Life and Letters of Robert Browning
Mrs. Sutherland Orr
Part 4 out of 7
`My dearest Sarianna, . . . Here is Penini's letter, which takes up
so much room that I must be sparing of mine -- and, by the way,
if you consider him improved in his writing, give the praise to Robert,
who has been taking most patient pains with him indeed.
You will see how the little curly head is turned with carnival doings.
So gay a carnival never was in our experience, for until last year
(when we were absent) all masks had been prohibited, and now everybody
has eaten of the tree of good and evil till not an apple is left.
Peni persecuted me to let him have a domino -- with tears and embraces --
he "ALMOST NEVER in all his life had had a domino," and he would like it so.
Not a black domino! no -- he hated black -- but a blue domino,
trimmed with pink! that was his taste. The pink trimming I coaxed him out of,
but for the rest, I let him have his way. . . . For my part,
the universal madness reached me sitting by the fire (whence I had not stirred
for three months), and you will open your eyes when I tell you that I went
(in domino and masked) to the great opera-ball. Yes! I did, really.
Robert, who had been invited two or three times to other people's boxes,
had proposed to return their kindness by taking a box himself
at the opera this night, and entertaining two or three friends
with galantine and champagne. Just as he and I were lamenting
the impossibility of my going, on that very morning the wind changed,
the air grew soft and mild, and he maintained that I might and should go.
There was no time to get a domino of my own (Robert himself
had a beautiful one made, and I am having it metamorphosed
into a black silk gown for myself!) so I sent out and hired one,
buying the mask. And very much amused I was. I like to see
these characteristic things. (I shall never rest, Sarianna,
till I risk my reputation at the `bal de l'opera' at Paris).
Do you think I was satisfied with staying in the box? No, indeed.
Down I went, and Robert and I elbowed our way through the crowd
to the remotest corner of the ball below. Somebody smote me on the shoulder
and cried "Bella Mascherina!" and I answered as impudently
as one feels under a mask. At two o'clock in the morning, however,
I had to give up and come away (being overcome by the heavy air)
and ingloriously left Robert and our friends to follow at half-past four.
Think of the refinement and gentleness -- yes, I must call it SUPERIORITY
of this people -- when no excess, no quarrelling, no rudeness nor coarseness
can be observed in the course of such wild masked liberty;
not a touch of licence anywhere, and perfect social equality!
Our servant Ferdinando side by side in the same ball-room with the Grand Duke,
and no class's delicacy offended against! For the Grand Duke
went down into the ball-room for a short time. . . .'
The summer of 1857 saw the family once more at the Baths of Lucca,
and again in company with Mr. Lytton. He had fallen ill
at the house of their common friend, Miss Blagden, also a visitor there;
and Mr. Browning shared in the nursing, of which she refused to entrust
any part to less friendly hands. He sat up with the invalid for four nights;
and would doubtless have done so for as many more as seemed necessary,
but that Mrs. Browning protested against this trifling with his own health.
The only serious difference which ever arose between Mr. Browning and his wife
referred to the subject of spiritualism. Mrs. Browning held doctrines
which prepared her to accept any real or imagined phenomena
betokening intercourse with the spirits of the dead; nor could she be repelled
by anything grotesque or trivial in the manner of this intercourse,
because it was no part of her belief that a spirit still inhabiting
the atmosphere of our earth, should exhibit any dignity or solemnity
not belonging to him while he lived upon it. The question
must have been discussed by them on its general grounds
at a very early stage of their intimacy; but it only assumed
practical importance when Mr. Home came to Florence in 1857 or 1858.
Mr. Browning found himself compelled to witness some of the `manifestations'.
He was keenly alive to their generally prosaic and irreverent character,
and to the appearance of jugglery which was then involved in them.
He absolutely denied the good faith of all the persons concerned.
Mrs. Browning as absolutely believed it; and no compromise between them
was attainable, because, strangely enough, neither of them
admitted as possible that mediums or witnesses should deceive themselves.
The personal aspect which the question thus received
brought it into closer and more painful contact with their daily life.
They might agree to differ as to the abstract merits of spiritualism;
but Mr. Browning could not resign himself to his wife's trustful attitude
towards some of the individuals who at that moment represented it.
He may have had no substantial fear of her doing anything that could place her
in their power, though a vague dread of this seems to have haunted him;
but he chafed against the public association of her name with theirs.
Both his love for and his pride in her resented it.
He had subsided into a more judicial frame of mind when he wrote
`Sludge the Medium', in which he says everything which can excuse the liar
and, what is still more remarkable, modify the lie. So far back
as the autumn of 1860 I heard him discuss the trickery
which he believed himself to have witnessed, as dispassionately
as any other non-credulous person might have done so.
The experience must even before that have passed out of the foreground
of his conjugal life. He remained, nevertheless, subject, for many years,
to gusts of uncontrollable emotion which would sweep over him
whenever the question of `spirits' or `spiritualism' was revived;
and we can only understand this in connection with the peculiar circumstances
of the case. With all his faith in the future, with all his constancy
to the past, the memory of pain was stronger in him than any other.
A single discordant note in the harmony of that married love,
though merged in its actual existence, would send intolerable vibrations
through his remembrance of it. And the pain had not been, in this instance,
that of simple disagreement. It was complicated by Mrs. Browning's
refusal to admit that disagreement was possible. She never believed
in her husband's disbelief; and he had been not unreasonably annoyed by her
always assuming it to be feigned. But his doubt of spiritualistic sincerity
was not feigned. She cannot have thought, and scarcely can have meant
to say so. She may have meant to say, `You believe that these are tricks,
but you know that there is something real behind them;'
and so far, if no farther, she may have been in the right.
Mr. Browning never denied the abstract possibility of spiritual communication
with either living or dead; he only denied that such communication
had ever been proved, or that any useful end could be subserved by it.
The tremendous potentialities of hypnotism and thought-reading,
now passing into the region of science, were not then so remote but that
an imagination like his must have foreshadowed them. The natural basis
of the seemingly supernatural had not yet entered into discussion.
He may, from the first, have suspected the existence of some mysterious force,
dangerous because not understood, and for this reason doubly liable
to fall into dangerous hands. And if this was so, he would necessarily
regard the whole system of manifestations with an apprehensive hostility,
which was not entire negation, but which rebelled against
any effort on the part of others, above all of those he loved,
to interpret it into assent. The pain and anger which could be aroused in him
by an indication on the part of a valued friend of even an impartial interest
in the subject points especially to the latter conclusion.
He often gave an instance of the tricks played in the name of spiritualism
on credulous persons, which may amuse those who have not yet heard it.
I give the story as it survives in the fresher memory of Mr. Val Prinsep,
who also received it from Mr. Browning.
`At Florence lived a curious old savant who in his day was well known to all
who cared for art or history. I fear now few live who recollect Kirkup.
He was quite a mine of information on all kinds of forgotten lore.
It was he who discovered Giotto's portrait of Dante in the Bargello.
Speaking of some friend, he said, "He is a most ignorant fellow!
Why, he does not know how to cast a horoscope!" Of him Browning told me
the following story. Kirkup was much taken up with spiritualism,
in which he firmly believed. One day Browning called on him to borrow a book.
He rang loudly at the storey, for he knew Kirkup, like Landor, was quite deaf.
To his astonishment the door opened at once and Kirkup appeared.
`"Come in," he cried; "the spirits told me there was some one at the door.
Ah! I know you do not believe! Come and see. Mariana is in a trance!"
`Browning entered. In the middle room, full of all kinds of curious
objects of "vertu", stood a handsome peasant girl, with her eyes fixed
as though she were in a trance.
`"You see, Browning," said Kirkup, "she is quite insensible,
and has no will of her own. Mariana, hold up your arm."
`The woman slowly did as she was bid.
`"She cannot take it down till I tell her," cried Kirkup.
`"Very curious," observed Browning. "Meanwhile I have come to ask you
to lend me a book."
`Kirkup, as soon as he was made to hear what book was wanted,
said he should be delighted.
`"Wait a bit. It is in the next room."
`The old man shuffled out at the door. No sooner had he disappeared
than the woman turned to Browning, winked, and putting down her arm
leaned it on his shoulder. When Kirkup returned she resumed her position
and rigid look.
`"Here is the book," said Kirkup. "Isn't it wonderful?" he added,
pointing to the woman.
`"Wonderful," agreed Browning as he left the room.
`The woman and her family made a good thing of poor Kirkup's spiritualism.'
Something much more remarkable in reference to this subject
happened to the poet himself during his residence in Florence.
It is related in a letter to the `Spectator', dated January 30, 1869,
and signed J. S. K.
`Mr. Robert Browning tells me that when he was in Florence some years since,
an Italian nobleman (a Count Ginnasi of Ravenna), visiting at Florence,
was brought to his house without previous introduction, by an intimate friend.
The Count professed to have great mesmeric and clairvoyant faculties,
and declared, in reply to Mr. Browning's avowed scepticism,
that he would undertake to convince him somehow or other of his powers.
He then asked Mr. Browning whether he had anything about him then and there,
which he could hand to him, and which was in any way a relic or memento.
This Mr. Browning thought was perhaps because he habitually
wore no sort of trinket or ornament, not even a watchguard,
and might therefore turn out to be a safe challenge. But it so happened that,
by a curious accident, he was then wearing under his coat-sleeves
some gold wrist-studs which he had quite recently taken into wear,
in the absence (by mistake of a sempstress) of his ordinary wrist-buttons.
He had never before worn them in Florence or elsewhere,
and had found them in some old drawer where they had lain forgotten for years.
One of these studs he took out and handed to the Count,
who held it in his hand a while, looking earnestly in Mr. Browning's face,
and then he said, as if much impressed, "C'e\ qualche cosa che mi grida
nell' orecchio `Uccisione! uccisione!'" ("There is something here
which cries out in my ear, `Murder! murder!'")
`"And truly," says Mr. Browning, "those very studs were taken
from the dead body of a great uncle of mine who was violently killed
on his estate in St. Kitt's, nearly eighty years ago. . . .
The occurrence of my great uncle's murder was known only to myself
of all men in Florence, as certainly was also my possession of the studs."'
A letter from the poet, of July 21, 1883, affirms that the account
is correct in every particular, adding, `My own explanation of the matter
has been that the shrewd Italian felt his way by the involuntary help
of my own eyes and face.' The story has been reprinted
in the Reports of the Psychical Society.
A pleasant piece of news came to brighten the January of 1858.
Mr. Fox was returned for Oldham, and at once wrote to announce the fact.
He was answered in a joint letter from Mr. and Mrs. Browning,
interesting throughout, but of which only the second part
is quite suited for present insertion.
Mrs. Browning, who writes first and at most length, ends by saying
she must leave a space for Robert, that Mr. Fox may be compensated
for reading all she has had to say. The husband continues as follows:
. . . `A space for Robert' who has taken a breathing space --
hardly more than enough -- to recover from his delight; he won't say surprise,
at your letter, dear Mr. Fox. But it is all right and, like you,
I wish from my heart we could get close together again,
as in those old days, and what times we would have here in Italy!
