incident had left on his own mind. It seems to have been
a first real flight of dramatic fancy, confusing his identity
for the time being.

The power of inventing did not, however, interfere with
his readiness to learn, and the facility with which he acquired
whatever knowledge came in his way had, on one occasion, inconvenient results.
A lady of reduced fortunes kept a small elementary school for boys,
a stone's-throw from his home; and he was sent to it as a day boarder
at so tender an age that his parents, it is supposed, had no object in view
but to get rid of his turbulent activity for an hour or two
every morning and afternoon. Nevertheless, his proficiency
in reading and spelling was soon so much ahead of that of the biggest boy,
that complaints broke out among the mammas, who were sure
there was not fair play. Mrs. ---- was neglecting her other pupils
for the sake of `bringing on Master Browning;' and the poor lady
found it necessary to discourage Master Browning's attendance
lest she should lose the remainder of her flock. This, at least,
was the story as he himself remembered it. According to Miss Browning
his instructress did not yield without a parting shot. She retorted
on the discontented parents that, if she could give their children
`Master Browning's intellect', she would have no difficulty
in satisfying them. After this came the interlude of home-teaching,
in which all his elementary knowledge must have been gained.
As an older child he was placed with two Misses Ready, who prepared boys
for entering their brother's (the Rev. Thomas Ready's) school;
and in due time he passed into the latter, where he remained
up to the age of fourteen.

He seems in those early days to have had few playmates beyond his sister,
two years younger than himself, and whom his irrepressible spirit
must sometimes have frightened or repelled. Nor do we hear anything
of childish loves; and though an entry appeared in his diary
one Sunday in about the seventh or eighth year of his age,
`married two wives this morning,' it only referred to
a vague imaginary appropriation of two girls whom he had just seen in church,
and whose charm probably lay in their being much bigger than he.
He was, however, capable of a self-conscious shyness
in the presence of even a little girl; and his sense of certain proprieties
was extraordinarily keen. He told a friend that on one occasion,
when the merest child, he had edged his way by the wall
from one point of his bedroom to another, because he was not fully clothed,
and his reflection in the glass could otherwise have been seen
through the partly open door.*

* Another anecdote, of a very different kind, belongs to an earlier period,
and to that category of pure naughtiness which could not fail
to be sometimes represented in the conduct of so gifted a child.
An old lady who visited his mother, and was characterized in the family
as `Aunt Betsy', had irritated him by pronouncing the word `lovers'
with the contemptuous jerk which the typical old maid
is sometimes apt to impart to it, when once the question had arisen
why a certain `Lovers' Walk' was so called. He was too nearly a baby
to imagine what a `lover' was; he supposed the name denoted
a trade or occupation. But his human sympathy resented Aunt Betsy's manner
as an affront; and he determined, after probably repeated provocation,
to show her something worse than a `lover', whatever this might be.
So one night he slipped out of bed, exchanged his nightgown
for what he considered the appropriate undress of a devil,
completed this by a paper tail, and the ugliest face he could make,
and rushed into the drawing-room, where the old lady and his mother
were drinking tea. He was snatched up and carried away
before he had had time to judge the effect of his apparition;
but he did not think, looking back upon the circumstances in later life,
that Aunt Betsy had deserved quite so ill of her fellow-creatures
as he then believed.

His imaginative emotions were largely absorbed by religion.
The early Biblical training had had its effect, and he was,
to use his own words, `passionately religious' in those nursery years;
but during them and many succeeding ones, his mother filled his heart.
He loved her so much, he has been heard to say, that even as a grown man
he could not sit by her otherwise than with an arm round her waist.
It is difficult to measure the influence which this feeling may have exercised
on his later life; it led, even now, to a strange and touching little incident
which had in it the incipient poet no less than the loving child.
His attendance at Miss Ready's school only kept him from home
from Monday till Saturday of every week; but when called upon to confront
his first five days of banishment he felt sure that he would not survive them.
A leaden cistern belonging to the school had in, or outside it,
the raised image of a face. He chose the cistern for his place of burial,
and converted the face into his epitaph by passing his hand over and over it
to a continuous chant of: `In memory of unhappy Browning' --
the ceremony being renewed in his spare moments, till the acute stage
of the feeling had passed away.

The fondness for animals for which through life he was noted, was conspicuous
in his very earliest days. His urgent demand for `something to do'
would constantly include `something to be caught' for him:
`they were to catch him an eft;' `they were to catch him a frog.'
He would refuse to take his medicine unless bribed by the gift
of a speckled frog from among the strawberries; and the maternal parasol,
hovering above the strawberry bed during the search for
this object of his desires, remained a standing picture in his remembrance.
But the love of the uncommon was already asserting itself;
and one of his very juvenile projects was a collection of rare creatures,
the first contribution to which was a couple of lady-birds,
picked up one winter's day on a wall and immediately consigned
to a box lined with cotton-wool, and labelled, `Animals found surviving
in the depths of a severe winter.' Nor did curiosity in this case
weaken the power of sympathy. His passion for birds and beasts
was the counterpart of his father's love of children,
only displaying itself before the age at which child-love naturally appears.
His mother used to read Croxall's Fables to his little sister and him.
The story contained in them of a lion who was kicked to death by an ass
affected him so painfully that he could no longer endure
the sight of the book; and as he dared not destroy it, he buried it
between the stuffing and the woodwork of an old dining-room chair,
where it stood for lost, at all events for the time being.
When first he heard the adventures of the parrot who insisted
on leaving his cage, and who enjoyed himself for a little while
and then died of hunger and cold, he -- and his sister with him --
cried so bitterly that it was found necessary to invent a different ending,
according to which the parrot was rescued just in time
and brought back to his cage to live peacefully in it ever after.

As a boy, he kept owls and monkeys, magpies and hedgehogs,
an eagle, and even a couple of large snakes, constantly bringing home
the more portable creatures in his pockets, and transferring them
to his mother for immediate care. I have heard him speak admiringly
of the skilful tenderness with which she took into her lap a lacerated cat,
washed and sewed up its ghastly wound, and nursed it back to health.
The great intimacy with the life and habits of animals
which reveals itself in his works is readily explained by these facts.

