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Robert Browning by Edward Dowden

Part 2 out of 6

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i. 474.]

[Footnote 24: Letters of D.G. Rossetti to William Allingham, p. 168.]

[Footnote 25: The above statement is substantially that of Browning; but
on certain points his memory misled him. Whoever is interested in the
matter should consult Professor Lounsbury's valuable article "A
Philistine View of a Browning Play" in _The Atlantic Monthly_, December
1899, where questions are raised and some corrections are ingeniously

[Footnote 26: An uncle seems to have accompanied him. See _Letters of
R.B. and E.B.B_., i. 57: and (for Shelley's Grave) i. 292; for
"Sordello" at Naples, i., 349.]

[Footnote 27: In later years no friendship existed between the two. We
read in Mr. W.M. Rossetti's Diary for 1869, "4th July.... I see Browning
dislikes Trelawny quite as much as Trelawny dislikes him (which is not a
little.)" _Rossetti Papers_, p. 401.]

[Footnote 28: See Mr R. Holt Hutton's article on Browning in "Essays
Theological and Literary."]

[Footnote 29: Luria withdraws from life "to prevent the harm Florence
will do herself by striking him." _Letters of R.B. and E.B.B_., i. 427.]

Chapter IV

The Maker of Plays--_(Continued)_

The women of the dramas, with one or two exceptions, are composed of
fewer elements than the men. A variety of types is presented, but each
personality is somewhat constrained and controlled by its idea; the free
movement, the iridescence, the variety in oneness, the incalculable
multiplicity in unity, of real character are not always present. They
admit of definition to a degree which places them at a distance from the
inexplicable open secrets of Shakespeare's creation; they lack the
simple mysteriousness, the transparent obscurity of nature. With a
master-key the chambers of their souls can one after another be
unlocked. Ottima is the carnal passion of womanhood, full-blown,
dazzling in the effrontery of sin, yet including the possibility, which
Browning conceives as existing at the extreme edge of every expansive
ardour, of being translated into a higher form of passion which
abolishes all thought of self. Anael, of _The Return of the Druses_, is
pure and measureless devotion. The cry of "Hakeem!" as she falls, is not
an act of faith but of love; it pierces through the shadow of the
material falsehood to her one illuminated truth of absolute love, like
that other falsehood which sanctifies the dying lips of Desdemona. The
sin of Mildred is the very innocence of sin, and does not really alter
the simplicity of her character; it is only the girlish rapture of
giving, with no limitation, whatever may prove a bounty to him whom she

Come what, come will,
You have been happy.

The remorse of Mildred is the remorse of innocence, the anguish of one
wholly unlearned in the dark colours of guilt. This tragedy of Mildred
and Mertoun is the _Romeo and Juliet_ of Browning's cycle of dramas. But
Mildred's cousin Guendolen, by virtue of her swift, womanly penetration
and her brave protectiveness of distressed girlhood, is a kinswoman of
Beatrice who supported the injured daughter of Leonato in a comedy of
Shakespeare which rings with laughter.

Polyxena, the Queen of Sardinia--a daughter not of Italy but of the
Rhineland--is, in her degree, an eighteenth century representative of
the woman of the ancient Teutonic tribes, grave, resolute, wise, and
possessing the authority of wisdom. She, whose heart and brain work
bravely together like loyal comrades, is strongly but also simply,
conceived as the helpmate, the counsellor, and, in the old sense of the
word, the comforter of her husband. Something of almost maternal
feeling, as happens at times in real life, mingles with her wifely
affection for Charles, who indeed may prove on occasions a fractious
son. Like a wise guardian-angel she remembers on these occasions that he
is only a man, and that men in their unwisdom may grow impatient of
unalleviated guardian-angelhood; he will by and by discover his error,
and she can bide her time. Perhaps, like other heroines of Browning,
Polyxena is too constantly and uniformly herself; yet, no doubt, it is
right that opaline, shifting hues should not disturb our impression of
a character whose special virtue is steadfastness. The Queen of the
English Charles, who is eager to counsel, and always in her petulance
and folly to counsel ill, is slightly sketched; but she may be thanked
for one admirable speech--her first--when Strafford, worn and fevered in
the royal service, has just arrived from Ireland, and passing out from
his interview with the King is encountered by her:--

Is it over then?
Why he looks yellower than ever! Well
At least we shall not hear eternally
Of service--services: he's paid at least.

The Lady Carlisle of the same play--a creature in the main of Browning's
imagination--had the play been Elizabethan or Jacobean would have
followed her lord in a page's dress, have lived on half a smile a day,
and perhaps have succeeded in dying languishingly and happily upon his
sword; she is not quite unreal, nor yet quite real; something much
better than a stage property and not wholly a living woman; more of a
Beaumont and Fletcher personage of the boards--and as such
effective--than a Shakespearian piece of nature. The theatrical limbo to
which such almost but not quite embodied shadows ultimately troop, is

In Browning's dramatic scene of 1853, _In a Balcony_, he created with
unqualified success "a very woman" in the enamoured Queen, whose heart
at fifty years beats only more wildly and desperately than a girl's.[30]
The young lovers, Constance and Norbert, are a highly meritorious pair,
who express their passion in excellent and eloquent periods; we have
seen their like before, and since. But the Queen, with her unslaked
thirst for the visionary wells under the palm-trees, who finds herself
still amid the burning sands, is an original and tragic figure--a royal
Mlle. de Lespinasse, and crowned with fiery and immitigable pain.
Although she has returned the "glare" of Constance with the glare of "a
panther," the Queen is large-hearted. The guards, it is true, arrive as
the curtain falls; but those readers who have wasted their tender
emotion on a couple of afflicted prisoners or decapitated young persons,
whom mother Nature can easily replace, are mistaken. If the Queen does
not die that night, she will rise next morning after sleepless hours,
haggard, not fifty but eighty years old, and her passion will,
heroically slay itself in an act of generosity.[31] Little more,
however, than a situation is represented in this dramatic scene. Of
Browning's full-length portraits of women in the dramas, the finest
piece of work is the portrait of the happiest woman--the play-Duchess of
Juliers, no longer Duchess, but ever

Our lady of dear Ravestein.

Colombe is no incarnated idea but a complete human being, irreducible to
a formula, whom we know the better because there is always in her more
of exquisite womanhood to be discovered. Even the too fortunate
Valence--all readers of his own sex must pronounce him too
fortunate--will for ever be finding her anew.

In the development of his dramatic style Browning more and more lost
sight of the theatre and its requirements; his stage became more and
more a stage of the mind. _Strafford_, his first play, is the work of a
novice, who has little of the instinct for theatrical effect, but who
sets his brain to invent striking tableaux, to prepare surprises, to
exhibit impressive attitudes, to calculate--not always successfully--the
angle of a speech, so that it may with due impact reach the pit. The
opening scene expounds the situation. In the second Wentworth and Pym
confront each other; the King surprises them; Wentworth lets fall the
hand of Pym, as the stage tradition requires; as Wentworth withdraws the
Queen enters to unmake what he has made, and the scene closes with a
tableau expressing the sentimental weakness of Charles:

Come, dearest!--look, the little fairy, now
That cannot reach my shoulder! Dearest, come!

And so proceeds the tragedy, with much that ought to be dear to the
average actor, which yet is somehow not always even theatrically happy.
The pathos of the closing scene where Strafford is discovered in The
Tower, sitting with his children, is theatrical pathos of the most
correct kind, and each little speech of little William and little Anne
is uttered as much for the audience as for their father, implying in
every word "See, how we, poor innocents, heighten the pity of it." The
hastily written _A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_ is, perhaps, of Browning's
dramas the best fitted for theatrical representation. Yet it is
incurably weak in the motives which determine the action; and certain
passages are almost ludicrously undramatic. If Romeo before he flung up
his ladder of ropes had paused, like Mertoun, to salute his mistress
with a tenor morceau from the opera, it is to be feared that runaways'
and other eyes would not have winked, and that old Capulet would have
come upon the scene in his night-gown, prepared to hasten the
catastrophe with a long sword. Yet _A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_, with its
breadth of outline, its striking situations, and its mastery of the
elementary passions--love and wrath and pride and pity--gives us
assurance that Browning might have taken a place of considerable
distinction had he been born in an age of great dramatic poetry. If it
is weak in construction so--though in a less degree--are Webster's
_Duchess of Malfi_, and Shakespeare's _Cymbeline_.

In _King Victor and King Charles_ Browning adopted, and no doubt
deliberately, a plain, unfigured and uncoloured style, as suiting both
the characters and the historical subject. The political background of
this play and that of _Strafford_ hardly entitles either drama to be
named political. Browning was a student of history, but it was
individuals and not society that interested him. The affairs of England
and the affairs of Sardinia serve to throw out the figures of the chief
_dramatis persons_; those affairs are not considered for their own sake.
Certain social conditions are studied as they enter into and help to
form an individual. The Bishop who orders his tomb at St Praxed's is in
part a product of the Italian Renaissance, but the causes are seen only
in their effects upon the character of a representative person. If the
plain, substantial style of _King Victor and King Charles_ is proper to
a play with such a hero as Charles and such a heroine as Polyxena, the
coloured style, rich in imagery, is no less right in _The Return of the
Druses_, where religious and chivalric enthusiasm are blended with the
enthusiasm of the passion of love. But already Browning was ceasing to
bear in mind the conditions of the stage. Certain pages where Djabal and
Khalil, Djabal and Anael, Anael and Loys are the speakers, might be
described as dialogues conducted by means of "asides," and even the
imagination of a reader resents a construction of scenes which requires
these duets of soliloquies, these long sequences of the
audible-inaudible. With the "very tragical mirth" of the second part of
Chiappino's story of moral and political disaster, the spectators and
the stage have wholly disappeared from Browning's theatre; the imaginary
dialogue is highly dramatic, in one sense of the word, and is admirable
in its kind, but we transport ourselves best to the market-place of
Faenza by sitting in an easy chair.

_Pippa Passes_ is singular in its construction; scenes detached, though
not wholly disconnected, are strung pendant-wise upon the gold thread,
slender but sufficiently strong, of an idea; realism in art, as we now
call it, hangs from a fine idealism; this substantial globe of earth
with its griefs, its grossnesses, its heroism, swings suspended from the
seat of God. The idea which gives unity to the whole is not a mere
fantasy. The magic practised by the unconscious Pippa through her songs
is of that genuine and beautiful kind which the Renaissance men of
science named "Magia Naturalis." It is no fantasy but a fact that each
of us influences the lives of others more or less every day, and at
times in a peculiar degree, in ways of which we are not aware. Let this
fact be seized with imaginative intensity, and let the imagination
render it into a symbol--we catch sight of Pippa with her songs passing
down the grass-paths and under the pine-wood of Asolo. Her only service
to God on this one holiday of a toilsome year is to be glad. She
misconceives everything that concerns "Asolo's Four Happiest Ones"--to
her fancy Ottima is blessed with love, Jules is no victim of an envious
trick, Luigi's content in his lot is deep and unassailable, and
Monsignor is a holy and beloved priest; and, unawares to her, in modes
far other than she had imagined, each of her dreams comes true; even
Monsignor for one moment rises into the sacred avenger of God. Her own
service, though she knows it not, is more than a mere twelve-hours'
gladness; she, the little silk-winder, rays forth the influences of a
heart that has the potency ascribed to gems of unflawed purity; and such
influences--here embodied in the symbol of a song--are among the
precious realities of our life. Nowhere in literature has the virtue of
mere innocent gladness been more charmingly imagined than in her
morning outbreak of expectancy, half animal glee, half spiritual joy;
the "whole sunrise, not to be suppressed" is a limitless splendour, but
the reflected beam cast up from the splash of her ewer and dancing on
her poor ceiling is the same in kind; in the shrub-house up the
hill-side are great exotic blooms, but has not Pippa her one martagon
lily, over which she queens it? With God all service ranks the same, and
she shall serve Him all this long day by gaiety and gratitude.

_Pippa Passes_ is a sequence of dramatic scenes, with lyrics
interspersed, and placed in a lyrical setting; the figures dark or
bright, of the painting are "ringed by a flowery bowery angel-brood" of
song. But before his _Bells and Pomegranates_ were brought to a close
Browning had discovered in the short monodrama, lyrical or reflective,
the most appropriate vehicle for his powers of passion and of thought.
Here a single situation sufficed; characters were seen rightly in
position; the action of the piece was wholly internal; a passion could
be isolated, and could be either traced through its varying moods or
seized in its moment of culmination; the casuistry of the brain could be
studied apart,--it might have its say uninterrupted, or it might be
suddenly encountered and dissipated by some spearlike beam of light from
the heart or soul; the traditions of a great literary form were not here
a cause of embarrassment; they need not, as in work for the theatre, be
laboriously observed or injuriously violated; the poet might assert his
independence and be wholly original.

