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Robert Browning by Edward Dowden

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which suited Mrs. Browning made him, after the first excitement of
delight, grow nervous and dispirited. They hastened away to Padua, drove
to Arqua, "for Petrarch's sake," passed through Brescia in a flood of
white moonlight, and having reached Milan climbed--the invalid of
Wimpole Street and her husband--to the topmost point of the cathedral.
From the Italian lakes they crossed by the St Gothard to Switzerland,
and omitting part of their original scheme of wandering, journeyed in
twenty-four hours without stopping from Strasburg to Paris.

In Paris they loitered for three weeks. Mrs. Browning during the short
visit which followed her marriage had hardly seen the city. Bright
shop-windows, before which little Wiedemann would scream with pleasure,
restaurants and dinners _a la carte_, full-foliaged trees and gardens in
the heart of the town were a not unwelcome exchange for Italian
church-interiors and altar-pieces. Even "disreputable prints and
fascinating hats and caps" were appreciated as proper to the genius of
the place, and the writer of _Casa Guidi Windows_ had the happiness of
seeing her hero, M. le President, "in a cocked hat, and with a train of
cavalry, passing like a rocket along the boulevards to an occasional
yell from the Red." By a happy chance they lighted in Paris upon
Tennyson, now Poet-laureate, whom Mrs. Browning had hitherto known only
through his poems; he was in the friendliest mood, and urged that they
should make use of his house and servants during their stay in England,
an offer which was not refused, though there was no intention of
actually taking advantage of the kindness. As for England, the thought
of it, with her father's heart and her father's door closed against her,
was bitter as wormwood to Mrs. Browning. "It's only Robert," she wrote,
"who is a patriot now, of us two."

English soil as they stepped ashore was a puddle, and English air a
fog. London lodgings were taken at 26 Devonshire Street, and, although
Mrs. Browning suffered from the climate, they were soon dizzied and
dazzled by the whirl of pleasant hospitalities. An evening with Carlyle
("one of the greatest sights in England"), a dinner given by Forster at
Thames Ditton, "in sight of the swans," a breakfast with Rogers, daily
visits of Barry Cornwall, cordial companionship of Mrs. Jameson, a
performance by the Literary Guild actors, a reading of _Hamlet_ by Fanny
Kemble--with these distractions and such as these the two months flew
quickly. It was in some ways a relief when Pen's faithful maid Wilson
went for a fortnight to see her kinsfolk, and Mrs. Browning had to take
her place and substitute for social racketing domestic cares. The one
central sorrow remained and in some respects was intensified. She had
written to her father, and Browning himself wrote--"a manly, true,
straight-forward letter," she informs a friend, "... everywhere generous
and conciliating." A violent and unsparing reply was made, and with it
came all the letters that his undutiful daughter had written to Mr.
Barrett; not one had been read or opened. He returned them now, because
he had not previously known how he could be relieved of the obnoxious
documents. "God takes it all into his own hands," wrote Mrs. Browning,
"and I wait." Something, however, was gained; her brothers were
reconciled; Arabella Barrett was constant in kindness; and Henrietta
journeyed from Taunton to London to enjoy a week in her company.

It was at Devonshire Street that Bayard Taylor, the distinguished
American poet and critic, made the acquaintance of the Brownings, and
the record of his visit gives a picture of Browning at the age of
thirty-nine, so clearly and firmly drawn that it ought not to be omitted
here: "In a small drawing-room on the first floor I met Browning, who
received me with great cordiality. In his lively, cheerful manner, quick
voice, and perfect self-possession, he made the impression of an
American rather than an Englishman. He was then, I should judge, about
thirty-seven years of age, but his dark hair was already streaked with
gray about the temples. His complexion was fair, with perhaps the
faintest olive tinge, eyes large, clear, and gray, nose strong and well
cut, mouth full and rather broad, and chin pointed, though not
prominent. His forehead broadened rapidly upwards from the outer angle
of the eyes, slightly retreating. The strong individuality which marks
his poetry was expressed not only in his face and head, but in his whole
demeanour. He was about the medium height, strong in the shoulders, but
slender at the waist, and his movements expressed a combination of
vigour and elasticity." Mrs Browning with her slight figure, pale face,
shaded by chestnut curls, and grave eyes of bluish gray, is also
described; and presently entered to the American visitor Pen, a
blue-eyed, golden-haired boy, who babbled his little sentences in

When, towards the close of September, Browning and his wife left London
for Paris, Carlyle by his own request was their companion on the
journey. Mrs Browning feared that his irritable nerves would suffer from
the vivacities of little Pen, but it was not so; he accepted with good
humour the fact that the small boy had not yet learned, like his own
Teufelsdroeckh, the Eternal No: "Why, sir," exclaimed Carlyle, "you have
as many aspirations as Napoleon!"[47] At Dieppe, Browning, as Carlyle
records, "did everything, fought for us, and we--that is, the woman, the
child and I--had only to wait and be silent." At Paris in the midst of
"a crowding, jangling, vociferous tumult, the brave Browning fought for
us, leaving me to sit beside the woman." An apartment was found on the
sunny side of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, "pretty, cheerful, carpeted
rooms," far brighter and better than those of Devonshire Street, and
when, to Browning's amusement, his wife had moved every chair and table
into the new and absolutely right position, they could rest and be
thankful. Carlyle spent several evenings with them, and repaid the
assistance which he received in various difficulties from Browning's
command of the language, by picturesque conversations in his native
speech: "You come to understand perfectly," wrote Mrs Browning, "when
you know him, that his bitterness is only melancholy, and his scorn
sensibility." A little later Browning's father and sister spent some
weeks in Paris. Here, at all events, were perfect relations between the
members of a family group; the daughter here was her father's comrade
with something even of a maternal instinct; and the grandfather
discovered to his great satisfaction that his own talent for drawing had
descended to his grandchild.

The time was one when the surface of life in Paris showed an unruffled
aspect; but under the surface were heavings of inward agitation. On the
morning of December 2nd the great stroke against the Republic was
delivered; the _coup d'etat_ was an accomplished fact. Later in the day
Louis Napoleon rode under the windows of the apartment in the Avenue des
Champs-Elysees, from the Carrousel to the Arc de l'Etoile. To Mrs
Browning it seemed the grandest of spectacles--"he rode there in the
name of the people after all." She and her husband had witnessed
revolutions in Florence, and political upheavals did not seem so very
formidable. On the Thursday of bloodshed in the streets--December
4th--Pen was taken out for his usual walk, though not without certain
precautions; as the day advanced the excitement grew tense, and when
night fell the distant firing on the boulevards kept Mrs. Browning from
her bed till one o'clock. On Saturday they took a carriage and drove to
see the field of action; the crowds moved to and fro, discussing the
situation, but of real disturbance there was none; next day the theatres
had their customary spectators and the Champs-Elysees its promenaders.
For the dishonoured "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite," as Mrs. Browning
heard it suggested, might now be inscribed "Infanterie, Cavallerie,

Such may have been her husband's opinion, but such was not hers. Her
faith in the President had been now and again shaken; her faith in the
Emperor became as time went on an enthusiasm of hero-worship. The
display of force on December 2nd impressed her imagination; there was a
dramatic completeness in the whole performance; Napoleon represented the
people; a democrat, she thought, should be logical and thorough; the
vote of the millions entirely justified their chief. Browning viewed
affairs more critically, more sceptically. "Robert and I," writes his
wife jestingly, "have had some domestic _emeutes_, because he hates
some imperial names." He detested all Buonapartes, he would say, past,
present, and to come,--an outbreak explained by Mrs Browning to her
satisfaction, as being only his self-willed way of dismissing a subject
with which he refused to occupy his thoughts, a mere escapade of feeling
and known to him as such. When all the logic and good sense were on the
woman's side, how could she be disturbed by such masculine infirmities?
Though only a very little lower than the angels, he was after all that
humorous being--a man.


[Footnote 47: "Mrs Orr's Life and Letters of R.B.," 173.]

Chapter VIII

1851 to 1855

It was during the month of the _coup d'etat_ that Browning went back in
thought to the poet of his youthful love, and wrote that essay which was
prefixed to the volume of forged letters published as Shelley's by Moxon
in 1852. The essay is interesting as Browning's only considerable piece
of prose, and also as an utterance made not through the mask of any
_dramatis persona_, but openly and directly from his own lips. Though
not without value as a contribution to the study of Shelley's genius, it
is perhaps chiefly of importance as an exposition of some of Browning's
own views concerning his art. He distinguishes between two kinds or
types of poet: the poet who like Shakespeare is primarily the
"fashioner" of things independent of his own personality, artistic
creations which embody some fact or reality, leaving it to others to
interpret, as best they are able, its significance; and secondly the
poet who is rather a "seer" than a fashioner, who attempts to exhibit in
imaginative form his own conceptions of absolute truth, conceptions far
from entire adequacy, yet struggling towards completeness; the poet who
would shadow forth, as he himself apprehends them, _Ideas_, to use the
word of Plato, "seeds of creation lying burningly on the Divine
Hand"--which Ideas he discovers not so often in the external world as
in his own soul, this being for him "the nearest reflex of the absolute
Mind." What a poet of this second kind produces, as Browning finely
states it, will be less a work than an effluence. He is attracted among
external phenomena chiefly by those which summon forth his inner light
and power, "he selects that silence of the earth and sea in which he can
best hear the beating of his individual heart, and leaves the noisy,
complex, yet imperfect exhibitions of nature in the manifold experience
of man around him, which serve only to distract and suppress the working
of his brain." To this latter class of poets, although in _The Cenci_
and _Julian and Maddalo_ he is eminent as a "fashioner," Shelley
conspicuously belongs. Mankind cannot wisely dispense with the services
of either type of poet; at one time it chiefly needs to have that which
is already known interpreted into its highest meanings; and at another,
when the virtue of these interpretations has been appropriated and
exhausted, it needs a fresh study and exploration of the facts of life
and nature--for "the world is not to be learned and thrown aside, but
reverted to and relearned." The truest and highest point of view from
which to regard the poetry of Shelley is that which shows it as a
"sublime fragmentary essay towards a presentment of the correspondency
of the universe to Deity, of the natural to the spiritual, and of the
actual to the ideal."

For Browning the poet of _Prometheus Unbound_ was not that beautiful and
ineffectual angel of Matthew Arnold's fancy, beating in the void his
luminous wings. A great moral purpose looked forth from Shelley's work,
as it does, Browning would add, from all lofty works of art. And it may
be remarked that the criticism of Browning's own writings which
considers not only their artistic methods and artistic success or
failure, but also their ethical and spiritual purport, is entirely in
accord with his thoughts in this essay. Far from regarding Shelley as
unpractical, he notes--and with perfect justice--"the peculiar
practicalness" of Shelley's mind, which in his earlier years acted
injuriously upon both his conduct and his art. His power to perceive the
defects of society was accompanied by as precocious a fertility to
contrive remedies; but his crudeness in theorising and his inexperience
in practice resulted in not a few youthful errors. Gradually he left
behind him "this low practical dexterity"; gradually he learnt that "the
best way of removing abuses is to stand fast by truth. Truth is one, as
they are manifold; and innumerable negative effects are produced by the
upholding of one positive principle." Browning urges that Shelley,
before the close, had passed from his doctrinaire atheism to what was
virtually a theistic faith. "I shall say what I think," he adds--"had
Shelley lived he would have finally ranged himself with the
Christians.... The preliminary step to following Christ is the leaving
the dead to bury their dead." Perhaps this hypothetical anticipation is
to be classed with the surmise of Cardinal Wiseman (if Father Prout
rightly attributed to that eminent ecclesiastic a review of _Men and
Women_ in _The Rambler_) that Browning himself would one day be found in
the ranks of converts to Catholicism. In each case a wish was father to
the thought; Browning recognised the fact that Shelley assigned a place
to love, side by side with power, among the forces which determine the
life and development of humanity, and with Browning himself "power" was
a synonym for the Divine will, and "love" was often an equivalent for
God manifest in Jesus Christ. One or two other passages of the essay may
be noted as illustrating certain characteristics of the writer's modes
of thought and feeling: "Everywhere is apparent Shelley's belief in the
existence of Good, to which Evil is an accident"--it is an optimist
here, though of a subtler doctrine than Shelley's, who is applauding
optimism. "Shelley was tender, though tenderness is not always the
characteristic of very sincere natures; he was eminently both tender and
sincere." Was Browning consulting his own heart, which was always
sincere, and could be tender, but whose tenderness sometimes disappeared
in explosions of indignant wrath? The principle, again, by which he
determined an artist's rank is in harmony with Browning's general
feeling that men are to be judged less by their actual achievements than
by the possibilities that lie unfolded within them, and the ends to
which they aspire, even though such ends be unattained: "In the
hierarchy of creative minds, it is the presence of the highest faculty
that gives first rank, in virtue of its kind, not degree; no pretension
of a lower nature, whatever the completeness of development or variety
of effect, impeding the precedency of the rarer endowment though only in
the germ." And, last, of the tardy recognition of Shelley's genius as a
poet, Browning wrote in words which though, as he himself says, he had
always good praisers, no doubt express a thought that helped to sustain
him against the indifference of the public to his poetry: "The
misapprehensiveness of his age is exactly what a poet is sent to
remedy: and the interval between his operation and the generally
perceptible effect of it, is no greater, less indeed than in many other
departments of the great human effort. The 'E pur si muove' of the
astronomer was as bitter a word as any uttered before or since by a poet
over his rejected living work, in that depth of conviction which is so
like despair." The volume in which Browning's essay appeared was
withdrawn from circulation on the discovery of the fraudulent nature of
its contents. He had himself no opportunity of inspecting the forged
manuscripts, and no question of authenticity was raised until several
copies of the book had passed into circulation.[48]

