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Title: Robert Browning
Author: Dowden, Edward, 1843-1913
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE TEMPLE BIOGRAPHIES

Edited by Dugald Macfadyen, M.A.

Robert Browning

[Illustration: _Robert Browning, from a portrait in oil, for which he
sat to R.W. Curtis at Venice 1880._]

ROBERT BROWNING

BY EDWARD DOWDEN

LITT.D., D.C.L., LL.D.

PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE UNIVERSITY OF DUBLIN


1904



     If I, too, should try and speak at times,
    Leading your love to where my love, perchance,
    Climbed earlier, found a nest before you knew,
    Why, bear with the poor climber, for love's sake.

--_Balaustion's Adventure_.



Editor's Preface


"In the case of those whom the public has learned to honour and admire,
there is a _biography of the mind_--the phrase is Mr Gladstone's--that
is a matter of deep interest." In a life of Robert Browning it is
especially true that the biography we want is of this nature, for its
events are to be classed rather among achievements of the human spirit
than as objective incidents, and its interest depends only in a
secondary sense on circumstance or movement in the public eye. The
special function of the present book in the growing library of Browning
literature is to give such a biography of Browning's mind, associating
his poems with their date and origin, as may throw some light on his
inward development. Browning has become to many, in a measure which he
could hardly have conceived possible himself, one of the authoritative
interpreters of the spiritual factors in human life. His tonic optimism
dissipates the grey atmosphere of materialism, which has obscured the
sunclad heights of life as effectually as a fog. To see life through
Browning's eyes is to see it shot through and through with spiritual
issues, with a background of eternal destiny; and to come appreciably
nearer than the general consciousness of our time to seeing it steadily
and seeing it whole. Those who prize his influence know how to value
everything which throws light on the path by which he reached his
resolute and confident outlook.

It is almost possible to count on the fingers of one hand the few men
who could successfully write a book of this character and scope. The
Editor believes that, in the present case, one of the very few has been
found who had the qualifications required. Much of the apparent
obscurity of Browning is due to his habit of climbing up a precipice of
thought, and then kicking away the ladder by which he climbed. Dr Dowden
has with singular success readjusted the steps, so that readers may
follow the poet's climb. Those who are not daunted by the Paracelsus and
Sordello chapter, where the subject requires some close and patient
attention, will find vigorous narrative and pellucid exposition
interwoven in such a way as to keep them in intimate and constantly
closer touch with the "biography of Browning's mind."

D.M.



Preface

An attempt is made in this volume to tell the story of Browning's life,
including, as part of it, a notice of his books, which may be regarded
as the chief of "his acts and all that he did." I have tried to keep my
reader in constant contact with Browning's mind and art, and thus a
sense of the growth and development of his genius ought to form itself
before the close.

The materials accessible for a biography, apart from Browning's
published writings, are not copious. He destroyed many letters; many, no
doubt, are in private hands. For some parts of his life I have been able
to add little to what Mrs Orr tells. But since her biography of Browning
was published a good deal of interesting matter has appeared. The
publication of "The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning" has enabled me to construct a short, close-knit narrative of
the incidents that led up to Browning's marriage. From that date until
the death of Mrs Browning her "Letters," edited by Mr Kenyon, has been
my chief source. My method has not been that of quotation, but the
substance of many letters is fused, as far as was possible, into a
brief, continuous story. Two privately issued volumes of Browning's
letters, edited by Mr T.J. Wise, and Mr Wise's "Browning Bibliography"
have been of service to me. Mr Gosse's "Robert Browning, Personalia,"
Mrs Ritchie's "Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning," the "Life of Tennyson" by
his son, Mr Henry James's volumes on W.W. Story, letters of Dante
Rossetti, the diary of Mr W.M. Rossetti, with other writings of his,
memoirs, reminiscences or autobiographies of Lady Martin, F.T. Palgrave,
Jowett, Sir James Paget, Gavan Duffy, Robert Buchanan, Rudolf Lehmann,
W.J. Stillman, T.A. Trollope, Miss F.P. Cobbe, Miss Swanwick, and others
have been consulted. And several interesting articles in periodicals, in
particular Mrs Arthur Bronson's articles "Browning in Venice" and
"Browning in Asolo," have contributed to my narrative. For some
information about Browning's father and mother, and his connection with
York Street Independent Chapel, I am indebted to Mr F. Herbert Stead,
Warden of "The Robert Browning Settlement," Walworth. I thank Messrs
Smith, Elder and Co., as representing Mr R. Barrett Browning, for
permission to make such quotations as I have ventured to make from
copyright letters. I thank the general Editor of this series, the Rev.
D. Macfadyen, for kind and valuable suggestions.

My study of Browning's poems is chronological. I recognise the
disadvantages of this method, but I also perceive certain advantages.
Many years ago in "Studies in Literature" I attempted a general view of
Browning's work, and wrote, as long ago as 1867, a careful study of
_Sordello_. What I now write may suffer as well as gain from a
familiarity of so many years with his writings. But to make them visible
objects to me I have tried to put his poems outside myself, and approach
them with a fresh mind. Whether I have failed or partly succeeded I am
unable to determine.

The analysis of _La Saisiaz_ appeared--substantially--in the little
Magazine of the Home Reading Union, and one or two other short passages
are recovered from uncollected articles of mine. I have incorporated in
my criticism a short passage from one of my wife's articles on Browning
in _The Dark Blue Magazine_, making such modifications as suited my
purpose, and she has contributed a passage to the pages which close this
volume.

I had the privilege of some personal acquaintance with Browning, and
have several cordial letters of his addressed to my wife and to myself.
These I have not thought it right to use.

E.D.



Contents


CHAPTER I

CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH

Ancestry--Parents--Boyhood--Influence of Shelley--Pauline


CHAPTER II

PARACELSUS AND SORDELLO

Visit to Russia--Paracelsus--His failures and attainments--Sordello, a
companion poem--Its obscurity--Imaginative qualities--The history of a
soul


CHAPTER III

THE MAKER OF PLAYS

New acquaintances--Hatcham--Macready--Strafford--Venice--Bells and
Promegranates--A Blot on the 'Scutcheon--Characters of
passion--Characters of intellect


CHAPTER IV

THE MAKER OF PLAYS--_(continued)_

Women of the dramas--Dramatic style--Pippa Passes--Dramatic Lyrics and
Romances--Poems of Love and of Art


CHAPTER V

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

First letters to Miss Barrett--Meeting--Progress in
friendship--Obstacles--Marriage


CHAPTER VI

EARLY YEARS IN ITALY

Correspondence of R.B. and E.B.B.--Journey to
Italy--Pisa--Florence--Vallombrosa--Italian politics--Casa
Guidi-Friends--Son born--Death of Browning's mother--Wanderings.

CHAPTER VII

CHRISTMAS EVE AND EASTER DAY

Publication--Movements of Religious
Thought--Dissent--Catholicism--Criticism--Difficulties of Christian
life--Imaginative power of the poems--In Venice--Paris--England--Paris
again--Coup d'état


CHAPTER VIII

FROM 1851 TO 1855

Essay on Shelley--New acquaintances--Milsand--George Sand--London--Casa
Guidi--Spiritualism--Mr Sludge the Medium--Baths of
Lucca--Rome--London--Tennyson's Maud


CHAPTER IX

MEN AND WOMEN

Rossetti's admiration--Beauty before teaching--The poet behind his
poems--Isolated poems--Groups--Poems of love--Poems of Art--Poems of
Religion


CHAPTER X

CLOSE OF MRS BROWNING'S LIFE

Paris--Kenyon's death--Legacies--Death of Mr Barrett--Winter in
Florence--Havre--Rome--Louis Napoleon--Landor--Siena--Poems before
Congress--Rome again--Modelling in Clay--Casa Guidi--Death of Mrs
Browning


CHAPTER XI

LONDON: DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Desolation--Return to London--Pornic--Social life--Dramatis
Personae--Poems of music--Poems of hope and aspiration--A Death in the
Desert--Epilogue--Caliban upon Setebos--Poems of Love


CHAPTER XII

THE RING AND THE BOOK

Holiday excursions--Sainte Marie--Miss Barrett dies--Balliol College and
Jowett--Origin of the Ring and the Book--Its Plan--The Persons--Count
Guido--Pompilia--Caponsacchi--The Pope--Falsehood subserving truth


CHAPTER XIII

POEMS ON CLASSICAL SUBJECTS

Saint-Aubin--Milsand--Miss Thackeray--Hervé Riel--Miss
Egerton-Smith--Summer wanderings--Balaustion's Adventure--Aristophanes'
Apology--The Agamemnon


CHAPTER XIV

PROBLEM AND NARRATIVE POEMS

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau--Fifine at the Fair--Red Cotton Night-Cap
Country--The Inn Album--Pachiarotto and other Poems


CHAPTER XV

SOLITUDE AND SOCIETY

La Saisiaz--Immortality--Two Poets of Croisic--Browning in
society--Daily habits--Browning as a talker--Italy--Asolo--Mountain
retreats--Mrs Bronson--Venice


CHAPTER XVI

POET AND TEACHER IN OLD AGE

Popularity--Browning Society--Public honours--Dramatic Idyls--Spirit of
acquiescence--Jocoseria--Ferishtah's Fancies


CHAPTER XVII

CLOSING WORKS AND DAYS

Parleyings--Asolando--Mrs Bronson--At Asolo--Venice--Death--Place in
nineteenth-century poetry



List of Illustrations

ROBERT BROWNING, _from a portrait in oil, for which he sat to R.W.
Curtis at Venice, 1880, reproduced by kind permission of D.S. Curtis,
Esq. (photogravure)_

MAIN STREET OF ASOLO, SHOWING BROWNING'S HOUSE, _from a drawing by Miss
D. Noyes_

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, _from a drawing in chalk by Field Talfourd
in the National Portrait Gallery_

ROBERT BROWNING, _from an engraving by J.G. Armytage_

THE VIA BOCCA DI LEONE, ROME, IN WHICH THE BROWNINGS STAYED, _a
photograph_

PORTRAIT OF FILIPPO LIPPI, BY HIMSELF, _a detail from the fresco in the
Cathedral at Prato, from a photograph by Alinari_

ANDREA DEL SARTO, _from a print after the portrait by himself in the
Uffizi Gallery, Florence_

PIAZZA DI SAN LORENZO, FLORENCE, WHERE "THE BOOK" WAS FOUND BY BROWNING,
_from a photograph by Alinari_

THE PALAZZO GIUSTINIANI, VENICE, _from a drawing by Miss N. Erichsen_

SPECIMEN OF BROWNING'S HANDWRITING, _from a letter to D.S. Curtis, Esq._

ROBERT BROWNING, _from a photograph (photogravure)_

THE PALAZZO REZZONICO, VENICE, _from a drawing by Miss Katherine
Kimball_



Chapter I

Childhood and Youth


The ancestry of Robert Browning has been traced[1] to an earlier Robert
who lived in the service of Sir John Bankes of Corfe Castle, and died in
1746. His eldest son, Thomas, "was granted a lease for three lives of
the little inn, in the little hamlet of East Woodyates and parish of
Pentridge, nine miles south-west of Salisbury on the road to Exeter."
Robert, born in 1749, the son of this Thomas, and grandfather of the
poet, became a clerk in the Bank of England, and rose to be principal in
the Bank Stock Office. At the age of twenty-nine he married Margaret
Tittle, a lady born in the West Indies and possessed of West Indian
property. He is described by Mrs Orr as an able, energetic, and worldly
man. He lived until his grandson was twenty-one years old. His first
wife was the mother of another Robert, the poet's father, born in 1781.
When the boy had reached the age of seven he lost his mother, and five
years later his father married again. This younger Robert when a youth
desired to become an artist, but such a career was denied to him. He
longed for a University education, and, through the influence of his
stepmother, this also was refused. They shipped the young man to St
Kitts, purposing that he should oversee the West Indian estate. There,
as Browning on the authority of his mother told Miss Barrett, "he
conceived such a hatred to the slave-system ... that he relinquished
every prospect, supported himself while there in some other capacity,
and came back, while yet a boy, to his father's profound astonishment
and rage."[2] At the age of twenty-two he obtained a clerkship in the
Bank of England, an employment which, his son says, he always detested.
Eight years later he married Sarah Anna, daughter of William Wiedemann,
a Dundee shipowner, who was the son of a German merchant of Hamburg. The
young man's father, on hearing that his son was a suitor to Miss
Wiedemann, had waited benevolently on her uncle "to assure him that his
niece would be thrown away on a man so evidently born to be hanged."[3]
In 1811 the new-married pair settled in Camberwell, and there in a house
in Southampton Street Robert Browning--an only son--was born on May 7,
1812. Two years later (Jan. 7, 1814) his sister, Sarah Anna--an only
daughter--known in later years as Sarianna, a form adopted by her
father, was born. She survived her brother, dying in Venice on the
morning of April 22, 1903.[4]

Robert Browning's father and mother were persons who for their own sakes
deserve to be remembered. His father, while efficient in his work in the
Bank, was a wide and exact reader of literature, classical as well as
modern. We are told by Mrs Orr of his practice of soothing his little
boy to sleep "by humming to him an ode of Anacreon," and by Dr Moncure
Conway that he was versed in mediaeval legend, and seemed to have known
Paracelsus, Faustus, and even Talmudic personages with an intimate
familiarity. He wrote verses in excellent couplets of the eighteenth
century manner, and strung together fantastic rhymes as a mode of aiding
his boy in tasks which tried the memory. He was a dexterous draughtsman,
and of his amateur handiwork in portraiture and caricature--sometimes
produced, as it were, instinctively, with a result that was
unforeseen--much remains to prove his keen eye and his skill with the
pencil. Besides the curious books which he eagerly collected, he also
gathered together many prints--those of Hogarth especially, and in early
states. He had a singular interest, such as may also be seen in the
author of _The Ring and the Book_, in investigating and elucidating
complex criminal cases.[5] He was a lover of athletic sports and never
knew ill-health. For the accumulation of riches he had no talent and no
desire, but he had a simple wealth of affection which he bestowed
generously on his children and his friends. "My father," wrote Browning,
"is tender-hearted to a fault.... To all women and children he is
chivalrous." "He had," writes Mr W.J. Stillman, who knew Browning's
father in Paris in his elder years, "the perpetual juvenility of a
blessed child. If to live in the world as if not of it indicates a
saintly nature, then Robert Browning the elder was a saint; a serene,
untroubled soul, conscious of no moral or theological problem to disturb
his serenity, and as gentle as a gentle woman; a man in whom, it seemed
to me, no moral conflict could ever have arisen to cloud his frank
acceptance of life, as he found it come to him.... His unworldliness had
not a flaw."[6] To Dante Rossetti he appeared, as an old man, "lovable
beyond description," with that "submissive yet highly cheerful
simplicity of character which often ... appears in the family of a great
man, who uses at last what the others have kept for him." He is,
Rossetti continues, "a complete oddity--with a real genius for
drawing--but caring for nothing in the least except Dutch boors,--fancy,
the father of Browning!--and as innocent as a child." Browning himself
declared that he had not one artistic taste in common with his
father--"in pictures, he goes 'souls away' to Brauwer, Ostade, Teniers
... he would turn from the Sistine Altar-piece to these--in music he
desiderates a tune 'that has a story connected with it.'" Yet Browning
inherited much from his father, and was ready to acknowledge his gains.
In _Development_, one of the poems of his last volume, he recalls his
father's sportive way of teaching him at five years old, with the aid of
piled-up chairs and tables--the cat for Helen, and Towzer and Tray as
the Atreidai,--the story of the siege of Troy, and, later, his urging
the boy to read the tale "properly told" in the translation of Homer by
his favourite poet, Pope. He lived almost to the close of his
eighty-fifth year, and if he was at times bewildered by his son's
poetry, he came nearer to it in intelligent sympathy as he grew older,
and he had for long the satisfaction of enjoying his son's fame.

The attachment of Robert Browning to his mother--"the true type of a
Scottish gentlewoman," said Carlyle--was deep and intimate. For him she
was, in his own phrase, "a divine woman"; her death in 1849 was to
Browning almost an overwhelming blow. She was of a nature finely and
delicately strung. Her nervous temperament seems to have been
transmitted--robust as he was in many ways--to her son. The love of
music, which her Scottish-German father possessed in a high degree,
leaping over a generation, reappeared in Robert Browning. His capacity
for intimate friendships with animals--spider and toad and lizard--was
surely an inheritance from his mother. Mr Stillman received from
Browning's sister an account of her mother's unusual power over both
wild creatures and household pets. "She could lure the butterflies in
the garden to her," which reminds us of Browning's whistling for lizards
at Asolo. A fierce bull-dog intractable to all others, to her was docile
and obedient. In her domestic ways she was gentle yet energetic. Her
piety was deep and pure. Her husband had been in his earlier years a
member of the Anglican communion; she was brought up in the Scottish
kirk. Before her marriage she became a member of the Independent
congregation, meeting for worship at York Street, Lock's Fields,
Walworth, where now stands the Robert Browning Hall. Her husband
attached himself to the same congregation; both were teachers in the
Sunday School. Mrs Browning kept, until within a few years of her death,
a missionary box for contributions to the London Missionary Society.
The conditions of membership implied the acceptance of "those views of
doctrinal truth which for the sake of distinction are called
Calvinistic." Thus over the poet's childhood and youth a religious
influence presided; it was not sacerdotal, nor was it ascetic; the boy
was in those early days, as he himself declared, "passionately
religious." Their excellent pastor was an entirely "unimaginative
preacher of the Georgian era," who held fast by the approved method of
"three heads and a conclusion." Browning's indifference to the
ministrations of Mr Clayton was not concealed, and on one occasion he
received a rebuke in the presence of the congregation. Yet the spirit of
religion which surrounded and penetrated him was to remain with him,
under all its modifications, to the end. "His face," wrote the Rev.
Edward White, "is vividly present to my memory through the sixty years
that have intervened. It was the most wonderful face in the whole
congregation--pale, somewhat mysterious, and shaded with black, flowing
hair, but a face whose expression you remember through a life-time.
Scarcely less memorable were the countenances of his father, mother and
sister."[7]

Robert Browning, writes Mrs Orr, "was a handsome, vigorous, fearless
child, and soon developed an unresting activity and a fiery temper." His
energy of mind made him a swift learner. After the elementary lessons in
reading had been achieved, he was prepared for the neighbouring school
of the Rev. Thomas Ready by Mr Ready's sisters. Having entered this
school as a day-boarder, he remained under Mr Ready's care until the
year 1826. To facile companionship with his school-fellows Browning was
not prone, but he found among them one or two abiding friends. As for
the rest, though he was no winner of school prizes, he seems to have
acquired a certain intellectual mastery over his comrades; some of them
were formed into a dramatic _troupe_ for the performance of his boyish
plays. Perhaps the better part of his education was that of his hours at
home. He read widely in his father's excellent library. The favourite
books of his earliest years, Croxall's _Fables_ and Quarles's _Emblems_,
were succeeded by others which made a substantial contribution to his
mind. A list given by Mrs Orr includes Walpole's _Letters_, Junius,
Voltaire, and Mandeville's _Fable of the Bees_. The first book he ever
bought with his own money was Macpherson's _Ossian_, and the first
composition he committed to paper, written years before his purchase of
the volume, was an imitation of Ossian, "whom," says Browning, "I had
not read, but conceived, through two or three scraps in other books."
His early feeling for art was nourished by visits to the Dulwich
Gallery, to which he obtained an entrance when far under the age
permitted by the rules; there he would sit for an hour before some
chosen picture, and in later years he could recall the "wonderful
Rembrandt of Jacob's vision," the Giorgione music-lesson, the
"triumphant Murillo pictures," "such a Watteau," and "all the
Poussins."[8]

Among modern poets Byron at first with him held the chief place. Boyish
verses, written under the Byronic influence, were gathered into a group
when the writer was but twelve years old; a title--_Incondita_--was
found, and Browning's parents had serious intentions of publishing the
manuscript. Happily the manuscript, declined by publishers, was in the
end destroyed, and editors have been saved from the necessity of
printing or reprinting these crudities of a great poet's childhood.
Their only merit, he assured Mr Gosse, lay in "their mellifluous
smoothness." It was an event of capital importance in the history of
Browning's mind when--probably in his thirteenth year--he lighted, in
exploring a book-stall, upon a copy of one of the pirated editions of
Shelley's _Queen Mab_ and other poems. Through the zeal of his good
mother on the boy's behalf the authorised editions were at a later time
obtained; and she added to her gift the works, as far as they were then
in print, of Keats.[9] If ever there was a period of _Sturm und Drang_
in Browning's life, it was during the years in which he caught from
Shelley the spirit of the higher revolt. A new faith and unfaith came to
him, radiant with colour, luminous with the brightness of dawn, and
uttered with a new, keen, penetrating melody. The outward conduct of his
life was obedient in all essentials to the good laws of use and wont. He
pursued his various studies--literature, languages, music--with energy.
He was diligent--during a brief attendance--in Professor Long's Greek
class at University College--"a bright, handsome youth," as a
classfellow has described him, "with long black hair falling over his
shoulders." He sang, he danced, he rode, he boxed, he fenced. But below
all these activities a restless inward current ran. For a time he
became, as Mrs Orr has put it, "a professing atheist and a practising
vegetarian;" and together with the growing-pains of intellectual
independence there was present a certain aggressive egoism. He loved his
home, yet he chafed against some of its social limitations. Of
friendships outside his home we read of that with Alfred Domett, the
'Waring' of his poems, afterwards the poet and the statesman of New
Zealand; with Joseph Arnould, afterwards the Indian judge; and with his
cousin James Silverthorne, the 'Charles' of Browning's pathetic poem
_May and Death_. We hear also of a tender boyish sentiment, settling
into friendship, for Miss Eliza Flower, his senior by nine years, for
whose musical compositions he had an ardent admiration: "I put it apart
from all other English music I know," he wrote as late as 1845, "and
fully believe in it as _the_ music we all waited for." With her sister
Sarah, two years younger than Eliza, best known by her married name
Sarah Flower Adams and remembered by her hymn, written in 1840, "Nearer
my God to Thee," he discussed as a boy his religious difficulties, and
in proposing his own doubts drew forth her latent scepticism as to the
orthodox beliefs. "It was in answering Robert Browning;" she wrote,
"that my mind refused to bring forward argument, turned recreant, and
sided with the enemy." Something of this period of Browning's _Sturm und
Drang_ can be divined through the ideas and imagery of _Pauline._[10]

The finer influence of Shelley upon the genius of Browning in his youth
proceeded from something quite other than those doctrinaire
abstractions--the formulas of revolution--which Shelley had caught up
from Godwin and certain French thinkers of the eighteenth century.
Browning's spirit from first to last was one which was constantly
reaching upward through the attainments of earth to something that lay
beyond them. A climbing spirit, such as his, seemed to perceive in
Shelley a spirit that not only climbed but soared. He could in those
early days have addressed to Shelley words written later, and suggested,
one cannot but believe, by his feeling for his wife:

    You must be just before, in fine,
    See and make me see, for your part,
    New depths of the Divine!

Shelley opened up for his young and enthusiastic follower new vistas
leading towards the infinite, towards the unattainable Best. Browning's
only piece of prose criticism--apart from scattered comments in his
letters--is the essay introductory to that volume of letters erroneously
ascribed to Shelley, which was published when Browning was but little
under forty years old. It expresses his mature feelings and convictions;
and these doubtless contain within them as their germ the experience of
his youth.[11] Shelley appears to him as a poet gifted with a fuller
perception of nature and man than that of the average mind, and striving
to embody the thing he perceives "not so much with reference to the many
below, as to the One above him, the supreme Intelligence which
apprehends all things in their absolute truth--an ultimate view ever
aspired to, if but partially attained, by the poet's own soul." If
Shelley was deficient in some subordinate powers which support and
reinforce the purely poetic gifts, he possessed the highest faculty and
in this he lived and had his being. "His spirit invariably saw and spoke
from the last height to which it had attained." What was "his noblest
and predominating characteristic" as a poet? Browning attempts to give
it definition: it was "his simultaneous perception of Power and Love in
the absolute, and of Beauty and Good in the concrete, while he throws,
from his poet's station between both, swifter, subtler, and more
numerous films for the connexion of each with each, than have been
thrown by any modern artificer of whom I have knowledge." In other words
it was Shelley's special function to fling an aerial bridge from
reality, as we commonly understand that word, to the higher reality
which we name the ideal; to set up an aerial ladder--not less solid
because it is aerial--upon the earth, whose top reached to heaven. Such
was Browning's conception of Shelley, and it pays little regard either
to atheistic theory or vegetarian practice.

A time came when Robert Browning must make choice of a future career.
His interests in life were manifold, but in some form or another art
was the predominant interest. His father remembered his own early
inclinations, and how they had been thwarted; he recognised the rare
gifts of his son, and he resolved that he should not be immured in the
office of a bank. Should he plead at the bar? Should he paint? Should he
be a maker of music, as he at one time desired, and for music he always
possessed an exceptional talent? When his father spoke to him, Robert
Browning knew that his sister was not dependent on any effort of his to
provide the means of living. "He appealed," writes Mr Gosse, "to his
father, whether it would not be better for him to see life in the best
sense, and cultivate the powers of his mind, than to shackle himself in
the very outset of his career by a laborious training, foreign to that
aim. ... So great was the confidence of the father in the genius of his
son that the former at once acquiesced in the proposal." It was decided
that he should take to what an old woman of the lake district, speaking
of "Mr Wudsworth," described as "the poetry business." The believing
father was even prepared to invest some capital in the concern. At his
expense _Paracelsus, Sordello_, and _Bells and Pomegranates_ were
published.

A poet may make his entrance into literature with small or large
inventions, by carving cherry-stones or carving a colossus. Browning,
the creator of men and women, the fashioner of minds, would be a
sculptor of figures more than life-size rather than an exquisite
jeweller; the attempt at a Perseus of this Cellini was to precede his
brooches and buttons. He planned, Mr Gosse tells us, "a series of
monodramatic epics, narratives of the life of typical souls." In a
modification of this vast scheme _Paracelsus_, which includes more
speakers than one, and _Sordello_, which is not dramatic in form, find
their places. They were preceded by _Pauline_, in the strictest sense a
monodrama, a poem not less large in conception than either of the
others, though this "fragment of a confession" is wrought out on a more
contracted scale.

_Pauline_, published without the writer's name--his aunt Silverthorne
bearing the cost of publication--was issued from the press in January
1833.[12] Browning had not yet completed his twenty-first year. When
including it among his poetical works in 1867, he declared that he did
so with extreme repugnance and solely with a view to anticipate
unauthorised republication of what was no more than a "crude preliminary
sketch," entirely lacking in good draughtsmanship and right handling.
For the edition of twenty years later, 1888, he revised and corrected
_Pauline_ without re-handling it to any considerable extent. In truth
_Pauline_ is a poem from which Browning ought not to have desired to
detach his mature self. Rarely does a poem by a writer so young deserve
better to be read for its own sake. It is an interesting document in the
history of its author's mind. It gives promises and pledges which were
redeemed in full. It shows what dropped away from the poet and what,
being an essential part of his equipment, was retained. It exhibits his
artistic method in the process of formation. It sets forth certain
leading thoughts which are dominant in his later work. The first
considerable production of a great writer must always claim attention
from the student of his mind and art.

The poem is a study in what Browning in his _Fifine_ terms "mental
analysis"; it attempts to shadow forth, through the fluctuating moods of
the dying man, a series of spiritual states. The psychology is sometimes
crude; subtle, but clumsily subtle; it is, however, essentially the
writer's own. To construe clearly the states of mind which are
adumbrated rather than depicted is difficult, for Browning had not yet
learnt to manifest his generalised conceptions through concrete details,
to plunge his abstractions in reality. The speaker in the poem tells us
that he "rudely shaped his life to his immediate wants"; this is
intelligible, yet only vaguely intelligible, for we do not know what
were these wants, and we do not see any rude shaping of his life. We are
told of "deeds for which remorse were vain"; what were these deeds? did
he, like Bunyan, play cat on Sunday, or join the ringers of the church
bells? "Instance, instance," we cry impatiently. And so the story
remains half a shadow. The poem is dramatic, yet, like so much of
Browning's work, it is not pure drama coming from profound sympathy with
a spirit other than the writer's own; it is only hybrid drama, in which
the _dramatis persona_ thinks and moves and acts under the necessity of
expounding certain ideas of the poet. Browning's puppets are indeed too
often in his earlier poems moved by intellectual wires; the hands are
the hands of Luria or Djabal, but the voice is the showman's voice. A
certain intemperance in the pursuit of poetic beauty, strange and lovely
imagery which obscures rather than interprets, may be regarded as in
_Pauline_ the fault or the glory of youth; a young heir arrived at his
inheritance will scatter gold pieces. The verse has caught something of
its affluent flow, its wavelike career, wave advancing upon wave, from
Shelley:

    'Tis he, I ken the manner of his gait;
    He rises on the toe; that spirit of his
    In aspiration lifts him from the earth.

The aspiration in Browning's later verse is a complex of many forces;
here it is a simple poetic enthusiasm.

By virtue of its central theme _Pauline_ is closely related to the poems
which at no great distance followed--_Paracelsus_ and _Sordello_. Each
is a study of the flaws which bring genius to all but ruin, a study of
the erroneous conduct of life by men of extraordinary powers. In each
poem the chief personage aspires and fails, yet rises--for Browning was
not of the temper to accept ultimate failures, and postulated a heaven
to warrant his optimistic creed--rises at the close from failure to a
spiritual recovery, which may be regarded as attainment, but an
attainment, as far as earth and its uses are concerned, marred and
piteous; he recovers in the end his true direction, but recovers it only
for service in worlds other than ours which he may hereafter traverse.
He has been seduced or conquered by alien forces and through some inward
flaw; he has been faithless to his highest faculties; he has not
fulfilled his seeming destiny; yet before death and the darkness of
death arrive, light has come; he perceives the wanderings of the way,
and in one supreme hour or in one shining moment he gives indefeasible
pledges of the loyalty which he has forfeited. Shelley in _Alastor_, the
influence of which on Browning in writing _Pauline_ is evident, had
rebuked the idealist within himself, who would live in lofty
abstractions to the loss of human sympathy and human love. Browning in
_Pauline_ also recognises this danger, but he indicates others--the risk
of the lower faculties of the mind encroaching upon and even displacing
the higher, the risk of the spirit of aggrandisement, even in the world
of the imagination, obtaining the mastery over the spirit of surrender
to that which is higher than self. It is quite right and needful to
speak of the "lesson" of Browning's poem, and the lesson of _Pauline_ is
designed to inculcate first loyalty to a man's highest power, and
secondly a worshipping loyalty and service to that which transcends
himself, named by the speaker in _Pauline_ by the old and simple name of
God.

Was it the problem of his own life--that concerning the conduct of high,
intellectual and spiritual powers--which Browning transferred to his
art, creating personages other than himself to be exponents of his
theme? We cannot tell; but the problem in varied forms persists from
poem to poem. The poet imagined as twenty years of age, who makes his
fragment of a confession in _Pauline_, is more than a poet; he is rather
of the Sordello type than of the type represented in Eglamor and
Aprile.[13] Through his imagination he would comprehend and possess all
forms of life, of beauty, of joy in nature and in humanity; but he must
also feel himself at the centre of these, the lord and master of his own
perceptions and creations; and yet, at the same time, this man is made
for the worship and service of a power higher than self. How is such a
nature as this to attain its true ends? What are its special dangers? If
he content himself with the exercise of the subordinate faculties,
intellectual dexterity, wit, social charm and mastery, he is lost; if he
should place himself at the summit, and cease to worship and to love, he
is lost. He cannot alter his own nature; he cannot ever renounce his
intense consciousness of self, nor even the claim of self to a certain
supremacy as the centre of its own sympathies and imaginings. So much is
inevitable, and is right. But if he be true to his calling as poet, he
will task his noblest faculty, will live in it, and none the less look
upward, in love, in humility, in the spirit of loyal service, in the
spirit of glad aspiration, to that Power which leans above him and has
set him his earthly task.

Such reduced to a colourless and abstract statement is the theme dealt
with in _Pauline_. The young poet, who, through a fading autumn evening,
lies upon his death-bed, has been faithless to his high calling, and yet
never wholly faithless. As the pallid light declines, he studies his own
soul, he reviews his past, he traces his wanderings from the way, and
all has become clear. He has failed for the uses of earth; but he
recognises in himself capacities and desires for which no adequate scope
could ever have been found in this life; and restored to the spirit of
love, of trust, by such love, such trust as he can give Pauline, he
cannot deny the witnessing audible within his own heart to a future life
which may redeem the balance of his temporal loss. The thought which
plays so large a part in Browning's later poetry is already present and
potent here.

Two incidents in the history of a soul--studied by the speaker under the
wavering lights of his hectic malady and fluctuating moods of
passion--are dealt with in a singularly interesting and original way. He
describes, with strange and beautiful imagery, the cynical, bitter
pleasure--few of us do not know it--which the intellectual faculties
sometimes derive from mocking and drawing down to their own level the
spiritual powers, the intuitive powers, which are higher than they,
higher, yet less capable of justification or verification by the common
tests of sense and understanding. The witchcraft of the brain degrades
the god in us:

    And then I was a young witch whose blue eyes,
    As she stood naked by the river springs,
    Drew down a god: I watched his radiant form
    Growing less radiant, and it gladdened me.

