Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Ingram, 5th ed.)/Chapter 9
For some months the records of Mrs. Browning's story are nought but blank pages. Burning, heart-burning questions, however, were coming to the fore, thrilling her delicate frame and agitating her weary heart with volcanic themes. Instead of the quietude and repose her invalided constitution needed, she gave herself up with her usual ardency to the aspirations of her Italian friends and neighbours. "To her," says Mr. Story, "Italy was from the first a living fire." Her joy and enthusiasm at the Italian uprising in 1848 was fervently sung in the early portion of Casa Guidi Windows; the second part expresses her sorrow and dejection at the abortive results of that revolution. Still she hoped on, watching events from her Florentine home, with a firm trust that the days of fulfilment would arrive. She was angered with her native land, or rather with its leaders, that they turned their back upon the trials and struggles of her adopted country, and scorned them for what she deemed their insular view of the world.
Her hopes, however, were largely if not entirely gratified. "It is a matter of great thankfulness," says Mr. Story, "that God permitted Mrs. Browning to witness the second Italian revolution. No patriot Italian gave greater sympathy to the aspirations of 1859 than Mrs. Browning. . . . Great was the moral courage of this frail woman, to publish the Poems Before Congress at a time when England was most suspicious of Napoleon. Greater was her conviction, when she abased England and exalted France for the cold neutrality of the one and the generous aid of the other in this War of Italian Independence. Bravely did she bear up against the angry criticisms excited by such anti-English sentiment."
During the uprising of the Italians in 1859, when, aided by the French, they were successful in driving their oppressors back from so large a portion of Italian soil, Mrs. Browning's pen and brain both worked hard for the cause she had so strong at heart. Her poems and her life at this period are part of Italian history. Above all did she exalt and glory in the ideal Emperor her imagination had portrayed. The hero she had already believed the Third Napoleon to be was now fully confirmed. Had he not sworn to free Italy from sea to sea, and was he not aiding her people to accomplish this great object by defeating and driving out the hated Tedeschi? With full faith in her Emperor she wrote her passionate lines on "Napoleon the Third in Italy."
July came, and with it the sudden and maddening Treaty of Peace. Mrs. Browning could not but mourn with Italy at the overthrow of hopes which had appeared so close on their realisation yet were so rudely crashed. In the first pangs of her grief, when stunned, if not crushed by the course of events, she addressed to her son those bitter lines "A Tale of Villafranca," beginning:—
Sit down beside my knee,
And I will tell you why the sign
Of joy which flushed our Italy
Has faded since but yesternight,
And why your Florence of delight
Is mourning as you see.
Mr. Story avers that the news of the Imperial Treaty of Villafranca, following so fast upon the victories of Solferino and San Martino, almost killed Mrs. Browning. "That it hastened her into the grave," he says, "is beyond a doubt, as she never fully shook off the severe attack of illness occasioned by this check upon her life-hopes."
Notwithstanding, however, his failure to fulfil his promise to Italy; notwithstanding the annexation of Nice and Savoy, Mrs. Browning would not give up her faith in Napoleon the Third; as Savage Landor said of it, "If that woman put her faith in a man as good as Jesus, and he should become as wicked as Pontius Pilate, she would not change it." In language somewhat more to the purpose, Professor Dowden points out, in explanation of Mrs. Browning's belief of one whose political deeds were often so diametrically opposed to her own principles, "She saw a great work being worked out around her, and instinctively she believed that in the workers also there must be something great and god-like. Still," he proceeds, "the keenness of Mrs. Browning's Imperialism dated from the time of the Italian War. It is difficult to convey an idea to strangers of the intenseness of all her feelings about Italy. Hers was no dilettante artistic love, but a deep personal attachment for the land of her home and her affections. All who had written or spoken or worked in behalf of Italy were as welcome to her as friends of long standing; while for those who had exerted their powers against Italy, as open enemies or false friends, she felt as personal an enmity as it was possible for that gentle nature to feel against any living being. One who knew her towards the end of her life has told me that her last words to him, at their parting, were to thank him, with thanks that were little merited, because he had done something for the cause of Italy. Higher thanks, however undeserved, she knew none to give.