During the nine months spent in Paris, from September 1851 to June 1852,
Browning enlarged the circle of his friends and made some new and
interesting acquaintances. Chief among friendships was that with Joseph
Milsand of Dijon, whose name is connected with _Sordello_ in the edition
of Browning's "Poetical Works" of the year 1863. Under the title "La
Poesie Anglaise depuis Byron," two articles by Milsand were contributed
to the "Revue des Deux Mondes," the first on Tennyson, the second
(published 15th August 1851) a little before the poet's arrival in
Paris, on Robert Browning. "Of all the poets known to me," wrote his
French critic, "he is the most capable of summing up the conceptions of
the religion, the ethics, and the theoretic knowledge of our period in
forms which embody the beauty proper to such abstractions." Such
criticism by a thoughtful student of our literature could not but
prepare the way pleasantly for personal acquaintance. Milsand, we are
told by his friend Th. Bentzon (Mme. Blanc), having hesitated as to the
propriety of printing a passage in an article as yet unpublished, in
which he had spoken of the great sorrow of Mrs Browning's early
life--the death of her brother, went straight to Browning, who was then
in Paris, and declared that he was ready to cancel what he had written
if it would cause her pain. "Only a Frenchman," exclaimed Browning,
grasping both hands of his visitor, "would have done this." So began a
friendship of an intimate and most helpful kind, which closed only with
Milsand's death in 1886. To his memory is dedicated the volume published
soon after his death, _Parleyings with certain People of Importance_. "I
never knew or shall know his like among men," wrote Browning; and again:
"No words can express the love I have for him." And in _Red Cotton
Nightcap Country_ it is Milsand who is characterised in the lines:

He knows more and loves better than the world
That never heard his name and never may, ...
What hinders that my heart relieve itself,
O friend! who makest warm my wintry world,
And wise my heaven, if there we consort too.

In the correction of Browning's proof-sheets, and especially in
regulating the punctuation of his poems, Milsand's friendly services
were of high value. In 1858 when Browning happened to be at Dijon, and
had reason to believe, though in fact erroneously, that his friend was
absent in Paris, he went twice "in a passion of friendship," as his wife
tells a correspondent, to stand before Maison Milsand, and muse, and
bless the threshold.[49]

Browning desired much to know Victor Hugo, but his wish was never
gratified. After December 2nd Paris could not contain a spirit so fiery
as Hugo's was in hostility to the new regime and its chief
representative. Balzac, whom it would have been a happiness even to look
at, was dead. Lamartine promised a visit, but for a time his coming was
delayed. By a mischance Alfred de Musset failed to appear when Browning,
expecting to meet him, was the guest of M. Buloz. But Beranger was to be
seen "in his white hat wandering along the asphalte." The blind
historian Thierry begged Browning and his wife to call upon him. At the
house of Ary Scheffer, the painter, they heard Mme. Viardot sing; and
receptions given by Lady Elgin and Mme. Mohl were means of introduction
to much that was interesting in the social life of Paris. At the theatre
they saw with the deepest excitement "La Dame aux Camelias," which was
running its hundred nights. Caricatures in the streets exhibited the
occupants of the pit protected by umbrellas from the rain of tears that
fell from the boxes. Tears, indeed, ran down Browning's cheeks, though
he had believed himself hardened against theatrical pathos. Mrs Browning
cried herself ill, and pronounced the play painful but profoundly moral.

Mrs Browning's admiration of the writings of George Sand was so great
that it would have been a sore disappointment to her if George Sand were
to prove inaccessible. A letter of introduction to her had been
obtained from Mazzini. "Ah, I am so vexed about George Sand," Mrs
Browning wrote on Christmas Eve; "she came, she has gone, and we haven't
met." In February she again was known to be for a few days in Paris;
Browning was not eager to push through difficulties on the chance of
obtaining an interview, but his wife was all impatience: "' No,' said I,
'you _shan't_ be proud, and I _won't_ be proud, and we _will_ see her. I
won't die, if I can help it, without seeing George Sand.'" A gracious
reply and an appointment came in response to their joint-petition which
accompanied Mazzini's letter. On the appointed Sunday Browning and Mrs
Browning--she wearing a respirator and smothered in furs--drove to
render their thanks and homage to the most illustrious of Frenchwomen.
Mrs Browning with beating heart stooped and kissed her hand. They found
in George Sand's face no sweetness, but great moral and intellectual
capacities; in manners and conversation she was absolutely simple. Young
men formed the company, to whom she addressed counsel and command with
the utmost freedom and a conscious authority. Through all her speech a
certain undercurrent of scorn, a half-veiled touch of disdain, was
perceptible. At their parting she invited the English visitors to come
again, kissed Mrs Browning on the lips, and received Browning's kiss
upon her hand. The second call upon her was less agreeable. She sat
warming her feet in a circle of eight or nine ill-bred men,
representatives of "the ragged Red diluted with the lower theatrical."
If any other mistress of a house had behaved so unceremoniously,
Browning declared that he would have walked out of the room; and Mrs
Browning left with the impression--"she does not care for me." They had
exerted themselves to please her, but felt that it was in vain; "we
couldn't penetrate, couldn't really _touch_ her." Once Browning met her
near the Tuileries and walked the length of the gardens with her arm
upon his. If nothing further was to come of it, at least they had seen a
wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blest withal would have
discredited their travel. Only to Mrs Browning's mortification the
spectacle wanted one detail indispensable to its completeness--the
characteristic cigarette was absent: "Ah, but I didn't see her smoke."
Life leaves us always something to desire.

Before the close of June 1852 they were again in London, and found
comfortable rooms at 58 Welbeck Street. When the turmoil of the first
days had subsided, they visited "Kenyon the Magnificent"--so named by
Browning--at Wimbledon, at whose table Landor, abounding in life and
passionate energy as in earlier days, was loud in his applause of the
genius of Louis Napoleon. Mazzini, his "intense eyes full of melancholy
illusions," called at their lodgings in company with Mrs Carlyle, who
seemed to Mrs Browning not only remarkable for her play of ideas but
attaching through her feelings and her character.[50] Florence
Nightingale was also a welcome visitor, and her visit was followed by a
gift of flowers. Invitations from country houses came in sheaves, and
the thought of green fields is seductive in a London month of July; but
to remain in London was to be faithful to Penini--and to the
much-travelled Flush. Once the whole household, with Flush included,
breathed rural air for two days with friends at Farnham, and Browning
had there the pleasure of meeting Charles Kingsley, whose Christian
Socialism seemed wild and unpractical enough, but as for the man
himself, brave, bold, original, full of a genial kindliness, Mrs
Browning assures a correspondent that he could not be other than "good
and noble let him say or dream what he will." It is stated by Mr W.M.
Rossetti that Browning first became acquainted with his brother Dante
Gabriel in the course of this summer. Coventry Patmore gave him the
manuscript of his unpublished poems of 1853 to read. And Ruskin was now
added to the number of his personal acquaintances. "We went to Denmark
Hill yesterday, by agreement," wrote Mrs Browning in September, "to see
the Turners--which, by the way, are divine. I like Mr Ruskin much, and
so does Robert. Very gentle, yet earnest--refined and truthful." At Lord
Stanhope's they were introduced to the latest toy of fashionable
occultism, the crystal ball, in which the seer beheld Oremus, the spirit
of the sun; the supernatural was qualified for the faithful with
luncheon and lobster salad; "I love the marvellous," Mrs Browning
frankly declares. And of terrestrial wonders, with heaven lying about
them, and also India muslin and Brussels lace, two were seen in the
babies of Monckton Milnes and Alfred Tennyson. Pen, because he was
"troppo grande," declined to kiss the first of these new-christened
wonders, but Pen's father, who went alone to the baptism of Hallam
Tennyson, distinguished himself by nursing for some ten minutes and with
accomplished dexterity, the future Governor-General of Australia.

Yet with all these distractions, perhaps in part because of them, the
visit to England was not one of Browning's happiest times. The autumn
weather confined Mrs Browning to her rooms. He was anxious, vexed, and
worn.[51] It was a happiness when Welbeck Street was left behind, and
they were on the way by Paris to their resting-place at Casa Guidi. From
a balcony overlooking one of the Paris boulevards they witnessed, in a
blaze of autumnal sunshine, which glorified much military and civic
pomp, the reception of the new Emperor. Mrs Browning's handkerchief
waved frantically while she prayed that God might bless the people in
this the chosen representative of a democracy. What were Browning's
thoughts on that memorable Saturday is not recorded, but we may be sure
that they were less enthusiastic. Yet he enjoyed the stir and animation
of Paris, and after the palpitating life of the boulevards found
Florence dull and dead--no change, no variety. The journey by the Mont
Cenis route had not been without its trying incidents. At Genoa, during
several days he was deeply depressed by the illness of his wife, who lay
on the sofa and seemed to waste away. But Casa Guidi was reached at
last, where it was more like summer than November; the pleasant nest had
its own peculiar welcome for wanderers; again they enjoyed the sunsets
over the Arno, and Mrs Browning was able to report herself free from
cough and feeling very well and very happy: "You can't think how we
have caught up our ancient traditions just where we left them, and
relapsed into our former soundless, stirless, hermit life. Robert has
not passed an evening from home since we came--just as if we had never
known Paris."[52]

The political condition of Italy was, indeed, a grief to both husband
and wife. It was a state of utter prostration--on all sides "the
unanimity of despair." The Grand Duke, the emancipator, had acquired a
respect and affection for the bayonets of Austria. The Pope was
"wriggling his venom into the heart of all possibilities of free-thought
and action." Browning groaned "How long, O Lord, how long?" His
home-thoughts of England in contrast with Italy were those of patriotism
and pride. His wife was more detached, more critical towards her native
land. The best symptom for Italian freedom was that if Italy had not
energy to act, she yet had energy to hate. To be happy now they both
must turn to imaginative work, and gain all the gains possible from
private friendships. Browning was already occupied with the poems
included afterwards in the volumes of _Men and Women_. Mrs Browning was
already engaged upon _Aurora Leigh_. "We neither of us show our work to
one another," she wrote, "till it is finished. An artist must, I fancy,
either find or _make_ a solitude to work in, if it is to be good work at
all." But as her husband's poems, one by one, were completed, she saw
them, and they seemed to her as fine as anything he had done. Away in
England _Colombe's Birthday_ was given on the stage, with Helen Faucit
in the leading part. It was at least an indication that the public had
not forgotten that Browning was a poet. Here in Florence, although the
hermit life was happy, new friends--the gift of England--added to its
happiness. Frederick Tennyson, the Laureate's brother, and himself a
true poet in his degree, "a dreamy, shy, speculative man," simple withal
and truthful, had married an Italian wife and was settled for a time in
Florence. To him Browning became attached with genuine affection. Mrs
Browning was a student of the writings of Swedenborg, and she tells much
of her new friend in a single Swedenborgian word--"selfhood, the
_proprium_, is not in him." Frederick Tennyson, though left in a state
of bewilderment by Browning's poetry, found the writer of the poetry "a
man of infinite learning, jest and bonhommie, and moreover a sterling
heart that reverbs no hollowness."[53] Another intimate who charmed them
much was one of the attaches of the English embassy, and a poet of
unquestionable faculty, very young, very gentle and refined, delicate
and excitable, full of sensibility, "full of all sorts of goodness and
nobleness," but somewhat dreamy and unpractical, "visionary enough,"
writes Mrs Browning, "to suit me," interested moreover in spiritualism,
which suited her well, "never," she unwisely prophesied, "to be a great
diplomatist." It was hardly, Mr Kenyon, the editor of her letters,
observes, a successful horoscope of the destiny of Lord Lytton, the
future Ambassador at Paris and Viceroy of India.[54]

Early in 1853 Mrs Browning became much interested in the reports which
reached her--many of these from America--of the "rapping spirits," who
in the 'fifties were busy in instructing chairs and tables to walk in
the way they should not go. "You know I am rather a visionary," she
wrote to Miss Mitford, "and inclined to knock round at all the doors of
the present world to try to get out." Her Swedenborgian studies had
prepared her to believe that there were communities of life in the
visible and the invisible worlds which did not permit of the one being
wholly estranged from the other. A clever person who loves the
marvellous will soon find by the sheer force of logic that marvels are
the most natural things in the world. Should we not credit human
testimony? Should we not evict prejudice from our understandings? Should
we not investigate alleged facts? Should we not keep an open mind? We
cannot but feel a certain sympathy with a woman of ardent nature who
fails to observe the bounds of intellectual prudence. Browning himself
with all his audacities was pre-eminently prudent. He did not actively
enter into politics; he did not dabble in pseudo-science; he was an
artist and a thinker; and he made poems, and amused himself with
drawing, modelling in clay, and the study of music. Mrs Browning
squandered her enthusiasms with less discretion. A good dose of
stupidity or an indignant energy of common-sense, impatient of the
nonsense of the thing, may be the salvation of the average man. It is
often the clever people who would be entirely rational and unprejudiced
that best succeed in duping themselves at once by their reason and their
folly. A fine old crusted prejudice commonly stands for a thousand acts
of judgment amassed into a convenient working result; a single act of an
individual understanding, or several of such acts, will seldom contain
an equal sum of wisdom. Scientific discovery is not advanced by a
multitude of curious and ingenious amateurs in learned folly. Whether
the claims of spiritualism are warrantable or fallacious, Mrs Browning,
gifted as she was with rare powers of mind, was not qualified to
investigate those claims; it was a waste of energy, from which she could
not but suffer serious risks and certain loss.

