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1850-1855

“I heard last night a little child go singing ’Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church, O bella liberta, O bella!...”

“But Easter-Day breaks! But Christ rises! Mercy every way Is infinite, and who can say?”

“CASA GUIDI WINDOWS” SOCIETY IN FLORENCE MARCHESA D’OSSOLI BROWNING’S POETIC CREED VILLEGGIATURA IN SIENA VENICE BRILLIANT LIFE IN LONDON PARIS AND MILSAND BROWNING ON SHELLEY IN FLORENCE IDYLLIC DAYS IN BAGNI DI LUCCA MRS. BROWNING’S SPIRITUAL OUTLOOK DELIGHTFUL WINTER IN ROME A POETIC PILGRIMAGE HARRIET HOSMER CHARACTERISTICS OF MRS. BROWNING.

The Brownings were never for a moment caught up in the wave of popular enthusiasm for Pio Nono that swept over Italy. Yet Mrs. Browning confessed herself as having been fairly “taken in” by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Had Blackwood’s Magazine published Part I of her “Casa Guidi Windows” at the time that she sent it to this periodical, the poem would have been its own proof of her distrust of the Pope, but it would also have offered the same proof of her ill-founded trust in the Grand Duke; so that, on the whole, she was well content to fail in having achieved the distinction of a prophet regarding Pio Nono, as no Cassandra can afford to be convicted of delusion in some portion of the details of her prophecy. To achieve lasting reputation as a soothsayer, the prophecy must be accurate throughout. The fact that there was an interval of three years between the first and the second parts of this poem accounts for the discrepancy between them. In her own words she confessed:

“I wrote a meditation and a dream, Hearing a little child sing in the street: I leant upon his music as a theme, Till it gave way beneath my heart’s full beat Which tried at an exultant prophecy, But dropped before the measure was complete Alas for songs and hearts! O Tuscany, O Dante’s Florence, is the type too plain?”

The flashing lightnings of a betrayed people gleam like an unsheathed sword in another canto beginning:

“From Casa Guidi windows I looked forth, And saw ten thousand eyes of Florentines Flash back the triumph of the Lombard north.”

These ardent lines explain how she had been misled, for who could dream at the time that Leopoldo ("l’Intrepido,” as a poet of Viareggio called him in a truly Italian fervor of enthusiasm) could have proved himself a traitor to these trusting people, these tender-hearted, gentle, courteous, refined Italians? All these attributes pre-eminently characterize the people; but also Mrs. Browning’s insight that “the patriots are not instructed, and the instructed are not patriots,” was too true. The adherents of the papal power were strong and influential, and the personal character, whatever might be said of his political principles, the personal character of Pio Nono was singularly winning, and this was by no means a negligible factor in the great problem then before Italy.

Mrs. Browning very wisely decided to let “Casa Guidi Windows” stand as written, with all the inconsistency between its first and second parts, as each reflected what she believed true at the time of writing; and it thus presents a most interesting and suggestive commentary on Italian politics between 1850 and 1853. Its discrepancies are such “as we are called upon to accept at every hour by the conditions of our nature,” she herself said of it, “implying the interval between aspiration and performance, between faith and disillusion, between hope and fact.” This discrepancy was more painful to her than it can be even to the most critical reader; but the very nature of the poem, its very fidelity to the conditions and impressions of the moment, give it great value, though these impressions were to be modified or canceled by those of a later time; it should stand as it is, if given to the world at all. And the courage to avow one’s self mistaken is not the least of the forms that moral courage may assume.

Regarding Pio Nono, Mrs. Browning is justified by history, notwithstanding the many amiable and beautiful qualities of the Pontiff which forever assure him a place in affection, if not in political confidence. Even his most disastrous errors were the errors of judgment rather than those of conscious intention. Pio Nono had the defects of his qualities, but loving and reverent pilgrimages are constantly made to that little chapel behind the iron railing in the old church of San Lorenzo Fuori lé Mura in Rome (occupying the site of the church founded by Constantine), where his body is entombed in a marble sarcophagus of the plainest design according to his own instructions; but the interior of the vestibule is richly decorated with mosaic paintings, the tribute of those who loved him.

Leopoldo was so kindly a man, so sincere in his work for the liberty of the press and for other important reforms, that it is no marvel that Mrs. Browning invested him with resplendence of gifts he did not actually possess, but which it was only logical to feel that such a man must have. Sometimes a too complete reliance on the ex pede Herculem method of judgment is misleading.

While the cause of Italian liberty had the entire sympathy of Robert Browning, he was yet little moved to use it as a poetic motive. Professor Hall Griffin suggests that it is possible that Browning deliberately chose not to enter a field which his wife so particularly made her own; but that is the less tenable as they never discussed their poetic work with each other, and as a rule rarely showed to each other a single poem until it was completed.

The foreign society in Florence at this time included some delightful American sojourners, for, beside the Storys and Hiram Powers (an especial friend of the Brownings), there were George S. Hillard, George William Curtis, and the Marchesa d’Ossoli with her husband, all of whom were welcomed at Casa Guidi. The English society then in Florence was, as Mrs. Browning wrote to Miss Mitford, “kept up much after the old English models, with a proper disdain for continental simplicities of expense; and neither my health nor our pecuniary circumstances,” she says, “would admit of our entering it. The fact is, we are not like our child, who kisses everybody who smiles on him! You can scarcely imagine to yourself how we have retreated from the kind advances of the English here, and struggled with hands and feet to keep out of this gay society.” But it is alluring to imagine the charm of their chosen circle, the Storys always first and nearest, and these other gifted and interesting friends.

Mr. Story is so universally thought of as a sculptor that it is not always realized how eminent he was in the world of letters as well. Two volumes of his poems contain many of value, and a few, as the “Cleopatra,” “An Estrangement,” and the immortal “Io Victis,” that the world would not willingly let die; his “Roba di Roma” is one of those absolutely indispensable works regarding the Eternal City; and several other books of his, in sketch and criticism, enrich literature. A man of the most courtly and distinguished manner, of flawless courtesy, an artist of affluent expressions, it is not difficult to realize how congenial and delightful was his companionship, as well as that of his accomplished wife, to the Brownings. Indeed, no biographical record could be made of either household, with any completeness, that did not largely include the other. In all the lovely chronicles of literature and life there is no more beautiful instance of an almost lifelong friendship than that between Robert Browning and William Wetmore Story.

In this spring of 1850 Browning was at work on his “Christmas Eve and Easter Day,” and Casa Guidi preserved a liberal margin of quiet and seclusion. “You can scarcely imagine,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “the retired life we live.... We drive day by day through the lovely Cascine, only sweeping through the city. Just such a window where Bianca Capello looked out to see the Duke go by, and just such a door where Tasso stood, and where Dante drew his chair out to sit.”

When Curtis visited Florence he wrote to Browning begging to be permitted to call, and he was one of the welcomed visitors in Casa Guidi. Browning took him on many of those romantic excursions with which the environs of Florence abound, to Settignano, where Michael Angelo was born; to the old Roman amphitheater in Fiesole; to that somber, haunted summit of San Miniato, and to Vallombrosa, where he played to Curtis some of the old Gregorian chants on an organ in the monastery. Afterward, in a conversation with Longfellow, Mr. Curtis recalled a hymn by Pergolese that Browning had played for him.

Tennyson’s poem, “The Princess,” went into the third edition that winter, and Mrs. Browning observed that she knew of no poet, having claim solely through poetry, who had attained so certain a success with so little delay. Hearing that Tennyson had remarked that the public “hated poetry,” Mrs. Browning commented that, “divine poet as he was, and no laurel being too leafy for him,” he must yet be unreasonable if he were not gratified with “so immediate and so conspicuous a success.”

Browning’s “imprisoned splendor” found expression that winter in several lyrics, which were included in the new (two volume) edition of his poems.

Among these were the “Meeting at Night,” “Parting at Morning,” “A Woman’s Last Word,” and “Evelyn Hope.” “Love among the Ruins,” “Old Pictures in Florence,” “Saul,” and his “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” all belong to this group. In that ardent love poem, “A Woman’s Last Word,” occur the lines:

“Teach me, only teach, Love! As I ought I will speak thy speech, Love, Think thy thought

“Meet, if thou require it, Both demands, Laying flesh and spirit In thy hands.”

No lyric that Robert Browning ever wrote is more haunting in its power and sweetness, or more rich in significance, than “Evelyn Hope,” with “that piece of geranium flower” in the glass beside her beginning to die. The whole scene is suggested by this one detail, and in characterization of the young girl are these inimitable lines,

“The good stars met in your horoscope, Made you of spirit, fire, and dew

Yet one thing, one, in my soul’s full scope, Either I missed or itself missed me;

So, hush, I will give you this leaf to keep; See, I shut it inside the sweet cold hand! There, that is our secret: go to sleep! You will wake, and remember, and understand.”

Mrs. Browning’s touching lyric, “A Child’s Grave at Florence,” was published in the Athenaeum that winter; and in this occur the simple but appealing stanzas,

“Oh, my own baby on my knees, My leaping, dimpled treasure,

But God gives patience, Love learns strength, And Faith remembers promise;

Still mine! maternal rights serene Not given to another! The crystal bars shine faint between The souls of child and mother.”

