Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 17

1873-1878

London Life--Love of Music--Miss Egerton-Smith--Periodical Nervous
Exhaustion--Mers; 'Aristophanes' Apology'--'Agamemnon'--'The
Inn Album'--'Pacchiarotto and other Poems'--Visits to Oxford and
Cambridge--Letters to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald--St. Andrews; Letter
from Professor Knight--In the Savoyard Mountains--Death of Miss
Egerton-Smith--'La Saisiaz'; 'The Two Poets of Croisic'--Selections from
his Works.

The period on which we have now entered, covering roughly the ten or
twelve years which followed the publication of 'The Ring and the Book',
was the fullest in Mr. Browning's life; it was that in which the varied
claims made by it on his moral, and above all his physical energies,
found in him the fullest power of response. He could rise early and go
to bed late--this, however, never from choice; and occupy every hour of
the day with work or pleasure, in a manner which his friends recalled
regretfully in later years, when of two or three engagements which
ought to have divided his afternoon, a single one--perhaps only the most
formally pressing--could be fulfilled. Soon after his final return to
England, while he still lived in comparative seclusion, certain habits
of friendly intercourse, often superficial, but always binding, had
rooted themselves in his life. London society, as I have also implied,
opened itself to him in ever-widening circles, or, as it would be truer
to say, drew him more and more deeply into its whirl; and even before
the mellowing kindness of his nature had infused warmth into the least
substantial of his social relations, the imaginative curiosity of the
poet--for a while the natural ambition of the man--found satisfaction in
it. For a short time, indeed, he entered into the fashionable routine of
country-house visiting. Besides the instances I have already given,
and many others which I may have forgotten, he was heard of, during the
earlier part of this decade, as the guest of Lord Carnarvon at Highclere
Castle, of Lord Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, of Lord Brownlow and his
mother, Lady Marian Alford, at Belton and Ashridge. Somewhat later,
he stayed with Mr. and Lady Alice Gaisford at a house they temporarily
occupied on the Sussex downs; with Mr. Cholmondeley at Condover, and,
much more recently, at Aynhoe Park with Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright. Kind
and pressing, and in themselves very tempting invitations of this nature
came to him until the end of his life; but he very soon made a practice
of declining them, because their acceptance could only renew for him the
fatigues of the London season, while the tantalizing beauty and
repose of the country lay before his eyes; but such visits, while they
continued, were one of the necessary social experiences which brought
their grist to his mill.

And now, in addition to the large social tribute which he received, and
had to pay, he was drinking in all the enjoyment, and incurring all the
fatigue which the London musical world could create for him. In Italy
he had found the natural home of the other arts. The one poem, 'Old
Pictures in Florence', is sufficiently eloquent of long communion with
the old masters and their works; and if his history in Florence and Rome
had been written in his own letters instead of those of his wife, they
must have held many reminiscences of galleries and studios, and of the
places in which pictures are bought and sold. But his love for music
was as certainly starved as the delight in painting and sculpture was
nourished; and it had now grown into a passion, from the indulgence of
which he derived, as he always declared, some of the most beneficent
influences of his life. It would be scarcely an exaggeration to say that
he attended every important concert of the season, whether isolated or
given in a course. There was no engagement possible or actual, which did
not yield to the discovery of its clashing with the day and hour fixed
for one of these. His frequent companion on such occasions was Miss
Egerton-Smith.

Miss Smith became only known to Mr. Browning's general acquaintance
through the dedicatory 'A. E. S.' of 'La Saisiaz'; but she was, at the
time of her death, one of his oldest women friends. He first met her as
a young woman in Florence when she was visiting there; and the love
for and proficiency in music soon asserted itself as a bond of sympathy
between them. They did not, however, see much of each other till he had
finally left Italy, and she also had made her home in London. She there
led a secluded life, although free from family ties, and enjoying a
large income derived from the ownership of an important provincial
paper. Mr. Browning was one of the very few persons whose society she
cared to cultivate; and for many years the common musical interest took
the practical, and for both of them convenient form, of their going to
concerts together. After her death, in the autumn of 1877, he almost
mechanically renounced all the musical entertainments to which she had
so regularly accompanied him. The special motive and special facility
were gone--she had been wont to call for him in her carriage; the
habit was broken; there would have been first pain, and afterwards an
unwelcome exertion in renewing it. Time was also beginning to sap his
strength, while society, and perhaps friendship, were making increasing
claims upon it. It may have been for this same reason that music after
a time seemed to pass out of his life altogether. Yet its almost sudden
eclipse was striking in the case of one who not only had been so
deeply susceptible to its emotional influences, so conversant with
its scientific construction and its multitudinous forms, but who was
acknowledged as 'musical' by those who best knew the subtle and complex
meaning of that often misused term.