And original, in the best sense of the word--entirely true to his
highest self--Browning was in the "Dramatic Lyrics" of 1842, and the
"Dramatic Romances and Lyrics" of 1845. His senses were at once
singularly keen and energetic, and singularly capacious of delight; his
eyes were active instruments of observation, and at the same time were
possessed by a kind of rapture in form--and not least in fantastic
form--and a rapture still finer in the opulence and variety of colour.
In these poems we are caught into what may truly be called an enthusiasm
of the senses; and presently we find that the senses, good for their own
sakes, are good also as inlets to the spirit. Having returned from his
first visit to southern Italy, the sights and sounds, striking upon the
retina and the auditory nerve, with the intensity of a new experience,
still attack the eye and ear _as_ he writes his _Englishman in Italy_,
and by virtue of their eager obsession demand and summon forth the
appropriate word.[32] The fisherman from Amalfi pitches down his basket
before us,

All trembling alive
With pink and grey jellies, your sea-fruit,
--You touch the strange lumps,
And mouths gape there, eyes open, all manner
Of horns and of humps.

Or it is the "quick rustle-down of the quail-nets," or the "whistling
pelt" of the olives, when Scirocco is loose, that invades our ears. And
by and by among the mountains the play of the senses expands, and the
soul has its great word to utter:

God's own profound
Was above me, and round me the mountains,
And under, the sea,
And within me, my heart to bear witness
hat was and shall be.

Not less vivid is the vision of the light craft with its lateen sail
outside Triest, in which Waring--the Flying Englishman--is seen "with
great grass hat and kerchief black," looking up for a moment, showing
his "kingly throat," till suddenly in the sunset splendour the boat
veers weather-ward and goes off, as with a bound, "into the rose and
golden half of the sky." And what animal-painter has given more of the
leonine wrath in mane and tail and fixed wide eyes than Browning has
conveyed into his lion of King Francis with three strokes of the brush?
Or it is only a bee upon a sunflower on which the gazer's eye is fixed,
and we get the word of Rudel:

And therefore bask the bees
On my flower's breast, as on a platform broad.

Or--a grief to booklovers!--the same eye is occupied by all the
grotesquerie of insect life in the revel over that unhappy tome lurking
in the plum tree's crevice of Browning's _Garden Fancy_, which creeps
and crawls with beetle and spider, worm and eft.[33] Or it is night and
moonlight by the sandy shore, and for a moment--before love enters--all
the mind of the impressionist artist lives merely in the eye:

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.

If Browning did not rejoice in perfect health and animal spirits--and in
the letters to Miss Barrett we hear of frequent headaches and find a
reference to his pale thin face as seen in a mirror--he had certainly
the imagination of perfect vitality and of those "wild joys of living,"
sung by the young harper David in that poem of _Saul_, which appeared as
a fragment in the _Bells and Pomegranates_, and as a whole ten years
later, with the awe and rapture of the spirit rising above the rapture
of the senses.[34]

Of these poems of 1842 and 1845 one _The Pied Piper_, was written in the
spirit of mere play and was included in _Bells and Pomegranates_ only to
make up a number, for which the printer required more copy. One or
two--the flesh and blood incarnations of the wines of France and
Hungary, _Claret_ and _Tokay_, are no more than clever caprices of the
fancy. One, _The Lost Lender_, remotely suggested by the conservatism of
Wordsworth's elder days, but possibly deflected by some of the feeling
attributed to Pym in relation to Strafford of the drama, and certainly
detached from direct personal reference to Wordsworth, expresses
Browning's liberal sentiment in politics. One, the stately _Artemis
Prologuizes_, is the sole remaining fragment of a classical drama,
"Hippolytus and Aricia," composed in 1840, "much against my endeavour,"
wrote the poet,--a somewhat enigmatical phrase--"while in bed with a
fever." A considerable number of the poems may be grouped together as
expressions or demonstrations of various passions, central among which
is the passion of love. A few, and these conspicuous for their masterly
handling of novel themes, treat of art, and the feeling for art as seen
in the painter of pictures or in the connoisseur. Nor is the
interpretation of religious emotion--though in a phase that may be
called abnormal--wholly forgotten.

With every passion that expands the spirit beyond the bounds of self,
Browning, as the dramas have made evident to us, is in cordial sympathy.
The reckless loyalty, with its animal spirits and its dash of grief, the
bitterer because grief must be dismissed, of the _Cavalier Tunes_, is
true to England and to the time in its heartiness and gallant bluffness.
The leap-up of pride and joy in a boy's heart at the moment of death in
his Emperor's cause could hardly be more intensely imagined than it is
in the poem of the French camp, and all is made more real and vivid by
the presence of that motionless figure, intent on victory and sustaining
the weight of imperial anxieties, which yet cannot be quite impassive in
presence of a death so devoted. And side by side with this poem of
generous enthusiasm is placed the poem of passion reduced to its extreme
of meanness, its most contracted form of petty spite and base envy--the
_Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister_; a grotesque insect, spitting
ineffectual poison, is placed under the magnifying-glass of the comic
spirit, and is discovered to be--a brother in religion! A noble hatred,
transcending personal considerations, mingles with a noble and solemn
love--the passion of country--in the Italian exile's record of his
escape from Austrian pursuers; with the clear-obscure of his patriotic
melancholy mingles the proud recollection of the Italian woman who was
his saviour, over whose conjectured happiness as peasant wife and
peasant mother the exile bows with a tender joy. The examples of
abnormal passion are two--that of the amorous homicide who would set on
one perfect moment the seal of eternity, in _Porphyria's Lover_, and
that of the other occupier of the mad-house cells, Johannes Agricola,
whose passion of religion is pushed to the extreme of a mystical

Browning's poems of the love of man and woman are seldom a simple
lyrical cry, but they are not on this account the less true in their
presentment of that curious masquer and disguiser--Love. When love takes
possession of a nature which is complex, affluents and tributaries from
many and various faculties run into the main stream. With Browning the
passion is indeed a regal power, but intellect, imagination, fancy are
its office-bearers for a time; then in a moment it resumes all authority
into its own hands, resolves of a sudden all that is complex into the
singleness of joy or pain, fuses all that is manifold into the unity of
its own life and being. His dramatic method requires that each single
faculty should be seen in the environment of a character, and that its
operations should be clothed more or less in circumstance. And since
love has its ingenuities, its fine-spun and far-flung threads of
association, its occult symbolisms, Browning knows how to press into the
service of the central emotion objects and incidents and imagery which
may seem remote or curious or fantastic or trivial or even grotesque.
In _Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli_ love which cometh by the hearing of
the ear (for Rudel is a sun-worshipper who has never seen his sun) is a
pure imaginative devotion to the ideal. In _Count Gismond_ love is the
deliverer; the motive of the poem is essentially that of the Perseus and
Andromeda myth refined upon and mediaevalised. In _Cristine_ love is the
interpreter of life; a moment of high passion explains, and explains
away, all else that would obscure the vision of what is best and most
real in this our world and in the worlds that are yet unattained. From a
few lines written to illustrate a Venetian picture by Maclise _In a
Gondola_ was evolved. If Browning was not entirely accurate in his
topography of Venice, he certainly did not fail in his sense of the
depth and opulence of its colour. Here the abandonment to passion is
relieved by the quaint ingenuities and fancies of love that seeks a
momentary refuge from its own excess, and then returns more eagerly upon
itself; and the shadow of death is ever at hand, but like the shadows of
a Venetian painter it glows with colour.

The motives of two narrative poems, _The Glove_ and _The Flight of the
Duchess_, have much in common; they lie in the contrast between the
world of convention and the world of reality. In each the insulter of
proprieties, the breaker of bounds is a woman; in each the choice lies
between a life of pretended love and vain dignities and a life of
freedom and true love; and in each case the woman makes her glad escape
from what is false to what is true. In restating the incident of the
glove Browning brings into play his casuistry, but casuistry is here
used to justify a passion which the poet approves, to elucidate, not to
obscure, what he represents as the truth of the situation. _The Flight
of the Duchess_ in part took its rise "from a line, 'Following the Queen
of the Gipsies, O!'--the burden of a song, which the poet, when a boy,
heard a woman singing on a Guy Fawkes' day." Some two hundred lines were
given to Hood for his magazine, at a time when Hood needed help, and
death was approaching him. The poem was completed some months later. It
is written, like _The Glove_, in verse that runs for swiftness' sake,
and that is pleased to show its paces on a road rough with boulder-like
rhymes. The little Duchess is a wild bird caged in the strangely twisted
wirework of artificial modes and forms. She is a prisoner who is starved
for real life, and stifles; the fresh air and the open sky are good, are
irresistible--and that is the whole long poem in brief. Such a small
prisoner, all life and fire, was before many months actually delivered
from her cage in Wimpole Street, and Robert Browning himself, growing in
stature amid his incantations, played the part of the gipsy.

Another Duchess, who pined for freedom and never attained it, has her
cold obituary notice from her bereaved Duke's lips in the _Dramatic
Lyrics_ of 1842. _My Last Duchess_ was there made a companion poem to
_Count Gismond_; they are the pictures of the bond-woman and of the
freed-woman in marriage. The Italian Duchess revolts from the law of
wifehood no further than a misplaced smile or a faint half-flush,
betraying her inward breathings and beamings of the spirit; the noose of
the ducal proprieties is around her throat, and when it tightens "then
all smiles stopped together." Never was an agony hinted with more
gentlemanly reserve. But the poem is remarkable chiefly as gathering up
into a typical representative a whole phase of civilisation. The Duke is
Italian of Renaissance days; insensible in his egoistic pride to the
beautiful humanity alive before him; yet a connoisseur of art to his
finger-tips; and after all a Duchess can be replaced, while the bronze
of Glaus of Innsbruck--but the glory of his possessions must not be
pressed, as though his nine hundred years old name were not enough. The
true gift of art--Browning in later poems frequently insists upon
this--is not for the connoisseur or collector who rests in a material
possession, but for the artist who, in the zeal of creation, presses
through his own work to that unattainable beauty, that flying joy which
exists beyond his grasp and for ever lures him forward. In _Pictor
Ignotus_ the earliest study in his lives of the painters was made by the
poet. The world is gross, its touch unsanctifies the sanctities of art;
yet the brave audacity of genius is able to penetrate this gross world
with spiritual fire. Browning's unknown painter is a delicate spirit,
who dares not mingle his soul with the gross world; he has failed for
lack of a robust faith, a strenuous courage. But his failure is
beautiful and pathetic, and for a time at least his Virgin, Babe, and
Saint will smile from the cloister wall with their "cold, calm,
beautiful regard." And yet to have done otherwise to have been other
than this; to have striven like that youth--the Urbinate--men praise so!
More remarkable, as the summary of a civilisation, than _My Last
Duchess_, is the address of the worldling Bishop, who lies dying, to the
"nephews" who are sons of his loins. In its Paganism of
Christianity--which lacks all the manly virtue of genuine Paganism--that
portion of the artistic Renaissance which leans towards the world and
the flesh is concentrated and is given as in quintessential form. The
feeble fingers yet cling to the vanities of earth; the speaker babbles
not of green fields but of his blue lump of lapis-lazuli; and the last
word of all is alive only with senile luxury and the malice of perishing


[Footnote 30: _In a Balcony_, published in _Men and Women_, 1855, is
said to have been written two years previously at the Baths of Lucca.]

[Footnote 31: I had written the above--and I leave it as I wrote
it--before I noticed the following quoted from the letter of a friend by
Mrs Arthur Bronson in her article Browning in Venice: "Browning seemed
as full of dramatic interest in reading 'In a Balcony' as if he had just
written it for our benefit. One who sat near him said that it was a
natural sequence that the step of the guard should be heard coming to
take Norbert to his doom, as, with a nature like the queen's, who had
known only one hour of joy in her sterile life, vengeance swift and
terrible would follow on the sudden destruction of her happiness. 'Now I
don't quite think that,' answered Browning, as if he were following out
the play as a spectator. 'The queen has a large and passionate
temperament, which had only once been touched and brought into intense
life. She would have died by a knife in her heart. The guard would have
come to carry away her dead body.' 'But I imagine that most people
interpret it as I do,' was the reply. 'Then,' said Browning, with quick
interest, 'don't you think it would be well to put it in the stage
directions, and have it seen that they were carrying her across the back
of the stage?'"]

[Footnote 32: Browning's eyes were in a remarkable degree unequal in
their power of vision; one was unusually long-sighted; the other, with
which he could read the most microscopic print, unusually

[Footnote 33: See a very interesting passage on Browning's "odd liking
for 'vermin'" in _Letters of R.B. and E.B.B._. i. 370, 371: "I always
liked all those wild creatures God '_sets up for themselves_.'" "It
seemed awful to watch that bee--he seemed so _instantly_ from the
teaching of God."]

