Read CHAPTER IX of The Brownings Their Life and Art , free online book, by Lilian Whiting, on


“Think, when our one soul understands The great Word which makes all things new, When earth breaks up and heaven expands, How will the change strike me and you In the house not made with hands?

“Oh, I must feel your brain prompt mine, Your heart anticipate my heart, You must be just before, in fine, See and make me see, for your part, New depths of the divine!”


“The cycle is complete,” said Browning to the Storys, as they all stood in those desolate rooms and gazed about. The salon was just as she had left it; the table covered with books and magazines, her little chair drawn up to it, the long windows open to the terrace, and the faint chant of nuns, “made for midsummer nights,” in San Felice, on the air. “Here we came fifteen years ago,” continued Mr. Browning; “here Ba wrote her poems for Italy; here Pen was born; here we used to walk up and down this terrace on summer evenings.” The poet lingered over many tender reminiscences, and after the Storys had taken leave, he and his son yielded to the entreaties of Isa Blagden to stay with her in her villa on Bellosguardo during the time that he was preparing to leave Florence, which he never looked upon again.

When all matters of detail were concluded, Miss Blagden, “perfect in all kindness,” accompanied them to Paris, continuing her own journey to England, while Browning with his son, his father, and sister, proceeded to St. Enogat, near St. Malo, on the Normandy coast. Before Mrs. Browning’s illness there had been a plan that all the Brownings and Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Stillman should pass the summer together at Fontainebleau.

There was something about St. Enogat singularly restful to Browning, the sea, the solitude, the “unspoiled, fresh, and picturesque place,” as he described it in a letter to Madame Du Quaire. The mystic enchantment of it wrought its spell, and Penini had his pony and was well and cheerful, and Browning realized too well that the change called death is but the passing through “the gates of new life,” to be despairing in his sorrow. The spirit of one

“... who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,”

breathes through all the letters that he wrote at this time to friends. “Don’t fancy I am prostrated,” he wrote to Leighton; “I have enough to do for myself and the boy, in carrying out her wishes.” Somewhat later he expressed his wish that Mr. (later Sir Frederick) Leighton should design the memorial tomb, in that little Florence cemetery, for his wife; and the marble with only “E. B. B.” inscribed on it, visited constantly by all travelers in Florence and rarely found without flowers, is the one Sir Frederick designed.

In a letter to his boyhood’s friend, Miss Haworth, Browning alluded to the future, when Penini would so need the help of “the wisdom, the genius, the piety” of his mother; and the poet adds: “I have had everything, and shall not forget.” In reply to a letter of sympathy from Kate Field, he wrote:

“DEAR FRIEND, God bless you for all your kindness which I shall never forget. I cannot write now except to say this, and beside, that I have had great comfort from the beginning.”

In the early autumn Browning took his son to London. The parting of the ways had come, and already he dimly perceived that the future would not copy fair the past. There are “réincarnations,” in all practical effect, that are realized in this life as well as, speculatively, hereafter; and his days of Italian terraces and oleander blooms, of enchanting hours on Bellosguardo, and lingerings in old palaces and galleries, and saunterings down narrow streets crowded with contadini, these days were as entirely past as if he had been transported to another planet.

“Not death; we do not call it so, Yet scarcely more with dying breath Do we forego; We pass an unseen line, And lo! another zone.”

The sea and the sands and the sky prefigured themselves in those days to Browning as all indistinguishably blended in an unreal world, from which the past had receded and on which the Future had not yet dawned.

“Gray rocks and grayer sea, And surf along the shore; And in my heart a name My lips shall speak no more.”

To Story he wrote with assurances of affection, but saying, “I can’t speak about anything. I could, perhaps, if we were together, but to write freezes me.” Miss Blagden, in London, had taken rooms in Upper Westbourne Terrace, and when in the late autumn Browning and his son went on to England, he took an apartment in Chichester Road, almost opposite the house where Miss Blagden was staying. But she had lived too long in enchanted Florence to be content elsewhere, and she soon returned to her villa on the heights of Bellosguardo, from which the view is one of the most beautiful in all Europe. Browning soon took the house, N Warwick Crescent, which for nearly all the rest of his life continued to be his home. Here he was near Mrs. Browning’s sister, Arabel Barrett, of whom he was very fond, and whose love for her sister’s little son was most grateful to them both. Mr. Browning had his old tapestries, pictures, and furniture of old Florentine carving, some of it black with age, sent on from Casa Guidi, and he proceeded to transform a prim London house into an interior of singular charm. He lined the staircase with Italian pictures; books overflowed in all the rooms, and the glimpse of water in the canal near reflected the green trees of the Crescent, giving the place a hint of sylvan Arcadias. There was the grand piano on which Penini practiced, and a tutor was engaged to prepare the lad for the university. The poet felt that this was the critical time to give his son “the English stamp,” in “whatever it is good for,” he added. But as a matter of fact the young Florentine had little affinity with English ways. He was the child of poets; a linguist from his infancy, an omnivorous reader, and with marked talent for art, distinguishing himself later in both painting and sculpture, but he had little inclination for the exact sciences.

