LIFE AND LETTERS OF ROBERT BROWNING
by Mrs. Sutherland Orr
Such letters of Mr. Browning's as appear, whole or in part, in the present volume have been in most cases given to me by the persons to whom they were addressed, or copied by Miss Browning from the originals under her care; but I owe to the daughter of the Rev. W. J. Fox—Mrs. Bridell Fox—those written to her father and to Miss Flower; the two interesting extracts from her father's correspondence with herself and Mr. Browning's note to Mr. Robertson.
For my general material I have been largely indebted to Miss Browning. Her memory was the only existing record of her brother's boyhood and youth. It has been to me an unfailing as well as always accessible authority for that subsequent period of his life which I could only know in disconnected facts or his own fragmentary reminiscences. It is less true, indeed, to say that she has greatly helped me in writing this short biography than that without her help it could never have been undertaken.
I thank my friends Mrs. R. Courtenay Bell and Miss Hickey for their invaluable assistance in preparing the book for, and carrying it through the press; and I acknowledge with real gratitude the advantages derived by it from Mr. Dykes Campbell's large literary experience in his very careful final revision of the proofs.
A. Orr. April 22, 1891.
Chapter 1 Origin of the Browning Family—Robert Browning's Grandfather—His position and Character—His first and second Marriage—Unkindness towards his eldest Son, Robert Browning's Father—Alleged Infusion of West Indian Blood through Robert Browning's Grandmother—Existing Evidence against it—The Grandmother's Portrait.
Chapter 2 Robert Browning's Father—His Position in Life—Comparison between him and his Son—Tenderness towards his Son—Outline of his Habits and Character—His Death—Significant Newspaper Paragraph—Letter of Mr. Locker—Lampson—Robert Browning's Mother—Her Character and Antecedents—Their Influence upon her Son—Nervous Delicacy imparted to both her Children—Its special Evidences in her Son.
Chapter 3 1812-1826 Birth of Robert Browning—His Childhood and Schooldays—Restless Temperament—Brilliant Mental Endowments—Incidental Peculiarities—Strong Religious Feeling—Passionate Attachment to his Mother; Grief at first Separation—Fondness for Animals—Experiences of School Life—Extensive Reading—Early Attempts in Verse—Letter from his Father concerning them—Spurious Poems in Circulation—'Incondita'—Mr. Fox—Miss Flower.
Chapter 4 1826-1833 First Impressions of Keats and Shelley—Prolonged Influence of Shelley—Details of Home Education—Its Effects—Youthful Restlessness—Counteracting Love of Home—Early Friendships: Alfred Domett, Joseph Arnould, the Silverthornes—Choice of Poetry as a Profession—Alternative Suggestions; mistaken Rumours concerning them—Interest in Art—Love of good Theatrical Performances—Talent for Acting—Final Preparation for Literary Life.
Chapter 5 1833-1835 'Pauline'—Letters to Mr. Fox—Publication of the Poem; chief Biographical and Literary Characteristics—Mr. Fox's Review in the 'Monthly Repository'; other Notices—Russian Journey—Desired diplomatic Appointment—Minor Poems; first Sonnet; their Mode of Appearance—'The Trifler'—M. de Ripert-Monclar—'Paracelsus'—Letters to Mr. Fox concerning it; its Publication—Incidental Origin of 'Paracelsus'; its inspiring Motive; its Relation to 'Pauline'—Mr. Fox's Review of it in the 'Monthly Repository'—Article in the 'Examiner' by John Forster.
Chapter 6 1835-1838 Removal to Hatcham; some Particulars—Renewed Intercourse with the second Family of Robert Browning's Grandfather—Reuben Browning—William Shergold Browning—Visitors at Hatcham—Thomas Carlyle—Social Life—New Friends and Acquaintance—Introduction to Macready—New Year's Eve at Elm Place—Introduction to John Forster—Miss Fanny Haworth—Miss Martineau—Serjeant Talfourd—The 'Ion' Supper—'Strafford'—Relations with Macready—Performance of 'Strafford'—Letters concerning it from Mr. Browning and Miss Flower—Personal Glimpses of Robert Browning—Rival Forms of Dramatic Inspiration—Relation of 'Strafford' to 'Sordello'—Mr. Robertson and the 'Westminster Review'.
Chapter 7 1838-1841 First Italian Journey—Letters to Miss Haworth—Mr. John Kenyon—'Sordello'—Letter to Miss Flower—'Pippa Passes'—'Bells and Pomegranates'.
Chapter 8 1841-1844 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon'—Letters to Mr. Frank Hill; Lady Martin—Charles Dickens—Other Dramas and Minor Poems—Letters to Miss Lee; Miss Haworth; Miss Flower—Second Italian Journey; Naples—E. J. Trelawney—Stendhal.
Chapter 9 1844-1849 Introduction to Miss Barrett—Engagement—Motives for Secrecy—Marriage—Journey to Italy—Extract of Letter from Mr. Fox—Mrs. Browning's Letters to Miss Mitford—Life at Pisa—Vallombrosa—Florence; Mr. Powers; Miss Boyle—Proposed British Mission to the Vatican—Father Prout—Palazzo Guidi—Fano; Ancona—'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon' at Sadler's Wells.
Chapter 10 1849-1852 Death of Mr. Browning's Mother—Birth of his Son—Mrs. Browning's Letters continued—Baths of Lucca—Florence again—Venice—Margaret Fuller Ossoli—Visit to England—Winter in Paris—Carlyle—George Sand—Alfred de Musset.
Chapter 11 1852-1855 M. Joseph Milsand—His close Friendship with Mr. Browning; Mrs. Browning's Impression of him—New Edition of Mr. Browning's Poems—'Christmas Eve and Easter Day'—'Essay' on Shelley—Summer in London—Dante Gabriel Rossetti—Florence; secluded Life—Letters from Mr. and Mrs. Browning—'Colombe's Birthday'—Baths of Lucca—Mrs. Browning's Letters—Winter in Rome—Mr. and Mrs. Story—Mrs. Sartoris—Mrs. Fanny Kemble—Summer in London—Tennyson—Ruskin.
Chapter 12 1855-1858 'Men and Women'—'Karshook'—'Two in the Campagna'—Winter in Paris; Lady Elgin—'Aurora Leigh'—Death of Mr. Kenyon and Mr. Barrett—Penini—Mrs. Browning's Letters to Miss Browning—The Florentine Carnival—Baths of Lucca—Spiritualism—Mr. Kirkup; Count Ginnasi—Letter from Mr. Browning to Mr. Fox—Havre.
Chapter 13 1858-1861 Mrs. Browning's Illness—Siena—Letter from Mr. Browning to Mr. Leighton—Mrs. Browning's Letters continued—Walter Savage Landor—Winter in Rome—Mr. Val Prinsep—Friends in Rome: Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright—Multiplying Social Relations—Massimo d'Azeglio—Siena again—Illness and Death of Mrs. Browning's Sister—Mr. Browning's Occupations—Madame du Quaire—Mrs. Browning's last Illness and Death.
Chapter 14 1861-1863 Miss Blagden—Letters from Mr. Browning to Miss Haworth and Mr. Leighton—His Feeling in regard to Funeral Ceremonies—Establishment in London—Plan of Life—Letter to Madame du Quaire—Miss Arabel Barrett—Biarritz—Letters to Miss Blagden—Conception of 'The Ring and the Book'—Biographical Indiscretion—New Edition of his Works—Mr. and Mrs. Procter.
Chapter 15 1863-1869 Pornic—'James Lee's Wife'—Meeting at Mr. F. Palgrave's—Letters to Miss Blagden—His own Estimate of his Work—His Father's Illness and Death; Miss Browning—Le Croisic—Academic Honours; Letter to the Master of Balliol—Death of Miss Barrett—Audierne—Uniform Edition of his Works—His rising Fame—'Dramatis Personae'—'The Ring and the Book'; Character of Pompilia.
Chapter 16 1869-1873 Lord Dufferin; Helen's Tower—Scotland; Visit to Lady Ashburton—Letters to Miss Blagden—St.-Aubin; The Franco-Prussian War—'Herve Riel'—Letter to Mr. G. M. Smith—'Balaustion's Adventure'; 'Prince Hohenstiel—Schwangau'—'Fifine at the Fair'—Mistaken Theories of Mr. Browning's Work—St.-Aubin; 'Red Cotton Nightcap Country'.
Chapter 17 1873-1878 London Life—Love of Music—Miss Egerton-Smith—Periodical Nervous Exhaustion—Mers; 'Aristophanes' Apology'—'Agamemnon'—'The Inn Album'—'Pacchiarotto and other Poems'—Visits to Oxford and Cambridge—Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald—St. Andrews; Letter from Professor Knight—In the Savoyard Mountains—Death of Miss Egerton-Smith—'La Saisiaz'; 'The Two Poets of Croisic'—Selections from his Works.
Chapter 18 1878-1884 He revisits Italy; Asolo; Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald—Venice—Favourite Alpine Retreats—Mrs. Arthur Bronson—Life in Venice—A Tragedy at Saint-Pierre—Mr. Cholmondeley—Mr. Browning's Patriotic Feeling; Extract from Letter to Mrs. Charles Skirrow—'Dramatic Idyls'—'Jocoseria'—'Ferishtah's Fancies'.
