Every day the poet saw Venice transformed into new splendor. "To see these divine sunsets is the joy of life," he would say, as a city, flushed with rose, reflected itself in pale green waters, and the golden sunset filled with liquid light every narrow street and passage, contrasting sharply with the dense black shadows. Browning had a love of the sky that made its glorious panorama one of the delights of his life.
One of the crowning honors of the poet's life invested these days for him with renewed vitality of interest,—that of the formation of the Browning Society in London for the study and promulgation of his poetic work. This was, indeed, a contrast to the public attitude of thirty years before. Once, in a letter to Mrs. Millais (dated January 7, 1867) he had described himself to her as "the most unpopular poet that ever was." The Browning Society was due, in its first inception, to Dr. Furnivall and to Miss Emily Hickey, and its founding was entirely without Browning's knowledge. Although the poet avowed himself as "quite other than a Browningite," he could not fail to be touched and gratified by such a mark of interest and appreciation.
Dr. Hiram Corson, Professor of Literature at Cornell University, had, however, formed a Browning Club, composed of professors and their wives and many eminent scholars, some four or five years before the formation of the Browning Society in London, and the notable Browning readings which Professor Corson had given continually in many of the large cities and before universities, had been of incalculable aid in making Robert Browning's poetry known and understood in the United States. As an interpreter of Browning, Dr. Corson stood unrivaled. His aim was to give to his audience the spiritual meaning of the poem read. His rich voice had the choral intonation without which no poem can be vocally interpreted. His reading gave not only the articulated thought, but the spiritual message of the poet. It is hardly too much to say that no one has ever fully realized the dramatic power of Browning who has not listened to the interpretation of Dr. Corson. Of his own part in the creation of the Browning Society in London, Dr. Corson kindly contributed this record:
"I was stopping with my wife at the Inns of Court Hotel, on High Holborn. A day or two before receiving Mr. Browning's invitation, Dr. Frederick James Furnivall dined with us, and after dinner we went over to the Inns of Court Gardens, just back of the hotel. There we walked about during the long evening twilight, and talked over the founding of a Society which Dr. Furnivall and Miss Emily Henriette Hickey, the poetess, had been contemplating, for the study of Browning's poetry. I told him of what I had done at Cornell University, the previous four or five years, in a Browning Club composed of Professors and their wives, and in my University classes. It was decided that the London Browning Society should be organized in October; and I engaged to go over to England the following June, and read a paper before the Society; which I did at its eighth meeting, on the 23d of June, the subject of the paper being 'The Idea of Personality as embodied in Robert Browning's Poetry, and of Art as an intermediate Agency of Personality.'"
Another source of joy to Browning, and one that far exceeded that of any recognition of himself, was the increasing recognition of his son's achievements in art. Barrett Browning was at this time a pupil of Rodin in Paris, devoting himself to sculpture with the same ardor that he gave to his painting. As to which expression in art was the more his metier, chi lo sa? The young man was the child of the muses, and all forms of art were to him a temperamental inheritance.
Oxford again honored Browning, this time in the June of 1882, with the degree of D.C.L. "I never saw my father happier than on this occasion," Mr. Barrett Browning said to the writer of this volume when questioned regarding it; and another observer who was present speaks of Browning's distinction in his red Oxford gown, his shoulders thrown back, and his swift, light step. One of the humors of the occasion was the dangling of a red cotton night-cap over his head by one of the undergraduates, who was in danger of a not ill-merited rebuke, but Browning interceded with the Vice-Chancellor not to be too hard "on the harmless drolleries of the young man." It was in this Oxford gown, holding in his hand "the square old yellow book," that Robert Barrett Browning painted the portrait of his father, which he presented to Oxford, and which now hangs, a treasured possession, in Balliol Hall, to which portrait some allusion has already been made.
One of the most beautiful of the friendships of the last decade of the poet's life was that with Mrs. Arthur Bronson, a very cultivated and charming American woman who for more than twenty years made her home in Venice. Casa Alvisi, on the Grand Canal, opposite Santa Maria della Salute, came to be such a delightful center of social life for the choice circle that Mrs. Bronson gathered around her, that its records fairly enter into the modern history of Venice. Adjoining Casa Alvisi was the old Giustiniani Palace, in which Mrs. Bronson had taken a suite of rooms that she might use them in dispensing her hospitalities. No one who has been the privileged guest of Mrs. Bronson can ever lose the grateful appreciation of her genius as a hostess. Her lovely hospitality was dispensed with the quality that entitled it to be considered as absolutely a special gift of the gods, and when she invited Browning and his sister to occupy these rooms in the Palazzo Giustiniani Recanti, it was with a grace that forestalled any refusal. At first Miss Browning did a little housekeeping on their own account, except that they dined and passed the evening with Mrs. Bronson; later on, for several seasons, they were her house-guests in Casa Alvisi,—that unique and dream-enchanted interior crowded with lovely Venetian things, and bibelots and bric-a-brac picked up the world over. But the brother and sister always occupied the rooms in the palace. It was after the first one of this series of annual visits that Browning wrote to Mrs. Bronson the following letter after his return to London:
19, WARWICK CRESCENT, W.
Nov. 18, '81.
I would not write at first arriving, Dear Friend, because I fancied that I might say too much all at once, and afterward be afraid of beginning again till some interval; this fortnight since I saw you, however, must pass for a very long interval indeed, I will try to tell you as quietly as possible that I never shall feel your kindness,—such kindness!—one whit less than I do now; perhaps I feel it "now" even more deeply than I could, at all events, realize that I was feeling.
You have given Venice an appreciation that will live in my mind with every delight of that dearest place in the world. But all the same you remain for me a dearest of friends, whether I see you framed by your Venice, or brightening up our bleak London, should you come there. In Venice, however, should I live and you be there next autumn, it will go hard with me if I do not meet you again.
What a book of memories, and instigations to get still more memories, does your most beautiful and precious book prove to me! I never supposed that photographers would have the good sense to use their art on so many out-of-the-way scenes and sights, just those I love most....
You—you have lost Lowell, and Field, and the rest of the good fellowship, but you will be sure of a succession of the sort.
On the poet's seventieth birthday he received, from the Browning Societies of Oxford, Cambridge, Cornell University, and others, a gift of a complete set of his own works, bound in olive green morocco, in a beautifully carved oak case, with this inscription:
"To Robert Browning on his seventieth birthday, May 7th, 1882, from some members of the Browning Societies. These members having ascertained that the works of a Great Modern Poet are never in Robert Browning's house, beg him to accept a set of these works which they assure him will be found worthy of his most serious attention."
Dr. Corson has related that when he visited the poet at one time Browning showed him this case, placed against the wall of the drawing-room, with an almost boyish delight.
In August of 1882, on their leisurely way to Venice, Browning and his sister lingered at Saint-Pierre la Chartreuse and at Gressoney Saint-Jean, where his enchanting outlook upon Monte Rosa was a continual joy, Mr. Browning spent one night in the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse, in order to hear the midnight mass; while Miss Browning, denied hospitality in the monastery, received that of the convent near at hand, where she was cordially entertained by the Mother Superior.
The Prologue of "Ferishtah's Fancies," published the next year, is dated from Gressoney, Val d'Aosta, and the lines,
"A fancy-freak by contrast born of thee, Delightful Gressoney!"
will recall themselves to the memory. Miss Browning was an ideal companion in these mountain wanderings. She was equal to endless walks, and she had the accomplishment of being able to ride a mule or a donkey as one to the manor born. From Gressoney they looked up to the glaciers of Monte Rosa, almost overhanging, and from Saint-Pierre Browning wrote to a friend that they were in the roughest and most primitive inn, "but my sister bears it bravely."
Italian recognition of Browning was stimulated and extended, if not primarily inspired, by Il Signor Dottore Nancioni, who had the Chair of Literature in the University of Florence, and whom the Brownings had first met in the old Siena days. As Milsand first made Browning known in France, through his critical papers in the Revue, so Nancioni published, in the Nuova Antologia, and in the Fanfulla della Domenica of Rome, several papers devoted to serious and critical study and interpretation of Browning's work; and he made the journey from Rome to Venice to meet the poet again. The recital of poetry was by no means ended in Italy in the days of the Improvvisatori, and Professor Nanciani frequently gave readings from Browning before cultivated Italian audiences.
When Venice honored Goldoni with a statue, Browning was invited to contribute to that wonderful "Album" of letters, with which Italy characteristically commemorates all scholarly events, with contributions from literary men. The sonnet so pleased the Venetians that they gave it the place of honor in the album.