What he presents with such intensity of imaginative power Browning must
have known--even if it were but for moments--by experience. And again,
there is impressive truth and originality in the description of the
state of the poet's mind which succeeded the wreck of his early faith
and early hopes inspired by the voice of Shelley--the revolutionary
faith in liberty, equality and human perfectibility. Wordsworth in _The
Prelude_--unpublished when Browning wrote _Pauline_--which is also the
history of a poet's mind, has described his own experience of the loss
of all these shining hopes and lofty abstractions, and the temper of
mind which he describes is one of moral chaos and spiritual despair. The
poet of _Pauline_ turns from political and social abstractions to real
life, and the touch of reality awakens him as if from a splendid dream;
but his mood is not so sane as that of despair. He falls back, with a
certain joy, upon the exercise of his inferior powers; he wakes suddenly
and "without heart-wreck ":

    First went my hopes of perfecting mankind,
    Next--faith in them, and then in freedom's self
    And virtue's self, then my own motives, ends,
    And aims and loves, and human love went last.
    I felt this no decay, because new powers
    Rose as old feelings left--wit, mockery,
    Light-heartedness; for I had oft been sad,
    Mistrusting my resolves, but now I cast
    Hope joyously away; I laughed and said
    "No more of this!"

It is difficult to believe that Browning is wholly dramatic here; we
seem to discover something of that period of _Sturm und Drang_, when his
mood grew restless and aggressive. The homage paid to Shelley, whose
higher influence Browning already perceived to be in large measure
independent of his creed of revolution, has in it certainly something of
the spirit of autobiography. In this enthusiastic admiration for Shelley
there is nothing to regret, except the unhappy extravagance of the name
"Suntreader," which he invented as a title for the poet of _Alastor_ and
_Prometheus Unbound._

The attention of Mr W.J. Fox, a Unitarian minister of note, had been
directed to Browning's early unpublished verse by Miss Flower. In the
_Monthly Repository_ (April 1833) which he then edited, Mr Fox wrote of
_Pauline_ with admiration, and Browning was duly grateful for this
earliest public recognition of his genius as a poet. In the _Athenaeum_
Allen Cunningham made an effort to be appreciative and sympathetic. John
Stuart Mill desired to be the reviewer of _Pauline_ in _Taifs Magazine_;
there, however, the poem had been already dismissed with one
contemptuous phrase. It found few readers, but the admiration of one of
these, who discovered _Pauline_ many years later, was a sufficient
compensation for the general indifference or neglect. "When Mr Browning
was living in Florence, he received a letter from a young painter whose
name was quite unknown to him, asking him whether he were the author of
a poem called _Pauline_, which was somewhat in his manner, and which the
writer had so greatly admired that he had transcribed the whole of it in
the British Museum reading-room. The letter was signed D.G. Rossetti,
and thus began Mr Browning's acquaintance with this eminent man."[14]

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 1: By Dr Furnivall; see _The Academy_, April 12, 1902.]

[Footnote 2: "Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.," ii. 477.]

[Footnote 3: Letter of R.B. to E.B.B.]

[Footnote 4: Dr Moncure Conway states that Browning told him that the
original name of the family was De Buri. According to Mrs Orr, Browning
"neither claimed nor disclaimed the more remote genealogical past which
had presented itself as a certainty to some older members of his
family."]

[Footnote 5: Quoted by Mr Sharp in his "Life of Browning," p. 21, _n_.,
from Mrs Fraser Cockran.]

[Footnote 6: "Autobiography of a Journalist," i. 277.]

[Footnote 7: For my quotations and much of the above information I am
indebted to Mr F. Herbert Stead, Warden of the Robert Browning
Settlement, Walworth. In Robert Browning Hall are preserved the
baptismal registers of Robert (June 14th, 1812), and Sarah Anna
Browning, with other documents from which I have quoted.]

[Footnote 8: _Letters of R.B. and E.B.B_., i. 528, 529; and (for
Ossian), ii. 469.]

[Footnote 9: Browning in a letter to Mr Wise says that this happened
"some time before 1830 (or even earlier). The books," he says, "were
obtained in the _regular way_, from Hunt and Clarke." Mr Gosse in
_Personalia_ gives a different account, pp. 23, 24.]

[Footnote 10: The quotations from letters above are taken from J.C.
Hadden's article "Some Friends of Browning" in _Macmillan's Magazine_,
Jan. 1898.]

[Footnote 11: Later in life Browning came to think unfavourably of
Shelley as a man and to esteem him less highly as a poet. He wrote in
December 1885 to Dr Furnivall: "For myself I painfully contrast my
notions of Shelley the _man_ and Shelley, well, even the _poet_, with
what they were sixty years ago." He declined Dr Furnivall's invitation
to him to accept the presidency of "The Shelley Society."]

[Footnote 12: Even the publishers--Saunders and Otley--did not know the
author's name.--"Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.," i. 403.]

[Footnote 13: "V.A. xx," following the quotation from Cornelius Agrippa
means "Vixi annos xx," _i.e._ "the imaginary subject of the poem was of
that age."--Browning to Mr T.J. Wise.]

[Footnote 14: Edmund Gosse: "Robert Browning Personalia," pp. 31, 32. Mr
W. M. Rossetti in "D.G. Rossetti, his Family Letters," i. 115, gives the
summer of 1850 as the date of his brother's letter; and says, no doubt
correctly, that Browning was in Venice at the time. Mr Sharp prints a
letter of Browning's on his early acquaintance with Rossetti, and on the
incident recorded above. I may here note that "Richmond," appended, with
a date, to _Pauline_, was a fancy or a blind; Browning never resided at
Richmond.]



Chapter II

Paracelsus and Sordello


There is little of incident in Browning's life to be recorded for the
period between the publication of _Pauline_ and the publication of
_Paracelsus_. During the winter of 1833-1834 he spent three months in
Russia, "nominally," says Mrs Orr, "in the character of secretary" to
the Russian consul-general, Mr Benckhausen. Memories of the endless
pine-forests through which he was driven on the way to St Petersburg may
have contributed long afterwards to descriptive passages of _Ivan
Ivanovitch._

In 1842 or 1843 he wrote a drama in five acts to which was given the
name "Only a Player-girl"; the manuscript lay for long in his portfolio
and never saw the light. "It was Russian," he tells Miss Barrett, "and
about a fair on the Neva, and booths and droshkies and fish-pies and so
forth, with the Palaces in the background."[15] Late in life, at Venice,
Browning became acquainted with an old Russian, Prince Gagarin, with
whom he competed successfully for an hour in recalling folk-songs and
national airs of Russia caught up during the visit of 1833-34. "His
memory," said Gagarin, "is better than my own, on which I have hitherto
piqued myself not a little."[16] Perhaps it was his wanderings abroad
that made Browning at this time desire further wanderings. He thought of
a diplomatic career, and felt some regret when he failed to obtain an
appointment for which he had applied in connection with a mission to
Persia.

In the winter of 1834 Browning was at work on _Paracelsus_, which, after
disappointments with other houses, was accepted, on terms that secured
the publisher from risk, by Effingham Wilson, and appeared before
midsummer of the following year. The subject had been suggested by Count
Amédée de Ripert-Monclar, a young French royalist, engaged in secret
service on behalf of the dethroned Bourbons. To him the poem is
dedicated. For a befitting treatment of the story of Paracelsus special
studies were necessary, and Browning entered into these with zeal,
taking in his poem--as he himself believed--only trifling liberties with
the matter of history. In solitary midnight walks he meditated his theme
and its development. "There was, in particular," Mr Sharp tells us, "a
wood near Dulwich, whither he was wont to go." Mr Sharp adds that at
this time Browning composed much in the open air, and that "the glow of
distant London" at night, with the thought of its multitudinous human
life, was an inspiring influence. The sea which spoke to Browning with
most expressive utterances was always the sea of humanity.

In its combination of thought with passion, and not less in its
expression of a certain premature worldly wisdom, _Paracelsus_ is an
extraordinary output of mind made by a writer who, when his work was
accomplished, had not completed his twenty-third year. The poem is the
history of a great spirit, who has sought lofty and unattainable ends,
who has fallen upon the way and is bruised and broken, but who rises at
the close above his ruined self, and wrings out of defeat a pledge of
ultimate victory. In a preface to the first edition, a preface
afterwards omitted, Browning claims originality, or at least novelty,
for his artistic method; "instead of having recourse to an external
machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis I desire to
produce, 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." The
poem, though dramatic, is not a drama, and canons which are applicable
to a piece intended for stage-representation would here--Browning
pleads--be rather a hindrance than a help. Perhaps Browning regarded the
action which can be exhibited on the stage as something external to the
soul, and imagined that the naked spirit can be viewed more intimately
than the spirit clothed in deed and in circumstance. If this was so, his
conceptions were somewhat crude; with the true dramatic poet action is
the hieroglyph of the soul, and many a secret may be revealed in this
language, amassing as it does large meanings into one luminous symbol,
which cannot be set forth in an elaborate intellectual analysis. We
think to probe the depths, and perhaps never get far below the surface.
But the flash and outbreak of a fiery spirit, amid a tangle of
circumstance, springs to the surface from the very centre, and reveals
its inmost energies.

Paracelsus, as presented in the poem, is a man of pre-eminent genius,
passionate intellect, and inordinate intellectual ambition. If it is
meant that he should be the type of the modern man of science, Browning
has missed his mark, for Paracelsus is in fact almost as much the poet
as the man of science; but it is true that the cautious habits of the
inductive student of nature were rare among the enthusiastic speculators
of Renaissance days, and the Italian successor of Paracelsus--Giordano
Bruno--was in reality, in large measure, what Browning has here
conceived and exhibited. Paracelsus is a great revolutionary spirit in
an epoch of intellectual revolution; it is as much his task to destroy
as to build up; he has broken with the past, and gazes with wild-eyed
hopes into the future, expecting the era of intellectual liberty to dawn
suddenly with the year One, and seeing in himself the protagonist of
revolution. Such men as Paracelsus, whether their sphere be in the
political, the religious, or the intellectual world, are men of faith; a
task has been laid on each of them; a summons, a divine mandate, has
been heard. But is the summons authentic? is the mandate indeed divine?
In the quiet garden at Würzburg, while the autumn sun sinks behind St
Saviour's spire, Festus--the faithful Horatio to this Hamlet of
science--puts his questions and raises his doubts first as to the end
and aim of Paracelsus, his aspiration towards absolute knowledge, and
secondly, as to the means proposed for its attainment--means which
reject the service of all predecessors in the paths of knowledge; which
depart so widely from the methods of his contemporaries; which seek for
truth through strange and casual revelations; which leave so much to
chance. Very nobly has Browning represented the overmastering force of
that faith which genius has in itself, and which indeed is needed to
sustain it in the struggle with an incredulous or indifferent world. The
end itself is justified by the mandate of God; and as for the means,
truth is not to be found only or chiefly by gathering up stray fragments
from without; truth lies buried within the soul, as jewels in the mine,
and the chances and changes and shocks of life are required to open a
passage for the shining forth of this inner light. Festus is overpowered
less by reason than by the passion of faith in his younger and greater
fellow-student; and the gentle Michal is won from her prophetic fears
half by her affectionate loyalty to the man, half by the glow and
inspiration of one who seems to be a surer prophet than her mistrusting
self. And in truth the summons to Paracelsus is authentic; he is to be a
torch-bearer in the race. His errors are his own, errors of the egoism
of genius in an age of intellectual revolution; he casts away the past,
and that is not wise, that is not legitimate; he anticipates for himself
the full attainment of knowledge, which belongs not to him but to
humanity during revolving centuries; and although he sets before himself
the service of man as the outcome of all his labours--and this is
well--at the same time he detaches himself from his fellow-men, regards
them from a regal height, would decline even their tribute of gratitude,
and would be the lofty benefactor rather than the loving helpmate of
his brethren. Is it meant then that Paracelsus ought to have contented
himself with being like his teacher Trithemius and the common masters of
the schools? No, for these rested with an easy self-satisfaction in
their poor attainments, and he is called upon to press forward, and
advance from strength to strength, through attainment or through failure
to renewed and unending endeavour. His dissatisfaction, his failure is a
better thing than their success and content in that success. But why
should he hope in his own person to forestall the slow advance of
humanity, and why should the service of the brain be alienated from the
service of the heart?

There are many ways in which Browning could have brought Paracelsus to a
discovery of his error. He might have learnt from his own experience the
aridity of a life which is barren of love. Some moment of supreme pity
might have come to him, in which he, the possessor of knowledge, might
have longed to offer consolation to some suffering fellow, and have
found the helplessness of knowledge to console. Browning's imagination
as a romantic poet craved a romantic incident and a romantic
_mise-en-scène_. In the house of the Greek conjuror at Constantinople,
Paracelsus, now worn by his nine years' wanderings, with all their
stress and strain, his hair already streaked with grey, his spirit
somewhat embittered by the small success attending a vast effort, his
moral nature already somewhat deteriorated and touched with the cynicism
of experience and partial failure, shall encounter the strange figure of
Aprile, the living wraith of a poet who has also failed, who "would love
infinitely and be loved," and who in gazing upon the end has neglected
all the means of attainment; and from him, or rather by a reflex ray
from this Aprile, his own error shall be flashed on the consciousness of
the foiled seeker for knowledge. The invention of Browning is certainly
not lacking in the quality of strangeness in beauty; yet some readers
will perhaps share the feeling that it strains, without convincing, the
imagination. As we read the first speeches addressed by the moon-struck
poet to the wandering student of science, and read the moon-struck
replies, notwithstanding the singular beauty of certain dramatic and
lyrical passages, we are inclined to ask--Is this, indeed, a conjuror's
house at Constantinople, or one of Browning's "mad-house cells?" and
from what delusions are the harmless, and the apparently dangerous,
lunatic suffering? The lover here is typified in the artist; but the
artist may be as haughtily isolated from true human love as the man of
science, and the fellowship with his kind which Paracelsus needs can be
poorly learnt from such a distracted creature as Aprile. It is indeed
Aprile's example and the fate which has overtaken him rather than his
wild words which startle Paracelsus into a recognition of his own error.
But the knowledge that he has left love out of his scheme of life is no
guarantee that he will ever acquire the fervour and the infinite
patience of love. The whole scene, with its extravagant poetic beauties
and high-pitched rhetoric, leaves a painful impression of unreality, not
in the shallower but in the deepest sense of that word.

For a poet to depict a poet in poetry is a hazardous experiment; in
regarding one's own trade a sense of humour and a little wholesome
cynicism are not amiss. These could find no place in Browning's
presentation of Aprile, but it is certain that Browning himself was a
much more complex person than the dying lover of love who became the
instructor of Paracelsus. When the scene shifts from Constantinople to
Basil, and the illustrious Professor holds converse with Festus by the
blazing logs deep into the night, and at length morning arises "clouded,
wintry, desolate and cold," we listen with unflagging attention and
entire imaginative conviction; and, when silence ensues, a wonder comes
upon us as to where a young man of three-and-twenty acquired this
knowledge of the various bitter tastes of life which belong to maturer
experience, and how he had mastered such precocious worldly wisdom.
Paracelsus,

    The wondrous Paracelsus, life's dispenser,
    Fate's commissary, idol of the schools
    And courts,

chews upon his worldly success and extracts its acrid juices. This is
not the romantic melancholy of youth, which dreams of infinite things,
but the pain of manhood, which feels the limitations of life, which can
laugh at the mockery of attainment, which is sensible of the shame that
dwells at the heart of glory, yet which already has begun to hanker
after the mean delights of the world, and cannot dispense with the sorry
pleasures of self-degradation. The kind, calm Pastor of Einsiedeln sees
at first only the splendour that hangs around the name of his early
comrade, the hero of his hopes. And Paracelsus for a while would forbear
with tender ruth to shatter his friend's illusion, would veil, if that
were possible, the canker which has eaten into his own heart. But in the
tumult of old glad memories and present griefs, it ceases to be
possible; from amid the crew of foolish praisers he must find one friend
having the fidelity of genuine insight; he must confess his failure, and
once for all correct the prophecy of Michal that success would come and
with it wretchedness--

    I have not been successful, and yet am
    Most miserable; 'tis said at last.

A certain manly protectiveness towards Festus and Michal, with their
happy Aennchen and Aureole in the quiet home at Einsiedeln, remains to
Paracelsus; there is in it now more than a touch of "the devotion to
something afar from the sphere of our sorrow."

When, driven from Basil as a quack amid the hootings of the crowd,
Paracelsus once again "aspires"; but it is from a lower level, with
energy less certain, and with a more turbid passion. Upon such soiled
and draggled wings can he ever soar again? His strength is the strength
of fever; his gaiety is wild and bitter; he urges his brain with
artificial stimulants. And he, whose need was love, has learnt hatred
and scorn. In his earlier quest for truth he had parted with youth and
joy; he had grown grey-haired and lean-handed before the time. Now, in
his new scheme of life, he will not sever truth from enjoyment; he will
snatch at the meanest delights; before death comes, something at least
shall thus be gained. And yet he has almost lost the capacity for
pleasures apart from those of a wolfish hunger for knowledge; and he
despises his baser aims and his extravagant speeches. Could life only
be begun anew with temperate hopes and sane aspirings! But he has given
his pledges and will abide by them; he must submit to be hunted by the
gods to the end. Before he parts from Festus at the Alsatian inn, a
softer mood overtakes him. Blinded by his own passion, Paracelsus has
had no sense to divine the sorrow of his friend, and Festus has had no
heart to obtrude such a sorrow as this. Only at the last moment, and in
all gentleness, it must be told--Michal is dead. In Browning's earliest
poem Pauline is no more than a name and a shadow. The creator of Ottima
and Colombe, of Balaustion and Pompilia had much to tell of womanhood.
Michal occupies, as is right, but a small space in the history of
Paracelsus, yet her presence in the poem and her silent withdrawal have
a poignant influence. We see her as maiden and hear of her as mother,
her face still wearing that quiet and peculiar light

    Like the dim circlet floating round a pearl.

And now, as the strong men of Shakespeare's play spoke of the dead
Portia in the tent, Paracelsus and Festus talk of the pastor of
Einsiedeln's gentle wife. Festus speaks in assured hope, Paracelsus in
daring surmise, of a life beyond the grave, and finally with a bitter
return upon himself from his sense of her tranquillity in death:

    And Michal sleeps among the roots and dews,
    While I am moved at Basil, and full of schemes
    For Nuremberg, and hoping and despairing,
    As though it mattered how the farce plays out,
    So it be quickly played!

It is the last cry of his distempered egoism before the closing scene.

In the dim and narrow cell of the Hospital of St Sebastian, where he
lies dying, Paracelsus at last "attains"--attains something higher than
a Professor's chair at Basil, attains a rapture, not to be expressed, in
the joy which draws him onward, and a lucid comprehension of the past
that lies behind. All night the faithful Festus has watched beside the
bed; the mind of the dying man is working as the sea works after a
tempest, and strange wrecks of memory float past in troubled visions. In
the dawning light the clouds roll away, a great calm comes upon his
spirit, and he recognises his friend. It is laid upon him, before he
departs, to declare the meaning of his life. This life of his had been
no farce or failure; in his degree he has served mankind, and what _is_
the service of man but the true praise of God? He perceives now the
errors of the way; he had been dazzled by knowledge and the power
conferred by knowledge; he had not understood God's plan of gradual
evolution through the ages; he had laboured for his race in pride rather
than in love; he had been maddened by the intellectual infirmities, the
moral imperfections of men, whereas he ought to have recognised even in
these the capacities of a creature in progress to a higher development.
Now, at length, he can follow in thought the great circle of God's
creative energy, ever welling forth from Him in vast undulations, ever
tending to return to Him again, which return Godwards is already
foretold in the nature of man by august anticipations, by strange gleams
of splendour, by cares and fears not bounded by this our earth.

Were _Paracelsus_ a poem of late instead of early origin in Browning's
poetical career, we should probably have received no such open prophecy
as this. The scholar of the Renaissance, half-genius, half-charlatan,
would have casuistically defended or apologised for his errors, and
through the wreathing mists of sophistry would have shot forth ever and
anon some ray of truth.

We receive from _Paracelsus_ an impression of the affluence of youth.
There is no husbanding of resources, and perhaps too little reserve of
power. Where the poet most abandons himself to his ardour of thought and
imagination he achieves his highest work. The stress and tension of his
enthusiasm are perhaps too continuous, too seldom relieved by spaces of
repose. It is all too much of a Mazeppa ride; there are times when we
pray for a good quarter of an hour of comfortable dulness, or at least
of wholesome bovine placidity. The laws of such a poem are wholly
determined from within. The only question we have a right to ask is
this--Has the poet adequately dealt with his subject, adequately
expressed his idea? The division of the whole into five parts may seem
to have some correspondency with the five acts of a tragedy; but here
the stage is one of the mind, and the acts are free to contract or to
expand themselves as the gale of thought or passion rises or subsides.
If a spiritual anemometer were invented it would be found that the wind
which drives through the poem maintains often and for long an
astonishing pace. The strangely beautiful lyric passages interspersed
through the speeches are really of a slower movement than the dramatic
body of the poem; they are, by comparison, resting-places. The perfumed
closet of the song of Paracelsus in Part IV. is "vowed to quiet" (did
Browning ever compose another romanza as lulling as this?), and the
Maine glides so gently in the lyric of Festus (Part V.) that its
murmuring serves to bring back sanity to the distracted spirit of the
dying Aureole. There are youthful excesses in _Paracelsus_; some vague,
rhetorical grandeurs; some self-conscious sublimities which ought to
have been oblivious of self; some errors of over-emphasis; some
extravagances of imagery and of expression. The wonderful passage which
describes "spring-wind, as a dancing psaltress," passing over the earth,
is marred by the presence of "young volcanoes"

                                "cyclops-like
    Staring together with their eyes on flame,"

which young volcanoes were surely the offspring of the "young
earthquake" of Byron. But these are, as the French phrase has it,
defects of the poem's qualities. A few pieces of base metal are flung
abroad unawares together with the lavish gold.

A companion poem to _Paracelsus_--so described by Browning to Leigh
Hunt--was conceived by the poet soon after the appearance of the volume
of 1835. When _Strafford_ was published two years later, we learn from a
preface, afterwards omitted, that he had been engaged on _Sordello_.
Browning desired to complete his studies for this poem of Italy among
the scenes which it describes. The manuscript was with him in Italy
during his visit of 1838; but the work was not to be hastily completed.
_Sordello_ was published in 1840, five years after _Paracelsus_. In the
chronological order of Browning's poems, by virtue of the date of
origin, it lies close to the earlier companion piece; in the logical
order it is the completion of a group of poems--_Pauline, Paracelsus,
Sordello_--which treat of the perplexities, the trials, the failures,
the ultimate recovery of men endowed with extraordinary powers; it is
one more study of the conduct of genius amid the dangers and temptations
of life. Here we may rightly disregard the order of publication, and
postpone the record of external incidents in Browning's poetical
development, in order to place _Sordello_ in its true position, side by
side with _Paracelsus_.

How the subject of _Sordello_ was suggested to Browning we do not know;
the study of Dante may have led him to a re-creation of the story of
Dante's predecessor; after having occupied in imagination the old towns
of Germany and Switzerland--Würzburg and Basil, Colmar and Salzburg--he
may have longed for the warmth and colour of Italy; after the
Renaissance with its revolutionary speculations, he may have wished to
trace his way back to the Middle Age, when men lived and moved under the
shadow of one or the other of two dominant powers, apparently fixed in
everlasting rivalry--the Emperor and the Pope.

"The historical decoration," wrote Browning, in the dedicatory letter of
1863, to his friend Milsand, "was purposely of no more importance than a
background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the
development of a soul: little else is worth study." Undoubtedly the
history of a soul is central in the poem; but the drawings of Italian
landscape, so sure in outline, so vivid in colour; the views of old
Italian city life, rich in the tumult of townsfolk, military chieftains,
men-at-arms; the pictures of sombre interiors, and southern gardens,
the hillside castle amid its vines, the court of love with its
contending minstrels, the midnight camp lit by its fires; and, added to
these, the Titianesque portraits of portly magnifico and gold-haired
maiden, and thought-worn statist make up an environment which has no
inconsiderable poetic value of its own, feeding, as it does, the inner
eye with various forms and dyes, and leaving the "spirit in sense" more
wealthy. With a theme so remote from the common consciousness of his own
day, Browning conceived that there would be an advantage in being his
own commentator and interpreter, and hence he chose the narrative in
preference to the dramatic form; thus, he supposed he could act the
showman and stand aside at times, to expound his own intentions.
Unhappily, in endeavouring to strengthen and concentrate his style, he
lost that sense of the reader's distance from himself which an artist
can never without risk forget; in abbreviating his speech his utterance
thickened; he created new difficulties by a legerdemain in the
construction of sentences; he assumed in his public an alertness of
intelligence equal to his own. When it needs a leaping-pole to pass from
subject to verb across the chasm of a parenthesis, when a reader swings
himself dubiously from relative to some one of three possible
antecedents, when he springs at a meaning through the fissure of an
undeveloped exclamatory phrase, and when these efforts are demanded
again and again, some muscular fatigue naturally ensues. Yet it is true
that when once the right connections in these perplexing sentences have
been established, the sense is flashed upon the mind with singular
vividness; then the difficulty has ceased to exist. And thus, in two
successive stages of study, the same reader may justly censure
_Sordello_ for its obscurity of style, and justly applaud it for a
remarkable lucidity in swiftness. Intelligent, however, as Browning was,
it implied a curious lack of intelligence to suppose that a poem of many
thousand lines written I in shorthand would speedily find decipherers.
If we may trust the words of Westland Marston, recorded by Mr W.M.
Rossetti in _The Preraphaelite Brotherhood Journal_ (26 February 1850),
Browning imagined that his shorthand was Roman type of unusual
clearness: "Marston says that Browning, before publishing _Sordello_,
sent it to him to read, saying that this time I the public should not
accuse him at any rate of being unintelligible." What follows in the
_Journal_ is of interest, but can hardly be taken as true to the letter:
"Browning's system of composition is to write down on a slate, in prose,
what he wants to say, and then turn it into verse, striving after the
greatest amount of condensation possible; thus, if an exclamation will
suggest his meaning, he substitutes this for a whole sentence." In
climbing an antique tower we may obtain striking flashes of prospect
through the slits and eyelet-holes which dimly illuminate the winding
stair, but to combine these into an intelligible landscape is not always
easy. Browning's errors of style are in part attributable to his unhappy
application of a passage in a letter of Caroline Fox which a friend had
shown him. She stated that her acquaintance John Sterling had been
repelled by the "verbosity" of _Paracelsus_: "Doth Mr Browning know,"
she asked, "that Wordsworth will devote a fortnight or more to the
discovery of a single word that is the one fit for his sonnet?"[17]
Browning was determined to avoid "verbosity"; but the method which seems
to have occurred to him was that of omitting many needful though
seemingly insignificant words, and jamming together the words that gleam
and sparkle; with the result that the mind is at once dazzled and
fatigued.

Sordello, the Italian singer of the thirteenth century, is conceived by
Browning as of the type which he had already presented in the speaker of
_Pauline_, only that here the poet is not infirm in will, and, though
loved by Palma, he is hardly a lover. Like the speaker of _Pauline_ he
is preoccupied with an intense self-consciousness, the centre of his own
imaginative creations, and claiming supremacy over these. He craves some
means of impressing himself upon the world, some means of deploying the
power that lies coiled within him, not through any gross passion for
rule but in order that he may thus manifest himself to himself at the
full. He is as far as possible removed from that type of the worshipping
spirit exhibited in Aprile, and in the poet Eglamor, whom Sordello foils
and subdues in the contest of song. The fame as a singer which comes
suddenly to him draws Sordello out of his Goito solitude to the worldly
society of Mantua, and his experiences of disillusion and half voluntary
self-degradation are those which had been faintly shadowed forth in
_Pauline_, and exhibited more fully--and yet with a difference--in the
Basil experiences of Paracelsus. Like the poet of _Pauline_, after his
immersion in worldliness, Sordello again seeks solitude, and recovers a
portion of his higher self; but solitude cannot content one who is
unable to obtain the self-manifestation which his nature demands
without the aid of others who may furnish an external body for the
forces that lie suppressed within him. Suddenly and unexpectedly the
prospect of a political career opens before him. May it not be that he
will thus obtain what he needs, and find in the people the instrument of
his own thoughts, his passions, his aspirations, his imaginings, his
will? May not the people become the body in which his spirit, with all
its forces, shall incarnate itself? Coming into actual acquaintance with
the people for the first time, the sight of their multiform miseries,
their sorrows, even their baseness lays hold of Sordello; it seems as if
it were they who were about to make _him_ their instrument, the voice
through which their inarticulate griefs should find expression; he is
captured by those whom he thought to capture. By all his personal
connections he is of the Imperial party--a Ghibellin; but, studying the
position of affairs, he becomes convinced that the cause of the Pope is
one with the cause of the people. At this moment vast possibilities of
political power suddenly widen upon his view; Sordello, the minstrel, a
poor archer's son, is discovered to be in truth the only son of the
great Ghibellin chieftain, Salinguerra; he is loved by Palma, who, with
her youth and beauty, brings him eminent station, authority, and a
passion of devoted ambition on his behalf; his father flings upon
Sordello's neck the baldric which constitutes him the Emperor's
representative in Northern Italy. The heart and brain of Sordello become
the field of conflict between fierce, contending forces. All that is
egoistic in his nature cries out for a life of pride and power and joy.
At best it is but little that he could ever do to serve the suffering
multitude. And yet should he falter because he cannot gain for them the
results of time? Is it not his part to take the single step in their
service, though it can be no more than a step? In the excitement of this
supreme hour of inward strife Sordello dies; but he dies a victor; like
Paracelsus he also has "attained"; the Imperial baldric is found cast
below the dead singer's feet.

This, in brief, is the "history of a soul" which Browning has imagined
in his _Sordello_. And the conclusion of the whole matter can be briefly
stated: the primary need of such a nature as Sordello's--and we can
hardly doubt that Browning would have assigned himself a place in the
class to which the poet of his imagination belongs--is that of a Power
above himself, which shall deliver him from egoism, and whose loyal
service shall concentrate and direct his various faculties, and this a
Power not unknown or remote, but one brought near and made manifest; or,
in other words, it is the need of that which old religion has set forth
as God in Christ. Sordello in his final decision in favour of true
service to the people had, like Paracelsus, given his best praise to
God, had given his highest pledge of loyalty to whatever is Divine in
life. And therefore, though he has failed in all his high designs, his
failure is in the end a success. He, like Paracelsus, had read that
bitter sentence which declares that "collective man outstrips the
individual":--

    "God has conceded two sights to a man--
    One, of men's whole work, time's completed plan,
    The other, of the minute's work, man's first
    Step to the plan's completion."

And the poor minute's work assigned him by the divine law of justice
and pity he accepts as his whole life's task. It is true that though he
now clearly sees the end, he has not perhaps recognised the means. If
Sordello contemplated political action as his mode of effecting that
minute's work, he must soon have discovered, were his life prolonged,
that not thus can a poet live in his highest faculty, or render his
worthiest service. The poet--and speaking in his own person Browning
makes confession of his faith--can adequately serve his mistress,
"Suffering Humanity," only as a poet. Sordello failed to render into
song the highest thoughts and aspirations of Italy; but Dante was to
follow and was not to fail. The minstrel's last act--his renunciation of
selfish power and pleasure, his devotion to what he held to be the cause
of the people, the cause of humanity, was indeed his best piece of
poetry; by virtue of that act Sordello was not a beaten man but a
conqueror.

These prolonged studies--_Paracelsus, Sordello_, and, on a more
contracted scale, _Pauline_--each a study in "the development of a
soul," gain and lose through the immaturity of the writer. He had, as
yet, brought only certain of his faculties into play, or, at least, he
had not as yet connected with his art certain faculties which become
essential characteristics of his later work. There is no humour in these
early poems, or (since Naddo and the critic tribe of _Sordello_ came to
qualify the assertion) but little; there is no wise casuistry, in which
falsehood is used as the vehicle of truth; the psychology, however
involved it may seem, is really too simple; the central personages are
too abstract--knowledge and love and volition do not exhaust the soul;
action and thought are not here incorporated one with the other; a deed
is not the interpreter of an idea; an idea is first exhibited by the
poet and the deed is afterwards set forth as its consequence; the
conclusions are too patently didactic or doctrinaire; we suspect that
they have been motives determining the action; our scepticism as to the
disinterested conduct of the story is aroused by its too plainly deduced
moral. We catch the powers at play which ought to be invisible; we
fiddle with the works of the clock till it ceases to strike. Yet if only
a part of Browning's mind is alive in these early poems, the faculties
brought into exercise are the less impeded by one another; the love of
beauty is not tripped up by a delight in the grotesque. And there is a
certain pleasure in attending to prophecy which has not learnt to hide
itself in casuistry. The analysis of a state of mind, pursued in
_Sordello_ with an effort that is sometimes fatiguing and not always
successful, is presently followed by a superb portrait--like that of
Salinguerra--painted by the artist, not the analyst, and so admirable is
it that in our infirmity we are tempted to believe that the process of
flaying and dissection alters the person of a man or woman as Swift has
said, considerably for the worse.

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 15: The supposition of Mr Sharp and Mr Gosse that Browning
visited Italy after having seen St Petersburg is an error. His first
visit to Italy was that of 1838. I may note here that in a letter to
E.B.B. (vol. ii. 443) Browning refers to having been in Holland some ten
years since; the date of his letter is August 18, 1846.]

[Footnote 16: Mrs Bronson; Browning in Venice. _Cornhill Magazine_, Feb.
1902. pp. 160, 161.]

[Footnote 17: Mrs Orr's "Handbook to Browning," pp. 10, 11.]



