Life and Letters of Robert Browning
Mrs. Sutherland Orr
Part 3 out of 7
Naples always remained a bright spot in the poet's memory;
and if it had been, like Asolo, his first experience of Italy,
it must have drawn him in later years the more powerfully of the two.
At one period, indeed, he dreamed of it as a home for his declining days.
Introduction to Miss Barrett -- Engagement -- Motives for Secrecy --
Marriage -- Journey to Italy -- Extract of Letter from Mr. Fox --
Mrs. Browning's Letters to Miss Mitford -- Life at Pisa --
Vallombrosa -- Florence; Mr. Powers; Miss Boyle --
Proposed British Mission to the Vatican -- Father Prout -- Palazzo Guidi --
Fano; Ancona -- `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon' at Sadler's Wells.
During his recent intercourse with the Browning family
Mr. Kenyon had often spoken of his invalid cousin, Elizabeth Barrett,*
and had given them copies of her works; and when the poet returned to England,
late in 1844, he saw the volume containing `Lady Geraldine's Courtship',
which had appeared during his absence. On hearing him express
his admiration of it, Mr. Kenyon begged him to write to Miss Barrett,
and himself tell her how the poems had impressed him;
`for,' he added, `my cousin is a great invalid, and sees no one,
but great souls jump at sympathy.' Mr. Browning did write,
and, a few months, probably, after the correspondence had been established,
begged to be allowed to visit her. She at first refused this,
on the score of her delicate health and habitual seclusion,
emphasizing the refusal by words of such touching humility and resignation
that I cannot refrain from quoting them. `There is nothing to see in me,
nothing to hear in me. I am a weed fit for the ground and darkness.'
But her objections were overcome, and their first interview
sealed Mr. Browning's fate.
* Properly E. Barrett Moulton-Barrett. The first of these surnames
was that originally borne by the family, but dropped on the annexation
of the second. It has now for some years been resumed.
There is no cause for surprize in the passionate admiration with which
Miss Barrett so instantly inspired him. To begin with, he was heart-whole.
It would be too much to affirm that, in the course of his thirty-two years,
he had never met with a woman whom he could entirely love;
but if he had, it was not under circumstances which favoured
the growth of such a feeling. She whom he now saw for the first time
had long been to him one of the greatest of living poets; she was learned
as women seldom were in those days. It must have been apparent,
in the most fugitive contact, that her moral nature was as exquisite
as her mind was exceptional. She looked much younger than her age,
which he only recently knew to have been six years beyond his own;
and her face was filled with beauty by the large, expressive eyes.
The imprisoned love within her must unconsciously have leapt to meet his own.
It would have been only natural that he should grow into the determination
to devote his life to hers, or be swept into an offer of marriage
by a sudden impulse which his after-judgment would condemn.
Neither of these things occurred. The offer was indeed made
under a sudden and overmastering impulse. But it was persistently repeated,
till it had obtained a conditional assent. No sane man
in Mr. Browning's position could have been ignorant of the responsibilities
he was incurring. He had, it is true, no experience of illness.
Of its nature, its treatment, its symptoms direct and indirect,
he remained pathetically ignorant to his dying day. He did not know
what disqualifications for active existence might reside in the fragile,
recumbent form, nor in the long years lived without change of air or scene
beyond the passage, not always even allowed, from bed-room to sitting-room,
from sofa to bed again. But he did know that Miss Barrett
received him lying down, and that his very ignorance of her condition
left him without security for her ever being able to stand.
A strong sense of sympathy and pity could alone entirely justify or explain
his act -- a strong desire to bring sunshine into that darkened life.
We might be sure that these motives had been present with him
if we had no direct authority for believing it; and we have this authority
in his own comparatively recent words: `She had so much need
of care and protection. There was so much pity in what I felt for her!'
The pity was, it need hardly be said, at no time a substitute for love,
though the love in its full force only developed itself later;
but it supplied an additional incentive.
Miss Barrett had made her acceptance of Mr. Browning's proposal
contingent on her improving in health. The outlook was therefore vague.
But under the influence of this great new happiness she did gain
some degree of strength. They saw each other three times a week;
they exchanged letters constantly, and a very deep and perfect understanding
established itself between them. Mr. Browning never mentioned his visits
except to his own family, because it was naturally feared
that if Miss Barrett were known to receive one person, other friends,
or even acquaintances, would claim admittance to her; and Mr. Kenyon,
who was greatly pleased by the result of his introduction,
kept silence for the same reason.
In this way the months slipped by till the summer of 1846
was drawing to its close, and Miss Barrett's doctor then announced
that her only chance of even comparative recovery lay
in spending the coming winter in the South. There was no rational obstacle
to her acting on this advice, since more than one of her brothers
was willing to escort her; but Mr. Barrett, while surrounding his daughter
with every possible comfort, had resigned himself to her invalid condition
and expected her also to acquiesce in it. He probably did not believe
that she would benefit by the proposed change. At any rate
he refused his consent to it. There remained to her only one alternative --
to break with the old home and travel southwards as Mr. Browning's wife.
When she had finally assented to this course, she took a preparatory step
which, in so far as it was known, must itself have been sufficiently startling
to those about her: she drove to Regent's Park, and when there,
stepped out of the carriage and on to the grass. I do not know
how long she stood -- probably only for a moment; but I well remember hearing
that when, after so long an interval, she felt earth under her feet
and air about her, the sensation was almost bewilderingly strange.
They were married, with strict privacy, on September 12, 1846,
at St. Pancras Church.
The engaged pair had not only not obtained Mr. Barrett's
sanction to their marriage; they had not even invoked it;
and the doubly clandestine character thus forced upon the union
could not be otherwise than repugnant to Mr. Browning's pride;
but it was dictated by the deepest filial affection on the part
of his intended wife. There could be no question in so enlightened a mind
of sacrificing her own happiness with that of the man she loved;
she was determined to give herself to him. But she knew that her father
would never consent to her doing so; and she preferred marrying
without his knowledge to acting in defiance of a prohibition which,
once issued, he would never have revoked, and which would have weighed
like a portent of evil upon her. She even kept the secret of her engagement
from her intimate friend Miss Mitford, and her second father, Mr. Kenyon,
that they might not be involved in its responsibility. And Mr. Kenyon,
who, probably of all her circle, best understood the case,
was grateful to her for this consideration.
Mr. Barrett was one of those men who will not part with their children;
who will do anything for them except allow them to leave the parental home.
We have all known fathers of this type. He had nothing to urge
against Robert Browning. When Mr. Kenyon, later, said to him
that he could not understand his hostility to the marriage,
since there was no man in the world to whom he would more gladly
have given his daughter if he had been so fortunate as to possess one,*
he replied: `I have no objection to the young man,
but my daughter should have been thinking of another world;'
and, given his conviction that Miss Barrett's state was hopeless,
some allowance must be made for the angered sense of fitness
which her elopement was calculated to arouse in him.
But his attitude was the same, under the varying circumstances,
with all his daughters and sons alike. There was no possible husband or wife
whom he would cordially have accepted for one of them.
* Mr. Kenyon had been twice married, but he had no children.
Mr. Browning had been willing, even at that somewhat late age,
to study for the Bar, or accept, if he could obtain it,
any other employment which might render him less ineligible
from a pecuniary point of view. But Miss Barrett refused to hear
of such a course; and the subsequent necessity for her leaving England
would have rendered it useless.
For some days after their marriage Mr. and Mrs. Browning returned
to their old life. He justly thought that the agitation of the ceremony
had been, for the moment, as much as she could endure,
and had therefore fixed for it a day prior by one week to that
of their intended departure from England. The only difference in their habits
was that he did not see her; he recoiled from the hypocrisy
of asking for her under her maiden name; and during this passive interval,
fortunately short, he carried a weight of anxiety and of depression
which placed it among the most painful periods of his existence.
In the late afternoon or evening of September 19, Mrs. Browning,
attended by her maid and her dog, stole away from her father's house.
The family were at dinner, at which meal she was not in the habit
of joining them; her sisters Henrietta and Arabel had been throughout
in the secret of her attachment and in full sympathy with it;
in the case of the servants, she was also sure of friendly connivance.
There was no difficulty in her escape, but that created by the dog,
which might be expected to bark its consciousness of the unusual situation.
She took him into her confidence. She said: `O Flush, if you make a sound,
I am lost.' And Flush understood, as what good dog would not? --
and crept after his mistress in silence. I do not remember where her husband
joined her; we may be sure it was as near her home as possible.
That night they took the boat to Havre, on their way to Paris.
Only a short time elapsed before Mr. Barrett became aware
of what had happened. It is not necessary to dwell on his indignation,
which at that moment, I believe, was shared by all his sons.
Nor were they the only persons to be agitated by the occurrence.
If there was wrath in the Barrett family, there was consternation
in that of Mr. Browning. He had committed a crime
in the eyes of his wife's father; but he had been guilty,
in the judgment of his own parents, of one of those errors which are worse.
A hundred times the possible advantages of marrying a Miss Barrett
could never have balanced for them the risks and dangers he had incurred
in wresting to himself the guardianship of that frail life which might perish
in his hands, leaving him to be accused of having destroyed it;
and they must have awaited the event with feelings never to be forgotten.
It was soon to be apparent that in breaking the chains
which bound her to a sick room, Mr. Browning had not killed his wife,
but was giving her a new lease of existence. His parents and sister
soon loved her dearly, for her own sake as well as her husband's;
and those who, if in a mistaken manner, had hitherto cherished her,
gradually learned, with one exception, to value him for hers. It would,
however, be useless to deny that the marriage was a hazardous experiment,
involving risks of suffering quite other than those connected
with Mrs. Browning's safety: the latent practical disparities
of an essentially vigorous and an essentially fragile existence;
and the time came when these were to make themselves felt.
Mrs. Browning had been a delicate infant. She had also outgrown this delicacy
and developed into a merry, and, in the harmless sense, mischief-loving child.
The accident which subsequently undermined her life could only have befallen
a very active and healthy girl.* Her condition justified hope and,
to a great extent, fulfilled it. She rallied surprisingly and almost suddenly
in the sunshine of her new life, and remained for several years
at the higher physical level: her natural and now revived spirits sometimes,
I imagine, lifting her beyond it. But her ailments were too radical for
permanent cure, as the weak voice and shrunken form never ceased to attest.
They renewed themselves, though in slightly different conditions;
and she gradually relapsed, during the winters at least,
into something like the home-bound condition of her earlier days.
It became impossible that she should share the more active side
of her husband's existence. It had to be alternately suppressed
and carried on without her. The deep heart-love, the many-sided
intellectual sympathy, preserved their union in rare beauty to the end.
But to say that it thus maintained itself as if by magic,
without effort of self-sacrifice on his part or of resignation on hers,
would be as unjust to the noble qualities of both, as it would be false
to assert that its compensating happiness had ever failed them.
* Her family at that time lived in the country. She was a constant rider,
and fond of saddling her pony; and one day, when she was about fourteen,
she overbalanced herself in lifting the saddle, and fell backward,
inflicting injuries on her head, or rather spine,
which caused her great suffering, but of which the nature
remained for some time undiscovered.
Mr. Browning's troubles did not, even for the present, exhaust themselves
in that week of apprehension. They assumed a deeper reality
when his delicate wife first gave herself into his keeping,
and the long hours on steamboat and in diligence were before them.
