Pornic--'James Lee's Wife'--Meeting at Mr. F. Palgrave's--Letters to
Miss Blagden--His own Estimate of his Work--His Father's Illness and
Death; Miss Browning--Le Croisic--Academic Honours; Letter to the Master
of Balliol--Death of Miss Barrett--Audierne--Uniform Edition of his
Works--His rising Fame--'Dramatis Personae'--'The Ring and the Book';
Character of Pompilia.
The most constant contributions to Mr. Browning's history are supplied
during the next eight or nine years by extracts from his letters to Miss
Blagden. Our next will be dated from Ste.-Marie, near Pornic, where he
and his family again spent their holiday in 1864 and 1865. Some idea
of the life he led there is given at the close of a letter to Frederic
Leighton, August 17, 1863, in which he says:
'I live upon milk and fruit, bathe daily, do a good morning's work, read
a little with Pen and somewhat more by myself, go to bed early, and get
up earlyish--rather liking it all.'
This mention of a diet of milk and fruit recalls a favourite habit of
Mr. Browning's: that of almost renouncing animal food whenever he went
abroad. It was partly promoted by the inferior quality of foreign meat,
and showed no sign of specially agreeing with him, at all events in his
later years, when he habitually returned to England looking thinner and
more haggard than before he left it. But the change was always congenial
to his taste.
A fuller picture of these simple, peaceful, and poetic Pornic days comes
to us through Miss Blagden, August 18:
'. . . This is a wild little place in Brittany, something like that
village where we stayed last year. Close to the sea--a hamlet of a dozen
houses, perfectly lonely--one may walk on the edge of the low rocks by
the sea for miles. Our house is the Mayor's, large enough, clean and
bare. If I could, I would stay just as I am for many a day. I feel out
of the very earth sometimes as I sit here at the window; with the little
church, a field, a few houses, and the sea. On a weekday there is nobody
in the village, plenty of hay-stacks, cows and fowls; all our butter,
eggs, milk, are produced in the farm-house. Such a soft sea, and such a
'I wrote a poem yesterday of 120 lines, and mean to keep writing whether
I like it or not. . . .'
That 'window' was the 'Doorway' in 'James Lee's Wife'. The sea, the
field, and the fig-tree were visible from it.
A long interval in the correspondence, at all events so far as we are
concerned, carries us to the December of 1864, and then Mr. Browning
'. . . on the other hand, I feel such comfort and delight in doing the
best I can with my own object of life, poetry--which, I think, I never
could have seen the good of before, that it shows me I have taken the
root I _did_ take, _well_. I hope to do much more yet--and that the
flower of it will be put into Her hand somehow. I really have great
opportunities and advantages--on the whole, almost unprecedented ones--I
think, no other disturbances and cares than those I am most grateful for
being allowed to have. . . .'
One of our very few written reminiscences of Mr. Browning's social life
refers to this year, 1864, and to the evening, February 12, on which
he signed his will in the presence of Mr. Francis Palgrave and Alfred
Tennyson. It is inscribed in the diary of Mr. Thomas Richmond, then
chaplain to St. George's Hospital; and Mr. Reginald Palgrave has kindly
procured me a copy of it. A brilliant party had met at dinner at the
house of Mr. F. Palgrave, York Gate, Regent's Park; Mr. Richmond, having
fulfilled a prior engagement, had joined it later. 'There were, in
order,' he says, 'round the dinner-table (dinner being over), Gifford
Palgrave, Tennyson, Dr. John Ogle, Sir Francis H. Doyle, Frank Palgrave,
W. E. Gladstone, Browning, Sir John Simeon, Monsignor Patterson,
Woolner, and Reginald Palgrave.'
Mr. Richmond closes his entry by saying he will never forget that
evening. The names of those whom it had brought together, almost all to
be sooner or later numbered among the Poet's friends, were indeed
enough to stamp it as worthy of recollection. One or two characteristic
utterances of Mr. Browning are, however, the only ones which it
seems advisable to repeat here. The conversation having turned on the
celebration of the Shakespeare ter-centenary, he said: 'Here we are
called upon to acknowledge Shakespeare, we who have him in our very
bones and blood, our very selves. The very recognition of Shakespeare's
merits by the Committee reminds me of nothing so apt as an illustration,
as the decree of the Directoire that men might acknowledge God.'
