The Brownings - Their Life and Art
by Lilian Whiting
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Hers very faithfully


To Kate Field Mrs. Browning wrote, the letter undated, but evidently about this time, apparently in reply to some request of Miss Field's to be permitted to write about them for publication:

MY DEAR KATE,—I can't put a seal on your lips when I know them to be so brave and true. Take out your license, then, to name me as you please, only remembering, dear, that even kind words are not always best spoken. Here is the permission, then, to say nothing about your friends except that they are your friends, which they will always be glad to have said and believed. I had a letter from America to-day, from somebody who, hearing I was in ill health, desired to inform me that he wouldn't weep for me, were it not for Robert Browning and Penini! No, don't repeat that. It was kindly meant, and you are better, my dear Kate, and happier, and we are all thanking God for Italy. Love us here a little, and believe that we all love and think of you.

Yours ever affectionately,

E. B. B.

The American appreciation of Mrs. Browning constantly increased, and editors offered her an hundred dollars each for any poem, long or short, that might pass through their publications on its way to final destiny.

Theodore Parker had passed that winter in Rome, and Mrs. Browning felt that he was "high and noble." Early in May he left for Florence, where his death occurred before the return of the Brownings.

The education of Penini during these months was conducted by an old Abbe, who was also the instructor of Mr. Story's only daughter, Edith, and the two often shared their lessons, the lad going to Palazzo Barberini to join Miss Edith in this pursuit of knowledge. Certain traditions of the venerable Abbe have drifted down the years, indicating that his breviary and meditations on ecclesiastical problems did not exclusively occupy his mind, for the present Marchesa Peruzzi has more than one laughing reminiscence of this saintly father, who at one time challenged his pupil to hop around the large table on one foot. The hilarity of the festivity was not lessened when the Reverendo himself joined in the frolic, his robes flapping around him, as they all contributed to the merriment. The Marchesa has many a dainty note written to her by Penini's mother. Once it is as Pen's amanuensis that she serves, praying the loan of a "'Family Robinson,' by Mayne Reid," to solace the boy in some indisposition. "I doubt the connection between Mayne Reid and Robinson," says Mrs. Browning, "but speak as I am bidden." And another note was to tell "Dearest Edith" that Pen's papa wanted him for his music, and that there were lessons, beside; and "thank dear Edith for her goodness," and "another day, with less obstacles." The intercourse between the Brownings and the Storys was always so full of mutual comprehension and perfect sympathy and delicate, lovely recognition on both sides, that no life of either the sculptor or the wedded poets could be presented that did not include these constant amenities of familiar, affectionate intercourse.

Many English friends of the Brownings came and went that winter, and among others was Lady Annabella Noel, a granddaughter of Lord Byron, and a great admirer of Mr. Browning. A new acquaintance of the Brownings was Lady Marion Alford, a daughter of the Earl of Northampton, "very eager about literature, and art, and Robert," laughed Mrs. Browning, and Lady Marion and "Hatty" (Miss Hosmer) were, it seems, mutually captivated.

Some of the English artists came to Rome, Burne-Jones and Val Prinsep among them, and they with Browning wandered about the classic byways of the city and drove to see the Coliseum by moonlight.

In June the Brownings left Rome, by way of Orvieto and Chiusi. They crossed that dead, mystic Campagna that flows, like a sea, all around Rome—a sea of silence and mystery; with its splendid ruins of the old aqueducts and tombs, its vast stretches of space that were all aglow, in those June days, with scarlet poppies. They stopped one night at Viterbo, the little city made famous since those days by Richard Bagot's tragic novel, "Temptation," and where the convent is interesting from its associations with Vittoria Colonna, who in 1541 made here a retreat for meditation and prayer.

In Orvieto they rested for a day and night, and Mrs. Browning was able to go with her husband into the marvelous cathedral, with its "jeweled and golden facade" and its aerial Gothic construction. Mr. Browning, with his little son, drove over to the wild, curious town of Bagnorgio, which, though near Orvieto, is very little known. But this was the birthplace of Giovanni da Fidenza, the "Seraphic Doctor," who was canonized as St. Buonaventura, from the exclamation of San Francesco, who, on awakening from a dream communion with Giovanni da Fidenza, exclaimed, "O buona ventura!" Dante introduces this saint into the Divina Commedia, as chanting the praises of San Domenico in Paradise:

"Io san vita di Bonaventura Du Bagnorgio, che ne grandi uffici, Sempre posposi la sinistra cura."

Bagnorgio is, indeed, the heart of poetic legend and sacred story, but it is so inaccessible, perched on its high hill, with deep chasms, evidently the work of earthquakes, separating it from the route of travel, that from a distance it seems impossible that any conveyance save an airship could ever reach the town.

By either route, through the Umbrian region, by way of Assisi and Perugia, or by way of Orvieto and Siena, the journey between Rome and Florence is as beautiful as a dream. The Brownings paused for one night's rest at Lake Thrasymene, the scenes of the battlefield of Hannibal and Flaminius, with the town on a height overlooking the lake. "Beautiful scenery, interesting pictures and tombs," said Mrs. Browning of this journey, "but a fatiguing experience." She confessed to not feeling as strong as she had the previous summer, but still they were planning their villeggiatura in Siena, taking the same villa they had occupied the previous season, where Penini should keep tryst with the old Abbe, who was to come with the Storys and with his Latin.

They found Landor well and fairly amenable to the new conditions of his life. Domiciled with Isa Blagden was Miss Frances Power Cobbe, who was drawn to Florence that spring largely to meet Theodore Parker, with whom she had long corresponded. Mr. and Mrs. Lewes (George Eliot) were in Florence that spring of 1860, the great novelist making her studies for "Romola." They were the guests of the Thomas Adolphus Trollopes.

Landor, too, came frequently to take tea with Miss Blagden and Miss Cobbe on their terrace, and discuss art with Browning. Dall' Ongaro and Thomas Adolphus Trollope were frequently among the little coterie. His visits to Casa Guidi and his talks with Mrs. Browning were among the most treasured experiences of Mr. Trollope. "I was conscious, even then," he afterward wrote in his reminiscences of this lovely Florentine life, "of coming away from Casa Guidi a better man, with higher views and aims. The effect was not produced by any talk of the nature of preaching, but simply by the perception and appreciation of what Elizabeth Browning was: of the purity of the spiritual atmosphere in which she habitually dwelt."

Miss Hosmer came, too, that spring, as the guest of Miss Blagden, and she often walked down the hill to breakfast with her friends in Casa Guidi. Browning, who was fond of an early walk, sometimes went out to meet her, and on one occasion they had an escapade which "Hatty" related afterward with great glee. It was on one of these morning encounters that Miss Hosmer confessed to the poet that the one longing of her soul was to ride behind Caretta, the donkey, and Browning replied that nothing could be easier, as Girolamo, Caretta's owner, was the purveyor of vegetables to Casa Guidi, and that they would appropriate his cart for a turn up Poggia Imperiale. "Di gustibus non," began Browning. "Better let go Latin and hold on to the cart," sagely advised the young sculptor. In the midst of their disasters from the surprising actions of Caretta, they met her owner. "Dio mio" exclaimed Girolamo, "it is Signor Browning. San Antonio!" Girolamo launched forth into an enumeration of all the diabolical powers possessed by Caretta, and called on all the saints to witness that she was a disgrace to nature. Meantime the poet, the sculptor, the vegetables, and the donkey were largely combined into one hopeless mass, and Browning's narration and re-enactment of the tragedy, after they reached Casa Guidi, threw Mrs. Browning into peals of laughter.

Again the Brownings sought their favorite Siena, where Miss Blagden joined them, finding a rude stone villino, of two or three rooms only, the home of some contadini, within fifteen minutes' walk of Mrs. Browning, and taking it to be near her friend. But for the serious illness of Mrs. Browning's sister Henrietta (Mrs. Surtees Cook) the summer would have been all balm and sunshine. The Storys were very near, and Mr. Landor had been comfortably housed not far from his friends, who gave the aged scholar the companionship he best loved. Browning took long rides on horseback, exploring all the romantic regions around Siena, such rides that he might almost have exclaimed with his own hero, the Grand Duke Ferdinand,—

"For I ride—what should I do but ride?"

Penini, too, galloped through the lanes on his pony, his curls flying in the wind, and read Latin with the old Abbe. The lessons under this genial tutor were again shared with Miss Edith Story, one of whose earliest childish recollections is of sitting on a low hassock, leaning against Mrs. Browning, while Penini sat on the other side, and his mother talked with both the children. Mr. Story's two sons, the future painter and sculptor respectively, were less interested at this time in canvas and clay than they were in their pranks and sports. The Storys and Brownings, Miss Blagden and Landor, all loaned each other their books and newspapers, and discussed the news and literature of the day. The poet was much occupied in modeling, and passed long mornings in Mr. Story's improvised studio, where he copied two busts, the "Young Augustus" and the "Psyche," with notable success.

In the October of that year both the Brownings and the Storys returned to Rome, the poets finding a new apartment in the Via Felice. Mrs. Browning's sister Henrietta died that autumn, and in her grief she said that one of the first things that did her good was a letter from Mrs. Stowe. She notes her feeling that "how mere a line it is to overstep between the living and the dead." Her spiritual insight never failed her, and of herself she said: "I wish to live just so long, and no longer, than to grow in the spirit."

