Meantime, there was the natural London comment. Wordsworth observed: "So Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett have gone off together! It is to be hoped they can understand each other, for no one else can."
Mr. Kenyon wrote "the kindest letter" to them both, and pronounced them "justified to the uttermost," and to Mrs. Browning he said: "I considered that you had imperiled your life upon this undertaking and I still thought you had done wisely!" But by that magic alchemy of love and happiness Mrs. Browning only gained constantly in strength, and Mrs. Jameson pronounced them "wise people, whether wild poets or not."
Among the interesting comments on the marriage was Joseph Arnould's letter to Alfred Domett, under date of November of that year. He wrote:
"... I think the last piece of news I told you of was Browning's marriage to Miss Barrett. She is, you know, our present greatest living English poetess: ... she has been in the most absolute and enforced seclusion from society; cultivating her mind to a wonderful amount of accomplishment, instructing herself in all languages, reading Chrysostom in the original Greek, and publishing the best metrical translation that has yet appeared of the 'Prometheus Bound'—having also found time to write three volumes of poetry, the last of which raised her name to a place second only to that of Browning and Tennyson, amongst all those who are not repelled by eccentricities of external form from penetrating into the soul and quintessential spirit of poetry that quickens the mould into which the poet has cast it. Well, this lady, so gifted, so secluded, so tyrannized over, fell in love with Browning in the spirit before ever she saw him in the flesh—in plain English, loved the writer, before she knew the man. Imagine, you who know him, the effect which his graceful bearing, high demeanor, and noble speech must have had on such a mind when first she saw the man of her visions in the twilight of her darkened room. She was at once in love as a poet-soul only can be; and Browning, as by contagion or electricity, was no less from the first interview wholly in love with her.... He is a glorious fellow! Oh, I forgot to say that the soi-disante invalid, once emancipated from the paternal despotism, has had a wondrous revival, or rather, a complete metamorphosis; walks, rides, eats, and drinks like a young and healthy woman,—in fact, is a healthy woman of, I believe, some five and thirty. But one word covers all; they are in Love, who lends his own youth to everything."
The journey from Paris to Italy, if less comfortable and expeditious than now, was certainly more romantic, and the Brownings, in company with Mrs. Jameson and her niece, fared forth to Orleans, and thence to Avignon, where they rested for two days, making a poetic pilgrimage to Vaucluse, where Petrarca had sought solitude. "There at the very source of the 'chiare, fresche e dolci acque,'" records Mrs. MacPherson in her biography of Mrs. Jameson, "Mr. Browning took his wife up in his arms, and carrying her across through the shallow, curling waters, seated her on a rock that rose throne-like in the middle of the stream. Thus Love and Poetry took a new possession of the spot immortalized by Petrarca's fancy."
From Marseilles they sailed to Livorno (Leghorn), the port only a few miles from Pisa. The voyage was a delight to Mrs. Browning. She was enchanted with the beautiful panorama of the Riviera as they sailed down the coast, where the terraces of mountains rise, with old castles and ruins often crowning their summits, and the white gleam of the hill-towns against a background of blue sky. All the Spezzia region was haunted by memories of Shelley; Lerici, where last he had lived, was plainly in view, and they gazed sadly at Viareggio, encircled by pine woods and mountains, where the body of the poet had been found. In Pisa they took rooms in the Collegio Fernandino, in the Piazza del Duomo, in that corner of Pisa wherein are grouped the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Leaning Tower, and the Campo Santo, all in this consummate beauty of silence and seclusion,—a splendor of abandoned glory. All the stir of life (if, indeed, one may dream of life in Pisa) is far away on the other side of the city; to this corner is left the wraith-like haunted atmosphere, where only shadows flit over the grass, and the sunset reflections linger on the Tower. A statue of Cosimo di Medici was near; the Lanfranchi palace, where Byron had lived, was not far away, on the banks of the Arno. They quite preferred the Duomo and the Campo Santo to social festivities, and Professor Ferrucci offered them all the hospitalities of the University library. They had an apartment of four rooms, "matted and carpeted," coffee and rolls in the morning, dinner at the Trattoria, "thrushes and chianti with a marvelous cheapness, no trouble, no cook, no kitchen; the prophet Elijah, or the lilies of the field, took as little thought for their dining," writes Mrs. Browning, "and it exactly suits us. At nine we have our supper of roast chestnuts and grapes.... My head goes round sometimes. I was never happy before in my life.... And when I am so good as to let myself be carried up-stairs, and so angelical as to sit still on the sofa, and so considerate as not to put my foot into a puddle, why, my duty is considered done to a perfection worthy all adoration.... Mrs. Jameson and Geraldine are staying in the hotel, and we manage to see them every day; so good and true and affectionate she is, and so much we shall miss her when she goes.... Our present residence we have taken for six months, but we have dreams, and we discuss them like soothsayers over the evening grapes and chestnuts."
That in London Mrs. Jameson, on her first call on Miss Barrett, should have so winningly insisted on being admitted to her room as to be successful, almost to Miss Barrett's own surprise, seems, when seen in connection with the way in which Fate was to throw them together afterward, in Italy, to have been one of those "foreordained" happenings of life.
They heard a musical mass for the dead in the Campo Santo; they walked under orange trees with golden fruit hanging above their heads; they took drives to the foot of the mountains, and watched the reflections in the little lake of Ascuno. Mrs. Browning, from her windows, could see the cathedral summit glitter whitely, between the blue sky and its own yellow marble walls. Beautiful and tender letters came to them both from Mr. Kenyon, and they heard that Carlyle had said that he hoped more from Robert Browning, for the people of England, than from any other living English writer. All of these things entered into the very fiber of their Pisan days. Pisa seemed to her a beautiful town,—it could not be less, she felt, with Arno and its palaces, and it was to her full of repose, but not desolate. Meantime, Mr. Browning was preparing for a new edition of his collected poems.
Curiously, all the biographers of Robert Browning have recorded that it was during this sojourn in Pisa that the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" were first made known to him. Dr. Dowden quotes the story as given by Mr. Edmund Gosse, and Mr. Gosse cites Browning himself as his authority. Yet there was some mistake, as the Sonnets were not seen by Mr. Browning till some time later.
Robert Barrett Browning, in Florence, in the spring of 1910, in reply to a question asked by the writer of this book in regard to the accuracy of this impression, replied that both Mr. Gosse and Dr. Dowden were mistaken; as his mother did not show these "Sonnets" to his father until the summer of 1849, when they were at Bagni di Lucca. Mr. Gosse must in some way have mistaken Mr. Browning's words, and the error has perpetuated itself through every successive biography of the poet.
The first home of the Brownings in Florence was in an apartment near Santa Maria Novella, where the Italian sunshine burned fiercely, and where Mrs. Browning exclaimed that she began to comprehend the possibility of St. Lawrence's ecstasies on the gridiron. "Yet there have been cool intermissions," she wrote, "and as we have spacious and airy rooms, and as we can step out of the window on a balcony terrace which is quite private, and swims over with moonlight in the evenings, and as we live upon watermelons, and iced water, and figs, and all manner of fruit, we bear the heat with angelic patience."
There was a five days' interlude at Vallombrosa, which the poets vainly entreated the monks to prolong to two months, but the brethren would have none of the presence of two women,—Mrs. Browning and her maid, Wilson. So they perforce left these fascinating hills, "a sea of hills looking alive among the clouds." Still further up above the monastery was the old Hermitage now transformed into a hotel. It was here that Migliorotti passed many years, asserting that he could only think of it as Paradise, and thus it came to be known as Paradisino, the name it still bears. Far below in a dim distance lies Florence, with her domes and towers on which the sunshine glitters, or the white moonlight of the Val d'Arno shines; and on every hand are the deep valleys and crevasses, the Val di Sieve, the Val di Casentino, and the height of San Miniato in Alpe. Castles and convents, or their ruins, abound; and here Dante passed, and there St. Benedict, and again is the path still holy with the footsteps of St. Francis. The murmuring springs that feed the Arno are heard in the hills; and the vast solitudes of the wood, with their ruined chapels and shrines, made this sojourn to the Brownings something to be treasured in memory forever. They even wandered to that beautiful old fifteenth-century church, Santa Maria delle Grazie Vallombrosella, "a daughter of the monastery of Vallombrosa," where were works of Robbia, and saw the blue hills rise out of the green forests in their infinite expanse.
When they fared forth for Vallombrosa, it was at four o'clock in the morning, Mrs. Browning being all eagerness and enthusiasm for this matutinal pilgrimage. Reaching Pelago, their route wound for five miles along a "via non rotabile," through the most enchanting scenery, to Pontassieve.
"Oh! such mountains," wrote Mrs. Browning of this never-to-be-forgotten journey, "as if the whole world were alive with mountains—such ravines—black in spite of flashing waters in them—such woods and rocks—traveled in basket sledges drawn by four white oxen—Wilson and I and the luggage—and Robert riding step by step. We were four hours doing the five miles, so you may fancy what rough work it was. Whether I was most tired or charmed was a tug between body and soul.
