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 2

Robert Browning's Father--His Position in Life--Comparison between
him and his Son--Tenderness towards his Son--Outline of his Habits and
Character--His Death--Significant Newspaper Paragraph--Letter of
Mr. Locker-Lampson--Robert Browning's Mother--Her Character and
Antecedents--Their Influence upon her Son--Nervous Delicacy imparted to
both her Children--Its special Evidences in her Son.

It was almost a matter of course that Robert Browning's father should be
disinclined for bank work. We are told, and can easily imagine, that he
was not so good an official as the grandfather; we know that he did not
rise so high, nor draw so large a salary. But he made the best of
his position for his family's sake, and it was at that time both more
important and more lucrative than such appointments have since become.
Its emoluments could be increased by many honourable means not covered
by the regular salary. The working-day was short, and every additional
hour's service well paid. To be enrolled on the night-watch was also
very remunerative; there were enormous perquisites in pens, paper, and
sealing-wax.* Mr. Browning availed himself of these opportunities of
adding to his income, and was thus enabled, with the help of his private
means, to gratify his scholarly and artistic tastes, and give his
children the benefit of a very liberal education--the one distinct ideal
of success in life which such a nature as his could form. Constituted as
he was, he probably suffered very little through the paternal unkindness
which had forced him into an uncongenial career. Its only palpable
result was to make him a more anxiously indulgent parent when his own
time came.

* I have been told that, far from becoming careless in the
use of these things from his practically unbounded command
of them, he developed for them an almost superstitious
reverence. He could never endure to see a scrap of writing-
paper wasted.

Many circumstances conspired to secure to the coming poet a happier
childhood and youth than his father had had. His path was to be smoothed
not only by natural affection and conscientious care, but by literary
and artistic sympathy. The second Mr. Browning differed, in certain
respects, as much from the third as from the first. There were,
nevertheless, strong points in which, if he did not resemble, he at
least distinctly foreshadowed him; and the genius of the one would lack
some possible explanation if we did not recognize in great measure its
organized material in the other. Much, indeed, that was genius in the
son existed as talent in the father. The moral nature of the younger
man diverged from that of the older, though retaining strong points of
similarity; but the mental equipments of the two differed far less
in themselves than in the different uses to which temperament and
circumstances trained them.

The most salient intellectual characteristic of Mr. Browning senior was
his passion for reading. In his daughter's words, 'he read in season,
and out of season;' and he not only read, but remembered. As a
schoolboy, he knew by heart the first book of the 'Iliad', and all
the odes of Horace; and it shows how deeply the classical part of his
training must have entered into him, that he was wont, in later life, to
soothe his little boy to sleep by humming to him an ode of Anacreon. It
was one of his amusements at school to organize Homeric combats among
the boys, in which the fighting was carried on in the manner of the
Greeks and Trojans, and he and his friend Kenyon would arm themselves
with swords and shields, and hack at each other lustily, exciting
themselves to battle by insulting speeches derived from the Homeric
text.*

* This anecdote is partly quoted from Mrs. Andrew Crosse,
who has introduced it into her article 'John Kenyon and his
Friends',
'Temple Bar', April 1890. She herself received it from Mr.
Dykes Campbell.

Mr. Browning had also an extraordinary power of versifying, and taught
his son from babyhood the words he wished him to remember, by joining
them to a grotesque rhyme; the child learned all his Latin declensions
in this way. His love of art had been proved by his desire to adopt it
as a profession; his talent for it was evidenced by the life and power
of the sketches, often caricatures, which fell from his pen or pencil as
easily as written words. Mr. Barrett Browning remembers gaining a very
early elementary knowledge of anatomy from comic illustrated rhymes
(now in the possession of their old friend, Mrs. Fraser Corkran) through
which his grandfather impressed upon him the names and position of the
principal bones of the human body.

