Memorial, By Theodore Tilton
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence, June 29, 1861, half an hour after daybreak.
A life of suffering ended in peace. A frail body, bearing the burden of too great a brain, broke at last under the weight. After six days' illness, the shadows of the night fell upon her eyes for the last time, and half an hour after daybreak she beheld the Eternal vision. Like the Pilgrim in the dream, she saw the Heavenly glory before passing through the gate.
It is beautiful! she exclaimed, and died: sealing these last words upon her lips as the fittest inscription that could ever be written upon her life, her genius, and her memory. In the English burial-ground at Florence lie her ashes. What she wrote of Cowper's grave now stands written of her own:
It is a place where poets crowned may feel the heart's decaying --
It is a place where happy saints may weep amid their praying;
Yet let the grief and humbleness, as low as silence, languish I!
Earth surely now may give her calm to whom she gave her anguish.
On both sides of the ocean, this death was nowhere lightly written, nor lightly read. Famous names every year are added to the dead, and without tears. But Mrs. Browning's death was mourned in every household where her books had entered. When her friend Cavour dropped down in the midst of his work, and good men stood with serious face, asking, Who but he could finish it? there was regret; but at this other loss there was more: there was grief. In many households there was weeping; this too by strangers who never saw her face.
What shall we now say of her? Death looses all tongues to speak the praise of the dead. Let us say, then, not a finer genius ever came into the world, or went out of it; not a nobler heart ever beat in a human bosom; not a more Christian life was ever lived; not a more beautiful memory ever followed the name of man or woman after death.
Is this overpraise? Not for one whose life and genius were each above praise. Of course, not every one will award such meed, and many, hearing it awarded, will ask,
For what? But there was a circle of loving yet unknown friends of Mrs. Browning, who, when they first heard of her death, were startled at a sudden sundering of something that had bound their hearts closer to hers than the mere ordinary tie between author and reader, even of such authors as have loving readers. So the shadow that fell at Florence crept hitherward across many a threshold.
It is easy to account for this unusual sense of loss. They who had read Mrs. Browning at all, had read her over and over again. They had never closed the books without meaning to open them many times more; for her pages, once truly known, are never slighted afterward. A friend of ours reads the Eve of St. Agnes once a year to his family, but on the lips of the same reader Bertha in the Lane counts all the months between. Of reading Aurora Leigh when can there be an end? One need never be athirst for a book while that is at hand. So to lose Mrs. Browning -- to those who knew their loss -- meant something more than to lose any one else.
Besides, to the few who knew not only her genius but something of her personal life -- especially the sad story of those sufferings which found their compensation in the ripening of her character into a loveliness as nearly perfect as it seems possible for human nature ever to attain -- there was always an indescribable sympathy, which death fitly hallowed into a saintly memory. But that story, inasmuch as her own lips never told it, and her own heart wished it might never be told, shall find no chronicle here. It is enough to say that she bore patiently, sweetly, and with perpetual forgiveness, a grievous and unnatural wrong which pierced her like a thorn for years. Daughters turning coldhearted to a kind father have made one tragedy: the reverse of such a tale might make another equally pathetic. But let it remain unwritten; for the dead have gone to meet the dead; and who knows what reconcilements there may be in the shadowy land?
The record of her outward life is brief. A few dates and common facts comprise it all. Born in London in 1809, she became a writer in 1819, and a publisher in 1826. Her first volume, an Essay on Mind-written in the verse of Pope's Essay on Man-was afterward withdrawn from print, and now cannot be found in any bookseller's garret. She decreed a like fate upon her next book, published in 1833, Prometheus Bound, translated from Eschylus: excluding it from a subsequent volume of collected works, and giving this reason in the preface:
One early failure, a translation of the Prometheus of Æschylus, which, though happily free of the current of publication, may be remembered against me by
a few of my personal friends, I have replaced by an entirely new version, made for them and my con"science, in expiation of a sin of my youth, with the sincerest application of my mature mind.
So her first ventures in authorship were triumphant failures.
We will leave the reader to guess how much of personal autobiography is written in the ensuing lines:
I apprehended this,
In England, no one lives by verse that lives;
And, apprehending, I resolved by prose
To make a space to sphere my living verse.
I wrote for cyclopedias, magazines,
And weekly papers, holding up my name
To keep it from the mud. I learnt the use
Of the editorial
we in a review,
As courtly ladies the fine trick of trains,
And swept it grandly through the open doors
As if one could not pass through doors at all
Save so encumbered. I wrote tales beside,
Carved many an article on cherry-stones
To suit light readers, -- something in the lines
Revealing, it was said, the mallet-hand,
But that, I'll never vouch for.
Three years after her atoning preface of Prometheus, began her acquaintance with Mary Russell Mitford, who has left a very pleasing sketch of her friend; yet the sketch must have been written half at random, for it is full of misconceptions and misstatements; but it painted this life-like picture of the poet at twenty seven:
A slight, delicate figure, with a shower of
dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face-large, tender eyes, fringed with dark lashes-and a smile like a sunbeam.
This description of twenty-five years ago is true, every word, of a photograph now lying on our table, copied from Macaire's original, made at Havre in 1856, and which Robert Browning esteems a faithful likeness of his wife. The three-quarter length shows (what photographs sometimes fail to show) the comparative stature of the figure -- which here is so delicate and diminutive that we can easily imagine how the story came to be told (although not true) that her husband drew this same portrait in the Flight of the Duchess when he sketched -- the smallest lady alive.
But the one striking feature of the picture is the intellectual and spiritual expression of the face and head; for here, borne up by pillars of curls on either side, is just such an arch as she saw in the Vision of Poets:
A forehead royal with the truth!
A photograph, taken in Rome only a month before she died, wears a not greatly changed expression, except in an added pallor to cheeks always pale; foretokening the near coming of the shadow of death.
In 1837 she had the misfortune to burst a blood-vessel in the lungs, and shortly afterward to be brought trembling to the edge of the grave by a shock occasioned by the accidental drowning of a brother, upset in a yacht. She was standing on a balcony and saw him sink. The haunting memory of this tragedy kept her in such continual prostration that not until several months afterward were her friends willing to risk removing her, even by short daily journeys, from the sea-side where the disaster happened, to her father's house in London. Here for several years she was an exile from society, shut in a dim chamber, her chief companions (beyond a few chosen friends) being a Hebrew Bible, a shelf full of large-print Greek books, and no small range of polyglot reading. Here the Attic bee brought its honey to her lips. Here she thought and studied, and ripened her genius until it grew worthy of the fame which was to crown it. Here she gathered from many tongues what she afterward embalmed in one. A patient prisoner behind drawn curtains in Wimpole-street, she was twin sister, in genius and suffering, to Charlotte Bronte in the shadowy room at Haworth. Yet the question which she asked of Mrs. Hemans:
Would she have lost the poet's fire, for anguish of the burning?
she answered of herself: for one of her favorite thoughts was Shelley's, that poets
learn in suffering
What they teach in song.