[Footnote 34: Of the first part of _Saul_ Mr Kenyon said finely that "it
reminded him of Homer's shield of Achilles thrown into lyrical whirl and
life" _(Letters R.B. and E.B.B_. i. 326).]

Chapter V

Love and Marriage

In 1841, John Kenyon, formerly a school-fellow of Browning's father, now
an elderly lover of literature and of literary society, childless,
wealthy, generous-hearted, proposed to Browning that he should call upon
Elizabeth Barrett, Kenyon's cousin once removed, who was already
distinguished as a writer of ardent and original verse. Browning
consented, but the poetess "through some blind dislike of seeing
strangers"--as she afterwards told a correspondent--declined, alleging,
not untruly, as a ground of refusal, that she was then ailing in
health.[35] Three years later Kenyon sent his cousin's new volumes of
_Poems_ as a gift to Sarianna Browning; her brother, lately returned
from Italy, read these volumes with delight and admiration, and found on
one of the pages a reference in verse to his "Pomegranates" of a kind
that could not but give him a vivid moment of pleasure. Might he not
relieve his sense of obligation by telling Miss Barrett, in a letter,
that he admired her work? Mr Kenyon encouraged the suggestion, and
though to love and be silent might on the whole have been more to
Browning's liking, he wrote--January 10, 1845--and writing truthfully he
wrote enthusiastically.[36] Miss Barrett, never quite recovered from a
riding accident in early girlhood, and stricken down for long in both
soul and body by the shock of her brother's death by drowning, lay from
day to day and month to month, in an upper room of her father's house in
Wimpole Street, occupied, upon her sofa, with her books and papers--her
Greek dramatists and her Elizabethan poets--shut out from the world,
with windows for ever closed, and with only an occasional female
visitor, to gossip of the social and literary life of London. Never was
a spirit of more vivid fire enclosed within a tomb. The letter from
Browning, "the author of _Paracelsus_ and King of the mystics," threw
her, she says, "into ecstasics." Her reply has a thrill of pleasure
running through its graceful half-restraint, and she holds out a hope
that when spring shall arrive a meeting in the invalid chamber between
her and her new correspondent may be possible.


_From a drawing in chalk by_ FIELD TALFOURD _in the National Portrait

From the first a headlong yet delicate speed was in her pen; from the
first there was much to say. "Oh, for a horse with wings!" Mr Browning,
who had praised her poems, must tell her their faults. He must himself
speak out in noble verse, not merely utter himself through the masks of
_dramatis personae_. Can she, as he alleges, really help him by her
sympathy, by her counsel? Let him put ceremony aside and treat her _en
bon camerade_; he will find her "an honest man on the whole." She
intends to set about knowing him as much as possible immediately. What
poets have been his literary sponsors? Are not the critics wrong to deny
contemporary genius? What poems are those now in his portfolio? Is
not AEschylus the divinest of divine Greek spirits? but how inadequately
her correspondent has spoken of Dante! Shall they indeed--as he
suggests--write something together? And then--is he duly careful of his
health, careful against overwork? And is not gladness a duty? to give
back to the world the joy that God has given to his poet? Though,
indeed, to lean out of the window of this House of Life is for some the
required, perhaps the happiest attitude.

And why--replies the second voice--lean out of the window? His own foot
is only on the stair. Where are the faults of her poems, of which she
had inquired? Yes, he will speak out, and he is now planning such a poem
as she demands. But she it is, who has indeed spoken out in her verse?
In his portfolio is a drama about a Moor of Othello's country, one
Luria, with strange entanglings among his Florentines. See this, and
this, how grandly it is said in the Greek of Eschylus! But Dante, all
Dante is in his heart and head. And he has seen Tennyson face to face;
and he knows and loves Carlyle; and he has visited Sorrento and trod
upon Monte Calvano. Oh, the world in this year 1845 must be studied,
though solitude is best. He has been "polking" all night, and walked
home while the morning thrushes piped; and it is true that his head
aches. She shall read and amend his manuscript poems. To hear from her
is better than to see anybody else. But when shall he see her too?

So proceed from January to May the letters of Rudel and the still
invisible Lady of Wimpole Street. It was happy comradeship on her part,
but on his it was already love. His spirit had recognised, had touched,
a spirit, which included all that he most needed, and union with which
would be the most certain and substantial prize offered by life. There
was nothing fatuous in this inward assurance; it was the simplest and
most self-evidencing truth. The word "mistrustful"--"do not see me as
long as you are mistrustful of"--with its implied appeal to her generous
confidence, precipitated the visit. How could she be mistrustful? Of
course he may come: but the wish to do so was unwisely exorbitant. On
the afternoon of May 20th, 1845, Browning first set eyes on his future
wife, a little figure, which did not rise from the sofa, pale ringleted
face, great eager, wistfully pathetic eyes. He believed that she was
suffering from some incurable disease of the spine, and that whatever
remained to her of life must be spent in this prostrate manner of an

A movement of what can only be imperfectly described as pity entered
into his feeling for her: it was less pity than the joy of believing
that he could confer as well as receive. But his first thought on
leaving was only the fear that he might have stayed too long or might
have spoken too loud. The visit was on Tuesday. On Thursday, Browning
wrote the only letter of the correspondence which has been destroyed,
one which overflowed with gratitude, and was immediately and rightly
interpreted by the receiver as tending towards an offer, implied here,
but not expressed, of marriage. It was read in pain and agitation; her
heart indeed, but not her will, was shaken; and, after a sleepless
night, she wrote words effective to bar--as she believed--all further
advance in a direction fatal to his happiness. The intemperate things
he had said must be wholly forgotten between them; or else she will not
see him again; friends, comrades in the life of the intellect they might
continue to be. For once and once only Browning lied to Miss Barrett,
and he lied a little awkwardly; his letter was only one of too
boisterous gratitude; his punishment--that of one infinitely her
inferior--was undeserved; let her return to him the offending letter.
Returned accordingly it was, and immediately destroyed by the writer. In
happier days, Miss Barrett hoped to recover what then would have been
added to a hoard which she treasured; but, Browning could not preserve
the words which she had condemned.

Wise guardian-angels smile at each other, gently and graciously, when a
lover is commanded to withdraw and to reappear in the character of a
friend. An incoming tide may seem for a while to pause; but by and by we
look and the rock is covered. Browning very dutifully submitted and
became a literary counsellor and comrade. The first stadium in the
progress of his fortunes opened in January and closed before the end of
May; the second closed at the end of August. To a friend Miss Barrett,
assured that he never could be more, might well be generous; visits were
permitted, and it was left to Browning to fix the days; the postal
shuttle threw swift and swifter threads between New Cross, Hatcham, and
50 Wimpole Street. The verse of Tennyson, the novels of George Sand were
discussed; her translations from the Greek were considered; his
manuscript poems were left for her corrections; but transcription must
not weary him into headaches; she would herself by and by act as an
amanuensis. Each of the correspondents could not rest happy until the
other had been proved to be in every intellectual and moral quality the
superior. Browning's praise could not be withheld; it seemed to his
friend--and she wrote always with crystalline sincerity--to be an
illusion which humbled her. Glad memories of Italy, sad memories of
England and the invalid life were exchanged; there is nothing that she
can teach him--she declares--except grief. And yet to him the day of his
visit is his light through the dark week. He is like an Eastern Jew who
creeps through alleys in the meanest garb, destitute to all wayfarers'
eyes, who yet possesses a hidden palace-hall of marble and gold. Even in
matters ecclesiastical, the footsteps of the two friends had moved with
one consent; each of them preferred a chapel to a church; each was
Puritan in a love of simplicity in the things of religion; each disowned
the Puritan narrowness, and the grey aridity of certain schools of
dissent. On June 14--with the warranty of her published poem which had
told of flowers sent in a letter--Browning encloses in his envelope a
yellow rose; and again and again summer flowers arrive bringing colour
and sweetness into the dim city room. Once Miss Barrett can report that
she has been out of doors, and with no fainting-fit, yet unable to
venture in the carriage as far as the Park; still her bodily strength is
no better than that of a tired bird; she is moreover, years older than
her friend (the difference was in fact that between thirty-nine and
thirty-three); and the thunder of a July storm has shaken her nerves.
There is some thought of her seeking health as far off as Malta or even
Alexandria; but her father will jestingly have it that there is nothing
wrong with her except "obstinacy and dry toast." Thus cordially, gladly,
sadly, and always with quick leapings of the indomitable flame of the
spirit, these letters of friend to friend run on during the midsummer
days. Browning was willing and happy to wait; a confidence possessed him
that in the end he would be known fully and aright.

On August 25th came a great outpouring of feeling from Miss Barrett. She
took her friend so far into her confidence as to speak plainly of the
household difficulties caused by her father's autocratic temper. The
conversation was immediately followed by a letter in which she
endeavoured to soften or qualify the impression her words had given, and
her heart, now astir and craving sympathy, led her on to write of her
most sorrowful and sacred memories--those connected with her brother's
death. Browning was deeply moved, most grateful for her trust in him,
but she had forbidden him to notice the record of her grief. He longed
to return confidence with confidence, to tell what was urgent in his
heart. But the bar of three months since had not been removed, and he
hesitated to speak. His two days' silence was unintelligible to his
friend and caused her inexpressible anxiety. Could any words of hers
have displeased him? Or was he seriously unwell? She wrote on August
30th a little letter asking "the alms of just one line" to relieve her
fears. When snow-wreaths are loosened, a breath will bring down the
avalanche. It was impossible to receive this appeal and not to declare
briefly, decisively, his unqualified trust in her, his entire devotion,
his assured knowledge of what would constitute his supreme happiness.

Miss Barrett's reply is perfect in its disinterested safe-guarding of
his freedom and his future good as she conceived it. She is deeply
grateful, but she cannot allow him to empty his water-gourds into the
sand. What could she give that it would not be ungenerous to give? Yet
his part has not been altogether the harder of the two. The subject must
be left. Such subjects, however, could not be left until the facts were
ascertained. Browning would not urge her a step beyond her actual
feelings, but he must know whether her refusal was based solely on her
view of his supposed interests. And with the true delicacy of frankness
she admits that even the sense of her own unworthiness is not the
insuperable obstacle. No--but is she not a confirmed invalid? She
thought that she had done living when he came and sought her out. If he
would be wise, all these thoughts of her must be abandoned. Such an
answer brought a great calm to Browning's heart; he did not desire to
press her further; let things rest; it is for her to judge; if what she
regards as an obstacle should be removed, she will certainly then act in
his best interests; to himself this matter of health creates no
difficulty; to sit by her for an hour a day, to write out what was in
him for the world, and so to save his soul, would be to attain his ideal
in life. What woman would not be moved to the inmost depths by such
words? She insists that his noble extravagances must in no wise bind
him; but all the bitternesses of life have been taken away from her;
henceforth she is his for everything except to do him harm; the future
rests with God and with him. And amid the letters containing these
grave sentences, so full of fate, first appears a reference to the pet
name of her childhood--the "Ba" which is all that here serves, like
Swift's "little language," to indulge a foolish tenderness; and the
translator of _Prometheus_ is able to put Greek characters to their most
delightful use in her "[Greek: o philtate]."

In love-poetry of the Middle Age the allegorical personage named
"Danger" plays a considerable part, and it is to be feared that Danger
too often signified a husband. In Wimpole Street that alarming personage
always meant a father. Edward Moulton Barrett was a man of integrity in
business, of fortitude in adversity, of a certain stern piety, and from
the superior position of a domestic autocrat he could even indulge
himself in occasional fiats of affection. We need not question that
there were springs of water in the rock, and in earlier days they had
flowed freely. But now if at night he visited his ailing daughter's room
for a few minutes and prayed with her and for her, it meant that on such
an occasion she was not too criminal to merit the pious intercession. If
he called her "puss," it meant that she had not recently been an
undutiful child of thirty-nine or forty years old. A circus-trainer
probably rewards his educated dogs and horses with like amiable
familiarities, and he is probably regarded by his troupe with affection
mingled with awe. Mr Barrett had been appointed circus-trainer by the
divine authority of parentage. No one visited 50 Wimpole Street, where
there were grown-up sons as well as daughters, without special
permission from the lord of the castle; he authorised the visits of Mr
Browning, the poet, being fondly assured that Mr Browning's intentions
were not those of a burglar, or--worse--an amorous knight-errant. If any
daughter of his conceived the possibility of transferring her prime love
and loyalty from himself to another, she was even as Aholah and Aholibah
who doted upon the Assyrians, captains, and rulers clothed most
gorgeously, all of them desirable young men. "If a prince of Eldorado"
said Elizabeth Barrett to her sister Arabel, "should come with a
pedigree of lineal descent from some signory in the moon in one hand,
and a ticket of good behaviour from the nearest Independent chapel in
the other--" "Why, even then," interrupted Arabel, "it would not _do_"
One admirable trait, however, Mr Moulton Barrett did possess--he was
nearly always away from home till six o'clock.

