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Chapter 21

1887-1889

Marriage of Mr. Barrett Browning--Removal to De Vere Gardens--Symptoms
of failing Strength--New Poems; New Edition of his Works--Letters to Mr.
George Bainton, Mr. Smith, and Lady Martin--Primiero and Venice--Letters
to Miss Keep--The last Year in London--Asolo--Letters to Mrs.
Fitz-Gerald, Mrs. Skirrow, and Mr. G. M. Smith.

The last years of Mr. Browning's life were introduced by two auspicious
events, in themselves of very unequal importance, but each in its own
way significant for his happiness and his health. One was his son's
marriage on October 4, 1887, to Miss Fannie Coddington, of New York, a
lady towards whom Mr. Barrett Browning had been strongly attracted when
he was a very young man and she little more than a child; the other, his
own removal from Warwick Crescent to De Vere Gardens, which took place
in the previous June. The change of residence had long been with him
only a question of opportunity. He was once even in treaty for a piece
of ground at Kensington, and intended building a house. That in which
he had lived for so many years had faults of construction and situation
which the lapse of time rendered only more conspicuous; the Regent's
Canal Bill had also doomed it to demolition; and when an opening
presented itself for securing one in all essentials more suitable, he
was glad to seize it, though at the eleventh hour. He had mentally fixed
on the new locality in those earlier days in which he still thought his
son might eventually settle in London; and it possessed at the same time
many advantages for himself. It was warmer and more sheltered than any
which he could have found on the north side of the Park; and, in that
close vicinity to Kensington Gardens, walking might be contemplated as a
pleasure, instead of mere compulsory motion from place to place. It was
only too soon apparent that the time had passed when he could reap much
benefit from the event; but he became aware from the first moment of his
installation in the new home that the conditions of physical life had
become more favourable for him. He found an almost pathetic pleasure
in completing the internal arrangements of the well-built, commodious
house. It seems, on looking back, as if the veil had dropped before his
eyes which sometimes shrouds the keenest vision in face of an impending
change; and he had imagined, in spite of casual utterances which
disclaimed the hope, that a new lease of life was being given to him. He
had for several years been preparing for the more roomy dwelling which
he would probably some day inhabit; and handsome pieces of old furniture
had been stowed away in the house in Warwick Crescent, pending the
occasion for their use. He loved antiquities of this kind, in a manner
which sometimes recalled his father's affection for old books; and most
of these had been bought in Venice, where frequent visits to the
noted curiosity-shops had been his one bond of habit with his tourist
countrymen in that city. They matched the carved oak and massive
gildings and valuable tapestries which had carried something of Casa
Guidi into his first London home. Brass lamps that had once hung inside
chapels in some Catholic church, had long occupied the place of the
habitual gaselier; and to these was added in the following year one of
silver, also brought from Venice--the Jewish 'Sabbath lamp'. Another
acquisition, made only a few months, if indeed so long, before he left
London for the last time, was that of a set of casts representing the
Seasons, which were to stand at intervals on brackets in a certain
unsightly space on his drawing-room wall; and he had said of these,
which I think his son was procuring for him: 'Only my four little heads,
and then I shall not buy another thing for the house'--in a tone of
childlike satisfaction at his completed work.

This summer he merely went to St. Moritz, where he and his sister were,
for the greater part of their stay, again guests of Mrs. Bloomfield
Moore. He was determined to give the London winter a fuller trial in the
more promising circumstances of his new life, and there was much to
be done in De Vere Gardens after his return. His father's six thousand
books, together with those he had himself accumulated, were for the
first time to be spread out in their proper array, instead of crowding
together in rows, behind and behind each other. The new bookcases, which
could stand in the large new study, were waiting to receive them. He did
not know until he tried to fulfil it how greatly the task would tax his
strength. The library was, I believe, never completely arranged.

