Robert Browning.

The complete poetic and dramatic works of Robert Browning online

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nature. ^* Passing a bookstall one day," says Mr. Sharp, ** he saw, in a box of second-hand yol-
nmes, a little book adyertised as * Mr. Shelley's Atheistioal Poem: very scarce.' He had neyer
heard of Shelley, nor did he learn for a long time that the Damon t^ the World and the nusoella-
neons poems appended thereto constituted a literary piracy. Badly printed, shamefully muti-
lated, these discarded blomowifl touched him to a new emotion. Pope became further remoyed
than erer : Byron, eyen, lost his magnetic supremacy. From vague remarks in reply to his inqui-
ziea, 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.*' His mother set herself to search for
mote of Shelley for her son, and after recourse to Mr. Fox, made her way to the OUiers in Vere
Street, and brought back not only a collection of Shelley's volumes, bnt of Keats's also, and thus
these two poets fell into Browning's hands.

It was on a May night. Browning told a friend, he entered npon this hitherto unknown world.
In a laburnum near by, and in a great copper beech not far away, two nightingales sang together.
So he sat and listened to them, and read by turns from tliese two poets. It was lus initiation into
the same society. He did not at once join them, but when he made lus first appearance in public,
at the age of twenty, it was with a poem, Pauline^ which not only held a glowing apostrophe to
Shelley bnt was throughout colored by lus ardent devotion to the poet. Twenty years later he
wrote s prose apologia for Shelley in the form of an introduction to a collection of letters purport-.
Big to come from Shelley, but which were discovered to be spurious immediately upon publication.
Both Pauline and an Euay on Percy Bysshe Shelley will be found in this volume, with introduo-
tiooB ex]4aining the circumstances of publication, but the reader of Browning's poetry is likely to
carry longest in his mind the short lyric Memorabilia, beginning : —

•* Ah, did you once lee Shelley plain,'*

in which as in a parable one may read how the sudden acquaintance with this poet was to Brown-
ing the one memorable moment in his period of youthful dreaming.

The publication anonymously of Pauline, in January, 1833, was followed by a period of travel.
He went to Russia nominally as secretary to the Russian consul-general, and became so enamored
of diplomatic life that he essayed to enter it, but failed ; so strong a hold did it take on him that
he would have been glad in later life if lus son had chosen this career.

The life of a poet who is not also a man of action is told mainly in the succession of his writings.
Two or three sonnets followed Pauline^ but the first poem to which Browning attached his name
was ParaceUus^ the dedication to which is dated March 15, 1835. The dedication — and the suo-
oeasion of these graceful compliments discloses many of Browning's friendships — was to Count
de Ripert-Monclar, a young French royalist, who was a private agent of the royal family, and had
become intimate with the poet, who was four years hb junior. The count suggested the life of
Paracelsus to his friend as a subject for a poem, but on second thought advised against it as offering
insoffieient materials for the treatment of love. A young poet, however, who would prefix a quota-
tion from Cornelius Agrippa to his first publication was one easily to be .enticed by such a subject,
and Browning fell upon the literature relating to Paracelsus which he found in the British Museum,
and quickly mastered the facts, which became fused by his ardent imagination and eager specula-
tion into a consistent whole. But though he sought his material among books, as he needs must,
he found his constructive power in the silence of nature in the night. He had » great love for
wmUdng in the dark. *' There was in particular," says Mr. Sharp, *'a wood near Dnlwich,



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xii ROBERT BROWNING



whither he was wont to go. There he would walk swiftly and eagerly along the solitary and
lightleas hyways, finding a potent stimulns to imaginative thought in Uie happy isolation thns
enjoyed. ... At this time, too, he composed much in the open air. This he rarely, if ever, did in
later life. Not only many portions of Paracelsus but several scenes in Strqffwd were enacted
first in these midnight silences of the Dnlwich woodland. Here, too, as the poet once declared,
he came to know the serene beanty of dawn : for every now and again, after having read late, or
written long, he would steal quietly from the honse, and walk till the morning twilight graded to
the pearl and amber of the new day."

