Life and Letters of Robert Browning
Mrs. Sutherland Orr
Part 2 out of 7
but there is something so comical in a defence of debt,
however transparent, proceeding from a man to whom never in his life
a bill can have been sent in twice, and who would always have preferred
ready-money payment to receiving a bill at all, that I may be forgiven
for quoting some passages from it.
For to be man is to be a debtor: -- hinting but slightly
at the grand and primeval debt implied in the idea of a creation,
as matter too hard for ears like thine, (for saith not Luther,
What hath a cow to do with nutmegs?) I must, nevertheless,
remind thee that all moralists have concurred in considering
this our mortal sojourn as indeed an uninterrupted state of debt,
and the world our dwelling-place as represented by nothing so aptly
as by an inn, wherein those who lodge most commodiously
have in perspective a proportionate score to reduce,*
and those who fare least delicately, but an insignificant shot to discharge --
or, as the tuneful Quarles well phraseth it --
He's most in DEBT who lingers out the day,
Who dies betimes has less and less to pay.
So far, therefore, from these sagacious ethics holding that
Debt cramps the energies of the soul, &c.
as thou pratest, 'tis plain that they have willed on the very outset
to inculcate this truth on the mind of every man, --
no barren and inconsequential dogma, but an effectual,
ever influencing and productive rule of life, -- that he is born a debtor,
lives a debtor -- aye, friend, and when thou diest, will not
some judicious bystander, -- no recreant as thou to the bonds of nature,
but a good borrower and true -- remark, as did his grandsire before him
on like occasions, that thou hast `paid the DEBT of nature'?
Ha! I have thee `beyond the rules', as one (a bailiff) may say!
* Miss Hickey, on reading this passage, has called my attention to the fact
that the sentiment which it parodies is identical with that expressed
in these words of `Prospice',
. . . in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness, and cold.
Such performances supplied a distraction to the more serious work
of writing `Paracelsus', which was to be concluded in March 1835,
and which occupied the foregoing winter months. We do not know
to what extent Mr. Browning had remained in communication with Mr. Fox;
but the following letters show that the friend of `Pauline'
gave ready and efficient help in the strangely difficult task
of securing a publisher for the new poem.
The first is dated April 2, 1835.
Dear Sir, -- I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter: --
Sardanapalus `could not go on multiplying kingdoms' -- nor I protestations --
but I thank you very much.
You will oblige me indeed by forwarding the introduction to Moxon.
I merely suggested him in particular, on account of his good name and fame
among author-folk, besides he has himself written -- as the Americans say --
`more poetry 'an you can shake a stick at.' So I hope we shall come to terms.
I also hope my poem will turn out not utterly unworthy your kind interest,
and more deserving your favour than anything of mine you have as yet seen;
indeed I all along proposed to myself such an endeavour,
for it will never do for one so distinguished by past praise
to prove nobody after all -- `nous verrons'.
I am, dear sir,
Yours most truly and obliged
On April 16 he wrote again as follows:
Your communication gladdened the cockles of my heart. I lost no time
in presenting myself to Moxon, but no sooner was Mr. Clarke's letter perused
than the Moxonian visage loured exceedingly thereat -- the Moxonian accent
grew dolorous thereupon: -- `Artevelde' has not paid expenses
by about thirty odd pounds. Tennyson's poetry is `popular at Cambridge',
and yet of 800 copies which were printed of his last, some 300 only
have gone off: Mr. M. hardly knows whether he shall ever venture again,
&c. &c., and in short begs to decline even inspecting, &c. &c.
I called on Saunders and Otley at once, and, marvel of marvels,
do really think there is some chance of our coming to decent terms --
I shall know at the beginning of next week, but am not over-sanguine.
You will `sarve me out'? two words to that; being the man you are,
you must need very little telling from me, of the real feeling I have
of your criticism's worth, and if I have had no more of it,
surely I am hardly to blame, who have in more than one instance
bored you sufficiently: but not a particle of your article
has been rejected or neglected by your observant humble servant,
and very proud shall I be if my new work bear in it
the marks of the influence under which it was undertaken --
and if I prove not a fit compeer of the potter in Horace
who anticipated an amphora and produced a porridge-pot.
I purposely keep back the subject until you see my conception
of its capabilities -- otherwise you would be planning a vase
fit to give the go-by to Evander's best crockery, which my cantharus
would cut but a sorry figure beside -- hardly up to the ansa.
But such as it is, it is very earnest and suggestive --
and likely I hope to do good; and though I am rather scared
at the thought of a FRESH EYE going over its 4,000 lines --
discovering blemishes of all sorts which my one wit cannot avail to detect,
fools treated as sages, obscure passages, slipshod verses,
and much that worse is, -- yet on the whole I am not much afraid of the issue,
and I would give something to be allowed to read it some morning to you --
for every rap o' the knuckles I should get a clap o' the back, I know.
I have another affair on hand, rather of a more popular nature, I conceive,
but not so decisive and explicit on a point or two -- so I decide
on trying the question with this: -- I really shall NEED your notice,
on this account; I shall affix my name and stick my arms akimbo;
there are a few precious bold bits here and there, and the drift and scope
are awfully radical -- I am `off' for ever with the other side,
but must by all means be `on' with yours -- a position once gained,
worthier works shall follow -- therefore a certain writer*
who meditated a notice (it matters not laudatory or otherwise) on `Pauline'
in the `Examiner', must be benignant or supercilious as he shall choose,
but in no case an idle spectator of my first appearance on any stage
(having previously only dabbled in private theatricals)
and bawl `Hats off!' `Down in front!' &c., as soon as I get to the proscenium;
and he may depend that tho' my `Now is the winter of our discontent'
be rather awkward, yet there shall be occasional outbreaks of good stuff --
that I shall warm as I get on, and finally wish `Richmond at the bottom
of the seas,' &c. in the best style imaginable.
* Mr. John Stuart Mill.
Excuse all this swagger, I know you will, and
(The signature has been cut off; evidently for an autograph.)
Mr. Effingham Wilson was induced to publish the poem, but more, we understand,
on the ground of radical sympathies in Mr. Fox and the author
than on that of its intrinsic worth.
The title-page of `Paracelsus' introduces us to one of the warmest friendships
of Mr. Browning's life. Count de Ripert-Monclar was a young French Royalist,
one of those who had accompanied the Duchesse de Berri
on her Chouan expedition, and was then, for a few years,
spending his summers in England; ostensibly for his pleasure,
really -- as he confessed to the Browning family -- in the character
of private agent of communication between the royal exiles
and their friends in France. He was four years older than the poet,
and of intellectual tastes which created an immediate bond of union
between them. In the course of one of their conversations,
he suggested the life of Paracelsus as a possible subject for a poem;
but on second thoughts pronounced it unsuitable, because it gave no room
for the introduction of love: about which, he added,
every young man of their age thought he had something quite new to say.
Mr. Browning decided, after the necessary study, that he would write a poem
on Paracelsus, but treating him in his own way. It was dedicated,
in fulfilment of a promise, to the friend to whom its inspiration
had been due.
The Count's visits to England entirely ceased, and the two friends
did not meet for twenty years. Then, one day, in a street in Rome,
Mr. Browning heard a voice behind him crying, `Robert!'
He turned, and there was `Amedee'. Both were, by that time, married;
the Count -- then, I believe, Marquis -- to an English lady, Miss Jerningham.
Mrs. Browning, to whom of course he was introduced, liked him very much.*
* A minor result of the intimacy was that Mr. Browning
became member, in 1835, of the Institut Historique,
and in 1836 of the Societe Francaise de Statistique Universelle,
to both of which learned bodies his friend belonged.
Mr. Browning did treat Paracelsus in his own way; and in so doing
produced a character -- at all events a history -- which,
according to recent judgments, approached far nearer to the reality
than any conception which had until then been formed of it.
He had carefully collected all the known facts of the great discoverer's life,
and interpreted them with a sympathy which was no less
an intuition of their truth than a reflection of his own genius upon them.
We are enabled in some measure to judge of this by a paper entitled
`Paracelsus, the Reformer of Medicine', written by Dr. Edward Berdoe
for the Browning Society, and read at its October meeting in 1888;
and in the difficulty which exists for most of us of verifying
the historical data of Mr. Browning's poem, it becomes a valuable guide to,
as well as an interesting comment upon it.
Dr. Berdoe reminds us that we cannot understand the real Paracelsus
without reference to the occult sciences so largely cultivated in his day,
as also to the mental atmosphere which produced them;
and he quotes in illustration a passage from the writings
of that Bishop of Spanheim who was the instructor of Paracelsus,
and who appears as such in the poem. The passage is a definition
of divine magic, which is apparently another term for alchemy;
and lays down the great doctrine of all mediaeval occultism,
as of all modern theosophy -- of a soul-power equally operative
in the material and the immaterial, in nature and in the consciousness of man.
The same clue will guide us, as no other can, through what is apparently
conflicting in the aims and methods, anomalous in the moral experience,
of the Paracelsus of the poem. His feverish pursuit,
among the things of Nature, of an ultimate of knowledge,
not contained, even in fragments, in her isolated truths;
the sense of failure which haunts his most valuable attainments;
his tampering with the lower or diabolic magic, when the divine has failed;
the ascetic exaltation in which he begins his career; the sudden awakening
to the spiritual sterility which has been consequent on it;
all these find their place, if not always their counterpart, in the real life.
The language of Mr. Browning's Paracelsus, his attitude towards
himself and the world, are not, however, quite consonant
with the alleged facts. They are more appropriate to an ardent explorer
of the world of abstract thought than to a mystical scientist pursuing
the secret of existence. He preserves, in all his mental vicissitudes,
a loftiness of tone and a unity of intention, difficult to connect,
even in fancy, with the real man, in whom the inherited superstitions
and the prognostics of true science must often have clashed with each other.
Dr. Berdoe's picture of the `Reformer' drawn more directly from history,
conveys this double impression. Mr. Browning has rendered him more simple
by, as it were, recasting him in the atmosphere of a more modern time,
and of his own intellectual life. This poem still, therefore, belongs
to the same group as `Pauline', though, as an effort of dramatic creation,
superior to it.
We find the Poet with still less of dramatic disguise
in the deathbed revelation which forms so beautiful a close to the story.
It supplies a fitter comment to the errors of the dramatic Paracelsus,
than to those of the historical, whether or not its utterance
was within the compass of historical probability, as Dr. Berdoe believes.
In any case it was the direct product of Mr. Browning's mind,
and expressed what was to be his permanent conviction.
It might then have been an echo of German pantheistic philosophies.
From the point of view of science -- of modern science at least --
it was prophetic; although the prophecy of one for whom
evolution could never mean less or more than a divine creation
operating on this progressive plan.