The design that Miss Barrett should winter abroad was still under
consideration, but the place now fixed upon was Pisa. Suddenly, in
mid-September, she finds herself obliged to announce that "it is all
over with Pisa." Her father had vetoed the undutiful project, and had
ceased to pay her his evening visits; only in his separate and private
orisons were all her sins remembered. To admit the fact that he did not
love her enough to give her a chance of recovery was bitter, yet it
could not be denied. Her life was now a thing of value to herself, for
it was precious to another. She beat against the bars of her cage;
planned a rebellious flight; made inquiries respecting ships and berths;
but she could not travel alone; and she would not subject either of her
sisters to the heavy displeasure of the ruler of the house. Robert
Browning held strong opinions on the duty of resisting evil, and if evil
assume the guise of parental authority it is none the _less_--he
believed--to be resisted. To submit to the will of another is often
easy; to act on one's own best judgment is hard; our faculties were
given us to put to use; to be passively obedient is really to evade
probation--so with almost excessive emphasis Browning set forth a
cardinal article of his creed; but Elizabeth Barrett was not, like him,
"ever a fighter," and, after all, London in 1845 was not bleak and grey
as it had been a year previously--"for reasons," to adopt a reiterated
word of the correspondence, "for reasons."

On two later occasions Browning sang the same battle-hymn against the
enemies of God and with a little too much vehemence--not to say
truculence--as is the way with earnest believers. His gentler
correspondent could not tolerate the thought of duelling, and she
disapproved of punishment by death. Browning argues that for one who
values the good opinion of society--not for himself--that good opinion
is a possession which may, like other possessions, be defended at the
risk of a man's life, and as for capital punishment, is not evil to be
suppressed at any price? Is not a miscreant to be expelled out of God's
world? The difference of opinion was the first that had arisen between
the friends, and Browning's words carried with them a certain sense of
pain in the thought that they could in any thing stand apart. Happily
the theoretical fire-eater had faith superior to his own
arguments;--faith in a woman's insight as finer than his own;--and he is
let off with a gratified rebuke for preternatural submissiveness and for
arraying her in pontifical garments of authority which hang loose upon
so small a figure. The other application of his doctrine of resisting
evil was even more trying to her feelings and the preacher was instant
certainly out of season. Not the least important personage in the
Wimpole Street house was Miss Barrett's devoted companion Flush. Loyal
and loving to his mistress Flushie always was; yet to his lot some
canine errors fell; he eyed a visitor's umbrella with suspicion; he
resented perhaps the presence of a rival; he did not behave nicely to a
poet who had not written verses in his honour; for which he was duly
rebuked by his mistress--the punishment was not capital--and was
propitiated with bags of cakes by the intruder. When the day for their
flight drew near Miss Barrett proposed somewhat timidly that her maid
Wilson should accompany her to Italy, but she was gratefully confident
that Flush could not be left behind. Just at this anxious moment a
dreadful thing befell; a gang of dog-stealers, presided over by the
arch-fiend Taylor, bore Flushie away into the horror of some obscure and
vulgar London alley. He was a difficult dog to capture and his ransom
must be in proportion to his resistance. There was a terrible tradition
of a lady who had haggled about the sum demanded and had received her
dog's head in a parcel. Miss Barrett was eager to part with her six
guineas and rescue her faithful companion from misery. Was this an
occasion for preaching from ethical heights the sin of making a
composition with evil-doers? Yet Browning, still "a fighter" and armed
with desperate logic, must needs declaim vehemently against the iniquity
of such a bargain. It is something to rejoice at that he was dexterously
worsted in argument, being compelled to admit that if Italian banditti
were to carry off his "Ba," he would pay down every farthing he might
have in the world to recover her, and this before he entered on that
chase of fifty years which was not to terminate until he had shot down
with his own hand the receiver of the infamous bribe.

The journey of Miss Barrett to Pisa having been for the present
abandoned, friendship, now acknowledged to be more than friendship,
resumed its accustomed ways. Visits, it was agreed, were not to be too
frequent--three in each fortnight might prudently be ventured; but
Wednesday might have to be exchanged for Thursday or Saturday for
Monday, if on the first elected day Miss Mitford--dear and generous
friend--threatened to come with her talk, talk, talk, or Mrs Jameson
with her drawings and art-criticism, or some unknown lion-huntress who
had thrown her toils, or kindly Mr Kenyon, who knew of Browning's
visits, and who when he called would peer through his all-scrutinising
spectacles with an air of excessive penetration or too extreme
unconsciousness. And there were times--later on--when an avalanche of
aunts and uncles would precipitate itself on Wimpole
Street--perspicacious aunts and amiable uncles who were wished as far
off as Seringapatam, and who wrung from an impatient niece--to whom
indeed they were dear--the cry "The barbarians are upon us." Miss
Barrett's sisters, the gentle Henrietta, who preferred a waltz to the
best sermon of an Independent minister, and the more serious Arabel, who
preferred the sermon of an Independent minister to the best waltz, were
informed of the actual state of affairs. They were trustworthy and
sympathetic; Henrietta had special reasons of her own for sympathy;
Captain Surtees Cook, who afterwards became her husband, might be
discussing affairs with her in the drawing-room at the same time that Mr
Browning the poet--"the man of the pomegranates" as he was named by Mr
Barrett--held converse on literature with Elizabeth in the upper
chamber. The household was honeycombed with treasons.

For the humours of superficial situations and passing incidents Miss
Barrett had a lively sense, and she found some relief in playing with
them; but with a nature essentially truthful like hers the necessity of
concealment was a cause of distress. The position was no less painful to
Browning, and in the end it became intolerable. Yet while there were
obstructions and winding ways in the shallows, in the depths were
flawless truth and inviolable love. What sentimental persons fancy and
grow effusive over was here the simplest and yet always a miraculous
reality--"He of the heavens and earth brought us together so
wonderfully, holding two souls in his hand."[37] In the most
illuminating words of each correspondent no merely private, or peculiar
feeling is expressed; it is the common wave of human passion, the common
love of man and woman, that here leaps from the depths to the height,
and over which the iris of beauty ever and anon appears with--it is
true--an unusual intensity. And so in reading the letters we have no
sense of prying into secrets; there are no secrets to be discovered;
what is most intimate is most common; only here what is most common
rises up to its highest point of attainment. "I never thought of being
happy through you or by you or in you even, your good was all my idea
of good, and _is_" "Let me be too near to be seen.... Once I used to be
more uneasy, and to think that I ought to _make_ you see me. But Love is
better than sight." "I love your love too much. And _that_ is the worst
fault, my beloved, I can ever find in my love of _you_." These are
sentences that tell of what can be no private possession, being as
liberal and free as our light and air. And if the shadow of a cloud
appears--appears and passes away--it is a shadow that has floated over
many other hearts beside that of the writer: "How dreadfully natural it
would be to me, seem to me, if you _did_ leave off loving me! How it
would be like the sun's setting ... and no more wonder. Only, more
darkness." The old exchange of tokens, the old symbolisms--a lock of
hair, a ring, a picture, a child's penholder--are good enough for these
lovers, as they had been for others before them. What is diffused
through many of the letters is gathered up and is delivered from the
alloy of superficial circumstance in the "Sonnets from the Portuguese."
in reading which we are in the presence of womanhood--womanhood
delivered from death by love and from darkness by; light--as much as in
that of an individual woman. And the disclosure in poems and in letters
being without reserve affects us as no disclosure, but simply as an
adequate expression of the truth universal.

One obstacle to the prospective marriage was steadily diminishing in
magnitude; Miss Barrett, with a new joy in life, new hopes, new
interests, gained in health and strength from month to month. The winter
of 1845-46 was unusually mild. In January one day she walked--walked,
and was not carried--downstairs to the drawing-room. Spring came early
that year; in the first week of February lilacs and hawthorn were in
bud, elders in leaf, thrushes and white-throats in full song. In April
Miss Barrett gave pledges of her confidence in the future by buying a
bonnet; a little like a Quaker's, it seemed to her, but the learned
pronounced it fashionable. Early in May, that bonnet, with its owner and
Arabel and Flush, appeared in Regent's Park, while sunshine was
filtering through the leaves. The invalid left her carriage, set foot
upon the green grass, reached up and plucked a little laburnum blossom
("for reasons"), saw the "strange people moving about like phantoms of
life," and felt that she alone and the idea of one who was absent were
real--"and Flush," she adds with a touch of remorse, "and Flush a little
too." Many drives and walks followed; at the end of May she feloniously
gathered some pansies, the flowers of Paracelsus, and this
notwithstanding the protest of Arabel, in the Botanical Gardens, and
felt the unspeakable beauty of the common grass. Later in the year wild
roses were found at Hampstead; and on a memorable day the
invalid--almost perfect in health--was guided by kind and learned Mrs
Jameson through the pictures and statues of the poet Rogers's
collection. On yet another occasion it was Mr Kenyon who drove her to
see the strange new sight of the Great Western train coming in; the
spectators procured chairs, but the rush of people and the earth-thunder
of the engine almost overcame Miss Barrett's nerves, which on a later
trial shrank also from the more harmonious thunder of the organ of the
Abbey. Sundays came when she enjoyed the privilege of sitting if not in
a pew at least in the secluded vestry of a Chapel, and joining unseen
in those simple forms of prayer and praise which she valued most.
Altogether something like a miracle in the healing of the sick had been

Money difficulty there was none. Browning, it is true, was not in a
position to undertake the expenses of even such a simple household
economy as they both desired. He was prepared to seek for any honourable
service--diplomatic or other--if that were necessary. But Miss Barrett
was resolved against task-work which might divert him from his proper
vocation as a poet. And, thanks to the affection of an uncle, she had
means--some L400 a year, capable of considerable increase by
re-investment of the principal--which were enough for two persons who
could be content with plain living in Italy. Browning still urged that
he should be the bread-winner; he implored that her money should be made
over to her own family, so that no prejudice against his action could be
founded on any mercenary feeling; but she remained firm, and would
consent only to its transference to her two sisters in the event of his
death. And so the matter rested and was dismissed from the thoughts of
both the friends.

Having the great patience of love, Browning would not put the least
pressure upon Miss Barrett as to the date of their marriage; if waiting
long was for her good, then he would wait. But matters seemed tending
towards the desired end. In January he begged her to "begin thinking";
before that month had closed it was agreed that they should look forward
to the late summer or early autumn as the time of their departure to
Italy. Not until March would Miss Barrett permit Browning to fetter his
free will by any engagement; then, to satisfy his urgent desire, she
declared that she was willing to chain him, rivet him--"Do you feel how
the little fine chain twists round and round you? do you hear the stroke
of the riveting?" But the links were of a kind to be loosed if need be
at a moment's notice. June came, and with it a proposal from a
well-intentioned friend, Miss Bayley, to accompany her to Italy, if, by
and by, such a change of abode seemed likely to benefit her health. Miss
Barrett was prepared to accept the offer if it seemed right to Browning,
or was ready, if he thought it expedient, to wait for another year. His
voice was given, with such decision as was possible, in favour of their
adhering to the plan formed for the end of summer; they both felt the
present position hazardous and tormenting; to wear the mask for another
year would suffocate them; they were "standing on hot scythes."

Accordingly during the summer weeks there is much poring over
guide-books to Italy; much weighing of the merits of this place of
residence and of that. Shall it be Sorrento? Shall it be La Cava? or
Pisa? or Ravenna? or, for the matter of that, would not Seven Dials be
as happy a choice as any, if only they could live and work side by side?
There is much balancing of the comparative ease and the comparative cost
of routes, the final decision being in favour of reaching Italy by way
of France. And as the time draws nearer there is much searching of
time-tables, in the art of mastering which Robert Browning seems hardly
to have been an expert. May Mr Kenyon be told? Or is it not kinder and
wiser to spare him the responsibility of knowing? Mrs Jameson, who had
made a friendly proposal similar to that of Miss Bayley,--may she be
half-told? Or shall she be invited to join the travellers on their way?
What books shall be brought? What baggage? And how may a box and a
carpet bag be conveyed out of 50 Wimpole Street with least observation?