To this day, that little grave in the English cemetery in Florence, with its “A. A. E. C.” is sought out by the visitor. To Mrs. Browning the love for her own child taught her the love of all mothers. In “Only a Curl” are the lines:

“O children! I never lost one, But my arm’s round my own little son, And Love knows the secret of Grief.”

Florence “bristled with cannon” that winter, but nothing decisive occurred. The faith of the Italian people in Pio Nono, however, grew less. Mr. Kirkup, the antiquarian, still carried on his controversy with Bezzi as to which of them were the more entitled to the glory of discovering the Dante portrait, and in the spring there occurred the long-deferred marriage of Mrs. Browning’s sister Henrietta to Captain Surtees Cook, the attitude of Mr. Barrett being precisely the same as on the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to Robert Browning. The death of Wordsworth was another of the events of this spring, leaving vacant the Laureateship. The Athenaeum at once advocated the appointment of Mrs. Browning, as one “eminently suitable under a female sovereign.” Other literary authorities coincided with this view, it seeming a sort of poetic justice that a woman poet should be Laureate to a Queen. The Athenaeum asserted that “there is no living poet of either sex who can prefer a higher claim than Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” but the honor was finally conferred upon Tennyson, with the ardent approbation of the Brownings, who felt that his claim was rightly paramount.

In the early summer the Marchese and Marchesa d’Ossoli, with their child, sailed on that ill-starred voyage whose tragic ending startled the literary world of that day. Their last evening in Florence was passed with the Brownings. The Marchesa expressed a fear of the voyage that, after its fatal termination, was recalled by her friends as being almost prophetic. Curiously she gave a little Bible to the infant son of the poets as a presentation from her own little child; and Robert Barrett Browning still treasures, as a strange relic, the book on whose fly-leaf is written “In memory of Angelino d’Ossoli.” Mrs. Browning had a true regard for the Marchesa, of whom she spoke as “a very interesting person, thoughtful, spiritual, in her habitual mode of mind.”

In his poetic creed, Browning deprecated nothing more entirely (to use a mild term where a stronger would not be inappropriate) than that the poet should reveal his personal feeling in his poem; and to the dramatic character of his own work he held tenaciously. He rebuked the idea that Shakespeare “unlocked his heart” to his readers, and he warns them off from the use of any fancied latch-key to his own inner citadel.

“Which of you did I enable Once to slip inside my breast, There to catalogue and label What I like least, what love best?”

And in another poem the reader will recall how fervently he thanks God that “even the meanest of His creatures”

“Boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with, One to show a woman when he loves her!”

It was the knowledge of this intense and pervading conviction of her husband’s that kept Mrs. Browning so long from showing to him her exquisitely tender and sacred self-revelation in the “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Yet it was in that very “One Word More” where Browning thanks God for the “two soul-sides,” that he most simply reveals himself, and also in “Prospice” and in this “Christmas Eve and Easter Day.” This poem, with its splendor of vision, was published in 1850, with an immediate sale of two hundred copies, after which for the time the demand ceased. William Sharp well designates it as a “remarkable Apologia for Christianity,” for it can be almost thought of in connection with Newman’s “Apologia pro vita sua,” and as not remote from the train of speculative thought which Matthew Arnold wrought into his “Literature and Dogma.” It is very impressive to see how the very content of Hegelian Dialectic is the key-note of Browning’s art. “The concrete and material content of a life of perfected knowledge and volition means one thing, only, love,” teaches Hegelian philosophy. This, too, is the entire message of Browning’s poetry. Man must love God in the imperfect manifestation which is all he can offer of God. He must relate the imperfect expression to the perfect aspiration.

“All I aspired to be And was not comforts me.”

In the unfaltering search for the Divine Ideal is the true reward.

“One great aim, like a guiding star, above Which tasks strength, wisdom, stateliness, to lift His manhood to the height that takes the prize.”

Browning conceived and presented the organic idea and ideal of life, in its fullness, its intensity, as perhaps few poets have ever done. He would almost place a positive sin above a negative virtue. To live intensely, even if it be sinfully, was to Browning’s vision to be on the upward way, rather than to be in a state of negative good. The spirit of man is its own witness of the presence of God. Life cannot be truly lived in any fantastic isolation.

“Just when we’re safest, there’s a sunset touch, A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death, A chorus ending from Euripides.”

With Browning, as with Spinoza, there is an impatience, too, with the perpetual references to death, and they both constantly turn to the everlasting truth of life. “It is this harping on death that I despise so much,” exclaimed Browning, in the later years of his life, in a conversation with a friend. “In fiction, in poetry, in art, in literature this shadow of death, call it what you will, despair, negation, indifference, is upon us. But what fools who talk thus!... Why, death is life, just as our daily momentarily dying body is none the less alive, and ever recruiting new forces of existence. Without death, which is our word for change, for growth, there could be no prolongation of that which we call life.”

After the completion of “Christmas Eve and Easter Day,” Mrs. Browning questioned her husband about the apparent asceticism of the second part of the poem, and he replied that he meant it to show only one side of the matter. “Don’t think,” she wrote to a friend, “that Robert has taken to the cilix, indeed he has not, but it is his way to see things as passionately as other people feel them.”

Browning teaches in this poem that faith is an adventure of the spirit, the aspiration felt, even if unnamed. But as to renunciation,

“’Renounce the world!’ Ah, were it done By merely cutting one by one Your limbs off, with your wise head last, How easy were it!”

The renunciation that the poet sees is not so simple. It is not to put aside all the allurements of life, but to use them nobly; to persist in the life of the spirit, to offer love for hatred, truth for falsehood, generous self-sacrifice rather than to grasp advantages, to live, not to forsake the common daily lot. It is, indeed, the philosophy amplified that is found in the words of Jesus, “I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”

The Brownings remained till late in the summer in their Casa Guidi home, detained at first by the illness of Mrs. Browning, after which they decided to postpone going to England until another year. In the late summer they went for a few weeks to Siena, where, two miles outside the walls, they found a seven-roomed villa with a garden and vineyard and olive orchard, and “a magnificent view of a noble sweep of country, undulating hills and verdure, and on one side the great Maremma extending to the foot of the Roman mountains.” They were located on a little hill called Poggia dei venti, with all the winds of the heavens, indeed, blowing about them, and with overflowing quantities of milk and bread and wine, and a loggia at the top of the villa. Mrs. Browning found herself rapidly recovering strength, and their comfort was further extended by finding a library in Siena, where, for three francs a month, they had access to the limited store of books which seem so luxurious in Italy. The boy Browning was delighted with his new surroundings, his sole infelicity being his inability to reach the grapes clustering over the trellises; he missed the Austrian band that made music (or noise) for his delectation in Florence, although to compensate for this privation he himself sang louder than ever. In after years Mr. Browning laughingly related this anecdote of his son’s childhood: “I was one day playing a delicate piece of Chopin’s on the piano, and hearing a loud noise outside, hastily stopped playing when my little boy ran in, and my wife exclaimed: ’How could you leave off playing when Penini brought three drums to accompany you?’”

For all this bloom and beauty in Siena they paid a little less than fifteen francs a week. Soon after their arrival they learned of the shipwreck in which the Marchese and Marchesa d’Ossoli and the little Angelino all perished, and the tragedy deeply impressed Mrs. Browning. “The work that the Marchesa was preparing upon Italy would have been more equal to her faculties than anything she has ever produced,” said Mrs. Browning, “her other writings being curiously inferior to the impression made by her conversation.”

Before returning to Florence the Brownings passed a week in the town of Siena to visit the pictures and churches, but they found it pathetic to leave the villa, and especially harrowing to their sensibilities to part with the pig. There is consolation, however, for most mortal sorrows, and the Brownings found it in their intense interest in Sienese art. The wonderful pulpit of the Duomo, the work of Niccola Pisano; the font of San Giovanni; the Sodomas, and the Libreria (the work of Pius III, which he built when he was Cardinal, and in which, at the end of the aisle, is a picture of his own elevation to the Papal throne, painted after his death) fascinated their attention. The Brownings found it dazzling to enter this interior, all gold and color, with the most resplendent decorative effects. They followed in the footsteps of Saint Catherine, as do all pilgrims to Siena, and climbed the hill to the Oratorio di Santa Caterina in Fontebranda, and read that inscription: “Here she stood and touched that precious vessel and gift of God, blessed Catherine, who in her life did so many miracles.” They lingered, too, in the Cappella Santa Caterina in San Domenico, where Catherine habitually prayed, where she beheld visions and received her mystic revelations. They loitered in the piazza, watching the stars hang over that aerial tower, “Il Mangia,” and drove to San Gimignano, with its picturesque medieval atmosphere.

It was in the autumn of 1850 that Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” first privately and then anonymously printed, was acknowledged by the poet. The Brownings read extracts from it in the Examiner, and they were deeply moved by it. “Oh, there’s a poet!” wrote Mrs. Browning. At last, “by a sort of miracle,” they obtained a copy, and Mrs. Browning was carried away with its exquisite touch, its truth and earnestness. “The book has gone to my heart and soul,” she says, “I think it full of deep pathos and beauty.”

