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If one sought to build any genealogical structure to account for Robert Browning's genius, he would find but slight foundation in fact, though what he found would be substantial so far as it went. Browning's father was a bank clerk in London; his father again was a bank clerk. Both of these Brownings were christened Robert. The father of the poet's grandfather was Thomas Browning, an innkeeper and small proprietor in Dorsetshire, and his stock apparently was westcountry English. Browning himself liked to believe that an earlier ancestor was a certain Captain Micaiah Browning who raised the siege of Derry in 1689 by an act of personal bravery which cost him his life. It is most to the point that Browning was London born with two generations of city Londoners behind him. His mother was Sarah Anne - a name which became Sarianna in the poet's sister-Wiedemann, the Scottish daughter of a Hamburg German, a shipowner in Dundee.
The characters of the poet's parents are clearly defined. Robert Browning, senior, was a man of business who performed his business duties punctiliously, and by frugality acquired a tolerably comfortable fortune, but he was not a money-making man; his real life was in his books and in the gratification of literary and æsthetic tastes. He was a voracious reader, and in a prudent way a book and print collector. "It was his habit," says Mrs. Orr, "when he bought a book - which was generally an old one allowing of this addition to have some pages of blank paper bound into it. These he filled with notes, chronological tables, or such other supplementary matter as would enhance the interest, or assist the mastering, of its contents: all written in a clear and firm, though by no means formal, handwriting." He had a talent for versifying which he used for his entertainment; he had a cheerful nature and that genuine sociability which made him a delightful companion in the small circle which satisfied his simple, ingenuous nature. He was born and bred in the Church of England, but in middle life became by choice a Dissenter, though never an exclusive
Mrs. Browning, the poet's mother, was once described by Carlyle as "the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman." She inherited from her father a love for music and drawing which in him was manifested in execution, in her in good taste and appreciation. She was a woman of serene, gentle and affectionate nature, and of simple, earnest religions belief. She was brought up in the kirk of Scotland, but, like her husband, connected herself in middle life with the Congregationalists. She communicated of her own religious conviction to her children; it is said that she handed down also a nervous organization.
Of these parents Robert Browning was born in the parish of St. Giles, Camberwell, London, May 7, 1812. He was the oldest of the small family, having two sisters, one, Clara, who died in childhood, and Sarianna, two years younger than himself, who outlived him. The country in which he was born and where he spent his childhood has been delightfully described by his great contemporary, Ruskin, whose Herne Hill was in the immediate neighborhood. Camberwell at that time was a suburb of London, with rural spaces and near access to the open country, though the stony foot of the metropolis was already stepping outward upon the pleasant lanes and fields. There was room for gardening and the keeping of pets, while the country gave opportunity for forays into nature's fastnesses. The boy kept owls and monkeys, magpies and hedgehogs, an eagle, snakes even, and was touched with the collector's pride, as when he started a collection of rare creatures with a couple of lady-birds brought home one winter day and placed in a box lined with cotton
1 The materials for this sketch are drawn from Mrs. Sutherland Orr's Life and Letters of Robert Browning, Mr. William Sharp's Life of Robert Browning, and Mr. Edmund Gosse's Robert Browning: Personalia.
wool and labelled, " Animals found surviving in the depths of a severe winter." It is easy for a reader of his poems to detect the close, sympathetic observation which he disclosed for all lower life.
Indeed the characteristics of his mind as seen in his writings afterward were readily disclosed in the evidence which remains to us of his boyhood. He was insatiably curious and he was imaginatively dramatic, and he had from the first the sane and generous aid of his parents in both these particulars. His father was passionately fond of children, and gave his own that best of gifts, appreciative companionship. "He was fond," says Mr. Sharp in his Life of Browning, "of taking the little Robert in his arms and walking to and fro with him in the dusk in the library,' soothing the child to sleep by singing to him snatches of Anacreon in the original to a favorite old tune of his, A Cottage in a Wood;'" and again the same biographer says: "One of his own [Robert's] recollections was that of sitting on his father's knees in the library, and listening with enthralled attention to the Tale of Troy, with marvellous illustrations among the glowing coals in the fireplace; with, below all, the vaguely heard accompaniment - from the neighboring room, where Mrs. Browning sat in her chief happiness, her hour of darkness and solitude and music' — of a wild Gaelic lament, with its insistent falling cadences."
The boy had an indifferent experience of formal schooling in his youth. The more fertilizing influence of his intellectual taste was found in his father's books. As has been said, his father had an intelligent and cultivated love of books, and eagerly shared his knowledge and his treasures with his boy. A seventeenth century edition of Quarles's Emblems, the first edition of Robinson Crusoe, an early edition of Milton, bought for him by his father, old Bibles, a wide range of Elizabethan literature- these were pastures in which the boy browsed. Besides, he knew the eighteenth century writers, Walpole, Junius, and even Voltaire being included by the catholic minded father. The special acquaintance with Greek came later, but Latin he began early.