Poetry, it may be, more than any other form of literature, dears the way for friendship. At
any rate, Paracelsus introduced Browning to John Forster, and it was at this time also that Dick-
ens, Talfourd and Macready, Leigh Hunt, Barry Cornwall, Wordsworth and Landor were more
than names to the young poet. There was doubtless something in the man as well as in his work
which won him recognition. Macready says he looked more the poet than any man he had ever
met. His head was crowned with wavy dark brown hair. He had singularly expressive eyes, a
sensitive, mobile mouth, a musical voice, and an alertness of manner, so that he was like a quiver-
ing, high bred animal. How marked he was by his companions, and singled out to be, as Macready
says, ** a leading spirit of his time,'* is instanced by a notable occurrence at Talfourd*s house after
the first performance of lon^ when Talfourd included Browning with Wordsworth and Landor,
who were present, in a toast to the poets of £ngland.

It was on this occasion that Macready, whom Browning already knew well, proposed to the poet
that he should write him a play as narrated in the Introduction to Strq^ord, The play was pro-
duced at the Covent Garden Theatre in May, 1837, and Macready and Miss Helen Faucit, aftei^
ward Lady Martin, gave distinction to its representation. It came, however, 'at an unfortunate
time in the management, and though it gave promise of a long run, certain difficulties in the
theatre compelled its withdrawal. It was published at once by Longmans, but like Browning's
former book, was a failure with the public.

The monologue of Pauline had been succeeded by what may be called the conversational drama
of Paracelsus^ and that by the dramatic Strafford, The form now experimented with was to be
the dominant one for the next ten years, though his next attempt was in form almost a reversion to
Pauline, During the remainder of 1837 and until £aster, 1838, Browning was engaged on Sar-
deUo^ but interrupted thb poem for a couple of years which have a special interest as the years
when he first visited Italy, and when he entered upon an order of production which was to be very
significant of his poetic choice of subject and treatment. Browning liimwAJf recognized the impor-
tance to him of his acquaintance with Italy. " It was my university," he was wont to say, when
asked if he had been a student at Oxford or Cambridgre. The companion poems. The English-
man in Italy and The Italian in England^ illustrate that double nationality in Browning's mind by
which the two countries were, so to speak, married for him. The latter of these two poems was
one which Mazadni used to read to his countrymen when he would demonstrate how generously
an Englishman could enter into the Italian's patriotic aspirations. The journey was a rapid one.
** I went," Browning says, ** to Trieste, then Venice — then through Treviso and Bassano to the
mounttuns, delicious Asolo, all my places and castles, you will see. Then to Vicenza, Padua,
and Venice again. Then to Verona, Trent, Innspruck, Munich, Salzburg in Franconia, Frank-
fort and Mayence ; down the Rhine to Cologne, then to Aix-larChapelle, Si^ and Antwerp ; then
home."

It would seem as if he had begun SordeUo with a bookish knowledge only of Italy, and later
charged it with a more informing spirit of love for that country and embroidered it with descriptive
scenes drawn from his personal observation. The poem was published in 1840, but the result of
the journey in Italy and of the poet's more complete finding of himself — a process by the bye
which may almost be taken as having its analogue in Sordello — were made most evident by the
next publication, the story of which is told in the Introduction to Pippa Passes. The very form
chosen for Bells and Pomegranates was a challenge to the public not so fantastically arrogant as
Home's famous publicalion of Orion at a farthing, but noticeable as an earnest of Browning's
appeal to his generation and not to a select circle of admiring friends. In this series of writings,
extending from 1841 through 1846, Browning struck the note again and again, in drama, lyric, and



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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH xiU

, which was to he the dominant note of his poetry, that diMloture of the tonl of man in
all maimer of ciroumstanoes, as if the world were to the poet a great hihoratory of souls, and he
was f oreyer to he engaged in solving, dissolTing, and resolTing the elements.

It ia notioeahle also that with this series closed Browning^s serioos attempts at dramatic oomposi-
tioo for the stage. It would almost seem as if he finally parted company with theatrical manar
gers, partly hecause of the constant difficulty he had in making them suhordinate to his purpose^
partly and no dooht more profoundly hecause his own genius, hent as it was upon the interpreta-
tion of spiritual phenomena, could ill hrook the demands of the acted drama that all this interpre-
tation ahoold stop with visihle, intelligihle, and satisfactory action, capable of hbtrionic expression.
Browning^s eager penetration of the arcana of life was too absorbing to permit him to call a halt
when the actor on the stage could go no farther.

