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Ch. 4: Browning in Italy


The married pair went to Pisa in 1846, and moved soon afterwards to
Florence. Of the life of the Brownings in Italy there is much perhaps
to be said in the way of description and analysis, little to be said
in the way of actual narrative. Each of them had passed through the
one incident of existence. Just as Elizabeth Barrett's life had before
her marriage been uneventfully sombre, now it was uneventfully happy.
A succession of splendid landscapes, a succession of brilliant
friends, a succession of high and ardent intellectual interests, they
experienced; but their life was of the kind that if it were told at
all, would need to be told in a hundred volumes of gorgeous
intellectual gossip. How Browning and his wife rode far into the
country, eating strawberries and drinking milk out of the basins of
the peasants; how they fell in with the strangest and most picturesque
figures of Italian society; how they climbed mountains and read books
and modelled in clay and played on musical instruments; how Browning
was made a kind of arbiter between two improvising Italian bards; how
he had to escape from a festivity when the sound of Garibaldi's hymn
brought the knocking of the Austrian police; these are the things of
which his life is full, trifling and picturesque things, a series of
interludes, a beautiful and happy story, beginning and ending nowhere.
The only incidents, perhaps, were the birth of their son and the death
of Browning's mother in 1849.

It is well known that Browning loved Italy; that it was his adopted
country; that he said in one of the finest of his lyrics that the name
of it would be found written on his heart. But the particular
character of this love of Browning for Italy needs to be understood.
There are thousands of educated Europeans who love Italy, who live in
it, who visit it annually, who come across a continent to see it, who
hunt out its darkest picture and its most mouldering carving; but they
are all united in this, that they regard Italy as a dead place. It is
a branch of their universal museum, a department of dry bones. There
are rich and cultivated persons, particularly Americans, who seem to
think that they keep Italy, as they might keep an aviary or a
hothouse, into which they might walk whenever they wanted a whiff of
beauty. Browning did not feel at all in this manner; he was
intrinsically incapable of offering such an insult to the soul of a
nation. If he could not have loved Italy as a nation, he would not
have consented to love it as an old curiosity shop. In everything on
earth, from the Middle Ages to the amoeba, who is discussed at such
length in "Mr. Sludge the Medium," he is interested in the life in
things. He was interested in the life in Italian art and in the life
in Italian politics.

Perhaps the first and simplest example that can be given of this
matter is in Browning's interest in art. He was immeasurably
fascinated at all times by painting and sculpture, and his sojourn in
Italy gave him, of course, innumerable and perfect opportunities for
the study of painting and sculpture. But his interest in these studies
was not like that of the ordinary cultured visitor to the Italian
cities. Thousands of such visitors, for example, study those endless
lines of magnificent Pagan busts which are to be found in nearly all
the Italian galleries and museums, and admire them, and talk about
them, and note them in their catalogues, and describe them in their
diaries. But the way in which they affected Browning is described very
suggestively in a passage in the letters of his wife. She describes
herself as longing for her husband to write poems, beseeching him to
write poems, but finding all her petitions useless because her husband
was engaged all day in modelling busts in clay and breaking them as
fast as he made them. This is Browning's interest in art, the interest
in a living thing, the interest in a growing thing, the insatiable
interest in how things are done. Every one who knows his admirable
poems on painting--"Fra Lippo Lippi" and "Andrea del Sarto" and
"Pictor Ignotus"--will remember how fully they deal with
technicalities, how they are concerned with canvas, with oil, with a
mess of colours. Sometimes they are so technical as to be mysterious
to the casual reader. An extreme case may be found in that of a lady I
once knew who had merely read the title of "Pacchiarotto and how he
worked in distemper," and thought that Pacchiarotto was the name of a
dog, whom no attacks of canine disease could keep from the fulfilment
of his duty. These Browning poems do not merely deal with painting;
they smell of paint. They are the works of a man to whom art is not
what it is to so many of the non-professional lovers of art, a thing
accomplished, a valley of bones: to him it is a field of crops
continually growing in a busy and exciting silence. Browning was
interested, like some scientific man, in the obstetrics of art. There
is a large army of educated men who can talk art with artists; but
Browning could not merely talk art with artists--he could talk shop
with them. Personally he may not have known enough about painting to
be more than a fifth-rate painter, or enough about the organ to be
more than a sixth-rate organist. But there are, when all is said and
done, some things which a fifth-rate painter knows which a first-rate
art critic does not know; there are some things which a sixth-rate
organist knows which a first-rate judge of music does not know. And
these were the things that Browning knew.