An interesting visitor dropped in at Casa Guidi in the person of a grandson of Goethe; and his mission to Florence, to meet the author of “Paracelsus” and discuss with him the character of the poem, was a tribute to its power. Mrs. Browning, whose poetic ideals were so high, writing to a friend of their guest, rambled on into some allusions to poetic art, and expressed her opinion that all poets should take care to teach the world that poetry is a divine thing. “Rather perish every verse I ever wrote, for one,” she said, “than help to drag down an inch that standard of poetry which, for the sake of humanity as well as literature, should be kept high.”

In “Aurora Leigh” she expresses the same sentiment in the lines:

“I, who love my art, Would never wish it lower to suit my stature.”

Full of affection and interest are Mrs. Browning’s letters to her husband’s sister, Sarianna, who, with her father, is now living in Hatcham, near London. In the spring of 1852, after passing the winter in Florence, the Brownings set out for England; the plan at first being to go south to Naples, pause at Rome, and then go northward; but this was finally abandoned, and they proceeded directly to Venice, where Mrs. Browning was enchanted with life set in a scenic loveliness of “music and stars.”

“I have been between heaven and earth since our arrival in Venice,” she writes. “The heaven of it is ineffable. Never have I touched the skirts of so celestial a place. The beauty of the architecture, the silver trails of water between all that gorgeous color and carving, the enchanting silence, the moonlight, the music, the gondolas, I mix it all up together....”

In the divine beauty of Venetian evenings they sat in the white moonlight in the piazza of San Marco, taking their coffee and the French papers together. Or they would go to the opera, where for a ridiculously small sum they had an entire box to themselves. But while Mrs. Browning longed “to live and die in Venice, and never go away,” the climate did not agree with Mr. Browning, and they journeyed on toward Paris, stopping one night at Padua and driving out to Arquà for Petrarca’s sake. In Milan Mrs. Browning climbed the three hundred and fifty steps, to the topmost pinnacle of the glorious cathedral. At Como they abandoned the diligence for the boat, sailing through that lovely chain of lakes to Fluelen, and thence to Lucerne, the scenery everywhere impressing Mrs. Browning as being so sublime that she “felt as if standing in the presence of God.” From Lucerne they made a detour through Germany, pausing at Strasburg, and arriving in Paris in July. This journey initiated an absence of almost a year and a half from Italy. They had let their apartment, so they were quite free to wander, and they were even considering the possibility of remaining permanently in Paris, whose brilliant intellectual life appealed to them both. After a brief sojourn in the French capital, they went on to England, and they had rather an embarrassment of riches in the number of houses proffered them, for Tennyson begged them to accept the loan of his house and servants at Twickenham, and Joseph Arnould was equally urgent that they should occupy his town house. But they took lodgings, instead, locating in Devonshire Street, and London life proceeds to swallow them up after its own absorbing fashion. They breakfast with Rogers, and pass an evening with the Carlyles; Forster gives a “magnificent dinner” for them; Mrs. Fanny Kemble calls, and sends them tickets for her reading of “Hamlet”; and the Proctors, Mrs. Jameson, and other friends abound. They go to New Cross, Hatcham, to visit Mr. Browning’s father and sister, where the little Penini “is taken into adoration” by his grandfather. Mrs. Browning’s sisters show her every affection, and her brothers come; but her father, in reply to her own and her husband’s letter, simply sends back to her, with their seals unbroken, all the letters she had written to him from Italy. “So there’s the end,” she says; “I cannot, of course, write again. God takes it all into His own hands, and I wait.” The warm affection of her sisters cheered her, Mrs. Surtees Cook (Henrietta Barrett) coming up from Somersetshire for a week’s visit, and her sister Arabel being invited with her. It was during this sojourn in London that Bayard Taylor, poet and critic, and afterward American Minister Plenipotentiary to Germany, called upon the Brownings, bringing a letter of introduction from Hillard.

The poet’s wife impressed Taylor as almost a spirit figure, with her pallor and slender grace, and the little Penini, “a blue-eyed, golden-haired boy, babbling his little sentences in Italian,” strayed in like a sunbeam. While Taylor was with them, Mr. Kenyon called, and after his departure Browning remarked to his guest: “There goes one of the most splendid men living, a man so noble in his friendship, so lavish in his hospitality, so large-hearted and benevolent, that he deserves to be known all over the world as Kenyon the Magnificent.”

The poets were overwhelmed with London hospitalities, and as Mrs. Browning gave her maid, Wilson, leave of absence to visit her own family, the care of little Pen fell upon her. He was in a state of “deplorable grief” for his nurse, “and after all,” laughed Mrs. Browning, “the place of nursery maid is more suitable to me than that of poetess (or even poet’s wife) in this obstreperous London.”

In the late September the Brownings crossed to Paris, Carlyle being their traveling companion, and after an effort to secure an apartment near the Madeleine, they finally established themselves in the Avenue des Champs Elysees (N, where they had pretty, sunny rooms, tastefully furnished, with the usual French lavishness in mirrors and clocks, all for two hundred francs a month, which was hardly more than they had paid for the dreary Grosvenor Street lodgings in London. Mrs. Browning was very responsive to that indefinable exhilaration of atmosphere that pervades the French capital, and the little Penini was charmed with the gayety and brightness. Mrs. Browning enjoyed the restaurant dining, a la carte, “and mixing up one’s dinner with heaps of newspapers, and the ‘solution’ by Emile de Girardin,” who suggested, it seems, “that the next President of France should be a tailor.” Meantime she writes to a friend that “the ‘elf’ is flourishing in all good fairyhood, with a scarlet rose leaf on each cheek.” They found themselves near neighbors of Beranger, and frequently saw him promenading the avenue in a white hat, and they learned that he lived very quietly and “kept out of scrapes, poetical and political.” Mrs. Browning notes that they would like to know Beranger, were the stars propitious, and that no accredited letter of introduction to him would have been refused, but that they could not make up their minds to go to his door and introduce themselves as vagrant minstrels. To George Sand they brought a letter from Mazzini, and although they heard she “had taken vows against seeing strangers,” Mrs. Browning declared she would not die, if she could help it, without meeting the novelist who had so captivated her. Mazzini’s letter, with one from themselves, was sent to George Sand through mutual friends, and the following reply came:

Madame, j’aurai l’honneur de vous recevoir Dimanche prochain, rue Racine, 3. C’est lé seul jour que je puisse passer chez moi; et encore je n’en suis pas absolument certaine maïs je ferai tellement mon possible, que ma bonne étoile m’y aidera peut-être un peu. Agreez mille remerciments de coeur ainsi que Monsieur Browning, que j’espere voir avec vous, pour la sympathie que vous m’accordez.

GEORGE SAND.

PARIS, 12 février, 1852.

The visit must have been mutually satisfactory, for it was repeated two or three times, and they found her simple, “without a shade of affectation or consciousness.” Another pleasure they had was in meeting Lamartine, who took the initiative in asking to be allowed to call on them. After their arrival in Paris Carlyle passed several evenings with them, and Mrs. Browning felt, with her husband, that he was one of the most interesting of men, “highly picturesque” in conversation. Her sympathetic insight gave her always the key and the clue to character, and perhaps no one ever read Carlyle more truly than she, when she interpreted his bitterness only as melancholy, and his scorn as sensibility.

The Brownings had not been long in Paris before they were invited to a reception at Lady Elgin’s, where they met Madame Mohl, who at once cordially urged their coming to her “evenings,” to meet her French celebrities. Lady Elgin was domiciled in the old Faubourg Saint Germain, and received every Monday evening from eight to twelve, sans façon, people being in morning dress, and being served with simple refreshment of tea and cakes. Lady Elgin expressed the hope that the Brownings would come to her on every one of these evenings, Mrs. Browning said that she had expected “to see Balzac’s duchesses and hommes de lettres on all sides,” but she found it less notable, though very agreeable. The elder Browning and his daughter pay a visit to them, greatly to Mrs. Browning’s enjoyment. At this time they half contemplated living permanently in Paris, if it seemed that Mrs. Browning could endure the climate, and she records, during the visit of her husband’s father and sister, that if they do remain in Paris they hope to induce these beloved members of the family to also establish themselves there. As it turned out, the Brownings passed only this one winter in the French capital, but the next spring Mr. Browning (pere) and his daughter Sarianna took up their residence in Paris, where they remained during the remainder of his life. Mrs. Browning was always deeply attached to her husband’s sister. “Sarianna is full of accomplishment and admirable sense,” she wrote of her, and the visit of both gave her great pleasure. The coup d’etat took place early in December, but they felt no alarm. Mrs. Browning expressed her great faith in the French people, and declared the talk about “military despotism” to be all nonsense. The defect she saw in M. Thiers was “a lack of breadth of view, which helped to bring the situation to a dead lock, on which the French had no choice than to sweep the board clean and begin again.”

It was during this early winter, with French politics and French society and occasional spectacles and processions extending from the Carrousel to the Arc de l’Etoile, that Browning wrote that essay on Shelley, which his publisher of that time, Mr. Moxon, had requested to accompany a series of Shelley letters which had been discovered, but which were afterward found to be fraudulent. The edition was at once suppressed; but a few copies had already gone out, and, as Professor Dowden says, “The essay is interesting as Browning’s only considerable piece of prose;... for him the poet of ‘Prometheus Unbound’ was not that beautiful and ineffectual angel of Matthew Arnold’s fancy, beating in the void his luminous wings. A great moral purpose looked forth from Shelley’s work, as it does from all lofty works of art.” It was “the dream of boyhood,” Browning tells us, to render justice to Shelley; and he availed himself of this opportunity with alluring eagerness. His interpretation of Shelley is singularly noble and in accord with all the great spiritual teachings of his own poetic work. Browning’s plea that there is no basis for any adequate estimate of Shelley, who “died before his youth was ended,” cannot but commend its justice; and he urges that in any measurement of Shelley as a man he must be contemplated “at his ultimate spiritual stature” and not judged by the mistakes of ten years before when in his entire immaturity of character.