During this winter of 1887-8 his friends first perceived that a change
had come over him. They did not realize that his life was drawing to a
close; it was difficult to do so when so much of the former elasticity
remained; when he still proclaimed himself 'quite well' so long as he
was not definitely suffering. But he was often suffering; one terrible
cold followed another. There was general evidence that he had at last
grown old. He, however, made no distinct change in his mode of life. Old
habits, suspended by his longer imprisonments to the house, were resumed
as soon as he was set free. He still dined out; still attended the
private view of every, or almost every art exhibition. He kept up his
unceasing correspondence--in one or two cases voluntarily added to it;
though he would complain day after day that his fingers ached from
the number of hours through which he had held his pen. One of the
interesting letters of this period was written to Mr. George Bainton, of
Coventry, to be used, as that gentleman tells me, in the preparation of
a lecture on the 'Art of Effective Written Composition'. It confirms the
statement I have had occasion to make, that no extraneous influence ever
permanently impressed itself on Mr. Browning's style.


29, De Vere Gardens: Oct. 6, '87.

Dear Sir,--I was absent from London when your kind letter reached
this house, to which I removed some time ago--hence the delay in
acknowledging your kindness and replying, in some degree, to your
request. All I can say, however, is this much--and very little--that,
by the indulgence of my father and mother, I was allowed to live my own
life and choose my own course in it; which, having been the same from
the beginning to the end, necessitated a permission to read nearly all
sorts of books, in a well-stocked and very miscellaneous library. I had
no other direction than my parents' taste for whatever was highest and
best in literature; but I found out for myself many forgotten fields
which proved the richest of pastures: and, so far as a preference of
a particular 'style' is concerned, I believe mine was just the same
at first as at last. I cannot name any one author who exclusively
influenced me in that respect,--as to the fittest expression of
thought--but thought itself had many impulsions from very various
sources, a matter not to your present purpose. I repeat, this is
very little to say, but all in my power--and it is heartily at your
service--if not as of any value, at least as a proof that I gratefully
feel your kindness, and am, dear Sir Yours very truly, Robert Browning.


In December 1887 he wrote 'Rosny', the first poem in 'Asolando', and
that which perhaps most displays his old subtle dramatic power; it was
followed by 'Beatrice Signorini' and 'Flute-Music'. Of the 'Bad Dreams'
two or three were also written in London, I think, during that winter.
The 'Ponte dell' Angelo' was imagined during the next autumn in Venice.
'White Witchcraft' had been suggested in the same summer by a letter
from a friend in the Channel Islands which spoke of the number of toads
to be seen there. In the spring of 1888 he began revising his works for
the last, and now entirely uniform edition, which was issued in monthly
volumes, and completed by the July of 1889. Important verbal corrections
were made in 'The Inn Album', though not, I think, in many of the later
poems; but that in which he found most room for improvement was, very
naturally, 'Pauline'; and he wrote concerning it to Mr. Smith the
following interesting letter.


29, De Vere Gardens, W.: Feb. 27, '88.

My dear Smith,--When I received the Proofs of the 1st. vol. on Friday
evening, I made sure of returning them next day--so accurately are they
printed. But on looking at that unlucky 'Pauline', which I have not
touched for half a century, a sudden impulse came over me to take the
opportunity of just correcting the most obvious faults of expression,
versification and construction,--letting the _thoughts_--such as they
are--remain exactly as at first: I have only treated the imperfect
expression of these just as I have now and then done for an amateur
friend, if he asked me and I liked him enough to do so. Not a line
is displaced, none added, none taken away. I have just sent it to the
printer's with an explanatory word: and told him that he will have less
trouble with all the rest of the volumes put together than with this
little portion. I expect to return all the rest to-morrow or next day.

As for the sketch--the portrait--it admits of no very superior
treatment: but, as it is the only one which makes me out youngish,--I
should like to know if an artist could not strengthen the thing by a
pencil touch or two in a few minutes--improve the eyes, eyebrows, and
mouth somewhat. The head too wants improvement: were Pen here he could
manage it all in a moment. Ever truly yours, Robert Browning.


Any attempt at modifying the expressed thoughts of his twenty-first year
would have been, as he probably felt, a futile tampering with the work
of another man; his literary conscience would have forbidden this, if it
had been otherwise possible. But he here proves by his own words what I
have already asserted, that the power of detail correction either was,
or had become by experience, very strong in him.