He was, in other words, what is called an amateur. The word amateur
has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of
tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is
this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual
characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and
reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it
without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any
hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more
than any other man can love the rewards of it. Browning was in this
strict sense a strenuous amateur. He tried and practised in the course
of his life half a hundred things at which he can never have even for
a moment expected to succeed. The story of his life is full of absurd
little ingenuities, such as the discovery of a way of making pictures
by roasting brown paper over a candle. In precisely the same spirit
of fruitless vivacity, he made himself to a very considerable extent a
technical expert in painting, a technical expert in sculpture, a
technical expert in music. In his old age, he shows traces of being so
bizarre a thing as an abstract police detective, writing at length in
letters and diaries his views of certain criminal cases in an Italian
town. Indeed, his own _Ring and the Book_ is merely a sublime
detective story. He was in a hundred things this type of man; he was
precisely in the position, with a touch of greater technical success,
of the admirable figure in Stevenson's story who said, "I can play the
fiddle nearly well enough to earn a living in the orchestra of a penny
gaff, but not quite."

The love of Browning for Italian art, therefore, was anything but an
antiquarian fancy; it was the love of a living thing. We see the same
phenomenon in an even more important matter--the essence and
individuality of the country itself.

Italy to Browning and his wife was not by any means merely that
sculptured and ornate sepulchre that it is to so many of those
cultivated English men and women who live in Italy and enjoy and
admire and despise it. To them it was a living nation, the type and
centre of the religion and politics of a continent; the ancient and
flaming heart of Western history, the very Europe of Europe. And they
lived at the time of the most moving and gigantic of all dramas--the
making of a new nation, one of the things that makes men feel that
they are still in the morning of the earth. Before their eyes, with
every circumstance of energy and mystery, was passing the panorama of
the unification of Italy, with the bold and romantic militarism of
Garibaldi, the more bold and more romantic diplomacy of Cavour. They
lived in a time when affairs of State had almost the air of works of
art; and it is not strange that these two poets should have become
politicians in one of those great creative epochs when even the
politicians have to be poets.

Browning was on this question and on all the questions of continental
and English politics a very strong Liberal. This fact is not a mere
detail of purely biographical interest, like any view he might take of
the authorship of the "Eikon Basilike" or the authenticity of the
Tichborne claimant. Liberalism was so inevitably involved in the
poet's whole view of existence, that even a thoughtful and imaginative
Conservative would feel that Browning was bound to be a Liberal. His
mind was possessed, perhaps even to excess, by a belief in growth and
energy and in the ultimate utility of error. He held the great central
Liberal doctrine, a belief in a certain destiny of the human spirit
beyond, and perhaps even independent of, our own sincerest
convictions. The world was going right he felt, most probably in his
way, but certainly in its own way. The sonnet which he wrote in later
years, entitled "Why I am a Liberal," expresses admirably this
philosophical root of his politics. It asks in effect how he, who had
found truth in so many strange forms after so many strange wanderings,
can be expected to stifle with horror the eccentricities of others. A
Liberal may be defined approximately as a man who, if he could by
waving his hand in a dark room, stop the mouths of all the deceivers
of mankind for ever, would not wave his hand. Browning was a Liberal
in this sense.