In the days of inevitable sadness after her sister's death, whatever the consolations and reassurances of faith and philosophy, Mrs. Browning wrote to a friend of the tender way in which her husband shielded her, and "for the rest," she said, "I ought to have comfort, for I believe that love, in its most human relations, is an eternal thing." She added: "One must live; and the only way is to look away from one's self into the larger and higher circle of life in which the merely personal grief or joy forgets itself."

Penini and his friend, Miss Edith, continued their studies under the old Abbe; his mother heard him read a little German daily, and his father "sees to his music, and the getting up of arithmetic," noted Mrs. Browning. The lad rode on his pony over Monte Pincio, and occasionally cantered out on the Campagna with his father. But Mrs. Browning had come to know that her stay on earth was to be very brief, and to her dear Isa she wrote that for the first time she had pain in looking into her little son's face—"which you will understand," she adds, but to her husband she did not speak of this premonition. She urged him to go out into the great world, for Rome was socially resplendent that winter. Among other notable festivities there was a great ball given by Mrs. Hooker, where princes and cardinals were present, and where the old Roman custom of attending the princes of the church up and down the grand staircase with flaming torches was observed. The beautiful Princess Rospoli was a guest that night, appearing in the tri-color. Commenting on the Civil War that was threatening America, Mrs. Browning said she "believed the unity of the country should be asserted with a strong hand."

Val Prinsep, in Rome that winter, was impressed by Mr. Browning into the long walks in which they both delighted, and they traversed Rome on both sides the Tiber. The poet was not writing regularly in those days, though his wife "gently wrangled" with him to give more attention to his art, and held before him the alluring example of the Laureate who shut himself up daily for prescribed work. Browning had "an enormous superfluity of vital energy," which he had to work off in long walks, in modeling, and in conversations. "I wanted his poems done this winter very much," said Mrs. Browning; "and here was a bright room with three windows consecrated to use.... There has been little poetry done since last winter." But in later years Browning became one of the most regular of workers, and considered that day lost on which he had not written at least some lines of poetry. At this time the poet was fascinated by his modeling. "Nothing but clay does he care for, poor, lost soul," laughed Mrs. Browning. Her "Hatty" ran in one day with a sketch of a charming design for a fountain for Lady Marion Alford. "The imagination is unfolding its wings in Hatty," said Mrs. Browning.

In days when Mrs. Browning felt able to receive visitors, there were many to avail themselves of the privilege. On one day came Lady Juliana Knox, bringing Miss Sewell (Amy Herbert); and M. Carl Grun, a friend of the poet, Dall' Ongaro, came with a letter from the latter, who wished to translate into Italian some of the poems of Mrs. Browning. Lady Juliana had that day been presented to the Holy Father, and she related to Mrs. Browning how deeply touched she had been by his adding to the benediction he gave her, "Priez pour le pape."

Penini had a choice diversion in that the Duchesse de Grammont, of the French Embassy, gave a "matinee d'enfants," to which he received a card, and went, resplendent in a crimson velvet blouse, and was presented to small Italian princes of the Colonna, the Doria, Piombiono, and others, and played leap-frog with his titled companions.

Mrs. Browning reads with eager interest a long speech of their dear friend, Milsand, which filled seventeen columns of the Moniteur, a copy of which his French friend sent to Browning.

The Brownings had planned to join the poet's father and sister in Paris that summer, but a severe attack of illness in which for a few days her life was despaired of made Mrs. Browning fear that she would be unable to take the journey. Characteristically, her only thought was for the others, never for herself, and she writes to Miss Browning how sad she is in the thought of her husband's not seeing his father, and "If it were possible for Robert to go with Pen," she continues, "he should, but he wouldn't go without me."

When she had sufficiently recovered to start for Florence, they set out on June 4, resting each night on the way, and reaching Siena four days later, where they lingered. From there Mr. Browning wrote to the Storys that they had traveled through exquisite scenery, and that Ba had borne the journey fairly well. But on arriving in Florence and opening their apartment again in Casa Guidi, it was apparent that the poet had decided rightly that there was to be no attempt made to visit Paris. During these closing days of Mrs. Browning's stay on earth, her constant aim was "to keep quiet, and try not to give cause for trouble on my account, to be patient and live on God's daily bread from day to day."

"O beauty of holiness, Of self-forgetfulness, of lowliness!"

It is difficult to read unmoved her last words written to Miss Sarianna Browning. "Don't fancy, dear," she said, "that this is the fault of my will," and she adds:

"Robert always a little exaggerates the difficulties of traveling, and there's no denying that I have less strength than is usual to me.... What does vex me is that the dearest nonno should not see his Peni this year, and that you, dear, should be disappointed, on my account again. That's hard on us all. We came home into a cloud here. I can scarcely command voice or hand to name Cavour. That great soul, which meditated and made Italy, has gone to the diviner country. If tears or blood could have saved him to us, he should have had mine. I feel yet as if I could scarcely comprehend the greatness of the vacancy."

For a week previous to her transition to that diviner world in which she always dwelt, even on earth, she was unable to leave her couch; but she smilingly assured them each day that she was better, and in the last afternoon she received a visit from her beloved Isa, to whom she spoke with somewhat of her old fire of generous enthusiasm of the new Premier, who was devoted to the ideals of Cavour, and in whose influence she saw renewed hope for Italy. The Storys were then at Leghorn, having left Rome soon after the departure of the Brownings, and they were hesitating between Switzerland for the summer, or going again to Siena, where they and the Brownings might be together. The poet had been intending to meet the Storys at Leghorn that night, but he felt that he could not leave his wife, though with no prescience of the impending change. She was weak, but they talked over their summer plans, decided they would soon go to Siena, and agreed that they would give up Casa Guidi that year, and take a villa in Florence, instead. They were endeavoring to secure an apartment in Palazzo Barberini for the winter, the Storys being most anxious that they should be thus near together, and Mrs. Browning discussed with him the furnishing of the rooms in case they decided upon the Palazzo. Only that morning Mr. Lytton had called, and while Mrs. Browning did not see him, her husband talked with him nearly all the morning. Late in the evening she seemed a little wandering, but soon she slept, waking again about four, when they talked together, and she seemed to almost pass into a state of ecstasy, expressing to him in the most ardent and tender words her love and her happiness. The glow of the luminous Florentine dawn brightened in the room, and with the words "It is beautiful!" she passed into that realm of life and light and loveliness in which she had always seemed to dwell.

"And half we deemed she needed not The changing of her sphere, To give to heaven a Shining One, Who walked an angel here."

Curiously, Miss Blagden had not slept at all that night. After her return from her visit to Mrs. Browning the previous afternoon, "every trace of fatigue vanished," she wrote to a friend, "and all my faculties seemed singularly alert. I was unable to sleep, and sat writing letters till dawn, when a cabman came to tell me 'La Signora della Casa Guidi e morte!'"

The Storys came immediately from Leghorn, and Miss Blagden took Edith Story and Penini to her villa. It was touching to see his little friend's endeavor to comfort the motherless boy. Mr. and Mrs. Story stayed with Browning in the rooms where everything spoke of her presence: the table, strewn with her letters and books; her little chair, a deep armchair of dark green velvet, which her son now holds sacred among his treasures, was drawn by the table just as she had left it, and in her portfolio was a half-finished letter to Madame Mario, speaking of Cavour, and her noble aspirations for Italy.

In the late afternoon of July 1, 1861, a group of English and American, with many Italian friends gathered about the little casket in the lovely cypress-shaded English cemetery of Florence, and as the sun was sinking below the purple hills it was tenderly laid away, while the amethyst mountains hid their faces in a misty veil.

"What would we give to our beloved? The hero's heart to be unmoved, The poet's star-tuned harp to sweep.

* * * * *

God strikes a silence through you all, And giveth His beloved, sleep."

Almost could the friends gathered there hear her poet-voice saying:

"And friends, dear friends, when it shall be That this low breath is gone from me, And round my bier ye come to weep, Let One, most loving of you all, Say 'Not a tear must o'er her fall! He giveth His beloved, sleep.'"



"Think, when our one soul understands The great Word which makes all things new, When earth breaks up and heaven expands, How will the change strike me and you In the house not made with hands?

"Oh, I must feel your brain prompt mine, Your heart anticipate my heart, You must be just before, in fine, See and make me see, for your part, New depths of the divine!"


"The cycle is complete," said Browning to the Storys, as they all stood in those desolate rooms and gazed about. The salon was just as she had left it; the table covered with books and magazines, her little chair drawn up to it, the long windows open to the terrace, and the faint chant of nuns, "made for midsummer nights," in San Felice, on the air. "Here we came fifteen years ago," continued Mr. Browning; "here Ba wrote her poems for Italy; here Pen was born; here we used to walk up and down this terrace on summer evenings." The poet lingered over many tender reminiscences, and after the Storys had taken leave, he and his son yielded to the entreaties of Isa Blagden to stay with her in her villa on Bellosguardo during the time that he was preparing to leave Florence, which he never looked upon again.