Before she had seen anything for herself she was a believer--a believer,
as she describes it, on testimony. The fact of communication with the
invisible world appeared to her more important than anything that had
been communicated. The spirits themselves "seem abundantly foolish, one
must admit." Yet it was clear to her that mankind was being prepared for
some great development of truth. She would keep her eyes wide open to
facts and her soul lifted up in reverential expectation. By-and-by she
felt the dumb wood of the table panting and shivering with human
emotion. The dogmatism of Faraday in an inadequate theory was simply
unscientific, a piece of intellectual tyranny. The American medium Home,
she learnt from her friends, was "turning the world upside down in
London with this spiritual influx." Two months later, in July 1855, Mrs
Browning and her husband were themselves in London, and witnessed Home's
performances during a seance at Ealing. Miss de Gaudrion (afterwards Mrs
Merrifield), who was present on that occasion, and who was convinced
that the "manifestations" were a fraud, wrote to Mrs Browning for an
expression of her opinion. The reply, as might be expected, declared the
writer's belief in the genuine character of the phenomena; such
manifestations, she admitted, in the undeveloped state of the subject
were "apt to be low"; but they were, she was assured, "the beginning of
access from a spiritual world, of which we shall presently learn more
perhaps." A letter volunteered by Browning accompanied that of his wife.
He had, he said, to overcome a real repugnance in recalling the subject;
he could hardly understand how another opinion was possible than that
"the whole display of 'hands,' 'spirit utterances,' etc., was a cheat
and imposture." It was all "melancholy stuff," which a grain of worldly
wisdom would dispose of in a minute. "Mr Browning," the letter goes on,
"has, however, abundant experience that the best and rarest of natures
may begin by the proper mistrust of the more ordinary results of
reasoning when employed in such investigations as these, go on to an
abnegation of the regular tests of truth and rationality in favour of
these particular experiments, and end in a voluntary prostration of the
whole intelligence before what is assumed to transcend all intelligence.
Once arrived at this point, no trick is too gross--absurdities are
referred to 'low spirits,' falsehoods to 'personating spirits'--and the
one terribly apparent spirit, the Father of Lies, has it all his own
way." These interesting letters were communicated to _The Times_ by Mr
Merrifield (_Literary Supplement_, Nov. 28, 1902), and they called forth
a short additional letter from Mr R. Barrett Browning, the "Penini" of
earlier days. He mentions that his father had himself on one occasion
detected Home in a vulgar fraud; that Home had called at the house of
the Brownings, and was turned out of it. Mr Browning adds: "What,
however, I am more desirous of stating is that towards the end of her
life my mother's views on 'spiritual manifestations' were much modified.
This change was brought about, in great measure, by the discovery that
she had been duped by a friend in whom she had blind faith. The pain of
the disillusion was great, but her eyes were opened and she saw
clearly."[55] It must be added, that letters written by Mrs Browning six
months before her death give no indication of this change of feeling,
but she admits that "sublime communications" from the other world are
"decidedly absent," and that while no truth can be dangerous, unsettled
minds may lose their balance, and may do wisely to avoid altogether the
subject of spiritualism.

Browning's hostility arose primarily from his conviction that the
so-called "manifestations" were, as he says, a cheat and imposture. He
had grasped Home's leg under the table while at work in producing
"phenomena." He had visited his friend, Seymour Kirkup, had found the
old man assisting at the trance of a peasant girl named Mariana; and
when Kirkup withdrew for a moment, the entranced Mariana relieved
herself from the fatigue of her posturing, at the same time inviting
Browning with a wink to be a charitable confederate in the joke by which
she profited in admiration and in pelf. Browning, who would have waged
immitigable war against the London dog-stealers, and opposed all treaty
with such rogues, even at the cost of an unrecovered Flush, could not
but oppose the new trade of elaborate deception. But his feeling was
intensified by the personal repulsiveness of the professional medium.
The vain, sleek, vulgar, emasculated, neurotic type of creature, who
became the petted oracle of the dim-lighted room, was loathsome in his
eyes. And his respect for his wife's genius made him feel that there was
a certain desecration in the neighbourhood to her of men whom he
regarded as verminous impostors. Yet he recognised her right to think
for herself, and she, on the other hand, regarded his scepticism as
rather his misfortune than his crime.

It was a considerable time after his wife's death that Browning's study
of the impostor of the spiritualist circles, "Mr Sludge the Medium,"
appeared in the _Dramatis Personae_ of 1864; the date of its composition
is Rome, 1859-60; but the observations which that study sums up were
accumulated during earlier years, and if Mr Sludge is not a portrait of
Home, that eminent member of the tribe of Sludge no doubt supplied
suggestions for the poet's character-study. Browning evidently wrote the
poem with a peculiar zest; its intellectual energy never flags; its
imaginative grip never slackens. If the Bishop, who orders his tomb at
St Praxed's, serves to represent the sensuous glory and the moral void
of one phase of the Italian Renaissance, so, and with equal fidelity,
does Mr Sludge represent a phase of nineteenth century materialism and
moral grossness, which cannot extinguish the cravings of the soul but
would vulgarise and degrade them with coarse illusions. Unhappily the
later poem differs from the earlier in being uglier in its theme and of
inordinate length. Browning, somewhat in the manner of Ben Jonson when
he wrote _The Alchemist_, could not be satisfied until he had exhausted
the subject to the dregs. The writer's zeal from first to last knows no
abatement, but it is not every reader who cares to bend over the
dissecting-table, with its sick effluvia, during so prolonged a

"Mr Sludge the Medium" is not a mere attack on spiritualism; it is a
dramatic scene in the history of a soul; and Browning, with his
democratic feeling in things of the mind, held that every soul however
mean is worth understanding. If the poem is a satire, it is so only in a
way that is inevitable. Browning's desire is to be absolutely just, but
sometimes truth itself becomes perforce a satire. He takes an impostor
at the moment of extreme disadvantage; the "medium" is caught in the
very act of cheating; he will make a clean breast of it; and his
confession is made as nearly as possible a vindication. The most
contemptible of creatures, in desperate straits, makes excellent play
with targe and dagger; the poetry of the piece is to be found in the
lithe attitudes, absolutely the best possible under the circumstances,
by which he maintains both defence and attack. Half of the long
_apologia_ is a criticism not of those who feast fools in their folly,
but of the fools who require a caterer for the feast; it is a study of
the methods by which dupes solicit and educate a knave. The other half
is Sludge's plea that, knave though he be, he is not wholly knave; and
Browning, while absolutely rejecting the doctrine of so called
spiritualism, is prepared to admit that in the composition of a Sludge
there enters a certain portion of truth, low in degree, perverted in
kind, inoperative to the ends of truth, yet a fragment of that without
which life itself were impossible even for the meanest organism in the
shape of man.

Cowardly, cunning, insolent, greedy, effeminately sensual, playing upon
the vanity of his patrons, playing upon their vulgar sentimentality,
playing upon their vulgar pietisms and their vulgar materialism, Sludge
after all is less the wronger than the wronged. Who made him what he is?
Who, keen and clear-sighted enough in fields which they had not selected
as their special parade-ground for self-conceit, trained him on to
knavery and self-degradation? Who helped him through his blunders with
ingenious excuses--"the manifestations are at first so weak"; or "Sludge
is himself disturbed by the strange phenomena"; or "a doubter is in the
company, and the spirits have grown confused in their communications"?
Who proceeded to exhibit him as a lawful prize and possession, staking
their vanity on the success of his imposture? Who awakened in him the
artist's joy in rare invention? Who urged him forward from modest to
magnificent lies? Who fed and flattered him? What ladies bestowed their
soft caresses on Sludge? And now and again in his course of fraud did he
not turn a wistful eye towards any reckless tatterdemalion, if only the
vagrant lived in freedom and in truth?

It's too bad, I say,
Ruining a soul so!

And in the midst of gulls who persistently refuse to be undeceived
cheating is so "cruel easy." The difficulty is rather that the cheating,
even when acknowledged, should ever be credited for what it is. The
medium has confessed! Yes, and to cheat may be part of the medium
nature; none the less he has the medium's gift of acting as a conductor
between the visible and the invisible worlds. Has he not told secrets of
the lives of his wondering clients which could not have been known by
natural means? And Sludge chuckles "could not?"--could not be known by
him who in his seeming passivity is alive at every nerve with the
instinct of the detective, by him whose trade was

Throwing thus
His sense out, like an ant-eater's long tongue,
Soft, innocent, warm, moist, impassible,
And when 'twas crusted o'er with creatures--slick,
Their juice enriched his palate. "Could not Sludge!"

Haunters of the seance of every species are his aiders and abettors--the
unbeliever, whom believers overwhelm or bribe to acquiescence, the fair
votaries who find prurient suggestions characteristic of the genuine
medium, the lover of the lie through the natural love of it, the
amateur, incapable of a real conviction, who plays safely with
superstition, the literary man who welcomes a new flavour for the
narrative or the novel, the philosophic diner-out, who wants the
chopping-block of a disputable doctrine on which to try the edge of his
faculty. Is it his part, Sludge asks indignantly, to be grateful to the
patrons who have corrupted and debased him?

Gratitude to these?
The gratitude, forsooth, of a prostitute
To the greenhorn and the bully.

The truculence of Sludge is not without warrant; it is indeed no other
than the truculence of Robert Browning, "shaking his mane," as Dante
Rossetti described him in his outbreaks against the spiritualists,
"with occasional foamings at the mouth."[56]

Where then is the little grain of truth which has vitality amid the
putrefaction of Sludge's nature? Liar and cheat as he is, he cannot be
sure "but there was something in it, tricks and all." The spiritual
world, he feels, is as real as the material world; the supernatural
interpenetrates the natural at every point; in little things, as in
great things, God is present. Sludge is aware of the invisible powers at
every nerve:

I guess what's going on outside the veil,
Just as the prisoned crane feels pairing-time
In the islands where his kind are, so must fall
To capering by himself some shiny night
As if your back yard were a plot of spice.

He cheats; yes, but he also apprehends a truth which the world is blind
to. Or, after all, is this cheating when every lie is quick with a germ
of truth? Is not such lying as this a self-desecration, if you will; but
still more a strange, sweet self-sacrifice in the service of truth? At
the lowest is it not required by the very conditions of our poor mortal
life, which remains so sorry a thing, so imperfect, so unendurable until
it is brought into fruitful connection with a future existence? This
world of ours is a cruel, blundering, unintelligible world; but let it
be pervaded by an influx from the next world, how quickly it rights
itself! how intelligible it all grows! And is the faculty of
imagination, the faculty which discovers the things of the spirit--put
to his own uses by the poet and even the historian--is this a power
which cheats its possessor, or cheats those for whose advantage he gives
it play?

