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Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Edward Y. Hincks.
There has probably lived within the past century no woman whose genius, character, and position are more full of interest than Mrs. Browning's. She was not only far above all the female poets of her age, but ranked with the first poets. She was not only a great poet, but a greater woman. She loved and honored art, but she loved and honored humanity more. Born and reared in England, her best affections were given to Italy, and her warmest friends and most enthusiastic admirers are found in America. And when to her rare personal endowments is added the fact that she was the wife of a still greater poet than herself, what is needed to make her the most remarkable woman of this, perhaps of any, age?

And, as there is no woman in whose life and character we may naturally take a greater interest, so there is none whom we have better facilities of knowing. Of the ordinary materials out of which biographies are made, her life indeed furnishes few. Its external incidents were not many nor marked. The details of her family life have been very properly kept from the public. The publication of her letters has been deferred until after her husband's death. But what Mrs. Browning thought, felt, and was, is revealed with almost unexampled clearness in her writings. With all her genius she possessed in full measure the artlessness of her sex. Her [222] theory of poetry, too, was that it was but the expression of the poet's inner nature. Hence, as might be expected, her poems are but transparent media for the revelation of herself. Her queenly soul shines through them as wine through a crystal vase. Her friendships, her love, her grief, her patriotism, her philanthropy, her religion — all are in them simply and unaffectedly revealed to us. To obtain a correct conception of Mrs. Browning, therefore, we must study her character as revealed in her poems, aided, of course, by the light which our scanty knowledge of the events of her outward life will afford. As the result of our study we shall find that whatever fault we may be compelled to find with the artist, we cannot withhold our entire and hearty admiration for the character of the woman. We shall find that her genius, far from marring, exalted and ennobled her womanhood. We shall feel that the poet was greater than her poems.

Elizabeth Barrett Barrett was born in London, in 1809. Her father was a private gentleman in opulent circumstances. Her early life was passed partly in London, partly in the county of Herefordshire, in sight of the Malvern Hills. One of her minor poems, “The lost bower,” describes with her peculiar power of graphic picturing the scenery surrounding hex early home.

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.

Far out, kindled by each other,
Shining hills on hills arise,
Close as brother leans to brother,
When they press beneath the eyes
Of some father praying-blessings
From the gifts of Paradise.


The whole poem, which is one of its author's simplest and sweetest, is well worthy of study for its autobiographical interest. It gives us the picture of a dreamy and thoughtful, but not morbid child, loving to ramble in the wild woods, which her fancy peopled with the heroes and heroines of old.

Mrs. Browning was a child of remarkable precocity. She wrote verses at ten, and appeared in print at the age of fifteen. In the dedication to her father of the edition of her poems which appeared in 1844, she pleasantly speaks “of the time far off when I was a child and wrote verses, and when I dedicated them to you who were my public and my critic.” This childish precocity was not an indication of early ripening genius. Her powers matured slowly. She wrote very crudely when past thirty. She never attained her full maturity. Miss Barrett's education was such as a woman rarely receives. She was taught in classics, philosophy, and science. Her acquaintance with Greek literature was very extensive. It embraced, not only the great classic authors, but also many of the fathers, and the Greek Christian poets. She studied Greek under the instruction of her blind friend, the Rev. Hugh Stuart Boyd, to whom she afterward dedicated the poem entitled “The wine of Cyprus,” in which she thus pleasantly alludes to the hours they had spent together:--

And I think of those long mornings
Which my thought goes far to seek,
When, betwixt the folio's turnings,
Solemn flowed the rhythmic Greek.
Past the pane the mountain spreading
Swept the sheep-bell's tinkling noise,
While a girlish voice was reading,
Somewhat low for αις and οις

And then she goes on to give in a word or two, with that happy facility in hitting off the leading features of a great genius in a single phrase, which is one of her most noticeable [224] characteristics, the impression made upon teacher and pupil by each author as they read.

But she was not merely a passive recipient of knowledge;

For we sometimes gently wrangled,
Very gently, be it said,
Since our thoughts were disentangled
By no breaking of the thread!
And I charged you with extortions
On the nobler fames of old;
Ay, and sometimes thought your Porsons
Stained the purple they would fold.

But it may be doubted whether Mrs. Browning was a thorough and scientific student of the Greek language. If she had been so, the effect of such study would have been to correct her taste, and render much of her language less obscure. Indeed, in spite of her wide reading, one can but form the impression from perusing her writings that she did not receive a thorough and systematic mental training. Had she been able to receive the drill of the grammar school and university she might have used her extraordinary natural gifts to far greater advantage.

Miss Barrett's first published volume was a small book entitled “An essay upon mind and other poems,” published in 1826. The “Essay on mind” was an ambitious and immature production, in heroic verse, which the author omitted from the collection of her poems which she afterward made, and which is in consequence rarely to be found. A critic in the “Edinburgh review” speaks of it as neither possessing much intrinsic merit nor giving great promise of originality, but as “remarkable for the precocious audacity with which it deals with the greatest names in literature and science.”