Chapter 19 1881-1887 The Browning Society; Mr. Furnivall; Miss E. H. Hickey—His Attitude towards the Society; Letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald—Mr. Thaxter, Mrs. Celia Thaxter—Letter to Miss Hickey; 'Strafford'—Shakspere and Wordsworth Societies—Letters to Professor Knight—Appreciation in Italy; Professor Nencioni—The Goldoni Sonnet—Mr. Barrett Browning; Palazzo Manzoni—Letters to Mrs. Charles Skirrow—Mrs. Bloomfield Moore—Llangollen; Sir Theodore and Lady Martin—Loss of old Friends—Foreign Correspondent of the Royal Academy—'Parleyings with certain People of Importance in their Day'.
Chapter 20 Constancy to Habit—Optimism—Belief in Providence—Political Opinions—His Friendships—Reverence for Genius—Attitude towards his Public—Attitude towards his Work—Habits of Work—His Reading—Conversational Powers—Impulsiveness and Reserve—Nervous Peculiarities—His Benevolence—His Attitude towards Women.
Chapter 21 1887-1889 Marriage of Mr. Barrett Browning—Removal to De Vere Gardens—Symptoms of failing Strength—New Poems; New Edition of his Works—Letters to Mr. George Bainton, Mr. Smith, and Lady Martin—Primiero and Venice—Letters to Miss Keep—The last Year in London—Asolo—Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, Mrs. Skirrow, and Mr. G. M. Smith.
Chapter 22 1889 Proposed Purchase of Land at Asolo—Venice—Letter to Mr. G. Moulton-Barrett—Lines in the 'Athenaeum'—Letter to Miss Keep—Illness—Death—Funeral Ceremonial at Venice—Publication of 'Asolando'—Interment in Poets' Corner.
Portrait of Robert Browning (1889) Mr. Browning's Study in De Vere Gardens
LIFE AND LETTERS OF ROBERT BROWNING
Origin of the Browning Family—Robert Browning's Grandfather—His position and Character—His first and second Marriage—Unkindness towards his eldest Son, Robert Browning's Father—Alleged Infusion of West Indian Blood through Robert Browning's Grandmother—Existing Evidence against it—The Grandmother's Portrait.
A belief was current in Mr. Browning's lifetime that he had Jewish blood in his veins. It received outward support from certain accidents of his life, from his known interest in the Hebrew language and literature, from his friendship for various members of the Jewish community in London. It might well have yielded to the fact of his never claiming the kinship, which could not have existed without his knowledge, and which, if he had known it, he would, by reason of these very sympathies, have been the last person to disavow. The results of more recent and more systematic inquiry have shown the belief to be unfounded.
Our poet sprang, on the father's side, from an obscure or, as family tradition asserts, a decayed branch, of an Anglo-Saxon stock settled, at an early period of our history, in the south, and probably also south-west, of England. A line of Brownings owned the manors of Melbury-Sampford and Melbury-Osmond, in north-west Dorsetshire; their last representative disappeared—or was believed to do so—in the time of Henry VII., their manors passing into the hands of the Earls of Ilchester, who still hold them.* The name occurs after 1542 in different parts of the country: in two cases with the affix of 'esquire', in two also, though not in both coincidently, within twenty miles of Pentridge, where the first distinct traces of the poet's family appear. Its cradle, as he called it, was Woodyates, in the parish of Pentridge, on the Wiltshire confines of Dorsetshire; and there his ancestors, of the third and fourth generations, held, as we understand, a modest but independent social position.
* I am indebted for these facts, as well as for some others referring to, or supplied by, Mr. Browning's uncles, to some notes made for the Browning Society by Dr. Furnivall.
This fragment of history, if we may so call it, accords better with our impression of Mr. Browning's genius than could any pedigree which more palpably connected him with the 'knightly' and 'squirely' families whose name he bore. It supplies the strong roots of English national life to which we instinctively refer it. Both the vivid originality of that genius and its healthy assimilative power stamp it as, in some sense, the product of virgin soil; and although the varied elements which entered into its growth were racial as well as cultural, and inherited as well as absorbed, the evidence of its strong natural or physical basis remains undisturbed.
Mr. Browning, for his own part, maintained a neutral attitude in the matter. He neither claimed nor disclaimed the more remote genealogical past which had presented itself as a certainty to some older members of his family. He preserved the old framed coat-of-arms handed down to him from his grandfather; and used, without misgiving as to his right to do so, a signet-ring engraved from it, the gift of a favourite uncle, in years gone by. But, so long as he was young, he had no reason to think about his ancestors; and, when he was old, he had no reason to care about them; he knew himself to be, in every possible case, the most important fact in his family history.
Roi ne suis, ni Prince aussi, Suis le seigneur de Conti,
he wrote, a few years back, to a friend who had incidentally questioned him about it.
Our immediate knowledge of the family begins with Mr. Browning's grandfather, also a Robert Browning, who obtained through Lord Shaftesbury's influence a clerkship in the Bank of England, and entered on it when barely twenty, in 1769. He served fifty years, and rose to the position of Principal of the Bank Stock Office, then an important one, and which brought him into contact with the leading financiers of the day. He became also a lieutenant in the Honourable Artillery Company, and took part in the defence of the Bank in the Gordon Riots of 1789. He was an able, energetic, and worldly man: an Englishman, very much of the provincial type; his literary tastes being limited to the Bible and 'Tom Jones', both of which he is said to have read through once a year. He possessed a handsome person and, probably, a vigorous constitution, since he lived to the age of eighty-four, though frequently tormented by gout; a circumstance which may help to account for his not having seen much of his grandchildren, the poet and his sister; we are indeed told that he particularly dreaded the lively boy's vicinity to his afflicted foot. He married, in 1778, Margaret, daughter of a Mr. Tittle by his marriage with Miss Seymour; and who was born in the West Indies and had inherited property there. They had three children: Robert, the poet's father; a daughter, who lived an uneventful life and plays no part in the family history; and another son who died an infant. The Creole mother died also when her eldest boy was only seven years old, and passed out of his memory in all but an indistinct impression of having seen her lying in her coffin. Five years later the widower married a Miss Smith, who gave him a large family.
This second marriage of Mr. Browning's was a critical event in the life of his eldest son; it gave him, to all appearance, two step-parents instead of one. There could have been little sympathy between his father and himself, for no two persons were ever more unlike, but there was yet another cause for the systematic unkindness under which the lad grew up. Mr. Browning fell, as a hard man easily does, greatly under the influence of his second wife, and this influence was made by her to subserve the interests of a more than natural jealousy of her predecessor. An early instance of this was her banishing the dead lady's portrait to a garret, on the plea that her husband did not need two wives. The son could be no burden upon her because he had a little income, derived from his mother's brother; but this, probably, only heightened her ill-will towards him. When he was old enough to go to a University, and very desirous of going—when, moreover, he offered to do so at his own cost—she induced his father to forbid it, because, she urged, they could not afford to send their other sons to college. An earlier ambition of his had been to become an artist; but when he showed his first completed picture to his father, the latter turned away and refused to look at it. He gave himself the finishing stroke in the parental eyes, by throwing up a lucrative employment which he had held for a short time on his mother's West Indian property, in disgust at the system of slave labour which was still in force there; and he paid for this unpractical conduct as soon as he was of age, by the compulsory reimbursement of all the expenses which his father, up to that date, had incurred for him; and by the loss of his mother's fortune, which, at the time of her marriage, had not been settled upon her. It was probably in despair of doing anything better, that, soon after this, in his twenty-second year, he also became a clerk in the Bank of England. He married and settled in Camberwell, in 1811; his son and daughter were born, respectively, in 1812 and 1814. He became a widower in 1849; and when, four years later, he had completed his term of service at the Bank, he went with his daughter to Paris, where they resided until his death in 1866.
Dr. Furnivall has originated a theory, and maintains it as a conviction, that Mr. Browning's grandmother was more than a Creole in the strict sense of the term, that of a person born of white parents in the West Indies, and that an unmistakable dash of dark blood passed from her to her son and grandson. Such an occurrence was, on the face of it, not impossible, and would be absolutely unimportant to my mind, and, I think I may add, to that of Mr. Browning's sister and son. The poet and his father were what we know them, and if negro blood had any part in their composition, it was no worse for them, and so much the better for the negro. But many persons among us are very averse to the idea of such a cross; I believe its assertion, in the present case, to be entirely mistaken; I prefer, therefore, touching on the facts alleged in favour of it, to passing them over in a silence which might be taken to mean indifference, but might also be interpreted into assent.
We are told that Mr. Browning was so dark in early life, that a nephew who saw him in Paris, in 1837, mistook him for an Italian. He neither had nor could have had a nephew; and he was not out of England at the time specified. It is said that when Mr. Browning senior was residing on his mother's sugar plantation at St. Kitt's, his appearance was held to justify his being placed in church among the coloured members of the congregation. We are assured in the strongest terms that the story has no foundation, and this by a gentleman whose authority in all matters concerning the Browning family Dr. Furnivall has otherwise accepted as conclusive. If the anecdote were true it would be a singular circumstance that Mr. Browning senior was always fond of drawing negro heads, and thus obviously disclaimed any unpleasant association with them.
