They journeyed to Florence by the Mont Cenis, stopping a week in Genoa, where Mrs. Browning lay ill on her sofa; but the warmth of the Italian sunshine soon restored her, and for two days before they left, she was able to walk all about the beautiful old city. They visited together the Andrea Doria palace, and enjoyed sauntering in a sunshine that was like that of June days dropped into the heart of November. They were delighted to hear the sound of their "dear Italian" again, and proceeded by diligence to Florence, where they took possession of their Casa Guidi home, which looked, wrote Mrs. Browning to her sister-in-law, as if they had only left it yesterday. The little Penini was "in a state of complete agitation" on entering Florence, through having heard so much talk of it, and expressed his emotion by repeated caresses and embraces. Mrs. Browning shared the same amazement at the contrast of climate between Turin and Genoa that twentieth-century travelers experience; Turin having been so cold that they were even obliged to have a fire all night, while at Genoa they were "gasping for breath, with all the windows and doors open, blue skies burning overhead, and no air stirring." But this very heat was life-giving to Mrs. Browning as they lingered on the terraces, gazing on the beautiful bay encircled by its sweep of old marble palaces. She even climbed half-way up the lighthouse for the view, resting there while Browning climbed to the top, for that incomparable outlook which every visitor endeavors to enjoy. In Florence there were the "divine sunsets" over the Arno, and Penini's Italian nurse rushing in to greet the child, exclaiming, "Dio mio, come e bellino!" They "caught up their ancient traditions" just where they left them, Mrs. Browning observes, though Mr. Browning, "demoralized by the boulevards," missed the stir and intensity of Parisian life. They found Powers, the sculptor, changing his location, and Mr. Lytton (the future Earl), who was an attache at the English Embassy, became a frequent and a welcome visitor. In a letter to Mr. Kenyon Mrs. Browning mentions that Mr. Lytton is interested in manifestations of spiritualism, and had informed her that, to his father's great satisfaction (his father being Sir E. Bulwer Lytton), these manifestations had occurred at Knebworth, the Lytton home in England. Tennyson's brother, who had married an Italian lady, was in Florence, and the American Minister, Mr. Marsh. With young Lytton at this time, Poetry was an article of faith, and nothing would have seemed to him more improbable, even had any of his clairvoyants foretold it, than his future splendid career as Viceroy of India.
Mrs. Browning was reading Prudhon that winter, and also Swedenborg, Lamartine, and other of the French writers. Browning was writing from time to time many of the lyrics that appear in the Collection entitled "Men and Women," while on Mrs. Browning had already dawned the plan of "Aurora Leigh." They read the novel of Dumas, Diane de Lys, Browning's verdict on it being that it was clever, but outrageous as to the morals; and Mrs. Browning rejoiced greatly in Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," saying of Mrs. Stowe, "No woman ever had such a success, such a fame." All in all, this winter of 1852-1853 was a very happy one to the poets, what with their work, their friends, playing with the little Wiedemann (Penini), the names seeming interchangeably used, and their reading, which included everything from poetry and romance to German mysticism, social economics, and French criticism. Mrs. Browning found one of the best apologies for Louis Napoleon in Lamartine's work on the Revolution of '48; and she read, with equal interest, that of Louis Blanc on the same period. In April "Colombe's Birthday" was produced at the Haymarket Theater in London, the role of the heroine being taken by Miss Helen Faucit, afterward Lady Martin. The author had no financial interest in this production, which ran for two weeks, and was spoken of by London critics as holding the house in fascinated attention, with other appreciative phrases.
Mrs. Browning watches the drama of Italian politics, and while she regarded Mazzini as noble, she also felt him to be unwise, a verdict that time has since justified. "We see a great deal of Frederick Tennyson," she writes; "Robert is very fond of him, and so am I. He too writes poems, and prints them, though not for the public." Their mutual love of music was a strong bond between Browning and Mr. Tennyson, who had a villa on the Fiesolean slope, with a large hall in which he was reported to "sit in the midst of his forty fiddlers."
For the coming summer they had planned a retreat into Giotto's country, the Casentino, but they finally decided on Bagni di Lucca again, where they remained from July till October, Mr. Browning writing "In a Balcony" during this villeggiatura. Before leaving Florence they enjoyed an idyllic day at Pratolina with Mrs. Kinney, the wife of the American Minister to the Court of Turin, and the mother of Edmund Clarence Stedman. The royal residences of the old Dukes of Tuscany were numerous, but among them all, that at Pratolina, so associated with Francesco Primo and Bianca Capella, is perhaps the most interesting, and here Mrs. Kinney drove her guests, where they picnicked on a hillside which their hostess called the Mount of Vision because Mrs. Browning stood on it; Mr. Browning spoke of the genius of his wife, "losing himself in her glory," said Mrs. Kinney afterward, while Mrs. Browning lay on the grass and slept. The American Minister and Mrs. Kinney were favorite guests in Casa Guidi, where they passed with the Brownings the last evening before the poets set out for their summer retreat. Mrs. Browning delighted in Mr. Kinney's views of Italy, and his belief in its progress and its comprehension of liberty. The youthful Florentine, Penini, was delighted at the thought of the change, and his devotion to his mother was instanced one night when Browning playfully refused to give his wife a letter, and Pen, taking the byplay seriously, fairly smothered her in his clinging embrace, exclaiming, "Never mind, mine darling Ba!" He had caught up his mother's pet name, "Ba," and often used it. It was this name to which she refers in the poem beginning,
"I have a name, a little name, Uncadenced for the ear."
Beside the Pratolina excursion, Mr. Lytton gave a little reception for them before the Florentine circle dissolved for the summer, asking a few friends to meet the Brownings at his villa on Bellosguardo, where they all sat out on the terrace, and Mrs. Browning made the tea, and they feasted on nectar and ambrosia in the guise of cream and strawberries.
"Such a view!" said Mrs. Browning of that evening. "Florence dissolving in the purple of the hills, and the stars looking on." Mrs. Browning's love for Florence grew stronger with every year. That it was her son's native city was to her a deeply significant fact, for playfully as they called him the "young Florentine," there was behind the light jest a profound recognition of the child's claim to his native country. Still, with all this response to the enchantment of Florence, they were planning to live in Paris, after another winter (which they wished to pass in Rome), as the elder Browning and his daughter Sarianna were now to live in the French capital, and Robert Browning was enamored of the brilliant, abounding life, and the art, and splendor of privilege, and opportunity in Paris. "I think it too probable that I may not be able to bear two successive winters in the North," said Mrs. Browning, "but in that case it will be easy to take a flight for a few winter months into Italy, and we shall regard Paris, where Robert's father and sister are waiting for us, as our fixed place of residence." This plan, however, was never carried out, as Italy came to lay over them a still deeper spell, which it was impossible to break. Mr. Lytton, with whom Mrs. Browning talked of all these plans and dreams that evening on his terrace, had just privately printed his drama, "Clytemnestra," which Mrs. Browning found "full of promise," although "too ambitious" because after Aeschylus. But this young poet, afterward to be so widely known in the realm of poetry as "Owen Meredith," and as Lord Lytton in the realm of diplomacy and statesmanship, impressed her at the time as possessing an incontestable "faculty" in poetry, that made her expect a great deal from him in the future. She invited him to visit them in their sylvan retreat that summer at Bagni di Lucca, an invitation that he joyously accepted. Some great savant, who was "strong in veritable Chinese," found his way to Casa Guidi, as most of the wandering minstrels of the time did, and "nearly assassinated" the mistress of the menage with an interminable analysis of a Japanese novel. Mr. Lytton, who was present, declared she grew paler and paler every moment, which she afterward asserted was not because of sympathy with the heroine of this complex tale! But this formidable scholar had a passport to Mrs. Browning's consideration by bringing her a little black profile of her beloved Isa, which gave "the air of her head," and then, said Mrs. Browning, laughingly, "how could I complain of a man who rather flattered me than otherwise, and compared me to Isaiah?"
But at last, after the middle of July, what with poets, and sunsets from terraces, and savants, and stars, they really left their Florence "dissolving in her purple hills" behind them, and bestowed themselves in Casa Tolomei, at the Baths, where a row of plane trees stood before the door, in which the cicale sang all day, and solemn, mysterious mountains kept watch all day and night. There was a garden, lighted by the fireflies at night, and Penini mistook the place for Eden. His happiness overflowed in his prayers, and he thriftily united the petition that God would "mate him dood" with the supplication that God would also "tate him on a dontey," thus uniting all possible spiritual and temporal aspirations. The little fellow was wild with happiness in this enchanted glade, where the poets were "safe among mountains, shut in with a row of seven plane-trees joined at top." Mr. Browning was still working on his lyrics, of which his wife had seen very few. "We neither of us show our work to the other till it is finished," she said. She recognized that an artist must work in solitude until the actual result is achieved.