"This being so, it would have been strange had she not shared the common Italian feeling about the Emperor of the French. . . . In this world men, after all, look to the facts, not to motives, and . . . you cannot escape the broad fact that, in the hour of Italy's need (before, mind you, not after the victory) it was the Emperor Napoleon alone who came forward to rescue Italy, who overthrew the tyranny of Austria, and who, willingly or unwillingly, thereby created the Italian kingdom. . . . This is the one simple fact which the Italians have not forgotten and cannot forget; and of this fact Mrs. Browning's mind took hold with all the ardour of her love for Italy, and all the intensity of her poet's feelings."
Sick at heart and bodily ill, Mrs. Browning spent a weary, suffering summer. In July she removed with her husband to Siena, and spent the autumn there. Both in Siena and in Florence, whither they returned for a few days' rest before proceeding to Rome for the winter, the Brownings were much interested in the troubles and eccentricities of Walter Savage Landor. But for the kindly care of Mr. Browning, it is hard to say what would have been the ultimate fate of the strange old genius. He saw to his immediate wants, and made such pecuniary arrangements with Landor's relatives as secured him from any further dread of downright poverty. Apartments were secured for him in the close vicinity of Casa Guidi, and Mrs. Browning's old servant, Wilson, was induced to devote herself to the care of him. Wilson, who had been a more than servant to her mistress, was most faithful in the discharge of her duties to the new master, and fully fulfilled the trust reposed in her by the Brownings, notwithstanding she had family ties of her own.
The winter was spent by the Brownings in Rome, where the mild climate seemed to have somewhat restored the invalid, for such the poetess was again. In the beginning of 1860 she collected her recent political pieces, and published them as Poems Before Congress. In her Preface, dated February, she says:—"These poems were written under the pressure of the events they indicate, after a residence in Italy of so many years, that the present triumph of great principles is heightened to the writer's feelings by the disastrous issue of the last movement, witnessed from Casa Guidi Windows in 1849."
"If the verses should appear to English readers," she explains, "too pungently rendered to admit of a patriotic respect to the English sense of things, I will not excuse myself on such, nor on the grounds of my attachment to the Italian people, and my admiration of their heroic constancy and union. What I have written has simply been because I love truth and justice—quand même—more than Plato and Plato's country, more than Dante and Dante's country, more even than Shakespeare and Shakespeare's country."
After urging that non-intervention in a neighbour's affairs may be carried too far, may only mean passing by on the other side when that neighbour has fallen among thieves, she earnestly entreats her countrymen to "put away the Little Pedlingtonism, unworthy of a great nation, and too prevalent among us. If the man who does not look beyond this natural life is of a somewhat narrow order," she argues, "what must be the man who does not look beyond his own frontier or his own sea?"
"I confess," she exclaims, in language of real poetic grandeur, and with a visionary hope of what appears not yet very near unto realisation, "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 suggested 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 further off, it will profit nothing to the general humanity; therefore, away with it—it is not for you or for me.' When a British minister dares speak so, and when a British public applauds him speaking, then shall the nation be glorious, and her praise, instead of exploding from within from loud civic mouths, come to her from without, as all worthy praise must, from the alliances she has fostered, and the populations she has saved."
Some of the poems in the volume thus heralded certainly contained a few bitter allusions to England, and contrasted her conduct, and of course not to her advantage, with that of France. Yet, that there was very much in the book to arouse the wrath Mrs. Browning believed she had aroused in her native country is preposterous. The asperity of a few reviews, such as that which Chorley deemed it his political duly to indulge in, could have had very little influence upon any class in England, however much the literary susceptibilities of the authoress may have magnified it. To an American friend Mrs. Browning said, "My book 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."