She confessed in her own words:
That hold a rythmic thought, must ache perforce,
For my part, I choose headaches.
Suddenly, one day, as the product of one day's work, she astonished her friends with the rhapsody of Lady Geraldine's Courtship -- which straightway led to the rhapsody of her own. This poem had all the faultiness which one might expect of a hundred and three stanzas forced by green-house heat into full bloom in twelve hours; this too by a weak invalid lying on a sofa; but must we spoil the pretty story that the sweet ballad had all the merit of winning for its writer the hand of Robert Browning? Yet the story is only a fiction of the gossip-writers. Nor is it true that the poet with whom she was to mate was then known to her only by his little book of Bells and Pomegranates. She had more than a stranger's reasons for making the wooer of Lady Geraldine speak in this wise:
There, obedient to her praying, did I read aloud the poems
Made to Tuscan flutes, or instruments more various of our own;
Read the pastoral parts of Spenser -- or the subtle interflowings
Found in Petrarch's sonnets -- here's the book -- the leaf is folded down! --
Or at times a modern volume -- Wordsworth's solemn thoughted idyl,
Howitt's ballad-verse, or Tennyson's enchanted reverie --
Or from Browning some
Pomegranate, which, if cut deep down the middle,
Showed a heart within, blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity
Mr. Hillard of Boston mentions in the New American Cyclopedia a story of this happy allusion, which we will repeat in his own words:
The story, he says,
has been told to us"we will not vouch for its truth, as imaginations as one would' are apt to be interpolated into such incidents-that the grateful poet called to express in person his acknowledgments, and that he was admitted into the invalid's presence by the happy mistake of a new servant. At any rate, he did see her, and had permission to renew his visit. The mutual attachment grew more and more powerful, and the convergence more and more rapid; the acquaintance became the friend, and the friend was transformed into the lover. Kind physicians and tender nurses had long watched over the couch of sickness; but love, the magician, brought restorative influences before unknown; and her health was so far improved that she did not hesitate to accept the hand that was offered to her. She became the wife of Robert Browning in the autumn of 1846.
This incident in the sick-room is charming; fit to happen to two poets. But it must have been taken from a novel; it did not occur in reality. Indeed, nearly all the public stories of their private life have been only guesses or idle pleasantries; for no one who has written on the subject has known anything about it. Nothing authentic has been told. Yet as for the several myths afloat, they are fancies that do no great harm. It may be mentioned that before the marriage, so strong and so lasting was the impression still remaining on her mind concerning her brother's death, that she exacted a promise from Mr. Browning that he would never refer to the subject. This promise was kept for years.
So much of the courtship as the world has a right to know, she herself has confessed in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which she might have named with an English name, Sonnets from Her own Heart. At the wedding the bride rose from her sick-bed to receive the wedding ring upon her finger. It is said that some of her kinsfolk disapproved the match. This is probably true, for the marriage proved a happy one. Her father never added his blessing.
Part of the wooing is told in these words, and what can be more exquisite? --
First time he kissed me he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write,
And ever since, it grew more clean and white,
Slow to world-greetings.. quick with its
When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss. The second passed in height
The first, and sought tle forehead, and half-missed,
Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love's own crown.
With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.
The third upon my lips was folded down
In perfect purple state; since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said,
My love, my own!
* * * * * * * *
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right,
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints -- love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears of all my life! -- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
After the nuptials he led her immediately to Italy, whither she willingly followed; to the land of song, of art, of romance, and of the dead past. But the dead past was already turning in its grave for resurrection into life and a future. The sympathies of the Brownings for Italy were as deep-hearted as Garibaldi's. Robert Browning was one of the few great Englishmen who, after Milton, loved Italy. His wife, loving him, loved what he loved. That love had a fruition which proved it not wasted. For the Italy she found, and the Italy she left, were not the same. When that wedding-tour ended at Pisa, she saw a shadow resting on the sunniest land in Europe. Night was on the nation. But the poet was the prophet. In her new home she sat and watched for the daydawn through Casa Guidi windows. It waited long, but dawned at last, and she saw it -- and then died! Is there not more than a sick-bed meaning in the brief story of the telegraph that she expired
half an hour after daybreak? For the dream of her life -- a free and united Italy -- was finally fulfilled in Napoleon's formal recognition of Italian freedom and unity,
in the very week she died! The full day-dawn of Italy was to shine from France; and she saw it and died -- just after the daybreak.
It is most fitting, perhaps, to ask here the question, Had she not some warrant in being a Napoleonist? Who that had disagreed with her for five years had not a half-wish that she might have lived a year longer, if only to enjoy that triumph? In a letter to the writer of this memorial, she said:
A great nation is called up from the graves. But almost at the next moment, she was called down into hers. Even the critics of The Athenæum must have felt a generous regret at this. That little volume of Napoleonic poems, shaded by the frowns of many critics, turned out to be more prophetic than men could believe, who then read and shook their heads. She mentioned these doubters in a letter written just after the poems appeared:
My book, said she,
has had a very angry reception in my native country, as you probably observe; but I shall be forgiven one day; and meanwhile, forgiven or unforgiven, it is satisfactory to one's own soul to have spoken the truth as one apprehends the truth. The day of her forgiveness came soon -- outstripping the day of her death: a speedier reward than often falls to prophets who prophesy against the united voices of their own times.
But after all what was her Napoleonism? In a letter alluding to the American feeling against the Emperor, she said:
Mr. F___ hints that your people are not very Napoleonist. Neither am I, in any partisan sense; and then pointed to her Summing Up, a poem sent to The Independent -- in which she thus wrote of the Imperial object of her so-called homage:
Napoleon -- as strong as ten armies,
Corrupt as seven devils -- a fact
You accede to, then seek where the harm is
Drained off from the man to his act.
And find . . . a free nation! Suppose
Some hell-brood in Eden's sweet greenery
Convoked for creating . . . a rose!
-- Would it suit the infernal machinery?
This in prose is: if the Devil's workman be doing God's work, who ought to hinder? Such was Mrs. Browning's Napoleonism. How far was it from right? If she erred, she erred with a man as wise as Cavour; and if Cavour was not the greatest statesman of his day, who was greater? We have no overstock of praises to waste on the third Napoleon, but it is fair play to give the devil his due.
