Life and Letters of Robert Browning
Mrs. Sutherland Orr
Part 5 out of 7
Yes, that is the proper basking-ground for "bright and aged snakes."
Florence would be irritating, and, on the whole, insufferable --
Yet I never hear of any one going thither but my heart is twitched.
There is a good, charming, little singing German lady, Miss Regan,
who told me the other day that she was just about revisiting her aunt,
Madame Sabatier, whom you may know, or know of -- and I felt as if
I should immensely like to glide, for a long summer-day
through the streets and between the old stone-walls, --
unseen come and unheard go -- perhaps by some miracle, I shall do so --
and look up at Villa Brichieri as Arnold's Gypsy-Scholar
gave one wistful look at "the line of festal light in Christ Church Hall,"
before he went to sleep in some forgotten grange. . . .
I am so glad I can be comfortable in your comfort. I fancy exactly
how you feel and see how you live: it IS the Villa Geddes of old days,
I find. I well remember the fine view from the upper room --
that looking down the steep hill, by the side of which runs
the road you describe -- that path was always my preferred walk,
for its shortness (abruptness) and the fine old wall to your left
(from the Villa) which is overgrown with weeds and wild flowers --
violets and ground-ivy, I remember. Oh, me! to find myself
some late sunshiny Sunday afternoon, with my face turned to Florence --
"ten minutes to the gate, ten minutes HOME!" I think I should
fairly end it all on the spot. . . .'
He writes again from St.-Aubin, August 19, 1870:
`Dearest Isa, -- Your letter came prosperously to this little wild place,
where we have been, Sarianna and myself, just a week.
Milsand lives in a cottage with a nice bit of garden, two steps off,
and we occupy another of the most primitive kind on the sea-shore --
which shore is a good sandy stretch for miles and miles on either side.
I don't think we were ever quite so thoroughly washed by the sea-air
from all quarters as here -- the weather is fine, and we do well enough.
The sadness of the war and its consequences go far to paralyse
all our pleasure, however. . . .
`Well, you are at Siena -- one of the places I love best to remember.
You are returned -- or I would ask you to tell me how the Villa Alberti wears,
and if the fig-tree behind the house is green and strong yet.
I have a pen-and-ink drawing of it, dated and signed the last day
Ba was ever there -- "my fig tree --" she used to sit under it,
reading and writing. Nine years, or ten rather, since then!
Poor old Landor's oak, too, and his cottage, ought not to be forgotten.
Exactly opposite this house, -- just over the way of the water, --
shines every night the light-house of Havre -- a place I know well,
and love very moderately: but it always gives me a thrill as I see afar,
EXACTLY a particular spot which I was at along with her. At this moment,
I see the white streak of the phare in the sun, from the window where I write
and I THINK. . . . Milsand went to Paris last week, just before we arrived,
to transport his valuables to a safer place than his house,
which is near the fortifications. He is filled with as much despondency
as can be -- while the old dear and perfect kindness remains.
I never knew or shall know his like among men. . . .'
The war did more than sadden Mr. and Miss Browning's visit to St.-Aubin;
it opposed unlooked-for difficulties to their return home.
They had remained, unconscious of the impending danger,
till Sedan had been taken, the Emperor's downfall proclaimed,
and the country suddenly placed in a state of siege.
One morning M. Milsand came to them in anxious haste,
and insisted on their starting that very day. An order, he said,
had been issued that no native should leave the country,
and it only needed some unusually thick-headed Maire
for Mr. Browning to be arrested as a runaway Frenchman or a Prussian spy.
The usual passenger boats from Calais and Boulogne no longer ran;
but there was, he believed, a chance of their finding one at Havre.
They acted on this warning, and discovered its wisdom
in the various hindrances which they found on their way.
Everywhere the horses had been requisitioned for the war.
The boat on which they had relied to take them down the river to Caen
had been stopped that very morning; and when they reached the railroad
they were told that the Prussians would be at the other end before night.
At last they arrived at Honfleur, where they found an English vessel
which was about to convey cattle to Southampton; and in this,
setting out at midnight, they made their passage to England.
Some words addressed to Miss Blagden, written I believe in 1871,
once more strike a touching familiar note.
`. . . But NO, dearest Isa. The simple truth is that SHE was the poet,
and I the clever person by comparison -- remember her limited experience
of all kinds, and what she made of it. Remember on the other hand,
how my uninterrupted health and strength and practice with the world
have helped me. . . .'
`Balaustion's Adventure' and `Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau' were published,
respectively, in August and December 1871. They had been preceded
in the March of the same year by a ballad, `Herve Riel',
afterwards reprinted in the `Pacchiarotto' volume, and which Mr. Browning
now sold to the `Cornhill Magazine' for the benefit of the French sufferers
by the war.
The circumstances of this little transaction, unique in
Mr. Browning's experience, are set forth in the following letter:
Feb. 4, '71.
`My dear Smith, -- I want to give something to the people in Paris,
and can afford so very little just now, that I am forced upon an expedient.
Will you buy of me that poem which poor Simeon praised in a letter you saw,
and which I like better than most things I have done of late? --
Buy, -- I mean, -- the right of printing it in the Pall Mall and,
if you please, the Cornhill also, -- the copyright remaining with me.
You remember you wanted to print it in the Cornhill, and I was obstinate:
there is hardly any occasion on which I should be otherwise,
if the printing any poem of mine in a magazine were purely for my own sake:
so, any liberality you exercise will not be drawn into a precedent
against you. I fancy this is a case in which one may handsomely
puff one's own ware, and I venture to call my verses good for once.
I send them to you directly, because expedition will render
whatever I contribute more valuable: for when you make up your mind
as to how liberally I shall be enabled to give, you must send me a cheque
and I will send the same as the "Product of a Poem" -- so that your light
will shine deservedly. Now, begin proceedings by reading the poem
to Mrs. Smith, -- by whose judgment I will cheerfully be bound;
and, with her approval, second my endeavour as best you can.
Would, -- for the love of France, -- that this were a "Song of a Wren" --
then should the guineas equal the lines; as it is, do what you safely may
for the song of a Robin -- Browning -- who is yours very truly,
into the bargain.
`P.S. The copy is so clear and careful that you might, with a good Reader,
print it on Monday, nor need my help for corrections: I shall however
be always at home, and ready at a moment's notice: return the copy,
if you please, as I promised it to my son long ago.'
Mr. Smith gave him 100 guineas as the price of the poem.
He wrote concerning the two longer poems, first probably
at the close of this year, and again in January 1872, to Miss Blagden.
`. . . By this time you have got my little book (`Hohenstiel')
and seen for yourself whether I make the best or worst of the case.
I think, in the main, he meant to do what I say, and, but for weakness, --
grown more apparent in his last years than formerly, --
would have done what I say he did not.* I thought badly of him
at the beginning of his career, ET POUR CAUSE: better afterward,
on the strength of the promises he made, and gave indications of intending
to redeem. I think him very weak in the last miserable year. At his worst
I prefer him to Thiers' best. I am told my little thing is succeeding --
sold 1,400 in the first five days, and before any notice appeared.
I remember that the year I made the little rough sketch in Rome, '60,
my account for the last six months with Chapman was -- NIL,
not one copy disposed of! . . .
* This phrase is a little misleading.
`. . . I am glad you like what the editor of the Edinburgh
calls my eulogium on the second empire, -- which it is not,
any more than what another wiseacre affirms it to be "a scandalous attack
on the old constant friend of England" -- it is just what I imagine
the man might, if he pleased, say for himself.'
Mr. Browning continues:
`Spite of my ailments and bewailments I have just all but finished
another poem of quite another kind, which shall amuse you in the spring,
I hope! I don't go sound asleep at all events. `Balaustion' --
the second edition is in the press I think I told you.
2,500 in five months, is a good sale for the likes of me.
But I met Henry Taylor (of Artevelde) two days ago at dinner,
and he said he had never gained anything by his books,
which surely is a shame -- I mean, if no buyers mean no readers. . . .'
`Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau' was written in Scotland,
where Mr. Browning was the guest of Mr. Ernest Benzon:
having left his sister to the care of M. and Madame Milsand at St.-Aubin.
The ailment he speaks of consisted, I believe, of a severe cold.
Another of the occurrences of 1871 was Mr. Browning's election
as Life Governor of the London University.
A passage from a letter dated March 30, '72, bears striking testimony
to the constant warmth of his affections.
`. . . The misfortune, which I did not guess when I accepted the invitation,
is that I shall lose some of the last days of Milsand, who has been here
for the last month: no words can express the love I have for him, you know.
He is increasingly precious to me. . . . Waring came back the other day,
after thirty years' absence, the same as ever, -- nearly.
He has been Prime Minister at New Zealand for a year and a half,
but gets tired, and returns home with a poem.'*
* `Ranolf and Amohia'.
This is my last extract from the correspondence with Miss Blagden.
Her death closed it altogether within the year.
It is difficult to infer from letters, however intimate,
the dominant state of the writer's mind: most of all to do so
in Mr. Browning's case, from such passages of his correspondence
as circumstances allow me to quote. Letters written in intimacy,
and to the same friend, often express a recurrent mood,
a revived set of associations, which for the moment destroys
the habitual balance of feeling. The same effect is sometimes produced
in personal intercourse; and the more varied the life,
the more versatile the nature, the more readily in either case
will a lately unused spring of emotion well up at the passing touch.
We may even fancy we read into the letters of 1870 that eerie,
haunting sadness of a cherished memory from which, in spite of ourselves,
life is bearing us away. We may also err in so doing.
But literary creation, patiently carried on through a given period,
is usually a fair reflection of the general moral and mental conditions
under which it has taken place; and it would be hard to imagine
from Mr. Browning's work during these last ten years
that any but gracious influences had been operating upon his genius,
any more disturbing element than the sense of privation and loss
had entered into his inner life.
Some leaven of bitterness must, nevertheless, have been working within him,
or he could never have produced that piece of perplexing cynicism,
`Fifine at the Fair' -- the poem referred to as in progress
in a letter to Miss Blagden, and which appeared in the spring of 1872.
The disturbing cause had been also of long standing;
for the deeper reactive processes of Mr. Browning's nature were as slow
as its more superficial response was swift; and while `Dramatis Personae',
`The Ring and the Book', and even `Balaustion's Adventure',
represented the gradually perfected substance of his poetic imagination,
`Fifine at the Fair' was as the froth thrown up by it
during the prolonged simmering which was to leave it clear.
The work displays the iridescent brightness as well as the occasional impurity
of this froth-like character. Beauty and ugliness are, indeed,
almost inseparable in the moral impression which it leaves upon us.
The author has put forth a plea for self-indulgence with a much slighter
attempt at dramatic disguise than his special pleadings generally assume;
and while allowing circumstances to expose the sophistry of the position,
and punish its attendant act, he does not sufficiently condemn it.
But, in identifying himself for the moment with the conception of a Don Juan,
he has infused into it a tenderness and a poetry with which the true type
had very little in common, and which retard its dramatic development.
Those who knew Mr. Browning, or who thoroughly know his work,
may censure, regret, fail to understand `Fifine at the Fair';
they will never in any important sense misconstrue it.
But it has been so misconstrued by an intelligent and not
unsympathetic critic; and his construction may be endorsed
by other persons in the present, and still more in the future,
in whom the elements of a truer judgment are wanting.