The more striking, perhaps, for its personal quality
are the evidences of imaginative sympathy, even direct human insight,
in which the poem abounds. Festus is, indeed, an essentially human creature:
the man -- it might have been the woman -- of unambitious intellect
and large intelligence of the heart, in whom so many among us
have found comfort and help. We often feel, in reading `Pauline',
that the poet in it was older than the man. The impression is
more strongly and more definitely conveyed by this second work,
which has none of the intellectual crudeness of `Pauline',
though it still belongs to an early phase of the author's intellectual life.
Not only its mental, but its moral maturity, seems so much in advance
of his uncompleted twenty-third year.
To the first edition of `Paracelsus' was affixed a preface,
now long discarded, but which acquires fresh interest in a retrospect
of the author's completed work; for it lays down the constant principle
of dramatic creation by which that work was to be inspired.
It also anticipates probable criticism of the artistic form which on this,
and so many subsequent occasions, he selected for it.
`I am anxious that the reader should not, at the very outset --
mistaking my performance for one of a class with which it has
nothing in common -- judge it by principles on which it was never moulded,
and subject it to a standard to which it was never meant to conform.
I therefore anticipate his discovery, that it is an attempt,
probably more novel than happy, to reverse the method usually adopted
by writers whose aim it is to set forth any phenomenon
of the mind or the passions, by the operation of persons and events;
and that, instead of having recourse to an external machinery of incidents
to create and evolve the crisis I desire to produce, I have ventured
to display somewhat minutely the mood itself in its rise and progress,
and have suffered the agency by which it is influenced and determined,
to be generally discernible in its effects alone, and subordinate throughout,
if not altogether excluded: and this for a reason. I have endeavoured
to write a poem, not a drama: the canons of the drama are well known,
and I cannot but think that, inasmuch as they have immediate regard
to stage representation, the peculiar advantages they hold out are really such
only so long as the purpose for which they were at first instituted
is kept in view. I do not very well understand what is called
a Dramatic Poem, wherein all those restrictions only submitted to
on account of compensating good in the original scheme
are scrupulously retained, as though for some special fitness in themselves --
and all new facilities placed at an author's disposal
by the vehicle he selects, as pertinaciously rejected. . . .'
Mr. Fox reviewed this also in the `Monthly Repository'.
The article might be obtained through the kindness of Mrs. Bridell-Fox;
but it will be sufficient for my purpose to refer to its closing paragraph,
as given by her in the `Argosy' of February 1890. It was a final expression
of what the writer regarded as the fitting intellectual attitude
towards a rising poet, whose aims and methods lay so far beyond
the range of the conventional rules of poetry. The great event
in the history of `Paracelsus' was John Forster's article on it
in the `Examiner'. Mr. Forster had recently come to town.
He could barely have heard Mr. Browning's name, and,
as he afterwards told him, was perplexed in reading the poem by the question
of whether its author was an old or a young man; but he knew that a writer
in the `Athenaeum' had called it rubbish, and he had taken it up
as a probable subject for a piece of slashing criticism.
What he did write can scarcely be defined as praise. It was the simple,
ungrudging admission of the unequivocal power, as well as brilliant promise,
which he recognized in the work. This mutual experience
was the introduction to a long and, certainly on Mr. Browning's part,
a sincere friendship.
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'.
It was soon after this time, though the exact date cannot be recalled,
that the Browning family moved from Camberwell to Hatcham.
Some such change had long been in contemplation, for their house
was now too small; and the finding one more suitable, in the latter place,
had decided the question. The new home possessed great attractions.
The long, low rooms of its upper storey supplied abundant accommodation
for the elder Mr. Browning's six thousand books. Mrs. Browning
was suffering greatly from her chronic ailment, neuralgia;
and the large garden, opening on to the Surrey hills, promised her
all the benefits of country air. There were a coach-house and stable,
which, by a curious, probably old-fashioned, arrangement,
formed part of the house, and were accessible from it.
Here the `good horse', York, was eventually put up; and near this,
in the garden, the poet soon had another though humbler friend
in the person of a toad, which became so much attached to him
that it would follow him as he walked. He visited it daily,
where it burrowed under a white rose tree, announcing himself
by a pinch of gravel dropped into its hole; and the creature
would crawl forth, allow its head to be gently tickled,
and reward the act with that loving glance of the soft full eyes
which Mr. Browning has recalled in one of the poems of `Asolando'.
This change of residence brought the grandfather's second family,
for the first time, into close as well as friendly contact with the first.
Mr. Browning had always remained on outwardly friendly terms
with his stepmother; and both he and his children were rewarded
for this forbearance by the cordial relations which grew up between themselves
and two of her sons. But in the earlier days they lived too far apart
for frequent meeting. The old Mrs. Browning was now a widow,
and, in order to be near her relations, she also came to Hatcham,
and established herself there in close neighbourhood to them.
She had then with her only a son and a daughter, those known
to the poet's friends as Uncle Reuben and Aunt Jemima;
respectively nine years, and one year, older than he.
`Aunt Jemima' married not long afterwards, and is chiefly remembered
as having been very amiable, and, in early youth, to use her nephew's words,
`as beautiful as the day;' but kindly, merry `Uncle Reuben',
then clerk in the Rothschilds' London bank,* became a conspicuous member
of the family circle. This does not mean that the poet was ever
indebted to him for pecuniary help; and it is desirable that this
should be understood, since it has been confidently asserted that he was so.
So long as he was dependent at all, he depended exclusively on his father.
Even the use of his uncle's horse, which might have been accepted
as a friendly concession on Mr. Reuben's part, did not really represent one.
The animal stood, as I have said, in Mr. Browning's stable,
and it was groomed by his gardener. The promise of these conveniences
had induced Reuben Browning to buy a horse instead of continuing to hire one.
He could only ride it on a few days of the week, and it was rather a gain
than a loss to him that so good a horseman as his nephew should exercise it
during the interval.
* This uncle's name, and his business relations with the great Jewish firm,
have contributed to the mistaken theory of the poet's descent.
Uncle Reuben was not a great appreciator of poetry -- at all events
of his nephew's; and an irreverent remark on `Sordello', imputed to
a more eminent contemporary, proceeded, under cover of a friend's name,
from him. But he had his share of mental endowments. We are told that
he was a good linguist, and that he wrote on finance under an assumed name.
He was also, apparently, an accomplished classic. Lord Beaconsfield
is said to have declared that the inscription on a silver inkstand,
presented to the daughter of Lionel Rothschild on her marriage,
by the clerks at New Court, `was the most appropriate thing
he had ever come across;' and that whoever had selected it must be
one of the first Latin scholars of the day. It was Mr. Reuben Browning.
Another favourite uncle was William Shergold Browning,
though less intimate with his nephew and niece than he would have become
if he had not married while they were still children, and settled in Paris,
where his father's interest had placed him in the Rothschild house.
He is known by his `History of the Huguenots', a work, we are told,
`full of research, with a reference to contemporary literature
for almost every occurrence mentioned or referred to.'
He also wrote the `Provost of Paris', and `Hoel Morven',
historical novels, and `Leisure Hours', a collection of miscellanies;
and was a contributor for some years to the `Gentleman's Magazine'.
It was chiefly from this uncle that Miss Browning and her brother
heard the now often-repeated stories of their probable ancestors,
Micaiah Browning, who distinguished himself at the siege of Derry,
and that commander of the ship `Holy Ghost' who conveyed Henry V. to France
before the battle of Agincourt, and received the coat-of-arms,
with its emblematic waves, in reward for his service. Robert Browning
was also indebted to him for the acquaintance of M. de Ripert-Monclar;
for he was on friendly terms with the uncle of the young count,
the Marquis de Fortia, a learned man and member of the Institut,
and gave a letter of introduction -- actually, I believe,
to his brother Reuben -- at the Marquis's request.*
* A grandson of William Shergold, Robert Jardine Browning,
graduated at Lincoln College, was called to the Bar,
and is now Crown Prosecutor in New South Wales; where his name
first gave rise to a report that he was Mr. Browning's son,
while the announcement of his marriage was, for a moment,
connected with Mr. Browning himself. He was also intimate
with the poet and his sister, who liked him very much.
The friendly relations with Carlyle, which resulted in
his high estimate of the poet's mother, also began at Hatcham.
On one occasion he took his brother, the doctor, with him to dine there.
An earlier and much attached friend of the family was Captain Pritchard,
cousin to the noted physician Dr. Blundell. He enabled
the young Robert, whom he knew from the age of sixteen,
to attend some of Dr. Blundell's lectures; and this aroused in him
a considerable interest in the sciences connected with medicine,
though, as I shall have occasion to show, no knowledge of either disease
or its treatment ever seems to have penetrated into his life.
A Captain Lloyd is indirectly associated with `The Flight of the Duchess'.
That poem was not completed according to its original plan;
and it was the always welcome occurrence of a visit from this gentleman
which arrested its completion. Mr. Browning vividly remembered
how the click of the garden gate, and the sight of the familiar figure
advancing towards the house, had broken in upon his work
and dispelled its first inspiration.
The appearance of `Paracelsus' did not give the young poet
his just place in popular judgment and public esteem.
A generation was to pass before this was conceded to him.
But it compelled his recognition by the leading or rising literary men
of the day; and a fuller and more varied social life now opened before him.
The names of Serjeant Talfourd, Horne, Leigh Hunt, Barry Cornwall (Procter),
Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), Eliot Warburton, Dickens, Wordsworth,
and Walter Savage Landor, represent, with that of Forster,
some of the acquaintances made, or the friendships begun, at this period.
Prominent among the friends that were to be, was also Archer Gurney,
well known in later life as the Rev. Archer Gurney,
and chaplain to the British embassy in Paris. His sympathies were at present
largely absorbed by politics. He was contesting the representation
of some county, on the Conservative side; but he took a very vivid interest
in Mr. Browning's poems; and this perhaps fixes the beginning of the intimacy
at a somewhat later date; since a pretty story by which it was illustrated
connects itself with the publication of `Bells and Pomegranates'.
He himself wrote dramas and poems. Sir John, afterwards Lord, Hanmer
was also much attracted by the young poet, who spent a pleasant week with him
at Bettisfield Park. He was the author of a volume entitled
`Fra Cipollo and other Poems', from which the motto of `Colombe's Birthday'
was subsequently taken.
The friends, old and new, met in the informal manner of those days,
at afternoon dinners, or later suppers, at the houses of Mr. Fox,
Serjeant Talfourd, and, as we shall see, Mr. Macready; and Mr. Fox's daughter,
then only a little girl, but intelligent and observant for her years,
well remembers the pleasant gatherings at which she was allowed to assist,
when first performances of plays, or first readings of plays and poems,
had brought some of the younger and more ardent spirits together.
Miss Flower, also, takes her place in the literary group.
Her sister had married in 1834, and left her free to live for her own pursuits
and her own friends; and Mr. Browning must have seen more of her then
than was possible in his boyish days.
None, however, of these intimacies were, at the time,
so important to him as that formed with the great actor Macready.
