ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.
[Illustration: Elizabeth Barrett Browning Rome. February. 1859]
Ever since I had received in my girlhood, from my best friend, the
works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in five volumes in blue and gold,
I had read and re-read the pages, till I knew scores by heart. I
had longed to see the face and home of her whom the English call
"Shakespeare's daughter," and whom Edmund Clarence Stedman names "the
passion-flower of the century."
I shall never forget that beautiful July morning spent in the Browning
home in London. The poet-wife had gone out from it, and lay buried in
Florence, but here were her books and her pictures. Here was a marble
bust, the hair clustering about the face, and a smile on the lips that
showed happiness. Near by was another bust of the idolized only child,
of whom she wrote in _Casa Guidi Windows_:--
"The sun strikes through the windows, up the floor:
Stand out in it, my own young Florentine,
Not two years old, and let me see thee more!
It grows along thy amber curls to shine
Brighter than elsewhere. Now look straight before
And fix thy brave blue English eyes on mine,
And from thy soul, which fronts the future so
With unabashed and unabated gaze,
Teach me to hope for what the Angels know
When they smile clear as thou dost!"
Here was the breakfast-table at which they three had often sat
together. Close beside it hung a picture of the room in Florence,
where she lived so many years in a wedded bliss as perfect as any
known in history. Tears gathered in the eyes of Robert Browning, as he
pointed out her chair, and sofa, and writing-table.
Of this room in Casa Guidi, Kate Field wrote in the _Atlantic
Monthly_, September, 1861: "They who have been so favored 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-gray 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 bookcases,
constructed of specimens of Florentine carving selected by Mr.
Browning, were brimming over with wise-looking books. Tables were
covered with more gayly bound volumes, the gifts of brother authors.
Dante's grave profile, a cast of Keats' 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. But the glory of all, and that which sanctified all,
was seated in a low armchair near the door. A small table, strewn with
writing materials, books and newspapers, was always by her side."
Then Mr. Browning, in the London home, showed us the room where he
writes, containing his library and hers. The books are on simple
shelves, choice, and many very old and rare. Here are her books, many
in Greek and Hebrew. In the Greek, I saw her notes on the margin in
Hebrew, and in the Hebrew she had written her marginal notes in Greek.
Here also are the five volumes of her writings, in blue and gold.
The small table at which she wrote still stands beside the larger
where her husband composes. His table is covered with letters and
papers and books; hers stands there unused, because it is a constant
reminder of those companionable years, when they worked together.
Close by hangs a picture of the "young Florentine," Robert Barrett
Browning, now grown to manhood, an artist already famed. He has a
refined face, as he sits in artist garb, before his easel, sketching
in a peasant's house. The beloved poet who wrote at the little table,
is endeared to all the world. Born in 1809, in the county of Durham,
the daughter of wealthy parents, she passed her early years partly in
the country in Herefordshire, and partly in the city. That she loved
the country with its wild flowers and woods, her poem, _The Lost
Bower_, plainly shows.
"Green the land is where my daily
Steps in jocund childhood played,
Dimpled close with hill and valley,
Dappled very close with shade;
Summer-snow of apple-blossoms running up from glade to glade.
* * * * *
"But the wood, all close and clenching
Bough in bough and root in root,--
No more sky (for overbranching)
At your head than at your foot,--
Oh, the wood drew me within it, by a glamour past dispute.
"But my childish heart beat stronger
Than those thickets dared to grow:
_I_ could pierce them! I could longer
Travel on, methought, than so.
Sheep for sheep-paths! braver children climb and creep where they
* * * * *
"Tall the linden-tree, and near it
An old hawthorne also grew;
And wood-ivy like a spirit
Hovered dimly round the two,
Shaping thence that bower of beauty which I sing of thus to you.
"And the ivy veined and glossy
Was enwrought with eglantine;
And the wild hop fibred closely,
And the large-leaved columbine,
Arch of door and window mullion, did right sylvanly entwine.
* * * * *
"I have lost--oh, many a pleasure,
Many a hope, and many a power--
Studious health, and merry leisure,
The first dew on the first flower!
But the first of all my losses was the losing of the bower.
* * * * *
"Is the bower lost then? Who sayeth
That the bower indeed is lost?
Hark! my spirit in it prayeth
Through the sunshine and the frost,--
And the prayer preserves it greenly, to the last
"Till another open for me
In God's Eden-land unknown,
With an angel at the doorway,
White with gazing at His throne,
And a saint's voice in the palm-trees, singing, 'All is lost ...