In his London home Browning was soon again launched on a tide of work, the dearest of which was in preparing the “Last Poems” of his wife for publication. He gave it a dedication to “Grateful Florence, and Tommaseo, her spokesman.” He was also preparing a new edition of his own works to be issued in three volumes. The tutor he had secured for his son was considered skillful in “grammatical niceties,” which, he said, “was much more to my mind than to Pen’s.” But he, as well as the boy, was homesick for Italy, and he wrote to Story that his particular reward would be “just to go back to Italy, to Rome”; and he adds:

“Why should I not trust to you what I know you will keep to yourselves, but which will certainly amuse you as nothing else I could write is like to do? What good in our loving each other unless I do such a thing? So, O Story, O Emelyn, (dare I say, for the solemnity’s sake?) and O Edie, the editorship has, under the circumstances, been offered to me: me! I really take it as a compliment because I am, by your indulgence, a bit of a poet, if you like, but a man of the world and able editor hardly!"

The editorship in question was that of Cornhill, left vacant by the death of Thackeray.

Browning was too great of spirit to sink into the recluse, and first beguiled into Rossetti’s studio, he soon met Millais, and by degrees he responded again to friends and friendships, and life called to him with many voices. In the late summer of 1862 the poet and his son were at “green, pleasant little Cambo,” and then at Biarritz. He was absorbed in Euripides; and the supreme work of his life, “The Ring and the Book,” the Roman murder story, as he then called it, was constantly in his thought and beginning to take shape. The sudden and intense impression that the Franceschini tragedy had made on him, on first reading it, rushed back and held him as under a spell. But the “Dramatis Personae” and “In a Balcony” were to be completed before the inauguration of this great work.

For more than four years the thrilling tragedy had lain in his mind, impressing that subconscious realm of mental action where all great work in art acquires its creative vitality. It is said that episodes of crime had a great fascination for Browning, pere, who would write out long imaginary conversations regarding the facts, representing various persons in discussion, the individual views of each being brought out. The analogy of this to the treatment of the Franceschini tragedy in his son’s great poem is rather interesting to contemplate. With the poet it was less dramatic interest in the crime, per se, than it was that the complexities of crime afforded the basis from which to work out his central and controlling purpose, his abiding and profound conviction that life here is simply the experimental and preparatory stage for the life to come; that all its events, even its lapses from the right, its fall into terrible evil, are

“Machinery just meant To give thy soul its bent,”

a part of the mechanism to “try the soul’s stuff on”; that man lives in an environment of spiritual influences which act upon him in just that degree to which he can recognize and respond to them; and that he must sometimes learn the ineffable blessedness of the right through tragic experiences of the wrong. In the very realities of man’s imperfection Browning sees his possibilities of

“Progress, man’s distinctive work alone.”

When Browning asks:

“And what is our failure here but a triumph’s evidence For the fullness of the days?...”

he condenses in these lines his philosophy of life.

Many of the poems appearing in the “Dramatis Personae” had already been written: “Gold Hair” and “James Lee’s Wife” at Pornic, and others at green Cambo. In the splendor and power of “Abt Vogler,” “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” and “A Death in the Desert,” the poet expressed a philosophy that again suggests his intuitive agreement with the Hegelian. “Rabbi Ben Ezra” holds in absolute solution the Vedanta philosophy. To the question as to what all this enigma of life means, the poet answers:

“Thence shall I pass, approved A man, for aye removed From the developed brute; a god though in the germ.

He fixed thee ’mid this dance Of plastic circumstance, This Present, thou, forsooth, would fain arrest.”