In 1833 she published a translation of the “Prometheus bound” of Aeschylus. This translation was severely criticised at the time of its publication, and Miss Barrett herself [225] was so dissatisfied with it that she executed an entirely-new version, which was included in a subsequent collection of her poems.

In 1835 she formed an acquaintance with Mary Russell Mitford, which soon ripened into intimacy. To this intimacy the public are indebted for Mrs. Browning's charming little poem, addressed “To flush, my dog” (Flush was a gift from Miss Mitford), and for the oft-quoted description of Miss Barrett as a young lady in her friend's “Recollections of a literary life.”

This sketch is so graphic, and gives so much information not elsewhere to be found, that we must quote from it a few extracts.

Miss Mitford thus describes her friend as she appeared at the age of twenty-six :--

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 that the translatress of the ‘Prometheus’ of Aeschylus, the authoress of the “Essay on mind,” was old enough to be introduced into company.

The next year Mrs. Browning met with that unfortunate accident which, with the yet sadder casualty of which it was the indistinct occasion, cast a dark shadow over her life. A blood-vessel was ruptured in one of her lungs. A milder climate being deemed necessary for her recovery, she went, in company with her eldest and favorite brother, to Torquay. There she remained nearly a year, and was rapidly gaining in vigor, when that sad event occurred which nearly killed her by its shock, and saddened much of her future life. Her brother was drowned while on a sailing excursion, within [226] sight of the windows of the house in which she lived. Even his body was never found.

“This tragedy,” writes her friend, “nearly killed Elizabeth Barrett. She was utterly prostrated by the horror and the grief, and by a natural but most unjust feeling that she had been in some sort the cause of this great misery . . She told me herself that, during the whole winter, the sounds of the waves rang in her ears like the moans of one dying.” The depth of her anguish may be imagined from the fact that, as another friend tells us, when about to be married ten years after, she exacted from her husband a promise never to refer to her brother's death. So prostrated in body was she by this calamity that a year elapsed before she could be removed by slow stages to her father's house in London. There she lived for seven years, confined to a darkened room, at times so feeble that life seemed almost extinct, but struggling against debility and suffering with almost unexampled heroism. There she continued her studies, having a Plato bound like a novel to deceive her physician, who feared that mental application would react injuriously upon her enfeebled frame. There she wrote, while lying on a couch, unable to sit erect, the poem of “Lady Geraldine's courtship” in twelve hours, in order that the volume of her poems to be published in this country might be completed in season to catch the steamer. From that sick chamber went forth poems sufficient in quantity to be the result of industrious application on the part of one in good health. And though these poems bear marks of the peculiar circumstances in which they were written, in a somewhat morbid tone, they show no trace of debility in thought or imagination. Mrs. Browning has written no “In Memoriam” to tell in melodious notes the story of her grief. No direct allusion to it is made, if we mistake not, in her poems. She does not, like most of the poets of her sex, brood plaintively over her woes, and sing over and over again, in slightly [227] altered form, the melancholy strain, “I am bereft, and life is dark.” Her nature was too strong thus to allow grief to take possession of it. Sorrow deepened and elevated her nature, instead of mastering it. There was in her none of the egotism of grief. She threw her whole soul with redoubled ardor into her high vocation, finding consolation where great souls have always found it — in noble work. And yet, though there is not the least trace in her writings of an egotistical brooding over grief, there is abundant evidence in them of the deep suffering through which she passed. It would be difficult to find a nobler expression of great sorrow, bravely endured, than is afforded by her sonnets on “Comfort,” “Substitution,” “Bereavement,” and “Consolation.” These simple but majestic records of her grief are far more affecting, because they are far less labored and artistic, and seem to come more directly from the heart, than the mournful beauty of the “In Memoriam.”

In 1838 Mrs. Browning published “The Seraphim and other poems,” and in 1844 a collection of her Poems in two volumes, including the “Drama of exile.” The reception with which these poems met in England was, though not highly flattering, certainly very far from discouraging. Their faults were severely but not unjustly criticised, and full recognition was given to their merits. The “Quarterly review” for 1840 concludes an article in which are criticised the works of nine female poets, who are now nearly or quite all forgotten, except Mrs. Browning, in these words: “In a word, we consider Miss Barrett to be a woman of undoubted genius and most unusual learning, but that she has indulged her inclination for themes of sublime mystery, not certainly without great power, yet at the expense of that clearness, truth, and proportion which are essential to beauty.”

At about this time Leigh Hunt speaks of her in the following language:-- [228]

Miss Barrett, whom we take to be the most imaginative poetess that has appeared in England, perhaps in Europe, and who will grow to great eminence if the fineness of her vein can but outgrow a certain morbidity.

In our own country Mr. E. P. Whipple wrote, that,--

Probably the greatest female poet that England has ever produced, and one of the most unreadable, is Elizabeth B. Barrett. In the works of no woman have we ever observed so much grandeur of imagination, disguised as it is in an elaborately infelicitous style. She has a large heart and a large brain, but many of her thoughts are hooded eagles.