The London seasons during all these years were of unrivaled brilliancy. Browning was seen in all the great houses, and often for two weeks he would dine out every consecutive night. Dr. Corson, whose first visit to Browning was made in the early eighties, gave to a friend in a personal letter this little transcription of his first meeting with the poet, with whom he had long been in correspondence:
"He received me in the drawing-room, on the second floor. After a few minutes' conversation, he showed me various interesting things, in the drawing-room, busts and portraits and mementoes of Mrs. Browning, keeping up a rapid and meandering current of talk. Something was said, I forget what, which caused me to allude to 'the Book,' the 'square old yellow book,' with 'crumpled vellum covers,' which he picked out of the market-day trumpery in the Piazza San Lorenzo, in Florence, and which led to the composition of his masterpiece, 'The Ring and the Book,' 'I'll take you down in a few minutes,' he said, 'to the library, and show it to you.' When we left the drawing-room and were at the top of the stairway, he, with an apparent unconsciousness, and as if I were a younger brother, put his arm over my off shoulder, and so descended with me, talking all the while at his usual rapid rate. I tell this little incident, as I observed later, on several occasions, such an expression of unconscious cordiality and good fellowship was a characteristic of him.
"Beside his chair, at the writing table, stood Mrs. Browning's low-seated, high and straight-backed, black haircloth covered chair, on which were piled books almost to the top of the back, which most effectually excluded any one from the honor of sitting in it.
"When showing me 'The Book,' he called my attention to passages in the Latin portion of it—the arguments of the two lawyers, Bottinius and Hyacinthus de Archangelis, and I was struck with the way in which he translated them, the rapid and close recasting of the thought in English, a rare gift even with the best Latin scholars. I had occasions to discover, in subsequent visits, that he read the Greek in a genial way and with less grammatical consciousness than do many Greek professors. His scholarship was extensive and, I would add, vital, it not having been imposed upon him at a public school and a university, and he having had what must have been Shakespeare's power of acquiring and absorbing knowledge of all kinds. On some subsequent visit, I don't remember what we had been talking about that led to the remark, he said to me, in his rapid mode of speech, 'I never could have done much at a public school,' meaning, of course, an endowed foundation school, such as Eton and others, in which there is a special preparation for the Universities. After a pause, he added, 'no, nor at a university either. Italy was my university.' In his 'De Gustibus——' he says:
'Open my heart and you will see Graved inside of it, Italy.'
"While he was showing me 'The Book,' I asked him about a passage in 'The Ring and the Book.' He replied, 'I don't remember the passage. It has been some time since I read the poem, and I haven't a copy of it in my house!'
"He showed me many of Mrs. Browning's books—nearly all of them 24mo editions—said she couldn't hold big books—English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek books; a Hebrew Bible which had belonged to a distinguished English bishop, whose name I've forgotten. 'Did Mrs. Browning read Hebrew?' I asked. 'Oh, yes,' he replied, and added with a sigh, 'she was a wonderful woman.'"
The succeeding summer found the Corsons again in London, and the following invitation from Browning particularly pleased them in its assurance that "nobody else" would be present.
DEAR PROFESSOR CORSON,—Could Mrs. Corson and yourself do my sister and me the great pleasure of taking luncheon with us—and nobody else—next Tuesday (27th) at one o'clock?
Believe me, dear Professor Corson,
Yours Truly Ever,—
On Browning's return to England in 1861, after his wife's death, he had entered into a most brilliant and congenial social life. Thackeray died soon after his return; but there were Carlyle, Ruskin, Jowett, Millais, Rossetti, Proctor, Matthew Arnold, Woolner, Leighton, Tennyson (whose companionship, as we have seen, was one of his keenest enjoyments), and his publisher, George Murray Smith, of the head of the house of Smith, Elder, and Company, who was one of his chosen friends. Carlyle died in 1881, but many of this group well outlived Browning. On New Year's Day of 1884 Miss Browning wrote to Mrs. Bronson:
The very first word I write this year is to you, dearest friend, wishing you every good gift the earth below, and Heaven above, can offer. If Robert does not write his own share in these kind feelings, it is only because we have mutually agreed that we shall come more constantly before you if we keep our letters apart.
... You cannot think how incessantly we dwell on the memories of the pleasant past. We are in Casa Alvisi in spirit daily, and I picture to myself all that is going on in the well-loved rooms. I hope Edith works at her guitar. She will find that it will repay the trouble.
Give our kindest love to her, and take yourself our loving hearts.
God bless you this year.
Ever Yours Affectionately,
In a letter to Mrs. Bronson Browning alludes to the purchase of the new house in DeVere Gardens:
"... I am really in treaty—not too deeply in it for extrication at need—with the land-owner who proposes to build me the house I want,—freehold, if you please! so that it can be Pen's after me; my notion is to contract just what Sarianna and I require now, leaving it in the said Pen's power to add and alter according to future advisability."
Portions of other letters from Browning to Mrs. Bronson are as follows. The first refers to the little daughter of Princess Melanie Metternich.
"First and worst of all, dear friend, how truly grieved I am to hear of the sad end of the poor little girl I remember so well. Do you remember how she, with her sister, walked before us on our way homeward from the Piazza on nearly our last evening? And how prettily she asked me at her own house to write in her Birthday Book! All this sudden extinction of light in the gay Ca' Bembo, where I saw the silks bespread before your knowledge and my ignorance!
"It is needless to say how much I pity the Princess, and her kindly husband, too, and I am sorry, very sorry, for you also, Dear Friend of mine, well knowing how you must have suffered in degree."
Mrs. Bronson had a talent for the writing of drawing-room comedies, and to one of these the poet alludes:
"DEAR FRIEND,—I kept your Comedietta by me a whole week that I might taste of it again and again; how clever it is, who can know better than I, who furnished the bare framework which your Virginia creeper has over-flourished so charmingly? It is all capitally done; quite as much elaborated as the little conception was worth; but its great value to me is the proof it really gives what really good work you might do on a larger scale....
"... I dined last evening at John Murray's, in the room where used to meet Byron, Scott, Moore, all those famous men of old, whose portraits still adorn the walls. Murray told me he well remembered Byron and his ways; could still in fancy see him and Scott, and also hear them, as they stamped heavily (lame as both were) down the somewhat narrow stairs. Sociability may well come to the relief of people who cannot amuse themselves at home, for the weather, mild, and too mild, is gray, sunless and spiritless, altogether. To-day it rains, a rare occurrence...."
One of the very pleasant interludes in Mr. Browning's life came about this time in the receipt of a letter from Professor Masson of the University of Edinburgh, inviting the poet to be his guest the week of the coming Tercentenary celebration of the University. It had been decided to confer on Mr. Browning an Honorary Degree, but by some misadventure the official letter announcing this had not reached him, and in reply to Professor Masson he wrote that he had not received "the invitation to Edinburgh which occasions this particularly kind one," which he thankfully acknowledged, "but I should find it difficult if not impossible to leave London in April," he continues, "as my son will then be with me; but had I seen my way in so doing it would delight me, indeed, could I spend the days in question with you and Mrs. Masson." He added that if ever he was privileged "to see the as famous as beautiful City again," he should call on the Massons the first thing of all, and he desired thanks to Mrs. Masson "for associating her goodness with yours."
Apparently another letter appears from Professor Masson, but still Browning does not receive the official invitation of the University. "Should it follow," he writes, "I will acknowledge the distinction as gratefully as I have done already when it was conferred by Oxford and Cambridge." The Massons also invited Mr. Browning to bring his son with him, and he responded:
"... So, my dear Professor Masson, I provisionally accept your hospitality with thankfulness, and that of Mrs. Masson. For my son, who is away, I can only say that he shall be informed of your goodness, and I fully believe will be delighted to avail himself of it.... As to the 'vagueness or intelligibility' of your note, I can assure you that one thing was intelligible enough,—that you wished to help me most kindly and pleasantly to witness an extremely interesting ceremony, and I have written to my son and his answer you shall hear as soon as possible.... By the way, ought I to attend in the Oxford D.C.L. gown,—at any preliminary entertainment, for instance."
The next letter tells its own story.
19, WARWICK CRESCENT, W.
March 25th, 1884.
MY DEAR PROFESSOR MASSON,—Nothing can be kinder than all your proposed arrangements. My son arrived two days ago, and, unfortunately, is obliged to return to Paris next week in order to finish work begun there—and he will be detained too long to allow of the visit which he would otherwise delight in paying you and for the invitation to which he desires me to offer you and Mrs. Masson his grateful acknowledgments, being well aware of what a privilege he is forced to deprive himself.... I shall bring the Oxford D.C.L. gown and provide myself with a Hood in Edinburgh.
