This visit of the young poet to Italy forged the link of that golden chain which was to unite all his future with that land of art and song which held for him such wonderful Sibylline leaves of the yet undreamed-of chapters of his life.
"O Life, O Beyond, Art thou fair, art thou sweet?"
"How the world is made for each of us! How all we perceive and know in it Tends to some moment's product thus, When a soul declares itself—to wit, By its fruit, the thing it does!"
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.
Elizabeth Barrett was but twelve days in translating the "Prometheus Bound" of Aeschylus, and of the result of this swift achievement she herself declared, when laughingly discussing this work with Home in later years, that it ought to have been "thrown in the fire immediately afterward as the only means of giving it a little warmth." Combined with a few of her other poems, however, it was published (anonymously) in 1832, and received from the Athenaeum the edifying verdict that "those who adventure in the hazardous lists of poetic translation should touch any one rather than Aeschylus, and they may take warning from the writer before us."
The quiet life at Sidmouth goes on,—goes on, in fact, for three years,—and the life is not an unmixed joy to Miss Barrett. "I like the greenness and the tranquillity and the sea," she writes to a friend. "Sidmouth is a nest among elms; and the lulling of the sea and the shadow of the hills make it a peaceful one; but there are no majestic features in the country. The grandeur is concentrated upon the ocean without deigning to have anything to do with the earth...."
In the summer of 1835 the Barretts left Sidmouth for London, locating at first in Gloucester Place (No. 74) where they remained for three years. Hugh Stuart Boyd had, in the meantime, removed to St. John's Wood; Mr. Kenyon and Miss Mitford became frequent visitors. Miss Barrett's literary activity was stimulated by London life, and she began contributing to a number of periodicals, and her letter-writing grew more and more voluminous. To Mr. Boyd she wrote soon after their arrival in London:
"As George is going to do what I am afraid I shall not be able to do to-day,—to visit you,—he must take with him a few lines from me, to say how glad I am to feel myself again only at a short distance from you; and gladder I shall be when the same room holds both of us. But I cannot open the window and fly.... How much you will have to say to me about the Greeks, unless you begin first to abuse me about the Romans. If you begin that, the peroration will be a very pathetic one, in my being turned out of your doors. Such is my prophecy.
"Papa has been telling me of your abusing my stanzas on Mrs. Hemans's death. I had a presentiment that you would...."
If the classic lore and ponderous scholarship unfitted Mr. Boyd to feel the loveliness of this lyric, those who enter into its pathos may find some compensation for not being great classicists. It is in this poem that the lines occur,—
"Nor mourn, O living One, because her part in life was mourning: Would she have lost the poet's fire, for anguish of the burning?
* * * * *
Albeit softly in our ears her silver song was ringing, The foot-fall of her parting soul is softer than her singing."
Miss Barrett's fugitive poems of this time tell much of the story of her days. She sees Haydon's portrait of Wordsworth, and it suggests the sonnet beginning:
"Wordsworth upon Helvellyn!..."
The poems written previously to "A Drama of Exile" do not at all indicate the power and beauty and the depth of significance for which all her subsequent work is so remarkable. "The Seraphim," "Isobel's Child," "The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus," however much they may contain occasional glimpses of poetic fire, would never have established her rank. Yet "The Sleep" belongs to this period, and that poem of exquisite pathos, "Cowper's Grave." Anticipating a little, there came that poem which awakened England and the modern world, indeed, to a sense of the suffering of children in factory life, "The Cry of the Children," which appeared almost simultaneously with Lord Shaftesbury's great speech in Parliament on child labor. The poem and the statesman and philanthropist together aroused England.
A poem called "Confessions" is full of a mysterious power that haunts the reader in a series of pictures:
"Face to face in my chamber, my silent chamber, I saw her: God and she and I only, there I sate down to draw her Soul through the clefts of confession—'Speak, I am holding thee fast, As the angel of resurrection shall do at the last.'"
And what touching significance is in these lines:
"The least touch of their hands in the morning, I keep it by day and by night; Their least step on the stair, at the door, still throbs through me, if ever so light."
There were the "Crowned and Wedded" that celebrated the marriage of England's beloved queen; "Bertha in the Lane," which has been one of the most universal favorites of any of her lyrics; still later, "The Dead Pan," which essentially embodies her highest convictions regarding the poetic art: that Poetry must be real, and, above all, true.
"O brave poets, keep back nothing, Nor mix falsehood with the whole!
* * * *
Hold, in high poetic duty, Truest Truth the fairest Beauty!"
In such lines as these she expressed her deepest feeling.
Then appeared "Comfort," "Futurity," and "An Apprehension"; the dainty little picture of her childish days in "Hector in the Garden"; the sonnets to George Sand, on which the French biographer of Mrs. Browning, in recent years, has commented, translating the first line,—
"Vrai genie, mais vraie femme!"
and adding that these words, addressed to George Sand, are illustrated by her own life.
The sonnet "Insufficiency," of this period, closes with the lines,
"And what we best conceive we fail to speak. Wait, soul, until thine ashen garments fall, And then resume thy broken strains, and seek Fit peroration without let or thrall."
In all this work that deep religious note, that exaltation of spirituality which so completely characterized Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is felt by the reader. Religion was always to her a life, not a litany. The Divine Love was as the breath of life to her, wherein she lived and moved, and on which she relied for her very being.
The poem called "A Rhapsody of Life's Progress," though not often noted by the critical writers on Mrs. Browning, is one full of impressive lines, with that haunting refrain of every stanza,—
"O Life, O Beyond, Thou art strange, thou art sweet!"
Albeit, a candid view must also recognize that this poem reveals those early faults, the redundancy, the almost recklessness of color and rhythm, that are much less frequently encountered in the poems of Mrs. Browning than they were in those of Miss Barrett. For poetic work is an art as well as a gift, and while "Poets are born, not made," yet, being born, the poet must proceed also to make himself. In this "Rhapsody" occur the lines that are said to have thrown cultured Bostonians into a bewilderment exceptional; a baffled and despairing state not to be duplicated in all history, unless by that of the Greeks before the Eleusinian mysteries; the lines running,—
"Let us sit on the thrones In a purple sublimity, And grind down men's bones To a pale unanimity."
Polite circles in Boston pondered unavailingly upon this medley, and were apparently reduced to the same mental condition as was Mrs. Carlyle when she read "Sordello." Unfortunately for Jane Carlyle there were in her day no Browning societies, with their all-embracing knowledge, to which Browning himself conveniently referred all persons who questioned him as to the meaning of certain passages. One Boston woman, not unknown to fame, recalls even now that she walked the Common, revolving these cryptic lines in her mind, and meeting Dr. Holmes, asked if he understood them, to which the Autocrat replied, "God forbid!"
This very affluence of feeling, however, or even recklessness of imagery, was not without its place as a chastened and subdued factor in the power of Miss Barrett later on. From her earliest childhood she had the scholar's instinct and love of learning; she read fluently French, German, and Italian; she was well grounded in Latin, and for the Greek she had that impassioned love that made its literature to her an assimilation rather than an acquirement. Its rich intellectual treasure entered into her inmost life. She also read Hebrew, and all her life kept with her a little Hebrew Bible, as well as a Greek Testament, the margins of both of which are filled with her notes and commentaries in her clear, microscopic handwriting. Miss Barrett's earliest work, published anonymously, at her father's expense, rather to gratify himself and a few friends than to make any appeal to the public, had no special claim to literary immortality, whatever its promise; but once in London, something in the very atmosphere seemed to act as a solvent to precipitate her nebulous dreams and crystallize them into definite and earnest aims. Poetry had always been to her "its own exceeding great reward," but she was now conscious of a desire to enter into the stress and storm of the professional writer, who must sink or swim, accept the verdict of success or failure, and launch forth on that career whose very hardships and uncertainties are a part of its fascination. To Elizabeth Barrett, secure in her father's home, there was little possibility of the hardships and privations on the material side not unfrequently incidental to the pursuit of letters, but to every serious worker life prefigures itself as something not unlike the Norse heaven with its seven floors, each of which must be conquered.
"Here a star, and there a star, Some lose their way,— Here a mist, and there a mist, Afterwards ... day!"
Miss Barrett finds London "wrapped up like a mummy, in a yellow mist," but she tries to like it, and "looks forward to seeing those here whom we might see nowhere else." Her brother George, who had recently graduated from the University of Glasgow, was now a barrister student at the Inner Temple. Henrietta and Arabel, the two sisters, found interest and delight in the new surroundings.
Retrospectively viewed, Mrs. Browning's life falls easily into three periods, which seem to name themselves as a prelude, an interlude, and a realization. She was just past her twenty-ninth birthday when the family came up to London, and up to that time she had, indeed, lived with dreams and visions for her company. These years were but the prelude, the preparatory period. She then entered on the experimental phase, the testing of her powers, the interlude that lay between early promise and later fulfillment. In her forty-first year came her marriage to Robert Browning and the beginning of those nearly fifteen years of marvelous achievement, during which the incomparable "Sonnets from the Portuguese" and "Aurora Leigh" were written,—the period of realization.