It seems to us that these critics dealt very justly with Mrs. Browning. The faults of the two largest poems which she had published were glaring and extremely offensive to a correct taste. “The Seraphim” is a dialogue between two angels who are witnessing the crucifixion, and giving utterance to their emotion as they gaze upon the awful spectacle.

The very theme of the poem is enough to show that it must be a failure. The task of depicting the feelings which that stupendous sacrifice awakened in seraphic souls, is one which no one of our race should attempt. What do we know of the workings of angelic natures? If, as Mrs. Browning so often tells us, truth is an essential quality of poetry, how can we look for poetry where there is no basis on which truth can rest? A poet of imperial imagination, like Milton or Dante, may successfully introduce angels as actors in an epic poem, where the interest centres in what is done, and in which there is a groundwork of human action, and the most prominent actors are men; but is not this far different from attempting to depict dramatically the working of angelic natures?

As might naturally be expected, therefore, the “Seraphim” is a failure. It is extravagant, mystical, and, in some places, [229] very unpleasant, by reason of its efforts to depict what should be forever left unattempted by human pencil. To speak plainly, the freedom with which Mrs. Browning in these earlier poems attempts to describe the Deity is exceedingly shocking to a reverent soul. Of course this freedom is merely an error of taste, and is rather the attempt of a vivid faith and ardent love to realize their object, than of a self-confident spirit to win praises for itself by vividly setting forth the glories of its Maker; but good taste and a true reverence alike protest against it.

The “Drama of exile” shows greater imaginative power and deals with a more approachable subject than the “Seraphim,” but is hardly less open to criticism. It is based upon the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. The following is an outline of its plot: The poem opens with an exulting soliloquy by Lucifer, which is interrupted by the entrance of Gabriel. In the colloquy which ensues between them the fallen angel exults over his success, and Gabriel meets his taunts with pitying scorn, and bids him depart and “leave earth to God.” The scene then changes. Adam and Eve appear in the distance, flying across the glare made by the flaming sword, and are followed in their flight by a lamentation and farewell, chanted by a chorus of Eden spirits; the spirits of the trees, the rivers, the birds and the flowers each in turn taking up the song, The scene now changes to the outer extremity of the light cast by the flaming sword. There Adam and Eve stand and look forward into the gloom. Eve, in an agony of remorse, throws herself upon the ground, and begs her husband to spurn her, his seducer, from him forever. Adam raises and comforts her, and assures her of his forgiveness and continued love. A chorus of invisible angels, who had ministered to their pleasure in Eden, then chant the exiles a “faint and tender” farewell. Lucifer now appears upon the scene, and taunts his victims [230] upon their ruin, until he is interrupted and driven away by a lament coming from his lost love, the morning star.

In the next scene Adam and Eve have advanced farther into a wild, open country. As they stand lamenting their fate, they are confronted by twelve shadowy creatures, which are the projections of the signs of the Zodiac,--the ram, the bull, the crab, the scorpion, etc. To let the poet state her own obscure conception:--

Not a star pricketh the flat gloom of heaven;
But girdling close our nether wilderness,
The zodiac figures of the earth loom slow,
Drawn out as suiteth with the place and time
In twelve colossal shapes instead of stars.

Their attention is drawn from these by two spirits, of whom one calls itself “the spirit of the harmless earth,” and the other “the spirit of the harmless beasts,” who mourn the ruin that man.has brought upon them, and, joined and assisted by Lucifer, revile the wretched pair for the curse they have brought upon God's fair creation. When they have driven Adam and Eve to a frenzy of agony, Christ appears, rebukes the earth-spirits and commands them to become man's comforters and ministers, foretells the redemption which He will accomplish for the race, and bids our first parents,--

In which hope move on,
First sinners and first mourners; love and live,
Doing both nobly because lowlily.

The earth-spirits promise obedience and disappear. A chorus of angels then chants the promise of immortal life to mortals, and thus the drama ends.

We have given the plot of the “Drama of exile” at some length, that the reader may judge for himself of the justice [231] ot our criticism when we say that, as a whole, the poem is trained, extravagant, and unequal to its theme. There are some subjects which are set apart for the great creative intellects of the race, and with which it is useless for any others of lesser grasp, however brilliant their powers may be within their own range, to attempt to grapple. Anything short of complete success in their treatment is failure. Their successful handling requires a sustained and steady elevation of imagination, as well as an occasional lofty flight; it requires also the power of construction and arrangement, as well as of originating single great conceptions. Neither of these was given to Mrs. Browning. Her imagination could soar very high, but it could not, like Milton's, float tranquilly, supported by its strong pinion, in the clear upper air. Her genius seemed rather to emit brilliant flashes than to shed a steady radiance. The “Drama of exile” contains many noble passages. Some of its conceptions give evidence of great originality and power. But passages in a poem written upon such a subject, which excite a reader's laughter by their extravagance, are fatal to its claims to be considered a great work of the imagination. Homer sometimes nods, but he never rants. It has been the unanimous voice of criticism, and cannot fail to be the opinion of every candid and intelligent reader, that in the “Drama of exile” Mrs. Browning very often and very laughably rants.