It seems that Mr. Chorley in London had fallen into depressed spirits that summer, indulging in the melancholy meditations that none of his friends loved him, beyond seeing in him a "creature to be eaten," and that, having furnished them with a banquet, their attentions to him were over (a most regrettable state of mind, one may observe, en passant, and one of those spiritual pitfalls which not only Mr. Chorley in particular, but all of us in general would do particularly well to avoid). The letter that Mrs. Browning wrote to him wonderfully reveals her all-comprehending sympathy and her spiritual buoyancy and intellectual poise. "You are very wrong," she says to him, "and I am very right to upbraid you. I take the pen from Robert—he would take it if I did not. We scramble a little for the pen which is to tell you this, and be dull in the reiteration, rather than not to instruct you properly.... I quite understand how a whole life may seem rumpled and creased—torn for the moment; only you will live it smooth again, dear Mr. Chorley, take courage. You have time and strength and good aims; and human beings have been happy with much less.... I think we belied ourselves to you in England. If you knew how, at that time, Robert was vexed and worn! why, he was not the same, even to me!... But then and now believe that he loved and loves you. Set him down as a friend, as somebody to rest on, after all; and don't fancy that because we are away here in the wilderness (which blossoms as the rose, to one of us, at least) we may not be full of affectionate thoughts and feelings toward you in your different sort of life in London." The lovely spirit goes on to remind Mr. Chorley that they have a spare bedroom "which opens of itself at the thought of you," and that if he can trust himself so far from home, she begs him to try it for their sakes. "Come and look in our faces, and learn us more by heart, and see whether we are not two friends?"
Surely, that life was rich, whatever else it might be denied, that had Elizabeth Browning for a friend. Her genius for friendship was not less marvelous, nor less to be considered, than her genius as a poet. Indeed, truly speaking, the one, in its ideal fullness and completeness, comprehends the other.
The summer days among the beautiful hills, and by the green, rushing river, were made aboundingly happy to the Brownings by the presence of their friends, the Storys, who shared these vast solitudes. The Storys had a villa perched on the top of the hill, just above the Brownings', the terrace shaded with vines, and the great mountains towering all around them, while a swift mountain brook swept by under an arched bridge, its force turning picturesque mills far down the valley. Under the shadow of the chestnut trees fringing its banks, Shelley had once pushed his boat. "Of society," wrote Story to Lowell, "there is none we care to meet but the Brownings, and with them we have constant and delightful intercourse, interchanging long evenings, two or three times a week, and driving and walking whenever we meet. They are so simple, unaffected, and sympathetic. Both are busily engaged in writing, he on a volume of lyrics, and she on a tale or novel in verse."
This "tale" must have been "Aurora Leigh." The wives of the poet and the sculptor held hilarious intercourse while going back and forth between each other's houses on donkey-back, with an enjoyment hardly eclipsed by that of Penini himself, whose prayer that God would let him ride on "dontey-back" was so aboundingly granted that the child might well believe in the lavishness of divine mercies. Browning and Story walked beside and obediently held the reins of their wives' steeds, that no mishap might occur. How the picture of these Arcadian days, in those vast leafy solitudes, peopled only by gods and muses, the attendant "elementals" of these choice spirits, flashes out through more than the half century that has passed since those days of their joyous intercourse. There was a night when Story went alone to take tea with the Brownings, staying till nearly midnight, and Browning accompanied him home in the mystic moonlight. Mrs. Browning, who apparently shared her little son's predilections for the donkey as a means of transportation, would go for a morning ride, Browning walking beside her as slowly as possible, to keep pace with the donkey's degree of speed.
Into this Arcady came, by some untraced dispensation of the gods, a French master of recitations, who had taught Rachel, and had otherwise allied himself with the great. M. Alexandre brought his welcome with him, in his delightful recitations from the poets. Mr. Lytton, having accepted Mrs. Browning's invitation given to him on his Bellosguardo terrace, now appeared; and the Storys and the Brownings organized a festa, in true Italian spirit, in an excursion they should all make to Prato Fiortito.
Prato Fiortito is six miles from Bagni di Lucca, perpendicularly up and down, "but such a vision of divine scenery," said Mrs. Browning. High among the mountains, Bagni di Lucca is yet surrounded by higher peaks of the Apennines. The journey to Prato Fiortito is like going up and down a wall, the only path for the donkeys being in the beds of the torrents that cut their way down in the spring.
Here, after "glorious climbing," in which Mrs. Browning distinguished herself no less than the others, they arrived at the little old church, set amid majestic limestone mountains and embowered in purple shade. Here they feasted, Penini overcome with delight, and on shawls spread under the great chestnut trees Mrs. Browning and Mrs. Story were made luxuriously comfortable, while they all talked and read, M. Alexandre reciting from the French dramatists, and Lytton reading from his "Clytemnestra." The luncheon was adorned by a mass of wild strawberries, picked on the spot, by Browning, Story, Lytton, and Alexandre, while the ladies co-operated in the industry at this honestly earned feast by assisting to hull the berries. The bottle of cream and package of sugar tucked away in the picnic basket added all that heart could desire to this ambrosial luncheon. Mrs. Story, whom Mrs. Browning described as "a sympathetic, graceful woman, fresh and innocent in face and thought," was a most agreeable companion; and she and Mrs. Browning frequently exchanged feminine gossip over basins of strawberries and milk in each other's houses, for strawberries abounded in these hills. "If a tree is felled in the forests," said Mrs. Browning, "strawberries spring up just as mushrooms might, and the peasants sell them for just nothing."
One night when the Brownings were having tea with the Storys, the talk turned on Hawthorne. Story, of course, knew the great romancer, whom the Brownings had not then met and about whom they were curious. "Hawthorne is a man who talks with a pen," said Story; "he does not open socially to his intimate friends any more than he does to strangers. It isn't his way to converse." Mrs. Browning had then just been reading the "Blithedale Romance," in which she had sought unavailingly, it seems, for some more personal clue to the inner life of its author.
On a brilliant August day the Brownings and the Storys fared forth on a grand excursion on donkey-back, to Benabbia, a hilltown, perched on one of the peaks. Above it on the rocks is a colossal cross, traced by some thunder-bolt of the gods, cut in the solid stone. From this excursion they all returned after dark, in terror of their lives lest the donkeys slip down the sheer precipices; but the scenery was "exquisite, past all beauty." Mrs. Browning was spell-bound with its marvelous sublimity, as they looked around "on the world of innumerable mountains bound faintly with the gray sea, and not a human habitation."
Mrs. Browning was then reading the poems of Coventry Patmore, just published, of which Browning had read the manuscript in London in the previous year. The poems of Alexander Smith had also appeared at this time, and in him Mrs. Browning found "an opulence of imagery," but a defect as to the intellectual part of poetry. With her characteristic tolerance, she instanced his youth in plea of this defect, and said that his images were "flowers thrown to him by the gods, gods beautiful and fragrant, but having no root either in Etna or Olympus." Enamored, as ever, of novels, she was also reading "Vilette," which she thought a strong story, though lacking charm, and Mrs. Gaskell's "Ruth," which pleased her greatly.
With no dread of death, Mrs. Browning had a horror of the "rust of age," the touch of age "which is the thickening of the mortal mask between souls. Why talk of age," she would say, "when we are all young in soul and heart?... Be sure that it's highly moral to be young as long as possible. Women who dress 'suitably to their years' (that is, as hideously as possible) are a disgrace to their sex, aren't they now?" she would laughingly declare.
This summer in the Apennines at Bagni di Lucca had been a fruitful one to Browning in his poetic work. It became one of constant development, and, as Edmund Gosse points out, "of clarification and increasing selection." He had already written many of his finest lyrics, "Any Wife to Any Husband," "The Guardian Angel," and "Saul"; and in these and succeeding months he produced that miracle of beauty, the poem called "The Flight of the Duchess"; and "A Grammarian's Funeral," "The Statue and the Bust," "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," "Fra Lippo Lippi," and "Andrea del Sarto." To Milsand, Browning wrote that he was at work on lyrics "with more music and painting than before."
The idyllic summer among the grand chestnut trees came to an end, as summers always do, and October found the Brownings again in Casa Guidi, though preparing to pass the winter in Rome. Verdi had just completed his opera of "Trovatore," which was performed at the Pergola in Florence, and the poets found it "very passionate and dramatic."
In November they fared forth for Rome, "an exquisite journey of eight days," chronicled Mrs. Browning, "seeing the great monastery and triple church of Assisi, and that wonderful passion of waters at Terni."