Browning's design is to exhibit even in this Sludge the
rudiments--coarse, perverted, abnormally directed and ineffective for
moral good--of that sublime spiritual wisdom, which, turned to its
proper ends and aided by the highest intellectual powers, is present--to
take a lofty exemplar--in his Pope of _The Ring and the Book_. It is not
through spiritualism so-called that Sludge has received his little grain
of truth; that has only darkened the glimmer of true light which was in
him. Yet liar and cheat and coward, he is saved from a purely phantasmal
existence by this fibre of reality which was part of his original
structure. The epilogue--Sludge's outbreak against his corrupter and
tormentor--stands as evidence of the fact that no purifying, no
cleansing, no really illuminating power remains in what is now only a
putrescent luminosity within him. His rage is natural and dramatically
true; a noble rage would be to his honour. This is a base and poisonous
passion with no virtue in it, and the passion, flaring for a moment,
sinks idly into as base a fingering of Sludge's disgraceful gains.


_From a photograph._]

The summer and early autumn of 1853 were spent by Browning and his wife,
as they had spent the same season four years previously, at the Baths of
Lucca. Their house among the hills was shut in by a row of plane-trees
in which by day the cicale were shrill; at evening fireflies lit up
their garden. The green rushing river--"a flashing scimitar that cuts
through the mountain"--the chestnut woods, the sheep-walks, "the
villages on the peaks of the mountains like wild eagles," renewed
their former delights.

On the longer excursions Browning slackened his footsteps to keep pace
with his wife's donkey; basins of strawberries and cream refreshed the
wanderers after their exertion. "Oh those jagged mountains," exclaims
Mrs Browning, "rolled together like pre-Adamite beasts, and setting
their teeth against the sky.... You may as well guess at a lion by a
lady's lap-dog as at Nature by what you see in England. All honour to
England, lanes and meadowland, notwithstanding. To the great trees above
all." The sculptor Story and his family, whose acquaintance they had
made in Florence before Casa Guidi had become their home, were their
neighbours at the Baths, and Robert Lytton was for a time their guest.
Browning worked at his _Men and Women_, of which his wife was able to
report in the autumn that it was in an advanced state. _In a Balcony_
was the most important achievement of the summer. "The scene of the
declaration in _By the Fireside_" Mrs Orr informs us, "was laid in a
little adjacent mountain-gorge to which Browning walked or rode."

Only a few weeks were given to Florence. In perfect autumnal weather the
occupants of Casa Guidi started for Rome. The delightful journey
occupied eight days, and on the way the church of Assisi was seen, and
the falls of Terni--"that passion of the waters,"--so Mrs Browning
describes it, "which makes the human heart seem so still." They entered
Rome in a radiant mood.--"Robert and Penini singing." An apartment had
been taken for them by their friends the Storys in the Via Bocca di
Leone, and all was bright, warm, and full of comfort. Next morning a
shadow fell upon their happiness--the Storys' little boy was seized with
convulsions; in the evening he was dead.[57] A second child--a girl--was
taken ill in the Brownings' house, and could not be moved from where she
lay in a room below their apartment. Mrs Browning was in a panic for her
own boy, though his apple-red cheeks spoke of health. Rome, for a time,
was darkened with grief and anxiety; nor did the city itself impress her
as she had expected: "It's a palimpsest Rome," she writes, "a
watering-place written over the antique." The chief gains of these Roman
months were those of friendship and pleasant acquaintances added to
those already given by Italy. In rooms under those occupied by the
Brownings was Page the American artist, who painted in colours then
regarded as "Venetian," now almost darkened out of existence, as a gift
for Mrs Browning, the portrait of Robert Browning exhibited in the Royal
Academy of 1856. Browning himself wrote to Story with enthusiasm of
Page's work. "I am much disappointed in it," wrote Dante Rossetti to
Allingham, "and shall advise its non-exhibition." A second portrait
painted at this time--that by Fisher--is familiar to us through a
reproduction in the second volume of _The Letters of Mrs Browning_. A
rash act of the morning of the day on which he entered Rome had
deplorably altered Browning's appearance. In what his wife calls a fit
of suicidal impatience, he perpetrated the high crime and misdemeanour,
and appeared before her wholly unworthy of portraiture with
clean-shaven cheeks and chin. "I cried when I saw him," she tells his
sister, "I was so horror-struck." To mark the sin, his beard, when once
again he recovered his good looks, was gray, but Mrs Browning cherished
the opinion that the argentine touch, as she terms it, gave "a character
of elevation and thought to his whole physiognomy." To complete this
history, it may be added that in 1859 the moustache of his later
portraits was first doubtfully permitted and was presently approved with
decision as picturesque.[58]

Under all disadvantages of appearance Browning made his way triumphantly
in the English and American society of Rome. The studios were open to
him. In Gibson's he saw the tinted Venus--"rather a grisette than a
goddess," pronounced Mrs Browning. Harriet Hosmer, the young American
sculptress, working with true independence, high aims and right woman's
manliness, was both admired and loved. Thackeray, with his daughters,
called at the apartment in the Bocca di Leone, bringing small-talk in
"handfuls of glittering dust swept out of salons." Lockhart, snow-white
in aspect, snow-cold in manner, gave Browning emphatic commendation,
though of a negative kind--"He isn't at all," declared Lockhart, "like a
damned literary man." But of many interesting acquaintances perhaps the
most highly valued were Fanny Kemble and her sister Adelaide
Sartoris--Fanny Kemble magnificent, "with her black hair and radiant
smile," her sympathetic voice, "her eyes and eyelids full of
utterance"--a very noble creature indeed; Mrs Sartoris, genial and
generous, more tolerant than Fanny of Mrs Browning's wayward
enthusiasms, eloquent in talk and passionate in song. "The Kembles,"
writes Mrs Browning, "were our gain in Rome."

Towards the end of May 1854 farewells were said, and the Brownings
returned from Rome, to Florence by vettura. They had hoped to visit
England, or if this should prove impracticable, to take shelter among
the mountains from the summer heat. But needful coin on which they had
reckoned did not arrive; and they resolved in prudence to sit still at
Florence and eat their bread and macaroni as poor sensible folk should
do. And Florence looked more beautiful than ever after Rome; the
nightingales sang around the olive-trees and vineyards, not only by
starlight and fire-fly-light but in the daytime. "I love the very stones
of Florence," exclaims Mrs Browning. Her friend Miss Mitford, now in
England, and sadly failing in health, hinted at a loan of money; but the
answer was a prompt, "Oh no! My husband has a family likeness to Lucifer
in being proud." There followed a tranquil and a happy time, and both
_Men and Women_ and _Aurora Leigh_ maintained in the writers a deep
inward excitement of the kind that leaves an enduring result. A little
joint publication; _Two Poems by E.B.B. and R.B_., containing _A Plea
for the Ragged Schools of London_ and _The Twins_, was sold at Miss
Arabella Barrett's Ragged School bazaar in 1854. It is now a waif of
literature which collectors prize. There is special significance in the
_Date_ and _Dabitur_, the twins of Browning's poem, when we bear in mind
the occasion with which it was originally connected.

In the early weeks of 1855 Mrs Browning was seriously ill; through
feverish nights of coughing, she had in her husband a devoted nurse. His
sleepless hours were troubled not only by anxiety on her account but by
a passionate interest in the heroisms and miseries, of his fellow
countrymen during the Crimean winter: "when he is mild _he_ wishes the
ministry to be torn to pieces in the streets, limb from limb." Gradually
his wife regained health, but she had not long recovered when tidings of
the death of Miss Mitford came to sadden her. Not until April did she
feel once more a leap into life. Browning was now actively at work in
anticipation of printing his new volumes during the approaching visit to
England. "He is four hours a day," his wife tells a correspondent,
"engaged in dictating to a friend of ours who transcribes for him." And
a little later she reports that they will take to England between them
some sixteen thousand lines of verse, "eight on one side, eight on the
other," her husband's total being already completed, her own still short
of the sum by a thousand lines. Allowance, as she pleads, had to be made
for time spent in seeing that "Penini's little trousers are creditably
frilled and tucked." On the whole, notwithstanding illness and wrath
directed against English ministerial blunders, this year of life in
Florence had been rich in happiness--a "still dream-life, where if one
is over-busy ever, the old tapestries on the walls and the pre-Giotto
pictures ... surround us, ready to quiet us again."[59] London lodgings
did not look inviting from the distance of Italy; but the summons north
was a summons to work, and could not be set aside.

The midsummer of 1855 found Browning and his wife in 13 Dorset Street,
London, and Browning's sister was with them. The faithful Wilson, Mrs
Browning's maid, had married a Florentine, Ferdinando Romagnoli, and the
husband also was now in their service. The weeks until mid-October were
occupied with social pleasures and close proof-reading of the sheets of
_Men and Women_[60] Browning took his young friend the artist Leighton
to visit Ruskin, and was graciously received. Carlyle was, as formerly,
"in great force, particularly in the damnatory clauses." But the weather
was drooping, the skies misty, the air oppressive, and Mrs Browning,
apart from these, had special causes of depression. Her married sister
Henrietta was away in Taunton, and the cost of travel prevented the
sisters from meeting. Arabella Barrett--"my one light in London" is Mrs
Browning's word--was too soon obliged to depart to Eastbourne. And the
Barrett household was disturbed by the undutifulness of a son who had
been guilty of the unpardonable crime of marriage, and in consequence
was now exiled from Wimpole Street. In body and soul Mrs Browning felt
strong yearnings for the calm of Casa Guidi.

The year 1855 was a fortunate year for English poetry. _Men and Women_
was published in the autumn; the beautiful epilogue, addressed to
E.B.B., "There they are, my fifty men and women," was written in Dorset
Street. Tennyson's _Maud_ had preceded Browning's volumes by some
months. It bewildered the critics, but his brother poet did justice to
Tennyson's passionate sequence of dramatic lyrics. And though London in
mid-autumn had emptied itself Tennyson happened for a few days to be in
town. Two evenings he gave to the Brownings, "dined with us," writes Mrs
Browning, "smoked with us, opened his heart to us (and the second bottle
of port), and ended by reading _Maud_ through from end to end, and going
away at half-past two in the morning." His delightful frankness and
simplicity charmed his hostess. "Think of his stopping in _Maud_," she
goes on, "every now and then--'There's a wonderful touch! That's very
tender! How beautiful that is!' Yes and it _was_ wonderful, tender,
beautiful, and he read exquisitely in a voice like an organ, rather
music than speech."

One of the few persons who were invited to meet Tennyson on this
occasion, Mr W.M. Rossetti, is still living, and his record of that
memorable evening ought not to be omitted. "The audience was a small
one, the privilege accorded to each individual all the higher: Mr and
Mrs Browning, Miss Browning, my brother, and myself, and I think there
was one more--either Madox Brown or else [Holman] Hunt or Woolner ...
Tennyson, seated on a sofa in a characteristic attitude, and holding the
volume near his eyes ... read _Maud_ right through. My brother made two
pen-and-ink sketches of him, and gave one of them to Browning. So far as
I remember, the Poet-Laureate neither saw what Dante was doing, nor knew
of it afterwards. His deep grand voice, with slightly chaunting
intonation, was a noble vehicle for the perusal of mighty verse. On it
rolled, sonorous and emotional. Dante Rossetti, according to Mr Hall
Caine, spoke of the incident in these terms: 'I once heard Tennyson
read _Maud_; and, whilst the fiery passages were delivered with a voice
and vehemence which he alone of living men can compass, the softer
passages and the songs made the tears course down his cheeks.' ... After
Tennyson and _Maud_ came Browning and _Fra Lippo Lippi_--read with as
much sprightly variation as there was in Tennyson of sustained
continuity. Truly a night of the gods, not to be remembered without
pride and pang."[61] A quotation from a letter of Dante Rossetti to
Allingham gives praise to Mrs Browning of a kind which resembles
Lockhart's commendation of her husband: "What a delightful unliterary
person Mrs Browning is to meet! During two evenings when Tennyson was at
their house in London, Mrs Browning left Tennyson with her husband and
William and me (who were the fortunate remnant of the male party) to
discuss the universe, and gave all her attention to some certainly not
very exciting ladies in the next room."[62] Without detracting from Mrs
Browning's "unliterary" merits, one may conjecture that the ladies who
proved unexciting to Rossetti were Arabella Barrett and Sarianna


[Footnote 48: Browning's Essay on Shelley was reprinted by Dr Furnivall
in "The Browning Society's Papers," 1881-84, Part I.]

[Footnote 49: Letters of E.B.B. ii. 284. On Milsand, the article "A
French friend of Browning," by Th. Bentzon, is valuable and

[Footnote 50: Mrs Orr says that Browning always thought Mrs Carlyle "a
hard and unlovable woman"; she adds, "I believe little liking was lost
between them." Mrs Ritchie, in her "Records of Tennyson, Ruskin, and
Browning" (pp. 250, 251), tells with spirit the story of Browning and
Mrs Carlyle's kettle, which, on being told to "put it down," in an
absent mood he planted upon her new carpet. "Ye should have been more
explicit," said Carlyle to his wife.]

[Footnote 51: See Letters of E.B.B. ii. 127.]