"The worst was that," she continued, "there being a new abbot at the monastery—an austere man, jealous of his sanctity and the approach of women—our letter, and Robert's eloquence to boot, did nothing for us, and we were ingloriously and ignominiously expelled at the end of five days."
While the Brownings were in Vallombrosa Arnould wrote to Alfred Domett:
"Browning is spending a luxurious year in Italy—is, at this present writing, with his poetess bride dwelling in some hermit hut in Vallombrosa, where the Etruscan shades high overarched embower. He never fails to ask pressingly about you, and I give him all your messages. I would to God he would purge his style of obscurities,—that the wide world would, and the gay world and even the less illuminated part of the thinking world, know his greatness even as we do. I find myself reading 'Paracelsus' and the 'Dramatic Lyrics' more often than anything else in verse."
They descended, perforce, into Florence again, burning sunshine and all, the abbot of the monastery having someway confounded their pleadings with the temptation of St. Anthony, as something to be as heroically resisted. They set up their household gods in the shades of the Via delle Belle Donne, near the Duomo, where dinners, "unordered," Mrs. Browning said, "come through the streets, and spread themselves on our table, as hot as if we had smelt cutlets hours before." She found Florence "unspeakably beautiful," both by grace of nature and of art, but they planned to go to Rome in the early autumn, taking an apartment "over the Tarpeian rock." Later this plan was relinquished, and with an apartment on their hands for six months they yet abandoned it, for want of sunshine, and removed to Casa Guidi.
"Think what we have done," wrote Mrs. Browning to Miss Mitford; "taken two houses, that is, two apartments, each for six months, pre-signing the contract. You will set it down to excellent poet's work in the way of domestic economy, but the fault was altogether mine, for my husband, to please me, took rooms with which I was not pleased for three days, through the absence of sunshine. The consequence was that we had to pay heaps of guineas away, for leave to go, ourselves, but you can scarcely fancy the wonderful difference which the sun makes in Italy. So away we came into the blaze of him into the Piazza Pitti; precisely opposite the Grand Duke's palace; I with my remorse, and poor Robert without a single reproach. Any other man, a little lower than the angels, would have stamped and sworn a little for the mere relief of the thing,—but as for his being angry with me for any cause except not eating enough dinner, the said sun would turn the wrong way first."
Mrs. Browning's dog, Flush, was a member of the household not to be ignored, and her one source of consolation, in being turned away from the Vallombrosa summer, lay in the fact that "Flush hated it," and was frightened by the vast and somber pine forests. "Flush likes civilized life," said Mrs. Browning laughingly, "and the society of little dogs with turned-up tails, such as abound in Florence."
So now they bestowed themselves in "rooms yellow with sunshine from morning till night," in Casa Guidi, where, "for good omen," they looked down on the old gray church of San Felice. There was a large, square anteroom, where the piano was placed, with one large picture, picked up in an obscure street in Florence; and a little dining-room, whose walls were covered with tapestry, and where hung medallions of Tennyson, Carlyle, and of Robert Browning; a long, narrow room, wraith-like with plaster casts and busts, was Mr. Browning's study, while she had her place in the large drawing-room, looking out upon the ancient church. Its old pictures of saints, gazing sadly from their sepulchral frames of black wood, with here and there a tapestry, and with the lofty, massive bookcases of Florentine carving, all gave the room a medieval look. Almost could one fancy that it enthroned the "fairy lady of Shalott," who might weave
"... from day to day, A magic web of colors gay."
Dante's grave profile, a cast of the face of Keats taken after death, and a few portraits of friends, added their interest to the atmosphere of a salon that seemed made for poets' uses. There were vast expanses of mirrors in the old carved Florentine frames, a colossal green velvet sofa, suggesting a catafalque, and a supernaturally deep easy-chair, in the same green velvet, which was Mrs. Browning's favorite seat when she donned her singing robes. Near this low arm-chair was always her little table, strewn with writing materials, books, and newspapers. Other tables in the salotto bore gayly bound volumes, the gifts of brother authors. On the floor of a bedroom were the arms (in scabola), of the last count who had lived in this apartment, and there was a picturesque oil-jar, to hold rain-water, which Mrs. Browning declared would just hold the Captain of the Forty Thieves. All in all, the poets vowed they would not change homes with the Grand Duke himself, who was their neighbor in the Palazzo Pitti at the distance of a stone's throw. In the late afternoons they would wander out to the Loggia dei Lanzi, where Mrs. Browning greatly admired Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa, and they watched "the divine sunsets on the Arno, turning it to pure gold under the bridges." Sometimes they were joined by Hiram Powers, who was one of their earliest friends in Florence, "our chief friend and favorite," Mrs. Browning said of him, and she found him a "simple, straightforward, genial American, as simple as the man of genius he has proved himself need be." Another friend of these early days was Miss Boyle, a niece of the Earl of Cork, somewhat a poet, withal, who, with her mother, was domiciled in the Villa Careggi, in which Lorenzo il Magnifico died, and which was loaned to the Boyles by Lord Holland. Miss Boyle frequently dropped in on them in the evening, "to catch us at hot chestnuts and mulled wine," said Mrs. Browning, "and a good deal of laughing she and Robert make between them." On the terrace of Casa Guidi orange trees and camellias bloomed, and the salons with their "rococo chairs, spring sofas, carved bookcases, and satin from Cardinals' beds," were a picturesque haunt. The ideal and poetic life of Mrs. Browning, so far from isolating her from the ordinary day and daylight duties, invested these, instead, with glow and charm and playful repartee; and, indeed, her never-failing sense of humor transformed any inconvenience or inadvertence into amusement. She, who is conceded to have written the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, could also mend a coat for her husband with a smile and a Greek epigram.
Joseph Arnould again wrote to their mutual friend, Domett:
"Browning and his wife are still in Florence; both ravished with Italy and Italian life; so much so, that I think for some years they will make it the Paradise of their poetical exile. I hold fast to my faith in 'Paracelsus.' Browning and Carlyle are my two crowning men amongst the highest English minds of the day. Third comes Alfred Tennyson.... By-the-bye, did you ever happen upon Browning's 'Pauline'? a strange, wild (in parts singularly magnificent) poet-biography; his own early life as it presented itself to his own soul viewed poetically; in fact, psychologically speaking, his 'Sartor Resartus'; it was written and published three years before 'Paracelsus,' when Shelley was his God."
A little later Arnould wrote again:
"Browning and his wife are still in Florence, and stay there till the summer; he is bringing out another edition of his poems (except 'Sordello'), Chapman and Hall being his publishers, Moxon having declined. He writes always most affectionately, and never forgets kind inquiries about and kind messages to you."
Allured by resplendent tales of Fano, the Brownings made a trip to that seaside hamlet, but found it uninhabitable in the late summer heat. A statue in the Piazza commemorated the ancient Fanum Fortunae of tradition, and in the cathedral of San Fortunato were frescoes by Domenichino, and in the chiesa of Sant' Agostino was the celebrated painting of Sant' Angelo Custode, by Guercino, which suggested to Browning his poem "The Guardian Angel." The tender constancy of Browning's friendship for Alfred Domett is in evidence in this poem, and the beauty of his reference to his wife,—
"My angel with me, too,..."
lingers with the reader.
In no poem of his entire work has Browning given so complete a revelation of his own inner life as in this memorable lyric. The picture, dim as is the light in which it is seen, is one of the most impressive of all Guercino's works. In the little church of San Paterniano is a "Marriage of the Virgin," by Guercino, and in the Palazzo del Municipio of Fano is Guercino's "Betrothal of the Virgin," and the "David" of Domenichino.
The Brownings while in Fano made the excursion to the summit of Monte Giove, an hour's drive from the Piazza, where was the old monastery and a wonderful view of the Adriatic, and of the panorama of the Apennines. "We fled from Fano after three days," wrote Mrs. Browning, "and finding ourselves cheated out of our dream of summer coolness, we resolved on substituting for it what the Italians call 'un bel giro.' So we went to Ancona ... where we stayed a week, living on fish and cold water." They found Ancona "a straggling sea city, holding up against the brown rocks, and elbowing out the purple tides," and Mrs. Browning felt an inclination to visit it again when they might find a little air and shadow. They went on to Loreto, and then to Ravenna, where in the early dawn of a summer morning they stood by the tomb of Dante, deeply touched by the inscription. All through this journey they had "wonderful visions of beauty and glory." Returning to Florence, to their terraces, orange trees, and divine sunsets, one of their earliest visitors in Casa Guidi was Father Prout, who had chanced to be standing on the dock at Livorno when they first landed in Italy, from the journey from France, and who now appeared in Florence on his way to Rome. Mr. Browning had fallen ill after their trip to Fano, and Father Prout prescribed for him "port wine and eggs," which regime, combined with the racy conversation of the genial priest, seemed efficacious.
