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(Written by request to be read before a meeting of a Massachusetts Browning Society
which is to be held at Mosely Homestead,
A WRITER in Scribner says, " If I had a new Browning Society in view, it should be one to show -- not, indeed, that the great poet just dead had touched human life and thought at more points, and more truly and deeply, than any writer in English since Shakespeare (for it may be years too early to preach that doctrine); but it should show that Browning is not a poet of schoolmen, and has no esoteric doctrine to teach, that he is, before all things, the poet of the red-blooded human being; of the vital, the active, and the vigorous in both feeling and intellect; and that he is lucid in the highest sense in which that much-abused word is ever likely to be applied.... His sane and strong genius is as sure to widen its influence as to keep it while the language lasts."
In selecting from the memories which I retain of Robert Browning, I shall choose such as will best tend to confirm the opinion of this writer, -- that the great poet is "not a poet of schoolmen, but the poet of the vital, the active, and the vigorous in both feeling and intellect."
It has surprised me to hear that James Russell Lowell, who is himself so true a poet, does not consider Browning a great poet. I know it was said that Mr. Lowell asserted, when he first went as Minister of the United States to England, that Robert Browning was better known as a poet in Boston than he was in London. He told Mr. Browning of an incident in proof, which bespoke more frankness than tact in its narration to the subject of it. It was repeated to me, at the time, by Mr. Browning himself, who seemed to be quietly amused - over it. Some well-known Englishman, hearing Mr. Lowell speak of Brownings poetry, had asked Lowell if Browning were an American poet. "I had the pleasure," said Lowell to Browning, "of sending him a copy of one of your volumes, and now he is as great an admirer of your poetry as I am myself."
Those who are intellectually and spiritually in harmony with Robert Brownings writings find even in the intricate style of " Sordello" ample recompense for its study. It has been truly said that only those who are familiar with " Sordellos" background of Italian history can fully understand its obscurities. And what a marvelous knowledge of everything in the worlds history Browning possessed ! He wrote a poem in Greek while still in his teens, and to the day of his death he kept his diary in that language. He possessed the gift of improvising at the piano. To listen was to be entranced as by the rapt strains of Beethovens compositions or of Mendelssohns glorious melodies, as the poets hands swept the keys, passing from one theme to another; but you could listen only once to the same strains; the inspiration came and went; the poet could never repeat his melodies. Few there were who knew of this divine gift; for only to those who were most intimate with him did he reveal himself in this way. He shunned everything like ostentation; and the American journalist was misinformed who wrote that when one of Brownings dramas was performed the poet could be seen "surrounded by all his satellites." So far as I know, Mr. Browning never attended a Browning meeting, nor witnessed the performance of one of his plays, nor appeared at the supper given after the play was over. When "A Blot in the Scutcheon" was given at St. Georges Hall, in 1885, Dr. Furnivall, on the part of "The Browning Society," sent me tickets to fill one of the two proscenium boxes, the other being occupied by those who were taking parts in the play. I had asked Mr. Browning to go with me, and it was then that he told me he never appeared upon such occasions. I saw Miss Browning with one of her friends in the stalls, and sent for them to join me and some relatives who were with me. So large was the loge that Mr. Browning might easily have witnessed the performance from behind the curtain without having been recognized by the audience. It will be understood that a man with so much humility of mind, when asked the explanation of an obscure passage in one of his poems, never could have given the answer, now going the rounds of American journals, that he "did not know what it meant, but it would repay the questioner to study it out for himself."
Miss Browning, who is sometimes spoken of in America as the daughter of the poet, is his sister; and a more devoted sister never lived. All their days were so interwoven, after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that I do not think they were ever separated for a day. I accompanied them to Oxford in 1882, by invitation of Mr. Browning, when the honorary degree of D.C.L. was conferred upon him.