Mr. Ready's establishment was chosen for him as the best in the neighbourhood;
and both there and under the preparatory training of that gentleman's sisters,
the young Robert was well and kindly cared for. The Misses Ready
especially concerned themselves with the spiritual welfare of their pupils.
The periodical hair-brushings were accompanied by the singing,
and fell naturally into the measure, of Watts's hymns;
and Mr. Browning has given his friends some very hearty laughs
by illustrating with voice and gesture the ferocious emphasis
with which the brush would swoop down in the accentuated syllables
of the following lines:

Lord, 'tis a pleasant thing to stand
In gardens planted by Thy hand.

. . . . .

Fools never raise their thoughts so high,
Like `brutes' they live, like BRUTES they die.

He even compelled his mother to laugh at it, though it was
sorely against her nature to lend herself to any burlesquing
of piously intended things.* He had become a bigger boy
since the episode of the cistern, and had probably in some degree
outgrown the intense piety of his earlier childhood.
This little incident seems to prove it. On the whole, however,
his religious instincts did not need strengthening,
though his sense of humour might get the better of them for a moment;
and of secular instruction he seems to have received as little
from the one set of teachers as from the other. I do not suppose
that the mental training at Mr. Ready's was more shallow or more mechanical
than that of most other schools of his own or, indeed, of a much later period;
but the brilliant abilities of Robert Browning inspired him
with a certain contempt for it, as also for the average schoolboy intelligence
to which it was apparently adapted. It must be for this reason that,
as he himself declared, he never gained a prize, although these rewards
were showered in such profusion that the only difficulty was to avoid them;
and if he did not make friends at school (for this also
has been somewhere observed),** it can only be explained in the same way.
He was at an intolerant age, and if his schoolfellows struck him
as more backward or more stupid than they need be, he is not likely
to have taken pains to conceal the impression. It is difficult,
at all events, to think of him as unsociable, and his talents
certainly had their amusing side. Miss Browning tells me that
he made his schoolfellows act plays, some of which he had written for them;
and he delighted his friends, not long ago, by mimicking
his own solemn appearance on some breaking-up or commemorative day,
when, according to programme, `Master Browning' ascended a platform
in the presence of assembled parents and friends, and, in best jacket,
white gloves, and carefully curled hair, with a circular bow to the company
and the then prescribed waving of alternate arms, delivered a high-flown
rhymed address of his own composition.

* In spite of this ludicrous association Mr. Browning always recognized
great merit in Watts's hymns, and still more in Dr. Watts himself,
who had devoted to this comparatively humble work intellectual powers
competent to far higher things.
** It was in no case literally true. William, afterwards Sir William, Channel
was leaving Mr. Ready when Browning went to him; but a friendly
acquaintance began, and was afterwards continued, between the two boys;
and a closer friendship, formed with a younger brother Frank,
was only interrupted by his death. Another school friend or acquaintance
recalled himself as such to the poet's memory some ten or twelve years ago.
A man who has reached the age at which his boyhood becomes
of interest to the world may even have survived many such relations.

And during the busy idleness of his schooldays, or, at all events,
in the holidays in which he rested from it, he was learning,
as perhaps only those do learn whose real education is derived from home.
His father's house was, Miss Browning tells me, literally crammed with books;
and, she adds, `it was in this way that Robert became very early familiar
with subjects generally unknown to boys.' He read omnivorously,
though certainly not without guidance. One of the books
he best and earliest loved was `Quarles' Emblemes', which his father possessed
in a seventeenth century edition, and which contains one or two
very tentative specimens of his early handwriting. Its quaint,
powerful lines and still quainter illustrations combined the marvellous
with what he believed to be true; and he seemed specially identified
with its world of religious fancies by the fact that the soul in it
was always depicted as a child. On its more general grounds
his reading was at once largely literary and very historical;
and it was in this direction that the paternal influence
was most strongly revealed. `Quarles' Emblemes' was only one
of the large collection of old books which Mr. Browning possessed;
and the young Robert learnt to know each favourite author
in the dress as well as the language which carried with it
the life of his period. The first edition of `Robinson Crusoe';
the first edition of Milton's works, bought for him by his father;
a treatise on astrology published twenty years after the introduction
of printing; the original pamphlet `Killing no Murder' (1559),
which Carlyle borrowed for his `Life of Cromwell'; an equally early copy
of Bernard Mandeville's `Bees'; very ancient Bibles --
are some of the instances which occur to me. Among more modern publications,
`Walpole's Letters' were familiar to him in boyhood,
as well as the `Letters of Junius' and all the works of Voltaire.

Ancient poets and poetry also played their necessary part
in the mental culture superintended by Robert Browning's father:
we can indeed imagine no case in which they would not have found their way
into the boy's life. Latin poets and Greek dramatists came to him
in their due time, though his special delight in the Greek language
only developed itself later. But his loving, lifelong familiarity with
the Elizabethan school, and indeed with the whole range of English poetry,
seems to point to a more constant study of our national literature.
Byron was his chief master in those early poetic days.
He never ceased to honour him as the one poet who combined
a constructive imagination with the more technical qualities of his art;
and the result of this period of aesthetic training
was a volume of short poems produced, we are told, when he was only twelve,
in which the Byronic influence was predominant.

The young author gave his work the title of `Incondita',
which conveyed a certain idea of deprecation. He was, nevertheless,
very anxious to see it in print; and his father and mother,
poetry-lovers of the old school, also found in it sufficient merit
to justify its publication. No publisher, however, could be found;
and we can easily believe that he soon afterwards destroyed
the little manuscript, in some mingled reaction of disappointment and disgust.
But his mother, meanwhile, had shown it to an acquaintance of hers,
Miss Flower, who herself admired its contents so much
as to make a copy of them for the inspection of her friend,
the well-known Unitarian minister, Mr. W. J. Fox. The copy was transmitted
to Mr. Browning after Mr. Fox's death by his daughter, Mrs. Bridell-Fox;
and this, if no other, was in existence in 1871, when, at his urgent request,
that lady also returned to him a fragment of verse contained in a letter
from Miss Sarah Flower. Nor was it till much later that a friend, who had
earnestly begged for a sight of it, definitely heard of its destruction.
The fragment, which doubtless shared the same fate, was, I am told,
a direct imitation of Coleridge's `Fire, Famine, and Slaughter'.