I do not know the exact physical indications by which a dark strain is perceived; but if they are to be sought in the colouring of eyes, hair, and skin, they have been conspicuously absent in the two persons who in the present case are supposed to have borne them. The poet's father had light blue eyes and, I am assured by those who knew him best, a clear, ruddy complexion. His appearance induced strangers passing him in the Paris streets to remark, 'C'est un Anglais!' The absolute whiteness of Miss Browning's skin was modified in her brother by a sallow tinge sufficiently explained by frequent disturbance of the liver; but it never affected the clearness of his large blue-grey eyes; and his hair, which grew dark as he approached manhood, though it never became black, is spoken of, by everyone who remembers him in childhood and youth, as golden. It is no less worthy of note that the daughter of his early friend Mr. Fox, who grew up in the little social circle to which he belonged, never even heard of the dark cross now imputed to him; and a lady who made his acquaintance during his twenty-fourth year, wrote a sonnet upon him, beginning with these words:
Thy brow is calm, young Poet—pale and clear As a moonlighted statue.
The suggestion of Italian characteristics in the Poet's face may serve, however, to introduce a curious fact, which can have no bearing on the main lines of his descent, but holds collateral possibilities concerning it. His mother's name Wiedemann or Wiedeman appears in a merely contracted form as that of one of the oldest families naturalized in Venice. It became united by marriage with the Rezzonico; and, by a strange coincidence, the last of these who occupied the palace now owned by Mr. Barrett Browning was a Widman-Rezzonico. The present Contessa Widman has lately restored her own palace, which was falling into ruin.
That portrait of the first Mrs. Browning, which gave so much umbrage to her husband's second wife, has hung for many years in her grandson's dining-room, and is well known to all his friends. It represents a stately woman with an unmistakably fair skin; and if the face or hair betrays any indication of possible dark blood, it is imperceptible to the general observer, and must be of too slight and fugitive a nature to enter into the discussion. A long curl touches one shoulder. One hand rests upon a copy of Thomson's 'Seasons', which was held to be the proper study and recreation of cultivated women in those days. The picture was painted by Wright of Derby.
A brother of this lady was an adventurous traveller, and was said to have penetrated farther into the interior of Africa than any other European of his time. His violent death will be found recorded in a singular experience of the poet's middle life.
Robert Browning's Father—His Position in Life—Comparison between him and his Son—Tenderness towards his Son—Outline of his Habits and Character—His Death—Significant Newspaper Paragraph—Letter of Mr. Locker-Lampson—Robert Browning's Mother—Her Character and Antecedents—Their Influence upon her Son—Nervous Delicacy imparted to both her Children—Its special Evidences in her Son.
It was almost a matter of course that Robert Browning's father should be disinclined for bank work. We are told, and can easily imagine, that he was not so good an official as the grandfather; we know that he did not rise so high, nor draw so large a salary. But he made the best of his position for his family's sake, and it was at that time both more important and more lucrative than such appointments have since become. Its emoluments could be increased by many honourable means not covered by the regular salary. The working-day was short, and every additional hour's service well paid. To be enrolled on the night-watch was also very remunerative; there were enormous perquisites in pens, paper, and sealing-wax.* Mr. Browning availed himself of these opportunities of adding to his income, and was thus enabled, with the help of his private means, to gratify his scholarly and artistic tastes, and give his children the benefit of a very liberal education—the one distinct ideal of success in life which such a nature as his could form. Constituted as he was, he probably suffered very little through the paternal unkindness which had forced him into an uncongenial career. Its only palpable result was to make him a more anxiously indulgent parent when his own time came.
* I have been told that, far from becoming careless in the use of these things from his practically unbounded command of them, he developed for them an almost superstitious reverence. He could never endure to see a scrap of writing- paper wasted.
Many circumstances conspired to secure to the coming poet a happier childhood and youth than his father had had. His path was to be smoothed not only by natural affection and conscientious care, but by literary and artistic sympathy. The second Mr. Browning differed, in certain respects, as much from the third as from the first. There were, nevertheless, strong points in which, if he did not resemble, he at least distinctly foreshadowed him; and the genius of the one would lack some possible explanation if we did not recognize in great measure its organized material in the other. Much, indeed, that was genius in the son existed as talent in the father. The moral nature of the younger man diverged from that of the older, though retaining strong points of similarity; but the mental equipments of the two differed far less in themselves than in the different uses to which temperament and circumstances trained them.
The most salient intellectual characteristic of Mr. Browning senior was his passion for reading. In his daughter's words, 'he read in season, and out of season;' and he not only read, but remembered. As a schoolboy, he knew by heart the first book of the 'Iliad', and all the odes of Horace; and it shows how deeply the classical part of his training must have entered into him, that he was wont, in later life, to soothe his little boy to sleep by humming to him an ode of Anacreon. It was one of his amusements at school to organize Homeric combats among the boys, in which the fighting was carried on in the manner of the Greeks and Trojans, and he and his friend Kenyon would arm themselves with swords and shields, and hack at each other lustily, exciting themselves to battle by insulting speeches derived from the Homeric text.*
* This anecdote is partly quoted from Mrs. Andrew Crosse, who has introduced it into her article 'John Kenyon and his Friends', 'Temple Bar', April 1890. She herself received it from Mr. Dykes Campbell.
Mr. Browning had also an extraordinary power of versifying, and taught his son from babyhood the words he wished him to remember, by joining them to a grotesque rhyme; the child learned all his Latin declensions in this way. His love of art had been proved by his desire to adopt it as a profession; his talent for it was evidenced by the life and power of the sketches, often caricatures, which fell from his pen or pencil as easily as written words. Mr. Barrett Browning remembers gaining a very early elementary knowledge of anatomy from comic illustrated rhymes (now in the possession of their old friend, Mrs. Fraser Corkran) through which his grandfather impressed upon him the names and position of the principal bones of the human body.
Even more remarkable than his delight in reading was the manner in which Mr. Browning read. He carried into it all the preciseness of the scholar. It was his habit when he bought a book—which was generally an old one allowing of this addition—to have some pages of blank paper bound into it. These he filled with notes, chronological tables, or such other supplementary matter as would enhance the interest, or assist the mastering, of its contents; all written in a clear and firm though by no means formal handwriting. More than one book thus treated by him has passed through my hands, leaving in me, it need hardly be said, a stronger impression of the owner's intellectual quality than the acquisition by him of the finest library could have conveyed. One of the experiences which disgusted him with St. Kitt's was the frustration by its authorities of an attempt he was making to teach a negro boy to read, and the understanding that all such educative action was prohibited.
In his faculties and attainments, as in his pleasures and appreciations, he showed the simplicity and genuineness of a child. He was not only ready to amuse, he could always identify himself with children, his love for whom never failed him in even his latest years. His more than childlike indifference to pecuniary advantages had been shown in early life. He gave another proof of it after his wife's death, when he declined a proposal, made to him by the Bank of England, to assist in founding one of its branch establishments in Liverpool. He never indeed, personally, cared for money, except as a means of acquiring old, i.e. rare books, for which he had, as an acquaintance declared, the scent of a hound and the snap of a bulldog. His eagerness to possess such treasures was only matched by the generosity with which he parted with them; and his daughter well remembers the feeling of angry suspicion with which she and her brother noted the periodical arrival of a certain visitor who would be closeted with their father for hours, and steal away before the supper time, when the family would meet, with some precious parcel of books or prints under his arm.
It is almost superfluous to say that he was indifferent to creature comforts. Miss Browning was convinced that, if on any occasion she had said to him, 'There will be no dinner to-day,' he would only have looked up from his book to reply, 'All right, my dear, it is of no consequence.' In his bank-clerk days, when he sometimes dined in Town, he left one restaurant with which he was not otherwise dissatisfied, because the waiter always gave him the trouble of specifying what he would have to eat. A hundred times that trouble would not have deterred him from a kindly act. Of his goodness of heart, indeed, many distinct instances might be given; but even this scanty outline of his life has rendered them superfluous.
Mr. Browning enjoyed splendid physical health. His early love of reading had not precluded a wholesome enjoyment of athletic sports; and he was, as a boy, the fastest runner and best base-ball player in his school. He died, like his father, at eighty-four (or rather, within a few days of eighty-five), but, unlike him, he had never been ill; a French friend exclaimed when all was over, 'Il n'a jamais ete vieux.' His faculties were so unclouded up to the last moment that he could watch himself dying, and speculate on the nature of the change which was befalling him. 'What do you think death is, Robert?' he said to his son; 'is it a fainting, or is it a pang?' A notice of his decease appeared in an American newspaper. It was written by an unknown hand, and bears a stamp of genuineness which renders the greater part of it worth quoting.
