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Sister! and I have before me, while I write, the stage-acting copy, with two lines of his own insertion to avoid the tragical ending - Tresham was to announce his intention of going into a monastery! all this, to keep up the belief that Macready, and Macready alone, could produce a veritable tragedy,' unproduced before. Not a shilling was spent on scenery or dresses, and a striking scene which had been used for The Patrician's Daughter did duty a second time. If your critic considers this treatment of the play an instance of the failure of powerful and experienced actors' to ensure its success, I can only say that my own opinion was shown by at once breaking off a friendship of many years a friendship which had a right to be plainly and simply
told that the play I had contributed as a proof of it would, through a change of circumstances, no longer be to my friend's advantage - all I could possibly care for. Only recently, when by the publication of Macready's journals the extent of his pecuniary embarrassments at that time was made known, could I in a measure understand his motives for such conduct, and less than ever understand why he so strangely disguised and disfigured them. If applause' meant success, the play thus maimed and maltreated was successful enough; it made way' for Macready's own Benefit, and the theatre closed a fortnight after."
Of the more profound separation between Browning and the theatre, due to the inherent impossibility of his arresting his thought before it got beyond the actor's use, Luria and The Return of the Druses afford good examples, and an illustration might fairly be taken from Colombe's Birthday, which was put on the stage in 1853, but scarcely held its own, though Helen Faucit took the heroine's part, and, when revived forty years after, was so cut and slashed that though the splendid idea of Valence was retained in situation, the delicate, subtle shadows which passed and repassed before the reader's mind were wanting.
The period when Browning was writing his dramas was one of spendthrift enjoyment of life. For it was a time not only of work in the British Museum and of excursions into all sorts of remote fields of literature, but of long rambles, half gypsy experiences, hours when, stretched at full length beneath the sky, he made familiar and minute acquaintance with bird and leaf, insect and snail, the wind in the trees, the search for the northwest passage of argosies of clouds. He pursued all manner of interests which absorbed him for the moment; he was living, in short, that abundant life which was reflected later in multitudinous dramatic assumptions.
Then all at once there came a concentration of his passion and a sudden revelation to him which never lost its wondrous light. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, knowing each other through their writings, then by a common service to a common friend, then by an intermittent correspondence, finally were brought together by John Kenyon, already a dear friend of each. The fragile creature, scarce able to leave her couch, and the robust, exuberantly vital man, were as far separate in external, superficial agreement as could well be, but each knew the other with an instantaneousness of knowledge and need. Again and again, not only in verses directed openly to his wife, but in those which like By the Fireside thinly veil personal feeling, the passionate constancy of this experimenting, daringly inquisitive poet towards his poet wife is splendidly disclosed, with a certain glory of frank confession which is the vehement sincerity of one who is in this one feeling genuine poet and genuine man.
Miss Barrett was an invalid, guarded with the greatest care, and Browning, in urging marriage upon her, met with all the obstacles which the circumstances raised. He confronted indeed the indomitable refusal of Miss Barrett's father. A physician had held out hopes that a removal to Italy would give the invalid a chance to regain some degree of health, but Mr. Barrett, for some not very clear reason, refused his consent to her taking the journey with her brother. It was then that Browning, who can readily be conceived of as a masterful man, won Miss Barrett's consent to a sudden and clandestine marriage, and a journey to Italy as his wife. "When she had finally assented to this course," writes Mrs. Orr, "she took a preparatory step which, in so far as it was known, must itself have been sufficiently startling to those about her; she drove to Regent's Park, and when there, stepped out of the carriage and on to the grass. I do not know how long she stood - probably only for a moment; but I well remember hearing that when, after so long an interval, she felt earth under her feet and air about her, the sensation was almost bewilderingly strange."
They were married September 12, 1846. She would not entangle Mr. Kenyon or any of her
friends by announcing even her engagement; she preferred marrying without her father's knowledge, to marrying against his prohibition. For a week the husband and wife did not see each other. Then they met by agreement and went to Paris. Mr. Barrett never forgave his daughter, but the consternation with which the Browning family heard of the event quickly turned to affectionate regard for the frail wife. So far as Mrs. Browning's physical well-being was concerned, it is clear that the marriage gave her a new lease of life; and what seemed at the moment an audacious taking of fate into their own hands proved to be a case where nature obtained her best of both.