Among the subjects discussed was the advisability of making schoolboys
write English verses as well as Latin and Greek. 'Woolner and Sir
Francis Doyle were for this; Gladstone and Browning against it.'
Work had now found its fitting place in the Poet's life. It was no
longer the overflow of an irresistible productive energy; it was the
deliberate direction of that energy towards an appointed end. We hear
something of his own feeling concerning this in a letter of August '65,
again from Ste.-Marie, and called forth by some gossip concerning him
which Miss Blagden had connected with his then growing fame.
'. . . I suppose that what you call "my fame within these four years"
comes from a little of this gossiping and going about, and showing
myself to be alive: and so indeed some folks say--but I hardly think it:
for remember I was uninterruptedly (almost) in London from the time
I published 'Paracelsus' till I ended that string of plays with
'Luria'--and I used to go out then, and see far more of merely literary
people, critics &c. than I do now,--but what came of it? There were
always a few people who had a certain opinion of my poems, but nobody
cared to speak what he thought, or the things printed twenty-five years
ago would not have waited so long for a good word; but at last a new set
of men arrive who don't mind the conventionalities of ignoring one and
seeing everything in another--Chapman says, "the new orders come from
Oxford and Cambridge," and all my new cultivators are young men--more
than that, I observe that some of my old friends don't like at all
the irruption of outsiders who rescue me from their sober and private
approval, and take those words out of their mouths "which they always
meant to say" and never did. When there gets to be a general feeling of
this kind, that there must be something in the works of an author, the
reviews are obliged to notice him, such notice as it is--but what poor
work, even when doing its best! I mean poor in the failure to give a
general notion of the whole works; not a particular one of such and
such points therein. As I begun, so I shall end,--taking my own course,
pleasing myself or aiming at doing so, and thereby, I hope, pleasing
'As I never did otherwise, I never had any fear as to what I did going
ultimately to the bad,--hence in collected editions I always reprinted
everything, smallest and greatest. Do you ever see, by the way, the
numbers of the selection which Moxons publish? They are exclusively
poems omitted in that other selection by Forster; it seems little use
sending them to you, but when they are completed, if they give me a
few copies, you shall have one if you like. Just before I left London,
Macmillan was anxious to print a third selection, for his Golden
Treasury, which should of course be different from either--but _three_
seem too absurd. There--enough of me--
'I certainly will do my utmost to make the most of my poor self before
I die; for one reason, that I may help old Pen the better; I was
much struck by the kind ways, and interest shown in me by the Oxford
undergraduates,--those introduced to me by Jowett.--I am sure they would
be the more helpful to my son. So, good luck to my great venture, the
murder-poem, which I do hope will strike you and all good lovers of
mine. . . .'
We cannot wonder at the touch of bitterness with which Mr. Browning
dwells on the long neglect which he had sustained; but it is at first
sight difficult to reconcile this high positive estimate of the value of
his poetry with the relative depreciation of his own poetic genius which
constantly marks his attitude towards that of his wife. The facts
are, however, quite compatible. He regarded Mrs. Browning's genius as
greater, because more spontaneous, than his own: owing less to life and
its opportunities; but he judged his own work as the more important,
because of the larger knowledge of life which had entered into its
production. He was wrong in the first terms of his comparison: for he
underrated the creative, hence spontaneous element in his own nature,
while claiming primarily the position of an observant thinker; and he
overrated the amount of creativeness implied by the poetry of his wife.
He failed to see that, given her intellectual endowments, and the lyric
gift, the characteristics of her genius were due to circumstances as
much as those of his own. Actual life is not the only source of poetic
inspiration, though it may perhaps be the best. Mrs. Browning as a poet
became what she was, not in spite of her long seclusion, but by help of
it. A touching paragraph, bearing upon this subject, is dated October
'. . . Another thing. I have just been making a selection of Ba's poems
which is wanted--how I have done it, I can hardly say--it is one dear
delight to know that the work of her goes on more effectually than
ever--her books are more and more read--certainly, sold. A new edition
of Aurora Leigh is completely exhausted within this year. . . .'
