Part 3 out of 5
ready and winsome smile, alert luminous eyes, quick, spontaneous,
expressive gestures -- an inclination of the head, a lift of the eyebrows,
a modulation of the lips, an assertive or deprecatory wave of the hand,
conveying so much -- and a voice at that time of a singular
penetrating sweetness, he was, even without that light of the future
upon his forehead which she was so swift to discern, a man to captivate
any woman of kindred nature and sympathies. Over and above these advantages,
he possessed a rare quality of physical magnetism. By virtue of this
he could either attract irresistibly or strongly repel.
I have several times heard people state that a handshake from Browning
was like an electric shock. Truly enough, it did seem as though
his sterling nature rang in his genially dominant voice, and, again,
as though his voice transmitted instantaneous waves of an electric current
through every nerve of what, for want of a better phrase,
I must perforce call his intensely alive hand. I remember once how a lady,
afflicted with nerves, in the dubious enjoyment of her first experience of
a "literary afternoon", rose hurriedly and, in reply to her hostess' inquiry
as to her motive, explained that she could not sit any longer
beside the elderly gentleman who was talking to Mrs. So-and-so,
as his near presence made her quiver all over, "like a mild attack
of pins-and-needles," as she phrased it. She was chagrined to learn
that she had been discomposed not by `a too exuberant financier',
as she had surmised, but by, as "Waring" called Browning,
the "subtlest assertor of the Soul in song."
With the same quick insight as she had perceived Robert Browning's
poetic greatness, Elizabeth Barrett discerned his personal worth.
He was essentially manly in all respects: so manly,
that many frail souls of either sex philandered about his over-robustness.
From the twilight gloom of an aesthetic clique came a small voice
belittling the great man as "quite too `loud', painfully excessive."
Browning was manly enough to laugh at all ghoulish cries
of any kind whatsoever. Once in a way the lion would look round
and by a raised breath make the jackals wriggle; as when the poet
wrote to a correspondent, who had drawn his attention
to certain abusive personalities in some review or newspaper:
"Dear Sir -- I am sure you mean very kindly, but I have had
too long an experience of the inability of the human goose
to do other than cackle when benevolent and hiss when malicious,
and no amount of goose criticism shall make me lift a heel
against what waddles behind it."
Herself one whose happiest experiences were in dreamland,
Miss Barrett was keenly susceptible to the strong humanity of Browning's song,
nor less keenly attracted by his strenuous and fearless outlook,
his poetic practicality, and even by his bluntness of insight
in certain matters. It was no slight thing to her that she could,
in Mr. Lowell's words, say of herself and of him --
"We, who believe life's bases rest
Beyond the probe of chemic test."
She rejoiced, despite her own love for remote imaginings,
to know that he was of those who (to quote again from the same fine poet)
". . . wasted not their breath in schemes
Of what man might be in some bubble-sphere,
As if he must be other than he seems
Because he was not what he should be here,
Postponing Time's slow proof to petulant dreams;"
that, in a word, while `he could believe the promise of to-morrow,' he was
at the same time supremely conscious of `the wondrous meaning of to-day.'
Both, from their youth onward, had travelled `on trails divine
of unimagined laws.' It was sufficient for her that he kept his eyes
fixed on the goal beyond the way he followed: it did not matter
that he was blind to the dim adumbrations of novel byways,
of strange Calvarys by the wayside, so often visible to her.
Their first meeting was speedily followed by a second -- by a third --
and then? When we know not, but ere long, each found that happiness
was in the bestowal of the other.
The secret was for some time kept absolutely private. From the first
Mr. Barrett had been jealous of his beloved daughter's new friend.
He did not care much for the man, he with all the prejudices
and baneful conservatism of the slave-owning planter, the other
with ardent democratic sentiments and a detestation of all forms of iniquity.
Nor did he understand the poet. He could read his daughter's flowing verse
with pleasure, but there was to his ear a mere jumble of sound and sense
in much of the work of the author of "The Tomb at St. Praxed's"
and "Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis". Of a selfishly genial but also
of a violent and often sullen nature, he resented more and more any friendship
which threatened to loosen the chain of affection and association
binding his daughter to himself.
Both the lovers believed that an immediate marriage would,
from every point of view, be best. It was not advisable that it should be
long delayed, if to happen at all, for the health of Miss Barrett was so poor
that another winter in London might, probably would, mean irretrievable harm.
Some time before this she had become acquainted with Mrs. Jameson,
the eminent art-writer. The regard, which quickly developed
to an affectionate esteem, was mutual. One September morning
Mrs. Jameson called, and after having dwelt on the gloom and peril
of another winter in London, dwelt on the magic of Italy,
and concluded by inviting Miss Barrett to accompany her
in her own imminent departure for abroad. The poet was touched and grateful,
but, pointing to her invalid sofa, and gently emphasising
her enfeebled health and other difficult circumstances,
excused herself from acceptance of Mrs. Jameson's generous offer.
In the "Memoirs of Mrs. Jameson" that lady's niece, Mrs. Macpherson,
relates how on the eve of her and her aunt's departure,
a little note of farewell arrived from Miss Barrett, "deploring the writer's
inability to come in person and bid her friend good-bye,
as she was `forced to be satisfied with the sofa and silence.'"
It is easy to understand, therefore, with what amazement Mrs. Jameson,
shortly after her arrival in Paris, received a letter from Robert Browning
to the effect that he AND HIS WIFE had just come from London,
on their way to Italy. "My aunt's surprise was something almost comical,"
writes Mrs. Macpherson, "so startling and entirely unexpected was the news."
And duly married indeed the two poets had been!
From the moment the matter was mooted to Mr. Barrett, he evinced
his repugnance to the idea. To him even the most foolish assertion of his own
was a sacred pledge. He called it "pride in his word": others recognised it
as the very arrogance of obstinacy. He refused to countenance the marriage
in any way, refused to have Browning's name mentioned in his presence,
and even when his daughter told him that she had definitely made up her mind,
he flatly declined to acknowledge as even possible what was indeed
Nor did he ever step down from his ridiculous pinnacle of wounded self-love.
Favourite daughter though she had been, Mr. Barrett never forgave her,
held no communication with her even when she became a mother,
and did not mention her in his will. It is needless to say anything more
upon this subject. What Mr. and Mrs. Browning were invariably reticent upon
can well be passed over with mere mention of the facts.
At the last moment there had been great hurry and confusion.
But nevertheless, on the forenoon of the 12th of September 1846,
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett had unceremoniously
stepped into St. Mary-le-bone Church and there been married.
So secret had the matter been kept that even such old friends
as Richard Hengist Horne and Mr. Kenyon were in ignorance of the event
for some time after it had actually occurred.
Mrs. Jameson made all haste to the hotel where the Brownings were,
and ultimately persuaded them to leave the hotel for the quieter `pension'
in the Rue Ville d'Eveque, where she and Mrs. Macpherson were staying.
Thereafter it was agreed that, as soon as a fortnight had gone by,
they should journey to Italy together.
Truly enough, as Mrs. Macpherson says, the journey must have been "enchanting,
made in such companionship." Before departing from Paris,
Mrs. Jameson, in writing to a friend, alluded to her unexpected companions,
and added, "Both excellent: but God help them! for I know not how
the two poet heads and poet hearts will get on through this prosaic world."
This kindly friend was not the only person who experienced similar doubts.
One acquaintance, no other than the Poet-Laureate, Wordsworth, added:
"So, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett have gone off together!
Well, I hope they may understand each other -- nobody else could!"
As a matter of fact they did, and to such good intent
that they seem never to have had one hour of dissatisfaction,
never one jar in the music of their lives.
What a happy wayfaring through France that must have been!
The travelling had to be slow, and with frequent interruptions,
on account of Mrs. Browning's health: yet she steadily improved,
and was almost from the start able to take more exercise,
and to be longer in the open air than had for long been her wont.
They passed southward, and after some novel experiences in `diligences',
reached Avignon, where they rested for a couple of days.
Thence a little expedition, a poetical pilgrimage, was made to Vaucluse,
sacred to the memory of Petrarch and Laura. There, as Mrs. Macpherson
has told us, at the very source of the "chiare, fresche e dolce acque,"
Browning took his wife up in his arms, and, carrying her across
through the shallow curling waters, seated her on a rock
that rose throne-like in the middle of the stream. Thus, indeed,
did love and poetry take a new possession of the spot immortalised
by Petrarch's loving fancy.
Three weeks passed happily before Pisa, the Brownings' destination,
was reached. But even then the friends were unwilling to part,
and Mrs. Jameson and her niece remained in the deserted old city
for a score of days longer. So wonderful was the change
wrought in Mrs. Browning by happiness, and by all the enfranchisement
her marriage meant for her, that, as her friend wrote to Miss Mitford,
"she is not merely improved but transformed." In the new sunshine
which had come into her life, she blossomed like a flower-bud
long delayed by gloom and chill. Her heart, in truth, was like a lark
when wafted skyward by the first spring-wind.
At last to her there had come something of that peace she had longed for,
and though, in the joy of her new life, her genius "like an Arab bird
slept floating in the wind," it was with that restful hush
which precedes the creative storm. There is something deeply pathetic
in her conscious joy. So little actual experience of life had been hers that
in many respects she was as a child: and she had all the child's yearning
for those unsullied hours that never come when once they are missed.
But it was not till love unfastened the inner chambers of her heart and brain
that she realised to the full, what she had often doubted,
how supreme a thing mere life is. It was in some such mood
that she wrote the lovely forty-second of the "Sonnets from the Portuguese",
closing thus --
"Let us stay
Rather on earth, Beloved, -- where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it."
As for Browning's love towards his wife, nothing more tender and chivalrous
has ever been told of ideal lovers in an ideal romance.
It is so beautiful a story that one often prefers it
to the sweetest or loftiest poem that came from the lips of either.
That love knew no soilure in the passage of the years.
Like the flame of oriental legend, it was perennially incandescent
though fed not otherwise than by sunlight and moonshine.
If it alone survive, it may resolve the poetic fame of either
into one imperishable, luminous ray of white light: as the uttered song
fused in the deathless passion of Sappho gleams star-like down the centuries
from the high steep of Leucadoe.
It was here, in Pisa, I have been told on indubitable authority,
that Browning first saw in manuscript those "Sonnets from the Portuguese"
which no poet of Portugal had ever written, which no man could have written,
which no other woman than his wife could have composed.
From the time when it had first dawned upon her that love was to be hers,
and that the laurel of poetry was not to be her sole coronal,
she had found expression for her exquisite trouble in these short poems,
which she thinly disguised from `inner publicity' when she issued them
as "from the Portuguese".
It is pleasant to think of the shy delight with which the delicate,
flower-like, almost ethereal poet-wife, in those memorable Pisan evenings --
with the wind blowing soundingly from the hills of Carrara,
or quiescent in a deep autumnal calm broken only by the slow wash of Arno
along the sea-mossed long-deserted quays -- showed her love-poems
to her husband. With what love and pride he must have read
those outpourings of the most sensitive and beautiful nature he had ever met,
vials of lovely thought and lovelier emotion, all stored against
the coming of a golden day.