His attendance at school ceased when he was fourteen, then came four years of private tutors, and at eighteen he was matriculated at London University, where he spent two years. In this period of private and public tuition, his scope was widening with systematic intent. He learned dancing, riding, boxing and fencing. He became versed in French. He visited galleries, and made some progress in drawing, especially from casts. He studied music with able teachers. He had a strong interest in the stage, and displayed on occasions a good deal of histrionic ability himself.
It is said that in this growing, restless period, when indeed he had the wilfulness and aggressiveness of the young man who has the consciousness of inner power, but not yet the mastery either of art or of himself, it was an open question with him whether he should be poet, painter, sculptor or musician; an artist at any rate he knew he must be. To that all his being moved, and in his youth he manifested that temperament, by alternation dreamy and dramatic, which under favoring conditions is the background from which artistic possibilities are projected. From the vantage ground of a wooded spot near his home he could look out on the distant city lying on the western horizon, and fretting the evening sky with its spires and towers and ragged lines. The sight for him had a great fascination. Here would he lie for hours, looking and dreaming, and he has told how one night of his boyhood he stole out to these elms and saw the great city glimmering through the darkness. After all, the vision was more to him than that which brought woods and fields beneath his ken. It was the world of men and women, toward which his gaze was directed all his life.
In Browning's case, as in that of more than one recent poet, it is possible to see a very distinct passing of the torch into his hand from that of a great predecessor. He had versified from childhood. He would scarcely have been his father's child had he not. His sister remembers that when he was a very little child he would walk round and round the dining-room table, spanning the table with his palm as he marked off the scansion of the verses he had composed. Even before this rhyme had been put into his hands as an instrument, for his father had taught him words by their rhymes, and aided his memorizing of Latin declensions in the same way. So the boy lisped in numbers, for the numbers came, and by the time he was twelve had accumulated a formidable amount of matter, chiefly Byronic in manner. With the confidence of the very youthful poet, he tried to find a publisher who would venture on the issue. He could not find one who would put his verses
into print, but he found one of another sort in his mother, who read them with pride and showed them to her friends. Thus they fell into the hands of Miss Flower, who showed them to her sister, Sarah Flower Adams, whose name is firmly held in hymnologies, and with her appreciation showed them also to the Rev. William Johnson Fox, who as preacher, editor, and man of letters had a tolerably distinct position which has not yet been forgotten. Mr. Fox read and was emphatic in his recognition of promise, but with good sense advised against any attempt to get the book into print. Book it was in manuscript, and this was the publication it received. Like other first ventures, its audience was fit though few, and as will be seen later, Browning gained the best thing that first ventures are likely to bring, a generous critic.
But shortly after this came the real fructifying of the poetic germ which lay in this youthful nature. "Passing a bookstall one day," says Mr. Sharp, he saw, in a box of second-hand volumes, a little book advertised as 'Mr. Shelley's Atheistical Poem: very scarce.' He had never heard of Shelley, nor did he learn for a long time that the Damon of the World and the miscellaneous poems appended thereto constituted a literary piracy. Badly printed, shamefully mutilated, these discarded blossoms touched him to a new emotion. Pope became further removed than ever: Byron, even, lost his magnetic supremacy. From vague remarks in reply to his inquiries, and from one or two casual allusions, he learned that there really was a poet called Shelley; that he had written several volumes; that he was dead." His mother set herself to search for more of Shelley for her son, and after recourse to Mr. Fox, made her way to the Olliers in Vere Street, and brought back not only a collection of Shelley's volumes, but of Keats's also, and thus these two poets fell into Browning's hands.
It was on a May night, Browning told a friend, he entered upon this hitherto unknown world. In a laburnum near by, and in a great copper beech not far away, two nightingales sang together. So he sat and listened to them, and read by turns from these two poets. It was his initiation into the same society. He did not at once join them, but when he made his first appearance in public, at the age of twenty, it was with a poem, Pauline, which not only held a glowing apostrophe to Shelley but was throughout colored by his ardent devotion to the poet. Twenty years later he wrote a prose apologia for Shelley in the form of an introduction to a collection of letters purporting to come from Shelley, but which were discovered to be spurious immediately upon publication. Both Pauline and an Essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley will be found in this volume, with introductions explaining the circumstances of publication, but the reader of Browning's poetry is likely to carry longest in his mind the short lyric Memorabilia, beginning:
"Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,"
in which as in a parable one may read how the sudden acquaintance with this poet was to Browning the one memorable moment in his period of youthful dreaming.