These poems were not Mr. Browning's first. It would be impossible
to believe them such when we remember that he composed verses
long before he could write; and a curious proof of the opposite fact
has recently appeared. Two letters of the elder Mr. Browning
have found their way into the market, and have been bought respectively
by Mr. Dykes Campbell and Sir F. Leighton. I give the more important of them.
It was addressed to Mr. Thomas Powell:

Dear Sir, -- I hope the enclosed may be acceptable as curiosities.
They were written by Robert when quite a child. I once had nearly
a hundred of them. But he has destroyed all that ever came in his way,
having a great aversion to the practice of many biographers
in recording every trifling incident that falls in their way.
He has not the slightest suspicion that any of his very juvenile performances
are in existence. I have several of the originals by me.
They are all extemporaneous productions, nor has any one a single alteration.
There was one amongst them `On Bonaparte' -- remarkably beautiful --
and had I not seen it in his own handwriting I never would have believed it
to have been the production of a child. It is destroyed.
Pardon my troubling you with these specimens, and requesting you
never to mention it, as Robert would be very much hurt.
I remain, dear sir,
Your obedient servant,
R. Browning.
Bank: March 11, 1843.

The letter was accompanied by a sheet of verses which have been
sold and resold, doubtless in perfect good faith, as being those
to which the writer alludes. But Miss Browning has recognized them
as her father's own impromptu epigrams, well remembered in the family,
together with the occasion on which they were written.
The substitution may, from the first, have been accidental.

We cannot think of all these vanished first-fruits of Mr. Browning's genius
without a sense of loss, all the greater perhaps that there can have been
little in them to prefigure its later forms. Their faults seem to have lain
in the direction of too great splendour of language and too little
wealth of thought; and Mr. Fox, who had read `Incondita'
and been struck by its promise, confessed afterwards to Mr. Browning
that he had feared these tendencies as his future snare.
But the imitative first note of a young poet's voice
may hold a rapture of inspiration which his most original later utterances
will never convey. It is the child Sordello, singing against the lark.

Not even the poet's sister ever saw `Incondita'. It was the only one
of his finished productions which Miss Browning did not read,
or even help him to write out. She was then too young
to be taken into his confidence. Its writing, however,
had one important result. It procured for the boy-poet
a preliminary introduction to the valuable literary patron and friend
Mr. Fox was subsequently to be. It also supplies the first substantial record
of an acquaintance which made a considerable impression on his personal life.

The Miss Flower, of whom mention has been made, was one of two sisters,
both sufficiently noted for their artistic gifts to have found a place
in the new Dictionary of National Biography. The elder, Eliza or Lizzie,
was a musical composer; the younger, best known as Sarah Flower Adams,
a writer of sacred verse. Her songs and hymns, including the well-known
`Nearer, my God, to Thee', were often set to music by her sister.*
They sang, I am told, delightfully together, and often without accompaniment,
their voices perfectly harmonizing with each other. Both were,
in their different ways, very attractive; both interesting,
not only from their talents, but from their attachment to each other,
and the delicacy which shortened their lives. They died of consumption,
the elder in 1846, at the age of forty-three; the younger a year later.
They became acquainted with Mrs. Browning through a common friend,
Miss Sturtevant; and the young Robert conceived a warm admiration
for Miss Flower's talents, and a boyish love for herself.
She was nine years his senior; her own affections became probably engaged,
and, as time advanced, his feeling seems to have subsided
into one of warm and very loyal friendship. We hear, indeed,
of his falling in love, as he was emerging from his teens,
with a handsome girl who was on a visit at his father's house.
But the fancy died out `for want of root.' The admiration, even tenderness,
for Miss Flower had so deep a `root' that he never in latest life
mentioned her name with indifference. In a letter to Mr. Dykes Campbell,
in 1881, he spoke of her as `a very remarkable person.'
If, in spite of his denials, any woman inspired `Pauline',
it can have been no other than she. He began writing to her
at twelve or thirteen, probably on the occasion of her expressed sympathy
with his first distinct effort at authorship; and what he afterwards called
`the few utterly insignificant scraps of letters and verse'
which formed his part of the correspondence were preserved by her
as long as she lived. But he recovered and destroyed them
after his return to England, with all the other reminiscences
of those early years. Some notes, however, are extant, dated respectively,
1841, 1842, and 1845, and will be given in their due place.

* She also wrote a dramatic poem in five acts, entitled `Vivia Perpetua',
referred to by Mrs. Jameson in her `Sacred and Legendary Art',
and by Leigh Hunt, when he spoke of her in `Blue-Stocking Revels',
as `Mrs. Adams, rare mistress of thought and of tears.'

Mr. Fox was a friend of Miss Flower's father (Benjamin Flower,
known as editor of the `Cambridge Intelligencer'), and, at his death, in 1829,
became co-executor to his will, and a kind of guardian to his daughters,
then both unmarried, and motherless from their infancy.
Eliza's principal work was a collection of hymns and anthems,
originally composed for Mr. Fox's chapel, where she had assumed
the entire management of the choral part of the service.
Her abilities were not confined to music; she possessed, I am told,
an instinctive taste and judgment in literary matters
which caused her opinion to be much valued by literary men.
But Mr. Browning's genuine appreciation of her musical genius
was probably the strongest permanent bond between them.
We shall hear of this in his own words.

Chapter 4


First Impressions of Keats and Shelley -- Prolonged Influence of Shelley --
Details of Home Education -- Its Effects -- Youthful Restlessness --
Counteracting Love of Home -- Early Friendships: Alfred Domett,
Joseph Arnould, the Silverthornes -- Choice of Poetry as a Profession --
Alternative Suggestions; mistaken Rumours concerning them --
Interest in Art -- Love of good Theatrical Performances --
Talent for Acting -- Final Preparation for Literary Life.

At the period at which we have arrived, which is that of his leaving school
and completing his fourteenth year, another and a significant influence
was dawning on Robert Browning's life -- the influence of the poet Shelley.
Mr. Sharp writes,* and I could only state the facts in similar words,
`Passing a bookstall one day, he saw, in a box of second-hand volumes,
a little book advertised as "Mr. Shelley's Atheistical Poem: very scarce."'
. . . `From vague remarks in reply to his inquiries, and from one or two
casual allusions, he learned that there really was a poet called Shelley;
that he had written several volumes; that he was dead.'
. . . `He begged his mother to procure him Shelley's works,
a request not easily complied with, for the excellent reason
that not one of the local booksellers had even heard of the poet's name.
Ultimately, however, Mrs. Browning learned that what she sought
was procurable at the Olliers', in Vere Street, London.'

* `Life of Browning', pp. 30, 31. [(Chapter 2) Now available online.]