The realization of the children's prayer of angels at the corner of your bed
(i.e. sofa), one to read and one (my wife) to write,* and both to guard you
through the night of lodging-keeper's extortions, abominable charges
for firing, and so on. (Observe, to call oneself `an angel' in this land
is rather humble, where they are apt to be painted as plumed cutthroats
or celestial police -- you say of Gabriel at his best and blithesomest,
`Shouldn't admire meeting HIM in a narrow lane!')
* Mr. Fox much liked to be read to, and was in the habit
of writing his articles by dictation.
I say this foolishly just because I can't trust myself to be earnest about it.
I would, you know, I would, always would, choose you
out of the whole English world to judge and correct what I write myself;
my wife shall read this and let it stand if I have told her so
these twelve years -- and certainly I have not grown intellectually an inch
over the good and kind hand you extended over my head how many years ago!
Now it goes over my wife's too.
How was it Tottie never came here as she promised? Is it to be
some other time? Do think of Florence, if ever you feel chilly,
and hear quantities about the Princess Royal's marriage, and want a change.
I hate the thought of leaving Italy for one day more than I can help --
and satisfy my English predilections by newspapers and a book or two.
One gets nothing of that kind here, but the stuff out of which books grow, --
it lies about one's feet indeed. Yet for me, there would be
one book better than any now to be got here or elsewhere,
and all out of a great English head and heart, -- those `Memoirs'
you engaged to give us. Will you give us them?
Goodbye now -- if ever the whim strikes you to `make beggars happy'
Love to Tottie, and love and gratitude to you, dear Mr. Fox,
From yours ever affectionately,
In the summer of this year, the poet with his wife and child
joined his father and sister at Havre. It was the last time
they were all to be together.
Mrs. Browning's Illness -- Siena -- Letter from Mr. Browning to Mr. Leighton
-- Mrs. Browning's Letters continued -- Walter Savage Landor --
Winter in Rome -- Mr. Val Prinsep -- Friends in Rome:
Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright -- Multiplying Social Relations -- Massimo d'Azeglio
-- Siena again -- Illness and Death of Mrs. Browning's Sister --
Mr. Browning's Occupations -- Madame du Quaire --
Mrs. Browning's last Illness and Death.
I cannot quite ascertain, though it might seem easy to do so,
whether Mr. and Mrs. Browning remained in Florence again
till the summer of 1859, or whether the intervening months were divided
between Florence and Rome; but some words in their letters
favour the latter supposition. We hear of them in September
from Mr. Val Prinsep, in Siena or its neighbourhood; with Mr. and Mrs. Story
in an adjacent villa, and Walter Savage Landor in a `cottage' close by.
How Mr. Landor found himself of the party belongs to a little chapter
in Mr. Browning's history for which I quote Mr. Colvin's words.*
He was then living at Fiesole with his family, very unhappily, as we all know;
and Mr. Colvin relates how he had thrice left his villa there,
determined to live in Florence alone; and each time been brought back
to the nominal home where so little kindness awaited him.
* `Life of Landor', p. 209.
`. . . The fourth time he presented himself in the house of Mr. Browning
with only a few pauls in his pocket, declaring that nothing should ever
induce him to return.
`Mr. Browning, an interview with the family at the villa having satisfied him
that reconciliation or return was indeed past question, put himself at once
in communication with Mr. Forster and with Landor's brothers in England.
The latter instantly undertook to supply the needs of their eldest brother
during the remainder of his life. Thenceforth an income
sufficient for his frugal wants was forwarded regularly for his use
through the friend who had thus come forward at his need. To Mr. Browning's
respectful and judicious guidance Landor showed himself docile from the first.
Removed from the inflictions, real and imaginary, of his life at Fiesole,
he became another man, and at times still seemed to those about him like
the old Landor at his best. It was in July, 1859, that the new arrangements
for his life were made. The remainder of that summer he spent at Siena,
first as the guest of Mr. Story, the American sculptor and poet,
next in a cottage rented for him by Mr. Browning near his own.
In the autumn of the same year Landor removed to a set of apartments
in the Via Nunziatina in Florence, close to the Casa Guidi,
in a house kept by a former servant of Mrs. Browning's,
an Englishwoman married to an Italian.* Here he continued to live
during the five years that yet remained to him.'
* Wilson, Mrs. Browning's devoted maid, and another most faithful servant
of hers and her husband's, Ferdinando Romagnoli.
Mr. Landor's presence is also referred to, with the more important
circumstance of a recent illness of Mrs. Browning's,
in two characteristic and interesting letters of this period,
one written by Mr. Browning to Frederic Leighton, the other by his wife
to her sister-in-law. Mr. -- now Sir F. -- Leighton had been studying art
during the previous winter in Italy.
Kingdom of Piedmont, Siena: Oct. 9, '59.
`My dear Leighton -- I hope -- and think -- you know what delight it gave me
to hear from you two months ago. I was in great trouble at the time
about my wife who was seriously ill. As soon as she could bear removal
we brought her to a villa here. She slowly recovered and is at last WELL
-- I believe -- but weak still and requiring more attention than usual.
We shall be obliged to return to Rome for the winter --
not choosing to risk losing what we have regained with some difficulty.
Now you know why I did not write at once -- and may imagine why,
having waited so long, I put off telling you for a week or two
till I could say certainly what we do with ourselves.
If any amount of endeavour could induce you to join us there --
Cartwright, Russell, the Vatican and all -- and if such a step
were not inconsistent with your true interests -- you should have it:
but I know very well that you love Italy too much not to have had
weighty reasons for renouncing her at present -- and I want your own good
and not my own contentment in the matter. Wherever you are,
be sure I shall follow your proceedings with deep and true interest.
I heard of your successes -- and am now anxious to know how you get on
with the great picture, the `Ex voto' -- if it does not prove
full of beauty and power, two of us will be shamed, that's all!
But _I_ don't fear, mind! Do keep me informed of your progress,
from time to time -- a few lines will serve -- and then I shall slip some day
into your studio, and buffet the piano, without having grown a stranger.
Another thing -- do take proper care of your health, and exercise yourself;
give those vile indigestions no chance against you; keep up your spirits,
and be as distinguished and happy as God meant you should.
Can I do anything for you at Rome -- not to say, Florence?
We go thither (i.e. to Florence) to-morrow, stay there a month, probably,
and then take the Siena road again.'
The next paragraph refers to some orders for photographs,
and is not specially interesting.
Cartwright arrived here a fortnight ago -- very pleasant it was to see him:
he left for Florence, stayed a day or two and returned to Mrs. Cartwright
(who remained at the Inn) and they all departed prosperously yesterday
for Rome. Odo Russell spent two days here on his way thither --
we liked him much. Prinsep and Jones -- do you know them? -- are in the town.
The Storys have passed the summer in the villa opposite, --
and no less a lion than dear old Landor is in a house a few steps off.
I take care of him -- his amiable family having clawed him
a little too sharply: so strangely do things come about!
I mean his Fiesole `family' -- a trifle of wife, sons and daughter --
not his English relatives, who are generous and good in every way.
Take any opportunity of telling dear Mrs. Sartoris (however unnecessarily)
that I and my wife remember her with the old feeling -- I trust she is well
and happy to heart's content. Pen is quite well and rejoicing just now
in a Sardinian pony on which he gallops like Puck on a dragon-fly's back.
My wife's kind regard and best wishes go with those of,
Dear Leighton, yours affectionately ever,
Mrs. to Miss Browning.
`. . . After all, it is not a cruel punishment to have to go to Rome again
this winter, though it will be an undesirable expense, and we did wish
to keep quiet this winter, -- the taste for constant wanderings
having passed away as much for me as for Robert. We begin to see
that by no possible means can one spend as much money to so small an end --
and then we don't work so well, don't live to as much use
either for ourselves or others. Isa Blagden bids us observe that we pretend
to live at Florence, and are not there much above two months in the year,
what with going away for the summer and going away for the winter.
It's too true. It's the drawback of Italy. To live in one place there
is impossible for us, almost just as to live out of Italy at all,
is impossible for us. It isn't caprice on our part. Siena pleases us
very much -- the silence and repose have been heavenly things to me,
and the country is very pretty -- though no more than pretty --
nothing marked or romantic -- no mountains, except so far off
as to be like a cloud only on clear days -- and no water.
Pretty dimpled ground, covered with low vineyards, purple hills, not high,
with the sunsets clothing them. . . . We shall not leave Florence
till November -- Robert must see Mr. Landor (his adopted son, Sarianna)
settled in his new apartments with Wilson for a duenna.
It's an excellent plan for him and not a bad one for Wilson. . . .
Forgive me if Robert has told you this already. Dear darling Robert
amuses me by talking of his "gentleness and sweetness".
A most courteous and refined gentleman he is, of course,
and very affectionate to Robert (as he ought to be),
but of self-restraint, he has not a grain, and of suspiciousness, many grains.
Wilson will run many risks, and I, for one, would rather not run them.
What do you say to dashing down a plate on the floor when you don't like
what's on it? And the contadini at whose house he is lodging now
have been already accused of opening desks. Still upon that occasion
(though there was talk of the probability of Mr. Landor's "throat being cut
in his sleep" --) as on other occasions, Robert succeeded in soothing him --
and the poor old lion is very quiet on the whole, roaring softly,
to beguile the time, in Latin alcaics against his wife and Louis Napoleon.
He laughs carnivorously when I tell him that one of these days
he will have to write an ode in honour of the Emperor, to please me.'
Mrs. Browning writes, somewhat later, from Rome:
`. . . We left Mr. Landor in great comfort. I went to see his apartment
before it was furnished. Rooms small, but with a look-out
into a little garden, quiet and cheerful, and he doesn't mind a situation
rather out of the way. He pays four pounds ten (English) the month.
Wilson has thirty pounds a year for taking care of him -- which sounds
a good deal, but it is a difficult position. He has excellent, generous,
affectionate impulses -- but the impulses of the tiger, every now and then.
Nothing coheres in him -- either in his opinions, or, I fear, his affections.
It isn't age -- he is precisely the man of his youth, I must believe.
Still, his genius gives him the right of gratitude on all artists at least,
and I must say that my Robert has generously paid the debt.
Robert always said that he owed more as a writer to Landor
than to any contemporary. At present Landor is very fond of him --
but I am quite prepared for his turning against us as he has turned
against Forster, who has been so devoted for years and years.
Only one isn't kind for what one gets by it, or there wouldn't be
much kindness in this world. . . .'
Mr. Browning always declared that his wife could impute evil to no one,
that she was a living denial of that doctrine of original sin
to which her Christianity pledged her; and the great breadth
and perfect charity of her views habitually justified the assertion;
but she evidently possessed a keen insight into character,
which made her complete suspension of judgment on the subject of Spiritualism
very difficult to understand.
The spiritualistic coterie had found a satisfactory way
of explaining Mr. Browning's antagonistic attitude towards it.
He was jealous, it was said, because the Spirits on one occasion
had dropped a crown on to his wife's head and none on to his own.
The first instalment of his long answer to this grotesque accusation
appears in a letter of Mrs. Browning's, probably written
in the course of the winter of 1859-60.
`. . . My brother George sent me a number of the "National Magazine"
with my face in it, after Marshall Wood's medallion. My comfort is that
my greatest enemy will not take it to be like me, only that does not go far
with the indifferent public: the portrait I suppose will have its due weight
in arresting the sale of "Aurora Leigh" from henceforth.