Of Pope Pius IX., she once wrote a good opinion; for that bishop had once the wit and luck to persuade most of the world, the poets with the rest, that he had no wish for Italy but benediction. Whether his heart lost its goodness, or only his face lost its mask, is a question. But the poet blotted out her early praise, as the pontiff blotted out his early pledge.
Some of her English opinions were more high-minded and noble, more generous and Christian, than niany of her countrymen wished an Englishwoman to entertain. For instance, she was called visionary and impracticable for such words as these:
I confess that I dream of the day when an
English statesman shall arise with a heart too
large for England, having courage, in the face
of his countrymen, to assert of some suggestive policy, -- 'This is good for your trade; this is necessary for your domination; but it will vex a people hard by; it will hurt a people farther off; it will profit nothing to the general humanity; therefore, away with it! It is not for you or me.' When a British minister dares to speak so, and when a British public applauds him speaking, then shall the nation be so glorious, that her praise instead of exploding from within, from loud civic mouths, shall come to her from without, as all worthy praise must, from the alliances she has fostered and from the populations she has saved.
Mrs. Browning lived in one house in Florence for fourteen years, and went out of it to her grave.
From Casa Guidi's windows I looked out.
For those who wish to look in at these same windows, we draw the curtain by another's hand. A letter from Florence in The Atlantic Month., written shortly after her death, said:
Casa Guidi, which has been immortalized by Mrs. Browning's genius, will be as dear to the Anglo-Saxon traveler as Milton's Florentine residence has been heretofore.
Those who have known Casa Guidi as it was, can never forget the square ante-room, with its great picture, and piano-forte at which the boy Browning passed many an hour, -- the little dining-room, covered with tapestry, and where hung medallions of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Robert Browning, -- the long room, filled with plaster casts and studies, which was Mr. Browning's retreat, -- and dearest of all, the large drawing-room, where she always sat. It opens upon a balcony filled with plants, and looks out upon the old iron-grey church of Santa Felice. There was something about this room that seemed to make it a proper and especial haunt for poets. The dark shadows and subdued light gave it a dreamy look, which was enhanced by the tapestry covered walls and the old pictures of saints, that looked out sadly from their carved frames of black-wood. Large bookcase, constructed of specimens of Florentine carving, selected by Mr. Browning, were brimming over with wise looking books. Tables were covered with more gaily bound volumes, the gifts of brother authors. Dante's grave profile, a cast of Keats's face and brow, taken after death, a pen-and-ink sketch of Tennyson, the genial face of John Kenyon (Mrs. Browning's good friend and relative), little paintings of the boy Browning,
all attracted the eye in turn, and gave rise to a thousand musings. A quaint mirror, easy chairs and sofas, and a hundred nothings that always add an indescribable charm, were all massed in this room. But the glory of all and that which sanctified all, was seated in a low arm-chair, near the door. A small table, strewn with writing-materials, books and newspapers, was always by her side.
Thus far the letter; but we have this description still more vividly drawn in a photograph of the favorite room in which she oftenest sat, taken after she had quitted it forever. If the reader could look over our shoulder, he would be welcome to see the picture; but there is hard. need to add more by mere words to those already given. While the letter lies open we copy another passage on another topic, as having a fit place here:
Mrs. Browning's conversation was most
interesting. It was not characterized by sallies of wit or brilliant repartee, nor was it of that nature which is most welcome in society. It was frequently intermingled with trenchant, quaint remarks, leavened with a quiet, graceful humor of her own; but it was eminently
calculated for a tête-à-tête. Mrs. Browning never made an insignificant remark. All that
she said was always worth hearing; a greater compliment could not be paid her. She was a most conscientious listener, giving you her mind and heart, as well as her magnetic eyes. Though the latter spoke an eager language of their own, she conversed slowly, with a conciseness and point which, added to a match.ss earnestness that was the predominant trait of her conversation as it was of her character, made her a most delightful companion. Persons were never her theme, unless public characters were under discussion, or friends who were to be praised, which kind office she frequently took upon herself. One never dreamed of frivolities in Mrs. Browning's presence, and gossip felt itself out of place. Yourself, not herself-was always a pleasant subject to her, calling out all her best sympathies in joy and yet more in sorrow. Books and humanity, great' deeds, and above all, politics, which include all the grand questions of the day, were foremost in her thoughts, and therefore oftenest on her lips. I speak not of religion, for with her everything was religion.
Mr. Hillard, who visited the Brownings at Florence in 1847, says in his Six Months in Italy:
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 perfect adaptation to each other... As he is full of manly power, so she is a type of the most sensitive and delicate womanhood. I have never seen a human frame which seemed so nearly a transparent veil for a celestial and immortal spirit. She is a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl... 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 separately, but to see their powers quickened, and their happiness rounded, by the sacred tie of marriage, 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 soothing to remember.
Robert Browning's address to his wife in One Word More has these lines:
* * * * * * * *
God be thanked, the meanest of his creatures
Boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with,
One to show a woman when he loves her.
* * * * * * * *
This to you -- yourself my moon of poets I
Ah, but that's the world's side -- there's the wonder --
Thus they see you, praise you, think they know you.
There, in turn I stand with them and praise you,
Out of my own self I dare to phrase it.
But the best is when I glide from out them.
Cross a step or two of dubious twilight,
Come out on the other side, the novel
Silent silver lights and darks undreamed of,
Where I hush and bless myself with silence.
Mrs. Browning's mind matured early; her pen at once became prolific; her genius grew apace; every succeeding book showed an increase of power; every new performance gave better promise for the next. Turn over her pages, and mark the grand beginning and the grand progress to the end.