How keen the sense of humor and of the sharp contrasts of life in “Fra Lippo Lippi,” and what power of character analysis. The intellectual vigor and the keen insight into the play of mental action in “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” a poem that occasioned great discussion on its appearance (from a real or fancied resemblance of the “Bishop” to Cardinal Wiseman) are almost unsurpassed in poetic literature. Many of the poems in the “Dramatis Personae” are aglow with the romance of life, as in the “Eurydice to Orpheus,” and “A Face,” which refers to Emily Patmore. There are studio traces as well in these, and in the “Deaf and Dumb,” suggested by a group of Woolner. The crowning power of all is revealed in the noble faith and the exquisite tenderness of “Prospice,” especially in those closing lines when all of fear and pain and darkness and cold,

“Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, Then a light, then thy breast, O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, And with God be the rest!”

The references to his wife in this poem, in the enthralling “One Word More,” and in the dedication to “The Ring and the Book,” as well as those to be divined in his character drawing of “Pompilia,” are incomparable in their impressiveness and beauty, and must live so long as poetry is enshrined in life. The vital drama, the splendor of movement, the color, the impassioned exaltation of feeling, the pictorial vividness that are in these poems grouped under “Dramatic Romances” and “Dramatis Personae,” give them claim to the first rank in the poet’s creations. Curiously, during this period, the change in Browning’s habits of work, which his wife used to urge upon him, seemed to gradually take possession of him, so that he came to count that day lost in which he had not written some lines of poetry. Did he, perchance in dreams, catch something of “the rustling of her vesture” that influenced his mind to the change? To Elizabeth Browning poetry was not only a serious calling, but its “own exceeding great reward,” always.

Another change came to Browning, which redeemed him from the growing tendency to become a recluse, and made him a familiar figure in the great world. He seemed to become aware that there was something morbid and unworthy in the avoidance of the world of men and women. Browning’s divinely commissioned work had to do with life, in its most absolute actualities as well as its great spiritual realities, because the life eternal in its nature was the theme on which he played his poetic variations, and no revelation of human nature came amiss to him.

He had already supervised the publication of Mrs. Browning’s essay on “The Greek Christian Poets” and “The Book of the Poets,” and “nothing,” he said, “that ought to be published, shall be kept back.” He had also lent Story considerable assistance in arranging with Blackwood for the serial publication of “Roba di Roma.”

For two or three summers Browning with his father, his sister, and his son, passed the summers at St. Marie, near Pornic, from where in the August of 1863 he wrote to Leighton that he was living on fruit and milk, and that each day he completed some work, read a little with Pen, and somewhat more by himself. St. Marie was a “wild little place” in Brittany, on the very edge of the sea, a hamlet of hardly more than a dozen houses, of which the Brownings had the privilege of occupying that of the mayor, whose chief attraction, apparently, was that, though bare, it was clean. The poet liked it all, and it was there that he wrote “In the Doorway” in “James Lee’s Wife,” with the sea, the field, and the fig-tree visible from his window.

In the late summer the Brownings are all again at St. Marie in Brittany, and the poet writes to Isa Blagden that he supposes what she “calls fame within these four years” has come somewhat from his going about and showing himself alive, “but,” he adds, “I was in London from the time that I published ‘Paracelsus’ till I ended the writing of plays with ’Luria,’ and I used to go out then, and see far more of merely literary people, critics, etc., than I do now, but what came of it?” If in the lines following there is a hint of sadness, who can blame him?

During this summer he revised “Sordello” for re-publication, not, however, as he had once contemplated, making in it any significant changes. In the dedication to his friend Milsand, he incorporated so clear an exposition of his idea in the poem that this dedication will always be read with special interest. In London again the next winter, Browning wrote to Isa Blagden that he “felt comfort in doing the best he could with the object of his life, poetry. I hope to do much more yet,” he continued; “and that the flower of it will be put into Her hand somehow.”