[Footnote 52: Letters of E.B.B. ii. 99.]

[Footnote 53: Letter of F. Tennyson, in Memoir of Alfred Tennyson, by
his son, chapter xviii.]

[Footnote 54: Mr Kenyon's note, vol. ii. 142 of Letters of E.B.B.]

[Footnote 55: _Times Lit. Supplement_, Dec. 5, 1902.]

[Footnote 56: Miss Cobbe's testimony is similar, and Lehmann says that
at Home's name Browning would grow pale with passion.]

[Footnote 57: See "Story and his Friends," by Henry James, 1903, vol. i.
pp. 284, 285.]

[Footnote 58: Letters of E.B.B., ii. 345.]

[Footnote 59: E.B.B. to Ruskin, _Letters_, ii. 199.]

[Footnote 60: Which, however, did not prevent certain errors noted in a
letter of Browning to Dante Rossetti.]

[Footnote 61: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His "Family Letters," i. 190,

[Footnote 62: Letters of D.G. Rossetti to William Allingham, 162. See
Mrs Browning's letter to Mrs Tennyson in Memoir of Tennyson by his son,
I vol. edition, p. 329.]


_By himself. A detail from the fresco in the Cathedral at Praia from a
photograph by_ ALINARI.]

Chapter IX

Men and Women

Rossetti expresses his first enthusiasm about _Men and Women_ in a word
when he calls the poems "my Elixir of Life." To Ruskin these, with other
pieces which he now read for the first time, were as he declared in a
rebellious mood, a mass of conundrums. "He compelled me," Rossetti adds,
"to sit down before him and lay siege for one whole night; the result of
which was that he sent me next morning a bulky letter to be forwarded to
Browning, in which I trust he told him he was the greatest man since
Shakespeare." The poems of the two new volumes were the gradual growth
of a considerable number of years; since 1845 their author had published
no group of short poems, and now, at the age of forty-three, he had
attained the fulness of intellectual and imaginative power, varied
experience of life and the artistic culture of Italy. The _Dramatis
Personae_ of 1864 exhibits no decline from the high level reached in the
volumes of 1855; but is there any later volume of miscellaneous poetry
by Browning which, taken as a whole, approaches in excellence the
collections of 1855 and 1864?

There is no need now to "lay siege" to the poems of _Men and Women_;
they have expounded themselves, if ever they needed exposition; and the
truth is that they are by no means nut-shells into which mottoes meant
for the construing of the intellect have been inserted, but fruits rich
in colour and perfume, a feast for the imagination, the passions, the
spirit in sense, and also for the faculty of thought which lives in the
heart of these. If a criticism or a doctrine of life lies in them--and
that it should do so means that the poet's total mind has been taken up
into his art--Browning conveys his doctrine not as such but as an
enthusiasm of living; his generalized truth saturates a medium of
passion and of beauty. In the Prologue to _Fifine at the Fair_ he
compares the joy of poetry to a swimmer's joy in the sea: the vigour
that such disport in sun and sea communicates is the vigour of joyous
play; afterwards, if we please, we can ascertain the constituents of
sea-water by a chemical analysis; but the analysis will not convey to us
the sensations of the sunshine and the dancing brine. One of the
blank-verse pieces of _Men and Women_ rebukes a youthful poet of the
transcendental school whose ambition is to set forth "stark-naked
thought" in poetry. Why take the harp to his breast "only to speak dry
words across the strings"? Better hollo abstract ideas through the
six-foot Alpine horn of prose. Boys may desire the interpretation into
bare ideas of those thronging objects which obsess their senses and
their feelings; men need art for the delight of it, and the strength
which comes through delight. Better than the meaning of a rose is the
rose itself with its spirit enveloped in colour and perfume. And so the
poet for men will resemble that old mage John of Halberstadt:

He with a 'look you!' vents a brace of rhymes,
And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,
Over us, under, round us every side,

* * * * *

Buries us with a glory, young once more,
Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.

Browning in _Men and Women_ is in truth a John of Halberstadt; he
enriches life with colour, warmth, music, romance, not dissociated from
thought and intellectual energy, rather possessing and being possessed
by these. Not a single poem is "stark-naked thought"; not a single poem
is addressed solely to the intellect; even _Bishop Blougram_ is rather a
presentation of character than a train of argument or a chain of ideas.

In few of these poems does Browning speak in his own person; the verses
addressed to his wife, which present her with "his fifty men and women"
and tell of mysteries of love that can never be told, the lines,
_Memorabilia_, addressed to one who had seen Shelley, and _Old Pictures
in Florence_, are perhaps the only exceptions to the dramatic character
of the contents of the two volumes. Yet through them all Browning's mind
is clearly discernible; and even his central convictions, his working
creed of life, can with no sense of uncertainty be gathered from them.
To attribute to the writer the opinions and the feelings of his
_dramatis personae_ would of course be the crudest of mistakes. But when
an idea persists through many poems written at various times and
seasons, when it appears and reappears under various clothings of
circumstance, when it is employed as if it had a crucial value, when it
becomes a test or touchstone of character, we cannot doubt that it is an
intimate possession of the writer's mind. Such an idea is not a mere
playmate but rather a confidant. When, again, after a tangle of
casuistic reasoning or an embroilment of contending feelings, some idea
suddenly flashes forth, and like a sword sunders truth from falsehood
and darkness from light, we may be assured that it has more than a
dramatic value. And, once more, if again and again the same idea shows
its power over the feelings and inspires elevated lyrical utterance, or
if in pieces of casuistical brain-work it enters as a passionate element
and domineers by its own authority, if it originates not debate but song
or that from which song is made, we know that the writer's heart has
embraced it as a truth of the emotions.

Because Browning had his own well-defined view of truth, he could
confidently lend his mind away to his fifty or his hundred men and
women. They served to give his ideas a concrete body. By sympathy and by
intelligence he widened the basis of his own existence. If the poet
loses himself to find himself again through sympathy with external
nature, how much more and in how many enriching ways through sympathy
with humanity! Thus new combinations of thought and feeling are
effected. Thus a kind of experiment is made with our own ideas by
watching how they behave when brought into connection with these new
combinations. Truth is relative, and the best truth of our own is worth
testing under various conditions and circumstances. The truth or
falsehood which is not our own has a right to say the best for itself
that can be said. Let truth and falsehood grapple. Let us hear the
counter-truth or the rival falsehood which is the complement or the
criticism of our own, and hear it stated with the utmost skill. A
Luther would surely be the wiser for an evening spent in company with a
Blougram; and Blougram has things to tell us which Luther never knew.
But precisely because truth is relative we must finally adhere to our
own perceptions; they constitute the light for us; and the justice we
would do to others we must also render to ourselves. A wide survey may
be made from a fixed centre. "Universal sympathies," Miss Barrett wrote
in one of the letters to her future husband, "cannot make a man
inconsistent, but on the contrary sublimely consistent. A church tower
may stand between the mountains and the sea, looking to either, and
stand fast: but the willow tree at the gable-end blown now toward the
north and now toward the south, while its natural leaning is due east or
west, is different altogether ... _as_ different as a willow tree from a
church tower."[63]

The fifty poems of _Men and Women_, with a few exceptions, fall into
three principal groups--those which interpret various careers or moods
or moments of love; those which deal with the fine arts--painting,
poetry, music--and with these we may class, as kindred in spirit, that
poem which has for its subject the passionate pursuit of knowledge, _A
Grammarian's Funeral_; and thirdly, those which are connected with
religious thought and feeling, or present scenes from the history of
religions. Two poems may be called descriptive; both are Italian; both
are founded upon a rivalry of contrasts, but one, _Up at a Villa--Down
in the City_, is made up of humorous observations of Italian city and
country life, expressing the mundane tastes and prudent economies of an
Italian person of quality; the other, "_De Gustibus_--," which contrasts
the happy quietudes of English landscape with the passionate landscape
of the South, has romance at the heart of its realism and an ardour of
sentiment underlying its pictorial vividness. _The Patriot_ is again
Italian, suggested perhaps by the swift revolutions and restorations
which Browning had witnessed in Florence, and again it uses with
striking effect the principle of contrast; the patriot who a year ago
had his intoxicating triumph is now on his way to the scaffold. His
year's toil for the good of his people has turned into a year's
misdeeds, his life is a failure; but Browning characteristically wrings
a victory out of defeat; the crowd at the shambles' gate may hoot; it is
better so, for now the martyr can throw himself upon God, the Paymaster
of all his labourers at the close of day. The most remarkable of these
poems, which refuse to take their places in a group, is that forlorn
romance of weary and depressed heroism, _Childe Roland to the Dark Tower
came_. It is in the main a fantaisie of description; but involved with
the descriptive study is a romantic motive. The external suggestions for
the poem were no more than the words from _King Lear_ which form the
title, a tower seen in the Carrara mountains, a painting seen in Paris,
and the figure of a horse in the tapestry of the drawing-room of Casa
Guidi.[64] In his own mind Browning may have put the question: Of all
the feats of knight-errantry which is the hardest? Not to combat with
dragons, or robbers, or salvage men; not to bear down rival champions
in a rapture of battle. Not these, but to cling to a purpose amid all
that depresses the senses at a time when the heart within us is also
failing; to advance where there is nothing to arouse energy by
opposition, and everything without and within to sap the very life of
the soul. Childe Roland is himself hopeless and almost heartless; the
plain to which the leering cripple had pointed and over which he rides
is created in the utter indigence of nature--a very nightmare of poverty
and mean repulsiveness. And yet he endures the test, and halts only when
he faces the Dark Tower and blows the blast upon his horn. Browning was
wise to carry his romance no further; the one moment of action is
enough; it is the breaking of the spell, the waking from the nightmare,
and at that point the long-enduring quester may be left. We are
defrauded of nothing by the abrupt conclusion.

In the poems which treat of the love of man and woman Browning regards
the union of soul with soul as the capital achievement of life, and also
as affording one of its chief tests. When we have formed these into a
group we perceive that the group falls in the main into two
divisions--poems which tell of attainment, and poems which tell of
failure or defeat. Certain persons whose centre is a little hard kernel
of egoism may be wholly disqualified for the test created by a generous
passion. Browning does not belabour with heavy invective the _Pretty
Woman_ of his poem, who is born without a heart; she is a flower-like
creature and of her kind is perfect; only the flower is to be gazed at,
not gathered; or, if it must be gathered, then at last to be thrown
away. The chief distinction between the love of man and the love of
woman, implied in various poems, is this--the man at his most blissful
moment cries "What treasures I have obtained!" the woman cries "What
treasures have I to surrender and bestow?" Hence the singleness and
finality in the election of passion made by a woman as compared with a
man's acquisitiveness of delight. The unequal exchange of a transitory
for an enduring surrender of self is the sorrow which pulsates through
the lines of _In a Year_, as swift and broken with pauses as the beating
of a heart:

Dear, the pang is brief,
Do thy part,
Have thy pleasure! How perplexed
Grows belief!
Well, this cold clay clod
Was man's heart:
Crumble it and what comes next?
Is it God?

And with no chilling of love on the man's part, this is the point of
central pain, in that poem of exquisite and pathetic distrust at the
heart of trust and admiration, _Any Wife to any Husband_; noble and
faithful as the husband has been, still he is only a man. But elsewhere
Browning does justice to the pure chivalry of a man's devotion.
Caponsacchi's joy is the joy of a saviour who himself is saved; the
great event of his life by which he is lifted above self is single and
ultimate; his soul is delivered from careless egoism once and for ever;
the grace of love is here what the theologians called invincible grace,
and invincible grace, we know, results in final perseverance. Even here
in _Men and Women_ two contrasted poems assure us that, while the
passion of a man may be no more than _Love in a Life_, it may also be
an unweariable _Life in a Love_.

Of the poems of attainment one--_Respectability_--has the spirit of
youth and gaiety in it. Here love makes its gallant bid for freedom,
fires up for lawlessness, if need be, and at least sets convention at

The world's good word!--the Institute!
Guizot receives Montalembert!
Eh? Down the court three lampions flare:
Set forward your best foot!

But, after all, this love may be no more than an adventure of the
boulevard and the attic in the manner of Beranger's gay Bohemianism. The
distance is wide between such elan of youthful passion and the fidelity
which is inevitable, and on which age has set its seal, in that poem of
perfect attainment, _By the Fireside_. This is the love which completes
the individual life and at the same time incorporates it with the life
of humanity, which unites as one the past and the present, and which,
owing no allegiance of a servile kind to time, becomes a pledge for
futurity. Browning's personal experience is here taken up into his
imagination and transfigured, but its substance remains what it had been
in literal fact.

