M. Joseph Milsand--His close Friendship with Mr. Browning; Mrs.
Browning's Impression of him--New Edition of Mr. Browning's
Poems--'Christmas Eve and Easter Day'--'Essay' on Shelley--Summer in
London--Dante Gabriel Rossetti--Florence; secluded Life--Letters from
Mr. and Mrs. Browning--'Colombe's Birthday'--Baths of Lucca--Mrs.
Browning's Letters--Winter in Rome--Mr. and Mrs. Story--Mrs.
Sartoris--Mrs. Fanny Kemble--Summer in London--Tennyson--Ruskin.
It was during this winter in Paris that Mr. Browning became acquainted
with M. Joseph Milsand, the second Frenchman with whom he was to be
united by ties of deep friendship and affection. M. Milsand was at that
time, and for long afterwards, a frequent contributor to the 'Revue
des Deux Mondes'; his range of subjects being enlarged by his, for
a Frenchman, exceptional knowledge of English life, language, and
literature. He wrote an article on Quakerism, which was much approved by
Mr. William Forster, and a little volume on Ruskin called 'L'Esthetique
Anglaise', which was published in the 'Bibliotheque de Philosophie
Contemporaine'.* Shortly before the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Browning
in Paris, he had accidentally seen an extract from 'Paracelsus'. This
struck him so much that he procured the two volumes of the works and
'Christmas Eve', and discussed the whole in the 'Revue' as the second
part of an essay entitled 'La Poesie Anglaise depuis Byron'. Mr.
Browning saw the article, and was naturally touched at finding his poems
the object of serious study in a foreign country, while still so little
regarded in his own. It was no less natural that this should lead to
a friendship which, the opening once given, would have grown up
unassisted, at least on Mr. Browning's side; for M. Milsand united the
qualities of a critical intellect with a tenderness, a loyalty, and a
simplicity of nature seldom found in combination with them.
* He published also an admirable little work on the
requirements of secondary education in France, equally
applicable in many respects to any country and to any time.
The introduction was brought about by the daughter of William Browning,
Mrs. Jebb-Dyke, or more directly by Mr. and Mrs. Fraser Corkran, who
were among the earliest friends of the Browning family in Paris. M.
Milsand was soon an 'habitue' of Mr. Browning's house, as somewhat later
of that of his father and sister; and when, many years afterwards, Miss
Browning had taken up her abode in England, he spent some weeks of the
early summer in Warwick Crescent, whenever his home duties or personal
occupations allowed him to do so. Several times also the poet and his
sister joined him at Saint-Aubin, the seaside village in Normandy which
was his special resort, and where they enjoyed the good offices of
Madame Milsand, a home-staying, genuine French wife and mother, well
acquainted with the resources of its very primitive life. M. Milsand
died, in 1886, of apoplexy, the consequence, I believe, of heart-disease
brought on by excessive cold-bathing. The first reprint of 'Sordello',
in 1863, had been, as is well known, dedicated to him. The 'Parleyings',
published within a year of his death, were inscribed to his memory. Mr.
Browning's affection for him finds utterance in a few strong words which
I shall have occasion to quote. An undated fragment concerning him from
Mrs. Browning to her sister-in-law, points to a later date than the
present, but may as well be inserted here.
'. . . I quite love M. Milsand for being interested in Penini. What a
perfect creature he is, to be sure! He always stands in the top place
among our gods--Give him my cordial regards, always, mind. . . .
He wants, I think--the only want of that noble nature--the sense of
spiritual relation; and also he puts under his feet too much the worth
of impulse and passion, in considering the powers of human nature. For
the rest, I don't know such a man. He has intellectual conscience--or
say--the conscience of the intellect, in a higher degree than I ever
saw in any man of any country--and this is no less Robert's belief than
mine. When we hear the brilliant talkers and noisy thinkers here and
there and everywhere, we go back to Milsand with a real reverence. Also,
I never shall forget his delicacy to me personally, nor his tenderness
of heart about my child. . . .'
The criticism was inevitable from the point of view of Mrs. Browning's
nature and experience; but I think she would have revoked part of it if
she had known M. Milsand in later years. He would never have agreed with
her as to the authority of 'impulse and passion', but I am sure he did
not underrate their importance as factors in human life.