What she suffered in body, and he in mind, during the first days
of that wedding-journey is better imagined than told.
In Paris they either met, or were joined by, a friend, Mrs. Anna Jameson
(then also en route for Italy), and Mrs. Browning was doubly cared for
till she and her husband could once more put themselves on their way.
At Genoa came the long-needed rest in southern land. From thence,
in a few days, they went on to Pisa, and settled there for the winter.
Even so great a friend as John Forster was not in the secret
of Mr. Browning's marriage; we learn this through an amusing paragraph
in a letter from Mr. Fox, written soon after it had taken place:
`Forster never heard of the Browning marriage till the proof
of the newspaper (`Examiner') notice was sent; when he went into
one of his great passions at the supposed hoax, ordered up the compositor
to have a swear at him, and demanded to see the MS. from which it was taken:
so it was brought, and he instantly recognised the hand of Browning's sister.
Next day came a letter from R. B., saying he had often meant to tell him
or write of it, but hesitated between the two, and neglected both.
`She was better, and a winter in Italy had been recommended some months ago.
`It seems as if made up by their poetry rather than themselves.'
Many interesting external details of Mr. Browning's married life
must have been lost to us through the wholesale destruction of his letters
to his family, of which mention has been already made,
and which he carried out before leaving Warwick Crescent about four years ago;
and Mrs. Browning's part in the correspondence, though still preserved,
cannot fill the gap, since for a long time it chiefly consisted
of little personal outpourings, inclosed in her husband's letters
and supplementary to them. But she also wrote constantly to Miss Mitford;
and, from the letters addressed to her, now fortunately
in Mr. Barrett Browning's hands, it has been possible to extract many passages
of a sufficiently great, and not too private, interest for our purpose.
These extracts -- in some cases almost entire letters -- indeed constitute
a fairly complete record of Mr. and Mrs. Browning's joint life
till the summer of 1854, when Miss Mitford's death was drawing near,
and the correspondence ceased. Their chronological order
is not always certain, because Mrs. Browning never gave the year in which
her letters were written, and in some cases the postmark is obliterated;
but the missing date can almost always be gathered from their contents.
The first letter is probably written from Paris.
Oct. 2 ('46).
`. . . and he, as you say, had done everything for me --
he loved me for reasons which had helped to weary me of myself --
loved me heart to heart persistently -- in spite of my own will. . . .
drawn me back to life and hope again when I had done with both.
My life seemed to belong to him and to none other, at last,
and I had no power to speak a word. Have faith in me, my dearest friend,
till you know him. The intellect is so little in comparison to all the rest
-- to the womanly tenderness, the inexhaustible goodness,
the high and noble aspiration of every hour. Temper, spirits, manners --
there is not a flaw anywhere. I shut my eyes sometimes
and fancy it all a dream of my guardian angel. Only, if it had been a dream,
the pain of some parts of it would have wakened me before now --
it is not a dream. . . .'
The three next speak for themselves.
`. . . For Pisa, we both like it extremely. The city is full
of beauty and repose, -- and the purple mountains gloriously seem
to beckon us on deeper into the vine land. We have rooms close to the Duomo,
and leaning down on the great Collegio built by Facini.
Three excellent bed-rooms and a sitting-room matted and carpeted,
looking comfortable even for England. For the last fortnight,
except the last few sunny days, we have had rain; but the climate
is as mild as possible, no cold with all the damp. Delightful weather
we had for the travelling. Mrs. Jameson says she won't call me improved
but transformed rather. . . . I mean to know something about pictures
some day. Robert does, and I shall get him to open my eyes for me
with a little instruction -- in this place are to be seen
the first steps of Art. . . .'
Pisa: Dec. 19 ('46).
`. . . Within these three or four days we have had frost -- yes,
and a little snow -- for the first time, say the Pisans, within five years.
Robert says the mountains are powdered towards Lucca. . . .'
Feb. 3 ('47).
`. . . Robert is a warm admirer of Balzac and has read most of his books,
but certainly he does not in a general way appreciate our French people
quite with my warmth. He takes too high a standard, I tell him,
and won't listen to a story for a story's sake -- I can bear,
you know, to be amused without a strong pull on my admiration.
So we have great wars sometimes -- I put up Dumas' flag or Soulie's
or Eugene Sue's (yet he was properly impressed by the `Mysteres de Paris'),
and carry it till my arms ache. The plays and vaudevilles he knows
far more of than I do, and always maintains they are the happiest growth
of the French school. Setting aside the `masters', observe;
for Balzac and George Sand hold all their honours. Then we read together
the other day `Rouge et Noir', that powerful work of Stendhal's,
and he observed that it was exactly like Balzac `in the raw' --
in the material and undeveloped conception . . . We leave Pisa in April,
and pass through Florence towards the north of Italy . . .'
(She writes out a long list of the `Comedie Humaine' for Miss Mitford.)
Mr. and Mrs. Browning must have remained in Florence,
instead of merely passing through it; this is proved
by the contents of the two following letters:
Aug. 20 ('47).
`. . . We have spent one of the most delightful of summers
notwithstanding the heat, and I begin to comprehend the possibility
of St. Lawrence's ecstasies on the gridiron. Very hot certainly
it has been and is, yet there have been cool intermissions,
and as we have spacious and airy rooms, as Robert lets me sit all day
in my white dressing-gown without a single masculine criticism,
and as we can step out of the window on a sort of balcony terrace
which is quite private, and swims over with moonlight in the evenings,
and as we live upon water-melons and iced water and figs
and all manner of fruit, we bear the heat with an angelic patience.
We tried to make the monks of Vallombrosa let us stay with them
for two months, but the new abbot said or implied that Wilson and I
stank in his nostrils, being women. So we were sent away
at the end of five days. So provoking! Such scenery, such hills,
such a sea of hills looking alive among the clouds -- which rolled,
it was difficult to discern. Such fine woods, supernaturally silent,
with the ground black as ink. There were eagles there too,
and there was no road. Robert went on horseback, and Wilson and I
were drawn on a sledge -- (i.e. an old hamper, a basket wine-hamper --
without a wheel) by two white bullocks, up the precipitous mountains.
Think of my travelling in those wild places at four o'clock in the morning!
a little frightened, dreadfully tired, but in an ecstasy of admiration.
It was a sight to see before one died and went away into another world.
But being expelled ignominiously at the end of five days,
we had to come back to Florence to find a new apartment cooler than the old,
and wait for dear Mr. Kenyon, and dear Mr. Kenyon does not come after all.
And on the 20th of September we take up our knapsacks and turn our faces
towards Rome, creeping slowly along, with a pause at Arezzo,
and a longer pause at Perugia, and another perhaps at Terni.
Then we plan to take an apartment we have heard of, over the Tarpeian rock,
and enjoy Rome as we have enjoyed Florence. More can scarcely be.
This Florence is unspeakably beautiful . . .'
`. . . Very few acquaintances have we made in Florence,
and very quietly lived out our days. Mr. Powers, the sculptor,
is our chief friend and favourite. A most charming, simple, straightforward,
genial American -- as simple as the man of genius he has proved himself to be.
He sometimes comes to talk and take coffee with us, and we like him much.
The sculptor has eyes like a wild Indian's, so black and full of light --
you would scarcely marvel if they clove the marble without
the help of his hands. We have seen, besides, the Hoppners,
Lord Byron's friends at Venice; and Miss Boyle, a niece of the Earl of Cork,
an authoress and poetess on her own account, having been introduced to Robert
in London at Lady Morgan's, has hunted us out, and paid us a visit.
A very vivacious little person, with sparkling talk enough . . .'
In this year, 1847, the question arose of a British mission to the Vatican;
and Mr. Browning wrote to Mr. Monckton Milnes begging him
to signify to the Foreign Office his more than willingness to take part in it.
He would be glad and proud, he said, to be secretary to such an embassy,
and to work like a horse in his vocation. The letter is given
in the lately published biography of Lord Houghton, and I am obliged
to confess that it has been my first intimation of the fact recorded there.
When once his `Paracelsus' had appeared, and Mr. Browning
had taken rank as a poet, he renounced all idea of more active work;
and the tone and habits of his early married life would have seemed
scarcely consistent with a renewed impulse towards it.
But the fact was in some sense due to the very circumstances of that life:
among them, his wife's probable incitement to, and certain sympathy with,
The projected winter in Rome had been given up, I believe against
the doctor's advice, on the strength of the greater attractions of Florence.
Our next extract is dated from thence, Dec. 8, 1847.
`. . . Think what we have done since I last wrote to you. Taken two houses,
that is, two apartments, each for six months, presigning the contract.
You will set it down to excellent poet's work in the way of domestic economy,
but the fault was altogether mine, as usual. My husband, to please me,
took rooms which I could not be pleased with three days
through the absence of sunshine and warmth. The consequence was that
we had to pay heaps of guineas away, for leave to go away ourselves --
any alternative being preferable to a return of illness --
and I am sure I should have been ill if we had persisted in staying there.
You can scarcely fancy the wonderful difference which the sun makes in Italy.
So away we came into the blaze of him in the Piazza Pitti;
precisely opposite the Grand Duke's palace; I with my remorse,
and poor Robert without a single reproach. Any other man,
a little lower than the angels, would have stamped and sworn a little
for the mere relief of the thing -- but as to HIS being angry with ME
for any cause except not eating enough dinner, the said sun
would turn the wrong way first. So here we are in the Pitti till April,
in small rooms yellow with sunshine from morning till evening,
and most days I am able to get out into the piazza and walk up and down
for twenty minutes without feeling a breath of the actual winter . . .
and Miss Boyle, ever and anon, comes at night, at nine o'clock,
to catch us at hot chestnuts and mulled wine, and warm her feet at our fire --
and a kinder, more cordial little creature, full of talent and accomplishment
never had the world's polish on it. Very amusing she is too, and original;
and a good deal of laughing she and Robert make between them.
And this is nearly all we see of the Face Divine -- I can't make Robert go out
a single evening. . . .'
We have five extracts for 1848. One of these, not otherwise dated,
describes an attack of sore-throat which was fortunately Mr. Browning's last;
and the letter containing it must have been written
in the course of the summer.
`. . . My husband was laid up for nearly a month with fever
and relaxed sore-throat. Quite unhappy I have been over those burning hands
and languid eyes -- the only unhappiness I ever had by him.
And then he wouldn't see a physician, and if it had not been
that just at the right moment Mr. Mahoney, the celebrated Jesuit,
and "Father Prout" of Fraser, knowing everything as those Jesuits
are apt to do, came in to us on his way to Rome, pointed out to us
that the fever got ahead through weakness, and mixed up with his own kind hand
a potion of eggs and port wine; to the horror of our Italian servant,
who lifted up his eyes at such a prescription for fever,
crying, "O Inglesi! Inglesi!" the case would have been far worse,
I have no kind of doubt, for the eccentric prescription
gave the power of sleeping, and the pulse grew quieter directly.
I shall always be grateful to Father Prout -- always.'*
* It had not been merely a case of relaxed sore-throat.
There was an abscess, which burst during this first night of sleep.
`. . . And now I must tell you what we have done since I wrote last,
little thinking of doing so. You see our problem was, to get to England
as much in summer as possible, the expense of the intermediate journeys
making it difficult of solution. On examination of the whole case,
it appeared manifest that we were throwing money into the Arno, by our way
of taking furnished rooms, while to take an apartment and furnish it
would leave us a clear return of the furniture at the end of the first year
in exchange for our outlay, and all but a free residence afterwards,
the cheapness of furniture being quite fabulous at the present crisis. . . .