Before the beginning of the London period Miss Barrett's literary work had been largely that of the amateur, though in the true meaning of that somewhat misused term, as the lover, rather than as merely the more or less crude experimenter. For Poetry to Elizabeth Barrett was a divine commission no less than an inborn gift. Under any circumstances, she would have poured her life "with passion into music," and with the utmost sincerity could she have said, with George Eliot's "Armgart,"
"I am not glad with that mean vanity Which knows no good beyond its appetite Full feasting upon praise! I am only glad, Being praised for what I know is worth the praise; Glad of the proof that I myself have part In what I worship!"
As is revealed and attested in many expressions of her maturer years, Poetry was to her the most serious, as well as the most enthralling, of pursuits, while she was also a very accomplished scholar. A special gift, and a facility for the acquirement of scholarly knowledge in the academic sense, do not invariably go together; often is the young artist so bewitched with his gift, so entranced with the glory and the splendor of a dream, that the text-book, by contrast, is a dull page, to which he cannot persuade himself to turn. To him the air is peopled with visions and voices that fascinate his attention. In the college days of James Russell Lowell is seen an illustration of this truth, the young student being temporarily suspended, and sent—not to Coventry, but to Concord. Perhaps the banishment of a Harvard student for the high crime and misdemeanor of being addicted to rhyme rather than mathematics, and his penalty in the form of exile to Concord, the haunt of Emerson and the Muses, may have made Pan laugh. But, at all events, Miss Barrett was as naturally a scholar, in the fullest significance of the term, as she was a poet. This splendid equipment was a tremendous factor in that splendor of achievement, and in that universally recognized success, that has made the name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning immortal in all ages, as the greatest woman poet the world has ever known.
The professional literary life is a drama in itself,—comedy, or tragedy, as may be, and usually a mixture of both. It ranges over wide areas of experience, from that of the author of "Richard Feverel," who is said to have written that novel on a diet of oatmeal and cold water, to that of the luxurious author whose seances with the Muses are decorously conducted in irreproachable interiors, with much garnishing, old rose and ivory, ebony carvings, and inlaid desks, at which the marvelous being who now and then condescends to "dictate" a "best seller," is apt to be surprised by a local photographer. But as a noted educator defined a University as "a log,—with Mark Hopkins sitting on the other end," so the "real thing" in a literary career may not inaptly be typified by Louisa Alcott sitting on the back stairs, writing on an old atlas; and it was into actualities somewhat like these that Elizabeth Barrett desired to plunge. The question that she voiced in later years, in "Aurora Leigh,"—
"My own best poets, am I one with you, That thus I love you,—or but one through love? Does all this smell of thyme about my feet Conclude my visit to your holy hill In personal presence, or but testify The rustling of your vesture through my dreams With influent odours?"—
this question, in substance, stirred now in her life, and insisted upon reply. She must, like all real poets, proceed to "hang her verses in the wind," and watch if perchance there are
"... the five Which five hundred will survive."
Elizabeth Barrett was of a simplicity that had no affinities with the poseur in any respect, and she had an inimitable sense of humor that pervaded all her days. Wit and pathos are, indeed, so closely allied that it would be hardly possible that the author of the "De Profundis," a poem that sounds the profoundest depths of the human soul, should not have the corresponding quality of the swiftest perception of the humorous. It was somewhere about this time that Poe sent to her a volume of his poems with an inscription on the fly-leaf that declared her to be "the noblest of her sex."
"And what could I say in reply," she laughingly remarked, "but 'Sir, you are the most discerning of yours!'"
The first poem of hers that was offered in a purely professional way was "The Romaunt of Margret." It appeared in the New Monthly Magazine, then edited by Bulwer, who was afterward known as the first Lord Lytton. At this time Richard Hengist Horne was basking in the fame of his "Orion," and to him Miss Barrett applied, through a mutual friend, as to whether her enclosed poem had any title to that name, or whether it was mere verse. "As there could be no doubt in the mind of the recipient on that point," said Mr. Horne, "the poem was forwarded to Bulwer, and duly appeared. The next one sent," continues Mr. Horne, "started the poetess at once on her bright and noble career." This "next one" appears to have been "The Poet's Vow," and a confirmation of this supposition is seen in a letter of hers at this date to Mr. Boyd, in which she explains her not having at hand a copy of the Athenaeum that he had wished to see, and adds:
"I can give you, from memory, the Athenaeum's review in that number. The critic says 'It is rich in poetry ... including a fine, although too dreamy, ballad, The Poet's Vow. We are almost tempted to pause and criticise the work of an artist of so much inspiration and promise as the author of this poem, and to exhort him to a greater clearness of expression, and less quaintness in the choice of his phraseology, but this is not the time or place for digression.'
"You see my critic has condemned me with a very gracious countenance. Do put on yours."
Again, under date of October, 1836, she writes to Mr. Boyd:
"... But what will you say to me when I confess that in the face of all your kind encouragement, my Drama of the Angels (The Seraphim) has not been touched until the last three days? It was not out of pure idleness on my part, nor of disregard to your admonition; but when my thoughts were distracted with other things, books just began enclosing me all around, a whole load of books upon my conscience, and I could not possibly rise to the gate of heaven and write about my angels. You know one can't sometimes sit down to the sublunary occupation of even reading Greek, unless one feels free to it. And writing poetry requires a double liberty, and an inclination which comes only of itself....
"... I have had another note from the editor—very flattering, and praying for farther supplies. The 'Angels' were not ready, and I was obliged to send something else."
A discussion arises in the family regarding the taking of a house in Wimpole Street, and Elizabeth remarks that for her part she would rather go on inhabiting castles in the air than to live in that particular house, "whose walls look so much like Newgate's turned inside out." She continues, however, that if it is decided upon, she has little doubt she will wake and sleep very much as she would anywhere else. With a strong will, and an intense, resistless kind of energy in holding any conviction, and an independence of character only equalled by its preeminent justice and generous magnanimity, she was singularly free from any tenacious insistence upon the matters of external life. She had her preferences; but she always accommodated herself to the decision or the necessity of the hour, and there was an end of it. She had that rare power of instantaneous mental adjustment; and if a given thing were right and best, or if it were not best but was still inevitable, she accepted it and did not make life a burden to every one concerned by endless discussion.
London itself did not captivate her fancy. "Did Dr. Johnson in his paradise in Fleet Street love the pavements and the walls?" she questioned. "I doubt that," she added; "the place, the privileges, don't mix in one's love as is done by the hills and the seaside."
The privileges, however, became more and more interesting to her. One of these was when she met Wordsworth, whom she describes as being "very kind," and that he "let her hear his conversation."
This conversation she did not find "prominent," for she saw at the same time Landor, "the brilliant Landor," she notes, and felt the difference "between great genius and eminent talent." But there was a day on which she went to Chiswick with Wordsworth and Miss Mitford, and all the way she thought she must be dreaming. It was Landor, though, who captivated her fancy at once, as he already had that of her future poet-lover and husband, who was yet unrevealed to her. Landor, "in whose hands the ashes of antiquity burn again," she writes, gave her two Greek epigrams he had recently written. All this time she is reading everything,—Sheridan Knowles's play of "The Wreckers," which Forrest had rejected, "rather for its unfitness to his own personal talent than for its abstract demerit," she concludes; and "Ion," which she finds beautiful morally rather than intellectually, and thinks that, as dramatic poetry, it lacks power, passion, and condensation. Reading Combe's "Phrenology," she refers to his theory that slowness of the pulse is a sign of the poetical impulse. If this be true, she fears she has no hope of being a poet, "for my pulse is in a continual flutter," she notes; and she explains to Mr. Boyd that the line
"One making one in strong compass"
in "The Poet's Vow," which he found incomprehensible, really means that "the oneness of God, 'in Whom are all things,' produces a oneness, or sympathy, with all things. The unity of God preserves a unity in man."
All in all, Miss Barrett is coming to enjoy her London life. There was the Royal Academy, "and real live poets, with their heads full of the trees and birds, and sunshine of Paradise"; and she has "stood face to face with Wordsworth and Landor"; Miss Mitford has become a dear friend, but she visits London only at intervals, as she lives—shades of benighted days!—thirty miles from London. A twentieth century residence across the continent could hardly seem more remote.
The removal to Wimpole Street was decided upon, and to that house (No. 50), gloomy or the reverse, the Barretts migrated. Miss Barrett's new book, under the title of "The Seraphim and Other Poems," was published, marking her first professional appearance before the public over her own name. "I feel very nervous about it," she said; "far more than I did when my 'Prometheus' crept out of the Greek."