Mrs. Browning went to Messrs. Ollier, and brought back
`most of Shelley's writings, all in their first edition,
with the exception of "The Cenci".' She brought also
three volumes of the still less known John Keats, on being assured
that one who liked Shelley's works would like these also.

Keats and Shelley must always remain connected in this epoch
of Mr. Browning's poetic growth. They indeed came to him
as the two nightingales which, he told some friends,
sang together in the May-night which closed this eventful day:
one in the laburnum in his father's garden, the other in a copper beech
which stood on adjoining ground -- with the difference indeed,
that he must often have listened to the feathered singers before,
while the two new human voices sounded from what were to him,
as to so many later hearers, unknown heights and depths
of the imaginative world. Their utterance was, to such a spirit as his,
the last, as in a certain sense the first, word of what poetry can say;
and no one who has ever heard him read the `Ode to a Nightingale',
and repeat in the same subdued tones, as if continuing his own thoughts,
some line from `Epipsychidion', can doubt that they retained a lasting
and almost equal place in his poet's heart. But the two cannot be regarded
as equals in their relation to his life, and it would be a great mistake
to impute to either any important influence upon his genius.
We may catch some fleeting echoes of Keats's melody in `Pippa Passes';
it is almost a commonplace that some measure of Shelleyan fancy
is recognizable in `Pauline'. But the poetic individuality of Robert Browning
was stronger than any circumstance through which it could be fed.
It would have found nourishment in desert air. With his first accepted work
he threw off what was foreign to his poetic nature, to be thenceforward
his own never-to-be-subdued and never-to-be-mistaken self. If Shelley became,
and long remained for him, the greatest poet of his age -- of almost any age
-- it was not because he held him greatest in the poetic art,
but because in his case, beyond all others, he believed its exercise
to have been prompted by the truest spiritual inspiration.

It is difficult to trace the process by which this conviction formed itself
in the boy's mind; still more to account for the strong personal tenderness
which accompanied it. The facts can have been scarcely known which were
to present Shelley to his imagination as a maligned and persecuted man.
It is hard to judge how far such human qualities as we now read into his work,
could be apparent to one who only approached him through it.
But the extra-human note in Shelley's genius irresistibly suggested
to the Browning of fourteen, as it still did to the Browning of forty,
the presence of a lofty spirit, one dwelling in the communion
of higher things. There was often a deep sadness in his utterance;
the consecration of an early death was upon him. And so the worship
rooted itself and grew. It was to find its lyrical expression in `Pauline';
its rational and, from the writer's point of view, philosophic justification
in the prose essay on Shelley, published eighteen years afterwards.

It may appear inconsistent with the nature of this influence
that it began by appealing to him in a subversive form.
The Shelley whom Browning first loved was the Shelley of `Queen Mab',
the Shelley who would have remodelled the whole system of religious belief,
as of human duty and rights; and the earliest result of the new development
was that he became a professing atheist, and, for two years,
a practising vegetarian. He returned to his natural diet
when he found his eyesight becoming weak. The atheism cured itself;
we do not exactly know when or how. What we do know is,
that it was with him a passing state of moral or imaginative rebellion,
and not one of rational doubt. His mind was not so constituted
that such doubt could fasten itself upon it; nor did he ever in after-life
speak of this period of negation except as an access of boyish folly,
with which his maturer self could have no concern.
The return to religious belief did not shake his faith in his new prophet.
It only made him willing to admit that he had misread him.

This Shelley period of Robert Browning's life -- that which intervened
between `Incondita' and `Pauline' -- remained, nevertheless,
one of rebellion and unrest, to which many circumstances may have contributed
besides the influence of the one mind. It had been decided
that he was to complete, or at all events continue, his education at home;
and, knowing the elder Mr. Browning as we do, we cannot doubt
that the best reasons, of kindness or expediency, led to his so deciding.
It was none the less, probably, a mistake, for the time being.
The conditions of home life were the more favourable
for the young poet's imaginative growth; but there can rarely
have been a boy whose moral and mental health had more to gain
by the combined discipline and freedom of a public school.
His home training was made to include everything which in those days went
to the production of an accomplished gentleman, and a great deal therefore
that was physically good. He learned music, singing, dancing, riding,
boxing, and fencing, and excelled in the more active of these pursuits.
The study of music was also serious, and carried on under two masters.
Mr. John Relfe, author of a valuable work on counterpoint,
was his instructor in thorough-bass; Mr. Abel, a pupil of Moscheles,
in execution. He wrote music for songs which he himself sang;
among them Donne's `Go and catch a falling star'; Hood's `I will not have
the mad Clytie'; Peacock's `The mountain sheep are sweeter'; and his settings,
all of which he subsequently destroyed, were, I am told, very spirited.
His education seems otherwise to have been purely literary. For two years,
from the age of fourteen to that of sixteen, he studied with a French tutor,
who, whether this was intended or not, imparted to him very little
but a good knowledge of the French language and literature.
In his eighteenth year he attended, for a term or two,
a Greek class at the London University. His classical and other reading
was probably continued. But we hear nothing in the programme of mathematics,
or logic -- of any, in short, of those subjects which train, even coerce,
the thinking powers, and which were doubly requisite for a nature in which
the creative imagination was predominant over all the other mental faculties,
great as these other faculties were. And, even as poet, he suffered from
this omission: since the involutions and overlappings of thought and phrase,
which occur in his earlier and again in his latest works,
must have been partly due to his never learning to follow the processes
of more normally constituted minds. It would be a great error to suppose
that they ever arose from the absence of a meaning clearly felt,
if not always clearly thought out, by himself. He was storing his memory
and enriching his mind; but precisely in so doing he was nourishing
the consciousness of a very vivid and urgent personality;
and, under the restrictions inseparable from the life of a home-bred youth,
it was becoming a burden to him. What outlet he found in verse
we do not know, because nothing survives of what he may then have written.
It is possible that the fate of his early poems, and, still more,
the change of ideals, retarded the definite impulse towards poetic production.
It would be a relief to him to sketch out and elaborate the plan of his
future work -- his great mental portrait gallery of typical men and women;
and he was doing so during at least the later years
which preceded the birth of `Pauline'. But even this must have been
the result of some protracted travail with himself; because it was only
the inward sense of very varied possibilities of existence
which could have impelled him towards this kind of creation.
No character he ever produced was merely a figment of the brain.