'He was not only a ruddy, active man, with fine hair, that retained its strength and brownness to the last, but he had a courageous spirit and a remarkably intelligent mind. He was a man of the finest culture, and was often, and never vainly, consulted by his son Robert concerning the more recondite facts relating to the old characters, whose bones that poet liked so well to disturb. His knowledge of old French, Spanish, and Italian literature was wonderful. The old man went smiling and peaceful to his long rest, preserving his faculties to the last, insomuch that the physician, astonished at his continued calmness and good humour, turned to his daughter, and said in a low voice, "Does this gentleman know that he is dying?" The daughter said in a voice which the father could hear, "He knows it;" and the old man said with a quiet smile, "Death is no enemy in my eyes." His last words were spoken to his son Robert, who was fanning him, "I fear I am wearying you, dear."'
Four years later one of his English acquaintances in Paris, Mr. Frederick Locker, now Mr. Locker-Lampson, wrote to Robert Browning as follows:
Dec. 26, 1870.
My dear Browning,—I have always thought that you or Miss Browning, or some other capable person, should draw up a sketch of your excellent father so that, hereafter, it might be known what an interesting man he was.
I used often to meet you in Paris, at Lady Elgin's. She had a genuine taste for poetry, and she liked being read to, and I remember you gave her a copy of Keats' poems, and you used often to read his poetry to her. Lady Elgin died in 1860, and I think it was in that year that Lady Charlotte and I saw the most of Mr. Browning.* He was then quite an elderly man, if years could make him so, but he had so much vivacity of manner, and such simplicity and freshness of mind, that it was difficult to think him old.
* Mr. Locker was then married to Lady Charlotte Bruce, Lady Elgin's daughter.
I remember, he and your sister lived in an apartment in the Rue de Grenelle, St. Germain, in quite a simple fashion, much in the way that most people live in Paris, and in the way that all sensible people would wish to live all over the world.
Your father and I had at least one taste and affection in common. He liked hunting the old bookstalls on the 'quais', and he had a great love and admiration for Hogarth; and he possessed several of Hogarth's engravings, some in rare and early states of the plate; and he would relate with glee the circumstances under which he had picked them up, and at so small a price too! However, he had none of the 'petit-maitre' weakness of the ordinary collector, which is so common, and which I own to!—such as an infatuation for tall copies, and wide margins.
I remember your father was fond of drawing in a rough and ready fashion; he had plenty of talent, I should think not very great cultivation; but quite enough to serve his purpose, and to amuse his friends. He had a thoroughly lively and healthy interest in your poetry, and he showed me some of your boyish attempts at versification.
Taking your dear father altogether, I quite believe him to have been one of those men—interesting men—whom the world never hears of. Perhaps he was shy—at any rate he was much less known than he ought to have been; and now, perhaps, he only remains in the recollection of his family, and of one or two superior people (like myself!) who were capable of appreciating him. My dear Browning, I really hope you will draw up a slight sketch of your father before it is too late. Yours, Frederick Locker.
The judgments thus expressed twenty years ago are cordially re-stated in the letter in which Mr. Locker-Lampson authorizes me to publish them. The desired memoir was never written; but the few details which I have given of the older Mr. Browning's life and character may perhaps stand for it.
With regard to the 'strict dissent' with which her parents have been taxed, Miss Browning writes to me: 'My father was born and educated in the Church of England, and, for many years before his death, lived in her communion. He became a Dissenter in middle life, and my mother, born and brought up in the Kirk of Scotland, became one also; but they could not be called bigoted, since we always in the evening attended the preaching of the Rev. Henry Melvill* (afterwards Canon of St. Paul's), whose sermons Robert much admired.'**
* At Camden Chapel, Camberwell.
** Mr. Browning was much interested, in later years, in hearing Canon, perhaps then already Archdeacon, Farrar extol his eloquence and ask whether he had known him. Mr. Ruskin also spoke of him with admiration.
Little need be said about the poet's mother. She was spoken of by Carlyle as 'the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman.' Mr. Kenyon declared that such as she had no need to go to heaven, because they made it wherever they were. But her character was all resumed in her son's words, spoken with the tremulous emotion which so often accompanied his allusion to those he had loved and lost: 'She was a divine woman.' She was Scotch on the maternal side, and her kindly, gentle, but distinctly evangelical Christianity must have been derived from that source. Her father, William Wiedemann, a ship-owner, was a Hamburg German settled in Dundee, and has been described by Mr. Browning as an accomplished draughtsman and musician. She herself had nothing of the artist about her, though we hear of her sometimes playing the piano; in all her goodness and sweetness she seems to have been somewhat matter-of-fact. But there is abundant indirect evidence of Mr. Browning's love of music having come to him through her, and we are certainly justified in holding the Scottish-German descent as accountable, in great measure at least, for the metaphysical quality so early apparent in the poet's mind, and of which we find no evidence in that of his father. His strong religious instincts must have been derived from both parents, though most anxiously fostered by his mother.
There is yet another point on which Mrs. Browning must have influenced the life and destinies of her son, that of physical health, or, at least, nervous constitution. She was a delicate woman, very anaemic during her later years, and a martyr to neuralgia, which was perhaps a symptom of this condition. The acute ailment reproduced itself in her daughter in spite of an otherwise vigorous constitution. With the brother, the inheritance of suffering was not less surely present, if more difficult to trace. We have been accustomed to speaking of him as a brilliantly healthy man; he was healthy, even strong, in many essential respects. Until past the age of seventy he could take long walks without fatigue, and endure an amount of social and general physical strain which would have tried many younger men. He carried on until the last a large, if not always serious, correspondence, and only within the latest months, perhaps weeks of his life, did his letters even suggest that physical brain-power was failing him. He had, within the limits which his death has assigned to it, a considerable recuperative power. His consciousness of health was vivid, so long as he was well; and it was only towards the end that the faith in his probable length of days occasionally deserted him. But he died of no acute disease, more than seven years younger than his father, having long carried with him external marks of age from which his father remained exempt. Till towards the age of forty he suffered from attacks of sore-throat, not frequent, but of an angry kind. He was constantly troubled by imperfect action of the liver, though no doctor pronounced the evil serious. I have spoken of this in reference to his complexion. During the last twenty years, if not for longer, he rarely spent a winter without a suffocating cold and cough; within the last five, asthmatic symptoms established themselves; and when he sank under what was perhaps his first real attack of bronchitis it was not because the attack was very severe, but because the heart was exhausted. The circumstances of his death recalled that of his mother; and we might carry the sad analogy still farther in his increasing pallor, and the slow and not strong pulse which always characterized him. This would perhaps be a mistake. It is difficult to reconcile any idea of bloodlessness with the bounding vitality of his younger body and mind. Any symptom of organic disease could scarcely, in his case, have been overlooked. But so much is certain: he was conscious of what he called a nervousness of nature which neither father nor grandfather could have bequeathed to him. He imputed to this, or, in other words, to an undue physical sensitiveness to mental causes of irritation, his proneness to deranged liver, and the asthmatic conditions which he believed, rightly or wrongly, to be produced by it. He was perhaps mistaken in some of his inferences, but he was not mistaken in the fact. He had the pleasures as well as the pains of this nervous temperament; its quick response to every congenial stimulus of physical atmosphere, and human contact. It heightened the enjoyment, perhaps exaggerated the consciousness of his physical powers. It also certainly in his later years led him to overdraw them. Many persons have believed that he could not live without society; a prolonged seclusion from it would, for obvious reasons, have been unsuited to him. But the excited gaiety which to the last he carried into every social gathering was often primarily the result of a moral and physical effort which his temperament prompted, but his strength could not always justify. Nature avenged herself in recurrent periods of exhaustion, long before the closing stage had set in.
I shall subsequently have occasion to trace this nervous impressibility through various aspects and relations of his life; all I now seek to show is that this healthiest of poets and most real of men was not compounded of elements of pure health, and perhaps never could have been so. It might sound grotesque to say that only a delicate woman could have been the mother of Robert Browning. The fact remains that of such a one, and no other, he was born; and we may imagine, without being fanciful, that his father's placid intellectual powers required for their transmutation into poetic genius just this infusion of a vital element not only charged with other racial and individual qualities, but physically and morally more nearly allied to pain. Perhaps, even for his happiness as a man, we could not have wished it otherwise.
Birth of Robert Browning—His Childhood and Schooldays—Restless Temperament—Brilliant Mental Endowments—Incidental Peculiarities—Strong Religious Feeling—Passionate Attachment to his Mother; Grief at first Separation—Fondness for Animals—Experiences of School Life—Extensive Reading—Early Attempts in Verse—Letter from his Father concerning them—Spurious Poems in Circulation—'Incondita'—Mr. Fox—Miss Flower.
Robert Browning was born, as has been often repeated, at Camberwell, on May 7, 1812, soon after a great comet had disappeared from the sky. He was a handsome, vigorous, fearless child, and soon developed an unresting activity and a fiery temper. He clamoured for occupation from the moment he could speak. His mother could only keep him quiet when once he had emerged from infancy by telling him stories—doubtless Bible stories—while holding him on her knee. His energies were of course destructive till they had found their proper outlet; but we do not hear of his ever having destroyed anything for the mere sake of doing so. His first recorded piece of mischief was putting a handsome Brussels lace veil of his mother's into the fire; but the motive, which he was just old enough to lisp out, was also his excuse: 'A pitty baze [pretty blaze], mamma.' Imagination soon came to his rescue. It has often been told how he extemporized verse aloud while walking round and round the dining-room table supporting himself by his hands, when he was still so small that his head was scarcely above it. He remembered having entertained his mother in the very first walk he was considered old enough to take with her, by a fantastic account of his possessions in houses, &c., of which the topographical details elicited from her the remark, 'Why, sir, you are quite a geographer.' And though this kind of romancing is common enough among intelligent children, it distinguishes itself in this case by the strong impression which the incident had left on his own mind. It seems to have been a first real flight of dramatic fancy, confusing his identity for the time being.