In fact we have really done it magnificently, and planted ourselves
in the Guidi Palace in the favourite suite of the last Count
(his arms are in scagliola on the floor of my bedroom).
Though we have six beautiful rooms and a kitchen, three of them
quite palace rooms and opening on a terrace, and though such furniture
as comes by slow degrees into them is antique and worthy of the place,
we yet shall have saved money by the end of this year. . . .
Now I tell you all this lest you should hear dreadful rumours
of our having forsaken our native land, venerable institutions and all,
whereas we remember it so well (it's a dear land in many senses),
that we have done this thing chiefly in order to make sure
of getting back comfortably, . . . a stone's throw, too,
it is from the Pitti, and really in my present mind
I would hardly exchange with the Grand Duke himself.
By the bye, as to street, we have no spectators in windows
in just the grey wall of a church called San Felice for good omen.
`Now, have you heard enough of us? What I claimed first, in way of privilege,
was a spring-sofa to loll upon, and a supply of rain water to wash in,
and you shall see what a picturesque oil-jar they have given us
for the latter purpose; it would just hold the Captain of the Forty Thieves.
As for the chairs and tables, I yield the more especial interest in them
to Robert; only you would laugh to hear us correct one another sometimes.
"Dear, you get too many drawers, and not enough washing-stands.
Pray don't let us have any more drawers when we've nothing more
to put in them." There was no division on the necessity of having six spoons
-- some questions passed themselves. . . .'
`. . . I am quite well again and strong. Robert and I go out often after tea
in a wandering walk to sit in the Loggia and look at the Perseus,
or, better still, at the divine sunsets on the Arno, turning it to pure gold
under the bridges. After more than twenty months of marriage,
we are happier than ever. . . .'
`. . . As for ourselves we have hardly done so well -- yet well --
having enjoyed a great deal in spite of drawbacks. Murray, the traitor,
sent us to Fano as "a delightful summer residence for an English family,"
and we found it uninhabitable from the heat, vegetation scorched
into paleness, the very air swooning in the sun, and the gloomy looks
of the inhabitants sufficiently corroborative of their words
that no drop of rain or dew ever falls there during the summer.
A "circulating library" which "does not give out books,"
and "a refined and intellectual Italian society" (I quote Murray
for that phrase) which "never reads a book through" (I quote Mrs. Wiseman,
Dr. Wiseman's mother, who has lived in Fano seven years)
complete the advantages of the place. Yet the churches are very beautiful,
and a divine picture of Guercino's is worth going all that way to see. . . .
We fled from Fano after three days, and finding ourselves
cheated out of our dream of summer coolness, resolved on substituting for it
what the Italians call "un bel giro". So we went to Ancona --
a striking sea city, holding up against the brown rocks,
and elbowing out the purple tides -- beautiful to look upon.
An exfoliation of the rock itself you would call the houses
that seem to grow there -- so identical is the colour and character.
I should like to visit Ancona again when there is a little air and shadow.
We stayed a week, as it was, living upon fish and cold water. . . .'
The one dated Florence, December 16, is interesting with reference to
Mr. Browning's attitude when he wrote the letters to Mr. Frank Hill
which I have recently quoted.
`We have been, at least I have been, a little anxious lately
about the fate of the `Blot in the 'Scutcheon' which Mr. Phelps
applied for my husband's permission to revive at Sadler's.
Of course putting the request was mere form, as he had every right
to act the play -- only it made ME anxious till we heard the result --
and we both of us are very grateful to dear Mr. Chorley,
who not only made it his business to be at the theatre the first night,
but, before he slept, sat down like a true friend to give us
the story of the result, and never, he says, was a more legitimate success.
The play went straight to the hearts of the audience, it seems,
and we hear of its continuance on the stage, from the papers.
You may remember, or may not have heard, how Macready brought it out
and put his foot on it, in the flush of a quarrel between manager and author;
and Phelps, knowing the whole secret and feeling the power of the play,
determined on making a revival of it in his own theatre.
Mr. Chorley called his acting "fine". . . .'
Death of Mr. Browning's Mother -- Birth of his Son --
Mrs. Browning's Letters continued -- Baths of Lucca -- Florence again --
Venice -- Margaret Fuller Ossoli -- Visit to England -- Winter in Paris --
Carlyle -- George Sand -- Alfred de Musset.
On March 9, 1849, Mr. Browning's son was born. With the joy
of his wife's deliverance from the dangers of such an event
came also his first great sorrow. His mother did not live
to receive the news of her grandchild's birth. The letter which conveyed it
found her still breathing, but in the unconsciousness of approaching death.
There had been no time for warning. The sister could only break
the suddenness of the shock. A letter of Mrs. Browning's
tells what was to be told.
Florence: April 30 ('49).
`. . . This is the first packet of letters, except one to Wimpole Street,
which I have written since my confinement. You will have heard how
our joy turned suddenly into deep sorrow by the death of my husband's mother.
An unsuspected disease (ossification of the heart) terminated in a fatal way
-- and she lay in the insensibility precursive of the grave's
when the letter written with such gladness by my poor husband
and announcing the birth of his child, reached her address.
"It would have made her heart bound," said her daughter to us.
Poor tender heart -- the last throb was too near. The medical men
would not allow the news to be communicated. The next joy she felt
was to be in heaven itself. My husband has been in the deepest anguish,
and indeed, except for the courageous consideration of his sister
who wrote two letters of preparation, saying "She was not well"
and she "was very ill" when in fact all was over, I am frightened to think
what the result would have been to him. He has loved his mother
as such passionate natures only can love, and I never saw a man so bowed down
in an extremity of sorrow -- never. Even now, the depression is great --
and sometimes when I leave him alone a little and return to the room,
I find him in tears. I do earnestly wish to change the scene and air --
but where to go? England looks terrible now. He says
it would break his heart to see his mother's roses over the wall
and the place where she used to lay her scissors and gloves --
which I understand so thoroughly that I can't say "Let us go to England."
We must wait and see what his father and sister will choose to do,
or choose us to do -- for of course a duty plainly seen
would draw us anywhere. My own dearest sisters will be painfully disappointed
by any change of plan -- only they are too good and kind not to understand
the difficulty -- not to see the motive. So do you, I am certain.
It has been very, very painful altogether, this drawing together
of life and death. Robert was too enraptured at my safety
and with his little son, and the sudden reaction was terrible. . . .'
Bagni di Lucca.
`. . . We have been wandering in search of cool air and a cool bough
among all the olive trees to build our summer nest on.
My husband has been suffering beyond what one could shut one's eyes to,
in consequence of the great mental shock of last March --
loss of appetite, loss of sleep -- looks quite worn and altered.
His spirits never rallied except with an effort, and every letter
from New Cross threw him back into deep depression. I was very anxious,
and feared much that the end of it all would be (the intense heat
of Florence assisting) nervous fever or something similar;
and I had the greatest difficulty in persuading him to leave Florence
for a month or two. He who generally delights in travelling,
had no mind for change or movement. I had to say and swear
that Baby and I couldn't bear the heat, and that we must and would go away.
"Ce que femme veut, HOMME veut," if the latter is at all amiable,
or the former persevering. At last I gained the victory. It was agreed
that we two should go on an exploring journey, to find out where we could have
most shadow at least expense; and we left our child with his nurse and Wilson,
while we were absent. We went along the coast to Spezzia,
saw Carrara with the white marble mountains, passed through
the olive-forests and the vineyards, avenues of acacia trees,
chestnut woods, glorious surprises of the most exquisite scenery.
I say olive-forests advisedly -- the olive grows like a forest-tree
in those regions, shading the ground with tints of silvery network.
The olive near Florence is but a shrub in comparison,
and I have learnt to despise a little too the Florentine vine,
which does not swing such portcullises of massive dewy green
from one tree to another as along the whole road where we travelled.
Beautiful indeed it was. Spezzia wheels the blue sea
into the arms of the wooded mountains; and we had a glance
at Shelley's house at Lerici. It was melancholy to me, of course.
I was not sorry that the lodgings we inquired about were far above our means.
We returned on our steps (after two days in the dirtiest of possible inns),
saw Seravezza, a village in the mountains, where rock river and wood
enticed us to stay, and the inhabitants drove us off
by their unreasonable prices. It is curious -- but just in proportion
to the want of civilization the prices rise in Italy.
If you haven't cups and saucers, you are made to pay for plate.
Well -- so finding no rest for the soles of our feet,
I persuaded Robert to go to the Baths of Lucca, only to see them.
We were to proceed afterwards to San Marcello, or some safer wilderness.
We had both of us, but he chiefly, the strongest prejudice
against the Baths of Lucca; taking them for a sort of wasp's nest
of scandal and gaming, and expecting to find everything trodden flat
by the continental English -- yet, I wanted to see the place,
because it is a place to see, after all. So we came, and were so charmed
by the exquisite beauty of the scenery, by the coolness of the climate,
and the absence of our countrymen -- political troubles serving admirably
our private requirements, that we made an offer for rooms on the spot,
and returned to Florence for Baby and the rest of our establishment
without further delay. Here we are then. We have been here
more than a fortnight. We have taken an apartment for the season --
four months, paying twelve pounds for the whole term, and hoping to be able
to stay till the end of October. The living is cheaper than even in Florence,
so that there has been no extravagance in coming here.
In fact Florence is scarcely tenable during the summer from the excessive heat
by day and night, even if there were no particular motive for leaving it.
We have taken a sort of eagle's nest in this place -- the highest house
of the highest of the three villages which are called the Bagni di Lucca,
and which lie at the heart of a hundred mountains sung to continually
by a rushing mountain stream. The sound of the river and of the cicale
is all the noise we hear. Austrian drums and carriage-wheels cannot vex us,
God be thanked for it! The silence is full of joy and consolation.
I think my husband's spirits are better already, and his appetite improved.
Certainly little Babe's great cheeks are growing rosier and rosier.
He is out all day when the sun is not too strong, and Wilson will have it
that he is prettier than the whole population of babies here. . . .
Then my whole strength has wonderfully improved -- just as
my medical friends prophesied, -- and it seems like a dream
when I find myself able to climb the hills with Robert,
and help him to lose himself in the forests. Ever since my confinement
I have been growing stronger and stronger, and where it is to stop
I can't tell really. I can do as much or more than at any point of my life
since I arrived at woman's estate. The air of the place
seems to penetrate the heart, and not the lungs only: it draws you,
raises you, excites you. Mountain air without its keenness --
sheathed in Italian sunshine -- think what that must be!
And the beauty and the solitude -- for with a few paces
we get free of the habitations of men -- all is delightful to me.
What is peculiarly beautiful and wonderful, is the variety of the shapes
of the mountains. They are a multitude -- and yet there is no likeness.
None, except where the golden mist comes and transfigures them into one glory.
For the rest, the mountain there wrapt in the chestnut forest
is not like that bare peak which tilts against the sky --
nor like the serpent-twine of another which seems to move and coil
in the moving coiling shadow. . . .'
She writes again:
Bagni di Lucca: Oct. 2 ('49).
