Life of Browning by William Sharp
The Following Books relating to Robert Browning are now online: —————————————————————
Corson, Hiram. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry, 3rd edition.
This book is primarily concerned with Browning’s poems. Advantages: This book is an excellent introduction to Browning.
Orr, Mrs. Sutherland. Life and Letters of Robert Browning, 2nd edition. This book is primarily concerned with Browning’s life. Advantages: As a close friend, the author has a good grasp of the facts, and is meticulous in her treatment of the material. Disadvantages: As a close friend, the author is sometimes partisan.
Sharp, William. Life of Robert Browning. Despite the title, this book is as much a critique of Browning’s works as it is a biography of the poet.
Advantages: Further removed from poet, the author is willing to make some criticisms. As an early and frequently quoted work on the subject, this book is a good resource.
Disadvantages: Due to carelessness on the part of the author and his publisher, a number of factual and other errors were made. Although this electronic text has corrected many of the obvious errors, they are frequent enough to leave misgivings.
[Note on text: Italicized words or phrases are capitalised. Some obvious errors may have been corrected.]
Life of Robert Browning
by William Sharp.
London, Robert Browning’s birthplace; his immediate predecessors and contemporaries in literature, art, and music; born May 7th, 1812; origin of the Browning family; assertions as to its Semitic connection apparently groundless; the poet a putative descendant of the Captain Micaiah Browning mentioned by Macaulay; Robert Browning’s mother of Scottish and German origin; his father a man of exceptional powers, artist, poet, critic, student; Mr. Browning’s opinion of his son’s writings; the home in Camberwell; Robert Browning’s childhood; concerning his optimism; his fondness for Carravaggio’s “Andromeda and Perseus”; his poetic precocity; origin of “The Flight of the Duchess”; writes Byronic verse; is sent to school at Peckham; his holiday afternoons; sees London by night, from Herne Hill; the significance of the spectacle to him.
He wishes to be a poet; writes in the style of Byron and Pope; the “Death of Harold”; his poems, written when twelve years old, shown to Miss Flower; the Rev. W. J. Fox’s criticisms on them; he comes across Shelley’s “Daemon of the World”; Mrs. Browning procures Shelley’s poems, also those of Keats, for her son; the perusal of these volumes proves an important event in his poetic development; he leaves school when fourteen years old, and studies at home under a tutor; attends a few lectures at University College, 1829-30; chooses his career, at the age of twenty; earliest record of his utterances concerning his youthful life printed in `Century Magazine’, 1881; he plans a series of monodramatic epics; Browning’s lifework, collectively one monodramatic “epic”; Shakespeare’s and Browning’s methods compared; Browning writes “Pauline” in 1832; his own criticism on it; his parents’ opinions; his aunt’s generous gift; the poem published in January 1833; description of the poem; written under the inspiring stimulus of Shelley; its autopsychical significance; its importance to the student of the poet’s works; quotations from “Pauline”.
The public reception of “Pauline”; criticisms thereupon; Mr. Fox’s notice in the `Monthly Repository’, and its results; Dante Gabriel Rossetti reads “Pauline” and writes to the author; Browning’s reference to Tennyson’s reading of “Maud” in 1855; Browning frequents literary society; reads at the British Museum; makes the acquaintance of Charles Dickens and “Ion” Talfourd; a volume of poems by Tennyson published simultaneously with “Pauline”; in 1833 he commences his travels; goes to Russia; the sole record of his experiences there to be found in the poem “Ivan Ivanovitch”, published in `Dramatic Idyls’, 1879; his acquaintance with Mazzini; Browning goes to Italy; visits Asolo, whence he drew hints for “Sordello” and “Pippa Passes”; in 1834 he returns to Camberwell; in autumn of 1834 and winter of 1835 commences “Sordello”, writes “Paracelsus”, and one or two short poems; his love for Venice; a new voice audible in “Johannes Agricola” and “Porphyria”; “Paracelsus”, published in 1835; his own explanation of it; his love of walking in the dark; some of “Paracelsus” and of “Strafford” composed in a wood near Dulwich; concerning “Paracelsus” and Browning’s sympathy with the scientific spirit; description and scope of the poem; quotations therefrom; estimate of the work, and its four lyrics.
Criticisms upon “Paracelsus”, important one written by John Forster; Browning meets Macready at the house of Mr. Fox; personal description of the poet; Macready’s opinion of the poem; Browning spends New Year’s Day, 1836, at the house of the tragedian and meets John Forster; Macready urges him to write a play; his subsequent interview with the tragedian; he plans a drama to be entitled “Narses”; meets Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor at a supper party, when the young poet is toasted, and Macready again proposes that Browning should write a play, from which arose the idea of “Strafford”; his acquaintance with Wordsworth and Landor; MS. of “Strafford” accepted; its performance at Covent Garden Theatre on the 26th May 1837; runs for five nights; the author’s comments; the drama issued by Messrs. Longman & Co.; the performance in 1886; estimate of “Strafford”; Browning’s dramas; comparison between the Elizabethan and Victorian dramatic eras; Browning’s soul-depictive faculty; his dramatic method; estimate of his dramas; Landor’s acknowledgment of the dedication to him of “Luria”.
“Profundity” and “Simplicity”; the faculty of wonder; Browning’s first conception of “Pippa Passes”; his residence in London; his country walks; his ways and habits, and his heart-episodes; debates whether to become a clergyman; is “Pippa Passes” a drama? estimate of the poem; Browning’s rambles on Wimbledon Common and in Dulwich Wood, where he composes his lines upon Shelley; asserts there is romance in Camberwell as well as in Italy; “Sordello”; the charge of obscurity against “Sordello”; the nature and intention of the poem; quotations therefrom; anecdote about Douglas Jerrold; Tennyson’s, Carlyle’s, and M. Odysse Barot’s opinions on “Sordello”; “enigmatic” poetry; in 1863 Browning contemplated the re-writing of “Sordello”; dedication to the French critic, Milsand.
Browning’s three great dramatic poems; “The Ring and the Book” his finest work; its uniqueness; Carlyle’s criticism of it; Poetry versus Tour-de-Force; “The Ring and the Book” begun in 1866; analysis of the poem; kinship of “The Ring and the Book” and “Aurora Leigh”; explanation of title; the idea taken from a parchment volume Browning picked up in Florence; the poem planned at Casa Guidi; “O Lyric Love”, etc.; description and analysis of “The Ring and the Book”, with quotations; compared as a poem with “The Inn Album”, “Pauline”, “Asolando”, “Men and Women”, etc.; imaginary volumes, to be entitled “Transcripts from Life” and “Flowers o’ the Vine”; Browning’s greatest period; Browning’s primary importance.
Early life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; born in 1820;* the chief sorrow of her life; the Barrett family settle in London; “The Cry of the Children” and its origin; Miss Barrett’s friends; effect on her of Browning’s poetry; she makes Browning’s acquaintance in 1846; her early belief in him as a poet; her physical delicacy and her sensitiveness of feeling; personal appearance of Robert Browning; his “electric” hand; Elizabeth Barrett discerns his personal worth, and is susceptible to the strong humanity of Browning’s song; Mr. Barrett’s jealousy; their engagement; Miss Barrett’s acquaintance with Mrs. Jameson; quiet marriage in 1846; Mr. Barrett’s resentment; the Brownings go to Paris; thence to Italy with Mrs. Jameson; Wordsworth’s comments; residence in Pisa; “Sonnets from the Portuguese”; in the spring they go to Florence, thence to Ancona, where “The Guardian Angel” was written; Casa Guidi; W. W. Story’s account of the rooms at Casa Guidi; perfect union.
* This date is a typographical error, but the date given in the text itself, 1809, is also incorrect — it should be 1806. Mr. Sharp’s lack of knowledge on this subject is understandable, however, as, to quote from Mrs. Orr’s “Life and Letters of Robert Browning” (1891): “She looked much younger than her age, which [Robert Browning] only recently knew to have been six years beyond his own.” — A. L., 1996. —
March 1849, birth of Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning; Browning writes his “Christmas Eve and Easter Day”; “Casa Guidi Windows” commenced; 1850, they go to Rome; “Two in the Campagna”; proposal to confer poet-laureateship on Mrs. Browning; return to London; winter in Paris; summer in London; Kenyon’s friendship; return in autumn to Casa Guidi; Browning’s Essay on Shelley for the twenty-five spurious Shelley letters; midsummer at Baths of Lucca, where “In a Balcony” was in part written; winter of 1853-4 in Rome; record of work; “Pen’s” illness; “Ben Karshook’s Wisdom”; return to Florence; (1856) “Men and Women” published; the Brownings go to London; in summer “Aurora Leigh” issued; 1858, Mrs. Browning’s waning health; 1855-64 comparatively unproductive period with R. Browning; record of work; July 1855, they travel to Normandy; “Legend of Pornic”; Mrs. Browning’s ardent interest in the Italian struggle of 1859; winter in Rome; “Poems before Congress”; her last poem, “North and South”; death of Mrs. Browning at Casa Guidi, 28th June 1861.
Browning’s allusions to death of his wife; Miss Browning resides with her brother from 1866; 1868, collected works published; first part of “The Ring and the Book” published in November 1866; “Herve Riel” written; Browning’s growing popularity; Tauchnitz editions of his poems in 1872; also first book of selections; dedication to Lord Tennyson; 1877, he goes to La Saisiaz, near Geneva; “La Saisiaz” and “The Two Poets of Croisic” published 1878; Browning’s later poems; Browning Society established 1881; Browning’s letter thereupon to Mr. Yates; trips abroad; his London residences; his last letter to Tennyson; revisits Asolo; Palazzo Rezzonico; his belief in immortality; his death, Thursday, Dec. 12th, 1889; funeral in Westminster Abbey; Sonnet by George Meredith; new star in Orion; R. Browning’s place in literature; Summary, etc.
In all important respects I leave this volume to speak for itself. For obvious reasons it does not pretend to be more than a `Memoire pour servir’: in the nature of things, the definitive biography cannot appear for many years to come. None the less gratefully may I take the present opportunity to express my indebtedness to Mr. R. Barrett Browning, and to other relatives and intimate friends of Robert Browning, who have given me serviceable information, and otherwise rendered kindly aid. For some of the hitherto unpublished details my thanks are, in particular, due to Mrs. Fraser Corkran and Miss Alice Corkran, and to other old friends of the poet and his family, here, in Italy, and in America; though in one or two instances, I may add, I had them from Robert Browning himself. It is with pleasure that I further acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr. Furnivall, for the loan of the advance-proofs of his privately-printed pamphlet on “Browning’s Ancestors”; and to the Browning Society’s Publications — particularly to Mrs. Sutherland Orr’s and Dr. Furnivall’s biographical and bibliographical contributions thereto; to Mr. Gosse’s biographical article in the `Century Magazine’ for 1881; to Mr. Ingram’s `Life of E. B. Browning’; and to the `Memoirs of Anna Jameson’, the `Italian Note-Books’ of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mr. G. S. Hillard’s `Six Months in Italy’ (1853), and the Lives and Correspondence of Macready, Miss Mitford, Leigh Hunt, and Walter Savage Landor. I regret that the imperative need of concision has prevented the insertion of many of the letters, anecdotes, and reminiscences, so generously placed at my disposal; but possibly I may have succeeded in educing from them some essential part of that light which they undoubtedly cast upon the personality and genius of the poet.