The history of this summer of 1888 is partly given in a letter to Lady
Martin.


29, De Vere Gardens, W.: Aug. 12, '88.

Dear Lady Martin,--The date of your kind letter,--June 18,--would affect
me indeed, but for the good conscience I retain despite of appearances.
So uncertain have I been as to the course we should take,--my sister and
myself--when the time came for leaving town, that it seemed as if
'next week' might be the eventful week when all doubts would
disappear--perhaps the strange cold weather and interminable rain made
it hard to venture from under one's roof even in fancy of being better
lodged elsewhere. This very day week it was the old story--cold--then
followed the suffocating eight or nine tropical days which forbade any
more delay, and we leave to-morrow for a place called Primiero, near
Feltre--where my son and his wife assure us we may be comfortably--and
coolly--housed, until we can accompany them to Venice, which we may stay
at for a short time. You remember our troubles at Llangollen about the
purchase of a Venetian house . . . ? My son, however, nothing daunted,
and acting under abler counsels than I was fortunate enough to obtain,*
has obtained a still more desirable acquisition, in the shape of the
well-known Rezzonico Palace (that of Pope Clement 13th)--and, I believe,
is to be congratulated on his bargain. I cannot profess the same
interest in this as in the earlier object of his ambition, but am quite
satisfied by the evident satisfaction of the 'young people'. So,--by the
old law of compensation,--while we may expect pleasant days abroad--our
chance is gone of once again enjoying your company in your own lovely
Vale of Llangollen;--had we not been pulled otherwise by the inducements
we could not resist,--another term of delightful weeks--each tipped
with a sweet starry Sunday at the little church leading to the
House Beautiful where we took our rest of an evening spent always
memorably--this might have been our fortunate lot once again! As it is,
perhaps we need more energetic treatment than we should get with you
--for both of us are more oppressed than ever by the exigencies of
the lengthy season, and require still more bracing air than the
gently lulling temperature of Wales. May it be doing you, and dear Sir
Theodore, all the good you deserve--throwing in the share due to us, who
must forego it! With all love from us both, ever affectionately yours
Robert Browning.

* Those of Mr. Alexander Malcolm.

He did start for Italy on the following day, but had become so ill, that
he was on the point of postponing his departure. He suffered throughout
the journey as he had never suffered on any journey before; and during
his first few days at Primiero, could only lead the life of an invalid.
He rallied, however, as usual, under the potent effects of quiet,
fresh air, and sunshine; and fully recovered his normal state before
proceeding to Venice, where the continued sense of physical health
combined with many extraneous circumstances to convert his proposed
short stay into a long one. A letter from the mountains, addressed to a
lady who had never been abroad, and to whom he sometimes wrote with more
descriptive detail than to other friends, gives a touching glimpse of
his fresh delight in the beauties of nature, and his tender constant
sympathy with the animal creation.


Primiero: Sept. 7, '88.

. . . . .

'The weather continues exquisitely temperate, yet sunny, ever since the
clearing thunderstorm of which I must have told you in my last. It is, I
am more and more confirmed in believing, the most beautiful place I
was ever resident in: far more so than Gressoney or even St.-Pierre de
Chartreuse. You would indeed delight in seeing the magnificence of the
mountains,--the range on either side, which morning and evening, in
turn, transmute literally to gold,--I mean what I say. Their utterly
bare ridges of peaks and crags of all shape, quite naked of verdure,
glow like yellow ore; and, at times, there is a silver change, as the
sun prevails or not.

'The valley is one green luxuriance on all sides; Indian corn, with
beans, gourds, and even cabbages, filling up the interstices; and the
flowers, though not presenting any novelty to my uninstructed eyes,
yet surely more large and purely developed than I remember to have seen
elsewhere. For instance, the tiger-lilies in the garden here must be
above ten feet high, every bloom faultless, and, what strikes me as
peculiar, every leaf on the stalk from bottom to top as perfect as if no
insect existed to spoil them by a notch or speck. . . .