When all matters of detail were concluded, Miss Blagden, "perfect in all kindness," accompanied them to Paris, continuing her own journey to England, while Browning with his son, his father, and sister, proceeded to St. Enogat, near St. Malo, on the Normandy coast. Before Mrs. Browning's illness there had been a plan that all the Brownings and Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Stillman should pass the summer together at Fontainebleau.

There was something about St. Enogat singularly restful to Browning, the sea, the solitude, the "unspoiled, fresh, and picturesque place," as he described it in a letter to Madame Du Quaire. The mystic enchantment of it wrought its spell, and Penini had his pony and was well and cheerful, and Browning realized too well that the change called death is but the passing through "the gates of new life," to be despairing in his sorrow. The spirit of one

"... who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,"

breathes through all the letters that he wrote at this time to friends. "Don't fancy I am prostrated," he wrote to Leighton; "I have enough to do for myself and the boy, in carrying out her wishes." Somewhat later he expressed his wish that Mr. (later Sir Frederick) Leighton should design the memorial tomb, in that little Florence cemetery, for his wife; and the marble with only "E. B. B." inscribed on it, visited constantly by all travelers in Florence and rarely found without flowers, is the one Sir Frederick designed.

In a letter to his boyhood's friend, Miss Haworth, Browning alluded to the future, when Penini would so need the help of "the wisdom, the genius, the piety" of his mother; and the poet adds: "I have had everything, and shall not forget." In reply to a letter of sympathy from Kate Field, he wrote:

"DEAR FRIEND,—God bless you for all your kindness which I shall never forget. I cannot write now except to say this, and beside, that I have had great comfort from the beginning."

In the early autumn Browning took his son to London. The parting of the ways had come, and already he dimly perceived that the future would not copy fair the past. There are "reincarnations," in all practical effect, that are realized in this life as well as, speculatively, hereafter; and his days of Italian terraces and oleander blooms, of enchanting hours on Bellosguardo, and lingerings in old palaces and galleries, and saunterings down narrow streets crowded with contadini,—these days were as entirely past as if he had been transported to another planet.

"Not death; we do not call it so, Yet scarcely more with dying breath Do we forego; We pass an unseen line, And lo! another zone."

The sea and the sands and the sky prefigured themselves in those days to Browning as all indistinguishably blended in an unreal world, from which the past had receded and on which the Future had not yet dawned.

"Gray rocks and grayer sea, And surf along the shore; And in my heart a name My lips shall speak no more."

To Story he wrote with assurances of affection, but saying, "I can't speak about anything. I could, perhaps, if we were together, but to write freezes me." Miss Blagden, in London, had taken rooms in Upper Westbourne Terrace, and when in the late autumn Browning and his son went on to England, he took an apartment in Chichester Road, almost opposite the house where Miss Blagden was staying. But she had lived too long in enchanted Florence to be content elsewhere, and she soon returned to her villa on the heights of Bellosguardo, from which the view is one of the most beautiful in all Europe. Browning soon took the house, No. 19 Warwick Crescent, which for nearly all the rest of his life continued to be his home. Here he was near Mrs. Browning's sister, Arabel Barrett, of whom he was very fond, and whose love for her sister's little son was most grateful to them both. Mr. Browning had his old tapestries, pictures, and furniture of old Florentine carving, some of it black with age, sent on from Casa Guidi, and he proceeded to transform a prim London house into an interior of singular charm. He lined the staircase with Italian pictures; books overflowed in all the rooms, and the glimpse of water in the canal near reflected the green trees of the Crescent, giving the place a hint of sylvan Arcadias. There was the grand piano on which Penini practiced, and a tutor was engaged to prepare the lad for the university. The poet felt that this was the critical time to give his son "the English stamp," in "whatever it is good for," he added. But as a matter of fact the young Florentine had little affinity with English ways. He was the child of poets; a linguist from his infancy, an omnivorous reader, and with marked talent for art, distinguishing himself later in both painting and sculpture, but he had little inclination for the exact sciences.

In his London home Browning was soon again launched on a tide of work,—the dearest of which was in preparing the "Last Poems" of his wife for publication. He gave it a dedication to "Grateful Florence, and Tommaseo, her spokesman." He was also preparing a new edition of his own works to be issued in three volumes. The tutor he had secured for his son was considered skillful in "grammatical niceties," which, he said, "was much more to my mind than to Pen's." But he, as well as the boy, was homesick for Italy, and he wrote to Story that his particular reward would be "just to go back to Italy, to Rome"; and he adds:

"Why should I not trust to you what I know you will keep to yourselves, but which will certainly amuse you as nothing else I could write is like to do? What good in our loving each other unless I do such a thing? So, O Story, O Emelyn, (dare I say, for the solemnity's sake?) and O Edie, the editorship has, under the circumstances, been offered to me: me! I really take it as a compliment because I am, by your indulgence, a bit of a poet, if you like, but a man of the world and able editor hardly!"[8]

The editorship in question was that of Cornhill, left vacant by the death of Thackeray.

Browning was too great of spirit to sink into the recluse, and first beguiled into Rossetti's studio, he soon met Millais, and by degrees he responded again to friends and friendships, and life called to him with many voices. In the late summer of 1862 the poet and his son were at "green, pleasant little Cambo," and then at Biarritz. He was absorbed in Euripides; and the supreme work of his life, "The Ring and the Book," the Roman murder story, as he then called it, was constantly in his thought and beginning to take shape. The sudden and intense impression that the Franceschini tragedy had made on him, on first reading it, rushed back and held him as under a spell. But the "Dramatis Personae" and "In a Balcony" were to be completed before the inauguration of this great work.

For more than four years the thrilling tragedy had lain in his mind, impressing that subconscious realm of mental action where all great work in art acquires its creative vitality. It is said that episodes of crime had a great fascination for Browning, pere, who would write out long imaginary conversations regarding the facts, representing various persons in discussion, the individual views of each being brought out. The analogy of this to the treatment of the Franceschini tragedy in his son's great poem is rather interesting to contemplate. With the poet it was less dramatic interest in the crime, per se, than it was that the complexities of crime afforded the basis from which to work out his central and controlling purpose, his abiding and profound conviction that life here is simply the experimental and preparatory stage for the life to come; that all its events, even its lapses from the right, its fall into terrible evil, are—

"Machinery just meant To give thy soul its bent,"

a part of the mechanism to "try the soul's stuff on"; that man lives in an environment of spiritual influences which act upon him in just that degree to which he can recognize and respond to them; and that he must sometimes learn the ineffable blessedness of the right through tragic experiences of the wrong. In the very realities of man's imperfection Browning sees his possibilities of

"Progress, man's distinctive work alone."

When Browning asks:

"And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence For the fullness of the days?..."

he condenses in these lines his philosophy of life.

Many of the poems appearing in the "Dramatis Personae" had already been written: "Gold Hair" and "James Lee's Wife" at Pornic, and others at green Cambo. In the splendor and power of "Abt Vogler," "Rabbi Ben Ezra," and "A Death in the Desert," the poet expressed a philosophy that again suggests his intuitive agreement with the Hegelian. "Rabbi Ben Ezra" holds in absolute solution the Vedanta philosophy. To the question as to what all this enigma of life means, the poet answers:

"Thence shall I pass, approved A man, for aye removed From the developed brute; a god though in the germ.

* * * * *

He fixed thee 'mid this dance Of plastic circumstance, This Present, thou, forsooth, would fain arrest."

How keen the sense of humor and of the sharp contrasts of life in "Fra Lippo Lippi," and what power of character analysis. The intellectual vigor and the keen insight into the play of mental action in "Bishop Blougram's Apology"—a poem that occasioned great discussion on its appearance (from a real or fancied resemblance of the "Bishop" to Cardinal Wiseman)—are almost unsurpassed in poetic literature. Many of the poems in the "Dramatis Personae" are aglow with the romance of life, as in the "Eurydice to Orpheus," and "A Face," which refers to Emily Patmore. There are studio traces as well in these, and in the "Deaf and Dumb," suggested by a group of Woolner. The crowning power of all is revealed in the noble faith and the exquisite tenderness of "Prospice," especially in those closing lines when all of fear and pain and darkness and cold,—

"Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, Then a light, then thy breast, O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, And with God be the rest!"

The references to his wife in this poem, in the enthralling "One Word More," and in the dedication to "The Ring and the Book," as well as those to be divined in his character drawing of "Pompilia," are incomparable in their impressiveness and beauty, and must live so long as poetry is enshrined in life. The vital drama, the splendor of movement, the color, the impassioned exaltation of feeling, the pictorial vividness that are in these poems grouped under "Dramatic Romances" and "Dramatis Personae," give them claim to the first rank in the poet's creations. Curiously, during this period, the change in Browning's habits of work, which his wife used to urge upon him, seemed to gradually take possession of him, so that he came to count that day lost in which he had not written some lines of poetry. Did he, perchance in dreams, catch something of "the rustling of her vesture" that influenced his mind to the change? To Elizabeth Browning poetry was not only a serious calling, but its "own exceeding great reward," always.