That England did sympathise very strongly with Italy in her struggles for independence, no one who reads the history of the time can doubt, and that her moral and political aid was of immense value to the Italian cause cannot be gainsaid; but English statesmen did not deem it for their country's welfare to interfere too actively, especially while the occult motives of Napoleon were to be taken into account, and this it was that stirred up Mrs. Browning's anger. She, whose heart and brain throbbed but for Italy, could not brook the reticence of England, the reluctance of Englishmen to join Napoleon in his adventurous, perhaps chivalrous, policy. During 1860 she continued to pour forth passionate poems on behalf of Italy, or inspired by Italian themes, but none of them, it must be confessed, equal in poetic value to some lines entitled "Little Mattie," which she published in the Cornhill Magazine. In this lyric she attained a higher standard of poetic excellence than she had done for some years past.
About this time, in viewing Rome's gift of swords to her heroes, Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel, she caught a severe cold, which is said to have affected her lungs. The autumn, also, saw her prostrated with sorrow at the news of her favourite sister's death. Again was Rome resorted to for the winter, and once more the balmy air seemed to revive her drooping form, so that she believed and wrote that she was "better in body and soul."
At intervals she continued to write short poems, but one entitled "The North and the South," written in May, in honour of Hans Christian Andersen's visit to Rome, was the last she ever wrote. During the same month the Brownings returned to Florence, and, although she had found the overland journey very fatiguing, her Florentine friends considered Mrs. Browning had never looked better than when in these early days of June she returned to Casa Guidi.
Mr. Story recounts that in the last but one conversation he had with Mrs. Browning after her return home, they discussed Motley's recently written letters on the American Crisis, and that she warmly approved of them. "Why," she said, referring to the attitude assumed by foreign nations towards America at that time, "why do you heed what others say? You are strong and can do without sympathy; and when you have triumphed your glory will be the greater."
Mrs. Browning had not returned to Florence more than a week or so before she caught another severe cold, and one of an even more threatening character than usual. Medical aid was obtained, but, although anxiety was naturally felt, there does not appear to have been any idea of imminent danger entertained until the third or fourth night, when, says Mr. Story, whose account must now be mainly followed, "those who most loved her said they had never seen her so ill."
The following morning, however, the poetess appeared to be better, and for a day or two was supposed to be recovering. She herself was of this belief, and those about her had such confidence in her vitality that the worst seemed to have been passed. "So little did Mrs. Browning realise her critical condition," says Mr. Story, "that until the last day she did not consider herself sufficiently indisposed to remain in bed, and then the precaution was accidental. So much encouraged did she feel with regard to herself that on this final evening an intimate female friend was admitted to her bedside, and found her in good spirits, ready at pleasantry and willing to converse on all the old loved subjects. Her ruling passion had prompted her to glance at the Athenæum and Nazione; and when this friend repeated the opinions she had heard expressed by an acquaintance of the new Italian Premier, Ricasoli, to the effect that his policy and Cavour's were identical, Mrs. Browning 'smiled like Italy,' and thankfully replied, 'I am glad of it; I thought so.' Even then her thoughts were not of self."
Little did this friend think, as she bade the poetess "good-bye," that it was indeed a farewell she was taking. Friends who called to inquire after her were sent away cheered with the assurance that she was better, and even her "own bright boy," says Mr. Story, as he bade his mother good night, was sent to bed consoled by her oft-repeated "I am better, dear, much better."
One only watched her breathing through the night, he who for fifteen years had ministered to her with all the tenderness of a woman. It was a night devoid of suffering to her. As morning approached, and for two hours previous to the dread moment, she seemed to be in a partial ecstasy, and though not apparently conscious of the coming on of death, she gave her husband all those holy words of love, all the consolation of an oft-repeated blessing, whose value death has made priceless. Such moments are too sacred for the common pen, which pauses as the woman poet raises herself up to die in the arms of her poet husband. He knew not that death had robbed him of his treasure until the drooping form grew chill. . . . Her last words were: "It is beautiful!"