Life of Robert Browning.
It must, to admirers of Browning’s writings, appear singularly appropriate that so cosmopolitan a poet was born in London. It would seem as though something of that mighty complex life, so confusedly petty to the narrow vision, so grandiose and even majestic to the larger ken, had blent with his being from the first. What fitter birthplace for the poet whom a comrade has called the “Subtlest Assertor of the Soul in Song”, the poet whose writings are indeed a mirror of the age?
A man may be in all things a Londoner and yet be a provincial. The accident of birthplace does not necessarily involve parochialism of the soul. It is not the village which produces the Hampden, but the Hampden who immortalises the village. It is a favourite jest of Rusticus that his urban brother has the manner of Omniscience and the knowledge of a parish beadle. Nevertheless, though the strongest blood insurgent in the metropolitan heart is not that which is native to it, one might well be proud to have had one’s atom-pulse atune from the first with the large rhythm of the national life at its turbulent, congested, but ever ebullient centre. Certainly Browning was not the man to be ashamed of his being a Londoner, much less to deny his natal place. He was proud of it: through good sense, no doubt, but possibly also through some instinctive apprehension of the fact that the great city was indeed the fit mother of such a son. “Ashamed of having been born in the greatest city of the world!” he exclaimed on one occasion; “what an extraordinary thing to say! It suggests a wavelet in a muddy shallow grimily contorting itself because it had its birth out in the great ocean.”
On the day of the poet’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, one of the most eminent of his peers remarked to me that Browning came to us as one coming into his own. This is profoundly true. There was in good sooth a mansion prepared against his advent. Long ago, we should have surrendered as to a conqueror: now, however, we know that princes of the mind, though they must be valorous and potent as of yore, can enter upon no heritance save that which naturally awaits them, and has been made theirs by long and intricate processes.
The lustrum which saw the birth of Robert Browning, that is the third in the nineteenth century, was a remarkable one indeed. Thackeray came into the world some months earlier than the great poet, Charles Dickens within the same twelvemonth, and Tennyson three years sooner, when also Elizabeth Barrett was born, and the foremost naturalist of modern times first saw the light. It is a matter of significance that the great wave of scientific thought which ultimately bore forward on its crest so many famous men, from Brewster and Faraday to Charles Darwin, had just begun to rise with irresistible impulsion. Lepsius’s birth was in 1813, and that of the great Flemish novelist, Henri Conscience, in 1812: about the same period were the births of Freiligrath, Gutzkow, and Auerbach, respectively one of the most lyrical poets, the most potent dramatist, the most charming romancer of Germany: and, also, in France, of Theophile Gautier and Alfred de Musset. Among representatives of the other arts — with two of which Browning must ever be closely associated — Mendelssohn and Chopin were born in 1809, and Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner within the four succeeding years: within which space also came Diaz and Meissonier and the great Millet. Other high names there are upon the front of the century. Macaulay, Cardinal Newman, John Stuart Mill (one of the earliest, by the way, to recognise the genius of Browning), Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Ampere, Quinet, Prosper Merimee, Sainte-Beuve, Strauss, Montalambert, are among the laurel-bearers who came into existence betwixt 1800 and 1812.
When Robert Browning was born in London in 1812, Sheridan had still four years to live; Jeremy Bentham was at the height of his contemporary reputation, and Godwin was writing glibly of the virtues of humanity and practising the opposite qualities, while Crabbe was looked upon as one of the foremost of living poets. Wordsworth was then forty, Sir Walter Scott forty-one, Coleridge forty-two, Walter Savage Landor and Charles Lamb each in his forty-fifth year. Byron was four-and-twenty, Shelley not yet quite of age, two radically different men, Keats and Carlyle, both youths of seventeen. Abroad, Laplace was in his maturity, with fifteen years more yet to live; Joubert with twelve; Goethe, with twenty; Lamarck, the Schlegels, Cuvier, Chateaubriand, Hegel, Niebuehr (to specify some leading names only), had many years of work before them. Schopenhauer was only four-and-twenty, while Beranger was thirty-two. The Polish poet Mickiewicz was a boy of fourteen, and Poushkin was but a twelvemonth older; Heine, a lad of twelve, was already enamoured of the great Napoleonic legend. The foremost literary critic of the century was running about the sands of Boulogne, or perhaps wandering often along the ramparts of the old town, introspective even then, with something of that rare and insatiable curiosity which we all now recognise as so distinctive of Sainte-Beuve. Again, the greatest creative literary artist of the century, in prose at any rate, was leading an apparently somewhat indolent schoolboy life at Tours, undreamful yet of enormous debts, colossal undertakings, gigantic failures, and the `Comedie Humaine’. In art, Sir Henry Raeburn, William Blake, Flaxman, Canova, Thorwaldsen, Crome, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Constable, Sir David Wilkie, and Turner were in the exercise of their happiest faculties: as were, in the usage of theirs, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Spohr, Donizetti, and Bellini.
It is not inadvisedly that I make this specification of great names, of men who were born coincidentally with, or were in the broader sense contemporaries of Robert Browning. There is no such thing as a fortuitous birth. Creation does not occur spontaneously, as in that drawing of David Scott’s where from the footprint of the Omnipotent spring human spirits and fiery stars. Literally indeed, as a great French writer has indicated, a man is the child of his time. It is a matter often commented upon by students of literature, that great men do not appear at the beginning, but rather at the acme of a period. They are not the flying scud of the coming wave, but the gleaming crown of that wave itself. The epoch expends itself in preparation for these great ones.
If Nature’s first law were not a law of excess, the economy of life would have meagre results. I think it is Turgeniev who speaks somewhere of her as a gigantic Titan, working in gloomy silence, with the same savage intentness upon a subtler twist of a flea’s joints as upon the Destinies of Man.
If there be a more foolish cry than that poetry is on the wane, it is that the great days had passed away even before Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson were born. The way was prepared for Browning, as it was for Shakespeare: as it is, beyond doubt, for the next high peer of these.
There were `Roberts’ among the sons of the Browning family for at least four generations. It has been affirmed, on disputable authority, that the surname is the English equivalent for Bruning, and that the family is of Teutonic origin. Possibly: but this origin is too remote to be of any practical concern. Browning himself, it may be added, told Mr. Moncure Conway that the original name was De Bruni. It is not a matter of much importance: the poet was, personally and to a great extent in his genius, Anglo-Saxon. Though there are plausible grounds for the assumption, I can find nothing to substantiate the common assertion that, immediately, or remotely, his people were Jews.*
* Fairly conclusive evidence to the contrary, on the paternal side, is afforded in the fact that, in 1757, the poet’s great-grandfather gave one of his sons the baptismal name of Christian. Dr. Furnivall’s latest researches prove that there is absolutely “no ground for supposing the presence of any Jewish blood in the poet’s veins.”
As to Browning’s physiognomy and personal traits, this much may be granted: if those who knew him were told he was a Jew they would not be much surprised. In his exuberant vitality, in his sensuous love of music and the other arts, in his combined imaginativeness and shrewdness of common sense, in his superficial expansiveness and actual reticence, he would have been typical enough of the potent and artistic race for whom he has so often of late been claimed.
What, however, is most to the point is that neither to curious acquaintances nor to intimate friends, neither to Jews nor Gentiles, did he ever admit more than that he was a good Protestant, and sprung of a Puritan stock. He was tolerant of all religious forms, but with a natural bias towards Anglican Evangelicalism.
In appearance there was, perhaps, something of the Semite in Robert Browning: yet this is observable but slightly in the portraits of him during the last twenty years, and scarcely at all in those which represent him as a young man. It is most marked in the drawing by Rudolf Lehmann, representing Browning at the age of forty-seven, where he looks out upon us with a physiognomy which is, at least, as much distinctively Jewish as English. Possibly the large dark eyes (so unlike both in colour and shape what they were in later life) and curved nose and full lips, with the oval face, may have been, as it were, seen judaically by the artist. These characteristics, again, are greatly modified in Mr. Lehmann’s subsequent portrait in oils.
The poet’s paternal great-grandfather, who was owner of the Woodyates Inn, in the parish of Pentridge, in Dorsetshire, claimed to come of good west-country stock. Browning believed, but always conscientiously maintained there was no proof in support of the assumption, that he was a descendant of the Captain Micaiah Browning who, as Macaulay relates in his `History of England’, raised the siege of Derry in 1689 by springing the boom across Lough Foyle, and perished in the act. The same ancestral line is said to comprise the Captain Browning who commanded the ship `The Holy Ghost’, which conveyed Henry V. to France before he fought the Battle of Agincourt, and in recognition of whose services two waves, said to represent waves of the sea, were added to his coat of arms. It is certainly a point of some importance in the evidence, as has been indicated, that these arms were displayed by the gallant Captain Micaiah, and are borne by the present family. That the poet was a pure-bred Englishman in the strictest sense, however, as has commonly been asserted, is not the case. His mother was Scottish, through her mother and by birth, but her father was the son of a German from Hamburg, named Wiedemann, who, by the way, in connection with his relationship as maternal grandfather to the poet, it is interesting to note, was an accomplished draughtsman and musician.* Browning’s paternal grandmother, again, was a Creole. As Mrs. Orr remarks, this pedigree throws a valuable light on the vigour and variety of the poet’s genius. Possibly the main current of his ancestry is as little strictly English as German. A friend sends me the following paragraph from a Scottish paper: — “What of the Scottish Brownings? I had it long ago from one of the name that the Brownings came originally from Ayrshire, and that several families of them emigrated to the North of Ireland during the times of the Covenanters. There is, moreover, a small town or village in the North of Ireland called Browningstown. Might not the poet be related to these Scottish Brownings?”
