Browning's Heroines by Ethel Colburn Mayne
PART I. GIRLHOOD
I. THE GIRL IN
PART II. THE
“THE FLIGHT OF
THE DUCHESS” .
PART III. THE
II. TROUBLE OF
PART IV. THE
I. A WOMAN'S
II. JAMES LEE'S
PART V. THE
TROUBLE OF LOVE
I. THE WOMAN
II. THE WOMAN
BY ETHEL COLBURN MAYNE WITH FRONTISPIECE &DECORATIONS BY MAXWELL
LONDON CHATTO &WINDUS 1913
When this book was projected, some one asked, What is there to say
about Browning's heroines beyond what he said himself?and the
question, though it could not stay me, did chill momentarily my primal
ardour. Soon, however, the restorative answer presented itself. If
there were nothing to say about Browning's heroines beyond what he said
himself, it would be a bad mark against him. For to suggestto
open magic casementssurely is the office of our artists in every
sort: thus, for them to say all that there is to say about anything is
to show the casement stuck fast, as it were, and themselves battering
somewhat desperately to open it. Saying the things about is the other
people's function. It is as if we suddenly saw a princess come out upon
her castle-walls, and hymned that fair emergence, which to herself is
+ + + + +
Browning, I think, is coming back, as stars come back. There has
been the period of obscuration. Seventeen years ago, when the Yellow
Book and the National Observer were contending for les
jeunes, Browning was, in the more precious côterie, king of
modern poets. I can remember the editor of that golden Quarterly
reading, declaiming, quoting, almost breathing, Browning! It was from
Henry Harland that this reader learnt to read The Ring and the Book
: Leave out the lawyers and the Tertium Quid, and all after Guido until
the Envoi. It was Henry Harland who would answer, if one asked him
what he was thinking of:
And thinking toooh, thinking, if you like,
How utterly dissociated was I. . . .
regardless of all aptitude in the allusion, making it simply
because it burned up in his brain, just as days struck fierce 'mid
many a day struck calm were always his days of excitement. . .
. A hundred Browning verses sing themselves around my memories of the
flat in Cromwell Road.
Misconceptions was swung forth with gesture that figured
This is a spray the bird clung to. . . .
You were to notice how the rhythms bent and tossed like boughs in
that first stanzaand to notice, also, how regrettable the second
stanza was. Nor shall I easily let slip the memory of Apparent
Failure, thus recited. He would begin at the second verse, the
Doric little Morgue verse. You were not to miss the great phrase in
The three men who did most abhor
Their lives in Paris yesterday. . . .
but you were to feel, scarce less keenly, the dire descent to
bathos in So killed themselves. It was almost the show-example, he
would tell you, of Browning's chief defectover-statement.
How did it happen, my poor boy?
You wanted to be Bonaparte,
And have the Tuileries for toy,
And could not, so it broke your heart. . . .
How compassionately he would give that forth! A screen of glass,
you're thankful for; Be quiet, and unclench your fist; Poor men God
made, and all for this!the phrases (how alert we were for the
phrase in those days) would fall grave and vibrant from the voice
with its subtle foreign colouring: you could always infuriate H. H.
by telling him he had a foreign accent.
Those were Browning days; and now these are, or soon shall be. Two
or three years since, to quote him was, in the opinion of a Standard
reviewer, to write yourself down a back-number, as they say. I preserve
the cutting which damns with faint praise some thus antiquated short
stories of 1910. Browning and Wagner were so obsolete! . . . How young
that critic must have beenso young that he had never seen a star
return. Quite differently they come backor is it quite the same? Soon
we shall be able to judge, for this star is returning, andoh
wonder!is trailing clouds of glory of the very newest cut. The stars
always do that, this watcher fancies, and certainly Browning, like the
Jub-jub, was ages ahead of the fashion. His passport for to-day is
dated up to the very hourfor though he could be so many other things
besides, one of his achievements, for us, will prove to have been that
he could be so ugly. That would not have been reckoned among
his glories in the Yellow Book-room; but the wheel shall come full
circlewe shall be saying all this, one day, the other way round. For,
as Browning consoles, encourages, and warns us by showing in Fifine,[x:1] each age believesand should believethat to it alone the
secret of true art has been whispered.
ETHEL COLBURN MAYNE.
[x:1] I write far from my books, but the passage will be easily
found or recalled.
11 HOLLAND ROAD, KENSINGTON, W.
PART I. GIRLHOOD
Browning's power of embodying in rhythm the full beauty of girlhood
is unequalled by any other English poet. Heine alone is his peer in
this; but even Heine's imagination dwelt more fondly on the abstract
pathos and purity of a maiden than on her individual gaiety and
courage. In older women, also, these latter qualities were the spells
for Browning; and, with him, a girl sets forth early on her brave
career. That is the just adjective. His girls are as brave as the young
knights of other poets; and in this appreciation of a dauntless gesture
in women we see one of the reasons why he may be called the first
feminist poet since Shakespeare. To me, indeed, even Shakespeare's
maidens have less of the peculiar iridescence of their state than
Browning's have, and I think this is because, already in the modern
poet's day, girlhood was beginning to be seen as it had never been seen
beforethat is, as a thing-by-itself. People had perceiveddimly
enough, but with eyes which have since grown clearer-sightedthat
there is a stage in woman's development which ought to be her very own
to enjoy, as a man enjoys his adolescence. This dawning sense is
explicit in the earlier verses of one of Browning's most original
utterances, Evelyn Hope, which is the call of a man, many years
older, to the mysterious soul of a dead young girl
Sixteen years old when she died!
Perhaps she had hardly heard my name;
It was not her time to love; beside,
Her life had many a hope and aim,
Duties enough and little cares,
And now was quiet, now astir . . .
Here recognition of the girl's individuality is complete. Not a word
in the stanza hints at Evelyn's possible love for another man. It was
not her time; there were quite different joys in life for her. . . .
Such a view is even still something of a novelty, and Browning was the
first to express it thus whole-heartedly. There had been, of course,
from all time the hymning of maiden purity and innocence, but beneath
such celebrations had lurked that predatory instinct which a still more
modern poet has epitomised in a haunting and ambiguous phrase
For each man kills the thing he loves.
Thus, even in Shakespeare, the Girl is not so much that transient,
exquisite thing as she is the Woman-in-love; thus, even for Rosalind,
there waits the Emersonian précis
Whither went the lovely hoyden?
Disappeared in blessèd wife;
Servant to a wooden cradle,
Living in a baby's life.
I confess that this tabloid story of a woman has, ever since my
first discovery of it, been a source of anger to me; and I do not think
that such resentment should be reckoned as a manifestation of modern
decadence. The hustling out of sight of that lovely hoyden is
unworthy of a poet; poet's eyes should rest longer upon beauty so
irrecoverablefor though the wife and mother be the happiest that ever
was, she can never be a girl again.
In the same way, to me the earliest verses of Evelyn Hope are
the loveliest. As I read on, doubts and questions gather fast
But the time will comeat last it will,
When, Evelyn Hope, what meant (I shall say)
In the lower earth, in the years long still,
That body and soul so pure and gay?
Why your hair was amber, I shall divine,
And your mouth of your own geranium's red
And what you would do with me, in fine,
In the new life come in the old one's stead.
I have lived (I shall say) so much since then,
Given up myself so many times,
Gained me the gains of various men,
Ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes;
Yet one thing, one, in my soul's full scope,
Either I missed, or itself missed me:
And I want and find you, Evelyn Hope!
What is the issue? let us see!
I loved you, Evelyn, all the while.
My heart seemed full as it could hold?
There was place and to spare for the frank young smile,
And the red young mouth, and the hair's young gold.
So, hushI will give you this leaf to keep:
See, I shut it inside the sweet cold hand!
There, that is our secret: go to sleep!
You will wake, and remember, and understand.
* * * * *
Here the average man is revived, the man who can imagine no meaning
for the loveliness of a girl's body and soul but that it shall do
something with him. When they meet in the new life come in the old
one's stead, this is the question he looks forward to asking; and
instinctively, I think, we ask ourselves a different one. Will
Evelyn, on waking, remember and understand? Will she not have passed
by very far, in the spirit-world, this unconscious egotist? . . . True,
he can to some extent realise that probability
Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few:
Much is to learn, much to forget,
Ere the time be come for taking you.
But Browning has used the wrong word here. She whom the good stars
that met in her horoscope had made of spirit, fire, and dew, must,
whether it be her desire to do so or not, eternally keep part of
herself from the taking of any man. . . . This is a curious
lapse in Browning, to whom women are, in the highest sense of the word,
individualsnot individualists, a less lovable and far more capturable
thing. His heroines are indeed instinct with devotion, but it is
devotion that chooses, not devotion that submits. A world of gaiety
and courage lies between the two conceptionsa world, no less, of
widened responsibility and heavier burdens for the devotee. If we
compare a Browning heroine with a Byron one, we shall almost have
traversed that new country, wherein the air grows ever more bracing as
we travel onward.
With shrinking and timidity the Browning girl is unacquainted. As
experience grows, these sensations may sadly touch her, but she will
not have been prepared for them; no reason for feeling either had
entered her dream of life. She trusts
Trust, that's purer than pearl
and how much purer than shrinking! Free from the athletics and the
slang, she is antetype, indeed, of, say, the St. Andrews girl, that
admirable creation of our age; but she soars beyond her sister on the
wings of her more exquisite sensibility, and her deeper restfulness.
Not for her the perpetual pursuit of the india-rubber or the other
kinds of ball; she can conceive of the open air as something better
than a place to play games in. Like Wordsworth's Lucy
Hers shall be the breathing balm,
And hers the silence and the calm,
Of mute insensate things;
and from such being she draws joys more instant and more
glancingly fair than Lucy drew. Among them is the joy of laughter. Of
all gifts that the fulness of time has brought to women, may we not
reckon that almost the best? A woman laughs nowadays, where, before, as
an ideal she smiled, or as a caricature giggled; and I think that the
great symphony of sex has been deepened, heightened wellnigh beyond
recognition, by that confident and delicate wood-note.
* * * * *
All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the
Breath and bloom, shade and shinewonder, wealth, andhow
Truth, that's brighter than gem,
Trust, that's purer than pearl
Brightest truth, purest trust, in the universe, all were for
In the kiss of one girl.
Nothing there of Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever!
Do the fortunate girls of to-day get Summum Bonum in their
albums (if they have albums), as we of the past got Kingsley's
ineffable pat on the head? But since even for us to be a girl was
bliss, these maidens of a later day must surely be in paradise. They
keep, in the words of our poet, much that we resignedmuch, too,
that we prized. No girl, in our day, but dreamed of the lordly lover,
and I hazard a guess that the fantasy persists. It is slower to be
realised than even in our own dream-period, for now it must come
through the horn-gate of the maiden's own judgment. Man has fallen from
the self-erected pedestal of superiority. He had placed himself badly
on it, such as it wasthe pose was ignoble, the balance insecure. One
day, he will himself look back, rejoicing that he is down; and whenor
ifhe goes up again, it will be more worthily to stay, since other
hands than his own will have built the pillar, and placed him
thereupon. His chief hope of reinstatement lies in this one, certain
fact: No girl will ever thrill to a lover who cannot answer for her to
A Pearl, A Girl
A simple ring with a single stone,
To the vulgar eye no stone of price:
Whisper the right word, that alone
Forth starts a sprite, like fire from ice,
And lo! you are lord (says an Eastern scroll)
Of heaven and earth, lord whole and sole,
Through the power in a pearl.
A woman ('tis I this time that say)
With little the world counts worthy praise,
Utter the true wordout and away
Escapes her soul: I am wrapt in blaze,
Creation's lord, of heaven and earth
Lord whole and soleby a minute's birth
Through the love in a girl!
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be! But observe
that he has to utter the true word.
+ + + + +
This brave and joyous note is the essential Browning, and to me it
supplies an easy explanation for his much-discussed rejection of the
very early poem Pauline, for which, despite its manifold
beauties, he never in later life cared at allmore, he wished to
suppress it. In Pauline, his deepest sense of woman's spiritual
function is falsified. This might be accounted for by the fact that it
was written at twenty-one, if it were not that at twenty-one most young
men are most original. Browning, in this as in other things, broke
down tradition, for Pauline is by far the least original of his
works in outlookit is, indeed, in outlook, of the purest
common-place. It exhibits, says Mr. Chesterton, the characteristic
mark of a juvenile poem, the general suggestion that the author is a
thousand years old; and it exhibits too the entirely un-characteristic
mark of a Browning poem, the general suggestion that the poet has not
thought for himself on a subject which he was, in the issue, almost to
make his ownthat of the inspiring, as opposed (for in Browning the
antithesis is as marked as that) to the consoling, power of a beloved
woman. From the very first line this emotional flaccidity is evident
Pauline, mine own, bend o'er methy soft breast
Shall pant to minebend o'er methy sweet eyes
And loosened hair and breathing lips, and arms
Drawing me to theethese build up a screen
To shut me in with thee, and from all fear . . .
And again in the picture of her, lovely to the sense, but, in some
strange fashion, hardly less than nauseating to the mind
. . . Love looks through
WhispersE'en at the last I have her still,
With her delicious eyes as clear as heaven
When rain in a quick shower has beat down mist . . .
How the blood lies upon her cheek, outspread
As thinned by kisses! only in her lips
It wells and pulses like a living thing,
And her neck looks like marble misted o'er
With love-breatha Pauline from heights above,
Stooping beneath me, looking upone look
As I might kill her and be loved the more.
So love meme, Pauline, and nought but me,
Never leave loving! . . .
Something is there to which not again, not once again, did Browning
stoop; and that something removes, for me, all difficulty in
understanding his rejection, despite its exquisite verbal beauties, of
this work. Moreover, it is interesting to observe the queer
sub-conscious sense of the lover's inferiority betrayed in the prose
note at the end. This is in French, and feigns to be written by Pauline
herself. She is there made to speak of mon pauvre ami. Let any
woman ask herself what that phrase implies, when used by her in
speaking of a lovermy poor dear friend! We cannot of course be sure
that Browning, as a man, was versed in this scrap of feminine
psychology; but we do gather with certainty from Pauline's fabled
comment that her view of the confessionfor the poem is merely, as Mr.
Chesterton says, the typical confession of a boywas very much less
lachrymose than that of mon pauvre ami. Unconsciously, then,
herebut in another poem soon to be discussed, not
unconsciouslythere sounds the humorous note in regard to men which
dominates so many of women's relations with them. The big childto
some women, as we all know, man presents himself in that aspect
chiefly. Pauline, remarking of her lover's idea that it was perhaps
as unintelligible to him as to her, is a tender exponent of this view;
the girl in Youth and Art is gayer and more ironic. Here we have
a woman, successful though (as I read the poem)[12:1] not
famous, recalling to a successful and famous sculptor the days when
they lived opposite one anothershe as a young student of singing, he
as a budding statuary
We studied hard in our styles,
Chipped each at a crust like Hindoos,
For air looked out on the tiles,
For fun watched each other's windows.
* * * * *
And Isoon managed to find
Weak points in the flower-fence facing,
Was forced to put up a blind
And be safe in my corset-lacing.
* * * * *
No harm! It was not my fault
If you never turned your eyes' tail up
As I shook upon E in alt,
Or ran the chromatic scale up.
* * * * *
Why did you not pinch a flower
In a pellet of clay and fling it?
Why did I not put a power
Of thanks in a look, or sing it?
* * * * *
I confess that this lyric, except for its penultimate verse, soon to
be quoted, does not seem to me what Mr. Chesterton calls
itdelightful. Nothing, plainly, did bring these two together; she
may have looked jealously at his models, and he at her piano-tuner
(though even this, so far as he is concerned, I question), but they
remained uninterested in one anotherand why should they not? When at
the end she cries
This could but have happened once,
And we missed it, lost it for ever
one's impulse surely is (mine is) to ask with some vexation what
Each life's unfulfilled, you see;
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy;
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despairedbeen happy.
Away from its irritating context, that stanza is delightful;
with the context it is to me wholly meaningless. The boy and girl had
not fallen in lovethere is no more to say; and I heartily wish that
Browning had not tried to say it. The whole lyric is based on
nothingness, or else on a self-consciousness peculiarly unappealing.
Kate Brown was evidently quite safe in her corset-lacing before she
put up a blind. I fear that this confession of my dislike for Youth
and Art is a betrayal of lacking humour; I can but face it out, and
say that unhumorous is precisely what, despite its levity of manner,
rhythm, and rhyme, Youth and Art seems to my sense. . . . I
rejoice that we need not reckon this Kate among Browning's girls; she
is introduced to us as married to her rich old lord, and queen of
bals-parés. Thus we may console ourselves with the hope that life
has vulgarised her, and that as a girl she was far less objectionable
than she now represents herself to have been. We have only to imagine
Evelyn Hope putting up a superfluous blind that she might be safe in
her corset-lacing, to sweep the gamut of Kate Brown's commonness. . . .
Let us remove her from a list which now offers us a figure more
definitely and dramatically posed than any of those whom we have yet
[12:1] Mr. Chesterton and Mrs. Orr both speak of Kate Brown as
having succeeded in her art. I cannot find any words in the poem which
justify this view. She is queen at bals-parés, and she has
married a rich old lord, but nothing in either condition predicates
the successful cantatrice.
I. THE GIRL IN COUNT GISMOND
It is like a fairy tale, for there are three beautiful princesses,
and the youngest is the heroine. The setting is Frencha castle in
Aix-en-Provence; it is the fourteenth century, for tourneys and
hawking-parties are the amusements, and a birthday is celebrated by an
award of crowns to the victors in the lists, when there are ladies in
brave attire, thrones, canopies, false knight and true knight. . . .
Here is the story.
Once upon a time there were three beautiful princesses, and they
lived in a splendid castle. The youngest had neither father nor mother,
so she had come to dwell with her cousins, and they had all been quite
happy together until one day in summer, when there was a great tourney
and prize-giving to celebrate the birthday of the youngest princess.
She was to award the crowns, and her cousins dressed her like a queen
for the ceremony. She was very happy; she laughed and sang her
birthday-song quite through, while she looked at herself, garlanded
with roses, in the glass before they all three went arm-in-arm down the
castle stairs. The throne and canopy were ready; troops of merry
friends had assembled. These kissed the cheek of the youngest princess,
laughing and calling her queen, and then they helped her to stoop under
the canopy, which was pierced by a long streak of golden sunshine.
There, in the gleam and gloom, she took her seat on the throne. But for
all her joy and pride, there came to her, as she sat there, a great
ache of longing for her dead father and mother; and afterwards she
remembered this, and thought that perhaps if her cousins had guessed
that such sorrow was in her heart, even at her glad moment, they might
not have allowed the thing to happen which did happen.
All eyes were on her, except those of her cousins, which were
lowered, when the moment came for her to stand up and present the
Shy and proud and glad, she stood up, and as she did so, there
stalked forth Count Gauthier
. . . And he thundered 'Stay!'
And all stayed. 'Bring no crowns, I say!'
'Bring torches! Wind the penance-sheet
About her! Let her shun the chaste,
Or lay herself before their feet!
Shall she whose body I embraced
A night long, queen it in the day?
For Honour's sake no crowns, I say!'
* * * * *
Some years afterwards she told the story of that birthday to a dear
friend, and when she came to Count Gauthier's accusation, she had to
stop speaking for an instant, because her voice was choked with tears.
Her friend asked her what she had answered, and she replied
I? What I answered? As I live
I never fancied such a thing
As answer possible to give;
for just as the body is struck dumb, as it were, when some
monstrous engine of torture is directed upon it, so was her soul for
But only for one moment. For instantly another knight strode
outCount Gismond. She had never seen him face to face before, but
now, so beholding him, she knew that she was saved. He walked up to
Gauthier and gave him the lie in his throat, then struck him on the
mouth with the back of a hand, so that the blood flowed from it
. . . North, South,
East, West, I looked. The lie was dead
And damned, and truth stood up instead.
Recalling it now, with her friend Adela, she mused a moment; then
said how her gladdest memory of that hour was that never for an instant
had she felt any doubt of the event.
God took that on himI was bid
Watch Gismond for my part: I did.
Did I not watch him while he let
His armourer just brace his greaves,
Rivet his hauberk, on the fret
The while! His foot . . . my memory leaves
No least stamp out, nor how anon
He pulled his ringing gauntlets on.
Before the trumpet's peal had died, the false knight lay, prone as
his lie, upon the ground; and Gismond flew at him, and drove his sword
into the breast
Cleaving till out the truth he clove.
Which done, he dragged him to my feet
And said 'Here die, but end thy breath
In full confession, lest thou fleet
From my first, to God's second death!
Say, hast thou lied?' And, 'I have lied
To God and her,' he said, and died.
Then Gismond knelt and said to her words which even to this dear
friend she could not repeat. She sank on his breast
Over my head his arm he flung
Against the world . . .
and then and there the two walked forth, amid the shouting
multitude, never more to return. And so they were married, and lived
happy ever after.
+ + + + +
Gaiety, courage, trust: in this nameless Browning heroine we find
the characteristic marks. On that birthday morning, almost her greatest
joy was in the sense of her cousins' love
I thought they loved me, did me grace
To please themselves; 'twas all their deed
and never a thought of their jealousy had entered her mind. Both
. . . Each a queen
By virtue of her brow and breast;
Not needing to be crowned, I mean,
As I do. E'en when I was dressed,
Had either of them spoke, instead
Of glancing sideways with still head!
But no: they let me laugh and sing
My birthday-song quite through . . .
and so, all trust and gaiety, she had gone down arm-in-arm with
them, and taken her state on the foolish throne, while everybody
applauded her. Then had come the moment when Gauthier stalked forth;
and from the older mind, now pondering on that infamy, a flash of
bitter scorn darts forth
Count Gauthier, when he chose his post,
Chose time and place and company
To suit it . . .
for with sad experienceknowledge of the worldto aid her, she
can see that the whole must have been pre-concerted
And doubtlessly ere he could draw
All points to one, he must have schemed!
* * * * *
Her trust in the swiftly emerging champion and lover is
comprehensible to us of a later daythat, and the joy she feels in
watching him impatiently submit to be armed. Even so might one of us
watch and listen to and keep for ever in memory the stamp of the foot,
the sound of the ringing gauntletsreproduced as that must be for
modern maids in some less heartening music! But, as the tale proceeds,
we lose our sense of sisterhood; we realise that this girl belongs to a
different age. When Gauthier's breast is torn open, when he is dragged
to her feet to die, she knows not any shrinking nor compassioncan
apprehend each word in the dialogue between slayer and slaincan, over
the bleeding body, receive the avowal of his love who but now has
killed his fellow-man like a dogand, gathered to Gismond's breast,
can, unmoved by all repulsion, feel herself smeared by the dripping
sword that hangs beside him. . . . All this we women of a later day
have resignedand I know not if that word be the right one or the
wrong; so many lessons have we conned since Gismond fought for a
slandered maiden. We have learned that lies refute themselves, that
things come right in the end, that human life is sacred, that a
woman's chastity may be sacred too, but is not her most inestimable
possessionand, if it were, should be able to take care of itself.
Further doctrines, though not yet fully accepted, are being
passionately taught: such, for example, as that Manmale Manis the
least protective of animals.
Over my head his arm he flung
Against the world . . .
I think we can see the princess, as she spoke those words, aglow and
tremulous like the throbbing fingers in the Northern skies. Well, the
Northern Lights recur, in our latitudes, at unexpected moments, at
long intervals; but they do recur.
One thing vexes, yet solaces, me in this tale of Count Gismond. The
Countess, telling Adela the story, has reached the crucial moment of
Gauthier's insult when, choked by tears as we saw, she stops speaking.
While still she struggles with her sob, she sees, at the gate, her
husband with his two boys, and at once is able to go on. She finishes
the tale, prays a perfunctory prayer for Gauthier; then speaks of her
sons, in both of whom, adoring wife that she is, she must declare a
likeness to the father
Our elder boy has got the clear
Great brow; tho' when his brother's black
Full eye shows scorn, it . . .
With that it she breaks off; for Gismond has come up to talk with
her and Adela. The first words we hear her speak to that loved husband
arefibbing words! The broken line is finished thus
. . . Gismond here?
And have you brought my tercel back?
I just was telling Adela
How many birds it struck since May.
We, who have temporarily lost so many things, have at least gained
this onethat we should not think it necessary to tell that fib. We
should say nothing of what we had been telling Adela. And some of us,
perhaps, would reject the false rhyme as well as the false words.
II. PIPPA PASSES
I. DAWN: PIPPA
The whole of Pippa is emotion. She passes alone through the drama,
except for one momentonly indirectly shown usin which she speaks
with some girls by the way. She does nothing, is nothing, but exquisite
emotion uttering itself in songquick lyrical outbursts from her
joyous child's heart. The happiness-in-herself which this poor
silk-winder possesses is something deeper than the gaiety of which I
earlier spoke. Gay she can be, and is, but the spell that all
unwittingly she exercises, derives from the profounder depth of which
the Eastern poet thought when he said that We ourselves are Heaven and
Hell. . . . Innocent but not ignorant, patient, yet capable of a
hearty little grumble at her lot, Pippa is human to the red-ripe of
the heart. She can threaten fictively her holiday, if it should
ill-use her by bringing rain to spoil her enjoyment; but even this
intimidation is of the very spirit of confiding love, for her threat is
that if rain does fall, she will be sorrowful and depressed, instead of
joyous and exhilarated, for the rest of the year during which she will
be bound to her wearisome silk-winding, coil on coil. Such a
possibility, thinks Pippa's trustful heart, must surely be enough to
cajole the weather into beauty and serenity.
It is New Year's Day, and sole holiday in all the twelve-month for
silk-winders in the mills of Asolo. An oddly chosen time, one
thinksthe short, cold festival! And it is notable that Browning,
though he acquiesces in the fictive date, yet conveys to us, so
definitely that it must be with intention, the effect of summer
weather. We find ourselves all through imagining mellow warmth and
sunshine; nay, he puts into Pippa's mouth, as she anticipates the
treasured outing, this lovely and assuredly not Janiverian forecast
Thy long blue solemn hours serenely flowing. . . .
Is it not plain from this that his artist's soul rejected the paltry
fact? For blue the hours of New Year's Day may be in Italy, but as
long blue hours they cannot, even there, be figured. I maintain
that, whatever it may be called, it is really Midsummer's Day on which
Pippa passes from Asolo through Orcana and Possagno, and back to Asolo
+ + + + +
We see her first as she springs out of bed with the dawn's earliest
touch on her large mean airy chamber at Asolo[24:1]the lovely
little town of Northern Italy which Browning loved so well. In that
chamber, made vivid to our imagination by virtue of three consummately
placed adjectives (note the position of mean"), Pippa prepares for her
one external happiness in the year.
Oh Day, if I squander a wavelet of thee,
A mite of my twelve hours' treasure,
The least of thy gazes or glances,
* * * * *
One of thy choices or one of thy chances,
* * * * *
My Day, if I squander such labour or leisure,
Then shame fall on Asolo, mischief on me!
I have omitted two lines from this eight-lined stanza, and omitted
them because they illustrate all too forcibly Browning's chief fault as
a lyricand, in this case, as a dramaticpoet. Both of them are
frankly parenthetic; both parentheses are superfluous; neither has any
incidental beauty to redeem it; and, above all, we may be sure that
Pippa did not think in parentheses. The agility and (it were to follow
an indulgent fashion to add) the subtlety of Browning's mind too
often led him into like excesses: I deny the subtlety here, for these
clauses are so wholly uninteresting in thought that even as examples I
shall not cite them. But their crowning distastefulness is in the
certitude we feel that, whatever they had been, they never would have
occurred to this lyrical child. The stanza without them is the stanza
as Pippa felt it. . . . In the same way, the opening rhapsody on dawn
which precedes her invocation to the holiday is out of
characterimpossible to regard its lavish and gorgeous images as those
(however sub-conscious) of an unlettered girl.
But all carping is forgotten when we reach
Thy long blue solemn hours serenely flowing
a poet's phrase, it is true, yet in no way incongruous with what we
can imagine Pippa to have thought, if not, certainly, in such lovely
diction to have been able to express. Thenceforward, until the
episodical lines on the Martagon lily, the child and her creator are
one. There comes the darling menace to the holiday
. . . But thou must treat me not
As prosperous ones are treated . . .
For, Day, my holiday, if thou ill-usest
Me, who am only Pippaold year's sorrow,
Cast off last night, will come again to-morrow:
Whereas, if thou prove gentle, I shall borrow
Sufficient strength of thee for new-year's sorrow.
All other men and women that this earth
Belongs to, who all days alike possess,
Make general plenty cure particular dearth,[26:1]
Get more joy one way, if another less:
Thou art my single day, God lends to leaven
What were all earth else, with a feel of heaven
Sole light that helps me through the year, thy sun's!
Having made her threat and her invocation, she falls to thinking of
those other men and women, and tells her Day about them, like the
child she is. They, she declares, are Asolo's Four Happiest Ones.
Each is, in the event, to be vitally influenced by her song, as she
passes at Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night; but this she knows not
at the time, nor ever knows.
The first Happy One is that superb great haughty Ottima, wife of
the old magnate, Luca, who owns the silk-mills. The New Year's morning
may be wet
. . . Can rain disturb
Her Sebald's homage? all the while thy rain
Beats fiercest on her shrub-house window-pane,
He will but press the closer, breathe more warm
Against her cheek: how should she mind the storm?
Here we learn what later we are very fully to be shownthat
Ottima's happiness is not in her husband.
The second Happy One is Phene, the bride that very day of Jules, the
young French sculptor. They are to come home at noon, and though noon,
like morning, should be wet
. . . what care bride and groom
Save for their dear selves? 'Tis their marriage day;
* * * * *
Hand clasping hand, within each breast would be
Sunbeams and pleasant weather, spite of thee.
The third Happy Oneor Happy Ones, for these two Pippa cannot
separateare Luigi, the young aristocrat-patriot, and his mother.
Evening is their time, for it is in the dusk that they commune inside
The lady and her child, unmatched, forsooth,
She in her age, as Luigi in his youth,
For true content . . .
Ayethough the evening should be obscured with mist, they
will not grieve
. . . The cheerful town, warm, close,
And safe, the sooner that thou art morose
Receives them . . .
That is all the difference bad weather can make to such a pair.
The Fourth Happy One is Monsignor, that holy and beloved priest,
who is expected this night from Rome,
To visit Asolo, his brother's home,
And say here masses proper to release
A soul from painwhat storm dares hurt his peace?
Calm would he pray, with his own thoughts to ward
Thy thunder off, nor want the angels' guard.
And now the great Day knows all that the Four Happy Ones possess,
besides its own blue solemn hours serenely flowingfor not rain at
morning can hurt Ottima with her Sebald, nor at noon the bridal pair,
nor in the evening Luigi and his mother, nor at night that holy and
beloved Bishop . . .
But Pippajust one such mischance would spoil
Her day that lightens the next twelvemonth's toil
At wearisome silk-winding, coil on coil.
+ + + + +
All at once she realises that in thus lingering over her toilet, she
is letting some of her precious time slip by for naught, and betakes
herself to washing her face and hands
Aha, you foolhardy sunbeam caught
With a single splash from my ewer!
You that would mock the best pursuer,
Was my basin over-deep?
One splash of water ruins you asleep,
And up, up, fleet your brilliant bits.
* * * * *
Now grow together on the ceiling!
That will task your wits.
Here we light on a trait in Browning of which Mr. Chesterton most
happily speakshis use of homely and practical images . . .
allusions, bordering on what many would call the commonplace, in which
he is indeed true to the actual and abiding spirit of love, and by
which he awakens in every man the memories of that immortal instant
when common and dead things had a meaning beyond the power of any
dictionary to utter. Mr. Chesterton, it is true, speaks of this
astonishing realism in relation to Browning's love-poetry, and
Pippa Passes is not a love-poem; but the insight of the comment is
no less admirable when we use it to enhance a passage such as this. Who
has not caught the sunbeam asleep in the mere washhand basin as water
was poured out for the mere daily toiletand felt that heartening
gratitude for the symbol of captured joy, which made the instant typic
and immortal? For these are the things that all may have, as Pippa had.
The ambushing of that beam and the ordering it, in her sweet wayward
. . . grow together on the ceiling.
That will task your wits!
is one of the most enchanting moments in this lovely poem. The
sunbeam settles by degrees (I wish that she had not been made to term
it, with all too Browningesque agility, the radiant cripple"), and
finally lights on her Martagon lily, which is a lily with purple
flowers. . . . Here again, for a moment, she ceases to be the lyrical
child, and turns into the Browning (to cite Mr. Chesterton again) to
whom Nature really meant such things as the basket of jelly-fish in
The Englishman in Italy, or the stomach-cyst in Mr. Sludge the
Mediumthe monstrosities and living mysteries of the sea. To me,
these lines on the purple lily are not only ugly and grotesquein that
kind of ugliness which was to Browning not in the least a necessary
evil, but a quite unnecessary luxury, to be enjoyed for its own
sakebut are monstrously (more than any other instance I can recall)
unsuited to the mind from which they are supposed to come.
New-blown and ruddy as St. Agnes' nipple,
Plump as the flesh-bunch on some Turk-bird's poll!
One such example is enough. We have once more been deprived of
Pippa, and got nothing really worth the possession in exchange.
But Pippa is quickly retrieved, with her gleeful claim that she
is the queen of this glowing blossom, for is it not she who has guarded
it from harm? So it may laugh through her window at the tantalised bee
(are there travelling bees in Italy on New-Year's Day? But this is
Midsummer Day!), may tease him as much as it likes, but must
. . . in midst of thy glee,
Love thy Queen, worship me!
There will be warrant for the worship
. . . For am I not, this day,
Whate'er I please? What shall I please to-day?
* * * * *
I may fancy all dayand it shall be so
That I taste of the pleasures, am called by the names,
Of the Happiest Four in our Asolo!
So, as she winds up her hair (we may fancy), Pippa plays the not yet
relinquished baby-game of Let's-pretend; but is grown-up in thisthat
she begins and ends with love, which children give and take
Some one shall love me, as the world calls love:
I am no less than Ottima, take warning!
The gardens and the great stone house above,
And other house for shrubs, all glass in front,
Are mine; where Sebald steals, as he is wont,
To court me, while old Luca yet reposes . . .
But this earliest pretending breaks down quickly. What, after all,
is the sum of those doings in the shrub-house? What would Pippa gain,
were she in truth great haughty Ottima? She would but give abundant
cause for prate. Ottima, bold, confident, and not fully aware, can
face that out, but Pippa knows, more closely than the woman rich and
proud can know,
How we talk in the little town below.
So the first dream is over.
Love, love, lovethere's better love, I know!
and the next pretending shall defy the scoffer; it shall be the
love of Jules and Phene
Why should I not be the bride as soon
Moreover, last night she had seen the stranger-girl arriveif you
call it seeing her, for it had been the merest momentary glimpse
. . . one flash
Of the pale snow-pure cheek and black bright tresses,
Blacker than all except the black eyelash;
I wonder she contrives those lids no dresses,
So strict was she the veil
Should cover close her pale
Pure cheeksa bride to look at and scarce touch,
Scarce touch, remember, Jules! For are not such
Used to be tended, flower-like, every feature,
As if one's breath would fray the lily of a creature?
* * * * *
How will she ever grant her Jules a bliss
So startling as her real first infant kiss?
Oh, nonot envy, this!
For, recalling the virgin dimness of that apparition, the slender
gamut of that exquisite reserve, the little work-girl has a moment's
pang of pity for herself, who has to trip along the streets all but
naked to the knee.
Whiteness in us were wonderful indeed,
she cries, who is pure gold if not pure whiteness, and in an instant
shows herself to be at any rate pure innocence. It could not be envy,
she argues, which pierced her as she thought of that immaculate
. . . for if you gave me
Leave to take or to refuse,
In earnest, do you think I'd choose
That sort of new love to enslave me?
Mine should have lapped me round from the beginning;
As little fear of losing it as winning:
Lovers grow cold, men learn to hate their wives,
And only parents' love can last our lives.
And she turns, thus rejecting the new love, to the Son and Mother,
gentle pair, who commune at evening in the turret: what prevents her
Let me be Luigi! If I only knew
What was my mother's facemy father, too!
For Pippa has never seen either, knows not who either was, nor
whence each came. And just because, thus ignorant, she cannot truly
figure to herself such love, she now rejects in turn this third
Nay, if you come to that, best love of all
and she will be Monsignor! To-night he will bless the home of his
dead brother, and God will bless in turn
That heart which beats, those eyes which mildly burn
With love for all men! I, to-night at least,
Would be that holy and beloved priest.
Now all the weighing of love with love is over; she has chosen, and
already has the proof of having chosen rightly, already seems to share
in God's love, for there comes back to memory an ancient New-Year's
All service ranks the same with God.
No one can work on this earth except as God wills
. . . God's puppets, best and worst,
Are we; there is no last or first.
And we must not talk of small events: none exceeds another in
greatness. . . .
The revelation has come to her. Not Ottima nor Phene, not Luigi and
his mother, not even the holy and beloved priest, ranks higher in God's
eyes than she, the little work-girl
I will pass each, and see their happiness,
And envy nonebeing just as great, no doubt,
Useful to men, and dear to God, as they!
* * * * *
And so, laughing at herself once more because she cares so
mightily for her one day, but still insistent that the sun shall
shine, she sketches her outing
Down the grass path grey with dew,
Under the pine-wood, blind with boughs,
Where the swallow never flew,
Nor yet cicala dared carouse,
No, dared carouse
But breaks off, breathless, in the singing for which through the
whole region she is famed, leaves the large mean airy chamber, enters
the little street of Asoloand begins her Day.
II. MORNING: OTTIMA
In the shrub-house on the hill-side are Ottima, the wife of Luca,
and her German lover, Sebald. He is wildly singing and drinking; to him
it still seems night. But Ottima sees a blood-red beam through the
shutter's chink, which proves that morning is come. Let him open the
lattice and see! He goes to open it, and no movement can he make but
vexes her, as he gropes his way where the tall, naked geraniums
straggle; pushes the lattice, which is behind a frame, so awkwardly
that a shower of dust falls on her; fumbles at the slide-bolt, till she
exclaims that of course it catches! At last he succeeds in getting
the window opened, and her only direct acknowledgment is to ask him if
she shall find him something else to spoil. But this imperious
petulance, curiously as it contrasts with the patience which, a little
later, she will display, is native to Ottima; she is not the victim of
her nerves this morning, though now she passes without transition to a
mood of sensuous cajolement
Kiss and be friends, my Sebald! Is't full morning?
Oh, don't speak, then!
but Sebald does speak, for in this aversion from the light of day
he recognises a trait of hers which long has troubled him.
With his first words we perceive that nerves are uppermost,
that the song and drink of the opening moment were bravadothat
Sebald, in short, is close on a breakdown. He turns upon her with a
gibe against her ever-shuttered windows. Though it is she who now has
ordered the unwelcome light to be admitted, he overlooks this in his
enervation, and says how, before ever they met, he had observed that
her windows were always blind till noon. The rest of the little world
of Asolo would be active in the day's employment; but her house would
ope no eye. And wisely, he adds bitterly
And wisely; you were plotting one thing there,
Nature, another outside. I looked up
Rough white wood shutters, rusty iron bars,
Silent as death, blind in a flood of light;
Oh, I remember!and the peasants laughed
And said, 'The old man sleeps with the young wife.'
This house was his, this chair, this windowhis.
The last line gives us the earliest hint of what has been done:
This house was his. . . . But Ottima, whether from scorn of
Sebald's mental disarray, or from genuine callousness, answers this
first moan of anguish not at all. She gazes from the open lattice: How
clear the morning isshe can see St. Mark's! Padua, blue Padua, is
plain enough, but where lies Vicenza? They shall find it, by following
her finger that points at Padua. . . .