M. Milsand was one of the few readers of Browning with whom I have
talked about him, who had studied his work from the beginning, and had
realized the ambition of his first imaginative flights. He was
more perplexed by the poet's utterance in later years. 'Quel homme
extraordinaire!' he once said to me; 'son centre n'est pas au milieu.'
The usual criticism would have been that, while his own centre was in
the middle, he did not seek it in the middle for the things of which
he wrote; but I remember that, at the moment in which the words were
spoken, they impressed me as full of penetration. Mr. Browning had so
much confidence in M. Milsand's linguistic powers that he invariably
sent him his proof-sheets for final revision, and was exceedingly
pleased with such few corrections as his friend was able to suggest.
With the name of Milsand connects itself in the poet's life that of a
younger, but very genuine friend of both, M. Gustave Dourlans: a man of
fine critical and intellectual powers, unfortunately neutralized by bad
health. M. Dourlans also became a visitor at Warwick Crescent, and a
frequent correspondent of Mr. or rather of Miss Browning. He came from
Paris once more, to witness the last sad scene in Westminster Abbey.
The first three years of Mr. Browning's married life had been
unproductive from a literary point of view. The realization and
enjoyment of the new companionship, the duties as well as interests
of the dual existence, and, lastly, the shock and pain of his mother's
death, had absorbed his mental energies for the time being. But by the
close of 1848 he had prepared for publication in the following year a
new edition of 'Paracelsus' and the 'Bells and Pomegranates' poems. The
reprint was in two volumes, and the publishers were Messrs. Chapman and
Hall; the system, maintained through Mr. Moxon, of publication at the
author's expense, being abandoned by Mr. Browning when he left home.
Mrs. Browning writes of him on this occasion that he is paying 'peculiar
attention to the objections made against certain obscurities.' He
himself prefaced the edition by these words: 'Many of these pieces were
out of print, the rest had been withdrawn from circulation, when the
corrected edition, now submitted to the reader, was prepared. The
various Poems and Dramas have received the author's most careful
revision. December 1848.'
In 1850, in Florence, he wrote 'Christmas Eve and Easter Day'; and
in December 1851, in Paris, the essay on Shelley, to be prefixed to
twenty-five supposed letters of that poet, published by Moxon in 1852.*
* They were discovered, not long afterwards, to be spurious,
and the book suppressed.
The reading of this Essay might serve to correct the frequent
misapprehension of Mr. Browning's religious views which has been
based on the literal evidence of 'Christmas Eve', were it not that its
companion poem has failed to do so; though the tendency of 'Easter Day'
is as different from that of its precursor as their common Christianity
admits. The balance of argument in 'Christmas Eve' is in favour of
direct revelation of religious truth and prosaic certainty regarding it;
while the 'Easter Day' vision makes a tentative and unresting attitude
the first condition of the religious life; and if Mr. Browning has meant
to say--as he so often did say--that religious certainties are required
for the undeveloped mind, but that the growing religious intelligence
walks best by a receding light, he denies the positive basis of
Christian belief, and is no more orthodox in the one set of reflections
than in the other. The spirit, however, of both poems is ascetic: for
the first divorces religious worship from every appeal to the poetic
sense; the second refuses to recognize, in poetry or art, or the
attainments of the intellect, or even in the best human love, any
practical correspondence with religion. The dissertation on Shelley is,
what 'Sordello' was, what its author's treatment of poets and poetry
always must be--an indirect vindication of the conceptions of human life
which 'Christmas Eve and Easter Day' condemns. This double poem stands
indeed so much alone in Mr. Browning's work that we are tempted to ask
ourselves to what circumstance or impulse, external or internal, it has
been due; and we can only conjecture that the prolonged communion with
a mind so spiritual as that of his wife, the special sympathies and
differences which were elicited by it, may have quickened his religious
imagination, while directing it towards doctrinal or controversial
issues which it had not previously embraced.
The 'Essay' is a tribute to the genius of Shelley; it is also a
justification of his life and character, as the balance of evidence then
presented them to Mr. Browning's mind. It rests on a definition of the
respective qualities of the objective and the subjective poet. . . .