It was deeply repugnant to Miss Barrett's feelings to practise reserve
on such a matter as this with her father. Her happier companion had
informed his father and mother of their plans, and had obtained from the
elder Mr Browning a sum of money, asked for as a loan rather than a
gift, sufficient to cover the immediate expenses of the journey. Mr
Barrett was entitled to all respect, and as for affection he received
from his daughter enough to make the appearance of disloyalty to him
carry a real pang to her heart. But she believed that she had virtually
no choice; her nerves were not of iron; the roaring of the Great Western
express she might face but not an angry father. A loud voice, and a
violent "scene," such as she had witnessed, until she fainted, when
Henrietta was the culprit, would have put an end to the Italian project
through mere physical collapse and ruin. Far better therefore to
withdraw quietly from the house, and trust to the effect of a subsequent
pleading in all earnestness for reconciliation.

[Illustration: Yours very truly, Robert Browning. _From an engraving by_

As summer passed into early autumn the sense of dangers and difficulties
accumulating grew acute. "The ground," wrote Browning, "is crumbling
from beneath our feet with its chances and opportunities." In one of the
early days of August a thunder-storm with torrents of rain detained him
for longer than usual at Wimpole Street; the lightning was the lesser
terror of the day, for in the evening entered Mr Barrett to his daughter
with disagreeable questioning, and presently came the words--accompanied
by a gaze of stern displeasure--"It appears that _that man_ has spent
the whole day with you." The louring cloud passed, but it was felt that
visits to be prudent must be rare; for the first time a week went by
without a meeting. Early in September George Barrett, a kindly brother
distinguished by his constant air of dignity and importance, was
commissioned to hire a country house for the family at Dover or Reigate
or Tunbridge, while paperers and painters were to busy themselves at
Wimpole Street. The moment for immediate action had come; else all
chance of Italy might be lost for the year 1846. "We must be married
directly," wrote Browning on the morning when this intelligence arrived.
Next day a marriage license was procured. On the following morning,
Saturday, September 12th, accompanied by her maid Wilson, Miss Barrett,
after a sleepless night, left her father's house with feet that
trembled; she procured a fly, fortified her shaken nerves with a dose of
sal volatile at a chemist's shop, and drove to Marylebone Church, where
the marriage service was celebrated in the presence of two witnesses. As
she stood and knelt her central feeling was one of measureless trust, a
deep rest upon assured foundations; other women who had stood there
supported by their nearest kinsfolk--parents or sisters--had one
happiness she did not know; she needed it less because she was happier
than they.[38] Then husband and wife parted. Mrs Browning drove to
the house of her blind friend, Mr Boyd, who had been made aware of the
engagement. On his sitting-room sofa she rested and sipped his Cyprus
wine; by and by arrived her sisters with grave faces; the carriage was
driven to Hampstead Heath for the soothing happiness of the autumnal air
and sunshine; after which the three sisters returned to their father's
house; the wedding-ring was regretfully taken off; and the prayer arose
in Mrs Browning's heart that if sorrow or injury should ever follow upon
what had happened that day for either of the two, it might all fall upon

Browning did not again visit at 50 Wimpole Street; it was enough to know
that his wife was well, and kept all these things gladly, tremblingly,
in her heart. For himself he felt that come what might his life had
"borne flower and fruit."[39] On the Monday week which succeeded the
marriage the Barrett family were to move to the country house that had
been taken at Little Bookham. On Saturday afternoon, a week having gone
by since the wedding, Mrs Browning and Wilson, left what had been her
home. Flush was warned to make no demonstration, and he behaved with
admirable discretion. It was "dreadful" to cause pain to her father by a
voluntary act; but another feeling sustained her:--"You _only_! As if
one said _God only_. And we shall have _Him_ beside, I pray of Him." At
Hodgson's, the stationer and bookseller's, they found Browning, and a
little later husband and wife, with the brave Wilson and the discreet
Flush, were speeding from Vauxhall to Southampton, in good time to catch
the boat for Havre. A north wind blew them vehemently from the English
coast. In the newspaper announcements of the wedding the date was to be
omitted, and Browning rejected the suggestion that on this occasion, and
with reference to the great event of his life, he should be defined to
the public as "the author of _Paracelsus_."


[Footnote 35: _Letters of E.B.B._, i. 288.]

[Footnote 36: See _Letters of R.B. and E.B.B_., i. 281.]

[Footnote 37: E.B.B. to R.B., March 30, 1846.]

[Footnote 38: E.B.B. to R.B., Sept. 14, 1846.]

[Footnote 39: R.B. to E.B.B., Sept. 14, 1846.]

Chapter VI

Early Years in Italy

The letters from which this story has been drawn have from first to last
one burden; in them deep answers to deep; they happily are of a nature
to escape far from the pedantries of literary criticism. It cannot be
maintained that Browning quite equals his correspondent in the discovery
of rare and exquisite thoughts and feelings; or that his felicity in
giving them expression is as frequent as hers. Even on matters of
literature his comments are less original than hers, less penetrating,
less illuminating. Her wit is the swifter and keener. When Browning
writes to afford her amusement, he sometimes appears to us, who are not
greatly amused, a little awkward and laborious. She flashes forth a
metaphor which embodies some mystery of feeling in an image entirely
vital; he, with a habit of mind of which he was conscious and which
often influences his poetry, fastens intensely on a single point and
proceeds to muffle this in circumstance, assured that it will be all the
more vividly apparent when the right instant arrives and requires this;
but meanwhile some staying-power is demanded from the reader. Neither
correspondent has the art of etching a person or a scene in a few
decisive lines; the gift of Carlyle, the gift of Carlyle's brilliant
wife is not theirs, perhaps because acid is needed to bite an etcher's
plate. And, indeed, many of the minor notabilities of 1845, whose names
appear in these letters, might hardly have repaid an etcher's intensity
of selective vision. Among the groups of spirits who presented
themselves to Dante there were some wise enough not to expect that their
names should be remembered on earth; such shades may stand in a
background. It is, however, strange that Browning who created so many
living men and women should in his letters have struck out no swift
indelible piece of portraiture; even here his is the inferior touch. And
yet throughout the whole correspondence we cannot but be aware that his
is the more massive and the more complex nature; his intellect has
hardier thews; his passion has an energy which corresponds with its
mass; his will sustains his passion and projects it forward. And towards
Miss Barrett his strength is seen as gentleness, his energy as an
inexhaustible patience of hope.

When Browning and his wife reached Paris, Mrs Browning was worn out by
the excitement and fatigue. By a happy accident Mrs Jameson and her
niece were at hand, and when the first surprise, with kisses to both
fugitives, was over, she persuaded them to rest for a week where they
were, promising, if they consented, to be their companion and aider
until they arrived at Pisa. Their "imprudence," in her eyes, was "the
height of prudence"; "wild poets or not" they were "wise people." The
week at Paris was given up to quietude; once they visited the Louvre,
but the hours passed for the most part indoors; it all seemed strange
and visionary--"Whether in the body or out of the body," wrote Mrs
Browning, "I cannot tell scarcely." From Paris and Orleans they
proceeded southwards in weather, which, notwithstanding some rains, was
delightful. From Avignon they went on pilgrimage to Petrarch's Vaucluse;
Browning bore his wife to a rock in mid stream and seated her there,
while Flush scurried after in alarm for his mistress. In the passage
from Marseilles to Genoa, Mrs Browning was able to sit on deck; the
change of air, although gained at the expense of some weariness, had
done her a world of good.

Early in October the journeying closed at Pisa. Rooms were taken for six
months in the great Collegio Ferdinando, close to the Duomo and the
Leaning Tower, rooms not quite the warmest in aspect. Mrs Jameson
pronounced the invalid not improved but transformed. The repose of the
city, asleep, as Dickens described it, in the sun and the secluded
life--a perpetual _tete-a-tete_, but one so happy--suited both the
wedded friends; days of cloudless weather, following a spell of rain,
went by in "reading and writing and talking of all things in heaven and
earth, and a little besides; and sometimes even laughing as if we had
twenty people to laugh with us, or rather _hadn't_." Their sole
acquaintance was an Italian Professor of the University; for three
months they never looked at a newspaper; then a loophole on the world
was opened each evening by the arrival of the Siecle. The lizards were
silent friends of one poet, and golden oranges gleamed over the walls to
the unaccustomed eyes of the other like sunshine gathered into globes.
They wandered through pine-woods and drove until the purple mountains
seemed not far off. At the Lanfranchi Palace they thought of Byron, to
see a curl of whose hair or a glove from whose hand, Browning declares
(so foolish was he and ignorant) he would have gone farther than to see
all Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey condensed in Rosicrucian fashion
into a vial. In the Campo Santo they listened to a musical mass for the
dead. In the Duomo they heard the Friar preach. And early in the morning
their dreams were scattered by the harmonious clangour of the church
bells. "I never was happy before in my life," wrote Mrs Browning. Her
husband relieved her of all housekeeping anxieties. At two o'clock came
a light dinner--perhaps thrushes and chianti--from the _trattoria_; at
six appeared coffee and milk-rolls; at nine, when the pine-fire blazed,
roast chestnuts and grapes. Debts there were none to vex the spirits of
these prudent children of genius. If a poet could not pay his butcher's
and his baker's bills, Browning's sympathies were all with the baker and
the butcher. "He would not sleep," wrote his wife, "if an unpaid bill
dragged itself by any chance into another week "; and elsewhere: "Being
descended from the blood of all the Puritans, and educated by the
strictest of dissenters, he has a sort of horror about the dreadful fact
of owing five shillings five days." Perhaps some of this horror arose
from the sense of that weight which pecuniary cares hang upon all the
more joyous mountings of the mind. One grief and only one was still
present; Mr Barrett remained inexorable; his daughter hoped that with
time and patience his arms would open to her again. It was a hope never
to be fulfilled. In the cordial comradeship of Browning's sister,
Sarianna, a new correspondent, there was a measure of compensation.

Already Browning had in view the collected edition of his Poetical
Works which did not appear until 1849. The poems were to be made so
lucid, "that everyone who understood them hitherto" was to "lose that
mark of distinction." _Paracelsus_ and _Pippa_ were to be revised with
special care. The sales reported by Moxon were considered satisfactory;
but of course the profits as yet were those of his wife's poems. "She
is," he wrote to his publisher, "there as in all else, as high above me
as I would have her."

It was at Pisa that the highest evidence of his wife's powers as a poet
came as an unexpected and wonderful gift to her husband. In a letter of
December 1845--more than a year since--she had confessed that she was
idle; and yet "silent" was a better word she thought than "idle." Her
apology was that the apostle Paul probably did not work hard at
tent-making during the week that followed his hearing of the unspeakable
things. At the close of a letter written on July 22, 1846, she wrote:
"You shall see some day at Pisa what I will not show you now. Does not
Solomon say that 'there is a time to read what is written?' If he
doesn't, he ought." The time to read had now come. "One day, early in
1847," as Mr Gosse records what was told to him by Browning, "their
breakfast being over, Mrs Browning went upstairs, while her husband
stood at the window watching the street till the table should be
cleared. He was presently aware of someone behind him, although the
servant was gone. It was Mrs Browning who held him by the shoulder to
prevent his turning to look at her, and at the same time pushed a packet
of papers into the pocket of his coat. She told him to read that, and
to tear it up if he did not like it; and then she fled again to her own
room." The papers were a transcript of those ardent poems which we know
as "Sonnets from the Portuguese." Some copies were printed at Reading in
1847 for private circulation with the title "Sonnets by E.B.B." The
later title under which they appeared among Mrs Browning's Poems in the
edition of 1850 was of Browning's suggestion. His wife's proposal to
name them "Sonnets from the Bosnian" was dismissed with words which
allude to a poem of hers, "Catarina to Camoens," that had long been
specially dear to him: "Bosnian, no! that means nothing. From the
Portuguese: they are Catarina's sonnets!"

Pisa with all its charm lacked movement and animation. It was decided to
visit Florence in April, and there enjoy for some days the society of
Mrs Jameson before she left Italy. The coupe of the diligence was
secured, and on April 20th Mrs Jameson's "wild poets but wise people"
arrived at Florence. An excellent apartment was found in the Via delle
Belle Donne near the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, and for Browning's
special delight a grand piano was hired. When Mrs Browning had
sufficiently recovered strength to view the city and its surroundings
her pleasure was great: "At Pisa we say, 'How beautiful!' here we say
nothing; it is enough if we can breathe." They had hoped for summer
wanderings in Northern Italy; but Florence held them throughout the year
except for a few days during which they attempted in vain to find a
shelter from the heat among the pines of Vallombrosa. Provided with a
letter of recommendation to the abbot they set forth from their rooms at
early morning by vettura and from Pelago onwards, while Browning rode,
Mrs Browning and Wilson in basket sledges were slowly drawn towards the
monastery by white bullocks. A new abbot, a little holy man with a red
face, had been recently installed, who announced that in his nostrils "a
petticoat stank." Yet in the charity of his heart he extended the three
days ordinarily permitted to visitors in the House of Strangers to five;
during which period beef and oil, malodorous bread and wine and passages
from the "Life of San Gualberto" were vouchsafed to heretics of both
sexes; the mountains and the pinewoods in their solemn dialect spoke
comfortable words.