So, with repeated thanks for all your goodness, and looking forward with much pleasure to the approaching festivities, and even more in the opportunity to converse, believe me, my dear Professor Masson,
Yours Very Sincerely,
Miss Rosaline Masson, the Professor's daughter, has described how Browning sat before the fire the evening of his arrival, in an armchair, his hands resting on it, while he spoke with sympathetic pride of his son's work, and told how the son, who had studied so much abroad, had once announced to Millais his intention of going to Egypt to paint, and that Millais had replied that he would not give up his months in the highlands of Scotland for any years in Egypt.
The Massons had as their guests for this great commemoration the Count and Countess Aurelio Saffi, the Count bringing with him his gorgeous Bologna gown, in which he had the resplendence of a figure in a stained glass window.
The week was a most enjoyable one to Mr. Browning. Receptions and dinners made up a round of festivity, and when he was asked by his hostess if he objected to all the adulation he received, he replied: "Object to it? No; I have waited forty years for it and now—I like it."
After his return to London he sent to Mrs. Masson two manuscripts of Mrs. Browning's, her translations of "Psyche and Pan" and of "Psyche Propitiating Ceres," and to Professor Masson a letter from Leigh Hunt to himself, which the Professor had wished to copy,—the original which he sent being written on sheets of different colors held together with colored embroidery.
Browning wrote to his host that he had read with delight his two lectures on Carlyle, and that "the goodness of that memorable week" was never long out of his mind.
The letters written to Mrs. Bronson offer almost a panoramic picture of his life over all these closing years. Alluding to a studio that he had taken for the temporary accommodation of his son's pictures and busts, Mr. Browning resumes:
... Pen's statues and busts are in bronze now, and his large "Idyl," three landscapes, and whatsoever else, to arrive soon. Were you only here to see! Well, you can bear with the talking about them you shall undergo, for we two understand each other, don't we? I know I am ever yours and your own Edith's affectionately,
In the late summer Browning and his sister were the guests of Mrs. Bloomfield Moore, in her villa at St. Moritz, from which Mr. Browning thus writes to Mrs. Bronson:
VILLA BERRY, ST. MORITZ, OBER ENGADINE.
Sept. 6, '84.
Yes, dearest friend, your pretty wreath came this morning, and opposite this table shall it hang till I leave the house, be it withered or no, and at present it is fresh. Now, thank you for what? For everything, your love, and thoughts, and regrets, too. Do not we, too, regret that Italy is closed to us; but the comfort out of the vexation is that you will, will you not, cross to London from Paris, and so we shall see you for all the multiplied hindrances. Now how do you suppose it is faring with us? We are alone. Our hostess was summoned to America last week, to her extreme regret, and after a hot business of telegraphing and being telegraphed to, left last Wednesday. She had taken this comfortable villa till the middle of December, and would not hear of our quitting it, and, all things considered, we had little inclination to do so, for you were from home, and what would be the good of lingering out this month elsewhere, the air and influences happening to suit us extremely. So our plan is to stay out Sept. here, and be content with at most two months' absence, instead of the four we utterly enjoyed last year. Mrs. Moore was altogether as kind and considerate as possible, and has made every possible provision for our comfort after her departure. We are quite alone. Friends are in the place, but we only get glimpses of them. The place is emptying fast, the pensions shut up, the walks on the mountain-side are wholly our own. Two days ago the snow fell thickly, and what a sight were the mountains next morning in a glowing sun! These changes I expect will diversify the whole month, and inside this warm, pleasant room Sarianna and I read, and don't require "the devil to find some missing ill for idle hands to do." You have much more to enjoy with all that good music thrown in, and I am glad for you. We get books and papers enough, and I am correcting proofs of the poem I was too negligent about in London. Many distractions stood in the way of that. After all, we have attained the main object of our journey, the complete re-establishment of Sarianna's health, who walks twice a day, just as of old. I am cheered, too, by letters from Robert, the last of which comes just now.
He was anxious that his statue of "Dryope" should be seen at the Brussels exhibition, a triennial one, and important from the concurrence of the best foreign artists; but the "Grosvenor," where it was shown, did not close till the first week in August, while the Brussels Gallery was closed to (entrance of) works on the 25th of July. Robert sent his photographs with a petition for a "delai," only exceptionally granted; the committee conceded it unanimously, and have given it a place where it stands by itself, and is capitally seen. He went to see it, and so did the King and Queen, to whom he would have been presented, had he not been in morning dress. (The father of Robert to the mother of Edith.) You know very well how interested and delighted I shall be to read your German translations if you send them; do!
Again, from this invigorating mountain village Browning writes to his Venetian friend and hostess in Casa Alvisi:
VILLA BERRY, ST. MORITZ, ENGADINE, S.
Sept. 23, '84.
For first thing, dearest friend, I am glad to know that my letter with the poems reached you before your departure. I had some fear that you might miss it. It is like your goodness to care so much about what amounts to so little. I did what I could to be of use by amending; I could have done more to the purpose if the poems were original; but I know your translations were faithful, as they should be. When you write out of your own dear head let me see, and try hard to improve it, never so little. I well remember the whole book of verses you let me read at Venice; I could not well have helped you there. And now for a sorrow after the gladness; we do not pass through Paris this time, but take the direct and more convenient route by Amiens and Calais. Last year we wanted, or needed, to see Pen, who was at his Paris studio; but now he is still in Dinard. I do not know when he means to leave; if he finds you at Paris it will be a delight for him to see you....
Well, yes, the king's behavior has been admirable; what a chance the poor Pope has thrown away in not preceding him! If the "Prisoner of the Vatican" had quietly walked out of his confinement, with a Cross before him, and an attendant on each side, and passed on to Naples and the hospitals "braving all danger in imitation of his Master," I verily believe there might have happened a revolution. Such events from much less causes being frequent enough. Where is the "wisdom of the serpent"?
Dearest friend, my sister writes, all love to Edith, all love to you, from your ever affectionate
On their return to London the letters to Mrs. Bronson again resume the story of this interesting life:
"... I have got rid of my last proof-sheets, and all of a sudden it occurs to me to ask—now that alteration is impossible, I suppose—whether I have offended in just dating the last poem from the place where I wrote it—the Giustiniani? The first poem was dated at the inn, and the last seemed to belong to the beloved place where it was penned, as I wanted to remember, or be remembered, rather. Have I done wrong? (I hear at this moment my sister actually singing in the next room,—so completely is she re-established in health.) By letters we find that the admirable weather at St. Moritz was continued up to the end of the last week; here the weather is fine, and finer than usual, but the sparkle is off the wine, the wonderful freshness of St. Moritz does not incline one to dance rather than walk.
"I am in absolute peace and quietude, and so thoroughly prepared to enjoy your coming,—if that may be...."
The next letter speaks of American friends:
19, WARWICK CRESCENT, W.
Oct. 14, '84.
DEAREST FRIEND,—I waited a little before replying to your letter, wanting to be sure when I could say that Pen would be in Paris; he proposed to go there yesterday, and you will certainly have a visit from him as soon as he can manage to do what I know he desires very much.
Here are your verses which I try to be as severe about as possible, with no success, at all, worth speaking of! You will take my corrections (infinitesimal, this time) for what they are worth, and continue to send me what you write, will you not?
I was surprised two days ago by a note from Mr. Lowell, inviting me and my sister to meet the Storys at dinner to-morrow, they being his guests during a short stay in London; and yesterday afternoon they called on my sister, both the Storys and Mr. Lowell; the former are flourishing, and go in a few days to Rome. Where they have passed the summer, we were not told. Last evening at a dinner given by Sidney Colvin, I met Mr. James, who showed great interest in hearing how you were, and how much nearer you were likely to be. On the other hand, there will be a sad visitor to Venice presently, Professor Huxley, in a deplorable state of health, from over-work. I hate to speak of what is only too present with me,—your own health,—I trust you have got rid of that cough, (all dreadful things go with a cough in my memory.)...
... My book, which you kindly inquire about, is out of my hands and in print, but the publishing, the when and how, concerns the publisher. I do not expect to see the completed thing for another month.