While both, he says, are gifted with the fuller perception of nature and
man, the one endeavours to
'reproduce things external (whether the phenomena of the scenic
universe, or the manifested action of the human heart and brain) with an
immediate reference, in every case, to the common eye and apprehension
of his fellow-men, assumed capable of receiving and profiting by this
reproduction'--the other 'is impelled to embody the thing he perceives,
not so much with reference to the many below, as to the One above him,
the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute
truth,--an ultimate view ever aspired to, if but partially attained, by
the poet's own soul. Not what man sees, but what God sees--the 'Ideas'
of Plato, seeds of creation lying burningly on the Divine Hand--it is
toward these that he struggles. Not with the combination of humanity in
action, but with the primal elements of humanity he has to do; and he
digs where he stands,--preferring to seek them in his own soul as the
nearest reflex of that absolute Mind, according to the intuitions of
which he desires to perceive and speak.'
The objective poet is therefore a fashioner, the subjective is best
described as a seer. The distinction repeats itself in the interest with
which we study their respective lives. We are glad of the biography of
the objective poet because it reveals to us the power by which he works;
we desire still more that of the subjective poet, because it presents us
with another aspect of the work itself. The poetry of such a one is an
effluence much more than a production; it is
'the very radiance and aroma of his personality, projected from it but
not separated. Therefore, in our approach to the poetry, we necessarily
approach the personality of the poet; in apprehending it we apprehend
him, and certainly we cannot love it without loving him.'
The reason of Mr. Browning's prolonged and instinctive reverence
for Shelley is thus set forth in the opening pages of the Essay: he
recognized in his writings the quality of a 'subjective' poet; hence, as
he understands the word, the evidence of a divinely inspired man.
Mr. Browning goes on to say that we need the recorded life in order
quite to determine to which class of inspiration a given work belongs;
and though he regards the work of Shelley as carrying its warrant within
itself, his position leaves ample room for a withdrawal of faith, a
reversal of judgment, if the ascertained facts of the poet's life should
at any future time bear decided witness against him. He is also careful
to avoid drawing too hard and fast a line between the two opposite kinds
of poet. He admits that a pure instance of either is seldom to be found;
he sees no reason why
'these two modes of poetic faculty may not issue hereafter from the same
poet in successive perfect works. . . . A mere running-in of the one
faculty upon the other' being, meanwhile, 'the ordinary circumstance.'
I venture, however, to think, that in his various and necessary
concessions, he lets slip the main point; and for the simple reason that
it is untenable. The terms 'subjective' and 'objective' denote a real
and very important difference on the ground of judgment, but one
which tends more and more to efface itself in the sphere of the higher
creative imagination. Mr. Browning might as briefly, and I think more
fully, have expressed the salient quality of his poet, even while he
could describe it in these emphatic words:
'I pass at once, therefore, from Shelley's minor excellencies to his
noblest and predominating characteristic.
'This I call his simultaneous perception of Power and Love in the
absolute, and of Beauty and Good in the concrete, while he throws, from
his poet's station between both, swifter, subtler, and more numerous
films for the connexion of each with each, than have been thrown by any
modern artificer of whom I have knowledge . . . I would rather consider
Shelley's poetry as a sublime fragmentary essay towards a presentment
of the correspondency of the universe to Deity, of the natural to the
spiritual, and of the actual to the ideal than . . .'
This essay has, in common with the poems of the preceding years, the
one quality of a largely religious and, in a certain sense, Christian
spirit, and in this respect it falls naturally into the general series
of its author's works. The assertion of Platonic ideas suggests,
however, a mood of spiritual thought for which the reference in
'Pauline' has been our only, and a scarcely sufficient preparation; nor
could the most definite theism to be extracted from Platonic beliefs
ever satisfy the human aspirations which, in a nature like that of
Robert Browning, culminate in the idea of God. The metaphysical aspect
of the poet's genius here distinctly reappears for the first time since
'Sordello', and also for the last. It becomes merged in the simpler
forms of the religious imagination.
