Life and Letters of Robert Browning
Mrs. Sutherland Orr
Part 6 out of 7
and she and Mr. Browning established themselves for the autumn
at the Hand Hotel at Llangollen, where their old friends,
Sir Theodore and Lady Martin, would be within easy reach.
Mr. Browning missed the exhilarating effects of the Alpine air;
but he enjoyed the peaceful beauty of the Welsh valley,
and the quiet and comfort of the old-fashioned English inn.
A new source of interest also presented itself to him in some aspects
of the life of the English country gentleman. He was struck
by the improvements effected by its actual owner* on a neighbouring estate,
and by the provisions contained in them for the comfort of both
the men and the animals under his care; and he afterwards made,
in reference to them, what was for a professing Liberal,
a very striking remark: `Talk of abolishing that class of men!
They are the salt of the earth!' Every Sunday afternoon
he and his sister drank tea -- weather permitting -- on the lawn
with their friends at Brintysilio; and he alludes gracefully to these meetings
in a letter written in the early summer of 1888, when Lady Martin
had urged him to return to Wales.
* I believe a Captain Best.
The poet left another and more pathetic remembrance of himself
in the neighbourhood of Llangollen: his weekly presence
at the afternoon Sunday service in the parish church of Llantysilio.
Churchgoing was, as I have said, no part of his regular life.
It was no part of his life in London. But I do not think he ever failed in it
at the Universities or in the country. The assembling for prayer
meant for him something deeper in both the religious and the human sense,
where ancient learning and piety breathed through the consecrated edifice,
or where only the figurative `two or three' were `gathered together'
within it. A memorial tablet now marks the spot at which on this occasion
the sweet grave face and the venerable head were so often seen.
It has been placed by the direction of Lady Martin on the adjoining wall.
It was in the September of this year that Mr. Browning heard
of the death of M. Joseph Milsand. This name represented for him
one of the few close friendships which were to remain until the end,
unclouded in fact and in remembrance; and although some weight may be given
to those circumstances of their lives which precluded all possibility
of friction and risk of disenchantment, I believe their rooted sympathy,
and Mr. Browning's unfailing powers of appreciation would,
in all possible cases, have maintained the bond intact.
The event was at the last sudden, but happily not quite unexpected.
Many other friends had passed by this time out of the poet's life --
those of a younger, as well as his own and an older generation.
Miss Haworth died in 1883. Charles Dickens, with whom he had remained
on the most cordial terms, had walked between him and his son
at Thackeray's funeral, to receive from him, only seven years later,
the same pious office. Lady Augusta Stanley, the daughter of his old friend,
Lady Elgin, was dead, and her husband, the Dean of Westminster.
So also were `Barry Cornwall' and John Forster, Alfred Domett,
and Thomas Carlyle, Mr. Cholmondeley and Lord Houghton; others still,
both men and women, whose love for him might entitle them to a place
in his Biography, but whom I could at most only mention by name.
For none of these can his feeling have been more constant
or more disinterested than that which bound him to Carlyle.
He visited him at Chelsea in the last weary days of his long life,
as often as their distance from each other and his own engagements allowed.
Even the man's posthumous self-disclosures scarcely availed to destroy
the affectionate reverence which he had always felt for him.
He never ceased to defend him against the charge of unkindness to his wife,
or to believe that in the matter of their domestic unhappiness
she was the more responsible of the two.* Yet Carlyle had never rendered him
that service, easy as it appears, which one man of letters
most justly values from another: that of proclaiming the admiration
which he privately expresses for his works. The fact was incomprehensible
to Mr. Browning -- it was so foreign to his own nature;
and he commented on it with a touch, though merely a touch, of bitterness,
when repeating to a friend some almost extravagant eulogium
which in earlier days he had received from him tete-a-tete.
`If only,' he said, `those words had been ever repeated in public,
what good they might have done me!'
* He always thought her a hard and unlovable woman, and I believe
little liking was lost between them. He told a comical story of how
he had once, unintentionally but rather stupidly, annoyed her.
She had asked him, as he was standing by her tea-table,
to put the kettle back on the fire. He took it out of her hands,
but, preoccupied by the conversation he was carrying on, deposited it
on the hearthrug. It was some time before he could be made to see
that this was wrong; and he believed Mrs. Carlyle never ceased to think
that he had a mischievous motive for doing it.
In the spring of 1886, he accepted the post of Foreign Correspondent
to the Royal Academy, rendered vacant by the death of Lord Houghton.
He had long been on very friendly terms with the leading Academicians,
and a constant guest at the Banquet; and his fitness for the office
admitted of no doubt. But his nomination by the President,
and the manner in which it was ratified by the Council and general body,
gave him sincere pleasure.
Early in 1887, the `Parleyings' appeared. Their author is still
the same Robert Browning, though here and there visibly touched by
the hand of time. Passages of sweet or majestic music, or of exquisite fancy,
alternate with its long stretches of argumentative thought;
and the light of imagination still plays, however fitfully,
over statements of opinion to which constant repetition has given a suggestion
of commonplace. But the revision of the work caused him unusual trouble.
The subjects he had chosen strained his powers of exposition;
and I think he often tried to remedy by mere verbal correction,
what was a defect in the logical arrangement of his ideas.
They would slide into each other where a visible dividing line was required.
The last stage of his life was now at hand; and the vivid return of fancy
to his boyhood's literary loves was in pathetic, perhaps not quite accidental,
coincidence with the fact. It will be well to pause
at this beginning of his decline, and recall so far as possible
the image of the man who lived, and worked, and loved, and was loved among us,
during that brief old age, and the lengthened period of level strength
which had preceded it. The record already given of his life and work
supplies the outline of the picture; but a few more personal details
are required for its completion.
Constancy to Habit -- Optimism -- Belief in Providence --
Political Opinions -- His Friendships -- Reverence for Genius --
Attitude towards his Public -- Attitude towards his Work --
Habits of Work -- His Reading -- Conversational Powers --
Impulsiveness and Reserve -- Nervous Peculiarities -- His Benevolence --
His Attitude towards Women.
When Mr. Browning wrote to Miss Haworth, in the July of 1861, he had said:
`I shall still grow, I hope; but my root is taken, and remains.'
He was then alluding to a special offshoot of feeling and association,
on the permanence of which it is not now necessary to dwell;
but it is certain that he continued growing up to a late age,
and that the development was only limited by those general roots,
those fixed conditions of his being, which had predetermined its form.
This progressive intellectual vitality is amply represented in his works;
it also reveals itself in his letters in so far as I have been allowed
to publish them. I only refer to it to give emphasis to a contrasted
or corresponding characteristic: his aversion to every thought of change.
I have spoken of his constancy to all degrees of friendship and love.
What he loved once he loved always, from the dearest man or woman
to whom his allegiance had been given, to the humblest piece of furniture
which had served him. It was equally true that what he had done once
he was wont, for that very reason, to continue doing.
The devotion to habits of feeling extended to habits of life;
and although the lower constancy generally served the purposes of the higher,
it also sometimes clashed with them. It conspired with
his ready kindness of heart to make him subject to circumstances
which at first appealed to him through that kindness,
but lay really beyond its scope. This statement, it is true,
can only fully apply to the latter part of his life.
His powers of reaction must originally have been stronger,
as well as freer from the paralysis of conflicting motive and interest.
The marked shrinking from effort in any untried direction,
which was often another name for his stability, could scarcely have coexisted
with the fresher and more curious interest in men and things;
we know indeed from recorded facts that it was a feeling of later growth;
and it visibly increased with the periodical nervous exhaustion
of his advancing years. I am convinced, nevertheless, that,
when the restiveness of boyhood had passed away, Mr. Browning's strength
was always more passive than active; that he habitually
made the best of external conditions rather than tried to change them.
He was a `fighter' only by the brain. And on this point, though on this only,
his work is misleading.
The acquiescent tendency arose in some degree from two equally prominent
characteristics of Mr. Browning's nature: his optimism,
and his belief in direct Providence; and these again represented
a condition of mind which was in certain respects a quality,
but must in others be recognized as a defect. It disposed him too much
to make a virtue of happiness. It tended also to the ignoring or denying of
many incidental possibilities, and many standing problems of human suffering.
The first part of this assertion is illustrated by `The Two Poets of Croisic',
in which Mr. Browning declares that, other conditions being equal,
the greater poet will have been he who led the happier life,
who most completely -- and we must take this in the human
as well as religious sense -- triumphed over suffering.
The second has its proof in the contempt for poetic melancholy
which flashes from the supposed utterance of Shakespeare in `At the Mermaid';
its negative justification in the whole range of his work.
Such facts may be hard to reconcile with others already known
of Mr. Browning's nature, or already stated concerning it;
but it is in the depths of that nature that the solution of this,
as of more than one other anomaly, must be sought. It is true
that remembered pain dwelt longer with him than remembered pleasure.
It is true that the last great sorrow of his life was long felt
and cherished by him as a religion, and that it entered as such
into the courage with which he first confronted it. It is no less true
that he directly and increasingly cultivated happiness;
and that because of certain sufferings which had been connected with them,
he would often have refused to live his happiest days again.
It seems still harder to associate defective human sympathy
with his kind heart and large dramatic imagination,
though that very imagination was an important factor in the case.
It forbade the collective and mathematical estimate of human suffering,
which is so much in favour with modern philanthropy,
and so untrue a measure for the individual life; and he indirectly condemns it
in `Ferishtah's Fancies' in the parable of `Bean Stripes'.
But his dominant individuality also barred the recognition
of any judgment or impression, any thought or feeling,
which did not justify itself from his own point of view.
The barrier would melt under the influence of a sympathetic mood,
as it would stiffen in the atmosphere of disagreement. It would yield,
as did in his case so many other things, to continued indirect pressure,
whether from his love of justice, the strength of his attachments,
or his power of imaginative absorption. But he was bound
by the conditions of an essentially creative nature. The subjectiveness,
if I may for once use that hackneyed word, had passed out of his work
only to root itself more strongly in his life. He was self-centred,
as the creative nature must inevitably be. He appeared, for this reason,
more widely sympathetic in his works than in his life, though even
in the former certain grounds of vicarious feeling remained untouched.
The sympathy there displayed was creative and obeyed its own law.
That which was demanded from him by reality was responsive,
and implied submission to the law of other minds.
Such intellectual egotism is unconnected with moral selfishness,
though it often unconsciously does its work. Were it otherwise,
I should have passed over in silence this aspect, comprehensive though it is,
of Mr. Browning's character. He was capable of the largest self-sacrifice
and of the smallest self-denial; and would exercise either
whenever love or duty clearly pointed the way. He would, he believed,
cheerfully have done so at the command, however arbitrary, of a Higher Power;
he often spoke of the absence of such injunction, whether to
endurance or action, as the great theoretical difficulty of life
for those who, like himself, rejected or questioned
the dogmatic teachings of Christianity. This does not mean that he ignored
the traditional moralities which have so largely taken their place.
They coincided in great measure with his own instincts;
and few occasions could have arisen in which they would not be to him
a sufficient guide. I may add, though this is a digression,
that he never admitted the right of genius to defy them;
when such a right had once been claimed for it in his presence,
he rejoined quickly, `That is an error! NOBLESSE OBLIGE.'
But he had difficulty in acknowledging any abstract law
which did not derive from a Higher Power; and this fact may have been
at once cause and consequence of the special conditions of his own mind.