`. . . I have performed a great exploit -- ridden on a donkey five miles deep
into the mountain, to an almost inaccessible volcanic ground not far
from the stars. Robert on horseback, and Wilson and the nurse (with Baby)
on other donkies, -- guides of course. We set off at eight in the morning,
and returned at six P.M. after dining on the mountain pinnacle,
I dreadfully tired, but the child laughing as usual, burnt brick colour
for all bad effect. No horse or ass untrained for the mountains
could have kept foot a moment where we penetrated, and even as it was,
one could not help the natural thrill. No road except the bed
of exhausted torrents -- above and through the chestnut forests
precipitous beyond what you would think possible for ascent or descent.
Ravines tearing the ground to pieces under your feet. The scenery,
sublime and wonderful, satisfied us wholly, as we looked round
on the world of innumerable mountains, bound faintly with the grey sea --
and not a human habitation. . . .'
The following fragment, which I have received quite without date,
might refer to this or to a somewhat later period.
`If he is vain about anything in the world it is about my improved health,
and I say to him, "But you needn't talk so much to people,
of how your wife walked here with you, and there with you,
as if a wife with a pair of feet was a miracle of nature."'
Florence: Feb. 18 ('50).
`. . . You can scarcely imagine to yourself the retired life we live,
and how we have retreated from the kind advances of the English society here.
Now people seem to understand that we are to be left alone. . . .'
Florence: April 1 ('50).
`. . . We drive day by day through the lovely Cascine,
just sweeping through the city. Just such a window where Bianca Capello
looked out to see the Duke go by -- and just such a door
where Tasso stood and where Dante drew his chair out to sit.
Strange to have all that old world life about us, and the blue sky
so bright. . . .'
Venice: June 4 (probably '50).
`. . . I have been between Heaven and Earth since our arrival at Venice.
The Heaven of it is ineffable -- never had I touched the skirts
of so celestial a place. The beauty of the architecture,
the silver trails of water up between all that gorgeous colour and carving,
the enchanting silence, the music, the gondolas -- I mix it all up together
and maintain that nothing is like it, nothing equal to it,
not a second Venice in the world.
`Do you know when I came first I felt as if I never could go away.
But now comes the earth-side.
`Robert, after sharing the ecstasy, grows uncomfortable and nervous,
unable to eat or sleep, and poor Wilson still worse, in a miserable condition
of sickness and headache. Alas for these mortal Venices,
so exquisite and so bilious. Therefore I am constrained away from my joys
by sympathy, and am forced to be glad that we are going away on Friday.
For myself, it did not affect me at all. Take the mild, soft,
relaxing climate -- even the scirocco does not touch me.
And the baby grows gloriously fatter in spite of everything. . . .
As for Venice, you can't get even a "Times", much less an "Athenaeum".
We comfort ourselves by taking a box at the opera (a whole box
on the grand tier, mind) for two shillings and eightpence, English. Also,
every evening at half-past eight, Robert and I are sitting under the moon
in the great piazza of St. Mark, taking excellent coffee
and reading the French papers.'
If it were possible to draw more largely on Mrs. Browning's correspondence
for this year, it would certainly supply the record of her intimacy,
and that of her husband, with Margaret Fuller Ossoli. A warm attachment
sprang up between them during that lady's residence in Florence.
Its last evenings were all spent at their house; and, soon after
she had bidden them farewell, she availed herself of a two days' delay
in the departure of the ship to return from Leghorn and be with them
one evening more. She had what seemed a prophetic dread
of the voyage to America, though she attached no superstitious importance
to the prediction once made to her husband that he would be drowned;
and learned when it was too late to change her plans that her presence there
was, after all, unnecessary. Mr. Browning was deeply affected
by the news of her death by shipwreck, which took place on July 16, 1850;
and wrote an account of his acquaintance with her, for publication
by her friends. This also, unfortunately, was lost.
Her son was of the same age as his, little more than a year old;
but she left a token of the friendship which might some day have united them,
in a small Bible inscribed to the baby Robert, `In memory of Angelo Ossoli.'
The intended journey to England was delayed for Mr. Browning
by the painful associations connected with his mother's death;
but in the summer of 1851 he found courage to go there:
and then, as on each succeeding visit paid to London with his wife,
he commemorated his marriage in a manner all his own. He went to the church
in which it had been solemnized, and kissed the paving-stones
in front of the door. It needed all this love to comfort Mrs. Browning
in the estrangement from her father which was henceforth to be accepted
as final. He had held no communication with her since her marriage,
and she knew that it was not forgiven; but she had cherished a hope
that he would so far relent towards her as to kiss her child,
even if he would not see her. Her prayer to this effect remained,
In the autumn they proceeded to Paris; whence Mrs. Browning wrote,
October 22 and November 12.
138, Avenue des Champs Elysees.
`. . . It was a long time before we could settle ourselves
in a private apartment. . . . At last we came off to these Champs Elysees,
to a very pleasant apartment, the window looking over a large terrace
(almost large enough to serve the purpose of a garden) to the great drive
and promenade of the Parisians when they come out of the streets
to sun and shade and show themselves off among the trees.
A pretty little dining-room, a writing and dressing-room for Robert beside it,
a drawing-room beyond that, with two excellent bedrooms,
and third bedroom for a "femme de menage", kitchen, &c. . . .
So this answers all requirements, and the sun suns us loyally as in duty bound
considering the southern aspect, and we are glad to find ourselves
settled for six months. We have had lovely weather, and have seen a fire
only yesterday for the first time since we left England. . . .
We have seen nothing in Paris, except the shell of it. Yet, two evenings ago
we hazarded going to a reception at Lady Elgin's, in the Faubourg St. Germain,
and saw some French, but nobody of distinction.
`It is a good house, I believe, and she has an earnest face
which must mean something. We were invited to go every Monday
between eight and twelve. We go on Friday to Madame Mohl's,
where we are to have some of the "celebrites". . . .
Carlyle, for instance, I liked infinitely more in his personality
than I expected to like him, and I saw a great deal of him,
for he travelled with us to Paris, and spent several evenings with us,
we three together. He is one of the most interesting men I could imagine,
even deeply interesting to me; and you come to understand perfectly
when you know him, that his bitterness is only melancholy,
and his scorn, sensibility. Highly picturesque, too, he is in conversation;
the talk of writing men is very seldom so good.
`And, do you know, I was much taken, in London, with a young authoress,
Geraldine Jewsbury. You have read her books. . . . She herself
is quiet and simple, and drew my heart out of me a good deal.
I felt inclined to love her in our half-hour's intercourse. . . .'
138, Avenue des Champs Elysees: (Nov. 12).
`. . . Robert's father and sister have been paying us a visit
during the last three weeks. They are very affectionate to me,
and I love them for his sake and their own, and am very sorry
at the thought of losing them, as we are on the point of doing.
We hope, however, to establish them in Paris, if we can stay,
and if no other obstacle should arise before the spring,
when they must leave Hatcham. Little Wiedemann `draws',
as you may suppose. . . . he is adored by his grandfather,
and then, Robert! They are an affectionate family, and not easy
when removed one from another. . . .'
On their journey from London to Paris, Mr. and Mrs. Browning had been
joined by Carlyle; and it afterwards struck Mr. Browning as strange that,
in the `Life' of Carlyle, their companionship on this occasion
should be spoken of as the result of a chance meeting. Carlyle not only
went to Paris with the Brownings, but had begged permission to do so;
and Mrs. Browning had hesitated to grant this because she was afraid
her little boy would be tiresome to him. Her fear, however, proved mistaken.
The child's prattle amused the philosopher, and led him on one occasion
to say: `Why, sir, you have as many aspirations as Napoleon!'
At Paris he would have been miserable without Mr. Browning's help,
in his ignorance of the language, and impatience of the discomforts
which this created for him. He couldn't ask for anything, he complained,
but they brought him the opposite.
On one occasion Mr. Carlyle made a singular remark. He was walking
with Mr. Browning, either in Paris or the neighbouring country,
when they passed an image of the Crucifixion; and glancing towards
the figure of Christ, he said, with his deliberate Scotch utterance,
`Ah, poor fellow, YOUR part is played out!'
Two especially interesting letters are dated from the same address,
February 15 and April 7, 1852.
`. . . Beranger lives close to us, and Robert has seen him
in his white hat, wandering along the asphalte. I had a notion,
somehow, that he was very old, but he is only elderly --
not much above sixty (which is the prime of life, nowadays)
and he lives quietly and keeps out of scrapes poetical and political,
and if Robert and I had a little less modesty we are assured
that we should find access to him easy. But we can't make up our minds
to go to his door and introduce ourselves as vagrant minstrels,
when he may probably not know our names. We could never follow
the fashion of certain authors, who send their books about
with intimations of their being likely to be acceptable or not --
of which practice poor Tennyson knows too much for his peace.
If, indeed, a letter of introduction to Beranger were vouchsafed to us
from any benign quarter, we should both be delighted,
but we must wait patiently for the influence of the stars.
Meanwhile, we have at last sent our letter [Mazzini's] to George Sand,
accompanied with a little note signed by both of us, though written by me,
as seemed right, being the woman. We half-despaired in doing this --
for it is most difficult, it appears, to get at her,
she having taken vows against seeing strangers, in consequence of
various annoyances and persecutions, in and out of print, which it's
the mere instinct of a woman to avoid -- I can understand it perfectly.
Also, she is in Paris for only a few days, and under a new name,
to escape from the plague of her notoriety. People said,
"She will never see you -- you have no chance, I am afraid."
But we determined to try. At least I pricked Robert up to the leap --
for he was really inclined to sit in his chair and be proud a little.
"No," said I, "you SHA'N'T be proud, and I WON'T be proud,
and we WILL see her -- I won't die, if I can help it,
without seeing George Sand." So we gave our letter to a friend,
who was to give it to a friend who was to place it in her hands --
her abode being a mystery, and the name she used unknown.
The next day came by the post this answer:
`"Madame, j'aurai l'honneur de vous recevoir Dimanche prochain,
rue Racine, 3. C'est le seul jour que je puisse passer chez moi;
et encore je n'en suis pas absolument certaine -- mais je ferai tellement
mon possible, que ma bonne e/toile m'y aidera peut-e^tre un peu.
Agre/ez mille remerciments de coeur ainsi que Monsieur Browning,
que j'espe\re voir avec vous, pour la sympathie que vous m'accordez.
Paris: 12 fevrier '52."
`This is graceful and kind, is it not? -- and we are going to-morrow --
I, rather at the risk of my life, but I shall roll myself up head and all
in a thick shawl, and we shall go in a close carriage, and I hope
I shall be able to tell you the result before shutting up this letter.
`Monday. -- I have seen G. S. She received us in a room with a bed in it,
the only room she has to occupy, I suppose, during her short stay in Paris.
She received us very cordially with her hand held out, which I,
in the emotion of the moment, stooped and kissed -- upon which she exclaimed,
"Mais non! je ne veux pas," and kissed me. I don't think
she is a great deal taller than I am, -- yes, taller, but not a great deal --
and a little over-stout for that height. The upper part of the face is fine,
the forehead, eyebrows and eyes -- dark glowing eyes as they should be;
the lower part not so good. The beautiful teeth project a little,
flashing out the smile of the large characteristic mouth,
and the chin recedes. It never could have been a beautiful face
Robert and I agree, but noble and expressive it has been and is.
