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Chapter 3

1812-1826

Birth of Robert Browning--His Childhood and Schooldays--Restless
Temperament--Brilliant Mental Endowments--Incidental
Peculiarities--Strong Religious Feeling--Passionate Attachment to his
Mother; Grief at first Separation--Fondness for Animals--Experiences of
School Life--Extensive Reading--Early Attempts in Verse--Letter from his
Father concerning them--Spurious Poems in Circulation--'Incondita'--Mr.
Fox--Miss Flower.

Robert Browning was born, as has been often repeated, at Camberwell, on
May 7, 1812, soon after a great comet had disappeared from the sky.
He was a handsome, vigorous, fearless child, and soon developed an
unresting activity and a fiery temper. He clamoured for occupation from
the moment he could speak. His mother could only keep him quiet when
once he had emerged from infancy by telling him stories--doubtless
Bible stories--while holding him on her knee. His energies were of
course destructive till they had found their proper outlet; but we do
not hear of his ever having destroyed anything for the mere sake of
doing so. His first recorded piece of mischief was putting a handsome
Brussels lace veil of his mother's into the fire; but the motive, which
he was just old enough to lisp out, was also his excuse: 'A pitty baze
[pretty blaze], mamma.' Imagination soon came to his rescue. It has
often been told how he extemporized verse aloud while walking round and
round the dining-room table supporting himself by his hands, when he was
still so small that his head was scarcely above it. He remembered having
entertained his mother in the very first walk he was considered old
enough to take with her, by a fantastic account of his possessions in
houses, &c., of which the topographical details elicited from her the
remark, 'Why, sir, you are quite a geographer.' And though this kind of
romancing is common enough among intelligent children, it distinguishes
itself in this case by the strong impression which the incident had left
on his own mind. It seems to have been a first real flight of dramatic
fancy, confusing his identity for the time being.

The power of inventing did not, however, interfere with his readiness to
learn, and the facility with which he acquired whatever knowledge came
in his way had, on one occasion, inconvenient results. A lady of reduced
fortunes kept a small elementary school for boys, a stone's-throw from
his home; and he was sent to it as a day boarder at so tender an age
that his parents, it is supposed, had no object in view but to get
rid of his turbulent activity for an hour or two every morning and
afternoon. Nevertheless, his proficiency in reading and spelling was
soon so much ahead of that of the biggest boy, that complaints broke
out among the mammas, who were sure there was not fair play. Mrs.----was
neglecting her other pupils for the sake of 'bringing on Master
Browning;' and the poor lady found it necessary to discourage Master
Browning's attendance lest she should lose the remainder of her flock.
This, at least, was the story as he himself remembered it. According to
Miss Browning his instructress did not yield without a parting shot.
She retorted on the discontented parents that, if she could give their
children 'Master Browning's intellect', she would have no difficulty
in satisfying them. After this came the interlude of home-teaching, in
which all his elementary knowledge must have been gained. As an older
child he was placed with two Misses Ready, who prepared boys for
entering their brother's (the Rev. Thomas Ready's) school; and in due
time he passed into the latter, where he remained up to the age of
fourteen.

He seems in those early days to have had few playmates beyond his
sister, two years younger than himself, and whom his irrepressible
spirit must sometimes have frightened or repelled. Nor do we hear
anything of childish loves; and though an entry appeared in his diary
one Sunday in about the seventh or eighth year of his age, 'married two
wives this morning,' it only referred to a vague imaginary appropriation
of two girls whom he had just seen in church, and whose charm probably
lay in their being much bigger than he. He was, however, capable of a
self-conscious shyness in the presence of even a little girl; and his
sense of certain proprieties was extraordinarily keen. He told a friend
that on one occasion, when the merest child, he had edged his way by the
wall from one point of his bedroom to another, because he was not fully
clothed, and his reflection in the glass could otherwise have been seen
through the partly open door.*