The power of inventing did not, however, interfere with his readiness to learn, and the facility with which he acquired whatever knowledge came in his way had, on one occasion, inconvenient results. A lady of reduced fortunes kept a small elementary school for boys, a stone's-throw from his home; and he was sent to it as a day boarder at so tender an age that his parents, it is supposed, had no object in view but to get rid of his turbulent activity for an hour or two every morning and afternoon. Nevertheless, his proficiency in reading and spelling was soon so much ahead of that of the biggest boy, that complaints broke out among the mammas, who were sure there was not fair play. Mrs.——was neglecting her other pupils for the sake of 'bringing on Master Browning;' and the poor lady found it necessary to discourage Master Browning's attendance lest she should lose the remainder of her flock. This, at least, was the story as he himself remembered it. According to Miss Browning his instructress did not yield without a parting shot. She retorted on the discontented parents that, if she could give their children 'Master Browning's intellect', she would have no difficulty in satisfying them. After this came the interlude of home-teaching, in which all his elementary knowledge must have been gained. As an older child he was placed with two Misses Ready, who prepared boys for entering their brother's (the Rev. Thomas Ready's) school; and in due time he passed into the latter, where he remained up to the age of fourteen.
He seems in those early days to have had few playmates beyond his sister, two years younger than himself, and whom his irrepressible spirit must sometimes have frightened or repelled. Nor do we hear anything of childish loves; and though an entry appeared in his diary one Sunday in about the seventh or eighth year of his age, 'married two wives this morning,' it only referred to a vague imaginary appropriation of two girls whom he had just seen in church, and whose charm probably lay in their being much bigger than he. He was, however, capable of a self-conscious shyness in the presence of even a little girl; and his sense of certain proprieties was extraordinarily keen. He told a friend that on one occasion, when the merest child, he had edged his way by the wall from one point of his bedroom to another, because he was not fully clothed, and his reflection in the glass could otherwise have been seen through the partly open door.*
* Another anecdote, of a very different kind, belongs to an earlier period, and to that category of pure naughtiness which could not fail to be sometimes represented in the conduct of so gifted a child. An old lady who visited his mother, and was characterized in the family as 'Aunt Betsy', had irritated him by pronouncing the word 'lovers' with the contemptuous jerk which the typical old maid is sometimes apt to impart to it, when once the question had arisen why a certain 'Lovers' Walk' was so called. He was too nearly a baby to imagine what a 'lover' was; he supposed the name denoted a trade or occupation. But his human sympathy resented Aunt Betsy's manner as an affront; and he determined, after probably repeated provocation, to show her something worse than a 'lover', whatever this might be. So one night he slipped out of bed, exchanged his nightgown for what he considered the appropriate undress of a devil, completed this by a paper tail, and the ugliest face he could make, and rushed into the drawing-room, where the old lady and his mother were drinking tea. He was snatched up and carried away before he had had time to judge the effect of his apparition; but he did not think, looking back upon the circumstances in later life, that Aunt Betsy had deserved quite so ill of her fellow-creatures as he then believed.
His imaginative emotions were largely absorbed by religion. The early Biblical training had had its effect, and he was, to use his own words, 'passionately religious' in those nursery years; but during them and many succeeding ones, his mother filled his heart. He loved her so much, he has been heard to say, that even as a grown man he could not sit by her otherwise than with an arm round her waist. It is difficult to measure the influence which this feeling may have exercised on his later life; it led, even now, to a strange and touching little incident which had in it the incipient poet no less than the loving child. His attendance at Miss Ready's school only kept him from home from Monday till Saturday of every week; but when called upon to confront his first five days of banishment he felt sure that he would not survive them. A leaden cistern belonging to the school had in, or outside it, the raised image of a face. He chose the cistern for his place of burial, and converted the face into his epitaph by passing his hand over and over it to a continuous chant of: 'In memory of unhappy Browning'—the ceremony being renewed in his spare moments, till the acute stage of the feeling had passed away.
The fondness for animals for which through life he was noted, was conspicuous in his very earliest days. His urgent demand for 'something to do' would constantly include 'something to be caught' for him: 'they were to catch him an eft;' 'they were to catch him a frog.' He would refuse to take his medicine unless bribed by the gift of a speckled frog from among the strawberries; and the maternal parasol, hovering above the strawberry bed during the search for this object of his desires, remained a standing picture in his remembrance. But the love of the uncommon was already asserting itself; and one of his very juvenile projects was a collection of rare creatures, the first contribution to which was a couple of lady-birds, picked up one winter's day on a wall and immediately consigned to a box lined with cotton-wool, and labelled, 'Animals found surviving in the depths of a severe winter.' Nor did curiosity in this case weaken the power of sympathy. His passion for birds and beasts was the counterpart of his father's love of children, only displaying itself before the age at which child-love naturally appears. His mother used to read Croxall's Fables to his little sister and him. The story contained in them of a lion who was kicked to death by an ass affected him so painfully that he could no longer endure the sight of the book; and as he dared not destroy it, he buried it between the stuffing and the woodwork of an old dining-room chair, where it stood for lost, at all events for the time being. When first he heard the adventures of the parrot who insisted on leaving his cage, and who enjoyed himself for a little while and then died of hunger and cold, he—and his sister with him—cried so bitterly that it was found necessary to invent a different ending, according to which the parrot was rescued just in time and brought back to his cage to live peacefully in it ever after.
As a boy, he kept owls and monkeys, magpies and hedgehogs, an eagle, and even a couple of large snakes, constantly bringing home the more portable creatures in his pockets, and transferring them to his mother for immediate care. I have heard him speak admiringly of the skilful tenderness with which she took into her lap a lacerated cat, washed and sewed up its ghastly wound, and nursed it back to health. The great intimacy with the life and habits of animals which reveals itself in his works is readily explained by these facts.
Mr. Ready's establishment was chosen for him as the best in the neighbourhood; and both there and under the preparatory training of that gentleman's sisters, the young Robert was well and kindly cared for. The Misses Ready especially concerned themselves with the spiritual welfare of their pupils. The periodical hair-brushings were accompanied by the singing, and fell naturally into the measure, of Watts's hymns; and Mr. Browning has given his friends some very hearty laughs by illustrating with voice and gesture the ferocious emphasis with which the brush would swoop down in the accentuated syllables of the following lines:
Lord, 'tis a pleasant thing to stand In gardens planted by Thy hand.
. . . . .
Fools never raise their thoughts so high, Like 'brutes' they live, like brutes they die.
He even compelled his mother to laugh at it, though it was sorely against her nature to lend herself to any burlesquing of piously intended things.* He had become a bigger boy since the episode of the cistern, and had probably in some degree outgrown the intense piety of his earlier childhood. This little incident seems to prove it. On the whole, however, his religious instincts did not need strengthening, though his sense of humour might get the better of them for a moment; and of secular instruction he seems to have received as little from the one set of teachers as from the other. I do not suppose that the mental training at Mr. Ready's was more shallow or more mechanical than that of most other schools of his own or, indeed, of a much later period; but the brilliant abilities of Robert Browning inspired him with a certain contempt for it, as also for the average schoolboy intelligence to which it was apparently adapted. It must be for this reason that, as he himself declared, he never gained a prize, although these rewards were showered in such profusion that the only difficulty was to avoid them; and if he did not make friends at school (for this also has been somewhere observed),** it can only be explained in the same way. He was at an intolerant age, and if his schoolfellows struck him as more backward or more stupid than they need be, he is not likely to have taken pains to conceal the impression. It is difficult, at all events, to think of him as unsociable, and his talents certainly had their amusing side. Miss Browning tells me that he made his schoolfellows act plays, some of which he had written for them; and he delighted his friends, not long ago, by mimicking his own solemn appearance on some breaking-up or commemorative day, when, according to programme, 'Master Browning' ascended a platform in the presence of assembled parents and friends, and, in best jacket, white gloves, and carefully curled hair, with a circular bow to the company and the then prescribed waving of alternate arms, delivered a high-flown rhymed address of his own composition.
* In spite of this ludicrous association Mr. Browning always recognized great merit in Watts's hymns, and still more in Dr. Watts himself, who had devoted to this comparatively humble work intellectual powers competent to far higher things.
** It was in no case literally true. William, afterwards Sir William, Channel was leaving Mr. Ready when Browning went to him; but a friendly acquaintance began, and was afterwards continued, between the two boys; and a closer friendship, formed with a younger brother Frank, was only interrupted by his death. Another school friend or acquaintance recalled himself as such to the poet's memory some ten or twelve years ago. A man who has reached the age at which his boyhood becomes of interest to the world may even have survived many such relations.