The complexion is olive, quite without colour; the hair, black and glossy,
divided with evident care and twisted back into a knot behind the head,
and she wore no covering to it. Some of the portraits represent her
in ringlets, and ringlets would be much more becoming to the style of face,
I fancy, for the cheeks are rather over-full. She was dressed
in a sort of woollen grey gown, with a jacket of the same material
(according to the ruling fashion), the gown fastened up to the throat,
with a small linen collarette, and plain white muslin sleeves buttoned
round the wrists. The hands offered to me were small and well-shaped.
Her manners were quite as simple as her costume. I never saw a simpler woman.
Not a shade of affectation or consciousness, even --
not a suffusion of coquetry, not a cigarette to be seen!
Two or three young men were sitting with her, and I observed
the profound respect with which they listened to every word she said.
She spoke rapidly, with a low, unemphatic voice. Repose of manner
is much more her characteristic than animation is -- only,
under all the quietness, and perhaps by means of it, you are aware
of an intense burning soul. She kissed me again when we went away. . . .'
`April 7. -- George Sand we came to know a great deal more of.
I think Robert saw her six times. Once he met her near the Tuileries,
offered her his arm and walked with her the whole length of the gardens.
She was not on that occasion looking as well as usual,
being a little too much "endimanchee" in terrestrial lavenders
and super-celestial blues -- not, in fact, dressed with the remarkable taste
which he has seen in her at other times. Her usual costume
is both pretty and quiet, and the fashionable waistcoat and jacket
(which are aspectable (?) in all the "Ladies' Companions" of the day)
make the only approach to masculine wearings to be observed in her.
`She has great nicety and refinement in her personal ways, I think --
and the cigarette is really a feminine weapon if properly understood.
`Ah! but I didn't see her smoke. I was unfortunate. I could only
go with Robert three times to her house, and once she was out.
He was really very good and kind to let me go at all after he found
the sort of society rampant around her. He didn't like it extremely,
but being the prince of husbands, he was lenient to my desires,
and yielded the point. She seems to live in the abomination of desolation,
as far as regards society -- crowds of ill-bred men who adore her,
`a genoux bas', betwixt a puff of smoke and an ejection of saliva --
society of the ragged red, diluted with the low theatrical.
She herself so different, so apart, so alone in her melancholy disdain.
I was deeply interested in that poor woman. I felt a profound
compassion for her. I did not mind much even the Greek, in Greek costume,
who `tutoyed' her, and kissed her I believe, so Robert said --
or the other vulgar man of the theatre, who went down on his knees
and called her "sublime". "Caprice d'amitie," said she
with her quiet, gentle scorn. A noble woman under the mud, be certain.
_I_ would kneel down to her, too, if she would leave it all, throw it off,
and be herself as God made her. But she would not care for my kneeling --
she does not care for me. Perhaps she doesn't care much for anybody
by this time, who knows? She wrote one or two or three kind notes to me,
and promised to `venir m'embrasser' before she left Paris,
but she did not come. We both tried hard to please her,
and she told a friend of ours that she "liked us". Only we always felt
that we couldn't penetrate -- couldn't really TOUCH her -- it was all vain.
`Alfred de Musset was to have been at M. Buloz' where Robert was a week ago,
on purpose to meet him, but he was prevented in some way.
His brother, Paul de Musset, a very different person, was there instead,
but we hope to have Alfred on another occasion. Do you know his poems?
He is not capable of large grasps, but he has poet's life and blood in him,
I assure you. . . . We are expecting a visit from Lamartine,
who does a great deal of honour to both of us in the way of appreciation,
and was kind enough to propose to come. I will tell you all about it.'
Mr. Browning fully shared his wife's impression of a want of frank cordiality
on George Sand's part; and was especially struck by it in reference
to himself, with whom it seemed more natural that she should feel at ease.
He could only imagine that his studied courtesy towards her was felt by her
as a rebuke to the latitude which she granted to other men.
Another eminent French writer whom he much wished to know was Victor Hugo,
and I am told that for years he carried about him a letter of introduction
from Lord Houghton, always hoping for an opportunity of presenting it.
The hope was not fulfilled, though, in 1866, Mr. Browning crossed
to Saint Malo by the Channel Islands and spent three days in Jersey.
M. Joseph Milsand -- His close Friendship with Mr. Browning;
Mrs. Browning's Impression of him -- New Edition of Mr. Browning's Poems --
`Christmas Eve and Easter Day' -- `Essay' on Shelley -- Summer in London --
Dante Gabriel Rossetti -- Florence; secluded Life --
Letters from Mr. and Mrs. Browning -- `Colombe's Birthday' --
Baths of Lucca -- Mrs. Browning's Letters -- Winter in Rome --
Mr. and Mrs. Story -- Mrs. Sartoris -- Mrs. Fanny Kemble --
Summer in London -- Tennyson -- Ruskin.
It was during this winter in Paris that Mr. Browning became acquainted
with M. Joseph Milsand, the second Frenchman with whom
he was to be united by ties of deep friendship and affection.
M. Milsand was at that time, and for long afterwards,
a frequent contributor to the `Revue des Deux Mondes';
his range of subjects being enlarged by his, for a Frenchman,
exceptional knowledge of English life, language, and literature. He wrote
an article on Quakerism, which was much approved by Mr. William Forster,
and a little volume on Ruskin called `L'Esthetique Anglaise',
which was published in the `Bibliotheque de Philosophie Contemporaine'.*
Shortly before the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Browning in Paris,
he had accidentally seen an extract from `Paracelsus'.
This struck him so much that he procured the two volumes of the works
and `Christmas Eve', and discussed the whole in the `Revue'
as the second part of an essay entitled `La Poesie Anglaise depuis Byron'.
Mr. Browning saw the article, and was naturally touched
at finding his poems the object of serious study in a foreign country,
while still so little regarded in his own. It was no less natural
that this should lead to a friendship which, the opening once given,
would have grown up unassisted, at least on Mr. Browning's side;
for M. Milsand united the qualities of a critical intellect with a tenderness,
a loyalty, and a simplicity of nature seldom found in combination with them.
* He published also an admirable little work on the requirements
of secondary education in France, equally applicable in many respects
to any country and to any time.
The introduction was brought about by the daughter of William Browning,
Mrs. Jebb-Dyke, or more directly by Mr. and Mrs. Fraser Corkran,
who were among the earliest friends of the Browning family in Paris.
M. Milsand was soon an `habitue' of Mr. Browning's house,
as somewhat later of that of his father and sister; and when,
many years afterwards, Miss Browning had taken up her abode in England,
he spent some weeks of the early summer in Warwick Crescent,
whenever his home duties or personal occupations allowed him to do so.
Several times also the poet and his sister joined him at Saint-Aubin,
the seaside village in Normandy which was his special resort,
and where they enjoyed the good offices of Madame Milsand, a home-staying,
genuine French wife and mother, well acquainted with the resources
of its very primitive life. M. Milsand died, in 1886, of apoplexy,
the consequence, I believe, of heart-disease brought on
by excessive cold-bathing. The first reprint of `Sordello', in 1863,
had been, as is well known, dedicated to him. The `Parleyings',
published within a year of his death, were inscribed to his memory.
Mr. Browning's affection for him finds utterance in a few strong words
which I shall have occasion to quote. An undated fragment concerning him
from Mrs. Browning to her sister-in-law, points to a later date
than the present, but may as well be inserted here.
`. . . I quite love M. Milsand for being interested in Penini.
What a perfect creature he is, to be sure! He always stands in the top place
among our gods -- Give him my cordial regards, always, mind. . . .
He wants, I think -- the only want of that noble nature --
the sense of spiritual relation; and also he puts under his feet too much
the worth of impulse and passion, in considering the powers of human nature.
For the rest, I don't know such a man. He has intellectual conscience --
or say -- the conscience of the intellect, in a higher degree than I ever saw
in any man of any country -- and this is no less Robert's belief than mine.
When we hear the brilliant talkers and noisy thinkers
here and there and everywhere, we go back to Milsand with a real reverence.
Also, I never shall forget his delicacy to me personally,
nor his tenderness of heart about my child. . . .'
The criticism was inevitable from the point of view of Mrs. Browning's
nature and experience; but I think she would have revoked part of it
if she had known M. Milsand in later years. He would never
have agreed with her as to the authority of `impulse and passion',
but I am sure he did not underrate their importance as factors in human life.
M. Milsand was one of the few readers of Browning with whom
I have talked about him, who had studied his work from the beginning,
and had realized the ambition of his first imaginative flights.
He was more perplexed by the poet's utterance in later years.
`Quel homme extraordinaire!' he once said to me; `son centre
n'est pas au milieu.' The usual criticism would have been that,
while his own centre was in the middle, he did not seek it in the middle
for the things of which he wrote; but I remember that, at the moment
in which the words were spoken, they impressed me as full of penetration.
Mr. Browning had so much confidence in M. Milsand's linguistic powers
that he invariably sent him his proof-sheets for final revision,
and was exceedingly pleased with such few corrections
as his friend was able to suggest.
With the name of Milsand connects itself in the poet's life
that of a younger, but very genuine friend of both, M. Gustave Dourlans:
a man of fine critical and intellectual powers, unfortunately neutralized
by bad health. M. Dourlans also became a visitor at Warwick Crescent,
and a frequent correspondent of Mr. or rather of Miss Browning.
He came from Paris once more, to witness the last sad scene
in Westminster Abbey.
The first three years of Mr. Browning's married life had been unproductive
from a literary point of view. The realization and enjoyment of
the new companionship, the duties as well as interests of the dual existence,
and, lastly, the shock and pain of his mother's death,
had absorbed his mental energies for the time being. But by the close of 1848
he had prepared for publication in the following year a new edition
of `Paracelsus' and the `Bells and Pomegranates' poems. The reprint
was in two volumes, and the publishers were Messrs. Chapman and Hall;
the system, maintained through Mr. Moxon, of publication
at the author's expense, being abandoned by Mr. Browning when he left home.
Mrs. Browning writes of him on this occasion that he is paying
`peculiar attention to the objections made against certain obscurities.'
He himself prefaced the edition by these words: `Many of these pieces
were out of print, the rest had been withdrawn from circulation,
when the corrected edition, now submitted to the reader, was prepared.
The various Poems and Dramas have received the author's most careful revision.
In 1850, in Florence, he wrote `Christmas Eve and Easter Day';
and in December 1851, in Paris, the essay on Shelley,
to be prefixed to twenty-five supposed letters of that poet,
published by Moxon in 1852.*
* They were discovered, not long afterwards, to be spurious,
and the book suppressed.
The reading of this Essay might serve to correct the frequent misapprehension
of Mr. Browning's religious views which has been based on the literal evidence
of `Christmas Eve', were it not that its companion poem has failed to do so;
though the tendency of `Easter Day' is as different from that of its precursor
as their common Christianity admits. The balance of argument
in `Christmas Eve' is in favour of direct revelation of religious truth
and prosaic certainty regarding it; while the `Easter Day' vision makes
a tentative and unresting attitude the first condition of the religious life;
and if Mr. Browning has meant to say -- as he so often did say --
that religious certainties are required for the undeveloped mind,
but that the growing religious intelligence walks best by a receding light,
he denies the positive basis of Christian belief, and is no more orthodox
in the one set of reflections than in the other. The spirit, however,
of both poems is ascetic: for the first divorces religious worship
from every appeal to the poetic sense; the second refuses to recognize,
in poetry or art, or the attainments of the intellect,
or even in the best human love, any practical correspondence with religion.
