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Robert Browning by Edward Dowden

Part 4 out of 6

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city was occupied by French troops, and there was unusual animation in
the streets. Browning shared to some extent in his wife's alienation
from the policy of England, and believed, but with less than her
enthusiastic confidence, in the good intentions towards Italy of the
French Emperor. He subscribed his ten scudi a month to the Italian
war-fund, and rewarded Pen for diligence in his lessons with half a paul
a day, which the boy might give as his own contribution to the cause of
Italian independence. The French and the Italian tricolour flags,
displayed by Pen, adorned the terrace. In June the sun beat upon
Florence with unusual fierceness, but it was a month of battles, and
with bulletins of the war arriving twice a day they could not bear to
remove to any quiet retreat at a distance from the centre. It was not
curiosity that detained them but the passion for Italy, the joy in
generous effort and great deeds. In the rebound, as Mrs Browning
expresses it, from high-strung hopes and fears for Italy they found
themselves drawn to the theatre, where Salvini gave his wonderful
impersonation of Othello and his Hamlet, "very great in both, Robert
thought," so commented Mrs Browning, "as well as I."[72] The strain of
excitement was indeed excessive for Mrs Browning's failing physical
strength; there was in it something almost febrile. Yet the fact is
noteworthy that the romantic figures secured much less of her interest
than the men of prudent statesmanship. She esteemed Cavour highly; she
wholly distrusted Mazzini. She justified Louis Napoleon in concessions
which she regarded as an unavoidable part of diplomacy directed to ends
which could not be immediately attained. Garibaldi was a "hero," but
somewhat alarming in his heroisms--a "grand child," "not a man of much
brain." After the victories of Magenta and Solferino came what seemed to
many the great betrayal of Villafranca. For a day the busts and
portraits of the French Emperor suddenly disappeared from the
shop-windows of Florence, and even Mrs Browning would not let her boy
wear his Napoleon medal. But the busts returned to their places, and Mrs
Browning's faith in Napoleon sprang up anew; it was not he who was the
criminal; the selfish powers of Europe had "forced his hand" and
"truncated his great intentions." She rejoiced in the magnificent
spectacle of dignity and calm presented by the people of Italy. And yet
her fall from the clouds to earth on the announcement of peace with
Austria was a shattering experience. Sleep left her, or if she slept her
dreams were affected by "inscrutable articles of peace and endless
provisional governments." Night after night her husband watched beside
her, and in the day he not only gave his boy the accustomed two hours'
lesson on the piano, but replaced the boy's mother as teacher of those
miscellaneous lessons, which had been her educational province. "Robert
has been perfect to me," expressed Mrs Browning's feelings in a word.

Another anxiety gave Browning an opportunity which he turned to account
in a way that renders honour and gratitude his due from all lovers of
English letters. At a great old age Landor, who resided with his family
at Fiesole, still retained his violent and intractable temper; in his
home there was much to excite his leonine wrath and sense of
intolerable wrong. Three times he had quitted his villa, with vows never
to return to it, and three times he had been led back. When for a fourth
time--like a feeble yet majestic Lear--one hot summer day, toward noon,
he flung himself, or was flung, out of doors with only a few pauls in
his pocket, it was to Casa Guidi that he made his way broken-hearted,
yet breathing forth wrath.[73] Browning had often said, as his wife
tells her sister-in-law, that he owed more as a writer to Landor than to
any other contemporary.[74] He resolved to set things right, if
possible; and if not, to make the best of a case that could not be
entirely amended. A visit to the villa assured him that reconciliation
was out of the question. He provided for Landor's immediate wants;
communicated with Landor's brothers in England, who were prompt in
arranging for a regular allowance to be administered by Browning; became
the old man's guide and guardian; soothed his wounded spirit, although,
according to Mrs Browning, not often happy when he attempted
compliments, with generous words and ready quotations from Landor's own
writings; and finally settled him in Florence under the care of Mrs
Browning's faithful maid Wilson, who watched over him during the
remainder of his life.[75] To his incredulous wife Browning spoke of
Landor's sweetness and gentleness, nor was he wrong in ascribing these
qualities to the old lion. She admitted that he had generous impulses,
but feared that her husband would before long become, like other friends
of Landor, the object of some enraged suspicion. "Nothing coheres in
him," she writes, "either in his opinions, or, I fear, affections." But
Landor, whose courtesy and refinement she acknowledges, had also a heart
that was capable of loyal love and gratitude. After the first burst of
rage against the Fiesole household had spent itself, he beguiled the
time in perpetuating his indignations in an innocent and classical
form--that of Latin alcaics directed against one private and one public
foe--his wife and the Emperor Louis Napoleon.[76]

Lander's affairs threatened to detain the Brownings in Florence longer
than they desired, now that peace had come and it was not indispensable
to run out of doors twice a day in order to inspect the bulletins. But
after three weeks of very exhausting illness, Mrs Browning needed change
of air. As soon as her strength allowed, she was lifted into a carriage
and they journeyed, as in the year 1850, to the neighbourhood of Siena.
She reached the villa which had been engaged by Story's aid, with the
sense of "a peculiar frailty of being." Though confined to the house,
the fresher air by day and the night winds gradually revived her
strength and spirits. The silence and repose were "heavenly things" to
her: the "pretty dimpled ground covered by low vineyards" rested her
eyes and her mind; and for excitements, instead of reports of
battle-fields there were slow-fading scarlet sunsets over purple hills.
A kind Prussian physician, Gresonowsky, who had attended Mrs Browning in
Florence, and who entered sympathetically into her political feelings,
followed her uninvited to Siena and gave her the benefit of his care,
declining all recompense. The good friends from America, the Storys,
were not far off, and Landor, after a visit to Story, was placed in
occupation of rooms not a stone's-cast from their villa. With Pen it was
a time of rejoicing, for his father had bought the boy a Sardinian pony
of the colour of his curls, and he was to be seen galloping through the
lanes "like Puck," to use Browning's comparison, on a dragon-fly's

The gipsy instinct, the desire of wandering, had greatly declined with
both husband and wife since the earlier days in Italy. Yet when they
returned to Casa Guidi it was only for six weeks. Even at the close of
the visit to Siena Mrs Browning had recovered but a slender modicum of
strength; she did not dare to enter the cathedral, for there were steps
to climb. At Florence she felt her old vitality return and her spirits
rose. But the climate of Rome was considered by Dr Gresonowsky more
suitable for winter, and towards the close of November they took their
departure, flying from the Florentine tramontana. The carriage was
furnished with novels of Balzac, and Pen's pony was of the party. The
rooms taken in the Via del Tritone were bright and sunny; but a rash
visit to the jeweller Castellani, to see and touch the swords presented
by Roman citizens to Napoleon III. and Victor Emmanuel, threw back Mrs
Browning into all her former troubles of a delicate chest and left her
"as weak as a rag." Tidings of the death of Lady Elgin seemed to tell
only of a peaceful release from a period of imprisonment in the body,
but the loss of Mrs Jameson was a painful blow. Rome at a time of grave
political apprehensions was almost empty of foreigners; but among the
few Americans who had courage to stay were the sculptor Gibson and
Theodore Parker--now near the close of his life--whose _tete-a-tetes_
were eloquent of beliefs and disbeliefs. As the spring advanced the
authoress of "The Mill on the Floss" was reported to be now and again
visible in Rome, "with her elective affinity," as Mrs Browning puts it,
"on the Corso walking, or in the Vatican musing. Always together." A
grand-daughter of Lord Byron--"very quiet and very intense"--was among
the visitors at the Via del Tritone, and Lady Marion Alford, "very eager
about literature and art and Robert," for all which eagernesses Mrs
Browning felt bound to care for her. The artists Burne-Jones and Prinsep
had made Browning's acquaintance at Siena; Prinsep now introduced him to
some of the by-ways of popular life in Rome. Together they witnessed the
rivalry of two improvisatori poetic gamecocks, whose efforts were
stimulated by the announcement that a great poet from England was
present; together they listened to the forbidden Hymn to Garibaldi
played in Gigi's _osteria_, witnessed the dignified blindness of the
Papal gendarmes to the offence, while Gigi liberally plied them with
drink; and together, to relieve the host of all fear of more
revolutionary airs, they took carriages with their musicians and drove
to see the Coliseum by moonlight.[78]

The project of a joint volume of poems on the Italian question by
Browning and his wife, which had made considerable progress towards
realisation, had been dropped after Villafranca, when Browning destroyed
his poem; but Mrs Browning had advanced alone and was now revising
proofs of her slender contribution to the poetry of politics, _Poems
before Congress._ She wrote them, she says, simply to deliver her
soul--"to get the relief to my conscience and heart, which comes from a
pent-up word spoken or a tear shed." She can hardly have anticipated
that they would be popular in England; but she was not prepared for one
poem which denounced American slavery being misinterpreted into a curse
pronounced upon England. "Robert was _furious_" against the offending
Review, she says; "I never saw him so enraged about a criticism;" but
by-and-by he "didn't care a straw." His wife, on the other hand, was
more deeply pained by the blindness and deafness of the British public
towards her husband's genius; nobody "except a small knot of
pre-Rafaelite men" did him justice; his publisher's returns were a proof
of this not to be gainsaid--not one copy of his poems had for six months
been sold, while in America he was already a power. For the poetry of
political enthusiasm he had certainly no vocation. When Savoy was
surrendered to France Mrs Browning suffered some pain lest her Emperor's
generosity might seem compromised. Browning admitted that the
liberation of Italy was a great action, adding cynically of his future
Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, "But he has taken eighteen-pence for it,
which is a pity." During the winter he wrote much. "Robert deserves no
reproaches," his wife tells her friend Miss Haworth in May, "for he has
been writing a good deal this winter--working at a long poem, which I
have not seen a line of, and producing short lyrics which I have seen,
and may declare worthy of him." Mr F.G. Kenyon conjectures that the long
poem is not unlikely to have been _Mr Sludge the Medium_, for Home's
performances, as he says, were at this time rampant.[79] As hitherto,
both husband and wife showed their poems each to the other only when the
poems were complete; thus like a pair of hardy friends they maintained
their independence. Even when they read, there was no reading aloud; Mrs
Browning was indefatigable in her passion for books; her husband, with
muscular energy impatient for action, found it impossible to read for
long at a single sitting.

On June 4th 1860 they left Rome, travelling by vettura through Orvieto
and Chiusi to their home in Florence.[80] The journey fatigued Mrs
Browning, but on arriving they had the happiness of finding Landor well;
he looked not less than magnificent, displaying "the most beautiful
sea-foam of a beard ... all in a curl and white bubblement of beauty."
Wilson had the old man under happy control; only once had he thrown his
dinner out of the window; that he should be at odds with all the world
was inevitable, and that all the world should be in the wrong was
exhilarating and restorative. The plans for the summer were identical
with those of the preceding year; the same "great lonely villa" near
Siena was occupied again; the same "deep soothing silence" lapped to
rest Mrs Browning's spirits; Landor, her "adopted son"--a son of
eighty-six years old--was hard by as he had been last summer. The
neighbourhood of Miss Blagden was this year an added pleasure. "The
little eager lady," as Henry James describes her, "with gentle, gay
black eyes," had seen much, read much, written already a little (with
more to follow), but better than all else were her generous heart and
her helpful hand. The season was one of unusual coolness for Italy.
Pen's pony, as before, flashed through the lanes and along the roads.
Browning had returned from Rome in robust health, and looking stouter in
person than six months previously. Now, while a tenant of the Villa
Alberti, he spent his energies in long rides, sometimes rides of three
or four continuous hours. On returning from such careers on horseback
little inclination, although he had his solitary room in which to work,
remained for the pursuit of poetry.

The departure for Rome was early--about September; in the Via Felice
rooms were found. A new and great sorrow had fallen upon Mrs
Browning--her sister Henrietta, Mrs Surtees Cook, was dead, leaving
behind her three young children. Mrs Browning could not shed tears nor
speak of her grief: she felt tired and beaten by the pain; and tried to
persuade herself that for one who believed the invisible world to be so
near, such pain was but a weakness. Her husband was able to do little,
but he shared in his degree in the sense of loss, and protected her from
the intrusion of untimely visitors. Sir John Bowring was admitted
because he presented a letter of introduction and had intimate relations
with the French Emperor; his ridicule of the volunteer movement in
England, with its cry of "Riflemen, form!" was grateful to Mrs
Browning's political feelings. French troops were now in Rome; their
purpose was somewhat ambiguous; but Pen had fraternised with the
officers on the Pincio, had learnedly discussed Chopin and Stephen
Heller with them, had been assured that they did not mean to fight for
the Holy Father, and had invited "ever so many of them" to come and see
mamma--an invitation which they were too discreet to accept. Mrs
Browning's excitement about public affairs had somewhat abated; yet she
watched with deep interest the earlier stages of the great struggle in
America; and she did not falter in her hopes for Italy; by intrigues and
smuggling the newspapers which she wished to see were obtained through
the courteous French generals. But her spirits were languid; "I gather
myself up by fits and starts," she confesses, "and then fall back."