Yes, I felt so lovingly to the Giustinian-Reconnati that I could not bear cutting the link allowed by the Place and Date that were appended to the Ms., and you permit, so all is well, if you remember me as ever affectionately yours,
Under date of October 23, 1884, Browning says in one letter:
"I saw Huxley's brother-in-law, Sir Robert Collier, last evening, at Dr. Granville's, and inquired about the stay in Venice. It will be a very short one as he has to return almost immediately for the marriage of his daughter Rachel; I can hardly think he will re-return, the ceremony at an end, yet he may; and in that case he shall be informed of your goodness to himward, in apostolically appropriate language. He is a thoroughly admirable person in all but his inconsiderateness in this waste of a precious life. I duly told the Storys how much you wanted to see them, and they probably have seen you by this time. Mrs. Story meant to rest at Paris, and forego the Amiens route. She has been unwell, but I thought her appearance very satisfactory. I dined with them last week at Mr. Lowell's, and called there on Sunday. I met Henry James the other day, and surprised as well as inspirited him by the news that you were so near, and, as I believed, so soon to be nearer. Now write to me, tell me all you are about to do; how is dear Edith?...
O, no, Pen is none of mine to outward view, but wholly his mother's—in some respects, at least. At the same age there was small difference between Pen's face and that of the brother she lost,—to judge by a drawing I possess...."
To the Marchesa Peruzzi di' Medici who sent to him a translation she had made of the "Ricordo Autobiografici" of Giovanni Dupre, Browning thus writes:
"It is not so very 'little' an affair, and in the fear that when my sister has finished it, I may have to begin my own reading, and end it so late as to lead you to suppose that either book or letter has gone wrong, on this account I write at once to thank you most heartily. My sister says the Autobiography is fascinating; I can well believe it, for I never knew such a work to be without interest, and this of Dupre must abound in precisely the matters that interest me most.... When I have thoroughly gone through the book I will write you again, if you permit me, as I know your old memories will be indulgent in the case. We may be in Italy this autumn, and if you are within reach you will be certain to see the old friend who always rejoices when he hears of your well-being, and trusts it may continue.... Pen is very well; at Dinard just now, painting landscape in the open air. I have told him already of the book which he will take delight in reading. I am occupied this very day in sending his statue of 'Dryope' to Brussels, where the Exhibition will give it a chance of being judged by better knowledge than is found here."
The following letter indicates, in Browning's own charming way, the warm attachment that both he and his sister had for Mrs. Bronson:
19, WARWICK CRESCENT, W.
Feb. 15, '85.
DEAREST MRS. BRONSON,—This dull morning grew to near blackness itself, when, at breakfast, my sister said once again, "No news of her from Venice,"—and I once again calculated and found by this time it was a month and a full half since we heard from you. Why should this be? If I had simply and rationally written a line, instead of thinking a thought, I should have known, as your dear goodness will let me know, as soon as you receive this, how you are, how Edith is, now that the winter is over and gone with the incentives to that cough which was still vexatious when we had your last letter.
Do not let us mind high-days and holidays: be sure of this, that every day will be truly festal that brings us a word from you, for other clouds than the material ones make us melancholy just now; and how this turbid element about us contrasts with the golden hours near the beloved friends,—perhaps more vivid,—certainly more realized as valuable, than ever! I do not mean to write much because what I want to impress on your generosity is that just a half sheet, with mere intelligence about you, will be a true comfort and sustainment to me and to my sister,—the barest account of yourself, and what we appreciate with you; and, for our part, you shall hear, at least, that we are well, or ailing, stationary, or about to move.
In the early spring Browning again writes to Mrs. Bronson:
19, WARWICK CRESCENT, W.
April 8, '85.
DEAREST FRIEND,—This is not a letter, for I have this minute returned from a funeral, in pitiful weather, and am unable either in body or soul to write one, much as I hope to do, with something of my warm self in it. But I find Burne Jones's pretty and touching letter, and want this leaf to serve as an envelope to what may please you, who deserve so thoroughly that it should. I will write in a day or two. I heard from Pen this morning, who is at Dinard, being too ill to remain in Paris, but finds himself already better. He told me and re-told me how good you had been to him. How I trust all is going well with you,—certainly you need no assurance of,—enough that I love you with all my heart. Bless you and your Edith. It is an Edith,—Proctor's (Barry Cornwall's) daughter, whom I have been following to her grave. Some fifty years ago her father said to me while caressing her, "Ah, Browning, this is the Poetry." "I know it." "No, you know nothing about it." Well, if I was ignorant then, I am instructed now. So, dear Two Poems, long may I have you to read and to enjoy!
Yours affectionately Ever,
In the following autumn Mr. Barrett Browning, who had not seen Venice since his infancy, joined his father, and was "simply infatuated" with the dream city. It was for his sake that Browning had wished to purchase the Manzoni Palace, "to secure for him a perfect domicile, every facility for his painting and sculpture."
The autumn of 1886 brought to Browning a great sadness in the death of Milsand, and Miss Browning being out of health, and unequal to a continental journey, they both passed a part of the autumn at Llangollen, where Sir Theodore and Lady Martin (Helen Faucit) were their near neighbors, with whom they had tea every Sunday, and renewed one of the most delightful friendships.
On the publication of Dr. Corson's "Introduction to the Poetry of Browning," he sent a copy to the poet who thus replied:
19. Warwick Crescent. W.
Dec. 28. '86.
My dear Dr Corson,
I waited some days after the arrival of your Book and Letter thinking I might be able to say more of my sense of your goodness: but I can do no more now than a week ago. You "hope I shall not find too much to disapprove of": what I ought to protest against, is "a load to sink a navy—too much honor": how can I put aside your generosity, as if cold justice—however befitting myself,—would be in better agreement with your nature? Let it remain as an assurance to younger poets that, after fifty years' work unattended by any conspicuous recognition, an over-payment may be made, if there be such another munificent appreciator as I have been privileged to find—in which case let them, even if more deserving, be equally grateful.
I have not observed anything in need of correction in the notes. The "little tablet" was a famous "Last Supper," mentioned by Varwn, (page. 232) and gone astray long ago from the Church of S. Spirito: it turned up, according to report, in some obscure corner, while I was in Florence, and was at once acquired by a stranger. I saw it,—genuine or no, a work of great beauty. (Page 156.) A "canon," in music, is a piece wherein the subject is repeated—in various keys—and being strictly obeyed in the repetition, becomes the "Canon"—the imperative law—to what follows. Fifty of such parts would be indeed a notable peal: to manage three is enough of an achievement for a good musician.
And now,—here is Christmas: all my best wishes go to you and Mrs. Corson—those of my sister also. She was indeed suffering from grave indisposition in the summer, but is happily recovered. I could not venture, under the circumstances, to expose her convalescence to the accidents of foreign travel—hence our contenting ourselves with Wales rather than Italy. Shall you be again induced to visit us? Present or absent, you will remember me always, I trust, as
Yours most affectionately
The year of 1887 was an eventful one in that the "Parleyings" were published in the early spring; that Browning removed from Warwick Crescent to 29 DeVere Gardens; and that the marriage of his son to Miss Coddington of New York was celebrated on October 4 of that year, an event that gave the poet added happiness. To a stranger who had asked permission to call upon him Browning wrote about this time:
"... My son returns the day after to-morrow with his wife, from their honeymoon at Venice, to stay with me till to-morrow week only, when they leave for Liverpool and America—there to pass the winter. During their short stay, I am bound to consult their convenience, and they will be engaged in visiting, or being visited by friends, so as to preclude me from any chance of an hour at my own disposal. If you please—or, rather, if circumstances permit you to give me the pleasure of seeing you at twelve on Saturday morning, the first day when I shall be at liberty, I shall be happy to receive you."
The stranger did so arrange that his visit should extend itself over the magic date of "November 5th," and on that day he stood at the portal to DeVere Gardens house.
"I was taken up to the poet's study," he writes. "There had been that day a memorial meeting for Matthew Arnold, to which Browning had been, and he spoke with reminiscent sadness of Arnold's life.
"'I have been thinking all the way home of his hardships,' said Mr. Browning. 'He once told me, when I asked why he had not recently written any poetry, that he could not afford to, but that when he had saved enough, he intended to give up all other work, and devote himself to poetry. I wonder if he has turned to it now?' Browning added musingly."
One interesting incident related by this caller is that, having just been reading and being greatly impressed by Mr. Nettleship's analysis and interpretation of "Childe Roland," he asked the author if he accepted it. "Oh, no," replied Mr. Browning; "not at all. Understand, I don't repudiate it, either; I only mean that I was conscious of no allegorical intention in writing it. 'Twas like this; one year in Florence I had been rather lazy; I resolved that I would write something every day. Well, the first day I wrote about some roses, suggested by a magnificent basket that some one had sent my wife. The next day 'Childe Roland' came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it, then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. But it was simply that I had to do it. I did not know then what I meant beyond that, and I'm sure I don't know now. But I am very fond of it."
