Their Life and Art
Their Life and Art
Author of "The World Beautiful," "Italy the Magic Land," "The Spiritual Significance," Etc.
Boston Little, Brown, and Company 1911
Copyright, 1911, by Little, Brown, and Company.
All rights reserved
Published, October, 1911
Printers S. J. Parkhill & Co., Boston, U.S.A.
INSCRIBED TO ROBERT BARRETT BROWNING (CAVALIERE DELLA CORONA D'ITALIA) PAINTER, SCULPTOR, CONNOISSEUR IN ART WITH ENCHANTING REMEMBRANCES OF HOURS IN "LA TORRE ALL' ANTELLA" AND THE FAITHFUL REGARDS OF
LILIAN WHITING FLORENCE, ITALY, June, 1911
The present volume was initiated in Florence, and, from its first inception, invested with the cordial assent and the sympathetic encouragement of Robert Barrett Browning. One never-to-be-forgotten day, all ethereal light and loveliness, has left its picture in memory, when, in company with Mr. Browning and his life-long friend, the Marchesa Peruzzi di' Medici (nata Story), the writer of this biography strolled with them under the host's orange trees and among the riotous roses of his Florentine villa, "La Torre All' Antella," listening to their sparkling conversation, replete with fascinating reminiscences. To Mr. Browning the tribute of thanks, whose full scope is known to the Recording Angel alone, is here offered; and there is the blending of both privilege and duty in grateful acknowledgements to Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Company for their courtesy in permitting the somewhat liberal drawing on their published Letters of both the Brownings, on which reliance had to be based in any effort to
"Call up the buried Past again,"
and construct the story, from season to season, so far as might be, of that wonderful interlude of the wedded life of the poets.
Yet any formality of thanks to this house is almost lost sight of in the rush of memories of that long and mutually-trusting friendship between the late George Murray Smith, the former head of this firm, and Robert Browning, a friendship which was one of the choicest treasures in both their lives.
To The Macmillan Company, the publishers for both the first and the present Lord Tennyson; To Houghton Mifflin Company; to Messrs. Dodd, Mead, & Company; to The Cornhill Magazine (to which the writer is indebted for some data regarding Browning and Professor Masson); to each and all, acknowledgments are offered for their courtesy which has invested with added charm a work than which none was ever more completely a labor of love.
To Edith, Contessa Rucellai (nata Bronson), whose characteristically lovely kindness placed at the disposal of this volume a number of letters written by Robert Browning to her mother, Mrs. Arthur Bronson, special gratitude is offered.
"Poetry," said Mrs. Browning, "is its own exceeding great reward." Any effort, however remote its results from the ideal that haunted the writer, to interpret the lives of such transcendent genius and nobleness as those of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, must also be its own exceeding reward in leading to a passion of pursuit of all that is highest and holiest in the life that now is, and in that which is to come.
THE BRUNSWICK, BOSTON Midsummer Days, 1911
PAGE CHAPTER I
The Most Exquisite Romance of Modern Life—Ancestry and Youth of Robert Browning—Love of Music—Formative Influences—The Fascination of Byron—A Home "Crammed with Books"—The Spell of Shelley—"Incondita"—Poetic Vocation Definitely Chosen—"Pauline" 1
Childhood and Early Youth of Elizabeth Barrett—Hope End—"Summer Snow of Apple-Blossoms"—Her Bower of White Roses—"Living with Visions"—The Malvern Hills—Hugh Stuart Boyd—Love of Learning—"Juvenilia"—Impassioned Devotion to Poetry 16
Browning Visits Russia—"Paracelsus"—Recognition of Wordsworth and Landor—"Strafford"—First Visit to Italy—Mrs. Carlyle's Baffled Reading of "Sordello"—Lofty Motif of the Poem—The Universal Problem of Life—Enthusiasm for Italy—The Sibylline Leaves Yet to Unfold 26
Elizabeth Barrett's Love for the Greek Poets—Lyrical Work— Serious Entrance on Professional Literature—Noble Ideal of Poetry—London Life—Kenyon—First Knowledge of Robert Browning 44
"Bells and Pomegranates"—Arnould and Domett—"A Blot in the 'Scutcheon"—Macready—Second Visit to Italy—Miss Barrett's Poetic Work—"Colombe's Birthday"—"Lady Geraldine's Courtship"—"Romances and Lyrics"—Browning's First Letter to Miss Barrett—The Poets Meet—Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett—"Loves of the Poets"—Vita Nuova 67
Marriage and Italy—"In That New World"—The Haunts of Petrarca—The Magic Land—In Pisa—Vallombrosa—"Un Bel Giro"—Guercino's Angel—Casa Guidi—Birth of Robert Barrett Browning—Bagni di Lucca—"Sonnets from the Portuguese"—The Enchantment of Italy 92
"Casa Guidi Windows"—Society in Florence—Marchesa d'Ossoli— Browning's Poetic Creed—Villeggiatura in Siena—Venice— Brilliant Life in London—Paris and Milsand—Browning on Shelley—In Florence—Idyllic Days in Bagni di Lucca—Mrs. Browning's Spiritual Outlook—Delightful Winter in Rome—A Poetic Pilgrimage—Harriet Hosmer—Characteristics of Mrs. Browning 115
London Life—An Interlude in Paris—"Aurora Leigh"—Florentine Days—"Men and Women"—The Hawthornes—"The Old Yellow Book"—A Summer in Normandy—The Eternal City—The Storys and Other Friends—Lilies of Florence—"It Is Beautiful!" 163
The Completed Cycle—Letters to Friends—Browning's Devotion to His Son—Warwick Crescent—"Dramatis Personae"—London Life— Death of the Poet's Father—Sarianna Browning—Oxford Honors the Poet—Death of Arabel Barrett—Audierne—"The Ring and the Book" 199
In Scotland with the Storys—Browning's Conversation—An Amusing Incident—With Milsand at St. Aubin's—"The Red Cotton Night-cap Country"—Robert Barrett Browning's Gift for Art— Alfred Domett ("Waring")—"Balaustion's Adventure"—Browning and Tennyson—"Pacchiarotto"—Visits Jowett at Oxford— Declines Lord Rectorship of St. Andrews—"La Saisiaz"—Italy Revisited—The Dream of Asolo—"Ivanovitch"—Pride in His Son's Success—"Dramatic Idylls" 221
"Les Charmettes"—Venetian Days—Dr. Hiram Corson—The Browning Society—Oxford Honors Browning—Katherine DeKay Bronson— Honors from Edinburgh—Visit to Professor Masson—Italian Recognition—Nancioni—The Goldoni Sonnet—At St. Moritz— In Palazzo Giustiniani—"Ferishtah's Fancies"—Companionship with His Son—Death of Milsand—Letters to Mrs. Bronson— DeVere Gardens—Palazzo Rezzonico—Sunsets from the Lido— Robert Barrett Browning's Gift in Portraiture 238
"Asolando"—Last Days in DeVere Gardens—Letters of Browning and Tennyson—Venetian Lingerings and Friends—Mrs. Bronson's Choice Circle—Browning's Letters to Mrs. Bronson—Asolo— "In Ruby, Emerald, Chrysopras"—Last Meeting of Browning and Story—In Palazzo Rezzonico—Last Meeting with Dr. Corson— Honored by Westminster Abbey—A Cross of Violets—Choral Music to Mrs. Browning's Poem, "The Sleep"—"And with God Be the Rest!" 269
Robert Browning Frontispiece From a drawing by Field Talfourd, Rome, 1855
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 39 From a drawing by Field Talfourd, Rome, 1855
Busts of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning 2
Monument to Michael Angelo, by Vasari 80 Church of Santa Croce, Florence
Old Monastery at Vallombrosa 98
The Guardian Angel, Guercino 103 Church of San Agostino, Fano
Monument to Dante, by Stefano Ricci 108 Piazza di Santa Croce, Florence
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence 113
Statue of Savonarola, by E. Pazzi 116 Sala dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
Fresco of Dante, by Giotto 121 The Bargello, Florence
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence (known as the Duomo) 126
The Ponte Vecchio and the Arno, Florence 142
Casa Guidi 146
The Clasped Hands of the Brownings 153 Cast in bronze from the model taken by Harriet Hosmer in Rome, 1853
The Campagna and Ruins of the Claudian Aqueducts, Rome 156
The Coronation of the Virgin, by Filippo Lippi 166 Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence
Andrea del Sarto. Portrait of the Artist and his Wife 170 Pitti Gallery, Florence
Equestrian Statue of Ferdinando de' Medici, by Giovanni da Bologna 174 Piazza dell' Annunziata, Florence
Villa Petraja, near Florence 178
Church of San Miniato, near Florence 182
The Palazzo Barberini, Via Quattro Fontane, Rome 188
The English Cemetery, Florence 197
Tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning 200
Kate Field 208 From the portrait by Elihu Vedder, Florence, 1860
The Pallazzo Riccardi, Florence 214
Bust of Robert Browning, by his Son 226
Portrait of Robert Browning in 1882, by his Son 242
Church of San Lorenzo, Florence 246
Portrait of Robert Barrett Browning, as a Child, 1859 263
Portrait of Robert Browning, by George Frederick Watts, R.A. 270
Mrs. Arthur Bronson, by Ellen Montalba, in Asolo 274
Miss Edith Bronson, (Comtessa Rucellai) 280
Portrait of Professor Hiram Corson, by J. Colin Forbes, R.A. 290
Palazzo Rezzonico, Venice 294
Engraved Facsimile of a letter from Robert Browning to Professor Hiram Corson 260
THE BROWNINGS THEIR LIFE AND ART
"Allons! after the Great Companions! and to belong to them!"