And during the busy idleness of his schooldays, or, at all events, in the holidays in which he rested from it, he was learning, as perhaps only those do learn whose real education is derived from home. His father's house was, Miss Browning tells me, literally crammed with books; and, she adds, 'it was in this way that Robert became very early familiar with subjects generally unknown to boys.' He read omnivorously, though certainly not without guidance. One of the books he best and earliest loved was 'Quarles' Emblemes', which his father possessed in a seventeenth century edition, and which contains one or two very tentative specimens of his early handwriting. Its quaint, powerful lines and still quainter illustrations combined the marvellous with what he believed to be true; and he seemed specially identified with its world of religious fancies by the fact that the soul in it was always depicted as a child. On its more general grounds his reading was at once largely literary and very historical; and it was in this direction that the paternal influence was most strongly revealed. 'Quarles' Emblemes' was only one of the large collection of old books which Mr. Browning possessed; and the young Robert learnt to know each favourite author in the dress as well as the language which carried with it the life of his period. The first edition of 'Robinson Crusoe'; the first edition of Milton's works, bought for him by his father; a treatise on astrology published twenty years after the introduction of printing; the original pamphlet 'Killing no Murder' (1559), which Carlyle borrowed for his 'Life of Cromwell'; an equally early copy of Bernard Mandeville's 'Bees'; very ancient Bibles—are some of the instances which occur to me. Among more modern publications, 'Walpole's Letters' were familiar to him in boyhood, as well as the 'Letters of Junius' and all the works of Voltaire.
Ancient poets and poetry also played their necessary part in the mental culture superintended by Robert Browning's father: we can indeed imagine no case in which they would not have found their way into the boy's life. Latin poets and Greek dramatists came to him in their due time, though his special delight in the Greek language only developed itself later. But his loving, lifelong familiarity with the Elizabethan school, and indeed with the whole range of English poetry, seems to point to a more constant study of our national literature. Byron was his chief master in those early poetic days. He never ceased to honour him as the one poet who combined a constructive imagination with the more technical qualities of his art; and the result of this period of aesthetic training was a volume of short poems produced, we are told, when he was only twelve, in which the Byronic influence was predominant.
The young author gave his work the title of 'Incondita', which conveyed a certain idea of deprecation. He was, nevertheless, very anxious to see it in print; and his father and mother, poetry-lovers of the old school, also found in it sufficient merit to justify its publication. No publisher, however, could be found; and we can easily believe that he soon afterwards destroyed the little manuscript, in some mingled reaction of disappointment and disgust. But his mother, meanwhile, had shown it to an acquaintance of hers, Miss Flower, who herself admired its contents so much as to make a copy of them for the inspection of her friend, the well-known Unitarian minister, Mr. W. J. Fox. The copy was transmitted to Mr. Browning after Mr. Fox's death by his daughter, Mrs. Bridell-Fox; and this, if no other, was in existence in 1871, when, at his urgent request, that lady also returned to him a fragment of verse contained in a letter from Miss Sarah Flower. Nor was it till much later that a friend, who had earnestly begged for a sight of it, definitely heard of its destruction. The fragment, which doubtless shared the same fate, was, I am told, a direct imitation of Coleridge's 'Fire, Famine, and Slaughter'.
These poems were not Mr. Browning's first. It would be impossible to believe them such when we remember that he composed verses long before he could write; and a curious proof of the opposite fact has recently appeared. Two letters of the elder Mr. Browning have found their way into the market, and have been bought respectively by Mr. Dykes Campbell and Sir F. Leighton. I give the more important of them. It was addressed to Mr. Thomas Powell:
Dear Sir,—I hope the enclosed may be acceptable as curiosities. They were written by Robert when quite a child. I once had nearly a hundred of them. But he has destroyed all that ever came in his way, having a great aversion to the practice of many biographers in recording every trifling incident that falls in their way. He has not the slightest suspicion that any of his very juvenile performances are in existence. I have several of the originals by me. They are all extemporaneous productions, nor has any one a single alteration. There was one amongst them 'On Bonaparte'—remarkably beautiful—and had I not seen it in his own handwriting I never would have believed it to have been the production of a child. It is destroyed. Pardon my troubling you with these specimens, and requesting you never to mention it, as Robert would be very much hurt. I remain, dear sir, Your obedient servant, R. Browning. Bank: March 11, 1843.
The letter was accompanied by a sheet of verses which have been sold and resold, doubtless in perfect good faith, as being those to which the writer alludes. But Miss Browning has recognized them as her father's own impromptu epigrams, well remembered in the family, together with the occasion on which they were written. The substitution may, from the first, have been accidental.
We cannot think of all these vanished first-fruits of Mr. Browning's genius without a sense of loss, all the greater perhaps that there can have been little in them to prefigure its later forms. Their faults seem to have lain in the direction of too great splendour of language and too little wealth of thought; and Mr. Fox, who had read 'Incondita' and been struck by its promise, confessed afterwards to Mr. Browning that he had feared these tendencies as his future snare. But the imitative first note of a young poet's voice may hold a rapture of inspiration which his most original later utterances will never convey. It is the child Sordello, singing against the lark.
Not even the poet's sister ever saw 'Incondita'. It was the only one of his finished productions which Miss Browning did not read, or even help him to write out. She was then too young to be taken into his confidence. Its writing, however, had one important result. It procured for the boy-poet a preliminary introduction to the valuable literary patron and friend Mr. Fox was subsequently to be. It also supplies the first substantial record of an acquaintance which made a considerable impression on his personal life.
The Miss Flower, of whom mention has been made, was one of two sisters, both sufficiently noted for their artistic gifts to have found a place in the new Dictionary of National Biography. The elder, Eliza or Lizzie, was a musical composer; the younger, best known as Sarah Flower Adams, a writer of sacred verse. Her songs and hymns, including the well-known 'Nearer, my God, to Thee', were often set to music by her sister.* They sang, I am told, delightfully together, and often without accompaniment, their voices perfectly harmonizing with each other. Both were, in their different ways, very attractive; both interesting, not only from their talents, but from their attachment to each other, and the delicacy which shortened their lives. They died of consumption, the elder in 1846, at the age of forty-three; the younger a year later. They became acquainted with Mrs. Browning through a common friend, Miss Sturtevant; and the young Robert conceived a warm admiration for Miss Flower's talents, and a boyish love for herself. She was nine years his senior; her own affections became probably engaged, and, as time advanced, his feeling seems to have subsided into one of warm and very loyal friendship. We hear, indeed, of his falling in love, as he was emerging from his teens, with a handsome girl who was on a visit at his father's house. But the fancy died out 'for want of root.' The admiration, even tenderness, for Miss Flower had so deep a 'root' that he never in latest life mentioned her name with indifference. In a letter to Mr. Dykes Campbell, in 1881, he spoke of her as 'a very remarkable person.' If, in spite of his denials, any woman inspired 'Pauline', it can have been no other than she. He began writing to her at twelve or thirteen, probably on the occasion of her expressed sympathy with his first distinct effort at authorship; and what he afterwards called 'the few utterly insignificant scraps of letters and verse' which formed his part of the correspondence were preserved by her as long as she lived. But he recovered and destroyed them after his return to England, with all the other reminiscences of those early years. Some notes, however, are extant, dated respectively, 1841, 1842, and 1845, and will be given in their due place.
* She also wrote a dramatic poem in five acts, entitled 'Vivia Perpetua', referred to by Mrs. Jameson in her 'Sacred and Legendary Art', and by Leigh Hunt, when he spoke of her in 'Blue-Stocking Revels', as 'Mrs. Adams, rare mistress of thought and of tears.'
Mr. Fox was a friend of Miss Flower's father (Benjamin Flower, known as editor of the 'Cambridge Intelligencer'), and, at his death, in 1829, became co-executor to his will, and a kind of guardian to his daughters, then both unmarried, and motherless from their infancy. Eliza's principal work was a collection of hymns and anthems, originally composed for Mr. Fox's chapel, where she had assumed the entire management of the choral part of the service. Her abilities were not confined to music; she possessed, I am told, an instinctive taste and judgment in literary matters which caused her opinion to be much valued by literary men. But Mr. Browning's genuine appreciation of her musical genius was probably the strongest permanent bond between them. We shall hear of this in his own words.
First Impressions of Keats and Shelley—Prolonged Influence of Shelley—Details of Home Education—Its Effects—Youthful Restlessness—Counteracting Love of Home—Early Friendships: Alfred Domett, Joseph Arnould, the Silverthornes—Choice of Poetry as a Profession—Alternative Suggestions; mistaken Rumours concerning them—Interest in Art—Love of good Theatrical Performances—Talent for Acting—Final Preparation for Literary Life.
At the period at which we have arrived, which is that of his leaving school and completing his fourteenth year, another and a significant influence was dawning on Robert Browning's life—the influence of the poet Shelley. Mr. Sharp writes,* and I could only state the facts in similar words, 'Passing a bookstall one day, he saw, in a box of second-hand volumes, a little book advertised as "Mr. Shelley's Atheistical Poem: very scarce."' . . . 'From vague remarks in reply to his inquiries, and from one or two casual allusions, he learned that there really was a poet called Shelley; that he had written several volumes; that he was dead.' . . . 'He begged his mother to procure him Shelley's works, a request not easily complied with, for the excellent reason that not one of the local booksellers had even heard of the poet's name. Ultimately, however, Mrs. Browning learned that what she sought was procurable at the Olliers', in Vere Street, London.'