Elizabeth Barrett wrote poems at ten, and when seventeen, published
an _Essay on Mind, and Other Poems_. The essay was after the manner
of Pope, and though showing good knowledge of Plato and Bacon, did not
find favor with the critics. It was dedicated to her father, who was
proud of a daughter who preferred Latin and Greek to the novels of the
Her teacher was the blind Hugh Stuart Boyd, whom she praises in her
_Wine of Cyprus_.
"Then, what golden hours were for us!--
While we sate together there;
* * * * *
"Oh, our Aeschylus, the thunderous!
How he drove the bolted breath
Through the cloud to wedge it ponderous
In the gnarled oak beneath.
Oh, our Sophocles, the royal,
Who was born to monarch's place,
And who made the whole world loyal,
Less by kingly power than grace.
"Our Euripides, the human,
With his droppings of warm tears,
And his touches of things common
Till they rose to touch the spheres!
Our Theocritus, our Bion,
And our Pindar's shining goals!--
These were cup-bearers undying,
Of the wine that's meant for souls."
More fond of books than of social life, she was laying the necessary
foundation for a noble fame. The lives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
George Eliot, and Margaret Fuller, emphasize the necessity of almost
unlimited knowledge, if woman would reach lasting fame. A great man
or woman of letters, without great scholarship, is well-nigh an
Nine years after her first book, _Prometheus Bound and Miscellaneous
Poems_ was published in 1835. She was now twenty-six. A translation
from the Greek of Aeschylus by a woman caused much comment, but like
the first book it received severe criticism. Several years afterward,
when she brought her collected poems before the world, she wrote: "One
early failure, a translation of the _Prometheus of Aeschylus_, which,
though happily free of the current of publication, may be remembered
against me by a few of my personal friends, I have replaced here by an
entirely new version, made for them and my conscience, in expiation of
a sin of my youth, with the sincerest application of my mature mind."
"This latter version," says Mr. Stedman, "of a most sublime tragedy
is more poetical than any other of equal correctness, and has the
fire and vigor of a master-hand. No one has succeeded better than its
author in capturing with rhymed measures the wilful rushing melody of
the tragic chorus."
In 1835 Miss Barrett made the acquaintance of Mary Russell Mitford,
and a life-long friendship resulted. Miss Mitford says: "She was
certainly one of the most interesting persons I had ever seen.
Everybody who then saw her said the same. Of a slight, delicate
figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most
expressive face, large tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes,
a smile like a sunbeam, and such a look of youthfulness, that I had
some difficulty in persuading a friend, in whose carriage we went
together to Cheswick, that the translatress of the _Prometheus of
Aeschylus_, the authoress of the _Essay on Mind_, was old enough to
be introduced into company, in technical language, was out. We met so
constantly and so familiarly that, in spite of the difference of
age, intimacy ripened into friendship, and after my return into the
country, we corresponded freely and frequently, her letters being just
what letters ought to be,--her own talk put upon paper."
The next year Miss Barrett, never robust, broke a blood-vessel in the
lungs. For a year she was ill, and then with her eldest and favorite
brother, was carried to Torquay to try the effect of a warmer climate.
After a year spent here, she greatly improved, and seemed likely to
recover her usual health.
One beautiful summer morning she went on the balcony to watch her
brother and two other young men who had gone out for a sail. Having
had much experience, and understanding the coast, they allowed the
boatman to return to land. Only a few minutes out, and in plain sight,
as they were crossing the bar, the boat went down, and the three
friends perished. Their bodies even were never recovered.
The whole town was in mourning. Posters were put upon every cliff and
public place, offering large rewards "for linen cast ashore marked
with the initials of the beloved dead; for it so chanced that all the
three were of the dearest and the best: one, an only son; the other,
the son of a widow"; but the sea was forever silent.
The sister, who had seen her brother sink before her eyes, was utterly
prostrated. She blamed herself for his death, because he came to
Torquay for her comfort. All winter long she heard the sound of
waves ringing in her ears like the moans of the dying. From this time
forward she never mentioned her brother's name, and later, exacted
from Mr. Browning a promise that the subject should never be broached
The following year she was removed to London in an invalid carriage,
journeying twenty miles a day. And then for seven years, in a large
darkened room, lying much of the time upon her couch, and seeing only
a few most intimate friends, the frail woman lived and wrote. Books
more than ever became her solace and joy. Miss Mitford says, "She read
almost every book worth reading, in almost every language, and gave
herself heart and soul to that poetry of which she seem born to be the
priestess." When Dr. Barry urged that she read light books, she had a
small edition of Plato bound so as to resemble a novel, and the good
man was satisfied. She understood her own needs better than he.