The poems of failure are more numerous, and they range through various
degrees and kinds of failure. It is not death which can bring the sense
of failure to love. In _Evelyn Hope_ all the passion has been on the
man's side; all possibilities of love in the virginal heart of the dead
girl, all her warmth and sweetness, had been folded in the bud. But
death, in the mood of infinite tenderness and unfulfilled aspiration
which the poem expresses, seems no bar to some far-off attainment, of
which the speaker's passion, breaking through time, is the assurance, an
attainment the nature of which he cannot divine but which will surely
explain the meaning of things that are now obscure. Perhaps the saddest
and the most hopeless kind of failure is that in which, to borrow an
image from the old allegory, the arrow of love all but flies to the mark
and yet just misses it. This is the subject of a poem equally admirable
in its descriptive and its emotional passages, _Two in the Campagna_.
The line "One near one is too far," might serve as its motto.
Satisfaction is all but reached and never can be reached. Two hearts
touch and never can unite. One drop of the salt estranging sea is as
unplumbed as the whole ocean. And the only possible end is

Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.[65]

Compared with such a failure as this an offer of love rejected, rejected
with decision but not ungenerously, may be accounted a success. There is
something tonic to a brave heart in the putting forth of will, even
though it encounter an obstacle which cannot be removed. Such is the
mood which is presented in _One Way of Love_; the foiled lover has at
least made his supreme effort; it has been fruitless, but he thinks with
satisfaction that he has played boldly for the prize, and never can he
say that it was not worth risking all on the bare chance of success:

She will not give me heaven? 'Tis well!
Lose who may--I still can say
Those who win heaven, blest are they!

So, too, in _The Last Ride together_, the lover is defeated but he is
not cast down, and he remains magnanimous throughout the grief of
defeat. Who in this our life--he reflects--statesman or soldier,
sculptor or poet, attains his complete ideal? He has been granted the
grace of one hour by his mistress' side, and he will carry the grateful
recollection of this with him into the future as his inalienable and his
best possession. With these generous rejections and magnanimous
acceptances of failure stands in contrast _A Serenade at the Villa_,
where the lover's devotion is met only by obdurate insensibility or,
worse, by an irritated sense of the persecution and plague of such love,
and where all things seem to conspire to leave his pain mere pain,
bitter and unredeemed.

In these examples, though love has been frustrated in its aim, the cause
of failure did not lie in any infirmity of the lover's heart or will.
But what if the will itself be supine, what if it dallies and delays,
consults the convenience of occasions, observes the indications of a
shallow prudence, slackens its pace towards the goal, and meanwhile the
passion languishes and grows pale from day to day, until the day of love
has waned, and the passion dies in a twilight hour through mere
inanition? Such a failure as this seems to Browning to mean the
perishing of a soul, or of more souls than one. He takes in _The Statue
and the Bust_ a case where the fulfilment of passion would have been a
crime. The lady is a bride of the Riccardi; to win her, now a wedded
wife, would be to violate the law of God and man. Nevertheless it is her
face which has "filled the empty sheath of a man" with a blade for a
knight's adventure--The

Duke grew straightway brave and wise.

And then follow delays of convenience, excuses, postponements, and the
Duke's flood of passion dwindles to a thread, and is lost in the sandy
flats of life:

So weeks grew months, years; gleam by gleam
The glory dropped from their youth and love,
And both perceived they had dreamed a dream.

Their end was a crime, but Browning's contention is that a crime may
serve for a test as well as a virtue; in that test the Duke and the lady
had alike failed through mere languor of soul:

And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost
Is--the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin,
Though the end in sight was a vice, I say.

Had Tennyson treated the same subject he would probably have glorified
their action as a victorious obedience to the law of self-reverence and

The reunion and the severance of lovers are presented in three poems.
Winter, chill without but warm within, with its pastimes of passion, the
energies of joy breaking forth in play, is contrasted in _A Lovers'
Quarrel_ with springtime, all gladness without and a strange void and
shiver at the heart of things, because alienation has taken the place of
camaraderie between the lover and his mistress. The mass and intensity
of colour in the stanza which dashes in a sketch of the Pampas, with its
leagues of sunflowers, and a wild horse, "black neck and eyeballs keen"
appearing through them, almost afflict the reader's sense of sight.
There is a fine irony in the title of the other poem of contention, _A
Womans Last Word_: In a quarrel a woman will have the last word, and
here it is--the need of quietude for a little while that she may recover
from the bewildering stroke of pain, and then entire oblivion of the
wrong with unmeasured self-surrender. The poem of union, _Love among the
Ruins_, is constructed in a triple contrast; the endless pastures
prolonged to the edge of sunset, with their infinity of calm, are
contrasted with the vast and magnificent animation of the city which
once occupied the plain and the mountain slopes. The lover keeps at
arm's-length from his heart and brain what yet fills them all the while;
here in this placid pasture-land is one vivid point of intensest life;
here where once were the grandeur and tumult of the enormous city is
that which in a moment can abolish for the lover all its glories and its
shames. His eager anticipation of meeting his beloved, face to face and
heart to heart, is not sung, after the manner of Burns, as a jet of
unmingled joy; he delays his rapture to make its arrival more entirely
rapturous; he uses his imagination to check and to enhance his passion;
and the poem, though not a simple cry of the heart, is entirely true as
a rendering of emotion which has taken imagination into its service. In
like manner _By the Fireside, A Serenade at the Villa_, and _Two in the
Campagna_, include certain studies of nature and its moods, sometimes
with a curiously minute observation of details; and these serve as the
overture to some intense moment of joy or pain, or form the
orchestration which sustains or reinforces a human voice.

Of the pieces relating to art those connected with the art of poetry are
the least valuable. _Transcendentalism_ sets forth the old doctrine that
poetry must be sensuous and passionate, leaving it to philosophy to
deal with the naked abstractions of the intellect. _How it strikes a
Contemporary_ shows by a humorous example how a poet's character and
private life may be misconceived and misrepresented by those among whom
he moves. _Popularity_ maintains that the poet who is in the highest
sense original, an inventor of new things, may be wholly disregarded for
long, while his followers and imitators secure both the porridge and the
praise; one day God's hand, which holds him, will open and let out all
the beauty. The thought is an obvious one enough, but the image of the
fisher and the murex, in which the thought is embodied, affords
opportunity for stanzas glowing with colour. Two poems, and each of them
a remarkable poem, are interpretations of music. One, _Master Hugues of
Saxe-Gotha_, is a singularly successful _tour de force_, if it is no
more. Poetry inspired by music is almost invariably the rendering of a
sentiment or a mood which the music is supposed to express; but here, in
dealing with the fugue of his imaginary German composer, Browning finds
his inspiration not in the sentiment but in the structure of the
composition; he competes, as it were, in language with the art or
science of the contrapuntist, and evolves an idea of his own from its
complexity and elaboration. The poem of Italian music, _A Toccata of
Galuppi's_, wholly subordinates the science to the sentiment of the
piece. It is steeped in the melancholy of pleasure; Venice of the
eighteenth century lives before us with its mundane joys, its transitory
passions, its voluptuous hours; and in the midst of its warmth and
colour a chill creeps upon our senses and we shiver. Browning's
artistic self-restraint is admirable; he has his own truth to utter
aloud if he should please; but here he will not play the prophet; the
life of eighteenth-century Venice is dust and ashes; the poet will say
not a word more than the musician has said in his toccata; the
ruthlessness of time and death make him a little remorseful; it is
enough, and too much, that through this music of the hours of love and
pleasure we should hear, as it were, the fall of the clay upon a

Shelley was more impressed by the sculpture than the paintings of Italy.
There are few evidences of the influence of the most ideal of the arts
that appeal to the mind through the eye in Browning's poetry; and his
sympathies would be more apt to respond to such work as Michael
Angelo's, which sends the spectator beyond itself, than to the classical
work which has the absoluteness and the calm of attained perfection.[66]
The sensuous and the spiritual qualities of colour were vividly felt by
him; a yellowing old marble seemed perhaps to impose itself with a cold
authority upon the imagination. But the suggestion of two portrait busts
of the period of classical decadence, one in marble representing a boy,
and the other the powerful head of a man in granite, gave rise to
_Protus_, one of the few flawless poems of Browning. His mastery over
the rhymed couplet is nowhere seen to greater advantage, unless it be in
a few passages of _Sordello_. The poem is, however, more a page from
history than a study in the fine arts; and Browning's imagination has
made it a page which lives in our memory through a pathos veiled under
strong objective touches, never protruding itself sentimentally in
quest of tenderness or pity.

"I spent some most delightful time," Rossetti wrote to Allingham shortly
after the publication of _Men and Women_, "with Browning at Paris, both
in the evenings and at the Louvre, where (and throughout conversation) I
found his knowledge of early Italian art beyond that of any one I ever
met--_encyclopedically_ beyond that of Ruskin himself." The poem _Old
Pictures at Florence_, which Rossetti calls "a jolly thing," and which
is that and much more, is full of Browning's learned enthusiasm for the
early Italian painters, and it gives a reason for the strong attraction
which their adventures after new beauty and passion had for him as
compared with the faultless achievements of classical sculpture. Greek
art, according to Browning, by presenting unattainable ideals of
material and mundane perfection, taught men to submit. Early Christian
art, even by faultily presenting spiritual ideals, not to be attained on
earth but to be pursued through an immortal life, taught men to aspire.
The aim of these painters was not to exhibit strength or grace, joy or
grief, rage or love in their complete earthly attainment, but rather to

Make new hopes shine through the flesh they fray,
New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters:
To bring the invisible full into play!
Let the visible go to the dogs--what matters?

[Illustration: ANDREA DEL SARTO.

_From a print after the portrait by himself in the Uffizi Gallery,

The prophecy with which the poem concludes, of a great revival of
Italian art consequent on the advent of political and intellectual
liberty, has not obtained fulfilment in the course of the half century
that has elapsed since it was uttered. Browning's doctrine that
aspiration towards what is higher is more to be valued in art than
the attainment of what is lower is a leading motive in the admirable
dramatic monologue placed in the lips of Andrea del Sarto, the faultless
painter. His craftsmanship is unerring; whatever he imagines he can
achieve; nothing in line or in colour is other than it ought to be; and
yet precisely because he has succeeded, his failure is profound and

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!

He could set right the arm which is wrongly put in Rafael's work that
fronts him; but "all the play, the insight and the stretch" of Rafael
are lacking in his own faultless lines. He looks back regretfully to his
kingly days at Fontainebleau with the royal Francis, when what seemed a
veritable fire was in his heart. And he tries to find an excuse for his
failure as artist and as man in the coldness of his beautiful
Lucrezia--for he who has failed in the higher art has also failed in the
higher love--Lucrezia, who values his work only by the coins it brings
in, and who needs those coins just now for one whose whistle invites her
away. All might be so much better otherwise! Yet otherwise he cannot
choose that it should be; his art must remain what it is--not golden but
silver-grey; and his Lucrezia may attend to the Cousin's whistle if only
she retains the charm, not to be evaded, of her beauty.[67]

Browning does not mean that art in its passionate pursuit of the
highest ends should be indifferent to the means, or that things
spiritual do not require as adequate a sensuous embodiment as they are
capable of receiving from the painter's brush or the poet's pen. Were
art a mere symbol or suggestion, two bits of sticks nailed crosswise
might claim to be art as admirable as any. What is the eye for, if not
to see with vivid exactness? what is the hand for, if not to fashion
things as nature made them? It is through body that we reach after the
soul; and the passion for truth and reality is a passion for the
invisible which is expressed in and through these. Such is the pleading
of Fra Lippo Lippi, the tonsured painter caught out of bounds, in that
poem in which the dramatic monologue of Browning attains its perfection
of life and energy. Fra Lippo is intoxicated by the mere forms and
colours of things, and he is assured that these mean intensely and mean

The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises--and God made it all!

These are the gospel to preach which he girds loin and lights the lamp,
though he may perforce indulge a patron in shallower pieties of the
conventional order, and though it is not all gospel with him, for now
and again, when the moon shines and girls go skipping and singing down
Florence streets--"Zooks, sir, flesh and blood, that's all I'm made of!"
Fra Lippo with his outbreaks of frank sensuality is far nearer to
Browning's kingdom of heaven than is the faultless painter; he presses
with ardour towards his proper goal in art; he has full faith in the
ideal, but with him it is to be sought only through the real; or rather
it need not be sought at all, for one who captures any fragment of
reality captures also undesignedly and inevitably its divine

The same doctrine which is applied to art in _Old Pictures in Florence_,
that high aims, though unattained, are of more worth than a lower
achievement, is applied, and with a fine lyrical enthusiasm, to the
pursuit of knowledge in _A Grammarian's Funeral_. The time is "shortly
after the Revival of Learning in Europe"; the place--

a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture!--

is imagined to suit the idea of the poem. The dead scholar, borne to the
summit for burial on the shoulders of his disciples, had been possessed
by the aspiration of Paracelsus--to know; and, unlike Paracelsus, he had
never sought on earth both to know and to enjoy. He has been the saint
and the martyr of Renaissance philology. For the genius of such a writer
as the author of _Hudibras_, with his positive intellect and dense
common sense, there could hardly have been found a fitter object for
mockery than this remorseless and indefatigable pedant. Browning,
through the singing voices of the dead master's disciples, exalts him to
an eminence of honour and splendid fame. To a scholar Greek particles
may serve as the fittest test of virtue; this glorious pedant has
postponed life and the enjoyments of life to future cycles of existence;
here on earth he expends a desperate passion--upon what? Upon the
dryasdust intricacies of grammar; and it is not as though he had already
attained; he only desperately follows after:

That low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it:
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.