"To know the universe itself as a road—as many roads—as roads for travelling souls."
THE MOST EXQUISITE ROMANCE OF MODERN LIFE—ANCESTRY AND YOUTH OF ROBERT BROWNING—LOVE OF MUSIC—FORMATIVE INFLUENCES—THE FASCINATION OF BYRON—A HOME "CRAMMED WITH BOOKS"—THE SPELL OF SHELLEY— "INCONDITA"—POETIC VOCATION DEFINITELY CHOSEN—"PAULINE."
Such a very page de Contes is the life of the wedded poets, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that it is difficult to realize that this immortal idyl of Poetry, Genius, and Love was less than fifteen years in duration, out of his seventy-seven, and her fifty-five years of life. It is a story that has touched the entire world
"... with mystic gleams, Like fragments of forgotten dreams,"
this story of beautiful associations and friendships, of artistic creation, and of the entrance on a wonderful realm of inspiration and loveliness. At the time of their marriage he was in his thirty-fifth, and she in her forty-first year, although she is described as looking so youthful that she was like a girl, in her slender, flower-like grace; and he lived on for twenty-eight years after
"Clouds and darkness Fell upon Camelot,"
with the death of his "Lyric Love." The story of the most beautiful romance that the world has ever known thus falls into three distinctive periods,—that of the separate life of each up to the time of their marriage; their married life, with its scenic setting in the enchantment of Italy; and his life after her withdrawal from earthly scenes. The story is also of duplex texture; for the outer life, rich in associations, travel, impressions, is but the visible side of the life of great creative art. A delightful journey is made, but its record is not limited to the enjoyment of friends and place; a poem is written whose charm and power persist through all the years.
No adequate word could be written of the Brownings that did not take account of this twofold life of the poets. It is almost unprecedented that the power and resplendence and beauty of the life of art should find, in the temporal environment, so eminent a correspondence of beauty as it did with Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Not that they were in any wise exempt from sorrow and pain; the poet, least of all, would choose to be translated, even if he might, to some enchanted region remote from all the mingled experiences of humanity; it is the common lot of destiny, with its prismatic blending of failure and success, of purpose and achievement, of hope and defeat, of love and sorrow, out of which the poet draws his song. He would not choose
"That jar of violet wine set in the air, That palest rose sweet in the night of life,"
to the exclusion of the common experiences of the day.
"Who never ate his bread in sorrow, Who never spent the darksome hours Weeping, and watching for the morrow, He knows you not, ye unseen Powers."
But to those who, poets or otherwise, see life somewhat in the true proportion of its lasting relations, events are largely transmuted into experiences, and are realized in their extended relations. The destiny of the Brownings led them into constantly picturesque surroundings; and the force and manliness of his nature, the tender sweetness and playful loveliness of hers, combined with their vast intellectual range, their mutual genius for friendships, their devotion to each other and to their son, their reverence for their art, and their lofty and noble spirituality of nature,—all united to produce this exquisite and unrivaled romance of life,—
"A Beauty passing the earth's store."
The rapture of the poet's dream pervaded every experience.
"O Life, O Poetry, Which means life in life."
The transmutation of each into the other, both Life and Poetry, as revealed in their lives, is something as exceptional as it is beautiful in the world's history.
It is only to those who live for something higher than merely personal ends, that the highest happiness can come; and the aim of these wedded poets may well be read in the lines from "Aurora Leigh":
"... Beloved, let us love so well, Our work shall still be better for our love, And still our love be sweeter for our work, And both commended, for the sake of each, By all true workers and true lovers born."
In the ancestry of Robert Browning there was nothing especially distinctive, although it is representative of the best order of people; of eminently reputable life, of moderate means, of culture, and of assured intelligence. It is to the Brownings of Dorsetshire, who were large manor-owners in the time of Henry VII, that the poet's family is traced. Robert Browning, the grandfather of the poet, was a clerk in the Bank of England, a position he obtained through the influence of the Earl of Shaftesbury. Entering on this work at the age of twenty, he served honorably for fifty years, and was promoted to the position of the Bank Stock office, a highly responsible place, that brought him in constant contact with the leading financiers of the day. Born in 1749, he had married, in 1778, Margaret Tittle, the inheritor of some property in the West Indies, where she was born of English parentage. The second Robert, the father of the poet, was the son of this union. In his early youth he was sent out to take charge of his mother's property, and his grandson, Robert Barrett Browning, relates with pardonable pride how he resigned the post, which was a lucrative one, because he could not tolerate the system of slave labor prevailing there. By this act he forfeited all the estate designed for him, and returned to England to face privation and to make his own way. He, too, became a clerk in the Bank of England, and in 1811, at the age of thirty, married Sarah Anna Wiedemann, the daughter of a ship-owner in Dundee. Mr. Wiedemann was a German of Hamburg, who had married a Scotch lady; and thus, on his maternal side, the poet had mingled Scotch and German ancestry. The new household established itself in Southampton Street, Camberwell, and there were born their two children, Robert, on May 7, 1812, and on January 7, 1814, Sarah Anna, who came to be known as Sarianna through all her later life.
The poet's father was not only an efficient financier, but he was also a man of scholarly culture and literary tastes. He was a lover of the classics, and was said to have known by heart the first book of the Iliad, and the Odes of Horace. There is a legend that he often soothed his little son to sleep by humming to him an ode of Anacreon. He wrote verse, he was a very clever draughtsman, and he was a collector of rare books and prints. Mr. W. J. Stillman, in his "Autobiography of a Journalist," refers to the elder Browning, whom he knew in his later years, as "a serene, untroubled soul,... as gentle as a gentle woman, a man to 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." In Browning's poem entitled "Development" (in "Asolando") he gives this picture of his father and of his own childhood:
"My Father was a scholar and knew Greek. When I was five years old, I asked him once 'What do you read about?' 'The siege of Troy.' 'What is a siege, and what is Troy?' Whereat He piled up chairs and tables for a town, Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat —Helen, enticed away from home (he said) By wicked Paris, who couched somewhere close Under the footstool....
* * * * *
This taught me who was who and what was what; So far I rightly understood the case At five years old; a huge delight it proved And still proves—thanks to that instructor sage My Father...."
The poet's mother was a true gentlewoman, characterized by fervent religious feeling, delicacy of perception, and a great love for music. She was reared in the Scottish kirk, and her husband in the Church of England, but they both connected themselves after their marriage with an "Independent" body that held their meetings in York Street, where the Robert Browning Hall now stands. They were, however, greatly attached to the Rev. Henry Melvill (later Canon at St. Paul's), whose evening service they habitually attended. While the poet's mother had little training in music, she was a natural musician, and was blessed with that keen, tremulous susceptibility to musical influence that was so marked a trait in her son. William Sharp pictures a late afternoon, when, playing softly to herself in the twilight, she was startled to hear a sound in the room. "Glancing around, she beheld a little white figure distinctly outlined against an oak bookcase, and could just discern two large wistful eyes looking earnestly at her. The next moment the child had sprung into her arms, sobbing passionately at he knew not what, but, as his paroxysm of emotion subsided, whispering over and over,'Play! Play!'"
The elder Browning was an impassioned lover of medieval legend and story. He was deeply familiar with Paracelsus, with Faust, and with many of the Talmudic tales. His library was large and richly stored,—the house, indeed, "crammed with books," in which the boy browsed about at his own will. It was the best of all possible educations, this atmosphere of books. And the wealth of old engravings and prints fascinated the child. He would sit among these before a glowing fire, while from the adjoining room floated strains "of a wild Gaelic lament, with its insistent falling cadences." It is recorded as his mother's chief happiness,—"her hour of darkness and solitude and music." Of such fabric are poetic impressions woven. The atmosphere was what Emerson called the "immortal ichor." The boy was companioned by the "liberating gods." Something mystic and beautiful beckoned to him, and incantations, unheard by the outer sense, thronged about him, pervading the air. The lad began to recast in English verse the Odes of Horace. From his school, on holiday afternoons, he sought a lonely spot, elm-shaded, where he could dimly discern London in the distance, with the gleam of sunshine on the golden cross of St. Paul's,—lying for hours on the grass whence, perchance, he
"Saw distant gates of Eden gleam And did not dream it was a dream."