* Another anecdote, of a very different kind, belongs to an
earlier period, and to that category of pure naughtiness
which could not fail to be sometimes represented in the
conduct of so gifted a child. An old lady who visited his
mother, and was characterized in the family as 'Aunt Betsy',
had irritated him by pronouncing the word 'lovers' with the
contemptuous jerk which the typical old maid is sometimes
apt to impart to it, when once the question had arisen why a
certain 'Lovers' Walk' was so called. He was too nearly a
baby to imagine what a 'lover' was; he supposed the name
denoted a trade or occupation. But his human sympathy
resented Aunt Betsy's manner as an affront; and he
determined, after probably repeated provocation, to show her
something worse than a 'lover', whatever this might be. So
one night he slipped out of bed, exchanged his nightgown for
what he considered the appropriate undress of a devil,
completed this by a paper tail, and the ugliest face he
could make, and rushed into the drawing-room, where the old
lady and his mother were drinking tea. He was snatched up
and carried away before he had had time to judge the effect
of his apparition; but he did not think, looking back upon
the circumstances in later life, that Aunt Betsy had
deserved quite so ill of her fellow-creatures as he then
believed.

His imaginative emotions were largely absorbed by religion. The early
Biblical training had had its effect, and he was, to use his own words,
'passionately religious' in those nursery years; but during them and
many succeeding ones, his mother filled his heart. He loved her so much,
he has been heard to say, that even as a grown man he could not sit
by her otherwise than with an arm round her waist. It is difficult to
measure the influence which this feeling may have exercised on his later
life; it led, even now, to a strange and touching little incident
which had in it the incipient poet no less than the loving child. His
attendance at Miss Ready's school only kept him from home from Monday
till Saturday of every week; but when called upon to confront his first
five days of banishment he felt sure that he would not survive them. A
leaden cistern belonging to the school had in, or outside it, the raised
image of a face. He chose the cistern for his place of burial, and
converted the face into his epitaph by passing his hand over and over it
to a continuous chant of: 'In memory of unhappy Browning'--the ceremony
being renewed in his spare moments, till the acute stage of the feeling
had passed away.

The fondness for animals for which through life he was noted, was
conspicuous in his very earliest days. His urgent demand for 'something
to do' would constantly include 'something to be caught' for him: 'they
were to catch him an eft;' 'they were to catch him a frog.' He would
refuse to take his medicine unless bribed by the gift of a speckled frog
from among the strawberries; and the maternal parasol, hovering above
the strawberry bed during the search for this object of his desires,
remained a standing picture in his remembrance. But the love of the
uncommon was already asserting itself; and one of his very juvenile
projects was a collection of rare creatures, the first contribution to
which was a couple of lady-birds, picked up one winter's day on a wall
and immediately consigned to a box lined with cotton-wool, and labelled,
'Animals found surviving in the depths of a severe winter.' Nor did
curiosity in this case weaken the power of sympathy. His passion for
birds and beasts was the counterpart of his father's love of children,
only displaying itself before the age at which child-love naturally
appears. His mother used to read Croxall's Fables to his little sister
and him. The story contained in them of a lion who was kicked to death
by an ass affected him so painfully that he could no longer endure the
sight of the book; and as he dared not destroy it, he buried it between
the stuffing and the woodwork of an old dining-room chair, where it
stood for lost, at all events for the time being. When first he heard
the adventures of the parrot who insisted on leaving his cage, and who
enjoyed himself for a little while and then died of hunger and cold,
he--and his sister with him--cried so bitterly that it was found
necessary to invent a different ending, according to which the parrot
was rescued just in time and brought back to his cage to live peacefully
in it ever after.

As a boy, he kept owls and monkeys, magpies and hedgehogs, an eagle,
and even a couple of large snakes, constantly bringing home the more
portable creatures in his pockets, and transferring them to his mother
for immediate care. I have heard him speak admiringly of the skilful
tenderness with which she took into her lap a lacerated cat, washed
and sewed up its ghastly wound, and nursed it back to health. The great
intimacy with the life and habits of animals which reveals itself in his
works is readily explained by these facts.