You never saw a more determined visage of a strong-minded woman
with the neck of a vicious bull. . . . Still, I am surprised, I own,
at the amount of success, and that golden-hearted Robert
is in ecstasies about it, far more than if it all related
to a book of his own. The form of the story, and also,
something in the philosophy, seem to have caught the crowd.
As to the poetry by itself, anything good in that repels rather.
I am not so blind as Romney, not to perceive this . . .
Give Peni's and my love to the dearest `nonno' (grandfather)
whose sublime unselfishness and want of common egotism
presents such a contrast to what is here. Tell him I often think of him,
and always with touched feeling. (When HE is eighty-six or ninety-six,
nobody will be pained or humbled by the spectacle of an insane self-love
resulting from a long life's ungoverned will.) May God bless him! --
. . . Robert has made his third bust copied from the antique.
He breaks them all up as they are finished -- it's only matter of education.
When the power of execution is achieved, he will try at something original.
Then reading hurts him; as long as I have known him he has not been able
to read long at a time -- he can do it now better than at the beginning.
The consequence of which is that an active occupation is salvation to him.
. . . Nobody exactly understands him except me, who am in the inside of him
and hear him breathe. For the peculiarity of our relation is,
that he thinks aloud with me and can't stop himself. . . . I wanted his poems
done this winter very much, and here was a bright room with three windows
consecrated to his use. But he had a room all last summer, and did nothing.
Then, he worked himself out by riding for three or four hours together --
there has been little poetry done since last winter, when he did much.
He was not inclined to write this winter. The modelling combines
body-work and soul-work, and the more tired he has been, and the more
his back ached, poor fellow, the more he has exulted and been happy.
So I couldn't be much in opposition against the sculpture --
I couldn't in fact at all. He has material for a volume,
and will work at it this summer, he says.
`His power is much in advance of "Strafford", which is
his poorest work of art. Ah, the brain stratifies and matures,
even in the pauses of the pen.
`At the same time, his treatment in England affects him, naturally,
and for my part I set it down as an infamy of that public -- no other word.
He says he has told you some things you had not heard,
and which I acknowledge I always try to prevent him from repeating to anyone.
I wonder if he has told you besides (no, I fancy not)
that an English lady of rank, an acquaintance of ours, (observe that!) asked,
the other day, the American minister, whether "Robert was not an American."
The minister answered -- "is it possible that YOU ask me this?
Why, there is not so poor a village in the United States,
where they would not tell you that Robert Browning was an Englishman,
and that they were sorry he was not an American." Very pretty
of the American minister, was it not? -- and literally true, besides. . . .
Ah, dear Sarianna -- I don't complain for myself of an unappreciating public.
I HAVE NO REASON. But, just for THAT reason, I complain more about Robert
-- only he does not hear me complain -- to YOU I may say,
that the blindness, deafness and stupidity of the English public to Robert
are amazing. Of course Milsand had heard his name -- well the contrary
would have been strange. Robert IS. All England can't prevent his existence,
I suppose. But nobody there, except a small knot of pre-Raffaellite men,
pretend to do him justice. Mr. Forster has done the best, -- in the press.
As a sort of lion, Robert has his range in society -- and -- for the rest,
you should see Chapman's returns! -- While, in America he is a power,
a writer, a poet -- he is read -- he lives in the hearts of the people.
`"Browning readings" here in Boston -- "Browning evenings" there.
For the rest, the English hunt lions, too, Sarianna, but their lions
are chiefly chosen among lords and railway kings. . . .'
We cannot be surprised at Mrs. Browning's desire for
a more sustained literary activity on her husband's part.
We learn from his own subsequent correspondence that he too
regarded the persevering exercise of his poetic faculty
as almost a religious obligation. But it becomes the more apparent
that the restlessness under which he was now labouring was its own excuse;
and that its causes can have been no mystery even to those `outside' him.
The life and climate of Italy were beginning to undermine his strength.
We owe it perhaps to the great and sorrowful change,
which was then drawing near, that the full power of work returned to him.
During the winter of 1859-60, Mr. Val Prinsep was in Rome.
He had gone to Siena with Mr. Burne Jones, bearing an introduction
from Rossetti to Mr. Browning and his wife; and the acquaintance with them
was renewed in the ensuing months. Mr. Prinsep had acquired
much knowledge of the popular, hence picturesque aspects of Roman life,
through a French artist long resident in the city; and by the help
of the two young men Mr. Browning was also introduced to them.
The assertion that during his married life he never dined away from home
must be so far modified, that he sometimes joined Mr. Prinsep and his friend
in a Bohemian meal, at an inn near the Porta Pinciana
which they much frequented; and he gained in this manner
some distinctive experiences which he liked long afterwards to recall.
I am again indebted to Mr. Prinsep for a description of some of these.
`The first time he honoured us was on an evening when
the poet of the quarter of the "Monte" had announced his intention
of coming to challenge a rival poet to a poetical contest.
Such contests are, or were, common in Rome. In old times
the Monte and the Trastevere, the two great quarters of the eternal city,
held their meetings on the Ponte Rotto. The contests were not confined
to the effusions of the poetical muse. Sometimes it was a strife
between two lute-players, sometimes guitarists would engage,
and sometimes mere wrestlers. The rivalry was so keen
that the adverse parties finished up with a general fight.
So the Papal Government had forbidden the meetings on the old bridge.
But still each quarter had its pet champions, who were wont to meet in private
before an appreciative, but less excitable audience, than in olden times.
`Gigi (the host) had furnished a first-rate dinner,
and his usual tap of excellent wine. (`Vino del Popolo' he called it.)
The `Osteria' had filled; the combatants were placed opposite each other
on either side of a small table on which stood two `mezzi' --
long glass bottles holding about a quart apiece. For a moment
the two poets eyed each other like two cocks seeking an opportunity to engage.
Then through the crowd a stalwart carpenter, a constant attendant of Gigi's,
elbowed his way. He leaned over the table with a hand on each shoulder,
and in a neatly turned couplet he then addressed the rival bards.
`"You two," he said, "for the honour of Rome, must do your best,
for there is now listening to you a great Poet from England."
`Having said this, he bowed to Browning, and swaggered back
to his place in the crowd, amid the applause of the on-lookers.
`It is not necessary to recount how the two Improvisatori poetized,
even if I remembered, which I do not.
`On another occasion, when Browning and Story were dining with us,
we had a little orchestra (mandolins, two guitars, and a lute,) to play to us.
The music consisted chiefly of well-known popular airs.
While they were playing with great fervour the Hymn to Garibaldi --
an air strictly forbidden by the Papal Government, three blows at the door
resounded through the `Osteria'. The music stopped in a moment.
I saw Gigi was very pale as he walked down the room. There was a short parley
at the door. It opened, and a sergeant and two Papal gendarmes
marched solemnly up to the counter from which drink was supplied.
There was a dead silence while Gigi supplied them with
large measures of wine, which the gendarmes leisurely imbibed.
Then as solemnly they marched out again, with their heads well in the air,
looking neither to the right nor the left. Most discreet if not incorruptible
guardians of the peace! When the door was shut the music began again;
but Gigi was so earnest in his protestations, that my friend Browning
suggested we should get into carriages and drive to see the Coliseum
by moonlight. And so we sallied forth, to the great relief of poor Gigi,
to whom it meant, if reported, several months of imprisonment,
and complete ruin.
`In after-years Browning frequently recounted with delight this night march.
`"We drove down the Corso in two carriages," he would say.
"In one were our musicians, in the other we sat. Yes! and the people
all asked, `who are these who make all this parade?' At last some one said,
`Without doubt these are the fellows who won the lottery,'
and everybody cried, `Of course these are the lucky men who have won.'"'
The two persons whom Mr. Browning saw most, and most intimately,
during this and the ensuing winter, were probably Mr. and Mrs. Story.
Allusion has already been made to the opening of the acquaintance
at the Baths of Lucca in 1853, to its continuance in Rome in '53 and '54,
and to the artistic pursuits which then brought the two men
into close and frequent contact with each other. These friendly relations
were cemented by their children, who were of about the same age;
and after Mrs. Browning's death, Miss Browning took her place
in the pleasant intercourse which renewed itself whenever
their respective visits to Italy and to England again brought
the two families together. A no less lasting and truly affectionate intimacy
was now also growing up with Mr. Cartwright and his wife --
the Cartwrights (of Aynhoe) of whom mention was made
in the Siena letter to F. Leighton; and this too was subsequently to include
their daughter, now Mrs. Guy Le Strange, and Mr. Browning's sister.
I cannot quite ascertain when the poet first knew Mr. Odo Russell,
and his mother, Lady William Russell, who was also during this,
or at all events the following winter, in Rome; and whom afterwards in London
he regularly visited until her death; but the acquaintance was already
entering on the stage in which it would spread as a matter of course
through every branch of the family. His first country visit,
when he had returned to England, was paid with his son to Woburn Abbey.
We are now indeed fully confronted with one of the great difficulties
of Mr. Browning's biography: that of giving a sufficient idea
of the growing extent and growing variety of his social relations.
It is evident from the fragments of his wife's correspondence that during,
as well as after, his married life, he always and everywhere knew everyone
whom it could interest him to know. These acquaintances constantly ripened
into friendliness, friendliness into friendship. They were necessarily
often marked by interesting circumstances or distinctive character.
To follow them one by one, would add not chapters, but volumes,
to our history. The time has not yet come at which this could even
be undertaken; and any attempt at systematic selection would create
a false impression of the whole. I must therefore be still content
to touch upon such passages of Mr. Browning's social experience
as lie in the course of a comparatively brief record; leaving all such
as are not directly included in it to speak indirectly for themselves.
Mrs. Browning writes again, in 1859:
`Massimo d'Azeglio came to see us, and talked nobly,
with that noble head of his. I was far prouder of his coming
than of another personal distinction you will guess at,*
though I don't pretend to have been insensible to that.'
* An invitation to Mr. Browning to dine in company
with the young Prince of Wales.
Dr. -- afterwards Cardinal -- Manning was also among
the distinguished or interesting persons whom they knew in Rome.
Another, undated extract might refer to the early summer of 1859 or 1860,
when a meeting with the father and sister must have been once more
`My dearest Sarianna, -- I am delighted to say that we have arrived,
and see our dear Florence -- the Queen of Italy, after all . . .
A comfort is that Robert is considered here to be looking better than he ever
was known to look -- and this, notwithstanding the greyness of his beard . . .
which indeed, is, in my own mind, very becoming to him,
the argentine touch giving a character of elevation and thought
to the whole physiognomy. This greyness was suddenly developed --
let me tell you how. He was in a state of bilious irritability
on the morning of his arrival in Rome, from exposure to the sun
or some such cause, and in a fit of suicidal impatience shaved away
his whole beard . . . whiskers and all!! I CRIED when I saw him,
I was so horror-struck. I might have gone into hysterics
and still been reasonable -- for no human being was ever so disfigured
by so simple an act. Of course I said when I recovered heart and voice,
that everything was at an end between him and me if he didn't let it all
grow again directly, and (upon the further advice of his looking-glass)
he yielded the point, -- and the beard grew -- but it grew white --
which was the just punishment of the gods -- our sins leave their traces.