Apart from his anxieties for his wife's health and the unfailing
pleasure in his boy, whom a French or Italian abbe now instructed,
Browning was wholly absorbed in one new interest. He had long been an
accomplished musician; in Paris he had devoted himself to drawing; now
his passion was for modelling in clay, and the work proceeded under the
direction and in the studio of his friend, the sculptor Story. His
previous studies in anatomy stood him in good stead; he made remarkable
progress, and six hours a day passed as if in an enchantment. He ceased
even to read; "nothing but clay does he care for," says Mrs Browning
smilingly, "poor lost soul." The union of intellectual energy with
physical effort in such work gave him the complete satisfaction for
which he craved. His wife "grudged a little," she says, the time stolen
from his special art of poetry; but she saw that his health and spirits
gained from his happy occupation. Of late, he had laboured irregularly
at verse; fits of active effort were followed by long intervals during
which production seemed impossible. And some vent was necessary for the
force coiled up within him; if this were not to be obtained, he wore
himself out with a nervous impatience--"beating his dear head," as Mrs
Browning describes it, "against the wall, simply because he sees a fly
there, magnified by his own two eyes almost indefinitely into some
Saurian monster." Now he was well and even exultant--"nothing ever," he
declared, "made him so happy before." Of advancing years--Browning was
now nearly forty-nine--the only symptoms were that he had lost his
youthful slightness of figure, and that his beard and hair were somewhat
blanched by time. "The women," his wife wrote to his sister, "adore him
everywhere far too much for decency," and to herself he seemed
"infinitely handsomer and more attractive" than when, sixteen years
previously, she had first seen him. On the whole therefore she was well
pleased with his new passion for clay, and could wish for him loads of
the plastic stuff in which to riot. Afterwards, in his days of sorrow
in London, when he compared the colour of his life to that of a
snow-cloud, it seemed to him as if one minute of these months at Rome
would yield him gold enough to make the brightness of a year; he longed
for the smell of the wet clay in Story's studio, where the songs of the
birds, and the bleat of a goat coming through the little door to the
left, were heard.[81]

While hoping and planning for the future, his wife was not unaware of
her own decline. "For the first time," she writes about December, "I
have had pain in looking into Penini's face lately--which you will
understand." And a little earlier: "I wish to live just as long as, and
no longer than to grow in the soul." The winter was mild, though snow
had fallen once; a spell of colder weather was reserved for the month of
May. They thought of meeting Browning's father and sister in some
picturesque part of the forest of Fontainebleau, or, if that should
prove unsuitable, perhaps at Trouville. Mrs Browning, who had formerly
enjoyed the stir of life in Paris, now shrank from its noise and bustle.
Her wish would be to creep into a cave for the whole year. At eight
o'clock each evening she left her sitting-room and sofa, and was in bed.
Yet she trusted that when she could venture again into the open air she
would be more capable of enduring the friction of the world. In May she
felt stronger, and saw visitors, among whom was Hans Andersen, "very
earnest, very simple, very childlike."[82] A little later she was cast
down by the death of Cavour--"that great soul which meditated and made
Italy"; she could hardly trust herself to utter his name. It was evident
to Browning that the journey to France could not be undertaken without
serious risk. They had reached Casa Guidi, and there for the present she
must take her rest.

The end came swiftly, gently. A bronchial attack, attended with no more
than the usual discomfort, found her with diminished power of
resistance. Browning had forebodings of evil, though there seemed to be
no special cause to warrant his apprehension. On the last evening--June
28, 1861--she herself had no anticipation of what was at hand, and
talked of their summer plans. When she slept, her slumber was heavy and
disturbed. At four in the morning her husband was alarmed and sent to
summon the doctor; but she assured him that his fears were exaggerated.
Then inestimable words were spoken which lived forever in his heart. And
so "smilingly, happily, with a face like a girl's," resting her head
upon her husband's cheek, she passed away.[83]


[Footnote 70: Letters of E.B.B. (To Mrs Jameson), ii. 221.]

[Footnote 71: F.G. Kenyon. _Letters of E.B.B._, ii. 263.]

[Footnote 72: "Browning was intimately acquainted," writes Miss Anna
Swanwick, "with Salvini." What especially lived in Browning's memory as
transcending everything else he had witnessed on the stage was Salvini's
impersonation of the blind Oedipus, and in particular one incident: a
hand is laid on the blind man's shoulder, which he supposes the hand of
one of his sons; he discovers it to be the hand of Antigone; the sudden
transition from a look of fiery hate to one of ineffable tenderness was
unsurpassable in its mastery of dramatic expression. (Condensed from
"Anna Swanwick, a Memoir and Recollections," 1903, pp. 132, 133.)]

[Footnote 73: Story says that Landor "was turned out of doors by his
wife and children." He had conveyed the villa to his wife. It is Story
who compares Landor to King Lear. "Conversations in a Studio," p. 436.]

[Footnote 74: Letters of E.B.B., ii. 354.]

[Footnote 75: When Browning at Rome was invited to dine with the Prince
of Wales (March 1859) by the desire of Queen Victoria, Mrs Browning told
him to "eschew compliments," of his infelicity in uttering which she
gives amusing examples. _Letters of E.B.B_., ii. 309, 310.]

[Footnote 76: On Browning's action in the affairs of Landor see
Forster's _Life of Landor_, and the letters of Browning in vol. ii. of
Henry James's _Life of Story_ (pp. 6-11).]

[Footnote 77: See, for this residence at Siena, an interesting letter of
Story to C. Eliot Norton in Henry James's _W.W. Story_, vol. ii. pp. 14,

[Footnote 78: Condensed from information given by Prinsep to Mrs Orr,
_Life and Letters of R.B._, pp. 234-37.]

[Footnote 79: _Letters of E.B.B._, ii. 388, note. Mr Kenyon suggests _A
Death in the Desert_ as at least possibly meant. _The Ring and the Book_
"certainly had not yet been begun."]

[Footnote 80: Halting at Siena, whence Browning wrote an account of the
journey to Story: Henry James's _W.W. Story_, ii. pp. 50-52.]

[Footnote 81: H. James's _W.W. Story_, vol. ii. pp. 111, 113.]

[Footnote 82: Henry James tells of a children's party at the Palazzo
Barberini, Rome, of several years earlier, when Hans Andersen read "The
Ugly Duckling," and Browning, "The Pied Piper"; which led to "a grand
march through the spacious Barberini apartment, with Story doing his
best on a flute in default of bagpipes." _W.W. Story_, vol. i.p. 286.]

[Footnote 83: The circumstances of Mrs Browning's death are described as
above, but with somewhat fuller detail, in a letter of Browning to Miss
Haworth, July 20, 1861, first printed by Mrs Orr. Many details of
interest will be found in a long letter of Story, Henry James's _W.W.
Story_, vol. ii. pp. 61-68: "She talked with him and jested and gave
expression to her love in the tenderest words; then, feeling sleepy, and
he supporting her in his arms, she fell into a doze. In a few minutes,
suddenly, her head dropped forward. He thought she had fainted, but she
had gone for ever." A painful account of the funeral service, "blundered
through by a fat English parson," is given by Story.]

Chapter XI

London: Dramatis Personae

The grief of the desolate man was an uncontrollable passion; his heart
was strong and all its strength entered into its sorrow. Miss Blagden,
"perfect in all kindness," took motherly possession of the boy, and
persuaded his father to accompany Penini to her villa at Bellosguardo.
When all that was needful at Casa Guidi had been done, Browning's first
thought was to abandon Italy for many a year, and hasten to London,
there to have speech for a day or two at least with Mrs Browning's
sister Arabel. "The cycle is complete," he said, looking round the
sitting-room of Casa Guidi. "I want my new life," he wrote, "to resemble
the last fifteen years as little as possible." Yet while he stayed in
the accustomed rooms he held himself together; "when I was moved," he
says, "I began to go to pieces."[84] Yet something remained to sustain

To one who has habitually given as well as received much not the least
of the pangs of separation arises from the incapacity to render any
further direct service. It fortified Browning's heart to know that much
could be done, and in ways which his wife would have approved and
desired, for her child. And as he himself had been also her care, it was
his business now to see that his life fulfilled itself aright. Yet he
breaks out in July: "No more 'house-keeping' for me, even with my
family. I shall grow still, I hope--but my root is taken, and remains."
From the outward paraphernalia of death Browning, as Mrs Orr notices,
shrank with aversion; it was partly the instinct by which a man seeks to
preserve what is most sacred and most strong in his own feelings from
the poor materialisms and the poor sentimentalisms of the grave; partly
a belief that any advance of the heart towards what has been lost may be
rather hindered than helped by the external circumstance surrounding the
forsaken body. Browning took measures that his wife's grave should be
duly cared for, given more than common distinction; but Florence became
a place from which even for his own sake and the sake of her whose
spirit lived within him he must henceforth keep aloof.

The first immediate claim upon Browning was that of duty to his father.
On August 1st he left Florence for Paris, accompanied by Isa Blagden,
who still watched over him and the boy. Two months were spent with his
sister and the old man, still hale and strong of heart, at a place
"singularly unspoiled, fresh and picturesque, and lovely to heart's
content"--so Browning describes it--St Enogat, near St Malo. The
solitary sea, the sands, the rocks, the green country gave him at least
a breathing-space. Then he proceeded to London, not without an outbreak
of his characteristic energy in over-coming the difficulties--which
involved two hours of "weary battling"--of securing a horse-box for
Pen's pony. At Amiens Tennyson, with his wife and children, was on the
platform. Browning pulled his hat over his face and was
unrecognised.[85] In "grim London," as he had called it, though with a
quick remorse at recollection of the kindness awaiting him, he had the
comfort of daily intercourse with Miss Arabel Barrett.

It was decided that an English education, but not that of a public
school, would be best for the boy; the critical time for taking "the
English stamp" must not be lost; his father's instruction, aided by that
of a tutor, would suffice to prepare him for the University, and he
would have the advantage of the motherly care of his mother's favourite
sister. Browning distrusted, he says to Story, "ambiguous natures and
nationalities." Thus he bound himself to England and to London, while at
times he sighed for the beauty of Italian hills and skies. He shrank
from society, although before long old friends, and especially Procter,
infirm and deaf, were not neglected. He found, or made, business for
himself; had "never so much to do or so little pleasure in doing it."
The discomfort of London lodgings was before long exchanged for the more
congenial surroundings of a house by the water-side in Warwick Crescent,
which he occupied until 1887, two years before his death. The furniture
and tapestries of Casa Guidi gave it an air of comfort and repose. "It
was London," writes Mrs Ritchie, referring to her visits of a later
date, "but London touched by some indefinite romance; the canal used to
look cool and deep, the green trees used to shade the Crescent.... The
house was an ordinary London house, but the carved oak furniture and
tapestries gave dignity to the long drawing-rooms, and pictures and
books lined the stairs. In the garden at the back dwelt, at the time of
which I am writing, two weird gray geese, with quivering silver wings
and long throats, who used to come and meet their master hissing and
fluttering." In 1866 an owl--for Browning still indulged a fantasy of
his own in the choice of pets--was "the light of our house," as a letter
describes this bird of darkness, "for his tameness and engaging ways."
The bird would kiss its master on the face, tweak his hair, and if one
said "Poor old fellow!" in a commiserating voice would assume a
sympathetic air of depression.[86] Miss Barrett lived hard by, in
Delamere Terrace. With her on Sundays Browning listened at Bedford
Chapel to the sermons of a non-conformist preacher, Thomas Jones, to
some of which when published in 1884, he prefixed an introduction. "The
Welsh poet-preacher" was a man of humble origin possessed of a natural
gift of eloquence, which, with his "liberal humanity," drew Browning to
become a hearer of his discourses.

