« AnteriorContinuar »
"A peep through my window, if folk prefer;
But, please you, no foot over threshold of mine."
THEN some depreciator of the familiar declared that "Only in Italy is there any romance left," Browning replied, "Ah! well, I should like to include poor old Camberwell," and "poor old Camberwell,” where Robert Browning was born, May 7, 1812, offered no meagre nurture for the fancy of a child gifted with the ardor that greatens and glorifies the real.
Nature still garlanded this suburban part of London with bowery spaces breathing peace. The view of the region from Herne Hill over softly wreathing distances of domestic wood "was, before railroads came, entirely lovely," Ruskin says. He writes of "the tops of twenty square miles of politely inhabited groves," of bloom of lilac and laburnum and of almond-blossoms, intermingling suggestions of the wealth of fruit-trees in enclosed gardens, and companioning all this with the furze, birch, oak, and bramble of the Norwood hills, and the open fields of Dulwich "animate with cow and buttercup."
Nature was ready to beckon the young poet to dreams and solitude, and, too close to need to vie with her, the great city was at hand to make her power intimately felt. From a height crowned by three large elms, Browning, as a lad, used to enjoy the picturesqueness of his "poor old Camberwell." Its heart of romance was centred for him in the sight of the vast city lying to the westward. His memory singled out one such visit as peculiarly significant, the first one on which he beheld teeming London by night, and heard the vague confusion of her collective voice beneath the silence of the stars.
Within the home into which he was born, equally well-poised conditions befriended him, fostering the development of his emotional and intellectual nature. His mother was once described by Carlyle as "the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman." Browning himself used to say of
her "with tremulous emotion," according to his friend, Mrs. Orr, "she Iwas a divine woman." Her gentle, deeply religious nature evidently derived its evangelical tendency from her mother, also Scotch; while from her father, William Wiedemann, ship-owner, a Hamburg German, settled in Dundee, who was an accomplished draughtsman and musician, she seems to have derived the liking and facility for music which was one of the characteristic bents of the poet. To this Scotch-German descent on his mother's side the metaphysical quality of his mind is accountable, concerning which Harriet Martineau is recorded as having said to him, "You have no need to study German thought, your mind is German enough already." The peculiarly tender affection his mother called out in him seems to have been at once proof and enhancement of the mystical, emotional, and impressible side of his disposition; and these traits were founded on an organic inheritance from her of "what he called a nervousness of nature," which his father could not have bequeathed to him.
Exuberant vitality, insatiable intellectual curiosity and capacity, the characteristics of Robert Browning the elder, were the heritage of his son, but raised in him to a more effective power, through their transmutation, perhaps, as Mrs. Orr suggests, in the more sensitive physique and temperament inherited from his mother. Of his father, Browning wrote that his "Powers, natural and acquired, would easily have made him a notable man, had he known what vanity or ambition or the love of money or social influence meant." He had refused to stay on his mother's sugar plantation at St. Kitt's in the West Indies, losing the fortune to be achieved there, because of his detestation of slavery, and the office he filled in the Bank of England was never close enough to his liking to induce him to rise in it so far as his father had risen; but it enabled him to indulge his tastes for many books and a few pictures and to secure for his son, as that son said shortly before his death, “all the ease and comfort that a literary man needs to do good work.”
One of the poet's own early recollections gives a picture that epitomizes the joint influence of his happy parentage. It depicts the child "sitting on his father's knees in the library, 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."
His father's brain was itself a library, stored with literary antiquities, which, his son used to say, made him seem to have known Paracelsus, Faustus, and even Talmudic personages personally, and his heart was
so young and buoyant that his lore, instead of isolating him from his boy and girl, made him their most entertaining companion.
It is not surprising that under such circumstances the ordinary schooling was too puerile for young Robert's wide-awake wits. He was so energetic in mind and body that he was sent to a day-school near by for peace' sake at an early age, and sent back again, for peace' sake, too, because his proficiency made the mammas complain that Mrs. neglecting her other pupils for the sake of bringing on Master Browning. Home teaching followed. Also home amusement, which included the keeping of a variety of pets, - owls, monkeys, magpies, hedgehogs, an eagle, a toad, and two snakes. If any further proof is needed of the hospitable warmth of his youthful heart, an entry in his diary at the age of seven or eight may serve "married two wives this morning." This referred, of course, to an imaginary appropriation of two girls he had just seen in church.