`Well, poor darling Robert won't shock you after all -- you can't choose
but be satisfied with his looks. M. de Monclar swore to me
that he was not changed for the intermediate years. . . .'
The family returned, however, to Siena for the summer of 1860,
and from thence Mrs. Browning writes to her sister-in-law
of her great anxiety concerning her sister Henrietta, Mrs. Surtees Cook,*
then attacked by a fatal disease.
* The name was afterwards changed to Altham.
`. . . There is nothing or little to add to my last account
of my precious Henrietta. But, dear, you think the evil less than it is --
be sure that the fear is too reasonable. I am of a very hopeful temperament,
and I never could go on systematically making the worst of any case.
I bear up here for a few days, and then comes the expectation of a letter,
which is hard. I fight with it for Robert's sake,
but all the work I put myself to do does not hinder a certain effect.
She is confined to her bed almost wholly and suffers acutely. . . .
In fact, I am living from day to day, on the merest crumbs of hope --
on the daily bread which is very bitter. Of course it has shaken me
a good deal, and interfered with the advantages of the summer,
but that's the least. Poor Robert's scheme for me of perfect repose
has scarcely been carried out. . . .'
This anxiety was heightened during the ensuing winter in Rome,
by just the circumstance from which some comfort had been expected --
the second postal delivery which took place every day;
for the hopes and fears which might have found a moment's forgetfulness
in the longer absence of news, were, as it proved, kept at fever-heat.
On one critical occasion the suspense became unbearable,
because Mr. Browning, by his wife's desire, had telegraphed for news,
begging for a telegraphic answer. No answer had come, and she felt convinced
that the worst had happened, and that the brother to whom
the message was addressed could not make up his mind to convey the fact
in so abrupt a form. The telegram had been stopped by the authorities,
because Mr. Odo Russell had undertaken to forward it,
and his position in Rome, besides the known Liberal sympathies
of Mr. and Mrs. Browning and himself, had laid it open to political suspicion.
Mrs. Surtees Cook died in the course of the winter.
Mr. Browning always believed that the shock and sorrow of this event
had shortened his wife's life, though it is also possible
that her already lowered vitality increased the dejection into which
it plunged her. Her own casual allusions to the state of her health
had long marked arrested progress, if not steady decline. We are told,
though this may have been a mistake, that active signs of consumption
were apparent in her even before the illness of 1859,
which was in a certain sense the beginning of the end.
She was completely an invalid, as well as entirely a recluse,
during the greater part if not the whole of this last stay in Rome.
She rallied nevertheless sufficiently to write to Miss Browning in April,
in a tone fully suggestive of normal health and energy.
`. . . In my own opinion he is infinitely handsomer and more attractive than
when I saw him first, sixteen years ago. . . . I believe people in general
would think the same exactly. As to the modelling -- well,
I told you that I grudged a little the time from his own particular art.
But it does not do to dishearten him about his modelling.
He has given a great deal of time to anatomy with reference to
the expression of form, and the clay is only the new medium
which takes the place of drawing. Also, Robert is peculiar
in his ways of work as a poet. I have struggled a little with him
on this point, for I don't think him right; that is to say,
it would not be right for me . . . But Robert waits for an inclination,
works by fits and starts; he can't do otherwise he says,
and his head is full of ideas which are to come out in clay or marble.
I yearn for the poems, but he leaves that to me for the present. . . .
You will think Robert looking very well when you see him;
indeed, you may judge by the photographs meanwhile. You know, Sarianna,
how I used to forbid the moustache. I insisted as long as I could,
but all artists were against me, and I suppose that the bare upper lip
does not harmonise with the beard. He keeps the hair now closer,
and the beard is pointed. . . . As to the moony whiteness of the beard,
it is beautiful, _I_ think, but then I think him all beautiful,
and always. . . .'
Mr. Browning's old friend, Madame du Quaire,* came to Rome in December.
She had visited Florence three years before, and I am indebted to her
for some details of the spiritualist controversy by which its English colony
was at that time divided. She was now a widow, travelling with her brother;
and Mr. Browning came whenever he could, to comfort her in her sorrow,
and, as she says, discourse of nature, art, the beautiful,
and all that `conquers death'. He little knew how soon
he would need the same comfort for himself. He would also declaim passages
from his wife's poems; and when, on one of these occasions,
Madame du Quaire had said, as so many persons now say, that she much preferred
his poetry to hers, he made this characteristic answer, to be repeated
in substance some years afterwards to another friend: `You are wrong --
quite wrong -- she has genius; I am only a painstaking fellow.
Can't you imagine a clever sort of angel who plots and plans,
and tries to build up something -- he wants to make you see it as he sees it
-- shows you one point of view, carries you off to another,
hammering into your head the thing he wants you to understand;
and whilst this bother is going on God Almighty turns you off a little star --
that's the difference between us. The true creative power is hers, not mine.'
* Formerly Miss Blackett, and sister of the member for New Castle.
Mrs. Browning died at Casa Guidi on June 29, 1861, soon after
their return to Florence. She had had a return of the bronchial affection
to which she was subject; and a new doctor who was called in
discovered grave mischief at the lungs, which she herself had long believed
to be existent or impending. But the attack was comparatively,
indeed actually, slight; and an extract from her last letter to Miss Browning,
dated June 7, confirms what her family and friends have since asserted,
that it was the death of Cavour which gave her the final blow.
`. . . We come home into a cloud here. I can scarcely command voice or hand
to name `Cavour'. That great soul which meditated and made Italy has gone
to the diviner Country. If tears or blood could have saved him to us,
he should have had mine. I feel yet as if I could scarcely comprehend
the greatness of the vacancy. A hundred Garibaldis for such a man!'
Her death was signalized by the appearance -- this time, I am told,
unexpected -- of another brilliant comet, which passed so near the earth
as to come into contact with it.
Miss Blagden -- Letters from Mr. Browning to Miss Haworth and Mr. Leighton
-- His Feeling in regard to Funeral Ceremonies -- Establishment in London --
Plan of Life -- Letter to Madame du Quaire -- Miss Arabel Barrett --
Biarritz -- Letters to Miss Blagden -- Conception of `The Ring and the Book'
-- Biographical Indiscretion -- New Edition of his Works --
Mr. and Mrs. Procter.
The friend who was nearest, at all events most helpful, to Mr. Browning
in this great and sudden sorrow was Miss Blagden -- Isa Blagden,
as she was called by all her intimates. Only a passing allusion to her
could hitherto find place in this fragmentary record of the Poet's life;
but the friendship which had long subsisted between her and Mrs. Browning
brings her now into closer and more frequent relation to it.
She was for many years a centre of English society in Florence;
for her genial, hospitable nature, as well as literary tastes
(she wrote one or two novels, I believe not without merit),
secured her the acquaintance of many interesting persons,
some of whom occasionally made her house their home;
and the evenings spent with her at her villa on Bellosguardo
live pleasantly in the remembrance of those of our older generation
who were permitted to share in them.
She carried the boy away from the house of mourning,
and induced his father to spend his nights under her roof,
while the last painful duties detained him in Florence.
He at least gave her cause to deny, what has been so often affirmed,
that great griefs are necessarily silent. She always spoke of this period
as her `apocalyptic month', so deeply poetic were the ravings
which alternated with the simple human cry of the desolate heart:
`I want her, I want her!' But the ear which received these utterances
has long been closed in death. The only written outbursts
of Mr. Browning's frantic sorrow were addressed, I believe, to his sister,
and to the friend, Madame du Quaire, whose own recent loss
most naturally invoked them, and who has since thought best,
so far as rested with her, to destroy the letters in which
they were contained. It is enough to know by simple statement
that he then suffered as he did. Life conquers Death for most of us;
whether or not `nature, art, and beauty' assist in the conquest.
It was bound to conquer in Mr. Browning's case: first through
his many-sided vitality; and secondly, through the special motive
for living and striving which remained to him in his son.
This note is struck in two letters which are given me to publish,
written about three weeks after Mrs. Browning's death;
and we see also that by this time his manhood was reacting against the blow,
and bracing itself with such consoling remembrance as the peace
and painlessness of his wife's last moments could afford to him.
Florence: July 19, '61.
Dear Leighton, -- It is like your old kindness to write to me
and to say what you do -- I know you feel for me. I can't write about it --
but there were many alleviating circumstances that you shall know one day --
there seemed no pain, and (what she would have felt most)
the knowledge of separation from us was spared her. I find these things
a comfort indeed.
I shall go away from Italy for many a year -- to Paris,
then London for a day or two just to talk with her sister --
but if I can see you it will be a great satisfaction.
Don't fancy I am `prostrated', I have enough to do for the boy and myself
in carrying out her wishes. He is better than one would have thought,
and behaves dearly to me. Everybody has been very kind.
Tell dear Mrs. Sartoris that I know her heart and thank her with all mine.
After my day or two at London I shall go to some quiet place in France
to get right again and then stay some time at Paris
in order to find out leisurely what it will be best to do for Peni --
but eventually I shall go to England, I suppose. I don't mean
to live with anybody, even my own family, but to occupy myself thoroughly,
seeing dear friends, however, like you. God bless you.
Yours ever affectionately,
The second is addressed to Miss Haworth.
Florence: July 20, 1861.
My dear Friend, -- I well know you feel as you say,
for her once and for me now. Isa Blagden, perfect in all kindness to me,
will have told you something perhaps -- and one day
I shall see you and be able to tell you myself as much as I can.
The main comfort is that she suffered very little pain,
none beside that ordinarily attending the simple attacks of cold and cough
she was subject to -- had no presentiment of the result whatever,
and was consequently spared the misery of knowing she was about to leave us;
she was smilingly assuring me she was `better', `quite comfortable --
if I would but come to bed,' to within a few minutes of the last. I think
I foreboded evil at Rome, certainly from the beginning of the week's illness
-- but when I reasoned about it, there was no justifying fear --
she said on the last evening `it is merely the old attack, not so severe a one
as that of two years ago -- there is no doubt I shall soon recover,'
and we talked over plans for the summer, and next year.
I sent the servants away and her maid to bed -- so little reason
for disquietude did there seem. Through the night she slept heavily,
and brokenly -- that was the bad sign -- but then she would sit up,
take her medicine, say unrepeatable things to me and sleep again.
At four o'clock there were symptoms that alarmed me, I called the maid
and sent for the doctor. She smiled as I proposed to bathe her feet,
`Well, you ARE determined to make an exaggerated case of it!'
Then came what my heart will keep till I see her again and longer --
the most perfect expression of her love to me within my whole knowledge
of her. Always smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's --
and in a few minutes she died in my arms; her head on my cheek.
These incidents so sustain me that I tell them to her beloved ones
as their right: there was no lingering, nor acute pain,
nor consciousness of separation, but God took her to himself as you would lift
a sleeping child from a dark, uneasy bed into your arms and the light.
Thank God. Annunziata thought by her earnest ways with me,
happy and smiling as they were, that she must have been aware
of our parting's approach -- but she was quite conscious,
had words at command, and yet did not even speak of Peni,
who was in the next room. Her last word was when I asked `How do you feel?'