It was natural, therefore, that during this time of growth he should
have been, not only more restless, but less amiable than at any other.
The always impatient temper assumed a quality of aggressiveness.
He behaved as a youth will who knows himself to be clever, and believes
that he is not appreciated, because the crude or paradoxical forms
which his cleverness assumes do not recommend it to his elders' minds.
He set the judgments of those about him at defiance,
and gratuitously proclaimed himself everything that he was,
and some things that he was not. All this subdued itself as time advanced,
and the coming man in him could throw off the wayward child.
It was all so natural that it might well be forgotten. But it distressed
his mother, the one being in the world whom he entirely loved;
and deserves remembering in the tender sorrow with which he himself
remembered it. He was always ready to say that he had been worth little
in his young days; indeed, his self-depreciation covered the greater part
of his life. This was, perhaps, one reason of the difficulty of inducing him
to dwell upon his past. `I am better now,' he has said more than once,
when its reminiscences have been invoked.

One tender little bond maintained itself between his mother and himself
so long as he lived under the paternal roof; it was his rule
never to go to bed without giving her a good-night kiss.
If he was out so late that he had to admit himself with a latch-key,
he nevertheless went to her in her room. Nor did he submit to this
as a necessary restraint; for, except on the occasions of his going abroad,
it is scarcely on record that he ever willingly spent a night away from home.
It may not stand for much, or it may stand to the credit of his restlessness,
that, when he had been placed with some gentleman in Gower Street,
for the convenience of attending the University lectures,
or for the sake of preparing for them, he broke through the arrangement
at the end of a week; but even an agreeable visit had no power to detain him
beyond a few days.

This home-loving quality was in curious contrast to the natural bohemianism
of youthful genius, and the inclination to wildness which asserted itself
in his boyish days. It became the more striking as he entered upon the age
at which no reasonable amount of freedom can have been denied to him.
Something, perhaps, must be allowed for the pecuniary dependence
which forbade his forming any expensive habits of amusement;
but he also claims the credit of having been unable to accept
any low-life pleasures in place of them. I do not know
how the idea can have arisen that he willingly sought his experience
in the society of `gipsies and tramps'. I remember nothing in his works
which even suggests such association; and it is certain
that a few hours spent at a fair would at all times have exhausted
his capability of enduring it. In the most audacious imaginings
of his later life, in the most undisciplined acts of his early youth,
were always present curious delicacies and reserves.
There was always latent in him the real goodness of heart
which would not allow him to trifle consciously with other lives.
Work must also have been his safeguard when the habit of it had been acquired,
and when imagination, once his master, had learned to serve him.

One tangible cause of his youthful restlessness has been implied
in the foregoing remarks, but deserves stating in his sister's words:
`The fact was, poor boy, he had outgrown his social surroundings.
They were absolutely good, but they were narrow; it could not be otherwise;
he chafed under them.' He was not, however, quite without congenial society
even before the turning-point in his outward existence which was reached
in the publication of `Pauline'; and one long friendly acquaintance,
together with one lasting friendship, had their roots in these
early Camberwell days. The families of Joseph Arnould and Alfred Domett both
lived at Camberwell. These two young men were bred to the legal profession,
and the former, afterwards Sir Joseph Arnould, became a judge in Bombay.
But the father of Alfred Domett had been one of Nelson's captains,
and the roving sailor spirit was apparent in his son;
for he had scarcely been called to the Bar when he started for New Zealand
on the instance of a cousin who had preceded him, but who was drowned
in the course of a day's surveying before he could arrive.
He became a member of the New Zealand Parliament, and ultimately,
for a short time, of its Cabinet; only returning to England
after an absence of thirty years. This Mr. Domett seems to have been
a very modest man, besides a devoted friend of Robert Browning's,
and on occasion a warm defender of his works. When he read
the apostrophe to `Alfred, dear friend,' in the `Guardian Angel',
he had reached the last line before it occurred to him
that the person invoked could be he. I do not think that this poem,
and that directly addressed to him under the pseudonym of `Waring',
were the only ones inspired by the affectionate remembrance
which he had left in their author's mind.

Among his boy companions were also the three Silverthornes,
his neighbours at Camberwell, and cousins on the maternal side.
They appear to have been wild youths, and had certainly no part
in his intellectual or literary life; but the group is interesting
to his biographer. The three brothers were all gifted musicians;
having also, probably, received this endowment from their mother's father.
Mr. Browning conceived a great affection for the eldest,
and on the whole most talented of the cousins; and when he had died
-- young, as they all did -- he wrote `May and Death' in remembrance of him.
The name of `Charles' stands there for the old, familiar `Jim',
so often uttered by him in half-pitying, and all-affectionate allusion,
in his later years. Mrs. Silverthorne was the aunt who paid
for the printing of `Pauline'.

It was at about the time of his short attendance at University College
that the choice of poetry as his future profession was formally made.
It was a foregone conclusion in the young Robert's mind; and little less
in that of his father, who took too sympathetic an interest in his son's life
not to have seen in what direction his desires were tending.
He must, it is true, at some time or other, have played with the thought
of becoming an artist; but the thought can never have represented a wish.
If he had entertained such a one, it would have met not only
with no opposition on his father's part, but with a very ready assent,
nor does the question ever seem to have been seriously mooted
in the family councils. It would be strange, perhaps, if it had.
Mr. Browning became very early familiar with the names of the great painters,
and also learned something about their work; for the Dulwich Gallery
was within a pleasant walk of his home, and his father constantly
took him there. He retained through life a deep interest in art and artists,
and became a very familiar figure in one or two London studios.
Some drawings made by him from the nude, in Italy, and for which
he had prepared himself by assiduous copying of casts
and study of human anatomy, had, I believe, great merit.
But painting was one of the subjects in which he never received instruction,
though he modelled, under the direction of his friend Mr. Story;
and a letter of his own will presently show that, in his youth at least,
he never credited himself with exceptional artistic power.
That he might have become an artist, and perhaps a great one,
is difficult to doubt, in the face of his brilliant general ability
and special gifts. The power to do a thing is, however,
distinct from the impulse to do it, and proved so in the present case.

More importance may be given to an idea of his father's that he should
qualify himself for the Bar. It would naturally coincide with the widening
of the social horizon which his University College classes supplied;
it was possibly suggested by the fact that the closest friends
he had already made, and others whom he was perhaps now making,
were barristers. But this also remained an idea. He might have been placed
in the Bank of England, where the virtual offer of an appointment
had been made to him through his father; but the elder Browning
spontaneously rejected this, as unworthy of his son's powers.
He had never, he said, liked bank work himself, and could not, therefore,
impose it on him.