It seems, therefore, best to protest at once against the misjudgment,
though in so doing I am claiming for it an attention which
it may not seem to deserve. I allude to Mr. Mortimer's `Note on Browning'
in the `Scottish Art Review' for December 1889. This note contains
a summary of Mr. Browning's teaching, which it resolves into
the moral equivalent of the doctrine of the conservation of force.
Mr. Mortimer assumes for the purpose of his comparison
that the exercise of force means necessarily moving on;
and according to him Mr. Browning prescribes action at any price,
even that of defying the restrictions of moral law. He thus, we are told,
blames the lovers in `The Statue and the Bust' for their failure to carry out
what was an immoral intention; and, in the person of his `Don Juan',
defends a husband's claim to relieve the fixity of conjugal affection
by varied adventure in the world of temporary loves: the result being
`the negation of that convention under which we habitually view life,
but which for some reason or other breaks down when we have to face
the problems of a Goethe, a Shelley, a Byron, or a Browning.'
Mr. Mortimer's generalization does not apply to `The Statue and the Bust',
since Mr. Browning has made it perfectly clear that, in this case,
the intended act is postponed without reference to its morality,
and simply in consequence of a weakness of will, which would have been
as paralyzing to a good purpose as it was to the bad one;
but it is not without superficial sanction in `Fifine at the Fair';
and the part which the author allowed himself to play in it
did him an injustice only to be measured by the inference
which it has been made to support. There could be no mistake more ludicrous,
were it less regrettable, than that of classing Mr. Browning,
on moral grounds, with Byron or Shelley; even in the case of Goethe
the analogy breaks down. The evidence of the foregoing pages
has rendered all protest superfluous. But the suggested moral resemblance
to the two English poets receives a striking comment
in a fact of Mr. Browning's life which falls practically
into the present period of our history: his withdrawal from Shelley
of the devotion of more than forty years on account of an act of heartlessness
towards his first wife which he held to have been proved against him.
The sweet and the bitter lay, indeed, very close to each other
at the sources of Mr. Browning's inspiration. Both proceeded,
in great measure, from his spiritual allegiance to the past --
that past by which it was impossible that he should linger,
but which he could not yet leave behind. The present came to him
with friendly greeting. He was unconsciously, perhaps inevitably,
unjust to what it brought. The injustice reacted upon himself,
and developed by degrees into the cynical mood of fancy
which became manifest in `Fifine at the Fair'.
It is true that, in the light of this explanation, we see an effect
very unlike its cause; but the chemistry of human emotion
is like that of natural life. It will often form a compound
in which neither of its constituents can be recognized.
This perverse poem was the last as well as the first manifestation
of an ungenial mood of Mr. Browning's mind. A slight exception
may be made for some passages in `Red Cotton Nightcap Country',
and for one of the poems of the `Pacchiarotto' volume;
but otherwise no sign of moral or mental disturbance betrays itself
in his subsequent work. The past and the present gradually assumed for him
a more just relation to each other. He learned to meet life
as it offered itself to him with a more frank recognition of its good gifts,
a more grateful response to them. He grew happier, hence more genial,
as the years advanced.
It was not without misgiving that Mr. Browning published `Fifine at the Fair';
but many years were to pass before he realized the kind of criticism
to which it had exposed him. The belief conveyed in the letter
to Miss Blagden that what proceeds from a genuine inspiration
is justified by it, combined with the indifference to public opinion
which had been engendered in him by its long neglect,
made him slow to anticipate the results of external judgment,
even where he was in some degree prepared to endorse them.
For his value as a poet, it was best so.
The August of 1872 and of 1873 again found him with his sister at St.-Aubin,
and the earlier visit was an important one: since it supplied him
with the materials of his next work, of which Miss Annie Thackeray,
there also for a few days, suggested the title. The tragic drama
which forms the subject of Mr. Browning's poem had been in great part enacted
in the vicinity of St.-Aubin; and the case of disputed inheritance to which
it had given rise was pending at that moment in the tribunals of Caen.
The prevailing impression left on Miss Thackeray's mind
by this primitive district was, she declared, that of white cotton nightcaps
(the habitual headgear of the Normandy peasants). She engaged
to write a story called `White Cotton Nightcap Country';
and Mr. Browning's quick sense of both contrast and analogy
inspired the introduction of this emblem of repose into his own picture
of that peaceful, prosaic existence, and of the ghastly spiritual conflict
to which it had served as background. He employed a good deal
of perhaps strained ingenuity in the opening pages of the work,
in making the white cap foreshadow the red, itself the symbol of liberty,
and only indirectly connected with tragic events; and he would,
I think, have emphasized the irony of circumstance in a manner
more characteristic of himself, if he had laid his stress on the remoteness
from `the madding crowd', and repeated Miss Thackeray's title.
There can, however, be no doubt that his poetic imagination,
no less than his human insight, was amply vindicated
by his treatment of the story.
On leaving St.-Aubin he spent a month at Fontainebleau, in a house situated
on the outskirts of the forest; and here his principal indoor occupation
was reading the Greek dramatists, especially Aeschylus,
to whom he had returned with revived interest and curiosity.
`Red Cotton Nightcap Country' was not begun till his return to London
in the later autumn. It was published in the early summer of 1873.
London Life -- Love of Music -- Miss Egerton-Smith --
Periodical Nervous Exhaustion -- Mers; `Aristophanes' Apology' --
`Agamemnon' -- `The Inn Album' -- `Pacchiarotto and other Poems' --
Visits to Oxford and Cambridge -- Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald --
St. Andrews; Letter from Professor Knight -- In the Savoyard Mountains --
Death of Miss Egerton-Smith -- `La Saisiaz'; `The Two Poets of Croisic' --
Selections from his Works.
The period on which we have now entered, covering roughly
the ten or twelve years which followed the publication
of `The Ring and the Book', was the fullest in Mr. Browning's life;
it was that in which the varied claims made by it on his moral, and above all
his physical energies, found in him the fullest power of response.
He could rise early and go to bed late -- this, however, never from choice;
and occupy every hour of the day with work or pleasure,
in a manner which his friends recalled regretfully in later years,
when of two or three engagements which ought to have divided his afternoon,
a single one -- perhaps only the most formally pressing -- could be fulfilled.
Soon after his final return to England, while he still lived
in comparative seclusion, certain habits of friendly intercourse,
often superficial, but always binding, had rooted themselves in his life.
London society, as I have also implied, opened itself to him
in ever-widening circles, or, as it would be truer to say,
drew him more and more deeply into its whirl; and even before the mellowing
kindness of his nature had infused warmth into the least substantial
of his social relations, the imaginative curiosity of the poet --
for a while the natural ambition of the man -- found satisfaction in it.
For a short time, indeed, he entered into the fashionable routine
of country-house visiting. Besides the instances I have already given,
and many others which I may have forgotten, he was heard of,
during the earlier part of this decade, as the guest of Lord Carnarvon
at Highclere Castle, of Lord Shrewsbury at Alton Towers,
of Lord Brownlow and his mother, Lady Marian Alford, at Belton and Ashridge.
Somewhat later, he stayed with Mr. and Lady Alice Gaisford
at a house they temporarily occupied on the Sussex downs;
with Mr. Cholmondeley at Condover, and, much more recently,
at Aynhoe Park with Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright. Kind and pressing,
and in themselves very tempting invitations of this nature came to him
until the end of his life; but he very soon made a practice of declining them,
because their acceptance could only renew for him the fatigues
of the London season, while the tantalizing beauty and repose of the country
lay before his eyes; but such visits, while they continued,
were one of the necessary social experiences which brought
their grist to his mill.
And now, in addition to the large social tribute which he received,
and had to pay, he was drinking in all the enjoyment, and incurring
all the fatigue which the London musical world could create for him.
In Italy he had found the natural home of the other arts. The one poem,
`Old Pictures in Florence', is sufficiently eloquent of long communion
with the old masters and their works; and if his history in Florence and Rome
had been written in his own letters instead of those of his wife,
they must have held many reminiscences of galleries and studios,
and of the places in which pictures are bought and sold.
But his love for music was as certainly starved as the delight
in painting and sculpture was nourished; and it had now grown into a passion,
from the indulgence of which he derived, as he always declared,
some of the most beneficent influences of his life. It would be scarcely
an exaggeration to say that he attended every important concert of the season,
whether isolated or given in a course. There was no engagement
possible or actual, which did not yield to the discovery of its clashing
with the day and hour fixed for one of these. His frequent companion
on such occasions was Miss Egerton-Smith.
Miss Smith became only known to Mr. Browning's general acquaintance
through the dedicatory `A. E. S.' of `La Saisiaz'; but she was,
at the time of her death, one of his oldest women friends.
He first met her as a young woman in Florence when she was visiting there;
and the love for and proficiency in music soon asserted itself
as a bond of sympathy between them. They did not, however,
see much of each other till he had finally left Italy,
and she also had made her home in London. She there led a secluded life,
although free from family ties, and enjoying a large income
derived from the ownership of an important provincial paper.
Mr. Browning was one of the very few persons whose society
she cared to cultivate; and for many years the common musical interest
took the practical, and for both of them convenient form,
of their going to concerts together. After her death, in the autumn of 1877,
he almost mechanically renounced all the musical entertainments
to which she had so regularly accompanied him. The special motive
and special facility were gone -- she had been wont to call for him
in her carriage; the habit was broken; there would have been first pain,
and afterwards an unwelcome exertion in renewing it. Time was also
beginning to sap his strength, while society, and perhaps friendship,
were making increasing claims upon it. It may have been for this same reason
that music after a time seemed to pass out of his life altogether.
Yet its almost sudden eclipse was striking in the case of one
who not only had been so deeply susceptible to its emotional influences,
so conversant with its scientific construction and its multitudinous forms,
but who was acknowledged as `musical' by those who best knew
the subtle and complex meaning of that often misused term.
Mr. Browning could do all that I have said during the period through which
we are now following him; but he could not quite do it with impunity.
Each winter brought its searching attack of cold and cough;
each summer reduced him to the state of nervous prostration or physical apathy
of which I have already spoken, and which at once rendered
change imperative, and the exertion of seeking it almost intolerable.
His health and spirits rebounded at the first draught of foreign air;
the first breath from an English cliff or moor might have had the same result.
But the remembrance of this fact never nerved him to the preliminary effort.
The conviction renewed itself with the close of every season,
that the best thing which could happen to him would be to be
left quiet at home; and his disinclination to face even the idea of moving
equally hampered his sister in her endeavour to make timely arrangements
for their change of abode.
This special craving for rest helped to limit the area from which
their summer resort could be chosen. It precluded all idea of `pension'-life,
hence of any much-frequented spot in Switzerland or Germany.
It was tacitly understood that the shortening days were not to be passed
in England. Italy did not yet associate itself with the possibilities
of a moderately short absence; the resources of the northern French coast
were becoming exhausted; and as the August of 1874 approached,
the question of how and where this and the following months
were to be spent was, perhaps, more than ever a perplexing one.
It was now Miss Smith who became the means of its solution.
She had more than once joined Mr. and Miss Browning at the seaside.
She was anxious this year to do so again, and she suggested for their meeting
a quiet spot called Mers, almost adjoining the fashionable Treport,
but distinct from it. It was agreed that they should try it;
and the experiment, which they had no reason to regret,
opened also in some degree a way out of future difficulties.