An example of the practical difficulties he encountered with managers will be found in the
TicisBitndes of A Blot in the * Scutcheon, which was put on the stage in 1843 and formed the fifth in
the aeriea of BeOs and Pomegranate», Browning has himself told the story of lus misfortunes so
fully and so graphically in a letter to Mr. Frank Hill, editor of the London Daily NewSy forty
years after the event, that it seems worth while to introduce it here. The letter, from wluch the
following passage is taken, was dated 19, Warwick Crescent, December 15, 1884 ; and was written
in oonseqaence of a paragraph concerning the revival of the play, which Mr. Hill had sent in proof
to Browning, from a doubt he felt of its accuracy : —

^' Maoready received and accepted the play, while he was engaged at the Haymarket, and re-
tained it for Drury Lane, of which I was ignorant that he was about to become the manager ; he
accepted it *at the instigation ' of nobody, — and Charles Dickens was not in England when he
did BO : it was read to him after his return by Forster — and the glowing letter which contains his
oinnion of it, although directed by him to be shown to myself, was never heard of nor seen by me
tin printed in Forster's book scmie thirty years after. When the Drury Lane season began, Mao-
ready informed me that he should act the play when he had brought out two others ~ The
PatridanU Daughter, and Plighted Troth, Having done so, he wrote to me that the former
had been onsncoessfnl in money-drawing, and the latter had 'smashed his arrangements alto-
gether,' bnt he would still produce my play. I had ~ in my ignorance of certain symptoms better
nnderstood by Macready's professional acquaintances — no notion that it was a proper thing, in
such a ease, to * release him from his promise ; ' on the contrary, I should have fancied that such
a pr o po sa l was offensive. Soon after, Macready begged that I would call on him ; he said the play
had been read to the actors the day before, and * laughed at from beginning to end ; ' on my
q»eaking my mind about this, he explained that the reading had been done by the prompter, a
grotesque person with a red nose and wooden leg, ill at ease in the love scenes, and that he would
himself make amends by reading the play next morning— which he did, and very adequately —
but apprised me that, in consequence of die state of his mind, harassed by business and various
trouble, the prindpal character must be taken by Mr. Phelps ; and again I failed to understand —
what Forster subsequently assured me was plain as the sun at noonday — that to allow at Mao-
ready's theatre any other than Macready to play the principal part in a new piece was suicidal, —
and really believed I was meetmg his exigencies by acoepti^ the substitution. At the rehearsal,
Macready announced that Mr. Phelps was ill, and that he himself would read the part ; on the
third rehearsal, Mr. Phelps appeared for the first time, and sat in a chair while Macready more
than read — rehearsed the part. The next morning Mr. Phelps waylaid me at the stage-floor to say,
with much emotion, that it never was intended that he should be instrumental in the success of a
new tragedy, and that Macready would play Tresham on the ground that himself, Phelps, was
nnahle to do so. He added that he could not expect me to waive such an advantage, but that, if I
were prepared to waive it, * he would take ether, sit up all night, and have the words in his mem-
ory by next day.' I bade him follow me to the green-room, and hear what I decided upon —
whidi was that as Macready had given him the part, he should keep it : this was on a Thursday ;
he rehearsed on Friday and Saturday, — the play being acted the same evening, — €fthejifth day
after the * reading ' by Macready, Macready at once wished to reduce the importance of the * play ' —
as he styled it in the bills, ^ tried to leave out so much of the text that I baffled him by get-
ting it printed in four-and-twenty hours, by Moxon's assistance. He wanted me to call it Th€



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xfv ROBERT BROWNING



Sitter I and I haye before me, vhile I write, the stage-aoting copy, with two lines of his own in-
sertion to ayoid the tragical ending —Tresham was to announce his intention of going into a
monastery I all this, to keep up the belief that Maoready, and Maoready alone, could produce
a yeritable * tragedy,' nnproduced before. Not a shilling was spent on scenery or dresses, and a
striking scene whidi had been used for The Patrician*8 Daughter did duty a second time. If
your critic considers this treatment of the play an instance of *" the failure of powerful and ex-
perienced actors ' to ensure its success, I can only say that my own opinion was shown by at ouce
breaking off a friendship of many years — a friendship which had a right to be plainly and simply
told that the play I had contributed as a proof of it would, through a change of circumstances, no
longer be to my friend*s adyantage — idl I could possibly care for. Only recently, when by the
publication of Macready*s journals the extent of his pecuniary embarrassments at that time was
made known, could I in a measure understand his motiyes for such conduct, and less than ever
understand why he so strangely disguised and disfigured them. If * applause * meant success, the
play thus maimed and maltreated wins successful enough ; it * made way * for Macready*s own
Benefit, and the theatre closed a fortnight after."