This interesting confession emboldened the visitor to ask if the poet considered 'James Lee's wife' quite guiltless in her husband's estrangement. "Well, I'm not sure," replied Mr. Browning; "I was always very fond of her, but I fancy she had not much tact, and did not quite know how to treat her husband. I think she worried him a little. But if you want to know any more," he continued, with a twinkle in his eye, "you had better ask the Browning Society,—you have heard of it, perhaps?"
When Robert Barrett Browning purchased the Palazzo Rezzonico, the acquirement was a delight to his father, not unmixed with a trace of consternation, for it is one of the grandest and most imposing palaces in Italy. Up to 1758 it was occupied by Cardinal Rezzonico himself, when, at that date, he became Pope under the title of Clement XIII. This palace, built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, commands an unparalleled situation on the Grand Canal, and the majestic structure of white marble, with its rich carvings, the baroque ornaments of its key-stones, its classic cornices and tripartite loggias, its columns and grand architectural lines, is remarked, even in Venice, the city of palaces, for its sumptuous magnificence. As Mr. Browning had before remarked to Mrs. Bronson, "Pen" was infatuated with Venice. It is equally true that much of the infatuation of the ethereal city for subsequent visitors was due in no small measure to the beautiful and reverent manner in which Robert Barrett Browning made this palace a very Valhalla of the wedded poets, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Here the son gathered every exquisite treasure associated with his mother, and when, three years later, his father breathed his last within this noble palace, the younger Browning added to the associations of his mother those, also, of his father's books, art, and intimate possessions. With his characteristic courtesy and generous consideration Mr. Barrett Browning permitted visitors, for many years, through his entire ownership of the palace, to visit and enjoy the significant collections, treasures which his taste and his love had there gathered.
On the facade of the palace two stately entrances open upon the broad flight of marble steps that lead down to the water, and on the architraves are carved river-gods. In the spacious court was placed his own statue of "Dryope." Ascending one marble flight of the grand escalier, one entered a lofty apartment whose noble proportions and richness of effect were most impressive. The floor, of red marble, in its rich, Byzantine hue, harmonized with a richly painted ceiling, which was one celebrated in Venetian art. From this vast salon opened, through richly carved doors, a series of rooms, each made vital with the portraits, sketches, busts, and other memorials of the poets. There were Story's busts of Browning and of his wife; there was Robert Barrett Browning's bust of his father,—one of the most remarkable among portrait busts in contemporary art; the portraits of Robert and Elizabeth Browning painted by Gordigiani of Rome, about 1855; a lovely pastel of Mrs. Browning when she was a child, representing her as standing in a garden, holding up her apron filled with flowers; there was her little writing-desk, and other intimate personal mementoes about. The immense array of presentation copies from other authors to the poets made an interesting library of themselves, as did the various translations of their own poems into many languages. There was a portrait of Browning painted when a young man, with a troubadour cloak falling over his shoulders; and a most interesting portrait of Milsand, painted by Barrett Browning, as a gift to his father.
There was also a picture of himself as a lad, the "Penini" of Siena days, mounted on his pony, and painted by Hamilton Wild (a Boston artist), in that most picturesque of hill-towns, during one of those summers that the Brownings and the Storys had passed in the haunts of Santa Caterina.
By Mrs. Browning's little writing tablet was placed the last manuscript she had ever written; and on a table lay a German translation of "Aurora Leigh," with an inscription of presentation to Browning.
From one of these salons, looking out on the Grand Canal, is an alcove, formerly used as the private chapel of the Rezzonico. It was all white and gold, with a Venetian window draped in the palest green plush, while on either side were placed tall vases encrusted with green. In this alcove Mr. Barrett Browning had caused to be inscribed, in golden letters, surrounded with traceries and arabesques in gold, a copy of the inscription that was composed by the poet, Tommaseo, and placed by the city of Florence on the wall of Casa Guidi, near the grand portal:
QUI SCRISSE E MORI ELISABETTA BARRETT BROWNING CHE IN CUORE DI DONNA CONCILIAVA SCIENZA DI DOTTO E SPIRITO DI POETA E FECE DEL SUO VERSO AUREO ANELLO FRA ITALIA E INGHILTERRA PONE QUESTO MEMORIA FIRENZE GRATA 1861.
On the first floor was the room in which the poet wrote when the guest of his son in the palace; a sala empaneled with the most exquisite decorated alabaster, panels of which also formed the doors, and opening from this was his sleeping-room, also beautifully decorated.
In one splendid sala, with rich mural decorations, and floor of black Italian marble, were many choice works of art, rare souvenirs, pictures of special claim to interest, wonderful tapestries, and almost, indeed, an embarras de richesse of beauty.
In 1906 Robert Barrett Browning sold the Rezzonico; and now, beside his casa and studios in Asolo, he has one of the old Medici villas, near Florence,—"La Torre all' Antella," with a lofty tower, from which the view is one of the most commanding and fascinating in all Tuscany. The panorama includes all Florence, with her domes and campanile and towers; and the Fiesolean hills, with the old town picturesquely revealed among the trees and against the background of sky, and with numerous other villages and hamlets, and a mountain panorama of changing color always before the eye. Mr. Browning is one of the choicest of spirits, with all that culture and beauty of spiritual life that characterized his parents. He is a great linguist, and is one of the most interesting of men. No one knew his father, in that wonderful inner way, as did his son. He was twelve years old at the time of his mother's death, and from that period he was the almost constant companion of his father, until Browning's death, twenty-eight years later. Robert Barrett Browning has also purchased the massive Casa Guidi, thus fitly becoming the owner of the palace in which he was born, and that is forever enshrined in literary history and poetic romance. It is, also, one of those poetic sequences of life, that Casa Guidi and Palazzo Peruzzi, near each other, in the Via Maggiore in Florence, are respectively owned by Mr. Browning and the Marchesa Peruzzi di' Medici, under which stately title Mr. Story's daughter Edith, the childhood friend and companion of "Penini," is now known.
After the return to London of Browning and his sister Sarianna, from St. Moritz, his constant letters to Mrs. Bronson again take up the story of a poet's days.
In the early winter he thus writes to his cherished friend—the date being December 4, 1887:
"Now let us shut the gondola glasses (I forget the technical word) and Talk, dear Friend! Here are your dear labors of love,—the letters and enclosures, and here is my first day of leisure this long fortnight, for, would you believe it? I have been silly enough to sit every morning for three hours to one painter, who took an additional two hours yesterday, in order to get done; before which exercise of patience I had to sit to another gentleman, who will summon me again in due time,—all this since my return from Venice and the youthful five! However, when, two days ago, there was yet another application to sit, the bear within the 'lion' came out, and I declined, as little gruffly as I was able. And so the end is I can talk and enjoy myself—even at a distance—with a friend as suddenly dear as all hands from the clouds must needs be. I will not try and thank you for what you know I so gratefully have accepted,—and shall keep forever, I trust.
"Well, here is the Duke's letter; he is a man of few words, and less protestation; but feels, as he should, your kindness, and will gladly acknowledge it, should you come to England, and it seems that you may. But what will Venice be without you next year, if we return there as we hope to do?
"... Mrs. Bloomfield Moore passed through London some three weeks ago, and at once wrote to me about what pictures of Robert's might be visible? She at once bought the huge 'Delivery to the Secular Arm,' for the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and the 'Dinard Market Woman' for herself, and this so spontaneously, and I did hear in a day or two that she was convinced I had not asked half enough for the pictures! She had inquired at the Gallery where the larger one was exhibited, and they estimated its value at so much. I told her their estimate was not mine, and that Robert was thoroughly remunerated—to say nothing of what he would think of all this graciousness; and since her departure I have had an extremely gratifying letter full of satisfaction at her purchases,..."
On the death of Lord Houghton, Mr. Browning had been prevailed upon to accept the office of Foreign Correspondent to the Royal Academy; he was much beloved by the Academicians, many of whom were among his familiar friends, and that his son was an artist endeared to him all art.
To Mrs. Bronson Browning once remarked: "Do you know, dear friend, if the thing were possible, I would renounce all personal ambition and would destroy every line I ever wrote, if by so doing I could see fame and honors heaped on my Robert's head." Mrs. Bronson's comment on this was that in his son he saw the image of his wife, whom he adored,—"literally adored," she added.