How wide is her range of subjects! She hard. ever goes back to the same strain twice. Her husband's sweet-singing English thrush, that sang each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture,
is like many poets who are born, with the birds, to a few strains, and sing them all their lives. Of these were Pope, Dr. Young, Montgomery, Walter Scott, and almost Wordsworth. But Mrs. Browning had an unequalled variety of subjects. She wrote in as many different veins as Coleridge or Hood. Even her husband is less free of range; less given to roaming at wild will. Prometheus Bound opens the door of the Greek Mythology. The drama of The Seraphim depicts the thoughts of the angels of heaven in witnessing Christ's crucifixion. The Drama of Exile follows Milton into the Garden of Eden, and out of it. A Vision of Poets calls up the long train of the famous bards of all times and tongues. The Poet's Vow is the sad story of Rosalind's heart, wounded by pride and broken by love. Isobel's Child reveals the struggles of a mother's soul, wrestling with God for life and blessing for her babe. The Brown Rosary is a story of a maiden's temptations, her falsehood to an absent lover, and the strife of an evil spirit to get possession of her soul. The Rhyme of the Dutchess May is a romance of chivalry, ending with a thrilling scene of a horse and two riders, bride and bridegroom, leaping from a castle-wall a hundred feet down to death. Lady Geraldine is a delicious story of a lady who gave a splendid party at her country-seat, and there fell in love with a poet among the guests. The Cry of the Children is a twin-poem with Hood's Song of the Shirt. The Four-fold Aspect shows the four ways of looking at death -- carelessly, awfully, mournfully, hopefully. Earth and her Praisers sets forth how differently the world appears to a child, to a lover, to a scholar, to a mourner, to a poet, to a Christian. A Child Asleep is a poem of a mother's fancyings at the cradle-side. Crowned and Wedded is the story of Victoria's wedding-day. Crowned and Buried, its counterpiece, celebrates the death of the first Napoleon. To Flush, my Dog, is a head-patting tribute which, we fancy, must often be read for sympathy's sake by the author of Rab and his Friends. My Doves is a plaintive story of her pet-birds taken from the countryto the city. The Lost Bower is a reminiscence of an invalid who recalls, while shut in a sick chamber, her sunshiny out-of-door wanderings in fields and woods. Loved Once celebrates the eternity of love:
those never loved
Who dream that they loved once.
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims' Point is the unreasonable complaint of a slave-mother who so little knew the duty of a slave as to sigh at the selling of her husband and child out of her sight forever. The Sonnets from the Portuguese are forty-four love-letters, the most exquisite that ever were written. Casa Guidi Windows is a poetical essay on Italian politics in the struggle of 1848. Aurora Leigh is a modern novel in blank verse, discussing many of the social questions of England, and revealing the writer's experiences of life. Poems before Congress, called in this country Napoleon III. in Italy, gave utterance to her French opinions. The Last Poems, now first collected after her death, are in every key from love to grief. Such was the wide range of her verse!
Mrs. Browning had an established reputation in this country before she became widely known in England. Even now she has more readers here than there, just as Longfellow has more readers there than here. But it often happens that poets, like prophets, get their best honors out of their own country. (It is due to Mr. Henry T. Tuckerman to say that he was one of the earliest of American critics to give her a word of honest praise before the American public.) The qualities of her style are many and various, including great merits and great faults.
She abounds in figures, strong and striking; sometimes strange and startling; sometimes grotesque and weird; often, one may say, unallowable; but always having a piercing point of meaning that gives warrant for their singularity. Swords have not keener edges, nor flash brighter lights, than the sudden similes drawn by this poet's hand. She illustrates at will from nature, art, mythology, history, literature, scripture, common life. She plucks metaphors wherever they grow; and to those who have eyes to see, they grow everywhere. Occasionally, taking for granted a too great knowledge on the part of her readers, even of such as are cultured, her figures are covered with the dust of old books, and their meaning hidden in a vexing obscurity. But, on the other hand, her sentences often are as clear as ice, and have a lustre of prismatic fires. Innumerable are her happy conceits, successful expressions, exquisite turns of remark, strokes of the brush known as word-paintings, sayings quaint as any in Quarles.
Some of these, of different sorts, we gather
here for show -- plucked from her pages without
search, but almost at random.
What daintier words could be dropped on a lady's head than these? --
No one parts
Her hair with such a silver line as you;
One moonbeam from the forehead to the crown.
Here is a more muscular stroke:
'Tis true that when the dust of death has choked
A great man's voice, the common words he said
Turn oracles, -- the common thoughts he yoked
Like horses, draw like griffins, -- this is true.
The opening stanza of the Lady's Yes has the fittest possible figure for the thought:
Yes, I answered you last night;
No, this morning, sir, I say;
Colors seen by candle-light
Will not look the same by day.
Aurora, doubting whether from her early rhyming she is to grow into a poet, says:
Alas I... near all the birds
Will sing at dawn -- and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark
After speaking of the Alps, she turns to the English rolling country thus:
View the ground's most gentle dimplement,
As if God's finger touched, but did not press,
In making England.
In the picture of Isobel with her child in her lap, both asleep, the mother is drawn as in motionless repose, --
Only she wore
The deepening smile I named before;
And that a deepening love expressed;
And who at once can love and rest?
Mary looking on the Child Jesus exclaims:
Art thou a king then? Come, his universe,
Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
Their light where fell a curse,
And make a crowning for this Kingly brow!
Lady Waldemar's parting is a favorite passage with Henry Ward Beecher, himself a prose-poet:
Whereat she touched my hand, and bent her head,
And floated from me like a silent cloud
That leaves a sense of thunder.
In the Vision of Poets, are these grand lines of an angel:
His eyes were dreadful, for you saw
That they saw God.
Here is a touch to the quick:
In souls, as countries, lieth silent bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens.
Of Savonarola she says:
Who, having tried the tank
Of old church waters used for baptistry
Ere Luther came to spill them, swore they stank I
Now and then she misses a point of history, as for instance:
Calvin, for the rest,
Made bold to burn Servetus:
though certainly Calvin did not burn Servetus.
Buckle has thrown out the idea that southern countries, with earthquakes for rousing the imagination, are the natural homes of painters and poets. Mrs. Browning thought differently:
Mountains of the south
When, drunk and mad with elemental wines,
They rend the seamless mist, and stand up bare,
Make fewer singers, haply. No one sings
The following are examples of fine, terse expression:
Can fix no yoke unless the neck agree.
What is holy church unless she awes
The times down from their sins?
God, in cursing, gives us better gifts
Than men in benediction.
The mountains live in holy
Earth's fanatics make
Too frequently Heaven's saints.
A holiday of miserable men
Is sadder than a burial-day of kings.
Her power of satire was severe, having a wholesome bitterness in it; most intense, sometimes, when most unintentional; oftenest used in vindication of her sex:
The headache is too noble for my sex.
You think the heartache would sound decenter,
Since that's the woman's special proper ache,
And altogether tolerable . . except
To a woman.
She puts into men's mouths a biting welcome to woman's authorship:
WWhat grace I what facile turns I what fluent sweeps!
What delicate discernment.. almost thought!
The book does honor to the sex, we hold.
Among our female authors we make room
For this fair writer, and congratulate
The country that produces in these times
Such women competent to.. spell!