-- `Beautiful.' You know I have her dearest wishes and interests
to attend to AT ONCE -- her child to care for, educate, establish properly;
and my own life to fulfil as properly, -- all just as she would require
were she here. I shall leave Italy altogether for years --
go to London for a few days' talk with Arabel -- then go to my father
and begin to try leisurely what will be the best for Peni --
but no more `housekeeping' for me, even with my family.
I shall grow, still, I hope -- but my root is taken and remains.
I know you always loved her, and me too in my degree. I shall always
be grateful to those who loved her, and that, I repeat, you did.
She was, and is, lamented with extraordinary demonstrations,
if one consider it. The Italians seem to have understood her by an instinct.
I have received strange kindness from everybody. Pen is very well --
very dear and good, anxious to comfort me as he calls it.
He can't know his loss yet. After years, his will be worse than mine --
he will want what he never had -- that is, for the time
when he could be helped by her wisdom, and genius and piety --
I HAVE had everything and shall not forget.
God bless you, dear friend. I believe I shall set out in a week.
Isa goes with me -- dear, true heart. You, too, would do
what you could for us were you here and your assistance needful.
A letter from you came a day or two before the end --
she made me enquire about the Frescobaldi Palace for you, --
Isa wrote to you in consequence. I shall be heard of at 151,
rue de Grenelle St. Germain.
Faithfully and affectionately yours,
The first of these displays even more self-control, it might be thought
less feeling, than the second; but it illustrates the reserve which,
I believe, habitually characterized Mr. Browning's attitude towards men.
His natural, and certainly most complete, confidants were women.
At about the end of July he left Florence with his son;
also accompanied by Miss Blagden, who travelled with them as far as Paris.
She herself must soon have returned to Italy; since he wrote to her
in September on the subject of his wife's provisional disinterment,*
in a manner which shows her to have been on the spot.
* Required for the subsequent placing of the monument designed by F. Leighton.
`. . . Isa, may I ask you one favour? Will you, whenever these
dreadful preliminaries, the provisional removement &c.
when they are proceeded with, -- will you do -- all you can --
suggest every regard to decency and proper feeling to the persons concerned?
I have a horror of that man of the grave-yard, and needless
publicity and exposure -- I rely on you, dearest friend of ours,
to at least lend us your influence when the time shall come --
a word may be invaluable. If there is any show made,
or gratification of strangers' curiosity, far better that I had left
the turf untouched. These things occur through sheer thoughtlessness,
carelessness, not anything worse, but the effect is irreparable.
I won't think any more of it -- now -- at least. . . .'
The dread expressed in this letter of any offence to the delicacies of
the occasion was too natural to be remarked upon here; but it connects itself
with an habitual aversion for the paraphernalia of death,
which was a marked peculiarity of Mr. Browning's nature. He shrank,
as his wife had done, from the `earth side' of the portentous change;
but truth compels me to own that her infinite pity had little or no part
in his attitude towards it. For him, a body from which the soul had passed,
held nothing of the person whose earthly vesture it had been.
He had no sympathy for the still human tenderness with which
so many of us regard the mortal remains of those they have loved,
or with the solemn or friendly interest in which that tenderness
so often reflects itself in more neutral minds. He would claim
all respect for the corpse, but he would turn away from it.
Another aspect of this feeling shows itself in a letter
to one of his brothers-in-law, Mr. George Moulton-Barrett,
in reference to his wife's monument, with which Mr. Barrett
had professed himself pleased. His tone is characterized
by an almost religious reverence for the memory which that monument enshrines.
He nevertheless writes:
`I hope to see it one day -- and, although I have no kind of concern
as to where the old clothes of myself shall be thrown,
yet, if my fortune be such, and my survivors be not unduly troubled,
I should like them to lie in the place I have retained there.
It is no matter, however.'
The letter is dated October 19, 1866. He never saw Florence again.
Mr. Browning spent two months with his father and sister at St.-Enogat,
near Dinard, from which place the letter to Miss Blagden was written;
and then proceeded to London, where his wife's sister, Miss Arabel Barrett,
was living. He had declared in his first grief that he would
never keep house again, and he began his solitary life
in lodgings which at his request she had engaged for him;
but the discomfort of this arrangement soon wearied him of it;
and before many months had passed, he had sent to Florence for his furniture,
and settled himself in the house in Warwick Crescent, which possessed,
besides other advantages, that of being close to Delamere Terrace,
where Miss Barrett had taken up her abode.
This first period of Mr. Browning's widowed life was
one of unutterable dreariness, in which the smallest
and yet most unconquerable element was the prosaic ugliness of everything
which surrounded him. It was fifteen years since he had spent a winter
in England; he had never spent one in London. There had been nothing
to break for him the transition from the stately beauty of Florence
to the impressions and associations of the Harrow and Edgware Roads,
and of Paddington Green. He might have escaped this neighbourhood
by way of Westbourne Terrace; but his walks constantly led him
in an easterly direction; and whether in an unconscious hugging of his chains,
or, as was more probable, from the desire to save time, he would drag
his aching heart and reluctant body through the sordidness or the squalor
of this short cut, rather than seek the pleasanter thoroughfares
which were open to him. Even the prettiness of Warwick Crescent
was neutralized for him by the atmosphere of low or ugly life
which encompassed it on almost every side. His haunting dream
was one day to have done with it all; to have fulfilled his mission
with his son, educated him, launched him in a suitable career,
and to go back to sunshine and beauty again. He learned by degrees
to regard London as a home; as the only fitting centre
for the varied energies which were reviving in him;
to feel pride and pleasure in its increasingly picturesque character.
He even learned to appreciate the outlook from his house --
that `second from the bridge' of which so curious a presentment
had entered into one of the poems of the `Men and Women'* --
in spite of the refuse of humanity which would sometimes yell
at the street corner, or fling stones at his plate-glass.
But all this had to come; and it is only fair to admit
that twenty-nine years ago the beauties of which I have spoken
were in great measure to come also. He could not then in any mood
have exclaimed, as he did to a friend two or three years ago:
`Shall we not have a pretty London if things go on in this way?'
They were driving on the Kensington side of Hyde Park.
* `How it strikes a Contemporary'.
The paternal duty, which, so much against his inclination,
had established Mr. Browning in England, would in every case
have lain very near to his conscience and to his heart; but it especially
urged itself upon them through the absence of any injunction concerning it
on his wife's part. No farewell words of hers had commended their child
to his father's love and care; and though he may, for the moment,
have imputed this fact to unconsciousness of her approaching death,
his deeper insight soon construed the silence into an expression of trust,
more binding upon him than the most earnest exacted promise could have been.
The growing boy's education occupied a considerable part
of his time and thoughts, for he had determined not to send him to school,
but, as far as possible, himself prepare him for the University.
He must also, in some degree, have supervised his recreations.
He had therefore, for the present, little leisure for social distractions,
and probably at first very little inclination for them.
His plan of life and duty, and the sense of responsibility attendant on it,
had been communicated to Madame du Quaire in a letter
written also from St.-Enogat.
M. Chauvin, St.-Enogat pres Dinard, Ile et Vilaine: Aug. 17, '61.
Dear Madame du Quaire, -- I got your note on Sunday afternoon,
but found myself unable to call on you as I had been intending to do.
Next morning I left for this place (near St.-Malo, but I give what they say
is the proper address). I want first to beg you to forgive
my withholding so long your little oval mirror -- it is safe in Paris,
and I am vexed at having stupidly forgotten to bring it
when I tried to see you. I shall stay here till the autumn sets in,
then return to Paris for a few days -- the first of which will be the best,
if I can see you in the course of it -- afterward, I settle in London.
When I meant to pass the winter in Paris, I hoped, the first thing almost,
to be near you -- it now seems to me, however, that the best course
for the Boy is to begin a good English education at once.
I shall take quiet lodgings (somewhere near Kensington Gardens,
I rather think) and get a Tutor. I want, if I can (according to
my present very imperfect knowledge) to get the poor little fellow
fit for the University without passing thro' a Public School. I, myself,
could never have done much by either process, but he is made differently --
imitates and emulates and all that. How I should be grateful
if you would help me by any word that should occur to you!
I may easily do wrong, begin ill, thro' too much anxiety --
perhaps, however, all may be easier than seems to me just now.
I shall have a great comfort in talking to you -- this writing
is stiff, ineffectual work. Pen is very well, cheerful now, --
has his little horse here. The place is singularly unspoiled,
fresh and picturesque, and lovely to heart's content.
I wish you were here! -- and if you knew exactly what such a wish means,
you would need no assuring in addition that I am
Yours affectionately and gratefully ever
The person of whom he saw most was his sister-in-law, whom he visited,
I believe, every evening. Miss Barrett had been a favourite sister
of Mrs. Browning's, and this constituted a sufficient title
to her husband's affection. But she was also a woman to be loved
for her own sake. Deeply religious and very charitable, she devoted herself
to visiting the poor -- a form of philanthropy which was then
neither so widespread nor so fashionable as it has since become;
and she founded, in 1850, the first Training School or Refuge
which had ever existed for destitute little girls. It need hardly be added
that Mr. and Miss Browning co-operated in the work. The little poem,
`The Twins', republished in 1855 in `Men and Women', was first printed
(with Mrs. Browning's `Plea for the Ragged Schools of London')
for the benefit of this Refuge. It was in Miss Barrett's company
that Mr. Browning used to attend the church of Mr. Thomas Jones,
to a volume of whose `Sermons and Addresses' he wrote a short introduction
On February 15, 1862, he writes again to Miss Blagden.
Feb. 15, '62.
`. . . While I write, my heart is sore for a great calamity
just befallen poor Rossetti, which I only heard of last night --
his wife, who had been, as an invalid, in the habit of taking laudanum,
swallowed an overdose -- was found by the poor fellow on his return
from the working-men's class in the evening, under the effects of it --
help was called in, the stomach-pump used; but she died in the night,
about a week ago. There has hardly been a day when I have not thought,
"if I can, to-morrow, I will go and see him, and thank him for his book,
and return his sister's poems." Poor, dear fellow! . . .
`. . . Have I not written a long letter, for me who hate the sight
of a pen now, and see a pile of unanswered things on the table before me?
-- on this very table. Do you tell me in turn all about yourself.
I shall be interested in the minutest thing you put down.
What sort of weather is it? You cannot but be better at your new villa than
in the large solitary one. There I am again, going up the winding way to it,
and seeing the herbs in red flower, and the butterflies on the top of the wall
under the olive-trees! Once more, good-bye. . . .'
The hatred of writing of which he here speaks refers probably
to the class of letters which he had lately been called upon to answer,
and which must have been painful in proportion to the kindness
by which they were inspired. But it returned to him many years later,
in simple weariness of the mental and mechanical act, and with such force
that he would often answer an unimportant note in person,
rather than make the seemingly much smaller exertion of doing so with his pen.
It was the more remarkable that, with the rarest exceptions,
he replied to every letter which came to him.
The late summer of the former year had been entirely unrefreshing,
in spite of his acknowledgment of the charms of St.-Enogat.
There was more distraction and more soothing in the stay
at Cambo and Biarritz, which was chosen for the holiday of 1862.
