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Chapter 4


First Impressions of Keats and Shelley--Prolonged Influence
of Shelley--Details of Home Education--Its Effects--Youthful
Restlessness--Counteracting Love of Home--Early Friendships: Alfred
Domett, Joseph Arnould, the Silverthornes--Choice of Poetry as a
Profession--Alternative Suggestions; mistaken Rumours concerning
them--Interest in Art--Love of good Theatrical Performances--Talent for
Acting--Final Preparation for Literary Life.

At the period at which we have arrived, which is that of his leaving
school and completing his fourteenth year, another and a significant
influence was dawning on Robert Browning's life--the influence of the
poet Shelley. Mr. Sharp writes,* and I could only state the facts
in similar words, 'Passing a bookstall one day, he saw, in a box
of second-hand volumes, a little book advertised as "Mr. Shelley's
Atheistical Poem: very scarce."' . . . 'From vague remarks in reply to
his inquiries, and from one or two casual allusions, he learned that
there really was a poet called Shelley; that he had written several
volumes; that he was dead.' . . . 'He begged his mother to procure him
Shelley's works, a request not easily complied with, for the excellent
reason that not one of the local booksellers had even heard of the
poet's name. Ultimately, however, Mrs. Browning learned that what she
sought was procurable at the Olliers', in Vere Street, London.'

* 'Life of Browning', pp. 30, 31.

Mrs. Browning went to Messrs. Ollier, and brought back 'most of
Shelley's writings, all in their first edition, with the exception of
"The Cenci".' She brought also three volumes of the still less known
John Keats, on being assured that one who liked Shelley's works would
like these also.

Keats and Shelley must always remain connected in this epoch of
Mr. Browning's poetic growth. They indeed came to him as the two
nightingales which, he told some friends, sang together in the May-night
which closed this eventful day: one in the laburnum in his father's
garden, the other in a copper beech which stood on adjoining
ground--with the difference indeed, that he must often have listened
to the feathered singers before, while the two new human voices sounded
from what were to him, as to so many later hearers, unknown heights and
depths of the imaginative world. Their utterance was, to such a spirit
as his, the last, as in a certain sense the first, word of what
poetry can say; and no one who has ever heard him read the 'Ode to a
Nightingale', and repeat in the same subdued tones, as if continuing
his own thoughts, some line from 'Epipsychidion', can doubt that they
retained a lasting and almost equal place in his poet's heart. But the
two cannot be regarded as equals in their relation to his life, and it
would be a great mistake to impute to either any important influence
upon his genius. We may catch some fleeting echoes of Keats's melody
in 'Pippa Passes'; it is almost a commonplace that some measure
of Shelleyan fancy is recognizable in 'Pauline'. But the poetic
individuality of Robert Browning was stronger than any circumstance
through which it could be fed. It would have found nourishment in desert
air. With his first accepted work he threw off what was foreign to
his poetic nature, to be thenceforward his own never-to-be-subdued and
never-to-be-mistaken self. If Shelley became, and long remained for him,
the greatest poet of his age--of almost any age--it was not because he
held him greatest in the poetic art, but because in his case, beyond
all others, he believed its exercise to have been prompted by the truest
spiritual inspiration.

It is difficult to trace the process by which this conviction formed
itself in the boy's mind; still more to account for the strong personal
tenderness which accompanied it. The facts can have been scarcely known
which were to present Shelley to his imagination as a maligned and
persecuted man. It is hard to judge how far such human qualities as we
now read into his work, could be apparent to one who only approached him
through it. But the extra-human note in Shelley's genius irresistibly
suggested to the Browning of fourteen, as it still did to the Browning
of forty, the presence of a lofty spirit, one dwelling in the communion
of higher things. There was often a deep sadness in his utterance; the
consecration of an early death was upon him. And so the worship rooted
itself and grew. It was to find its lyrical expression in 'Pauline'; its
rational and, from the writer's point of view, philosophic justification
in the prose essay on Shelley, published eighteen years afterwards.

