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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

§ 10. Sonnets from the Portuguese

The Battle of Marathon, Elizabeth Barrett’s juvenile poem, was followed, in 1826, by An Essay on Mind and Other Poems, a volume which bears in the very title the stamp of Pope, though its authoress, then and always, was quite unqualified to imitate his terse neatness. Then, in 1833, came Prometheus Bound, a translation from Aeschylus, with which the translator herself came to be so thoroughly dissatisfied that she suppressed it, so far as she was able, and substituted for it a second translation, which was published in 1850, in the same volume as Sonnets from the Portuguese. The Seraphim and other Poems was published in 1838, and, finally, in 1844, the two volumes of Poems. No poet ever had less of the Greek spirit of measure and proportion, though she was widely read in Greek literature and delighted in its fair forms. Nor was anyone more unlike Pope. Her work, in fact, was as chaotic and confused as it was luxurious and improvident. Her Seraphim is overstrained and misty; her Drama of Exile is an uninteresting allegory; nearly all her shorter poems are too long, for she did not know how to omit, or when to stop. Few, if any, poets have sinned more grievously or frequently against the laws of metre and rime.

It was natural and inevitable that the influence of her love for Browning should transfigure her poetry as well as transform her life. In consequence of it, there is one work (and possibly one only) whose quality is unique, and whose worth is permanent, and not easily computed. This is her Sonnets from the Portuguese. They had been composed by her during the period of the courtship. Browning knew of them for the first time when, “one morning, early in 1847, Mrs. Browning stole quietly after breakfast into the room where her husband worked, thrust some manuscript into his pocket, and then hastily withdrew.” An amazing revelation even to him they must have been of the seraphic intensity of her love.

The form of the sonnet had helped Elizabeth Barrett (as it helped Wordsworth at times) to avoid her besetting sins. Extravagance and diffuseness are not so possible under its rigid rules. On the other hand, the intoxication of her passion helped to secure her against the flatness of the commonplace. They were first privately printed as Sonnets by E.B.B., and, three years later, published under their present title. These forty-four sonnets, unequal as they are, make Elizabeth Browning’s title to fame secure and go some way towards explaining, if not also justifying, the esteem of her contemporaries for her poetry. She was deemed the greatest of English poetesses, perhaps rightly; her name was also suggested (with Tennyson’s but without her husband’s) for the poet laureateship on the death of Wordsworth. In March, 1849, the Brownings’ only child, Robert Wiedemann Barrett, was born, and, shortly afterwards, Robert Browning’s mother died, leaving him long depressed. The summers of 1851 and 1852 were spent in England. In the former year, on their return journey to Italy, they travelled as far as Paris with Carlyle. There, among other celebrities, they met George Sand, and, also, Joseph Milsand, who had recently written of Browning in La Revue des Deux Mondes. Milsand’s friendship was one of the most precious in Browning’s life. Quel homme extraordinaire! he is reported to have said of the poet, son centren’est pas au milieu. The winter of 1853–4 was spent, by way of variety, at Rome. Of the numerous journeyings from Florence during the remaining years, it is only necessary to record that, in the summer of 1855, the two poets carried to England the MS. of Men and Women and great part of that of Aurora Leigh. Browning completed his volume by the addition of One Word More, which is dated London, September, 1855. During this visit, Tennyson, in the house of Browning, read aloud his Maud and Browning read Fra Lippo Lippi, while Dante Rossetti listened and sketched him—Tennyson, according to W. M. Rossetti, “mouthing out his hollow Ós and Ás,” while Browning’s voice laid stress on all the light and shade of character, its conversational points, its dramatic give and take. They joined Kenyon at West Cowes, and Elizabeth Browning wrote the last pages of Aurora Leigh under his roof and dedicated the poem to him.

On their return to Florence, they received news of the immediate and very great success of the poem; and Browning, whose Men and Women failed either to attract the public or to please the critics, rejoiced with a great joy in her triumph.

While the Brownings were in England, Daniel D.Home, the most notorious of American exponents of American exponents of Spiritualism, held a sÉance at which they were present. A wreath that “happened” to be on the table was raised by “spirit” hands and placed on Elizabeth Browning’s brow—the medium’s own feet operating also, Browning maintained. Home subsequently visited Florence; and spiritualistic manifestations became for Elizabeth Browning and some of her friends a matter of profoundly serious interest, and for Browning himself an intolerable irritant. Nothing that Browning wrote surpasses Mr. Sludge, “The Medium” in dramatic power. It exposes more powerfully even than Blougram and Juan and Hohenstiel-Schwangau that corruption of the soul by a lying and selfish life which infects its whole world, making of it a twilight region in which truth and error, right and wrong are inextricably confused, and nothing said is either sincere or insincere. Sludge, at least in some respects, is the greatest of Browning’s magnificent casuists, who themselves are new figures in poetic literature: and, on doubt, the poem owes something of its vigour to his distasteful experience of Home. But Home was not the subject of the poem. Sludge the medium is as universal and impersonal a creation as Falstaff; and, though Browning “stamped on the floor in a frenzy of rage at the way some believers and mediums deceived Mrs. Browning,” he allows Sludge to be himself and to have his own say in so impartial a way as to make the poem a striking revelation of the strength of the poet’s dramatic genius.

In 1859, Elizabeth Browning fell alarmingly ill: political events—the war, the armistice and conference at Villafranca and Napoleon’s bargain excited her too much. Browning nursed her, and took charge, also, of his son’s lessons. To these, he added the charge of the affairs of Landor, and of Landor himself—a most difficult and delicate task. Landor had quarrelled in his volcanic way with his family, with whom he lived at Fiesole, and appeared homeless, penniless and with nothing but the clothes he stood in at Casa Guidi. Browning took him into his house, arranged and managed his affairs for him, and was loving and tolerant with that wide generosity of spirit which made friends of men of the most untoward temperament. Landor loved Browning, and was tame under his hand, while Browning amused Elizabeth by talking of Landor’s “gentleness and sweetness.”

Notwithstanding the “transformation” which her marriage was said to have wrought, Elizabeth Browning’s health was never completely restored, or secure—“I have never seen a human frame so nearly a transparent veil for a celestial and immortal spirit,” said Hillard of her, when he saw her in Florence. During these years, her strength gradually waned, and on 29 June, 1861, suddenly, without any presentiment on her part or fear on his, she passed away. Her death, it is supposed, was hastened by that of Cavour on the sixth of the same month. She had said of him, “if tears or blood could have saved him to us, he should have had mine.” She was buried in Florence, and a tablet on the walls of Casa Guidi expresses the gratitude of the city for her advocacy of Italian freedom. Browning’s sorrow was as deep as his life; but it was borne in his manly fashion. In order “to live and work and write,” he had “to break up everything and go to England.” He never returned to Florence, nor did he visit Italy again until 1878.

Although they lived at first in happy seclusion, “soundless and stirless hermits,” as Elizabeth Browning said, still, no one followed with fuller sympathy the changing fortunes of Italy. But Browning sang neither its hopes nor its sorrows—“Nationality was not an effectual motive with him”—nor did its contemporary politics mean so much for him as a poet as its medieval art. But it was otherwise with his wife. She responded to what was present. Even the art of which we hear in her letters is not the art of the Vatican or the Capitol, but Story’s, or Gibson’s, or Page’s. She was profoundly moved by the agitation for freedom. Italy was the land where she herself first knew freedom, and her emotions swept her into song. Of the four publications of her later life, two are entirely Italian in theme—Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860). And both are political.