"Rolling or sliding down the precipitous path" they returned to Florence
in a morning glory, very merry, says Mrs Browning, for disappointed
people. Shelter from the glare of August being desirable, a suite of
comparatively cool rooms in the Palazzo Guidi were taken; they were
furnished in good taste, and opened upon a terrace--"a sort of balcony
terrace which ... swims over with moonlight in the evenings." From Casa
Guidi windows--and before long Mrs Browning was occupied with the first
part of her poem--something of the life of Italy at a moment of peculiar
interest could be observed. Europe in the years 1847 and 1848 was like a
sea broken by wave after wave of Revolutionary passion. Browning and his
wife were ardently liberal in their political feeling; but there were
differences in the colours of their respective creeds and sentiments;
Mrs Browning gave away her imagination to popular movements; she was
also naturally a hero-worshipper; she hoped more enthusiastically than
he was wont to do; she was more readily depressed; the word "liberty"
for her had an aureole or a nimbus which glorified all its humbler and
more prosaic meanings. Browning, although in this year 1847 he made a
move towards an appointment as secretary to a mission to the Vatican, at
heart cared little for men in groups or societies; he cared greatly for
individuals, for the growth of individual character. He had faith in a
forward movement of society; but the law of social evolution, as he
conceived it, is not in the hands of political leaders or ministers of
state. He valued liberty chiefly because each man here on earth is in
process of being tested, in process of being formed, and liberty is the
condition of a man's true probation and development. Late in life he was
asked to give his answer to the question: "Why am I a Liberal?" and he
gave it succinctly in a sonnet which he did not reprint in any edition
of his Works, although it received otherwise a wide circulation. It may
be cited here as a fragment of biography:

"Why?" Because all I haply can and do,
All that I am now, all I hope to be,--
Whence comes it save from fortune setting free
Body and soul the purpose to pursue,
God traced for both? If fetters, not a few,
Of prejudice, convention, fall from me,
These shall I bid men--each in his degree
Also God-guided--bear, and gladly too?

But little do or can the best of us:
That little is achieved through Liberty.
Who then dares hold--emancipated thus--
His fellow shall continue bound? Not I
Who live, love, labour freely, nor discuss
A brother's right to freedom. That is "Why."[40]

This is an excellent reason for the faith that was in Browning; he
holds that individual progress depends on individual freedom, and by
that word he understands not only political freedom but also
emancipation from intellectual narrowness and the bondage of injurious
convention. But Browning in his verse, setting aside the early
_Strafford_, nowhere celebrates a popular political movement; he nowhere
chaunts a paean, in the manner of Byron or Shelley, in honour of the
abstraction "Liberty." Nor does he anywhere study political phenomena or
events except as they throw light upon an individual character. Things
and persons that gave him offence he could summarily dismiss from his
mind--"Thiers is a rascal; I make a point of not reading one word said
by M. Thiers"; "Proudhon is a madman; who cares for Proudhon?" "The
President's an ass; _he_ is not worth thinking of."[41] This may be
admirable economy of intellectual force; but it is not the way to
understand the course of public events; it does not indicate a political
or a historical sense. And, indeed, his writings do not show that
Browning possessed a political or a historical sense in any high degree,
save as a representative person may be conceived by him as embodying a
phase of civilisation. When Mrs Trollope called at Casa Guidi, Browning
was only reluctantly present; she had written against liberal
institutions and against the poetry of Victor Hugo, and that was enough.
Might it not have been more truly liberal to be patient and understand
the grounds of her prejudice? "Blessed be the inconsistency of men!"
exclaimed Mrs Browning, for whose sake he tolerated the offending
authoress until by and by he came to like in her an agreeable woman.

On the anniversary of their wedding day Browning and his wife saw from
their window a brilliant procession of grateful and enthusiastic
Florentines stream into the _Piazza_. Pitti with banners and _vivas_ for
the space of three hours and a half It was the time when the Grand Duke
was a patriot and Pio Nono was a liberal. The new helmets and epaulettes
of the civic guard proclaimed the glories of genuine freedom. The
pleasure of the populace was like that of children, and perhaps it had
some serious feeling behind it. The incomparable Grand Duke had granted
a liberal constitution, and was led back from the opera to the Pitti by
the torchlights of a cheering crowd--"through the dark night a flock of
stars seemed sweeping up the piazza." A few months later, and the word
of Mrs Browning is "Ah, poor Italy"; the people are attractive,
delightful, but they want conscience and self reverence.[42] Browning
and she painfully felt that they grew cooler and cooler on the subject
of Italian patriotism. A revolution had been promised, but a shower of
rain fell and the revolution was postponed. Now it was the Grand Duke
_out_, and the bells rang, and a tree of liberty was planted close to
the door of Casa Guidi; six weeks later it was the Grand Duke _in_, and
the same bells rang, and the tree of liberty was pulled down. The Pope
is well-meaning but weak; and before long honorific epithets have to be
denied him--he is merely a Pope; his prestige and power over souls is
lost. The liberal Grand Duke is transformed into a Duke decorated with
Austrian titles. As for France, Mrs Browning had long since learnt from
the books she read with so much delight to feel a debt to the country of
Balzac and George Sand. She thought that the unrest and the eager hopes
of the French Revolution, notwithstanding its errors, indicated at least
the conception of a higher ideal than any known to the English people.
Browning did not possess an equal confidence in France; he did not
accept her view that the French occupation of Rome was capable of
justification; nor did he enter into her growing hero-worship--as yet
far from its full development--of Louis Napoleon. Her admiration for
Balzac he shared, and it is probable that the death of the great
novelist moved him to keener regret than did the death, at no
considerable distance of time, of Wordsworth. With French communism or
socialism neither husband nor wife, however republican in their faith,
had sympathy; they held that its tendency is to diminish the influence
of the individual, and that in the end the progress of the mass is
dependent on the starting forth from the mass and the striding forward
of individual minds. They believed as firmly as did Edmund Burke in the
importance of what Burke styles a natural aristocracy.

For four years--from 1847 to 1851--Browning never crossed the confines
of Italy. No duties summoned him away, and he was happy in his home. "We
are as happy," he wrote in December 1847, "as two owls in a hole, two
toads under a tree-stump; or any other queer two poking creatures that
we let live after the fashion of their black hearts, only Ba is fat and
rosy; yes indeed." In spring they drove day by day through the Cascine,
passing on the way the carven window of the _Statue and the Bust_, and
"the stone called Dante's," whereupon

He used to bring his quiet chair out, turned
To Brunelleschi's church.[43]

And after tea there was the bridge of Trinita from which to watch the
sunsets turning the Arno to pure gold while the moon and the
evening-star hung aloft. It was a life of retirement and of quiet work.
Mrs Browning mentions to a friend that for fifteen months she could not
make her husband spend a single evening out--"not even to a concert, nor
to hear a play of Alfieri's," but what with music and books and writing
and talking, she adds, "we scarcely know how the days go, it's such a
gallop on the grass." The "writing" included the revision and
preparation for the press of Browning's _Poems_, in two volumes, which
Chapman & Hall, more liberal than Moxon, had undertaken to publish at
their own risk, and which appeared in 1849. Some care and thought were
also given by Browning to the alterations of text made in the edition of
his wife's Poems of the following year; and for a time his own
_Christmas Eve and Easter Day_ was an absorbing occupation. As to the
"reading," the chief disadvantage of Florence towards the middle of the
last century was the difficulty of seeing new books of interest, whether
French or English. Yet _Vanity Fair_ and _The Princess, Jane Eyre_ and
_Modern Painters_ somehow found their way to Casa Guidi.[44]

Casa Guidi proper, the Casa Guidi which held the books and pictures and
furniture and graceful knick-knacks chosen by its occupants, who were
lovers of beauty, dates only from 1848. Previously they had been
satisfied with a furnished apartment. Not long before the unfurnished
rooms were hired, a mistake in choosing rooms which suffered from the
absence of sunshine and warmth gave Browning an opportunity of
displaying what to his wife's eyes appeared to be unexampled
magnanimity. The six months' rent was promptly paid, and chambers on the
Pitti "yellow with sunshine from morning to evening" were secured. "Any
other man, a little lower than the angels," his wife assured Miss
Mitford, "would have stamped and sworn a little for the mere relief of
the thing, but as to _his_ being angry with _me_ for any cause, except
not eating enough dinner, the sun would turn the wrong way first." It
seemed an excellent piece of economy to take the spacious suite of
unfurnished rooms in the Via Maggio, now distinguished by the
inscription known to all visitors to Florence, which were to be had for
twenty-five guineas a year, and which, when furnished, might be let
during any prolonged absence for a considerable sum. The temptation of a
ground-floor in the Frescobaldi Palace, and a garden bright with
camellias, to which Browning for a time inclined, was rejected. At Casa
Guidi the double terrace where orange-trees and camellias also might
find a place made amends for the garden with its threatening cloud of
mosquitoes, "worse than Austrians"; every need of space and height, of
warmth and coolness seemed to be met; and it only remained to expend the
welcome proceeds of the sale of books in the recreation of gathering
together "rococo chairs, spring sofas, carved bookcases, satin from
cardinals' beds and the rest." Before long Browning amused himself in
picking up for a few pauls this or that picture, on seeing which an
accomplished connoisseur, like Kirkup, would even hazard the name of
Cimabue or Ghirlandaio, or if not that of Giotto, then the safer
adjective Giottesque.

Although living the life of retirement which his wife's uncertain state
of health required, Browning gradually obtained the acquaintance of
several interesting persons, of whom Kirkup, who has just been
mentioned, was one. "As to Italian society," wrote Mrs Browning, "one
may as well take to longing for the evening star, for it seems quite
inaccessible." But the name of Elizabeth Barrett, if not yet that of
Robert Browning, was a sufficient introduction to cultivated Englishmen
and Americans who had made Florence their home. Among the earliest of
these acquaintances were the American sculptor Powers, Swedenborgian and
spiritualist (a simple and genial man, "with eyes like a wild Indian's,
so black and full of light"), and Hillard, the American lawyer, who, in
his _Six months in Italy_, described Browning's conversation as "like
the poetry of Chaucer," meaning perhaps that it was hearty, fresh, and
vigorous, "or like his own poetry simplified and made transparent." "It
seems impossible," Hillard goes on, "to think that he can ever grow
old." And of Mrs Browning: "I have never seen a human frame which seemed
so nearly a transparent veil for a celestial and immortal spirit. She is
a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl." A third American friend
was one who could bring tidings of Emerson and Hawthorne--Margaret
Fuller of "The Dial," now Countess d'Ossoli, "far better than her
writings," says Mrs Browning, "... not only exalted but _exaltee_ in her
opinions, yet calm in manner." Her loss, with that of her husband, on
their voyage to America deeply affected Mrs Browning. "Was she happy in
anything?" asks her sorrowing friend. The first person seen on Italian
soil when Browning and his wife disembarked at Leghorn was the brilliant
and erratic Irish priest, "Father Prout" of _Fraser's Magazine_, who
befriended them with good spirits and a potion of eggs and port wine
when Browning was ill in Florence, and chided Mrs Browning as a
"bambina" for her needless fears. Charles Lever "with the sunniest of
faces and cordialest of manners"--animal spirits preponderating a little
too much over an energetic intellect--called on them at the Baths of
Lucca, but the acquaintance did not ripen into friendship. And little
Miss Boyle, one of the family of the Earls of Cork, would come at night,
at the hour of chestnuts and mulled wine, to sparkle as vivaciously as
the pine-log that warmed her feet. These, with the Hoppners, known to
Shelley and Byron, a French sculptress of royalist sympathies, Mlle. de
Fauveau, much admired by Browning, and one of the grandsons of Goethe,
who flits into and out of the scene, were a compensation for the
repulsiveness of certain English folk at Florence who gathered together
only for the frivolities, and worse than frivolities, of foreign

In March 1849 joy and sorrow met and mingled in the lives of Browning
and his wife. On the ninth of that month a son was born at Casa Guidi,
who six weeks later was described by his mother as "a lovely, fat,
strong child, with double chin and rosy cheeks and a great wide chest."
He was baptised, with the simple Lutheran rites, Robert Wiedemann
Barrett--the "Wiedemann" in remembrance of the maiden name of Browning's
mother. From the first, Browning and his wife, to adopt a phrase from
one of her letters, caught up their parental pleasures with a sort of
passion.[45] Mrs Browning's letters croon with happiness in the beauty,
the strength, the intelligence, the kind-hearted disposition of her boy.
And the boy's father, from the days when he would walk up and down the
terrace of Casa Guidi with the infant in his arms to the last days of
his life, felt to the full the gladness and the repose that came with
this strong bondage of his heart. When little Wiedemann could frame
imperfect speech upon his lips he transformed that name into "Penini,"
which abbreviated to "Pen" became serviceable for domesticities. It was
a fantastic derivation of Nathaniel Hawthorne which connected Penini
with the colossal statue in Florence bearing the name of "Apeninno."
Flush for a time grew jealous, and not altogether without cause.