All human or conventional obligation appeals finally
to the individual judgment; and in his case this could easily be obscured
by the always militant imagination, in regard to any subject
in which his feelings were even indirectly concerned. No one saw
more justly than he, when the object of vision was general or remote.
Whatever entered his personal atmosphere encountered a refracting medium
in which objects were decomposed, and a succession of details,
each held as it were close to the eye, blocked out the larger view.
We have seen, on the other hand, that he accepted imperfect knowledge
as part of the discipline of experience. It detracted in no sense
from his conviction of direct relations with the Creator. This was indeed
the central fact of his theology, as the absolute individual existence
had been the central fact of his metaphysics; and when he described
the fatal leap in `Red Cotton Nightcap Country' as a frantic appeal
to the Higher Powers for the `sign' which the man's religion did not afford,
and his nature could not supply, a special dramatic sympathy was at work
within him. The third part of the epilogue to `Dramatis Personae'
represented his own creed; though this was often accentuated
in the sense of a more personal privilege, and a perhaps less poetic mystery,
than the poem conveys. The Evangelical Christian and the subjective
idealist philosopher were curiously blended in his composition.
The transition seems violent from this old-world religion
to any system of politics applicable to the present day.
They were, nevertheless, closely allied in Mr. Browning's mind.
His politics were, so far as they went, the practical aspect of his religion.
Their cardinal doctrine was the liberty of individual growth;
removal of every barrier of prejudice or convention by which
it might still be checked. He had been a Radical in youth,
and probably in early manhood; he remained, in the truest sense of the word,
a Liberal; and his position as such was defined in the sonnet prefixed in 1886
to Mr. Andrew Reid's essay, `Why I am a Liberal', and bearing the same name.
Its profession of faith did not, however, necessarily bind him
to any political party. It separated him from all the newest developments
of so-called Liberalism. He respected the rights of property.
He was a true patriot, hating to see his country plunged into aggressive wars,
but tenacious of her position among the empires of the world.
He was also a passionate Unionist; although the question
of our political relations with Ireland weighed less with him,
as it has done with so many others, than those considerations
of law and order, of honesty and humanity, which have been
trampled under foot in the name of Home Rule. It grieved and surprised him
to find himself on this subject at issue with so many valued friends;
and no pain of Lost Leadership was ever more angry or more intense,
than that which came to him through the defection of a great statesman
whom he had honoured and loved, from what he believed to be the right cause.
The character of Mr. Browning's friendships reveals itself
in great measure in even a simple outline of his life.
His first friends of his own sex were almost exclusively men of letters,
by taste if not by profession; the circumstances of his entrance into society
made this a matter of course. In later years he associated on cordial terms
with men of very various interests and professions;
and only writers of conspicuous merit, whether in prose or poetry,
attracted him as such. No intercourse was more congenial to him
than that of the higher class of English clergymen.
He sympathized in their beliefs even when he did not share them.
Above all he loved their culture; and the love of culture in general,
of its old classic forms in particular, was as strong in him
as if it had been formed by all the natural and conventional associations
of a university career. He had hearty friends and appreciators
among the dignitaries of the Church -- successive Archbishops and Bishops,
Deans of Westminster and St. Paul's. They all knew the value
of the great freelance who fought like the gods of old with the regular army.
No name, however, has been mentioned in the poet's family more frequently
or with more affection than that of the Rev. J. D. W. Williams,
Vicar of Bottisham in Cambridgeshire. The mutual acquaintance, which was made
through Mr. Browning's brother-in-law, Mr. George Moulton-Barrett,
was prepared by Mr. Williams' great love for his poems,
of which he translated many into Latin and Greek; but I am convinced
that Mr. Browning's delight in his friend's classical attainments
was quite as great as his gratification in the tribute
he himself derived from them.
His love of genius was a worship: and in this we must include his whole life.
Nor was it, as this feeling so often is, exclusively exercised upon the past.
I do not suppose his more eminent contemporaries ever quite knew how generous
his enthusiasm for them had been, how free from any under-current of envy,
or impulse to avoidable criticism. He could not endure
even just censure of one whom he believed, or had believed to be great.
I have seen him wince under it, though no third person was present,
and heard him answer, `Don't! don't!' as if physical pain
were being inflicted on him. In the early days he would make his friend,
M. de Monclar, draw for him from memory the likenesses of famous writers
whom he had known in Paris; the sketches thus made
of George Sand and Victor Hugo are still in the poet's family.
A still more striking and very touching incident refers to one of the winters,
probably the second, which he spent in Paris. He was one day
walking with little Pen, when Beranger came in sight,
and he bade the child `run up to' or `run past that gentleman,
and put his hand for a moment upon him.' This was a great man,
he afterwards explained, and he wished his son to be able by-and-by
to say that if he had not known, he had at all events touched him.
Scientific genius ranked with him only second to the poetical.
Mr. Browning's delicate professional sympathies justified some sensitiveness
on his own account; but he was, I am convinced, as free from this quality
as a man with a poet-nature could possibly be. It may seem hazardous
to conjecture how serious criticism would have affected him.
Few men so much `reviewed' have experienced so little.
He was by turns derided or ignored, enthusiastically praised,
zealously analyzed and interpreted: but the independent judgment
which could embrace at once the quality of his mind and its defects,
is almost absent -- has been so at all events during later years --
from the volumes which have been written about him. I am convinced,
nevertheless, that he would have accepted serious, even adverse criticism,
if it had borne the impress of unbiassed thought and genuine sincerity.
It could not be otherwise with one in whom the power of reverence
was so strongly marked.
He asked but one thing of his reviewers, as he asked but one thing
of his larger public. The first demand is indicated in a letter
to Mrs. Frank Hill, of January 31, 1884.
Dear Mrs. Hill, -- Could you befriend me? The `Century' prints
a little insignificance of mine -- an impromptu sonnet --
but prints it CORRECTLY. The `Pall Mall' pleases to extract it --
and produces what I enclose: one line left out, and a note of admiration (!)
turned into an I, and a superfluous `the' stuck in --
all these blunders with the correctly printed text before it!
So does the charge of unintelligibility attach itself to your poor friend --
who can kick nobody.
The carelessness often shown in the most friendly quotation
could hardly be absent from that which was intended to support a hostile view;
and the only injustice of which he ever complained,
was what he spoke of as falsely condemning him out of his own mouth.
He used to say: `If a critic declares that any poem of mine
is unintelligible, the reader may go to it and judge for himself;
but, if it is made to appear unintelligible by a passage extracted from it
and distorted by misprints, I have no redress.' He also failed to realize
those conditions of thought, and still more of expression,
which made him often on first reading difficult to understand;
and as the younger generation of his admirers often deny those difficulties
where they exist, as emphatically as their grandfathers proclaimed them
where they did not, public opinion gave him little help in the matter.
The second (unspoken) request was in some sense an antithesis to the first.
Mr. Browning desired to be read accurately but not literally.
He deprecated the constant habit of reading him into his work;
whether in search of the personal meaning of a given passage or poem,
or in the light of a foregone conclusion as to what that meaning must be.
The latter process was that generally preferred, because the individual mind
naturally seeks its own reflection in the poet's work,
as it does in the facts of nature. It was stimulated by the investigations
of the Browning Societies, and by the partial familiarity with his actual life
which constantly supplied tempting, if untrustworthy clues. It grew out of
the strong personal as well as literary interest which he inspired.
But the tendency to listen in his work for a single recurrent note
always struck him as analogous to the inspection of a picture gallery
with eyes blind to every colour but one; and the act of sympathy
often involved in this mode of judgment was neutralized for him
by the limitation of his genius which it presupposed.
His general objection to being identified with his works
is set forth in `At the Mermaid', and other poems of the same volume,
in which it takes the form of a rather captious protest
against inferring from the poet any habit or quality of the man;
and where also, under the impulse of the dramatic mood,
he enforces the lesson by saying more than he can possibly mean.
His readers might object that his human personality was so often plainly
revealed in his poetic utterance (whether or not that of Shakespeare was),
and so often also avowed by it, that the line which divided them
became impossible to draw. But he again would have rejoined
that the Poet could never express himself with any large freedom,
unless a fiction of impersonality were granted to him.
He might also have alleged, he often did allege, that in his case the fiction
would hold a great deal of truth; since, except in the rarest cases,
the very fact of poetic, above all of dramatic reproduction,
detracts from the reality of the thought or feeling reproduced.
It introduces the alloy of fancy without which the fixed outlines
of even living experience cannot be welded into poetic form.
He claimed, in short, that in judging of his work, one should allow
for the action in it of the constructive imagination, in the exercise of which
all deeper poetry consists. The form of literalism, which showed itself
in seeking historical authority for every character or incident
which he employed by way of illustration, was especially irritating to him.
I may (as indeed I must) concede this much, without impugning
either the pleasure or the gratitude with which he recognized
the increasing interest in his poems, and, if sometimes exhibited
in a mistaken form, the growing appreciation of them.
There was another and more striking peculiarity in Mr. Browning's attitude
towards his works: his constant conviction that the latest must be the best,
because the outcome of the fullest mental experience,
and of the longest practice in his art. He was keenly alive
to the necessary failings of youthful literary production;
he also practically denied to it that quality which so often places it
at an advantage over that, not indeed of more mature manhood,
but at all events of advancing age. There was much in his own experience
to blind him to the natural effects of time; it had been
a prolonged triumph over them. But the delusion, in so far as it was one,
lay deeper than the testimony of such experience, and would I think
have survived it. It was the essence of his belief that the mind
is superior to physical change; that it may be helped or hindered
by its temporary alliance with the body, but will none the less outstrip it
in their joint course; and as intellect was for him the life of poetry,
so was the power of poetry independent of bodily progress and bodily decline.
This conviction pervaded his life. He learned, though happily very late,
to feel age an impediment; he never accepted it as a disqualification.
He finished his work very carefully. He had the better right to resent
any garbling of it, that this habitually took place through his punctuation,
which was always made with the fullest sense of its significance
to any but the baldest style, and of its special importance to his own.
I have heard him say: `People accuse me of not taking pains!
I take nothing BUT pains!' And there was indeed a curious contrast
between the irresponsible, often strangely unquestioned, impulse
to which the substance of each poem was due, and the conscientious labour
which he always devoted to its form. The laborious habit
must have grown upon him; it was natural that it should do so
as thought gained the ascendency over emotion in what he had to say.
Mrs. Browning told Mr. Val Prinsep that her husband `worked at a great rate;'
and this fact probably connected itself with the difficulty he then found
in altering the form or wording of any particular phrase;
he wrote most frequently under that lyrical inspiration
in which the idea and the form are least separable from each other.
We know, however, that in the later editions of his old work
he always corrected where he could; and if we notice the changed lines
in `Paracelsus' or `Sordello', as they appear in the edition of 1863,
or the slighter alterations indicated for the last reprint of his works,
we are struck by the care evinced in them for greater
smoothness of expression, as well as for greater accuracy and force.
He produced less rapidly in later life, though he could throw off
impromptu verses, whether serious or comical, with the utmost ease.
His work was then of a kind which required more deliberation;
and other claims had multiplied upon his time and thoughts.
He was glad to have accomplished twenty or thirty lines in a morning.
After lunch-time, for many years, he avoided, when possible,
even answering a note. But he always counted a day lost
on which he had not written something; and in those last years
on which we have yet to enter, he complained bitterly of the quantity
of ephemeral correspondence which kept him back from his proper work.