They were introduced to each other by Mr. Fox early in the winter of 1835-6;
the meeting is thus chronicled in Macready's diary, November 27.*
* `Macready's Reminiscences', edited by Sir Frederick Pollock; 1875.
`Went from chambers to dine with Rev. William Fox, Bayswater. . . .
Mr. Robert Browning, the author of `Paracelsus', came in after dinner;
I was very much pleased to meet him. His face is full of intelligence. . . .
I took Mr. Browning on, and requested to be allowed to improve
my acquaintance with him. He expressed himself warmly,
as gratified by the proposal, wished to send me his book;
we exchanged cards and parted.'
On December 7 he writes:
`Read `Paracelsus', a work of great daring, starred with poetry of thought,
feeling, and diction, but occasionally obscure; the writer can scarcely fail
to be a leading spirit of his time. . . .'
He invited Mr. Browning to his country house, Elm Place, Elstree,
for the last evening of the year; and again refers to him
under date of December 31.
`. . . Our other guests were Miss Henney, Forster, Cattermole, Browning,
and Mr. Munro. Mr. Browning was very popular with the whole party;
his simple and enthusiastic manner engaged attention, and won opinions
from all present; he looks and speaks more like a youthful poet
than any man I ever saw.'
This New-Year's-Eve visit brought Browning and Forster together
for the first time. The journey to Elstree was then performed by coach,
and the two young men met at the `Blue Posts', where, with one or more
of Mr. Macready's other guests, they waited for the coach to start.
They eyed each other with interest, both being striking in their way,
and neither knowing who the other was. When the introduction took place
at Macready's house, Mr. Forster supplemented it by saying:
`Did you see a little notice of you I wrote in the `Examiner'?'
The two names will now be constantly associated in Macready's diary,
which, except for Mr. Browning's own casual utterances,
is almost our only record of his literary and social life
during the next two years.
It was at Elm Place that Mr. Browning first met Miss Euphrasia Fanny Haworth,
then a neighbour of Mr. Macready, residing with her mother at Barham Lodge.
Miss Haworth was still a young woman, but her love and talent
for art and literature made her a fitting member of the genial circle
to which Mr. Browning belonged; and she and the poet soon became fast friends.
Her first name appears as `Eyebright' in `Sordello'. His letters to her,
returned after her death by her brother, Mr. Frederick Haworth,
supply valuable records of his experiences and of his feelings
at one very interesting, and one deeply sorrowful, period of his history.
She was a thoroughly kindly, as well as gifted woman, and much appreciated
by those of the poet's friends who knew her as a resident in London
during her last years. A portrait which she took of him in 1874
is considered by some persons very good.
At about this time also, and probably through Miss Haworth,
he became acquainted with Miss Martineau.
Soon after his introduction to Macready, if not before,
Mr. Browning became busy with the thought of writing for the stage.
The diary has this entry for February 16, 1836:
`Forster and Browning called, and talked over the plot of a tragedy,
which Browning had begun to think of: the subject, Narses.
He said that I had BIT him by my performance of Othello,
and I told him I hoped I should make the blood come.
It would indeed be some recompense for the miseries, the humiliations,
the heart-sickening disgusts which I have endured in my profession,
if, by its exercise, I had awakened a spirit of poetry
whose influence would elevate, ennoble, and adorn our degraded drama.
May it be!'
But Narses was abandoned, and the more serious inspiration
and more definite motive were to come later. They connect themselves
with one of the pleasant social occurrences which must have lived
in the young poet's memory. On May 26 `Ion' had been performed
for the first time and with great success, Mr. Macready sustaining
the principal part; and the great actor and a number of their common friends
had met at supper at Serjeant Talfourd's house to celebrate the occasion.
The party included Wordsworth and Landor, both of whom Mr. Browning then met
for the first time. Toasts flew right and left. Mr. Browning's health
was proposed by Serjeant Talfourd as that of the youngest poet of England,
and Wordsworth responded to the appeal with very kindly courtesy.
The conversation afterwards turned upon plays, and Macready, who had ignored
a half-joking question of Miss Mitford, whether, if she wrote one,
he would act in it, overtook Browning as they were leaving the house,
and said, `Write a play, Browning, and keep me from going to America.'
The reply was, `Shall it be historical and English; what do you say
to a drama on Strafford?'
This ready response on the poet's part showed that Strafford,
as a dramatic subject, had been occupying his thoughts.
The subject was in the air, because Forster was then bringing out
a life of that statesman, with others belonging to the same period.
It was more than in the air, so far as Browning was concerned,
because his friend had been disabled, either through sickness or sorrow,
from finishing this volume by the appointed time, and he, as well he might,
had largely helped him in its completion. It was, however,
not till August 3 that Macready wrote in his diary:
`Forster told me that Browning had fixed on Strafford
for the subject of a tragedy; he could not have hit upon one
that I could have more readily concurred in.'
A previous entry of May 30, the occasion of which is only implied,
shows with how high an estimate of Mr. Browning's intellectual importance
Macready's professional relations to him began.
`Arriving at chambers, I found a note from Browning. What can I say upon it?
It was a tribute which remunerated me for the annoyances and cares of years:
it was one of the very highest, may I not say the highest, honour
I have through life received.'
The estimate maintained itself in reference to the value
of Mr. Browning's work, since he wrote on March 13, 1837:
`Read before dinner a few pages of `Paracelsus', which raises my wonder
the more I read it. . . . Looked over two plays, which it was not possible
to read, hardly as I tried. . . . Read some scenes in `Strafford',
which restore one to the world of sense and feeling once again.'
But as the day of the performance drew near, he became at once
more anxious and more critical. An entry of April 28
comments somewhat sharply on the dramatic faults of `Strafford',
besides declaring the writer's belief that the only chance for it
is in the acting, which, `by possibility, might carry it to the end
without disapprobation,' though he dares not hope without opposition.
It is quite conceivable that his first complete study of the play,
and first rehearsal of it, brought to light deficiencies
which had previously escaped him; but so complete a change of sentiment
points also to private causes of uneasiness and irritation; and, perhaps,
to the knowledge that its being saved by collective good acting
was out of the question.
`Strafford' was performed at Covent Garden Theatre on May 1.
Mr. Browning wrote to Mr. Fox after one of the last rehearsals:
May Day, Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Dear Sir, -- All my endeavours to procure a copy before this morning
have been fruitless. I send the first book of the first bundle.
PRAY look over it -- the alterations to-night will be considerable.
The complexion of the piece is, I grieve to say, `perfect gallows' just now --
our KING, Mr. Dale, being . . . but you'll see him, and, I fear,
not much applaud.
Your unworthy son, in things literary,
P.S. (in pencil). -- A most unnecessary desire, but urged on me
by Messrs. Longman: no notice on Str. in to-night's True Sun,*
lest the other papers be jealous!!!
* Mr. Fox reviewed `Strafford' in the `True Sun'.
A second letter, undated, but evidently written a day or two later,
refers to the promised notice, which had then appeared.
No words can express my feelings: I happen to be much annoyed and unwell --
but your most generous notice has almost made `my soul well and happy now.'
I thank you, my most kind, most constant friend, from my heart
for your goodness -- which is brave enough, just now.
I am ever and increasingly yours,
You will be glad to see me on the earliest occasion, will you not?
I shall certainly come.
A letter from Miss Flower to Miss Sarah Fox (sister to the Rev. William Fox),
at Norwich, contains the following passage, which evidently continues
a chapter of London news:
`Then `Strafford'; were you not pleased to hear of the success of one
you must, I think, remember a very little boy, years ago.
If not, you have often heard us speak of Robert Browning:
and it is a great deal to have accomplished a successful tragedy,
although he seems a good deal annoyed at the go of things behind the scenes,
and declares he will never write a play again, as long as he lives.
You have no idea of the ignorance and obstinacy of the whole set,
with here and there an exception; think of his having to write out the meaning
of the word `impeachment', as some of them thought it meant `poaching'.'
On the first night, indeed, the fate of `Strafford' hung in the balance;
it was saved by Macready and Miss Helen Faucit. After this they must have
been better supported, as it was received on the second night with enthusiasm
by a full house. The catastrophe came after the fifth performance,
with the desertion of the actor who had sustained the part of Pym.
We cannot now judge whether, even under favourable circumstances,
the play would have had as long a run as was intended;
but the casting vote in favour of this view is given by the conduct
of Mr. Osbaldistone, the manager, when it was submitted to him.
The diary says, March 30, that he caught at it with avidity,
and agreed to produce it without delay. The terms he offered to the author
must also have been considered favourable in those days.
The play was published in April by Longman, this time
not at the author's expense; but it brought no return
either to him or to his publisher. It was dedicated
`in all affectionate admiration' to William C. Macready.
We gain some personal glimpses of the Browning of 1835-6;
one especially through Mrs. Bridell-Fox, who thus describes
her first meeting with him:
`I remember . . . when Mr. Browning entered the drawing-room,
with a quick light step; and on hearing from me that my father was out,
and in fact that nobody was at home but myself, he said:
"It's my birthday to-day; I'll wait till they come in,"
and sitting down to the piano, he added: "If it won't disturb you,
I'll play till they do." And as he turned to the instrument,
the bells of some neighbouring church suddenly burst out
with a frantic merry peal. It seemed, to my childish fancy,
as if in response to the remark that it was his birthday.
He was then slim and dark, and very handsome; and -- may I hint it --
just a trifle of a dandy, addicted to lemon-coloured kid-gloves
and such things: quite "the glass of fashion and the mould of form."
But full of ambition, eager for success, eager for fame, and, what's more,
determined to conquer fame and to achieve success.'
I do not think his memory ever taxed him with foppishness,
though he may have had the innocent personal vanity of an attractive young man
at his first period of much seeing and being seen; but all we know of him
at that time bears out the impression Mrs. Fox conveys,
of a joyous, artless confidence in himself and in life, easily depressed,
but quickly reasserting itself; and in which the eagerness for new experiences
had freed itself from the rebellious impatience of boyish days.
The self-confidence had its touches of flippancy and conceit; but on this side
it must have been constantly counteracted by his gratitude for kindness,
and by his enthusiastic appreciation of the merits of other men.
His powers of feeling, indeed, greatly expended themselves in this way.
He was very attractive to women and, as we have seen,
warmly loved by very various types of men; but, except in its poetic sense,
his emotional nature was by no means then in the ascendant: a fact
difficult to realize when we remember the passion of his childhood's love
for mother and home, and the new and deep capabilities of affection
to be developed in future days. The poet's soul in him was feeling its wings;
the realities of life had not yet begun to weight them.
We see him again at the `Ion' supper, in the grace and modesty
with which he received the honours then adjudged to him.
The testimony has been said to come from Miss Mitford, but may easily
have been supplied by Miss Haworth, who was also present on this occasion.