How all that infinite greatness of spirit and almost divine breadth of comprehension that characterize Robert Browning reveal themselves in this estimate of Shelley. It is seeing human errors and mistakes as God sees them, the temporary faults, defects, imperfections of the soul on its onward way to perfection. This was the attitude of Browning’s profoundest convictions regarding human life.

“Eternal process moving on; From state to state the spirit walks.”

This achievement of the divine ideal for man is not within the possibilities of the brief sojourn on earth, but what does the transition called death do for man but to

“Interpose at the difficult moment, snatch Saul, the mistake, Saul, the failure, the ruin he seems now, and bid him awake From the dream, the probation, the prelude, to find himself set Clear and safe in new light and new life, a new harmony yet To be run, and continued, and ended who knows? or endure! The man taught enough by life’s dream, of the rest to make sure.”

Browning’s message in its completeness was invariably that which is imaged, too, in these lines from Mrs. Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”:

“And take for a worthier stage the soul itself, Its shifting fancies and celestial lights.”

For it is only in this drama of the infinite life that the spiritual man can be tested. It was from the standpoint of an actor on this celestial stage that Browning considered Shelley. In the entire range of Browning’s art the spiritual man is imaged as a complex and individualized spark of the divine force. He is seen for a flitting moment on his way toward a divine destiny.

Professor Hall Griffin states as his belief that Browning’s paper was to some degree inspired by that of Joseph Milsand on himself, which appeared in August, 1851, in the Revue des Deux Mondes in which Milsand commended Browning’s work “as pervaded by an intense belief in the importance of the individual soul.”

To Browning this winter was enchanted by the initiation of his friendship with Milsand, the distinguished French scholar and critic, who had already made a name as a philosophic thinker and had published a book on Ruskin (L’Esthetique Anglaise), and who was a discerner of spirits in poetic art as well. About the time that “Paracelsus” appeared, Milsand had seen an extract from the poem that captivated him, and he at once sent for the volume. He had also read, with the deepest interest, Browning’s “Christmas Eve and Easter Day.” He was contributing to the Revue des Deux Mondes two papers on La Poesie Anglaise depuis Byron, the first of which, on Tennyson, had appeared the previous August. Milsand was about completing the second paper of this series (on Browning), and it happened just at this time that Miss Mitford’s “Recollections of a Literary Life” was published, in which, writing of the Brownings, she had told the story of that tragic death of Mrs. Browning’s brother Edward, who had been drowned at Torquay. In these days, when, as Emerson rhymes the fact,

“Every thought is public, Every nook is wide, The gossips spread each whisper And the gods from side to side,”

it is a little difficult to quite comprehend, even in comprehending Mrs. Browning’s intense sensitiveness and the infinite sacredness of this grief, why she should have been so grieved at Miss Mitford’s tender allusion to an accident that was, by its very nature, public, and which must have been reported in the newspapers of the day. Mrs. Browning was always singularly free from any morbid states, from any tendency to the idée fixe, to which a semi-invalid condition is peculiarly and pardonably liable; but she said, in an affectionate letter to Miss Mitford:

“I have lived heart to heart (for instance) with my husband these five years: I have never yet spoken out, in a whisper even, what is in me; never yet could find heart or breath; never yet could bear to hear a word of reference from his lips.”

It is said there are no secrets in heaven, and in that respect, at least, the twentieth century is not unlike the celestial state; and it is almost as hard a task for the imagination to comprehend the reserve in all personal matters that characterized the mid-nineteenth century as it would be to enter into absolute comprehension of the medieval mind; but Mrs. Browning’s own pathetic deprecation of her feelings regarding this is its own passport to the sympathy of the reader. To Miss Mitford’s reply, full of sympathetic comprehension and regret, Mrs. Browning replied that she understood, “and I thank you,” she added, “and love you, which is better. Now, let us talk of reasonable things.” For Mrs. Browning had that rare gift and grace of instantly closing the chapter, and turning the page, and ceasing from all allusion to any subject of regret, after the inevitable reference of the moment had been made. She had the mental energy and the moral buoyancy to drop the matter, and this characteristic reveals how normal she was, and how far from any morbidness.

Milsand, with a delicacy that Robert Browning never forgot, came to him to ask his counsel regarding the inclusion of this tragic accident that had left such traces on his wife’s genius and character (traces that are revealed in immortal expression in her poem, “De Profundis,” written some years later), and Browning was profoundly touched by his consideration. Grasping both Milsand’s hands, he exclaimed, “Only a Frenchman could have done this!” A friendship initiated under circumstances so unusual, and with such reverent intuition of Mrs. Browning’s feelings, could not but hold its place apart to them both.

The Brownings found Paris almost as ineffable in beauty in the early spring as was their Florence. “It’s rather dangerous to let the charm of Paris work,” laughed Mrs. Browning; “the honey will be clogging our feet soon, and we shall find it difficult to go away.”

They had a delightful winter socially, as well; they went to Ary Scheffer’s and heard Madame Viardot, then in the height of her artistic fame; George Sand sent them tickets for the premiere of “Les Vacances de Pandolphe”; they went to the Vaudeville to see the “Dame aux Camellias,” of which Mrs. Browning said that she did not agree with the common cry about its immorality. To her it was both moral and human, “but I never will go to see it again,” she says, “for it almost broke my heart. The exquisite acting, the too literal truth to nature....” They met Paul de Musset, but missed his brother Alfred that winter, whose poems they both cared for.

The elder Browning retained through his life that singular talent for caricature drawing that had amused and fascinated his son in the poet’s childhood; and during his visit to the Brownings in Paris he had produced many of these drawings which became the delight of his grandson as well. The Paris streets furnished him with some inimitable suggestions, and Robert Barrett Browning, to this day, preserves many of these keen and humorous and extremely clever drawings of his grandfather. Thierry, the historian, who was suffering from blindness, sent to the Brownings a request that they would call on him, with which they immediately complied, and they were much interested in his views on France. The one disappointment of that season was in not meeting Victor Hugo, whose fiery hostility to the new regime caused it to be more expedient for him to reside quite beyond possible sight of the gilded dome of the Invalides.

In June the Brownings returned to London, where they domiciled themselves in Welbeck Street (N, Mrs. Browning’s sisters both being near, Mrs. Surtees Cook having established herself only twenty doors away, and Miss Arabel Barrett being in close proximity in Wimpole Street. They were invited to Kenyon’s house at Wimbledon, where Landor was a guest, whom Mrs. Browning found “looking as young as ever, and full of passionate energy,” and who talked with characteristic exaggeration of Louis Napoleon and of the President of the French nation. Landor “detested” the one and “loathed” the other; and as he did not accept Talleyrand’s ideal of the use of language, he by no means concealed these sentiments. Mazzini immediately sought the Brownings, his “pale, spiritual face” shining, and his “intense eyes full of melancholy illusions.” He brought Mrs. Carlyle with him, Mrs. Browning finding her “full of thought, and feeling, and character.” Miss Mulock, who had then written “The Ogilvies,” and had also read her title clear to some poetic recognition, was in evidence that season, as were Mr. and Mrs. Monckton Milnes, and Fanny Kemble was also a brilliant figure in the social life. Nor was the London of that day apparently without a taste for the sorceress and the soothsayer, for no less a personage than Lord Stanhope was, it seems, showing to the elect the “spirits of the sun” in a crystal ball, which Lady Blessington had bought from an Egyptian magician and had sold again. Lady Blessington declared she had no understanding of the use of it, but it was on record that the initiated could therein behold Oremus, Spirit of the Sun. Both the crystal ball and the seers were immensely sought, notwithstanding the indignation expressed by Mr. Chorley, who regarded the combination of social festivities and crystal gazing as eminently scandalous. Which element he considered the more dangerous is not on the palimpsest that records the story of these days. Lord Stanhope invited the Brownings to these occult occasions of intermingled attractions, and Mrs. Browning writes: “For my part, I endured both luncheon and spiritual phenomena with great equanimity.” An optician of London took advantage of the popular demand and offered a fine assortment of crystal ball spheres, at prices which quite restricted their sale to the possessors of comfortable rent-rolls, and Lord Stanhope asserted that a great number of persons resorted to these balls to divine the future, without the courage to confess it. One wonders as to whom “the American Corinna, in yellow silk,” in London, that season, could have been?

The Brownings were invited to a country house in Farnham, to meet Charles Kingsley, who impressed them with his genial and tender kindness, and while they thought some of his social views wild and theoretical, they loved his earnestness and originality, and believed he could not be “otherwise than good and noble.” It was during this summer (according to William Michael Rossetti) that Browning and Dante Gabriel Rossetti first met, Rossetti coming to call on them in company with William Allingham. On August 30, from Chapel House, Twickenham, Tennyson wrote to Mrs. Browning of the birth of his son, Hallam, to which she replied:

“Thank you and congratulate you from my heart. May God bless you all three.... Will you say to dear Mrs. Tennyson how deeply I sympathize in her happiness....”