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, -- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! -- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after Death!"
Even such heart-music as this cannot have thrilled him more
than these two exquisite lines, with their truth almost too poignant
to permit of serene joy --
"I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of heaven for earth with thee!"
Their Pisan home was amid sacred associations. It was situate
in an old palazzo built by Vasari, within sight of the Leaning Tower
and the Duomo. There, in absolute seclusion, they wrote and planned.
Once and again they made a pilgrimage to the Lanfranchi Palace
"to walk in the footsteps of Byron and Shelley": occasionally they went
to Vespers in the Duomo, and listened, rapt, to the music wandering spirally
through the vast solitary building: once they were fortunate
in hearing the impressive musical mass for the dead, in the Campo Santo.
They were even reminded often of their distant friend Horne,
for every time they crossed one of the chief piazzas
they saw the statue of Cosimo de Medici looking down upon them.
In this beautiful old city, so full of repose as it lies "asleep in the sun,"
Mrs. Browning's health almost leapt, so swift was her advance towards vigour.
"She is getting better every day," wrote her husband,
"stronger, better wonderfully, and beyond all our hopes."
That happy first winter they passed "in the most secluded manner,
reading Vasari, and dreaming dreams of seeing Venice in the summer."
But early in April, when the swallows had flown inland
above the pines of Viareggio, and Shelley's favourite little Aziola
was hooting silverly among the hollow vales of Carrara,
the two poets prepared to leave what the frailer of them called
"this perch of Pisa."
But with all its charm and happy associations, the little city was dull.
"Even human faces divine are quite `rococo' with me,"
Mrs. Browning wrote to a friend. The change to Florence
was a welcome one to both. Browning had already been there,
but to his wife it was as the fulfilment of a dream.
They did not at first go to that romantic old palace
which will be for ever sociate with the author of "Casa Guidi Windows",
but found accommodation in a more central locality.
When the June heats came, husband and wife both declared for Ancona,
the picturesque little town which dreams out upon the Adriatic.
But though so close to the sea, Ancona is in summer time
almost insufferably hot. Instead of finding it cooler than Florence,
it was as though they had leapt right into a cauldron.
Alluding to it months later, Mrs. Browning wrote to Horne,
"The heat was just the fiercest fire of your imagination,
and I SEETHE to think of it at this distance."
It was a memorable journey all the same. They went to Ravenna,
and at four o'clock one morning stood by Dante's tomb, moved deeply
by the pathetic inscription and by all the associations it evoked.
All along the coast from Ravenna to Loretto was new ground to both,
and endlessly fascinating; in the passing and repassing of the Apennines
they had `wonderful visions of beauty and glory.' At Ancona itself,
notwithstanding the heat, they spent a happy season.
Here Browning wrote one of the loveliest of his short poems,
"The Guardian Angel", which had its origin in Guercino's picture
in the chapel at Fano. By the allusions in the sixth and eighth stanzas
it is clear that the poem was inscribed to Alfred Domett,
the poet's well-loved friend immortalised as "Waring".
Doubtless it was written for no other reason than the urgency of song,
for in it are the loving allusions to his wife, "MY angel with me too,"
and "my love is here." Three times they went to the chapel,
he tells us in the seventh stanza, to drink in to their souls' content
the beauty of "dear Guercino's" picture. Browning has rarely uttered
the purely personal note of his inner life. It is this that affords
a peculiar value to "The Guardian Angel", over and above its technical beauty.
In the concluding lines of the stanzas I am about to quote
he gives the supreme expression to what was his deepest faith,
his profoundest song-motive.
"I would not look up thither past thy head
Because the door opes, like that child, I know,
For I should have thy gracious face instead,
Thou bird of God! And wilt thou bend me low
Like him, and lay, like his, my hands together,
And lift them up to pray, and gently tether
Me, as thy lamb there, with thy garment's spread?
. . . . .
"How soon all worldly wrong would be repaired!
I think how I should view the earth and skies
And sea, when once again my brow was bared
After thy healing, with such different eyes.
O world, as God has made it! All is beauty:
And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.
What further may be sought for or declared?"
After the Adriatic coast was left, they hesitated as to returning to Florence,
the doctors having laid such stress on the climatic suitability of Pisa
for Mrs. Browning. But she felt so sure of herself in her new strength
that it was decided to adventure upon at least one winter in the queen-city.
They were fortunate in obtaining a residence in the old palace
called Casa Guidi, in the Via Maggiore, over against the church of San Felice,
and here, with a few brief intervals, they lived till death separated them.
On the little terrace outside there was more noble verse
fashioned in the artist's creative silence than we can ever be aware of:
but what a sacred place it must ever be for the lover of poetry!
There, one ominous sultry eve, Browning, brooding over the story
of a bygone Roman crime, foreshadowed "The Ring and the Book",
and there, in the many years he dwelt in Casa Guidi, he wrote
some of his finer shorter poems. There, also, "Aurora Leigh" was born,
and many a lyric fresh with the dew of genius. Who has not looked
at the old sunworn house and failed to think of that night
when each square window of San Felice was aglow with festival lights,
and when the summer lightnings fell silently in broad flame
from cloud to cloud: or has failed to hear, down the narrow street,
a little child go singing, 'neath Casa Guidi windows by the church,
`O bella liberta, O bella!'
Better even than these, for happy dwelling upon, is the poem
the two poets lived. Morning and day were full of work, study,
or that pleasurable idleness which for the artist is so often
his best inspiration. Here, on the little terrace, they used to sit together,
or walk slowly to and fro, in conversation that was only less eloquent
than silence. Here one day they received a letter from Horne.
There is nothing of particular note in Mrs. Browning's reply,
and yet there are not a few of her poems we would miss rather than
these chance words -- delicate outlines left for the reader to fill in:
"We were reading your letter, together, on our little terrace --
walking up and down reading it -- I mean the letter to Robert --
and then, at the end, suddenly turning, lo, just at the edge of the stones,
just between the balustrades, and already fluttering in a breath of wind
and about to fly away over San Felice's church, we caught a glimpse
of the feather of a note to E. B. B. How near we were to the loss of it,
to be sure!"
Happier still must have been the quiet evenings in late spring and summer,
when, the one shrouded against possible chills, the other bare-headed
and with loosened coat, walked slowly to and fro in the dark,
conscious of "a busy human sense" below, but solitary on their balcony
beyond the lamplit room.
"While in and out the terrace-plants, and round
One branch of tall datura, waxed and waned
The lamp-fly lured there, wanting the white flower."
An American friend has put on record his impressions of the two poets,
and their home at this time. He had been called upon by Browning,
and by him invited to take tea at Casa Guidi the same evening.
There the visitor saw, "seated at the tea-table of the great room
of the palace in which they were living, a very small, very slight woman,
with very long curls drooping forward, almost across the eyes,
hanging to the bosom, and quite concealing the pale, small face,
from which the piercing inquiring eyes looked out sensitively at the stranger.
Rising from her chair, she put out cordially the thin white hand
of an invalid, and in a few moments they were pleasantly chatting,
while the husband strode up and down the room, joining in the conversation
with a vigour, humour, eagerness, and affluence of curious lore which,
with his trenchant thought and subtle sympathy, make him
one of the most charming and inspiring of companions."
In the autumn the same friend, joined by one or two other acquaintances,
went with the Brownings to Vallombrosa for a couple of days,
greatly to Mrs. Browning's delight, for whom the name had had
a peculiar fascination ever since she had first encountered it in Milton.
She was conveyed up the steep way towards the monastery in a great basket,
without wheels, drawn by two oxen: though, as she tells Miss Mitford,
she did not get into the monastery after all, she and her maid
being turned away by the monks "for the sin of womanhood."
She was too much of an invalid to climb the steeper heights,
but loved to lie under the great chestnuts upon the hill-slopes
near the convent. At twilight they went to the little convent-chapel,
and there Browning sat down at the organ and played
some of those older melodies he loved so well.
It is, strangely enough, from Americans that we have the best account
of the Brownings in their life at Casa Guidi: from R. H. Stoddart,
Bayard Taylor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Stillman Hillard, and W. W. Story.
I can find room, however, for but one excerpt: --
"Those who have known Casa Guidi as it was, could hardly enter
the loved rooms now, and speak above a whisper. They who have been
so favoured, can never forget the square anteroom, with its great picture
and pianoforte, at which the boy Browning passed many an hour --
the little dining-room covered with tapestry, and where hung medallions
of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Robert Browning -- the long room filled
with plaster-casts and studies, which was Mrs. Browning's retreat --
and, dearest of all, the large drawing-room where SHE always sat.
It opens upon a balcony filled with plants, and looks out upon
the iron-grey church of Santa Felice. There was something about this room
that seemed to make it a proper and especial haunt for poets.
The dark shadows and subdued light gave it a dreary look, which was enhanced
by the tapestry-covered walls, and the old pictures of saints
that looked out sadly from their carved frames of black wood. Large bookcases
constructed of specimens of Florentine carving selected by Mr. Browning
were brimming over with wise-looking books. Tables were covered
with more gaily-bound volumes, the gifts of brother authors.
Dante's grave profile, a cast of Keats's face and brow taken after death,
a pen-and-ink sketch of Tennyson, the genial face of John Kenyon,
Mrs. Browning's good friend and relative, little paintings
of the boy Browning, all attracted the eye in turn,
and gave rise to a thousand musings. A quaint mirror, easy-chairs and sofas,
and a hundred nothings that always add an indescribable charm,
were all massed in this room. But the glory of all,
and that which sanctified all, was seated in a low arm-chair near the door.
A small table, strewn with writing materials, books, and newspapers,
was always by her side. . . . After her death, her husband
had a careful water-colour drawing made of this room,
which has been engraved more than once. It still hangs in his drawing-room,
where the mirror and one of the quaint chairs above named still are.
The low arm-chair and small table are in Browning's study --
with his father's desk, on which he has written all his poems."
-- W. W. Story.
To Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne, Mr. Hillard, and Mr. Story,
in particular, we are indebted for several delightful glimpses
into the home-life of the two poets. We can see Mrs. Browning
in her "ideal chamber", neither a library nor a sitting-room,
but a happy blending of both, with the numerous old paintings
in antique Florentine frames, easy-chairs and lounges,
carved bookcases crammed with books in many languages,
bric-a-brac in any quantity, but always artistic, flowers everywhere,
and herself the frailest flower of all.
Mr. Hillard speaks of the happiness of the Brownings' home
and their union as perfect: he, full of manly power,
she, the type of the most sensitive and delicate womanhood.
This much-esteemed friend was fascinated by Mrs. Browning.
Again and again he alludes to her exceeding spirituality:
"She is a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl:"
her frame "the transparent veil for a celestial and mortal spirit:"
and those fine words which prove that he too was of the brotherhood
of the poets, "Her tremulous voice often flutters over her words
like the flame of a dying candle over the wick."