In the meantime Mrs. Browning stood with her husband by the tomb of Michael Angelo in Santa Croce; she saw the Venus, the "divine Raphaels." The Peruzzi chapel had then recently been restored—some exquisite frescoes by Giotto being among the successful restorations. The "mountainous marble masses" of the Duomo, "tessellated marbles climbing into the sky, self-crowned with that prodigy of marble domes," struck Mrs. Browning as the wonder of all architecture.
The political conditions of Italy began to enlist her interest. In June of 1846 Pio Nono had ascended the Papal throne, preceded by a reputation for a liberal policy, and it was even hoped that he would not oppose the formation of a United Italy. The papal and the temporal government was still one, but Pius IX was a statesman as well as a churchman. England had especially commissioned Lord Minto to advocate reform, and the enthusiasts for Italian liberty received him with acclaim. The disasters of 1848 were still in the unrevealed future, and a new spirit was stirring all over the Italian kingdom. Piedmont was looked to with hope; and the Grand Duke of Tuscany had instituted a National Guard, as the first step toward popular government. The great topic of the day was the new hope of Italy. In Florence the streets and piazzas were vocal with praises of the Grand Duke. On one night that Browning went to the opera the tumult grew intense, and the Duke was escorted back to Palazzo Pitti with thousands of wax torchlights and a blaze of glory and cries of "Eviva! Eviva!" Browning, however, distrusted Pio Nono, thinking him weak, and events proved that his opinion was justified.
The winter of 1847-1848 was passed by the Brownings in Casa Guidi. "I wish you could see what rooms we have," wrote Mrs. Browning to her husband's sister, Sarianna: "what ceilings, what height and breadth, what a double terrace for orange trees; how cool, how likely to be warm, how perfect every way!"
The poets were constantly engaged in their work. Mrs. Browning began her long poem, "Casa Guidi Windows," and many of Browning's lyrics that appeared in the collection called "Men and Women" were written at this period. They passed much time in the galleries and churches. They drove in the beautiful environs of Florence. The pictures, history, and legends entered into their lives to serve in later days as poetic material. In the brief twilight of winter days they often strolled into the old gray church of San Felice, on which their windows looked out, where Browning would gratify his passion for music by evolving from the throbbing keys of the organ some faint Toccata of Galuppi's, while his wife smiled and listened, and the tide of Florentine life flowed by in the streets outside. Casa Guidi is almost opposite the Palazzo Pitti, so that Mrs. Browning had easy access to her beloved Madonnas in the Pitti gallery, which to her husband, also, was so unfailing a resource.
One of Mrs. Browning's American admirers, and one of the reviewers of her poems, George Stillman Hillard, visited Florence that winter, and passed more than one evening in Casa Guidi with the Brownings. Of Mrs. Browning he wrote:
"Mrs. Browning is in many respects the correlative of her husband.... I have never seen a human frame which seemed so nearly a transparent veil for a celestial and immortal spirit. She is a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl.... Nor is she more remarkable for genius and learning than for sweetness of temper, tenderness of heart, depth of feeling, and purity of spirit.... A union so complete as theirs—in which the mind has nothing to crave, nor the heart to sigh for—is cordial to behold and cheering to remember."
Of all Italy Mr. Hillard perhaps best loved Florence, finding there an indescribable charm, "a blending of present beauty and traditional interest; but then Florence is alive," he added, "and not enslaved." It was probably Hillard who suggested to William Wetmore Story that he should meet Browning. At all events this meeting took place, initiating the friendship that endured "forty years, without a break," and that was one of the choicest social companionships.
The spring of 1849 brought new joy to Casa Guidi, for on March 9 was born their son, who was christened Robert Wiedemann Barrett, the middle name (which in his manhood he dropped) being the maiden name of the poet's mother. The passion of both husband and wife for poetry was now quite equaled by that for parental duties, which they "caught up," said Mrs. Browning, "with a kind of rapture." Mr. Browning would walk the terraces where orange trees and oleanders blossomed, with the infant in his arms, and in the summer, when they visited Spezzia, and the haunt of Shelley at Lurici, they wandered five miles into the mountains, the baby with them, on horseback and donkey-back. The child grew rounder and rosier; and Mrs. Browning was able to climb hills and help her husband to lose himself in the forests.
The death of Browning's mother immediately after the birth of his son was a great sadness to the poet, and one fully shared by his wife, who wrote to Miss Browning: "I grieve with you, as well as for you; for though I never saw her face, I loved that pure and tender spirit.... Robert and I dwell on the hope that you and your father will come to us at once.... If Florence is too far off, is there any other place where we could meet and arrange for the future?"
The Brownings went for the summer to Bagni di Lucca, after the little detour on the Mediterranean coast, where they lingered in the white marble mountains of Carrara. In Lucca they passed long summer hours in the beautiful Duomo, which had been consecrated by Pope Alexander II in the eleventh century. The beauty and the solitude charmed the poets; the little Penini was the "most popular of babies," and when Wilson carried the child out in the sunshine the Italians would crowd around him and exclaim, "Che bel bambino!" They had given him the pet Italian name "Penini," which always persisted. The Austrians had then taken possession of Florence, and Leopoldo, "L'intrepido," as the Italians asserted, remained quietly in the Palazzo Pitti. Browning, writing to Mrs. Jameson, says there is little for his wife to tell, "for she is not likely to encroach upon my story which I could tell of her entirely angel nature, as divine a heart as God ever made." The poet with his wife and Wilson and the baby made almost daily excursions into the forests and mountains, up precipitous fays and over headlong ravines; dining "with the goats," while the baby "lay on a shawl, rolling and laughing." The contrast of this mountain-climbing Mrs. Browning, with her husband and child, and the Miss Barrett of three or four years before, lying on a sofa in a darkened room, is rather impressive. The picture of one day is suggested by Mrs. Browning's description in a letter to Miss Mitford, where she writes:
"... I have performed a great exploit, ridden on a donkey five miles deep into the mountains, to an almost inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars. Robert on horseback, Wilson and the nurse with baby, on other donkeys; guides, of course. We set off at eight in the morning and returned at six P. M., after dining on the mountain pinnacle.... The scenery, sublime and wonderful,... innumerable mountains bound faintly with the gray sea, and not a human habitation."
It was during this villeggiatura that Mrs. Browning, one morning after their breakfast, with shy sweetness, tucked the pages of the "Sonnets" into her husband's pocket and swiftly vanished. Robert Barrett Browning, who, as already noted, gave the history of this poetic interlude viva voce, has also recorded it in writing, as follows:
What earthly vocabulary can offer fit words in which to speak of celestial beauty? How these exquisite "Sonnets" tell the story of that romance of Genius and Love,—from the woman's first thrill of interest in the poetry of an unknown poet, to the hour when he, "the princely giver," brought to her "the gold and purple" of his heart
"For such as I to take or leave withal,"
and she questions
"Can it be right to give what I can give?"
with the fear that her delicacy of health should make such gifts
"Be counted with the ungenerous."
But she thinks of how he "was in the world a year ago," and thus she drinks
"Of life's great cup of wonder! Wonderful, Never to feel thee thrill the day or night With personal act or speech,—
* * * * *
... Atheists are as dull, Who cannot guess God's presence out of sight."
And the questioning,—
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach,... ... I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."
Returning to Florence in October, Browning soon began the preparation for his poem, "Christmas Eve and Easter Day," and Mrs. Browning arranged for a new one-volume edition of her poems, to include "The Seraphim," and the poems that had appeared in the same volume, and also the poems appearing in 1844, many of them revised.
Marchesa d'Ossoli, whom the Brownings had heretofore known as Margaret Fuller, surprised them by appearing in Florence with her husband and child, the private marriage having taken place some two years before. The Greenoughs, the Storys, and Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Pearse Cranch were all in Florence, and were all habitues of Casa Guidi. Mr. Cranch, poet, painter, and musician, was the kindly friend of Longfellow and of Lowell in their Cambridge homes, and the Greenoughs and Storys were also of the Cambridge circle. To friends at home the Marchesa wrote of going to the opera with the Greenoughs, and that she saw the Brownings often, "and I love and admire them more and more," she continued. "Mr. Browning enriches every hour passed with him, and he is a most true, cordial, and noble man."