Chapter III

The Maker of Plays

The publication of _Paracelsus_ did not gain for Browning a large
audience, but it brought him friends and acquaintances who gave his life
a delightful expansion in its social relations. John Forster, the
critic, biographer and historian, then unknown to him, reviewed the poem
in the _Examiner_ with full recognition of its power and promise.
Browning gratefully commemorated a lifelong friendship with Forster,
nearly a score of years later, in the dedication of the 1863 edition of
his poetical works. Mrs Orr recites the names of Carlyle, Talfourd, R.
Hengist Horne, Leigh Hunt, Procter, Monckton Milnes, Dickens,
Wordsworth, Landor, among those of distinguished persons who became
known to Browning at this period.[18] His "simple and enthusiastic
manner" is referred to by the actor Macready in his diary; "he looks and
speaks more like a youthful poet than any man I ever saw." Browning's
face was one of rare intelligence and full of changing expression. He
was not tall, but in early years he was slight, was graceful in his
movements, and held his head high. His dark brown hair hung in wavy
masses upon his neck. His voice had in early manhood a quality,
afterwards lost, which Mr Sharp describes as "flute-like, clear, sweet
and resonant." Slim, dark, and very handsome are the words chosen by Mrs
Bridell-Fox to characterise the youthful Browning as he reappeared to
her memory; "And--may I hint it?"--she adds, "just a trifle of a dandy,
addicted to lemon-coloured kid gloves and such things, quite 'the glass
of fashion and the mould of form.' But full of ambition, eager for
success, eager for fame, and, what is more, determined to conquer fame
and to achieve success." Yet the correct and conventional Browning could
also fire up for lawlessness--"frenetic to be free." He was hail-fellow
well-met, we are told--but is this part of a Browning legend?--with
tramps and gipsies, and he wandered gladly, whether through devout
sympathy or curiosity of mood we know not, into Little Bethels and other
tents of spiritual Ishmael.

From Camberwell Browning's father moved to a house at Hatcham,
transporting thither his long rows of books, together with those many
volumes which lay still unwritten in the "celle fantastyk" of his son.
"There is a vast view from our greatest hill," wrote Browning; a vast
view, though Wordsworth had scorned the Londoner's hill--"Hill? _we_
call that, such as that, a _rise_." Here he read and wrote, enjoyed his
rides on the good horse "York," and cultivated friendship with a toad in
the pleasant garden, for he had a peculiar interest, as his poems show,
in creatures that live a shy, mysterious life apart from that of man,
and the claim of beauty, as commonly understood, was not needed to win
his regard. Browning's eye was an instrument made for exact and minute
records of natural phenomena. "I have heard him say," Mr Sharp writes,
"that at that time"--speaking of his earlier years--"his faculty of
observation would not have appeared despicable to a Seminole or an
Iroquois." Such activity of the visual nerve differs widely from the
wise passiveness or brooding power of the Wordsworthian mode of
contemplation. Browning's life was never that of a recluse who finds in
nature and communion with the anima mundi a counterpoise to the
attractions of human society. Society fatigued him, yet he would not
abandon its excitements. A mystic--though why it should be so is hard to
say--does not ordinarily affect lemon-coloured kid gloves, as did the
Browning of Mrs Bridell-Fox's recollection. The mysticism of Browning's
temper of mind came not by withdrawal from the throng of positive facts,
but by pushing through these to the light beyond them, or by the
perception of some spear-like shaft of light piercing the denseness,
which was serviceable as the sheathe or foil. And of course it was among
men and women that he found suggestions for some of his most original
studies.

An introduction to Macready which took place at Mr Fox's house towards
the close of November 1835 was fruitful in consequences. A month later
Browning was Macready's guest at Elstree, the actor's resting-place in
the country. His fellow-traveller, then unknown to him, in the coach
from London was John Forster; in Macready's drawing-room the poet and
his critic first formed a personal acquaintance. Browning had for long
been much interested in the stage, but only as a spectator. His
imagination now turned towards dramatic authorship with a view to
theatrical performance. A play on a subject from later Roman history,
_Narses_, was thought of and was cast aside. The success of Talfourd's
_Ion_, after the first performance of which (May 26, 1836) Browning
supped in the author's rooms with Macready, Wordsworth, and Landor,
probably raised high hopes of a like or a greater success for some
future drama of his own. "Write a play, Browning," said Macready, as
they left the house, "and keep me from going to America." "Shall it be
historical or English?" Browning questioned, as the incident is related
by Mrs Orr, "What do you say to a drama on Strafford?" The life of
Stafford by his friend Forster, just published, which during an illness
of the author had been revised in manuscript by Browning, probably
determined the choice of a subject.

By August the poet had pledged himself to achieve this first dramatic
adventure. The play was produced at Covent Garden on May 1st, 1837, by
Macready, who himself took the part of Strafford. Helen Faucit, then a
novice on the stage, gave an adequate rendering of the difficult part of
Lady Carlisle. For the rest, the complexion of the piece, as Browning
describes it, after one of the latest rehearsals, was "perfect gallows."
Great historical personages were presented by actors who strutted or
slouched, who whimpered or drawled. The financial distress at Covent
Garden forbade any splendour or even dignity of scenery or of
costumes.[19] The text was considerably altered--and not always
judiciously--from that of the printed play, which had appeared before
its production on the stage. Yet on the first night _Strafford_ was not
damned, and on the second it was warmly applauded.[20] After the fifth
performance the wretched Pym refused to save his mother England even
once more, and the play was withdrawn. Browning declared to his friends
that never again, as long as he might live, would he write a play.
Whining not being to his taste, he averted his eyes and set himself
resolutely to work upon _Sordello_.

"I sail this morning for Venice," Browning wrote to a friend on Good
Friday, 1838. He voyaged as sole passenger on a merchantman, and soon
was on friendliest terms with the rough kindly captain. For the first
fortnight the sea was stormy and Browning suffered much; as they passed
through the Straits of Gibraltar, Captain Davidson aided him to reach
the deck, and a pulsing of home-pride--not home-sickness--gave their
origin to the patriotic lines beginning, "Nobly, nobly Cape Saint
Vincent to the north-west died away." Under the bulwark of the _Norham
Castle_, off the African coast, when the fancy of a gallop on his Uncle
Reuben's horse suddenly presented itself in pleasant contrast with the
tedium of the hours on shipboard, he wrote in pencil, on the flyleaf of
Bartoli's Simboli, that most spirited of poems which tell of the glory
of motion--_How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix_. The only
adventure of the voyage was the discovery of an Algerine pirate ship
floating keel uppermost; it righted suddenly under the stress of ropes
from the _Norham Castle_, and the ghastly and intolerable
dead--Algerines and Spaniards--could not scare the British sailors eager
for loot; at last the battered hulk was cast loose, and its blackness
was seen reeling slowly off "into the most gorgeous and lavish sunset in
the world." Having visited Venice, Vicenza and Padua--cities and
mountain solitudes, which gave their warmth and colour to his unfinished
poem--Browning returned home by way of Tyrol, the Rhine, Liege and
Antwerp. It was his first visit to Italy and was a time of enchantment.
Fifty years later he recalled the memories of these early days when his
delight had something insubstantial, magical in it, and the vision was
half perceived with the eye and half projected from within:--

    How many a year my Asolo,
      Since--one step just from sea to land--
    I found you, loved yet feared you so--
      For natural objects seemed to stand
    Palpably fire-clothed![21]

Of evenings soon after his return to London Mrs Bridell-Fox writes: "He
was full of enthusiasm for Venice, 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." The
anticipations of genius had already produced a finer etching than any of
these, in those lines of marvellous swiftness and intensity in
_Paracelsus_, which describe Constantinople at the hour of sunset.

[Illustration: MAIN STREET OF ASOLO, SHOWING BROWNING'S HOUSE.

_From a drawing by_ Miss D. NOYES.]

The publication of _Sordello_ (1840) did not improve Browning's position
with the public. The poem was a challenge to the understanding of an
aspirant reader, and the challenge met with no response. An excuse for
not reading a poem of five or six thousand lines is grateful to so
infirm and shortlived a being as man. And, indeed, a prophet, if
prudent, may do well to postpone the privilege of being unintelligible
until he has secured a considerable number of disciples of both sexes.
The reception of _Sordello_ might have disheartened a poet of less
vigorous will than Browning; he merely marched breast forward, and let
_Sordello_ lie inert, until a new generation of readers had arisen. The
dramas, _King Victor and King Charles_ and _The Return of the Druses_
(at first named "Mansoor the Hierophant") now occupied his thoughts.
Short lyrical pieces were growing under his hand, and began to form a
considerable group. And one fortunate day as he strolled alone in the
Dulwich wood--his chosen resort of meditation--"the image flashed upon
him of one walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure
to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though
unconscious influence at every step of it."[22] In other words Pippa
had suddenly passed her poet in the wood.

A cheap mode of issuing his works now in manuscript was suggested to
Browning by the publisher Moxon. They might appear in successive
pamphlets, each of a single sheet printed in double-column, and the
series might be discontinued at any time if the public ceased to care
for it. The general title _Bells and Pomegranates_ was chosen; "beneath
upon the hem of the robe thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of
purple, and of scarlet, round about the hem thereof; and bells of gold
between them round about." Browning, as he explained to his readers in
the last number, meant to indicate by the title, "Something like an
alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense,
poetry with thought"--such having been, in fact, one of the most
familiar of the Rabbinical interpretations designed to expound the
symbolism of this priestly decoration prescribed in "Exodus." From 1841
to 1846 the numbers of _Bells and Pomegranates_ successively appeared;
with the eighth the series closed. The first number--_Pippa Passes_--was
sold for sixpence; when _King Victor and King Charles_ was published in
the following year (1842), the price was raised to one shilling. The
third and the seventh numbers were made up of short pieces--_Dramatic
Lyrics_ (1842), _Dramatic Romances and Lyrics_ (1845). _The Return of
the Druses_ and _A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_--Numbers 4 and 5--followed
each other in the same year 1843. _Colombe's Birthday_--the only number
which is known to survive in manuscript--came next in order (1844). The
last to appear was that which included _Luna_, Browning's favourite
among his dramas, and _A Soul's Tragedy_.[23] His sister, except in the
instance of _Colombe_, was Browning's amanuensis. On each title-page he
is named Robert Browning "Author of Paracelsus"--the "wholly
unintelligible" _Sordello_ being passed over. Talfourd, "Barry
Cornwall," and John Kenyon (the cousin of Elizabeth Barrett) were
honoured with dedications. In these pamphlets of Moxon, Browning's
wonderful apples of gold were certainly not presented to the public in
pictures or baskets of silver; yet the possessor of the eight parts in
their yellow paper wrappers may now be congratulated. Only one of the
numbers--_A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_--attained the distinction of a
second edition, and this probably because the drama as published was
helped to a comparative popularity by its representation on the stage.

This tragedy of young love and death was written hastily--in four or
five days--for Macready. Browning while at work on his play, as we learn
from a letter of Dante Rossetti to Allingham, was kept indoors by a
slight indisposition; his father on going to see him "was each day
received boisterously and cheerfully with the words: 'I have done
another act, father.'"[24] Forster read the tragedy aloud from the
manuscript for Dickens, who wrote of it with unmeasured enthusiasm in a
letter, known to Browning only when printed after the lapse of some
thirty years: "Browning's play has thrown me into a perfect passion of
sorrow.... I know no love like it, no passion like it, no moulding of a
splendid thing after its conception like it." Things had gone ill with
Macready at Drury Lane, and when the time for _A Blot in the 'Scutcheon_
drew near it is evident that he feared further losses and would gladly
have been released from his promise to produce the play; but Browning
failed to divine the true state of affairs. The tragedy was read to the
company by a grotesque, wooden-legged and red-nosed prompter, and it was
greeted with laughter. To make amends, Macready himself undertook to
read it aloud, but he declared himself unable, in the disturbed state of
his mind, to appear before the public: his part--that of Lord
Tresham--must be taken by Phelps. From certain rehearsals Phelps was
unavoidably absent through illness. Macready who read his lines on these
occasions, now was caught by the play, and saw possibilities in the part
of Tresham which fired his imagination. He chose, almost at the last
moment, to displace his younger and less distinguished colleague.
Browning, on the other hand, insisted that Phelps, having been assigned
the part, should retain it. To baffle Macready in his design of
presenting the play to the public in a mutilated form, Browning, aided
by his publisher, had the whole printed in four-and-twenty hours.[25] A
rupture of the long-standing friendship with Macready followed, nor did
author and actor meet again until after the great sorrow of Browning's
life. "Mr Macready too"--writes Mrs Orr--"had recently lost his wife,
and Mr Browning could only start forward, grasp the hand of his old
friend, and in a voice choked with emotion say, 'O Macready!'"

The tragedy was produced at Drury Lane on February nth, 1843, with
Phelps, who acted admirably as Tresham, and Helen Faucit as Mildred.
Although it had been ill rehearsed and not a shilling had been spent on
scenery or dresses, it was received with applause. To a call for the
author, Browning, seated in his box, declined to make any response.
Thus, not without some soreness of heart, closed his direct connection
with the theatre. He heard with pleasure when in Italy that _A Blot in
the 'Scutcheon_ was given by Phelps at Sadler's Wells Theatre in
November 1848, and with unquestionable success. A rendering of
_Colombe's Birthday_ was projected by Charles Kean in 1844, but the long
delays, which were inevitable, could not be endured by Browning, who
desired to print his play forthwith among the _Bells and Pomegranates_.
It was not until nine years later that this play, a veritable "All for
love, or the world well lost," was presented at the Haymarket, Helen
Faucit appearing as the Duchess. Soon after _Colombe's Birthday_ had
been published, Browning sailed once more, in the autumn of 1844, for
Italy.[26] As he journeyed northwards and homewards, from Naples (where
they were performing an opera named _Sordello_) and Rome he sought and
obtained at Leghorn an interview with Trelawny, the generous-hearted
friend of Shelley, by whose grave he had lately stood.[27]

Browning's work as a playwright, consisting of eight pieces, or nine if
we include the later _In a Balcony_, is sufficiently ample to enable us
to form a trustworthy estimate of his genius as seen in drama. Dramatic,
in the sense that he created and studied minds and hearts other than his
own, he pre-eminently was; if he desired to set forth or to vindicate
his most intimate ideas or impulses, he effected this indirectly, by
detaching them from his own personality and giving them a brain and a
heart other than his own in which to live and move and have their being.
There is a kind of dramatic art which we may term static, and another
kind which we may term dynamic. The former deals especially with
characters in position, the latter with characters in movement.[28]
Passion and thought may be exhibited and interpreted by dramatic genius
of either type; to represent passion and thought and action--action
incarnating and developing thought and passion--the dynamic power is
required. And by action we are to understand not merely a visible deed,
but also a word, a feeling, an idea which has in it a direct operative
force. The dramatic genius of Browning was in the main of the static
kind; it studies with extraordinary skill and subtlety character in
position; it attains only an imperfect or a laboured success with
character in movement. The _dramatis personae_ are ready at almost every
moment, except the culminating moments of passion, to fall away from
action into reflection and self-analysis. The play of mind upon mind he
recognises of course as a matter of profound interest and importance;
but he catches the energy which spirit transfers to spirit less in the
actual moment of transference than after it has arrived. Thought and
emotion with him do not circulate freely through a group of persons,
receiving some modification from each. He deals most successfully with
each individual as a single and separate entity; each maintains his own
attitude, and as he is touched by the common influence he proceeds to
scrutinise it. Mind in these plays threads its way dexterously in and
out of action; it is not itself sufficiently incorporated in action. The
progress of the drama is now retarded; and again, as if the author
perceived that the story had fallen behind or remained stationary, it is
accelerated by sudden jerks. A dialogue of retrospection is a common
device at the opening of popular plays, with a view to expound the
position of affairs to the audience; but a dramatic writer of genius
usually works forward through his dialogue to the end which he has set
before him. With Browning for the purpose of mental analysis a dialogue
of retrospection may be of higher value than one which leans and presses
towards the future. The invisible is for him more important than the
visible; and so in truth it may often be; but the highest dramatist will
not choose to separate the two. The invisible is best captured and is
most securely held in the visible.

As a writer of drama, Browning, who delights to study the noblest
attitudes of the soul, and to wring a proud sense of triumph out of
apparent failure, finds his proper field in tragedy rather than in
comedy. _Colombe's Birthday_ has a joyous ending, but the joy is very
grave and earnest, and the body of the play is made up of serious
pleadings and serious hopes and fears. There is no light-hearted mirth,
no real gaiety of temper anywhere in the dramas of Browning. Pippa's
gladness in her holiday from the task of silk-winding is touched with
pathos in the thought that what is so bright _is_ also so brief, and it
is encompassed, even within delightful Asolo, by the sins and sorrows of
the world. Bluphocks, with his sniggering wit and his jingles of rhyme
is a vagabond and a spy, who only covers the shame of his nakedness with
these rags of devil-may-care good spirits. The genial cynicism of
Ogniben is excellent of its kind, and pleases the palate like an olive
amid wines; but this man of universal intellectual sympathies is at
heart the satirist of moral illusions, the unmasker of self-deception,
who with long experience of human infirmities, has come to chuckle
gently over his own skill in dealing with them; and has he not--we may
ask--wound around his own spirit some of the incurable illusions of
worldly wisdom? No--this is not gaiety; if Browning smiles with his
Ogniben, his smile is a comment upon the weakness and the blindness of
the self-deceiver.

Browning's tragedies are tragedies without villains. The world is here
the villain, which has baits and bribes and snares wherewith to entangle
its victims, to lure down their mounting aspirations, to dull their
vision for the things far-off and faint; perhaps also to make them
prosperous and portly gentlemen, easy-going, and amiably cynical,
tolerant of evil, and prudently distrustful of good. Yet truth is truth,
and fact is fact; worldly wisdom is genuine wisdom after its kind; we
shall be the better instructed if we listen to its sage experience, if
we listen, understand, and in all justice, censure. Ogniben can blandly
and skilfully conduct a Chiappino to his valley of humiliation--"let him
that standeth take heed lest he fall." But what would the wisdom of
Ogniben be worth in its pronouncements on a Luria or a Colombe? Perhaps
even in such a case not wholly valueless. The self-pleased, keen-sighted
Legate might after all have applauded a moral heroism or a high-hearted
gallantry which would ill accord with his own ingenious and versatile
spirit. Bishop Blougram--sleek, ecclesiastical opportunist--was not
insensible to the superior merits of "rough, grand, old Martin Luther."

In Browning's nature a singularly keen, exploring intelligence was
united with a rare moral and spiritual ardour, a passion for high
ideals. In creating his chief _dramatis persona_ he distributes among
them what he found within himself, and they fall into two principal
groups--characters in which the predominating power is intellect, and
characters in which the mastery lies with some lofty emotion. The
intellect dealing with things that are real and positive, those persons
in whom intelligence is supreme may too easily become the children of
this world; in their own sphere they are wiser than the children of
light; and they are skilled in a moral casuistry by which they justify
to themselves the darkening of the light that is in them. The passionate
natures have an intelligence of their own; they follow a gleam which is
visible to them if not to others; they discover, or rather they are
discovered by, some truth which flashes forth in one inspired
moment--the master-moment of a lifetime; they possess the sublime
certainty of love, loyalty, devotion; if they err through a heroic
folly and draw upon themselves ruin in things temporal, may there not be
some atom of divine wisdom at the heart of the folly, which is itself
indestructible, and which ensures for them a welfare out of time and
space? Prophet and casuist--Browning is both; and to each he will
endeavour to be just; but his heart must give a casting vote, and this
cannot be in favour of the casuist. Every self-transcending passion has
in it a divine promise and pledge; even the passion of the senses if it
has hidden within it one spark of self-annihilating love may be the
salvation of a soul. It is Ottima, lifted above her own superb
voluptuousness, who cries--"Not me--to him, O God, be merciful." The
region of untrammelled, unclouded passion, of spiritual intuition, and
of those great words from heaven, which pierce "even to the dividing
asunder of the joints and marrow," is, for Browning's imagination, the
East. The nations of the West--and, before all others, the Italian
race--are those of a subtly developed intelligence. The worldly art of a
Church-man, ingenuities of theology having aided in refining ingenuities
of worldliness, is perhaps the finest exemplar of unalloyed western
brain-craft. But Italy is also a land of passion; and therefore at once,
for its ardours of the heart--seen not in love alone but in carven
capital and on frescoed wall--and for its casuistries of intellect,
Browning looks to Italy for the material best fitted to his artistry.
Between that group of personages whom we may call his characters of
passion and that group made up of his characters of intelligence, lie
certain figures of peculiar interest, by birth and inheritance children
of the East, and by culture partakers, in a greater or a less degree,
of the characteristics of the West--a Djabal, with his Oriental heart
entangled by Prankish tricks of sophistry; a Luria, whose Moorish
passion is enthralled by the fascination of Florentine intellect, and
who can make a return upon himself with a half-painful western
self-consciousness.

Loyalties, devotions, to a person, to a cause, to an ideal, and the
sacrifice of individual advantages, worldly prosperity, temporal
successes to these--such, stated in a broad and general way, is the
theme of special interest to Browning in his dramas. These loyalties may
be well and wisely fixed, or they may contain a portion of error and
illusion. But in either case they furnish a test of manly and womanly
virtue. With a woman the test is often proposed by love--by love as set
over against ease, or high station, or the pride of power. Colombe of
Ravestein is offered on the one hand the restoration of her forfeited
Duchy, the prospective rank of Empress and partnership with a man, who,
if he cannot give love, is yet no ignoble wooer, a man of honour, of
intellect, and of high ambition; on the other hand pleads the advocate
of Cleves, a nameless provincial, past his days of youth, lean and
somewhat worn, and burdened with the griefs and wrongs of his townsfolk.
Mere largeness in a life is something, is much; but the quality of a
life is more. Valence has set the cause of his fellow-citizens above
himself; he has made the heart of the Duchess for the first time thrill
in sympathy with the life of her people; he has placed his loyalty to
her far above his own hopes of happiness; he has urged his rival's
claims with unfaltering fidelity. It is not with any backward glances
of regret, any half-doubts, prudent reserves, or condescending
qualifications that Colombe gives herself to the advocate of the poor.
She, in her youth and beauty, has been happy during her year of idlesse
as play-Duchess of Juliers; she is happier now as she abandons the court
and, sure in her grave choice, turns with a light and joyous laugh to
welcome the birthday gift of freedom and of love that has so
unexpectedly come to her. Having once made her election, Colombe can
throw away the world as gaily as in some girlish frolic she might toss
aside a rose.

The loyalty of men, their supreme devotion and their test may, as with
women, spring from the passion of love; but other tests than this are
often proposed to them. With King Charles of Sardinia it is duty to his
people that summons him, from those modest and tranquil ways of life of
which he dreamed, to the cares and toils of the crown. He has strength
to accept without faltering the burden that is laid upon him. And if he
falters at the last, and would resign to his father, who reclaims it,
the crown which God alone should have removed, shall we assert
confidently that Browning's dramatic instinct has erred? The pity of
it--that his great father, daring in battle, profound in policy, should
stand before him an outraged, helpless old man, craving with senile
greed a gift from his son--the pity of it revives an old weakness, an
old instinct of filial submission, in the heart of Charles. He has
tasked himself without sparing; he has gained the affections of his
subjects; he has conciliated a hostile Europe; is not this enough? Or
was it also in the bond that he should tread a miserable father into the
dust? The test again of Luigi, in the third part of _Pippa Passes_, is
that of one who sees all the oppression of his people, who is enamoured
of the antique ideal of liberty, and whose choice lies between a youth
of luxurious ease and the virtue of one heroic crime, to be followed by
the scaffold-steps, with youth cut short. To him that overcometh and
endureth unto the end will God give the morning-star:

    The gift of the morning-star! Have I God's gift
    Of the morning-star?

And Luigi will adventure forth--it may be in a kind of divine folly--as
a doomsman commissioned by God to free his Italy. The devotion of Luria
to Florence is partly of the imagination, and perhaps it is touched with
something of illusion. But the actual Florence, with her astute
politicians, her spies who spy upon spies, her incurable distrusts, her
sinister fears, her ingrained ingratitude, is clearly exposed to him
before the end. Shall he turn the army, which is as much his own as the
sword he wields, joined with the forces of Pisa, against the beautiful,
faithless city? Or will his passionate loyalty endure the test? Luria
withdraws from life, but not until he has made every provision for the
victory of Florence over her enemy; nor does he die a defeated man; his
moral greatness has subdued all envies and all distrusts; at the close
everyone is true to him:

     The only fault's with time;
    All men become good creatures: but so slow.[29]

Once again in Browning's earliest play, the test for the patriot Pym
lies in the choice between two loyalties--one to England and to
freedom, the other to his early friend and former comrade in politics.
His faith in Strafford dies hard; but it dies; he flings forward his
hopes for the grand traitor to England beyond the confines of this life,
and only the grieved unfaltering justiciary remains. Browning's Pym is a
figure neither historically true nor dramatically effective; he is
self-conscious and sentimental, a patriot armed in paste-board rhetoric.
But the writer, let us remember, was young; this was his first
theatrical essay, and he was somewhat showy of fine intentions. The
loyalty of Strafford to the King is too fatuous an instinct to gain our
complete sympathy. He rides gallantly into the quicksand, knowing it to
be such, and the quicksand, as certainly as the worm of Nilus, will do
its kind. And yet though this is the vain romance of loyalty, in it, as
Browning conceives, lies the test of Strafford. A self-renouncing
passion of any kind is not so common that we can afford to look on his
king-worship with scorn.

Over against these devotees of the ideal Browning sets his worldlings,
ranging from creatures as despicable as the courtiers of Duchess Colombe
to such men of power and inexhaustible resource as the Nuncio who
confronts Djabal with his Druses, or the Papal Legate whose easier and
half-humorous task is to dismiss to his private affairs at Lugo the
four-and-twentieth leader of revolt. To the same breed with the
courtiers of Colombe belong old Vane and Savile of the court of Charles.
To the same breed with the Nuncio and the Legate, belongs Monsignor, who
proves himself more than a match for his hireling, the scoundrel
Intendant. In a happy moment Monsignor is startled into indignant
wrath; he does not exclaim with the Edmund of Shakespeare's tragedy
"Some good I mean to do before I die;" but his "Gag the villain!" is a
substantial contribution to the justice of our world. Under the
ennobling influence of Charles and his Polyxena, the craft of D'Ormea is
uplifted to a level of real dignity; if he cannot quite attain the
position of a martyr for the truth, he becomes something better than one
who serves God at the devil's bidding. And Braccio, plotter and
betrayer, yet always with a certain fidelity towards his mother-city, is
won over to the side of simple truth and righteousness by the
overmastering power of Luria's magnanimity. So precious, after
all--Browning would say--is the mere capacity to recognise facts; if
only a little grain of virtue remains in the heart, this faculty of
vision may make some sudden discovery which shall prove to a worldling
that there exist facts, undeniable and of immense potency, hitherto
unknown to his philosophy of chicane. Browning's vote is given, as has
been said, and with no uncertain voice, for his devotees of the ideal;
but the men of fine worldly brain-craft have a fascination for him as
they have for his Eastern Luria. In Djabal, at once enthusiast and
impostor, Browning may seem, as often afterwards, to offer an apology
for the palterer with truth; but in the interests of truth itself, he
desires to study the strange phenomenon of the deceiver who would fain
half-deceive himself.

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 18: Dr Moncure Conway in "The Nation" vol. i. (an article
written on the occasion of Browning's death) says that he was told by
Carlyle of his first meeting with Browning--as Carlyle rode upon
Wimbledon Common a "beautiful youth," walking there alone, stopped him
and asked for his acquaintance. The incident has a somewhat legendary
air.]

[Footnote 19: Lady Martin (Helen Faucit), however, wrote in 1891 to Mrs
Ritchie: "The play was mounted in all matters with great care ... minute
attention to accuracy of costume prevailed.... The scenery was alike
accurate."]

[Footnote 20: On which occasion Browning--muffled up in a cloak--was
asked by a stranger in the pit whether he was not the author of "Romeo
and Juliet" and "Othello." "No, so far as I am aware," replied Browning.
Two burlesques of Shakespeare by a Mr Brown or Brownley were in course
of performance in London. _Letters of R.B. and E.B.B._, ii. 132.]

[Footnote 21: From the Prologue to _Asolando_, Browning's last volume.]

[Footnote 22: Mrs Orr, "Handbook to the Works of Robert Browning," p. 54
(1st ed.).]

[Footnote 23: _A Soul's Tragedy_ was written in 1843 or 1844, and
revised immediately before publication. See Letters of R.B. and E.B.B.,
i. 474.]

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

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

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

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

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

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



Chapter IV

The Maker of Plays--_(Continued)_


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

    Come what, come will,
    You have been happy.

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

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

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

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

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

    Our lady of dear Ravestein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The grey sea and the long black land;
    And the yellow half-moon large and low;
    And the startled little waves that leap
    In fiery ringlets from their sleep
    As I gain the cove with pushing prow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOOTNOTES:



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

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

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

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

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



Chapter V

Love and Marriage


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

[Illustration: ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money difficulty there was none. Browning, it is true, was not in a
position to undertake the expenses of even such a simple household
economy as they both desired. He was prepared to seek for any honourable
service--diplomatic or other--if that were necessary. But Miss Barrett
was resolved against task-work which might divert him from his proper
vocation as a poet. And, thanks to the affection of an uncle, she had
means--some £400 a year, capable of considerable increase by
re-investment of the principal--which were enough for two persons who
could be content with plain living in Italy. Browning still urged that
he should be the bread-winner; he implored that her money should be made
over to her own family, so that no prejudice against his action could be
founded on any mercenary feeling; but she remained firm, and would
consent only to its transference to her two sisters in the event of his
death. And so the matter rested and was dismissed from the thoughts of
both the friends.

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

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

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

[Illustration: Yours very truly, Robert Browning. _From an engraving by_
J.G. ARMYTAGE.]

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

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

FOOTNOTES:

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

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

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

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

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



Chapter VI

Early Years in Italy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 40: "Why am I a Liberal?" Edited by Andrew Reid. London,
1885.]

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

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

[Footnote 43: Casa Guidi Windows, i.]

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

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

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



Chapter VII

Christmas Eve and Easter Day


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     grasps of guess
    Which pull the more into the less,

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

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

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

Mrs. Browning's illness during the summer and early autumn of 1850 left
her for a time more shaken in health than she had been since her
marriage. But by the spring of the following year she had recovered
strength; and designs of travel were formed, which should include Rome,
North Italy, Switzerland, the Rhine, Brussels, Paris and London. Almost
at the moment of starting for Rome at the end of April, the plans were
altered; the season was too far advanced for going south; ways and means
must be economised; Rome might be postponed for a future visit; and
Venice would make amends for the present sacrifice. And Venice in May
and early June did indeed for a time make amends. "I have been between
heaven and earth," Mrs. Browning wrote, "since our arrival at Venice."
The rich architecture, the colour, the moonlight, the music, the
enchanting silence made up a unity of pleasures like nothing that she
had previously known. When evening came she and her husband would follow
the opera from their box hired for "two shillings and eightpence
English," or sit under the moon in the piazza of St Mark sipping coffee
and reading the French papers. But as the month went by, Browning lost
appetite and lost sleep. The "soothing, lulling, rocking atmosphere"
which suited Mrs. Browning made him, after the first excitement of
delight, grow nervous and dispirited. They hastened away to Padua, drove
to Arqua, "for Petrarch's sake," passed through Brescia in a flood of
white moonlight, and having reached Milan climbed--the invalid of
Wimpole Street and her husband--to the topmost point of the cathedral.
From the Italian lakes they crossed by the St Gothard to Switzerland,
and omitting part of their original scheme of wandering, journeyed in
twenty-four hours without stopping from Strasburg to Paris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOOTNOTES:

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



Chapter VIII

1851 to 1855


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Illustration: THE VIA BOCCA DI LEONE, ROME, IN WHICH THE BROWNINGS
STAYED.

_From a photograph._]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOOTNOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Footnote 61: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His "Family Letters," i. 190,
191.]

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

[Illustration: PORTRAIT OF FILIPPO LIPPI.

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



Chapter IX

Men and Women


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

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

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

           *       *       *       *       *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Duke grew straightway brave and wise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Illustration: ANDREA DEL SARTO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are the gospel to preach which he girds loin and lights the lamp,
though he may perforce indulge a patron in shallower pieties of the
conventional order, and though it is not all gospel with him, for now
and again, when the moon shines and girls go skipping and singing down
Florence streets--"Zooks, sir, flesh and blood, that's all I'm made of!"
Fra Lippo with his outbreaks of frank sensuality is far nearer to
Browning's kingdom of heaven than is the faultless painter; he presses
with ardour towards his proper goal in art; he has full faith in the
ideal, but with him it is to be sought only through the real; or rather
it need not be sought at all, for one who captures any fragment of
reality captures also undesignedly and inevitably its divine
significance.[68]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hath access to a secret shut from us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FOOTNOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Chapter X

Close of Mrs Browning's Life


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lander's affairs threatened to detain the Brownings in Florence longer
than they desired, now that peace had come and it was not indispensable
to run out of doors twice a day in order to inspect the bulletins. But
after three weeks of very exhausting illness, Mrs Browning needed change
of air. As soon as her strength allowed, she was lifted into a carriage
and they journeyed, as in the year 1850, to the neighbourhood of Siena.
She reached the villa which had been engaged by Story's aid, with the
sense of "a peculiar frailty of being." Though confined to the house,
the fresher air by day and the night winds gradually revived her
strength and spirits. The silence and repose were "heavenly things" to
her: the "pretty dimpled ground covered by low vineyards" rested her
eyes and her mind; and for excitements, instead of reports of
battle-fields there were slow-fading scarlet sunsets over purple hills.
A kind Prussian physician, Gresonowsky, who had attended Mrs Browning in
Florence, and who entered sympathetically into her political feelings,
followed her uninvited to Siena and gave her the benefit of his care,
declining all recompense. The good friends from America, the Storys,
were not far off, and Landor, after a visit to Story, was placed in
occupation of rooms not a stone's-cast from their villa. With Pen it was
a time of rejoicing, for his father had bought the boy a Sardinian pony
of the colour of his curls, and he was to be seen galloping through the
lanes "like Puck," to use Browning's comparison, on a dragon-fly's
back.[77]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOOTNOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Footnote 77: See, for this residence at Siena, an interesting letter of
Story to C. Eliot Norton in Henry James's _W.W. Story_, vol. ii. pp. 14,
15.]