* It has frequently been stated that Browning’s maternal grandfather, Mr. Wiedemann, was a Jew. Mr. Wiedemann, the son of a Hamburg merchant, was a small shipowner in Dundee. Had he, or his father, been Semitic, he would not have baptised one of his daughters `Christiana’. —
Browning’s great-grandfather, as indicated above, was a small proprietor in Dorsetshire. His son, whether perforce or from choice, removed to London when he was a youth, and speedily obtained a clerkship in the Bank of England, where he remained for fifty years, till he was pensioned off in 1821 with over 400 Pounds a year. He died in 1833. His wife, to whom he was married in or about 1780, was one Margaret Morris Tittle, a Creole, born in the West Indies. Her portrait, by Wright of Derby, used to hang in the poet’s dining-room. They resided, Mr. R. Barrett Browning tells me, in Battersea, where his grandfather was their first-born. The paternal grandfather of the poet decided that his three sons, Robert, William Shergold, and Reuben, should go into business, the two younger in London, the elder abroad. All three became efficient financial clerks, and attained to good positions and fair means.* The eldest, Robert, was a man of exceptional powers. He was a poet, both in sentiment and expression; and he understood, as well as enjoyed, the excellent in art. He was a scholar, too, in a reputable fashion: not indifferent to what he had learnt in his youth, nor heedless of the high opinion generally entertained for the greatest writers of antiquity, but with a particular care himself for Horace and Anacreon. As his son once told a friend, “The old gentleman’s brain was a storehouse of literary and philosophical antiquities. He was completely versed in mediaeval legend, and seemed to have known Paracelsus, Faustus, and even Talmudic personages, personally” — a significant detail, by the way. He was fond of metrical composition, and his ease and grace in the use of the heroic couplet were the admiration, not only of his intellectual associates, but, in later days, of his son, who was wont to affirm, certainly in all seriousness, that expressionally his father was a finer poetic artist than himself. Some one has recorded of him that he was an authority on the Letters of Junius: fortunately he had more tangible claims than this to the esteem of his fellows. It was his boast that, notwithstanding the exigencies of his vocation, he knew as much of the history of art as any professional critic. His extreme modesty is deducible from this naive remark. He was an amateur artist, moreover, as well as poet, critic, and student. I have seen several of his drawings which are praiseworthy: his studies in portraiture, particularly, are ably touched: and, as is well known, he had an active faculty of pictorial caricature. In the intervals of leisure which beset the best regulated clerk he was addicted to making drawings of the habitual visitors to the Bank of England, in which he had obtained a post on his return, in 1803, from the West Indies, and in the enjoyment of which he remained till 1853, when he retired on a small pension. His son had an independent income, but whether from a bequest, or in the form of an allowance from his then unmarried Uncle Reuben, is uncertain. In the first year of his marriage Mr. Browning resided in an old house in Southampton Street, Peckham, and there the poet was born. The house was long ago pulled down, and another built on its site. Mr. Browning afterwards removed to another domicile in the same Peckham district. Many years later, he and his family left Camberwell and resided at Hatcham, near New Cross, where his brothers and sisters (by his father’s second marriage) lived. There was a stable attached to the Hatcham house, and in it Mr. Reuben Browning kept his horse, which he let his poet-nephew ride, while he himself was at his desk in Rothschild’s bank. No doubt this horse was the `York’ alluded to by the poet in the letter quoted, as a footnote, at page 189 [Chapter 9] of this book. Some years after his wife’s death, which occurred in 1849, Mr. Browning left Hatcham and came to Paddington, but finally went to reside in Paris, and lived there, in a small street off the Champs Elysees, till his death in 1866. The Creole strain seems to have been distinctly noticeable in Mr. Browning, so much so that it is possible it had something to do with his unwillingness to remain at St. Kitts, where he was certainly on one occasion treated cavalierly enough. The poet’s complexion in youth, light and ivory-toned as it was in later life, has been described as olive, and it is said that one of his nephews, who met him in Paris in his early manhood, took him for an Italian. It has been affirmed that it was the emotional Creole strain in Browning which found expression in his passion for music.**
* The three brothers were men of liberal education and literary tastes. Mr. W. S. Browning, who died in 1874, was an author of some repute. His `History of the Huguenots’ is a standard book on the subject. ** Mrs. Sutherland Orr, in her “Life and Letters of Robert Browning” (1891), (now available online) refutes these statements. — A. L., 1996. —
By old friends of the family I have been told that Mr. Browning had a strong liking for children, with whom his really remarkable faculty of impromptu fiction made him a particular favourite. Sometimes he would supplement his tales by illustrations with pencil or brush. Miss Alice Corkran has shown me an illustrated coloured map, depictive of the main incidents and scenery of the `Pilgrim’s Progress’, which he genially made for “the children”.*
* Mrs. Fraser Corkran, who saw much of the poet’s father during his residence in Paris, has spoken to me of his extraordinary analytical faculty in the elucidation of complex criminal cases. It was once said of him that his detective faculty amounted to genius. This is a significant trait in the father of the author of “The Ring and the Book”.
He had three children himself — Robert, born May 7th, 1812, a daughter named Sarianna, after her mother, and Clara. His wife was a woman of singular beauty of nature, with a depth of religious feeling saved from narrowness of scope only by a rare serenity and a fathomless charity. Her son’s loving admiration of her was almost a passion: even late in life he rarely spoke of her without tears coming to his eyes. She was, moreover, of an intellectual bent of mind, and with an artistic bias having its readiest fulfilment in music, and, to some extent, in poetry. In the latter she inclined to the Romanticists: her husband always maintained the supremacy of Pope. He looked with much dubiety upon his son’s early writings, “Pauline” and “Paracelsus”; “Sordello”, though he found it beyond either his artistic or his mental apprehension, he forgave, because it was written in rhymed couplets; the maturer works he regarded with sympathy and pride, with a vague admiration which passed into a clearer understanding only when his long life was drawing near its close.
Of his children’s company he never tired, even when they were scarce out of babyhood. He was fond of taking the little Robert in his arms, and walking to and fro with him in the dusk in “the library”, soothing the child to sleep by singing to him snatches of Anacreon in the original, to a favourite old tune of his, “A Cottage in a Wood”. Readers of “Asolando” will remember the allusions in that volume to “my father who was a scholar and knew Greek.” A week or two before his death Browning told an American friend, Mrs. Corson, in reply to a statement of hers that no one could accuse him of letting his talents lie idle: “It would have been quite unpardonable in my case not to have done my best. My dear father put me in a condition most favourable for the best work I was capable of. When I think of the many authors who have had to fight their way through all sorts of difficulties, I have no reason to be proud of my achievements. My good father sacrificed a fortune to his convictions. He could not bear with slavery, and left India and accepted a humble bank-office in London. He secured for me all the ease and comfort that a literary man needs to do good work. It would have been shameful if I had not done my best to realise his expectations of me.”*
* `India’ is a slip on the part either of Browning or of Mrs. Corson. The poet’s father was never in India. He was quite a youth when he went to his mother’s sugar-plantation at St. Kitts, in the West Indies.
The home of Mr. Browning was, as already stated, in Camberwell, a suburb then of less easy access than now, and where there were green trees, and groves, and enticing rural perspectives into “real” country, yet withal not without some suggestion of the metropolitan air.
“The old trees
Which grew by our youth’s home — the waving mass Of climbing plants, heavy with bloom and dew — The morning swallows with their songs like words — All these seem clear. . . .
. . . most distinct amid The fever and the stir of after years.” (`Pauline’.)
Another great writer of our time was born in the same parish: and those who would know Herne Hill and the neighbourhood as it was in Browning’s youth will find an enthusiastic guide in the author of `Praeterita’.
Browning’s childhood was a happy one. Indeed, if the poet had been able to teach in song only what he had learnt in suffering, the larger part of his verse would be singularly barren of interest. From first to last everything went well with him, with the exception of a single profound grief. This must be borne in mind by those who would estimate aright the genius of Robert Browning. It would be affectation or folly to deny that his splendid physique — a paternal inheritance, for his father died at the age of eighty-four, without having ever endured a day’s illness — and the exceptionally fortunate circumstances which were his throughout life, had something to do with that superb faith of his which finds concentrated expression in the lines in Pippa’s song — “God’s in His Heaven, All’s right with the world!”
It is difficult for a happy man with an imperturbable digestion to be a pessimist. He is always inclined to give Nature the benefit of the doubt. His favourite term for this mental complaisance is “catholicity of faith”, or, it may be, “a divine hope”. The less fortunate brethren bewail the laws of Nature, and doubt a future readjustment, because of stomachs chronically out of order. An eminent author with a weak digestion wrote to me recently animadverting on what he calls Browning’s insanity of optimism: it required no personal acquaintanceship to discern the dyspeptic well-spring of this utterance. All this may be admitted lightly without carrying the physiological argument to extremes. A man may have a liberal hope for himself and for humanity, although his dinner be habitually a martyrdom. After all, we are only dictated to by our bodies: we have not perforce to obey them. A bitter wit once remarked that the soul, if it were ever discovered, would be found embodied in the gastric juice. He was not altogether a fool, this man who had learnt in suffering what he taught in epigram; yet was he wide of the mark.
As a very young child Browning was keenly susceptible to music. One afternoon his mother was playing in the twilight to herself. She was startled to hear a sound behind her. Glancing round, she beheld a little white figure distinct against an oak bookcase, and could just discern two large wistful eyes looking earnestly at her. The next moment the child had sprung into her arms, sobbing passionately at he knew not what, but, as his paroxysm of emotion subsided, whispering over and over, with shy urgency, “Play! play!”
It is strange that among all his father’s collection of drawings and engravings nothing had such fascination for him as an engraving of a picture of Andromeda and Perseus by Caravaggio. The story of the innocent victim and the divine deliverer was one of which in his boyhood he never tired of hearing: and as he grew older the charm of its pictorial presentment had for him a deeper and more complex significance. We have it on the authority of a friend that Browning had this engraving always before his eyes as he wrote his earlier poems. He has given beautiful commemoration to his feeling for it in “Pauline”: —
And she is with me — years roll, I shall change, But change can touch her not — so beautiful With her dark eyes, earnest and still, and hair Lifted and spread by the salt-sweeping breeze; And one red beam, all the storm leaves in heaven, Resting upon her eyes and face and hair, As she awaits the snake on the wet beach, By the dark rock, and the white wave just breaking At her feet; quite naked and alone, — a thing You doubt not, nor fear for, secure that God Will come in thunder from the stars to save her.”
One of his own early recollections was that of sitting on his father’s knees in the library, and listening with enthralled attention to the Tale of Troy, with marvellous illustrations among the glowing coals in the fireplace; with, below all, the vaguely heard accompaniment — from the neighbouring room where Mrs. Browning sat “in her chief happiness, her hour of darkness and solitude and music” — of a wild Gaelic lament, with its insistent falling cadences. A story concerning his poetic precocity has been circulated, but is not worth repeating. Most children love jingling rhymes, and one need not be a born genius to improvise a rhyming couplet on an occasion.
It is quite certain that in nothing in these early poemicules, in such at least as have been preserved without the poet’s knowledge and against his will, is there anything of genuine promise. Hundreds of youngsters have written as good, or better, Odes to the Moon, Stanzas on a Favourite Canary, Lines on a Butterfly. What is much more to the point is, that at the age of eight he was able not only to read, but to take delight in Pope’s translation of Homer. He used to go about declaiming certain couplets with an air of intense earnestness highly diverting to those who overheard him.
About this time also he began to translate the simpler odes of Horace. One of these (viii. Bk. II.) long afterwards suggested to him the theme of his “Instans Tyrannus”. It has been put on record that his sister remembers him, as a very little boy, walking round and round the dining-room table, and spanning out the scansion of his verses with his hand on the smooth mahogany. He was scarce more than a child when, one Guy Fawkes’ day, he heard a woman singing an unfamiliar song, whose burden was, “Following the Queen of the Gipsies, O!” This refrain haunted him often in the after years. That beautiful fantastic romance, “The Flight of the Duchess”, was born out of an insistent memory of this woman’s snatch of song, heard in childhood. He was ten when, after several `passions malheureuses’, this precocious Lothario plunged into a love affair whose intensity was only equalled by its hopelessness. A trifle of fifteen years’ seniority and a husband complicated matters, but it was not till after the reckless expenditure of a Horatian ode upon an unclassical mistress that he gave up hope. The outcome of this was what the elder Browning regarded as a startling effusion of much Byronic verse. The young Robert yearned for wastes of ocean and illimitable sands, for dark eyes and burning caresses, for despair that nothing could quench but the silent grave, and, in particular, for hollow mocking laughter. His father looked about for a suitable school, and decided to entrust the boy’s further education to Mr. Ready, of Peckham.