But those seven years of solitude and illness bore other and better fruit than the “Drama of exile.” Many of those beautiful short poems, on which Mrs. Browning's claims to our gratitude chiefly rest, are the fruit of that stern and protracted contest with extreme physical weakness and mental suffering. Then was written “Lady Isobel's child;” a poem which combines more of Mrs. Browning's peculiar powers,--her tenderness, her clear vision into the spiritual world, her ability to describe with wonderful vividness the appearances of [232] nature, and her skill in using the pictures which she paints to heighten emotional effect,--with fewer faults than almost any of her other poems. Then, also, was written “Bertha in the Lane,” --the simplest and sweetest of her poems; and the “Rime of the Duchess may,” --a poem whose vigor of movement and graphic picturing no woman has equalled and few men have surpassed.

Then was written the “Cry of the children,” which will rank with those few noble poems, in which genius utters, in its own thrilling tones, the cry of a humble and neglected class for relief.

Then was written “The dead Pan,” --a poem full of noble truth as well as beauty; a poem which gladly bids farewell to the old classic fables in which beauty was once enshrined, because a higher beauty is found in the truth and spiritual illumination of to-day.

What nobler creed for a poet than this:--

What is true and just and honest,
What is lovely, what is pure,--
All of praise that hath admonished
All of virtue, shall endure;
These are themes for poets' uses,
Stirring nobler than the muses,
Ere Pan was dead.

We cannot find a more suitable place than this in which to speak of a prose work of Mrs. Browning's, published after her death, but originally printed in the “London Athenaeum” in 1842, entitled “Essays on the Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets.” It is written in a terse and vigorous style, disfigured here and there by a harsh or unpleasant figure or strained metaphor, but possessing sufficient merit to show that their author might have attained a high rank as a prose writer. Their most noticeable merit is a certain felicity in putting subtle spiritual thought into language. They [233] are of especial interest to the student of Mrs. Browning's poetry, as giving, in connection with her judgment upon most English poets, her theory of the true nature of the poetic art. This theory, which is closely allied to the theory of the realists in painting, may be stated as follows: There is poetry wherever God is and the works of God are. There is as true poetry in man and whatever pertains to man, of whatsoever grade of society or degree of cultivation, as in the grandest objects of nature. The poet must delineate what he sees and express what he feels.

As Mrs. Browning herself afterward finely says in “Aurora Leigh” :--

Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted age,
That when the next shall come the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand and say,
Behold,--behold the paps we all have sucked.
This is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.

And again, with reference to that part of the poet's office which has to do with the expression of his inner nature, she says:--

The artist's part is both to be and do,
Transfixing with a special, central power
The flat experience of the common man,
And turning outward with a sudden wrench,
Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing
He feels the inmost.

Describe what you see and tell what you feel, is, then, the sum of Mrs. Browning's poetic creed. We can but think that this theory of the poetic art leaves out of view one of its [234] most important features, which is the elaborating thoughts and conceptions into symmetrical form; using them as the plastic material out of which to constrict a polished, perfect work of art. The old Greek conception is right: the poet is the maker, not the reflector. We have a right to demand more of the poet than a faithful record of the impressions made upon any or all of his sensibilities. We have a right to demand melody, clearness, symmetry of design, proper joining of parts,--all the results of the severest taste guided by unremitting diligence. A poem should not be an incoherent and rugged rhapsody; it should join to all the freshness of nature the smoothness of the highest art.

In 1846 Mrs. Browning left her sick-room (she was literally assisted from her couch) to become the life of Robert Browning. We have not the space to enter into any discussion of Mr. Browning's rank as a poet. It is sufficient for our purpose to say that, though his poems find a much narrower circle of readers than those of his wife, the most cultivated and appreciative critics pronounce them to be of a higher order of merit than hers, and in many of the rarer and finer qualities of poetry superior to the works of any living poet. It is enough for those who have learned to love Mrs. Browning through her writings to know that those who have known and loved both husband and wife pronounce the bus. band not unworthy in nobility of soul as well as in depth of intellect of such a wife. And not to be unworthy of such a woman's love is indeed to be great!