With the flower-tide of spring in 1849 came a new happiness to the two poets:
the son who was born on the 9th of March. The boy was called
Robert Wiedemann Barrett, the second name, in remembrance of Browning's
much-loved mother, having been substituted for the "Sarianna"
wherewith the child, if a girl, was to have been christened.
Thereafter their "own young Florentine" was an endless joy and pride to both:
and he was doubly loved by his father for his having brought a renewal of life
to her who bore him.
That autumn they went to the country, to the neighbourhood of Vallombrosa,
and then to the Bagni di Lucca. There they wandered content
in chestnut-forests, and gathered grapes at the vintage.
Early in the year Browning's "Poetical Works" were published in two volumes.
Some of the most beautiful of his shorter poems are to be found therein.
What a new note is struck throughout, what range of subject there is!
Among them all, are there any more treasurable than two of the simplest,
"Home Thoughts from Abroad" and "Night and Morning"?
"Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England -- now!
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops -- at the bent spray's edge --
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!"
A more significant note is struck in "Meeting at Night"
and "Parting at Morning".
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
The following winter, when they were again at their Florentine home,
Browning wrote his "Christmas Eve and Easter Day", that remarkable
`apologia' for Christianity, and close-reasoned presentation
of the religious thought of the time. It is, however, for this reason
that it is so widely known and admired: for it is ever easier
to attract readers by dogma than by beauty, by intellectual argument
than by the seduction of art. Coincidently, Mrs. Browning wrote
the first portion of "Casa Guidi Windows".
In the spring of 1850 husband and wife spent a short stay in Rome.
I have been told that the poem entitled `Two in the Campagna'
was as actually personal as the already quoted "Guardian Angel".
But I do not think stress should be laid on this and kindred localisations.
Exact or not, they have no literary value. To the poet,
the dramatic poet above all, locality and actuality of experience are,
so to say, merely fortunate coigns of outlook, for the winged genius to
temporally inhabit. To the imaginative mind, truth is not simply actuality.
As for `Two in the Campagna': it is too universally true
to be merely personal. There is a gulf which not the profoundest search
can fathom, which not the strongest-winged love can overreach:
the gulf of individuality. It is those who have loved most deeply
who recognise most acutely this always pathetic and often terrifying
isolation of the soul. None save the weak can believe
in the absolute union of two spirits. If this were demonstratable,
immortality would be a palpable fiction. The moment individuality
can lapse to fusion, that moment the tide has ebbed, the wind has fallen,
the dream has been dreamed. So long as the soul remains inviolate
amid all shock of time and change, so long is it immortal.
No man, no poet assuredly, could love as Browning loved, and fail to be aware,
often with vague anger and bitterness, no doubt, of this insuperable isolation
even when spirit seemed to leap to spirit, in the touch of a kiss,
in the evanishing sigh of some one or other exquisite moment.
The poem tells us how the lovers, straying hand in hand one May day
across the Campagna, sat down among the seeding grasses, content at first
in the idle watching of a spider spinning her gossamer threads
from yellowing fennel to other vagrant weeds. All around them
"The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air -- . . .
"Such life here, through such length of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way." . . .
Let us too be unashamed of soul, the poet-lover says,
even as earth lies bare to heaven. Nothing is to be overlooked.
But all in vain: in vain "I drink my fill at your soul's springs."
"Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? off again!
The old trick! Only I discern --
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn."
It was during this visit to Rome that both were gratified by the proposal
in the leading English literary weekly, that the Poet-Laureateship,
vacant by the death of Wordsworth, should be conferred upon Mrs. Browning:
though both rejoiced when they learned that the honour had devolved upon one
whom each so ardently admired as Alfred Tennyson. In 1851 a visit was paid
to England, not one very much looked forward to by Mrs. Browning,
who had never had cause to yearn for her old home in Wimpole Street,
and who could anticipate no reconciliation with her father,
who had persistently refused even to open her letters to him,
and had forbidden the mention of her name in his home circle.
Bayard Taylor, in his travel-sketches published under the title
"At Home and Abroad", has put on record how he called upon the Brownings
one afternoon in September, at their rooms in Devonshire Street,
and found them on the eve of their return to Italy.
In his cheerful alertness, self-possession, and genial suavity
Browning impressed him as an American rather than as an Englishman,
though there can be no question but that no more thorough Englishman
than the poet ever lived. It is a mistake, of course,
to speak of him as a typical Englishman: for typical he was not,
except in a very exclusive sense. Bayard Taylor describes him
in reportorial fashion as being apparently about seven-and-thirty
(a fairly close guess), with his dark hair already streaked with grey
about the temples: with a fair complexion, just tinged with faintest olive:
eyes large, clear, and grey, and nose strong and well-cut,
mouth full and rather broad, and chin pointed, though not prominent:
about the medium height, strong in the shoulders, but slender at the waist,
with movements expressive of a combination of vigour and elasticity.
With due allowance for the passage of five-and-thirty years,
this description would not be inaccurate of Browning the septuagenarian.
They did not return direct to Italy after all, but wintered in Paris
with Robert Browning the elder, who had retired to a small house
in a street leading off the Champs Elysees. The pension he drew
from the Bank of England was a small one, but, with what he otherwise had,
was sufficient for him to live in comfort. The old gentleman's health
was superb to the last, for he died in 1866 without ever having known
a day's illness.
Spring came out and found them still in Paris, Mrs. Browning
enthusiastic about Napoleon III. and interested in spiritualism:
her husband serenely sceptical concerning both. In the summer
they again went to London: but they appear to have seen more
of Kenyon and other intimate friends than to have led a busy social life.
Kenyon's friendship and good company never ceased to have a charm
for both poets. Mrs. Browning loved him almost as a brother:
her husband told Bayard Taylor, on the day when that
good poet and charming man called upon them, and after another visitor
had departed -- a man with a large rosy face and rotund body,
as Taylor describes him -- "there goes one of the most splendid men living --
a man so noble in his friendship, so lavish in his hospitality,
so large-hearted and benevolent, that he deserves to be known
all over the world as Kenyon the Magnificent."
In the early autumn a sudden move towards Italy was again made,
and after a few weeks in Paris and on the way the Brownings found themselves
at home once more in Casa Guidi.
But before this, probably indeed before they had left Paris for London,
Mr. Moxon had published the now notorious Shelley forgeries.
These were twenty-five spurious letters, but so cleverly manufactured
that they at first deceived many people. In the preceding November
Browning had been asked to write an introduction to them.
This he had gladly agreed to do, eager as he was for a suitable opportunity
of expressing his admiration for Shelley. When the letters reached him,
he found that, genuine or not, though he never suspected they were forgeries,
they contained nothing of particular import, nothing that afforded
a just basis for what he had intended to say. Pledged as he was, however,
to write something for Mr. Moxon's edition of the Letters, he set about
the composition of an Essay, of a general as much as of an individual nature.
This he wrote in Paris, and finished by the beginning of December.
It dealt with the objective and subjective poet; on the relation
of the latter's life to his work; and upon Shelley in the light of
his nature, art, and character. Apart from the circumstance that
it is the only independent prose writing of any length from Browning's pen,
this is an exceptionally able and interesting production.
Dr. Furnivall deserves general gratitude for his obtaining
the author's leave to re-issue it, and for having published it
as one of the papers of the Browning Society. As that enthusiastic student
and good friend of the poet says in his "foretalk" to the reprint,
the essay is noteworthy, not merely as a signal service
to Shelley's fame and memory, but for Browning's statement of his own aim
in his own work, both as objective and subjective poet.
The same clearsightedness and impartial sympathy, which are
such distinguishing characteristics of his dramatic studies
of human thought and emotion, are obvious in Browning's Shelley essay.
"It would be idle to enquire," he writes, "of these two kinds
of poetic faculty in operation, which is the higher or even rarer endowment.
If the subjective might seem to be the ultimate requirement of every age,
the objective in the strictest state must still retain its original value.
For it is with this world, as starting-point and basis alike,
that we shall always have to concern ourselves; the world is not to be learned
and thrown aside, but reverted to and reclaimed."
Of its critical subtlety -- the more remarkable as by a poet-critic
who revered Shelley the poet and loved and believed in Shelley the man --
the best example, perhaps, is in those passages where he alludes
to the charge against the poet's moral nature -- "charges which,
if substantiated to their wide breadth, would materially disturb,
I do not deny, our reception and enjoyment of his works, however wonderful
the artistic qualities of these. For we are not sufficiently supplied
with instances of genius of his order to be able to pronounce certainly
how many of its constituent parts have been tasked and strained
to the production of a given lie, and how high and pure
a mood of the creative mind may be dramatically simulated
as the poet's habitual and exclusive one."
The large charity, the liberal human sympathy, the keen
critical acumen of this essay, make one wish that the author
had spared us a "Sludge the Medium" or a "Pacchiarotto",
or even a "Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau", and given us more
of such honourable work in "the other harmony".
Glad as the Brownings were to be home again at Casa Guidi,
they could not enjoy the midsummer heats of Florence,
and so went to the Baths of Lucca. It was a delight for them
to ramble among the chestnut-woods of the high Tuscan forests,
and to go among the grape-vines where the sunburnt vintagers were busy.
Once Browning paid a visit to that remote hill-stream and waterfall,
high up in a precipitous glen, where, more than three-score years earlier,
Shelley had been wont to amuse himself by sitting naked on a rock
in the sunlight, reading `Herodotus' while he cooled, and then plunging
into the deep pool beneath him -- to emerge, further up stream,
and then climb through the spray of the waterfall till he was like
a glittering human wraith in the middle of a dissolving rainbow.
Those Tuscan forests, that high crown of Lucca, must always
have special associations for lovers of poetry. Here Shelley lived,
rapt in his beautiful dreams, and translated the `Symposium'
so that his wife might share something of his delight in Plato.
Here, ten years later, Heine sneered, and laughed and wept,
and sneered again -- drank tea with "la belle Irlandaise",
flirted with Francesca "la ballerina", and wrote alternately
with a feathered quill from the breast of a nightingale and with a lancet
steeped in aquafortis: and here, a quarter of a century afterward,
Robert and Elizabeth Browning also laughed and wept and "joyed i' the sun,"
dreamed many dreams, and touched chords of beauty whose vibration has become
incorporated with the larger rhythm of all that is high and enduring
in our literature.
On returning to Florence (Browning with the MS. of the greater part
of his splendid fragmentary tragedy, "In a Balcony", composed mainly
while walking alone through the forest glades), Mrs. Browning found
that the chill breath of the `tramontana' was affecting her lungs,
so a move was made to Rome, for the passing of the winter (1853-4).
In the spring their little boy, their beloved "Pen",* became ill with malaria.
This delayed their return to Florence till well on in the summer.