He made no haste to give the public a new volume of verse. Mrs Browning
had mentioned to a correspondent, not long before her death, that her
husband had then a considerable body of lyrical poetry in a state of
completion. An invitation to accept the editorship of the _Cornhill
Magazine_, on Thackeray's retirement, was after some hesitation
declined. He was now partly occupied with preparing for the press
whatever writings by his wife seemed suitable for publication. In 1862
he issued with a dedication "to grateful Florence" her _Last Poems_; in
1863, her _Greek Christian Poets_; in 1865 he prepared a volume of
Selections from her poems, and had the happiness of knowing that the
number of her readers had rather increased than diminished. The efforts
of self-constituted biographers to make capital out of the incidents of
her life, and to publish such letters of hers as could be laid hands on,
moved him to transports of indignation, which break forth in a letter to
his friend Miss Blagden with unmeasured violence: what he felt with the
"paws" of these blackguards in his "very bowels" God knows; beast and
scamp and knave and fool are terms hardly strong enough to relieve his
wrath. Such sudden whirls of extreme rage were rare, yet were
characteristic of Browning, and were sometimes followed by regret for
his own distemperature. In 1862 a gratifying task was laid on him--that
of superintending the three volume edition of his Poetical Works which
was published in the following year. At the same time his old friend
Forster, with help from Procter, was engaged in preparing the first--and
the best--of the several Selections from Browning's poems; it was at
once an indication of the growing interest in his writings and an
effective means towards extending their influence. He set himself
steadily to work out what was in him; he waited no longer upon his
casual moods, but girded his loins and kept his lamp constantly lit. His
genius, such as it was--this was the field given him to till, and he
must see that it bore fruit. "I certainly will do my utmost to make the
most of my poor self before I die"--so he wrote in 1865. There were
gains in such a resolved method of work; but there were also losses. A
man of so active a mind by planting himself before a subject could
always find something to say; but it might happen that such sheer
brain-work was carried on by plying other faculties than those which
give its highest value to poetry.[87]

In the late summer and early autumn of 1862 Browning, in company with
his son, was among the Pyrenees at "green pleasant little Cambo, and
then at Biarritz crammed," he says, "with gay people of whom I know
nothing but their outsides." The sea and sands were more to his liking
than the gay people.[88] He had with him one book and no other--a
Euripides, in which he read vigorously, and that the readings were
fruitful his later poetry of the Greek drama bears witness. At present
however his creative work lay in another direction; the whole of "the
Roman murder story"--the story of Pompilia and Guido and Caponsacchi--he
describes as being pretty well in his head. It needed a long process of
evolution before the murder story could uncoil its sinuous lengths in a
series of volumes. The visit to Ste-Marie "a wild little place in
Brittany" near Pornic, in the summer of 1863--a visit to be repeated in
the two summers immediately succeeding--is directly connected with two
of the poems of _Dramatis Personae_. The story of _Gold Hair_ and the
landscape details of _James Lee's Wife_ are alike derived from Pornic.
The solitude of the little Breton hamlet soothed Browning's spirit. The
"good, stupid and dirty" people of the village were seldom visible
except on Sunday; there were solitary walks of miles to be had along the
coast; fruit and milk, butter and eggs in abundance, and these were
Browning's diet. "I feel out of the very earth sometimes," he wrote, "as
I sit here at the window.... Such a soft sea, and such a mournful wind!"
But the lulling charm of the place which, though so different, brought
back the old Siena mood, did not convert him into an idler. The
mornings, which began betimes, were given to work; in his way of
desperate resolve to be well occupied he informs Miss Blagden (Aug. 18,
1863) that having yesterday written a poem of 120 lines, he means to
keep writing whether he likes it or not.[89]

"With the spring of 1863," writes Mr Gosse, "a great change came over
Browning's habits. He had refused all invitations into society; but now,
of evenings, after he had put his boy to bed, the solitude weighed
intolerably upon him. He told the present writer [Mr Gosse] long
afterwards, that it suddenly occurred to him on one such spring night in
1863 that this mode of life was morbid and unworthy, and, then and
there, he determined to accept for the future every suitable invitation
which came to him." "Accordingly," goes on Mr Gosse, "he began to dine
out, and in the process of time he grew to be one of the most familiar
figures of the age at every dinner-table, concert-hall, and place of
refined entertainment in London. This, however, was a slow process." Mrs
Ritchie refers to spoken words of Browning which declared that it was
"a mere chance whether he should live in the London house that he had
taken and join in social life, or go away to some quiet retreat, and be
seen no more." It was in a modified form the story of the "fervid youth
grown man," in his own "Daniel Bartoli," who in his desolation, after
the death of his lady,

Trembled on the verge
Of monkhood: trick of cowl and taste of scourge
He tried: then, kicked not at the pricks perverse,
But took again, for better or for worse,
The old way of the world, and, much the same
Man o' the outside, fairly played life's game.

Probably Browning had come to understand that in his relation to the
past he was not more loyal in solitude than he might be in society; it
was indeed the manlier loyalty to bear his full part in life. And as to
his art, he felt that, with sufficient leisure to encounter the labour
he had enjoined upon himself, it mattered little whether the remaining
time was spent in a cave or in a court; strength may encounter the
seductions either of the hermitage or of the crowd and still be the

Strength may conclude in Archelaos' court,
And yet esteem the silken company
So much sky-scud, sea-froth, earth-thistledown,
For aught their praise or blame should joy or grieve.
Strength amid crowds as late in solitude
May lead the still life, ply the wordless task.[90]

One cannot prescribe a hygiene to poets; the poet of passionate
contemplation, such as was Wordsworth, could hardly quicken or develop
his peculiar faculty by devotion to the entertainments of successive
London seasons. And perhaps it is not certain that the genius of
Browning was wholly a gainer by the superficial excitations of the
dinner table and the reception room. But the truth is, as Mrs Browning
had observed, that his energy was not exhausted by literary work, and
that it preyed upon himself if no means of escape were found. If he was
not at the piano, or shaping clay, or at the drawing-board, or walking
fast and far, inward disturbances were set up which rent and frayed his
mind. The pleasures of society both fatigued and rested Browning; they
certainly relieved him from the troubles of super-abundant force.

In 1864 _Dramatis Personae_ was published. It might be described as
virtually a third volume of _Men and Women_. And yet a certain change of
tone is discernible. Italy is no longer the background of the human
figures. There is perhaps less opulence of colour; less of the manifold
"joys of living." If higher points in the life of the spirit are not
touched, the religious feeling has more of inwardness and is more
detached from external historical fact than it had ever been before;
there is more sense of resistance to and victory over whatever may seem
adverse to the life of the soul. In the poems which deal with love the
situations and postures of the spirit are less simple and are sometimes
even strained; the fantastic and the grotesque occupy a smaller place; a
plain dignity, a grave solemnity of style is attained in passages of _A
Death in the Desert_, which had hardly been reached before. Yet
substantially the volume is a continuation of the poems of 1855; except
in one instance, where Tennyson's method in _Maud_, that of a sequence
of lyrics, is adopted, the methods are the same; the predominating
themes of _Men and Women_, love, art, religion, are the predominating
themes of _Dramatis Personae._ A slight metrical complication--the
internal rhyme in the second line of each stanza of _Dis aliter visum_
and in the third line of the quatrains of _May and Death_--may be noted
as indicating Browning's love of new metrical experiments. In the former
of these poems the experiment cannot be called a success; the clash of
sounds, "a mass of brass," "walked and talked," and the like, seems too
much as if an accident had been converted into a rule.

_Mr Sludge, "the Medium_" the longest piece in the volume, has been
already noticed. The story of the poor girl of Pornic, as Browning in a
letter calls her, attracted him partly because it presented a
psychological curiosity, partly because he cared to paint her hair in
words,--gold in contrast with that pallid face--as much as his friend
Rossetti might have wished to display a like splendour with the strokes
of his brush:

Hair such a wonder of flix and floss,
Freshness and fragrance--floods of it too!
Gold, did I say? Nay, gold's mere dross.

The story, which might gratify a cynical observer of human nature, is
treated by Browning without a touch of cynicism, except that ascribed to
the priest--good easy man--who has lost a soul and gained an altar. A
saint _manque_, whose legend is gruesome enough, but more pathetic than
gruesome, becomes for the poet an involuntary witness of the Christian
faith, and a type of the mystery of moral evil; but the psychological
contrasts of the ambiguous creature, saint-sinner, and the visual
contrast of

that face, like a silver wedge
'Mid the yellow wealth,

are of more worth than the sermon which the writer preaches in
exposition of his tale. Had the form of the poem been Browning's
favourite dramatic monologue, we can imagine that an ingenious apologia,
convincing at least to Half-Pornic, could have been offered for the
perversity of the dying girl's rifting every golden tress with gold.

No poem in the volume of _Dramatis Personae_ is connected with pictorial
art, unless it be the few lines entitled _A Face_, lines of which Emily
Patmore, the poet's wife, was the subject, and written, as Browning
seldom wrote, for the mere record of beauty. That "little head of hers"
is transferred to Browning's panel in the manner of an early Tuscan
piece of ideal loveliness; in purity of outline and of colour the
delicate profile, the opening lips, the neck, the chin so naturally ally
themselves to painting that nature is best comprehended through its
imaginative transference to art. As _Master Hugues_ of the earlier
collection of poems converts a bewildering technique of music into
poetry, and discovers in its intricate construction a certain
interposing web spun by the brain between the soul and things divine, so
_Abt Vogler_ interprets music on the other side--that of immediate
inspiration, to which the constructive element--real though slight--is
subordinate. In the silence and vacuity which follow the impromptu on
his orchestrion, the composer yearns, broods, aspires. Never were a
ghostly troop of sounds reanimated and incarnated into industrious life
more actually than by Browning's verse. They climb and crowd, they mount
and march, and then pass away; but the musician's spirit is borne onward
by the wind of his own mood, and it cannot stay its flight until it has
found rest in God; all that was actual of harmonious sound has
collapsed; but the sense of a mystery of divine suggestion abides in his
heart; the partial beauty becomes a pledge of beauty in its plenitude;
and then by a gentle return upon himself he resumes the life of every
day, sobered, quieted and comforted. The poem touches the borderland
where art and religion meet. The _Toccata of Galuppi_ left behind as its
relics the melancholy of mundane pleasure and a sense of its transitory
existence. The extemporising of _Abt Vogler_ fills the void which it has
opened with the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things

Faith, victor over loss, in _Abt Vogler_, is victor over temporal decay
in _Rabbi Ben Ezra_. The poem is the song of triumph of devout old age.
Neither the shrunken sadness of Matthew Arnold's poem on old age, nor
the wise moderation and acquiescence in the economy of force which an
admirable poem by Emerson expresses, can be found here; and perhaps some
stress and strain may be felt in Browning's effort to maintain his
position. It is no "vale of years" of which _Rabbi Ben Ezra_ tells; old
age is viewed as an apex, a pinnacle, from which in thin translucent air
all the efforts and all the errors of the past can be reviewed; the
gifts of youth, the gifts of the flesh are not depreciated; but the
highest attainment is that of knowledge won by experience--knowledge
which can divide good from evil and what is true from what merely
seems, knowledge which can put a just valuation not only on deeds but on
every faint desire and unaccomplished purpose, and not only on
achievements but failures. Possessed of such knowledge, tried in the
probation of life and not found wanting, accepting its own peculiar
trials, old age can enter into the rest of a clear and solemn vision,
confident of being qualified at last to start forth upon that "adventure
brave and new" to which death is a summons, and assured through
experience that the power which gives our life its law is equalled by a
superintending love. Ardour, and not lethargy, progress and not decline,
are here represented as the characteristics of extreme old age. An
enthusiasm of effort and of strenuous endurance, an enthusiasm of rest
in knowledge, an enthusiasm of self-abandonment to God and the divine
purpose make up the poem. At no time did Browning write verse which
soars with a more steadfast and impassioned libration of wing. Death in
_Rabbi Ben Ezra_ is death as a friend. In the lines entitled _Prospice_
it is death the adversary that is confronted and conquered; the poem is
an act of the faith which comes through love; it is ascribed to no
imaginary speaker, and does not, indeed, veil its personal character. No
lonely adventure is here to reward the victor over death; the
transcendent joy is human love recovered, which being once recovered,
let whatever God may please succeed. The verses are a confession which
gives the reason of that gallant beating up against the wind, noticeable
in many of Browning's later poems. He could not cease from hope; but
hope and faith had much to encounter, and sometimes he would reduce the
grounds of his hope to the lowest, as if to make sure against illusion
and to test the fortitude of hope even at its weakest. The hope of
immortality which was his own inevitably extended itself beyond himself,
and became an interpreter of the mysteries of our earthly life. In
contrast with the ardent ideality of _Rabbi Ben Ezra_ may be set the
uncompromising realism of _Apparent Failure_, with its poetry of the
Paris morgue. The lover of life will scrutinise death at its ugliest and
worst, blinking no hideous fact. Yet, even so, the reverence for

Poor men, God made, and all for that!--

is not quenched, nor is the hope quenched that

After Last returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched,
That what began best, can't end worst.