And just as the great Liberal movement which followed the French
Revolution made this claim for the liberty and personality of human
beings, so it made it for the liberty and personality of nations. It
attached indeed to the independence of a nation something of the same
wholly transcendental sanctity which humanity has in all legal systems
attached to the life of a man. The grounds were indeed much the same;
no one could say absolutely that a live man was useless, and no one
could say absolutely that a variety of national life was useless or
must remain useless to the world. Men remembered how often barbarous
tribes or strange and alien Scriptures had been called in to revive
the blood of decaying empires and civilisations. And this sense of the
personality of a nation, as distinct from the personalities of all
other nations, did not involve in the case of these old Liberals
international bitterness; for it is too often forgotten that
friendship demands independence and equality fully as much as war. But
in them it led to great international partialities, to a great system,
as it were, of adopted countries which made so thorough a Scotchman as
Carlyle in love with Germany, and so thorough an Englishman as
Browning in love with Italy.

And while on the one side of the struggle was this great ideal of
energy and variety, on the other side was something which we now find
it difficult to realise or describe. We have seen in our own time a
great reaction in favour of monarchy, aristocracy, andecclesiasticism,
a reaction almost entirely noble in its instinct, and dwelling almost
entirely on the best periods and the best qualities of the old
_régime_. But the modern man, full of admiration for the great virtue
of chivalry which is at the heart of aristocracies, and the great
virtue of reverence which is at the heart of ceremonial religion, is
not in a position to form any idea of how profoundly unchivalrous, how
astonishingly irreverent, how utterly mean, and material, and devoid
of mystery or sentiment were the despotic systems of Europe which
survived, and for a time conquered, the Revolution. The case against
the Church in Italy in the time of Pio Nono was not the case which a
rationalist would urge against the Church of the time of St. Louis,
but diametrically the opposite case. Against the mediæval Church it
might be said that she was too fantastic, too visionary, too dogmatic
about the destiny of man, too indifferent to all things but the
devotional side of the soul. Against the Church of Pio Nono the main
thing to be said was that it was simply and supremely cynical; that it
was not founded on the unworldly instinct for distorting life, but on
the worldly counsel to leave life as it is; that it was not the
inspirer of insane hopes, of reward and miracle, but the enemy, the
cool and sceptical enemy, of hope of any kind or description. The same
was true of the monarchical systems of Prussia and Austria and Russia
at this time. Their philosophy was not the philosophy of the cavaliers
who rode after Charles I. or Louis XIII. It was the philosophy of the
typical city uncle, advising every one, and especially the young, to
avoid enthusiasm, to avoid beauty, to regard life as a machine,
dependent only upon the two forces of comfort and fear. That was,
there can be little doubt, the real reason of the fascination of the
Napoleon legend--that while Napoleon was a despot like the rest, he
was a despot who went somewhere and did something, and defied the
pessimism of Europe, and erased the word "impossible." One does not
need to be a Bonapartist to rejoice at the way in which the armies of
the First Empire, shouting their songs and jesting with their
colonels, smote and broke into pieces the armies of Prussia and
Austria driven into battle with a cane.

Browning, as we have said, was in Italy at the time of the break-up of
one part of this frozen continent of the non-possumus, Austria's hold
in the north of Italy was part of that elaborate and comfortable and
wholly cowardly and unmeaning compromise, which the Holy Alliance had
established, and which it believed without doubt in its solid unbelief
would last until the Day of Judgment, though it is difficult to
imagine what the Holy Alliance thought would happen then. But almost
of a sudden affairs had begun to move strangely, and the despotic
princes and their chancellors discovered with a great deal of
astonishment that they were not living in the old age of the world,
but to all appearance in a very unmanageable period of its boyhood. In
an age of ugliness and routine, in a time when diplomatists and
philosophers alike tended to believe that they had a list of all human
types, there began to appear men who belonged to the morning of the
world, men whose movements have a national breadth and beauty, who act
symbols and become legends while they are alive. Garibaldi in his red
shirt rode in an open carriage along the front of a hostile fort
calling to the coachman to drive slower, and not a man dared fire a
shot at him. Mazzini poured out upon Europe a new mysticism of
humanity and liberty, and was willing, like some passionate Jesuit of
the sixteenth century, to become in its cause either a philosopher or
a criminal. Cavour arose with a diplomacy which was more thrilling and
picturesque than war itself. These men had nothing to do with an age
of the impossible. They have passed, their theories along with them,
as all things pass; but since then we have had no men of their type
precisely, at once large and real and romantic and successful. Gordon
was a possible exception. They were the last of the heroes.