'. . . Did I tell you we had a little captive fox,--the most engaging
of little vixens? To my great joy she has broken her chain and escaped,
never to be recaptured, I trust. The original wild and untameable nature
was to be plainly discerned even in this early stage of the whelp's
life: she dug herself, with such baby feet, a huge hole, the use
of which was evident, when, one day, she pounced thence on a stray
turkey--allured within reach by the fragments of fox's breakfast,--the
intruder escaping with the loss of his tail. The creature came back one
night to explore the old place of captivity,--ate some food and retired.
For myself,--I continue absolutely well: I do not walk much, but for
more than amends, am in the open air all day long.'


No less striking is a short extract from a letter written in Venice to
the same friend, Miss Keep.


Ca' Alvise: Oct. 16, '88.

'Every morning at six, I see the sun rise; far more wonderfully, to my
mind, than his famous setting, which everybody glorifies. My bedroom
window commands a perfect view: the still, grey lagune, the few seagulls
flying, the islet of S. Giorgio in deep shadow, and the clouds in a
long purple rack, behind which a sort of spirit of rose burns up till
presently all the rims are on fire with gold, and last of all the orb
sends before it a long column of its own essence apparently: so my day
begins.'


We feel, as we read these late, and even later words, that the lyric
imagination was renewing itself in the incipient dissolution of other
powers. It is the Browning of 'Pippa Passes' who speaks in them.

He suffered less on the whole during the winter of 1888-9. It was
already advanced when he returned to England; and the attacks of cold
and asthma were either shorter or less frequent. He still maintained
throughout the season his old social routine, not omitting his yearly
visit, on the anniversary of Waterloo, to Lord Albemarle, its
last surviving veteran. He went for some days to Oxford during the
commemoration week, and had for the first, as also last time, the
pleasure of Dr. Jowett's almost exclusive society at his beloved Balliol
College. He proceeded with his new volume of poems. A short letter
written to Professor Knight, June 16, and of which the occasion speaks
for itself, fitly closes the labours of his life; for it states his view
of the position and function of poetry, in one brief phrase, which might
form the text to an exhaustive treatise upon them.


29, De Vere Gardens, W.: June 16, 1889.

My dear Professor Knight,--I am delighted to hear that there is a
likelihood of your establishing yourself in Glasgow, and illustrating
Literature as happily as you have expounded Philosophy at St. Andrews.
It is certainly the right order of things: Philosophy first, and Poetry,
which is its highest outcome, afterward--and much harm has been done by
reversing the natural process. How capable you are of doing justice
to the highest philosophy embodied in poetry, your various studies of
Wordsworth prove abundantly; and for the sake of both Literature and
Philosophy I wish you success with all my heart.

Believe me, dear Professor Knight, yours very truly, Robert Browning.


But he experienced, when the time came, more than his habitual
disinclination for leaving home. A distinct shrinking from the fatigue
of going to Italy now added itself to it; for he had suffered when
travelling back in the previous winter, almost as much as on the outward
journey, though he attributed the distress to a different cause: his
nerves were, he thought, shaken by the wearing discomforts incidental
on a broken tooth. He was for the first time painfully sensitive to
the vibration of the train. He had told his friends, both in Venice and
London, that so far as he was able to determine, he would never return
to Italy. But it was necessary he should go somewhere, and he had no
alternative plan. For a short time in this last summer he entertained
the idea of a visit to Scotland; it had indeed definitely shaped itself
in his mind; but an incident, trivial in itself, though he did not think
it so, destroyed the first scheme, and it was then practically too late
to form another. During the second week in August the weather broke.
There could no longer be any question of the northward journey without
even a fixed end in view. His son and daughter had taken possession of
their new home, the Palazzo Rezzonico, and were anxious to see him and
Miss Browning there; their wishes naturally had weight. The casting vote
in favour of Venice was given by a letter from Mrs. Bronson, proposing
Asolo as the intermediate stage. She had fitted up for herself a little
summer retreat there, and promised that her friends should, if they
joined her, be also comfortably installed. The journey was this time
propitious. It was performed without imprudent haste, and Mr. Browning
reached Asolo unfatigued and to all appearance well.