Meantime the boy read Junius, Voltaire, Walpole's Letters, the "Emblems" of Quarles (a book that remained as a haunting influence all his life), and Mandeville's "Fable of the Bees." The first book of his own purchase was a copy of Ossian's poems, and his initial effort in literary creation was in likeness of the picturesque imaginations that appealed with peculiar fascination to his mind.
"The world of books is still the world," wrote Mrs. Browning in "Aurora Leigh," and this was the world of Robert Browning's early life. The genesis of many of his greatest poems can be traced directly to this atmosphere of books, and their constant use and reference in his childhood. Literature and life, are, indeed, so absolutely interpenetrated and so interdependent that they can almost invariably be contemplated as cause and effect, each reacting upon the other in determining sequences. By the magic of some spiritual alchemy, reading is transmuted into the qualities that build up character, and these qualities, in turn, determine the continued choice of books, so that selection and result perpetuate themselves, forming an unceasing contribution to the nature of life. If with these qualities is united the kindling imagination, the gift that makes its possessor the creative artist, the environment of books and perpetual reference to them act as a torch that ignites the divine fire. Browning's early stimulus owes much, not only to the book-loving father, but to his father's brother, his uncle Reuben Browning, who was a classical scholar and who took great interest in the boy. Preserved to the end of the poet's life was a copy of the Odes of Horace, in translation, given to him as a lad of twelve, with his uncle's autograph inscription on the fly-leaf. This was the translation made by Christopher Smart, whose "Song of David" soon became one of the boy's favorites, and it is curious to trace how, more than sixty years later, Browning embodied Smart in his "Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day," as one with whom
"... truth found vent In words for once with you...."
Browning, with the poet's instant insight, read the essential story of his boyhood into the lines:
"... Dreaming, blindfold led By visionary hand, did soul's advance Precede my body's, gain inheritance Of fact by fancy...?"
No transcription of the poet's childhood could even suggest the fortunate influences surrounding him that did not emphasize the rare culture and original power of his father. The elder Browning was familiar with old French and with both Spanish and Italian literature. "His wonderful store of information might really be compared to an inexhaustible mine," said one who knew him well.
It is easy to see how out of such an atmosphere the future poet drew unconsciously the power to weave his "magic web" of such poems as the "Parleyings," "Abt Vogler," "Ferishtah's Fancies," and was lured on into that realm of marvelous creation out of which sprang his transcendent masterpiece, "The Ring and the Book."
The elder Browning's impassioned love of books was instanced by the curious fact that he could go in the dark to his library, and out of many hundreds of volumes select some particular one to which conversational reference had incidentally been made regarding some point which he wished to verify. He haunted all the old book-stalls in London, and knew their contents better than did their owners.
Books are so intimately associated with the very springs of both character and achievement that no adequate idea of the formative influences of the life and poetry of Robert Browning could be gained without familiarity with this most determining and conspicuous influence of his boyhood. The book with which a man has lived becomes an essential factor in his growth. "None of us yet know," said Ruskin, "for none of us have yet been taught in early youth, what fairy palaces we may build of beautiful thought, proof against all adversity, bright fancies, satisfied memories, noble histories, faithful sayings, treasure-houses of precious and restful thoughts,... houses built without hands for our souls to live in." These houses for the soul, built in thought, will be transposed into outer form and semblance.
There is a nebulous but none the less pernicious tradition that great literature is formidable, and presents itself as a task rather than as a privilege to the reader. Devotion to the best books has been regarded as something of a test of mental endurance, for which the recompense, if not the antidote, must be sought in periods of indulgence in the frivolous and the sensational. Never was there a more fatal misconception. It is the inconsequential, the crude, the obtuse, that are dull in literature, as in life; and stupidity in various languages might well be entitled to rank among the Seven Deadly Sins of Dante. Even in the greatest literature there is much that the child may easily learn to appreciate and to love.
"Great the Master And sweet the Magic"
that opens the golden door of literary stimulus. Books are to the mind as is food to the body. Emerson declares that the poet is the only teller of news, and Mrs. Browning pronounced poets as
"The only truth-tellers now left to God."
Familiarity with noble thought and beautiful expression influences the subconscious nature to an incalculable degree, and leads "the spirit finely touched" on "to all fine issues."
Browning lived in this stimulating atmosphere. He warmed his hands at the divine fire; and the fact that all this richness of resource stimulated rather than stifled him is greatly to the credit of his real power. Favorable surroundings and circumstances did not serve him as a cushion on which to go to sleep, but rather as the pedestal on which he might climb to loftier altitudes. It was no lotus-eating experience into which the lad was lulled, but the vital activity of the life of creative thought. The Heavenly Powers are not invariably, even if frequently, sought in sorrow only, and in the mournful midnight hours. There are natures that grow by affluence as well as by privation, and that develop their best powers in sunshine.
"Even in a palace life can be well lived," said Marcus Aurelius. The spirit formed to dwell in the starry spaces is not allured to the mere enjoyment of the senses, even when material comfort and intellectual luxuries may abound. Not that the modest abundance of the elder Browning's books and pictures could take rank as intellectual luxury. It was stimulus, not satiety, that these suggested.
Pictures and painters had their part, too, in the unconscious culture that surrounded the future poet. London in that day afforded little of what would be called art; the National Gallery was not opened until Browning was in his young manhood; the Tate and other modern galleries were then undreamed of. But, to the appropriating temperament, one picture may do more than a city full of galleries might for another, and to the small collection of some three or four hundred paintings in the Dulwich Gallery, Browning was indebted for great enjoyment, and for the art that fostered his sympathetic appreciation. In after years he referred to his gratitude for being allowed its privileges when under the age (fourteen) at which these were supposed to be granted. Small as was the collection, it was representative of the Italian and Spanish, the French and the Dutch schools, as well as of the English, and the boy would fix on some one picture and sit before it for an hour, lost in its suggestion. It was the more imaginative art that enchained him. In later years, speaking of these experiences in a letter to Miss Barrett, he wrote of his ecstatic contemplation of "those two Guidos, the wonderful Rembrandt's 'Jacob's Vision,' such a Watteau...." An old engraving from Correggio, in his father's home, was one of the sources of inspiration of Browning's boyhood. The story fascinated him; he never tired of asking his father to repeat it, and something of its truth so penetrated into his consciousness that in later years he had the old print hung in his room that it might be before him as he wrote. It became to him, perhaps, one of
"the unshaped images that lie Within my mind's cave."
The profound significance of the picture evidently haunted him, as is made evident by a passage in "Pauline" that opens:
"But I must never grieve whom wing can waft Far from such thoughts—as now. Andromeda! And she is with me; years roll, I shall change, But change can touch her not—so beautiful With her fixed eyes...."
Is there gained another glimpse of Browning's boyhood in those lines in "Pauline"?:
"I am made up of an intensest life, Of a most clear idea of consciousness Of self, distinct from all its qualities, From all affections, passions, feelings, powers."
The various and complex impressions, influences, and shaping factors of destiny that any biographer discerns in the formative years of his subject are as indecipherable as a palimpsest, and as little to be classified as the contents of Pandora's box; nor is it on record that the man himself can look into his own history and rightly appraise the relative values of these. Nothing, certainly, could be more remote from the truth than the reading of autobiographic significance into any stray line a poet may write; for imagination is frequently more real than reality. Yet many of the creations of after life may trace their germination to some incident or impression. William Sharp offers a beautiful and interesting instance of one of these when he ascribes the entrancing fantasy of "The Flight of the Duchess" to a suggestion made on the poet's mind as a child on a Guy Fawkes day, when he followed across the fields a woman singing a strange song, whose refrain was: "Following the Queen of the Gypsies, O!" The haunting line took root in his memory and found its inflorescence in that memorable poem.
It was not conducive to poetic fancy when the lad was placed in the school of a Mr. Ready, at Peckham, where he solaced himself for the rules and regulations which he abhorred by writing little plays, and persuading his school-fellows to act in them with him.
Browning's first excursion into Shelley's poems, brought home to him one night as a gift from his mother, was in one of the enchanting evenings of May; where, at the open window by which he sat, there floated in the melody of two nightingales, one in a laburnum, "heavy with its weight of gold," and the other in a copper-beech, at the opposite side of the garden. Such an hour mirrors itself unconsciously in a poet's memory, and affords, in future years, "such stuff as dreams are made of."
Byron, who, as Mazzini says, "led the genius of Britain on a pilgrimage throughout all Europe," stamped an impress upon the youthful Browning that may be traced throughout his entire life. There was something in the genius of Byron that acted as an enormous force on the nature in response to it, that transformed nebulous and floating ideals and imaginings into hope and resolution, that burned away barriers and revealed truth. By its very nature influence is determined as much by the receiver as by the inspirer, and if a light is applied to a torch, the torch, too, must be prepared to ignite, or there will be no blaze.