Later he entered the school of the Misses Ready and passed thence to their brother's school, staying there till he was fourteen, but his contempt for the petty and formal learning which is the best accorded many children, was marked, and perfectly natural to a boy who delighted to plunge in the deeper knowledge his father's book-crammed house opened generously to him.
In the list, given by Mrs. Orr, of books early attractive to him, were a seventeenth edition of Quarles's 'Emblems'; first editions of ‘Robinson Crusoe,' and Milton; the original pamphlet, 'Killing no Murder' (1559) which Carlyle borrowed for his 'Cromwell'; an early edition of the 'Bees' by the Bernard Mandeville, with whom he was destined later to hold a 'Parleying' of his own; rare old Bibles; Voltaire; a wide range of English poetry; the Greek and Elizabethan dramatists.
His father's profound love of poetry was essentially classic, and his marked aptitude in rhyming followed the models of Pope, but Browning's early poet was Byron, and all his sympathies were warmly romantic. His verse-making, which began before he could write, resulted at twelve in a volume of short poems, presumably Byronic, which he gracefully entitled 'Incondita.'
He wanted, in vain, to find a publisher for this, and soon afterwards destroyed it, but not before his mother had shown it to Miss Flower, and she, to her sister, Sarah Flower, and to Mr. Fox, and the budding poet had thus gained the attention of three genuine friends.
Shortly after this, the Byronic star which had shed its somewhat lurid influence over the first ebullitions of his genius, was forever banished by the appearance of a new star within his field of vision. Incredible as it may seem to the present generation, he had never heard
of Shelley, and if it had not been for a happy chance, an important influence in the early shaping of his poetic faculties might have been postponed until too late to furnish its quickening impulse.
One day in passing a book-stall, he happened to see advertised in a box of second-hand wares a little book, 'Mr. Shelley's Atheistical Poems' very scarce. Though the little second-hand volume was only a miserable pirated edition, by its means such entrancing glimpses of an unsuspected world were revealed to the boy that he longed to possess more of Shelley. His mother, accordingly, sallied forth in search of Shelley's poems, which, after many tribulations, she at length found at C. and J. Ollier's of Vere Street. She brought away not only nearly all of Shelley in first editions (the 'Cenci' excepted), but three volumes of Keats, whom she was assured would interest anybody who liked Shelley. Browning, himself, used to recall how, at the end of this eventful day, two nightingales, one in the laburnum at the end of his father's garden, and one in a copper beech in the next garden, sang in emulation of the poets whose music had laid its subtile spell upon him. While Keats was duly appreciated, it was Shelley who appealed most to Browning, and although it was some years before any poetic manifestation of Shelley's influence was to work itself out, he, with youthful ardor, at once adopted the crude attitude taken by Shelley in his immature work 'Queen Mab,' became a professing atheist, and even went so far as to practise vegetarianism, of which, however, he was soon cured because of its unpleasant effect on his eyesight. Of his atheism Mrs. Orr says, "His mind was not so constituted that such doubt fastened itself upon it; nor did he ever in after life speak of this period of negation except as an access of boyish folly, with which his mature self could have no concern. The return to religious belief did not shake his faith in his new prophet. It only made him willing to admit that he had misread him. This period of Browning's life remained, nevertheless, one of rebellion and unrest, to which many circumstances may have contributed besides the influence of one mind."
With the exception of the poetic awakening just recorded, Browning's youthful life is uneventful.
By his father's decision his education was continued at home with instruction in dancing, riding, boxing, fencing; in French with a tutor for two years; and in music with John Relfe for theory, and a Mr. Abel, pupil of Mcheles, for execution, doubtless supplemented with continuous browsing among the rare books in his father's library. At eighteen he attended a Greek class at the London University for a term or two and with this his formal education ceased. It was while at the university that his final choice of poetry as his future profession was made.