In a series of sonnets, slightly disguised by their title, “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” written to her husband before their marriage, she has poured out the wealth of her love, and at the same time displayed the loftiness and delicacy of her nature. Whoever wishes to know Mrs. Browning should study carefully these beautiful and artless poems, which tell the most sacred feelings of a woman's heart with such simplicity [235] and truthfulness and freedom from false shame that the most fastidious taste cannot be offended by their recital. Nor are they interesting alone from the insight which they give us into the heart of their author. They are of unique interest, because they give us the revelation of a great woman's love. They set before us an affection which combines, with the passionate fervor of man's devotion, a clinging, self-renouncing tenderness which is peculiar to woman. They reveal to us a love unselfish in its essence, distrusting only its own worthiness and sufficiency to satisfy its object, and longing to be swallowed up in his larger nature. How false in the presence of such desire for self-renunciation on the part of so highly-gifted a nature appears the common cant that culture and genius and strong thought injure the finer qualities of a woman's soul! What better refutation to this theory than such lines as these:--

A heavy heart, beloved, have I worn,
From year to year, until I saw thy face,
And sorrow after sorrow took the place
Of all those natural joys as lightly worn
As the stringed pearls,--each lifted in its turn
By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace
Were changed to long despairs, till God's own grace
Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn
My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring
And let it drop adown thy calmly great
Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing
Which its own nature doth precipitate,
While thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.

“From their wedding day,” writes a friend, “Mrs. Browning seemed to be endowed with new life. Her health visibly improved, and she was enabled to make excursions in England prior to her departure for the land of her adoption,--Italy,--where she found a second and a dearer home.” [236]

She lived some time at Pisa, and thence removed to Florence, where the remainder of her life was passed.

“For nearly fifteen years,” says the writer from whom we have quoted above, “Florence and the Brownings were one in the thoughts of many English and Americans.”

Mrs. Browning's poems, for many years before her death, were more widely and heartily admired by American than by English readers. Her love of liberty and generous sympathy with all efforts to elevate the race made America dear and Americans welcome to her. Her conversational powers were of the highest order. It was but natural, therefore, that her house should attract many American travellers to discuss with this little broad-browed woman those “great questions of the day,” which we are told “were foremost in her thoughts and, therefore, oftenest on her lips.”

Mrs. Browning's affections soon took root in Italy. The depth and fervor of the love which she bore her adopted country was such as man or woman have rarely borne for native land. It had the intensity of a personal attachment with a moral elevation such as love for a single person never has. It glows like fire through all her later poems. Would that we had had a poet who had sung the heroism and suffering of the late war in strains of such power and pathos as those in which “she sang the song of Italy.” Her love for her adopted country was not a mere romantic attachment to its beauty and treasures of art and historic associations. It was a practical love for its men and women. She longed to see them elevated, and therefore she longed to see them free.

Her affection for Italy found its first expression in “Casa Guidi windows,” which was published in 1851. “This poem,” says the preface,

contains the impressions of the writer upon events in Tuscany of which she was a witness. . . .. It is a simple story of personal impressions [237] whose only value is in the intensity with which they were received, as proving her warm affection for a beautiful and unfortunate country, and the sincerity with which they were related, as indicating her own good faith and freedom from partisanship.

The poem consists of two parts, the former of which (written in 1848) describes the popular demonstrations in Florence occasioned by the promise of Duke Leopold II. to grant a constitution to Padua. It goes on from this to call upon Italy to free her conscience from priestly domination, and her person from Austrian rule. It calls for a deliverer to break the fetters of priestcraft and tyranny. It asks the sympathy of all European nations, each of which is so deeply indebted to Italy for literature and art:--

To this great cause of southern men, who strive
In God's name for man's rights, and shall not fail.

The second part of the poem, written three years afterward, when Leopold had proved false, and the constitutional party had been crushed, describes the return of the Duke to Florence under the protection of Austrian bayonets, and gives utterance to the execrations of the despairing patriots of Italy against “false Leopold,” a treacherous pope, and a lying priesthood. The poet then goes on in a magnificent strain to accuse the nations who were then flocking to the “World's fair” in London of gross materialism and insensibility to the sufferings of their own oppressed and miserable, and the wrongs of outraged Italy. She concludes thus:--

Let us go.
We will trust God. The blank interstices
Men take for ruins he will build into [238]
With pillared marble rare, or knit across
With generous arches, till the fane's complete.

In 1848 Mrs. Browning's son and only child was born. As before, she had thrown the sorrow of her early life, and the love which had followed and superseded it into her poetry, so this new and crowning affection found its fit and full expression in her verse. Before, it was the wife who wrote; now, it is the wife and mother. Her love for her child deepened and intensified her love for humanity. It strengthened her faith in God. It made her love him with that love which only mothers know. And as her poetry was the expression of what was noblest and deepest in her nature, it could but follow that it should be full of the evidences of this its best affection.

In the “Casa Guidi windows,” speaking of perjured Duke Leopold, she says:--

I saw the man among his little sons;
His lips were warm with kisses while he swore;
And I, because I am a woman, I,
Who felt my own child's coming life before
The prescience of my soul, and held faith high,--
I could not bear to think, whoever bore,
That lips, so warmed, could shape so cold a lie.