"A deft musician does the breeze become Whenever an Aeolian harp it finds; Hornpipe and hurdygurdy both are dumb Unto the most musicianly of winds."
The fire of Byron, the spirituality of Shelley, illuminated that world of drift and dream in which Robert Browning dwelt; and while Shelley, with his finer spirit, his glorious, impassioned imagination,
"A creature of impetuous breath,"
incited poetic ardors and unmeasured rapture of vision, Byron penetrated his soul with a certain effective energy that awakened in him creative power. The spell of Shelley's poetry acted upon Browning as a vision revealed of beauty and radiance. For Shelley himself, who, as Tennyson said, "did yet give the world another heart and new pulses," Browning's feeling was even more intense.
In the analysis of Shelley's poetic nature Browning offers the critical reader a key to his own. He asserts that it is the presence of the highest faculty, even though less developed, that gives rank to nature, rather than a lower faculty more developed. Although it was in later years that the impression Shelley made upon his boyhood found adequate expression in his noted essay, the spell reflected itself in "Pauline," and is to be distinctly traced in many of his poems throughout his entire life. He was aware from the first of that peculiarly kindling quality in Shelley, the flash of life in his work:
"He spurreth men, he quickeneth To splendid strife."
Under the title of "Incondita" was collected a group of the juvenile verses of Robert Browning, whose special claim to interest is in the revelation of the impress made upon the youth by Byron and Shelley.
Among the early friends of the youthful poet were Alfred Domett (the "Waring" of his future poem), and Joseph Arnould, who became a celebrated judge in India.
With Browning there was never any question about his definite vocation as a poet. "Pauline" was published in 1833, before he had reached his twenty-first birthday. Rejected by publishers, it was brought out at the expense of his aunt, Mrs. Silverthorne; and his father paid for the publication of "Paracelsus," "Sordello," and for the first eight parts of "Bells and Pomegranates." On the appearance of "Pauline," it was reviewed by Rev. William Johnson Fox, as the "work of a poet and a genius." Allan Cunningham and other reviewers gave encouraging expressions. The design of "Pauline" is that spiritual drama to which Browning was always temperamentally drawn. It is supposed to be the confessions and reminiscences of a dying man, and while it is easy to discern its crudeness and inconsistencies, there are in it, too, many detached passages of absolute and permanent value. As this:
"Sun-treader, life and light be thine for ever! Thou art gone from us; years go by and spring Gladdens, and the young earth is beautiful, Yet thy songs come not...."
Mr. Browning certainly gave hostages to poetic art when he produced "Pauline," in which may be traced the same conceptions of life as those more fully and clearly presented in "Paracelsus" and "Sordello." It embodies the conviction which is the very essence and vital center of all Browning's work—that ultimate success is attained through partial failures. From first to last Browning regards life as an adventure of the soul, which sinks, falls, rises, recovers itself, relapses into faithlessness to its higher powers, yet sees the wrong and aims to retrieve it; gropes through darkness to light; and though "tried, troubled, tempted," never yields to alien forces and ignominious failure. The soul, being divine, must achieve divinity at last. That is the crystallization of the message of Browning.
The poem "Pauline," lightly as Mr. Browning himself seemed in after life to regard it, becomes of tremendous importance in the right approach to the comprehension of his future work. It reveals to us in what manner the youthful poet discerned "the Gleam." Like Tennyson, he felt "the magic of Merlin,"—of that spirit of the poetic ideal that bade him follow.
"The Master whisper'd 'Follow The Gleam.'"
And what unguessed sweetness and beauty of life and love awaited the poet in the unfolding years!
"Here's the garden she walked across.
* * * * *
Roses ranged in a valiant row, I will never think she passed you by!"
CHILDHOOD AND EARLY YOUTH OF ELIZABETH BARRETT—HOPE END—"SUMMER SNOW OF APPLE-BLOSSOMS"—HER BOWER OF WHITE ROSES—"LIVING WITH VISIONS"—THE MALVERN HILLS—HUGH STUART BOYD—LOVE OF LEARNING—"JUVENILIA"— IMPASSIONED DEVOTION TO POETRY.
The literature of childhood presents nothing more beautiful than the records of the early years of Elizabeth Barrett. Fragmentary though they be, yet, gathered here and there, they fall into a certain consecutive unity, from which one may construct a mosaic-like picture of the daily life of the little girl who was born on March 6, 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, Durham, whence the family soon removed to Hope End, a home of stately beauty and modest luxury. There were brothers to the number of eight; and two sisters, Henrietta and Arabel, all younger than herself. Edward, the eldest son, especially cared for Elizabeth, holding her in tender and almost reverential love, and divining, almost from his infancy, her exquisite gifts. Apparently, the eldest sister was also greatly beloved by the whole troop of the younger brothers,—Charles, Samuel, George, Henry, Alfred, and the two younger, who were named Septimus and Octavius.
With three daughters and eight sons, the household did not lack in merriment and overflowing life; and while the little Elizabeth was born to love books and dreams, and assimilated learning as naturally as she played with her dolls, she was no prodigy, set apart because of fantastic qualities, but an eager, earnest little maid, who, although she read Homer at eight years of age, yet read him with her doll clasped closely in one hand, and who wrote her childish rhymes as unconsciously as a bird sings. It is a curious coincidence that this love of the Greeks, as to history, literature, and mythology, characterized the earliest childhood of both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Pope's Homer was the childish favorite of each. "The Greeks were my demigods," she herself said, in later life, of her early years, "and haunted me out of Pope's Homer, until I dreamt more of Agamemnon than of Moses the black pony."
The house at Hope End has been described by Lady Carmichael as "a luxurious home standing in a lovely park, among trees and sloping hills," and the earliest account that has been preserved of the little girl reveals her sitting on a hassock, propped against the wall, in a lofty room called "Elizabeth's chamber," with a stained glass oriel window through which golden gleams of light fell, lingering on the long curls that drooped over her face as she sat absorbed in a book. She was also an eager worker in her garden, the children all being given a plot to cultivate for themselves, and Elizabeth won special fame for her bower of white roses.
There are few data about the parents of Elizabeth Barrett, and the legal name, Moulton-Barrett, by which she signed her marriage register and by which her father is commonly known, has been a source of some confused statements. Her father, Edward Barrett Moulton, came into an inheritance of property by which he was required to add the name of Barrett again, hyphenating it, and was thus known as Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett. He married Mary Graham Clarke, a native of Newcastle-on-the-Tyne, a woman of gentle loveliness, who died on October 1, 1828. Mr. Moulton-Barrett lived until 1860, his death occurring only a year before that of his famous daughter, who was christened Elizabeth Barrett Moulton, and who thus became, after her father's added name, Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett, although, except when a legal signature was necessary, she signed her name as Elizabeth Barrett. The family are still known by the hyphenated name; and Mrs. Browning's namesake niece, a very scholarly and charming young woman, now living in Rome, is known as Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett. She is the daughter of Mrs. Browning's youngest brother, Alfred, and her mother, who is still living, is the original of Mrs. Browning's poem, "A Portrait." While Miss Moulton-Barrett never saw her aunt (having been born after her death), she is said to resemble Mrs. Browning both in temperament and character. By a curious coincidence the Barrett family, like the Brownings, had been for generations the owners of estates in the West Indies, and it is said that Elizabeth Barrett was the first child of their family to be born in England for more than a hundred years.
Her father, though born in Jamaica, was brought to England as a young child, and he was the ward of Chief Baron Lord Abinger. He was sent to Harrow, and afterwards to Cambridge, but he did not wait to finish his university course, and married when young. One of his sisters was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and this portrait is now in the possession of Octavius Moulton-Barrett, Esq., of the Isle of Wight.
Elizabeth's brother Edward was but two years her junior. It was he who was drowned at Torquay, almost before her eyes, and who is commemorated in her "De Profundis." Of the other brothers only three lived to manhood. When Elizabeth was three years of age, the family removed to Hope End in Herefordshire, a spacious and stately house with domes and minarets embowered in a grove of ancient oaks. It was a place calculated to appeal to the imagination of a child, and in later years she wrote of it:
"Green the land is where my daily Steps in jocund childhood played, Dimpled close with hill and valley, Dappled very close with shade,— Summer-snow of apple-blossoms, Running up from glade to glade."
Here all her girlhood was passed, and it was in the garden of Hope End that she stood, holding up an apron filled with flowers, when that lovely picture was painted representing her as a little girl of nine or ten years of age. Much of rather apochryphal myth and error has grown up about Mrs. Browning's early life. However gifted, she was in no wise abnormal, and she galloped on Moses, her black pony, through the Herefordshire lanes, and offered pagan sacrifices to some imaginary Athene, "with a bundle of sticks from the kitchen fire and a match begged from an indulgent housemaid." In a letter to Richard Hengist Home, under date of October 5, 1843, in reply to a request of his for data for a biographical sketch of her for "The New Spirit of the Age," she wrote:
"... And then as to stories, mine amounts to the knife-grinder's, with nothing at all for a catastrophe. A bird in a cage would have as good a story. Most of my events, and nearly all my intense pleasures, have passed in my thoughts. I wrote verses—as I dare say many have done who never wrote any poems—very early, at eight years of age, and earlier. But, what is less common, the early fancy turned into a will, and remained with me, and from that day to this, poetry has been a distinct object with me,—an object to read, think, and live for."
