'Men and Women'--'Karshook'--'Two in the Campagna'--Winter in
Paris; Lady Elgin--'Aurora Leigh'--Death of Mr. Kenyon and Mr.
Barrett--Penini--Mrs. Browning's Letters to Miss Browning--The
Florentine Carnival--Baths of Lucca--Spiritualism--Mr. Kirkup; Count
Ginnasi--Letter from Mr. Browning to Mr. Fox--Havre.
The beautiful 'One Word More' was dated from London in September; and
the fifty poems gathered together under the title of 'Men and Women'
were published before the close of the year, in two volumes, by Messrs.
Chapman and Hall.* They are all familiar friends to Mr. Browning's
readers, in their first arrangement and appearance, as in later
redistributions and reprints; but one curious little fact concerning
them is perhaps not generally known. In the eighth line of the
fourteenth section of 'One Word More' they were made to include
'Karshook (Ben Karshook's Wisdom)', which never was placed amongst them.
It was written in April 1854; and the dedication of the volume must have
been, as it so easily might be, in existence, before the author decided
to omit it. The wrong name, once given, was retained, I have no doubt,
from preference for its terminal sound; and 'Karshook' only became
'Karshish' in the Tauchnitz copy of 1872, and in the English edition of
* The date is given in the edition of 1868 as London 185-;
in the Tauchnitz selection of 1872, London and Florence 184-
and 185-; in the new English edition 184-and 185-.
'Karshook' appeared in 1856 in 'The Keepsake', edited by Miss Power;
but, as we are told on good authority, has been printed in no edition or
selection of the Poet's works. I am therefore justified in inserting it
'Would a man 'scape the rod?'
Rabbi Ben Karshook saith,
'See that he turn to God
The day before his death.'
'Ay, could a man inquire
When it shall come!' I say.
The Rabbi's eye shoots fire--
'Then let him turn to-day!'
Quoth a young Sadducee:
'Reader of many rolls,
Is it so certain we
Have, as they tell us, souls?'
'Son, there is no reply!'
The Rabbi bit his beard:
'Certain, a soul have _I_--
_We_ may have none,' he sneer'd.
Thus Karshook, the Hiram's-Hammer,
The Right-hand Temple-column,
Taught babes in grace their grammar,
And struck the simple, solemn.
Among this first collection of 'Men and Women' was the poem called
'Two in the Campagna'. It is a vivid, yet enigmatical little study of a
restless spirit tantalized by glimpses of repose in love, saddened and
perplexed by the manner in which this eludes it. Nothing that should
impress one as more purely dramatic ever fell from Mr. Browning's
pen. We are told, nevertheless, in Mr. Sharp's 'Life', that a personal
character no less actual than that of the 'Guardian Angel' has been
claimed for it. The writer, with characteristic delicacy, evades all
discussion of the question; but he concedes a great deal in his manner
of doing so. The poem, he says, conveys a sense of that necessary
isolation of the individual soul which resists the fusing power of
the deepest love; and its meaning cannot be personally--because it is
universally--true. I do not think Mr. Browning meant to emphasize this
aspect of the mystery of individual life, though the poem, in a certain
sense, expresses it. We have no reason to believe that he ever accepted
it as constant; and in no case could he have intended to refer its
conditions to himself. He was often isolated by the processes of his
mind; but there was in him no barrier to that larger emotional sympathy
which we think of as sympathy of the soul. If this poem were true, 'One
Word More' would be false, quite otherwise than in that approach to
exaggeration which is incidental to the poetic form. The true keynote
of 'Two in the Campagna' is the pain of perpetual change, and of the
conscious, though unexplained, predestination to it. Mr. Browning could
have still less in common with such a state, since one of the qualities
for which he was most conspicuous was the enormous power of anchorage
which his affections possessed. Only length of time and variety of
experience could fully test this power or fully display it; but the
signs of it had not been absent from even his earliest life. He loved
fewer people in youth than in advancing age: nature and circumstance
combined to widen the range, and vary the character of his human
interests; but where once love or friendship had struck a root, only a
moral convulsion could avail to dislodge it. I make no deduction from
this statement when I admit that the last and most emphatic words of the
poem in question,
Only I discern--
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn,
did probably come from the poet's heart, as they also found a deep echo
in that of his wife, who much loved them.
