Proposed Purchase of Land at Asolo--Venice--Letter to Mr. G.
Moulton-Barrett--Lines in the 'Athenaeum'--Letter to Miss
Keep--Illness--Death-- Funeral Ceremonial at Venice--Publication
of 'Asolando'--Interment in Poets' Corner.
He had said in writing to Mrs. FitzGerald, 'Shall I ever see them' (the
things he is describing) 'again?' If not then, soon afterwards, he
conceived a plan which was to insure his doing so. On a piece of ground
belonging to the old castle, stood the shell of a house. The two
constituted one property which the Municipality of Asolo had hitherto
refused to sell. It had been a dream of Mr. Browning's life to possess
a dwelling, however small, in some beautiful spot, which should place
him beyond the necessity of constantly seeking a new summer resort, and
above the alternative of living at an inn, or accepting--as he sometimes
feared, abusing--the hospitality of his friends. He was suddenly
fascinated by the idea of buying this piece of ground; and, with the
efficient help which his son could render during his absence, completing
the house, which should be christened 'Pippa's Tower'. It was evident,
he said in one of his letters, that for his few remaining years his
summer wanderings must always end in Venice. What could he do better
than secure for himself this resting-place by the way?
His offer of purchase was made through Mrs. Bronson, to Count Loredano
and other important members of the municipality, and their personal
assent to it secured. But the town council was on the eve of
re-election; no important business could be transacted by it till after
this event; and Mr. Browning awaited its decision till the end of
October at Asolo, and again throughout November in Venice, without fully
understanding the delay. The vote proved favourable; but the night on
which it was taken was that of his death.
The consent thus given would have been only a first step towards the
accomplishment of his wish. It was necessary that it should be ratified
by the Prefecture of Treviso, in the district of which Asolo lies; and
Mr. Barrett Browning, who had determined to carry on the negotiations,
met with subsequent opposition in the higher council. This has now,
however, been happily overcome.
A comprehensive interest attaches to one more letter of the Asolo time.
It was addressed to Mr. Browning's brother-in-law, Mr. George
Asolo, Veneto: Oct. 22, '89.
My dear George,--It was a great pleasure to get your kind letter; though
after some delay. We were not in the Tyrol this year, but have been for
six weeks or more in this little place which strikes me,--as it did
fifty years ago, which is something to say, considering that, properly
speaking, it was the first spot of Italian soil I ever set foot upon--
having proceeded to Venice by sea--and thence here. It is an ancient
city, older than Rome, and the scene of Queen Catharine Cornaro's exile,
where she held a mock court, with all its attendants, on a miniature
scale; Bembo, afterwards Cardinal, being her secretary. Her palace is
still above us all, the old fortifications surround the hill-top, and
certain of the houses are stately--though the population is not above
1,000 souls: the province contains many more of course. But the immense
charm of the surrounding country is indescribable--I have never seen its
like--the Alps on one side, the Asolan mountains all round,--and
opposite, the vast Lombard plain,--with indications of Venice, Padua,
and the other cities, visible to a good eye on a clear day; while
everywhere are sites of battles and sieges of bygone days, described in
full by the historians of the Middle Ages.
We have a valued friend here, Mrs. Bronson, who for years has been our
hostess at Venice, and now is in possession of a house here (built into
the old city wall)--she was induced to choose it through what I have
said about the beauties of the place: and through her care and kindness
we are comfortably lodged close by. We think of leaving in a week or so
for Venice--guests of Pen and his wife; and after a short stay with them
we shall return to London. Pen came to see us for a couple of days: I
was hardly prepared for his surprise and admiration which quite equalled
my own and that of my sister. All is happily well with them--their
palazzo excites the wonder of everybody, so great is Pen's cleverness,
and extemporised architectural knowledge, as apparent in all he has done
there; why, _why_ will you not go and see him there? He and his wife are
very hospitable and receive many visitors. Have I told you that there
was a desecrated chapel which he has restored in honour of his mother--
putting up there the inscription by Tommaseo now above Casa Guidi?
Fannie is all you say,--and most dear and precious to us all. . . .