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

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

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

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

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

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



Chapter XI

London: Dramatis Personae


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

is not quenched, nor is the hope quenched that

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

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

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

    Outside was all noon and the burning blue.

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

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

and this:--

    When there was mid sea and the mighty things;

and this:--

    Lie bare to the universal prick of light;

and these:--

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Lies bare to the universal prick of light.

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

    All questions in the earth and out of it.

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

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

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

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

By some means, means divinely chosen even if but a child's fable-book,
we have got our truth, and it suffices for our training here on earth.
Let us give over the endless task of unproving and re-proving the
already proved; rather let us straightway put our truth to its proper
uses.[92]

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

    With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin,

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

    Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.

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

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


FOOTNOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Chapter XII

The Ring and the Book


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

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

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

they returned in the following summer. During this second visit
(September 1867) that most spirited ballad of French heroism, _Hervé
Riel_, was written, though its publication belongs to four years
later.[94]

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

[Illustration: PIAZZA DI SAN LORENZO, FLORENCE, WHERE "THE BOOK" WAS
FOUND BY BROWNING.

_From a photograph by_ ALINARI.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Till old experience do attain
    To something of Prophetic strain.

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

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

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

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

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

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


FOOTNOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

[Footnote 98: _An Artist's Reminiscences_, by R. Lehmann (1894), p.
224.]

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

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

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

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



Chapter XIII

Poems on Classical Subjects


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

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

    Symbolic of the place and people too,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If the Alkestis is not the masterpiece of the genius of Euripides,"
wrote Paul de Saint-Victor, "it is perhaps the masterpiece of his
heart."[110]

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

    Outsmoothing galingale and watermint,
    Its mat-floor,

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

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

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

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

Browning, who delights to show how good is brought out of evil, or what
appears such to mortal eyes, is not content with this. He must trace
the whole process of the purification of the soul of Admetos, by sorrow
and its cruel yet beneficent reality, and in his commentary he
emphasises each point of development in that process. When his wife lies
at the point of death the sorrow of Admetos is not insincere, but there
was a childishness in it, for he would not confront the fact that the
event was of his own election. Presently she has departed, and he begins
to taste the truth, to distinguish between a sorrow rehearsed in fancy
and endured in fact. In greeting Herakles he rises to a manlier strain,
puts tears away, and accepts the realities of life and death; he will
not add ill to ill, as the sentimentalist does, but will be just to the
rights of earth that remain; he catches some genuine strength from the
magnanimous presence of the hero-god. He renders duty to the dead; is
quieted; and enters more and more into the sternness of his solitary
wayfaring. In dealing with the ignoble wrangle with old Pheres the
critic is hard set; but Balaustion, speaking as interpreter for
Browning, explains that for a little the king lapses back from the
firmer foothold which he had attained. Perhaps it would have been wiser
to admit that Euripides has marred his own work by this grim
tragic-comic encounter of crabbed age and youth. But it is true that one
who has much to give, like Alkestis, gives freely; and one who has
little to give, like Pheres, clutches that little desperately and is
starved not only in possessions but in soul. For Browning the
significance of the scene lies in the idea, which if not just is
ingenious, that the encounter with Pheres has an educational value for
Admetos; he detests his father because he sees in him an image of his
own egoism, and thus he learns more profoundly to hate his baser self.
When the body of Alkestis has been borne away and the king re-enters his
desolate halls the full truth breaks in upon him; nothing can be as it
has been before--"He stared at the impossible mad life"; he has learnt
that life, which yet shall be rightly lived, is a harder thing than
death:

    He was beginning to be like his wife.

And those around him felt that having descended in grief so far to the
truth of things, he could not but return to the light an altered and a
better man. Instructed so deeply in the realities of sorrow, Admetos is
at last made worthy to receive the blessed realities of joy with the
words,

    When I betray her, though she is no more,
    May I die.

The regeneration of Admetos is accomplished. How much in all this
exposition is derived from the play, how much is added to it, may be
left for the consideration of the reader who will compare the original
with the transcript.

If the character of Admetos is somewhat lowered by Browning beneath the
conception of the Greek dramatist, to allow room for its subsequent
elevation, the conception of Herakles is certainly heightened. We shall
not say that Balaustion is the speaker and that Herakles is somewhat of
a woman's hero. Browning himself fully enters into Balaustion's
enthusiasm. And the presence of the strong, joyous helper of men is in
truth an inspiring one. The great voice that goes before him is itself a
_Sursum corda!_--a challenge and a summons to whatever manliness is in
us. And the best of it is that sauntering the pavement or crossing the
ferry we may happen to encounter this face of Herakles:

    Out of this face emerge banners and horses--O superb! I see what is coming;
    I see the high pioneer-caps--I see the slaves of runners clearing the way,
    I hear victorious drums.

    This face is a life-boat.

For Walt Whitman too had seen Brother Jonathan Herakles, and indeed the
face of the strong and tender wound-dresser was itself as the face of a
calmer Herakles to many about to die. The speeches of the demigod in
Browning's transcript require an abundant commentary, but it is the
commentary of an irrepressible joy, an outbreak of enthusiasm which will
not be controlled. The glorious Gargantuan creature, in the best sense
Rabelaisian, is uplifted by Browning into a very saint of joyous effort;
no pallid ascetic, indeed, beating his breast with the stone, but a
Christian saint of Luther's school, while at the same time a somewhat
over-boisterous benevolent Paynim giant:

    Gladness be with thee, Helper of our world!
    I think this is the authentic sign and sea!
    Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad,
    And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts
    Into a rage to suffer for mankind,
    And recommence at sorrow.

Something of the Herakles ideal appears again and again in other poems
of Browning. His Breton sailor, Hervé Riel, has more than a touch of the
Heraclean frankness of gaiety in arduous effort. His Ivàn Ivànovitch
wields the axe and abolishes a life with the Heraclean joy in
righteousness. And in the last of Browning's poems, not without a
pathetically over-boisterous effort and strain, there is the suggestion
of an ideal conception of himself as a Herakles-Browning; the old man
tries at least to send his great voice before him.

The new Admetos, new Alkestis, imagined by Balaustion at the close of
the poem, are wedded lovers who, like the married in Pompilia's dream of
heaven, "know themselves into one." For them the severance of death has
become an impossible thing; and therefore no place is left for Herakles
in this treatment of the story. It expresses Browning's highest
conception of the union of soul with soul:

    Therewith her whole soul entered into his,
    He looked the look back, and Alkestis died--

died only to be rejected by Hades, as still living, and with a more
potent life, in her husband's heart and will. Yet the mortal cloud is
round these mortals still; they cannot see things as the gods see. And,
for all their hopes and endeavours, the earth which they would renew and
make as heaven, remains the old incredulous, unconverted earth,--"Such
is the envy Gods still bear mankind." And in such an earth, if not for
them, assuredly for others, Herakles may find great deeds to do.

Balaustion has the unique distinction of being heroine throughout two of
Browning's poems; and of both we may say that the genius of Euripides is
the hero. _Aristophanes' Apology_ is written from first to last with
unflagging energy; the translation of the "Herakles" which it includes
is a masculine and masterly effort to transport the whole sense and
spirit of the original into English verse, and the rendering of the
choral passages into lyric form gives it an advantage over the
transcript of the "Alkestis." Perhaps not a little of the self-defence
of Aristophanes and his statement of the case against Euripides could
have been put as well or better in a critical essay in prose; but the
method of Browning enables him to mingle, in a dramatic fashion, truth
with sophistry, and to make both serve his purpose of presenting not
only the case but the character of the great Greek maker of comedy.
Balaustion is no longer the ardent girl of the days of her first
adventure; she is a wife, with the dignity, the authority of womanhood
and wifehood; she has known the life of Athens with its evil and its
good; she has been the favoured friend of Euripides; she is capable of
confronting his powerful rival in popular favour, and of awing him into
sobriety and becoming manners; with an instinctive avoidance she recoils
from whatever is gross or uncomely; yet she can do honour to the true
light of intellect and genius even though it shines through earth-born
vapours and amid base surroundings.

Athens, "the life and light of the whole world," has sunk under the
power of Sparta, and it can be henceforth no home for Balaustion and her
Euthukles. The bark that bears them is bounding Rhodesward, and the
verse has in it the leap and race of the prow. Balaustion, stricken at
heart, yet feels that this tragedy of Athens brings the tragic
katharsis; the justice of the gods is visible in it; and above man's
wickedness and folly she reaches to "yon blue liberality of heaven." It
seems as if the spirit which might have saved Athens is that of the
loins girt and the lamp lit which was embodied in the strenuous devotion
of Euripides to the highest things; and the spirit which has brought
Athens to its ruin is that expressed with a splendid power through the
work of Aristophanes. But Aristophanes shall plead for himself and leave
nothing unsaid that can serve to vindicate him as a poet and even as a
moralist Thus only can truth in the end stand clear, assured of its
supremacy over falsehood and over half-truth.

Nothing that Browning has written is more vividly imagined than the
encounter of Balaustion with Aristophanes and his crew of revellers on
the night when the tidings of the death of Euripides reached Athens; it
rouses and controls the feelings with the tumult of life and the
sanctity of death, while also imposing itself on the eye as a brilliant
and a solemn picture. The revellers scatter before the presence of
Balaustion, and she and the great traducer of Euripides stand face to
face. Nowhere else has Browning presented this conception of the man of
vast disorderly genius, who sees and approves the better way and
splendidly follows the worse:

     Such domineering deity
    Hephaistos might have carved to cut the brine
    For his gay brother's prow, imbrue that path
    Which, purpling, recognised the conqueror.

It is as if male force, with the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh,
and the pride of life behind it, were met and held in check by the finer
feminine force resting for its support upon the divine laws. But in
truth Aristophanes is half on the side of Balaustion and of Euripides;
he must, indeed, make his stand; he is not one to falter or quail; and
yet when the sudden cloud falls upon his face he knows that it is his
part to make the worse appear the better cause, knowing this all the
more because the justice of Balaustion's regard perceives and recognises
his higher self. Suddenly the Tuphon, "madding the brine with wrath or
monstrous sport," is transformed into something like what the child saw
once from the Rhodian sea-coast (the old romantic poet in Browning is
here young once more):

     All at once, large-looming from his wave,
    Out leaned, chin hand-propped, pensive on the ledge,
    A sea-worn face, sad as mortality,
    Divine with yearning after fellowship.
    He rose but breast-high. So much god she saw;
    So much she sees now, and does reverence.

But in a moment the sea-god is again the sea-monster, with "tail-splash,
frisk of fin"; the majestic Aristophanes relapses into the most
wonderful of mockers.

No passage in the poem is quite so impressive as this through its
strangeness in beauty. But the entry of Sophocles--"an old pale-swathed
majesty,"--at the supper which followed the performance of the play, is
another of those passages to find which _in situ_ is a sufficient reward
for reading many laborious pages that might almost as well have been
thrown into an imaginary conversation in prose:

    Then the grey brow sank low, and Sophokles
    Re-swathed him, sweeping doorward: mutely passed
    'Twixt rows as mute.

The critical study of comedy, its origin, its development, its
function, its decline, is written with admirable vigour, but the case of
Aristophanes can be read elsewhere. It is interesting, however, to note
the argument in support of the thesis that comedy points really to
ideals of humanity which are beyond human attainment; that its mockery
of man's infirmities implies a conception of our nature which in truth
is extra-human; while tragedy on the contrary accepts man as he is, in
his veritable weakness and veritable strength, and wrings its pity and
its terror out of these. It is Aristophanes who thus vindicates
Euripides before the revellers who have assembled in his own honour, and
they accept what seems to them a paradox as his finest stroke of irony.
But he has indeed after the solemn withdrawal of Sophocles looked for a
moment through life and death, and seen in his hour of highest success
his depth of failure. For him, in this testing-time of life, art has
been the means of probation; he has squandered the gifts bestowed upon
him, which should have been concentrated in the special task to which he
was summoned. He should have known--he did in fact know--that the art
which "makes grave" is higher than that which "makes grin"; his own
peculiar duty was to advance his art one step beyond his predecessors;
to create a drama which should bring into harmony the virtue of tragedy
and the virtue of comedy; to discover the poetry which

     Makes wise, not grave,--and glad,
    Not grinning: whereby laughter joins with tears.

Instead of making this advance he had retrograded; and it remained for a
poet of a far-off future in the far-off Kassiterides--the Tin Isle
which has Stratford at its heart--to accomplish the task on which
Aristophanes would not adventure. One way a brilliant success was
certain for Aristophanes; the other and better way failure was possible;
and he declined to make the venture of faith. It is with this sense of
self-condemnation upon him that he essays his own defence, and it is
against this sense of self-condemnation more than against the genius and
the methods of Euripides that he struggles. When towards the close of
the poem he takes in hand the psalterion, and chants in splendid strains
the story of Thamuris, who aspired and failed, as he himself will never
do, the reader is almost won over to his side. Browning, who felt the
heights and depths of the lyric genius of Aristophanes, would seem to
have resolved that in this song of "Thamuris marching," moving in
ecstasy amid the glories of an autumn morning, he would dramatically
justify his conception of the poet; and never in his youth did Browning
sing with a finer rapture of spirit. But reading what follows, the
record of the subjugation of Athens, when the Athenian people accept the
ruin of their defences as if it were but a fragment of Aristophanic
comedy, we perceive that this song, which breaks off with an uproar of
laughter, is the condemnation as well as the glory of the singer.

The translation of _Agamemnon_, the preface to which is dated "October
1st, 1877," was undertaken at the request or command of Carlyle. The
argument of the preface fails to justify Browning's method. A
translation "literal at every cost save that of absolute violence to our
language" may be highly desirable; it is commonly called a "crib"; and
a crib contrived by one who is not only a scholar but a man of genius
will now and again yield a word or a phrase of felicitous precision. But
that a translation "literal at every cost" should be put into verse is a
wrong both to the original and to the poetry of the language to which
the original is transferred; it assumes a poetic garb which in assuming
it rends to tatters. A translation into verse implies that a certain
beauty of form is part of the writer's aim; it implies that a poem is to
be reproduced as a poem, and not as that bastard product of learned ill
judgment--a glorified crib; and a glorified crib is necessarily a bad
crib. Mrs Orr, who tells us that Browning refused to regard even the
first of Greek writers as models of literary style, had no doubt that
the translation of the _Agamemnon_ was partly made for the pleasure of
exposing the false claims made on their behalf. Such a supposition does
not agree well with Browning's own Preface; but if he had desired to
prove that the _Agamemnon_ can be so rendered as to be barely readable,
he has been singularly successful. From first to last in the genius of
Browning there was an element, showing itself from time to time, of
strange perversity.


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 103: Was this a "baffled visit," as described by Mr Henry
James in his "Life of Story" (ii. 197), when the hostess was absent, and
the guests housed in an inn?]

[Footnote 104: Letter quoted by Mrs Orr, p. 288.]

[Footnote 105: The attitude is reproduced in a photograph from which a
woodcut is given in Mme. Blanc's article "A French Friend of Browning."]

[Footnote 106: "Records of Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning," by Annie
Ritchie, pp. 291, 292.]

[Footnote 107: "A Bibliography of the Writings of Robert Browning," by
T.J. Wise, pp. 157, 158.]

[Footnote 108: _Aristophanes' Apology_ is connected with these poems by
its character as a casuistical self-defence of the chief speaker.]

[Footnote 109: North's "Plutarch," 1579, p. 599.]

[Footnote 110: "Les Deux Masques," ii. 281.]

[Footnote 111: A comment of Paul de Saint-Victor on the silence of the
recovered Alkestis deserves to be quoted: "Hercule apprend à Admète
qu'il lui est interdit d'entendre sa voix avant qu'elle soit purifiée de
sa consécration aux Divinités infernales. J'aime mieux voir dans cette
réserve un scrupule religieux du poète laissant à la morte sa dignité
d'Ombre. Alceste a été nitiée aux profonds mystères de la mort; elle a
vu l'invisible, elle a entendu l'ineffable; toute parole sortie de ses
lèvres serait une divulgation sacrilège. Ce silence mystérieux la
spiritualise et la rattache par un dernier lien au monde éternel."]



Chapter XIV

Problem and Narrative Poems


_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_, which appeared in December 1871, four
months after the publication of _Balaustions Adventure_, was written by
Browning during a visit to friends in Scotland. His interest in modern
politics was considerable, but in general it remained remote from his
work as a poet. He professed himself a liberal, but he was a liberal who
because he was such, claimed the right of independent judgment. He had
rejoiced in the enfranchisement of Italy. During the American Civil War
he was strongly on the side of the North, as letters to Story, written
when his private grief lay heavy upon him, abundantly show. He was at
one time a friend of the movement in favour of granting the
parliamentary suffrage to women, but late in life his opinion on this
question altered. He was as decidedly opposed to the proposals for a
separate or subordinate Parliament for Ireland as were his friends
Carlyle and Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. After the introduction of the
Home Rule Bill he could not bring himself, though requested by a friend,
to write words which would have expressed or implied esteem for the
statesman who had made that most inopportune experiment in
opportunism[112] and whose talents he admired. Yet for a certain kind of
opportunism--that which conserves rather than destroys--Browning
thought that much might fairly be said. To say this with a special
reference to the fallen Emperor of France he wrote his _Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau_.

Browning's instinctive sympathies are not with the "Saviour of Society,"
who maintains for temporary reasons a tottering edifice. He naturally
applauds the man who builds on sure foundations, or the man who in order
to reach those foundations boldly removes the accumulated lumber of the
past. But there are times when perhaps the choice lies only between
conservation of what is imperfect and the attempt to erect an airy
fabric which has no basis upon the solid earth; and Browning on the
whole preferred a veritable _civitas hominum_, however remote from the
ideal, to a sham _civitas Dei_ or a real Cloudcuckootown. "It is true,
that what is settled by custom, though it be not good, yet at least it
is fit; and those things, which have long gone together, are as it were
confederate within themselves; whereas new things piece not so well; but
though they help by their utility, yet they trouble by their
inconformity." These words, of one whose worldly wisdom was more
profoundly studied than ever Browning's was, might stand as a motto for
the poem. But the pregnant sentence of Bacon which follows these words
should be added--"All this is true if time stood still." Browning's
pleading is not a merely ingenious defence of the untenable, either with
reference to the general thesis or its application to the French Empire.
He did not, like his wife, think of the Emperor as if he were a paladin
of modern romance; but he honestly believed that he had for a time done
genuine service--though not the highest--to France and to the world. "My
opinion of the solid good rendered years ago," he wrote in September
1863 to Story, "is unchanged. The subsequent deference to the clerical
party in France and support of brigandage is poor work; but it surely is
doing little harm to the general good." And to Miss Blagden after the
publication of his poem: "I thought badly of him at the beginning of his
career, _et pour cause_; better afterward, on the strength of the
promises he made, and gave indications of intending to redeem. I think
him very weak in the last miserable year." It seemed to Browning a case
in which a veritable _apologia_ was admissible in the interests of truth
and justice, and by placing this _apologia_ in the mouth of the Emperor
himself certain sophistries were also legitimate that might help to give
the whole the dramatic character which the purposes of poetry, as the
exposition of a complex human character, required.

The misfortune was that in making choice of such a subject Browning
condemned himself to write with his left hand, to fight with one arm
pinioned, to exhibit the case on behalf of the "Saviour of Society" with
his brain rather than with brain and heart acting together. He was to
demonstrate that in the scale of spiritual colours there is a
respectable place for drab. This may be undertaken with skill and
vigour, but hardly with enthusiastic pleasure. _Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ is an interesting intellectual exercise, and if
this constitutes a poem, a poem it is; but the theme is fitter for a
prose discussion. Browning's intellectual ability became a snare by
which the poet within him was entrapped. The music that he makes here is
the music of Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha:

    So your fugue broadens and thickens,
    Greatens and deepens and lengthens,
    Till one exclaims--"But where's music, the dickens!"

The mysterious Sphinx who expounds his riddle and dissertates on himself
in an imaginary Leicester Square says many things that deserve to be
considered; but they are addressed to our understanding in the first
instance, and only in a secondary and indirect way reach our feelings
and our imagination. The interest of the poem is virtually exhausted in
a single reading; to a true work of art we return again and again for
renewed delight. We return to _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ as to a
valuable store-house of arguments or practical considerations in defence
of a conservative opportunism; but if we have once appropriated these,
we do not need the book. There is a spirit of conservation, like that of
Edmund Burke, which has in it a wise enthusiasm, we might almost say a
wise mysticism. Browning's Prince is not a conservator possessed by this
enthusiasm. Something almost pathetic may be felt in his sense that the
work allotted to him is work of mere temporary and transitory utility.
He has no high inspirations such as support the men who change the face
of the world. The Divine Ruler who has given him his special faculties,
who has enjoined upon him his special tasks, holds no further
communication with him. But he will do the work of a mere man in a man's
strength, such as it is; he cannot make new things; he can use the
thing he finds; he can for a term of years "do the best with the least
change possible"; he can turn to good account what is already half-made;
and so, he believes, he can, in a sense, co-operate with God. So long as
he was an irresponsible dreamer, a mere voice in the air, it was
permitted him to indulge in glorious dreams, to utter shining words. Now
that his feet are on the earth, now that his thoughts convert themselves
into deeds, he must accept the limitations of earth. The idealists may
put forth this programme and that; his business is not with them but
with the present needs of the humble mass of his people--"men that have
wives and women that have babes," whose first demand is bread; by
intelligence and sympathy he will effect "equal sustainment everywhere"
throughout society; and when the man of genius who is to alter the world
arises, such a man most of all will approve the work of his predecessor,
who left him no mere "shine and shade" on which to operate, but the good
hard substance of common human life.

All this is admirably put, and it is interesting to find that Browning,
who had rejoiced with Herakles doing great deeds and purging the world
of monsters, could also honour a poor provisional Atlas whose task of
sustaining a poor imperfect globe upon his shoulders is less brilliant
but not perhaps less useful. Nor would it be just to overlook the fact
that in three or four pages the poet asserts himself as more than the
prudent casuist. The splendid image of society as a temple from which
winds the long procession of powers and beauties has in it something of
the fine mysticism of Edmund Burke.[113] The record of the Prince's
early and irresponsible aspirations for a free Italy--

    Ay, still my fragments wander, music-fraught,
    Sighs of the soul, mine once, mine now, and mine
    For ever!--

with what immediately follows, would have satisfied the ardent spirit of
Mrs Browning.[114] And the characterisation of the genius of the French
nation, whose lust for war and the glory of war Browning censures as
"the dry-rot of the race," rises brilliantly out of its somewhat gray
surroundings:--

     The people here,
    Earth presses to her heart, nor owns a pride
    Above her pride i' the race all flame and air
    And aspiration to the boundless Great,
    The incommensurably Beautiful--
    Whose very faulterings groundward come of flight
    Urged by a pinion all too passionate
    For heaven and what it holds of gloom and glow:
    Bravest of thinkers, bravest of the brave
    Doers, exalt in Science, rapturous
    In Art, the--more than all--magnetic race
    To fascinate their fellows, mould mankind.

It is a passage conceived in the same spirit as the great chaunt "O Star
of France!" written, at the same date, and with a recognition of both
the virtues and the shames of France, by the American poet of Democracy.
To these memorable fragments from _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ one
other may be added--that towards the close of the poem which applies the
tradition of the succession by murder of the priesthood at the shrine of
the Clitumnian god to the succession of men of genius in the priesthood
of the world--"The new power slays the old, but handsomely."

In _Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ there is nothing enigmatical. "It is
just what I imagine the man might, if he pleased, say for himself," so
Browning wrote to Miss Blagden soon after the publication of the volume.
Many persons, however, have supposed that in _Fifine at the Fair_ (1872)
a riddle rather than a poem was given to the world by the perversity of
the writer. When she comes to speak of this work Browning's biographer
Mrs Orr is half-apologetic; it is for her "a piece of perplexing
cynicism." The origin of the poem was twofold. The external suggestion
came from the fact that during one of his visits to Pornic, Browning had
seen the original of his Fifine, and she lived in his memory as a
subject of intellectual curiosity and imaginative interest. The internal
suggestion, as Mrs Orr hints, lay in a certain mood of resentment
against himself arising from the fact that the encroachments of the
world seemed to estrange in some degree a part of his complex being from
entire fidelity to his own past. The world, in fact, seemed to be
playing with Browning the part of a Fifine. If this were so, it would be
characteristic of Browning that he should face round upon the world and
come to an explanation with his adversary. But this could not in a
printed volume be done in his own person; he was not one to take the
public into his confidence. The discussion should be removed as far as
possible from his own circumstances and even his own feelings. It should
be a dramatic debate on the subject of fidelity and infidelity, on the
bearings of the apparent to the true, on the relation of reality in
this our mortal life to illusion. As he studied the subject it assumed
new significances and opened up wider issues. An actual Elvire and an
actual Fifine may be the starting points, but by-and-by Elvire shall
stand for all that is permanent and substantial in thought and feeling,
Fifine for all that is transitory and illusive. The question of conjugal
fidelity is as much the subject of _Fifine at the Fair_ as the virtue of
tar-water is the subject of Berkeley's _Siris_. The poem is in fact
Browning's _Siris_--a chain of thoughts and feelings, reaching with no
break in the chain, from a humble basis to the heights of speculation.

But before all else _Fifine at the Fair_ is a poem. Of all the longer
poems which followed _The Ring and the Book_ it is the most sustained
and the most diversified in imaginative power. To point out passages of
peculiar beauty, passages vivid in feeling, original in thought, would
here be out of place; for the brilliance and vigour are unflagging, and
what we have to complain of is the lack of some passages of repose. The
joy in freedom--freedom accepting some hidden law--of these poor losels
and truants from convention, who stroll it and stage it, the gypsy
figure of Fifine in page-costume, the procession of imagined
beauties--Helen, Cleopatra, the Saint of Pornic Church--the
half-emerging, half-undelivered statue by Michelagnolo, the praise of
music as nearer to the soul than words, sunset at Saint-Marie, the play
of the body in the sea at noontide (with all that it typifies), woman as
the rillet leaping to the sea, woman as the dolphin that upbears Orion,
the Venetian carnival, which is the carnival of human life, darkness
fallen upon the plains, and through the darkness the Druidic stones
gleaming--all these are essentially parts of the texture of the poem,
yet each has a lustre or a shimmer or grave splendour of its own.

It is strange that any reader should have supposed either the Prologue
or the Epilogue to be uttered by the imaginary speaker of the poem. Both
shadow forth the personal feelings of Browning; the prologue tells of
the gladness he still found both in the world of imagination and the
world of reality, over which hovers the spirit that had once been so
near his own, the spirit that is near him still, yet moving on a
different plane, perhaps wondering at or pitying this life of his, which
yet he accepts with cheer and will turn to the best account; the
epilogue veils behind its grim humour the desolate feeling that came
upon him again and again as a householder in this house of life, for
behind the happiness which he strenuously maintained, there lay a great
desolation. But the last word of the epilogue--"Love is all and Death is
nought" is a word of sustainment wrung out of sorrow. These poems have
surely in them no "perplexing cynicism," nor has the poem enclosed
between them, when it is seen aright. Browning's idea in the poem he
declared in reply to a question of Dr Furnivall, "was to show merely how
a Don Juan might justify himself, partly by truth, somewhat by
sophistry." No more unhappy misnomer than this "Don Juan" could have
been devised for the curious, ingenious, learned experimenter in life,
no man of pleasure, in the vulgar sense of the word, but a deliberate
explorer of thoughts and things, who argues out his case with so much
fine casuistry and often with the justest conceptions of human character
and conduct. If we could discover a dividing line between his truth and
his sophistry, we might discover also that the poem is no exceptional
work of Browning, for which an apology is required, but of a piece with
his other writings and in harmony with the body of thought and feeling
expressed through them. Now it is certain that as Browning advanced in
years he more and more distrusted the results of the intellect in its
speculative research; he relied more and more upon the knowledge that
comes through or is embodied in love. Love by its very nature implies a
relation; what is felt is real for us. But the intellect, which aspires
to know things as they are, forever lands us in illusions--illusions
needful for our education, and therefore far from unprofitable, to be
forever replaced by fresh illusions; and the only truth we thus attain
is the conviction that truth there assuredly is, that we must forever
reach after it, and must forever grasp its shadow. Theologies,
philosophies, scientific theories--these change like the shifting and
shredding clouds before our eyes, and are forever succeeded by clouds of
another shape and hue. But the knowledge involved in love is veritable
and is verified at least for us who love. While in his practice he grew
more scientific in research for truth, and less artistic in his desire
for beauty, such was the doctrine which Browning upheld.

The speaker in _Fifine at the Fair_ is far more a seeker for knowledge
than he is a lover. And he has learnt, and learnt aright, that by
illusions the intellect is thrown forward towards what may relatively be
termed the truth; through shadows it advances upon reality. When he
argues that philosophies and theologies are the fizgigs of the brain,
its Fifines the false which lead us onward to Elvire the true, he
expresses an idea which Browning has repeatedly expressed in
_Ferishtah's Fancies_ and which, certainly, was an idea he had made his
own. And if a man approaches the other sex primarily with a view to
knowledge, with a view to confirm and to extend his own
self-consciousness and to acquire experience of the strength and the
weakness of womanhood, it is true that he will be instructed more
widely, if not more deeply, by Elvire supplemented by Fifine than by
Elvire alone. The sophistry of the speaker in Browning's poem consists
chiefly in a juggle between knowledge and love, and in asserting as true
of love what Browning held to be, in the profoundest sense, true of
knowledge. The poet desires, as Butler in his "Analogy" desired, to take
lower ground than his own; but the curious student of man and woman, of
love and knowledge--imagination aiding his intellect--is compelled, amid
his sophistical jugglings, to work out his problems upon Browning's own
lines, and he becomes a witness to Browning's own conclusions. Saul,
before the poem closes, is also among the prophets. For him, as for
Browning, "God and the soul stand sure." He sees, as Browning sees, man
reaching upward through illusions--religious theories, philosophical
systems, scientific hypotheses, artistic methods, scholarly
attainments--to the Divine. The Pornic fair has become the Venice
carnival, and this has grown to the vision of man's life, in which the
wanton and coquette named a philosophy or a theology has replaced the
gipsy in tricot. The speaker misapplies to love and the truths obtained
by love Browning's doctrine concerning knowledge. And yet, even so, he
is forced to confess, however inconsistent his action may be with his
belief, that the permanent--which is the Divine--can be reached through
a single, central point of human love, but not through any vain attempt
to manufacture an infinite by piecing together a multitude of detached
points:

     His problem posed aright
    Was--"From a given point evolve the infinite!"
    Not--"Spend thyself in space, endeavouring to joint
    Together, and so make infinite, point and point:
    Fix into one Elvire a Fair-ful of Fifines!"

If he continues his experiments, they are experiments of the senses or
of the intellect, which he knows can bring no profit to the heart: "Out
of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant." He will
undoubtedly--let this be frankly acknowledged--grow in a certain kind of
knowledge, and as certainly he will dwindle in the higher knowledge that
comes through love. The poem is neither enigmatical nor cynical, but in
entire accord with Browning's own deepest convictions and highest
feelings.[115]

Although in his later writings Browning rendered ever more and more
homage to the illuminating power of the affections, his methods
unfortunately became, as has been said, more and more scientific,
or--shall we say?--pseudo-scientific. Art jealously selects its
subjects, those which possess in a high degree spiritual or material
beauty, or that more complete beauty which unites the two. Science
accepts any subject which promises to yield its appropriate truth.
Browning, probing after psychological truth, became too indifferent to
the truth of beauty. Or shall we say that his vision of beauty became
enlarged, so that in laying bare by dissection the anatomy of any poor
corpse, he found an artistic joy in studying the enlacements of veins
and nerves? To say this is perhaps to cheat oneself with words. His own
defence would, doubtless, have been a development of two lines which
occur near the close of _Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_:

    Love bids touch truth, endure truth, and embrace
    Truth, though, embracing truth, love crush itself.