From London they returned to Paris for the winter of 1855-6. The younger
of the Kemble sisters, Mrs. Sartoris, was also there with her family;
and the pleasant meetings of the Campagna renewed themselves for Mr.
Browning, though in a different form. He was also, with his sister,
a constant visitor at Lady Elgin's. Both they and Mrs. Browning were
greatly attached to her, and she warmly reciprocated the feeling. As Mr.
Locker's letter has told us, Mr. Browning was in the habit of reading
poetry to her, and when his sister had to announce his arrival from
Italy or England, she would say: 'Robert is coming to nurse you, and
read to you.' Lady Elgin was by this time almost completely paralyzed.
She had lost the power of speech, and could only acknowledge the little
attentions which were paid to her by some graceful pathetic gesture of
the left hand; but she retained her sensibilities to the last; and Miss
Browning received on one occasion a serious lesson in the risk of ever
assuming that the appearance of unconsciousness guarantees its reality.
Lady Augusta Bruce had asked her, in her mother's presence, how Mrs.
Browning was; and, imagining that Lady Elgin was unable to hear or
understand, she had answered with incautious distinctness, 'I am afraid
she is very ill,' when a little sob from the invalid warned her of her
mistake. Lady Augusta quickly repaired it by rejoining, 'but she is
better than she was, is she not?' Miss Browning of course assented.
There were other friends, old and new, whom Mr. Browning occasionally
saw, including, I need hardly say, the celebrated Madame Mohl. In the
main, however, he led a quiet life, putting aside many inducements to
leave his home.
Mrs. Browning was then writing 'Aurora Leigh', and her husband must have
been more than ever impressed by her power of work, as displayed by her
manner of working. To him, as to most creative writers, perfect quiet
was indispensable to literary production. She wrote in pencil, on
scraps of paper, as she lay on the sofa in her sitting-room, open to
interruption from chance visitors, or from her little omnipresent son;
simply hiding the paper beside her if anyone came in, and taking it
up again when she was free. And if this process was conceivable in the
large, comparatively silent spaces of their Italian home, and amidst
habits of life which reserved social intercourse for the close of the
working day, it baffles belief when one thinks of it as carried on
in the conditions of a Parisian winter, and the little 'salon' of the
apartment in the Rue du Colisee in which those months were spent. The
poem was completed in the ensuing summer, in Mr. Kenyon's London house,
and dedicated, October 17, in deeply pathetic words to that faithful
friend, whom the writer was never to see again.
The news of his death, which took place in December 1856, reached Mr.
and Mrs. Browning in Florence, to be followed in the spring by that of
Mrs. Browning's father. Husband and wife had both determined to forego
any pecuniary benefit which might accrue to them from this event; but
they were not called upon to exercise their powers of renunciation. By
Mr. Kenyon's will they were the richer, as is now, I think, generally
known, the one by six thousand, the other by four thousand guineas.* Of
that cousin's long kindness Mrs. Browning could scarcely in after-days
trust herself to speak. It was difficult to her, she said, even to write
his name without tears.
* Mr. Kenyon had considerable wealth, derived, like Mr.
Barrett's, from West Indian estates.
I have alluded, perhaps tardily, to Mr. Browning's son, a sociable
little being who must for some time have been playing a prominent part
in his parents' lives. I saw him for the first time in this winter of
1855-6, and remember the grave expression of the little round face,
the outline of which was common, at all events in childhood, to all the
members of his mother's family, and was conspicuous in her, if we may
trust an early portrait which has recently come to light. He wore the
curling hair to which she refers in a later letter, and pretty frocks
and frills, in which she delighted to clothe him. It is on record that,
on one of the journeys of this year, a trunk was temporarily lost which
contained Peni's embroidered trousers, and the MS., whole or in part, of
'Aurora Leigh'; and that Mrs. Browning had scarcely a thought to spare
for her poem, in face of the damage to her little boy's appearance which
the accident involved.