When she was eleven or twelve, she amused herself by writing a great epic in four books, called "The Battle of Marathon," which possessed her fancy. Her father took great pride in this, and, "bent upon spoiling me," she laughingly said in later years, had fifty copies of this childish achievement printed, and there is one in the British Museum library to-day. No creator of prose romance could invent more curious coincidences than those of the similar trend of fancy that is seen between the childhood of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Her "Battle of Marathon" revealed how the Greek stories enchanted her fancy, and how sensitive was her ear in the imitation of the rhythm caught from Pope. This led her to the delighted study of Greek, that she might read its records at first hand; and Greek drew her into Latin, and from this atmosphere of classic lore, which, after all, is just as interesting to the average child as is the (too usual) juvenile pabulum, she drew her interest in thought and dream. The idyllic solitude in which she lived fostered all these mental excursions. "I had my fits of Pope and Byron and Coleridge," she has related, "and read Greek as hard under the trees as some of your Oxonians in the Bodleian; gathered visions from Plato and the dramatists, and ate and drank Greek.... Do you know the Malvern Hills? The Hills of Piers Plowman's Visions? They seem to me my native hills. Beautiful, beautiful they were, and I lived among them till I had passed twenty by several years."
Mr. Moulton-Barrett was one of the earliest of social reformers. So much has been said, and, alas! with too much justice, it must be conceded, of his eccentric tyranny, his monomania,—for it amounted to that, in relation to the marriage of any of his children regarding which his refusal was insanely irrational,—that it is pleasant to study him for a moment in his more normal life. In Ledbury, the nearest village, he would hold meetings for the untaught people, read and pray with them, and this at a period when for a man of wealth to concern himself in social betterment was almost unknown. He was truly "the friend of the unfriended poor," and by his side, with wondering, upturned, childish eyes, was the little Elizabeth, an ardent and sympathetic companion. Until quite recently there were still living those who remembered Mr. Barrett as this intelligent and active helper; and in the parish church is a monument to him, by the side of a gloriously decorated tomb of the fourteenth century, with an inscription to his memory that vividly recalls the work of one who strove to revive the simple faith in God that has always, in all nations and in all centuries, met every real need of life.
Mrs. Barrett, a sweet and gentle woman, without special force of character, died when Elizabeth was but twenty years of age; and it was some five years before her mother's death that Elizabeth met with the accident, from the fall from her saddle when trying to mount her pony, that caused her life-long delicacy of health. Her natural buoyancy of spirits, however, never failed, and she was endowed with a certain resistless energy which is quite at variance with the legendary traditions that she was a nervous invalid.
Hardly less than Browning in his earliest youth, was Elizabeth Barrett "full of an intensest life." Her Italian master one day told her that there was an unpronounceable English word that expressed her exactly, but which, as he could not give in English, he would express in his own tongue,—testa lunga. Relating this to Mr. Browning in one of her letters, she says: "Of course the signor meant headlong!—and now I have had enough to tame me, and might be expected to stand still in my stall. But you see I do not. Headlong I was at first, and headlong I continue,—precipitately rushing forward through all manner of nettles and briers instead of keeping the path; guessing at the meaning of unknown words instead of looking into the dictionary,—tearing open letters, and never untying a string,—and expecting everything to be done in a minute, and the thunder to be as quick as the lightning."
Impetuous, vivacious, with an inimitable sense of humor, full of impassioned vitality,—this was the real Elizabeth Barrett, whose characteristics were in no wise changed during her entire life. Always was she
"A creature of impetuous breath,"
full of vivacious surprises, and witty repartee.
Hope End was in the near vicinity of Eastnor Castle, a country seat of the Somersets; it is to-day one of the present homes of Lady Henry Somerset, and there are family records of long, sunny days that the young girl-poet passed at the castle, walking on the terraces that lead down to the still water, or lying idly in the boat as the ripples of the little lake lapped against the reeds and rushes that grew on the banks. In the castle library is preserved to-day an autograph copy of the first volume of Elizabeth Barrett's poems, published when she was twenty, and containing that didactic "Essay on Mind" written when she was but seventeen, and of which she afterward said that it had "a pertness and a pedantry which did not even then belong to the character of the author," and which she regretted, she went on to say, "even more than the literary defectiveness." This volume was presented by her to a member of the Somerset family whose name is inscribed over that of her own signature.
During these years Hugh Stuart Boyd, the blind scholar, was living in Great Malvern, and one of Miss Barrett's greatest pleasures was to visit and read Greek with him. He was never her "tutor," in the literal sense, as has so widely been asserted, for her study of Greek was made with her brother Edward, under his tutor, a Mr. MacSweeney; but she read and talked of Greek literature (especially of the Christian poets) with him, and she loved to record her indebtedness to him "for many happy hours." She wrote of him as one "enthusiastic for the good and the beautiful, and one of the most simple and upright of human beings." The memory of her discussions with him is embalmed in her poem, "Wine of Cyprus," which was addressed to him:
"And I think of those long mornings Which my thought goes far to seek, When, betwixt the folio's turnings, Solemn flowed the rhythmic Greek."
Elizabeth Barrett was more than a student, however scholarly, of Greek. She had a temperamental affinity for the Greek poets, and such translations as hers of "Prometheus Bound" and Bion's "Lament for Adonis," identify her with the very life itself of Aeschylus and Bion. In her essay on "The Greek Christian Poets" we find her saying: "We want the touch of Christ's hand upon our literature, as it touched other dead things ... Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets,... religious poets of whom the universal church and the world's literature would gladly embrace more names than can be counted to either."
All her work of these early years is in that same delicate microscopic handwriting of her later life. She laughingly professed a theory that "an immense amount of physical energy must go to the making of those immense, sweeping hand-writings achieved by some persons." She instanced that of Landor, "who writes as if he had the sky for a copy-book and dotted his i's in proportion."
Poetry as a serious art was the most earnest object in the life of Elizabeth Barrett. To her poetry meant "life in life."
"Art's a service,—mark."
The poetic vocation could hardly be said to be so much a conscious and definite choice with her as a predetermined destiny, and still it was both. The possibility of not being a poet could never have occurred to her. There could have been as little question of Beethoven's being other than a musician or of Raphael as being other than a painter. In poetry Elizabeth Barrett recognized the most potent form of service; and she held that poetic art existed for the sake of human co-operation with the Divine purposes.
The opening chapters of her life in the lovely seclusion of Hope End closed in 1832 with the removal of the family to Sidmouth in Devonshire. Here they were bestowed in a house which had been occupied by the Grand Duchess Helena. It commanded a splendid sea view, on which four drawing-room windows looked out, and there were green hills and trees behind. They met a few friends,—Sir John Kean, the Herrings,—and the town abounded in green lanes, "some of them quite black with foliage, where it is twilight in the middle of the day, and others letting in beautiful glimpses of the hills and the sunny sea." Henrietta Barrett took long walks, Elizabeth accompanying her sister, mounted on her donkey. The brothers and sisters were all fond of boating and passed much time on the water. They would row as far as Dawlish, ten miles distant, and back; and after the five o'clock dinner there were not infrequently moonlight excursions on the sea. During these first months at Sidmouth Miss Barrett read Bulwer's novels, which she asserts "quite delighted" her; as she found in them "all the dramatic talent which Scott has, and all the passion which he has not." Bulwer seemed to her, also, "a far more profound discriminator of character" than Scott. She read Mrs. Trollope, "that maker of books," whose work she characterized as not novels but "libels." She found in Mrs. Trollope "neither the delicacy nor the candor which constitute true nobility of mind," and thought that her talent formed but "a scanty veil to shadow her other defects."
Miss Barrett grew to love Sidmouth, with its walks on the seashore; and letters, reading, poetic production, and family interests filled the time. Here, too, she found time to enter on a task dear to her, the translation of the "Prometheus Bound" of Aeschylus.
Some years later, however, she entirely revised this early translation, of which she wrote to Hugh Stuart Boyd that it was "as cold as Caucasus, and flat as the neighboring plain," and that "a palinodia, a recantation," was necessary to her. In her preface to the later translation she begged that her reader would forgive her English for not being Greek, and herself for not being Aeschylus.
"... I press God's lamp Close to my breast; its splendor, soon or late, Will pierce the gloom; I shall emerge one day."
BROWNING VISITS RUSSIA—"PARACELSUS"—RECOGNITION OF WORDSWORTH AND LANDOR—"STRAFFORD"—FIRST VISIT TO ITALY—MRS. CARLYLE'S BAFFLED READING OF "SORDELLO"—LOFTY MOTIF OF THE POEM—THE UNIVERSAL PROBLEM OF LIFE—ENTHUSIASM FOR ITALY—THE SIBYLLINE LEAVES YET TO UNFOLD.