Mr. Kenyon was about to go to Rydal Mount on a visit to Wordsworth, and Miss Barrett begs him to ask, as for himself, two garden cuttings of myrtle or geranium, and send to her—two, that she may be sure of saving one.
Autographs had value in those days, and in a note to Mr. Bray Miss Barrett alludes to one of Shakespeare's that had been sold for a hundred pounds and asks if he feels sure of the authenticity of his own Shakespearean autograph.
A new poetic era had dawned about the time that "The Seraphim" appeared. Tennyson had written "Audley Court," and was beginning to be known in America, owing this first introduction to Emerson, who visited Landor in Florence and made some sojourn afterward in England. The Boston publishing house of C. C. Little and Company (now Little, Brown, and Company) had written to Tennyson (under date of April 27, 1838) regarding a republishing of his volume, as the future laureate was already recognized for the musical quality and perfection of art in his work. Browning had published only "Pauline," "Paracelsus," and "Strafford." Shelley and Keats were dead, their mortal remains reposing in the beautiful English cemetery in Rome, under the shadow of the tall cypresses, by the colossal pyramid of Caius Cestus. Byron and Scott and Coleridge had also died. There were Landor and Southey, Rogers and Campbell; but with Miss Barrett there came upon the scene a new minstrelsy that compelled its own recognition. Some of her shorter poems had caught the popular ear; notably, her "Cowper's Grave," which remains, to-day, one of her most appealing and exquisite lyrics.
"It is a place where poets crowned may feel the heart's decaying; It is a place where happy saints may weep amid their praying."
The touching pathos of the line,
"O Christians, at your cross of hope a hopeless hand was clinging!"
moves every reader. And what music and touching appeal in the succeeding stanza:
"And now, what time ye all may read through dimming tears his story, How discord on the music fell and darkness on the glory, And how when, one by one, sweet sounds and wandering lights departed, He wore no less a loving face because so broken-hearted."
In seeing, "on Cowper's grave,... his rapture in a vision," Miss Barrett pictured his strength—
"... to sanctify the poet's high vocation."
Her reverence for poetic art finds expression in almost every poem that she has written.
Among other shorter poems included with "The Seraphim" were "The Poet's Vow," "Isobel's Child," and others, including, also, "The Romaunt of Margret." The Athenaeum pronounced the collection an "extraordinary volume,—especially welcome as an evidence of female genius and accomplishment,—but hardly less disappointing than extraordinary. Miss Barrett's genius is of a high order," the critic conceded; but he found her language "wanting in simplicity." One reviewer castigated her for presuming to take such a theme as "The Seraphim" "from which Milton would have shrank!" All the critics agree in giving her credit for genius of no ordinary quality; but the general consensus of opinion was that this genius manifested itself unevenly, that she was sometimes led into errors of taste. That she was ever intentionally obscure, she denied. "Unfortunately obscure" she admitted that she might be, but "willingly so,—never."
Of the personal friends of Elizabeth Barrett one of the nearest was Mary Russell Mitford, who was nineteen years her senior. Miss Mitford describes her at the time of their meeting as having "such a look of youthfulness that she had some difficulty in persuading a friend that Miss Barrett was old enough to be introduced into society." Miss Mitford added that she was "certainly one of the most interesting persons" she had ever seen; "of a slight, delicate figure,... large, tender eyes, and a smile like a sunbeam."
Mr. Kenyon brought Andrew Crosse, a noted electrician of the day, to see Miss Barrett; and in some reminiscences written by Mrs. Andrew Crosse there is a chapter on "John Kenyon and his Friends" that offers the best comprehension, perhaps, of this man who was so charming and beloved a figure in London society,—a universal favorite. Born in 1784 in Jamaica, the son of a wealthy land-owner, he was sent to England as a lad, educated there, and in 1815 he set out for a tour of the continent. In 1817, in Paris, he met and became intimate with Professor George Ticknor of Harvard University, the Spanish historian; and through this friendship Mr. Kenyon came to know many of the distinguished Americans of the day, including Emerson, Longfellow, and Willis. Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, and Landor were among Kenyon's most intimate circle; and there is a record of one of his dinners at which the guests were Daniel Webster, Professor and Mrs. Ticknor, Dickens, Montalembert, and Lady Mary Shepherd. In 1823 Kenyon married Miss Curteis, and they lived for some years in Devonshire Place, with frequent interludes of travel on the continent. Mrs. Kenyon died in 1835, but when the Barretts came up to London Kenyon had resumed his delightful hospitalities, of which he made fairly a fine art. Professor Ticknor has left an allusion to another dinner at Kenyon's where he met Miss Barrett. In the autumn of 1839 Miss Barrett, accompanied by her brother Edward, went to Torquay, for the warmer climate, and Mr. Kenyon also had gone there for the winter. Around him were gathered a group of notable friends, with whom Miss Barrett, his cousin (with one remove), was constantly associated,—Landor, Andrew Crosse, Theodosia Garrow (afterwards the wife of Thomas Adolphus Trollope), and Bezzi, an accomplished Italian, who was afterward associated with Seymour Kirkup in discovering Dante's portrait concealed under the whitewash applied to the walls of the Bargello in Florence. Miss Barrett was at this time entering into that notable correspondence with Richard Hengist Horne, many of these letters containing passages of interest. For instance, of poetry we find her saying:
"If poetry under any form be exhaustible, Nature is; and if Nature is, we are near a blasphemy, and I, for one, could not believe in the immortality of the soul.
'Si l'ame est immortelle, L'amour ne l'est-il-pas?'
Extending l'amour into all love of the ideal, and attendant power of idealizing.... I don't believe in mute, inglorious Miltons, and far less in mute, inglorious Shakespeares."
Referring to some correspondence with Miss Martineau, Miss Barrett characterizes her as "the noblest female intelligence between the seas," and of Tennyson, in relation to some mention of him, she wrote that "if anything were to happen to Tennyson, the whole world should go into mourning."
A project (said to have originated with Wordsworth) was launched to "modernize" Chaucer, in which Miss Barrett, Leigh Hunt, Monckton Milnes, Mr. Horne, and one or two others enthusiastically united, the only dissenter being Landor, who characteristically observed that any one who was fit to read Chaucer at all could read him in the original. Later on the co-operation of Browning, Tennyson, Talfourd, Bulwer, Mary Howitt, and the Cowden Clarkes was solicited and in part obtained. But Landor held firm, and of his beloved Chaucer he said: "I will have no hand in breaking his dun, but rich-painted glass, to put in thinner (if clearer) panes." A great deal of correspondence ensued in connection with this Herculean labor, most of which is of less interest to the general reader than it might well be to the literary antiquarian.
The next special literary enthusiasm of Mr. Horne and Miss Barrett was the projection of a work of criticism, to be issued anonymously, and entitled "The New Spirit of the Age." They collaborated on the critique on Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt, and for the one on Landor Miss Barrett was mainly responsible, in which she says he "writes poetry for poets, and criticism for critics;... and as if poetry were not, in English, a sufficiently unpopular dead language, he has had recourse to writing poetry in Latin." She speaks of his "Pericles and Aspasia" and his "Pentameron" as "books for the world and for all time, complete in beauty of sentiment and subtlety of criticism." Two of Landor's works, very little known, the "Poems from the Arabic and Persian" and "A Satire upon Satirists," are here noted. "It will be delightful to me to praise Tennyson,—although, by Saint Eloy, I never imitated him," she writes to Mr. Horne; "and I take that oath because the Quarterly was sure that if it had not been for him I should have hung a lady's hair 'blackly' instead of 'very blackly.'" Miss Mitford was somewhat concerned with this hazardous venture, but she had no desire to discuss Dickens, as she "could not admire his love of low life!" Miss Barrett's appreciation of Tennyson is much on record. She finds him "a divine poet." Monckton Milnes, whose first work she liked extremely, seemed to her in his later poems as wanting in fire and imagination, and as being too didactic. Barry Cornwall's lyrics impressed her "like embodied music." Mr. Horne finally wrote the critique on Dickens, and of it Miss Barrett said: "I think the only omission of importance in your admirable essay is the omission of the influence of the French school of imaginative literature upon the mind of Dickens, which is manifest and undeniable.... Did you ever read the powerful Trois Jours d'un Condamne, and will you confront that with the tragic saliences of 'Oliver Twist'?... We have no such romance writer as Victor Hugo ... George Sand is the greatest female genius of the world, at least since Sappho." (At this time George Eliot had not appeared.) Miss Barrett appreciatively alludes to Sir Henry Taylor (the author of "Philip van Artevelde") as "an infidel in poetry," and to the author of "Festus" as "a man of great thoughts." She finds part of the poem "weak," but, "when all is said," she continues, "what poet-stuff remains! what power! what fire of imagination, worth the stealing of Prometheus!"