At the Academy banquets Browning was always an honored guest, and his nomination by the President to the post of Foreign Correspondent was promptly ratified by the Council.
On the removal to DeVere Gardens, Mr. Browning took great pleasure in the arrangement of his home. His father's library of six thousand books was now unpacked, and, for the first time, he had space for them; many of the beautiful old carvings, chests, cabinets, bookcases, that he had brought from Florence, could in the new home be placed to advantage. The visitor, to-day, to Mr. Barrett Browning's Florentine villa will see many of these rich and elaborate furnishings, and the younger Browning will point out an immense sofa (that resembles a catafalque), with amused recollection of having once seen his father and Ruskin sitting side by side on it, "their feet dangling." From Venice the poet had brought home, first and last, many curious and beautiful things,—a silver lamp, old sconces from churches, and many things of which he speaks in his letters to Mrs. Bronson.
The initial poem in "Asolando," entitled "Rosny," was written at the opening of the year 1888, and it was soon followed by "Beatrice Signorini" and "Flute-Music." In February he writes to George Murray Smith, his publisher, of his impulse to revise "Pauline," which had lain untouched for fifty years,—an impulse to "correct the most obvious faults ... letting the thoughts, such as they are, remain exactly as at first." It seems that the portrait, too, that is to accompany the volume does not quite please him, and he suggests slight changes. "Were Pen here," he says, "he could manage it all in a moment."
This confidence was not undeserved. Richly gifted in many directions, a true child of the gods, Robert Barrett Browning has an almost marvelous gift in portraiture. He seems to be the diviner, the seer, as well as the artist, when transferring to canvas a face that interests him. The portrait of Milsand, to which allusion has before been made, and that of his father, painted in his Oxford robes, with "the old yellow book in his hand," which is in Balliol, are signal illustrations of his power in portraying almost the very mental processes of thought and feeling and kindling imagination,—all that goes to make up the creative life of art.
He is fairly a connoisseur in literature, as well as in his own specialties of painting and sculpture; and the poetry of the elder Browning has no more critically appreciative reader than his son. Some volume of his father's is always at hand in his traveling; and he, like all Browning-lovers, can never open any volume of Robert Browning's without finding revealed to him new vistas of thought, renewed aspiration and resolve for all noble living, and infinite suggestiveness of spiritual achievement.
"On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round."
"O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, And with God be the rest!"
"ASOLANDO"—LAST DAYS IN DEVERE GARDENS—LETTERS OF BROWNING AND TENNYSON—VENETIAN LINGERINGS AND FRIENDS—MRS. BRONSON'S CHOICE CIRCLE—BROWNING'S LETTERS TO MRS. BRONSON—ASOLO—"IN RUBY, EMERALD, CHRYSOPRAS"—LAST MEETING OF BROWNING AND STORY—IN PALAZZO REZZONICO—LAST MEETING WITH DR. CORSON—HONORED BY WESTMINSTER ABBEY—A CROSS OF VIOLETS—CHORAL MUSIC TO MRS. BROWNING'S POEM, "THE SLEEP"—"AND WITH GOD BE THE REST."
In the winter of 1887-1888 Mr. Browning wrote "Rosny," which follows the "Prologue" in "Asolando," and soon after the "Beatrice Signorini" and "Flute Music." He also completely revised his poems for the new edition which his publishers were issuing in monthly volumes, the works completed in July. "Parleyings," which had appeared in 1887, had, gloriously or perilously as may be, apparently taken all the provinces of learning, if not all the kingdoms of earth, for its own; for its themes ranged over Philosophy, Politics, Love, and Art, as well as Alchemy, and one knows not what; but its power and vigor reveal that there had been no fading of the divine fire. The poet made a few minor changes in "The Inn Album," but with that exception he agreed with his friend and publisher, that no further alterations of any importance were required. Mr. Browning's relations with his publishers were always harmonious and mutually gratifying. Such a relation is, to any author, certainly not the least among the factors of his happiness or of his power of work, and to Browning, George Murray Smith was his highly prized friend and counselor, as well as publisher, whose generous courtesies and admirable judgment had more than once even served him in ways quite outside those of literature.
In the late summer of 1888 Browning and his sister fared forth for Primiero, to join the Barrett Brownings, with whom the poet concurred in regarding this little hill-town as one of the most beautiful of places, his favorite Asolo always excepted. "Primiero is far more beautiful than Gressoney, far more than Saint-Pierre de Chartreuse," he wrote to a friend: "with the magnificence of the mountains that, morning and evening, are literally transmuted to gold." In letters or conversation, as well as in his verse, Browning's love of color was always in evidence. "He dazzles us with scarlet, and crimson, and rubies, and the poppy's 'red effrontery,'" said an English critic; "with topaz, amethyst, and the glory of gold, and makes the sonnet ache with the luster of blue." When, in the haunting imagery of memory pictures, after leaving Florence, he reverted to the gardens of Isa Blagden, on Bellosguardo, the vision before him was of "the herbs in red flower, and the butterflies on the wall under the olive trees." For Browning was the poet of every thrill and intensity of life—the poet and prophet of the dawn, not of the dark; the herald who announced the force of the positive truth and ultimate greatness; never the interpreter of the mere negations of life. The splendor of color particularly appealed to him, thrilling every nerve; and when driving with Mrs. Bronson in Asolo he would beg that the coachman would hasten, if there were fear of missing the sunset pageant from the loggia of "La Mura." In "Pippa Passes," how he painted the splendor of sunrise pouring into her chamber, and in numberless other of his poems is this fascination of color for him revealed.
Under the date of August, 1888, the poet writes to Mrs. Bronson:
DEAREST,—We have at last, only yesterday, fully determined on joining the couple at Primiero, and, when the heats abate, going on to Venice for a short stay. May the stay be with you as heretofore? I don't feel as if I could go elsewhere, or do otherwise, although in case of any arrangements having been made that stand in the way, there is the obvious Hotel Suisse. I suppose at need there could be found a messenger to poor Guiseppina, whose misfortunes I commiserate. You know exactly how much and how little we want. But if I am to get any good out of my visit I must lead the quietest of lives....
We propose setting out next Monday, the 13th,—Basle, Milan, Padua, Treviso, Primiero, by the week's end.
I have been nearly eleven weeks in town, with an exceptional four days' visit to Oxford; and hard social work all the time, indeed, up to the latest, when, three weeks ago, I found it impossible to keep going. Don't think that the kindness which sometimes oppresses me while in town, forgets me afterward; I have pouring invitations to the most attractive places in England, Ireland, Scotland,—but "c'est admirable, mais ce n'est pas la paix." May I count on the "paix" where I so much enjoyed it? I hear with delight that Edith will be with you again,—that completes the otherwise incompleteness. Yes, the Rezzonico is what you Americans call a "big thing."... But the interest I take in its acquisition is different altogether from what accompanied the earlier attempt. At most, I look on approvingly, as by all accounts I am warranted in doing, but there an end....
... So, dearest friend, "a rivederci!" Give my love to Edith and tell her I hope in her keeping her kindness for me, spite of the claims on it of all the others. And my sister, not one word of her? Somehow you must know her more thoroughly than poor, battered me, tugged at and torn to pieces, metaphorically, by so many sympathizers, real or pretended. She wants change, probably more than I do. And, but for her, I believe I should continue here, with the gardens for my place of healing. How she will enjoy the sight of you, if it may be! Tell me what is to be hoped, or feared, or despaired of, at Pen's address, whatever it may be. And remember me as ever most affectionately yours,
The succeeding letter, written from Albergo Gille, Primiero, tells the story of a rather trying journey, what with the heat and his indisposition, but on finding himself bestowed at Primiero he is "absolutely well again," and anticipating his Venice: "what a Venice it would be," he says, "if I went elsewhere than to the beloved friend who calls me so kindly!" And he adds:
"My stay will be short, but sweet in every sense of the word if I find her in good health, and in all other respects just as I left her; 'no change' meaning what it does to me who remember her goodness so well. It will be delightful to meet Edith again, if only it may be that she arrives while we are yet with you, even before, perhaps.