From Camberwell to St. Petersburg was somewhat of a transition. This was Mr. Browning's initial excursion into a wider world of realities, as distinguished from that mirage which rises in the world of dreams and mental nebulae. "To know the universe itself as a road,—as many roads," is the way in which the beckoning future prefigures itself to the artist temperament.
"All around him Patmos lies Who hath spirit-gifted eyes."
The eyes thus touched with the chrism of poetic art see the invisible which is peopled with forms unseen to others, and which offers a panorama of living drama. It is the poet who overhears the "talk of the gods," and when he shall report
"Some random word they say,"
"... the fated man of men Whom the ages must obey."
This was the undreamed destiny hovering over the young poet, luring him on like a guiding cloud which became a pillar of fire by night.
Among his London friends was the Chevalier George de Benkhausen, the Russian Consul-General, who, being suddenly summoned to Russia on some secret mission of state, invited Browning to accompany him. Browning went "nominally in the character of secretary," Mrs. Orr says, and they fared forth on March 1, by steamer to Rotterdam, and then journeyed more than fifteen hundred miles by diligence, drawn by relays of galloping horses. The expedition was to Browning a rich mine of poetic material. The experience sank into the subconsciousness as seed to await fruition. In his "Ivan Ivanovitch," where is seen
"This highway broad and straight e'en from the Neva's mouth To Moscow's gates of gold,"
and in which the unending pine forests rising from the snow-covered ground are so vividly pictured; and in "Colombe's Birthday," where is seen the region of the heroine,—
"Castle Ravestein— That sleeps out trustfully its extreme age On the Meuse' quiet bank, where she lived queen Over the water-buds,..."
and the place
"... when he hid his child Among the river-flowers at Ravestein,"
it can be seen how all this country impressed his imagination. Professor Hall Griffin finds in the fifth book of "Sordello" an unmistakable description of the most famous and oldest portrait of Charlemagne, which hangs in the Council Hall of the Rath-haus, in Aix, which Mr. Browning saw on this trip. During these three months he saw something of Russian society, and on the breaking up of the ice in the Neva in spring, witnessed the annual ceremony of the Czar's drinking the first glass of water from it. Much of the gorgeous, barbaric splendor of Russian fairs and booths, "with droshkies and fish-pies" on the one hand, and stately palaces on the other, haunted him, and reflected themselves in several of his poems. Especially did the Russian music and strains of folk-song linger in his memory for all the after years.
On his return from Russia Browning had some fancy for entering on a diplomatic career, and was momentarily disappointed at not receiving an appointment to Persia, which he had in mind; fortunately for him and for the world he was held to the orbit of his poetic gift. Diplomacy has an abundance of recruits without devastating poetic genius to furnish them. The winter of 1834 found him deeply absorbed in "Paracelsus." This poem is dedicated to the Marquis Amedee de Ripert-Monclar, who was a great friend of Browning at this time. The Marquis was four years his senior; he was in England as a private agent for the Duchesse de Berri and the Royalist party in France to the English government. The subject of the poem is said to have been suggested by the Marquis, although the fact that all this medieval lore had been familiar to Browning from his earliest childhood must be accounted the pre-determining factor in its creation. William Sharp quotes Browning as having once said of his father: "The old gentleman's brain was a storehouse of literary and philosophical antiquities. He was completely versed in medieval legend, and seemed to have known Paracelsus, Faustus, and even Talmudic personages, personally," and his son assimilated unconsciously this entire atmosphere.
Both "Paracelsus" and "Sordello" seem to spring, as by natural poetic evolution, from "Pauline"; all three of these poems are, in varying degree, a drama of the soul's progress. They all suggest, and "Paracelsus," especially, in a great degree embodies, the Hegelian philosophy; yet Mr. Barrett Browning expresses his rather positive conviction that his father never read Hegel at any period of his life. Dr. Corson regarded these early poems of Browning as of peculiar value in showing his attitude toward things. "We see in what direction the poet has set his face," said Dr. Corson, "what his philosophy of life is, what soul-life means with him, what regeneration means, what edification means in its deepest sense of building up within us the spiritual temple." Dr. Corson further illuminated this attitude of the poet by pointing out that he emphasized the approach to perfection as something that cannot be brought out through what is born and resides in the brain; but it must be by "the attracting power of magnetic personalities, the ultimate, absolute personality being the God-man, Christ. The human soul is regarded in Browning's poetry," continued Dr. Corson, "as a complexly organized, individualized, divine force, destined to gravitate toward the Infinite. How is this force with its numberless checks and counter-checks, its centripetal and centrifugal tendencies, best determined in its necessarily oblique way? How much earthly ballast must it carry to keep it sufficiently steady, and how little, that it may not be weighed down with materialistic heaviness?" Incredibly enough, in the revelations of the retrospective view, "Paracelsus" made little impression on the literary critics of the day; the Athenaeum devoting to it less space even than to "the anonymous Pauline," while the "Philip van Artevelde" of Henry Taylor (now hardly remembered) received fifteen columns of tribute, in which the critic confided to the public his enthusiastic estimate of that production. Neither Blackwood's, the Quarterly, nor the Edinburgh even mentioned "Paracelsus"; the Athenaeum admitted that it had talent, but admonished the poet that "Writers would do well to remember that though it is not difficult to imitate the mysticism and vagueness of Shelley, we love him—not because of these characteristics, but in spite of them." The one gleam of consolation to the young poet in all this general neglect or unfavorable comment was that of a three-column article from the pen of John Forster in the Examiner, then conducted by Leigh Hunt, and on whose staff were Sergeant Talfourd and Proctor (Barry Cornwall) beside Forster, who was then a rising young journalist of twenty-three, only one month the senior of Browning. But Forster spoke with no uncertain note; rather, with authority, and in this critique he said:
"Since the publication of 'Philip van Artevelde' we have met with no such evidences of poetical genius ... and we may safely predict for its author a brilliant career, if he continues true to the present promise of his genius."
The immediate effect of the publication of "Paracelsus" was of a social rather than of a literary character, for something in it seemed magnetic to the life of the day, and the young poet found himself welcomed by a brilliant literary circle. He met Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor, Dickens, Monckton Milnes (later Lord Houghton), Proctor (Barry Cornwall), Horne, Sergeant Talfourd, Leigh Hunt, and others. Hunt was then domiciled in Cheyne Row, in close proximity to the Carlyles, with whom Browning had already formed a friendship.
Rev. William Johnson Fox, one of Browning's earliest friends, was at this time living at Craven Hill, Bayswater, and on an evening when Macready had dined with him, Browning came in. This evening (November 27, 1835) is noted in Macready's diary, and after speaking of Mr. Fox as an "original and profound thinker," he adds:
"Mr. Robert Browning, the author of 'Paracelsus,' came in after dinner; I was very much pleased to meet him. His face is full of intelligence.... I took Mr. Browning on, and requested to be allowed to improve my acquaintance with him. He expressed himself warmly, as gratified by the proposal, wished to send me his book. We exchanged cards, and parted."
Later (under date of December 7), Mr. Macready records:
"Read 'Paracelsus,' a work of great daring, starred with poetry of thought, feeling, diction, but occasionally obscure. The writer can scarcely fail to be a leading spirit of the time."
On New Year's Eve Mr. Macready invited a little house party, among whom were Forster and Browning. "Mr. Browning was very popular with the whole party," writes Mr. Macready in his journal; "his simple and enthusiastic manner engaged attention and won golden opinions from all present; he looks and speaks more like a youthful poet than any man I ever saw."
Browning's personal appearance, "slim, and dark, and very handsome," as Mary Cowden Clarke said, is pictured by many of his friends of that time. "As a young man," writes William Sharp, "he seems to have had a certain ivory delicacy of coloring ... and he appeared taller than he really was, partly because of his rare grace of movement, and partly from a characteristic high poise of the head when listening intently to music or conversation.... His hair was so beautiful in its heavy sculpturesque waves as to attract frequent notice. Another, and more subtle personal charm, was his voice, then with a rare, flute-like tone, clear, sweet, and resonant."