Mr. Browning's impulse towards play-writing had not, as we have seen,
begun with `Strafford'. It was still very far from being exhausted.
And though he had struck out for himself another line of dramatic activity,
his love for the higher theatrical life, and the legitimate inducements
of the more lucrative and not necessarily less noble form of composition,
might ultimately in some degree have prevailed with him
if circumstances had been such as to educate his theatrical capabilities,
and to reward them. His first acted drama was, however,
an interlude to the production of the important group of poems
which was to be completed by `Sordello'; and he alludes to this later work
in an also discarded preface to `Strafford', as one on which
he had for some time been engaged. He even characterizes the Tragedy
as an attempt `to freshen a jaded mind by diverting it to the healthy natures
of a grand epoch.' `Sordello' again occupied him during the remainder of 1837
and the beginning of 1838; and by the spring of this year
he must have been thankful to vary the scene and mode of his labours
by means of a first visit to Italy. He announces his impending journey,
with its immediate plan and purpose, in the following note:
To John Robertson, Esq.
Good Friday, 1838.
Dear Sir, -- I was not fortunate enough to find you the day before yesterday
-- and must tell you very hurriedly that I sail this morning for Venice --
intending to finish my poem among the scenes it describes.
I shall have your good wishes I know.
Believe me, in return,
Yours faithfully and obliged,
Mr. John Robertson had influence with the `Westminster Review',
either as editor, or member of its staff. He had been introduced
to Mr. Browning by Miss Martineau; and, being a great admirer of `Paracelsus',
had promised careful attention for `Sordello'; but, when the time approached,
he made conditions of early reading, &c., which Mr. Browning thought
so unfair towards other magazines that he refused to fulfil them.
He lost his review, and the goodwill of its intending writer;
and even Miss Martineau was ever afterwards cooler towards him,
though his attitude in the matter had been in some degree
prompted by a chivalrous partisanship for her.
First Italian Journey -- Letters to Miss Haworth -- Mr. John Kenyon --
`Sordello' -- Letter to Miss Flower -- `Pippa Passes' --
`Bells and Pomegranates'.
Mr. Browning sailed from London with Captain Davidson of the `Norham Castle',
a merchant vessel bound for Trieste, on which he found himself
the only passenger. A striking experience of the voyage,
and some characteristic personal details, are given in the following letter
to Miss Haworth. It is dated 1838, and was probably written
before that year's summer had closed.
Dear Miss Haworth, -- Do look at a fuchsia in full bloom
and notice the clear little honey-drop depending from every flower.
I have just found it out to my no small satisfaction, -- a bee's breakfast.
I only answer for the long-blossomed sort, though, -- indeed,
for this plant in my room. Taste and be Titania; you can, that is.
All this while I forget that you will perhaps never guess
the good of the discovery: I have, you are to know, such a love
for flowers and leaves -- some leaves -- that I every now and then,
in an impatience at being able to possess myself of them thoroughly,
to see them quite, satiate myself with their scent, -- bite them to bits --
so there will be some sense in that. How I remember the flowers --
even grasses -- of places I have seen! Some one flower or weed, I should say,
that gets some strangehow connected with them.
Snowdrops and Tilsit in Prussia go together; cowslips and Windsor Park,
for instance; flowering palm and some place or other in Holland.
Now to answer what can be answered in the letter I was happy to receive
last week. I am quite well. I did not expect you would write, --
for none of your written reasons, however. You will see `Sordello'
in a trice, if the fagging fit holds. I did not write six lines while absent
(except a scene in a play, jotted down as we sailed thro'
the Straits of Gibraltar) -- but I did hammer out some four,
two of which are addressed to you, two to the Queen* --
the whole to go in Book III -- perhaps. I called you `Eyebright' --
meaning a simple and sad sort of translation of "Euphrasia"
into my own language: folks would know who Euphrasia, or Fanny, was --
and I should not know Ianthe or Clemanthe. Not that there is anything in them
to care for, good or bad. Shall I say `Eyebright'?
* I know no lines directly addressed to the Queen.
I was disappointed in one thing, Canova.
What companions should I have?
The story of the ship must have reached you `with a difference'
as Ophelia says; my sister told it to a Mr. Dow, who delivered it to Forster,
I suppose, who furnished Macready with it, who made it over &c., &c., &c. --
As short as I can tell, this way it happened: the captain woke me
one bright Sunday morning to say there was a ship floating keel uppermost
half a mile off; they lowered a boat, made ropes fast to some floating canvas,
and towed her towards our vessel. Both met halfway,
and the little air that had risen an hour or two before, sank at once.
Our men made the wreck fast in high glee at having `new trousers
out of the sails,' and quite sure she was a French boat,
broken from her moorings at Algiers, close by. Ropes were next hove
(hang this sea-talk!) round her stanchions, and after a quarter of an hour's
pushing at the capstan, the vessel righted suddenly,
one dead body floating out; five more were in the forecastle,
and had probably been there a month under a blazing African sun --
don't imagine the wretched state of things. They were, these six,
the `watch below' -- (I give you the result of the day's observation) --
the rest, some eight or ten, had been washed overboard at first.
One or two were Algerines, the rest Spaniards. The vessel was a smuggler
bound for Gibraltar; there were two stupidly disproportionate guns,
taking up the whole deck, which was convex and -- nay, look you!
(a rough pen-and-ink sketch of the different parts of the wreck
is here introduced) these are the gun-rings, and the black square
the place where the bodies lay. (All the `bulwarks' or sides of the top,
carried away by the waves.) Well, the sailors covered up the hatchway,
broke up the aft-deck, hauled up tobacco and cigars, such heaps of them,
and then bale after bale of prints and chintz, don't you call it,
till the captain was half-frightened -- he would get at the ship's papers,
he said; so these poor fellows were pulled up, piecemeal,
and pitched into the sea, the very sailors calling to each other
to `cover the faces', -- no papers of importance were found, however,
but fifteen swords, powder and ball enough for a dozen such boats,
and bundles of cotton, &c., that would have taken a day to get out,
but the captain vowed that after five o'clock she should be cut adrift:
accordingly she was cast loose, not a third of her cargo having been touched;
and you hardly can conceive the strange sight when the battered hulk
turned round, actually, and looked at us, and then reeled off,
like a mutilated creature from some scoundrel French surgeon's lecture-table,
into the most gorgeous and lavish sunset in the world:
there; only thank me for not taking you at your word,
and giving you the whole `story'. -- `What I did?' I went to Trieste,
then Venice -- then through Treviso and Bassano to the mountains,
delicious Asolo, all my places and castles, you will see.
Then to Vicenza, Padua, and Venice again. Then to Verona, Trent,
Innspruck (the Tyrol), Munich, Salzburg in Franconia, Frankfort and Mayence;
down the Rhine to Cologne, then to Aix-la-Chapelle, Liege and Antwerp --
then home. Shall you come to town, anywhere near town, soon?
I shall be off again as soon as my book is out, whenever that will be.
I never read that book of Miss Martineau's, so can't understand what you mean.
Macready is looking well; I just saw him the other day for a minute
after the play; his Kitely was Kitely -- superb from his flat cap
down to his shining shoes. I saw very few Italians, `to know', that is.
Those I did see I liked. Your friend Pepoli has been lecturing here,
has he not?
I shall be vexed if you don't write soon, a long Elstree letter.
What are you doing, writing -- drawing?
Ever yours truly
To Miss Haworth,
Barham Lodge, Elstree.
Miss Browning's account of this experience, supplied from
memory of her brother's letters and conversations, contains some
vivid supplementary details. The drifting away of the wreck
put probably no effective distance between it and the ship;
hence the necessity of `sailing away' from it.
`Of the dead pirates, one had his hands clasped as if praying;
another, a severe gash in his head. The captain burnt disinfectants
and blew gunpowder, before venturing on board, but even then,
he, a powerful man, turned very sick with the smell and sight.
They stayed one whole day by the side, but the sailors, in spite of orders,
began to plunder the cigars, &c. The captain said privately to Robert,
"I cannot restrain my men, and they will bring the plague into our ship,
so I mean quietly in the night to sail away." Robert took
two cutlasses and a dagger; they were of the coarsest workmanship,
intended for use. At the end of one of the sheaths was a heavy bullet,
so that it could be used as a sling. The day after, to their great relief,
a heavy rain fell and cleansed the ship. Captain Davidson reported
the sight of the wreck and its condition as soon as he arrived at Trieste.'
Miss Browning also relates that the weather was stormy in the Bay of Biscay,
and for the first fortnight her brother suffered terribly. The captain
supported him on to the deck as they passed through the Straits of Gibraltar,
that he might not lose the sight. He recovered, as we know,
sufficiently to write `How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix';
but we can imagine in what revulsion of feeling towards firm land
and healthy motion this dream of a headlong gallop was born in him.
The poem was pencilled on the cover of Bartoli's "De' Simboli trasportati
al Morale", a favourite book and constant companion of his;
and, in spite of perfect effacement as far as the sense goes,
the pencil dints are still visible. The little poem
`Home Thoughts from the Sea' was written at the same time,
and in the same manner.
By the time they reached Trieste, the captain, a rough north-countryman,
had become so attached to Mr. Browning that he offered him
a free passage to Constantinople; and after they had parted,
carefully preserved, by way of remembrance, a pair of very old gloves
worn by him on deck. Mr. Browning might, on such an occasion,
have dispensed with gloves altogether; but it was one of his peculiarities
that he could never endure to be out of doors with uncovered hands.
The captain also showed his friendly feeling on his return to England
by bringing to Miss Browning, whom he had heard of through her brother,
a present of six bottles of attar of roses.
The inspirations of Asolo and Venice appear in `Pippa Passes'
and `In a Gondola'; but the latter poem showed, to Mr. Browning's
subsequent vexation, that Venice had been imperfectly seen;
and the magnetism which Asolo was to exercise upon him,
only fully asserted itself at a much later time.
A second letter to Miss Haworth is undated, but may have been written
at any period of this or the ensuing year.
I have received, a couple of weeks since, a present -- an album
large and gaping, and as Cibber's Richard says of the `fair Elizabeth':
`My heart is empty -- she shall fill it' -- so say I (impudently?)
of my grand trouble-table, which holds a sketch or two
by my fine fellow Monclar, one lithograph -- his own face of faces, --
`all the rest was amethyst.' F. H. everywhere! not a soul beside
`in the chrystal silence there,' and it locks, this album;
now, don't shower drawings on M., who has so many advantages over me as it is:
or at least don't bid ME of all others say what he is to have.
The `Master' is somebody you don't know, W. J. Fox,
a magnificent and poetical nature, who used to write in reviews
when I was a boy, and to whom my verses, a bookful, written at the ripe age
of twelve and thirteen, were shown: which verses he praised not a little;
which praise comforted me not a little. Then I lost sight of him
for years and years; then I published ANONYMOUSLY a little poem --
which he, to my inexpressible delight, praised and expounded
in a gallant article in a magazine of which he was the editor;
then I found him out again; he got a publisher for `Paracelsus'
(I read it to him in manuscript) and is in short `my literary father'.