But again the grammarian, like the painter, does not strive after a
vague, transcendental ideal; he is not as one that beateth the air; his
quest for knowledge is definite and positive enough; he throws all care
for infinite things, except the infinite of philological accuracy, upon
God; and the viaticum of his last moments is one more point of grammar.

Two of the poems of _Men and Women_ are pages tragic-grotesque and
pathetic-grotesque from the history of religion. In _The Heretic s
Tragedy_ John, Master of the Temple, burns alive in Paris square for his
sins against the faith and Holy Church; the glow of the blazing larch
and pine almost reaches the reader of the stanzas; the great petals of
this red rose of flame bend towards him; the gust of sulphur offends his
nostrils. And the rage of piety is hotter than the fire; it is a mingled
passion, compounded of delight in the fierce spectacle, a thrilling
ecstacy at the sight of a fellow-creature tortured, the self-complacency
of conscious orthodoxy, and the horrible zeal of the Lord's house. Yet
though the event is sung by one of the rejoicing orthodox, somehow we
are made to feel that when John the apostate, bound in the flames and
gagged, prays to Jesus Christ to save him, that prayer may have been
answered. This passage from the story of the age of faith was not
selected with a view to please the mediaeval revivalists of the
nineteenth century, but in truth its chief value is not theological or
historical but artistic. _Holy Cross Day_, a second fragment from
history, does not fall from the sublime to the ridiculous but rises from
the ridiculous to the sublime. The picture of the close-packed Jews
tumbling or sidling churchwards to hear the Christian sermon (for He
saith "Compel them to come in") and to partake of heavenly grace has in
it something of Rembrandt united with something of Callot. Such a crew
of devout impostors is at once comic and piteous. But while they are
cared for in the merciful bowels of the Church, and groan out the
expected compunction, their ancient piety is not extinct; their hearts
burn in them with the memory of Jacob's House and of Jerusalem. Christ
at least was of their kindred, and if they wronged Him in past time,
they will not wrong Him now by naming these who outrage and insult them
after His name.

The historical distortions of the religion of Christ do not, however,
disturb the faith of Browning in the Christian revelation of Divine
love. In _Cleon_ he exhibits the failure of Paganism, even in its forms
of highest culture, to solve the riddle of life and to answer the
requirements of the human spirit. All that regal power liberally and
wisely used can confer belongs to Protus in his Tyranny; all that
genius, and learning and art can confer is the possession of Cleon; and
a profound discouragement has settled down upon the soul of each. The
race progresses from point to point; self-consciousness is deepened and
quickened as generation succeeds generation; the sympathies of the
individual are multiplied and extended. But he that increases knowledge,
increases sorrow; most progress is most failure; the soul climbs the
heights only to perish there. Every day the sense of joy grows more
acute; every day the soul grows more enlarged; and every day the power
to put our best attainments to use diminishes. "And how dieth the wise
man? As the fool. Therefore I hated life; yea, I hated all my labour
that I had taken under the sun." The poem is, indeed, an Ecclesiastes of
pagan religion. The assurance of extinction is the worm which gnaws at
the heart of the rose:

It is so horrible
I dare at times imagine to my need
Some future state revealed to us by Zeus,
Unlimited in capability
For joy, as this is in desire for joy.

But this is no better than a dream; Zeus could not but have revealed it,
were it possible. Browning does not bring his Cleon, as Pater brings his
Marius, into the Christian catacombs, where the image of the Shepherd
bearing his lamb might interpret the mystery of death, nor to that house
of Cecilia where Marius sees a new joy illuminating every face. Cleon
has heard of Paulus and of Christus, but who can suppose that a mere
barbarian Jew

Hath access to a secret shut from us?

The doctrine of Christ, preached on the island by certain slaves, is
reported by an intelligent listener to be one which no sane man can
accept. And Cleon will not squander the time that might be well
employed in studying the proportions of a man or in combining the moods
of music--the later hours of a philosopher and a poet--on the futile
creed of slaves.

Immortality and Divine love--these were the great words pronounced by
Paul and by Christ. _Cleon_ is the despairing cry of Pagan culture for
the life beyond the grave which would attune to harmony the dissonances
of earth, and render intelligible its mournful obscurities. _Saul_, in
the completed form of 1855, and _An Epistle of Karshish_ are, the one a
prophecy, the other a divination, of the mystery of the love of God in
the life and death of his Son. The culminating moment in the effort of
David by which he rouses to life the sunken soul of the King, the moment
towards which all others tend, is that in which he finds in his own
nature love as God's ultimate gift, and assured that in this, as in
other gifts, the creature cannot surpass the Creator, he breaks forth
into a prophecy of God's love made perfect in weakness:

O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me
Thou shalt love and be loved by, for ever: a Hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!

What follows in the poem is only the awe, the solemnity of this
discovery which has come not through any processes of reasoning but by a
passionate interpretation of the enthusiasm of love and self-sacrifice
in David's own heart; only this awe, and the seeming extension of his
throbbing emotion and pent knowledge over the face of external nature,
until night passes and with the dawn earth and heaven resume their
wonted ways. The case of Lazarus as studied by Karshish the Arabian
physician results not in a rapturous prophecy like that of David, but in
a stupendous conjecture of the heart which all the scepticism of the
brain of a man of science cannot banish or reduce to insignificance. The
unaccountable fascination of this case of mania, subinduced by epilepsy,
is not to be resisted; Karshish would write, if he could, of more
important matters than the madman of Bethany; he would record his
discoveries in scalp-disease, describe the peculiar qualities of Judea's
gum-tragacanth, and disclose the secret of those virtues derived from
the mottled spiders of the tombs. But the face of Lazarus, patient or
joyous, the strange remoteness in his gaze, his singular valuations of
objects and events, his great ardour, his great calm, his possession of
some secret which gives new meanings to all things, the perfect logic of
his irrationality, his unexampled gentleness and love--these are
memories which the keen-sighted Arabian physician is unable to put by,
so curious, so attaching a potency lies in the person of this man who
holds that he was dead and rose again, Karshish has a certain sense of
shame that he, a man learned in all the wisdom of his day, should be so
deeply moved. And yet how the thought of the secret possessed by this
Judean maniac--it is the secret of Jesus--fills and expands the soul!

The very God! think, Abib: dost thou think?
So, the All-Great were the All-Loving too--
So through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying "O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!"

Science has at least something to consider in a thought so strangely

A nineteenth-century sceptic's exposition of his Christian faith is the
paradoxical subject of _Bishop Blougram's Apology_, and it is one which
admirably suited that side of Browning's genius which leaned towards
intellectual casuistry. But the poem is not only skilful casuistry--and
casuistry, let it be remembered, is not properly the art of defending
falsehood but of determining truth,--it is also a character-study chosen
from the age of doubt; a dramatic monologue with an appropriate _mise en
scene_; a display of fence and thrust which as a piece of art and wit
rewards an intelligent spectator. That Cardinal Wiseman sat for the
Bishop's portrait is a matter of little consequence; the merit of the
study is independent of any connection with an individual; it answers
delightfully the cynical--yet not wholly cynical--question: How, for our
gain in both worlds, can we best economise our scepticism and make a
little belief go far?[69] The nineteenth century is not precisely the
age of the martyrs, or, if we are to find them, we must in general turn
to politics and to science; Bishop Blougram does not pique himself on a
genius for martyrdom; if he fights with beasts, it is on this occasion
with a very small one, a lynx of the literary tribe, and in the arena of
his own dining-room over the after-dinner wine. He is pre-eminently a
man of his time, when the cross and its doctrine can be comfortably
borne; both he and his table-companion, honoured for this one occasion
only with the episcopal invitation, appreciate the good things of this
world, but the Bishop has a vast advantage over the maker of "lively
lightsome articles" for the reviews, and he uses his advantage, it must
be confessed, to the full. We are in company with no petty man while we
read the poem and hear the great Bishop roll out, with easy affluence,
his long crumpled mind. He is delightfully frank and delightfully
subtle; concealing himself by self-disclosure; opulent in ideas;
shifting the pea of truth dexterously under the three gilded thimbles;
blandly condescending and amiably contemptuous; a little feline, for he
allows his adversary a moment's freedom to escape and then pounces upon
him with the soft-furred claws; assured of his superiority in the game,
yet using only half his mind; fencing with one arm pinioned;
chess-playing with a rook and pawn given to his antagonist; or shall we
say chess-playing blindfold and seeing every piece upon the board? Is
_Bishop Blougram's Apology_ a poem at all? some literary critics may
ask. And the answer is that through it we make acquaintance with one of
Browning's most genial inventions--the great Bishop himself, and that if
Gigadibs were not present we could never have seen him at the particular
angle at which he presents himself in his condescending play with truths
and half-truths and quarter-truths, adapted to a smaller mind than his
own. The sixteenth century gave us a Montaigne, and the seventeenth
century a Pascal. Why should not the nineteenth century of mundane
comforts, of doubt troubled by faith, and faith troubled by doubt,
produce a new type--serious yet humorous--in an episcopal

Browning's moral sympathies, we may rest assured, do not go with one
who like Blougram finds satisfaction in things realised on earth; one
who declines--at least as he represents himself for the purposes of
argument--to press forward to things which he cannot attain but might
nobly follow after. But Browning's intellectual interest is great in
seeing all that a Blougram can say for himself; and as a destructive
piece of criticism directed against the position of a Gigadibs what he
says may really be effective. The Bishop frankly admits that the
unqualified believer, the enthusiast, is more fortunate than he; he,
Sylvester Blougram, is what he is, and all that he can do is to make the
most of the nature allotted to him. That there has been a divine
revelation he cannot absolutely believe; but neither can he absolutely
disbelieve. Unbelief is sterile; belief is fruitful, certainly for this
world, probably for the next, and he elects to believe. Having chosen to
believe, he cannot be too pronounced and decisive in his faith; he will
never attempt to eliminate certain articles of the _credenda_, and so
"decrassify" his faith, for to this process, if once begun, there is no
end; having donned his uniform, he will wear it, laces and spangles and
all. True, he has at times his chill fits of doubt; but is not this the
probation of faith? Does not a life evince the ultimate reality that is
within us? Are not acts the evidence of a final choice, of a deepest
conviction? And has he not given his vote for the Christian religion?

With me faith means perpetual unbelief
Kept quiet like the snake 'neath Michael's foot,
Who stands calm just because he feels it writhe.

When the time arrives for a beatific vision Blougram will be ready to
adapt himself to the new state of things. Is not the best pledge of his
capacity for future adaptation to a new environment this--that being in
the world he is worldly? We must not lose the training of each
successive stage of evolution by for ever projecting ourselves half way
into the next. So rolls on the argument to its triumphant conclusion--

Fool or knave?
Why needs a bishop be a fool or knave
When there's a thousand diamond weights between?

Only at the last, were it not that we know that there is a firmer ground
for Blougram than this on which he takes his stand in after-dinner
controversy, we might be inclined to close the subject by adapting to
its uses the title of a pamphlet connected with the Kingsley and Newman
debate--"But was not Mr Gigadibs right after all?" Worsted in sword-play
he certainly was; but the soul may have its say, and the soul, armed
with its instincts of truth, is a formidable challenger.


[Footnote 63: Letters of R.B. and E.B.B., i. 388.]

[Footnote 64: Mrs Orr's Handbook to Browning's Works, 266, note. For the
horse, see stanzas xiii. xiv. of the poem.]

[Footnote 65: This poem is sometimes expounded as a sigh for the
infinite, which no human love can satisfy. But the simpler conception of
it as expressing a love almost but not altogether complete seems the

[Footnote 66: Browning's delight a few years later in modelling in clay
was great.]

[Footnote 67: Mrs Andrew Crosse, in her article, "John Kenyon and his
Friends" (_Temple Bar Magazine_, April 1900), writes: "When the
Brownings were living in Florence, Kenyon had begged them to procure for
him a copy of the portrait in the Pitti of Andrea del Sarto and his
wife. Mr Browning was unable to get the copy made with any promise of
satisfaction, and so wrote the exquisite poem of Andrea del Sarto--and
sent it to Kenyon!"]