Mers was young, and had the defect of its quality. Only one desirable house
was to be found there; and the plan of joint residence became converted
into one of joint housekeeping, in which Mr. and Miss Browning
at first refused to concur, but which worked so well that it was renewed
in the three ensuing summers: Miss Smith retaining the initiative
in the choice of place, her friends the right of veto upon it.
They stayed again together in 1875 at Villers, on the coast of Normandy;
in 1876 at the Isle of Arran; in 1877 at a house called La Saisiaz --
Savoyard for the sun -- in the Saleve district near Geneva.
The autumn months of 1874 were marked for Mr. Browning
by an important piece of work: the production of `Aristophanes' Apology'.
It was far advanced when he returned to London in November,
after a visit to Antwerp, where his son was studying art under M. Heyermans;
and its much later appearance must have been intended
to give breathing time to the readers of `Red Cotton Nightcap Country'.
Mr. Browning subsequently admitted that he sometimes, during these years,
allowed active literary occupation to interfere too much
with the good which his holiday might have done him; but the temptations
to literary activity were this time too great to be withstood.
The house occupied by him at Mers (Maison Robert) was the last
of the straggling village, and stood on a rising cliff.
In front was the open sea; beyond it a long stretch of down;
everywhere comparative solitude. Here, in uninterrupted quiet,
and in a room devoted to his use, Mr. Browning would work till
the afternoon was advanced, and then set forth on a long walk over the cliffs,
often in the face of a wind which, as he wrote of it at the time,
he could lean against as if it were a wall. And during this time
he was living, not only in his work, but with the man who had inspired it.
The image of Aristophanes, in the half-shamed insolence,
the disordered majesty, in which he is placed before the reader's mind,
was present to him from the first moment in which the Defence was conceived.
What was still more interesting, he could see him, hear him,
think with him, speak for him, and still inevitably condemn him.
No such instance of always ingenious, and sometimes earnest pleading
foredoomed to complete discomfiture, occurs in Mr. Browning's works.
To Aristophanes he gave the dramatic sympathy which one lover of life
can extend to another, though that other unduly extol its lower forms.
To Euripides he brought the palm of the higher truth,
to his work the tribute of the more pathetic human emotion.
Even these for a moment ministered to the greatness of Aristophanes,
in the tear shed by him to the memory of his rival,
in the hour of his own triumph; and we may be quite sure
that when Mr. Browning depicted that scene, and again when he translated
the great tragedian's words, his own eyes were dimmed.
Large tears fell from them, and emotion choked his voice,
when he first read aloud the transcript of the `Herakles' to a friend,
who was often privileged to hear him.
Mr. Browning's deep feeling for the humanities of Greek literature,
and his almost passionate love for the language, contrasted strongly
with his refusal to regard even the first of Greek writers
as models of literary style. The pretensions raised for them on this ground
were inconceivable to him; and his translation of the `Agamemnon',
published 1877, was partly made, I am convinced, for the pleasure of exposing
these claims, and of rebuking them. His preface to the transcript gives
evidence of this. The glee with which he pointed to it when it first appeared
was no less significant.
At Villers, in 1875, he only corrected the proofs of `The Inn Album'
for publication in November. When the party started for the Isle of Arran,
in the autumn of 1876, the `Pacchiarotto' volume had already appeared.
When Mr. Browning discontinued his short-lived habit of visiting
away from home, he made an exception in favour of the Universities.
His occasional visits to Oxford and Cambridge were maintained
till the very end of his life, with increasing frequency in the former case;
and the days spent at Balliol and Trinity afforded him as unmixed a pleasure
as was compatible with the interruption of his daily habits,
and with a system of hospitality which would detain him
for many hours at table. A vivid picture of them is given
in two letters, dated January 20 and March 10, 1877,
and addressed to one of his constant correspondents,
Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, of Shalstone Manor, Buckingham.
Dear Friend, I have your letter of yesterday, and thank you all I can
for its goodness and graciousness to me unworthy . . . I returned on Thursday
-- the hospitality of our Master being not easy to set aside.
But to begin with the beginning: the passage from London to Oxford
was exceptionally prosperous -- the train was full of men my friends.
I was welcomed on arriving by a Fellow who installed me in my rooms, --
then came the pleasant meeting with Jowett who at once took me to tea
with his other guests, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop of London,
Dean of Westminster, the Airlies, Cardwells, male and female.
Then came the banquet -- (I enclose you the plan having no doubt
that you will recognise the name of many an acquaintance: please return it)
-- and, the dinner done, speechifying set in vigorously.
The Archbishop proposed the standing `Floreat domus de Balliolo' --
to which the Master made due and amusing answer, himself giving
the health of the Primate. Lord Coleridge, in a silvery speech,
drank to the University, responded to by the Vice-Chancellor.
I forget who proposed the visitors -- the Bishop of London,
perhaps Lord Cardwell. Professor Smith gave the two Houses of Parliament, --
Jowett, the Clergy, coupling with it the name of your friend Mr. Rogers --
on whom he showered every kind of praise, and Mr. Rogers returned thanks
very characteristically and pleasantly. Lord Lansdowne drank to the Bar
(Mr. Bowen), Lord Camperdown to -- I really forget what:
Mr. Green to Literature and Science delivering a most undeserved eulogium
on myself, with a more rightly directed one on Arnold, Swinburne,
and the old pride of Balliol, Clough: this was cleverly and almost touchingly
answered by dear Mat Arnold. Then the Dean of Westminster
gave the Fellows and Scholars -- and then -- twelve o'clock struck.
We were, counting from the time of preliminary assemblage,
six hours and a half engaged: FULLY five and a half nailed to our chairs
at the table: but the whole thing was brilliant, genial,
and suggestive of many and various thoughts to me -- and there was a warmth,
earnestness, and yet refinement about it which I never experienced
in any previous public dinner. Next morning I breakfasted
with Jowett and his guests, found that return would be difficult:
while as the young men were to return on Friday there would be no opposition
to my departure on Thursday. The morning was dismal with rain,
but after luncheon there was a chance of getting a little air,
and I walked for more than two hours, then heard service in New Coll. --
then dinner again: my room had been prepared in the Master's house.
So, on Thursday, after yet another breakfast, I left by the noon-day train,
after all sorts of kindly offices from the Master. . . .
No reporters were suffered to be present -- the account in yesterday's Times
was furnished by one or more of the guests; it is quite correct
as far as it goes. There were, I find, certain little paragraphs
which must have been furnished by `guessers': Swinburne, set down as present
-- was absent through his Father's illness: the Cardinal also excused himself
as did the Bishop of Salisbury and others. . . .
The second letter, from Cambridge, was short and written in haste,
at the moment of Mr. Browning's departure; but it tells the same tale
of general kindness and attention. Engagements for no less than six meals
had absorbed the first day of the visit. The occasion was that
of Professor Joachim's investiture with his Doctor's degree;
and Mr. Browning declares that this ceremony, the concert given
by the great violinist, and his society, were `each and all'
worth the trouble of the journey. He himself was to receive
the Cambridge degree of LL.D. in 1879, the Oxford D.C.L. in 1882.
A passage in another letter addressed to the same friend,
refers probably to a practical reminiscence of `Red Cotton Nightcap Country',
which enlivened the latter experience, and which Mrs. Fitz-Gerald
had witnessed with disapprobation.*
* An actual red cotton nightcap had been made to flutter down
on to the Poet's head.
. . . You are far too hard on the very harmless drolleries of the young men,
licensed as they are moreover by immemorial usage. Indeed there used to be
a regularly appointed jester, `Filius Terrae' he was called,
whose business it was to jibe and jeer at the honoured ones,
by way of reminder that all human glories are merely gilded bubbles
and must not be fancied metal. You saw that the Reverend Dons escaped no more
than the poor Poet -- or rather I should say than myself the poor Poet --
for I was pleased to observe with what attention they listened
to the Newdigate. . . .
Ever affectionately yours,
In 1875 he was unanimously nominated by its Independent Club,
to the office of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow;
and in 1877 he again received the offer of the Rectorship of St. Andrews,
couched in very urgent and flattering terms. A letter addressed to him from
this University by Dr. William Knight, Professor of Moral Philosophy there,
which I have his permission to publish, bears witness to what had long been
and was always to remain a prominent fact of Mr. Browning's literary career:
his great influence on the minds of the rising generation of his countrymen.
The University, St. Andrews N.B.: Nov. 17, 1877.
My dear Sir, -- . . . The students of this University, in which
I have the honour to hold office, have nominated you as their Lord Rector;
and intend unanimously, I am told, to elect you to that office on Thursday.
I believe that hitherto no Rector has been chosen by the undivided suffrage
of any Scottish University. They have heard however that you are unable
to accept the office: and your committee, who were deeply disappointed
to learn this afternoon of the way in which you have been informed
of their intentions, are, I believe, writing to you on the subject.
So keen is their regret that they intend respectfully to wait upon you
on Tuesday morning by deputation, and ask if you cannot
waive your difficulties in deference to their enthusiasm,
and allow them to proceed with your election.
Their suffrage may, I think, be regarded as one sign
of how the thoughtful youth of Scotland estimate the work you have done
in the world of letters.
And permit me to say that while these Rectorial elections
in the other Universities have frequently turned on local questions,
or been inspired by political partisanship, St. Andrews has honourably sought
to choose men distinguished for literary eminence, and to make the Rectorship
a tribute at once of intellectual and moral esteem.
May I add that when the `perfervidum ingenium' of our northern race
takes the form not of youthful hero-worship, but of loyal admiration
and respectful homage, it is a very genuine affair. In the present instance
I may say it is no mere outburst of young undisciplined enthusiasm,
but an honest expression of intellectual and moral indebtedness,
the genuine and distinct tribute of many minds that have been touched
to some higher issues by what you have taught them. They do not presume
to speak of your place in English literature. They merely tell you
by this proffered honour (the highest in their power to bestow),
how they have felt your influence over them.
My own obligations to you, and to the author of Aurora Leigh, are such,
that of them `silence is golden'. Yours ever gratefully.
Mr. Browning was deeply touched and gratified by these professions of esteem.
He persisted nevertheless in his refusal. The Glasgow nomination
had also been declined by him.
On August 17, 1877, he wrote to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald from La Saisiaz:
`How lovely is this place in its solitude and seclusion,
with its trees and shrubs and flowers, and above all its live mountain stream
which supplies three fountains, and two delightful baths,
a marvel of delicate delight framed in with trees -- I bathe there
twice a day -- and then what wonderful views from the chalet on every side!
Geneva lying under us, with the lake and the whole plain
bounded by the Jura and our own Saleve, which latter seems rather close
behind our house, and yet takes a hard hour and a half to ascend --
all this you can imagine since you know the environs of the town;
the peace and quiet move me the most -- And I fancy I shall drowse out
the two months or more, doing no more of serious work than reading --
and that is virtuous renunciation of the glorious view to my right here --
as I sit aerially like Euripides, and see the clouds come and go
and the view change in correspondence with them. It will help me
to get rid of the pain which attaches itself to the recollections
of Lucerne and Berne "in the old days when the Greeks suffered so much,"
as Homer says. But a very real and sharp pain touched me here
when I heard of the death of poor Virginia March whom I knew particularly,
and parted with hardly a fortnight ago, leaving her affectionate
and happy as ever. The tones of her voice as on one memorable occasion
she ejaculated repeatedly `Good friend!' are fresh still.
Poor Virginia! . . .'