When Browning was first living in Italy, a telegram which had been
sent to him was stopped on the frontier and suppressed on account of
his known sympathy with the Italian Liberals. It is almost impossible
for people living in a commonwealth like ours to understand how a
small thing like that will affect a man. It was not so much the
obvious fact that a great practical injury was really done to him;
that the telegram might have altered all his plans in matters of vital
moment. It was, over and above that, the sense of a hand laid on
something personal and essentially free. Tyranny like this is not the
worst tyranny, but it is the most intolerable. It interferes with men
not in the most serious matters, but precisely in those matters in
which they most resent interference. It may be illogical for men to
accept cheerfully unpardonable public scandals, benighted educational
systems, bad sanitation, bad lighting, a blundering and inefficient
system of life, and yet to resent the tearing up of a telegram or a
post-card; but the fact remains that the sensitiveness of men is a
strange and localised thing, and there is hardly a man in the world
who would not rather be ruled by despots chosen by lot and live in a
city like a mediæval Ghetto, than be forbidden by a policeman to
smoke another cigarette, or sit up a quarter of an hour later; hardly
a man who would not feel inclined in such a case to raise a rebellion
for a caprice for which he did not really care a straw. Unmeaning and
muddle-headed tyranny in small things, that is the thing which, if
extended over many years, is harder to bear and hope through than the
massacres of September. And that was the nightmare of vexatious
triviality which was lying over all the cities of Italy that were
ruled by the bureaucratic despotisms of Europe. The history of the
time is full of spiteful and almost childish struggles--struggles
about the humming of a tune or the wearing of a colour, the arrest of
a journey, or the opening of a letter. And there can be little doubt
that Browning's temperament under these conditions was not of the kind
to become more indulgent, and there grew in him a hatred of the
Imperial and Ducal and Papal systems of Italy, which sometimes passed
the necessities of Liberalism, and sometimes even transgressed its
spirit. The life which he and his wife lived in Italy was
extraordinarily full and varied, when we consider the restrictions
under which one at least of them had always lain. They met and took
delight, notwithstanding their exile, in some of the most interesting
people of their time--Ruskin, Cardinal Manning, and Lord Lytton.
Browning, in a most characteristic way, enjoyed the society of all of
them, arguing with one, agreeing with another, sitting up all night by
the bedside of a third.