Mr. Browning could do all that I have said during the period through
which we are now following him; but he could not quite do it with
impunity. Each winter brought its searching attack of cold and cough;
each summer reduced him to the state of nervous prostration or physical
apathy of which I have already spoken, and which at once rendered change
imperative, and the exertion of seeking it almost intolerable. His
health and spirits rebounded at the first draught of foreign air; the
first breath from an English cliff or moor might have had the same
result. But the remembrance of this fact never nerved him to the
preliminary effort. The conviction renewed itself with the close of
every season, that the best thing which could happen to him would be to
be left quiet at home; and his disinclination to face even the idea
of moving equally hampered his sister in her endeavour to make timely
arrangements for their change of abode.

This special craving for rest helped to limit the area from which their
summer resort could be chosen. It precluded all idea of 'pension'-life,
hence of any much-frequented spot in Switzerland or Germany. It was
tacitly understood that the shortening days were not to be passed in
England. Italy did not yet associate itself with the possibilities of
a moderately short absence; the resources of the northern French coast
were becoming exhausted; and as the August of 1874 approached, the
question of how and where this and the following months were to be spent
was, perhaps, more than ever a perplexing one. It was now Miss Smith who
became the means of its solution. She had more than once joined Mr. and
Miss Browning at the seaside. She was anxious this year to do so again,
and she suggested for their meeting a quiet spot called Mers, almost
adjoining the fashionable Treport, but distinct from it. It was agreed
that they should try it; and the experiment, which they had no reason
to regret, opened also in some degree a way out of future difficulties.
Mers was young, and had the defect of its quality. Only one desirable
house was to be found there; and the plan of joint residence became
converted into one of joint housekeeping, in which Mr. and Miss Browning
at first refused to concur, but which worked so well that it was renewed
in the three ensuing summers: Miss Smith retaining the initiative in
the choice of place, her friends the right of veto upon it. They stayed
again together in 1875 at Villers, on the coast of Normandy; in 1876 at
the Isle of Arran; in 1877 at a house called La Saisiaz--Savoyard for
the sun--in the Saleve district near Geneva.

The autumn months of 1874 were marked for Mr. Browning by an important
piece of work: the production of 'Aristophanes' Apology'. It was far
advanced when he returned to London in November, after a visit to
Antwerp, where his son was studying art under M. Heyermans; and its much
later appearance must have been intended to give breathing time to the
readers of 'Red Cotton Nightcap Country'. Mr. Browning subsequently
admitted that he sometimes, during these years, allowed active literary
occupation to interfere too much with the good which his holiday might
have done him; but the temptations to literary activity were this time
too great to be withstood. The house occupied by him at Mers (Maison
Robert) was the last of the straggling village, and stood on a rising
cliff. In front was the open sea; beyond it a long stretch of down;
everywhere comparative solitude. Here, in uninterrupted quiet, and in a
room devoted to his use, Mr. Browning would work till the afternoon was
advanced, and then set forth on a long walk over the cliffs, often in
the face of a wind which, as he wrote of it at the time, he could lean
against as if it were a wall. And during this time he was living, not
only in his work, but with the man who had inspired it. The image of
Aristophanes, in the half-shamed insolence, the disordered majesty, in
which he is placed before the reader's mind, was present to him from
the first moment in which the Defence was conceived. What was still more
interesting, he could see him, hear him, think with him, speak for him,
and still inevitably condemn him. No such instance of always ingenious,
and sometimes earnest pleading foredoomed to complete discomfiture,
occurs in Mr. Browning's works.