The London spring found the poet much engaged, taking his son to studios, and to the Royal Academy, to concerts, and for long walks, and in a letter to Kate Field not heretofore published is indicated something of the general trend of the days:



DEAR KATE FIELD, (so let me call you, please, in regard to old times when I might have done it, and did not,) I know well enough that there is great stupidity in this way of mine, this putting off a thing because I hope to compass some other thing, as here, for had you not asked for some photographs which I supposed I could soon find time and inclination to get, I should have thanked you at once; as I do now, indeed, and with all my heart, but the review article is wavering and indistinct in my mind now, and though it is inside a drawer of this table where I write, I cannot bring myself to look at it again, not from a motive which is disparaging to you, as I am sure you understand; the general impression is enough for me, also, if you care in the least how I feel toward you. The boy has certainly the likeness to which you refer, and an absolute sameness, almost, in feature as well as in look, with certain old portraits of hers, here, older and younger; there is not a trace of me in him, thank God! I know that dear, teasing Isa, and how she won’t answer your questions, but sometimes, for compensation, she tells you what you never asked for, and though I always, or very often, ask about you, yet I think it may have been in reply to curiosity about the price of Italian stock, that she lately described to me a photograph of you, yourself, and how you were: what? even that’s over. And moreover, how you were your old self with additions, which, to be sure, I don’t require.

Give my true regard to your mother, and thank her for her goodness in understanding me. But I write only to have a pleasant chat with you, in a balcony, looking for fire-flies in the garden, wider between us than the slanting Pitti façade, now that it’s warm and Maylike in Florence.

Always yours,


Mr. Browning had now begun to think of placing his son, who had passed his sixteenth birthday, in Oxford. In quest of this desire the poet sought the acquaintance of Dr. Jowett, afterward Master of Balliol College. This initiated a friendship between Browning and Jowett that lasted all the poet’s life, and that has insured to Balliol many priceless treasures of association with both Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Up to that time Jowett had not been an admirer of Browning’s poetry. But his keen interest in the theme then engaging Browning was aroused, and he wrote to a friend:

“I thought I was getting too old to make new friends, but I believe that I have made one, Mr. Browning, the poet, who has been staying with me during the past few days. It is impossible to speak without enthusiasm of his open, generous nature, and his great ability and knowledge. I had no idea that there was a perfectly sensible poet in the world, entirely free from vanity, jealousy, or any other littleness, and thinking no more of himself than if he were an ordinary man. His great energy is very remarkable, as is his determination to make the most of the remainder of life. Of personal objects he seems to have none, except the education of his son, in which I hope in some degree to help him."

After returning to London, Browning writes to Tennyson, in thanks for a book received from the Laureate:

19, WARWICK CRESCENT, W., Oc, 1865.

MY DEAR TENNYSON, When I came back last year from my holiday I found a gift from you, a book; this time I find only the blue and gold thing which, such as it is, I send you, you are to take from me. I could not even put in what I pleased but I have said all about it in the word or two of preface, as also that I beg leave to stick the bunch in your buttonhole. May I beg that Mrs. Tennyson will kindly remember me?

Ever Affectionately Yours,


Tennyson wrote in reply that the nosegay was very welcome. “I stick it in my buttonhole ... and feel ’s cork heels added to my boots,” he added.

Volumes of selections from the poems of both Browning and his wife were now being demanded for the “Golden Treasury”; and to Miss Blagden Browning says further that he will certainly do the utmost to make the most of himself before he dies, “for one reason that I may help Pen the better.”

Browning complies with his publisher’s request to prepare a new selection of his wife’s poems. “How I have done it, I can hardly say,” he noted, “but it is one dear delight that the work of her goes on more effectually than ever her books are more and more read,” and a new edition of her “Aurora Leigh” was exhausted within a few months.

The winter was a very full and engaging one. On one evening he dined at the deanery of St. Paul’s, Sir John Lubbock and Tennyson being also guests, but the Stanleys, who were invited, were not present. At another dinner the poets met, Tennyson recording: “Mr. Browning gave me an affectionate greeting after all these years,” and Browning writing to a friend: “... I have enjoyed nothing so much as a dinner last week with Tennyson, who with his wife and one son is staying in town for a few weeks, and she is just what she was and always will be, very sweet and dear: he seems to me better than ever. I met him at a large party ... also at Carlyle’s....”

In May of 1866 Browning’s father was in poor health, and on June 14 he died, at his home in Paris, his son having arrived three days before. Although nearly eighty-five years of age, the elder Browning had retained all his clearness of mind, and only just before he passed away he had responded to some question of his son regarding a disputed point in medieval history with “a regular book-full of notes and extracts.” His son speaks of the aged man’s “strange sweetness of soul,” apparently a transmitted trait, for the poet shared it, and has left it in liberal heritage to his son, Robert Barrett Browning, the “Pen” of all these pages. Of his father the poet said:

“He was worthy of being Ba’s father, out of the whole world, only he, so far as my experience goes. She loved him, and he said very recently, while gazing at her portrait, that only that picture had put into his head that there might be such a thing as the worship of the images of saints.”