Years afterwards, when the thought of Italy carried with it less longing
and even more pain, Mr. Browning would speak of a visit to the Pyrenees,
if not a residence among them, as one of the restful possibilities
of his later and freer life. He wrote to Miss Blagden:
Biarritz, Maison Gastonbide: Sept. 19, '62.
`. . . I stayed a month at green pleasant little Cambo,
and then came here from pure inability to go elsewhere --
St.-Jean de Luz, on which I had reckoned, being still fuller of Spaniards
who profit by the new railway. This place is crammed with gay people
of whom I see nothing but their outsides. The sea, sands,
and view of the Spanish coast and mountains, are superb
and this house is on the town's outskirts. I stay till the end of the month,
then go to Paris, and then get my neck back into the old collar again.
Pen has managed to get more enjoyment out of his holiday
than seemed at first likely -- there was a nice French family at Cambo
with whom he fraternised, riding with the son and escorting the daughter
in her walks. His red cheeks look as they should. For me, I have got on
by having a great read at Euripides -- the one book I brought with me,
besides attending to my own matters, my new poem that is about to be;
and of which the whole is pretty well in my head, --
the Roman murder story you know.
`. . . How I yearn, yearn for Italy at the close of my life! . . .'
The `Roman murder story' was, I need hardly say, to become
`The Ring and the Book'.
It has often been told, though with curious confusion as regards the date,
how Mr. Browning picked up the original parchment-bound record
of the Franceschini case, on a stall of the Piazza San Lorenzo.
We read in the first section of his own work that he plunged instantly
into the study of this record; that he had mastered it by the end of the day;
and that he then stepped out on to the terrace of his house
amid the sultry blackness and silent lightnings of the June night,
as the adjacent church of San Felice sent forth its chants,
and voices buzzed in the street below, -- and saw the tragedy
as a living picture unfold itself before him. These were his last days
at Casa Guidi. It was four years before he definitely began the work.
The idea of converting the story into a poem cannot even have occurred to him
for some little time, since he offered it for prose treatment to Miss Ogle,
the author of `A Lost Love'; and for poetic use, I am almost certain,
to one of his leading contemporaries. It was this slow process of incubation
which gave so much force and distinctness to his ultimate presentment
of the characters; though it infused a large measure of personal imagination,
and, as we shall see, of personal reminiscence, into their historical truth.
Before `The Ring and the Book' was actually begun,
`Dramatis Personae' and `In a Balcony' were to be completed.
Their production had been delayed during Mrs. Browning's lifetime,
and necessarily interrupted by her death; but we hear of the work
as progressing steadily during this summer of 1862.
A painful subject of correspondence had been also for some time
engaging Mr. Browning's thoughts and pen. A letter to Miss Blagden
written January 19, '63, is so expressive of his continued attitude
towards the questions involved that, in spite of its strong language,
his family advise its publication. The name of the person referred to
will alone be omitted.
`. . . Ever since I set foot in England I have been pestered
with applications for leave to write the Life of my wife -- I have refused --
and there an end. I have last week received two communications from friends,
enclosing the letters of a certain . . . of . . ., asking them
for details of life and letters, for a biography he is engaged in --
adding, that he "has secured the correspondence with her old friend . . ."
Think of this beast working away at this, not deeming my feelings
or those of her family worthy of notice -- and meaning to print letters
written years and years ago, on the most intimate and personal subjects
to an "old friend" -- which, at the poor . . . [friend's] death
fell into the hands of a complete stranger, who, at once wanted to print them,
but desisted through Ba's earnest expostulation enforced by my own threat
to take law proceedings -- as fortunately letters are copyright.
I find this woman died last year, and her son writes to me this morning
that . . . got them from him as autographs merely -- he will try
and get them back. . . ., evidently a blackguard, got my letter,
which gave him his deserts, on Saturday -- no answer yet, -- if none comes,
I shall be forced to advertise in the `Times', and obtain an injunction.
But what I suffer in feeling the hands of these blackguards (for I forgot
to say another man has been making similar applications to friends)
what I undergo with their paws in my very bowels, you can guess,
and God knows! No friend, of course, would ever give up the letters --
if anybody ever is forced to do that which SHE would have writhed under --
if it ever WERE necessary, why, _I_ should be forced to do it,
and, with any good to her memory and fame, my own pain in the attempt
would be turned into joy -- I should DO it at whatever cost:
but it is not only unnecessary but absurdly useless -- and, indeed,
it shall not be done if I can stop the scamp's knavery along with his breath.
`I am going to reprint the Greek Christian Poets and another essay --
nothing that ought to be published shall be kept back, -- and this
she certainly intended to correct, augment, and re-produce -- but _I_ open
the doubled-up paper! Warn anyone you may think needs the warning
of the utter distress in which I should be placed were this scoundrel,
or any other of the sort, to baffle me and bring out the letters --
I can't prevent fools from uttering their folly upon her life,
as they do on every other subject, but the law protects property, --
as these letters are. Only last week, or so, the Bishop of Exeter
stopped the publication of an announced "Life" -- containing extracts
from his correspondence -- and so I shall do. . . .'
Mr. Browning only resented the exactions of modern biography
in the same degree as most other right-minded persons; but there was,
to his thinking, something specially ungenerous in dragging to light
any immature or unconsidered utterance which the writer's later judgment
would have disclaimed. Early work was always for him
included in this category; and here it was possible to disagree with him;
since the promise of genius has a legitimate interest
from which no distance from its subsequent fulfilment can detract.
But there could be no disagreement as to the rights and decencies involved
in the present case; and, as we hear no more of the letters to Mr. . . .,
we may perhaps assume that their intending publisher was acting in ignorance,
but did not wish to act in defiance, of Mr. Browning's feeling in the matter.
In the course of this year, 1863, Mr. Browning brought out,
through Chapman and Hall, the still well-known and well-loved
three-volume edition of his works, including `Sordello',
but again excluding `Pauline'. A selection of his poems which appeared
somewhat earlier, if we may judge by the preface, dated November 1862,
deserves mention as a tribute to friendship. The volume had been prepared
by John Forster and Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall), `two friends,'
as the preface states, `who from the first appearance of `Paracelsus'
have regarded its writer as among the few great poets of the century.'
Mr. Browning had long before signalized his feeling for Barry Cornwall
by the dedication of `Colombe's Birthday'. He discharged
the present debt to Mr. Procter, if such there was, by the attentions
which he rendered to his infirm old age. For many years he visited him
every Sunday, in spite of a deafness ultimately so complete
that it was only possible to converse with him in writing.
These visits were afterwards, at her urgent request,
continued to Mr. Procter's widow.
Pornic -- `James Lee's Wife' -- Meeting at Mr. F. Palgrave's --
Letters to Miss Blagden -- His own Estimate of his Work --
His Father's Illness and Death; Miss Browning -- Le Croisic --
Academic Honours; Letter to the Master of Balliol --
Death of Miss Barrett -- Audierne -- Uniform Edition of his Works --
His rising Fame -- `Dramatis Personae' -- `The Ring and the Book';
Character of Pompilia.
The most constant contributions to Mr. Browning's history
are supplied during the next eight or nine years by extracts from his letters
to Miss Blagden. Our next will be dated from Ste.-Marie, near Pornic,
where he and his family again spent their holiday in 1864 and 1865.
Some idea of the life he led there is given at the close of a letter
to Frederic Leighton, August 17, 1863, in which he says:
`I live upon milk and fruit, bathe daily, do a good morning's work,
read a little with Pen and somewhat more by myself, go to bed early,
and get up earlyish -- rather liking it all.'
This mention of a diet of milk and fruit recalls a favourite habit
of Mr. Browning's: that of almost renouncing animal food
whenever he went abroad. It was partly promoted by the inferior quality
of foreign meat, and showed no sign of specially agreeing with him,
at all events in his later years, when he habitually returned to England
looking thinner and more haggard than before he left it.
But the change was always congenial to his taste.
A fuller picture of these simple, peaceful, and poetic Pornic days
comes to us through Miss Blagden, August 18:
`. . . This is a wild little place in Brittany, something like that village
where we stayed last year. Close to the sea -- a hamlet of a dozen houses,
perfectly lonely -- one may walk on the edge of the low rocks by the sea
for miles. Our house is the Mayor's, large enough, clean and bare.
If I could, I would stay just as I am for many a day.
I feel out of the very earth sometimes as I sit here at the window;
with the little church, a field, a few houses, and the sea.
On a weekday there is nobody in the village, plenty of hay-stacks,
cows and fowls; all our butter, eggs, milk, are produced in the farm-house.
Such a soft sea, and such a mournful wind!
`I wrote a poem yesterday of 120 lines, and mean to keep writing
whether I like it or not. . . .'
That `window' was the `Doorway' in `James Lee's Wife'.
The sea, the field, and the fig-tree were visible from it.
A long interval in the correspondence, at all events
so far as we are concerned, carries us to the December of 1864,
and then Mr. Browning wrote:
`. . . on the other hand, I feel such comfort and delight
in doing the best I can with my own object of life, poetry --
which, I think, I never could have seen the good of before,
that it shows me I have taken the root I DID take, WELL.
I hope to do much more yet -- and that the flower of it
will be put into Her hand somehow. I really have great opportunities
and advantages -- on the whole, almost unprecedented ones -- I think,
no other disturbances and cares than those I am most grateful
for being allowed to have. . . .'
One of our very few written reminiscences of Mr. Browning's social life
refers to this year, 1864, and to the evening, February 12,
on which he signed his will in the presence of Mr. Francis Palgrave
and Alfred Tennyson. It is inscribed in the diary of Mr. Thomas Richmond,
then chaplain to St. George's Hospital; and Mr. Reginald Palgrave
has kindly procured me a copy of it. A brilliant party had met at dinner
at the house of Mr. F. Palgrave, York Gate, Regent's Park;
Mr. Richmond, having fulfilled a prior engagement, had joined it later.
`There were, in order,' he says, `round the dinner-table (dinner being over),
Gifford Palgrave, Tennyson, Dr. John Ogle, Sir Francis H. Doyle,
Frank Palgrave, W. E. Gladstone, Browning, Sir John Simeon,
Monsignor Patterson, Woolner, and Reginald Palgrave.'
Mr. Richmond closes his entry by saying he will never forget that evening.
The names of those whom it had brought together, almost all to be
sooner or later numbered among the Poet's friends, were indeed enough
to stamp it as worthy of recollection. One or two characteristic
utterances of Mr. Browning are, however, the only ones
which it seems advisable to repeat here. The conversation having turned
on the celebration of the Shakespeare ter-centenary, he said:
`Here we are called upon to acknowledge Shakespeare, we who have him
in our very bones and blood, our very selves. The very recognition
of Shakespeare's merits by the Committee reminds me of nothing
so apt as an illustration, as the decree of the Directoire
that men might acknowledge God.'
Among the subjects discussed was the advisability of making schoolboys write
English verses as well as Latin and Greek. `Woolner and Sir Francis Doyle
were for this; Gladstone and Browning against it.'
Work had now found its fitting place in the Poet's life.
It was no longer the overflow of an irresistible productive energy;
it was the deliberate direction of that energy towards an appointed end.
We hear something of his own feeling concerning this
in a letter of August '65, again from Ste.-Marie, and called forth
by some gossip concerning him which Miss Blagden had connected
with his then growing fame.