I will quote a few lines from a letter which I wrote then, descriptive of that never-to-be-forgotten "Commemoration Day": " Mr. Browning and his sister stopped with the Master of Balliol, Dr. Jowett; I stayed with a friend in her lovely old Queen Anne house near. About eleven oclock on Commemoration Day I was set down at the gate, near the Ashmolean Museum, where the privileged few assembled who had tickets for the Semicircle. I was joined there by Miss Browning and Dr. Jowett. As the clock struck, the gates were thrown open, and in an incredibly short space of time the theatre was filled, packed from the area (where all were standing) to the galleries, save where seats were reserved for those who were to participate in the ceremonies. The organist played selections from Handel, Weber, Bach, and Gounod; then (God Save the Queen; and the Vice-Chancellor, followed by the Doctors in their scarlet gowns, entered in procession and took their seats. Next came the candidates for an honorary degree, accompanied by the Regent Professor of Civil Law. These remained standing while the Vice Chancellor read his address in Latin.... The fete which followed in Wadham Gardens, that afternoon, was as brilliant a scene as could be imagined. This is the wardens territory; and never was a lovelier site chosen for a garden-party. Tents sprinkled the lawn, in which refreshments were served, with hothouse grapes, peaches, and pineapples in lavish profusion. Groups of gayly-dressed ladies with their attendant cavaliers were seated under the spreading branches of the huge old trees, cedars of Lebanon and the red beech overshadowing the brighter hues of the moving throng beneath.
"Robert Browning in his earliest prime could never have looked handsomer than on this occasion, in his scarlet silk gown, and many were the eyes that followed this great poet as he walked amidst the crowd. At the close of this delightful afternoon he took me to that part of the grounds which Ruskin has pronounced to be the loveliest spot in Oxford.... The old gray walls of the chapel and of the wardens house close in the three sides, and not a sound broke the stillness of that exquisite spot, not even a sunbeam pierced the shade. It was as one might fancy primeval solitude to have been."
I am often asked where I first met Robert Browning, and how it was that we became such good friends. He called upon me in London when I was stopping at Claridges Hotel in 1879, -- before I had found time to deliver a letter of introduction given to me by a common friend who wished to make us known to each other. Our friendship dates from that first evening of our meeting; although I had not at that time fully awakened to his inspiration as a poet, my full appreciation having centered upon the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. From the publication of her first volume in America, her poems were next to my Bible; and there have been times when I have found more comfort in the utterances of her sorely bruised spirit than in the Psalms of David. My worship of her genius, my gratitude for "helpfulness" that I found in her writings, were the foundation of my affection for all that belonged to her. On that cornerstone was built up the friendship which sweetened my life when all I most loved seemed to have been wrenched out of it, and a cup was given to me to drink which was full of bitterness. Our lamented American poet, Boker, had been the first to lead me into studying Brownings "obscurities," as they are called; but "Men and Women" was the only volume that I owned, up to the time that I first met Mr. Browning; while there was not one line that Elizabeth Barrett Browning had ever printed which I did not have in my possession, reading daily over and over my favorite poems until I knew them by heart. I regarded the two poets as representing in their works the two orders of poetic genius which Keble has classified as primary and secondary, -- the wifes primary, the husbands secondary. It was not until deeper insight came to me that I recognized in Browning a genius who, in his hours of inspiration, revealed the unknown to his readers; as had Shakespeare, when before Harveys birth he wrote of the circulation of the blood. "Childe Roland" is one of these inspired poems. Years after I first met Mr. Browning, we were walking in Hyde Park, one Sunday afternoon in June, and had seated ourselves, far away from "The Row," on a bench under the widespreading branches of a tree. I asked the poet what he had symbolized in the dark tower and Childe Rolands bugle-blast, -- thinking that he had intended to represent, by the tower, the stronghold of skepticism, of unbelief, of materialism, which would be razed to the ground when Science comprehends that the law which develops sound develops every natural law in the universe, and that at the first blast which she blows, with this knowledge, the dark tower must crumble, opening up such fields of research, beyond its walls, as the imagination of man has not yet conceived to be possible, -- even to the understanding of the sympathetic attraction which holds the stars in their places and controls their advance and recession. Mr. Browning replied that Childe Roland was "only a fantaisie," that he had written it "because it pleased his fancy." As I interpreted to him its meaning, in the light of Keelys discoveries, he listened with interest, and a smile of doubtful meaning played over his features; for Mr. Browning never expressed any faith in this "modern Prometheus," as to his commercial success, which I so fully believe in. Keelys success as a discoverer is already attained and insured to him by the acknowledgment of the leading scientist in America that Keely has partial control of some unknown force. The successful application of the discovery to mechanics is only a question of time; but, whether the dark tower of materialism falls in our day or stands until this generation has passed away, if "effort, not success, makes the man," as Browning wrote, shapes his soul, forges his character, all glory to the discoverer who, in years upon years of "dead-work," is paving the way for the triumph of spirit over matter.
One Christmas evening when we were amusing ourselves by giving Mr. Browning subjects and rhymes for sonnets, I gave the rhymes, and "Keelys Discovery" as the subject. Much more expeditiously than I had written down the rhymes to which he was to confine himself in its composition, he wrote the sonnet. The time will come when the world will look upon this sonnet as an inspired prophecy, the closing lines of which are as follows:
All we can dream of loveliness within--
All ever hoped for by a will intense--
This shall one day be palpable to sense
And earth become to heaven akin.