Sebald cannot emulate this detachment. Morning seems to him a night
with a sun added; neither dew nor freshness can he feel; nothing is
altered with this dawnthe plant he bruised in getting through the
lattice last night droops as it did then, and still there shows his
elbow's mark on the dusty sill.
She flashes out one instant. Oh, shut the lattice, pray!
No: he will lean forth
. . . I cannot scent blood here,
Foul as the morn may be.
But his mood shifts quickly as her own
. . . There, shut the world out!
How do you feel now, Ottima? There, curse
The world and all outside!
and at last he faces her, literally and figuratively, with a wild
appeal to let the truth stand forth between them
. . . Let us throw off
This mask: how do you bear yourself? Let's out
With all of it.
But no. Her instinct is never to speak of it, while his drives him
to speak again and yet again, for only so, he feels, will words
cease to be more than words. His blood, for instance
. . . let those two words mean 'His blood';
And nothing more. Notice, I'll say them now:
'His blood.' . . .
She answers with phrases, the things that madden himshe speaks of
the deed, and at once he breaks out again. The deed, and
the event, and their passion's fruit
. . . the devil take such cant!
Say, once and always, Luca was a wittol,
I am his cut-throat, you are . . .
With extraordinary patience, though she there, wearily as it were,
interrupts him, Ottima again puts the question by, and offers him wine.
In doing this, she says something which sends a shiver down the
. . . Here's wine!
I brought it when we left the house above,
And glasses toowine of both sorts . . .
He takes no notice; he reiterates
But am I not his cut-throat? What are you?
Still with that amazing, that almost beautiful, patiencethe
quality of her defect of callousnessOttima leaves this also without
comment. She gazes now from the closed window, sees a Capuchin monk go
by, and makes some trivial remarks on his immobility at church; then
once more offers Sebald the flaskthe black (or, as we should say,
the red") wine.
Melodramatic and obvious in all he does and says, Sebald refuses the
red wine: No, the whitethe white!then drinks ironically to
Ottima's black eyes. He reminds her how he had sworn that the new year
should not rise on them the ancient shameful way, nor does it.
Do you remember last damned New Year's Day?
* * * * *
The characters now are poised for usin their national, as well as
their individual, traits. Ottima, an Italian, has the racial
matter-of-factness, callousness, and patience; Sebald, a German, the no
less characteristic sentimentality and emotionalism. Her attitude
remains unchanged until the critical moment; his shifts and sways with
every word and action. No sooner has he drunk the white wine than he
can brutally, for an instant, exult in the thought that Luca is not
alive to fondle Ottima before his face; but with her instant answer
(rejoicing as she does to retrieve the atmosphere which alone is native
to her sense)
. . . Do you
Fondle me, then! Who means to take your life?
a new mood seizes on him. They have one thing to guard against.
They must not make much of one another; there must be no more parade of
love than there was yesterday; for then it would seem as if he supposed
she needed proofs that he loves her
. . . yes, still love you, love you,
In spite of Luca and what's come to him.
That would be a sure sign that Luca's white sneering old
reproachful face was ever in their thoughts. Yes; they must even
quarrel at times, as if they
. . . still could lose each other, were not tied
By this . . .
but on her responding cry of Love! he shudders back again: Is
he so surely for ever hers?
She, in her stubborn patience, answers by a reminiscence of their
early days of love
. . . That May morning we two stole
Under the green ascent of sycamores
and, thinking to reason with him, asks if, that morning, they had
. . . come upon a thing like that,
but he interrupts with his old demand for the true word: she shall
not say a thing . . . and at last that marvellous patience gives way,
and in a superb flash of ironic rage she answers him
Then, Venus' body! had we come upon
My husband Luca Gaddi's murdered corpse
Within there, at his couch-foot, covered close
flinging him the words he has whimpered for in full measure,
that so at last she may attain to asking if, that morning, he would
have pored upon it? She knows he would not; then why pore upon it
now? For him, it is here, as much as in the deserted house; it is
. . . For me
(she goes on),
Now he is dead, I hate him worse: I hate . . .
Dare you stay here? I would go back and hold
His two dead hands, and say, 'I hate you worse,
And in her frenzy of reminiscent hatred and loathing for the
murdered man, she goes to Sebald and takes his hands, as if to
feign that other taking.
With the hysteria that has all along been growing in him, Sebald
flings her back
. . . Take your hands off mine;
'Tis the hot eveningoff! oh, morning, is it?
and she, restored to her cooler state by this repulse, and with a
perhaps unconscious moving to some revenge for it, points out, with a
profounder depth of callousness than she has yet displayed, that the
body at the house will have to be taken away and buried
Come in and help to carry
and with ghastly glee she adds
. . . We may sleep
Anywhere in the whole wide house to-night.
* * * * *
Now the dialogue sways between her deliberate sensuous allurement of
the man and his deepening horror at what they have done. She winds and
unwinds her hairwas it so that he once liked it? But he cannot look;
he would give her neck and her splendid shoulders, both those breasts
of yours, if this thing could be undone. It is not the mere
killingthough he would kill the world so Luca lives again, even to
fondle her as beforebut the thought that he has eaten the dead man's
bread, worn his clothes, felt his money swell my purse. . . . This
is the intolerable; there's a recompense in guilt
One must be venturous and fortunate:
What is one young for else?
and thus their passion is justified; but to have killed the man who
rescued him from starvation by letting him teach music to his wife . .
. . . He gave me
Life, nothing less
and if he did reproach the perfidy, and threaten and do more, had
he no right after allwhat was there to wonder at?
He sat by us at table quietly:
Why must you lean across till our cheeks touched?
In that base blaming of her alone we get the measure of Sebald as at
this hour he is. He turns upon her with a demand to know how she now
feels for him. Her answer, wherein the whole of her nature (as,
again, at this hour it is) reveals itselfcallous but courageous,
proud and passionate, cruel in its utter sensuality, yet with the force
and honesty which attend on all simplicity, good or evilher answer
strikes a truer note than does anything which Sebald yet has said, or
is to say. She replies that she loves him better now than ever
And best (look at me while I speak to you)
Best for the crime.
She is glad that the affectation of simplicity has fallen off
. . . this naked crime of ours
May not now be looked over: look it down.
And were not the joys worth it, great as it is? Would he give up the
Give up that noon I owned my love for you?
and as, in her impassioned revocation of the sultry summer's day,
she brings back to him the very sense of the sun-drenched garden, the
man at last is conquered back to memory. The antiphon of sensual love
begins, goes onthe places, aspects, things, sounds, scents, that
waited on their ecstasy, the fire and consuming force of hers, the
passive, no less lustful, receptivity of hisand culminates in a chant
to that crowning night in July (and the day of it too, Sebald!)
when all life seemed smothered up except their life, and, buried in
woods, while heaven's pillars seemed o'erbowed with heat, they lay
quiescent, till the storm came
Swift ran the searching tempest overhead;
And ever and anon some bright white shaft
Burned thro' the pine-tree roof, here burned and there,
As if God's messenger thro' the close wood screen
Plunged and replunged his weapon at a venture,
Feeling for guilty thee and me; then broke
The thunder like a whole sea overhead . . .
while she, in a frenzy of passion
. . . stretched myself upon you, hands
To hands, my mouth to your hot mouth, and shook
All my locks loose, and covered you with them
You, Sebald, the same you!
But the flame of her is scorching the feeble lover; feebly he
pleads, resists, begs pardon for the harsh words he has given her,
yields, struggles . . . yields again at last, for hers is all the force
of body and of soul: it is his part to be consumed in her
I kiss you now, dear Ottima, now and now!
This way? Will you forgive mebe once more
My great queen?
Glorious in her victory, she demands that the hair which she had
loosed in the moment of recalling their wild joys he now shall bind
thrice about her brow
Crown me your queen, your spirit's arbitress,
Magnificent in sin. Say that!
So she bids him; so he crowns her
My great white queen, my spirit's arbitress,
Magnificent . . .
but ere the exacted phrase is said, there sounds without the voice
of a girl singing.
The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in his heaven
All's right with the world!
* * * * *
Like her own lark on the wing, she has dropped this song to earth,
unknowing and unheeding where its beauty shall alight; it is the
impulse of her glad sweet heart to carol out its joyno more. She is
passing the great house of the First Happy One, so soon rejected in her
game of make-believe! If now she could know what part the dream-Pippa
might have taken on herself. . . . But she does not know, and,
lingering for a moment by the step, she bends to pick a pansy-blossom.
The pair in the shrub-house have been arrested in full tide of
passion by her song. It strikes on Sebald with the force of a warning
God's in his heaven! Do you hear that? Who spoke?
You, you spoke!
but she, contemptuously
. . . Oh, that little ragged girl!
She must have rested on the step: we give them
But this one holiday the whole year round.
Did you ever see our silk-millstheir inside?
There are ten silk-mills now belong to you!
Enervated by the interruption, she calls sharply to the singer to be
quietbut Pippa does not hear, and Ottima then orders Sebald to call,
for his voice will be sure to carry.
No: her hour is past. He is ruled now by that voice from heaven.
Terribly he turns upon her
Go, get your clothes ondress those shoulders!
. . . Wipe off that paint! I hate you
and as she flashes back her Miserable! his hideous repulse sinks
to a yet more hideous contemplation of her
My God, and she is emptied of it now!
Outright now!how miraculously gone
All of the gracehad she not strange grace once?
Why, the blank cheek hangs listless as it likes,
No purpose holds the features up together,
Only the cloven brow and puckered chin
Stay in their places: and the very hair
That seemed to have a sort of life in it,
Drops, a dead web!
Poignant in its authenticity is her sole, piteous answer
. . . Speak to menot of me!
But he relentlessly pursues the dread analysis of baffled passion's
That round great full-orbed face, where not an angle
Broke the delicious indolenceall broken!
Once more that cry breaks from her
To menot of me!
but soon the natural anger against his insolence possesses her; she
whelms him with a torrent of recrimination. Coward and ingrate he is,
beggar, her slave
. . . a fawning, cringing lie,
A lie that walks and eats and drinks!
while he, as in some horrible trance, continues his cold
. . . My God!
Those morbid olive faultless shoulder-blades
I should have known there was no blood beneath!
For though the heaven-song have pierced him, not yet is Sebald
reborn, not yet can aught of generosity involve him. Still he speaks
of her, not to her, deaf in the old selfishness and baseness. He can
cry, amid his vivid recognition of another's guilt, that the little
peasant's voice has righted all againcan be sure that he
knows which is better, vice or virtue, purity or lust, nature or
trick, and in the high nobility of such repentance as flings the worst
of blame upon the other one, will grant himself lost, it is true, but
proud to feel such torments, to pay the price of his deed (ready
with phrases now, he also!), as, poor weakling, he stabs himself,
leaving his final word to her who had been for him all that she as yet
knew how to be, in
I hate, hatecurse you! God's in his heaven!
* * * * *
Now, at this crisis, we are fully shown what, in despite of other
commentators,[49:1] I am convinced that Browning meant us to perceive
from the firstthat Ottima's is the nobler spirit of the two. Her
lover has stabbed himself, but she, not yet realising it, flings
herself upon him, wrests the dagger
. . . Me!
Me! no, no, Sebald, not yourselfkill me!
Mine is the whole crime. Do but kill methen
Yourselfthenpresentlyfirst hear me speak!
I always meant to kill myselfwait, you!
Lean on my breastnot as a breast; don't love me
The more because you lean on me, my own
Heart's Sebald! There, there, both deaths presently!
* * * * *
Here at last is the whole woman. Lean on my breastnot as a
breast; Mine is the whole crime; I always meant to kill
myselfwait, you! She will relinquish even her sense of womanhood; no
word of blame for him; she would die, that he might live forgetting
her, but it is too late for that, so There, there, both deaths
presently. . . . And now let us read again the lamentable dying words
of Sebald. It is even more than I have said: not only are we meant to
understand that Ottima's is the nobler spirit, but (I think) that not
alone the passing of Pippa with her song has drawn this wealth of
beauty from the broken woman's soul. Always it was there; it needed but
the loved one's need to pour itself before him. There, there, both
deaths presentlyand in the dying, each is again revealed. He, all
My brain is drowned nowquite drowned: all I
and so on; while her sole utterance is
Not meto him, O God, be merciful!
Pippa's song has, doubtlessly, saved them both, but Sebald as by
direct intervention, Ottima as by the revelation of her truest self.
Again, and yet again and again, we shall find in Browning this passion
for the courage of the deed; and we shall find that courage oftenest
assigned to women. For him, it was wellnigh the cardinal virtue to be
bravenot always, as in Ottima, by the help of a native callousness,
but assuredly always, as in her and in the far dearer women, by the
help of an instinctive love for truth
Truth is the strong thinglet man's life be true!
Ottima's and Sebald's lives have not been true; but she, who can
accept the retribution and feel no faintest impulse to blame and wound
her lovershe can rise, must rise, to heights forbidden the
lame wings of him who, in his anguish, can turn and strike the
fellow-creature who has but partnered him in sin. Only Pippa, passing,
could in that hour save Sebald; but by the tenderness which underlay
her fierce and lustful passion, and which, in any later relation, some
other need of the man must infallibly have called forth, Ottima would,
I believe, without Pippa have saved herself. Direct intervention
: not every soul needs that. Andwhether it be intentional or not, I
feel unable to decide, nor does it lose, but rather gain, in interest,
if it be unintentionalone of the most remarkable things in this
remarkable artistic experiment, this drama in which the scenes have in
common only the appearance of one figure, is that by each of the Four
Passings of Pippa, a man's is the soul rescued.
III. NOON: PHENE
A group of art-students is assembled at Orcana, opposite the house
of Jules, a young French sculptor, who to-day at noon brings home his
bridethat second Happiest One, the pale and shrouded beauty whom
Pippa had seen alight at Asolo, and had envied for her immaculate
girlhood. Very eagerly the youths are awaiting this arrival; there are
seven, including Schramm, the pipe-smoking mystic, and Gottlieb, a
new-comer to the group, who hears the reason for their excitement, and
tender-hearted and imaginative as he is, provides the human element
amid the theorising of Schramm, the flippancy of most of the rest, and
the fiendish malice of the painter, Lutwyche, who has a grudge against
Jules, because Jules (he has been told) had described him and his
intimates as dissolute, brutalised, heartless bunglers. Very soon
after the bridal pair shall have alighted and gone in (so Lutwyche
tells Gottlieb), something remarkable will happen; it is this which
they are awaitingLutwyche, as the moving spirit, close under the
window of the studio, that he may lose no word of the anticipated
drama. But they must all keep well within call; everybody may be
At noon the married pair arrivethe bridegroom radiant, his hair
half in storm and half in calmpatted down over the left templelike
a frothy cup one blows on to cool it; and the same old blouse that he
murders the marble in.[52:1] The bride ishow magnificently pale!
Most of these young men have seen her before, and always it has been
her pallor which has struck them, as it struck Pippa on seeing her
alight at Asolo. She is a Greek girl from Malamocco,[52:2] fourteen
years old at most, white and quiet as an apparition, with hair like
sea-moss; her name is Phene, which, as Lutwyche explains, means
sea-eagle. . . . How magnificently paleand how Jules gazes on her!
To Gottlieb that gaze of the young, rapturous husband is torture.
Pitypity! he exclaimsbut he alone of them all is moved to this:
Schramm, ever ready with his theories of mysticism and beauty and the
immortal idealism of the soul, is unconcerned with practicetheories
and his pipe bound all for Schramm; while Lutwyche is close-set as any
predatory beast upon his prey; and the rank and file are but the
foolish, heartless boys of all time, all place, the students, mere
and transient, who may turn into decent men as they grow older.
Well, they pass in, the bridegroom and his snowflake bride, and we
pass in with thembut not, like them, forget the group that lurked and
loitered about the house as they arrived.
+ + + + +
The girl is silent as she is pale, and she is so pale that the first
words her husband speaks are as the utterance of a fear awakened by her
Do not die, Phene! I am yours now, you
Are mine now; let fate reach me how she likes,
If you'll not die: so, never die!
He leads her to the one seat in his workroom, then bends over her in
worshipping love, while she, still speechless, lifts her white face
slowly to him. He lays his own upon it for an instant, then draws back
to gaze again, while she still looks into his eyes, until he feels that
her soul is drawing his to such communion that
. . . I could
Change into you, beloved! You by me,
And I by you; this is your hand in mine,
And side by side we sit: all's true. Thank God!
But her silence is unbroken, and now he needs her voice
I have spoken: speak you!
yet though he thus claims her utterance, his own bliss drives him
onward in eager speech. O my life to comethe life with her . . .
and yet, how shall he work!
Will my mere fancies live near you, their truth
The live truth, passing and re-passing me,
Sitting beside me?
Still she is silent; he cries again Now speak!but in a new
access of joy accepts again that silence, for she must see the
hiding-place he had contrived for her lettersin the fold of his
Psyche's robe, next her skin; and now, which of them all will drop
Ahthis that swam down like a first moonbeam
Into my world!
In his gladness he turns to her with that first treasure in his
hand. She is not looking. . . . But there is nothing strange in
thatall the rest is new to her; naturally she is more interested in
the new things, and adoringly he watches her as
. . . Again those eyes complete
Their melancholy survey, sweet and slow,
Of all my room holds; to return and rest
On me, with pity, yet some wonder too . . .
But pity and wonder are natural in heris she not an angel from
heaven? Yet he would bring her a little closer to the earth she now
What gaze you at? Those? Books I told you of;
Let your first word to me rejoice them too.
Eagerly he displays them, but soon reproves himself: he has shown
first a tiny Greek volume, and of course Homer's should be the Greek
First breathed me from the lips of my Greek girl!
So out comes the Odyssey, and a flower finds the place; he begins to
read . . . but she responds not, again the dark deep eyes are off upon
their search. Well, if the books were not its goal, the statues must
beand they will surely bring the word he increasingly longs
for. That of the Almaign Kaiser, one day to be cast in bronze, is not
worth lingering at in its present stage, but thisthis? She
will recognise this of Hippolyta
Naked upon her bright Numidian horse,
for this is an imagined likeness, before he saw her, of herself. But
no, it is unrecognised; so they move to the next, which she cannot
mistake, for was it not done by her command? She had said he was to
carve, against she came, this Greek, feasting in Athens, as our
fashion was, and she had given him many details, and he had laboured
ardently to express her thought. . . . But still no word from herno
least, least word; and, tenderly, at last he reproaches her
But you must say a 'well' to thatsay 'well'!
for alarm is growing in him, though he strives to think it only
fantasy; she gazes too like his marble, she is too like marble in her
silencemarble is indeed to him his very life's-stuff, but now he
has found the real flesh Phene . . . and as he rhapsodises a while,
hardly able to sever this breathing vision from the wonders of his
glowing stone, he turns to her afresh and beholds her whiter than
before, her eyes more wide and dark, and the first fear seizes him
Ah, you will dieI knew that you would die!
and after that, there falls a long silence.
Then she speaks. Now the end's comingthat is what she says for
her first bridal words.
Now the end's coming: to be sure it must
Have ended some time!
and while he listens in the silence dreadfully transferred from
her to him, the tale of Lutwyche's revenge is told at last.
We know it before Phene speaks, for Lutwyche, telling Gottlieb, has
told us; but Jules must glean it from her puzzled, broken utterance,
filled with allusions that mean nothing until semi-comprehension comes
through the sighs of tortured soul and heart from her who still is, as
it were, in a trance. And this dream-like state causes her, now and
then, to say the wrong wordsthe words he spokeinstead of
those which had cost such pains to learn . . .
This is the story she tries to tell. Lutwyche had hated Jules for
long. There were many reasons, but the chief was that reported judgment
of the crowd of us, as dissolute, brutalised, heartless bunglers.
Greatly, and above all else, had Jules despised their dissoluteness:
how could they be other than the poor devils they were, with those
debasing habits which they cherished? He could never, had said
Lutwyche to Gottlieb, be supercilious enough on that matter. . . .
He was not to wallow in the mire: he would wait, and love
only at the proper time, and meanwhile put up with statuary. So
Lutwyche had resolved that precisely on that matter should his malice
concentrate. He happened to hear of a young Greek girl at Malamocco,
white and quiet as an apparition, and fourteen years old at farthest.
She was said to be a daughter of the hag Nataliasaid, that is, by
the hag herself to be so, but Natalia was, in plain words, a procuress.
We selected, said Lutwyche, this girl as the heroine of our jest;
and he and his gang set to work at once. Jules received, first, a
mysterious perfumed letter from somebody who had seen his work at the
Academy and profoundly admired it: she would make herself known to him
ere long. . . . Paolina, my little friend of the Fenice, who could
transcribe divinely, had copied this letterthe first moonbeam!for
Lutwyche; and she copied many more for him, the letters which Psyche,
at the studio, was to keep in the fold of her robe.
In his very earliest answer, Jules had proposed marriage to the
unknown writer. . . . How they had laughed! But Gottlieb, hearing,
could not laugh. I say, cried he, you wipe off the very dew of his
youth. Schramm, however, had had his pipe forcibly taken from his
mouth, and then had pronounced that nothing worth keeping is ever lost
in this world; so, Gottlieb silenced, Lutwyche went on with the story.
The letters had gone to Jules, and the answers had come from him, two,
three times a day; Lutwyche himself had concocted nearly all the
mysterious lady's, which had said she was in thrall to relatives, that
secrecy must be observedin short, that Jules must wed her on trust,
and only speak to her when they were indissolubly united.
But that, when accomplished, was not the whole of Lutwyche's
revenge, nor of his activity. To get the full savour of his malice, the
victim must be undeceived in such a way that there could be no
mistaking the hand which had struck; and this could best be achieved by
writing a copy of verses which should reveal their author at the end.
Nor should these be given Phene to hand Jules, for so Lutwyche would
lose the delicious actual instant of the revelation. No; they should be
taught her, line by line and word by word (since she could not read),
and taught her by the hag Natalia, that not a subtle pang be spared the
strutting stone-squarer. Thus, listening beneath the window, Lutwyche
could enjoy each word, each moan, and when Jules should burst out on
them in a fury (but he must not be suffered to hurt his bride: she was
too valuable a model), they would all declare, with one voice, that
this was their revenge for his insults, they would shout their great
shout of laughter; and, next day, Jules would depart aloneoh, alone
indubitably!for Rome and Florence, and they would be quits with him
and his coxcombry.
* * * * *
That is the plan, but Phene does not know it. All she knows is that
Natalia said that harm would come unless she spoke their lesson to the
end. Yet, despite this threat, when Jules has fallen silent in his
terror at her whitening cheek and still dilating eyes, she feels at
first that that foolish speech need not be spoken. She has forgotten
half of it; she does not care now for Natalia or any of them; above
all, she wants to stay where Jules' voice has lifted her, by just
letting it go on. But can it? she asks piteouslyfor with that
transferring of silence a change had come; the music once let fall,
even Jules does not seem able to take up its life againno, or you
would! . . . So trust, we see, is born in her: if Jules could do what
she desires, Phene knows he would. But since he cannot, they'll stay as
they areabove the world.
Oh, youwhat are you? cries the child, who never till to-day has
heard such words or seen such looks as his. But she has heard other
words, seen other looks
The same smile girls like me are used to bear,
But never men, men cannot stoop so low . . .
Yet, watching those friends of Jules who came with the lesson she
was to learn, the strangest thing of all had been to see how, speaking
of him, they had used that smile
But still Natalia said they were your friends,
And they assented though they smiled the more,
And all came round methat thin Englishman
With light lank hair, seemed leader of the rest;
He held a paper
and from that paper he read what Phene had got by heart.
But oh, if she need not say it! if she could look up for ever to
those eyes, as now Jules lets her!
. . . I believe all sin,
All memory of wrong done, suffering borne,
Would drop down, low and lower, to the earth
Whence all that's low comes, and there touch and stay
Never to overtake the rest of me,
All that, unspotted, reaches up to you,
Drawn by those eyes!
But even as she gazes, she sees that the eyes are
alteringaltered! She knows not why, she never has understood this
sudden, wondrous happening of her marriage, but the eyes to which she
trusts are alteringalteredand what can she do? . . . With
heartrending pathos, what she does is to clutch at his words to her,
the music which had lifted her, and now perhaps will lift him too by
its mere sound. I love you, love . . . but what does love mean? She
knows not, and her music is but ignorant echo; if she did know, she
could prevent this change, but the change is not prevented, so it
cannot have been just the wordsit must have been in the tone that his
power lay to lift her, and that she cannot find, not
understanding. So in the desperate need to see and hear him as he was
at first, she turns to her last device
. . . Or stay! I will repeat
Their speech, if that contents you. Only change
and thus to him, but half aware as yet, sure only that she is not
the dream-lady from afar, Phene speaks the words that Lutwyche wrote,
and now waits outside to hear.
I am a painter who cannot paint;
In my life, a devil rather than saint;
In my brain, as poor a creature too;
No end to all I cannot do!
Yet do one thing at least I can
Love a man or hate a man
Supremely: thus my lore began . . .
The timid voice goes on, saying the lines by rote as Phene had
learned themand hard indeed they must have been to learn! For, as
Lutwyche had told his friends, it must be something slow, involved,
and mystical, it must hold Jules long in doubt, and lure him on until
Where he seeks sweetness' soul, he may findthis!
And truly it is so involved, that, in the lessons at Natalia's, it
had been thought well to tutor Phene in the probable interruptions from
her audience of one. There was an allusion to the peerless bride with
her black eyes, and here Jules was almost certain to break in,
saying that assuredly the bride was Phene herself, and so, could she
not tell him what it all meant?
And I am to go on without a word.
She goes onon to the analysis, utterly incomprehensible to her, of
Lutwyche's plan for intertwining love and hate; and with every word the
malice deepens, becomes directer in its address. If any one should ask
this painter who can hate supremely, how his hate can grin
through Love's rose-braided mask, and how, hating another and
having sought, long and painfully, to reach his victim's heart and
pierce to the quick of it, he might chance to have succeeded in that
Ask this, my Jules, and be answered straight,
By thy bridehow the painter Lutwyche can hate!
* * * * *
Phene has said her lesson, but it too has failed. He still is
changed. He is not even thinking of her as she ceases. The name upon
his lips is Lutwyche, not her own. He mutters of Lutwyche and all of
them, and Venice; yes, them he will meet at Venice, and it will be
their turn. But with that wordmeethe remembers her; he speaks to
. . . You I shall not meet:
If I dreamed, saying this would wake me.
Now Phene is again the silent one. We figure to ourselves the dark
bent head, the eyes that dare no more look up, the dreadful
acquiescence as he gives her money. So many others had done that; she
had not thought he would, but she has never understood, and if
to give her money is his pleasurewhy, she must take it, as she had
taken that of the others. But he goes on. He speaks of selling all his
casts and books and medals, that the produce may keep her out of
Natalia's clutches; and if he survives the meeting with the gang in
Venice, there is just one hope, for dimly she hears him say
We might meet somewhere, since the world is wide . . .
Just that one vague, far hope, and for her how wide the world
is, how very hard to compass! But she stands silent, in her well-learnt
patience; and he is about to speak again, when suddenly from outside a
girl's voice is heard, singing.
Give her but a least excuse to love me!
Howcan this arm establish her above me,
If fortune fixed her as my lady there,
There already, to eternally reprove me?
It is the song the peasants sing of Kate the Queen"[64:1] and the
page who loved her, and pined for the grace of her so far above his
power of doing good to
'She never could be wronged, be poor,' he sighed,
'Need him to help her!' . . .
Pippa, going back towards Asolo, carols it out as she passes; and
Jules listens to the end. It was bitter for the page to know that his
lady was above all need of him; yet men are wont to love so. But why
should they always choose the page's part? He had not, in his
dreams of love. . . . And all at once, as he vaguely ponders the song,
the deep mysterious import of its sounding in this hour dawns on him.
Here is a woman with utter need of me
I find myself queen here, it seems! How strange!
He turns and looks again at the white, quiet child who stands
awaiting her dismissal. Her soul is on her silent lips
Look at the woman here with the new soul . . .
This new soul is mine!
And then, musing aloud, he comes upon the truth of it
Scatter all this, my Phenethis mad dream!
What's the whole world except our love, my own!
To-night (he told her so, did he not?), aye, even before to-night,
they will travel for her land, some isle with the sea's silence on
it; but first he must break up these paltry attempts of his, that he
may begin art, as well as life, afresh. . . .
Some unsuspected isle in the far seas!
* * * * *
And you are ever by me while I gaze,
Are in my arms as nowas nowas now!
Some unsuspected isle in the far seas!
Some unsuspected isle in far-off seas!
That is what Lutwyche, under the window, hears for his revenge.
In this Passing of Pippa, silence and song have met and mingled into
one another, for Phene is silence, as Pippa is song. Phene will speak
more when Jules and she are in their isle togetherbut never will she
speak much: she is silence. Her need of him indeed was
uttershe had no soul until he touched her into life: it is the very
Pygmalion and Galatea. But Jules' soul, no less, had needed Pippa's
song to waken to its truest self: once more the man is the one moved by
the direct intervention. Not that Phene, like Ottima, could have saved
herself; there was no self to saveshe had that awful, piercing
selflessness of the used flesh and ignored soul. If Pippa had not
passed, if Jules had gone, leaving money in her hand . . . I think that
Phene would have killed herselflike Ottima, yet how unlike! For Phene
(but one step upon the way) would have died for her own self's sake
only, because till now she had never known it, but in that strangest,
dreadfullest, that least, most, sacred of offerings-up, had lived for
othersthe others of the smile which girls like her are used to bear,
But never men, men cannot stoop so low.
Were ever scorn and irony more blasting, was ever pity more
profound, than in that line which Browning sets in the mouth of
IV. EVENING; NIGHT: THE ENDING OF THE DAY
Our interest now centres again upon Pippapartly because the
Evening and Night episodes are little touched by other feminine
influence, but also (and far more significantly) because the dramatic
aspect of the work here loses nearly all of its peculiar beauty. The
story, till now so slight yet so consummately sufficient, henceforth is
involved with plotthat natural enemy of spontaneity and unity, and
here most eminently successful in blighting both. Indeed, the lovely
simplicity of the earlier plan seems actually to aid the foe in the
work of destruction, by cutting, as it were, the poem into two or even
three divisions: first, the purely lyric portionsthose at the
beginning and the endwhere Pippa is alone in her room; second, the
Morning and Noon episodes, where the dramas are absolutely unconnected
with the passing girl; third, these Evening and Night scenes, where, on
the contrary, all is forced into more or less direct relation with the
little figure whose most exquisite magic has hitherto resided in the
fusion of her complete personal loneliness with her potent influence
upon the lives and characters of those who hear her sing.
Mr. Chesterton claims to have been the first to point out this
gross falsification of the whole beauty of Pippa Passesa
glaring instance, as he says, of the definite literary blunders which
Browning could make. But though that searching criticism were earliest
in declaring this, I think that few of us can have read the poem
without being vaguely and discomfortably aware of it. From the moment
of the direct introduction of Bluphocks[68:1] (whose very name, with
its dull and pointless punning, is an offence), that sense of
over-ingenuity, of tiresomeness, which is the prime stumbling-block
to whole-hearted Browning worship, becomes perceptible, and acts
increasingly upon our nerves until the Day is over, and Pippa re-enters
her large, mean, airy chamber.
+ + + + +
On her return to Asolo from Orcana, she passes the ruined turret
wherein Luigi and his motherthose Third Happiest Ones whom in her
thoughts she had not been able to separateare wont to talk at
evening. Some of the Austrian police are loitering near, and with them
is an Englishman, lusty, blue-eyed, florid-complexionedone
Bluphocks, who is on the watch in a double capacity. He is to point out
Luigi to the police, in whose pay he is, and to make acquaintance with
Pippa in return for money already given by a private employerfor
Bluphocks is the creature of anyone's purse.
As Pippa reaches the turret, a thought of days long, long before it
fell to ruin makes her choose from her store of songs that which tells
A king lived long ago,
In the morning of the world
When earth was nigher heaven than now;
and coming to be very old, was so serene in his sleepy mood, so
safe from all decrepitude, and so beloved of the gods
That, having lived thus long, there seemed
No need the king should ever die.
Her clear note penetrates to the spot where Luigi and his mother are
talking, as so often before. He is bound this night for Vienna, there
to kill the hated Emperor of Austria, who holds his Italy in thrall;
for Luigi is a Carbonarist, and has been chosen for this lesser task
by his leaders. His mother is urging him not to go. First she had tried
the direct appeal, but this had failed; then argument, but this failed
too; and as she stood at end of her own resources, the one hope that
remained was her son's delight in livingthat sense of the beauty and
glory of the world which was so strong in him that he felt
God must be glad one loves his world so much.
This joy breaks out at each turn of the mother's discourse. While
Luigi is striving to make plain to her the grounds for killing, he
thinks to hear the cuckoo, and forgets all his array of facts; for
April and June are coming! The mother seizes at once on this, and joins
to it a still more powerful persuasion. In June, not only summer's
loveliness, but Chiara, the girl he is to marry, is coming: she who
gazes at the stars as he doesand how her blue eyes lift to them
As if life were one long and sweet surprise!
In June she comesand with the reiteration, Luigi falters, for he
recollects that in this June they were to see together the Titian at
Treviso. . . . His mother has almost won, when a low noise outside,
which Luigi has first mistaken for the cuckoo, next for the renowned
echo in the turret . . . that low noise is heard againthe voice of
And, listening to the song which tells what kings were in the
morning of the world, Luigi cries
No need that sort of king should ever die!
And she begins again
Among the rocks his city was:
Before his palace, in the sun,
He sat to see his people pass,
And judge them every one
and as she tells the manner of his judging, Luigi again exclaims:
That king should still judge, sitting in the sun!
But the song goes on
His councillors, to left and right,
Looked anxious upbut no surprise
Disturbed the king's old smiling eyes,
Where the very blue had turned to white;
and those eyes kept their tranquillity even when, as legend tells, a
Python one day scared the breathless city, but coming, with forked
tongue and eyes on flame, to where the king sat, and seeing the sweet
venerable goodness of him, did not dare
Approach that threshold in the sun,
Assault the old king smiling there . . .
Such grace had kings when the world begun!
And such grace have they, now that the world ends!
cries Luigi bitterly, for at Vienna the Python is the king,
and brave men lurk in corners lest they fall his prey. . . . He
hesitates no more
'Tis God's voice calls: how could I stay? Farewell!
and rushes from the turret, resolute for Vienna.
By going he escapes the police, for it had been decided that if he
stayed at Asolo that night he should be arrested at once. He still may
lose his life, for he will try to kill the Emperor; but he will then
have been true to his deepest convictionsand thus Pippa's passing,
Pippa's song, have for the third time helped a soul to know itself.
+ + + + +
Unwitting as before, she goes on to the house near the Duomo Santa
Maria, where the Fourth Happiest One, the Monsignor of her final
choice, that holy and beloved priest, is to stay to-night. And now,
for the first time, we are to see her, though only for the barest
instant, come into actual contact with some fellow-creatures.
Four poor girls are sitting on the steps of the Santa Maria. We
hear them talk with one another before Pippa reaches them: they are
playing a wishing game, originated by one who, watching the swallows
fly towards Venice, yearns for their wings. She is not long from the
country; her dreams are still of new milk and apples, and
. . . the farm among
The cherry-orchards, and how April snowed
White blossom on her as she ran.
So says one of her comrades scornfully, and tells her how of course
the home-folk have been careful to blot out all memories of one who has
come to the town to lead the life she leads. She may be sure the
old people have rubbed out the mark showing how tall she was on the
door, and have
Twisted her starling's neck, broken his cage,
Made a dung-hill of her garden!
She acquiesces mournfully, but loses herself again in memories: of
her fig-tree that curled out of the cottage wall
They called it mine, I have forgotten why
and the noise the wasps made, eating the long papers that were
strung there to keep off birds in fruit-time. . . . As she murmurs thus
to herself, her mouth twitches, and the same girl who had laughed
before, laughs now again: Would I be such a fool!and tells her
wish. The country-goose wants milk and apples, and another girl could
think of nothing better than to wish the sunset would finish; but
Zanze has a real desire, something worth talking about! It is that
somebody she knows, somebody greyer and older than her grandfather,
would give her the same treat he gave last week
Feeding me on his knee with fig-peckers,
Lampreys and red Breganze wine;
while she had stained her fingers red by
Dipping them in the wine to write bad words with
On the bright table: how he laughed!
And as she recalls that night, she sees a burnished beetle on the
ground before her, sparkling along the dust as it makes its slow way to
a tuft of maize, and puts out her foot and kills it. The country girl
recalls a superstition connected with these bright beetlesthat if one
was killed, the sun, his friend up there, would not shine for two
days. They said it in her country when she was young; and one of the
others scoffs at the phrase, but looking at her, exclaims that indeed
she is no longer young: how thin her plump arms have gotdoes
Cecco beat her still? But Cecco doesn't matter, nor the loss of her
young freshness, so long as she keeps her curious hair
I wish they'd find a way to dye our hair
Your colour . . .
. . . The men say they are sick of black.
A girl who now speaks for the first and last time retorts upon this
one that very likely the men are sick of her hair, and does
she pretend that she has tasted lampreys and ortolans . . . but
in the midst of this new speaker's railing, the girl with wine-stained
Why there! Is not that Pippa
We are to talk to, under the windowquick. . .
The country girl thinks that if it were Pippa, she would be singing,
as they had been told.
Oh, you sing first, retorts the other
Then if she listens and comes close . . . I'll tell you,
Sing that song the young English noble made
Who took you for the purest of the pure,
And meant to leave the world for youwhat fun!
So, not the country girl, but she whose black hair discontents her,
sings, and Pippa listens and comes close, for the song has words as
sweet as any of her own . . . and the red-fingered one calls to her to
come closer still, they won't eat herwhy, she seems to be the very
person the great rich handsome Englishman has fallen so violently in
love with. She shall hear all about it; and on the steps of the church
Pippa is told by this creature, Zanze, how a foreigner, with blue eyes
and thick rings of raw silk-coloured hair, had gone to the mills at
Asolo a month ago and fallen in love with Pippa. Pippa, however, will
not keep him in love with her, unless she takes more care of her
personal appearanceshe must pare her nails pearlwise, and buy shoes
less like canoes for her small feet; then she may hope to
feast upon lampreys and drink Breganze, as Zanze does. . . . And now
Pippa sings one of her songs, and it might have been chosen expressly
to please the country girl. It begins
Overhead the tree-tops meet,
Flowers and grass spring 'neath our feet;
There was nought above me, and nought below
My childhood had not learned to know
a little story of an innocent girl's way of making out for herself
only the sweetness of the world, the majesty of the heavens . . . and
just when all seemed on the verge of growing clear, and out of the
soft fifty changes of the moon, no unfamiliar face could look, the
sweet life was cut short
Suddenly God took me . . .
As Pippa sang those words, she passed on. She had heard enough of
the four girls' talk, even were they not now interrupted by a sudden
clatter inside Monsignor's housea sound of calling, of quick heavy
feet, of cries and the flinging down of a man, and then a noise as of
dragging a bound prisoner out. . . . Monsignor appeared for an instant
at the window as she, coming from the Duomo, passed his house. His
aspect disappointed her
No mere mortal has a right
To carry that exalted air;
Best people are not angels quite . . .
and with that one look at him, she passed on to Asolo.