`. . . I suppose that what you call "my fame within these four years"
comes from a little of this gossiping and going about,
and showing myself to be alive: and so indeed some folks say --
but I hardly think it: for remember I was uninterruptedly (almost) in London
from the time I published `Paracelsus' till I ended that string of plays
with `Luria' -- and I used to go out then, and see far more
of merely literary people, critics &c. than I do now, -- but what came of it?
There were always a few people who had a certain opinion of my poems,
but nobody cared to speak what he thought, or the things printed
twenty-five years ago would not have waited so long for a good word;
but at last a new set of men arrive who don't mind the conventionalities
of ignoring one and seeing everything in another -- Chapman says,
"the new orders come from Oxford and Cambridge," and all my new cultivators
are young men -- more than that, I observe that some of my old friends
don't like at all the irruption of outsiders who rescue me from
their sober and private approval, and take those words out of their mouths
"which they always meant to say" and never did. When there gets to be
a general feeling of this kind, that there must be something
in the works of an author, the reviews are obliged to notice him,
such notice as it is -- but what poor work, even when doing its best!
I mean poor in the failure to give a general notion of the whole works;
not a particular one of such and such points therein.
As I begun, so I shall end, -- taking my own course,
pleasing myself or aiming at doing so, and thereby, I hope, pleasing God.
`As I never did otherwise, I never had any fear as to what I did
going ultimately to the bad, -- hence in collected editions
I always reprinted everything, smallest and greatest. Do you ever see,
by the way, the numbers of the selection which Moxons publish?
They are exclusively poems omitted in that other selection by Forster;
it seems little use sending them to you, but when they are completed,
if they give me a few copies, you shall have one if you like.
Just before I left London, Macmillan was anxious to print a third selection,
for his Golden Treasury, which should of course be different from either --
but THREE seem too absurd. There -- enough of me --
`I certainly will do my utmost to make the most of my poor self before I die;
for one reason, that I may help old Pen the better; I was much struck
by the kind ways, and interest shown in me by the Oxford undergraduates, --
those introduced to me by Jowett. -- I am sure they would be the more helpful
to my son. So, good luck to my great venture, the murder-poem,
which I do hope will strike you and all good lovers of mine. . . .'
We cannot wonder at the touch of bitterness with which Mr. Browning dwells
on the long neglect which he had sustained; but it is at first sight
difficult to reconcile this high positive estimate of the value of his poetry
with the relative depreciation of his own poetic genius which constantly marks
his attitude towards that of his wife. The facts are, however,
quite compatible. He regarded Mrs. Browning's genius as greater,
because more spontaneous, than his own: owing less to life
and its opportunities; but he judged his own work as the more important,
because of the larger knowledge of life which had entered into its production.
He was wrong in the first terms of his comparison: for he underrated
the creative, hence spontaneous element in his own nature,
while claiming primarily the position of an observant thinker;
and he overrated the amount of creativeness implied by the poetry of his wife.
He failed to see that, given her intellectual endowments, and the lyric gift,
the characteristics of her genius were due to circumstances as much as
those of his own. Actual life is not the only source of poetic inspiration,
though it may perhaps be the best. Mrs. Browning as a poet
became what she was, not in spite of her long seclusion, but by help of it.
A touching paragraph, bearing upon this subject, is dated October '65.
`. . . Another thing. I have just been making a selection of Ba's poems
which is wanted -- how I have done it, I can hardly say --
it is one dear delight to know that the work of her goes on
more effectually than ever -- her books are more and more read --
certainly, sold. A new edition of Aurora Leigh is completely exhausted
within this year. . . .'
Of the thing next dearest to his memory, his Florentine home,
he had written in the January of this year:
`. . . Yes, Florence will never be MY Florence again.
To build over or beside Poggio seems barbarous and inexcusable.
The Fiesole side don't matter. Are they going to pull the old walls down,
or any part of them, I want to know? Why can't they keep the old city
as a nucleus and build round and round it, as many rings of houses
as they please, -- framing the picture as deeply as they please?
Is Casa Guidi to be turned into any Public Office? I should think that
its natural destination. If I am at liberty to flee away one day,
it will not be to Florence, I dare say. As old Philipson said to me once
of Jerusalem -- "No, I don't want to go there, -- I can see it in my head."
. . . Well, goodbye, dearest Isa. I have been for a few minutes -- nay,
a good many, -- so really with you in Florence that it would be no wonder
if you heard my steps up the lane to your house. . . .'
Part of a letter written in the September of '65 from Ste.-Marie
may be interesting as referring to the legend of Pornic
included in `Dramatis Personae'.
`. . . I suppose my "poem" which you say brings me and Pornic
together in your mind, is the one about the poor girl -- if so,
"fancy" (as I hear you say) they have pulled down the church
since I arrived last month -- there are only the shell-like,
roofless walls left, for a few weeks more; it was very old --
built on a natural base of rock -- small enough, to be sure --
so they build a smart new one behind it, and down goes this;
just as if they could not have pitched down their brick and stucco
farther away, and left the old place for the fishermen -- so here --
the church is even more picturesque -- and certain old Norman ornaments,
capitals of pillars and the like, which we left erect in the doorway,
are at this moment in a heap of rubbish by the road-side.
The people here are good, stupid and dirty, without a touch
of the sense of picturesqueness in their clodpolls. . . .'
The little record continues through 1866.
Feb. 19, '66.
`. . . I go out a great deal; but have enjoyed nothing so much
as a dinner last week with Tennyson, who, with his wife and one son,
is staying in town for a few weeks, -- and she is just what she was
and always will be -- very sweet and dear: he seems to me better than ever.
I met him at a large party on Saturday -- also Carlyle, whom I never met
at a "drum" before. . . . Pen is drawing our owl -- a bird that is
the light of our house, for his tameness and engaging ways. . . .'
May 19, '66.
`. . . My father has been unwell, -- he is better and will go
into the country the moment the east winds allow, -- for in Paris,
-- as here, -- there is a razor wrapped up in the flannel of sunshine.
I hope to hear presently from my sister, and will tell you if a letter comes:
he is eighty-five, almost, -- you see! otherwise his wonderful constitution
would keep me from inordinate apprehension. His mind is absolutely
as I always remember it, -- and the other day when I wanted some information
about a point of mediaeval history, he wrote a regular bookful
of notes and extracts thereabout. . . .'
June 20, '66.
`My dearest Isa, I was telegraphed for to Paris last week,
and arrived time enough to pass twenty-four hours more with my father:
he died on the 14th -- quite exhausted by internal haemorrhage,
which would have overcome a man of thirty. He retained all his faculties
to the last -- was utterly indifferent to death, -- asking with surprise
what it was we were affected about since he was perfectly happy?
-- and kept his own strange sweetness of soul to the end --
nearly his last words to me, as I was fanning him, were "I am so afraid
that I fatigue you, dear!" this, while his sufferings were great;
for the strength of his constitution seemed impossible to be subdued.
He wanted three weeks exactly to complete his eighty-fifth year.
So passed away this good, unworldly, kind-hearted, religious man,
whose powers natural and acquired would so easily have made him a notable man,
had he known what vanity or ambition or the love of money
or social influence meant. As it is, he was known by half-a-dozen friends.
He was worthy of being Ba's father -- out of the whole world, only he,
so far as my experience goes. She loved him, -- and HE said, very recently,
while gazing at her portrait, that only that picture had put into his head
that there might be such a thing as the worship of the images of saints.
My sister will come and live with me henceforth. You see what she loses.
All her life has been spent in caring for my mother, and seventeen years
after that, my father. You may be sure she does not rave and rend hair
like people who have plenty to atone for in the past; but she loses very much.
I returned to London last night. . . .'
During his hurried journey to Paris, Mr. Browning was mentally
blessing the Emperor for having abolished the system of passports,
and thus enabled him to reach his father's bedside in time.
His early Italian journeys had brought him some vexatious experience
of the old order of things. Once, at Venice, he had been mistaken
for a well-known Liberal, Dr. Bowring, and found it almost impossible
to get his passport `vise'; and, on another occasion,
it aroused suspicion by being `too good'; though in what sense
I do not quite remember.
Miss Browning did come to live with her brother, and was thenceforward
his inseparable companion. Her presence with him must therefore be understood
wherever I have had no special reason for mentioning it.
They tried Dinard for the remainder of the summer; but finding it unsuitable,
proceeded by St.-Malo to Le Croisic, the little sea-side town
of south-eastern Brittany which two of Mr. Browning's poems
have since rendered famous.
The following extract has no date.
Le Croisic, Loire Inferieure.
`. . . We all found Dinard unsuitable, and after staying
a few days at St. Malo resolved to try this place, and well for us,
since it serves our purpose capitally. . . . We are in the most delicious
and peculiar old house I ever occupied, the oldest in the town --
plenty of great rooms -- nearly as much space as in Villa Alberti.
The little town, and surrounding country are wild and primitive,
even a trifle beyond Pornic perhaps. Close by is Batz,
a village where the men dress in white from head to foot,
with baggy breeches, and great black flap hats; -- opposite is Guerande,
the old capital of Bretagne: you have read about it in Balzac's `Beatrix',
-- and other interesting places are near. The sea is all round our peninsula,
and on the whole I expect we shall like it very much. . . .'
`. . . We enjoyed Croisic increasingly to the last -- spite of three weeks'
vile weather, in striking contrast to the golden months at Pornic last year.
I often went to Guerande -- once Sarianna and I walked from it
in two hours and something under, -- nine miles: -- though from our house,
straight over the sands and sea, it is not half the distance. . . .'
In 1867 Mr. Browning received his first and greatest academic honours.
The M.A. degree by diploma, of the University of Oxford,
was conferred on him in June;* and in the month of October
he was made honorary Fellow of Balliol College. Dr. Jowett allows me
to publish the, as he terms it, very characteristic letter in which
he acknowledged the distinction. Dr. Scott, afterwards Dean of Rochester,
was then Master of Balliol.
* `Not a lower degree than that of D.C.L., but a much higher honour,
hardly given since Dr. Johnson's time except to kings
and royal personages. . . .' So the Keeper of the Archives
wrote to Mr. Browning at the time.
19, Warwick Crescent: Oct. 21, '67.
Dear Dr. Scott, -- I am altogether unable to say how I feel as to the fact
you communicate to me. I must know more intimately than you can
how little worthy I am of such an honour, -- you hardly can set
the value of that honour, you who give, as I who take it.
Indeed, there ARE both `duties and emoluments' attached to this position, --
duties of deep and lasting gratitude, and emoluments through which
I shall be wealthy my life long. I have at least loved learning
and the learned, and there needed no recognition of my love on their part
to warrant my professing myself, as I do, dear Dr. Scott,
yours ever most faithfully,
In the following year he received and declined the virtual offer
of the Lord Rectorship of the University of St. Andrews,
rendered vacant by the death of Mr. J. S. Mill.
He returned with his sister to Le Croisic for the summer of 1867.
In June 1868, Miss Arabel Barrett died, of a rheumatic affection of the heart.
As did her sister seven years before, she passed away in Mr. Browning's arms.
He wrote the event to Miss Blagden as soon as it occurred,
describing also a curious circumstance attendant on it.