Another change came to Browning, which redeemed him from the growing tendency to become a recluse, and made him a familiar figure in the great world. He seemed to become aware that there was something morbid and unworthy in the avoidance of the world of men and women. Browning's divinely commissioned work had to do with life, in its most absolute actualities as well as its great spiritual realities, because the life eternal in its nature was the theme on which he played his poetic variations, and no revelation of human nature came amiss to him.

He had already supervised the publication of Mrs. Browning's essay on "The Greek Christian Poets" and "The Book of the Poets," and "nothing," he said, "that ought to be published, shall be kept back." He had also lent Story considerable assistance in arranging with Blackwood for the serial publication of "Roba di Roma."

For two or three summers Browning with his father, his sister, and his son, passed the summers at St. Marie, near Pornic, from where in the August of 1863 he wrote to Leighton that he was living on fruit and milk, and that each day he completed some work, read a little with Pen, and somewhat more by himself. St. Marie was a "wild little place" in Brittany, on the very edge of the sea, a hamlet of hardly more than a dozen houses, of which the Brownings had the privilege of occupying that of the mayor, whose chief attraction, apparently, was that, though bare, it was clean. The poet liked it all, and it was there that he wrote "In the Doorway" in "James Lee's Wife," with the sea, the field, and the fig-tree visible from his window.

In the late summer the Brownings are all again at St. Marie in Brittany, and the poet writes to Isa Blagden that he supposes what she "calls fame within these four years" has come somewhat from his going about and showing himself alive, "but," he adds, "I was in London from the time that I published 'Paracelsus' till I ended the writing of plays with 'Luria,'—and I used to go out then, and see far more of merely literary people, critics, etc., than I do now,—but what came of it?" If in the lines following there is a hint of sadness, who can blame him?

During this summer he revised "Sordello" for re-publication, not, however, as he had once contemplated, making in it any significant changes. In the dedication to his friend Milsand, he incorporated so clear an exposition of his idea in the poem that this dedication will always be read with special interest. In London again the next winter, Browning wrote to Isa Blagden that he "felt comfort in doing the best he could with the object of his life,—poetry. I hope to do much more yet," he continued; "and that the flower of it will be put into Her hand somehow."

The London spring found the poet much engaged, taking his son to studios, and to the Royal Academy, to concerts, and for long walks, and in a letter to Kate Field not heretofore published is indicated something of the general trend of the days:



DEAR KATE FIELD, (so let me call you, please, in regard to old times when I might have done it, and did not,) I know well enough that there is great stupidity in this way of mine, this putting off a thing because I hope to compass some other thing, as here, for had you not asked for some photographs which I supposed I could soon find time and inclination to get, I should have thanked you at once; as I do now, indeed, and with all my heart, but the review article is wavering and indistinct in my mind now, and though it is inside a drawer of this table where I write, I cannot bring myself to look at it again,—not from a motive which is disparaging to you, as I am sure you understand; the general impression is enough for me, also, if you care in the least how I feel toward you. The boy has certainly the likeness to which you refer, and an absolute sameness, almost, in feature as well as in look, with certain old portraits of hers,—here, older and younger; there is not a trace of me in him, thank God! I know that dear, teasing Isa, and how she won't answer your questions, but sometimes, for compensation, she tells you what you never asked for, and though I always, or very often, ask about you, yet I think it may have been in reply to curiosity about the price of Italian stock, that she lately described to me a photograph of you, yourself, and how you were: what? even that's over. And moreover, how you were your old self with additions, which, to be sure, I don't require.

Give my true regard to your mother, and thank her for her goodness in understanding me. But I write only to have a pleasant chat with you, in a balcony, looking for fire-flies in the garden, wider between us than the slanting Pitti facade, now that it's warm and Maylike in Florence.

Always yours,


Mr. Browning had now begun to think of placing his son, who had passed his sixteenth birthday, in Oxford. In quest of this desire the poet sought the acquaintance of Dr. Jowett, afterward Master of Balliol College. This initiated a friendship between Browning and Jowett that lasted all the poet's life, and that has insured to Balliol many priceless treasures of association with both Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Up to that time Jowett had not been an admirer of Browning's poetry. But his keen interest in the theme then engaging Browning was aroused, and he wrote to a friend:

"I thought I was getting too old to make new friends, but I believe that I have made one,—Mr. Browning, the poet, who has been staying with me during the past few days. It is impossible to speak without enthusiasm of his open, generous nature, and his great ability and knowledge. I had no idea that there was a perfectly sensible poet in the world, entirely free from vanity, jealousy, or any other littleness, and thinking no more of himself than if he were an ordinary man. His great energy is very remarkable, as is his determination to make the most of the remainder of life. Of personal objects he seems to have none, except the education of his son, in which I hope in some degree to help him."[9]

After returning to London, Browning writes to Tennyson, in thanks for a book received from the Laureate:[10]

19, WARWICK CRESCENT, W., Oct. 10, 1865.

MY DEAR TENNYSON,—When I came back last year from my holiday I found a gift from you, a book; this time I find only the blue and gold thing which, such as it is, I send you, you are to take from me. I could not even put in what I pleased but I have said all about it in the word or two of preface, as also that I beg leave to stick the bunch in your buttonhole. May I beg that Mrs. Tennyson will kindly remember me?

Ever Affectionately Yours,


Tennyson wrote in reply that the nosegay was very welcome. "I stick it in my buttonhole ... and feel ——'s cork heels added to my boots," he added.

Volumes of selections from the poems of both Browning and his wife were now being demanded for the "Golden Treasury"; and to Miss Blagden Browning says further that he will certainly do the utmost to make the most of himself before he dies, "for one reason that I may help Pen the better."

Browning complies with his publisher's request to prepare a new selection of his wife's poems. "How I have done it, I can hardly say," he noted, "but it is one dear delight that the work of her goes on more effectually than ever—her books are more and more read,"—and a new edition of her "Aurora Leigh" was exhausted within a few months.

The winter was a very full and engaging one. On one evening he dined at the deanery of St. Paul's, Sir John Lubbock and Tennyson being also guests, but the Stanleys, who were invited, were not present. At another dinner the poets met, Tennyson recording: "Mr. Browning gave me an affectionate greeting after all these years," and Browning writing to a friend: "... I have enjoyed nothing so much as a dinner last week with Tennyson, who with his wife and one son is staying in town for a few weeks, and she is just what she was and always will be, very sweet and dear: he seems to me better than ever. I met him at a large party ... also at Carlyle's...."

In May of 1866 Browning's father was in poor health, and on June 14 he died, at his home in Paris, his son having arrived three days before. Although nearly eighty-five years of age, the elder Browning had retained all his clearness of mind, and only just before he passed away he had responded to some question of his son regarding a disputed point in medieval history with "a regular book-full of notes and extracts." His son speaks of the aged man's "strange sweetness of soul," apparently a transmitted trait, for the poet shared it, and has left it in liberal heritage to his son, Robert Barrett Browning, the "Pen" of all these pages. Of his father the poet said:

"He was worthy of being Ba's father,—out of the whole world, only he, so far as my experience goes. She loved him, and he said very recently, while gazing at her portrait, that only that picture had put into his head that there might be such a thing as the worship of the images of saints."

Miss Browning came henceforth to live with her brother, and for the remainder of his life she was his constant companion. She was a woman of delightful qualities,—of poise, cheerfulness, of great intelligence and of liberal culture. She was a very discriminating reader, and was peculiarly gifted with that sympathetic comprehension that makes an ideal companionship. Her presence now transformed the London house into a home.

The next summer they passed at Le Croisic, where Browning wrote "Herve Riel," in "the most delicious and peculiar old house," and he and his sister, both very fond of the open air, walked once to Guerande, the old capital of Bretagne, some nine miles from their house.

Browning had received his first academic honors that summer, Oxford having conferred on him her degree of M.A. The next October Browning was made Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, a distinction that he greatly prized.

During this summer Rev. Dr. Phillips Brooks (later Bishop of Massachusetts) was in London, and visited Browning once or twice. To a Boston friend who asked for his impressions of the great poet, Dr. Brooks wrote:[11]

"... I can't say anything now except that he is one of the nicest people to pass an evening with in London. He is a clear-headed and particularly clear-eyed man of the world, devoted to society, one of the greatest diners-out in London, cordial and hearty, shakes your hand as if he were really glad to see you.... As to his talk it wasn't 'Sordello,' and it wasn't as fine as 'Paracelsus,' but nobody ever talked more nobly, truly, and cheerily than he. I went home and slept after hearing him as one does after a fresh starlight walk with a good cool breeze on his face."

In 1863, on July 19, a little more than two years after the death of Mrs. Browning, Arabel Barrett had a dream, in which she was speaking with her sister Elizabeth, and asked, "When shall I be with you?" "Dearest, in five years," was the reply. She told this dream to Mr. Browning, who recorded it at the time. In June of 1868 Miss Barrett died, the time lacking one month only of being the five years. "Only a coincidence, but noticeable," Mr. Browning wrote to Isa Blagden. But in the larger knowledge that we now have of the nature of life and the phenomena of sleep, that the ethereal body is temporarily released from the physical (sleep being the same as death, save that in the latter the magnetic cord is severed, and the separation is final)—in the light of this larger knowledge it is easy to realize that the two sisters actually met in the ethereal realm, and that the question was asked and answered according to Miss Barrett's impression. The event was sudden, its immediate cause being rheumatic affection of the heart, and she died in Browning's arms, as did his wife. Her companionship had been a great comfort to him, and Mr. Gosse notes that for many years after her death he could not bear to pass Delamere Terrace.