We have still to notice another, and a more mistaken view
of the possibilities of Mr. Browning's life. It has been recently stated,
doubtless on the authority of some words of his own,
that the Church was a profession to which he once felt himself drawn.
But an admission of this kind could only refer to that period of his childhood
when natural impulse, combined with his mother's teaching and guidance,
frequently caused his fancy and his feelings to assume a religious form.
From the time when he was a free agent he ceased to be
even a regular churchgoer, though religion became more, rather than less,
an integral part of his inner life; and his alleged fondness
for a variety of preachers meant really that he only listened
to those who, from personal association or conspicuous merit,
were interesting to him. I have mentioned Canon Melvill as one of these;
the Rev. Thomas Jones was, as will be seen, another.
In Venice he constantly, with his sister, joined the congregation
of an Italian minister of the little Vaudois church there.*

* Mr. Browning's memory recalled a first and last effort at preaching,
inspired by one of his very earliest visits to a place of worship.
He extemporized a surplice or gown, climbed into an arm-chair
by way of pulpit, and held forth so vehemently that
his scarcely more than baby sister was frightened and began to cry;
whereupon he turned to an imaginary presence, and said,
with all the sternness which the occasion required,
`Pew-opener, remove that child.'

It would be far less surprising if we were told, on sufficient authority,
that he had been disturbed by hankerings for the stage.
He was a passionate admirer of good acting, and would walk from London
to Richmond and back again to see Edmund Kean when he was performing there.
We know how Macready impressed him, though the finer genius of Kean
became very apparent to his retrospective judgment of the two;
and it was impossible to see or hear him, as even an old man,
in some momentary personation of one of Shakespeare's characters,
above all of Richard III., and not feel that a great actor
had been lost in him.

So few professions were thought open to gentlemen in Robert Browning's
eighteenth year, that his father's acquiescence in that which he had chosen
might seem a matter scarcely less of necessity than of kindness.
But we must seek the kindness not only in this first, almost inevitable,
assent to his son's becoming a writer, but in the subsequent
unfailing readiness to support him in his literary career.
`Paracelsus', `Sordello', and the whole of `Bells and Pomegranates'
were published at his father's expense, and, incredible as it appears,
brought no return to him. This was vividly present to Mr. Browning's mind
in what Mrs. Kemble so justly defines as those `remembering days'
which are the natural prelude to the forgetting ones.
He declared, in the course of these, to a friend, that for it alone
he owed more to his father than to anyone else in the world.
Words to this effect, spoken in conversation with his sister,
have since, as it was right they should, found their way into print.
The more justly will the world interpret any incidental admission
he may ever have made, of intellectual disagreement
between that father and himself.

When the die was cast, and young Browning was definitely to adopt literature
as his profession, he qualified himself for it by reading and digesting
the whole of Johnson's Dictionary. We cannot be surprised
to hear this of one who displayed so great a mastery of words,
and so deep a knowledge of the capacities of the English language.

Chapter 5


`Pauline' -- Letters to Mr. Fox -- Publication of the Poem;
chief Biographical and Literary Characteristics --
Mr. Fox's Review in the `Monthly Repository'; other Notices --
Russian Journey -- Desired diplomatic Appointment --
Minor Poems; first Sonnet; their Mode of Appearance -- `The Trifler' --
M. de Ripert-Monclar -- `Paracelsus' -- Letters to Mr. Fox concerning it;
its Publication -- Incidental Origin of `Paracelsus';
its inspiring Motive; its Relation to `Pauline' --
Mr. Fox's Review of it in the `Monthly Repository' --
Article in the `Examiner' by John Forster.

Before Mr. Browning had half completed his twenty-first year
he had written `Pauline, a Fragment of a Confession'.
His sister was in the secret, but this time his parents were not.
This is why his aunt, hearing that `Robert' had `written a poem,'
volunteered the sum requisite for its publication. Even this first
instalment of success did not inspire much hope in the family mind,
and Miss Browning made pencil copies of her favourite passages for the event,
which seemed only too possible, of her never seeing the whole poem again.
It was, however, accepted by Saunders and Otley, and appeared anonymously
in 1833. Meanwhile the young author had bethought himself
of his early sympathizer, Mr. Fox, and he wrote to him as follows
(the letter is undated):

Dear Sir, -- Perhaps by the aid of the subjoined initials
and a little reflection, you may recollect an oddish sort of boy,
who had the honour of being introduced to you at Hackney some years back --
at that time a sayer of verse and a doer of it, and whose doings
you had a little previously commended after a fashion --
(whether in earnest or not God knows): that individual it is
who takes the liberty of addressing one whose slight commendation then,
was more thought of than all the gun drum and trumpet of praise would be now,
and to submit to you a free and easy sort of thing which he wrote
some months ago `on one leg' and which comes out this week --
having either heard or dreamed that you contribute to the `Westminster'.

Should it be found too insignificant for cutting up, I shall no less remain,
Dear sir,
Your most obedient servant,
R. B.

I have forgotten the main thing -- which is to beg you not to spoil
a loophole I have kept for backing out of the thing if necessary,
`sympathy of dear friends,' &c. &c., none of whom know anything about it.

Monday Morning; Rev. -- Fox.

The answer was clearly encouraging, and Mr. Browning wrote again:

Dear Sir, -- In consequence of your kind permission I send, or will send,
a dozen copies of `Pauline' and (to mitigate the infliction) Shelley's Poem --
on account of what you mentioned this morning. It will perhaps be as well
that you let me know their safe arrival by a line to R. B. junior,
Hanover Cottage, Southampton Street, Camberwell. You must not think me
too encroaching, if I make the getting back `Rosalind and Helen'
an excuse for calling on you some evening -- the said `R. and H.' has,
I observe, been well thumbed and sedulously marked by an acquaintance of mine,
but I have not time to rub out his labour of love.
I am, dear sir,
Yours very really,
R. Browning.
Camberwell: 2 o'clock.

At the left-hand corner of the first page of this note is written:
`The parcel -- a "Pauline" parcel -- is come. I send one as a witness.'