Mr. Browning was more than quiescent during this stay
in the Savoyard mountains. He was unusually depressed,
and unusually disposed to regard the absence from home as a banishment;
and he tried subsequently to account for this condition
by the shadow which coming trouble sometimes casts before it.
It was more probably due to the want of the sea air which he had enjoyed
for so many years, and to that special oppressive heat of the Swiss valleys
which ascends with them to almost their highest level. When he said
that the Saleve seemed close behind the house, he was saying in other words
that the sun beat back from, and the air was intercepted by it.
We see, nevertheless, in his description of the surrounding scenery,
a promise of the contemplative delight in natural beauty to be henceforth
so conspicuous in his experience, and which seemed a new feature in it.
He had hitherto approached every living thing with curious
and sympathetic observation -- this hardly requires saying of one
who had animals for his first and always familiar friends.
Flowers also attracted him by their perfume. But what he loved in nature
was essentially its prefiguring of human existence, or its echo of it;
and it never appeared, in either his works or his conversation,
that he was much impressed by its inanimate forms --
by even those larger phenomena of mountain and cloud-land
on which the latter dwells. Such beauty as most appealed to him
he had left behind with the joys and sorrows of his Italian life,
and it had almost inevitably passed out of his consideration.
During years of his residence in London he never thought of the country
as a source of pleasurable emotions, other than those contingent
on renewed health; and the places to which he resorted
had often not much beyond their health-giving qualities to recommend them;
his appetite for the beautiful had probably dwindled for lack of food.
But when a friend once said to him: `You have not a great love for nature,
have you?' he had replied: `Yes, I have, but I love men and women better;'
and the admission, which conveyed more than it literally expressed,
would have been true I believe at any, up to the present,
period of his history. Even now he did not cease to love men and women best;
but he found increasing enjoyment in the beauties of nature,
above all as they opened upon him on the southern slopes of the Alps;
and the delight of the aesthetic sense merged gradually
in the satisfied craving for pure air and brilliant sunshine
which marked his final struggle for physical life. A ring of enthusiasm
comes into his letters from the mountains, and deepens as the years advance;
doubtless enhanced by the great -- perhaps too great -- exhilaration
which the Alpine atmosphere produced, but also in large measure
independent of it. Each new place into which the summer carries him
he declares more beautiful than the last. It possibly was so.
A touch of autumnal freshness had barely crept into the atmosphere
of the Saleve, when a moral thunderbolt fell on the little group of persons
domiciled at its base: Miss Egerton-Smith died, in what had seemed for her
unusually good health, in the act of preparing for a mountain excursion
with her friends -- the words still almost on her lips
in which she had given some directions for their comfort.
Mr. Browning's impressionable nervous system was for a moment paralyzed
by the shock. It revived in all the emotional and intellectual impulses
which gave birth to `La Saisiaz'.
This poem contains, besides its personal reference and association,
elements of distinctive biographical interest. It is the author's
first -- as also last -- attempt to reconstruct his hope of immortality
by a rational process based entirely on the fundamental facts
of his own knowledge and consciousness -- God and the human soul;
and while the very assumption of these facts, as basis for reasoning,
places him at issue with scientific thought, there is
in his way of handling them a tribute to the scientific spirit,
perhaps foreshadowed in the beautiful epilogue to `Dramatis Personae',
but of which there is no trace in his earlier religious works.
It is conclusive both in form and matter as to his heterodox attitude
towards Christianity. He was no less, in his way, a Christian
when he wrote `La Saisiaz' than when he published `A Death in the Desert'
and `Christmas Eve and Easter Day'; or at any period subsequent to that
in which he accepted without questioning what he had learned
at his mother's knee. He has repeatedly written or declared
in the words of Charles Lamb:* `If Christ entered the room
I should fall on my knees;' and again, in those of Napoleon:
`I am an understander of men, and HE was no man.' He has even added:
`If he had been, he would have been an impostor.' But the arguments,
in great part negative, set forth in `La Saisiaz' for the immortality
of the soul, leave no place for the idea, however indefinite,
of a Christian revelation on the subject. Christ remained for Mr. Browning
a mystery and a message of Divine Love, but no messenger of Divine intention
* These words have more significance when taken with their context.
`If Shakespeare was to come into the room, we should all rise up
to meet him; but if that Person [meaning Christ] was to come into the room,
we should all fall down and try to kiss the hem of his garment.'
The dialogue between Fancy and Reason is not only an admission of uncertainty
as to the future of the Soul: it is a plea for it; and as such
it gathers up into its few words of direct statement, threads of reasoning
which have been traceable throughout Mr. Browning's work.
In this plea for uncertainty lies also a full and frank acknowledgment
of the value of the earthly life; and as interpreted by his general views,
that value asserts itself, not only in the means of probation
which life affords, but in its existing conditions of happiness.
No one, he declares, possessing the certainty of a future state
would patiently and fully live out the present; and since the future can be
only the ripened fruit of the present, its promise would be neutralized,
as well as actual experience dwarfed, by a definite revelation.
Nor, conversely, need the want of a certified future depress the present
spiritual and moral life. It is in the nature of the Soul that it would
suffer from the promise. The existence of God is a justification for hope.
And since the certainty would be injurious to the Soul,
hence destructive to itself, the doubt -- in other words, the hope --
becomes a sufficient approach to, a working substitute for it.
It is pathetic to see how in spite of the convictions thus rooted
in Mr. Browning's mind, the expressed craving for more knowledge,
for more light, will now and then escape him.
Even orthodox Christianity gives no assurance of reunion to those
whom death has separated. It is obvious that Mr. Browning's poetic creed
could hold no conviction regarding it. He hoped for such reunion
in proportion as he wished. There must have been moments in his life
when the wish in its passion overleapt the bounds of hope.
`Prospice' appears to prove this. But the wide range of imagination,
no less than the lack of knowledge, forbade in him any forecast
of the possibilities of the life to come. He believed that if granted,
it would be an advance on the present -- an accession of knowledge
if not an increase of happiness. He was satisfied that whatever it gave,
and whatever it withheld, it would be good. In his normal condition
this sufficed to him.
`La Saisiaz' appeared in the early summer of 1878, and with it
`The Two Poets of Croisic', which had been written immediately after it.
The various incidents of this poem are strictly historical; they lead the way
to a characteristic utterance of Mr. Browning's philosophy of life
to which I shall recur later.
In 1872 Mr. Browning had published a first series of selections
from his works; it was to be followed by a second in 1880.
In a preface to the earlier volume, he indicates the plan
which he has followed in the choice and arrangement of poems;
and some such intention runs also through the second; since he declined
a suggestion made to him for the introduction or placing of a special poem,
on the ground of its not conforming to the end he had in view.
It is difficult, in the one case as in the other, to reconstruct
the imagined personality to which his preface refers; and his words
on the later occasion pointed rather to that idea of a chord of feeling
which is raised by the correspondence of the first and last poems
of the respective groups. But either clue may be followed with interest.
He revisits Italy; Asolo; Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald -- Venice --
Favourite Alpine Retreats -- Mrs. Arthur Bronson -- Life in Venice --
A Tragedy at Saint-Pierre -- Mr. Cholmondeley -- Mr. Browning's
Patriotic Feeling; Extract from Letter to Mrs. Charles Skirrow --
`Dramatic Idyls' -- `Jocoseria' -- `Ferishtah's Fancies'.
The catastrophe of La Saisiaz closed a comprehensive chapter
in Mr. Browning's habits and experience. It impelled him finally
to break with the associations of the last seventeen autumns,
which he remembered more in their tedious or painful circumstances
than in the unexciting pleasure and renewed physical health
which he had derived from them. He was weary of the ever-recurring effort
to uproot himself from his home life, only to become stationary
in some more or less uninteresting northern spot. The always latent
desire for Italy sprang up in him, and with it the often present
thought and wish to give his sister the opportunity of seeing it.
Florence and Rome were not included in his scheme; he knew them both too well;
but he hankered for Asolo and Venice. He determined,
though as usual reluctantly, and not till the last moment,
that they should move southwards in the August of 1878.
Their route lay over the Spluegen; and having heard of a comfortable hotel
near the summit of the Pass, they agreed to remain there
till the heat had sufficiently abated to allow of the descent into Lombardy.
The advantages of this first arrangement exceeded their expectations.
It gave them solitude without the sense of loneliness.
A little stream of travellers passed constantly over the mountain,
and they could shake hands with acquaintances at night,
and know them gone in the morning. They dined at the table d'hote,
but took all other meals alone, and slept in a detached wing or `dependance'
of the hotel. Their daily walks sometimes carried them down to the Via Mala;
often to the top of the ascent, where they could rest,
looking down into Italy; and would even be prolonged
over a period of five hours and an extent of seventeen miles.
Now, as always, the mountain air stimulated Mr. Browning's physical energy;
and on this occasion it also especially quickened his imaginative powers.
He was preparing the first series of `Dramatic Idylls'; and several of these,
including `Ivan Ivanovitch', were produced with such rapidity
that Miss Browning refused to countenance a prolonged stay on the mountain,
unless he worked at a more reasonable rate.
They did not linger on their way to Asolo and Venice,
except for a night's rest on the Lake of Como and two days at Verona.
In their successive journeys through Northern Italy they visited by degrees
all its notable cities, and it would be easy to recall, in order and detail,
most of these yearly expeditions. But the account of them
would chiefly resolve itself into a list of names and dates;
for Mr. Browning had seldom a new impression to receive, even from localities
which he had not seen before. I know that he and his sister
were deeply struck by the deserted grandeurs of Ravenna;
and that it stirred in both of them a memorable sensation to wander
as they did for a whole day through the pinewoods consecrated by Dante.
I am nevertheless not sure that when they performed the repeated round
of picture-galleries and palaces, they were not sometimes
simply paying their debt to opportunity, and as much for each other's sake
as for their own. Where all was Italy, there was little to gain or lose
in one memorial of greatness, one object of beauty, visited or left unseen.
But in Asolo, even in Venice, Mr. Browning was seeking something more:
the remembrance of his own actual and poetic youth. How far he found it
in the former place we may infer from a letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald.
Sept. 28, 1878.
And from `Asolo', at last, dear friend! So can dreams come FALSE.
-- S., who has been writing at the opposite side of the table,
has told you about our journey and adventures, such as they were:
but she cannot tell you the feelings with which I revisit this
-- to me -- memorable place after above forty years' absence, --
such things have begun and ended with me in the interval!
It was TOO strange when we reached the ruined tower
on the hill-top yesterday, and I said `Let me try if the echo still exists
which I discovered here,' (you can produce it from only ONE particular spot
on a remainder of brickwork --) and thereupon it answered me plainly as ever,
after all the silence: for some children from the adjoining `podere',
happening to be outside, heard my voice and its result --
and began trying to perform the feat -- calling `Yes, yes' -- all in vain:
so, perhaps, the mighty secret will die with me! We shall probably stay here
a day or two longer, -- the air is so pure, the country so attractive:
but we must go soon to Venice, stay our allotted time there,
and then go homeward: you will of course address letters to Venice,
not this place: it is a pleasure I promise myself that, on arriving
I shall certainly hear you speak in a letter which I count upon finding.
The old inn here, to which I would fain have betaken myself,
is gone -- levelled to the ground: I remember it was much damaged by
a recent earthquake, and the cracks and chasms may have threatened a downfall.
This Stella d'Oro is, however, much such an unperverted `locanda'
as its predecessor -- primitive indeed are the arrangements
and unsophisticate the ways: but there is cleanliness, abundance of goodwill,
and the sweet Italian smile at every mistake: we get on excellently.