The late summer of that year was devoted to traveling from Cannes about the coast, and they finally decided on Audierne for a sojourn. "Sarianna and I have just returned from a four hours' walk," he writes to a friend from this place; but here, as everywhere, he was haunted by Florentine memories, and by intense longings for his vanished paradise. To Isa Blagden he wrote:

"I feel as if I should immensely like to glide along for a summer day through the streets and between the old stone walls, unseen come and unheard go,—perhaps by some miracle I shall do so ... Oh, me! to find myself some late sunshiny afternoon with my face turned toward Florence...."

While at Audierne, Browning put the final touches to the new six-volume edition of his works that was about to appear from the house of Smith, Elder, and Company, on the title-page of which he signs himself as M.A., Honorary Fellow of Balliol College. Mr. Nettleship's volume of essays on Browning's poems was published that season, indicating a strong interest in the poet; and another very gratifying experience to him was the interest in his work manifested by the undergraduates of both Oxford and Cambridge. Undoubtedly the pleasant glow of this appreciation stimulated his energy in the great poem on which he was now definitely at work, "The Ring and the Book." Publishers were making him offers for its publication, "the R. B. who for six months once did not sell a single copy of his poems," he exclaimed in a letter to a friend, to whom he announced that he should "ask two hundred pounds for the sheets to America, and get it!" with an evident conviction that this was a high price for his work. The increasing recognition of the poet was further indicated by a request from Tauchnitz for the volumes of selections which Browning dedicated to the Laureate in these graceful words: "To Alfred Tennyson. In Poetry—illustrious and consummate; In Friendship—noble and sincere."

The publication of "The Ring and the Book" was the great literary event of 1869. Two numbers had appeared in the previous autumn, but when offered in its completeness the poem was found to embody the most remarkable interpretation of transfigured human life to be found in all the literature of poetry. The fame of the poet rose to splendor. This work was the inauguration of an epoch, of a period from which his work was to be read, studied, discussed, to a degree that would have been incredible to him, had any Cassandra of previous years lifted the veil of the future. The great reviews united in a very choral pean of praise; the Fortnightly, the Quarterly, the Edinburgh Review, the Revue des Deux Mondes, and others were practically unanimous in their recognition of a work which was at once felt to be the very epitome of the art and life of Robert Browning. The poem is, indeed, a vast treasure into which the poet poured all his searching, relentless analysis of character, and grasp of motive; all his compassion, his sensitive susceptibility to human emotion; all his gift of brilliant movement; all his heroic enthusiasms, and his power of luminous perception. But all this wealth of feeling and thought had been passed through the crucible of his critical creation; it had been fused and recast by the alchemy of genius. He transmuted fact into truth.

"Do you see this Ring? 'T is Rome-work made to match (By Castellani's imitative craft) Etrurian circlets....

* * * * *

I fused my live soul and that inert stuff, Before attempting smithcraft...."

The "square old yellow book" which Browning had chanced upon in the market-place of San Lorenzo, in that June of 1860, was not a volume, but a "lawyer's file of documents and pamphlets." In relating how he found the book Browning says, in the poem:

"... I found this book, Gave a lira for it, eightpence English just, (Mark the predestination!) when a Hand, Always above my shoulder, pushed me once,

* * * * *

Across a Square in Florence, crammed with booths."

He stepped out on the narrow terrace, built

"Over the street and opposite the church,

* * * * *

Whence came the clear voice of the cloistered ones Chanting a chant made for midsummer nights—"

and making his own the story.

In 1908 Dr. Charles W. Hodell was enabled by the courtesy of Balliol College, to whom Browning left the "Old Yellow Book," to make a photographic reproduction of the original documents, to which Dr. Hodell added a complete and masterly translation, and a noble essay entitled "On the Making of a Great Poem," the most marvelous analysis and commentary on "The Ring and the Book" that has ever been produced. The photographed pages of the original documents, the translation, and this essay were published by the Carnegie Institution, in a large volume entitled "The Old Yellow Book." In his preface Professor Hodell records that he was drawn to the special study of this poem by Professor Hiram Corson, Litt.D., LL.D., to whom he reverently refers as "my Master." Of "The Ring and the Book" Dr. Hodell says:

"In the wide range of the work of Robert Browning no single poem can rival 'The Ring and the Book,' in scope and manifold power. The subject had fallen to his hands at the very fulness of his maturity, by 'predestination,' as it seemed to him. In the poem, as he planned his treatment, there was opportunity for every phase of his peculiar genius.... so that the completed masterpiece becomes the macrocosm of his work.... Without doubt it may be held to be the greatest poetic work, in a long poem, of the nineteenth century. It is a drama of profound spiritual realities.

'So write a book shall mean beyond the facts, Suffice the eye, and save the soul beside.'

Browning was the only important poet of the Victorian age who did not draw upon the Morte d'Arthur legends; and the rich mythology of the Greeks tempted him as little. The motive that always appealed to him most was that of the activity of the human spirit, its power to dominate all material barriers to transcend every temporary limit, by the very power of its own energy."

In his historic researches Professor Hodell found reason to believe that the Pope, in "The Ring and the Book," was Stephen VI, and not VII; and writing to Robert Barrett Browning to inquire regarding this point, he received from the poet's son the following interesting letter, which, by Dr. Hodell's generous courtesy, is permitted to appear in this book.


MY DEAR SIR,—I wish I were able to give you the information you ask me for, but my father's books are in Venice, and I have not any here touching on the matter to refer to.

If Pope Stephen was, as you say, the Sixth and not the Seventh, of course the mistake is obvious and perhaps attributable to an unconscious slip of the memory, which with my father was not at its best in dates and figures. It is not likely that such an error should have appeared in any old work, such as he would have consulted; and certainly it was not caused by carelessness, for he was painstaking to a degree, and had a proper horror of blundering, which is the word he would have used. I can only account for such a mistake as this—which he would have been the first to pronounce unpardonable—by his absent-mindedness, his attention being at the moment absorbed by something else. Absent-mindedness was one of his characteristics, over instances of which he used to laugh most heartily. My father's intention, I know, was to be scrupulously accurate about the facts in this poem. I may tell you as an instance that, wishing to be sure that there was moonlight on a particular night, he got a distinguished mathematician to make the necessary calculation. The description of the finding of the book is without doubt true in every detail. Indeed, to this day the market at San Lorenzo is very much what it was then and as I can remember it. Not long ago, I myself bought an old volume there off a barrow.

The "Yellow Book" was probably picked up in June of 1860 before going to Rome for the winter—the last my father passed in Italy. As it had always been understood that the Book should be presented to Balliol, I went soon after my father's death to stay a few days with Jowett, and gave it to him.

In the portrait that hangs in Balliol Hall I painted my father as he sat to me with the Book in his hands.

Nothing would have gratified him more than what you tell me about the interest with which his works are studied in America, and I need not say how much pleasure this gives me.

Believe me with many thanks for your kind letter,

Yours Very Sincerely,


A very curious discovery was made in Rome, in the winter of 1900, by Signer Giorgi, the Librarian of the Royal Casanatense Library, in an ancient manuscript account of curious legal trials, among which were those of Beatrice Cenci, of Miguel de Molinos (in 1686), and of the trial and sentence of Guido Franceschini. The fact that taxes credulity in regard to this manuscript, of whose existence, even, no one in modern times had ever dreamed, is that the three points of view, as presented by Browning in the "Half Rome," "The Other Half Rome," and "Tertium Quid," are in accord with those given in this strange document, which for more than a century had lain undisturbed in the archives.

In a little explanation regarding the significance of the closing lines of "The Ring and the Book," also kindly given by Robert Barrett Browning, it seems that his mother habitually wore a ring of Etruscan gold, wrought by Castellani, with the letters "A. E. I." on it; and that after her death the poet always wore it on his watch-chain, as does now his son. In the tablet placed on Casa Guidi to the memory of Mrs. Browning (the inscription of which was written by the Italian poet, Tommaseo) the source of the other allusion, of the linking Italy and England, is found. As the reader will recall, the lines run:

"And save the soul! If this intent save mine,— If the rough ore be rounded to a ring, Render all duty which good ring should do, And, failing grace, succeed in guardianship,— Might mine but lie outside thine, Lyric Love, Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised) Linking our England to his Italy!"

Dr. Corson especially notes Browning's opening invocation to his wife, praying her aid and benediction in the work he has undertaken. "This passage," says Dr. Corson, "has a remarkable movement, the unobtrusive but distinctly felt alliteration contributing to the effect."

"O lyric Love, half angel and half bird And all a wonder and a wild desire,— Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun, Took sanctuary within the holier blue."

That Browning could never have created the character of Pompilia, save for that all-enfolding influence of the character of his wife, all the greater critics of "The Ring and the Book" agree. To Dr. Corson, Browning said of her:

"I am not sorry, now, to have lived so long after she went away, but I confess to you that all my types of women were beautiful and blessed by my perfect knowledge of one woman's pure soul. Had I never known Elizabeth, I never could have written 'The Ring and the Book.'"

