Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Ingram, 5th ed.)/Chapter 8
The original conception of a celebrated poem can rarely be traced. The "most mature" of her works, as Mrs. Browning terms Aurora Leigh, had evidently been germinating in its author's mind for several years before it was deemed fit to face the fierce glare of publication. As early as 1843, Mrs. Browning intimated to Horne the possibility that she could and, in certain circumstances might, write her own autobiography. Did not those words embody the germ idea of the "fictitious autobiography" which, after so many years and modified by so many causes, she called Aurora Leigh?
Years before her work saw the light or, indeed, was much beyond the embryo stage, Mrs. Browning had given intimation of her intentions with respect to it, to friends. Early in 1853 Miss Mitford had mentioned to Fields, the American publisher, that Mrs. Browning was engaged upon "a fictitious autobiography in blank verse, the heroine a woman artist, I suppose singer or actress," says the old lady, "and the tone intensely modern." Whether Miss Mitford had seen or heard any passages from the poem so as to know what the tone was, or whether she derived her impression from what the poetess had said, is unknown; but at any rate she was kept advised as to its progress, and in July, 1851, wrote to the same Mr. Fields, saying Mrs. Browning asked her to inquire if he would like to bring out the new poem. The publisher, with a lack of acumen not unparalleled in his profession, let the opportunity slip, and the work was secured by a New York rival. A few months later Miss Mitford, after telling a correspondent that Mrs. Browning's poem, which has been three years in hand, and of which four thousand lines are already written, has never been seen, not a word of it, by its authoress's husband: "A strange reserve!" she exclaims.
During the years the work was in progress it seems to have been written at odd moments, and when her maternal cares were called for the manuscript was laid down, or if a visitor came it was thrust away out of sight. It was not until March 1856 that Mrs. Browning let her husband see any of the work, and then she placed the first six books of it in his hands. The remaining three books were written much more rapidly than the others, and the whole work was completed and transcribed in 1856 in London, in the house of Mrs. Browning's friend and kinsman, John Kenyon, to whom the book was dedicated as a "sign of esteem, gratitude, and affection."
With as much of the manuscript of Aurora Leigh as was ready the Brownings left Italy for England, and at Marseilles, so Mrs. Ritchie tells us, "by some oversight the box was lost in which the manuscript had been packed. In this same box were also carefully put away certain velvet suits and lace collars in which the little son was to make his appearance among his English relatives. Mrs. Browning's chief concern was not for her manuscripts, but for the loss of her little boy's wardrobe, which had been devised with so much tender motherly care and pride. Happily one of her brothers was at Marseilles, and the box was discovered stowed away in some cellar at the Customs there."
At Paris the Brownings again met Bayard Taylor, and the American remarks about the forthcoming poem, that it is entirely new in design, and that the authoress "feels a little nervous about it." The nervousness was natural, but needless; probably no long poem ever met with so enthusiastic a reception. The success of Aurora Leigh was immediate and wide, and its publication invoked a chorus of praise that time has somewhat modified the tone of. Barry Cornwall, alluding to it as "the most successful book of the season," adds, "it is, a hundred times over, the finest poem ever written by a woman." Landor, writing of it to John Forster, says, in many pages, "there is the wild imagination of Shakespeare. . . . I had no idea that anyone in this age was capable of so much poetry. I am half drunk with it." Other equally laudatory things were said by the choicest spirits of the time, and Mrs. Browning was at once and, doubtless, for ever, awarded one of the loftiest places in the fane of Poesy.
The splendour and grandeur of Aurora Leigh cannot be gainsaid, but at the period of its production literary England was somewhat more enthusiastic, and public taste somewhat more volcanic in its ebullitions than now-a-days, when a surfeit of sweets has somewhat blunted the appetite for such things. Aurora Leigh was a novelty; the rush of impassioned arguments, startling comparisons, and brilliant similes carried the reader along at fever heat, never allowing him time to linger ever the improbabilities of the tale, or to criticise its faulty construction.
The plot of this autobiography—this three volume novel in verse—is evidently founded, although probably unconsciously, upon Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, whilst the character of Romney, the hero, frequently reminds the reader of Hollingsworth of The Blithedale Romance. Such coincidences of thought, however, are common among contemporaries, and only prove how really limited is man's imagination.