"Can I tell you anything about my journey except that it was so agreeable an one? On the first evening as I stepped outside our carriage for a moment, I caught sight of a well-known face. 'Dr. Butler, surely.' You have heard of his marriage the other day to a learnedest of young ladies, who beat all the men last year at Greek. He insisted on introducing me to her; I had seen her once before without undergoing that formality and willingly I shook hands with a sprightly young person ... pretty, and grand-daughterly, she is, however, only twenty-six years his junior. Then, this happened; the little train from Montebelluna to Feltre was crowded—we could find no room except in a smoking carriage—wherein I observed a good-natured, elderly gentleman, an Italian, I took for granted. Presently he said, 'Can I offer you an English paper?' 'What, are you English?' 'Oh, yes, and I know you,—who are going to see your son at Primiero.' 'Why, who can you be?' 'One who has seen you often.' 'Not surely, Mr. Malcolm?' 'Well, nobody else.' So ensued an affectionate greeting, he having been the guardian angel of Pen in all his chafferings about the purchase of the palazzo. He gave me abundance of information, and satisfied me on many points. I had been anxious to write and thank him as he deserved, but this provided an earlier and more graceful way, for a beginning at least.
"Pen is at work on a pretty picture, a peasant girl whom he picked up in the neighborhood, and his literal treatment stands him in good stead; he is reproducing her cleverly, at any rate, he takes pains enough."
Towards the end of September they joined in Venice the "beloved friend," whose genius for friendship only made each sojourn with her more beautiful than the preceding, if that which was perfect could receive an added degree. "It was curious to see," wrote Mrs. Bronson, "how on each of his arrivals in Venice he took up his life precisely as he had left it." Browning and his sister frequently went on Sundays to the Waldensian chapel, where in this autumn there was a preacher of great eloquence. Every morning, after their early coffee, the poet was off for a brisk walk, and after returning he busied himself with his letters and newspapers, his mail always containing more or less letters from strangers and admirers, some of whom solicited autographs, which, so far as possible, he always granted. Mrs. Bronson has somewhere noted that when asked, viva voce, for an autograph, he would look puzzled, and say "I don't like to always write the same verse, but I can only remember one," and he would then proceed to copy "All that I know of a certain star," which, however it "dartles red and blue," he knew nothing of save that it had "opened its soul" to him. Arthur Rogers, delivering the Bohlen lectures for 1909, compared Browning with Isaiah, in his lecture on "Poetry and Prophecy," and he instanced this "star" which "opened its soul" to the poet, as attesting that Browning, like Isaiah, could do no more than search depths of life.
The Palazzo Giustiniani-Recanti was a fitting haunt for a poet. Casa Alvisi, adjoining, in which Mrs. Bronson lived, looked out, as has been noted, on Santa Maria della Salute, which was on the opposite side of the Grand Canal; but the Giustiniani palace, dating to the fifteenth century, had its outlook through Gothic windows to the south, on a court and garden of romantic loveliness. The perfect tact of their hostess left the poet and his sister entirely free to come and go as they pleased, and at midday they took their dejeuner together, ordering by preference Italian dishes, as rissotto, macaroni, and fruits, especially figs and grapes. They enjoyed these tete-a-tete repasts, talking and laughing all the while, and then, about three every afternoon they joined Mrs. Bronson and her daughter for the gondola trip. The hostess records that the poet's invariable response to the question as to where they should go would be: "Anywhere, all is beautiful, only let it be toward the Lido." While both the poet and his sister were scrupulously prompt in returning all calls of ceremony, they were glad to evade formal visits so far as possible; and the absolute freedom with which their hostess surrounded them was grateful beyond words. "The thought deeply impressed me," said Mrs. Bronson, "that one who had lifted so many souls above the mere necessity for living in a troublesome world deserved from those permitted to approach him their best efforts to brighten his personal life.... The little studies for his comfort, the small cares entailed upon me during the too brief days and weeks when his precious life was partly entrusted to my care, might seem to count for little in an existence far removed from that of an ordinary man; yet, as a fact, he was glad and grateful for the smallest attention. He was appreciative of all things. He never regarded gratitude as a burden, as less generous minds are apt to do," continued Mrs. Bronson.
One of his greatest enjoyments in Venice was to wander with Edith Bronson through the Venetian calli. "Edith is the best cicerone in the world," he would remark; "she knows everything and teaches me all she knows. There never was such a guide." The young girl indeed knew her Venice as a devotee knows his illuminated missal, and her lovely vivacity and sweetness must have invested her presence with the same charm that is felt to-day in the Contessa Rucellai, in her Florentine palace, for Miss Bronson, it may be said en passant, became the wife of one of the most eminent Italian nobles, the Rucellai holding peculiar claim to distinction even among the princely houses of Florence.
From these gondola excursions they always returned about five, and sometimes the poet would join the group around Mrs. Bronson's tea-table, conversing with equal facility in French, German, or Italian, and to their delight would say, "Edith, dear, you may give me a cup of tea." But as a rule he considered this beverage as too unhygienic at that hour, and whenever with an "Excuse me, please," he sought his own apartments, he was never questioned for his reasons. "It was enough that he wished it," said his hostess. He and Miss Browning always appeared promptly for dinner, which was at half-past seven in Casa Alvisi. The poet was scrupulous about his evening dress; and Miss Browning, Mrs. Bronson relates, was habitually clad "in rich gowns of a somber tint, with quaint, antique jewels, and each day with a different French cap of daintiest make."
The evenings seem to have been idyllic. Browning would often read aloud, and he loved to improvise on an old spinnet standing in a dim recess in one of the salons. The great Venetian families were usually in villeggiatura at the time when Browning was in Venice, so that he met comparatively few of them; it was this freedom from social obligations that contributed so much to the restful character of his sojourns, and enabled him to give himself up to that ineffable enchantment of Venice. He made a few friends, however, among Mrs. Bronson's brilliant circle, and one of the notable figures among these was the old Russian noble and diplomat, Prince Gagarin, who, born in Rome, had been educated in his own country, and had represented Russia at the courts of Athens, Constantinople, and Turin. Mrs. Bronson has told the story of one evening when the poet and the old diplomat indulged in a mutual tournament of music; "first one would sing, and then the other," Browning recalling folk-songs of Russia which he had caught up in his visit to that country fifty years before.
Another of Mrs. Bronson's inner circle, which included the Principessa Montenegro, the mother of Queen Elena, and other notable figures, was the Contessa Marcello, whom both the poet and his sister greatly liked; and one radiant day they all accepted an invitation to visit the Contessa at her villa at Mogliano, a short railway trip from Venice. The poet seemed to much enjoy the brief journey, and at the station was the Contessa with her landau, in which Mrs. Bronson, the poet, and his sister were seated, while Miss Bronson rode one of the ponies on which some of the young people had come down to greet the guests. After luncheon the Contessa, with her young daughter, the Contessina, led their guests out in the grounds to a pergola where coffee was served, and which commanded a vista of a magnificent avenue of copper beeches, whose great branches met and interlaced overhead. The Contessa was the favorite lady of honor at the court of Queen Margherita, and she interested Mr. Browning very much by speaking of her beloved royal mistress, and showing him some of the handwriting of the Queen, which he thought characteristically graceful and forcible. The Contessina and Miss Bronson, with others of the younger people, seated themselves in rustic chairs to listen to every word from the poet; and a Venetian sculptor, who was there, concealed himself in the shrubbery and made a sketch of Browning. The Contessina, who, like all the young Italian girls of high breeding and culture, kept an album of foreign poetry, brought hers, and pleadingly asked Mr. Browning if he would write in it for her. As usual, for the reasons already given, he (perforce) wrote "My Star," and when the girl looked at it she exclaimed that it was one of her old favorites, and showed him where she had already copied it into the book.
At the station, when they drove down again to take the returning train, one of the young literati of Italy was there, and the Contessa introduced him to Browning, saying that the young man had already achieved distinction in letters. Mr. Browning talked with him most cordially, and after they were on their way he said that the young writer "seemed to be a youth of promise, and that he hoped he should meet him again." But when they did hear of him again it was as the lecturer of a series of talks on Zola, "which, as may be supposed," notes Mrs. Bronson, "the poet expressed no desire to attend." The marvelous days of that unearthly loveliness of Venice in the early autumn flew by, and Mrs. Bronson's guest returned to DeVere Gardens. To his hostess the poet wrote, under date of DeVere Gardens, December 15, 1888:
DEAREST FRIEND,—I may just say that and no more; for what can I say? I shall never have your kindness out of my thoughts,—and you never will forget me, I know. We shall please you by telling you our journey was quite prosperous, and wonderfully fine weather, till it ended in grim London, and its fog and cold. (At Basle there was cold, but the sun made up for everything.) We altered our plans so far as to sleep and to stay through a long day at Basle, visiting the museum, cathedral, etc., and went on by night train in a sleeping-car, of which we were the sole occupants, to Calais, directly. At Dover the officials were prepared for us, would not look at the luggage, and were very helpful as well as courteous; and at London orders had been given to treat us with all possible good nature. They wouldn't let us open any box but that where the lamp was packed; offered to take our word for its weight, and finally asked me, "since there were the three portions, would I accept the weight of the little vessel at bottom as that of the other two?" "Rather," as Pen says, so they declined to weigh the whole lamp, charging less than a quarter of what it does weigh, and even then requiring assurance that I was "quite satisfied." We were to be looked after first of all the passengers, and so got away early enough to find things at home in excellent order.... I send a hasty line to try to express the impossible,—how much I love you, and how deeply I feel all your great kindness. Every hour of the day I miss you, and wish I were with you and dear Edith again, in beloved Casa Alvisi.