He once wrote, on the occasion of a short illness which confined him
to the house, `All my power of imagination seems gone. I might as well
be in bed!' He repeatedly determined to write a poem every day,
and once succeeded for a fortnight in doing so. He was then in Paris,
preparing `Men and Women'. `Childe Roland' and `Women and Roses'
were among those produced on this plan; the latter having been suggested
by some flowers sent to his wife. The lyrics in `Ferishtah's Fancies'
were written, I believe, on consecutive days; and the intention renewed itself
with his last work, though it cannot have been maintained.
He was not as great a reader in later as in earlier years;
he had neither time nor available strength to be so if he had wished;
and he absorbed almost unconsciously every item which added itself
to the sum of general knowledge. Books had indeed served for him
their most important purpose when they had satisfied the first curiosities
of his genius, and enabled it to establish its independence.
His mind was made up on the chief subjects of contemporary thought,
and what was novel or controversial in its proceeding
had no attraction for him. He would read anything, short of an English novel,
to a friend whose eyes required this assistance; but such pleasure
as he derived from the act was more often sympathetic than spontaneous,
even when he had not, as he often had, selected for it
a book which he already knew. In the course of his last decade
he devoted himself for a short time to the study of Spanish and Hebrew.
The Spanish dramatists yielded him a fund of new enjoyment; and he delighted
in his power of reading Hebrew in its most difficult printed forms.
He also tried, but with less result, to improve his knowledge of German.
His eyesight defied all obstacles of bad paper and ancient type,
and there was anxiety as well as pleasure to those about him
in his unfailing confidence in its powers. He never wore spectacles,
nor had the least consciousness of requiring them. He would read
an old closely printed volume by the waning light of a winter afternoon,
positively refusing to use a lamp. Indeed his preference
of the faintest natural light to the best that could be artificially produced
was perhaps the one suggestion of coming change. He used for all purposes
a single eye; for the two did not combine in their action,
the right serving exclusively for near, the left for distant objects.
This was why in walking he often closed the right eye;
while it was indispensable to his comfort in reading,
not only that the light should come from the right side,
but that the left should be shielded from any luminous object, like the fire,
which even at the distance of half the length of a room
would strike on his field of vision and confuse the near sight.
His literary interest became increasingly centred on records of the lives
of men and women; especially of such men and women as he had known;
he was generally curious to see the newly published biographies,
though often disappointed by them. He would also read,
even for his amusement, good works of French or Italian fiction.
His allegiance to Balzac remained unshaken, though he was
conscious of lengthiness when he read him aloud. This author's
deep and hence often poetic realism was, I believe, bound up
with his own earliest aspirations towards dramatic art.
His manner of reading aloud a story which he already knew
was the counterpart of his own method of construction.
He would claim his listener's attention for any apparently unimportant fact
which had a part to play in it: he would say: `Listen to this description:
it will be important. Observe this character: you will see a great deal more
of him or her.' We know that in his own work nothing was thrown away;
no note was struck which did not add its vibration to the general utterance
of the poem; and his habitual generosity towards a fellow-worker
prompted him to seek and recognize the same quality,
even in productions where it was less conspicuous than in his own.
The patient reading which he required for himself was justified
by that which he always demanded for others; and he claimed it less
in his own case for his possible intricacies of thought or style,
than for that compactness of living structure in which
every detail or group of details was essential to the whole,
and in a certain sense contained it. He read few things with so much pleasure
as an occasional chapter in the Old Testament.
Mr. Browning was a brilliant talker; he was admittedly more a talker
than a conversationalist. But this quality had nothing in common
with self-assertion or love of display. He had too much respect
for the acquirements of other men to wish to impose silence on those
who were competent to speak; and he had great pleasure in listening
to a discussion on any subject in which he was interested,
and on which he was not specially informed. He never willingly monopolized
the conversation; but when called upon to take a prominent part in it,
either with one person or with several, the flow of remembered knowledge
and revived mental experience, combined with the ingenuous eagerness
to vindicate some point in dispute would often carry him away;
while his hearers, nearly as often, allowed him to proceed
from absence of any desire to interrupt him. This great mental fertility
had been prepared by the wide reading and thorough assimilation
of his early days; and it was only at a later, and in certain respects
less vigorous period, that its full bearing could be seen.
His memory for passing occurrences, even such as had impressed him,
became very weak; it was so before he had grown really old; and he would
urge this fact in deprecation of any want of kindness or sympathy,
which a given act of forgetfulness might seem to involve.
He had probably always, in matters touching his own life,
the memory of feelings more than that of facts. I think this has been
described as a peculiarity of the poet-nature; and though this memory
is probably the more tenacious of the two, it is no safe guide
to the recovery of facts, still less to that of their order and significance.
Yet up to the last weeks, even the last conscious days of his life,
his remembrance of historical incident, his aptness of literary illustration,
never failed him. His dinner-table anecdotes supplied, of course, no measure
for this spontaneous reproductive power; yet some weight must be given
to the number of years during which he could abound in such stories,
and attest their constant appropriateness by not repeating them.
This brilliant mental quality had its drawback, on which
I have already touched in a rather different connection:
the obstacle which it created to even serious and private conversation
on any subject on which he was not neutral. Feeling, imagination,
and the vividness of personal points of view, constantly thwarted
the attempt at a dispassionate exchange of ideas. But the balance
often righted itself when the excitement of the discussion was at an end;
and it would even become apparent that expressions or arguments
which he had passed over unheeded, or as it seemed unheard,
had stored themselves in his mind and borne fruit there.
I think it is Mr. Sharp who has remarked that Mr. Browning combined
impulsiveness of manner with much real reserve. He was habitually reticent
where his deeper feelings were concerned; and the impulsiveness and
the reticence were both equally rooted in his poetic and human temperament.
The one meant the vital force of his emotions, the other their sensibility.
In a smaller or more prosaic nature they must have modified each other.
But the partial secretiveness had also occasionally its conscious motives,
some unselfish, and some self-regarding; and from this point of view
it stood in marked apparent antagonism to the more expansive quality.
He never, however, intentionally withheld from others such things
as it concerned them to know. His intellectual and religious convictions
were open to all who seriously sought them; and if, even on such points,
he did not appear communicative, it was because he took more interest
in any subject of conversation which did not directly centre in himself.
Setting aside the delicacies which tend to self-concealment,
and for which he had been always more or less conspicuous;
excepting also the pride which would co-operate with them,
all his inclinations were in the direction of truth;
there was no quality which he so much loved and admired.
He thought aloud wherever he could trust himself to do so.
Impulse predominated in all the active manifestations of his nature.
The fiery child and the impatient boy had left their traces in the man;
and with them the peculiar childlike quality which the man of genius
never outgrows, and which, in its mingled waywardness and sweetness,
was present in Robert Browning till almost his dying day.
There was also a recurrent touch of hardness, distinct from
the comparatively ungenial mood of his earlier years of widowhood;
and this, like his reserve, seemed to conflict with his general character,
but in reality harmonized with it. It meant, not that feeling
was suspended in him, but that it was compressed. It was his natural response
to any opposition which his reasonings could not shake nor his will overcome,
and which, rightly or not, conveyed to him the sense of being misunderstood.
It reacted in pain for others, but it lay with an aching weight
on his own heart, and was thrown off in an upheaval of the pent-up
kindliness and affection, the moment their true springs were touched.
The hardening power in his composition, though fugitive and comparatively
seldom displayed, was in fact proportioned to his tenderness;
and no one who had not seen him in the revulsion from a hard mood,
or the regret for it, knew what that tenderness could be.
Underlying all the peculiarities of his nature, its strength and its weakness,
its exuberance and its reserves, was the nervous excitability
of which I have spoken in an earlier chapter. I have heard him say:
`I am nervous to such a degree that I might fancy I could not enter
a drawing-room, if I did not know from long experience that I can do it.'
He did not desire to conceal this fact, nor need others conceal it for him;
since it was only calculated to disarm criticism and to strengthen sympathy.
The special vital power which he derived from this organization
need not be reaffirmed. It carried also its inevitable disablements.
Its resources were not always under his own control;
and he frequently complained of the lack of presence of mind
which would seize him on any conventional emergency not included
in the daily social routine. In a real one he was never at fault.
He never failed in a sympathetic response or a playful retort;
he was always provided with the exact counter requisite in a game of words.
In this respect indeed he had all the powers of the conversationalist;
and the perfect ease and grace and geniality of his manner on such occasions,
arose probably far more from his innate human and social qualities
than from even his familiar intercourse with the world. But he could not
extemporize a speech. He could not on the spur of the moment string together
the more or less set phrases which an after-dinner oration demands.
All his friends knew this, and spared him the necessity of refusing.
He had once a headache all day, because at a dinner, the night before,
a false report had reached him that he was going to be asked to speak.
This alone would have sufficed to prevent him from accepting any public post.
He confesses the disability in a pretty note to Professor Knight,
written in reference to a recent meeting of the Wordsworth Society.
19, Warwick Crescent, W.: May 9, '84.
My dear Professor Knight, -- I seem ungracious and ungrateful,
but am neither; though, now that your festival is over,
I wish I could have overcome my scruples and apprehensions.
It is hard to say -- when kind people press one to `just speak for a minute'
-- that the business, so easy to almost anybody, is too bewildering
Ever truly yours,
A Rectorial Address need probably not have been extemporized,
but it would also have been irksome to him to prepare.
He was not accustomed to uttering himself in prose except within the limits,
and under the incitements, of private correspondence.
The ceremonial publicity attaching to all official proceedings
would also have inevitably been a trial to him. He did
at one of the Wordsworth Society meetings speak a sentence from the chair,
in the absence of the appointed chairman, who had not yet arrived;
and when he had received his degree from the University of Edinburgh
he was persuaded to say a few words to the assembled students,
in which I believe he thanked them for their warm welcome;
but such exceptions only proved the rule.
We cannot doubt that the excited stream of talk which sometimes
flowed from him was, in the given conditions of mind and imagination,
due to a nervous impulse which he could not always restrain;
and that the effusiveness of manner with which he greeted alike
old friends and new, arose also from a momentary want of self-possession.
We may admit this the more readily that in both cases it was allied
to real kindness of intention, above all in the latter,
where the fear of seeming cold towards even a friend's friend,
strove increasingly with the defective memory for names and faces
which were not quite familiar to him. He was also profoundly averse
to the idea of posing as a man of superior gifts; having indeed,
in regard to social intercourse, as little of the fastidiousness of genius
as of its bohemianism. He, therefore, made it a rule,
from the moment he took his place as a celebrity in the London world,
to exert himself for the amusement of his fellow-guests at a dinner-table,
whether their own mental resources were great or small;
and this gave rise to a frequent effort at conversation,
which converted itself into a habit, and ended by carrying him away.
This at least was his own conviction in the matter. The loud voice,
which so many persons must have learned to think habitual with him,
bore also traces of this half-unconscious nervous stimulation.*
It was natural to him in anger or excitement, but did not express
his gentler or more equable states of feeling; and when he read to others
on a subject which moved him, his utterance often subsided
into a tremulous softness which left it scarcely audible.
* Miss Browning reminds me that loud speaking had become natural to him
through the deafness of several of his intimate friends:
Landor, Kirkup, Barry Cornwall, and previously his uncle Reuben,
whose hearing had been impaired in early life by a blow from a cricket ball.