The optimism is unreasoned, and rightly so, for the spirit of the poem,
with its suggestive title, is not argumentative. The sense of "the pity
of it" in one heart, remorse which has somehow come into existence out
of the obscure storehouse of nature, or out of God, is the only
justification suggested for a hope that nature or God must at the last
intend good and not evil to the poor defeated abjects, who most abhorred
their lives in Paris yesterday. And the word "Nature" here would be
rejected by Browning as less than the truth.

In 1864 under somewhat altered conditions, and from a ground somewhat
shifted, Browning in _A Death in the Desert_ and the _Epilogue_ to
"Dramatis Personae" continued his apology for the Christian faith. The
apologetics are, however, in the first instance poems, and they remain
poems at the last. The imaginary scene of the death of the Evangelist
John is rendered with the finest art; its dignity is that of a certain
noble bareness; in the dim-lighted grotto are the aged disciple and the
little group of witnesses to whom he utters his legacy of words; at the
cave's edge is the Bactrian crying from time to time his bird-like cry
of assurance:

Outside was all noon and the burning blue.

The slow return of the dying man to consciousness of his surroundings is
as true as if it were studied from a death-bed; his sudden awakening at
the words "I am the Resurrection and the Life" arrives not as a dramatic
surprise but as the simplest surprise of nature--light breaking forth
before sunset. The chief speaker of the poem is chosen because the
argument is one concerning faith that comes through love, and St John
was the disciple who had learnt love's deepest secrets. The dialectic
proceeds along large lines, which have only the subtlety of simplicity.
The verse moves gravely, tenderly, often weighted with monosyllables; a
pondering, dwelling verse; and great single lines arise so naturally
that while they fill the mind with a peculiar power, they are felt to be
of one texture with the whole: this, for example,--

We would not lose
The last of what might happen on his face;

and this:--

When there was mid sea and the mighty things;

and this:--

Lie bare to the universal prick of light;

and these:--

The Bactrian was but a wild childish man,
And could not write nor speak, but only loved.

Such lines, however, are made to be read _in situ_.

The faith of these latter days is the same as that of the first century,
and is not the same. The story and the teaching of Christ had alike one
end--to plant in the human consciousness the assurance of Divine Love,
and to make us, in our degree, conscious partakers of that love. Where
love is, there is Christ. Our conceptions of God are relative to our own
understanding; but God as power, God as a communicating intelligence,
God as love--Father, Son and Spirit--is the utmost that we can conceive
of things above us. Let us now put that knowledge--imperfect though it
may be--to use. Power, intelligence, love--these surround us everywhere;
they are not mere projections from our own brain or hand or heart; and
by us they are inconceivable otherwise than as personal attributes. The
historical story of Christ is not lost, for it has grown into a larger
assurance of faith. We are not concerned with the linen clothes and
napkins of the empty sepulchre; Christ is arisen. Why revert to discuss
miracles? The work of miracles--whatever they may have been--was long
ago accomplished. The knowledge of the Divine Love, its appropriation by
our own hearts, and the putting forth of that love in our lives--such
for us is the Christian faith, such is the work of Christ accomplishing
itself in humanity at the present time. And the Christian story is no
myth but a reality, not because we can prove true the beliefs of the
first century, but because those beliefs contained within them a larger
and more enduring belief. The acorn has not perished because it has
expanded into an oak.

This, reduced here to the baldest statement, is in substance the dying
testimony of Browning's St John. It is thrown into lyrical form as his
own testimony in the _Epilogue_ to the volume of 1864. The voices of
singers, the sound of the trumpets of the Jewish Dedication Day, when
the glory of the Lord in His cloud filled His house, have fallen silent.
We are told by some that the divine Face, known to early Christian days
as love, has withdrawn from earth for ever, and left humanity enthroned
as its sole representative:

Oh, dread succession to a dizzy post,
Sad sway of sceptre whose mere touch appals.

Browning's reply is that to one whose eyes are rightly informed the
whole of nature and of human life shows itself as a perpetual mystery of
providential care:

Why, where's the need of Temple, when the walls
O' the world are that? What use of swells and falls
From Levites' choir, Priests' cries, and trumpet calls?

That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows,
Or decomposes but to recompose,
Become my universe that feels and knows.[91]

In the great poem of 1868-69, _The Ring and the Book_, one speaker, the
venerable Pope, like St John of _A Death in the Desert_, has almost
reached the term of a long life: he is absorbed in the solemn weighing
of truth and falsehood, good and evil; his soul, like the soul of the
dying Evangelist:

Lies bare to the universal prick of light.

He, if any of the speakers in that sequence of monologues, expresses
Browning's own highest thought. And the Pope's exposition of the
Christianity of our modern age is identical with that of John. Man's
mind is but "a convex glass" in which is represented all that by us can
be conceived of God, "our known unknown." The Pope has heard the
Christian story which is abroad in the world; he loves it and finds it
credible. God's power--that is clearly discernible in the universe; His
intelligence--that is no less evidently present. What of love? The dread
machinery of sin and sorrow on this globe of ours seems to negative the
idea of divine love. The surmise of immortality may indeed justify the
ways of God to man; this "dread machinery" may be needed to evolve man's
highest moral qualities. The acknowledgment of God in Christ, the divine
self-sacrifice of love, for the Pope, as for St John, solves

All questions in the earth and out of it.

But whether the truth of the early centuries be an absolute historic

Or only truth reverberate, changed, made pass
A spectrum into mind, the narrow eye--
The same and not the same, else unconceived--

the Pope dare not affirm. Nor does he regard the question as of urgent
importance at the present day; the effect of the Christian
tale--historic fact, or higher fact expressed in myth--remains:

So my heart be struck,
What care I,--by God's gloved hand or the bare?

By some means, means divinely chosen even if but a child's fable-book,
we have got our truth, and it suffices for our training here on earth.
Let us give over the endless task of unproving and re-proving the
already proved; rather let us straightway put our truth to its proper

If the grotesque occupies a comparatively small place in _Dramatis
Personae_, the example given is of capital importance in this province
of Browning's art. The devil of Notre Dame, looking down on Paris, is
more effectively placed, but is hardly a more impressive invention of
Gothic fantasy than Caliban sprawling in the pit's much mire,

With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin,

while he discourses, with a half-developed consciousness, itself in the
mire and scarcely yet pawing to get free, concerning the nature of his
Creator. The grotesque here is not merely of the kind that addresses the
eye; the poem is an experiment in the grotesque of thought; and yet
fantastic as it seems, the whole process of this monstrous Bridgewater
treatise is governed by a certain logic. The poem, indeed, is
essentially a fragment of Browning's own Christian apologetics; it
stands as a burly gate-tower from which boiling pitch can be flung upon
the heads of assailants. The poet's intention is not at all to give us a
chapter in the origins of religion; nor is Caliban a representative of
primitive man. A frequently recurring idea with Browning is that
expressed by Pope Innocent in the passage already cited; the external
world proves the power of God; it proves His intelligence: but the proof
of love is derived exclusively from the love that lives in the heart of
man. Are you dissatisfied with such a proof? Well, then, see what a god
we can construct out of intelligence and power, with love left out! If
this world is not a place of trial and training appointed by love, then
it is a scene of capricious cruelty or capricious indifference on the
part of our Maker; His providence is a wanton sporting with our weakness
and our misery. Why were we brought into being? To amuse His solitary
and weary intelligence, and to become the victims or the indulged
manifestations of His power. Why is one man selected for extreme agony
from which a score of his fellows escape? Because god Setebos resembles
Caliban, when through mere caprice he lets twenty crabs march past him
unhurt and stones the twenty-first,

Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.

If any of the phenomena of nature lead us to infer or imagine some law
superior to the idle artistry and reckless will of Setebos, that law is
surely very far away; it is "the Quiet" of Caliban's theology which
takes no heed of human life and has for its outposts the cold unmoving

Except the short piece named _May and Death_, which like Rossetti's
poem of the wood-spurge, is founded upon one of those freaks of
association that make some trival object the special remembrancer of
sorrow, the remaining poems of _Dramatis Personae_, as originally
published, are all poems of love. _A Likeness_, skilfully contrived in
the indirect directness of its acknowledgment of love, its jealous
privacy of passion, and its irresistible delight in the homage rendered
by one who is not a lover, is no exception. Not one of these poems tells
of the full assurance and abiding happiness of lovers. But the warmth
and sweetness of early passion are alive under the most disastrous
circumstances in _Confessions_. The apothecary with his bottles provides
a chart of the scene of the boy-and-girl adventures; the professional
gravities of the parson put an edge on the memory of the dear
indiscretions; "summer's distillation," to borrow a word from
Shakespeare, makes faint the odour of the bottle labelled "Ether"; the
mummy wheat from the coffin of old desire sprouts up and waves its green
pennons. _Youth and Art_ may be placed beside the earlier
_Respectability_ as two pages out of the history of the encounters of
prudence and passion; youth and maiden alike, boy-sculptor and
girl-singer, prefer the prudence of worldly success to the infinite
prudence of love; and they have their reward--that success in life which
is failure. Like the tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and Thisbe,
this is a poem of "very tragical mirth." And no less tragically mirthful
is _Dis Aliter Visum_, a variation on the same or a kindred theme, where
our young Bohemian sculptor is replaced by the elderly poet, bent,
wigged, and lamed, but sure of the fortieth chair in the Academy, and
the lone she-sparrow of the house-top by a young beauty, who adds to her
other attractions a vague, uninstructed yearning for culture and
entirely substantial possessions in the three-per-cents. But the moral
is the same--the folly of being overwise, the wisdom of acting upon the
best promptings of the heart. In _Too Late_ Browning attempts to render
a mood of passionate despair;--love and the hopes of love are defeated
by a woman's sentence of rejection, her marriage, and, last, her death;
it reads, more than any other poem of the writer, like a leaf torn out
of "Wuthering Heights." There is a fixity of grief which is more
appalling than this whirlblast; the souls that are wedged in ice occupy
a lower circle in the region of sorrow than those which are driven
before the gale. _The Worst of it_--another poem of the failures of
love--reverses the conventional attitude of the wronged husband; he
ought, according to all recognised authorities of drama and novel, rage
against his faithless wife, and commiserate his virtuous self; here he
endeavours, though vainly, to transfer every stain and shame to himself
from her; his anguish is all on her behalf, or if on his own chiefly
because he cannot restore her purity or save her from her wrong done
against herself. It is a poem of moral stress and strain, imagined with
great intensity. Browning in general isolates a single moment or mood of
passion, and studies it, with its shifting lights and shadows, as a
living microcosm; often it is a moment of crisis, a moment of
culmination. For once in _James Lee's Wife_ (named in the first edition
by a stroke of perversity _James Lee_), he represents in a sequence of
lyrics a sequence of moods, and with singular success. The season of the
year is autumn, and autumn as felt not among golden wheatfields, but on
a barren and rocky sea-coast; the processes of the declining year, from
the first touch of change to bareness everywhere, accompany and accord
with those of the decline of hope in the wife's heart for any return of
her love. Her offence is that she has loved too well; that she has laid
upon her husband too great a load of devotion; hostility might be met
and vanquished; but how can she deal with a heart which love itself only
petrifies? It should be a warning to critics who translate dramatic
poems into imaginary biography to find that Browning, who had known so
perfect a success in the one love of his life, should constantly present
in work of imagination the ill fortunes of love and lovers. Looking a
little below the surface we see that he could not write directly, he
could not speak effusively, of the joy that he had known. But in all
these poems he thinks of love as a supreme possession in itself and as a
revelation of infinite things which lie beyond it; as a test of
character, and even as a pledge of perpetual advance in the life of the


[Footnote 84: Letter to Story in Henry James's "W.W. Story," vol. ii. p.
91 and p. 97.]

[Footnote 85: H. James's "W.W. Story," vol. ii. p. 100.]

[Footnote 86: "Rossetti Papers," p. 302.]

[Footnote 87: In 1863 Browning gave time and pains to revising his
friend Story's _Roba di Roma_.]

[Footnote 88: In 1864 Browning again "braved the awful Biarritz" and
stayed at Cambo. On this occasion he visted Fontarabia. An interesting
letter from Cambo, undated as to time, is printed in Henry James's "W.W.
Story," vol. ii. pp. 153-156. The year--1864--may be ascertained by
comparing it with a letter addressed to F.T. Palgrave, given in
Palgrave's Life, the date of this letter being Oct. 19, 1864. Browning
in the letter to Story speaks of "the last two years in the dear rough

[Footnote 89: Was the poem _Gold Hair_? If three stanzas were added to
the first draft before the poem appeared in _The Atlantic Monthly_ the
number of lines would have been 120. Stanzas 21, 22 and 23 were added in
the _Dramatis Personae_ version.]