It has frequently been stated that the only difference that ever
separated Mr. and Mrs. Browning was upon the question of spiritualism.
That statement must, of course, be modified and even contradicted if
it means that they never differed; that Mr. Browning never thought an
_Act of Parliament_ good when Mrs. Browning thought it bad; that Mr.
Browning never thought bread stale when Mrs. Browning thought it new.
Such unanimity is not only inconceivable, it is immoral; and as a
matter of fact, there is abundant evidence that their marriage
constituted something like that ideal marriage, an alliance between
two strong and independent forces. They differed, in truth, about a
great many things, for example, about Napoleon III. whom Mrs. Browning
regarded with an admiration which would have been somewhat beyond the
deserts of Sir Galahad, and whom Browning with his emphatic Liberal
principles could never pardon for the _Coup d'État_. If they differed
on spiritualism in a somewhat more serious way than this, the reason
must be sought in qualities which were deeper and more elemental in
both their characters than any mere matter of opinion. Mrs. Orr, in
her excellent _Life of Browning_, states that the difficulty arose
from Mrs. Browning's firm belief in psychical phenomena and Browning's
absolute refusal to believe even in their possibility. Another writer
who met them at this time says, "Browning cannot believe, and Mrs.
Browning cannot help believing." This theory, that Browning's aversion
to the spiritualist circle arose from an absolute denial of the
tenability of such a theory of life and death, has in fact often been
repeated. But it is exceedingly difficult to reconcile it with
Browning's character. He was the last man in the world to be
intellectually deaf to a hypothesis merely because it was odd. He had
friends whose opinions covered every description of madness from the
French legitimism of De Ripert-Monclar to the Republicanism of
Landor. Intellectually he may be said to have had a zest for heresies.
It is difficult to impute an attitude of mere impenetrable negation to
a man who had expressed with sympathy the religion of "Caliban" and
the morality of "Time's Revenges." It is true that at this time of the
first popular interest in spiritualism a feeling existed among many
people of a practical turn of mind, which can only be called a
superstition against believing in ghosts. But, intellectually
speaking, Browning would probably have been one of the most tolerant
and curious in regard to the new theories, whereas the popular version
of the matter makes him unusually intolerant and negligent even for
that time. The fact was in all probability that Browning's aversion to
the spiritualists had little or nothing to do with spiritualism. It
arose from quite a different side of his character--his uncompromising
dislike of what is called Bohemianism, of eccentric or slovenly
cliques, of those straggling camp followers of the arts who exhibit
dubious manners and dubious morals, of all abnormality and of all
irresponsibility. Any one, in fact, who wishes to see what it was that
Browning disliked need only do two things. First, he should read the
_Memoirs_ of David Home, the famous spiritualist medium with whom
Browning came in contact. These _Memoirs_ constitute a more thorough
and artistic self-revelation than any monologue that Browning ever
wrote. The ghosts, the raps, the flying hands, the phantom voices are
infinitely the most respectable and infinitely the most credible part
of the narrative. But the bragging, the sentimentalism, the moral and
intellectual foppery of the composition is everywhere, culminating
perhaps in the disgusting passage in which Home describes Mrs.
Browning as weeping over him and assuring him that all her husband's
actions in the matter have been adopted against her will. It is in
this kind of thing that we find the roots of the real anger of
Browning. He did not dislike spiritualism, but spiritualists. The
second point on which any one wishing to be just in the matter should
cast an eye, is the record of the visit which Mrs. Browning insisted
on making while on their honeymoon in Paris to the house of George
Sand. Browning felt, and to some extent expressed, exactly the same
aversion to his wife mixing with the circle of George Sand which he
afterwards felt at her mixing with the circle of Home. The society was
"of the ragged red, diluted with the low theatrical, men who worship
George Sand, _à genou bas_ between an oath and an ejection of saliva."
When we find that a man did not object to any number of Jacobites or
Atheists, but objected to the French Bohemian poets and to the early
occultist mediums as friends for his wife, we shall surely be fairly
right in concluding that he objected not to an opinion, but to a
social tone. The truth was that Browning had a great many admirably
Philistine feelings, and one of them was a great relish for his
responsibilities towards his wife. He enjoyed being a husband. This is
quite a distinct thing from enjoying being a lover, though it will
scarcely be found apart from it. But, like all good feelings, it has
its possible exaggerations, and one of them is this almost morbid
healthiness in the choice of friends for his wife.

David Home, the medium, came to Florence about 1857. Mrs. Browning
undoubtedly threw herself into psychical experiments with great ardour
at first, and Browning, equally undoubtedly, opposed, and at length
forbade, the enterprise. He did not do so however until he had
attended one _séance_ at least, at which a somewhat ridiculous event
occurred, which is described in Home's _Memoirs_ with a gravity even
more absurd than the incident. Towards the end of the proceedings a
wreath was placed in the centre of the table, and the lights being
lowered, it was caused to rise slowly into the air, and after hovering
for some time, to move towards Mrs. Browning, and at length to alight
upon her head. As the wreath was floating in her direction, her
husband was observed abruptly to cross the room and stand beside her.
One would think it was a sufficiently natural action on the part of a
man whose wife was the centre of a weird and disturbing experiment,
genuine or otherwise. But Mr. Home gravely asserts that it was
generally believed that Browning had crossed the room in the hope that
the wreath would alight on his head, and that from the hour of its
disobliging refusal to do so dated the whole of his goaded and
malignant aversion to spiritualism. The idea of the very conventional
and somewhat bored Robert Browning running about the room after a
wreath in the hope of putting his head into it, is one of the genuine
gleams of humour in this rather foolish affair. Browning could be
fairly violent, as we know, both in poetry and conversation; but it
would be almost too terrible to conjecture what he would have felt and
said if Mr. Home's wreath had alighted on his head.