The justification of the man Shelley, to which great part of the Essay
is devoted, contains little that would seem new to his more recent
apologists; little also which to the writer's later judgments continued
to recommend itself as true. It was as a great poetic artist, not as a
great poet, that the author of 'Prometheus' and 'The Cenci', of 'Julian
and Maddalo', and 'Epipsychidion' was finally to rank in Mr. Browning's
mind. The whole remains nevertheless a memorial of a very touching
affection; and whatever intrinsic value the Essay may possess, its main
interest must always be biographical. Its motive and inspiration are set
forth in the closing lines:
'It is because I have long held these opinions in assurance and
gratitude, that I catch at the opportunity offered to me of expressing
them here; knowing that the alacrity to fulfil an humble office conveys
more love than the acceptance of the honour of a higher one, and that
better, therefore, than the signal service it was the dream of my
boyhood to render to his fame and memory, may be the saying of a few,
inadequate words upon these scarcely more important supplementary
letters of _Shelley_.'
If Mr. Browning had seen reason to doubt the genuineness of the letters
in question, his Introduction could not have been written. That, while
receiving them as genuine, he thought them unimportant, gave it, as he
justly discerned, its full significance.
Mr. and Mrs. Browning returned to London for the summer of 1852, and we
have a glimpse of them there in a letter from Mr. Fox to his daughter.
July 16, '52.
'. . . I had a charming hour with the Brownings yesterday; more
fascinated with her than ever. She talked lots of George Sand, and so
beautifully. Moreover she silver-electroplated Louis Napoleon!! They are
lodging at 58 Welbeck Street; the house has a queer name on the door,
and belongs to some Belgian family.
'They came in late one night, and R. B. says that in the morning
twilight he saw three portraits on the bedroom wall, and speculated who
they might be. Light gradually showed the first, 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, but your sketch (engraved
chalk portrait) of me? He made quite a poem and picture of the affair.
'She seems much better; did not put her hand before her mouth, which I
took as a compliment: and the young Florentine was gracious . . .'
It need hardly be said that this valued friend was one of the first whom
Mr. Browning introduced to his wife, and that she responded with ready
warmth to his claims on her gratitude and regard. More than one joint
letter from herself and her husband commemorates this new phase of the
intimacy; one especially interesting was written from Florence in 1858,
in answer to the announcement by Mr. Fox of his election for Oldham; and
Mr. Browning's contribution, which is very characteristic, will appear
in due course.
Either this or the preceding summer brought Mr. Browning for the first
time into personal contact with an early lover of his works: Mr. D.
G. Rossetti. They had exchanged letters a year or two before, on the
subject of 'Pauline', which Rossetti (as I have already mentioned) had
read in ignorance of its origin, but with the conviction that only the
author of 'Paracelsus' could have produced it. He wrote to Mr. Browning
to ascertain the fact, and to tell him he had admired the poem so much
as to transcribe it whole from the British Museum copy. He now called
on him with Mr. William Allingham; and doubly recommended himself to the
poet's interest by telling him that he was a painter. When Mr. Browning
was again in London, in 1855, Rossetti began painting his portrait,
which he finished in Paris in the ensuing winter.
The winter of 1852-3 saw the family once more in Florence, and at Casa
Guidi, where the routine of quiet days was resumed. Mrs. Browning
has spoken in more than one of her letters of the comparative social
seclusion in which she and her husband had elected to live. This
seclusion was much modified in later years, and many well-known English
and American names become associated with their daily life. It referred
indeed almost entirely to their residence in Florence, where they found
less inducement to enter into society than in London, Paris, and Rome.
But it is on record that during the fifteen years of his married life,
Mr. Browning never dined away from home, except on one occasion--an
exception proving the rule; and we cannot therefore be surprised that
he should subsequently have carried into the experience of an unshackled
and very interesting social intercourse, a kind of freshness which a man
of fifty has not generally preserved.
The one excitement which presented itself in the early months of 1853
was the production of 'Colombe's Birthday'. The first allusion to this
comes to us in a letter from the poet to Lady, then Mrs. Theodore,
Martin, from which I quote a few passages.
Florence: Jan. 31, '53.
'My dear Mrs. Martin,--. . . be assured that I, for my part, have
been in no danger of forgetting my promises any more than your
performances--which were admirable of all kinds. I shall be delighted if
you can do anything for "Colombe"--do what you think best with it, and
for me--it will be pleasant to be in such hands--only, pray follow
the corrections in the last edition--(Chapman and Hall will give you a
copy)--as they are important to the sense. As for the condensation into
three acts--I shall leave that, and all cuttings and the like, to your
own judgment--and, come what will, I shall have to be grateful to you,
as before. For the rest, you will play the part to heart's content, I
_know_. . . . And how good it will be to see you again, and make my wife
see you too--she who "never saw a great actress" she says--unless it was
Dejazet! . . .'
