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Chapter 20

Constancy to Habit--Optimism--Belief in Providence--Political
Opinions--His Friendships--Reverence for Genius--Attitude towards
his Public--Attitude towards his Work--Habits of Work--His
Reading--Conversational Powers--Impulsiveness and Reserve--Nervous
Peculiarities--His Benevolence--His Attitude towards Women.

When Mr. Browning wrote to Miss Haworth, in the July of 1861, he had
said: 'I shall still grow, I hope; but my root is taken, and remains.'
He was then alluding to a special offshoot of feeling and association,
on the permanence of which it is not now necessary to dwell; but it
is certain that he continued growing up to a late age, and that the
development was only limited by those general roots, those fixed
conditions of his being, which had predetermined its form. This
progressive intellectual vitality is amply represented in his works; it
also reveals itself in his letters in so far as I have been allowed to
publish them. I only refer to it to give emphasis to a contrasted or
corresponding characteristic: his aversion to every thought of change. I
have spoken of his constancy to all degrees of friendship and love. What
he loved once he loved always, from the dearest man or woman to whom his
allegiance had been given, to the humblest piece of furniture which had
served him. It was equally true that what he had done once he was wont,
for that very reason, to continue doing. The devotion to habits of
feeling extended to habits of life; and although the lower constancy
generally served the purposes of the higher, it also sometimes clashed
with them. It conspired with his ready kindness of heart to make him
subject to circumstances which at first appealed to him through that
kindness, but lay really beyond its scope. This statement, it is true,
can only fully apply to the latter part of his life. His powers of
reaction must originally have been stronger, as well as freer from the
paralysis of conflicting motive and interest. The marked shrinking from
effort in any untried direction, which was often another name for his
stability, could scarcely have coexisted with the fresher and more
curious interest in men and things; we know indeed from recorded facts
that it was a feeling of later growth; and it visibly increased with the
periodical nervous exhaustion of his advancing years. I am convinced,
nevertheless, that, when the restiveness of boyhood had passed away,
Mr. Browning's strength was always more passive than active; that he
habitually made the best of external conditions rather than tried to
change them. He was a 'fighter' only by the brain. And on this point,
though on this only, his work is misleading.

The acquiescent tendency arose in some degree from two equally prominent
characteristics of Mr. Browning's nature: his optimism, and his belief
in direct Providence; and these again represented a condition of
mind which was in certain respects a quality, but must in others be
recognized as a defect. It disposed him too much to make a virtue of
happiness. It tended also to the ignoring or denying of many incidental
possibilities, and many standing problems of human suffering. The first
part of this assertion is illustrated by 'The Two Poets of Croisic',
in which Mr. Browning declares that, other conditions being equal,
the greater poet will have been he who led the happier life, who most
completely--and we must take this in the human as well as religious
sense--triumphed over suffering. The second has its proof in the
contempt for poetic melancholy which flashes from the supposed utterance
of Shakespeare in 'At the Mermaid'; its negative justification in the
whole range of his work.

Such facts may be hard to reconcile with others already known of Mr.
Browning's nature, or already stated concerning it; but it is in the
depths of that nature that the solution of this, as of more than one
other anomaly, must be sought. It is true that remembered pain dwelt
longer with him than remembered pleasure. It is true that the last great
sorrow of his life was long felt and cherished by him as a religion, and
that it entered as such into the courage with which he first confronted
it. It is no less true that he directly and increasingly cultivated
happiness; and that because of certain sufferings which had been
connected with them, he would often have refused to live his happiest
days again.

It seems still harder to associate defective human sympathy with his
kind heart and large dramatic imagination, though that very imagination
was an important factor in the case. It forbade the collective and
mathematical estimate of human suffering, which is so much in favour
with modern philanthropy, and so untrue a measure for the individual
life; and he indirectly condemns it in 'Ferishtah's Fancies' in the
parable of 'Bean Stripes'. But his dominant individuality also barred
the recognition of any judgment or impression, any thought or feeling,
which did not justify itself from his own point of view. The barrier
would melt under the influence of a sympathetic mood, as it would
stiffen in the atmosphere of disagreement. It would yield, as did in his
case so many other things, to continued indirect pressure, whether from
his love of justice, the strength of his attachments, or his power
of imaginative absorption. But he was bound by the conditions of an
essentially creative nature. The subjectiveness, if I may for once use
that hackneyed word, had passed out of his work only to root itself more
strongly in his life. He was self-centred, as the creative nature must
inevitably be. He appeared, for this reason, more widely sympathetic in
his works than in his life, though even in the former certain grounds of
vicarious feeling remained untouched. The sympathy there displayed was
creative and obeyed its own law. That which was demanded from him by
reality was responsive, and implied submission to the law of other
minds.