Here he remained till he was fourteen. But already he knew the dominion of dreams. His chief enjoyment, on holiday afternoons, was to gain an unfrequented spot, where three huge elms re-echoed the tones of incoherent human music borne thitherward by the west winds across the wastes of London. Here he loved to lie and dream. Alas, those elms, that high remote coign, have long since passed to the “hidden way” whither the snows of yester year have vanished. He would lie for hours looking upon distant London — a golden city of the west literally enough, oftentimes, when the sunlight came streaming in long shafts from behind the towers of Westminster and flashed upon the gold cross of St. Paul’s. The coming and going of the cloud-shadows, the sweeping of sudden rains, the dull silvern light emanating from the haze of mist shrouding the vast city, with the added transitory gleam of troubled waters, the drifting of fogs, at that distance seeming like gigantic veils constantly being moved forward and then slowly withdrawn, as though some sinister creature of the atmosphere were casting a net among all the dross and debris of human life for fantastic sustenance of its own — all this endless, ever-changing, always novel phantasmagoria had for him an extraordinary fascination. One of the memorable nights of his boyhood was an eve when he found his way, not without perturbation of spirit because of the unfamiliar solitary dark, to his loved elms. There, for the first time, he beheld London by night. It seemed to him then more wonderful and appalling than all the host of stars. There was something ominous in that heavy pulsating breath: visible, in a waning and waxing of the tremulous, ruddy glow above the black enmassed leagues of masonry; audible, in the low inarticulate moaning borne eastward across the crests of Norwood. It was then and there that the tragic significance of life first dimly awed and appealed to his questioning spirit: that the rhythm of humanity first touched deeply in him a corresponding chord.
It was certainly about this time, as he admitted once in one of his rare reminiscent moods, that Browning felt the artistic impulse stirring within him, like the rising of the sap in a tree. He remembered his mother’s music, and hoped to be a musician: he recollected his father’s drawings, and certain seductive landscapes and seascapes by painters whom he had heard called “the Norwich men”, and he wished to be an artist: then reminiscences of the Homeric lines he loved, of haunting verse-melodies, moved him most of all.
“I shall never, in the years remaining, Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues, Make you music that should all-express me: . . . verse alone, one life allows me.”
He now gave way to the compulsive Byronic vogue, with an occasional relapse to the polished artificialism of his father’s idol among British poets. There were several ballads written at this time: if I remember aright, the poet specified the “Death of Harold” as the theme of one. Long afterwards he read these boyish forerunners of “Over the sea our galleys went”, and “How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”, and was amused by their derivative if delicate melodies. Mrs. Browning was very proud of these early blooms of song, and when her twelve-year-old son, tired of vain efforts to seduce a publisher from the wary ways of business, surrendered in disgust his neatly copied out and carefully stitched MSS., she lost no opportunity — when Mr. Browning was absent — to expatiate upon their merits. Among the people to whom she showed them was a Miss Flower. This lady took them home, perused them, discerned dormant genius lurking behind the boyish handwriting, read them to her sister (afterwards to become known as Sarah Flower Adams), copied them out before returning them, and persuaded the celebrated Rev. William Johnson Fox to read the transcripts. Mr. Fox agreed with Miss Flower as to the promise, but not altogether as to the actual accomplishment, nor at all as to the advisability of publication. The originals are supposed to have been destroyed by the poet during the eventful period when, owing to a fortunate gift, poetry became a new thing for him: from a dream, vague, if seductive, as summer-lightning, transformed to a dominating reality. Passing a bookstall one day, he saw, in a box of second-hand volumes, a little book advertised as “Mr. Shelley’s Atheistical Poem: very scarce.” He had never heard of Shelley, nor did he learn for a long time that the “Daemon of the World”, and the miscellaneous poems appended thereto, constituted a literary piracy. Badly printed, shamefully mutilated, these discarded blossoms touched him to a new emotion. Pope became further removed than ever: Byron, even, lost his magnetic supremacy. From vague remarks in reply to his inquiries, and from one or two casual allusions, he learned that there really was a poet called Shelley; that he had written several volumes; that he was dead.
Strange as it may seem, Browning declared once that the news of this unknown singer’s death affected him more poignantly than did, a year or less earlier, the tidings of Byron’s heroic end at Missolonghi. He begged his mother to procure him Shelley’s works, a request not easily complied with, for the excellent reason that not one of the local booksellers had even heard of the poet’s name. Ultimately, however, Mrs. Browning learned that what she sought was procurable at the Olliers’ in Vere Street, London.
She was very pleased with the result of her visit. The books, it is true, seemed unattractive: but they would please Robert, no doubt. If that packet had been lost we should not have had “Pauline”: we might have had a different Browning. It contained most of Shelley’s writings, all in their first edition, with the exception of “The Cenci”: in addition, there were three volumes by an even less known poet, John Keats, which kindly Mrs. Browning had been persuaded to include in her purchase on Mr. Ollier’s assurance that they were the poetic kindred of Shelley’s writings, and that Mr. Keats was the subject of the elegiac poem in the purple paper cover, with the foreign-looking type and the imprint “Pisa” at the foot of the title-page, entitled “Adonais”. What an evening for the young poet that must have been. He told a friend it was a May night, and that in a laburnum, “heavy with its weight of gold,” and in a great copper-beech at the end of a neighbour’s garden, two nightingales strove one against the other. For a moment it is a pleasant fancy to imagine that there the souls of Keats and Shelley uttered their enfranchised music, not in rivalry but in welcome. We can realise, perhaps, something of the startled delight, of the sudden electric tremors, of the young poet when, with eager eyes, he turned over the pages of “Epipsychidion” or “Prometheus Unbound”, “Alastor” or “Endymion”, or the Odes to a Nightingale, on Melancholy, on a Grecian Urn.
More than once Browning alluded to this experience as his first pervasive joy, his first free happiness in outlook. Often in after life he was fain, like his “wise thrush”, to “recapture that first fine carefree rapture.” It was an eventful eve.
“And suddenly, without heart-wreck, I awoke As from a dream.”
Thenceforth his poetic development was rapid, and continuous. Shelley enthralled him most. The fire and spirit of the great poet’s verse, wild and strange often, but ever with an exquisiteness of music which seemed to his admirer, then and later, supreme, thrilled him to a very passion of delight. Something of the more richly coloured, the more human rhythm of Keats affected him also. Indeed, a line from the Ode to a Nightingale, in common with one of the loveliest passages in “Epipsychidion”, haunted him above all others: and again and again in his poems we may encounter vague echoes of those “remote isles” and “perilous seas” — as, for example, in “the dim clustered isles of the blue sea” of “Pauline”, and the “some isle, with the sea’s silence on it — some unsuspected isle in the far seas!” of “Pippa Passes”.
But of course he had other matters for mental occupation besides poetry. His education at Mr. Ready’s private academy seems to have been excellent so far as it went. He remained there till he was fourteen. Perhaps because of the few boarders at the school, possibly from his own reticence in self-disclosure, he does not seem to have impressed any school-mate deeply. We hear of no one who “knew Browning at school.” His best education, after all, was at home. His father and mother incidentally taught him as much as Mr. Ready: his love of painting and music was fostered, indirectly: and in the `dovecot’ bookshelf above the fireplace in his bedroom, were the precious volumes within whose sway and magic was his truest life.
His father, for some reason which has not been made public, but was doubtless excellent, and is, in the light in which we now regard it, a matter for which to be thankful, decided to send his son neither to a large public school, nor, later, to Oxford or Cambridge. A more stimulative and wider training was awaiting him elsewhere.
For a time Robert’s education was superintended by a tutor, who came to the house in Camberwell for several hours daily. The afternoons were mainly devoted to music, to exercise, and occasionally to various experimental studies in technical science. In the evenings, after his preparatory tasks were over, when he was not in the entertaining company of his father, he read and assiduously wrote. After poetry, he cared most for history: but as a matter of fact, little came amiss to his eager intellectual appetite. It was a period of growth, with, it may be, a vague consciousness that his mind was expanding towards compulsive expression.
“So as I grew, I rudely shaped my life To my immediate wants, yet strong beneath Was a vague sense of powers folded up — A sense that though those shadowy times were past, Their spirit dwelt in me, and I should rule.”
When Mr. Browning was satisfied that the tutor had fulfilled his duty he sent his son to attend a few lectures at University College, in Gower Street, then just founded. Robert Browning’s name is on the registrar’s books for the opening session, 1829-30. “I attended with him the Greek class of Professor Long” (wrote a friend, in the `Times’, Dec. 14:’89), “and I well recollect the esteem and regard in which he was held by his fellow-students. He was then a bright, handsome youth, with long black hair falling over his shoulders.” So short was his period of attendance, however, and so unimportant the instruction he there derived, that to all intents it may be said Browning had no University training.
Notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Browning but slightly appreciated his son’s poetic idols and already found himself in an opposite literary camp, he had a profound sympathy with the boy’s ideals and no little confidence in his powers. When the test came he acted wisely as well as with affectionate complaisance. In a word, he practically left the decision as to his course of life to Robert himself. The latter was helped thereto by the knowledge that his sister would be provided for, and that, if need be, there was sufficient for himself also. There was of course but one way open to him. He would not have been a true poet, an artist, if he had hesitated. With a strange misconception of the artistic spirit, some one has awarded the poet great credit for his choice, because he had “the singular courage to decline to be rich.” Browning himself had nothing of this bourgeois spirit: he was the last man to speak of an inevitable artistic decision as “singular courage”. There are no doubt people who estimate his resolve as Mr. Barrett, so his daughter declared, regarded Horne when he heard of that poet having published “Orion” at a farthing: “Perhaps he is going to shoot the Queen, and is preparing evidence of monomania.”
With Browning there never could have been two sides to the question: it were excusable, it were natural even, had his father wavered. The outcome of their deliberations was that Robert’s further education should be obtained from travel, and intercourse with men and foreign literatures.
By this time the poet was twenty. His youth had been uneventful; in a sense, more so than his boyhood. His mind, however, was rapidly unfolding, and great projects were casting a glory about the coming days. It was in his nineteenth year, I have been told on good authority, that he became ardently in love with a girl of rare beauty, a year or two older than himself, but otherwise, possibly, no inappropriate lover for this wooer. Why and when this early passion came to a close, or was rudely interrupted, is not known. What is certain is that it made a deep impression on the poet’s mind. It may be that it, of itself, or wrought to a higher emotion by his hunger after ideal beauty, was the source of “Pauline”, that very unequal but yet beautiful first fruit of Browning’s genius.