Mrs. Browning writes about the performance, April 12:
'. . . I am beginning to be anxious about 'Colombe's Birthday'. I care
much more about it than Robert does. He says that no one will mistake it
for his speculation; it's Mr. Buckstone's affair altogether. True--but I
should like it to succeed, being Robert's play, notwithstanding. But the
play is subtle and refined for pits and galleries. I am nervous about
it. On the other hand, those theatrical people ought to know,--and what
in the world made them select it, if it is not likely to answer their
purpose? By the way, a dreadful rumour reaches us of its having been
"prepared for the stage by the author." Don't believe a word of it.
Robert just said "yes" when they wrote to ask him, and not a line
of communication has passed since. He has prepared nothing at all,
suggested nothing, modified nothing. He referred them to his new
edition, and that was the whole. . . .'
She communicates the result in May:
'. . . Yes, Robert's play succeeded, but there could be no "run" for a
play of that kind. It was a "succes d'estime" and something more, which
is surprising perhaps, considering the miserable acting of the men. Miss
Faucit was alone in doing us justice. . . .'
Mrs. Browning did see 'Miss Faucit' on her next visit to England. She
agreeably surprised that lady by presenting herself alone, one morning,
at her house, and remaining with her for an hour and a half. The only
person who had 'done justice' to 'Colombe' besides contributing to
whatever success her husband's earlier plays had obtained, was much more
than 'a great actress' to Mrs. Browning's mind; and we may imagine
it would have gone hard with her before she renounced the pleasure of
making her acquaintance.
Two letters, dated from the Baths of Lucca, July 15 and August 20, '53,
tell how and where the ensuing summer was passed, besides introducing
us, for the first time, to Mr. and Mrs. William Story, between whose
family and that of Mr. Browning so friendly an intimacy was ever
afterwards to subsist.
'. . . We have taken a villa at the Baths of Lucca after a little
holy fear of the company there--but the scenery, and the coolness, and
convenience altogether prevail, and we have taken our villa for three
months or rather more, and go to it next week with a stiff resolve of
not calling nor being called upon. You remember perhaps that we were
there four years ago just after the birth of our child. The mountains
are wonderful in beauty, and we mean to buy our holiday by doing some
'Oh yes! I confess to loving Florence, and to having associated with it
the idea of home. . . .'
Casa Tolomei, Alta Villa, Bagni di Lucca: Aug. 20.
'. . . We are enjoying the mountains here--riding the donkeys in the
footsteps of the sheep, and eating strawberries and milk by basinsful.
The strawberries succeed one another throughout the summer, through
growing on different aspects of the hills. If a tree is felled in
the forests, strawberries spring up, just as mushrooms might, and the
peasants sell them for just nothing. . . . Then our friends Mr. and
Mrs. Story help the mountains to please us a good deal. He is the son of
Judge Story, the biographer of his father, and for himself, sculptor and
poet--and she a sympathetic graceful woman, fresh and innocent in
face and thought. We go backwards and forwards to tea and talk at one
'. . . Since I began this letter we have had a grand donkey excursion to
a village called Benabbia, and the cross above it on the mountain-peak.
We returned in the dark, and were in some danger of tumbling down
various precipices--but the scenery was exquisite--past speaking of for
beauty. Oh, those jagged mountains, rolled together like pre-Adamite
beasts and setting their teeth against the sky--it was wonderful. . . .'
Mr. Browning's share of the work referred to was 'In a Balcony'; also,
probably, some of the 'Men and Women'; the scene of the declaration in
'By the Fireside' was laid in a little adjacent mountain-gorge to which
he walked or rode. A fortnight's visit from Mr., now Lord, Lytton, was
also an incident of this summer.
The next three letters from which I am able to quote, describe the
impressions of Mrs. Browning's first winter in Rome.
Rome: 43 Via Bocca di Leone, 30 piano. Jan. 18, 54.