How he came by his familiar name of Penini--hence Peni, and Pen--neither
signifies in itself, nor has much bearing on his father's family
history; but I cannot refrain from a word of comment on Mr. Hawthorne's
fantastic conjecture, which has been asserted and reasserted in
opposition to Mr. Browning's own statement of the case. According to Mr.
Hawthorne, the name was derived from Apennino, and bestowed on the child
in babyhood, because Apennino was a colossal statue, and he was so very
small. It would be strange indeed that any joke connecting 'Baby' with a
given colossal statue should have found its way into the family without
father, mother, or nurse being aware of it; or that any joke should have
been accepted there which implied that the little boy was not of normal
size. But the fact is still more unanswerable that Apennino could by no
process congenial to the Italian language be converted into Penini.
Its inevitable abbreviation would be Pennino with a distinct separate
sounding of the central n's, or Nino. The accentuation of Penini is also
During this winter in Paris, little Wiedemann, as his parents tried to
call him--his full name was Robert Wiedemann Barrett--had developed a
decided turn for blank verse. He would extemporize short poems, singing
them to his mother, who wrote them down as he sang. There is no less
proof of his having possessed a talent for music, though it first
naturally showed itself in the love of a cheerful noise. His father had
once sat down to the piano, for a serious study of some piece, when
the little boy appeared, with the evident intention of joining in the
performance. Mr. Browning rose precipitately, and was about to leave the
room. 'Oh!' exclaimed the hurt mother, 'you are going away, and he
has brought his three drums to accompany you upon.' She herself would
undoubtedly have endured the mixed melody for a little time, though her
husband did not think she seriously wished him to do so. But if he did
not play the piano to the accompaniment of Pen's drums, he played piano
duets with him as soon as the boy was old enough to take part in them;
and devoted himself to his instruction in this, as in other and more
important branches of knowledge.
Peni had also his dumb companions, as his father had had before him.
Tortoises lived at one end of the famous balcony at Casa Guidi; and
when the family were at the Baths of Lucca, Mr. Browning would stow away
little snakes in his bosom, and produce them for the child's amusement.
As the child grew into a man, the love of animals which he had inherited
became conspicuous in him; and it gave rise to many amusing and some
pathetic little episodes of his artist life. The creatures which he
gathered about him were generally, I think, more highly organized than
those which elicited his father's peculiar tenderness; it was natural
that he should exact more pictorial or more companionable qualities from
them. But father and son concurred in the fondness for snakes, and in a
singular predilection for owls; and they had not been long established
in Warwick Crescent, when a bird of that family was domesticated there.
We shall hear of it in a letter from Mr. Browning.
Of his son's moral quality as quite a little child his father has told
me pretty and very distinctive stories, but they would be out of place
* I am induced, on second thoughts, to subjoin one of these,
for its testimony to the moral atmosphere into which the
child had been born. He was sometimes allowed to play with a
little boy not of his own class--perhaps the son of a
'contadino'. The child was unobjectionable, or neither
Penini nor his parents would have endured the association;
but the servants once thought themselves justified in
treating him cavalierly, and Pen flew indignant to his
mother, to complain of their behaviour. Mrs. Browning at
once sought little Alessandro, with kind words and a large
piece of cake; but this, in Pen's eyes, only aggravated the
offence; it was a direct reflection on his visitor's
quality. 'He doesn't tome for take,' he burst forth; 'he
tomes because he is my friend.' How often, since I heard
this first, have we repeated the words, 'he doesn't tome for
take,' in half-serious definition of a disinterested person
or act! They became a standing joke.
Mrs. Browning seems now to have adopted the plan of writing independent
letters to her sister-in-law; and those available for our purpose are
especially interesting. The buoyancy of tone which has habitually
marked her communications, but which failed during the winter in Rome,
reasserts itself in the following extract. Her maternal comments on Peni
and his perfections have hitherto been so carefully excluded, that a
brief allusion to him may be allowed on the present occasion.