Of Pompilia Dr. Hodell also says:

"... But there is another influence in the creation of this ideal character beside that of the Madonna, it was the Madonna of his home, the mother of his own child, whose spiritual nature was as noteworthy as her intellect. And before this spiritual nature the poet bowed in humble reverence."

Mrs. Orr, too, has written:

"Mrs. Browning's spiritual presence was more than a presiding memory in the heart. I am convinced that it entered largely into the conception of Pompilia.

"It takes, however, both the throbbing humanity of Balaustion and the saintly glory of Pompilia to express fully the nature of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as she appeared to her husband."

Dr. Dowden, Brooke, Corson, Herford, Hodell, Chesterton, and other authoritative critics allude to their recognition of Mrs. Browning in the character of Pompilia; and no reader of this immortal masterpiece of poetic art can ever fail to find his pulses thrilling with those incomparable lines, spoken in her last hour on earth by Pompilia:

"O lover of my life, O soldier-saint, No work begun shall ever pause for death! Love will be helpful to me more and more I' the coming course, the new path I must tread—

* * * * *

Tell him that if I seem without him now, That's the world's insight! Oh, he understands!

* * * * *

So let him wait God's instant men call years; Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul, Do out the duty!..."

In the entire range of Browning's heroines Pompilia is the most exalted and beautiful character.



"I am strong in the spirit, deep-thoughted, clear-eyed; I could walk, step for step, with an angel beside, On the heaven-heights of truth. Oh, the soul keeps its youth

* * * * *

"'Twixt the heavens and the earth can a poet despond? O Life, O Beyond, Thou art strange, thou art sweet!"


In the summer of 1869 the Storys, with their daughter, came from Rome and joined Browning with his sister and his son, for a holiday in Scotland. They passed some time at a little inn on Loch Achnault, where Lady Marian Alford also came, and there are still vivid reminiscences of picnic lunches on the heather, and of readings by the poet from "The Ring and the Book." Chapters from "Rob Roy" also contributed to the enjoyment of evenings when the three ladies of the party—Mrs. Story, Lady Marian, and the lovely young girl, Miss Edith Story—were glad to draw a little nearer to the blazing fire which, even in August, is not infrequently to be desired in Scotland. Lord Dufferin was also a friend of those days, and for the tower he had built at Clandeboye in the memory of his mother, Helen, Countess of Gifford, Browning wrote, soon after, his poem entitled "Helen's Tower." Mrs. Orr speaks of this poem as little known, and not included in his published works; but it is now to be found in all the complete editions of Browning. After this Arcadian sojourn Browning and his son, with Miss Browning, were the guests of Lady Ashburton at Loch Luichart Lodge.

For two or three years after the publication of "The Ring and the Book," Browning wrote little. The demands of friends and of an always enormous correspondence occupied much time; his son was growing into young manhood, and already manifesting his intense love of art, and his gifts as both painter and sculptor.

Browning's conversation was always fascinating. It was full of glancing allusion, wit, sparkle, and with that constant undertone of significance that may be serious or gay, but which always lingers with a certain impressiveness to haunt the mind of the listener. Dr. Hiram Corson, who may perhaps be regarded as Browning's greatest interpreter, speaks of one of his visits to the poet, in London, where the conversation turned from Shelley to Shakespeare. "He spoke with regret of the strangely limited reading of the Plays, even by those who believe themselves habitual and devoted readers," says Dr. Corson.

"At luncheon," continues Dr. Corson, "his talk was, as usual with him, rapid and off-hand. He gave but a coup d'oeil to every subject that came up. In all subsequent talks with him, I never got the slightest impression from him of pride of intellect, though his was certainly one of the subtlest and most comprehensive intellects of his time. He was absolutely free from it; was saved from it by his spiritual vitality. His intellectual and his spiritual nature jointly operated. Nor did he ever show to me any pride of authorship; never made any independent allusion to his poetry. One might have supposed that his poetry, great and extensive as it was, was a parergon, a by-work, with him.

"I have no recollection of any saying of his, such as might be recorded for its wisdom or profundity. Never a brilliant thought crystallized in a single sentence. His talk was especially characterized by its cordiality and rapid flow. The 'member of society' and the poet seemed to be quite distinct.

"One day when Mrs. Corson and I were lunching with him in Warwick Crescent," said Dr. Corson, "he told us a most amusing incident. On that morning Browning was particularly 'an embodied joy.' He told several good stories, one of which showed that the enigmatical character attributed to his poetry by some of his critics was to him a good joke. I have no doubt he must have enjoyed the Douglas Jerrold story, that Jerrold, in endeavoring to read 'Sordello,' thought he had lost his mind.

"But to Browning's story. He said, 'I was visited by the Chinese minister and his attaches, without having been previously informed of their coming. Before they entered, I had noticed from my window a crowd in the street, which had been attracted by the celestials in their national rigs, who were just then getting out of their carriages, I not knowing then what manner of visitors I was to have. Soon the interpreter announced at the drawing-room door, "His Excellency, the Chinese Minister and his attaches." As they entered, the interpreter presented them, individually, first, of course, his Excellency, the Minister, and then the rest in order of rank. It was quite an impressive occasion. Recovering myself, I said to the interpreter: "To what am I indebted for this great honor?" He replied: "You are a distinguished poet in your country, and so is his Excellency in his." We did obeisance to each other. I then asked the character of his Excellency's poetry. The interpreter replied, "Chiefly poetical enigmas." Grasping his Excellency's hand, I said, "I salute you as a brother."'

"Browning told this story while walking up and down the room. When he said, 'I salute you as a brother,' he made the motion of a most hearty hand-shake."

Mrs. Arthur Bronson, than whom Mr. Browning never had a more sympathetic and all-comprehending friend, said that if she tried to recall Robert Browning's words it was as though she had talked to a being apart from other men. "My feeling may seem exaggerated," she smiled, "but it was only natural, when considering my vivid sense of his moral and intellectual greatness. His talk was not abstruse and intricate, like some of his writings. Far from it. As a rule he seemed rather to avoid deep and serious subjects. There was no loss, for everything he chose to say was well said. A familiar story, grave or gay, when clothed with his words, and accentuated by his expressive gestures and the mobility of his countenance, had all the charm of novelty; while a comic anecdote from his lips sparkled with wit, born of his own keen sense of humor. I found in him that most rare combination of a powerful personality united to a nature tenderly sympathetic."

Another who knew him well perpetrated the mot that "Tennyson hides behind his laurels, and Browning behind the man of the world." Henry James, whose gift of subtle analysis was never more felicitously revealed than in his expressions about Browning, declared that the poet had two personalities: one, the man of the world, who walked abroad, talked, did his duty; the other, the Poet,—"an inscrutable personage,—who sat at home and knew, as well he might, in what quarters of that sphere to look for suitable company. The poet and the man of the world were disassociated in him as they can rarely elsewhere have been."

For three or four summers after this sojourn in Scotland the Brownings were at St. Aubin, in Brittany, where they had a cottage "not two steps away" from that of his friend Milsand. In the early mornings Browning would be seen pacing the sands, reading from his little Greek copy of Homer; and in the late afternoons the two friends would stroll on the Normandy beach with their arms around each other's shoulders. They are described as very different in appearance,—Browning vigorous and buoyant, Milsand nervous, thin, reserved,—but akin in a certain delicate sensitiveness, a swift susceptibility to impressions. Of Browning Milsand said that what he really valued most was his kindness, his simple, open, radiant goodness. "All the chords of sympathy vibrated in his strong voice," added Milsand. The French critic was very fond of the poet's son, and in reference to him he once said: "The father has reason to be happy that in walking before he has opened a path for his son, instead of making him stumble." As has been seen, in Mrs. Browning's letters, she always shared her husband's enthusiasm for Milsand, and the latter had said that he felt in her "that shining superiority always concealing itself under her unconscious goodness and lovely simplicity."

On Sundays at St. Aubin's, Browning frequently accompanied Milsand to the little chapel of Chateau-Blagny, for Protestant worshipers. From his cottage Browning could gaze across the bay to the lighthouse at Havre, and he "saw with a thrill" the spot where he once passed a summer with his wife.

Italian recollections sometimes rose before his inner vision. To Isa Blagden, who had gone to Siena, he wrote that he could "see the fig-tree under which Ba sat, reading and writing, poor old Landor's oak opposite."

Of Milsand he wrote to a friend: "I never knew or shall know his like among men," and to Milsand, who had assisted him in some proof-reading, he wrote acknowledging his "invaluable assistance," and said:

"The fact is, in the case of a writer with my peculiarities and habits, somebody quite ignorant of what I may have meant to write, and only occupied with what is really written, ought to supervise the thing produced. I won't attempt to thank you, dearest friend.... The poem will reach you in about a fortnight. I look forward with all confidence and such delight to finding us all together again in the autumn. All love to your wife and daughter. R. B."

Milsand, writing of Browning in the Revue, revealed his high appreciation of the poet when he said: "Browning suggests a power even greater than his achievement. He speaks like a spirit who is able to do that which to past centuries has been almost impossible."