Next day, according to Home's account, he called on the hostess of the
previous night in what the writer calls "a ridiculous state of
excitement," and told her apparently that she must excuse him if he
and his wife did not attend any more gatherings of the kind. What
actually occurred is not, of course, quite easy to ascertain, for the
account in Home's _Memoirs_ principally consists of noble speeches
made by the medium which would seem either to have reduced Browning to
a pulverised silence, or else to have failed to attract his attention.
But there can be no doubt that the general upshot of the affair was
that Browning put his foot down, and the experiments ceased. There can
be little doubt that he was justified in this; indeed, he was probably
even more justified if the experiments were genuine psychical
mysteries than if they were the _hocus-pocus_ of a charlatan. He knew
his wife better than posterity can be expected to do; but even
posterity can see that she was the type of woman so much adapted to
the purposes of men like Home as to exhibit almost invariably either a
great craving for such experiences or a great terror of them. Like
many geniuses, but not all, she lived naturally upon something like a
borderland; and it is impossible to say that if Browning had not
interposed when she was becoming hysterical she might not have ended
in an asylum.

The whole of this incident is very characteristic of Browning; but the
real characteristic note in it has, as above suggested, been to some
extent missed. When some seven years afterwards he produced "Mr.
Sludge the Medium," every one supposed that it was an attack upon
spiritualism and the possibility of its phenomena. As we shall see
when we come to that poem, this is a wholly mistaken interpretation of
it. But what is really curious is that most people have assumed that a
dislike of Home's investigations implies a theoretic disbelief in
spiritualism. It might, of course, imply a very firm and serious
belief in it. As a matter of fact it did not imply this in Browning,
but it may perfectly well have implied an agnosticism which admitted
the reasonableness of such things. Home was infinitely less dangerous
as a dexterous swindler than he was as a bad or foolish man in
possession of unknown or ill-comprehended powers. It is surely curious
to think that a man must object to exposing his wife to a few
conjuring tricks, but could not be afraid of exposing her to the loose
and nameless energies of the universe.

Browning's theoretic attitude in the matter was, therefore, in all
probability quite open and unbiassed. His was a peculiarly hospitable
intellect. If any one had told him of the spiritualist theory, or
theories a hundred times more insane, as things held by some sect of
Gnostics in Alexandria, or of heretical Talmudists at Antwerp, he
would have delighted in those theories, and would very likely have
adopted them. But Greek Gnostics and Antwerp Jews do not dance round a
man's wife and wave their hands in her face and send her into swoons
and trances about which nobody knows anything rational or scientific.
It was simply the stirring in Browning of certain primal masculine
feelings far beyond the reach of argument--things that lie so deep
that if they are hurt, though there may be no blame and no anger,
there is always pain. Browning did not like spiritualism to be
mentioned for many years.