Mr. Ready's establishment was chosen for him as the best in the
neighbourhood; and both there and under the preparatory training of that
gentleman's sisters, the young Robert was well and kindly cared for. The
Misses Ready especially concerned themselves with the spiritual welfare
of their pupils. The periodical hair-brushings were accompanied by the
singing, and fell naturally into the measure, of Watts's hymns; and Mr.
Browning has given his friends some very hearty laughs by illustrating
with voice and gesture the ferocious emphasis with which the brush would
swoop down in the accentuated syllables of the following lines:

Lord, 'tis a pleasant thing to stand
In gardens planted by Thy hand.

. . . . .

Fools never raise their thoughts so high,
Like 'brutes' they live, like _brutes_ they die.

He even compelled his mother to laugh at it, though it was sorely
against her nature to lend herself to any burlesquing of piously
intended things.* He had become a bigger boy since the episode of the
cistern, and had probably in some degree outgrown the intense piety of
his earlier childhood. This little incident seems to prove it. On the
whole, however, his religious instincts did not need strengthening,
though his sense of humour might get the better of them for a moment;
and of secular instruction he seems to have received as little from the
one set of teachers as from the other. I do not suppose that the mental
training at Mr. Ready's was more shallow or more mechanical than that
of most other schools of his own or, indeed, of a much later period; but
the brilliant abilities of Robert Browning inspired him with a certain
contempt for it, as also for the average schoolboy intelligence to
which it was apparently adapted. It must be for this reason that, as he
himself declared, he never gained a prize, although these rewards were
showered in such profusion that the only difficulty was to avoid
them; and if he did not make friends at school (for this also has been
somewhere observed),** it can only be explained in the same way. He
was at an intolerant age, and if his schoolfellows struck him as more
backward or more stupid than they need be, he is not likely to have
taken pains to conceal the impression. It is difficult, at all events,
to think of him as unsociable, and his talents certainly had their
amusing side. Miss Browning tells me that he made his schoolfellows
act plays, some of which he had written for them; and he delighted his
friends, not long ago, by mimicking his own solemn appearance on some
breaking-up or commemorative day, when, according to programme, 'Master
Browning' ascended a platform in the presence of assembled parents and
friends, and, in best jacket, white gloves, and carefully curled hair,
with a circular bow to the company and the then prescribed waving
of alternate arms, delivered a high-flown rhymed address of his own
composition.

* In spite of this ludicrous association Mr. Browning always
recognized great merit in Watts's hymns, and still more in
Dr. Watts himself, who had devoted to this comparatively
humble work intellectual powers competent to far higher
things.

** It was in no case literally true. William, afterwards
Sir William, Channel was leaving Mr. Ready when Browning
went to him; but a friendly acquaintance began, and was
afterwards continued, between the two boys; and a closer
friendship, formed with a younger brother Frank, was only
interrupted by his death. Another school friend or
acquaintance recalled himself as such to the poet's memory
some ten or twelve years ago. A man who has reached the age
at which his boyhood becomes of interest to the world may
even have survived many such relations.

And during the busy idleness of his schooldays, or, at all events, in
the holidays in which he rested from it, he was learning, as perhaps
only those do learn whose real education is derived from home. His
father's house was, Miss Browning tells me, literally crammed with
books; and, she adds, 'it was in this way that Robert became very early
familiar with subjects generally unknown to boys.' He read omnivorously,
though certainly not without guidance. One of the books he best and
earliest loved was 'Quarles' Emblemes', which his father possessed in
a seventeenth century edition, and which contains one or two very
tentative specimens of his early handwriting. Its quaint, powerful lines
and still quainter illustrations combined the marvellous with what he
believed to be true; and he seemed specially identified with its world
of religious fancies by the fact that the soul in it was always depicted
as a child. On its more general grounds his reading was at once largely
literary and very historical; and it was in this direction that the
paternal influence was most strongly revealed. 'Quarles' Emblemes'
was only one of the large collection of old books which Mr. Browning
possessed; and the young Robert learnt to know each favourite author in
the dress as well as the language which carried with it the life of his
period. The first edition of 'Robinson Crusoe'; the first edition of
Milton's works, bought for him by his father; a treatise on astrology
published twenty years after the introduction of printing; the original
pamphlet 'Killing no Murder' (1559), which Carlyle borrowed for his
'Life of Cromwell'; an equally early copy of Bernard Mandeville's
'Bees'; very ancient Bibles--are some of the instances which occur to
me. Among more modern publications, 'Walpole's Letters' were familiar to
him in boyhood, as well as the 'Letters of Junius' and all the works of
Voltaire.