And he would have pleaded that art, which he styles

     The love of loving, rage
    Of knowing, seeing, feeling the absolute truth of things
    For truth's sake, whole and sole,

may "crush itself" for sake of the truth which is its end and aim. But
the greatest masters have not sought for beauty merely or mainly in the
dissection of ugliness, nor did they find their rejoicing in artistic
suicide for the sake of psychological discovery. To Browning such a
repulsive story as that of _Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_ served now as
well as one which in earlier days would have attracted him by its
grandeur or its grace. Here was a fine morbid growth, an exemplary moral
wen, the enormous product of two kinds of corruption--sensuality and
superstition, and what could be a more fortunate field for exploration
with aid of the scalpel? The incidents of the poem were historical and
were recent. Antoine Mellerio, the sometime jeweller of Paris, had flung
himself from his belvedere in 1870; the suit, which raised the question
of his sanity at the date when his will had been signed, was closed in
1872; the scene of his death was close to Browning's place of summer
sojourn, Saint-Aubin. The subject lay close to Browning's hand. It was
an excellent subject for a short story of the kind that gets the name of
realistic. It was an unfortunate subject for a long poem. But the
botanist who desires to study vegetable physiology does not require a
lily or a rose. Browning who viewed things from the ethical as well as
the psychological standpoint was attracted to the story partly because
it was, he thought, a story with a moral. He did not merely wish to
examine as a spiritual chemist the action of Castilian blood upon a
French brain, to watch and make a report upon the behaviour of inherited
faith when brought into contact with acquired scepticism--the scepticism
induced by the sensual temperament of the boulevards; he did not merely
wish to exhibit the difficulties and dangers of a life divided against
itself. His purpose was also to rebuke that romantic sentimentalism
which would preserve the picturesque lumber of ruined faiths and
discredited opinions, that have done their work, and remain only as
sources of danger to persons who are weak of brain and dim of sight.
Granted the conditions, it was, Browning maintains, an act of entire
sanity on the part of his sorry hero, Monsieur Léonce Miranda, to fling
himself into mid air, to put his faith to the final test, and trust to
our Blessed Lady, the bespangled and bejewelled Ravissante, to bear him
in safety through the air. But the conditions were deplorable; and those
who declined to assist in carting away the rubbish of medievalism are
responsible for Léonce Miranda's bloody night-cap.

The moral is just, and the story bears it well. Yet Browning's own
conviction that man's highest and clearest faith is no more than a
shadow of the unattainable truth may for a moment give us pause. An
iconoclast, even such an iconoclast as Voltaire, is ordinarily a man of
unqualified faith in the conclusions of the intellect. If our best
conceptions of things divine be but a kind of parable, why quarrel with
the parables accepted by other minds than our own? The answer is
twofold. First Browning was not a sceptic with respect to the truths
attained through love, and he held that mankind had already attained
through love truths that condemned the religion of self-torture and
terrified propitiations, which led Léonce Miranda to reduce his right
hand and his left to carbonised stumps and dragged him kneeling along
the country roads to manifest his devotion to the image of the Virgin.
Secondly he held that our education through intellectual illusions is a
progressive education, and that to seek to live in an obsolete illusion
is treason against humanity. Therefore his exhortation is justified by
his logic:

     Quick conclude
    Removal, time effects so tardily,
    Of what is plain obstruction; rubbish cleared,
    Let partial-ruin stand while ruin may,
    And serve world's use, since use is manifold.

The tower which once served as a belfry may possibly be still of use to
some Father Secchi to "tick Venus off in transit"; only never bring bell
again to the partial-ruin,

    To damage him aloft, brain us below,
    When new vibrations bury both in brick.

For which sane word, if not for all the pages of his poem, we may feel
gratefully towards the writer. It is the word of Browning the moralist.
The study of the double-minded hero belongs to Browning the
psychologist. The admirable portrait of Clara, the successful
adventuress, harlot and favoured daughter of the Church, is the chief
gift received through this poem from Browning the artist. She is a very
admirable specimen of her kind--the _mamestra brassicae_ species of
caterpillar, and having with beautiful aplomb outmanoeuvred and flouted
the rapacious cousinry, Clara is seen at the last, under the protection
of Holy Church, still quietly devouring her Miranda leaf--such is the
irony of nature, and the merit of a perfect digestive apparatus.

The second narrative poem of this period, _The Inn Album_ (1875), is in
truth a short series of dramatic scenes, placed in a narrative
frame-work. It is as concentrated as _Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_ is
diffuse; and the unities of time and place assist the tragic
concentration. A recast of _The Inn Album_ might indeed have appeared as
a drama on the Elizabethan stage side by side with such a brief
masterpiece, piteous and terrible, as "A Yorkshire Tragedy"; it moves
with a like appalling rapidity towards the climax and the catastrophe.
The incident of the attempted barter of a discarded mistress to clear
off the score of a gambling debt is derived from the scandalous
chronicle of English nineteenth century society.[116] Browning's tale of
crime was styled on its appearance by a distinguished critic of
Elizabethan drama the story of a "penny dreadful." He was right; but he
should have added that some of the most impressive and elevated pieces
of our dramatic literature have had sources of no greater dignity. The
story of the "penny dreadful" is here rehandled and becomes a tragedy of
which the material part is only a translation into external deed of a
tragedy of the soul. The _dramatis personae_, as refashioned from the
crude fact and the central passions of the poem, were such as would
naturally call forth what was characteristic in Browning's genius. A
martyr of love, a traitor to love, an avenger of love,--these are the
central figures. The girlish innocence of the cousin is needed only as a
ray of morning sunlight to relieve the eye that is strained and pained
by the darkness and the pallor of the faces of the exponents of passion.
And a like effect is produced by the glimpses of landscape, rich in the
English qualities of cultured gladness and repose, which Browning so
seldom presented, but which are perfectly rendered here:

    The wooded watered country, hill and dale
    And steel-bright thread of stream, a-smoke with mist,
    A-sparkle with May morning, diamond drift
    O' the sun-touched dew.

We must feel that life goes on with leisurely happiness outside the
little room that isolates its tragic occupants; the smoke from fires of
turf and wood is in the air; cottagers are at their morning cookery.
After all the poet of the inn album was well inspired in his eloquent
address:--"Hail, calm acclivity, salubrious spot!" and only certain
incidents, which time will soon efface, have touched the salutation with
irony.

In this poem Browning reverts to his earlier method of clearly and
simply dividing the evil from the good. We are not embarrassed by the
mingling of truth with sophistry; our instinctive sympathies are not
held in check, but are on the contrary reinforced by the undisguised
sympathies of the writer. We are no more in doubt where wrong and where
justice lie than if Count Gismond were confronting Count Gauthier. The
avenger, indeed, is no champion of romance; he is only a young English
snob, a little slow of brain, a little unrefined in manner, a "clumsy
giant handsome creature," who for a year has tried to acquire under an
accomplished tutor the lore of cynical worldliness, and has not
succeeded, for he is manly and honest, and has the gentleness of
strength; "for ability, all's in the rough yet." Of his education the
best part is that he has once loved and been thwarted in his love. And
now in a careless-earnest regard for his cousin his need is that of
occupation for his big, idle boy's heart; he wants something to do,
someone also to serve. Browning wishes to show the passion of
righteousness, which suddenly flames forth and abolishes an evil thing
as springing from no peculiar knightly virtue but from mere honest human
nature. The huge boy, somewhat crude, somewhat awkward, with a moral
temper still unclarified, has enough of our good, common humanity in him
to hold no parley with utter wickedness, when once he fully apprehends
its nature; therefore he springs upon it in one swift transport of rage
and there and then makes an end of it. His big red hands are as much the
instruments of divine justice as is the axe of Ivàn Ivànovitch.

The traitor of the poem is "refinement every inch from brow to
boot-heel"; and in this respect it cannot be said that Browning's
villain departs widely from the conventional, melodramatic villain of
the stage. He has perhaps like the stage villain a little too much of
that cheap knowingness, which is the theatrical badge of the complete
man of the world, but which gentlemen in actual life do not ordinarily
affect. There is here and elsewhere in Browning's later poetry somewhat
too free an indulgence in this cheap knowingness, as if with a nod and a
wink he would inform us that he has a man of the world's acquaintance
with the shady side of life; and this is not quite good art, nor is it
quite good manners. The vulgarity of the man in the street may have a
redeeming touch of animal spirits, if not of _naïveté_, in it; the
vulgarity of the man in the club, "refinement every inch" is beyond
redemption. The exhibition of Browning's traitor as having slipped lower
and lower down the slopes of baseness because he has been false to his
one experience of veritable love may remind us also of the melodramatic
stage villain; but the tragic and pathetic motives of melodrama, its
demonstrative heroisms, its stage generosities, its striking attitudes,
are really fictions founded upon fact, and the facts which give some
credit to the stage fictions remain for the true creator of tragedy to
discover and interpret aright. The melodramatic is often the truth
falsely or feebly handled; the same truth handled aright may become
tragic. There is much in Shakespeare's plays which if treated by an
inferior artist would at once sink from tragedy to melodrama. Browning
escapes from melodrama but not to such a safe position that we can quite
forget its neighbourhood. When the traitor of this poem is withdrawn--as
was Guido--

    Into that sad obscure sequestered state
    Where God unmakes but to remake the soul
    He else made first in vain,

there will be found in him that he knew the worth of love, that he saw
the horror of the void in which he lived, and that for a moment--though
too late--a sudden wave of not ignoble passion overwhelmed his baser
self, even if only to let the fangs of the treacherous rock reappear in
their starkness and cruelty.

The lady, again, with her superb statue-like beauty, her low wide brow

     Oppressed by sweeps of hair
    Darker and darker as they coil and swathe
    The crowned corpse-wanness whence the eyes burn black,

her passion, her despair, her recovery through chilling to ice the heart
within her, her reawakening to life, and the pain of that return to
sensation, her measureless scorn of her betrayer, her exposure of his
last fraud, and her self-sought death--the lady is dangerously near the
melodramatic heroine, and yet she is not a melodramatic but a tragic
figure. Far more than Pompilia, who knew the joy of motherhood, is she
the martyr of love. And yet, before she quits life, in her protective
care of that somewhat formidable, somewhat ungainly baby, the huge boy,
her champion, hero and snob, she finds a comforting maternal instinct at
work:

     Did you love me once?
    Then take love's last and best return! I think
    Womanliness means only motherhood;
    All love begins and ends there,--roams enough,
    But, having run the circle, rests at home.

Her husband, good man, will not suffer acutely for her loss; he will be
true to duty, and continue to dose his flock with the comfortable dogma
of hell-fire, in which not one of them believes.

The _Pacchiarotto_ volume of 1876 was the first collection of
miscellaneous poetry put forth by Browning since the appearance, twelve
years previously, of _Dramatis Personae_[117] There is, of course,
throughout the whole the presence of a vigorous personality; we can in
an occasional mood tumble and toss even in the rough verse of
_Pacchiarotto_, as we do on a choppy sea on which the sun is a-shine,
and which invigorates while it--not always agreeably--bobs our head, and
dashes down our throat. But vigour alone does not produce poetry, and it
may easily run into a kind of good-humoured effrontery. The speciality
of the volume as compared with its predecessors is that it contains not
a little running comment by Browning upon himself and his own work,
together with a jocular-savage reply to his unfriendly critics. There is
a little too much in all this of the robustious Herakles sending his
great voice before him. An author ought to be aware of the fact that no
pledge to admire him and his writings has been administered to every one
who enters the world, and that as sure as he attracts, so surely must he
repel. In the _Epilogue_ the poet informs his readers that those who
expect from him, or from any poet, strong wine of verse which is also
sweet demand the impossible. Sweet the strong wine can become only after
it has long lain mellowing in the cask. The experience of Browning's
readers contradicted the assertion. Some who drank the good wines of
1855 and of 1864 in the year of the vintages found that they were
strong and needed no keeping to be sweet. Wine-tasters must make
distinctions, and the quality of the yield of 1876 does not entitle it
to be remembered as an extraordinary year.

The poem from which the volume was named tells in verse, "timed by raps
of the knuckle," how the painter Pacchiarotto must needs become a
world-reformer, or at least a city-reformer in his distressed Siena,
with no good results for his city and with disastrous results for
himself. He learns by unsavoury experience his lesson, to hold on by the
paint-brush and maul-stick, and do his own work, accepting the mingled
evil and good of life in a spirit of strenuous--not
indolent--_laissez-faire_, playing, as energetically as a human being
can, his own part, and leaving others to play theirs, assured that for
all and each this life is the trial-time and test of eternity, the
rehearsal for the performance in a future world, and "Things rarely go
smooth at Rehearsal." Browning's joy in difficult rhyming as seen in
this serio-grotesque jingle was great; some readers may be permitted to
wish that many of his rhymes were not merely difficult but impossible.
At a dinner given by Sir Leslie Stephen he met successfully the
challenge to produce a rhyme for "rhinoceros," and for Tennyson's
diversion he delivered himself of an impromptu in which rhymes were
found for "Ecclefechan" and "Craigenputtock." But in rhyming ingenuity
Browning is inferior to the author of "Hudibras," in a rhymer's elegant
effrontery he is inferior to the author of "Don Juan." Browning's
good-humoured effrontery in his rhymes expects too much good-humour from
his reader, who may be amiable enough to accept rough and ready
successes, but cannot often be delighted by brilliant gymnastics of
sound and sense. In like manner it asks for a particularly well-disposed
reader to appreciate the wit of Browning's retort upon his critics: "You
are chimney-sweeps," he sings out in his great voice, "listen! I have
invented several insulting nicknames for you. Decamp! or my housemaid
will fling the slops in your faces." This may appear to some persons to
be genial and clever. It certainly has none of the exquisite malignity
of Pope's poisoned rapier. Perhaps it is a little dull; perhaps it is a
little outrageous.

The Browning who masks as Shakespeare in _At the Mermaid_ disclaims the
ambition of heading a poetical faction, condemns the Byronic
_Welt-schmerz_, and announces his resolvedly cheerful acceptance of
life. Elsewhere he assures his readers that though his work is theirs
his life is his own; he will not unlock his heart in sonnets. Such is
the drift of the verses entitled _House_; a peep through the window is
permitted, but "please you, no foot over threshold of mine." This was
not Shakespeare's wiser way; if he hid himself behind his work, it was
with the openness and with the taciturnity of Nature. He did not stand
in the window of his "House" declaring that he was not to be seen; he
did not pull up and draw down the blind to make it appear that he was at
home and not at home. In the poem _Shop_ Browning continues his
assurances that he is no Eglamor to whom verse is "a temple-worship
vague and vast." Verse-making is his trade as jewel-setting and
jewel-selling is the goldsmith's--but do you suppose that the poet lives
no life of his own?--how and where it is not for you to guess, only be
certain it is far away from his counter and his till. These poems were
needless confidences to the public that no confidences would be
vouchsafed to them.

But the volume of 1876 contains better work than these pieces of
self-assertion. The two love-lyrics _Natural Magic_ and _Magical Nature_
have each of them a surprise of beauty; the one tells of the fairy-tale
of love, the other of its inward glow and gem-like stability.
_Bifurcation_ is characteristic of the writer; the woman who chooses
duty rather than love may have done well, but she has chosen the easier
way and perhaps has evaded the probation of life; the man who chooses
passion rather than duty has slipped and stumbled, but his was the
harder course and perhaps the better. Which of the two was sinner? which
was saint? To be impeccable may be the most damning of offences. In _St
Martin's Summer_ the eerie presence of ghosts of dead loves, haunting a
love that has grown upon the graves of the past, is a check upon
passion, which by a sudden turn at the close triumphs in a victory that
is defeat. _Fears and Scruples_ is a confession of the trials of
theistic faith in a world from which God seems to be an absentee. What
had been supposed to be letters from our friend are proved forgeries;
what we called his loving actions are the accumulated results of the
natural law of heredity. Yet even if theism had to be abandoned, it
would have borne fruit:

    All my days I'll go the softlier, sadlier
     For that dream's sake! How forget the thrill
    Through and through me as I thought "The gladlier
     Lives my friend because I love him still?"

And the friend will value love all the more which persists through the
obstacles of partial ignorance.[118] The blank verse monologue _A
Forgiveness_, Browning's "Spanish Tragedy," is a romance of passion,
subtle in its psychology, tragic in its action. Out of its darkness
gleams especially one resplendent passage--the description of those
weapons of Eastern workmanship--

    Horror coquetting with voluptuousness--

one of which is the instrument chosen by the husband's hatred, now
replacing his contempt, to confer on his wife a death that is
voluptuous. The grim-grotesque incident from the history of the Jews in
Italy related in _Filippo Baldinucci_ recalls the comedy and the pathos
of _Holy Cross Day_, to which it is in every respect inferior. The Jew
of the centuries of Christian persecution is for Browning's imagination
a being half-sublime and half-grotesque, and wholly human. _Cenciaja_, a
note in verse connected with Shelley's _Cenci_, would be excellent as a
note in prose appended to the tragedy, explaining, as it does, why the
Pope, inclining to pardon Beatrice, was turned aside from his purposes
of mercy; it rather loses than gains in value by having been thrown into
verse. To recover our loyalty to Browning as a poet, which this volume
sometimes puts to the test, we might well reserve _Numpholeptos_ for the
close. The pure and disempassioned in womanly form is brought face to
face with the passionate and sullied lover, to whom her charm is a
tyranny; she is no warm sun but a white moon rising above this lost
Endymion, who never slumbers but goes forth on hopeless quests at the
bidding of his mistress, and wins for all his reward the "sad, slow,
silver smile," which is now pity, now disdain, and never love. The
subjugating power of chaste and beautiful superiority to passion over
this mere mortal devotee is absolute and inexorable. Is the nymph an
abstraction and incarnation of something that may be found in womanhood?
Is she an embodiment of the Ideal, which sends out many questers, and
pities and disdains them when they return soiled and defeated? Soft and
sweet as she appears, she is _La belle Dame sans merci_, and her
worshipper is as desperately lost as the knight-at-arms of Keats's poem.


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 112: See Morley's "Life of Gladstone," vol. iii. p. 417.]

[Footnote 113: Pages 46, 47 of the first edition.]

[Footnote 114: Pages 58-60.]

[Footnote 115: It may here be noted that Dante Rossetti in a morbid mood
supposed that certain passages of _Fifine_ were directed against
himself; and so ceased his friendship with Browning.]

[Footnote 116: Fanny Kemble also derived from the story of Lord De Ros
the subject of her "English Tragedy."]

[Footnote 117: Some sentences in what follows are taken from a notice of
the volume which I wrote on its appearance for _The Academy_.]

[Footnote 118: See Browning's letter to Mr Kingsland in "Robert
Browning" by W. G. Kingsland (1890), pp. 32, 33.]



Chapter XV

Solitude and Society


The volume which consists of _La Saisiaz_ and _The Two Poets of Croisic_
(1878) brings the work of this decade to a close.[119] _La Saisiaz_, the
record of thoughts that were awakened during that solitary clamber to
the summit of Salève after the death of Miss Egerton-Smith, is not an
elegy, but it remains with us as a memorial of friendship. In reading it
we discern the tall white figure of the "stranger lady," leaning through
the terrace wreaths of leaf and bloom, or pacing that low grass-path
which she had loved and called her own. It serves Browning's purpose in
the poem that she should have been one of those persons who in this
world have not manifested all that lies within them. Does she still
exist, or is she now no more than the thing which lies in the little
enclosure at Collonge? The poem after its solemn and impressive prelude
becomes the record of an hour's debate of the writer with himself--a
debate which has a definite aim and is brought to a definite issue. In
conducting that debate on immortality, Browning is neither Christian nor
anti-Christian. The Christian creed involves a question of history; he
cannot here admit historical considerations; he will see the matter out
as he is an individual soul, on the grounds suggested by his individual
consciousness and his personal knowledge. It may be that any result he
arrives at is a result for himself alone.

But why conduct an argument in verse? Is not prose a fitter medium for
such a discussion? The answer is that the poem is more than an argument;
it is the record in verse of an experience, the story of a pregnant and
passionate hour, during which passion quickened the intellect; and the
head, while resisting all illusions of the heart, was roused to that
resistance by the heart itself. Such an hour is full of events; it may
be almost epic in its plenitude of action; but the events are ideas. The
frame and setting of the discussion also are more than frame and
setting; they co-operate with the thoughts; they form part of the
experience. The poet is alone among the mountains, with dawn and sunset
for associates, Jura thrilled to gold at sunrise, Salève in its evening
rose-bloom, Mont-Blanc which strikes greatness small; or at night he is
beneath the luminous worlds which

    One by one came lamping--chiefly that prepotency of Mars.

While he climbs towards the summit he is aware of "Earth's most
exquisite disclosures, heaven's own God in evidence"; he stands face to
face with Nature--"rather with Infinitude." All through his mountain
ascent the vigour of life is aroused within him; and, as he
returns--there is her grave.

The idea of a future life, for which this earthly life serves as an
education and a test, is so central with Browning, so largely influences
all his feelings and penetrates all his art, that it is worth while to
attend to the course of his argument and the nature of his conclusion.
He puts the naked question to himself--What does death mean? Is it total
extinction? Is it a passage into life?--without any vagueness, without
any flattering metaphor; he is prepared to accept or endure any answer
if only it be the truth. Whether his discussion leads to a trustworthy
result or not, the sincerity and the energy of his endeavour after truth
serve to banish all supine and half-hearted moods. The debate, of which
his poem is a report, falls into two parts: first, a statement of facts;
secondly, a series of conjectures--conjectures and no more--rising from
the basis of facts that are ascertained. To put the question, "Shall I
survive death?" is to assume that I exist and that something other than
myself exists which causes me now to live and presently to die. The
nature of this power outside myself I do not know; we may for
convenience call it "God." Beyond these two facts--myself and a power
environing me--nothing is known with certainty which has any bearing on
the matter in dispute. I am like a floating rush borne onward by a
stream; whither borne the rush cannot tell; but rush and stream are
facts that cannot be questioned.

Knowing that I exist--Browning goes on--I know what for me is pain and
what is pleasure. And, however it may be with others, for my own part I
can pronounce upon the relation of joy to sorrow in this my life on
earth:--

    I must say--or choke in silence----"Howsoever came my fate,
    Sorrow did and joy did nowise--life well weighed--preponderate."

If this failure be ordained by necessity, I shall bear it as best I can;
but, if this life be all, nothing shall force me to say that life has
proceeded from a cause supreme in goodness, wisdom, and power. What I
find here is goodness always intermixed with evil; wisdom which means an
advance from error to the confession of ignorance; power that is
insufficient to adapt a human being to his surroundings even in the
degree in which a worm is fitted to the leaf on which it feeds.

Browning tacitly rejects the idea that the world is the work of some
blind, force; and undoubtedly our reason, which endeavours to reduce all
things in nature to rational conceptions, demands that we should
conceive the world as rational rather than as some wild work of chance.
Upon one hypothesis, and upon one alone, can the life of man upon this
globe appear the result of intelligence:

    I have lived then, done and suffered, loved and hated, learnt and taught
    This--there is no reconciling wisdom with a world distraught,
    Goodness with triumphant evil, power with failure in the aim,
    If (to my own sense, remember! though none other feel the same!)
    If you bar me from assuming earth to be a pupil's place,
    And life, time,--with all their chances, changes,--just probation--space,
    Mine for me.

Grant this hypothesis, and all changes from irrational to rational, from
evil to good, from pain to a strenuous joy:--

     Only grant a second life, I acquiesce
    In this present life as failure, count misfortune's worst assaults
    Triumph, not defeat, assured that loss so much the more exalts
    Gain about to be.

Thus out of defeat springs victory; never are we so near to knowledge as
when we are checked at the bounds of ignorance; beauty is felt through
its opposite; good is known through evil; truth shows its potency when
it is confronted by falsehood;

    While for love--Oh how but, losing love, does whoso loves succeed
    By the death-pang to the birth-throe--learning what is love indeed?

Yet at best this idea of a future life remains a conjecture, an
hypothesis, a hope, which gives a key to the mysteries of our troubled
earthly state. Browning proceeds to argue that such a hope is all that
we can expect or ought to desire. The absolute assurance of a future
life and of rewards and punishments consequent on our deeds in the
present world would defeat the very end for which, according to the
hypothesis, we are placed here; it would be fatal to the purpose of our
present life considered as a state of probation. What such a state of
probation requires is precisely what we have--hope; no less than this
and no more. Does our heaven overcloud because we lack certainty? No:

    Hope the arrowy, just as constant, comes to pierce its gloom, compelled
    By a power and by a purpose which, if no one else beheld,
    I behold in life, so--hope!

Such is the conclusion with Browning of the whole matter. It is in
entire accordance with a letter which he wrote two years previously to a
lady who supposed herself to be dying, and who had thanked him for help
derived from his poems: "All the help I can offer, in my poor degree, is
the assurance that I see ever _more_ reason to hold by the same
hope--and that by no means in ignorance of what has been advanced to the
contrary.... God bless you, sustain you, and receive you." To Dr
Moncure Conway, who had lost a son, Browning wrote: "If I, who cannot,
would restore your son, He who can, will." And Mr Rudolph Lehmann
records his words in conversation: "I have doubted and denied it [a
future life], and I fear have even printed my doubts; but now I am as
deeply convinced that there is something after death. If you ask me
what, I no more know it than my dog knows who and what I am. He knows
that I am there and that is enough for him."[120]

Browning's confession in _La Saisias_ that the sorrow of his life
outweighed its joy is not inconsistent with his habitual cheerfulness of
manner. Such estimates as this are little to be trusted. One great shock
of pain may stand for ever aloof from all other experiences; the
pleasant sensations of many days pass from our memory. We cannot tell.
But that Browning supposed himself able to tell is in itself worthy of
note. In _The Two Poets of Croisic_, which was written in London
immediately after _La Saisiaz_, and which, though of little intrinsic
importance, shows that Browning was capable of a certain grace in verse
that is light, he pleads that the power of victoriously dealing with
pain and transforming it into strength may be taken as the test of a
poet's greatness:

     Yoke Hatred, Crime, Remorse,
    Despair: but ever 'mid the whirling fear,
    Let, through the tumult, break the poet's face
    Radiant, assured his wild slaves win the race.

This is good counsel for art; but not wholly wise counsel for life.
Sorrow, indeed, is not wronged by a cheerfulness cultivated and
strenuously maintained; but gladness does suffer a certain wrong.
Sunshine comes and goes; the attempt to substitute any unrelieved light
for sunshine is somewhat of a failure at the best. Shadows and
brightness pursuing each other according to the course of nature make
more for genuine happiness than does any stream of moral electricity
worked from a dynamo of the will. It is pleasanter to encounter a breeze
that sinks and swells, that lingers and hastens, than to face a vigorous
and sustained gale even of a tonic quality. Browning's unfailing cheer
and cordiality of manner were admirable; they were in part spontaneous,
in part an acceptance of duty, in part a mode of self-protection; they
were only less excellent than the varying moods of a simple and
beautiful nature.

When _La Saisiaz_ appeared Browning was sixty-six years old. He lived
for more than eleven years longer, during which period he published six
volumes of verse, showing new powers as a writer of brief poetic
narrative and as a teacher through parables; but he produced no single
work of prolonged and sustained effort--which perhaps was well. His
physical vigour continued for long unabated. He still enjoyed the
various pleasures and excitements of the London season; but it is noted
by Mrs Orr that after the death of Miss Egerton-Smith he "almost
mechanically renounced all the musical entertainments to which she had
so regularly accompanied him." His daily habits were of the utmost
regularity, varying hardly at all from week to week. He was averse, says
Mrs Orr, "to every hought of change," and chose rather to adapt himself
to external conditions than to enter on the effort of altering them;
"what he had done once he was wont, for that very reason, to continue
doing." A few days after Browning's death a journalist obtained from a
photographer, Mr Grove, who had formerly been for seven years in
Browning's service, the particulars as to how an ordinary day during the
London season went by at Warwick Crescent. Browning rose without fail at
seven, enjoyed a plate of whatever fruit--strawberries, grapes,
oranges--were in season; read, generally some piece of foreign
literature, for an hour in his bedroom; then bathed; breakfasted--a
light meal of twenty minutes; sat by the fire and read his _Times_ and
_Daily News_ till ten; from ten to one wrote in his study or meditated
with head resting on his hand. To write a letter was the reverse of a
pleasure to him, yet he was diligent in replying to a multitude of
correspondents. His lunch, at one, was of the lightest kind, usually no
more than a pudding. Visits, private views of picture exhibitions and
the like followed until half-past five. At seven he dined, preferring
Carlowitz or claret to other wines, and drinking little of any. But on
many days the dinner was not at home; once during three successive weeks
he dined out without the omission of a day. He returned home seldom at a
later hour than half-past twelve; and at seven next morning the round
began again. During his elder years, says Mr Grove, he took little
interest in politics. He was not often a church-goer, but discussed
religious matters earnestly with his clerical friends. He loved not only
animals but flowers, and when once a Virginia creeper entered the study
window at Warwick Crescent, it was not expelled but trained inside the
room. To his servants he was a considerate friend rather than a master.

So far Mr Grove as reported in the _Pall Mall Gazette_ (Dec 16, 1889).

Many persons have attempted to describe Browning as he appeared in
society; there is a consensus of opinion as to the energy and cordiality
of his way of social converse; but it is singular that, though some
records of his out-pourings as a talker exist, very little is on record
that possesses permanent value. Perhaps the best word that can be quoted
is that remembered by Sir James Paget--Browning's recommendation of
Bach's "Crucifixus--et sepultus--et resurrexit" as a cure for want of
belief. He did not fling such pointed shafts as those of Johnson which
still hang and almost quiver where they struck. His energy did not
gather itself up into sentences but flowed--and sometimes foamed--in a
tide. Cordial as he was, he could be also vehemently intolerant, and
sometimes perhaps where his acquaintance with the subject of his
discourse was not sufficient to warrant a decided opinion.[121] He
appeared, says his biographer, "more widely sympathetic in his works
than in his life"; with no moral selfishness he was, adds Mrs Orr,
intellectually self-centred; and unquestionably the statement is
correct. He could suffer fools, but not always gladly. Speaking of
earlier days in Italy, T.A. Trollope observes that, while he was never
rough or discourteous even to the most exasperating fool, "the men used
to be rather afraid of Browning." His cordiality was not insincere; but
it belonged to his outer, not his inner self. With the exception of
Milsand, he appears to have admitted no man to his heart, though he gave
a portion of his intellect to many. His friends, in the more intimate
sense of the word, were women, towards whom his feeling was that of
comradeship and fraternal affection without over-much condescension or
any specially chivalric sentiment. When early in their acquaintance Miss
Barrett promised Browning that he would find her "an honest man on the
whole," she understood her correspondent, who valued a good comrade of
the other sex, and had at the same time a vivid sense of the fact that
such a comrade was not so unfortunate as to be really a man.

Let witnesses be cited and each give his fragment of evidence. Mr W.J.
Stillman, an excellent observer, was specially impressed in his
intercourse with Browning, by the mental health and robustness of a
nature sound to the core; "an almost unlimited intellectual vitality,
and an individuality which nothing could infringe on, but which a
singular sensitiveness towards others prevented from ever wounding even
the most morbid sensibility; a strong man armed in the completest
defensive armour, but with no aggressiveness."[122] A writer in the
first volume of _The New Review_, described Browning as a talker in
general society so faithfully that it is impossible to improve on what
he has said: "It may safely be alleged," he writes, "that no one meeting
Mr Browning for the first time, and unfurnished with a clue, would guess
his vocation. He might be a diplomatist, a statesman, a discoverer, or a
man of science. But, whatever were his calling, we should feel that it
must be essentially practical.... His conversation corresponds to his
appearance. It abounds in vigour, in fire, in vivacity. Yet all the time
it is entirely free from mystery, vagueness, or technical jargon. It is
the crisp, emphatic and powerful discourse of a man of the world, who is
incomparably better informed than the mass of his congeners. Mr Browning
is the readiest, the blithest, and the most forcible of talkers. Like
the Monsignore in _Lothair_ he can 'sparkle with anecdote and blaze with
repartee,' and when he deals in criticism the edge of his sword is
mercilessly whetted against pretension and vanity. The inflection of his
voice, the flash of his eye, the pose of his head, the action of his
hand, all lend their special emphasis to the condemnation." The mental
quality which most impressed Mr W.M. Rossetti in his communications with
Browning was, he says, "celerity "--"whatever he had to consider or
speak about, he disposed of in the most forthright style." His method
was of the greatest directness; "every touch told, every nail was hit on
the head." He was not a sustained, continuous speaker, nor exactly a
brilliant one; "but he said something pleasant and pointed on whatever
turned up; ... one felt his mind to be extraordinarily rich, while his
facility, accessibility, and _bonhomie_, softened but did not by any
means disguise the sense of his power."[123] Browning's discourse with a
single person who was a favoured acquaintance was, Mr Gosse declares, "a
very much finer phenomenon than when a group surrounded him." Then "his
talk assumed the volume and the tumult of a cascade. His voice rose to
a shout, sank to a whisper, ran up and down the gamut of conversational
melody.... In his own study or drawing-room, what he loved was to
capture the visitor in a low arm-chair's "sofa-lap of leather", and from
a most unfair vantage of height to tyrannize, to walk round the victim,
in front, behind, on this side, on that, weaving magic circles, now with
gesticulating arms thrown high, now grovelling on the floor to find some
reference in a folio, talking all the while, a redundant turmoil of
thoughts, fancies, and reminiscences flowing from those generous
lips."[124]

Mr Henry James in his "Life of Story"[125] is less pictorial, but he is
characteristically subtle in his rendering of the facts. He brings us
back, however, to Browning as seen in society. He speaks of the Italian
as a comparatively idyllic period which seemed to be "built out," though
this was not really the case, by the brilliant London period. It was, he
says, as if Browning had divided his personal consciousness into two
independent compartments. The man of the world "walked abroad, showed
himself, talked, right resonantly, abounded, multiplied his connections,
did his duty." The poet--an inscrutable personage--"sat at home and
knew, as well he might, in what quarters of _that_ sphere to look for
suitable company." "The poet and the 'member of society' were, in a
word, dissociated in him as they can rarely elsewhere have been.... The
wall that built out the idyll (as we call it for convenience) of which
memory and imagination were virtually composed for him, stood there
behind him solidly enough, but subject to his privilege of living almost
equally on both sides of it. It contained an invisible door, through
which, working the lock at will, he could softly pass, and of which he
kept the golden key--carrying about the same with him even in the pocket
of his dinner waistcoat, yet even in his most splendid expansions
showing it, happy man, to none." Tennyson, said an acquaintance of Miss
Anna Swanwick, "hides himself behind his laurels, Browning behind the
man of the world." She declares that her experience was more fortunate;
that she seldom heard Browning speak without feeling that she was
listening to the poet, and that on more than one occasion he spoke to
her of his wife[126]. But many witnesses confirm the impression which is
so happily put into words by Mr Henry James. The "member of society"
protected the privacy of the poet. The questions remain whether the poet
did not suffer from such protection; whether, beside the superfluous
forces which might be advantageously disposed of at the drawing-board or
in thumping wet clay, some of the forces proper to the poet were not
drawn away and dissipated by the incessant demands of Society; whether
while a sufficient fund of energy for the double life was present with
Browning, the peculiar energy of the poet did not undergo a certain
deterioration. The doctrine of the superiority of the heart to the
intellect is more and more preached in Browning's poetry; but the
doctrine itself is an act of the intellect. The poet need not perhaps
insist on the doctrine if he creates--as Browning did in earlier
years--beautiful things which commend themselves, without a preacher,
to our love.