From Paris, by slow stages, they passed through France into Italy, and made their first long halt in Pisa. It was here, we are told, that Mrs. Browning showed to her husband in manuscript those Sonnets from the Portuguese which were her offering to him out of the darkness of her chamber. From Pisa they went to Florence, to Ancona, and again back to Florence, where at last they obtained a foothold in the old palace called Casa Guidi, a name to be endeared to the readers of Mrs. Browning's poetry. Mr. George S. Hillard, in his Six Months in Italy, gives a pleasant account of the Brownings when he met them in Florence in 1847.
It is well for the traveller to be chary of names. It is an ungrateful return for hospitable attentions to print the conversation of your host, or describe his person, or give an inventory of his furniture, or proclaim how his wife and daughters were dressed. But I trust I may be pardoned if I state that one of my most delightful associations with Florence arises from the fact that here I made the acquaintance of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. These are even more familiar names in America than in England, and their poetry is probably more read, and better understood with us than among their own countrymen. A happier home and a more perfect union than theirs it is not easy to imagine; and this completeness arises not only from the rare qualities which each possesses, but from their adaptation to each other. Browning's conversation is like the poetry of Chaucer, or like his own, simplified and made transparent. His countenance is so full of vigor, freshness, and refined power, that it seems impossible to think that he can ever grow old. His poetry is subtle, passionate, and profound; but he himself is simple, natural, and playful. He has the repose of a man who has lived much in the open air; with no nervous uneasiness and no unhealthy self-consciousness. Mrs. Browning is in many respects the correlative of her husband. As he is full of manly power, so she is a type of the most sensitive and delicate womanhood. She has been a great sufferer from ill-health, and the marks of pain are stamped upon her person and manner. Her figure is slight, her countenance expressive of genius and sensibility, shaded by a veil of long brown locks; and her tremulous voice often flutters over her words, like the flame of a dying candle over the wick. I have never seen a human frame which seemed so nearly a transparent veil for a celestial and immortal spirit. She is a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl. Her rare and fine genius needs no setting forth at my hands. She is also, what is not so generally known, a woman of uncommon, nay, profound learning, even measured by a masculine standard. Nor is she more remarkable for genius and learning, than for sweetness of temper, tenderness of heart, depth of feeling, and purity of spirit. It is a privilege to know such beings singly and separately, but to see their powers quickened, and their happiness rounded, by the sacred tie of marriage, is a cause for peculiar and lasting gratitude. A union so complete as theirs in which the mind has nothing to crave nor the heart to sigh for is cordial to behold and something to remember."
During the fifteen years of their married life the Brownings lived for the most part in Italy, with occasional summers in England and long sojourns in Paris. The record of Browning's productions during this period is meagre, if one regards the fulness of his poetic activity both before and after. The explanation is made that these new responsibilities, - for two sons were born to them, one of whom died, carried also great anxieties, for the frailty of Mrs. Browning's health was a constant factor in the movements of the household. But though the record is meagre as to quantity, lovers of Browning's poetry would be likely to regard this as not only a central period, chronologically, but the period when he reached his highest expression. The first collected edition of his poems appeared in 1849, to be followed the next year by Christmas-Eve and EasterDay, and then, five years after that, in 1855, by Men and Women, a group of poems which still remains the flower of Browning's genius.