To be sure never was such a perfect fellow-traveller, for my purposes, as S.,
so that I have no subject of concern -- if things suit me they suit her --
and vice-versa. I daresay she will have told you how we trudged together,
this morning to Possagno -- through a lovely country:
how we saw all the wonders -- and a wonder of detestability
is the paint-performance of the great man! -- and how, on our return,
we found the little town enjoying high market day, and its privilege
of roaring and screaming over a bargain. It confuses me altogether, --
but at Venice I may write more comfortably. You will till then, Dear Friend,
remember me ever as yours affectionately,
If the tone of this does not express disappointment,
it has none of the rapture which his last visit was to inspire.
The charm which forty years of remembrance had cast around
the little city on the hill was dispelled for, at all events, the time being.
The hot weather and dust-covered landscape, with the more than primitive
accommodation of which he spoke in a letter to another friend,
may have contributed something to this result.
At Venice the travellers fared better in some essential respects.
A London acquaintance, who passed them on their way to Italy,
had recommended a cool and quiet hotel there, the Albergo dell' Universo.
The house, Palazzo Brandolin-Rota, was situated on the shady side
of the Grand Canal, just below the Accademia and the Suspension Bridge.
The open stretches of the Giudecca lay not far behind; and a scrap of garden
and a clean and open little street made pleasant the approach
from back and side. It accommodated few persons in proportion to its size,
and fewer still took up their abode there; for it was managed by a lady
of good birth and fallen fortunes whose home and patrimony it had been;
and her husband, a retired Austrian officer, and two grown-up daughters
did not lighten her task. Every year the fortunes sank lower;
the upper storey of the house was already falling into decay,
and the fine old furniture passing into the brokers' or private buyers' hands.
It still, however, afforded sufficiently comfortable,
and, by reason of its very drawbacks, desirable quarters to Mr. Browning.
It perhaps turned the scale in favour of his return to Venice; for the lady
whose hospitality he was to enjoy there was as yet unknown to him;
and nothing would have induced him to enter, with his eyes open,
one of the English-haunted hotels, in which acquaintance, old and new,
would daily greet him in the public rooms or jostle him in the corridors.
He and his sister remained at the Universo for a fortnight;
their programme did not this year include a longer stay;
but it gave them time to decide that no place could better suit them
for an autumn holiday than Venice, or better lend itself
to a preparatory sojourn among the Alps; and the plan of their next,
and, though they did not know it, many a following summer,
was thus sketched out before the homeward journey had begun.
Mr. Browning did not forget his work, even while resting from it;
if indeed he did rest entirely on this occasion. He consulted
a Russian lady whom he met at the hotel, on the names he was introducing
in `Ivan Ivanovitch'. It would be interesting to know
what suggestions or corrections she made, and how far they adapted themselves
to the rhythm already established, or compelled changes in it;
but the one alternative would as little have troubled him as the other.
Mrs. Browning told Mr. Prinsep that her husband could never
alter the wording of a poem without rewriting it, indeed,
practically converting it into another; though he more than once
tried to do so at her instigation. But to the end of his life he could
at any moment recast a line or passage for the sake of greater correctness,
and leave all that was essential in it untouched.
Seven times more in the eleven years which remained to him,
Mr. Browning spent the autumn in Venice. Once also, in 1882,
he had proceeded towards it as far as Verona, when the floods
which marked the autumn of that year arrested his farther course.
Each time he had halted first in some more or less elevated spot,
generally suggested by his French friend, Monsieur Dourlans,
himself an inveterate wanderer, whose inclinations also
tempted him off the beaten track. The places he most enjoyed
were Saint-Pierre la Chartreuse, and Gressoney Saint-Jean,
where he stayed respectively in 1881 and 1882, 1883 and 1885.
Both of these had the drawbacks, and what might easily have been the dangers,
of remoteness from the civilized world. But this weighed with him so little,
that he remained there in each case till the weather had broken,
though there was no sheltered conveyance in which he and his sister
could travel down; and on the later occasions at least,
circumstances might easily have combined to prevent their departure
for an indefinite time. He became, indeed, so attached to Gressoney,
with its beautiful outlook upon Monte Rosa, that nothing I believe
would have hindered his returning, or at least contemplating a return to it,
but the great fatigue to his sister of the mule ride up the mountain,
by a path which made walking, wherever possible, the easier course.
They did walk DOWN it in the early October of 1885,
and completed the hard seven hours' trudge to San Martino d'Aosta,
without an atom of refreshment or a minute's rest.
One of the great attractions of Saint-Pierre was the vicinity
of the Grande Chartreuse, to which Mr. Browning made frequent expeditions,
staying there through the night in order to hear the midnight mass.
Miss Browning also once attempted the visit, but was not allowed
to enter the monastery. She slept in the adjoining convent.
The brother and sister were again at the Universo in 1879, 1880, and 1881;
but the crash was rapidly approaching, and soon afterwards it came.
The old Palazzo passed into other hands, and after a short period
of private ownership was consigned to the purposes of an Art Gallery.
In 1880, however, they had been introduced by Mrs. Story
to an American resident, Mrs. Arthur Bronson, and entered into
most friendly relations with her; and when, after a year's interval,
they were again contemplating an autumn in Venice, she placed
at their disposal a suite of rooms in the Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati,
which formed a supplement to her own house -- making the offer
with a kindly urgency which forbade all thought of declining it.
They inhabited these for a second time in 1885, keeping house for themselves
in the simple but comfortable foreign manner they both so well enjoyed,
only dining and spending the evening with their friend. But when, in 1888,
they were going, as they thought, to repeat the arrangement,
they found, to their surprise, a little apartment prepared for them
under Mrs. Bronson's own roof. This act of hospitality involved
a special kindness on her part, of which Mr. Browning only became aware
at the close of a prolonged stay; and a sense of increased gratitude
added itself to the affectionate regard with which his hostess
had already inspired both his sister and him. So far as he is concerned,
the fact need only be indicated. It is fully expressed
in the preface to `Asolando'.
During the first and fresher period of Mr. Browning's visits to Venice,
he found a passing attraction in its society. It held an historical element
which harmonized well with the decayed magnificence of the city,
its old-world repose, and the comparatively simple modes of intercourse
still prevailing there. Mrs. Bronson's `salon' was hospitably open
whenever her health allowed; but her natural refinement,
and the conservatism which so strongly marks the higher class of Americans,
preserved it from the heterogeneous character which Anglo-foreign sociability
so often assumes. Very interesting, even important names
lent their prestige to her circle; and those of Don Carlos and his family,
of Prince and Princess Iturbide, of Prince and Princess Metternich,
and of Princess Montenegro, were on the list of her `habitues',
and, in the case of the royal Spaniards, of her friends.
It need hardly be said that the great English poet,
with his fast spreading reputation and his infinite social charm,
was kindly welcomed and warmly appreciated amongst them.
English and American acquaintances also congregated in Venice,
or passed through it from London, Florence, and Rome.
Those resident in Italy could make their visits coincide
with those of Mr. Browning and his sister, or undertake the journey
for the sake of seeing them; while the outward conditions of life
were such as to render friendly intercourse more satisfactory,
and common social civilities less irksome than they could be at home.
Mr. Browning was, however, already too advanced in years,
too familiar with everything which the world can give, to be long affected
by the novelty of these experiences. It was inevitable that the need of rest,
though often for the moment forgotten, should assert itself more and more.
He gradually declined on the society of a small number
of resident or semi-resident friends; and, due exception being made
for the hospitalities of his temporary home, became indebted to the kindness
of Sir Henry and Lady Layard, of Mr. and Mrs. Curtis of Palazzo Barbaro,
and of Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Eden, for most of the social pleasure and comfort
of his later residences in Venice.
Part of a letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald gives an insight into
the character of his life there: all the stronger that it was written
under a temporary depression which it partly serves to explain.
Albergo dell' Universo, Venezia, Italia: Sept. 24, '81.
`Dear Friend, -- On arriving here I found your letter
to my great satisfaction -- and yesterday brought the `Saturday Review' --
for which, many thanks.
`We left our strange but lovely place on the 18th, reaching Chambery
at evening, -- stayed the next day there, -- walking,
among other diversions to "Les Charmettes", the famous abode of Rousseau --
kept much as when he left it: I visited it with my wife perhaps
twenty-five years ago, and played so much of "Rousseau's Dream" as could
be effected on his antique harpsichord: this time I attempted the same feat,
but only two notes or thereabouts out of the octave would answer the touch.
Next morning we proceeded to Turin, and on Wednesday got here,
in the middle of the last night of the Congress Carnival --
rowing up the Canal to our Albergo through a dazzling blaze of lights
and throng of boats, -- there being, if we are told truly,
50,000 strangers in the city. Rooms had been secured for us, however:
and the festivities are at an end, to my great joy, -- for Venice is resuming
its old quiet aspect -- the only one I value at all. Our American friends
wanted to take us in their gondola to see the principal illuminations
AFTER the "Serenade", which was not over before midnight --
but I was contented with THAT -- being tired and indisposed for talking,
and, having seen and heard quite enough from our own balcony, went to bed:
S. having betaken her to her own room long before.
`Next day we took stock of our acquaintances, -- found that the Storys,
on whom we had counted for company, were at Vallombrosa, though the two sons
have a studio here -- other friends are in sufficient number however --
and last evening we began our visits by a very classical one --
to the Countess Mocenigo, in her palace which Byron occupied:
she is a charming widow since two years, -- young, pretty and of
the prettiest manners: she showed us all the rooms Byron had lived in, --
and I wrote my name in her album ON the desk himself wrote
the last canto of `Ch. Harold' and `Beppo' upon. There was a small party:
we were taken and introduced by the Layards who are kind as ever,
and I met old friends -- Lord Aberdare, Charles Bowen, and others.
While I write comes a deliciously fresh `bouquet' from Mrs. Bronson,
an American lady, -- in short we shall find a week or two amusing enough;
though -- where are the pinewoods, mountains and torrents, and wonderful air?
Venice is under a cloud, -- dull and threatening, --
though we were apprehensive of heat, arriving, as we did,
ten days earlier than last year. . . .'
The evening's programme was occasionally varied by a visit
to one of the theatres. The plays given were chiefly in the Venetian dialect,
and needed previous study for their enjoyment; but Mr. Browning assisted
at one musical performance which strongly appealed to his historical
and artistic sensibilities: that of the `Barbiere' of Paisiello
in the Rossini theatre and in the presence of Wagner,
which took place in the autumn of 1880.
Although the manner of his sojourn in the Italian city
placed all the resources of resident life at his command,
Mr. Browning never abjured the active habits of the English traveller.
He daily walked with his sister, as he did in the mountains,
for walking's sake, as well as for the delight of what
his expeditions showed him; and the facilities which they supplied
for this healthful pleasurable exercise were to his mind
one of the great merits of his autumn residences in Italy.
He explored Venice in all directions, and learned to know its many points
of beauty and interest, as those cannot who believe it is only to be seen
from a gondola; and when he had visited its every corner, he fell back
on a favourite stroll along the Riva to the public garden and back again;
never failing to leave the house at about the same hour of the day.
Later still, when a friend's gondola was always at hand,
and air and sunshine were the one thing needful, he would be carried
to the Lido, and take a long stretch on its farther shore.
The letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, from which I have already quoted,
concludes with the account of a tragic occurrence which took place
at Saint-Pierre just before his departure, and in which
Mr. Browning's intuitions had played a striking part.
`And what do you think befell us in this abode of peace and innocence?
Our journey was delayed for three hours in consequence of
the one mule of the village being requisitioned by the `Juge d'Instruction'
from Grenoble, come to enquire into a murder committed two days before.
My sister and I used once a day to walk for a couple of hours
up a mountain-road of the most lovely description, and stop at the summit
whence we looked down upon the minute hamlet of St.-Pierre d'Entremont, --
even more secluded than our own: then we got back to our own aforesaid.
And in this Paradisial place, they found, yesterday week,
a murdered man -- frightfully mutilated -- who had been caught apparently
in the act of stealing potatoes in a field: such a crime had never occurred
in the memory of the oldest of our folk. Who was the murderer is the mystery
-- whether the field's owner -- in his irritation at discovering the robber,
-- or one of a band of similar `charbonniers' (for they suppose the man
to be a Piedmontese of that occupation) remains to be proved:
they began by imprisoning the owner, who denies his guilt energetically.
Now the odd thing is, that, either the day of, or after the murder, --
as I and S. were looking at the utter solitude, I had the fancy
"What should I do if I suddenly came upon a dead body in this field?
Go and proclaim it -- and subject myself to all the vexations
inflicted by the French way of procedure (which begins by assuming
that you may be the criminal) -- or neglect an obvious duty,
and return silently." I, of course, saw that the former
was the only proper course, whatever the annoyance involved.
And, all the while, there was just about to be the very same incident
for the trouble of somebody.'
Here the account breaks off; but writing again from the same place,
August 16, 1882, he takes up the suspended narrative with this question:
`Did I tell you of what happened to me on the last day of my stay here
last year?' And after repeating the main facts continues as follows:
`This morning, in the course of my walk, I entered into conversation
with two persons of whom I made enquiry myself. They said the accused man,
a simple person, had been locked up in a high chamber, --
protesting his innocence strongly, -- and troubled in his mind
by the affair altogether and the turn it was taking, had profited
by the gendarme's negligence, and thrown himself out of the window --
and so died, continuing to the last to protest as before.
My presentiment of what such a person might have to undergo
was justified you see -- though I should not in any case
have taken THAT way of getting out of the difficulty.
The man added, "it was not he who committed the murder,
but the companions of the man, an Italian charcoal-burner,
who owed him a grudge, killed him, and dragged him to the field --
filling his sack with potatoes as if stolen, to give a likelihood
that the field's owner had caught him stealing and killed him, --
so M. Perrier the greffier told me." Enough of this grim story.
. . . . .
`My sister was anxious to know exactly where the body was found:
"Vouz savez la croix au sommet de la colline? A cette distance de cela!"
That is precisely where I was standing when the thought came over me.'
A passage in a subsequent letter of September 3 clearly refers
to some comment of Mrs. Fitz-Gerald's on the peculiar nature
of this presentiment:
`No -- I attribute no sort of supernaturalism to my fancy about the thing
that was really about to take place. By a law of the association of ideas --
CONTRARIES come into the mind as often as SIMILARITIES --
and the peace and solitude readily called up the notion
of what would most jar with them. I have often thought of the trouble
that might have befallen me if poor Miss Smith's death had happened
the night before, when we were on the mountain alone together --
or next morning when we were on the proposed excursion --
only THEN we should have had companions.'
The letter then passes to other subjects.
`This is the fifth magnificent day -- like magnificence,
unfit for turning to much account -- for we cannot walk till sunset.
I had two hours' walk, or nearly, before breakfast, however:
It is the loveliest country I ever had experience of,
and we shall prolong our stay perhaps -- apart from the concern
for poor Cholmondeley and his friends, I should be glad
to apprehend no long journey -- besides the annoyance
of having to pass Florence and Rome unvisited, for S.'s sake, I mean:
even Naples would have been with its wonderful environs
a tantalizing impracticability.
`Your "Academy" came and was welcomed. The newspaper is like an electric eel,
as one touches it and expects a shock. I am very anxious about the Archbishop
who has always been strangely kind to me.'
He and his sister had accepted an invitation to spend the month of October
with Mr. Cholmondeley at his villa in Ischia; but the party assembled there
was broken up by the death of one of Mr. Cholmondeley's guests,
a young lady who had imprudently attempted the ascent of a dangerous mountain
without a guide, and who lost her life in the experiment.
A short extract from a letter to Mrs. Charles Skirrow will show
that even in this complete seclusion Mr. Browning's patriotism
did not go to sleep. There had been already sufficient evidence
that his friendship did not; but it was not in the nature
of his mental activities that they should be largely absorbed by politics,
though he followed the course of his country's history
as a necessary part of his own life. It needed a crisis
like that of our Egyptian campaign, or the subsequent Irish struggle,
to arouse him to a full emotional participation in current events.
How deeply he could be thus aroused remained yet to be seen.
`If the George Smiths are still with you, give them my love,
and tell them we shall expect to see them at Venice, --
which was not so likely to be the case when we were bound for Ischia.
As for Lady Wolseley -- one dares not pretend to vie with her
in anxiety just now; but my own pulses beat pretty strongly
when I open the day's newspaper -- which, by some new arrangement, reaches us,
oftener than not, on the day after publication. Where is your Bertie?
I had an impassioned letter, a fortnight ago, from a nephew of mine,
who is in the second division [battalion?] of the Black Watch;
he was ordered to Edinburgh, and the regiment not dispatched, after all, --
it having just returned from India; the poor fellow wrote in his despair
"to know if I could do anything!" He may be wanted yet: though nothing
seems wanted in Egypt, so capital appears to be the management.'
In 1879 Mr. Browning published the first series of his `Dramatic Idyls';
and their appearance sent a thrill of surprised admiration
through the public mind. In `La Saisiaz' and the accompanying poems
he had accomplished what was virtually a life's work.
For he was approaching the appointed limit of man's existence;
and the poetic, which had been nourished in him by the natural life --
which had once outstripped its developments, but on the whole
remained subject to them -- had therefore, also, passed through
the successive phases of individual growth. He had been inspired
as dramatic poet by the one avowed conviction that little else is worth study
but the history of a soul; and outward act or circumstance
had only entered into his creations as condition or incident
of the given psychological state. His dramatic imagination had first,
however unconsciously, sought its materials in himself;
then gradually been projected into the world of men and women,
which his widening knowledge laid open to him; it is scarcely necessary
to say that its power was only fully revealed when it left
the remote regions of poetical and metaphysical self-consciousness,
to invoke the not less mysterious and far more searching utterance
of the general human heart. It was a matter of course
that in this expression of his dramatic genius, the intellectual and emotional
should exhibit the varying relations which are developed by the natural life:
that feeling should begin by doing the work of thought, as in `Saul',
and thought end by doing the work of feeling, as in `Fifine at the Fair';
and that the two should alternate or combine in proportioned intensity
in such works of an intermediate period as `Cleon', `A Death in the Desert',
the `Epistle of Karshish', and `James Lee's Wife'; the sophistical ingenuities
of `Bishop Blougram', and `Sludge'; and the sad, appealing tenderness
of `Andrea del Sarto' and `The Worst of It'.
It was also almost inevitable that so vigorous a genius
should sometimes falsify calculations based on the normal life.
The long-continued force and freshness of Mr. Browning's general faculties
was in itself a protest against them. We saw without surprise
that during the decade which produced `Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau',
`Fifine at the Fair', and `Red Cotton Nightcap Country', he could give us
`The Inn Album', with its expression of the higher sexual love unsurpassed,
rarely equalled, in the whole range of his work: or those two
unique creations of airy fancy and passionate symbolic romance,
`Saint Martin's Summer', and `Numpholeptos'. It was no ground
for astonishment that the creative power in him should even ignore
the usual period of decline, and defy, so far as is humanly possible,
its natural laws of modification. But in the `Dramatic Idyls'
he did more than proceed with unflagging powers on a long-trodden,
distinctive course; he took a new departure.
Mr. Browning did not forsake the drama of motive when he imagined
and worked out his new group of poems; he presented it
in a no less subtle and complex form. But he gave it the added force
of picturesque realization; and this by means of incidents
both powerful in themselves, and especially suited for its development.
It was only in proportion to this higher suggestiveness
that a startling situation ever seemed to him fit subject for poetry.
Where its interest and excitement exhausted themselves in the external facts,
it became, he thought, the property of the chronicler,
but supplied no material for the poet; and he often declined matter
which had been offered him for dramatic treatment because it belonged
to the more sensational category.
It is part of the vital quality of the `Dramatic Idyls' that, in them,
the act and the motive are not yet finally identified with each other.
We see the act still palpitating with the motive; the motive dimly striving
to recognize or disclaim itself in the act. It is in this
that the psychological poet stands more than ever strongly revealed.
Such at least is the case in `Martin Relph', and the idealized Russian legend,
`Ivan Ivanovitch'. The grotesque tragedy of `Ned Bratts' has also
its marked psychological aspects, but they are of a simpler and broader kind.
The new inspiration slowly subsided through the second series of `Idyls',
1880, and `Jocoseria', 1883. In `Ferishtah's Fancies', 1884,
Mr. Browning returned to his original manner, though carrying into it
something of the renewed vigour which had marked the intervening change.
The lyrics which alternate with its parables include some of the most tender,
most impassioned, and most musical of his love-poems.
The moral and religious opinions conveyed in this later volume may be accepted
without reserve as Mr. Browning's own, if we subtract from them
the exaggerations of the figurative and dramatic form.
It is indeed easy to recognize in them the under currents
of his whole real and imaginative life. They have also on one or two points
an intrinsic value which will justify a later allusion.
The Browning Society; Mr. Furnivall; Miss E. H. Hickey --
His Attitude towards the Society; Letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald --
Mr. Thaxter, Mrs. Celia Thaxter -- Letter to Miss Hickey; `Strafford' --
Shakspere and Wordsworth Societies -- Letters to Professor Knight --
Appreciation in Italy; Professor Nencioni -- The Goldoni Sonnet --
Mr. Barrett Browning; Palazzo Manzoni -- Letters to Mrs. Charles Skirrow --
Mrs. Bloomfield Moore -- Llangollen; Sir Theodore and Lady Martin --
Loss of old Friends -- Foreign Correspondent of the Royal Academy --
`Parleyings with certain People of Importance in their Day'.
This Indian summer of Mr. Browning's genius coincided with
the highest manifestation of public interest, which he, or with one exception,
any living writer, had probably yet received: the establishment of a Society
bearing his name, and devoted to the study of his poetry.
The idea arose almost simultaneously in the mind of Dr., then Mr. Furnivall,
and of Miss E. H. Hickey. One day, in the July of 1881,
as they were on their way to Warwick Crescent to pay an appointed visit there,
Miss Hickey strongly expressed her opinion of the power and breadth
of Mr. Browning's work; and concluded by saying that
much as she loved Shakespeare, she found in certain aspects of Browning
what even Shakespeare could not give her. Mr. Furnivall replied to this
by asking what she would say to helping him to found a Browning Society;
and it then appeared that Miss Hickey had recently written to him a letter,
suggesting that he should found one; but that it had miscarried,
or, as she was disposed to think, not been posted. Being thus, at all events,
agreed as to the fitness of the undertaking, they immediately spoke of it
to Mr. Browning, who at first treated the project as a joke;
but did not oppose it when once he understood it to be serious.