The Florentine days have left their picturings: Mr. Story opens a studio, and while he is modeling, Mrs. Story reads to him from Monckton Milnes's Life of Keats, which Mr. Browning loaned them. Mrs. Story drives to Casa Guidi to carry Mrs. Browning her copy of "Jane Eyre," and Mrs. Greenough takes both Mrs. Story and Mrs. Browning to drive in the Cascine. Two American painters, Frank Boott and Frank Heath, are in Florence, and are more or less caught up in the Casa Guidi life; and the coterie all go to Mrs. Trollope's to see fancy costumes arranged for a ball to be given at Sir George Hamilton's. In one of the three villas on Bellosguardo Miss Isa Blagden was now domiciled. For more than a quarter of a century Miss Blagden was a central figure in English society in Florence. She became Mrs. Browning's nearest and most intimate friend, and she was the ardently prized friend of the Trollopes also, and of Miss Frances Power Cobbe, who shared her villa during one spring when Florence was in her most radiant beauty. "Isa was a very bright, warm-hearted, clever little woman," said Thomas Adolphus Trollope of her; "who knew everybody, and was, I think, more universally beloved among us than any other individual." Miss Blagden had written one or two novels, of little claim, however, and after her death a small volume of her poems was published, but all these had no more than the mere succes d'estime, as apparently the pen was with her, as with Margaret Fuller, a non-conductor; but as a choice spirit, of the most beautiful and engaging qualities of companionship, "Isa," as she was always caressingly called, is still held in memory. Madame Pasquale Villari, the wife of the great historian and the biographer of Machiavelli and of Savonarola, well remembers Miss Blagden, who died, indeed, in her arms in the summer of 1872.
The intimate friendship between Mrs. Browning and Miss Blagden was initiated in the early months of the residence of the Brownings in Florence; but it was in this winter of 1849-1850 that they began to see each other so constantly. The poems of Matthew Arnold were published that winter, among which Mrs. Browning especially liked "The Deserted Merman" and "The Sick King of Bokkara," and about this time the authorship of "Jane Eyre" was revealed, and Charlotte Bronte discovered under the nom-de-plume of Currer Bell.
During the time that Mrs. Browning had passed at Torquay, before her marriage, she had met Theodosia Garrow, whose family were on intimate terms with Mr. Kenyon. Miss Barrett and Miss Garrow became friends, and when they met again it was in Florence, Miss Garrow having become the wife of Thomas Adolphus Trollope. Hiram Powers in these days was domiciled in the Via dei Serragli, in close proximity to Casa Guidi, and he frequently dropped in to have his morning coffee with the Brownings.
Landor had been for some years in his villa on the Fiesolean slope, not far from Maiano, where Leigh Hunt had wandered, dreaming of Boccaccio. Two scenes of the "Decameron" were laid in this region, and the deep ravine at the foot of one of the neighboring hills was the original of the "Valley of the Ladies." Not far away had been the house of Machiavelli; and nestling among the blue hills was the little white village of Settignano, where Michael Angelo was born. Leigh Hunt had been on terms of the most cordial intimacy with Landor, whom he described as "living among his paintings and hospitalities"; and Landor had also been visited by Emerson, and by Lord and Lady Blessington, by Nathaniel Parker Willis (introduced by Lady Blessington), by Greenough, Francis and Julius Hare, and by that universal friend of every one, Mr. Kenyon, all before the arrival of the Brownings in Florence. Landor had, however, been again in England for several years, where Browning and Miss Barrett had both met and admired him, as has been recorded.
The Florence on which the Brownings had entered differed little from the Florence of to-day. The Palazzo Pitti, within a stone's throw of Casa Guidi, stood in the same cyclopean massiveness as now; the piazza and church of San Miniato, cypress-shaded, rose from the sweep of the hills, and the miraculous crucifix of San Giovanni Gualberto was then, as now, an object of pilgrimage. The wonder of the Italian sunsets, that "perished silently of their own glory," burned away over the far hills, and the strange, lofty tower of the Palazzo Vecchio caught the lingering rays. Beyond the Porta Romana, not far from Casa Guidi, was the road to the Val d'Emo, where the Certosa crowns an eminence. The stroll along the Arno at sunset was a favorite one with the poets, and in late afternoons they often climbed the slope to the Boboli Gardens for the view over Florence and the Val d'Arno. Nor did they ever tire of lingering in the Piazza della Signoria, before the marvelous palace with its medieval tower, and standing before the colossal fountain of Neptune, just behind the spot that is commemorated by a tablet in the pavement marking the martyrdom of Savonarola. The great equestrian statue of Cosimo I always engaged their attention in this historic piazza, which for four centuries had been the center of the political life of the Florentines. All these places, the churches, monuments, palaces, and the art of Florence, were fairly mirrored in the minds of the wedded poets, impressing their imagination with the fidelity of an image falling on a sensitized plate. To them, as to all who love and enter into the ineffable beauty of the City of Lilies, it was an atmosphere of enchantment.
"I heard last night a little child go singing 'Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church, O bella liberta, O bella!..."
"But Easter-Day breaks! But Christ rises! Mercy every way Is infinite,—and who can say?"
"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.
The Brownings were never for a moment caught up in the wave of popular enthusiasm for Pio Nono that swept over Italy. Yet Mrs. Browning confessed herself as having been fairly "taken in" by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Had Blackwood's Magazine published Part I of her "Casa Guidi Windows" at the time that she sent it to this periodical, the poem would have been its own proof of her distrust of the Pope, but it would also have offered the same proof of her ill-founded trust in the Grand Duke; so that, on the whole, she was well content to fail in having achieved the distinction of a prophet regarding Pio Nono, as no Cassandra can afford to be convicted of delusion in some portion of the details of her prophecy. To achieve lasting reputation as a soothsayer, the prophecy must be accurate throughout. The fact that there was an interval of three years between the first and the second parts of this poem accounts for the discrepancy between them. In her own words she confessed:
"I wrote a meditation and a dream, Hearing a little child sing in the street: I leant upon his music as a theme, Till it gave way beneath my heart's full beat Which tried at an exultant prophecy, But dropped before the measure was complete— Alas for songs and hearts! O Tuscany, O Dante's Florence, is the type too plain?"
The flashing lightnings of a betrayed people gleam like an unsheathed sword in another canto beginning:
"From Casa Guidi windows I looked forth, And saw ten thousand eyes of Florentines Flash back the triumph of the Lombard north."
These ardent lines explain how she had been misled, for who could dream at the time that Leopoldo ("l'Intrepido," as a poet of Viareggio called him in a truly Italian fervor of enthusiasm) could have proved himself a traitor to these trusting people,—these tender-hearted, gentle, courteous, refined Italians? All these attributes pre-eminently characterize the people; but also Mrs. Browning's insight that "the patriots are not instructed, and the instructed are not patriots," was too true. The adherents of the papal power were strong and influential, and the personal character, whatever might be said of his political principles,—the personal character of Pio Nono was singularly winning, and this was by no means a negligible factor in the great problem then before Italy.
Mrs. Browning very wisely decided to let "Casa Guidi Windows" stand as written, with all the inconsistency between its first and second parts, as each reflected what she believed true at the time of writing; and it thus presents a most interesting and suggestive commentary on Italian politics between 1850 and 1853. Its discrepancies are such "as we are called upon to accept at every hour by the conditions of our nature," she herself said of it, "implying the interval between aspiration and performance, between faith and disillusion, between hope and fact." This discrepancy was more painful to her than it can be even to the most critical reader; but the very nature of the poem, its very fidelity to the conditions and impressions of the moment, give it great value, though these impressions were to be modified or canceled by those of a later time; it should stand as it is, if given to the world at all. And the courage to avow one's self mistaken is not the least of the forms that moral courage may assume.
Regarding Pio Nono, Mrs. Browning is justified by history, notwithstanding the many amiable and beautiful qualities of the Pontiff which forever assure him a place in affection, if not in political confidence. Even his most disastrous errors were the errors of judgment rather than those of conscious intention. Pio Nono had the defects of his qualities, but loving and reverent pilgrimages are constantly made to that little chapel behind the iron railing in the old church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura in Rome (occupying the site of the church founded by Constantine), where his body is entombed in a marble sarcophagus of the plainest design according to his own instructions; but the interior of the vestibule is richly decorated with mosaic paintings, the tribute of those who loved him.
Leopoldo was so kindly a man, so sincere in his work for the liberty of the press and for other important reforms, that it is no marvel that Mrs. Browning invested him with resplendence of gifts he did not actually possess, but which it was only logical to feel that such a man must have. Sometimes a too complete reliance on the ex pede Herculem method of judgment is misleading.
While the cause of Italian liberty had the entire sympathy of Robert Browning, he was yet little moved to use it as a poetic motive. Professor Hall Griffin suggests that it is possible that Browning deliberately chose not to enter a field which his wife so particularly made her own; but that is the less tenable as they never discussed their poetic work with each other, and as a rule rarely showed to each other a single poem until it was completed.
The foreign society in Florence at this time included some delightful American sojourners, for, beside the Storys and Hiram Powers (an especial friend of the Brownings), there were George S. Hillard, George William Curtis, and the Marchesa d'Ossoli with her husband,—all of whom were welcomed at Casa Guidi. The English society then in Florence was, as Mrs. Browning wrote to Miss Mitford, "kept up much after the old English models, with a proper disdain for continental simplicities of expense; and neither my health nor our pecuniary circumstances," she says, "would admit of our entering it. The fact is, we are not like our child, who kisses everybody who smiles on him! You can scarcely imagine to yourself how we have retreated from the kind advances of the English here, and struggled with hands and feet to keep out of this gay society." But it is alluring to imagine the charm of their chosen circle, the Storys always first and nearest, and these other gifted and interesting friends.