Such intellectual egotism is unconnected with moral selfishness, though
it often unconsciously does its work. Were it otherwise, I should have
passed over in silence this aspect, comprehensive though it is, of Mr.
Browning's character. He was capable of the largest self-sacrifice and
of the smallest self-denial; and would exercise either whenever love
or duty clearly pointed the way. He would, he believed, cheerfully have
done so at the command, however arbitrary, of a Higher Power; he often
spoke of the absence of such injunction, whether to endurance or action,
as the great theoretical difficulty of life for those who, like himself,
rejected or questioned the dogmatic teachings of Christianity. This
does not mean that he ignored the traditional moralities which have so
largely taken their place. They coincided in great measure with his own
instincts; and few occasions could have arisen in which they would not
be to him a sufficient guide. I may add, though this is a digression,
that he never admitted the right of genius to defy them; when such a
right had once been claimed for it in his presence, he rejoined
quickly, 'That is an error! _noblesse oblige_.' But he had difficulty in
acknowledging any abstract law which did not derive from a Higher Power;
and this fact may have been at once cause and consequence of the special
conditions of his own mind. All human or conventional obligation appeals
finally to the individual judgment; and in his case this could easily be
obscured by the always militant imagination, in regard to any subject
in which his feelings were even indirectly concerned. No one saw
more justly than he, when the object of vision was general or remote.
Whatever entered his personal atmosphere encountered a refracting medium
in which objects were decomposed, and a succession of details, each held
as it were close to the eye, blocked out the larger view.

We have seen, on the other hand, that he accepted imperfect knowledge as
part of the discipline of experience. It detracted in no sense from his
conviction of direct relations with the Creator. This was indeed the
central fact of his theology, as the absolute individual existence had
been the central fact of his metaphysics; and when he described the
fatal leap in 'Red Cotton Nightcap Country' as a frantic appeal to the
Higher Powers for the 'sign' which the man's religion did not afford,
and his nature could not supply, a special dramatic sympathy was at
work within him. The third part of the epilogue to 'Dramatis Personae'
represented his own creed; though this was often accentuated in the
sense of a more personal privilege, and a perhaps less poetic mystery,
than the poem conveys. The Evangelical Christian and the subjective
idealist philosopher were curiously blended in his composition.

The transition seems violent from this old-world religion to any system
of politics applicable to the present day. They were, nevertheless,
closely allied in Mr. Browning's mind. His politics were, so far as they
went, the practical aspect of his religion. Their cardinal doctrine was
the liberty of individual growth; removal of every barrier of prejudice
or convention by which it might still be checked. He had been a Radical
in youth, and probably in early manhood; he remained, in the truest
sense of the word, a Liberal; and his position as such was defined in
the sonnet prefixed in 1886 to Mr. Andrew Reid's essay, 'Why I am a
Liberal', and bearing the same name. Its profession of faith did not,
however, necessarily bind him to any political party. It separated him
from all the newest developments of so-called Liberalism. He respected
the rights of property. He was a true patriot, hating to see his country
plunged into aggressive wars, but tenacious of her position among the
empires of the world. He was also a passionate Unionist; although the
question of our political relations with Ireland weighed less with him,
as it has done with so many others, than those considerations of law and
order, of honesty and humanity, which have been trampled under foot in
the name of Home Rule. It grieved and surprised him to find himself on
this subject at issue with so many valued friends; and no pain of Lost
Leadership was ever more angry or more intense, than that which came to
him through the defection of a great statesman whom he had honoured and
loved, from what he believed to be the right cause.