+ + + + +
What was the noise that broke out as Pippa finished her song? The
loud call which came first was Monsignor's, summoning his guards from
an outer chamber to gag and bind his steward. This steward had been
supping alone with the Bishop, who had come not only (as Pippa said in
the morning, choosing him as the ideal person for her pretending) to
bless the home of his dead brother, but also to take possession of
that brother's estate. . . . He knows the steward to be a rascal; but
he himself, the holy and beloved priest, is a good deal of a rascal
too; he has connived at his brother's death, and had connived at his
mode of life. Now the steward is preparing to blackmail the Bishop, as
he had blackmailed the Bishop's brother. Both are aware that the dead
man had a child; Monsignor believes that this child was murdered by the
steward at the instigation of a younger brother, who wished to succeed
to the estates. He urges the man to confess; otherwise he shall be
arrested by Monsignor's people who are in the outer room. Did you
throttle or stab my brother's infantcome now?[77:1]
But the steward has yet another card to play; moreover, so many
enemies now surround him that his life is probably forfeited anyhow, so
he will tell the truth. And the truth is that the child was not
murdered by him or anyone else. The childthe girlis close at hand;
he sees her every day, he saw her this morning. Now, shall he make away
with her for Monsignor? Not the stupid obvious sort of killing . . .
of course there is to be no killing; but at Rome the courtesans perish
off every three years, and he can entice her thither, has begun
operations alreadymaking use of a certain Bluphocks, an Englishman.
Monsignor will not formally assent, of course . . . but will he
give the steward time to cross the Alps? The girl is but a little
black-eyed pretty singing Felippa,[77:2] gay silk-winding girl; some
women are to pass off Bluphocks as a somebody, and once Pippa
entangledit will be best accomplished through her singing. . . .
Well, Monsignor has listened; Monsignor conceivesis it a bargain?
It was precisely as the steward asked that question that Pippa
finished her song of a maiden's lesson and its ending, and Monsignor
leaped up and shouted to his guards. . . . The singing by which little
black-eyed pretty Felippa was to be entangled had rescued instead the
soul of her Fourth Happiest One from this deep infamy.
+ + + + +
The great Day is over. Pippa, back in her room, finds horribly
uppermost among her memories the talk of those lamentable four girls.
It had spoilt the sweetness of her day; it spoils now, for a while, her
own sweetness. Her comments on it have none of the wayward charm of her
morning fancies, for Pippa is very humanshe can envy and decry,
swinging loose from the central steadiness of her nature like many
another of us, obsessed like her by some vile happening of the hours.
Just as we might find our whole remembrance of a festival thus overlaid
by malice and ugliness, she finds it; she can only think how
pert that girl was, and how glad she is not to be like her. Yet, all
the same, she does not see why she should not have been told who it was
that passed that jest upon her of the Englishman in loveno
foreigner had come to the mills that she recollects. . . . And perhaps,
after all, if Luca raises the wage, she may be able to buy shoes next
year, and not look any worse than Zanze.
But gradually the atmosphere of her mind seems restored; the fogs of
envy and curiosity begin to clear offshe goes over the game of
make-believe, how she was in turn each of the Four . . . but no! the
miasma is still in the air, and she's tired of fooling, and New
Year's Day is over, and ill or well, she must be content. . . .
Even her lily's asleep, but she will wake it up, and show it the friend
she has plucked for itthe flower she gathered as she passed the house
on the hill. . . . Alas! even the flower seems infected. She compares
it, this pampered thing, this double hearts-ease of the garden, with
the wild growth, and once more Zanze comes to mindisn't she like the
pampered blossom? And if there were a king of the flowers, and a
girl-show held in his bowers, which would he like best, the Zanze or
the Pippa? . . . No: nothing will conquer her dejection; fancies will
not do, awakening sleepy lilies will not do
Oh what a drear dark close to my poor day!
How could that red sun drop in that black cloud?
and despairingly she accepts the one truth that seems to confront
her: Day's turn is over, now arrives the night's; the larks and
thrushes and blackbirds have had their hour; owls and bats and
such-like things rule now . . . and listlessly she begins to undress
herself. She is so alone; she has nothing but fancies to play
withthis morning's, for instance, of being anyone she liked. She had
played her game, had kept it up loyally with herself all daywhat was
Now, one thing I should like to really know:
How near I ever might approach all those
I only fancied being, this long day:
Approach, I mean, so as to touch them, so
As to . . . in some way . . . move themif you please,
Do good or evil to them some slight way.
For instance, if I wind
Silk to-morrow, my silk may bind
And border Ottima's cloak's hem . . .
Sitting on her bed, undressed, the solitary child thus broods. No
nearer than that can she gether silk might border Ottima's cloak's
hem. . . . But she cannot endure this dejection: back to her centre of
gaiety, trust, and courage Pippa must somehow swingand how shall she
achieve it? There floats into her memory the hymn which she had
murmured in the morning
All service ranks the same with God.
But even this can help her only a little
True in some sense or other, I suppose . . .
She lies down; she can pray no more than that; the hymn no doubt is
right, some way or other, and with its message thus almost mocking in
her ears, she falls asleepthe lonely little girl who has saved four
souls to-day, and does not know, will never know; but will be again,
to-morrow perhaps, when that sad talk on the church steps is faded from
her memory, the gay, brave, trustful spirit who, by merely being that,
had sung her Four Happiest Ones up toward God in his heaven.
[24:1] Asolo, in the Trevisan, is a very picturesque mediæval
fortified town, the ancient Acelum. It lies at the foot of a hill which
is surrounded by the ruins of an old castle; before it stretches the
great plain of the rivers Brenta and Piave, where Treviso, Vicenza, and
Padua may be clearly recognised. The Alps encircle it, and in the
distance rise the Euganean Hills. Venice can be discerned on the
extreme eastern horizon, which ends in the blue line of the Adriatic.
The village of Asolo is surrounded by a wall with mediæval
turrets.BERDOE, Browning Cyclopædia, p. 50.
[26:1] Another line that I should like to omit, for the following
words, wholly in character, say all that the ugly ones have boomed at
us so incredibly. But here the rhyme-scheme provides a sort of
[49:1] Dr. Berdoe and Mrs. Orr.
[52:1] All the talk between the students is in prose.
[52:2] The long shoaly island in the Lagoon, immediately opposite
[64:1] This song refers to Catherine of Cornaro, the last Queen of
Cyprus, who came to her castle at Asolo when forced to resign her
kingdom to the Venetians in 1489. She lived for her people's welfare,
and won their love by her goodness and grace.
[68:1] The name means Blue-Fox, and is a skit on the
Edinburgh Review, which is bound in blue and fox (Dr. Furnivall).
[77:1] The dialogue between Monsignor and the steward is in prose.
[77:2] Having made her Monsignor's niece, observes Mr. Chesterton,
Browning might just as well have made Sebald her long-lost brother,
and Luigi a husband to whom she was secretly married.
III. MILDRED TRESHAM
IN A BLOT IN THE 'SCUTCHEON
I have said that, to my perception, the most characteristic mark in
Browning's portrayal of women is his admiration for dauntlessness and
individuality; and this makes explicable to me the failure which I
constantly perceive in his dramatic presentment of her whose
innocence (as the term is conventionally accepted) is her salient
quality. The type, immortal and essential, is one which a poet must
needs essay to show; and Browning, when he showed it through others, or
in his own person hymned it, found words for its delineation which lift
the soul as it were to morning skies. But when words are further called
upon for its expression, when such a woman, in short, has to
speak for herself, he rarely makes her do so without a certain
consciousness of that especial trait in herand hence her speech must
of necessity ring false, for innocence knows nothing of itself.
So marked is this failure, to my sense, that I cannot refuse the
implication which comes along with it: that only theoretically, only as
it were by deference to others, did the attribute, in that particular
apprehension of it, move him to admiration. I do not, of course, mean
anything so inconceivable as that he questioned the loveliness of the
pure in heart; I mean merely that he questioned the artificial value
which has been set upon physical chastityand that when departure from
this was the circumstance through which he had to show the more
essential purity, his instinctive scepticism drove him to the forcing
of a note which was not really native to his voice. For always (to my
sense) when he presents dramatically a girl or woman in the grip of
this circumstance, he gives her words, and feelings to express through
them, which only the French mièvre can justly describe. He does
not, in short, reveal her as she is, but only as others see herand,
among those others, not himself.
In Browning this might seem the stranger because he was so wholly
untouched by cynicism; but here we light upon a curious paradoxthe
fact that the more worldly the writer, the better can he (as a
general rule and other things being equal) display this type. It may be
that such a writer can regard it analytically, can see what are the
elements which make it up; it may be that the deeper reverence felt for
it by the idealist is precisely that which draws him toward
exaggerationthat his fancy, brooding with closed eyes upon the thing
enskied and sainted, thus becomes inclined to mawkishness . . . it
may be, I say, but at the bottom of my heart I do not feel that
that is the explanation. One with which I am better satisfied emerges
from a line of verse already quoted:
For each man kills the thing he loves;
and the man most apt for such killing is precisely he who
appraises most shrewdly the thing he kills. As the cool practised
libertine is oftenest attracted by the immature girl, so the ardent
inexperienced man of any age will be drawn to the older woman; and the
psychology of this matter of everyday experience is closely akin to the
paradox in artistic creation of which I now speak.
Browning, who saw woman so clearly as a creature with her definite
and justified demand upon life, saw, by inevitable consequence, that
for woman to depart from innocence (again, in the conventional sense
of the words) is not her most significant error; and this conviction
necessarily reacted upon his presentment of those in whom such purity
is the most salient qualitya type of which, as I have said, the poet
is bound to attempt the portrayal. Browning's instinctive questioning
of the man-made value then betrays itselfhe exaggerates, he loses
grasp, for he is singing in a mode not native to his temperament.
+ + + + +
The character of Mildred in A Blot in the 'Scutcheon is a
striking example of this. She is a young girl who has been drawn by her
innocent passion into complete surrender to her lover. He, after this
surrender, seeks her in marriage from her brother, who stands in the
place of both parents to the orphan girl. The brother consents,
unknowing; but after his consent, learns from a servant that Mildred
has yielded herself to a manhe learns not whom. She, accused,
makes no denial, gives no name, and to her brother's consternation,
proposes thus to marry her suitor, whom Tresham thinks to be in
ignorance of her error. Tresham violently repudiates her; then, meeting
beneath her window the cloaked lover, attacks him, forces him to reveal
himself, learns that he and the accepted suitor are one and the same,
and kills himMertoun (the lover) making no defence. Tresham goes to
Mildred and tells her what he has done; she dies of the hearing, and
he, having taken poison after the revelation of Mertoun's identity,
The defects in this story are so obvious that I need hardly point
them out. Most prominent of all is the difficulty of reconciling Earl
Mertoun's conduct with that of a rational being. He is all that in
Mildred's suitor might be demanded, yet, loving her deeply and so loved
by her, he has feared to ask her brother for her hand, because of his
reverence for this Earl Tresham.
. . . I was young,
And your surpassing reputation kept me
So far aloof . . .
Thus he explains himself. He feared to ask for her hand, yet did not
fear to seduce her! The thing is so absurd that it vitiates all the
play, which indeed but once or twice approaches aught that we can
figure to ourselves of reality in any period of history. Mediæval is
a strange adjective, used by Mrs. Orr to characterise a work of which
the date is placed by Browning himself in the eighteenth century.
Mildred is but fourteen: an age at which, with our modern sense of
girlhood as, happily, in this land we now know it, we find ourselves
unable to apprehend her at all. Instinctively we assign to her at least
five years more, since even these would leave her still a childthough
not at any moment in the play does she actually so affect us, for
Mildred is never a child, never even a young girl. Immature indeed she
is, but it is with the immaturity which will not develop, which has
nothing to do with length of years. To me, the failure here is
absolute; she never comes to life. Every student of Browning knows of
the enthusiasm which Dickens expressed for this piece and this
Browning's play has thrown me into a perfect passion of
sorrow. To say that there is anything in its subject save what
is lovely, true, deeply affecting . . . is to say that there
no light in the sun, and no heat in the blood. . . . I know
nothing that is so affecting, nothing in any book I have ever
read, as Mildred's recurrence to that 'I was so youngI had
Such ardour well might stir us to agreement, were it not that
Dickens chose for its warmest expression the very centre of our
disbelief: Mildred's recurrence to that cry. . . . The cry
itselfI cannot be alone in thinkingrings false, and the recurrence,
therefore, but heaps error upon error. When I imagine an ardent girl in
such a situation, almost anything she could have been made to say would
to me seem more authentic than this. The first utterance, moreover,
occurs before she knows that Tresham has learnt the truthit occurs,
in soliloquy, immediately after an interview with her lover.
I was so young, I loved him so, I had
No mother, God forgot me, and I fell.
I fell . . . No woman, in any extremity, says that; that is
what is said by others of her. And God forgot meis this the
thought of one who loves him so? . . . The truth is that we have here
the very commonplace of the theatre: the wish to have it both ways, to
show, yet not to revealthe dramatic situation, in short, set out
because it is dramatic, not because it is true. We cannot
suppose that Browning meant Earl Mertoun for a mere seducer, ravishing
from a maiden that which she did not desire to giveyet the words he
here puts in Mildred's mouth bear no other interpretation. Either she
is capable of passion, or she is not. If she is, sorrow for the
sorrow that her recklessness may cause to others will indeed put pain
and terror in her soul, but she will not, can not, say that God forgot
her: those words are alien to the passionate. If she is not, if
Mertoun is the mere seducer . . . but the suggestion is absurd. We know
that he is like herself, as herself should have been shown us, young
love incarnate, rushing to its end mistakenlywrong, high, and pure.
These errors are the errors of quick souls, of souls that, too late
realising all, yet feel themselves unstained, and know that not God
forgot them, but they this world in which we dwell.
In her interview with Tresham after the servant's revelation, I find
the same untruth. He delivers a long rhapsody on brothers' love, saying
that it exceeds all other in its unselfishness. Her sole rejoinderand
here she does for one second attain to authenticityis the question:
What is this for? He, after some hesitation, tells her what he knows,
calls upon her to confess, she standing silent until, at end of the
arraignment, he demands the lover's name. Listen to her answer:
. . . Thorold, do you devise
Fit expiation for my guilt, if fit
There be! 'Tis nought to say that I'll endure
And bless youthat my spirit yearns to purge
Her stains off in the fierce renewing fire:
But do not plunge me into other guilt!
Oh, guilt enough . . .
She of course refuses the name. He tells her to pronounce, then, her
Again her answer, in the utter falseness to all truth of its
abasement, well-nigh sickens the soul:
Oh, Thorold, you must never tempt me thus!
To die here in this chamber, by that sword,
Would seem like punishment; so should I glide
Like an arch-cheat, into extremest bliss!
Comment upon that seems to me simply impossible. This is the woman
to whom, but a page or two back, young Mertoun has sung the exquisite
song, known to most readers of Browning's lyrics:
There's a woman like a dewdrop, she's so purer than the
And her noble heart's the noblest, yes, and her sure faith's
surest . . .
Already in that hour with her, Mertoun must have learnt that some of
those high words were turned to slighter uses when they sang of Mildred
Tresham. In that hour he has spoken of the meeting that appalled us
both (namely, the meeting with her brother, when he was to ask for her
hand), saying that it is over and happiness begins, such as the world
contains not. When Mildred answers him with, This will not be, we
could accept, believingly, were only the sense of doom what her reply
brought with it. But this will not be, because they do not deserve
the whole world's best of blisses.
Sin has surprised us, so will punishment.
And how strange, how sad for a woman is it, to see with what truth
and courage Browning can make Mertoun speak! Each word that he
says can be brave and clear for all its recognition of their error; no
word that she says. . . . Her creator does not understand her;
almost, thus, we do feel Mildred to be real, so quick is our resentment
of the unrealities heaped on her. Imagining beforehand the moment when
she shall receive in presence of them all the partner of my guilty
love (is not here the theatre in full blast?), the deception she must
practisecalled by her, in the vein so cruelly assigned her, this
planned piece of deliberate wickedness . . . imagining all this, she
foresees herself unable to pretend, pouring forth all our woeful
story, and pictures them aghast, as round some cursed fount that
should spirt water and spouts blood. . . . I'll not! she cries
. . . 'I'll not affect a grace
That's gone from megone once, and gone for ever!'
Gone once, and gone for ever. True, when the grace is gone;
but surely not from her, in any real sense, had it goneand would she
not, in the deep knowledge of herself which comes with revelation to
the world, have felt that passionately? There are accusations of
ourselves which indeed arraign ourselves, yet leave us our best pride.
To me, not the error which made her prey to penitence was Mildred
Tresham's fall, but those crude cries of shame.
We take refuge in her immaturity, and in the blighting influence of
her brotherthat prig of prigs, that monomaniac of family pride and
conventional morality,[90:1] Thorold, Earl Tresham; but not thus can
we solace ourselves for Browning's failure. What a girl he might have
given us in Mildred, had he listened only to himself! But, not yet in
full possession of that self, he set up as an ideal the ideal of
others, trying dutifully to see it as they see it, denying dutifully
his deepest instinct; and, thus apostate, piled insincerity on
insincerity, until at last no truth is anywhere, and we read on with
growing alienation as each figure loses all of such reality as it ever
had, and even Gwendolen, the golden creaturehis own dauntless,
individual woman, seeing and feeling truly through every fibre of her
beingis lost amid the fog, is stifled in the stifling atmosphere, and
only at the last, when Mildred and her brother are both dead, can once
more say the word which lights us back to truth:
Ah, Thorold, we can butremember you!
It was indeed all they could do; but we, more fortunate, can
forget him, imaging to ourselves the Mildred that Browning could have
given usthe Mildred of whom her brother is made to say:
You cannot know the good and tender heart,
Its girl's trust and its woman's constancy,
How pure yet passionate, how calm yet kind,
How grave yet joyous, how reserved yet free
As light where friends are . . .
There she is, as Browning might have shown her! Control's not for
this lady, Tresham addsthe sign-manual of a Browning woman. As I
have said, he can display this lovely type through others, can sing it
in his own person, as in the exquisite dewdrop lyric; but once let her
speak for herselfhe obeys the world and its appraisals, and the truth
departs from him; we have the Mildred Tresham of the theatre, of the
partner of my guilty love, of Oh, Thorold, you must never tempt me
thus! of (in a later scene) I think I might have urged some little
point in my defence to Thorold; of that last worst unreality of all,
when Thorold has told her of his murder of her lover, and she cries:
. . . Iforgive not,
But bless you, Thorold, from my soul of souls!
There! Do not think too much upon the past!
The cloud that's broke was all the same a cloud
While it stood up between my friend and you;
You hurt him 'neath its shadow: but is that
So past retrieve? I have his heart, you know;
I may dispose of it: I give it you!
It loves you as mine loves!
True, she is to die, and so is to rejoin her lover; but, thus
rejoined, will blots upon the 'scutcheon seem to them the
all-sufficient claim for Thorold's deedThorold who dies with these
words on his lips:
. . . You hold our 'scutcheon up.
Austin, no blot on it! You see how blood
Must wash one blot away; the first blot came
And the first blood came. To the vain world's eye
All's gules again: no care to the vain world
From whence the red was drawn!
And on Austin's cry that no blot shall come! he answers:
I said that: yet it did come. Should it come,
Vengeance is God's, not man's. Remember me!
Vengeance: how do they who are met again in the spirit-world
regard that word, that God?
[90:1] Berdoe. Browning Cyclopædia.
IN BALAUSTION'S ADVENTURE AND ARISTOPHANES' APOLOGY
To me, Balaustion is the queen of Browning's womennay, I am
tempted to proclaim her queen of every poet's women. For in her meet
all lovelinesses, and to make her dearer still, some are as yet but in
germ (what a mother she will be, for example); so that we have, with
all the other beauties, the sense of the unfolding roseenmisted by
the scent it makes, in a phrase of her creator's which, though in the
actual context it does not refer to her, yet exquisitely conveys her
influence on these two works. Rosy Balaustion: she is that, as well
as superb, statuesque, in the admiring apostrophes from Aristophanes,
during the long, close argument of the Apology. In that piece,
the Bald Bard himself is made to show her to us; and though it follows,
not precedes, the Adventure, I shall steal from him at once,
presenting in his lyric phrases our queen before we crown her.
He comes to her home in Athens on the night when Balaustion learns
that her adored Euripides is dead. She and her husband, Euthukles, are
sitting silent in the house, yet cheerless hardly, musing on the
tidings, when suddenly there come torch-light and knocking at the door,
and cries and laughter: Open, open, Bacchos[94:1] bids!and,
heralded by his chorus and the dancers, flute-boys, all the
banquet-band, there enters, stands in person, Aristophanes.
Balaustion had never seen him till that moment, nor he her:
Forward he stepped: I rose and fronted him;
and as thus for the first time they meet, he breaks into a pæan of
'You, lady? What, the Rhodian? Form and face,
Victory's self upsoaring to receive
The poet? Right they named you . . . some rich name,
Vowel-buds thorned about with consonants,
Fragrant, felicitous, rose-glow enriched
By the Isle's unguent: some diminished end
In ion' . . .
and trying to recall that name in ion, he guesses two or
three at random, seizing thus the occasion to express her effect on
'Phibalion, for the mouth split red-fig-wise,
Korakinidion, for the coal-black hair,
Nettarion, Phabion, for the darlingness?'
But none of these is right; it was some fruit-flower; and at last
it comes: Balaustion, Wild-Pomegranate-Bloom, and he exclaims in
ecstasy, Thanks, Rhodes!for her fellow-countrymen had found this
name for her, so apt in every way that her real name was forgotten, and
as Balaustion she shall live and die.
Nettarion, Phabion, for the darlingness; and for all her intellect
and ardour, it is greatly this that makes Balaustion queenthe
lovely eager sweetness, the tenderness, the darlingness: Aristophanes
guessed almost right!
+ + + + +
How did she win the name of Wild-Pomegranate-Flower? We learn it
from herself in the Adventure. Let us hear: let us feign
ourselves members of the little band of friends, all girls, with their
charming, chiming names: Petalé, Phullis, Charopé, Chrusionto whom
she cries in the delightful opening:
About that strangest, saddest, sweetest song
I, when a girl, heard in Kameiros once,
And after, saved my life by? Oh, so glad
To tell you the adventure!
Part of the adventure is historical. In the second stage of the
Peloponnesian War (that famous contention between the Athenians and the
inhabitants of Peloponnesus which began on May 7, 431 B.C. and lasted
twenty-seven years), the Athenian General, Nikias, had suffered
disaster at Syracuse, and had given himself up, with all his army, to
the Sicilians. But the assurances of safety which he had received were
quickly proved false. He was no sooner in the hands of the enemy than
he was shamefully put to death with his naval ally, Demosthenes; and
his troops were sent to the quarries, where the plague and the hard
labour lessened their numbers and increased their miseries. When this
bad news reached Rhodes, the islanders rose in revolt against the
supremacy of Athens, and resolved to side with Sparta. Balaustion[96:1]
was there, and she passionately protested against this decision, crying
to who would hear, and those who loved me at Kameiros"[96:2]:
. . . No!
Never throw Athens off for Sparta's sake
Never disloyal to the life and light
Of the whole world worth calling world at all!
* * * * *
To Athens, all of us that have a soul,
and thus she drew together a little band, and found a ship at
Kaunos, and they turned
The glad prow westward, soon were out at sea,
Pushing, brave ship with the vermilion cheek,
Proud for our heart's true harbour.
But they were pursued by pirates, and, fleeing from these, drove
unawares into the harbour of that very Syracuse where Nikias and
Demosthenes had perished, and in whose quarries their countrymen were
slaves. The inhabitants refused them admission, for they had heard, as
the ship came into harbour, Balaustion singing that song of ours which
saved at Salamis. She had sprung upon the altar by the mast, and
carolled it forth to encourage the oarsmen; and now it was vain to tell
the Sicilians that these were Rhodians who had cast in their lot with
the Spartan League, for the Captain of Syracuse answered:
Ay, but we heard all Athens in one ode . . .
You bring a boatful of Athenians here;
and Athenians they would not have at Syracuse, with memories of
Salamis to stir up the slaves in the quarry.
No prayers, no blandishments, availed the Rhodians; they were just
about to turn away and face the pirates in despair, when somebody
raised a question, and
. . . 'Wait!'
Cried they (and wait we did, you may be sure).
'That song was veritable Aischulos,
Familiar to the mouth of man and boy,
Old glory: how about Euripides?
Might you know any of his verses too?'
Browning here makes use of the historical fact that Euripides was
reverenced far more by foreigners and the non-Athenian Greeks than by
the Atheniansfor Balaustion, the Rhodian, had been brought up in
his worship, though she knew and loved the other great Greek poets
also; and already it was known to our voyagers that the captives in the
quarries had found that those who could teach Euripides to Syracuse
gained indulgence far beyond what any of the others could obtain. Thus,
when the question sounded, Might you know any of his verses too? the
captain of the vessel cried:
Out with our Sacred Anchor! Here she stands,
Balaustion! Strangers, greet the lyric girl!
* * * * *
Why, fast as snow in Thrace, the voyage through,
Has she been falling thick in flakes of him,
* * * * *
And so, although she has some other name,
We only call her Wild-Pomegranate-Flower,
Balaustion; since, where'er the red bloom burns
* * * * *
You shall find food, drink, odour all at once.
He called upon her to save their little band by singing a strophe.
But she could do better than thatshe could recite a whole play:
That strangest, saddest, sweetest song of his,
Only that very year had it reached Our Isle o' the Rose; she had
seen it, at Kameiros, played just as it was played at Athens, and had
learnt by heart the perfect piece. Now, quick and subtle for all her
enthusiasm, she remembers to tell the Sicilians how, besides its
beauty and the way it makes you weep, it does much honour to their own
Herakles, whom you house i' the city here
Nobly, the Temple wide Greece talks about;
I come a suppliant to your Herakles!
Take me and put me on his temple-steps
To tell you his achievement as I may.
Then, she continues, in a passage which rings out again in the
Then, because Greeks are Greeks, and hearts are hearts,
And poetry is powerthey all outbroke
In a great joyous laughter with much love:
'Thank Herakles for the good holiday!
Make for the harbour! Row, and let voice ring:
In we row bringing in Euripides!'
So did the Rhodians land at Syracuse. And the whole city, hearing
the cry In we row, which was taken up by the crowd around the
harbour-quays, came rushing out to meet them, and Balaustion, standing
on the topmost step of the Temple of Herakles, told the play:
Told it, and, two days more, repeated it,
Until they sent us on our way again
With good words and great wishes.
That was her Adventure. Three things happened in it for herself: a
rich Syracusan brought her a whole talent as a gift, and she left it on
the tripod as thank-offering to Herakles; a band of the captiveswhom
their lords grew kinder to, Because they called the poet
countrymansent her a crown of wild-pomegranate-flower; and the third
thing . . . Petalé, Phullis, Charopé, Chrusion, hear of this alsoof
the youth who, all the three days that she spoke the play, was found in
the gazing, listening audience; and who, when they sailed away, was
found in the ship too, having a hunger to see Athens; and when they
reached Piræus, once again was found, as Balaustion landed, beside her.
February's moon is just a-bud when she tells her comrades of this
youth; and when that moon rounds full:
We are to marry. O Euripides!
* * * * *
Everyone who speaks of Balaustion's Adventure will quote to
you that ringing line, for it sums up the high, ardent girl who, even
in the exultation of her love, must call upon the worshipped Master. It
is this passion for intellectual beauty which sets Balaustion so apart,
which makes her so complete and stimulating. She has a mind as well as
a heart and soul; she is priestess as well as goddessEuthukles will
have a wife indeed! Every word she speaks is stamped with the Browning
marks of gaiety, courage, trust, and with how many others also: those
of high-heartedness, deep-heartedness, the true patriotism that
cherishes most closely the soul of its country; and then generosity,
pride, ardourall enhanced by woman's more peculiar gifts of
gentleness, modesty, tenderness, insight, gravity . . . for Balaustion
is like many women in having, for all her gaiety, more sense of
happiness than sense of humour. It often comes to me as debatable if
this be not the most attractive of deficiencies! Certainly Balaustion
persuades us of its power; for in the Apology, her refusal of
the Aristophanic Comedy is firm-based upon that imputed lack in women.
No man, thus poised, could have convinced us of his reality; while she
convinces us not only of her reality, but of her rightness. Again, we
must applaud our poet's wisdom in choosing woman for the Bald Bard's
accuser; she is as potent in this part as in that of Euripides'
But what a girl Balaustion is, as well as what a woman! Let us see
her with the little band of friends about her, as in the exquisite
revocation (in the Apology) of the first adventure's telling:
. . . O that Spring,
That eve I told the earlier[101:1] to my friends!
Where are the four now, with each red-ripe mouth
I wonder, does the streamlet ripple still,
Outsmoothing galingale and watermint?
* * * * *
Under the grape-vines, by the streamlet-side,
Close to Baccheion; till the cool increase,
And other stars steal on the evening star,
And so, we homeward flock i' the dusk, we five!
Then, in the Adventure, comes the translation by Browning of
the Alkestis of Euripides, which Balaustion is feigned to have
spoken upon the temple steps at Syracuse. With this we have here no
business, though so entire is his lyric girl, so fully and perfectly
by him conceived, that not a word of the play but might have been
Balaustion's own. This surely is a triumph of artto imagine such a
speaker for such a piece, and to blend them both so utterly that the
supreme Greek dramatist and this girl are indivisible. What a woman was
demanded for such a feat, and what a poet for both! May we not indeed
say now that Browning was our singer? Whom but he would have done
thisso crowned, so trusted, us, and so persuaded men that women can
Its beauty, and the way it makes you weep: yesand the way it
makes you thrill with love for Herakles, never before so god-like,
because always before too much the apotheosis of mere physical power.
But read of him in the Alkestis of Euripides, and you shall feel
him indeed divinethis grand benevolence. . . . We can hear the
voice of Balaustion deepen, quiver, and grow grave with gladdened love,
as Herakles is fashioned for us by these two men's noble minds.
+ + + + +
When she had told the perfect piece to her girl-friends, a sudden
inspiration came to her:
I think I see how . . .
You, I, or anyone might mould a new
Admetos, new Alkestis;
and saying this, a flood of gratitude for the great gift of poetry
comes full tide across her soul:
. . . Ah, that brave
Bounty of poets, the one royal race
That ever was, or will be, in this world!
They give no gift that bounds itself and ends
I' the giving and the taking: theirs so breeds
I' the heart and soul o' the taker, so transmutes
The man who only was a man before,
That he grows god-like in his turn, can give
He also; share the poet's privilege,
Bring forth new good, new beauty from the old.
. . . So with me:
For I have drunk this poem, quenched my thirst,
Satisfied heart and soulyet more remains!
Could we too make a poem? Try at least,
Inside the head, what shape the rose-mists take!
And, trying thus, Balaustion, Feminist, portrays the perfect
Admetos, in Balaustion's and Browning's Alkestis, will not
let his wife be sacrificed for him:
Never, by that true word Apollon spoke!
All the unwise wish is unwished, oh wife!
and he speaks, as in a vision, of the purpose of Zeus in himself.
This purposethat, throughout my earthly life,
Mine should be mingled and made up with thine
And we two prove one force and play one part
And do one thing. Since death divides the pair,
'Tis well that I depart and thou remain
Who wast to me as spirit is to flesh:
Let the flesh perish, be perceived no more,
So thou, the spirit that informed the flesh,
Bend yet awhile, a very flame above
The rift I drop into the darkness by
And bid remember, flesh and spirit once
Worked in the world, one body, for man's sake.
Never be that abominable show
Of passive death without a quickening life
Admetos only, no Alkestis now!
It is so that the man speaks to and of the woman, in Balaustion's
and Browning's Alkestis.
And the woman, answering, declares that the reality of their joint
existence lies not in her, but in him:
. . . 'What! thou soundest in my soul
To depths below the deepest, reachest good
By evil, that makes evil good again,
And so allottest to me that I live,
And not dieletting die, not thee alone,
But all true life that lived in both of us?
Look at me once ere thou decree the lot!'
* * * * *
Therewith her whole soul entered into his,
He looked the look back, and Alkestis died.
But when she reaches the nether worldthe downward-dwelling
peopleshe is rejected as a deceiver: This is not to die, says the
Queen of Hades, for her death is a mockery, since it doubles the life
of him she has left behind:
'Two souls in one were formidable odds:
Admetos must not be himself and thou!'
* * * * *
And so, before the embrace relaxed a whit,
The lost eyes opened, still beneath the look;
And lo, Alkestis was alive again.
How do our little squabblesthe Sex-Warlook to us after this?
+ + + + +
When next we meet with Balaustion, in Aristophanes' Apology,
she is married to her Euthukles, and they are once more speeding across
the watersthis time back to Rhodes, from Athens which has fallen.
Many things have happened in the meantime, and Balaustion, leaving
her adoptive city, with not sorrow but despair, not memory but the
present and its pang in her deep heart, feels that if she deliberately
invites the scene, if she embodies in words the tragedy of Athens, she
may free herself from anguish. Euthukles shall write it down for her,
and they will go back to the night they heard Euripides was dead: One
year ago, Athenai still herself. Together she and Euthukles had mused,
together glorified their poet. Euthukles had met the audience flocking
homeward from the theatre, where Aristophanes had that night won the
prize which Euripides had so seldom won. They had stopped him to hear
news of the other poet's death: Balaustion's husband, the right man to
askbut he had refused them all satisfaction, and scornfully rated
them for the crown but now awarded. Appraise no poetry, he had cried:
Balaustion had seen, since she had come to live in Athens, but one
work of Aristophanes, the Lysistrata; and now, in breathless
reminiscent anger, recalls the experience. It had so appalled her,
that bestiality so beyond all brute-beast imagining, that she would
never see again a play by him who in the crowned achievement of this
evening had drawn himself as Virtue laughingly reproving Vice, and Vice
. . . Euripides! Such a piece it was which had gained the prize that
day we heard the death.
Yet, musing on that death, her wrath had fallen from her.
I thought, 'How thoroughly death alters things!
Where is the wrong now, done our dead and great?'
Euthukles, divining her thought, told her that the mob had repented
when they learnt the news. He had heard them cry: Honour him! and A
statue in the theatre! and Bring his body back,[106:1] bury him in
PiræusThucydides shall make his epitaph!
But she was not moved to sympathy with the general cry.
Our tribute should not be the same, my friend.
Statue? Within our hearts he stood, he stands!
and, for his mere mortal body:
Why, let it fade, mix with the elements
There where it, falling, freed Euripides!
She knew, that night, a better way to hail his soul's new
freedom. This, by
Singing, we two, its own song back again
Up to that face from which flowed beautyface
Now abler to see triumph and take love
Than when it glorified Athenai once.
Yes: they two would read together Herakles, the play of which
Euripides himself had given her the tablets, in commemoration of the
Adventure at Syracuse. After that, on her first arrival in Athens, she
had gone to see him, held the sacred hand of him, and laid it to my
lips; she had told him how Alkestis helped, and he, on bidding her
farewell, had given her these tablets, with the stylos pendant from
them still, and given her, too, his own psalterion, that she might, to
its assisting music, croon the ode bewailing age.
All was prepared for the reading, when (as we earlier learnt) there
came the torch-light and the knocking at their door, and Aristophanes,
fresh from his triumph, entered with the banquet-band, to hail the
house, friendly to Euripides.
He knew, declared Aristophanes, that the Rhodian hated him most of
mortals, but he would not blench. The others blenchedno word could
they utter, nor one laugh laugh. . . . So he drove them out, and stood
Statuesque Balaustion pedestalled
On much disapprobation and mistake.
He babbled on for a while, defiantly and incoherently, and at length
she turned in dumb rebuke, which he at once understood.
True, lady, I am tolerably drunk;
for it was the triumph-night, and merriment had reigned at the
banquet, reigned and increased
'Till something happened' . . .
Here he strangely paused;
but soon went on to tell the way in which the news had reached them
there. . . . While Aristophanes spoke, Balaustion searched his face;
and now (recalling, on the way to Rhodes, that hour to Euthukles), she
likens the change which she then saw in it to that made by a black
cloud suddenly sailing over a stretch of sparkling seasuch a change
as they are in this very moment beholding.
Just so, some overshadow, some new care
Stopped all the mirth and mocking on his face,
And left there only such a dark surmise
No wonder if the revel disappeared,
So did his face shed silence every side!
I recognised a new man fronting me.
At once he perceived her insight, and answered it: So you see
myself? Your fixed regard can strip me of my 'accidents,' as the
sophists say? But neither should this disconcert him:
Thank your eyes' searching; undisguised I stand:
The merest female child may question me.
Spare not, speak bold, Balaustion!
She, searching thus his face, had learnt already that what she had
disbelieved most proved most true. Drunk though he was,
There was a mind here, mind a-wantoning
At ease of undisputed mastery
Over the body's brood, those appetites.
Oh, but he grasped them grandly!
It was no ignoble presence: the broad bald brow, the flushed
cheek, great imperious fiery eyes, wide nostrils, full aggressive
mouth, all the pillared head:
These made a glory, of such insolence
I thoughtsuch domineering deity . . .
Impudent and majestic . . .
Instantly on her speaking face the involuntary homage had shown; and
it was to this that Aristophanes, keen of sight as she, had confidently
addressed himself when he told her to speak boldly. And in the very
spirit of her face she did speak:
Bold speech bewelcome to this honoured hearth,
Here sounds the essential note of generous natures. Proved mistaken,
their instant impulse is to rejoice in defeat, if defeat means victory
for the better thing. Thus, as Balaustion speaks, her ardour grows with
every word. He is greater than she had supposed, and so she must even
rhapsodiseshe must crowd praise on praise, until she ends with the
O light, light, light, I hail light everywhere!
No matter for the murk that wasperchance
That will becertes, never should have been
Such orb's associate!
Mark that Aristophanes has not yet said anything to justify
her change of attitude: the seeing of him is enough to draw from her
this recantationfor she trusts her own quick insight, and so,
henceforth trusts him.
Now begins the long, close argument between them which constitutes
Aristophanes' Apology. It is (from him) the defence of comedy as he
understands and practises itbroad and coarse when necessary; violent
and satiric against those who in any way condemn it. Euripides had been
one of these, and Balaustion now stands for him. . . . In the long run,
it is the defence of realism against idealism, and, as such,
involves a whole philosophy of life. We cannot follow it here; all we
may do is to indicate the points at which it reveals, as she speaks in
it, the character of Balaustion, and the growing charm which such
revelation has for her opponent.
At every turn of his argument, Aristophanes is sure of her
comprehension. He knows that he need not adapt himself to a feebler
mind: You understand, he says again and again. At length he comes, in
his narration, to the end of their feast that night, and tells how,
rising from the banquet interrupted by the entrance of Sophocles with
tidings of Euripides dead, he had cried to his friends that they must
go and see
The Rhodian rosy with Euripides! . . .
And here you stand with those warm golden eyes!
Maybe, such eyes must strike conviction, turn
One's nature bottom-upwards, show the base . . .
Anyhow, I have followed happily
The impulse, pledged my genius with effect,
Since, come to see you, I am shownmyself!
She instantly bids him, as she has honoured him, that he do honour
to Euripides. But, seized by perversity, he declares that if she will
give him the Herakles tablets (which he has discerned, lying
with the other gifts of Euripides), he will prove to her, by this play
alone, the main mistake of her worshipped Master.
She warmly interrupts, reproving him. Their house is the
shrine of that genius, and he has entered it, fresh from his worst
infamyyet she has withheld the words she longs to speak, she has
inclined, nay yearned, to reverence him:
So you but suffer that I see the blaze
And not the boltthe splendid fancy-fling,
Not the cold iron malice, the launched lie.
If he does this, if he shows her
A mere man's hand ignobly clenched against
Yon supreme calmness,
she will interpose:
Such as you see me! Silk breaks lightning's blow!
But Aristophanes, at that word of calmness, exclaims vehemently.
Death is the great unfairness! Once a man dead, the survivors croak,
Respect him. And so one mustit is the formidable claim, immunity
of faultiness from fault's punishment. That is why he,
Aristophanes, has always attacked the living; he knew how they would
hide their heads, once dead! Euripides had chosen the other way; men
pelted him, but got no pellet back; and it was not magnanimity but
arrogance that prompted him to such silence. Those at whom Aristophanes
or he should fling mud were by that alone immortalisedand Euripides,
that calm cold sagacity, knew better than to do them such service.