This fact necessarily modifies my impression of the case,
but does not quite destroy it.
The mental conditions under which his powers of sympathy were exercised
imposed no limits on his spontaneous human kindness.
This characteristic benevolence, or power of love, is not fully represented
in Mr. Browning's works; it is certainly not prominent in those
of the later period, during which it found the widest scope in his life;
but he has in some sense given its measure in what was intended
as an illustration of the opposite quality. He tells us,
in `Fifine at the Fair', that while the best strength of women is to be found
in their love, the best product of a man is only yielded to hate.
It is the `indignant wine' which has been wrung from the grape plant
by its external mutilation. He could depict it dramatically
in more malignant forms of emotion; but he could only think of it personally
as the reaction of a nobler feeling which has been gratuitously
outraged or repressed.
He more directly, and still more truly, described himself
when he said at about the same time, `I have never at any period of my life
been deaf to an appeal made to me in the name of love.'
He was referring to an experience of many years before,
in which he had even yielded his better judgment to such an appeal;
and it was love in the larger sense for which the concession had been claimed.
It was impossible that so genuine a poet, and so real a man,
should be otherwise than sensitive to the varied forms of feminine attraction.
He avowedly preferred the society of women to that of men;
they were, as I have already said, his habitual confidants, and, evidently,
his most frequent correspondents; and though he could have dispensed
with woman friends as he dispensed with many other things -- though he
most often won them without knowing it -- his frank interest in their sex,
and the often caressing kindness of manner in which it was revealed,
might justly be interpreted by individual women into a conscious appeal
to their sympathy. It was therefore doubly remarkable
that on the ground of benevolence, he scarcely discriminated between
the claim on him of a woman, and that of a man; and his attitude towards women
was in this respect so distinctive as to merit some words of notice.
It was large, generous, and unconventional; but, for that very reason,
it was not, in the received sense of the word, chivalrous.
Chivalry proceeds on the assumption that women not only cannot,
but should not, take care of themselves in any active struggle with life;
Mr. Browning had no theoretical objection to a woman's taking care of herself.
He saw no reason why, if she was hit, she should not hit back again,
or even why, if she hit, she should not receive an answering blow.
He responded swiftly to every feminine appeal to his kindness
or his protection, whether arising from physical weakness
or any other obvious cause of helplessness or suffering; but the appeal
in such cases lay first to his humanity, and only in second order to
his consideration of sex. He would have had a man flogged who beat his wife;
he would have had one flogged who ill-used a child -- or an animal:
he was notedly opposed to any sweeping principle or practice of vivisection.
But he never quite understood that the strongest women are weak,
or at all events vulnerable, in the very fact of their sex,
through the minor traditions and conventions with which society justly,
indeed necessarily, surrounds them. Still less did he understand
those real, if impalpable, differences between men and women which correspond
to the difference of position. He admitted the broad distinctions which
have become proverbial, and are therefore only a rough measure of the truth.
He could say on occasion: `You ought to BE better; you are a woman;
I ought to KNOW better; I am a man.' But he had had
too large an experience of human nature to attach permanent weight
to such generalizations; and they found certainly no expression in his works.
Scarcely an instance of a conventional, or so-called man's woman,
occurs in their whole range. Excepting perhaps the speaker
in `A Woman's Last Word', `Pompilia' and `Mildred' are
the nearest approach to it; and in both of these we find
qualities of imagination or thought which place them outside
the conventional type. He instinctively judged women,
both morally and intellectually, by the same standards as men;
and when confronted by some divergence of thought or feeling, which meant,
in the woman's case, neither quality nor defect in any strict sense
of the word, but simply a nature trained to different points of view,
an element of perplexity entered into his probable opposition.
When the difference presented itself in a neutral aspect,
it affected him like the casual peculiarities of a family or a group,
or a casual disagreement between things of the same kind.
He would say to a woman friend: `You women are so different from men!'
in the tone in which he might have said, `You Irish, or you Scotch,
are so different from Englishmen;' or again, `It is impossible for a man
to judge how a woman would act in such or such a case; you are so different;'
the case being sometimes one in which it would be inconceivable
to a normal woman, and therefore to the generality of men,
that she should act in any but one way.
The vague sense of mystery with which the poet's mind usually invests
a being of the opposite sex, had thus often in him its counterpart
in a puzzled dramatic curiosity which constituted an equal ground of interest.
This virtual admission of equality between the sexes,
combined with his Liberal principles to dispose him favourably
towards the movement for Female Emancipation. He approved of everything
that had been done for the higher instruction of women, and would,
not very long ago, have supported their admission to the Franchise.
But he was so much displeased by the more recent action
of some of the lady advocates of Women's Rights, that,
during the last year of his life, after various modifications of opinion,
he frankly pledged himself to the opposite view. He had even
visions of writing a tragedy or drama in support of it.
The plot was roughly sketched, and some dialogue composed,
though I believe no trace of this remains.
It is almost implied by all I have said, that he possessed in every mood
the charm of perfect simplicity of manner. On this point he resembled
his father. His tastes lay also in the direction of great simplicity of life,
though circumstances did not allow of his indulging them to the same extent.
It may interest those who never saw him to know that he always dressed
as well as the occasion required, and always with great indifference
to the subject. In Florence he wore loose clothes which were adapted
to the climate; in London his coats were cut by a good tailor
in whatever was the prevailing fashion; the change was simply with him
an incident of the situation. He had also a look of dainty cleanliness
which was heightened by the smooth healthy texture of the skin,
and in later life by the silvery whiteness of his hair.
His best photographic likenesses were those taken by Mr. Fradelle in 1881,
Mr. Cameron and Mr. William Grove in 1888 and 1889.
Marriage of Mr. Barrett Browning -- Removal to De Vere Gardens --
Symptoms of failing Strength -- New Poems; New Edition of his Works --
Letters to Mr. George Bainton, Mr. Smith, and Lady Martin --
Primiero and Venice -- Letters to Miss Keep -- The last Year in London --
Asolo -- Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, Mrs. Skirrow, and Mr. G. M. Smith.
The last years of Mr. Browning's life were introduced
by two auspicious events, in themselves of very unequal importance,
but each in its own way significant for his happiness and his health.
One was his son's marriage on October 4, 1887, to Miss Fannie Coddington,
of New York, a lady towards whom Mr. Barrett Browning had been strongly
attracted when he was a very young man and she little more than a child;
the other, his own removal from Warwick Crescent to De Vere Gardens,
which took place in the previous June. The change of residence
had long been with him only a question of opportunity.
He was once even in treaty for a piece of ground at Kensington,
and intended building a house. That in which he had lived for so many years
had faults of construction and situation which the lapse of time
rendered only more conspicuous; the Regent's Canal Bill
had also doomed it to demolition; and when an opening presented itself
for securing one in all essentials more suitable, he was glad to seize it,
though at the eleventh hour. He had mentally fixed on the new locality
in those earlier days in which he still thought his son
might eventually settle in London; and it possessed at the same time
many advantages for himself. It was warmer and more sheltered
than any which he could have found on the north side of the Park; and,
in that close vicinity to Kensington Gardens, walking might be contemplated
as a pleasure, instead of mere compulsory motion from place to place.
It was only too soon apparent that the time had passed
when he could reap much benefit from the event; but he became aware
from the first moment of his installation in the new home
that the conditions of physical life had become more favourable for him.
He found an almost pathetic pleasure in completing the internal arrangements
of the well-built, commodious house. It seems, on looking back,
as if the veil had dropped before his eyes which sometimes
shrouds the keenest vision in face of an impending change;
and he had imagined, in spite of casual utterances which disclaimed the hope,
that a new lease of life was being given to him. He had for several years
been preparing for the more roomy dwelling which he would probably
some day inhabit; and handsome pieces of old furniture had been stowed away
in the house in Warwick Crescent, pending the occasion for their use.
He loved antiquities of this kind, in a manner which sometimes recalled
his father's affection for old books; and most of these
had been bought in Venice, where frequent visits to the noted curiosity-shops
had been his one bond of habit with his tourist countrymen in that city.
They matched the carved oak and massive gildings and valuable tapestries
which had carried something of Casa Guidi into his first London home.
Brass lamps that had once hung inside chapels in some Catholic church,
had long occupied the place of the habitual gaselier; and to these was added
in the following year one of silver, also brought from Venice --
the Jewish `Sabbath lamp'. Another acquisition, made only a few months,
if indeed so long, before he left London for the last time,
was that of a set of casts representing the Seasons,
which were to stand at intervals on brackets in a certain unsightly space
on his drawing-room wall; and he had said of these, which I think
his son was procuring for him: `Only my four little heads,
and then I shall not buy another thing for the house' --
in a tone of childlike satisfaction at his completed work.
This summer he merely went to St. Moritz, where he and his sister were,
for the greater part of their stay, again guests of Mrs. Bloomfield Moore.
He was determined to give the London winter a fuller trial
in the more promising circumstances of his new life,
and there was much to be done in De Vere Gardens after his return.
His father's six thousand books, together with those
he had himself accumulated, were for the first time to be spread out
in their proper array, instead of crowding together in rows,
behind and behind each other. The new bookcases, which could stand
in the large new study, were waiting to receive them. He did not know
until he tried to fulfil it how greatly the task would tax his strength.
The library was, I believe, never completely arranged.
During this winter of 1887-8 his friends first perceived that a change
had come over him. They did not realize that his life was drawing to a close;
it was difficult to do so when so much of the former elasticity remained;
when he still proclaimed himself `quite well' so long as he was not
definitely suffering. But he was often suffering; one terrible cold
followed another. There was general evidence that he had at last grown old.
He, however, made no distinct change in his mode of life.
Old habits, suspended by his longer imprisonments to the house,
were resumed as soon as he was set free. He still dined out;
still attended the private view of every, or almost every art exhibition.
He kept up his unceasing correspondence -- in one or two cases
voluntarily added to it; though he would complain day after day
that his fingers ached from the number of hours through which
he had held his pen. One of the interesting letters of this period
was written to Mr. George Bainton, of Coventry, to be used,
as that gentleman tells me, in the preparation of a lecture
on the `Art of Effective Written Composition'. It confirms the statement
I have had occasion to make, that no extraneous influence
ever permanently impressed itself on Mr. Browning's style.
29, De Vere Gardens: Oct. 6, '87.
Dear Sir, -- I was absent from London when your kind letter
reached this house, to which I removed some time ago --
hence the delay in acknowledging your kindness and replying, in some degree,
to your request. All I can say, however, is this much -- and very little --
that, by the indulgence of my father and mother, I was allowed
to live my own life and choose my own course in it; which, having been
the same from the beginning to the end, necessitated a permission to read
nearly all sorts of books, in a well-stocked and very miscellaneous library.
I had no other direction than my parents' taste for whatever
was highest and best in literature; but I found out for myself
many forgotten fields which proved the richest of pastures:
and, so far as a preference of a particular `style' is concerned,
I believe mine was just the same at first as at last.
I cannot name any one author who exclusively influenced me in that respect, --
as to the fittest expression of thought -- but thought itself had many
impulsions from very various sources, a matter not to your present purpose.
I repeat, this is very little to say, but all in my power --
and it is heartily at your service -- if not as of any value,
at least as a proof that I gratefully feel your kindness,
and am, dear Sir Yours very truly,
In December 1887 he wrote `Rosny', the first poem in `Asolando',
and that which perhaps most displays his old subtle dramatic power;
it was followed by `Beatrice Signorini' and `Flute-Music'.