The mere story of Aurora Leigh, stripped of its poetry, is not unlike many novels in prose. It is the record of a life told by the heroine herself. Aurora, the daughter of an English father and an Italian mother, is born in Florence. At five years old a great misfortune befell her; her mother died, and the sunshine of infancy faded out of her little life, for
The way to rear up children (to be just).
They know a simple, merry, tender knack
Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
And stringing pretty words that make no sense
And kissing full sense into empty words;
Which things are corals to cut life upon,
Although such trifles; children learn by such
Love's holy earnest in a pretty play
Aurora's father was an "austere Englishman," but had loved his wife almost madly. When left with nothing to love but his little girl, for her sake he contrived with "his grave lips" to smile "a miserable smile." For a time he led a lonely life with his only, his child-companion, teaching her such stray scraps of learning as came into his mind: "Out of books he taught me all the ignorance of men." But after a few years, "entranced with thoughts, not aims," her father died, and Aurora, now thirteen, was doubly orphaned—
I recollect as, after fevers, men
Thread back the passage of delirium.
When her last parent died, Aurora was conveyed from her native land to England, and placed in charge of her aunt—her father's sister. This aunt—Miss Leigh—is wonderfully well described—this prim English gentlewoman, with—
Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—
and is, indeed, the one successful delineation of the tale. Miss Leigh
A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
A quiet life, which was not life at all,
(But that, she had not lived enough to know)
Between the vicar and the country squires,
The Lord-Lieutenant looking down sometimes
From the empyreal, to assure their souls
Against chance vulgarisms, and, in the abyss,
The apothecary looked on once a year,
To prove their soundness of humility.
The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts
Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,
Because we are of one flesh after all
And need one flannel (with a proper sense
Of difference in the quality), and still
The book-club, guarded from your modern trick
Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,
Preserved her intellectual
The kind of life the half-wild child of the sunny south had to endure with her strait-laced English relative may be conceived: all her warmheartedness was chilled and her girlish affections suppressed, if not blighted. Thrown upon her own resources, she found solace in poetry and in dreams of artistic life. One day, in the fancied seclusion of the grounds, poetic ardour betrayed her into crowning herself, in anticipation of the world's recognition, with a wreath of ivy. Thus bedecked, she was discovered by her cousin, Romney, the heir of the Leigh estates, a calm, earnest philanthropist, who had his dreams—more extravagant even than Aurora's. His ambition was to break down the strong barriers existent between the masses and classes; to elevate the poorest and vilest by the personal intercourse and aid of his own social order. At great personal sacrifice and toil he had commenced the crusade himself, and now, after lecturing Aurora sadly on the folly of her day-dreams, he besought her to relinguish them, and not strive to swerve from "a woman's proper sphere," concluding his harangue by asking her to become his wife.
With all the scorn of her youthful pride Aurora declined to become the wife of "a man who sees a woman as the complement of his sex merely." Romney went his way sadly, leaving Aurora still more sad, for, as the reader sees, and as her aunt saw, she really loved her cousin. Miss Leigh's wrath with her niece when she hears that she has rejected Romney, and the silent torture, a thousand times worse than words, she inflicts upon her, are ended by the sudden death of the aunt. Had not Romney, in succeeding to the Leigh property, endeavoured by a palpable stratagem to invest Aurora with a portion of his inheritance, he might perchance have won her, but her pride, wounded by his attempt to thus make her his debtor, compels her to dismiss him once more.
Aurora, whose worldly wealth consists only of a few hundreds of pounds, proceeds to London to earn fame and bread, whilst Romney busies himself more earnestly than ever in schemes for ameliorating the condition of the poor and the unfortunate. In the course of his labours Romney discovers and aids a poor outcast, Marian Erle, whose beauty and purity, if they do not altogether wean his heart from Aurora, at any rate, combined with his desire to read a lesson to the pride of caste, induces him to engage himself to her. The wedding is arranged to take place at St. James's Church, and the élite of London society is not only invited by the bridegroom, but actually attends to see the modern version of "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" enacted. Not only are these grandees present, but, at Romney's invitation, all that is foul and disreputable amongst the dregs of London life is there represented. In vain, however, is this assemblage: poor Marian has been spirited away, subjected to unutterable outrage, and Romney once more left solitary and discomforted, besides being discredited and roughly handled by the rabble he had made such sacrifices for.