The character of Mr. Browning's friendships reveals itself in great
measure in even a simple outline of his life. His first friends of
his own sex were almost exclusively men of letters, by taste if not by
profession; the circumstances of his entrance into society made this a
matter of course. In later years he associated on cordial terms with
men of very various interests and professions; and only writers of
conspicuous merit, whether in prose or poetry, attracted him as such. No
intercourse was more congenial to him than that of the higher class of
English clergymen. He sympathized in their beliefs even when he did not
share them. Above all he loved their culture; and the love of culture in
general, of its old classic forms in particular, was as strong in him as
if it had been formed by all the natural and conventional associations
of a university career. He had hearty friends and appreciators among the
dignitaries of the Church--successive Archbishops and Bishops, Deans
of Westminster and St. Paul's. They all knew the value of the great
freelance who fought like the gods of old with the regular army. No
name, however, has been mentioned in the poet's family more frequently
or with more affection than that of the Rev. J. D. W. Williams, Vicar
of Bottisham in Cambridgeshire. The mutual acquaintance, which was made
through Mr. Browning's brother-in-law, Mr. George Moulton-Barrett,
was prepared by Mr. Williams' great love for his poems, of which he
translated many into Latin and Greek; but I am convinced that Mr.
Browning's delight in his friend's classical attainments was quite as
great as his gratification in the tribute he himself derived from them.

His love of genius was a worship: and in this we must include his whole
life. Nor was it, as this feeling so often is, exclusively exercised
upon the past. I do not suppose his more eminent contemporaries ever
quite knew how generous his enthusiasm for them had been, how free from
any under-current of envy, or impulse to avoidable criticism. He could
not endure even just censure of one whom he believed, or had believed
to be great. I have seen him wince under it, though no third person was
present, and heard him answer, 'Don't! don't!' as if physical pain were
being inflicted on him. In the early days he would make his friend, M.
de Monclar, draw for him from memory the likenesses of famous writers
whom he had known in Paris; the sketches thus made of George Sand and
Victor Hugo are still in the poet's family. A still more striking
and very touching incident refers to one of the winters, probably the
second, which he spent in Paris. He was one day walking with little Pen,
when Beranger came in sight, and he bade the child 'run up to' or 'run
past that gentleman, and put his hand for a moment upon him.' This was
a great man, he afterwards explained, and he wished his son to be able
by-and-by to say that if he had not known, he had at all events touched
him. Scientific genius ranked with him only second to the poetical.

Mr. Browning's delicate professional sympathies justified some
sensitiveness on his own account; but he was, I am convinced, as free
from this quality as a man with a poet-nature could possibly be. It may
seem hazardous to conjecture how serious criticism would have affected
him. Few men so much 'reviewed' have experienced so little. He was by
turns derided or ignored, enthusiastically praised, zealously analyzed
and interpreted: but the independent judgment which could embrace at
once the quality of his mind and its defects, is almost absent--has been
so at all events during later years--from the volumes which have been
written about him. I am convinced, nevertheless, that he would have
accepted serious, even adverse criticism, if it had borne the impress of
unbiassed thought and genuine sincerity. It could not be otherwise with
one in whom the power of reverence was so strongly marked.

He asked but one thing of his reviewers, as he asked but one thing of
his larger public. The first demand is indicated in a letter to Mrs.
Frank Hill, of January 31, 1884.


Dear Mrs. Hill,--Could you befriend me? The 'Century' prints a little
insignificance of mine--an impromptu sonnet--but prints it _correctly_.
The 'Pall Mall' pleases to extract it--and produces what I enclose:
one line left out, and a note of admiration (!) turned into an I, and
a superfluous 'the' stuck in--all these blunders with the correctly
printed text before it! So does the charge of unintelligibility attach
itself to your poor friend--who can kick nobody. Robert Browning.


The carelessness often shown in the most friendly quotation could hardly
be absent from that which was intended to support a hostile view; and
the only injustice of which he ever complained, was what he spoke of
as falsely condemning him out of his own mouth. He used to say: 'If a
critic declares that any poem of mine is unintelligible, the reader
may go to it and judge for himself; but, if it is made to appear
unintelligible by a passage extracted from it and distorted by
misprints, I have no redress.' He also failed to realize those
conditions of thought, and still more of expression, which made him
often on first reading difficult to understand; and as the younger
generation of his admirers often deny those difficulties where they
exist, as emphatically as their grandfathers proclaimed them where they
did not, public opinion gave him little help in the matter.