As he speaks thus, Balaustion's heart burns up within her to her
tongue. She exclaims that the baseness of Aristophanes' attack, of his
mud-volleying at Euripides, consists in the fact that both men had,
at bottom, the same ideals; they both extended the limitations of art,
both were desirous from their hearts that truth should triumphyet
Aristophanes, thus desiring, poured out his supremacy of power against
the very creature who loved all that he loved! And she declares
that such shame cuts through all his glory. Comedy is in the dust, laid
low by him:
Balaustion pities Aristophanes!
Now she has gone too farshe has spoken too boldly.
Blood burnt the cheek-bone, each black eye flashed fierce:
'But this exceeds our license!'
so he exclaims; but then, seizing his native weapon, stops
ironically to search out an excuse for her. He finds it soon. She and
her husband are but foreigners; they are uninstructed; the born and
bred Athenian needs must smile at them, if he do not think a frown more
fitting for such ignorance. But strangers are privileged: Aristophanes
will condone. They want to impose their squeamishness on sturdy health:
that is at the bottom of it all. Their Euripides had cried
Death!deeming death the better life; he, Aristophanes, cries
Life! If the Euripideans condescend to happiness at all, they merely
talk, talk, talk about the empty name, while the thing itself lies
neglected beneath their noses; they
think out thoroughly how youth should pass
Just as if youth stops passing, all the same!
* * * * *
As he proceeds, in the superb defence of his own methods, he sees
Balaustion grow ever more indignant. But he conjures her to wait a
moment ere she looses his doom on himand at last, drawing to an
end, declares that after all the ground of difference between him and
her is slight. In so far as it does exist, however, he claims to have
won. Euripides, for whom she stands, is beaten in this contest, yet he,
Aristophanes, has not even put forth all his power! If she will not
acknowledge final defeat:
Help him, Balaustion! Use the rosy strength!
and he urges her to use it all, to let the whole rage burst in
It is evident how he has been moved, despite his boastinghow
eagerly he awaits her use of the rosy strength. . . . But she begins
meekly enough. She is a woman, she says, and claims no quality beside
the love of all things lovable; in that, she does claim to
stand pre-eminent. But men may use, justifiably, different methods from
those which women most admire, and so far and because she is a
foreigner, as he reminds her, she may be mistaken in her blame of him.
Yet foreigners, strangers, will in the ultimate issue be the judges of
this matter, and shall they find Aristophanes any more impeccable than
she does? (She now begins to put forth the rosy strength!) What is it
that he has done? He did not invent comedy! Has he improved upon it?
No, she declares. One of his aims is to discredit war. That was an aim
of Euripides also; and has Aristophanes yet written anything like the
glorious Song to Peace in the Cresphontes?
Come, for the heart within me dies away,
So long dost thou delay!
She gives this forth, in the old Syracusan manner, and is well
aware that he can have no answer for her. Again (she proceeds),
Euripides discredited war by showing how it outrages the higher
feelings: by what method has Aristophanes discredited it? By the
obscene allurements of the Lysistrata! . . . Thus she takes him
through his works, and finally declares that only in more audaciously
lying has he improved upon the earlier writers of comedy. He has
geniusshe gladly grants it; but he has debased his genius. The mob
indeed has awarded him the crowns: is such crowning the true guerdon?
Tell him, my other poetwhere thou walk'st
Some rarer world than e'er Ilissos washed!
But as to the immortality of either, who shall say? And is even
that the question? No: the question isdid both men wish to waft
the white sail of good and beauty on its way? Assuredly. . . . And so
she cries at the last: Your nature too is kingly; and this is for her
the sole source of ardourshe trusts truth's inherent kingliness;
and the poets are of all men most royal. She never would have dared
approach this poet so:
But that the other king stands suddenly,
In all the grand investiture of death,
Bowing your knee beside my lowly head
Equals one moment!
Now arise and go.
Both have done homage to Euripides!
But he insists that her defence has been obliqueit has been merely
an attack on himself. She must defend her poet more directly, or
Aristophanes will do no homage. At once she answers that she will, that
she has the best, the only, defence at hand. She will read him the
Herakles, read it as, at Syracuse, she spoke the Alkestis.
Accordingly I read the perfect piece.
It ends with the lament of the Chorus for the departure of Herakles:
The greatest of all our friends of yore
We have lost for evermore!
and when Balaustion has chanted forth that strophe, there falls a
long silence, on this night of losing a friend.
Aristophanes breaks it musingly. 'Our best friend'who has been
the best friend to Athens, Euripides or I? And he answers that it is
himself, for he has done what he knew he could do, and thus has
charmed the Violet-Crowned; while Euripides had challenged failure,
and had failed. Euripides, he cries, remembering an instance, has been
like Thamyris of Thrace, who was blinded by the Muses for daring to
contend with them in song; he, Aristophanes, stands
heart-whole, no Thamyris! He seizes the psalterionBalaustion must
let him use it for onceand sings the song, from Sophocles, of
Thamyris marching to his doom.
He gives some verses,[117:1] then breaks off in laughter, having, as
he says, sung content back to himself, since he is not
Thamyris, but Aristophanes. . . . They shall both be pleased with his
next play; it shall be serious, no word more of the old fun, for
death defends, and moreover, Balaustion has delivered her admonition
so soundly! Thus he departs, in all friendliness:
Farewell, brave couple! Next year, welcome me!
It is next year, and Balaustion and Euthukles are fleeing across
the water to Rhodes from Athens. This year has seen the death of
Sophocles; and the greatest of all the Aristophanic triumphs in the
Frogs. It was all him, Balaustion says:
There blazed the glory, there shot black the shame
it showed every facet of his genius, and in it Bacchos himself was
duly dragged through the mire, and Euripides, after all the promises,
was more vilely treated than ever before.
So, Aristophanes obtained the prize,
And so Athenai felt she had a friend
Far better than her 'best friend,' lost last year.
But then, what happened? The great battle of Ægos Potamos was fought
and lost, and Athens fell into the hands of the Spartans. The
conqueror's first words were, Down with the Piræus! Peace needs no
bulwarks. At first the stupefied Athenians had been ready to obeybut
when the next decree came forth, No more democratic government; we
shall appoint your oligarchs! the dreamers were stung awake by horror;
they started up a-stare, their hands refused their office.
Three days they stood, staredstonier than their walls.
Lysander, the Spartan general, angered by the dumb delay, called a
conference, issued decree. Not the Piræus only, but all Athens should
be destroyed; every inch of the mad marble arrogance should go, and
so at last should peace dwell there.
* * * * *
Balaustion stands, recalling this to Euthukles, who writes her words
. . . and now, though she does not name it so, she tells the third
supreme adventure of her life. When that decree had sounded, and the
Spartans' shout of acquiescence had died away:
Then did a man of Phokis riseO heart! . . .
Who was the man of Phokis rose and flung
A flower i' the way of that fierce foot's advance
the choric flower of the Elektra, full in the face of the
You flung that choric flower, my Euthukles!
and, gazing down on him from her proud rosy height, while he sits
gazing up at her, she chants again the words she spoke to her
girl-friends at the Baccheion:
So, because Greeks are Greeks, and hearts are hearts,
And poetry is power, and Euthukles
Had faith therein to, full-face, fling the same
Sudden, the ice-thaw! The assembled foe,
Heaving and swaying with strange friendliness,
Cried 'Reverence Elektra!'cried
. . . 'Let stand
Athenai'! . . .
and Athens was saved through Euripides,
Through Euthukles, throughmore than everme,
Balaustion, me, who, Wild-Pomegranate-Flower,
Felt my fruit triumph, and fade proudly so!
* * * * *
But next day, Sparta woke from the spell. Harsh Lysander decreed
that though Athens might be saved, the Piræus should not. Comedy should
destroy the Long Walls: the flute-girls should lead off in the dance,
should time the strokes of spade and pickaxe, till the pride of the
Violet-Crowned lay in the dust. Done that day! mourns Balaustion:
The very day Euripides was born.
But they would not see the passing of Athenai; they would go,
fleeing the sights and sounds,
And press to other earth, new heaven, by sea
That somehow ever prompts to 'scape despair
and wonderfully, at the harbour-side they found that old grey
mariner, whose ship she had saved in the first Adventure! The ship was
still weather-wise: it should
'Convey Balaustion back to Rhodes, for sake
Of her and her Euripides!' laughed he,
and they embarked. It should be Rhodes indeed: to Rhodes they now
Euripides lies buried in the little valley laughed and moaned about
Boiling and freezing, like the love and hate
Which helped or harmed him through his earthly course.
They mix in Arethusa by his grave.
But, just as she had known, this revocation has consoled her.
Now she will be able to forget. Never again will her eyes behold
Athenai, nor in imagination see the ghastly mirth that mocked her
overthrow; but she and Euthukles are exiles from the dead, not from
the living, Athens:
That's in the cloud there, with the new-born star!
There is no despair, there can be none; for does not the soul
anticipate its heaven here on earth:
Above all crowding, crystal silentness,
Above all noise, a silver solitude . . .
Hatred and cark and care, what place have they
In yon blue liberality of heaven?
How the sea helps! How rose-smit earth will rise
Breast-high thence, some bright morning, and be Rhodes!
They are entering Rhodes now, and every wave and wind seems singing
out the same:
All in one choruswhat the master-word
They take up? Hark! 'There are no gods, no gods!
Glory to GODwho saves Euripides!'
. . . There she is, Wild-Pomegranate-Flower, Balaustionand
Triumphant Woman. What other man has given us this?and even Browning
only here. Nearly always, for man's homage, woman must in some sort be
victim: she must suffer ere he can adore. But Balaustion triumphs, and
we hail herand we hail her poet too, who dared to make her great not
only in her love, but in her own deep-hearted, ardent self.
This mortal shall put on individuality. Of all men Browning most
wished women to do that.
[94:1] I follow Browning's spellings throughout.
[96:1] The character of Balaustion is wholly imaginary.
[96:2] A town of the island of Rhodes.
[101:1] In the Apology, she tells the second supreme
adventure: her interview with Aristophanes, and the recital to him of
the Herakles of Euripides.
[106:1] Euripides died at the Court of Archelaus, King of Macedonia.
[117:1] Browning never finished his translation of this splendid
IN THE RING AND THE BOOK
I said, in writing of Balaustion: Nearly always, for man's homage,
woman must in some sort be victim: she must suffer ere he can adore.
I should have said that this has been so: for the tendency
to-day is to demonstrate rather the power than the weakness of woman.
True that in the victim, that weakness was usually shown to be the
very source of that power: through her suffering not only she, but they
who stood around and saw the anguish, were made perfect. That this
theory of the outcome of suffering is an eternal verity I am not
desirous to deny; but I do deplore that, in literature, women should be
made so disproportionately its exemplars; and I deplore it not for
feminist reasons alone. Once we regard suffering in this light of a
supreme uplifting influence, we turn, as it were, our weapons against
ourselveswe exclaim that men too suffer in this world and display the
highest powers of endurance: why, then, do they so frequently, in their
imaginative works, present themselves as makers of women's woes? For
women make men suffer often; yet how relatively seldom men show this!
Thus, paradoxically enough, we may come to declare that it is to
themselves that men are harsh, and to us generous. Chivalry from
women!how would that sound as a war-cry?
Not all in jest do I so speak, though such recognition of male
generosity leaves existent a certain sense of weariness which assails
meand if me, then probably many anotherwhen I find myself reading
of the immemorial victim. It is this which makes Balaustion supreme
for my delight. There is a woman with every noble attribute of
womanhood at its highest, who suffers at no hands but those of the
Great Fates, as one might saythe fates who rule the destiny of
nations. . . . We turn now to her direct antithesis in this regard of
sufferingwe turn to Pompilia, victim first of the mediocre, ignorant,
small-souled, then of the very devil of malignant baseness; such a
victim, moreover, first and last, for the paltriest of motivesmoney.
And money in no large, imaginative sense, but in the very lowest terms
in which it could be at all conceived as a theme for tragedy. A dowry,
and a tiny one: this created that old woe which steps on the
stage again for us in The Ring and the Book.
Another day that finds her living yet,
Little Pompilia, with the patient brow
And lamentable smile on those poor lips,
And, under the white hospital-array,
A flower-like body, to frighten at a bruise
You'd think, yet now, stabbed through and through again,
Alive i' the ruins. 'Tis a miracle.
It seems that when her husband struck her first,
She prayed Madonna just that she might live
So long as to confess and be absolved;
And whether it was that, all her sad life long
Never before successful in a prayer,
This prayer rose with authority too dread
Or whether because earth was hell to her,
By compensation when the blackness broke,
She got one glimpse of quiet and the cool blue,
To show her for a moment such things were,
the prayer was granted her.
So, musing on the murder of the Countess Franceschini by her
husband; and her four days' survival of her wounds, does one half of
Rome express itselfThe Other Half in contrast to the earliest
commentator on the crime: Half-Rome. This Other-Half is wholly
sympathetic to the seventeen-yeared child who lies in the hospital-ward
at St. Anna's. Why was she made to learn what Guido Franceschini's
heart could hold? demands the imagined spokesman; and, summing up, he
Who did it shall account to Christ
Having no pity on the harmless life
And gentle face and girlish form he found,
And thus flings back. Go practise if you please
With men and women. Leave a child alone
For Christ's particular love's sake!
Then, burning with pity and indignation, he proceeds to tell the
story of Pompilia as he sees it, feels itand as Browning, in the
issue, makes us see and feel it too.
In The Ring and the Book, Browning tells us this storythis
pure crude fact (for fact it actually is)ten times over,
through nine different persons, Guido Franceschini, the husband,
speaking twice. Stated thus baldly, the plan may sound almost absurd,
and the prospect of reading the work appear a tedious one; but once
begin it, and neither impression survives for a moment. Each telling is
at once the same and newfor in each the speaker's point of view is
altered. We get, first of all, Browning's own summary of the pure
crude fact; then the appearance of that fact to:
1. Half-Rome, antagonistic to Pompilia.
2. The Other Half, sympathetic to her.
3. Tertium Quid, neutral.
4. Count Guido Franceschini, at his trial.
5. Giuseppe Caponsacchi (the priest with whom Pompilia fled),
at the trial.
6. Pompilia, on her death-bed.
7. Count Guido's counsel, preparing his speech for the
8. The Public Prosecutor's speech.
9. The Pope, considering his decision on Guido's appeal to him
after the trial.
10. Guido, at the last interview with his spiritual advisers
Only the speeches of the two lawyers are wholly tedious; the rest of
the survey is absorbing. Not a point which can be urged on any side is
omitted, as that side presents itself; yet in the event, as I have
said, one overmastering effect stands forththe utter loveliness and
purity of Pompilia. She is the heroine, says Mr. Arthur
Symons,[126:1] as neither Guido nor Caponsacchi can be called the
hero. . . . With hardly [any] consciousness of herself, [she] makes and
unmakes the lives and characters of those about her; and in this way
he compares her story with Pippa's: the mere passing of an innocent
And so, here, have we not indeed the victim? But though I spoke of
weariness, I must take back the words; for here too we have indeed the
beauty and the glory of suffering, and here the beauty and the glory of
manhood. Guido, like all evil things, is Nothingness: he serves but to
show forth what purity and love, in Pompilia, could be; what bravery
and love, in Caponsacchi, the warrior-priest, could do. This girl has
not the Browning-mark of gaiety, but she has both the othersthis
lady young, tall, beautiful, strange, and sad, who answered without
fear the call of the unborn life within her, and trusted without
question the appointed man.
The pure crude fact, detailed by Browning, was found in the
authentic legal documents bound together in an old, square, yellow
parchment-covered volume, picked up by him, one day struck fierce 'mid
many a day struck calm, on a stall in the Piazza San Lorenzo of
Florence. He bought the pamphlet for eightpence, and it gave to him and
us the great, unique achievement of this wonderful poem:
Gold as it was, is, shall be evermore,
Prime nature with an added artistry.
+ + + + +
Pompilia, called Comparini, was in reality nobody's child. This,
which at first sight may seem of minor importance to the issue, is
actually at the heart of all; for, as I have said, it was the question
of her dowry which set the entire drama in motion. The old Comparini
couple, childless, of mediocre class and fortunes, had through silly
extravagance run into debt, and in 1679 were hard pressed by creditors.
They could not draw on their capital, for it was tied up in favour of
the legal heir, an unknown cousin. But if they had a child, that
disability would be removed. Violante Comparini, seeing this, resolved
upon a plan. She bought beforehand for a small sum the expected baby of
a disreputable woman, giving herself out to her husband, Pietro, and
their friends as almost miraculously pregnantfor she was past fifty.
In due time she became the apparent mother of a girl, Pompilia. This
girl was married at thirteen to Count Guido Franceschini, an
impoverished nobleman, fifty years old, of Arezzo. He married her for
her reported dowry, and she was sold to him for the sake of his rank.
Both parties to the bargain found themselves deceived (Pompilia was, of
course, a mere chattel in the business), for there was no dowry, and
Guido, though he had the rank, had none of the appurtenances
thereof which had dazzled the fancy of Violante. Pietro too was
tricked, and the marriage carried through against his will. The old
couple, reduced to destitution by extracted payment of a part of the
dowry, were taken to the miserable Franceschini castle at Arezzo, and
there lived wretchedly, in every sense, for a while; but soon fled back
to Rome, leaving the girl-wife behind to aggravated woes. About three
years afterwards she also fled, intending to rejoin the Comparini at
Rome. She was about to become a mother. The organiser and companion of
her flight was a young priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi, who was a canon at
Arezzo. Guido followed them, caught them at Castelnuovo, a village on
the outskirts of Rome, and caused both to be arrested. They were
confined in the New Prisons at Rome, and tried for adultery. The
result was a compromisethey were pronounced guilty, but a merely
nominal punishment (the jocular piece of punishment, as the young
priest called it) was inflicted on each. Pompilia was relegated for a
time to a convent; Caponsacchi was banished for three years to Civita
Vecchia. As the time for Pompilia's confinement drew near, she was
permitted to go to her reputed parents' home, which was a villa just
outside the walls of the city. A few months after her removal there,
she became the mother of a son, whom the old people quickly removed to
a place of concealment and safety. A fortnight lateron the second day
of the New YearCount Guido, with four hired assassins, came to the
villa, and all three occupants were killed: Pietro and Violante
Comparini, and Pompilia his wife. For these murders, Guido and his
hirelings were hanged at Rome on February 22, 1698.
But now we must return upon our steps, if we would know the truth
When the old Comparini reached Rome, after their flight from Arezzo,
the Pope had just proclaimed jubilee in honour of his eightieth year,
and absolution for any sin was to be had for the askingatonement,
however, necessarily preceding. Violante, remorseful for the sacrifice
of their darling, and regarding the woe as retribution for her original
lie about the birth, resolved to confess; but since absolution was
granted only if atonement preceded it, she must be ready to restore to
the rightful heir that which her pretended motherhood had taken from
him. She therefore confessed to Pietro first, and he instantly seized
the occasion for revenge on Guido, though that was not (or at any rate,
according to the Other Half-Rome, may not have been) his only motive.
What? All that used to be, may be again?
* * * * *
What, the girl's dowry never was the girl's,
And unpaid yet, is never now to pay?
Then the girl's self, my pale Pompilia child
That used to be my own with her great eyes
Will she come back, with nothing changed at all?
He repudiated Pompilia publicly, and with her, of course, all claims
from her husband. Taken into Court, the case (also bound up in the
square yellow book) was, after appeals and counter-appeals, left
It was this which loosed all Guido's fury on Pompilia. He had
already learned to hate her for her shrinking from him; now, while he
still controlled her person, and wreaked the vilest cruelties and
basenesses upon it, he at the same time resolved to rid himself of her
in any fashion whatsoever which should leave him still a legal claimant
to the disputed dowry.[130:1] There was only one way thus to rid
himself, and that was to prove her guilty of adultery. He concentrated
on it. First, his brother, the young Canon Girolamo, who lived at the
castle, was incited to pursue her with vile solicitations. She fled to
the Archbishop of Arezzo and implored his succour. He gave none. Then
she went to the Governor: he also pushed her back. She sought out a
poor friar, and confessed her despair in God; he promised to write to
her parents for her, but afterwards flinched, and did nothing. . . .
Guido's plan was nevertheless hanging fire; a supplementary system of
persecution must be set up. She was hourly accused of looking
love-lures at theatre and church, in walk, at window; but this, in the
apathy which was descending on her, she baffled by a new game of
giving up the game.[131:1] She abandoned theatre, church, walk, and
window; she confounded him with her gentleness and worth, he saw the
same stone strength of white despair:
How does it differ in aught, save degree,
From the terrible patience of God?
and more and more he hated her.
But at last, at the theatre one night, Pompilia
Brought there I knew not why, but now know well"[131:2]
saw, for the first time, Giuseppe Caponsacchi, the young frank
personable priest"[131:3]and seeing him as rapt he gazed at her, felt
. . . Had there been a man like that,
To lift me with his strength out of all strife
Into the calm! . . .
Suppose that man had been instead of this?
* * * * *
Caponsacchi had hitherto been very much the courtly spiritual
Cupid that Browning calls him. His family, the oldest in Arezzo and
once the greatest, had wide interest in the Church, and he had always
known that he was to be a priest. But when the time came for just a
vow to read! he stopped awestruck. Could he keep such a promise? He
knew himself too weak. But the Bishop smiled. There were two ways of
taking that vow, and a man like Caponsacchi, with that superior gift
of making madrigals, need not choose the harder one.
Renounce the world? Nay, keep and give it us!
He was good enough for that, thought Caponsacchi, and in this
spirit he took the vows. He did his formal duties, and was equally
diligent at his post where beauty and fashion rulea fribble and a
coxcomb, in short, as he described himself to the judges at the
murder-trial. . . . After three or four years of this, he found
himself, in prosecution of his calling, at the theatre one night with
fat little Canon Conti, a kinsman of the Franceschini. He was in the
mood proper enough for the place, amused or no . . .
When I saw enter, stand, and seat herself
A lady young, tall, beautiful, strange and sad
and it was (he remembered) like seeing a burden carried to the
Altar in his church one day, while he got yawningly through
Matin-Song. The burden was unpacked, and left
Lofty and lone: and lo, when next I looked
There was the Rafael!
Fat little Conti noticed his rapt gaze, and exclaimed that he would
make the lady respond to it. He tossed a paper of comfits into her lap;
Looked our way, smiled the beautiful sad strange smile;
and thought the thought that we have learnedfor instinctively and
surely she felt that whoever had thrown the comfits, it was not that
. . . Silent, grave,
Solemn almost, he saw me, as I saw him.
Conti told Caponsacchi who she was, and warned him to look away; but
promised to take him to the castle if he could. At Vespers, next day,
Caponsacchi heard from Conti that the husband had seen that gaze. He
would not signify, but there was Pompilia:
Spare her, because he beats her as it is,
She's breaking her heart quite fast enough.
It was the turning-point in Caponsacchi's life. He had no thought of
pursuing her; wholly the contrary was his impulsehe felt that he must
leave Arezzo. All that hitherto had charmed him there was done
withthe social successes, the intrigue, song-making; and his patron
was already displeased. These things were what he was there to do, and
he was going to church instead! Are you turning Molinist? the patron
asked. I answered quick (says Caponsacchi in his narrative)
Sir, what if I turned Christian?
and at once announced his resolve to go to Rome as soon as Lent
was over. One evening, before he went, he was sitting thinking how his
life had shaken under him; and
Thinking moreover . . . oh, thinking, if you like,
How utterly dissociated was I
A priest and celibate, from the sad strange wife
Of Guido . . .
. . . I had a whole store of strengths
Eating into my heart, which craved employ,
And she, perhaps, need of a finger's help
And yet there was no way in the wide world
To stretch out mine.
Her smile kept glowing out of the devotional book he was trying to
read, and he sat thuswhen suddenly there came a tap at the door, and
on his summons, there glided in a masked muffled mystery, who laid a
letter on the open book, and stood back demurely waiting.
It was Margherita, the kind of maid of Count Guido, and the letter
purported to be from Pompilia, offering her love. Caponsacchi saw
through the trick at once: the letter was written by Guido. He answered
it in such a way that it would save her from all anger, and at
the same time infuriate the jealous miscreant who had written it:
. . . What made youmay one ask?
Marry your hideous husband?
But henceforth such letters came thick and fast. Caponsacchi was met
in the street, signed to in church; slips were found in his
prayer-book, they dropped from the window if he passed. . . . At length
there arrived a note in a different manner. This warned him not
to come, to avoid the window for his life. At once he answered that the
street was freehe should go to the window if he chose, and he would
go that evening at the Ave. His conviction was that he should find the
husband there, not the wifefor though he had seen through the trick,
it did not occur to him that it was more than a device of jealousy to
trap them, already suspected after that mutual gaze at the theatre.
What it really was, he never guessed at all.
Meanwhileturning now to Pompilia's dying speech to the nuns who
nursed herthe companion persecution had been going on at the castle.
Day after day, Margherita had dinned the name of Caponsacchi into the
wife's ears. How he loved her, what a paragon he was, how little she
owed fidelity to the Count who used her, Margherita, as his
pastimeought she not at least to see the priest and warn him, if
nothing more? Guido might kill him! Here was a letter from him; and she
began to impart it:
I know you cannot readtherefore, let me!
'My idol' . . .
The letter was not from Caponsacchi, and Pompilia, divining this as
surely as she had divined that he did not throw the comfits, took it
from the woman's hands and tore it into shreds. . . . Day after day
such moments added themselves to all the rest of the misery, and at
last, at end of her strength, she swooned away. As she was coming to
again, Margherita stooped and whispered Caponsacchi. But still,
though the sound of his name was to the broken girl as if, drowning,
she had looked up through the waves and seen a star . . . still she
repudiated the servant's report of him: had she not that once beheld
Therefore while you profess to show him me,
I ever see his own face. Get you gone!
But the swoon had portended something; and on one vivid daybreak,
half through April, Pompilia learned what that something was. . . .
Going to bed the previous night, the last sound in her ears had been
Margherita's prattle. Easter was over; everyone was on the wing for
Romeeven Caponsacchi, out of heart and hope, was going there.
Pompilia had heard it, as she might have heard rain drop, thinking only
that another day was done:
How good to sleep and so get nearer death!
But with the daybreak, what was the clear summons that seemed to
pierce her slumber?
. . . Up I sprang alive,
Light in me, light without me, everywhere
The exquisite morning was therethe broad yellow sunbeams with
their myriad merry motes, the glittering leaves of the wet weeds
against the lattice-panes, the birds
Always with one voicewhere are two such joys?
The blessed building-sparrow! I stepped forth,
Stood on the terraceo'er the roofs such sky!
My heart sang, 'I too am to go away,
I too have something I must care about,
Carry away with me to Rome, to Rome!
* * * * *
Not to live now would be the wickedness.'[137:1]
Pope Innocent XIIthe great good old Pope, as Browning calls him
in the summary of Book Iwhen in his turn he speaks to us, gives his
highest praise, where all he praises, to this trait in her whom he
calls My rose, I gather for the breast of God.
Oh child, that didst despise thy life so much
When it seemed only thine to keep or lose,
How the fine ear felt fall the first low word
'Value life, and preserve life for My sake!'
* * * * *
Thou, at first prompting of what I call God,
And fools call Nature, didst hear, comprehend,
Accept the obligation laid on thee,
Mother elect, to save the unborn child.
. . . Go past me,
And get thy praiseand be not far to seek
Presently when I follow if I may!
Now (says the sympathetic Other Half-Rome), begins the tenebrific
passage of the tale. As we have seen, Pompilia had tried all other
means of escape, even before the great call came to her. Her last
appeal had been made to two of Guido's kinsmen, on the wing for Rome
like everyone elseConti being one. Both had refused, but Conti had
referred her to Caponsacchinot evilly like Margherita, but jestingly,
flippantly. Nevertheless, that name had come to take a half-fateful
sense to her ears . . . and the Other Half-Rome thus images the moment
in which she resolved to appeal to him.
If then, all outlets thus secured save one,
At last she took to the open, stood and stared
With her wan face to see where God might wait
And there found Caponsacchi wait as well
For the precious something at perdition's edge,
He only was predestinate to save . . .
* * * * *
Whatever way in this strange world it was,
Pompilia and Caponsacchi met, in fine,
She at her window, he i' the street beneath,
And understood each other at first look.
For suddenly (she tells us) on that morning of Annunciation, she
turned on Margherita, ever at her ear, and said, Tell Caponsacchi he
may come! How plainly (says Pompilia)
How plainly I perceived hell flash and fade
O' the face of herthe doubt that first paled joy,
Then final reassurance I indeed
Was caught now, never to be free again!
But she cared not; she felt herself strong for everything.
After the Ave Maria, at first dark,
I will be standing on the terrace, say!
She knew he would come, and prayed to God all day. At an intense
throe of the dusk she started upshe dared to say, in her dying
speech, that she was divinely pushed out on the terraceand there he
waited her, with the same silent and solemn face, at watch to save
+ + + + +
He had come, as he defiantly had said, and not the husband met him,
but, at the window, with a lamp in her hand, Our Lady of all the
Sorrows. He knelt, but even as he knelt she vanished, only to reappear
on the terrace, so close above him that she could almost touch his head
if she bent downand she did bend, while I stood still as stone, all
eye, all ear.
First she told him that she could neither read nor write, but that
the letters said to be from him had been read to her, and seemed to say
that he loved her. She did not believe that he meant that as Margherita
meant it; but good true love would help me now so much that at last
she had resolved to see him. Her whole life was so strange that this
but belonged to the rest: that an utter stranger should be able to help
herhe, and he alone! She told him her story. There was a reason now
at last why she must fly from this fell house of hate, and she would
take from Caponsacchi's love what she needed: enough to save her life
. . . Take me to Rome!
Take me as you would take a dog, I think,
Masterless left for strangers to maltreat:
Take me home like thatleave me in the house
Where the father and mother are . . .
She tells his answer thus:
The first word I heard ever from his lips,
All himself in itan eternity
Of speech, to match the immeasurable depth
O' the soul that then broke silence'I am yours.'
* * * * *
But when he had left her, irresolution swept over him. First, the
Church seemed to rebukethe Church who had smiled on his silly
intrigues! Now she changed her tone, it appeared:
Now, when I found out first that life and death
Are means to an end, that passion uses both,
Indisputably mistress of the man
Whose form of worship is self-sacrifice.
But that soon passed: the word was God's; this was the true
self-sacrifice. . . . But might it not injure herscandal would hiss
about her name. Would not God choose His own way to save her? And he
might pray. . . . Two days passed thus. But he must go to counsel and
to comfort herwas he not a priest? He went. She was there, leaning
over the terrace; she reproached him: why did he delay the help his
heart yearned to give? He answered with his fears for her, but she
broke in, never doubting him though he should doubt himself:
'I know you: when is it that you will come?'
To-morrow at the day's dawn, he replied; and all was arrangedthe
place, the time; she came, she did not speak, but glided into the
carriage, while he cried to the driver:
. . . 'By San Spirito,
To Rome, as if the road burned underneath!'
When she was dying of Guido's twenty-two dagger-thrusts, this was
how Pompilia thought of that long flight:
I did pray, do pray, in the prayer shall die:
'Oh, to have Caponsacchi for my guide!'
Ever the face upturned to mine, the hand
Holding my hand across the world . . .
And he, telling the judges of it at the murder-trial, cried that he
never could lie quiet in his grave unless he mirrored them plain the
perfect soul Pompilia.
You must know that a man gets drunk with truth
Stagnant inside him. Oh, they've killed her, Sirs!
Can I be calm?
But he must be calm: he must show them that soul.
The glory of life, the beauty of the world,
The splendour of heaven . . . well, Sirs, does no one move?
Do I speak ambiguously? The glory, I say,
And the beauty, I say, and splendour, still say I . . .
for thus he flings defiance at them. Why do they not smile as they
smiled at the earlier adultery-trial, when they gave him the jocular
piece of punishment, now that he stands before them in this sudden
smoke from hell?
Men, for the last time, what do you want with me?
For if they had but seen then what Guido Franceschini was! If
they would but have been serious! Pompilia would not now be
Gasping away the latest breath of all,
This minute, while I talknot while you laugh?
How can the end of this deed surprise them? Pompilia and he had
shown them what its beginning meantbut all in vain. He, the priest,
had left her to law's watch and ward, and now she is dyingthere
and thus she lies! Do they understand now that he was not
unworthy of Christ when he tried to save her? His part is doneall
that he had been able to do; he wants no more with earth, except to
show Pompilia who was true
The snow-white soul that angels fear to take
Untenderly . . . Sirs,
Then he begins his story of
. . . Our flight from dusk to clear,
Through day and night and day again to night
Once more, and to last dreadful dawn of all.
Thinking how they sat in silence, both so fearless and so safe,
waking but now and then to consciousness of the wonder of it, he cries:
You know this is not love, Sirsit is faith,
The feeling that there's God.
By morning they had passed Perugia; Assisi was opposite. He met her
look for the first time since they had started. . . . At Foligno he
urged her to take a brief rest, but with eyes like a fawn's,
Tired to death in the thicket, when she feels
The probing spear o' the huntsman,
she had cried, On, on to Rome, on, onand they went on. During
the night she had a troubled dream, waving away something with wild
arms; and Caponsacchi prayed (thinking Why, in my life I never prayed
before!) that the dream might go, and soon she slept peacefully. . . .
When she woke, he answered her first look with the assurance that Rome
was within twelve hours; no more of the terrible journey. But she
answered that she wished it could last for ever: to be with no
Never to see a face nor hear a voice
Yours is no voice; you speak when you are dumb;
Nor face, I see it in the dark . . .
such tranquillity was such heaven to her!
This one heart (she said on her death-bed):
This one heart gave me all the spring!
I could believe himself by his strong will
Had woven around me what I thought the world
We went along in . . .
For, through the journey, was it natural
Such comfort should arise from first to last?
As she looks back, new stars bud even while she seeks for old, and
all is Caponsacchi:
Him I now see make the shine everywhere.
Best of all her memoriesoh, the heart in that!was the descent
at a little wayside inn. He tells of it thus. When the day was broad,
he begged her to descend at the post-house of a village. He told the
woman of the house that Pompilia was his sister, married and
unhappywould she comfort her as women can? And then he left them
I spent a good half-hour, paced to and fro
The garden; just to leave her free awhile . . .
I might have sat beside her on the bench
Where the children were: I wish the thing had been,
Indeed: the event could not be worse, you know:
One more half-hour of her saved! She's dead now, Sirs!
As they again drove forward, she asked him if, supposing she were to
die now, he would account it to be in sin? The woman at the inn had
told her about the trees that turn away from the north wind with the
nests they hold; she thought she might be like those trees. . . . But
soon, half-sleeping again, and restless now with returning fears, she
seemed to wander in her mind; once she addressed him as Gaetano. . .
. Afterwards he knew that this name (the name of a newly-made saint)
was that which she destined for her child, if she was given a son:
One who has only been made a sainthow long?
Twenty-five years: so, carefuller, perhaps,
To guard a namesake than those old saints grow,
Tired out by this timesee my own five saints![146:1]
For little Pompilia had been given five names by her pretended
. . . so many names for one poor child
Francesca Camilla Vittoria Angela
Pompilia Comparinilaughable![146:1] . . .
But now Caponsacchi himself grew restless, nervous: here was
Castelnuovo, as good as Rome:
Say you are saved, sweet lady!
She awoke. The sky was fierce with the sunset colourssuddenly she
cried out that she must not die:
'Take me no farther, I should die: stay here!
I have more life to save than mine!' She swooned.
We seemed safe: what was it foreboded so?
He carried her,
Against my heart, beneath my head bowed low,
As we priests carry the paten,
into the little inn and to a couch, where he laid her, sleeping
deeply. The host urged him to leave her in peace till morn.
Oh, my foreboding! But I could not choose.
All night he paced the passage, throbbing with fear from head to
foot, filled with a sense of such impending woe . . . and at the
first pause of night went to the courtyard, ordered the horsesthe
last moment came, he must awaken herhe turned to go:
. . . And there
Faced me Count Guido.
Oh, if he had killed him then! if he had taken the throat in one
great good satisfying gripe, and abolished Guido with his lie! . . .
But while he mused on the irony of such a miscreant calling her
The minute, oh the misery, was gone;
two police-officers stood beside, and Guido was ordering them to
Caponsacchi insisted that he should lead them to the room
where she was sleeping. He was a priest and privileged; when they came
there, if the officer should detect
Guilt on her face when it meets mine, then judge
Between us and the mad dog howling there!
They all went up together. There she lay,
O' the couch, still breathless, motionless, sleep's self,
Wax-white, seraphic, saturate with the sun
That filled the window with a light like blood.
At Guido's loud order to the officers, she started up, and stood
erect, face to face with the husband: the opprobrious blur against all
peace and joy and light and lifefor he was standing against the
window a-flame with morning. But in her terror, that seemed to her the
flame from hell, since he was in itand she cried to him to
stand away, she chose hell rather than embracing any more.
Caponsacchi tried to go to her, but now the room was full of the
rabble pouring in at the noisehe was caughtthey heaped themselves
upon me. . . . Then, when she saw my angel helplessly held back,
Came all the strength back in a sudden swell,
and she sprang at her husband, seized the sword that hung beside
Drew, brandished it, the sunrise burned for joy
O' the blade. 'Die,' cried she, 'devil, in God's name!'
Ah, but they all closed round her, twelve to one
. . . Dead-white and disarmed she lay.
She said, dying, that this, her first and last resistance, had been
invincible, for she had struck at the lie in Guido; and thus not the
vain sword nor weak speech had saved her, but Caponsacchi's truth:
You see, I will not have the service fail!
I say the angel saved me: I am safe! . . .
What o' the way to the end?the end crowns all
for even though she now was dying, there had been the time at the
convent with the quiet nuns, and then the safety with her parents, and
My babe was given me! Yes, he saved my babe:
It would not have peeped forth, the bird-like thing,
Through that Arezzo noise and trouble . . .
But the sweet peace cured all, and let me live
And give my bird the life among the leaves
God meant him! Weeks and months of quietude,
I could lie in such peace and learn so much,
Know life a little, I should leave so soon.
Therefore, because this man restored my soul
All has been right . . .
For as the weakness of my time drew nigh,
Nobody did me one disservice more,
Spoke coldly or looked strangely, broke the love
I lay in the arms of, till my boy was born,
Born all in love, with nought to spoil the bliss
A whole long fortnight: in a life like mine
A fortnight filled with bliss is long and much.
For, thinking of her happy childhood before the marriage, already
she has said that only that childhood, and the prayer that brought her
Caponsacchi, and the great fortnight remain as real: the four bad
Vanishone quarter of my life, you know.
In that room in the inn they parted. They were borne off to separate
cells of the same ignoble prison, and, separate, thence to Rome.
Pompilia's face, then and thus, looked on me
The last time in this life: not one sight more,
Never another sight to be! And yet
I thought I had saved her . . .
It seems I simply sent her to her death.
You tell me she is dying now, or dead.
But then it flashes to his mind that this may be a trick to make him
confessit would be worthy of them; and the great cry breaks forth:
No, Sirs, I cannot have the lady dead!
That erect form, flashing brow, fulgurant eye,
That voice immortal (oh, that voice of hers!)
That vision in the blood-red daybreakthat
Leap to life of the pale electric sword
Angels go armed withthat was not the last
O' the lady! Come, I see through it, you find
Know the manoeuvre! . . .
Let me see for myself if it be so!
* * * * *
But it is true. Twenty-two dagger-thrusts
Two days ago, when Guido, with the right,
Hacked her to pieces . . .
Oh, should they not have seen at first? That very flight proved the
innocence of the pair who thus fled: these judges should have
recognised the accepted man, the exceptional conduct that rightly
claims to be judged by exceptional rules. . . . But it is all over. She
is dyingdead perhaps. He has done with being judgedhe is guiltless
in thought, word, and deed; and she . . .