In the autumn of 1878, after seventeen years of absence from Italy,
Browning was recaptured by its charm, and henceforward to the close of
his life Venice and the Venetian district became his accustomed place of
summer refreshment and repose. For a time, with his sister as his
companion, he paused at a hotel near the summit of the Splügen, enjoyed
the mountain air, walked vigorously, and wrote, with great rapidity,
says Mrs Orr, his poem of Russia, _Ivàn Ivànovitch_. When a boy he had
read in Bunyan's "Life and Death of Mr Badman" the story of "Old Tod",
and with this still vivid in his memory, he added to his Russian tale
the highly unidyllic "idyl" of English life, _Ned Bratts_. It was thus
that subjects for poems suddenly presented themselves to Browning, often
rising up as it were spontaneously out of the remote past. "There comes
up unexpectedly," he wrote in a letter to a friend, "some subject for
poetry, which has been dormant, and apparently dead, for perhaps dozens
of years. A month since I wrote a poem of some two hundred lines
['Donald'] about a story I heard more than forty years ago, and never
dreamed of trying to repeat, wondering how it had so long escaped me;
and so it has been with my best things."[127] Before the close of
September the travellers were in a rough but pleasant albergo at Asolo,
which Browning had not seen since his first Italian journey more than
forty years previously. "Such things," he writes, "have begun and ended
with me in the interval!" Changes had taken place in the little city;
yet much seemed familiar and therefore the more dreamlike. The place had
indeed haunted him in his dreams; he would find himself travelling with
a friend, or some mysterious stranger, when suddenly the little town
sparkling in the sunshine would rise before him. "Look! look there is
Asolo," he would cry, "do let us go there!" And always, after the way of
dreams, his companions would declare it impossible and he would be
hurried away.[128] From the time that he actually saw again the city
that he loved this recurring dream was to come no more. He wandered
through the well-known places, and seeking for an echo in the Rocca, the
ruined fortress above the town, he found that it had not lost its
tongue. A fortnight at Venice in a hotel where quiet and coolness were
the chief attractions, prepared the way for many subsequent visits to
what he afterwards called "the dearest place in the world." Everything
in Venice, says Mrs Bronson, charmed him: "He found grace and beauty in
the _popolo_ whom he paints so well in the Goldoni sonnet. The poorest
street children were pretty in his eyes. He would admire a carpenter or
a painter, who chanced to be at work in the house, and say to me 'See
the fine poise of the head ... those well-cut features. You might fancy
that man in the crimson robe of a Senator as you see them in Tintoret's
canvas.'"

But these are reminiscences of later days. It was in 1880 that Browning
made the acquaintance of his American friend Mrs Arthur Bronson, whose
kind hospitalities added to the happiness of his visits to Asolo and to
Venice, who received, as if it were a farewell gift, the dedication of
his last volume, and who, not long before her death in 1901, published
interesting articles on "Browning in Asolo" and "Browning in Venice" in
_The Century Magazine_. The only years in which he did not revisit
Venice were 1882, 1884 and 1886, and in each of these years his absence
was occasioned by some unforeseen mis-adventure. In 1882 the floods were
out, and he proceeded no farther than Verona. Could he have overcome the
obstacles and reached Venice, he feared that he might have been
incapable of enjoying it. For the first time in his life he was lamed by
what he took for an attack of rheumatism, "caught," he says, "just
before leaving St Pierre de Chartreuse, through my stupid inadvertence
in sitting with a window open at my back--reading the Iliad, all my
excuse!--while clad in a thin summer suit, and snow on the hills and
bitterness every where."[129] In 1884 his sister's illness at first
forbade travel to so considerable a distance. The two companions were
received by another American friend, Mrs Bloomfield Moore, at the Villa
Berry, St Moritz, and when she was summoned across the Atlantic, at her
request they continued to occupy her villa. The season was past; the
place deserted; but the sun shone gloriously. "We have walked every
day," Browning wrote at the end of September, "morning and
evening--afternoon I should say--two or three hours each excursion, the
delicious mountain air surpassing any I was ever privileged to breathe.
My sister is absolutely herself again, and something over: I was hardly
in want of such doctoring."[130] Two years later Miss Browning was
ailing again, and they did not venture farther than Wales. At the Hand
Hotel, Llangollen, they were at no great distance from Brintysilio, the
summer residence of their friends Sir Theodore and Lady Martin--in
earlier days the Lady Carlisle and Colombe of Browning's plays.[131] Mrs
Orr notices that Browning, Liberal as he declared himself, was now very
favourably impressed by the services to society of the English country
gentleman. "Talk of abolishing that class of men!" he exclaimed, "they
are the salt of the earth!" She adds, as worthy of remark, that he
attended regularly the afternoon Sunday service in the parish church at
Llantysilio, where now a tablet of Lady Martin's placing marks the spot.
Churchgoing was not his practice in London; "but I do not think," says
Mrs Orr, "he ever failed in it at the Universities or in the country."
At Venice it was his custom to be present with his sister at the
services of a Waldensian chapel, where "a certain eloquent pastor," as
Mrs Bronson describes him, was the preacher. A year before his death
Browning in a letter to Lady Martin recalls the happy season in the Vale
of Llangollen--"delightful weeks--each tipped with a sweet starry Sunday
at the little church leading to the House Beautiful where we took our
rest of an evening spent always memorably."

[Illustration: THE PALAZZO GIUSTINIANI, VENICE.

_From a drawing by_ Miss N. ERICHSEN.]

Before passing on to Venice, where repose was mingled with excitement,
Browning was accustomed to seek a renewal of physical energy, after the
fatigues of London, in some place not too much haunted by the English
tourist, where he could walk for hours in the clear mountain air. In
1881 and 1882 it was St Pierre de Chartreuse, from which he visited the
Grande Chartreuse, and heard the midnight mass; in 1883 and 1885 it was
Gressoney St Jean in the Val d'Aosta--the "delightful Gressoney" of the
Prologue to _Ferishtah's Fancies_, where "eggs, milk, cheese, fruit"
sufficed "for gormandizing"; in 1888 it was the yet more beautiful
Primiero, near Feltre. In the previous year he had, for the second time,
stayed at St Moritz. These were seasons of abounding life. St Pierre was
only "a wild little clump of cottages on a mountain amid loftier
mountains," with the roughest of little inns for its hotel; but its
primitive arrangements suited Browning well and were bravely borne by
his sister.[132] From Gressoney in September 1885 he wrote: "We are all
but alone, the brief 'season' being over, and only a chance traveller
turning up for a fortnight's lodging. We take our walks in the old way;
two and a half hours before breakfast, three after it, in the most
beautiful country I know. Yesterday the three hours passed without our
meeting a single man, woman, or child; one man only was discovered at a
distance at the foot of a mountain we had climbed."[133] All things
pleased him; an August snowstorm at St Moritz was made amends for by
"the magnificence of the mountain and its firs black against the
universal white"; it served moreover as an illustration of a passage in
the Iliad, the only book that accompanied him from England: "The days
glide away uneventfully, _nearly_, and I breathe in the pleasant
idleness at every pore. I have no few acquaintances here--nay, some
old friends--but my intimates are the firs on the hillside, and the
myriad butterflies all about it, every bright wing of them under the
snow to-day, which ought not to have been for a fortnight yet."[134] And
from Primiero in 1888, when his strength had considerably declined, a
letter tells of unabated pleasure; of mountains "which morning and
evening, in turn, transmute literally to gold," with at times a silver
change; of the valley "one green luxuriance"; of the tiger-lilies in the
garden above ten feet high, every bloom and every leaf faultless; and of
the captive fox, "most engaging of little vixens," who, to Browning's
great joy, broke her chain and escaped.[135] As each successive volume
that he published seemed to him his best, so of his mountain places of
abode the last always was the loveliest.

At Venice for a time the quiet Albergo dell' Universo suited Browning
and his sister well, but when Mrs Bronson pressed them to accept the use
of a suite of rooms in the Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati and the kind
offer was accepted, the gain was considerable; and the _Palazzo_ has
historical associations dating from the fifteenth century which pleased
Browning's imagination. It was his habit to rise early, and after a
light breakfast to visit the Public Gardens with his sister. He had many
friends--Mrs Bronson is our informant--whose wants or wishes he bore in
mind--the prisoned elephant, the baboon, the kangaroo, the marmosets,
the pelicans, the ostrich; three times, with strict punctuality, he
made his rounds, and then returned to his apartment. At noon appeared
the second and more substantial breakfast, at which Italian dishes were
preferred. Browning wrote passionately against the vivisection of
animals, and strenuously declaimed against the decoration of a lady's
hat with the spoils of birds--

     Clothed with murder of His best
    Of harmless beings.

He praised God--for pleasure as he teaches us is praise--by heartily
enjoying ortolans, "a dozen luscious lumps" provided by the cook of the
Giustiniani-Recanati palace; to vary his own phrasing, he was

     Fed with murder of His best
    Of harmless beings,

and laughed, innocently enough, with his good sister over the delicious
"mouthfuls for cardinals."[136] As if the pleasure of the eye in beauty
gained at a bird's expense were more criminal than the gusto of the
tongue in lusciousness, curbed by piquancy, gained at the expense of a
dozen other birds! At three o'clock came the gondola, and it was often
directed to the Lido. "I walk, even in wind and rain, for a couple of
hours on Lido," Browning wrote when nearly seventy, "and enjoy the break
of sea on the strip of sand as much as Shelley did in those old
days."[137] And to another friend: "You don't know how absolutely well I
am after my walking, not on the mountains merely, but on the beloved
Lido. Go there, if only to stand and be blown about by the sea
wind."[138] At one time he even talked of completing an unfinished villa
on the Lido from which "the divine sunsets" could be seen, but the
dream-villa faded after the manner of such dreams. Sunsets, however, and
sunrises never faded from Browning's brain. "I will not praise a cloud
however bright," says Wordsworth, although no one has praised them more
ardently than he. From Pippa's sunrise to the sunrises of mornings when
his life drew towards its close, Browning lavished his praise upon the
scenery of the sky. A passage quoted by Mrs Orr from a letter written a
little more than a year before his death is steeped in colour; when
_Pippa Passes_ becomes the prey of the annotating editor it will
illuminate his page: "Every morning at six I see the sun rise.... My
bedroom window commands a perfect view: the still, grey lagune, the few
sea-gulls flying, the islet of S. Giorgio in deep shadow, and the clouds
in a long purple rack, behind which a sort of spirit of rose burns up
till presently all the rims are on fire with gold, and last of all the
orb sends before it a long column of its own essence apparently: so my
day begins." The sea-gulls of which this extract speaks were, Mrs
Bronson tells us, a special delight to Browning. On a day of gales "he
would stand at the window and watch them as they sailed to and fro, a
sure sign of heavy storms in the Adriatic." To him, as he declared, they
were even more interesting than the doves of St Mark.

Sometimes his walks, guided by Mrs Bronson's daughter, "the best
cicerone in the world," he said, were through the narrowest by-streets
of the city, where he rejoiced in the discovery, or what he supposed to
be discovery, of some neglected stone of Venice. Occasionally he
examined curiously the monuments of the churches. His American friend
tells at length the story of a search in the Church of San Niccolò for
the tomb of the chieftain Salinguerra of Browning's own _Sordello_. At
times he entered the bric-a-brac shops, and made a purchase of some
piece of old furniture or tapestry. His rule "never to buy anything
without knowing exactly what he wished to do with it" must have been
interpreted liberally, for when about to move in June 1887 from Warwick
Crescent to De Vere Gardens many treasures acquired in Italy were, Mrs
Orr tells us, stowed away in the house which he was on the point of
leaving. And the latest bibelot was always the most enchanting: "Like a
child with a new toy," says Mrs Bronson, "he would carry it himself
(size and weight permitting) into the gondola, rejoice over his chance
in finding it, and descant eloquently upon its intrinsic merits." Thus,
or with his son's assistance, came to De Vere Gardens brass lamps that
had hung in Venetian chapels, the silver Jewish "Sabbath lamp," and the
"four little heads"--the seasons--after which, Browning declared, he
would not buy another thing for the house.[139] Returning from his walks
on the Lido or wanderings through the little _calli_, he showed that
unwise half-disdain, which an unenlightened masculine Herakles might
have shown, for the blessedness of five o'clock tea. At dinner he was in
his toilet what Mr Henry James calls the "member of society," never the
poet whose necktie is a dithyramb. Good sense was his habit if not his
foible. And why should we deny ourselves here the pleasure of imagining
Miss Browning at these pleasant ceremonies, as Mrs Bronson describes
her, wearing "beautiful gowns of rich and sombre tints, and appearing
each day in a different and most dainty French cap and quaint antique
jewels"? If other guests were not present, sometimes a visit to the
theatre followed. The Venetian comedies of Gallina especially pleased
Browning; he went to his spacious box at the Goldoni evening after
evening, and did not fail to express his thanks to his "brother
dramatist" for the enjoyment he had received. In his _Toccata of
Galuppi_ he had expressed the melancholy which underlies the transitory
gaiety of eighteenth-century life in Venice; but he could also remember
its innocent gladnesses without this sense of melancholy. When in 1883
the committee of the Goldoni monument asked Browning to contribute a
poem to their Album he immediately complied with the request. It was
"scribbled off," according to Mrs Orr, while Professor Molmenti's
messenger was waiting; it was ready the day after the request reached
him, says Mrs Bronson, and was probably "carefully thought out before he
put pen to paper." It catches, in the happiest temper, the spirit of
Goldoni's sunniest plays:

    There throng the People: how they come and go,
     Lisp the soft language, flaunt the bright garb--see--
    On Piazza, Calle, under Portico
     And over Bridge! Dear King of Comedy,
    Be honoured! Thou that didst love Venice so,
     Venice, and we who love her, all love thee!

The brightness and lightness of southern life soothed Browning's
northern strenuousness of mood. He would enumerate of a morning the
crimes of "the wicked city" as revealed by the reports of the public
press--a gondolier's oars had been conveyed away, a piece of linen a-dry
had corrupted the virtue of some lightfingered Autolycus of the
canals![140] Yet all the while much of his heart remained with his
native land. He could not be happy without his London daily paper; Mrs
Orr tells us how deeply interested he was in the fortunes of the British
expedition for the relief of General Gordon.

In 1885 Browning's son for the first time since his childhood was in
Italy. With Venice he was in his father's phrase "simply infatuated."
For his son's sake, but also with the thought of a place of retreat when
perhaps years should bring with them feebleness of body, Browning
entered into treaty with the owner, an Austrian and an absentee, for the
purchase of the Manzoni Palazzo on the Grand Canal. He considered it the
most beautiful house in Venice. Ruskin had described it in the "Stones
of Venice" as "a perfect and very rich example of Byzantine
Renaissance." It wholly captured the imagination of Browning. He not
only already possessed it in his dream, but was busy opening new windows
to admit the morning sunshine, and throwing out balconies, while leaving
undisturbed the rich façade with its medallions in coloured marble. The
dream was never realised. The vendor, Marchese Montecucculi, hoping to
secure a higher price, drew back. Browning was about to force him by
legal proceedings to fulfil his bargain, when it was discovered that the
walls were cracked and the foundations were untrustworthy. To his great
mortification the whole scheme had to be abandoned. It was not until
his son in 1888, the year after his marriage, acquired possession of the
Palazzo Rezzonico--"a stately temple of the rococo" is Mr Henry James's
best word for it--that Browning ceased to think with regret of the lost
Manzoni. At no time, however, did he design a voluntary abandonment of
his life in England. When in full expectation of becoming the owner of
the Palazzo Manzoni he wrote to Dr Furnivall: "Don't think I mean to
give up London till it warns me away; when the hospitalities and
innumerable delights grow a burden.... Pen will have sunshine and beauty
about him, and every help to profit by these, while I and my sister have
secured a shelter when the fogs of life grow too troublesome."


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 119: Some parts of what follows on _La Saisiaz_ have already
appeared in print in a forgotten article of mine on that poem.]

[Footnote 120: "An Artist's Reminiscences," by R. Lehmann (1894), p.
231.]

[Footnote 121: Thus he declaimed to Robert Buchanan against Walt
Whitman's writings, with which, according to Buchanan, he had little
acquaintance.]

[Footnote 122: "Autobiography of a Journalist," ii. 210.]

[Footnote 123: From the first of three valuable articles by Mr Rossetti
in _The Magazine of Art_ (1890) on "Portraits of Robert Browning."]

[Footnote 124: Robert Browning, "Personalia," by Edmund Gosse, pp. 81,
82.]

[Footnote 125: Vol. ii. pp. 88, 89.]

[Footnote 126: Anna Swanwick, "A Memoir by Mary L. Bruce," pp. 130, 131.
To Dr Furnivall he often spoke of Mrs Browning.]

[Footnote 127: From Mrs Bronson's article in _The Century Magazine_,
"Browning in Venice."]

[Footnote 128: Related more fully in Mrs Bronson's article "Browning in
Asolo" in _The Century Magazine_.]

[Footnote 129: Mrs Bronson's "Browning in Venice" in _The Century
Magazine_.]

[Footnote 130: To Dr Furnivall, Sept. 28, 1884.]

[Footnote 131: Some notices of Browning in Wales occur in Sir T.
Martin's "Life of Lady Martin."]

[Footnote 132: Letter to Dr Furnivall, August 29, 1881.]

[Footnote 133: To Dr Furnivall, Sept. 7, 1885.]

[Footnote 134: To Dr Furnivall, August 21, 1887.]

[Footnote 135: See for fuller details the letter in Mrs Orr's _Life of
Browning_, pp. 407, 408.]

[Footnote 136: So described by Mrs Bronson.]

[Footnote 137: To Dr Furnivall, Oct. 11, 1881.]

[Footnote 138: Quoted by Mrs Bronson.]

[Footnote 139: Mrs Orr, "Life of Browning," p. 400.]

[Footnote 140: Mrs Bronson records this.]



Chapter XVI

Poet and Teacher in Old Age


During the last decade of his life Browning's influence as a literary
power was assured. The publication indeed of _The Ring and the Book_ in
1868 did much to establish his reputation with those readers who are not
watchers for a new planet but revise their astronomical charts upon
authority. He noted with satisfaction that fourteen hundred copies of
_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_ were sold in five days, and says of
_Balaustion's Adventure_ "2500 in five months is a good sale for the
likes of me." The later volumes were not perhaps more popular, but they
sent readers to the earlier poems, and successive volumes of Selections
made these easily accessible. That published by Moxon in 1865, and
dedicated in words of admiration and friendship to Tennyson, by no means
equalled in value the earlier Selections made by John Forster. The
volume of 1872--dedicated also to Tennyson--which has been frequently
reprinted, was arranged upon a principle, the reference of which to the
poems chosen is far from clear--"by simply stringing together certain
pieces"; Browning wrote, "on the thread of an imaginary personality, I
present them in succession, rather as the natural development of a
particular experience than because I account them the most noteworthy
portion of my work." We can perceive that some poems of love are
brought together, and some of art, and that the series closes with poems
of religious thought or experience, but such an order is not strictly
observed, and the "imaginary personality"--the thread--seems to be
imaginary in the fullest sense of the word. Yet it is of interest to
observe that something of a psychological-dramatic arrangement was at
least designed. A second series of Selections followed in 1880. Browning
was accepted by many admirers not only as a poet but as a prophet.
"Tennyson and I seem now to be regarded as the two kings of Brentford,"
he said laughingly in 1879.[141] The later-enthroned king was soon to
have an interesting court. In 1881 The Browning Society, founded by Dr
Furnivall--initiator of so much work that is invaluable to the student
of our literature--and Miss E.H. Hickey, herself a poet, began its
course. At first, according to Mrs Orr, Browning "treated the project as
a joke," but when once he understood it to be serious, "he did not
oppose it." He felt, however, that before the public he must stand aloof
from its work: "as Wilkes was no Wilkeite," he wrote to Edmund Yates, "I
am quite other than a Browningite." With a little nervousness as to the
discretion which the Society might or might not show, he felt grateful
for the interest in his writings demonstrated by persons many of whom
had been unknown to him even by name. He was always ready to furnish Dr
Furnivall with a note of facts or elucidation. His old admirers had made
him somewhat too much of a peculiar and private possession. A propaganda
of younger believers could not be unwelcome to one who had for so many
years been commonly regarded as an obscure heretic--not even an
heresiarch--of literature.

Other honours accompanied his old age. In 1884 he received the LL.D. of
the University of Edinburgh, and again declined to be nominated for the
Lord Rectorship of the University of St Andrews. Next year he accepted
the Honorary Presidency of the Five Associated Societies of Edinburgh.
In 1886 he was appointed Foreign Correspondent to the Royal Academy, a
sinecure post rendered vacant by the death of Lord Houghton. Though so
vigorous in talk, Browning could not make a public speech, or he shrank
from such an effort; none of the honours which he accepted were such as
to put him to this test. During many years he was President of the New
Shakspere Society. His veneration for Shakespeare is expressed in a
sonnet entitled _The Names_, written for the Book of the Show held in
the Albert Hall, May 1884, on behalf of the Fulham Road Hospital for
Women; it was not included in the edition of his works which he was
superintending during the last two years of his life. Browning was not
wholly uninterested in the attempts made to transfer the glory of the
Shakespearian drama to Bacon; he agreed with Spedding that whatever else
might be a matter of doubt, it was certain that the author of the
"Essays" could not have been the author of the plays. On another
question it is perhaps worth recording his opinion--he could see nothing
of Shakespeare, he declared, in the tragedy of _Titus Andronicus_.

In 1879 appeared _Dramatic Idyls_ and in the following year _Dramatic
Idyls, Second Series_. They differed in two respects from the volumes of
miscellaneous poetry which Browning had previously published. Hitherto
the contents of his collections of verse in the main fell into three
groups--poems which were interpretations of the passion of love, poems
which dealt with art and artists, poems which were inspired by the ideas
and emotions of religion. Unless we regard _Ned Bratts_ as a poem of
religious experience, we may say that these themes are wholly absent
from the _Dramatic Idyls_. Secondly, the short story in verse for the
first time becomes predominant, or rather excludes other forms, and the
short story here is in general not romantic or fantastic, but what we
understand by the word "realistic." The outward body of the story is in
several instances more built up by cumulative details than formerly,
which gives it an air of solidity or massiveness, and is less expressed
through a swift selection of things essential. And this may lead a
reader to suppose that the story is more a narrative of external
incidents than is actually the case. In truth, though the "corporal
rind" of the narrative bulks upon our view, the poet remains essentially
the psychologist. The narrative interest is not evenly distributed over
the whole as it is in the works of such a writer as Chaucer, who loves
narrative for its own sake. There is ordinarily a crisis, a culmination,
a decisive and eventful invasion or outbreak of spiritual passion to
which we are led up by all that precedes it. If the poem should be
humorous, it works up to some humorous point, or surprise. The narrative
is in fact a picture that hangs from a nail, and the nail here is some
vivid moment of spiritual experience, or else some jest which also has
its crisis. A question sometimes arises as to whether the central
motive is sufficient to bear the elaborate apparatus; for the parts of
the poem do not always justify themselves except by reference to their
centre, in the case, for example, of _Doctor_----, the thesis is that a
bad wife is stronger than death; the jest culminates at the point where
the Devil upon sight of his formidable spouse flies from the bed's-head
of one who is about to die, and thus allows his victim to escape the
imminent death. The question, "Will the jest sustain a poem of such
length?" is a fair one, and a good-natured reader will stretch a point
and say that he has not after all been so ill amused, which he might
also say of an Ingoldsby Legend; but even a good-natured reader will
hardly return to _Doctor_ ---- with pleasure. Chaucer with as thin a
jest could have made an admirable poem, for the interest would have been
distributed by his lightness of touch, by his descriptive power, by
slyness, by geniality, by a changeful ripple of enjoyment over the
entire piece. With Browning, when we have arrived at the apex of the
jest, we are fatigued by the climb, and too much out of breath to be
capable of laughter. In like manner few persons except the Browning
enthusiast, who is not responsible for his fervour, will assert that
either the jest or the frankly cynical moral of _Pietro of Abano_
compensates for the jolting in a springless waggon over a rough road and
a long. We make the acquaintance of a magician who with knowledge
uninspired by love has kicks and cuffs for his reward, and the
acquaintance of an astute Greek, who, at least in his dream of life,
imposed upon him by the art of magic, exploits the talents of his friend
Pietro, and gains the prize of his astuteness, having learnt to rule men
by the potent spell of "cleverness uncurbed by conscience." The
cynicism is only inverted morality, and implies that the writer is the
reverse of cynical; but it lacks the attractive sub-acid flavour of a
delicate cynicism, which insinuates its prophylactic virus into our
veins, and the humour of the poem, ascending from stage to stage until
we reach Pietro's final failure, is cumbrous and mechanical.

The two series of _Dramatic Idyls_ included some conspicuous successes.
The classical poems _Pheidippides_, _Echetlos_, _Pan and Luna_, idyls
heroic and mythological, invite us by their beauty to return to them
again and again. Browning's sympathy with gallantry in action, with
self-devotion to a worthy cause, was never more vividly rendered than in
the first of these poems. The runner of Athens is a more graceful
brother of the Breton sailor who saved a fleet for France; but the
vision of majestical Pan in "the cool of a cleft" exalts our human
heroism into relation with the divine benevolence, and the reward of
release from labour is proportionally higher than a holiday with the
"belle Aurore." Victory and then domestic love is the human
interpretation of Pan's oracular promise; but the gifts of the gods are
better than our hopes and it proves to be victory and death:

     He flung down his shield,
    Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field
    And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
    Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay,
    Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died--the bliss!

The companion poem of Marathon, the story of the nameless clown, the
mysterious holder of the ploughshare, is not less inspiring. The unknown
champion, so plain in his heroic magnitude of mind, so brilliant as he
flashes in the van, in the rear, is like the incarnated genius of the
soil, which hides itself in the furrow and flashes into the harvest; and
it is his glory to be obscured for ever by his deed--"the great deed
ne'er grows small." Browning's development of the Vergilian myth--"si
credere dignum est"--of Pan and Luna astonishes by its vehement
sensuousness and its frank chastity; and while the beauty of the
Girl-moon and the terror of her betrayal are realised with the utmost
energy of imagination, we are made to feel that all which happens is the
transaction of a significant dream or legend.

In contrast with these classical pieces, _Halbert and Hob_ reads like a
fragment from some Scandinavian saga telling of the life of forlorn and
monstrous creatures, cave-dwellers, who are less men than beasts. Yet
father and son are indeed men; the remorse which checks the last outrage
against paternity is the touch of the finger of God upon human hearts;
and though old Halbert sits dead,

    With an outburst blackening still the old bad fighting face,

and young Hob henceforth goes tottering, muttering, mumbling with a
mindless docility, they are, like Browning's men of the Paris morgue,
only "apparent failures"; there was in them that spark of divine
illumination which can never be wholly extinguished. Positive misdeeds,
the presence of a wild crew of evil passions, do not suffice to make
Browning's faith or hope falter. It is the absence of human virtue which
appals him; if the salt have lost its savour wherewith shall it be
salted? This it is which condemns to a swift, and what the poem
represents as a just, abolishment from earth the mother who in _Ivàn
Ivànovitch_ has given her children to the wolves, and has thereby proved
the complete nullity of her womanhood. For her there is no possible
redemption; she must cease to cumber the ground. Ivàn acts merely as the
instinctive doomsman of Nature or of God, and the old village Pope, who,
as the veil of life grows thin, is feeling after the law above human
law, justifies the wielder of the axe, which has been no instrument of
vengeance but simply an exponent of the wholesome vitality of earth. The
objection that carpenters and joiners, who assume the Heraklean task of
purging the earth of monsters, must be prepared to undergo a period of
confinement at the pleasure of the Czar in a Criminal Lunatic Asylum is
highly sensible, and wholly inappropriate, belonging, as it does, to a
plane of thought and feeling other than that in which the poem moves.
But perhaps it is not a defect of feeling to fail in admiration of that
admired final tableau in which the formidable carpenter is discovered
building a toy Kremlin for his five children. We can take for granted
that the excellent homicide, having done so simple a bit of the day's
work as that of decapitating a fellow-creature, proceeds tranquilly to
other innocent pleasures and duties; we do not require the ostentatious
theatrical group, with limelight effects on the Kremlin and the
honey-coloured beard, displayed for our benefit just before the curtain
is rung down.[142]

[Illustration: SPECIMEN OF BROWNING'S HANDWRITING.

_From a letter to D.S. CURTIS, Esq._]

_Martin Relph_ is a story of life-long remorse, self-condemnation and
self-denunciation; there is something approaching the supernatural, and
yet terribly real, in the figure of the strange old man with a beard as
white as snow, standing, on a bright May day, in monumental grief, and
exposing his ulcerated heart to the spectators who form for him a kind
of posterity. One instant's failure in the probation of life, one
momentary syncope of his better nature long years ago, has condemned his
whole after-existence to become a climbing of the purgatorial mount,
with an agony of pain annually renewed at the season when the earth
rejoices. Only a high-strung delicate spirit is capable of such a
perennial passion of penitence. _Ned Bratts_ may be described as a
companion, but a contrasted piece. It is a story of sudden conversion
and of penitence taking an immediate and highly effective form. The
humour of the poem, which is excellent of its kind, resembles more the
humour of Rowlandson than that of Hogarth. The Bedford Court House on
the sweltering Midsummer Day, the Puritan recusants, reeking of piety
and the cow-house conventicle, the Judges at high jinks upon the
bench--to whom, all in a muck-sweat and ablaze with the fervour of
conversion, enter Black Ned, the stout publican, and big Tab, his slut
of a wife,--these are drawn after the broad British style of humorous
illustration, which combines a frank exaggeration of the characteristic
lines with, at times, a certain grace in deformity. Here at least is
downright belief in the invisible, here is genuine conviction driven
home by the Spirit of God and the terror of hell-fire. Black Ned and the
slut Tabby as yet may not seem the most suitable additions to the
company of the blessed who move singing

    In solemn troops and sweet societies;

but when a pair of lusty sinners desire nothing so much as to be hanged,
and that forthwith, we may take it that they are resolved, as
"Christmas" was, to quit the City of Destruction; and the saints above
have learnt not to be fastidious as they bend over repentant rogues.
Thanks to the grace of God and John Bunyan's book, husband and wife
triumphantly aspire to and attain the gallows; "they were lovely and
pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided." A
wise economy of spiritual force!--for while their effectual calling
cannot be gainsaid, the final perseverance of these interesting
converts, had they lingered on the pilgrims' way, as Ned is painfully
aware, might have been less of a certainty.

Browning's method as a story-teller may be studied with special
advantage in _Clive_. The circumstances under which the tale is related
have to be caught at by the reader, which quickens his attention and
keeps him on the alert; this device is, of course, not in itself
difficult, but to employ it with success is an achievement requiring
skill; it is a device proper to the dramatic or quasi-dramatic form; the
speaker, who is by no means a Clive, has to betray something of his own
character, and at the same time to set forth the character of the hero
of his tale; the narrative must tend to a moment of culmination, a
crisis; and that this should involve a paradox--Clive's fear, in the
present instance, being not that the antagonist's pistol, presented at
his head, should be discharged but rather that it should be remorsefully
or contemptuously flung away--gives the poet an opportunity for some
subtle or some passionate casuistry. The effect of the whole is that of
a stream or a shock from an electric battery of mind, for which the
story serves as a conductor. It is not a simple but a highly complex
species of narrative. In _Muléykeh_, one of the most delightful of
Browning's later poems, uniting, as it does, the poetry of the rapture
of swift motion with the poetry of high-hearted passion, the narrative
leads up to a supreme moment, and this resolves itself through a paradox
of the heart. Shall Hóseyn recover his stolen Pearl of a steed, but
recover her dishonoured in the race, or abandon her to the captor with
her glory untarnished? It is he himself who betrays himself to loss and
grief, for to perfect love, pride in the supremacy of the beloved is
more than possession; and thus as Clive's fear was courage, as Ivan's
violation of law was obedience to law, so Hóseyn's loss is Hóseyn's
gain. In each case Browning's casuistry is not argumentative; it lies in
an appeal to some passion or some intuition that is above our common
levels of passion or of insight, and his power of uplifting his reader
for even a moment into this higher mood is his special gift as a poet.
We can return safely enough to the common ground, but we return with a
possession which instructs the heart.