Ancient poets and poetry also played their necessary part in the mental
culture superintended by Robert Browning's father: we can indeed imagine
no case in which they would not have found their way into the boy's
life. Latin poets and Greek dramatists came to him in their due time,
though his special delight in the Greek language only developed itself
later. But his loving, lifelong familiarity with the Elizabethan school,
and indeed with the whole range of English poetry, seems to point to
a more constant study of our national literature. Byron was his chief
master in those early poetic days. He never ceased to honour him as the
one poet who combined a constructive imagination with the more technical
qualities of his art; and the result of this period of aesthetic
training was a volume of short poems produced, we are told, when he was
only twelve, in which the Byronic influence was predominant.

The young author gave his work the title of 'Incondita', which conveyed
a certain idea of deprecation. He was, nevertheless, very anxious to see
it in print; and his father and mother, poetry-lovers of the old
school, also found in it sufficient merit to justify its publication.
No publisher, however, could be found; and we can easily believe that
he soon afterwards destroyed the little manuscript, in some mingled
reaction of disappointment and disgust. But his mother, meanwhile, had
shown it to an acquaintance of hers, Miss Flower, who herself admired
its contents so much as to make a copy of them for the inspection of her
friend, the well-known Unitarian minister, Mr. W. J. Fox. The copy was
transmitted to Mr. Browning after Mr. Fox's death by his daughter, Mrs.
Bridell-Fox; and this, if no other, was in existence in 1871, when, at
his urgent request, that lady also returned to him a fragment of verse
contained in a letter from Miss Sarah Flower. Nor was it till much later
that a friend, who had earnestly begged for a sight of it, definitely
heard of its destruction. The fragment, which doubtless shared the same
fate, was, I am told, a direct imitation of Coleridge's 'Fire, Famine,
and Slaughter'.

These poems were not Mr. Browning's first. It would be impossible to
believe them such when we remember that he composed verses long before
he could write; and a curious proof of the opposite fact has recently
appeared. Two letters of the elder Mr. Browning have found their way
into the market, and have been bought respectively by Mr. Dykes Campbell
and Sir F. Leighton. I give the more important of them. It was addressed
to Mr. Thomas Powell:


Dear Sir,--I hope the enclosed may be acceptable as curiosities. They
were written by Robert when quite a child. I once had nearly a hundred
of them. But he has destroyed all that ever came in his way, having a
great aversion to the practice of many biographers in recording every
trifling incident that falls in their way. He has not the slightest
suspicion that any of his very juvenile performances are in existence.
I have several of the originals by me. They are all extemporaneous
productions, nor has any one a single alteration. There was one amongst
them 'On Bonaparte'--remarkably beautiful--and had I not seen it in
his own handwriting I never would have believed it to have been the
production of a child. It is destroyed. Pardon my troubling you with
these specimens, and requesting you never to mention it, as Robert
would be very much hurt. I remain, dear sir, Your obedient servant, R.
Browning. Bank: March 11, 1843.


The letter was accompanied by a sheet of verses which have been sold
and resold, doubtless in perfect good faith, as being those to which the
writer alludes. But Miss Browning has recognized them as her father's
own impromptu epigrams, well remembered in the family, together with
the occasion on which they were written. The substitution may, from the
first, have been accidental.