On the inner page is written:

`Impromptu on hearing a sermon by the Rev. T. R. -- pronounced "heavy" --

`A HEAVY sermon! -- sure the error's great,
For not a word Tom uttered HAD ITS WEIGHT.'

A third letter, also undated, but post-marked March 29, 1833,
refers probably to the promise or announcement of a favourable notice.
A fourth conveys Mr. Browning's thanks for the notice itself:

My dear Sir, -- I have just received your letter, which I am desirous
of acknowledging before any further mark of your kindness reaches me; --
I can only offer you my simple thanks -- but they are of the sort
that one can give only once or twice in a life: all things considered,
I think you are almost repaid, if you imagine what I must feel --
and it will have been worth while to have made a fool of myself,
only to have obtained a `case' which leaves my fine fellow Mandeville
at a dead lock.

As for the book -- I hope ere long to better it, and to deserve your goodness.

In the meantime I shall not forget the extent to which I am, dear sir,
Your most obliged and obedient servant
R. B.
S. & O.'s, Conduit St., Thursday m-g.

I must intrude on your attention, my dear sir, once more than I had intended
-- but a notice like the one I have read will have its effect at all hazards.

I can only say that I am very proud to feel as grateful as I do,
and not altogether hopeless of justifying, by effort at least,
your most generous `coming forward'. Hazlitt wrote his essays,
as he somewhere tells us, mainly to send them to some one in the country
who had `always prophesied he would be something'! --
I shall never write a line without thinking of the source of my first praise,
be assured.
I am, dear sir,
Yours most truly and obliged,
Robert Browning.
March 31, 1833.

Mr. Fox was then editor of a periodical called the `Monthly Repository',
which, as his daughter, Mrs. Bridell-Fox, writes in her graceful article
on Robert Browning, in the `Argosy' for February 1890,
he was endeavouring to raise from its original denominational character
into a first-class literary and political journal. The articles comprised
in the volume for 1833 are certainly full of interest and variety,
at once more popular and more solid than those prescribed
by the present fashion of monthly magazines. He reviewed `Pauline' favourably
in its April number -- that is, as soon as it had appeared;
and the young poet thus received from him an introduction
to what should have been, though it probably was not,
a large circle of intelligent readers.

The poem was characterized by its author, five years later,
in a fantastic note appended to a copy of it, as `the only remaining crab
of the shapely Tree of Life in my Fool's Paradise.' This name is ill bestowed
upon a work which, however wild a fruit of Mr. Browning's genius,
contains, in its many lines of exquisite fancy and deep pathos,
so much that is rich and sweet. It had also, to discard metaphor,
its faults of exaggeration and confusion; and it is of these
that Mr. Browning was probably thinking when he wrote
his more serious apologetic preface to its reprint in 1868.
But these faults were partly due to his conception of the character
which he had tried to depict; and partly to the inherent difficulty
of depicting one so complex, in a succession of mental and moral states,
irrespectively of the conditions of time, place, and circumstance
which were involved in them. Only a very powerful imagination could have
inspired such an attempt. A still more conspicuous effort of creative genius
reveals itself at its close. The moment chosen for the `Confession'
has been that of a supreme moral or physical crisis.
The exhaustion attendant on this is directly expressed
by the person who makes it, and may also be recognized in the vivid,
yet confusing, intensity of the reminiscences of which it consists.
But we are left in complete doubt as to whether the crisis
is that of approaching death or incipient convalescence,
or which character it bears in the sufferer's mind; and the language used
in the closing pages is such as to suggest, without the slightest break
in poetic continuity, alternately the one conclusion and the other.
This was intended by Browning to assist his anonymity;
and when the writer in `Tait's Magazine' spoke of the poem as a piece
of pure bewilderment, he expressed the natural judgment of the Philistine,
while proving himself such. If the notice by J. S. Mill, which this
criticism excluded, was indeed -- as Mr. Browning always believed --
much more sympathetic, I can only record my astonishment;
for there never was a large and cultivated intelligence
one can imagine less in harmony than his with the poetic excesses,
or even the poetic qualities, of `Pauline'. But this is a digression.

Mr. Fox, though an accomplished critic, made very light
of the artistic blemishes of the work. His admiration for it
was as generous as it was genuine; and, having recognized in it
the hand of a rising poet, it was more congenial to him
to hail that poet's advent than to register his shortcomings.

`The poem,' he says, `though evidently a hasty and imperfect sketch,
has truth and life in it, which gave us the thrill, and laid hold of us
with the power, the sensation of which has never yet failed us
as a test of genius.'

But it had also, in his mind, a distinguishing characteristic,
which raised it above the sphere of merely artistic criticism.
The article continues:

`We have never read anything more purely confessional. The whole composition
is of the spirit, spiritual. The scenery is in the chambers of thought;
the agencies are powers and passions; the events are transitions
from one state of spiritual existence to another.'

And we learn from the context that he accepted this
confessional and introspective quality as an expression
of the highest emotional life -- of the essence, therefore, of religion.
On this point the sincerest admirers of the poem may find themselves
at issue with Mr. Fox. Its sentiment is warmly religious; it is always,
in a certain sense, spiritual; but its intellectual activities are exercised
on entirely temporal ground, and this fact would generally be admitted
as the negation of spirituality in the religious sense of the word.
No difference, however, of opinion as to his judgment of `Pauline'
can lessen our appreciation of Mr. Fox's encouraging kindness to its author.
No one who loved Mr. Browning in himself, or in his work, can read
the last lines of this review without a throb of affectionate gratitude for
the sympathy so ungrudgingly, and -- as he wrote during his latest years --
so opportunely given:

`In recognizing a poet we cannot stand upon trifles nor fret ourselves
about such matters [as a few blemishes]. Time enough for that afterwards,
when larger works come before us. Archimedes in the bath
had many particulars to settle about specific gravities and Hiero's crown,
but he first gave a glorious leap and shouted `Eureka!''

Many persons have discovered Mr. Browning since he has been known to fame.
One only discovered him in his obscurity.

Next to that of Mr. Fox stands the name of John Forster
among the first spontaneous appreciators of Mr. Browning's genius;
and his admiration was, in its own way, the more valuable
for the circumstances which precluded in it all possible,
even unconscious, bias of personal interest or sympathy.
But this belongs to a somewhat later period of our history.