[Footnote 90: _Aristophanes' Apology_ (spoken of Euripides).]

[Footnote 91: Compare with _Epilogue: Third Speaker_ the lines from _A
Death in the Desert_:

Then stand before that fact, that Life and Death,
Stay there at gaze, till it dispart, dispread,
As though a star should open out, all sides,
Grow the world on you, as it is my world.

[Footnote 92: Statements by Mrs Orr with respect to Browning's relations
to Christianity will be found on p. 319 and p. 373 of her Life of
Browning. She regarded "La Saisiaz" as conclusive proof of his
"heterodox attitude." Robert Buchanan, in the Epistle dedicatory to "The
Outcast," alleges that he questioned Browning as to whether he were a
Christian, and that Browning "thundered No!" The statement embodied in
my text above is substantially not mine but Browning's own. See on
_Ferishtah's Fancies_ in chapter xvi.]

Chapter XII

The Ring and the Book

The publication of _Dramatis Personae_ marks an advance in Browning's
growing popularity; a second edition, in which some improvements were
effected, was called for in 1864, the year of its first publication.
"All my new cultivators," Browning wrote, "are young men"; many of them
belonged to Oxford and Cambridge. But he was resolved to consult his own
taste, to take his own way, and let popularity delay or hasten as it
would--"pleasing myself," he says, "or aiming at doing so, and thereby,
I hope, pleasing God." His life had ordered itself as seemed best to
him--a life in London during the months in which the tide flows and
sparkles; then summer and autumn quietude in some retreat upon the
French coast. The years passed in such a uniformity of work and rest,
with enjoyment accompanying each of these, that they may almost be
grasped in bundles. In 1865, the holiday was again at Sainte-Marie, and
the weather was golden; but he noticed with regret that the old church
at Pornic, where the beautiful white girl of his poem had been buried,
was disappearing to give space in front of a new and smart erection of
brick and stucco. His Florence, as he learnt, was also altering, and he
lamented the change. Every detail of the Italian days lived in his
memory; the violets and ground ivy on a certain old wall; the fig tree
behind the Siena villa, under which his wife would sit and read, and
"poor old Landor's oak." "I never hear of any one going to Florence," he
wrote in 1870, "but my heart is twitched." He would like to "glide for a
long summer-day through the streets and between the old
stone-walls--unseen come and unheard go." But he must guard himself
against being overwhelmed by recollection: "Oh, me! to find myself some
late sunshiny Sunday afternoon, with my face turned to Florence--'ten
minutes to the gate, ten minutes _home_!' I think I should fairly end it
all on the spot."[93]

Other changes sadder than the loss of old Norman pillars and ornaments,
or new barbarous structures, run up beside Poggio, were happening. In
May 1866 Browning's father, kind and cheery old man, was unwell; in June
Miss Browning telegraphed for her brother, and he arrived in Paris
twenty-four hours before the end. The elder Browning had almost
completed his eighty-fifth year. To the last he retained what his son
described as "his own strange sweetness of soul." It was the close of a
useful, unworldly, unambitious life, full of innocent enjoyment and deep
affection. The occasion was not one for intemperate grief, but the sense
of loss was great. Miss Browning, whose devotion during many years first
to her mother, then to her widowed father, had been entire, now became
her brother's constant companion. They rested for the summer at Le
Croisic, a little town in Brittany, in a delightfully spacious old
house, with the sea to right and left, through whose great rushing
waves Browning loved to battle, and, inland, a wild country, picturesque
with its flap-hatted, white-clad, baggy-breeched villagers. Their
enjoyment was unspoilt even by some weeks of disagreeable weather, and
to the same place, which Browning has described in his _Two Poets of

Croisic, the spit of sandy rock which juts
Spitefully north,

they returned in the following summer. During this second visit
(September 1867) that most spirited ballad of French heroism, _Herve
Riel_, was written, though its publication belongs to four years

In June 1868 came grief of a kind that seemed to cut him off from
outward communication with a portion of what was most precious in his
past life. Arabel Barrett, his wife's only surviving sister, who had
supported him in his greatest sorrow, died in Browning's arms. "For many
years," we are told by Mr Gosse, "he was careful never to pass her house
in Delamere Terrace." Although not prone to superstition, he had noted
in July 1863 a dream of Miss Barrett in which she imagined herself
asking her dead sister Elizabeth, "When shall I be with you?" and
received the answer, "Dearest, in five years." "Only a coincidence," he
adds in a letter to Miss Blagden, "but noticeable." That summer, after
wanderings in France, Browning and his sister settled at Audierne, on
the extreme westerly point of Brittany, "a delightful, quite unspoiled
little fishing town," with the ocean in front and green lanes and hills
behind. It was in every way an eventful year. In the autumn his new
publishers, Smith, Elder & Co., produced the six-volume edition of his
Poetical Works, on the title-page of which the author describes himself
as "Robert Browning, M.A., Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford."
The distinction, partly due to Jowett's influence, had been conferred a
year previously. In 1865, Browning, who desired that his son should be
educated at Oxford, first became acquainted with Jowett. Acquaintance
quickly ripened into friendship, which was not the less genuine or
cordial because Jowett had but a qualified esteem for Browning's poems.
"Ought one to admire one's friend's poetry?" was a difficult question of
casuistry which the Master of Balliol at one time proposed. Much of
Browning's work appeared to him to be "extravagant, perverse,
topsy-turvy"; "there is no rest in him," Jowett wrote with special
reference to the poems "Christmas Eve" and "Easter Day," which he
regarded as Browning's noblest work. But for the man his admiration was
deep-based and substantial. After Browning's first visit to him in June
1865, Jowett wrote that though getting too old to make, as he supposed,
new friends, he had--he believed--made one. "It is impossible to speak
without enthusiasm of Mr Browning's open, generous nature and his great
ability and knowledge. I had no idea that there was a perfectly sensible
poet in the world, entirely free from vanity, jealousy, or any other
littleness, and thinking no more of himself than any ordinary man. His
great energy is very remarkable, and his determination to make the most
of the remainder of life. Of personal objects he seems to have none
except the education of his son."[95] Browning's visits to Oxford and
Cambridge did not cease when he dropped away from the round of visiting
at country houses. He writes with frank enjoyment of the almost
interminable banquet given at Balliol in the Lent Term, 1877, on the
occasion of the opening of the new Hall. Oxford conferred upon him her
D.C.L. in 1882, on which occasion a happy undergraduate jester sent
fluttering towards the new Doctor's head an appropriate allusion in the
form of a red cotton night-cap. The Cambridge LL.D. was conferred in
1879. In 1871 he was elected a Life Governor of the University of
London. In 1868 he was invited to stand, with the certainty of election,
for the Lord Rectorship of the University of St Andrews, as successor to
John Stuart Mill, an honour which he declined.[96] The great event of
this year in the history of his authorship was the publication in
November and December of the first two volumes of _The Ring and the
Book_. The two remaining volumes followed in January and February 1869.


_From a photograph by_ ALINARI.]

In June 1860 Browning lighted, among the litter of odds and ends exposed
for sale in the Piazza San Lorenzo, Florence, upon the "square old
yellow book," part print, part manuscript, which contained the crude
fact from which his poem of the Franceschini murder case was developed.
The price was a lira, "eightpence English just." As he leaned by the
fountain and walked through street and street, he read, and had mastered
the contents before his foot was on the threshold of Casa Guidi[97].
That night his brain was a-work; pacing the terrace of Casa Guidi, while
from Felice church opposite came

the clear voice of the cloistered ones,
Chanting a chant made for mid-summer nights,

he gave himself up to the excitement of re-creating the actors and
re-enacting their deeds in his imagination:

I fused my live soul and that inert stuff,
Before attempting smithcraft.

According to Mr Rudolf Lehmann, but possibly he has antedated the
incident, Browning at once conceived the mode in which the subject could
be treated in poetry, and it was precisely the mode which was afterwards
adopted: "'When I had read the book,' so Browning told me, 'my plan was
at once settled. I went for a walk, gathered twelve pebbles from the
road, and put them at equal distances on the parapet that bordered it.
Those represented the twelve chapters into which the poem is divided,
and I adhered to that arrangement to the last.'"[98] When in the autumn
he journeyed with his wife to Rome, the vellum-bound quarto was with
him, but the persons from whom he sought further light about the murder
and the trial could give little information or none. Smithcraft did not
soon begin. He offered the story, "for prose treatment" to Miss Ogle, so
we are informed by Mrs Orr, and, she adds, but with less assurance of
statement, offered it "for poetic use to one of his leading
contemporaries." We have seen that in a letter of 1862 from Biarritz,
Browning speaks of the Roman murder case as being the subject of a new
poem already clearly conceived though unwritten. In the last section of
_The Ring and the Book_, he refers to having been in close converse with
his old quarto of the Piazza San Lorenzo during four years:

How will it be, my four-years' intimate,
When thou and I part company anon?

The publication of _Dramatis Personae_ in 1864 doubtless enabled
Browning to give undivided attention to his vast design. In October of
that year he advanced to actual definition of his scheme. When staying
in the south of France he visited the mountain gorge which is connected
with the adventure of the Roland of romance, and there he planned the
whole poem precisely as it was carried out. "He says," Mr W.M. Rossetti
enters in his diary after a conversation with Browning (15 March 1868),
"he writes day by day on a regular systematic plan--some three hours in
the early part of the day; he seldom or never, unless in quite brief
poems, feels the inspiring impulse and sets the thing down into words at
the same time--often stores up a subject long before he writes it. He
has written his forthcoming work all consecutively--not some of the
later parts before the earlier."[99]

When Carlyle met Browning after the appearance of _The Ring and the
Book_, he desired to be complimentary, but was hardly more felicitous
than Browning himself had sometimes been when under a like necessity:
"It is a wonderful book," declared Carlyle, "one of the most wonderful
poems ever written. I re-read it all through--all made out of an Old
Bailey story that might have been told in ten lines, and only wants
forgetting."[100] A like remark might have been made respecting the book
which, in its method and its range of all English books most resembles
Browning's poem, and which may indeed be said to take among prose works
of fiction a similar place to that held among poetical creations by
Browning's tale of Guido and Pompilia. Richardson's _Clarissa_ consists
of eight volumes made out of an Old Bailey story, or what might have
been such, which one short newspaper paragraph could have dismissed to a
happy or sorrowful oblivion. But then we should never have known two of
the most impressive figures invented by the imagination of man, Clarissa
and her wronger; and had we not heard their story from all the
participators and told with Richardson's characteristic interest in the
microscopy of the human heart, it could never have possessed our minds
with that full sense of its reality which is the experience of every
reader. Out of the infinitesimally little emerges what is great; out of
the transitory moments rise the forms that endure. It is of little
profit to discuss the question whether Richardson could have effected
his purpose in four volumes instead of eight, or whether Browning ought
to have contented himself with ten thousand lines of verse instead of
twenty thousand. No one probably has said of either work that it is too
short, and many have uttered the sentence of the critical
Polonius--"This is too long." But neither _Clarissa_ nor _The Ring and
the Book_ is one of the Hundred Merry Tales; the purpose of each writer
is triumphantly effected; and while we wish that the same effect could
have been produced by means less elaborate, it is not safe to assert
confidently that this was possible.