To Aristophanes he gave the dramatic sympathy which one lover of life
can extend to another, though that other unduly extol its lower forms.
To Euripides he brought the palm of the higher truth, to his work the
tribute of the more pathetic human emotion. Even these for a moment
ministered to the greatness of Aristophanes, in the tear shed by him to
the memory of his rival, in the hour of his own triumph; and we may be
quite sure that when Mr. Browning depicted that scene, and again when he
translated the great tragedian's words, his own eyes were dimmed. Large
tears fell from them, and emotion choked his voice, when he first
read aloud the transcript of the 'Herakles' to a friend, who was often
privileged to hear him.

Mr. Browning's deep feeling for the humanities of Greek literature, and
his almost passionate love for the language, contrasted strongly with
his refusal to regard even the first of Greek writers as models of
literary style. The pretensions raised for them on this ground were
inconceivable to him; and his translation of the 'Agamemnon', published
1877, was partly made, I am convinced, for the pleasure of exposing
these claims, and of rebuking them. His preface to the transcript gives
evidence of this. The glee with which he pointed to it when it first
appeared was no less significant.

At Villers, in 1875, he only corrected the proofs of 'The Inn Album' for
publication in November. When the party started for the Isle of Arran,
in the autumn of 1876, the 'Pacchiarotto' volume had already appeared.

When Mr. Browning discontinued his short-lived habit of visiting away
from home, he made an exception in favour of the Universities. His
occasional visits to Oxford and Cambridge were maintained till the very
end of his life, with increasing frequency in the former case; and the
days spent at Balliol and Trinity afforded him as unmixed a pleasure
as was compatible with the interruption of his daily habits, and with a
system of hospitality which would detain him for many hours at table.
A vivid picture of them is given in two letters, dated January 20 and
March 10, 1877, and addressed to one of his constant correspondents,
Mrs. Fitz-Gerald, of Shalstone Manor, Buckingham.


Dear Friend, I have your letter of yesterday, and thank you all I can
for its goodness and graciousness to me unworthy . . . I returned on
Thursday--the hospitality of our Master being not easy to set aside.
But to begin with the beginning: the passage from London to Oxford was
exceptionally prosperous--the train was full of men my friends. I was
welcomed on arriving by a Fellow who installed me in my rooms,--then
came the pleasant meeting with Jowett who at once took me to tea with
his other guests, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop of London, Dean
of Westminster, the Airlies, Cardwells, male and female. Then came the
banquet--(I enclose you the plan having no doubt that you will recognise
the name of many an acquaintance: please return it)--and, the dinner
done, speechifying set in vigorously. The Archbishop proposed the
standing 'Floreat domus de Balliolo'--to which the Master made due
and amusing answer, himself giving the health of the Primate. Lord
Coleridge, in a silvery speech, drank to the University, responded to by
the Vice-Chancellor. I forget who proposed the visitors--the Bishop of
London, perhaps Lord Cardwell. Professor Smith gave the two Houses
of Parliament,--Jowett, the Clergy, coupling with it the name of your
friend Mr. Rogers--on whom he showered every kind of praise, and Mr.
Rogers returned thanks very characteristically and pleasantly. Lord
Lansdowne drank to the Bar (Mr. Bowen), Lord Camperdown to--I really
forget what: Mr. Green to Literature and Science delivering a most
undeserved eulogium on myself, with a more rightly directed one on
Arnold, Swinburne, and the old pride of Balliol, Clough: this was
cleverly and almost touchingly answered by dear Mat Arnold. Then the
Dean of Westminster gave the Fellows and Scholars--and then--twelve
o'clock struck. We were, counting from the time of preliminary
assemblage, six hours and a half engaged: _fully_ five and a half nailed
to our chairs at the table: but the whole thing was brilliant, genial,
and suggestive of many and various thoughts to me--and there was
a warmth, earnestness, and yet refinement about it which I never
experienced in any previous public dinner. Next morning I breakfasted
with Jowett and his guests, found that return would be difficult: while
as the young men were to return on Friday there would be no opposition
to my departure on Thursday. The morning was dismal with rain, but after
luncheon there was a chance of getting a little air, and I walked for
more than two hours, then heard service in New Coll.--then dinner again:
my room had been prepared in the Master's house. So, on Thursday, after
yet another breakfast, I left by the noon-day train, after all sorts of
kindly offices from the Master. . . . No reporters were suffered to be
present--the account in yesterday's Times was furnished by one or more
of the guests; it is quite correct as far as it goes. There were,
I find, certain little paragraphs which must have been furnished by
'guessers': Swinburne, set down as present--was absent through his
Father's illness: the Cardinal also excused himself as did the Bishop of
Salisbury and others. . . . Ever yours R. Browning.