The dissertation on Shelley is, what `Sordello' was,
what its author's treatment of poets and poetry always must be --
an indirect vindication of the conceptions of human life
which `Christmas Eve and Easter Day' condemns. This double poem stands indeed
so much alone in Mr. Browning's work that we are tempted to ask ourselves
to what circumstance or impulse, external or internal, it has been due;
and we can only conjecture that the prolonged communion with a mind
so spiritual as that of his wife, the special sympathies and differences
which were elicited by it, may have quickened his religious imagination,
while directing it towards doctrinal or controversial issues
which it had not previously embraced.
The `Essay' is a tribute to the genius of Shelley; it is also a justification
of his life and character, as the balance of evidence then presented them
to Mr. Browning's mind. It rests on a definition of the respective qualities
of the objective and the subjective poet. . . . While both, he says,
are gifted with the fuller perception of nature and man, the one endeavours to
`reproduce things external (whether the phenomena of the scenic universe,
or the manifested action of the human heart and brain)
with an immediate reference, in every case, to the common eye
and apprehension of his fellow-men, assumed capable of receiving
and profiting by this reproduction' -- the other `is impelled to embody
the thing he perceives, not so much with reference to the many below,
as to the One above him, the supreme Intelligence which apprehends
all things in their absolute truth, -- an ultimate view ever aspired to,
if but partially attained, by the poet's own soul.
Not what man sees, but what God sees -- the `Ideas' of Plato,
seeds of creation lying burningly on the Divine Hand -- it is toward these
that he struggles. Not with the combination of humanity in action,
but with the primal elements of humanity he has to do;
and he digs where he stands, -- preferring to seek them in his own soul
as the nearest reflex of that absolute Mind, according to the intuitions
of which he desires to perceive and speak.'
The objective poet is therefore a fashioner, the subjective is best described
as a seer. The distinction repeats itself in the interest with which we study
their respective lives. We are glad of the biography of the objective poet
because it reveals to us the power by which he works; we desire still more
that of the subjective poet, because it presents us with another aspect
of the work itself. The poetry of such a one is an effluence
much more than a production; it is
`the very radiance and aroma of his personality, projected from it
but not separated. Therefore, in our approach to the poetry,
we necessarily approach the personality of the poet; in apprehending it
we apprehend him, and certainly we cannot love it without loving him.'
The reason of Mr. Browning's prolonged and instinctive reverence for Shelley
is thus set forth in the opening pages of the Essay:
he recognized in his writings the quality of a `subjective' poet;
hence, as he understands the word, the evidence of a divinely inspired man.
Mr. Browning goes on to say that we need the recorded life in order
quite to determine to which class of inspiration a given work belongs;
and though he regards the work of Shelley as carrying its warrant
within itself, his position leaves ample room for a withdrawal of faith,
a reversal of judgment, if the ascertained facts of the poet's life
should at any future time bear decided witness against him.
He is also careful to avoid drawing too hard and fast a line between
the two opposite kinds of poet. He admits that a pure instance of either
is seldom to be found; he sees no reason why
`these two modes of poetic faculty may not issue hereafter
from the same poet in successive perfect works. . . .
A mere running-in of the one faculty upon the other' being,
meanwhile, `the ordinary circumstance.'
I venture, however, to think, that in his various and necessary concessions,
he lets slip the main point; and for the simple reason that it is untenable.
The terms `subjective' and `objective' denote a real and very important
difference on the ground of judgment, but one which tends more and more
to efface itself in the sphere of the higher creative imagination.
Mr. Browning might as briefly, and I think more fully, have expressed
the salient quality of his poet, even while he could describe it
in these emphatic words:
`I pass at once, therefore, from Shelley's minor excellencies
to his noblest and predominating characteristic.
`This I call his simultaneous perception of Power and Love in the absolute,
and of Beauty and Good in the concrete, while he throws,
from his poet's station between both, swifter, subtler,
and more numerous films for the connexion of each with each,
than have been thrown by any modern artificer of whom I have knowledge . . .
I would rather consider Shelley's poetry as a sublime fragmentary essay
towards a presentment of the correspondency of the universe to Deity,
of the natural to the spiritual, and of the actual to the ideal than . . .'
This essay has, in common with the poems of the preceding years,
the one quality of a largely religious and, in a certain sense,
Christian spirit, and in this respect it falls naturally
into the general series of its author's works. The assertion
of Platonic ideas suggests, however, a mood of spiritual thought
for which the reference in `Pauline' has been our only,
and a scarcely sufficient preparation; nor could the most definite theism
to be extracted from Platonic beliefs ever satisfy the human aspirations
which, in a nature like that of Robert Browning, culminate in the idea of God.
The metaphysical aspect of the poet's genius here distinctly reappears
for the first time since `Sordello', and also for the last.
It becomes merged in the simpler forms of the religious imagination.
The justification of the man Shelley, to which great part of the Essay
is devoted, contains little that would seem new to his more recent apologists;
little also which to the writer's later judgments continued
to recommend itself as true. It was as a great poetic artist,
not as a great poet, that the author of `Prometheus' and `The Cenci',
of `Julian and Maddalo', and `Epipsychidion' was finally to rank
in Mr. Browning's mind. The whole remains nevertheless
a memorial of a very touching affection; and whatever intrinsic value
the Essay may possess, its main interest must always be biographical.
Its motive and inspiration are set forth in the closing lines:
`It is because I have long held these opinions in assurance and gratitude,
that I catch at the opportunity offered to me of expressing them here;
knowing that the alacrity to fulfil an humble office conveys more love
than the acceptance of the honour of a higher one, and that better,
therefore, than the signal service it was the dream of my boyhood to render
to his fame and memory, may be the saying of a few, inadequate words
upon these scarcely more important supplementary letters of SHELLEY.'
If Mr. Browning had seen reason to doubt the genuineness
of the letters in question, his Introduction could not have been written.
That, while receiving them as genuine, he thought them unimportant,
gave it, as he justly discerned, its full significance.
Mr. and Mrs. Browning returned to London for the summer of 1852,
and we have a glimpse of them there in a letter from Mr. Fox to his daughter.
July 16, '52.
`. . . I had a charming hour with the Brownings yesterday;
more fascinated with her than ever. She talked lots of George Sand,
and so beautifully. Moreover she silver-electroplated Louis Napoleon!!
They are lodging at 58 Welbeck Street; the house has a queer name on the door,
and belongs to some Belgian family.
`They came in late one night, and R. B. says that in the morning twilight
he saw three portraits on the bedroom wall, and speculated who they might be.
Light gradually showed the first, Beatrice Cenci, "Good!" said he;
"in a poetic region." More light: the second, Lord Byron!
Who can the third be? And what think you it was, but your sketch
(engraved chalk portrait) of me? He made quite a poem and picture
of the affair.
`She seems much better; did not put her hand before her mouth,
which I took as a compliment: and the young Florentine was gracious . . .'
It need hardly be said that this valued friend was one of the first
whom Mr. Browning introduced to his wife, and that she responded
with ready warmth to his claims on her gratitude and regard.
More than one joint letter from herself and her husband
commemorates this new phase of the intimacy; one especially interesting
was written from Florence in 1858, in answer to the announcement by Mr. Fox
of his election for Oldham; and Mr. Browning's contribution,
which is very characteristic, will appear in due course.
Either this or the preceding summer brought Mr. Browning for the first time
into personal contact with an early lover of his works: Mr. D. G. Rossetti.
They had exchanged letters a year or two before, on the subject of `Pauline',
which Rossetti (as I have already mentioned) had read in ignorance of
its origin, but with the conviction that only the author of `Paracelsus'
could have produced it. He wrote to Mr. Browning to ascertain the fact,
and to tell him he had admired the poem so much as to transcribe it whole from
the British Museum copy. He now called on him with Mr. William Allingham;
and doubly recommended himself to the poet's interest by telling him
that he was a painter. When Mr. Browning was again in London, in 1855,
Rossetti began painting his portrait, which he finished in Paris
in the ensuing winter.
The winter of 1852-3 saw the family once more in Florence, and at Casa Guidi,
where the routine of quiet days was resumed. Mrs. Browning has spoken
in more than one of her letters of the comparative social seclusion in which
she and her husband had elected to live. This seclusion was much modified
in later years, and many well-known English and American names
become associated with their daily life. It referred indeed almost entirely
to their residence in Florence, where they found less inducement
to enter into society than in London, Paris, and Rome.
But it is on record that during the fifteen years of his married life,
Mr. Browning never dined away from home, except on one occasion --
an exception proving the rule; and we cannot therefore be surprised
that he should subsequently have carried into the experience
of an unshackled and very interesting social intercourse,
a kind of freshness which a man of fifty has not generally preserved.
The one excitement which presented itself in the early months of 1853
was the production of `Colombe's Birthday'. The first allusion to this
comes to us in a letter from the poet to Lady, then Mrs. Theodore, Martin,
from which I quote a few passages.
Florence: Jan. 31, '53.
`My dear Mrs. Martin, -- . . . be assured that I, for my part, have been
in no danger of forgetting my promises any more than your performances --
which were admirable of all kinds. I shall be delighted
if you can do anything for "Colombe" -- do what you think best with it,
and for me -- it will be pleasant to be in such hands --
only, pray follow the corrections in the last edition --
(Chapman and Hall will give you a copy) -- as they are important to the sense.
As for the condensation into three acts -- I shall leave that,
and all cuttings and the like, to your own judgment -- and, come what will,
I shall have to be grateful to you, as before. For the rest,
you will play the part to heart's content, I KNOW . . . And how good
it will be to see you again, and make my wife see you too -- she who
"never saw a great actress" she says -- unless it was Dejazet! . . .'
Mrs. Browning writes about the performance, April 12:
`. . . I am beginning to be anxious about `Colombe's Birthday'.
I care much more about it than Robert does. He says that no one
will mistake it for his speculation; it's Mr. Buckstone's affair altogether.
True -- but I should like it to succeed, being Robert's play, notwithstanding.
But the play is subtle and refined for pits and galleries.
I am nervous about it. On the other hand, those theatrical people
ought to know, -- and what in the world made them select it,
if it is not likely to answer their purpose? By the way,
a dreadful rumour reaches us of its having been "prepared for the stage
by the author." Don't believe a word of it. Robert just said "yes"
when they wrote to ask him, and not a line of communication has passed since.
He has prepared nothing at all, suggested nothing, modified nothing.
He referred them to his new edition, and that was the whole. . . .'
She communicates the result in May:
`. . . Yes, Robert's play succeeded, but there could be no "run"
for a play of that kind. It was a "succes d'estime" and something more,
which is surprising perhaps, considering the miserable acting of the men.
Miss Faucit was alone in doing us justice. . . .'
Mrs. Browning did see `Miss Faucit' on her next visit to England.
She agreeably surprised that lady by presenting herself alone,
one morning, at her house, and remaining with her for an hour and a half.
The only person who had `done justice' to `Colombe' besides contributing
to whatever success her husband's earlier plays had obtained,
was much more than `a great actress' to Mrs. Browning's mind;
and we may imagine it would have gone hard with her
before she renounced the pleasure of making her acquaintance.