It was not till within the last few years that the poet spoke at all freely of his youthful life. Perhaps the earliest record of these utterances is that which appeared in the `Century Magazine’ in 1881. From this source, and from what the poet himself said at various times and in various ways, we know that just about the time Balzac, after years of apparently waste labour, was beginning to forecast the Titanic range of the `Comedie Humaine’, Browning planned “a series of monodramatic epics, narratives of the life of typical souls — a gigantic scheme at which a Victor Hugo or a Lope de Vega would start back aghast.”
Already he had set himself to the analysis of the human soul in its manifold aspects, already he had recognised that for him at least there was no other study worthy of a lifelong devotion. In a sense he has fulfilled this early dream: at any rate we have a unique series of monodramatic poems, illustrative of typical souls. In another sense, the major portion of Browning’s life-work is, collectively, one monodramatic “epic”. He is himself a type of the subtle, restless, curious, searching modern age of which he is the profoundest interpreter. Through a multitude of masks he, the typical soul, speaks, and delivers himself of a message which could not be presented emphatically enough as the utterance of a single individual. He is a true dramatic poet, though not in the sense in which Shakespeare is. Shakespeare and his kindred project themselves into the lives of their imaginary personages: Browning pays little heed to external life, or to the exigencies of action, and projects himself into the minds of his characters.
In a word, Shakespeare’s method is to depict a human soul in action, with all the pertinent play of circumstance, while Browning’s is to portray the processes of its mental and spiritual development: as he said in his dedicatory preface to “Sordello”, “little else is worth study.” The one electrifies us with the outer and dominant actualities; the other flashes upon our mental vision the inner, complex, shaping potentialities. The one deals with life dynamically, the other with life as Thought. Both methods are compassed by art. Browning, who is above all modern writers the poet of dramatic situations, is surpassed by many of inferior power in continuity of dramatic sequence. His finest work is in his dramatic poems, rather than in his dramas. He realised intensely the value of quintessential moments, as when the Prefect in “The Return of the Druses” thrusts aside the arras, muttering that for the first time he enters without a sense of imminent doom, “no draught coming as from a sepulchre” saluting him, while that moment the dagger of the assassin plunges to his heart: or, further in the same poem, when Anael, coming to denounce Djabal as an impostor, is overmastered by her tyrannic love, and falls dead with the too bitter freight of her emotion, though not till she has proclaimed him the God by her single worshipping cry, `Hakeem!’ — or, once more, in “The Ring and the Book”, where, with the superbest close of any dramatic poem in our literature, the wretched Guido, at the point of death, cries out in the last extremity not upon God or the Virgin, but upon his innocent and murdered wife — “Abate, — Cardinal, — Christ, — Maria, — God, . . . Pompilia, will you let them murder me?” Thus we can imagine Browning, with his characteristic perception of the profound significance of a circumstance or a single word even, having written of the knocking at the door in “Macbeth”, or having used, with all its marvellous cumulative effect, the word `wrought’ towards the close of “Othello”, when the Moor cries in his bitterness of soul, “But being wrought, perplext in the extreme”: we can imagine this, and yet could not credit the suggestion that even the author of “The Ring and the Book” could by any possibility have composed the two most moving tragedies writ in our tongue.
In the late autumn of 1832 Browning wrote a poem of singular promise and beauty, though immature in thought and crude in expression.* Thirty-four years later he included “Pauline” in his “Poetical Works” with reluctance, and in a note explained the reason of his decision — namely, to forestall piratical reprints abroad. “The thing was my earliest attempt at `poetry always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginative persons, not mine,’ which I have since written according to a scheme less extravagant, and scale less impracticable, than were ventured upon in this crude preliminary sketch — a sketch that, on reviewal, appears not altogether wide of some hint of the characteristic features of that particular `dramatis persona’ it would fain have reproduced: good draughtsmanship, however, and right handling were far beyond the artist at that time.” These be hard words. No critic will ever adventure upon so severe a censure of “Pauline”: most capable judges agree that, with all its shortcomings, it is a work of genius, and therefore ever to be held treasurable for its own sake as well as for its significance.
* Probably from the fact of “Richmond” having been added to the date at the end of the preface to “Pauline”, have arisen the frequent misstatements as to the Browning family having moved west from Camberwell in or shortly before 1832. Mr. R. Barrett Browning tells me that his father “never lived at Richmond, and that that place was connected with `Pauline’, when first printed, as a mystification.”
On the fly-leaf of a copy of this initial work, the poet, six years after its publication, wrote: “Written in pursuance of a foolish plan I forget, or have no wish to remember; the world was never to guess that such an opera, such a comedy, such a speech proceeded from the same notable person. . . . Only this crab remains of the shapely Tree of Life in my fool’s Paradise.” It was in conformity with this plan that he not only issued “Pauline” anonymously, but enjoined secrecy upon those to whom he communicated the fact of his authorship.
When he read the poem to his parents, upon its conclusion, both were much impressed by it, though his father made severe strictures upon its lack of polish, its terminal inconcision, and its vagueness of thought. That he was not more severe was accepted by his son as high praise. The author had, however, little hope of seeing it in print. Mr. Browning was not anxious to provide a publisher with a present. So one day the poet was gratified when his aunt, handing him the requisite sum, remarked that she had heard he had written a fine poem, and that she wished to have the pleasure of seeing it in print.
To this kindly act much was due. Browning, of course, could not now have been dissuaded from the career he had forecast for himself, but his progress might have been retarded or thwarted to less fortunate grooves, had it not been for the circumstances resultant from his aunt’s timely gift.
The MS. was forthwith taken to Saunders & Otley, of Conduit Street, and the little volume of seventy pages of blank verse, comprising only a thousand and thirty lines, was issued by them in January 1833. It seems to us, who read it now, so manifestly a work of exceptional promise, and, to a certain extent, of high accomplishment, that were it not for the fact that the public auditory for a new poet is ever extraordinarily limited, it would be difficult to understand how it could have been overlooked.
“Pauline” has a unique significance because of its autopsychical hints. The Browning whom we all know, as well as the youthful dreamer, is here revealed; here too, as well as the disciple of Shelley, we have the author of “The Ring and the Book”. In it the long series culminating in “Asolando” is foreshadowed, as the oak is observable in the sapling. The poem is prefaced by a Latin motto from the `Occult Philosophy’ of Cornelius Agrippa, and has also a note in French, set forth as being by Pauline, and appended to her lover’s manuscript after his death. Probably Browning placed it in the mouth of Pauline from his rooted determination to speak dramatically and impersonally: and in French, so as to heighten the effect of verisimilitude.*
* “I much fear that my poor friend will not be always perfectly understood in what remains to be read of this strange fragment, but it is less calculated than any other part to explain what of its nature can never be anything but dream and confusion. I do not know, moreover, whether in striving at a better connection of certain parts, one would not run the risk of detracting from the only merit to which so singular a production can pretend — that of giving a tolerably precise idea of the manner (genre) which it can merely indicate. This unpretending opening, this stir of passion, which first increases, and then gradually subsides, these transports of the soul, this sudden return upon himself, and above all, my friend’s quite peculiar turn of mind, have made alterations almost impossible. The reasons which he elsewhere asserts, and others still more cogent, have secured my indulgence for this paper, which otherwise I should have advised him to throw into the fire. I believe none the less in the great principle of all composition — in that principle of Shakespeare, of Raphael, and of Beethoven, according to which concentration of ideas is due much more to their conception than to their execution; I have every reason to fear that the first of these qualities is still foreign to my friend, and I much doubt whether redoubled labour would enable him to acquire the second. It would be best to burn this, but what can I do?” — (Mrs. Orr.)
“Pauline” is a confession, fragmentary in detail but synthetic in range, of a young man of high impulses but weak determination. In its over-emphasis upon errors of judgment, as well as upon real if exaggerated misdeeds, it has all the crudeness of youth. An almost fantastic self-consciousness is the central motive: it is a matter of question if this be absolutely vicarious. To me it seems that the author himself was at the time confused by the complicated flashing of the lights of life.
The autobiographical and autopsychical lines and passages scattered through the poem are of immediate interest. Generously the poet repays his debt to Shelley, whom he apostrophises as “Sun-treader”, and invokes in strains of lofty emotion — “Sun-treader — life and light be thine for ever.” The music of “Alastor”, indeed, is audible ever and again throughout “Pauline”. None the less is there a new music, a new poetic voice, in
“Thou wilt remember one warm morn, when Winter Crept aged from the earth, and Spring’s first breath Blew soft from the moist hills — the black-thorn boughs, So dark in the bare wood, when glistening In the sunshine were white with coming buds, Like the bright side of a sorrow — and the banks Had violets opening from sleep like eyes.”
If we have an imaginary Browning, a Shelleyan phantasm, in
“I seemed the fate from which I fled; I felt A strange delight in causing my decay; I was a fiend, in darkness chained for ever Within some ocean-wave:”
we have the real Browning in
“So I will sing on — fast as fancies come Rudely — the verse being as the mood it paints. . . . . .
I am made up of an intensest life,”
and all the succeeding lines down to “Their spirit dwelt in me, and I should rule.”
Even then the poet’s inner life was animated by his love of the beautiful Greek literature. Telling how in “the first dawn of life,” “which passed alone with wisest ancient books,” Pauline’s lover incorporated himself in whatsoever he read — was the god wandering after beauty, the giant standing vast against the sunset-light, the high-crested chief sailing with troops of friends to Tenedos — his second-self cries, “I tell you, nought has ever been so clear as the place, the time, the fashion of those lives.” Never for him, then, had there been that alchemy of the soul which turns the inchoate drift of the world into golden ore, not then had come to him the electric awakening flash from “work of lofty art, nor woman’s beauty, nor sweet nature’s face” —
“Yet, I say, never morn broke clear as those On the dim clustered isles in the blue sea: The deep groves, and white temples, and wet caves — And nothing ever will surprise me now — Who stood beside the naked Swift-footed, Who bound my forehead with Proserpine’s hair.”
Further, the allusion to Plato, and the more remote one to Agamemnon, the
Loved for itself, and all it shows — the King Treading the purple calmly to his death,”
and the beautiful Andromeda passage, afford ample indication of how deeply Browning had drunk of that vital stream whose waters are the surest conserver of the ideal loveliness which we all of us, in some degree, cherish in various guises.
Yet, as in every long poem that he has written (and, it must be admitted, in too many of the shorter pieces of his later period) there is an alloy of prose, of something that is not poetry, so in “Pauline”, written though it was in the first flush of his genius and under the inspiring stimulus of Shelley, the reader encounters prosaic passages, decasyllabically arranged. “‘Twas in my plan to look on real life, which was all new to me; my theories were firm, so I left them, to look upon men, and their cares, and hopes, and fears, and joys; and, as I pondered on them all, I sought how best life’s end might be attained, an end comprising every joy.” Again: “Then came a pause, and long restraint chained down my soul, till it was changed. I lost myself, and were it not that I so loathe that time, I could recall how first I learned to turn my mind against itself . . . at length I was restored, yet long the influence remained; and nought but the still life I led, apart from all, which left my soul to seek its old delights, could e’er have brought me thus far back to peace.” No reader, alert to the subtle and haunting music of rarefied blank verse (and unless it be rarefied it should not be put forward as poetry), could possibly accept these lines as expressionally poetical. It would seem as though, from the first, Browning’s ear was keener for the apprehension than for the sustained evocation of the music of verse. Some flaw there was, somewhere. His heart, so to say, beat too fast, and the singing in his ears from the o’er-fevered blood confused the serene rhythm haunting the far perspectives of the brain, “as Arab birds float sleeping in the wind.”