But the joy was pursued and overtaken by sorrow. A few days after the
birth of his son came tidings of the death of Browning's mother. He had
loved her with a rare degree of passion; the sudden reaction from the
happiness of his wife's safety and his son's birth was terrible; it
almost seemed a wrong to his grief to admit into his consciousness the
new gladness of the time. In this conflict of emotions his spirits and
to some extent his health gave way. He could not think of returning to
his father's home without extreme pain--"It would break his heart," he
said, "to see his mother's roses over the wall, and the place where she
used to lay her scissors and gloves." He longed that his father and
sister should quit the home of sorrow, and hasten to Florence; but this
was not to be. As for England, it could not be thought of as much on his
wife's account as his own. Her father held no communication with her;
supplicating letters remained unnoticed; her brothers were temporarily
estranged. Her sister Henrietta had left her former home; having
"insulted" her father by asking his consent to her marriage with Captain
Surtees Cook, she had taken the matter into her own hands; the deed was
done, and the name of his second undutiful daughter--married to a person
of moderate means and odiously "Tractarian views"--was never again to be
mentioned in Mr Barrett's presence. England had become for Mrs Browning
a place of painful memories, and a centre of present strife which she
did not feel herself as yet able to encounter.

The love of wandering, however, when successive summers came, and
Florence was ablaze with sunshine, grew irresistible, and drove Browning
and his household to seek elsewhere for fresh interests or for coolness
and repose. In 1848, beguiled by the guide-book, they visited Fano to
find it quivering with heat, "the very air swooning in the sun." Their
reward at Fano was that picture by Guercino of the guardian angel
teaching a child to pray, the thought of which Browning has translated
into song:

We were at Fano, and three times we went
To sit and see him in his chapel there,
And drink his beauty to our soul's content
--My angel with me too.

Ancona, where the poem was written, if its last line is historically
true, followed Fano, among whose brown rocks, "elbowing out the purple
tides," and brown houses--"an exfoliation of the rock"--they lived for a
week on fish and cold water. The tour included Rimini and Ravenna, with
a return to Florence by Forli and a passage through the Apennines. Next
year--1849--when Pen was a few months old, the drop of gipsy blood in
Browning's veins, to which his wife jestingly refers, tingled but
faintly; it was Mrs Browning's part to compel him, for the baby's sake
and hers, to seek his own good. They visited Spezzia and glanced at the
house of Shelley at Lerici; passed through olive woods and vineyards,
and rested in "a sort of eagle's nest" at the highest habitable point of
the Baths of Lucca. Here the baby's great cheeks grew rosier; Browning
gained in spirits; and his wife was able "to climb the hills and help
him to lose himself in the forests." When they wandered at noon except
for some bare-footed peasant or some monk with the rope around his
waist, it was complete solitude; and on moonlit nights they sat by the
waterfalls in an atmosphere that had the lightness of mountain air
without its keenness. On one occasion they climbed by dry torrent
courses five miles into the mountains, baby and all, on horseback and
donkeyback--"such a congregation of mountains; looking alive in the
stormy light we saw them by." It was certainly a blessed transformation
of the prostrate invalid in the upper room at Wimpole Street. Setting
aside his own happiness, Browning could feel with regard to her and his
deep desire to serve her, that he had seen of the travail of his soul,
and in this matter was satisfied.

The weeks at Siena of the year 1850 were not quite so prosperous.
During that summer Mrs Browning had been seriously ill. When
sufficiently recovered she was carried by her husband to a villa in the
midst of vines and olives, a mile and a half or two miles outside Siena,
which commanded a noble prospect of hills and plain. At first she could
only remain seated in the easy-chair which he found for her in the city.
For a day there was much alarm on behalf of the boy, now able to run
about, who lay with heavy head and glassy eyes in a half-stupor; but
presently he was astir again, and his "singing voice" was heard in the
house and garden. Mrs Browning in the fresh yet warm September air
regained her strength. Before returning to Florence, they spent a week
in the city to see the churches and the pictures by Sodoma. Even little
Wiedemann screamed for church-interiors and developed remarkable
imitative pietisms of a theatrical kind. "It was as well," said
Browning, "to have the eyeteeth and the Puseyistical crisis over

This comment, although no more than a passing word spoken in play, gives
a correct indication of Browning's feeling, fully shared in by his wife,
towards the religious movement in England which was altering the face of
the established Church. "Puseyism" was for them a kind of child's play
which unfortunately had religion for its play-ground; they viewed it
with a superior smile, in which there was more of pity than of anger.
Both of them, though one was a writer for the stage and the other could
read _Madame Bovary_ without flinching and approved the morals of _La
Dame aux Camelias_, had their roots in English Puritanism.[46] And now
the time had come when Browning was to embody some of his Puritan
thoughts and feelings relating to religion in a highly original poem.


[Footnote 40: "Why am I a Liberal?" Edited by Andrew Reid. London,

[Footnote 41: Letters of E.B.B., i. 442.]

[Footnote 42: To Miss Mitford, August 24, 1848.]

[Footnote 43: Casa Guidi Windows, i.]

[Footnote 44: "Jane Eyre" was lent to E.B.B. by Mrs Story.]

[Footnote 45: _To Miss Mitford, Feb. 18, 1850._]

[Footnote 46: In January 1859, Pen was reading an Italian translation of
_Monte Cristo_, and announced, to his father's and mother's amusement,
that after Dumas he would proceed to "papa's favourite book, _Madame

Chapter VII

Christmas Eve and Easter Day

_Christmas Eve and Easter Day_ was published by Chapman & Hall in the
year 1850. It was reported to the author that within the first fortnight
two hundred copies had been sold, with which evidence of moderate
popularity he was pleased; but the initial success was not maintained
and subsequently the book became, like _Sordello_, a "remainder." As
early as 1845, in the opening days of the correspondence with Miss
Barrett, when she had called upon her friend to speak as poet in his own
person and to speak out, he assured her that whereas hitherto he had
only made men and women utter themselves on his behalf and had given the
truth not as pure white light but broken into prismatic hues, now he
would try to declare directly that which was in him. In place of his men
and women he would have her to be a companion in his work, and yet, he
adds, "I don't think I shall let _you_ hear, after all, the savage
things about Popes and imaginative religions that I must say." We can
only conjecture as to whether the theme of the poem of 1850 was already
in Browning's mind. His wife's influence certainly was not unlikely to
incline him towards the choice of a subject which had some immediate
relation to contemporary thought. She knew that poetry to be of
permanent value must do more than reflect a passing fashion; that in a
certain sense it must in its essence be out of time and space,
expressing ideas and passions which are parts of our abiding humanity.
Yet she recognised an advantage in pressing into what is permanent
through the forms which it assumes in the world immediately around the
artist. And even in 1845 the design of such a poem as her own _Aurora
Leigh_ was occupying her thoughts; she speaks of her intention of
writing a sort of "novel-poem, running into the midst of our
conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms and the like, 'where angels
fear to tread'; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the
Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth as I conceive of it out
plainly." Browning's poem did not rush into drawing-rooms, but it
stepped boldly into churches and conventicles and the lecture-rooms of
theological professors.

The spiritual life individual and the spiritual life corporate--these,
to state it in a word, are the subjects dealt with in the two connected
poems of his new volume; the spiritual life individual is considered in
_Easter Day_; the spiritual life corporate in _Christmas Eve._ Browning,
with the blood of all the Puritans in him, as his wife expressed it,
could not undervalue that strain of piety which had descended from the
exiles at Geneva and had run on through the struggles for religious
liberty in the nonconformist religious societies of the seventeenth
century and the Evangelical revival of times less remote. Looking around
him he had seen in his own day the progress of two remarkable
movements--one embodying, or professing to embody, the Catholic as
opposed to the Puritan conception of religion, the other a free
critical movement, tending to the disintegration of the traditional
dogma of Christianity, yet seeking to preserve and maintain its ethical
and even in part its religious influence. The facts can be put concisely
if we say that one and the same epoch produced in England the sermons of
Spurgeon, the _Apologia pro vita sua_ of Newman, and the _Literature and
Dogma_ of Matthew Arnold. To discuss these three conceptions of religion
adequately in verse would have been impossible even for the
argumentative genius of Dryden, and would have converted a work of art
into a theological treatise. But three representative scenes might be
painted, and some truths of passionate feeling might be flung out by way
of commentary. Such was the design of the poet of _Christmas Eve_.

To topple over from the sublime to the ridiculous is not difficult. But
the presence of humour might save the sublimities from a fall, and
Browning had hitherto in his art made but slight and occasional use of a
considerable gift of humour which he possessed. It was humour not of the
highest or finest or subtlest kind; it was very far from the humour of
Shakespeare or of Cervantes, which felt so profoundly all the
incongruities, majestic, pathetic, and laughable, of human nature. But
it had a rough vigour of its own; it was united with a capacity for
exact and shrewd observation; and if it should ever lead him to play the
part of a satirist, the satire must needs be rather that of love than of
malice. One who esteemed so highly the work of Balzac and of Flaubert
might well be surmised to have something in his composition of what we
now call the realist in art; and the work of the realist might serve to
sustain and vindicate the idealist's ventures of imaginative faith. The
picture of the lath-and-plaster entry of "Mount Zion" and of the pious
sheep--duly indignant at the interloper in their midst--who one by one
enter the fold, if not worthy of Cervantes or of Shakespeare, is hardly
inferior to the descriptive passages of Dickens, and it is touched, in
the manner of Dickens, with pity for these rags and tatters of humanity.
The night, the black barricade of cloud, the sudden apparition of the
moon, the vast double rainbow, and He whose sweepy garment eddies
onward, become at once more supernatural and more unquestionably real
because sublimity springs out of grotesquerie. Is the vision of the face
of Christ an illusion?

The whole face turned upon me full,
And I spread myself beneath it,
As when the bleacher spreads, to seethe it
In the cleansing sun, his wool,--
Steeps in the flood of noontide whiteness
Some defiled, discoloured web--
So lay I saturate, with brightness.

Is this a phantom or a dream? Well, at least it is certain that the
witness has seen with his mortal eyes the fat weary woman, and heard the
mighty report of her umbrella, "wry and flapping, a wreck of
whalebones." And the fat woman of Mount Zion Chapel, with Love Lane at
the back of it, may help us to credit the awful vision of the Lord.

Thus the poem has the imaginative sensuousness which art demands; it is
not an argument but a series of vivid experiences, though what is
sensuous is here tasked in the service of what is spiritual, and a
commentary is added. The central idea of the whole is that where love
is, there is Christ; and the Christ of this poem is certainly no
abstraction, no moral ideal, no transcendental conception of absolute
charity, but very God and very man, the Christ of Nazareth, who dwelt
among men, full of grace and truth. Literary criticism which would
interpret Browning's meaning in any other sense may be ingenious, but it
is not disinterested, and some side-wind blows it far from the mark.

Love with defective knowledge, he maintains, is of more spiritual worth
than knowledge with defective love. Desiring to give salience to this
idea, he deprives his little pious conventicle of every virtue except
one--"love," and no other word is written on each forehead of the
worshippers. Browning, the artist and student of art, was not insensible
to the spiritual power of beauty; and beauty is conspicuously absent
from the praise and prayer that went up from Mount Zion chapel; its
forms of worship are burlesque and uncouth. Browning, the lover of
knowledge, was not insensible to the value of intelligence in things of
religion; and the congregation of Mount Zion sit on "divinely flustered"

the pig-of-lead-like pressure
Of the preaching man's immense stupidity.

The pastor, whose words so sway his enraptured flock, mangles the Holy
Scriptures with a fine irreverence, and pours forth his doctrine with an
entirely self-satisfied indifference to reason and common sense. Nor has
love accomplished its perfect work, for the interloper who stands at the
entry is eyed with inquisitorial glances of pious exclusiveness--how has
a Gallio such as he ventured to take his station among the elect?
Matthew Arnold, had he visited Mount Zion, might have discoursed with a
charmingly insolent urbanity on the genius for ugliness in English
dissent, and the supreme need of bringing a current of new ideas to play
upon the unintelligent use of its traditional formulae. And Matthew
Arnold would have been right. These are the precise subjects of
Browning's somewhat rough-and-ready satire. But Browning adds that in
Mount Zion, love, at least in its rudiments, is present, and where love
is, there is Christ.