When she was twenty-nine, she published _The Seraphim and Other
Poems_. The _Seraphim_ was a reverential description of two angels
watching the Crucifixion. Though the critics saw much that was
strikingly original, they condemned the frequent obscurity of meaning
and irregularity of rhyme. The next year, _The Romaunt of the Page_
and other ballads appeared, and in 1844, when she was thirty-five, a
complete edition of her poems, opening with the _Drama of Exile_.
This was the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, the first scene
representing "the outer side of the gate of Eden shut fast with cloud,
from the depth of which revolves a sword of fire self-moved. Adam and
Eve are seen in the distance flying along the glare."
In one of her prefaces she said: "Poetry has been to me as serious a
thing as life itself,--and life has been a _very_ serious thing; there
has been no playing at skittles for me in either. I never mistook
pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of
the poet. I have done my work, so far, as work,--not as mere hand
and head work, apart from the personal being, but as the completest
expression of that being to which I could attain,--and as work I offer
it to the public, feeling its shortcomings more deeply than any of
my readers, because measured from the height of my aspiration; but
feeling also that the reverence and sincerity with which the work was
done should give it some protection from the reverent and sincere."
While the _Drama of Exile_ received some adverse criticism, the shorter
poems became the delight of thousands. Who has not held his breath in
reading the _Rhyme of the Duchess May_?--
"And her head was on his breast, where she smiled as one at rest,--
'Ring,' she cried, 'O vesper-bell, in the beech-wood's old chapelle!'
But the passing-bell rings best!
"They have caught out at the rein, which Sir Guy threw loose--in vain,--
For the horse in stark despair, with his front hoofs poised in air,
On the last verge rears amain.
"Now he hangs, he rocks between, and his nostrils curdle in!--
Now he shivers head and hoof, and the flakes of foam fall off,
And his face grows fierce and thin!
"And a look of human woe from his staring eyes did go,
And a sharp cry uttered he, in a foretold agony of the headlong death below."
Who can ever forget that immortal _Cry of the Children_, which awoke
all England to the horrors of child-labor? That, and Hood's _Song of
the Shirt_, will never die.
Who has not read and loved one of the most tender poems in any
language, _Bertha in the Lane_?--
"Yes, and He too! let him stand
In thy thoughts, untouched by blame.
Could he help it, if my hand
He had claimed with hasty claim?
That was wrong perhaps--but then
Such things be--and will, again.
Women cannot judge for men.
* * * * *
"And, dear Bertha, let me keep
On this hand this little ring,
Which at night, when others sleep,
I can still see glittering.
Let me wear it out of sight,
In the grave,--where it will light
All the Dark up, day and night."
No woman has ever understood better the fulness of love, or described
it more purely and exquisitely.
One person among the many who had read Miss Barrett's poems, felt
their genius, because he had genius in his own soul, and that person
was Robert Browning. That she admired his poetic work was shown in
_Lady Geraldine's Courtship_, when Bertram reads to his lady-love:--
"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,
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity."
Mr. Browning determined to meet the unknown singer. Years later he
told the story to Elizabeth C. Kinney, when she had gone with the
happy husband and wife on a day's excursion from Florence. She says:
"Finding that the invalid did not receive strangers, he wrote her a
letter, intense with his desire to see her. She reluctantly consented
to an interview. He flew to her apartment, was admitted by the nurse,
in whose presence only could he see the deity at whose shrine he had
long worshipped. But the golden opportunity was not to be lost; love
became oblivious to any save the presence of the real of its ideal.
Then and there Robert Browning poured his impassioned soul into hers;
though his tale of love seemed only an enthusiast's dream. Infirmity
had hitherto so hedged her about, that she deemed herself forever
protected from all assaults of love. Indeed, she felt only injured
that a fellow-poet should take advantage, as it were, of her
indulgence in granting him an interview, and requested him to withdraw
from her presence, not attempting any response to his proposal, which
she could not believe in earnest. Of course, he withdrew from her
sight, but not to withdraw the offer of his heart and hand; on the
contrary, to repeat it by letter, and in such wise as to convince her
how 'dead in earnest' he was. Her own heart, touched already when she
knew it not, was this time fain to listen, be convinced, and overcome.