But she does not spare even her own sex. Thus at the wedding at St. Giles':
A woman screamed back, I'm a tender soul,
I never banged a child at two years old
And drew blood from him, but I sobbed for it
Next moment, -- and I've had a plague of seven;
Aurora has this jesting with herself:
I wonder if the manuscript
Of my long poem, if 'twere sold outright,
Would fetch enough to buy me shoes, to go
A-foot (thrown in, the necessary patch
For the other side of the Alp)? It cannot be!
Her qualification for a bishop is:
He must not
Love truth too dangerously, but prefer
The interests of the church.
Sometimes she wedges into a single line a whole bar of gold:
She thanked God and sighed:
(Some people always sigh in thanking God).
Her descriptions of persons show a fine knack at portraiture. With a few strokes, she gives a face with a whole character in it. No one needs to go to the parlor-wall to see Aurora's aunt in oil-colors, after these few lines; as nearly pre-Raphaelite as if Millais had drawn them:
She stood straight and calm;
Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
As if for taming accidental thoughts
From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey
By frigid use of life, (she was not old,
Although my father's elder by a year);
A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;
A close, mild mouth, a little soured about
The ends, through speaking unrequited loves
Or peradventure niggardly half truths.
Her descriptions of such scenes as in art would be called figure-pieces have always a striking and graphic brevity:
He ended. There was silence in the church:
We heard a baby sucking in its sleep
At the farthest ends of the aisle.
What more was needed to complete that description?
She is skillful in putting into words the experiences of the inner life; a rare translator of latent thoughts. She writes what the reader has often felt, but has never seen written before, until he is surprised at beholding the secretest emotions of his inner-most heart lying bare upon the page. She is the elect historian of all the joys and sorrows. Her verse throbs with all the human hopes and fears. All hearts may come here, to find their personal story told. All aspirations, all struggles, all defeats, all victories have their fit memoirs in these books. This poet keeps the sybil's record to whom men may come to learn of life and death.
Mrs. Gaskell, in setting a text for her life of Charlotte Bronte, took these words of Aurora's:
My Father -- Thou hast knowledge, only Thou,
How dreary 'tis for women to sit still
On winter nights by solitary fires,
And hear the nations praising them far off.
The same fine strain is continued in these words, which we quote for the sake of their author's personal confessions therein:
To sit alone,
And think for comfort, how that very night,
Affianced lovers, leaning face to face
With sweet half listenings for each other's breath,
Are reading haply from some page of ours,
To pause with a thrill, as if their cheeks had touched,
When such a stanza, level to their mood,
Seems floating their own thoughts out --
So I feel; --
And I, for thee; -- this poet knows
What everlasting love is!
* * * To have our books
Appraised by love, associated with love
While we sit loveless I is it hard, you think?
At least, 'tis mournful. Fame indeed, 'twas said,
Means simply love. It was a man said that.
This revealer of the inward life is no less an out-of-door painter. Never were landscapes on canvas more charming than her's on the page. Look! Is not this a picture by Gifford?
On your left the sheep are cropping
The slant grass and daisies pale,
And five apple-trees stand dropping
Separate shadows toward the vale,
Over which in choral silence the bells peal you their all-hail!
Far out, kindled by each other,
Shining hills on hills arise.
Close as brother leans to brother
When they press beneath the eyes
Of some father praying blessings from the gifts of paradise.
Here are two lines that contain many pictures:
And brooks that glass in different strengths
All colors in disorder.
Resemblances to other poets, both in style and thought -- imitations, accidental and unconscious -- are not infrequent in her writings. Her Lament for Adonis, from Bion, opens with nearly the same words as Shelley's Monody on the death of Keats. Her's begins:
I mourn for Adonis -- Adonis is dead.
I weep for Adonais -- he is dead.
The poem of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus, quoting its motto from Milton's Hymn of the Nativity, has manifestly followed Milton's style.
Her story of the dead Rosalind resembles Tennyson's of the dead Elaine.
A line in Lady Geraldine --
With a rushing stir, uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain...
is like a line in Poe's Raven --
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain . . .
At the close of Aurora Leigh, Romney is made almost the identical Rochester of Jane Eyre -- not merely in the fact that both are smitten blind by falling timbers in a burning building, nor in the similarity of their marriages, but in the essential likeness of the two characters, particularly after each has become softened by suffering and love.
A general resemblance to her husband is pointed out. If the faces of man and wife are said to grow alike, are not their thoughts quite as apt to take fashion of each other? Why then if husband and wife be authors, should not their styles grow akin? But the resemblances between the Brownings, although many exist, are often more fancied than real.
They did not revise each other's writings. Neither knew what the other had been doing, until it was done. Aurora Leigh was two-thirds written before her husband saw a word of it. Nor did he know of the existence of the Portuguese Sonnets till a considerable time after the marriage, when she showed them to him for the first time, and he, in his delight, persuaded her to put them in print. Otherwise they might never have been published; for with her characteristic modesty, she at first thought them unworthy even of his reading, to say nothing of the whole world's. She felt so doubtful of the merit of Aurora Leigh that at one time she laid even that aside, with the idea never to publish it.
Her method of writing was to seize the moment when the mood was upon her, and to fix her thought hurriedly on the nearest slip of paper. She was sensitive to interruption while composing, but was too shy to permit even her friends to see her engaged at her work. When the servant announced a visitor, the busy poet suddenly hid her paper and pen, and received her guest as if in perfect leisure for the visit Giving her mornings to the instruction of her little son, and holding herself ready after twelve o'clock to give welcome to any comer, it was a wonder to many how she could find the needed time to study or write.
She made many and marked changes in her poems in successive editions. These show her fastidious taste. She was never satisfied to let a stanza remain as it was. Most of these amendments are for the better, but some for the worse -- as orators who correct their printed speeches sometimes spoil the best parts. In many cases, she substituted not only new rhymes but new thoughts, turning the verses far out of their old channels; in others, she struck out whole lines and passages as superfluous; in others, she made fitter choice of single words, so adding vividness to the expression. As illustrations, we take some passages as they stood in the edition of 1845 and the same passages in the changed dress she gave them ten years after; the Roman type in the extracts showing the originals, and the Italic the revisions:
Hark! the Eden trees are stirring
Slow and solemn to your hearing:
Softand solemn in your hearing:
Plane and cedar, palm and fir,
Oak and linden, palm and fir,
Tamarisk and juniper. [Drama of Exile.
And the calm stars . . . far and fair
And the calm stars . . . far and spare
[A Vision of Poets.
Through the solstice and the frost
Through the sunshine and the frost
[The Lost Bower.