Of the `Bad Dreams' two or three were also written in London,
I think, during that winter. The `Ponte dell' Angelo' was imagined
during the next autumn in Venice. `White Witchcraft' had been suggested
in the same summer by a letter from a friend in the Channel Islands
which spoke of the number of toads to be seen there. In the spring of 1888
he began revising his works for the last, and now entirely uniform edition,
which was issued in monthly volumes, and completed by the July of 1889.
Important verbal corrections were made in `The Inn Album',
though not, I think, in many of the later poems; but that in which
he found most room for improvement was, very naturally, `Pauline';
and he wrote concerning it to Mr. Smith the following interesting letter.
29, De Vere Gardens, W.: Feb. 27, '88.
My dear Smith, -- When I received the Proofs of the 1st. vol.
on Friday evening, I made sure of returning them next day --
so accurately are they printed. But on looking at that unlucky `Pauline',
which I have not touched for half a century, a sudden impulse came over me
to take the opportunity of just correcting the most obvious faults
of expression, versification and construction, -- letting the THOUGHTS
-- such as they are -- remain exactly as at first: I have only treated
the imperfect expression of these just as I have now and then done
for an amateur friend, if he asked me and I liked him enough to do so.
Not a line is displaced, none added, none taken away.
I have just sent it to the printer's with an explanatory word: and told him
that he will have less trouble with all the rest of the volumes put together
than with this little portion. I expect to return all the rest
to-morrow or next day.
As for the sketch -- the portrait -- it admits of no very superior treatment:
but, as it is the only one which makes me out youngish, --
I should like to know if an artist could not strengthen the thing
by a pencil touch or two in a few minutes -- improve the eyes, eyebrows,
and mouth somewhat. The head too wants improvement: were Pen here
he could manage it all in a moment.
Ever truly yours,
Any attempt at modifying the expressed thoughts of his twenty-first year
would have been, as he probably felt, a futile tampering with
the work of another man; his literary conscience would have forbidden this,
if it had been otherwise possible. But he here proves by his own words
what I have already asserted, that the power of detail correction either was,
or had become by experience, very strong in him.
The history of this summer of 1888 is partly given in a letter to Lady Martin.
29, De Vere Gardens, W.: Aug. 12, '88.
Dear Lady Martin, -- The date of your kind letter, -- June 18, --
would affect me indeed, but for the good conscience I retain
despite of appearances. So uncertain have I been as to the course
we should take, -- my sister and myself -- when the time came
for leaving town, that it seemed as if `next week' might be
the eventful week when all doubts would disappear --
perhaps the strange cold weather and interminable rain made it hard to venture
from under one's roof even in fancy of being better lodged elsewhere.
This very day week it was the old story -- cold -- then followed
the suffocating eight or nine tropical days which forbade any more delay,
and we leave to-morrow for a place called Primiero, near Feltre --
where my son and his wife assure us we may be comfortably
-- and coolly -- housed, until we can accompany them to Venice,
which we may stay at for a short time. You remember our troubles
at Llangollen about the purchase of a Venetian house . . . ?
My son, however, nothing daunted, and acting under abler counsels than I was
fortunate enough to obtain,* has obtained a still more desirable acquisition,
in the shape of the well-known Rezzonico Palace (that of Pope Clement 13th) --
and, I believe, is to be congratulated on his bargain. I cannot profess
the same interest in this as in the earlier object of his ambition,
but am quite satisfied by the evident satisfaction of the `young people'.
So, -- by the old law of compensation, -- while we may expect
pleasant days abroad -- our chance is gone of once again enjoying your company
in your own lovely Vale of Llangollen; -- had we not been pulled otherwise
by the inducements we could not resist, -- another term of delightful weeks --
each tipped with a sweet starry Sunday at the little church
leading to the House Beautiful where we took our rest of an evening
spent always memorably -- this might have been our fortunate lot once again!
As it is, perhaps we need more energetic treatment than we should get with you
-- for both of us are more oppressed than ever by the exigencies
of the lengthy season, and require still more bracing air
than the gently lulling temperature of Wales. May it be doing you,
and dear Sir Theodore, all the good you deserve -- throwing in the share
due to us, who must forego it! With all love from us both,
ever affectionately yours
* Those of Mr. Alexander Malcolm.
He did start for Italy on the following day, but had become so ill,
that he was on the point of postponing his departure.
He suffered throughout the journey as he had never suffered
on any journey before; and during his first few days at Primiero,
could only lead the life of an invalid. He rallied, however, as usual,
under the potent effects of quiet, fresh air, and sunshine;
and fully recovered his normal state before proceeding to Venice,
where the continued sense of physical health combined with
many extraneous circumstances to convert his proposed short stay
into a long one. A letter from the mountains, addressed to a lady
who had never been abroad, and to whom he sometimes wrote
with more descriptive detail than to other friends,
gives a touching glimpse of his fresh delight in the beauties of nature,
and his tender constant sympathy with the animal creation.
Primiero: Sept. 7, '88.
. . . . .
`The weather continues exquisitely temperate, yet sunny,
ever since the clearing thunderstorm of which I must have told you
in my last. It is, I am more and more confirmed in believing,
the most beautiful place I was ever resident in: far more so
than Gressoney or even St.-Pierre de Chartreuse. You would indeed delight
in seeing the magnificence of the mountains, -- the range on either side,
which morning and evening, in turn, transmute literally to gold, --
I mean what I say. Their utterly bare ridges of peaks and crags of all shape,
quite naked of verdure, glow like yellow ore; and, at times,
there is a silver change, as the sun prevails or not.
`The valley is one green luxuriance on all sides; Indian corn,
with beans, gourds, and even cabbages, filling up the interstices;
and the flowers, though not presenting any novelty to my uninstructed eyes,
yet surely more large and purely developed than I remember
to have seen elsewhere. For instance, the tiger-lilies in the garden here
must be above ten feet high, every bloom faultless, and,
what strikes me as peculiar, every leaf on the stalk from bottom to top
as perfect as if no insect existed to spoil them by a notch or speck. . . .
`. . . Did I tell you we had a little captive fox, -- the most engaging
of little vixens? To my great joy she has broken her chain and escaped,
never to be recaptured, I trust. The original wild and untameable nature
was to be plainly discerned even in this early stage of the whelp's life:
she dug herself, with such baby feet, a huge hole, the use of which
was evident, when, one day, she pounced thence on a stray turkey --
allured within reach by the fragments of fox's breakfast, -- the intruder
escaping with the loss of his tail. The creature came back one night
to explore the old place of captivity, -- ate some food and retired.
For myself, -- I continue absolutely well: I do not walk much,
but for more than amends, am in the open air all day long.'
No less striking is a short extract from a letter written in Venice
to the same friend, Miss Keep.
Ca' Alvise: Oct. 16, '88.
`Every morning at six, I see the sun rise; far more wonderfully, to my mind,
than his famous setting, which everybody glorifies. My bedroom window
commands a perfect view: the still, grey lagune, the few seagulls flying,
the islet of S. Giorgio in deep shadow, and the clouds in a long purple rack,
behind which a sort of spirit of rose burns up till presently all the rims
are on fire with gold, and last of all the orb sends before it
a long column of its own essence apparently: so my day begins.'
We feel, as we read these late, and even later words,
that the lyric imagination was renewing itself in the incipient dissolution
of other powers. It is the Browning of `Pippa Passes' who speaks in them.
He suffered less on the whole during the winter of 1888-9.
It was already advanced when he returned to England;
and the attacks of cold and asthma were either shorter or less frequent.
He still maintained throughout the season his old social routine,
not omitting his yearly visit, on the anniversary of Waterloo,
to Lord Albemarle, its last surviving veteran. He went for some days
to Oxford during the commemoration week, and had for the first,
as also last time, the pleasure of Dr. Jowett's almost exclusive society
at his beloved Balliol College. He proceeded with his new volume of poems.
A short letter written to Professor Knight, June 16, and of which
the occasion speaks for itself, fitly closes the labours of his life;
for it states his view of the position and function of poetry,
in one brief phrase, which might form the text to an exhaustive treatise
29, De Vere Gardens, W.: June 16, 1889.
My dear Professor Knight, -- I am delighted to hear
that there is a likelihood of your establishing yourself in Glasgow,
and illustrating Literature as happily as you have expounded Philosophy
at St. Andrews. It is certainly the right order of things:
Philosophy first, and Poetry, which is its highest outcome, afterward --
and much harm has been done by reversing the natural process.
How capable you are of doing justice to the highest philosophy
embodied in poetry, your various studies of Wordsworth prove abundantly;
and for the sake of both Literature and Philosophy I wish you success
with all my heart.
Believe me, dear Professor Knight, yours very truly,
But he experienced, when the time came, more than his habitual disinclination
for leaving home. A distinct shrinking from the fatigue of going to Italy
now added itself to it; for he had suffered when travelling back
in the previous winter, almost as much as on the outward journey,
though he attributed the distress to a different cause: his nerves were,
he thought, shaken by the wearing discomforts incidental on a broken tooth.
He was for the first time painfully sensitive to the vibration of the train.
He had told his friends, both in Venice and London, that so far
as he was able to determine, he would never return to Italy.
But it was necessary he should go somewhere, and he had no alternative plan.
For a short time in this last summer he entertained the idea
of a visit to Scotland; it had indeed definitely shaped itself in his mind;
but an incident, trivial in itself, though he did not think it so,
destroyed the first scheme, and it was then practically too late
to form another. During the second week in August the weather broke.
There could no longer be any question of the northward journey
without even a fixed end in view. His son and daughter had taken possession
of their new home, the Palazzo Rezzonico, and were anxious
to see him and Miss Browning there; their wishes naturally had weight.
The casting vote in favour of Venice was given by a letter from Mrs. Bronson,
proposing Asolo as the intermediate stage. She had fitted up for herself
a little summer retreat there, and promised that her friends should,
if they joined her, be also comfortably installed. The journey
was this time propitious. It was performed without imprudent haste,
and Mr. Browning reached Asolo unfatigued and to all appearance well.
He saw this, his first love among Italian cities, at a season of the year
more favourable to its beauty than even that of his first visit;
yet he must himself have been surprised by the new rapture of admiration
which it created in him, and which seemed to grow with his lengthened stay.
This state of mind was the more striking, that new symptoms
of his physical decline were now becoming apparent, and were in themselves
of a depressing kind. He wrote to a friend in England,
that the atmosphere of Asolo, far from being oppressive,
produced in him all the effects of mountain air, and he was conscious of
difficulty of breathing whenever he walked up hill. He also suffered,
as the season advanced, great inconvenience from cold.
The rooms occupied by himself and his sister were both
unprovided with fireplaces; and though the daily dinner with Mrs. Bronson
obviated the discomfort of the evenings, there remained still
too many hours of the autumnal day in which the impossibility of heating
their own little apartment must have made itself unpleasantly felt.
The latter drawback would have been averted by the fulfilment
of Mr. Browning's first plan, to be in Venice by the beginning of October,
and return to the comforts of his own home before the winter
had quite set in; but one slight motive for delay succeeded another,
till at last a more serious project introduced sufficient ground of detention.