Even more remarkable than his delight in reading was the manner in
which Mr. Browning read. He carried into it all the preciseness of the
scholar. It was his habit when he bought a book--which was generally
an old one allowing of this addition--to have some pages of blank paper
bound into it. These he filled with notes, chronological tables, or such
other supplementary matter as would enhance the interest, or assist the
mastering, of its contents; all written in a clear and firm though by
no means formal handwriting. More than one book thus treated by him
has passed through my hands, leaving in me, it need hardly be said,
a stronger impression of the owner's intellectual quality than the
acquisition by him of the finest library could have conveyed. One of the
experiences which disgusted him with St. Kitt's was the frustration
by its authorities of an attempt he was making to teach a negro boy
to read, and the understanding that all such educative action was
prohibited.

In his faculties and attainments, as in his pleasures and appreciations,
he showed the simplicity and genuineness of a child. He was not only
ready to amuse, he could always identify himself with children, his
love for whom never failed him in even his latest years. His more than
childlike indifference to pecuniary advantages had been shown in early
life. He gave another proof of it after his wife's death, when he
declined a proposal, made to him by the Bank of England, to assist in
founding one of its branch establishments in Liverpool. He never indeed,
personally, cared for money, except as a means of acquiring old, i.e.
rare books, for which he had, as an acquaintance declared, the scent
of a hound and the snap of a bulldog. His eagerness to possess such
treasures was only matched by the generosity with which he parted with
them; and his daughter well remembers the feeling of angry suspicion
with which she and her brother noted the periodical arrival of a certain
visitor who would be closeted with their father for hours, and steal
away before the supper time, when the family would meet, with some
precious parcel of books or prints under his arm.

It is almost superfluous to say that he was indifferent to creature
comforts. Miss Browning was convinced that, if on any occasion she had
said to him, 'There will be no dinner to-day,' he would only have
looked up from his book to reply, 'All right, my dear, it is of no
consequence.' In his bank-clerk days, when he sometimes dined in Town,
he left one restaurant with which he was not otherwise dissatisfied,
because the waiter always gave him the trouble of specifying what he
would have to eat. A hundred times that trouble would not have deterred
him from a kindly act. Of his goodness of heart, indeed, many distinct
instances might be given; but even this scanty outline of his life has
rendered them superfluous.

Mr. Browning enjoyed splendid physical health. His early love of reading
had not precluded a wholesome enjoyment of athletic sports; and he was,
as a boy, the fastest runner and best base-ball player in his school. He
died, like his father, at eighty-four (or rather, within a few days of
eighty-five), but, unlike him, he had never been ill; a French friend
exclaimed when all was over, 'Il n'a jamais ete vieux.' His faculties
were so unclouded up to the last moment that he could watch himself
dying, and speculate on the nature of the change which was befalling
him. 'What do you think death is, Robert?' he said to his son; 'is it
a fainting, or is it a pang?' A notice of his decease appeared in an
American newspaper. It was written by an unknown hand, and bears a stamp
of genuineness which renders the greater part of it worth quoting.


'He was not only a ruddy, active man, with fine hair, that retained its
strength and brownness to the last, but he had a courageous spirit and a
remarkably intelligent mind. He was a man of the finest culture, and was
often, and never vainly, consulted by his son Robert concerning the more
recondite facts relating to the old characters, whose bones that poet
liked so well to disturb. His knowledge of old French, Spanish, and
Italian literature was wonderful. The old man went smiling and peaceful
to his long rest, preserving his faculties to the last, insomuch that
the physician, astonished at his continued calmness and good humour,
turned to his daughter, and said in a low voice, "Does this gentleman
know that he is dying?" The daughter said in a voice which the father
could hear, "He knows it;" and the old man said with a quiet smile,
"Death is no enemy in my eyes." His last words were spoken to his son
Robert, who was fanning him, "I fear I am wearying you, dear."'


Four years later one of his English acquaintances in Paris, Mr.
Frederick Locker, now Mr. Locker-Lampson, wrote to Robert Browning as
follows:


Dec. 26, 1870.