The second (unspoken) request was in some sense an antithesis to the
first. Mr. Browning desired to be read accurately but not literally. He
deprecated the constant habit of reading him into his work; whether in
search of the personal meaning of a given passage or poem, or in the
light of a foregone conclusion as to what that meaning must be. The
latter process was that generally preferred, because the individual mind
naturally seeks its own reflection in the poet's work, as it does in the
facts of nature. It was stimulated by the investigations of the Browning
Societies, and by the partial familiarity with his actual life which
constantly supplied tempting, if untrustworthy clues. It grew out of the
strong personal as well as literary interest which he inspired. But the
tendency to listen in his work for a single recurrent note always struck
him as analogous to the inspection of a picture gallery with eyes blind
to every colour but one; and the act of sympathy often involved in this
mode of judgment was neutralized for him by the limitation of his genius
which it presupposed. His general objection to being identified with
his works is set forth in 'At the Mermaid', and other poems of the same
volume, in which it takes the form of a rather captious protest against
inferring from the poet any habit or quality of the man; and where also,
under the impulse of the dramatic mood, he enforces the lesson by saying
more than he can possibly mean. His readers might object that his
human personality was so often plainly revealed in his poetic utterance
(whether or not that of Shakespeare was), and so often also avowed by
it, that the line which divided them became impossible to draw. But he
again would have rejoined that the Poet could never express himself with
any large freedom, unless a fiction of impersonality were granted to
him. He might also have alleged, he often did allege, that in his case
the fiction would hold a great deal of truth; since, except in
the rarest cases, the very fact of poetic, above all of dramatic
reproduction, detracts from the reality of the thought or feeling
reproduced. It introduces the alloy of fancy without which the fixed
outlines of even living experience cannot be welded into poetic form. He
claimed, in short, that in judging of his work, one should allow for the
action in it of the constructive imagination, in the exercise of which
all deeper poetry consists. The form of literalism, which showed itself
in seeking historical authority for every character or incident which he
employed by way of illustration, was especially irritating to him.

I may (as indeed I must) concede this much, without impugning either
the pleasure or the gratitude with which he recognized the increasing
interest in his poems, and, if sometimes exhibited in a mistaken form,
the growing appreciation of them.

There was another and more striking peculiarity in Mr. Browning's
attitude towards his works: his constant conviction that the latest must
be the best, because the outcome of the fullest mental experience, and
of the longest practice in his art. He was keenly alive to the necessary
failings of youthful literary production; he also practically denied to
it that quality which so often places it at an advantage over that, not
indeed of more mature manhood, but at all events of advancing age. There
was much in his own experience to blind him to the natural effects of
time; it had been a prolonged triumph over them. But the delusion, in so
far as it was one, lay deeper than the testimony of such experience, and
would I think have survived it. It was the essence of his belief that
the mind is superior to physical change; that it may be helped or
hindered by its temporary alliance with the body, but will none the less
outstrip it in their joint course; and as intellect was for him the life
of poetry, so was the power of poetry independent of bodily progress and
bodily decline. This conviction pervaded his life. He learned, though
happily very late, to feel age an impediment; he never accepted it as a
disqualification.

He finished his work very carefully. He had the better right to
resent any garbling of it, that this habitually took place through
his punctuation, which was always made with the fullest sense of its
significance to any but the baldest style, and of its special importance
to his own. I have heard him say: 'People accuse me of not taking pains!
I take nothing _but_ pains!' And there was indeed a curious contrast
between the irresponsible, often strangely unquestioned, impulse to
which the substance of each poem was due, and the conscientious labour
which he always devoted to its form. The laborious habit must have grown
upon him; it was natural that it should do so as thought gained the
ascendency over emotion in what he had to say. Mrs. Browning told Mr.
Val Prinsep that her husband 'worked at a great rate;' and this fact
probably connected itself with the difficulty he then found in altering
the form or wording of any particular phrase; he wrote most frequently
under that lyrical inspiration in which the idea and the form are least
separable from each other. We know, however, that in the later editions
of his old work he always corrected where he could; and if we notice
the changed lines in 'Paracelsus' or 'Sordello', as they appear in the
edition of 1863, or the slighter alterations indicated for the last
reprint of his works, we are struck by the care evinced in them for
greater smoothness of expression, as well as for greater accuracy and
force.