He seemed possessed by a strange buoyancy -- an almost feverish joy in life,
which blunted all sensations of physical distress, or helped him
to misinterpret them. When warned against the imprudence of remaining
where he knew he suffered from cold, and believed, rightly or wrongly,
that his asthmatic tendencies were increased, he would reply
that he was growing acclimatized -- that he was quite well.
And, in a fitful or superficial sense, he must have been so.
His letters of that period are one continuous picture,
glowing with his impressions of the things which they describe.
The same words will repeat themselves as the same subject
presents itself to his pen; but the impulse to iteration
scarcely ever affects us as mechanical. It seems always a fresh response
to some new stimulus to thought or feeling, which he has received.
These reach him from every side. It is not only the Asolo
of this peaceful later time which has opened before him, but the Asolo
of `Pippa Passes' and `Sordello'; that which first stamped itself
on his imagination in the echoes of the Court life of Queen Catharine,*
and of the barbaric wars of the Eccelini. Some of his letters
dwell especially on these early historical associations: on the strange sense
of reopening the ancient chronicle which he had so deeply studied
fifty years before. The very phraseology of the old Italian text,
which I am certain he had never glanced at from that distant time,
is audible in an account of the massacre of San Zenone,
the scene of which he has been visiting. To the same correspondent
he says that his two hours' drive to Asolo `seemed to be a dream;'
and again, after describing, or, as he thinks, only trying to describe
some beautiful feature of the place, `but it is indescribable!'
* Catharine Cornaro, the dethroned queen of Cyprus.
A letter addressed to Mrs. FitzGerald, October 8, 1889,
is in part a fitting sequel to that which he had written to her
from the same spot, eleven years before.
`. . . Fortunately there is little changed here: my old Albergo, --
ruinous with earthquake -- is down and done with -- but few novelties
are observable -- except the regrettable one that the silk industry
has been transported elsewhere -- to Cornuda and other places
nearer the main railway. No more Pippas -- at least of the silk-winding sort!
`But the pretty type is far from extinct.
`Autumn is beginning to paint the foliage, but thin it as well;
and the sea of fertility all round our height, which a month ago
showed pomegranates and figs and chestnuts, -- walnuts and apples
all rioting together in full glory, -- all this is daily disappearing.
I say nothing of the olive and the vine. I find the Turret
rather the worse for careful weeding -- the hawks which used to build there
have been "shot for food" -- and the echo is sadly curtailed of its replies;
still, things are the same in the main. Shall I ever see them again,
when -- as I suppose -- we leave for Venice in a fortnight? . . .'
In the midst of this imaginative delight he carried into his walks
the old keen habits of observation. He would peer into the hedges
for what living things were to be found there. He would whistle softly
to the lizards basking on the low walls which border the roads,
to try his old power of attracting them.
On the 15th of October he wrote to Mrs. Skirrow, after some
Then -- such a view over the whole Lombard plain; not a site in view,
or APPROXIMATE view at least, without its story. Autumn is now painting
all the abundance of verdure, -- figs, pomegranates, chestnuts, and vines,
and I don't know what else, -- all in a wonderful confusion, --
and now glowing with all the colours of the rainbow. Some weeks back,
the little town was glorified by the visit of a decent theatrical troop
who played in a theatre INside the old palace of Queen Catharine Cornaro --
utilized also as a prison in which I am informed are at present full five
if not six malefactors guilty of stealing grapes, and the like enormities.
Well, the troop played for a fortnight together exceedingly well --
high tragedy and low comedy -- and the stage-box which I occupied
cost 16 francs. The theatre had been out of use for six years,
for we are out of the way and only a baiting-place for a company
pushing on to Venice. In fine, we shall stay here probably
for a week or more, -- and then proceed to Pen, at the Rezzonico;
a month there, and then homewards! . . .
I delight in finding that the beloved Husband and precious friend
manages to do without the old yoke about his neck, and enjoys himself
as never anybody had a better right to do. I continue to congratulate him
on his emancipation and ourselves on a more frequent enjoyment of his company
in consequence.* Give him my true love; take mine, dearest friend, --
and my sister's love to you both goes with it.
Ever affectionately yours
* Mr. Skirrow had just resigned his post of Master in Chancery.
The cry of `homewards!' now frequently recurs in his letters.
We find it in one written a week later to Mr. G. M. Smith,
otherwise very expressive of his latest condition of mind and feeling.
Asolo, Veneto, Italia: Oct. 22, '89.
My dear Smith, -- I was indeed delighted to get your letter two days ago --
for there ARE such accidents as the loss of a parcel,
even when it has been despatched from so important a place as this city --
for a regular city it is, you must know, with all the rights of one, --
older far than Rome, being founded by the Euganeans who gave their name
to the adjoining hills. `Fortified' is was once, assuredly, and the walls
still surround it most picturesquely though mainly in utter ruin,
and you even overrate the population, which does not now much exceed 900 souls
-- in the city Proper, that is -- for the territory below and around
contains some 10,000. But we are at the very top of things,
garlanded about, as it were, with a narrow line of houses, --
some palatial, such as you would be glad to see in London, --
and above all towers the old dwelling of Queen Cornaro, who was forced
to exchange her Kingdom of Cyprus for this pretty but petty dominion
where she kept state in a mimic Court, with Bembo, afterwards Cardinal,
for her secretary -- who has commemorated the fact in his `Asolani'
or dialogues inspired by the place: and I do assure you that,
after some experience of beautiful sights in Italy and elsewhere
I know nothing comparable to the view from the Queen's tower and palace,
still perfect in every respect. Whenever you pay Pen and his wife
the visit you are pledged to, * it will go hard but you spend five hours
in a journey to Asolo. The one thing I am disappointed in is to find
that the silk-cultivation with all the pretty girls who were engaged in it
are transported to Cornuda and other places, -- nearer the railway, I suppose:
and to this may be attributed the decrease in the number of inhabitants.
The weather when I wrote last WAS `blue and blazing -- (at noon-day) --'
but we share in the general plague of rain, -- had a famous storm yesterday:
while to-day is blue and sunny as ever. Lastly, for your admonition:
we HAVE a perfect telegraphic communication; and at the passage above,
where I put a * I was interrupted by the arrival of a telegram:
thank you all the same for your desire to relieve my anxiety.
And now, to our immediate business -- which is only to keep thanking you
for your constant goodness, present and future: do with the book
just as you will. I fancy it is bigger in bulk than usual.
As for the `proofs' -- I go at the end of the month to Venice,
whither you will please to send whatever is necessary. . . .
I shall do well to say as little as possible of my good wishes
for you and your family, for it comes to much the same thing
as wishing myself prosperity: no matter, my sister's kindest regards
shall excuse mine, and I will only add that I am, as ever,
A general quickening of affectionate impulse seemed part of this last leap
in the socket of the dying flame.
Proposed Purchase of Land at Asolo -- Venice --
Letter to Mr. G. Moulton-Barrett -- Lines in the `Athenaeum' --
Letter to Miss Keep -- Illness -- Death -- Funeral Ceremonial at Venice --
Publication of `Asolando' -- Interment in Poets' Corner.
He had said in writing to Mrs. FitzGerald, `Shall I ever see them'
(the things he is describing) `again?' If not then, soon afterwards,
he conceived a plan which was to insure his doing so.
On a piece of ground belonging to the old castle, stood the shell of a house.
The two constituted one property which the Municipality of Asolo
had hitherto refused to sell. It had been a dream of Mr. Browning's life
to possess a dwelling, however small, in some beautiful spot,
which should place him beyond the necessity of constantly seeking
a new summer resort, and above the alternative of living at an inn,
or accepting -- as he sometimes feared, abusing -- the hospitality
of his friends. He was suddenly fascinated by the idea
of buying this piece of ground; and, with the efficient help
which his son could render during his absence, completing the house,
which should be christened `Pippa's Tower'. It was evident,
he said in one of his letters, that for his few remaining years
his summer wanderings must always end in Venice. What could he do better
than secure for himself this resting-place by the way?
His offer of purchase was made through Mrs. Bronson,
to Count Loredano and other important members of the municipality,
and their personal assent to it secured. But the town council
was on the eve of re-election; no important business could be transacted by it
till after this event; and Mr. Browning awaited its decision
till the end of October at Asolo, and again throughout November in Venice,
without fully understanding the delay. The vote proved favourable;
but the night on which it was taken was that of his death.
The consent thus given would have been only a first step towards
the accomplishment of his wish. It was necessary that it should be ratified
by the Prefecture of Treviso, in the district of which Asolo lies;
and Mr. Barrett Browning, who had determined to carry on the negotiations,
met with subsequent opposition in the higher council. This has now, however,
been happily overcome.
A comprehensive interest attaches to one more letter of the Asolo time.
It was addressed to Mr. Browning's brother-in-law, Mr. George Moulton-Barrett.
Asolo, Veneto: Oct. 22, '89.
My dear George, -- It was a great pleasure to get your kind letter;
though after some delay. We were not in the Tyrol this year,
but have been for six weeks or more in this little place which strikes me, --
as it did fifty years ago, which is something to say, considering that,
properly speaking, it was the first spot of Italian soil
I ever set foot upon -- having proceeded to Venice by sea --
and thence here. It is an ancient city, older than Rome,
and the scene of Queen Catharine Cornaro's exile, where she held a mock court,
with all its attendants, on a miniature scale; Bembo, afterwards Cardinal,
being her secretary. Her palace is still above us all,
the old fortifications surround the hill-top, and certain of the houses
are stately -- though the population is not above 1,000 souls:
the province contains many more of course. But the immense charm
of the surrounding country is indescribable -- I have never seen its like --
the Alps on one side, the Asolan mountains all round, -- and opposite,
the vast Lombard plain, -- with indications of Venice, Padua,
and the other cities, visible to a good eye on a clear day;
while everywhere are sites of battles and sieges of bygone days,
described in full by the historians of the Middle Ages.
We have a valued friend here, Mrs. Bronson, who for years has been
our hostess at Venice, and now is in possession of a house here
(built into the old city wall) -- she was induced to choose it
through what I have said about the beauties of the place:
and through her care and kindness we are comfortably lodged close by.
We think of leaving in a week or so for Venice -- guests of Pen and his wife;
and after a short stay with them we shall return to London.
Pen came to see us for a couple of days: I was hardly prepared
for his surprise and admiration which quite equalled my own
and that of my sister. All is happily well with them --
their palazzo excites the wonder of everybody, so great is Pen's cleverness,
and extemporised architectural knowledge, as apparent in all
he has done there; why, WHY will you not go and see him there?
He and his wife are very hospitable and receive many visitors.
Have I told you that there was a desecrated chapel which he has restored
in honour of his mother -- putting up there the inscription by Tommaseo
now above Casa Guidi?
Fannie is all you say, -- and most dear and precious to us all. . . .
Pen's medal to which you refer, is awarded to him in spite of
his written renunciation of any sort of wish to contend for a prize.
He will now resume painting and sculpture -- having been necessarily occupied
with the superintendence of his workmen -- a matter capitally managed,
I am told. For the rest, both Sarianna and myself are very well;
I have just sent off my new volume of verses for publication.
The complete edition of the works of E. B. B. begins in a few days.
The second part of this letter is very forcibly written,
and, in a certain sense, more important than the first;
but I suppress it by the desire of Mr. Browning's sister and son,
and in complete concurrence with their judgment in the matter.