Mr. Brownings facility for verse-making was often the means of entertaining his most intimate friends. I once opened a letter from George Bancrott in Mr. Brownings presence, in which the historian mentioned the near approach of his eighty-seventh birthday. I proposed to the poet that he should write a message from himself, which I would cable. Almost as quick as thought, he wrote,--
Bancroft, the message-bearing wire,
Which flashes my all hail today,
Moves slowlier than the hearts desire
That what hand pens, tongues self might say.
My last letters from Robert Browning were dated November 9, November 18, and November 26, -- the day before he fell ill, reaching me the very hour that he was dying, allowing for the difference in time between Venice and Philadelphia. The handwriting showed no trace of weakness, the characters as firm, in the closely written lines, as ever, and no allusion made to illness. In the letter of November 9, Mr. Browning alluded to a cablegram which I had received, before I left London, from Dr. Joseph Leidy, of the University of Pennsylvania, informing me that in his opinion "Keely has command of some unknown force of most wonderful mechanical power." Mr. Browning wrote, "Seeing must be believing in my case: still, for your sake I should be contented most cheerfully to pass with those who disbelieved in the steam-engine and electric telegraph. When Keely proves himself to be Vulcan I consent to be Momus."
When I was asked by Dr. Furnivall to select one of Brownings poems and write my explanation of its obscure passages in a paper to be read before "The Browning Society" in London, I declined; for I knew that the poet, like Auerbach the novelist, wished his readers to reach the kernel in the way best suited to their lines of thought or of belief. I once met Auerbach, and in conversation he was asked whether Irma, the heroine of his romance "On the Heights," had exiled herself from court on account of guilty remorse, or to make atonement for having violated her sense of duty in an innocent attachment, which she fled to escape from as soon as she knew that it was more than friendship on the part of the king, and dangerous for herself. Auerbach replied that he had purposely left it in doubt, in order that each reader might put his or her own construction upon Irmas course. To the pure in thought she was not the kings mistress; to the "carnal-minded" man or woman no other conclusion could be arrived at, in the sentence, "The gods were abroad that night." So with Browning, whose poems each reader deciphers to suit the requirements of his own nature. Hence the diversified constructions put upon the religious poems of Browning, interpreting God and His laws as best suits the already formed belief of the reviewer, or critic, or journalist, who comments upon them. The modern definition of infidel -- "a man who does not believe what I believe" -- sustains the wisdom of Brownings course in not making clear what his own belief was, as far as any sect is concerned. All who are in full sympathy with the poet in his views find no obscurity in his religion, -- feel no doubt that he expounds the gospel after the teachings of our Holy Master, rather than after the teachings of the Jewish high-priests or the dogmas and creeds which Lecky compares to the clouds that intercept the light of the sun. "And this is life eternal, to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent," -- to know God as revealed to us by Jesus of Nazareth, who taught that "the Alpha and Omega of religion is love to God and to mangy the entire surrender of our will to Gods will, and that all that God wills must be for the best. Of such are the teachings that we find on every page of Brownings most profound poems; and the poet lived up to his teachings, in full measure of faith and of loyalty. In parting with him once he said to me, "Remember, wherever you are, if you need me send for me. I would go to the ends of the earth to serve you." There was an element of the godlike in the completeness and the tenderness of his love for those whom he held closest, which made him seem to them, at times, as if he were of "more than mortal mould," -- more than mere man: yet he made no such pretension. He gloried in being as God made him, saying of himself, I am
merest man, and nothin more.
I may put forth angels plumage, once unmanned, but not before.
To one of his chosen friends who said to him in parting (when most unexpectedly called away from the place where with Miss Browning they were passing the season together), "Remember, I have loved you with the best and most enduring love - soul love," he wrote,
Not with my Soul, Love ! -- bid no soul like mine
Lap thee around nor leave the poor Sense room.
Robert Browning had more friends among noble-hearted women than
fall to the share of many. One of these women, whom it was a
privilege to hear in conversation with him, so brilliantly gifted is
she, writes to me from London, January 6,--
"You have been so much in my mind and heart during these last sad weeks that even at the peril of being intrusive I feel that I must stretch out my hand to you across the Atlantic. How dear Browning loved and admired you I know better than most people. He spoke of you always enthusiastically and with true discrimination. He was not one to invest any friend, however dear, with ideal perfectness; he saw clearly; he had the true poetic insight which discriminated between the sham and the real; and what a heart he brought to love where he did love I His death has changed everything for me. Life can never be the same again; but ones own loss sinks into nothingness before the worlds loss." . . .