His only proviso was that he should remain neutral
in respect to its fulfilment. He refused even to give Mr. Furnivall
the name or address of any friends, whose interest in himself or his work
might render their co-operation probable.
This passive assent sufficed. A printed prospectus was now issued.
About two hundred members were soon secured. A committee was elected,
of which Mr. J. T. Nettleship, already well known as a Browning student,
was one of the most conspicuous members; and by the end of October
a small Society had come into existence, which held its
inaugural meeting in the Botanic Theatre of University College.
Mr. Furnivall, its principal founder, and responsible organizer,
was Chairman of the Committee, and Miss E. H. Hickey, the co-founder,
was Honorary Secretary. When, two or three years afterwards,
illness compelled her to resign this position, it was assumed
by Mr. J. Dykes Campbell.
Although nothing could be more unpretending than the action
of this Browning Society, or in the main more genuine than its motive,
it did not begin life without encountering ridicule and mistrust.
The formation of a Ruskin Society in the previous year
had already established a precedent for allowing a still living worker
to enjoy the fruits of his work, or, as some one termed it,
for making a man a classic during his lifetime. But this fact was not yet
generally known; and meanwhile a curious contradiction developed itself
in the public mind. The outer world of Mr. Browning's acquaintance
continued to condemn the too great honour which was being done to him;
from those of the inner circle he constantly received condolences
on being made the subject of proceedings which, according to them,
he must somehow regard as an offence.
This was the last view of the case which he was prepared to take.
At the beginning, as at the end, he felt honoured by the intentions
of the Society. He probably, it is true, had occasional misgivings
as to its future. He could not be sure that its action
would always be judicious, still less that it would be always successful.
He was prepared for its being laughed at, and for himself being included
in the laughter. He consented to its establishment for what seemed to him
the one unanswerable reason, that he had, even on the ground of taste,
no just cause for forbidding it. No line, he considered, could be drawn
between the kind of publicity which every writer seeks, which,
for good or evil, he had already obtained, and that which the Browning Society
was conferring on him. His works would still, as before, be read, analyzed,
and discussed `viva voce' and in print. That these proceedings
would now take place in other localities than drawing-rooms or clubs,
through other organs than newspapers or magazines, by other and larger
groups of persons than those usually gathered round a dinner- or a tea-table,
involved no real change in the situation. In any case,
he had made himself public property; and those who thus organized
their study of him were exercising an individual right.
If his own rights had been assailed he would have guarded them also;
but the circumstances of the case precluded such a contingency.
And he had his reward. How he felt towards the Society
at the close of its first session is better indicated
in the following letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald than in the note to Mr. Yates
which Mr. Sharp has published, and which was written with more reserve and,
I believe, at a rather earlier date. Even the shade of condescension
which lingers about his words will have been effaced by subsequent experience;
and many letters written to Dr. Furnivall must, since then,
have attested his grateful and affectionate appreciation of kindness intended
and service done to him.
. . . They always treat me gently in `Punch' -- why don't you do the same
by the Browning Society? I see you emphasize Miss Hickey's acknowledgement
of defects in time and want of rehearsal: but I look for no great perfection
in a number of kindly disposed strangers to me personally,
who try to interest people in my poems by singing and reading them.
They give their time for nothing, offer their little entertainment
for nothing, and certainly get next to nothing in the way of thanks --
unless from myself who feel grateful to the faces I shall never see,
the voices I shall never hear. The kindest notices I have had,
or at all events those that have given me most pleasure,
have been educed by this Society -- A. Sidgwick's paper,
that of Professor Corson, Miss Lewis' article in this month's `Macmillan' --
and I feel grateful for it all, for my part, -- and none the less
for a little amusement at the wonder of some of my friends
that I do not jump up and denounce the practices which must annoy me so much.
Oh! my `gentle Shakespeare', how well you felt and said --
`never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it.'
So, dear Lady, here is my duty and simplicity tendering itself to you,
with all affection besides, and I being ever yours,
That general disposition of the London world which left
the ranks of the little Society to be three-fourths recruited among persons,
many living at a distance, whom the poet did not know,
became also in its way a satisfaction. It was with him a matter of course,
though never of indifference, that his closer friends of both sexes
were among its members; it was one of real gratification
that they included from the beginning such men as Dean Boyle of Salisbury,
the Rev. Llewellyn Davies, George Meredith, and James Cotter Morison --
that they enjoyed the sympathy and co-operation of such a one
as Archdeacon Farrar. But he had an ingenuous pride
in reading the large remainder of the Society's lists of names,
and pointing out the fact that there was not one among them
which he had ever heard. It was equivalent to saying,
`All these people care for me as a poet. No social interest,
no personal prepossession, has attracted them to my work.'
And when the unknown name was not only appended to a list; when it formed
the signature of a paper -- excellent or indifferent as might be --
but in either case bearing witness to a careful and unobtrusive
study of his poems, by so much was the gratification increased.
He seldom weighed the intrinsic merit of such productions;
he did not read them critically. No man was ever more adverse
to the seeming ungraciousness of analyzing the quality of a gift.
In real life indeed this power of gratitude sometimes defeated its own end,
by neutralizing his insight into the motive or effort involved
in different acts of kindness, and placing them all successively
on the same plane.
In the present case, however, an ungraduated acceptance
of the labour bestowed on him was part of the neutral attitude
which it was his constant endeavour to maintain. He always refrained
from noticing any erroneous statement concerning himself or his works
which might appear in the Papers of the Society: since, as he alleged,
if he once began to correct, he would appear to endorse
whatever he left uncorrected, and thus make himself responsible,
not only for any interpretation that might be placed on his poems, but,
what was far more serious, for every eulogium that was bestowed upon them.
He could not stand aloof as entirely as he or even his friends desired,
since it was usual with some members of the Society to seek from him
elucidations of obscure passages which, without these, it was declared,
would be a stumbling-block to future readers. But he disliked
being even to this extent drawn into its operation; and his help was,
I believe, less and less frequently invoked. Nothing could be more false
than the rumour which once arose that he superintended those performances
of his plays which took place under the direction of the Society.
Once only, and by the urgent desire of some of the actors,
did he witness a last rehearsal of one of them.
It was also a matter of course that men and women brought together
by a pre-existing interest in Mr. Browning's work should often ignore
its authorized explanations, and should read and discuss it
in the light of personal impressions more congenial to their own mind;
and the various and circumstantial views sometimes elicited by a given poem
did not serve to render it more intelligible. But the merit of true poetry
lies so largely in its suggestiveness, that even mistaken impressions of it
have their positive value and also their relative truth;
and the intellectual friction which was thus created,
not only in the parent society, but in its offshoots in England and America,
was not their least important result.
These Societies conferred, it need hardly be said, no less real benefits
on the public at large. They extended the sale of Mr. Browning's works,
and with it their distinct influence for intellectual and moral good.
They not only created in many minds an interest in these works,
but aroused the interest where it was latent, and gave it expression
where it had hitherto found no voice. One fault, alone,
could be charged against them; and this lay partly in the nature
of all friendly concerted action: they stirred a spirit of enthusiasm
in which it was not easy, under conditions equally genuine,
to distinguish the individual element from that which was due to contagion;
while the presence among us of the still living poet
often infused into that enthusiasm a vaguely emotional element,
which otherwise detracted from its intellectual worth.
But in so far as this was a drawback to the intended action of the Societies,
it was one only in the most negative sense; nor can we doubt, that,
to a certain extent, Mr. Browning's best influence was promoted by it.
The hysterical sensibilities which, for some years past,
he had unconsciously but not unfrequently aroused in the minds of women,
and even of men, were a morbid development of that influence,
which its open and systematic extension tended rather to diminish
than to increase.
It is also a matter of history that Robert Browning had many
deep and constant admirers in England, and still more in America,*
long before this organized interest had developed itself.
Letters received from often remote parts of the United States
had been for many years a detail of his daily experience;
and even when they consisted of the request for an autograph,
an application to print selections from his works, or a mere expression
of schoolboy pertness or schoolgirl sentimentality, they bore witness
to his wide reputation in that country, and the high esteem
in which he was held there.** The names of Levi and Celia Thaxter of Boston
had long, I believe, been conspicuous in the higher ranks of his disciples,
though they first occur in his correspondence at about this date.
I trust I may take for granted Mrs. Thaxter's permission
to publish a letter from her.
* The cheapening of his works in America, induced by the absence
of international copyright, accounts of course in some degree
for their wider diffusion, and hence earlier appreciation there.
** One of the most curious proofs of this was the Californian Railway
time-table edition of his poems.
Newtonville, Massachusetts: March 14, 1880.
My dear Mr. Browning:
Your note reached me this morning, but it belonged to my husband,
for it was he who wrote to you; so I gave it to him,
glad to put into his hands so precious a piece of manuscript,
for he has for you and all your work an enthusiastic appreciation
such as is seldom found on this planet: it is not possible
that the admiration of one mortal for another can exceed his feeling for you.
You might have written for him,
I've a friend over the sea,
. . . .
It all grew out of the books I write, &c.
You should see his fine wrath and scorn for the idiocy
that doesn't at once comprehend you!
He knows every word you have ever written; long ago `Sordello'
was an open book to him from title-page to closing line,
and ALL you have printed since has been as eagerly and studiously devoured.
He reads you aloud (and his reading is a fine art) to crowds
of astonished people, he swears by you, he thinks no one save Shakspere
has a right to be mentioned in the same century with you.
You are the great enthusiasm of his life.
Pardon me, you are smiling, I dare say. You hear any amount
of such things, doubtless. But a genuine living appreciation
is always worth having in this old world, it is like a strong fresh breeze
from off the brine, that puts a sense of life and power into a man.
You cannot be the worse for it.
Yours very sincerely,
When Mr. Thaxter died, in February 1885, his son wrote to Mr. Browning
to beg of him a few lines to be inscribed on his father's tombstone.
The little poem by which the request was answered has not yet, I believe,
`Written to be inscribed on the gravestone of Levi Thaxter.'
Thou, whom these eyes saw never, -- say friends true
Who say my soul, helped onward by my song,
Though all unwittingly, has helped thee too?
I gave but of the little that I knew:
How were the gift requited, while along
Life's path I pace, could'st thou make weakness strong,
Help me with knowledge -- for Life's old, Death's new!
April 19, '85.
A publication which connected itself with the labours of the Society,
without being directly inspired by it, was the annotated `Strafford'
prepared by Miss Hickey for the use of students. It may be agreeable
to those who use the little work to know the estimate
in which Mr. Browning held it. He wrote as follows:
19, Warwick Crescent, W.: February 15, 1884.
Dear Miss Hickey, -- I have returned the Proofs by post, --
nothing can be better than your notes -- and with a real wish to be of use,
I read them carefully that I might detect never so tiny a fault, --
but I found none -- unless (to show you how minutely I searched,)
it should be one that by `thriving in your contempt,' I meant simply
`while you despise them, and for all that, they thrive and are powerful
to do you harm.' The idiom you prefer -- quite an authorized one --
comes to much the same thing after all.