It was a systematic defence of the anger aroused in him
by a lately published reference to his wife's death; and though
its reasonings were unanswerable as applied to the causes of his emotion,
they did not touch the manner in which it had been displayed.
The incident was one which deserved only to be forgotten;
and if an injudicious act had not preserved its memory,
no word of mine should recall it. Since, however,
it has been thought fit to include the `Lines to Edward Fitzgerald'
in a widely circulated Bibliography of Mr. Browning's Works,*
I owe it to him to say -- what I believe is only known
to his sister and myself -- that there was a moment in which
he regretted those lines, and would willingly have withdrawn them.
This was the period, unfortunately short, which intervened
between his sending them to the `Athenaeum', and their appearance there.
When once public opinion had expressed itself upon them
in its too extreme forms of sympathy and condemnation,
the pugnacity of his mind found support in both, and regret was silenced
if not destroyed. In so far as his published words remained open to censure,
I may also, without indelicacy, urge one more plea in his behalf.
That which to the merely sympathetic observer appeared
a subject for disapprobation, perhaps disgust, had affected him
with the directness of a sharp physical blow. He spoke of it,
and for hours, even days, was known to feel it, as such.
The events of that distant past, which he had lived down,
though never forgotten, had flashed upon him from the words
which so unexpectedly met his eye, in a vividness of remembrance
which was reality. `I felt as if she had died yesterday,'
he said some days later to a friend, in half deprecation, half denial,
of the too great fierceness of his reaction. He only recovered his balance
in striking the counter-blow. That he could be thus affected
at an age usually destructive of the more violent emotions,
is part of the mystery of those closing days which had already overtaken him.
* That contained in Mr. Sharp's `Life'. A still more recent publication
gives the lines in full.
By the first of November he was in Venice with his son and daughter;
and during the three following weeks was apparently well,
though a physician whom he met at a dinner party, and to whom
he had half jokingly given his pulse to feel, had learned from it
that his days were numbered. He wrote to Miss Keep on the 9th of the month:
`. . . Mrs. Bronson has bought a house at Asolo, and beautified it indeed, --
niched as it is in an old tower of the fortifications
still partly surrounding the city (for a city it is),
and eighteen towers, more or less ruinous, are still discoverable there:
it is indeed a delightful place. Meantime, to go on, -- we came here,
and had a pleasant welcome from our hosts -- who are truly magnificently
lodged in this vast palazzo which my son has really shown himself
fit to possess, so surprising are his restorations and improvements:
the whole is all but complete, decorated, -- that is, renewed admirably
in all respects.
`What strikes me as most noteworthy is the cheerfulness and comfort
of the huge rooms.
`The building is warmed throughout by a furnace and pipes.
`Yesterday, on the Lido, the heat was hardly endurable:
bright sunshine, blue sky, -- snow-tipped Alps in the distance.
No place, I think, ever suited my needs, bodily and intellectual, so well.
`The first are satisfied -- I am QUITE well, every breathing
inconvenience gone: and as for the latter, I got through
whatever had given me trouble in London. . . .'
But it was winter, even in Venice, and one day began with an actual fog.
He insisted, notwithstanding, on taking his usual walk on the Lido.
He caught a bronchial cold of which the symptoms were aggravated
not only by the asthmatic tendency, but by what proved to be
exhaustion of the heart; and believing as usual that his liver alone
was at fault, he took little food, and refused wine altogether.*
* He always declined food when he was unwell; and maintained
that in this respect the instinct of animals was far more just
than the idea often prevailing among human beings that a failing appetite
should be assisted or coerced.
He did not yield to the sense of illness; he did not keep his bed.
Some feverish energy must have supported him through
this avoidance of every measure which might have afforded
even temporary strength or relief. On Friday, the 29th,
he wrote to a friend in London that he had waited thus long
for the final answer from Asolo, but would wait no longer.
He would start for England, if possible, on the Wednesday or Thursday
of the following week. It was true `he had caught a cold;
he felt sadly asthmatic, scarcely fit to travel; but he hoped for the best,
and would write again soon.' He wrote again the following day,
declaring himself better. He had been punished, he said,
for long-standing neglect of his `provoking liver'; but a simple medicine,
which he had often taken before, had this time also relieved
the oppression of his chest; his friend was not to be uneasy about him;
`it was in his nature to get into scrapes of this kind,
but he always managed, somehow or other, to extricate himself from them.'
He concluded with fresh details of his hopes and plans.
In the ensuing night the bronchial distress increased;
and in the morning he consented to see his son's physician, Dr. Cini,
whose investigation of the case at once revealed to him its seriousness.
The patient had been removed two days before, from the second storey
of the house, which the family then inhabited, to an entresol apartment
just above the ground-floor, from which he could pass into the dining-room
without fatigue. Its lower ceilings gave him (erroneously) an impression
of greater warmth, and he had imagined himself benefited by the change.
A freer circulation of air was now considered imperative,
and he was carried to Mrs. Browning's spacious bedroom,
where an open fireplace supplied both warmth and ventilation,
and large windows admitted all the sunshine of the Grand Canal.
Everything was done for him which professional skill and loving care could do.
Mrs. Browning, assisted by her husband, and by a young lady
who was then her guest,* filled the place of the trained nurses
until these could arrive; for a few days the impending calamity
seemed even to have been averted. The bronchial attack was overcome.
Mr. Browning had once walked from the bed to the sofa; his sister,
whose anxiety had perhaps been spared the full knowledge of his state,
could send comforting reports to his friends at home. But the enfeebled heart
had made its last effort. Attacks of faintness set in.
Special signs of physical strength maintained themselves
until within a few hours of the end. On Wednesday, December 11,
a consultation took place between Dr. Cini, Dr. da Vigna, and Dr. Minich;
and the opinion was then expressed for the first time that recovery,
though still possible, was not within the bounds of probability. Weakness,
however, rapidly gained upon him towards the close of the following day.
Two hours before midnight of this Thursday, December 12, he breathed his last.
* Miss Evelyn Barclay, now Mrs. Douglas Giles.
He had been a good patient. He took food and medicine whenever they were
offered to him. Doctors and nurses became alike warmly interested in him.
His favourite among the latter was, I think, the Venetian, a widow,
Margherita Fiori, a simple kindly creature who had known much sorrow.
To her he said, about five hours before the end, `I feel much worse.
I know now that I must die.' He had shown at intervals a perception,
even conviction, of his danger; but the excitement of the brain,
caused by exhaustion on the one hand and the necessary stimulants
on the other, must have precluded all systematic consciousness
of approaching death. He repeatedly assured his family
that he was not suffering.
A painful and urgent question now presented itself for solution:
Where should his body find its last rest? He had said to his sister
in the foregoing summer, that he wished to be buried wherever he might die:
if in England, with his mother; if in France, with his father; if in Italy,
with his wife. Circumstances all pointed to his removal to Florence;
but a recent decree had prohibited further interment
in the English Cemetery there, and the town had no power to rescind it.
When this was known in Venice, that city begged for itself the privilege
of retaining the illustrious guest, and rendering him the last honours.
For the moment the idea even recommended itself to Mr. Browning's son.
But he felt bound to make a last effort in the direction of the burial
at Florence; and was about to despatch a telegram, in which he invoked
the mediation of Lord Dufferin, when all difficulties were laid at rest
by a message from the Dean of Westminster, conveying his assent
to an interment in the Abbey.* He had already telegraphed for information
concerning the date of the funeral, with a view to the memorial service,
which he intended to hold on the same day. Nor would the further honour
have remained for even twenty-four hours ungranted, because unasked,
but for the belief prevailing among Mr. Browning's friends
that there was no room for its acceptance.
* The assent thus conveyed had assumed the form of an offer,
and was characterized as such by the Dean himself.
It was still necessary to provide for the more immediate removal of the body.
Local custom forbade its retention after the lapse of two days and nights;
and only in view of the special circumstances of the case
could a short respite be granted to the family. Arrangements were
therefore at once made for a private service, to be conducted
by the British Chaplain in one of the great halls of the Rezzonico Palace;
and by two o'clock of the following day, Sunday, a large number
of visitors and residents had assembled there. The subsequent passage
to the mortuary island of San Michele had been organized by the city,
and was to display so much of the character of a public pageant
as the hurried preparation allowed. The chief municipal officers
attended the service. When this had been performed, the coffin was carried
by eight firemen (pompieri), arrayed in their distinctive uniform,
to the massive, highly decorated municipal barge (Barca delle Pompe funebri)
which waited to receive it. It was guarded during the transit
by four `uscieri' in `gala' dress, two sergeants of the Municipal Guard,
and two of the firemen bearing torches: the remainder of these
following in a smaller boat. The barge was towed by a steam launch
of the Royal Italian Marine. The chief officers of the city,
the family and friends in their separate gondolas, completed the procession.
On arriving at San Michele, the firemen again received their burden,
and bore it to the chapel in which its place had been reserved.
When `Pauline' first appeared, the Author had received, he never learned
from whom, a sprig of laurel enclosed with this quotation from the poem,
Trust in signs and omens.
Very beautiful garlands were now piled about his bier,
offerings of friendship and affection. Conspicuous among these
was the ceremonial structure of metallic foliage and porcelain flowers,
inscribed `Venezia a Roberto Browning', which represented
the Municipality of Venice. On the coffin lay one comprehensive symbol
of the fulfilled prophecy: a wreath of laurel-leaves
which his son had placed there.
A final honour was decreed to the great English Poet by the city in which
he had died; the affixing of a memorial tablet to the outer wall
of the Rezzonico Palace. Since these pages were first written,
the tablet has been placed. It bears the following inscription:
MORTO IN QUESTO PALAZZO
IL 12 DICEMBRE 1889
Below this, in the right-hand corner appear two lines selected from his works:
Open my heart and you will see
Graved inside of it, `Italy'.
Nor were these the only expressions of Italian respect and sympathy.
The municipality of Florence sent its message of condolence.
Asolo, poor in all but memories, itself bore the expenses of a mural tablet
for the house which Mr. Browning had occupied. It is now known
that Signor Crispi would have appealed to Parliament to rescind the exclusion
from the Florentine cemetery, if the motive for doing so
had been less promptly removed.
Mr. Browning's own country had indeed opened a way for the reunion
of the husband and wife. The idea had rapidly shaped itself
in the public mind that, since they might not rest side by side in Italy,
they should be placed together among the great of their own land;
and it was understood that the Dean would sanction Mrs. Browning's
interment in the Abbey, if a formal application to this end were made to him.
But Mr. Barrett Browning could not reconcile himself to the thought
of disturbing his mother's grave, so long consecrated to Florence
by her warm love and by its grateful remembrance; and at the desire
of both surviving members of the family the suggestion was set aside.
Two days after his temporary funeral, privately and at night,
all that remained of Robert Browning was conveyed to the railway station;
and thence, by a trusted servant, to England. The family followed
within twenty-four hours, having made the necessary preparations
for a long absence from Venice; and, travelling with the utmost speed,
arrived in London on the same day. The house in De Vere Gardens
received its master once more.
`Asolando' was published on the day of Mr. Browning's death.
The report of his illness had quickened public interest
in the forthcoming work, and his son had the satisfaction of telling him
of its already realized success, while he could still receive
a warm, if momentary, pleasure from the intelligence.
The circumstances of its appearance place it beyond ordinary criticism;
they place it beyond even an impartial analysis of its contents.