I have dwelt at this length upon “Pauline” partly because of its inherent beauty and autopsychical significance, and partly because it is the least familiar of Browning’s poems, long overshadowed as it has been by his own too severe strictures: mainly, however, because of its radical importance to the student who would arrive at a broad and true estimate of the power and scope and shaping constituents of its author’s genius. Almost every quality of his after-verse may be found here, in germ or outline. It is, in a word, more physiognomic than any other single poem by Browning, and so must ever possess a peculiar interest quite apart from its many passages of haunting beauty.
To these the lover of poetry will always turn with delight. Some will even regard them retrospectively with alien emotion to that wherewith they strive to possess their souls in patience over some one or other of the barbarisms, the Titanic excesses, the poetic banalities recurrent in the later volumes.
How many and how haunting these delicate oases are! Those who know and love “Pauline” will remember the passage where the poet, with that pantheistic ecstasy which was possibly inspired by the singer he most loved, tells how he can live the life of plants, content to watch the wild bees flitting to and fro, or to lie absorbent of the ardours of the sun, or, like the night-flowering columbine, to trail up the tree-trunk and through its rustling foliage “look for the dim stars;” or, again, can live the life of the bird, “leaping airily his pyramid of leaves and twisted boughs of some tall mountain-tree;” or be a fish, breathing the morning air in the misty sun-warm water. Close following this is another memorable passage, that beginning “Night, and one single ridge of narrow path;” which has a particular interest for two notes of a deeper and broader music to be evolved long afterwards. For, as it seems to me, in
“Thou art so close by me, the roughest swell Of wind in the tree-tops hides not the panting Of thy soft breasts —-“
(where, by the way, should be noticed the subtle correspondence between the conceptive and the expressional rhythm) we have a hint of that superb scene in “Pippa Passes”, where, on a sinister night of July, a night of spiritual storm as well as of aerial tempest, Ottima and Sebald lie amid the lightning-searcht forest, with “the thunder like a whole sea overhead.” Again, in the lovely Turneresque, or rather Shelleyan picture of morning, over “the rocks, and valleys, and old woods,” with the high boughs swinging in the wind above the sun-brightened mists, and the golden-coloured spray of the cataract amid the broken rocks, whereover the wild hawks fly to and fro, there is at least a suggestion, an outline, of the truly magnificent burst of morning music in the poet’s penultimate volume, beginning —
“But morning’s laugh sets all the crags alight Above the baffled tempest: tree and tree Stir themselves from the stupor of the night, And every strangled branch resumes its right To breathe, shakes loose dark’s clinging dregs, waves free In dripping glory. Prone the runnels plunge, While earth, distent with moisture like a sponge, Smokes up, and leaves each plant its gem to see, Each grass-blade’s glory-glitter,” etc.
Who that has ever read “Pauline” will forget the masterful poetry descriptive of the lover’s wild-wood retreat, the exquisite lines beginning “Walled in with a sloped mound of matted shrubs, tangled, old and green”? There is indeed a new, an unmistakable voice here.
“And tongues of bank go shelving in the waters, Where the pale-throated snake reclines his head, And old grey stones lie making eddies there; The wild mice cross them dry-shod” . . . .
What lovelier image in modern poetry than that depictive of the forest-pool in depths of savage woodlands, unvisited but by the shadows of passing clouds, —
“the trees bend
O’er it as wild men watch a sleeping girl.”
How the passionate sexual emotion, always deep and true in Browning, finds lovely utterance in the lines where Pauline’s lover speaks of the blood in her lips pulsing like a living thing, while her neck is as “marble misted o’er with love-breath,” and
“. . . her delicious eyes as clear as heaven, When rain in a quick shower has beat down mist, And clouds float white in the sun like broods of swans.”
In the quotations I have made, and in others that might be selected (e.g., “Her fresh eyes, and soft hair, and `lips which bleed like a mountain berry'”), it is easy to note how intimate an observer of nature the youthful poet was, and with what conscious but not obtrusive art he brings forward his new and striking imagery. Browning, indeed, is the poet of new symbols.
“Pauline” concludes with lines which must have been in the minds of many on that sad day when the tidings from Venice sent a thrill of startled, half-incredulous, bewildered pain throughout the English nations —
“Sun-treader, I believe in God, and truth, And love; . . .
. . . but chiefly when I die . . . All in whom this wakes pleasant thoughts of me, Know my last state is happy — free from doubt, Or touch of fear.”
Never again was Browning to write a poem with such conceptive crudeness, never again to tread the byways of thought so falteringly or so negligently: but never again, perhaps, was he to show so much over-rapturing joy in the world’s loveliness, such Bacchic abandon to the ideal beauty which the true poet sees glowing upon the forlornest height and brooding in the shadow-haunted hollows of the hills. The Browning who might have been is here: henceforth the Browning we know and love stands unique among all the lords of song. But sometimes do we not turn longingly, wonderingly at least, to the young Dionysos upon whose forehead was the light of another destiny than that which descended upon him? The Icelanders say there is a land where all the rainbows that have ever been, or are yet to be, forever drift to and fro, evanishing and reappearing, like immortal flowers of vapour. In that far country, it may be, are also the unfulfilled dreams, the visions too perfect to be fashioned into song, of the young poets who have gained the laurel.
We close the little book lovingly:
“And I had dimly shaped my first attempt, And many a thought did I build up on thought, As the wild bee hangs cell to cell — in vain; For I must still go on: my mind rests not.”
It has been commonly asserted that “Pauline” was almost wholly disregarded, and swiftly lapsed into oblivion.
This must be accepted with qualification. It is like the other general assertion, that Browning had to live fifty years before he gained recognition — a statement as ludicrous when examined as it is unjust to the many discreet judges who awarded, publicly and privately, that intelligent sympathy which is the best sunshine for the flower of a poet’s genius. If by “before he gained recognition” is meant a general and indiscriminate acclaim, no doubt Browning had, still has indeed, longer to wait than many other eminent writers have had to do: but it is absurd to assert that from the very outset of his poetic career he was met by nothing but neglect, if not scornful derision. None who knows the true artistic temperament will fall into any such mistake.
It is quite certain that neither Shakespeare nor Milton ever met with such enthusiastic praise and welcome as Browning encountered on the publication of “Pauline” and “Paracelsus”. Shelley, as far above Browning in poetic music as the author of so many parleyings with other people’s souls is the superior in psychic insight and intellectual strength, had throughout his too brief life not one such review of praiseful welcome as the Rev. W. J. Fox wrote on the publication of “Pauline” (or, it may be added, as Allan Cunningham’s equally kindly but less able review in the `Athenaeum’), or as John Forster wrote in `The Examiner’ concerning “Paracelsus”, and later in the `New Monthly Magazine’, where he had the courage to say of the young and quite unknown poet, “without the slightest hesitation we name Mr. Robert Browning at once with Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth.” His plays even (which are commonly said to have “fallen flat”) were certainly not failures. There is something effeminate, undignified, and certainly uncritical, in this confusion as to what is and what is not failure in literature. So enthusiastic was the applause he encountered, indeed, that had his not been too strong a nature to be thwarted by adulation any more than by contemptuous neglect, he might well have become spoilt — so enthusiastic, that were it not for the heavy and prolonged counterbalancing dead weight of public indifference, a huge amorphous mass only of late years moulded into harmony with the keenest minds of the century, we might well be suspicious of so much and long-continued eulogium, and fear the same reversal of judgment towards him on the part of those who come after us as we ourselves have meted to many an one among the high gods of our fathers.
Fortunately the deep humanity of his work in the mass conserves it against the mere veerings of taste. A reaction against it will inevitably come; but this will pass: what, in the future, when the unborn readers of Browning will look back with clear eyes untroubled by the dust of our footsteps, not to subside till long after we too are dust, will be the place given to this poet, we know not, nor can more than speculatively estimate. That it will, however, be a high one, so far as his weightiest (in bulk, it may possibly be but a relatively slender) accomplishment is concerned, we may rest well assured: for indeed “It lives, If precious be the soul of man to man.”
So far as has been ascertained there were only three reviews or notices of “Pauline”: the very favourable article by Mr. Fox in the `Monthly Repository’, the kindly paper by Allan Cunningham in the `Athenaeum’, and, in `Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine’, the succinctly expressed impression of either an indolent or an incapable reviewer: “Pauline; a Fragment of a Confession; a piece of pure bewilderment” — a “criticism” which anticipated and thus prevented the insertion of a highly favourable review which John Stuart Mill voluntarily wrote.
Browning must have regarded his first book with mingled feelings. It was a bid for literary fortune, in one sense, but a bid so handicapped by the circumstances of its publication as to be almost certainly of no avail. Probably, however, he was well content that it should have mere existence. Already the fever of an abnormal intellectual curiosity was upon him: already he had schemed more potent and more vital poems: already, even, he had developed towards a more individualistic method. So indifferent was he to an easily gained reputation that he seems to have been really urgent upon his relatives and intimate acquaintances not to betray his authorship. The Miss Flower, however, to whom allusion has already been made, could not repress her admiration to the extent of depriving her friend, Mr. Fox, of a pleasure similar to that she had herself enjoyed. The result was the generous notice in the `Monthly Repository’. The poet never forgot his indebtedness to Mr. Fox, to whose sympathy and kindness much direct and indirect good is traceable. The friendship then begun was lifelong, and was continued with the distinguished Unitarian’s family when Mr. Fox himself ended his active and beneficent career.
But after a time the few admirers of “Pauline” forgot to speak about it: the poet himself never alluded to it: and in a year or two it was almost as though it had never been written. Many years after, when articles upon Robert Browning were as numerous as they once had been scarce, never a word betrayed that their authors knew of the existence of “Pauline”. There was, however, yet another friendship to come out of this book, though not until long after it was practically forgotten by its author.
One day a young poet-painter came upon a copy of the book in the British Museum Library, and was at once captivated by its beauty. One of the earliest admirers of Browning’s poetry, Dante Gabriel Rossetti — for it was he — felt certain that “Pauline” could be by none other than the author of “Paracelsus”. He himself informed me that he had never heard this authorship suggested, though some one had spoken to him of a poem of remarkable promise, called “Pauline”, which he ought to read. If I remember aright, Rossetti told me that it was on the forenoon of the day when the “Burden of Nineveh” was begun, conceived rather, that he read this story of a soul by the soul’s ablest historian. So delighted was he with it, and so strong his opinion it was by Browning, that he wrote to the poet, then in Florence, for confirmation, stating at the same time that his admiration for “Pauline” had led him to transcribe the whole of it.
Concerning this episode, Robert Browning wrote to me, some seven years ago, as follows: —
St. Pierre de Chartreuse, Isere, France.