The publication anonymously of Pauline, in January, 1833, was followed by a period of travel. He went to Russia nominally as secretary to the Russian consul-general, and became so enamored of diplomatic life that he essayed to enter it, but failed ; so strong a hold did it take on him that he would have been glad in later life if his son had chosen this career.
The life of a poet who is not also a man of action is told mainly in the succession of his writings. Two or three sonnets followed Pauline, but the first poem to which Browning attached his name was Paracelsus, the dedication to which is dated March 15, 18:35. The dedication and the succession of these graceful compliments discloses many of Browning's friendships - was to Count de Ripert-Monclar, a young French royalist, who was a private agent of the royal family, and had become intimate with the poet, who was four years his junior. The count suggested the life of Paracelsus to his friend as a subject for a poem, but on second thought advised against it as offering insufficient materials for the treatment of love. A young poet, however, who would prefix a quotation from Cornelius Agrippa to his first publication was one easily to be enticed by such a subject, and Browning fell upon the literature relating to Paracelsus which he found in the British Museum), and quickly mastered the facts, which became fused by his ardent imagination and eager speculation into a consistent whole. But though he sought his material among books, as he needs must. he found his constructive power in the silence of nature in the night. He had a great love for walking in the dark. "There was in particular," says Mr. Sharp, "a wood near Dulwich,
whither he was wont to go. There ne would walk swiftly and eagerly along the solitary and lightless byways, finding a potent stimulus to imaginative thought in the happy isolation thus enjoyed. At this time, too, he composed much in the open air. This he rarely, if ever, did in later life. Not only many portions of Paracelsus but several scenes in Strafford were enacted first in these midnight silences of the Dulwich woodland. Here, too, as the poet once declared, he came to know the serene beauty of dawn: for every now and again, after having read late, or written long, he would steal quietly from the house, and walk till the morning twilight graded to the pearl and amber of the new day."
Poetry, it may be, more than any other form of literature, clears the way for friendship. At any rate, Paracelsus introduced Browning to John Forster, and it was at this time also that DickTalfourd and Macready, Leigh Hunt, Barry Cornwall, Wordsworth and Landor were more than names to the young poet. There was doubtless something in the man as well as in his work which won him recognition. Macready says he looked more the poet than any man he had ever met. His head was crowned with wavy dark brown hair. He had singularly expressive eyes, a sensitive, mobile mouth, a musical voice, and an alertness of manner, so that he was like a quivering, high bred animal. How marked he was by his companions, and singled out to be, as Macready says, a leading spirit of his time," is instanced by a notable occurrence at Talfourd's house after the first performance of lon, when Talfourd included Browning with Wordsworth and Landor, who were present, in a toast to the poets of England.
It was on this occasion that Macready, whom Browning already knew well, proposed to the poet that he should write him a play as narrated in the Introduction to Strafford. The play was produced at the Covent Garden Theatre in May, 1837, and Macready and Miss Helen Faucit, afterward Lady Martin, gave distinction to its representation. It came, however, at an unfortunate time in the management, and though it gave promise of a long run, certain difficulties in the theatre compelled its withdrawal. It was published at once by Longmans, but like Browning's former book, was a failure with the public.
The monologue of Pauline had been succeeded by what may be called the conversational drama of Paracelsus, and that by the dramatic Strafford. The form now experimented with was to be the dominant one for the next ten years, though his next attempt was in form almost a reversion to Pauline. During the remainder of 1837 and until Easter, 1838, Browning was engaged on Sordello, but interrupted this poem for a couple of years which have a special interest as the years when he first visited Italy, and when he entered upon an order of production which was to be very significant of his poetic choice of subject and treatment. Browning himself recognized the importance to him of his acquaintance with Italy. "It was my university," he was wont to say, when asked if he had been a student at Oxford or Cambridge. The companion poems, The Englishman in Italy and The Italian in England, illustrate that double nationality in Browning's mind by which the two countries were, so to speak, married for him. The latter of these two poems was one which Mazzini used to read to his countrymen when he would demonstrate how generously an Englishman could enter into the Italian's patriotic aspirations. The journey was a rapid one. "I went," Browning says, to Trieste, then Venice - then through Treviso and Bassano to the mountains, delicious Asolo, all my places and castles, you will see. Then to Vicenza, Padua, aud Venice again. Then to Verona, Trent, Innspruck, Munich, Salzburg in Franconia, Frankfort and Mayence; down the Rhine to Cologne, then to Aix-la-Chapelle, Siège and Antwerp; then home."