A mood of acquiescence, which does not displace the moods of aspiration
and of combat but rather floats above them as an atmosphere, was growing
familiar to Browning in these his elder years. He had sought for truth,
and had now found all that earth was likely to yield him, of which not
the least important part was a conviction that much of our supposed
knowledge ends in a perception of our ignorance. He was now disposed to
accept what seemed to be the providential order that truth and error
should mingle in our earthly life, that truth should be served by
illusion; he would not rearrange the disposition of things if he could.
He was inclined to hold by the simple certainties of our present life
and to be content with these as provisional truths, or as temporary
illusions which lead on towards the truth. In the _Pisgah Sights_ of the
_Pacchiarotto_ volume he had imagined this mood of acquiescence as
belonging to the hour of death. But old age in reality is an earlier
stage in the process of dying, and with all his ardour and his energy,
Browning was being detached from the contentions and from some of the
hopes and aspirations of life. And because he was detached he could take
the world to his heart, though in a different temper from that of youth
or middle age; he could limit his view to things that are near, because
their claim upon his passions had diminished while their claim upon his
tenderness had increased. He could smile amiably, for to the mood of
acquiescence a smile seems to be worth more than an argument. He could
recall the thoughts of love, and reanimate them in his imagination, and
could love love with the devotion of an old man to the most precious of
the things that have been. Some of an old man's jests may be found in
_Jocoseria_, some of an old man's imaginative passion in _Asolando_, and
in both volumes, and still more clearly in _Ferishtah's Fancies_ may be
seen an old man's spirit of acquiescence, or to use a catch-word of
Matthew Arnold, the epoch of concentration which follows an epoch of
expansion. But the embrace of earth and the things of earth is like the
embrace, with a pathos in its ardour, which precedes a farewell. From
the first he had recognised the danger on the one hand of settling down
to browse contentedly in the paddock of our earthly life, and on the
other hand the danger of ignoring our limitations, the danger of
attempting to "thrust in earth eternity's concerns." In his earlier
years he had chiefly feared the first of these two dangers, and even
while pointing out, as in _Paracelsus_, the errors of the seeker for
absolute knowledge or for absolute love, he had felt a certain sympathy
with such glorious transgressors. He had valued more than any positive
acquisitions of knowledge those "grasps of guess, which pull the more
into the less." Now such guesses, such hopes were as precious to him as
ever, but he set more store than formerly by the
certainties--certainties even if illusions--of the general heart of man.
These are the forms of thought and feeling divinely imposed upon us; we
cannot do better than to accept them; but we must accept them only as
provisional, as part of our education on earth, as a needful rung of the
ladder by which we may climb to higher things. And the faith which leads
to such acquiescence also results in the acceptance of hopes as things
not be struggled for but rested in as a substantial portion of the
divine order of our lives. In autumn come for spirits rightly attuned
these pellucid halcyon days of the Indian summer.

In _Jocoseria_, which appeared in Browning's seventy-first year (1883),
he shows nothing of his boisterous humour, but smiles at our human
infirmities from the heights of experience. The prop of Israel, the
much-enlightened master, "Eximious Jochanan Ben Sabbathai," when his
last hour is at hand has to confess that all his wisdom of life lies in
his theoric; in practice he is still an infant; striving presumptuously
in boyhood to live an angel, now that he comes to die he is hardly a
man. And Solomon himself is no more than man; the truth-compelling ring
extorts the confession that an itch of vanity still tickles and teazes
him; the Queen of Sheba, seeker for wisdom and patroness of culture,
after all likes wisdom best when its exponents are young men tall and
proper, and prefers to the solution of the riddles of life by elderly
monarchs one small kiss from a fool. Lilith in a moment of terror
acknowledges that her dignified reserve was the cloak of passion, and
Eve acknowledges that her profession of love was transferred to the
wrong man; both ladies recover their self-possession and resume their
make-believe decorums, and Adam, like a gallant gentleman, will not see
through what is transparent. These are harmless jests at the ironies of
life. Browning's best gifts in this volume, that looks pale beside its
predecessors, are one or two short lyrics of love, which continue the
series of his latest lyrical poems, begun in the exquisite prologue to
_La Saisiaz_ and the graceful epilogue to _The Two Poets of Croisic_,
and continued in the songs of _Ferishtah's Fancies_ and _Asolando_--not
the least valuable part of the work of his elder years. His strength in
this volume of 1883 is put into that protest of human righteousness
against immoral conceptions of the Deity uttered by Ixion from his wheel
of torture. Rather than obey an immoral supreme Power, as John Stuart
Mill put it, "to Hell I will go"--and such is the cry of Browning's
victim of Zeus. He is aware that in his recognition of righteousness he
is himself superior to the evil god who afflicts him; and as this
righteousness is a moral quality, and no creation of his own
consciousness but rather imposed upon it as an eternal law, he rises
past Zeus to the Potency above him, after which even the undeveloped
sense of a Caliban blindly felt when he discovered a Quiet above the
bitter god Setebos; but the Quiet of Caliban is a negation of those evil
attributes of the supreme Being, which he reflects upwards from his own
gross heart, not the energy of righteousness which Ixion demands in his
transcendent "Potency." Into this poem went the energy of Browning's
heart and imagination; some of his matured wisdom entered into _Jochanan
Hakkadosh_, of which, however, the contents are insufficient to sustain
the length. The saint and sage of Israel has at the close of his life
found no solution of the riddle of existence. Lover, bard, soldier,
statist, he has obtained in each of his careers only doubts and
dissatisfaction. Twelve months added to a long life by the generosity of
his admirers, each of whom surrenders a fragment of his own life to
prolong that of the saint, bring him no clearer illumination--still all
is vanity and vexation of spirit. Only at the last, when by some
unexpected chance, a final opportunity of surveying the past and
anticipating the future is granted him, all has become clear. Instead of
trying to solve the riddle he accepts it. He sees from his Pisgah how
life, with all its confusions and contrarieties, is the school which
educates the soul and fits it for further wayfaring. The ultimate faith
of Jochanan the Saint had been already expressed by Browning:

    Over the ball of it,
    Peering and prying,
    How I see all of it,
    Life there, outlying!
    Roughness and smoothness,
    Shine and defilement,
    Grace and uncouthness:
    One reconcilement.

But even to his favourite disciple the sage is unable so to impart the
secret that Tsaddik's mind shall really embrace it.

The spirit of the saint of Israel is also the spirit of that wise
Dervish of Browning's invention (1884), the Persian Ferishtah. The
volume is frankly didactic, and Browning, as becomes a master who would
make his lessons easy to children, teaches by parables and pictures. In
reading _Ferishtah's Fancies_ we might suppose that we were in the
Interpreter's House, and that the Interpreter himself was pointing a
moral with the robin that has a spider in his mouth, or the hen walking
in a fourfold method towards her chickens. The discourses of the Dervish
are in the main theological or philosophical; the lyrics, which are
interposed between the discourses or discussions, are amatory. In
Persian Poetry much that at first sight might be taken for amatory has
in its inner meaning a mystical theological sense. Browning reverses the
order of such poetry; he gives us first his doctrine concerning life or
God, and gives it clothed in a parable; then in a lyric the subject is
retracted into the sphere of human affections, and the truth of theology
condenses itself into a corresponding truth respecting the love of man
and woman.

Throughout the series of poems it is not a Persian Dervish who is the
speaker and teacher; we hear the authentic voice of the Dervish born in
Camberwell in the year 1812--Ferishtah-Browning. The doctrine set forth
is the doctrine of Browning; the manner of speech is the manner of the
poet. The illustrations and imagery are often Oriental; the ideas are
those of a Western thinker; yet no sense of discordance is produced. The
parable of the starving ravens fed by an eagle serves happily as an
induction; let us become not waiters on providence, but workers with
providence; and to feed hungry souls is even more needful than to feed
hungry bodies:

     I starve in soul:
    So may mankind: and since men congregate
    In towns, not woods--to Ispahan forthwith!

Such is the lesson of energetic charity. And the lesson for the
acceptance of providential gifts is that put in words by the poor
melon-seller, once the Shah's Prime Minister--words spoken in the spirit
of the afflicted Job--"Shall we receive good at the hand of God and
shall we not receive evil?"[143] Or rather--Shall not our hearts even in
the midst of evil be lifted up in gratitude at the remembrance of the
good which we have received? Browning proceeds, under a transparent veil
of Oriental fable, to consider the story of the life of Christ. Do we
believe in that tale of wonder in the full sense of the word belief?
The more it really concerns us, the more exacting grow our demands for
evidence of its truth; an otiose assent is easy, but this has none of
the potency of genuine conviction. And, after all, intellectual assent
is of little importance compared with that love for the Divine which may
co-exist as truly with denial as with assent. _The Family_ sets forth,
through a parable, the wisdom of accepting and living in our human views
of things transcendent. Why pray to God at all? Why not rather accept
His will and His Providential disposition of our lives as absolutely
wise, and right? That, Browning replies, may be the way of the angels.
We are men, and it is God's will that we should feel and think as men:

      Be man and nothing more--
    Man who, as man conceiving, hopes and fears,
    And craves and deprecates, and loves and loathes,
    And bids God help him, till death touch his eyes
    And show God granted most, denying all.

The same spirit of acceptance of our intellectual and moral limitations
is applied in _The Sun_ to the defence of anthropomorphic religion. Our
spirit, burdened with the good gifts of life, looks upward for relief in
gratitude and praise; but we can praise and thank only One who is
righteous and loving, as we conceive righteousness and love. Let us not
strive to pass beyond these human feelings and conceptions. Perhaps they
are wholly remote from the unknown reality. They are none the less the
conceptions proper to humanity; we have no capacities with which to
correct them; let us hold fast by our human best, and preserve, as the
preacher very correctly expressed it, "the integrity of our
anthropomorphism." The "magnified non-natural man," and "the three Lord
Shaftesburys" of Matthew Arnold's irony are regarded with no fine scorn
by the intellect of Browning. His early Christian faith has expanded and
taken the non-historical form of a Humanitarian Theism, courageously
accepted, not as a complete account of the Unknowable, but as the best
provisional conception which we are competent to form. This theism
involves rather than displaces the truth shadowed forth in the life of
Christ. The crudest theism would seem to him far more reasonable than to
direct the religious emotions towards a "stream of tendency."

The presence of evil in a world created and governed by One all-wise,
all-powerful, all-loving, is justified in _Mirhab Shah_ as a necessity
of our education. How shall love be called forth unless there be the
possibility of self-sacrifice? How shall our human sympathy be perfected
unless there be pain? What room is there for thanks to God or love of
man if earth be the scene of such a blank monotony of well-being as may
be found in the star Rephan? But let us not call evil good, or think
pain in itself a gain. God may see that evil is null, and that pain is
gain; for us the human view, the human feeling must suffice. This
justification of pain as a needful part of an education is, however,
inapplicable to never-ending retributive punishment. Such a theological
horror Browning rejects with a hearty indignation, qualified only by a
humorous contempt, in his apologue of _A Camel-driver_; her driver, if
the camel bites, will with good cause thwack, and so instruct the brute
that mouths should munch not bite; he will not, six months afterwards,
thrust red-hot prongs into the soft of her flesh to hiss there. And God
has the advantage over the driver of seeing into the camel's brain and
of knowing precisely what moved the creature to offend. The poem which
follows is directed against asceticism. Self-sacrifice for the sake of
our fellows is indeed "joy beyond joy." As to the rest--the question is
not whether we fast or feast, but whether, fasting or feasting, we do
our day's work for the Master. If we would supply joy to our fellows, it
is needful that we should first know joy ourselves--

    Therefore, desire joy and thank God for it!

Browning's argument is not profound, and could adroitly be turned
against himself; but his temperament would survive his argument; his
capacity for manifold pleasures was great, and he not only valued these
as good in themselves, but turned them to admirable uses. A feast of the
senses was to him as spiritually precious as a fast might be to one who
only by fasting could attain to higher joys than those of sense. And
this, he would maintain, is a better condition for a human being than
that which renders expedient the plucking out of an eye, the cutting off
of a hand. Joy for Browning means praise and gratitude; and in
recognising the occasions for such praise and thanks let us not wind
ourselves too high. Let us praise God for the little things that are so
considerately fitted to our little human wants and desires. The
morning-stars will sing together without our help; if we must choose our
moment for a _Te Deum_, let it be when we have enjoyed our plate of
cherries. The glorious lamp in the Shah's pavilion lightens other eyes
than mine; but to think that the Shah's goodness has provided slippers
for my feet in my own small chamber, and of the very colour that I most
affect! Nor, in returning thanks, should it cause us trouble that our
best thanks are poor, or even that they are mingled with an alloy of
earthly regards, "mere man's motives--"

    Alas, Friend, what was free from this alloy,--
    Some smatch thereof,--in best and purest love
    Preferred thy earthly father? Dust thou art,
    Dust shall be to the end.

Our little human pleasures--do they seem unworthy to meet the eye of
God? That is a question put by distrust and spiritual pride. God gives
each of us His little plot, within which each of us is master. The
question is not what compost, what manure, makes fruitful the soil; we
need not report to the Lord of the soil the history of our manures; let
us treat the ground as seems best, if only we bring sacks to His granary
in autumn. Nay, do not I also tickle the palate of my ass with a
thistle-bunch, so heartening him to do his work?

In _A Pillar at Sebzevah_, Ferishtah-Browning confronts the objection
that he has deposed knowledge and degraded humanity to the rank of an
ass whose highest attainment is to love--what? "Husked lupines, and
belike the feeder's self." The Dervish declares without shrinking the
faith that is in him:--

    "Friend," quoth Ferishtah, "all I seem to know
    Is--I know nothing save that love I can
    Boundlessly, endlessly."

[Illustration]

If there be knowledge it shall vanish away; but charity never faileth.
As for knowledge, the prize is in the process; as gain we must
mistrust it, not as a road to gain:--

     Knowledge means
    Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
    That victory is somehow still to reach,
    But love is victory, the prize itself.

Grasping at the sun, a child captures an orange: what if he were to
scorn his capture and refuse to suck its juice? The curse of life is
this--that every supposed accession to knowledge, every novel theory, is
accepted as a complete solution of the whole problem, while every
pleasure is despised as transitory or insubstantial. In truth the drop
of water found in the desert sand is infinitely precious; the mirage is
only a mirage. Browning, who in this volume puts forth his own doctrine
of theism, his justification of prayer, his belief in a superintending
providence, his explanation of the presence of evil in the world, is, of
course, no Pyrrhonist. He profoundly distrusts the capacity of the
intellect, acting as a pure organ of speculation, to unriddle the
mysteries of existence; he maintains, on the other hand, that knowledge
sufficient for the conduct of our lives is involved in the simple
experiences of good and evil, of joy and sorrow. In reality Browning's
attitude towards truth approaches more nearly what has now begun to
style itself "Pragmatism" than it approaches Pyrrhonism; but
philosophers whose joy is to beat the air may find that it is
condemnatory of their methods.

In his distrust of metaphysical speculation and in regarding the
affections as superior to the intellect, Browning as a teacher has
something in common with Comte; but there is perhaps no creed so alien
to his nature as the creed of Positivism. The last of Ferishtah's
discourses is concerned with the proportion which happiness bears to
pain in the average life of man, or rather--for Browning is nothing if
he is not individualistic--in the life of each man as an individual. The
conclusion arrived at is that no "bean-stripe"--each bean, white or
black, standing for a day--is wholly black, and that the more extended
is our field of vision the more is the general aspect of the
"bean-stripe" of a colour intermediate between the extremes of darkness
and of light. Before the poem closes, Browning turns aside to consider
the Positivist position. Why give our thanks and praise for all the good
things of life to God, whose existence is an inference of the heart
derived from its own need of rendering gratitude to some Being like
ourselves? Are not these good things the gifts of the race, of Humanity,
and its worthies who have preceded us and who at the present moment
constitute our environment of loving help? Ferishtah's reply, which is
far from conclusive, must be regarded as no discussion of the subject
but the utterance of an isolated thought. Praise rendered to Humanity
and the heroes of the race simply reverts to the giver of the praise;
his own perceptions of what is praiseworthy alone render praise
possible; he must first of all thank and praise the giver of such
perceptions--God. It is strange that Browning should fail to recognise
the fact that the Positivist would immediately trace the power of moral
perception to the energies of Humanity in its upward progress from
primitive savagery to our present state of imperfect development.

It has been necessary to transcribe in a reduced form the teaching of
Ferishtah, for this is the clearest record left by Browning of his own
beliefs on the most important of all subjects, this is an essential part
of his criticism of life, and at the same time it is little less than a
passage of autobiography. The poems are admirable in their vigour, their
humour, their seriousness, their felicity of imagery. Yet the wisdom of
_Ferishtah's Fancies_ is an old man's wisdom; we perceive in it the
inner life, as Baxter puts it, in speaking of changes wrought by his
elder years, quitting the leaves and branches and drawing down to the
root. But when in prologue or epilogue to this volume or that Browning
touches upon the great happiness, the great sorrow of his own life, he
is always young. Here the lyrical epilogue is inspired by a noble
enthusiasm, and closes with a surprise of beauty. What if all his happy
faith in the purpose of life, and the Divine presence through all its
course, were but a reflex from the private and personal love that had
once been his and was still above and around him? Such a doubt contained
its own refutation:

    Only, at heart's utmost joy and triumph, terror
      Sudden turns the blood to ice: a chill wind disencharms
    All the late enchantment! What if all be error--
      If the halo irised round my head were, Love, thine arms?

All the more, if this were so, must the speaker's heart turn Godwards in
gratitude. The whole design of the volume with its theological parables
and its beautiful lyrics of human love implies that there is a
correspondency between the truths of religion and the truths of the
passion of love between man and woman.

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 141: Mr Gosse: "Dictionary of National Biography," Supplement,
i. 317.]

[Footnote 142: Of the mother in this poem, a writer in the "Browning
Society's Papers," Miss E.D. West, said justly: "There is discernible in
her no soul which could be cleansed from guilt by any purgatorial
process.... Her fault had not been moral, had not been sin, to be
punished by pain inflicted on the soul; it was merely the uncounteracted
primary instinct of self-preservation, and as such it is fitliest dealt
with by the simple depriving her, without further penalty, of the very
life which she had secured for herself at so horrible a cost."]

[Footnote 143: The story of the melon-seller was related by a
correspondent of _The Times_ in 1846, and is told by Browning in a
letter to Miss Barrett of Aug. 6 of that year. Thus subjects of verse
rose up in his memory after many years.]



Chapter XVII

Closing Works and Days


_Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day_, published
in 1887, Browning's last volume but one, betrays not the slightest
decline in his mental vigour. It suffers, however, from the fact that
several of the "Parleyings" are discussions--emotional, it is true, as
well as intellectual--of somewhat abstract themes, that these
discussions are often prolonged beyond what the subject requires, and
that the "People of Importance" are in some instances not men and women,
but mere sounding-boards to throw out Browning's own voice. When certain
aspects or principles of art are considered in _Fra Lippo Lippi_, before
us stands Brother Lippo himself, a living, breathing figure, on whom our
interest must needs fasten whatever may be the subject of his discourse.
There is of course a propriety in connecting a debate on evil in the
world as a means to good with the name of the author of "The Fable of
the Bees," there is no impropriety in connecting a study of the
philosophy of music with the name of Charles Avison the Newcastle
organist; but we do not make acquaintance through the parleyings with
either Avison or Mandeville. This objection does not apply to all the
poems. The parleying _With Daniel Bartoli_ is a story of love and loss,
admirable in its presentation of the heroine and the unheroic hero. We
are interested in Francis Furini, "good priest, good man, good painter,"
before he begins to preach his somewhat portentous sermon on evolution.
And in the case of Christopher Smart, the question why once and only
once he was a divinely inspired singer is the question which most
directly leads to a disclosure of his character as a poet. The volume,
however, as a whole, while Browning's energy never flags, has a larger
proportion than its predecessors of what he himself terms "mere grey
argument"; and, as if to compensate this, it is remarkable for sudden
outbursts of imagination and passion, as if these repressed for a time
had carried away the dykes and dams, and went on their career in full
flood. The description of the glory of sunrise in _Bernard de
Mandeville_, the description of the Chapel in _Christopher Smart_, the
praise of a woman's beauty in _Francis Furini_, the amazing succession
of mythological _tours de force_ in _Gerard de Lairesse_, the delightful
picture of the blackcap tugging at his prize, a scrap of rag on the
garden wall, amid the falling snow of March, in the opening of _Charles
Avison_--these are sufficient evidence of the abounding force of
Browning's genius as a poet at a date when he had passed the three score
years and ten by half an added decade. Nor would we willingly forget
that magical lyric of life and death, of the tulip beds and the daisied
grave-mound--"Dance, yellows and whites and reds"--which closes _Gerard
de Lairesse_. Wordsworth's daffodils are hardly a more jocund company
than Browning's wind-tossed tulips; he accepts their gladness, and yet
the starved grass and daisies are more to him than these:

    Daisies and grass be my heart's bed-fellows
    On the mound wind spares and sunshine mellows:
    Dance you, reds and whites and yellows!

Of failure in intellectual or imaginative force the _Parleyings_ show no
symptom. But the vigour of Browning's will did a certain wrong to his
other powers. He did not wait, as in early days, for the genuine casual
inspirations of pleasure. He made it his task to work out all that was
in him. And what comes to a writer of genius is better than what is
laboriously sought. We may gather wood for the altar, but the true fire
must descend from heaven. The speed and excitement kindled by one's own
exertions are very different from the varying stress of a wind that
bears one onward without the thump and rattle of the engine-room. It
would have been a gain if Browning's indomitable steam-engines had
occasionally ceased to ply, and he had been compelled to wait for a
propitious breeze.

Philosophy, Love, Poetry, Politics, Painting (the nude, with a discourse
concerning evolution), Painting again (the modern _versus_ the
mythological in art), Music, and, if we add the epilogue, the Invention
of Printing--these are the successive themes of Browning's _Parleyings_,
and they are important and interesting themes. Unfortunately the method
of discussion is neither sufficiently abstract for the lucid exposition
of ideas, nor sufficiently concrete for the pure communication of poetic
pleasure. Abstract and concrete meet and take hands or jostle, too much
as skeleton and lady might in a _danse Macabre_. The spirit of
acquiescence--strenuous not indolent acquiescence--with our intellectual
limitations is constantly present. Does man groan because he cannot
comprehend the mind outside himself which manifests itself in the sun?
Well, did not Prometheus draw the celestial rays into the pin-point of a
flame which man can order, and which does him service? Is the fire a
little thing beside the immensity in the heavens above us?

    Little? In little, light, warmth, life are blessed--
    Which, in the large, who sees to bless?

Or again--it is Christopher Smart, who triumphs for once so
magnificently in his "Song to David," and fails, with all his
contemporaries, in the poetry of ambitious instruction. And why? Because
for once he was content with the first step that poetry should take--to
confer enjoyment, leaving instruction--the fruit of enjoyment--to come
later. True learning teaches through love and delight, not through
pretentious didactics,--a truth forgotten by the whole tribe of
eighteenth century versifiers. And once more--does Francis Furini paint
the naked body in all its beauty? Right! let him study precisely this
divine thing the body, before he looks upward; let him retire from the
infinite into his proper circumscription:

    Only by looking low, ere looking high,
    Comes penetration of the mystery.

So also with our view of the mingled good and evil in the world; perhaps
to some transcendent vision evil may wholly disappear; perhaps we shall
ourselves make this discovery as we look back upon the life on earth.
Meanwhile it is as men that we must see things, and even if evil be an
illusion (as Browning trusts), it is a needful illusion in our
educational process, since through evil we become aware of good. Thus at
every point Browning accepts here, as in _Ferishtah's Fancies_, a
limited provisional knowledge as sufficient for our present needs, with
a sustaining hope which extends into the future. On the other hand, if
your affair is not the sincerity of thought and feeling, but a design to
rule the mass of men for your own advantage, you must act in a different
spirit. Do not, in the manner of Bubb Doddington, attempt to impose upon
your fellows with the obvious and worn-out pretence that all you do has
been undertaken on their behalf and in their interests. There is a newer
and a better trick than that. Assume the supernatural; have a "mission
"; have a "message"; be earnest, with all the authority of a divine
purpose. Play boldly this new card of statesmanship, and you may have
from time to time as many inconsistent missions and messages as
ambitious statecraft can suggest to you. Through all your gyrations the
admiring crowd will still stand agape. Was Browning's irony of a cynical
philosophy of statesmanship suggested by his view of the procedure of a
politician, whom he had once admired, whose talents he still recognised,
but from whom he now turned away with indignant aversion? However this
may have been, his poems which touch on politics do not imply that
respect for the people thinking, feeling, and moving, in masses which is
a common profession with the liberal leaders of the platform. Browning's
liberalism was a form of his individualism; he, like Shakespeare, had a
sympathy with the wants and affections of the humblest human lives; and,
like Shakespeare, he thought that foolish or incompetent heads are
often conjoined with hearts that in a high degree deserve respect.

_Asolando_, the last volume of a long array, was published in London on
the last day of Browning's life. As he lay dying in Venice, telegraphed
tidings reached his son of the eager demand for copies made in
anticipation of its appearance and of the instant and appreciative
reviews; Browning heard the report with a quiet gratification. It is
happy when praise in departing is justified, and this was the case with
a collection of poems which to some readers seemed like a revival of the
poetry of its author's best years of early and mid manhood. _Asolando_
is, however, in the main distinctly an autumn gathering, a handful of
flowers and fruit belonging to the Indian summer of his genius. The
Prologue is a confession, like that of Wordsworth's great Ode, that a
glory has passed away from the earth. When first he set eyes on Asolo,
some fifty years previously, the splendour of Italian landscape seemed
that of

    Terror with beauty, like the Bush
    Burning yet unconsumed

Now, while the beauty remains, the flame is extinct--"the Bush is bare."
Browning finds his consolation in the belief that he has come nearer to
the realities of earth by discarding fancies, and that his wonder and
awe are more wisely directed towards the transcendent God than towards
His creatures. But in truth what the mind confers is a fact and no
fancy; the loss of what Browning calls the "soul's iris-bow" is the loss
of a substantial, a divine possession. The _Epilogue_ has in it a
certain energy, but the thews are those of an old athlete, and through
the energy we are conscious of the strain. The speaker pitches his voice
high, as if it could not otherwise be heard at a distance. The
_Reverie_, a speculation on the time when Power will show itself fully
and therefore be known as love, has some of that vigorous intellectual
garrulity which had grown on Browning during the years when unhappily
for his poetry he came to be regarded chiefly as a prophet and a sage.
An old man rightly values the truths which experience has made real for
him; he repeats them again and again, for they constitute the best gift
he can offer to his disciples; but his utterances are not always
directly inspired; they are sometimes faintly echoed from an earlier
inspiration. In the _Reverie_, while accepting our limitations of
knowledge, which he can term ignorance in its contrast with the vast
unknown, Browning discovers in the moral consciousness of man a prophecy
of the ultimate triumph of good over what we think of as evil, a
prophecy of the final reconciliation of love with power. And among the
laws of life is not merely submission but aspiration:

    Life is--to wake not sleep,
     Rise and not rest, but press
    From earth's level where blindly creep
     Things perfected, more or less,
    To the heaven's height, far and steep,
    Where amid what strifes and storms
     May wait the adventurous quest,
    Power is love.

The voice of the poet of _Paracelsus_ and of _Rabbi Ben Ezra_ is still
audible in this latest of his prophesyings. And therefore he welcomes
earth in his _Rephan_, earth, with its whole array of failures and
despairs, as the fit training-ground for man. Better its trials and
losses and crosses than a sterile uniformity of happiness; better its
strife than rest in any golden mean of excellence. Nor are its
intellectual errors and illusions without their educational value. It is
better, as _Development_, with its recollections of Browning's
childhood, assures us that the boy should believe in Troy siege, and the
combats of Hector and Achilles, as veritable facts of history, than bend
his brow over Wolfs Prolegomena or perplex his brain with moral
philosophies to grapple with which his mind is not yet competent. By and
by his illusions will disappear while their gains will remain.

The general impression left by _Asolando_ is that of intellectual and
imaginative vigour. The series of _Bad Dreams_ is very striking and
original in both pictorial and passionate power. _Dubiety_ is a poem of
the Indian Summer, but it has the beauty, with a touch of the pathos,
proper to the time. The love songs are rather songs of praise than of
passion, but they are beautiful songs of praise, and that entitled
_Speculative_, which is frankly a poem of old age, has in it the genuine
passion of memory. _White Witchcraft_ does in truth revive the manner of
earlier volumes. The

    Infinite passion and the pain
    Of finite hearts that yearn

told of in a poem of 1855 is present, with a touch of humour to guard it
from its own excess in the admirable _Inapprehensiveness_. The speaker
who may not liberate his soul can perhaps identify a quotation, and he
gallantly accepts his humble rôle in the tragi-comedy of foiled
passion:--

     "No, the book
    Which noticed how the wall-growths wave," said she,
    "Was not by Ruskin."
     I said "Vernon Lee."

And in the uttered "Vernon Lee" lies a vast renunciation half comical
and wholly tragic. There are jests in the volume, and these, with the
exception of _Ponte dell' Angelo_, have the merit of brevity; they buzz
swiftly in and out, and do not wind about us with the terror of
voluminous coils, as sometimes happens when Browning is in his mood of
mirth. There are stories, and they are told with spirit and with skill.
In _Beatrice Signorini_ the story-teller does justice to the honest
jealousy of a wife and to the honest love of a husband who returns from
the wanderings of his imagination to the frank fidelity of his heart.
Cynicism grows genial in the jest of _The Pope and the Net_. In
_Muckle-Mouth Meg_, laughter and kisses, audible from the page, and a
woman's art in love-craft, turn tragedy in a hearty piece of comedy.
_The Bean-Feast_ presents us with the latest transformation of the
Herakles ideal, where a good Christian Herakles, Pope Sixtus of Rome,
makes common cause with his spiritual children in their humble pleasures
of the senses. And in contrast with this poem of the religion of joy is
the story of another ruler of Rome, the too fortunate Emperor Augustus,
who, in the shadow of the religion of fear and sorrow, must propitiate
the envy of Fate by turning beggar once a year. A shivering thrill runs
through us as we catch a sight of the supreme mendicant's "sparkling
eyes beneath their eyebrows' ridge":

    "He's God!" shouts Lucius Varus Rufus: "Man
    And worms'-meat any moment!" mutters low
    Some Power, admonishing the mortal-born.

There were nobler sides of Paganism than this with which Browning seems
never to have had an adequate sympathy. And yet the religion even of
Marcus Aurelius lacked something of the joy of the religion of the
thankful Pope who feasted upon beans.[144]

In the winter which followed his change of abode from Warwick Crescent
to the more commodious house in De Vere Gardens, the winter of
1887-1888, Browning's health and strength visibly declined; a succession
of exhausting colds lowered his vitality; yet he maintained his habitual
ways of life, and would not yield. In August 1888 he started ill for his
Italian holiday, and travelled with difficulty and distress. But the
rest among the mountains at Primiero restored him. At Venice he seemed
as vigorous as he was joyous. And when he returned to London in February
1889 the improvement in his strength was in a considerable measure
maintained. Yet it was evident that the physical vigour which had
seemed invincible was on the ebb. In the early summer he paid the last
of those visits, which he so highly valued, to Balliol College, Oxford.
The opening week of June found him at Cambridge. Mr Gosse has told how
on the first Sunday of that month Browning and he sat together "in a
sequestered part of the beautiful Fellows' Garden of Trinity," under a
cloudless sky, amid the early foliage with double hawthorns in bloom,
and how the old man, in a mood of serenity and without his usual
gesticulation, talked of his own early life and aspirations. He shrank
that summer, says Mrs Orr, from the fatigue of a journey to Italy and
thought of Scotland as a place of rest. But unfavourable weather in
early August forbade the execution of the plan. An invitation from Mrs
Bronson to her house at Asolo, to be followed by the pleasure of seeing
his son and his son's wife in the Palazzo Rezzonico, Venice, were
attractions not to be resisted, and in company with Miss Browning, he
reached the little hill-town that had grown so dear to him without
mishap and even without fatigue.

To the early days of July, shortly before his departure for Italy,
belong two incidents which may be placed side by side as exhibiting two
contrasted sides of Browning's character. On the 5th of that month he
dined with the Shah, who begged for the gift of one of his books. Next
day he chose a volume the binding of which might, as he says, "take the
imperial eye"; but the pleasure of the day was another gift, a gift to a
person who was not imperial. "I said to myself," he wrote to his young
friend the painter Lehmann's daughter, addressed in the letter as "My
beloved Alma"--"I said to myself 'Here do I present my poetry to a
personage for whom I do not care three straws; why should I not venture
to do as much for a young lady I love dearly, who, for the author's
sake, will not impossibly care rather for the inside than the outside of
the volume?' So I was bold enough to take one and offer it for your kind
acceptance, begging you to remember in days to come that the author,
whether a good poet or not, was always, my Alma, your affectionate
friend, Robert Browning." A gracious bowing of old age over the grace
and charm of youth! But the work of two days later, July 8th, was not
gracious. The lines "To Edward Fitzgerald," printed in _The Athenaeum_,
were dated on that day. It is stated by Mrs Orr that when they were
despatched to the journal in which they appeared, Browning regretted the
deed, though afterwards he found reasons to justify himself.
Fitzgerald's reference to Mrs Browning caused him a spasm of pain and
indignation, nor did the pain for long subside. The expression of his
indignation was outrageous in manner, and deficient in real power. He
had read a worse meaning into the unhappy words than had been intended,
and the writer was dead. Browning's act was like an involuntary muscular
contraction, which he could not control. The lines sprang far more from
love than from hate. "I felt as if she had died yesterday," he said. We
cannot regret that Browning was capable of such an offence; we can only
regret that what should have controlled his cry of pain and rage did not
operate at the right moment.