The second letter, from Cambridge, was short and written in haste, at
the moment of Mr. Browning's departure; but it tells the same tale of
general kindness and attention. Engagements for no less than six meals
had absorbed the first day of the visit. The occasion was that of
Professor Joachim's investiture with his Doctor's degree; and Mr.
Browning declares that this ceremony, the concert given by the great
violinist, and his society, were 'each and all' worth the trouble of
the journey. He himself was to receive the Cambridge degree of LL.D. in
1879, the Oxford D.C.L. in 1882. A passage in another letter addressed
to the same friend, refers probably to a practical reminiscence of 'Red
Cotton Nightcap Country', which enlivened the latter experience, and
which Mrs. Fitz-Gerald had witnessed with disapprobation.*

* An actual red cotton nightcap had been made to flutter
down on to the Poet's head.


. . . You are far too hard on the very harmless drolleries of the young
men, licensed as they are moreover by immemorial usage. Indeed there
used to be a regularly appointed jester, 'Filius Terrae' he was called,
whose business it was to jibe and jeer at the honoured ones, by way of
reminder that all human glories are merely gilded bubbles and must not
be fancied metal. You saw that the Reverend Dons escaped no more than
the poor Poet--or rather I should say than myself the poor Poet--for
I was pleased to observe with what attention they listened to the
Newdigate. . . . Ever affectionately yours, R. Browning.


In 1875 he was unanimously nominated by its Independent Club, to the
office of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow; and in 1877 he again
received the offer of the Rectorship of St. Andrews, couched in very
urgent and flattering terms. A letter addressed to him from this
University by Dr. William Knight, Professor of Moral Philosophy there,
which I have his permission to publish, bears witness to what had
long been and was always to remain a prominent fact of Mr. Browning's
literary career: his great influence on the minds of the rising
generation of his countrymen.


The University, St. Andrews N.B.: Nov. 17, 1877.

My dear Sir,--. . . The students of this University, in which I have
the honour to hold office, have nominated you as their Lord Rector; and
intend unanimously, I am told, to elect you to that office on Thursday.

I believe that hitherto no Rector has been chosen by the undivided
suffrage of any Scottish University. They have heard however that you
are unable to accept the office: and your committee, who were deeply
disappointed to learn this afternoon of the way in which you have been
informed of their intentions, are, I believe, writing to you on the
subject. So keen is their regret that they intend respectfully to wait
upon you on Tuesday morning by deputation, and ask if you cannot waive
your difficulties in deference to their enthusiasm, and allow them to
proceed with your election.

Their suffrage may, I think, be regarded as one sign of how the
thoughtful youth of Scotland estimate the work you have done in the
world of letters.

And permit me to say that while these Rectorial elections in the other
Universities have frequently turned on local questions, or been inspired
by political partisanship, St. Andrews has honourably sought to choose
men distinguished for literary eminence, and to make the Rectorship a
tribute at once of intellectual and moral esteem.

May I add that when the 'perfervidum ingenium' of our northern race
takes the form not of youthful hero-worship, but of loyal admiration and
respectful homage, it is a very genuine affair. In the present instance
I may say it is no mere outburst of young undisciplined enthusiasm, but
an honest expression of intellectual and moral indebtedness, the genuine
and distinct tribute of many minds that have been touched to some higher
issues by what you have taught them. They do not presume to speak of
your place in English literature. They merely tell you by this proffered
honour (the highest in their power to bestow), how they have felt your
influence over them.

My own obligations to you, and to the author of Aurora Leigh, are such,
that of them 'silence is golden'. Yours ever gratefully. William Knight.


Mr. Browning was deeply touched and gratified by these professions of
esteem. He persisted nevertheless in his refusal. The Glasgow nomination
had also been declined by him.