Miss Browning came henceforth to live with her brother, and for the remainder of his life she was his constant companion. She was a woman of delightful qualities, of poise, cheerfulness, of great intelligence and of liberal culture. She was a very discriminating reader, and was peculiarly gifted with that sympathetic comprehension that makes an ideal companionship. Her presence now transformed the London house into a home.

The next summer they passed at Le Croisic, where Browning wrote “Hervé Riel,” in “the most delicious and peculiar old house,” and he and his sister, both very fond of the open air, walked once to Guerande, the old capital of Bretagne, some nine miles from their house.

Browning had received his first academic honors that summer, Oxford having conferred on him her degree of M.A. The next October Browning was made Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, a distinction that he greatly prized.

During this summer Rev. Dr. Phillips Brooks (later Bishop of Massachusetts) was in London, and visited Browning once or twice. To a Boston friend who asked for his impressions of the great poet, Dr. Brooks wrote:

“... I can’t say anything now except that he is one of the nicest people to pass an evening with in London. He is a clear-headed and particularly clear-eyed man of the world, devoted to society, one of the greatest diners-out in London, cordial and hearty, shakes your hand as if he were really glad to see you.... As to his talk it wasn’t ‘Sordello,’ and it wasn’t as fine as ‘Paracelsus,’ but nobody ever talked more nobly, truly, and cheerily than he. I went home and slept after hearing him as one does after a fresh starlight walk with a good cool breeze on his face.”

In 1863, on July 19, a little more than two years after the death of Mrs. Browning, Arabel Barrett had a dream, in which she was speaking with her sister Elizabeth, and asked, “When shall I be with you?” “Dearest, in five years,” was the reply. She told this dream to Mr. Browning, who recorded it at the time. In June of 1868 Miss Barrett died, the time lacking one month only of being the five years. “Only a coincidence, but noticeable,” Mr. Browning wrote to Isa Blagden. But in the larger knowledge that we now have of the nature of life and the phenomena of sleep, that the ethereal body is temporarily released from the physical (sleep being the same as death, save that in the latter the magnetic cord is severed, and the separation is final) in the light of this larger knowledge it is easy to realize that the two sisters actually met in the ethereal realm, and that the question was asked and answered according to Miss Barrett’s impression. The event was sudden, its immediate cause being rheumatic affection of the heart, and she died in Browning’s arms, as did his wife. Her companionship had been a great comfort to him, and Mr. Gosse notes that for many years after her death he could not bear to pass Delamere Terrace.

The late summer of that year was devoted to traveling from Cannes about the coast, and they finally decided on Audierne for a sojourn. “Sarianna and I have just returned from a four hours’ walk,” he writes to a friend from this place; but here, as everywhere, he was haunted by Florentine memories, and by intense longings for his vanished paradise. To Isa Blagden he wrote:

“I feel as if I should immensely like to glide along for a summer day through the streets and between the old stone walls, unseen come and unheard go, perhaps by some miracle I shall do so ... Oh, me! to find myself some late sunshiny afternoon with my face turned toward Florence....”

While at Audierne, Browning put the final touches to the new six-volume edition of his works that was about to appear from the house of Smith, Elder, and Company, on the title-page of which he signs himself as M.A., Honorary Fellow of Balliol College. Mr. Nettleship’s volume of essays on Browning’s poems was published that season, indicating a strong interest in the poet; and another very gratifying experience to him was the interest in his work manifested by the undergraduates of both Oxford and Cambridge. Undoubtedly the pleasant glow of this appreciation stimulated his energy in the great poem on which he was now definitely at work, “The Ring and the Book.” Publishers were making him offers for its publication, “the R. B. who for six months once did not sell a single copy of his poems,” he exclaimed in a letter to a friend, to whom he announced that he should “ask two hundred pounds for the sheets to America, and get it!” with an evident conviction that this was a high price for his work. The increasing recognition of the poet was further indicated by a request from Tauchnitz for the volumes of selections which Browning dedicated to the Laureate in these graceful words: “To Alfred Tennyson. In Poetry illustrious and consummate; In Friendship noble and sincere.”