In Asolo, beside "the gate," Mrs Bronson had found and partly made what
Mr Henry James describes as "one of the quaintest possible little
places of _villegiatura_"--La Mura, the house, "resting half upon the
dismantled, dissimulated town-wall. No sweeter spot in all the
sweetnesses of Italy." Browning's last visit to Asolo was a time of
almost unmingled enjoyment. "He seemed possessed," writes Mrs Orr, "by a
strange buoyancy, an almost feverish joy in life." The thought that he
was in Asolo again, which he had first seen in his twenty-sixth year,
and since then had never ceased to remember with affection, was a happy
wonder to him. He would stand delighted on the loggia of La Mura,
looking out over the plain and identifying the places of historical
interest, some of which were connected with his own "Sordello." Nor was
the later story forgotten of Queen Caterina Cornaro, whose palace-tower
overlooks Asolo, and whose secretary, Cardinal Bembo, wrote _gli
Asolani_, from which came the suggestion for the title of Browning's
forthcoming volume. At times, as Mrs Bronson relates, the beauty of the
prospect was enough, with no historical reminiscences, the plain with
its moving shadows, the mountain-ranges to the west, and southwards the
delicate outline of the Euganean Hills. "I was right," said he, "to fall
in love with this place fifty years ago, was I not?"

The procedure of the day at Asolo was almost as regular as that of a
London day. The morning walk with his sister, when everything that was
notable was noted by his keen eyes, the return, English newspapers,
proof-sheets, correspondence, the light mid-day meal, the afternoon
drive in Mrs Branson's carriage, tea upon the loggia, the evening with
music or reading, or visits to the little theatre--these constituted an
almost unvarying and happy routine. On his walks he delighted to
recognise little details of architecture which he had observed in former
years; or he would peer into the hedgerows and watch the living
creatures that lurked there, or would "whistle softly to the lizards
basking on the low walls which border the roads, to try his old power of
attracting them."[145] Sometimes a longer drive (and that to Bassano was
his favourite) required an earlier start in the carriage with luncheon
at some little inn. "If we were ever late in returning to Asolo," Mrs
Bronson writes, "he would say 'Tell Vittorio to drive quickly; we must
not lose the sunset from the loggia.' ... Often after a storm, the
effects of sun breaking through clouds before its setting, combined with
the scenery of plain and mountain, were such as to rouse the poet to the
greatest enthusiasm. Heedless of cold or damp, forgetting himself
completely, though warmly wrapped to please others, he would gaze on the
changing aspects of earth and sky until darkness covered everything from
his sight."

When in the evenings Browning read aloud he did not, like Tennyson, as
described by Mr Rossetti, allow his voice to "sway onward with a
long-drawn chaunt" which gave "noble value and emphasis to the metrical
structure and pauses." His delivery was full and distinctive, but it
"took much less account than Tennyson's of the poem as a rhythmical
whole; his delivery had more affinity to that of an actor, laying stress
on all the light and shade of the composition--its touches of character,
the conversational points, its dramatic give-and-take. In those
qualities of elocution in which Tennyson was strong, and aimed to be
strong, Browning was contentedly weak; and _vice versâ_."[146]
Sometimes, like another great poet, Pope, he was deeply affected by the
passion of beauty or heroism or pathos in what he read, and could not
control his feelings. Mrs Orr mentions that in reading aloud his
translation of the _Herakles_, he, like Pope in reading a passage of his
_Iliad_, was moved to tears. Dr Furnivall tells of the mounting
excitement with which he once delivered in the writer's hearing his
_Ixion_. When at La Mura after his dreamy playing, on a spinet of 1522,
old airs, melodious, melancholy airs, Browning would propose to read
aloud, it was not his own poetry that he most willingly chose. "No R.B.
to-night," he would say; "then with a smile, 'Let us have some real
poetry'"; and the volume would be one by Shelley or Keats, or Coleridge
or Tennyson. It was as a punishment to his hostess for the crime of
having no Shakespeare on her shelves that he threatened her with one of
his "toughest poems"; but the tough poem, interpreted by his emphasis
and pauses, became "as clear and comprehensible as one could possibly
desire." In his talk at Asolo "he seemed purposely to avoid deep and
serious topics. If such were broached in his presence he dismissed them
with one strong, convincing sentence, and adroitly turned the current of
conversation into a shallower channel."

A project which came very near his heart was that of purchasing from the
municipal authorities a small piece of ground, divided from La Mura by a
ravine clothed with olive and other trees, "on which stood an unfinished
building"--the words are Mrs Bronson's--"commanding the finest view in
Asolo." He desired much to have a summer or autumn abode to which he
might turn with the assurance of rest in what most pleased and suited
him. In imagination, with his characteristic eagerness, he had already
altered and added to the existing structure, and decided on the size and
aspect of the loggia which was to out-rival that of La Mura. "'It shall
have a tower,' he said, 'whence I can see Venice at every hour of the
day, and I shall call it "Pippa's Tower".... We will throw a rustic
bridge across the streamlet in the ravine.'" And then, in a graver mood:
"It may not be for me to enjoy it long--who can say? But it will be
useful for Pen and his family.... But I am good for ten years yet." And
when his son visited Asolo and approved of the project of Pippa's Tower,
Browning's happiness in his dream was complete. It was on the night of
his death that the authorities of Asolo decided that the purchase might
be carried into effect.

[Illustration: THE PALAZZO REZZONICO, VENICE.

_From a drawing by_ Miss KATHERINE KIMBALL.]

For a time during this last visit to Asolo Browning suffered some
inconvenience from shortness of breath in climbing hills, but the
discomfort passed away. He looked forward to an early return to England,
spoke with pleasant anticipation of the soft-pedal piano which his kind
friend Mrs Bronson desired to procure at Boston and place in his study
in De Vere Gardens, and he dreamed of future poetical achievements.
"Shall I whisper to you my ambition and my hope?" he asked his hostess.
"It is to write a tragedy better than anything I have done yet. I think
of it constantly." With the end of October the happy days at Asolo were
at an end. On the first of November he was in Venice, "magnificently
lodged," he says, "in this vast palazzo, which my son has really shown
himself fit to possess, so surprising are his restorations and
improvements." At Asolo he had parted from his American friend Story
with the words, "More than forty years of friendship and never a break."
In Venice he met an American friend of more recent years, Professor
Corson, who describes him as stepping briskly, with a look that went
everywhere, and as cheerfully anticipating many more years of productive
work.[147] Yet in truth the end was near. Dining with Mr and Mrs Curtis,
where he read aloud some poems of his forthcoming volume, he met a
London physician, Dr Bird. Next evening Dr Bird again dined with
Browning, who expressed confident satisfaction as to his state of
health, and held out his wrist that his words might be confirmed by the
regularity and vigour of his pulse. The physician became at once aware
that Browning's confidence was far from receiving the warrant in which
he believed. Still he maintained his customary two hours' walk each day.
Towards the close of November, on a day of fog, he returned from the
Lido with symptoms of a bronchial cold. He dealt with the trouble as he
was accustomed, and did not take to his bed. Though feeling scarcely fit
to travel he planned his departure for England after the lapse of four
or five days. On December 1st, an Italian physician was summoned, and
immediately perceived the gravity of the case. Within a few days the
bronchial trouble was subdued, but failure of the heart was apparent.
Some hours before the end he said to one of his nurses, "I feel much
worse. I know now that I must die." The ebbing away of life was
painless. As the clocks of Venice were striking ten on the night of
Thursday, December 12, 1889, Browning died.[148]

He had never concerned himself much about his place of burial. A
lifeless body seemed to him only an old vesture that had been cast
aside. "He had said to his sister in the foregoing summer," Mrs Orr
tells us, "that he wished to be buried wherever he might die; if in
England, with his mother; if in France, with his father; if in Italy,
with his wife." The English cemetery in Florence had, however, been
closed. The choice seemed to lie between Venice, which was the desire of
the city, or, if the difficulties could be overcome by the intervention
of Lord Dufferin, the old Florentine cemetery. The matter was decided
otherwise; a grave in Westminster Abbey was proposed by Dean Bradley,
and the proposal was accepted.[149] A private service took place in the
_Palazzo Rezzonico_; the coffin, in compliance with the civic
requirements, was conveyed with public honours to the chapel on the
island of San Michele; and from thence to the house in De Vere Gardens.
On the last day of the year 1889, in presence of a great and reverent
crowd, with solemn music arranged for the words of Mrs Browning's poem,
"He giveth his beloved sleep," the body of Browning was laid in its
resting-place in Poets' Corner.

To attempt at the present time to determine the place of Browning in the
history of English poetry is perhaps premature. Yet the record of "How
it strikes a contemporary" may itself have a certain historical
interest. When estimates of this kind have been revised by time even
their errors are sometimes instructive, or, if not instructive, are
amusing. It is probable that Tennyson will remain as the chief
representative in poetry of the Victorian period. Browning, who was
slower in securing an audience, may be found to possess a more
independent individuality. Yet in truth no great writer is independent
of the influences of his age.

Browning as a poet had his origins in the romantic school of English
poetry; but he came at a time when the romance of external action and
adventure had exhausted itself, and when it became necessary to carry
romance into the inner world where the adventures are those of the soul.
On the ethical and religious side he sprang from English Puritanism.
Each of these influences was modified by his own genius and by the
circumstances of its development. His keen observation of facts and
passionate inquisition of human character drew him in the direction of
what is termed realism. This combination of realism with romance is even
more strikingly seen in an elder contemporary on whose work Browning
bestowed an ardent admiration, the novelist Balzac. His Puritanism
received important modifications from his wide-ranging artistic
instincts and sympathies, and again from the liberality of a
wide-ranging intellect. He has the strenuous moral force of Puritanism,
but he is wholly free from asceticism, except in the higher significance
of that word--the hardy discipline of an athlete. Opinions count for
less than the form and the habitual attitudes of a soul. These with
Browning were always essentially Christian. He regarded our life on
earth as a state of probation and of preparation; sometimes as a
battle-field in which our test lies in the choice of the worse or the
better side and the energy of devotion to the cause; sometimes as a
school of education, in the processes of which the emotions play a
larger part than the intellect. The degrees in that school are not to be
taken on earth. And on the battle-field the final issue is not to be
determined here, so that what appears as defeat may contain within it an
assured promise of ultimate victory. The attitudes of the spirit which
were most habitual with him were two--the attitude of aspiration and the
attitude of submission. These he brought into harmony with each other by
his conception of human life as a period of training for a higher life;
we must make the most vigorous and joyous use of our schooling, and yet
we must press towards what lies beyond it.

From the romantic poetry of the early years of the nineteenth century
comes a cry or a sigh of limitless desire. Under the inspiration of the
Revolutionary movement passion had broken the bounds of the eighteenth
century ideal of balance and moderation. With the transcendental
reaction against a mechanical view of the relation of God to the
universe and to humanity the soul had put forth boundless claims and
unmeasured aspirations. In his poetic method each writer followed the
leadings of his own genius, without reference to common rules and
standards; the individualism of the Revolutionary epoch asserted itself
to the full. These several influences helped to determine the character
of Browning's poetry. But meeting in him the ethical and religious
tendencies of English Puritanism they acquired new significances and
assumed new forms. The cry of desire could not turn, as it did with
Byron, to cynicism; it must not waste itself, as sometimes happened with
Shelley, in the air or the ether. It must be controlled by the will and
turned to some spiritual uses. The transcendental feeling which
Wordsworth most often attained through an impassioned contemplation of
external nature must rest upon a broader basis and include among its
sources or abettors all the higher passions of humanity. The
Revolutionary individualism must be maintained and extended; in his
methods Browning would acknowledge no master; he would please himself
and compel his readers to accept his method even if strange or singular.
As for the mediaeval revival, which tried to turn aside, and in part
capture, the transcendental tendencies of his time, Browning rejected
it, in the old temper of English Puritanism, on the side of religion;
but on the side of art it opened certain avenues upon which he eagerly
entered. The scientific movement of the nineteenth century influenced
him partly as a force to be met and opposed by his militant
transcendentalism. Yet he gives definite expression in _Paracelsus_ to
an idea of evolution both in nature and in human society, an idea of
evolution which is, however, essentially theistic. "All that seems
proved in Darwin's scheme," he wrote to Dr Furnivall in 1881, "was a
conception familiar to me from the beginning." The positive influences
of the scientific age in which he lived upon Browning's work were
chiefly these--first it tended to intellectualise his instincts,
compelling him to justify them by a definite theory; and secondly it
co-operated with his tendency towards realism as a student of the facts
of human nature; it urged him towards research in his psychology of the
passions; it supported him in his curious inquisition of the phenomena
of the world of mind.

Being a complete and a sane human creature, Browning could not rest
content with the vicious asceticism of the intellect which calls itself
scientific because it refuses to recognise any facts that are not
material and tangible. Science itself, in the true sense of the word,
exists and progresses by ventures of imaginative faith. And in all
matters which involve good and evil, hopes and fears, in all matters
which determine the conduct of life, no rational person excludes from
his view the postulates of our moral nature or should exclude the final
option of the will. The person whose beliefs are determined by material
facts alone and by the understanding unallied with our other powers is
the irrational and unscientific person. Being a complete and sane human
creature, Browning was assured that the visible order of things is part
of a larger order, the existence of which alone makes human life
intelligible to the reason. The understanding being incapable of
arriving unaided at a decision between rival theories of life, and
neutrality between these being irrational and illegitimate, he rightly
determined the balance with the weight of emotion, and rightly acted
upon that decision with all the energy of his will. His chief
intellectual error was not that he undervalued the results of the
intellect, but that he imagined the existence as a part of sane human
nature, of a wholly irrational intellect which in affairs of religious
belief and conduct is indifferent to the promptings of the emotions and
the moral nature.

Browning's optimism has been erroneously ascribed to his temperament. He
declared that in his personal experience the pain of life outweighed its
pleasure. He remembered former pain more vividly than he remembered
pleasure. His optimism was part of the vigorous sanity of his moral
nature; like a reasonable man, he made the happiness which he did not
find. If any person should censure the process of giving objective
validity to a moral postulate, he has only to imagine some extra-human
intelligence making a study of human nature; to such an intelligence our
moral postulates would be objective facts and have the value of
objective evidence. That whole of which our life on earth forms a part
could not be conceived by Browning as rational without also being
conceived as good.

All the parts of Browning's nature were vigorous, and they worked
harmoniously together. His senses were keen and alert; his understanding
was both penetrating and comprehensive; his passions had sudden
explosive force and also steadfastness and persistency; his will
supported his other powers and perhaps it had too large a share in his
later creative work. His feeling for external nature was twofold; he
enjoyed colour and form--but especially colour--as a feast for the eye,
and returned thanks for his meal as the Pope of his poem did for the
bean-feast. This was far removed from that passionate spiritual
contemplation of nature of the Wordsworthian mood. But now and again for
Browning external nature was, not indeed suffused as for Wordsworth, but
pierced and shot through with spiritual fire. His chief interest,
however, was in man. The study of passions in their directness and of
the intellect in its tortuous ways were at various times almost equally
attractive to him. The emotions which he chiefly cared to interpret were
those connected with religion, with art, and with the relations of the
sexes.

In his presentation of character Browning was far from exhibiting either
the universality or the disinterestedness of Shakespeare. His sympathy
with action was defective. The affections arising from hereditary or
traditional relations are but slenderly represented in his poetry; the
passions which elect their own objects are largely represented. Those
graceful gaieties arising from a long-established form of society, which
constitute so large a part of Shakespeare's comedies, are almost wholly
absent from his work. His humour was robust but seldom fine or delicate.
In an age of intellectual and spiritual conflict and trouble, his art
was often deflected from the highest ends by his concern on behalf of
ideas. He could not rest satisfied, it has been observed, with
contemplating the children of his imagination, nor find the fulfilment
of his aim in the fact of having given them existence.[150] It seems
often as if his purpose in creating them was to make them serve as
questioners, objectors, and answerers in the great debate of conflicting
thoughts which proceeds throughout his poems. His object in transferring
his own consciousness into the consciousness of some imagined personage
seems often to be that of gaining a new stand-point from which to see
another and a different aspect of the questions concerning which he
could not wholly satisfy himself from any single point of view. He
cannot be content to leave his men and women, in Shakespeare's
disinterested manner, to look in various directions according to
whatever chanced to suit best the temper and disposition he had imagined
for them. They are placed by him with their eyes turned in very much the
same direction, gazing towards the same problems, the same ideas. And
somehow Browning himself seems to be in company with them all the time,
learning their different reports of the various aspects which those
problems or ideas present to each of them, and choosing between the
different reports in order to give credence to that which seems true.
The study of no individual character would seem to him of capital value
unless that character contained something which should help to throw
light upon matters common to all humanity, upon the inquiries either as
to what it is, or as to what are its relations to the things outside
humanity. This is not quite the highest form of dramatic poetry. There
is in it perhaps something of the error of seeking too quick returns of
profit, and of drawing "a circle premature," to use Browning's own
words, "heedless of far gain." The contents of characters so conceived
can be exhausted, whereas when characters are presented with entire
disinterestedness they may seem to yield us less at first, but they are
inexhaustible. The fault--if it be one--lay partly in Browning's epoch,
partly in the nature of his genius. Such a method of deflected dramatic
characterisation as his is less appropriate to regular drama than to the
monologue; and accordingly the monologue, reflective or lyrical, became
the most characteristic instrument of his art.

There is little of repose in Browning's poetry. He feared lethargy of
heart, the supine mood, more than he feared excess of passion. Once or
twice he utters a sigh for rest, but it is for rest after strife or
labour. Broad spaces of repose, of emotional tranquillity are rare, if
not entirely wanting, in his poetry. It is not a high table-land, but a
range, or range upon range, of sierras. In single poems there is often a
point or moment in which passion suddenly reaches its culmination. He
flashes light upon the retina; he does not spread truth abroad like a
mantle but plunges it downwards through the mists of earth like a
searching sword-blade. And therefore he does not always distribute the
poetic value of what he writes equally; one vivid moment justifies all
that is preparatory to that great moment. His utterance, which is always
vigorous, becomes intensely luminous at the needful points and then
relapses, to its well-maintained vigour, a vigour not always accompanied
by the highest poetical qualities. The music of his verse is entirely
original, and so various are its kinds, so complex often are its
effects that it cannot be briefly characterised. Its attack upon the ear
is often by surprises, which, corresponding to the sudden turns of
thought and leaps of feeling, justify themselves as right and
delightful. Yet he sometimes embarrasses his verse with an excess of
suspensions and resolutions. Browning made many metrical experiments,
some of which were unfortunate: but his failures are rather to be
ascribed to temporary lapses into a misdirected ingenuity than to the
absence of metrical feeling.

His chief influence, other than what is purely artistic, upon a reader
is towards establishing a connection between the known order of things
in which we live and move and that larger order of which it is a part.
He plays upon the will, summoning it from lethargy to activity. He
spiritualises the passions by showing that they tend through what is
human towards what is divine. He assigns to the intellect a sufficient
field for exercise, but attaches more value to its efforts than to its
attainments. His faith in an unseen order of things creates a hope which
persists through the apparent failures of earth. In a true sense he may
be named the successor of Wordsworth, not indeed as an artist but as a
teacher. Substantially the creed maintained by each was the same creed,
and they were both more emphatic proclaimers of it than any other
contemporary poets. But their ways of holding and of maintaining that
creed were far apart. Wordsworth enunciated his doctrines as if he had
never met with, and never expected to meet with, any gainsaying of them.
He discoursed as a philosopher might to a school of disciples gathered
together to be taught by his wisdom, not to dispute it. He feared
chiefly not a counter creed but the materialising effects of the
industrial movement of his own day. Expecting no contradiction,
Wordsworth did not care to quit his own standpoint in order that he
might see how things appear from the opposing side. He did not argue but
let his utterance fall into a half soliloquy spoken in presence of an
audience but not always directly addressed to them. Browning's manner of
speech was very unlike this. He seems to address it often to
unsympathetic hearers of whose presence and gainsaying attitude he could
not lose sight. The beliefs for which he pleaded were not in his day, as
they had been in Wordsworth's, part of a progressive wave of thought. He
occupied the disadvantageous position of a conservative thinker. The
later poet of spiritual beliefs had to make his way not with, but
against, a great incoming tide of contemporary speculation. Probably on
this account Browning's influence as a teacher will extend over a far
shorter space of time than that of Wordsworth. For Wordsworth is
self-contained, and is complete without reference to the ideas which
oppose his own. His work suffices for its own explanation, and will
always commend itself to certain readers either as the system of a
philosophic thinker or as the dream of a poet. Browning's thought where
it is most significant is often more or less enigmatical if taken by
itself: its energetic gestures, unless we see what they are directed
against, seem aimless beating the air. His thought, as far as it is
polemical, will probably cease to interest future readers. New methods
of attack will call forth new methods of defence. Time will make its
discreet selection from his writings. And the portion which seems most
likely to survive is that which presents in true forms of art the
permanent passions of humanity and characters of enduring interest.

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 144: Mrs Orr gives the dates of composition of several of the
_Asolando_ poems. _Rosny_, _Beatrice Signorini_ and _Flute-Music_ were
written in the winter of 1887-1888. Two or three of the _Bad Dreams_
are, with less confidence, assigned to the same date. The _Ponte dell'
Angelo_ "was imagined during the next autumn in Venice" (see Mrs
Bronson's article "Browning in Venice"). "_White Witchcraft_ had been
suggested in the same summer (1888) by a letter from a friend in the
Channel Islands which spoke of the number of toads to be seen there."
_The Cardinal and the Dog_, written with the _Pied Piper_ for Macready's
son, is a poem of early date. Mrs Bronson in her article "Browning in
Asolo" (_Century Magazine_, April 1900) relates the origin at Asolo 1889
of _The Lady and the Painter_.]

[Footnote 145: Mrs Orr, _Life_, p. 414.]

[Footnote 146: W.M. Rossetti, Portraits of Browning, i., _Magazine of
Art_, 1890, p. 182. Mr Rossetti's words refer to an earlier period.]

[Footnote 147: "The Nation," vol. 1., where reminiscences by Moncure
Conway may also be found.]

[Footnote 148: "My father died without pain or suffering other than that
of weakness or weariness"--so Mr R. Barrett Browning wrote to Mrs
Bloomfield-Moore. "His death was what death ought to be, but rarely
is--so said the doctor." (Quoted in an article on Browning by Mrs
Bloomfield-Moore in Lippincott's Magazine--Jan.--June 1890, p. 690.)]

[Footnote 149: A grave in the Abbey was at the same time offered for the
body of Browning's wife; the removal of her body from Florence would
have been against both the wishes of Browning and of the people of
Florence. It was therefore declined by Mr R. Barrett Browning. See his
letter in Mrs Bloomfield-Moore's article in Lippincott's Magazine, vol.
xiv.]

[Footnote 150: E.D. West in the first of two papers, "Browning as a
Preacher," in _The Dark Blue Magazine_. Browning esteemed these papers
highly and in what follows I appropriate, with some modifications, a
passage from the first of them. The writer has consented to the use here
made of the passage, and has contributed a passage towards the close.]



Index

[_The names of Robert Browning, the subject of this volume, and of
Elizabeth Barrett Browning are not included in the Index_.]

_Abt Vogler_
Adams, Sarah Flower
Aeschylus (see _Agamemnon_)
_Agamemnon_
Alford, Lady M.
Ancona
Andersen, Hans
_Andrea del Sarto_
_Any Wife to any Husband_
_Apparent Failure_
_Aristophanes' Apology_
Arnold, Matthew
Arnould, Joseph
Arran, Isle of
_Artemis Prologuizes_
Asceticism
Ashburton, Lady
_Asolando_
Asolo
_At the Mermaid_
Audierne
_Aurora Leigh_


B

Bach
Bacon, Francis
_Bad Dreams_
_Balaustion's Adventure_
Balzac, H. de
Barrett, Arabella
Barrett, Edward M.
Barrett, Henrietta (Mrs Surtees Cook)
Bayley, Miss
_Bean Feast_
_Beatrice Signorini_
_Bells and Pomegranates_
Benckhausen, Mr
_Bernard de Mandeville_
Biarritz
_Bifurcation_
Bird, Dr
_Bishop Blougram_
_Bishop orders his Tomb_
Blagden, Isa
Blanc, Mme.
_Blot in the 'Scutcheon_
Bottinius
Bowring, Sir J.
Boyd, H.S.
Boyle, Miss
Bradley, Dean
Bridell-Fox, Mrs
Bronson, Mrs A.
Browning, Robert (grandfather)
Browning, Robert (father)
Browning, Robert, W.B. (son)
Browning, Sarah Anna (mother)
Browning, Sarah Anna, or Sarianna (sister)
Buchanan, Robert
Burne-Jones, E.
_By the Fireside_


C

_Caliban upon Setebos_
Cambo
Cambridge
Caponsacchi
Carlyle, Mrs
Carlyle, Thomas
Casa Guidi
_Cavalier Tunes_
Cavour
_Cenciaja_
Chapman & Hall
Chappell, Arthur
_Charles Avison_
_Childe Roland_
_Christmas Eve and Easter Day_
_Christopher Smart_
"Clarissa"
Clayton, Rev. Mr
_Cleon_
_Clive_
Cobbe, Miss F.P.
_Colombe's Birthday_
Conway, Dr M.
Cook, Captain Surtees
Cook, Mrs Surtees, _see_ Barrett, Henrietta
Cornhill Magazine
_Count Gismond_
Coup d'état
_Cristine_
Croisic
Crosse, Mrs Andrew
Curtis, Mr and Mrs


D

_Daniel Bartoli_
Dante
Davidson, Captain
_Death in the Desert_
_De Gustibus_
_Development_
De Vere Gardens
Dickens, Charles
_Dîs Aliter Visum_
_Doctor_ ----
Domett, Alfred
Dominus Hyacinthus
_Donald_
_Dramatic Idyls_ (First and Second Series)
_Dramatic Lyrics_
_Dramatic Romances and Lyrics_
_Dramatis Personae_
_Dubiety_
Dufferin, Lord
Duffy, C. Gavan_


E

_Easter Day_, see _Christmas Eve and Easter Day
Echetlos_
Eckley, Mr
Egerton-Smith, Miss
Elgin, Lady
Eliot, George
_Englishman in Italy_
_Epilogue_ (to "Asolando")
_Epilogue_ (to "Dramatis Personae")
_Epilogue_ (to "Pacchiarotto" volume)
_Epilogue_ (to "Two Poets of Croisic")
_Epistle to Karshish_
Etretat
_Evelyn Hope_

F

_Face, A_
Fano
Faraday
Faucit, Helen
_Fears and Scruples_
_Ferishtah's Fancies_
_Fifine at the Fair_
_Filippo Baldinucci_
Fisher, W.
Fitzgerald, Edward
Flaubert, G.
_Flight of the Duchess_
Flower, Eliza
Flower, Sarah
Flush
_Forgiveness_
Forster, John
_Founder of the Feast_
Fox, Caroline
Fox, W.J.
_Fra Lippo Lippi_
_Francis Farini_
Fuller, Margaret (see Ossoli, Countess d')
Furnivall, F.J.


G

Gagarin, Prince
_Garden Fancy_
_Gerard de Lairesse_
Gibson, J.
Gladstone, W.E.
_Glove_
_Gold Hair_
Goldoni
Gosse, E.
_Grammarian's Funeral_
_Greek Christian Poets_
Gresonowsky, Dr
Gressoney
Grove, Mr
_Guardian Angel_
Guido Franceschini


H

_Halbert and Hob_
Hatcham
Havre
Hawthorne, N.
"Helen's Tower"
Herakles
_Heretic's Tragedy_
_Hervé Riel_
Hickey, Miss E.H.
Hillard, G.S.
_Hippolytus and Aricia_
_Holy Cross Day_
Home, D.D.
Hosmer, Harriet
_House_
_How it strikes a Contemporary_
_How they brought the Good News_
Hugo, Victor
Hunt, Leigh


I

_Imperante Augusta natus est_
_In a Balcony_
_In a Gondola_
_Inapprehensiveness_
_In a Year_
_Inn Album_
_Ion_
_Italian in England_
_Ivàn Ivànovitch_
_Ixion_


J

James, Henry
_James Lee's Wife_
Jameson, Anna
_Jochanan Hakkadosh_,
_Jocoseria_
_Johannes Agricola_
Jones, Thomas
Jowett, Benjamin


K

Kean, Charles
Kemble, Fanny
Kenyon, F.G.
Kenyon, John
Kingsley, Charles
_King Victor and King Charles_
Kirkup, Seymour


L

"La Dame aux Camélias"
Lamartine
La Mura
Landor, W.S.
_La Saisiaz_
_Last Poems_
_Last Ride_
Lehmann, R.
Leighton, F.
Lever, Charles
Lido
_Life in a Love_
_Likeness_
Llangollen, Vale of
Lockhart, J.G.
Long, Professor
_Lost Leader_
Lounsbury, Professor
_Love among the Ruins_
_Love in a Life_
_Lover s Quarrel_
Lucca, Baths of
_Luria_
Lytton, Robert


M

Maclise, Daniel
Macready, W.C.
"Madame Bovary"
_Magical Nature_
_Mansoor the Hierophant_
Marston, Westland
Martin, Lady (_see_ also Faucit, Helen)
Martin, Sir T.
_Martin Relph_
_Master Hugues_
"Maud" (Tennyson's)
_May and Death_
Mazzini
Mellerio, A.
_Memorabilia_
_Men and Women_
Merrifield, Mr and Mrs
Mers
Mignet
Milsand, Joseph
Mill, J.S.
Milnes, Monckton
Milton
Mitford, Miss
Monclar, A. de Ripert
Monodrama
Montecuccoli, Marchese
Moore, Mrs Bloomfield
Moxon, E.
_Mr Sludge the Medium_
_Muléykeh_
Musset, A. de
_My Last Duchess_


N

_Names_
Napoleon, Louis
_Narses_
_Natural Magic_
_Ned Bratts_
Nightingale, Florence
"Nobly, nobly Cape St Vincent"
_Numpholeptos_


O

Ogle, Miss
_Old Pictures in Florence_
_One Way of Love_
_Only a Player-Girl_
Orr, Mrs
Ossian, Macpherson's
Ossoli, Countess d'


P

_Pacchiarotto_
Page, Mr
Paget, Sir James
Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati
Palazzo Manzoni
Palazzo Rezzonico
Palgrave, F.T.
_Paracelsus_
Paris
Parker, Theodore
_Parleyings with Certain People_
Patmore, Emily
_Patriot_
_Pauline_
_Pheidippides_
Phelps
_Pictor Ignotus_
_Pied Piper_
_Pietro of Abano_
Pio Nono
_Pippa Passes_
Pippa's Tower
_Pisgah Sights_
Pisa
Plutarch
_Poems before Congress_
Pompilia
Pope (in "Ring and Book")
_Pope and the Net_
_Popularity_
Pornic
_Porphyria's Lover_
Portraits
Powers, H.
_Pretty Woman_
Primiero
_Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau_
Prinsep, V.
Procter ("Barry Cornwall")
_Prologue_ (to "La Saisiaz")
_Prospice_
_Protus_
Prout, Father
"Puseyism"


R

_Rabbi ben Ezra_
Ready, Rev. T.
_Red Cotton Night-Cap Country_
_Rephan_
_Respectability_
_Return of the Druses_
_Reverie_
Rhyming
_Ring and the Book_
Ristori
Ritchie, Mrs A. Thackeray
Rome
Rossetti, D.G.
Rossetti, W.M.
_Rudel_
Ruskin, John


S

Saint-Aubin
Saint-Enogat
_St Martin's Summer_
St Moritz
St Pierre de Chartreuse
Sainte-Marie
Saint-Victor, Paul de
Salève
Salvini
Sand, George
Sartoris, Adelaide
_Saul_
_Selections_ (from Browning)
_Serenade at the Villa_
Shah, the
Shakespeare
Sharp, William
Shelley, P.B.
_Shop_
Siena
Silverthorne, James
Smith, Mr
Society, The Browning
_Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister_
_Solomon and Balkis_
_Sonnets from the Portuguese_
_Sordello_
_Soul's Tragedy_
_Speculative_
Spiritualism
Stanhope, Lord
_Statue and the Bust_
Stead, Mr F.H.
Stephen, Sir L.
Sterling, John
Stillmann, W.J.
Story, W.W.
Stowe, Harriet B.
_Strafford_
Swanwick
Swedenborg


T

Talfourd
Taylor, Bayard
Tennyson, Alfred
Tennyson, Frederick
Tennyson, Hallam
Thackeray, Miss, _see_ Ritchie, Mrs
Thackeray, W.M.
_The Worst of It_
_Toccata of Galuppi's_
_Too Late_
_Transcendentalism_
Trelawny, E.J.
Trollope, Mrs
Trollope, T.A.
_Twins_
_Two in the Campagna_
_Two Poems by E.B.B. and R. B_.
_Two Poets of Croisic_


U

_Up at a Villa_


V

Vallombrosa
Venice, 47, 137, 334, 335, 339, 386-388
Villers


W

_Waring_
Warwick Crescent
White, Rev. E.
_White Witchcraft_
Whitman, Walt
_Why am I a Liberal_?
Wiedemann, William
Wilson (Mrs Browning's maid)
Wise, T.J.
Wiseman, Cardinal
_Woman's Last Word_
Wordsworth, W.


Y

Yates, Edmund
"York" (a horse)
York Street Chapels
_Youth and Art_





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