It would seem as if he had begun Sordello with a bookish knowledge only of Italy, and later charged it with a more informing spirit of love for that country and embroidered it with descriptive scenes drawn from his personal observation. The poem was published in 1840, but the result of the journey in Italy and of the poet's more complete finding of himself -- a process by the bye which may almost be taken as having its analogue in Sordello were made most evident by the next publication, the story of which is told in the Introduction to Pippa Passes. The very form chosen for Bells and Pomegranates was a challenge to the public not so fantastically arrogant as Horne's famous publication of Orion at a farthing, but noticeable as an earnest of Browning's appeal to his generation and not to a select circle of admiring friends. In this series of writings, extending from 1841 through 1846, Browning struck the note again and again, in drama, lyric, and
romance, which was to be the dominant note of his poetry, that disclosure of the soul of man in all manner of circumstances, as if the world were to the poet a great laboratory of souls, and he was forever to be engaged in solving, dissolving, and resolving the elements.
It is noticeable also that with this series closed Browning's serious attempts at dramatic composition for the stage. It would almost seem as if he finally parted company with theatrical managers, partly because of the constant difficulty he had in making them subordinate to his purpose, partly and no doubt more profoundly because his own genius, bent as it was upon the interpretation of spiritual phenomena, could ill brook the demands of the acted drama that all this interpre*ation should stop with visible, intelligible, and satisfactory action, capable of histrionic expression. Browning's eager penetration of the arcana of life was too absorbing to permit him to call a halt when the actor on the stage could go no farther.
An example of the practical difficulties he encountered with managers will be found in the vicissitudes of A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, which was put on the stage in 1843 and formed the fifth in the series of Bells and Pomegranates. Browning has himself told the story of his misfortunes so fully and so graphically in a letter to Mr. Frank Hill, editor of the London Daily News, forty years after the event, that it seems worth while to introduce it here. The letter, from which the following passage is taken, was dated 19, Warwick Crescent, December 15, 1884; and was written in consequence of a paragraph concerning the revival of the play, which Mr. Hill had sent in proof to Browning, from a doubt he felt of its accuracy:
"Macready received and accepted the play, while he was engaged at the Haymarket, and retained it for Drury Lane, of which I was ignorant that he was about to become the manager; he accepted it at the instigation' of nobody, and Charles Dickens was not in England when he did so it was read to him after his return by Forster - and the glowing letter which contains his opinion of it, although directed by him to be shown to myself, was never heard of nor seen by me till printed in Forster's book some thirty years after. When the Drury Lane season began, Macready informed me that he should act the play when he had brought out two others-- The Patrician's Daughter, and Plighted Troth. Having done so, he wrote to me that the former had been unsuccessful in money-drawing, and the latter had smashed his arrangements altogether,' but he would still produce my play. I had in my ignorance of certain symptoms better understood by Macready's professional acquaintances — no notion that it was a proper thing, in such a case, to release him from his promise; on the contrary, I should have fancied that such a proposal was offensive. Soon after, Macready begged that I would call on him; he said the play had been read to the actors the day before, and 'laughed at from beginning to end;' on my speaking my mind about this, he explained that the reading had been done by the prompter, a grotesque person with a red nose and wooden leg, ill at ease in the love scenes, and that he would himself make amends by reading the play next morning-which he did, and very adequately· but apprised me that, in consequence of the state of his mind, harassed by business and various trouble, the principal character must be taken by Mr. Phelps; and again I failed to understand what Forster subsequently assured me was plain as the sun at noonday that to allow at Macready's theatre any other than Macready to play the principal part in a new piece was suicidal, and really believed I was meeting his exigencies by accepting the substitution. At the rehearsal, Macready announced that Mr. Phelps was ill, and that he himself would read the part; on the third rehearsal, Mr. Phelps appeared for the first time, and sat in a chair while Macready more than read - rehearsed the part. The next morning Mr. Phelps waylaid me at the stage-floor to say, with much emotion, that it never was intended that he should be instrumental in the success of a new tragedy, and that Macready would play Tresham on the ground that himself, Phelps, was unable to do so. He added that he could not expect me to waive such an advantage, but that, if I were prepared to waive it, he would take ether, sit up all night, and have the words in his memory by next day.' I bade him follow me to the green-room, and hear what I decided upon which was that as Macready had given him the part, he should keep it this was on a Thursday; he rehearsed on Friday and Saturday, — the play being acted the same evening, of the fifth day after the reading' by Macready. Macready at once wished to reduce the importance of the 'play' as he styled it in the bills, — tried to leave out so much of the text that I baffled him by getting it printed in four-and-twenty hours, by Moxon's assistance. He wanted me to call it The