Of the thing next dearest to his memory, his Florentine home, he had
written in the January of this year:
'. . . Yes, Florence will never be _my_ Florence again. To build over or
beside Poggio seems barbarous and inexcusable. The Fiesole side don't
matter. Are they going to pull the old walls down, or any part of them,
I want to know? Why can't they keep the old city as a nucleus and build
round and round it, as many rings of houses as they please,--framing the
picture as deeply as they please? Is Casa Guidi to be turned into any
Public Office? I should think that its natural destination. If I am at
liberty to flee away one day, it will not be to Florence, I dare say.
As old Philipson said to me once of Jerusalem--"No, I don't want to go
there,--I can see it in my head." . . . Well, goodbye, dearest Isa. I
have been for a few minutes--nay, a good many,--so really with you in
Florence that it would be no wonder if you heard my steps up the lane to
your house. . . .'
Part of a letter written in the September of '65 from Ste.-Marie may be
interesting as referring to the legend of Pornic included in 'Dramatis
'. . . I suppose my "poem" which you say brings me and Pornic together
in your mind, is the one about the poor girl--if so, "fancy" (as I
hear you say) they have pulled down the church since I arrived last
month--there are only the shell-like, roofless walls left, for a few
weeks more; it was very old--built on a natural base of rock--small
enough, to be sure--so they build a smart new one behind it, and down
goes this; just as if they could not have pitched down their brick
and stucco farther away, and left the old place for the fishermen--so
here--the church is even more picturesque--and certain old Norman
ornaments, capitals of pillars and the like, which we left erect in the
doorway, are at this moment in a heap of rubbish by the road-side. The
people here are good, stupid and dirty, without a touch of the sense of
picturesqueness in their clodpolls. . . .'
The little record continues through 1866.
Feb. 19, '66.
'. . . I go out a great deal; but have enjoyed nothing so much as a
dinner last week with Tennyson, who, with his wife and one son, is
staying in town for a few weeks,--and she is just what she was and
always will be--very sweet and dear: he seems to me better than ever. I
met him at a large party on Saturday--also Carlyle, whom I never met at
a "drum" before. . . . Pen is drawing our owl--a bird that is the light
of our house, for his tameness and engaging ways. . . .'
May 19, '66.
'. . . My father has been unwell,--he is better and will go into
the country the moment the east winds allow,--for in Paris,--as
here,--there is a razor wrapped up in the flannel of sunshine. I hope to
hear presently from my sister, and will tell you if a letter comes: he
is eighty-five, almost,--you see! otherwise his wonderful constitution
would keep me from inordinate apprehension. His mind is absolutely as
I always remember it,--and the other day when I wanted some information
about a point of mediaeval history, he wrote a regular bookful of notes
and extracts thereabout. . . .'
June 20, '66.
'My dearest Isa, I was telegraphed for to Paris last week, and arrived
time enough to pass twenty-four hours more with my father: he died on
the 14th--quite exhausted by internal haemorrhage, which would have
overcome a man of thirty. He retained all his faculties to the last--was
utterly indifferent to death,--asking with surprise what it was we were
affected about since he was perfectly happy?--and kept his own strange
sweetness of soul to the end--nearly his last words to me, as I was
fanning him, were "I am so afraid that I fatigue you, dear!" this, while
his sufferings were great; for the strength of his constitution seemed
impossible to be subdued. He wanted three weeks exactly to complete his
eighty-fifth year. So passed away this good, unworldly, kind-hearted,
religious man, whose powers natural and acquired would so easily have
made him a notable man, had he known what vanity or ambition or the
love of money or social influence meant. As it is, he was known by
half-a-dozen friends. He was worthy of being Ba's father--out of the
whole world, only he, so far as my experience goes. She loved him,--and
_he_ said, very recently, while gazing at her portrait, that only that
picture had put into his head that there might be such a thing as the
worship of the images of saints. My sister will come and live with
me henceforth. You see what she loses. All her life has been spent in
caring for my mother, and seventeen years after that, my father. You may
be sure she does not rave and rend hair like people who have plenty to
atone for in the past; but she loses very much. I returned to London
last night. . . .'