Pretty nearly the same thing did he for Miss Martineau,
as she has said somewhere. God knows I forget what the `talk',
table-talk was about -- I think she must have told you
the results of the whole day we spent tete-a-tete at Ascot,
and that day's, the dinner-day's morning at Elstree and St. Albans.
She is to give me advice about my worldly concerns, and not before I need it!
I cannot say or sing the pleasure your way of writing gives me -- do go on,
and tell me all sorts of things, `the story' for a beginning;
but your moralisings on `your age' and the rest, are -- now what ARE they?
not to be reasoned on, disputed, laughed at, grieved about:
they are `Fanny's crotchets'. I thank thee, Jew (lia),
for teaching me that word.
I don't know that I shall leave town for a month: my friend Monclar
looks piteous when I talk of such an event. I can't bear to leave him;
he is to take my portrait to-day (a famous one he HAS taken!) and very like
he engages it shall be. I am going to town for the purpose. . . .
Now, then, do something for me, and see if I'll ask Miss M---- to help you!
I am going to begin the finishing `Sordello' -- and to begin thinking
a Tragedy (an Historical one, so I shall want heaps of criticisms
on `Strafford') and I want to have ANOTHER tragedy in prospect,
I write best so provided: I had chosen a splendid subject for it,
when I learned that a magazine for next, this, month, will have a scene
founded on my story; vulgarizing or doing no good to it:
and I accordingly throw it up. I want a subject of the most wild
and passionate love, to contrast with the one I mean to have ready
in a short time. I have many half-conceptions, floating fancies:
give me your notion of a thorough self-devotement, self-forgetting;
should it be a woman who loves thus, or a man? What circumstances
will best draw out, set forth this feeling? . . .
The tragedies in question were to be `King Victor and King Charles',
and `The Return of the Druses'.
This letter affords a curious insight into Mr. Browning's mode of work;
it is also very significant of the small place which love
had hitherto occupied in his life. It was evident, from his appeal
to Miss Haworth's `notion' on the subject, that he had as yet no experience,
even imaginary, of a genuine passion, whether in woman or man.
The experience was still distant from him in point of time.
In circumstance he was nearer to it than he knew; for it was in 1839
that he became acquainted with Mr. Kenyon.
When dining one day at Serjeant Talfourd's, he was accosted
by a pleasant elderly man, who, having, we conclude, heard who he was,
asked leave to address to him a few questions: `Was his father's name Robert?
had he gone to school at the Rev. Mr. Bell's at Cheshunt,
and was he still alive?' On receiving affirmative answers,
he went on to say that Mr. Browning and he had been great chums at school,
and though they had lost sight of each other in after-life,
he had never forgotten his old playmate, but even alluded to him
in a little book which he had published a few years before.*
* The volume is entitled `Rhymed Plea for Tolerance' (1833),
and contains a reference to Mr. Kenyon's schooldays,
and to the classic fights which Mr. Browning had instituted.
The next morning the poet asked his father if he remembered
a schoolfellow named John Kenyon. He replied, `Certainly! This is his face,'
and sketched a boy's head, in which his son at once recognized
that of the grown man. The acquaintance was renewed, and Mr. Kenyon
proved ever afterwards a warm friend. Mr. Browning wrote of him,
in a letter to Professor Knight of St. Andrews, Jan. 10, 1884:
`He was one of the best of human beings, with a general sympathy
for excellence of every kind. He enjoyed the friendship of Wordsworth,
of Southey, of Landor, and, in later days, was intimate with
most of my contemporaries of eminence.' It was at Mr. Kenyon's house
that the poet saw most of Wordsworth, who always stayed there
when he came to town.
In 1840 `Sordello' appeared. It was, relatively to its length,
by far the slowest in preparation of Mr. Browning's poems.
This seemed, indeed, a condition of its peculiar character.
It had lain much deeper in the author's mind than the various slighter works
which were thrown off in the course of its inception.
We know from the preface to `Strafford' that it must have been begun
soon after `Paracelsus'. Its plan may have belonged to a still earlier date;
for it connects itself with `Pauline' as the history of a poetic soul;
with both the earlier poems, as the manifestation of the self-conscious
spiritual ambitions which were involved in that history.
This first imaginative mood was also outgrowing itself
in the very act of self-expression; for the tragedies written
before the conclusion of `Sordello' impress us as the product
of a different mental state -- as the work of a more balanced imagination
and a more mature mind.
It would be interesting to learn how Mr. Browning's typical poet
became embodied in this mediaeval form: whether the half-mythical character
of the real Sordello presented him as a fitting subject for imaginative
psychological treatment, or whether the circumstances among which he moved
seemed the best adapted to the development of the intended type.
The inspiration may have come through the study of Dante, and his testimony
to the creative influence of Sordello on their mother-tongue.
That period of Italian history must also have assumed,
if it did not already possess, a great charm for Mr. Browning's fancy,
since he studied no less than thirty works upon it,
which were to contribute little more to his dramatic picture
than what he calls `decoration', or `background'. But the one guide
which he has given us to the reading of the poem is his assertion
that its historical circumstance is only to be regarded as background;
and the extent to which he identified himself with the figure of Sordello
has been proved by his continued belief that its prominence
was throughout maintained. He could still declare, so late as 1863,
in his preface to the reprint of the work, that his `stress' in writing it
had lain `on the incidents in the development of a soul, little else'
being to his mind `worth study'. I cannot therefore help thinking
that recent investigations of the life and character of the actual poet,
however in themselves praiseworthy and interesting, have been often
in some degree a mistake; because, directly or indirectly,
they referred Mr. Browning's Sordello to an historical reality,
which his author had grasped, as far as was then possible,
but to which he was never intended to conform.
Sordello's story does exhibit the development of a soul; or rather,
the sudden awakening of a self-regarding nature to the claims of other men --
the sudden, though slowly prepared, expansion of the narrower
into the larger self, the selfish into the sympathetic existence;
and this takes place in accordance with Mr. Browning's here expressed belief
that poetry is the appointed vehicle for all lasting truths;
that the true poet must be their exponent. The work is thus obviously,
in point of moral utterance, an advance on `Pauline'.
Its metaphysics are, also, more distinctly formulated than those
of either `Pauline' or `Paracelsus'; and the frequent use of the term Will
in its metaphysical sense so strongly points to German associations
that it is difficult to realize their absence, then and always,
from Mr. Browning's mind. But he was emphatic in his assurance that
he knew neither the German philosophers nor their reflection in Coleridge,
who would have seemed a likely medium between them and him. Miss Martineau
once said to him that he had no need to study German thought, since his mind
was German enough -- by which she possibly meant too German -- already.
The poem also impresses us by a Gothic richness of detail,*
the picturesque counterpart of its intricacy of thought,
and, perhaps for this very reason, never so fully displayed
in any subsequent work. Mr. Browning's genuinely modest attitude towards it
could not preclude the consciousness of the many imaginative beauties
which its unpopular character had served to conceal; and he was glad to find,
some years ago, that `Sordello' was represented in a collection
of descriptive passages which a friend of his was proposing to make.
`There is a great deal of that in it,' he said, `and it has always
* The term Gothic has been applied to Mr. Browning's work, I believe,
by Mr. James Thomson, in writing of `The Ring and the Book',
and I do not like to use it without saying so. But it is one of those
which must have spontaneously suggested themselves
to many other of Mr. Browning's readers.
It was unfortunate that new difficulties of style should have added themselves
on this occasion to those of subject and treatment; and the reason of it
is not generally known. Mr. John Sterling had made some comments
on the wording of `Paracelsus'; and Miss Caroline Fox,
then quite a young woman, repeated them, with additions, to Miss Haworth,
who, in her turn, communicated them to Mr. Browning,
but without making quite clear to him the source from which they sprang.
He took the criticism much more seriously than it deserved,
and condensed the language of this his next important publication
into what was nearly its present form.
In leaving `Sordello' we emerge from the self-conscious stage
of Mr. Browning's imagination, and his work ceases to be autobiographic
in the sense in which, perhaps erroneously, we have hitherto felt it to be.
`Festus' and `Salinguerra' have already given promise
of the world of `Men and Women' into which he will now conduct us.
They will be inspired by every variety of conscious motive,
but never again by the old (real or imagined) self-centred,
self-directing Will. We have, indeed, already lost the sense of disparity
between the man and the poet; for the Browning of `Sordello'
was growing older, while the defects of the poem were in many respects
those of youth. In `Pippa Passes', published one year later,
the poet and the man show themselves full-grown. Each has entered
on the inheritance of the other.
Neither the imagination nor the passion of what Mr. Gosse so fitly calls
this `lyrical masque'* gives much scope for tenderness;
but the quality of humour is displayed in it for the first time;
as also a strongly marked philosophy of life -- or more properly,
of association -- from which its idea and development are derived.
In spite, however, of these evidences of general maturity,
Mr. Browning was still sometimes boyish in personal intercourse,
if we may judge from a letter to Miss Flower written at about the same time.
* These words, and a subsequent paragraph, are quoted from
Mr. Gosse's `Personalia'.
Monday night, March 9 (? 1841).
My dear Miss Flower, -- I have this moment received your very kind note --
of course, I understand your objections. How else? But they are
somewhat lightened already (confess -- nay `confess' is vile --
you will be rejoiced to holla from the house-top) -- will go on,
or rather go off, lightening, and will be -- oh, where WILL they be
half a dozen years hence?
Meantime praise what you can praise, do me all the good you can,
you and Mr. Fox (as if you will not!) for I have a head full of projects --
mean to song-write, play-write forthwith, -- and, believe me,
dear Miss Flower,
Yours ever faithfully,
By the way, you speak of `Pippa' -- could we not make some arrangement
about it? The lyrics WANT your music -- five or six in all -- how say you?
When these three plays are out I hope to build a huge Ode --
but `all goeth by God's Will.'
The loyal Alfred Domett now appears on the scene with a satirical poem,
inspired by an impertinent criticism on his friend.
I give its first two verses:
On a Certain Critique on `Pippa Passes'.
(Query -- Passes what? -- the critic's comprehension.)
Ho! everyone that by the nose is led,
Automatons of which the world is full,
Ye myriad bodies, each without a head,
That dangle from a critic's brainless skull,
Come, hearken to a deep discovery made,
A mighty truth now wondrously displayed.
A black squat beetle, vigorous for his size,
Pushing tail-first by every road that's wrong
The dung-ball of his dirty thoughts along
His tiny sphere of grovelling sympathies --
Has knocked himself full-butt, with blundering trouble,
Against a mountain he can neither double
Nor ever hope to scale. So like a free,
Pert, self-conceited scarabaeus, he
Takes it into his horny head to swear
There's no such thing as any mountain there.
