Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 1. Robert Browning’s early years

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 1. Robert Browning’s early years

THE BEST explanation of a poet is to be sought in the best poem he has written, or in that theme which, at his touch, breaks out into the amplest music. There, his very self, the personality which he verily is and which, in a greater or lesser degree, subtly suffuses all that he does, finds fittest and fullest utterance; and the utterance itself, whether in phrase or figure, being faithful to fact, bears that stamp of inevitability which implies perfection.

There is little doubt as to the theme which called forth the fulness of the powers of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. It was love. It was love in the same cosmic sense as Wordsworth’s duty, which “kept the stars from wrong,” an omnipresent passion for the best in all nature and in all mankind. To Elizabeth Browning, there was no truth nor substance, save love. It was the essence and wholeness of her being, and it expressed itself with unrestrained prodigality in Sonnets from the Portuguese. Everything in her life that went before—the beauty of her early home among the Malverns, the whole practice of her literary industry, the long lone years of illness and weakness, the heavy sorrow of the death-stricken home—is taken up, sanctified and dedicated in these poems; and everything that was to follow was but harvest-gleaning and aftermath. These sonnets, and, one is tempted to say, these sonnets only, of all that Elizabeth Browning wrote, the world will in no wise let go. They are equalled only by her life—in Milton’s sense, they are her life.

Robert Browning cannot be so easily summed and surveyed. His skill was multifarious far beyond the wont even of great poets. There was hardly an instrument in the orchestra which he could not play, his touch was always unique and recognisable; and, within the domain of human character, there was hardly a bent or trait, a passion or propensity, which he did not celebrate. Nevertheless, when, like his Arion, he “gathers his greatness round him,” and “stands in state,” and “harp and voice rend air” with his full “magnificence of song,” the theme is almost certain to be some phase of love. And love had the same cosmic, constitutive character to him, the same, or even greater, moral worth and spiritual splendour. Speaking of Sonnets from the Portuguese; a critic has observed with truth that

  • as piece of poetry they are not equal to the sonnets of Wordsworth or of Milton, yet it is not so unreasonable to question whether their removal would not leave a more irreparable gap in literature.
  • The removal of love from among Browning’s themes would be, original as he was in everything, the removal of his most original, as well as his most massively valuable, contribution to our literature. It would have left the poet himself a man without a purpose in a universe without meaning. Love, in the last resort, was the only article in his creed. For these reasons, the convergence of these two lives into unity and their most intimate commingling ever after, have an artistic meaning no less than an ethical interest, and they concern the literary critic not less than the biographer. Not that either of the two poets, when their ’prentice days were over, was content to be imitative, or could possibly be conceived as moving in the other’s manner. There was no sacrifice of independence—there never is when the union is spiritual in character and complete. They even took precautions against influencing one another when a poem was in the making. Nevertheless, what they meant for one another was more subtle and penetrating and pervasive than any direct and explicit borrowing, over which the critic could cry “Lo here,” or “Lo there.” It is more easy to suggest and to instance than to describe their influence on each other: but a crowning example, I believe, is to be found in Browning’s Pompilia. There are charms, and, above all, there are intensities, scattered abroad in The Ring and the Book which would not have been possible, even for him, had it not been for his “Iyric Love.” No one was more eager to be dramatical than Browning, or less willing to expose to a gaping world the pageant of his inner life. But, after all, a poet dips his pen in his own blood when he writes what the world must read; if he be robbed of experience as a man, he stands more bare as a poet; and, in the experience of both Robert and Elizabeth Browning, there was one event paramount, one sovereign fact that lent meaning to all that followed. This was their discovery of one another and the unique perfection of their wedded life. Criticism of the Brownings and of their meaning to literature dare not disregard or discount a mutual penetration of personalities so intense as theirs, but must, in dealing with the one, be aware that it is dealing with the other as well. In this respect, what went before in their life and work was but preliminary, and what came after mere consequent.

    Robert Browning was younger than Elizabeth Barrett by some six years. He was born in Southampton street, Camberwell, on 7 May, 1812. His father was a clerk in the bank of England, of literary and artistic tastes, and his mother the daughter of a Dundee shipowner of German extraction.

    It is more easy to read the acorn in terms of the oak than the oak in terms of the acorn; and the great man reveals and explains, rather than is revealed and explained by, the capacities that slumbered in his forefathers. While none can deny the heredity of the features of the soul, any more than those of the body, it is idle to pretend that the lineaments of a great man’s spirit can be traced back with any degree of accuracy to his ancestors. Every man, even the most meagre in endowment, has so many ancestors! But the psychical structure and propensities of his immediate parents have a significance all their own: for these define and determine the environment within which the child’s mind lives and moves and has its being. The home, during the years when, most of all, the soul is being made, stands to the child for solid earth and starry firmament, and the influences operative therein are the air and the food and the drink, and, therefore, the very substance embodied in his personality. From this point of view, the simple piety of Browning’s mother, her membership of an “Independent Church” in Walworth, her life-long class in the Sunday school, her box for contributions to the London Missionary society lose their insignificance. In these and other habits, the child saw the spirit of religion made real and ratified by his mother, and it remained with him, much modified it is true, but, owing to his mother’s memory, permanently holy and always dominant.

    Again, it must not be said that Browning’s “genius was derived from his father.” Genius is not derived. It is always a miracle and has no history. But the father’s genius, that of a lover of art and of literature, made the son a lover of books and a collector of them. It led him to write verse—which he did fluently and after the manner of Pope; and he had a great delight in grotesque rimes. Moreover, he was so skilful in the use of his pencil that Rossetti pronounced him to possess “a real genius for drawing.” Now, “the handsome, vigorous, fearless child,” unrestingly active, fiery of temper, crowded with energy of mind, observant and most swift to learn, naturally saw all these things and, not less naturally, imitated the ways of his parents and sought to acquire what they valued.

    In Browning’s case, no educational influence counts at all, in comparison with that of his father’s tastes and habits and collection of books. That influence can be traced in the poet’s choice of themes, all the way from Pauline and Sordello to Parleyings and Asolando, and it even marks his manner of dealing with many of them. He read voraciously in his father’s library, apparently without let or guidance, and his acquaintance was very early with the works of Voltaire, the letters of Junius and of Horace Walpole, the Emblems of Quarles and Croxall’s Fables. The first book he ever bought with his own money was Macpherson’s Ossian.

    Side by side with this precocious literary omnivorousness went, from early childhood, careful training in music. “I was studying the Grammer of Music.” he said, according to Mrs. Ireland, “when most children are learning the Multiplication Table.” Moreover, he was given permission, at an age lower than the rules allowed, to visit the Dulwich gallery, which was hard by his father’s home. It became “a beloved haunt of his childhood.” He was grateful all his life for the privilege and used to recall, in later years, “the triumphant Murillo pictures,” “such a Watteau” and “all the Poussins” he had seen there.