During his hurried journey to Paris, Mr. Browning was mentally blessing
the Emperor for having abolished the system of passports, and thus
enabled him to reach his father's bedside in time. His early Italian
journeys had brought him some vexatious experience of the old order of
things. Once, at Venice, he had been mistaken for a well-known Liberal,
Dr. Bowring, and found it almost impossible to get his passport 'vise';
and, on another occasion, it aroused suspicion by being 'too good';
though in what sense I do not quite remember.
Miss Browning did come to live with her brother, and was thenceforward
his inseparable companion. Her presence with him must therefore be
understood wherever I have had no special reason for mentioning it.
They tried Dinard for the remainder of the summer; but finding it
unsuitable, proceeded by St.-Malo to Le Croisic, the little sea-side
town of south-eastern Brittany which two of Mr. Browning's poems have
since rendered famous.
The following extract has no date.
Le Croisic, Loire Inferieure.
'. . . We all found Dinard unsuitable, and after staying a few days at
St. Malo resolved to try this place, and well for us, since it serves
our purpose capitally. . . . We are in the most delicious and peculiar
old house I ever occupied, the oldest in the town--plenty of great
rooms--nearly as much space as in Villa Alberti. The little town, and
surrounding country are wild and primitive, even a trifle beyond Pornic
perhaps. Close by is Batz, a village where the men dress in white from
head to foot, with baggy breeches, and great black flap hats;--opposite
is Guerande, the old capital of Bretagne: you have read about it in
Balzac's 'Beatrix',--and other interesting places are near. The sea is
all round our peninsula, and on the whole I expect we shall like it very
much. . . .'
'. . . We enjoyed Croisic increasingly to the last--spite of three
weeks' vile weather, in striking contrast to the golden months at Pornic
last year. I often went to Guerande--once Sarianna and I walked from it
in two hours and something under,--nine miles:--though from our house,
straight over the sands and sea, it is not half the distance. . . .'
In 1867 Mr. Browning received his first and greatest academic honours.
The M.A. degree by diploma, of the University of Oxford, was conferred
on him in June;* and in the month of October he was made honorary Fellow
of Balliol College. Dr. Jowett allows me to publish the, as he terms it,
very characteristic letter in which he acknowledged the distinction. Dr.
Scott, afterwards Dean of Rochester, was then Master of Balliol.
* 'Not a lower degree than that of D.C.L., but a much higher
honour, hardly given since Dr. Johnson's time except to
kings and royal personages. . . .' So the Keeper of the
Archives wrote to Mr. Browning at the time.
19, Warwick Crescent: Oct. 21, '67.
Dear Dr. Scott,--I am altogether unable to say how I feel as to the
fact you communicate to me. I must know more intimately than you can how
little worthy I am of such an honour,--you hardly can set the value of
that honour, you who give, as I who take it.
Indeed, there _are_ both 'duties and emoluments' attached to this
position,--duties of deep and lasting gratitude, and emoluments through
which I shall be wealthy my life long. I have at least loved learning
and the learned, and there needed no recognition of my love on their
part to warrant my professing myself, as I do, dear Dr. Scott, yours
ever most faithfully, Robert Browning.
In the following year he received and declined the virtual offer of the
Lord Rectorship of the University of St. Andrews, rendered vacant by the
death of Mr. J. S. Mill.
He returned with his sister to Le Croisic for the summer of 1867.
In June 1868, Miss Arabel Barrett died, of a rheumatic affection of
the heart. As did her sister seven years before, she passed away in
Mr. Browning's arms. He wrote the event to Miss Blagden as soon as it
occurred, describing also a curious circumstance attendant on it.
19th June, '68.
'. . . You know I am not superstitious--here is a note I made in a book,
Tuesday, July 21, 1863. "Arabel told me yesterday that she had been much
agitated by a dream which happened the night before, Sunday, July
19. She saw Her and asked 'when shall I be with you?' the reply was,
'Dearest, in five years,' whereupon Arabella woke. She knew in her dream
that it was not to the living she spoke."--In five years, within a
month of their completion--I had forgotten the date of the dream, and
supposed it was only three years ago, and that two had still to run.
Only a coincidence, but noticeable. . . .'
In August he writes again from Audierne, Finisterre (Brittany).