Mr. Story is so universally thought of as a sculptor that it is not always realized how eminent he was in the world of letters as well. Two volumes of his poems contain many of value, and a few, as the "Cleopatra," "An Estrangement," and the immortal "Io Victis," that the world would not willingly let die; his "Roba di Roma" is one of those absolutely indispensable works regarding the Eternal City; and several other books of his, in sketch and criticism, enrich literature. A man of the most courtly and distinguished manner, of flawless courtesy, an artist of affluent expressions, it is not difficult to realize how congenial and delightful was his companionship, as well as that of his accomplished wife, to the Brownings. Indeed, no biographical record could be made of either household, with any completeness, that did not largely include the other. In all the lovely chronicles of literature and life there is no more beautiful instance of an almost lifelong friendship than that between Robert Browning and William Wetmore Story.
In this spring of 1850 Browning was at work on his "Christmas Eve and Easter Day," and Casa Guidi preserved a liberal margin of quiet and seclusion. "You can scarcely imagine," wrote Mrs. Browning, "the retired life we live.... We drive day by day through the lovely Cascine, only sweeping through the city. Just such a window where Bianca Capello looked out to see the Duke go by,—and just such a door where Tasso stood, and where Dante drew his chair out to sit."
When Curtis visited Florence he wrote to Browning begging to be permitted to call, and he was one of the welcomed visitors in Casa Guidi. Browning took him on many of those romantic excursions with which the environs of Florence abound,—to Settignano, where Michael Angelo was born; to the old Roman amphitheater in Fiesole; to that somber, haunted summit of San Miniato, and to Vallombrosa, where he played to Curtis some of the old Gregorian chants on an organ in the monastery. Afterward, in a conversation with Longfellow, Mr. Curtis recalled a hymn by Pergolese that Browning had played for him.
Tennyson's poem, "The Princess," went into the third edition that winter, and Mrs. Browning observed that she knew of no poet, having claim solely through poetry, who had attained so certain a success with so little delay. Hearing that Tennyson had remarked that the public "hated poetry," Mrs. Browning commented that, "divine poet as he was, and no laurel being too leafy for him," he must yet be unreasonable if he were not gratified with "so immediate and so conspicuous a success."
Browning's "imprisoned splendor" found expression that winter in several lyrics, which were included in the new (two volume) edition of his poems.
Among these were the "Meeting at Night," "Parting at Morning," "A Woman's Last Word," and "Evelyn Hope." "Love among the Ruins," "Old Pictures in Florence," "Saul," and his "A Toccata of Galuppi's," all belong to this group. In that ardent love poem, "A Woman's Last Word," occur the lines:
"Teach me, only teach, Love! As I ought I will speak thy speech, Love, Think thy thought—
"Meet, if thou require it, Both demands, Laying flesh and spirit In thy hands."
No lyric that Robert Browning ever wrote is more haunting in its power and sweetness, or more rich in significance, than "Evelyn Hope," with "that piece of geranium flower" in the glass beside her beginning to die. The whole scene is suggested by this one detail, and in characterization of the young girl are these inimitable lines,—
"The good stars met in your horoscope, Made you of spirit, fire, and dew—
* * * * *
Yet one thing, one, in my soul's full scope, Either I missed or itself missed me;
* * * * *
So, hush,—I will give you this leaf to keep; See, I shut it inside the sweet cold hand! There, that is our secret: go to sleep! You will wake, and remember, and understand."
Mrs. Browning's touching lyric, "A Child's Grave at Florence," was published in the Athenaeum that winter; and in this occur the simple but appealing stanzas,—
"Oh, my own baby on my knees, My leaping, dimpled treasure,
* * * * *
But God gives patience, Love learns strength, And Faith remembers promise;
* * * * *
Still mine! maternal rights serene Not given to another! The crystal bars shine faint between The souls of child and mother."
To this day, that little grave in the English cemetery in Florence, with its "A. A. E. C." is sought out by the visitor. To Mrs. Browning the love for her own child taught her the love of all mothers. In "Only a Curl" are the lines:
"O children! I never lost one,— But my arm's round my own little son, And Love knows the secret of Grief."
Florence "bristled with cannon" that winter, but nothing decisive occurred. The faith of the Italian people in Pio Nono, however, grew less. Mr. Kirkup, the antiquarian, still carried on his controversy with Bezzi as to which of them were the more entitled to the glory of discovering the Dante portrait, and in the spring there occurred the long-deferred marriage of Mrs. Browning's sister Henrietta to Captain Surtees Cook, the attitude of Mr. Barrett being precisely the same as on the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to Robert Browning. The death of Wordsworth was another of the events of this spring, leaving vacant the Laureateship. The Athenaeum at once advocated the appointment of Mrs. Browning, as one "eminently suitable under a female sovereign." Other literary authorities coincided with this view, it seeming a sort of poetic justice that a woman poet should be Laureate to a Queen. The Athenaeum asserted that "there is no living poet of either sex who can prefer a higher claim than Elizabeth Barrett Browning," but the honor was finally conferred upon Tennyson, with the ardent approbation of the Brownings, who felt that his claim was rightly paramount.
In the early summer the Marchese and Marchesa d'Ossoli, with their child, sailed on that ill-starred voyage whose tragic ending startled the literary world of that day. Their last evening in Florence was passed with the Brownings. The Marchesa expressed a fear of the voyage that, after its fatal termination, was recalled by her friends as being almost prophetic. Curiously she gave a little Bible to the infant son of the poets as a presentation from her own little child; and Robert Barrett Browning still treasures, as a strange relic, the book on whose fly-leaf is written "In memory of Angelino d'Ossoli." Mrs. Browning had a true regard for the Marchesa, of whom she spoke as "a very interesting person, thoughtful, spiritual, in her habitual mode of mind."
In his poetic creed, Browning deprecated nothing more entirely (to use a mild term where a stronger would not be inappropriate) than that the poet should reveal his personal feeling in his poem; and to the dramatic character of his own work he held tenaciously. He rebuked the idea that Shakespeare "unlocked his heart" to his readers, and he warns them off from the use of any fancied latch-key to his own inner citadel.
"Which of you did I enable Once to slip inside my breast, There to catalogue and label What I like least, what love best?"
And in another poem the reader will recall how fervently he thanks God that "even the meanest of His creatures"
"Boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with, One to show a woman when he loves her!"
It was the knowledge of this intense and pervading conviction of her husband's that kept Mrs. Browning so long from showing to him her exquisitely tender and sacred self-revelation in the "Sonnets from the Portuguese." Yet it was in that very "One Word More" where Browning thanks God for the "two soul-sides," that he most simply reveals himself, and also in "Prospice" and in this "Christmas Eve and Easter Day." This poem, with its splendor of vision, was published in 1850, with an immediate sale of two hundred copies, after which for the time the demand ceased. William Sharp well designates it as a "remarkable Apologia for Christianity," for it can be almost thought of in connection with Newman's "Apologia pro vita sua," and as not remote from the train of speculative thought which Matthew Arnold wrought into his "Literature and Dogma." It is very impressive to see how the very content of Hegelian Dialectic is the key-note of Browning's art. "The concrete and material content of a life of perfected knowledge and volition means one thing, only, love," teaches Hegelian philosophy. This, too, is the entire message of Browning's poetry. Man must love God in the imperfect manifestation which is all he can offer of God. He must relate the imperfect expression to the perfect aspiration.
"All I aspired to be And was not—comforts me."
In the unfaltering search for the Divine Ideal is the true reward.
"One great aim, like a guiding star, above— Which tasks strength, wisdom, stateliness, to lift His manhood to the height that takes the prize."
Browning conceived and presented the organic idea and ideal of life, in its fullness, its intensity, as perhaps few poets have ever done. He would almost place a positive sin above a negative virtue. To live intensely, even if it be sinfully, was to Browning's vision to be on the upward way, rather than to be in a state of negative good. The spirit of man is its own witness of the presence of God. Life cannot be truly lived in any fantastic isolation.
"Just when we're safest, there's a sunset touch, A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death, A chorus ending from Euripides."
With Browning, as with Spinoza, there is an impatience, too, with the perpetual references to death, and they both constantly turn to the everlasting truth of life. "It is this harping on death that I despise so much," exclaimed Browning, in the later years of his life, in a conversation with a friend. "In fiction, in poetry, in art, in literature this shadow of death, call it what you will,—despair, negation, indifference,—is upon us. But what fools who talk thus!... Why, death is life, just as our daily momentarily dying body is none the less alive, and ever recruiting new forces of existence. Without death, which is our word for change, for growth, there could be no prolongation of that which we call life."