Of the more profound separation between Browning and the theatre, due to the inherent impossi-
bility of his arresting his thought before it got beyond the actor's use, Luria and The Return qfthe
Druses afford good examples, and an illustration might fairly be taken from Colombe's Birthday^
which was put on the stage in 1853, but scarcely held its own, though Helen Faudt took the
heroine's part, and, when reyiyed forty years after, was so cut and slashed that though the splen-
did idea of Valence was retained in situation, the delicate, subtle shadows which passed and re-
passed before the reader's mind were wanting.

The period when Browning was writing his dramas was one of spendthrift enjoyment of life. For
it was a time not only of work in the British Museum and of excursions into all sorts of remote
fields of literature, but of long rambles, half gypsy experiences, hours when, stretched at full length
beneath the sky, he made familiar and minute acquaintance with bird and leaf, insect and snail,
the wind in the trees, the search for the northwest psssage of argosies of clouds. He pursued all
manner of interests which absorbed him for the moment ; he was liying, in short, that abundant
life which was reflected later in multitudinous dramatic assumptions.

Then all at once there came a concentration of his passion and a sudden reyelation to him which
neyer lost its wondrous light. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, knowing each other through
their writings, then by a common service to a common friend, then by an intermittent correfqx>nd-
ence, finally were brought together by John Kenyon, already a dear friend of each. The fragile
creature, scarce able to leave her couch, and the robust, exuberantiy vital man, were as far separate
in external, superficial agreement as could well be, but each knew the other with an instantaneous-
nees of knowledge and need. Again and again, not nuly in verses directed openly to his wife, but
in those which like By the Fireside thinly veil personal feeling, the passionate constancy of this ex-
perimenting, daringly inquisitive poet towards his poet wife is splendidly disclosed, with a certiun
glory of frank confession which is the vehement sincerity of one who is in this one feeling genuine
poet and genuine man.

Miss Barrett was an invalid, guardeclwith the greatest care, and Browning, in urging marriage
upon her, met with all the obstacles which the circumstances raised. He confronted indeed the
indomitable refusal of Miss Barrett's father. A phsrsician had held out hopes that a removal to
Italy would give the invalid a chance to regain some degree of health, but Mr. Barrett, for some
not very dear reason, refused his consent to her taking the journey with her brother. It was then
that Browning, who can readily be conceived of as a masterful man, won Miss Barrett's consent to
a sudden and clandestine marriage, and a journey to Italy as his wife. ** When she had finally
assented to this course," writes Mrs. Orr, " she took a preparatory step which, in so far as it was
known, must itself Have been sufficientiy startling to those about her ; she drove to Regent's Park,
and when there, stepped out of the carriage and on to the grass. I do not know how long she
stood — probably only for a moment ; but I well remember hearing that when, after so lone an
interval, she felt earth under her feet and air about her, the sensation was almost bewilderingly
strange."

They were married September 12, 1846. She would not entangle Mr. Kenyon or any of her



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friends by aimcniiioiiig eyen her engsfcoment ; she preferred marrying without her frtther's know-
ledge, to marrying against hii prohibition. For a week the hiuibaud and wife did not see eaeh
ether. Then they met by agreement and went to Paris. Mr. Barrett never f orgaTe his daughter,
hot ^e eonstemation wiUi which the Browning f aimly heard of the event quickly tamed to affeo-
tiooate regard for the frail wife. So far as Mrs. Browning^s physical well-being was concerned, it
is dear that the marriage gave her a new lease of life ; and what seemed at the moment an
andaciops taking of fate into their own hands proved to be a case where nature obtained her best
of both.