Robert Browning was unquestionably a thoroughly conventional man.
There are many who think this element of conventionality altogether
regrettable and disgraceful; they have established, as it were, a
convention of the unconventional. But this hatred of the conventional
element in the personality of a poet is only possible to those who do
not remember the meaning of words. Convention means only a coming
together, an agreement; and as every poet must base his work upon an
emotional agreement among men, so every poet must base his work upon a
convention. Every art is, of course, based upon a convention, an
agreement between the speaker and the listener that certain objections
shall not be raised. The most realistic art in the world is open to
realistic objection. Against the most exact and everyday drama that
ever came out of Norway it is still possible for the realist to raise
the objection that the hero who starts a subject and drops it, who
runs out of a room and runs back again for his hat, is all the time
behaving in a most eccentric manner, considering that he is doing
these things in a room in which one of the four walls has been taken
clean away and been replaced by a line of footlights and a mob of
strangers. Against the most accurate black-and-white artist that human
imagination can conceive it is still to be admitted that he draws a
black line round a man's nose, and that that line is a lie. And in
precisely the same fashion a poet must, by the nature of things, be
conventional. Unless he is describing an emotion which others share
with him, his labours will be utterly in vain. If a poet really had an
original emotion; if, for example, a poet suddenly fell in love with
the buffers of a railway train, it would take him considerably more
time than his allotted three-score years and ten to communicate his
feelings.

Poetry deals with primal and conventional things--the hunger for
bread, the love of woman, the love of children, the desire for
immortal life. If men really had new sentiments, poetry could not deal
with them. If, let us say, a man did not feel a bitter craving to eat
bread; but did, by way of substitute, feel a fresh, original craving
to eat brass fenders or mahogany tables, poetry could not express him.
If a man, instead of falling in love with a woman, fell in love with a
fossil or a sea anemone, poetry could not express him. Poetry can only
express what is original in one sense--the sense in which we speak of
original sin. It is original, not in the paltry sense of being new,
but in the deeper sense of being old; it is original in the sense that
it deals with origins.

All artists, who have any experience of the arts, will agree so far,
that a poet is bound to be conventional with regard to matters of art.
Unfortunately, however, they are the very people who cannot, as a
general rule, see that a poet is also bound to be conventional in
matters of conduct. It is only the smaller poet who sees the poetry of
revolt, of isolation, of disagreement; the larger poet sees the poetry
of those great agreements which constitute the romantic achievement of
civilisation. Just as an agreement between the dramatist and the
audience is necessary to every play; just as an agreement between the
painter and the spectators is necessary to every picture, so an
agreement is necessary to produce the worship of any of the great
figures of morality--the hero, the saint, the average man, the
gentleman. Browning had, it must thoroughly be realised, a real
pleasure in these great agreements, these great conventions. He
delighted, with a true poetic delight, in being conventional. Being
by birth an Englishman, he took pleasure in being an Englishman; being
by rank a member of the middle class, he took a pride in its ancient
scruples and its everlasting boundaries. He was everything that he was
with a definite and conscious pleasure--a man, a Liberal, an
Englishman, an author, a gentleman, a lover, a married man.

This must always be remembered as a general characteristic of
Browning, this ardent and headlong conventionality. He exhibited it
pre-eminently in the affair of his elopement and marriage, during and
after the escape of himself and his wife to Italy. He seems to have
forgotten everything, except the splendid worry of being married. He
showed a thoroughly healthy consciousness that he was taking up a
responsibility which had its practical side. He came finally and
entirely out of his dreams. Since he had himself enough money to live
on, he had never thought of himself as doing anything but writing
poetry; poetry indeed was probably simmering and bubbling in his head
day and night. But when the problem of the elopement arose he threw
himself with an energy, of which it is pleasant to read, into every
kind of scheme for solidifying his position. He wrote to Monckton
Milnes, and would appear to have badgered him with applications for a
post in the British Museum. "I will work like a horse," he said, with
that boyish note, which, whenever in his unconsciousness he strikes
it, is more poetical than all his poems. All his language in this
matter is emphatic; he would be "glad and proud," he says, "to have
any minor post" his friend could obtain for him. He offered to read
for the Bar, and probably began doing so. But all this vigorous and
very creditable materialism was ruthlessly extinguished by Elizabeth
Barrett. She declined altogether even to entertain the idea of her
husband devoting himself to anything else at the expense of poetry.
Probably she was right and Browning wrong, but it was an error which
every man would desire to have made.