The world has seen many greater poets, but it has never seen one who thus clothed noble womanhood in noble verse. And in the same strain is the apostrophe to her little son in the last part of the poem, of which we would gladly quote the whole, but are obliged to content ourselves with these few lines:--

Stand out my blue-eyed prophet, thou, to whom
The earliest world-daylight that ever flowed
Through Casa Guidi windows chanced to come!
And be God's witness that the elemental [239]
New springs of life are gushing everywhere.
To cleanse the water-courses and prevent all
Concrete obstructions which infest the air!

Had Mrs. Browning died childless, she never could have written that noble poem entitled “Mother and poet,” in which she has expressed so powerfully the anguish of that Italian poetess, whose two sons fell fighting for Italian liberty. Nor could she have written “Only a curl,” that touching, exquisite poem written to console two bereaved friends in America. Those who are fond of making comparisons will find a good opportunity for the exercise of their ingenuity in comparing this little poem with that of Tennyson entitled “To J. S.,” likewise written to comfort an afflicted friend. That of the laureate is a far more beautiful, work of art; after reading its melodious lines Mrs. Browning's verses sound rugged and harsh. Its writer's sympathy and love are expressed with exquisite delicacy and pathos. Its metaphors are full of beauty. Under ordinary circumstances one would read it with far more pleasure than “Only a curl.” But the latter poem, if it gratifies less the sense of beauty, is more richly fraught with consolation to a sorrowing soul. Its sympathy seems the more heartfelt for being less graceful. It does more than express sympathy. It carries the bereaved to the source of all comfort. It inspires him with the writer's lofty faith. It lets a ray of heavenly light into his soul, The contrast between the two poems can be best exhibited by quoting a verse of each. One of the concluding verses of Tennyson's poem is this:--

Sleep sweetly, tender heart, in peace,
Sleep, holy spirit, blessed soul;
While the stars burn the winds increase,
And the great ages onward roll. That of Mrs. Browning:-- [240]

So look up, friends I you who indeed
Have possessed in your house a sweet piece
Of the Heaven which men strive for, must need
Be more earnest than others are, speed
Where they loiter, persist where they cease.

It is easy to decide which of the two stanzas is more beautiful; and it is not difficult to determine which is in its essential contents the nobler.

In 1856 “Aurora Leigh” was published. This poem, which Mrs. Browning calls “the most mature of my works, and that into which my highest convictions upon life and art have entered,” was finished in England, under the roof of the writer's cousin and friend, John Kenyon,--to whom it is dedicated. Mr. Kenyon was a genial and cultivated gentleman, the author of several graceful poems. He died in 1858, leaving his cousin a considerable addition to her fortune.

Aurora Leigh” is a Social epic,--a sort of novel in blank verse. The following is a brief outline of its plot: Aurora Leigh, the heroine, who is represented as telling the story of her life, is a lady of Italian birth, the daughter of an English gentleman, who, while making a brief visit to Florence, fell in love with and married a beautiful Italian woman.

Aurora lived in Italy until thirteen years old, when, her parents having both died, she was taken to England, to live with her father's sister. This aunt, a prim, rigid, and stony person, endeavors, by subjecting Aurora to rigid discipline and the orthodox young lady's education, to eradicate the Italian nature which she had inherited from her mother, and mould her into a correct, accomplished, and commonplace Englishwoman. Aurora, though outwardly submissive, is secretly rebellious, and determines that her aunt shall neither crush out her life, nor make of her the flat, tame woman she designs her niece to become. [241]

Having found in a garret a box of her father's books, she studies them secretly with great zeal. Fired by reading the poets, she determines to become one of their number. Leading thus a double life, outwardly submissive and demure, but secretly enjoying intellectual and spiritual freedom, she reaches the age of twenty.

Then her cousin, Romney Leigh, a young man of talent and worth, whose soul is bent upon schemes for improving the physical condition of the poor, asks her to become his wife. Suspecting that a desire for an assistant in his philanthropic labors, rather than love, has caused him to make this offer, she declines his hand. At this point, her aunt, who is determined that she shall marry Romney, suddenly dies. Romney renews the offer of his hand, and, this being refused, generously and delicately offers a large part of his fortune to his cousin, whom her father's foreign marriage has prevented from inheriting his estates. She refuses this also, and goes to London to write poems and live by their sale. In course of time she obtains celebrity. She has no direct communication with Romney, but learns, by occasional information derived from their common friends, that he is devoting himself with great zeal to lessening the sum of human misery. At length she is told that her cousin is about to marry a young girl of the lowest origin, whom he has met with while carrying on his philanthropic labors.

She visits this young lady, and finds her to be, in spite of her low origin, winning and refined. At her rooms she meets with Romney. He explains to her his design in marrying this Marian Erle, which is to protest against the insuperable barrier which custom has raised between the different classes of society. To increase the effect of this strange union, Romney gives public notice that the marriage will take place in a London church. At the appointed hour the church is crowded with a mixed assemblage, composed of curious people [242] of fashion, and a large and foul delegation from the class to which the bride belongs. The hour arrives, but no bridal party appears. After some delay, Romney enters alone, and announces that his intended bride has fled. The mob swear that she has been abducted by Romney's friends, to prevent the marriage, and a riot ensues, which is quelled by the police.