Pen's medal to which you refer, is awarded to him in spite of his
written renunciation of any sort of wish to contend for a prize. He will
now resume painting and sculpture--having been necessarily occupied with
the superintendence of his workmen--a matter capitally managed, I am
told. For the rest, both Sarianna and myself are very well; I have just
sent off my new volume of verses for publication. The complete edition
of the works of E. B. B. begins in a few days.
The second part of this letter is very forcibly written, and, in a
certain sense, more important than the first; but I suppress it by the
desire of Mr. Browning's sister and son, and in complete concurrence
with their judgment in the matter. It was a systematic defence of the
anger aroused in him by a lately published reference to his wife's
death; and though its reasonings were unanswerable as applied to the
causes of his emotion, they did not touch the manner in which it had
been displayed. The incident was one which deserved only to be
forgotten; and if an injudicious act had not preserved its memory, no
word of mine should recall it. Since, however, it has been thought fit
to include the 'Lines to Edward Fitzgerald' in a widely circulated
Bibliography of Mr. Browning's Works,* I owe it to him to say--what I
believe is only known to his sister and myself--that there was a moment
in which he regretted those lines, and would willingly have withdrawn
them. This was the period, unfortunately short, which intervened between
his sending them to the 'Athenaeum', and their appearance there. When
once public opinion had expressed itself upon them in its too extreme
forms of sympathy and condemnation, the pugnacity of his mind found
support in both, and regret was silenced if not destroyed. In so far as
his published words remained open to censure, I may also, without
indelicacy, urge one more plea in his behalf. That which to the merely
sympathetic observer appeared a subject for disapprobation, perhaps
disgust, had affected him with the directness of a sharp physical blow.
He spoke of it, and for hours, even days, was known to feel it, as such.
The events of that distant past, which he had lived down, though never
forgotten, had flashed upon him from the words which so unexpectedly met
his eye, in a vividness of remembrance which was reality. 'I felt as if
she had died yesterday,' he said some days later to a friend, in half
deprecation, half denial, of the too great fierceness of his reaction.
He only recovered his balance in striking the counter-blow. That he
could be thus affected at an age usually destructive of the more violent
emotions, is part of the mystery of those closing days which had already
* That contained in Mr. Sharp's 'Life'. A still more recent
gives the lines in full.
By the first of November he was in Venice with his son and daughter; and
during the three following weeks was apparently well, though a physician
whom he met at a dinner party, and to whom he had half jokingly given
his pulse to feel, had learned from it that his days were numbered. He
wrote to Miss Keep on the 9th of the month:
'. . . Mrs. Bronson has bought a house at Asolo, and beautified it
indeed,--niched as it is in an old tower of the fortifications still
partly surrounding the city (for a city it is), and eighteen towers,
more or less ruinous, are still discoverable there: it is indeed a
delightful place. Meantime, to go on,--we came here, and had a pleasant
welcome from our hosts--who are truly magnificently lodged in this
vast palazzo which my son has really shown himself fit to possess, so
surprising are his restorations and improvements: the whole is all but
complete, decorated,--that is, renewed admirably in all respects.
'What strikes me as most noteworthy is the cheerfulness and comfort of
the huge rooms.
'The building is warmed throughout by a furnace and pipes.
'Yesterday, on the Lido, the heat was hardly endurable: bright sunshine,
blue sky,--snow-tipped Alps in the distance. No place, I think, ever
suited my needs, bodily and intellectual, so well.
'The first are satisfied--I am _quite_ well, every breathing inconvenience
gone: and as for the latter, I got through whatever had given me trouble
in London. . . .'
But it was winter, even in Venice, and one day began with an actual fog.
He insisted, notwithstanding, on taking his usual walk on the Lido. He
caught a bronchial cold of which the symptoms were aggravated not only
by the asthmatic tendency, but by what proved to be exhaustion of the
heart; and believing as usual that his liver alone was at fault, he took
little food, and refused wine altogether.*
* He always declined food when he was unwell; and maintained
that in this respect the instinct of animals was far more
just than the idea often prevailing among human beings that
a failing appetite should be assisted or coerced.