Some time after this mysterious affair Aurora starts for Italy. Making a short stay in Paris, she encounters Marian Erle, or rather the wreck of she who was erstwhile the fresh and fair wearer of that name. The poor wronged girl is left with a fatherless child, which the mother shows to Aurora thus:—
Approached the bed, and drew a shawl away:
You could not peel a fruit you fear to bruise
More calmly and more carefully than so—
Nor would you find within, a rosier flushed
There he lay upon his back,
The yearling creature, warm and moist with life
To the bottom of his dimples—to the ends
Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face;
For since he had been covered over-much
To keep him from the light glare, both his cheeks
Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose
The shepherd's heart-blood ebbed away into,
The faster for his love. And love was here
As instant! in the pretty baby mouth,
Shut close as if for dreaming that it sucked;
The little naked feet drawn up the way
Of nestled birdlings; everything so soft
And tender,—to the tiny holdfast hands,
Which, closing on a finger into sleep,
Had kept the mould of 't.
The light upon his eyelids pricked them wide,
And, staring out at us with all their blue,
As half-perplexed between the angelhood
He had been away to visit in his sleep
And our most mortal presence—gradually
He saw his mother's face, acceping it
In change for heaven itself, with such a smile
As might have well been learnt there.
When Aurora learns the whole of poor Marian's tale her heart warms towards her and she takes charge of her and her baby, taking them with her to Italy. Here, in the repose of her old home, Aurora finds that rest her feverish sorrow had so much needed. She had not long dwelt in the quietude of her Italian home, however, before her cousin appears once more, and in the nobility of his heart offers to wed the poor injured Marian and to adopt her fatherless child. The unwedded mother sees that the happiness proffered her cannot now be hers, and, contented with such joy as her babe can afford her, gratefully declines the offer and leaves Romney to Aurora.
Aurora now learns that Romney's plans for succouring the wretched and the criminal had all failed; that his house, Leigh Hall, had been destroyed by the rabble; he himself, in striving to rescue one of the inmates had been irretrievably blinded, and had been driven by calumny from the neighbourhood. Her love no longer restrainable, she flings herself into the blind man's arms, and all the pent-up feelings of years find vent in a burst of acknowledged affection.
Such is a tame summary of the story which invoked so enthusiastic a reception throughout the English world of letters. Our plain prose can, of course, afford no conception of the magnificent aspirations, the glowing thoughts, the brilliant scintillations of genius, the innumerable gem-like passages of pathos, the passionate rushes of language, and the daring assaults upon time-honoured customs with which this crowning work of woman's genius is replete; nothing but citation from end to end can do justice to Aurora Leigh. When the glamour of perusal has passed off, however, and the reader begins to take a calm survey of the whole story, he is astounded at the extent of its shortcomings. The poem is most needlessly lengthened and hampered by continual digressions which interrupt without enriching the narrative. Nearly all the incidents are of an improbable, not to say impossible nature. None of the characters introduced, save that of the aunt, are life-like or typical. Romney Leigh's opinions and purposes, so far as they be comprehended, are something more than Quixotic, they are unnatural, and could never have been conceived by a sane, much less a practical English philantliropist; they appear to be introduced only to discredit the "Christian Socialism" of such men as Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and their compatriots. No such rabble as that present at the projected wedding in St. James's could have been gathered together within an English Church, nor could English gentlemen and gentlewomen have talked and acted as Mrs. Browning makes her dramatis personæ do. The poem leaves the impression on the mind of having been written by a great poet, but by a great poet whose knowledge of the world had been gained from books and not from actual contact with its men and women; not from personal experience of its daily toils and troubles, its hard-earned triumphs and undeserved defeats.
Of the artistic imperfections of Aurora Leigh much has been said and much could still be said. Of its halting metres; its long passages of pure prose; its pedantic allusions, and needless coarsenesses; its continual introduction (in an apparent reckless way) of names the generality of readers hold in reverential awe; of a fondness for repeating quaint and unusual words, and of many other blemishes the critics have already told the tale. For ourselves, we deem that when these imperfections—for imperfections they are—occur, they are either wilfully introduced by the poetess, or they are the result of hasty execution. Mrs. Browning should not have published her great work so rapidly; she should have retained it by her and have revised it carefully, instead of throwing it off in haste and then giving it to the world in still greater haste.