19th June, '68.
`. . . You know I am not superstitious -- here is a note I made in a book,
Tuesday, July 21, 1863. "Arabel told me yesterday that she had been
much agitated by a dream which happened the night before,
Sunday, July 19. She saw Her and asked `when shall I be with you?'
the reply was, `Dearest, in five years,' whereupon Arabella woke.
She knew in her dream that it was not to the living she spoke."
-- In five years, within a month of their completion -- I had forgotten
the date of the dream, and supposed it was only three years ago,
and that two had still to run. Only a coincidence, but noticeable. . . .'
In August he writes again from Audierne, Finisterre (Brittany).
`. . . You never heard of this place, I daresay. After staying a few days
at Paris we started for Rennes, -- reached Caen and halted a little --
thence made for Auray, where we made excursions to Carnac,
Lokmariaker, and Ste.-Anne d'Auray; all very interesting of their kind;
then saw Brest, Morlaix, St.-Pol de Leon, and the sea-port Roscoff, --
our intended bathing place -- it was full of folk, however,
and otherwise impracticable, so we had nothing for it,
but to "rebrousser chemin" and get to the south-west again.
At Quimper we heard (for a second time) that Audierne would suit us exactly,
and to it we came -- happily, for "suit" it certainly does.
Look on the map for the most westerly point of Bretagne --
and of the mainland of Europe -- there is niched Audierne, a delightful
quite unspoiled little fishing-town, with the open ocean in front,
and beautiful woods, hills and dales, meadows and lanes behind and around, --
sprinkled here and there with villages each with its fine old Church.
Sarianna and I have just returned from a four hours' walk
in the course of which we visited a town, Pont Croix, with a beautiful
cathedral-like building amid the cluster of clean bright Breton houses, --
and a little farther is another church, "Notre Dame de Comfort",
with only a hovel or two round it, worth the journey from England to see;
we are therefore very well off -- at an inn, I should say, with singularly
good, kind, and liberal people, so have no cares for the moment.
May you be doing as well! The weather has been most propitious,
and to-day is perfect to a wish. We bathe, but somewhat ingloriously,
in a smooth creek of mill-pond quietude, (there being no cabins
on the bay itself,) unlike the great rushing waves of Croisic --
the water is much colder. . . .'
The tribute contained in this letter to the merits of
le Pere Batifoulier and his wife would not, I think, be endorsed
by the few other English travellers who have stayed at their inn.
The writer's own genial and kindly spirit no doubt partly elicited,
and still more supplied, the qualities he saw in them.
The six-volume, so long known as `uniform' edition of Mr. Browning's works,
was brought out in the autumn of this year by Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co.;
practically Mr. George Murray Smith, who was to be thenceforward
his exclusive publisher and increasingly valued friend. In the winter months
appeared the first two volumes (to be followed in the ensuing spring
by the third and fourth) of `The Ring and the Book'.
With `The Ring and the Book' Mr. Browning attained the full recognition
of his genius. The `Athenaeum' spoke of it as the `opus magnum'
of the generation; not merely beyond all parallel the supremest
poetic achievement of the time, but the most precious and profound
spiritual treasure that England had produced since the days of Shakespeare.
His popularity was yet to come, so also the widespread reading
of his hitherto neglected poems; but henceforth whatever he published was
sure of ready acceptance, of just, if not always enthusiastic, appreciation.
The ground had not been gained at a single leap. A passage in another letter
to Miss Blagden shows that, when `The Ring and the Book' appeared,
a high place was already awaiting it outside those higher academic circles
in which its author's position was secured.
`. . . I want to get done with my poem. Booksellers are making me
pretty offers for it. One sent to propose, last week,
to publish it at his risk, giving me ALL the profits,
and pay me the whole in advance -- "for the incidental advantages of my name"
-- the R. B. who for six months once did not sell one copy of the poems!
I ask 200 Pounds for the sheets to America, and shall get it. . . .'
His presence in England had doubtless stimulated the public interest
in his productions; and we may fairly credit `Dramatis Personae'
with having finally awakened his countrymen of all classes
to the fact that a great creative power had arisen among them.
`The Ring and the Book' and `Dramatis Personae' cannot indeed be dissociated
in what was the culminating moment in the author's poetic life,
even more than the zenith of his literary career. In their expression
of all that constituted the wide range and the characteristic quality
of his genius, they at once support and supplement each other.
But a fact of more distinctive biographical interest connects itself
exclusively with the later work.
We cannot read the emotional passages of `The Ring and the Book'
without hearing in them a voice which is not Mr. Browning's own:
an echo, not of his past, but from it. The remembrance of that past
must have accompanied him through every stage of the great work.
Its subject had come to him in the last days of his greatest happiness.
It had lived with him, though in the background of consciousness,
through those of his keenest sorrow. It was his refuge in that aftertime,
in which a subsiding grief often leaves a deeper sense of isolation.
He knew the joy with which his wife would have witnessed
the diligent performance of this his self-imposed task.
The beautiful dedication contained in the first and last books
was only a matter of course. But Mrs. Browning's spiritual presence
on this occasion was more than a presiding memory of the heart.
I am convinced that it entered largely into the conception of `Pompilia',
and, so far as this depended on it, the character of the whole work.
In the outward course of her history, Mr. Browning proceeded
strictly on the ground of fact. His dramatic conscience
would not have allowed it otherwise. He had read the record of the case,
as he has been heard to say, fully eight times over before converting it
into the substance of his poem; and the form in which he finally cast it,
was that which recommended itself to him as true -- which,
within certain limits, WAS true. The testimony of those
who watched by Pompilia's death-bed is almost conclusive
as to the absence of any criminal motive to her flight,
or criminal circumstance connected with it. Its time proved itself
to have been that of her impending, perhaps newly expected motherhood,
and may have had some reference to this fact. But the real Pompilia
was a simple child, who lived in bodily terror of her husband, and had made
repeated efforts to escape from him. Unless my memory much deceives me,
her physical condition plays no part in the historical defence of her flight.
If it appeared there at all, it was as a merely practical incentive
to her striving to place herself in safety. The sudden rapturous
sense of maternity which, in the poetic rendering of the case,
becomes her impulse to self-protection, was beyond her age and her culture;
it was not suggested by the facts; and, what is more striking,
it was not a natural development of Mr. Browning's imagination
The parental instinct was among the weakest in his nature --
a fact which renders the more conspicuous his devotion to his own son;
it finds little or no expression in his work. The apotheosis of motherhood
which he puts forth through the aged priest in `Ivan Ivanovitch'
was due to the poetic necessity of lifting a ghastly human punishment
into the sphere of Divine retribution. Even in the advancing years
which soften the father into the grandfather, the essential quality
of early childhood was not that which appealed to him. He would admire
its flower-like beauty, but not linger over it. He had no special emotion
for its helplessness. When he was attracted by a child
it was through the evidence of something not only distinct from,
but opposed to this. `It is the soul' (I see) `in that speck of a body,'
he said, not many years ago, of a tiny boy -- now too big
for it to be desirable that I should mention his name, but whose mother,
if she reads this, will know to whom I allude -- who had delighted him
by an act of intelligent grace which seemed beyond his years.
The ingenuously unbounded maternal pride, the almost luscious
maternal sentiment, of Pompilia's dying moments can only
associate themselves in our mind with Mrs. Browning's personal utterances,
and some notable passages in `Casa Guidi Windows' and `Aurora Leigh'.
Even the exalted fervour of the invocation to Caponsacchi,
its blending of spiritual ecstasy with half-realized earthly emotion,
has, I think, no parallel in her husband's work.
`Pompilia' bears, still, unmistakably, the stamp of her author's genius.
Only he could have imagined her peculiar form of consciousness;
her childlike, wondering, yet subtle, perception of the anomalies of life.
He has raised the woman in her from the typical to the individual
by this distinguishing touch of his supreme originality;
and thus infused into her character a haunting pathos which renders it
to many readers the most exquisite in the whole range of his creations.
For others at the same time, it fails in the impressiveness
because it lacks the reality which habitually marks them.
So much, however, is certain: Mr. Browning would never have accepted
this `murder story' as the subject of a poem, if he could not in some sense
have made it poetical. It was only in an idealized Pompilia
that the material for such a process could be found. We owe it, therefore,
to the one departure from his usual mode of dramatic conception,
that the Poet's masterpiece has been produced. I know no other instance
of what can be even mistaken for reflected inspiration
in the whole range of his work, the given passages in `Pauline' excepted.
The postscript of a letter to Frederic Leighton written
so far back as October 17, 1864, is interesting in its connection
with the preliminary stages of this great undertaking.
`A favour, if you have time for it. Go into the church St. Lorenzo in Lucina
in the Corso -- and look attentively at it -- so as to describe it to me
on your return. The general arrangement of the building, if with a nave --
pillars or not -- the number of altars, and any particularity there may be --
over the High Altar is a famous Crucifixion by Guido.
It will be of great use to me. I don't care about the OUTSIDE.'
Lord Dufferin; Helen's Tower -- Scotland; Visit to Lady Ashburton --
Letters to Miss Blagden -- St.-Aubin; The Franco-Prussian War --
`Herve Riel' -- Letter to Mr. G. M. Smith -- `Balaustion's Adventure';
`Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau' -- `Fifine at the Fair' --
Mistaken Theories of Mr. Browning's Work -- St.-Aubin;
`Red Cotton Nightcap Country'.
From 1869 to 1871 Mr. Browning published nothing; but in April 1870 he wrote
the sonnet called `Helen's Tower', a beautiful tribute to the memory of Helen,
mother of Lord Dufferin, suggested by the memorial tower
which her son was erecting to her on his estate at Clandeboye.
The sonnet appeared in 1883, in the `Pall Mall Gazette',
and was reprinted in 1886, in `Sonnets of the Century', edited by Mr. Sharp;
and again in the fifth part of the Browning Society's `Papers';
but it is still I think sufficiently little known to justify its reproduction.
Who hears of Helen's Tower may dream perchance
How the Greek Beauty from the Scaean Gate
Gazed on old friends unanimous in hate,
Death-doom'd because of her fair countenance.
Hearts would leap otherwise at thy advance,
Lady, to whom this Tower is consecrate!
Like hers, thy face once made all eyes elate,
Yet, unlike hers, was bless'd by every glance.
The Tower of Hate is outworn, far and strange;
A transitory shame of long ago;
It dies into the sand from which it sprang;
But thine, Love's rock-built Tower, shall fear no change.
God's self laid stable earth's foundations so,
When all the morning-stars together sang.
April 26, 1870.
Lord Dufferin is a warm admirer of Mr. Browning's genius.
He also held him in strong personal regard.
In the summer of 1869 the poet, with his sister and son,
changed the manner of his holiday, by joining Mr. Story and his family
in a tour in Scotland, and a visit to Louisa, Lady Ashburton,
at Loch Luichart Lodge; but in the August of 1870 he was again
in the primitive atmosphere of a French fishing village,
though one which had little to recommend it but the society of a friend;
it was M. Milsand's St.-Aubin. He had written, February 24,
to Miss Blagden, under the one inspiration which naturally recurred
in his correspondence with her.
`. . . So you, too, think of Naples for an eventual resting-place!
Back to Full Books