Lord Dufferin; Helen's Tower--Scotland; Visit to Lady Ashburton--Letters
to Miss Blagden--St.-Aubin; The Franco-Prussian War--'Herve
Riel'--Letter to Mr. G. M. Smith--'Balaustion's Adventure'; 'Prince
Hohenstiel-Schwangau'--'Fifine at the Fair'--Mistaken Theories of Mr.
Browning's Work--St.-Aubin; 'Red Cotton Nightcap Country'.
From 1869 to 1871 Mr. Browning published nothing; but in April 1870
he wrote the sonnet called 'Helen's Tower', a beautiful tribute to the
memory of Helen, mother of Lord Dufferin, suggested by the memorial
tower which her son was erecting to her on his estate at Clandeboye. The
sonnet appeared in 1883, in the 'Pall Mall Gazette', and was reprinted
in 1886, in 'Sonnets of the Century', edited by Mr. Sharp; and again
in the fifth part of the Browning Society's 'Papers'; but it is still I
think sufficiently little known to justify its reproduction.
Who hears of Helen's Tower may dream perchance
How the Greek Beauty from the Scaean Gate
Gazed on old friends unanimous in hate,
Death-doom'd because of her fair countenance.
Hearts would leap otherwise at thy advance,
Lady, to whom this Tower is consecrate!
Like hers, thy face once made all eyes elate,
Yet, unlike hers, was bless'd by every glance.
The Tower of Hate is outworn, far and strange;
A transitory shame of long ago;
It dies into the sand from which it sprang;
But thine, Love's rock-built Tower, shall fear no change.
God's self laid stable earth's foundations so,
When all the morning-stars together sang.
April 26, 1870.
Lord Dufferin is a warm admirer of Mr. Browning's genius. He also held
him in strong personal regard.
In the summer of 1869 the poet, with his sister and son, changed the
manner of his holiday, by joining Mr. Story and his family in a tour in
Scotland, and a visit to Louisa, Lady Ashburton, at Loch Luichart Lodge;
but in the August of 1870 he was again in the primitive atmosphere of a
French fishing village, though one which had little to recommend it but
the society of a friend; it was M. Milsand's St.-Aubin. He had written,
February 24, to Miss Blagden, under the one inspiration which naturally
recurred in his correspondence with her.
'. . . So you, too, think of Naples for an eventual resting-place! Yes,
that is the proper basking-ground for "bright and aged snakes." Florence
would be irritating, and, on the whole, insufferable--Yet I never hear
of any one going thither but my heart is twitched. There is a good,
charming, little singing German lady, Miss Regan, who told me the other
day that she was just about revisiting her aunt, Madame Sabatier, whom
you may know, or know of--and I felt as if I should immensely like to
glide, for a long summer-day through the streets and between the old
stone-walls,--unseen come and unheard go--perhaps by some miracle, I
shall do so--and look up at Villa Brichieri as Arnold's Gypsy-Scholar
gave one wistful look at "the line of festal light in Christ Church
Hall," before he went to sleep in some forgotten grange. . . . I am so
glad I can be comfortable in your comfort. I fancy exactly how you feel
and see how you live: it _is_ the Villa Geddes of old days, I find. I well
remember the fine view from the upper room--that looking down the steep
hill, by the side of which runs the road you describe--that path was
always my preferred walk, for its shortness (abruptness) and the fine
old wall to your left (from the Villa) which is overgrown with weeds and
wild flowers--violets and ground-ivy, I remember. Oh, me! to find
myself some late sunshiny Sunday afternoon, with my face turned to
Florence--"ten minutes to the gate, ten minutes _home_!" I think I should
fairly end it all on the spot. . . .'
He writes again from St.-Aubin, August 19, 1870:
'Dearest Isa,--Your letter came prosperously to this little wild place,
where we have been, Sarianna and myself, just a week. Milsand lives in a
cottage with a nice bit of garden, two steps off, and we occupy another
of the most primitive kind on the sea-shore--which shore is a good sandy
stretch for miles and miles on either side. I don't think we were ever
quite so thoroughly washed by the sea-air from all quarters as here--the
weather is fine, and we do well enough. The sadness of the war and its
consequences go far to paralyse all our pleasure, however. . . .
'Well, you are at Siena--one of the places I love best to remember. You
are returned--or I would ask you to tell me how the Villa Alberti wears,
and if the fig-tree behind the house is green and strong yet. I have
a pen-and-ink drawing of it, dated and signed the last day Ba was ever
there--"my fig tree--" she used to sit under it, reading and writing.