It was the picturesque Rome of the popes that still remained in that winter, and the Eternal City was aglow with splendid festivals and processions and with artistic interest. The Brownings caught something of its spirit, even as they came within view of the colossal dome of St. Peter's, and they entered the city in the highest spirits, "Robert and Penini singing," related Mrs. Browning, "actually, for the child was radiant and flushed with the continual change of air and scene." The Storys had engaged an apartment for them, and they found "lighted fires and lamps," and all comfort.
That winter of 1853-1854 still stands out in the Roman panorama as one of exceptional brilliancy. There was a galaxy of artists,—Story, who had already won fame on two continents; William Page, who believed he had discovered the secret of Titian's coloring; Crawford, and "young Leighton," as Mrs. Browning called the future president of the Royal Academy; Gibson, and his brilliant pupil, Harriet Hosmer; Fisher, who painted a portrait of Browning, and also of Penini, for his own use to exhibit in London. It was during this winter that Miss Hosmer took the cast of the "Clasped Hands" of the Brownings, which was put into bronze, and which must always remain a work of the most tender interest. Mrs. Browning was very fond of "Hatty," as she called her, and in a letter to her Isa she described a pretty scene when Lady Marian Alford, the daughter of the Duke of Northampton, knelt before the girl sculptor and placed on her finger a ring of diamonds surrounding a ruby. Browning's early friend, M. de Ripert-Monclar, to whom he had dedicated his "Paracelsus," and Lockhart, were also in Rome; and Leighton was completing his great canvas of Cimabue's Madonna carried in procession through the streets of Florence.
The Brownings were domiciled in the Bocca di Leone, while the Storys were in the Piazza di Spagna; Thackeray and his two daughters were close at hand, in and out at the Brownings', with his "talk of glittering dust swept out of salons." There were Hans Christian Andersen, and Fanny Kemble, with her sister, Mrs. Sartoris, and Lady Oswald, a sister of Lord Elgin. Thackeray's daughter, Miss Anne Thackeray (now Lady Ritchie), still finds vivid her girlish memory of Mrs. Browning,—"a slight figure in a thin black gown and the unpretentious implements of her magic," by her sofa, on a little table. Lady Ritchie turns back to her diary of that winter to find in it another of her early impressions of Mrs. Browning, "in soft, falling flounces of black silk, with her heavy curls drooping, and a thin gold chain around her neck." This chain held a tiny locket of crystal set in coils of gold, which she had worn from childhood, not at all as an ornament, but as a little souvenir. On her death Mr. Browning put into it some of her hair, and gave the treasured relic to Kate Field, from whom it came later into the possession of the writer of this book. Lady Ritchie recalls one memorable evening that season in the salon of Mrs. Sartoris, when the guests assembled in the lofty Roman drawing-room, full of "flowers and light, of comfort and color." She recalls how the swinging lamps were lighted, shedding a soft glow; how the grand piano stood open, and there was music, and "tables piled with books," and flowers everywhere. The hostess was in a pearl satin gown with flowing train, and sat by a round table reading aloud from poems of Mr. Browning, when the poet himself was announced, "and as she read, in her wonderful muse-like way, he walked in." All the lively company were half laughing and half protesting, and Mrs. Kemble, with her regal air, called him to her side, to submit to him some disputed point, which he evaded. Mrs. Sartoris had a story, with which she amused her guests, of a luncheon with the Brownings, somewhere in Italy, where, when she rose to go, and remarked how delightful it had been, and the other guests joined in their expressions of enjoyment, Mr. Browning impulsively exclaimed: "Come back and sup with us, do!" And Mrs. Browning, with the dismay of the housewife, cried: "Oh, Robert, there is no supper, nothing but the remains of the pie." To which the poet rejoined: "Then come back and finish the pie."
Mrs. Browning was deeply attached to Fanny Kemble. She describes her, at this time, as "looking magnificent, with her black hair and radiant smile. A very noble creature, indeed," added Mrs. Browning; "somewhat unelastic, attached to the old modes of thought and convention, but noble in qualities and defects.... Mrs. Sartoris is genial and generous ... and her house has the best society in Rome, and exquisite music, of course."
Mrs. Browning often joined her husband in excursions to galleries, villas, and ruins; and when in the Sistine Chapel, on a memorable festival, they heard "the wrong Miserere," she yet found it "very fine, right or wrong, and overcoming in its pathos." M. Goltz, the Austrian Minister, was an acquaintance whom the Brownings found "witty and agreeable," and Mrs. Browning called the city "a palimpsest Rome," with its records written all over the antique.
The sorrow of the Storys over the death of a little son shadowed Mrs. Browning, and she feared for her own Penini, but as the winter went on she joyfully wrote of him that he "had not dropped a single rose-leaf from his cheeks," and with her sweet tenderness of motherly love she adds that he is "a poetical child, really, and in the best sense. He is full of sweetness and vivacity together, of imagination and grace," and she pictures his "blue, far-reaching eyes, and the innocent face framed in golden ringlets." Mrs. Kemble came to them two or three times a week, and they had long talks, "we three together," records Mrs. Browning. Mr. Page occupied the apartment just over that of the Brownings, and they saw much of him. "His portrait of Miss Cushman is a miracle," exclaimed Mrs. Browning. Page begged to paint a portrait of the poet, of which Mrs. Browning said that he "painted a picture of Robert like an Italian, and then presented it to me like a prince." The coloring was Venetian, and the picture was at first considered remarkable, but its color has entirely vanished now, so that it seems its painter was not successful in surprising the secret of Titian. In the spring of 1910 Mr. Barrett Browning showed this picture to some friends in his villa near Florence, and its thick, opaque surface hardly retained even a suggestion of color.
Not the least of Mrs. Browning's enjoyment of that winter was the pleasure that Rome gave to her little son. "Penini is overwhelmed with attentions and gifts of all kinds," she wrote, and she described a children's party given for him by Mrs. Page, who decorated the table with a huge cake, bearing "Penini" in sugar letters, where he sat at the head and did the honors. Browning all this time was writing, although the social allurements made sad havoc on his time. They wandered under the great ilex trees of the Pincio, and gazed at the Monte Mario pine. Then, as now, every one drove in that circular route on the Pincian hill, where carriages meet each other in passing every five minutes. With the Storys and other friends they often went for long drives and frequent picnics on the wonderful Campagna, that vast green sea that surrounds Rome, the Campagna Mystica. On one day Mr. Browning met "Hatty" Hosmer on the Spanish Steps, and said to her: "Next Saturday Ba and I are going to Albano on a picnic till Monday, and you and Leighton are to go with us." "Why this extravagance?" laughingly questioned Miss Hosmer. "On account of a cheque, a buona grazia, that Ticknor and Fields of Boston have sent—one they were not in the least obliged to send," replied the poet.
In those days there was no international copyright, but Mr. Browning's Boston publishers needed no legal constraint to act with ideal honor. So on the appointed morning, a partie carre of artists—two poets, one sculptor, one painter—drove gayly through the Porta San Giovanni, on that road to Albano, with its wonderful views of the Claudian aqueducts in the distance, through whose arches the blue sky is bluer, and beyond which are the violet-hued Alban hills. Then, as now, the road led by the Casa dei Spirite, with its haunting associations, and its strange mural decorations of specters and wraiths. Past that overhanging cliff, with its tragic legend, they drove, encountering the long procession of wine carts, with their tinkling bells, and the dogs guarding the sleeping padrones. Passing the night in Albano, the next day they mounted donkeys for their excursion into the Alban hills, past lonely monasteries, up the heights of Rocca di Papa, where the traveler comes on the ancient camping-ground of Hannibal, and where they see the padres and acolytes sunning themselves on the slopes of Monte Cavo; on again, to the rocky terraces from which one looks down on Alba Longa and the depths of Lago di Nemi, beneath whose waters is still supposed to be the barque of Caligula, and across the expanse of the green Campagna to where Aeneas landed.
Miss Hosmer is the authority on this poetic pilgrimage, and she related that they all talked of art, of the difficulties of art,—those encountered by the poet, the sculptor, and the painter,—each regarding his own medium of expression as the most difficult. Mrs. Browning's "Hatty" had bestowed in her bag a volume of Mr. Browning's, and on the homeward journey from Albano to Rome he read aloud to them his "Saul." At the half-way house on the Campagna, the Torre di Mezza, they paused, to gaze at the "weird watcher of the Roman Campagna," the monument to Apuleia, whose ruins are said to have assumed her features.
Nothing in all the classic atmosphere of Rome, filled with the most impressive associations of its mighty past, appealed more strongly to the Brownings than the glorious Campagna, with its apparently infinite open space, brilliant with myriads of flowers, and the vast billowing slopes that break like green waves against the purple hills, in their changeful panorama of clouds and mists and snow-crowned heights dazzling under a glowing sun.