"As a filial daughter, Elizabeth told her father of the poet's love,
and of the poet's love in return, and asked a parent's blessing to
crown their happiness. At first he was incredulous of the strange
story; but when the truth flashed on him from the new fire in
her eyes, he kindled with rage, and forbade her ever seeing or
communicating with her lover again, on the penalty of disinheritance
and banishment forever from a father's love. This decision was founded
on no dislike for Mr. Browning personally, or anything in him or his
family; it was simply arbitrary. But the new love was stronger
than the old in her,--it conquered." Mr. Barrett never forgave his
daughter, and died unreconciled, which to her was a great grief.
In 1846, Elizabeth Barrett arose from her sick-bed to marry the man
of her choice, who took her at once to Italy, where she spent fifteen
happy years. At once, love seemed to infuse new life into the delicate
body and renew the saddened heart. She was thirty-seven. She had
wisely waited till she found a person of congenial tastes and kindred
pursuits. Had she married earlier, it is possible that the cares of
life might have deprived the world of some of her noblest works.
The marriage was an ideal one. Both had a grand purpose in life.
Neither individual was merged in the other. George S. Hillard, in his
_Six Months in Italy_, when he visited the Brownings the year after
their marriage, says, "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.... Nor is she more remarkable
for genius and learning, than for sweetness of temper 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
"Mr. Browning," says one who knew him well, "did not fear to speak
of his wife's genius, which he did almost with awe, losing himself so
entirely in her glory that one could see that he did not feel worthy
to unloose her shoe-latchet, much less to call her his own."
When mothers teach their daughters to cultivate their minds as did
Mrs. Browning, as well as to emulate her sweetness of temper, then
will men venerate women for both mental and moral power. A love that
has reverence for its foundation knows no change.
"Mrs. Browning's conversation was most interesting. She 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.
_Persons_ were never her theme, unless public characters were under
discussion, or friends were to be praised. 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.
"Thoughtful in the smallest things for others, she seemed to give
little thought to herself. The first to see merit, she was the last
to censure faults, and gave the praise that she felt with a generous
hand. No one so heartily rejoiced at the success of others, no one
was so modest in her own triumphs. She loved all who offered her
affection, and would solace and advise with any. Mrs. Browning
belonged to no particular country; the world was inscribed upon the
banner under which she fought. Wrong was her enemy; against this she
wrestled, in whatever part of the globe it was to be found."
Three years after her marriage her only son was born. The Italians
ever after called her "the mother of the beautiful child." And now
some of her ablest and strongest work was done. Her _Casa Guidi
Windows_ appeared in 1851. It is the story of the struggle for Italian
liberty. In the same volume were published the _Portuguese Sonnets_,
really her own love-life. It would be difficult to find any thing more
beautiful than these.
"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 'Oh, list,'
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 the 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--I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears of all my life!--and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death."
Mrs. Browning's next great poem, in 1856, was _Aurora Leigh_, a novel
in blank verse, "the most mature," she says in the preface, "of my
works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art
have entered." Walter Savage Landor said of it: "In many pages there
is the wild imagination of Shakespeare. I had no idea that any one in
this age was capable of such poetry."
For fifteen years this happy wedded life, with its work of brain and
hand, had been lived, and now the bond was to be severed. In June,
1861, Mrs. Browning took a severe cold, and was ill for nearly a week.
No one thought of danger, though Mr. Browning would not leave her
bedside. On the night of June 29, toward morning she seemed to be in
a sort of ecstasy. She told her husband of her love for him, gave
him her blessing, and raised herself to die in his arms. "It is
beautiful," were her last words as she caught a glimpse of some
heavenly vision. On the evening of July 1, she was buried in the
English cemetery, in the midst of sobbing friends, for who could carry
out that request?--
"And friends, dear friends, when it shall be
That this low breath is gone from me,
And round my bier ye come to weep,
Let one most loving of you all
Say, 'Not a tear must o'er her fall,--
He giveth his beloved sleep!'"
The Italians, who loved her, placed on the doorway of Casa Guidi a
white marble tablet, with the words:--
"_Here wrote and died E.B. Browning, who, in the heart of a woman,
united the science of a sage and the spirit of a poet, and made with
her verse a golden ring binding Italy and England.
"Grateful Florence placed this memorial, 1861_."
For twenty-five years Robert Browning and his artist-son have done
their work, blessed with the memory of her whom Mr. Stedman calls
"the most inspired woman, so far as known, of all who have composed in
ancient or modern tongues, or flourished in any land or time."