To this letter Browning added a postscript saying:

“How happy I am in your happiness, and in the assurance that it is greater than even you can quite know yet. God bless, dear Tennyson, you and all yours.”

Tennyson wrote again to Mrs. Browning, saying, “... How very grateful your little note and Browning’s epilogue made me.” And he signs himself “Ever yours and your husband’s.” There was a brilliant christening luncheon at the home of Monckton Milnes, “and his baby,” notes Mrs. Browning, “was made to sweep, in India muslin and Brussels lace, among a very large circle of admiring guests.” The Brownings were especially invited to bring their little Penini with them, “and he behaved like an angel, everybody said,” continued his mother, “and looked very pretty, I said myself; only he disgraced us all at last by refusing to kiss the baby on the ground of its being ‘troppo grande.’”

To Mrs. Tennyson’s note of invitation to the Brownings to attend the christening of their child, Mrs. Browning replied that they had planned to leave England before that date; “but you offer us an irresistible motive for staying, in spite of fogs and cold,” she continued, “and we would not miss the christening for the world.” At the last, however, Mrs. Browning was unable to go, so that the poet went alone. After the little ceremony Browning took the boy in his arms and tossed him, while Tennyson, looking on, exclaimed: “Ah, that is as good as a glass of champagne for him.”

Florence Nightingale was a not infrequent visitor of the Brownings that summer, and she always followed her calls by a gift of masses of flowers. While “Morte d’Arthur” had been written more than ten years previously, Tennyson was now evolving the entire plan of the “Idylls of the King.” Coventry Patmore, who brought the manuscript copy of his own poems, published later, for Mr. Browning to read, mentioned to the poets that Tennyson was writing a collection of poems on Arthur, which were to be united by their subject, after the manner of “In Memoriam,” which project interested Mrs. Browning greatly. “The work will be full of beauty, I don’t doubt,” she said.

Ruskin invited the Brownings to Denmark Hill to see his Turners, and they found the pictures “divine.” They liked Ruskin very much, finding him “gentle, yet earnest.”

During this London sojourn Mr. Browning’s old friend, William Johnson Fox, who had first encouraged the young poet by praising “not a little, which praise comforted me not a little,” the verses of his “Incondita”; who had written a favorable review of “Pauline”; who had found a publisher for “Paracelsus,” and had introduced the poet to Macready, again appears, and writes to his daughter that he has had “a charming hour” with the Brownings, and that he is more fascinated than ever with Mrs. Browning. “She talked lots of George Sand, and so beautifully, and she silver-electroplated Louis Napoleon!” Mr. Fox adds: “They came in to their lodgings late at night, and R. B. says that in the morning twilight he saw three pictures on the bedroom wall, and speculated as to whom they might be. Light gradually showed the first to be Beatrice Cenci. ‘Good,’ said he; ‘in a poetic region.’ More light; the second, Lord Byron! Who can the third be? And what think you it was? Your (Fox’s) sketch (engraved chalk portrait) of me?’ He made quite a poem and picture of the affair. She seems much better; and the young Florentine was gracious.”

In November the Brownings again left London for Florence, pausing a week in Paris on the way, where they witnessed the picturesque pomp of the reception of Louis Napoleon, the day being brilliant with sunshine, and the hero of the hour producing an impression by riding entirely alone, with at least ten paces between himself and the nearest of his escort, till even Charlotte Cushman, sitting at the side of Mrs. Browning, watching the spectacle, declared this to be “fine.” The “young Florentine” was in a state of ecstasy, which he expressed in mingled French and Italian.

They journeyed to Florence by the Mont Cenis, stopping a week in Genoa, where Mrs. Browning lay ill on her sofa; but the warmth of the Italian sunshine soon restored her, and for two days before they left, she was able to walk all about the beautiful old city. They visited together the Andrea Doria palace, and enjoyed sauntering in a sunshine that was like that of June days dropped into the heart of November. They were delighted to hear the sound of their “dear Italian” again, and proceeded by diligence to Florence, where they took possession of their Casa Guidi home, which looked, wrote Mrs. Browning to her sister-in-law, as if they had only left it yesterday. The little Penini was “in a state of complete agitation” on entering Florence, through having heard so much talk of it, and expressed his emotion by repeated caresses and embraces. Mrs. Browning shared the same amazement at the contrast of climate between Turin and Genoa that twentieth-century travelers experience; Turin having been so cold that they were even obliged to have a fire all night, while at Genoa they were “gasping for breath, with all the windows and doors open, blue skies burning overhead, and no air stirring.” But this very heat was life-giving to Mrs. Browning as they lingered on the terraces, gazing on the beautiful bay encircled by its sweep of old marble palaces. She even climbed half-way up the lighthouse for the view, resting there while Browning climbed to the top, for that incomparable outlook which every visitor endeavors to enjoy. In Florence there were the “divine sunsets” over the Arno, and Penini’s Italian nurse rushing in to greet the child, exclaiming, “Dio mio, come e bellino!” They “caught up their ancient traditions” just where they left them, Mrs. Browning observes, though Mr. Browning, “demoralized by the boulevards,” missed the stir and intensity of Parisian life. They found Powers, the sculptor, changing his location, and Mr. Lytton (the future Earl), who was an attache at the English Embassy, became a frequent and a welcome visitor. In a letter to Mr. Kenyon Mrs. Browning mentions that Mr. Lytton is interested in manifestations of spiritualism, and had informed her that, to his father’s great satisfaction (his father being Sir E. Bulwer Lytton), these manifestations had occurred at Knebworth, the Lytton home in England. Tennyson’s brother, who had married an Italian lady, was in Florence, and the American Minister, Mr. Marsh. With young Lytton at this time, Poetry was an article of faith, and nothing would have seemed to him more improbable, even had any of his clairvoyants foretold it, than his future splendid career as Viceroy of India.

Mrs. Browning was reading Prudhon that winter, and also Swedenborg, Lamartine, and other of the French writers. Browning was writing from time to time many of the lyrics that appear in the Collection entitled “Men and Women,” while on Mrs. Browning had already dawned the plan of “Aurora Leigh.” They read the novel of Dumas, Diane de Lys, Browning’s verdict on it being that it was clever, but outrageous as to the morals; and Mrs. Browning rejoiced greatly in Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” saying of Mrs. Stowe, “No woman ever had such a success, such a fame.” All in all, this winter of 1852-1853 was a very happy one to the poets, what with their work, their friends, playing with the little Wiedemann (Penini), the names seeming interchangeably used, and their reading, which included everything from poetry and romance to German mysticism, social economics, and French criticism. Mrs. Browning found one of the best apologies for Louis Napoleon in Lamartine’s work on the Revolution of ’48; and she read, with equal interest, that of Louis Blanc on the same period. In April “Colombe’s Birthday” was produced at the Haymarket Theater in London, the rôle of the heroine being taken by Miss Helen Faucit, afterward Lady Martin. The author had no financial interest in this production, which ran for two weeks, and was spoken of by London critics as holding the house in fascinated attention, with other appreciative phrases.

Mrs. Browning watches the drama of Italian politics, and while she regarded Mazzini as noble, she also felt him to be unwise, a verdict that time has since justified. “We see a great deal of Frederick Tennyson,” she writes; “Robert is very fond of him, and so am I. He too writes poems, and prints them, though not for the public.” Their mutual love of music was a strong bond between Browning and Mr. Tennyson, who had a villa on the Fiesolean slope, with a large hall in which he was reported to “sit in the midst of his forty fiddlers.”

For the coming summer they had planned a retreat into Giotto’s country, the Casentino, but they finally decided on Bagni di Lucca again, where they remained from July till October, Mr. Browning writing “In a Balcony” during this villeggiatura. Before leaving Florence they enjoyed an idyllic day at Pratolina with Mrs. Kinney, the wife of the American Minister to the Court of Turin, and the mother of Edmund Clarence Stedman. The royal residences of the old Dukes of Tuscany were numerous, but among them all, that at Pratolina, so associated with Francesco Primo and Bianca Capella, is perhaps the most interesting, and here Mrs. Kinney drove her guests, where they picnicked on a hillside which their hostess called the Mount of Vision because Mrs. Browning stood on it; Mr. Browning spoke of the genius of his wife, “losing himself in her glory,” said Mrs. Kinney afterward, while Mrs. Browning lay on the grass and slept. The American Minister and Mrs. Kinney were favorite guests in Casa Guidi, where they passed with the Brownings the last evening before the poets set out for their summer retreat. Mrs. Browning delighted in Mr. Kinney’s views of Italy, and his belief in its progress and its comprehension of liberty. The youthful Florentine, Penini, was delighted at the thought of the change, and his devotion to his mother was instanced one night when Browning playfully refused to give his wife a letter, and Pen, taking the byplay seriously, fairly smothered her in his clinging embrace, exclaiming, “Never mind, mine darling Ba!” He had caught up his mother’s pet name, “Ba,” and often used it. It was this name to which she refers in the poem beginning,

“I have a name, a little name, Uncadenced for the ear.”