. . . . .
“Rossetti’s `Pauline’ letter was addressed to me at Florence more than thirty years ago. I have preserved it, but, even were I at home, should be unable to find it without troublesome searching. It was to the effect that the writer, personally and altogether unknown to me, had come upon a poem in the British Museum, which he copied the whole of, from its being not otherwise procurable — that he judged it to be mine, but could not be sure, and wished me to pronounce in the matter — which I did. A year or two after, I had a visit in London from Mr. (William) Allingham and a friend — who proved to be Rossetti. When I heard he was a painter I insisted on calling on him, though he declared he had nothing to show me — which was far enough from the case. Subsequently, on another of my returns to London, he painted my portrait, not, I fancy, in oils, but water-colours, and finished it in Paris shortly after. This must have been in the year when Tennyson published `Maud’, for I remember Tennyson reading the poem one evening while Rossetti made a rapid pen-and-ink sketch of him, very good, from one obscure corner of vantage, which I still possess, and duly value. This was before Rossetti’s marriage.”*
* The highly interesting and excellent portrait of Browning here alluded to has never been exhibited.
As a matter of fact, as recorded on the back of the original drawing, the eventful reading took place at 13 Dorset Street, Portman Square, on the 27th of September 1855, and those present, besides the Poet-Laureate, Browning, and Rossetti, were Mrs. E. Barrett Browning and Miss Arabella Barrett.
When, a year or two ago, the poet learned that a copy of his first work, which in 1833 could not find a dozen purchasers at a few shillings, went at a public sale for twenty-five guineas, he remarked that had his dear old aunt been living he could have returned to her, much to her incredulous astonishment, no doubt, he smilingly averred, the cost of the book’s publication, less 3 Pounds 15s. It was about the time of the publication of “Pauline” that Browning began to see something of the literary and artistic life for which he had such an inborn taste. For a brief period he went often to the British Museum, particularly the Library, and to the National Gallery. At the British Museum Reading Room he perused with great industry and research those works in philosophy and medical history which are the bases of “Paracelsus”, and those Italian Records bearing upon the story of Sordello. Residence in Camberwell, in 1833, rendered night engagements often impracticable: but nevertheless he managed to mix a good deal in congenial society. It is not commonly known that he was familiar to these early associates as a musician and artist rather than as a poet. Among them, and they comprised many well-known workers in the several arts, were Charles Dickens and “Ion” Talfourd. Mr. Fox, whom Browning had met once or twice in his early youth, after the former had been shown the Byronic verses which had in one way gratified and in another way perturbed the poet’s father, saw something more of his young friend after the publication of “Pauline”. He very kindly offered to print in his magazine any short poems the author of that book should see fit to send — an offer, however, which was not put to the test for some time.
Practically simultaneously with the publication of “Pauline” appeared another small volume, containing the “Palace of Art”, “Oenone”, “Mariana”, etc. Those early books of Tennyson and Browning have frequently, and somewhat uncritically, been contrasted. Unquestionably, however, the elder poet showed a consummate and continuous mastery of his art altogether beyond the intermittent expressional power of Browning in his most rhythmic emotion at any time of his life. To affirm that there is more intellectual fibre, what Rossetti called fundamental brain-work, in the product of the younger poet, would be beside the mark. The insistence on the supremacy of Browning over all poets since Shakespeare because he has the highest “message” to deliver, because his intellect is the most subtle and comprehensive, because his poems have this or that dynamic effect upon dormant or sluggish or other active minds, is to be seriously and energetically deprecated. It is with presentment that the artist has, fundamentally, to concern himself. If he cannot PRESENT poetically then he is not, in effect, a poet, though he may be a poetic thinker, or a great writer. Browning’s eminence is not because of his detachment from what some one has foolishly called “the mere handiwork, the furnisher’s business, of the poet.” It is the delight of the true artist that the product of his talent should be wrought to a high technique equally by the shaping brain and the dexterous hand. Browning is great because of his formative energy: because, despite the excess of burning and compulsive thought —
“Thoughts swarming thro’ the myriad-chambered brain Like multitudes of bees i’ the innumerous cells, Each staggering ‘neath the undelivered freight —-”
he strikes from the FUROR of words an electric flash so transcendently illuminative that what is commonplace becomes radiant with that light which dwells not in nature, but only in the visionary eye of man. Form for the mere beauty of form, is a playing with the wind, the acceptance of a shadow for the substance. If nothing animate it, it may possibly be fair of aspect, but only as the frozen smile upon a dead face.
We know little of Browning’s inner or outer life in 1833 and 1834. It was a secretive, not a productive period. One by one certain pinnacles of his fair snow-mountain of Titanic aim melted away. He began to realise the first disenchantment of the artist: the sense of dreams never to be accomplished. That land of the great unwritten poems, the great unpainted pictures: what a heritance there for the enfranchised spirits of great dreamers!
In the autumn of 1833 he went forth to his University, that of the world of men and women. It was ever a favourite answer of his, when asked if he had been at either Oxford or Cambridge, — “Italy was my University.”
But first he went to Russia, and spent some time in St. Petersburg, attracted thither by the invitation of a friend. The country interested him, but does not seem to have deeply or permanently engaged his attention. That, however, his Russian experiences were not fruitless is manifest from the remarkably picturesque and technically very interesting poem, “Ivan Ivanovitch” (the fourth of the `Dramatic Idyls’, 1879). Of a truth, after his own race and country — readers will at once think of “Home Thoughts from the Sea”, or the thrilling lines in “Home Thoughts from Abroad”, beginning —
“Oh, to be in England,
Now that April’s there!” —
or perhaps, those lines in his earliest work —
“I cherish most
My love of England — how, her name, a word Of hers in a strange tongue makes my heart beat!”
— it was of the mystic Orient or of the glowing South that he oftenest thought and dreamed. With Heine he might have cried: “O Firdusi! O Ischami! O Saadi! How do I long after the roses of Schiraz!” As for Italy, who of all our truest poets has not loved her: but who has worshipped her with so manly a passion, so loyal a love, as Browning? One alone indeed may be mated with him here, she who had his heart of hearts, and who lies at rest in the old Florentine cemetery within sound of the loved waters of Arno. Who can forget his lines in “De Gustibus”, “Open my heart and you will see, graved inside of it, Italy.”
It would be no difficult task to devote a volume larger than the present one to the descriptive analysis of none but the poems inspired by Italy, Italian personages and history, Italian Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Music. From Porphyria and her lover to Pompilia and all the direful Roman tragedy wherein she is as a moon of beauty above conflicting savage tides of passion, what an unparalleled gallery of portraits, what a brilliant phantasmagoria, what a movement of intensest life!
It is pleasant to know of one of them, “The Italian in England”, that Browning was proud, because Mazzini told him he had read this poem to certain of his fellow-exiles in England to show how an Englishman could sympathise with them.
After leaving Russia the young poet spent the rest of his `Wanderjahr’ in Italy. Among other places he visited was Asolo, that white little hill-town of the Veneto, whence he drew hints for “Sordello” and “Pippa Passes”, and whither he returned in the last year of his life, as with unconscious significance he himself said, “on his way homeward.”
In the summer of 1834, that is, when he was in his twenty-second year, he returned to Camberwell. “Sordello” he had in some fashion begun, but had set aside for a poem which occupied him throughout the autumn of 1834 and winter of 1835, “Paracelsus”. In this period, also, he wrote some short poems, two of them of particular significance. The first of the series was a sonnet, which appeared above the signature `Z’ in the August number of the `Monthly Repository’ for 1834. It was never reprinted by the author, whose judgment it is impossible not to approve as well as to respect. Browning never wrote a good sonnet, and this earliest effort is not the most fortunate. It was in the `Repository’ also, in 1835 and 1836, that the other poems appeared, four in all.
The song in “Pippa Passes”, beginning “A King lived long ago,” was one of these; and the lyric, “Still ailing, wind? Wilt be appeased or no?” afterwards revised and incorporated in “James Lee”, was another. But the two which are much the most noteworthy are “Johannes Agricola” and “Porphyria”. Even more distinctively than in “Pauline”, in their novel sentiment, new method, and generally unique quality, is a new voice audible in these two poems. They are very remarkable as the work of so young a poet, and are interesting as showing how rapidly he had outgrown the influence of any other of his poetic kindred. “Johannes Agricola” is significant as being the first of those dramatic studies of warped religiosity, of strange self-sophistication, which have afforded so much matter for thought. In its dramatic concision, its complex psychological significance, and its unique, if to unaccustomed ears somewhat barbaric, poetic beauty, “Porphyria” is still more remarkable.
It may be of this time, though possibly some years later, that Mrs. Bridell-Fox writes: — “I remember him as looking in often in the evenings, having just returned from his first visit to Venice. I cannot tell the date for certain. He was full of enthusiasm for that Queen of Cities. He used to illustrate his glowing descriptions of its beauties, the palaces, the sunsets, the moonrises, by a most original kind of etching. Taking up a bit of stray notepaper, he would hold it over a lighted candle, moving the paper about gently till it was cloudily smoked over, and then utilising the darker smears for clouds, shadows, water, or what not, would etch with a dry pen the forms of lights on cloud and palace, on bridge or gondola on the vague and dreamy surface he had produced. My own passionate longing to see Venice dates from those delightful, well-remembered evenings of my childhood.”
“Paracelsus”, begun about the close of October or early in November 1834, was published in the summer of the following year. It is a poem in blank verse, about four times the length of “Pauline”, with interspersed songs. The author divided it into five sections of unequal length, of which the third is the most extensive: “Paracelsus Aspires”; “Paracelsus Attains”; “Paracelsus”; “Paracelsus Aspires”; “Paracelsus Attains”. In an interesting note, which was not reprinted in later editions of his first acknowledged poem, the author dissuades the reader from mistaking his performance for one of a class with which it has nothing in common, from judging it by principles on which it was not moulded, and from subjecting it to a standard to which it was never meant to conform. He then explains that he has composed a dramatic poem, and not a drama in the accepted sense; that he has not set forth the phenomena of the mind or the passions by the operation of persons and events, or by recourse to an external machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis sought to be produced. Instead of this, he remarks, “I have ventured to display somewhat minutely the mood itself in its rise and progress, and have suffered the agency, by which it is influenced and determined, to be generally discernible in its effects alone, and subordinate throughout, if not altogether excluded: and this for a reason. I have endeavoured to write a poem, not a drama.” A little further, he states that a work like “Paracelsus” depends, for its success, immediately upon the intelligence and sympathy of the reader: “Indeed, were my scenes stars, it must be his co-operating fancy which, supplying all chasms, shall connect the scattered lights into one constellation — a Lyre or a Crown.”
In the concluding paragraph of this note there is a point of interest — the statement of the author’s hope that the readers of “Paracelsus” will not “be prejudiced against other productions which may follow in a more popular, and perhaps less difficult form.” From this it might fairly be inferred that Browning had not definitively adopted his characteristic method: that he was far from unwilling to gain the general ear: and that he was alert to the difficulties of popularisation of poetry written on lines similar to those of “Paracelsus”. Nor would this inference be wrong: for, as a matter of fact, the poet, immediately upon the publication of “Paracelsus”, determined to devote himself to poetic work which should have so direct a contact with actual life that its appeal should reach even to the most uninitiate in the mysteries and delights of verse.