It has often been said that the story is told ten times over by almost
as many speakers; it would be more correct to say that the story is not
told even once. Nine different speakers tell nine different stories,
stories of varying incidents about different persons--for the Pompilia
of Guido and the Pompilia of Caponsacchi are as remote, each from other,
as a marsh-fire from a star, and so with the rest. In the end we are
left to invent the story for ourselves--not indeed without sufficient
guidance towards the truth of things, since the successive speeches are
a discipline in distinguishing the several values of human testimony. We
become familiar with idols of the cave, idols of the tribe, idols of the
market-place, and shall recognise them if we meet them again. Gossipry
on this side is checked and controlled by gossipry on that; and the
nicely balanced indifferentism of men emasculate, blank of belief, who
play with the realities of life, is set forth with its superior
foolishness of wisdom. The advocacy which consists of professional
self-display is exhibited genially, humorously, an advocacy horn-eyed to
the truth of its own case, to every truth, indeed, save one--that which
commends the advocate himself, his ingenious wit, and his flowers of
rhetoric. The criminal is allowed his due portion of veracity and his
fragment of truth--"What shall a man give for his life?" He has enough
truth to enable him to fold a cloud across the light, to wrench away the
sign-posts and reverse their pointing hands, to remove the land-marks,
to set up false signal fires upon the rocks. And then are heard three
successive voices, each of which, and each in a different way, brings to
our mind the words, "But there is a spirit in man; and the inspiration
of the Almighty giveth them understanding." First the voice of the pure
passion of manhood, which is naked and unashamed; a voice terrible in
its sincerity, absolute in its abandonment to truth, prophet-like in its
carelessness of personal consequences, its carelessness of all except
the deliverance of a message--and yet withal a courtly voice, and, if it
please, ironical. It is as if Elihu the son of Barachel stood up and his
wrath were kindled: "Behold my belly is as wine which hath no vent; it
is ready to burst like new bottles. I will speak that I may be
refreshed." And yet we dare not say that Caponsacchi's truth is the
whole truth; he speaks like a man newly converted, still astonished by
the supernatural light, and inaccessible to many things visible in the
light of common day. Next, a voice from one who is human indeed "to the
red-ripe of the heart," but who is already withdrawn from all the
turbulence and turbidity of life; the voice of a woman who is still a
child; of a mother who is still virginal; of primitive instinct, which
comes from God, and spiritual desire kindled by that saintly knighthood
that had saved her; a voice from the edge of the world, where the dawn
of another world has begun to tremble and grow luminous,--uttering its
fragment of the truth. Last, the voice of old age, and authority and
matured experience, and divine illumination, old age encompassed by
much doubt and weariness and human infirmity, a solemn, pondering voice,
which, with God somewhere in the clear-obscure, goes sounding on a dim
and perilous way, until in a moment this voice of the anxious explorer
for truth changes to the voice of the unalterable justicer, the armed
doomsman of righteousness.

Truth absolute is not attained by any one of the speakers; that,
Browning would say, is the concern of God. And so, at the close, we are
directed to take to heart the lesson

That our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.

But there are degrees of approximation to truth and of remoteness from
it. Truth as apprehended by pure passion, truth as apprehended by
simplicity of soul ("And a little child shall lead them"), truth as
apprehended by spiritual experience--such respectively make up the
substance of the monologues of Caponsacchi, of Pompilia, and of the
Pope. For the valuation, however, of this loftier testimony we require a
sense of the level ground, even if it be the fen-country. A perception
of the heights must be given by exhibiting the plain. If we were carried
up in the air and heard these voices how should we know for certain that
we had not become inhabitants of some Cloudcuckootown? And the plain is
where we ordinarily live and move; it has its rights, and is worth
understanding for its own sake. Therefore we shall mix our mind with
that of "Half-Rome" and "The Other Half-Rome" before we climb any mounts
of transfiguration or enter any city set upon a hill. The "man in the
street" is a veritable person, and it is good that we should make his
acquaintance; even the man in the _salon_ may speak his mind if he will;
such shallow excitements, such idle curiosities as theirs will enable us
better to appreciate the upheaval to the depths in the heart of
Caponsacchi, the quietude, and the rapt joy in quietude, of Pompilia,
the profound searchings of spirit that proceed all through the droop of
that sombre February day in the closet of the Pope. And, then, at the
most tragic moment and when pathos is most poignant, life goes on, and
the world is wide, and laughter is not banished from earth. Therefore
Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, Procurator of the Poor, shall make
his ingenious notes for the defence of Count Guido, and cite his
precedents and quote his authorities, and darken counsel with words, all
to be by and by ecclesiasticized and regularized and Latinized and
Ciceroized, while more than half the good man's mind is occupied with
thought of the imminent "lovesome frolic feast" on his boy Cinone's
birth-night, which shall bring with it lamb's fry and liver, stung out
of its monotony of richness by parsley-sprigs and fennel. Yes, and we
shall hear also the other side--how, in a florilegium of Latin, selected
to honour aright the Graces and the Muses and the majesty of Law,
Johannes-Baptista Bottinius can do justice to his client and to his own
genius by showing, with due exordium and argument and peroration, that
Pompilia is all that her worst adversaries allege, and yet can be
established innocent, or not so very guilty, by her rhetorician's
learning and legal deftness in quart and tierce.

The secondary personages in Richardson's "Clarissa" grow somewhat faint
in our memories; but the figures of his heroine and of Lovelace remain
not only uneffaceable but undimmed by time. Four of the _dramatis
personae_ of Browning's poem in like manner possess an enduring life,
which shows no decline or abatement after the effect of the monologues
by the other speakers has been produced and the speakers themselves
almost forgotten. Count Guide Franceschini is not a miracle of evil
rendered credible, like Shakespeare's Iago, nor a strange enormity of
tyrannous hate and lust like the Count Cenci of Shelley. He has no
spirit of diabolic revelry in crime; no feeling for its delicate
artistry; he is under no spell of fascination derived from its horror.
He is clumsy in his fraud and coarse in his violence. Sin may have its
strangeness in beauty; but Guido does not gleam with the romance of sin.
If Browning once or twice gives his fantasy play, it is in describing
the black cave of a palace at Arezzo into which the white Pompilia is
borne, the cave and its denizens--the "gaunt gray nightmare" of a
mother, mopping and mowing in the dusk, the brothers, "two obscure
goblin creatures, fox-faced this, cat-clawed the other," with Guido
himself as the main monster. Yet the Count, short of stature,
"hook-nosed and yellow in a bush of beard" is not a monster but a man;
possessed of intellectual ability and a certain grace of bearing when
occasion requires; although wrenched and enfeebled by the torture of the
rack he holds his ground, has even a little irony to spare, and makes a
skilful defence. Browning does not need a lithe, beautiful, mysterious
human panther, and is content with a plain, prosaic, serviceable
villain, who would have been disdained by the genius of the dramatist
Webster as wanting in romance. But like some of Webster's saturnine,
fantastic assistants or tools in crime, Guido has failed in everything,
is no longer young, chews upon the bitter root of failure, and is
half-poisoned by its acrid juices. He is godless in an age of godless
living; cynical in a cynical generation; and ever and anon he betrays
the licentious imagination of an age of license. He plays a poor part in
the cruel farce of life, and snarls against the world, while clinging
desperately to the world and to life. A disinterested loyalty to the
powers of evil might display a certain gallantry of its own, but, though
Guido loathes goodness, his devotion to evil has no inverted chivalry in
it--there is always a valid reason, a sordid motive for his rage. And in
truth he has grounds of complaint, which a wave of generous passion
would have swept away, but which, following upon the ill successes of
his life, might well make a bad man mad. His wife, palmed off upon the
representative of an ancient and noble house, is the child of a nameless
father and a common harlot of Rome; she is repelled by his person; and
her cold submission to what she has been instructed in by the Archbishop
as the duties of a wife is more intolerable than her earlier remoter
aversion. He is cheated of the dowry which lured him to marriage. He is
pointed at with smiling scorn by the gossips of Arezzo. A gallant of the
troop of Satan might have devised and executed some splendid revenge;
but Guido is ever among the sutlers and camp-followers of the fiend, who
are base before they are bold. When he makes his final pleading for life
in the cell of the New Prison by Castle Angelo, the animal cry, like
that of a wild cat on whom the teeth of the trap have closed, is
rendered shrill by the intensity of imagination with which he pictures
to himself the apparatus of the scaffold and the hideous circumstance of
his death. His effort, as far as it is rational, is to transfer the
guilt of his deeds to anyone or everyone but himself. When all other
resources fail he boldly lays the offence upon God, who has made him
what he is. It was a fine audacity of Browning in imagining the last
desperate shriek of the wretched man, uttered as the black-hatted
Brotherhood of Death descend the stairs singing their accursed psalm, to
carry the climax of appeal to the powers of charity,
"Christ,--Maria,--God," one degree farther, and make the murderer last
of all cry upon his victim to be his saviour from the death which he
dares to name by the name of his own crime, a name which that crime
might seem to have sequestered from all other uses:--

"Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"

Pompilia is conceived by Browning not as a pale, passive victim, but as
strong with a vivid, interior life, and not more perfect in patience
than in her obedience to the higher law which summons her to resistance
to evil and championship of the right. Her purity is not the purity of
ice but of fire. When the Pope would find for himself a symbol to body
forth her soul, it is not a lily that he thinks of but a rose. Others
may yield to the eye of God a "timid leaf" and an "uncertain bud,"

While--see how this mere chance sown, cleft-nursed seed
That sprang up by the wayside 'neath the foot
Of the enemy, this breaks all into blaze,
Spreads itself, one wide glory of desire
To incorporate the whole great sun it loves
From the inch-height whence it looks and longs. My flower,
My rose, I gather for the breast of God.

As she lies on her pallet, dying "in the good house that helps the poor
to die," she is far withdrawn from the things of time; her life, with
all its pleasures and its pains, seems strange and far away--

Looks old, fantastic and impossible:
I touch a fairy thing that fades and fades.

Two possessions, out of what life has brought, remain with her--the
babe, who while yet unborn had converted her from a sufferer to a
defender, and the friend who has saved her soul. Even motherhood itself
is not the deepest thing in Pompilia's nature. The little Gaetano, whom
she had held in her arms for three days, will change; he will grow
great, strong, stern, a tall young man, who cannot guess what she was
like, who may some day have some hard thought of her. He too withdraws
into the dream of earth. She can never lose him, and yet lose him she
surely must; all she can do is by dying to give him "out-right to God,
without a further care," so to be safe. But one experience of Pompilia's
life was quite out of time, and belongs by its mere essence to eternity.
Having laid her babe away with God, she must not even "think of him
again, for gratitude"; and her last breath shall spend itself in doing
service to earth by striving to make men know aright what earth will for
a time possess and then, forever, heaven--God's servant, man's friend,
the saviour of the weak, the foe of all who are vile--and to the gossips
of Arezzo and of Rome the fribble and coxcomb and light-of-love priest,

If any point in the whole long poem, _The Ring and the Book_, can be
described as central, it must be found in the relations, each to the
other, of Caponsacchi and Pompilia. The truth of it, as conceived by
Browning, could hardly be told otherwise than in poetry, for it needs
the faith that comes through spiritual beauty to render it
comprehensible and credible, and such beauty is best expressed by art.
It is easy to convince the world of a passion between the sexes which is
simply animal; nor is art much needed to help out the proof. Happily the
human love, in which body and soul play in varying degrees their parts,
and each an honoured part, is in widest commonalty spread. But the love
that is wholly spiritual seems to some a supernatural thing, and if it
be not discredited as utterly unreal (which at certain periods, if
literature be a test, has been the case), it is apt to appear as a thing
phantom-like, tenuous, and cold. But, in truth, this reality once
experienced makes the other realities appear the shadows, and it is an
ardour as passionate as any that is known to man. Its special note is a
deliverance from self with a joy in abandonment to some thing other than
self, like that which has been often recorded as an experience in
religious conversion; when Bunyan, for example, ceased from the efforts
to establish his own righteousness and saw that righteousness above him
in the eternal heavens, he walked as a man suddenly illuminated, and
could hardly forbear telling his joy to the crows upon the plough-land;
and so, in its degree, with the spiritual exaltation produced by the
love of man and woman when it touches a certain rare but real altitude.
If a poet can succeed in lifting up our hearts so that they may know for
actual the truth of these things, he has contributed an important
fragment towards an interpretation of human life. And this Browning has
assuredly done. The sense of a power outside oneself whose influence
invades the just-awakened man, the conviction that the secret of life
has been revealed, the lying passive and prone to the influx of the
spirit, the illumination, the joy, the assurance that old things have
passed away and that all things have become new, the acceptance of a
supreme law, the belief in a victory obtained over time and death, the
rapture in a heart prepared for all self-sacrifice, entire
immolation--these are rendered by Browning with a fidelity which if
reached solely by imagination is indeed surprising, for who can discover
these mysteries except through a personal experience?[101] If the senses
co-operate--as perhaps they do--in such mysteries, they are senses in a
state of transfiguration, senses taken up into the spirit--"Whether in
the body or out of the body I cannot tell." When Caponsacchi bears the
body of Pompilia in a swoon to her chamber in the inn at Castelnuovo, it
is as if he bore the host. From the first moment when he set eyes upon
her in the theatre,

A lady, young, tall, beautiful, strange and sad,

he is delivered from his frivolous self, he is solemnized and awed; the
form of his worship is self-sacrifice; his first word to her--"I am
yours "--is

An eternity
Of speech, to match the immeasurable depth
O' the soul that then broke silence.

To abstain from ever seeing her again would be joy more than pain if
this were duty to her and to God. For him the mere revelation of
Pompilia would suffice. His inmost feeling is summed up with perfect
adequacy in a word to the Judges: "You know this is not love, Sirs--it
is faith."