During this stay in Rome Mrs. Browning rapidly proceeded with "Aurora Leigh",
and Browning wrote several of his "Men and Women", including the exquisite
`Love among the Ruins', with its novel metrical music;
`Fra Lippo Lippi', where the painter, already immortalised by Landor,
has his third warrant of perpetuity; the `Epistle of Karshish' (in part);
`Memorabilia' (composed on the Campagna); `Saul', a portion of which
had been written and published ten years previously,
that noble and lofty utterance, with its trumpet-like note
of the regnant spirit; the concluding part of "In a Balcony";
and `Holy Cross Day' -- besides, probably, one or two others.
In the late spring (April 27th) also, he wrote the short dactylic lyric,
`Ben Karshook's Wisdom'. This little poem was given to a friend
for appearance in one of the then popular `Keepsakes' -- literally given,
for Browning never contributed to magazines. The very few exceptions
to this rule were the result of a kindliness stronger than scruple:
as when (1844), at request of Lord Houghton (then Mr. Monckton Milnes),
he sent `Tokay', the `Flower's Name', and `Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis',
to "help in making up some magazine numbers for poor Hood,
then at the point of death from hemorrhage of the lungs,
occasioned by the enlargement of the heart, which had been brought on
by the wearing excitement of ceaseless and excessive literary toil."
As `Ben Karshook's Wisdom', though it has been reprinted in several quarters,
will not be found in any volume of Browning's works, and was omitted from
"Men and Women" by accident, and from further collections by forgetfulness,
it may be fitly quoted here. Karshook, it may be added,
is the Hebraic word for a thistle.
"`Would a man 'scape the rod?' --
Rabbi Ben Karshook saith,
`See that he turns to God
The day before his death.'
`Ay, could a man inquire
When it shall come!' I say.
The Rabbi's eye shoots fire --
`Then let him turn to-day!'
Quoth a young Sadducee, --
`Reader of many rolls,
Is it so certain we
Have, as they tell us, souls?' --
`Son, there is no reply!'
The Rabbi bit his beard:
`Certain, a soul have _I_ ----
WE may have none,' he sneer'd.
Thus Karshook, the Hiram's-Hammer,
The Right-Hand Temple column,
Taught babes their grace in grammar,
And struck the simple, solemn."
* So-called, it is asserted, from his childish effort to pronounce
a difficult name (Wiedemann). But despite the good authority
for this statement, it is impossible not to credit rather
the explanation given by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, moreover,
affords the practically definite proof that the boy was at first,
as a term of endearment, called "Pennini", which was later abbreviated
to "Pen". The cognomen, Hawthorne states, was a diminutive of "Apennino",
which was bestowed upon the boy in babyhood because he was very small,
there being a statue in Florence of colossal size called "Apennino".
[See Mrs. Orr's "Life and Letters of Robert Browning" (now online)
for a different opinion. -- A. L., 1996.]
It was in this year (1855) that "Men and Women" was published.
It is difficult to understand how a collection comprising poems
such as "Love among the Ruins", "Evelyn Hope", "Fra Lippo Lippi",
"A Toccata of Galuppi's", "Any Wife to any Husband",
"Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha", "Andrea del Sarto", "In a Balcony", "Saul",
"A Grammarian's Funeral", to mention only ten now almost universally known,
did not at once obtain a national popularity for the author.
But lovers of literature were simply enthralled: and the two volumes
had a welcome from them which was perhaps all the more ardent
because of their disproportionate numbers. Ears alert to novel poetic music
must have thrilled to the new strain which sounded first --
"Love among the Ruins", with its Millet-like opening --
"Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward through the twilight, stray or stop
As they crop --
Was the site once of a city great and gay . . ."
Soon after the return to Florence, which, hot as it was, was preferable
in July to Rome, Mrs. Browning wrote to her frequent correspondent
Miss Mitford, and mentioned that about four thousand lines
of "Aurora Leigh" had been written. She added a significant passage:
that her husband had not seen a single line of it up to that time --
significant, as one of the several indications that the union
of Browning and his wife was indeed a marriage of true minds,
wherein nothing of the common bane of matrimonial life found existence.
Moreover, both were artists, and, therefore, too full of respect
for themselves and their art to bring in any way the undue influence
of each other into play.
By the spring of 1856, however, the first six "books" were concluded:
and these, at once with humility and pride, Mrs. Browning placed
in her husband's hands. The remaining three books were written,
in the summer, in John Kenyon's London house.
It was her best, her fullest answer to the beautiful dedicatory poem,
"One Word More", wherewith her husband, a few months earlier,
sent forth his "Men and Women", to be for ever associated with "E. B. B."
"There they are, my fifty men and women
Naming me the fifty poems finished!
Take them, Love, the book and me together:
Where the heart lies, let the brain lie also.
. . . . .
This I say of me, but think of you, Love!
This to you -- yourself my moon of poets!
Ah, but that's the world's side, there's the wonder,
Thus they see you, praise you, think they know you!
There, in turn I stand with them and praise you --
Out of my own self, I dare to phrase it.
But the best is when I glide from out them,
Cross a step or two of dubious twilight,
Come out on the other side, the novel
Silent silver lights and darks undreamed of,
Where I hush and bless myself with silence."
The transference from Florence to London was made in May.
In the summer "Aurora Leigh" was published, and met with
an almost unparalleled success: even Landor, most exigent of critics,
declared that he was "half drunk with it," that it had an imagination
germane to that of Shakespeare, and so forth.
The poem was dedicated to Kenyon, and on their homeward way
the Brownings were startled and shocked to hear of his sudden death.
By the time they had arrived at Casa Guidi again they learned
that their good friend had not forgotten them in the disposition
of his large fortune. To Browning he bequeathed six thousand,
to Mrs. Browning four thousand guineas. This loss was followed
early in the ensuing year (1857) by the death of Mr. Barrett,
steadfast to the last in his refusal of reconciliation with his daughter.
Winters and summers passed happily in Italy -- with one period
of feverish anxiety, when the little boy lay for six weeks dangerously ill,
nursed day and night by his father and mother alternately --
with pleasant occasionings, as the companionship for a season
of Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family, or of weeks spent at Siena
with valued and lifelong friends, W. W. Story, the poet-sculptor,
and his wife.
So early as 1858 Mrs. Hawthorne believed she saw the heralds of death
in Mrs. Browning's excessive pallor and the hectic flush upon the cheeks,
in her extreme fragility and weakness, and in her catching, fluttering breath.
Even the motion of a visitor's fan perturbed her. But "her soul was mighty,
and a great love kept her on earth a season longer. She was a seraph
in her flaming worship of heart." "She lives so ardently,"
adds Mrs. Hawthorne, "that her delicate earthly vesture
must soon be burnt up and destroyed by her soul of pure fire."
Yet, notwithstanding, she still sailed the seas of life,
like one of those fragile argonauts in their shells of foam and rainbow-mist
which will withstand the rude surge of winds and waves.
But slowly, gradually, the spirit was o'erfretting its tenement.
With the waning of her strength came back the old passionate longing for rest,
for quiescence from that "excitement from within", which had been
almost over vehement for her in the calm days of her unmarried life.
It is significant that at this time Browning's genius
was relatively dormant. Its wings were resting for
the long-sustained flight of "The Ring and the Book",
and for earlier and shorter though not less royal aerial journeyings.
But also, no doubt, the prolonged comparatively unproductive period
of eight or nine years (1855-1864), between the publication
of "Men and Women" and "Dramatis Personae", was due in some measure
to the poet's incessant and anxious care for his wife,
to the deep sorrow of witnessing her slow but visible passing away,
and to the profound grief occasioned by her death. However,
barrenness of imaginative creative activity can be only
very relatively affirmed, even of so long a period, of years wherein
were written such memorable and treasurable poems as `James Lee's Wife',
among Browning's writings what `Maud' is among Lord Tennyson's;
`Gold Hair: a Legend of Pornic'; `Dis Aliter Visum';
`Abt Vogler', the most notable production of its kind in the language;
`A Death in the Desert', that singular and impressive study;
`Caliban upon Setebos', in its strange potency of interest
and stranger poetic note, absolutely unique; `Youth and Art';
`Apparent Failure'; `Prospice', that noble lyrical defiance of death;
and the supremely lofty and significant series of weighty stanzas,
`Rabbi Ben Ezra', the most quintessential of all the distinctively
psychical monologues which Browning has written. It seems to me
that if these two poems only, "Prospice" and "Rabbi Ben Ezra",
were to survive to the day of Macaulay's New Zealander, the contemporaries
of that meditative traveller would have sufficient to enable them
to understand the great fame of the poet of "dim ancestral days",
as the more acute among them could discern something of the real Shelley,
though time had preserved but the three lines --
"Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child" . . .
something of the real Catullus, through the mists of remote antiquity,
if there had not perished the single passionate cry --
Illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
Plus quam se, atque suos amavit omnes!"
At the beginning of July (1858), the Brownings left Florence
for the summer and autumn, and by easy stages travelled to Normandy.
Here the invalid benefited considerably at first: and here,
I may add, Browning wrote his `Legend of Pornic', `Gold Hair'.
This poem of twenty-seven five-line stanzas (which differs only
from that in more recent "Collected Works", and "Selections",
in its lack of the three stanzas now numbered 21, 22, and 23)
was printed for limited private circulation, though primarily
for the purpose of securing American copyright. Browning several times
printed single poems thus, and for the same reasons --
that is, either for transatlantic copyright, or when the verses
were not likely to be included in any volume for a prolonged period.
These leaflets or half-sheetlets of `Gold Hair' and `Prospice',
of `Cleon' and `The Statue and the Bust' -- together with
the `Two Poems by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning',
published, for benefit of a charity, in 1854 -- are among the rarest "finds"
for the collector, and are literally worth a good deal more
than their weight in gold.
In the tumultuous year of 1859 all Italy was in a ferment.
No patriot among the Nationalists was more ardent in her hopes
than the delicate, too fragile, dying poetess, whose flame of life
burned anew with the great hopes that animated her for her adopted country.
Well indeed did she deserve, among the lines which the poet Tommaseo wrote
and the Florence municipality caused to be engraved in gold
upon a white marble slab, to be placed upon Casa Guidi,
the words `fece del suo verso aureo anello fra Italia e Inghilterra' --
"who of her Verse made a golden link connecting England and Italy."
The victories of Solferino and San Martino made the bitterness
of the disgraceful Treaty of Villafranca the more hard to bear.
Even had we not Mr. Story's evidence, it would be a natural conclusion
that this disastrous ending to the high hopes of the Italian patriots
accelerated Mrs. Browning's death. The withdrawal of hope
is often worse in its physical effects than any direct bodily ill.
It was a miserable summer for both husband and wife, for more private sorrows
also pressed upon them. Not even the sweet autumnal winds blowing upon Siena
wafted away the shadow that had settled upon the invalid:
nor was there medicine for her in the air of Rome, where the winter was spent.