'My dearest Sarianna, . . . Here is Penini's letter, which takes up
so much room that I must be sparing of mine--and, by the way, if you
consider him improved in his writing, give the praise to Robert, who
has been taking most patient pains with him indeed. You will see how
the little curly head is turned with carnival doings. So gay a carnival
never was in our experience, for until last year (when we were absent)
all masks had been prohibited, and now everybody has eaten of the tree
of good and evil till not an apple is left. Peni persecuted me to let
him have a domino--with tears and embraces--he "_almost never_ in all his
life had had a domino," and he would like it so. Not a black domino!
no--he hated black--but a blue domino, trimmed with pink! that was his
taste. The pink trimming I coaxed him out of, but for the rest, I let
him have his way. . . . For my part, the universal madness reached me
sitting by the fire (whence I had not stirred for three months), and you
will open your eyes when I tell you that I went (in domino and masked)
to the great opera-ball. Yes! I did, really. Robert, who had been
invited two or three times to other people's boxes, had proposed to
return their kindness by taking a box himself at the opera this night,
and entertaining two or three friends with galantine and champagne. Just
as he and I were lamenting the impossibility of my going, on that very
morning the wind changed, the air grew soft and mild, and he maintained
that I might and should go. There was no time to get a domino of my
own (Robert himself had a beautiful one made, and I am having it
metamorphosed into a black silk gown for myself!) so I sent out and
hired one, buying the mask. And very much amused I was. I like to see
these characteristic things. (I shall never rest, Sarianna, till I risk
my reputation at the 'bal de l'opera' at Paris). Do you think I was
satisfied with staying in the box? No, indeed. Down I went, and Robert
and I elbowed our way through the crowd to the remotest corner of
the ball below. Somebody smote me on the shoulder and cried "Bella
Mascherina!" and I answered as impudently as one feels under a mask.
At two o'clock in the morning, however, I had to give up and come away
(being overcome by the heavy air) and ingloriously left Robert and
our friends to follow at half-past four. Think of the refinement and
gentleness--yes, I must call it _superiority_ of this people--when no
excess, no quarrelling, no rudeness nor coarseness can be observed in
the course of such wild masked liberty; not a touch of licence anywhere,
and perfect social equality! Our servant Ferdinando side by side in the
same ball-room with the Grand Duke, and no class's delicacy offended
against! For the Grand Duke went down into the ball-room for a short
time. . . .'
The summer of 1857 saw the family once more at the Baths of Lucca, and
again in company with Mr. Lytton. He had fallen ill at the house
of their common friend, Miss Blagden, also a visitor there; and Mr.
Browning shared in the nursing, of which she refused to entrust any part
to less friendly hands. He sat up with the invalid for four nights; and
would doubtless have done so for as many more as seemed necessary, but
that Mrs. Browning protested against this trifling with his own health.
The only serious difference which ever arose between Mr. Browning and
his wife referred to the subject of spiritualism. Mrs. Browning held
doctrines which prepared her to accept any real or imagined phenomena
betokening intercourse with the spirits of the dead; nor could she
be repelled by anything grotesque or trivial in the manner of this
intercourse, because it was no part of her belief that a spirit still
inhabiting the atmosphere of our earth, should exhibit any dignity or
solemnity not belonging to him while he lived upon it. The question must
have been discussed by them on its general grounds at a very early stage
of their intimacy; but it only assumed practical importance when Mr.
Home came to Florence in 1857 or 1858. Mr. Browning found himself
compelled to witness some of the 'manifestations'. He was keenly
alive to their generally prosaic and irreverent character, and to the
appearance of jugglery which was then involved in them. He absolutely
denied the good faith of all the persons concerned. Mrs. Browning as
absolutely believed it; and no compromise between them was attainable,
because, strangely enough, neither of them admitted as possible that
mediums or witnesses should deceive themselves. The personal aspect
which the question thus received brought it into closer and more painful
contact with their daily life. They might agree to differ as to the
abstract merits of spiritualism; but Mr. Browning could not resign
himself to his wife's trustful attitude towards some of the individuals
who at that moment represented it. He may have had no substantial fear
of her doing anything that could place her in their power, though a
vague dread of this seems to have haunted him; but he chafed against the
public association of her name with theirs. Both his love for and his
pride in her resented it.