In his early years Browning had always a great liking for walking in the dark. At Camberwell he was wont to carry this love to the point of losing many a night’s rest. There was, in particular, a wood near Dulwich, whither he was wont to go. There he would walk swiftly and eagerly along the solitary and lightless byways, finding a potent stimulus to imaginative thought in the happy isolation thus enjoyed, with all the concurrent delights of natural things, the wind moving like a spirit through the tree-branches, the drifting of poignant fragrances, even in winter-tide, from herb and sappy bark, imperceptible almost by the alertest sense in the day’s manifold detachments. At this time, too, he composed much in the open air. This he rarely, if ever, did in later life. Not only many portions of “Paracelsus”, but several scenes in “Strafford”, were enacted first in these midnight silences of the Dulwich woodland. Here, too, as the poet once declared, he came to know the serene beauty of dawn: for every now and again, after having read late, or written long, he would steal quietly from the house, and walk till the morning twilight graded to the pearl and amber of the new day.
As in childhood the glow of distant London had affected him to a pleasure that was not without pain, perhaps to a pain rather that was a fine delirium, so in his early manhood the neighbourhood of the huge city, felt in those midnight walks of his, and apprehended more by the transmutive shudder of reflected glare thrown fadingly upward against the stars, than by any more direct vision or even far-borne indeterminate hum, dominated his imagination. At that distance, in those circumstances, humanity became more human. And with the thought, the consciousness of this imperative kinship, arose the vague desire, the high resolve to be no curious dilettante in novel literary experiments, but to compel an interpretative understanding of this complex human environment.
Those who knew the poet intimately are aware of the loving regard he always had for those nocturnal experiences: but perhaps few recognise how much we owe to the subtle influences of that congenial isolation he was wont to enjoy on fortunate occasions.
It is not my intention — it would, obviously, be a futile one, if entertained — to attempt an analysis or elaborate criticism of the many poems, long and short, produced by Robert Browning. Not one volume, but several, of this size, would have to be allotted to the adequate performance of that end. Moreover, if readers are unable or unwilling to be their own expositors, there are several trustworthy hand-books which are easily procurable. Some one, I believe, has even, with unselfish consideration for the weaker brethren, turned “Sordello” into prose — a superfluous task, some scoffers may exclaim. Personally, I cannot but think this craze for the exposition of poetry, this passion for “dissecting a rainbow”, is harmful to the individual as well as humiliating to the high office of Poetry itself, and not infrequently it is ludicrous.
I must be content with a few words anent the more important or significant poems, and in due course attempt an estimate by a broad synthesis, and not by cumulative critical analyses.
In the selection of Paracelsus as the hero of his first mature poem, Browning was guided first of all by his keen sympathy with the scientific spirit — the spirit of dauntless inquiry, of quenchless curiosity, of a searching enthusiasm. Pietro of Abano, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, were heroes whom he regarded with an admiration which would have been boundless but for the wise sympathy which enabled him to apprehend and understand their weaknesses as well as their lofty qualities. Once having come to the conclusion that Paracelsus was a great and much maligned man, it was natural for him to wish to portray aright the features he saw looming through the mists of legend and history. But over and above this, he half unwittingly, half consciously, felt the fascination of that mysticism associated with the name of the celebrated German scientist — a mysticism, in all its various phases, of which he is now acknowledged to be the subtlest poetic interpreter in our language, though, profound as its attraction always was for him, never was poet with a more exquisite balance of intellectual sanity.
Latest research has proved that whatsoever of a pretender Paracelsus may have been in certain respects, he was unquestionably a man of extraordinary powers: and, as a pioneer in a science of the first magnitude of importance, deserving of high honour. If ever the famous German attain a high place in the history of the modern intellectual movement in Europe, it will be primarily due to Browning’s championship.
But of course the extent or shallowness of Paracelsus’ claim is a matter of quite secondary interest. We are concerned with the poet’s presentment of the man — of that strange soul whom he conceived of as having anticipated so far, and as having focussed all the vagrant speculations of the day into one startling beam of light, now lambently pure, now lurid with gross constituents.*
* Paracelsus has two particular claims upon our regard. He gave us laudanum, a discovery of incalculable blessing to mankind. And from his fourth baptismal name, which he inherited from his father, we have our familiar term, `bombast’. Readers interested in the known facts concerning the “master-mind, the thinker, the explorer, the creator,” the forerunner of Mesmer and even of Darwin and Wallace, who began life with the sounding appellation “Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus ab Hohenheim”, should consult Browning’s own learned appendical note, and Mr. Berdoe’s interesting essay in the Browning Society Papers, No. 49. —
Paracelsus, his friends Festus and his wife Michal, and Aprile, an Italian poet, are the characters who are the personal media through which Browning’s already powerful genius found expression. The poem is, of a kind, an epic: the epic of a brave soul striving against baffling circumstance. It is full of passages of rare technical excellence, as well as of conceptive beauty: so full, indeed, that the sympathetic reader of it as a drama will be too apt to overlook its radical shortcomings, cast as it is in the dramatic mould. But it must not be forgotten that Browning himself distinctly stated he had attempted to write “a poem, not a drama”: and in the light of this simple statement half the objections that have been made fall to the ground.
Paracelsus is the protagonist: the others are merely incidental. The poem is the soul-history of the great medical student who began life so brave of aspect and died so miserably at Salzburg: but it is also the history of a typical human soul, which can be read without any knowledge of actual particulars.
Aprile is a projection of the poet’s own poetical ideal. He speaks, but he does not live as Festus lives, or even as Michal, who, by the way, is interesting as being the first in the long gallery of Browning’s women — a gallery of superbly-drawn portraits, of noble and striking and always intensely human women, unparalleled except in Shakespeare. Pauline, of course, exists only as an abstraction, and Porphyria is in no exact sense a portrait from the life. Yet Michal can be revealed only to the sympathetic eye, for she is not drawn, but again and again suddenly silhouetted. We see her in profile always: but when she exclaims at the last, “I ever did believe,” we feel that she has withdrawn the veil partially hiding her fair and generous spirit.
To the lover of poetry “Paracelsus” will always be a Golconda. It has lines and passages of extraordinary power, of a haunting beauty, and of a unique and exquisite charm. It may be noted, in exemplification of Browning’s artistic range, that in the descriptive passages he paints as well in the elaborate Pre-Raphaelite method as with a broad synthetic touch: as in
“One old populous green wall
Tenanted by the ever-busy flies,
Grey crickets and shy lizards and quick spiders, Each family of the silver-threaded moss — Which, look through near, this way, and it appears A stubble-field or a cane-brake, a marsh Of bulrush whitening in the sun. . . .”
But oftener he prefers the more succinct method of landscape-painting, the broadest impressionism: as in
“Past the high rocks the haunts of doves, the mounds Of red earth from whose sides strange trees grow out, Past tracks of milk-white minute blinding sand.”
And where in modern poetry is there a superber union of the scientific and the poetic vision than in this magnificent passage — the quintessence of the poet’s conception of the rapture of life: —
“The centre-fire heaves underneath the earth, And the earth changes like a human face; The molten ore bursts up among the rocks, Winds into the stone’s heart, outbranches bright In hidden mines, spots barren river-beds, Crumbles into fine sand where sunbeams bask — God joys therein. The wroth sea’s waves are edged With foam, white as the bitten lip of hate, When in the solitary waste, strange groups Of young volcanoes come up, cyclops-like, Staring together with their eyes on flame — God tastes a pleasure in their uncouth pride. Then all is still; earth is a wintry clod: But Spring-wind, like a dancing psaltress, passes Over its breast to waken it, rare verdure Buds tenderly upon rough banks, between The withered tree-rests and the cracks of frost, Like a smile striving with a wrinkled face; The grass grows bright, the boughs are swoln with blooms Like chrysalids impatient for the air, The shining dorrs are busy, beetles run Along the furrows, ants make their ado; Above, birds fly in merry flocks, the lark Soars up and up, shivering for very joy; Afar the ocean sleeps; white fishing gulls Flit where the strand is purple with its tribe Of nested limpets; savage creatures seek Their loves in wood and plain — and God renews His ancient rapture.”
In these lines, particularly in their close, is manifest the influence of the noble Hebraic poetry. It must have been at this period that Browning conned over and over with an exultant delight the simple but lordly diction of Isaiah and the other prophets, preferring this Biblical poetry to that even of his beloved Greeks. There is an anecdote of his walking across a public park (I am told Richmond, but more probably it was Wimbledon Common) with his hat in his left hand and his right waving to and fro declamatorily, while the wind blew his hair around his head like a nimbus: so rapt in his ecstasy over the solemn sweep of the Biblical music that he did not observe a small following consisting of several eager children, expectant of thrilling stump-oratory. He was just the man, however, to accept an anti-climax genially, and to dismiss his disappointed auditory with something more tangible than an address.
The poet-precursor of scientific knowledge is again and again manifest: as, for example, in
“Hints and previsions of which faculties Are strewn confusedly everywhere about The inferior natures, and all lead up higher, All shape out dimly the superior race, The heir of hopes too fair to turn out false, And man appears at last.”*
* Readers interested in Browning’s inspiration from, and treatment of, Science, should consult the excellent essay on him as “A Scientific Poet” by Mr. Edward Berdoe, F.R.C.S., and, in particular, compare with the originals the references given by Mr. Berdoe to the numerous passages bearing upon Evolution and the several sciences, from Astronomy to Physiology.
There are lines, again, which have a magic that cannot be defined. If it be not felt, no sense of it can be conveyed through another’s words.
“Whose memories were a solace to me oft, As mountain-baths to wild fowls in their flight.”
“Ask the gier-eagle why she stoops at once Into the vast and unexplored abyss,
What full-grown power informs her from the first, Why she not marvels, strenuously beating The silent boundless regions of the sky.”
There is one passage, beautiful in itself, which has a pathetic significance henceforth. Gordon, our most revered hero, was wont to declare that nothing in all nonscriptural literature was so dear to him, nothing had so often inspired him in moments of gloom: —
“I go to prove my soul! I see my way as birds their trackless way. I shall arrive! What time, what circuit first, I ask not: but unless God send His hail Or blinding fireballs, sleet or stifling snow, In some time, His good time, I shall arrive: He guides me and the bird. In his good time.”
As for the much misused `Shakespearian’ comparison, so often mistakenly applied to Browning, there is nothing in “Paracelsus” in the least way derivative. Because Shakespeare is the greatest genius evolved from our race, it does not follow that every lofty intellect, every great objective poet, should be labelled “Shakespearian”. But there is a certain quality in poetic expression which we so specify, because the intense humanity throbbing in it finds highest utterance in the greatest of our poets: and there is at least one instance of such poignant speech in “Paracelsus”, worthy almost to be ranked with the last despairing cry of Guido calling upon murdered Pompilia: —
“Festus, strange secrets are let out by death