On August 17, 1877, he wrote to Mrs. Fitz-Gerald from La Saisiaz:


'How lovely is this place in its solitude and seclusion, with its trees
and shrubs and flowers, and above all its live mountain stream which
supplies three fountains, and two delightful baths, a marvel of delicate
delight framed in with trees--I bathe there twice a day--and then what
wonderful views from the chalet on every side! Geneva lying under
us, with the lake and the whole plain bounded by the Jura and our own
Saleve, which latter seems rather close behind our house, and yet takes
a hard hour and a half to ascend--all this you can imagine since you
know the environs of the town; the peace and quiet move me the most--And
I fancy I shall drowse out the two months or more, doing no more of
serious work than reading--and that is virtuous renunciation of the
glorious view to my right here--as I sit aerially like Euripides, and
see the clouds come and go and the view change in correspondence with
them. It will help me to get rid of the pain which attaches itself to
the recollections of Lucerne and Berne "in the old days when the Greeks
suffered so much," as Homer says. But a very real and sharp pain touched
me here when I heard of the death of poor Virginia March whom I knew
particularly, and parted with hardly a fortnight ago, leaving her
affectionate and happy as ever. The tones of her voice as on one
memorable occasion she ejaculated repeatedly 'Good friend!' are fresh
still. Poor Virginia! . . .'


Mr. Browning was more than quiescent during this stay in the Savoyard
mountains. He was unusually depressed, and unusually disposed to regard
the absence from home as a banishment; and he tried subsequently to
account for this condition by the shadow which coming trouble sometimes
casts before it. It was more probably due to the want of the sea air
which he had enjoyed for so many years, and to that special oppressive
heat of the Swiss valleys which ascends with them to almost their
highest level. When he said that the Saleve seemed close behind the
house, he was saying in other words that the sun beat back from, and the
air was intercepted by it. We see, nevertheless, in his description
of the surrounding scenery, a promise of the contemplative delight in
natural beauty to be henceforth so conspicuous in his experience, and
which seemed a new feature in it. He had hitherto approached every
living thing with curious and sympathetic observation--this hardly
requires saying of one who had animals for his first and always familiar
friends. Flowers also attracted him by their perfume. But what he loved
in nature was essentially its prefiguring of human existence, or
its echo of it; and it never appeared, in either his works or his
conversation, that he was much impressed by its inanimate forms--by even
those larger phenomena of mountain and cloud-land on which the latter
dwells. Such beauty as most appealed to him he had left behind with
the joys and sorrows of his Italian life, and it had almost inevitably
passed out of his consideration. During years of his residence in London
he never thought of the country as a source of pleasurable emotions,
other than those contingent on renewed health; and the places to which
he resorted had often not much beyond their health-giving qualities to
recommend them; his appetite for the beautiful had probably dwindled for
lack of food. But when a friend once said to him: 'You have not a great
love for nature, have you?' he had replied: 'Yes, I have, but I love
men and women better;' and the admission, which conveyed more than it
literally expressed, would have been true I believe at any, up to the
present, period of his history. Even now he did not cease to love men
and women best; but he found increasing enjoyment in the beauties of
nature, above all as they opened upon him on the southern slopes of the
Alps; and the delight of the aesthetic sense merged gradually in the
satisfied craving for pure air and brilliant sunshine which marked his
final struggle for physical life. A ring of enthusiasm comes into his
letters from the mountains, and deepens as the years advance; doubtless
enhanced by the great--perhaps too great--exhilaration which the Alpine
atmosphere produced, but also in large measure independent of it. Each
new place into which the summer carries him he declares more beautiful
than the last. It possibly was so.

A touch of autumnal freshness had barely crept into the atmosphere of
the Saleve, when a moral thunderbolt fell on the little group of persons
domiciled at its base: Miss Egerton-Smith died, in what had seemed
for her unusually good health, in the act of preparing for a mountain
excursion with her friends--the words still almost on her lips in
which she had given some directions for their comfort. Mr. Browning's
impressionable nervous system was for a moment paralyzed by the shock.
It revived in all the emotional and intellectual impulses which gave
birth to 'La Saisiaz'.