He produced less rapidly in later life, though he could throw off
impromptu verses, whether serious or comical, with the utmost ease.
His work was then of a kind which required more deliberation; and other
claims had multiplied upon his time and thoughts. He was glad to have
accomplished twenty or thirty lines in a morning. After lunch-time, for
many years, he avoided, when possible, even answering a note. But he
always counted a day lost on which he had not written something; and in
those last years on which we have yet to enter, he complained bitterly
of the quantity of ephemeral correspondence which kept him back from
his proper work. He once wrote, on the occasion of a short illness which
confined him to the house, 'All my power of imagination seems gone. I
might as well be in bed!' He repeatedly determined to write a poem every
day, and once succeeded for a fortnight in doing so. He was then in
Paris, preparing 'Men and Women'. 'Childe Roland' and 'Women and Roses'
were among those produced on this plan; the latter having been suggested
by some flowers sent to his wife. The lyrics in 'Ferishtah's Fancies'
were written, I believe, on consecutive days; and the intention renewed
itself with his last work, though it cannot have been maintained.

He was not as great a reader in later as in earlier years; he had
neither time nor available strength to be so if he had wished; and he
absorbed almost unconsciously every item which added itself to the
sum of general knowledge. Books had indeed served for him their most
important purpose when they had satisfied the first curiosities of his
genius, and enabled it to establish its independence. His mind was made
up on the chief subjects of contemporary thought, and what was novel or
controversial in its proceeding had no attraction for him. He would read
anything, short of an English novel, to a friend whose eyes required
this assistance; but such pleasure as he derived from the act was more
often sympathetic than spontaneous, even when he had not, as he often
had, selected for it a book which he already knew. In the course of his
last decade he devoted himself for a short time to the study of Spanish
and Hebrew. The Spanish dramatists yielded him a fund of new enjoyment;
and he delighted in his power of reading Hebrew in its most difficult
printed forms. He also tried, but with less result, to improve his
knowledge of German. His eyesight defied all obstacles of bad paper and
ancient type, and there was anxiety as well as pleasure to those about
him in his unfailing confidence in its powers. He never wore spectacles,
nor had the least consciousness of requiring them. He would read an
old closely printed volume by the waning light of a winter afternoon,
positively refusing to use a lamp. Indeed his preference of the faintest
natural light to the best that could be artificially produced was
perhaps the one suggestion of coming change. He used for all purposes
a single eye; for the two did not combine in their action, the right
serving exclusively for near, the left for distant objects. This was why
in walking he often closed the right eye; while it was indispensable
to his comfort in reading, not only that the light should come from
the right side, but that the left should be shielded from any luminous
object, like the fire, which even at the distance of half the length of
a room would strike on his field of vision and confuse the near sight.

His literary interest became increasingly centred on records of the
lives of men and women; especially of such men and women as he had
known; he was generally curious to see the newly published biographies,
though often disappointed by them. He would also read, even for his
amusement, good works of French or Italian fiction. His allegiance to
Balzac remained unshaken, though he was conscious of lengthiness when he
read him aloud. This author's deep and hence often poetic realism was,
I believe, bound up with his own earliest aspirations towards dramatic
art. His manner of reading aloud a story which he already knew was
the counterpart of his own method of construction. He would claim his
listener's attention for any apparently unimportant fact which had a
part to play in it: he would say: 'Listen to this description: it will
be important. Observe this character: you will see a great deal more of
him or her.' We know that in his own work nothing was thrown away; no
note was struck which did not add its vibration to the general utterance
of the poem; and his habitual generosity towards a fellow-worker
prompted him to seek and recognize the same quality, even in productions
where it was less conspicuous than in his own. The patient reading which
he required for himself was justified by that which he always demanded
for others; and he claimed it less in his own case for his possible
intricacies of thought or style, than for that compactness of living
structure in which every detail or group of details was essential to the
whole, and in a certain sense contained it. He read few things with so
much pleasure as an occasional chapter in the Old Testament.