From Paris, by slow stages, they passed through France into Italy, and made their first long
halt in I^sa. It was here, we are told, that Mrs. Browning showed to her hushaud in manuscript
those Sonnets from the Portugue$e which were her offering to him out of the darkness of her cham-
ber. From Pisa they went to Florence, to Ancona, and agun back to Florence, where at last they
obtained a foothold in the old palace called Casa Guidi, a name to be endeared to the readers of
Mrs. Browning's poetry. Mr. GJeorge S. Hillard, in his Six Months in Italy,, gives a pleasant ao-
eount of the Brownings when he met them in Florence in 1847.

** It is well for the traveller to be chary of names. It is an ungrateful return for hospitable
attentions to i>rint the conversation of your host, or describe his petsou, or give an inventory of his
fmmitare, or proclaim how his wife and daughters were dressed. But I trust I may be pardoned
if I state that one of my most delightful associations with Florence arises from the fact that here
1 made the acquaintance of Robert and £Ilizabeth Browning. These are even more familiar
names in America than in England, and their poetry is probably more read, and better under-
stood with us than among their own countrymen. A happier home and a more perfect union than
theirs it is not easy to imagine ; and this completeness arises not only from the rare qualities
which each possesses, but from their adaptation to each other. Browning^s conversation is like the
poetry of Chancer, or like his own, simplified 'and made transparent. His countenance is so full
of vigor, freshness, and refined power, that it seems impossible to think that he can ever grow old.
His poetry is subtle, passionate, and profound ; but he himself is simple, natural, and playfuL
He has the repose of a man who has lived much in the open air ; with no nervous uneasiness and no
unhealthy self-consciousness. Mrs. Browning is in many respects the correlative of her husband.
As he is full <^ manly power, so she is a type of the most sensitive and delicate womanhood. She
has been a great sufferer from ill-health, and the marks of pain are stamped upon her person and
manner. Her figure is slight, her countenance expressive of genius and sensibility, shaded by a
veil of long brown looks ; and her tremulous voice often flutters over her words, like the flame of
a dying candle over the wick. I have never seen a human frame which seemed so nearly a trans-
parent veil for a celestial and immortal spirit. She is a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl.
Her rare and fine genius needs no setting forth at my hands. She is also, what is not so generally
known, a woman of uncommon, nay, profound learning, even measured by a masculine standard.
Nor is she more remarkable for genius and learning, than for sweetness of temper, tenderness of
heart, depth of feeling, and purity of spirit. It is a privilege to know such beings singly and sep-
arately, but to see their powers quickened, and their happiness rounded, by the sacred tie of mar-
riage, is a cause for peculiar and lasting gratitude. A union so complete as theirs — in which the
mind has nothing to crave nor the heart to sigh for — is cordial to behold and something to
remember."

During the fifteen yean of their married life the Brownings lived for the most part in Italy,
with oocadonal summers in England and long sojourns in Paris. The record of Browning^s pro-
ductions during this period is meagre, if one regards the fulness of his poetic activity both before
and after. The explanation is made that these new responsibilities, — for two sons were bom to
them, one of whom died, — carried also great anxieties, for the frailty of Mrs. Browning's health
was a constant factor in the movements of the household. But though the record is meagre as to
quantity, lovers of Browning's poetry would be likely to regard this as not only a central period,
ehronologically, but the period when he reached his highest expression. The first collected edi-
tion of his poems appeared in 1849, to be followed the next year by Christmas-Eve and Easter'
Dojfn and then, five years after that, in 1855, by Men and Women^ a group of poems which still
remains the flower of Browning's genius.



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ROBERT BROWNING



The great range taken by these poems is a witness to the fecundity and veisatility of Brown*
lug's genius. It is possible, also, that to the cirenmstances of his life, especially its beaatifnl dis-
tractions, we owe the fact of a multitude of short poems rather than longer-sustained efforts.
While Mrs. Browning, sheltered by the constant care exerted by her husband and stimulated by
his companionship, composed he^ longest work, Aurora Leigh^ he, neyer long freed from anxious
thought, broke into more fragmentary production. A yery good illustration of the alacrity of his
mind and the instantaneous power of seizing upon opportunity is given in a passage in Mr.



Online LibraryRobert BrowningThe complete poetic and dramatic works of Robert Browning → online text (page 2 of 198)