Fascinating as this winter in Rome had been to them, rich in friendships and in art, the Brownings were yet glad to return to their Florence with the May days, to give diligence and devotion to their poetic work, which nowhere proceeded so felicitously as in Casa Guidi.
Browning was now definitely engaged on the poems that were to make up the "Men and Women." Mrs. Browning was equally absorbed in "Aurora Leigh." Each morning after their Arcadian repast of coffee and fruit, he went to his study, and she to the salotto, whose windows opened on the terrace looking out on old gray San Felice where she always wrote, to devote themselves to serious work. "Aurora Leigh" proceeded rapidly some mornings, and again its progress would remind her of the web of Penelope. During this summer Browning completed "In a Balcony," and wrote the "Holy Cross Day," the "Epistle of Karnish," and "Ben Karshook's Wisdom." Like his wife, Browning held poetry to be above all other earthly interests; he was a poet by nature and by grace, and his vast range of scholarship, his "British-Museum-Library memory," and his artistic feeling and taste, all conserved to this one end. But poetry to him was not outside, but inclusive of the very fullest human life. Mrs. Browning's lines,
"... No perfect artist is developed here From any imperfect woman,..."
embodied his convictions as well, for man and woman alike. He had that royal gift of life in its fullness, an almost boundless capacity of enjoyment, and to him life meant the completest development and exercise of all its powers.
The Brownings found their Florentine circle all in evidence. Mr. Lytton, a favorite and familiar visitor at Casa Guidi; Frederick Tennyson (and perhaps his "forty fiddlers" as well), and the Trollopes, Isa Blagden, and various wandering minstrels. They passed evenings with Mr. Lytton in his villa, and would walk home "to the song of nightingales by starlight and firefly light." To Mrs. Browning Florence looked more beautiful than ever after Rome. "I love the very stones of it," she said. Limitations of finance kept them in Florence all that summer. "A ship was to have brought us in something, and brought us in nothing," she explained to a friend in England, "and the nothing had a discount, beside." But she took comfort in the fact that Penini was quite as well and almost as rosy as ever, despite the intense heat; and the starlight and the song of the nightingales were not without consolation. A letter from Milsand ("one of the noblest and most intellectual men," says Mrs. Browning of him) came, and they were interested in his arraignment of the paralysis of imagination in literature. In September she hears from Miss Mitford of her failing health, and tenderly writes: "May the divine love in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ shine upon you day and night, with His ineffable tenderness." Mrs. Browning's religious feeling was always of that perfect reliance on the Divine Love that is the practical support of life. "For my own part," she continues, "I have been long convinced that what we call death is a mere incident in life.... I believe that the body of flesh is a mere husk that drops off at death, while the spiritual body emerges in glorious resurrection at once. Swedenborg says some people do not immediately realize that they have passed death, which seems to me highly probable. It is curious that Frederick Denison Maurice takes this precise view of the resurrection, with apparent unconsciousness of what Swedenborg has stated, and that I, too, long before I had ever read Swedenborg, or had even heard the name of Maurice, came to the same conclusion.... I believe in an active, human life, beyond death, as before it, an uninterrupted life." Mrs. Browning would have found herself in harmony with that spiritual genius, Dr. William James, who said: "And if our needs outrun the visible universe, why may not that be a sign that the invisible universe is there? Often our faith in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true." Faith is the divine vision, and no one ever more absolutely realized this truth than Elizabeth Browning.
"Ah, blessed vision! blood of God! My spirit beats her mortal bars, As down dark tides the glory slides, And star-like mingles with the stars."
At another time Mrs. Browning remarked that she should fear for a revealed religion incapable of expansion, according to the needs of man; while Dr. James has said, "Believe what is in the line of your needs." Many similarities of expression reveal to how wonderful a degree Mrs. Browning had intuitively grasped phases of truth that became the recognized philosophy of a succeeding generation, and which were stamped by the brilliant and profound genius of William James, the greatest psychologist of the nineteenth century. "What comes from God has life in it," said Mrs. Browning, "and certainly from the growth of all living things, spiritual growth cannot be excepted."
The summer passed "among our own nightingales and fireflies," playfully said Mrs. Browning, and in the autumn Mrs. Sartoris stopped to see them, on her way to Rome, "singing passionately and talking eloquently."
Notwithstanding some illness, Mrs. Browning completed four thousand lines of "Aurora Leigh" before the new year of 1855, in which were expressed all her largest philosophic thought, and her deepest insight into the problems of life. Fogazzaro, whose recent death has deprived Italy of her greatest literary inspirer since Carducci, said of "Aurora Leigh" that he wished the youth of Italy might study this great poem,—"those who desire poetic fame that they might gain a high conception of poetry; the weak, in that they might find stimulus for strength; the sad and discouraged, in that they might find comfort and encouragement." It was this eminent Italian novelist and Senator (the King of Italy naming a man as Senator, not in the least because of any political reasons, but to confer on him the honor of recognition of his genius in Literature, Science, or Art, and a very inconvenient, however highly prized, honor he often finds it),—Senator Antonio Fogazzaro, who contributed, to an Italian biography of the Brownings by Fanny Zampini, Contessa Salazar, an "Introduction" which is a notable piece of critical appreciation of the wedded poets from the Italian standpoint. The Senator records himself as believing that few poets can be read "with so much intellectual pleasure and spiritual good; for if the works of Robert and Elizabeth Browning surprise us by the vigorous originality of their thought," he continues, "they also show us a rare and salutary spectacle,—two souls as great in their moral character as in their poetic imagination. 'Aurora Leigh' I esteem Mrs. Browning's masterpiece.... The ideal poet is a prophet, inspired by God to proclaim eternal truth...."
The student of Italian literature will find a number of critical appreciations of the Brownings, written within the past forty or fifty years, some of which offer no little interest. "Every man has two countries, his own and Italy," and the land they had made their own in love and devotion returned this devotion in measure overflowing.
Robert and Elizabeth Browning would have been great,—even immortally great, as man and woman, if they had not been great poets. They both lived, in a simple, natural way, the essential life of the spirit, the life of scholarship and noble culture, of the profound significance of thought, of creative energy, of wide interest in all the important movements of the day, and of beautiful and sincere friendships.
"O life, O poetry, Which means life in life,"
wrote Mrs. Browning.
The character of Mrs. Browning has been so often portrayed as that of some abnormal being, half-nervous invalid, half-angel, as if she were a special creation of nature with no particular relation to the great active world of men and women, that it is quite time to do away with the category of nonsense and literary hallucination. One does not become less than woman by being more. Mrs. Browning fulfilled every sweetest relation in life as daughter, sister, friend, wife, and mother; and her life was not the less normal in that it was one of exceptional power and exaltation. She saw in Art the most potent factor for high service, and she held that it existed for Love's sake, for the sake of human co-operation with the purposes of God.
"Inward evermore To outward,—so in life, and so in art Which still is life."
"... I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."
LONDON LIFE—AN INTERLUDE IN PARIS—"AURORA LEIGH"—FLORENTINE DAYS—"MEN AND WOMEN"—THE HAWTHORNES—"THE OLD YELLOW BOOK"—A SUMMER IN NORMANDY—THE ETERNAL CITY—THE STORYS AND OTHER FRIENDS—LILIES OF FLORENCE—"IT IS BEAUTIFUL!"
The Florentine winter is by no means an uninterrupted dream of sunshine and roses; the tramontana sweeps down from the encircling Apennines, with its peculiarly piercing cold that penetrates the entire system with the unerring precision of the Roentgen ray; torrents of icy rains fall; and the purple hills, on whose crest St. Domenico met St. Benedict, are shrouded in clouds and mist. All the loveliness of Florence seems to be utterly effaced, till one questions if it existed except as a mirage; but when the storm ceases, and the sun shines again, there is an instantaneous transformation. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the spell of enchantment resumes its sway over the Flower Town, and all is forgiven and forgotten.