'. . . Well, we are all well to begin with--and have been well--our
troubles came to us through sympathy entirely. A most exquisite journey
of eight days we had from Florence to Rome, seeing the great monastery
and triple church of Assisi and the wonderful Terni by the way--that
passion of the waters which makes the human heart seem so still. In the
highest spirits we entered Rome, Robert and Penini singing actually--for
the child was radiant and flushed with the continual change of air and
scene. . . . You remember my telling you of our friends the Storys--how
they and their two children helped to make the summer go pleasantly at
the Baths of Lucca. They had taken an apartment for us in Rome, so that
we arrived in comfort to lighted fires and lamps as if coming home,--and
we had a glimpse of their smiling faces that evening. In the morning
before breakfast, little Edith was brought over to us by the manservant
with a message, "the boy was in convulsions--there was danger." We
hurried to the house, of course, leaving Edith with Wilson. Too true!
All that first day we spent beside a death-bed; for the child never
rallied--never opened his eyes in consciousness--and by eight in the
evening he was gone. In the meanwhile, Edith was taken ill at our
house--could not be moved, said the physicians . . . gastric fever,
with a tendency to the brain--and within two days her life was almost
despaired of--exactly the same malady as her brother's. . . . Also the
English nurse was apparently dying at the Story's house, and Emma Page,
the artist's youngest daughter, sickened with the same disease.
'. . . To pass over the dreary time, I will tell you at once that the
three patients recovered--only in poor little Edith's case Roman
fever followed the gastric, and has persisted ever since in periodical
recurrence. She is very pale and thin. Roman fever is not dangerous to
life, but it is exhausting. . . . Now you will understand what ghostly
flakes of death have changed the sense of Rome to me. The first day by
a death-bed, the first drive-out, to the cemetery, where poor little Joe
is laid close to Shelley's heart ("Cor cordium" says the epitaph)
and where the mother insisted on going when she and I went out in the
carriage together--I am horribly weak about such things--I can't look
on the earth-side of death--I flinch from corpses and graves, and never
meet a common funeral without a sort of horror. When I look deathwards
I look _over_ death, and upwards, or I can't look that way at all. So that
it was a struggle with me to sit upright in that carriage in which the
poor stricken mother sat so calmly--not to drop from the seat. Well--all
this has blackened Rome to me. I can't think about the Caesars in the
old strain of thought--the antique words get muddled and blurred with
warm dashes of modern, everyday tears and fresh grave-clay. Rome
is spoilt to me--there's the truth. Still, one lives through one's
associations when not too strong, and I have arrived at almost enjoying
some things--the climate, for instance, which, though pernicious to the
general health, agrees particularly with me, and the sight of the blue
sky floating like a sea-tide through the great gaps and rifts of ruins.
. . . We are very comfortably settled in rooms turned to the sun, and do
work and play by turns, having almost too many visitors, hear excellent
music at Mrs. Sartoris's (A. K.) once or twice a week, and have Fanny
Kemble to come and talk to us with the doors shut, we three together.
This is pleasant. I like her decidedly.
'If anybody wants small talk by handfuls, of glittering dust swept out
of salons, here's Mr. Thackeray besides! . . .'
Rome: March 29.
'. . . We see a good deal of the Kembles here, and like them both,
especially Fanny, who is looking magnificent still, with her black hair
and radiant smile. A very noble creature indeed. Somewhat unelastic,
unpliant to the age, attached to the old modes of thought and
convention--but noble in qualities and defects. I like her much. She
thinks me credulous and full of dreams--but does not despise me for
that reason--which is good and tolerant of her, and pleasant too, for I
should not be quite easy under her contempt. Mrs. Sartoris is genial and
generous--her milk has had time to stand to cream in her happy family
relations, which poor Fanny Kemble's has not had. Mrs. Sartoris' house
has the best society in Rome--and exquisite music of course. We met
Lockhart there, and my husband sees a good deal of him--more than I
do--because of the access of cold weather lately which has kept me at
home chiefly. Robert went down to the seaside, on a day's excursion with
him and the Sartorises--and I hear found favour in his sight. Said the
critic, "I like Browning--he isn't at all like a damned literary man."
That's a compliment, I believe, according to your dictionary. It made me
laugh and think of you directly. . . . Robert has been sitting for his
picture to Mr. Fisher, the English artist who painted Mr. Kenyon and
Landor. You remember those pictures in Mr. Kenyon's house in London.