Nine years, or ten rather, since then! Poor old Landor's oak, too,
and his cottage, ought not to be forgotten. Exactly opposite this
house,--just over the way of the water,--shines every night the
light-house of Havre--a place I know well, and love very moderately:
but it always gives me a thrill as I see afar, _exactly_ a particular spot
which I was at along with her. At this moment, I see the white streak of
the phare in the sun, from the window where I write and I _think_. . . .
Milsand went to Paris last week, just before we arrived, to transport
his valuables to a safer place than his house, which is near the
fortifications. He is filled with as much despondency as can be--while
the old dear and perfect kindness remains. I never knew or shall know
his like among men. . . .'
The war did more than sadden Mr. and Miss Browning's visit to St.-Aubin;
it opposed unlooked-for difficulties to their return home. They had
remained, unconscious of the impending danger, till Sedan had been
taken, the Emperor's downfall proclaimed, and the country suddenly
placed in a state of siege. One morning M. Milsand came to them in
anxious haste, and insisted on their starting that very day. An order,
he said, had been issued that no native should leave the country, and
it only needed some unusually thick-headed Maire for Mr. Browning to be
arrested as a runaway Frenchman or a Prussian spy. The usual passenger
boats from Calais and Boulogne no longer ran; but there was, he
believed, a chance of their finding one at Havre. They acted on this
warning, and discovered its wisdom in the various hindrances which they
found on their way. Everywhere the horses had been requisitioned for the
war. The boat on which they had relied to take them down the river
to Caen had been stopped that very morning; and when they reached the
railroad they were told that the Prussians would be at the other end
before night. At last they arrived at Honfleur, where they found an
English vessel which was about to convey cattle to Southampton; and in
this, setting out at midnight, they made their passage to England.
Some words addressed to Miss Blagden, written I believe in 1871, once
more strike a touching familiar note.
'. . . But _no_, dearest Isa. The simple truth is that _she_ was the poet,
and I the clever person by comparison--remember her limited experience
of all kinds, and what she made of it. Remember on the other hand, how
my uninterrupted health and strength and practice with the world have
helped me. . . .'
'Balaustion's Adventure' and 'Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau' were
published, respectively, in August and December 1871. They had been
preceded in the March of the same year by a ballad, 'Herve Riel',
afterwards reprinted in the 'Pacchiarotto' volume, and which Mr.
Browning now sold to the 'Cornhill Magazine' for the benefit of the
French sufferers by the war.
The circumstances of this little transaction, unique in Mr. Browning's
experience, are set forth in the following letter:
Feb. 4, '71.
'My dear Smith,--I want to give something to the people in Paris, and
can afford so very little just now, that I am forced upon an expedient.
Will you buy of me that poem which poor Simeon praised in a letter
you saw, and which I like better than most things I have done of
late?--Buy,--I mean,--the right of printing it in the Pall Mall and,
if you please, the Cornhill also,--the copyright remaining with me. You
remember you wanted to print it in the Cornhill, and I was obstinate:
there is hardly any occasion on which I should be otherwise, if the
printing any poem of mine in a magazine were purely for my own sake: so,
any liberality you exercise will not be drawn into a precedent against
you. I fancy this is a case in which one may handsomely puff one's own
ware, and I venture to call my verses good for once. I send them to
you directly, because expedition will render whatever I contribute more
valuable: for when you make up your mind as to how liberally I shall be
enabled to give, you must send me a cheque and I will send the same as
the "Product of a Poem"--so that your light will shine deservedly. Now,
begin proceedings by reading the poem to Mrs. Smith,--by whose judgment
I will cheerfully be bound; and, with her approval, second my endeavour
as best you can. Would,--for the love of France,--that this were a "Song
of a Wren"--then should the guineas equal the lines; as it is, do what
you safely may for the song of a Robin--Browning--who is yours very
truly, into the bargain.
'P.S. The copy is so clear and careful that you might, with a good
Reader, print it on Monday, nor need my help for corrections: I shall
however be always at home, and ready at a moment's notice: return the
copy, if you please, as I promised it to my son long ago.'
Mr. Smith gave him 100 guineas as the price of the poem.
He wrote concerning the two longer poems, first probably at the close of
this year, and again in January 1872, to Miss Blagden.
'. . . By this time you have got my little book ('Hohenstiel') and seen
for yourself whether I make the best or worst of the case. I think, in
the main, he meant to do what I say, and, but for weakness,--grown more
apparent in his last years than formerly,--would have done what I say he
did not.* I thought badly of him at the beginning of his career, _et pour
cause_: better afterward, on the strength of the promises he made, and
gave indications of intending to redeem. I think him very weak in the
last miserable year. At his worst I prefer him to Thiers' best. I am
told my little thing is succeeding--sold 1,400 in the first five days,
and before any notice appeared. I remember that the year I made the
little rough sketch in Rome, '60, my account for the last six months
with Chapman was--_nil_, not one copy disposed of! . . .