These letters to Mrs. Bronson reveal Browning the man as do no other records in literature. The consciousness of being perfectly understood, and the realization of the delicacy and beauty of the character of Mrs. Bronson made this choice companionship one of the greatest joys in Browning's life. It may, perhaps, as well be interpolated here that a large package of the fascinating letters from Robert Browning to Mrs. Bronson, from which these extracts are made, were placed at the disposal of the writer of this volume by the generous kindness of Mrs. Bronson's daughter, the Contessa Rucellai, and with the slight exception of a few paragraphs used by Mrs. Bronson herself (in two charming papers that she wrote on Browning), they have never before been drawn upon for publication.
Under the date of January 4, 1889, the poet writes to Mrs. Bronson:
No, dearest friend, I can well believe you think of me sometimes, even oft-times, for in what place, or hour, or hour of the day, can you fail to be reminded of some piece of kindness done by you and received by me during those memorable three months when you cared for me and my sister constantly, and were so successful in your endeavor to make us perfectly happy. Depend on it, neither I nor she move about this house (which has got to be less familiar to us through our intimate acquaintance with yours),—neither of us forget you for a moment, nor are we without your name on our lips much longer, when we sit quietly down at home of an evening, and talk over the pleasantest of pleasant days....
The sole invitation I can but accept this morning is to the Farewell dinner about to be given by the Lord Mayor to Mr. Phelps; that I am bound to attend. I have not seen him or Mrs. Phelps yet; but they receive this afternoon, and if I am able I shall go. You will wish to know that all our articles have arrived safely, and more expeditiously than we had expected. The tables, lanterns, etc., are very decidedly approved of, and fit into the proper corners very comfortably; so that everywhere will be an object reminding us, however unnecessarily, of Venice. Your ink-stand brightens the table by my hand; the lamp will probably stand beside it; while Tassini tempts me to dip into him every time I pass the book-case. I may never see the loved city again, but where in the house will not some little incident of the then unparalleled months, wake up memories of the gondola, and the stopping, here and there, and the fun at Morchio's; the festive return home, behind broad-backed Luigi; then the tea, and the dinner, and Gargarin's crusty old port flavor, and the Dyers, and Ralph Curtis, and O, the delightful times! Of Edith I say nothing because she has herself, the darling! written to me, the surprise and joy of that! And I mean to have a talk with her on paper, alas! my very self, and induce her not to let me have the last word. Oh, my two beloveds I must see Venice again; it would be heart-breaking to believe otherwise. Of course I entered into all your doings, the pretty things you got, and prettier, I am sure, you gave. And I was sorry, so sorry, to hear that naughty Edith, no darling, for half a second, now I think of it,—did not figure in the tableaux. I hope and believe, however, she did dance in the New Year. Bid her avoid this cold-catching and consequent headache. Do write, dearest friend, keep me au courant of everything. No minutest of your doings but is full of interest to me and Sarianna. But I am at the paper's extreme edge. Were it elephant folio (is there such a size?) it would not hold all I have in my heart, and head, too, of love for you and "our Edie;" so, simply, God bless you, my beloveds!
Princess Montenegro sent me by way of a New Year's card,—what do you think? A pretty photograph of the Rezzonico. The young lady was equally mindful of Sarianna.
To Miss Edith Bronson the poet wrote, as follows:
DEAREST EDIE,—I did not reply to your letter at once for this reason; an immediate answer might seem to imply I expected such a delightful surprise every day, or week, or even month; and it was wise economy to let you know that I can go on without a second piece of kindness till you again have such a good impulse and yield to it—by no means binding yourself to give me regularly such a pleasure. You shall owe me nothing, but be as generous as is consistent with justice to other people.... I did not go out except to the complimentary farewell dinner our Lord Mayor gave to Mr. Phelps which nobody could be excused from attending. We all grieved at the loss, especially of Mrs. Phelps, who endeared herself to everybody. Both of them were sorry to go from us....
The next letter reveals anew Browning's always thoughtful courtesy in bespeaking kindness for mutual friends, as he writes:
"There is arranged to be a sort of expedition [to Venice] of young Toynbee Hall men, headed by Alberto Ball, the son of our common friend, for the purpose of studying, not merely amusing, themselves with,—the beloved city. Well as the Balls are entitled to say that they know you, still, the young and clever Ball chooses to wish me to beg your kind notice; and I suppose that his companions are to be noticed also,—of what really appears to be a praiseworthy effort after self-instruction. Will you smile on him when he calls on you? for his father's sake, who is anxious about the scheme's success? I have bespoken Pen's assistance, and he will do the honors of the Rezzonico with alacrity, I have no doubt."
In almost every life that is strongly individualized those who look back after it has passed from visible sight cannot but recognize how rhythmic are the sequences that have characterized its last months on earth. If the person in question had actually known the day on which he should be called away, he would hardly have done other than he did. It is as if the spirit had some prescience, not realized by the ordinary consciousness, but still controlling its conduct of the last time allotted here. With this last year of Robert Browning's life, this unseen leading is especially obvious. In the spring he had revised his poetic work; he had passed Commemoration week at Oxford, as he loved to do; he had passed much of the time with his friend, the Master of Balliol, and among his last expressions on leaving Oxford was "Jowett knows how I love him." He was also in Cambridge, and Edmund Gosse has charmingly recalled the way in which he dwelt, retrospectively, on his old Italian days.
In June, also, he paid his usual visit to Lord Albemarle (the last survivor of those who fought at Waterloo), and in that month he wrote to Professor Knight, who was about to exchange the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow for that of Literature at St. Andrews, saying: "It is the right order; Philosophy first, and Poetry, which is its highest outcome, afterward, and much harm has been done by reversing the usual process."
The letters to Mrs. Bronson tell much of the story of these days. In one, dated June 10, 1899, he gives this reminiscence of Asolo:
DEAREST FRIEND,—It was indeed a joy to get your letter. I know that a change of place would be desirable for you, darling Edie told me so, but I fancied you would not leave Venice so soon....
... One thing is certain, that if I do go to Venice, and abide at the Rezzonico, every day during the visit I shall pass over to the beloved Alvisi and entirely beloved friends there, who are to me in Venice what San Marco is to the Piazza. Enough of this now, and something about Asolo.
When I first found out Asolo, I lodged at the main hotel in the Square,—an old, large inn of the most primitive kind. The ceiling of my bed-room was traversed by a huge crack, or rather cleft, caused by the earthquake last year; the sky was as blue as blue could be, and we were all praying in the fields, expecting the town to tumble in. On the morning after my arrival, I walked up to the Rocca; and on returning to breakfast I mentioned it to the land-lady, wherein a respectable middle-aged man, sitting by, said: "You have done what I, born here, never thought of doing." I took long walks every day, and carried away a lively recollection of the general beauty, but I did not write a word of 'Pippa Passes'—that idea struck me when walking in an English wood, and I made use of Italian memories.
I used to dream of seeing Asolo in the distance and making vain attempts to reach it—repeatedly dreamed this for many a year. And when I found myself once more in Italy, with Sarianna, I went there straight from Venice. We found the old inn lying in ruins, a new one (being) built, to take its place,—I suppose that which you see now. We went to a much inferior albergo, the best then existing, and were roughly, but pleasantly, entertained for a week, as I say. People told me the number of inhabitants had greatly increased, and things seemed generally more ordinary and life-like. I am happy that you like it so much. When I got my impression, Italy was new to me....
... I shall go to Oxford for Commemoration, and stay a week for another affair,—a "gaudy" dinner given to the magnates of Eton.
To the forthcoming collection, entitled "Asolando," the group of poems dedicated to Mrs. Bronson, the poet alludes as follows:
... By the way the new little book of poems that was to associate your name with mine, remains unprinted. For why? The publishers think its announcement might panic-strike the purchasers of the new edition, who have nearly enough of me for some time to come! Never mind. We shall have our innings.