Some time after Marian's flight, a report is circulated and generally believed by his friends that Romney has formed an engagement of marriage with Lady Waldemar,--a lady of wealth, rank, and beauty, but whose character is utterly devoid of moral principle.

In the full belief of this report, Aurora Leigh, having published a poem which contains the full ~expression of her genius, starts for Italy. Stopping at Paris on the way, she meets upon the street Marian Erle. Accompanying her home she hears her story. Lady Waldemar (who had long cherished a secret love for Romney Leigh) had persuaded Marian that her affianced husband entertained no real affection for her, but was, in marrying her, sacrificing his own happiness on the altar of his social theories; and that it was her duty to prevent him from performing this rash act by flight. Accordingly she fled the country, under the care of a servant of Lady Waldemar, who conveyed her to a vile den in some French seaport, where she was drugged and outraged. Escaping them, she made her way to Paris, where a child is born to her.

Aurora, after writing this story in a letter to a common friend of Romney and herself in England, taking Marian and her child with her, continues her journey to Italy. The party make their home in Florence. After some months had passe, Romney unexpectedly appears at their house. He tells Aurora what had happened in her absence. He had turned his country-seat into a phalanstery. It had been set on fire and burned to the ground. In rescuing one of his patients, [243] he had been stricken down by a falling beam. The injury had made him hopelessly blind. On hearing the story of Marian's innocence and betrayal, he has hastened to Italy, come to fulfil his former contract of marriage with Marian. But Marian's love has been killed by the sorrow and shame through which she has passed, and she refuses to marry him. And so, as Romney has loved Aurora with unabated affection since his former offer of marriage, and as Aurora discovers that she has all the time unconsciously loved her cousin, they are married.

Of course a very imperfect conception of the poem can be obtained from this meagre outline of the plot. This is the mere skeleton, which is to be covered with flesh and blood, and into which the breath of life is to be breathed. But a symmetrical body cannot be built upon a deformed skeleton. A great poem cannot be constructed upon an absurd and improbable plot. Its characters must act as human beings in the same circumstances might naturally be expected to do. They must talk like men and women, making allowance for the limitations under which the artist works. They must not be used as puppets, to express the thoughts of the writer, but whatever they say must be the natural expression of their own personality. And especially should this be the case when the scene of the poem is laid, not in the mythical past, but in the broad, clear light of to-day. An epic of the social life of our own time should faithfully reflect that life, by making probable characters talk and act in a natural manner. Almost its first requisite is that the story should be naturally put together, and pleasingly told; that the characters should produce an impression of reality; that the interest and power of the narrative should increase as the poem advances; and that the whole story should tend toward one consummation, and leave upon the mind, when its perusal has been finished, the effect of a connected and symmetrical whole. [244]

Judged by this standard, Aurora Leigh cannot be pronounced a great poem. The plot is awkward and improbable. The author trifles with her readers by making Aurora declare in the early part of the poem :--

I attest
The conscious skies and all their daily suns,
I think I loved him not; nor then; nor since;
Nor ever.

And at the close of the poem:--

Now I know
I loved you always, Romney.

The events of the story are improbable and clumsily connected. They do not seem to flow out of each other, as do the occurrences of real life. They have not the semblance of probability. The adventures of Marian Erie, after her flight from England, are as absurd as they are disgusting. Romney Leigh, with his sublime disregard of self, his willingness to contract engagements of marriage to further his noble schemes, his ugly Juggernaut of philanthropy, under which he would crush the nobler affections of his own and other people's lives,--is a very absurd character, if he can be called a character and not a walking abstraction.

It is not too much to say that the story and characters of Aurora Leigh seem like a very clumsy and ill-contrived piece of mechanism intended to serve as a vehicle to convey the writer's impressions of the social life of to-day. But the poem only fails of the accomplishment of what is or should be its main design,--it is full of sins against taste. Disagreeable conceits abound in it. Much of it is but distorted and quaintly expressed prose.

It tells of disgusting crimes with offensive frankness. There is a class of crime upon which even philanthropy cannot [245] gaze too closely. We have certainly a right to ask that crime of this sort, if introduced into a work of the imagination, shall be so veiled as neither to shock our taste nor wound our sensibilities.

But, notwithstanding all the faults which disfigure “Aurora Leigh,” it is full of genius and power. It is not a great poem, but many of its passages are great. It contains much vigorous thought; many profound spiritual truths delicately and forcibly expressed; much noble description of natural scenery. It is a book to be read by detached passages rather than as a single work of art; and to one reading it thus it is full of interest and profit. Though not worthy of being the great work of Mrs. Browning's life, it must hold a high rank among the poems which the present century has produced.