Beside the Pratolina excursion, Mr. Lytton gave a little reception for them before the Florentine circle dissolved for the summer, asking a few friends to meet the Brownings at his villa on Bellosguardo, where they all sat out on the terrace, and Mrs. Browning made the tea, and they feasted on nectar and ambrosia in the guise of cream and strawberries.

“Such a view!” said Mrs. Browning of that evening. “Florence dissolving in the purple of the hills, and the stars looking on.” Mrs. Browning’s love for Florence grew stronger with every year. That it was her son’s native city was to her a deeply significant fact, for playfully as they called him the “young Florentine,” there was behind the light jest a profound recognition of the child’s claim to his native country. Still, with all this response to the enchantment of Florence, they were planning to live in Paris, after another winter (which they wished to pass in Rome), as the elder Browning and his daughter Sarianna were now to live in the French capital, and Robert Browning was enamored of the brilliant, abounding life, and the art, and splendor of privilege, and opportunity in Paris. “I think it too probable that I may not be able to bear two successive winters in the North,” said Mrs. Browning, “but in that case it will be easy to take a flight for a few winter months into Italy, and we shall regard Paris, where Robert’s father and sister are waiting for us, as our fixed place of residence.” This plan, however, was never carried out, as Italy came to lay over them a still deeper spell, which it was impossible to break. Mr. Lytton, with whom Mrs. Browning talked of all these plans and dreams that evening on his terrace, had just privately printed his drama, “Clytemnestra,” which Mrs. Browning found “full of promise,” although “too ambitious” because after Aeschylus. But this young poet, afterward to be so widely known in the realm of poetry as “Owen Meredith,” and as Lord Lytton in the realm of diplomacy and statesmanship, impressed her at the time as possessing an incontestable “faculty” in poetry, that made her expect a great deal from him in the future. She invited him to visit them in their sylvan retreat that summer at Bagni di Lucca, an invitation that he joyously accepted. Some great savant, who was “strong in veritable Chinese,” found his way to Casa Guidi, as most of the wandering minstrels of the time did, and “nearly assassinated” the mistress of the ménage with an interminable analysis of a Japanese novel. Mr. Lytton, who was present, declared she grew paler and paler every moment, which she afterward asserted was not because of sympathy with the heroine of this complex tale! But this formidable scholar had a passport to Mrs. Browning’s consideration by bringing her a little black profile of her beloved Isa, which gave “the air of her head,” and then, said Mrs. Browning, laughingly, “how could I complain of a man who rather flattered me than otherwise, and compared me to Isaiah?”

But at last, after the middle of July, what with poets, and sunsets from terraces, and savants, and stars, they really left their Florence “dissolving in her purple hills” behind them, and bestowed themselves in Casa Tolomei, at the Baths, where a row of plane trees stood before the door, in which the cicale sang all day, and solemn, mysterious mountains kept watch all day and night. There was a garden, lighted by the fireflies at night, and Penini mistook the place for Eden. His happiness overflowed in his prayers, and he thriftily united the petition that God would “mate him dood” with the supplication that God would also “tate him on a dontey,” thus uniting all possible spiritual and temporal aspirations. The little fellow was wild with happiness in this enchanted glade, where the poets were “safe among mountains, shut in with a row of seven plane-trees joined at top.” Mr. Browning was still working on his lyrics, of which his wife had seen very few. “We neither of us show our work to the other till it is finished,” she said. She recognized that an artist must work in solitude until the actual result is achieved.

It seems that Mr. Chorley in London had fallen into depressed spirits that summer, indulging in the melancholy meditations that none of his friends loved him, beyond seeing in him a “creature to be eaten,” and that, having furnished them with a banquet, their attentions to him were over (a most regrettable state of mind, one may observe, en passant, and one of those spiritual pitfalls which not only Mr. Chorley in particular, but all of us in general would do particularly well to avoid). The letter that Mrs. Browning wrote to him wonderfully reveals her all-comprehending sympathy and her spiritual buoyancy and intellectual poise. “You are very wrong,” she says to him, “and I am very right to upbraid you. I take the pen from Robert he would take it if I did not. We scramble a little for the pen which is to tell you this, and be dull in the reiteration, rather than not to instruct you properly.... I quite understand how a whole life may seem rumpled and creased torn for the moment; only you will live it smooth again, dear Mr. Chorley, take courage. You have time and strength and good aims; and human beings have been happy with much less.... I think we belied ourselves to you in England. If you knew how, at that time, Robert was vexed and worn! why, he was not the same, even to me!... But then and now believe that he loved and loves you. Set him down as a friend, as somebody to rest on, after all; and don’t fancy that because we are away here in the wilderness (which blossoms as the rose, to one of us, at least) we may not be full of affectionate thoughts and feelings toward you in your different sort of life in London.” The lovely spirit goes on to remind Mr. Chorley that they have a spare bedroom “which opens of itself at the thought of you,” and that if he can trust himself so far from home, she begs him to try it for their sakes. “Come and look in our faces, and learn us more by heart, and see whether we are not two friends?”

Surely, that life was rich, whatever else it might be denied, that had Elizabeth Browning for a friend. Her genius for friendship was not less marvelous, nor less to be considered, than her genius as a poet. Indeed, truly speaking, the one, in its ideal fullness and completeness, comprehends the other.

The summer days among the beautiful hills, and by the green, rushing river, were made aboundingly happy to the Brownings by the presence of their friends, the Storys, who shared these vast solitudes. The Storys had a villa perched on the top of the hill, just above the Brownings’, the terrace shaded with vines, and the great mountains towering all around them, while a swift mountain brook swept by under an arched bridge, its force turning picturesque mills far down the valley. Under the shadow of the chestnut trees fringing its banks, Shelley had once pushed his boat. “Of society,” wrote Story to Lowell, “there is none we care to meet but the Brownings, and with them we have constant and delightful intercourse, interchanging long evenings, two or three times a week, and driving and walking whenever we meet. They are so simple, unaffected, and sympathetic. Both are busily engaged in writing, he on a volume of lyrics, and she on a tale or novel in verse.”

This “tale” must have been “Aurora Leigh.” The wives of the poet and the sculptor held hilarious intercourse while going back and forth between each other’s houses on donkey-back, with an enjoyment hardly eclipsed by that of Penini himself, whose prayer that God would let him ride on “dontey-back” was so aboundingly granted that the child might well believe in the lavishness of divine mercies. Browning and Story walked beside and obediently held the reins of their wives’ steeds, that no mishap might occur. How the picture of these Arcadian days, in those vast leafy solitudes, peopled only by gods and muses, the attendant “elementals” of these choice spirits, flashes out through more than the half century that has passed since those days of their joyous intercourse. There was a night when Story went alone to take tea with the Brownings, staying till nearly midnight, and Browning accompanied him home in the mystic moonlight. Mrs. Browning, who apparently shared her little son’s predilections for the donkey as a means of transportation, would go for a morning ride, Browning walking beside her as slowly as possible, to keep pace with the donkey’s degree of speed.

Into this Arcady came, by some untraced dispensation of the gods, a French master of recitations, who had taught Rachel, and had otherwise allied himself with the great. M. Alexandre brought his welcome with him, in his delightful recitations from the poets. Mr. Lytton, having accepted Mrs. Browning’s invitation given to him on his Bellosguardo terrace, now appeared; and the Storys and the Brownings organized a festa, in true Italian spirit, in an excursion they should all make to Prato Fiortito.

Prato Fiortito is six miles from Bagni di Lucca, perpendicularly up and down, “but such a vision of divine scenery,” said Mrs. Browning. High among the mountains, Bagni di Lucca is yet surrounded by higher peaks of the Apennines. The journey to Prato Fiortito is like going up and down a wall, the only path for the donkeys being in the beds of the torrents that cut their way down in the spring.

Here, after “glorious climbing,” in which Mrs. Browning distinguished herself no less than the others, they arrived at the little old church, set amid majestic limestone mountains and embowered in purple shade. Here they feasted, Penini overcome with delight, and on shawls spread under the great chestnut trees Mrs. Browning and Mrs. Story were made luxuriously comfortable, while they all talked and read, M. Alexandre reciting from the French dramatists, and Lytton reading from his “Clytemnestra.” The luncheon was adorned by a mass of wild strawberries, picked on the spot, by Browning, Story, Lytton, and Alexandre, while the ladies co-operated in the industry at this honestly earned feast by assisting to hull the berries. The bottle of cream and package of sugar tucked away in the picnic basket added all that heart could desire to this ambrosial luncheon. Mrs. Story, whom Mrs. Browning described as “a sympathetic, graceful woman, fresh and innocent in face and thought,” was a most agreeable companion; and she and Mrs. Browning frequently exchanged feminine gossip over basins of strawberries and milk in each other’s houses, for strawberries abounded in these hills. “If a tree is felled in the forests,” said Mrs. Browning, “strawberries spring up just as mushrooms might, and the peasants sell them for just nothing.”

One night when the Brownings were having tea with the Storys, the talk turned on Hawthorne. Story, of course, knew the great romancer, whom the Brownings had not then met and about whom they were curious. “Hawthorne is a man who talks with a pen,” said Story; “he does not open socially to his intimate friends any more than he does to strangers. It isn’t his way to converse.” Mrs. Browning had then just been reading the “Blithedale Romance,” in which she had sought unavailingly, it seems, for some more personal clue to the inner life of its author.