. . . For Pompiliabe advised,
Build churches, go pray! You will find me there,
I know, if you comeand you will come, I know.
Why, there's a judge weeping! Did not I say
You were good and true at bottom? You see the truth
I am glad I helped you: she helped me just so.
Once more he flashes forth in her defence, in rage against
Guidobut the image of her, so sweet and true and pure and
beautiful, comes back to him:
Sirs, I am quiet again. You see we are
So very pitiable, she and I,
Who had conceivably been otherwise
and at the thought of how otherwise, of what life with
such a woman were for a free man, and of his life henceforth, a priest,
on earth, as good as out of it, with the memory of her, only the
memory . . . for she is dying, dead perhaps . . . the whole man breaks
down, and he goes from the place with one wild, anguished call to
Oh, great, just, good God! Miserable me!
I have chosen to reveal Pompilia chiefly through Caponsacchi's
speech for two reasons. First, because there is nothing grander in our
literature than that passionate and throbbing monologue; second,
because to show this type of woman through another speaker is
the way in which Browning always shows her best. As I said when writing
of Mildred Tresham, directly such a woman speaks for herself, in
Browning's work, he forces the note, he takes from her (unconsciously)
a part of the beauty which those other speakers have shown forth. So
with Pompilia, though not in the same degree as with Mildred, for here
the truth is with usPompilia is a living soul, not a puppet of
the theatre. Yet even here the same strange errors recur. She has words
indeed that reach the inmost heartpoignant, overpowering in
tenderness and pathos; but she has, also, words that cause the brows to
draw together, the mind to pause uneasily, then to cry Not so! Of
such is the analysis of her own blank ignorance with regard to the
marriage-state. This, wholly acceptable while left unexplained, loses
its verisimilitude when comparisons are found in her mouth with which
to delineate it; and the particular one chosenof marriage as a coin,
a dirty piece would purchase me the praise of those I lovedis
actually inept, since the essence of her is that she does not know
anything at all about the coin, so certainly does not know that it is
or may be dirty.
Again, here is an ignorant child, whose deep insight has come to her
through love alone. She feels, in the weakness of her nearing death,
and the bliss of spiritual tranquillity, that all the past with Guido
is a terrific dream: It is the good of dreamsso soon they go!
Beautiful: but Browning could not leave it in that beautiful and true
simplicity. She must philosophise:
This is the note of evil: for good lasts . . .
Pompilia was incapable of that: she could say the thing, as she
says it in that image of the dreambut she would have left it alone,
she would have made no maxim out of it. And the maxim, when it is
made, says no more than the image had said.
Once again: her plea for Guido. That she should forgive him was
essential, but the pardon should have been blind pardon. No reason can
confirm it; and we should but have loved her more for seeking none. To
put in her mouth the plea that Guido had been deceived in his hope of
enrichment by marriage, and that his anger, thus to some extent
justified, was aggravated by her blindness, by her not knowing
whither he sought to drive her with his charges of light conduct,
So unaware, I only made things worse . . .
this is bad through and through; this is the excess of ingenuity
which misled Browning so frequently. There is no loveliness of pardon
here; but something that we cannot suffer for its gross humility. The
aim of Guido, in these charges, was filthiest evil: it revolts to hear
the victim, now fully awarefor the plea is based on her
awarenessblame herself for not apprehending his drift (could she
have used that phrase?), and thus, in the madness of magnanimity, seem
to lose all sense of good and evil. It is over-subtle; it is not true;
it has no beauty of any kind. But Browning could not leave things
alone; he had to analyse, to subtiliseand this, which comes so well
when it is analytic and subtle minds that address us, makes the defect
of his work whenever an innocent and ignorant girl is made to speak in
her own person.
I shall not multiply instances; my aim is not destructive. But I
think the unmeasured praise of Browning by some of his admirers has
worked against, not for, him. It irritates to read of the perfection
of this speechwhich has beauties so many and so great that the faults
may be confessed, and leave it still among the lovely things of our
I turn now gladly to those beauties. Chief is the pride and love of
the new-made mothernever more exquisitely shown, and here the more
poignantly shown because she is on her death-bed, and has not seen her
little son again since the great fortnight. She thinks how well it
was that he had been taken from her before that awful night at the
He was too young to smile and save himself;
for she does not dream, not then remembering the money which was
at the heart of all her woe, that he would have been spared for
that money's sake. . . . But she had not seen him again, and now will
never see him. And when he grows up and comes to be her age, he will
ask what his mother was like, and people will say, Like girls of
seventeen, and he will think of some girl he knows who titters and
blushes when he looks at her. . . . That is not the way for a mother!
Therefore I wish someone will please to say
I looked already old, though I was young;
and she begs to be told that she looks nearer twenty. Her name
too is not a common onethat may help to keep apart
A little the thing I am from what girls are.
But how hard for him to find out anything about her:
No father that he ever knew at all,
Nor never hadno, never had, I say!
and a mother who only lived two weeks, and Pietro and Violante
gone! Only his saint to guard himthat was why she chose the new one;
he would not be tired of guarding namesakes. . . . After all, she
hopes her boy will come to disbelieve her history, as herself almost
does. It is dwindling fast to that:
Sheer dreaming and impossibility
Just in four days too! All the seventeen years,
Not once did a suspicion visit me
How very different a lot is mine
From any other woman's in the world.
The reason must be, 'twas by step and step
It got to grow so terrible and strange.
These strange woes stole on tip-toe, as it were . . .
Sat down where I sat, laid them where I lay,
And I was found familiarised with fear.
First there was the amazement of finding herself disowned by Pietro
and Violante. Then:
So with my husbandjust such a surprise,
Such a mistake, in that relationship!
Everyone says that husbands love their wives,
Guard them and guide them, give them happiness;
'Tis duty, law, pleasure, religion: well
You see how much of this comes true with me!
Next, there is the friend. . . . People will not ask her about
him; they smile and give him nicknames, and call him her lover. Most
surprise of all! It is always that word: how he loves her, how she
loves him . . . yet he is a priest, and she is married. It all seems
unreal, like the childish game in which she and her little friend Tisbe
would pretend to be the figures on the tapestry:
You know the figures never were ourselves.
. . . Thus all my life.
Her life is like a fairy thing that fades and fades.
Even to my babe! I thought when he was born,
Something began for me that would not end,
Nor change into a laugh at me, but stay
For evermore, eternally, quite mine.
And hers he is, but he is gone, and it is all so confused that even
he withdraws into a dream as the rest do. She fancies him grown
Strong, stern, a tall young man who tutors me,
Frowns with the others: 'Poor imprudent child!
Why did you venture out of the safe street?
Why go so far from help to that lone house?
Why open at the whisper and the knock?'
* * * * *
That New Year's Day, when she had been allowed to get up for the
first time, and they had sat round the fire and talked of him, and what
he should do when he was big
Oh, what a happy, friendly eve was that!
And next day, old Pietro had been packed off to church, because he
was so happy and would talk so much, and Violante thought he would tire
her. And then he came back, and was telling them about the Christmas
altars at the churchesnone was so fine as San Giovanni
. . . When, at the door,
A tap: we started up: you know the rest.
Pietro had done no harm; Violante had erred in telling the lie about
her birthcertainly that was wrong, but it was done with love in it,
and even the giving her to Guido had had love in it . . . and at any
rate it is all over now, and Pompilia has just been absolved, and thus
there seems not so much pain:
Being right now, I am happy and colour things.
Yes, everybody that leaves life sees all
Softened and bettered; so with other sights:
To me at least was never evening yet
But seemed far beautifuller than its day,[158:1]
For past is past.
Then she falls to thinking of that real mother, who had sold her
before she was born. Violante had told her of it when she came back
from the nuns, and was waiting for her boy to come. That mother died at
I shall believe she hoped in her poor heart
That I at least might try be good and pure . . .
And oh, my mother, it all came to this?
Now she too is dying, and leaving her little one behind. But she
is leaving him outright to God:
All human plans and projects come to nought:
My life, and what I know of other lives
Prove that: no plan nor project! God shall care!
She will lay him with God. And her last breath, for gratitude, shall
spend itself in showing, now that they will really listen and not say
he was your lover . . . her last breath shall disperse the stain
around the name of Caponsacchi.
. . . There,
Strength comes already with the utterance!
* * * * *
Now she tells what we know; some of it we have learnt already from
her lips. She goes back over the years in that fell house of hate;
then, the seeing of him at the theatre, the persecution with the false
letters, the Annunciation-morning, the summons to him, the meeting, the
No pause i' the leading and the light!
* * * * *
And this man, men call sinner? Jesus Christ!
But once more, mother-like, she reverts to her boy:
. . . We poor
Weak souls, how we endeavour to be strong!
I was already using up my life
This portion, now, should do him such a good,
This other go to keep off such an ill.
The great life: see, a breath, and it is gone!
Still, all will be well: Let us leave God alone. And now she will
withdraw from earth and man to her own soul, will compose herself
for God . . . but even as she speaks, the flood of gratitude to her
one friend again sweeps back, and she exclaims,
Well, and there is more! Yes, my end of breath
Shall bear away my soul in being true![159:1]
He is still here, not outside with the world,
Here, here, I have him in his rightful place!
* * * * *
I feel for what I verily findagain
The face, again the eyes, again, through all,
The heart and its immeasurable love
Of my one friend, my only, all my own,
Who put his breast between the spears and me.
Ever with Caponsacchi! . . .
O lover of my life, O soldier-saint,
No work begun shall ever pause for death!
Love will be helpful to me more and more
I' the coming course, the new path I must tread
My weak hand in thy strong hand, strong for that!
* * * * *
Not one faint fleck of failure! Why explain?
What I see, oh, he sees, and how much more!
* * * * *
Do not the dead wear flowers when dressed for God?
SayI am all in flowers from head to foot!
Saynot one flower of all he said and did,
But dropped a seed, has grown a balsam-tree
Whereof the blossoming perfumes the place
At this supreme of moments!
She has recognised the truth. This is lovebut how different
from the love of the smilings and the whisperings, the He is your
lover! He is a priest, and could not marry; but she thinks he would
not have married if he could:
Marriage on earth seems such a counterfeit,
* * * * *
In heaven we have the real and true and sure.
In heaven, where the angels know themselves into one; and are
never married, no, nor given in marriage:
. . . They are man and wife at once
When the true time is . . .
So, let him wait God's instant men call years;
Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul,
Do out the duty! Through such souls alone
God, stooping, shows sufficient of his light
For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise.
* * * * *
Who would analyse this child would tear a flower to pieces. Pompilia
is no heroine, no character; but indeed a rose gathered for the breast
Et, rose, elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses,
L'espace d'un matin.
[126:1] Introduction to the Study of Browning, 1886, p. 152.
[130:1] Abandoning for the moment intermediate events, it was
this which moved Guido to the triple murder: for once the old
couple and Pompilia dead, with the question of his claim to the dowry
still undecided as it was, his child, the new-born babe, might inherit
[131:1] Guido's second speech, wherein he tells the truth, in the
hope that his impenitence may defer his execution.
[131:2] Her dying speech.
[131:3] Browning's summary. Book I.
[137:1] Mrs. Orr, commenting on this passage, says: The sudden
rapturous sense of maternity which, in the poetic rendering of the
case, becomes her impulse to self-protection, was beyond her age and
culture; it was not suggested by the factsfor Mrs. Orr, who had read
the documents from which Browning made the poem, says: Unless my
memory much deceives me, her physical condition plays no part in the
historical defence of her flight. . . . The real Pompilia was a simple
child, who lived in bodily terror of her husband, and had made repeated
efforts to escape from him. And, as she later adds, though for many
readers this character is, in its haunting pathos, the most exquisite
of Browning's creations, for others, it fails in impressiveness
because it lacks the reality which habitually marks them. But (she
goes on) it was only in an idealised Pompilia that the material for
poetical creation, in this 'murder story,' could have been found.
These remarks will be seen partly to agree with some of my own.
[146:1] Her dying speech.
[158:1] How wonderfully is the wistful nature of the girl summed up
in these two lines!
[159:1] Caponsacchi uses almost the same words of her: he will burn
his soul out in showing you the truth.
PART II. THE GREAT LADY
[Illustration: THE GREAT LADY]
MY LAST DUCHESS, AND THE FLIGHT OF
THE DUCHESS .
For a mind so subtle, frank, and generous as that of Browning, the
perfume which pervades the atmosphere of high life was no less
obvious than the miasma. His imagination needed not to free itself of
all things adventitious to its object ere it could soar; in a word, for
Browning, even a lady could be a womanand remain a woman, even
though she be turned to a great lady, that figure once so gracious,
now so hunted from the realm of things that may be loved! Of narrowness
like this our poet was incapable. He could indeed transcend the
class-distinction, but that was not, with him, the same as trampling it
under foot. And especially he loved to set a young girl in those
regions where material cares prevail notwhere, moving as in an upper
air, she joys or suffers not for bread alone.
Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its
O'er the breast's superb abundance, where a man might base his
He could grant her to be such a lady, yet grant, too, that her
soul existed. True, that in A Toccata of Galuppi's,[166:1] the
soul is questioned:
Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice
The soul, doubtless, is immortalwhere a soul can be
But this is not our crude modern refusal of reality in any lives
but those of toil and privation. It is rather the sad vision of an
entire social epochthe eighteenth century; and the eighteenth century
in Venice, who was then at the final stage of her moral death. And
despite the denial of soul in these Venetians, there is no contempt, no
facile simplification of a question whose roots lie deep in human
nature, since even the animals and plants we cultivate into classes!
The sadness is for the mutability of things; and among them, that
lighthearted, brilliant way of life, which had so much of charm amid
Well, and it was graceful of themthey'd break talk off and
She, to bite her mask's black velvet, he, to finger on his
While you sat and played toccatas, stately at the clavichord.
The music trickled then through the room, as it trickles now for the
listening poet: with its minor cadences, the lesser thirds so
plaintive, the diminished sixths, the suspensions, the solutions:
Must we die?
Those commiserating sevenths'Life might last! we can but
The question of questions, even for ladies and gentlemen! And then
come the other questions: Hark, the dominant's persistence till it
must be answered to.
So an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare
'Brave Galuppi, that was music! Good alike at grave and gay!
I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play.'
Then they left you for their pleasure; till in due time, one
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the
. . . The cold music has seemed to the modern listener to say that
he, learned and wise, shall not pass away like these:
. . . You know physics, something of geology,
Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their
Butterflies may dread extinctionyou'll not die, it cannot
As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to
stop? . . .
Yet while it seems to say this, the saying brings him no solace.
What, creaking like a ghostly cricket, it intends, he must perceive,
since he is neither deaf nor blind:
But although I take your meaning, 'tis with such a heavy
mind! . . .
'Dust and ashes!' So you creak it, and I want the heart to
Dear dead women, with such hair, toowhat's become of all the
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown
After all, the pageant of life has value! We need not only
the wise men. And even the wise man creeps through every nerve when he
listens to that music. Here's all the good it brings!
+ + + + +
None the less, there is trouble other than that of its passing in
this pageant. Itself has the seed of death within it. All that beauty,
riches, ease, can do, shall leave some souls unsatisfiednay, shall
kill some souls. . . . This too Browning could perceive and show; and
once more, loved to show in the person of a girl. There is something in
true womanhood which transcends all morgue: it seems almost his
foible to say that, so often does he say it! In Colombe, in the Queen
of In a Balcony (so wondrously contrasted with Constance,
scarcely less noble, yet half-corroded by this very rust of state and
semblance); above all, in the exquisite imagining of that Duchess,
the girl-wife who twice is given us, and in two widely different
environmentsyet is (to my feeling) one loved incarnation of
eager sweetness. He touched her first to life when she was dead, if one
may speak so paradoxically; then, unsatisfied with that posthumous
awaking, brought her resolutely back to earthin My Last Duchess
and The Flight of the Duchess respectively. Let us examine the
two poems, and I think we shall agree, in reading the second, that
Browning, like Caponsacchi, could not have the lady dead.
First, then, comes a picturethe mere portrait, painted on the
wall, of a dead Italian girl.
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
Frà Pandolf by design: for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus.
The Duke, a Duke of Ferrara, owner of a nine-hundred-years-old
name, is showing the portrait, with an intention in the display, to
the envoy from a Count whose daughter he designs to make his next
Duchess. He is a connoisseur and collector of the first rank, but his
pride is deeplier rooted than in artistic knowledge and possessions.
Thanks to that nine-hundred-years-old name, he is something more than
the passionless art-lover: he is a man who has killed a woman by his
egotism. But even now that she is dead, he does not know that it was he
who killed hernor, if he did, could feel remorse. For it is not
possible that he could have been wrong. This Duchessit would
have been idle to make his will clear to such an one; the imposition,
not the exposition, of that will was all that he could show to her (or
any other lesser being) without stoopingand I choose never to
stoop. Her error had been precisely the depth and passion of that
earnest glance which Frà Pandolf had so wonderfully caught. Does the
envoy suppose that it was only her husband's presence which called that
spot of joy into her cheek? It had not been so. The mere
painting-man, the mere Frà Pandolf, may have paid her some tribute of
the artistmay have said, for instance, that her mantle hid too much
of her wrist, or that the faint half-flush that died along her throat
was beyond the power of paint to reproduce.
. . . Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy.
As the envoy still seems strangely unenlightened, the Duke is forced
to the stooping implied in a more explicit statement:
. . . She had
A hearthow shall I say?too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Even now it does not seem that the listener is in full possession
and accord; more stooping, then, is necessary, for the hint must be
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the west,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terraceall and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. . . .
+ + + + +
We, like the envoy, sit in mute amazement and repulsion, listening
to the Duke, looking at the Duchess. We can see the quivering, glad,
tender creature as though we also were at gaze on Frà Pandolf's
picture. . . . I call this piece a wonder, now! Scarce one of
the monologues is so packed with significance; yet it is by far the
most lucid, the most simpleeven the rhymes are managed with such
consummate art that they are, as Mr. Arthur Symons has said, scarcely
appreciable. Two lives are summed up in fifty-six lines. First, the
ghastly Duke's; then, hersbut hers, indeed, is finally gathered into
one. . . . Everything that came to her was transmuted into her own
dearnesseven his favour at her breast. We can figure to ourselves the
giving of that favourthe high proprietary air, the loftily
anticipated gratitude: Sir Willoughby Patterne by intelligent
anticipation. But then, though the approving speech and blush were duly
paid, would come the fool with his bough of cherriesand speech and
blush were given again! Absurder still, the spot of joy would light for
the sunset, the white mule . . .
Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?
Even if he had been able to make clear to such an one the crime of
ranking his gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody's
gifteven if he had plainly said that this or that in her disgusted
him, and she had allowed herself to be thus lessoned (but she might not
have allowed it; she might have set her wits to his, forsooth, and made
excuse) . . . even so (this must be impressed upon the envoy), it would
have meant some stooping, and the Duke chooses never to stoop.
Still the envoy listens, with a thought of his own, perhaps, for the
next Duchess! . . . More and more raptly he gazes; his eyes are glued
upon that pictured countenance; and still the peevish voice is
sounding in his ear
. . . Oh, Sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
There falls a curious, throbbing silence. The envoy still sits
gazing. There she stands, looking as if she were alive. . . .
And almost he starts to hear the voice echo his thought, but with so
different a meaning
. . . There she stands
As if alive
the picture is a wonder!
Still the visitor sits dumb. Was it from human lips that those words
had just now sounded: Then all smiles stopped together?
She stands theresmiling . . . But the Duke grows weary of this
pause before Frà Pandolf's piece. It is a wonder; but he has other
wonders. Moreover, the due hint has been given, and no doubt, though
necessarily in silence, taken: the next Duchess will be instructed
beforehand in the proper way to thank men. He intimates his will to
Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then.
The envoy rises, but not shakes off that horror of repulsion.
Somewhere, as he stands up and steps aside, a voice seems prating of
the Count his master's known munificence, of just pretence to
dowry, of the fair daughter's self being nevertheless the object. .
. . But in a hot resistless impulse, he turns off; one must remove
one's self from such proximity. Same air shall not be breathed, nor
same ground trod. . . . Still the voice pursues him, sharply a little
now for his lack of the due deference:
. . . Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir,
and slowly (since a rupture must not be brought about by him
) the envoy acquiesces. They begin to descend the staircase. But the
visitor has no eyes for wonders nowhe has seen the wonder, has
heard the horror. . . . His host is all unwitting. Strange, that the
guest can pass these glories, but everybody is not a connoisseur. One
of them, however, must be pointed out:
. . . Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.
. . . Something else getting stopped! The envoy looks.
+ + + + +
But lo, she is alive again! This time she is in distant Northern
lands, or was, for now (and, strangely, we thank Heaven for it)
we know not where she is. Wherever it is, she is happy. She has been
saved, as by flame; has been snatched from her Duke, and borne
away to joy and loveby an old gipsy-woman! No lover came for her: it
was Love that came, and because she knew Love at first sight and sound,
she saved herself.
The old huntsman of her husband's Court tells the story to a
traveller whom he calls his friend.
What a thing friendship is, world without end!
It happened thirty years ago; the huntsman and the Duke and the
Duchess all were youngif the Duke was ever young! He had not been
brought up at the Northern castle, for his father, the rough hardy
warrior, had been summoned to the Kaiser's court as soon as his heir
was born, and died there,
At next year's end, in a velvet suit . . .
Petticoated like a herald,
In a chamber next to an ante-room
Where he breathed the breath of page and groom,
What he called stink, and they perfume.
The sick tall yellow Duchess soon took the boy to Paris, where she
belonged, being (says our huntsman) the daughter of God knows who. So
the hall was left empty, the fire was extinguished, and the people were
railing and gibing. But in vain they railed and gibed until long years
were past, and back came our Duke and his mother again.
And he came back the pertest little ape
That ever affronted human shape;
Full of his travel, struck at himself.
You'd say, he despised our bluff old ways?
for in Paris it happened that a cult of the Middle Ages was in
vogue, and the Duke had been told there that the rough North land was
the one good thing left in these evil days:
So, all that the old Dukes had been, without knowing it,
This Duke would fain know he was, without being it.
It was a renaissance in full blast! All the thoroughly worn-out
usages were revived:
The souls of them fumed-forth, the hearts of them torn-out.
The chase was inevitably one thing that must be reconstructed from
its origins; and the Duke selected for his own mount a lathy horse, all
legs and length, all speed, no strength:
They should have set him on red Berold,
Mad with pride, like fire to manage! . . .
With the red eye slow consuming in fire,
And the thin stiff ear like an abbey spire!
Thus he lost for ever any chance of esteem from our huntsman. He
preferred a slim four-year-old to the big-boned stock of mighty
Berold; he drank weak French wine for strong Cotnar . . . anything
in the way of futility might be expected after these two
Well, such as he was, he must marry, we heard:
And out of a convent, at the word,
Came the lady in time of spring.
Oh, old thoughts, they cling, they cling!
Spring though it was, the retainers must cut a figure, so they were
clad in thick hunting-clothes, fit for the chase of wild bulls or
And so we saw the lady arrive;
My friend, I have seen a white crane bigger!
She was the smallest lady alive,
Made in a piece of Nature's madness,
Too small, almost, for the life and gladness
That over-filled her.
She rode along, the retinue forming as it were a lane to the castle,
where the Duke awaited her.
Up she looked, down she looked, round at the mead,
Straight at the castle, that's best indeed
To look at from outside the walls
and her eager sweetness lavished itself already on the serfs and
thralls, as of course they were styled. She gave our huntsman a look
of gratitude because he patted her horse as he led it; she asked Max,
who rode on her other hand, the name of every bird that flew past: Was
that an eagle? and was the green-and-grey bird on the field a plover?
Thus happily hearing, happily looking (how like the Italian
duchessbut she is the same!), the little lady rode forward:
When suddenly appeared the Duke.
She sprang down, her small foot pointed on the huntsman's hand. But
the Duke, stiffly and as though rebuking her impetuosity, stepped
rather aside than forward, and welcomed her with his grandest smile.
The sick tall yellow Duchess, his mother, stood like a north wind in
the background; the rusty portcullis went up with a shriek, and, like a
sky sullied by a chill wind,
The lady's face stopped its play,
As if her first hair had grown grey;
For such things must begin some one day.
But the brave spirit survived. In a day or two she was well again,
as if she could not believe that God did not mean her to be content and
glad in His sight. So, smiling as at first went she. She was filled
to the brim with energy; there never was such a wife as she would have
made for a shepherd, a miner, a huntsmanand this huntsman, who has
had a beloved wife, knows what he is saying.
She was active, stirring, all fire
Could not rest, could not tire
To a stone she might have given life! . . .
And here was plenty to be done,
And she that could do it, great or small,
She was to do nothing at all.
For the castle was crammed with retainers, and the Duke's plan
permitted a wife, at most, to meet his eye with the other trophies in
the hall and out of it:
To sit thus, stand thus, see and be seen
At the proper place, in the proper minute,
And die away the life between.
The little Duchess, with her warm heart and her smile like the
Italian girl's that went everywhere, broke every rule at first. It
was amusing enough (the old huntsman remembers)but for the grief that
followed after. For she did not submit easily. Having broken the rules,
she would find fault with them! She would advise and criticise, and
being a fool, instruct the wise, and deal out praise or blame like a
child. But the wise only smiled. It was as if a little mechanical toy
should be contrived to make the motion of striking, and brilliantly
make it. Thus, as a mechanical toy, was the only way to treat this
minute critic, for like the Duke at Ferrara, this Duke (and his mother)
did not choose to stoop. He would merely wear his cursed smirk
as he nodded applause, but he had some trouble in keeping off the old
So the little lady grew silent and thin,
Paling and ever paling.
Then all smiles stopped together . . . And the Duke,
perceiving, said to himself that it was done to spite him, but that he
would find the way to deal with it.
Like the envoy, our huntsman's friend is beginning to find the tale
a little more than he can standbut, unlike the envoy, he can express
himself. The old man soothes him down: Don't swear, friend! and goes
on to solace him by telling how the old one has been in hell for many
And the Duke's self . . . you shall hear.
+ + + + +
Well, early in autumn, at first winter-warning,
When the stag had to break with his foot, of a morning,
A drinking-hole out of the fresh, tender ice,
it chanced that the Duke, asking himself what pleasures were in
season (he would never have known, unless the calendar bade him be
hearty"), found that a hunting party was indicated:
Always provided, old books showed the way of it!
Poetry, painting, tapestries, woodcraft, all were consulted: how it
was properest to encourage your dog, how best to pray to St. Hubert,
patron saint of hunters. The serfs and thralls were duly dressed up,
And oh, the Duke's tailor, he had a hot time on't!
But when all the first dizziness of flap-hats and buff-coats and
jack-boots had subsided, the Duke turned his attention to the
Duchess's part in the business, and, after much cogitation, somebody
triumphantly announced that he had discovered her function. An old book
When horns wind a mort and the deer is at siege,
Let the dame of the castle prick forth on her jennet,
And with water to wash the hands of her liege
In a clean ewer with a fair toweling,
Let her preside at the disemboweling.
All was accordingly got ready: the towel, the most antique ewer,
even the jennet, piebald, black-barred, cream-coated, pink-eyedand
only then, on the day before the party, was the Duke's pleasure
signified to his lady.
And the little Duchesspaler and paler every daysaid she would
not go! Her eyes, that used to leap wide in flashes, now just lifted
their long lashes, as if too weary even for him to light them;
and she duly acknowledged his forethought for her,
But spoke of her health, if her health were worth aught,
Of the weight by day and the watch by night,
And much wrong now that used to be right;
and, in short, utterly declined the disemboweling.
But everything was arranged! The Duke was nettled. Still she
persisted: it was hardly the time . . .
The huntsman knew what took place that day in the Duchess's room,
because Jacynth, who was her tire-woman, was waiting within call
outside on the balcony, and since Jacynth was like a June rose, why,
the casement that Jacynth could peep through, an adorer of roses could
peep through also.
Well, the Duke stood for a while in a sultry smother, and then
with a smile that partook of the awful, turned the Duchess over to
his mother to learn her duty, and hear the truth. She learned it all,
she heard it all; but somehow or other it ended at last; the old woman,
licking her whiskers, passed out, and the Duke, who had waited to
hear the lecture, passed out after her, making (he hoped) a face like
Nero or Saladinat any rate, he showed a very stiff back.
However, next day the company mustered. The weather was
execrablefog that you might cut with an axe; and the Duke rode out
in a perfect sulkiness. But suddenly, as he looked round, the sun
ploughed up the woolly mass, and drove it in all directions, and
looking through the courtyard arch, he saw a troop of Gipsies on their
march, coming with the annual gifts to the castle. For every year, in
this North land, the Gipsies come to give presents to the
Dukespresents for which an equivalent is always understood to be
And marvellous the presents are! These Gipsies can do anything
with the earth, the ore, the sand. Snaffles, whose side-bars no brute
can baffle, locks that would puzzle a locksmith, horseshoes that turn
on a swivel, bells for the sheep . . . all these are good, but what
they can do with sand!
Glasses they'll blow you, crystal-clear,
Where just a faint cloud of rose shall appear,
As if in pure water you dropped and let die
A bruised black-blooded mulberry.
And then that other sort, their crowning pride, with long white
threads distinct inside.
These are the things they bring, when you see them trooping to the
castle from the valley. So they trooped this morning; and when they
reached the fosse, all stopped but one:
The oldest Gipsy then above ground.
This witch had been coming to the castle for years; the huntsman
knew her well. Every autumn she would swear must prove her last
visityet here she was again, with her worn-out eyes, or rather
eye-holes, of no use now but to gather brine.
She sidled up to the Duke and touched his bridle, so that the horse
reared; then produced her presents, and awaited the annual
acknowledgment. But the Duke, still sulky, would scarcely speak to her;
in vain she fingered her fur-pouch. At last she said in her level
whine, that as well as to bring the presents, she had come to pay her
duty to the new Duchess, the youthful beauty. As she said that, an
idea came to the Duke, and the smirk returned to his sulky face.
Supposing he set this old woman to teach her, as the other had
failed? What could show forth better the flower-like and delicate life
his fortunate Duchess led, than the loathsome squalor of this sordid
crone? He turned and beckoned the huntsman out of the throng, and, as
he was approaching, bent and spoke mysteriously into the Gipsy's ear.
The huntsman divined that he was telling of the frowardness and
ingratitude of the new Duchess. And the Gipsy listened submissively.
Her mouth tightened, her brow brightenedit was as if she were
promising to give the lady a thorough frightening. The Duke just showed
her a purseand then bade the huntsman take her to the lady left
alone in her bower, that she might wile away an hour for her:
Whose mind and body craved exertion,
And yet shrank from all better diversion.
And then the Duke rode off.
+ + + + +
Now begins the tenebrific passage of the tale. Or rather, now
begins what we can make into such a passage if we will, but need not.
We can read a thousand transcendental meanings into what now happens,
or we can simply accept and understand itleaving the rest to the
Browningites, of whom Browning declared that he was not.
The huntsman, turning round sharply to bid the old woman follow
hima little distrustful of her since that interview with the
Dukesaw something that not only restored his trust, but afterwards
made him sure that she had planned beforehand the wonders that now
happened. She looked a head taller, to begin with, and she kept pace
with him easily, no stooping nor hobblingabove all, no cringing! She
was wholly changed, in short, and the change, whatever the change
meant, had extended to her very clothes. The shabby wolf-skin cloak
she wore seemed edged with gold coins. Under its shrouding disguise,
she was wearing (we may conjecture), for this foreseen occasion, her
dress of tribal Queen. But most wonderful of all was the change in her
eye-holes. When first he saw her that morning, they had been, as it
were, empty of all but brine; now, two unmistakable eye-points, live
and aware, looked out from their placesas a snail's horns come out
after rain. . . . He accepted all this, quick and surprising as it
was, without spoken comment; and took the Gipsy to Jacynth, standing
duty at the lady's chamber-door.
And Jacynth rejoiced, she said, to admit any one,
For since last night, by the same token,
Not a single word had the lady spoken.
The two women went in, and our friend, on the balcony, watched the
Jacynth never could tell him afterwards how she came to fall
soundly asleep all of a sudden. But she did so fall asleep, and so
remained the whole time through. He, on the balcony, was following the
hunt across the open countryfor in those days he had a falcon
eyewhen, all in a moment, his ear was arrested by
Was it singing, or was it saying,
Or a strange musical instrument playing?
It came from the lady's room; and, pricked by curiosity, he pushed
the lattice, pulled the curtain, andfirstsaw Jacynth in a rosy
sleep along the floor with her head against the door. And in the
middle of the room, on the seat of state,
Was a queenthe Gipsy woman late!
She was bending down over the lady, who, coiled up like a child, sat
between her knees, clasping her hands over them, and with her chin set
on those hands, was gazing up into the face of the old woman. That old
woman now showed large and radiant eyes, which were bent full on the
lady's, and seemed with every instant to grow wider and more shining.
She was slowly fanning with her hands, in an odd measured motionand
the huntsman, puzzled and alarmed, was just about to spring to the
rescue, when he was stopped by perceiving the expression on the lady's
For it was life her eyes were drinking . . .
Life's pure fire, received without shrinking,
Into the heart and breast whose heaving
Told you no single drop they were leaving.
The life had passed into her very hair, which was thrown back, loose
over each shoulder,
And the very tresses shared in the pleasure,
Moving to the mystic measure,
Bounding as the bosom bounded.
He stopped short, perplexed, as she listened and she listened. But
all at once he felt himself struck by the self-same contagion:
And I kept time to the wondrous chime,
Making out words and prose and rhyme,
Till it seemed that the music furled
Its wings like a task fulfilled, and dropped
From under the words it first had propped.
He could hear and understand, word took word as hand takes
handand the Gipsy said:
And so at last we find my tribe,
And so I set thee in the midst . . .
I trace them the vein and the other vein
That meet on thy brow and part again,
Making our rapid mystic mark;
And I bid my people prove and probe
Each eye's profound and glorious globe
Till they detect the kindred spark
In those depths so dear and dark . . .
And on that round young cheek of thine
I make them recognise the tinge . . .
For so I prove thee, to one and all,
Fit, when my people ope their breast,
To see the sign, and hear the call,
And take the vow, and stand the test
Which adds one more child to the rest
When the breast is bare and the arms are wide,
And the world is left outside.
There would be probation (said the Gipsy), and many trials for the
lady if she joined the tribe; but, like the jewel-finder's fierce
assay of the stone he finds, like the vindicating ray that leaps
So, trial after trial past,
Wilt thou fall at the very last
Breathless, half in trance
With the thrill of the great deliverance,
Into our arms for evermore;
And thou shalt know, those arms once curled
About thee, what we knew before,
How love is the only good in the world.
Henceforth be loved as heart can love,
Or brain devise, or hand approve!
Stand up, look below,
It is our life at thy feet we throw
To step with into light and joy;
Not a power of life but we employ
To satisfy thy nature's want.
The Gipsy said much more; she showed what perfect mutual love and
understanding can do, for if any two creatures grow into one, they
will do more than the world has doneand the tribe will at least
approach that end with this beloved woman. She says not how
whether by one man's loving her to utter devotion of himself, or by
her giving her wondrous self away, and taking the stronger
nature's sway. . . .
I foresee and I could foretell
Thy future portion, sure and well;
But those passionate eyes speak true, speak true,
Let them say what thou shalt do!
But whatever she does, the eyes of her tribe will be upon her, with
their blame, their praise:
Our shame to feel, our pride to show,
Glad, angrybut indifferent, no!
And so at last the girl who now sits gazing up at her will come to
old agewill retire apart with the hoarded memories of her heart, and
reconstruct the past until the whole grandly fronts for once her soul
. . . and then, the gleam of yet another morning shall break; it will
be like the ending of a dream, when
Death, with the might of his sunbeam,
Touches the flesh, and the soul awakes.
With that great utterance her voice changed like a bird's. The music
began again, the words grew indistinguishable . . . with a snap the
charm broke, and the huntsman, starting as if from a nap, realised
afresh that the lady was being bewitched, sprang from the balcony to
the ground, and hurried round to the portal. . . . In another minute he
would have entered:
When the door opened, and more than mortal
Stood, with a face where to my mind centred
All beauties I ever saw or shall see,
The Duchess: I stopped as if struck by palsy.
She was so different, happy and beautiful,
I felt at once that all was best . . .
And he felt, too, that he must do whatever she commanded. But there
was, in fact, no commanding. Looking on the beauty that had invested
her, the brow's height and the breast's expanding, he knew that he
was hers to live and die, and so he needed not words to find what she
wantedlike a wild creature, he knew by instinct what this freed wild
creature's bidding was. . . . He went before her to the stable; she
followed; the old woman, silent and alone, came lastsunk back into
her former self,
Like a blade sent home to its scabbard.
He saddled the very palfrey that had brought the little Duchess to
the castlethe palfrey he had patted as he had led it, thus winning a
smile from her. And he couldn't help thinking that she remembered it
too, and knew that he would do anything in the world for her. But when
he began to saddle his own nag (of Berold's begetting")not meaning
to be obtrusiveshe stopped him by a finger's lifting, and a small
shake of the head. . . . Well, he lifted her on the palfrey and set the
Gipsy behind herand then, in a broken voice, he murmured that he was
ready whenever God should please that she needed him. . . . And she
With a look, a look that placed a crown on me,
and felt in her bosom and dropped into his hand . . . not a purse!
If it had been a purse of silver (or gold that's worse") he would have
gone home, kissed Jacynth, and soberly drowned himselfbut it was not
a purse; it was a little plait of hair, such as friends make for each
other in a convent:
This, see, which at my breast I wear,
Ever did (rather to Jacynth's grudgment)
And ever shall, till the Day of Judgment.
And thenand thento cut shortthis is idle,
These are feelings it is not good to foster.
I pushed the gate wide, she shook the bridle,
And the palfrey boundedand so we lost her.
+ + + + +
There is the story of the Flight of the Duchess; and it seems to me
to need no explanation at all. The Gipsy can be anyone or anything we
like that saves us; the Duke and his mother anyone or anything
that crushes love.
Love is the only good in the world.
And the love (though it may be) need not be the love
of man for woman, and woman for man; but simply love. The quick warm
impulse which made this girl look round so eagerly as she approached
her future home, and thank the man who led her horse for patting it,
and want to hear the name of every birdthe impulse from the heart
too soon made glad, too easily impressed; the sweet, rich nature of
her who liked whate'er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere .
. . what was all this but love? The tiny lady was one great pulse of
it; without love she must die; to give it, take it, was the meaning of
her being. And love was neither given nor accepted from her. Worse, it
was scorned; it was not fitting. All she had to do was to be on
show; nothing, nothing, nothing else
And die away the life between.
And then came the time when, like Pompilia, she had something she
must care about; and the office asked of her was to assist at the
disemboweling of a noble, harried stag! Not even when she pleaded the
hour that awaited her was pity shown, was love shown, for herself or
for the coming child. And then the long, spiteful lecture. . . . That
night, even to Jacynth, not a word could she utter. Here was a world
without love, a world that did not want herand she was here,
and she must stay, until, until . . . Which would the coming child
beherself again, or him again? Scarce she knew which would be
the sadder happening.
And then Love walked in upon her. She was of their tribethey
wanted her; they wanted all she was. Just what she was; she would not
have to change; they wanted her. They liked her eyes, and the colour on
her cheekthey liked her. Her eyes might look at them, and
speak true, for they wanted just that truth from just those eyes.
It is any escape, any finding of our tribe! It is the
self-realisation of a nature that can love. And this is but one way of
telling the great tale. Browning told it thus, because for years a song
had jingled in his ears of Following the Queen of the Gipsies,
O!and to all of us, the Gipsies stand for freedom, for knowledge of
the great earth-secrets, for nourishment of heart and soul. But we need
not follow only them to compass the thrill of the great deliverance.