This poem contains, besides its personal reference and association,
elements of distinctive biographical interest. It is the author's
first--as also last--attempt to reconstruct his hope of immortality by
a rational process based entirely on the fundamental facts of his own
knowledge and consciousness--God and the human soul; and while the very
assumption of these facts, as basis for reasoning, places him at issue
with scientific thought, there is in his way of handling them a tribute
to the scientific spirit, perhaps foreshadowed in the beautiful epilogue
to 'Dramatis Personae', but of which there is no trace in his earlier
religious works. It is conclusive both in form and matter as to his
heterodox attitude towards Christianity. He was no less, in his way, a
Christian when he wrote 'La Saisiaz' than when he published 'A Death
in the Desert' and 'Christmas Eve and Easter Day'; or at any period
subsequent to that in which he accepted without questioning what he had
learned at his mother's knee. He has repeatedly written or declared in
the words of Charles Lamb:* 'If Christ entered the room I should fall
on my knees;' and again, in those of Napoleon: 'I am an understander of
men, and _he_ was no man.' He has even added: 'If he had been, he would
have been an impostor.' But the arguments, in great part negative, set
forth in 'La Saisiaz' for the immortality of the soul, leave no place
for the idea, however indefinite, of a Christian revelation on the
subject. Christ remained for Mr. Browning a mystery and a message of
Divine Love, but no messenger of Divine intention towards mankind.

* These words have more significance when taken with their
context. 'If Shakespeare was to come into the room, we
should all rise up to meet him; but if that Person [meaning
Christ] was to come into the room, we should all fall down
and try to kiss the hem of his garment.'

The dialogue between Fancy and Reason is not only an admission of
uncertainty as to the future of the Soul: it is a plea for it; and as
such it gathers up into its few words of direct statement, threads of
reasoning which have been traceable throughout Mr. Browning's work. In
this plea for uncertainty lies also a full and frank acknowledgment of
the value of the earthly life; and as interpreted by his general views,
that value asserts itself, not only in the means of probation which
life affords, but in its existing conditions of happiness. No one, he
declares, possessing the certainty of a future state would patiently and
fully live out the present; and since the future can be only the ripened
fruit of the present, its promise would be neutralized, as well as
actual experience dwarfed, by a definite revelation. Nor, conversely,
need the want of a certified future depress the present spiritual and
moral life. It is in the nature of the Soul that it would suffer from
the promise. The existence of God is a justification for hope. And
since the certainty would be injurious to the Soul, hence destructive
to itself, the doubt--in other words, the hope--becomes a sufficient
approach to, a working substitute for it. It is pathetic to see how
in spite of the convictions thus rooted in Mr. Browning's mind, the
expressed craving for more knowledge, for more light, will now and then
escape him.

Even orthodox Christianity gives no assurance of reunion to those whom
death has separated. It is obvious that Mr. Browning's poetic creed
could hold no conviction regarding it. He hoped for such reunion in
proportion as he wished. There must have been moments in his life when
the wish in its passion overleapt the bounds of hope. 'Prospice' appears
to prove this. But the wide range of imagination, no less than the lack
of knowledge, forbade in him any forecast of the possibilities of the
life to come. He believed that if granted, it would be an advance on the
present--an accession of knowledge if not an increase of happiness. He
was satisfied that whatever it gave, and whatever it withheld, it would
be good. In his normal condition this sufficed to him.

'La Saisiaz' appeared in the early summer of 1878, and with it 'The
Two Poets of Croisic', which had been written immediately after it. The
various incidents of this poem are strictly historical; they lead the
way to a characteristic utterance of Mr. Browning's philosophy of life
to which I shall recur later.

In 1872 Mr. Browning had published a first series of selections from his
works; it was to be followed by a second in 1880. In a preface to the
earlier volume, he indicates the plan which he has followed in the
choice and arrangement of poems; and some such intention runs also
through the second; since he declined a suggestion made to him for the
introduction or placing of a special poem, on the ground of its not
conforming to the end he had in view. It is difficult, in the one case
as in the other, to reconstruct the imagined personality to which his
preface refers; and his words on the later occasion pointed rather to
that idea of a chord of feeling which is raised by the correspondence of
the first and last poems of the respective groups. But either clue may
be followed with interest.

Sorry, no summary available yet.