Mr. Browning was a brilliant talker; he was admittedly more a talker
than a conversationalist. But this quality had nothing in common with
self-assertion or love of display. He had too much respect for the
acquirements of other men to wish to impose silence on those who
were competent to speak; and he had great pleasure in listening to a
discussion on any subject in which he was interested, and on which
he was not specially informed. He never willingly monopolized the
conversation; but when called upon to take a prominent part in it,
either with one person or with several, the flow of remembered knowledge
and revived mental experience, combined with the ingenuous eagerness to
vindicate some point in dispute would often carry him away; while his
hearers, nearly as often, allowed him to proceed from absence of any
desire to interrupt him. This great mental fertility had been prepared
by the wide reading and thorough assimilation of his early days; and it
was only at a later, and in certain respects less vigorous period, that
its full bearing could be seen. His memory for passing occurrences, even
such as had impressed him, became very weak; it was so before he had
grown really old; and he would urge this fact in deprecation of any want
of kindness or sympathy, which a given act of forgetfulness might seem
to involve. He had probably always, in matters touching his own life,
the memory of feelings more than that of facts. I think this has been
described as a peculiarity of the poet-nature; and though this memory
is probably the more tenacious of the two, it is no safe guide to the
recovery of facts, still less to that of their order and significance.
Yet up to the last weeks, even the last conscious days of his life,
his remembrance of historical incident, his aptness of literary
illustration, never failed him. His dinner-table anecdotes supplied,
of course, no measure for this spontaneous reproductive power; yet some
weight must be given to the number of years during which he could
abound in such stories, and attest their constant appropriateness by not
repeating them.

This brilliant mental quality had its drawback, on which I have already
touched in a rather different connection: the obstacle which it created
to even serious and private conversation on any subject on which he was
not neutral. Feeling, imagination, and the vividness of personal points
of view, constantly thwarted the attempt at a dispassionate exchange of
ideas. But the balance often righted itself when the excitement of
the discussion was at an end; and it would even become apparent that
expressions or arguments which he had passed over unheeded, or as it
seemed unheard, had stored themselves in his mind and borne fruit there.

I think it is Mr. Sharp who has remarked that Mr. Browning combined
impulsiveness of manner with much real reserve. He was habitually
reticent where his deeper feelings were concerned; and the impulsiveness
and the reticence were both equally rooted in his poetic and human
temperament. The one meant the vital force of his emotions, the other
their sensibility. In a smaller or more prosaic nature they must have
modified each other. But the partial secretiveness had also occasionally
its conscious motives, some unselfish, and some self-regarding; and from
this point of view it stood in marked apparent antagonism to the more
expansive quality. He never, however, intentionally withheld from others
such things as it concerned them to know. His intellectual and religious
convictions were open to all who seriously sought them; and if, even
on such points, he did not appear communicative, it was because he took
more interest in any subject of conversation which did not directly
centre in himself.

Setting aside the delicacies which tend to self-concealment, and for
which he had been always more or less conspicuous; excepting also the
pride which would co-operate with them, all his inclinations were in
the direction of truth; there was no quality which he so much loved
and admired. He thought aloud wherever he could trust himself to do so.
Impulse predominated in all the active manifestations of his nature. The
fiery child and the impatient boy had left their traces in the man; and
with them the peculiar childlike quality which the man of genius never
outgrows, and which, in its mingled waywardness and sweetness, was
present in Robert Browning till almost his dying day. There was also a
recurrent touch of hardness, distinct from the comparatively ungenial
mood of his earlier years of widowhood; and this, like his reserve,
seemed to conflict with his general character, but in reality harmonized
with it. It meant, not that feeling was suspended in him, but that it
was compressed. It was his natural response to any opposition which his
reasonings could not shake nor his will overcome, and which, rightly
or not, conveyed to him the sense of being misunderstood. It reacted in
pain for others, but it lay with an aching weight on his own heart, and
was thrown off in an upheaval of the pent-up kindliness and affection,
the moment their true springs were touched. The hardening power in his
composition, though fugitive and comparatively seldom displayed, was in
fact proportioned to his tenderness; and no one who had not seen him
in the revulsion from a hard mood, or the regret for it, knew what that
tenderness could be.

Underlying all the peculiarities of his nature, its strength and its
weakness, its exuberance and its reserves, was the nervous excitability
of which I have spoken in an earlier chapter. I have heard him say:
'I am nervous to such a degree that I might fancy I could not enter a
drawing-room, if I did not know from long experience that I can do it.'
He did not desire to conceal this fact, nor need others conceal it for
him; since it was only calculated to disarm criticism and to
strengthen sympathy. The special vital power which he derived from this
organization need not be reaffirmed. It carried also its inevitable
disablements. Its resources were not always under his own control; and
he frequently complained of the lack of presence of mind which would
seize him on any conventional emergency not included in the daily social
routine. In a real one he was never at fault. He never failed in a
sympathetic response or a playful retort; he was always provided with
the exact counter requisite in a game of words. In this respect indeed
he had all the powers of the conversationalist; and the perfect ease and
grace and geniality of his manner on such occasions, arose probably
far more from his innate human and social qualities than from even his
familiar intercourse with the world. But he could not extemporize a
speech. He could not on the spur of the moment string together the
more or less set phrases which an after-dinner oration demands. All his
friends knew this, and spared him the necessity of refusing. He had
once a headache all day, because at a dinner, the night before, a false
report had reached him that he was going to be asked to speak. This
alone would have sufficed to prevent him from accepting any public
post. He confesses the disability in a pretty note to Professor Knight,
written in reference to a recent meeting of the Wordsworth Society.