The great range taken by these poems is a witness to the fecundity and versatility of Browning's genius. It is possible, also, that to the circumstances of his life, especially its beautiful distractions, we owe the fact of a multitude of short poems rather than longer-sustained efforts. While Mrs. Browning, sheltered by the constant care exerted by her husband and stimulated by his companionship, composed her longest work, Aurora Leigh, he, never long freed from anxious thought, broke into more fragmentary production. A very good illustration of the alacrity of his mind and the instantaneous power of seizing upon opportunity is given in a passage in Mr. Gosse's Personalia: —
"In recounting a story of some Tuscan noblemen who had shown him two exquisite miniaturepaintings, the work of a young artist who should have received for them the prize in some local contest, and who, being unjustly defrauded, broke his ivories, burned his brushes, and indignantly foreswore the thankless art forever, Mr. Browning suddenly reflected that there was, as he said, 'stuff for a poem' in that story, and immediately with extreme vivacity began to sketch the form it should take, the suppression of what features and the substitution of what others were needful; and finally suggested the non-obvious or inverted moral of the whole, in which the act of spirited defiance was shown to be, really, an act of tame renunciation, the poverty of the artist's spirit being proved in his eagerness to snatch, even though it was by honest merit, a benefit simply material. The poet said, distinctly, that he had never before reflected on this incident as one proper to be versified; the speed, therefore, with which the creative architect laid the foundations, built the main fabric, and even put on the domes and pinnacles of his poem was, no doubt, of uncommon interest. He left it, in five minutes, needing nothing but the mere outward crust of the versification."
It was an incident in Browning's life that when he was producing his most glorious work and receiving the admiration and intelligent appreciation of his poetical wife, he was a very insignificant figure in English literature of the day. Mrs. Browning was indignant over the neglect her husband suffered, and in her letters drew sharp comparison between the attention paid Browning in America and the neglect he received in England. Meanwhile, whether living in Florence or sojourning in Paris or London, a choice company was always to be found welcoming and honoring the two poets. Mr. and Mrs. Story, the Hawthornes, Cardinal Manning, Massimo d'Azeglio, Sir Frederick Leighton, Mr. Odo Russell, Rossetti, Val Prinsep, Forster, Landor, Fanny Kemble, - these are some of the names closely associated with that of the Brownings in this period.
The death of Mrs. Browning, June 29, 1861, closed this most beautiful human companionship. It made also a great change in Browning's habit of life, and no doubt affected in important ways his poetical productiveness. He left Italy for England. He became absorbed, so far as personal responsibilities went, in the education of his son. By some strange caprice, he chose to make his home in an ugly part of London, and he approached it through a region of disorder and squalor. But he also, with his robust nature, denied himself the luxury of a persistent solitariness, and little by little returned to society, especially grateful for the friendship of women like Miss Isa Blagden, who stepped in at the moment of his descent into the valley of grief with their gentle ministrations.
The months that followed Mrs. Browning's death were in a way given to taking up again dropped threads of work, and to intellectual occupations, which both satisfied and stimulated his nature. He read Euripides again, perhaps in part because of the association in his mind with his wife's scholarly interests. He resumed the poems on which he had been engaged in the last months at Casa Guidi, and he pondered over his magnum opus, the germ of which had been in his mind for many months. But first, in 1863, he saw through the press a new and complete collection of his poetical works in three volumes. Then, the year following, he gathered the poems which immediately preceded and followed Mrs. Browning's death into the volume of Dramatis Persona. The reissue of his older poems and this new accession were accompanied by a clear reenforcement of his position as an English poet. He had come, too, to the point where volumes of selections from his work were in demand, a pretty good sign of a widening of his audience. Other signs followed. In 1867 he received the honorary degree of M. A. from the University of Oxford, and a few months later was made honorary fellow of Balliol College. In the year following he
was asked to stand for the Lord Rectorship of the University of St. Andrews, rendered vacant by the death of J. S. Mill.
His mother had died in 1849, and in 1866 his father, who had been one of his most constant companions since his wife's death, died also. Thereafter, he and his sister Sarianna, who had passed a life of devotion to their parents, became inseparable. Though England was their home, they spent many summers in Brittany, as his poems indicate, and now and then returned to Italy, where his son was established finally as a painter.
In 1868 appeared the six volume uniform edition of his poems, and immediately afterward began the publication, to be completed in four volumes, of The Ring and the Book. Mrs. Orr traces, in an ingenious manner, the influence which Mrs. Browning's personality had in the conception of Pompilia in this poem. However much a single character may have been affected, it is easy to believe that this elaborate construction building in Browning's mind during the closing years of his wife's life and actually brought into existence in the years immediately following was, more than any single work, a great monument which the poet raised to the memory of that companion whose own poetic achievement always seemed to him of a higher worth than his own. "The simple truth is," he wrote to a common friend, "that she was the poet and I the clever person by comparison: remember her limited experience of all kinds, and what she made of it. Remember, on the other hand, how my uninterrupted health and strength and practice with the world have helped me."