A temporary relief, however, was afforded by the more genial climate,
and in the spring of 1860 she was able, with Browning's help,
to see her Italian patriotic poems through the press. It goes without saying
that these "Poems before Congress" had a grudging reception from the critics,
because they dared to hint that all was not roseate-hued in England.
The true patriots are those who love despite blemishes,
not those who cherish the blemishes along with the virtues.
To hint at a flaw is "not to be an Englishman."
The autumn brought a new sadness in the death of Miss Arabella Barrett --
a dearly loved sister, the "Arabel" of so many affectionate letters.
Once more a winter in Rome proved temporally restorative.
But at last the day came when she wrote her last poem --
"North and South", a gracious welcome to Hans Christian Andersen
on the occasion of his first visit to the Eternal City.
Early in June of 1861 the Brownings were once more at Casa Guidi.
But soon after their return the invalid caught a chill.
For a few days she hovered like a tired bird -- though her friends
saw only the seemingly unquenchable light in the starry eyes,
and did not anticipate the silence that was soon to be.
By the evening of the 28th day of the month she was in sore peril
of failing breath. All night her husband sat by her, holding her hand.
Two hours before dawn she realised that her last breath
would ere long fall upon his tear-wet face. Then, as a friend has told us,
she passed into a state of ecstasy: yet not so rapt therein
but that she could whisper many words of hope, even of joy.
With the first light of the new day, she leaned against her lover.
Awhile she lay thus in silence, and then, softly sighing "It is beautiful!"
passed like the windy fragrance of a flower.
It is needless to dwell upon what followed. The world has all
that need be known. To Browning himself it was the abrupt,
the too deeply pathetic, yet not wholly unhappy ending of a lovelier poem
than any he or another should ever write, the poem of their married life.
There is a rare serenity in the thought of death when it is known to be
the gate of life. This conviction Browning had, and so his grief
was rather that of one whose joy has westered earlier.
The sweetest music of his life had withdrawn: but there was still music
for one to whom life in itself was a happiness. He had his son,
and was not void of other solace: but even had it been otherwise
he was of the strenuous natures who never succumb, nor wish to die --
whatever accident of mortality overcome the will and the power.
It was in the autumn following his wife's death that he wrote
the noble poem to which allusion has already been made: "Prospice".
Who does not thrill to its close, when all of gloom or terror
"Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest."
There are few direct allusions to his wife in Browning's poems.
Of those prior to her death the most beautiful is "One Word More",
which has been already quoted in part: of the two or three
subsequent to that event none surpasses the magic close
of the first part of "The Ring and the Book".
Thereafter the details of his life are public property.
He all along lived in the light, partly from his possession of that serenity
which made Goethe glad to be alive and to be able to make others
share in that gladness. No poet has been more revered and more loved.
His personality will long be a stirring tradition. In the presence
of his simple manliness and wealth of all generous qualities
one is inclined to pass by as valueless, as the mere flying spray
of the welcome shower, the many honours and gratifications that befell him.
Even if these things mattered, concerning one by whose genius
we are fascinated, while undazzled by the mere accidents pertinent thereto,
their recital would be wearisome -- of how he was asked
to be Lord Rector of this University, or made a doctor of laws at that:
of how letters and tributes of all kinds came to him from every district
in our Empire, from every country in the world: and so forth.
All these things are implied in the circumstance that his life was throughout
"a noble music with a golden ending."
In 1866 his father died in Paris, strenuous in life until the very end.
After this event Miss Sarianna Browning went to reside with her brother,
and from that time onward was his inseparable companion,
and ever one of the dearest and most helpful of friends.
In latter years brother and sister were constantly seen together,
and so regular attendants were they at such functions as the "Private Views"
at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery, that these never seemed complete
without them. A Private View, a first appearance of Joachim or Sarasate,
a first concert of Richter or Henschel or Halle, at each of these,
almost to a certainty, the poet was sure to appear.
The chief personal happiness of his later life was in his son.
Mr. R. Barrett Browning is so well known as a painter and sculptor
that it would be superfluous for me to add anything further here,
except to state that his successes were his father's keenest pleasures.
Two years after his father's death, that is in 1868,
the "Poetical Works of Robert Browning, M.A., Honorary Fellow
of Balliol College, Oxford", were issued in six volumes.
Here the equator of Browning's genius may be drawn. On the further side
lie the "Men and Women" of the period anterior to "The Ring and the Book":
midway is the transitional zone itself: on the hither side
are the "Men and Women" of a more temperate if not colder clime.
The first part of "The Ring and the Book" was not published till November.
In September the poet was staying with his sister and son at Le Croisic,
a picturesque village at the mouth of the Loire, at the end of
the great salt plains which stretch down from Guerande to the Bay of Biscay.
No doubt, in lying on the sand-dunes in the golden September glow,
in looking upon the there somewhat turbid current of the Loire,
the poet brooded on those days when he saw its inland waters
with her who was with him no longer save in dreams and memories.
Here he wrote that stirring poem, "Herve Riel", founded upon
the valorous action of a French sailor who frustrated
the naval might of England, and claimed nothing as a reward
save permission to have a holiday on land to spend a few hours with his wife,
"la belle Aurore". "Herve Riel" (which has been translated into French,
and is often recited, particularly in the maritime towns,
and is always evocative of enthusiastic applause) is one of Browning's
finest action-lyrics, and is assured of the same immortality
as "How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix",
or the "Pied Piper" himself.
In 1872 there was practical proof of the poet's growing popularity.
Baron Tauchnitz issued two volumes of excellently selected poems,
comprising some of the best of "Men and Women", "Dramatis Personae",
and "Dramatic Romances", besides the longer "Soul's Tragedy",
"Luria", "In a Balcony", and "Christmas Eve and Easter Day" --
the most Christian poem of the century, according to one eminent cleric,
the heterodox self-sophistication of a free-thinker, according to another:
really, the reflex of a great crisis, that of the first movement
of the tide of religious thought to a practically limitless freedom.
This edition also contained "Bishop Blougram", then much discussed,
apart from its poetic and intellectual worth, on account of
its supposed verisimilitude in portraiture of Cardinal Wiseman.
This composition, one of Browning's most characteristic, is so clever
that it is scarcely a poem. Poetry and Cleverness do not well agree,
the muse being already united in perfect marriage to Imagination.
In his Essay on Truth, Bacon says that one of the Fathers
called poetry `Vinum Daemonum', because it filleth the imagination.
Certainly if it be not `vinum daemonum' it is not Poetry.
In this year also appeared the first series of "Selections"
by the poet's latest publishers: "Dedicated to Alfred Tennyson.
In Poetry -- illustrious and consummate: In Friendship -- noble and sincere."
It was in his preface to this selection that he wrote the often-quoted words:
"Nor do I apprehend any more charges of being wilfully obscure,
unconscientiously careless, or perversely harsh." At or about
the date of these "Selections" the poet wrote to a friend,
on this very point of obscurity, "I can have little doubt that my writing
has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased
to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people,
as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand,
I never pretended to offer such literature as should be
a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man.
So perhaps, on the whole, I get my deserts, and something over --
not a crowd, but a few I value more."
In 1877 Browning, ever restless for pastures new, went with his sister
to spend the autumn at La Saisiaz (Savoyard for "the sun"),
a villa among the mountains near Geneva; this time with the additional company
of Miss Anne Egerton Smith, an intimate and valued friend.
But there was an unhappy close to the holiday. Miss Smith died
on the night of the fourteenth of September, from heart complaint.
"La Saisiaz" is the direct outcome of this incident,
and is one of the most beautiful of Browning's later poems.
Its trochaics move with a tide-like sound.
At the close, there is a line which might stand as epitaph for the poet --
"He, at least, believed in Soul, was very sure of God."
In the following year "La Saisiaz" was published along with
"The Two Poets of Croisic", which was begun and partly written
at the little French village ten years previously.
There is nothing of the eight-score stanzas of the "Two Poets"
to equal its delightful epilogue, or the exquisite prefatory lyric,
"Such a starved bank of moss
Till that May-morn
Blue ran the flash across:
Violets were born."
Extremely interesting -- and for myself I cannot find
"The Two Poets of Croisic" to be anything more than "interesting" --
it is as a poem distinctly inferior to "La Saisiaz".
Although detached lines are often far from truly indicative
of the real poetic status of a long poem, where proportion and harmony
are of more importance than casual exfoliations of beauty,
yet to a certain extent they do serve as musical keys
that give the fundamental tone. One certainly would have to search in vain
to find in the Croisic poem such lines as
"Five short days, scarce enough to
Bronze the clustered wilding apple, redden ripe the mountain ash."
Or these of Mont Blanc, seen at sunset, towering over
icy pinnacles and teeth-like peaks,
"Blanc, supreme above his earth-brood, needles red and white and green,
Horns of silver, fangs of crystal set on edge in his demesne."
Or, again, this of the sun swinging himself above the dark shoulder of Jura --
"Gay he hails her, and magnific, thrilled her black length burns to gold."
Or, finally, this sounding verse --
"Past the city's congregated peace of homes and pomp of spires."
The other poems later than "The Ring and the Book" are, broadly speaking,
of two kinds. On the one side may be ranged the groups which really cohere
with "Men and Women". These are "The Inn Album", the miscellaneous poems
of the "Pacchiarotto" volume, the "Dramatic Idyls", some of "Jocoseria",
and some of "Asolando". "Ferishtah's Fancies" and "Parleyings" are not,
collectively, dramatic poems, but poems of illuminative insight guided by
a dramatic imagination.* They, and the classical poems and translations
(renderings, rather, by one whose own individuality dominates them
to the exclusion of that NEARNESS of the original author,
which it should be the primary aim of the translator to evoke),
the beautiful "Balaustion's Adventure", "Aristophanes' Apology",
and "The Agamemnon of Aeschylus", and the third group,
which comprises "Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau", "Red Cotton Nightcap Country",
and "Fifine at the Fair" -- these three groups are of the second kind.
* In a letter to a friend, Browning wrote: -- "I hope and believe
that one or two careful readings of the Poem [Ferishtah's Fancies]
will make its sense clear enough. Above all, pray allow
for the Poet's inventiveness in any case, and do not suppose
there is more than a thin disguise of a few Persian names and allusions.
There was no such person as Ferishtah -- the stories are all inventions.
. . . The Hebrew quotations are put in for a purpose,
as a direct acknowledgment that certain doctrines may be found
in the Old Book, which the Concocters of Novel Schemes of Morality
put forth as discoveries of their own."
Remarkable as are the three last-named productions, it is extremely doubtful
if the first and second will be read for pleasure by readers born
after the close of this century. As it is impossible, in my narrow limits,
to go into any detail about poems which personally I do not regard
as essential to the truest understanding of Browning, the truest because
on the highest level, that of poetry -- as distinct from dogma,
or intellectual suasion of any kind that might, for all its aesthetic charm,
be in prose -- it would be presumptuous to assert anything derogatory of them
without attempting adequate substantiation. I can, therefore,
merely state my own opinion. To reiterate, it is that, for different reasons,
these three long poems are foredoomed to oblivion -- not, of course,
to be lost to the student of our literature and of our age,
a more wonderful one even than that of the Renaissance,
but to lapse from the general regard. That each will for a long time find
appreciative readers is certain. They have a fascination for alert minds,
and they have not infrequent ramifications which are worth pursuing
for the glimpses afforded into an always evanishing Promised Land.
"Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau" (the name, by the way,
is not purely fanciful, being formed from Hohen Schwangau,
one of the castles of the late King of Bavaria) is Browning's complement
to his wife's "Ode to Napoleon III." "Red Cotton Nightcap Country"
is a true story, the narrative of the circumstances pertinent to
the tragic death of one Antonio Mellerio, a Paris jeweller,
which occurred in 1870 at St. Aubin in Normandy, where, indeed,
the poet first heard of it in all its details. It is a story which,
if the method of poetry and the method of prose could for a moment
be accepted as equivalent, might be said to be of the school
of a light and humorously grotesque Zola. It has the fundamental weakness
of "The Ring and the Book" -- the weakness of an inadequate ethical basis.
It is, indeed, to that great work what a second-rate novelette is
to a masterpiece of fiction.
"Fifine at the Fair", on the other hand, is so powerful
and often so beautiful a poem that one would be rash indeed were he,
with the blithe critical assurance which is so generally snuffed out
like a useless candle by a later generation, to prognosticate
its inevitable seclusion from the high place it at present occupies
in the estimate of the poet's most uncompromising admirers.
But surely equally rash is the assertion that it will be
the "poem of the future". However, our concern is not
with problematical estimates, but with the poem as it appears to US.
It is one of the most characteristic of Browning's productions.
It would be impossible for the most indolent reader or critic to attribute it,
even if anonymous, to another parentage. Coleridge alludes somewhere
to certain verses of Wordsworth's, with the declaration that if he
had met them howling in the desert he would have recognised their authorship.
"Fifine" would not even have to howl.
Browning was visiting Pornic one autumn, when he saw the gipsy
who was the original of "Fifine". In the words of Mrs. Orr,
"his fancy was evidently set roaming by the gipsy's audacity, her strength --
the contrast which she presented to the more spiritual types of womanhood;
and this contrast eventually found expression in a pathetic theory of life,
in which these opposite types and their corresponding modes of attraction
became the necessary complement of each other. As he laid down the theory,
Mr. Browning would be speaking in his own person. But he would turn
into some one else in the act of working it out -- for it insensibly
carried with it a plea for yielding to those opposite attractions,
not only successively, but at the same time; and a modified Don Juan
would grow up under his pen."
One drawback to an unconditional enjoyment of Balzac
is that every now and again the student of the `Comedie Humaine'
resents the too obvious display of the forces that propel the effect --
a lesser phase of the weariness which ensues upon much reading
of the mere "human documents" of the Goncourt school of novelists.
In the same way, we too often see Browning working up
the electrical qualities, so that, when the fulmination comes,
we understand "just how it was produced," and, as illogically as children
before a too elaborate conjurer, conclude that there is not so much
in this particular poetic feat as in others which, like Herrick's maids,
continually do deceive. To me this is affirmable of "Fifine at the Fair".
The poet seems to know so very well what he is doing.
If he did not take the reader so much into his confidence,
if he would rely more upon the liberal grace of his earlier verse
and less upon the trained subtlety of his athletic intellect,
the charm would be the greater. The poem would have
a surer duration as one of the author's greater achievements,
if there were more frequent and more prolonged insistence
on the note struck in the lines (Section 73) about the hill-stream,
infant of mist and dew, falling over the ledge of the fissured cliff
to find its fate in smoke below, as it disappears into the deep,
"embittered evermore, to make the sea one drop more big thereby:"
or in the cloudy splendour of the description of nightfall (Section 106):
or in the windy spring freshness of
"Hence, when the earth began afresh its life in May,
And fruit-trees bloomed, and waves would wanton, and the bay
Ruffle its wealth of weed, and stranger-birds arrive,
And beasts take each a mate." . . .
But its chief fault seems to me to be its lack of that transmutive
glow of rhythmic emotion without which no poem can endure.
This rhythmic energy is, inherently, a distinct thing
from intellectual emotion. Metric music may be alien
to the adequate expression of the latter, whereas rhythmic emotion
can have no other appropriate issue. Of course, in a sense,
all creative art is rhythmic in kind: but here I am speaking
only of that creative energy which evolves the germinal idea
through the medium of language. The energy of the intellect
under creative stimulus may produce lordly issues in prose:
but poetry of a high intellectual order can be the outcome
only of an intellect fused to white heat, of intellectual emotion on fire --
as, in the fine saying of George Meredith, passion is noble strength on fire.
Innumerable examples could be taken from any part of the poem,
but as it would not be just to select the most obviously defective passages,
here are two which are certainly fairly representative of the general level --
"And I became aware, scarcely the word escaped my lips,
that swift ensued in silence and by stealth, and yet with certitude,
a formidable change of the amphitheatre which held the Carnival;
ALTHOUGH THE HUMAN STIR CONTINUED JUST THE SAME
AMID THAT SHIFT OF SCENE." (No. 105)
"And where i' the world is all this wonder, you detail so trippingly,
espied? My mirror would reflect a tall, thin, pale, deep-eyed personage,
pretty once, it may be, doubtless still loving -- a certain grace
yet lingers if you will -- but all this wonder, where?" (No. 40)
Here, and in a hundred other such passages, we have the rhythm,
if not of the best prose, at least not that of poetry.
Will "Fifine" and poems of its kind stand re-reading,
re-perusal over and over? That is one of the most definite tests.
In the pressure of life can we afford much time to anything but the very best
-- nay, to the vast mass even of that which closely impinges thereupon?
For myself, in the instance of "Fifine", I admit that if re-perusal
be controlled by pleasure I am content (always excepting
a few scattered noble passages) with the Prologue and Epilogue.
A little volume of those Summaries of Browning's -- how stimulating
a companion it would be in those hours when the mind
would fain breathe a more liberal air!
As for "Jocoseria",* it seems to me the poorest of Browning's works,
and I cannot help thinking that ultimately the only gold grain discoverable
therein will be "Ixion", the beautiful penultimate poem beginning --
"Never the time and the place
And the loved one altogether;"
and the thrush-like overture, closing --
"What of the leafage, what of the flower?
Roses embowering with nought they embower!
Come then! complete incompletion, O comer,
Pant through the blueness, perfect the summer!
Breathe but one breath
And all that was death
Grows life, grows love,
* In a letter to a friend, along with an early copy of this book,
Browning stated that "the title is taken from the work
of Melander (`Schwartzmann'), reviewed, by a curious coincidence,
in the `Blackwood' of this month. I referred to it
in a note to `Paracelsus'. The two Hebrew quotations
(put in to give a grave look to what is mere fun and invention)
being translated amount to (1) `A Collection of Many Lies':
and (2), an old saying, `From Moses to Moses arose none like Moses' . . . ."
In 1881 the "Browning Society" was established. It is easy to ridicule
any institution of the kind -- much easier than to be considerate of
other people's earnest convictions and aims, or to be helpful to their object.
There is always a ridiculous side to excessive enthusiasm,
particularly obvious to persons incapable of enthusiasm of any kind.
With some mistakes, and not a few more or less grotesque absurdities,
the members of the various English and American Browning Societies are yet
to be congratulated on the good work they have, collectively, accomplished.
Their publications are most interesting and suggestive:
ultimately they will be invaluable. The members have also done a good work
in causing some of Browning's plays to be produced again on the stage,
and in Miss Alma Murray and others have found sympathetic and able exponents
of some of the poet's most attractive `dramatis personae'.
There can be no question as to the powerful impetus given by the Society
to Browning's steadily-increasing popularity. Nothing shows
his judicious good sense more than the letter he wrote, privately,
to Mr. Edmund Yates, at the time of the Society's foundation.
"The Browning Society, I need not say, as well as Browning himself,
are fair game for criticism. I had no more to do with the founding it
than the babe unborn; and, as Wilkes was no Wilkeite, I am quite other
than a Browningite. But I cannot wish harm to a society of,
with a few exceptions, names unknown to me, who are busied about my books
so disinterestedly. The exaggerations probably come of the fifty-years'-long
charge of unintelligibility against my books; such reactions are possible,
though I never looked for the beginning of one so soon.
That there is a grotesque side to the thing is certain;
but I have been surprised and touched by what cannot but have been
well intentioned, I think. Anyhow, as I never felt inconvenienced
by hard words, you will not expect me to wax bumptious
because of undue compliment: so enough of `Browning', --
except that he is yours very truly, `while this machine is to him.'"
The latter years of the poet were full of varied interest for himself,
but present little of particular significance for specification in a monograph
so concise as this must perforce be. Every year he went abroad,
to France or to Italy, and once or twice on a yachting trip
in the Mediterranean.* At home -- for many years, at 19 Warwick Crescent,
in what some one has called the dreary Mesopotamia of Paddington,
and for the last three or four years of his life at 29 De Vere Gardens,
Kensington Gore -- his avocations were so manifold that it is difficult
to understand where he had leisure for his vocation. Everybody wished him
to come to dine; and he did his utmost to gratify Everybody.
He saw everything; read all the notable books; kept himself acquainted
with the leading contents of the journals and magazines;
conducted a large correspondence; read new French, German,
and Italian books of mark; read and translated Euripides and Aeschylus;
knew all the gossip of the literary clubs, salons, and the studios;
was a frequenter of afternoon-tea parties; and then, over and above it,
he was Browning: the most profoundly subtle mind that has exercised itself
in poetry since Shakespeare. His personal grace and charm of manner
never failed. Whether he was dedicating "Balaustion's Adventure"
in terms of gracious courtesy, or handing a flower from some jar of roses,
or lilies, or his favourite daffodils, with a bright smile or merry glance,
to the lady of his regard, or when sending a copy of a new book of poetry
with an accompanying letter expressed with rare felicity,
or when generously prophesying for a young poet the only true success
if he will but listen and act upon "the inner voice", -- he was in all these,
and in all things, the ideal gentleman. There is so charming
and characteristic a touch in the following note to a girl-friend,
that I must find room for it: --
* It was on his first experience of this kind, more than
a quarter of a century earlier, that he wrote the nobly patriotic lines
of "Home Thoughts from the Sea", and that flawless strain of bird-music,
"Home Thoughts from Abroad": then, also, that he composed
"How they brought the Good News". Concerning the last, he wrote, in 1881
(see `The Academy', April 2nd), "There is no sort of historical foundation
about [this poem]. I wrote it under the bulwark of a vessel
off the African coast, after I had been at it long enough to appreciate
even the fancy of a gallop on the back of a certain good horse, `York',
then in my stable at home. It was written in pencil
on the fly-leaf of Bartoli's `Simboli', I remember."
29 De Vere Gardens, W.,
6th July 1889.