It may appear inconsistent with the nature of this influence that
it began by appealing to him in a subversive form. The Shelley whom
Browning first loved was the Shelley of 'Queen Mab', the Shelley who
would have remodelled the whole system of religious belief, as of human
duty and rights; and the earliest result of the new development was
that he became a professing atheist, and, for two years, a practising
vegetarian. He returned to his natural diet when he found his eyesight
becoming weak. The atheism cured itself; we do not exactly know when or
how. What we do know is, that it was with him a passing state of moral
or imaginative rebellion, and not one of rational doubt. His mind was
not so constituted that such doubt could fasten itself upon it; nor
did he ever in after-life speak of this period of negation except as
an access of boyish folly, with which his maturer self could have no
concern. The return to religious belief did not shake his faith in his
new prophet. It only made him willing to admit that he had misread him.

This Shelley period of Robert Browning's life--that which intervened
between 'Incondita' and 'Pauline'--remained, nevertheless, one of
rebellion and unrest, to which many circumstances may have contributed
besides the influence of the one mind. It had been decided that he was
to complete, or at all events continue, his education at home; and,
knowing the elder Mr. Browning as we do, we cannot doubt that the best
reasons, of kindness or expediency, led to his so deciding. It was none
the less, probably, a mistake, for the time being. The conditions of
home life were the more favourable for the young poet's imaginative
growth; but there can rarely have been a boy whose moral and mental
health had more to gain by the combined discipline and freedom of a
public school. His home training was made to include everything which
in those days went to the production of an accomplished gentleman, and
a great deal therefore that was physically good. He learned music,
singing, dancing, riding, boxing, and fencing, and excelled in the
more active of these pursuits. The study of music was also serious, and
carried on under two masters. Mr. John Relfe, author of a valuable work
on counterpoint, was his instructor in thorough-bass; Mr. Abel, a pupil
of Moscheles, in execution. He wrote music for songs which he himself
sang; among them Donne's 'Go and catch a falling star'; Hood's 'I will
not have the mad Clytie'; Peacock's 'The mountain sheep are sweeter';
and his settings, all of which he subsequently destroyed, were, I am
told, very spirited. His education seems otherwise to have been purely
literary. For two years, from the age of fourteen to that of sixteen,
he studied with a French tutor, who, whether this was intended or not,
imparted to him very little but a good knowledge of the French language
and literature. In his eighteenth year he attended, for a term or two,
a Greek class at the London University. His classical and other
reading was probably continued. But we hear nothing in the programme of
mathematics, or logic--of any, in short, of those subjects which train,
even coerce, the thinking powers, and which were doubly requisite for
a nature in which the creative imagination was predominant over all the
other mental faculties, great as these other faculties were. And, even
as poet, he suffered from this omission: since the involutions and
overlappings of thought and phrase, which occur in his earlier and again
in his latest works, must have been partly due to his never learning to
follow the processes of more normally constituted minds. It would be
a great error to suppose that they ever arose from the absence of a
meaning clearly felt, if not always clearly thought out, by himself. He
was storing his memory and enriching his mind; but precisely in so
doing he was nourishing the consciousness of a very vivid and urgent
personality; and, under the restrictions inseparable from the life of a
home-bred youth, it was becoming a burden to him. What outlet he found
in verse we do not know, because nothing survives of what he may then
have written. It is possible that the fate of his early poems, and,
still more, the change of ideals, retarded the definite impulse towards
poetic production. It would be a relief to him to sketch out and
elaborate the plan of his future work--his great mental portrait gallery
of typical men and women; and he was doing so during at least the later
years which preceded the birth of 'Pauline'. But even this must have
been the result of some protracted travail with himself; because it was
only the inward sense of very varied possibilities of existence which
could have impelled him towards this kind of creation. No character he
ever produced was merely a figment of the brain.

It was natural, therefore, that during this time of growth he should
have been, not only more restless, but less amiable than at any other.
The always impatient temper assumed a quality of aggressiveness. He
behaved as a youth will who knows himself to be clever, and believes
that he is not appreciated, because the crude or paradoxical forms which
his cleverness assumes do not recommend it to his elders' minds. He
set the judgments of those about him at defiance, and gratuitously
proclaimed himself everything that he was, and some things that he was
not. All this subdued itself as time advanced, and the coming man in him
could throw off the wayward child. It was all so natural that it might
well be forgotten. But it distressed his mother, the one being in the
world whom he entirely loved; and deserves remembering in the tender
sorrow with which he himself remembered it. He was always ready to
say that he had been worth little in his young days; indeed, his
self-depreciation covered the greater part of his life. This was,
perhaps, one reason of the difficulty of inducing him to dwell upon
his past. 'I am better now,' he has said more than once, when its
reminiscences have been invoked.