Of English nonconformity in its humblest forms Browning can write, as it
were, from within; he writes of Roman Catholic forms of worship as one
who stands outside; his sympathy with the prostrate multitude in St.
Peter's at Rome is of an impersonal kind, founded rather upon the
recognition of an objective fact than springing from an instinctive
feeling. For a moment he is carried away by the tide of their devout
enthusiasms; but he recovers himself to find indeed that love is also
here and therefore Christ is present, but the worshippers fallen under
"Rome's gross yoke," are very infants in their need of these sacred
buffooneries and posturings and petticoatings; infants

Peevish as ever to be suckled,
Lulled with the same old baby-prattle
With intermixture of the rattle.

And this, though the time has come when love would have them no longer
infantile, but capable of standing and walking, "not to speak of trying
to climb." Such a short and easy method of dealing with Roman Catholic
dogma and ritual cannot be commended for its intelligence; it is quite
possible to be on the same side as Browning without being as crude as he
in misconception. He does not seriously consider the Catholic idea which
regards things of sense as made luminous by the spirit of which they are
the envoys and the ministers. It is enough for him to declare his own
creed which treats any intermediary between the human soul and the
Divine as an obstruction or a veil:

My heart does best to receive in meekness
That mode of worship, as most to his mind,
Where earthly aids being left behind,
His All in All appears serene
With the thinnest human veil between,
Letting the mystic lamps, the seven,
The many motions of his spirit,
Pass as they list to earth from heaven.

This was the creed of Milton and of Bunyan; and yet with both Milton and
Bunyan the imagery of the senses is employed as the means not of
concealing but revealing the things of the spirit.

From the lecture-room of Goettingen, with its destructive and
reconstructive criticism, Browning is even farther removed than he is
from the ritualisms of the Roman basilica. Yet no caricature can be more
amiable than his drawing of the learned Professor, so gentle in his
aspect, so formidable in his conclusions, who, gazing into the air with
a pure abstracted look, proceeds in a grave sweet voice to exhibit and
analyse the sources of the myth of Christ. In the Professor's
lecture-room Browning finds intellect indeed but only the shadow of
love. He argues that if the "myth" of Christ be dissolved, the authority
of Christ as a teacher disappears; Christ is even inferior to other
moralists by virtue of the fact that He made personal claims which
cannot be sustained. And whatever may be Christ's merit as a teacher of
the truth, the motive to action which His life and words supplied must
cease to exist if it be shown that the divine sacrifice of God manifest
in the flesh is no more than a figment of the devout imagination. At
every point the criticism of Browning is as far apart as it is possible
to conceive from the criticism set forth in the later writings of
Matthew Arnold. The one writer regards the "myth" as no more than the
grave-clothes of a risen Christ whose essential virtue lies in his sweet
reasonableness and his morality touched with enthusiasm. The other
believes that if the wonderful story of love be proved a fable, a
profound alteration--and an alteration for the worse--has been made in
the religious consciousness of Christendom. And undoubtedly the
difference between the supernatural and the natural theories of
Christianity is far greater than Arnold represented it to be. But
Browning at this date very inadequately conceived the power of Christ as
a revealer of the fatherhood of God. In that revelation, whether the Son
of God was human or divine, lay a truth of surpassing power, and a
motive of action capable of summoning forth the purest and highest
energies of the soul. That such is the case has been abundantly
evidenced by the facts of history. Browning finds only much learning and
the ghost of dead love in the Goettingen lecture-room; and of course it
was easy to adapt his Professor's lecture so as to arrive at this
conclusion. But the process and the conclusion are alike unjust.

Having traversed the various forms of Christian faith and scepticism,
the speaker in _Christmas Eve_ declines into a mood of lazy benevolence
and mild indifferentism towards each and all of these. Has not Christ
been present alike at the holding-forth of the poor dissenting son of
thunder, who tore God's word into shreds, at the tinklings and
posturings and incense-fumes of Roman pietism, and even at the learned
discourse which dissolved the myth of his own life and death? Why, then,
over-strenuously take a side? Why not regard all phases of belief or
no-belief with equal and serene regard? Such a mood of amiable
indifferentism is abhorrent to Browning's feelings. The hem of Christ's
robe passes wholly at this point from the hand of the seer of visions in
his poem. One best way of worship there needs must be; ours may indeed
not be the absolutely best, but it is our part, it is our probation to
see that we strive earnestly after what is best; yes, and strive with
might and main to confer upon our fellows the gains which we have found.
It may be God's part--we trust it is--to bring all wanderers to the one
fold at last. As for us, we must seek after Him and find Him in the mode
required by our highest thought, our purest passion. Here Browning
speaks from his central feeling. Only, we may ask, what if one's truest
self lie somewhere hidden amid a thousand hesitating sympathies? And is
not the world spacious enough to include a Montaigne as well as a Pascal
or a Browning? Assuredly the world without its Montaigne would be a
poorer and a less hospitable dwelling-place for the spirits of men.

Mrs Browning complained to her husband of what she terms the asceticism
of _Easter Day_, the second part of his volume of 1850; his reply was
that it stated "one side of the question." "Don't think," Mrs Browning
says, "that he has taken to the cilix--indeed he has not--but it is his
way to _see_ things as passionately as other people _feel_ them."
_Easter Day_ has nothing to say of religious life in Churches and
societies, nothing of the communities of public worship. For the writer
of this poem only three things exist--God, the individual soul, and the
world regarded as the testing place and training place of the soul.
Browning has here a rigour of moral or spiritual earnestness which may
be called, by any one who so pleases, Puritan in its kind and its
intensity; he feels the need, if we are to attain any approximation to
the Christian ideal, of the lit lamp and the girt loin. Two difficulties
in the Christian life in particular he chooses to consider--first, the
difficulty of faith in the things of the spirit, and especially in what
he regards as the essential parts of the Christian story; and secondly,
the difficulty of obeying the injunction to renounce the world. That we
cannot grow to our highest attainment by the old method enjoined by
pagan philosophy--that of living according to nature, he regards as
evident, for nature itself is warped and marred; it groans and travails,
and from its discords how shall we frame a harmony? It was always his
habit of mind, he tells us, from his childhood onwards, to face a danger
and confront a doubt, and if there were anywhere a lurking fear, to draw
this forth from its hiding-place and examine it in the light, even at
the risk of some mortal ill. Therefore he will press for an answer to
his present questionings; he will try conclusions to the uttermost.

As to the initial difficulty of faith, Browning with a touch of scorn,
assures us that evidences of spiritual realities, evidences of
Christianity--as they are styled--external and internal will be readily
found by him who desires to find; convincing enough they are for him who
wants to be convinced. But in truth faith is a noble venture of the
spirit, an aspiring effort towards what is best, even though what is
best may never be attained. The mole gropes blindly in unquestionably
solid clay; better be like the grasshopper "that spends itself in leaps
all day to reach the sun." A grasshopper's leap sunwards--that is what
we signify by this word "faith."

But the difficulties of the Christian life only shift their place when
faith by whatever means has been won. We are bidden to renounce the
world: what does the injunction mean? in what way shall it be obeyed?
"Ascetic" Mrs Browning named this poem; and ascetic it is if by that
word we understand the counselling and exhorting to a noble exercise and
discipline; but Browning even in his poem by no means wears the cilix,
and no teaching can be more fatal than his to asceticism in the narrower
sense of the word. To renounce the world, if interpreted aright, is to
extinguish or suppress no faculty that has been given to man, but rather
to put each faculty to its highest uses:

"Renounce the world!"--Ah, were it done
By merely cutting one by one
Your limbs off, with your wise head last,
How easy were it!--how soon past,
If once in the believing mood.

The harder and the higher renunciation is this--to choose the things of
the spirit rather than the things of sense, and again in accepting, as
means of our earthly discipline and development, the things of sense to
press through these to the things of the spirit which lie behind and
beyond and above them.

Such, and such alone, is the asceticism to which Browning summons his
disciple; it is the asceticism of energy not that of atrophy; it does
not starve the senses, but reinforces the spirit; it results not in a
cloistered but a militant virtue. A certain self-denial it may demand,
but the self-denial becomes the condition of a higher joy. And if life
with its trials frays the flesh, what matters it when the light of the
spirit shines through with only a fuller potency? In the choice between
sense and spirit, or, to put it more generally, in the choice between
what is higher and less high, lies the probation of a soul, and also its
means of growth. And what is the meaning of this mortal life--this
strange phenomenon otherwise so unintelligible--if it be not the moment
in which a soul is proved, the period in which a soul is shaped and
developed for other lives to come?

To forget that Browning is a preacher may suit a dainty kind of
criticism which detaches the idea of beauty from the total of our
humanity addressed by the greater artists. But the solemn thoughts that
are taken up by beauty in such work, for example, as that of Michael
Angelo, are an essential element or an essential condition of its
peculiar character as a thing of beauty. And armour, we know, may be as
lovely to the mere senses as a flower. Browning's doctrine may sometimes
protrude gauntly through his poetry; but at his best--as in _Rabbi ben
Ezra_ or _Abt Vogler_--the thought of the poem is needful in the dance
of lyrical enthusiasm, as the male partner who takes hands with beauty,
and to separate them would bring the dance to a sudden close. Both are
present in _Easter Day_, and we must watch the movement of the two. In a
passage already quoted from _Christmas Eve_ the face of Christ is nobly
imagined as the sun which bleaches a discoloured web. Here the poet's
imagination is as intense in its presentation of Christ the doomsman:

He stood there. Like the smoke
Pillared o'er Sodom, when day broke--
I saw Him. One magnific pall
Mantled in massive fold and fall
His head, and coiled in snaky swathes
About His feet; night's black, that bathes
All else, broke, grizzled with despair,
Against the soul of blackness there.
A gesture told the mood within--
That wrapped right hand which based the chin,--
That intense meditation fixed
On His procedure,--pity mixed
With the fulfilment of decree.
Motionless thus, He spoke to me,
Who fell before His feet, a mass,
No man now.

The picture of the final conflagration of the Judgment Day is perhaps
over-laboured, a descriptive _tour de force_, horror piled upon horror
with accumulative power,--a picture somewhat too much in the manner of
Martin; and the verse does not lend itself to the sustained sublimity of
terror. The glow of Milton's hell is intenser, and Milton's majestic
instrumentation alone could render the voices of its flames. The real
awfulness of Browning's Judgment Day dwells wholly in the inner
experiences of a solitary soul. The speaker finds of a sudden that the
doom is upon him, and that in the probation of life his choice was
earth, not heaven. The sentence pronounced upon him is in accordance
with the election of his own will--let earth, with all its beauty of
nature, all its gifts of human art, all its successes of the intellect,
as he had conceived and chosen them, be his. To his despair, he finds
that what he had prized in life, and what is now granted to him cannot
bring him happiness or even content. The plenitude of beauty, of which
all partial beauty was but a pledge, is forever lost to him. The glory
of art, which lay beyond its poor actual attainments, is lost. The joy
of knowledge, with all those

grasps of guess
Which pull the more into the less,

is lost. And as to earth's best possession--love--had he ever made a
discovery through human love of that which it forthshadows--the love
that is perfect and divine? Earth is no longer earth to the doomed man,
but the star of the god Rephan of which we read in one of Browning's
latest poems; in the horror of its blank and passionless uniformity,
untroubled by any spiritual presences, he cowers at the Judge's feet,
and prays for darkness, hunger, toil, distress, if only hope be also
granted him:

Then did the form expand, expand--
knew Him through the dread disguise
As the whole God within his eyes
Embraced me.

The Doomsman has in a moment become the Saviour. In all this, if
Browning has the burden of a prophecy to utter, he utters it, after the
manner of earlier prophets, as a vision. His art is sensuous and
passionate; his argument is transformed into a series of imaginative

Mrs. Browning's illness during the summer and early autumn of 1850 left
her for a time more shaken in health than she had been since her
marriage. But by the spring of the following year she had recovered
strength; and designs of travel were formed, which should include Rome,
North Italy, Switzerland, the Rhine, Brussels, Paris and London. Almost
at the moment of starting for Rome at the end of April, the plans were
altered; the season was too far advanced for going south; ways and means
must be economised; Rome might be postponed for a future visit; and
Venice would make amends for the present sacrifice. And Venice in May
and early June did indeed for a time make amends. "I have been between
heaven and earth," Mrs. Browning wrote, "since our arrival at Venice."
The rich architecture, the colour, the moonlight, the music, the
enchanting silence made up a unity of pleasures like nothing that she
had previously known. When evening came she and her husband would follow
the opera from their box hired for "two shillings and eightpence
English," or sit under the moon in the piazza of St Mark sipping coffee
and reading the French papers. But as the month went by, Browning lost
appetite and lost sleep. The "soothing, lulling, rocking atmosphere"

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