When all has, however, been said against Aurora Leigh that can be said, how grand a monument of genius it remains! What genuine bursts of poetry is it not interspersed with! What utterances of truth and of humanity are imbedded in its pages! How few Englishmen would have uttered, even if they had thought them, such pregnant words as these:—
Of calling the French light. The levity
Is in the judgment only, which yet stands;
For, say a foolish thing but oft enough
(And here's the secret of a hundred creeds,
Men get opinions, as boys learn to spell,
By reiteration chiefly) the same thing
Shall pass at last for absolutely wise.
Another passage alluding to eminent women that has been quoted often, and is not yet trite, is:—
On winter nights by solitary fires,
And hear the nations praising them far off.
It is followed by these less-known but equally pathetic lines,—
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
For thee." "And I, for thee: this poet knows
What everlasting love is!". . . .
Appraised by love, associated with love,
While we sit loveless! it is hard, you think?
At least, 'tis mournful.
Here, too, is true philosophy—
Heroic in proportion. . . .
Through being beheld too close, is ill discerned
By those who have not lived past it. We'll suppose
Mount Athos carved, as Persian Xerxes schemed,
To some colossal statue of a man
The peasants, gathering brushwood in his ear,
Had guessed as little of any human form
Up there, as would a flock of browsing goats.
They'd have, in fact, to travel ten miles off
Or ere the giant image broke on them;
Full human profile, nose and chin distinct,
Mouth, muttering rhythms of silence up the sky,
And fed at evening with the blood of suns;
Grand torso—hand that flung perpetually
The largesse of a silver river down
To all the country pastures. 'Tis even thus
With times we live in—evermore too great
To be apprehended near.
And, here, a truth but little recognized:—
Know peradventure least of what they do:
Men usefullest i' the world, are simply used.
But enough! A few lines here and there from Aurora Leigh cannot portray what the poem is. It is a veritable "autobiography"; a true record of the inner life—that truest life—of a great and good woman, and no one can expect to find so correct a portraiture of Mrs. Browning in any book as they will in this poem; they must read it as the true memoir of which our volume and any others which may be written about her, are only the corollary.
Aurora Leigh was finished in England, whither the Brownings came on a visit during the summer of 1856. They were the guests of John Kenyon, at least during a portion of their stay, the last pages of the poem having been completed at his town house. Whilst in London the Brownings naturally mingled in literary society, and some very interesting glimpses are obtainable of them during this visit, among others none more characteristic than that afforded by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who afterwards became so intimate with them in Italy. He describes his first meeting with them, at breakfast, in the house of Monkton Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton. He says:—
"Mr. Milnes introduced me to Mrs. Browning, and assigned her to me to conduct into the breakfast-room. She is a small, delicate woman, with ringlets of dark hair, a pleasant, intelligent, and sensitive face, and a low, agreeable voice. She looks youthful and comely, and is very gentle and lady-like. And so we proceeded to the breakfast-room, which is hung round with pictures, and in the middle of it stood a large round table, worthy to have been King Arthur's, and here we seated ourselves without any question of precedence or ceremony. . . . Mrs. Browning and I talked a good deal during breakfast, for she is of that quickly appreciative and responsive order of women with whom I can talk more freely than with any man; and she has, besides, her own originality wherewith to help on conversation, though I should say not of a loquacious tendency. She introduced the subject of Spiritualism, which, she says, interests her very much; indeed, she seems to be a believer. Mr. Browning, she told me, utterly rejects the subject, and will not believe even in the outward manifestations, of which there is such overwhelming evidence. We also talked of Miss Bacon; and I developed something of that lady's theory respecting Shakespeare, greatly to the horror of Mrs. Browning, and that of her next neighbour—a nobleman whose name I did not hear. On the whole, I like her the better for loving the man Shakespeare with a personal love. We talked, too, of Margaret Fuller, who spent her last night in Italy with the Brownings; and of William Story, with whom they had been intimate, and who, Mrs. Browning says, is much stirred about Spiritualism. Really, I cannot help wondering that so fine a spirit as hers should not reject the matter till at least it is forced upon her. I like her very much."
After they left the breakfast-table they entered the library where, Hawthorne says, "Mr. Browning introduced himself to me—a younger man than I expected to see, handsome, with brown hair. He is very simple and agreeable in manner, gently impulsive, talking as if his heart were uppermost."