One of the qualities again which make Browning most charming, is the
fact that he felt and expressed so simple and genuine a satisfaction
about his own achievements as a lover and husband, particularly in
relation to his triumph in the hygienic care of his wife. "If he is
vain of anything," writes Mrs. Browning, "it is of my restored
health." Later, she adds with admirable humour and suggestiveness,
"and I have to tell him that he really must not go telling everybody
how his wife walked here with him, or walked there with him, as if a
wife with two feet were a miracle in Nature." When a lady in Italy
said, on an occasion when Browning stayed behind with his wife on the
day of a picnic, that he was "the only man who behaved like a
Christian to his wife," Browning was elated to an almost infantile
degree. But there could scarcely be a better test of the essential
manliness and decency of a man than this test of his vanities.
Browning boasted of being domesticated; there are half a hundred men
everywhere who would be inclined to boast of not being domesticated.
Bad men are almost without exception conceited, but they are commonly
conceited of their defects.

One picturesque figure who plays a part in this portion of the
Brownings' life in Italy is Walter Savage Landor. Browning found him
living with some of his wife's relations, and engaged in a continuous
and furious quarrel with them, which was, indeed, not uncommonly the
condition of that remarkable man when living with other human beings.
He had the double arrogance which is only possible to that old and
stately but almost extinct blend--the aristocratic republican. Like an
old Roman senator, or like a gentleman of the Southern States of
America, he had the condescension of a gentleman to those below him,
combined with the jealous self-assertiveness of a Jacobin to those
above. The only person who appears to have been able to manage him and
bring out his more agreeable side was Browning. It is, by the way, one
of the many hints of a certain element in Browning which can only be
described by the elementary and old-fashioned word goodness, that he
always contrived to make himself acceptable and even lovable to men of
savage and capricious temperament, of detached and erratic genius, who
could get on with no one else. Carlyle, who could not get a bitter
taste off his tongue in talking of most of his contemporaries, was
fond of Browning. Landor, who could hardly conduct an ordinary
business interview without beginning to break the furniture, was fond
of Browning. These are things which speak more for a man than many
people will understand. It is easy enough to be agreeable to a circle
of admirers, especially feminine admirers, who have a peculiar talent
for discipleship and the absorption of ideas. But when a man is loved
by other men of his own intellectual stature and of a wholly different
type and order of eminence, we may be certain that there was something
genuine about him, and something far more important than anything
intellectual. Men do not like another man because he is a genius,
least of all when they happen to be geniuses themselves. This general
truth about Browning is like hearing of a woman who is the most famous
beauty in a city, and who is at the same time adored and confided in
by all the women who live there.

Browning came to the rescue of the fiery old gentleman, and helped by
Seymour Kirkup put him under very definite obligations by a course of
very generous conduct. He was fully repaid in his own mind for his
trouble by the mere presence and friendship of Landor, for whose
quaint and volcanic personality he had a vast admiration, compounded
of the pleasure of the artist in an oddity and of the man in a hero.
It is somewhat amusing and characteristic that Mrs. Browning did not
share this unlimited enjoyment of the company of Mr. Landor, and
expressed her feelings in her own humorous manner. She writes, "Dear,
darling Robert amuses me by talking of his gentleness and sweetness. A
most courteous and refined gentleman he is, of course, and very
affectionate to Robert (as he ought to be), but of self-restraint he
has not a grain, and of suspicion many grains. What do you really say
to dashing down a plate on the floor when you don't like what's on it?
Robert succeeded in soothing him, and the poor old lion is very quiet
on the whole, roaring softly to beguile the time in Latin alcaics
against his wife and Louis Napoleon."

One event alone could really end this endless life of the Italian
Arcadia. That event happened on June 29, 1861. Robert Browning's wife
died, stricken by the death of her sister, and almost as hard (it is a
characteristic touch) by the death of Cavour. She died alone in the
room with Browning, and of what passed then, though much has been
said, little should be. He, closing the door of that room behind him,
closed a door in himself, and none ever saw Browning upon earth again
but only a splendid surface.

 

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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