* This phrase is a little misleading.
'. . . I am glad you like what the editor of the Edinburgh calls my
eulogium on the second empire,--which it is not, any more than what
another wiseacre affirms it to be "a scandalous attack on the old
constant friend of England"--it is just what I imagine the man might, if
he pleased, say for himself.'
Mr. Browning continues:
'Spite of my ailments and bewailments I have just all but finished
another poem of quite another kind, which shall amuse you in the spring,
I hope! I don't go sound asleep at all events. 'Balaustion'--the second
edition is in the press I think I told you. 2,500 in five months, is a
good sale for the likes of me. But I met Henry Taylor (of Artevelde)
two days ago at dinner, and he said he had never gained anything by his
books, which surely is a shame--I mean, if no buyers mean no
readers. . . .'
'Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau' was written in Scotland, where Mr.
Browning was the guest of Mr. Ernest Benzon: having left his sister to
the care of M. and Madame Milsand at St.-Aubin. The ailment he speaks
of consisted, I believe, of a severe cold. Another of the occurrences
of 1871 was Mr. Browning's election as Life Governor of the London
A passage from a letter dated March 30, '72, bears striking testimony to
the constant warmth of his affections.
'. . . The misfortune, which I did not guess when I accepted the
invitation, is that I shall lose some of the last days of Milsand, who
has been here for the last month: no words can express the love I have
for him, you know. He is increasingly precious to me. . . . Waring
came back the other day, after thirty years' absence, the same as
ever,--nearly. He has been Prime Minister at New Zealand for a year and
a half, but gets tired, and returns home with a poem.'*
* 'Ranolf and Amohia'.
This is my last extract from the correspondence with Miss Blagden. Her
death closed it altogether within the year.
It is difficult to infer from letters, however intimate, the dominant
state of the writer's mind: most of all to do so in Mr. Browning's case,
from such passages of his correspondence as circumstances allow me
to quote. Letters written in intimacy, and to the same friend, often
express a recurrent mood, a revived set of associations, which for the
moment destroys the habitual balance of feeling. The same effect is
sometimes produced in personal intercourse; and the more varied the
life, the more versatile the nature, the more readily in either case
will a lately unused spring of emotion well up at the passing touch.
We may even fancy we read into the letters of 1870 that eerie, haunting
sadness of a cherished memory from which, in spite of ourselves, life
is bearing us away. We may also err in so doing. But literary creation,
patiently carried on through a given period, is usually a fair
reflection of the general moral and mental conditions under which it has
taken place; and it would be hard to imagine from Mr. Browning's work
during these last ten years that any but gracious influences had been
operating upon his genius, any more disturbing element than the sense of
privation and loss had entered into his inner life.
Some leaven of bitterness must, nevertheless, have been working within
him, or he could never have produced that piece of perplexing cynicism,
'Fifine at the Fair'--the poem referred to as in progress in a letter to
Miss Blagden, and which appeared in the spring of 1872. The disturbing
cause had been also of long standing; for the deeper reactive processes
of Mr. Browning's nature were as slow as its more superficial response
was swift; and while 'Dramatis Personae', 'The Ring and the Book',
and even 'Balaustion's Adventure', represented the gradually perfected
substance of his poetic imagination, 'Fifine at the Fair' was as the
froth thrown up by it during the prolonged simmering which was to leave
it clear. The work displays the iridescent brightness as well as the
occasional impurity of this froth-like character. Beauty and ugliness
are, indeed, almost inseparable in the moral impression which it leaves
upon us. The author has put forth a plea for self-indulgence with a
much slighter attempt at dramatic disguise than his special pleadings
generally assume; and while allowing circumstances to expose the
sophistry of the position, and punish its attendant act, he does not
sufficiently condemn it. But, in identifying himself for the moment with
the conception of a Don Juan, he has infused into it a tenderness and
a poetry with which the true type had very little in common, and which
retard its dramatic development. Those who knew Mr. Browning, or who
thoroughly know his work, may censure, regret, fail to understand
'Fifine at the Fair'; they will never in any important sense misconstrue
But it has been so misconstrued by an intelligent and not unsympathetic
critic; and his construction may be endorsed by other persons in the
present, and still more in the future, in whom the elements of a truer
judgment are wanting. It seems, therefore, best to protest at once
against the misjudgment, though in so doing I am claiming for it an
attention which it may not seem to deserve. I allude to Mr. Mortimer's
'Note on Browning' in the 'Scottish Art Review' for December 1889. This
note contains a summary of Mr. Browning's teaching, which it resolves
into the moral equivalent of the doctrine of the conservation of force.