In relation to some strictures on Carlyle, Miss Barrett vivaciously replies that his object is to discover the sun, not to specify the landscape, and that it would be a strange reproach to bring against the morning star that it does not shine in the evening.
The idea of a lyrical drama, "Psyche Apocalypte," was entertained by Mr. Horne and Miss Barrett, but, fortunately, no fragment of it was materialized into public light. There was a voluminous correspondence between them concerning this possible venture. Meanwhile Miss Barrett's poems won success past her "expectation or hope. Blackwood's high help was much," she writes, "and I continue to have the kindest letters from unknown readers.... The American publisher has printed fifteen hundred copies. If I am a means of ultimate loss to him, I shall sit in sackcloth."
In another of her letters to Mr. Horne we read that Wordsworth is in a fever because of a projected railroad through the Lake Country, and that Carlyle calls Harriet Martineau "quite mad," because of her belief in Mesmerism. "For my own part," adds Miss Barrett, "I am not afraid to say that I almost believe in Mesmerism, and quite believe in Harriet Martineau." She is delighted that Horne's "Orion" is to be published in New York. "I love the Americans," she asserts, "a noble and cordial people."
Miss Barrett remained for three years in Torquay, the climate being regarded as better for her health. But the tragedy of her life took place there in the drowning of her brother Edward, who went out one day with two friends in a boat and never returned. Three days later the boat was found floating, overturned, and the bodies of the three young men were recovered. This sad event occurred in the August of 1840, and it was more than a year before she was able to resume her literary work and her correspondence. In the September of 1841 she returned to London, and in a letter to Mr. Boyd soon after she replied to his references to Gregory as a poet, saying she has not much admiration even for his grand De Virginitate, and chiefly regards him as one who is only poetical in prose.
Miss Barrett's delicacy of health through all these years has been so universally recorded (and, according to her own words, so exaggerated) that it needs no more than passing allusion here. So far as possible she herself ignored it, and while it was always a factor to be reckoned with, yet her boundless mental energy tided her over illness and weakness to a far greater degree than has usually been realized. "My time goes to the best music when I read or write," she says, "and whatever money I can spend upon my own pleasures flows away in books."
Elizabeth Barrett was the most sympathetic and affectionate of friends, and her devotion to literature resulted in no mere academic and abnormal life. Her letters are filled with all the little inquiries and interests of household affection and sweetness of sympathy with the personal matters of relatives and friends, and if those are not here represented, it is simply that they are in their nature colloquial, and to be taken for granted rather than repeated for reading, when so long separated by time from the conditions and circumstances that called them forth. She was glad to return from Torquay to her family again. "Papa's domestic comfort is broken up by the separation," she said, "and the associations of Torquay lie upon me, struggle against them as I may, like a nightmare.... Part of me is worn out; but the poetical part—that is, the love of poetry—is growing in me as freshly every day. Did anybody ever love poetry and stop in the middle? I wonder if any one ever could?... besides, I am becoming better. Dear Mr. Boyd," she entreats, "do not write another word about my illness either to me or to others. I am sure you would not willingly disturb me. I can't let ... prescribe anything for me except her own affection." These words illustrate the spirit in which Miss Barrett referred to her own health. No one could be more remote from a morbid invalidism too often associated with her.
One of her first efforts after her return from Torquay was to send to the Athenaeum some Greek translations, which, to her surprise, were accepted, and she writes to Mr. Boyd that she would enclose to him the editor's letter "if it were legible to anybody except people used to learn reading from the Pyramids." It must have been due to a suggestion from the editor of the Athenaeum at this time that she wrote her noble and affluent essay on "The Greek Christian Poets," which is perhaps her finest work in prose. Something in the courteous editorial note suggested this to her, and she discusses the idea with Mr. Boyd.
Mr. Dilke was then the editor of the Athenaeum. He quite entered into the idea of this essay, only begging Miss Barrett to keep away from theology. Mr. Dilke also suggests that she write a review of English poetical literature, from Chaucer to contemporary times, and this initiated her essay called "The Book of the Poets." For her Greek review she desired a copy of the Poetae Christiani, but found the price (fourteen guineas) ruinous. But whether she had all the needful data or not, the first paper was a signal success, and she fancied that some bona avis, as good as a nightingale, had shaken its wings over her. Of the three Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, Elizabeth Barrett had read every line. Plato she loved and read exhaustively; of Aristotle at this time she had read his Ethics, Poetics, and his work on Rhetoric, and of Aristophanes a few, only, of his plays. But Miss Barrett was also a great novel-reader, keeping her "pillows stuffed with novels," as she playfully declared. Her room, in the upper part of the house, revealed the haunt of the scholar. Upon a bracket the bust of Homer looked down; her bookcase showed one entire shelf occupied by the Greek poets; another relegated wholly to the English poets; and philosophy, ethics, science, and criticism were liberally represented. A bust of Chaucer companioned that of Homer. By her sofa nestled Flush, her dog, Miss Mitford's gift.
It was in this year of 1841 that there penetrated into her atmosphere and consciousness the first intimation of Robert Browning. "Pippa Passes" had just been published, and John Kenyon, ever alert to bring any happiness into the lives of his friends (Kenyon, "the joy-giver," as he was well termed), suggested introducing the young poet to her, but on the plea of her ill-health she declined. A little later, in a letter to Mr. Boyd, she mentions one or two comments made on her essay, "The Greek Christian Poets,"—that Mr. Horne, and also "Mr. Browning, the poet," had both, as she was told, expressed approval. "Mr. Browning is said to be learned in Greek," she adds, "especially the dramatists." So already the air begins to stir and tremble with the coming of him of whom in later days she wrote:
"I yield the grave for thy sake, and resign My near sweet view of heaven for earth with thee."
The entrancing thrill of that wonderful Wagner music that ushers in the first appearance of the knight in the music-drama of "Lohengrin" is typical of the vibrations that thrill the air in some etherial announcement of experiences that are on the very threshold, and which are recognized by a nature as sensitive and impressionable as was that of Elizabeth Barrett. A new element with its transfiguring power awaited her, and some undefined prescience of that
"... most gracious singer of high poems"
whose music was to fall at her door
"... in folds of golden fulness"
haunted her like "an odor from Dreamland sent."
She pondered on
"... how Theocritus had sung Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,"
but she dared not dream that the "mystic Shape" that drew her backward, and whose voice spoke "in mastery," had come to lead her,—not to Death, but Love.
"... If a man could feel, Not one day in the artist's ecstasy, But every day,—feast, fast, or working-day, The spiritual significance burn through The hieroglyphic of material shows, Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings."
"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.
The appearance of "Bells and Pomegranates" made a deep impression on Elizabeth Barrett, as the numbers, opening with "Pippa Passes," successively appeared between 1841 and 1846. Of "Pippa" she said she could find it in her heart to covet the authorship, and she felt all the combinations of effect to be particularly "striking and noble." In a paper that Miss Barrett wrote in these days for the Athenaeum, critically surveying the poetic outlook of the time, she referred to Browning and Tennyson as "among those high and gifted spirits who would still work and wait." When this London journal reviewed (not too favorably) Browning's "Romances and Lyrics," Miss Barrett took greatly to heart the injustice that she felt was done him, and reverted to it in a number of personal letters, expressing her conviction that "it would be easier to find a more faultless writer than a poet of equal genius." An edition of Tennyson, in two volumes, came out, including the "Ulysses," "Morte d'Arthur," "Locksley Hall," and "OEnone," of which she says no one quite appeals to her as does "OEnone," and she expresses her belief that philosophic thinking, like music, is always involved in high ideality of any kind. Wordsworth she insisted upon estimating from his best, not from his poorest work, and his "Ode" was to her so grand as to atone for a multitude of poetic sins. "I confess," she wrote to Boyd, "that he is not unfrequently heavy and dull, and that Coleridge has an intenser genius." To her cousin, Kenyon, Miss Barrett sent the manuscript of her poem, "The Dead Pan," which he showed to Browning, who wrote of it to Kenyon with ardent admiration. This note was sent to Miss Barrett, who displayed it to Horne that he might see the opinion of the poet whom they both admired. Still later, Horne published in his "New Spirit of the Age" sketches of several writers with their portraits; and those of Carlyle, Miss Martineau, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning, Miss Barrett had framed for her own room. She asked Kenyon if that of Browning were a good one. "Rather like," he replied. So here and there the Fates were invisibly at work, forging the subtle threads that were drawing the poets unconsciously nearer.
It was the suggestion of Browning's publisher, Moxon, that "Bells and Pomegranates" might be issued in pamphlet form, appearing at intervals, as this plastic method would be comparatively inexpensive, and would also permit the series to be stopped at any time if its success was not of a degree to warrant continuance. The poet found his title, as he afterward explained in a letter to Miss Barrett, in Exodus, "... upon the hem of the robe thou shalt make pomegranates of blue and of purple, and of scarlet, and bells of gold between them round about." After "Pippa Passes" there followed "King Victor and King Charles," a number of Lyrics, "The Return of the Druses," "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon," "Luria," and "A Soul's Tragedy." On each of the title-pages the author was named as the writer of "Paracelsus," "Sordello" being ignored. Among the dedications of these several numbers those so honored included John Kenyon, Proctor, and Talfourd.