Well, he has painted Robert's, and it is an admirable likeness. The
expression is an exceptional expression, but highly characteristic. . . .'
'. . . To leave Rome will fill me with barbarian complacency. I don't
pretend to have a ray of sentiment about Rome. It's a palimpsest Rome, a
watering-place written over the antique, and I haven't taken to it as a
poet should I suppose. And let us speak the truth above all things. I
am strongly a creature of association, and the associations of the place
have not been personally favourable to me. Among the rest, my child, the
light of my eyes, has been more unwell than I ever saw him. . . .
The pleasantest days in Rome we have spent with the Kembles, the two
sisters, who are charming and excellent both of them, in different ways,
and certainly they have given us some excellent hours in the Campagna,
upon picnic excursions--they, and certain of their friends; for
instance, M. Ampere, the member of the French Institute, who is witty
and agreeable, M. Goltz, the Austrian minister, who is an agreeable
man, and Mr. Lyons, the son of Sir Edmund, &c. The talk was almost too
brilliant for the sentiment of the scenery, but it harmonized entirely
with the mayonnaise and champagne. . . .'
It must have been on one of the excursions here described that an
incident took place, which Mr. Browning relates with characteristic
comments in a letter to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, of July 15, 1882. The picnic
party had strolled away to some distant spot. Mrs. Browning was not
strong enough to join them, and her husband, as a matter of course,
stayed with her; which act of consideration prompted Mrs. Kemble to
exclaim that he was the only man she had ever known who behaved like a
Christian to his wife. She was, when he wrote this letter, reading his
works for the first time, and had expressed admiration for them; but, he
continued, none of the kind things she said to him on that subject could
move him as did those words in the Campagna. Mrs. Kemble would have
modified her statement in later years, for the sake of one English and
one American husband now closely related to her. Even then, perhaps, she
did not make it without inward reserve. But she will forgive me, I am
sure, for having repeated it.
Mr. Browning also refers to her Memoirs, which he had just read, and
says: 'I saw her in those [I conclude earlier] days much oftener than
is set down, but she scarcely noticed me; though I always liked her
Another of Mrs. Browning's letters is written from Florence, June 6
'. . . We mean to stay at Florence a week or two longer and then go
northward. I love Florence--the place looks exquisitely beautiful in
its garden ground of vineyards and olive trees, sung round by the
nightingales day and night. . . . If you take one thing with another,
there is no place in the world like Florence, I am persuaded, for a
place to live in--cheap, tranquil, cheerful, beautiful, within the
limits of civilization yet out of the crush of it. . . . We have spent
two delicious evenings at villas outside the gates, one with young
Lytton, Sir Edward's son, of whom I have told you, I think. I like him
. . . we both do . . . from the bottom of our hearts. Then, our friend,
Frederick Tennyson, the new poet, we are delighted to see again.
. . . . .
'. . . Mrs. Sartoris has been here on her way to Rome, spending most of
her time with us . . . singing passionately and talking eloquently. She
is really charming. . . .'
I have no record of that northward journey or of the experiences of the
winter of 1854-5. In all probability Mr. and Mrs. Browning remained in,
or as near as possible to, Florence, since their income was still too
limited for continuous travelling. They possibly talked of going to
England, but postponed it till the following year; we know that they
went there in 1855, taking his sister with them as they passed through
Paris. They did not this time take lodgings for the summer months,
but hired a house at 13 Dorset Street, Portman Square; and there, on
September 27, Tennyson read his new poem, 'Maud', to Mrs. Browning,
while Rossetti, the only other person present besides the family,
privately drew his likeness in pen and ink. The likeness has become well
known; the unconscious sitter must also, by this time, be acquainted
with it; but Miss Browning thinks no one except herself, who was near
Rossetti at the table, was at the moment aware of its being made. All
eyes must have been turned towards Tennyson, seated by his hostess on
the sofa. Miss Arabel Barrett was also of the party.
Some interesting words of Mrs. Browning's carry their date in the
allusion to Mr. Ruskin; but I cannot ascertain it more precisely:
'We went to Denmark Hill yesterday to have luncheon with them, and see
the Turners, which, by the way, are divine. I like Mr. Ruskin much, and
so does Robert. Very gentle, yet earnest,--refined and truthful. I like
him very much. We count him one among the valuable acquaintances made
this year in England.'