'. . . You never heard of this place, I daresay. After staying a
few days at Paris we started for Rennes,--reached Caen and halted a
little--thence made for Auray, where we made excursions to Carnac,
Lokmariaker, and Ste.-Anne d'Auray; all very interesting of their kind;
then saw Brest, Morlaix, St.-Pol de Leon, and the sea-port Roscoff,--our
intended bathing place--it was full of folk, however, and otherwise
impracticable, so we had nothing for it, but to "rebrousser chemin" and
get to the south-west again. At Quimper we heard (for a second time)
that Audierne would suit us exactly, and to it we came--happily, for
"suit" it certainly does. Look on the map for the most westerly point
of Bretagne--and of the mainland of Europe--there is niched Audierne, a
delightful quite unspoiled little fishing-town, with the open ocean in
front, and beautiful woods, hills and dales, meadows and lanes behind
and around,--sprinkled here and there with villages each with its fine
old Church. Sarianna and I have just returned from a four hours' walk
in the course of which we visited a town, Pont Croix, with a beautiful
cathedral-like building amid the cluster of clean bright Breton
houses,--and a little farther is another church, "Notre Dame de
Comfort", with only a hovel or two round it, worth the journey from
England to see; we are therefore very well off--at an inn, I should say,
with singularly good, kind, and liberal people, so have no cares for the
moment. May you be doing as well! The weather has been most propitious,
and to-day is perfect to a wish. We bathe, but somewhat ingloriously, in
a smooth creek of mill-pond quietude, (there being no cabins on the bay
itself,) unlike the great rushing waves of Croisic--the water is much
colder. . . .'
The tribute contained in this letter to the merits of le Pere
Batifoulier and his wife would not, I think, be endorsed by the few
other English travellers who have stayed at their inn. The writer's
own genial and kindly spirit no doubt partly elicited, and still more
supplied, the qualities he saw in them.
The six-volume, so long known as 'uniform' edition of Mr. Browning's
works, was brought out in the autumn of this year by Messrs. Smith,
Elder & Co.; practically Mr. George Murray Smith, who was to be
thenceforward his exclusive publisher and increasingly valued friend. In
the winter months appeared the first two volumes (to be followed in the
ensuing spring by the third and fourth) of 'The Ring and the Book'.
With 'The Ring and the Book' Mr. Browning attained the full recognition
of his genius. The 'Athenaeum' spoke of it as the 'opus magnum' of
the generation; not merely beyond all parallel the supremest poetic
achievement of the time, but the most precious and profound spiritual
treasure that England had produced since the days of Shakespeare.
His popularity was yet to come, so also the widespread reading of his
hitherto neglected poems; but henceforth whatever he published was sure
of ready acceptance, of just, if not always enthusiastic, appreciation.
The ground had not been gained at a single leap. A passage in another
letter to Miss Blagden shows that, when 'The Ring and the Book'
appeared, a high place was already awaiting it outside those higher
academic circles in which its author's position was secured.
'. . . I want to get done with my poem. Booksellers are making me pretty
offers for it. One sent to propose, last week, to publish it at his
risk, giving me _all_ the profits, and pay me the whole in advance--"for
the incidental advantages of my name"--the R. B. who for six months
once did not sell one copy of the poems! I ask 200 Pounds for the sheets
to America, and shall get it. . . .'