My dear Browning,--I have always thought that you or Miss Browning, or
some other capable person, should draw up a sketch of your excellent
father so that, hereafter, it might be known what an interesting man he
was.

I used often to meet you in Paris, at Lady Elgin's. She had a genuine
taste for poetry, and she liked being read to, and I remember you gave
her a copy of Keats' poems, and you used often to read his poetry to
her. Lady Elgin died in 1860, and I think it was in that year that Lady
Charlotte and I saw the most of Mr. Browning.* He was then quite an
elderly man, if years could make him so, but he had so much vivacity of
manner, and such simplicity and freshness of mind, that it was difficult
to think him old.

* Mr. Locker was then married to Lady Charlotte Bruce, Lady
Elgin's daughter.

I remember, he and your sister lived in an apartment in the Rue de
Grenelle, St. Germain, in quite a simple fashion, much in the way that
most people live in Paris, and in the way that all sensible people would
wish to live all over the world.

Your father and I had at least one taste and affection in common. He
liked hunting the old bookstalls on the 'quais', and he had a great
love and admiration for Hogarth; and he possessed several of Hogarth's
engravings, some in rare and early states of the plate; and he would
relate with glee the circumstances under which he had picked them up,
and at so small a price too! However, he had none of the 'petit-maitre'
weakness of the ordinary collector, which is so common, and which I own
to!--such as an infatuation for tall copies, and wide margins.

I remember your father was fond of drawing in a rough and ready fashion;
he had plenty of talent, I should think not very great cultivation; but
quite enough to serve his purpose, and to amuse his friends. He had a
thoroughly lively and _healthy_ interest in your poetry, and he showed me
some of your boyish attempts at versification.

Taking your dear father altogether, I quite believe him to have been one
of those men--interesting men--whom the world never hears of. Perhaps he
was shy--at any rate he was much less known than he ought to have been;
and now, perhaps, he only remains in the recollection of his family,
and of one or two superior people (like myself!) who were capable of
appreciating him. My dear Browning, I really hope you will draw up a
slight sketch of your father before it is too late. Yours, Frederick
Locker.


The judgments thus expressed twenty years ago are cordially re-stated
in the letter in which Mr. Locker-Lampson authorizes me to publish them.
The desired memoir was never written; but the few details which I have
given of the older Mr. Browning's life and character may perhaps stand
for it.

With regard to the 'strict dissent' with which her parents have been
taxed, Miss Browning writes to me: 'My father was born and educated in
the Church of England, and, for many years before his death, lived in
her communion. He became a Dissenter in middle life, and my mother, born
and brought up in the Kirk of Scotland, became one also; but they could
not be called bigoted, since we always in the evening attended the
preaching of the Rev. Henry Melvill* (afterwards Canon of St. Paul's),
whose sermons Robert much admired.'**

* At Camden Chapel, Camberwell.

** Mr. Browning was much interested, in later years, in
hearing Canon, perhaps then already Archdeacon, Farrar extol
his eloquence and ask whether he had known him. Mr. Ruskin
also spoke of him with admiration.

Little need be said about the poet's mother. She was spoken of by
Carlyle as 'the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman.' Mr. Kenyon
declared that such as she had no need to go to heaven, because they made
it wherever they were. But her character was all resumed in her son's
words, spoken with the tremulous emotion which so often accompanied his
allusion to those he had loved and lost: 'She was a divine woman.' She
was Scotch on the maternal side, and her kindly, gentle, but distinctly
evangelical Christianity must have been derived from that source. Her
father, William Wiedemann, a ship-owner, was a Hamburg German settled
in Dundee, and has been described by Mr. Browning as an accomplished
draughtsman and musician. She herself had nothing of the artist about
her, though we hear of her sometimes playing the piano; in all her
goodness and sweetness she seems to have been somewhat matter-of-fact.
But there is abundant indirect evidence of Mr. Browning's love of
music having come to him through her, and we are certainly justified in
holding the Scottish-German descent as accountable, in great measure
at least, for the metaphysical quality so early apparent in the poet's
mind, and of which we find no evidence in that of his father. His strong
religious instincts must have been derived from both parents, though
most anxiously fostered by his mother.