The writer lived to do better things from a literary point of view;
but these lines have a fine ring of youthful indignation
which must have made them a welcome tribute to friendship.
There seems to have been little respectful criticism of `Pippa Passes';
it is less surprising that there should have been very little of `Sordello'.
Mr. Browning, it is true, retained a limited number of earnest appreciators,
foremost of whom was the writer of an admirable notice of these two works,
quoted from an `Eclectic Review' of 1847, in Dr. Furnivall's `Bibliography'.
I am also told that the series of poems which was next to appear
was enthusiastically greeted by some poets and painters
of the pre-Raphaelite school; but he was now entering on a period
of general neglect, which covered nearly twenty years of his life,
and much that has since become most deservedly popular in his work.
`Pippa Passes' had appeared as the first instalment
of `Bells and Pomegranates', the history of which I give in Mr. Gosse's words.
This poem, and the two tragedies, `King Victor and King Charles' and
`The Return of the Druses' -- first christened `Mansoor, the Hierophant' --
were lying idle in Mr. Browning's desk. He had not found,
perhaps not very vigorously sought, a publisher for them.
`One day, as the poet was discussing the matter with Mr. Edward Moxon,
the publisher, the latter remarked that at that time he was bringing out
some editions of the old Elizabethan dramatists in a comparatively cheap form,
and that if Mr. Browning would consent to print his poems as pamphlets,
using this cheap type, the expense would be very inconsiderable.
The poet jumped at the idea, and it was agreed that each poem should form
a separate brochure of just one sheet -- sixteen pages in double columns --
the entire cost of which should not exceed twelve or fifteen pounds.
In this fashion began the celebrated series of `Bells and Pomegranates',
eight numbers of which, a perfect treasury of fine poetry,
came out successively between 1841 and 1846. `Pippa Passes' led the way,
and was priced first at sixpence; then, the sale being inconsiderable,
at a shilling, which greatly encouraged the sale; and so, slowly,
up to half-a-crown, at which the price of each number finally rested.'
Mr. Browning's hopes and intentions with respect to this series
are announced in the following preface to `Pippa Passes',
of which, in later editions, only the dedicatory words appear:
`Two or three years ago I wrote a Play, about which the chief matter
I care to recollect at present is, that a Pit-full of good-natured people
applauded it: -- ever since, I have been desirous of doing
something in the same way that should better reward their attention.
What follows I mean for the first of a series of Dramatical Pieces,
to come out at intervals, and I amuse myself by fancying that the cheap mode
in which they appear will for once help me to a sort of Pit-audience again.
Of course, such a work must go on no longer than it is liked;
and to provide against a certain and but too possible contingency,
let me hasten to say now -- what, if I were sure of success,
I would try to say circumstantially enough at the close --
that I dedicate my best intentions most admiringly to the author of "Ion" --
most affectionately to Serjeant Talfourd.'
A necessary explanation of the general title was reserved for the last number:
and does something towards justifying the popular impression
that Mr. Browning exacted a large measure of literary insight
from his readers.
`Here ends my first series of "Bells and Pomegranates":
and I take the opportunity of explaining, in reply to inquiries,
that I only meant by that title to indicate an endeavour
towards something like an alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing,
sound with sense, poetry with thought; which looks too ambitious,
thus expressed, so the symbol was preferred. It is little to the purpose,
that such is actually one of the most familiar of the many Rabbinical
(and Patristic) acceptations of the phrase; because I confess that,
letting authority alone, I supposed the bare words, in such juxtaposition,
would sufficiently convey the desired meaning. "Faith and good works"
is another fancy, for instance, and perhaps no easier to arrive at:
yet Giotto placed a pomegranate fruit in the hand of Dante,
and Raffaelle crowned his Theology (in the `Camera della Segnatura')
with blossoms of the same; as if the Bellari and Vasari would be sure
to come after, and explain that it was merely "simbolo delle buone opere --
il qual Pomogranato fu pero\ usato nelle vesti del Pontefice
appresso gli Ebrei."'
The Dramas and Poems contained in the eight numbers
of `Bells and Pomegranates' were:
I. Pippa Passes. 1841.
II. King Victor and King Charles. 1842.
III. Dramatic Lyrics. 1842.
Cavalier Tunes; I. Marching Along; II. Give a Rouse;
III. My Wife Gertrude. [`Boot and Saddle'.]
Italy and France; I. Italy; II. France.
Camp and Cloister; I. Camp (French); II. Cloister (Spanish).
In a Gondola.
Waring; I.; II.
Queen Worship; I. Rudel and The Lady of Tripoli; II. Cristina.
Madhouse Cells; I. [Johannes Agricola.]; II. [Porphyria.]
Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr. 1842.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin; a Child's Story.
IV. The Return of the Druses. A Tragedy, in Five Acts. 1843.
V. A Blot in the 'Scutcheon. A Tragedy, in Three Acts. 1843.
[Second Edition, same year.]
VI. Colombe's Birthday. A Play, in Five Acts. 1844.
VII. Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. 1845.
`How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. (16--.)'
Pictor Ignotus. (Florence, 15--.)
Italy in England.
England in Italy. (Piano di Sorrento.)
The Lost Leader.
The Lost Mistress.
Home Thoughts, from Abroad.
The Tomb at St. Praxed's: (Rome, 15--.)
Garden Fancies; I. The Flower's Name;
II. Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis.
France and Spain; I. The Laboratory (Ancien Regime);
II. Spain -- The Confessional.
The Flight of the Duchess.
Song. (`Nay but you, who do not love her.')
The Boy and the Angel.
Night and Morning; I. Night; II. Morning.
Claret and Tokay.
Saul. (Part I.)
The Glove. (Peter Ronsard loquitur.)
VIII. and last. Luria; and A Soul's Tragedy. 1846.
This publication has seemed entitled to a detailed notice,
because it is practically extinct, and because its nature and circumstance
confer on it a biographical interest not possessed by any subsequent issue
of Mr. Browning's works. The dramas and poems of which it is composed
belong to that more mature period of the author's life, in which
the analysis of his work ceases to form a necessary part of his history.
Some few of them, however, are significant to it; and this is notably the case
with `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon'.
`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.
`A Blot in the 'Scutcheon' was written for Macready, who meant to perform
the principal part; and we may conclude that the appeal for it was urgent,
since it was composed in the space of four or five days.
Macready's journals must have contained a fuller reference
to both the play and its performance (at Drury Lane, February 1843)
than appears in published form; but considerable irritation had arisen
between him and Mr. Browning, and he possibly wrote something
which his editor, Sir Frederick Pollock, as the friend of both,
thought it best to omit. What occurred on this occasion
has been told in some detail by Mr. Gosse, and would not need repeating
if the question were only of re-telling it on the same authority,
in another person's words; but, through the kindness
of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Hill, I am able to give Mr. Browning's
direct statement of the case, as also his expressed judgment upon it.
The statement was made more than forty years later than the events
to which it refers, but will, nevertheless, be best given
in its direct connection with them.
The merits, or demerits, of `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon'
had been freshly brought under discussion by its performance in London
through the action of the Browning Society, and in Washington
by Mr. Laurence Barrett; and it became the subject of a paragraph
in one of the theatrical articles prepared for the `Daily News'.
Mr. Hill was then editor of the paper, and when the article
came to him for revision, he thought it right to submit to Mr. Browning
the passages devoted to his tragedy, which embodied some then prevailing,
but, he strongly suspected, erroneous impressions concerning it.
The results of this kind and courteous proceeding appear
in the following letter.
19, Warwick Crescent: December 15, 1884.
My dear Mr. Hill, -- It was kind and considerate of you
to suppress the paragraph which you send me, -- and of which
the publication would have been unpleasant for reasons quite other
than as regarding my own work, -- which exists to defend or accuse itself.
You will judge of the true reasons when I tell you the facts --
so much of them as contradicts the statements of your critic --
who, I suppose, has received a stimulus from the notice, in an American paper
which arrived last week, of Mr. Laurence Barrett's intention
`shortly to produce the play' in New York -- and subsequently in London:
so that `the failure' of forty-one years ago might be duly influential
at present -- or two years hence perhaps. The `mere amateurs'
are no high game.
Macready received and accepted the play, while he was engaged
at the Haymarket, and retained it for Drury Lane, of which I was ignorant
that he was about to become the manager: he accepted it
`at the instigation' of nobody, -- and Charles Dickens was not in England
when he did so: it was read to him after his return, by Forster --
and the glowing letter which contains his opinion of it,
although directed by him to be shown to myself, was never heard of
nor seen by me till printed in Forster's book some thirty years after.
When the Drury Lane season began, Macready informed me
that he should act the play when he had brought out two others --
`The Patrician's Daughter', and `Plighted Troth': having done so,
he wrote to me that the former had been unsuccessful in money-drawing,
and the latter had `smashed his arrangements altogether': but he would
still produce my play. I had -- in my ignorance of certain symptoms
better understood by Macready's professional acquaintances --
I had no notion that it was a proper thing, in such a case,
to `release him from his promise'; on the contrary, I should have fancied
that such a proposal was offensive. Soon after, Macready begged
that I would call on him: he said the play had been read to the actors
the day before, `and laughed at from beginning to end':
on my speaking my mind about this, he explained that the reading had been done
by the Prompter, a grotesque person with a red nose and wooden leg,
ill at ease in the love scenes, and that he would himself make amends
by reading the play next morning -- which he did, and very adequately --
but apprised me that, in consequence of the state of his mind,
harassed by business and various trouble, the principal character
must be taken by Mr. Phelps; and again I failed to understand, --
what Forster subsequently assured me was plain as the sun at noonday, --
that to allow at Macready's Theatre any other than Macready
to play the principal part in a new piece was suicidal, -- and really believed
I was meeting his exigencies by accepting the substitution.
At the rehearsal, Macready announced that Mr. Phelps was ill,
and that he himself would read the part: on the third rehearsal,
Mr. Phelps appeared for the first time, and sat in a chair
while Macready more than read, rehearsed the part. The next morning
Mr. Phelps waylaid me at the stage-door to say, with much emotion,
that it never was intended that HE should be instrumental
in the success of a new tragedy, and that Macready would play Tresham
on the ground that himself, Phelps, was unable to do so.
He added that he could not expect me to waive such an advantage, --
but that, if I were prepared to waive it, `he would take ether,
sit up all night, and have the words in his memory by next day.'
I bade him follow me to the green-room, and hear what I decided upon --
which was that as Macready had given him the part, he should keep it:
this was on a Thursday; he rehearsed on Friday and Saturday, --
the play being acted the same evening, -- OF THE FIFTH DAY AFTER
THE `READING' BY MACREADY. Macready at once wished to reduce
the importance of the `play', -- as he styled it in the bills, --
tried to leave out so much of the text, that I baffled him
by getting it printed in four-and-twenty hours, by Moxon's assistance.