He saw this, his first love among Italian cities, at a season of the
year more favourable to its beauty than even that of his first visit;
yet he must himself have been surprised by the new rapture of admiration
which it created in him, and which seemed to grow with his lengthened
stay. This state of mind was the more striking, that new symptoms of his
physical decline were now becoming apparent, and were in themselves of a
depressing kind. He wrote to a friend in England, that the atmosphere
of Asolo, far from being oppressive, produced in him all the effects of
mountain air, and he was conscious of difficulty of breathing whenever
he walked up hill. He also suffered, as the season advanced, great
inconvenience from cold. The rooms occupied by himself and his sister
were both unprovided with fireplaces; and though the daily dinner with
Mrs. Bronson obviated the discomfort of the evenings, there remained
still too many hours of the autumnal day in which the impossibility of
heating their own little apartment must have made itself unpleasantly
felt. The latter drawback would have been averted by the fulfilment of
Mr. Browning's first plan, to be in Venice by the beginning of October,
and return to the comforts of his own home before the winter had quite
set in; but one slight motive for delay succeeded another, till at last
a more serious project introduced sufficient ground of detention. He
seemed possessed by a strange buoyancy--an almost feverish joy in life,
which blunted all sensations of physical distress, or helped him to
misinterpret them. When warned against the imprudence of remaining where
he knew he suffered from cold, and believed, rightly or wrongly, that
his asthmatic tendencies were increased, he would reply that he was
growing acclimatized--that he was quite well. And, in a fitful or
superficial sense, he must have been so.

His letters of that period are one continuous picture, glowing with
his impressions of the things which they describe. The same words will
repeat themselves as the same subject presents itself to his pen; but
the impulse to iteration scarcely ever affects us as mechanical.
It seems always a fresh response to some new stimulus to thought or
feeling, which he has received. These reach him from every side. It is
not only the Asolo of this peaceful later time which has opened before
him, but the Asolo of 'Pippa Passes' and 'Sordello'; that which first
stamped itself on his imagination in the echoes of the Court life of
Queen Catharine,* and of the barbaric wars of the Eccelini. Some of his
letters dwell especially on these early historical associations: on the
strange sense of reopening the ancient chronicle which he had so deeply
studied fifty years before. The very phraseology of the old Italian
text, which I am certain he had never glanced at from that distant time,
is audible in an account of the massacre of San Zenone, the scene of
which he has been visiting. To the same correspondent he says that
his two hours' drive to Asolo 'seemed to be a dream;' and again, after
describing, or, as he thinks, only trying to describe some beautiful
feature of the place, 'but it is indescribable!'

* Catharine Cornaro, the dethroned queen of Cyprus.

A letter addressed to Mrs. FitzGerald, October 8, 1889, is in part a
fitting sequel to that which he had written to her from the same spot,
eleven years before.


'. . . Fortunately there is little changed here: my old
Albergo,--ruinous with earthquake--is down and done with--but few
novelties are observable--except the regrettable one that the silk
industry has been transported elsewhere--to Cornuda and other places
nearer the main railway. No more Pippas--at least of the silk-winding
sort!

'But the pretty type is far from extinct.

'Autumn is beginning to paint the foliage, but thin it as well; and
the sea of fertility all round our height, which a month ago showed
pomegranates and figs and chestnuts,--walnuts and apples all rioting
together in full glory,--all this is daily disappearing. I say nothing
of the olive and the vine. I find the Turret rather the worse for
careful weeding--the hawks which used to build there have been "shot for
food"--and the echo is sadly curtailed of its replies; still, things
are the same in the main. Shall I ever see them again, when--as I
suppose--we leave for Venice in a fortnight? . . .'


In the midst of this imaginative delight he carried into his walks the
old keen habits of observation. He would peer into the hedges for what
living things were to be found there. He would whistle softly to the
lizards basking on the low walls which border the roads, to try his old
power of attracting them.