The publication of “The Ring and the Book” was the great literary event of 1869. Two numbers had appeared in the previous autumn, but when offered in its completeness the poem was found to embody the most remarkable interpretation of transfigured human life to be found in all the literature of poetry. The fame of the poet rose to splendor. This work was the inauguration of an epoch, of a period from which his work was to be read, studied, discussed, to a degree that would have been incredible to him, had any Cassandra of previous years lifted the veil of the future. The great reviews united in a very choral pean of praise; the Fortnightly, the Quarterly, the Edinburgh Review, the Revue des Deux Mondes, and others were practically unanimous in their recognition of a work which was at once felt to be the very epitome of the art and life of Robert Browning. The poem is, indeed, a vast treasure into which the poet poured all his searching, relentless analysis of character, and grasp of motive; all his compassion, his sensitive susceptibility to human emotion; all his gift of brilliant movement; all his heroic enthusiasms, and his power of luminous perception. But all this wealth of feeling and thought had been passed through the crucible of his critical creation; it had been fused and recast by the alchemy of genius. He transmuted fact into truth.

“Do you see this Ring? ’T is Rome-work made to match (By Castellani’s imitative craft) Etrurian circlets....

I fused my live soul and that inert stuff, Before attempting smithcraft....”

The “square old yellow book” which Browning had chanced upon in the market-place of San Lorenzo, in that June of 1860, was not a volume, but a “lawyer’s file of documents and pamphlets.” In relating how he found the book Browning says, in the poem:

“... I found this book, Gave a lira for it, eightpence English just, (Mark the predestination!) when a Hand, Always above my shoulder, pushed me once,

Across a Square in Florence, crammed with booths.”

He stepped out on the narrow terrace, built

“Over the street and opposite the church,

Whence came the clear voice of the cloistered ones Chanting a chant made for midsummer nights ”

and making his own the story.

In 1908 Dr. Charles W. Hodell was enabled by the courtesy of Balliol College, to whom Browning left the “Old Yellow Book,” to make a photographic reproduction of the original documents, to which Dr. Hodell added a complete and masterly translation, and a noble essay entitled “On the Making of a Great Poem,” the most marvelous analysis and commentary on “The Ring and the Book” that has ever been produced. The photographed pages of the original documents, the translation, and this essay were published by the Carnegie Institution, in a large volume entitled “The Old Yellow Book.” In his preface Professor Hodell records that he was drawn to the special study of this poem by Professor Hiram Corson, Litt.D., LL.D., to whom he reverently refers as “my Master.” Of “The Ring and the Book” Dr. Hodell says:

“In the wide range of the work of Robert Browning no single poem can rival ‘The Ring and the Book,’ in scope and manifold power. The subject had fallen to his hands at the very fulness of his maturity, by ‘predestination,’ as it seemed to him. In the poem, as he planned his treatment, there was opportunity for every phase of his peculiar genius.... so that the completed masterpiece becomes the macrocosm of his work.... Without doubt it may be held to be the greatest poetic work, in a long poem, of the nineteenth century. It is a drama of profound spiritual realities.

’So write a book shall mean beyond the facts, Suffice the eye, and save the soul beside.’

Browning was the only important poet of the Victorian age who did not draw upon the Morte d’Arthur legends; and the rich mythology of the Greeks tempted him as little. The motive that always appealed to him most was that of the activity of the human spirit, its power to dominate all material barriers to transcend every temporary limit, by the very power of its own energy.”

In his historic researches Professor Hodell found reason to believe that the Pope, in “The Ring and the Book,” was Stephen VI, and not VII; and writing to Robert Barrett Browning to inquire regarding this point, he received from the poet’s son the following interesting letter, which, by Dr. Hodell’s generous courtesy, is permitted to appear in this book.


MY DEAR SIR, I wish I were able to give you the information you ask me for, but my father’s books are in Venice, and I have not any here touching on the matter to refer to.

If Pope Stephen was, as you say, the Sixth and not the Seventh, of course the mistake is obvious and perhaps attributable to an unconscious slip of the memory, which with my father was not at its best in dates and figures. It is not likely that such an error should have appeared in any old work, such as he would have consulted; and certainly it was not caused by carelessness, for he was painstaking to a degree, and had a proper horror of blundering, which is the word he would have used. I can only account for such a mistake as this which he would have been the first to pronounce unpardonable by his absent-mindedness, his attention being at the moment absorbed by something else. Absent-mindedness was one of his characteristics, over instances of which he used to laugh most heartily. My father’s intention, I know, was to be scrupulously accurate about the facts in this poem. I may tell you as an instance that, wishing to be sure that there was moonlight on a particular night, he got a distinguished mathematician to make the necessary calculation. The description of the finding of the book is without doubt true in every detail. Indeed, to this day the market at San Lorenzo is very much what it was then and as I can remember it. Not long ago, I myself bought an old volume there off a barrow.