Our blood splashes upwards, O our tyrants,
Our blood splashes upwards, O gold-heaper,
And your purple shows your path;
But the child's sob curseth deeper in the silence,
But the child's sob in the silence curseth deeper
Than the strong man in his wrath!
[The Cry of the Children.
-- the first fruit wisdom reaches
Hath the hue of childly cheek.
-- the wisest word man reaches
Is the humblest he can speak.
[Lessons from the Gorse.
She has halls and she has castles, and the resonant steam-eagles
She has halls among the woodlands, and has castles by the breakers;
Follow far on the directing of her floating dove-like hand --
She has farms and she has manors, she can threaten and hand command,
With a thunderous vapor trailing, underneath the starry vigils
And the palpitating engines snort in steam across her acres,
So to mark upon the blasted heaven the measure of her land.
As they mark upon the blasted heaven the measure of the land.
[Lady Geraldine's Courtship.
You may speak, he does not hear; and besides, he writes no satire, --
And that antique sting of poetry is all we need to mind.
All the serpents kept by charmers leave the natural sting behind [Ibid.
Howitt's ballad-dew or Tennyson's God-vocal reverie, --
Howitt's ballad-verse or Tennyson's enchanted reverie, [Ibid.
Enter a broad hall thereby,
Walled with cloudy whiteness;
'Tis a blue place of the sky,
Wind-worked into brightness;
Whence such corridors sublime
Stretch with winding stairs --
Praying children wish to climb
After their own prayers.
Build a spacious hall thereby,
Boldly, never fearing,
Use the blue place of the sky,
Which the wind is clearing.
Branched with corridors sublime
Flecked with winding stairs --
Such as children wish to climb
Following their own prayers.
In the mutest of the house
I will have my chamber:
Round its door I keep for use
Northern lights of amber.
Silence gave that rose and bee
For the lock, in meteness;
And the turning of the key
Goes in humming sweetness
In the mutest of the house
I will have my chamber:
Silence at the door shall use
Evening's light of amber.
Solemnizing every word
Softening in degree --
Turning sadness into good
As I turn the key.
[The House of Clouds.
She knew the true art of choosing words. The rule to use Saxon words instead of Latin is easy to give and hard to follow: nor is it always the best rule, though it is generally. Words are instruments of music: an ignorant man uses them for jargon, but when a master touches them they have unexpected life and soul. Some words sound out like drums; some breathe memories sweet as flutes; some call like a clarionet; some shout a charge like trumpets; some are as sweet as children's talk; others rich as a mother's answering back. The words which have universal power are those that have been keyed and chorded in the great orchestral chamber of the human heart. Some words touch as many notes at a stroke as when an organist strikes ten fingers upon a keyboard. There are single words which contain life-histories; and to hear them spoken is like the ringing of chimes. He who knows how to touch and handle skilfully the home-words of his mother-tongue, need ask nothing of style. No finer instance of this skill is found in the whole realm of good English, out of Shakespeare, than in the writings of Mrs. Browning,* particularly in those which pay homage to the affections.
* George P. Marsh, in his Lectures on the English Language, notices the following proportions of Saxon words in three of her poems, and in one of her husband's:
|Author||Poem||Percentage of saxon words|
|Mrs. Browning,||Cry of the Children,||92%|
|Mrs. Browning,||Crowned and Buried,||83%|
|Mrs. Browning,||Lost Bowe||77%|
|Robert Browning||Blougram's Apology||84%|
Mr. Marsh notices, however, in several of Mrs. Browning's minor poems a large number of Romance words, but used almost wholly as rhymed-endings. Thus, of the Cry of the Children, he says:
The proportion of Romance words in the whole poem is but eight per cent.; but of the eighty double-rhymed terminals, twenty four or thirty per cent. are Romance . . . In the Dead Pan, there are about one hundred double-rhymed endings, less than one half of which are Anglo-Saxon; and in the Lost Bower, out of about one hundred and fifty double-rhymes, more than one-third are Romance.
I have made this examination of Mrs. Browning's works, not as a criticism upon the diction of one of the very first English poets of this age, the first female poet of any age, but to show that even the style of a great artist, of one who, by preference, employs native words wherever it is possible, a conformity to the rules of a continental versification inevitably involves the introduction of an undue proportion of Romance words.
Mrs. Browning was a keen lover of art. Her talk of artists is more discriminating than Hawthorne's; for the author of the Marble Faun told chiefly what others had told him. But she was able to speak of what she had learned with her eyes, as well as with her ears. Both the Brownings were gifted with the genuine artistic insight. Both always caught eagerly at everything which indicated the progress of art. When William Page, lying sick of a fever in Rome and tossing on his pillow, made his singular and beautiful discovery of the true measurement of the human figure, the first person to whom he communicated it was Robert Browning, who, long before Mr. Page published his diagram and explanation, hinted it in these two purposely mysterious lines in Cleon:
I know the true proportions of a man,
And woman also, not observed before;
and Mrs. Browning set it in Aurora Leigh, in the passage beginning:
-- I write so
Of the only truth-tellers now left to God
* * * * * * * * * * * The only teachers who instruct mankind,
From just a shadow on a charnel wall
To find man's veritable stature out,
Erect, sublime -- the measure of a man.
And that's the measure of an angel, says
Mrs. Browning's imagination threw a glow over her whole nature. This strange faculty acts not only by itself, but upon all the other faculties of the mind: upon the Affections -- setting apart the objects of them as sacred from the common world, and clothing them with white raiment like the saints: upon the Reason -- giving dignity and grandeur to the intellectual convictions: upon the higher Moral Nature -- inspiring faith and worship to a greater grasp of the spiritual and invisible, and leading the soul upward to that Mount of Vision whence there is fore-looking into the other world. Mrs. Browning's imagination struck a stimulating power into all her faculties. It kindled her affectional nature until out of this grew her glowing ideal of womanly love and devotion: a conception of womanhood which hallows the mind into a half-awe on receiving it from her pages; which made Mr. Ruskin pronounce her Eve in the Drama of Exile incomparably superior to Milton's, and her Dutchess May the finest female character brought into literature since Shakespeare's day. It quickened her logical faculties; giving them clearness of insight in all the great ranges of social problems and political questions; creating within her a noble intellectual sympathy for the age in which she lived as the grandest of the ages. It gave illumination to her moral and religious nature; unveiling before her that spiritual realm which to others is wrapped with impenetrable clouds; catching her up into the rapture of clear visions of such glories as Milton saw in his blindness; fitting her thereby to be the true religious teacher and comforter; giving her the power to incite other souls to yearnings like her own, to fill them with vague unrests and aspirations after a higher life, to bear them up into the shadowy realm of the Infinite and Eternal, to quicken them to a nobler faith in the one living and true God.