He had subsided into a more judicial frame of mind when he wrote 'Sludge
the Medium', in which he says everything which can excuse the liar and,
what is still more remarkable, modify the lie. So far back as the autumn
of 1860 I heard him discuss the trickery which he believed himself to
have witnessed, as dispassionately as any other non-credulous person
might have done so. The experience must even before that have passed
out of the foreground of his conjugal life. He remained, nevertheless,
subject, for many years, to gusts of uncontrollable emotion which would
sweep over him whenever the question of 'spirits' or 'spiritualism' was
revived; and we can only understand this in connection with the peculiar
circumstances of the case. With all his faith in the future, with all
his constancy to the past, the memory of pain was stronger in him than
any other. A single discordant note in the harmony of that married love,
though merged in its actual existence, would send intolerable vibrations
through his remembrance of it. And the pain had not been, in this
instance, that of simple disagreement. It was complicated by Mrs.
Browning's refusal to admit that disagreement was possible. She never
believed in her husband's disbelief; and he had been not unreasonably
annoyed by her always assuming it to be feigned. But his doubt of
spiritualistic sincerity was not feigned. She cannot have thought,
and scarcely can have meant to say so. She may have meant to say, 'You
believe that these are tricks, but you know that there is something real
behind them;' and so far, if no farther, she may have been in the
right. Mr. Browning never denied the abstract possibility of spiritual
communication with either living or dead; he only denied that such
communication had ever been proved, or that any useful end could
be subserved by it. The tremendous potentialities of hypnotism and
thought-reading, now passing into the region of science, were not then
so remote but that an imagination like his must have foreshadowed them.
The natural basis of the seemingly supernatural had not yet entered into
discussion. He may, from the first, have suspected the existence of some
mysterious force, dangerous because not understood, and for this reason
doubly liable to fall into dangerous hands. And if this was so, he
would necessarily regard the whole system of manifestations with
an apprehensive hostility, which was not entire negation, but which
rebelled against any effort on the part of others, above all of those
he loved, to interpret it into assent. The pain and anger which could be
aroused in him by an indication on the part of a valued friend of even
an impartial interest in the subject points especially to the latter
He often gave an instance of the tricks played in the name of
spiritualism on credulous persons, which may amuse those who have not
yet heard it. I give the story as it survives in the fresher memory of
Mr. Val Prinsep, who also received it from Mr. Browning.
'At Florence lived a curious old savant who in his day was well known
to all who cared for art or history. I fear now few live who recollect
Kirkup. He was quite a mine of information on all kinds of forgotten
lore. It was he who discovered Giotto's portrait of Dante in the
Bargello. Speaking of some friend, he said, "He is a most ignorant
fellow! Why, he does not know how to cast a horoscope!" Of him Browning
told me the following story. Kirkup was much taken up with spiritualism,
in which he firmly believed. One day Browning called on him to borrow a
book. He rang loudly at the storey, for he knew Kirkup, like Landor,
was quite deaf. To his astonishment the door opened at once and Kirkup
'"Come in," he cried; "the spirits told me there was some one at the
door. Ah! I know you do not believe! Come and see. Mariana is in a
'Browning entered. In the middle room, full of all kinds of curious
objects of "vertu", stood a handsome peasant girl, with her eyes fixed
as though she were in a trance.
'"You see, Browning," said Kirkup, "she is quite insensible, and has no
will of her own. Mariana, hold up your arm."
'The woman slowly did as she was bid.
'"She cannot take it down till I tell her," cried Kirkup.
'"Very curious," observed Browning. "Meanwhile I have come to ask you to
lend me a book."
'Kirkup, as soon as he was made to hear what book was wanted, said he
should be delighted.
'"Wait a bit. It is in the next room."
'The old man shuffled out at the door. No sooner had he disappeared than
the woman turned to Browning, winked, and putting down her arm leaned it
on his shoulder. When Kirkup returned she resumed her position and rigid
'"Here is the book," said Kirkup. "Isn't it wonderful?" he added,
pointing to the woman.
'"Wonderful," agreed Browning as he left the room.
'The woman and her family made a good thing of poor Kirkup's
Something much more remarkable in reference to this subject happened to
the poet himself during his residence in Florence. It is related in a
letter to the 'Spectator', dated January 30, 1869, and signed J. S. K.