The “Yellow Book” was probably picked up in June of 1860 before going to Rome for the winter the last my father passed in Italy. As it had always been understood that the Book should be presented to Balliol, I went soon after my father’s death to stay a few days with Jowett, and gave it to him.

In the portrait that hangs in Balliol Hall I painted my father as he sat to me with the Book in his hands.

Nothing would have gratified him more than what you tell me about the interest with which his works are studied in America, and I need not say how much pleasure this gives me.

Believe me with many thanks for your kind letter,

Yours Very Sincerely,


A very curious discovery was made in Rome, in the winter of 1900, by Signer Giorgi, the Librarian of the Royal Casanatense Library, in an ancient manuscript account of curious legal trials, among which were those of Beatrice Cenci, of Miguel de Molinos (in 1686), and of the trial and sentence of Guido Franceschini. The fact that taxes credulity in regard to this manuscript, of whose existence, even, no one in modern times had ever dreamed, is that the three points of view, as presented by Browning in the “Half Rome,” “The Other Half Rome,” and “Tertium Quid,” are in accord with those given in this strange document, which for more than a century had lain undisturbed in the archives.

In a little explanation regarding the significance of the closing lines of “The Ring and the Book,” also kindly given by Robert Barrett Browning, it seems that his mother habitually wore a ring of Etruscan gold, wrought by Castellani, with the letters “A. E. I.” on it; and that after her death the poet always wore it on his watch-chain, as does now his son. In the tablet placed on Casa Guidi to the memory of Mrs. Browning (the inscription of which was written by the Italian poet, Tommaseo) the source of the other allusion, of the linking Italy and England, is found. As the reader will recall, the lines run:

“And save the soul! If this intent save mine, If the rough ore be rounded to a ring, Render all duty which good ring should do, And, failing grace, succeed in guardianship, Might mine but lie outside thine, Lyric Love, Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised) Linking our England to his Italy!”

Dr. Corson especially notes Browning’s opening invocation to his wife, praying her aid and benediction in the work he has undertaken. “This passage,” says Dr. Corson, “has a remarkable movement, the unobtrusive but distinctly felt alliteration contributing to the effect.”

“O lyric Love, half angel and half bird And all a wonder and a wild desire, Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun, Took sanctuary within the holier blue.”

That Browning could never have created the character of Pompilia, save for that all-enfolding influence of the character of his wife, all the greater critics of “The Ring and the Book” agree. To Dr. Corson, Browning said of her:

“I am not sorry, now, to have lived so long after she went away, but I confess to you that all my types of women were beautiful and blessed by my perfect knowledge of one woman’s pure soul. Had I never known Elizabeth, I never could have written ‘The Ring and the Book.’”

Of Pompilia Dr. Hodell also says:

“... But there is another influence in the creation of this ideal character beside that of the Madonna, it was the Madonna of his home, the mother of his own child, whose spiritual nature was as noteworthy as her intellect. And before this spiritual nature the poet bowed in humble reverence.”

Mrs. Orr, too, has written:

“Mrs. Browning’s spiritual presence was more than a presiding memory in the heart. I am convinced that it entered largely into the conception of Pompilia.

“It takes, however, both the throbbing humanity of Balaustion and the saintly glory of Pompilia to express fully the nature of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as she appeared to her husband.”

Dr. Dowden, Brooke, Corson, Herford, Hodell, Chesterton, and other authoritative critics allude to their recognition of Mrs. Browning in the character of Pompilia; and no reader of this immortal masterpiece of poetic art can ever fail to find his pulses thrilling with those incomparable lines, spoken in her last hour on earth by Pompilia:

“O lover of my life, O soldier-saint, No work begun shall ever pause for death! Love will be helpful to me more and more I’ the coming course, the new path I must tread

Tell him that if I seem without him now, That’s the world’s insight! Oh, he understands!

So let him wait God’s instant men call years; Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul, Do out the duty!...”

In the entire range of Browning’s heroines Pompilia is the most exalted and beautiful character.