In 1859 Mrs. Browning published a little book entitled “Poems before Congress.” These poems, which contained eulogies upon Louis Napoleon for the assistance which he had rendered to Italy in her struggle for independence, and blamed England for lukewarmness toward the new nation struggling into freedom, were severely criticised by the English press. She was called disloyal to her native land, and was said to have prostituted her genius to eulogizing a tyrant and usurper. How far her opinions as to Napoleon's character and motives in assisting Italy to freedom were correct is a question into which we will not enter here. Had she been living in the fall of 1867, she would probably have found occasion to modify her opinion. But of the nobility of the motives which actuated her to write as she did, the following extract from a letter which she wrote to a friend affords ample evidence:--

“My book,” she wrote, “has had a very angry reception in my native country, as you probably observe; but I shall be [246] 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.”

It may readily be supposed that Mrs. Browning's deep love of liberty would have led her to take a deep interest in America. That this was indeed the case, her own writings and the testimony of her friends give us abundant evidence. “Her interest in the American anti-slavery struggle,” says Mr. Tilton, “was deep and earnest. She was a watcher of its progress, and afar off mingled her soul with its struggles. She corresponded with its leaders, and entered into the fellowship of their thoughts.”

She wrote for a little book, which the Abolitionists published in 1848, called the “Liberty bell,” a poem entitled “A curse for a nation.” Of this we will quote a single verse as a specimen:--

Because yourselves are standing straight
In the state
Of Freedom's foremost acolyte,
Yet keep calm footing all the time
On writhing bond-slaves — for this crime
This is the curse — write.

Many years after she wrote to an American friend concerning this poem:--

Never say that I have cursed your country. I only declared the consequences of the evil in her, and which has since developed itself in thunder and flame. I feel with more pain than many Americans do the sorrow of this transition time; but I do know that it is transition; that it is crisis, and that you will come out of the fire purified, stainless, having had the angel of a great cause walking with you in the furnace.

But she did not live to see her prophecy verified. The disease against which she had so long struggled, broke out [247] with new violence in the spring of 1861. So rapid was its progress that her friends did not realize her danger until death was near. She wasted away in rapid consumption, and died on the morning of the 29th of June. Her last words, or rather her first words when the heavenly glory burst upon her vision, were, “It is beautiful.”

Twenty-three days after Cavour's death plunged Italy in mourning, and saddened the friends of liberty through the world. The impassioned poet and the heroic statesman of the new nation were both taken from it while it was on the very threshold of its life. Had they both lived, the one would, by his resistless energy and far-sighted wisdom, have given the land so dearly loved by both a far nobler history for the other to sing. The death of both was hastened, their friends tell us, by their grief at the peace of Villa franca. Such a poet and such a statesman were worthy of a nobler people.

Mrs. Browning was buried in the English burying-ground at Florence. The municipio have placed over the doorway of Casa Guidi a white marble tablet, on which is inscribed the following beautiful tribute to her memory:--

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.

“To those who loved Mrs. Browning,” says a friend in a letter published in the Atlantic monthly for September, 1861,

(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 to contain the great heart that beat so powerfully within, and the soul that expanded more and more as one year gave place [248] to another. It was difficult to believe that such a fairy hand could pen thoughts of such a ponderous weight, or that such a “still, small voice” could utter them with equal force. But 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 the 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. They combined the confidigness of a child with the poet-passion of heart and of intellect, and in gazing into them it was easy to see why Mrs. Browning wrote. God's inspiration was her motive-power, and in her eyes was the reflection of this higher light.

The same friend continues:--

Mrs. Browning's conversation Was most interesting .. 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. Though the latter spoke an eager language of her own, she conversed slowly, with a conciseness and point, which, added to a matchless earnestness that 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 who were to be praised, which kind office she frequently took upon herself. One never dreamed of frivolities in Mrs. Browning's presence, and gossip felt itself out of place. Yourself, not her-self, was always a pleasant subject to her, calling out her best sympathies in joy, and yet more in sorrow. Books and humanity, great deeds, and, above all, politics, which include [249] 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.

We have expressed our opinion so fully regarding the merits and defects of Mrs. Browning's poetry, in the progress of this sketch, that we need do no more at its close than briefly sum up what has been said. Rarely have so rich a genius, such an affluent and powerful imagination, such an acute and original mind, such a passionate devotion to the poetic art, been so withheld from producing their worthy fruit, by want of suitable elaboration and chaste and simple expression. Had Mrs. Browning's constructive faculty been equal to the wealth of her originating powers, and had she studied luminous expression, she might have given to the world one of those poems which are its perennial delight and inspiration. As it is, though she has written much that is full of beauty and power, her longest poems are least successful, and her fame must rest chiefly on her humbler efforts. But in many respects she is the noblest poet of our time. In her poems as in no other does an intense love for God and man throb and palpitate. They glow as do no others with the “enthusiasm of humanity.” Whether they sing of Italian patriots, or the ragged children of London, or the fugitive slaves of America, they have an intense moral earnestness, springing from an intense love of the race. And as we lament that the author's genius is inadequately expressed in her works, we thank God for the woman's soul whose greatness no poems can express.

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