On the 15th of October he wrote to Mrs. Skirrow, after some preliminary
description:


Then--such a view over the whole Lombard plain; not a site in view, or
_approximate_ view at least, without its story. Autumn is now painting all
the abundance of verdure,--figs, pomegranates, chestnuts, and vines, and
I don't know what else,--all in a wonderful confusion,--and now glowing
with all the colours of the rainbow. Some weeks back, the little town
was glorified by the visit of a decent theatrical troop who played in a
theatre _in_side the old palace of Queen Catharine Cornaro--utilized also
as a prison in which I am informed are at present full five if not six
malefactors guilty of stealing grapes, and the like enormities. Well,
the troop played for a fortnight together exceedingly well--high tragedy
and low comedy--and the stage-box which I occupied cost 16 francs. The
theatre had been out of use for six years, for we are out of the way
and only a baiting-place for a company pushing on to Venice. In fine, we
shall stay here probably for a week or more,--and then proceed to Pen,
at the Rezzonico; a month there, and then homewards! . . .

I delight in finding that the beloved Husband and precious friend
manages to do without the old yoke about his neck, and enjoys himself as
never anybody had a better right to do. I continue to congratulate him
on his emancipation and ourselves on a more frequent enjoyment of his
company in consequence.* Give him my true love; take mine, dearest
friend,--and my sister's love to you both goes with it. Ever
affectionately yours Robert Browning.

* Mr. Skirrow had just resigned his post of Master in
Chancery.

The cry of 'homewards!' now frequently recurs in his letters. We find it
in one written a week later to Mr. G. M. Smith, otherwise very
expressive of his latest condition of mind and feeling.


Asolo, Veneto, Italia: Oct. 22, '89.

My dear Smith,--I was indeed delighted to get your letter two days ago--
for there _are_ such accidents as the loss of a parcel, even when it has
been despatched from so important a place as this city--for a regular
city it is, you must know, with all the rights of one,--older far than
Rome, being founded by the Euganeans who gave their name to the
adjoining hills. 'Fortified' is was once, assuredly, and the walls
still surround it most picturesquely though mainly in utter ruin, and
you even overrate the population, which does not now much exceed 900
souls--in the city Proper, that is--for the territory below and around
contains some 10,000. But we are at the very top of things, garlanded
about, as it were, with a narrow line of houses,--some palatial, such as
you would be glad to see in London,--and above all towers the old
dwelling of Queen Cornaro, who was forced to exchange her Kingdom of
Cyprus for this pretty but petty dominion where she kept state in a
mimic Court, with Bembo, afterwards Cardinal, for her secretary--who has
commemorated the fact in his 'Asolani' or dialogues inspired by the
place: and I do assure you that, after some experience of beautiful
sights in Italy and elsewhere I know nothing comparable to the view from
the Queen's tower and palace, still perfect in every respect. Whenever
you pay Pen and his wife the visit you are pledged to, * it will go hard
but you spend five hours in a journey to Asolo. The one thing I am
disappointed in is to find that the silk-cultivation with all the pretty
girls who were engaged in it are transported to Cornuda and other
places,--nearer the railway, I suppose: and to this may be attributed
the decrease in the number of inhabitants. The weather when I wrote last
_was_ 'blue and blazing--(at noon-day)--' but we share in the general
plague of rain,--had a famous storm yesterday: while to-day is blue and
sunny as ever. Lastly, for your admonition: we _have_ a perfect
telegraphic communication; and at the passage above, where I put a * I
was interrupted by the arrival of a telegram: thank you all the same for
your desire to relieve my anxiety. And now, to our immediate business--
which is only to keep thanking you for your constant goodness, present
and future: do with the book just as you will. I fancy it is bigger in
bulk than usual. As for the 'proofs'--I go at the end of the month to
Venice, whither you will please to send whatever is necessary. . . . I
shall do well to say as little as possible of my good wishes for you and
your family, for it comes to much the same thing as wishing myself
prosperity: no matter, my sister's kindest regards shall excuse mine,
and I will only add that I am, as ever, Affectionately yours Robert
Browning.


A general quickening of affectionate impulse seemed part of this last
leap in the socket of the dying flame.


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