Her sympathy with the weak and oppressed breaks out in many tender passages throughout her works. She could not look upon the Greek Slave in marble without saying:
* * * Appeal, fair stone,
From God's pure height of beauty against man's wrong.
Catch up in thy divine fall not alone
East griefs but west -- and shake and shame the strong,
By thunders of white silence overthrown!
Her interest in the American anti-slavery movement was deep and earnest. She was a watcher of its progress, and afar off mingled her soul with its struggles. She corresponded with its leaders, and entered into the fellowship of their thoughts. Had her life been passed in this country, she would have been one of that small circle (round whom a larger is now widening until it shall compass the land) who gave an early but unheeded testimony against the great crime which the nation is now blotting out with blood. She would have stood with those whom God made worthy to stand as a few in the right against the many in the wrong. She had a kindred faith and courage with Mrs. Mott, Mrs. Child, Mrs. Chapman, and Mrs. Stowe. Her songs would have been as full of America as now they are of Italy. But the nightingale's breast would have been set against a thorn. She could not have escaped the obloquy which fell upon other brave women. She would have earned the honorable slanders of a corrupt press; she would have received the cold criticisms of white-gloved ladies and gentlemen in fashionable drawing-rooms; she would have seen how proud lips could turn sour upon her in the streets; and had her windows of Casa Guidi looked out upon Boston Common, she would more than once have been startled with the spectacle of a man in chains and a mob following: all which she never felt and never saw in Italy. But though a stranger, she never was forgiven by strangers for writing a Curse for a Nation. Some condemned it without reading. Among these, strange to say, were some literary Englishmen who thought it meant England, and who recently made a clamor against it as if it had been recently written. True, its English references were in no flattering strain; but it was written for the Liberty Bell, a little book of the Abolitionists of New-England, published in Boston as long ago as 1848. Every word in the poem, whether of England or America, stands yet
Very salt, and bitter, and good.
Let those who rebuked her for it, go rebuked themselves!
Because ye have broken your own chain
With the strain
Of brave men climbing a Nation's height,
Yet thence bear down with brand and thong
On souls of others, -- for this wrong
This is the curse. Write.
Because yourselves are standing straight
In the state
Of Freedom's foremost acolyte,
Yet keep calm footing all the time
On writhing bond-slaves, -- for this crime
This is the curse. Write.
Because ye prosper in God's name,
With a claim
To honor in the old world's sight,
Yet do the fiend's work perfectly
In strangling martyrs, -- for this lie
This is the curse. Write.
True poets are lovers of the poor; they are knight-errants of the down-trodden. They catch their fire from the Apostle:
Who is offended, and I burn not? Nor are they respecters of persons. They cannot narrow themselves to classes. They cross palms with the brotherhood of men. Mrs. Browning could not withhold her sympathy from the lowliest slave. When she saw that Freedom had a sacred cause in this land, although she never set her foot upon the soil, she never took her heart away from it. The hope of a day of ransom glowed in her soul with a constant enthusiasm. What she gave to this cause was much; what she gained from it was more. The love of a great cause makes a great soul greater.
As a religious poet, Mrs. Browning is more devout than George Herbert, more fervid than Charles Wesley. The religious element was dominant in her mind. A full body of divinity, a whole system of theology, might be made out of her writings. She is the Sir Thomas Browne of women; or shall we say rather the Blaise Pascal? Her books are half prayerbooks. Hannah More's Private Devotions are not so devotional; Hervey's Meditations are not so meditative. Her favorite themes were always the heavenly glory; the angelic state; the soul after death. She saw visions and dreamed dreams. She had wrestlings with angels, like the sleeper on the pillow of stone. Yet her faith was neither dreamy nor visionary, neither transient nor moody; it was strong and vital, full of comfort and inspiration; such a faith as of itself can make a great character. She was truly led of the Heavenly Father. A light from heaven shone perpetually within her soul. She had the divine illumination. God's daily benediction was upon her. She held to the great creed, little believed, of simple love to God and man. She belonged to that Holy Catholic Church of which the Pope is not vicar. She communed unceasingly with the One Head of the One Church.
I know that my Redeemer liveth: this was her text. It may be said almost that out of Christ's own hand she ate the bread and drank the water of life. This was one secret of the unexampled love which many strangers bore to her: for no man or woman could draw so near to the world's heart without first drawing near to God's.
A sacred familiarity with the Divine Mind is the best inspiration for literature. Many an author, dead and forgotten, might have been alive in the world's memory to-day, only for lack of that quickening into greatness which comes of God's breath upon the soul. The world's teachers must first be God's learners. Wisdom does not grow out of books when students lock themselves in shut closets. The cloister must open outward to the world and upward to the heavens. The great wisdom is God's divinity and man's humanity. Who knows this, knows most of all; after this, what remains to be learned is little. God first, man next; the rest are trifles.
Dr. Johnson, in his sketch of Dryden, quotes some stray letters of the poet,
in order, as he says,
that no scrap of Dryden be lost. In order that no scrap of Mrs. Browning be lost, the writer drops into this place a few further extracts from her latest letters.
Here on the table lie the unmistakable manuscripts. No other hand-writing is like hers it is strong, legible, singularly un-English (that is, not a slanted or running hand), and more like a man's than a woman's; such a penmanship as Poe would have read a character from.
In one of these letters she says -- though we cannot agree to it:
When did Mazzini's finger ever touch Italy without a blot showing where?. Yet this is only a new expression of an old opinion -- long ago rhymed and printed. Of Mr. Lincoln's Inaugural she said:
With the exception of certain expressions (which did strike me as a superfluity of the official form) I admired and liked the Inaugural Address. It seemed to me direct and resolute, simple and intense. The
superfluity which she mentions was Mr. Lincoln's voluntary and unnecessary offer to return fugitive-slaves -- an offer which, we think, he never will renew. In reply to a request to prepare a prose work for publication in this country, she said:
In regard to prose-writing, my voice is spoiled for speaking, perhaps, by singing. But her prose was magnificent, notwithstanding her distrust of it. She heaped up glowing sentences like fagots on a fire. Her letters make Cowper's poor. Wendell Phillips calls them above praise. In a hurried note, whose hurry is evident in the handwriting, she drops the following incidental but brilliant words -- just as if the jewels in her rings, jarred by her rapid fingers, had been suddenly unset and fallen out on the paper:
What affected me most, said she, alluding to a speech which she had read in an American paper,
was not the eloquence ... no ... but the rare union of largeness and tolerance with fidelity to special truth. In our age, faith and charity are found, but they are found apart. We tolerate everybody, because we doubt everything; or else we tolerate nobody, because we believe something. Such a sentiment Carlyle would not have allowed to run to waste in a private letter, but would have saved for printing.