After the completion of "Christmas Eve and Easter Day," Mrs. Browning questioned her husband about the apparent asceticism of the second part of the poem, and he replied that he meant it to show only one side of the matter. "Don't think," she wrote to a friend, "that Robert has taken to the cilix,—indeed he has not, but it is his way to see things as passionately as other people feel them."
Browning teaches in this poem that faith is an adventure of the spirit, the aspiration felt, even if unnamed. But as to renunciation,—
"'Renounce the world!'—Ah, were it done By merely cutting one by one Your limbs off, with your wise head last, How easy were it!"
The renunciation that the poet sees is not so simple. It is not to put aside all the allurements of life, but to use them nobly; to persist in the life of the spirit, to offer love for hatred, truth for falsehood, generous self-sacrifice rather than to grasp advantages,—to live, not to forsake the common daily lot. It is, indeed, the philosophy amplified that is found in the words of Jesus, "I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil."
The Brownings remained till late in the summer in their Casa Guidi home, detained at first by the illness of Mrs. Browning, after which they decided to postpone going to England until another year. In the late summer they went for a few weeks to Siena, where, two miles outside the walls, they found a seven-roomed villa with a garden and vineyard and olive orchard, and "a magnificent view of a noble sweep of country, undulating hills and verdure, and on one side the great Maremma extending to the foot of the Roman mountains." They were located on a little hill called Poggia dei venti, with all the winds of the heavens, indeed, blowing about them, and with overflowing quantities of milk and bread and wine, and a loggia at the top of the villa. Mrs. Browning found herself rapidly recovering strength, and their comfort was further extended by finding a library in Siena, where, for three francs a month, they had access to the limited store of books which seem so luxurious in Italy. The boy Browning was delighted with his new surroundings, his sole infelicity being his inability to reach the grapes clustering over the trellises; he missed the Austrian band that made music (or noise) for his delectation in Florence, although to compensate for this privation he himself sang louder than ever. In after years Mr. Browning laughingly related this anecdote of his son's childhood: "I was one day playing a delicate piece of Chopin's on the piano, and hearing a loud noise outside, hastily stopped playing when my little boy ran in, and my wife exclaimed: 'How could you leave off playing when Penini brought three drums to accompany you?'"
For all this bloom and beauty in Siena they paid a little less than fifteen francs a week. Soon after their arrival they learned of the shipwreck in which the Marchese and Marchesa d'Ossoli and the little Angelino all perished, and the tragedy deeply impressed Mrs. Browning. "The work that the Marchesa was preparing upon Italy would have been more equal to her faculties than anything she has ever produced," said Mrs. Browning, "her other writings being curiously inferior to the impression made by her conversation."
Before returning to Florence the Brownings passed a week in the town of Siena to visit the pictures and churches, but they found it pathetic to leave the villa, and especially harrowing to their sensibilities to part with the pig. There is consolation, however, for most mortal sorrows, and the Brownings found it in their intense interest in Sienese art. The wonderful pulpit of the Duomo, the work of Niccola Pisano; the font of San Giovanni; the Sodomas, and the Libreria (the work of Pius III, which he built when he was Cardinal, and in which, at the end of the aisle, is a picture of his own elevation to the Papal throne, painted after his death) fascinated their attention. The Brownings found it dazzling to enter this interior, all gold and color, with the most resplendent decorative effects. They followed in the footsteps of Saint Catherine, as do all pilgrims to Siena, and climbed the hill to the Oratorio di Santa Caterina in Fontebranda, and read that inscription: "Here she stood and touched that precious vessel and gift of God, blessed Catherine, who in her life did so many miracles." They lingered, too, in the Cappella Santa Caterina in San Domenico, where Catherine habitually prayed, where she beheld visions and received her mystic revelations. They loitered in the piazza, watching the stars hang over that aerial tower, "Il Mangia," and drove to San Gimignano, with its picturesque medieval atmosphere.
It was in the autumn of 1850 that Tennyson's "In Memoriam," first privately and then anonymously printed, was acknowledged by the poet. The Brownings read extracts from it in the Examiner, and they were deeply moved by it. "Oh, there's a poet!" wrote Mrs. Browning. At last, "by a sort of miracle," they obtained a copy, and Mrs. Browning was carried away with its exquisite touch, its truth and earnestness. "The book has gone to my heart and soul," she says, "I think it full of deep pathos and beauty."
An interesting visitor dropped in at Casa Guidi in the person of a grandson of Goethe; and his mission to Florence, to meet the author of "Paracelsus" and discuss with him the character of the poem, was a tribute to its power. Mrs. Browning, whose poetic ideals were so high, writing to a friend of their guest, rambled on into some allusions to poetic art, and expressed her opinion that all poets should take care to teach the world that poetry is a divine thing. "Rather perish every verse I ever wrote, for one," she said, "than help to drag down an inch that standard of poetry which, for the sake of humanity as well as literature, should be kept high."
In "Aurora Leigh" she expresses the same sentiment in the lines:
"I, who love my art, Would never wish it lower to suit my stature."
Full of affection and interest are Mrs. Browning's letters to her husband's sister, Sarianna, who, with her father, is now living in Hatcham, near London. In the spring of 1852, after passing the winter in Florence, the Brownings set out for England; the plan at first being to go south to Naples, pause at Rome, and then go northward; but this was finally abandoned, and they proceeded directly to Venice, where Mrs. Browning was enchanted with life set in a scenic loveliness of "music and stars."
"I have been between heaven and earth since our arrival in Venice," she writes. "The heaven of it is ineffable. Never have I touched the skirts of so celestial a place. The beauty of the architecture, the silver trails of water between all that gorgeous color and carving, the enchanting silence, the moonlight, the music, the gondolas,—I mix it all up together...."
In the divine beauty of Venetian evenings they sat in the white moonlight in the piazza of San Marco, taking their coffee and the French papers together. Or they would go to the opera, where for a ridiculously small sum they had an entire box to themselves. But while Mrs. Browning longed "to live and die in Venice, and never go away," the climate did not agree with Mr. Browning, and they journeyed on toward Paris, stopping one night at Padua and driving out to Arqua for Petrarca's sake. In Milan Mrs. Browning climbed the three hundred and fifty steps, to the topmost pinnacle of the glorious cathedral. At Como they abandoned the diligence for the boat, sailing through that lovely chain of lakes to Fluelen, and thence to Lucerne, the scenery everywhere impressing Mrs. Browning as being so sublime that she "felt as if standing in the presence of God." From Lucerne they made a detour through Germany, pausing at Strasburg, and arriving in Paris in July. This journey initiated an absence of almost a year and a half from Italy. They had let their apartment, so they were quite free to wander, and they were even considering the possibility of remaining permanently in Paris, whose brilliant intellectual life appealed to them both. After a brief sojourn in the French capital, they went on to England, and they had rather an embarrassment of riches in the number of houses proffered them, for Tennyson begged them to accept the loan of his house and servants at Twickenham, and Joseph Arnould was equally urgent that they should occupy his town house. But they took lodgings, instead, locating in Devonshire Street, and London life proceeds to swallow them up after its own absorbing fashion. They breakfast with Rogers, and pass an evening with the Carlyles; Forster gives a "magnificent dinner" for them; Mrs. Fanny Kemble calls, and sends them tickets for her reading of "Hamlet"; and the Proctors, Mrs. Jameson, and other friends abound. They go to New Cross, Hatcham, to visit Mr. Browning's father and sister, where the little Penini "is taken into adoration" by his grandfather. Mrs. Browning's sisters show her every affection, and her brothers come; but her father, in reply to her own and her husband's letter, simply sends back to her, with their seals unbroken, all the letters she had written to him from Italy. "So there's the end," she says; "I cannot, of course, write again. God takes it all into His own hands, and I wait." The warm affection of her sisters cheered her, Mrs. Surtees Cook (Henrietta Barrett) coming up from Somersetshire for a week's visit, and her sister Arabel being invited with her. It was during this sojourn in London that Bayard Taylor, poet and critic, and afterward American Minister Plenipotentiary to Germany, called upon the Brownings, bringing a letter of introduction from Hillard.
The poet's wife impressed Taylor as almost a spirit figure, with her pallor and slender grace, and the little Penini, "a blue-eyed, golden-haired boy, babbling his little sentences in Italian," strayed in like a sunbeam. While Taylor was with them, Mr. Kenyon called, and after his departure Browning remarked to his guest: "There goes one of the most splendid men living,—a man so noble in his friendship, so lavish in his hospitality, so large-hearted and benevolent, that he deserves to be known all over the world as Kenyon the Magnificent."
The poets were overwhelmed with London hospitalities, and as Mrs. Browning gave her maid, Wilson, leave of absence to visit her own family, the care of little Pen fell upon her. He was in a state of "deplorable grief" for his nurse, "and after all," laughed Mrs. Browning, "the place of nursery maid is more suitable to me than that of poetess (or even poet's wife) in this obstreperous London."