In October the Brownings returned to Italy, not waiting, apparently, for the publication of Aurora Leigh, which appeared simultaneously in England and America. They had not returned to their Florentine home long ere they were startled by the news of Kenyon's death. He died on the 3rd of December, at his marine residence in Cowes, Isle of Wight, and, having no near relatives, left his large property amongst his literary and other friends. Kenyon, who was known among his intimates as "the Apostle of Cheerfulness," crowned a long career of generosity and friendship by leaving handsome legacies to those who really required them, amongst those who participated being Mr. and Mrs. Browning, to whom he left the very acceptable sum of ten thousand five hundred pounds.
A few months later, and death was again busy in Mrs. Browning's family circle. On the 17th of April her father died, in the seventy-first year of his age, and was buried in Ledbury Church by the side of the wife who had predeceased him so many years. Her father's death, and the fact that he had not even alluded to her in his will, must have been a severe blow to Mrs. Browning; but comforted by the company of her husband and child, and deeply engrossed as she now was in Italian politics, the shock would naturally be far less severe than it would have been in bygone years. Nevertheless, memories of the dear old days when she had been that father's darling, must have surged across her sensitive mind, and the thought that he had passed away without remembrance of her, must have sorely wounded her feelings, and, it is not too much to suggest, have weakened her physically as well.
For some months there is little to record of Mrs. Browning's literary history. In the summer she removed with her husband and child to Bagni di Lucca in search of a few months' rest and quietude. No sooner, however, had they arrived, than a friend was attacked with gastric fever, and for six weeks they were kept in a state of anxiety and watchfulness on his behalf. Just as the friend recovered sufficiently to get back to Florence, another and a greater trial awaited them. Their little boy Robert was attacked by the fever, and for a fortnight the Brownings were in a condition of dire suspense on his account. Writing in October to Leigh Hunt, Mrs. Browning says: "We came here from Florence a few months ago to get repose and cheerfulness from the sight of the mountains, . . . instead of which . . . we have done little but sit by sick beds, and meditate on gastric fevers. So disturbed we have been—so sad! our darling precious child the last victim. To see him lying still on his golden curls, with cheeks too scarlet to suit the poor patient eyes, looking so frightfully like an angel! It was very hard. But this is over, I do thank God, and we are on the point of carrying back our treasure with us to Florence to-morrow, quite recovered, if a little thinner and weaker, and the young voice as merry as ever. You are aware that that child I am more proud of than twenty Auroras, even after Leigh Hunt has praised them. He is eight years old, and has never been 'crammed,' but reads English, Italian, French, German, and plays the piano—then, is the sweetest child! sweeter than he looks. When he was ill he said to me, 'You pet! don't be unhappy about me. Think it's a boy in the street, and be a little sorry, but not unhappy.' Who could not be unhappy, I wonder?"
It must have been a joy after such trials to return to the comfort of their own home in Florence. Casa Guidi and its inmates have been described by many, but no more attractive picture of them has been given than that by W. W. Story, the American sculptor. At this period, he says, speaking of those who like himself were favoured visitors: "We 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 iron grey church, of Santa Felice. There was something about this room which 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 the carved frames of black wood. Large book-cases, 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."
Story was so intimate a friend of the Brownings that his words about them have more than usual worth, and that his impressions were recorded at the time they were felt makes them all the more valuable. Of the lady herself, the presiding spirit of this poetry-haunted home, he says:—
"To those who loved Mrs. Browning, and to know her was to love her, she was singularly attractive. Hers was not the beauty of feature; it was the loftier beauty of expression. Her slight figure seemed hardly large enough to contain the great heart that beat so fervently within, and the soul that expanded more and more as one year gave place to another. It was difficult to believe that such a fairy hand could pen thoughts of such ponderous weight. . . .
"It was Mrs. Browning's face upon which one loved to gaze—that face and head which almost lost themselves in the thick curls of her dark brown hair. That jealous hair could not hide the broad, fair forehead, 'royal with truth,' as smooth as any girl's, and 'too large for wreath of modern wont.' Her large brown eyes were beautiful, and were in truth the windows of her soul. . . .