Browning offered "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon" to Macready (whose stage fortunes at this period were not brilliant), with the remark that "The luck of the third venture is proverbial." The actor consulted Forster, who passed the play on to Dickens, to whom it deeply appealed. Under date of November 25, 1842, Dickens wrote of it to Forster in the most enthusiastic words, saying the reading of it had thrown him "into a perfect passion of sorrow," and that it was "full of genius, natural, and great thoughts,... and I swear it is a tragedy that must be played, and played by Macready," continued the novelist. "And tell Browning that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work." Forster did not, however, administer this consolation to the young author, who was only to learn of Dickens's admiration thirty years later, when Forster's biography of him appeared. The story of the production of the play is told in a letter from Joseph Arnould to Alfred Domett (then in New Zealand), written under date of May, 1843, dated from Arnould's home in Victoria Square, Pimlico:
"As one must begin somewhere, suppose we take Browning.... In February his play, 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon,' was announced as forthcoming at Drury Lane.... Meantime, judicious friends had a habit of asking when the play was coming out...."
A long chapter of vexations is humorously described by Domett, who concludes his letter with this tribute to the play.
"... With some of the finest situations and grandest passages you can conceive, it does undoubtedly want a sustained interest to the end of the third act; in fact the whole of that act on the stage is a falling off from the second, which I need not tell you is, for purposes of performance, the most unpardonable fault. Still, it will no doubt—nay, it must—have done this, viz., produced a higher opinion than ever of Browning's genius and the great things he is yet to do, in the minds not only of a clique, but of the general world of readers. This man will go far yet...."
While this vexation cancelled the friendly relations that had existed between Browning and Macready, it fostered the friendship between the poet and Helen Faucit (later Lady Martin), who remembered Browning's attitude "as full of generous sympathy" for the actors of the cast; while he recalled Miss Faucit's "perfect behavior as a woman, and her admirable playing, as the one gratifying factor" in the affair. But Browning was too noble by nature for any lasting resentment, and meeting Macready soon after the death of both his own wife, in Italy, and of Mrs. Macready, he could only grasp his old friend's hand and exclaim with emotion, "Oh, Macready!"
In the autumn of 1844 Browning set forth for Italy on his second visit. Two years before his friend Domett had left England for New Zealand, commemorated by the poet in the lines,—
"How, forsooth, was I to know it If Waring meant to glide away Like a ghost at break of day."
Browning landed at Naples, and there, according to Mrs. Orr, he became acquainted with a young Neapolitan, Signor Scotti, who took the bargaining of their tour upon himself, after they had agreed to travel together, "and now as I write," said Mr. Browning in a letter from his Naples hotel to his sister Sarianna, "I hear him disputing our bill. He does not see why we should pay for six wax candles when we have used only two." The pair wandered over the enchanting shores of all the Naples region, lingered in Sorrento, drove over the picturesque road to Amalfi, and listened to the song of the sirens along the shore. Their arrival in Rome was Browning's first sight of the Eternal City. Here Mr. Browning found an old friend, the Contessa Carducci, with whom the two passed most of their evenings. He made his poetic pilgrimage to the graves of Shelley and Keats, as do all later pilgrims, and he visited the grotto of Egeria in memory of Byron. He loitered in the old chiesa near Santa Maria Maggiore, where the sixteenth century Bishop "ordered his tomb," and he visited Trelawney in Leghorn. There exists little record of this trip save in the poem "The Englishman in Italy," and his return to England through Germany is alike unrecorded.
Six years had passed since the publication of "The Seraphim and Other Poems," and on Mr. Browning's arrival at home again, he found two new volumes of Miss Barrett's, entitled simply "Poems," in which were "A Drama of Exile," "Bertha in the Lane," "Catarina to Camoens," "A Vision of Poets," nearly all of the sonnets that she ever wrote save that immortal sequence, "Sonnets from the Portuguese," and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." These volumes absolutely established her poetic rank with that of Tennyson and Browning. She "heard the nations praising her far off." While she had many expressions of grateful gladness for all this chorus of praise with hardly a dissenting voice, the verdict did not affect her own high standards. "I have written these poems as well as I could," she says, "and I hope to write others better. I have not reached my own ideal ... but I love poetry more than I love my own successes in it."
Her love of absolute truth, and the absence of any petty self-love in her character, stand out in any study of her life. "Why, if you had told me that my books were without any value in your eyes, do you imagine that I should not have valued you, reverenced you ever after for your truth, so sacred a thing in friendship?" she writes to a friend.
The reviews are eminently appreciative and satisfying. Blackwood's gave a long critique in a special article, frankly pointing out faults, but asserting that her merits far outweighed her defects, and that her genius "was profound, unsullied, and without a flaw." The long poem, "A Drama of Exile" was pronounced the least successful of all, and the prime favorite was "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Of this poem of ninety-two stanzas, with eleven more in its "Conclusion," thirty-five of the stanzas, or one hundred and forty-four lines, were written in one day.
Though lack of health largely restricted Miss Barrett to her room, her sympathies and interests were world-wide. She read the reviews of the biography of Dr. Arnold, a work she desired to read, entire, and records that "Dr. Arnold must have been a man in the largest and noblest sense." She rejoices in the refutation of Puseyism that is offered in the Edinburgh Review; she reads "an admirable paper by Macaulay" in the same number; she comments on the news that Newman has united himself with the Catholic Church; and in one letter she writes that Mr. Horne has not returned to England and adds: "Mr. Browning is not in England, either, so that whatever you send for him must await his return from the east, or west, or south, wherever he is; Dickens is in Italy; even Miss Mitford talks of going to France, and the 'New Spirit of the Age' is a wandering spirit."
In her "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" had occurred the lines:
"Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate,' which, if cut deep down the middle, Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity."
A certain consciousness of each other already stirred in the air for Browning and Miss Barrett, and still closer were the Fates drawing the subtle threads of destiny.
It was in this November that Mrs. Jameson first came into Miss Barrett's life, coming to the door with a note, and "overcoming by kindness was let in." This initiated a friendship that was destined in the near future to play its salient part in the life of Elizabeth Barrett. In what orderly sequence the links of life appear, viewed retrospectively!
She "gently wrangles" with Mr. Boyd for addressing her as "Miss Barrett," deprecating such cold formality, and offering him his choice of her little pet name "Ba" or of Elizabeth.
She reads Hans Christian Andersen's "Improvisatore," and in reply to some expressed wonder at her reading so many novels she avows herself "the most complete and unscrupulous romance reader" possible; and adds that her love of fiction began with her breath, and will end with it; "and it goes on increasing. On my tombstone may be written," she continued, "'Ci git the greatest novel reader in the world,' and nobody will forbid the inscription."
And so the prelude of her life draws to a close, and the future is to be no more the mere living "with visions for her company," for now, in this January of 1845, she has a letter from Browning, and she writes: "I had a letter from Browning, the poet, last night, which threw me into ecstasies,—Browning, the author of 'Paracelsus,' and king of the mystics." Not long after she writes that she is getting deeper and deeper into correspondence with Robert Browning, and that they are growing to be the truest of friends. Lowell writes to Miss Barrett regarding her poems, though the letter does not seem to be anywhere on record, and she writes to Mr. Westwood that in her view Mr. Browning's power is of a very high order, and that he must read "Paracelsus." In its author she finds one who "speaks true oracles." She finds "Colombe's Birthday" exquisite, and "Pippa Passes" she "kneels to, with deepest reverence."
The first letter of Browning to Miss Barrett was written on January 10 of this year (1845), and he began with the words: "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett." He enters into the "fresh strange music, the exquisite pathos, and true, brave thought" of her work; and reminds her that Kenyon once asked him if he would like to see Miss Barrett, but that she did not feel able, and he felt as if close to some world's wonder, but the half-opened door shut. Her reply, which is dated the next day, thanks him for his sympathy and offers him her gratitude, "agreeing that of all the commerce from Tyre to Carthage, the exchange of sympathy for gratitude is the most princely thing." And she craves a lasting obligation in that he shall suggest her master-faults in poetry. She does not pretend to any extraordinary meekness under criticism, and possibly might not be at all obedient to it, but she has such high respect for his power in Art, and his experience as an artist. She refers to Mr. Kenyon as her friend and helper, and her books' friend and helper, "critic and sympathizer, true friend at all hours!" and she adds that "while I live to follow this divine art of poetry ... I must be a devout student and admirer of your works."