Yes, "Brownings death has changed everything" in life for those upon whom he had bestowed love and sympathy," proffered in largess such as great souls give. It was at his request that I made my home in London, in order, he said, that we might live near to each other to the end of our lives upon earth. Christmas Day I was always to dine with them; and even when I had relatives stopping with me at Christmas, they were invited to the Christmas dinner, and met with a warm welcome from him and his sister. Our plans to meet at San Moritz in the summer of 1888 were interfered with by all that happened to me that fateful year; but I returned to London in November, 1888, taking my last Christmas dinner at his house in De Vere Gardens, and planning for our summer together at San Moritz. But again, wave after wave of trouble swept me off my feet, and I was too much of an invalid to carry out my plans.
From every quarter of the globe letters come to me filled with sympathy, from those who knew of the strong ties which for ten years had drawn us closer and closer in the hallowed bonds of friendship. "Any one can love, but few have the capacity for friendship," wrote George Sand.
From Florence, "Ouida" writes, December 28, "I cannot let the year end without telling you how grieved I am at the loss of the great and gracious life so intermingled and associated in friendship with your own. It is an irreparable loss. I shall never forget that I owe to you the inestimable privilege of his personal acquaintance, and, I think, of his personal sympathy."
The learned author of "The Numerical Basis of the Solar System" writes to me under date of December 13, "While the death of Robert Browning is of course the worlds loss, I am thinking of it more as yours. It must indeed be a deep personal grief to you to lose out of your life one who has been so true and so profound a friend. I am sorry beyond words for your sorrow. I shall always remember with warm satisfaction the pleasant Sunday afternoon I had in his company at your house in London."
No one knows better than these friends what consolation I found in my friendship with Robert Browning, and how he had helped me, with his never-failing sympathy, to bridge over torrents that else must have swept me away. While he lived, I felt, whatever afflictions befell me, whoever might misunderstand my motives of action, or misrepresent and censure me, that his trust in me would remain unshaken, that he would defend me to the end. "Friendship to natures large and comprehensive in sympathy means attachment as warm and strong as life itself, enthusiasm of personal interest, faithfulness unto death." The poem "On the Heights," in my last volume of verses, was written to Robert Browning on Easter Sunday, 1882.
The son of the poet (Robert Barrett Browning) is an artist of much talent, whose works in painting and sculpture are better known on the Continent than in England even, receiving honorable mention in the Paris and Brussels Salon exhibitions. I have always kept in remembrance Comtes axiom that "he who renders another a service merits some return," and, not having had the privilege of knowing Elizabeth Barrett Browning personally, it was never in my power to do anything to prove my appreciation of the benefits which, through her writings, she had bestowed upon me. When I heard that her son was an artist I determined to give him an order for some portraits that I wished to have painted; but, finding that some of his pictures remained unsold on account of their being too large for anything but public institutions, I proposed to buy one of them for the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, instead of having the portraits painted. I made my selection, and asked the price. His father at once gave me the picture, declining to name a price, on the ground that it would be of benefit to his son to have it placed in a gallery in America. I refused to accept the picture as a gift, and, remaining firm, Mr. Browning finally named the moderate sum which I paid for the picture. At a later date I purchased the two pictures that I gave to the New York and Boston Art galleries, thus carrying out my desire to evince to the son my gratitude for the enjoyment and the help I had found in his mothers poems. I hope others have testified their gratitude in the same way to the artist son, among the many who have received fresh strength, from the writings of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to fight the battle of life.
"Love cancels gratitude," it is said, and that it is so is part of my creed; but I like appreciation, though I do not like gratitude from those that I love. Mr. Browning on more than one occasion manifested his appreciation of my all but worship of his wifes genius. He remembered me on my birthday, and days that were not anniversaries are made so now by the gifts which he brought to me upon them, and which will be held as sacred relics of the closest and dearest friendship of my life. Miss McMahon writes of such friendships, "The calm and disinterested affection of soul friends is reserved for men and women of the finest mould. Let not the world look askance upon a relation so true and holy that it glorifies even the common details of life and is the noblest form that friendship wears." Among the gifts which Robert Browning made me I value greatly the autograph letters written to him and to Mrs. Browning by men and women of genius, -- among them one of Tennyson to himself, and one of George Sand to Mrs. Browning. As each volume of the last edition of his poems came out, he brought it to me, inscribing his name at my request. Scarabaei which Mr. Barrett, his brother-in-law, brought from Egypt, intaglios collected in Italy, quaint old books that he thought would interest me, daintily bound commentaries on his works, which had been sent as gifts to him, exquisitely gotten-up "Bits from Browning," bottles of rare Tokay from Hungary, were shared with me in the generosity of his great heart; but my most precious possession is the Florentine brooch which belonged to Mrs. Browning. When her son was engaged I thought it should belong to his fiance, and I took it to her. I think she saw tears in my eyes as I gave up my treasure, for she would not keep it, and it was returned to me.