He wanted me to call it `The Sister'! -- and I have before me, while I write,
the stage-acting copy, with two lines of his own insertion
to avoid the tragical ending -- Tresham was to announce his intention
of going into a monastery! all this, to keep up the belief that Macready,
and Macready alone, could produce a veritable `tragedy', unproduced before.
Not a shilling was spent on scenery or dresses -- and a striking scene
which had been used for the `Patrician's Daughter', did duty a second time.
If your critic considers this treatment of the play an instance of
`the failure of powerful and experienced actors' to ensure its success, --
I can only say that my own opinion was shown by at once breaking off
a friendship of many years -- a friendship which had a right
to be plainly and simply told that the play I had contributed
as a proof of it, would through a change of circumstances,
no longer be to my friend's advantage, -- all I could possibly care for.
Only recently, when by the publication of Macready's journals
the extent of his pecuniary embarrassments at that time was made known,
could I in a measure understand his motives for such conduct -- and less
than ever understand why he so strangely disguised and disfigured them.
If `applause' means success, the play thus maimed and maltreated
was successful enough: it `made way' for Macready's own Benefit,
and the Theatre closed a fortnight after.
Having kept silence for all these years, in spite of repeated explanations,
in the style of your critic's, that the play `failed in spite of
the best endeavours' &c. I hardly wish to revive a very painful matter:
on the other hand, -- as I have said; my play subsists,
and is as open to praise or blame as it was forty-one years ago:
is it necessary to search out what somebody or other, -- not improbably
a jealous adherent of Macready, `the only organizer of theatrical victories',
chose to say on the subject? If the characters are `abhorrent'
and `inscrutable' -- and the language conformable, -- they were so
when Dickens pronounced upon them, and will be so whenever the critic
pleases to re-consider them -- which, if he ever has an opportunity of doing,
apart from the printed copy, I can assure you is through no motion of mine.
This particular experience was sufficient: but the Play
is out of my power now; though amateurs and actors may do what they please.
Of course, this being the true story, I should desire
that it were told THUS and no otherwise, if it must be told at all:
but NOT as a statement of mine, -- the substance of it
has been partly stated already by more than one qualified person,
and if I have been willing to let the poor matter drop,
surely there is no need that it should be gone into now
when Macready and his Athenaeum upholder are no longer able
to speak for themselves: this is just a word to you, dear Mr. Hill,
and may be brought under the notice of your critic if you think proper --
but only for the facts -- not as a communication for the public.
Yes, thank you, I am in full health, as you wish -- and I wish you
and Mrs. Hill, I assure you, all the good appropriate to the season.
My sister has completely recovered from her illness, and is grateful
for your enquiries.
With best regards to Mrs. Hill, and an apology for this long letter,
which however, -- when once induced to write it, -- I could not well shorten,
-- believe me,
Yours truly ever
I well remember Mr. Browning's telling me how, when he returned
to the green-room, on that critical day, he drove his hat
more firmly on to his head, and said to Macready, `I beg pardon, sir,
but you have given the part to Mr. Phelps, and I am satisfied
that he should act it;' and how Macready, on hearing this,
crushed up the MS., and flung it on to the ground. He also admitted
that his own manner had been provocative; but he was indignant
at what he deemed the unjust treatment which Mr. Phelps had received.
The occasion of the next letter speaks for itself.
December 21, 1884.
My dear Mr. Hill, -- Your goodness must extend to letting me have
the last word -- one of sincere thanks. You cannot suppose
I doubted for a moment of a good-will which I have had abundant proof of.
I only took the occasion your considerate letter gave me,
to tell the simple truth which my forty years' silence is a sign
I would only tell on compulsion. I never thought your critic
had any less generous motive for alluding to the performance as he did
than that which he professes: he doubtless heard the account of the matter
which Macready and his intimates gave currency to at the time; and which,
being confined for a while to their limited number, I never chose to notice.
But of late years I have got to READ, -- not merely HEAR, --
of the play's failure `which all the efforts of my friend the great actor
could not avert;' and the nonsense of this untruth gets hard to bear.
I told you the principal facts in the letter I very hastily wrote:
I could, had it been worth while, corroborate them by others in plenty,
and refer to the living witnesses -- Lady Martin, Mrs. Stirling,
and (I believe) Mr. Anderson: it was solely through the admirable loyalty
of the two former that . . . a play . . . deprived of every advantage,
in the way of scenery, dresses, and rehearsing -- proved --
what Macready himself declared it to be -- `a complete success'.
SO he sent a servant to tell me, `in case there was a call for the author
at the end of the act' -- to which I replied that the author
had been too sick and sorry at the whole treatment of his play
to do any such thing. Such a call there truly WAS,
and Mr. Anderson had to come forward and `beg the author to come forward
if he were in the house -- a circumstance of which he was not aware:'
whereat the author laughed at him from a box just opposite. . . .
I would submit to anybody drawing a conclusion from one or two facts
past contradiction, whether that play could have thoroughly failed
which was not only not withdrawn at once but acted three nights
in the same week, and years afterwards, reproduced at his own theatre,
during my absence in Italy, by Mr. Phelps -- the person most completely aware
of the untoward circumstances which stood originally in the way of success.
Why not enquire how it happens that, this second time,
there was no doubt of the play's doing as well as plays ordinarily do?
for those were not the days of a `run'.
. . . . .
. . . This `last word' has indeed been an Aristophanic one
of fifty syllables: but I have spoken it, relieved myself,
and commend all that concerns me to the approved and valued friend
of whom I am proud to account myself in corresponding friendship,
His truly ever
Mr. Browning also alludes to Mr. Phelps's acting as not only
not having been detrimental to the play, but having helped to save it,
in the conspiracy of circumstances which seemed to invoke its failure.
This was a mistake, since Macready had been anxious to resume the part,
and would have saved it, to say the least, more thoroughly. It must,
however, be remembered that the irritation which these letters express
was due much less to the nature of the facts recorded in them
than to the manner in which they had been brought before Mr. Browning's mind.
Writing on the subject to Lady Martin in February 1881,
he had spoken very temperately of Macready's treatment of his play,
while deprecating the injustice towards his own friendship
which its want of frankness involved: and many years before this,
the touch of a common sorrow had caused the old feeling, at least momentarily,
to well up again. The two met for the first time after these occurrences
when Mr. Browning had returned, a widower, from Italy. Mr. Macready, too,
had recently lost his wife; and Mr. Browning could only start forward,
grasp the hand of his old friend, and in a voice choked with emotion say,
Lady Martin has spoken to me of the poet's attitude on the occasion
of this performance as being full of generous sympathy for those
who were working with him, as well as of the natural anxiety of a young author
for his own success. She also remains convinced that this sympathy
led him rather to over- than to under-rate the support he received.
She wrote concerning it in `Blackwood's Magazine', March 1881:
`It seems but yesterday that I sat by his [Mr. Elton's] side
in the green-room at the reading of Robert Browning's beautiful drama,
`A Blot in the 'Scutcheon'. As a rule Mr. Macready always read the new plays.
But owing, I suppose, to some press of business, the task was entrusted
on this occasion to the head prompter, -- a clever man in his way,
but wholly unfitted to bring out, or even to understand,
Mr. Browning's meaning. Consequently, the delicate, subtle lines
were twisted, perverted, and sometimes even made ridiculous in his hands.
My "cruel father" [Mr. Elton] was a warm admirer of the poet.
He sat writhing and indignant, and tried by gentle asides to make me see
the real meaning of the verse. But somehow the mischief proved irreparable,
for a few of the actors during the rehearsals chose to continue
to misunderstand the text, and never took the interest in the play
which they would have done had Mr. Macready read it.'
Looking back on the first appearance of his tragedy through the widening
perspectives of nearly forty years, Mr. Browning might well declare
as he did in the letter to Lady Martin to which I have just referred,
that her `PERFECT behaviour as a woman' and her `admirable playing
as an actress' had been (or at all events were) to him
`the one gratifying circumstance connected with it.'
He also felt it a just cause of bitterness that the letter
from Charles Dickens,* which conveyed his almost passionate admiration of
`A Blot in the 'Scutcheon', and was clearly written to Mr. Forster in order
that it might be seen, was withheld for thirty years from his knowledge,
and that of the public whose judgment it might so largely have influenced.
Nor was this the only time in the poet's life that fairly earned honours
* See Forster's `Life of Dickens'.
`Colombe's Birthday' was produced in 1853 at the Haymarket;*
and afterwards in the provinces, under the direction of Miss Helen Faucit,
who created the principal part. It was again performed
for the Browning Society in 1885,** and although Miss Alma Murray,
as Colombe, was almost entirely supported by amateurs,
the result fully justified Miss Mary Robinson (now Madame James Darmesteter)
in writing immediately afterwards in the Boston `Literary World':***
* Also in 1853 or 1854 at Boston.
** It had been played by amateurs, members of the Browning Society,
and their friends, at the house of Mr. Joseph King, in January 1882.
*** December 12, 1885; quoted in Mr. Arthur Symons'
`Introduction to the Study of Browning'.
`"Colombe's Birthday" is charming on the boards, clearer,
more direct in action, more full of delicate surprises
than one imagines it in print. With a very little cutting
it could be made an excellent acting play.'
Mr. Gosse has seen a first edition copy of it marked for acting,
and alludes in his `Personalia' to the greatly increased
knowledge of the stage which its minute directions displayed.
They told also of sad experience in the sacrifice of the poet
which the play-writer so often exacts: since they included the proviso
that unless a very good Valence could be found, a certain speech of his
should be left out. That speech is very important to the poetic,
and not less to the moral, purpose of the play: the triumph
of unworldly affections. It is that in which Valence defies the platitudes
so often launched against rank and power, and shows that these
may be very beautiful things -- in which he pleads for his rival,
and against his own heart. He is the better man of the two, and Colombe
has fallen genuinely in love with him. But the instincts of sovereignty
are not outgrown in one day however eventful, and the young duchess
has shown herself amply endowed with them. The Prince's offer promised much,
and it held still more. The time may come when she will need
that crowning memory of her husband's unselfishness and truth,
not to regret what she has done.
`King Victor and King Charles' and `The Return of the Druses' are both
admitted by competent judges to have good qualifications for the stage;
and Mr. Browning would have preferred seeing one of these acted
to witnessing the revival of `Strafford' or `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon',
from neither of which the best amateur performance could remove
the stigma of past, real or reputed, failure; and when once a friend
belonging to the Browning Society told him she had been seriously occupied
with the possibility of producing the Eastern play, he assented to the idea
with a simplicity that was almost touching, `It WAS written for the stage,'
he said, `and has only one scene.' He knew, however, that the single scene
was far from obviating all the difficulties of the case, and that the Society,
with its limited means, did the best it could.