His presence in England had doubtless stimulated the public interest
in his productions; and we may fairly credit 'Dramatis Personae' with
having finally awakened his countrymen of all classes to the fact that a
great creative power had arisen among them. 'The Ring and the Book'
and 'Dramatis Personae' cannot indeed be dissociated in what was the
culminating moment in the author's poetic life, even more than
the zenith of his literary career. In their expression of all that
constituted the wide range and the characteristic quality of his genius,
they at once support and supplement each other. But a fact of more
distinctive biographical interest connects itself exclusively with the
We cannot read the emotional passages of 'The Ring and the Book' without
hearing in them a voice which is not Mr. Browning's own: an echo, not
of his past, but from it. The remembrance of that past must have
accompanied him through every stage of the great work. Its subject had
come to him in the last days of his greatest happiness. It had lived
with him, though in the background of consciousness, through those of
his keenest sorrow. It was his refuge in that aftertime, in which a
subsiding grief often leaves a deeper sense of isolation. He knew the
joy with which his wife would have witnessed the diligent performance
of this his self-imposed task. The beautiful dedication contained in the
first and last books was only a matter of course. But Mrs. Browning's
spiritual presence on this occasion was more than a presiding memory of
the heart. I am convinced that it entered largely into the conception
of 'Pompilia', and, so far as this depended on it, the character of the
whole work. In the outward course of her history, Mr. Browning proceeded
strictly on the ground of fact. His dramatic conscience would not have
allowed it otherwise. He had read the record of the case, as he has
been heard to say, fully eight times over before converting it into the
substance of his poem; and the form in which he finally cast it, was
that which recommended itself to him as true--which, within certain
limits, _was_ true. The testimony of those who watched by Pompilia's
death-bed is almost conclusive as to the absence of any criminal motive
to her flight, or criminal circumstance connected with it. Its time
proved itself to have been that of her impending, perhaps newly expected
motherhood, and may have had some reference to this fact. But the real
Pompilia was a simple child, who lived in bodily terror of her husband,
and had made repeated efforts to escape from him. Unless my memory much
deceives me, her physical condition plays no part in the historical
defence of her flight. If it appeared there at all, it was as a merely
practical incentive to her striving to place herself in safety. The
sudden rapturous sense of maternity which, in the poetic rendering of
the case, becomes her impulse to self-protection, was beyond her age
and her culture; it was not suggested by the facts; and, what is more
striking, it was not a natural development of Mr. Browning's imagination
The parental instinct was among the weakest in his nature--a fact which
renders the more conspicuous his devotion to his own son; it finds
little or no expression in his work. The apotheosis of motherhood which
he puts forth through the aged priest in 'Ivan Ivanovitch' was due to
the poetic necessity of lifting a ghastly human punishment into the
sphere of Divine retribution. Even in the advancing years which
soften the father into the grandfather, the essential quality of early
childhood was not that which appealed to him. He would admire its
flower-like beauty, but not linger over it. He had no special emotion
for its helplessness. When he was attracted by a child it was through
the evidence of something not only distinct from, but opposed to this.
'It is the soul' (I see) 'in that speck of a body,' he said, not many
years ago, of a tiny boy--now too big for it to be desirable that I
should mention his name, but whose mother, if she reads this, will know
to whom I allude--who had delighted him by an act of intelligent grace
which seemed beyond his years. The ingenuously unbounded maternal pride,
the almost luscious maternal sentiment, of Pompilia's dying moments
can only associate themselves in our mind with Mrs. Browning's personal
utterances, and some notable passages in 'Casa Guidi Windows'
and 'Aurora Leigh'. Even the exalted fervour of the invocation to
Caponsacchi, its blending of spiritual ecstasy with half-realized
earthly emotion, has, I think, no parallel in her husband's work.
'Pompilia' bears, still, unmistakably, the stamp of her author's genius.
Only he could have imagined her peculiar form of consciousness; her
childlike, wondering, yet subtle, perception of the anomalies of life.
He has raised the woman in her from the typical to the individual by
this distinguishing touch of his supreme originality; and thus infused
into her character a haunting pathos which renders it to many readers
the most exquisite in the whole range of his creations. For others
at the same time, it fails in the impressiveness because it lacks the
reality which habitually marks them.
So much, however, is certain: Mr. Browning would never have accepted
this 'murder story' as the subject of a poem, if he could not in some
sense have made it poetical. It was only in an idealized Pompilia that
the material for such a process could be found. We owe it, therefore, to
the one departure from his usual mode of dramatic conception, that the
Poet's masterpiece has been produced. I know no other instance of what
can be even mistaken for reflected inspiration in the whole range of his
work, the given passages in 'Pauline' excepted.
The postscript of a letter to Frederic Leighton written so far back as
October 17, 1864, is interesting in its connection with the preliminary
stages of this great undertaking.
'A favour, if you have time for it. Go into the church St. Lorenzo in
Lucina in the Corso--and look attentively at it--so as to describe it
to me on your return. The general arrangement of the building, if with a
nave--pillars or not--the number of altars, and any particularity there
may be--over the High Altar is a famous Crucifixion by Guido. It will be
of great use to me. I don't care about the _outsid_.'