We need but know, as the little Duchess knew, what it is that we want,
and trust it. She placed the old woman at once upon her own
seat of state: from the moment she beheld her, love leaped forth and
crowned the messenger of love.
And so at last we find my tribe,
And so I set thee in the midst . . .
Henceforth be loved as heart can love. . . .
It is our life at thy feet we throw
To step with into light and joy.
The Duchess heard, and knew, and was saved. It needed
courageneeded swift decisionneeded even some small abandonment of
duty. But she saw what she must do, and did it. Duty has two voices
often; the Duchess heard the true voice. If she was bewitched, it was
by the spell that was ordained to save her, could she hear it. . . .
And that she heard aright, that, leaving the castle, she left the hell
where love lives not, we know from the old huntsman:
For the wound in the Duke's pride rankled fiery;
So they made no search and small inquiry;
and Gipsies thenceforth were hustled across the frontier.
Even the Duchess could not make love valid there. Reality was out of
them. . . . True, the huntsman, after thirty years, is still her sworn
adorer. He had stayed at the castle:
I must see this fellow his sad life through
He is our Duke, after all,
And I, as he says, but a serf and thrall;
but, as soon as the Duke is dead, our friend intends to go
journeying to the land of the Gipsies, and there find his lady or hear
the last news of her:
And when that's told me, what's remaining?
For Jacynth is dead and all their children, and the world is too
hard for his explaining, and so he hopes to find a snug corner under
some hedge, and turn himself round and bid the world good-night, and
sleep soundly until he is waked to another world, where pearls will no
longer be cast before swine that can't value them. Amen.
But at any rate this talk with his friend has made him see his
little lady again, and everything that they did since seems such
child's play, with her away! So her love did one thing even
therejust as one likes to think that the unhappier Duchess, the
Italian one, left precisely such a memory in the heart of that
officious fool who broke the bough of cherries for her in the orchard.
And is it not good to think that almost immediately after The
Flight of the Duchess was published, Browning was to meet the
passionate-hearted woman whom he snatched almost from the actual
death-bed that had been prepared for her with as much of pomp and
circumstance as was the Duchess's life-in-death! With this in mind, it
gives one a queer thrill to read those lines of silenced prophecy:
I foresee and I could foretell
Thy future portion, sure and well:
But those passionate eyes speak true, speak true,
Let them say what thou shalt do!
[166:1] The Toccata which awakens these reflections in the poet is
by a Venetian composer, Baldassare Galuppi, who was born in 1706, and
died in 1785. He lived and worked in London from 1741 to 1744. He
abounded (says Vernon Lee, in her Studies of the Eighteenth Century
in Italy) in melody, tender, pathetic, and brilliant, which in its
extreme simplicity and slightness occasionally rose to the highest
PART III. THE LOVER
I. LOVERS MEETING
Browning believed in love as the great adventure of lifethe thing
which probes, reveals, develops, proclaims or condemns. This faith is
common to most poets, or at any rate profession of this faith; but in
him, who was so free from sentimentality, it is more inspiring than in
any other, except perhaps George Meredith. Meredith too is without
sentimentality; but he has more of hardness, shall I say? in his
general outlookmore of the inclination to dwell on scientific or
naturalistic analogies with human experience. In Browning the peculiar
grace is his passion for humanity as humanity. It gives him but
moderate joy to trace those analogies; certainly they exist (he seems
to say), but let us take them for grantedlet us examine man as a
separate phenomenon, so far as it is feasible thus to do. Moreover, his
keenest interest, next to mankind, was art in all its branchesa
correlative aspect, that is to say, of the same phenomenon. Thus each
absorption explains and aids the other, and we begin to perceive the
reason for his triumphs in expression of our subtlest inward life. Man
was, for him, the proper study of mankind; of all great poets, he
was the most social, and that in the genial, not the satiric,
spiritdiffering there from Byron, almost the sole other singer of
whom it may be said (as Mr. Arthur Symons has said) that for him
society exists as well as human nature. Where Browning excels is in
the breadth and kindliness of his outlook; and again, this breadth and
this kindliness are entirely unsentimental.
In a man of the world, then, such as he, belief in love is the
more inspiring. But for all his geniality, there is no indulgence for
flabbinessthere is little sympathy, indeed, for any of the weaker
ways. After Paulinerejected utterance of his
green-sicknessthe wan, the wistful, moods of love find seldom
recognition; there are no withdrawals from all fear into the woman's
arms, and no looking up, as I might kill her and be loved the more,
into the man's eyes. For love is to make us greater, not smaller, than
ourselves. It can indeed do all for us, and will do all, but we
must for our part be doing something too. Nor shall one lover cast the
burden on the other. That other will answer all demands, will lift all
loads that may be lifted, but no claim shall be formulated on
either side. This is the true faith, the true freedom, for both.
Meredith has said the same, more axiomatically than Browning ever said
He learnt how much we gain who make no claims
but Browning's whole existence announced that axiom, and
triumphantly proved it true. Almost the historic happy marriage of the
world! Such was his marriage, and such it must have been, for
never was man declared beforehand more infallible for the greatest of
decisions. He understood: understood love, marriage, and (hardest of
all perhaps!) conductwhat it may do, and not do, for happiness. That
is to say, he understood how far conduct helps toward comprehension and
how far hinders itwhen it is that we should judge by words and deeds,
and when by what we know, apart from words and deeds. The whole
secret, for Browning, lay in loving greatly.
Thus, for example, it is notable that, except The Laboratory
and Fifine at the Fair, none of his poems of men and women turns
upon jealousy. For him, that was no part of love; there could be no
place in love for it. And even Elvire's demurs (in Fifine), even
the departure from her husband, are not the words, the deed, of
jealousy, but of insight into Juan's better self. He will never be all
that he can be (she sees) until he knows that it is her he loves, and
her alone and always; if this is the way he must learn it, she will go,
that he may be deep and true as well as brilliant.
For Browning, how love comes is not important. It may be by
the high-road or the bypath; so long as it is truly recognised, bravely
answered, all is well. Living, it will be our highest bliss; dying, our
What is he buzzing in my ears?
'Now that I come to die,
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?'
Ah, reverend sir, not I!
And why not? Because in the days gone by, a girl and this now dying
man used to meet. What he viewed in the world then, he now sees
againthe suburb lane of their rendezvous; and he begins to make a
map, as it were, with the bottles on the bedside table.
At a terrace, somewhere near the stopper,
There watched for me, one June,
A girl: I know, Sir, it's improper,
My poor mind's out of tune.
Nevertheless the clergyman must look, while he traces out the
details. . . . She left the attic, there, by the rim of the bottle
And stole from stair to stair,
And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas!
We loved, Sirused to meet:
How sad and mad and bad it was
But then, how it was sweet!
They did not marry; and the clergyman shall have no further and no
other confessionif he calls this one! It is the meaning of the
man's life: that is all.
In Confessions, the story is done; the man is dying. In
Love among the Ruins, we have almost the great moment itself. The
lover, alone, is musing on the beauties and the hidden wonder of the
landscape before him. Here, in this flat pastoral plain, lies buried
all that remains of a city great and gay, the country's very capital,
where a powerful prince once held his court. There had been a domed
and daring palace, a wall with a hundred gatesits circuit made of
marble, whereon twelve men might stand abreast. Now all is
And such glory and perfection, see, of grass
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame
Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold
Bought and sold.
Of the glories nothing is left but a single little turret. It was
part of a tower once, a tower that sprang sublime, whence the king
and his minions and his dames used to watch the burning ring of the
chariot-races. . . . This is twilight: the quiet-coloured eve smiles
as it leaves the many-tinkling fleece; all is tranquillity, the
slopes and rills melt into one grey . . . and he knows
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
For the goal,
When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
Till I come.
That king looked out on every side at the splendid city, with its
temples and colonnades,
All the causeys, bridges, aqueductsand then
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.
A million fighters were sent forth every year from that city; and
they built their gods a brazen pillar high as the sky, yet still had a
thousand chariots in reserveall gold, of course. . . .
Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin.
Shut them in
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best!
But though love be best, it is not all. It is here to transfigure
all; we must accept with it the merer things it glorifies. For life
calls us, even from our love. The day is long and we must work in it;
but we can meet when the day is done. In the light of this low
half-moon can put off in our boat, and row across and push the prow
into the slushy sand at the other side of the bay:
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
Yeswe can meet at night. . . . But we must part at morning.
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim;
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.[205:1]
These are plainly not wedded lovers, though some commentators so
describe them; and indeed Browning sings but seldom of wedded love.
When he does so sing, he reaches heights of beauty beyond any in the
other lyrics, but the poems of marriage are not in our survey. In
nearly all his other love-poetry, it is the trouble of love, in one
form or another, which occupies himthe lovers who meet to part; those
who love in vain (as the phrase goes, but never his phrase);
those who choose separation rather than defiance of the world, and
what it fears; those who do defy that world, and reckon up their
Dear, had the world in its caprice
Deigned to proclaim 'I know you both,
Have recognised your plighted troth,
Am sponsor for you: live in peace!'
How many precious months and years
Of youth had passed, that speed so fast,
Before we found it out at last,
The world, and what it fears?
How much of priceless life were spent
With men that every virtue decks,
And women models of their sex,
Society's true ornament
Ere we dared wander, nights like this,
Thro' wind and rain, and watch the Seine,
And feel the Boulevard break again
To warmth and light and bliss?
That old quarrel between the ideals of Bohemia and of
respectability! They could have done these things, even as a married
pair, but the trouble is that then they would not have dared to do
them. People would have talked. . . . Well, people may talk now, but
they have gained something. They have gained freedom to live
their lives as they chooserightly or wrongly, but at any rate it is
not the world that sways them. They have learnt how much that good
word is worth! What is happening, this very hour, in that
environmenthere, for instance, in the Institute, which they are just
passing? Guizot receives Montalembert! The two men are utterly
opposed in everything that truly signifies to each; yet now are
exchanging empty courtesies. See the courtyard all alight for the
reception! Let them escape from it all, and leave respectability to its
false standards. They are not includedthey are outcasts: put
forward your best foot!
I accept this delightful poem with some reserve, for I think the
lovers had not so wholly emancipated themselves from the world as
they were pleased to think. The world still counted for themas it
counts for all who remember so vehemently to denounce it. Moreover,
married, they could, were their courage complete, have beaten the world
by forgetting it. No more docile wild-beast than that much badgered
creature when once it recognises the true Contemner! To
Feel the Boulevard break again
To warmth and light and bliss
on wild wet nights of wandering . . . this might even, through the
example of the Real Unfearing, become a craze! Yeswe must refuse to
be dazzled by rhetoric. These lovers also had their falling-shortthey
could not forget the world.
Hitherto we have considered the normal meetings of lovers. Now we
turn to the dream-meetingsthe great encounters which all of us feel
might be, yet are not. There can be few to whom there has not come that
imagination of the spiritually compelled presence, which Browning has
so marvellously uttered in Mesmerism. Here, in these breathless
stanzas,[208:1] so almost literally mesmeric that, as we read them (or
rather draw them in at our own breathless lips!), we believe in the
actual coming of our loved one, and scarce dare look round lest we
should find the terrifying glory true . . . here the man sits alone in
his room at dead of night, and wills the woman to be with him. He
brings his thought to bear on her, till he feels his hair turn grey:
Till I seemed to have and hold
In the vacancy
'Twixt the walls and me
From the hair-plait's chestnut-gold
To the foot in its muslin fold
Have and hold, then and there,
Her, from head to foot,
Breathing and mute,
Passive and yet aware,
In the grasp of my steady stare
Hold and have, there and then,
All her body and soul
That completes my whole,
All that women add to men,
In the clutch of my steady ken
. . . if so he can sit, never loosing his will, and with a gesture
of his hands that breaks into very flame, he feels that he must
draw her from the house called hers, not mine, which soon will seem
to suffocate her if she cannot escape from it:
Out of doors into the night!
On to the maze
Of the wild wood-ways,
Not turning to left nor right
From the pathway, blind with sight
Swifter and still more swift,
As the crowding peace
Doth to joy increase
In the wild blind eyes uplift
Thro' the darkness and the drift!
And he will sit so, feeling his soul dilate, and no muscle
shall be relaxed as he sees his belief come true, and more and more she
takes shape for him, so that she shall be, when she does come, altered
even from what she was at his first seeming to have and hold herfor
the lips glow, the cheek burns, the hair, from its plait, breaks loose,
and spreads with a rich outburst, chestnut gold-interspersed, and the
arms open wide like the doors of a casket-shrine, as she comes,
comes, comes . . .
'Nownow'the door is heard!
Hark, the stairs! and near
'Now!' and at call the third
She enters without a word!
* * * * *
Could a woman ever forget the man who should do that with her! Would
she not almost be ready, in such an hour, to die as Porphyria died?
But in Porphyria's Lover, not so great a spirit speaks. This
man, too, sitting in his room alone, thinks of the woman he loves, and
she comes to him; but here it is her own will that drives through wind
and rainthere is no compelling glory from the man uncertain still of
passion's answering passion.
The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria. . . .
She glided in and did not speak. She looked round his cottage, then
kneeled and made the dying fire blaze up. When all the place was warm,
she rose and put off her dripping cloak and shawl, the hat, the soiled
gloves; she let her rain-touched hair fall loose,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread o'er all her yellow hair
Murmuring how she loved meshe
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But to-night, at some gay feast in a world all sundered from this
man's, there had seized her
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
She found him indeed as she had pitifully dreamed of him: with
heart fit to break sitting desolate in the chill cottage; and even
when she was come, he still sat there inert, stupefied as it were by
his griefunresponsive to the joy of her presence, unbelieving in it
possibly, since already so often he had dreamed that this might be, and
it had not been. But, unfaltering now that she has at last decided, she
calls to him, and as even then he makes no answer, sits down beside him
and draws his head to her breast.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. . . .
But he knows that she felt no pain, for in a minute he opened her
lids to see, and the blue eyes laughed back at him without a stain.
He loosed the tress about her neck, and the colour flashed into her
cheek beneath his burning kiss. Now he propped her headthis time
his shoulder bore
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!
* * * * *
This poem was first published as the second of two headed Madhouse
Cells; and though the classifying title was afterwards rejected, that
it should ever have been used is something of a clue to the meaning.
But only something, for even so, we wonder if the dream were all a
dream, if Porphyria ever came, and, if she did, was this the issue?
What truly happened on that night of wind and rain?that night which
is real, whatever else is not . . . I ask, we all ask; but does it
greatly matter? Enough that we can grasp the deeper meaningthe sanity
in the madness. As Porphyria, with her lover's head on her breast, sat
in the little cottage on that stormy night, the world at last rejected,
the love at last accepted, she was at her highest pulse of being: she
was herself. When in all the rest of life would such another
moment come? . . . How many lovers have mutually murmured that: If we
could die now!nothing impaired, nothing gone or to go from
them: the sanity in the madness, the courage in the cowardice. . . . So
this lover felt, brooding in the madhouse cell on what had been, or
might have been:
And thus we sit together now,
And yet God has not said a word!
Six poems of exultant loveand a man speaks in each! With Browning,
the woman much more rarely is articulate; and when she does speak, even
he puts in her mouth the less triumphant utterances. From the
nameless girl in Count Gismond and from Balaustionthese
onlydo we get the equivalent of the man's exultation in such lyrics
as I have just now shown. . . . Always the tear assigned to woman! It
may be true; I think it is not at least so true, but true in
some degree it must be, since all legend will thus have it. What then
shall a woman say? That the time has come to alter this? That woman
cries for nothing, like the children? That she does not understand so
well as man the ends of love? Or that she understands them better? . .
. Perhaps all of these things; perhaps some others also. Let us study
now, at all events, the tear; let us see in what, as Browning saw
her, the Trouble of Love consists for woman.
[205:1] Very curious is the uncertainty which this stanza leaves in
the minds of some. In Berdoe's Browning Cyclopædia the
difficulty is frankly stated, with an exquisitely ludicrous result. He
interprets the last line of Parting at Morning as meaning that
the woman desires more society than the seaside home affords! But it
is the man who speaks, not the woman. The confusion plainly
arises from a misinterpretation of him in straight was a path of
gold for him. Berdoe reads this as lucrative work for the man! Of
course him refers to the sun who has looked over the mountain's rim
. . . Here is an instance of making obscurity where none really exists.
[208:1] Mr. Symons points out that in this extraordinary poem
fifteen stanzas succeed one another without a single full stop or a
real break in sense or sound.
II. TROUBLE OF LOVE: THE WOMAN'S
I.THE LADY IN THE GLOVE
Writing of the unnamed heroine of Count Gismond, I said that
she had one of the characteristic Browning marksthat of trust in the
sincerity of others. Here, in The Glove, we find a figure who
resembles her in two respects: she is nameless, and she is a great
ladya lady of the Court. But now we perceive, full-blown, the flower
of Court-training: dis-trust. In this heroine (for all we are
told, as young as the earlier one) distrust has taken such deep root as
to produce the very prize-bloom of legendthat famous incident of the
glove thrown into the lion's den that her knight may go to fetch it. .
. . Does this interpretation of the episode amaze? It is that which our
poet gives of it. Distrust, and only that, impelled this lady to the
action which, till Browning treated it, had been regarded as a
prize-bloom indeed, but the flower not of distrust, but its
antithesisvanity! All the world knows the story; all the world, till
this apologist arrived, condemned alone the lady. Like Francis I, each
. . . 'Twas mere vanity,
Not love, set that task to humanity!
But Browning, who could detect the Court-grown, found excuse for her
in that lamentable gardening. The weed had been sown, as it was sown
(so much more tragically) for the earlier heroine; and little though we
are told of the latter lady's length of years, we may guess her, from
this alone, to be older. She had been longer at Court; its
lesson had penetrated her being. Day after day she had watched, day
after day had listened; then arrived De Lorge with fervent words of
love, and now she watched him, hearkened him . . . and
more and more misdoubted, hesitated, half-inclined and half-afraid;
until at last, one day struck fierce 'mid many a day struck calm, she
gathered all her hesitation, yielding, courage, into one quick
impulseand flung her glove to the lions! With the result which we
knowof an instant and a fearless answer to the test; but, as well, an
instant confirmation of the worst she had dreaded.
+ + + + +
It was at the Court of King Francis I of France that it
happenedthe most brilliant Court, perhaps, in history, where the
flower of French knighthood bloomed around the gayest, falsest of
kings. Romance was in the air, and so was corruption; poets, artists,
worked in every corner, and so did intrigue and baseness and lust.
Round the King was gathered the Petite Bande, the clique within
a cliquethat troop of pretty women who hunted with him, dined with
him, talked with himled by his powerful mistress, the Duchesse
d'Étampes, friend of the Dauphin's neglected wife, the Florentine
Catherine de Médicisfoe of that wife's so silently detested rival,
Madame Dame Diane de Poitiers, Grande Sénéschale de Normandie.
The two great mistresses had each her darling poet: the Duchesse
d'Étampes had chosen Clement Marot, who could turn so gracefully the
Psalms of David into verse; La Grande Sénéschale, always supreme in
taste, patronised Pierre Ronsardand this was why Pierre sometimes
found that when he talked fine to King Francis, the King would yawn
in his face, or whistle and move off to some better amusement.
That was what Francis did one day after the Peace of Cambray had
been signed by France and Spain. He had grown weary of leisure:
Here we've got peace, and aghast I'm
Caught thinking war the true pastime.
Is there a reason in metre?
Give us your speech, master Peter!
Peter obediently began, but he had hardly spoken half a dozen words
before the King whistled aloud: Let's go and look at our lions!
They went to the courtyard, and as they went, the throng of
courtiers musteredlords and ladies came as thick as coloured clouds
at sunset. Foremost among them (relates Ronsard in Browning's poem)
were De Lorge and the lady he was adoring.
Oh, what a face! One by fits eyed
Her, and the horrible pitside
for they were now all sitting above the arena round which the
lions' dens were placed. The black Arab keeper was told to stir up the
great beast, Bluebeard. A firework was accordingly dropped into the
den, whose door had been opened . . . they all waited breathless, with
beating hearts . . .
Then earth in a sudden contortion
Gave out to our gaze her abortion.
Such a brute! . . .
One's whole blood grew curdling and creepy
To see the black mane, vast and heapy,
The tail in the air stiff and straining,
The wide eyes nor waxing nor waning.
And the poet, watching him, thought how perhaps in that eruption of
noise and light, the lion had dreamed that his shackles were shivered,
and he was free again.
Ay, that was the open sky o'erhead!
And you saw by the flash on his forehead,
By the hope in those eyes wide and steady,
He was leagues in the desert already.
The King laughed: Was there a man among them all who would brave
Bluebeard? Not as a challenge did he say thishe knew well that it
were almost certain death:
Once hold you, those jaws want no fresh hold!
But Francis had scarcely finished speaking when (as all the world
knows) a glove fluttered down into the arena and fell close to the
lion. It was the glove of De Lorge's lady. They were sitting together,
and he had been, as Ronsard could see, weighing out fine speeches like
gold from a balance. . . . He now delayed not an instant, but leaped
over the barrier and walked straight up to the glove. The lion never
moved; he was still staring (as all of us, with aching hearts, have
seen such an one stare from his cage) at the far, unseen, remembered
land. . . . De Lorge picked up the glove, calmly; calmly he walked back
to the place where he had leaped the barrier before, leaped it again,
and (once more, as all the world knows) dashed the glove in the lady's
face. Every eye was on them. The King cried out in applause that he
would have done the same:
. . . 'Twas mere vanity,
Not love, set that task to humanity!
and, having the royal word for it, all the lords and ladies turned
with loathing from De Lorge's queen dethroned.
All but Peter Ronsard. He noticed that she retained
undisturbed her self-possession amid the Court's mockery.
As if from no pleasing experiment
She rose, yet of pain not much heedful,
So long as the process was needful.
* * * * *
She went out 'mid hooting and laughter;
Clement Marot stayed; I followed after.
Catching her up, he asked what it had all meant. I'm a poet, he
added; I must know human nature.
She told me, 'Too long had I heard
Of the deed proved alone by the word:
For my lovewhat De Lorge would not dare!
With my scornwhat De Lorge could compare!
And the endless descriptions of death
He would brave when my lip formed a breath,
I must reckon as braved' . . .
and for these great gifts, must give in return her love, as love
was understood at the Court of King Francis. But to-day, looking at the
lion, she had mused on all the dangers affronted to get that beast to
that den: his capture by some poor slave whom no lady's love was to
reward, no King or Court to applaud, but only the joy of the sport, and
the delight of his children's wonder at the glorious creature. . . .
And at this very Court, the other day, did not they tell of a page who
for mere boyish bravado had dropped his cap over the barrier and leaped
across, pretending that he must get it back? Why should she not test De
Lorge here and now? For now she was still free; now she could
find out what death for her sake really meant; otherwise, he might
yet break down her doubts, she might yield, still unassured, and only
then discover that it did not mean anything at all! Soshe had thrown
'The blow a glove gives is but weak:
Does the mark yet discolour my cheek?
But when the heart suffers a blow,
Will the pain pass so soon, do you know?'
* * * * *
De Lorge, indeed, had braved death for her sake; but he had then
been capable of the public insult. The pain of that, had she
loved him, must quite have broken her heart. And not only had he been
capable of this, but he had not understood her, he too had thought it
mere vanity. Love then was nowhereneither in his heart nor in hers.
. . . Ronsard, following her with his eyes as she went finally away,
saw a youth keeping as close as he dared to the doorway by which she
would pass. He was a mere plebeian; naturally his life was not so
precious as that of the brilliant De Lorge (thus Ronsard ironically
remarks); but there was no doubt what he would have done, had
our brute been Nemean. He would exultantly have accepted the test,
have thought it right that he should earn what he so ardently desired.
And when, shortly after, she carried
Her shame from the Court, and they married,
To that marriage some happiness, maugre
The voice of the Court, I dared augur.
De Lorge led for some time the most brilliant of envied careers, and
finally married a beauty who had been the King's mistress for a week.
Thenceforth he fetched her gloves very diligently, at the hours when
the King desired her presence and his absenceand never did he set off
on that errand (looking daggers at her) but Francis took occasion to
tell the Court the story of the other glove. And she would smile and
say that he brought hers with no murmur.
+ + + + +
Was the first lady right or wrong? She was right to hesitate in
accepting De Lorge's devotionnot because De Lorge was worthless,
but because she did not love him. The King spoke truly when he said
that not love set that task to humanity. Neither did mere vanity set
it, as we now perceive; but only love could excuse the test
which love could never have imposed. De Lorge was worthlessno matter;
the lady held no right over him, whatever he was, for she did not love
him. And not alone her test was the proof of this: her hesitation had
already proved it.
But, it may be said, the age was different: women still believed
that love could come to them through wooing. Nowadays, to be sure, so
subtle a woman as this would know that her own heart lay passive, and
that women's hearts do not lie passive when they love. . . . But I
think there were few things about love that women did not know in the
days of King Francis! We have only to read the discourses of Marguerite
de Valois, sister of the Kingwe have only to consider the story of
Diane de Poitiers, seventeen years older than her Dauphin, to realise
that most fully. Women's hearts were the same; and a woman's heart,
when it loves truly, will make no test for very pride-in-love's dear
sake. It scorns teststoo much scorns them, it may be, and yet I know
not. Again it is the Meredithian axiom which arrests me: He learnt how
much we gain who make no claims. Our lovers then may be, should be,
prepared to plunge among the lions for our glovesbut we should not be
able to send them! And if so, a De Lorge here and there should win a
hand he merits not, we may reflect that the new, no more than the
old, De Lorge will have won the heart which doubtsand,
doubting, flings (or keeps) the glove.
Utter the true wordout and away
Escapes her soul. . . .
Gloves flung to lions are not the answer which that enfranchised
soul will give! And so the Lady thought right and did wrong: 'twas
not love set that task to humanity. Even Browning cannot win her
our full pardon; we devote not many kerchiefs to drying this tear.
II.DÎS ALITER VISUM; OR, LE BYRON DE NOS JOURS
The gods saw it otherwise. Thus we may translate the first clause
of the title; the second, the reference to Byron, I have never
understood, and I think shall never understand. Of all the accusations
which stand against him, that of letting opportunity in this sort slip
by is assuredly not one. Such poor pretty thoughtful things as the
lady of this poem played their parts most notably in Byron's lifeto
their own disaster, it is true, but never because he weighed their
worth in the spirit of this French poet, so bitterly at last accused,
who meets again, ten years after the day of his cogitations, the
subject of them in a Paris drawing-roommarried, and as dissatisfied
as he, who still is free. Reading the poem, indeed, with Byron in mind,
the fancy comes to me that if it had been by any other man but
Browning, it might almost be regarded as a sidelong vindication of the
Frenchman for having rejected the poor pretty thoughtful thing. For
Byron married her[224:1]and in what did it result? . . . But that
Browning should in any fashion, however sidelong, acknowledge Byron as
anything but the most despicable of mortals, cannot for a moment be
imagined; he who understood so many complex beings failed entirely
here. Thus, ever in perplexity, I must abjure the theory of Byronic
merit. There lurks in this poem no hidden plea for abstention, for the
man who doesn'thinted at through compassionate use of his name who
made one of the great disastrous marriages of the world.
+ + + + +
Ten years before this meeting in Paris, the two of the poem had
known one another, though not with any high degree of intimacy, for
only twice had they walked and talked together. He was even then
bent, wigged, and lamed:
Famous, however, for verse and worse,
Sure of the Fortieth spare Arm-chair
that is, the next vacancy at the French Academy, for so
illustrious was he that his secondary reputation would not injure him.
She who now accuses him was then a young beauty, round and sound as
a mountain-apple, ingenuous, ardent, wealthythe typical poor pretty
thoughtful thing with aspirations, for she tried to sing and draw,
read verse and thought she understoodat any rate, loved the Great,
the Good, and the Beautiful. But to him her culture seemed pitifully
amateurishhim who took the arts in his stride, as it were, who could
float wide and free over the whole province of them, as the sea-gull
floats over the waters. Nevertheless he had walked and talked with her
twice at the little remote, unspoilt seaside resort where they had
chanced to meet. It was strange that more people had not discovered it,
so fine were the air and scenerybut it remained unvisited, and thus
the two were thrown together. One scorching noon they met; he invited
her to a stroll on the cliff-road. She took his arm, and (looking back
upon it now) remembers that as she took it she smiled sillily, and
made some banal speech about the blazing, brazen sea below. For she
felt that he had guessed her secret, timid hope. . . . Now, recalling
the episode (it is he who has given the signal for such reminiscence),
she asks him what effect his divination of her trembling heart had had
on him that day.
Did you determine, as we stepped
O'er the lone stone fence, 'Let me get
Her for myself, and what's the earth
With all its art, verse, music, worth
Compared with love, found, gained, and kept?'
For she knows, and she knew that he knew, the prompt reply
which would come if he blurted out a certain questioncome in her
instant silence, her downward look, the rush of colour to her cheek and
brow. They would have returned from that walk as plighted lovershe,
old, famous, weary; she with her youth and beauty, her ardour and her
wealth, all rapturously given, and with the happy prospect added to all
other joys of being certain of applause for the distinction shown in
her choice! . . . A perfect hour for bothwhile it lasted.
But (so she now reads his gone-by cogitations for him) it would not
last. The daily life would reclaim them; Paris would follow, with full
time for both to reason and reflect. . . . And thus (still interpreting
to him the imagined outcome of his musings) she would regret that
choice which had seemed to show her of the electfor after all a poet
need not be fifty! Young men can be poets too, and though they
blunder, there is something endearing in their blunders; moreover, one
day they will be as firm, quiet, and gay as he, as expert in
deceiving the world, which is all, in the last analysis, that such a
For, if he had spoken to her that day, what would he have
said? (She is still expounding to him the situation of this potential
married pair, as she has divined in her long musings that he then
foresaw it.) He would not have said, like a boy, Love me or I die.
But neither would he have said the truth, which was simply that he
wished to use her young ardour and vitality to help his age. Such was
the demand which she (as, according to her, he then reasoned it out)
would in time have accused him, tacitly or not, of having made upon
her. . . . And what would his own reflections have been? She is ready
to use her disconcerting clairvoyance for these also; nay, she can do
more, she can tell him the very moment at which he acted upon them in
advance! For as they foreshadowed themselves, he had ceased to press
gently her arm to his sideshe remembers well the stopping of that
tender pressure, and now can connect the action with its mental source.
His reflection, then, would have been simply that he had thrown
himself away, had bartered all he was and had been and might beall
his culture, knowledge of the world, guerdons of gold and great
renownfor what? For two cheeks freshened by youth and sea: a mere
nosegay. Him, in exchange for a nosegay!
That ended me. . . .
They duly admired the grey sad church, on the cliff-top, with its
scattered graveyard crosses, its garlands where the swallows perched;
they took their look at the sea and sky, wondering afresh at the
general ignorance of so attractive a little hole; then, finding the sun
really too scorching, they descended, got back to the baths, to such
civilisation as there was:
And then, good-bye! Ten years since then:
Ten years! We meet: you tell me, now,
By a window-seat for that cliff-brow,
On carpet-stripes for those sand-paths.
Ten years. He has a notorious liaison with a dancer at the Opera;
she has married lovelessly. They have met again, and, in sentimental
mood, he has recalled that sojourn, has begun to make a kind of
tentative love to her, probably unimpaired in beauty, certainly more
intellectually interesting, for the whole monologue proves that she can
no longer be patronisingly summed up in poor pretty thoughtful thing.
And she has cried, in the words which open the poem:
Stop, let me have the truth of that!
Is that all true?
and at first, between jest and bitterness, has given him the sum
of her musings on that moment when he decided to drop the nosegay.
For ten years he has had, tacitly, the last word: his decision has
stood unchallenged. Nor shall it now be alteredhe has begun to tell
her, to meander sentimentally around that episode, but she will have
nothing less than the truth; they will talk of it, yes, since he has so
pleased, but they will talk of it in her way. So she cuts him
short, and draws this acid, witty little sketch for him. . . . Has she
not matured? might it not have done, after all? The nosegay was not
so insipid! . . . But suddenly, while she mocks, the deeper truth of
that invades her soul, and she must cease from cynic gibes, and yield
the word to something greater in herself.
Now I may speak: you fool, for all
Your lore! Who made things plain in vain?
What was the sea for? What, the grey
Sad church, that solitary day,
Crosses and graves and swallows' call?
Was there nought better than to enjoy?
No feat which, done, would make time break,
And let us pent-up creatures through
Into eternity, our due?
No forcing earth teach heaven's employ?
No grasping at love, gaining a share
O' the sole spark from God's life at strife
With death . . . ?
He calls his decision wisdom? It is one kind of wisdom only, and
that the leastworldly wisdom. He was old, and she was raw and
sentimentaltrue; each might have missed something in the other; but
completeness is not for our existence here, we await heaven for that.
Only earthbound creatureslike the star-fish, for instancebecome all
they can become in this sphere; man's soul must evolve. Have
their souls evolved? And she cries that they have not:
The devil laughed at you in his sleeve!
Of course he did not know (as he now seems feebly to interpolate);
she can well believe that, for if he had known, he would have saved two
soulsnay, four. What of his Stephanie, who danced vilely last night,
they saywill he not soon, like the public, abandon her now that her
vogue has had its day? . . . And what of the speaker herself? It takes
but half a dozen words to indicate her lot:
Here comes my husband from his whist.
What is the truth of that?
Again, I think, something of what I said in writing of Youth and
Art: again not quite what Browning seems to wish us to accept. Love
is the fulfilling of the lawwith all my heart; but was love here?
Does love weigh worth, as the poet did? does love marry the next comer,
as the lady did? Mrs. Orr, devouter votary than I, explains that
Browning meant that everything which disturbs the equal balance of
human life gives a vital impulse to the soul. Did one wish merely to
be humorous, one might say that this was the most optimistic view of
unsuccessful marriage which has yet found expression! But merely to be
humorous is not what I wish: we must consider this belief, which Mrs.
Orr further declares to be the expression of Browning's poetic self.
Assuredly it is true that stereotyped monotony, even if happy, does
leave the soul unstirred to deepest depth. We may hesitate,
nevertheless, to embrace the view that only our mistakes are our
experience; and this is the view which seems to prevail in Mrs. Orr's
interpretation of Dîs Aliter Visum. Mr. Symons says that the
woman points out to the man his fatal mistake. . . . But was it
really a mistake at all? I do not, in urging that question, commit
myself to the crass commonplace of Berdoe, who argues that a more
unreasonable match could hardly be imagined than this one would have
been! The match standpoint is not here our standpoint. That
is, simply, that love is the fulfilling of the law, and that these two
people did not love. They were in the sentimental state which
frequently results from pleasant chance encountersand the
experienced, subtle man of the world was able to perceive that, and to
act upon it. That he has pursued his wonted way of life, and that she
has married lovelessly (for a husband who plays whist is, by the
unwritten law of romance, a husband who can by no possibility be
loved!), proves merely that each has fallen away in the pursuit of any
ideal which may then have urged itselfnot that both would certainly
have saved their souls if they had married one another. Speaking
elsewhere in this book of Browning's theory of love, I said: Love can
do all, and will do all, but we must for our part be doing something
toobut even love can do nothing if it is not there! Ideals need not
be abandoned because they are not full-realised; and, were we in stern
mood, it would be possible to declare that this lady had abandoned them
more definitely than her poet had, since he at all times was frankly a
worldling. Witty as she has become, there still remain in her, I fear,
some traces of the poor pretty thoughtful thing. . . . To sum up, for
this tear also we have but semi-sympathy; and Browning is again not
at his best when he makes the Victim speak for herself.
Now let us see how he can make a woman speak when she suffers, but
is not, and will not be, a victim.
At once she is a completely realised human creature, uttering
herself in such abandonment of all pretence as never fails to compass
majesty. Into the soul of this woman in The Laboratory, Browning
has penetrated till he seems to breathe with her breath. I question if
there is another fictive utterance to surpass this one in authenticity.
It bears the Great Seal. Not Shakespeare has outdone it in power and
concentration. Every word counts, almost every commafor, like
Browning, we too seem to breathe with this woman's panting breath, our
hearts to beat with the very pain and rage of hers, and every pause she
comes to in her speech is our pause, so intense is the
evocation, so unerring the expression of an impulse which, whether or
no it be atrophied in our more hesitant and civilised consciousness, is
at any rate effectively inhibited.
+ + + + +
She is a Court lady of the ancien régime, in the great
Brinvilliers poisoning-period, and she is buying from an old alchemist
in his laboratory the draught which is to kill her triumphant rival.
Small, gorgeous, and intense, she sits in the strange den and watches
the old wizard set about his work. She is due to dance at the King's,
but there is no hurry: he may take as long as he chooses. . . . Now she
must put on a glass mask like his, the old man tells her, for these
faint smokes that curl whitely are themselves poisonousand she
submits, and with all her intensity at work, ties it on tightly; then
sits again, to peer through the fumes of the devil's-smithy. But she
cannot be silent; even to himand after all, is such an one as he
quite truly a man!she must pour forth the anguish of her soul.
Questions relieve her now and then:
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?
but not long can she be merely curious; every minute there breaks
out a cry:
He is with her, and they know that I know
Where they are, what they do . . .
the pitiful self-consciousness of such torment, unable to believe
in the oblivion (familiar as it has been in past good hours) which
sweeps through lovers in their bliss. They could not forget me,
she thinks, as all her sister-sufferers think. . . . Yet even in this
hell, there is some solace. They must be remembering her, and
. . . they believe my tears flow
While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
Empty church, to pray God in, for them!I am here.
Yes, herewhere the old man works for her: grinding, moistening,
and mashing his paste, pounding at his powder. It is better to sit here
and watch him than go dance at the King's; and she looks round in her
restless, nervous anguishthe dagger in her heart, but this way,
this way, to stanch the wound it makes!
That in the mortaryou call it a gum?
Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!
And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,
Sure to taste sweetlyis that poison too?
But, maddened by the deadlier drug of wretchedness, she loses for a
moment the single vision of her rival: it were good to have all
the old man's treasures, for the joy of dealing death around her at
that hateful Court where each knows of her misery.
To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,
A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!
She need but give a lozenge at the King's, and Pauline should die
in half an hour; or light a pastille, and Elise, with her head and her
breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead. . . . But he is
taking too long.
Quickis it finished? The colour's too grim!
Why not soft like the phial's, enticing and dim?
For if it were, she could watch that other stir it into her drink,
and dally with the exquisite blue, and then, great glowing creature,
lift the goblet to her lips, and taste. . . . But one must be content:
the old man knowsthis grim drug is the deadly drug; only, as she
bends to the vessel again, a new doubt assails her.
What a drop! She's not little, no minion like me
That's why she ensnared him: this never will free
The soul from those masculine eyessay, 'No!'
To that pulse's magnificent come-and-go.
For only last night, as they whispered, I brought
My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought
Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall,
Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all!
* * * * *
But it is not painless in its working? She does not desire that: she
wants the other to feel death; moreshe wants the proof of
death to remain,
Brand, burn up, bite into its grace[236:1]
He is sure to remember her dying face!
Is it done? Then he must take off her mask; he mustnay, he need
not look morose about it:
It kills her, and this prevents seeing it close.
She is not afraid to dispense with the protecting vizor:
If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me?
There it liesthere. . . .
Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,
You may kiss me, old man, on the mouth if you will!
and, looking her last look round the den, she prepares to go; but
what is that mark on her gorgeous gown? Brush it off! Brush off that
dust! It might bring horror down on her in an instant, before she knows
or thinks, and she is going straight from here to dance at the King's.
. . . She is gone, with her jealousy and her anguish and her passion,
and, clutched to her heart, the phial that shall end but one of those
+ + + + +
She is gone, and she remains for ever. Her age is past, but not the
hearts that ached in it. We curb those hearts to-day; we do not poison
now; but have we forgotten the mood for poisoning?