19, Warwick Crescent, W.: May 9, '84.

My dear Professor Knight,--I seem ungracious and ungrateful, but am
neither; though, now that your festival is over, I wish I could have
overcome my scruples and apprehensions. It is hard to say--when kind
people press one to 'just speak for a minute'--that the business,
so easy to almost anybody, is too bewildering for oneself. Ever truly
yours, Robert Browning.


A Rectorial Address need probably not have been extemporized, but it
would also have been irksome to him to prepare. He was not accustomed
to uttering himself in prose except within the limits, and under
the incitements, of private correspondence. The ceremonial publicity
attaching to all official proceedings would also have inevitably been a
trial to him. He did at one of the Wordsworth Society meetings speak a
sentence from the chair, in the absence of the appointed chairman,
who had not yet arrived; and when he had received his degree from the
University of Edinburgh he was persuaded to say a few words to the
assembled students, in which I believe he thanked them for their warm
welcome; but such exceptions only proved the rule.

We cannot doubt that the excited stream of talk which sometimes flowed
from him was, in the given conditions of mind and imagination, due to
a nervous impulse which he could not always restrain; and that the
effusiveness of manner with which he greeted alike old friends and new,
arose also from a momentary want of self-possession. We may admit this
the more readily that in both cases it was allied to real kindness
of intention, above all in the latter, where the fear of seeming cold
towards even a friend's friend, strove increasingly with the defective
memory for names and faces which were not quite familiar to him. He was
also profoundly averse to the idea of posing as a man of superior
gifts; having indeed, in regard to social intercourse, as little of the
fastidiousness of genius as of its bohemianism. He, therefore, made it
a rule, from the moment he took his place as a celebrity in the London
world, to exert himself for the amusement of his fellow-guests at a
dinner-table, whether their own mental resources were great or small;
and this gave rise to a frequent effort at conversation, which converted
itself into a habit, and ended by carrying him away. This at least was
his own conviction in the matter. The loud voice, which so many persons
must have learned to think habitual with him, bore also traces of this
half-unconscious nervous stimulation.* It was natural to him in anger
or excitement, but did not express his gentler or more equable states
of feeling; and when he read to others on a subject which moved him,
his utterance often subsided into a tremulous softness which left it
scarcely audible.

* Miss Browning reminds me that loud speaking had become
natural to him through the deafness of several of his
intimate friends: Landor, Kirkup, Barry Cornwall, and
previously his uncle Reuben, whose hearing had been impaired
in early life by a blow from a cricket ball. This fact
necessarily modifies my impression of the case, but does not
quite destroy it.

The mental conditions under which his powers of sympathy were exercised
imposed no limits on his spontaneous human kindness. This characteristic
benevolence, or power of love, is not fully represented in Mr.
Browning's works; it is certainly not prominent in those of the later
period, during which it found the widest scope in his life; but he has
in some sense given its measure in what was intended as an illustration
of the opposite quality. He tells us, in 'Fifine at the Fair', that
while the best strength of women is to be found in their love, the best
product of a man is only yielded to hate. It is the 'indignant wine'
which has been wrung from the grape plant by its external mutilation. He
could depict it dramatically in more malignant forms of emotion; but he
could only think of it personally as the reaction of a nobler feeling
which has been gratuitously outraged or repressed.

He more directly, and still more truly, described himself when he said
at about the same time, 'I have never at any period of my life been deaf
to an appeal made to me in the name of love.' He was referring to an
experience of many years before, in which he had even yielded his better
judgment to such an appeal; and it was love in the larger sense for
which the concession had been claimed.