On a brilliant August day the Brownings and the Storys fared forth on a grand excursion on donkey-back, to Benabbia, a hilltown, perched on one of the peaks. Above it on the rocks is a colossal cross, traced by some thunder-bolt of the gods, cut in the solid stone. From this excursion they all returned after dark, in terror of their lives lest the donkeys slip down the sheer precipices; but the scenery was “exquisite, past all beauty.” Mrs. Browning was spell-bound with its marvelous sublimity, as they looked around “on the world of innumerable mountains bound faintly with the gray sea, and not a human habitation.”

Mrs. Browning was then reading the poems of Coventry Patmore, just published, of which Browning had read the manuscript in London in the previous year. The poems of Alexander Smith had also appeared at this time, and in him Mrs. Browning found “an opulence of imagery,” but a defect as to the intellectual part of poetry. With her characteristic tolerance, she instanced his youth in plea of this defect, and said that his images were “flowers thrown to him by the gods, gods beautiful and fragrant, but having no root either in Etna or Olympus.” Enamored, as ever, of novels, she was also reading “Vilette,” which she thought a strong story, though lacking charm, and Mrs. Gaskell’s “Ruth,” which pleased her greatly.

With no dread of death, Mrs. Browning had a horror of the “rust of age,” the touch of age “which is the thickening of the mortal mask between souls. Why talk of age,” she would say, “when we are all young in soul and heart?... Be sure that it’s highly moral to be young as long as possible. Women who dress ‘suitably to their years’ (that is, as hideously as possible) are a disgrace to their sex, aren’t they now?” she would laughingly declare.

This summer in the Apennines at Bagni di Lucca had been a fruitful one to Browning in his poetic work. It became one of constant development, and, as Edmund Gosse points out, “of clarification and increasing selection.” He had already written many of his finest lyrics, “Any Wife to Any Husband,” “The Guardian Angel,” and “Saul”; and in these and succeeding months he produced that miracle of beauty, the poem called “The Flight of the Duchess”; and “A Grammarian’s Funeral,” “The Statue and the Bust,” “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” “Fra Lippo Lippi,” and “Andrea del Sarto.” To Milsand, Browning wrote that he was at work on lyrics “with more music and painting than before.”

The idyllic summer among the grand chestnut trees came to an end, as summers always do, and October found the Brownings again in Casa Guidi, though preparing to pass the winter in Rome. Verdi had just completed his opera of “Trovatore,” which was performed at the Pergola in Florence, and the poets found it “very passionate and dramatic.”

In November they fared forth for Rome, “an exquisite journey of eight days,” chronicled Mrs. Browning, “seeing the great monastery and triple church of Assisi, and that wonderful passion of waters at Terni.”

It was the picturesque Rome of the popes that still remained in that winter, and the Eternal City was aglow with splendid festivals and processions and with artistic interest. The Brownings caught something of its spirit, even as they came within view of the colossal dome of St. Peter’s, and they entered the city in the highest spirits, “Robert and Penini singing,” related Mrs. Browning, “actually, for the child was radiant and flushed with the continual change of air and scene.” The Storys had engaged an apartment for them, and they found “lighted fires and lamps,” and all comfort.

That winter of 1853-1854 still stands out in the Roman panorama as one of exceptional brilliancy. There was a galaxy of artists, Story, who had already won fame on two continents; William Page, who believed he had discovered the secret of Titian’s coloring; Crawford, and “young Leighton,” as Mrs. Browning called the future president of the Royal Academy; Gibson, and his brilliant pupil, Harriet Hosmer; Fisher, who painted a portrait of Browning, and also of Penini, for his own use to exhibit in London. It was during this winter that Miss Hosmer took the cast of the “Clasped Hands” of the Brownings, which was put into bronze, and which must always remain a work of the most tender interest. Mrs. Browning was very fond of “Hatty,” as she called her, and in a letter to her Isa she described a pretty scene when Lady Marian Alford, the daughter of the Duke of Northampton, knelt before the girl sculptor and placed on her finger a ring of diamonds surrounding a ruby. Browning’s early friend, M. de Ripert-Monclar, to whom he had dedicated his “Paracelsus,” and Lockhart, were also in Rome; and Leighton was completing his great canvas of Cimabue’s Madonna carried in procession through the streets of Florence.

The Brownings were domiciled in the Bocca di Leone, while the Storys were in the Piazza di Spagna; Thackeray and his two daughters were close at hand, in and out at the Brownings’, with his “talk of glittering dust swept out of salons.” There were Hans Christian Andersen, and Fanny Kemble, with her sister, Mrs. Sartoris, and Lady Oswald, a sister of Lord Elgin. Thackeray’s daughter, Miss Anne Thackeray (now Lady Ritchie), still finds vivid her girlish memory of Mrs. Browning, “a slight figure in a thin black gown and the unpretentious implements of her magic,” by her sofa, on a little table. Lady Ritchie turns back to her diary of that winter to find in it another of her early impressions of Mrs. Browning, “in soft, falling flounces of black silk, with her heavy curls drooping, and a thin gold chain around her neck.” This chain held a tiny locket of crystal set in coils of gold, which she had worn from childhood, not at all as an ornament, but as a little souvenir. On her death Mr. Browning put into it some of her hair, and gave the treasured relic to Kate Field, from whom it came later into the possession of the writer of this book. Lady Ritchie recalls one memorable evening that season in the salon of Mrs. Sartoris, when the guests assembled in the lofty Roman drawing-room, full of “flowers and light, of comfort and color.” She recalls how the swinging lamps were lighted, shedding a soft glow; how the grand piano stood open, and there was music, and “tables piled with books,” and flowers everywhere. The hostess was in a pearl satin gown with flowing train, and sat by a round table reading aloud from poems of Mr. Browning, when the poet himself was announced, “and as she read, in her wonderful muse-like way, he walked in.” All the lively company were half laughing and half protesting, and Mrs. Kemble, with her regal air, called him to her side, to submit to him some disputed point, which he evaded. Mrs. Sartoris had a story, with which she amused her guests, of a luncheon with the Brownings, somewhere in Italy, where, when she rose to go, and remarked how delightful it had been, and the other guests joined in their expressions of enjoyment, Mr. Browning impulsively exclaimed: “Come back and sup with us, do!” And Mrs. Browning, with the dismay of the housewife, cried: “Oh, Robert, there is no supper, nothing but the remains of the pie.” To which the poet rejoined: “Then come back and finish the pie.”

Mrs. Browning was deeply attached to Fanny Kemble. She describes her, at this time, as “looking magnificent, with her black hair and radiant smile. A very noble creature, indeed,” added Mrs. Browning; “somewhat unelastic, attached to the old modes of thought and convention, but noble in qualities and defects.... Mrs. Sartoris is genial and generous ... and her house has the best society in Rome, and exquisite music, of course.”

Mrs. Browning often joined her husband in excursions to galleries, villas, and ruins; and when in the Sistine Chapel, on a memorable festival, they heard “the wrong Miserere,” she yet found it “very fine, right or wrong, and overcoming in its pathos.” M. Goltz, the Austrian Minister, was an acquaintance whom the Brownings found “witty and agreeable,” and Mrs. Browning called the city “a palimpsest Rome,” with its records written all over the antique.

The sorrow of the Storys over the death of a little son shadowed Mrs. Browning, and she feared for her own Penini, but as the winter went on she joyfully wrote of him that he “had not dropped a single rose-leaf from his cheeks,” and with her sweet tenderness of motherly love she adds that he is “a poetical child, really, and in the best sense. He is full of sweetness and vivacity together, of imagination and grace,” and she pictures his “blue, far-reaching eyes, and the innocent face framed in golden ringlets.” Mrs. Kemble came to them two or three times a week, and they had long talks, “we three together,” records Mrs. Browning. Mr. Page occupied the apartment just over that of the Brownings, and they saw much of him. “His portrait of Miss Cushman is a miracle,” exclaimed Mrs. Browning. Page begged to paint a portrait of the poet, of which Mrs. Browning said that he “painted a picture of Robert like an Italian, and then presented it to me like a prince.” The coloring was Venetian, and the picture was at first considered remarkable, but its color has entirely vanished now, so that it seems its painter was not successful in surprising the secret of Titian. In the spring of 1910 Mr. Barrett Browning showed this picture to some friends in his villa near Florence, and its thick, opaque surface hardly retained even a suggestion of color.

Not the least of Mrs. Browning’s enjoyment of that winter was the pleasure that Rome gave to her little son. “Penini is overwhelmed with attentions and gifts of all kinds,” she wrote, and she described a children’s party given for him by Mrs. Page, who decorated the table with a huge cake, bearing “Penini” in sugar letters, where he sat at the head and did the honors. Browning all this time was writing, although the social allurements made sad havoc on his time. They wandered under the great ilex trees of the Pincio, and gazed at the Monte Mario pine. Then, as now, every one drove in that circular route on the Pincian hill, where carriages meet each other in passing every five minutes. With the Storys and other friends they often went for long drives and frequent picnics on the wonderful Campagna, that vast green sea that surrounds Rome, the Campagna Mystica. On one day Mr. Browning met “Hatty” Hosmer on the Spanish Steps, and said to her: “Next Saturday Ba and I are going to Albano on a picnic till Monday, and you and Leighton are to go with us.” “Why this extravagance?” laughingly questioned Miss Hosmer. “On account of a cheque, a buona grazia, that Ticknor and Fields of Boston have sent one they were not in the least obliged to send,” replied the poet.