The winter of 1855 was bitterly cold, and by January the Brownings fairly barricaded themselves in two rooms which could best be heated, and in these fires were kept up by day as well as night. In April, however, the divine days came again, and the green hillslope from the Palazzo Pitti to the Boboli Gardens was gay with flowers. Mr. Browning gave four hours every day to dictating his poems to a friend who was transcribing them for him. Mrs. Browning had completed some seven thousand lines of "Aurora Leigh," but not one of these had yet been copied for publication. Various hindrances beset them, but finally in June they left for England, their most important impedimenta being sixteen thousand lines of poetry, almost equally divided between them, comprising his manuscript for "Men and Women," and hers for "Aurora Leigh," complete, save for the last three books. The change was by no means unalloyed joy. To give up, even temporarily, their "dream-life of Florence," leaving the old tapestries and pre-Giotto pictures, for London lodgings, was not exhilarating; but after a week in Paris they found themselves in an apartment in No. 13 Dorset Street, Manchester Square, where they remained until October, every hour filled with engagements or work. Proof-sheets were coming in at all hours; likewise friends, with the usual contingent of the "devastators of a day," and all that fatigue and interruption and turmoil that lies in wait for the pilgrim returning to his former home, beset and entangled them. Mrs. Browning's youngest brother, Alfred Barrett, was married that summer to his cousin Lizzie, the "pretty cousin" to whom allusion has already been made as the original of Mrs. Browning's poem, "A Portrait." They were married in Paris at the English Embassy, and passed the summer on the Continent. Mrs. Browning's sister Henrietta (Mrs. Surtees Cook) was unable to come up to London, so that the hoped-for pleasure of seeing this brother and sister was denied her; but Miss Arabel Barrett was close at hand in the Wimpole Street home, and the sisters were much together. Mr. Barrett had never changed his mental attitude regarding the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth, nor that of any of his children, and while this was a constant and never-forgotten grief with Mrs. Browning, there seems no necessity for prolonged allusion to it. The matter can only be relegated to the realms of non-comprehension as the idiosyncrasy of an otherwise good man, of intelligence and much nobility of nature.
The Brownings were invited to Knebworth, to visit Lord Lytton, but they were unable to avail themselves of the pleasure because of proof-sheets and contingent demands which only writers with books in press can understand. Proof-sheets are unquestionably endowed with some super-human power of volition, and invariably arrive at the psychological moment when, if their author were being married or buried, the ceremony would have to be postponed until they were corrected. But the poets were not without pleasant interludes, either; as when Tennyson came from the Isle of Wight to London for three or four days, two of which he passed with the Brownings. He "dined, smoked, and opened his heart" to them; and concluded this memorable visit at the witching hour of half-past two in the morning, after reading "Maud" aloud the evening before from the proof-sheets. The date of this event is established by an inscription affixed to the back of a pen-and-ink sketch of Tennyson, made on that night by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and which is now in the possession of Robert Barrett Browning. This inscription, written by Robert Browning, reads: "Tennyson read his poem 'Maud' to E. B. B., R. B., Arabel, and Rossetti, on the evening of Sept. 27th, 1855, at 13, Dorset Street. Rossetti made this sketch of Tennyson, as he sat, reading, on one end of the sofa, E. B. B. being on the other end." And this is signed, "R. B. March 6th, 1874 ... 19, Warwick Crescent." As the date is Mrs. Browning's birthday, it is easy to realize how, in that March of 1874, he was recalling tender and beloved memories. On the drawing itself Mrs. Browning had, at the time of the reading, copied the first two lines of "Maud." Tennyson replied to a question from William Sharp, who in 1882 wrote to the Laureate to ask about this night, that he had "not the slightest recollection" of Rossetti's presence; but the inscription on the picture establishes the fact. William Michael Rossetti was also one of the group, and a record that he made quite supports the fact of Tennyson's unconsciousness of his brother's presence, for he says: "So far as I remember the Poet-Laureate neither saw what my brother was doing nor knew of it afterward." And as if every one of this gifted group present that night left on record some impression, Dante Gabriel Rossetti has noted that, after Tennyson's reading, Browning read his "Fra Lippo Lippi," and "with as much sprightly variation as there was in Tennyson of sustained continuity." In a letter to Allingham, Rossetti also alluded to this night, and infused a mild reproach to Mrs. Browning in that her attention was diverted by "two not very exciting ladies"; and in a letter to Mrs. Tennyson, Mrs. Browning speaks of being "interrupted by some women friends whom I loved, but yet could not help wishing a little further just then, that I might sit in the smoke, and listen to the talk," after the reading. So, from putting together, mosaic fashion, all the allusions made by the cloud of witnesses, the reader constructs a rather accurate picture of that night of the gods. Mrs. Browning, who "was born to poet-uses," like the suitor of her own "Lady Geraldine," was in a rapture of pleasure that evening, and of "Maud" she wrote: "The close is magnificent, full of power, and there are beautiful, thrilling lines all through. If I had a heart to spare, the Laureate would have won mine." Tennyson's voice she found "like an organ, music rather than speech," and she was "captivated" by his naivete, as he stopped every now and then to say, "There's a wonderful touch!" Mrs. Browning writes to Mrs. Tennyson of "the deep pleasure we had in Mr. Tennyson's visit to us." She adds:
"He didn't come back, as he said he would, to teach me the 'Brook' (which I persist, nevertheless, in fancying I understand a little), but he did so much and left such a voice (both him 'and a voice!') crying out 'Maud' to us, and helping the effect of the poem by the personality, that it's an increase of joy and life to us ever."
Deciding to pass the ensuing winter in Paris, the Brownings found themselves anxious to make the change, that they might feel settled for the time, as she needed entire freedom from demands that she might proceed with her "Aurora Leigh." He had conceived the idea of revising and recasting "Sordello." They passed an evening with Ruskin, however, and presented "young Leighton" to him. They met Carlyle at Forster's, finding him "in great force"—of denunciations. They met Kinglake, and were at the Proctors, and of the young poet, Anne Adelaide Proctor, Mrs. Browning says, "How I like Adelaide's face!" Mrs. Sartoris and Mrs. Kemble were briefly in London, and Kenyon, the beloved friend, vanished to the Isle of Wight. To Penini's great delight, Wilson, the maid, married a Florentine, one Ferdinando Romagnoli, who captivated the boy by his talk of Florence, and Penini caught up his pretty Italian enthusiasms, and discoursed of Florentine skies, and the glories of the Cascine, to any one whom he could waylay.
In Paris they first established themselves in the Rue de Grenelle, in the old Faubourg San Germain, a location they soon exchanged for a more comfortable apartment in the Rue de Colisee, just off the Champs Elysees. Here they renewed their intercourse with Lady Elgin (now an invalid) and with her daughter, Lady Augusta Bruce, Madame Mohl, and with other friends. Mrs. Browning was absorbed in her great poem, which she was able to complete, however, only after their return to London the next June, and never did an important literary work proceed with less visible craft. She lay on her sofa, half supported by cushions, writing with pencil on little scraps of paper, which she would slip under the pillows if any chance visitor came in. "Elizabeth is lying on the sofa, writing like a spirit," Browning wrote to Harriet Hosmer. To Mrs. Browning Ruskin wrote, praising her husband's poems, which gratified her deeply, and she replied, in part, that when he wrote to praise her poems, of course she had to bear it. "I couldn't turn around and say, 'Well, and why don't you praise him, who is worth twenty of me?' One's forced," she continued, "to be rather decent and modest for one's husband as well as for one's self, even if it's harder. I couldn't pull at your coat to read 'Pippa Passes,' for instance.... But you have put him on your shelf, so we have both taken courage to send you his new volumes, 'Men and Women,'... that you may accept them as a sign of the esteem and admiration of both of us." Mrs. Browning considered these poems beyond any of his previous work, save "Paracelsus," but there is no visible record left of what she must have felt regarding that tender and exquisite dedication to her, that "One Word More ... To E. B. B.," which must have been to her
"The heart's sweet Scripture to be read at night."
These lines are, indeed, a fitting companion-piece to her "Sonnets from the Portuguese." For all these poems, his "fifty men and women," were for her,—his "moon of poets."
"There they are, my fifty men and women Naming me the fifty poems finished! Take them, Love, the book and me together; Where the heart lies, let the brain lie also.
* * * * *
I shall never, in the years remaining, Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues, Make you music that should all-express me;
* * * * *
Verse and nothing else have I to give you. Other heights in other lives, God willing; All the gifts from all the heights, your own, Love!"
So he wrote to his "one angel,—borne, see, on my bosom!" For her alone were the
"Silent, silver lights and darks undreamed of,"
and while there was one side to face the world with, he thanked God that there was another,—
"One to show a woman when he loves her!"
It was Rossetti, however, who was the true interpreter of Browning to Ruskin,—for if it requires a god to recognize a god, so likewise in poetic recognitions. To Rossetti the poems comprised in "Men and Women" were the "elixir of life." The moving drama of Browning's poetry fascinated him. Some years before he had chanced upon "Pauline" in the British Museum, and being unable to procure the book, had copied every line of it. The "high seriousness" which Aristotle claims to be one of the high virtues of poetry, impressed Rossetti in Browning. What a drama of the soul universal was revealed in that "fifty men and women"! What art, what music, coming down the ages, from Italy, from Germany, and what pictures from dim frescoes, and long-forgotten paintings hid in niche and cloister, were interpreted in these poems! How one follows "poor brother Lippo" in his escapade:
"... I could not paint all night— Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air. There came a hurry of feet and little feet, A sweep of lute-strings, laughs, and whifts of song,— Flower o' the broom, Take away love, and our earth is a tomb! Flower o' the quince, I let Lisa go, and what good in life since?"