One tender little bond maintained itself between his mother and himself
so long as he lived under the paternal roof; it was his rule never to go
to bed without giving her a good-night kiss. If he was out so late that
he had to admit himself with a latch-key, he nevertheless went to her
in her room. Nor did he submit to this as a necessary restraint; for,
except on the occasions of his going abroad, it is scarcely on record
that he ever willingly spent a night away from home. It may not stand
for much, or it may stand to the credit of his restlessness, that,
when he had been placed with some gentleman in Gower Street, for the
convenience of attending the University lectures, or for the sake of
preparing for them, he broke through the arrangement at the end of a
week; but even an agreeable visit had no power to detain him beyond a
few days.

This home-loving quality was in curious contrast to the natural
bohemianism of youthful genius, and the inclination to wildness which
asserted itself in his boyish days. It became the more striking as he
entered upon the age at which no reasonable amount of freedom can
have been denied to him. Something, perhaps, must be allowed for the
pecuniary dependence which forbade his forming any expensive habits of
amusement; but he also claims the credit of having been unable to accept
any low-life pleasures in place of them. I do not know how the idea can
have arisen that he willingly sought his experience in the society
of 'gipsies and tramps'. I remember nothing in his works which even
suggests such association; and it is certain that a few hours spent at a
fair would at all times have exhausted his capability of enduring it.
In the most audacious imaginings of his later life, in the most
undisciplined acts of his early youth, were always present curious
delicacies and reserves. There was always latent in him the real
goodness of heart which would not allow him to trifle consciously with
other lives. Work must also have been his safeguard when the habit of it
had been acquired, and when imagination, once his master, had learned to
serve him.

One tangible cause of his youthful restlessness has been implied in the
foregoing remarks, but deserves stating in his sister's words: 'The
fact was, poor boy, he had outgrown his social surroundings. They were
absolutely good, but they were narrow; it could not be otherwise; he
chafed under them.' He was not, however, quite without congenial society
even before the turning-point in his outward existence which was reached
in the publication of 'Pauline'; and one long friendly acquaintance,
together with one lasting friendship, had their roots in these early
Camberwell days. The families of Joseph Arnould and Alfred Domett
both lived at Camberwell. These two young men were bred to the legal
profession, and the former, afterwards Sir Joseph Arnould, became
a judge in Bombay. But the father of Alfred Domett had been one of
Nelson's captains, and the roving sailor spirit was apparent in his
son; for he had scarcely been called to the Bar when he started for New
Zealand on the instance of a cousin who had preceded him, but who was
drowned in the course of a day's surveying before he could arrive. He
became a member of the New Zealand Parliament, and ultimately, for a
short time, of its Cabinet; only returning to England after an absence
of thirty years. This Mr. Domett seems to have been a very modest man,
besides a devoted friend of Robert Browning's, and on occasion a warm
defender of his works. When he read the apostrophe to 'Alfred, dear
friend,' in the 'Guardian Angel', he had reached the last line before it
occurred to him that the person invoked could be he. I do not think that
this poem, and that directly addressed to him under the pseudonym of
'Waring', were the only ones inspired by the affectionate remembrance
which he had left in their author's mind.

Among his boy companions were also the three Silverthornes, his
neighbours at Camberwell, and cousins on the maternal side. They appear
to have been wild youths, and had certainly no part in his intellectual
or literary life; but the group is interesting to his biographer.
The three brothers were all gifted musicians; having also, probably,
received this endowment from their mother's father. Mr. Browning
conceived a great affection for the eldest, and on the whole most
talented of the cousins; and when he had died--young, as they all
did--he wrote 'May and Death' in remembrance of him. The name of
'Charles' stands there for the old, familiar 'Jim', so often uttered by
him in half-pitying, and all-affectionate allusion, in his later years.
Mrs. Silverthorne was the aunt who paid for the printing of 'Pauline'.