"Mrs. Browning's character was well-nigh perfect. Patient in long-suffering, she never spoke of herself, except when the subject was forced upon her by others, and then with no complaint. She judged not, saving when great principles were imperilled, and then was ready to sacrifice herself upon the altar of Right. . . . She was ever ready to accord sympathy to all, taking an earnest interest in the most insignificant and humble. . . . Thoughtful in the smallest things for others, she seemed to give little thought to herself, and believing in universal goodness, her nature was free from worldly suspicions."
Mr. Story speaks of her conversation as most fascinating; he remarks that 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 humour 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. . . . She was a most conscientious listener, giving you her mind and heart, as well as her magnetic eyes. Though she latter spoke an eager language of their own, she conversed slowly, with a conciseness and point that, added to a matchless earnestness, which 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 were to be praised—which kind office she frequently took upon herself. One never dreamed of frivolities in Mrs. Browning's presence, gossip felt out of place. . . . 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. Her Christianity was not confined to church or rubrics; it meant civilisation. Association with the Brownings, even though of the slightest nature, made one better in mind and soul. It was impossible to escape the influence of the magnetic fluid of love and poetry that was constantly passing between husband and wife. The unaffected devotion of one to the other wove an additional charm around the two, and the contrasts in their nature made the union a more beautiful one."
In harmonious contrast with Mr. Story's reminiscences of Mrs. Browning may be cited the more vivid and picturesque sketches of Casa Guidi's inmates made by the author of The Scarlet Letter and his talented wife. In the summer of 1858 Hawthorne took the Villa Montauto, just outside the walls of Florence, and he and his family became intimate with the Brownings. The story of their intercourse must be related, as nearly as possible, in the language of the Hawthornes themselves, and if in some instances it be somewhat iterative of the records made by Mr. Story or others, it will be none the less valuable as confirmatory of the impressions produced by the inhabitants of Casa Guidi upon other equally independent observers.
It was the 8th June 1858, records Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his Italian Note-books: "There was a ring at the door, and a minute after our servant brought a card. It was Mr. Robert Browning's, and on it was written in pencil an invitation for us to go to see them this evening. He had left the card and had gone away; but very soon the bell rang again, and he had come back, having forgotten to give his address. This time he came in, and he shook hands with all of us—children and grown people—and was very vivacious and agreeable. He looked younger and even handsomer than when I saw him in London two years ago, and his gray hairs seemed fewer than those that had then strayed into his youthful head. . . .
"Mr. Browning was very kind and warm in his expressions of pleasure at seeing us; and, on our part, we were all very glad to meet him. He must be an exceeding likeable man."
The favourable impression made by the English poet upon the American romancist was evidently shared by the latter's family, as, indeed, may be learnt from Mrs. Hawthorne's note-book. Her descriptions of Mr. Browning and his domestic circle are, if possible, even more graphic and interesting than her husband's; at any rate, they supplement and complete the charming picture he conjures up to the "mind's eye" of the poet home in Casa Guidi. She says, "Mr. Browning's grasp of the hand gives a new value to life, revealing so much fervour and sincerity of nature. He invited us most cordially to go at eight and spend the evening." She continues, "At eight we went to Casa Guidi"; and Hawthorne himself says:—"After some search and inquiry we found the Casa Guidi, which is a palace in a street not very far from our own. It being dusk, I could not see the exterior, which, if I remember. Browning has celebrated in song. . . . The street is a narrow one; but on entering the palace we found a spacious staircase and ample accommodation of vestibule and hall, the latter opening on a balcony, where we could hear the chanting of priests in a church close by." "We found a little boy," proceeds Mrs. Hawthorne, "in an upper hall with a servant. I asked him if he were Pennini, and he said 'Yes.' In the dim light he looked like a waif of poetry, drifted up into the dark corner, with long, curling brown hair, and buff silk tunic embroidered with white. He took us through an ante-room, into the drawing-room, and out upon the balcony. In a brighter light he was lovelier still, with brown eyes, fair skin, and a slender, graceful figure. In a moment Mr. Browning appeared, and welcomed us cordially. In a church near by, opposite the house, a melodious choir was chanting. The balcony was full of flowers in vases, growing and blooming. In the dark blue fields of space overhead the stars, flowers of light, were also blossoming, one by one, as evening deepened. The music, the stars, the flowers, Mr. Browning and his child, all combined to entrance my wits."