* 'Life of Browning', pp. 30, 31.
Mrs. Browning went to Messrs. Ollier, and brought back 'most of Shelley's writings, all in their first edition, with the exception of "The Cenci".' She brought also three volumes of the still less known John Keats, on being assured that one who liked Shelley's works would like these also.
Keats and Shelley must always remain connected in this epoch of Mr. Browning's poetic growth. They indeed came to him as the two nightingales which, he told some friends, sang together in the May-night which closed this eventful day: one in the laburnum in his father's garden, the other in a copper beech which stood on adjoining ground—with the difference indeed, that he must often have listened to the feathered singers before, while the two new human voices sounded from what were to him, as to so many later hearers, unknown heights and depths of the imaginative world. Their utterance was, to such a spirit as his, the last, as in a certain sense the first, word of what poetry can say; and no one who has ever heard him read the 'Ode to a Nightingale', and repeat in the same subdued tones, as if continuing his own thoughts, some line from 'Epipsychidion', can doubt that they retained a lasting and almost equal place in his poet's heart. But the two cannot be regarded as equals in their relation to his life, and it would be a great mistake to impute to either any important influence upon his genius. We may catch some fleeting echoes of Keats's melody in 'Pippa Passes'; it is almost a commonplace that some measure of Shelleyan fancy is recognizable in 'Pauline'. But the poetic individuality of Robert Browning was stronger than any circumstance through which it could be fed. It would have found nourishment in desert air. With his first accepted work he threw off what was foreign to his poetic nature, to be thenceforward his own never-to-be-subdued and never-to-be-mistaken self. If Shelley became, and long remained for him, the greatest poet of his age—of almost any age—it was not because he held him greatest in the poetic art, but because in his case, beyond all others, he believed its exercise to have been prompted by the truest spiritual inspiration.
It is difficult to trace the process by which this conviction formed itself in the boy's mind; still more to account for the strong personal tenderness which accompanied it. The facts can have been scarcely known which were to present Shelley to his imagination as a maligned and persecuted man. It is hard to judge how far such human qualities as we now read into his work, could be apparent to one who only approached him through it. But the extra-human note in Shelley's genius irresistibly suggested to the Browning of fourteen, as it still did to the Browning of forty, the presence of a lofty spirit, one dwelling in the communion of higher things. There was often a deep sadness in his utterance; the consecration of an early death was upon him. And so the worship rooted itself and grew. It was to find its lyrical expression in 'Pauline'; its rational and, from the writer's point of view, philosophic justification in the prose essay on Shelley, published eighteen years afterwards.
It may appear inconsistent with the nature of this influence that it began by appealing to him in a subversive form. The Shelley whom Browning first loved was the Shelley of 'Queen Mab', the Shelley who would have remodelled the whole system of religious belief, as of human duty and rights; and the earliest result of the new development was that he became a professing atheist, and, for two years, a practising vegetarian. He returned to his natural diet when he found his eyesight becoming weak. The atheism cured itself; we do not exactly know when or how. What we do know is, that it was with him a passing state of moral or imaginative rebellion, and not one of rational doubt. His mind was not so constituted that such doubt could fasten itself upon it; nor did he ever in after-life speak of this period of negation except as an access of boyish folly, with which his maturer self could have no concern. The return to religious belief did not shake his faith in his new prophet. It only made him willing to admit that he had misread him.
This Shelley period of Robert Browning's life—that which intervened between 'Incondita' and 'Pauline'—remained, nevertheless, one of rebellion and unrest, to which many circumstances may have contributed besides the influence of the one mind. It had been decided that he was to complete, or at all events continue, his education at home; and, knowing the elder Mr. Browning as we do, we cannot doubt that the best reasons, of kindness or expediency, led to his so deciding. It was none the less, probably, a mistake, for the time being. The conditions of home life were the more favourable for the young poet's imaginative growth; but there can rarely have been a boy whose moral and mental health had more to gain by the combined discipline and freedom of a public school. His home training was made to include everything which in those days went to the production of an accomplished gentleman, and a great deal therefore that was physically good. He learned music, singing, dancing, riding, boxing, and fencing, and excelled in the more active of these pursuits. The study of music was also serious, and carried on under two masters. Mr. John Relfe, author of a valuable work on counterpoint, was his instructor in thorough-bass; Mr. Abel, a pupil of Moscheles, in execution. He wrote music for songs which he himself sang; among them Donne's 'Go and catch a falling star'; Hood's 'I will not have the mad Clytie'; Peacock's 'The mountain sheep are sweeter'; and his settings, all of which he subsequently destroyed, were, I am told, very spirited. His education seems otherwise to have been purely literary. For two years, from the age of fourteen to that of sixteen, he studied with a French tutor, who, whether this was intended or not, imparted to him very little but a good knowledge of the French language and literature. In his eighteenth year he attended, for a term or two, a Greek class at the London University. His classical and other reading was probably continued. But we hear nothing in the programme of mathematics, or logic—of any, in short, of those subjects which train, even coerce, the thinking powers, and which were doubly requisite for a nature in which the creative imagination was predominant over all the other mental faculties, great as these other faculties were. And, even as poet, he suffered from this omission: since the involutions and overlappings of thought and phrase, which occur in his earlier and again in his latest works, must have been partly due to his never learning to follow the processes of more normally constituted minds. It would be a great error to suppose that they ever arose from the absence of a meaning clearly felt, if not always clearly thought out, by himself. He was storing his memory and enriching his mind; but precisely in so doing he was nourishing the consciousness of a very vivid and urgent personality; and, under the restrictions inseparable from the life of a home-bred youth, it was becoming a burden to him. What outlet he found in verse we do not know, because nothing survives of what he may then have written. It is possible that the fate of his early poems, and, still more, the change of ideals, retarded the definite impulse towards poetic production. It would be a relief to him to sketch out and elaborate the plan of his future work—his great mental portrait gallery of typical men and women; and he was doing so during at least the later years which preceded the birth of 'Pauline'. But even this must have been the result of some protracted travail with himself; because it was only the inward sense of very varied possibilities of existence which could have impelled him towards this kind of creation. No character he ever produced was merely a figment of the brain.
It was natural, therefore, that during this time of growth he should have been, not only more restless, but less amiable than at any other. The always impatient temper assumed a quality of aggressiveness. He behaved as a youth will who knows himself to be clever, and believes that he is not appreciated, because the crude or paradoxical forms which his cleverness assumes do not recommend it to his elders' minds. He set the judgments of those about him at defiance, and gratuitously proclaimed himself everything that he was, and some things that he was not. All this subdued itself as time advanced, and the coming man in him could throw off the wayward child. It was all so natural that it might well be forgotten. But it distressed his mother, the one being in the world whom he entirely loved; and deserves remembering in the tender sorrow with which he himself remembered it. He was always ready to say that he had been worth little in his young days; indeed, his self-depreciation covered the greater part of his life. This was, perhaps, one reason of the difficulty of inducing him to dwell upon his past. 'I am better now,' he has said more than once, when its reminiscences have been invoked.
One tender little bond maintained itself between his mother and himself so long as he lived under the paternal roof; it was his rule never to go to bed without giving her a good-night kiss. If he was out so late that he had to admit himself with a latch-key, he nevertheless went to her in her room. Nor did he submit to this as a necessary restraint; for, except on the occasions of his going abroad, it is scarcely on record that he ever willingly spent a night away from home. It may not stand for much, or it may stand to the credit of his restlessness, that, when he had been placed with some gentleman in Gower Street, for the convenience of attending the University lectures, or for the sake of preparing for them, he broke through the arrangement at the end of a week; but even an agreeable visit had no power to detain him beyond a few days.
This home-loving quality was in curious contrast to the natural bohemianism of youthful genius, and the inclination to wildness which asserted itself in his boyish days. It became the more striking as he entered upon the age at which no reasonable amount of freedom can have been denied to him. Something, perhaps, must be allowed for the pecuniary dependence which forbade his forming any expensive habits of amusement; but he also claims the credit of having been unable to accept any low-life pleasures in place of them. I do not know how the idea can have arisen that he willingly sought his experience in the society of 'gipsies and tramps'. I remember nothing in his works which even suggests such association; and it is certain that a few hours spent at a fair would at all times have exhausted his capability of enduring it. In the most audacious imaginings of his later life, in the most undisciplined acts of his early youth, were always present curious delicacies and reserves. There was always latent in him the real goodness of heart which would not allow him to trifle consciously with other lives. Work must also have been his safeguard when the habit of it had been acquired, and when imagination, once his master, had learned to serve him.