Macready was not only a notable figure on the stage at this period, but he was also (what every great actor must be) a man of thought, intense sensibility, and wide culture. Soon after Macready had appeared in Talfourd's "Ion" (the premiere being on the playwright's birthday), Talfourd gave a supper at his house, at which Browning for the first time met Wordsworth and Landor. Macready himself sat between these two illustrious poets, with Browning opposite to him. The guests included Ellen Tree, Miss Mitford, and Forster. Macready, recording this night in his diary, writes of "Wordsworth who pinned me." Landor, it seems, talked of constructing drama, and said he "had not the faculty," that he "could only set persons to talking; all the rest was chance." But an ever remembered moment came for the young poet when the host proposed a toast to the author of "Paracelsus," and Wordsworth, rising, said: "I am proud to drink to your health, Mr. Browning," and Landor bowed with his inimitable, courteous grace, raising his glass to his lips. For some years, whenever Wordsworth visited London, Forster invited Browning to meet him. The younger poet was never an enthusiast in his mild friendship for the elder, although in after years (1875) he replied to a question by Rev. A. B. Grosart, the editor of Wordsworth's works, that while in hasty youth he did "presume to use the great and venerated personality of Wordsworth as a sort of painter's model," he intended in "The Lost Leader" no portrait of the entire man. While Wordsworth's political attitude did not please the young disciple of Shelley, for Landor he conceived the most profound admiration and sympathetic affection. It was a striking sequel to this youthful attraction that in Landor's desolate old age it should be Browning who tenderly cared for him, and surrounded his last days with unfailing comfort and solicitude.
At this memorable supper, just as Browning was about to take his leave, Macready laid his hand on the young man's shoulder, saying earnestly: "Write a play for me, and keep me from going to America." The thought appealed to the poet, who replied: "Shall it be historical and English? What do you say to 'Strafford' for a subject?" Forster was then bringing out his biography of Strafford, on which Browning had assisted, so that the theme had already engaged his imagination. A few days after the supper Macready records in his diary receiving a note from Browning and adds: "What can I say upon it? It was a tribute which remunerated me for the annoyances and cares of years; it was one of the very highest, may I not say the highest, honor I have through life received."
A certain temperamental sympathy between the two men is evident, though Macready sounded no such fathomless depths as lay, however unsuspected, in Browning; but Macready gives many indications of poetic sympathies, as, for instance, when he records in his diary how he had been looking through Coleridge's translation of Wallenstein, "abounding with noble passages and beautiful scenes," to see if it would lend itself to stage representation.
On November 19 of this autumn Macready notes in his journal that Browning came that night to bring his tragedy of "Strafford," of which the fourth act was incomplete. "I requested him to write in the plot of what was deficient," says Macready, and drove to the Garrick Club while Browning wrote out this story. Later, there was a morning call from Browning, who gave him an interesting old print of Richard, from some tapestry, and they talked of "La Valliere." All the time we get glimpses of an interesting circle: Bulwer and Forster call, and they discuss Cromwell; Bulwer's play of "Virginius" is in rehearsal; Macready acts Cardinal Wolsey; there is a dinner at Lady Blessington's, where are met Lord Canterbury, Count D'Orsay, Bulwer, Trelawney, and Proctor; there is a call on Miss Martineau, and meetings with Thackeray and Dickens; Kenyon appears in the intersecting circles; Marston (the father of the blind poet) writes his play, "The Patrician's Daughter"; Mr. Longfellow, "a Professor at one of the U. S. Universities," appears on the scene, and there is a dinner at which "Mr. and Mrs. N. P. Willis sat next to Longfellow." On a night when Browning came with some alterations for "Strafford," a stranger called, "saying he was a Greek, a great lover of the drama; I introduced Browning to him as a great tragic poet," records Macready, "and the youth wrote down his name, telling us he was setting off for Athens directly."
The rehearsals of "Strafford" came on, but Macready seems already to have had misgivings. "In Shakespeare," he writes, "the great poet has only introduced such events as act on the individuals concerned; but in Browning's play we have a long scene of passion—upon what? A plan destroyed, a parliament dissolved...." It is easy to see how Browningesque this was; for to the poet no events of the objective life were so real and significant as those of the purely mental drama of thought, feeling, and purpose. The rehearsals were, however, gratifying to the author, it seems, for Macready records in his diary (that recurs like the chorus in a Greek tragedy) that he was happy "with the extreme delight Browning testified at the rehearsal of my part, which he said to him was a full recompense for having written the play, as he had seen his utmost hopes of character perfectly embodied." The play was performed at the Covent Garden Theater on the night of May 3, 1837.
Both Edmund Gosse and William Sharp deny that Browning's plays failed on the stage; at all events, with each attempt there were untoward circumstances which alone would have contributed to or even doomed a play to a short tenure.
In 1886 "Strafford" was produced in London under the auspices of the Browning Society, and the real power of the play surprised as well as deeply impressed the audiences who saw it. But "Pauline," "Paracelsus," and "Strafford" all have a peculiar element of reminiscent importance, if it may be so termed, in that they were the forerunners, the indications of the great work to come.
There is no dramatic poem of Browning's that has not passages of superb acting effects, as well as psychological fascinations for the thinker; and the future years were to touch him with new power to produce work whose dramatic power lives in imperishable significance. "Strafford" had a run of only five nights at this first time of its production; Macready received and accepted an offer to go to America, and other things happened. Browning became absorbed in his "Sordello," and suddenly, on Good Friday of 1838, he sailed for Venice, "intending to finish my poem among the scenes it describes," he wrote to John Robertson, who had been introduced to Browning by Miss Martineau. On a sailing ship, bound for Trieste, the poet found himself the only passenger. It was on this voyage, while between Gibraltar and Naples, that he wrote "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix." It was written on deck, penciled on the fly-leaf of Bartoli's De' Simboli trasportati al Morale. When Dr. Corson first visited Browning in 1881, in his London home in Warwick Crescent, Browning showed his guest this identical copy of the book, with the penciled poem on the fly-leaves, of which Dr. Corson said, in a private letter to a friend:
"One book in the library I was particularly interested in,—Bartoli's Simboli, or, rather, in what the poet had written in pencil on its fly-leaves, front and back, namely, 'How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix.'"
Dr. Corson added that he had been so often asked as to what this "good news" was, that he put the question to Mr. Browning, who replied:
"'I don't remember whether I had in my mind any in particular, when I wrote the poem'; and then, after a pause," continued Dr. Corson, "he said, with a dash of expression characteristic of him, 'Of course, very important news were carried between those two cities during that period.'"
In Mrs. Orr's biography of Browning she quotes a long letter written by him to Miss Haworth, in the late summer of 1838, after his return from this Italian trip, in which he says:
"You will see 'Sordello' in a trice, if the fagging fit holds. I did not write six lines while absent (except a scene in a play, jotted down as we sailed through the straits of Gibraltar), but I did hammer out some four, two of which are addressed to you,... I saw the most gorgeous and lavish sunset in the world.... I went to Trieste, then to Venice, then through Treviso, and Bassano to the mountains, delicious Asolo, all my places and castles you will see. Then to Vicenza, Padua, and Venice again. Then to Verona, Trent, Innspruck (the Tyrol), Munich, Salzburg, Frankfort and Mayence; down the Rhine to Cologne, then to Aix-le-Chapelle, Liege, and Antwerp; then home.... I saw very few Italians, 'to know,' that is. Those I did see I liked...."
It is related that the captain of the ship became so much attached to Browning that he offered him a free passage to Constantinople; and that his friendly attraction to his youthful passenger was such that on returning to England he brought to the poet's sister a gift of six bottles of attar of roses. The poems of "Pippa Passes" and "In a Gondola" may be directly traced to this visit, and Browning seemed so invigorated by it that his imagination was aflame with a multitude of ideas at once.
Meanwhile "Paracelsus" was winning increasing appreciation. The poet did not escape the usual sweeping conclusion generally put forth regarding any unusual work, that the author has made extensive studies for it,—as if ideas and imagination drew their inspiration from the outer world, and were solely to be appraised, as to their results, by the capacity for cramming. So much cramming, so much genius! He who thus mistakes inspiration for industry certainly proves how very remote is his mind from the former. With this marvelous work by a young man of twenty-three the usual literary legends were set afloat, like thistledown in the air, which seem to have floated and alighted everywhere, and which now, more than seventy-five years later, are apparently still floating and alighting on the pens of various writers, to the effect that "Paracelsus" is the result of "vast research among contemporary records," till the poem added another to the Seven Labors of Hercules. As a matter of fact, and as has already been noted, Browning had merely browsed about his father's library.
Dr. Berdoe points out that the real "Paracelsus" cannot be understood without considerable excursions into the occult sciences, and he is quite right as to the illumination these provide, in proportionate degree as they are acquired by the reader; as a matter of course they enlarge his horizon, and offer him clues to unsuspected labyrinths; and so fine and complete is Dr. Berdoe's own commentary on "Paracelsus" that it might not unduly be held as supplementary to the reader's entire enjoyment of the poem. Dr. Berdoe notes that the Bishop of Spanheim, who was the instructor of Paracelsus, defined "divine magic," as another name for alchemy, "and lays down the great doctrine of all medieval occultism, as of all modern theosophy,—of a soul-power equally operative in the material and the immaterial, in nature and in the consciousness of man." The sympathetic reader of Browning's "Paracelsus" will realize, however, that the drama he presents is spiritual, rather than occult. It is not the search for the possible mysteries, or achievements of the crucible. It is the adventure of the soul, not the penetration into the secrets of unknown elementals.