Hawthorne, on his first visit, appears to have been chiefly impressed with the elfin appearance of the little boy, Robert, whom "they call Pennini for fondness." This cognomen, he was informed, was "a diminutive of Apennino, which was bestowed upon him at his first advent into the would because he was so very small, there being a statue in Florence of colossal size called Apennino. I never saw such a boy as this before," he says, "so slender, so fragile, and spirit-like—not as if he were actually in ill-health, but as if he had little or nothing to do with human flesh and blood. His face is very pretty and most intelligent, and exceedingly like his mother's. He is nine years old, and seems at once less childlike and less manly than would befit that age. I should not like to be the father of such a boy, and should fear to stake so much interest and affection on him as he cannot fail to inspire. I wonder what is to become of him—whether he will ever grow to be a man—whether it is desirable that he should. His parents ought to turn their whole attention to making him robust and earthly, and to giving him a thicker scabbard to sheathe his spirit in. He was born in Florence, and prides himself upon being a Florentine, and, indeed, is as un-English a production as if he were a native of another planet."
The romancist proceeds, in his characteristic style:—"Mrs. Browning met us at the door of the drawing-room, and greeted us most kindly—a pale, small person, scarcely embodied at all; at any rate, only substantial enough to put forth her slender fingers to be grasped, and to speak with a shrill, yet sweet tenuity of voice. Really, I do not see how Mr. Browning can suppose that he has an earthly wife any more than an earthly child; both are of the elfin race, and will flit away from him some day when he least thinks of it. She is a good and kind fairy, however, and sweetly disposed towards the human race, although only remotely akin to it. It is wonderful to see how small she is, how pale her cheeky how bright and dark her eyes. There is not such another figure in the world; and her black ringlets cluster down into her neck, and make her face look the whiter by their sable profusion. I could not form any judgment about her age; it may range anywhere within the limits of human life or elfin life. When I met her in London at Lord Houghton's breakfast-table, she did not impress me so singularly; for the morning light is more prosaic than the dim illumination of their great tapestried drawing-room; and besides, sitting next to her, she did not have occasion to raise her voice in speaking, and I was not sensible what a slender voice she has. It is marvellous to me how so extraordinary, so acute, so sensitive a creature can impress us, as she does, with the certainty of her benevolence. It seems to me there were a million chances to one that she would have been a miracle of acidity and bitterness."
Mrs. Hawthorne's account of their hostess is quite as representative as her husband's. She describes her as "very small, delicate, dark, and expressive. She looked like a spirit. A cloud of hair falls on each side her face in curls, so as partly to veil her features. But out of the veil look sweet, sad eyes, musing and far-seeing and weird. Her fairy fingers looked too airy to hold, and yet their pressure was very firm and strong. The smallest possible amount of substance encloses her soul, and every particle of it is infused with heart and intellect. I was never conscious of so little unredeemed, perishable dust in any human being. I gave her a branch of small pink roses, twelve on the stem, in various stages of bloom, which I had plucked from our terrace vine, and she fastened it in her black velvet dress with most lovely effect to her whole aspect. Such roses were fit emblems of her. We soon returned to the drawing-room—a lofty, spacious apartment, hung with Gobelin tapestry and pictures, and filled with carved furniture and objects of vertù. Everything harmonized—poet, poetess, child, house, the rich air, and the starry night. Pennini was an Ariel, flitting about, gentle, tricksy, and intellectual."
What a picture does not this present to the mind's eye! The Hawthornes and the Brownings, gathered together in that weird old Florentine palace and conversing as only they could. How thoroughly one can sympathise with Mrs. Hawthorne when she exclaims "It rather disturbed my dream! to have other guests come in. Eventually tea was brought and served or a long, narrow table, placed before a sofa, and Mrs Browning presided. We all gathered at this table. Pennini handed about the cake, graceful as Ganymede."
"Little Pennini," says Hawthorne, who appears to have been much interested in young Browning, "sometimes helped the guests to cake and strawberries, joined in the conversation when he had anything to say, or sat down upon a couch to enjoy his own meditations. He has long curling hair, and has not yet emerged from his frock and short hose. It is funny to think of putting him into trousers. His likeness to his mother is strange to behold."