Mr. Mortimer assumes for the purpose of his comparison that the exercise
of force means necessarily moving on; and according to him Mr. Browning
prescribes action at any price, even that of defying the restrictions
of moral law. He thus, we are told, blames the lovers in 'The Statue and
the Bust' for their failure to carry out what was an immoral intention;
and, in the person of his 'Don Juan', defends a husband's claim to
relieve the fixity of conjugal affection by varied adventure in the
world of temporary loves: the result being 'the negation of that
convention under which we habitually view life, but which for some
reason or other breaks down when we have to face the problems of a
Goethe, a Shelley, a Byron, or a Browning.'
Mr. Mortimer's generalization does not apply to 'The Statue and the
Bust', since Mr. Browning has made it perfectly clear that, in this
case, the intended act is postponed without reference to its morality,
and simply in consequence of a weakness of will, which would have been
as paralyzing to a good purpose as it was to the bad one; but it is not
without superficial sanction in 'Fifine at the Fair'; and the part which
the author allowed himself to play in it did him an injustice only to be
measured by the inference which it has been made to support. There could
be no mistake more ludicrous, were it less regrettable, than that of
classing Mr. Browning, on moral grounds, with Byron or Shelley; even
in the case of Goethe the analogy breaks down. The evidence of the
foregoing pages has rendered all protest superfluous. But the suggested
moral resemblance to the two English poets receives a striking comment
in a fact of Mr. Browning's life which falls practically into the
present period of our history: his withdrawal from Shelley of the
devotion of more than forty years on account of an act of heartlessness
towards his first wife which he held to have been proved against him.
The sweet and the bitter lay, indeed, very close to each other at the
sources of Mr. Browning's inspiration. Both proceeded, in great measure,
from his spiritual allegiance to the past--that past by which it was
impossible that he should linger, but which he could not yet leave
behind. The present came to him with friendly greeting. He was
unconsciously, perhaps inevitably, unjust to what it brought. The
injustice reacted upon himself, and developed by degrees into the
cynical mood of fancy which became manifest in 'Fifine at the Fair'.
It is true that, in the light of this explanation, we see an effect very
unlike its cause; but the chemistry of human emotion is like that of
natural life. It will often form a compound in which neither of its
constituents can be recognized. This perverse poem was the last as well
as the first manifestation of an ungenial mood of Mr. Browning's mind.
A slight exception may be made for some passages in 'Red Cotton Nightcap
Country', and for one of the poems of the 'Pacchiarotto' volume; but
otherwise no sign of moral or mental disturbance betrays itself in his
subsequent work. The past and the present gradually assumed for him a
more just relation to each other. He learned to meet life as it offered
itself to him with a more frank recognition of its good gifts, a more
grateful response to them. He grew happier, hence more genial, as the
It was not without misgiving that Mr. Browning published 'Fifine at
the Fair'; but many years were to pass before he realized the kind of
criticism to which it had exposed him. The belief conveyed in the
letter to Miss Blagden that what proceeds from a genuine inspiration is
justified by it, combined with the indifference to public opinion
which had been engendered in him by its long neglect, made him slow to
anticipate the results of external judgment, even where he was in some
degree prepared to endorse them. For his value as a poet, it was best
The August of 1872 and of 1873 again found him with his sister at
St.-Aubin, and the earlier visit was an important one: since it supplied
him with the materials of his next work, of which Miss Annie Thackeray,
there also for a few days, suggested the title. The tragic drama which
forms the subject of Mr. Browning's poem had been in great part enacted
in the vicinity of St.-Aubin; and the case of disputed inheritance to
which it had given rise was pending at that moment in the tribunals of
Caen. The prevailing impression left on Miss Thackeray's mind by this
primitive district was, she declared, that of white cotton nightcaps
(the habitual headgear of the Normandy peasants). She engaged to write
a story called 'White Cotton Nightcap Country'; and Mr. Browning's quick
sense of both contrast and analogy inspired the introduction of
this emblem of repose into his own picture of that peaceful, prosaic
existence, and of the ghastly spiritual conflict to which it had served
as background. He employed a good deal of perhaps strained ingenuity in
the opening pages of the work, in making the white cap foreshadow the
red, itself the symbol of liberty, and only indirectly connected with
tragic events; and he would, I think, have emphasized the irony of
circumstance in a manner more characteristic of himself, if he had laid
his stress on the remoteness from 'the madding crowd', and repeated
Miss Thackeray's title. There can, however, be no doubt that his poetic
imagination, no less than his human insight, was amply vindicated by his
treatment of the story.
On leaving St.-Aubin he spent a month at Fontainebleau, in a house
situated on the outskirts of the forest; and here his principal indoor
occupation was reading the Greek dramatists, especially Aeschylus, to
whom he had returned with revived interest and curiosity. 'Red Cotton
Nightcap Country' was not begun till his return to London in the later
autumn. It was published in the early summer of 1873.