In the late September the Brownings crossed to Paris, Carlyle being their traveling companion, and after an effort to secure an apartment near the Madeleine, they finally established themselves in the Avenue des Champs Elysees (No. 128), where they had pretty, sunny rooms, tastefully furnished, with the usual French lavishness in mirrors and clocks,—all for two hundred francs a month, which was hardly more than they had paid for the dreary Grosvenor Street lodgings in London. Mrs. Browning was very responsive to that indefinable exhilaration of atmosphere that pervades the French capital, and the little Penini was charmed with the gayety and brightness. Mrs. Browning enjoyed the restaurant dining, a la carte, "and mixing up one's dinner with heaps of newspapers, and the 'solution' by Emile de Girardin," who suggested, it seems, "that the next President of France should be a tailor." Meantime she writes to a friend that "the 'elf' is flourishing in all good fairyhood, with a scarlet rose leaf on each cheek." They found themselves near neighbors of Beranger, and frequently saw him promenading the avenue in a white hat, and they learned that he lived very quietly and "kept out of scrapes, poetical and political." Mrs. Browning notes that they would like to know Beranger, were the stars propitious, and that no accredited letter of introduction to him would have been refused, but that they could not make up their minds to go to his door and introduce themselves as vagrant minstrels. To George Sand they brought a letter from Mazzini, and although they heard she "had taken vows against seeing strangers," Mrs. Browning declared she would not die, if she could help it, without meeting the novelist who had so captivated her. Mazzini's letter, with one from themselves, was sent to George Sand through mutual friends, and the following reply came:
Madame, j'aurai l'honneur de vous recevoir Dimanche prochain, rue Racine, 3. C'est le seul jour que je puisse passer chez moi; et encore je n'en suis pas absolument certaine—mais je ferai tellement mon possible, que ma bonne etoile m'y aidera peut-etre un peu. Agreez mille remerciments de coeur ainsi que Monsieur Browning, que j'espere voir avec vous, pour la sympathie que vous m'accordez.
PARIS, 12 fevrier, 1852.
The visit must have been mutually satisfactory, for it was repeated two or three times, and they found her simple, "without a shade of affectation or consciousness." Another pleasure they had was in meeting Lamartine, who took the initiative in asking to be allowed to call on them. After their arrival in Paris Carlyle passed several evenings with them, and Mrs. Browning felt, with her husband, that he was one of the most interesting of men, "highly picturesque" in conversation. Her sympathetic insight gave her always the key and the clue to character, and perhaps no one ever read Carlyle more truly than she, when she interpreted his bitterness only as melancholy, and his scorn as sensibility.
The Brownings had not been long in Paris before they were invited to a reception at Lady Elgin's, where they met Madame Mohl, who at once cordially urged their coming to her "evenings," to meet her French celebrities. Lady Elgin was domiciled in the old Faubourg Saint Germain, and received every Monday evening from eight to twelve, sans facon, people being in morning dress, and being served with simple refreshment of tea and cakes. Lady Elgin expressed the hope that the Brownings would come to her on every one of these evenings, Mrs. Browning said that she had expected "to see Balzac's duchesses and hommes de lettres on all sides," but she found it less notable, though very agreeable. The elder Browning and his daughter pay a visit to them, greatly to Mrs. Browning's enjoyment. At this time they half contemplated living permanently in Paris, if it seemed that Mrs. Browning could endure the climate, and she records, during the visit of her husband's father and sister, that if they do remain in Paris they hope to induce these beloved members of the family to also establish themselves there. As it turned out, the Brownings passed only this one winter in the French capital, but the next spring Mr. Browning (pere) and his daughter Sarianna took up their residence in Paris, where they remained during the remainder of his life. Mrs. Browning was always deeply attached to her husband's sister. "Sarianna is full of accomplishment and admirable sense," she wrote of her, and the visit of both gave her great pleasure. The coup d'etat took place early in December, but they felt no alarm. Mrs. Browning expressed her great faith in the French people, and declared the talk about "military despotism" to be all nonsense. The defect she saw in M. Thiers was "a lack of breadth of view, which helped to bring the situation to a dead lock, on which the French had no choice than to sweep the board clean and begin again."
It was during this early winter, with French politics and French society and occasional spectacles and processions extending from the Carrousel to the Arc de l'Etoile, that Browning wrote that essay on Shelley, which his publisher of that time, Mr. Moxon, had requested to accompany a series of Shelley letters which had been discovered, but which were afterward found to be fraudulent. The edition was at once suppressed; but a few copies had already gone out, and, as Professor Dowden says, "The essay is interesting as Browning's only considerable piece of prose;... for him the poet of 'Prometheus Unbound' was not that beautiful and ineffectual angel of Matthew Arnold's fancy, beating in the void his luminous wings. A great moral purpose looked forth from Shelley's work, as it does from all lofty works of art." It was "the dream of boyhood," Browning tells us, to render justice to Shelley; and he availed himself of this opportunity with alluring eagerness. His interpretation of Shelley is singularly noble and in accord with all the great spiritual teachings of his own poetic work. Browning's plea that there is no basis for any adequate estimate of Shelley, who "died before his youth was ended," cannot but commend its justice; and he urges that in any measurement of Shelley as a man he must be contemplated "at his ultimate spiritual stature" and not judged by the mistakes of ten years before when in his entire immaturity of character.
How all that infinite greatness of spirit and almost divine breadth of comprehension that characterize Robert Browning reveal themselves in this estimate of Shelley. It is seeing human errors and mistakes as God sees them,—the temporary faults, defects, imperfections of the soul on its onward way to perfection. This was the attitude of Browning's profoundest convictions regarding human life.
"Eternal process moving on; From state to state the spirit walks."
This achievement of the divine ideal for man is not within the possibilities of the brief sojourn on earth, but what does the transition called death do for man but to
"Interpose at the difficult moment, snatch Saul, the mistake, Saul, the failure, the ruin he seems now,—and bid him awake From the dream, the probation, the prelude, to find himself set Clear and safe in new light and new life,—a new harmony yet To be run, and continued, and ended—who knows?—or endure! The man taught enough by life's dream, of the rest to make sure."
Browning's message in its completeness was invariably that which is imaged, too, in these lines from Mrs. Browning's "Aurora Leigh":
"And take for a worthier stage the soul itself, Its shifting fancies and celestial lights."
For it is only in this drama of the infinite life that the spiritual man can be tested. It was from the standpoint of an actor on this celestial stage that Browning considered Shelley. In the entire range of Browning's art the spiritual man is imaged as a complex and individualized spark of the divine force. He is seen for a flitting moment on his way toward a divine destiny.
Professor Hall Griffin states as his belief that Browning's paper was to some degree inspired by that of Joseph Milsand on himself, which appeared in August, 1851, in the Revue des Deux Mondes in which Milsand commended Browning's work "as pervaded by an intense belief in the importance of the individual soul."
To Browning this winter was enchanted by the initiation of his friendship with Milsand, the distinguished French scholar and critic, who had already made a name as a philosophic thinker and had published a book on Ruskin (L'Esthetique Anglaise), and who was a discerner of spirits in poetic art as well. About the time that "Paracelsus" appeared, Milsand had seen an extract from the poem that captivated him, and he at once sent for the volume. He had also read, with the deepest interest, Browning's "Christmas Eve and Easter Day." He was contributing to the Revue des Deux Mondes two papers on La Poesie Anglaise depuis Byron, the first of which, on Tennyson, had appeared the previous August. Milsand was about completing the second paper of this series (on Browning), and it happened just at this time that Miss Mitford's "Recollections of a Literary Life" was published, in which, writing of the Brownings, she had told the story of that tragic death of Mrs. Browning's brother Edward, who had been drowned at Torquay. In these days, when, as Emerson rhymes the fact,
"Every thought is public, Every nook is wide, The gossips spread each whisper And the gods from side to side,"
it is a little difficult to quite comprehend, even in comprehending Mrs. Browning's intense sensitiveness and the infinite sacredness of this grief, why she should have been so grieved at Miss Mitford's tender allusion to an accident that was, by its very nature, public, and which must have been reported in the newspapers of the day. Mrs. Browning was always singularly free from any morbid states, from any tendency to the idee fixe, to which a semi-invalid condition is peculiarly and pardonably liable; but she said, in an affectionate letter to Miss Mitford:
"I have lived heart to heart (for instance) with my husband these five years: I have never yet spoken out, in a whisper even, what is in me; never yet could find heart or breath; never yet could bear to hear a word of reference from his lips."