Browning is made very happy by her words, and he feels that his poor praise "was nearly as felicitously brought out as a certain tribute to Tasso, which amused me in Rome some weeks ago," he says. "In a neat penciling on the wall by his tomb at Sant' Onofrio—'Alla cara memoria—di—Torquato Tasso—il Dottore Bernardini—offriva—il sequente Carme—tu'—and no more; the good man, it would seem, breaking down with the over-load of love here! But my 'O tu' was breathed out most sincerely, and now you have taken it in gracious part, the rest will come after." And then he must repeat (to himself) that her poetry must be infinitely more to him than his could be to her, "for you do what I have only hoped to do." And he hopes she will nevermore talk of "the honor" of his acquaintance, but he will joyfully wait for the delight of her friendship. And to his fear that she may hate letter-writing she replies suggesting that nobody likes writing to everybody, but it would be strange and contradictory if she were not always delighted to hear from and to write to him; and she can read any manuscript except the writing on the pyramids, and if he will only treat her en bon camarade "without reference to the conventionalities of 'ladies and gentlemen'"; taking no thought for his sentences (or hers), "nor for your badd speling nor for mine," she is ready to sign and seal the contract of correspondence. And while she throws off the ceremony, she holds faster to the kindness. She is overjoyed with this cordial sympathy. "Is it true," she asks, "that I know so little of you? And is it true that the productions of an artist do not partake of his real nature? It is not true to my mind,—and therefore it is not true that I know little of you, except in so far as it is true that your greatest works are to come.... I think—if I may dare name myself with you in the poetic relation—that we both have high views of the Art we follow and steadfast purpose in the pursuit of it.... And that neither of us would be likely to be thrown from the course by the casting of any Atalanta ball of speedy popularity.
"And after all that has been said and mused upon the anxiety experienced by the true artist,—is not the good immeasurably greater than the evil? For my part I sometimes wonder how, without such an object and purpose of life, people contrive to live at all."
And her idea of happiness "lies deep in poetry and its associations." And he replies that what he has printed "gives no knowledge of me," and that he has never begun what he hopes he was born to begin and end—"R. B. a poem."
"Do you know Tennyson?" she asks, "that is, with a face to face knowledge? I have great admiration for him," she continues. "In execution he is exquisite,—and in music a most subtle weigher out to the ear of fine airs." And she asks if he knows what it is to covet his neighbor's poetry,—not his fame, but his poetry. It delights her to hear of his garden full of roses and his soul full of comforts. She finds the conception of his Pippa "most exquisite, and altogether original."
In one of Miss Barrett's letters a few weeks later there seems discernible a forecast of "Aurora Leigh," when she writes that her chief intention is the writing "of a sort of novel-poem," and one "as completely modern as 'Geraldine's Courtship,' running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms and the like 'where angels fear to tread'; and so meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth, as I conceive of it, out plainly." She is waiting for a story; she will not take one, because she likes to make her own. Here is without doubt the first conception of "Aurora Leigh."
Touching on Life in another letter, she records her feeling that "the brightest place in the house is the leaning out of the window."
Browning replies: "And pray you not to lean out of the window when my own foot is only on the stair."...
"But I did not mean to strike a tragic chord," she replies; "indeed I did not. As to 'escaping with my life,' it was just a phrase ... for the rest I am essentially better ... and feel as if it were intended for me to live and not to die." And referring to a passage relating to Prometheus she asks: "And tell me, if Aeschylus is not the divinest of all the divine Greek souls?" She continues:
"But to go back to the view of Life with the blind Hopes; you are not to think—whatever I may have written or implied—that I lean either to the philosophy or affectation which beholds the world through darkness instead of light ... and after a course of bitter mental discipline and long bodily seclusion I come out with two lessons learned—the wisdom of cheerfulness and the duty of social intercourse. Anguish has instructed me in joy, and solitude in society.... What we call life is a condition of the soul, and the soul must improve in happiness and wisdom, except by its own fault.... And I do like to hear testimonies like yours, to happiness, and I feel it to be a testimony of a higher sort than the obvious one.... Remember, that as you owe your unscathed joy to God, you should pay it back to His world. I thank you for some of it already."
And she feels how kind he is,—how gently and kindly he speaks to her. In his next letter he alludes with much feeling to her idea of the poem-novel:
"The Poem you propose to make; the fresh, fearless, living work you describe, is the only Poem to be undertaken now by you or any one who is a poet at all; the only reality, only effective piece of service to be rendered God or man; it is what I have been all my life intending to do, and now shall be much nearer doing since you will be along with me. And you can do it, I know and am sure,—so sure that I could find it in my heart to be jealous of your stopping on the way even to translate the Prometheus...."
The lovers, for such they already are, however unconsciously to both, fall into a long discussion of Prometheus, and the Greek drama in general, and in another letter, with allusion to his begging her to take her own good time in writing, she half playfully proffers that it is her own bad time to which she must submit. "This implacable weather!" she writes; "this east wind that seems to blow through the sun and the moon!... There will be a May and June if we live to see such things," and then she speaks of seeing him besides, and while she recognizes it is morbid to shrink and grow pale in the spirit, yet not all her fine philosophy about social duties quite carries her through. But "if he thinks she shall not like to see him, he is wrong, for all his learning." What pathos of revelation of this brave, celestial spirit, tenanting the most fragile of bodies, is read in the ensuing passage:
"What you say of society draws me on to many comparative thoughts of your life and mine. You seem to have drunken of the cup of life full with the sun shining on it. I have lived only inwardly, or with sorrow for a strong emotion. Before this seclusion of my illness I was secluded still, and there are few of the youngest women in the world who have not seen more, known more, of society, than I, who am hardly to be called young now. I grew up in the country, had no social opportunities, had my heart in books and poetry, and my experience in reveries.... Books and dreams were what I lived in—and domestic life seemed to buzz gently around, like the bees about the grass.... Why, if I live on and escape this seclusion, do you not perceive that I labor under signal disadvantages, that I am, in a manner, a blind poet?... I have had much of the inner life ... but how willingly would I exchange some of this ponderous, helpless knowledge of books for some experience of life.... But grumbling is a vile thing, and we should all thank God for our measures of life, and think them enough.... Like to write? Of course, of course I do. I seem to live while I write—it is life for me. Why, what is it to live? Not to eat and drink and breathe,—but to feel the life in you down all the fibers of being, passionately and joyfully....
"Ah, you tempt me with a grand vision of Prometheus!... I am inclined to think that we want new forms.... The old gods are dethroned. Why should we go back to the antique moulds? If it is a necessity of Art to do this, then those critics are right who hold that Art is exhausted.... I do not believe this; and I believe the so-called necessity of Art to be the mere feebleness of the artist. Let us all aspire rather to Life.... For there is poetry everywhere...."
Miss Barrett writes to him, continuing the discussion of poetry as an Art, that she does not want "material as material, but that every life requires a full experience," and she has a profound conviction that a poet is at a lamentable disadvantage if he has been shut from most of the outer aspects of life. And he, replying, deprecates a little the outward life for a poet, with amusing references to a novel of D'Israeli's, where, "lo, dinner is done, and Vivian Grey is here, and Violet Fane there, and a detachment of the party is drafted off to catch butterflies." But still he partly agrees, and feels that her Danish novel ("The Improvisatore") must be full of truth and beauty, and "that a Dane should write so, confirms me in a belief that Italy is stuff for the use of the North and no more—pure Poetry there is none, as near as possible none, in Dante, even;... and Alfieri,... with a life of travel, writes you some fifteen tragedies as colorless as salad grown under a garden glass...." But she—if she asks questions about novels it is because she wants to see him by the refracted lights, as well as by the direct ones; and Dante's poetry—"only material for northern rhymers?" She must think of that before she agrees with him.
As for Browning, he bids her remember that he writes letters to no one but her; but there is never enough of telling her.... And she, noting his sitting up in the morning till six, and sleeping only till nine, wants to know "how 'Lurias' can be made out of such ungodly imprudences? And what is the reasonableness of it," she questions, "when we all know that thinking, dreaming, creative people, like yourself, have two lives to bear instead of one, and therefore ought to sleep more than others"; and he is anticipating the day when he shall see her with his own eyes, and now a day is named on which he will call, and he begs her not to mind his coming in the least, for if she does not feel able to see him he will come again, and again, as his time is of no importance.
It was on the afternoon of May 20 (1845) that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett first met, and of them it could almost have been said, in words ascribed to Michael Angelo for Vittoria Colonna,—
"We are the only two, that, face to face, Do know each other, as God doth know us both."
It is said that the first letter of Browning's to her after this meeting is the only one destroyed of all this wonderful correspondence; and this was such a letter as could only be interpreted into a desire for marriage, which she, all tender thoughtfulness always for others, characteristically felt would be fatal to his happiness because of her invalid state. He begged her to return the letter, and he then destroyed it; and again pleaded that their friendship and intellectual comradeship should continue. "Your friendship and sympathy will be dear and precious to me all my life, if you indeed leave them with me so long, or so little," she writes; and she utterly forbids any further expression or she must do this "to be in my own eyes and before God a little more worthy, or a little less unworthy, of a generosity...." And he discreetly veils his ardors for the time, and the wonderful letters run on.