We cannot think of all these vanished first-fruits of Mr. Browning's
genius without a sense of loss, all the greater perhaps that there can
have been little in them to prefigure its later forms. Their faults seem
to have lain in the direction of too great splendour of language and too
little wealth of thought; and Mr. Fox, who had read 'Incondita' and been
struck by its promise, confessed afterwards to Mr. Browning that he had
feared these tendencies as his future snare. But the imitative first
note of a young poet's voice may hold a rapture of inspiration which
his most original later utterances will never convey. It is the child
Sordello, singing against the lark.

Not even the poet's sister ever saw 'Incondita'. It was the only one of
his finished productions which Miss Browning did not read, or even
help him to write out. She was then too young to be taken into his
confidence. Its writing, however, had one important result. It procured
for the boy-poet a preliminary introduction to the valuable literary
patron and friend Mr. Fox was subsequently to be. It also supplies the
first substantial record of an acquaintance which made a considerable
impression on his personal life.

The Miss Flower, of whom mention has been made, was one of two sisters,
both sufficiently noted for their artistic gifts to have found a place
in the new Dictionary of National Biography. The elder, Eliza or Lizzie,
was a musical composer; the younger, best known as Sarah Flower Adams,
a writer of sacred verse. Her songs and hymns, including the well-known
'Nearer, my God, to Thee', were often set to music by her sister.* They
sang, I am told, delightfully together, and often without accompaniment,
their voices perfectly harmonizing with each other. Both were, in their
different ways, very attractive; both interesting, not only from their
talents, but from their attachment to each other, and the delicacy which
shortened their lives. They died of consumption, the elder in 1846, at
the age of forty-three; the younger a year later. They became acquainted
with Mrs. Browning through a common friend, Miss Sturtevant; and the
young Robert conceived a warm admiration for Miss Flower's talents,
and a boyish love for herself. She was nine years his senior; her own
affections became probably engaged, and, as time advanced, his feeling
seems to have subsided into one of warm and very loyal friendship. We
hear, indeed, of his falling in love, as he was emerging from his teens,
with a handsome girl who was on a visit at his father's house. But the
fancy died out 'for want of root.' The admiration, even tenderness, for
Miss Flower had so deep a 'root' that he never in latest life mentioned
her name with indifference. In a letter to Mr. Dykes Campbell, in 1881,
he spoke of her as 'a very remarkable person.' If, in spite of his
denials, any woman inspired 'Pauline', it can have been no other than
she. He began writing to her at twelve or thirteen, probably on the
occasion of her expressed sympathy with his first distinct effort at
authorship; and what he afterwards called 'the few utterly insignificant
scraps of letters and verse' which formed his part of the correspondence
were preserved by her as long as she lived. But he recovered and
destroyed them after his return to England, with all the other
reminiscences of those early years. Some notes, however, are extant,
dated respectively, 1841, 1842, and 1845, and will be given in their due
place.

* She also wrote a dramatic poem in five acts, entitled
'Vivia Perpetua', referred to by Mrs. Jameson in her 'Sacred
and Legendary Art', and by Leigh Hunt, when he spoke of her
in 'Blue-Stocking Revels', as 'Mrs. Adams, rare mistress of
thought and of tears.'

Mr. Fox was a friend of Miss Flower's father (Benjamin Flower, known as
editor of the 'Cambridge Intelligencer'), and, at his death, in 1829,
became co-executor to his will, and a kind of guardian to his daughters,
then both unmarried, and motherless from their infancy. Eliza's
principal work was a collection of hymns and anthems, originally
composed for Mr. Fox's chapel, where she had assumed the entire
management of the choral part of the service. Her abilities were not
confined to music; she possessed, I am told, an instinctive taste and
judgment in literary matters which caused her opinion to be much valued
by literary men. But Mr. Browning's genuine appreciation of her musical
genius was probably the strongest permanent bond between them. We shall
hear of this in his own words.


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