Robert Browning was justly proud and very fond of his sons lovely American wife, Fanny Coddington, of New York. She was a devoted daughter to him. It was in her home in Venice, Palazzo Rezzonico, that the poet died. In a letter from her dated January 4 she writes some particulars of his illness and death, which she says was "a fitting close in every respect to such a noble life.... He had been so full of life and was so happy in our new home that when his illness came it was like a thunder-bolt out of a clear sky. From the first the doctor told me that his heart was weak; he got better of the bronchitis, but day by day, without pain, he became weaker and more weak until the end.... He was glad that his illness had happened in Venice, and not in London; and he was touchingly grateful for all that we tried to do for him to have him once more well again: God knows it was our best. But his time to go had come, and we all feel grateful that it came as it did, that his falling asleep was so peaceful. The coincidence of Asolando coming out the day he left this earth seemed most appropriate, with its prophetic epilogue ! The ceremony at Westminster Abbey, last Tuesday, was beyond words impressive and as one would have desired it to be in every way. Pen was immensely touched by the fitting music to his mothers beautiful words.... Poor Aunt Sariana! Her loss has made a great change in her she has felt it terribly. She has been very, very ill from the shock. She is better now, though she hardly leaves her room yet."
Robert Brownings son writes to me, from London, on the same date as his wife, "My father died without pain or suffering other than that of weakness or weariness. His death was what death ought to be, but rarely is - so said the doctor. My father was a very true friend of yours, and you were in his mind during his last hours. My loss is irreparable, of course. It all seems a scene of ages past to me now ! You know how I found it was impossible for his burial to be in my mothers tomb in Florence, and how at the last, after a public funeral in Venice, he has been laid by the dust of Chaucer, Dryden, Cowley, and other bearers of great names in our Abbey here. The ceremony was most impressive, and the manifestation of sympathy and sorrow which his death has evoked is very remarkable. I had no idea that his popularity was so extended. The rendering of my mothers lines was very grand in effect, and the absolute silence of that vast assembly showed how impressive it was. You may be interested in knowing that it would have been in my power to bring the remains of my mother to the Abbey. I was greatly tempted at one time, but after much consideration I decided not to do so. It would have been against my fathers wishes, and would have displeased the Florentines. My father saw, in later years, that the cemetery in Florence was closed, and only recently had mentioned to my aunt that, if he died here, he wished to be buried in Norwood Cemetery, or if in Paris, with his father there."
Enough has been said of the private life of this great-hearted poet for you to know how impossible it would be for a man with such an exalted nature to answer inquiries made to him of the meaning of obscure passages in his works, that it would repay readers to study it out for themselves. There never lived a man who had so little of the egotist in him as Robert Browning. In the presence of a third person, with one exception, I never heard Mr. Browning speak of himself, nor of his poerns. This exception was when Bishop Potter dined with him at my house: to him he spoke unreservedly, for each found in the other a kindred spirit. I remember the poet gave us the history of Pauline, and also that he said his early poems were so transparent in their meaning as to draw down upon him the ridicule of the critics, and that, boy as he was, this ridicule and censure stung him into quite another style of writing. Then the critics, who had not studied the esoteric meanings of his writings, pounced down upon him for his obscurity of phraseology. It is said of Rubens that when the critics assailed him he answered, "My maxim is to do well and you will make others envious; do better and you will master them." This seems to have been Brownings aim also. He never answered the critics; he never stooped to deny the fictions which "penny-a-liners" invented and printed about him. Like an eagle cleaving heavens blue vault, this great poet soared beyond the reach of the earth-worms that attacked him, mastering all envy, all criticism, by the ever-growing appreciation of his writings which placed him, years since, "in the rank of the worlds great poets, foremost with Dante and Shakespeare." His works will keep green the memory of
One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong could triumph.
Clara Jessup Bloomfield-Moore.
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