There is another kind of faith which comes not suddenly through passion
but slowly through thought and action and trial, and the long fidelity
of a life. It is that of which Milton speaks in the lines:

Till old experience do attain
To something of Prophetic strain.

This is the faith of Browning's Pope Innocent, who up to extreme old age
has kept open his intelligence both on the earthward and the Godward
sides, and who, being wholly delivered from self by that devotion to
duty which is the habit of his mind, can apprehend the truth of things
and pronounce judgment upon them almost with the certitude of an
instrument of the divine righteousness. And yet he is entirely human,
God's vicegerent and also an old man, learned in the secrets of the
heart, patient in the inquisition of facts, weighing his documents,
scrutinising each fragment of evidence, burdened by the sense of
responsibility, cheered also by the opportunity of true service, grave
but not sad--

Simple, sagacious, mild yet resolute,
With prudence, probity and--what beside
From the other world he feels impress at times;

a "grey ultimate decrepitude," yet visited by the spiritual fire which
touches a soul whose robe of flesh is worn thin; not unassailed by
doubts as to the justice of his final decision, but assured that his
part is confidently to make the best use of the powers with which he has
been entrusted; young of heart, if also old, in his rejoicing in
goodness and his antipathy to evil.

_The Ring and the Book_ is a great receptacle into which Browning
poured, with an affluence that perhaps is excessive, all his powers--his
searchings for truth, his passion, his casuistry, his feeling for
beauty, his tenderness, his gift of pity, his veiled memories of what
was most precious in the past, his hopes for the future, his worldly
knowledge, his unworldly aspirations, his humour, such as it was, robust
rather than delicate. Could the three monologues which tell how in
various ways it strikes a Roman contemporary have been fused into a
single dialogue, could the speeches of the two advocates have been
briefly set over, one against the other, instead of being drawn out at
length, we might still have got the whole of Browning's mind. But we
must take things as we find them, and perhaps a skilled writer knows his
own business best. Never was Browning's mastery in narrative displayed
with such effect as in Caponsacchi's account of the flight to Rome,
which is not mere record, but record winged with lyrical enthusiasm.
Never was his tenderness so deep or poignant as in his realisation of
the motherhood of Pompilia. Never were the gropings of intellect and the
intuitions of the spirit shown by him in their weakness and their
strength with such a lucid subtlety as in the deliberations and
decisions of the Pope. The whole poem which he compares to a ring was
the ring of a strong male finger; but the posy of the ring, and the
comparison is again his own, tells how it was a gift hammered and filed
during the years of smithcraft "in memoriam"; in memory and also with a

The British Public, whom Browning addresses at the close of his poem,
and who "liked him not" during so many years, now when he was not far
from sixty went over to his side. _The Ring and the Book_ almost
immediately passed into a second edition. The decade from 1869 onwards
is called by Mrs Orr the fullest period in Browning's life. His social
occupations and entertainments both in London and for a time as a
visitor at country-houses became more numerous and absorbing, yet he had
energy for work as well as for play. During these ten years no fewer
than nine new volumes of his poetry appeared. None of them are London
poems, and Italy is for the present almost forgotten; it is the scene of
only two or three short pieces, which are included in the volume of
1876--_Pacchiarotto and how he worked in distemper; with other Poems_.
The other pieces of the decade as regards their origin fall with a
single exception into two groups; first those of ancient Greece,
suggested by Browning's studies in classical drama; secondly those,
which in a greater or less degree, are connected with his summer
wanderings in France and Switzerland. The dream-scene of Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau is Leicester Square; but this also is one of the
poems of France. _The Inn Album_ alone is English in its characters and
their surroundings. Such a grouping of the works of the period is of a
superficial nature, and it can be readily dismissed. It brings into
prominence, however, the fact that Browning, while resolved to work out
what was in him, lay open to casual suggestions. He had acquired
certain methods which he could apply to almost any topic. He had
confidence that any subject on which he concentrated his powers of mind
could be compelled to yield material of interest. It cannot be said that
he exercised always a wise discretion in the choice of subjects; these
ought to have been excellent in themselves; he trusted too much to the
successful issue of the play of his own intellect and imagination around
and about his subjects. _The Ring and the Book_ had given him practice,
extending over several years, in handling the large dramatic monologue.
Now he was prepared to stretch the dramatic monologue beyond the bounds,
and new devices were invented to keep it from stagnating and to carry it
forward. Imaginary disputants intervene in the monologue; there are
objections, replies, retorts; a second player in the game not being
found, the speaker has to play against himself.

In the story of the Roman murder-case fancy was mingled with fact, and
truth with falsehood, with a view to making truth in the end the more
salient. The poet had used to the full his dramatic right of throwing
himself into intellectual sympathy with persons towards whom he stood in
moral antagonism or at least experienced an inward sense of alienation.
The characteristic of much of his later poetry is that it is for ever
tasking falsehood to yield up truth, for ever (to employ imagery of his
own) as a swimmer beating the treacherous water with the feet in order
that the head may rise higher into the pure air made for the spirit's
breathing. Browning's genius united an intellect which delighted in the
investigation of complex problems with a spiritual and emotional nature
manifesting itself in swift and simple solutions of those problems; it
united an analytic or discursive power supplied by the head with an
intuitive power springing from the heart. He employed his brain to twist
and tangle a Gordian knot in order that in a moment it might be cut with
the sword of the spirit. In the earlier poems his spiritual ardours and
intuitions were often present throughout, and without latency, without
reserve; impassioned truth often flashed upon the reader through no
intervening or resisting medium. In _The Ring and the Book_, and in a
far greater degree in some subsequent poems, while the supreme authority
resides in the spiritual intuitions or the passions of the heart, their
instantaneous, decisive work waits until a prolonged casuistry has
accomplished its utmost; falsehood seems almost more needful in the
process of the poet than truth. And yet it is never actually so. Rather
to the poet, as a moral explorer, it appeared a kind of cowardice to
seek truth only where it may easily be found; the strenuous hunter will
track it through all winding ways of error; it is thrown out as a spot
of intense illumination upon a background of darkness; it leaps forth as
the flash of the search-light piercing through a mist. The masculine
characters in the poems are commonly made the exponents of Browning's
intellectual casuistry--a Hohenstiel-Schwangau, an Aristophanes; and
they are made to say the best and the most truthful words that can be
uttered by such as they are and from such positions as theirs; the
female characters, a Balaustion, the Lady of Sorrows in _The Inn Album_,
and others are often revealers of sudden truth, which with them is
either a divine revelation--the vision seen from a higher and clearer
standpoint--or a dictate of pure human passion. Eminent moments in life
had an extraordinary interest for Browning--moments when life, caught up
out of the habitual ways and the lower levels of prudence, takes its
guidance and inspiring motive from an immediate discovery of truth
through some noble ardour of the heart. Therefore it did not seem much
to him to task his ingenuity through almost all the pages of a laborious
book in creating a tangle and embroilment of evil and good, of truth and
falsehood, in view of the fact that a shining moment is at last to
spring forward and do its work of severing absolutely and finally right
from wrong, and shame from a splendour of righteousness. Browning's
readers longed at times, and not without cause, for the old directness
and the old pervading presence of spiritual and impassioned truth.[102]


[Footnote 93: Letter to Miss Blagden, Feb. 24, 1870, given by Mrs Orr,
p. 287.]

[Footnote 94: Vivid descriptions of Le Croisic at an earlier date may be
found in one of Balzac's short stories.]

[Footnote 95: _Life of Jowett_ by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell, i.
400, 401.]

[Footnote 96: A repeated invitation in 1877 was also declined. In 1875
Browning was nominated by the Independent Club to the office of Lord
Rector of Glasgow University.]

[Footnote 97: Such a book would naturally attract Browning, who, like
his father, had an interest in celebrated criminal cases. In his
_Memories_ (p. 338), Kegan Paul records his surprise at a dinner-party
where the conversation turned on murder, to find Browning acquainted "to
the minutest detail" with every _cause celebre_ of that kind within
living memory.]

[Footnote 98: _An Artist's Reminiscences_, by R. Lehmann (1894), p.

[Footnote 99: Rossetti Papers, p. 302.]

[Footnote 100: So the story was told by Dante Rossetti, as recorded by
Mrs Gilchrist; she says that she believed the story was told of himself
by Carlyle.]

[Footnote 101: The passage specially referred to is in Caponsacchi's
monologue, II. 936-973, beginning with "Thought? nay, sirs, what shall
follow was not thought."]

[Footnote 102: I have used here some passages already printed in my
_Studies in Literature_.]

Chapter XIII

Poems on Classical Subjects

During these years, 1869-1878, Browning's outward life maintained its
accustomed ways. In the summer of 1869 he wandered with his son and his
sister, in company with his friends of Italian days, the Storys, in
Scotland, and at Lock Luichart Lodge visited Lady Ashburton.[103] Three
summers, those of 1870, 1872 and 1873 were spent at Saint-Aubin, a wild
"un-Murrayed" village on the coast of Normandy, where Milsand occupied a
little cottage hard by. At night the light-house of Havre shot forth its
beam, and it was with "a thrill" that Browning saw far off the spot
where he had once sojourned with his wife.[104] "I don't think we were
ever quite so thoroughly washed by the sea-air from all quarters as
here," he wrote in August 1870. Every morning, as Mme. Blanc (Th.
Bentzon) tells us, he might be seen "walking along the sands with the
small Greek copy of Homer which was his constant companion. On Sunday he
went with the Milsands ... to a service held in the chapel of the
Chateau Blagny, at Lion-sur-Mer, for the few Protestants of that region.
They were generally accompanied by a young Huguenot peasant, their
neighbour, and Browning with the courtesy he showed to every woman, used
to take a little bag from the hands of the strong Norman girl,
notwithstanding her entreaties." The visit of 1870 was saddened by the
knowledge of what France was suffering during the progress of the war.
He lingered as long as possible for the sake of comradeship with
Milsand, around whose shoulder Browning's arm would often lie as they
walked together on the beach.[105] But communication with England became
daily more and more difficult. Milsand insisted that his friend should
instantly return. It is said by Mme. Blanc that Browning was actually
suspected by the peasants of a neighbouring village of being a Prussian
spy. Not without difficulty he and his sister reached Honfleur, where an
English cattle-boat was found preparing to start at midnight for

Two years later Miss Thackeray was also on the coast of Normandy and at
no great distance. "It was a fine hot summer," she writes, "with
sweetness and completeness everywhere; the cornfields gilt and
far-stretching, the waters blue, the skies arching high and clear, and
the sunsets succeeding each other in most glorious light and beauty."
Some slight misunderstanding on Browning's part, the fruit of
mischief-making gossipry, which caused constraint between him and his
old friend was cleared away by the good offices of Milsand. While Miss
Thackeray sat writing, with shutters closed against the blazing sun,
Browning himself "dressed all in white, with a big white umbrella under
his arm," arrived to take her hand with all his old cordiality. A
meeting of both with the Milsands, then occupying a tiny house in a
village on the outer edges of Luc-sur-mer, soon followed, and before the
sun had fallen that evening they were in Browning's house upon the cliff
at Saint-Aubin. "The sitting-room door opened to the garden and the sea
beyond--fresh-swept bare floor, a table, three straw chairs, one book
upon the table. Mr Browning told us it was the only book he had with
him. The bedrooms were as bare as the sitting-room, but I remember a
little dumb piano standing in a corner, on which he used to practise in
the early morning. I heard Mr Browning declare they were perfectly
satisfied with their little house; that his brains, squeezed as dry as a
sponge, were only ready for fresh air."[106] Perhaps Browning's "only
book" of 1872 contained the dramas of AEschylus, for at Fontainebleau
where he spent some later weeks of the year these were the special
subject of his study. It was at Saint-Aubin in 1872 that he found the
materials for his poem of the following year, and to Miss Thackeray's
drowsy name for the district,

Symbolic of the place and people too,

_White Cotton Night-Cap Country_, the suggestion of Browning's title
_Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_ is due. To her the poem is dedicated.