He did not yield to the sense of illness; he did not keep his bed. Some
feverish energy must have supported him through this avoidance of every
measure which might have afforded even temporary strength or relief. On
Friday, the 29th, he wrote to a friend in London that he had waited thus
long for the final answer from Asolo, but would wait no longer. He would
start for England, if possible, on the Wednesday or Thursday of the
following week. It was true 'he had caught a cold; he felt sadly
asthmatic, scarcely fit to travel; but he hoped for the best, and would
write again soon.' He wrote again the following day, declaring himself
better. He had been punished, he said, for long-standing neglect of
his 'provoking liver'; but a simple medicine, which he had often taken
before, had this time also relieved the oppression of his chest; his
friend was not to be uneasy about him; 'it was in his nature to get
into scrapes of this kind, but he always managed, somehow or other, to
extricate himself from them.' He concluded with fresh details of his
hopes and plans.
In the ensuing night the bronchial distress increased; and in the
morning he consented to see his son's physician, Dr. Cini, whose
investigation of the case at once revealed to him its seriousness. The
patient had been removed two days before, from the second storey of the
house, which the family then inhabited, to an entresol apartment just
above the ground-floor, from which he could pass into the dining-room
without fatigue. Its lower ceilings gave him (erroneously) an impression
of greater warmth, and he had imagined himself benefited by the change.
A freer circulation of air was now considered imperative, and he was
carried to Mrs. Browning's spacious bedroom, where an open fireplace
supplied both warmth and ventilation, and large windows admitted all
the sunshine of the Grand Canal. Everything was done for him which
professional skill and loving care could do. Mrs. Browning, assisted
by her husband, and by a young lady who was then her guest,* filled the
place of the trained nurses until these could arrive; for a few days
the impending calamity seemed even to have been averted. The bronchial
attack was overcome. Mr. Browning had once walked from the bed to
the sofa; his sister, whose anxiety had perhaps been spared the full
knowledge of his state, could send comforting reports to his friends
at home. But the enfeebled heart had made its last effort. Attacks
of faintness set in. Special signs of physical strength maintained
themselves until within a few hours of the end. On Wednesday, December
11, a consultation took place between Dr. Cini, Dr. da Vigna, and Dr.
Minich; and the opinion was then expressed for the first time
that recovery, though still possible, was not within the bounds of
probability. Weakness, however, rapidly gained upon him towards the
close of the following day. Two hours before midnight of this Thursday,
December 12, he breathed his last.
* Miss Evelyn Barclay, now Mrs. Douglas Giles.
He had been a good patient. He took food and medicine whenever they were
offered to him. Doctors and nurses became alike warmly interested in
him. His favourite among the latter was, I think, the Venetian, a widow,
Margherita Fiori, a simple kindly creature who had known much sorrow. To
her he said, about five hours before the end, 'I feel much worse. I
know now that I must die.' He had shown at intervals a perception, even
conviction, of his danger; but the excitement of the brain, caused by
exhaustion on the one hand and the necessary stimulants on the other,
must have precluded all systematic consciousness of approaching death.
He repeatedly assured his family that he was not suffering.
A painful and urgent question now presented itself for solution: Where
should his body find its last rest? He had said to his sister in the
foregoing summer, that he wished to be buried wherever he might die: if
in England, with his mother; if in France, with his father; if in Italy,
with his wife. Circumstances all pointed to his removal to Florence; but
a recent decree had prohibited further interment in the English Cemetery
there, and the town had no power to rescind it. When this was known
in Venice, that city begged for itself the privilege of retaining the
illustrious guest, and rendering him the last honours. For the moment
the idea even recommended itself to Mr. Browning's son. But he felt
bound to make a last effort in the direction of the burial at Florence;
and was about to despatch a telegram, in which he invoked the mediation
of Lord Dufferin, when all difficulties were laid at rest by a message
from the Dean of Westminster, conveying his assent to an interment in
the Abbey.* He had already telegraphed for information concerning the
date of the funeral, with a view to the memorial service, which he
intended to hold on the same day. Nor would the further honour have
remained for even twenty-four hours ungranted, because unasked, but for
the belief prevailing among Mr. Browning's friends that there was no
room for its acceptance.
* The assent thus conveyed had assumed the form of an offer,
and was characterized as such by the Dean himself.