And in "Andrea del Sarto" what passionate pathos of an ideal missed!
"But all the play, the insight and the stretch— Out of me, out of me! And wherefore out? Had you enjoined them on me, given me soul, We might have risen to Rafael, I and you!
* * * * *
Had you ... but brought a mind! Some women do so. Had the mouth there urged 'God and the glory! never care for gain. The present by the future, what is that? Live for fame, side by side with Agnolo! Rafael is waiting; up to God, all three!' I might have done it for you...."
And that exquisite idyl of "the love of wedded souls" in "By the Fire-side." It requires no diviner to discover from whose image he drew the line,
"My perfect wife, my Leonor."
How Browning's art fused poetic truth and poetic beauty in all these poems, vital with keen and shrewd observation, deep with significance, and pervaded by the perpetual recognition of a higher range of achievements than are realized on earth.
"A man's grasp should exceed his reach, Or what's a heaven for?"
In all these poems can be traced the magic of Italy and happiness. (Are the two more than half synonymous?) The perfect sympathy, the delicate divination and intuitive comprehension with which Browning was surrounded by his wife, were the supreme source of the stimulus and development of his powers as a poet.
The Parisian winter was full of movement and interest. No twentieth-century prophet had then arisen to instruct the populace how to live on twenty-four hours a day, but the Brownings captured what time they could rescue from the devouring elements, rose early, breakfasted at nine, and gave the next hour and a half to Penini's lessons,—"the darling, idle, distracted child," who was "blossoming like a rose" all this time; who "learned everything by magnetism," and, however "idle," was still able in seven weeks to read French "quite surprisingly." Mrs. Browning had already finished and transcribed some six thousand lines (making five books) of "Aurora Leigh "; but she planned at least two more books to complete the poem, which must needs be ready by June; and when, by the author's calendar, it is February, by some necromancy June is apt to come in the next morning. The Brownings made it an invariable rule to receive no visitors till after four, but the days had still a trick of vanishing like the fleet angel who departs before he leaves his blessing. At all events, the last days of May came before "Aurora Leigh" was completed, and its author half despairingly realized that two weeks more were needed for the transcription of her little slips to the pages ready for the press.
Meantime Browning had occupied himself for a time in an attempt to revise "Sordello," an effort soon abandoned, as he saw that, for good or ill, the work must stand as first written.
Madame Mohl's "evenings" continued to attract Browning, where he met a most congenial and brilliant circle, and while his wife was unable to accompany him to these mild festivities, she insisted that he should avail himself of these opportunities for intercourse with French society. With Lady Monson he went to see Ristori in "Medea," finding her great, but not, in his impression, surpassing Rachel. Monckton Milnes comes over to Paris, and a Frenchman of letters gives a dinner for him, at which Browning meets George Sand and Cavour.
The success of "Men and Women" was by this time assured. Browning stood in the full light of recognition on both sides the ocean. For America—or rather, perhaps, one should say, Boston, for American recognition focused in Boston (which was then, at all events, incontestably the center of all "sweetness and light")—discerned the greatness of Robert Browning as swiftly as any transatlantic dwellers on the watch-tower.
Rossetti, who from the days that he copied "Pauline" in the British Museum Library, not knowing the author, was an ardent admirer of Browning, found himself in Paris, and he and Browning passed long mornings in the Louvre. The painter declared that Browning's knowledge of early Italian art was beyond that of any one whom he had met, Ruskin not excepted.
Ruskin was a standard of artistic measurement in those days to a degree hardly conceivable now; not that much of his judgment does not stand the test of time, but that authoritative criticism has so many embodiments. Mrs. Browning, to whom Ruskin was one of the nearest of her circle, considered him a critic who was half a poet as well, and her clear insight discerned what is now universally recognized, that he was "encumbered by a burning imagination." She told him that he was apt to light up any object he looked upon, "just as we, when we carried torches into the Vatican, were not clear as to how much we brought to that wonderful Demosthenes, folding the marble round him in its thousand folds," and questioned as to where was the dividing line between the sculptor and the torch-bearer. This fairly clairvoyant insight of Mrs. Browning into character, the ability to discern defects as well as virtues where she loved, and to love where she discerned defects, is still further illustrated by a letter of hers to Ruskin on the death of Miss Mitford. "But no, her 'judgment' was not 'unerring,'" wrote Mrs. Browning. "She was too intensely sympathetic not to err often ... if she loved a person it was enough.... And yet ... her judgment could be fine and discriminating, especially upon subjects connected with life and society and manners."
Again, to a friend who had met a great bereavement she also wrote in these Paris days:
"We get knowledge in losing what we hoped for, and liberty by losing what we love. This world is a fragment, or, rather, a segment, and it will be rounded presently. Not to doubt that is the greatest blessing it gives now. The common impression of death is as false as it is absurd. A mere change of circumstances,—what more? And how near these spirits are, how conscious of us, how full of active energy, of tender reminiscence and interest in us? Who shall dare to doubt? For myself, I do not doubt at all."
In that latest collection of Browning's poems, no one excited more discussion at the time than "The Statue and the Bust." There being then no Browning Societies to authoritatively decide the poet's real meaning on any disputed point, the controversy assumed formidable proportions. Did Browning mean this poem to be an apologia for illegal love? was asked with bated breath.
The statue of Fernandino di Medici, in the Piazza dell' Annunziata, in Florence,—that magnificent equestrian group by Giovanni da Bologna,—is one of the first monuments that the visitor who has a fancy for tracing out poetic legends fares forth to see. As an example of plastic art, alone, it is well worth a pilgrimage; but as touched by the magic of the poet's art, it is magnetic with life. Dating back to 1608, it was left for Robert Browning to invest it with immortality.
"There's a palace in Florence, the world knows well And a statue watches it from the square."
In the poem Mr. Browning alludes to the cornice, "where now is the empty shrine"; but his son believes that there never was any bust in this niche, the bust being simply the poet's creation. The statue of the Grand Duke is remarkable enough to inspire any story; and the Florentine noble may well take pride in the manner that "John of Douay" has presented him, if he still "contrives" to see it, and still "laughs in his tomb" at the perpetual pilgrimage that is made to the scene of the legend, as well as to the royal Villa Petraja, also immortalized in Browning's poem.
June came, the closing books of "Aurora Leigh" had been written, and under the roof of her dear friend and cousin, Kenyon, who had begged the Brownings to accept the loan of his house in Devonshire Place, the last pages were transcribed, and the dedication made to the generous friend who was the appointed good angel of their lives. They were saddened by Kenyon's illness, which imprisoned him for that summer on the Isle of Wight, and after seeing "Aurora Leigh" through the press, they passed a little time with him at Cowes, and also visited Mrs. Browning's sister Henrietta (Mrs. Surtees Cook), before setting out for Italy. No one in London missed them more than Dante Gabriel Rossetti. "With them has gone one of my delights," he said; "an evening resort where I never felt unhappy."
The success of "Aurora Leigh" was immediate, a second edition being called for within a fortnight, and edition after edition followed. This work, of which, twelve years before, she had a dim foreshadowing, as of a novel in verse, has the twofold interest of a great dramatic poem and of a philosophic commentary on art and life. To estimate it only as a social treatise is to recognize but one element in its kaleidoscopic interest. Yet the narrative, it must be confessed, is fantastic and unreal. When the conception of the work first dawned upon her, she said she preferred making her story to choosing that of any legend, for the theme; but the plot is its one defect, and is only saved from being a serious defect by the richness and splendor of thought with which it is invested. The poem is to some degree a spiritual autobiography; its narrative part having no foundation in reality, but on this foundation she has recorded her highest convictions on the philosophy of life. Love, Art, Ethics, the Christianity of Christ,—all are here, in this almost inexhaustible mine of intellectual and spiritual wealth. It is a poem peculiarly calculated to kindle and inspire. What a passage is this:
"... I can live At least my soul's life, without alms from men, And if it be in heaven instead of earth, Let heaven look to it,—I am not afraid."
A profound occult truth is embodied in the following:
"Whate'er our state we must have made it first; And though the thing displease us,—aye, perhaps, Displease us warrantably, never doubt That other states, though possible once, and then Rejected by the instinct of our lives, If then adopted had displeased us more.
* * * * *
What we choose may not be good; But that we choose it, proves it good for us."
No Oriental savant could more forcibly present his doctrine of karma than has Mrs. Browning in these lines. Her recognition of the power of poetry is here expressed:
"And plant a poet's word even deep enough In any man's breast, looking presently For offshoots, you have done more for the man Than if you dressed him in a broadcloth coat, And warmed his Sunday pottage at your fire."