If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me?
Such fiercenesses are silenced now; but, silent, they have still
their utterance, and it is here.
IV.IN A YEAR
Nayhere we have the heart unsilenced yet unfierce, the gentle, not
the dreadful, heart of woman: as true to type, so true indeed that we
can even figure to ourselves the other hours in which the lady of
The Laboratory may have known, like the girl here, only dim, aching
wonder at her lover's mutability.
Was it something said,
Vexed him? was it touch of hand,
Turn of head?
Strange! that very way
I as little understand
Here, again, is full authenticity. Girl-like, she sits and broods
upon it allnot angry, not even wholly wretched, for, though now she
is abandoned, she has not loved in vain, since she loved greatly. So
greatly that still, still, she can dream:
Would he loved me yet,
On and on,
While I found some way undreamed
Paid my debt!
Gave more life and more,
Till, all gone,
He should smile, 'She never seemed
But this will not be; in a year it is over for him; and for her
over too, though not yet ended. How will it end for her?
Well, this cold clay clod
Was man's heart:
Crumble it, and what comes next?
Is it God ? . . .
The dream, the silly dream, of each forsaken child!
'Dying for my sake
White and pink!
Can't we touch these bubbles then
But they break?'
That is what he will say to himself, in his high male fashion, when
he hears that she is dead; she sits and dreams of it, as women have
done since the world began, and will do till it ends.[239:1]
Then, at last, he will know how she loved him; since, for all that
has been between them, clearly he has not known that yet. . . . Again,
the supreme conviction of our souls that who does know truly all
the love, can never turn away from it. Most pitiful, most deceived, of
dreamsyet after all, perhaps the horn-gate dream, for who knows
truly but who loves truly?
Yet indeed (she now muses) has she enough loved him?
I had wealth and ease,
Since my lover gave me love,
I gave these.
That was all I meant
To be just,
And the passion I had raised
Since he chose to change
Gold for dust,
If I gave him what he praised,
Was it strange?
And after all it was not enough! Justice was not enough, the
giving of herself was not enough. If she could try again, if she could
find that way undreamed to pay her debt. . . .
I should like to omit two lines from the second of the stanzas
And the passion I had raised
From Browning, those words come oddly: moreover, elsewhere the girl
I, too, at love's brim
Touched the sweet:
I would die if death bequeathed
Sweet to him.
This is more than to content the passion she had raised. Let us
regard that phrase as unwritten: it is not authentic, it does not
express either the girl or her poet.
The rest comes right and trueand more than all, perhaps, the
second verse, where the mystery of passion in its coming no less than
in its going is so subtly indicated.
Strange! that very way
I as little understand
We hear to-day of love that aims at reason. Love forbid that I
should say love knows not reasonbut love and God forbid that it
should aim at reason! Leave us that unwisdom at least: we are so
+ + + + +
This ardent, gentle girl must suffer, and will suffer longbut will
not die. She will live and she will grow. Shall she then look back with
scorn upon that earlier self? . . . We talk much now of
re-incarnation, and always by our talk we seem to mean the
coming-back to earth of a spirit which at some time has left it. But
are there not re-incarnations of the still embodied spiritis not
re-incarnation, like eternity, with us here and now, as we in this
body live and suffer and despair, and lift our hearts again to hope
and faith? How many of usgrown, not changedcan pityingly look back
at ourselves in some such dying moment as this poem shows us; for death
it is to that ourself. Hearts do not break, but hearts do die
that heart, that self: we pass into a Hades.
Well, this cold clay clod
Was man's heart:
Crumble it, and what comes next?
Is it God?
Or is it new heart, new self, new life? We come forth enfranchised
from our Hades. The evil days, the cruel dayswe call them back (a
little, it may be, ashamed of our escape!) and still the blest
remoteness will endure: it was wonderful how it could suffer, the poor
heart. . . . Surely this is re-incarnation; surely no returning spirit
witnesses more clearly to a transition-state? We have been dead;
but this us who comes back to the world we knew is still the
samethe heart will answer as it once could answer, the spirit thrill
as once it thrilled. Onlythis is the proofboth heart and spirit are
further on; both have, as it were, gone past the earlier summons
and the earlier sense of love; and so, evoking such an hour as this,
when we could dream of dying for his sake, white and pink, we smile
in tender, not in scornful, pityknowing now that way undreamed of
our girl's dream, and knowing that that way is not to die, but live and
grow, since love that changes in a year is not the love to die, or
[224:1] The descriptive phrase above might really, at a pinch, be
applied to Annabella Milbanke.
[236:1] Note the fierceness achieved by the shortening and the
alliteration in this line.
[238:1] Mark how the deferred rhymes paint the groping thoughts.
Only after much questioning can the answer come, as it were, in the
chime of the rhyme.
[239:1] And men also, I hasten to add, that there may be no pluming
of male feathersif indeed this be an occasion for pluming on either
PART IV. THE WIFE
I. A WOMAN'S LAST WORD
They are married, and they have come to a spiritual crisis. She does
not, cannot, think as he thinks. But does thinking signify? She
lovesis not that enough? Can she not have done with thinking, or at
all events with talking about thinking? Perhaps, with every striving,
she shall achieve no more than that: to say nothing, to use no
influence, to yield the sanctioned woman's trophy of the last word. .
. . Shall she, then, be yielding aught of value, if she contends no
What so wild as words are?
and that they should strive and argue! Why, it is as when
birds debate about some tiny marvel of those marvellous tiny lives,
while the hawk spies from a bough above.
See the creature stalking
While we speak!
Hush and hide the talking,
Cheek on cheek!
For that hawk is ever watching life: it stands for the mysterious
effluence which falls on joy and kills it; and that may just as well be
talking as aught else! He shall have his own wayor no: that is a
paltry yielding. There shall be no way but his.
What so false as truth is,
False to thee?
She abandons then the cold abstraction; she does not even wish to
Where the apple reddens
Lest we lose our Edens,
Eve and I.
Be a god and hold me
With a charm!
Be a man and fold me
With thine arm!
Teach me, only teach, Love!
As I ought
I will speak thy speech, Love,
Think thy thought
Meet, if thou require it,
Laying flesh and spirit
In thy hands.
* * * * *
But even as she measures and exults in the abjection of herself, a
voice whispers in her soul that this is not the way. Something is
wrong. She hears, but cannot heed. It must be so, since he desires
itsince he can desire it. Since he can . . .
That shall be to-morrow,
I must bury sorrow
Out of sight:
Must a little weep, Love,
And so fall asleep, Love,
Loved by thee.
He does not wish to know the real Herself. Then the real herself
shall sleep; all shall be as before.
+ + + + +
Will this endure? All depends upon the woman: upon how strong she
is. For is not this the sheer denial of her husband's moral force? By
her silence, her abjection, her suppression, he shall prevail: not
otherwise. And so, if this endure, what shall the issue prove?
Not the highest good of married life for either, and still less for the
man than for the woman.
By implication, Browning shows us that in By the Fireside,
one of his three great songs of wedded love:
Oh, I must feel your brain prompt mine,
Your heart anticipate my heart,
You must be just before, in fine,
See and make me see, for your part,
New depths of the divine!
Once more we can trace there his development from Pauline.
She, looking up as I might kill her and be loved the more, had, to
the lover's thinking, laid her flesh and spirit in his hands, precisely
as the wife in the Last Word resolves to do. . . . As the poet
grew, so grew the man in Browning: we reach By the Fireside from
these. For the woman in the Last Word, strong to lay aside
herself, to think his thought, could with that strength, used
otherwise, bring that husband to the place where stands the man
in By the Fireside, when the long dark autumn evenings are
come, and together with his wife he treads back the path to their
youth, to the moment, one and infinite in which they found each other
once for all.
My perfect wife, my Leonor,
Oh heart, my own, oh eyes, mine too,
Whom else could I dare look backward for,
With whom beside should I dare pursue
The path grey heads abhor?
* * * * *
My own, confirm me! If I tread
This path back, is it not in pride
To think how little I dreamed it led
To an age so blest that, by its side,
Youth seems the waste instead?
And now read again:
Meet, if thou require it,
Laying flesh and spirit
In thy hands.
A lower note there, is it not? And shall he so require, and she so
yield, that backward-treading path is not for themnever shall they
say to one another:
Come back with me to the first of all,
Let us lean and love it over again,
Let us now forget and now recall,
Break the rosary in a pearly rain,
And gather what we let fall!
Too many tears would fall on that wife's rosarythe wife who had
begun so soon to know that Edens shall be lost by thinking Eves!
But let me not enforce a moral. The mood is one that women know, and
often wisely use. Talking is to be hidden, cheek on cheek,
from the hawk on the bough: but talking, as this wife will quickly see,
is not the sum of individuality's expression. She can teach
himlearning from him all the whilenot to require it: she,
this same sweet, strong-souled woman, for to be able to speak as she
speaks here is her sure indenture of freedom.
That shall be to-morrow,
I must bury sorrow
Out of sight.
The sorrow is for him, not for herself: he has fallen below his
highest in the tyranny of to-night. Then be sure that she, so loving
and so seeing, shall lift him up to-morrow! This tear shall be
II. JAMES LEE'S WIFE
In this song-cycle of nine poems we are shown the death of a woman's
heart. James Lee's wife sums up in herself, as it were, all those
troubles of love which we have considered in the earlier monologues.
The man has failed heras De Lorge failed his lady, as the poet the
poor, pretty thoughtful thing; love has left heras it left the
woman of The Laboratory and the girl of In a Year; she
and her husband are at variance in the great things of lifelike the
couple, in A Woman's last Word. But even the complete surrender
of individuality resolved upon by the wife in that poem would not now
avail, if indeed it ever would have availed, the wife of James Lee. All
is over, and, as she gradually realises, over with such finality that
there is only one thing she can do, and that is to leave himset him
We learn the mournful story from the wife's lips only; the husband
never speaks, and is but once present. All we actually see are the
moods of nine separate daysspread over what precise period of time we
are not clearly shown, but it was certainly a year. These nine
revealings show us every stage from the first faint pang of
apprehension to the accepted woe; then the battle with thatthe
hope that love may yet prevail; the clutch at some high stoicism drawn
from the laws of nature, or from old earth's genial wisdom; next, the
less exalted plan to be of use, since there is nothing else for her
to beand finally the flight, the whole renunciation. Echoes hover
from all sad women's stories elsewhere studied: the Tear reigns
supreme, the Victim is in excelsisfor hardly did Pompilia
suffer such excess of misery, since she at least could die, remembering
Caponsacchi. James Lee's wife will live, remembering James Lee.
Into the chosen commonplace of the man's name[251:1] we may read a
symbolism. This is every-day's news, the poet seems to say; you may
watch the drama for yourselves whenever you so please. And only indeed
in the depth of the woman's passion is there aught unusual. That, as uttered in the final poem, seems more than normalsince she knows
her husband for (as she so strangely says of him) mere ignoble earth;
yet still can claim that he set down to her
Love that was life, life that was love,
A tenure of breath at your lips' decree,
A passion to stand as your thoughts approve,
A rapture to fall where your foot might be.
Moreor lessthan dog-like is such love, for dogs are unaware of
mere ignoble earth, dogs do not judge and analyse and patronise, and
resolve to make the low nature better for their throes. Never has the
mistaken idea, the inept conduct, of passion been so subtly shown us,
with so much at once of pity and of irony.
James Lee's wife is a plain woman.
Why, fade you might to a thing like me,
And your hair grow these coarse hanks of hair,
Your skin, this bark of a gnarled tree . . .
So she cries in the painful concluding poem. Faded, coarse-haired,
coarse-skinned . . . is all said? But he had married her. In what, do
we find the word of that enigma? In the beauties of her heart and
mindthe passionate, devoted heart, the subtle, brooding mind. These
had done the first work; and alas! they have done the second also. The
heart was passionate and devoted, but it analysed too closely, and then
clung too closely; the mind was subtle and intense, but it could not
rest, it could not take for grantedmale synonym for married bliss!
And of course we shall not dare deny James Lee his trustiest, sturdiest
weapon: she had no sense of humour! . . . If he was incomplete,
so too was she; and her incompleteness was of the kind that, in this
relation, never fails to failhis, of the kind that more often than
not succeeds. Thus she sums him:
With much in you waste, with many a weed,
And plenty of passions run to seed,
But a little good grain too.
This man, who may be reckoned in his thousands, as the corresponding
type in woman may, needsnot tyrannically, because unconsciouslya
mate who far excels him in all that makes nobility; and, nine times out
of ten, obtains her. Mrs. James Lee (how quaintly difficult it is to
realise that sequence!) is, on the contrary, of the type that one might
almost say inevitably fails to find the true mate. Perhaps she has
none. Perhaps, to be long loved, to be even long endured, this type
must alter itself by modification or suppression, like the wife in the
Last Wordwho was not of it! For here is the very heart of the
problem: can or cannot character be altered? James Lee's wife is of the
morbid, the unbalanced, the unlovely: these, if they are to survive,
must learn the lore of self-suppression. Not for them exactingness,
caprice, the gay or grave analysis of love and lover: such moods charm
alone in lovely women, and even in them bring risks along. The
Mrs. Lees must curb them wholly. As the whims of unwedded love, they
may perchance amuse or interest; marriage, for such, comports them not
Let us trace, compassionately if ironically, the mistakes of this
I.SHE SPEAKS AT THE WINDOW
He is coming back to their seaside home at Sainte-Marie, near
Pornicthe Breton wild little place which Browning knew and loved so
well. Close to the seaa hamlet of a dozen houses, perfectly
lonelyone may walk on the edge of the low rocks by the sea for miles.
I feel out of the earth sometimes as I sit here at the window.[254:1]
And at the window she sits, watching for James Lee's return.
Yesterday it was summer, but the strange sudden stop has come,
eerily, as it always seems to come.
Ah, Love, but a day
And the world has changed!
The sun's away,
And the bird estranged;
The wind has dropped,
And the sky's deranged:
Summer has stopped.
We can picture him as he arrives and listens to her: is there
already a faint annoyance? Need she so drearily depict the passing of
summer? It is bad enough that it should passwe need not talk
about it! Such annoyance we all have felt with the relentless
chroniclers of change. Enough, enough; since summer is gone and we
cannot bring it back, let us think of something else. . . . But she
goes on, and now we shall not\ doubt that he is enervated, for this is
what she says:
Look in my eyes!
Wilt thou change too?
Should I fear surprise?
Shall I find aught new
In the old and dear,
In the good and true,
With the changing year?
The questions have come to hercome on what cold blast from heaven,
or him? But in pity for herself, let her not ask them! We seem to see
the man turn from her, not looking in her eyes, and seem to catch the
thought, so puerile yet so instinctive, that flashes through his mind.
I never meant to 'change'; why does she put it into my head. . . .
And then, doomed blunderer, she goes on:
Thou art a man,
But I am thy love.
For the lake, its swan;
For the dell, its dove;
And for thee (oh, haste!)
Me, to bend above,
Me, to hold embraced.
She does not say, oh, haste!that is the silent comment
(we must think) on her not instantly answered plea for his embrace. . .
. And when the embrace does comethe claimed embracewe can figure to
ourselves the all it lacks.
II.BY THE FIRESIDE
Summer now indeed is gone; they are sitting by their fire of wood.
The blue and purple flames leap up and die and leap again, and she sits
watching them. The wood that makes those coloured flames is shipwreck
wood. . . .
Oh, for the ills half-understood,
The dim dead woe
Befallen this bitter coast of France!
And then, ever the morbid analogy, the fixed idea:
Well, poor sailors took their chance;
I take mine.
Out there on the sea even now, some of those poor sailors may be
eyeing the ruddy casement and gnashing their teeth for envy and hate,
O' the warm safe house and happy freight
Thee and me.
The irony of it seizes her. Those sailors need not curse them! Ships
safe in port have their own perils of rot and rust and worms in the
wood that gnaw the heart to dust. . . . That is worse.
And how long the house has stood here, to anger the drenched, stark
men on the sea! Who lived here before this couple came? Did another
woman before herself watch the man with whom began love's voyage
full-sail . . . watch him and see the planks of love's ship start, and
hell open beneath?
This mood she speaks not, only sits and broods upon. And he?
Men too can watch, and struggle with themselves, and feel that little
help is given them. Some sailors come safe home, and these would have
been lighted by the ruddy casement. But she thinks only of the sailors
drowning, and gnashing their teeth for hate of the warm safe house.
That melancholy broodingand if she but looked lovely while she
broods. . . .
III.IN THE DOORWAY
She stands alone in the doorway, and looks out upon the dreary
autumn landscape.[257:1] It is a grey October day; the sea is in
stripes like a snakeolive-pale near the land, black and spotted
white with the wind in the distance. How ominous it shows: good
fortune is surely on the wing.
Hark, the wind with its wants and its infinite wail!
As she gazes, her heart dies within her. Their fig-tree has lost all
the golden glint of summer; the vines writhe in rows, each impaled on
its stakeand like the leaves of the tree, and like the vines, her
heart shrivels up and her spirit shrinks curled.
But courage, courage! Winter comes to allnot to them alone. And
have they not love, and a house big enough to hold them, with its four
rooms, and the field there, red and rough, not yielding now, but again
to yield? Rabbits and magpies, though now they find no food there (the
magpies already have well-nigh deserted it; when one does
alight, it seems an event), yet will again find food. But Novemberthe
chill month with its rebuffwill see both rabbits and magpies quite
departed. . . . No! This shall not be her mood. Winter comes indeed to
mere material nature; God means precisely that the spirit shall inherit
His power to put life into the darkness and the cold. The spirit defies
Whom Summer made friends of, let Winter estrange!
And she turns to go in, for the hour at rest and solaced. They have
the house, and the field . . . and love.
IV.ALONG THE BEACH
Rest and solace have departed: winter is cometo all. She walks
alone on the beach; one may do that, on the edge of the low rocks by
the sea, for miles;[258:1] and broods once more. She figures him
beside her; they are speaking frankly of her pain. She will be quiet.
. . . Piteous phrase of all unquiet women! She will be quiet; she will
reason why he is wrong. Well for her that the talk is but a fancied
one; she would not win far with such a preamble, were it real! It is
thus that in almost every word we can trace the destined failure of
this loving woman. . . . She begins her reasoning.
You wanted my loveis that much true?
And so I did love, so I do:
What has come of it all along?
I took youhow could I otherwise?
For a world to me, and more;
For all, love greatens and glorifies
Till God's aglow, to the loving eyes,
In what was mere earth before.
Yes, earthyes, mere ignoble earth!
Now do I mis-state, mistake?
Do I wrong your weakness and call it worth?
Expect all harvest, dread no dearth,
Seal my sense up for your sake?
Oh, Love, Love, no, Love! Not so, indeed!
You were just weak earth, I knew:
and then, pursuing, she sums him up as we saw at the beginning of
Well for her, I say again, that this is but a fancied talk! And
since it is, we can accord her a measure of wisdom. For she has
been wise in one thing: she has not wronged his weakness and called it
worththat memorable phrase, so Browningesque!
She has seen through him, yet she loves him. Thus far, then, kind
and wise in her great passion. . . . But she should forget that
she has seen through himshe should keep that vision in the
background, not hold it ever in her sight. And now herself begins to
see that this is where she has not been wise. She took him for hers,
just as he wasand did not he, thus accepted, find her his? Has she
not watched all that was as yet developed in him, and waited patiently,
wonderingly, for the more to come?
Well, and if none of these good things came,
What did the failure prove?
The man was my whole world, all the same.
That is the fault in her:
That I do love, watch too long,
And wait too well, and weary and wear;
And 'tis all an old story, and my despair
Fit subject for some new song.
She has shown him too much love and indulgence and hope implied in
the indulgence: this was the wrong way. The bond has been feltand
such light, light love as his has wings to fly at the mere suspicion
of a bond. He has grown weary of her wisdom; pleasure is his aim in
life, and that is always ready to turn up next in a laughing
eye. . . . So the songs have said and will say for all timethe new
songs for the old despair.
But though she knows all this (we seem to see), she will not be able
to act upon it. Always she will watch too long, and wait too well. Hers
is a nature as simple as it is intense. No sort of subterfuge is within
her meansneither the gay deception nor the grave. What she knows that
he resents, she still must do immutablybound upon the wheel of her
true self. For only one self she has, and that the wrong one.
She turns back, she walks homeward along the beachon the edge of
the low rocks by the sea, for miles.
V.ON THE CLIFF
But still love is a power! Love can move mountains, for is not love
the same as faith? And not a mountain is here, but a mere man's
heartalready moved, for he has loved her.
It is summer again. She sits on the cliff, leaning back on the short
dry grassif one still can call it grass, so deep was done the work
of the summer sun. And there near by is the rock, baked dry as the
grass, and flat as an anvil's face. No iron like that! Not a weed nor
a shell: death's altar by the lone shore. The drear analogies succeed
one another; she sees them everywhere, in everything. The dead grass,
the dead rock. . . . But now, what is this on the turf? A gay blue
cricket! A cricketonly that? Nay, a war-horse, a magic little steed,
a real fairy, with wings all right. And there too on the rock, like a
drop of fire, that gorgeous-coloured butterfly.
No turf, no rock: in their ugly stead,
See, wonderful blue and red!
Shall there not then be other analogies? May not the minds of men,
though burnt and bare as the turf and the rock, be changed like them,
transfigured like them:
With such a blue-and-red grace, not theirs
Love settling unawares!
It was almost a miracle, was it not? the way they changed. Such
miracles happen every day.
VI.READING A BOOK, UNDER THE CLIFF
These clever young men! She is reading a poem of the wind.[262:1]
The singer asks what the wind wants of himso instant does it seem in
'Art thou a dumb wronged thing that would be righted,
Entrusting thus thy cause to me? Forbear!
No tongue can mend such pleadings; faith requited
With falsehoodlove, at last aware
Of scornhopes, early blighted
'We have them; but I know not any tone
So fit as thine to falter forth a sorrow;
Dost think men would go mad without a moan,
If they knew any way to borrow
A pathos like thine own?'
The splendid lines assail her.[263:1] In her anguish of response she
turns from them at lastthey are too much. This power of perception is
almost a baseness! And bitterly resentful of the young diviner who can
thus show forth her inmost woe with his phrase of love, at last
aware of scorn, she flings the volume from herrejecting him,
detesting him, and finding ultimately through her stung sense the way
to refute him who has dared, with his mere boy's eyes, to discern such
anguish. He is wrong: the wind does not mean what he fancies by
its moaning. He thus interprets it, because he thinks only of himself,
and of how the suffering of othersfailure, mistake, disgrace,
relinquishmentis but the example for his use, the help to his path
untried! Such agonies as her own are mere instances for him to
recognise and put into a phraselike that one, which stings the
spirit, and sets the heart to woe-fullest aching, and brims the eyes
with bitter, bitterest tears. How dare he, with his crude boy's heart,
embody grief like hers in words, how dare he knowand now her irony
Oh, he knows what defeat means, and the rest!
Himself the undefeated that shall be:
Failure, disgrace, he flings them you to test
His triumph in eternity
Too plainly manifest!
Of course he does not know! The wind means something else. And as
the pain grows fainter, she finds it easier to forgive him. How
could the happy, prompt instinctive way of youth discover the
wind's secret? Only the kind, calm years, exacting their accompt of
pain can mature the mind. This young poet, grown older, will learn the
truth one dayon a midsummer morning, at daybreak, looking over some
sparkling foreign country, at its height of gloom and gloss. At its
heightnext minute must begin, then, the work of destruction; and what
shall be the earliest sign? That very wind beginning among the vines:
So low, so low, what shall it say but this?
'Here is the change beginning, here the lines
Circumscribe beauty, set to bliss
The limit time assigns.' . . .
Change is the law of life: that is what the wind says.
Nothing can be as it has been before;
Better, so call it, only not the same.
To draw one beauty into our hearts' core,
And keep it changeless! Such our claim;
So answered: Never more!
Simple? Why, this is the old woe of the world;
Tune, to whose rise and fall we live and die.
Rise with it then! Rejoice that man is hurled
From change to change unceasingly,
His soul's wings never furled!
* * * * *
Her rejection of the young man's pride has raised her for an
instant above her own suffering. Flinging back his interpretation in
his facethat interpretation which had pierced her to the quick with
its intensity of visionshe has found a better one; and for a while
she rests in this. The laws of nature: shall not that be the formula
to still her pain? . . . Not yet, not yet; the heart was numbed but for
a moment. Stung to such fresh life as it has been but now, it cries
imperiously again. The laws of nature?
That's a new question; still replies the fact,
Nothing endures: the wind moans, saying so;
We moan in acquiescence.
Only to acquiescence can we attain.
God knows: endure his act!
But the human loss, the human anguish. . . . Formulas touch not
these, nor does acquiescence mitigate. Tell ourselves as wisely as we
may that mutability must bewe yet discern where the woe lies. We
cannot fix the one fair good wise thing just as we grasped itcannot
engrave it, as it were, on our souls. And then we dieand it is gone
for ever, and we would have sunk beneath death's wave, as we sink now,
to save itbut time washed over it ere death mercifully came. It was
abolished even while we lived: the wind had begun so low, so low . .
. and carried it away on its moaning voice. Change is the very essence
of life; and life may be probation for a better lifewho knows? But if
she could have engraved, immutable, on her soul, the hours in which her
husband loved her. . . .
VII.AMONG THE ROCKS
Such anguish must, at least, change with the rest! And now that
autumn is fully come, the loss of summer is more bearable. It is while
we hope that summer still may stay that we are tortured.
Oh, good gigantic smile o' the brown old earth,
This autumn morning!
She will forget the laws of nature: she will unreflectingly watch
earth. That is best.
. . . How he sets his bones
To bask i' the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.
The geniality of earth! She will sink her troubled soul into the
vast tranquillity. No science, no cosmic wholejust this: the brown
But soon the analogy-hunting begins: that soul of hers can never
rest. What does this, then, show forth? Her love in its tide can flow
over the lower nature, as the waves flow over the basking rocks. Old
earth smiles and knows:
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!
I confess that I cannot follow this analogy. The lesson may be
clearof that later; the analogy escapes me. Who says that rocks are
of lower nature than the sea which washes them? But if it does not mean
this, what does it mean? Mrs. Orr interprets thus: As earth blesses
her smallest creatures with her smile, so should love devote itself to
those less worthy beings who may be ennobled by it. That seems to me
to touch this instance not at all. It is the earth who has set
himself (in the unusual personification) to bask in the sun; the
earth, here, is getting, not giving. Or rather, all is one: each
element wholly joys in the other. And watching this, the woman wrings
from it the doctrine simple, ancient, true, that love is
self-sacrifice. Let that be true, I still cannot see how the symbol
aids the doctrine.
And the doctrine? Grant that love is self-sacrifice (I had rather
say that self-sacrifice is a part, and but a part, of love): is love
Make the low nature better by your throes.
It is a strange love, surely, which so speaks? Shall a man live,
despised, in harmony with her who despises him? James Lee's wife may
call this love, but we absolve James Lee, I think, if he does not! For
human beings feel most subtly when scorn dwells near them; they may
indeed have caused that scornbut let there be no talk of love where
Even bitterness were less destructive to the woman's hope than this
strange counting of the cost, this self-sufficiency. Our sympathy must
leave her at this phase; and sympathy for her was surely Browning's
aim? But possibly it was not; and if not, this indeed is subtle.
VIII.BESIDE THE DRAWING-BOARD
She had turned wearily from the household cares, the daily direction
of a little peasant-servant, to her drawing-board. A cast from Leonardo
da Vinci of a woman's hand is her model, and for an hour she has been
happily working. She has failed; but that has not clouded joy nor
Its beauty mounted into my brain,
and, effacing the failures, she has yielded to a fancyhas taken
the chalk between her lips, instead of her fingers:
With soul to help if the mere lips failed,
I kissed all right where the drawing ailed,
Kissed fast the grace that somehow slips
Still from one's soulless finger-tips.
This hand was that of a worshipped woman. Her fancy sets the ring on
it, by which one knows
That here at length a master found
His match, a proud lone soul its mate.
Not even Da Vinci's pencil had been able to trace all the beauty
. . . how free, how fine
To fear almost!of the limit-line.
He, like her, had suffered some defeat. But think of the
minutes in which, with her he worshipped, he looked and loved, learned
and drew, Drew and learned and loved again! Such moments are not for
such as she. She will go back to the household caresshe has her
lesson, and it is not the same as Da Vinci's.
Little girl with the poor coarse hand
. . . this is her model, from whom she had turned to a cold
clay cast. Her business is to understand, not the almost fearful beauty
of a thing like this, but the worth of flesh and blood.
But was not that Da Vinci's business too? Would he not, could she
speak with him, proudly tell her so? Nothing but beauty in a hand.
Would the Master have turned from this peasant one? No: she hears him
condemn her, laugh her woes to scorn.
The fool forsooth is all forlorn
Because the beauty she thinks best
Lived long ago or was never born,
Because no beauty bears the test
In this rough peasant hand!
It was not long before Da Vinci threw aside the faulty pencil, and
spent years instead of hours in studying, not the mere external
loveliness, but the anatomy of the hand, learning the veritable use
Of flesh and bone and nerve that make
The poorest coarsest human hand
An object worthy to be scanned
A whole life long for their sole sake.
Just the handand all the body still to learn. Is not this the
lesson of lifethis incompleteness?
Now the parts and then the whole!
And here is she, declaring that if she is not loved, she must
dieshe, with her stinted soul and stunted body! Look again at the
peasant hand. No beauty is therebut it can spin the wool and bake the
'What use survives the beauty?'
Yes: Da Vinci would proclaim her fool.
Then this shall be the new formula. She will be of use; will
do the daily task, forgetting the unattainable ideals. She cannot keep
her husband's love, any more than she can draw the perfect hand; then
she will not waste her life in sighing for either gift. She will be
useful; she will gain cheer that way, since all the others fail
Go, little girl with the poor coarse hand!
I have my lesson, shall understand.
This is the last hopeto be of humble use; this the last formula
And this has failed like the rest. She is on board the boat that
carries her away from him, she has found the last formula: set him
free. Well, it in its turn has been followed: she is gone. Gonein
There is nothing to remember in me,
Nothing I ever said with a grace,
Nothing I did that you care to see,
Nothing I was that deserves a place
In your mind, now I leave you, set you free.
No petite fleur dans la penséenone, none: she grants him
all her dis-grace. But will he not grant her something toonow that
she is gone? Will he not grant that men have loved such women, when the
women have loved them so utterly? It has been: she knows that,
and the more certainly now that she has yielded finally her claim to a
like miracle. His soul is locked fast; but, love for a key (if he
could but have loved her!), what might not have happened? She might
have grown the same in his eyes as he is in hers!
So strange it is to think of that. . . . She can think
anything when such imagining is once possible to her. She can think of
him as the harsh, ill-favoured one! For what would it have
matteredher uglinessif he had loved her? They would have been like
as pea and pea. Ever since the world began, love has worked such
spellsthat is so true that she has warrant to work out this strange,
Imagine it. . . . If he had all her in his heart, as she has all him
in hers! He, whose least word brought gloom or glee, who never lifted
his hand in vainthat hand which will hold hers still, from over the
sea . . . if, when he thinks of her, a face as beautiful as his
own should rise to his imaginationwith eyes as dear, a mouth like
that, as bright a brow. . . .
Till you saw yourself, while you cried ''Tis she!'
But it will not beand if it could be, she would not know or care,
for the joy would have killed her.
Or turn it again the converse way. Supposing he could fade to a
thing like her, with the coarse hair and skin . . .
You might turn myself!should I know or care
When I should be dead of joy, James Lee?
Either way it would kill her, so she may as well be gone, with her
Love that was life, life that was love;
and there is nothing at all to remember in her. As long as she lives
his words and looks will circle round her memory. If she could
fancy one touch of love for her once coming in those words and looks
again. . . . But the boat moves on, farther, ever farther from the
little house with its four rooms and its field and fig-tree and
vinesfrom the window, the fireside, the doorway, from the beach and
cliff and rocks. All the formulas have failed but this one. This one
will not fail. He is set free.
+ + + + +
She had to go; and neither him nor her can we condemn. One near one
is too far. She saw and loved too well: one or the other she should
have been wise enough to hide from him. But she could not. Character is
fate; and two characters are two fates. Neither, with that other, could
be different; each might, with another other, have been all that each
was meant to be.
[251:1] The poems were first called James Lee only.
[254:1] Life, Mrs. Orr, p. 266.
[257:1] The little church, a field, a few houses, and the sea . . .
Such a soft sea, and such a mournful wind!Life, p. 266.
[258:1] Life, p. 266.
[262:1] These lines were published by Browning, separately, in 1836,
when he was twenty-six. James Lee's Wife was published in 1864.
[263:1] Nettleship well says: The difference between the first and
second parts of this section is that, while the plaint of the wind was
enough to make Browning write in 1836, he must have the plaint of a
soul in 1863. . . . And yet, something is lost.
PART V. THE TROUBLE OF LOVE
I. THE WOMAN UNWON
In the section entitled Lovers Meeting we saw the exultant mood of
love in man, and I there pointed out how seldom even Browning has
assigned that mood to woman. But he does not show her as alone in
suffering love's pain. The lyrics we are now to consider give us woman
as the maker of love's pain for man; we learn her in this character
through the utterances of menand these are noble utterances, every
one. Mr. J. T. Nettleship, in his Essays and Thoughts, well
remarks that man's passion shows, in Browning's work, a greater width
of view and intellectual power than woman's does; that in the feminine
utterances little beyond the actual love of this life is
imagined;[277:1] and that in such utterances we notice . . . an
absolute want of originality and of power to look at the passion of
love in an abstract sense outside the woman herself and her lover.
I too have, by implication, found this fault with Browning; but Mr.
Nettleship differs from me in that he apparently delights to dwell on
the idea of woman's accepted inferiorityher tender, unaspiring love
. . . type of that perfection which looks to one superior. It will be
seen from this how little he is involved by feminism. That woman should
be the glad inferior quarrels not at all with his vision of things as
they should be. Man, indeed, he grants, must firmly establish his
purity and constancy before he dares to assert supremacy over Nature:
woman, we may suppose, beingas if she were not quite certainly a
personincluded in Nature. That a devotee of Browning should
retain this attitude may well surprise us, since nothing in his
teaching is clearer than that woman is the great inspiring influence
for man. But the curious fact which has struck both Mr. Nettleship and
myselfthat, in Browning's work, woman does so frequently, when
expressing herself, fail in breadth and imaginationmay very well
account for the obsolete gesture in this interpreter. . . . Can it be,
then, that Browning was (as has frequently been said of him) very much
less dramatic a writer than he wished to believe himself? Or, more
aptly for our purpose to frame the question, was he dramatic only for
men? Did he merely guess at, and not grasp, the deepest emotions and
thoughts of women? This, if it be affirmed, will rob him of some
gloryyet I think that affirmed it must be. It leaves him all nobility
of mind and heart with regard to us; the glory of which he is robbed is
after all but that of thaumaturgic powerit is but to say that he
could not turn himself into a woman!
+ + + + +
In what ways does Browning show us as the makers of love's trouble
for man? First, of course, as loved and unwon. But though this be the
most obvious of the ways, not obvious is Browning's treatment of it. To
love in vain is a phrase contemned of him. No love is in vain. Grief,
anguish even, may attend it, but never can its issue be futility. Nor
is this merely the already familiar view that somehow, though rejected,
love benignly works for the beloved. That may be, that is (he
seems to say), but it is not the truth which most inspires me. The
glory of love for Browning resides most radiantly in what it does for
the lover's own soul. It is God's secret: one who loves is initiate.
Such am I: the secret's mine now! She has lost me, I have
Her soul's mine: and thus, grown perfect, I shall pass my
Life will just hold out the proving both our powers, alone and
And then, come next life quickly! This world's use will have
That is the concluding stanza of Cristina, which might be
called the companion-piece to Porphyria's Lover; for in each the
woman belongs to a social world remote from her adorer's; in each she
has, nevertheless, perceived him and been drawn to himbut in
Cristina is caught back into the vortex, while in Porphyria's
Lover the passion prevails, for the man, by killing her, has kept
her folded in God's secret with himself.
She should never have looked at me if she meant I should not
There are plenty . . . men, you call such, I suppose . . . she
All her soul to, if she pleases, and yet leave much as she
But I'm not so, and she knew it, when she fixed me, glancing
That is the lover's first impulsive cry on finding himself thrown
over. Why did she not leave him alone? Others tell him that that
fixing of hers means nothingthat she is, simply, a coquette. But he
can't tell what her look said. Certainly not any vile cant about
giving her heart to him because she saw him sad and solitary, about
lavishing all that she was on him because he was obscure, and she the
queen of women. Not that, whatever else!
And now, so sure of this that he grows sure of other things as well,
he declares that it was a moment of true revelation for her alsoshe
did perceive in him the man she wanted.
Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows! but not quite so sunk
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us, when the spirit's true
Stand out plainly from its false ones, and apprise it if
Or the right way or the wrong way, to its triumph or undoing.
That was what she had feltthe queen of women! A coquette, if they
will, for others, but not for him; and, though cruel to him also in the
event, not because she had not recognised him. She had
recognised him, and moreshe had recognised the great truth, had
deeply felt that the soul stops here for but one end, the true end,
sole and single: this love-way.
If the soul miss that way, it goes wrong. There may be better ends,
there may even be deeper blisses, but that is the essentialthat is
the significant thing in life.
But they need not smile at his fatuity! He sees that she knew, but
he can see the issue also.
Oh, observe! of course, next moment, the world's honours, in
Trampled out the light for ever. Never fear but there's
Of the devil's to quench knowledge, lest we walk the earth in
rapture . . .
That must be reckoned with; but all it does to those who
catch God's secret is simply to make them prize their capture so much
Such am I: the secret's mine now! She has lost me, I have
for though she has cast him off, he has grasped her soul, and will
retain it. He has prevailed, and all the rest of his life shall prove
him the victorious onethe one who has two souls to work with! He will
prove all that such a pair can accomplish; and then death can come
quickly: this world's use will have been ended. She also knew this,
but would not follow it to its issue. Thus she lost himbut he gained
her, and that shall do as well.
+ + + + +
No loving in vain there! But this poem is the high-water mark of
unsuccessful love exultant. Browning was too true a humanist to keep us
always on so shining a peak; he knew that there are lower levels, where
the wounded wings must restthat mood, for instance, of wistful
looking-back to things undreamed-of and now gone, yet once experienced:
This is a spray the bird clung to,
Making it blossom with pleasure,
Ere the high tree-top she sprung to,
Fit for her nest and her treasure.
Oh, what a hope beyond measure
Was the poor spray's, which the flying feet hung to
So to be singled out, built in, and sung to!
This is a heart the Queen leant on . . .
and in a stanza far less lovely than that of the bird, he shows
forth the analogy. The Queen went on; but what a moment that heart
had had! . . . Gratitude, we see always, for the gift of love in the
heart, for God's secret. The lover was left alone, but he had known the
thrill. Better to have loved and lostnay, but lost, for Browning,
is not in the scheme. She is there, in the world, whether his or
Sometimes she has never been his at all, has never cared:
All June I bound the rose in sheaves.
Now, rose by rose, I strip the leaves
And strew them where Pauline may pass.
She will not turn aside? Alas!
Let them lie. Suppose they die?
The chance was, they might take her eye.
And then, for many a month, he tried to learn the lute to please
To-day I venture all I know.
She will not hear my music? So!
Break the string; fold music's wing:
Suppose Pauline had bade me sing!
Thus we gradually see that all his life he has been learning to love
her. Now he has resolved to speak. . . . Heaven or hell?
She will not give me heaven? 'Tis well!
Lose who mayI still can say
Those who win heaven, blest are they!