After alluding to there being other guests present, Hawthorne remarked that "Mr. Browning was very efficient in keeping up conversation with everybody, and seemed to be in all parts of the room and in every group at the same moment; a most vivid and quick-thoughted person, logical and common-sensible, as I presume poets generally are in their daily talk."
A pleasant evening was passed by that group of noteworthy persons, who have now nearly all escaped from the "coffin of their cares." The conversation was general, "the most interesting topic," records Hawthorne, "being that disagreeable and now wearisome one of spiritual communications, as regards which Mrs. Browning is a believer, and her husband an infidel. . . . Browning and his wife had both been present at a spiritual session held by Mr. Hume, and had seen and felt the unearthly hands, one of which had placed a laurel wreath on Mrs. Browning's head. Browning, however, avowed his belief that these hands were affixed to the feet of Mr. Hume, who lay extended in his chair with his legs stretched far under the table. The marvellousness of the fact, as I have read of it, and heard it from other eye-witnesses, melted strangely away in his hearty gripe, and at the sharp touch of his logic; while his wife, ever and anon, put in a little gentle word of expostulation.
"I am rather surprised that Browning's conversation should be so clear and so much to the purpose at the moment, since his poetry can seldom proceed far without running into the high grass of latent meanings and obscure allusions."
Mrs. Browning's health was too delicate to permit late hours, so her visitors had to leave about ten. She expressed her regret that she should not see much of the Hawthornes for some time, as she was going with her husband to the seaside, but hoped to find them in Florence on her return.
Two days later, however, in response to Mrs. Browning's invitation, Mrs. Hawthorne called with her daughters at Casa Guidi. Mrs. Browning did not receive till eight in the evening, but as the younger child would have been in bed by that time Mrs. Hawthorne was asked to bring her at one in the clay. "We rang a great while," says Mrs. Hawthorne, "and no one answered the bell; but presently a woman came up the staircase and admitted us, but she was surprised that we expected to see Mrs. Browning at such a time. I gave her my credentials, and so she invited us to follow her in. We found the wondrous lady in her drawing-room, very pale, and looking ill; yet she received us affectionately, and was deeply interesting as usual. She took R——— into her lap, and seemed to enjoy talking to and looking at her, as well as at Una. She said, 'Oh! how rich and happy you are to have two daughters, a son, and such a husband.' Her boy was gone to his music-master's, which I was very sorry for; but we saw two pictures of him. Mrs. Browning said he had a vocation for music, but did not like to apply to anything else any more than a butterfly, and the only way she could command his attention was to have him upon her knees, and hold his hands and feet. He knows German pretty well already, and Italian perfectly, being born a Florentine."
"I was afraid to stay long, or to have Mrs. Browning talk," comments the visitor, "because she looked so pale and seemed so much exhausted, and I perceived that the motion of R———'s fan distressed her. I do not understand how she can live long, or be at all restored while she does live. I ought rather to say that she lives so ardently that her delicate earthly vesture must soon be burnt up and destroyed by her soul of pure fire."
On the 25th of June, Mrs. Hawthorne records in her diary: "We spent this evening at Casa Guidi. I saw Mrs. Browning more satisfactorily, and she grows lovelier on farther knowing. Mr. Browning gave me a pomegranate bud from Casa Guidi Windows, to press in my memorial book. . . . The finest light gleams from Mrs. Browning's arched eyes—for she has those arched eyes so unusual, with an intellectual, spiritual radiance in them. They are sapphire, with dark lashes, shining from out a bower of curling, very dark, but, I think, not black hair. It is sad to see such deep pain furrowed into her face—such pain that the great happiness of her life cannot smooth it away. In moments of rest from speaking her countenance reminds one of those mountain sides, ploughed deep with spent water-torrents, there are traces in it of so much grief, so much suffering. The angelic spirit, triumphing at moments, restores the even surface. How has anything so delicate braved the storms? Her soul is mighty, and a great love has kept her on earth a season longer. She is a seraph in her flaming worship of heart, while a calm, cherubic knowledge sits enthroned on her large brow. How she remains visible to us, with so little admixture of earth, is a mystery; but fortunate are the eyes that see her, and the ears that hear her."
On the 2nd July the Brownings left Florence for France, intending to spend the remainder of the summer in Normandy, and, pathetically exclaims Mrs. Hawthorne, "there seems to be nobody in Florence now for us!"