Poetry was to her as serious a thing as life itself. "There has been no playing at skittles for me in either poetry, or life," she said; "I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry; nor leisure, for the hour of the poet."
In the success of "Aurora Leigh" she was herself surprised. Private letters from strangers filled with the warmest, even if sometimes indiscriminate, praises, rained down upon her, and she found the press "astonishing in its good will." That her "golden-hearted Robert" was "in ecstasies about it, far more than as if it had been a book of his own," was apparently her most precious reward. Milsand, who she had fancied would hardly like this poem, wrote a critique of it for the Revue which touched her with its "extraordinary kindness." He asked and obtained permission to translate it into French, and in a letter to Miss Sarianna Browning she speaks of her happiness that he should thus distinguish the poem.
Soon after their arrival in Florence came the saddest of news, that of the death of John Kenyon, their beloved friend, whose last thoughtful kindness was to endow them with a legacy insuring to them that freedom from material care which is so indispensable to the best achievements in art. During his life he had given to them one hundred pounds a year, and in his will he left them ten thousand guineas,—the largest of the many legacies that his generous will contained.
The carnival, always gay in Florence, was exceedingly so that year, and Penini, whose ardor for a blue domino was gratified, and who thought of nothing else for the time being, seemed to communicate his raptures, so that Browning proposed taking a box at the opera ball, and entertaining some invited friends with gallantina and champagne. Suddenly the air grew very mild, and he decided that his wife might and must go; she sent out hastily to buy a mask and domino (he had already a beautiful black silk one, which she later transmuted into a black silk gown for herself), and while her endurance and amusement kept her till two o'clock in the morning, the poet and his friends remained till after four. The Italian carnival, however wild and free it may be (and is), yet never degenerates into rudeness. The inborn delicacy and gentle refinement of the people render this impossible. Yet for the time being there is perfect social equality, and at this ball the Grand Duke and Wilson's husband, Ferdinando, were on terms of fellowship.
In the early April of that spring the summer suddenly dawned upon lovely Florence like a transformation scene on a stage. The trees in the Cascine were all a "green mist." Everywhere was that ethereal enchantment of the Flower City, with her gleaming towers and domes, her encircling purple hills and picturesque streets. And how, indeed, could any one who has watched the loveliness of a Florentine springtime ever escape its haunting spell? The dweller in Italy may see a thousand things to desire,—better public privileges, more facilities for comfort, but the day comes when, if he has learned to love the Italian atmosphere so intensely that all the glories of earth could not begin to compensate for it, he would give every conceivable achievement of modern art and progress for one hour among those purple hills, for one hour with the sunset splendors over the towers, and the olive-crowned heights of Fiesole and Bellosguardo; or to hear again the impassioned strains of street singers ring out in pathetic intensity in the bewildering moonlight. La Bella Firenze, lying dream-enchanted among her amethyst hills, would draw her lover from the wilds of Siberia, for even one of those etherial evenings, when the stars blaze in a splendor over San Miniato, or one rose-crowned morning, when the golden sunshine gilds the tower of the old cathedral on Fiesole.
In that spring Mrs. Stowe visited Florence, and the Brownings liked her and rejoiced that she had moved the world for good. To Mrs. Jameson Mrs. Browning wrote that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a "sign of the times." She read Victor Hugo's "Contemplations," finding some of the personal poems "overcoming in their pathos"; they went to tea on the terrace at Bellosguardo, in April evenings, gazing over Florence veiled in transparent blue haze in the valley below.
In this April Mrs. Browning's father died; she had never ceased to hope for reconciliation, and her sorrow was great, but, as usual, she was gently serene, "not despondingly calm," she said. Mrs. Jameson again came to Florence, and there were more teas on overhanging terraces, and enjoyments of the divine sunsets.
In August they went with Miss Blagden, Mr. Lytton, and one or two others to again make villeggiatura at Bagni di Lucca, where Mrs. Browning rose every morning at six to bathe in the rapid little mountain stream,—finding herself strengthened by this heroic practice,—and Penini flourished "like a rose possessed by a fairy."
The succeeding winter was passed in Florence, Mrs. Browning instructing her little son in German, and herself reveled in French and German romances. Her rest was always gained in lying on the sofa and reading novels; Browning, who cared little for fiction, found his relaxation in drawing. He taught Penini on the piano, and the boy read French, German, and Italian every day, and played in the open air under the very shadow of the Palazzo Pitti.
The Hawthornes, who had met the Brownings in London at a breakfast given by Lord Houghton, came up from Rome, and Mrs. Hawthorne declared that the grasp of Browning's hand "gives a new value to life." They passed an evening at Casa Guidi, and Mrs. Hawthorne recorded that in the corridor, as they entered, was a little boy who answered in the affirmative as to whether he were "Penini," and who "looked like a waif of poetry, lovelier still in the bright light of the drawing-room." Mr. Browning instantly appeared with his cordial welcome, leading them into the salon that looked out on the terrace, filled with growing plants. From San Felice there came the chanting of music, and the flowers, the melody, the stars hanging low in the sky, all ablaze over San Miniato, with the poet and his child, all conspired to entrance the sensitive and poetic Mrs. Hawthorne. Then Mrs. Browning came in, "delicate, like a spirit, the ethereal poet-wife, with a cloud of curls half concealing her face, and with the fairy fingers that gave a warm, human pressure,—a very embodiment of heart and intellect." Mrs. Hawthorne had brought her a branch of pink roses, which Mrs. Browning pinned on her black velvet gown.
They were taken into the drawing-room, a lofty, spacious apartment where Gobelin tapestries, richly carved furniture, pictures, and vertu all enchanted Mrs. Hawthorne, and they talked "on no very noteworthy topics," Hawthorne afterward recorded, though he added that he wondered that the conversation of Browning should be so clear and so much to the purpose, considering that in his poetry one ran "into the high grass of obscure allusion." The poet Bryant and his daughter were present that evening, a little to the regret of Mrs. Hawthorne, and there were tea and strawberries, Mrs. Browning presiding at the tray, and Penini, "graceful as Ganymede," passing the cake.
The Brownings left Florence soon after this evening. The summer of 1858 was passed in Normandy, in company with Mr. Browning's father and his sister Sarianna, all of them occupying together a house on the shore of the Channel, near Havre. They confessed themselves in a heavenly state of mind, equally appreciative of the French people,—manners, cooking, cutlets, and costumes, all regarded with perpetual admiration. Penini, too, was by no means behind in his pretty, childish enthusiasms. He was now nine years of age, reading easily French and German, as well as the two languages, English and Italian—each of which was as much his native tongue as the other—and with much proficiency at the piano. Browning already played duets with his little son, while the happy mother looked smilingly on. Mrs. Browning was one who lived daily her real life. For there is much truth in the Oriental truism that our real life is that which we do not live,—in our present environment, at least. She always gave of her best because she herself dwelt in the perpetual atmosphere of high thought. Full of glancing humor and playfulness of expression, never scorning homely conditions, she yet lived constantly in the realm of nobleness.
"Poets become such By scorning nothing,"
she has said.
The following winter found them again in Rome, where Mrs. Browning was much occupied with Italian politics. Her two deepest convictions were faith in the honest purposes of Louis Napoleon, and her enthusiasm for Italian liberty and unity. In her poem, "A Tale of Villafranca," she expressed her convictions and feelings. One of their nearer friends in Rome was Massimo d'Azeglio, the Prime Minister of Piedmont from 1849 to 1852, one of the purest of Italian patriots, who was full of hope for Italy. The English Minister Plenipotentiary to Rome at that time was Lord Odo Russell, and when the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) arrived in Rome, the Minister (later Lord Ampthill) invited (through Colonel Bruce) several gentlemen to meet him, Colonel Bruce said to Browning that he knew it "would gratify the Queen that the Prince should make the acquaintance of Mr. Browning." Mrs. Browning spoke of "the little prince" in one of her letters to Isa Blagden as "a gentle, refined boy," and she notes how Massimo d'Azeglio came to see them, and talked nobly, and confesses herself more proud of his visit "than of another personal distinction, though I don't pretend to have been insensible to that," she adds, evidently referring to the meeting with the young prince.
Mrs. Browning's love for novels seemed to have been inherited by her son, for this winter he was reading an Italian translation of "Monte Cristo" with such enthusiasm as to resolve to devote his life to fiction. "Dear Mama," he gravely remarked, "for the future I mean to read novels. I shall read all Dumas's to begin."
On their return to Florence in the spring, Mrs. Browning gives William Page a letter of introduction to Ruskin, commending Mr. Page "as a man earnest, simple and noble, who "has not been successful in life, and when I say life I include art, which is life to him. You will recognize in this name Page," she continues, "the painter of Robert's portrait which you praised for its Venetian color, and criticised in other respects," she concluded. And she desires Ruskin to know the "wonder and light and color and space and air" that Page had put into his "Venus Rising from the Sea," which the Paris salon of that summer had refused on the ground of its nudity,—a scruple that certainly widely differentiates the Salon of 1858 from that of 1911.