It was still necessary to provide for the more immediate removal of the
body. Local custom forbade its retention after the lapse of two days and
nights; and only in view of the special circumstances of the case could
a short respite be granted to the family. Arrangements were therefore at
once made for a private service, to be conducted by the British Chaplain
in one of the great halls of the Rezzonico Palace; and by two o'clock of
the following day, Sunday, a large number of visitors and residents had
assembled there. The subsequent passage to the mortuary island of San
Michele had been organized by the city, and was to display so much of
the character of a public pageant as the hurried preparation allowed.
The chief municipal officers attended the service. When this had been
performed, the coffin was carried by eight firemen (pompieri), arrayed
in their distinctive uniform, to the massive, highly decorated municipal
barge (Barca delle Pompe funebri) which waited to receive it. It was
guarded during the transit by four 'uscieri' in 'gala' dress, two
sergeants of the Municipal Guard, and two of the firemen bearing
torches: the remainder of these following in a smaller boat. The barge
was towed by a steam launch of the Royal Italian Marine. The chief
officers of the city, the family and friends in their separate gondolas,
completed the procession. On arriving at San Michele, the firemen again
received their burden, and bore it to the chapel in which its place had
When 'Pauline' first appeared, the Author had received, he never learned
from whom, a sprig of laurel enclosed with this quotation from the poem,
Trust in signs and omens.
Very beautiful garlands were now piled about his bier, offerings of
friendship and affection. Conspicuous among these was the ceremonial
structure of metallic foliage and porcelain flowers, inscribed 'Venezia
a Roberto Browning', which represented the Municipality of Venice. On
the coffin lay one comprehensive symbol of the fulfilled prophecy: a
wreath of laurel-leaves which his son had placed there.
A final honour was decreed to the great English Poet by the city in
which he had died; the affixing of a memorial tablet to the outer wall
of the Rezzonico Palace. Since these pages were first written, the
tablet has been placed. It bears the following inscription:
MORTO IN QUESTO PALAZZO
IL 12 DICEMBRE 1889
Below this, in the right-hand corner appear two lines selected from his
Open my heart and you will see
Graved inside of it, 'Italy'.
Nor were these the only expressions of Italian respect and sympathy. The
municipality of Florence sent its message of condolence. Asolo, poor
in all but memories, itself bore the expenses of a mural tablet for
the house which Mr. Browning had occupied. It is now known that Signor
Crispi would have appealed to Parliament to rescind the exclusion
from the Florentine cemetery, if the motive for doing so had been less
Mr. Browning's own country had indeed opened a way for the reunion of
the husband and wife. The idea had rapidly shaped itself in the public
mind that, since they might not rest side by side in Italy, they
should be placed together among the great of their own land; and it was
understood that the Dean would sanction Mrs. Browning's interment in
the Abbey, if a formal application to this end were made to him. But
Mr. Barrett Browning could not reconcile himself to the thought of
disturbing his mother's grave, so long consecrated to Florence by her
warm love and by its grateful remembrance; and at the desire of both
surviving members of the family the suggestion was set aside.
Two days after his temporary funeral, privately and at night, all that
remained of Robert Browning was conveyed to the railway station; and
thence, by a trusted servant, to England. The family followed within
twenty-four hours, having made the necessary preparations for a long
absence from Venice; and, travelling with the utmost speed, arrived in
London on the same day. The house in De Vere Gardens received its master
'Asolando' was published on the day of Mr. Browning's death. The report
of his illness had quickened public interest in the forthcoming work,
and his son had the satisfaction of telling him of its already realized
success, while he could still receive a warm, if momentary, pleasure
from the intelligence. The circumstances of its appearance place it
beyond ordinary criticism; they place it beyond even an impartial
analysis of its contents. It includes one or two poems to which we would
gladly assign a much earlier date; I have been told on good authority
that we may do this in regard to one of them. It is difficult to refer
the 'Epilogue' to a coherent mood of any period of its author's life. It
is certain, however, that by far the greater part of the little volume
was written in 1888-89, and I believe all that is most serious in it
was the product of the later year. It possesses for many readers the
inspiration of farewell words; for all of us it has their pathos.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner, on the 31st
of December, 1889. In this tardy act of national recognition England
claimed her own. A densely packed, reverent and sympathetic crowd of his
countrymen and countrywomen assisted at the consignment of the dead poet
to his historic resting place. Three verses of Mrs. Browning's poem,
'The Sleep', set to music by Dr. Bridge, were sung for the first time on