Browning's interest in those who were rendered homeless and destitute in
France during the Prussian invasion was shown in a practical way in the
spring of 1871. He had for long been averse to the publication of his
poems in magazines and reviews. In 1864 he had gratified his American
admirers by allowing _Gold Hair_ and _Prospice_ to appear in the
_Atlantic Monthly_ previous to their inclusion in _Dramatis Persona._ A
fine sonnet written in 1870, suggested by the tower erected at
Clandeboye by Lord Dufferin in memory of his mother, Helen, Countess of
Gifford, had been inserted in some undistributed copies of a pamphlet,
"Helen's Tower," privately printed twenty years previously; the sonnet
was published at the close of 1883 in the _Pall Mall Gazette_, but was
not given a place by Browning in the collected editions of his Poetical
Works. In general he felt that the miscellaneous contents of a magazine,
surrounding a poem, formed hardly an appropriate setting for such verse
as his. In February 1871, however, he offered to his friend and,
publisher Mr Smith the ballad of _Herve Riel_ for use in the _Cornhill
Magazine_ of March, venturing for once, as he says, to puff his wares
and call the verses good. His purpose was to send something to the
distressed people of Paris, and one hundred guineas, the sum liberally
fixed by Mr Smith as the price of the poem, were duly forwarded--the
gift of the English poet and his Breton hero. The facts of the story had
been forgotten and were denied at St Malo; the reports of the French
Admiralty were examined and indicated the substantial accuracy of the
poem. On one point Browning erred; it was not a day's holiday to be
spent with his wife "la Belle Aurore" which the Breton sailor petitioned
for as the reward of his service, but a "conge absolu," the holiday of a
life-time. In acknowledging his error to Dr Furnivall, and adding an
explanation of its cause, he dismissed the subject with the word,
"Truth above all things; so treat the matter as you please."[107]

For the purposes of holiday-making the resources of the northern French
coast, with which Browning's ballad of the Croisickese pilot is
associated, were, says Mrs Orr, becoming exhausted. Yet some rest and
refreshment after the heavy tax upon his strength made by a London
season with its various claims were essential to his well-being. His
passion for music would not permit him during his residence in town to
be absent from a single important concert; the extraordinary range of
his acquaintance with the works of great and even of obscure composers
was attested by Halle. In his sonnet of 1884, inscribed in the Album to
Mr Arthur Chappell, _The Founder of the Feast_, a poem not included in
any edition of his works, he recalls these evenings of delight:

Sense has received the utmost Nature grants,
My cup was filled with rapture to the brim,
When, night by night--ah, memory, how it haunts!--
Music was poured by perfect ministrants,
By Halle, Schumann, Piatti, Joachim.

Long since in Florence he had become acquainted with Miss Egerton-Smith,
who loved music like himself, and was now often his companion at public
performances in London. She was wealthy, and with too little confidence
in her power to win the regard of others, she lived apart from the great
world. In 1872 Browning lost the warm-hearted and faithful friend who
had given him such prompt, womanly help in his worst days of grief--Miss
Blagden. Her place in his memory remained her own. Miss Egerton-Smith
might seem to others wanting in strength of feeling and cordiality of
manner. Browning knew the sensitiveness of her nature, which responded
to the touch of affection, and he could not fail to discover her true
self, veiled though it was by a superficial reserve. And as he knew her,
so he wrote of her in the opening of his _La Saisiaz_:

You supposed that few or none had known and loved you in the world:
May be! flower that's full-blown tempts the butterfly, not flower that's furled.
But more learned sense unlocked you, loosed the sheath and let expand
Bud to bell and out-spread flower-shape at the least warm touch of hand
--Maybe throb of heart, beneath which,--quickening farther than it knew,--
Treasure oft was disembosomed, scent all strange and unguessed hue.
Disembosomed, re-embosomed,--must one memory suffice,
Prove I knew an Alpine rose which all beside named Edelweiss?

Miss Egerton-Smith was the companion and house-mate of Browning and his
sister in their various summer wanderings from 1874 to 1877. In the
first of these years the three friends occupied a house facing the sea
at the village of Mers near Treport. Browning at this time was much
absorbed by his _Aristophanes' Apology_. "Here," writes Mrs Orr, "with
uninterrupted quiet, and in a room devoted to his use, Mr Browning would
work till the afternoon was advanced, and then set off on a long walk
over the cliffs, often in the face of a wind, which, as he wrote of it
at the time, he could lean against as if it were a wall." The following
summers were spent at Villers in Normandy (1875), at the Isle of Arran
(1876), and in the upland country of the Saleve, near Geneva. During the
visit to the Saleve district, where Browning and his sister with Miss
Egerton-Smith occupied a chalet named La Saisiaz, he was, Mrs Orr tells
us, "unusually depressed and unusually disposed to regard the absence
from home as a banishment." Yet the place seemed lovely to him in its
solitude and its beauty; the prospect of Geneva, with lake and plain
extended below, varying in appearance with the shifting of clouds, was
repose to his sense of sight. He bathed twice each day in the mountain
stream--"a marvel of delicate delight framed in with trees." He read and
rested; and wrote but little or not at all. Suddenly the repose of La
Saisiaz was broken up; the mood of languorous pleasure and drowsy
discontent was at an end. While preparing to join her friend on a
long-intended mountain climb Miss Egerton-Smith, with no forewarning,
died. The shock was for a time overwhelming. When Browning returned to
London the poem _La Saisiaz_, the record of his inquisition into the
mystery of death, of his inward debate concerning a future life, was
written. It was the effort of resilience in his spirit in opposition to
that stroke which deprived him of the friend who was so near and dear.

The grouping of the works produced by Browning from the date of the
publication of _The Ring and the Book_ (1868) to the publication of _La
Saisias_ (1878), which is founded upon the occasions that suggested
them, has only an external and historical interest. The studies in the
Greek drama and the creations to which these gave rise extend at
intervals over the whole decade. _Balaustion's Adventure_ was published
in 1871, _Aristophanes' Apology_ in 1875, the translation of _The
Agamemnon of AEschylus_ in 1877. Two of the volumes of this period,
_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ (1871) and _Fifine at the Fair_ (1872) are
casuistical monologues, and these, it will be observed, lie side by side
in the chronological order. The first of the pair is concerned with
public and political life, with the conduct and character of a man
engaged in the affairs of state; the second, with a domestic question,
the casuistry of wedded fidelity and infidelity, from which the scope of
the poem extends itself to a wider survey of human existence and its
meanings.[108] Two of the volumes are narrative poems, each tending to a
tragic crisis; _Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_ (1873) is a story
entangled with questions relating to religion; _The Inn Album_ (1875) is
a tragedy of the passion of love. The volume of 1876, _Pacchiarotto with
other Poems_, is the miscellaneous gathering of lyrical and narrative
pieces which had come into being during a period of many years. Finally
in _La Saisiaz_ Browning, writing in his own person, records the
experience of his spirit in confronting the problem of death. But it was
part of his creed that the gladness of life may take hands with its
grief, that the poet who would live mightily must live joyously; and in
the volume which contained his poem of strenuous and virile sorrow he
did not refrain from including a second piece, _The two Poets of
Croisic_, which has in it much matter of honest mirth, and closes with
the declaration that the test of greatness in an artist lies in his
power of converting his more than common sufferings into a more than
common joy.

_Balaustion's Adventure_, dedicated to the Countess Cowper by whom the
transcript from Euripides was suggested, or, as Browning will have it,
prescribed, proved, as the dedication declares, "the most delightful of
May-month amusements" in the spring of 1871. It was the happiest of
thoughts to give the version of Euripides' play that setting which has
for its source a passage at the close of Plutarch's life of Nicias. The
favours bestowed by the Syracusans upon Athenian slaves and fugitives
who could delight them by reciting or singing the verses of Euripides is
not to be marvelled at, says Plutarch, "weying a reporte made of a ship
of the city of Caunus, that on a time being chased thether by pyrates,
thinking to save themselves within their portes, could not at the first
be received, but had repulse: howbeit being demaunded whether they could
sing any of Euripides songes, and aunswering that they could, were
straight suffered to enter, and come in."[109] From this root blossomed
Browning's romance of the Rhodian girl, who saves her country folk and
wins a lover and a husband by her delight in the poetry of one who was
more highly honoured abroad than in his own Athens. Perhaps Browning
felt that an ardent girl would be the best interpreter of the womanly
heroism and the pathos of "that strangest, saddest, sweetest song," of
Euripides. Of all its author's dramas the Alkestis is the most
appropriate to the occasion, for it is the poem of a great deliverance
from death, and here in effect it delivers from death, or worse, the
fugitives from the pirate-bark, "at destruction's very edge," who are
the suppliants to Syracuse. In accepting the task imposed upon him
Browning must have felt that no other play of Euripides could so
entirely have borne out the justice of the characterisation of the poet
by Mrs Browning in the lines which he prefixed to _Balaustions

Our Euripides the human,
With his droppings of warm tears.

"If the Alkestis is not the masterpiece of the genius of Euripides,"
wrote Paul de Saint-Victor, "it is perhaps the masterpiece of his

Balaustion herself, not a rose of "the Rosy Isle" but its
wild-pomegranate-flower, since amid the verdure of the tree "you shall
find food, drink, odour all at once," is Hellenic in her bright and
swift intelligence, her enthusiasm for all noble things of the mind, the
grace of every movement of her spirit, her culture and her beauty. The
atmosphere of the poem, which encircles the translation, is singularly
luminous and animating; the narrative of the adventure is rapid yet
always lucid; the verse leaps buoyantly like a wave of the sea.
Balaustion tells her tale to the four Greek girls, her companions, amid
the free things of nature, the overhanging grape vines, the rippling

Outsmoothing galingale and watermint,
Its mat-floor,

and in presence of the little temple Baccheion, with its sanctities of
religion and of art. By a happy and original device the transcript of
the Alkestis is much more than a translation; it is a translation
rendered into dramatic action--for we see and hear the performers and
they are no longer masked--and this is accompanied with a commentary or
an interpretation. Never was a more graceful apology for the function of
the critic put forward than that of Balaustion:

'Tis the poet speaks:
But if I, too, should try and speak at times,
Leading your love to where my love, perchance,
Climbed earlier, found a nest before you knew--
Why, bear with the poor climber, for love's sake!

Browning has not often played the part of a critic, and the
interpretation of a poet's work by a poet has the double value of
throwing light upon the mind of the original writer and the mind of his

The life of mortals and the life of the immortal gods are brought into a
beautiful relation throughout the play. It is pre-eminently human in its
grief and in its joy; yet at every point the divine care, the divine
help surrounds and supports the children of earth, with their transitory
tears and smiles. Apollo has been a herdsman in the service of Admetos;
Herakles, most human of demigods, is the king's friend and guest. The
interest of the play for Browning lay especially in three things--the
pure self-sacrifice of the heroine, devotion embodied in one supreme
deed; and no one can heighten the effect with which Euripides has
rendered this; secondly, the joyous, beneficent strength of Herakles,
and this Browning has felt in a peculiar degree, and by his commentary
has placed it in higher relief; and thirdly, the purification and
elevation through suffering of the character of Admetos; here it would
be rash to assert that Browning has not divined the intention of
Euripides, but certainly he has added something of his own. It has been
maintained that Browning's interpretation of the spiritual significance
of the drama is a beautiful perversion of the purpose of the Greek poet;
that Admetos needs no purification; that in accepting his wife's offer
to be his substitute in dying, the king was no craven but a king who
recognised duty to the state as his highest duty. The general feeling of
readers of the play does not fall in with this ingenious plea. Browning,
as appears from his imagined recast of the theme, which follows the
transcript, had considered and rejected it. If Admetos is to be in some
degree justified, it can only be by bearing in mind that the fact by
which he shall himself escape from death is of Apollo's institution, and
that obedience to the purpose of Apollo rendered self-preservation a
kind of virtue. But Admetos makes no such defence of his action when
replying to the reproaches of his father, and he anticipates that the
verdict of the world will be against him. Browning undoubtedly presses
the case against Admetos far more strongly than does Euripides, who
seems to hold that a man weak in one respect, weak when brought to face
the test of death, may yet be strong in the heroic mastery of grief
which is imposed upon him by the duties of hospitality. Readers of the
Winter's Tale have sometimes wondered whether there could be much
rapture of joy in the heart of the silent Hermione when she received
back her unworthy husband. If Admetos remained at the close of the play
what he is understood by Browning to have been at its opening, reunion
with a self-lover so base could hardly have flushed with gladness the
spirit of Alkestis just escaped from the shades.[111] But Alkestis, who
had proved her own loyalty by deeds, values deeds more than words. When
dying she had put her love into an act, and had refrained from mere
words of wifely tenderness; death put an end to her services to her
husband; she felt towards him as any wife, if Browning's earlier poem be
true, may feel to any husband; but still she could render a service to
her children, and she exacts from Admetos the promise that he will never
place a stepmother over them. His allegiance to this vow is an act, and
it shall be for Alkestis the test of his entire loyalty. And the good
Herakles, who enjoys a glorious jest amazingly, and who by that jest can
benevolently retort upon Admetos for his concealment of Alkestis'

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