I am dwelling at some length on this first experience of Mr. Browning's
literary career, because the confidence which it gave him
determined its immediate future, if not its ultimate course -- because, also,
the poem itself is more important to the understanding of his mind
than perhaps any other of his isolated works. It was the earliest
of his dramatic creations; it was therefore inevitably the most instinct
with himself; and we may regard the `Confession' as to a great extent his own,
without for an instant ignoring the imaginative element
which necessarily and certainly entered into it. At one moment, indeed,
his utterance is so emphatic that we should feel it to be direct,
even if we did not know it to be true. The passage beginning,
`I am made up of an intensest life,' conveys something more
than the writer's actual psychological state. The feverish desire of life
became gradually modified into a more or less active
intellectual and imaginative curiosity; but the sense of an individual,
self-centred, and, as it presented itself to him, unconditioned existence,
survived all the teachings of experience, and often indeed
unconsciously imposed itself upon them.

I have already alluded to that other and more pathetic fragment
of distinct autobiography which is to be found in the invocation
to the `Sun-treader'. Mr. Fox, who has quoted great part of it,
justly declares that `the fervency, the remembrance, the half-regret
mingling with its exultation, are as true as its leading image is beautiful.'
The `exultation' is in the triumph of Shelley's rising fame;
the regret, for the lost privilege of worshipping in solitary tenderness
at an obscure shrine. The double mood would have been characteristic
of any period of Mr. Browning's life.

The artistic influence of Shelley is also discernible in the natural imagery
of the poem, which reflects a fitful and emotional fancy
instead of the direct poetic vision of the author's later work.

`Pauline' received another and graceful tribute two months later
than the review. In an article of the `Monthly Repository',
and in the course of a description of some luxuriant wood-scenery,
the following passage occurs:

`Shelley and Tennyson are the best books for this place. . . .
They are natives of this soil; literally so; and if planted
would grow as surely as a crowbar in Kentucky sprouts tenpenny nails.
`Probatum est.' Last autumn L---- dropped a poem of Shelley's
down there in the wood,* amongst the thick, damp, rotting leaves,
and this spring some one found a delicate exotic-looking plant,
growing wild on the very spot, with `Pauline' hanging from its slender stalk.
Unripe fruit it may be, but of pleasant flavour and promise,
and a mellower produce, it may be hoped, will follow.'

* Mr. Browning's copy of `Rosalind and Helen', which he had lent
to Miss Flower, and which she lost in this wood on a picnic.

This and a bald though well-meant notice in the `Athenaeum'
exhaust its literary history for this period.*

* Not quite, it appears. Since I wrote the above words,
Mr. Dykes Campbell has kindly copied for me the following extract
from the `Literary Gazette' of March 23, 1833:

``Pauline: a Fragment of a Confession', pp. 71. London, 1833.
Saunders and Otley.

`Somewhat mystical, somewhat poetical, somewhat sensual,
and not a little unintelligible, -- this is a dreamy volume,
without an object, and unfit for publication.'

The anonymity of the poem was not long preserved; there was no reason
why it should be. But `Pauline' was, from the first,
little known or discussed beyond the immediate circle of the poet's friends;
and when, twenty years later, Dante Gabriel Rossetti unexpectedly came upon it
in the library of the British Museum, he could only surmise
that it had been written by the author of `Paracelsus'.

The only recorded event of the next two years was Mr. Browning's
visit to Russia, which took place in the winter of 1833-4.
The Russian consul-general, Mr. Benckhausen, had taken a great liking to him,
and being sent to St. Petersburg on some special mission, proposed that
he should accompany him, nominally in the character of secretary.
The letters written to his sister during this, as during every other absence,
were full of graphic description, and would have been a mine of interest for
the student of his imaginative life. They are, unfortunately, all destroyed,
and we have only scattered reminiscences of what they had to tell; but we know
how strangely he was impressed by some of the circumstances of the journey:
above all, by the endless monotony of snow-covered pine-forest,
through which he and his companion rushed for days and nights
at the speed of six post-horses, without seeming to move from one spot.
He enjoyed the society of St. Petersburg, and was fortunate enough,
before his return, to witness the breaking-up of the ice on the Neva,
and see the Czar perform the yearly ceremony of drinking
the first glass of water from it. He was absent about three months.

The one active career which would have recommended itself to him
in his earlier youth was diplomacy; it was that which he subsequently desired
for his son. He would indeed not have been averse to any post
of activity and responsibility not unsuited to the training of a gentleman.
Soon after his return from Russia he applied for appointment
on a mission which was to be despatched to Persia; and the careless wording
of the answer which his application received made him think for a moment
that it had been granted. He was much disappointed when he learned,
through an interview with the `chief', that the place was otherwise filled.

In 1834 he began a little series of contributions to the `Monthly Repository',
extending into 1835-6, and consisting of five poems. The earliest of these
was a sonnet, not contained in any edition of Mr. Browning's works,
and which, I believe, first reappeared in Mr. Gosse's article
in the `Century Magazine', December 1881; now part of his `Personalia'.
The second, beginning `A king lived long ago', was to be published,
with alterations and additions, as one of `Pippa's' songs.
`Porphyria's Lover' and `Johannes Agricola in Meditation'
were reprinted together in `Bells and Pomegranates'
under the heading of `Madhouse Cells'. The fifth consisted of
the Lines beginning `Still ailing, Wind? wilt be appeased or no?'
afterwards introduced into the sixth section of `James Lee's Wife'.
The sonnet is not very striking, though hints of the poet's
future psychological subtlety are not wanting in it; but his most essential
dramatic quality reveals itself in the last three poems.

This winter of 1834-5 witnessed the birth, perhaps also the extinction,
of an amateur periodical, established by some of Mr. Browning's friends;
foremost among these the young Dowsons, afterwards connected
with Alfred Domett. The magazine was called the `Trifler',
and published in monthly numbers of about ten pages each.
It collapsed from lack of pocket-money on the part of the editors;
but Mr. Browning had written for it one letter, February 1833,
signed with his usual initial Z, and entitled `Some strictures on
a late article in the `Trifler'.' This boyish production sparkles with fun,
while affecting the lengthy quaintnesses of some obsolete modes of speech.
The article which it attacks was `A Dissertation on Debt and Debtors',
where the subject was, I imagine, treated in the orthodox way:
and he expends all his paradox in showing that indebtedness
is a necessary condition of human life, and all his sophistry in confusing it
with the abstract sense of obligation. It is, perhaps, scarcely fair
to call attention to such a mere argumentative and literary freak;


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