After The Ring and the Book the only new departure, so to speak, of Browning's genius was in the group of poems which were built upon the foundation of Greek poetry. In 1871 appeared Balaustion's Adventure, in 1875 Aristophanes' Apology, and in 1877 The Agamemnon of Æschylus. They have their value as expressive of Browning's catholicity, and more particularly as his one great literary feat. With all his interest in Italy, and his delving in Renaissance literature, there can scarcely be said to be any criticism of Italian literature in the form of his own poetry. In like manner his dramatic works are not, except in a very remote or general sense, criticism of the Elizabethan drama. But his three poems above named do represent the thought and criticism of a Gothic mind confronting and admiring the Greek art and thought. Browning in these works is not a reproducer in his own terms of Greek life; he is a poet of varied experience, who, coming in contact with a great and distinct manifestation of human life, is moved to strike in here also with his thought and fancy, and because of the very elemental nature of the material, to find the keenest delight in exercising his genius upon it.
Meanwhile the facility which his long and varied practice with the English language had brought him made every new subject that appealed to him a plaything for his fertile imagination; and the speculative temper which grew upon him as the maturity of experience enlarged and enriched his material for thought, led him into long and tortuous ways. The Ring and the Book stands about midway in the bulk of his work, but whereas all the poetry and drama before that work represent thirty-five years of his life, that which follows, nearly as great in amount, represents but twenty years.
In these last years of his life, when fame had come to him and his versatility made him a ready companion, he led a semi-public life. He was in demand in all directions. As Mr. Sharp has rapidly summed it up: "Everybody wished him to come and dine; and he did his utmost to gratify everybody. He said everything; read all the notable books; kept himself acquainted with the leading contents of the journals and magazines; conducted a large correspondence; read new French, German, and Italian books of mark; read and translated Euripides and Æschylus; knew all the gossip of the literary clubs, salons, and the studios; was a frequenter of afternoon-tea parties; and then, over and above it, he was Browning: the most profoundly subtle mind that has exercised itself in poetry since Shakespeare."
In 1881 was founded the English Browning Society, one of the most singular testimonials to the interest awakened by a contemporaneous poet known in literary history. The great mass of his writings, the recordite nature of some of the material which he had used, but more than all, the astounding variety of problems in human life and character which he had presented and either solved or opened the way to solve, made Browning an object of the greatest interest to the curious, the sympathetic, and the restless of his day. Any such movement has on its edge a frayed
sort of membership, but no one can note the names of members or read the communications which appear in the society's proceedings without recognizing the intellectual ability that carried the movement along. Browning's own attitude toward the society is pretty clearly expressed in the following words which he wrote to Mr. Edmund Yates at the time of the society's foundation :
"The Browning Society, I need not say, as well as Browning himself, are fair game for criticism. I had no more to do with the founding it than the babe unborn; and, as Wilkes was no Wilkesite, I am quite other than a Browningite. But I cannot wish harm to a society of, with a few exceptions, names unknown to me, who are busied about my books so disinterestedly. The exaggerations probably come of the fifty-years'-long charge of unintelligibility against my books; such reactions are possible, though I never looked for the beginning of one so soon. That there is a grotesque side to the thing is certain; but I have been surprised and touched by what cannot but have been well intentioned, I think. Anyhow, as I never felt inconvenienced by hard words, you will not expect me to wax bumptious because of undue compliment: so enough of Browning' except that he is yours very truly while the machine is to him.""
In 1887 Browning removed to a more agreeable quarter in De Vere Gardens in the west end of London, and with his affection for Asolo, he set about purchasing a residence there in 1889, and it was while engaged in negotiations for the purchase that he was taken ill with bronchial troubles, and died at his son's home in Venice, December 12, 1889. He was buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, on the last day of the year. Italy rightly divided honors with England, and on the outer wall of the Rezzonico Palace in Venice is a memorial tablet with the inscription:
ROBERTO BROWNING morto in questo palazzo il 12 Dicembre 1889
Below, in the corner, are placed two lines from his poem, De Gustibus:
"Open my heart and you will see
Graved inside of it, 'Italy.'"
H. E. S.