I seldom hear any allusion to a passage in `King Victor and King Charles'
which I think more than rivals the famous utterance of Valence,
revealing as it does the same grasp of non-conventional truth,
while its occasion lends itself to a far deeper recognition of the mystery,
the frequent hopeless dilemma of our moral life. It is that
in which Polixena, the wife of Charles, entreats him for DUTY'S sake
to retain the crown, though he will earn, by so doing,
neither the credit of a virtuous deed nor the sure, persistent consciousness
of having performed one.
Four poems of the `Dramatic Lyrics' had appeared, as I have said,
in the `Monthly Repository'. Six of those included in
the `Dramatic Lyrics and Romances' were first published in `Hood's Magazine'
from June 1844 to April 1845, a month before Hood's death.
These poems were, `The Laboratory', `Claret and Tokay',
`Garden Fancies', `The Boy and the Angel', `The Tomb at St. Praxed's',
and `The Flight of the Duchess'. Mr. Hood's health had given way
under stress of work, and Mr. Browning with other friends
thus came forward to help him. The fact deserves remembering
in connection with his subsequent unbroken rule never to write for magazines.
He might always have made exceptions for friendly or philanthropic objects;
the appearance of `Herve Riel' in the `Cornhill Magazine', 1870,
indeed proves that it was so. But the offer of a blank cheque
would not have tempted him, for his own sake, to this concession,
as he would have deemed it, of his integrity of literary purpose.
`In a Gondola' grew out of a single verse extemporized for a picture
by Maclise, in what circumstances we shall hear in the poet's own words.
The first proof of `Artemis Prologuizes' had the following note:
`I had better say perhaps that the above is nearly all retained
of a tragedy I composed, much against my endeavour, while in bed with a fever
two years ago -- it went farther into the story of Hippolytus and Aricia;
but when I got well, putting only thus much down at once,
I soon forgot the remainder.'*
* When Mr. Browning gave me these supplementary details for the `Handbook',
he spoke as if his illness had interrupted the work,
not preceded its conception. The real fact is, I think, the more striking.
Mr. Browning would have been very angry with himself if he had known
he ever wrote `I HAD better'; and the punctuation of this note,
as well as of every other unrevised specimen which we possess
of his early writing, helps to show by what careful study of the literary art
he must have acquired his subsequent mastery of it.
`Cristina' was addressed in fancy to the Spanish queen. It is to be regretted
that the poem did not remain under its original heading of `Queen Worship':
as this gave a practical clue to the nature of the love described,
and the special remoteness of its object.
`The Pied Piper of Hamelin' and another poem were written in May 1842
for Mr. Macready's little eldest son, Willy, who was confined to the house
by illness, and who was to amuse himself by illustrating the poems
as well as reading them;* and the first of these, though not intended
for publication, was added to the `Dramatic Lyrics', because some columns
of that number of `Bells and Pomegranates' still required filling.
It is perhaps not known that the second was `Crescentius, the Pope's Legate':
now included in `Asolando'.
* Miss Browning has lately found some of the illustrations,
and the touching childish letter together with which
her brother received them.
Mr. Browning's father had himself begun a rhymed story on the subject
of `The Pied Piper'; but left it unfinished when he discovered
that his son was writing one. The fragment survives as part of a letter
addressed to Mr. Thomas Powell, and which I have referred to
as in the possession of Mr. Dykes Campbell.
`The Lost Leader' has given rise to periodical questionings
continued until the present day, as to the person indicated in its title.
Mr. Browning answered or anticipated them fifteen years ago
in a letter to Miss Lee, of West Peckham, Maidstone. It was his reply
to an application in verse made to him in their very young days
by herself and two other members of her family, the manner of which
seems to have unusually pleased him.
Villers-sur-mer, Calvados, France: September 7, '75.
Dear Friends, -- Your letter has made a round to reach me --
hence the delay in replying to it -- which you will therefore pardon.
I have been asked the question you put to me -- tho' never asked
so poetically and so pleasantly -- I suppose a score of times:
and I can only answer, with something of shame and contrition,
that I undoubtedly had Wordsworth in my mind -- but simply as `a model';
you know, an artist takes one or two striking traits
in the features of his `model', and uses them to start his fancy
on a flight which may end far enough from the good man or woman
who happens to be `sitting' for nose and eye.
I thought of the great Poet's abandonment of liberalism,
at an unlucky juncture, and no repaying consequence that I could ever see.
But -- once call my fancy-portrait `Wordsworth' -- and how much more
ought one to say, -- how much more would not I have attempted to say!
There is my apology, dear friends, and your acceptance of it will confirm me
Some fragments of correspondence, not all very interesting,
and his own allusion to an attack of illness, are our only record
of the poet's general life during the interval which separated
the publication of `Pippa Passes' from his second Italian journey.
An undated letter to Miss Haworth probably refers to the close of 1841.
`. . . I am getting to love painting as I did once. Do you know
I was a young wonder (as are eleven out of the dozen of us) at drawing?
My father had faith in me, and over yonder in a drawer of mine lies,
I well know, a certain cottage and rocks in lead pencil
and black currant jam-juice (paint being rank poison, as they said
when I sucked my brushes) with his (my father's) note in one corner,
"R. B., aetat. two years three months." "How fast, alas, our days we spend
-- How vain they be, how soon they end!" I am going to print "Victor",
however, by February, and there is one thing not so badly painted in there --
oh, let me tell you. I chanced to call on Forster the other day,
and he pressed me into committing verse on the instant, not the minute,
in Maclise's behalf, who has wrought a divine Venetian work, it seems,
for the British Institution. Forster described it well --
but I could do nothing better, than this wooden ware --
(all the "properties", as we say, were given, and the problem
was how to catalogue them in rhyme and unreason).
I send my heart up to thee, all my heart
In this my singing!
For the stars help me, and the sea bears part;
The very night is clinging
Closer to Venice' streets to leave me space
Above me, whence thy face
May light my joyous heart to thee its dwelling-place.
Singing and stars and night and Venice streets and joyous heart,
are properties, do you please to see. And now tell me,
is this below the average of catalogue original poetry?
Tell me -- for to that end of being told, I write. . . .
I dined with dear Carlyle and his wife (catch me calling people "dear"
in a hurry, except in letter-beginnings!) yesterday.
I don't know any people like them. There was a son of Burns there,
Major Burns whom Macready knows -- he sung "Of all the airts",
"John Anderson", and another song of his father's. . . .'
In the course of 1842 he wrote the following note to Miss Flower,
evidently relating to the publication of her `Hymns and Anthems'.
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey: Tuesday morning.
Dear Miss Flower, -- I am sorry for what must grieve Mr. Fox;
for myself, I beg him earnestly not to see me till his entire convenience,
however pleased I shall be to receive the letter you promise on his part.
And how can I thank you enough for this good news -- all this music
I shall be so thoroughly gratified to hear?
Ever yours faithfully,
His last letter to her was written in 1845; the subject being
a concert of her own sacred music which she was about to give;
and again, although more slightly, I anticipate the course of events,
in order to give it in its natural connection with the present one.
Mr. Browning was now engaged to be married, and the last ring
of youthful levity had disappeared from his tone; but neither
the new happiness nor the new responsibility had weakened his interest
in his boyhood's friend. Miss Flower must then have been slowly dying,
and the closing words of the letter have the solemnity of a last farewell.
Dear Miss Flower, -- I was very foolishly surprized at the sorrowful
finical notice you mention: foolishly; for, God help us, how else is it
with all critics of everything -- don't I hear them talk and see them write?
I dare-say he admires you as he said.
For me, I never had another feeling than entire admiration for your music
-- entire admiration -- I put it apart from all other English music I know,
and fully believe in it as THE music we all waited for.
Of your health I shall not trust myself to speak: you must know
what is unspoken. I should have been most happy to see you
if but for a minute -- and if next Wednesday, I might take your hand
for a moment. --
But you would concede that, if it were right, remembering what is now
very old friendship.
May God bless you for ever
(The signature has been cut off.)
In the autumn of 1844 Mr. Browning set forth for Italy, taking ship,
it is believed, direct to Naples. Here he made the acquaintance
of a young Neapolitan gentleman who had spent most of his life in Paris;
and they became such good friends that they proceeded to Rome together.
Mr. Scotti was an invaluable travelling companion, for he engaged
their conveyance, and did all such bargaining in their joint interest
as the habits of his country required. `As I write,' Mr. Browning said
in a letter to his sister, `I hear him disputing our bill in the next room.
He does not see why we should pay for six wax candles
when we have used only two.' At Rome they spent most of their evenings
with an old acquaintance of Mr. Browning's, then Countess Carducci,
and she pronounced Mr. Scotti the handsomest man she had ever seen.
He certainly bore no appearance of being the least prosperous.
But he blew out his brains soon after he and his new friend had parted;
and I do not think the act was ever fully accounted for.
It must have been on his return journey that Mr. Browning went to Leghorn
to see Edward John Trelawney, to whom he carried a letter of introduction.
He described the interview long afterwards to Mr. Val Prinsep,
but chiefly in his impressions of the cool courage which Mr. Trelawney
had displayed during its course. A surgeon was occupied all the time
in probing his leg for a bullet which had been lodged there some years before,
and had lately made itself felt; and he showed himself absolutely indifferent
to the pain of the operation. Mr. Browning's main object in paying the visit
had been, naturally, to speak with one who had known Byron
and been the last to see Shelley alive; but we only hear of the two poets
that they formed in part the subject of their conversation.
He reached England, again, we suppose, through Germany --
since he avoided Paris as before.
It has been asserted by persons otherwise well informed, that on this,
if not on his previous Italian journey, Mr. Browning became acquainted
with Stendhal, then French Consul at Civita Vecchia, and that he imbibed
from the great novelist a taste for curiosities of Italian family history,
which ultimately led him in the direction of the Franceschini case.
It is certain that he profoundly admired this writer,
and if he was not, at some time or other, introduced to him
it was because the opportunity did not occur. But there is abundant evidence
that no introduction took place, and quite sufficient proof
that none was possible. Stendhal died in Paris in March 1842;
and granting that he was at Civita Vecchia when the poet made
his earlier voyage -- no certainty even while he held the appointment --
the ship cannot have touched there on its way to Trieste.
It is also a mistake to suppose that Mr. Browning was specially interested
in ancient chronicles, as such. This was one of the points on which
he distinctly differed from his father. He took his dramatic subjects
wherever he found them, and any historical research which
they ultimately involved was undertaken for purposes of verification.
`Sordello' alone may have been conceived on a rather different plan,
and I have no authority whatever for admitting that it was so.
The discovery of the record of the Franceschini case was,
as its author has everywhere declared, an accident.
A single relic exists for us of this visit to the South --
a shell picked up, according to its inscription, on one of the Syren Isles,
October 4, 1844; but many of its reminiscences are embodied
in that vivid and charming picture `The Englishman in Italy',
which appeared in the `Bells and Pomegranates' number for the following year.
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