In those days there was no international copyright, but Mr. Browning’s Boston publishers needed no legal constraint to act with ideal honor. So on the appointed morning, a partie carre of artists two poets, one sculptor, one painter drove gayly through the Porta San Giovanni, on that road to Albano, with its wonderful views of the Claudian aqueducts in the distance, through whose arches the blue sky is bluer, and beyond which are the violet-hued Alban hills. Then, as now, the road led by the Casa dei Spirite, with its haunting associations, and its strange mural decorations of specters and wraiths. Past that overhanging cliff, with its tragic legend, they drove, encountering the long procession of wine carts, with their tinkling bells, and the dogs guarding the sleeping padronés. Passing the night in Albano, the next day they mounted donkeys for their excursion into the Alban hills, past lonely monasteries, up the heights of Rocca di Papa, where the traveler comes on the ancient camping-ground of Hannibal, and where they see the padres and acolytes sunning themselves on the slopes of Monte Cavo; on again, to the rocky terraces from which one looks down on Alba Longa and the depths of Lago di Nemi, beneath whose waters is still supposed to be the barque of Caligula, and across the expanse of the green Campagna to where Aeneas landed.

Miss Hosmer is the authority on this poetic pilgrimage, and she related that they all talked of art, of the difficulties of art, those encountered by the poet, the sculptor, and the painter, each regarding his own medium of expression as the most difficult. Mrs. Browning’s “Hatty” had bestowed in her bag a volume of Mr. Browning’s, and on the homeward journey from Albano to Rome he read aloud to them his “Saul.” At the half-way house on the Campagna, the Torre di Mezza, they paused, to gaze at the “weird watcher of the Roman Campagna,” the monument to Apuleia, whose ruins are said to have assumed her features.

Nothing in all the classic atmosphere of Rome, filled with the most impressive associations of its mighty past, appealed more strongly to the Brownings than the glorious Campagna, with its apparently infinite open space, brilliant with myriads of flowers, and the vast billowing slopes that break like green waves against the purple hills, in their changeful panorama of clouds and mists and snow-crowned heights dazzling under a glowing sun.

Fascinating as this winter in Rome had been to them, rich in friendships and in art, the Brownings were yet glad to return to their Florence with the May days, to give diligence and devotion to their poetic work, which nowhere proceeded so felicitously as in Casa Guidi.

Browning was now definitely engaged on the poems that were to make up the “Men and Women.” Mrs. Browning was equally absorbed in “Aurora Leigh.” Each morning after their Arcadian repast of coffee and fruit, he went to his study, and she to the salotto, whose windows opened on the terrace looking out on old gray San Felice where she always wrote, to devote themselves to serious work. “Aurora Leigh” proceeded rapidly some mornings, and again its progress would remind her of the web of Penelope. During this summer Browning completed “In a Balcony,” and wrote the “Holy Cross Day,” the “Epistle of Karnish,” and “Ben Karshook’s Wisdom.” Like his wife, Browning held poetry to be above all other earthly interests; he was a poet by nature and by grace, and his vast range of scholarship, his “British-Museum-Library memory,” and his artistic feeling and taste, all conserved to this one end. But poetry to him was not outside, but inclusive of the very fullest human life. Mrs. Browning’s lines,

“... No perfect artist is developed here From any imperfect woman,...”

embodied his convictions as well, for man and woman alike. He had that royal gift of life in its fullness, an almost boundless capacity of enjoyment, and to him life meant the completest development and exercise of all its powers.

The Brownings found their Florentine circle all in evidence. Mr. Lytton, a favorite and familiar visitor at Casa Guidi; Frederick Tennyson (and perhaps his “forty fiddlers” as well), and the Trollopes, Isa Blagden, and various wandering minstrels. They passed evenings with Mr. Lytton in his villa, and would walk home “to the song of nightingales by starlight and firefly light.” To Mrs. Browning Florence looked more beautiful than ever after Rome. “I love the very stones of it,” she said. Limitations of finance kept them in Florence all that summer. “A ship was to have brought us in something, and brought us in nothing,” she explained to a friend in England, “and the nothing had a discount, beside.” But she took comfort in the fact that Penini was quite as well and almost as rosy as ever, despite the intense heat; and the starlight and the song of the nightingales were not without consolation. A letter from Milsand ("one of the noblest and most intellectual men,” says Mrs. Browning of him) came, and they were interested in his arraignment of the paralysis of imagination in literature. In September she hears from Miss Mitford of her failing health, and tenderly writes: “May the divine love in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ shine upon you day and night, with His ineffable tenderness.” Mrs. Browning’s religious feeling was always of that perfect reliance on the Divine Love that is the practical support of life. “For my own part,” she continues, “I have been long convinced that what we call death is a mere incident in life.... I believe that the body of flesh is a mere husk that drops off at death, while the spiritual body emerges in glorious resurrection at once. Swedenborg says some people do not immediately realize that they have passed death, which seems to me highly probable. It is curious that Frederick Denison Maurice takes this precise view of the resurrection, with apparent unconsciousness of what Swedenborg has stated, and that I, too, long before I had ever read Swedenborg, or had even heard the name of Maurice, came to the same conclusion.... I believe in an active, human life, beyond death, as before it, an uninterrupted life.” Mrs. Browning would have found herself in harmony with that spiritual genius, Dr. William James, who said: “And if our needs outrun the visible universe, why may not that be a sign that the invisible universe is there? Often our faith in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.” Faith is the divine vision, and no one ever more absolutely realized this truth than Elizabeth Browning.

“Ah, blessed vision! blood of God! My spirit beats her mortal bars, As down dark tides the glory slides, And star-like mingles with the stars.”

At another time Mrs. Browning remarked that she should fear for a revealed religion incapable of expansion, according to the needs of man; while Dr. James has said, “Believe what is in the line of your needs.” Many similarities of expression reveal to how wonderful a degree Mrs. Browning had intuitively grasped phases of truth that became the recognized philosophy of a succeeding generation, and which were stamped by the brilliant and profound genius of William James, the greatest psychologist of the nineteenth century. “What comes from God has life in it,” said Mrs. Browning, “and certainly from the growth of all living things, spiritual growth cannot be excepted.”

The summer passed “among our own nightingales and fireflies,” playfully said Mrs. Browning, and in the autumn Mrs. Sartoris stopped to see them, on her way to Rome, “singing passionately and talking eloquently.”

Notwithstanding some illness, Mrs. Browning completed four thousand lines of “Aurora Leigh” before the new year of 1855, in which were expressed all her largest philosophic thought, and her deepest insight into the problems of life. Fogazzaro, whose recent death has deprived Italy of her greatest literary inspirer since Carducci, said of “Aurora Leigh” that he wished the youth of Italy might study this great poem, “those who desire poetic fame that they might gain a high conception of poetry; the weak, in that they might find stimulus for strength; the sad and discouraged, in that they might find comfort and encouragement.” It was this eminent Italian novelist and Senator (the King of Italy naming a man as Senator, not in the least because of any political reasons, but to confer on him the honor of recognition of his genius in Literature, Science, or Art, and a very inconvenient, however highly prized, honor he often finds it), Senator Antonio Fogazzaro, who contributed, to an Italian biography of the Brownings by Fanny Zampini, Contessa Salazar, an “Introduction” which is a notable piece of critical appreciation of the wedded poets from the Italian standpoint. The Senator records himself as believing that few poets can be read “with so much intellectual pleasure and spiritual good; for if the works of Robert and Elizabeth Browning surprise us by the vigorous originality of their thought,” he continues, “they also show us a rare and salutary spectacle, two souls as great in their moral character as in their poetic imagination. ‘Aurora Leigh’ I esteem Mrs. Browning’s masterpiece.... The ideal poet is a prophet, inspired by God to proclaim eternal truth....”

The student of Italian literature will find a number of critical appreciations of the Brownings, written within the past forty or fifty years, some of which offer no little interest. “Every man has two countries, his own and Italy,” and the land they had made their own in love and devotion returned this devotion in measure overflowing.

Robert and Elizabeth Browning would have been great, even immortally great, as man and woman, if they had not been great poets. They both lived, in a simple, natural way, the essential life of the spirit, the life of scholarship and noble culture, of the profound significance of thought, of creative energy, of wide interest in all the important movements of the day, and of beautiful and sincere friendships.

“O life, O poetry, Which means life in life,”

wrote Mrs. Browning.

The character of Mrs. Browning has been so often portrayed as that of some abnormal being, half-nervous invalid, half-angel, as if she were a special creation of nature with no particular relation to the great active world of men and women, that it is quite time to do away with the category of nonsense and literary hallucination. One does not become less than woman by being more. Mrs. Browning fulfilled every sweetest relation in life as daughter, sister, friend, wife, and mother; and her life was not the less normal in that it was one of exceptional power and exaltation. She saw in Art the most potent factor for high service, and she held that it existed for Love’s sake, for the sake of human co-operation with the purposes of God.