It is said there are no secrets in heaven, and in that respect, at least, the twentieth century is not unlike the celestial state; and it is almost as hard a task for the imagination to comprehend the reserve in all personal matters that characterized the mid-nineteenth century as it would be to enter into absolute comprehension of the medieval mind; but Mrs. Browning's own pathetic deprecation of her feelings regarding this is its own passport to the sympathy of the reader. To Miss Mitford's reply, full of sympathetic comprehension and regret, Mrs. Browning replied that she understood, "and I thank you," she added, "and love you, which is better. Now, let us talk of reasonable things." For Mrs. Browning had that rare gift and grace of instantly closing the chapter, and turning the page, and ceasing from all allusion to any subject of regret, after the inevitable reference of the moment had been made. She had the mental energy and the moral buoyancy to drop the matter, and this characteristic reveals how normal she was, and how far from any morbidness.
Milsand, with a delicacy that Robert Browning never forgot, came to him to ask his counsel regarding the inclusion of this tragic accident that had left such traces on his wife's genius and character (traces that are revealed in immortal expression in her poem, "De Profundis," written some years later), and Browning was profoundly touched by his consideration. Grasping both Milsand's hands, he exclaimed, "Only a Frenchman could have done this!" A friendship initiated under circumstances so unusual, and with such reverent intuition of Mrs. Browning's feelings, could not but hold its place apart to them both.
The Brownings found Paris almost as ineffable in beauty in the early spring as was their Florence. "It's rather dangerous to let the charm of Paris work," laughed Mrs. Browning; "the honey will be clogging our feet soon, and we shall find it difficult to go away."
They had a delightful winter socially, as well; they went to Ary Scheffer's and heard Madame Viardot, then in the height of her artistic fame; George Sand sent them tickets for the premiere of "Les Vacances de Pandolphe"; they went to the Vaudeville to see the "Dame aux Camellias," of which Mrs. Browning said that she did not agree with the common cry about its immorality. To her it was both moral and human, "but I never will go to see it again," she says, "for it almost broke my heart. The exquisite acting, the too literal truth to nature...." They met Paul de Musset, but missed his brother Alfred that winter, whose poems they both cared for.
The elder Browning retained through his life that singular talent for caricature drawing that had amused and fascinated his son in the poet's childhood; and during his visit to the Brownings in Paris he had produced many of these drawings which became the delight of his grandson as well. The Paris streets furnished him with some inimitable suggestions, and Robert Barrett Browning, to this day, preserves many of these keen and humorous and extremely clever drawings of his grandfather. Thierry, the historian, who was suffering from blindness, sent to the Brownings a request that they would call on him, with which they immediately complied, and they were much interested in his views on France. The one disappointment of that season was in not meeting Victor Hugo, whose fiery hostility to the new regime caused it to be more expedient for him to reside quite beyond possible sight of the gilded dome of the Invalides.
In June the Brownings returned to London, where they domiciled themselves in Welbeck Street (No. 58), Mrs. Browning's sisters both being near, Mrs. Surtees Cook having established herself only twenty doors away, and Miss Arabel Barrett being in close proximity in Wimpole Street. They were invited to Kenyon's house at Wimbledon, where Landor was a guest, whom Mrs. Browning found "looking as young as ever, and full of passionate energy," and who talked with characteristic exaggeration of Louis Napoleon and of the President of the French nation. Landor "detested" the one and "loathed" the other; and as he did not accept Talleyrand's ideal of the use of language, he by no means concealed these sentiments. Mazzini immediately sought the Brownings, his "pale, spiritual face" shining, and his "intense eyes full of melancholy illusions." He brought Mrs. Carlyle with him, Mrs. Browning finding her "full of thought, and feeling, and character." Miss Mulock, who had then written "The Ogilvies," and had also read her title clear to some poetic recognition, was in evidence that season, as were Mr. and Mrs. Monckton Milnes, and Fanny Kemble was also a brilliant figure in the social life. Nor was the London of that day apparently without a taste for the sorceress and the soothsayer, for no less a personage than Lord Stanhope was, it seems, showing to the elect the "spirits of the sun" in a crystal ball, which Lady Blessington had bought from an Egyptian magician and had sold again. Lady Blessington declared she had no understanding of the use of it, but it was on record that the initiated could therein behold Oremus, Spirit of the Sun. Both the crystal ball and the seers were immensely sought, notwithstanding the indignation expressed by Mr. Chorley, who regarded the combination of social festivities and crystal gazing as eminently scandalous. Which element he considered the more dangerous is not on the palimpsest that records the story of these days. Lord Stanhope invited the Brownings to these occult occasions of intermingled attractions, and Mrs. Browning writes: "For my part, I endured both luncheon and spiritual phenomena with great equanimity." An optician of London took advantage of the popular demand and offered a fine assortment of crystal ball spheres, at prices which quite restricted their sale to the possessors of comfortable rent-rolls, and Lord Stanhope asserted that a great number of persons resorted to these balls to divine the future, without the courage to confess it. One wonders as to whom "the American Corinna, in yellow silk," in London, that season, could have been?
The Brownings were invited to a country house in Farnham, to meet Charles Kingsley, who impressed them with his genial and tender kindness, and while they thought some of his social views wild and theoretical, they loved his earnestness and originality, and believed he could not be "otherwise than good and noble." It was during this summer (according to William Michael Rossetti) that Browning and Dante Gabriel Rossetti first met, Rossetti coming to call on them in company with William Allingham. On August 30, from Chapel House, Twickenham, Tennyson wrote to Mrs. Browning of the birth of his son, Hallam, to which she replied:
"Thank you and congratulate you from my heart. May God bless you all three.... Will you say to dear Mrs. Tennyson how deeply I sympathize in her happiness...."
To this letter Browning added a postscript saying:
"How happy I am in your happiness, and in the assurance that it is greater than even you can quite know yet. God bless, dear Tennyson, you and all yours."
Tennyson wrote again to Mrs. Browning, saying, "... How very grateful your little note and Browning's epilogue made me." And he signs himself "Ever yours and your husband's." There was a brilliant christening luncheon at the home of Monckton Milnes, "and his baby," notes Mrs. Browning, "was made to sweep, in India muslin and Brussels lace, among a very large circle of admiring guests." The Brownings were especially invited to bring their little Penini with them, "and he behaved like an angel, everybody said," continued his mother, "and looked very pretty, I said myself; only he disgraced us all at last by refusing to kiss the baby on the ground of its being 'troppo grande.'"
To Mrs. Tennyson's note of invitation to the Brownings to attend the christening of their child, Mrs. Browning replied that they had planned to leave England before that date; "but you offer us an irresistible motive for staying, in spite of fogs and cold," she continued, "and we would not miss the christening for the world." At the last, however, Mrs. Browning was unable to go, so that the poet went alone. After the little ceremony Browning took the boy in his arms and tossed him, while Tennyson, looking on, exclaimed: "Ah, that is as good as a glass of champagne for him."
Florence Nightingale was a not infrequent visitor of the Brownings that summer, and she always followed her calls by a gift of masses of flowers. While "Morte d'Arthur" had been written more than ten years previously, Tennyson was now evolving the entire plan of the "Idylls of the King." Coventry Patmore, who brought the manuscript copy of his own poems, published later, for Mr. Browning to read, mentioned to the poets that Tennyson was writing a collection of poems on Arthur, which were to be united by their subject, after the manner of "In Memoriam," which project interested Mrs. Browning greatly. "The work will be full of beauty, I don't doubt," she said.
Ruskin invited the Brownings to Denmark Hill to see his Turners, and they found the pictures "divine." They liked Ruskin very much, finding him "gentle, yet earnest."
During this London sojourn Mr. Browning's old friend, William Johnson Fox, who had first encouraged the young poet by praising "not a little, which praise comforted me not a little," the verses of his "Incondita"; who had written a favorable review of "Pauline"; who had found a publisher for "Paracelsus," and had introduced the poet to Macready, again appears, and writes to his daughter that he has had "a charming hour" with the Brownings, and that he is more fascinated than ever with Mrs. Browning. "She talked lots of George Sand, and so beautifully, and she silver-electroplated Louis Napoleon!" Mr. Fox adds: "They came in to their lodgings late at night, and R. B. says that in the morning twilight he saw three pictures on the bedroom wall, and speculated as to whom they might be. Light gradually showed the first to be Beatrice Cenci. 'Good,' said he; 'in a poetic region.' More light; the second, Lord Byron! Who can the third be? And what think you it was? Your (Fox's) sketch (engraved chalk portrait) of me?' He made quite a poem and picture of the affair. She seems much better; and the young Florentine was gracious."
In November the Brownings again left London for Florence, pausing a week in Paris on the way, where they witnessed the picturesque pomp of the reception of Louis Napoleon, the day being brilliant with sunshine, and the hero of the hour producing an impression by riding entirely alone, with at least ten paces between himself and the nearest of his escort, till even Charlotte Cushman, sitting at the side of Mrs. Browning, watching the spectacle, declared this to be "fine." The "young Florentine" was in a state of ecstasy, which he expressed in mingled French and Italian.