It was impossible that so genuine a poet, and so real a man, should be
otherwise than sensitive to the varied forms of feminine attraction. He
avowedly preferred the society of women to that of men; they were, as
I have already said, his habitual confidants, and, evidently, his most
frequent correspondents; and though he could have dispensed with woman
friends as he dispensed with many other things--though he most often won
them without knowing it--his frank interest in their sex, and the often
caressing kindness of manner in which it was revealed, might justly
be interpreted by individual women into a conscious appeal to their
sympathy. It was therefore doubly remarkable that on the ground of
benevolence, he scarcely discriminated between the claim on him of a
woman, and that of a man; and his attitude towards women was in this
respect so distinctive as to merit some words of notice. It was large,
generous, and unconventional; but, for that very reason, it was not,
in the received sense of the word, chivalrous. Chivalry proceeds on
the assumption that women not only cannot, but should not, take care
of themselves in any active struggle with life; Mr. Browning had no
theoretical objection to a woman's taking care of herself. He saw no
reason why, if she was hit, she should not hit back again, or even
why, if she hit, she should not receive an answering blow. He responded
swiftly to every feminine appeal to his kindness or his protection,
whether arising from physical weakness or any other obvious cause of
helplessness or suffering; but the appeal in such cases lay first to his
humanity, and only in second order to his consideration of sex. He would
have had a man flogged who beat his wife; he would have had one flogged
who ill-used a child--or an animal: he was notedly opposed to any
sweeping principle or practice of vivisection. But he never quite
understood that the strongest women are weak, or at all events
vulnerable, in the very fact of their sex, through the minor traditions
and conventions with which society justly, indeed necessarily,
surrounds them. Still less did he understand those real, if impalpable,
differences between men and women which correspond to the difference
of position. He admitted the broad distinctions which have become
proverbial, and are therefore only a rough measure of the truth. He
could say on occasion: 'You ought to _be_ better; you are a woman; I ought
to _know_ better; I am a man.' But he had had too large an experience of
human nature to attach permanent weight to such generalizations; and
they found certainly no expression in his works. Scarcely an instance of
a conventional, or so-called man's woman, occurs in their whole range.
Excepting perhaps the speaker in 'A Woman's Last Word', 'Pompilia' and
'Mildred' are the nearest approach to it; and in both of these we
find qualities of imagination or thought which place them outside the
conventional type. He instinctively judged women, both morally and
intellectually, by the same standards as men; and when confronted by
some divergence of thought or feeling, which meant, in the woman's case,
neither quality nor defect in any strict sense of the word, but simply
a nature trained to different points of view, an element of perplexity
entered into his probable opposition. When the difference presented
itself in a neutral aspect, it affected him like the casual
peculiarities of a family or a group, or a casual disagreement between
things of the same kind. He would say to a woman friend: 'You women are
so different from men!' in the tone in which he might have said, 'You
Irish, or you Scotch, are so different from Englishmen;' or again, 'It
is impossible for a man to judge how a woman would act in such or such
a case; you are so different;' the case being sometimes one in which
it would be inconceivable to a normal woman, and therefore to the
generality of men, that she should act in any but one way.

The vague sense of mystery with which the poet's mind usually invests
a being of the opposite sex, had thus often in him its counterpart in
a puzzled dramatic curiosity which constituted an equal ground of
interest.

This virtual admission of equality between the sexes, combined with his
Liberal principles to dispose him favourably towards the movement for
Female Emancipation. He approved of everything that had been done for
the higher instruction of women, and would, not very long ago,
have supported their admission to the Franchise. But he was so much
displeased by the more recent action of some of the lady advocates of
Women's Rights, that, during the last year of his life, after various
modifications of opinion, he frankly pledged himself to the opposite
view. He had even visions of writing a tragedy or drama in support of
it. The plot was roughly sketched, and some dialogue composed, though I
believe no trace of this remains.

It is almost implied by all I have said, that he possessed in every mood
the charm of perfect simplicity of manner. On this point he resembled
his father. His tastes lay also in the direction of great simplicity of
life, though circumstances did not allow of his indulging them to the
same extent. It may interest those who never saw him to know that he
always dressed as well as the occasion required, and always with great
indifference to the subject. In Florence he wore loose clothes which
were adapted to the climate; in London his coats were cut by a good
tailor in whatever was the prevailing fashion; the change was simply
with him an incident of the situation. He had also a look of dainty
cleanliness which was heightened by the smooth healthy texture of the
skin, and in later life by the silvery whiteness of his hair.

His best photographic likenesses were those taken by Mr. Fradelle in
1881, Mr. Cameron and Mr. William Grove in 1888 and 1889.

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