Here again is Browning's typical lover. Never does he whine, never
resent: she was free to choose, and she has not chosen him. That
is pain; but of the humiliation commonly assigned to unsuccessful
love, he never dreams: where can be humiliation in having caught God's
secret? . . . And even if she have half-inclined to him, but found that
not all herself can give herselfmore pain in that, a nearer approach
to failure, perhapseven so, he understands.
I saidThen dearest, since 'tis so,
Since now at length my fate I know,
Since nothing all my love avails,
Since all, my life seemed meant for, fails,
Since this was written and needs must be
My whole heart rises up to bless
Your name in pride and thankfulness!
Take back the hope you gaveI claim
Only a memory of the same
And this beside, if you will not blame,
Your leave for one more last ride with me.
The girl hesitates. Her proud dark eyes, half-pitiful, dwell on him
for a momentwith life or death in the balance, thinks he.
. . . Right!
The blood replenished me again;
My last thought was at least not vain;
I and my mistress, side by side
Shall be together, breathe and ride;
So, one day more am I deified.
Who knows but the world may end to-night?[285:1]
Now the moment comes in which he lifts her to the saddle. It is as
if he had drawn down upon his breast the fairest, most celestial cloud
in evening-skies . . . a cloud touched gloriously at once by setting
sun and rising moon and evening-star.
Down on you, near and yet more near,
Till flesh must fade for heaven was here
Thus leant she and lingeredjoy and fear!
Thus lay she a moment on my breast.
And then they begin to ride. His soul smooths itself outthere
shall be no repining, no questioning: he will take the whole of his
Had I said that, had I done this,
So might I gain, so might I miss.
Might she have loved me? just as well
She might have hated, who can tell!
* * * * *
And here we are riding, she and I.
He is not the only man who has failed. All men strivewho
succeeds? His enfranchised spirit seems to range the
universeeverywhere the done is petty, the undone vast;
everywhere men dream beyond their powers:
I hoped she would love me; here we ride!
No one gains all. Hand and brain are never equal; hearts, when they
can greatly conceive, fail in the greatest courage; nothing we do is
just what we dreamed it might be. We are hedged in everywhere by the
fleshly screen. But they two ride, and he sees her bosom lift
and fall. . . . To the rest, then, their crowns! To the statesman, ten
lines, perhaps, which contain the fruit of all his life; to a soldier,
a flag stuck on a heap of bonesand as guerdon for each, a name
scratched on the Abbey stones.
My riding is better, by their leave!
Even our artists! The poet says the thing, but we feel it. Not one
of us can express it like him; but has he had it? When he dies,
will he have been a whit nearer his own sublimities than the lesser
spirits who have never turned a line?
Sing, riding's a joy! For me, I ride.
(Note the fine irony here. The poet shall sing the joy of riding;
this man rides.)
The great sculptor, too, with his twenty years' slavery to Art:
And that's your Venus, whence we turn
To yonder girl that fords the burn!
But the sculptor, with his insight, acquiesces, so this man need not
pity him. The musician fares even worse. After his life's
labours, they say (even his friends say) that the opera is great in
intention, but fashions change so quickly in musiche is out-of-date.
He gave his youth? Well
I gave my youth; but we ride, in fine.
Supposing we could know perfect bliss in this world, what should we
have for which to strive? We must lead some life beyond, we must have a
bliss to die for! If he had this glory-garland round his soul,
what other joy could he ever so dimly descry?
Earth being so good, would heaven seem best?
Now, heaven and she are beyond this ride.
* * * * *
Thus he has mused, riding beside her, to the horses' rhythmic
stretching pace. It shall be best as she decrees. She rejects him: he
will not whine; what she does shall somehow have its good for him
she shall not be wrong! He has the thought of her in his soul, and
the memory of herand there will be, as well, the memory of this ride.
That moment he has, whole and perfect:
Who knows but the world may end to-night!
Yes; they ride onthe sights, the sounds, the thoughts, encompass
them; they are together. His soul, all hers, has yet been
half-withdrawn from her, so deeply has he mused on what she is to him:
it is the great paradoxalmost one forgets that she is there, so
intimate the union, and so silent. . . . But is she not there?
and, being there, does she not now seem to give him something strange
and wonderful to take from her? She is there
And yetshe has not spoke so long!
She is as silent as he. They might both be in a trance. He knows
what his trance iscan it be that hers is the same? Then what would it
mean? . . . And the hope so manfully resigned floods back on him. What
if this be heavenwhat if she has found, caught up like him,
that she does love?
Can it mean that, gazing both, now in this glorious moment, at
life's flower of love, they both are fixed so, ever shall so abideshe
with him, as he with her? Can it mean that the instant is made
And heaven just prove that I and she
Ride, ride together, for ever ride?
* * * * *
Despite the transcendental interpretations of this glorious
love-songsurpassed, I think and many others think, by none in the
worldI believe that the concluding stanza means just that. Hope has
rushed on him again from her twin-silencecan she be at one with him
in all, as she is in this? Will the proud dark eyes have forgotten the
pityand the pride? . . . The wrong that has been done to Browning by
his too-subtle interpreters is, in my view, incalculable. Always he
must be, for them, the teacher. But he is the poet! He sings,
riding's a joyand such joy brings hope along with it, hope for the
obvious human bliss. People seem to forget that it was Browning who
made that phrase[289:1]which might almost be his protest against the
Much of his finest work has been thus falsified, thus strained to
meanings so profound as to be none at all. Mr. Nettleship's gloss
upon this stanza of The Last Ride is a case in point. [The
lover] buoys himself with the hope that the highest bliss may be
the change from the minute's joy to an eternal fulfilment of joy. Does
this mean anything? And if it did, does that stanza mean it? I
declare that it means nothing, and that the stanza means what
instinctively (I feel and know) each reader, reading itnot studying
itaccepts as its best meaning: the human one, the true following of
the so subtly-induced mood. And that is, simply, the invigoration, the
joy, of riding; and the hope which comes along with that invigoration
and that joy.
+ + + + +
In the strange Numpholeptos we find, by implication, the
heart of Browning's message for women. The nympholepts of old,
explains Mr. Augustine Birrell in one of the volumes of Obiter Dicta, were those unfortunates who, whilst carelessly strolling among sylvan
shades, caught a hasty glimpse of some spiritual inmate of the woods,
in whose pursuit their whole lives were ever afterwards fruitlessly
The man here has fallen in love with an angelically pure and
inhumanly cold woman, who requires in him an unattainable union of
immaculate purity and complete experience of life.[290:1]
She does not reject his love, but will wholly accept it only on
these impossible terms. Herself dwells in some magic hall whence ray
forth shafts of coloured lightcrimson, purple, yellow; and along
these shafts, which symbolise experience, her lover is to
travelcoming back to her at close of each wayfaring, for the rays end
before her feet, beneath her eyes and smile, as they began. He goes
forth in obedience; he comes back. Ever the issue is the same: he comes
back smirched. And sheforgives him, but not loves him.
What means the sad slow silver smile above
My clay but pity, pardon?at the best
But acquiescence that I take my rest,
Contented to be clay?
She smiles him slow forgivenessnothing more; he is dismissed,
must travel forth again. This time he may return, untinged by
the ray which he is to traverse. She sends him, deliberately; he must
break through the quintessential whiteness that surrounds herbut he
is to come back unsmirched. So she pitilessly, for all her pity, has
And patient, mute, obedient, always he has goneuntil this day.
This day his patience fails him, and he speaks. Once more he had come
backonce more been pardoned. But the pity was so gentlelike a
moon-beam. He had almost hoped the smile would pass the pallid
moonbeam limit, be transformed at last to sunlight and salvation. If
she could pass that goal and gain love's birth, he scarce would know
his clay from gold's own self; for gold means love. . . . But no; the
sad slow silver smile had meant, as ever, naught but pity, pardon,
acquiescence in his lesserness for him. She acquiesced
not; she keeps her love for the spirit-seven before God's
He then made one supreme appeal for
Love, the love sole and whole without alloy.
Vainly! Such an appeal must be felt, not heard. Her calm regard
was unchangednay, rather it had grown harsh and hard, had seemed to
imply disdain, repulsion, and he could not face those things; he rose
from his kissing of her feethe did go forth again. This time
he might return, immaculate, from the path of that lambent flamelet.
. . . He knew he could not, buthe might! She promises that he
can: should he not trust her?
* * * * *
And now, to-day, once more he is returned. Still she stands, still
she listens, still she smiles! But he protests at last:
Surely I had your sanction when I faced,
Fared forth upon that untried yellow ray
Whence I retrack my steps?
The crimson, the purple had been explored; from them he had come
back deep-stained. How has the yellow used him? He has placed himself
again for judgment before her blank pure soul, alike the source and
tomb of that prismatic glow. To this yellow he has subjected himself
utterly: she had ordained it! He was to bathe, to burnish
himself, soul and body, to swim and swathe in yellow licence. And here
he is: absurd and frightful, suffused with crocus, saffron,
orangejust as he had been with crimson, purple!
She willed it so: he was to track the yellow ray. He pleads once
more her own permissionnay, command! And, as before, she shows
Scarce recognition, no approval, some
Mistrust, more wonder at a man become
Monstrous in garb, nayflesh-disguised as well,
Through his adventure.
But she had said that, if he were worthily to retain her love, he
must share the knowledge shrined in her supernal eyes. And this was the
one way for man to gain that knowledge. Well, it is as before:
I pass into your presence, I receive
Your smile of pity, pardon, and I leave.
But no! This time he will not leave, he will not dumbly bend to his
penance. Hitherto he has trusted her word that the feat can be
achieved, the ray trod to its edge, yet he return unsmirched. He has
tried the experimentand returned, absurd as frightful. This is his
. . . No, I say:
No fresh adventure! No more seeking love
At end of toil, and finding, calm above
My passion, the old statuesque regard,
The sad petrific smile!
And he turns upon her with a violent invective. She is not so much
hard and hateful as mistaken and obtuse.
You very woman with the pert pretence
To match the male achievement!
Who could not be victorious when all is made easy, when the
rough effaces itself to smooth, the gruff grinds down and grows a
whisper; when man's truth subdues its rapier-edge to suit the bulrush
spear that womanly falsehood fights with? Oh woman's ears that will not
hear the truth! oh woman's thrice-superfine feminity of sense, that
ignores, as by right divine, the process, and takes the spotless result
from out the very muck that made it!
But he breaks off. Ah me! he cries,
The true slave's querulous outbreak!
And forth again, all slavishly, at her behest he fares. Who knows
but this time the crimson quest may deepen to a sunrise, not
decay to that cold sad sweet smilewhich he obeys?
+ + + + +
Such a being as this, said Browning himself, is imaginary, not
real; a nymph and no woman; but the poem is an allegory of an
impossible ideal of love, accepted conventionally. How
impossible he has shown not only here but everywherehow
conventionally accepted. This is not woman's mission! And in the
lover's querulous outbreakthe true slave's outbreakwe may read
the innermost meaning of the allegory. If women will set up the pert
pretence to match the male achievement, they must consent to take the
world as men are forced to take it. There must be no unfairness, no
claim on the chivalry which has sought to shield them: in the homely
phrase, they must take the rough with the smoothnot the stainless
result alone, with a revolted shudder for the marrings which have made
But having flung these truths at her, observe that the man rues
them. He accepts himself as a slave: the slave (as I read this passage)
to what is true in the idea of woman's purity. The insufferable
creature of the smile is (as he says) the mistaken and obtuse unreason
of a she-intelligence; but somewhere there was right in her demand. If
man could but return, unstained! He must go forth, must explore the
raysof all the claims of woman on him this is most insistent; but if
he could explore, and not return absurd as frightful. . . . He
cannot. Experience is not whole without some wonder linked with
fearthe colours! The shafts ray from her midmost home; she dwells
there, hearted. True, but this is not experience, and she shall
not conceit herself into believing it to be. She shall not set up the
pert pretence to match the male achievement: she shall learn that men
make women easy victors, when their rough effaces itself to smooth
for woman's sake. One or the other she must choose: knowledge and the
right to judge, or ignorance and the duty to refrain from judgment. . .
. And yethe goes again; he obeys the silver smile! For the
crimson-quest may deepen to a sunrise; he may come back and
find her waiting, sunlight and salvation, because she understands at
last; and both shall look for stains from those long shafts, and see
none there. . . . Maybe, maybe: he goeswill come again one day; and
that at last may prove itself the day when men are pure, and women
+ + + + +
We pass from the unearthly atmosphere of Numpholeptos
well-nigh the most abstract of all Browning's poemsto the vivid,
astonishing realism of Too Late.
Edith is dead, and the man who loved her and failed to win her, is
musing upon the transmutation of all values in his picture of life
which has been made by the tidings. Not till now had he fully realised
his absorption in the thought of her: the woman I loved so well, who
married the other. He had been wont to sit and look at his life.
That life, until he met her, had rippled and run like a river. But he
met her and loved her and lost herand it was as if a great stone had
been cast by a devil into his life's mid-current. The waves strove
about itthe waves that had come for their joy, and found this
horrible stone full-tide.
The stone thwarted God. But the lover has had two ways of thinking
about it. Though the waves, in all their strength and fullness, could
not win past, a thread of water might escape and run through the
evening-country, safe, untormented, silent, until it reached the sea.
This would be his tender, acquiescent brooding on all she is to him,
and the hope that still they may be united at the last, though time
shall then have stilled his passion.
The second way was better!
Or else I would think, 'Perhaps some night
When new things happen, a meteor-ball
May slip through the sky in a line of light,
And earth breathe hard, and landmarks fall,
And my waves no longer champ nor chafe,
Since a stone will have rolled from its place: let be!'
For the husband might die, and he, still young and vigorous, might
try again to win her. . . . That was how he had been wont to sit and
look at his life.
But, Edith dead! No doubting more!
All the dreams are over; all the brooding days have been lived in
But, dead! All's done with: wait who may,
Watch and wear and wonder who will.
Oh, my whole life that ends to-day!
Oh, my soul's sentence, sounding still,
'The woman is dead that was none of his;
And the man that was none of hers may go!'
There's only the past left: worry that! . . .
All that he was or could have been, she should have had for a word,
a want put into a look. She had not given that look; now she can
never give itand perhaps she does want him. He feels that she
doesa pulse in his cheek that stabs and stops assures him that she
needs help in her grave, and finds none nearthat from his heart,
precisely his, she now at last wants warmth. And he can only
send itso! . . . His acquiescence then had been his error.
I ought to have done more: once my speech,
And once your answer, and there, the end,
And Edith was henceforth out of reach!
Why, men do more to deserve a friend,
Be rid of a foe, get rich, grow wise,
Nor, folding their arms, stare fate in the face.
Why, better even have burst like a thief
And borne you away to a rock for us two,
In a moment's horror, bright, bloody and brief . . .
Well, he had not done this. But
What did the other do? You be judge!
Look at us, Edith! Here are we both!
Give him his six whole years: I grudge
None of the life with you, nay, loathe
Myself that I grudged his start in advance
Of me who could overtake and pass.
But, as if he loved you! No, not he,
Nor anyone else in the world, 'tis plain . . .
for he who speaks, though he so loved and loves her, knows that he
is and was alone in his worship. He knows even that such worship of her
was among unaccountable things. That he, young, prosperous,
sane, and free, as he was and is, should have poured his life out, as
it were, and held it forth to her, and said, Half a glance, and
I drop the glass! . . . Forand now we come to those amazing stanzas
which place this passionate love-song by itself in the world
Handsome, were you? 'Tis more than they held,
More than they said; I was 'ware and watched:
* * * * *
The others? No head that was turned, no heart
Broken, my lady, assure yourself!
Her admirers had quickly recovered: one married a dancer, others
stole a friend's wife, or stagnated or maundered, or else, unmarried,
strove to believe that the peace of singleness was peace, and
notwhat they were finding it! But whatever these rejected suitors
did, the truth about her was simply that
On the whole, you were let alone, I think.
And laid so, on the shelf, she had looked to the other, who
acquiesced. He was a poet, was he not?
He rhymed you his rubbish nobody read,
Loved you and doved youdid not I laugh?
Oh, what a prize! Had she appreciated adequately her pink of poets?
. . . But, after all, she had chosen him, before this lover:
they had both been tried.
Oh, heart of mine, marked broad with her mark,
Tekel, found wanting, set aside,
Scorned! See, I bleed these tears in the dark
Till comfort come, and the last be bled:
He? He is tagging your epitaph.
And now sounds that cry of the girl of In a Year.
If it could only come over again!
She must have loved him best. If there had been time. . . .
She would have probed his heart and found what blood is; then would
have twitched the robe from her lay-figure of a poet, and pricked that
leathern heart, to find that only verses could spurt from it. . . .
And late it was easy; late, you walked
Where a friend might meet you; Edith's name
Arose to one's lip if one laughed or talked;
If I heard good news, you heard the same;
When I woke, I knew that your breath escaped;
I could bide my time, keep alive, alert.
Now she is dead: no doubting more. . . . But somehow he will get
his good of it! He will keep aliveand long, she shall see; but not
like the others; there shall be no turning aside, and he will begin at
once as he means to end. Those others may go on with the worldget
gold, get women, betray their wives and their husbands and their
There are two who decline, a woman and I,
And enjoy our death in the darkness here.[301:1]
And he recurs to her cherished, her dwelt-on, adored defects. Only
he could have loved her so, in despite of them. The most complex
mood of lovers, this! Humility and pride are mingled; one knows not
which is whichthe pride of love, humility of self. Only so could the
loved one have declined to our level; only so could our love acquire
value in those eyesand yet the others did not love so, the defects
were valid: there should be some recognition: I loved,
quand même! Why, it was almost the defects that brought the
I liked that way you had with your curls,
Wound to a ball in a net behind:
Your cheek was chaste as a quaker-girl's,
And your mouththere was never, to my mind,
Such a funny mouth, for it would not shut;
And the dented chin, toowhat a chin!
There were certain ways when you spoke, some words
That you know you never could pronounce:
You were thin, however; like a bird's
Your hand seemedsome would say, the pounce
Of a scaly-footed hawkall but!
The world was right when it called you thin.
But I turn my back on the world: I take
Your hand, and kneel, and lay to my lips.
Bid me live, Edith!
and she shall be queen indeed, shall have high observance,
courtship made perfect. He seems to see her stand there
Warm too, and white too: would this wine
Had washed all over that body of yours,
Ere I drank it, and you down with it, thus!
. . . The wine of his life, that she would not takebut she shall
take it now! He will slake thirst at her presence by pouring it away,
by drinking it down with her, as long ago he yearned to do. Edith needs
help in her grave and finds none nearwants warmth from his heart? He
+ + + + +
Assuredly this is the meaning; yet none of the commentators says so.
She was the man's whole life, and she has died. Then he dies too, that
he may live.
There are two who decline, a woman and I,
And enjoy our death in the darkness here.
Yet even in this we have no sense of failure, of giving-in: it is
for intenser life that he dies, and she shall be his queen while his
This is the last of my women unwon. In none of all these poems
does courage fail; love is ever God's secret. It comes and goes: the
heart has had its moment. It does not come at all: the heart has known
the loved one's loveliness. It has but hoped to come: the heart hoped
with it. It has set a price upon itself, a cruel crushing price: the
heart will pay it, if it can be paid. It has waked too lateit calls
from the grave: the heart will follow it there. No love is in vain:
For God above creates the love to reward the love.
[277:1] He excepts, of course, all through this passage, Any Wife
to any Husbanda poem which has not fallen into my scheme.
[285:1] No line which Browning has written is more characteristic
than thisnor more famous.
[289:1] In By the Fireside.
[290:1] Arthur Symons, Introduction to the Study of Browning,
[291:1] Browning himself, asked by Dr. Furnivall, on behalf of the
Browning Society, to explain this allusion, answered in the fashion
which he often loved to use towards such inquirers: The 'seven
spirits' are in the Apocalypse, also in Coleridge and Byron, a common
image. . . . I certainly never intended (he also said) to personify
wisdom, or philosophy, or any other abstraction. And he summed up the,
after all, sufficiently obvious meaning by saying that Numpholeptos
is an allegory of an impossible ideal object of love, accepted
conventionally as such by a man who all the while (as I have once or
twice had occasion to say of himself!) cannot quite blind himself to
the fact that (to put it more concisely than he) knowledge and purity
are best obtained by achievement. Still more concisely:
Innocencesinvirtuein the Hegelian chord of experience.
[301:1] Here is a clear echo of Heine, in one of his most renowned
The dead stand up, 'tis the midnight bell,
In crazy dances they're leaping:
We two in the grave lie well, lie well,
And I in thine arms am sleeping.
The dead stand up, 'tis the Judgment Day,
To Heaven or Hell they're hieing:
We two care nothing, we two will stay
Together quietly lying.
II. THE WOMAN WON
Love is not static. We may not sit down and say, It cannot be more
than now; it will not be less. Henceforth I take it for granted.
Though she be won, there still is more to do. I say she (and Browning
says it), because the taking-for-granted ideal is essentially
man'swoman has never been persuaded to hold it. Possibly it is
because men feel so keenly the elusiveness of women that they grow
weary in the quest of the real Herself. But, says Browning, they must
not grow weary in it. Elusive though she be, her lover must not leave
her uncaptured. For if love is the greatest adventure, it is also the
longest. We cannot come to an end of itand, if we were wise, should
not desire so to do.
But is she in truth so elusive? Are not women far simpler than they
are accounted? The First Reader in another language, I have elsewhere
said of them; but doubtless a woman cannot be the judge. Let us see
what Browning, subtle as few other men, thought of our lucidity.
Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her
Next time, herself!not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew;
Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.
So elusive, says this man, is the real Herself! But (I maintain) she
does not know it. She goes her way, unconsciousor, if conscious,
blind to its deepest implication. Caprice, mood, whim: these indeed she
uses, for fun, as it were, but of the trouble behind her she
knows nothing. Just to rise from a couch, pull a curtain, pass through
a room! How should she dream that the cornice-wreath blossomed anew?
And when she tossed her hat off, or carefully put it on before the
mirror . . . if the glass did gleam, it was a trick of light; she
did not produce it! For, conscious of this magic, she would lose it;
her very inapprehensiveness it is which brings it off. Yet she loves
to hear her lover tell of such imaginings, and the more he tells, the
more there seem to be for him.
Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.
Spend my whole day in the quest, who cares?
But 'tis twilight, you seewith such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!
Listening, she begins to understand how deeply he means herself.
It is not only the spell that she leaves behind her in the mere, actual
rooms: it is the mystery residing in her house of flesh. What does
that house containwhere is she? He seems to hold her, yet
she goes out as he enters; he seems to have found her, yet it is like
hide-and-seek at twilight, and half-a-hundred hiders in a hundred
She listens, puzzled; perhaps a little frightened to be so much of a
secret. For she never meant to beshe cannot feel that she is;
and thus, how shall she help him to find her? Perhaps she must always
elude? She does not desire that: he must not let her escape him! And he
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.
But she is not the loth; that is all his fancy. She wants him to
find her. And this, in its turn, scares him.
My life is a fault at last, I fear:
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best, I shall scarce succeed.
It is the trouble of love. He may never reach her. . . . They look
at one another, and he takes heart again.
But what if I fail of my purpose here?
It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And, baffled, get up and begin again
So the chase takes up one's life, that's all.
But she is now almost repelled. She is not this enigma: she wants
him to grasp her. Well, then, she can help him, he says:
Look but once from your farthest bound
At me so deep in the dust and dark,
No sooner the old hope goes to ground
Than a new one, straight to the self-same mark,
I shape me
Is not this the meaning? The two poems seem to me supplementary of
each other. First, the sense of her elusiveness; then the dim
resentment and fear which this knowledge of mystery awakes in her. She
does not (as I have seemed to make her) speak in either of these
poems; but the thoughts are those which she must have, and so far,
surely, her lover can divine her? The explanation given both by Mrs.
Orr and Berdoe of Love in a Life (the first lyric), that the
lover is inhabiting the same house with his love, seems to me simply
inept. Is it not clear that no material house[308:1] is meant? They are
both inhabiting the body; and she, passing through this sphere,
touching it at various points, leaves the spell of her mere being
everywhereon the curtain, the couch, the cornice-wreath, the mirror.
But through her house he cannot range, as she through
actualities. And though ever she eludes him, this is not what she sets
out to do; she needs his comprehension; she does not desire to escape
The old enigma that is no enigmathe sphinx with the answer to the
riddle ever trembling on her lips! But if she were understood, she
might be taken for granted. . . . So the lips may tremble, but the
answer is kept back:
While the one eludes must the other pursue.
The desire of the man is for the woman; the desire of the woman is
for the desire of the man.
In those two poems the lovers are almost gay; they can turn and
smile at one another 'mid the perplexity. The man is eager, resolute,
humorous; the woman, if not acquiescent, is at least apprehending. The
heart shall find her some day: next time herself, not the trouble
behind her! She feels that she can aid him to that finding; it
depends, in the last resort, on her.
But in Two in the Campagna a different lover is to deal with.
What he wants is more than this. He wants to pass the limits of
personality, to forget the search in the oneness. There is more than
finding to be done: finding is not the secret. He tries to tell
herand he cannot tell her, for he does not himself fully know.
I wonder do you feel to-day
As I have felt since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?
His thought escapes him ever. Like a spider's silvery thread it
mocks and eludes; he seeks to catch it, to hang his rhymes upon it. . .
. No; it escapes, escapes.
Help me to hold it! First it left
The yellowing fennel. . . .
What does the fennel mean? Something, but he cannot grasp itand
the thread now seems to float upon that weed with the orange cup, where
five green beetles are gropingbut not there either does it rest . . .
it is all about him: entangling, eluding:
Everywhere on the grassy slope,
I traced it. Hold it fast!
The grassy slope may be the secret! That infinity of passion and
peacethe Roman Campagna:
The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air
Rome's ghost since her decease.
And think of all that that plain even now stands for:
Such life here, through such lengths of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way
While heaven looks from its towers!
They love one another: why cannot they be like that plain, why
cannot they let nature have her way? Does she understand?
How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above!
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?
But always they stop short of one another. That is the dread
I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more.
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? What the core
O' the wound, since wound must be?
He longs to yield his will, his whole beingto see with her eyes,
set his heart beating by hers, drink his fill from her soul; make her
part hisbe her. . . .
No. I yearn upward, touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul's warmthI pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak
Then the good minute goes.
Goeswith such swiftness! Already he is far out of it. And shall
this never be different?
. . . Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, whenever light winds blow?
He must indeed, for already he is off again:
Just when I seemed about to learn!
Even the letting nature have her way is not the secret. The thread
is lost again:
The old trick! Only I discern
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
No contact is close enough. The passion is infinite, the
hearts are finite. The deepest love must suffer this doom of isolation:
plunged as they may be in one another, body and soul, in the very
rapture is the sentence. The good minute goes. It shall be theirs
againagain they shall trust it, again the thread be lost: the old
For it is the very trick of life, as here we know it. The Campagna
itself says that
Rome's ghost since her decease.
Mutability, mutability! Though the flowers are the primal, naked
forms, they are not the same flowers; though love is ever new, it is
ever old. New as to-day is new: old as to-day is old; and all
the lovers have discerned, like him,
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
For has she helped him to hold the thread? No; she too has been the
sport of the old trick. And even of that he cannot be wholly sure:
I wonder do you feel to-day
As I have felt . . . ?
+ + + + +
In the enchanting Lovers' Quarrel we find a less metaphysical
pair than those whom we have followed in their quest. This man has not
taken her for granted, but neither has he frightened her with the
mystery of her own and his elusiveness. No; these two have just had,
very humanly and gladly, the time of their lives! All through the
winter they have frolicked: there never was a more enchanting love than
she, and plainly he has charmed her just as much. The same sort of fun
appealed to them both at the same momentgames out of straws of their
own devising; drawing one another's faces in the ashes of the hearth:
Free on each other's flaws,
How we chattered like two church daws!
And then the Times would come inand the Emperor has married
his Mlle. de Montijo!
There they sit ermine-stoled,
And she powders her hair with gold.
Or a travel-book arrives from the libraryand the two heads are
close together over the pictures.
Fancy the Pampas' sheen!
Miles and miles of gold and green
Where the sunflowers blow
In a solid glow,
And to break now and then the screen
Black neck and eyeballs keen,
Up a wild horse leaps between!
. . . No picture in the book like thatwhat a genius he is! The
book is pushed away; and there lies the table bare:
Try, will our table turn?
Lay your hands there light, and yearn
Till the yearning slips
Thro' the finger-tips
In a fire which a few discern,
And a very few feel burn,
And the rest, they may live and learn!
Then we would up and pace,
For a change, about the place,
Each with arm o'er neck:
'Tis our quarter-deck,
We are seamen in woeful case.
Help in the ocean-space!
Or, if no help, we'll embrace.
The next play must be dressing-up; for the sailor-game had ended
in that nonsense of a kiss because they had not thought of dressing
properly the parts:
See how she looks now, dressed
In a sledging-cap and vest!
'Tis a huge fur cloak
Like a reindeer's zoke
Falls the lappet along the breast:
Sleeves for her arms to rest,
Or to hang, as my Love likes best.
Now it is his turn; he must learn to flirt a fan as the
Spanish ladies canbut she must pretend too, so he makes her a
burnt-cork moustache, and she turns into such a man! . . .
All this was three months ago, when the snow first mesmerised the
earth and put it to sleep. Snow-time is love-timefor hearts can then
How is earth to know
Neath the mute hand's to-and-fro?
* * * * *
Three months agoand now it is spring, and such a dawn of day! The
March sun feels like May. He looks out upon it:
All is blue again
After last night's rain,
And the South dries the hawthorn-spray.
Only, my Love's away!
I'd as lief that the blue were grey.
Yesshe is gone; they have quarrelled. Or rather, since it does not
take two to do that wretched deed, she has quarrelled. It was
some little thing that he saidneither sneer nor vaunt, nor reproach
And the friends were friend and foe!
She went away, and she has not come back, and it is three months
One cannot help suspecting that the little thing he said, which was
not so many things, must then have been something peculiarly
tactless! This girl was not, like some of us, devoid of humourthat
much is clear: laughter lived in her as in its home. What had he
said? Whatever it was, he did not mean it. But that is frequently the
sting of stings. Spontaneity which hurts us hurts far more than malice
canfor it is more evidently sincere in what it has of the too-much,
or the too-little. . . . Well, angry exceedingly, or wounded
exceedingly, she had gone, and still is goneand he sits marvelling.
Three months! Is she going to stay away for ever? Is she going to cast
him off for a word, a bubble born of breath? Why, they had been
Me, do you leave aghast
With the memories We amassed?
Just for a moment's spite. . . . She ought to have understood.
Love, if you knew the light
That your soul casts in my sight,
How I look to you
For the pure and true,
And the beauteous and the right
But so had she looked to him, and he had shown her a
moment's spite. . . . Yet he cannot believe that a hasty word can do
all this against the other memories. Things like that are indeed for
ever happening; trivialities thus can mar immensities. The eye can be
blurred by a fly's foot; a straw can stop all the wondrous mechanism of
the ear. But that is only the external world; endurance is easy there.
It is different with love.
Wrong in the one thing rare
Oh, it is hard to bear!
And especially hard now, in this dawn of day. Little brooks must
be dancing down the dell,
Each with a tale to tell,
Could my Love but attend as well.
But as she cannot, he will not. . . . Only, things will get lovelier
every day, for the spring is back, or at any rate close at handthe
spring, when the almond-blossom blows.
We shall have the word
In a minor third
There is none but the cuckoo knows:
Heaps of the guelder rose!
I must bear with it, I suppose.
For he would choose, if he could choose, that November should come
back. Then there would be nothing for her to love but love! In such a
world as spring and summer make, heart can dispense with heart; the sun
is there, and the flowers unnipped; but in winter, freezing in the
crypt, the heart cries: Why should I freeze? Another heart, as chill
as mine is now, would quiver back to life at the touch of this one:
Heart, shall we live or die?
The rest . . . settle by-and-bye!
Three months ago they were so happy! They lived blocked up with
snow, the wind edged in and in, as far as it could get:
Not to our ingle, though,
Where we loved each the other so!
If it were but winter now again, instead of the terrible, lovely
spring, when she will have the blue sky and the hawthorn-spray and the
brooks to loveand the almond-blossom and the cuckoo, and that
guelder-rose which he will have to bear with . . .
But, after all, it is November for their hearts! Hers is
chill as his; she cannot live without him, as he cannot without her. If
it were winter, she'd efface the score and forgive him as before
(thus we perceive that this is not the first quarrel, that he has
offended her before with that word which was not so many
things!)and what else is it but winter for their shivering hearts? So
he begins to hope. In March, too, there are stormshere is one
beginning now, at noon, which shows that it will last. . . . Not yet,
then, the too lovely spring!
It is twelve o'clock:
I shall hear her knock
In the worst of a storm's uproar:
I shall pull her through the door,
I shall have her for evermore!
. . . I think she came back. She would want to see how well he
understood the springhe who could make that picture of the Pampas'
sheen and the wild horse. Why should spring's news unfold itself, and
he not say things about it to her, like those he could say about the
mere Times news? And it is impossible to bear with the
guelder-rosethe guelder-rose must be adored. They will adore it
together; she will efface the score, and forgive him as before. What
fun it will be, in the worst of the storm, to feel him pull her through
In The Lost Mistress it is really finished: she has dismissed
him. We are not told why. It cannot be because he has not loved herhe
who so tenderly, if so whimsically, accepts her decree. He will not let
her see how much he suffershe still can say the little things she
All's over, then: does truth sound bitter
As one at first believes?
Hark, 'tis the sparrows' good-night twitter
About your cottage eaves!
And the leaf-buds on the vine are woolly,
I noticed that, to-day;
One day more breaks them open fully
You know the red turns grey.
That is what his life has turned, but he will not maunder about it.
To-morrow we meet the same then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are wewell, friends the merest
Keep much that I resign.
He is no more he for her: he is a friend like the rest. He
resigns. But the friends do not know what he knew.
For each glance of the eye so bright and black
Though I keep with heart's endeavour
Your voice, when you wish the snowdrops back,
Though it stay in my soul for ever
. . . Is this like a friend? But he accepts her biddingvery
nearly. There are some things, perhaps, that he may fail in, but she
need not fearhe will try.
Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may,
Or so very little longer!
Again we have the typical Browning lover, who will not reproach nor
scorn nor whine. But I think that this one had perhaps a little excess
of whimsical humour. She would herself have needed a good deal of such
humour to take this farewell just as it was offered. Does truth
sound bitter, as one at first believes? Somewhat puzzling to her,
it may be, that very philosophical reflection! . . . This has been
called a noble, tender, an heroic, song of loss. For me there lurks a
smile in it. I do not say that the smile makes the dismissal
explicable; rather I a little wonder how she could have sent him away.
But is it certain that she will not call him back, as she called the
snowdrops? He means to hold her hand a little longer than the others
+ + + + +
The Worst of It is the cry of a man whose young, beautiful
wife has left him for a lover. He cares for nothing else in the world;
his whole heart and soul, even now, are set on discovering how he may
help her. But there is no way, for him. And the worst of it is that
all has happened through him. She had given him herself, she had
bound her soul by the vows that damnand then had found that she
must break them. And he proclaims her right to break them: no angel set
But shethe pride of the day, the swan with no fleck on her
wonder of white; she, with the brow that looked like marble and smelt
like myrrh, with the eyes and the grace and the glory! Is there to be
no heaven for herno crown for that brow? Shall other women be
sainted, and not she, graced here beyond all saints?
Hardly! That must be understood!
The earth is your place of penance, then.
But even the earthly punishment will be heavy for her to bear. . . .
If it had only been he that was false, not she! He could have
borne all easily; speckled as he is, a spot or two would have made
little difference. And he is nothing, while she is all.
Too monstrously the magnanimity of this man weights the scale
against the woman. Instinctively we seek a different excuse for her
from that which he makesthough indeed there scarce is one at which he
does not catch.
And I to have tempted you
. . . that is, tempted her to snap her gold ring and break her
I to have tempted you! I, who tired
Your soul, no doubt, till it sank! Unwise,
I loved and was lowly, loved and aspired,
Loved, grieving or glad, till I made you mad,
And you meant to have hated and despised
Whereas, you deceived me nor inquired!
This is the too-much of magnanimity. Browning tends to exaggerate
the beauty of that virtue, as already we have seen in Pompilia; and
assuredly this husband has, like her, the defect of his quality.
Tender, generous, high-hearted he is, but without the sinew of the
soul, as some old writer called anger. All these wonderful and
subtle reasons for the tragic issue, all this apprehensive forecasting
of the blow that awaits the woman at the end of life, and the
magnanimity which even then she shall find dreadfully awaiting her . .
. all this is noble enough to read of, but imagine its atmosphere in
daily life! The truth is that such natures are but wasted if they do
not sufferalmost they might be called responsible for others'
misdoings. We read the ringing stanzas of The Worst of It, and
feel that no one should be doomed to suffer such forgiveness. What
chance had her soul? At every turn it found itself forestalled,
and shall so find itself, he tells her, to all eternity.
I knew you once; but in Paradise,
If we meet, I will pass nor turn my face.
No: this with me is not a favourite poem. The wife, beautiful and
passionate, was never given a chance, in this world, to be placed at
all in virtue; and she felt, no doubt, with a woman's intuition, that
even in the last of all encounters she should still be baffled. Already
that faultless husband is planning to be crushingly right on the Day of
Judgment. And he is so crushingly right! He is not a prig, he is
not a Pharisee; he is only perfectly magnanimousperfectly right. . .
. And sometimes, she must have thought vaguely, with a pucker on the
glorious brow,sometimes, to love lovably, we must yield a little of
our virtue, we must be willing to be perfectly wrong.
+ + + + +
But his suffering is genuine. She has twisted all his world out of
shape. He believes no more in truth or beauty or life.
We take our own method, the devil and I,
With pleasant and fair and wise and rare:
And the best we wish to what lives, isdeath.
She is better off; she has committed a fault and has done . .
. now she can begin again. But most likely she does not repent at all,
he goes on to reflectmost likely she is glad she deceived him. She
had endured too long:
[You] have done no evil and want no aid,
Will live the old life out and chance the new.
And your sentence is written all the same,
And I can do nothingpray, perhaps:
But somehow the word pursues its game
If I pray, if I cursefor better or worse:
And my faith is torn to a thousand scraps,
And my heart feels ice while my words breathe flame.
Dear, I look from my hiding-place.
Are you still so fair? Have you still the eyes?
Be happy! Add but the other grace,
Be good! Why want what the angels vaunt?
I knew you once: but in Paradise,
If we meet, I will pass nor turn my face.
I think the saddest thing in this poem is its last stanza; for we
feel, do we not? that now she is having her first opportunity to
be both happy and goodfree from the intolerable magnanimity of this
husband. And so, by making a male utterance too noble, Browning has
almost redressed the balance. The tear had been too frequently assigned
to woman; exultation too often had sounded from man. We have seen that
many of the feminine tears were supererogatory; and now, in this
chapter of the Woman Won, we see that she can tap the source of those
salt drops in man. But not in James Lee's Wife is the top-note
of magnanimity more strained than in The Worst of It. Moral
gymnastics should not be practised at the expense of others. No one
knew that better than Browning, but too often he allowed his subtle
intellect to confute his warm, wise hearttoo often he fell to the
lure of situation, and forgot the truth. A man and woman might
feel so, he sometimes seems to have said; it does not matter that no
man and woman ever have so felt.
And thus, now and then, he gave both men and womenthe worst of it.
But oftener he gave them such a best of it that I hardly can imagine a
reader of Browning who has not love and courage in the heart, and trust
and looking-forward in the soul; who does not, in the words of the
Greet the unseen with a cheer.
[308:1] Compare this passage with one in a letter to E. B. B.: In
this House of Life, where I go, you gowhen I ascend, you run
beforewhen I descend, it is after you.
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