[Footnote 68: The writer of this volume many years ago pointed out to
Browning his transposition of the chronological places of Fra Lippo
Lippi and Masaccio ("Hulking Tom") in the history of Italian art.
Browning vigorously maintained that he was in the right; but recent
students do not support his contention. At the same time an error in
_Transcendentalism_, where Browning spoke of "Swedish Boehme," was
indicated. He acknowledged the error and altered the text to "German

[Footnote 69: Browning maintained to Gavan Duffy that his treatment of
the Cardinal was generous.]

Chapter X

Close of Mrs Browning's Life

When _Men and Women_ was published in the autumn of 1855 the Brownings
were again in Paris. An impulsive friend had taken an apartment for them
in the Rue de Grenelle, facing east, and in all that concerned comfort
splendidly mendacious. After some weeks of misery and illness Mrs
Browning was conveyed to less glittering but more hospitable rooms in
the Rue du Colisee by a desperate husband--"That darling Robert carried
me into the carriage, swathed past possible breathing, over face and
respirator in woollen shawls. No, he wouldn't set me down even to walk
up the fiacre steps, but shoved me in upside down in a struggling
bundle."[70] Happily the winter was of a miraculous mildness. Mrs
Browning worked _Aurora Leigh_ in "a sort of _furia_," and Browning set
himself to the task--a fruitless one as it proved--of rehandling and
revising _Sordello_: "I lately gave time and pains," he afterwards told
Milsand in his published dedication of the poem, "to turn my work into
what the many might,--instead of what the few must--like: but after all
I imagined another thing at first, and therefore leave as I find
it"--proud but warrantable words. Some of his leisure was given to
vigorous and not unsuccessful efforts in drawing. At the theatre he saw
Ristori as Medea and admired her, but with qualifications. At Monckton
Milnes's dinner-table he met Mignet and Cavour, and George Sand crowned
with an ivy-wreath and "looking like herself." Mrs Browning records with
pleasure that her husband's hostility to the French government had
waned; at least he admitted that he was sick of the Opposition.

In May 1856 tidings from London of the illness of Kenyon caused him
serious anxiety; he would gladly have hastened to attend upon so true
and dear a friend, but this Kenyon would not permit. A month later he
and Mrs Browning were in occupation of Kenyon's house in Devonshire
Place, which he had lent to them for the summer, but the invalid had
sought for restoration of his health in the Isle of Wight. On the day
that Mr Barrett heard of his daughter's arrival he ordered his family
away from London. Mrs Browning once more wrote to him, but the letter
received no answer. "Mama," said little Pen earnestly, "if you've been
very, very naughty I advise you to go into the room and say,'_Papa, I'll
be dood_.'" But the situation, as Mrs Browning sadly confesses, was
hopeless. Some companionship with her sister Arabel and her brothers was
gained by a swift departure from London in August for Ventnor whither
the Wimpole Street household, leaving its master behind, had been
banished, and there "a happy sorrowful two weeks" were spent. At Cowes a
grief awaited Browning and his wife, for they found Kenyon kind as ever
but grievously broken in health and depressed in spirits. A short visit
to Mrs Browning's married sister at Taunton closed the summer and autumn
in England. Before the end of October they were on their way to
Florence. "The Brownings are long gone back now," wrote Dante Rossetti
in December, "and with them one of my delights--an evening resort where
I never felt unhappy. How large a part of the real world, I wonder, are
those two small people?--taking meanwhile so little room in any railway
carriage and hardly needing a double bed at the inn."

The great event of the autumn for the Brownings and for the lovers of
English poetry was the publication of _Aurora Leigh_. Its popularity was
instantaneous; within a fortnight a second edition was called for; there
was no time to alter even a comma. "That golden-hearted Robert," writes
Mrs Browning, "is in ecstasies about it--far more than if it all related
to a book of his own." The volume was dedicated to John Kenyon; but
before the year was at an end Kenyon was dead. Since the birth of their
son he had enlarged the somewhat slender incomings of his friends by the
annual gift of one hundred pounds, "in order," says the editor of Mrs
Browning's Letters, "that they might be more free to follow their art
for its own sake only." By his will he placed them for the future above
all possibility of straitened means. To Browning he left 6,500 _l_., to
Mrs Browning 4,500 _l_. "These," adds Mr F.G. Kenyon, "were the largest
legacies in a very generous will--the fitting end to a life passed in
acts of generosity and kindness to those in need." The gain to the
Brownings was shadowed by a sense of loss. "Christmas came," says Mrs
Browning, "like a cloud." For the length of three winter months she did
not stir out of doors. Then arrived spring and sunshine, carnival time
and universal madness in Florence, with streets "one gigantic
pantomime." Penini begged importunately for a domino, and could not be
refused; and Penini's father and mother were for once drawn into the
vortex of Italian gaiety. When at the great opera ball a little figure
in mask and domino was struck on the shoulder with the salutation "Bella
mascherina!" it was Mrs Browning who received the stroke, with her
husband, also in domino, by her side. The absence of real coarseness in
the midst of so much seeming license, and the perfect social equality
gave her a gratifying impression of her Florentines.

In April it was summer weather; the drives of former days in the Cascine
and to Bellosguardo, where a warm-hearted friend, Miss Isa Blagden,
occupied a villa, were resumed. An American authoress of wider fame
since her book of 1852 than even the authoress of _Aurora Leigh_, Mrs
Beecher Stowe, was in Florence, and somewhat to their surprise she
charmed both Browning and his wife by her simplicity and earnestness,
her gentle voice and refinement of manner--"never," says Mrs Browning,
"did lioness roar more softly." All pointed to renewed happiness; but
before April was over pain of a kind that had a peculiar sting left Mrs
Browning for a time incapable of any other feeling. Her father was dead,
and no word of affection had been uttered at the last; if there was
water in the rock it never welled forth. The kindly meant effort of a
relative to reopen friendly communications between Mr Barrett and his
daughters, not many months previously, had for its only result the
declaration that they had disgraced the family.[71] At first Mrs
Browning was crushed and could shed no tear; she remained for many days
in a state of miserable prostration; it was two months before she could
write a letter to anyone outside the circle of her nearest kinsfolk.

Once more the July heat in Florence--"a composition of Gehenna and
Paradise"--drove the Brownings to the Baths of Lucca. Miss Blagden
followed them, and also young Lytton came, ailing, it was thought, from
exposure to the sun. His indisposition soon grew serious and declared
itself as a gastric fever. For eight nights Isa Blagden sat by his
bedside as nurse; for eight other nights Browning took her place. His
own health remained vigorous. Each morning he bathed in a rapid mountain
stream; each evening and morning he rode a mountain pony; and in due
time he had the happiness of seeing the patient, although still weak and
hollow cheeked, convalescent and beginning to think of "poems and apple
puddings," as Mrs Browning declares, "in a manner other than celestial."
It had been a summer, she said in September, full of blots, vexations,
anxieties. Three days after these words were written a new and grave
anxiety troubled her and her husband, for their son, who had been
looking like a rose--"like a rose possessed by a fairy" is his mother's
description--was attacked in the same way as Lytton. "Don't be unhappy
for _me_" said Pen; "think it's a poor little boy in the street, and be
just only a little sorry, and not unhappy at all." Within less than a
fortnight he was well enough to have "agonising visions of beefsteak
pies and buttered toast seen in _mirage_"; but his mother mourned for
the rosy cheeks and round fat little shoulders, and confessed that she
herself was worn out in body and soul.

The winter at Florence was the coldest for many years; the edges of the
Arno were frozen; and in the spring of 1858 Mrs Browning felt that her
powers of resistance, weakened by a year of troubles and anxieties, had
fallen low. Browning himself was in vigorous health. When he called in
June on Hawthorne he looked younger and even handsomer than he had
looked two years previously, and his gray hairs seemed fewer. "He
talked," Hawthorne goes on, "a wonderful quantity in a little time."
That evening the Hawthornes spent at Casa Guidi. Mrs Browning is
described by the American novelist as if she were one of the singular
creatures of his own imagination--no earthly woman but one of the elfin
race, yet sweetly disposed towards human beings; a wonder of charm in
littleness; with a shrill yet sweet tenuity of voice; "there is not such
another figure in the world; and her black ringlets cluster into her
neck, and make her face look whiter by their sable perfection." Browning
himself was "very efficient in keeping up conversation with everybody,
and seemed to be in all parts of the room and in every group at the same
moment; a most vivid and quick-thoughted person--logical and
common-sensible, as, I presume, poets generally are in their daily
talk." "His conversation," says Hawthorne, speaking of a visit to Miss
Blagden at Bellosguardo, "has the effervescent aroma which you cannot
catch even if you get the very words that seem to be imbued with it....
His nonsense is of very genuine and excellent quality, the true babble
and effervescence of a bright and powerful mind; and he lets it play
among his friends with the faith and simplicity of a child."

When summer came it was decided to join Browning's father and sister in
Paris, and accompany them to some French seaside resort, where Mrs
Browning could have the benefit of a course of warm salt-water baths. To
her the sea was a terror, but railway-travelling was repose, and
Browning suggested on the way from Marseilles to Paris that they might
"ride, ride together, for ever ride" during the remainder of their lives
in a first-class carriage with for-ever renewed supplies of French
novels and _Galignanis_. They reached Paris on the elder Mr Browning's
birthday, and found him radiant at the meeting with his son and
grandson, looking, indeed, ten years younger than when they had last
seen his face. Paris, Mrs Browning declares, was her "weakness," Italy
her "passion"; Florence itself was her "chimney-corner," where she
"could sulk and be happy." The life of the brilliant city, which
"murmurs so of the fountain of intellectual youth for ever and ever,"
quickened her heart-beats; its new architectural splendours told of the
magnificence in design and in its accomplishment of her hero the
Emperor. And here she and her husband met their helpful friend of former
days, Father Prout, and they were both grieved and cheered by the sight
of Lady Elgin, a paralytic, in her garden-chair, not able to articulate
a word, but bright and gracious as ever, "the eloquent soul full and
radiant, alive to both worlds." The happiness in presence of such a
victory of the spirit was greater than the pain.

Having failed to find agreeable quarters at Etretat, where Browning in a
"fine phrenzy" had hired a wholly unsuitable house with a potato-patch
for view, and escaped from his bad bargain, a loser of some francs, at
his wife's entreaty, they settled for a short time at Havre--"detestable
place," Mrs Browning calls it--in a house close to the sea and
surrounded by a garden. On a bench by the shore Mrs Browning could sit
and win back a little strength in the bright August air. The stay at
Havre, depressing to Browning's spirits, was for some eight weeks. In
October they were again in Paris, where Mrs Browning's sister, Arabel,
was their companion. The year was far advanced and a visit to England
was not in contemplation. Towards the middle of the month they were once
more in motion, journeying by slow stages to Florence. A day was spent
at Chambery "for the sake of les Charmettes and Rousseau." When Casa
Guidi was at length reached, it was only a halting-place on the way to
Rome. Winter had suddenly rushed in and buried all Italy in snow; but
when they started for Rome in a carriage kindly lent by their American
friends, the Eckleys, it was again like summer. The adventures of the
way were chiefly of a negative kind--occasioned by precipices over which
they were not thrown, and banditti who never came in sight; but in a
quarrel between oxen-drivers, one of whom attacked the other with a
knife, Browning with characteristic energy dashed between them to the
terror of the rest of the party; his garments were the only serious
sufferers from his zeal as mediator.

The apartment engaged at Rome was that of the earlier visit of 1853-54,
in the Via Bocca di Leone, "rooms swimming all day in sunshine." On
Christmas morning Mrs Browning was able to accompany her husband to St
Peter's to hear the silver trumpets. But January froze the fountains,
and the north wind blew with force. Mrs Browning had just completed a
careful revision _of Aurora Leigh_, and now she could rest, enjoy the
sunshine streaming through their six windows, or give herself up to the
excitement of Italian politics as seen through the newspapers in the
opening of a most eventful year. "Robert and I," she wrote on the eve of
the declaration of war between Austria and Victor Emmanuel, "have been
of one mind lately on these things, which comforts me much." She had
also the satisfaction of health enjoyed at least by proxy, for her
husband had never been more full of vigour and the spirit of enjoyment.
In the freezing days of January he was out of his bed at six o'clock,
and away for a brisk morning walk with Mr Eckley. The loaf at breakfast
diminished "by Gargantuan slices." Into the social life of Rome he threw
himself with ardour. For a fortnight immediately after Christmas he was
out every night, sometimes with double and treble engagements.
"Dissipations," says Mrs Browning, "decidedly agree with Robert, there's
no denying that, though he's horribly hypocritical, and 'prefers an
evening with me at home.'" He gathered various coloured fragments of
life from the outer world and brought them home to brighten her hours of

When they returned to Florence in May the Grand Duke had withdrawn, the

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