Two letters, dated from the Baths of Lucca, July 15 and August 20, '53,
tell how and where the ensuing summer was passed, besides introducing us,
for the first time, to Mr. and Mrs. William Story, between whose family
and that of Mr. Browning so friendly an intimacy was ever afterwards
`. . . We have taken a villa at the Baths of Lucca after a little holy fear
of the company there -- but the scenery, and the coolness,
and convenience altogether prevail, and we have taken our villa
for three months or rather more, and go to it next week
with a stiff resolve of not calling nor being called upon.
You remember perhaps that we were there four years ago
just after the birth of our child. The mountains are wonderful in beauty,
and we mean to buy our holiday by doing some work.
`Oh yes! I confess to loving Florence, and to having associated with it
the idea of home. . . .'
Casa Tolomei, Alta Villa, Bagni di Lucca: Aug. 20.
`. . . We are enjoying the mountains here -- riding the donkeys
in the footsteps of the sheep, and eating strawberries and milk by basinsful.
The strawberries succeed one another throughout the summer,
through growing on different aspects of the hills. If a tree is felled
in the forests, strawberries spring up, just as mushrooms might,
and the peasants sell them for just nothing. . . . Then our friends
Mr. and Mrs. Story help the mountains to please us a good deal.
He is the son of Judge Story, the biographer of his father,
and for himself, sculptor and poet -- and she a sympathetic graceful woman,
fresh and innocent in face and thought. We go backwards and forwards to tea
and talk at one another's houses.
`. . . Since I began this letter we have had a grand donkey excursion
to a village called Benabbia, and the cross above it on the mountain-peak.
We returned in the dark, and were in some danger of tumbling
down various precipices -- but the scenery was exquisite --
past speaking of for beauty. Oh, those jagged mountains,
rolled together like pre-Adamite beasts and setting their teeth
against the sky -- it was wonderful. . . .'
Mr. Browning's share of the work referred to was `In a Balcony';
also, probably, some of the `Men and Women'; the scene of the declaration
in `By the Fireside' was laid in a little adjacent mountain-gorge
to which he walked or rode. A fortnight's visit from Mr., now Lord, Lytton,
was also an incident of this summer.
The next three letters from which I am able to quote,
describe the impressions of Mrs. Browning's first winter in Rome.
Rome: 43 Via Bocca di Leone, 3o piano. Jan. 18, 54.
`. . . Well, we are all well to begin with -- and have been well --
our troubles came to us through sympathy entirely. A most exquisite journey
of eight days we had from Florence to Rome, seeing the great monastery
and triple church of Assisi and the wonderful Terni by the way --
that passion of the waters which makes the human heart seem so still.
In the highest spirits we entered Rome, Robert and Penini singing actually --
for the child was radiant and flushed with the continual change
of air and scene. . . . You remember my telling you of our friends the Storys
-- how they and their two children helped to make the summer go pleasantly
at the Baths of Lucca. They had taken an apartment for us in Rome,
so that we arrived in comfort to lighted fires and lamps as if coming home, --
and we had a glimpse of their smiling faces that evening.
In the morning before breakfast, little Edith was brought over to us
by the manservant with a message, "the boy was in convulsions --
there was danger." We hurried to the house, of course,
leaving Edith with Wilson. Too true! All that first day
we spent beside a death-bed; for the child never rallied --
never opened his eyes in consciousness -- and by eight in the evening
he was gone. In the meanwhile, Edith was taken ill at our house --
could not be moved, said the physicians . . . gastric fever,
with a tendency to the brain -- and within two days her life
was almost despaired of -- exactly the same malady as her brother's. . . .
Also the English nurse was apparently dying at the Story's house,
and Emma Page, the artist's youngest daughter, sickened with the same disease.
`. . . To pass over the dreary time, I will tell you at once
that the three patients recovered -- only in poor little Edith's case
Roman fever followed the gastric, and has persisted ever since
in periodical recurrence. She is very pale and thin.
Roman fever is not dangerous to life, but it is exhausting. . . .
Now you will understand what ghostly flakes of death
have changed the sense of Rome to me. The first day by a death-bed,
the first drive-out, to the cemetery, where poor little Joe is laid
close to Shelley's heart ("Cor cordium" says the epitaph)
and where the mother insisted on going when she and I went out
in the carriage together -- I am horribly weak about such things --
I can't look on the earth-side of death -- I flinch from corpses and graves,
and never meet a common funeral without a sort of horror.
When I look deathwards I look OVER death, and upwards,
or I can't look that way at all. So that it was a struggle with me
to sit upright in that carriage in which the poor stricken mother
sat so calmly -- not to drop from the seat. Well -- all this
has blackened Rome to me. I can't think about the Caesars
in the old strain of thought -- the antique words get muddled and blurred
with warm dashes of modern, everyday tears and fresh grave-clay.
Rome is spoilt to me -- there's the truth. Still, one lives through
one's associations when not too strong, and I have arrived
at almost enjoying some things -- the climate, for instance,
which, though pernicious to the general health, agrees particularly with me,
and the sight of the blue sky floating like a sea-tide through the great gaps
and rifts of ruins. . . . We are very comfortably settled in rooms turned
to the sun, and do work and play by turns, having almost too many visitors,
hear excellent music at Mrs. Sartoris's (A. K.) once or twice a week,
and have Fanny Kemble to come and talk to us with the doors shut,
we three together. This is pleasant. I like her decidedly.
`If anybody wants small talk by handfuls, of glittering dust
swept out of salons, here's Mr. Thackeray besides! . . .'
Rome: March 29.
`. . . We see a good deal of the Kembles here, and like them both,
especially Fanny, who is looking magnificent still, with her black hair
and radiant smile. A very noble creature indeed. Somewhat unelastic,
unpliant to the age, attached to the old modes of thought and convention --
but noble in qualities and defects. I like her much. She thinks me
credulous and full of dreams -- but does not despise me for that reason --
which is good and tolerant of her, and pleasant too, for I should not be
quite easy under her contempt. Mrs. Sartoris is genial and generous --
her milk has had time to stand to cream in her happy family relations,
which poor Fanny Kemble's has not had. Mrs. Sartoris' house
has the best society in Rome -- and exquisite music of course.
We met Lockhart there, and my husband sees a good deal of him --
more than I do -- because of the access of cold weather lately
which has kept me at home chiefly. Robert went down to the seaside,
on a day's excursion with him and the Sartorises -- and I hear
found favour in his sight. Said the critic, "I like Browning --
he isn't at all like a damned literary man." That's a compliment,
I believe, according to your dictionary. It made me laugh
and think of you directly. . . . Robert has been sitting for his picture
to Mr. Fisher, the English artist who painted Mr. Kenyon and Landor.
You remember those pictures in Mr. Kenyon's house in London.
Well, he has painted Robert's, and it is an admirable likeness.
The expression is an exceptional expression, but highly characteristic. . . .'
`. . . To leave Rome will fill me with barbarian complacency.
I don't pretend to have a ray of sentiment about Rome.
It's a palimpsest Rome, a watering-place written over the antique,
and I haven't taken to it as a poet should I suppose.
And let us speak the truth above all things. I am strongly
a creature of association, and the associations of the place
have not been personally favourable to me. Among the rest, my child,
the light of my eyes, has been more unwell than I ever saw him. . . .
The pleasantest days in Rome we have spent with the Kembles, the two sisters,
who are charming and excellent both of them, in different ways,
and certainly they have given us some excellent hours in the Campagna,
upon picnic excursions -- they, and certain of their friends;
for instance, M. Ampere, the member of the French Institute,
who is witty and agreeable, M. Goltz, the Austrian minister,
who is an agreeable man, and Mr. Lyons, the son of Sir Edmund, &c.
The talk was almost too brilliant for the sentiment of the scenery,
but it harmonized entirely with the mayonnaise and champagne. . . .'
It must have been on one of the excursions here described that an incident
took place, which Mr. Browning relates with characteristic comments
in a letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, of July 15, 1882. The picnic party
had strolled away to some distant spot. Mrs. Browning was not strong enough
to join them, and her husband, as a matter of course, stayed with her;
which act of consideration prompted Mrs. Kemble to exclaim
that he was the only man she had ever known who behaved like a Christian
to his wife. She was, when he wrote this letter, reading his works
for the first time, and had expressed admiration for them;
but, he continued, none of the kind things she said to him on that subject
could move him as did those words in the Campagna. Mrs. Kemble would have
modified her statement in later years, for the sake of one English
and one American husband now closely related to her. Even then, perhaps,
she did not make it without inward reserve. But she will forgive me,
I am sure, for having repeated it.
Mr. Browning also refers to her Memoirs, which he had just read, and says:
`I saw her in those [I conclude earlier] days much oftener than is set down,
but she scarcely noticed me; though I always liked her extremely.'
Another of Mrs. Browning's letters is written from Florence, June 6 ('54):
`. . . We mean to stay at Florence a week or two longer and then
go northward. I love Florence -- the place looks exquisitely beautiful
in its garden ground of vineyards and olive trees, sung round
by the nightingales day and night. . . . If you take one thing with another,
there is no place in the world like Florence, I am persuaded,
for a place to live in -- cheap, tranquil, cheerful, beautiful,
within the limits of civilization yet out of the crush of it. . . .
We have spent two delicious evenings at villas outside the gates,
one with young Lytton, Sir Edward's son, of whom I have told you, I think.
I like him . . . we both do . . . from the bottom of our hearts.
Then, our friend, Frederick Tennyson, the new poet, we are delighted
to see again.
. . . . .
`. . . Mrs. Sartoris has been here on her way to Rome, spending most
of her time with us . . . singing passionately and talking eloquently.
She is really charming. . . .'
I have no record of that northward journey or of the experiences of
the winter of 1854-5. In all probability Mr. and Mrs. Browning remained in,
or as near as possible to, Florence, since their income was still too limited
for continuous travelling. They possibly talked of going to England,
but postponed it till the following year; we know that they went there
in 1855, taking his sister with them as they passed through Paris.
They did not this time take lodgings for the summer months,
but hired a house at 13 Dorset Street, Portman Square;
and there, on September 27, Tennyson read his new poem, `Maud',
to Mrs. Browning, while Rossetti, the only other person present
besides the family, privately drew his likeness in pen and ink.
The likeness has become well known; the unconscious sitter must also,
by this time, be acquainted with it; but Miss Browning thinks
no one except herself, who was near Rossetti at the table, was at the moment
aware of its being made. All eyes must have been turned towards Tennyson,
seated by his hostess on the sofa. Miss Arabel Barrett was also of the party.
Some interesting words of Mrs. Browning's carry their date
in the allusion to Mr. Ruskin; but I cannot ascertain it more precisely:
`We went to Denmark Hill yesterday to have luncheon with them,
and see the Turners, which, by the way, are divine. I like Mr. Ruskin much,
and so does Robert. Very gentle, yet earnest, -- refined and truthful.
I like him very much. We count him one among the valuable acquaintances
made this year in England.'
`Men and Women' -- `Karshook' -- `Two in the Campagna' -- Winter in Paris;
Lady Elgin -- `Aurora Leigh' -- Death of Mr. Kenyon and Mr. Barrett --
Penini -- Mrs. Browning's Letters to Miss Browning --
The Florentine Carnival -- Baths of Lucca -- Spiritualism --
Mr. Kirkup; Count Ginnasi -- Letter from Mr. Browning to Mr. Fox -- Havre.