He is writing "The Flight of the Duchess," and sending it to her by installments; she finds it "past speaking of," and she also refers to "exquisite pages" of Landor's in the "Pentameron." And poems which he has left with her,—she must have her own gladness from them in her own way. And did he go to Chelsea, and hear the divine philosophy?
Apparently he did, for he writes:
"Yes, I went to Chelsea and found dear Carlyle alone—his wife is in the country where he will join her as soon as the book's last proof sheets are corrected.... He was all kindness, and talked like his own self while he made me tea—and would walk as far as Vauxhall Bridge with me on my way home."
"I had a letter yesterday from Charles Hemans, the son of Felicia, ... who says his mother's memory is surrounded to him 'with almost a divine lustre,'... and is not that better than your tradition about Shelley's son? and is it not pleasant to know that the noble, pure-hearted woman, the Vittoria Colonna of our country, should be so loved and comprehended by one, at least, of her own house?"
Under date of August 25, Miss Barrett has been moved to write out the pathetic story of her brother Edward's death. He had accompanied her to Torquay,—he, "the kindest, the noblest, the dearest, and when the time came for him to return I, weakened by illness, could not master my spirits or drive back my tears," and he then decided not to leave her. "And ten days from that day," she continued, "the boat left the shore which never returned—and he had left me! For three days we waited,—oh, that awful agony of three days!... Do not notice what I have written to you, my dearest friend. I have never said so much to a living being—I never could speak or write of it...."
But he writes her that "better than being happy in her happiness, is it to participate in her sorrow." And the very last day of that August he writes that he has had such power over himself as to keep silent ... but "Let me say now—this only once,—that I loved you from my soul, and gave you my life, as much of it as you would take, and all that ... is independent of any return on your part." She assures him that he has followed the most generous of impulses toward her, "yet I cannot help adding that, of us two, yours has not been quite the hardest part." She confesses how deeply she is affected by his words, "but what could I speak," she questions, "that would not be unjust to you?... Your life! if you gave it to me and I put my whole heart into it, what should I put in but anxiety, and more sadness than you were born to? What could I give you which it would not be ungenerous to give?"
There was a partial plan that Miss Barrett should pass that next winter in Pisa, but owing to the strange and incalculable disposition of her father, who, while he loved her, was singularly autocratic in his treatment, the plan was abandoned. All this sorrow may have contributed to her confession to Browning that no man had ever been to her feelings what he was; and that if she were different in some respects she would accept the great trust of his happiness.... "But we may be friends always," she continues, "and cannot be so separated that the knowledge of your happiness will not increase mine.... Worldly thoughts these are not at all, there need be no soiling of the heart with any such;... you cannot despise the gold and gauds of the world more than I do,... and even if I wished to be very poor, in the world's sense of poverty, I could not, with three or four hundred a year, of which no living will can dispossess me. And is not the chief good of money, the being free from the need of thinking of it?" But he, perfect in his beautiful trust and tenderness, was "joyfully confident" that the way would open, and he thanks God that, to the utmost of his power, he has not been unworthy of having been introduced to her. He is "no longer in the first freshness of his life" and had for years felt it impossible that he should ever love any woman. But he will wait. That she "cannot dance like Cerito" does not materially disarrange his plan! And by the last of those September days she confesses that she is his "for everything but to do him harm," he has touched her so profoundly, and now "none, except God and your own will, shall interpose between you and me." And he answered her in such words as these:
"When I come back from seeing you and think over it all, there is never a least word of yours I could not occupy myself with...."
In a subsequent letter Elizabeth Barrett questions: "Could it be that heart and life were devastated to make room for you? if so it was well done." And she sends thanks to Browning's sister, Sarianna, for a copy of Landor's verses.
And with all these gracious and tenderly exquisite personal matters, the letters are yet brilliant in literary allusion and criticism.
During these three years from 1844 to 1847 were written the greater number of Miss Barrett's finest lyrics. Those two remarkable poems, "A Rhapsody of Life's Progress" and "Confessions"; "Loved Once"; "The Sleep" (the poem which was read at her burial in the lovely, cypress-crowned cemetery in Florence, and whose stanzas, set to music, were chanted by the choir in Westminster Abbey when the body of her husband was laid in the "Poets' Corner"), "The Dead Pan," and that most exquisite lyric of all, "Catarina to Camoens," were all written during this period.
The title of the latter was but a transparent veil for her own feelings toward Robert Browning, and had she died in his absence, as Catarina did in that of Camoens, the words would have expressed her own feeling. What profound pathos is in the line,
"Death is near me,—and not you,"
and how her own infinite sweetness of spirit is mirrored in the stanza,
"I will look out to his future; I will bless it till it shine, Should he ever be a suitor Unto sweeter eyes than mine."
And read her own self-revelation again in "A Denial,"
"We have met late—it is too late to meet, O friend, not more than friend!"
But the denial breaks down, and the last lines tell the story:
"Here's no more courage in my soul to say 'Look in my face and see.'"
And in that last line of "Insufficiency,"
"I love thee so, Dear, that I only can leave thee."
In "Question and Answer," in "Proof and Disproof," "A Valediction," "Loved Once," and "Inclusions," he who reads between the lines and has the magic of divination may read the story of her inner life.
In the poem "Confessions" is touched a note of mystical, spiritual romance, spiritual tragedy, wholly of the inner life, that entirely differentiates from any other poetic expression of Mrs. Browning. In one stanza occur these lines:
"The least touch of their hands in the morning, I keep it by day and by night; Their least step on the stair, at the door, still throbs through me, if ever so light."
Even with all allowance for the imagination of the poet, these lines reveal such feeling, such tremulous susceptibility, that with less intellectual balance than was hers, combined with such lack of physical vigor, would almost inevitably have resulted in failure of poise. The current of spiritual energy was so strong with Elizabeth Barrett as to largely take the place of greater physical strength. That she never relapsed into the conditions of morbid invalidism is a marvel, and it is also an impressive testimony to the power of spiritual energy to control and determine physical conditions.
All through that summer the letters run on, daily, semi-daily. Of his work Browning writes that he shall be "prouder to begin one day,—may it be soon!—with your hand in mine from the beginning." Miss Barrett, referring to the Earl of Compton, who is reported from Rome as having achieved some prominence as a painter, proceeds to say:
"People in general would rather be Marquises than Roman artists, consulting their own wishes and inclination. I, for my part, ever since I could speak my mind and knew it, always openly and inwardly preferred the glory of those who live by their heads, to the opposite glory of those who carry other people's arms. So much for glory. Happiness goes the same way to my fancy. There is something fascinating to me in that Bohemian way of living.... All the conventions of society cut so close and thin, that the soul can see through.... Beyond, above. It is real life as you say ... whether at Rome or elsewhere. I am very glad that you like simplicity in habits of life—it has both reasonableness and sanctity.... I am glad that you—who have had temptation enough, more than enough, I am sure, in every form—have lived in the midst of this London of ours, close to the great social vortex, yet have kept so safe, and free, and calm, and pure from the besetting sins of our society."
Browning, in one letter, alluding to the prevailing stupidity of the idea that genius and domestic happiness are incompatible, says: "We will live the real answer, will we not?... A man of genius mistreats his wife; well, take away the genius,—does he so instantly improve?"
Of the attitude of his family toward their marriage he writes:
"My family all love you, dearest,—you cannot conceive my father's and mother's childlike faith in goodness—and my sister is very high-spirited, and quick of apprehension—so as to seize the true point of the case at once.... Last night I asked my father, who was absorbed over some old book, if he should not be glad to see his new daughter?—to which he, starting, replied, 'Indeed I shall'; with such a fervor as to make my mother laugh,—not abated by his adding: 'And how I should be glad of her seeing Sarianna!'"
And she writes:
"Shall we go to Greece, then, Robert? Let us, if you like it. When we have used a little the charm of your Italy,... I should like to see Athens with my living eyes.... Athens was in all the dreams I dreamed, before I knew you. Why should we not see Athens, and Egypt, too, and float down the mystical Nile, and stand in the shadow of the Pyramids? All of it is more possible now, than walking up the street seemed to me last year."
And he writes that he always felt her "Wine of Cyprus" poem to fill his heart "with unutterable desires."