It was St. Aubin that furnished Browning with material for his poem, "Red Cotton Night-cap Country," the title of which was suggested by Miss Thackeray (now Lady Ritchie) who had a cottage there one summer, near those of Browning and Milsand. Browning and his sister occupied one of the most primitive of cottages, but the location was beautiful, perched on the cliff of St. Aubin, and commanded a changeful panorama of sea and sky. "The sitting-room door opened to the garden and the sea beyond—a fresh-swept bare floor, a table, three straw chairs, one book upon the table,—the only book he had with him. The bedrooms were as bare as the sitting-room, but there was a little dumb piano standing in a corner, on which he used to practice in the early morning. Mr. Browning declared they were perfectly satisfied with their little house; that his brains, squeezed as dry as a sponge, were only ready for fresh air."[12] As all Browning readers will remember, "Red Cotton Night-cap Country" is dedicated to Miss Thackeray.

In the succeeding autumn Browning passed some weeks at Fontainebleau, where he was absorbed in reading Aeschylus, and in making an especial study of the great dramatist. It was perhaps at this time that he conceived the idea of translating the Agamemnon, which, he says in his preface, "was commanded of me by my venerated friend Thomas Carlyle, and rewarded it will be if I am permitted to dignify it by the prefatory insertion of his dear and noble name."

Before the close of this year Browning had also complied with a request from Tauchnitz to prepare for publication a selection from the poems of Mrs. Browning. This Tauchnitz Edition of Mrs. Browning will always retain its interest as representing her husband's favorites among her poems. "The Rhyme of the Duchess May," with its artistic symmetry and exquisite execution, was of course included. This poem may be said to exhibit all Mrs. Browning's poetic characteristics.

Encouraged by Millais, Robert Barrett Browning had seriously entered on the study of painting, his first master being M. Heyermans in Antwerp. In 1875 Frederick Lehmann had expressed high appreciation of a work of the young artist, the study of a monk absorbed in reading a book,—a picture that he liked so well as subsequently to purchase it. Another picture by Barrett Browning was entitled "The Armorer," and found a place in the Royal Academy of that year, and was purchased by a Member of Parliament who was also something of a connoisseur in art. In this season was inaugurated the annual "private view" of the paintings of the poet's son, which were exhibited in a house in Queen's Gate Gardens and attracted much attention. In his son's success Browning took great pride and pleasure. On the sale of the picture to the M. P., Browning wrote to Millais:

19, WARWICK CRESCENT, May 10, 1878.

MY BELOVED MILLAIS,—You will be gladdened in the kind heart of you to learn that Pen's picture has been bought by Mr. Fielder, a perfect stranger to both of us. You know what your share has been in his success, and it cannot but do a world of good to a young fellow whose fault was never that of being insensible to an obligation.

Ever Affectionately Yours,


In 1871 Browning had been appointed Life Governor of the University of London, an honor that he particularly appreciated as indicating the interest of students in his poetry. In the late winter of 1872, after an absence of thirty years, Alfred Domett again appeared. He had vanished

"like a ghost at break of day,"

and like a ghost he returned, calling at once on his friend in Warwick Crescent. A letter from Miss Browning to Domett explains itself:



MY DEAR MR. DOMETT,—My brother was so sorry to miss you yesterday; he is a man of many engagements, and unfortunately is engaged every evening next week, or I would ask you to join our family dinner as soon as possible—but meanwhile, as he is impatient to see you, will you be very kind and come to lunch with us on Monday at one o'clock? We shall be delighted to meet you. If you cannot come on Monday, name some other morning.

Always Yours Truly,


The old friendship between Browning and Domett was renewed with constant intercourse and interchange of delightful letters. Milsand was in the habit of passing a part of every spring with Browning in his home in Warwick Crescent, and with the arrival of Domett a warm and sincere friendship united all three.

Once, in Scotland, as the guest of Ernest Benzon, when Browning missed part of a visit from Milsand, the poet said: "No words can express the love I have for Milsand, increasingly precious as he is." The Benzons were at that time in the hills above Loch Tummel, where Jowett was staying, Swinburne also with the Master of Balliol. Had there been a phonograph to register the conversation of such a trio as Jowett, Browning, and Swinburne, its records would be eagerly sought.

A fragmentary record, indeed, remains in a note made by Edwin Harrison, who was with Jowett at this time. In his diary Mr. Harrison recorded:

"R. B. was in the neighborhood, staying at Little Milton, above Loch Tummel, where he was perpetrating 'Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau' at the rate of so many lines a day, neither more nor less. He walked over to see Jowett one afternoon, very keen about a fanciful rendering he had imagined for lines in the Alcestis. A few evenings later we met him and his son at dinner at Altaine House, by the foot of the loch. You may be sure that where Jowett and Browning were, the conversation was animated and interesting."

In "Balaustion's Adventure" the poet seemed to take captive the popular appreciation of the day, for more than three thousand copies had been sold within the first six months, and his sister told Domett that she regarded it as the most swiftly appreciated poem of all her brother's works. Certainly it is one of the most alluring of Browning's works,—this delightful treatment of the interwoven life of mortals and of the immortal gods.

The June of 1872 brought to Browning the sad news of the death of his wife's dearest friend, Isa Blagden. "A little volume of Isabella Blagden's poems was published after her death," writes Thomas Adolphus Trollope. "They are not such as would take the world by storm, but it is impossible to read them without perceiving how choice a spirit their author must have been, and understanding how she was especially honored with the friendship of Mrs. Browning."[14]

On the publication of "Red Cotton Night-cap Country," Browning sent a first copy to Tennyson, and the Laureate's son says of it: "Among the lines which my father liked were

'Palatial, gloomy chambers for parade, And passage lengths of lost significance';

and he praised the simile about the man with his dead comrade in the lighthouse. He wrote to Mr. Browning: 'My wife has just cut the leaves. I have yet again to thank you, and feel rather ashamed that I have nothing of my own to send you back.'"

An entry in Tennyson's diary in the following December notes: "Mr. Browning dined with us. He was very affectionate and delightful. It was a great pleasure to hear his words,—that he had not had so happy a time for a long while as since we have been in town."

Tennyson's "Queen Mary" was published in 1875, and on receiving a copy from the author Browning wrote expressing thanks for the gift, and even more for "Queen Mary the poem." He found it "astonishingly fine"; and he adds: "What a joy that such a poem should be, and be yours." The relations between the two great poets of the Victorian age were always ideally beautiful, in their cordial friendship and their warm mutual appreciation.

In a note dated in the Christmas days of 1876 Browning writes:

MY DEAR TENNYSON,—True thanks again, this time for the best of Christmas presents, another great work, wise, good, and beautiful. The scene where Harold is overborne to take the oath is perfect, for one instance. What a fine new ray of light you are entwining with your many-colored wreath!...

All happiness befall you and yours this good season and ever.[15]

The present Lord Tennyson, in his biography of his father, makes many interesting allusions to the friendship and the pleasant intercourse between the poets. "Browning frequently dined with us," he says, "and the tete-a-tete conversations between him and my father on every imaginable topic were the best talk I have ever heard, so full of repartee, epigram, anecdote, depth, and wisdom, too brilliant to be possible to reproduce. These brother poets were two of the most widely read men of their time, absolutely without a touch of jealousy, and reveling, as it were, in each other's power.... Browning had a faculty for absurd and abstruse rhymes, and I recall a dinner where Jebb, Miss Thackeray, and Browning were all present, and Browning said he could make a rhyme for every word in the language. We proposed rhinoceros, and without pause he said,

'O, if you should see a rhinoceros And a tree be in sight, Climb quick, for his might Is a match for the gods,—he can toss Eros.'"

A London friend relates that on one occasion Browning chanced upon a literal translation some one had made from the Norwegian:

"The soul where love abideth not resembles A house by night, without a fire or torch,"

and remarked how easy it would be to put this into rhyme; and immediately transmuted it into the couplet,

"What seems the soul when love's outside the porch? A house by night, without a fire or torch."

When Browning's "Inn Album" appeared, and he sent a copy to Tennyson, the Laureate responded:

"MY DEAR BROWNING,—You are the most brotherly of poets, and your brother in the muses thanks you with the affection of a brother. She would thank you too, if she could put hand to pen."

Tennyson once remarked to his son, Hallam, that he wished he had written Browning's lines:

"The little more, and how much it is, The little less, and what worlds away."

There was an interval of twelve years between the appearance of the "Dramatis Personae" (in 1864) and the publication of "Pacchiarotto." In this collection Browning's amusing play of rhyme is much in evidence. Among Mr. Browning's most enjoyable experiences were his frequent visits to Oxford and Cambridge, in both of which he was an honored guest. In the spring of 1877 he had an especially delightful stay at Oxford, the pleasure even beginning on the train, "full of men, all my friends," he wrote of it; and continued: "I was welcomed on arrival by a Fellow who installed me in my rooms—then came the pleasant meeting with Jowett, who at once took me to tea with his other guests, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, the Dean of Westminster, Lord Airlie, and others."