In the autumn of 1835 the Browning family removed from Camberwell to Hatcham. They bestowed themselves in a spacious, delightful old house, with "long, low rooms," wherein the household gods, inclusive of the six thousand books of the elder Browning's treasured library, found abundant accommodation; and the outlook on the Surrey hills gratified them all. During these years we catch a few glimpses of the poet's only sister, Sarianna, who was two years younger than her brother, and quite as fond of listening to the conversation of an uncle, William Shergold Browning, who had removed to Paris. Here he was connected with the Rothschild banking house, and had achieved some distinction as the author of a "History of the Huguenots." He also wrote two historical novels, entitled "Hoel Mar en Morven" and "Provost of Paris," and compiled one of those harmless volumes entitled "Leisure Hours." It was this uncle who had brought about the introduction of his nephew and Marquis Amedee de Ripert-Monclar, whose uncle, the Marquis de Fortia, a member of the Institut, was a special friend of William Shergold Browning. In later years a grandson of the Paris Browning, after graduating at Lincoln College, became Crown prosecutor in New South Wales. He is known as Robert Jardine Browning, and he was on terms of intimacy with his cousins, Robert and Sarianna, whom he often visited.
The family friendship with Carlyle was a source of great pleasure to Mrs. Browning, the poet's mother, and there is on record a night when Carlyle and his brother dined with the Brownings at Hatcham. Another family friend and habitue was the Rev. Archer Gurney, who at a later time became Chaplain to the British Embassy in Paris. Mr. Gurney was a writer of poems and plays, lyrics and dramatic verse, and a volume of his work entitled "Fra Cipollo and Other Poems" was published, from which Browning drew his motto for "Colombe's Birthday." Mr. Gurney was deeply interested in young Browning's poetry, and there is a nebulous trace of his having something to do with the publication of "Bells and Pomegranates." Another friend of the poet was Christopher Dowson, who married the sister of Alfred Domett; at their homes, Albion Terrace, and their summer cottage in Epping Forest, Browning was a frequent visitor. Dowson died early; but Field Talfourd (a brother of the author of "Ion" and the artist who made those crayon portraits of Browning and his wife, in the winter of 1859, in Rome), Joseph Arnould, and Alfred Domett, with one or two other young men, comprised the poet's more intimate circle at this time. Arnould and Domett were both studying for the Bar; Arnould had gained the Newdigate in 1834, and had won great applause by his recital (in the Sheldonian Theater) of his "Hospice of St. Bernard." Later he was offered the editorship of the Daily News, founded by Forster and Dickens, but he kept true to his legal studies and in time became the Judge of the High Court at Bombay, and was knighted by the Crown.
There was a dinner given by Macready at which Browning, Carlyle, and Miss Martineau were guests, and later a dinner at the Carlyles' where Browning met a son of Burns "who sang some of his father's songs." To a friend Browning wrote: "I dined with dear Carlyle and his wife (catch me calling people 'dear' in a hurry) yesterday. I don't know any people like them."
Browning passed a day with Miss Martineau at Ascot, and again visited her in Elstree, where she was staying with the Macreadys. She greatly admired "Paracelsus," and spoke of her first acquaintance with his poetry as a "wonderful event." He dined with her at her home in Westminster, and there met John Robertson, the assistant editor of the Westminster Review, to which Miss Martineau was a valued contributor. Henry Chorley, a musical critic of the day, was another guest that night, and soon after Browning dined with him "in his bachellor abode," the other guests being Arnould, Domett, and Bryan Proctor; later, at a musicale given by Chorley, Browning met Charlotte Cushman and Adelaide Kemble. Chorley drew around him the best musicians of the time: Mendelssohn, Moscheles, Liszt, David, and other great composers were often rendered in his chambers. Proctor was then living in Harley Street, and his house was a center for the literary folk of the day.
George Eliot speaks of the indifference with which we gaze at our unintroduced neighbor, "while Destiny stands by, sarcastic, with our dramatis personae folded in her hands." It was such an hour of destiny as this when, at a dinner given by Sergeant Talfourd, at his home (No. 56) in Russell Square, Browning first met John Kenyon. Our great events mostly come to us like gods in disguise, and this evening was no exception. Unknown and undreamed of, the young poet had come to one of those partings of the ways which are only recognized in the perspective of time. Browning's life had been curiously free from any romance beyond that with the muses. The one woman with whom he had seemed most intimate, Miss Fanny Haworth, was eleven years his senior, and their intercourse, both conversationally and in letters, had been as impersonal as literature itself. She was a writer of stories and verse, and had celebrated her young friend in two sonnets. This friendship was one of literary attractions alone, and the poet had apparently devoted all his romance to poetry rather than demanded it in life. But now, golden doors were to open.
At this dinner at Mr. Talfourd's, John Kenyon came over to the poet, after they had left the dining-room, and inquired if he were not the son of his old school-fellow, Robert Browning. Finding this surmise to be true, he became greatly attached to him. Mr. Kenyon had lost his wife some time previously; he had no children, and he was a prominent and favorite figure in London society. Southey said of Kenyon that he was "one of the best and pleasantest of men, whom every one likes better the longer he is known," and Kenyon, declaring that Browning "deserved to be a poet, being one in heart and life," offered to him his "best and most precious gift,"—that of an introduction to his second cousin, Elizabeth Barrett.
This was the first intimation of Destiny, but the meeting was still to remain in the future. "Sordello" was published in 1840,—"a colossal derelict on the ocean of poetry," as William Sharp terms it. The impenetrable nature of the intricacies of the work has been the theme of many anecdotes. Tennyson declared that there were only two lines in it—the opening and the closing ones—which he understood, and "they are both lies," he feelingly added. Douglas Jerrold tackled it when he was just recovering from an illness, and despairingly set down his inability to comprehend it to the probability that his mind was impaired by disease; and thrusting the book into the hands of his wife he entreated her to read it at once. He watched her breathlessly, and when she exclaimed, "I don't know what this means; it is gibberish," Jerrold exclaimed, "Thank God, I am not an idiot."
Still another edifying testimony to the general inability to understand "Sordello" is given by a French critic, Odysse Barot, who quotes a passage where the poet says, "God gave man two faculties," and adds, "I wish while He was about it (pendant qu'il etait en train) God had supplied another—namely, the power of understanding Mr. Browning."
Mrs. Carlyle declared that she read "Sordello" attentively twice, but was unable to discover whether the title referred to "a man, a city, or a tree"; yet most readers of this poem will be able to recognize that Sordello was a singer of the thirteenth century, whose fame suddenly lures him from the safety of solitude to the perils of society in Mantua, after which "immersion in worldliness" he again seeks seclusion, and partially recovers himself. The motif of the poem recalls the truth expressed in the lines:
"Who loves the music of the spheres And lives on earth, must close his ears To many voices that he hears."
Suddenly a dazzling political career opens before Sordello; he is discovered to be—not a nameless minstrel, but the son of the great Ghibelline chief, Salinguerra; more marvelous still, he is loved by Palma, in her youthful beauty and fascination; and the crucial question comes, as in some form it must come to every life, whether he shall choose all the kingdoms of power and glory, or that kingdom which is not of earth, and cometh not with observation.
It is easy to realize how such a problem would appeal to Robert Browning. Notwithstanding the traditional "obscurity" of "Sordello," it offers to the thoughtful reader a field of richest and most entrancing suggestion.
To Alfred Domett, under date of May 22, 1842, Browning writes:
"... I cannot well say nothing of my constant thoughts of you, most pleasant remembrances of you, earnest desires for you. I have a notion you will come back some bright morning a dozen years hence and find me just gone—to heaven, or Timbuctoo! I give way to this fancy, for it lets me write what, I dare say, I have written niggardly enough, of my real love for you, better love than I had supposed I was fit for.... I have read your poems; you can do anything, and I should think would do much. I will if I live. At present, if I stand on head or heels I don't know; what men require I know as little; and of what they are in possession I know not.... With this I send you your 'Sordello.' I suppose, I am sure, indeed, that the translation from Dante, on the fly-leaf, is your own...."
In another letter to Alfred Domett, Browning thus refers to Tennyson:
"... But how good when good he is! That noble 'Locksley Hall!'"
Browning had already become enamored of Italy; and Mrs. Bridell-Fox, writing to William Sharp, speaks of meeting the poet after his return, and thus describes the impression he made upon her:
"I remember him as looking in often in the evenings, having just returned from his first visit to Venice. I cannot tell the date for certain. He was full of enthusiasm for that Queen of Cities. He used to illustrate his glowing descriptions of its beauties, the palaces, the sunsets, the moonrises, by a most original kind of etching. Taking up a bit of stray notepaper, he would hold it over a lighted candle, moving the paper about gently till it was cloudily smoked over, and then utilizing the darker smears for clouds, shadows, water, or what not, would etch with a dry pen the forms of lights on cloud and palace, on bridge or gondola, on the vague and dreamy surface he had produced. My own passionate longing to see Venice dates from those delightful, well-remembered evenings of my childhood."