To book-lovers the question as to how many books may be taken on a journey, or what volumes, indeed, may be left behind, is a vital one. The reader will smile sympathetically at Miss Barrett's consultation with Browning as to whether, if they do "achieve the peculiar madness of going to Italy," they could take any books? And whether it would be well to so arrange that they should not take duplicates? He advises the narrowest compass for luggage. "We can return for what we want, or procure it abroad," he says, made wise by his two Italian journeys; and he adds:
"I think the fewer books we take the better; they take up room,—and the wise way always seemed to me to read at home, and open one's eyes and see abroad. A critic somewhere mentioned that as my characteristic—there were two other poets he named placed in novel circumstances ... in a great wood, for instance, Mr. Trench would begin opening books to see how woods were treated ... the other man would set to writing poetry forthwith,—and R. B. would sit still and learn how to write after! A pretty compliment, I thought that. But, seriously, there must be a great library at Pisa (with that University) and abroad they are delighted to facilitate such matters.... I have read in a chamber of the Doges' palace at Venice painted all over by Tintoretto, walls and ceiling, and at Rome there is a library with a learned priest always kept ready 'to solve any doubts that may arise.'"
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett were married on September 12, 1846, in the church of St. Pancras, Marylebone, the only witnesses being his cousin, James Silverthorne, and her maid, Wilson. To have taken her sisters into her confidence would have been to expose them to the fairly insane wrath of her father. "I hate and loathe everything which is clandestine—we both do, Robert and I," said Mrs. Browning later; but this was the only possible way. Had Mr. Browning spoken to her father in the usual manner, "he would have been forbidden the house without a moment's scruple," she explained to a friend; "and I should have been incapacitated from any after exertion by the horrible scenes to which, as a thing of course, I should have been exposed.... I cannot bear some words. In my actual state of physical weakness, it would have been the sacrifice of my whole life—of my convictions, of my affections, and, above all, of what the person dearest to me persisted in calling his life, and the good of it—if I had observed that 'form.' Therefore I determined not to observe it, and I consider that in not doing so, I sinned against no duty. That I was constrained to act clandestinely, and did not choose to do so, God is my witness. Also, up to the very last, we stood in the light of day for the whole world, if it please, to judge us. I never saw him out of the Wimpole Street house. He came twice a week to see me, openly in the sight of all."
In no act of her life did Mrs. Browning more impressively reveal her good sense than in this of her marriage. "I had long believed such an act," she said, "the most strictly personal of one's life,—to be within the rights of every person of mature age, man or woman, and I had resolved to exercise that right in my own case by a resolution which had slowly ripened. All the other doors of life were shut to me, and shut me as in a prison, and only before this door stood one whom I loved best and who loved me best, and who invited me out through it for the good's sake he thought I could do him."... To a friend she explained her long refusal to consent to the marriage, fearing that her delicate health would make it "ungenerous" in her to yield to his entreaty; but he replied that
"he would not tease me, he would wait twenty years if I pleased, and then, if life lasted so long for both of us, then, when it was ending, perhaps, I might understand him and feel that I might have trusted him.... He preferred, he said, of free and deliberate choice, to be allowed to sit only an hour a day by my side, to the fulfillment of the brightest dream which should exclude me, in any possible world."
"I tell you so much that you may see the manner of man I had to do with, and the sort of attachment which for nearly two years has been drawing and winning me. I know better than any in the world, indeed, what Mr. Kenyon once unconsciously said before me, that 'Robert Browning is great in every thing.'... Now may I not tell you that his genius, and all but miraculous attainments, are the least things in him, the moral nature being of the very noblest, as all who ever knew him admit."
After the marriage ceremony Mrs. Browning drove with her maid to the home of Mr. Boyd, resting there, as if making a morning call on a familiar friend, until joined by her sisters, who took her for a little drive on Hampstead Heath. For five days she remained in her father's house, and during this time Browning could not bring himself to call and ask for his wife as "Miss Barrett," so they arranged all the details of their journey by letter. On September 19 they left for Paris, and the last one of these immortal letters, written the evening before their departure, from Mrs. Browning to her husband, contains these words:
"By to-morrow at this time I shall have you, only, to love me, my beloved! You, only! As if one said, God, only! And we shall have Him beside, I pray of Him!"
With her maid, Mrs. Browning walked out of her father's house the next day, meeting her husband at a bookseller's around the corner of the street, and they drove to the station, leaving for Southampton to catch the night boat to Havre.
Never could the world have understood the ineffable love and beauty and nobleness of the characters of both Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, had these letters been withheld from the public. Quite aside from the deeper interest of their personal revelation,—the revelation of such nobleness and such perfect mutual comprehension and tenderness of sympathy as are here revealed,—the pages are full of interesting literary allusion and comment, of wit, repartee, and of charm that defies analysis. It was a wise and generous gift when the son of the poets, Robert Barrett Browning, gave these wonderful letters to the reading public. The supreme test of literature is that which contributes to the spiritual wealth of the world. Measured by this standard, these are of the highest literary order. No one can fail to realize how all that is noblest in manhood, all that is holiest in womanhood, is revealed in this correspondence.
Edmund Clarence Stedman, after reading these letters, said: "It would have been almost a crime to have permitted this wonderful, exceptional interchange of soul and mind, between these two strong, 'excepted' beings, to leave no trace forever."
Robert Barrett Browning, in referring to his publication of this correspondence in a conversation with the writer of this volume, remarked that he really had no choice in the matter, as the Apochryphal legends and myths and improvisations that had even then begun to weave themselves about the remarkable and unusual story of the acquaintance, courtship, and marriage of his parents, could only be dissipated by the simple truth, as revealed in their own letters.
Their love took its place in the spiritual order; it was a bond that made itself the mystic force in their mutual development and achievement; and of which the woman, whose reverence for the Divine Life was the strongest element in her nature, could yet say,—
"And I, who looked for only God, found thee!"
Life, as well as Literature, would have been the poorer had not Mr. Barrett Browning so wisely and generously enriched both by the publication of this correspondence.
Not the least among the beautiful expressions that have been made by those spirits so touched to fine issues as to enter into the spiritual loveliness of these letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, is a sonnet by a New England poet, Rev. William Brunton,—a poet who "died too soon," but whose love for the poetry of the Brownings was as ardent as it was finely appreciative:
"Oh! dear departed saints of highest song, Behind the screen of time your love lay hid, Its fair unfoldment was in life forbid— As doing such divine affection wrong, But now we read with interest deep and strong, And lift from off the magic jar the lid, And lo! your spirit stands the clouds amid And speaks to us in some superior tongue!
"Devotion such as yours is heavenly-wise, And yet the possible of earth ye show; Ye dwellers in the blue of summer skies, Through you a finer love of love we know; It is as if the angels moved with men, And key of Paradise were found again!"
"And on her lover's arm she leant And round her waist she felt it fold, And far across the hills they went To that new world which is the old. Across the hills, and far away, Beyond their utmost purple rim, Beyond the night, beyond the day, Through all the world she followed him."
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.
Paris, "and such a strange week it was," wrote Mrs. Browning to Miss Mitford; "whether in the body, or out of the body, I can scarcely tell. Our Balzac should be flattered beyond measure by my even thinking of him at all." The journey from London to Paris was not then quite the swift and easy affair it now is, the railroad between Paris and Havre not being then completed beyond Rouen; still, such an elixir of life is happiness that Mrs. Browning arrived in the French Capital feeling much better than when she left London. Mrs. Jameson had only recently taken leave of Miss Barrett on her sofa, and sympathetically offered to take her to Italy herself for the winter with her niece; Miss Barrett had replied: "Not only am I grateful to you, but happy to be grateful to you," but she had given no hint of the impending marriage. Mrs. Jameson's surprise, on receiving a note from Mrs. Browning, saying she was in Paris, was so great that her niece, Geraldine Bate (afterward Mrs. MacPherson of Rome), asserted that her aunt's amazement was "almost comical." Mrs. Jameson lost no time in persuading the Brownings to join her and her niece at their quiet pension in the Rue Ville l'Eveque, where they remained for a week,—this "strange week" to Mrs. Browning.
In Paris they visited the galleries of the Louvre, but did little sight-seeing beyond, "being satisfied with the idea of Paris," she said.
To a friend Mrs. Jameson wrote:
"I have also here a poet and a poetess—two celebrities who have run away and married under circumstances peculiarly interesting, and such as render imprudence the height of prudence. Both excellent; but God help them! for I know not how the two poet heads and poet hearts will get on through this prosaic world."
As for ways and means, however, the Brownings were sufficiently provided. He had a modest independence, and she also had in her own right a little fortune of some forty thousand pounds, yielding three or four hundred pounds a year; but in the July preceding their marriage Browning, with his sensitive honor, insisted upon her making a will bequeathing this capital to her own family. In a letter to him dated July 27 of that summer the story of his insistence on this is revealed in her own words: "I will write the paper as you bid me.... You are noble in all things ... but I will not discuss it so as to tease you.... I send you the paper therefore, to that end, and only to that end...." The "document," by Browning's insistence, gave her property to her two sisters, in equal division, or, in case of their death, to the surviving brothers. Nothing less than this would satisfy Robert Browning.