It was at about the time of his short attendance at University College
that the choice of poetry as his future profession was formally made. It
was a foregone conclusion in the young Robert's mind; and little less
in that of his father, who took too sympathetic an interest in his son's
life not to have seen in what direction his desires were tending. He
must, it is true, at some time or other, have played with the thought of
becoming an artist; but the thought can never have represented a wish.
If he had entertained such a one, it would have met not only with no
opposition on his father's part, but with a very ready assent, nor
does the question ever seem to have been seriously mooted in the family
councils. It would be strange, perhaps, if it had. Mr. Browning became
very early familiar with the names of the great painters, and also
learned something about their work; for the Dulwich Gallery was within a
pleasant walk of his home, and his father constantly took him there. He
retained through life a deep interest in art and artists, and became a
very familiar figure in one or two London studios. Some drawings made
by him from the nude, in Italy, and for which he had prepared himself by
assiduous copying of casts and study of human anatomy, had, I believe,
great merit. But painting was one of the subjects in which he never
received instruction, though he modelled, under the direction of his
friend Mr. Story; and a letter of his own will presently show that, in
his youth at least, he never credited himself with exceptional artistic
power. That he might have become an artist, and perhaps a great one,
is difficult to doubt, in the face of his brilliant general ability and
special gifts. The power to do a thing is, however, distinct from the
impulse to do it, and proved so in the present case.

More importance may be given to an idea of his father's that he should
qualify himself for the Bar. It would naturally coincide with the
widening of the social horizon which his University College classes
supplied; it was possibly suggested by the fact that the closest friends
he had already made, and others whom he was perhaps now making, were
barristers. But this also remained an idea. He might have been placed in
the Bank of England, where the virtual offer of an appointment had been
made to him through his father; but the elder Browning spontaneously
rejected this, as unworthy of his son's powers. He had never, he said,
liked bank work himself, and could not, therefore, impose it on him.

We have still to notice another, and a more mistaken view of the
possibilities of Mr. Browning's life. It has been recently stated,
doubtless on the authority of some words of his own, that the Church was
a profession to which he once felt himself drawn. But an admission of
this kind could only refer to that period of his childhood when natural
impulse, combined with his mother's teaching and guidance, frequently
caused his fancy and his feelings to assume a religious form. From the
time when he was a free agent he ceased to be even a regular churchgoer,
though religion became more, rather than less, an integral part of his
inner life; and his alleged fondness for a variety of preachers meant
really that he only listened to those who, from personal association
or conspicuous merit, were interesting to him. I have mentioned Canon
Melvill as one of these; the Rev. Thomas Jones was, as will be
seen, another. In Venice he constantly, with his sister, joined the
congregation of an Italian minister of the little Vaudois church there.*

* Mr. Browning's memory recalled a first and last effort at
preaching, inspired by one of his very earliest visits to a
place of worship. He extemporized a surplice or gown,
climbed into an arm-chair by way of pulpit, and held forth
so vehemently that his scarcely more than baby sister was
frightened and began to cry; whereupon he turned to an
imaginary presence, and said, with all the sternness which
the occasion required, 'Pew-opener, remove that child.'

It would be far less surprising if we were told, on sufficient
authority, that he had been disturbed by hankerings for the stage. He
was a passionate admirer of good acting, and would walk from London to
Richmond and back again to see Edmund Kean when he was performing there.
We know how Macready impressed him, though the finer genius of Kean
became very apparent to his retrospective judgment of the two; and it
was impossible to see or hear him, as even an old man, in some momentary
personation of one of Shakespeare's characters, above all of Richard
III., and not feel that a great actor had been lost in him.

So few professions were thought open to gentlemen in Robert Browning's
eighteenth year, that his father's acquiescence in that which he had
chosen might seem a matter scarcely less of necessity than of kindness.
But we must seek the kindness not only in this first, almost inevitable,
assent to his son's becoming a writer, but in the subsequent unfailing
readiness to support him in his literary career. 'Paracelsus',
'Sordello', and the whole of 'Bells and Pomegranates' were published at
his father's expense, and, incredible as it appears, brought no return
to him. This was vividly present to Mr. Browning's mind in what Mrs.
Kemble so justly defines as those 'remembering days' which are the
natural prelude to the forgetting ones. He declared, in the course of
these, to a friend, that for it alone he owed more to his father than to
anyone else in the world. Words to this effect, spoken in conversation
with his sister, have since, as it was right they should, found their
way into print. The more justly will the world interpret any incidental
admission he may ever have made, of intellectual disagreement between
that father and himself.

When the die was cast, and young Browning was definitely to adopt
literature as his profession, he qualified himself for it by reading and
digesting the whole of Johnson's Dictionary. We cannot be surprised to
hear this of one who displayed so great a mastery of words, and so deep
a knowledge of the capacities of the English language.

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