My beloved Alma, -- I had the honour yesterday of dining with the Shah,
whereupon the following dialogue: --
"Vous e^tes poe"te?"
"On s'est permis de me le dire quelquefois."
"Et vous avez fait des livres?"
"Trop de livres."
"Voulez-vous m'en donner un, afin que je puisse me ressouvenir de vous?"
I have been accordingly this morning to town, where the thing is procurable,
and as I chose a volume of which I judged the binding might take
the imperial eye, I said to myself, "Here do I present my poetry
to a personage for whom I do not care three straws; why should I not venture
to do as much for a young lady I love dearly, who, for the author's sake,
will not impossibly care rather for the inside than the outside
of the volume?" So I was bold enough to take one and offer it
for your kind acceptance, begging you to remember in days to come
that the author, whether a good poet or no, was always, my Alma,
your affectionate friend,
His look was a continual and serene gleam. Lamartine, who remarks this
of Bossuet in his youth, adds a phrase which, as observant acquaintances
of the poet will agree, might be written of Browning --
"His lips quivered often without utterance, as if with the wind
of an internal speech."
Except for the touching and beautiful letter which he wrote from Asolo
about two months before his death, to Mr. Wilfrid Meynell,
about a young writer to whom the latter wished to draw
the poet's kindly attention -- a letter which has a peculiar pathos
in the words, "I shall soon depart for Venice, on my way homeward" --
except for this letter there is none so well worth repetition here
as his last word to the Poet-Laureate. The friendship between
these two great poets has in itself the fragrance of genius.
The letter was written just before Browning left London.
29 De Vere Gardens, W.,
August 5th, 1889.
My dear Tennyson, -- To-morrow is your birthday -- indeed, a memorable one.
Let me say I associate myself with the universal pride of our country
in your glory, and in its hope that for many and many a year
we may have your very self among us -- secure that your poetry
will be a wonder and delight to all those appointed to come after.
And for my own part, let me further say, I have loved you dearly.
May God bless you and yours.
At no moment from first to last of my acquaintance with your works,
or friendship with yourself, have I had any other feeling,
expressed or kept silent, than this which an opportunity
allows me to utter -- that I am and ever shall be, my dear Tennyson,
admiringly and affectionately yours,
Shortly after this he was at Asolo once more, the little hill-town
in the Veneto, which he had visited in his youth, and where he heard again
the echo of Pippa's song --
"God's in His heaven,
All's right with the world!"
Mr. W. W. Story writes to me that he spent three days with the poet
at this time, and that the latter seemed, except for a slight asthma,
to be as vigorous in mind and body as ever. Thence, later in the autumn,
he went to Venice, to join his son and daughter-in-law
at the home where he was "to have a corner for his old age,"
the beautiful Palazzo Rezzonico, on the Grand Canal. He was never happier,
more sanguine, more joyous, than here. He worked for three or four hours
each morning, walked daily for about two hours, crossed occasionally
to the Lido with his sister, and in the evenings visited friends
or went to the opera. But for some time past, his heart --
always phenomenally slow in its action, and of late ominously intermittent --
had been noticeably weaker. As he suffered no pain and little inconvenience,
he paid no particular attention to the matter. Browning had
as little fear of death as doubt in God. In a controlling Providence
he did indeed profoundly believe. He felt, with Joubert,
that "it is not difficult to believe in God, if one does not worry oneself
to define Him."*
* "Browning's `orthodoxy' brought him into many a combat
with his rationalistic friends, some of whom could hardly believe
that he took his doctrine seriously. Such was the fact, however;
indeed, I have heard that he once stopped near an open-air assembly
which an atheist was haranguing, and, in the freedom of his `incognito',
gave strenuous battle to the opinions uttered. To one who had spoken
of an expected `Judgment Day' as a superstition, I heard him say:
`I don't see that. Why should there not be a settling day in the universe,
as when a master settles with his workmen at the end of the week?'
There was something in his tone and manner which suggested his
dramatic conception of religious ideas and ideals." -- Moncure D. Conway.
"How should externals satisfy my soul?" was his cry in "Sordello",
and it was the fundamental strain of all his poetry,
as the fundamental motive is expressible in
"-- a loving worm within its sod
Were diviner than a loveless god
Amid his worlds" --
love being with him the golden key wherewith to unlock the world
of the universe, of the soul, of all nature. He is as convinced
of the two absolute facts of God and Soul as Cardinal Newman
in writing of "Two and two only, supreme and luminously self-evident beings,
myself and my Creator." Most fervently he believes that
"Haply for us the ideal dawn shall break . . .
And set our pulse in tune with moods divine" --
though, co-equally, in the necessity of "making man sole sponsor of himself."
Ever and again, of course, he was betrayed by the bewildering and defiant
puzzle of life: seeing in the face of the child the seed of sorrow,
"in the green tree an ambushed flame, in Phosphor a vaunt-guard of Night."
Yet never of him could be written that thrilling saying
which Sainte-Beuve uttered of Pascal, "That lost traveller
who yearns for home, who, strayed without a guide in a dark forest,
takes many times the wrong road, goes, returns upon his steps,
is discouraged, sits down at a crossing of the roads,
utters cries to which no one responds, resumes his march with frenzy and pain,
throws himself upon the ground and wants to die, and reaches home at last
only after all sorts of anxieties and after sweating blood." No darkness,
no tempest, no gloom, long confused his vision of `the ideal dawn'.
As the carrier-dove is often baffled, yet ere long surely finds her way
through smoke and fog and din to her far country home, so he too,
however distraught, soon or late soared to untroubled ether.
He had that profound inquietude, which the great French critic says
`attests a moral nature of a high rank, and a mental nature
stamped with the seal of the archangel.' But, unlike Pascal --
who in Sainte-Beuve's words exposes in the human mind itself two abysses,
"on one side an elevation toward God, toward the morally beautiful,
a return movement toward an illustrious origin, and on the other side
an abasement in the direction of evil" -- Browning sees, believes in,
holds to nothing short of the return movement, for one and all,
toward an illustrious origin.
The crowning happiness of a happy life was his death in the city he loved
so well, in the arms of his dear ones, in the light of a world-wide fame.
The silence to which the most eloquent of us must all one day lapse
came upon him like the sudden seductive twilight of the Tropics,
and just when he had bequeathed to us one of his finest utterances.
It seems but a day or two ago that the present writer
heard from the lips of the dead poet a mockery of death's vanity --
a brave assertion of the glory of life. "Death, death!
It is this harping on death I despise so much," he remarked
with emphasis of gesture as well as of speech -- the inclined head and body,
the right hand lightly placed upon the listener's knee, the abrupt change
in the inflection of the voice, all so characteristic of him --
"this idle and often cowardly as well as ignorant harping!
Why should we not change like everything else? In fiction, in poetry,
in so much of both, French as well as English, and, I am told,
in American art and literature, the shadow of death -- call it what you will,
despair, negation, indifference -- is upon us. But what fools who talk thus!
Why, `amico mio', you know as well as I that death is life,
just as our daily, our momentarily dying body is none the less alive
and ever recruiting new forces of existence. Without death,
which is our crapelike churchyardy word for change, for growth,
there could be no prolongation of that which we call life.
Pshaw! it is foolish to argue upon such a thing even. For myself,
I deny death as an end of everything. Never say of me that I am dead!"
On the evening of Thursday, the 12th of December (1889), he was in bed,
with exceeding weakness. In the centre of the lofty ceiling
of the room in which he lay, and where it had been his wont to work,
there is a painting by his son. It depicts an eagle
struggling with a serpent, and is illustrative of a superb passage
in Shelley's "Revolt of Islam". What memories, what deep thoughts,
it must have suggested; how significant, to us, the circumstance!
But weak as the poet was, he yet did not see the shadow
which had begun to chill the hearts of the watchers.
Shortly before the great bell of San Marco struck ten,
he turned and asked if any news had come concerning "Asolando",
published that day. His son read him a telegram from the publishers,
telling how great the demand was and how favourable were the advance-articles
in the leading papers. The dying poet smiled and muttered, "How gratifying!"
When the last toll of St. Mark's had left a deeper stillness than before,
those by the bedside saw a yet profounder silence on the face of him
whom they loved.
It is needless to dwell upon the grief everywhere felt and expressed for
the irreparable loss. The magnificent closing lines of Shelley's "Alastor"
must have occurred to many a mourner; for gone, indeed,
was "a surpassing Spirit". The superb pomp of the Venetian funeral,
the solemn grandeur of the interment in Westminster Abbey, do not seem
worth recording: so insignificant are all these accidents of death made
by the supreme fact itself. Yet it is fitting to know that Venice
has never in modern times afforded a more impressive sight, than those
craped processional gondolas following the high flower-strewn funeral-barge
through the thronged waterways and out across the lagoon
to the desolate Isle of the Dead: that London has rarely seen
aught more solemn than the fog-dusked Cathedral spaces,
echoing at first with the slow tramp of the pall-bearers,
and then with the sweet aerial music swaying upward
the loved familiar words of the `Lyric Voice' hushed so long before.
Yet the poet was as much honoured by those humble friends,
Lambeth artisans and a few poor working-women, who threw sprays of laurel
before the hearse -- by that desolate, starving, woe-weary gentleman,
shivering in his threadbare clothes, who seemed transfixed with
a heart-wrung though silent emotion, ere he hurriedly drew from his sleeve
a large white chrysanthemum, and throwing it beneath the coffin
as it was lifted inward, disappeared in the crowd, which closed again
like the sea upon this lost wandering wave.
Who would not honour this mighty dead? All who could be present were there,
somewhere in the ancient Abbey. One of the greatest,
loved and admired by the dead poet, had already put the mourning of many
into the lofty dignity of his verse: --
"Now dumb is he who waked the world to speak,
And voiceless hands the world beside his bier,
Our words are sobs, our cry of praise a tear:
We are the smitten mortal, we the weak.
We see a spirit on Earth's loftiest peak
Shine, and wing hence the way he makes more clear:
See a great Tree of Life that never sere
Dropped leaf for aught that age or storms might wreak:
Such ending is not Death: such living shows
What wide illumination brightness sheds
From one big heart -- to conquer man's old foes:
The coward, and the tyrant, and the force
Of all those weedy monsters raising heads
When Song is murk from springs of turbid source."*
* George Meredith.
One word more of "light and fleeting shadow". In the greatness of his nature
he must be ranked with Milton, Defoe, and Scott. His very shortcomings,
such as they were, were never baneful growths, but mere weeds,
with a certain pleasant though pungent savour moreover,
growing upon a rich, an exuberant soil. Pluck one of the least lovely --
rather call it the unworthy arrow shot at the body of a dead comrade,
so innocent of ill intent: yet it too has a beauty of its own,
for the shaft was aflame from the fulness of a heart whose love had withstood
the chill passage of the years.