The beautiful `One Word More' was dated from London in September;
and the fifty poems gathered together under the title of `Men and Women'
were published before the close of the year, in two volumes,
by Messrs. Chapman and Hall.* They are all familiar friends
to Mr. Browning's readers, in their first arrangement and appearance,
as in later redistributions and reprints; but one curious little fact
concerning them is perhaps not generally known. In the eighth line
of the fourteenth section of `One Word More' they were made to include
`Karshook (Ben Karshook's Wisdom)', which never was placed amongst them.
It was written in April 1854; and the dedication of the volume must have been,
as it so easily might be, in existence, before the author decided to omit it.
The wrong name, once given, was retained, I have no doubt,
from preference for its terminal sound; and `Karshook' only became `Karshish'
in the Tauchnitz copy of 1872, and in the English edition of 1889.
* The date is given in the edition of 1868 as London 185-;
in the Tauchnitz selection of 1872, London and Florence 184- and 185-;
in the new English edition 184- and 185-.
`Karshook' appeared in 1856 in `The Keepsake', edited by Miss Power;
but, as we are told on good authority, has been printed
in no edition or selection of the Poet's works. I am therefore justified
in inserting it here.
`Would a man 'scape the rod?'
Rabbi Ben Karshook saith,
`See that he turn to God
The day before his death.'
`Ay, could a man inquire
When it shall come!' I say.
The Rabbi's eye shoots fire --
`Then let him turn to-day!'
Quoth a young Sadducee:
`Reader of many rolls,
Is it so certain we
Have, as they tell us, souls?'
`Son, there is no reply!'
The Rabbi bit his beard:
`Certain, a soul have _I_ --
WE may have none,' he sneer'd.
Thus Karshook, the Hiram's-Hammer,
The Right-hand Temple-column,
Taught babes in grace their grammar,
And struck the simple, solemn.
Among this first collection of `Men and Women' was the poem
called `Two in the Campagna'. It is a vivid, yet enigmatical little study
of a restless spirit tantalized by glimpses of repose in love,
saddened and perplexed by the manner in which this eludes it.
Nothing that should impress one as more purely dramatic
ever fell from Mr. Browning's pen. We are told, nevertheless,
in Mr. Sharp's `Life', that a personal character no less actual
than that of the `Guardian Angel' has been claimed for it. The writer,
with characteristic delicacy, evades all discussion of the question;
but he concedes a great deal in his manner of doing so. The poem, he says,
conveys a sense of that necessary isolation of the individual soul
which resists the fusing power of the deepest love; and its meaning
cannot be personally -- because it is universally -- true.
I do not think Mr. Browning meant to emphasize this aspect of the mystery
of individual life, though the poem, in a certain sense, expresses it.
We have no reason to believe that he ever accepted it as constant;
and in no case could he have intended to refer its conditions to himself.
He was often isolated by the processes of his mind;
but there was in him no barrier to that larger emotional sympathy
which we think of as sympathy of the soul. If this poem were true,
`One Word More' would be false, quite otherwise than in
that approach to exaggeration which is incidental to the poetic form.
The true keynote of `Two in the Campagna' is the pain of perpetual change,
and of the conscious, though unexplained, predestination to it.
Mr. Browning could have still less in common with such a state,
since one of the qualities for which he was most conspicuous
was the enormous power of anchorage which his affections possessed.
Only length of time and variety of experience could fully test this power
or fully display it; but the signs of it had not been absent
from even his earliest life. He loved fewer people in youth
than in advancing age: nature and circumstance combined to widen the range,
and vary the character of his human interests; but where once
love or friendship had struck a root, only a moral convulsion
could avail to dislodge it. I make no deduction from this statement
when I admit that the last and most emphatic words of the poem in question,
Only I discern --
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn,
did probably come from the poet's heart, as they also found a deep echo
in that of his wife, who much loved them.
From London they returned to Paris for the winter of 1855-6.
The younger of the Kemble sisters, Mrs. Sartoris, was also there
with her family; and the pleasant meetings of the Campagna
renewed themselves for Mr. Browning, though in a different form.
He was also, with his sister, a constant visitor at Lady Elgin's.
Both they and Mrs. Browning were greatly attached to her,
and she warmly reciprocated the feeling. As Mr. Locker's letter has told us,
Mr. Browning was in the habit of reading poetry to her,
and when his sister had to announce his arrival from Italy or England,
she would say: `Robert is coming to nurse you, and read to you.'
Lady Elgin was by this time almost completely paralyzed.
She had lost the power of speech, and could only acknowledge
the little attentions which were paid to her by some graceful pathetic gesture
of the left hand; but she retained her sensibilities to the last;
and Miss Browning received on one occasion a serious lesson
in the risk of ever assuming that the appearance of unconsciousness
guarantees its reality. Lady Augusta Bruce had asked her,
in her mother's presence, how Mrs. Browning was; and,
imagining that Lady Elgin was unable to hear or understand,
she had answered with incautious distinctness, `I am afraid she is very ill,'
when a little sob from the invalid warned her of her mistake.
Lady Augusta quickly repaired it by rejoining, `but she is better
than she was, is she not?' Miss Browning of course assented.
There were other friends, old and new, whom Mr. Browning occasionally saw,
including, I need hardly say, the celebrated Madame Mohl.
In the main, however, he led a quiet life, putting aside many inducements
to leave his home.
Mrs. Browning was then writing `Aurora Leigh', and her husband
must have been more than ever impressed by her power of work,
as displayed by her manner of working. To him, as to most creative writers,
perfect quiet was indispensable to literary production. She wrote in pencil,
on scraps of paper, as she lay on the sofa in her sitting-room,
open to interruption from chance visitors, or from her little omnipresent son;
simply hiding the paper beside her if anyone came in, and taking it up again
when she was free. And if this process was conceivable in the large,
comparatively silent spaces of their Italian home, and amidst habits of life
which reserved social intercourse for the close of the working day,
it baffles belief when one thinks of it as carried on in the conditions
of a Parisian winter, and the little `salon' of the apartment
in the Rue du Colisee in which those months were spent.
The poem was completed in the ensuing summer, in Mr. Kenyon's London house,
and dedicated, October 17, in deeply pathetic words to that faithful friend,
whom the writer was never to see again.
The news of his death, which took place in December 1856,
reached Mr. and Mrs. Browning in Florence, to be followed in the spring
by that of Mrs. Browning's father. Husband and wife had both determined
to forego any pecuniary benefit which might accrue to them from this event;
but they were not called upon to exercise their powers of renunciation.
By Mr. Kenyon's will they were the richer, as is now, I think,
generally known, the one by six thousand, the other by four thousand guineas.*
Of that cousin's long kindness Mrs. Browning could scarcely in after-days
trust herself to speak. It was difficult to her, she said,
even to write his name without tears.
* Mr. Kenyon had considerable wealth, derived, like Mr. Barrett's,
from West Indian estates.
I have alluded, perhaps tardily, to Mr. Browning's son,
a sociable little being who must for some time have been playing
a prominent part in his parents' lives. I saw him for the first time
in this winter of 1855-6, and remember the grave expression
of the little round face, the outline of which was common,
at all events in childhood, to all the members of his mother's family,
and was conspicuous in her, if we may trust an early portrait
which has recently come to light. He wore the curling hair
to which she refers in a later letter, and pretty frocks and frills,
in which she delighted to clothe him. It is on record that,
on one of the journeys of this year, a trunk was temporarily lost
which contained Peni's embroidered trousers, and the MS., whole or in part,
of `Aurora Leigh'; and that Mrs. Browning had scarcely a thought
to spare for her poem, in face of the damage to her little boy's appearance
which the accident involved.
How he came by his familiar name of Penini -- hence Peni, and Pen --
neither signifies in itself, nor has much bearing on his father's
family history; but I cannot refrain from a word of comment on Mr. Hawthorne's
fantastic conjecture, which has been asserted and reasserted
in opposition to Mr. Browning's own statement of the case.
According to Mr. Hawthorne, the name was derived from Apennino,
and bestowed on the child in babyhood, because Apennino was a colossal statue,
and he was so very small. It would be strange indeed
that any joke connecting `Baby' with a given colossal statue
should have found its way into the family without father, mother, or nurse
being aware of it; or that any joke should have been accepted there
which implied that the little boy was not of normal size.
But the fact is still more unanswerable that Apennino could
by no process congenial to the Italian language be converted into Penini.
Its inevitable abbreviation would be Pennino with a distinct separate sounding
of the central n's, or Nino. The accentuation of Penini
is also distinctly German.
During this winter in Paris, little Wiedemann, as his parents
tried to call him -- his full name was Robert Wiedemann Barrett --
had developed a decided turn for blank verse. He would extemporize
short poems, singing them to his mother, who wrote them down as he sang.
There is no less proof of his having possessed a talent for music,
though it first naturally showed itself in the love of a cheerful noise.
His father had once sat down to the piano, for a serious study of some piece,
when the little boy appeared, with the evident intention
of joining in the performance. Mr. Browning rose precipitately,
and was about to leave the room. `Oh!' exclaimed the hurt mother,
`you are going away, and he has brought his three drums
to accompany you upon.' She herself would undoubtedly have endured
the mixed melody for a little time, though her husband did not think
she seriously wished him to do so. But if he did not play the piano
to the accompaniment of Pen's drums, he played piano duets with him
as soon as the boy was old enough to take part in them;
and devoted himself to his instruction in this, as in other
and more important branches of knowledge.
Peni had also his dumb companions, as his father had had before him.
Tortoises lived at one end of the famous balcony at Casa Guidi;
and when the family were at the Baths of Lucca, Mr. Browning would stow away
little snakes in his bosom, and produce them for the child's amusement.
As the child grew into a man, the love of animals which he had inherited
became conspicuous in him; and it gave rise to many amusing
and some pathetic little episodes of his artist life.
The creatures which he gathered about him were generally, I think,
more highly organized than those which elicited his father's
peculiar tenderness; it was natural that he should exact
more pictorial or more companionable qualities from them.
But father and son concurred in the fondness for snakes,
and in a singular predilection for owls; and they had not been
long established in Warwick Crescent, when a bird of that family
was domesticated there. We shall hear of it in a letter from Mr. Browning.
Of his son's moral quality as quite a little child his father has told me
pretty and very distinctive stories, but they would be out of place here.*
* I am induced, on second thoughts, to subjoin one of these, for its testimony
to the moral atmosphere into which the child had been born.
He was sometimes allowed to play with a little boy not of his own class --
perhaps the son of a `contadino'. The child was unobjectionable,
or neither Penini nor his parents would have endured the association;
but the servants once thought themselves justified
in treating him cavalierly, and Pen flew indignant to his mother,
to complain of their behaviour. Mrs. Browning at once sought
little Alessandro, with kind words and a large piece of cake; but this,
in Pen's eyes, only aggravated the offence; it was a direct reflection
on his visitor's quality. `He doesn't tome for take,' he burst forth;
`he tomes because he is my friend.' How often, since I heard this first,
have we repeated the words, `he doesn't tome for take,'
in half-serious definition of a disinterested person or act!
They became a standing joke.
Mrs. Browning seems now to have adopted the plan of writing
independent letters to her sister-in-law; and those available for our purpose
are especially interesting. The buoyancy of tone which has habitually
marked her communications, but which failed during the winter in Rome,
reasserts itself in the following extract. Her maternal comments
on Peni and his perfections have hitherto been so carefully excluded,
that a brief allusion to him may be allowed on the present occasion.
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