Salvini, even then already recognized as a great artist, was playing in a theater in Florence that spring, and the Brownings saw with great enjoyment and admiration his impersonations of Hamlet and Othello.
On a glowing June morning Browning was crossing the Piazza San Lorenzo, when the market-folk had all their curious wares of odds and ends spread about on tables. At one of these he chanced on "the square old yellow book" which held the story of the Franceschini tragedy, which the poet's art transmuted into his greatest poem, "The Ring and the Book." No other single work of Browning's can rival this in scope and power. It would seem as if he had, at the moment, almost a prescience of the incalculable value of this crumpled and dilapidated volume; as if he intuitively recognized what he afterward referred to as "the predestination." On his way homeward he opened the book;
"... through street and street, At the Strozzi, at the Pillar, at the Bridge; Till, by the time I stood at home again In Casa Guidi by Felice Church,
* * * * *
I had mastered the contents, knew the whole truth."
In this brief time he had comprehended the entire story of the trial and execution of Count Guido Franceschino, Nobleman of Arezzo, for the murder of his wife, Pompilia, and apparently much of the conception of his great work of future years, "The Ring and the Book," took possession of him at once. But it was like the seed that must germinate and grow. Little indeed did he dream that in this chance purchase he had been led to the material for the supreme achievement of his art.
One evening before leaving Florence for Siena, where the Brownings had taken the Villa Alberti for the summer, they had Walter Savage Landor to tea, and also Miss Blagden and Kate Field, then a young girl, studying music in Florence, who was under Miss Blagden's charge. Just as the tea was placed on the table, Browning turned to his honored guest, and thanked him for his defense of old songs; and opening Landor's latest book, "Last Fruit," he read in a clear, vibrant voice from the "Idylls of Theocritus." The chivalrous deference touched the aged poet. "Ah, you are kind," said he; "you always find out the best bits in my books."
The loyal homage rendered by the younger poet, in all the glow of his power, to the "old master," was lovely to see. As will be recalled, Landor had been one of the first to recognize the genius of Browning when his youthful poem, "Paracelsus," appeared. Landor had then written to Southey: "God grant that Robert Browning live to be much greater, high as he now stands among most of the living."
It was one noon soon after this evening that Landor came to Casa Guidi, desolate and distraught, declaring he had left his villa on the Fiesolean slope never to return, because of his domestic difficulties. The Brownings were about leaving for Siena and Mr. Browning decided to engage an apartment for the venerable poet, when the Storys, who were making villeggiatura in the strange old medieval city, invited Landor to be their guest. The villa where the Storys were domiciled was near the Brownings, and Landor was much in both households. "He made us a long visit," wrote Mrs. Story, "and was our honored and cherished guest. His courtesy and high breeding never failed him." Landor would often be seen astir in the early dawn, sitting under the olive trees in the garden, writing Latin verses. To Kate Field, who had become a great favorite with the Brownings, Mr. Browning wrote with some bit of verse of Landor's:
SIENA, VILLA ALBERTI, July 18.
DEAR MISS FIELD:—I have only a minute to say that Mr. Landor wrote these really pretty lines in your honor the other day,—you remember on what circumstances they turn. I know somebody who is ready to versify to double the extent at the same cost to you, and do his best, too, and you also know.
Yours Affectionately Ever,
The servant waits for this and stops the expansion of soul!
P. S. ... What do you mean by pretending that we are not the obliged, the grateful people? Your stay had made us so happy, come and make us happy again, says (or would say were she not asleep) my wife, and yours also,—
Of Landor, while they were in Siena, Mrs. Browning wrote to a friend that Robert always said he owed more to him than any other contemporary, and that Landor's genius insured him the gratitude of all artists. In these idyllic days Mr. Story's young daughter, Edith, (now the Marchesa Peruzzi di Medici, of Florence,) had a birthday, which the poetic group all united to celebrate. In honor of the occasion Landor not only wrote a Latin poem for the charming girl, but he appeared in a wonderful flowered waistcoat, one that dated back to the days of Lady Blessington, to the amusement of all the group. From Isa Blagden, who remained in her villa on Bellosguardo, came almost daily letters to Mrs. Browning, who constantly gained strength in the life-giving air of Siena, where they looked afar over a panorama of purple hills, with scarlet sunsets flaming in the west, the wind blowing nearly every day, as now. The Cave of the Winds, as celebrated by Virgil, might well have been located in Siena.
Mrs. Browning and Mrs. Story would go back and forth to visit each other, mounted on donkeys, their husbands walking beside, as they had done in the Arcadian days at Bagni di Lucca. Odo Russell passed two days with the Brownings on his way from Rome to London, to their great enjoyment. Landor's health and peace of mind became so far restored that he was able to "write awful Latin alcaics." Penini, happy in his great friends, the Story children, Julian, Waldo, and Edith, and hardly less so with the contadini, whom he helped to herd the sheep and drive in the grape-carts, galloped through lanes on his own pony, insisted on reading to his contadini from the poems of Dall' Ongaro, and grew apace in happiness and stature. For two hours every day his father taught him music, and the lad already played Beethoven sonatas, and music of difficult execution from German composers.
The Brownings and the Storys passed many evenings together, "sitting on the lawn under the ilexes and the cypresses, with tea and talk, until the moon had made the circuit of the quarter of the sky." Mrs. Browning's health grew better, and Story writes to Charles Eliot Norton that "Browning is in good spirits about her, and Pen is well, and as I write," he continues, "I hear him laughing and playing with my boys and Edith on the terrace below."
It was late in October before they returned to Florence, and then only for a sojourn of six weeks before going to Rome for the winter. The Siena summer had been a period of unalloyed delight to Mrs. Browning, whose health was much improved, and not the least of the happiness of both had been due to the congenial companionship of the Storys, and to their delicate courtesies, which Mrs. Browning wrote to Mrs. Jameson that she could never forget. Browning wrote to Mrs. Story saying to her that she surely did not need to be told how entirely they owed "the delightful summer" to her own and Mr. Story's kindness. "Ba is hardly so well," he adds, "as when she was let thrive in that dear old villa and the pleasant country it hardly shut out."
Mrs. Browning's small book, the "Poems before Congress," only eight in all, was published in this early spring of 1860, and met with no cheering reception. She felt this keenly, but said, "If I were ambitious of any thing it would be to be wronged where, for instance, Cavour is wronged." With Mrs. Browning a political question was equally a moral question. Her devotion to Italy, and faith in the regeneration of the country, were vital matters to her. She was deeply touched by the American attitude toward her poem, "A Curse for a Nation," for the Americans, she noted, rendered thanks to the reprover of ill deeds, "understanding the pure love of the motive." These very "Poems before Congress" brought to her praises, and the offer of high prices as well, and of this nation she said it was generous.
A letter from Robert Browning written to Kate Field, who was then in Florence with Miss Blagden, and which has never before been published, is as follows:
ROME, VIA DEL TRITONE, 28,
March 29th, 1860.
DEAR MISS FIELD,—Do you really care to have the little photograph? Here it is with all my heart. I wonder I dare be so frank this morning, however, for a note just rec'd from Isa mentions an instance of your acuteness, that strikes me with a certain awe. "Kate," she says, "persists that the 'Curse for a Nation' is for America, and not England." You persist, do you? No doubt against the combined intelligence of our friends who show such hunger and thirst for a new poem of Ba's—and, when they get it, digest the same as you see. "Write a nation's curse for me," quoth the antislavery society five years ago, "and send it over the Western sea." "Not so," replied poor little Ba, "for my heart is sore for my own lands' sins, which are thus and thus,—what curse assign to another land when heavy for the sins of mine?" "Write it for that very reason," rejoined Ba's cheerer, "because thou hast strength to see and hate a foul thing done within thy gate," and so, after a little more dallying, she wrote and sent over the Western seas what all may read, but it appears only Kate Field, out of all Florence, can understand. It seems incredible. How did you find out, beside, the meaning of all these puzzling passages which I quote in the exact words of the poem? In short, you are not only the delightful Kate Field which I always knew you to be, but the sole understander of Ba in all Florence. I can't get over it....
Browning, the husband, means to try increasingly and somewhat intelligibly to explain to all his intimates at Florence, with the sole exception of Kate Field; to whose comprehension he will rather endeavor to rise, than to stoop, henceforth. And so, with true love from Ba to Kate Field, and our united explanation to all other friends, that the subject matter of the present letter is by no means the annexation of Savoy and Nice, she will believe me,