You must know how much I grieve at your illness -- temporary as
I will trust it to be -- I feel all your goodness to me --
or whatever in my books may be taken for me -- well, I wish you knew
how thoroughly I feel it -- and how truly I am and shall ever be
From the time of the foundation of the New Shakspere Society,
Mr. Browning was its president. In 1880 he became a member
of the Wordsworth Society. Two interesting letters to Professor Knight,
dated respectively 1880 and 1887, connect themselves
with the working of the latter; and, in spite of their distance in time,
may therefore be given together. The poem which formed the subject
of the first was `The Daisy';* the selection referred to in the second
was that made in 1888 by Professor Knight for the Wordsworth Society,
with the co-operation of Mr. Browning and other eminent literary men.
* That beginning `In youth from rock to rock, I went.'
19, Warwick Crescent, W.: July 9, '80.
My dear Sir, -- You pay me a compliment in caring for my opinion --
but, such as it is, a very decided one it must be. On every account,
your method of giving the original text, and subjoining in a note
the variations, each with its proper date, is incontestably preferable
to any other. It would be so, if the variations were even improvements --
there would be pleasure as well as profit in seeing what was good
grow visibly better. But -- to confine ourselves to the single `proof'
you have sent me -- in every case the change is sadly for the worse:
I am quite troubled by such spoilings of passage after passage
as I should have chuckled at had I chanced upon them
in some copy pencil-marked with corrections by Jeffrey or Gifford: indeed,
they are nearly as wretched as the touchings-up of the `Siege of Corinth'
by the latter. If ever diabolic agency was caught at tricks
with `apostolic' achievement (see page 9) -- and `apostolic',
with no `profanity' at all, I esteem these poems to be --
surely you may bid it `aroint' `about and all about' these desecrated stanzas
-- each of which, however, thanks to your piety, we may hail, I trust,
with a hearty
Thy long-lost praise thou shalt regain
Nor be less dear to future men
Than in old time!
Believe me, my dear Sir,
Yours very sincerely,
19, Warwick Crescent, W.: March 23, '87.
Dear Professor Knight, -- I have seemed to neglect your commission
shamefully enough: but I confess to a sort of repugnance
to classifying the poems as even good and less good: because in my heart
I fear I should do it almost chronologically -- so immeasureably superior
seem to me the `first sprightly runnings'. Your selection
would appear to be excellent; and the partial admittance of the later work
prevents one from observing the too definitely distinguishing black line
between supremely good and -- well, what is fairly tolerable --
from Wordsworth, always understand! I have marked a few of the early poems,
not included in your list -- I could do no other when my conscience tells me
that I never can be tired of loving them: while, with the best will
in the world, I could never do more than try hard to like them.*
* By `them' Mr. Browning clearly means the later poems,
and probably has omitted a few words which would have shown this.
You see, I go wholly upon my individual likings and distastes:
that other considerations should have their weight with other people
is natural and inevitable.
Ever truly yours,
Many thanks for the volume just received -- that with the correspondence.
I hope that you restore the swan simile so ruthlessly cut away from `Dion'.
In 1884 he was again invited, and again declined, to stand
for the Lord Rectorship of the University of St. Andrews.
In the same year he received the LL.D. degree of the University of Edinburgh;
and in the following was made Honorary President of the Associated Societies
of that city.* During the few days spent there on the occasion
of his investiture, he was the guest of Professor Masson,
whose solicitous kindness to him is still warmly remembered in the family.
* This Association was instituted in 1833, and is a union
of literary and debating societies. It is at present composed of five:
the Dialectic, Scots Law, Diagnostic, Philosophical, and Philomathic.
The interest in Mr. Browning as a poet is beginning to spread in Germany.
There is room for wonder that it should not have done so before,
though the affinities of his genius are rather with the older
than with the more modern German mind. It is much more remarkable that,
many years ago, his work had already a sympathetic exponent in Italy.
Signor Nencioni, Professor of Literature in Florence,
had made his acquaintance at Siena, and was possibly first attracted to him
through his wife, although I never heard that it was so.
He was soon, however, fascinated by Mr. Browning's poetry,
and made it an object of serious study; he largely quoted from,
and wrote on it, in the Roman paper `Fanfulla della Domenica',
in 1881 and 1882; and published last winter what is, I am told,
an excellent article on the same subject, in the `Nuova Antologia'.
Two years ago he travelled from Rome to Venice (accompanied by Signor Placci),
for the purpose of seeing him. He is fond of reciting passages
from the works, and has even made attempts at translation:
though he understands them too well not to pronounce them,
what they are for every Latin language, untranslatable.
In 1883 Mr. Browning added another link to the `golden' chain of verse
which united England and Italy. A statue of Goldoni was about to be erected
in Venice. The ceremonies of the occasion were to include
the appearance of a volume -- or album -- of appropriate poems;
and Cavaliere Molmenti, its intending editor, a leading member
of the `Erection Committee', begged Mr. Browning to contribute to it.
It was also desired that he should be present at the unveiling.*
He was unable to grant this request, but consented to write a poem.
This sonnet to Goldoni also deserves to be more widely known,
both for itself and for the manner of its production. Mr. Browning
had forgotten, or not understood, how soon the promise concerning it
must be fulfilled, and it was actually scribbled off while a messenger,
sent by Signor Molmenti, waited for it.
* It was, I think, during this visit to Venice that he assisted
at a no less interesting ceremony: the unveiling of a commemorative tablet
to Baldassaro Galuppi, in his native island of Burano.
Goldoni, -- good, gay, sunniest of souls, --
Glassing half Venice in that verse of thine, --
What though it just reflect the shade and shine
Of common life, nor render, as it rolls
Grandeur and gloom? Sufficient for thy shoals
Was Carnival: Parini's depths enshrine
Secrets unsuited to that opaline
Surface of things which laughs along thy scrolls.
There throng the people: how they come and go
Lisp the soft language, flaunt the bright garb, -- see, --
On Piazza, Calle, under Portico
And over Bridge! Dear king of Comedy,
Be honoured! Thou that didst love Venice so,
Venice, and we who love her, all love thee!
Venice, Nov. 27, 1883.
A complete bibliography would take account of three other sonnets,
`The Founder of the Feast', 1884, `The Names', 1884,
and `Why I am a Liberal', 1886, to which I shall have occasion to refer;
but we decline insensibly from these on to the less important
or more fugitive productions which such lists also include,
and on which it is unnecessary or undesirable that any stress should be laid.
In 1885 he was joined in Venice by his son. It was `Penini's' first return
to the country of his birth, his first experience of the city
which he had only visited in his nurse's arms; and his delight in it
was so great that the plan shaped itself in his father's mind of buying
a house there, which should serve as `pied-a-terre' for the family,
but more especially as a home for him. Neither the health nor the energies
of the younger Mr. Browning had ever withstood the influence
of the London climate; a foreign element was undoubtedly present
in his otherwise thoroughly English constitution. Everything now pointed
to his settling in Italy, and pursuing his artist life there,
only interrupting it by occasional visits to London and Paris.
His father entered into negotiations for the Palazzo Manzoni,
next door to the former Hotel de l'Univers; and the purchase was completed,
so far as he was concerned, before he returned to England.
The fact is related, and his own position towards it described
in a letter to Mrs. Charles Skirrow, written from Venice.
Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati, S. Moise: Nov. 15, '85.
My two dear friends will have supposed, with plenty of reason,
that I never got the kind letter some weeks ago. When it came,
I was in the middle of an affair, conducted by letters of quite another kind,
with people abroad: and as I fancied that every next day might bring me news
very interesting to me and likely to be worth telling to the dear friends,
I waited and waited -- and only two days since did the matter come
to a satisfactory conclusion -- so, as the Irish song has it,
`Open your eyes and die with surprise' when I inform you
that I have purchased the Manzoni Palace here, on the Canal Grande,
of its owner, Marchese Montecucculi, an Austrian and an absentee --
hence the delay of communication. I did this purely for Pen --
who became at once simply infatuated with the city which won my whole heart
long before he was born or thought of. I secure him a perfect domicile,
every facility for his painting and sculpture, and a property fairly worth,
even here and now, double what I gave for it -- such is the virtue
in these parts of ready money! I myself shall stick to London --
which has been so eminently good and gracious to me -- so long as God permits;
only, when the inevitable outrage of Time gets the better of my body --
(I shall not believe in his reaching my soul and proper self) --
there will be a capital retreat provided: and meantime
I shall be able to `take mine ease in mine own inn' whenever so minded.
There, my dear friends! I trust now to be able to leave very shortly;
the main business cannot be formally concluded before two months at least --
through the absence of the Marchese, -- who left at once
to return to his duties as commander of an Austrian ship;
but the necessary engagement to sell and buy at a specified price is made
in due legal form, and the papers will be sent to me in London for signature.
I hope to get away the week after next at latest, --
spite of the weather in England which to-day's letters report as `atrocious',
-- and ours, though variable, is in the main very tolerable
and sometimes perfect; for all that, I yearn to be at home in poor
Warwick Crescent, which must do its best to make me forget my new abode.
I forget you don't know Venice. Well then, the Palazzo Manzoni is situate
on the Grand Canal, and is described by Ruskin, -- to give no other authority,
-- as `a perfect and very rich example of Byzantine Renaissance:
its warm yellow marbles are magnificent.' And again -- `an exquisite example
(of Byzantine Renaissance) as applied to domestic architecture.'
So testify the `Stones of Venice'. But we will talk about the place,
over a photograph, when I am happy enough to be with you again.
Of Venetian gossip there is next to none. We had an admirable
Venetian Company, -- using the dialect, -- at the Goldoni Theatre.
The acting of Zago, in his various parts, and Zenon-Palladini,
in her especial character of a Venetian piece of volubility and impulsiveness
in the shape of a servant, were admirable indeed. The manager, Gallina,
is a playwright of much reputation, and gave us some dozen of his own pieces,
mostly good and clever. S. is very well, -- much improved in health:
we walk sufficiently in this city where walking is accounted impossible
by those who never attempt it. Have I tired your good temper?
No! you ever wished me well, and I love you both with my whole heart.
S.'s love goes with mine -- who am ever yours
He never, however, owned the Manzoni Palace. The Austrian gentlemen*
whose property it was, put forward, at the last moment,
unexpected and to his mind unreasonable claims; and he was preparing
to contest the position, when a timely warning induced him
to withdraw from it altogether. The warning proceeded from his son,
who had remained on the spot, and was now informed on competent authority
that the foundations of the house were insecure.
* Two or three brothers.
In the early summer of 1884, and again in 1886, Miss Browning had
a serious illness; and though she recovered, in each case completely,
and in the first rapidly, it was considered desirable
that she should not travel so far as usual from home.
She and her brother therefore accepted for the August and September of 1884
the urgent invitation of an American friend, Mrs. Bloomfield Moore,
to stay with her at a villa which she rented for some seasons at St. Moritz.
Mr. Browning was delighted with the Engadine, where the circumstances
of his abode, and the thoughtful kindness of his hostess,
allowed him to enjoy the benefits of comparative civilization
together with almost perfect repose. The weather that year
was brilliant until the end of September, if not beyond it;
and his letters tell the old pleasant story of long daily walks
and a general sense of invigoration. One of these,
written to Mr. and Mrs. Skirrow, also contains some pungent remarks
on contemporary events, with an affectionate allusion
to one of the chief actors in them.
`Anyhow, I have the sincerest hope that Wolseley may get done as soon,
and kill as few people, as possible, -- keeping himself safe and sound --
brave dear fellow -- for the benefit of us all.'
He also speaks with great sympathy of the death of Mr. Charles Sartoris,
which had just taken place at St.-Moritz.
In 1886, Miss Browning was not allowed to leave England;
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