One tangible cause of his youthful restlessness has been implied in the foregoing remarks, but deserves stating in his sister's words: 'The fact was, poor boy, he had outgrown his social surroundings. They were absolutely good, but they were narrow; it could not be otherwise; he chafed under them.' He was not, however, quite without congenial society even before the turning-point in his outward existence which was reached in the publication of 'Pauline'; and one long friendly acquaintance, together with one lasting friendship, had their roots in these early Camberwell days. The families of Joseph Arnould and Alfred Domett both lived at Camberwell. These two young men were bred to the legal profession, and the former, afterwards Sir Joseph Arnould, became a judge in Bombay. But the father of Alfred Domett had been one of Nelson's captains, and the roving sailor spirit was apparent in his son; for he had scarcely been called to the Bar when he started for New Zealand on the instance of a cousin who had preceded him, but who was drowned in the course of a day's surveying before he could arrive. He became a member of the New Zealand Parliament, and ultimately, for a short time, of its Cabinet; only returning to England after an absence of thirty years. This Mr. Domett seems to have been a very modest man, besides a devoted friend of Robert Browning's, and on occasion a warm defender of his works. When he read the apostrophe to 'Alfred, dear friend,' in the 'Guardian Angel', he had reached the last line before it occurred to him that the person invoked could be he. I do not think that this poem, and that directly addressed to him under the pseudonym of 'Waring', were the only ones inspired by the affectionate remembrance which he had left in their author's mind.
Among his boy companions were also the three Silverthornes, his neighbours at Camberwell, and cousins on the maternal side. They appear to have been wild youths, and had certainly no part in his intellectual or literary life; but the group is interesting to his biographer. The three brothers were all gifted musicians; having also, probably, received this endowment from their mother's father. Mr. Browning conceived a great affection for the eldest, and on the whole most talented of the cousins; and when he had died—young, as they all did—he wrote 'May and Death' in remembrance of him. The name of 'Charles' stands there for the old, familiar 'Jim', so often uttered by him in half-pitying, and all-affectionate allusion, in his later years. Mrs. Silverthorne was the aunt who paid for the printing of 'Pauline'.
It was at about the time of his short attendance at University College that the choice of poetry as his future profession was formally made. It was a foregone conclusion in the young Robert's mind; and little less in that of his father, who took too sympathetic an interest in his son's life not to have seen in what direction his desires were tending. He must, it is true, at some time or other, have played with the thought of becoming an artist; but the thought can never have represented a wish. If he had entertained such a one, it would have met not only with no opposition on his father's part, but with a very ready assent, nor does the question ever seem to have been seriously mooted in the family councils. It would be strange, perhaps, if it had. Mr. Browning became very early familiar with the names of the great painters, and also learned something about their work; for the Dulwich Gallery was within a pleasant walk of his home, and his father constantly took him there. He retained through life a deep interest in art and artists, and became a very familiar figure in one or two London studios. Some drawings made by him from the nude, in Italy, and for which he had prepared himself by assiduous copying of casts and study of human anatomy, had, I believe, great merit. But painting was one of the subjects in which he never received instruction, though he modelled, under the direction of his friend Mr. Story; and a letter of his own will presently show that, in his youth at least, he never credited himself with exceptional artistic power. That he might have become an artist, and perhaps a great one, is difficult to doubt, in the face of his brilliant general ability and special gifts. The power to do a thing is, however, distinct from the impulse to do it, and proved so in the present case.
More importance may be given to an idea of his father's that he should qualify himself for the Bar. It would naturally coincide with the widening of the social horizon which his University College classes supplied; it was possibly suggested by the fact that the closest friends he had already made, and others whom he was perhaps now making, were barristers. But this also remained an idea. He might have been placed in the Bank of England, where the virtual offer of an appointment had been made to him through his father; but the elder Browning spontaneously rejected this, as unworthy of his son's powers. He had never, he said, liked bank work himself, and could not, therefore, impose it on him.
We have still to notice another, and a more mistaken view of the possibilities of Mr. Browning's life. It has been recently stated, doubtless on the authority of some words of his own, that the Church was a profession to which he once felt himself drawn. But an admission of this kind could only refer to that period of his childhood when natural impulse, combined with his mother's teaching and guidance, frequently caused his fancy and his feelings to assume a religious form. From the time when he was a free agent he ceased to be even a regular churchgoer, though religion became more, rather than less, an integral part of his inner life; and his alleged fondness for a variety of preachers meant really that he only listened to those who, from personal association or conspicuous merit, were interesting to him. I have mentioned Canon Melvill as one of these; the Rev. Thomas Jones was, as will be seen, another. In Venice he constantly, with his sister, joined the congregation of an Italian minister of the little Vaudois church there.*
* Mr. Browning's memory recalled a first and last effort at preaching, inspired by one of his very earliest visits to a place of worship. He extemporized a surplice or gown, climbed into an arm-chair by way of pulpit, and held forth so vehemently that his scarcely more than baby sister was frightened and began to cry; whereupon he turned to an imaginary presence, and said, with all the sternness which the occasion required, 'Pew-opener, remove that child.'
It would be far less surprising if we were told, on sufficient authority, that he had been disturbed by hankerings for the stage. He was a passionate admirer of good acting, and would walk from London to Richmond and back again to see Edmund Kean when he was performing there. We know how Macready impressed him, though the finer genius of Kean became very apparent to his retrospective judgment of the two; and it was impossible to see or hear him, as even an old man, in some momentary personation of one of Shakespeare's characters, above all of Richard III., and not feel that a great actor had been lost in him.
So few professions were thought open to gentlemen in Robert Browning's eighteenth year, that his father's acquiescence in that which he had chosen might seem a matter scarcely less of necessity than of kindness. But we must seek the kindness not only in this first, almost inevitable, assent to his son's becoming a writer, but in the subsequent unfailing readiness to support him in his literary career. 'Paracelsus', 'Sordello', and the whole of 'Bells and Pomegranates' were published at his father's expense, and, incredible as it appears, brought no return to him. This was vividly present to Mr. Browning's mind in what Mrs. Kemble so justly defines as those 'remembering days' which are the natural prelude to the forgetting ones. He declared, in the course of these, to a friend, that for it alone he owed more to his father than to anyone else in the world. Words to this effect, spoken in conversation with his sister, have since, as it was right they should, found their way into print. The more justly will the world interpret any incidental admission he may ever have made, of intellectual disagreement between that father and himself.
When the die was cast, and young Browning was definitely to adopt literature as his profession, he qualified himself for it by reading and digesting the whole of Johnson's Dictionary. We cannot be surprised to hear this of one who displayed so great a mastery of words, and so deep a knowledge of the capacities of the English language.
'Pauline'—Letters to Mr. Fox—Publication of the Poem; chief Biographical and Literary Characteristics—Mr. Fox's Review in the 'Monthly Repository'; other Notices—Russian Journey—Desired diplomatic Appointment—Minor Poems; first Sonnet; their Mode of Appearance—'The Trifler'—M. de Ripert-Monclar—'Paracelsus'—Letters to Mr. Fox concerning it; its Publication—Incidental Origin of 'Paracelsus'; its inspiring Motive; its Relation to 'Pauline'—Mr. Fox's Review of it in the 'Monthly Repository'—Article in the 'Examiner' by John Forster.
Before Mr. Browning had half completed his twenty-first year he had written 'Pauline, a Fragment of a Confession'. His sister was in the secret, but this time his parents were not. This is why his aunt, hearing that 'Robert' had 'written a poem,' volunteered the sum requisite for its publication. Even this first instalment of success did not inspire much hope in the family mind, and Miss Browning made pencil copies of her favourite passages for the event, which seemed only too possible, of her never seeing the whole poem again. It was, however, accepted by Saunders and Otley, and appeared anonymously in 1833. Meanwhile the young author had bethought himself of his early sympathizer, Mr. Fox, and he wrote to him as follows (the letter is undated):
Dear Sir,—Perhaps by the aid of the subjoined initials and a little reflection, you may recollect an oddish sort of boy, who had the honour of being introduced to you at Hackney some years back—at that time a sayer of verse and a doer of it, and whose doings you had a little previously commended after a fashion—(whether in earnest or not God knows): that individual it is who takes the liberty of addressing one whose slight commendation then, was more thought of than all the gun drum and trumpet of praise would be now, and to submit to you a free and easy sort of thing which he wrote some months ago 'on one leg' and which comes out this week—having either heard or dreamed that you contribute to the 'Westminster'.
Should it be found too insignificant for cutting up, I shall no less remain, Dear sir, Your most obedient servant, R. B.
I have forgotten the main thing—which is to beg you not to spoil a loophole I have kept for backing out of the thing if necessary, 'sympathy of dear friends,' &c. &c., none of whom know anything about it.
Monday Morning; Rev.—Fox.
The answer was clearly encouraging, and Mr. Browning wrote again:
Dear Sir,—In consequence of your kind permission I send, or will send, a dozen copies of 'Pauline' and (to mitigate the infliction) Shelley's Poem—on account of what you mentioned this morning. It will perhaps be as well that you let me know their safe arrival by a line to R. B. junior, Hanover Cottage, Southampton Street, Camberwell. You must not think me too encroaching, if I make the getting back 'Rosalind and Helen' an excuse for calling on you some evening—the said 'R. and H.' has, I observe, been well thumbed and sedulously marked by an acquaintance of mine, but I have not time to rub out his labour of love. I am, dear sir, Yours very really, R. Browning. Camberwell: 2 o'clock.
At the left-hand corner of the first page of this note is written: 'The parcel—a "Pauline" parcel—is come. I send one as a witness.'