In a note of thanks to a friend who had sent to her from London some little English books of Henry Ward Beecher's writings, she said:
In opening the volumes I already fall upon fine and thrilling things. They will help me to live, I dare say -- and perhaps they will help me to suffer. Writing to a lady in Brooklyn, whose daughter had suddenly died, she gave expression to her own Christian faith for the hour of sorrow, and dropped a hint of her theological creed in the closing sentences:
I receive your letter, read it, hold it in my hands, with a sympathy deeply moved. No, we had not heard of your loss... Hearing of such things makes us silent before God. What must it be to experience them? I have suffered myself very heavy afflictions, but the affliction of the mother I have not suffered, and I shut my eyes to the image of it. Only, where Christ brings his cross he brings his presence, and where He is, none are desolate, and there is no room for despair. At the darkest, you have felt a hand through the dark, closer perhaps and tenderer than any touch dreamt of at noon. As He knows his own, so he knows how to comfort them -- using sometimes the very grief itself, and straining it to the sweetness of a faith unattainable to those ignorant of any grief . . . Also, it seems to me that a nearer insight into the spiritual world has been granted to this generation, so that (by whatever process we have got our conviction), we no longer deal with vague abstractions, half closed, half shadowy, in thinking of departed souls. There is now something warm and still familiar in those beloveds of ours, to whom we yearn out past the grave -- not cold and ghostly as they seemed once -- but human, sympathetic, with well-known faces. They are not lost utterly to us even on earth; a little farther off, and that is all; farther off, too, in a very low sense . . . Quite apart from all foolish spiritual (so-called)
literature, we find these impressions very generally diffused among theological thinkers of the most calmly reasoning order. The unconscious influence of Swedenborg is certainly to be taken into account. Perhaps something else.
Mrs. Browning has more readers than her husband, but both deserve more than either has. One reason why the poems of Robert Browning fail to ingratiate themselves with many readers arises from a certain fastidious reserve of the author which lends itself to his style. His poems carry their meaning and sympathy shut within the lines, as a gentleman carries his thoughts and feelings hidden within his mind. This is partially true also of his wife's writings. Hence, while many who hear these poems read are caught at once with their fascination, many who set about reading them fail of the charm. It is better therefore that they should be read to a learner than that he should run the risk of not liking them by reading them to himself. In a winter evening sitting before the fire, or in a summer day lying under some apple-tree, let a patient listener receive these poems from the lips of some reader who, having taken them into his heart, can supply with his voice the sympathy which they have, but hide; and then, whoso hears will like the Brownings.
In introducing a stranger to the poems of Robert Browning, take first the Flight of the Duchess, afterward the Good News from Ghent, the Pied Piper, or the Italian in England; after which, no man will willingly forget Robert Browning. In beginning with Mrs. Browning, take the Lay of the Brown Rosary, the Duchess May, the Lost Bower, or for a shorter piece L. E. L.'s Last Question; and though many say at first,
she is hard to be understood, yet after a little mastery in the reading, the listener will not fail to catch the meaning, to enjoy the poem, and to love the writer.
A special remark to be made of Mrs. Browning is: the proof which her genius gives of the possible equality of woman's mind with man's. This, of late years, has been a point of no small discussion. But after all what is any brain? Only a casket to hold awhile such of God's gifts as he chooses to lend; and in giving, as in withholding, he is no respecter of persons. In this woman's case, how stands the divine partiality? Does she not rank with men, and with the first of men? Before she died, there lived three great poets for England. Of the two Brownings and Tennyson, we will not dispute who is greatest, nor seek to disturb the green leaf upon the head of the laureate. But had Robert Browning lived in England instead of Italy, it is far from unlikely that he might have taken for himself
The laurel greener from the brows
Of him who uttered nothing base.
Nor is the suggestion of such a possible reversal of ranks invidious: for there cannot be small rivalry between great souls. Tennyson is faultless -- almost, like Maud,
faultily faultless while both the Brownings are full of faults. Robert Browning has not many poems which the reader would not wish to change here and there in word and rhythm. His wife dropped blots on every page: and every reader has said,
If only she had carried her pen a little more carefully here! But notwithstanding the blemishes, the obscurities, the infelicities, the provoking hide-and-go-seek meanings, the fact still stands that no finer English poetry has been written since Shakespeare and Milton than is bound into books under the gilt labels of the Brownings.
No one can predict how much of present fame will escape eclipse in the future, or what unknown claimants, better titled than the rest, may rise out of darkness into perpetual light. But it is safe to say that if the age which follows ours be not far more rude than these rough times, it will pass judgment that the writings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning be not
willingly let die.
There will be a rare and special help to this fame: another like it is married to it. Never again in the history of literature may there be another instance of two poets, the chiefest of their time, standing, like these, with clasped hands and wedded hearts. Many a husband is known to the world, whose wife's name has scarcely crept from the threshold of her chamber; or a wife (like Mrs. Norton) wins a more than national reputation, while an ungenerous husband sits enviously in the shadow of it. But with the Brownings, fame's common divorce of husband and wife failed of an example. Their son -- a pet boy of twelve years -- will by-and-by, if he live to manhood, point back to the most illustrious lineage in literature. The mother was as proud of her son as the son will be of his mother. It is a pleasant story told of the street-beggars who walk through Via Maggio under the windows of Casa Guidi that they always spoke of the English woman who lived in that house, not by her well
known English name, nor by any softer Italian word, but simply and touchingly as
the mother of the beautiful child. This was pleasanter to that woman's ears than to
hear the nations praising her far off.
Indeed, her greatest greatness was in being the Christian wife and Christian mother. First out of Sorrow and then out of Love -- those two unfathomable wells! -- this woman drew the fullness and richness of her life. This fullness and richness, rising above her own heart's containing, overflowed in song, and so entered into the great heart of the world. But our fondest thought of her is not of her unequalled genius but her unequalled life. For after all, compared with this, what is all else? This makes the sweetest fragrance of her fame. For the sake of this, that summer month that fell upon her grave will never leave it, but will evermore add summer greenness to her memory, until it be perennial. So as she said of Mrs. Hemans:
Albeit softly in our ears her silver song was ringing,
The footfall of her parting soul was softer than her singing!
27 Oxford street, Brooklyn.
James Miller, (Successor To C. S. Francis & Co.), 522 Broadway, New York