There is yet another point on which Mrs. Browning must have influenced
the life and destinies of her son, that of physical health, or, at
least, nervous constitution. She was a delicate woman, very anaemic
during her later years, and a martyr to neuralgia, which was perhaps a
symptom of this condition. The acute ailment reproduced itself in
her daughter in spite of an otherwise vigorous constitution. With the
brother, the inheritance of suffering was not less surely present, if
more difficult to trace. We have been accustomed to speaking of him as a
brilliantly healthy man; he was healthy, even strong, in many essential
respects. Until past the age of seventy he could take long walks without
fatigue, and endure an amount of social and general physical strain
which would have tried many younger men. He carried on until the last a
large, if not always serious, correspondence, and only within the latest
months, perhaps weeks of his life, did his letters even suggest that
physical brain-power was failing him. He had, within the limits which
his death has assigned to it, a considerable recuperative power. His
consciousness of health was vivid, so long as he was well; and it was
only towards the end that the faith in his probable length of days
occasionally deserted him. But he died of no acute disease, more than
seven years younger than his father, having long carried with him
external marks of age from which his father remained exempt. Till
towards the age of forty he suffered from attacks of sore-throat, not
frequent, but of an angry kind. He was constantly troubled by imperfect
action of the liver, though no doctor pronounced the evil serious. I
have spoken of this in reference to his complexion. During the last
twenty years, if not for longer, he rarely spent a winter without a
suffocating cold and cough; within the last five, asthmatic symptoms
established themselves; and when he sank under what was perhaps his
first real attack of bronchitis it was not because the attack was very
severe, but because the heart was exhausted. The circumstances of his
death recalled that of his mother; and we might carry the sad analogy
still farther in his increasing pallor, and the slow and not strong
pulse which always characterized him. This would perhaps be a mistake.
It is difficult to reconcile any idea of bloodlessness with the bounding
vitality of his younger body and mind. Any symptom of organic disease
could scarcely, in his case, have been overlooked. But so much is
certain: he was conscious of what he called a nervousness of nature
which neither father nor grandfather could have bequeathed to him. He
imputed to this, or, in other words, to an undue physical sensitiveness
to mental causes of irritation, his proneness to deranged liver, and
the asthmatic conditions which he believed, rightly or wrongly, to be
produced by it. He was perhaps mistaken in some of his inferences, but
he was not mistaken in the fact. He had the pleasures as well as the
pains of this nervous temperament; its quick response to every congenial
stimulus of physical atmosphere, and human contact. It heightened the
enjoyment, perhaps exaggerated the consciousness of his physical powers.
It also certainly in his later years led him to overdraw them. Many
persons have believed that he could not live without society; a
prolonged seclusion from it would, for obvious reasons, have been
unsuited to him. But the excited gaiety which to the last he carried
into every social gathering was often primarily the result of a moral
and physical effort which his temperament prompted, but his strength
could not always justify. Nature avenged herself in recurrent periods of
exhaustion, long before the closing stage had set in.

I shall subsequently have occasion to trace this nervous impressibility
through various aspects and relations of his life; all I now seek to
show is that this healthiest of poets and most real of men was not
compounded of elements of pure health, and perhaps never could have been
so. It might sound grotesque to say that only a delicate woman could
have been the mother of Robert Browning. The fact remains that of such
a one, and no other, he was born; and we may imagine, without being
fanciful, that his father's placid intellectual powers required for
their transmutation into poetic genius just this infusion of a vital
element not only charged with other racial and individual qualities, but
physically and morally more nearly allied to pain. Perhaps, even for his
happiness as a man, we could not have wished it otherwise.

Sorry, no summary available yet.