It includes one or two poems to which we would gladly assign
a much earlier date; I have been told on good authority that we may do this
in regard to one of them. It is difficult to refer the `Epilogue'
to a coherent mood of any period of its author's life.
It is certain, however, that by far the greater part of the little volume
was written in 1888-89, and I believe all that is most serious in it
was the product of the later year. It possesses for many readers
the inspiration of farewell words; for all of us it has their pathos.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner,
on the 31st of December, 1889. In this tardy act of national recognition
England claimed her own. A densely packed, reverent and sympathetic crowd of
his countrymen and countrywomen assisted at the consignment of the dead poet
to his historic resting place. Three verses of Mrs. Browning's poem,
`The Sleep', set to music by Dr. Bridge, were sung for the first time
on this occasion.
A few words must still be said upon that purport and tendency
of Robert Browning's work, which has been defined by a few persons,
and felt by very many as his `message'.
The definition has been disputed on the ground of Art.
We are told by Mr. Sharp, though in somewhat different words,
that the poet, qua poet, cannot deliver a `message'
such as directly addresses itself to the intellectual or moral sense;
since his special appeal to us lies not through the substance,
but through the form, or presentment, of what he has had to say;
since, therefore (by implication), in claiming for it
an intellectual -- as distinct from an aesthetic -- character,
we ignore its function as poetry.
It is difficult to argue justly, where the question at issue
turns practically on the meaning of a word. Mr. Sharp would, I think,
be the first to admit this; and it appears to me that, in the present case,
he so formulates his theory as to satisfy his artistic conscience,
and yet leave room for the recognition of that intellectual quality
so peculiar to Mr. Browning's verse. But what one member
of the aesthetic school may express with a certain reserve
is proclaimed unreservedly by many more; and Mr. Sharp must forgive me,
if for the moment I regard him as one of these; and if I oppose his arguments
in the words of another poet and critic of poetry, whose claim
to the double title is I believe undisputed -- Mr. Roden Noel.
I quote from an unpublished fragment of a published article
on Mr. Sharp's `Life of Browning'.
`Browning's message is an integral part of himself as writer;
(whether as poet, since we agree that he is a poet, were surely
a too curious and vain discussion;) but some of his finest things
assuredly are the outcome of certain very definite personal convictions.
"The question," Mr. Sharp says, "is not one of weighty message,
but of artistic presentation." There seems to be no true contrast here.
"The primary concern of the artist must be with his vehicle of expression"
-- no -- not the primary concern. Since the critic adds -- (for a poet)
"this vehicle is language emotioned to the white heat of rhythmic music
by impassioned thought or sensation." Exactly -- "thought" it may be.
Now part of this same "thought" in Browning is the message. And therefore
it is part of his "primary concern". "It is with presentment,"
says Mr. Sharp, "that the artist has fundamentally to concern himself."
Granted: but it must surely be presentment of SOMETHING. . . .
I do not understand how to separate the substance from the form
in true poetry. . . . If the message be not well delivered,
it does not constitute literature. But if it be well delivered,
the primary concern of the poet lay with the message after all!'
More cogent objection has been taken to the character of the `message'
as judged from a philosophic point of view. It is the expression
or exposition of a vivid a priori religious faith
confirmed by positive experience; and it reflects as such
a double order of thought, in which totally opposite mental activities
are often forced into co-operation with each other. Mr. Sharp says,
this time quoting from Mr. Mortimer (`Scottish Art Review', December 1889):
`His position in regard to the thought of the age is paradoxical,
if not inconsistent. He is in advance of it in every respect but one,
the most important of all, the matter of fundamental principles;
in these he is behind it. His processes of thought are often scientific
in their precision of analysis; the sudden conclusion
which he imposes upon them is transcendental and inept.'
This statement is relatively true. Mr. Browning's positive reasonings
often do end with transcendental conclusions. They also start
from transcendental premises. However closely his mind might follow
the visible order of experience, he never lost what was for him
the consciousness of a Supreme Eternal Will as having existed before it;
he never lost the vision of an intelligent First Cause, as underlying
all minor systems of causation. But such weaknesses as were involved
in his logical position are inherent to all the higher forms
of natural theology when once it has been erected into a dogma.
As maintained by Mr. Browning, this belief held a saving clause,
which removed it from all dogmatic, hence all admissible
grounds of controversy: the more definite or concrete conceptions
of which it consists possessed no finality for even his own mind;
they represented for him an absolute truth in contingent relations to it.
No one felt more strongly than he the contradictions involved
in any conceivable system of Divine creation and government.
No one knew better that every act and motive which we attribute
to a Supreme Being is a virtual negation of His existence.
He believed nevertheless that such a Being exists;
and he accepted His reflection in the mirror of the human consciousness,
as a necessarily false image, but one which bears witness to the truth.
His works rarely indicate this condition of feeling; it was not often
apparent in his conversation. The faith which he had contingently accepted
became absolute for him from all practical points of view;
it became subject to all the conditions of his humanity.
On the ground of abstract logic he was always ready to disavow it;
the transcendental imagination and the acknowledged limits of human reason
claimed the last word in its behalf. This philosophy of religion
is distinctly suggested in the fifth parable of `Ferishtah's Fancies'.
But even in defending what remains, from the most widely accepted
point of view, the validity of Mr. Browning's `message',
we concede the fact that it is most powerful when conveyed
in its least explicit form; for then alone does it bear,
with the full weight of his poetic utterance, on the minds
to which it is addressed. His challenge to Faith and Hope imposes itself
far less through any intellectual plea which he can advance in its support,
than through the unconscious testimony of all creative genius
to the marvel of conscious life; through the passionate affirmation
of his poetic and human nature, not only of the goodness and the beauty
of that life, but of its reality and its persistence.
We are told by Mr. Sharp that a new star appeared in Orion
on the night on which Robert Browning died. The alleged fact is disproved
by the statement of the Astronomer Royal, to whom it has been submitted;
but it would have been a beautiful symbol of translation,
such as affectionate fancy might gladly cherish if it were true.
It is indeed true that on that twelfth of December,
a vivid centre of light and warmth was extinguished upon our earth.
The clouded brightness of many lives bears witness to the poet spirit
which has departed, the glowing human presence which has passed away.
We mourn the poet whom we have lost far less than we regret the man:
for he had done his appointed work; and that work remains to us.
But the two beings were in truth inseparable. The man is always
present in the poet; the poet was dominant in the man.
This fact can never be absent from our loving remembrance of him.
No just estimate of his life and character will fail to give it weight.
[The Index is included only as a rough guide to what is in this book.
The numbers in brackets indicate the number of index entries:
as each reference, short or long, is counted as one,
the numbers may be misleading if observed too closely.]
Abel, Mr. (musician) 
Adams, Mrs. Sarah Flower 
Albemarle, Lord 
Alford, Lady Marian 
Allingham, Mr. William 
American appreciation of Browning 
Ampere, M. 
Anderson, Mr. (actor) 
Arnold, Matthew 
Arnould, Mr. (afterwards Sir Joseph) 
Ashburton, Lady 
Associated Societies of Edinburgh, the 
Athenaeum, the (review of `Pauline') 
Audierne (Finisterre, Brittany) 
Azeglio, Massimo d' 
Balzac's works, the Brownings' admiration of 
Barrett, Miss Arabel 
Barrett, Miss Henrietta (afterwards Mrs. Surtees Cook [Altham]) 
Barrett, Mr. (the poet's father-in-law) 
Barrett, Mr. Laurence (actor) 
Bartoli's `De' Simboli trasportati al Morale' 
Benckhausen, Mr. (Russian consul-general) 
Benzon, Mr. Ernest 
Beranger, M. 
Berdoe, Dr. Edward: his paper on `Paracelsus, the Reformer of Medicine' 
Blackwood's Magazine (on `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon') 
Blagden, Miss Isa 
Blundell, Dr. (physician) 
Boyle, Dean (Salisbury) 
Boyle, Miss (niece of the Earl of Cork) 
Bridell-Fox, Mrs. 
Bronson, Mrs. Arthur 
Browning, Robert (grandfather of the poet): account of his life,
two marriages, and two families 
Browning, Mrs. (step-grandmother of the poet) 
Browning, Robert (father of the poet): marriage;
clerk in the Bank of England; comparison between him and his son;
scholarly and artistic tastes; simplicity and genuineness of his character;
his strong health; Mr. Locker-Lampson's account of him;
his religious opinions; renewed relations with his father's widow
and second family; death 
Browning, Mrs. (the poet's mother): her family; her nervous temperament
transmitted to her son; her death 
Browning, Mr. Reuben (the poet's uncle),
(incl. Lord Beaconsfield's appreciation of his Latinity) 
Browning, Mr. William Shergold (the poet's uncle),
(incl. his literary work) 
Browning, Miss Jemima (the poet's aunt) 
Browning, Miss (the poet's sister),
(incl. comes to live with her brother) 
Browning, Robert: 1812-33 -- the notion of his Jewish extraction disproved;
his family anciently established in Dorsetshire; his carelessness
as to genealogical record; account of his grandfather's life
and second marriage; his father's unhappy youth; his paternal grandmother;
his father's position; comparison of father and son;
the father's use of grotesque rhymes in teaching him;
qualities he inherited from his mother; weak points in regard to health
throughout his life; characteristics in early childhood;
great quickness in learning; an amusing prank; passion for his mother;
fondness for animals; his collections; experiences of school life;
extensive reading in his father's library; early acquaintance
with old books; his early attempts in verse; spurious poems in circulation;
`Incondita', the production of the twelve-year-old poet;
introduction to Mr. Fox; his boyish love and lasting affection
for Miss Flower; first acquaintance with Shelley's and Keats' works;
his admiration for Shelley; home education under masters,
his manly accomplishments; his studies chiefly literary; love of home;
associates of his youth: Arnould and Domett; the Silverthornes;
his choice of poetry as a profession; other possible professions considered;
admiration for good acting; his father's support in his literary career;
reads and digests Johnson's Dictionary by way of preparation 
Browning, Robert: 1833-35 -- publication of `Pauline';
correspondence with Mr. Fox; the poet's later opinion of it;
characteristics of the poem; Mr. Fox's review of it; other notices;
Browning's visit to Russia; contributions to the `Monthly Repository':
his first sonnet; the `Trifler' (amateur periodical);
a comic defence of debt; preparing to publish `Paracelsus'; friendship with
Count de Ripert-Monclar; Browning's treatment of `Paracelsus';
the original Preface; John Forster's article on it in the `Examiner' 
Browning, Robert: 1835-38 -- removal of the family to Hatcham;
renewed intimacy with his grandfather's second family;
friendly relations with Carlyle; recognition by men of the day;
introduction to Macready; first meeting with Forster;
Miss Euphrasia Fanny Haworth; at the `Ion' supper; prospects of `Strafford';
its production and reception; a personal description of him at this period;
Mr. John Robertson and the `Westminster Review' 
Browning, Robert: 1838-44 -- first Italian journey; a striking experience
of the voyage; preparations for writing other tragedies;
meeting with Mr. John Kenyon; appearance of `Sordello';
mental developments; `Pippa Passes'; Alfred Domett on the critics;
`Bells and Pomegranates'; explanation of its title.
List of the poems; `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon', written for Macready;
Browning's later account and discussion of the breach between him
and Macready; `Colombe's Birthday'; other dramas; The `Dramatic Lyrics';
Back to Full Books