There was a banquet and much postprandial eloquence that night, and Browning mentions among the speakers Lord Coleridge, Professor Smith, Mr. Green (on science and literature with a most complimentary appreciation of Browning), and "a more rightly-directed one," says the poet, "on Arnold, Swinburne, and the old pride of Balliol, Clough, which was cleverly and almost touchingly answered by dear Matthew Arnold." The Dean of Westminster responded to the toast of "The Fellows and the Scholars," and the entire affair lasted over six hours. "But the whole thing," said Browning, "was brilliant, genial, and there was a warmth, earnestness, and refinement about it which I never experienced in any previous public dinner."

The profound impression that Browning made both by his personality and his poetic work is further attested by his being again chosen Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. Dr. William Knight, the Professor of Moral Philosophy at St. Andrews, urges Browning's acceptance of this office, and begs the poet to realize "how the thoughtful youth of Scotland" estimate his work. Professor Knight closes by saying that his own obligations to Browning, "and to the author of 'Aurora Leigh' are such that of them silence is golden." While Mr. Browning was deeply touched by this testimonial of esteem, he still, for the second time, declined the honor.

Many readers and lovers of Robert Browning's poem "La Saisiaz" little dream of the singular story connected with it. "La Saisiaz" is a chalet above Geneva, high up in the Savoyard mountains, looking down on Geneva and Lake Leman. It is a tall, white house, with a red roof that attracted the lovers of beauty, solitude, and seclusion. Among the few habitues for many years were Robert Browning and his sister, Sarianna, and their friend, Miss Egerton-Smith. It was the bond of music that especially united Browning and this lady, and in London they were apt to frequent concerts together. "La Saisiaz" is surrounded by tall poplar trees, but the balcony from a third-floor window, which was Browning's room, looked through a space in the trees out on the blue lake, and on this balcony he would draw out his chair and writing desk. Back of the chalet a steep path ran up the mountains, where the three friends often climbed, to enjoy a gorgeous and unrivaled sunset spectacle.

In 1877 they were all there as usual in August, and one evening had planned that the next day they would start early in the morning and pass the day on the mountain, going by carriage, a servant accompanying them carrying the basket of luncheon. In the early evening Browning and Miss Egerton-Smith were out, pacing up and down the "grass-grown path," and talking of the infinite life which includes death and that which is beyond death. The next morning she did not appear, and Browning and his sister waited for her. They sat out on the terrace after having morning coffee, expecting to see the "tall white figure," and finally Miss Browning went to her room to ask if she were ill, and she lay dead on the floor. Miss Egerton-Smith was buried in the neighboring cemetery of Collonge, where her grave, over which a wonderful willow tree bends, is still seen—a place of frequent pilgrimage to visitors in this region. Five days after her death Browning made the excursion up the mountain alone,

"But a bitter touched its sweetness, for the thought stung 'Even so Both of us had loved and wondered just the same, five days ago!'"

La Saleve, the mountain overlooking the Arve and the Rhone Valley, is one of the most wildly picturesque points in all the Alpine region. The chalet of "La Saisiaz" was perched on this mountain spur, about half-way up the mountain, on a shelving terrace, with vast and threatening rocks rising behind. The poem called "La Saisiaz" is one of Browning's greatest. It is full of mystical questioning and of his positive and radiant assertions of faith; it abounds in vivid and exquisite scenic effects, and it has the personal touches of tenderness. The morning after her death is thus pictured:

"No, the terrace showed no figure, tall, white, leaning through the wreaths, Tangle-twine of leaf and bloom that intercept the air one breathes."

Browning and Miss Egerton-Smith had first met in Florence. She was an English lady of means (being part proprietor of the Liverpool Mercury) and of a reserve of temperament which kept her aloof from people in general. With the poet and his sister she was seen in all that cordial sweetness of her nature which her sensitive reserve veiled from strangers.

Italy again! A sapphire sky bending over hills and peaks and terraces swimming in violet shadows; villas, and sudden views, and arching pianterreni, and winding roads between low stone walls hidden in their riotous overgrowth of roses! And the soft air, the tall black cypresses against the sky, the sunsets and the stars, and golden lights, and dear Italian phrases! The trailing ivy vines all in a tangle; the wayside shrine, the vast white monastery perched on an isolated mountain top; the flaming scarlet of the poppies in the grass, the castles and battlements dimly caught on the far horizon,—the poetry, the loveliness, the ineffable beauty of Italy! Seventeen years had passed since that midsummer day when the dear form of his "Lyric Love" had been laid under the Florentine lilies, when Browning, in the spring of 1878, returned to his Italy. What dreams and associations thronged upon him!

"Places are too much, Or else too little for immortal man,—

* * * * *

... thinking how two hands before Had held up what is left to only one."

Seventeen years had passed, but Venice, the ethereal city, the mystic dream of sea and sky, was unchanged, and, however unconsciously, the poet was now to initiate another era, another new "state" in his life. He never again went farther south than Venice; he could never see Florence or Rome again, where she had lived beside him; but the dream city now became for him a second and dearer home. With his sister Sarianna, he broke the journey by lingering in a hotel on the summit of the Spluegen, where he indulged himself in those long walks which he loved, Miss Browning often accompanying him down the Via Cala Mala, or to the summit where they could look down into Lombardy. Browning was at work on his "Dramatic Idyls," and not only "Ivan Ivanovitch," but several others were written on the Spluegen. Pausing at Lago di Como, and a day in Verona, they made their way to Asolo, "my very own of all Italian cities," the poet would say of it. Asolo, which from its rocky hilltop, has an outlook over all Veneto,—over all Italy, it would almost seem, for the towers and domes of Venice are visible on a clear day,—gave its full measure of joy to Browning, and when they descended into Venice they were domiciled in the Palazzo Brandolin-Rota, on the Grand Canal, near the Accademia. In Venice he met a Russian lady whom he consulted about some of the names he was giving to the characters in his "Ivan Ivanovitch."

The success of his son in the Paris Salon and other exhibitions was a continual happiness to Mr. Browning. Both in Paris and in London the pictures of Barrett Browning were accorded an honorable place "on the line"; he received a medal from the Salon, and there was not wanting, either, that commercial side of success that sustains its theory. The young artist had now seriously entered on sculpture, under Rodin, with much prestige and promise.

The first series of "Dramatic Idyls" was published in the autumn of 1872, closely following "La Saisiaz" and the "Two Poets of Croisic." The devoted student of Browning could hardly fail to be impressed by one feature of his poetry which, though a prominent one, has received little attention from the critics. This feature is his doctrine of the sub-self, as the source of man's highest spiritual knowledge. He has given his fullest expression of this belief in his "Paracelsus," and it appears in "Sordello" (especially in the fifth book), in "A Death in the Desert," in "Fifine," and in "Christopher Smart," and is largely developed in "The Ring and the Book." Again, in "Beatrice Signorini," contained in "Asolando," published only on the day of his death, this theory is again apparent, and these instances are only partial out of the many in which the doctrine is touched or elaborated, showing how vital it was with him from the earliest to the latest period of his work. Another striking quality in Browning is that of the homogeneous spirit of his entire poetic expression. It is the great unity in an equally great variety. It is always clear as to the direction in which Browning is moving, and as to the supreme message of his philosophy of life.



"Moreover something is or seems, That touches me with mystic gleams, Like shadows of forgotten dreams."

"Alas! our memories may retrace Each circumstance of time and place, Season and change come back again, And outward things unchanged remain; The rest we cannot re-instate; Ourselves we cannot re-create; Nor set our souls to the same key Of the remembered harmony!"


Twenty-five years after Robert Browning had visited the famous haunts of Rousseau with his wife, he again made a little sojourn with his sister in lovely Chambery, making various excursions in all the picturesque region about, and again visiting "Les Charmettes," which Miss Browning had not before seen; as before, Browning sat down to the old harpsichord, attempting to play "Rousseau's Dream," but only two notes of the antique instrument responded to his touch. Through all the wonderful scenery of the Mont Cenis pass they proceeded to Turin and thence to Venice, where they arrived in the midst of the festivities of the Congress Carnival in September of 1881. The Storys, whom Browning had anticipated meeting in Venice, had gone to Vallombrosa, where their daughter (the Marchesa Peruzzi di' Medici) had a villa, to which the family retired in summer from their stately old palace in Florence. Mr. Story's two sons, the painter and the sculptor, both had studios in Venice at this time, and Mr. Browning often strolled into these. Among other friends Browning and his sister visited the Countess Mocenigo, who was ensconced in the same palace that Byron had occupied. She showed her guests through all the rooms with their classic associations, and Browning sat down to the desk at which Byron had written the last canto of "Childe Harold." To the satisfaction of the Brownings, Venice soon regained her usual quiet,—that wonderful silence broken only by the plash of water against marble steps, and the cries of the gondoliers,—and he resumed his long walks, often accompanied by Miss Browning, exploring every curious haunt and lingering in shops and squares. The poet familiarized himself with the enchanting dream city, as no tours in gondolas alone could ever do. To him Venice came to be dear beyond words, and soon after he made all arrangements to purchase the Palazzo Manzoni, an ancient Venetian palace of the fifteenth century, whose facade was a faint glow of color from its medallions of colored marbles, and whose balconies and arched windows seemed especially designed for a poet's habitation. But the ancient structure was found to be in a too perilous condition, and Browning, with never-failing regret, resigned the prospect; nor was he ever consoled, it is said, until, some years later, his son became the owner of the noble Palazzo Rezzonico.

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