'Mr. Robert Browning tells me that when he was in Florence some years
since, an Italian nobleman (a Count Ginnasi of Ravenna), visiting at
Florence, was brought to his house without previous introduction, by
an intimate friend. The Count professed to have great mesmeric and
clairvoyant faculties, and declared, in reply to Mr. Browning's avowed
scepticism, that he would undertake to convince him somehow or other of
his powers. He then asked Mr. Browning whether he had anything about him
then and there, which he could hand to him, and which was in any way
a relic or memento. This Mr. Browning thought was perhaps because he
habitually wore no sort of trinket or ornament, not even a watchguard,
and might therefore turn out to be a safe challenge. But it so happened
that, by a curious accident, he was then wearing under his coat-sleeves
some gold wrist-studs which he had quite recently taken into wear, in
the absence (by mistake of a sempstress) of his ordinary wrist-buttons.
He had never before worn them in Florence or elsewhere, and had found
them in some old drawer where they had lain forgotten for years. One of
these studs he took out and handed to the Count, who held it in his hand
a while, looking earnestly in Mr. Browning's face, and then he said,
as if much impressed, "C'equalche cosa che mi grida nell' orecchio
'Uccisione! uccisione!'" ("There is something here which cries out in my
ear, 'Murder! murder!'")
'"And truly," says Mr. Browning, "those very studs were taken from
the dead body of a great uncle of mine who was violently killed on his
estate in St. Kitt's, nearly eighty years ago. . . . The occurrence of
my great uncle's murder was known only to myself of all men in Florence,
as certainly was also my possession of the studs."'
A letter from the poet, of July 21, 1883, affirms that the account is
correct in every particular, adding, 'My own explanation of the matter
has been that the shrewd Italian felt his way by the involuntary help
of my own eyes and face.' The story has been reprinted in the Reports of
the Psychical Society.
A pleasant piece of news came to brighten the January of 1858. Mr. Fox
was returned for Oldham, and at once wrote to announce the fact. He
was answered in a joint letter from Mr. and Mrs. Browning, interesting
throughout, but of which only the second part is quite suited for
Mrs. Browning, who writes first and at most length, ends by saying
she must leave a space for Robert, that Mr. Fox may be compensated for
reading all she has had to say. The husband continues as follows:
. . . 'A space for Robert' who has taken a breathing space--hardly more
than enough--to recover from his delight; he won't say surprise, at your
letter, dear Mr. Fox. But it is all right and, like you, I wish from my
heart we could get close together again, as in those old days, and what
times we would have here in Italy! The realization of the children's
prayer of angels at the corner of your bed (i.e. sofa), one to read
and one (my wife) to write,* and both to guard you through the night of
lodging-keeper's extortions, abominable charges for firing, and so on.
(Observe, to call oneself 'an angel' in this land is rather humble,
where they are apt to be painted as plumed cutthroats or celestial
police--you say of Gabriel at his best and blithesomest, 'Shouldn't
admire meeting _him_ in a narrow lane!')
* Mr. Fox much liked to be read to, and was in the habit
of writing his articles by dictation.
I say this foolishly just because I can't trust myself to be earnest
about it. I would, you know, I would, always would, choose you out of
the whole English world to judge and correct what I write myself; my
wife shall read this and let it stand if I have told her so these twelve
years--and certainly I have not grown intellectually an inch over the
good and kind hand you extended over my head how many years ago! Now it
goes over my wife's too.
How was it Tottie never came here as she promised? Is it to be some
other time? Do think of Florence, if ever you feel chilly, and hear
quantities about the Princess Royal's marriage, and want a change. I
hate the thought of leaving Italy for one day more than I can help--and
satisfy my English predilections by newspapers and a book or two.
One gets nothing of that kind here, but the stuff out of which books
grow,--it lies about one's feet indeed. Yet for me, there would be one
book better than any now to be got here or elsewhere, and all out of a
great English head and heart,--those 'Memoirs' you engaged to give us.
Will you give us them?
Goodbye now--if ever the whim strikes you to 'make beggars happy'
Love to Tottie, and love and gratitude to you, dear Mr. Fox, From yours
ever affectionately, Robert Browning.
In the summer of this year, the poet with his wife and child joined his
father and sister at Havre. It was the last time they were all to be