On the night of Browning's death a new star suddenly appeared in Orion.*
The coincidence is suggestive if we like to indulge in the fancy
that in that constellation --
"No more subjected to the change or chance
Of the unsteady planets ----"
gleam those other "abodes where the Immortals are." Certainly,
a wandering fire has passed away from us. Whither has it gone?
To that new star in Orion: or whirled to remote silences
in the trail of lost meteors? Whence, and for how long,
will its rays reach our storm and gloom-beleaguered earth?
* Mrs. Orr disputes this statement. -- A. L., 1996.
"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." -- Mrs. Sutherland Orr,
"Life and Letters of Robert Browning" (1891).
Such questions cannot meanwhile be solved. Our eyes are still confused
with the light, with that ardent flame, as we knew it here.
But this we know, it was indeed "a central fire descending upon many altars."
These, though touched with but a spark of the immortal principle,
bear enduring testimony. And what testimony! How heartfelt:
happily also how widespread, how electrically stimulative!
But the time must come when the poet's personality will have
the remoteness of tradition: when our perplexed judgments
will be as a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
It is impossible for any student of literature, for any interested reader,
not to indulge in some forecast as to what rank in the poetic hierarchy
Robert Browning will ultimately occupy. The commonplace as to
the impossibility of prognosticating the ultimate slow decadence,
or slower rise, or, it may be, sustained suspension, of a poet's fame,
is often insincere, and but an excuse of indolence.
To dogmatise were the height of presumption as well as of folly:
but to forego speculation, based upon complete present knowledge,
for an idle contentment with narrow horizons, were perhaps foolisher still.
But assuredly each must perforce be content with his own prevision.
None can answer yet for the generality, whose decisive franchise
will elect a fit arbiter in due time.
So, for myself, let me summarise what I have already written
in several sections of this book, and particularly in the closing pages
of Chapter 6. There, it will be remembered -- after having found
that Browning's highest achievement is in his second period --
emphasis was laid on the primary importance of his life-work in its having
compelled us to the assumption of a fresh critical standpoint involving
the construction of a new definition. In the light of this new definition
I think Browning will ultimately be judged. As the sculptor in "Pippa Passes"
was the predestinated novel thinker in marble, so Browning himself
appears as the predestinated novel thinker in verse; the novel thinker,
however, in degree, not in kind. But I do not for a moment believe
that his greatness is in his status as a thinker: even less,
that the poet and the thinker are indissociable. Many years ago
Sainte-Beuve destroyed this shallow artifice of pseudo-criticism:
"Venir nous dire que tout poe"te de talent est, par essence,
un grand PENSEUR, et que tout vrai PENSEUR est ne/cessairement
artiste et poe"te, c'est une pre/tention insoutenable et que de/ment
a\ chaque instant la re/alite/."
When Browning's enormous influence upon the spiritual and mental life
of our day -- an influence ever shaping itself to wise and beautiful issues --
shall have lost much of its immediate import, there will still surely be
discerned in his work a formative energy whose resultant is pure poetic gain.
It is as the poet he will live: not merely as the "novel thinker in verse".
Logically, his attitude as `thinker' is unimpressive. It is the attitude,
as I think some one has pointed out, of acquiescence with codified morality.
In one of his `Causeries', the keen French critic quoted above
has a remark upon the great Bossuet, which may with singular aptness
be repeated of Browning: -- "His is the Hebrew genius extended,
fecundated by Christianity, and open to all the acquisitions
of the understanding, but retaining some degree of sovereign interdiction,
and closing its vast horizon precisely where its light ceases."
Browning cannot, or will not, face the problem of the future
except from the basis of assured continuity of individual existence.
He is so much in love with life, for life's sake, that he cannot even credit
the possibility of incontinuity; his assurance of eternity in another world
is at least in part due to his despair at not being eternal in this.
He is so sure, that the intellectually scrupulous detect
the odours of hypotheses amid the sweet savour of indestructible assurance.
Schopenhauer says, in one of those recently-found Annotations of his
which are so characteristic and so acute, "that which is called
`mathematical certainty' is the cane of a blind man without a dog,
or equilibrium in darkness." Browning would sometimes have us accept
the evidence of his `cane' as all-sufficient. He does not entrench himself
among conventions: for he already finds himself within the fortified lines
of convention, and remains there. Thus is true what Mr. Mortimer says
in a recent admirable critique -- "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."
Browning's conclusions, which harmonise so well with
our haphazard previsionings, are sometimes so disastrously facile
that they exercise an insurrectionary influence. They occasionally suggest
that wisdom of Gotham which is ever ready to postulate
the certainty of a fulfilment because of the existence of a desire.
It is this that vitiates so much of his poetic reasoning.
Truth may ring regnant in the lines of Abt Vogler --
"And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence
For the fulness of the days?" --
but, unfortunately, the conclusion is, in itself, illogical.
We are all familiar with, and in this book I have dwelt more than once upon,
Browning's habitual attitude towards Death. It is not a novel one.
The frontage is not so much that of the daring pioneer,
as the sedate assurance of `the oldest inhabitant'. It is of good hap,
of welcome significance: none the less there is an aspect of our mortality
of which the poet's evasion is uncompromising and absolute.
I cannot do better than quote Mr. Mortimer's noteworthy words hereupon,
in connection, moreover, with Browning's artistic relation to Sex,
that other great Protagonist in the relentless duel of Humanity
with Circumstance. "The final inductive hazard he declines for himself;
his readers may take it if they will. It is part of the insistent
and perverse ingenuity which we display in masking with illusion
the more disturbing elements of life. Veil after veil is torn down,
but seldom before another has been slipped behind it,
until we acquiesce without a murmur in the concealment
that we ourselves have made. Two facts thus carefully shrouded
from full vision by elaborate illusion conspicuously round in our lives --
the life-giving and life-destroying elements, Sex and Death.
We are compelled to occasional physiologic and economic discussion of the one,
but we shrink from recognising the full extent to which it bases
the whole social fabric, carefully concealing its insurrections,
and ignoring or misreading their lessons. The other, in certain aspects,
we are compelled to face, but to do it we tipple on illusions,
from our cradle upwards, in dread of the coming grave,
purchasing a drug for our poltroonery at the expense of our sanity.
We uphold our wayward steps with the promises and the commandments
for crutches, but on either side of us trudge the shadow Death
and the bacchanal Sex, and we mumble prayers against the one,
while we scourge ourselves for leering at the other.
On one only of these can Browning be said to have spoken with novel force --
the relations of sex, which he has treated with a subtlety and freedom,
and often with a beauty, unapproached since Goethe. On the problem of Death,
except in masquerade of robes and wings, his eupeptic temperament
never allowed him to dwell. He sentimentalised where Shakespeare thought."
Browning's whole attitude to the Hereafter is different from that of Tennyson
only in that the latter `faintly', while he strenuously,
"trusts the larger hope." To him all credit, that, standing upon
the frontiers of the Past, he can implicitly trust the Future.
"High-hearted surely he;
But bolder they who first off-cast
Their moorings from the habitable Past."
The teacher may be forgotten, the prophet may be hearkened to no more,
but a great poet's utterance is never temporal, having that in it
which conserves it against the antagonism of time, and the ebb and flow
of literary ideals. What range, what extent of genius!
As Mr. Frederick Wedmore has well said, `Browning is not a book --
he is a literature.'
But that he will "stand out gigantic" in MASS of imperishable work,
in that far-off day, I for one cannot credit. His poetic shortcomings
seem too essential to permit of this. That fatal excess of cold
over emotive thought, of thought that, however profound, incisive,
or scrupulously clear, is not yet impassioned, is a fundamental defect of his.
It is the very impetuosity of this mental energy to which is due
the miscalled obscurity of much of Browning's work -- miscalled,
because, however remote in his allusions, however pedantic even,
he is never obscure in his thought. His is that "palace infinite
which darkens with excess of light." But mere excess in itself
is nothing more than symptomatic. Browning has suffered more
from intellectual exploitation than any writer. It is a ruinous process --
for the poet. "He so well repays intelligent study."
That is it, unfortunately. There are many, like the old Scotch lady
who attempted to read Carlyle's `French Revolution',
who think they have become "daft" when they encounter a passage such as,
"Rivals, who . . .
Tuned, from Bocafoli's stark-naked psalms,
To Plara's sonnets spoilt by toying with,
`As knops that stud some almug to the pith
Pricked for gum, wry thence, and crinkled worse
Than pursed eyelids of a river-horse
Sunning himself o' the slime when whirrs the breeze --
GAD-FLY, that is.'"
The old lady persevered with Carlyle, and, after a few days,
found "she was nae sae daft, but that she had tackled
a varra dee-fee-cult author." What would even that indomitable student
have said to the above quotation, and to the poem whence it comes?
To many it is not the poetry, but the difficulties, that are the attraction.
They rejoice, after long and frequent dippings, to find their plummet,
almost lost in remote depths, touch bottom. Enough `meaning'
has been educed from `Childe Roland', to cite but one instance,
to start a School of Philosophy with: though it so happens
that the poem is an imaginative fantasy, written in one day.
Worse still, it was not inspired by the mystery of existence,
but by `a red horse with a glaring eye standing behind a dun one
on a piece of tapestry that used to hang in the poet's drawing-room.'*
Of all his faults, however, the worst is that jugglery,
that inferior legerdemain, with the elements of the beautiful in verse:
most obvious in "Sordello", in portions of "The Ring and the Book",
and in so many of the later poems. These inexcusable violations
are like the larvae within certain vegetable growths: soon or late
they will destroy their environment before they perish themselves.
Though possessive above all others of that science of the percipient
in the allied arts of painting and music, wherein he found
the unconventional Shelley so missuaded by convention,
he seemed ever more alert to the substance than to the manner of poetry.
In a letter of Mrs. Browning's she alludes to a friend's "melodious feeling"
for poetry. Possibly the phrase was accidental, but it is significant.
To inhale the vital air of poetry we must love it, not merely
find it "interesting", "suggestive", "soothing", "stimulative": in a word,
we must have a "melodious feeling" for poetry before we can deeply enjoy it.
Browning, who has so often educed from his lyre melodies and harmonies
of transcendent, though novel, beauty, was too frequently, during composition,
without this melodious feeling of which his wife speaks.
The distinction between literary types such as Browning or Balzac
on the one hand, and Keats or Gustave Flaubert on the other,
is that with the former there exists a reverence for the vocation
and a relative indifference to the means, in themselves --
and, with the latter, a scrupulous respect for the mere means
as well as for that to which they conduce. The poet who does not love words
for themselves, as an artist loves any chance colour upon his palette,
or as the musician any vagrant tone evoked by a sudden touch
in idleness or reverie, has not entered into the full inheritance
of the sons of Apollo. The writer cannot aim at beauty,
that which makes literature and art, without this heed --
without, rather, this creative anxiety: for it is certainly not enough,
as some one has said, that language should be used merely
for the transportation of intelligence, as a wheelbarrow carries brick.
Of course, Browning is not persistently neglectful of this
fundamental necessity for the literary artist. He is often